“My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return.”
The death of author Maya Angelou on May 28 and the murderous massacre in Isla Vista in Santa Barbara County, California, on May 23, 2014, occurred within a week of each other. Both forced me to turn my attention away from work on the final proofs for Journey through the Power of the Rainbow, Quotations from a Life Made Out of Poetry. Then both, in the end, for different reasons, persuaded me to remain as focused as I could and to get the work done.
That last phrase in particular––“get the work done”––stood out because I recalled Angelou using it when noting how prolific James Baldwin (as an author of novels, plays, poems, essays, short fiction, and screenplays) had been in comparison to Ralph Ellison (celebrated during his lifetime mostly for a single history-making novel and collection of essays). Angelou acknowledged Ellison’s towering achievement with Invisible Man but also felt Baldwin deserved recognition for the more extensive body of critically acclaimed work. Therefore, upon her passing, those words thundered through my skull with the full volume of her majestic articulation: “Get the work done.”
It was a wholly different matter in the case of the misogynistic implosion that Elliot Rodger unleashed in the form of a psychotic detonation that took the lives of six people, wounded seven more, and scarred countless others. The introductory essay in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow talks about how the book was inspired largely by social media’s adoption of a certain quote that might have helped Rodger change his troubled mind. It is one that encourages individuals to seek, claim, and celebrate their innate value as human beings rather than suffer from––or make others suffer from––delusions of rejection and insignificance.
The Man in His Mental Mirror
Rodger acted from the perspective of a mental model––or image of the world held in his mind–– that gave him a lot of misleading assumptions and generally bad information. He assumed his experience of college life must necessarily mirror that of the stereotypical representations so often depicted in popular films and TV programs. Otherwise, it meant either he was failing as a human being or others were failing him.
He convinced himself that being a virgin at the ripe old young adult age of 22 was a reason for self-condemnation. He persuaded himself––while enjoying forms of privilege and luxury unknown to most––that others disliked him when he probably spent too little time actually communicating with anyone to learn whether they truly did or not. Or to determine if it mattered as much as he apparently thought.
Please Click to Read Part 2: Maya Angelou, Elliot Rodger, and Getting the Work Done Part 2
One need not, after all, call oneself an artist in order to embrace either the beauty that roses give to the world or the genius that one’s love does. (Aberjhani)
I. ENCOUNTER WITH BEAUTY
When viewing a recent untitled painting by Dublin artist Jaanika Talts a strange thought came to me. It was this: Between the elegant reach of an artist’s color-stained fingers toward her canvas and the haunted explosion of a soldier’s bullet inside his brother’s chest, somewhere a terrified soul is seeking shelter inside the warmth of a stranger’s voice, or an infant is squealing at the incomprehensible delight of discovering it is alive.
As I said, it was a strange thought.
Talts’ painting depicts a cluster of multi-colored roses in different stages of blossoming, nestled against the flesh of dark green leaves and framed by deep brooding shades of emerald, bronze, gold, ruby, and amethyst. There is no description (please see comments below) of the medium but it appears to be mixed acrylic and might include photography as well as an actual rose or two.
The painting caught my attention only partly because it was accompanied by this quote: “Beauty will snatch us by the heart and love us until we are raw with understanding.” The words come from the poem “Calligraphy of Intimacy,” first published in 1996 in a small press magazine called Out of the Blue and later in the book I Made My Boy Out of Poetry. But the image drew my gaze mostly because it was something new from Ms. Talts and then because of what struck me as a sustained tension between persistent beauty and grace asserting itself while under fire.
II. THE POEM
The poem “Calligraphy of Intimacy” is about how relationships anchored in mutual need and affection sometimes turn unexpectedly into battlefields. The relationship might be between two people or two nations, two dreams or two cultures. At their core, they are defined by a gravitational pull toward the best within each other but superficial externals repeatedly block or sever their connection. That could, in many ways, describe the international community’s centuries-year-old waltz with peace and non-peace, and it consequently makes this poem a good one to share for World Poetry Day (March 21) and National Poetry Month (April) 2014:
Calligraphy of Intimacy
III. STARTLING SPLENDOR
Some may recall that when writing about Talts’ art in Sensualized Transcendence, I described her two dominant styles as emergent expressionism and transformative impressionism :
If emergent expressionism lends chromatic form and substance to in-between states of metamorphosis, then transformative impressionism may be described as endowing such stages of transition with metaphorical narrative. (from Sensualized Transcendence: Editorial and Poem on the Art of Jaanika Talts)
Those qualities, along with the artist’s penchant for juxtapositions of unpredictable colors, remain evident in the new canvas. At first glance, the flowers almost appear to be trapped in a net of barely-visible anguish. Then take a second look and they could be resting inside a cosmic field of painted ecstasy, quietly breathing in the profound joys and smoldering sorrows that give them their startling splendor.
As over-the-top as the above statement might sound to certain ears, it is no more so than the events and circumstances that have come to shade the character of the year 2014 thus far. On the day that I became aware of the painting, the mystery of Malaysia’s Flight MH370 had just grown considerably deeper, Russia’s military presence in Crimea had become more unsettling, and the Syrian landscape continued to overflow with blood as the region headed into the fourth year of its civil war.
In fact, the previously-noted concepts of persistent beauty and grace asserting itself while under fire could serve as apt descriptions of how Earth continues to spin and dance through the cosmos while humanity carries on with struggles to give a living functional meaning to the word Love.
At any moment within any hour or day or week or year, we are positioned between opportunities to affirm beauty and wonder in the world, and opportunities to assist in humanity’s needless destruction. Some might argue that the latter is not an opportunity at all but an unfortunate faith in self-annihilation and a dangerously macabre addiction to toxic nightmares. One need not, after all, call oneself an artist in order to embrace either the beauty that roses give to the world or the genius that one’s love does. You only need to allow it, and yourself, the respect and chance they deserve.
World Poetry Day 2014
“We are the mirror as well as the face in it.
War is an addiction to chaos that shreds human souls into tattered rags of trauma. In acknowledgement of Rumi’s 806th birthday, I’m all for Syria, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and all other countries and organizations at war with each other to exchange their guns and bombs for poems by Mevlana. Replace tanks and drones with open mics and let everyone brave enough go at it. Whoever spits the most verses, quatrains, long poems, or quotes by Rumi wins the right to proclaim peace and throw a feast in honor of sanity, brotherhood, sisterhood, and childhood.
Is that likely to happen? No, not very, but the ecstatic beauty and soulful grace of Rumi’s poetry inspires human hearts to believe in possibilities beyond the predictably fatal. So does the Herculean effort it took for him to produce the works for which the world now reveres him: the ever-astonishing Masnavi, his discourses, the Divan of Shams of Tabriz, and various letters and sermons.
As one of his most celebrated translators, Coleman Barks, has noted with amazement, Rumi seems to have composed no less than a dozen poems every single day for the final 12 years of his extraordinary life. Within that incandescent corpus are works that address nearly aspect of what it means to be human and what it could mean to embrace life with a sense of divine co-creation. This last idea, in modern terms, is much less mystical than some might think when considering the environmentalist concept of people as stewards of the earth rather abusers of it. (continues below after video)
Rumi’s legacy is one of many that remind us there are options to giving violence control over our individual and collective destinies. Moreover, life- and history-altering transformations can take place when we least expect them to occur. One such transformation in Rumi’s life was when he met Shams of Tabriz, the man whose influence is generally cited as the catalyst that caused Rumi to evolve into a whirling light of divinely-inspired creative genius. For those who daily discover and rediscover his work, it sometimes happens with the sudden realization that the idea of “us versus them” may be less accurate––and far less important–– than the idea that not only are “we also them” but “they are also us.”
Sept 30, 2013
While considering which quote to share for my #MarvelousMonday Twitter tweet this past week, I felt instinctively that it should come from I Made My Boy Out of Poetry. What wasn’t so clear was whether it should be taken from a specific story or poem. That this particular #MarvelousMonday also happened to be my birthday seemed inconsequential so far as the quote was concerned.
Flipping through pages and skimming through lines, the final stanza of “Crossing the Bridge of Bones” volunteered itself with a subtle flash:
Just above our terror, the stars painted this story
It spoke well, I thought, to both the cataclysmic nature of our era and the enduring persistence of the human spirit to survive the roaring sound and fury of these very same times. The odd thing was that I paid almost no attention to the poem from which it was taken until after the quote had been posted.
Poems are sometimes born of a perspective, or a singular blast of sudden heated awareness, indigenous to a specific moment. To a degree, “Crossing the Bridge of Bones” is such a poem. At the same time, however, it transcends that description in that it stands as a parable gleaned from memoir. But the surrealistic imagery, bordering on the phantasmagoric, evokes a kind of nightmare experience with which many might identify and then happily abandon at the poem’s more luminous conclusion. What moved me the most upon revisiting it was seeing how the central image of the poem and the presence of the angel prefigured the images, themes, and characters that would give form to The Bridge of Silver Wings, which later would evolve into The River of Winged Dreams.
Crossing The Bridge of Bones
One of the greatest triumphs of the human spirit is the ability to exercise gratitude in the face of grievous adversity. Cultivation of a sense of gratitude under any conditions is advantageous in general because it tames impulses toward delusion-inducing arrogance, soul-numbing indifference, and corruptive malice.
During this National Poetry Month 2013, I have found myself considering all the reasons I am grateful for the presence of poetry in my life and in this world. Among those reasons is the fact that there was a time, in years not so long ago, when I struggled inside a kind of “dark night of the soul”––one that in many ways appeared to reflect an eclipse of the world’s collective soul–– and it was the voices of living poets that called to me from unknown distances and took it upon themselves through their own brilliant writings to reaffirm my purpose and efforts. By doing so, they helped to re-empower the same. Their writings played no small role in motivating the labors required for me to move forward as one chapter of my life ended and another began.
It may be that poetry’s real beauty and elegance is not its finely-chiseled lines or smoothly-rounded ideological concepts at all. The crown of its significance might be––or possibly should be?––its expansive capacity to embrace with equal passion the deadliest failings and the most splendid victories that define human existence. Poetry is less a respecter of individual persons than it is a compassionate witness to the meanings of the secret language that beats inside human hearts, the music that pulses through human cries, and the divinity that shines love beyond the veils of human limitations.
Communities of Present-day Poets
Just as it was for many other contemporary authors, it was ancestral poets––such as Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, John Milton, and Henry Dumas––who first led me to recognize the poet within myself. But it was communities of present-day poets who, simply by being themselves, made some important differences when it seemed my writing pen had run completely dry. Savannah’s Receding Wave poetry troupe, The Poetry Society of Georgia, The Savannah Writers Workshop, and inspired members of online communities fed my faith in what words might accomplish and re-empowered that part of my will which lived inside my pen.
The gratitude I feel toward all of them remains profound. I am especially humbled to acknowledge those who not only provided commentaries on my works in progress but who allowed me to share notes on theirs. Moreover, some actually dedicated poems to my efforts and by doing so lent wisdom and strength from their journey that added a major boost to mine. Listed below are poems which were either dedicated to my efforts, which are always ongoing, or written in response to them, and for which I once more thank the authors for blessing my literary labors with the artistry and genius of their own. It is possible there are other poems which I am unaware of and I thank those poets as well. The list is alphabetical by title followed by author and post/publication date:
Blessings of Literary Fellowship
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.