Spiritbookword - Pound of Flesh tag:spiritbookword.net,2018-04-16:/30 2018-10-13T00:19:39Z Movable Type Pro 6.3.6 Advanced Praise for Superabundantly Alive: Thomas Merton's Dance with the Feminine tag:spiritbookword.net,2018://30.39503 2018-10-13T00:14:24Z 2018-10-13T00:19:39Z Thomas Merton: Superabundantly Alive is a refreshing addition to Merton studies. As this book bears witness, each person who reads Merton attentively finds a magic mirror in which he or she sees both a familiar and a transfigured face--a face... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ Thomas Merton: Superabundantly Alive is a refreshing addition to Merton studies. As this book bears witness, each person who reads Merton attentively finds a magic mirror in which he or she sees both a familiar and a transfigured face--a face of surprise, a face unmasked, a face freed from fear."

--Jim Forest, author of Living with Wisdom: a biography of Thomas Merton


"Susan McCaslin and J. S. Porter have given us in this book their heart-felt appreciations of Thomas Merton as gifted and imperfect human being, brilliant writer, and intimate friend of his readers. Their synergy as collaborators is infectious: fresh, personal, sassy, substantial. They invite us their readers to join with them in 'the general dance of the universe to which Merton invites us all."

--Donald Grayston, past president of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada
and of the International Thomas Merton Society


"This splendid gallimaufry by two poet-essayists is part riff, part meditation, part invention, part testament, but withal, a brilliant kaleidoscope of impression, insight, and inquiry. The many lineaments of love, desire, and memory, the many strands of 'lived theology,' and the many stages of human and divine maturation are explored with a fetching honesty. A liberating read."

--Michel Higgins, Vice-President for Mission and Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University, CT;
his most recent biography is
Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart (2016)


"It takes a certain fearlessness to attempt what Susan McCaslin and J S Porter have attempted in this remarkable book. It also takes tremendous humility and tenderness of heart. While reading I felt as if I was gazing on a living icon, and it was gazing back intently on me, through eyes of love. It is not just Merton who gazes from these pages but it is Wisdom-Sophia, the God of grace and mercy, who dares us each moment into loving communion and solidarity with the world.

Thomas Merton Abundantly Alive gives us a wholly unique reading of Merton's legacy, a "theology of encounter" in flesh and freedom, which always - always - includes, as in Merton's life, the risk of shipwreck and failure. Approach this book with "beginner's mind" and you cannot help but be drawn into the fire of divine-human vulnerability, rendered vividly, theopoetically, iconically, in a kind of literary-visual mandala--always evocative, sometimes provocative, and everywhere reverberant with hope. McCaslin and Porter have penned one of the finest and most original works on Thomas Merton in many years.

--Christopher Pramuk, author of Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton,
awarded the International Thomas Merton Society's 2011 Thomas Merton Award


Using different lenses and creating their own 'word dance,' seasoned writers McCaslin and Porter offer us a potpourri of fresh insights about Merton that creates both artistic tribute and epistolary conversation with Tom and with 'M'--an unconventional approach that maintains its "center of prayer-poetry-praise."

--Dr. Monica Weis SSJ, Professor emerita of English at Nazareth College,
former Vice President of ITMS,
and author of Thomas Merton's Gethsemani (with Harry L Hinkle) (UPK, 2005)
The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton (UPK, 2011),
and Thomas Merton and the Celts: A New World Opening Up (Wipf and Stock, 2016)


"Thomas Merton, Superabundantly Alive, is a strong, distilled meditation on the life and oeuvre of a remarkable poet-monk whose works of spirit illuminated a turbulent period of 20th century American history.

In a compelling series of essays the authors navigate the many corners of the 'uncaged mind' of this pragmatic mystic--gender equality, the wisdom of the East, capitalism, war and peace, the relationship between solitude and community, the sacred feminine--with great verve and clarity. They point out Merton's love of and sensitivity to nature which would qualify him as a precursor in the ecological field.

The book is particularly insightful on Merton' s ongoing journey toward the true self, his evolution from flight from the world toward openness and engagement with the social and political problems of his era and what it ultimately means to be fully alive and awake.

In a revealing dialogue ('The Divine and Embodied Feminine: A Dialogue') the authors also explore Merton's brief love affair with 'M' near the end of his life, calling it a breakthrough in his spiritual journey. For the first time in his short life Merton fell in love with a living, breathing woman. This healing "enjoined flesh/spirit" experience helped him bridge the duality of male/female into an inner wholeness.

In sum, the authors of this thoughtful, readable study show the reader how Merton, by sharing his brokenness, inspires all of us to embrace our wounded selves as we each climb our private seven storey mountain toward mystery and greater love. Superabundantly Alive offers a rich encounter with the heart-mind-soul of a modern spiritual master."

--James Clarke, a poet and retired Ontario Superior Court Justice
who has published over twenty collections of poetry,
including Stray Devotions (Novalis, 2018)

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Saudade tag:spiritbookword.net,2015://30.33273 2015-09-01T00:47:58Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ for António Dinis Lopes

Fado singer Luciana Machado: ...something with a little sadness, a little longing, a little wistfulness, a little aching, a little happiness.

My friend from Lisbon says you can while away years trying to understand this one Portuguese word.

I'm listening to Mahler's 5th,
adagietto, the ten minutes of music
Visconti uses in Death in Venice to
make audible Aschenbach's beaded
anguish on the beach under an umbrella
or at his bedroom window longing for
Tadzio splashing in the water. Saudade
Portuguese says for what is wished for
and cannot be.

At the end of the Brazilian film Central Station, a childless woman on the bus repeats the word saudade twice in memory of the orphan boy whom she has returned to his brothers after a long treacherous journey to find the boy's father. The one she longs for, the one she protected like her own child, she must abandon.

A lost child. A lost lover. For anyone looking and longing for the loved one on the shore a fateful word encoils, succor for a troubled mind.

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Joy tag:spiritbookword.net,2014://30.33272 2014-11-10T16:21:44Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z (for Alvaro) Joy spins and sways, somersaults and tumbles; it zigzags, hops, bounces, careens, ricochets. Watch Ronaldinho run with a football at his feet or Kawasaki slash a single to the outfield. Sometimes joy is barely noticeable, quiet - watch... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ (for Alvaro)

Joy spins and sways, somersaults and tumbles;
it zigzags, hops, bounces, careens, ricochets.
Watch Ronaldinho run with a football at his feet or
Kawasaki slash a single to the outfield.
Sometimes joy is barely noticeable, quiet -
watch a child release a red balloon.
Is red the colour of joy?
Is joy always round?
How unexpectedly it can strike.
Remember Chekhov’s story
about the clerk who never used an exclamation mark—
the punctuation of joy!
He routinely used all the other marks: periods, question marks, semi-
colons, colons, dashes, etc., but not the exclamation mark.
Finally, in frustration, he impulsively
seizes the chance and goes wild and prodigal with his new discovery.
Sometimes joy is loud and boisterous,
as when a man and a boy
enter a bookstore and the boy finds the book the man
has been hungrily looking for (Robin Kirkpatrick’s translation of
The Divine Comedy) and squeals in delight.

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The Glass Art of Sarah Hall tag:spiritbookword.net,2012://30.33271 2012-10-22T05:33:47Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z The Glass Art of Sarah Hall presents 27 beautifully illustrated art glass installations. Hall's work ranges from a solar tower in Vancouver to leaf patterns in an Arizona sanctuary, from whimsical prismatic glass in a children's centre to abstract... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ sarah-hall.jpg

The Glass Art of Sarah Hall presents 27 beautifully illustrated art glass installations. Hall's work ranges from a solar tower in Vancouver to leaf patterns in an Arizona sanctuary, from whimsical prismatic glass in a children's centre to abstract designs at the Embassy of Kuwait and the jewelled splendour of the 'Wisdom Windows' at Massey College in Toronto. Her work combines joy with serenity and experiment with reverence. The book captures one of North America's finest glass artists at the peak of her technical innovation and artistic creativity. The text draws on biography, poetry, philosophy and art history in a style at once meditative and conversational.

112 pages
ISBN: 9780986870408
Published by Glasmalerei Peters GmbH, Germany, available from Amazon.ca.


"The Glass Art of Sarah Hall gives ample evidence, with its selection of lush photography and accompanying essay by the lyrical and perceptive Porter, of the noble genesis of her art in a tradition that includes the rich, deep colours of Notre Dame's windows in Paris and the austere, almost monochromatic, Cistercian windows of York Minster in England - the dance of light in Matisse's windows in the chapel at Vence and the dignified weight of Rouault's glasswork."

--Michael Higgins, St. John Telegraph


"Leafing through this volume, I found myself thinking back again and again to a line from Porter's catalogue essay: 'She makes visible the usually invisible thrust of life.' Sarah Hall does exactly that, celebrating in new glass the old symbols by which we know God, life and each other."

--John Bentley Mays, Catholic Register


"The wrap-around cover of Sarah Hall's book enfolds 100 pages of brilliant colour, the play of art on glass, the beauty of that combination and its overflow on what surrounds it. The rich variety of her palette is well captured through photographs - stunning and serene, robust and calming - indicative of Sarah's all-embracing outreach, in turn meditative and playful, uplifting and contemplative. How many shades of blue there are, how many shades of gold: airbrushed and hand painted, screen printed and sandblasted, solar cells and laminated glass. J.S.Porter's poetic writing catches well the imagery he obviously enjoys."

--Pat Fitzpatrick

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An Unfamiliar Look at Jewish-American Writers tag:spiritbookword.net,2012://30.33270 2012-07-19T15:24:21Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z by Richard Kostelanetz Originally published in Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine, July/August 2012 (See also a PDF Version) More than once I’ve protested the limited sense of Jewish writing in America, for instance noting that Sephardic writers are routinely omitted... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ by Richard Kostelanetz
Originally published in Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine, July/August 2012
(See also a PDF Version)

More than once I’ve protested the limited sense of Jewish writing in America, for instance noting that Sephardic writers are routinely omitted and, for another, that few publicists acknowledged Gertrude Stein as, yes, Jewish.

The initial surprise of Lightness and Soul (Seraphim Books, Woodstock, Ontario), subtitled “Musing on Eight Jewish Writers,” is J. S. Porter’s selection: Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger, Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, and, greater surprise, Edward Said. (The last, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem don’t forget, wrote about European Jewish thinkers toward the end of his life.)

Lax, a great minimal poet, converted to the Catholicism of his college buddy Thomas Merton without ceasing to be Jewish. Though Sontag was born Susan Lee Rosenblatt, she rarely mentioned Judaism anywhere in her voluminous writings. Manguel was born in Israel, the child of the Argentine ambassador. Residing in Canada for most of his adult life, he has published many books reflecting his awesome literacy and gut enthusiasm for books, books, and more books.

Since Porter is a Canadian, Lightness and Soul includes an obligatory chapter on Leonard Cohen, whose significance has always puzzled me, credit though I now do Porter with discovering significances that have escaped me.

His real hero is the British art writer John Berger (pronounced not Berg/er but Bir/ger), born of a Jewish father, whom I’d not seen acknowledged as Jewish before. Another Porter chapter is devoted to Simone Weil (pronounced not “while” but “whey,”) who like Lax converted to Catholicism with results quite different from Lax’s.

Otherwise, know that Porter is a fluent and engaging writer, often aphoristic, who takes pride in staking unfamiliar intellectual territory. I review this book initially because I liked it, but then because I doubt if anyone else south of the Canadian border will.

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S.T. Georgiou on Lightness and Soul tag:spiritbookword.net,2011://30.33269 2011-11-16T03:46:05Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z Your book is a fine read. I like your casual-precise-witty-candid-introspective-wide ranging-ever percolating style. An excellent choice of writers, and all marvelously interconnected. Your nicely arranged informative chapters provoked me to do a quick Wiki-Scan on most of the writers. I... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ Your book is a fine read. I like your casual-precise-witty-candid-introspective-wide ranging-ever percolating style. An excellent choice of writers, and all marvelously interconnected. Your nicely arranged informative chapters provoked me to do a quick Wiki-Scan on most of the writers. I just wish you had a photo of each author, but I understand this increases the cost of production.

Very much liked your first chapter. Your love of books is wonderfully palpable, tactile, and brings to light the wonder of the book. I like the phrase “built by books” (good for a T-Shirt!) & the “slow dreaming that accompanies the turning of the pages,” sadly absent in today’s e-book (the slow dreaming that accompanies the scrolling of the document…? And is there time enough to dream in a world wired to the internet?). I liked your father’s influence in the book, helping you to appreciate thoughts such as “Read as though all your ancestors were living again through you.” “Carry on your back the poetry you have listened to.” Regarding the Jewish connection to the mystique of the book, pages 23-25 are profound.

Your second chapter (on Alberto Manguel) is likewise stirring, inspiring. That books are leaves of blessing, rich pulps of inner illumination is evident throughout. Really dug pages 28-31, sacral is the book indeed, sacred the journey through the long library stacks, how much can be gleaned simply by stroking the bindings. Brings back such happy memories of hunting for books in grad school, physically finding them, cracking open the dusty covers, then later bearing the best of the horde to the check out stand and bringing the choice volumes home, pouring over them atop a bed illuminated by a single amber-toned lamplight, already dreaming before the dreams had begun. And again, the contrast between book & e-book/internet sources: “The Web promises eternity but delivers ephemera.” Nice quotes throughout: “The Web has the document but not the soul of the document…” “Reading and writing are affairs of the whole body…” “Generation after generation of librarians wander through the library in an attempt to find the Book…”

Chapter 3, on Lax, once again a powerful read. Good synopsis, analysis. You do see (even very familiar) things new after reading/listening to Lax. “Greatness Strikes Where It Pleases” a fine story in relation to the innocence & holiness of the dreamer-sage-poet who ever falls into grace as he waits on the God of the Heart… Lax’s poems are indeed “little boxes of spirit & magic,” and surely because “he fusses over each word, as though it were an icon.” And yes, there’s Lax, putting lone words and syllables on a page, just as he similarly placed himself in the distant poverty of Patmos, emptying himself, happily becoming poor because he is rich in God, rich in the sacred beauty of a sea-world spun out of the core of the Creator, listening-searching for the first sounds of the cosmos, the light-word that began life. And yes, Lax is indeed the “one indispensable commentator on Merton’s life & work, the one who sees a hidden wholeness & holiness.” Pages 53-55, so nice.

Chapter 4, on Berger & Weil, a great tapestry highlighting the fabric of their being. Awesome quotes, “Every being cries out silently to be read differently” (Weil) and “The number of lives that enter into anyone’s life is incalculable” (Berger). In a sort of infinitely deep way, both selections profoundly interrelate and imbue a mystic holiness.

In Chapter 5, on Rukeyeser, I like much her purposeful attempts to leave out words, making the untouched words shine out of the night sky of consciousness like stars. Page 82 real good summary analysis of her work. Mythic, transcendent.

Chapter 6, on Leonard Cohen, well, I discovered Cohen in GTU grad school (a Pakistani friend gave me a tape & I was totally seduced by the poetry-music of this sleight of hand artist). How many times did I hear his songs crossing the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge going to Berkeley then back to San Francisco? Songs that, as one critic said, draw the listener in, like a moth to flame. We know we will die listening to Cohen, yet the dying is sweet. Pleasurable melancholy in the least; and most profoundly, well, let me put it this way: blossoms open in fire. Yes, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” so awesome. “It is in love that we are made; it is in love we disappear.”

In Chapter 7, on Harold Bloom, I like how he balances his “slouching toward Nazareth” with “If you are to grow in self-knowledge, become more introspective, discover the authentic treasures of insight and of compassion and of spiritual discernment and of a deep bond to other solitary individuals.” Thus Bloom turns toward (is subliminally-overtly drawn to) the incarnate Author of Life.

Chapter 8, on Sontag-Said, most of the info was all new to me, quite absorbing. I think a lot of writers can relate to not wanting to sleep much, lest they lose something in their creative output; yet perhaps the creative drive thrusts them out of their slumber in a perfectly natural manner. Lax would rise at 2-3-4AM and write “flashlight poetry” (or notebook writing), couldn’t help himself. But he was comfortable to go with the flow of things, wherever sleeping-waking would take him. On Said & the Intellectual, pages 121-123 illuminating.

Like how you chose Cohen’s song title “Closing Time” for the book’s conclusion. You sing of Berger through the pages, but that last line by Berger, “A likeness, once caught, carries the Mystery of Being,” brings to mind the first part of your book; it returns my thoughts, at least, to Alberto Manguel. And yet, in an even wider scope, these final words delicately interweave every chapter of your fine & rewarding book. Thank you for celebrating the mystery of the written (printed) word through writers emanating from a tradition wherein the word is so highly revered. The reader is left with a marvelous sense of wholeness and integrated holiness. Words can indeed brings things to life. After all, they created the universe. “Let there be Light!”


Steve T. Georgiou is a lecturer in Religion and the interdisciplinary Humanities at San Francisco City College, San Francisco State University and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California; author of _The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit-Lessons with Robert Lax, Mystic Street: Meditations on a Spiritual Path, and The Isle of Monte Cristo: Finding the Inner Treasure, all published by Novalis.

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John Porter's new book. It's his manifesto. tag:spiritbookword.net,2011://30.33268 2011-11-16T03:36:29Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z Book Review by David Cohen Originally printed in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Four.2, Fall/Winter 2011 “I read. I dream. I take notes. I write,” go the first words of poet-essayist John Porter’s new book. The priority given to reading is... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ Book Review by David Cohen
Originally printed in Hamilton Arts and Letters, Four.2, Fall/Winter 2011

“I read. I dream. I take notes. I write,” go the first words of poet-essayist John Porter’s new book.

The priority given to reading is no accident. John Porter is a reader, originally by inheritance, now by long-established habit. His father read poetry, theology, biography and philosophy “in that descending order of significance.” For “Dad and me, the book, in Ezra Pound’s … phrasing was ‘a ball of light.’ ”

“Reading is what I do,” Porter’s manifesto-like statement goes. “Reader is who I am. I write books on my readings, books on other people’s books, and construct sentences from other people’s sentences.”

Reading, like eating, satisfies a hunger. Citing Daniel Coleman’s In Bed with the Word, Porter endorses the idea that reading is akin to eating. Reading is primary. All else (presumably including criticism) trails in its wake.

So, here we have Porter’s latest readings. From the book’s title, one might gather that Jewishness in these writers somehow defines them, or at least represents a common element in their work. This is not the case. Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger and Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom, and Susan Sontag were born into the Jewish faith (Edward Said, the “plus,” was not Jewish, but…). That they have in common; but in none of these writers can Jewishness be said to be the defining feature of their work. It is rather a fact — a biographical fact — that they share.

Yes, the “Jewish homeland is the book … the transportable book, bound neither by place or time,” (George Steiner). But, as Porter himself illustrates, plenty of non-Jews share this homeland. This is the real “Israel, not a chunk of geography or a spot in time….” Yes. But….

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J.S. Porter and Jewishness tag:spiritbookword.net,2011://30.33267 2011-10-11T14:34:55Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z By Eric Mader Originall published on Saturday, September 17, 2011, at Clay Testament… A new book by J.S. Porter is always something to celebrate. His Lightness and Soul, just out this month, does not disappoint. Full of surprises and keen... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ By Eric Mader

Originall published on Saturday, September 17, 2011, at Clay Testament

A new book by J.S. Porter is always something to celebrate. His Lightness and Soul, just out this month, does not disappoint. Full of surprises and keen insights, Porter’s book takes on a difficult and long-debated subject: the literary character of Jewishness over the recent seventy-odd years. Subtitled Musings on Eight Jewish Writers, the book doesn’t shy away from throwing very different figures into the ring: some of the chosen writers are avowedly Jewish, others deny their Jewishness, and one, as I will indicate below, can only be called Jewish in an oblique or ironic way.

If like me you’ve long cherished Jewish literature, this is a book you should read—for the sheer joy of it. Porter is one of our great expositors of the pleasures of reading. Like Alberto Manguel, considered in one chapter here, Porter teases out and explicates the multiple physical joys of book reading: the tactile attractions of the printed word; the magnetic draw that shelves of books or stacked volumes on a windowsill have for zealous readers. As in his Spirit Book Word (2001), he recounts his personal relationship with the books in question; this proves a particularly effective starting point for getting at what is singular in each writer he chooses. What we get as a result is eight in-depth readerly appreciations, eight critical portraits that give us what we, as readers, are really after: new insights into writers we already know; reasons to take up new writers we might not be familiar with.

For myself, Porter’s chapters on Leonard Cohen and Harold Bloom were especially enjoyable. I found echoes of my own readings as well as new assessments I hadn’t considered (both Porter’s own assessments and those of the many people he quotes: this writer is a great collector of critical remarks). Probably most worthwhile for me, however, was the chapter where Porter, strategically, put John Berger in conversation with Simone Weil. Berger, the ever down-to-earth British art critic, and Weil, the doggedly idealistic left-wing Neoplatonist (I’m aware how odd my characterization is) illuminate each other as they illuminate what a commitment to the underdog can mean in terms of life and literary practice. What was especially useful for me here was the new introduction to Berger, a writer I haven’t read since university and one I will now spend some time getting to know.

The problematics of what is Jewish make for only part of the intellectual interest of this book. Given that Porter’s concerns are mostly readerly, the question of how and why these writers are Jewish, though repeatedly addressed, must finally be answered by the reader—and answered on what are perhaps mainly literary or textual grounds. That there are no easy answers should be no surprise: What, after all, do figures like Harold Bloom and Simone Weil have in common beyond a certain amount of DNA going back to the ancient Near East? Weil probably would have found Bloom a bombastic aesthete. As for Bloom’s assessment of Weil, I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure it’s pretty grim.

Does the Jewishness of these writers reside in a certain spiritual register, a certain half-tangible something inherited even against the grain of what may have been the writer’s very secular family history? Or does it reside rather in a particular deep-seated respect for texts and debate—a tendency to take the written register as something nearly as important as the real world? As George Steiner wrote in My Unwritten Books (and as quoted by Porter in his first chapter):

The tablet, the scroll, the manuscript and the printed page become the homeland, the moveable feast of Judaism. Driven out of its native ground of orality, out of the sanctuary of direct address, the Jew has made of the written word his passport across centuries of displacement and exile.

Whatever the Jewishness at issue here, it probably can’t reside in a religious identification. Of the eight writers considered, only Leonard Cohen claimed to be a practicing Jew, and even he was occasionally called upon to defend his Judaism against other Jews who didn’t appreciate his Zen practice or the often Catholic symbolic register of his work. His words to these doubters, which Porter quotes, are magisterial:

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this decision
is final

I use the word magisterial to characterize these lines. And it is apt. Who if not Leonard Cohen possessed majesty in his artistic struggle—in its brutal honesty, its questing up and down the scale of high and low, in its utterly authentic spiritual need?

Much of Porter’s chapter on Cohen is dedicated to the novel Beautiful Losers. Porter brings out the scattered brilliance of this work: its annoying side and its undeniable genius; he quotes critics who were maddened by the book even as they sought to put a finger on its power. Here, one feels, is perhaps the closest Porter’s book gets to defining Jewishness. Jewishness as a kind of openness that nonetheless answers back; a willing spiritual wrestling with the many perverse angels of the day-to-day. Clearly discernible in Cohen’s work, is this not also the Jewishness that, in part, made for the greatness of the first books of the Bible? Is it not this willingness to admit in writing to what is unassimilable? To always portray the here and now along with the painful elements that don’t fit? This, I believe, is a large part of what is “Jewish” in significant Jewish writing.

In considering John Berger’s essay on Simone Weil, titled “A Girl Like Antigone,” Porter gets at what may be an important element of Berger’s style, and again approaches what I sense as the Jewishness that really underlies Porter’s book. I will quote at length:

Near the close of [Berger’s] meditation on Weil’s short life of thirty-four years, he returns to her … apartment on Rue Auguste Comte where, when writing, she could see the rooftops of Paris. In a single sentence, he captures the unity of her conflicting tensions with the insertion of a conjunction: “She loved the view from the window, and she was deeply suspicious of its privilege.” The word and holds the tension and reintegrates the splitting of love and shame. They belong together

On a previous occasion Berger made similar use of the and. I’m quoting from memory. He said once about a farmer in his French village that the man loved his pig and ate his pig. And joins, it honors; it doesn’t resolve or excuse. You can love a pig and eat it. You can love a window and feel ashamed for having a privilege that many are denied. But is a different kind of conjunction. It qualifies, prioritizes. Berger prefers and; he prefers it stylistically and morally. (67-8)

In the blank space after these sentences, as I sat reading Porter’s book on the Taipei subway on my way to work, I scribbled the words that came immediately to mind: “As does the Old Testament.” Berger prefers the and; he prefers it stylistically and morally—as did the J writer and, to a degree, as did the redactors who wove the J text into Genesis, Exodus and so on. The and is one of the great stylistic supports of ancient Hebrew prose (and poetry).

Above I indicate that Porter’s book treats of eight Jewish writers, but this isn’t quite true. Included as well, as somehow “Jewish,” is Edward Said, the great Palestinian activist and intellectual. Said himself, toward the end of his life, joked that he was perhaps the “last Jewish intellectual.” The ways in which this may be apt underline the degree to which Jewishness, as viewed in a literary-intellectual light, may indeed be a particular comportment toward difference, an openness to debate: again, Jewishness as a stance similar to something I believe Leonard Cohen has in spades—the willingness to wrestle, and to do so in words, regardless of whose hip may get dislocated.

Check out J.S. Porter’s Lightness and Soul at Amazon.com

Go to J.S. Porter’s blog

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Personal Responses tag:spiritbookword.net,2011://30.33266 2011-10-11T14:33:17Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z from an e-mail by Ellen S. Jaffe, July 26, 2011, regarding the cover image I’ve now looked closely at the cover, and also looked at the correspondence about this image. I like this cover — the clear, bright pastoral image... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ from an e-mail by Ellen S. Jaffe, July 26, 2011, regarding the cover image

I’ve now looked closely at the cover, and also looked at the correspondence about this image. I like this cover — the clear, bright pastoral image of the field and the man in a business suit, reading, his face hidden by the book. The image itself is arresting —a bit like a Magritte painting — and asks the viewer to enter this curious world; we (I ) are drawn in, not put off. And it also says something about the “Jewish writer” — choosing books, reading and writing, even when in the midst of nature. Good colours, too.

from an e-mail by Helen McLean to Maureen Whyte, the publisher of Seraphim, Sept. 15, 2011

I wanted to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed Lightness and Soul. It’s a beautiful book. A word or a phrase would catch my brain or heart or some such important organ and I would have to read it again two or three times and stop to meditate about it.

from an e-mail by Eric Mader, Sept. 17, 2011

It was a great pleasure reading you on Cohen, Bloom and Weil. These are writers I know quite well; and here I have a brother in spirit, a reader that notices and values many of the same elements, bringing them out in such engaging jargon-free prose. There is much of Hemingway in your style.

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A Treasure Trove of Wit tag:spiritbookword.net,2011://30.33265 2011-10-08T20:43:34Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z Published Saturday October 8th, 2011-10-08 Michael Higgins for the Telegraph-Journal, Saint John, New Brunswick Porter loves to read; he reads himself into reality. And he loves those whom he reads; they are his companions to integration and wholeness. And so... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ Published Saturday October 8th, 2011-10-08

Michael Higgins for the Telegraph-Journal, Saint John, New Brunswick

Porter loves to read; he reads himself into reality. And he loves those whom he reads; they are his companions to integration and wholeness.

And so his musings centre around the following literati and cognoscenti: Alberto Manguel, Robert Lax, John Berger, Simone Weil, Muriel Rukeyser, Leonard Cohen, Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag. He also throws in for good measure the eminent Palestinian savant Edward Said - whose credentials as a Jewish intellectual he takes pains to establish. Unconvincingly, in my view.

The Magnificent Eight are as dissimilar as they are similar but what they hold in common is a passionate commitment to the word, to the power of language and to the humanizing, nay divinizing, of the alphabet, the cord that unites us over the centuries, unobstructed by boundary, tyranny and the politics of erasure.

Porter’s musings constitute the primal text: he scours for meaning, delves into hitherto unexplored areas of spiritual and theoretical interpenetration, and proclaims robustly his love for them all. But the subtext is as, if not more, interesting: the making and remaking of J.S. Porter.

The writer is formed in conversation, his dialogue with Weil and the troop ever percolating. His probes are as much autobiographical as historical. That’s what makes this book a lively, endlessly allusive love affair wherein Porter brings to the table (in fact, Lightness and Soul is a fictional table talk) such a treasure trove of wit, oracular utterance, discreet disclosure, unnerving epiphany and sheer fun that the book itself becomes a companion to conversation.

Porter delights in his subjects and there is no critical edge. He eschews the qualified and lifeless judgement of the expert for the effusiveness of the lover.

And he masters the aphoristic style he admires in so many of the writers under the scope of his fealty. Of the “logocentric and bibliocentric” literary critic Harold Bloom he notes: “He is a Seussian geyser of gab.”

And he succinctly defines his own Christian faith in a book on eight Jewish writers when he observes:

“I celebrate the Jewish Jesus and the cosmic Christ, the Jesus of Nazareth and of Hamilton, the wine-drinker, the storyteller and the embracer of strangers.”

His Jesus can be found in his city, Hamilton, Ont., because as the master spinner of tales, the outlier who identifies with the rejected, Jesus weaves a narrative of salvation open to all.

Porter likes that kind of inclusiveness and Lightness and Soul reads as his spiritual testament.


Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.

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...from The Merton Annual: Studies in Culture, Spirituality and Social Concerns, edited by David Belcastro and Gray Matthews, Vol. 21, 2008, pp. 234-236 & 263-265. tag:spiritbookword.net,2010://30.33264 2010-12-10T17:34:28Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z David Belcastro: “Porter understands Merton’s way of thinking as ‘relational, personal and experiential.’ He shows how Merton moves from one encounter to another, reading and reflecting, and perhaps most importantly, forming friendships from which new questions and insights eventually surface.... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ David Belcastro: “Porter understands Merton’s way of thinking as ‘relational, personal and experiential.’ He shows how Merton moves from one encounter to another, reading and reflecting, and perhaps most importantly, forming friendships from which new questions and insights eventually surface. And, this is what Porter does with Merton. It is also what he suggests the reader should do when reading Merton. When reading Merton, one is drawn into a spiritual friendship…Porter is a poet and essayist whose perspective and interests are different than those of a biographer. He explores the possibility of entering into a literary friendship with Merton and one that transforms the reader…”

Ross Labrie: “Dionysian…”

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...from Lynn R. Szabo's review in Cistercian Studies Quarterly Vol 44.3, 2009, pp. 380-383 tag:spiritbookword.net,2010://30.33263 2010-12-10T17:30:54Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z “As raconteur par excellence, Porter alerts us to the gyre of Merton’s reach…. “In Ten chapters, Porter surveys Merton’s life and work as though he were in a light plane preparing maneuver for an air show. His approach is at... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ “As raconteur par excellence, Porter alerts us to the gyre of Merton’s reach….

“In Ten chapters, Porter surveys Merton’s life and work as though he were in a light plane preparing maneuver for an air show. His approach is at times dangerous, daring, and surprising; at others, it is serious and salient. His trenchant wit and appropriately irreverent humor add flourishes of entertainment that make this collection a pleasurable and engaging, as well as satisfying brief assessment of Merton’s corpus of poetry, journals, letters, and essays—his life as a public intellectual and professed religious.”

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A Canadian visionary: a new book digs into the influences on Grant's thought. tag:spiritbookword.net,2010://30.33262 2010-08-15T02:13:47Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z George Grant: A Guide to His Thought Hugh Donald Forbes University of Toronto Press 301 pages ISBN 9780802043184, hardcover ISBN 9780802081421, softcover George Grant is our William Blake, a visionary in prose rather than poetry, a thinker who sees more... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ George Grant: A Guide to His Thought
Hugh Donald Forbes
University of Toronto Press
301 pages
ISBN 9780802043184, hardcover
ISBN 9780802081421, softcover

George Grant is our William Blake, a visionary in prose rather than poetry, a thinker who sees more than he can say, who speaks in notes, asides and intimations. Despite their philosophic differences, Grant, like Blake, sees and opposes technology’s invasion of the mind, and its consequent reshaping of society and language. Like Blake, he sees and opposes “Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep,” and in its stead advocates multidimensionality and attention to the whole, which is always, even in our wired and webbed time, more given than made. In his addendum to his essay “Two Theological Languages,” written a few months before his death, Grant proclaims, “the great things of our existing are given us, not made by us and finally not to be understood as arbitrary accidents. Our making takes place within an ultimate givenness.”

Canopied by oxymorons—Red Tory, Christian Platonist, Grant’s multifaceted thought does not lend itself to easy simplification. He saw the sun and shadow of every question. For all his opposition to technology as a way of life, he could still acknowledge: “No writing about technological progress and the rightness of imposing limits upon it should avoid expressing the fact that the poor, the diseased, the hungry and the tired can hardly be expected to contemplate any such limitation with the equanimity of the philosopher.” Grant was sufficiently Marxist to know the class basis and bias of most thought. I made my first acquaintance with Grant’s thought through the Winnipeg socialist magazine Canadian Dimension, a “red” journal receptive to deep-thinking Tories.

As a public intellectual, Grant adhered to the code Edward Said articulated in Representations of the Intellectual: he was not beholden to a power centre (government, corporation or university); he avoided slavish specialization; he was an amateur in the root sense of being a lover of truth. The public intellectual, according to Said, needed to be “a thinking and concerned member of a society … entitled to raise moral issues at the heart of even the most technical and professionalized activity.” Grant did that, and more.

He had a broad vision for education, and it is perhaps as educator, as much as philosopher, that he merits a permanent seat at Canada’s table of ideas. Hugh Donald Forbes, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, covers Grant’s McMaster years (1960-1980) all too briefly in George Grant: A Guide to His Thought. While teaching at McMaster University, Grant also completed the bulk of his writing and publishing.

According to Eugene Combs, professor emeritus of religious studies at McMaster and a colleague of Grant’s during his tenure there, when Grant came to the university in 1960 he had a strong hand in the shaping of the religious studies undergraduate program, and later the graduate program in 1966. McMaster by the early 1970s had the largest graduate program in religious studies in the world, half in eastern studies and half in western studies, including the biblical field.

Grant insisted that world religions ought to be taught as living traditions, not as objects in a museum. He favoured practitioners of a particular religious tradition teaching that tradition. He also insisted on the great rebels and critics of religion having their say. As a McMaster student in the early 1970s, I took two courses from the religious studies department: “Atheism and Scepticism” with John Robertson and “Religion and Literature” with Anne McPherson. Marx and Freud were an integral part of the first course, and Beckett and Camus were central to the second. Both courses were conducted in open inquiry with spirited debate.

What Grant feared in education was a narrowing of thought, increased specialization and the technologizing of learning. Forbes quotes the beginning of Grant’s English-Speaking Justice, his response to the American philosopher John Rawls: “The first task of thought in our era is to think what that technology is: to think it in its determining power over our politics and sexuality, our music and education.”

Even in Grant’s day, universities were increasingly turning out technicians of one sort or another. Forbes paraphrases Grant to say that “the best of our universities … confer doctorates of philosophy on their most assiduous students after they have completed a piece of specialized research, but without requiring that they show in any systematic way the connection between their narrow investigations and the ultimate questions” of human existence.

Since Grant’s death in 1988, the University of Toronto Press has published his biography (William Christian, 1993), his Selected Letters (Christian, 1996), The George Grant Reader (Christian and Sheila Grant, editors, 1998), essays edited by Arthur Davis called George Grant and the Subversion of Modernity in 1996, in which Forbes first writes about Strauss and Grant, and the ongoing Collected Works of George Grant also edited by Arthur Davis beginning in 2000. With this plethora of riches, regrettably many Canadians know Grant as the author of a single visionary work on Canadian history and politics, Lament for A Nation, recently chosen by the LRC readership as among the most influential books in Canada.

Grant wrote six slim volumes in his lifetime, all masterworks of brevity, each about a hundred pages, all with small non-academic presses. Forbes writes eloquently on five of these volumes; he has very little to say about Technology and Empire, although it is his personal favourite. Forbes’s jargon-free prose has the virtues of Grant’s: clarity and precision.

One is tempted to add a seventh book to Grant’s small canon: George Grant in Conversation, by David Cayley, so ably does Cayley enucleate—one of Grant’s favourite words—his thought. The books about Grant far outnumber and outweigh the books by him. The discussion around him, nevertheless, continues to grow.

Grant’s doctoral thesis on the Scottish theologian John Oman, available now in the Collected Grant, is a further addition to Grant’s legacy. As Professor Forbes astutely notes, it is “in some ways the most ambitious and systematic work that Grant ever wrote.” Grant’s one and only book on a philosopher is Time as History, a little book on Nietzsche. His only other book with philosophy as its subject is his Philosophy in the Mass Age. Both books were intended for a general audience and broadcast on the CBC. The rest of Grant’s work consists of meditations on politics, technology and modernity. On philosophers Martin Heidegger, Leo Strauss and Simone Weil—the focal points of Forbes’s book—Grant wrote a handful of essays, letters and notes.

It is not difficult to justify Forbes’s selection of these three European thinkers as seminal influences on Grant’s thought. For Grant, Heidegger spoke more comprehensively, particularly about technology, than any modern philosopher. Grant credited Leo Strauss, another 20th-century German philosopher, for deepening his understanding of Plato. As for the French Simone Weil, Grant regarded her as a great thinker, a brilliant interpreter of Plato and a modern saint. To connect the three Europeans, according to Forbes, “into a more articulate relationship of mutual support and antagonism was the deepest tendency of George Grant’s scholarship and reflections.”

To put the emphasis slightly differently, Grant defended and promoted Platonic discourse as an alternative to modern modes of thought and expression. He braided aspects of Strauss’s and Weil’s sympathetic readings of Plato to use against Heidegger’s critique of both Plato and Christianity, although he did not seem to understand fully that Heidegger’s attack on Plato was essentially one of ignoring him. Heidegger returned to the pre-Socratics in his attempt to reimagine, and re-word, man’s relation to Being. In any case, for Grant, without Heidegger, philosophic clarity about the human condition at present was not possible.

On the other hand, Grant was deeply troubled by Heidegger. In Arthur Davis’s words, “this greatest of modern thinkers had decided that he would be betraying his thought-path by pretending that we have grounds to condemn any actions, including his own.” More concerned with Being than beings, Heidegger chose silence as a moral response to the Holocaust and the Nazi devastation of Europe.

For Forbes, “the most remarkable feature of Grant’s writings is their power to point beyond themselves to the most difficult and most important questions that human beings can confront.” That is one reason Grant does not go away. He asks questions that do not go away. “How is it possible to think that the modern paradigm is sufficient to the needs of human beings?” “What does technical civilization portend for good and evil?” “Is the non-human simply stuff at our disposal … Are there already signs of revolts in nature?” Sometimes Grant engages in a kind of negative theology where the way forward has to do with clearing away philosophic self-deception.

To provide a general intellectual framework for Grant’s thought is a noble task, especially when such a framework is as lucidly written and so convincingly argued by Forbes. Forbes, however, neglects one member of the triumvirate he purports to bring into relationship, someone who forms an essential part of Grant’s internal debate: Martin Heidegger. While Forbes provides useful overviews of Strauss’s and Weil’s thinking, he short-shrifts Heidegger on the basis that what Heidegger “says about technology, Being, and human existence cannot be reduced to a few easily digestible formulas.” In a later chapter, he apologizes again: “it is not easy to grasp his real significance and virtually impossible to explain it in a few words.” On Strauss and Weil, Forbes writes chapters; on Heidegger, lines.

No one would deny that Heidegger is a difficult read; he is not, however, impossible to read. Grant introduced his graduate students to Heidegger through “The Question Concerning Technology” or “Memorial Address” in Discourse on Thinking. Arthur Davis has an excellent overview of Heidegger’s impact on Grant in his edited volume on Grant and modernity. George Steiner has written a brilliant introduction to his thought, turning Heidegger’s convoluted German into plain English. When Forbes refers to specifics in Heidegger he does an admirable job, but it seems odd to omit an overview of his philosophy when he provides one for Strauss and Weil.

The other puzzling aspect to Forbes’s book is the occasional disappearance of Grant himself. There is no Grant to be found on pages 117 to 124 and 129 to 146 when Strauss takes the stage, and 148 to 154 when Strauss and Heidegger jointly take the stage. In Grant’s absence, the book becomes a treatise on Strauss rather than on Strauss’s specific influence on Grant. Some background information and contextualizing are necessary, but not at the expense of making the subject of the book disappear.

Nevertheless, Forbes writes well on Strauss’s ability, and Weil’s, “to give ancient philosophical writings an interpretation that brought them back to life … and made them the source of a real alternative to modern doctrines.” If you substitute the word “Plato” for the phrase “ancient philosophical writings,” you have a very clear statement on Grant’s purpose in philosophy.

Forbes respectfully treats Grant’s reluctance to write in detail about Simone Weil. Quite simply, given Grant’s belief in trying to live one’s ideas, he didn’t think he was worthy of a saint. In a letter to Joan O’Donovan written on January 19, 1981, Grant says that he cannot write a book about Weil “because she was divinely inspired and one can only approach that with fearful hesitation.” Forbes quotes Grant as saying “How is one then to give or refuse intellectual assent to doctrines stated by a being who lives on a different level of moral existence from oneself?” Grant did not write his Heidegger book for a different reason: he did not think that he knew enough.

Serious readers of George Grant will want to add Hugh Donald Forbes’s guide to their bookshelves. I find his explication of Simone Weil’s thought and its relation to Grant’s particularly inspiring. His detailed study follows three other single-author, book-length studies: Joan O’Donovan’s George Grant and the Twilight of Justice, T.F. Rigelhof ‘s George Grant: Redefining Canada and Harris Athanasiadis’s George Grant and the Theology of the Cross. In style and indispensability, Forbes surpasses his predecessors. He has added an essential book to the expanding library on the thought of a Canadian visionary.

J.S. Porter is the author of Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality (Novalis, 2001). His Thomas Merton: Hermit at the Heart of Things will be published by Novalis in May 2008.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Literary Review of Canada, Inc.

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Thomas Merton, Superabundantly Alive (Article) tag:spiritbookword.net,2010://30.33243 2010-01-20T06:19:01Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ (for Michael W. Higgins & Rev. Judith Hardcastle)

By J.S. Porter

Loss comes early and hard to Thomas Merton: loss of a mother, a father, a brother. An orphan mothered by a monastery.

He enters the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky on December 10th., 1941. Seven years later he publishes his autobiography. He is 30 years old. The Seven Storey Mountain, a book of losses. A book of radical reconstruction and re-orientation of the self.

He’s a hyphenated man: poet-monk, artist-monk, scholar-monk. Dancer, too. The monk secretly dances. A Zorba. A Zorbamonk (Dan Pilling’s phrase). To live monastically: read, pray, think, write, teach, eat, drink, dance…

He records his life in voluminous journals for fear that it may otherwise disappear.

A man of many turns. The biggest to monastic life. He turns towards serious reading in 1939; he turns towards Zen and the East in the early sixties. He turns to politics in a letter to Dorothy Day on August 23, 1961: “…I don’t feel that I can in conscience… go on writing just about things like meditation… I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues…” In the summer of 66, he also turns towards love, the love of a particular individual who bears the initial (or letter) M.

Love “is a certain special way of being alive;” it’s “an intensification of life, a completeness, a fullness, a wholeness of life.” These things he learns from his relationship with M., a student nurse who cared for him in a Louisville hospital for a short but memorable time.

Some of Merton’s lesser known vocations: cartoonist, book reviewer, translator, calligrapher, photographer, polemicist, reader, letter writer, bongo drummer… His scribbles gargantuan: thousands of poems, thousands of letters, hundreds of essays, hundreds of translations, dozens of published journals…

Merton: a man of the Americas. Interested in “Deeper roots, Indian roots. The Spanish, Portuguese Negro roots also.” The shallow English roots are not enough. “My vocation is American - to see and to understand and to have in myself the life and the roots and the belief and the destiny and the Orientation of the whole hemisphere.”

His heart in Latin America, his mind sometimes in Asia. The world in his bloodstream. He is, in poet-friend Robert Lax’s phrase, a “hermit at the heart of things.” Superabundantly alive in politics, poetry and prayer. A man with a poetic sensibility. He reads, translates, teaches and writes poetry all his adult life. The Latin American poets—Cardenal, Cortés, Cuadra, Parra, etc.—occupy a special place in his heart. He corresponds with them, translates them, writes about them, is inspired by them. Literary critic Stefan Baciu writes: “During the last two decades, Merton was one of the constant and most accurate spokesmen for this realm [the realm of Latin American poetry] through a series of translations without equal in the literature of the United States, or, for that matter, in world literature.” Merton “knew how to love, understand, and interpret the Spanish and Spanish-American worlds.”

Born in Prades, France - died in Bangkok, Thailand. The electric man dies from accidental electrocution (“an overdose of electricity,” says Michael Higgins).

According to the Bangkok police, he dies with a net worth of ten dollars. “Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success.” After a peripatetic childhood, his life for the most part lived quietly in a monastery, then in a hermitage, in the knobs of Kentucky.

Most nights: alone, cold, a glass of bourbon, some holy waiting…maybe Joan Baez will walk in, maybe M…some unexpected angel-woman…to his cabin on the monastery grounds.

Mercy his word, used the way most of us use the word grace…what holds you, surrounds you…

Selfhood defined, his own and that of others: “There is ‘I’ - this patchwork, this bundle of questions and doubts and obsessions, this gravitation to silence and to the woods and to love. This incoherence.”

His haiku:

"High winds all night
Stole the voices of the bells:
No one knows what they said."

Merton on Zukofsky (and himself) - “He never reaches to make anything ‘musical’ or ‘poetic’; he just touches the words right and they give the right ringing and tone.”

The old monk
A woman walks by
Swoosh

And how did you spend “your one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver), Mr. Monk? Reading and writing, and dreaming of women. More reading than writing, more writing than dreaming.

The monk writes
One word, another
Worlds whisk by
A lifetime at read
Between the lines
Lives come and go

Living the monastic life: “a rich life…built on cruel deprivation” - you can observe the swoosh but not touch it.

Merton’s appetite: “I know that I have to read, and understand, and think, and grasp, and experience…”

In poet and friend Robert Lax’s phrase about his work, he was “superabundantly alive.” To Lax, his major characteristic was

"(gen

u

ine)

live

li

ness."

Merton quotes Rilke’s “First Elegy” from The Duino Elegies in his journal — “Were you not forever distracted by expectation, as if everything were announcing to you some (coming) beloved?”—as a way of speaking to himself.

Dreams of women - Proverb, the Chinese princess, the black mother, Ann Winser, Jinny Burton, M.

On Nov. 28, 1967, he writes: “Then came back and began a new Penguin containing Basho’s travel notes. Completely shattered by them…”

On Dec. 19, 1967, a year before his death: “Reading Basho again. Deeply moved by the purity and beauty of his travel notes and Haiku.”

In Merton’s last poem, “Kandy Express,” he strings together travel notes and haikus. He has a haiku mind - jumps and linkages everywhere. When he reads Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, he writes: “It is like Zen—like Dostoevsky—like existentialism—like Francis—like the New Testament.” That’s Merton: connection and connection and connection, like and like and like.

More haiku: "Great train monster - Buddhabuddha!
Sawing everything down to tea's smallest leaf."
"A white crane standing in sunny water
briefly shakes herself.
Another flies low over green paddy and alights."

There is always more than one thing going on at any one time in Merton. The Asian Journal is his Book of Last Things: last dreams, last photographs, last speeches, last poems, last letters, last notes.

Sometimes in his journal notes Merton sounds like Basho:

“A very small, gold-winged moth came and settled on the back of my hand, and sat there, so light that I

could not feel it. I wondered at the beauty and delicacy of this being— so perfectly made, with mottled

golden wings. So perfect. I wonder if there is even a name for it. I never saw such a thing before. It would

not go away, until, needing my hand, I blew it lightly into the woods.”

Sometimes he gets his haiku, his Zen into a single line:


“My Zen is the slow swinging tops of sixteen pine trees.”

Sensitivity to nature - one of the constants in his life; he’s always aware of the weather, how the day is, where the birds and butterflies are.
He knows he is a part of the all, as each is interpenetrated by all.


> “[W]e have a deep and legitimate need to know in our entire being what the day is like, to see it and feel it, to know the sky is grey, paler in the south, with patches of blue in the southwest, with snow on the ground, the thermometer at 18, and cold wind making your ears ache. I have a real need to know these things because I myself am part of the weather and part of the climate and part of the place, and a day in which I have not shared truly in all this is no day at all.”

“the bitter and lucid joys of solitude”


He reworks Luke 6: 38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Merton a giver. What he gives is himself.

A mild tut-tut to his friend, the Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki: … “his lineup of Buddha vs. Christ is also dualistic, and when he starts that he forgets his Zen… It seems to me the Cross says just as much about Zen, or just as little, as the serene face of the Buddha.”

His casual, unexpected prayers: these I like best.

“It is enough to be, in an ordinary human mode, with one’s hunger and sleep, one’s cold and warmth, rising and going to bed. Putting on blankets and taking them off, making coffee and then drinking it. Defrosting the refrigerator, reading, meditating, working, praying. I live as my ancestors have lived on this earth, until eventually I die. Amen.”

He greets the world bilingually, his first syllables in two languages:

"Oh sun! Oh joli!"
"bonjour buddha"
Bonjour "Monsieur Wind"

From Merton’s Raids on the Unspeakable, the book that James Douglass brings into his discussion of the Kennedy assassination in JFK and the Unspeakable: “Guard the human image for it is the image of God.”

“Our very existence is ‘speech’ interpreting reality.”

Elena Malits in The Solitary Explorer on “the multistoried man:”
”He reintroduced and legitimized the use of “I” in religious inquiry…”

So much of his writing, Samizdat, underground writing (Higgins). His 111 Cold War Letters a case in point.

Just as there is the literary Merton and the spiritual Merton, there is also the political Merton. Merton’s political works on Nazism, racism, nuclear war and the military-industrial complex are an essential part of his body of work. He spent a significant portion of his intellectual life putting into words Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1988 oil painting, Unfinished Flag of the United States, where the blood red stripes extend across the globe. The image speaks to America’s unbridled appetite to spread its influence and control everywhere.

Merton mixes prayer with politics, his “Hagia Sophia” with “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants” in a single volume entitled Emblems of a Season of Fury. In this one New Directions volume you have poems, translations from the Spanish, satires, mini-biographies of Latin American writers, a prose poem and a political essay. In Raids, you have his calligraphies, parables, myths, meditations, manifestos, prose poetry and adaptations from a medieval Arab mystic. How he likes to join things. One is always more than one.

In the last year of his life he edits a hodgepodge called Monks Pond (a volume for each season). To the poet Zukofsky, he writes: “No money involved anywhere.” Instead: “Poems, creative things, Asian texts, blues, koans, ghost dances, all to be crammed into four issues.”

“The Bellarmine conferences last week. These busy but rewarding days, talking on wisdom, talking boldly, offending pious ears…urging a broadening of horizons in every direction - political leftism, peace (Gandhi), study of the Orient, creative work, writing, publishing and whatever else I could think of.”

A phrase - “broadening of horizons in every direction”—sums up a life.

For me, the necessary Merton, the urgent Merton, in the 21st century, these Swiftian works, these tracts of the sixties, these fusions of poetry, politics and prayer:

  • Original Child Bomb (an extended prose poem, now a documentary film)
* “Chant to be Used in Processions around a Site with Furnaces” (prose poem. Lenny Bruce sometimes closed his night club performance with Merton’s words.)
  • “A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann” (essay)
* “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants” (essay)
  • “Epitaph for a Public Servant” (a found poem, a word collage, on Adolf Eichmann)

And don’t forget his essays: “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” “Message to Poets,” and the Orwellian “War and the Crisis of Language.”

His art, his writing, his life: “…one who makes such nondescript marks as these is conscious of a special vocation to be inconsequent…” The marginal monk chooses marginal forms: Zen drawings, notes, meditations, Zen photography, journal jottings. Fast—he eats fast, types fast, reads fast, walks fast, thinks fast—a defining word.

He knows what he’s doing: “The notes set down in this Journal must be seen in this context of ambivalence, of questioning, of supreme spiritual risk.”

[Distillate © HA&L + J. S. Porter 2 | {from the Greek bios} — the course of a life.]

[traverse to a place that is different, yet strikingly familiar, where you may read J. S. Porter’s Muriel Rukeyser: In each word, a storm]

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Muriel Rukeyser: In each word, a storm (Article) tag:spiritbookword.net,2010://30.33242 2010-01-20T06:02:39Z 2018-04-16T17:44:18Z by J. S. Porter A poem calls to you if you bend your ear to it. “A Little Stone in the Middle of the Road, in Florida,” for instance. A charming title. Itself a poem. It reads: My son as... James Bow http://www.bowjamesbow.ca/ by J. S. Porter

A poem calls to you if you bend your ear to it. “A Little Stone in the Middle of the Road, in Florida,” for instance. A charming title. Itself a poem. It reads:

My son as a child saying
God
is anything, even a little stone in the middle of the road, in
 Florida.
Yesterday
Nancy, my friend, after long illness:
You know what can lift me up, take me right out of despair?
No, what?
Anything.

So much depends on that word anything, first clustered in a group, then breathing free and alone. Anything. Anything can happen, anything can change, God can come, despair can lift. The little boy’s anything and the woman’s anything. Word-chimes. Between anything and anything, a lot can happen.

Anything is a word at work in Muriel Rukeyser. Even when you don’t see it or hear it in an individual poem, it’s an informing foundation. Other essential words in her word-pool are child, woman, Orpheus, suicide, song, touch, speak, you. From words like these she builds her 573 pages of Collected Poems.

Do you need a poet and poem to line your pocket? Like a lucky penny. My parents thought so. Mother had Yeats and his “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” She learned the poem by heart at nine and never forgot it. Father had Wordsworth and his “Intimations of Immortality.” For Dad, there was no higher calling in the world than the call to be a poet. He read history and biography, but poetry was for him the highest ordering of words. I don’t have a specific poem or poet in my pocket. In some moods, Raymond Carver. In others, Mark Strand, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, Robert Lax (I include his journals as part of his poetry) or William Carlos Williams.

Tonight I’m thinking of Muriel Rukeyser and her “Despisals,” maybe even her “Speed of Darkness” and “Effort at Speech Between Two People.” I need to consider “Tree,” “Kathe Kollwitz,” “The Conjugation of the Paramecium,” “Poem,” “Islands,” “The Gates,” “Double Ode” and “Haying Before Storm” too. A poet only needs ten good poems to be a poet, and one or two great ones to be in the circle of Wordsworth. Rukeyser has “a storm in each word.” She makes magic “of forgotten things.”

I came to Rukeyser by way of her prose. This sentence caught my attention: “There is also, in any history, the buried, the wasted, and the lost.” The sentence provided a way of seeing history, large and small. Aren’t we what we’ve buried, wasted and lost?

The strange prose of The Life of Poetry, with its spaces and silences and leaps. I liked the way Rukeyser’s mind moved. It reminded me a little of how the Brazilian storyteller Clarice Lispector’s mind moved. Lispector too is concerned with seeing. Rukeyser’s words might be Lispector’s: “What do we see? What do we not see?”

The first poem to make an impression on me was “Despisals,” which I read in an Antaeus anthology years ago. “Effect at Speech Between Two People,” a poem I came to more recently, also made a strong impression. “Despisals” is late in Rukeyser’s production, “Effect at Speech…” is early, one of her first published poems. “Effect at Speech…” reminds me of a style of speaking I trapped for a time—or, a style that allowed itself to be trapped— like a wind in a jar, but the wind soon blew open the jar. The style was uncontainable. I never got it back. My story was called “Kasaala,” a fictionalized account of my days and nights in Africa when I was twenty-one.

Is that what draws me to Rukeyser? Her voice. What she leaves out. How her mind works. How the wind comes in. Words are hard to make—hard to say— in Rukeyser. She’s not going to lie to you. In The Life of Poetry she says there are two essential American poetries: the poetry of outrage (Melville) and the poetry of possibility (Whitman). Rukeyser’s is mostly a poetry of possibility, and sometimes a poetry of outrage. Even in her politics, in her political poems, there is a sense of the primacy of making, of the need to make and build while you knock down and criticize. Listen to her in “Wherever”:

Wherever 
we walk
we will make

Wherever
we protest
we will go planting

Make poems
seed grass
feed a child growing
build a house

Whatever we stand against
We will stand feeding and seeding

Wherever 
I walk
I will make

Even in a revolution, you need to seed and feed and build.

I have forty or so anthologies of poetry in my library. Two or three have Muriel Rukeyser in them. How things change, fast. You’re a name for a few years, then a kid has a hard time finding you in the public library. If you’re lucky, you come back later. Another generation digs you up. If you’re unlucky, you stay buried. Rukeyser has one book of criticism on her work, a recent biography, and is the subject of a recent collection of remembrances and critical reappraisals; she doesn’t seem much written about in the journals. You could take a course in American poetry and not hear her name.

In a poem she seems to have written in response to a friend’s suicide, she tells the reader to flower. Flower for the dead. The poem is called “The Power of Suicide.”

The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves:
Flower   flower   flower   flower
Today for the sake of all the dead.  Burst into flower.

Maybe if Rukeyser knew that many of her books were out of print, including her Collected Poems, the message would be the same. Flower. Just flower. (I’m sounding like a Nike commercial.)

In her personal essay “The Education of a Poet” Rukeyser says, “There were no books in the beginning…” There was Shakespeare and the Bible, the book of books. Her early days were not book-ended. Later, yes.

She doesn’t tell you much about herself, a detail here and there, nothing too personal; she doesn’t give much of her personal story away. You learn from others that she was probably bisexual, she had a son from a father different from the man she was married to for a few months, her favourite ice cream was Haagen-Dazs’s rum raisin. One of her last acts was to accept an invitation from the Modern Language Association to speak on “Lesbians and Literature.” Illness precluded her going to speak. Rukeyser tells you some things in “Effect at Speech…” Her widowed aunt played Chopin, on her birthday after hearing a story about a dead rabbit Muriel crawled under her chair and stayed there for a long while, she contemplated suicide at fourteen. There is more untold than told in Rukeyser. As a teacher, Rukeyser had this standard assignment: Complete this sentence “I could not tell…” There was much Rukeyser chose not to tell, but she believed, according to her student Jane Cooper, that in what you cannot tell lie the inescapable poems. The necessary ones. The ones that have a will of their own and insist on an outing.

Her mother passed on her belief in a Jewish ancestor (Rabbi Akiba) who stood against the Romans and preserved the Song of Songs. “Resist the Romans,” Rukeyser says in a poem. “The holy poem…/the Song of Songs always,” she says in the same poem. Her father too is a strong presence in her poetry. He wants her to be a golfer. Instead she writes poetry (more rebellion) and protests injustices (the political poetry of outrage forms a sizeable portion of her output) against blacks and workers and the Vietnamese. He’s a cement salesman; he, in his daughter’s eyes, helps to build New York City. Did her first thoughts on the need for form in poetry come from her having watched his pouring of cement into frames?

In the early years Rukeyser has a friend who says she won’t talk to her anymore unless she stops constantly writing poems. Muriel promises her friend that she’ll stop. She doesn’t, she breaks her promise, she goes on writing poems. Her father told her never to break a promise, and she feels very guilty at having done so. Rukeyser repeats this story in The Life of Poetry. It is her birth story. What should you call her? Jew? American? Poet? Poet first, poet before anything else. She decided to be a poet, even at the cost of friendship. She’d pay the price. She says in “The Speed of Darkness” as if speaking directly to her son: “I bastard mother/promise you/there are many ways to be born./They all come forth/in their own grace.” Was she birthed by a broken promise?

The mother and father don’t appear to be very happy in Rukeyser’s work: not for what she says about them, but for what she doesn’t say. You wonder if she came from a family like Delmore Schwartz’s—long silences, tension, little physical contact. In “Dreams Begin Responsibilities” Schwartz’s father does not take responsibility for his dreams of marriage and children. Rukeyser’s family disinherited her. She felt herself to be untouched as a child. Did Rukeyser’s parents take responsibility for their dreams?

Touch is important in Rukeyser’s poetry. There are exhortations everywhere in the poetry to touch. She yearns for touch. Didn’t her mother touch her? Is it possible to spend your whole life looking for what you missed in the first years of life? In “Islands,” a sharp-edged little poem, Rukeyser makes a distinction between nature in general and human beings in particular as an odd concoction of nature: even islands are connected, while people remain distant.

 O for God's sake
 they are connected
 underneath

 They look at each other
 across the glittering sea
 some keep a low profile

 Some are cliffs
 The bathers think
 islands are separate like them

There are things you can’t talk about in Rukeyser’s family. In “The Education of a Poet,” she says that in her family you couldn’t talk about sex, money or death. She says in a poem that you can’t talk about cock and cunt. In “Despisals,” Rukeyser says not to despise the clitoris; in “The Speed of Darkness” she says “Whoever despises the cunt despises the life of the child.”

She quotes an analyst: “What you are dominated by in your childhood is whatever your parents really love.” Is the reverse also true: what you are dominated by in your childhood is whatever you’re parents really despised and were afraid of? “Pay attention to what they tell you to forget,” Rukeyser says in a poem, and repeats the line three times.

“Write poems out of the experiences that have eaten you,” Rukeyser says in Sharon Olds’ “A Student Memoir of Muriel Rukeyser.”

Does one of her strongest poems, “Despisals,” come out of rebellion against what her parents despised? Don’t despise the ghetto, she says. Don’t despise the Jew. The black. Sexuality. The homosexual. Don’t despise touch. Don’t despise the asshole. Don’t despise the clitoris.

 ...Not to despise the other.

 Not to despise the it.  To make this relation

 with the it    :    to know that I am it.

Here in three lines Rukeyser summarizes a core of Clarice Lispector’s writing, about not despising the cockroach, about not despising our animal nature, about not despising the it.

In “Double Ode,” one of her last poems, Rukeyser says “Tonight I will try again for the music of truth.” She’s going to do it tonight. There’s a sense of urgency. She’s going to try again as if she’s tried many previous nights in the past. She’s going to try for the music of truth. Not the facts of truth, the objectivity of truth, the geometry of truth, but the music of truth. Truth comes in a sound, in sounds; it comes in finding the courage to say the real words, the words that don’t cover up. It’s one of her most beautiful lines: “Tonight I will try again for the music of truth.” The truth is unattainable, but you go on trying, you go on flowering or trying to flower…

“The universe is made of stories,/not of atoms” she says in “The Speed of Darkness.”

If that’s the case, how vital then is the need to tell the truth, to tell true stories.

“The building music” she says in another poem. You build words, you build music, you build truth. This she learned from her father, the builder.

 "Tonight I will try again for the music of truth.

                   ...

 Moving toward new form I am--

                  ...

 Do I move toward form, do I use all my fears?"

She touches me here. Her looking for a form is me looking for a form. I’ve looked for years for a form that would allow me to join things in a certain way and to play with them and even pray with them. What I take from her words is to use everything, the whole body, the whole person, not to waste, not to bury, not to lose.

Things are not easy for Muriel Rukeyser. Things are not easily said. When I read a poem whose author is unknown to me, I say, could this be Rukeyser? If the words seem easily said, I know it’s not.

If they seem said with great difficulty, I say to myself, yes, this could be Rukeyser. Speech is an effort, writing is an effort. In an “Effort at Speech Between Two People” she writes:

 Speak to me.     Take my hand.     What are you now?

 I will tell you all.     I will conceal nothing.

                    ...

 Oh, grow to know me.     I am not happy.     I will be open.

                    ...

 ...Take my hand.     Speak to me.

Isn’t this speech too intimate for poetry? Too naked for form? It’s a cry, not a poem. Not art, but pain. A desperate lunge towards the other, even if the other isn’t there or there is no other. Hands. Words. Me. You. The need for conversation, the need for touch, the need for the other. I will tell you everything (no, I won’t). I will conceal nothing (I will conceal almost everything). I am unhappy (yes, that’s true). I will be open (no, I won’t).

Some of the lines are true, some are untrue. But there is music in them all. “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Rukeyser asks in her poem “Kathe Kollwitz.” She answers her own question with these words: “The world would split open.” Therefore, she doesn’t tell so as the world won’t split.

There comes a time in a poet’s career where there is a new turning, “a directer relation with the sun” says Thoreau. “The turning” as it’s called in Heidegger. “A New Path to the Waterfall” Raymond Carver calls it. There’s a change in diction, a gathering of energies, a moment when the self seems to find itself or speak itself.

Emily Dickinson is struck by lightning in poem 1581, “Struck no one but myself—/But I would not exchange the Bolt/For all the rest of Life—”. She writes the poem in l883, the year of her great poetic outpouring. It doesn’t differ in diction or in style from the poems before it or after it, but it gives voice to a singular event that transformed, or made her fully conscious of, her writing life. Critics argue over watershed poems. Is it this one? Is it that one? I think it’s the lightning poem in Dickinson, the first time she enfleshes a metaphor to do justice to her precarious mental state and her overpowering strength to record it.

I don’t know. How can one be sure? All I know is that when I read the Dickinson lightning poem I feel the lightning, feel the force of direct truth-telling instead of her more usual slanted speech. But because I’m cleaved by the bolt, does that mean the poet is too? Does she receive the same electric charge in her writing as I do in my reading?

Is there a transformative turn-around poem for Rukeyser? I think there is. The year of publication is 1958, the book is Body of Waking, the poem is “Haying Before Storm”.

 The sky is unmistakable.  Not lurid, not low, not black.
 Illuminated and bruise-color, limitless, to the noon
 Full of its floods to come.  Under it, field, wheels, and
   mountain,
 The valley scattered with friends, gathering in
 Live-colored harvest, filling their arms; not seeming to hope
 Not seeming to dread, doing.
     I stand where I can see
 Holding a small pitcher, coming in toward
   The doers and the day.
     These images are all
   Themselves emerging: they face their moment: love or go
 down. 
   A blade of the strong hay stands like light before me.
   The sky is a torment on our eyes, the sky
   Will not wait for this golden, it will not wait for form.
   There is hardly a moment to stand before the storm.
   There is hardly time to lay hand to the great earth.
   Or time to tell again what power shines past storm.

I don’t know the context for this poem, what it leads out of or leads to. I don’t know its compositional history, whether it came fast or slow, whether the final draft is different from the first. I just have the words in front of me and they go straight to blood and bone. This for me is Rukeyser’s lightning poem. A storm. That can’t be described, or can only be described in negatives. It’s not this, not that. The harvesters can’t be described either; they’re not this, not that. The storm is. The harvesters do. Being and doing: the two interactive states of human consciousness and perhaps the two interactive states between what is there and who we are—we that part of Being not content to be.

The poet tells this short tale of a gathering storm with herself standing where she can see. She’s the observer. Neither a part of the sky nor the people working under the sky. She carries a pitcher. Presumably water for the workers on a hot day at noon, on a day about to change drastically. Images emerge from the poet’s consciousness as if she’s in a dream or a trance or a dream-trance. She sees a single blade of golden and the tormenting sky. Something is going to happen. There will be no waiting for gold or form. Time is running out. There’s hardly time to stand or touch or tell. Hardly time. But there is time enough. Time enough to stand, to touch and to tell. First you have to feel the outrage of deprival, then you can more fully appreciate the possibility of replenishment. The good must be taken away, or the threat must be there that it may be taken away, before it can be given back. Before you can say again there’s a power shining past storm, a power deeper and stronger than storm.

This to me is a poem of great faith and hope, but only at the articulated cusp of absolute loss, at the risk of utter deprival and devastation. You can’t get to the shining power, the power that shines, any other way. You need a storm to see it and feel it and articulate it. You need a storm in each word to tell the truth.

(Distillate © HA&L + J. S. Porter | {from the Greek bios} — the course of a life.)

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