"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Except Thou Bless Me


"And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth,
and the top of it reached to heaven:
and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it."
Genesis 28:12

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1963
by Marc Chagall, 1887 - 1985

And Jacob said to the angel,
"I will not let thee go, except thou bless me."
Genesis 32:26

In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt--a wind to freeze;
Sad patience--joyous energies;
Humility--yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity--reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob's mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel--Art.

Herman Melville
, 1819 - 1891
American novelist, essayist, poet

I first became aware of Melville's mystical wrestling poem in the most interesting way: I saw it inscribed -- painted as a border -- around a prophetic looking, circular ceiling mural in the lobby of an apartment highrise in Chicago. I was in that vestibule a few times many years ago but am now not even entirely sure what building it was. How I would love to see it again! The question is, do I have the courage to approach the door-keeper and say, "Excuse me, I don't live here or know anyone who lives here, but could I please step inside and glance at your ceiling?!" A few friends have suggested that such a request might not be ill - received. Audacity -- reverence. Right? But where to start? I've actually thought of asking a realtor to help me, since agents probably have access to such buildings that are otherwise closed to the general public.

Could it be one of these?

Melville's poem and the following essay by Isak Dinesen are both inspired by the same reference from the Book of Genesis. Biblical scholar, Jonathan Kirsch says that "The same curious phenomenon of God as changeling is found throughout the Hebrew Bible: Is it God, or an angel, or merely a mortal man who wrestles with Jacob by night and is defeated by Jacob at sunrise" (53). This is about all that Kirsch has to say about Jacob's confrontation with the Angel; I was hoping he would explicate this particular story further, as he does with so many others in his fascinating book, The Harlot By the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible. Perhaps he does so in one of his other books that I have not yet looked at.

Hopefully, I will find time to read more soon, for Kirsch has a way of retelling a story so that you cannot forget it, even if you want to! And I could not agree more when he says that "the King James Version is a fundamental work of Western literature . . . Some modern translators are much more forthcoming about the 'forbidden' elements of the Bible than the KJV . . . Still, the newer Bible translations that have replaced the stately old KJV have not matched its grandeur and resonance of language. The new translations are more accurate in their scholarship, more forthcoming in their exploration of history, linguistics,and theology, but something has been sacrificed in the process" (330 - 31).

Isak Dinesen applies Jacob's concept of blessing in a thoughtful and thought - provoking way. In this brief and poignant excerpt from Out of Africa, blessing is bestowed not only by gods and angels, but by the sky, the weather, the house, the good times and the bad, the friends and the memories. Dinesen insists that all of these must bless her before they go away:

"I Will Not Let Thee Go Except Thou Bless Me"

When in Africa in March the long rains begin after four months of hot, dry weather, the richness of growth and the freshness and fragrance everywhere are overwhelming.

But the farmer holds back his heart and dares not trust to the generosity of nature, he listens, dreading to hear a decrease in the roar of the failing rain. The water that the earth is now drinking in must bring the farm, with all the vegetable, animal and human life on it, through four rainless months to come.

It is a lovely sight when the roads of the farm have all been turned into streams of running water, and the farmer wades through the mud with a singing heart, out to the flowering and dripping coffee-fields. But it happens in the middle of the rainy season that in the evening the stars show themselves through the thinning clouds; then he stands outside his house and stares up, as if hanging on to the sky to milk down more rain. He cries to the sky: "Give me enough and more than enough. My heart is bared to thee now, and I will not let thee go except thou bless me. . . .

Sometimes a cool, colourless day in the months after the rainy season calls back the time of the drought. In those days the Kikuyu used to graze their cows around my house, and a boy amongst them who had a flute, from time to time played a short tune on it. When I have heard this tune again, it has recalled in one single moment all our anguish and despair of the past. It has got the salt taste of tears in it. But at the same time I found in the tune, unexpectedly surprisingly, a vigour, a curious sweetness, a song. Had those hard times really had all these in them? There was youth in us then, a wild hope. . . . we were all of us merged into a unity . . . That bad time blessed us and went away.

The friends of the farm came to the house, and went away again. They were not the kind of people who stay for a long time in the same place. They were not the kind of people either who grow old, they died and never came back. But they had sat contented by the fire, and when the house, closing round them, said: "I will not let you go except you bless me," they laughed and blessed it, and it let them go. . . .
My life, I will not let you go except you bless me,
but then I will let you go." (285 - 87)

from Out of Africa
by Isak Dinesen, 1815 - 1962
Danish writer (in English), plantation owner (in Kenya)

Jacob's Battle with the Angel, 1893
by Maurice Denis, 1870 - 1843

For more on this topic,
see "The Story I Wrestle With"
by Alissa Goudswaard

And this anonymous quotation:
"The outcome of this first test, then, is a sense of bitter thinking. Wounded in its first upsurge, in its very essence, the heart bleeds and appears torn for ever. And yet you live and you have to love in order to continue living; you love with apprehension, with defiance, and little by little, looking around you, you realize that life is not as sad as you had judged it to be. A steadier heart accepts the obstacles, the sorrows, the disgusts even; sure of itself, it anticipates them, fights them, and sometimes changes them into blessings. Having learned resignation, it enjoys the happy days more fully, expects them with greater ardor, prolongs them with greater care. Finally it reaches the point of telling itself . . . Allow your heart to beat, allow yourself to be loved, allow fate to take its course. There are lovely days on this earth."
(emphasis added)

That bad time blessed us and went away.

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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Surface Dwellers

My Rooms at the Beau Rivage, 1918
by Henri Matisse, 1869 - 1954

"I have often asked myself the reason for the sadness
In a world where tears are just a lullaby . . . "
~ Carole King ~

The following poem has been in my notebook of favorites for thirty years now, since my Arkansas days, back when Bill Clinton was governor. I like the combination of grief and evolutionary biology, the mystery of salt water without and within, the existential quest for meaning -- "Not that we know what we're doing here." Yet, despite our sad lack of comprehension -- "We try to do what's right":

Living on the Surface
The dolphin
walked upon the land a little while
and crawled back to the sea
saying something thereby
about all that we live with.

Some of us
have followed him from time to time.
Most of us stay.
Not that we know what we're doing here.

We do it anyway
lugging a small part of the sea around.
It leaks out our eyes.

We swim inside ourselves
but we walk on the land.

What's wrong, we say, what's wrong?

Think how sadness soaks into
the beds we lie on.

Jesus, we've only just got here.
We try to do what's right
but what do we know?

by American poet Miller Williams (1930 - 2015)
Professor of English and Foreign Languages
and Director of the University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville

Naturalist Annie Dillard draws a similar conclusion in her essay "Teaching a Stone to Talk":

“The mountains are great stone bells; they clang together like nuns. Who shushed the stars? There are a thousand million galaxies easily seen in the Palomar reflector; collisions between and among them do, of course, occur. But these collisions are very long and silent slides. Billions of stars sift among each other untouched, too distant even to be moved, heedless as always, hushed. The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried” (89, emphasis added).

When I read "The Death of the Everglades" in Looking for America by nuclear historian Richard Rhodes, I was immediately reminded of Williams' poem. Rhodes writes that "Florida with its imperceptible seaweed tilt is deceptive, a beach itself dropping slowly into the water, a ramp on which the smallest creature may generation by generation crawl out onto the land. We came from the sea by degrees teaching our flesh to wrap the sea inside it. It courses through us every day of our lives . . . We never returned. The fish left the sea and returned, most of them. . . . The shark, with his bitter blood, never left the sea. He is old and well adapted" (56). Not like us: "we've only just got here."

With characteristic philosophic whimsy, StoryPeople artist and writer Brian Andreas captures the same sentiments. Why does the sea seem so familiar? Because all of our days we carry it around inside of us, like a story we used to know:

Place by the Sea
He kept a piece of algae behind his ear to remind him of his roots. A million years ago every place was a little place by the sea, he would say & my mind would go blank & I would swim through the day without a care in the world & it all seemed so familiar that I knew I would go back someday to my own little place by the sea.
Hidden Ocean
She held her grief behind her eyes like an ocean & when she leaned forward into the day it spilled onto the floor & she wiped at it quickly
with her foot & pretended no one had seen.

I remember when the whales had wings, she said. Whatever happened?
I said. It got to be too noisy with all the airplanes & other stuff, so they flew into the ocean & never came back. Some days, she added, I think about going too.

As Williams points out, the dolphin did try living on the surface for awhile before he settled on the sea, and "Some of us / have followed him from time to time." But for the most part, we struggle along, living on the surface, trying to do what's right.

I am not as familiar with this next poem, which Miller Williams wrote for Bill Clinton, as I am with "Living on the Surface," but I include it here for historical context. I know that Williams has been friends with Clinton since the early 70's when Clinton was also teaching at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

Following Robert Frost, who read "The Gift Outright" for John F. Kennedy in 1961, and fellow Arkansan Maya Angelou, who recited a poem for President Clinton in 1993, Williams was the third poet to recite his work at a presidential inauguration. Elizabeth Alexander, reading at the 2009 Inauguration of Barrack Obama was the fourth.

1997 Inaugural Poem by Miller Williams:

Of History and Hope
We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.
But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands -- oh, rarely in a row --
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.
Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become --
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.
All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit -- it isn't there yet --
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

[© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company]

And one last connection:
try listening to this beautiful cover of
"Gentle on my Mind,"
sung by the daughter of Miller Williams,
country rock singer and songwriter,
Lucinda Williams.

Rooms by the Sea, 1951by Edward Hopper, 1882–1967

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, April 28th

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