Kim Rosen

by Kim RosenMay 24, 2020 9:25 PM

Of Meaning and Mystery: The Language of the Unknown

You are not here to verify,
I
nstruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.  

~T.S. Eliot, from “Little Gidding”

There is a tsunami of visionary poems and blogs showing up in my inbox these days. Many brilliant thought leaders and poets are offering contexts for understanding and gaining value from what we’re experiencing in this extraordinary moment in human history when, as of this writing, most of the world is in “shutdown” due to the global pandemic of COVID-19. Some offer visions of how we can capitalize on this time to fulfill a mission or foster a transformation. Others look into the past and suggest cause. Or its dark cousin, blame. Some look into the future and offer meaning and mission in terms of what we are being called to – be it personally, interpersonally, spiritually or globally. The options of how to understand, contextualize and integrate this moment in history are multitudinous.  

A poem by Lynn Ungar suggests, “What if you thought of it / as the Jews consider the Sabbath– / the most sacred of times?”.  Another, “The Last Call” by Mary Lou Edwards, speaks in the voice of Mother Nature, berating us: “Everyone stays in his room until I say it’s over. Never forget that Mother Nature makes the rules and I cannot be bullied.” In a poem entitled “An Imagined Letter from COVID-19 for Humans”, Kristin Flyntz, gives a clear list of instructions: “Stop. Just stop. / It is no longer a request. It is a mandate.”

However, the poems I hold close in this time do not give instructions. They offer not answers, but compelling portals into a more intimate mystery than can fit into any position, plan, solution or roadmap. They divest me of my positions, my cherished nuggets of knowing, my certainty. These are the poems that cause the hairs on my arms to stand up or the tears to burst through my habitual defenses. I emerge from them understanding less, yet somehow more intimate with a direct experience of knowing that does not emerge from thought. Thoreau said, “The soul grows by subtraction, not addition.”

So, into the mix of visions, missions, plans and meanings emerging from this disruption in our lives, I want to add another possibility. What if, even for a day, we release knowing? What if we drop the project of understanding, conquering or finding meaning and purpose in this situation we are in? What if, even for an afternoon, we let go of the possibility of making sure the hours, days, weeks of the global shutdown(s) add up to something “valuable”? Who am I when I stop working to change myself and/or the world? What is here, right now?

The poet Neruda writes,

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness … 

Even without a pandemic and global shutdown, I am always carrying a dose of self-suspicion in my medicine bag to help me discern whether what I know, believe or opine is a subtle support for maintaining an idealized sense of self that I unconsciously cling to. I am no stranger to my ego’s hunger to perceive meaning and direction as a way of unconsciously giving value (or lack of value) to my life, and, deeper, as a way of staving off what I fear lurks behind the strivings of my life. “Your old life,” the poet Rumi writes, “was a frantic running from silence.”

One of the poems I’m continuously thinking about in this era of COVID-19, is a little known poem by Mary Oliver, called “Shadows”. She begins, “Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast / terrible shadows…” Images of natural disasters ensue: 

Cyclone, fire, and their merry cousins
bring us to grief—but these are the hours
with the old wooden-god faces

we lift them to our shoulders like so many
black coffins, we continue walking
into the future…

I learned this poem by heart years ago and, to be honest, never understood the line about the god faces. I still can’t say I understand it, but in the awe and humbling that has arrived through COVID-19, I think I know the feeling of looking into the huge carved face of an ancient god blackened by generations of worship, a face as huge as a coffin, a face that has no answers but in whose presence one is swallowed into an undeniable magnitude of mystery. I begin to taste the experience of living, as many indigenous peoples have always lived, from a ground of being that is mystery itself; that would never presume to understand or analyze or blame or predict or control the unfolding of life as it comes. As T. S. Eliot writes in the epigraph to this blog, “You are not here to verify, / instruct yourself or inform curiosity / or carry report. You are here to kneel / where prayer has been valid.”

We turn to poetry to speak the unspeakable; to touch the unknowable. Prose is about information, about what we know or learn through following the words down the page; poetry, as W. S. Merwin says, “comes from the unknown and there’s always an element of the unknown in it.” It is a way to invoke the direct experience of what cannot be known or learned, what will never fit into a human mind or arise from it. Poetry is a way of being with the unsolved, without succumbing to the perhaps hardwired human proclivity to figure it out, find a place to stand, take a position, find a meaning.

A wise friend once said, “Intimacy is going into the unknown together. Poetry is the language of the unknown.” Isn’t it true that the intimacy of a sexual encounter or an excellent conversation or a line in a poem that startles you open to yourself occurs only in moments when you find yourself in uncharted territory? Did you ever have a fantastic romantic encounter that followed a preordained plan? In the zone of the unknown we are naked to ourselves, each other and whatever is within or around us.

It was in a moment of that potent intimacy that my utterly unexpected relationship with the young women and girls of the V-Day Safe House in Narok, Kenya was ignited. On my first visit, I was surrounded by girls who, at the age of eight or 12 or 14, had fled their families, villages, and everything they’d ever known to escape Female Genital Mutilation and Early Childhood Marriage. Dumbfounded as to how to connect with them, I recited a poem, “The Journey” by Mary Oliver. By the end of the poem, many of the girls were in tears of self-recognition, and so was I. The final lines of the poem resonated in the air:

…you strode deeper and deeper 

into the world

determined to do 

the only thing 

you could do

determined to save 

the only life you could save.

“Who is this woman, Mary Oliver,” a tall girl named Jacinta asked. “Is she Maasai?”

“No,” my voice shook. “Mzungu. White woman. Like me.”

“How did she know?”

Jacinta’s question has echoed through the thirteen years between that moment and this. She taught me that in the raw vulnerability that can arise through the medicine of a poem, we are divested of position, theory or plan, we meet as one. We meet: Jacinta, a Maasai teenager who grew up in a mud hut with nine siblings, who got her first pair of shoes in fourth grade, who walked four hours up and down steep ravines to carry water from the stream, and me who grew up in an expensive suburb with a pony and a college education paid for by my parents. However different our lives, cultures, religions, geographies, and behaviors, without our attachment to position or knowing, we meet in the fragility of our humanness and the vastness of our Beingness at once, as one.

If I have a vision to offer at this threshold of history, it is perhaps, with Thoreau, the possibility that in the face of the unknowns that surround us we are stripped of our knowing, meaning and mission; that we may meet ourselves, each other, and life itself in the naked intimacy of our vulnerability and our vastness.

*****

Shadows

by Mary Oliver

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.
And meanwhile
the gold-trimmed thunder
wanders the sky; the river
may be filling the cellars of the sleeping town.
Cyclone, fire, and their merry cousins
bring us to grief—but these are the hours
with the old wooden-god faces;
we lift them to our shoulders like so many
black coffins, we continue walking
into the future. I don’t mean
there are no bodies in the river,
or bones broken by the wind. I mean
everyone who has heard the lethal train-roar
of the tornado swears there was no mention ever
of any person, or reason—I mean
the waters rise without any plot upon
history, or even geography. Whatever
power of the earth rampages, we turn to it
dazed but anonymous eyes; whatever
the name of the catastrophe, it is never
the opposite of love.

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