Remembering Robert Bly – Part Two

American poet Robert Bly (1926-2021). Image courtesy of Haydn Reiss.

KEEPING OUR SMALL BOAT AFLOAT

So many blessings have been given to us
During the first distribution of light, that we are
Admired in a thousand galaxies for our grief.

Don’t expect us to appreciate creation or to
Avoid mistakes. Each of us is a latecomer
To the earth, picking up wood for the fire.

Every night another beam of light slips out
From the oyster’s closed eye. So don’t give up hope
that the door of mercy may still be open.

Seth and Shem, tell me, are you still grieving
Over the spark of light that descended with no
Defender near into the Egypt of Mary’s womb?

It’s hard to grasp how much generosity
Is involved in letting us go on breathing,
When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.

Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many have gone down in the storm.

Robert Bly from Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey, W.W. Norton $ Co., 2011

And the deaths keep coming. Of course. It’s what life brings us. But this poem, this ghazal, by American poet Robert Bly, who died on November 21st , reminds me that my small boat is still afloat even though it feels lower in the water with many deaths this November of valued writers and poets including Robert. I am thinking of Phyllis Webb, Lee Maracle, Etel Adnan and Stephen Sondheim. (For my first response to the news of Robert’s death please click here.)

In light of these deaths is it any wonder I keep coming back to these lines in Robert’s poem above. How challenging and provocative they are!

It’s hard to grasp how much generosity
Is involved in letting us go on breathing,
When we contribute nothing valuable but our grief.

But if Robert is right that what is most valuable about us humans is our grief then I am living that value not only from the deaths of beloved poets but from the grief-shadow thrown by Covid-19. So many losses. And yet this poem that so honours grief – that emotion that so honours life – makes me feel so grateful to be alive. To be here afloat in my small boat.

And in Robert’s poem I hear echoes from the well-known Fisherman’s Prayer:   Dear Lord, be good to me./ The sea is so wide/ and my boat so small.

That sea seems particularly wide these days. And when I think of my small boat and the poem’s title, Keeping Our Small Boat Afloat, I wonder about a deeper meaning here. At its simplest the small boat is our life. And there are limits as to how we can prevent it from going down!

But what if the small boat Robert refers to could also be our inner life, our spiritual life?  Is the title saying more? Is it saying that this poem can be a way of keeping us afloat in our spirit? This naming and honouring of grief. This not giving up in spite of life’s deaths and losses. I wonder about this as I keep coming back to the provocative last stanza:

Each of us deserves to be forgiven, if only for
Our persistence in keeping our small boat afloat
When so many have gone down in the storm.

The surprise here of us deserving to be forgiven because we have stayed afloat! Especially, When so many have gone down in the storm. For me, I can say this poem and Robert’s life in poetry have kept me buoyant in the smaller storms, the ones that are the stuff of life. And I hope that the aliveness that comes to me when I allow myself to feel my griefs, when I allow myself to fully feel my joys, will be of comfort when the storm I can do nothing about, takes me down. Until then, my thanks again for poetry and poets like Robert who celebrate this mystery of living, here on planet earth!

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