Poetry As A Spiritual Practice – Shadowed By Fear

What a great adventure I had for almost 5 months from August to December 2011 when I took Peggy Rosenthal’s on-line course sponsored by Image journal – Poetry as a Spiritual Practice. Here below is my response to her assignment  Poems of Loss, Absence, Darkness, and Doubt.

The Chandelier

Now, I see you. Now I don’t.
Did I ever see you? Now,
that would be a joke. Or did I
just make you up in a loss
for words for beauty, its mystery
something past what I knew
I knew and called it you?
Or when at loss
for the words
for loss did I walk, haunted,
into that hollowed room-
hoping to find you, not more
to lose, but when all I saw
was brief sparks from crystal
shattered on that marble floor
and dropped down in the shattered pieces
to kneel and hope and pray
it was you there scattered
among the broken glass
and bloody cuts did I, then
and only then, look up
and see the light, and blinded,
call it you?

Is God truly with us in our joys and sorrows? Where is God inside our suffering? Is our suffering a form of fierce grace that brings us to our truest knowing of God? These are unanswerable except by faith. My sufferings have most often brought me to a place of peace and acceptance. In faith, I attribute them purpose.

But my own poem first written days ago to help me explore these questions has instead revealed my enduring fears that one day my suffering will be without redemption or purpose. The metaphor and mystery of the broken crystal from a chandelier refuses to be easily understood. In the difficulties it  presents I hear an echo of Mark Jarman in his essay published in the spring 2007 issue of The Southern Review: One of the beauties of metaphor is its promise of putting a fragmented self back together. One of its dynamic and exciting issues is the way that promise isn’t kept.

When, in my poem, I walk inside the room built by loss and see shattered shards of crystal what do they represent? And when light plays among the shards do I confuse those brief illuminations as God there among the ruins? And as I kneel and pray in that false light does my suffering increase (bloody cuts) and only then, as I look away from the suffering, do I become blinded by the ultimate source of light? If there is hope that blindness suggests a transcendent way of seeing, what is not apparent in normal looking, the poem does not spell it out.

My experience with this poem echoes Hirschfield’s quote: When I write I don’t know what is going to emerge…. A word appears, another word appears, an image. It is a moving into mystery. These words are made even more important by the following Hirschfield words quoted by Rosenthal: Part of poetry’s core activity, both within the individual and within a culture, it to attend to and make visible what Jung called the shadow life.

The metaphor that wrote itself into my poem seems to expose a shadow side, my fear that life has no meaning and no divine purpose; that we make up God to explain what we can’t understand. And worse what we confuse with God can cause even more suffering (bloody knees) But then , where the metaphor appears to break down, the shattered crystal forces the narrator to look up and see where the crystal came from – that blinding light.

The poem seems to suggest that hidden within suffering, even within a sense of God’s absence (glass that cuts and does not illuminate) there is a light to move us from the dark of suffering. But even in this the poem adds further mystery when the narrator is blinded and still ends the poem with an ambiguous question:

did I, then
and only then, look up
and see the light, and blinded,
                               call it you?

The poem at its end offers no sweet bromide. Instead it casts light on my shadow, my fear that God’s absence is his or her absence and not as in R.S. Thomas’s poems proof of his or her existence. As he writes in The Absence:

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter
from which someone has just gone.

But in a strange coincidence, as I write outside my poem, I am comforted by Thomas when I realize that without being consciously aware of his image of a room my own poem contained the same image. But what my poem does not contain is another image  I deleted through revision:

Or when at loss
                         for words
for loss, unspeakable, unreachable,
fully dreadful, did I imagine grief
like the door knocker I saw
once in Italy or Greece,
a twisted grimace, almost a sneer,
on the polished gnomic face
compelling and repelling me

Why did I remove this unsettling and dare I say demonic image? It resonates for me as a Jungian shadow image. It is fearful and scared me. But it led me to the room inside my poem. I knocked and entered. I didn’t want to.

I removed the frightening door knocker  because it was the room that seemed important not the fearful object that repelled me but also compelled me to enter. It reminds me of the gargoyles and other misshapen figures carved around or near the entrances to gothic cathedrals. They are not what is important but it is necessary to pass beneath them and enter in.

Now here is a poem of Gregory Orr’s to further deepen and enlarge the mystery:

Some say you’re lucky
If nothing shatters it.

But then you wouldn’t
Understand poems or songs,
You’d never know
Beauty comes from loss.

It’s deep inside Every person:
A tear tinier
Than a pearl or thorn.
It’s one of the places
Where the beloved is born.

Ah, here is wisdom from a man so tragically familiar with crippling loss. When he was twelve years old Orr was responsible for the death of his brother in a hunting accident. Orr’s beloved is an enigmatic presence in his last two books. Not necessarily synonymous with God but in aspects seems to fit the bill! Orr’s poem reminds me  that Beauty comes from loss and even more that loss is Where the beloved is born.

Many years ago I was confronted by this quote attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky: “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

As I searched on the net to confirm the quote’s attributions I could only find a reference to it in Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. Regardless of the source, the quote is arresting. Suddenly there is a reversal. Any sense of victimization is gone. Instead there is a mysterious sense of being empowered by suffering. I was reminded of this strange reversal through two poems.

The Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy (1910-2006) suffered in a Communist concentration camp after the Second World War. He fled the country in 1956 and lived in Canada for twenty years before returning to Hungary in the late 1980’s. Here is a fragment from his longer poem about his concentration camp experiences called Farewell to Recsk as translated by Paul Sohar:

The suffering. I’d had it coming to me for quite a while.
Had I not surrendered to it, I’d still be an unsated hedonist.
Some were guzzling its cold stream like spring water,
some turned into zombies while others couldn’t stop their wails.
Now I’m ashamed to say it was easier for me, all my pains
and troubles were numbed when I wove them into poetry.


And what is the best part of the lesson?
While erotic desires slowly
abandoned my plundered body
love remained its steady resident.

How easy to replace love with God and feel even more comfort from this poem. The second poem comes from Rainer Maria Rilke ( 1875-1926). This small poem, part of Rilke’s uncollected poems, was translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Lieberman.

Long you must suffer, not knowing what,
until suddenly, from a piece of fruit hatefully bitten,
the taste of the suffering enters you.
And then you already almost love what you savour. No one
will talk it out of you again.

These poems so comfort me, adjure me that there is meaning in my suffering. And as Orr says, it is where the beloved is born. My own poem is more enigmatic and shouts my fear to the heavens. And in this I get to know myself better. And reveal to God what he or she  already knows.

My spiritual challenge, revealed by the assignment, is to challenge my fear of suffering, and greater fear, that there is no God. I have already, through the death of two marriages found unbelievable grace and blessings. Now on the eve of a third marriage, which came out of much suffering, I am suddenly, and thankfully, more aware of this shadow: my fear of more suffering and absence of God in spite of all the evidence of God’s blessings in my life.

Fear or no fear I must continue to write and sing; to be grateful for my poems to dare me to new understandings. And this recent poem makes it clear what I must do:

Sounds grow and stretch my ears
this morning. I become a thinned-out string.
The beloved overshadows me, hovering.
Dare I refuse, full of fear, to sing?