The Cost of Refusal – A Poem by Robert Bly (and another by Rilke)

Man in a Long Black Coat: acrylic on board, by Boss, 2013

Man in a Long Black Coat: acrylic on board, by Boss, 2013

What does refusal look like? Refusal to look at our shadow side, our rejected aspects, good and bad; and/or refusal to live on the borderlands of our lives, and past them, into our greatest fullness?  American poet Robert Bly (1926 – )  symbolizes this or these refusals, strikingly in this poem:

And the toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust...
The man in the black coat turns, and goes back down the
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away, and
 did not climb the hill.

Robert Bly from Snowbanks North of the House,  in Selected Poems, Harper & Row, 1986

This image has haunted me for more than thirty years; this shocking picture in Bly’s poem, Snowbanks North of the House,  of what I see as a powerful creative life-giving force in the form of a man in the black coat. Why did the man in the black coat turn? Who is he?  And it makes me wonder: has he turned from my house? Your house? And if so,  if we are brave enough, how do we invite him back?

Here, in full, is Bly’s poem:

Snowbanks North of the House

Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet
      from the house.....
Thoughts that go so far.
The boy gets out of high school and reads no more books;
the son stops calling home.
The mother puts down her rolling pin and makes no more
And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party
      and loves him no more.
The energy leaves the wine, and the minister falls leaving
      the church.
It will not come closer –
the one inside moves back, and the hands touch nothing,
And are safe.

And the father grieves for his son, and will not leave the
       room where the coffin stands;
he turns away from his wife, and she sleeps alone.

And the sea lifts and falls all night; the moon goes on
       through the attached heavens alone.
And the toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust...
The man in the black coat turns, and goes back down the
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away, and
      did not climb the hill.

Robert Bly from Selected Poems, Harper & Row, 1986

If ever there was a poem that captures a tragic “stuckness” in a life, this one does. And it does with the simplest of images yet some images that so constructively confuse and disorient me.

That first image of a snowbank stopped in front of a house. Doesn’t that mean the house and its occupants are safe? As we read the poem the  answer becomes a no. The stopped snowbanks become a symbol of refusal, of missing the storm, of not being engulfed in something large and powerful; scary, too, perhaps!

If I find the image of the  snowbank disorienting, at least, at first, what do I make of
the image of the man in the black coat? Especially if he is an image of something positive. The key to understanding the image, I think, is the concept of the human shadow as defined by Carl Jung (1865-1961), the Swiss psycho-analyst..

Bly talks about the shadow, those rejected qualities in ourselves, in his book A Little Book on the Human Shadow. He claims these rejected aspects never leave us, we drag them in a bag behind us. Yikes!

Bly outlines five stages of what he calls exiling, hunting and retrieving the shadow . He says that Snowbanks North of the House captures a mood of the fifth stage of retrieving the shadow or as he calls it: eating the shadow. With that eating can come sorrow and melancholy, he says, which he sees inside his poem. But it is eating this difficult meal that he claims is “an opening to the spirit.

What so strikes me in the image of the man in the black coat is that on the surface this conjures  a scary image. A threatening man. Why do anything to welcome him to your house? That’s the point, Bly makes for me here. Sometimes it is a disruptive forboding element we must invite in. And who knows, once inside, what if the man throws off his coat and dances with you, even knocking some pictures off the wall?

It is no coincidence that Snowbanks North of the House, included in the book, The Man in the Black Coats Turns, is a poem soaked in darkness. Here is what Bly says about these poems:

I wanted the poems in The Man in the Black Coat Turns to rise out of some darkness beneath us, as when the the old Norse poets fished with an ox head as bait in the ocean. We know that the poem will break water only for a moment before it sinks again, but just seeing it rise beneath the boat is enough pleasure for one day; and to know that a large thing lives down there puts us in a calm mood, lets us endure our deprived lives with more grace.”

I owe much to Robert Bly. He’s the man who brought me back to poetry before I knew it had happened. I think of this poet, this man, as priest, gadfly, activist shit-disturber,  and mystic. When I conjure him out of memory his white hair sits uneasy on his head, his hands windmill air into words that seem at the same time, to plunge down deep or climb up from a deep abyss. His quest it seems: a deep disorientation that can give us back our selves and our lives.

But it isn’t just me who owes much to Robert Bly. The world of poetry owes him. Bly was one of the first English-speaking poets who were instrumental in translating international poets into a robust contemporary English. He was an early translator of Tomas Transtromer and encouraged Coleman Barks to translate Rumi!

In his poem Snowbanks North of the House I hear noisy echoes of a poem by the German master poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a poet Bly admires; his translations of Rilke can be found in Selected Poems of Rainer Marie Rilke published in 1981.

Here’s the Rilke poem translated by Bly:

Sometimes a Man Stands Up

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

Rainer Maria Rilke from The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly, Harper & Row, 1981

Do you hear the echoes of this poem in Bly’s? Yes the poems are crafted differently but for me the loss that lies like a felled tree inside Rilke’s third stanza lies across most of Bly’s poem.

Oh God, something in me cries. Have I forgotten my church and locked my spirit inside seeming safety? By not facing by rejected aspects am I forcing my children to find them for me?

But Bly reminds me this refusal to acknowledge our shadows also can have horrific national consequences.  This seems frighteningly apt when looking at the political shenanigans happening down south in the US in the Republication primaries and caucuses. It might seem funny if it wasn’t so damn scary. Because of this: what Bly says:

One of the things we have to do as Americans is to work hard individually at eating our shadows, and so make sure we’re not releasing energy which can then be picked up by our politicians, who can use it against Russia, China or the South American countries.

Robert Bly from Chapter Three, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Harper& Row, 1988

(This blog post is dedicated to the addicts and their family members and loved ones  I have had the privilege of working with at The Cedars, the residential addiction recovery center where I lead poetry writing workshops at least twice a week; and especially to the work they do facing their individual and family shadows with such courage. And in particular, with thanks, to the couple Rachel and Richard (not their real names) whom I  chatted with at The Cedars 10th anniversary celebration on March 19th, 2016. They both have participated in the week-long  Cedars’ Discovery program for loved ones of addicts which includes two poetry workshop sessions. Richard’s comments to me about the the unexpected doors to self awareness (not always comfortable) that poetry opens inside them was the particular trigger that inspired me to share these two favorite poems of mine by Bly and Rilke. Thank you Rachel and Richard.)


  1. Linda Crosfield
    Posted March 20, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Well, thank you, Rachel and Richard, from me, too. That first Bly poem…is staying with me. And seeing the one he obviously responded to just confirms, to me, the uber-conversational nature of poetry. Thanks, as well, to Real Richard, for “the loss that lies like a felled tree” which I’m about to borrow, I think.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted March 20, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Linda: I loved the reference to Richard and Rachel! Wondered who you were referring to until I figured out you were talking about my two workshop participants I called Richard and Rachel! So happy to hear from you! Would love to come with Heidi in the fall to give readings from our Fall books. If there is a venue and time we could do this please let us know. We could supply publicity posters I am sure!

  3. Barbara Black
    Posted March 20, 2016 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, Richard, for a timely post for both me personally, and for the larger national and international political landscape. Your insights into the shadow side–both neglecting it and acknowledging it–are movingly illustrated in the Bly and Rilke examples. Perfect reading for a still, grey day.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted March 20, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Have loved keeping up with you via facebook but I must admit in recent weeks have not checked in much. Are you still back east? SO glad you like the Bly post. I so appreciate the conversation when people comment! Thank you. My friend Laurens van der Post a friend of Jung’s always talked about our need as individuals to quell the wars inside us before they become the wars outside us. When we project our demons on the “other” watch out. I feel this is happening in the US. The other being Muslims and Mexicans! So glad you enjoyed this on a gray day. Gray here, as well, in Duncan after four or five dry sunny days! Yahoo!

  5. Posted March 20, 2016 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    We have just had a conversation, you and I. I have been mulling this over all day. I will email you.

  6. Richard Osler
    Posted March 20, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Susan: So glad to be inconversation. I look forward to your email! What we project on others! Yikes! Best, Richard. How are the classes going?

  7. Marcus
    Posted March 21, 2016 at 4:54 am | Permalink

    … Or am I that man in the black coat?

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *