"…like chords of deep music"

I met a man named Karl Knobler at Deb Fink’s party for the closing of Dead Mother, the recent TJT production I was in. Karl’s a psychologist, about my age, and we immediately began the kind of allusive conversation full of digressions and surprising sudden turns that feels very similar to Jazz. The kind of conversation I take delight in.

As we jumped between a few dozen topics, Karl mentioned the idea of “Affective regulation” (see the work of Dr. Allan Schore, www.allanschore.com) To explain the concept, Karl told me how women, whether they have had children or not, will exhibit dilation of the pupils when hearing a baby cry. Men’s pupils do not dilate under those circumstances unless they have already become fathers.

Reflecting on this later, I was reminded of some lines from a poem by Rilke: “…that harsh hand / that kneaded him as if to change his shape.” (Robert Bly, Tr.) and thought about the ways we are worked upon by the aggregate of experience, time, the natural world, the stories we live until we become utterly transformed.

I remember a moment in Australia, thirteen years ago. I had just come out of the ocean. I’d been swimming for a long time at Bondi Beach, even body surfing a little. When I got out of the water I could still feel the energy of the waves surging inside my body. And I imagined myself as having been reshaped by the water. Could this be the “purpose” of a life: to be transformed – cooked, in a sense, ripened – into something nourishing for some larger being?

Usually, when I think about creativity, I’m the creator. But these notions of being changed on a neuro-cellular level by life, reverse the field. I’m the raw matter, we all are – being sculpted, carved, tuned, plucked, dissolved and reconstituted in new forms.

I welcome another path away from seeing the “Artist” as some isolated, unique, solitary, almost hermetic figure; a controlling, masterful, domineering archetype which the world can maybe do without for a while. Perhaps it was in recognition of being altered by powerful forces that the first “art” emerged in the world. In expressing our creativity we are continuing a dance with Big Life, simultaneously tasting our power and our humility, harmonizing our unique voice with the great chorale.

One more memory. 1987. The Cevennes, hill country of Southern France. My wife has just departed for Poland, where she will join nearly a million Poles on a pilgrimage to the Black Madonna at Czestochowa, the patron of Poland and symbol of the Solidarity movement. I’m staying on in the Cevennes to continue a very arduous kind of voice work led by a members of the Roy Hart Theatre, a compelling and eccentric theatre company based in a chateau in the region. I spend 5-6 mornings each week in a studio there and, after lunch, ramble around the rivers, streams and gullies of the Cevennes, seeking rumored swimming holes and stumbling over vestiges of old dry stone walls that had been assembled with precision and love in another time. One hot, bright afternoon after finding a perfect swimming hole, big enough to stoke across, deep enough to kick down into numbingly cold water, after hours in and out of the sweet clear water, after drying myself for the last time on a granite slab, I walked back to the village where I was staying in blissful exhaustion, letting my voice roam free, wordlessly singling melodies I’d never heard before. As I walked, my voice opened in all directions and suddenly a sound clearer and richer than I’d ever heard come from my body rang out and at that very moment, a large bright-green lizard, shot into view onto the bone-white stucco wall of a house. In the logical magic of the time and place, I had no doubt the sounds that had been coming out of me had conjured or summoned the Lizard. Its color and my sound were identical.

The Man Watching

by Rainer Maria Rilke (Tr. Robert Bly)

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings

In the current issue of my newsletter, Musing on the Muse, I suggest the following as a response to the idea of “being created” that I explore in a much shorter version of the above writing;

Do a ten minute timed writing experiment. Alternate beginning each sentence with “Once I was….” and “Now I am…” Complete each sentence as you go, writing as quickly as you can, not allowing your hand to ever stop moving on the page until the 10 minutes is up. Let go of any need to “make sense.”

Here’s what happened when I tried it myself:

Once I was sap

Now I am crystallized honey at the bottom of the jar

Once I was heaven

Now I am a water logged plank

Once I was golden tumbling

Now I am reddened patience

Once I was hungry all day

Now I feed wolves

Once I dreamed of a blazing touch

Now I dream of maps

Once I remembered all their names, the color of their thighs and the songs they sang

Now the glue is dried out and the photos have fallen from the album

Once I ran along the shore until the sun was gone

Now I am wrapped in blankets

Once I bit cords of silk

Now I sew dishrags

Once I barked in confusion, circling the city

Now I know how to breathe

Once I slept on the moonlit roof

Now I give my body to the water.

4 thoughts on “"…like chords of deep music"

  1. Last night I saw the movie “August Rush.” It beautifully illustrates calling out to the universe and hearing the response–the Lizard.I think that the beauty of blogging and all the social networking available on the internet today brings the Artist out of the solitary space and into the co-creation space. I recently found the work of a poet, teacher and philosopher as I followed a series of links on the internet. He was John O’Donohue and might have modeled the fluidity of movement between the solo private space and the interactive, co-creating space. Sadly, he just died. Please visit his website at http://www.jodonohue.com/Here is a blessing from his recent book “To Bless the Space Between Us.”————-For the Artist at the Start of the DayMay morning be astir with the harvest of night;Your mind quickening to the eros of a new question,Your eyes seduced by some unintended glimpseThat cut right through the surface to a source.May this be a morning of innocent beginning,When the gift within you slips clearOf the sticky web of the personalWith its hurt and its hauntings,And fixed fortress corners,A morning when you become a pure vesselFor what wants to ascent from silence,May your imagination knowThe grace of perfect danger,To reach beyond imitation,And the wheel of repetition,Deep into the call of allThe unfinished and unsolvedUntil the veil of the unknown yieldsAnd something original beginsTo stir toward your sensesAnd grow stronger in your heartIn order to come to birthIn a clean line of form,A rhythm not yet heard,That calls space toA different shape.May it be its own force fieldAnd dwell uniquelyBetween the heart and the lightTo surprise the hungry eyeBy how deftly it fitsAbout its secret loss.—————–And here is my contribution to “Once I Was…”Once I was stubborn, riding with my fearNow I am in overdrive looking for the right exitOnce I was an innocent believing in happy ever afterNow I find happiness under rocks, beside dying friends, in the sudden smile hidden in the eyes of my wifeOnce I was afraid of older menNow I stare, mesmerized by the choice they make to pull pants over a burgeoning belly or hang below with cuffs dragging on the ground like their teenage daughterOnce I was a golden leafNow I am a footprint

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughts and poems — especially your own!I agree completely about the potential of blogs and networks for co-creation and community. My next newsletter will touch on the related idea of the “commons.” I will look for O’Donohue’s site.

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