Home to the Ever-House
By Susan Lloyd McGarry
Home thou’rt going tonight to the winter ever-house,
The autumn, summer, and springtide ever-house. . . .
—”An Cronan Bais”
I smoothed back my father’s hair and murmured the words of this Celtic croon as I brushed my hand down his arm, feeling the warmth still in his body, feeling the warmth as my sister and brother gathered round. “Sleep of seven virtues on thee, sleep of seven moons on thee.” I had raced to the emergency room of the hospital, but arrived a few moments too late. We were allowed to go back to the tiled room where his pale body lay, draped in white sheets. He could have been sleeping. “Softly sleep, softly sleep, free from woe.” This was my lullaby for him. It let me feel the gravity of his death, yet its rhythm also helped me to go on.
Many Octobers ago, I took a break from the conference I was attending and rested against a tree in the golden shadows of the afternoon. In the fifth month of chemo and radiation, I needed a lot of rests. I opened the book Cries of the Spirit, from which I was reading a poem a day, using that practice almost as the kind of divination Kazim Ali mentions in the first dialogue of this issue. My book opened that day to “October” by Audre Lorde: “Do not let me pass away / before I have a name / for this tree / under which I am lying.” My spine tingled, not from weakness or leftover nausea: This was my life at this moment. Lorde, then dying of breast cancer, called to the African goddess Seboulisa, and in that call had written my hopes and dreams and fears.
These stories speak to the power of poetry in our spiritual lives. Poetry holds together many contradictory possibilities at the same time: of opening us to one another, of comfort, of transcendence, of grounding us, of troubling us in the sense of gospel songs. This issue of the Bulletin focuses on poetry in the widest sense. Each of the poems in this issue could be considered a prayer, an expression reaching toward the infinite or the precious finite. Poetry allows space and silence; it allows for mystery, for not knowing. It allows different (sometimes opposing) choices to stay in tension together, glimmering like the luminescent web on the cover.
These poems are full of longing and of listening, of the breath, of the signs and actualities of the world, of the three knowledges in Jane Hirshfield’s first poem: “incomprehension, sweetened distance, longing.” She goes on to ask: “When the body goes, where will they go, . . . voices of the ones I loved?” To the ninth-century Tamil poet Shatakopan, the god is “life in the body, hidden and pervasive, . . . in the luminous scriptures.” Bodies and our mortality thread through this issue, nowhere more so than in Christian Wiman’s essay. He finds sorrow and loss “so woven through us, so much a part of our souls, . . . that every experience is dyed with its color.” Robert Desjarlais’s essay on the preparations before and after death among the Yolmo people of Nepal reminded me of my father’s death and gave me language for that experience, particularly with his naming of “compassionate accompaniment” and “alternate rhythms” to hold alongside death.
One of the pleasures of working on this issue has been to see the unplanned resonances among the pieces. Reading of the modern-day Via Dolorosa and a contemporary writer’s dilemma with the cross in Ali’s dialogue enriched the visceral rhythms of Timothy Richardson’s “Stations of the Cross” for me. These two pieces also added to my reading of la corona de espina, the plant known as the crown of thorns, in Catherine Hammond’s translation of García Valdés. Rafael Campo’s last line, “forgiveness, not impossible, but hard,” seems the same place to which Naomi Shihab Nye leads us in her poem “It’s Good to Sit Down with a Racist Every Now and Then.” I winced at Nye’s opening lines, fearing that she was taking us into the easy territory of mockery, but she takes us further, to a place of possibility. Her poem moves toward the prophetic voice in poetry, which is well represented in the dialogues: with Steven Caton on Yemeni poets and the Arab spring; Marilyn Sewell remembering the revolutionary quality of women’s poetry in the 1960s and how it showed (and shows) us “where we as a culture have gone astray spiritually”; and Claudia Highbaugh reminding us that the “poet also seizes our frustration to make a noise against evil.”
Poems are efforts to translate experience and knowledge. Can you listen for what the words point to? As in Jennifer Barber’s “nefesh,” “the place in the windpipe where breathing grows visible,” or Pamela Greenberg’s piece on translating the Psalms, “a paradigm for holy speech, a poetry of gratitude and longing.” Li-Young Lee invites us to hear the rain at the sill, Elizabeth Robinson the whispers in John Muir’s ears, Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell how winter “bares its broken teeth.”
The themes of silence, mystery, and mortality continue in Charles Stang’s essay on Anne Carson’s Nox, as he reminds us that “mute” and “mystery” have the same Greek root. Stephanie Paulsell’s review of Patti Smith’s Just Kids inspired our cover: composing childhood prayers was Smith’s entry “into the radiance of the imagination.” Yet even that radiance does not dispel the silence of the death of her friend, “a silence that would take a lifetime to express.”
In his appreciation of Lucille Clifton, Major Jackson explains that Clifton saw writing “as an act of overcoming hardships and a spiritual means by which to hone the self.” In discussing Susan Howe’s That This, Amy Hollywood asks: “What does it mean to read devoutly, religiously, mystically, without hearing God?’ Clifton and Hollywood are talking about writing and reading as spiritual practices. As you read this issue of the Bulletin, in the silence between words, lines, stanzas, may you reap some of the fruits of those practices, experiencing intimations not only of mortality, but of the mysteries that accompany it.
Susan Lloyd McGarry is an editor of the Bulletin.