Jnana's Red Barn

A Space for Work and Reflection

Category: What’s New

FROM QUAINT TO THE FRAY

When the Quaker movement emerged amid the turmoil of the English Civil Wars, its followers relied on three powerful, interlocking concepts – the Light, the Truth, and the Seed. While the blasphemy laws of the time precluded an open examination of the full implications of their experience, the early Quakers left enough evidence to allow contemporary spiritual seekers to recover the revolutionary scope of their vision, in thought and daily life. There’s nothing quaint in this view of Quaker life and action. What unfolds is likely to startle not only their spiritual heirs but also Christians and non-Christians of many different belief systems alike. Along the way come confrontations and stimulation to deepen individual and community faith and practice.

To draw from Zen teaching – Right Thought (or teaching) leads to Right Practice (or action) leads to Right Wisdom – I see the insights of my book Religion Turned Upside Down as vital to addressing the vast challenges facing humanity. Period.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down

Religion Turned Upside Down

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

RENEWED FAITH IN THE FUTURE

Unlike my usual Quaker Practice postings here on the Red Barn, my newest book probes into the underlying theology that made the Society of Friends an alternative Christianity – one without priests or clergy, creeds and dogma, ritual or liturgy but shaped lives based in faithful simplicity, equality, peace, and pursuit of justice.

In Religion Turned Upside Down, metaphor, not law, is the foundation of spiritual expression and religious practice. As metaphors, when the central images of the Light, Seed, and Truth – in both the New Testament and early Quaker writings – are embraced as verbs rather than static nouns, a radical realignment occurs.

While conventional religion finds itself more and more relegated to the sidelines of Western society, what appears within the reconstructed Quaker paradigm – one that could not be voiced fully under the prohibitions of the blasphemy acts – now aligns with new insights from the frontier of intellectual discovery. Crucially, it provides support for alternatives to the great threats to human existence as well – environmental, nuclear, military, economic, political, social, racial.

It’s a basis for hope and action rather than despair.

~*~

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

SHAKEN AND STIRRED

Read closely, the Bible itself critiques conventional religion, including Christianity. The arguments in my new release, Religion Turned Upside Down, build on these, especially as they shape the early Quaker movement as it arises in a period in English history known as “the world turned upside down.” What emerges is a continuing outline for a revolutionary alternative Christianity that springs from the interlocking spiritual metaphors of Light, Seed, and Truth, which frequently appear in both the New Testament and early Quaker writings.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down

Religion Turned Upside Down

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

OUT OF A WHIRLWIND IN A GUST OF PASSION

Composing my Braided Double-Cross collection marked a turning point, one that came as I was getting my feet back on the ground as a poet after getting sidetracked into the demands at a shirt-sleeves management level and later focusing on novel-length fiction. Up to this point, my poems and, for that matter, much of my fiction focused on place – the outdoors, especially.

Personally, recovering from the collapse of a marriage and what I thought was better tomorrow on the horizon, I hunkered down back in the ranks of my career rather than trying to climb the proverbial ladder. I needed to catch my breath and nurse my wounds. This included a deep review of my life, the nature of relationships, the meanings of being male, connecting in contemporary society – and somehow, that all came into play when I came across an announcement for a book-length poetry competition by a university press. In some flash of intuition, I decided to do a 60-page collection based on notes I’d been gathering. Two weeks later, I was exhausted – but the draft was done.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done a poetry manuscript based on a focused theme. My American Olympus, conceived as a longpoem, had earlier tackled the Olympic Peninsula. But this was the first time I chose to work with individual poems of a general length and style, and it was a leap into love, not in the traditional vein but of a more brutal, realistic take on today’s interactions.

While I had already drafted a novel that would break out into Promise, Peel (as in apple), St. Helens in the Mix, and Kokopelli’s Hornpipe, its focus was more on marriage and trying to work as a couple or with other couples.

Now I was venturing into fresh territory. With Braided Double-Cross – and the subsequent Blue Rock and Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, each of which tackles the same subject in its own unique structure – you could say I was taking the “inner child” concept a step further. These look at love and loving from the perspective of an “inner teen” – one full of adolescent passion, defiance, anger, hunger, raging hormones, overwhelming loneliness. I wanted to record it in its fullness.

At the time, readers and editors under the age of 45 seemed to rave about the work. Those older were largely appalled. Somehow, I still find that telling.

Over the years, the material has also worked itself into many of my other poems; I do have a fondness for Baroque and a respect for the way Bach and Handel recycled so much of their composition. I think, too, that much of the graffiti mosaic or jazz infused energy found in my poetry takes off from this point.

Well, about three decades have transpired since all that. I’m glad I wrote the poems when I did, the way I did. Today would be a different story.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

TRACING THE BRAIDS

In the early 1990s, when my writing focus returned with a vengeance to poetry, I found myself drafting in a fevered few weeks the 60 pieces that span the Braided Double-Cross collection.

Soon, I was drawing on many of the images and phrases for two alternative series, one of them being Blue Rock, with its own structure and style, and the other being Long Stemmed Roses in a Shattered Mirror, released last year.

Many of the poems, presented as “Crossings,” have appeared widely in small literary journals around the world. Now, for the first time, they’re presented complete, as originally intended.

~*~

Braided Double-Cross

Braided Double-Cross

Enjoy this collection and more at Thistle/Flinch editions.

 

OUT OF OBSESSION INTO THE BLAZE

Words or appearances often mask deeper, contradictory currents. Sometimes, as they tangle, each knot becomes an aching triangle.

In the throes of romantic passion, a participant will choose one line of argument over the evidence of another. To call him or her a victim is hardly accurate, no matter the pain, even after the heart and mind conflict.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross arise in such obsession, the white-hot tension rather than in some cool quietude years later – the pursuit of a golden ideal and then falling. Call them love poems if you dare.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

IN THE OVERLAPPING KNOTS

What the heart hears and sees may be quite different from what the mind observes and records, much less decides. These may be considered two strands in a braid, into which a third is woven. As for the third? It may be the beloved Other or some Unknown factor or even the undisclosed Rival. Each possibility leads to some distinct  tension in the series of overlapping knots.

The poems of Braided Double-Cross move through sexual attraction and passion into obsession, rejection, even betrayal. In the heated accusations and arguments between lovers, the dialogue – reaching into childhood, history, geography, career aspirations, and the future – invokes an absent, silent third participant, a recognition of the inequality emerging in the core relationship itself. Details of confession mount quietly. Truth becomes unbearable. At times a scream is silent. The braid ultimately becomes a whip. As Diane Wakoski has observed, “Rapunzel and the witch were always one / and the same.”

It’s what Ted Berrigan, in the American sonnets this set emulates, called belly-to-belly white heat.

~*~

Braided Double-Cross

Braided Double-Cross

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

WITHIN A SHIFTING FOCUS

Envisioning a grouping of my poems under the umbrella of Exposure, I initially drew on the photographic sense of admitting light to a sensitized film or plate, and then watching the image take form and density in stages on white paper in the developing bath in the darkroom – admittedly, now, obsolete practices, supplanted by the much less technically demanding use of digital cameras. (With all of its own advance technical dimensions.)

The title survived even though the contents kept shifting until settling on what now appears in the middle section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag.

At first, this was to be a set of micropoems – brief, flickering revelations akin to snapshots – especially of the kind my Uncle John Orr calls “mockery photography.” Or, better yet, multiple exposures, with their overlapping actions. But those works scuttled elsewhere, where they’ve seemed to fit better.

In their place came Treated for Exposure, a grouping of pieces originating in wilderness encounters. In the backcountry, individuals who are caught unprepared in sharp downturns of the weather may require rescue and even hospitalization, where they are reported being “treated for exposure” – dehydration, hypothermia, frostbite, and the like. Again, those works drifted elsewhere, where they seemed to fit better.

What remained was a sequence of tenacious afterimages leading to a third route, though still not the final round.

Like most Americans today, my exposure to the outdoors, much less wilderness, has come in flashes – an hour or two, a day or even a week, typically chosen for fair conditions or else domestic tasks, such as weeding, mowing the grass, or shoveling snow. (As for “unfair” conditions, the lessons can be harsh and unforgettable, yet opening lessons of essential understanding – life is fragile, after all, and above all else, keep dry or get dry, quickly. I must wonder how many who have faced death in these situations return to the trail with a deepened sense of awe and respect, as well as caution.) Once again, in the end, the exposure is fleeting, caught in a flash of time and incomplete observation – something transformed or vanished in the flick of an eyelid. Even so, it is possible to approach these experiences as a pilgrim, acknowledging there is much to absorb here, as well as profound renewal and revival. A sense of humility helps, as well, for even skilled outdoorsmen find a wrong turn can become life-threatening. We come back to what is essential and timeless. In the rush of modern society, I require grounding and rooting, which these ageless places give back to me.

In a leap, this led to an exploration of something I thought I’d avoided – poems about poetry and poets. Generally, I’ve long had an aversion to art about art: movies about musicians or writers (or, worse yet, university English departments), and the closer they get to their own field, the more incestuous the practice commonly feels. Yet there are marvelous exceptions, leading me to question my original premise. Perhaps it arises in the newsroom dictum of getting as far out into the field as possible to get the best story: out on the street, where a council vote has impact, rather than in City Hall or the Mayor’s office, for instance, or out into the battlefront rather than safely ensconced in the Pentagon. (Admittedly, yes, after decades as a journalist, I have written that newsroom novel, my Hometown News.) Perhaps it is also a recognition and desire that writers speak to and with a larger audience or readership than other writers only. And it is definitely with an awareness that artists are not a special class of Genius, one needing apology or explanation or reverence as some type of Holy Order, at that. Ultimately, art is what we do, like prayer, regardless of the outcome or our reasons.

Like prayer, our practice embodies a host of assumptions and approaches: pages from a Book of Common Prayer, at one end, to the wordless Pentecostal outpouring of glossolalia, often called (erroneously) “praying in tongues,” at the other. It can give voice as communion, adoration, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, or intercession – and more, to say nothing of the range of our individual vocabulary, concepts, and situations. Such as sex.

In a leap, too, a dual awareness arises. The act of allowing the Other to expose its secrets to us – whether as a backcountry trail to a mountaintop, a lover, or the Divine – also demands that we also become vulnerable. We, too, are exposed, often unintentionally, in our strengths and weaknesses, our virtues and sins, our pride and shame. In this state of exposure, we are permitted to observe as long as we ourselves are being observed. The photographer enters the picture; the poet, no matter how carefully concealed, still enters the poem. The musician becomes the music. Truth demands honesty that can be painful and healing.

I think of my poems that arise from experiences while spending a week in a cabin in the Maine woods to twists in particular trails in Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, or Pennsylvania; the Florida Everglades; the Cascade Range of Washington state and northern California; or the Appalachian foothills of upstate New York or southern New Hampshire. Others, from family or lovers or friends and coworkers.

In the end, then, we, too, may be treated for exposure. Treated, but not tricked.

For the moment, let’s toy with the scarab – the beautiful jewel or the moving beetle. One, to my mind, will point to the other.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

PREPARING THE BODY FOR ETERNITY

Paradoxically, to meditate on death and dying, as I do in the poems of Shroud, the final section of my collected Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag, is to consider life itself in its manifold opportunities. The blessings of teachers and mentors, guides and ancestors, family and friends all spring forth.

Hearing that the Amish, who dress in plain dark colors in the humility of their lives, are clothed in a bright white shroud upon death startled me. A shroud? It’s something I’ve come to appreciate over time, especially as an alternative to a coffin or casket or any of the usual funeral industry practices. A shroud fits into the simplicity of green burial endorsed by my Quaker meeting’s burial ground policies.

A shroud, too, has a shape like the ancient Egyptian scarab, celebrated for its ability to venture into the underworld and return to the air. I’m fond of the leap that suggests.

~*~

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

THIS MATTER OF FLASHES IN A POET

Chancing upon an old comment in my files, “Our practice also reflects other practices and practitioners we’ve been exposed to,” now has me uncertain which our I was referencing. I’ll assume it was the Society of Friends (Quakers), although other religious circles or fellow poets would be equally valid. Now I’m appreciating how these differing practices, from one field to the next, converge in my own development over the years.

The key word in the remark is expose, and I vaguely recall trying to determine whether I wanted a collection of my poems under the banner of Exposures to be a mirror what happens with a camera and, in those days, film, or perhaps arise in candid, perhaps embarrassing, intimate revelations, or inflict some peril of being caught unprepared in the wilderness. Any or all might fit.

Another kind of exposure, however, involves personal encounters with the Holy Presence, however one wants to define that. Epiphanies may be rare, even once in a lifetime, yet smaller, refreshing opportunities may happen almost daily. Just ask those who believe in miracles or angels.

Meditation – first within yoga and later, among Quakers – has been crucial in my growth as a poet; Japanese and Chinese poetry, even in translation, rings with sustained silence, as do many of the pieces in English I cherish. Sitting motionless lets the restless mind settle into calm, opening a space for intuitive flashes to appear and connect in unexpected relationships. Jerome Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred anthology opened an awareness of the directions that firsthand spiritual experience could take in describing the physical world throughout history.

Dreams do something similar, if you pay attention.

Being at Indiana University when Mary Ellen Solt was pressing her field of Concrete Poetry also had an influence in my thinking about the potential voice of typography itself, even though I never studied with her; the Russian filmmaker S.M. Eisenstein’s collision of thesis and antithesis to create an unanticipated synthesis has also played its role. I could even attempt to articulate my aesthetic, with its preference for lines long enough for each to have a snap or twist, as well as a collision between lines or stanzas to erupt as synthesis, a desire for discovery and exploration (moving along The Edge, wherever that is), a demand for solid reporting, and so on.

My drive for strong visual images may be rooted in the discipline imposed by a demanding high school art teacher, a sensibility applied throughout my journalism career as I designed newspaper pages and cropped photographs. I should add I’ve worked with some of the best photojournalists in the newspaper business.

It should be no surprise, then, that I’m especially fond of poems that evoke a play of light – even flickering lighting or stars – in the forest, on a pond, in the high country of mountains, in a child’s eyes. Light, as it turns out, is the foundation of photography, too. Lightness, and a light touch. More profoundly, in Quaker usage, the Light is a metaphor for Christ, as the opening of the gospel of John proclaims.

And, yes, like my exposure to the outdoors, much of my writing arises in flashes of time rather than interrupted long blocks of solitude: a few words, noted when I was driving on my daily commute or after drying off from a morning shower, or a sentence or two that emerged in my journal (itself, an irregular practice of sessions days or weeks apart).

These elements are central to the middle section of my poetry collection, Ripples in a Bejeweled Prayer Flag. The part that remains titled Exposures.

~*~

For these poems and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.