The Sound Keeps Coming Out of the Flowers: On Ceremony, Somatics & Short Poems
Confession: I struggle to appreciate short poems. I feel embarrassed about this because so many poets and listeners I admire seem to get so much out of them. In turn, I've judged myself as too anxious, a malcontent, or just not Zen enough to get it.
I started thinking about this issue a few months ago when my friend Tim Frantzich asked me for a brief poem I'd sketched down as a quick Instagram post. Something in it had called to him and he was interested in turning it into a song. I was surprised because I didn't think much of it, especially as it was pretty vague, didn't ride on the freshest images, and had a couple of declaratory statements that did a lot more telling than showing, but I could tell something in these few lines had moved him, and knowing him to be a songwriter with sensitive discernment, I wondered if he'd caught the thread of something that wasn't there yet in the images. Note, when I began the poem I wasn't trying to say anything, which might have helped create some openness in it that was easy for him to slide into with his own meaning. I was intrigued by this. How could just a few lines with little to no narrative do this?
So I began pondering why I wasn't a huge fan of short poems. What was it I didn't like? To put it simply, they just ended too soon. At readings I felt like when everyone else was in a deep mmmm of appreciation I was waiting for the next word. Reading them I came up against empty space too soon and leaped over it as fast as I could to the next poem. I was bored.
Was I too speedy to appreciate simplicity? Or too greedy because I couldn't settle for an experience that ended almost as soon as it had begun? Why couldn't I be content? Why did I need poems to be galloping events that would sweep me off my feet, instead of quiet pools of reflection I could rest in?
Now some of this could be my nature. Something otter-swift dwells in me, quicksilver bursting to break the thermometer because the temperature's so hot. I am a creature of flow who loves a lava burst of words and torrential lines that sweep me over the page's edge like a tsunami. I suspect that's a rhythm inside my body, and I'm also aware of how it is not helping me being an embodied, effective human in service to others on Earth. Note: animals tuned to seismic activities head for high ground days before a tidal wave hits. Most everybody else drowns.
We all have a personal rhythm that wants to rise up through our bodies into physical expression. These days many humans in Western civilization have either lost it or never known of its existence, tuned to machines that far outpace nature: the mechanical burst of the combustible engine, the pinging smartphone, fighter jets breaking the sound barrier.
Everything is moving so fast! Just 50 years ago we were still tuned to things like trains chug-a-chugging across the prairie or the subway clacking along the El. Think Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie, early Dylan. These rhythms, while faster than the speed of nature, were still sourced in it, the fire that propels the combustible engine still belched coal that came out of the ground.
Confession: I dropped out of two MFA programs, and didn't go to two another I was accepted to, many years later I trained as a trauma-informed somatic bodyworker where I was introduced to some of the concepts I'm going to introduce next that will elucidate my aversion to short poems.
From my encounters with the academic American poetry scene, I could see that a lot of poets had untethered from the body and were sourcing their poems from a place somatic therapists would call dissociated.
Dissociation occurs when the mind can't be present enough with a disturbing event long enough (or with enough intimacy) in order to release it. The mind creates a room with no windows and sound proof walls for that event that can't be faced and locks the door. The body, gracious host that it is, doesn't break the locked, window-less room's lease, or tell it it's over stayed its welcome. This is a poetic definition of trauma.
Luckily when I left poetry academia I fell in with The Great Mother Conference, founded by Robert Bly in the 1970s. There I found a community who believed that poetry-the arts-could heal, not just individuals, but our entire culture, and met many people valiantly doing just this. It was also where I often found myself sitting in the audience wondering what I was missing when everyone else was reverently floored by short poems.
There was one short poem by Ezra Pound I heard in my early days at The Mother Conference that did claim and mark me:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Maybe it was because I first heard it as a song composed by Tim and his brother Paul, but I had a whole experience hearing this. I heard stories in these few lines that extended all through the tunnels of the Paris Metro, through catacombs of stacked skulls touching the roots of manicured plane trees in the parks above. The locked door was starting to creak and splinter.
An awareness has been inviting me to dance. We have separated ourselves from our planet by the way we both abuse and allow ourselves to be abused by words. Most of us never feel at home.
For me, this awareness has been a reverse journey inward. I had to scrape my fingers on rough bark before I could consider the tree's outermost ring. I had to start with the outer layer before I could move in because I couldn't bear the pain of feeling, my own personal story and the rest of the world's. In a nutshell: numb to the past because it was too painful, numb to the present because it made me feel guilty, ashamed and inadequate; and numb to the future because it was just too terrifying to think about. In trauma therapy we speak of freeze states as a protective mechanism or survival strategy. I couldn't let the truth in like arrow into heart wood. I needed to thaw slowly or I'd be swept away in a flash flood. Suddenly my resistance to short poems took on a different gloss-maybe I wanted to be swept away because there was no chance of intimacy inside the torrent. The definitive silence at the end of a short poem began to feel like those invitations to make eye contact that so often made me squirm.
This revelatory process actually took so long in human years I forgot it was happening. That initial awareness may have remained a half-frozen puddle if I hadn't gone to The Pacific Center for Awareness and Bodywork to become a somatic bodyworker. An unexpected and disorienting part of my training was releasing traumas stored in my body through receiving touch from my fellow students. Recently I received another piece of my personal puzzle in a mentoring session with Ke'oni Hanalei from Pohala Hawaiian Botanicals.
Ke'oni works with ancient Mu Hawaiian fern medicine, which he describes thus:
"Ancient Hawaiians, or Mu, believed native Hawaiian ferns to hold the codes to human emotions. The emotional experience of the human being is perhaps our greatest triumph and most powerful tool of energy and consciousness. There are 103 human emotions, virtues, and traits which we call 'the principles of aloha.' Aloha, or Love, is not represented by a single fern because it is truly the culmination of all human emotions."
Another important thing to know about ferns according to Ke'oni is that, "fern species have achieved Evolutionary Status, meaning they have completely evolved. They are the only known species on this planet to do so. HUGE."
Before my session with Ke'oni I'd heard him say on an Instagram story that it was important to notice your first feeling when you woke up in order to determine if your well-spring was sourced in nourishment or deprivation. For months I'd been aware that even though my basic needs were taken care of, no one was trying to kill me, and I lived in paradise, my first feeling every morning was dread. I began a practice of expanding my attention out from that toward what sustained me, things I appreciated and loved. In the desiccated language of psychology this would be called resetting the brain beyond the negativity bias though a gratitude practice. What could poetry say to this?
But first, I asked Ke'oni, why this dread? Where does it come from? His answer both surprised me and didn't: addiction to drama. Drama creates a surge of the hormone adrenaline in the body. As humanity evolved we needed it in order not to be devoured by a saber-tooth tiger whenever we left our caves. This is also where the negativity bias was born. In short, we had to be on constant guard for what was wrong in our environment so we didn't get gobbled up. That didn't leave much space for our developing brains to tune to sensory delights like Pound's petals on a wet, black bough.
What do I do? I asked Ke'oni. I could feel the doom darkening.
His reply: "Constancy."
A neuroscientist would say I needed to rewire my brain so my nervous system wasn't being constantly hacked by adrenaline so that I was never calm enough to feel safe. A yogi would say meditate. A sponsor in a 12-Step program would advise, "Work the steps. Go to meetings." In fact, I'd tried all these approaches at other stages of my journey, but they didn't stick. I always ended up in that bed rising out of dreams to that feeling of doom as I realized I had to get up and go out into the busy world and earn a living, as if being given the incredible gift of a body wasn't enough. I was constantly justifying my existence, and I imagine most of you are, too.
AA didn't work. I flubbed meditation. What was another way to be constant, something with more personal resonance that would beguile and enchant me to do its daily bidding? Poetry. (Ke'oni actually says that his elders taught him that before you can become a healer you must become a poet.)
Poetry as Ceremony. I began the next morning.
I haven't been counting the days, but I do know that it's been close to a month of waking up every morning to recite a Mu prayer I learned from Ke'oni. Left hand on womb space, right on heart, I recite my incantation in the Mu dialect and repeat it English, so my body and mind, which still speak different languages, both have the chance to be penetrated by these seed syllables of ancient integrated wisdom.
I can't say yet that the dread has gone away, but I do think it's starting to lift. I have hope my body and mind will one day be able to communicate in the same tongue, and that maybe I'll even be able to write poems in that language that will move the rhythms of another to dance their own rhythm into the world. I'm already feeling less lonely.
I will move from I to Thou, as Martin Buber says, the Thou containing every you who has ever existed. I realize this is kind of like wishing to go back to the days before The Tower of Babel fell, but I am a romantic and sometimes can't help myself. Backwards is not really the direction I personally want to go. I also don't think humanity's best course of evolution would be to rebuild the tower and go back to the days where we all spoke the same language. Biologists and social scientists agree: there is strength in diversity.
In this time of climate change, threatened by ecosystem collapse, as species go extinct, scientists tell us that every unique creature is essential to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. There are spiritual dimensions to this, too, but for now I will stick to the biological as I think it's important to ground ourselves in the material truth.
We may not be able to speak polar bear, but we understand the desperation of swimming a hundred miles to find food in an ocean that had once been frozen over. We see the eyes of a refugee mother who's child is about to die from dehydration in her arms. Every language carries a unique expression born from Earth. In the beginning was birdsong. We don't need to be able to understand a word's meaning in order to connect to the emotion and intent of the original sound. You know what the first word in most languages is? Ma
Mother, I am your daughter and your son. Teach me how to speak with you and be present with stillness, with uncreation, before form.
Accept my fear as the gift that will take me over the edge of my ego. Drown me. But bring me back up in time to be resuscitated.
Ego death. Eye contact. Drowning. That's why I've resisted short poems, at least the really good ones.
"The temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers"
If you speed through that poem you most likely won't get the reward (rewiring that brain and recalibrating the nervous system), as the images unfurl in invisible waves that have a life far beyond the page. You have to let the bell ring you. Every image has this potential. So many stories! So many star trails to follow, or just paths through the snowy wood. Even translated from Japanese, this poem slows the mind down and carries us on a language streaming from a more mysterious and integrated source whose presence resides in our time in myths and folk tales.
When I speak the Mu prayer every morning I invoke uncreation. I try to do this without asking for anything in return. No proof. No intention. I give Chaos permission to work me over in service to Eros. One syllable at a time I reclaim my ancient bones and affirm my right to be here.
Still, evidence of evolution is starting to pile up like the gecko poop on my window sill. I'm starting to trust my senses in my cozy bed in paradise each morning. I am safe-in bed at least Though I did see an eight foot Galapagos shark sweeping the surf just as I was about to slip into Kealekekua Bay last week!
I still have a lot of decelerating to do. Easy on the brakes. Don't assume. Listen for the plop after the frog jumps in and wait to see what happens. (Shout out to Basho via Allan Watts.) The less happens the more I know I'm tracking something worth the effort. It might be what physicists call a singularity, a black hole. Mayas call it Hunab Ku, The Galactic Butterfly. New Age mystics refer to the zero point field. It's Rumi's field out beyond ideas of right and wrongdoing. You know the place.
I'm not sure how to get there. Mary Oliver tells us we don't need to crawl on our knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting, and I think she's right. Grace is a mystery that will never be solved. However, for most of us the journey there is going to involve a lot of hardship and heartbreak. Most of us wouldn't even know the field existed without suffering.
This is a lot of words to explain how a short poem can rewire the nervous system and help us redeem humanity by helping traumatized, dissociated humans become more embodied so they move forward making individual choices that will add up to cultures that are in service to all life, instead of the short-sighted few at the top of the heap who keep us enslaved by a fear of an unproven scarcity. (Pound and Basho are either rolling their eyes, chuckling, or cheering me on right now. What do you think?)
Look around. Hear Dear Prudence coming out to play. Adorn yourself with a daisy chain. Have you ever seen any evidence that life does not want to live? Adrenaline, now our dreaded enemy and what gets us through the day, was developed by our bodies in order to preserve them. Skin, bones, blood, teeth, heartbeat.
During my somatic bodywork training we watched a film where a polar bear, chased by hunters and tranquilized from a helicopter, shakes and shudders as the sedative wears off, then rises to its feet and wanders into the ice and snow, alert and ready to respond with majestic, embodied ease to its next challenge. The point was to demonstrate the way an animal physically shakes in order to move the adrenaline through its body. Fear does not take root in a bear's body, though wariness may. Trauma is not being shot from a helicopter. It's letting the fear root beneath the skin in the body's dark tissues where we can't see it. There's a lot of hope in that statement if you know where to look.
Live! Live! the body surges and sings. Polar bears are swimming hundreds of miles through open ocean toward a hint of blood on their teeth.
Final Confession: I didn't know how to end this essay. I could feel myself starting to get stuck in a loop of words and the addictive rush of incoming images and ideas had me in a swirl that wanted to keep going and going. But is that the most effective way? Do you need fifty lines from me or five? Are we feral or wild?
I still crave the galloping horses, but I can sense they're getting tired of sparking fire from their hooves that never gets a chance to bank.
Stymied, I took my hands off this keyboard, minimized Safari window and maximized Spotify: Satie: Gnosienne No. 1. My eyes closed and my hands were drawn upward by vines descending from the underbelly of the moon. Serpents entwined my wrists, binding me to each haunting note, black keys lamenting the elephants who'd died for each white ivory. If I reached the moon I could swim in the Sea of Tranquility and forget about the harpoons driving the dolphin pods into the cove at Taiji. But would I hear this music?
I chose the music. The grief. I let it complete. I made sure to keep my eyes open on the descent and when my hands lit once more on the keys I typed these words:
Floating in saltwater,
I loved you like a child
without needing to forgive you.
Wounds healed without me.
Bless the scar.
"Almond Blossom," Vincent Van Gogh
Ka, eka to'e a mea
ite ohn parat'u
la mea a ma
kuhi heawa a ma
a te a ma
To be entangled in that
which is unnatural now I rise
exposed and brilliant
finally and to penetrate an illusion
*Apologies to the Mu for not being able to transcribe their alphabet correctly. Many of the letters (the As in particular) have accents that are not included on a computer.
copyright 2021 Jennifer Lighty