This review just appeared in Dialogue. It’s so great to have a reader like Susan and a publisher who will give space to a thorough review like this. I am deeply honoured and grateful.
“Two Minds, One Household,”
A Review of Harold Rhenisch’s Two Minds (Frontenac House, 2015)
by Susan McCaslin, Fort Langley BC
Harold Rhenisch’s recent volume of poetry, Two Minds, is a unified long poem composed of a series of aphoristic ghazals, variations on the Persian classic form. To enter this sequence is to step inside a place where history, myth, language, and the poetry of the natural world converge. In these gnomic utterances, inner realities mirror and contain each other in a way that suggests everything is interconnected with everything else.
The “two minds” of the title are at one level the thinking-feeling individual mind and a more unified consciousness that includes and transcends it. Only a trickster mind capable of embracing apparent opposites can fearlessly hold such paradoxes as this:
The whole world and all of time can be seen,/
even by the smallest child, even in a Rufous hummingbird,/ / hanging, bronze, on the tip of a spring willow—/
once only, and again once only, and again. Only once.
(from “Everything and Nothing”)
The “two minds” appear in some contexts as the post-Enlightenment rationalist mind versus the shamanic mind, which is not to be confused with mere madness, but is a form of “divine mania”: “Sometimes a man is locked up for being of two minds. Sometimes he e capes” (from “Remembering Paul Celan”). The shamanic presence that haunts these poems is not merely the poet himself in his personal identity, but a presence we all have the capacity to become: “10,000 years ago, a shaman tracked deep into the night. /Now he is coming back. I meet him at the door. I open” (“Instructions for the Winter Ceremony”).
Reading the Contents pages is like reading a series of short poems held together within a longer one. Take this title, for instance: “As the Riverbed Forms Itself Into a Trout, It Swallows the Sky.” Rhenisch throws everything he has into this cauldron of a volume. The “I” speaks from a dark-light shamanic ground far beyond the world of the Cartesian subject-object split. Some- times it is as if Earth herself rises to speak:
One yellow chrysanthemum with brown leaves burns in the white world. Ah.”
(from “Song of the Earth”)
Rhenisch’s ghazals lead us through diverse landscapes and cultures of Northern Europe but also encompass British Columbia and the Cascadia region of the Pacific Northwest, as, for instance, when he writes about the Nootka Fault line. The speaker is a global traveller, a pilgrim following the Northern leg of the Camino de Santiago, who pauses to see seeing, touch touching, lis- ten to listening. In his “Pilgrim’s Song on the Road to the East” he enters sacred space just as he is:
I have mud on my shoes.
This is how I enter the cathedral: on foot.
On this journey the monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic God mingles with Paleolithic and pagan gods and goddesses. Rhenisch is not afraid to use the word “God” and alludes to the dynamic of time’s intimacies with eternity (“Where Time Ends and Eternity Begins”). His God is a mystery both transcendent and immanent. Christ is “a blooming Dionysus.” Even the Trinity is imaginatively revisioned in “The Day We Re-enacted the Story of the Trinity.”
Bach stands in the doorway of a church shaped like a woman,
but we are the ones who push the inner door open.
This volume seeks to restore the depths of western religious and mystical traditions, recovering Christianity’s lost roots in older, indigenous cultures. Yet clearly the Celtic Green man of the cover design is the unifying presence of the volume. The first poem in the book, “The Man with the Head of a Stag Speaks,” is followed later by “Green Man Rises.”
On his blog, Rhenisch explains the Celtic and Persian (Sufic) origins of this ancient forest spirit and how the Green Man mythos, inscribed in art and architecture, ties to the Islamic prophet Khezr (also called Khidr), who is said to have had the power to initiate seekers who have no guide and to rescue lost wanderers. Khezr clearly becomes the speaker’s primary poetic guide on his journey.
(See the poet’s commentary: https://haroldrhenisch.com/2015/10/06/khezr-the-hidden-prophet- and-my-two-minds/ )
In Rhenisch’s ghazals, each couplet stands on its own, yet resonates within the poem as a whole, which in turn resonates within the entirety of the book. Each couplet is to the volume as a star to its constellation. Some of Rhenisch’s couplets may at first appear cryptic or opaque to linear reasoning. Like Zen koans, they invite you to knock your skull against them. Often a slight shift opens the reader to a larger gestalt: “The world that is the world begins/ with the ladder of integration, which has no rungs” (“All Fall Down”).
One classical rhetorical device Rhenisch employs fre- quently is chiasmus, a stepping forward and back within the structure of the lines. These surprising reversals and mirrorings allow us to bring two perspectives together. Through them Rhenisch develops the theme of the “two minds” which are held in tension as one. Things we think separate are revealed as indwelling each other. Some examples:
Cold determines nothing. Nothing determines the cold.”
(from “The Return to the Trees”)
I walk out into the mountain dawn. The mountains walk in.”
(from “For Children’s Eyes Only”)
The mind in its shell, thinking: the shell in its mind.”
(from “The Shell Game”)
Recurrent themes run wave-like through the whole. One that stands out is that trees are elders and sentient beings (“The Return of the Trees”). The first line of the first poem in the volume takes us “outside the forest of words,” but soon we are returned to the inside of actual forests where we feel “the frog pulsing within the scales of a cedar” (from “The Shell Game”). As Rhenish puts it, “[T]he old language is spoken solely by trees” (“The Weight of the Sky Over a Shaman’s Fire”). In the world of the forests, human power hierarchies like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth become irrelevant: “Trees are rooting in my feet; there is no longer a king” (“Everyone in the Script is Macbeth’). Or as Rhenisch puts it later, “This forest belongs to the trees.”
Another recurrent configuration involves the presence of the philosopher Plato. Surprisingly, the poems about Plato and Socrates are not abstract, but contemporary, jazzy and playful, with titles like: “Socrates Wears a Black Collar with Silver Spikes,” “Preliminary Notes to a Translation of Particle Physics Into Platonic Light,” and “Walking Out of the Cave Is Not the Same as Wisdom.” Rhenisch’s Plato is not the Plato of the “divided line” between time and eternity, but the Plato of Socrates’ shamanic teacher Diotima, a bearer of feminine wisdom: “Plato heard women’s voices singing among stones—/and wrote them down, so now it’s still there…” (from “Petals Drift Upon the Stones of a Mountain River”).
Rhenisch’s book isn’t only philosophical and shamanic but political in the deepest sense, addressing our current environmental crisis. He notes that “Clear cut forests recede into blue hills/ in sheets of smoke, which they enter as they reenter light” (“Where Time Ends and Eternity Begins”). And in a particularly poignant ghazal he laments that “The mountains are being taken down and loaded on rusty ships” (“Conservation and Rebirth”).
Rhenisch has created a shamanic dream book that lifts us out of our destructive anthropocentrism, but not out of who we are within the playfield of the all-encompass- ing natural world. A mysterious music plays through these poems that is and is not merely the individual poet. The author takes risks in exploring what some post- modern philosophers have rejected: transcendence. However, in this context transcendence does not entail abandoning the body for a “higher world,” but leaving boxed-in knowing to move toward fuller integration. The poems’ force field is larger than its ideas and concepts, and in harmony with the music flowing in, around, under, and through the words.
Review by Susan McCaslin Dialogue.
About Harold Rhenisch:
Harold Rhenisch has published 12 full-length books of poetry, including the spiritual precursor to Two Minds, “The Spoken World” (Hagios), and 26 other books of poetry, memoir, essay, and environmental writing. His The Art of Haying (Ekstasis 2015) completes the process of Two Minds with 200 photographs from Iceland and Germany. Harold studied with P.K. Page, Charles Lillard, Robin Skelton and Zsuzsi Gartner, has taught poetry and fiction writing at Vancouver Island University and has been writer-in-residence at both Okanagan Regional Library and Douglas College. He has won a CBC poetry prize, two Malahat Review long poem prizes, and a George Ryga Prize, among other national and provincial prizes for poetry, drama and journalism. Harold lives in Vernon, BC. ♣