Ancestral Memory and Poetry

People write poetry for many reasons. Any that is written is not poetry, though, but an incantation that allows for poetry, a force within the universe, to appear. People cannot be taught to bring these appearances forth in the world, because people are not in conscious control of a process that is, ultimately, not human. People can, however, be led to moments in which the possibility of appearance is possible. The rest is up to purity of heart. Not very modern thinking, is it. No. Here’s a moment of possibility:

rivergallagherfish

That’s the Okanagan Nation fishery on the Okanagan River below a cliff that is an ancient story and which records the history of a war between the Syilx and Secwepemc people that ended with an agreement to share this land in the grasslands inland from the North East Pacific Shore. This is my home. Here is a cliff face in South Iceland. Geologists will point out, rightfully, that it is an ancient seashore cliff (that runs for a couple hundred kilometres) lifted away from the sea by tectonic forces. This image was taken from a point on the old seabed, for example. That kind of thing. It also has a stile and a beautiful woman who I love and who (I am blessed) loves me, walking through grass almost as tall as she is. This is a moment of my ancestral memory. It forms the foundation of my book The Art of Haying. It’s not, after all, a cliff. This is me. Iceland Day 3 to 5 065It is also, if you have eyes to see, a troll, with two gaping eyes, a pug nose, and a broad, frog-like mouth, with water spilling off the top of its head and forming a farmyard spring. You can see the farmyard rhubarb patch to the right of the image, just above the green lump, which is the ruins of an old turf house. What I’m doing here is showing you how an image of the earth is seen when ancestral memory and contemporary thought are one. I am not asking you to agree with this, disprove this, argue it, or abstract it in any way because it is incontrovertible. Still, if you’re used to setting this kind of material deep within a form of romantic consciousness called the unconscious, subconscious, memory, fantasy, imagery, emotion, creative imagination, or any of the modern terms that separate your identity from it, a bit of a guide might prove interesting. You’re seeing a few things. The troll, for instance. A large-green headed ram below the troll’s right eye. An ewe’s skull, teeth bared, below his chin. Another below that. A scatter of human heads, all formed of stone, on the ledge above the bottom section of the falls, and a baby troll peering out of the steeply-angled green hill just to the left and behind the stile. What’s more, the troll has one eye open and one closed. It is Oðin, the Norse cultural hero who plucked out one eye at the well at the centre of the world as payment for receiving wisdom. There is much more, plus a beautiful woman walking through it. The image, framed by the boundaries of the technology of the camera, is called art, because it brings these correspondences into relief, but, hopefully, I have pointed out successfully that these images and correspondences are in the world, exactly in the way that modern humans, such as you or I, are trained to read or parse poetry. On that foundation, let me point out that when a man is one with his mind and with the earth, he looks out at the earth and sees himself. What that means is that walking through this landscape, I am walking through my thoughts, which is, of course, exactly the process of writing a poem. There are a few things, though, which the poetry of the world is not: fantasy, for instance, emotional confession, too, literary dialogue, for another. It’s not a portrait of my feelings, an exploration of my thoughts, or the opening of a social dialogue. It is not an installation or a performance. It is not art. And yet it is poetry. This is poetry:

P1080198Ancestral Watcher at sx̌ʷəx̌ʷnitkʷ.

This is poetry:

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nm∋lqaytkw at Chopaka

This is my home mountain and my home river.

Look at it this way: on a foundation of geology, weather and biological evolution, on a field of societal evolution and history, on a journey of personal presence and breath, in a unified consciousness, this is an image of my self, which reveals itself to me as I walk through it. Some nut has built a concrete water diversion structure in it, which is the way of modern, non-unified consciousness, but make no mistake: it is inside me. I have to accommodate that. That’s where I live, in a space in which every breath, every thought, everything I see and walk through, is poetry, which is not, I feel I should stress, not something I make, something that can be studied in a university department of literature, taught in a department of creative writing, or something anyone else can make. This is not something I made. It is vital to remove the traditions of book thinking from images like this. Book thinking? Yes. If you see a landscape in the following image and if you see a narrative in it:…

buckHanford Reach

… it is book intelligence you are viewing it with. Behind that green flood bar, just to the right of this image, the plutonium for the Trinity Test and the Nagasaki bomb was manufactured, as well as most of the plutonium for the Cold War. Does that stag look like he is swimming home? He isn’t. He is home. So am I. This is my poetry. Anyone can find Facebook on their own, god help them. To find their ancestral, non-human intelligence, the thing that makes them human, a guide helps. Here’s mine:

17Robin Skelton

He was the earth, standing up and walking. He was the sea. And I? I am here to tend an ancient fire

P1000865I used to think that this fire could be kept burning in books, but that was before I realized that literature was a game of artifice and I was not speaking of artifice. I still passionately work with poetry, edit books of poetry, review them, write poetry, and walk through it daily, but I do so from the ancient context I hinted at above, because the work is to keep the world alive, all of it, or die. In my recent book of ghazals, Two Minds, the Sufic force of unified nature, the Sufic Green Man, Khdr, fills the body and mind emptied of self, the lost traveller or lover all-in-a-tangle, with the world, so that the world is there at the core of the soul’s movement through the world, not the technologically-created, abstract, book-based, Enlightenment self, as beautiful a piece of engineering as it is. We can be more.

twomindsWe are more.
monolithAncestors at Extreme Low Tide, Discovery Passage, Facing Cape Mudge …

… where their descendants live.

This is what I have learned during 58 years on this earth. It is not what I was taught. It is more. This is my standard for poetry. It must be alive. After all, I am a man of the earth. I am memory. I am the fire keeper.

Review of My “Two Minds” by Susan McCaslin

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

twominds
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. ♣

Dialogue.

Two Minds: A Book of Ghazals

I am thrilled to show you the work of thirty years: Two Minds, a book of playful, spiritual poems in the Sufic form of the ghazal. She’s beautiful. To welcome her readers, she wears the mask of the Green Man I found in a ruined pleasure palace deep in East Germany, on my pilgrimage on the Northern Camino.

twomindssm

This a book of finding the hidden country between seeing and dreaming. I kept finding it in the act of turning away, which I realized, with time, was the real way to turn towards light. I learned that if I turned around in the thickets of the everyday world musically enough, there it would be, for a moment, revealing itself yet holding still, like a deer in the willows. The ghazal form I’m following here is the Canadian one, pioneered by John Thompson in At the Edge of the Chopping There Are No Secrets and Stilt Jack (1973 and 1976). Here’s a great little essay at ARC Magazine, in praise of Thompson’s pioneering work in this exciting form: click to read about the Canadian ghazal. In this tradition, a poem consists of pairs of ideas, usually five pairs, which only tangentially relate to each other, yet succeed in creating a new, unified, living presence that supersedes them both. This is the way a child is the result of the union of its parents, and soon walks on its own. What I discovered in the long process of writing and then honing this book was how these techniques form both a writing practice, a unique set of editing interventions and openings, and a spiritual practice beyond black & white thought. The book also honours the tradition of epigram and wit I learned from Robin Skelton, and the trickster tradition that I have been writing in for twenty years. These are poems of presence in the world. Here’s what poet Nancy Holmes has to say about these dances with the world, from the back cover:

nancy

 

Poet Laurie D. Graham picks up on another motif of mine — the act of writing from the world itself, beyond the Western idea of the nuclear self. This is also from the book’s back cover:

laurie

 

We’re going to be launching the book in Calgary on September 13, as part of this year’s Quartet of poetry from Frontenac House: four books, related by vision, across widely varying styles and themes.

From Clipboard

 

I am working up a BC tour for the fall, and hoping for a national one in the spring, in both literary and spiritual communities. If you have an idea of how we can share a moment in the world of Two Minds, drop me a line. I’d love to work with you.

Two Minds

I am thrilled to announce that my book of ghazals, Two Minds, will be released, possibly in September 2015, by Frontenac House as part of their Quartet 2015. As part of the quartet, it will be linked in a dynamic sequence with Basma Kavanagh’s Niche, Zaid Shalah’s Clockwork, and Cassy Wellburn’s Changelings. Two Minds is a collection of poems written in the North American ghazal form pioneered by John Thompson, Phyllis Webb and Robert Bly. This non-rhyming variation of the classical persian and Urdu song form much beloved of Rumi and the sufic mystics coalesces out of the intersection between expressed and intuitiive logic into moments of simple clarity only achievable, perhaps, by such a dance. We haven’t settled on a cover image yet. Until I have one to show you, here’s the Green Man of Görlitz, an old companion, to hold the book in mind.greenman

 

I am Reading at Pulp Fiction Coffee House on May 12

Pulp Fiction Coffee House, Kelowna 

What? Who? Where? Whaaa? Click here. All will be revealed. When? Aha …

7pm. Monday May 12.

What?

I read my stuff. The audience reads their stuff. Perfect. Especially if we talk. We will talk, right? Good, that’s settled.

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Good gawd, bring your camera. Let’s get a better picture. After all, my Facebook picture looks like this:

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And that’s a funeral picture. In a dead man’s suit. Imagine what I look like in Real Live Kelowna. (By the way, I meant the green to reference the Green Man. You know the guy. Before Darwin, he held the fort.

 

 

Here he is putting in yeoman service for anyone leaving the private gallows of the civic chambers of the German city of Görlitz, on the Northern Camino.

greenmanTempted to show  up? I’ll read my poem about Fish Lake. The one with the hee hee na. Or, rather, I think I’ll get Coyote to read it for me. What are friends for, right?

pulpdog

 

 

I dunno about Pulp Fiction, but I’m working on a manuscript about the Okanagan that lets Coyote have his say.

Here’s Pulp Fiction’s teaser…

pulp1Gosh, you like being teased, right? I came back to the Okanagan for a reason. It has to do with putting an end to the American Civil War. Is that enough of a tease?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How about this, then? People like Pulp Fiction!  I like Open Mics. Do come.

pulp2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See you there!