Lately, the word extinction floats around in my interior conversations, spurred most obviously by environmental destruction, endless and senseless wars, and of course my own awareness of personal mortality. In the trips I’ve made over the last five years to see the Ice Age painted caves in France and Spain, art that’s between 10,000 and 40,000 years old, I saw the astounding cave Rouffignac, known as Cave of a Hundred Mammoths, where artists painted and engraved those great creatures, a trail of mammoths throughout the enormous tunnels. Whatever we have left of these beings seems precious. The startling depictions of the extinct mammals remind me that our ancestors coexisted with them and it was thrilling to be so near the art made by those who had studied and hunted the mammoths, making tools and sculptures from the giant tusks. In the same cave there are huge holes dug by extinct cave bears along the miles-long pitch black tunnels; after hibernating the bears sharpened their claws by standing and scraping them down the cave walls, sometimes leaving their marks over the images of the mammoths. I’ve seen too a habitation and burial site of our cousins, the Neanderthals, with whom we coexisted some 40,000 years ago in Europe, with whom we share DNA, and they too are of course extinct. In the future, is that how we will come to know many of the creatures of our world, through art and buried memory? That is if we ourselves are here to remember them?
That word, extinct, is a shape-shifter in my thoughts—it is biological, environmental, philosophical, and deeply personal. It can be a kind of depression or general despair, a horrifying concern for other species, for my species, but it also brings other things to mind: genocide, the death of languages and whole cultures. I am haunted by our cultural and religious belief in our superiority over those with whom we share the planet:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (Genesis 2:26)
Extinction is part of the language of war in which villages, or cities, or cultures, or eco-systems are wiped out, and rape, pillage, collateral damage, are normal words. Here’s some insight from the biologist Edward O. Wilson, from his essay “Is Humanity Suicidal?”
Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough. Our species retains the hereditary traits that add greatly to our destructive impact. We are tribal and aggressively territorial, intent on private space beyond minimal requirements, and oriented by selfish sexual and reproductive drives. Cooperation beyond the family and tribal levels comes hard. (Wilson, 184)
What about the extinction of parts of consciousness? What about the exile of the feminine from religious, social and political life, from art and history? An extinction so widespread we hardly understand its consequences—thousands of years of loss, the degradation and isolation of women, the erasure of their knowledge, and the loss of their potential to contribute, beyond the domestic, to the world they live in.
How do we write when these questions threaten to swallow us? First, to be sure, we enter through the body of our everyday lives; through the everydayness of experience we attempt to write our way toward what we can’t seem to articulate. Poets have a belief in language, perhaps beyond all else, poetry in particular beyond all else. As Dickinson says, “I reckon when I count at all, first poets, then the Sun, then Summer, then the Heaven of God, and then the list is done.” Is it the liberating power of metaphor—the language of poetry—that moves her toward such self-empowerment? Metaphor is transformation; it is the discovery of meaning that we could only anticipate but could not find words for.
The feminist theologian Sallie McFague in Speaking in Parables writes:
The language of a people is their sense of reality; we can live only within the confines of our language. If that language is one-dimensional, as Herbert Marcuse puts it, if it is jargon, the jargon of technocracy, of Madison Avenue, of politics—or of theology—then we lead one-dimensional lives, meaningless lives, lives within language that has ceased to express our depths for it is not capable of expressing anything but the limits of what we already know and feel…Our ability to express the deeper dimensions of human existence is determined by the metaphorical aliveness of our language, and that language in turn is controlled by the vision of reality we hold. (McFague, 22-23)
I was at an anti-war reading when Elizabeth Alexander read her poem “The Dream that I Told My Mother-in-law” and was deeply moved that her opposition to the war came in the form of affirmation of the feminine and of female knowing and legacy; that which war obliterates. It seemed to me then and still seems so that in this poem Alexander’s vision of reality, though so familiar to us at some deep level, is also always on the verge of being lost, buried, often denigrated and patronized.
The Dream I Told My Mother-in-Law
In the room almost filled with our bed,
the small bedroom, the king-sized bed high up
and on casters so sometimes we would roll,
in the room in the corner of the corner
apartment on top of a hill so the bed would roll,
we felt as if we might break off and drift,
float, and become our own continent.
When your mother first entered our apartment
she went straight to that room and libated our bed
with water from your homeland. Soon she saw
in my cheeks the fire and poppy stain,
and soon thereafter on that bed came the boy.
Then months, then the morning I cracked first one
then two then three eggs in a white bowl
and all had double yokes, and your mother
(now our mother) read the signs. Signs everywhere,
signs rampant, a season of signs and a vial
of white dirt brought across three continents
to the enormous white bed that rolled
and now held three, and soon held four,
four on the bed, two boys, one man, and me,
our mother reading all signs and blessing our bed
blessing our bed filled with babies, blessing our bed
through her frailty, blessing us and our bed,
blessing us and our bed.
She began to dream
of childhood flowers, her long-gone parents.
I told her my dream in a waiting room:
a photographer photographed women,
said her portraits revealed their truest selves.
She snapped my picture, peeled back the paper,
and there was my son’s face, my first son, my self.
Mamma loved that dream so I told it again.
And soon she crossed over to her parents,
sisters, one son (War took that son.
We destroy one another), and women came
by twos and tens wrapped in her same fine white
bearing huge pans of stew, round breads, homemade wines,
and men came in suits with their ravaged faces
and together they cried and cried and cried
and keened and cried and the sound
was a live hive swelling and growing,
all the water in the world, all the salt, all the wails,
and the sound grew too big for the building and finally
lifted what needed to be lifted from the casket and we quieted
and watched it waft up and away like feather, like ash.
Daughter, she said, when her journey began, You are a mother now,
and you have to take care of the world.
In this poem Alexander begins with the image of the bed. How big that bed is and what it has to hold! It’s the kind of bed we’re no longer supposed to have, one in which babies are made, then born, then raised, and in which people die as they used to, in their own beds. The antiseptic world of hospitals, the hierarchy of doctors with their particular kind of wisdom about birth and death, is not in any way present here, though both birth and death occur. The wisdom here is blood-wisdom, passed down from mother to child and grandmother to mother. It is embodied, physical wisdom, and it is a mystical wisdom as well. It’s not old wives tales—it is a wisdom we have patronized, marginalized, and have attempted to make extinct, but not in this poem. In this poem it is a powerful initiation of mother-love, of mother-knowledge, revelations given by the acceptance of the life cycle and its work of birthing, suffering, dreaming, nurturing, loving, dying.
The bed is at first marooned, drifting, in danger of isolation, alienation. It has no ties. It’s an American bed. We know that bed. But the mother-in-law is not the ridiculous mother-in-law of our culture: prying, manipulative, giving the new daughter a hard time. She is an ancient mother, an initiator, a bearer of the past, a link to a lineage of maternal wisdom, of matriarchy itself. She’s come, literally and figuratively, from another country, a country of signs and metaphors. She’s the anchor for the bed, the grounding that allows a family to begin and to take root. No one is banished from the bed, the children are welcome, and the reader too. She comes back to the bed, blessing it: here is where the family will take hold. And then without fanfare the grandmother dies, crosses over to her dead family, and there is grief and noise like we don’t know anymore, real interaction and acknowledgement of loss, and lastly there are the instructions left by the dead woman: “’Daughter,’ she said, when her journey began, ‘You are a mother now, / and you have to take care of the world’.”
In Alexander’s poem the female deity is not in opposition to the male. It just is, it is aware and sure of itself and takes itself for granted. It creates the ground in which the seeds of the new lives are planted. There is no terror of this female deity, it does not need to be punished, warned, threatened, exiled or murdered. Its association with the body causes no evil to come to pass. This deity teaches an ancient, necessary wisdom. This is a poem of connection; in fact everything here, after the initial threat of the bed drifting away, is connected to everything else. The old country with the new; the dead with the living; the daughter with the mother-in-law; the daughter with herself, with her husband and sons; the grievers with each other; this world with the next. That this poem is nested inside a book of slave narratives makes it that much more poignant. For it is a poem about continuity and wholeness, something we are steadily losing from our cultural and personal narratives. It makes of the domestic not the false-sacred, laced-up, confined, limited world women have been taught to desire. It is in fact unlimited, linked to many worlds, and it is powerful, not decorative or diminutive, not worried about cleanliness and propriety, but steeped in love, and the true hard work that is required by those who would build a nest, a bed, and grow a family in a perilous time when the forces of extinction are everywhere. This poem, finally, is a reclaiming of the exiled feminine.
How does Alexander bring us into these mysteries? She uses incantation; she seems almost to cast a spell on the reader. She listens to the rhythms of their lives and sings us those rhythms. She uses repetition. And there is a vibrant, rich, inner world at work here, a dreamlike lyric presence embedded in the narrative.
Metaphor is not only a poetic device for the creation of new meaning, but metaphor is as ultimate as thought. It is and can be the source for new insight because all human discovery is by metaphor….Metaphor is, for human beings, what instinctual groping is for the rest of the universe—the power of getting from here to there. We use what we have, who we are….We do this through a process in which the imagination is the chief mover, setting the familiar in unfamiliar context so that new possibilities can be glimpsed. (McFague, 57)
Instinctual groping? Sometimes writing a poem feels like that, we have no road map, no plans, just that belief in language. The lyric impulse urges us across boundaries. In the face of nightmares of exile and extinction, poets turn inward, not for escape or denial: the lyric is not a solution or a cure to the inevitability of loss. But it is an other. It is a place without exile, a space made by language.
In book after book Mark Doty gives us poems that in their Bishop-like vision enact his great love of the world in all its mysterious detail. Doty, often an ecstatic poet, writes us a lyric passageway through illness, death and survival. Over and over he writes out of an unquantifiable joy that refuses to be bound by personal narrative despite the very personal nature of his work. In a poem from one of his most well-known book of poems, Atlantis, a book written while his partner was dying of AIDS, he insists on the potential inherent in life, and even in death itself. He insists on beauty as a constant and he insists on the embodied world.
What are they, the white roses,
when they are almost nothing,
only a little denser than the fog,
shadow-centered petals blurring,
toward the edges, into everything?
This morning one broken cloud
built an archipelago,
fourteen gleaming islands
hurrying across a blank plain of sheen:
nothing, or next to nothing
--pure scattering, light on light,
And now, a heap of roses
beside the sea, white rugosa
beside the foaming hem of shore:
waxen candles. . .
And we talk
as if death were a line to be crossed.
Look at them, the white roses.
Tell me where they end.
This poem pushes beyond the narrative of illness and death, pushes into the process of dying, questioning our assumptions, our old metaphors about beginnings, endings, finality. It questions our way of separating ourselves from the natural world, just as we separate life from death. The poem plays with what’s visible and invisible, it pushes into the ephemeral, the white roses in their abundance and their different stages of bloom are messengers, as so much is for Doty, of that “blurring,” that process that makes one great cloud break and multiply into islands of clouds. Everything in flux and change, while each moment of the process is whole, necessary, layered with meaning and more importantly, layered with being: so the roses that began the poem as “almost nothing,” are by the end of the poem, roses that are becoming, without end. Doty accomplishes this with lyric intensity, with compression, with an intense music that builds so that the backdrop “blank plain of sheen” enacts richness, sonic repetition, and is in no way really blank—too much is happening there, the archipelagos passing, the roses erasing boundaries. Meanwhile the crescendo of repeated sounds amps up the orchestration of the poem as in fourteen, gleaming, sheen, heap, sea, just one of the musical patterns heightening the emotions of the poem till the ”waxen candles” and the white space around them—sky and roses?—slow and quiet the poem, preparing us for that final earned and poignant statement about death, “and we talk/ as if death were a line to be crossed.” Doty asks us to think beyond our notions of beginnings and endings, beyond what we think we see toward the mysterious, toward continuity.
I love the idea here of multitudinous life. Yes, there is decay, but that is part of the process. In a short space the few become many, even clouds, even roses. The gift of Doty’s work is his unswerving focus. His vision is ecstatic but not escapist. Even one of his angrier poems and one of his very best, “Homo Will Not Inherit” is adamant in pairing ruin with ecstasy, adamant about celebrating incarnation in all its forms, in all its stages of becoming and dying:
I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit: steam,
and the blinding symmetry of some towering man,
fifteen minutes of forgetfulness incarnate.
I’ve seen flame flicker around the edges of the body,
pentecostal, evidence of inhabitation.
If the subject has inherent political importance, that’s just part of what matters here. The poem is about belief in the body—
I’ll tell you
what I’ll inherit, not your pallid temple
but a real palace, the anticipated
and actual memory, the moment flooded
by skin and the knowledge of it,
the gesture and its description
--do I need to say it?—
the flesh and the word.
He arrives, in opposition to “you who can’t wait to abandon your body,” at a place of self-empowerment and defiance though the speaker is one whom some would exile and erase: “no one needs/ your eternity…This city’s inescapable,// gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.”
Doty’s poems are fiercer than we might think, for all their lyric beauty. The poems exist as their own kind of embodiment, as if in his work he wants to write the body into words, as if words were flesh. The poems exist against that which would not just marginalize him, but would exile him, disappear him from the cultural consciousness; but more than that they affirm abundance, the movement from life toward something other than obliteration, visions of the visible world that extend toward what can’t be seen, that embrace transformation.
What to make of the hand prints in some of the painted Ice Age caves, as in El Castillo in Spain with its astounding panel of hands gathered on a low rock deep inside the cave. These paintings, or stencils, were made by the painter spitting or blowing paint around her hand to leave a negative handprint on the wall of the cave. When I first saw some of these in 2009 they were estimated to be around 20,000 years old. Since then, with new techniques, these same prints are now said to be at least 40,800 years old. The hands come out of a world I can hardly imagine, human (or Neanderthal?) hands, reaching through time and space toward me, as they did again this past fall when I returned with two of my sons to some of the Spanish caves. In El Castillo we had to try to ignore one of our fellow tourists who claimed to be a specialist and kept lecturing us about the cave, overriding the actual local guide, his ego dominating our visit. It was harder to appreciate the mystery, as it can be when there’s no quiet, no moment to step back from the group. But on our way out of the cave my son pulled me aside to show me a hand, unlit, that I had just walked past, as we were no doubt walking past many signs and art along the way that the guides had no time to program into their tours. It was not part of the famous panel of hands, which we’d just seen. Although it was at eye level, the lone hand was hidden in the dark of the cave and only visible to the alert tourist. We had our moment then of feeling the past come at us, more than something to be explained and studied, the unlit hand reached out of rock as if to stop us, as if to say: I was here.
As one of our great lyric poets, Jean Valentine’s poems draw us into dream language, the language of metaphor, and they do so in a way that feels inevitable. “The Forgiveness Dream: Man from the Warsaw Ghetto,” is a kind of elegy in which the poet asks how it is possible to live in a time of war and great global suffering, and forgive oneself for being safe and outside that suffering.
The Forgiveness Dream: Man from the Warsaw Ghetto
He looked about six or seven, only much too thin.
It seemed right he would be there, but everything,
every lineation, was slow . . . He was speaking in Polish,
I couldn’t answer him.
He pointed at the window, the trees, or the snow,
or our silver auditorium.
I said to him in English, “I’ve lived the whole time
here, in peace. A private life.” “In shame,”
I said. He nodded. He was old now, kind,
my age, or my mother’s age: He nodded,
and wrote in my notebook—“Let it be good.”
He frowned, and stopped,
as if he’d forgotten something,
and wrote again,
I walk, and stop, and walk—
touch the birch bark shining, powdery, cold:
taste the snow, hot on my tongue—
pure cold, licked from the salt of my hand:
This quiet, these still unvisitable stars
move with choices.
Our kin are here.
The first stanza of this poem beautifully recreates the qualities of a dream. The man of the title is a child, “six or seven, only much too thin.” In those few words, along with the title, she evokes the horrific suffering of the Warsaw Ghetto without having to further educate us or tell us what we already know, or should know. Everything is slow and feels far away. The child is speaking in Polish and the speaker says “I couldn’t answer him,” then in the next stanza she reaches out to him, speaks to him in English, and he in turn speaks back to her in English. Already several dream boundaries have been crossed and the facts have changed, yet none of this is confusing, somehow we believe the narrator and follow her as she describes her dream. Nor are we put off by her dream, as sometimes we can be by the dreams of others. We’re not put off because the dream is not so utterly personal that we can’t enter it, it is personal but it is our dream too, a dream that describes for us our own familiar guilt, the privilege behind which we attempt to stay safe. The word “shame” comes at us, we feel it.
The narrator has not had to live through the horror of war, for her World War II and its unfathomable persecutions and genocides. She’s been sheltered: “I’ve lived the whole time/ here in peace. A private life. In shame.” From the tone of the poem we can tell how important that “private life” truly is to this narrator. Can’t we almost feel the quiet, the deep inner life that such a line evokes. She acknowledges what many of us sometimes feel. How is it possible that I have been so lucky, that I have not had to face such immense suffering? How is it possible I’ve lived in peace, watching the suffering of others as if from a dream? And beneath that the question: In what way am I guilty or even responsible for the suffering of others? As a poet, she is asking too how she dares to write of her own suffering, her own life, when there is this other world of horrors happening at the same time.
Crossing boundaries the child tries to speak to the narrator; then he ages, going from a vulnerable thin child, to a vulnerable elderly person, but wise and able to speak. He doesn’t literally forgive her, but he makes a space in the poem for forgiveness, for acceptance. “Let it be good,” he says and seemingly that would have been enough, a less adept poet would have ended the poem right there. But then the poet takes a step across another boundary. “He frowned, and stopped, as if he’d forgotten something, and wrote again, ‘Let it.’” The act of contemplation that is so necessary in this poem is enacted by the man in her dream. Now he is writing to her, and Valentine crosses into a new kind of language. What does that abbreviation of the earlier, more mundane statement of forgiveness do to the poem, to the two people in the poem? I think it opens up a huge space. It goes from the familiar and vaguely religious “Let it be good” to the mysterious two words that seem to make room for any possibility, that seem to say whatever is or was, “is,” and “is” as it should be. Really there’s no right way to paraphrase “Let it” without limiting it. Instead, in his wisdom the survivor says: no limits, no boundaries, no wrong way, no right way. Valentine’s characteristic use of white space only adds to the feeling that the poem has opened up in a way we couldn’t have anticipated. The narrator, the suffering child, and the older man exist together at the same time, they cross worlds to meet in this dream state, a place without judgment, a place of forgiveness of others and maybe more importantly of the self.
It’s important that in the last two stanzas of the poem Valentine does enter the real world. Once again, she could have ended the poem but takes the next step out of the dream, “I walk, and stop, and walk—/ touch the birch bark shining, powdery, cold:/ taste the snow, hot on my tongue.” Here the world is living and vibrant, the poet’s senses are alert. The poet leaves the dream world and, having found a place of acceptance and forgiveness, a place of “let it”—she is able to cross back into her life, she is able to feel, to taste, to accept the blessings and joys of being alive. Through the lyric she has crossed a spiritual bridge and can be in the present, momentarily free. And then there’s yet another leap in the poem, a leap outward. Valentine started this poem in an inner dream state, then crossed back into the world, and at last she pushes her awareness outward to where “these still unvisitable stars/ move with choices./ Our kin are here./ Were here.” How striking that the stars “move with choices.” It is a bold statement arising out of a poem that began so privately. The last two mysterious lines take the acknowledgement between the two figures, the deep connection that was established earlier, and extend it outward to other beings, not even necessarily only to humans because all she tells us is that “Our kin are here.” Which kin? It doesn’t matter, boundaries are erased, differences erased. Our kin are here and were here, and continue to be here; there’s a continuity, as in the Alexander and the Doty poems, a sense of time and existence as ongoing and simultaneous, in this world, not in this world, borderless, while at the same time she doesn’t erase the memory of the suffering and loss: “were here” reverberates with sadness.
Like the Doty poem this is a short lyric, the language is economical, there’s not an extra syllable here. Her diction is plain; many of her words are monosyllabic. Though the poem, finally, is complex, the language does not seem to be. Though we are in a dream for much of the poem, we trust the straightforwardness of Valentine’s language, there’s no striving toward the mystical, just a sense of mystery and blessing unfolding out of the ordinary.
Valentine brings together and makes as one the experiences of suffering, forgiveness and even joy, without in any way co-opting someone else’s experience or elevating herself. The self is a continuous self that touches other selves, learning to accept its own blessings and its own failures. If the poem starts out with a fear of the narrator’s selfishness, a life lived outside of the horrors of her time; it ends with kinship, love, and a space for the unknown, for choices, for communion, all coexistent with the knowledge and experience of terrible suffering. It’s not necessary to know that Valentine was thinking of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz when she wrote this poem. Valentine often writes out of the dream state and yet her anchors tend to be firmly in the world, hinted at when not stated, and she crosses the borders between them fluidly, unselfconsciously, without pretention.
Ever-changing and ever-present, extinction is always with us but also magnified and made more horrific by human behavior. How we cope and learn, how we imagine and use language reverberates, disturbs the status quo or affirms it. These poets evoke a state of grace that has no need of borders, of separations between worlds; their willingness to empathize comes not from personal merit or understanding, rather it comes from the lyric space, a place for empathy, for the ego to relax its vigilance toward the world. The lyric impulse crosses, even erases, boundaries, connects us to the other and to other worlds, helping us enter the ineffable, to let go briefly our false sense of dominion or safety. The lyric brings us into the moment, brings us to the place of—Let it—
McFague, Sallie, Speaking in Parables, Fortress Press, 1975
Wilson, Edward O., In Search of Nature, Island Press, 1996