Kissed by the Steam
Poetry as a Spiritual Practice
Heron Tree: an online magazine for poetry, giving you one poem a week
Recently some friends of mine started an online poetry journal called Heron Tree. It offers you one poem a week - absolutely free.
As I write this, the poem for the week is Onion Pie by Joey Nicolletti. It begins like this:
The wind, the rattling wall, dinner
baking in the oven, the dead of winter
a string of salt diamonds
alight in a street of slush and starlit ice,
and the cat retires
to his feathery bed.
It is wintertime. I picture my own cat named Zooey, retiring to her own feathery bed. I think of how delicious it would be to have some onion pie. I picture the street outside, which had not long ago been salted with crystals. I remember the diamonds.
I may not read any further. I know that Joey Nicolletti hopes I will. After all, he wrote the poem as an organic whole, with each part related to the other parts. In her now classic The Life of Poetry (1949) Muriel Rukeyser speaks of poems as organic wholes full of movement, which grow like trees. She is famous for saying that the universe is like stories, not atoms. For her a poem is a story, too.
But sometimes I think it's fine just to nibble at a poem, taking a line or series of lines that somehow nourish the imagination and not even completing it. If it's worth reading at all, it's worth reading half way.
The western religious traditions have a tradition called lectio divina or sacred reading. When you read in a sacred way, you are not looking for rules to live by or ideas to master. You are looking for nourishment of the soul. You take in images from scripture, however fragmentary, and simply rest in them trusting that somehow, in the very resting, some divine nourishment is received. You let the images wash over you and inside you, in a kind of baptism of the imagination.
I need these baptisms. I need one poem a week. I need some onion pie to sink my imagination into, taking a break from the compulsively busy lifestyle into which I so often fall. Buddhists tell us that paying attention to the world around us and the worlds within us in a mindful way is the heart of spirituality. Poetry can help - even if you nibble.
I choose the word nibbling with care. Reading poetry is a physical activity even as it is a spiritual activity. Even if we read silently, we hear our own voice reading inside our heads. We pause at the end of lines and between stanzas, not unlike the way in which we pause when we take a breath. Sometimes we quietly move our lips, too, in a subtle and unconscious way. And sometimes we read out loud. Some people draw sharp distinctions between reading out loud and reading silently.
And as we read we bring our bodies with us. We are sitting or walking, standing or lying down. We are looking with our eyes. The founder of process philosophy, Alfred North Whitehead, says that all of our experiences begin with what he calls the withness of the body. Our bodies are not simply means by which we take our minds from one location to another; they are where the world meets us, including the world of poetry. As we read a poem our minds may be lost in a faraway land, but our bodies are here, with us, in the reading.
Of course our imaginations are in the reading, too. Our imaginations enable us to move from one portion of the text to another, not unlike the way in which we might eat fruit salad. When you have a bowl of fruit salad in front of you, you choose the particular fruit -- bananas, strawberries, pineapple-- that strikes your fancy.
I think we can read poems like this, too. By this I mean two things. We do not need to read the whole poem if we are nourished by a part. We can stay with that part, and call it a night.
And even if we do read the whole poem, there is no need to read it in a linear fashion. We can jump from one section to another and then go back, not unlike the way in which we jump from one poem to another in an anthology, flipping back and forth. Call it non-linear nibbling.
Many contemporary poems are conducive to imaginative nibbling. They are a collage of lines which can be strung together in a linear order, forming an organic whole; but they can also be enjoyed in a non-linear way as a collage of fragments which can be seen as a whole but also have independent integrity.
Many sacred scriptures have this quality. Consider the Holy Qur'an. It is a collage of many different poems, and poems within poems, and poems within poems within poems. It is not a rule book, it is a cluster of warnings and invitations, helping us awaken to the unity -- the tawhid - within which we live and move and have our being. Some suras are warnings and some are invitations, but all are inviting us to experience awe and wonder.
Many poems are like mini-Qur'ans. This means that as you read them you can move from beginning to end; but you can also move from middle to beginning or from end to middle. And you can just stay on one or two lines if you are so inclined. You can begin in the middle, where all beginnings begin.
Beginning in the Middle
Think of how people read the Bible. There is no commandment in the Bible which says: "Thou shalt never begin in the middle." Jews and Christians begin in the middle all the time, turning to this book and that book within the good book. And for process thinkers, influenced by Whitehead, there may even be some divine sanction in it. According to process theology, the universe is without beginning or end. God does not create out of nothing but rather out of the pre-existing chaos at hand. This means that even the Holy One began in the middle when he or she began creating our universe. The chaos already existed. The Holy was just giving it a little order. If God can begin in the middle, we can, too. Let the winds of the spirit blow where they will.
For my part, when I begin in the middle, I always look for sentences that do not begin with "The." There is far too much declaration in the world today. Too many attempts to tidy things up, when there's so much beauty in the untidy. Too many ideologies of heart and mind. Buddhists teach us that there is a lot of spirituality in not having fixed views.
Kissed by Steam
There is a Zen rock garden in Kyoto that's designed so that, wherever you stand, you cannot see the whole. You see sand and the rocks, but no possibility for a controlling overview. All good poems are like this. Even if they come across as organic wholes, there's no final interpretation. Freedom from finality of statement is one of poetry's greatest gifts to humanity.
This is why it can be important -- even spiritually enlightened -- to focus on fragments. You are reminding yourself that even if you read the poem as a whole, this whole is nested in a larger whole -- the forever fluid rock garden of the universe -- which is never fully encompassed by any finite observer. Heidegger reminds us that we are always already inside this whole, and that we can never stand outside it and pretend that we are mere spectators.
When a simple line or phrase in the middle of a poem becomes the subject of your attention, you are aware of an immediate textual background that you don't know and comprehend. You are deciding not to know this background, at least for the moment.
This deciding not to know the whole is an act of faith. It is faith that there can be meaning in the particular which transcends the meaning of the whole, even as there is meaning in the whole which transcends the meaning of the particular. Here are the last two lines of Joey Nicolletti's poem:
my wife pulls the Onion Pie
out of the oven, kissed by steam.
Blake reminds us to see heaven in a wildflower and the universe in a grain of sand.
Onion Pie reminds us that there's more than a little divine steam when you take an onion pie out of the oven on a cold, cold day.
Maybe that is one of the purposes of poetry at its best. Maybe it helps us become kissed by the steam.