Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Journeying Star


Oh my heart, my other self;
you who dwell in city or in desert,
or in the cathedral silence of forests,
or close by the sea’s great voice
which is my voice also,
you look up and wonder at my shining.

Do you ask yourself:
what keeps me fixed in the night?
Why do I not journey
like the white and journeying moon?
There surely is heaven enough
in which to move;
there surely is space enough
for me to arc across the dark
above your head.

And yet I remain in my appointed place,
your dependable star,
obedient to your own stillness,
as fixed in my place as you are in yours:
we two are as immobile as mountains.

Perhaps you imagine
that if you remain in your place
then you always can find me;
you look up, and there I shall be:
we two are as predictable as the tides.

And then one night you move.
For the first time you dare
to take a single step,
and wonder of wonders:
I take that step with you.
You begin to walk, you move:
and I move with you.

And so your step becomes a journey,
and I journey with you
towards some promise,
some appointed destiny
some assignation rich with moment
for you and all who journey with you
towards your secret-bright redemption.

But wonder of wonders:
for the whole time you have been travelling
it is I who have remained in my appointed place:
it is you, my heart, who have been journeying;
and still you always can find me,
and I shall be with you
at your secret-bright redemption.




Illustration by Edmund Dulac, from the book The Stealers of Light by the Queen of Roumania

Thursday, November 24, 2016

As Dew on the Earth

Choose now life
It descends from heaven
as dew on the earth
as light out of darkness
It comes as a storm wind
in squalls of darkness and light
Blessed are your nights, blessed are your days
your heart, your mind, your face.

*
Nu kies dan het leven
het daalt uit de hemel
als dauw op de aarde
als licht uit het donker.
Het komt als een stormwind 
in vlagen van donker en licht
Gezegend je nachten, gezegend je dagen,
je hart,  je verstand,  je gezicht.`

Huub Oosterhuis
translation by me


Artwork by Frank Zumbach

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Like the Butterfly


See the bluebell in the rain:
how she bends  
her head to the storm
in humble trust
that the butterfly
seeking refuge,
letting her wet wings dry,
will cling on, will endure
until the storm has passed.

But even a flower 
cannot capture the breeze
and keep it.
So is the deepest love,
like the butterfly,
here for only a moment
and gone the next.

Change is constant
And love as well
is flowering constantly
with fragrant petals
opening and closing...
and falling away once more.





Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Waves


The waves today are whales:
curling flukes of foam
that dissolve and vanish forevermore
as each wave folds upon itself
to break at my feet in a rush of white
here on the Oregon shore.

These are the leviathans of the Pacific
become one with their ocean home,
but more than this: these journeying giants
have now become the ocean itself:
tails of water, tails of foam.

In my vision it is the waves
which take the forms of tails,
slapping and rushing at the sand
to beach themselves at last,
wet and exhausted on the shore.

There are no whales, not today.
Perhaps tomorrow,
if I walk this same stretch of shore I will see them:
plumes of mist in the grey distance,
cruising the tug of currents
to their feeding grounds in the north.

For today, I have the white tails of the waves
with their memories older than an age
to remind me of times before my own
when all was new and beginning,
and the whales, the slide of currents,
the great ocean’s roll
were all and everything,
and the floating moon and the island sun
and the whales and the waves and my soul,
then as now, were one.






Sunday, October 16, 2016

More than One Tone




Whisper
like a twig does
with a bird
like a snowdrop does
with the light
to hear a sigh
more than one tone of the harp
in one little shell






Monday, October 3, 2016

Feathers


There's a room I can glimpse in my mirror
Far and far from my home
This room is a river of fire
And this room is a circle of stones
This room is a plain that's as wide as the world
And this room is a land unknown
This room is a place where the owl calls
Through forests of mystery
And this room is a shore where the wild wave horses
Toss their white manes in the sea.

Feathers for my mirror
Feathers for my wings
Feathers for the world
Where the wild wolf sings
Feathers for my stories
Feathers for my pain
Feathers for my shelter
From the night's dark rain.

But if this room is a shadow
And if this room is a dream
And if this room is only a room
Then how would my mirror seem?

But feathered is my mirror
Feathered are my wings
And feathered is the world
Where my wild wolf sings
Feathered is the drum
Feathered is the moon
Feathered is the heart
That journeys alone.

And each feather that I find on my pathway
Each feather I must work to earn
I will know for each feather
That I give to my mirror
My mirror gives me one in return.



Saturday, September 24, 2016

Nereid


How my body aches!
The tyrant shore's heaviness
drugs my tired limbs.
My throat is raw from breathing in
this unfamiliar, unseen nothing.
How can I not be exhausted
from such sustained effort
merely to remain alive
in this alien world of air?
Now dawn's silent light
has snared me,
has cast a silken net
across my glistening skin,
tight and unforgiving.

How can I know
how much time has passed
since I stranded here?
A single night?
A cycle of the white and silent moon?
A thousand years?
I recall stories of others of my kind,
washed ashore and becoming something other,
both less and more than they had been.
They never returned.

But in my struggle with the tides,
with the tug and slide of currents,
with life itself,
even in my struggle with this cruel nothing,
which cracks my throat with every breath,
I am resolved.
I will not become as those
whose lives are lived
in this unfamiliar, alien world of air.
I will not become something
other than who I truly am.

And so I mark my time.
I will wait patiently in this pain of dawn
I will wait in the sun's heat soon to come
I will wait curled up, unmoving:
a silken shadow where no shadows fall.
I will wait until some kind and trusting tide
returns me to my ocean home
in a single night,
or in a cycle of the white and silent moon,
or in a thousand years.

How could I live in this alien air?
How could my feet tread this alien earth?
I am as patient as the tides,
as inscrutable as my Mother Ocean
whose child I am
forever.




Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Voice of the Ocean

Recently I visited Cape Lookout State Park on the Oregon coast:  a large peninsula which juts out into the Pacific. Standing at the entrance to the Cape I had a view of the ocean to either side, both to the north and to the south. On the north side lies a spectecular steep-sided bay which almost, but not quite, cuts the end of the Cape into an island. Being in such a place made me feel that I was standing at the edge of the world, and what lay beyond was all unknown and still to be discovered.

Now let's imagine that this landscape is a landscape made of time - which in some real sense, it is. Let's say that the coast lying to the south is the past, and the coast to the north is the future, and where I was standing on the peninsula is the present moment. This is the familiar landscape of time in which we all stand, with the past flowing through the present moment towards the unknown future. But there is another 'time' beyond this: the 'time' of the great ocean itself. To the ocean this 'past-present-future' time is meaningless. The ocean is eternal.

In that magical place that I had stood, the world around me seemed to offer me a lesson: a reminder of the eternal - and oh, how easy it is to think of the ocean in such a way! The unhurried waves role onto the wide beach, and the waves are themselves just the surface signs of the currents and undertows which flow unseen beneath. And even though the depths of that ocean remained hidden to me, the moving waves hinted at what might be happening below its surface: migrating whales on their long journey down to the southern feeding grounds (Earlier in the week I saw them spouting offshore!) and other creatures of that watery world that live out their lives in the silence of those blue depths.

Now overhead a bright harvest moon is shining, big and pale gold, the colour of ripe grain - just the way a harvest moon should look! The seasons turn, the waves which I hear from my window as I type this roll in to the wide sandy beach, as they have done for a thousand years and more, and these reflections on my visit to the Cape can be harvested. Unseen below the surface, the great whales slowly onward under the moon. In my imagination I can hear their songs echoing from the depths like the great voice of the ocean itself, and I feel that, simply because I am thinking about them, a small part of me is journeying with them through that deep blue eternity.






Sunday, September 4, 2016

On the Shore



 

Almost exactly one hundred years ago the photographer Edward S. Curtis recorded with his camera an elderly Chinook woman gathering clams on the Pacific shore. The woman, we believe, was the daughter of the great Seattle, and was known as Princess Angelina. Now a century later, just a little farther south of where that photograph was taken, I stand on that same shore gazing out over that same ocean.

That photograph which Curtis made has inspired and informed so much of my life and my own writing and poetry. It is the archetypal image of a lone woman standing on the shore. Even a short while ago and half a world away I could not have imagined that I would be standing here, but a dear friend has made it possible, and the wished-for unthinkable has happened. The pathways of our life’s journeyings, whether they are those which happen on a map or which take place inside ourselves, are in the end always unpredictable. We know this so well through experience. We make our plans and the gods smile at our naivety and send us off in another direction entirely. At times that other direction is something other than we would have wished for, and yet on other occasions – as has happened to me now – it can bring rewards the more remarkable exactly because they were unexpected.

How many other footprints have been left on this same Pacific shore where I now stand? Princess Angelina’s certainly, but also those of Sacagawea, the courageous young Shoshone woman who was the invaluable guide on the William Clark and Merriweather Lewis expeditions of exploration. It was the wish of Sacagawea to see the ocean, and – just once – she did. And what of the many 19th-century settlers who with their wagons followed the Oregon Trail west? Finally to have reached this same shore where I now stand must have seemed like a blessing indeed after facing and persevering with the many dangers and hardships of their long journey. But to those settlers the ocean also clearly defined the limits of that journey: unlike the frontiers of the land it was a frontier that was absolute. Thus far, said the Oregon shore, and no farther.

The distant waves which even now I hear from my window as I write this have rolled in from another east: from Japan, from China, from Indonesia. The ocean as well has its journeys, and the patterns of its travelling currents are more predictable than the patterns of human travels. And what of my own footprints which I leave here on this shore? They will have been washed away by those journeying waves even before today’s sun has set, and certainly long before I myself travel back home to the Netherlands. And yet I have peace and take strength from knowing that, even though our timing might be different, they at last have joined those of Princess Angelina and Sacagawea. What the waves erase so easily finds a more enduring place in the memory, and it is there that my fragile footprints in the Oregon sand will remain.





Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Question


In my ears: the unceasing voice of the wind. I wonder where the figure has vanished to. Perhaps if I could just make it to the crest of this dune I might yet catch another glimpse of her. With the wind at my back, and the blown grains of surface sand stinging my ankles, I struggle up the shadowed face of the great crescent of sand. 

With the light of the fast-sinking sun flooding my face I emerge from the dune’s shadow, and in two more paces I am standing full in the orange light on the sweeping crest of the dune. I scan the view in front of me for signs of life, and notice a dark outcrop of rock emerging like an island from the sand sea. And there in the shadow of the rock I notice a movement, as if she is deliberately revealing her presence to me – which perhaps she is. Perhaps she seeks this encounter as much as I myself do, for is that not her nature: to confront the other?

A few more minutes and I am climbing over the dark rock to reach the place where I spotted her. At first I do not see her, even though she is very close. Then two orange eyes open and stare at me from the shadows. Oh, such eyes! All the mysteries of the world are contained in those twin pools of amber. Her long mane of hair blows around her shoulders like a cloak, and her body, though human-enough, seems somehow other-than-human in a way in which I cannot explain to myself.

What does one say to a sphinx? Is it protocol to wait until spoken to when encountering such a fabulous creature of legend? Such encounters are too infrequent to really know the correct form of things. I feel awkward and unsure, and if I am truthful, also rather nervous. I notice the sphinx’s dark nails grown to the length of talons.

“May I ask you a question?” I hear a voice say. The voice is my own, desperate, apparently, to break the prolonged silence. The eyes of the sphinx fix onto and hold my own. She does not speak. “I would like to ask you” I continue, “if my life has a meaning.” Still the sphinx remains silent, scrutinizing me intently. Such silence can bring anxiety, so I continue: “I mean, sometimes I feel that it does, but at other times I feel just as equally that it’s all random, and it doesn’t matter what I do or plan because things happen anyway, but then it all more-or-less turns out in the end and I’m left wondering that even if I’d planned it all, would it have been any different? I suppose what I’d really like to ask you is: is there such a thing as free will, or is it all beyond our control? Although, now I think about it, I guess we must have free will, because it was my own free will that drove me to search for you so that I could ask you the answer to such a big, big question.”

Behind me, the pale moon is on the rise. The sphinx stares at me, and I seem to notice a faint smile. That ghost of a smile is still there as the sphinx curls up in the velvet shadows and silently falls asleep.






Artwork by David Bergen


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Flight and Pursuit


Desperate situations call for desperate measures. A true free spirit, the wood nymph Daphne is never happier than when she is roaming the forests. The dappled sunlight of the forest glades are more than home to her: they are her preferred company, and she vows that she would sooner keep herself chaste than exchange the familiar company of the surrounding trees for a partner in life.

All might have continued to go well for Daphne, were it not for the fateful day when the glorious god Apollo happens to catch sight of her as she dances in a sunlit glade. At once smitten by her beauty and charm, the god approaches Daphne and attempts to seduce her. Now, Apollo is used to having his way, whether with mortal or with nymph. But for the first time ever he finds his advances rejected. In a moment’s distraction Daphne seizes her chance to flee the god’s amorous advances and runs away as fast as she can, hoping that her familiarity with the forest trails might offer her an advantage in her flight.

But Daphne’s knowledge of the secret paths through her beloved forest is proving no advantage when matched against a god’s bruised ego. Wounded pride mixed with ardour for the fleeing nymph only fuels the pace of Apollo’s pursuit. At the last moment of her flight, when the god is so close behind her that she can feel his hot breath on her back, Daphne calls out in panic to her father, the river god Peneios. 

The great river stirs angrily, and white-topped waves slap its banks in a frenzy of fury as Peneios sees the plight which his daughter is in. Unable to leave his watery domain, the river god makes a last-resort move to save his daughter. Just as Apollo reaches out to seize the nymph, his all-too-eager hands grasp, not soft and yielding female flesh, but bark and branches and dark green leaves. Peneios with his powers has changed his daughter into a laurel tree: one more tree among all of its fellows in the wood nymph’s beloved forest.

A handful of laurel leaves are Apollo’s only gain. How to save face? How to restore a god’s bruised ego? By declaring a defeat to be a victory and founding a tradition. Apollo decrees that from that moment on, a crown of laurel leaves will become the worthy symbol of a victor. And the god promptly begins the tradition by weaving for himself a crown from the leaves that just moments before had been the living flesh of the beautiful nymph.

How often has it happened that reality has been turned on its head, and those who have been bettered have, through one means or another, insisted that they have in fact triumphed? Saving face in such a way is familiar enough to us from our own current news events. But in the story of Daphne and Apollo we can perceive a deeper meaning. Sometimes circumstances force us to change, and to change dramatically, and we become something other than that which we were before. It might not always be a change which we have wished for ourselves, but it has been a change made necessary for our survival, in whatever form that might take.

But Daphne’s fate also gives us reason to hope. The nymph’s essential nature was that of her own beloved forest, and her essence did not change. Instead it became absorbed into what she truly loved the most. Even in dramatic change, even undergoing apparent complete metamorphosis, our true essence survives in some form, and endures beyond even the great change at life’s end.




Art: Daphne and Apollo by John William Waterhouse