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“A Portrait of a Dog as an Old Guy”

When his owner died in 2000 and a new family

moved into their Moscow apartment,

he went to live with mongrels in the park.

In summer there was plenty of food, kids

often left behind sandwiches, hotdogs and other stuff.

He didn’t have a big appetite,

still missing his old guy.

He too was old, the ladies no longer excited him,

and he didn’t burn calories chasing them around.

Then winter came and the little folk abandoned the park.

The idea of eating from the trash occurred to him

but the minute he started rummaging in the

overturned garbage container, a voice

in his head said: “No, Rex!”

The remnants of a good upbringing lower

our natural survival skills.

 

I met him again in the early spring of 2001.

He looked terrific. Turning gray became him.

His dark shepherd eyes were perfectly bright,

like those of a puppy.

I asked him how he sustained himself

in this new free-market situation

when even the human species suffered from malnutrition.

In response he told me his story;

how at first he thought that life without his man

wasn’t worth it, how those

who petted him when he was a pet

then turned away from him, and how one night

he had a revelation.

 

His man came to him in his sleep,

tapped him on his skinny neck and said:

“Let’s go shopping!” So the next morning he took the subway

and went to the street market

where they used to go together every Sunday and where

vendors recognized him and fed him

to his heart’s content.

“Perhaps you should move closer to that area?”

I ventured.—“No, I’ll stay here,” he sighed,

“oldies shouldn’t change their topography. That’s

what my man said.”

Indeed, he sounded like one himself.

 

Katia Kapovich is a modern Russian poet, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early ’90s.

I wasn’t familiar with Kapovich’s work until I went looking for a “dog poem” and found this one, which immediately charmed me. Sometimes, that’s enough for a poem. Poetry shouldn’t be asked to bear the burden of significance all the time. Sometimes, a poem should be enjoyed, just for the pleasure of it.

For me, one of the highlights of this poem is the personification and cultural relevance that get applied to the life of the dog. He finds himself in a “free-market” economy; he’s too old to chase the ladies, or run around burning calories. His “good upbringing” keeps him from surviving like the rest of his comrades in the park. But all is not lost; he goes “shopping,” finds a sustainable food source, but won’t move any closer, since “oldies shouldn’t change their topography.”  The sweet absurdity of it all made me grin. Kapovich was describing the life of a particular dog, but it could have been my 88-year-old grandfather, or perhaps even her own, with all his peculiar, but dignified ways of doing things in the last years of his life.

Since I have never had the pleasure of growing old with a dog, or the pain of having a dog grow old with me (or perhaps it’s the reverse), my first instinct as a reader is to stick with a surface reading of the poem, the creativity and humor. But if I were a dog-owner and a dog loved me the way this dog loved “his man,” I have no doubt this poem would mean much more.  I can see the tenderness and loyalty of their bond, the cruelty of the new apartment owners who threw  him out, and the kindness of the street vendors who sustained his life, but if I were a dog owner, I would feel it, deeply, on an empathetic level. That’s why I always try to read a poem more than once.  I may, or may not be pleased on a first go-’round, but there is probably something to be learned regardless, an insight into something I know nothing about.

So, thank you, Katia Kapovich for helping me learn something new about a man and his best friend.

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“The Love Religion”

The inner space inside

that we call the heart

has become many different

living scenes and stories.

 

A pasture for sleek gazelles,

a monastery for Christian monks,

a temple with Shiva dancing,

a kaaba for pilgrimage.

 

The tablets of Moses are there,

the Qur’an, the Vedas,

the sutras, and the gospels.

 

Love is the religion in me.

Whichever way love’s camel goes,

that way becomes my faith,

the source of beauty and a light

of sacredness over everything.

 

Ibn Arabi, a 12th century great Sufi master and saint

When we encounter one of the “great ones,” we tend to believe they are completely original in their thoughts, radically different in their teachings, from everyone who came before them.  But when you dig deeper into their history, you often find they are following in the footsteps of another. We are all standing on the shoulders of the ones who came before us. In the case of Rumi, Arabi came first.

I appreciate this poem’s definition of the “heart,” not just as an internal organ, but as that sacred space where we find ourselves most at home, most alive to our inner life, soul and consciousness. The heart is a place, a teaching, a community. Most of us find our “heart” in one place, one tribe, or one text, but Arabi knows no such limitation. His heart’s home is anywhere permeated by the scent, beauty and sacred light of Love.

Though born, raised and worshipping in Catholic Christian communities, I found early on that my heart, like Arabi’s, tended to follow “love’s camel.”

 

 

 

 

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“Change”

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame

where everything shines as it disappears.

The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much

as the curve of the body as it turns away.

 

What locks itself in sameness has congealed.

Is is safer to be gray and numb?

What turns hard becomes rigid

and is easily shattered.

 

Pour yourself out like a fountain.

Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking

finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

 

Every happiness is a child of a separation

it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, become a laurel,

dares you to become wind.

 

Rilke, from Songs to Orpheus II

I realize I’m on a bit of a Rilke jag this week and hope you don’t mind.  I wanted to post this poem in conjunction with Rumi’s poem, “Two Kinds of Intelligence.” They both tap into that same idea that there is a deep wisdom in staying flexible, and allowing things to flow through us and that for some reason, we always need that reminder. Most of us have settled into our comfort zone, and aren’t looking for change. Evolution and growth might be nice in theory, but in practice, we often resist them with all our might. I think we might even over-idealize concepts like “tradition,” “commitment,” and “the way things used to be,” as a way to avoid making healthy, necessary, albeit painful changes.

But nothing in the universe is static! So why would we think that our lives, beliefs, nations, or faith traditions should be?

The key to adopting this wisdom can be found in the final stanza.

Every happiness is a child of a separation

it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, become a laurel,

dares you to become wind.

Nothing good can ever come again if we do not expand and grow, personally, professionally, relationally. It is the resurrection mystery at the heart of the universe. Separation, loss, death – things we do not think we can survive – these are the roots of our future happiness. Even Daphne, who lost her idyllic life and became a stationary laurel tree, invites you to become like the never-still wind. It is always blowing somewhere, changing something. The rustle of her leaves is the only movement she will ever experience. Would you be willing to trade places with her?

 

 

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“Two Kinds of Intelligence”

There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.

With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.

There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through conduits of plumbing-learning.

This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.

 

Rumi, 13th century Persian Sufi mystic, poet and teacher

Obviously we all know and love the first kind of knowledge. We have been “educated” in that way our whole lives: the knowing, the discerning, the judging and ranking. According to Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr, it’s what the false self thrives on; it’s a meritocracy, a game of tit-for-tat and it’s the only game in town.

But what if it’s not? What if what we look like and how well we do and where we rank is just ONE way to look at the world and not even the most interesting way,?

That’s the type of intelligence Rumi offers as an alternative in the third stanza.  This is the wisdom of the True Self, our soul, humanity, authenticity, integrity, creativity, generativity, connectivity, etc.  This never dies. This is the Divine Intelligence from which we came and to which we will return and it is our life’s work and pleasure to live out of that intelligence all the days of our lives. The second intelligence, which we mistakenly put first, is good as far as it goes, as my teacher would say, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. It takes the flexible, fluid movement of the Spirit within us to go all the way.

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“Remembering”

And you wait. You wait for the one thing
that will change your life,
make it more than it is—
something wonderful, exceptional,
stones awakening, depths opening to you.

In the dusky bookstalls
old books glimmer gold and brown.
You think of lands you journeyed through,
of paintings and a dress once worn
by a woman you never found again.

And suddenly you know: that was enough.
You rise and there appears before you
in all its longings and hesitations
the shape of what you lived.

Rilke is one of the most widely celebrated poets of the 20th century. His life is fascinating and he kept up a wide correspondence with many women and men throughout his lifetime. His Letters to a Young Poet is classic wisdom text about living as an artist.

Last week, Molly asked me to french braid her hair before hockey practice.  It’s a little ritual we have; she shows up with her hair bands and a comb and sits between my legs and we chat about the day. But last week, instead of small talk, I handed her my copy of Rilke opened to this page and asked her to read it aloud. She did once, and then I asked her to read it again and tell me what she thought it was about.  I didn’t know if a fifteen-year-old would know, but she did.

It’s about wasting your life, waiting for your “real life,” your “better life” to begin. You think that what’s happening now is boring, or beneath you, so you’re “remembering.” You keep looking back at all the choices you didn’t make, and the ones that got away.  You’re afraid you might have missed your chance to be special, to have the life you want, but really, it’s like you just have to wake up to what’s going on right now in your life. Wherever you are, is exactly where you’re supposed to be.  You’re life can still be great; you just have to recognize it.

I won’t claim Molly said all those words, but that was the gist of it. Even at fifteen, she’s experienced the universal longing for things to be different than they are, for our lives to conform to the vision we set for them. I’m glad I tried the poetry experiment with her; maybe she heard Rilke’s message a little sooner than the rest of us. (As a bonus, she also asked to borrow my copy of A Year with Rilke. I don’t think she’ll stick with it, but I’m glad she’s curious!)

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“Now is the Time”

Now is the time to know

That all you do is sacred.

 

Now, why not consider

A lasting truce with yourself and God.

 

Now is the time to understand

That all your ideas of right and wrong

Were just a child’s training wheels

To be laid aside

When you can finally live

With veracity

And love.

 

Hafiz is a divine envoy

Whom the Beloved

Has written a holy message upon.

 

My dear, please tell me,

Why do you still

Throw sticks at your heart

And God?

What is it in that sweet voice inside

That incites you to fear?

 

Now is the time for the world to know

That every thought and action is sacred.

 

This is the time

For you to deeply compute the impossibility

That there us anything

But grace.

Now is the season to know

That everything you do

Is sacred.

 

– Hafiz

Hafiz approaches his readers, as always, with tenderness and compassion and a deep desire for us to have compassion for ourselves. For those of us raised in one of the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, or in cultures shaped by those religions, what Hafiz suggests might sound like heresy. We live and die by our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral. How else will be know whether God loves us, or not? How else could we determine if we are on the plus-side of the Divine accounting system?  Would Hafiz really have us throw it out?

Actually, yes.

And he’s not alone.  Most of the mystics I’ve studied share one message. Most people with near death experience share one belief.

There is nothing “but grace” on the other side.

If we knew that, would it really make us run amok? If we stopped throwing sticks at our heart, would we really behave more badly than we do today? If we knew deep in our bones that we are sacred, our lives are sacred, this earth is sacred, wouldn’t we treat it as such? And wouldn’t that change everything?

 

 

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“La Reina/The Queen”

I have named you queen.

There are taller than you, taller.

There are purer than you, purer.

There are lovelier than you, lovelier.

But you are the queen.

 

When you go through the streets

No one recognizes you.

No one sees your crystal crown, no one looks

At the carpet of red gold

That you tread as you pass,

The nonexistent carpet.

 

And when you appear

All the rivers sound

In my body, bells

Shake the sky,

And a hymn fills the world.

 

Only you and I,

Only you and I, my love,

Listen to me.

 

I think I mentioned that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Day 12 :”Keeping Quiet”) was known for his love poetry, so I wanted to offer you an example of it, especially in contrast to Byron’s poem from yesterday.

To a romantic in the 19th century, to be in love was to be blind, at least vocally. Love and devotion were most properly expressed through hyperbole and exaggeration. But when the Romantic Era ended, so too did the necessity to claim things that couldn’t possibly be true. While poets and writers still enhanced the qualities of their beloveds, there was usually an element of realism as well.

What I love about this poem is the romantic realism of the narrator. There are certainly taller, lovelier, purer women, but she is his queen. When she walks by, no one notices her royal presence, which is just fine with him. For when she appears, his whole realm, body and soul, celebrates her arrival – “a hymn fills the world.” (I can’t imagine a more generous compliment.)

I imagine the final stanza delivered in a whisper, as the poet softly urges his beloved to believe in her own majesty. When she looks around the ordinary world, in a mirror, or on the streets, she will find nothing to indicate that she’s anything special, but don’t believe it, he begs her. In his kingdom, she is the queen.

 

“La Reina”

Yo te he nombrado reina.
Hay más altas que tú, más altas.
Hay más puras que tú, más puras.
Hay más bellas que tú, hay más bellas.
Pero tú eres la reina.
II.
Cuando vas por las calles
nadie te reconoce.
Nadie ve tu corona de cristal, nadie mira
la alfombra de oro rojo
que pisas donde pasas,
la alfombra que no existe.
III.
Y cuando asomas
suenan todos los ríos
en mi cuerpo, sacuden
el cielo las campanas,
y un himno llena el mundo.
IV.
Sólo tú y yo,
sólo tú y yo, amor mío,
lo escuchamos.

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Keara Moses

“She Walks in Beauty”

I.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
II.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express
How pure, how dear their dwelling place.
III.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
Lord Byron (1788- 1824) was one of the premiere poets of the Romantic era. If you’ve never heard of him, you probably studied his more staid contemporaries, like Wordsworth, “Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey,”  or Coleridge, “Kubla Kahn.  However, Byron was wildly popular in his day, both as a man and a poet. He was wealthy, handsome, defiant, and in some ways the embodiment of what would become known as the “Byronic hero,” which still pops up in television, film and literature to this day.
This is a classic love poem from that period, which we rarely see the likes of any more. Rhyme schemes, especially simplistic ones like we see here (ababab), have gone out of style, so it might sound strange to our modern ears. Also in classic fashion, the author overstates the perfection of his beloved. In each stanza, he heaps on more praise that can’t possibly be true. A pure dwelling place? A mind at peace with all below?  It’s over the top, right, so why include it?
Call me sentimental, I guess.
I fell in love with Byron’s work when I was a teenager, fresh out of high school and newly immersed in great literature as an English major. I had a fantasy of finding my own Romantic hero someday and this poem was the epitome of tenderness and devotion I hoped one day would come to me. While I did find my hero shortly thereafter, he wasn’t one for poetry, but I knew he loved me better than a man like Lord Byron ever could, who would have taken this perfect creature and left her a disgraced and fallen woman. That was his more likely pattern.
But this poem has always stayed with me and when it came time for Keara’s senior high school yearbook page, I was able to use the first lines to honor her:
She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:

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“God Would Kneel Down”

I think God might be a little prejudiced.
For once He asked me to join Him on a walk
Through this world,
 
And we gazed into every heart on this earth,
And I noticed he lingered a little bit longer
Before any face that was
weeping,
 
and before any eyes that were
laughing,
 
and sometimes when we passed
a soul in worship
God too would kneel
down.
 
I have come to learn: God
Adores His
Creation.
 
St. Francis of Assisi, translated by Daniel Ladinsky in Love Poems from God. St. Francis did not write formal poetry, but in Ladinsky’s collection, he translates spiritual masters and mystics across centuries, cultures and faiths, and reframes their prose as poetry.
St. Francis came from a very wealthy family, and early on, enjoyed that wealth, but when he was a young man, he had a radical vision from God and it completely reoriented the trajectory of his life. He famously and sincerely became a disciple of Jesus, aligning himself with the poor and those marginalized by society. Rather than becoming a hermit, or an outcast himself, hundreds of young people were inspired to follow him and his ways. To this day, Franciscans are a charismatic and powerful order that works hard for the “least of these.”

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Photo by Ray Collins

“Belly Song”

1.

And I and I / must admit

that the sea in you

   has sung / to the sea / in me

and I and I / must admit

that the sea in me

  has fallen / in love

  with the sea in you

because you have made something

out of the sea  

that nearly swallowed you

And this poem

This poem

This poem / I give / to you.

This poem is a song / I sing / I sing / to you

from the bottom

   of the sea

     in my belly

This poem / is a song / about FEELINGS

about the Bone of feeling

about the Stone of feeling

  And the Feather of feeling


4.

And now—in my 40th year

  I have come here

to this House of Feelings

to this Singing Sea

and I and I / must admit

that the sea in me

  has fallen / in love

with the sea in you

because the sea

that now sings / in you  

is the same sea

that nearly swallowed you—

  and me too.

 

Etheridge Knight was an African-American poet, born in 1931. He fought in the Korean war and was badly wounded. When he came home, he began to use drugs and was sent to prison for armed robbery.  He wrote: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”

 

This morning, I woke with a little bit of dread, knowing the amount of work I wanted to get done. It involved a lot of cleaning, organizing, responding, reacting, writing, etc. It did not involve a lot of fun. I’m not going to lie; I was a little grouchy.

And then the sun was shining and the surf was pumping and Tim and Molly were packing up to go.  Come with us, they asked. I declined. Come on, Molly said, tugging on my hand. We’re “fish people,” remember? they said, so I went. It’s totally thrown me off my game and I’ve been way less productive than I wanted to be, but there is always tomorrow…

This week, we watched Fish People, a beautiful documentary on Netflix about people who love the sea: divers, swimmers, surfers and artists. Though old and young, male and female from around the world, they all shared a deep connection with the ocean. In the water, they found beauty, peace, wisdom, space, sustenance. In short, in the sea, they found themselves and they found themselves at home.

The Kirkpatricks relate. In times of stress, sadness, grief, worry, romance, celebration, joy, or boredom,  the five of us head to the shore, together, individually, or with friends. Sometimes, just seeing the water is enough, but other times, a full-immersion experience is necessary to heal our minds and rejuvenate our souls. The sand, the salt, the smell, the sensations, the silence, the swell, the soul of the sea.

And so this is a love poem for my family, and all the other “fish people” out there.

The sea in me will always love the sea in you.

 

P.S. In all honesty, this is not actually a love poem in the sense that I’ve used it. My interpretation is a classic case of cultural appropriation, or “fake news.” Knight wrote the poem to the Daytop Family program that helped him recover from drug addiction in 1970. I excerpted the first and last stanzas, but want to honor the integrity of the whole poem by offering you a link here.