It’s been great having other voices take over the helm these past several weeks. Thanks to Sherry for “Wild Souls” and Lindi for her first earthweal challenge “Enactivism and The Poetry of Becoming.” You both inspired many fresh stirrings of poetry! And why stop there? Next week Hedgewitch makes her first appearance at earthweal helm with an All Hallows challenge sure to creak open the old doors. Can’t wait! And if any other of you would like to helm an earth poetry challenge of your own making, message me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to have you!
As this is the week before Halloween, I thought we might prep the cauldron with kindling gathered from the forest of light and shadow.
As this is the week before Halloween, I thought we might prep the cauldron with kindling gathered from the forest of light and shadow.
How shall we embark? An aboriginal tale tells us the road into this forest is paved like a Milky Way:
Before that sparkling galaxy of light, the Milky Way, spanned the heavens, there were no roads in the sky.
On earth, the aboriginal people were contented and happy. They spent the hours of daylight by collecting the abundant foods of the jungle and the seashore, and the evenings in chanting their songs and performing their ceremonies around the campfire.
The most famous singer and actor in the tribe was Purupriki, and the songs he chanted and the dances he performed were his own creation.
There came a day when the men of a neighbouring tribe paid a visit to see the performances of Purupriki. Many hours of that evening were spent in feasting, dancing, and singing, but early the next morning the men were out in the bush collecting food for the festivities of the following night.
Waiting until just before dawn, Purupriki, creeping through the darkness of the mangrove swamps, threw his club into a tree in which a myriad of flying foxes were roosting. Angry at the attack, they swept down on Purupriki and, with a roar of wings, carried him through the dim corridors of the mangrove swamps into the firmament.
On looking up, the aborigines saw Purupriki being carried into the sky by a multitude of flying foxes that trailed behind him like a luminous pathway. And as the men listened they heard the sweet voice of their much-loved singer chanting his song of farewell.
That night the tribesmen danced and chanted Purupriki’s farewell song. And in the sky, looking down upon the men who did him honour, was Purupriki, now the bright star Antares, while stretching across the firmament were the flying foxes, transformed into that brilliant spectacle of the night sky, the Milky Way.
(from The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths by Charles Mountford, Kindle Edition, (pp. 59-60.)
First, the light. Today (October 24) begins Diwali or Deepvali, the four-day Hindu “festival of light” celebrating the spiritual victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance. The festival’s name comes from Sanskrit dīpāvali or “row of lights,” a continuous illumination. The principal deities are Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, and Ganesha, god of wisdom and remover of obstacles. Celebrants prepare for Dewali by cleaning and preparing houses and workplaces with oil lamps called diyas and colorful art circle patterns known as rangoli. People wear their finest clothes, partake in family feasts, light up the town with lamps, shoot off fireworks and share gifts. The festival’s center is at the darkest night of the lunar month and symbolizes the victory of light over darkness.
Second, the dark. Alwyn and Brinley Rees foray into it in Celtic Heritage (1963)
The alternation of day and night, light and darkness, had a profound meaning for the Celts as it did for many other peoples. It manifested in a fundamental duality which had a variety of other expressions. Even now the dead of night is felt to be nearer to the Other World than is the light of day. A person born during the night can see ghosts and phantoms which are invisible to children of day. Fairies and other spirits become active after sunset; night, in a very real sense, belongs to them, and it is fitting that mortals should withdraw to the security of their own firesides.
In Ireland, country people still say it is inappropriate for persons to be out at all hours of the night. Such wanderers might disturb the ‘little people,’ and they run the risk of recognizing among them the spirits of dead relations. The country people also doubt the propriety of staying up late at night, because the dead approach the house silently every hour between ten and twelve o’clock in the hope of finding that all is quiet … As dawn dispels darkness, so does the crowing of cocks send the spirits and the elves to their abodes — night seems to be their day and day their night. Given this atmosphere of belief, it is small wonder that night is the propitious time for divination, witchcraft, wakes for the dead, and the telling of supernatural tales. (83-84)
Rees and Rees argue that the primary elements of Celtic mythology and belief were Indo-European in origin, so it seems to me we can pry into darkest night of Diwali with a comparison to the Celtic All-Hallows.
In the calendar of Iron Age Celts (an Indo-European inheritance), the lunar year comes to an end at All Hallows on October 31, the Eve of the Samhain new year festival. On that long bitter night, the veil is thin and the dead come back to visit the living. All Hallows meals were celebrated including place settings for the departed. Trickers abounded on dark roads and rooks playing Stingy Jack, a figure from folklore who tricked the devil to get money. When he died, God wouldn’t allow him into heaven. When turned up in Hell the devil wouldn’t have him either, so Jack was sentenced to roam the earth for eternity. At Halloween turnips were painted with demonic faces to frighten Jack away — and so pumpkins were carved.
Thank the gods our earth has its own dark and light alternations, so that as we in the north now approach Halloween, May Day is coming down south, representing the return of summer. (I assume but don’t know if these festivals are reversed south of the equator; is it time now for an October May Day or Halloween? Maybe one of you could fill me in.) Where darkness and death rule at All Hallows, Beltane crowns it May Queen with sun dances round the fertile maypole and greenwood marriages.
Darkness and light weave the ancient earth tale as the sun waxes and wanes through thirteen lunar cycles of black skies and full moons. They are kindred, brother day to sister moon, terrible in their utmost aspect and keeping our hearts and minds and feet in rhythm when in accord. We have dark nights of the soul and merry Yule logs, greenwood romance at Beltane and masses for the dead at Samhain. (And thanks to the alternate rhythms of our global North and South, here at earthweal we can celebrate the Calends of Winter and Summer Winter at the same time.)
These rhythms however are becoming distorted in the Anthropocene where a powered-up existence knows only light and a warming climate throws both biological and calendar cycles into chaos. Eight billion snow crabs have vanished from warming Arctic waters of Alaska. Hundreds of pilot whales confused by sonar or a sick member of the pod or some navigational error beach themselves, there to be left in the sadness of the sun. The core of the state I live in is still wrecked and swamped from the path of a hurricane overfed by hot Gulf waters.
For this week’s challenge, let’s go into the great forest to collect kindling of light and shadow. It’s a ritual task, one of preparation, a way to widen heart and mind so they may bear full witness to a magnitude. Every stage has its proscenium; it is the door to the dream, the hall to the next room of it. Let’s ready our grand hall by lighting verse jack-o-lanterns and filling bags of candy to appease the tricksters who will come knocking. Are there heirloom dishes good silver to lay out for the dead? Are the oil lamps hung throughout the citadel, are there enough colorful rangoli to delight the eyes of god? And what of the forest that supplies us with our fuel? Where is it found, how is it nourished / grown / composed, how are we changed by wandering through it? In what ways can poetry make us ready to receive the gift?
Every earth-song is foraged from the forest of light and shadow: let’s find enough kindling there to keep the cauldron bubbling all night — come Samhain all the doors will fly open!
TO KNOW THE DARK
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
The stars emerge one
by one into the names
that were last found for them
far back in other
darkness no one remembers
by watchers whose own
names were forgotten
later in the dark
and as the night deepens
other lumens begin
to appear around them
as though they were shining
through the same instant
from a single depth of age
though the time between
each one of them
and its nearest neighbor
contains in its span
the whole moment of the earth
turning in a light
that is not its own
with the complete course
of life upon it
born to brief reflection
recognition and anguish
from one cell evolving
to remember daylight
laughter and distant music
— from The Shadow of Sirius (2009)
THE PINE FOREST CALLS ME
I remember how it has grown these years.
Yet the spring pinecones are still young,
soft and gentle as skin to the touch.
It is always the green season here, even with future amber
formed golden from bar
with the scent of animal life that has passed through.
If a traveler should pass by, it summons,
Stop, come in, stay.
I remember one poet taking a branch of pine
from the winter forest to his dying sister.
It was all she wanted in her last moment.
I have never forgotten the snow dripping
from that branch to the floor.
It is what I want, too,
not so much to have a branch taken away,
but for myself to be taken to this world
my own life passed through
as it does now in the shadows
where sun filters in
to melt snow, quench earth,
that water dripping from the trees.
You smell it, too, so let’s remain a while in its shade.
How I love this forest
where the hieroglyphs of insects
work the inner layers of bark
like monks writing unseen in deep silence,
and if you know the tree secret of falling
you might summon the magic language.
I know prayers rise with smoke
the way some people
are so perfectly uplifted
from their first roots.
But when this life of trying is finally over,
bring to my bed a small branch
smelling of green forest,
the melting pure water of snow,
these mysteries discovered
one more time.
— from A History of Kindness (2020
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SHADOW
Thanksgiving, dark of the moon.
Nothing down here in the underworld but vague shapes and black holes,
Heaven resplendent but virtual
trees stripped and triple-wired like Irish harps.
Lights on Pantops and Free Bridge mirror the eastern sky.
Under the bridge is the river,
the red Rivanna.
Under the river’s redemption, it says in the book,
It says in the book,
Through water and fire the whole place becomes purified,
The visible by the visible, the hidden by what is hidden.
Each word, as someone once wrote, contains the universe.
The visible carries all the invisible on its back.
Tonight, in the unconditional, what moves in the long-limbed grasses,
what touches me
As though I didn’t exist?
What is it that keeps on moving,
a tiny pillar of smoke
Erect on its hind legs,
loose in the hollow grasses?
A word I don’t know yet, a little word, containing infinity,
Noiseless and unrepentant, in sift through the dry grass.
Under the tongue is the utterance.
Under the utterance is the fire, and then the only end of fire.
Only Dante, in Purgatory, casts a shadow,
L’ombra della carne, the shadow of flesh—
everyone else is one.
The darkness that flows from the world’s body, gloomy spot,
Pre-dogs our footsteps, and follows us,
Watching the nouns circle, and watching the verbs circle,
Till one of them enters the left ear and becomes a shadow
Itself, sweet word in the unwaxed ear.
This is a short history of the shadow, one part of us that’s real.
This is the way the world looks
In late November,
no leaves on the trees, no ledge to foil the lightfall.
No ledge in early December either, and no ice,
La Niña unhosing the heat pump
up from the Gulf,
Orange Crush sunset over the Blue Ridge,
No shadow from anything as evening gathers its objects
And eases into earshot.
Under the influx the outtake,
Leon Battista Alberti says,
Some lights are from stars, some from the sun
And moon, and other lights are from fires.
The light from the stars makes the shadow equal to the body.
Light from fire makes it greater,
there, under the tongue, there, under the utterance.
— title poem from A Short History of the Shadow, 2002
SONNETS TO ORPHEUS II.29
Ranier Maria Rilke
transl. Stephen Mitchell
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
WHITE OWL FLIES INTO AND OUT OF THE FIELD.
Coming down out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel, or a Buddha with wings,
it was beautiful, and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings — five feet apart —
and the grabbing thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys of the snow —
and then it rose, gracefully,
and flew back to the frozen marshes
to lurk there, like a little lighthouse,
in the blue shadows —
so I thought:
maybe death isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light wrapping itself around us —
as soft as feathers —
that we are instantly weary of looking, and looking,
and shut our eyes, not without amazement,
and let ourselves be carried,
as through the translucence of mica,
to the river that is without the least dapple or shadow,
that is nothing but light — scalding, aortal light —
in which we are washed and washed
out of our bones.
— from House of Light (1990)