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Poetry forum for a changing Earth.

earthweal weekly challenge: THE JOURNEY


Often the journey — the tale of where we have been — has much to tell us about where there is to go. What we’ve seen and learned, how those strange places have given us unusual vantages in which to see the world: History unites us with the land, and its mysteries reveal and guide the subtle relations between the three worlds.

For healers in primitive societies, the shaman was the mediator of the realms, having gained knowledge of the various afflictions and their cures. His or her education was a brutal one, delivered through a frequently deadly initiation. The shaman-prospect suffered a disordering event, went off into the wild and experienced an initiation dream where they journeyed to the ends of heaven, earth and the sea. There the spirits tore h/her apart and ritually reassembled the shaman with the extra singing bone. Then came apprenticeship to an old shaman who instructed in practical matters of drumming and dancing, building a ritual tent, learning the songs and performing the rituals. All of the shaman’s future work was rooted in that singular journey.

As agricultural societies slowly took over, the shaman evolved into a poet-priest deeply rooted in the oral culture but whose initiation was more culturally conducted, through the long education in the oral literature, its spells and songs.

The following initiation dream of an Avam Samoyed shaman, recounted by A.A. Popov and related in Mercea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archiac Techniques of Ecstasy is rich with instruction and delivers it in a whale of a tale. As you read it, be thinking of how your own unique story as a person, poet and animal on this earth and how it has provided gifts for all. Did a dream once open so many doors for you? Was there an experience on your road which implicated so many doors, or was the journey itself an undulating road of portals?

Sick with smallpox, the future shaman remained unconscious for three days and so nearly dead that on the third day he was almost buried. His initiation took place during this time. He remembered having been carried into the middle of a sea. There he heard his Sickness (that is, smallpox), speak, saying to him: “From the Lords of the Water you will receive the gift of shamanizing. Your name as a shaman will be Huottarie (Diver).”

Then the Sickness troubled the water of the sea. The candidate came out and climbed a mountain. There he met a naked woman and began to suckle her breast. The woman, who was probably the Lady of the Water, said to him: “You are my child; that is why I let you suckle at my breast. You will meet many hardships and be greatly wearied.”

The husband of the Lady of the Water, the Lord of the Underworld, then gave him two guides, an ermine and a mouse, to lead him to the underworld. When they came to a high place, the guides showed him seven tents with torn roofs. he entered the first and there found the inhabitants of the underworld and the men of the Great Sickness (syphilis). These men tore out his heart and threw it into a pot. In other tents he met the Lord of Madness and the Lords of all the nervous disorders, as well as the evil shamans. Thus he learned the various diseases that torment mankind.

Still preceded by his guides, the candidate then came to the Land of the Shamanesses, who strengthened his throat and his voice. He was then carried to the shores of the Nine Seas. In the middle of one of them was an island, and in the middle of the island a young birch tree rose to the sky. It was the Tree of the Lord of the Earth. Beside it grew nine herbs, the ancestors of all plants on earth. The tree was surrounded by seas, and in each of these swam a species of bird with its young. There were several kinds of ducks, a swan, and a sparrow-haw. The candidate visited all these seas; some of them were salt, others so hot he could not go near the shore.

After visiting the seas, the candidate raised his head an, in the top of the tree, saw men of various nations; Tavgi Samoyed, Russians, Dolgan, Yakut, and Tungus. He heard voices: “It has been decided that you shall have a drum (that is, the body of a drum) from the branches of this tree.” He began to fly with the birds of the seas. As he left the shore, the Lord of the Tree called to him: “My branch has just fallen; take it and make a drum of it that will serve you all your life.” The branch had three forks, and the Lord of the Tree bade him make three drums from it, to be kept by three women, each drum being for a special ceremony — the first for shamanizing women in childbirth, the second for curing the sick, the third for finding men lost in the snow.

The Lord of the Tree also gave branches to all the men who were in the top of the tree. But, appearing from the tree up to the chest in human form, he added: “One branch only I give not to the shamans, for I keep it for the rest of mankind. They can make dwellings from it and so use it for their needs. I am the Tree that gives life to all men.” Clasping the branch, the candidate was ready to resume his flight when again he heard a human voice, this time revealing to him the medicinal virtues of the seven plants and giving him certain instructions concerning the art of shamanizing. But, the voice added, he must marry three women (which, in fact, he later did by marrying three orphan girls whom he had cured of smallpox).

After that he came to an endless sea and there he found trees and seven stones. The stones spoke to him one after the other. The first had teeth like bears’ teeth and a basket-shaped cavity, and it revealed to him that it was the earth’s holding sone; it pressed on the fields with its weight, so that they should not be carried away by the wind. The second served to melt iron. He remained with these stones for seven days and so learned how they could be of use to men.

Then his two guides, the ermine and the mouse, led him to a high, rounded mountain. He saw an opening before him and entered a bright cave, covered with mirrors, in the middle of which there was something like a fire. Then he saw that there was no fire burning but that the light came from above, through an opening. One of the women told him that she was pregnant and would give birth to two reindeer; one would be the sacrificial animal of the Dolgan and Evenki, the other that of the Tavgi. She also have him a hair, which was to be useful to him when he shamanized for reindeer. the other woman also gave birth to two reindeer, symbols of the animals that would aid man in all his works and also supply his food. The cave had two openings, toward the north and toward the south; through each of them the young women sent a reindeer to serve the forest people (Dolgan and Evenki). The second woman, too, gave him a hair. When he shamanizes, he mentally turns toward the cave.

Then the candidate came to a desert and saw a distant mountain. After three days’ travel he reached it, entered an opening, and came to a naked man working a bellows. On the fire was a cauldron “as big as half the earth.” The naked man saw him and caught him with a huge pair of tongs. The novice had time to think, “I am dead!” The man cut off his head, chopped his body into bits, and put everything into the cauldron. There he boiled his body for three years. There were also three anvils, and the naked man forged the candidate’s head on the third, which was the one on which the best shamans were forged. Then he threw the head into one of the three pots and stood there, the one in which the water was the coldest. He now revealed to the candidate that, when he was called to cure someone, if the water in the ritual pot was very hot, it would be useless to shamanize, for the man was already lost; if the water was warm, he was sick but would recover; cold water denoted a healthy man.

The blacksmith then fished the candidate’s bones out of a river, in which they were floating, put them together, and covered them with flesh again. He counted them and told him that he had three too many; he was therefore to procure three shaman’s costumes. He forged his head and taught him how to read the letters that are inside it. He changed his eye; and that is why, when he shamanizes, he does not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes. Then the candidate found himself on the summit of a mountain, and finally he woke in the yurt, among his family.

Now he can sing and shamanize indefinitely, without ever growing tired. (pp. 38-42).

I’ve always related to the shaman’s initiation-dream, its telling and journey, mainly because my own story is finned with it. I was a mess at age 18, lapsed from the faith of my upbringing, in and out of college, drinking like a madman and suffering an onslaught of petit-mal seizures in the depth of a Northwestern winter. I should have died of it — committed suicide or drank myself to death — but didn’t, and through the bowels of that experience emerged the person I became, fitfully, wrong-headedly, bereft of any decent instruction until at age 30 I gave up drinking and entered AA. Lots of installments in that journey since, but suffice here to say that I come to see it as shamanic in nature and has provided a deep reservoir — a well, if you will — for poetry.

But enough of my journey: what of yours? How would you compress that journey into a poem? Is there an installment, an island-shaped episode which is crucial to the whole? How has your telling aged, perhaps matured or gone weedy and strange? And importantly, how is your journey meshed with this world’s? We are products of the time yet children of a god: the history and mystery of it is fascinating, at least to poetry. I don’t think the digitally-disrupted, fin-de-siecle dystopias of the media world are sufficient nor really true: they neglect the ocean of song and all the journeys swimming there.

For this challenge, write a journey-poem. If you were a famous explorer, what new worlds could you say you’ve found? What treasures hard to find have you come back with? What have you learned about story-telling? Where do tellings fail? And what of the Earth’s own journey into this strange, post-Holocene era? How is your journey entwined with that tale?


— Brendan









earthweal weekly challenge: DISPATCHES FROM THE EDGE


By Sherry Marr

This poem by Louise Erdrich really speaks to me as rivers rage throughout my province.


We watched from the house
as the river grew, helpless
and terrible in its unfamiliar body.
Wrestling everything into it,
the water wrapped around trees
until their life-hold was broken.
They went down, one by one,
and the river dragged off their covering.

Nests of the herons, roots washed to bones,
snags of soaked bark on the shoreline:
a whole forest pulled through the teeth
of the spillway. Trees surfacing
singly, where the river poured off
into arteries for fields below the reservation.

When at last it was over, the long removal,
they had all become the same dry wood.
We walked among them, the branches
whitening in the raw sun.
Above us drifted herons,
alone, hoarse-voiced, broken,
settling their beaks among the hollows.
Grandpa said, These are the ghosts of the tree people
moving among us, unable to take their rest.

Sometimes now, we dream our way back to the heron dance.
Their long wings are bending the air
into circles through which they fall.
They rise again in shifting wheels.
How long must we live in the broken figures
their necks make, narrowing the sky.

In mid-November, almost ten inches of rain from what is termed an atmospheric river hit B.C. – a month’s worth of rain in 24 hours. Major flooding occurred, three towns were evacuated, houses and cars underwater. Infrastructure crumbled: a dam broke, huge areas flooded, and sections of major highways and infrastructure collapsed. Three hundred people were trapped between two landslides and had to be helicoptered out.

The hardest hit area was Abbotsford, where, years ago, a lake was drained to convert the land for agriculture. It became a lake again during the flooding and thousands of livestock drowned in their long metal sheds. Scenes on the news were apocalyptic – water everywhere, people boating along what once were streets, trying to save the stranded. People on skidoos pulling cows who were up to their noses in water, trying to save at least some of the desperate creatures.

Sadly, there were some human deaths – a few people caught in two landslides on the highway. Some are still missing. 300 people were trapped between the two slides for 18 hours and were finally helicoptered out. There is an incalculable number of animal deaths, both domestic and wild. This hurts the worst.

The Sumas Prairie agricultural area in flood

Everyone set to in the rescue effort. Then the army was called in to help sandbag and shore up vulnerable areas. Frantically, repairs were made to the dike, and crews worked around the clock to make temporary repairs to crumbled highways so supply routes could be re-opened.

Time was of the essence, because two more atmospheric rivers were predicted to arrive just one week later. In Tofino, we are feeling it as I type, in extremely heavy rain.

Well, folks, this is us, and climate change just got very real. As I was typing this, my phone rang and Tofino’s emergency alert system warned that some local streets in Tofino have flooded, and the highway through the mountains, dangerous even in dry weather, is flooding and even more perilous.

The frustrating thing is these events have been triggered by decisions made twenty years ago, forty years ago  –  and decisions not made — to address a warming planet. Extraction capitalism, clearcutting and addiction to fossil fuels have gotten us where we are, along with governments’ refusal to make tough decisions, caring more about re-election than being stewards of resources for the people, and for future generations. Yet we kept re-electing them, while the Green party languishes for votes.

Tzeporah Berman of Vancouer has been an activist all her life. Her strong voice emerged during the Clayoquot Summer of 1993, and she has spent the years since working for climate justice. If we were to treat climate change as an actual emergency, Berman says, our response would look like this:

The single most important intervention is the one that so far no government has been willing to touch: cap fossil fuel use and scale it down, on a binding annual schedule, until the industry is mostly dismantled by the middle of the century. That’s it. This is the only fail-safe way to stop climate breakdown. If we want real action, this should be at the very top of our agenda.

But will anyone do it? Words about climate change are finally issuing forth from Ottawa, and from provincial officials. But we need more than words. With efforts focussed on reacting to climate events, when will they ever get around to being pro-active? The cost of cleanup after such devastation will cost far more than addressing climate change would have, especially if they had begun 40 years ago, when the science was clear.

Target dates of 2050 for lowering emissions are ludicrous, given where we are at right now.

I felt I should report this, since I am living in the middle of this new vestige of the climate crisis, following the heat dome we suffered in the summer, and then the wildfires.

But I wasn’t sure where to take it in terms of an earthweal challenge. Brendan suggested we write Verse Letters: a form of address, akin to dramatic monologue, to all parties involved – letters to the lost, perhaps; to those who caused the extinction;  or to those of us who are in the middle. They can be letters to fossil fuels, windmills, dead zones, to new life. I think I know who I want to address!

Let’s give it a whirl. Take it in whatever direction you want. If you prefer to write in a different form, please do. I am not strict.  I look forward to your responses.

earthweal open link weekend #94


Greetings all,

Hope the week has not been to wild or woolly, overfed or ripe — And welcome to earthweal open link weekend #94. Share a favorite poem and visit your fellow linkers to comment.

The open link forum lasts until midnight Sunday EST when the next weekly challenge rolls out.

Happy linking!


earthweal weekly challenge: PRAISING IS WHAT MATTERS



Greetings all —

Here up in the Northern Hemisphere, the year wanes speedily now with cold winds and lengthening nights. (Even in Florida, we get a sampling of it.) There are fortunate places and ones less so; recently British Columbia and Washington State have been rocked by torrential rains from an atmospheric river that have flooded infrastructure and caused landslides. Our heart and good wishes go out Sherry on Vancouver Island, where some of the hardest rains have fallen. We pray you stay safe and find a way to keep singing.

The twenty-first century continues to roll out in that wintry shade, even as elsewhere across the globe the seasons stroll toward summer. Much uncertainty and crisis in the second year of the pandemic, global supply chains snarled and governments increasingly unable to address the mounting climate crisis.

Here at earthweal, there is much to grieve—we have spent time recently with our extinct brethren —but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to freeze in the gathering shadows. Whatever the pent and fraught news of the day may be, step outside into the day and you’ll find there still is much to be grateful for. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, a grateful drunk will never drink again.

In the decade of the Great War, the Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke suffered deeply from a depression which kept him from writing. He had begun his great Duino Elegies, but the onset of the First World War and the turbulence in Europe had rendered him silent.

1921 he repaired to the 13th century Chateau Muzot in Switzerland (which belonged to a patron) and there began to source deep into his old roots. He attuned by translating works by Paul Valery and Michelangelo into German; and then, after learning of the death of young woman, a friend of his daughter Ruth, he suddenly found the frequency and in a brief creative burst which he termed “a hurricane of the spirit,” wrote in few days the first section of 26 sonnets for The Sonnets to Orpheus. He then turned his attention to the Elegies and finished them in five days; then returned to his Sonnets and completed the second section of 29 sonnets in two weeks. In a letter to a friend, he later called the burst “the most mysterious, most enigmatic dictation I have ever endured and achieved.”

Orpheus the ur-poet is the subject of Rilke’s sonnets, the Greek singer who (in Ovid’s telling) sang so beautifully he entranced beast and tree and even the stones; lost his beloved Eurydice on their wedding day and then failed to retrieve her from the land of death; and was in the end torn to pieces by the maenads of Dionysos, his soul finally joining his wife Eurydice in the afterlife. For Rilke, the master of poetry leads to a world entranced and alive — “the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang,” as he wrote in Sonnet 2.13.

Three of Rilke’s Sonnets I’d like to share here, for they resonate especially for me in this time of grieving and loss. In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, an American harvest festival with a dubious history. It is traditionally a time for a communal meal and offering thanks for the year’s blessings. Native Americans have a different take on this advent of white colonization, but let’s stay focused on the idea of giving thanks.

The first two sonnets are from early in the first sequence. In Sonnet 1.7, Rilke states that the very origin of song derives from the outward emotion of praise:

Praising is what matters!
He was summoned for that,
and came to us like the ore from a stone’s
silence. His mortal heart presses out
a deathless, inexhaustible wine.

Whenever he feels the god’s paradigm grip
his throat, the voice does not die in his mouth.
All becomes vineyard, all becomes grape,
ripened on the hills of his sensuous South.

Neither decay in the sepulchre of kings
nor any shadow that has fallen from the gods
can ever detract from his glorious praising.

For he is a herald who is with us always,
holding far into the doors of the dead
a bowl with ripe fruit worthy of praise.

(all translations by Stephen Mitchell, 1980)


As the embodiment of life, song is that very bowl of fruit, a passing mortal thing which is yet a deathless, inexhaustible wine. Can we praise this world, and by so doing, render it alive?

In the next sonnet (1.8), Rilke takes the song of praise toward its distant, darkest corners.

Only in the realm of Praising should Lament
walk, the naiad of the wept-for fountain,
watching over the stream of our complaint,
that it be clear upon the very stone

that bears the arch of triumph and the altar.—
Look: around her shoulders dawns the bright
sense that she may be the youngest sister
among the deities hidden in our heart.

Joy knows, and Longing has accepted,—
only Lament still learns; upon her beads,
night after night, she counts the ancient curse.

Yet awkward as she is, she suddenly
lifts a constellation of our voice,
glittering, into the pure nocturnal sky.

Our altars to grief: They are still learning what “Joy knows, and Longing has accepted.” A curious figure … They tend the purest water in the heart, and can weave a “glittering” “constellation of our voice.” But what of the leading line? “Only in the realm of Praising should Lament / walk …” Why is it essential that grief travel so?

The third sonnet is from the very end of the second series (2.29), and for me reads as a glorious benediction for our work to come:

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

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.

I first encounted Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus about a decade after Stephen Mitchell’s translation was first published in 1980, and they are probably my most frequently returned-to poems, read in sequence as if pouring out from an inexhaustible source. Different sonnets have resounded at different hours, but for me they sum the poet’s living-ness in praise of this world.

For this challenge, share a poem in praise of this Earth, this life, the heart and its deep love for the world around us. Let’s give thanks, earthweal style.