Last night I had a dream in which the poet laureate of Minnesota, Robert Bly was with me. Dreams can do this. In dreams people can be “with” each other.
This feeling can either be cold or warm. For instance one can dream of one’s drunken uncle who in turn chases the dreamer through the highly articulated house of the unconscious. That of course would be a cold dream. But last night’s affair was warm for Mr. Bly was with me in a small town coffee shop and he was reading aloud some poems and my dream brain was undergoing the electrolysis of love as the poet Kenneth Rexroth would say.
I should say that I’m a 54 year old visually impaired poet, essayist and teacher whose interest in poetry happened overnight in the kind of story that’s familiar to thousands of writers and book lovers: I was 17 years old, I was ill, hospitalized, deeply depressed, and just then a local poet named Jim Crenner gave me a book of Robert Bly’s poetry. The book was Silence in the Snowy Fields.
No one can tell you where the secret road connecting soul and the thing we call human reason will take you. But young people who are “in extremis” need someone to tell them the road exists. Jim Crenner gave me Robert Bly and Robert gave me this poem:
Poem In Three Parts
Oh, on an early morning I think I shall live forever!
I am wrapped in my joyful flesh,
As the grass is wrapped in its clouds of green.
Rising from a bed, where I dreamt
Of long rides past castles, and hot coals,
The sun lies happily on my knees;
I have suffered and survived the night
Bathed in dark water, like any blade of grass.
The strong leaves of the box elder tree,
Plunging in the wind, call us to disappear
Into the wilds of the universe,
Where we shall sit at the foot of a plant,
And live forever, like the dust.
Imagine if you will that I was a lonesome child. Blind in rural New Hampshire I made friends early with a mossy stone in the woods. I spent hours alone with my face pressed into the marl, watching as best I could as inch worms moved in the dark maze of a boulder’s crevices. For music I had the crows and the phoebe. In those days, circa 1959 a boy could spend whole days alone under those trees. The “real kids”, the strapping ones, athletes and braggarts were playing touch football in sunlight.
How alone I was!
I was like a forgotten fence, tight and stalwart and standing for something.
By the time I was 17 I was so thoroughly ashamed of my disability and so mindful of my losses where the adolescent world was concerned that I decided quite literally to starve myself. Boys of course can be anorexic as we now know, but in 1972 hardly anyone understood this. I discovered that I could take control of disappearing. By the spring of that year I weighed 96 pounds and I resembled a concentration camp survivor, all hip bones and ribs and sunken eyes.
In the psychiatric hospital a young resident physician from Ghana was trying to get me to drink a milk shake. The man in the bed next to me who was from Poland kept weeping and saying something about a light bulb. Occasionally he would climb from his bed and raise his hospital gown and try to show me a scar on his stomach but of course I couldn’t see well enough to properly acknowledge it. I’d say: “Karl, that’s a big scar!” And he would be temporarily happy in a way I didn’t understand and he’d climb back under his sheets.
Robert Bly’s poetry woke me up. Silence in the Snowy Fields woke me like the tutelary voice in dreams that says farewell to us as we are waking. That’s a voice that stays with you all day, secreted at the edge of your eyes and just below your ears and down in your viscera for the entire body knows this voice. And by God that voice is as lonely and ecstatic as the boy’s heart that lay atop that mossy stone and tracked a civilization of inching things and knew somehow that he was meant to be there despite the peculiar heart break of the enterprise.
Only poetry can give us the soul’s propriety. Only the poem can tell us that solitude and sweetclover and the victory swallows are equally parts of our soul’s actions.
Though we make all the world an algorithm lining up the churches and jeweled caskets, the eyes of animals, occidental numbers, post mortems of the dream, the soul has its own road and if you’re lucky someone gives you a book of poems that puts you back in touch with your proper wonder though its a lonesome affair.
Oh, I think we are meant to live forever with this news.
It was good to see you last night, Robert!