The master surrenders his beliefs.
He sees beyond the end and the beginning.
He cuts all ties.
He gives up all his desires.
He resists all temptations.
And he rises.
In the old days I didn’t know how to be with people. Sure there was blindness—all that “not fitting in” known by the poor and cripples—but now, these days I see biographical detail has nothing to do with it. I am deliciously lonely. I’ve wept in foreign churches, swum in the Aegean in winter when only fishermen can be seen; stood on my hands where Finland meets Sweden and Russia, touching three lonesome places at once. Yes, I’ve walked in a monastery, was found by a priest with a candle in my hand and fully asleep. The blind carry candles, did you know? We too need to be seen.
All of the children played at living and dying in tall grass. We tore our clothes in grass; scraped skin from our arms; slapped at midges and mosquitoes. Sometimes we pressed our mouths into green and sucked moisture–though one of us, an older one–that knowing child found in every group—said the earth was radioactive and we believed her because she said President Kennedy said it. We were clear headed by turns, then knocked flat. Some of us knew the names of birds. My favorite was the White Throated Sparrow who we called the Peabody Bird. His little song could break your heart. Lots of things could break your heart. The Wood Thrush was also a heart breaker and lying face down in the woods he’d get inside you. He’d get inside us because we were playing dead. This was in the final days before television. We played dead and listened to bird song.
He found it difficult to tell the story of grass and the aspen that shivered and the names inside him.
When he was grown he imagined other adults once held themselves perfectly still in the green unspoken.
When he was grown he orbited poetry.
When he was 17 and suffering from anorexia–a factor of disability and depression, he was given the gift of Kenneth Rexroth’s poems. He read poetry in the suicide ward.
This poem may have saved his life:
Wind Tossed Dragons
The shadows of the cypresses
On the moonlit avenue
To the abandoned palace
Weave in tangles on the road
Like great kelp in the depths of the sea.
When the palace was full of people
I used to see this all the time
And never noticed how beautiful it was.
Mid-Autumn full moon, the luminous night
Is like a boundless ocean. A wild
Wind blows down the empty birds’ nests
And makes a sound like the waves of the sea
In the branches of the lonely trees.
That was the year he understood all things were lonely—all hearts give themselves up to the moonlit avenues.
Sartre said: “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” That was the thing!
I understood early and often I was never in bad company when I was by myself. That was the damed thing!
I would never tire of the milk and iodine taste of water that comes when strictly alone.
As a graduate student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop I took a 16 hour bus trip to visit the poet Robert Bly who lived in Minnesota. I rode for two days aboard several Greyhound buses.
When I got to Bly’s house in the tiny town of Moose Lake Minnesota, I asked a stranger if he knew where the poet lived. “Everyone knows where Robert lives,” said the man. “We have a real poet in our town!”
Bly hosted me some hours of joy, reciting poems, talking about Scandinavia, Pablo Neruda, the military industrial complex, a hundred things. But the best part of the day was a small poem. “Have you ever heard this little poem by David Ignatow?” he asked me.
“I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment on my life.”
Maybe blindness—my socialized understanding of blindness was my mountain.
Then I saw it was loneliness.
And I did not perform a little dance.
I took it inside me.
The oak turns its pockets out because it’s Sunday and late, and trees and fences merge and I turn on the radio pre-tuned to Shostakovich.
I will live a long time yet in the hard world watching for ships returning with news. If they don’t return that’s another verse.