THE WILD AND SHAPELESS AIR

Mary Oliver (the 1984 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry) wrote a poem about Stanley Kunitz (named United States Poet Laureate in 2000).

I would like to share it with you.

Stanley Kunitz 

by Mary Oliver

I used to imagine him
coming from his house, like Merlin
strolling with important gestures
through the garden
where everything grows so thickly, 
where birds sing, little snakes lie
on the boughs, thinking of nothing
but their own good lives, 
where petals float upward, 
their colors exploding, 
and trees open their moist
pages of thunder –
it has happened every summer for years.

But now I know more
about the great wheel of growth, 
and decay, and rebirth, 
and know my vision for a falsehood.
Now I see him coming from the house –
I see him on his knees, 
cutting away the diseased, the superfluous, 
coaxing the new, 
knowing that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience –
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.

Oh, what good it does the heart
to know it isn’t magic! 
Like the human child I am
I rush to imitate –
I watch him as he bends
among the leaves and vines
to hook some weed or other; 
I think of him there
raking and trimming, stirring up
those sheets of fire
between the smothering weights of earth, 
the wild and shapeless air. 

Of his own work, Kunitz said:

“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—like rapture breaking on the mind.”

Kunitz was also remarkable for his courageous stance as a conscientious objector.

I read Mary Oliver’s take on him: 

“Knowing that the hour of fulfillment
is buried in years of patience –
yet willing to labor like that
on the mortal wheel.”

And I knew in that moment, that my own uncertain struggles: 

attempting to understand the whole of life, and my childish practice of wishing it well, 

may in time have its own fruition.

Without excuse I fell down Alice’s rabbit hole. Neither she nor her friends were there. 

I was frightened.

I am not entirely sure where this all began last week, but I have a feeling that the words of Goethe were a trigger. In the title page of the book I was reading, (Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person by Mary C. Richards), were his words:

“Then only are we really thinking

 when the subject on which we are thinking

 can not be thought out.” Goethe

This is a wonderful description of the Zen Koan: a tool intended to bring the mind to its knees, and crack it open, changing its position of perception, its perspective. According to the Zen based teacher, Adyashanti, enlightenment is only that: a change in perspective. He explains that nothing else changes, only how you perceive the world. 

I was pleased with dear Goethe, but set him aside for later.

Then I chanced to read about the author Alyc Helms, while shamelessly wandering through the Internet as I looked for possible literary agents. She caught me with a fox (and I do love the fox), by listing her literary interests as: (not in this order)

  • Foxes 
  •  Gender Identity
  • Liminality – the transitional period or phase of a rite of passage, during which the participant lacks social status or rank, remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility, and follows prescribed forms.
  • Critical theory fanfic – ?

Fanfic (Fan fiction) is the fractal spreading of a story as it erupts from its fans. In other words, the fans cannot get enough, so they write it themselves.

Critical Theory is “a philosophical approach to culture, and especially to literature, that seeks to confront the social, historical, and ideological forces and structures that produce and constrain it. The term is applied particularly to the work of the Frankfurt School.”

The Frankfurt School is at Goethe University. 

(Ah, there is his dear name, who was he, this Goethe-name of inner sanctums, of stone foundations, and library walls?) I haphazardly went to look at the Frankfurt School and found there many names (Kant, Freud, Marx, and other well known European fathers, all vetted and true). 

I was already in the rabbit hole, too far down to see the sky, as this slurry of dense information spilled down on me, slick and sweet as honey. 

“I need to understand all of this!” This thought arose, even while I was convinced, at the same moment, that I would soon be overwhelmed and buried. I was so overwhelmed with the extent of my flagrant ignorance of the truth, that I turned the page and began to read immediately about Kant and Transcendental Idealism:

“The doctrine is most commonly presented as the idea that time and space are just human perceptions; they are not necessarily real concepts, just a medium through which humans internalize the universe.”

Ah! Time and space! I am simply quantumly entangled with Schrodinger’s cat, right?

(Oh god, don’t let me drown.) (Remember to not ever open the box. Remember Pandora!)

This is where it ends. I am not playing cats cradle with Indra’s Net. I am a child with a kaleidoscope who thinks she can un-fracture the world with it.

The world remains fractured.

Whatever emphatic grain has caught in my teeth, I cannot shift it, I cannot spit it out. I must soften it. I move to images made of ink, film, clay and canvas. I rest in them. I must rest.

The child’s brush is blunt; its bristles are splayed from contact with dry paint cakes. 

Yellow, blue, green find the paper randomly. 

More often face and arms are marked with the shaman’s magic.

The pan of water tips and shaman swims. 

Swimming through the trees: great kelp forests. 

Feeding on swaying kelp, sweet, salty: shaman knows an umami delight in life. 

Shaman is swallowed by the Great Fish. 

Water flows, fish ends, shaman becomes cloud. 

Cloud becomes tree.

Tree becomes paper and brush in the child’s hand.

Moss seen in Northern England on an Autumn Day

2 thoughts on “THE WILD AND SHAPELESS AIR

    1. It was a day of storm packets, ending with that lovely sunlit confection.
      I too love the work of Mary Oliver. I am presently reading her collection titled ‘Dream Work’. She captures me: simple, sharp, and tender.

      Like

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