Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things ...

-from "Kindness" by Naomi Shihab Nye


April is poetry month!


This week we explore "Kindness."

click here  for full text and poem study

How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?

Most often I make sense of the world—reconcile my heart to its feasts of joys and losses—through reading and writing. On this page I offer reflections—quotations, academic response (including an abstract for my dissertation), meditation, poetry—whatever my muse inspires!


The Poet in the Underworld 

(Excerpt from Learning to Live in the Layers by Kathie Collins)

Poets have historically played the archetypal role of underworld guide, telling tales and singing songs of the loss and longing that are as much a part of the human condition as ecstasy and scientific progress. Literature itself perpetuates the poet’s underworld vocation—recall Virgil’s accompaniment of Dante into the most heinous regions of human imagination. Yet, unlike Greek Hermes, who by divine mandate mediates between the realms of Mount Olympus and Hades, the archetypal poet develops the ability to guide journeyers from Earth into the underworld and back again only through experience.

            Like Orpheus—who descends willingly from the familiarity and comfort of society into the unknown of the underworld to redeem his soul mate, his beloved wife Eurydice, from untimely death—the archetypal poet suffers intense longing and willingly traverses alone the dark and unknown realms at the edge of existence in order to recover what has been lost. Hers is a journey of soul retrieval through which life’s wholeness is restored. Having survived the ordeal the poet gains the wisdom necessary to chart the course in language. The poem created becomes the path along which others can travel.

            Of course, Orpheus fails his cited mission. Although Persephone, queen of the underworld, allows him to return to the upper world with his wife, it is under the condition that he not look back as he leads her along. But Orpheus is unable to endure the tension of forced blindness. Plagued with the question, “Is she there, or not?” he turns to see, and so loses the opportunity to restore Eurydice to the daylight world. His longing for her remains unrequited. Nonetheless, his journey serves a reconciling function. It forces him to name his longing, to search and plead for her, to find her in the place she must now belong … and to leave her there. Orpheus must return home alone and transform his soul’s longing into art.

            What we learn from Orpheus—what we learn from poetry—is that the roots of pothos, or longing, often lie beneath the sensory world, that soul originates in the underworld. This part of us lives within death, and, by recalling, recollecting, and remembering it, we bring it life. We are, as Kunitz claims, “living and dying at once” (Collected Poems 13), and the purpose of poetry is to help us embrace that paradox.

            In “The Layers,” Kunitz offers such help by donning the cloak of mythic Orpheus to demonstrate the spiraling pattern of the underworld journey. With his pronouncement, “I have walked through many lives, / some of them my own, / and I am not who I was” (Collected Poems 217), he sets the stage for transformational inter-world travel. We may not know yet what “lives” he speaks of, but we do know he has been changed, transformed, in his walking. And if we do not immediately comprehend the nature of this journey, Kunitz’s typical wasteland imagery, what Smith calls “necrotypes” (Descent 4)—“smoldering fires,” “scavenger angels,” and the “manic dust” of fallen friends—soon makes it clear. We are not in Greece (or Kansas) anymore. With Kunitz as guide, we descend into an underworld that cannot be adequately conveyed with ordinary language. Therefore, in addition to these more typical necrotypes, Kunitz also invents a series of strange double-word images, to communicate the upside-down nature of the region: “heavy wings,” “scattered tribe,” “feast of losses,” “exulting somewhat.” In the underworld, nothing is for sure—which is perhaps the reason Orpheus fatefully succumbs to the need to make sure Eurydice is really there.

            As the poem’s narrator, Kunitz admits that he also turns around, writing, “When I look behind, / as I am compelled to look / before I can gather strength / to proceed on my journey.” These words firmly indentify the poet with Orpheus. Yet when Kunitz looks behind, he sees not the faint image of Eurydice as she slips from his grasp, but rather “milestones dwindling / toward the horizon / and the slow fires trailing / from the abandoned camp-sites.” In these lines Kunitz faces his past and a lifetime of loss, which he describes as a “feast of losses,” and so permits us to understand the truth: all we have ever loved is eventually lost. Death does indeed permeate our living, and still we must, as the poet does, gather strength to proceed on our journeys.

            Kunitz receives divine instruction for this task in the form of a “nimbus-clouded voice,” an image reminiscent of the cloud-covered Yahweh of Exodus leading the Israelites from Egyptian slavery into freedom in the Promised Land. This voice directs Kunitz to “‘Live in the layers, / not on the litter,’” a command proclaiming the necessity of keeping a foot in both, perhaps even multiple, worlds. In order to live life fully, freely, and whole-heartedly, we must develop the fluidity to metaphorically travel through lands of light and shadow. We must be able to speak not only the straightforward language of the surface world, but also the misty metaphors and music of the inner underworld. And we must see how those worlds fit together—uncover the secret doors between them and perceive their divine intersections. We do this by sharpening the ability to analogize inner and outer, personal and communal experiences. This task is largely a linguistic one. And if it is language that makes us human, then it is the ability to use language to heal our divided consciousness that makes soul.

            Because of its primarily metaphorical nature, poetry has potential to school us in that less familiar language of the underworld, to restore our connection to death and to the parts of us that are metaphorically dead, and to so facilitate a repair of consciousness. While symbolic language is not only underworld language, its fluency demands facility with the speech, imagery, and ways of the shadow lands. We cannot see, hear, or touch our psychological depths. They can only be intuited with the third eye of intuition, which we know opens most regularly in our sleep, and, at least we imagine, opens permanently when we die. Consequently, sleep, death, and the underworld are essential metaphors for portraying soul’s rich, invisible depths. As Hillman writes, “The psychic perspective is focused not only on death or about dying. Rather, it is consciousness that stands on its own legs only when we have put our dayworld notions to sleep. Death is a profoundly radical way of expressing this shift in consciousness” (The Dream and the Underworld 66).


The Layers

(by Stanley Kunitz)

I have walked through many lives,

some of them my own,

and I am not who I was,

though some principle of being

abides, from which I struggle

not to stray.

When I look behind,

as I am compelled to look

before I can gather strength

to proceed on my journey,

I see the milestones dwindling

toward the horizon

and the slow fires trailing

from the abandoned camp-sites,

over which scavenger angels

wheel on heavy wings.

Oh, I have made myself a tribe

out of my true affections,

and my tribe is scattered!

How shall the heart be reconciled

to its feast of losses?

In a rising wind

the manic dust of my friends,

those who fell along the way,

bitterly stings my face.

Yet I turn, turn,

exulting somewhat,

with my will intact to go

wherever I need to go,

and every stone on the road

precious to me.

In my darkest night,

when the moon was covered

and I roamed through wreckage,

a nimbus-clouded voice

directed me:

“Live in the layers,

not on the litter.”

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.


                        —Stanley Kunitz


The Gardener

In the fading light of late summer,
I see at last, though by no means clearly,
the bright shadow of a figure—a gardener
or green man, an angel perhaps, or a lover
from some long ago life.

He is a strange friend, this man among
the maize. And his vocation, such as I can tell,
has never been to cultivate, counsel, or console,
but simply to roll the heavy stones away
from the tombs I’d just as soon walk past.

- Kathie Collins


Learning to Live in the Layers Dissertation Abstract

Living in the Layers began as a special project of my doctoral dissertation in Mythological Studies at Pacifica Graduate Institute. This dissertation proposes a re-visioning of standard methods for teaching poetry and provides an eight-session student curriculum. It recommends a maieutic, or midwifing, approach in which adults explore and discuss poems together in small groups with trained facilitators to enhance the ability to reflect upon, imagine anew, and deepen the experience of life. Rather than delivering information to students, a facilitator using this maieutic approach serves students by inviting them to encounter poetry—and themselves—with friendliness and curiosity, and to give birth to their own innate wisdom.

Through such depth work with poetry, group participants learn the art of analogizing the events, dreams, and emotions found in poems to those of their own lives, and to so develop a poetic, meaning-filled response to life. At its heart, this work guides participants in what scholar James Hillman calls the “making of soul.”

The theoretical portion of the project weaves the threads of depth psychology, phenomenological philosophy, and literary and educational theories into a pedagogy that serves as a training manual for facilitators. It is followed by a complete eight-session curriculum that serves as both a teaching resource and student text. It includes poems, questions for leading group participants to reflect on the ways in which they know the poems’ themes and motifs in their own lives, and parallel texts that invite further exploration of those themes and motifs—that is, more opportunities for analogizing and re-visioning life’s events.


I Saw Three Ships

Who knows if the water
of the Pamlico has ever frozen
since.  But that Christmas
morning there was ice—
from the muddy banks
way out past the docks.
And early as it was this
holy morn, not a boat in sight.

Unless you count their bodies
as ships—and I do.
“Come quick,” I called,
looking out the kitchen window.
“Three seals are playing
on the pier.”  Never before (or since)
have I seen such frivolity.
“They’re just river otters,”

he said with scorn as he opened
the fridge, looking for some
better gift, dreaming of some
better life than I or
those sleek dark magi,
their coats glistening in
the rising sun, could ever
place before him.

Meanwhile, like aged Sarah
eavesdropping at the flaps of her
tent, I stood breathlessly watching—
blind to the shape the next year
would take—reluctant even to
sigh, less those visitors take notice
and slip silently back behind
the frozen veil from which they came.

-- Kathie Collins
(from Jubilee, 2011)