Today we revisit some poems I wrote during the months of July and August 1971. I am commenting upon them, a very odd thing for any poet to do. Verse should speak for itself and readers should be free to make of it what they may. The purpose of commentary here is not to elucidate any meaning of the poem for others but to explore, for my own understanding, healing, and growth, what those things I wrote when I was twenty-five might mean for me today now that I a sixty-eight.
I shall not curse
I shall not curse this harsh, unyielding rock
which holds the sky up, and forbids the sea
to charge beyond the bounds of shore and bank
and thus engulf my frail humanity.
This stony soil is both a friend to me
and my opponent. It may perhaps break
me as I toil to set its secrets free,
yet if I would but hear, and it could talk,
the earth might call me brother. I might learn
that jagged rocks I trip upon today
have always borne me up that I might walk.
And where I struggle most against the clay
the right to overcome I slowly earn;
and stone may yet become the strength of me.
17-21 July 1971
This is certainly not the classic rhyme pattern for a sonnet, but we will let that pass. The opening describes primal boundaries, as though some ancient view of the universe saw mountains holding up the sky's dome and the limits of land and water were firmly set, themes that echo Job 38:4-11.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
‘Or who shut in the sea with doors
when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
and set bars and doors,
and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped”?
Do we have a recurring theme? Yes, we do. I grew up with a terrible imbalance of no boundaries on the one hand and immensely over-fortified ones on the other. The idea of a secure, healthy identity of my own that could freely engage others in a genuine manner: well that was the facade and the fantasy but not the reality. "My frail humanity" might be taken, in retrospect, as an image of my frail sense of self. That was terribly threatened then and over much of my life.
With soil as friend and opponent there is a contrast as old as Eden. Adam is made from the earth into which the breath of God is breathed to create a living soul. 'The noun 'adam is also the masculine form of the word adamah which means "ground" or "earth."' (Yes, I lifted that from Wikipedia but also know it from taking Hebrew in seminary.) Much as "human" is related to "humus." We are of the earth and part of it. Yet in the myth of the Fall we must toil to bring food from the earth. Good farmers and gardeners see this as cooperating with the elements, not doing combat, but the tension is there.
There may be a contrast between being and doing as the poem moves on to toiling to set secrets free, and possibly being broken in the process, versus learning to listen and then to receive the secrets as gift. These are very different approaches to life and, though I would not make an absolute of the contrast, they can be found in Western versus Eastern philosophies. Bringing the two into balance is the great art, yielding to the harmony of yin and yang to discover the transcendent Tao. That which today is a stumbling stone may be revealed as part of what upholds me at all times. For that matter, my headlong fall at times may prove the call to attention that may lead me to learn and change, to heal and grow. As the poem's end nears I wrote of earning the right to overcome through struggle.
This puts me in mind of Harry Carroll, my classical Greek professor, saying, "πάθει μάθος, Mr. Strid," when I grumbled at the end of an exam. It comes from Aeschylus' play Agamemnon in line 177:
τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν πάθει μάθος
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας
180μνησιπήμων πόνος: καὶ παρ᾽ ἄ-
κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος
σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.
Zeus, who sets mortals on the path to understanding, Zeus, who has established as a fixed law that “wisdom comes by suffering.” But even as trouble, bringing memory of pain, drips over the mind in sleep,  so wisdom comes to men, whether they want it or not. Harsh, it seems to me, is the grace of gods enthroned upon their awful seats.
--tr. Herbert Weir Smyth, Ph. D., 1926
So we find in this irregular sonnet a blend of struggle and gift. I think the concluding line is one of transformation: our opposition becomes our source of strength. It resembles the Lakota wisdom that the North Wind that blows fiercely and bends the grasses and trees is the very force by which those grasses and trees develop strength. Even so our tribulations give us what we need to be strong and healthy. As it is summed nowadays, "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." It is much deeper than that.
A final comment: I am a Taurus, born under a fixed earth sign. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, part of that great Central Valley devoted to agriculture. Even though I am, and always have been, a city boy, the soil and what grows from it is very central to my being.
The following was inspired by the Tarot card of the King of Cups (pictured at the head of this post). I had read Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance because it had influenced T. S. Eliot, as he explicitly states in his notes to The Waste Land. She wrote of the Grail legend, of ancient fertility rites and Christian overlays, and she discussed the symbols in the Tarot deck as expressing some of that semi-underground tradition. Now, any good fundamentalist would recoil in terror as I acknowledge that as a Baptist seminarian I gave some attention to the Tarot. They would say, "See! There is where he went wrong, turning to the occult." I would say, "Codswallop!" My mind works in symbolism and I do not fear to venture where Eliot has gone. I do not, in any case, ascribe metaphysical reality to any occult symbol. I think astrology is bullshit if you actually promulgate the idea that the position of the planets and stars shapes destiny. I do, however, gladly accept that the symbols of astrology, mythology, etc. provide tools for us to discuss, in very powerful and helpful ways, the psychic realities of our lives. This is why I can say that I am a Taurus. It is easy, shared symbolism. And I will go further to say I am very skeptical of any Christian metaphysics as well. All language is metaphorical so what I say of God is symbolic, limited, inadequate, and--even though it may point toward the truth--remains untrue.
But back to the poem:
The King of Cups
The waters roll and toss; they grow and swell
with hidden purpose, splashing freely now,
then gathering their random force to burst
upon the shore. What strength can break or quell
their strange attack? Who shall withstand the thrust
of their aggression? Rising to surround
the rockbound isle, they lap now at the throne
and at the feet of him who holds in trust
the power of life. With calm command, his brow
unwrinkled and benign, he stoops at first
to fill his cup and drink. Then, at the sound
of his voice they recede, as if to bow
and acquiesce. The only king they own
acknowledges their faith, yet sits alone.
1 August 1971
Why this card? Well, I read somewhere that the King of Cups was the card of the theologian and what was I back then but a budding theologian? I have said many times throughout my life that I have always thought as a theologian. Between my inherent mysticism and sacramental mindset (words that Baptists do not use but have always been part of me), I found it difficult to experience or conceptualize anything without reference to the Ultimate and to the ultimate questions. The last fifteen years, roughly, have reflected a shift in my journey in which those two aspects (mysticism and sacramentalism) have emerged more strongly and ecclesiastical trappings have increasingly fallen away. To see God as permeating yet transcending everything that is makes me a firm panentheist and back in Baptist seminary we discussed that and some of us, at least, were convinced that this was orthodox and probably necessary if we were to make any sense of creation and experience. When one sees "the veil of Temple rent in twain" and any distinction between sacred and secular as artificial and unhelpful, then it becomes difficult not to see the divine everywhere. And since, by a combination of choice and circumstance, I have spent most of my working life "in the world" (what a silly phrase), it is in the world that I must, and do, experience the holy and live out my ministry as it takes many surprising shapes. The Church has seemed increasingly irrelevant to the lives of those around me and, though it has formed me deeply, I consciously try to avoid using its obscure, precious, and frequently misleading language.
As for this poem, clearly related to the one before it, there is this sense of threat and isolation. Will the savage waters rise and drown the King? You can easily note that the card itself does not posit angry waves that threaten, only that he is surrounded by water. It is rather my own projection, my personhood that feels so isolated and cut off, so threatened by all around it. The poem expresses a few things. One is transformation. These would seem to be sea waters, based on the card's depiction of a large vessel in the background, yet the King fills the Cup and drinks, so the waters are somehow sweet and life-giving. He draws water by stooping, so although he expresses calm--even wordless--command he is not rigid or haughty, simply secure and in control. I see here a projection of how I wish I had been back then. If there is anything I was not at that point is was secure and in control. I was a closeted queer in an evangelical context, hoping to be ordained. I would, in the following year, be so overcome by anxiety that I would fail my oral exams, reduced to a terrified, inarticulate mess. I retook them a week later and did fine, but secure I was not.
The man on the throne and the waters all about him are in harmony. Yet he remains in isolation.
The poems here were written just two years after the Stonewall Riots in 1969. The drag queens and their allies, bless them, stood up for themselves and the world would not be the same. As courts across the United States find that equality before the law includes the right of marriage equality in 2014, we are now in a very different world. Back in 1971 to be deep in the closet and hope to become a minister of the Gospel was about as insecure as you could get. I was very, very alone.
Breaking down the walls
What is the cost of breaking down the walls,
and what the price of lowering the bridge?
What is the risk of teetering on the edge
and what the end of him who slips and falls?
Do they really crown the victor? What's the catch?
Should I really try to trust you? Do you care?
Do I really want to open? Do I dare?
Will I always choose to sit it out and watch?
Am I tossing empty questions to the air
as in a game, only to receive them back
unanswered? Do I really seek to crack
our of my shell? Why do you simply stare
at my deliberations? If I try,
will you help me come to life, or let me die?
So, I was clearly wrestling with all of this back then. But I lacked the inner strength, the experience of living, and safe allies. As I look back I am convinced it was not safe then. I did come out "as bisexual" to a handful of classmates. They took it calmly, except for the woman I was dating. It was very hard on her and I can only hope that from the other side she can forgive me.
Now forty-three years have passed since these writings. So very much has happened. When I dropped out of the doctoral program in history at UCLA in 1974 I did not break down all my walls but I partly opened my closet door and partly had it yanked open for me. I could stop pretending to be straight, or even bi, and just be my gay self. Yes, in fits and starts, and it took a while before everybody knew and I no longer cared. When I dropped out, Mom wanted me to come home. I was firm in rejecting that suggestion. It would have been death on a thousand levels. Poverty and struggle in Los Angeles were infinitely better than the straightjacket of fitting back into familiar (and false) patterns. Families fall so quickly and unconsciously into old patterns that to this day I have zero sense that I can relax and just be me around family. I am sure that on some levels they understand this, though I seem so anti-social by limiting visits to once very five years or so. It only takes a few hours for me to be climbing the walls, even though I love them and rejoice in their happiness and grieve for their sorrows.
In any case, a number of walls fell a few years after this poem. Others remained firmly in place until recently. 2013 was a year of many transitions. Three very special men came into my life and taught me that I am capable of so much more than I thought. They are still, if only at a distance, part of my life (and daily prayers) and I will forever be grateful. Over the past year I have also had to "let go" of each one and on several levels had to let go of my best friend as well, not for any sad reason but because he has a new love and life partner, a wonderful man. I wish them all happiness and support their relationship, but I no longer am able to rely on the man I spent twenty-four years with for a huge amount of my social life and main emotional support. It is right and good, and good for me especially, that I must learn to do things for myself. Long overdue. 2014 and beyond are the Years In Which I Must Finally Grow Up. Yeah, I know. Kind of slow on the uptake there, BB. In any case, I want to thank Chris, Brian, and Math for helping me break out of my shell. The final walls are falling and I no longer choose to sit it out and watch, or remain passive. And Bill, who has been there for almost thirty-seven years, I thank you for the hard conversations we have had to help us both heal and grow and move forward. And my shrink, who has proven to be a perfect companion at this particular point. Thanks also to my coworkers who have listened to me endlessly talk about the roller coaster ride of the past two years and have been there every step of the way with their friendship and support. (This is where the drunk tears up and says, "I love you guys!")
So, in short, I am trying, and those around me have proven safe and trustworthy and are helping me come to life.
The morning caught its breath
The morning caught its breath
when the halfgreen tint of sky announced
the sun's brief hesitation.
A squirrel darting behind a clump of firs
distracted my wonder and nearly made me fall
from the whitened log I balanced on,
forcing me to grab the sticky limb
of the cedar to my left. When I looked up,
the sun was there,
shooting goldstreaks through the haze
in the valley where my heart leaped
to welcome the day.
Not sure this needs any comment. It speaks of my sense of being at home in the forest and rejoicing in simply being. A good place to pause for today.