Once upon a time, there was no difference between a bricklayer and a composer. All work was an offering to the deity, and thus, all work had equal meaning. But in the twentieth century that changed and art came to exist for its own sake.
I am delighted that ORDINARY ANNALS—my new poetry chapbook forthcoming from above/ground press—will have Palija Shrestha's luminous art on its cover. Palija Shrestha is an artist from Kathmandu, Nepal, currently residing in San Francisco. Apprehending a spiritual and political affinity with her work, I reached out to Palija requesting a painting. When she sent this painting to me, she wrote:
"I painted this during the midst of the shelter in place, it is tied to memories with my grandmother who was battling with 4th stage cancer for 4 years and I found that time to be deeply sorrowful and yet enlightening at the same time. It is after I had finished this painting that her soul departed and I found myself thinking about this painting while I was reading your chapbook."
Grateful that this beautiful painting will accompany ORDINARY ANNALS. Also a thanks to Rob McLennan for making this possible!
"I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death," he says. "You can't use Jane Austen to speak about African reality."
"Which brings the question: what is reality? Everyone's reality is different. For different perceptions of reality we need a different language."
Hence the "dream-logic" narrative, which he believes works better.
"We like to think that the world is rational and precise and exactly how we see it, but something erupts in our reality which makes us sense that there's more to the fabric of life," he says. "I'm fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality."
-- Ben Okri
The philosophy of "Regeneration Poem" is most clearly embedded in its second stanza:
You say, world is a forest on fire.
We become wolves that shape river’s course.
While I could say more about the parallel play in these two lines, for now, in brief:
"The world is a forest on fire" is a quote from Advaita philosopher, Sankara.** The metaphysics of Advaita Vedanta rejects the embodied experience as illusory--the world, which is maya, is conceptualized as something to be left behind on the quest for liberation.
To this, the poem's response is transfiguration—which is an embodied experience, and must be experienced through the body, and the body's being in the world.
"We become wolves that shape river’s course."
I was thinking here of Women Who Run With the Wolves, the influential tract from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés that argues so well that we are nature, and in recovering this we find the vitality that restores us/the world.
I was also thinking of a real story about wolves and rivers described by Peter Wohlleben in his book, The Secret Wisdom of Nature. Wolves reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park did change the course of rivers. The ecosystem responds to every part of the complex interconnections within nature.
We are part of the wild/world, which is more of an interconnected ecosystem than we humans sometimes acknowledge. Via, and being present to our interconnectedness, we can contribute to the communal functioning of the world in equal measure to our ability to cause destruction, create fires.
Do we leave the world behind in our quest for liberation? Or, do we become One embracing all-that-is—self, body, earth, cosmos? Do we embrace a metaphysics of the non-dual that excludes nothing—a consciousness that both begins from and returns to nothing, even as it fully enjoys and is present to the form/ation stirring into life, unfurling from stage to stage? For non-dual Tantra, this is the primordial dance. The rhythm is familiar to our animal body. Cognitive awareness can only try to get at the wisdom. The recursive journey of liberation happens right here in the world as we engage with it.
Listen to Regeneration Poem:
**Incidentally, I first came across this quote in a poem by Meena Alexander, "Fragile Places."
A few days ago, Starhawk celebrated her 70th birthday and Earth Activist Training (EAT) its 20th anniversary, with a virtual "Magical Mystery Tour" of Earth Activists sharing their regenerative projects and sites, and a ritual for Summer Solstice. I was delighted and honored to be a part of the ritual, writing for the occasion a poem (which also served as an invocation to the Goddess of Regeneration).
The event was a fundraiser for EAT's diversity fund, and $10,000 were raised towards scholarships for people of color, indigenous peoples, folks on the frontline and activists. (You can donate to EAT here.)
Writing a poem for the occasion presented me with the opportunity to step into a new role--that of a poet writing for community. Rilke writes that the poem enters language "from a dimension that is always turned away from us." A poet writing for community is working with a paradox: to write without regard for, while still drawing into its waters its hearers. An audio recording of the poem is below.
It is not without reason that I have often, in poetry spaces, kept my ontological commitments and experiences to myself. The disdain for/misconstruction of ontological frameworks that do not align with eurowestern materialist/positivist mindsets can be as prevalent among artist communities as elsewhere--although I've met several co-conspirers in recent years, and am open to meeting more!
In January 2014, I went to a reading by Jerome Rothenberg at the Public School in Oakland. I had been studying Indigenous African Spiritual Technologies with Dr. Malidome Somé, diviner and Dagara elder, for about nine months then. During this time, I had experienced and participated in speech practices that enacted complex ontologies within ritual contexts. I was curious to hear Rothenberg, whose Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe & Oceania assembles "primitive and archaic poetry" from indigenous cultures, intending to call "European hegemonies into question."
At one instance—I can't remember the material Rothenberg was reading—I do remember getting uncomfortable that words that were intended for ritual use were being uttered at a poetry event not structured like a ritual. I had just met Anne Lesley Selcer—my conversation with her must have revealed shared sentiments enough that I turned to her and shared with her this discomfort. I was not sure the ontological register of the poetry being read that evening was being honored. When it comes to spirit worlds, it is good practice to be clear when invoking—to know who one wishes to connect with, and why. After the ritual, it is good practice to thank and devoke the spirits and powers that came. There are good reasons one does not want the spirits to continue to hang around outside the ritual container (with exceptions).
Anne Lesley mentioned this incident at "The World Is Circular" (whose recording you can watch on Vimeo), where we read work together with Katie Schaag, Kristen Gallagher, Kayla Guthrie, and Karin Crona.
The more I see and understand the need for ontological justice, the more ready I get to share the alterities I move within, my multiple belongings.
I wrote and recorded the poem "Sarasvati" as part of a collaborative poetry performance and book, "An Exaltation of Goddesses," in tribute to archaeomythologist Marija Gimbutas. The video performance/film will premiere at the 2021 ASWM Online Symposium, Wisdom Across the Ages: Celebrating the Centennial of Archaeomythologist Marija Gimbutas (July 16-18, 2021). Here is my note about the poem, which, along with the poem itself, appears in a book collecting the thirteen poems that make up "An Exaltation of Goddesses."
A NOTE ON WRITING "SARASVATI"
What does it mean to write a poem about Sarasvati now of all times? What is she asking of us? What can we ask of her?
In South Asia, unlike in the West, the goddess did not disappear—she continues to be venerated in the living tradition, which has developed varied theologies in relation to her. The goddess has many forms, many names through the length and the breadth of the land. As a signifier, she has often been cherry-picked by caste-based patriarchy and reactionary Hindu nationalism for ends that skitter far away from spiritual meaning. This makes the discursive field around goddess-centered spirituality contentious for artists and scholars located within contemporary contexts of social change in South Asia.
Sarasvati, considered to be the presiding deity of learning and the arts, is an important goddess in the Hindu pantheon—finding a significant place even in Buddhist and Jain pantheons. While writing this poem, even as I wanted to invoke the qualities of wisdom Sarasvati embodies, I wanted to bring in my ambivalence about the ideals of femininity—specifically for women of words, a way of being cultured—portrayed in her iconography and mythology, reinforcing a Brahmanical epistemology of perfection and purity.
To trouble these representations, I turned to the imagery of her as a river. In my poem, Sarasvati is still wild. In the Rig Veda, Sarasvati is spoken of as a ‘mighty’ and ‘uncontrollable’ river; later texts describe her as a ‘disappearing’ river who becomes ‘invisible’. This is not a poem in which I chart the journey of the river’s disappearance, or that of the river goddess becoming the goddess of knowledge, even as—following the work of scholars including Catherine Ludvik—I see the mysteries of the later transformation encoded within associations, noted in the Rig Veda, of the river goddess with dhi (inspired thought) and with vac (speech).
I also wanted the poem to acknowledge that, for Hindutva, finding the lost river Sarasvati has become a svarna mriga (golden deer)—a lure through which they seek to assert the civilizational superiority of ‘Aryavarta’—the land of the Aryans. I wanted to explore if there is a different possibility that an invocation of Sarasvati could raise.
In terms of form, I was thinking of Enheduanna’s use of the first person in the hymn, “Exaltation of Inanna”— how she interweaves a cultural, political, and personal narrative with the praise of Inanna. I was attentive to the ecology of sound within the poem, especially since Sarasvati embodies the power of sound.
Abraham, Shirley, and Amit Madheshiya. “A Mythical River Flows Through Indian Politics.” The New York Times, 10 July 2018.
Danino, Michel. The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati. Penguin, 2010.
Ghosh, Niranjan. Śrī Sarasvatī in Indian Art and Literature. Sri Satguru Publications, 1984.
Kinsley, David R. Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Ludvik, Catherine. Sarasvatī: Riverine Goddess of Knowledge. Brill, 2007.
Shaw, Miranda E. Buddhist Goddesses of India. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2006.
I sometimes feel the identity of the "self" is too tenuous to hold. Who am I? Everything and everyone is but an ant trail, leading us from here to there.
Yet, we struggle so much in the name of ego, to prop up the self and its desire to be successful, fit in, stand out.
Nonetheless--the joy and excitement of discovering parts of us that had never been seen before! That had never had the opportunity to play before! Each lifetime, each reality, overlapping and flowing and distinct—the awakening of remembering that takes place through form.
This then. The constant dance between being born-taking form/letting go.
We get trapped in just one part of the equation, when the equation moves as a spiral.
I made a vision board a few years ago--a reaching towards a kind of person, a kind of life. It draws in so much, and is still substantially true. Its associational links are embedded in me. The information is within. It functions today as a sort of lightboard, lighting up the paths and directions that move through those associational links. (Appropriately enough, both the vision board itself and its photos taken a few months ago seem to have disappeared, making it known that they are not ready to be shared.)
How do I step lightly over the ego as a pilgrim on these paths?
Here I am, still learning to sacrifice all notion of self/selves so that I can get closer to the infinitude that shimmers underneath it all.
In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, that moment when Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) says, "They don't care nothing about me, all they want is my voice."
Then the long moments she stands with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) as he stutters through the intro for her song, insists on take after take until he gets it right, while the white managers get impatient about what the retakes will cost them.
Then the moment where (spoiler alert) Sylvester does it—he goes through the spoken introduction without a stumble—and Ma Rainey picks up the song without missing a beat, but a wide, mischievous smile.
This was Ma Rainey showing her relational care for her nephew. Not just so that he would earn some money, but because she wanted him to get the experience of having done it. She was letting him know that she had faith in him, his gifts. A very different affective structure than the one in which white men used her talents for their own profit.
As Ma Rainey sings the rest of the song, Sylvester breaking out in a small dance: relief, pride. After the song is done, she applauding him—delighted hug: "See, I told you you could do it!"
(This essay appears on Periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics. It is part of a 3-part project on visionary poetics, of which part 1 is here and part 2 can be heard here.)
Vision And Knowledge
“Poetry became an adventure. The finest of human adventures….Its goal: vision and knowledge.” —Aime Cesaire
Perhaps it is because we live in a time of so many unknowns that now, more than ever, gives a call for our opus to become an adventure that flings open portals for vision and knowledge.
In this open place, remembering and imagination draw back from harsh borders where each abruptly ‘ends’ and the other ‘begins.’ The present knows itself to be shaped by pasts and futures even as it emerges with them. Pasts and futures have knowledge for those inhabiting the present even as denizens of the present are responsible to them.
The task of reimagining and reconstructing pasts is not a tertiary one in the palimpsestic present. It is necessary so that futures may grow strong roots. The past shows the future its sharp glistening hunger—and healing futures nourish the hunger of the past. Past as ancestral memory sends visions of healing into the future. Futures are continually being shaped by pasts—just as the pasts are being reshaped and reimagined to open up futures before us.
The entanglement of pasts and futures in visionary perception reveals linearity as but a flickering moleculate—a link.
Inhabiting this fluid realm becomes possible as a result of our capacity to imagine. Imagination allows reality to become more than the density of reality determined by dominant perception.
In contrast, the dominant mode of Cartesian-Newtonian dualisms conscripts our inner/outer movements into boxes or categories. Colonization of the mind by philosophies rooted in separation teaches humans to see Earth and body, emotion and instinct and intuition, dream and vision as inferior or naïve sources of knowing. These very forces are—in the epistemological universes of people of culture—regarded as sources yielding knowledge about the full spectrum of relational human experience. “What counts as knowledge is crucially important across human cultures precisely because what counts as the known usually helps define positions within the culture on questions central to human existence on the earth,” says Jane Duran.
The loss of these other epistemes in modernity has resulted in a narrowing of our collective imagination about the Earth and each other. Our human pursuits have come to be driven by a Promethean impulse that sees itself as separate from and needing to tame nature. Diane di Prima reminds us that “the war is the war against the imagination,” and that this is a spiritual battle.
Colonialist-imperial-capitalist-patriarchal matrices have always known it is our forgetting that will establish their sway. What we forget we are in relation to becomes vulnerable to being exploited or razed down. Without the remembering of interconnectedness, binary modes play into a politics of disenfranchisement, of dislocation.
Disconnection is an age-old tactic for inducing traumas practiced by systems of domination.
Then, reconnecting ourselves to vision and imagination becomes a political act. By extending ourselves in a stance of openness and radical hospitability to sources whose knowing (of life) has been silenced, marginalized, or invisible, we assert that we will no longer endorse the tactic of disconnection—or our own alienation.
In Gloria Anzaldúa’s telling, Coyolxauhqui will not stay fragmented: her very fragments are filled with a desire for connection, reconstitution, healing. Imagination is key to her processes of integration. “You use your imagination in mediating between inner and outer experience,” says Anzaldúa. After Coyolxauhqui dismantles her old body/self, she re-composes a new body/self whose connective sutures hold nodes of new insights and possibilities for connection.
The body holds an innate awareness that intimacy and alliances break open trauma paradigms.
When bodies dream—bodies made of seeds and grains and sun and rain and dung—when this dreaming begins to speak—it exposes the subskeletal connections to life, to all of reality. What has been broken begins to link to each other: to heal.
We dream so that the yet unrecognized may come into being. We slip out of the stranglehold of dominant reality and weave a reality from the fibrils of our dreams.
Dreams and visions move us out of collective amnesia. They are the dark matter that allows reality to shift. They emerge from precisely the fissures structures of domination do not understand. Their very process is alchemical.
The dissolution, re-membering, fluidity of becoming we encounter in visionary space can transform every aspect of our lives. Visionary imaginary takes us beyond the hegemony of modern/colonial pregivens to usher processes of decoloniality. As adrienne maree brown puts it, “Our radical imagination is a tool for decolonization, for reclaiming our right to shape our lived reality.”
Making the future asks of us willingness to cross the threshold between visions and reality—nimbleness—uncontainability.
This crossing is familiar, in a way, to artists. Dreaming and artmaking have much in common. “Working at art is so much like dreaming, sometimes I don’t know which is which,” says Denise Levertov. “True poetry,” says Cesaire, appeals to the unconscious—“the receptacle of kinship that, originally, united us with nature.” Thus in its shaded tongue “modest, secret” visionary truths can come forth.
Yet what we are calling in is something more than can be contained by the definition of art. We are calling in a “consciousness of making / or not making your world”—a poetics, to quote di Prima—“no matter what you do.” What we are calling in is seeing.
Remembering and imagination are modes of seeing.
Seeing entangles us—we can no longer be on the outside looking in upon the spectacle of the real. Seeing, we acquire the power to transform it. Visioning is very much a relational mode. The visioning mode plucks us out of the mode of epistemic dependence that the dominator paradigm promotes. Taking full responsibility for what we see—through remembrance and imagination—transforms us into sovereign beings.
The step that comes after is trusting what the vision is pointing to and taking pragmatic action. As Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, “the functionality and not just the logical consistency of visionary thinking determines its worth.” Actions link our visions to the ongoing struggle of transforming reality.
The failure of the reality we live in is an ask upon us. Creating a different reality for ourselves, our children, ancestors, civet and trees and oysters and oceans is our task.
Will we, then? Forge real relationships with extraordinary dimensions—with ecological realms or agency—storehouses of memory and visionary futures?
Will we risk univocity and rational stakes—fluency and cognicentrism—guardedness and certainty?
Will we proliferate beyond our own knowing, ego’s conceit?
Will we pay attention to the ancestors?
Will we speak from our hooded bodies, speak with stones—sibyl in frequencies such that speech swells and spills outsides the spectrum of normality?
Will we light ourselves with our visions, prophesize the worlds we most want to see?