LETTER FROM THE HOUSE
Autumn/Winter 2017 - 2018
I write this at Thanksgiving, looking toward the winter holidays when the early descent of the night and the lighted warmth of the kitchen always recall childhood to me - but there seemed to my child’s eyes, in those early days, an aura of expectation to the onset of winter that was beyond excitement about the holidays. The summer was my own, but winter seemed somehow communal, not only between people but between times. The past, medieval or ancient, seemed to run outside our house in a dark parallel with our interior family gatherings, and I felt instinctively close to others not only around our particular Yorkshire fireside, but with my winter-bound Irish relatives across the water, and most especially with all those before us, generation after generation who had struggled through the same cold northern winters of epochs past.
I recall this image because I feel as if humanity itself is at present sheltering from a psychologically cold winter, the wind and the rain beating at its window, all of us enduring round the dying embers of a fire that seems to be giving off little heat, and very aware that any spring or summer seems very far off.
As a poet I like to eschew political commentary, and always try to speak to everyone and their central humanity: hip or conservative, atheist or deeply religious, conservative or progressive, but this is a time to speak out and to speak loudly about the outrages of our time. The world at large is in deep trouble. Most particularly, in the United States, our news and politics is dominated by billionaire funders attempting to create a civil war between once fellow Americans, while at home and abroad, our political systems are headed not only by lacklustre and incompetent leadership, but are shot through with a kind of stark malevolence. We are living in an epoch of political and planetary chaos, with chaotic or repressive leaders inhabiting not only the upper echelons of the United States, but also those of China, Russia, North Korea, and with many regimes large and small following their terrible example.
At the center of this tragedy is the sobering way in which The United States has lost its reputation as a beacon for other countries: its much vaunted constitution lies in reputational tatters, a document that seems to undergird mass public shootings, money as free speech and a Supreme Court that stretched the judicial imagination to choose their political friend, George Bush, as president, instead of having the people vote again, precipitating the ugly era that led to the trumped up invasion of Iraq and the subsequent and unnecessary deaths of at least a million people in the Middle East. We are all living with this loss of integrity, reputation and consequence, and to cap it all, are now presented with the spectacle of a sitting president who is not only a self-confessed sexual predator, but who flaunts and whores his hotels, resorts and businesses as if they were profit-making government branches. These are not anti-Republican sentiments; I would love to see the moderate, fiscally sound, historically aware, Republican party of old reform itself into the future and help create a robust conversation with the left to help us all forward. But for now, it is astonishing to see we have lived to see a time when someone who acts like a first class bully, with a classic circle of a bully's lieutenants, has somehow taken over the reins of government.
As those in America gather for Thanksgiving and the holidays thereafter, its thinking citizens must ask themselves how this present dire situation has come to pass, and face not only the difficult truths of the present but their own contribution to the circumstances. The constituencies that elected Trump did not necessarily bargain for everything he has brought, but they certainly felt neglected by and terribly diminished, both economically and psychologically, by the politically correct, the better off and the supposedly better educated who ignored their increasing sense of powerlessness. They were also, like the Brexit voters in Britain, overwhelmed by the interconnected complexities of race, gender, social class, environment and widening socioeconomic discord. The new American conversation needs to be like the best of Thanksgiving dinners, where everyone is fed, and each guest sees the humanity of the other before they see the name or the tag they are tempted to give them, creating not only understanding but a sense of humor and insight into what lies beyond our narrow insults and names.
Communal celebration meals or no, we all still live out our own personal forms of happiness and unhappiness amidst the wider drama. It is strangely disconcerting to be part of a world that seems to be in the throes of a full political and psychological breakdown while my own work, and the demand for that work is at a flood tide. I travel the world over, being hosted in the most remarkable places by equally remarkable people, doing work I love and cherish, representing a tradition of speech and insight that is beyond anything I can fully represent. I have the sense of a privilege, not fully earned, of a gift not quite deserved, and an intuition that it can only be the result of visible and invisible help and unidentifiable dynamics that seem to have blessed me and my endeavour, allied to what I offer, but independent of and sometimes even despite, that strange bundle of contradictions and individual waywardness that goes under the name of David Whyte.
Each of us lives at this very private, very personal frontier between what rises astonishingly from within and what seems to overwhelm us from without, and every day and every year of even the most average life is a threshold crossed into a new and beckoning future. Poetry most especially is bent toward this tidal and seasonal understanding of life, speaking from the not fully known and just about to be articulated edge of what we call a self. We are invited into the great sense of the now to understand that we are a living conversation between what we thought was the past and what we could only imagine as the future. We are creatures made to live in all three tenses at once, to hold past, present and future together, but in every human life there are those thresholds and those hours that seem to carry within them a very specific invitation; a time when events seem soul-sized and where the individual intuits that everything that is done has enormous significance, that somehow a future life and a future society is being delineated and determined by what is said, done and acted upon on a daily, or even hourly, basis. We live in that time now, and our voices, our artistry and the courage to bring the necessary inner qualities into the outer political conversation are the litmus test of our presence in a world that sorely needs our voice.
THE NEW NOBILITY
The tawny gold of the first chantrelle
beneath the rough wall of fir bark,
a gleam in the undergrowth
to ignite the eye and ennoble the imagination.
Everyone is waiting for breakfast
to which I bring this husk and holiness
of the newly grown and the newly found.
White plates are laid along the table,
on each of them the omelets
rest steaming, deep and rich,
the eggs brought from a friend’s farm,
the chantrelles nested firmly
in their hot buttered interiors,
and the basil flecked
through them, plucked from the last
tangy stems of a summer garden.
Perfection is a fragile, ice-thin ground
that barely holds our human weight,
one false step and everything cracks
black to the edge. In this perfection,
no one dares mention the waters
of the Saratoga Passage shining through glass.
No one mentions our present happiness;
though the last dead century of grief
and misery has barely dropped from our grasp.
Outside the window, the children are playing
in borrowed clothes. One throws
back her head, sleeves trailing on the ground
and laughs in the sunlight,
and we laugh in witness, for in the midst of history
we are happy like them and all before them.
In their happiness everything still bears our weight.
Timelessness is the new nobility.
- David Whyte
from River Flow: New & Selected Poems
©2006 Many Rivers Press
Brand new, recorded November 10th, 2017 at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island, this talk includes two unpublished poems, The Bell and the Blackbird and Just Beyond Yourself, as well as a reading of the essay "Courage" from Consolations, Coleman's Bed, The Body in Full Presence, Camino and Sweet Darkness.
Single disc. 74 minutes. $15
Released in April, 2017, this recording is an edited version of the weekend at Asilomar in January 2017.
Poems include Sometimes, The Lightest Touch, Start Close In, The House of Belonging, Tobar Phadraic, To Break A Promise, Arrivals, The Sea in You, Love in the Night and Santiago, together with selections from W.B. Yeats, Dante and Wordsworth.
2 disc set. 125 minutes. $22