Perhaps it is my Irish mother’s world still living and breathing in mine, but I have always seen All Soul’s Day, that day in early November where we remember the departed, as the mark of the new year and a time when promises are made for that coming year, perhaps even emboldened by those we have known who have now gone and left us. In the old Irish imagination it was seen as the final end of summer and the beginning of the winter, a time when people and things were to be let go and let alone, when what we had held in our hands was to be appreciated and remembered but without interference, to be let go and to be let go where it wants to go; to rise and come again in its own time.
For my part, it has indeed been an extraordinary year from last year's All Souls to this, a long, indeed, a year-long summer of accomplishment and creative alchemy, a year in which a tide of poetry given the
|title of Pilgrim was written and brought out into the world, when the Readers' Circle cycle of essays came to a culmination and a close, a year in which I travelled from one end of the earth to the other, speaking and reading and thinking and writing all the time as I went with a seemingly inexhaustible internal tidal flame giving out heat, inspiration and not a little revelation, and it is only now, I realize, that I can face up to the ebb of the tide, the withdrawal of a certain blessed dispensation and the drawing in of a veil over what was once living and real.
The door first opened to this last Annus Mirabilis, this year of wonders, almost a year before, in a back street restaurant of a French city. The restaurant was in an obscure part of town but with a reliable cult following. I had arrived at the door without a book or newspaper or a device to connect me to anything other than myself. I stood looking into that inviting, warmly lit dining room and then almost turned back to my hotel; this establishment was no place for a quick bite and I would have no scintillating company to see me through the very long, very French meal. The moment passed however, and I took my seat at the table determined instead to take the time to take stock of things and ask myself, as I enjoyed the food, what I always ask others to ask themselves, that is, a few disturbing and beautiful questions.
One of the most beautifully disturbing questions we can ask, is whether a given story we tell about our lives is actually true, and whether the opinions we go over every day have any foundation or are things we repeat to ourselves simply so that we will continue to play the game. It can be quite disorienting to find that a story we have relied on is not only not true - it actually never was true. Not now not ever. There is another form of obsolescence that can fray at the cocoon we have spun about ourselves, that is, the story was true at one time, and for an extended period; the story was even true and good to us, but now it is no longer true and no longer of any benefit, in fact our continued retelling of it simply imprisons us. We are used to the prison however, we have indeed fitted cushions and armchairs and made it comfortable and we have locked the door from the inside.
The imprisoning story I identified by the time the entree was served was one I had told myself for a long time. “In order to write I need peace and quiet and an undisturbed place far from others or the possibility of being disturbed. I knew however, that if I wanted to enter the next creative stage, something had to change; I simply did not have enough free space between traveling, speaking and being a good father and husband to write what I wanted to write. The key in the lock turned surprisingly easy, I simply said to myself, “What if I acted as if it wasn’t true any more, what if it had been true at one time, but now at this stage in the apprenticeship I didn’t need that kind of insulation anymore, what if I could write anywhere and at any time?” One of the interesting mercies of this kind of questioning is that it is hard to lose by asking: if the story is still true, we will soon find out and can go back to telling it. If it is not we have turned the key, worked the hinges and walked out into the clear air again with a simple swing of the door.
By the time I had confirmed the reputation of the restaurant, been gratified by how reasonable the prices were and reached the very good cheese tray, I decided just to act as if the story was no longer true, knowing I would be put right if it still was. The intention worked like the parting of the literary Red Sea, almost immediately I started to write everywhere and under every circumstance, on trains, buses, planes, in dentist’s waiting rooms, on mountainsides and even, just to keep myself honest, in the peace and insulated quiet of my writing study. I began in fact, right there, in the restaurant over coffee asking for some paper, and starting a list of themes I wanted to write my way into. A list of course is meant to be thrown away in the face of what actually has to be done, but it was the intent that counted and the intent was suddenly a very live thing in me.
Walking through the doorway of that radical question started me on a writing odyssey beginning appropriately enough with the essay: Regret. I soon had a half-dozen little essays all beginning with a word I felt needed to be rehabilitated in the contemporary imagination. I found it very pleasurable to put a little blog-like paragraph at the end saying where and under what circumstances it had been written. As the months went by and I committed to the faith of those who had subscribed to the Essay Series I found the constant need to write to meet my commitment a marvelous discipline for keeping my mind and my thoughts and the acuity of those thoughts alive. Travelling meant a constant vigilance for the moment, the corner, the nook, the little Inn of literary hospitality at the side of the road where I could sit down and think and write. My mind began to open, to grow fiercer, clearer and a certain kind of take-no-prisoners approach to reality and to my work took hold.
Perhaps it was the culmination of this intentionality that led me, the following summer, to the experience I had looking into the enormous waves that came ashore beneath the cliffs of Thoor Anu, on the Atlantic shore of County Clare. As if in witness to the maelstrom of power arriving in front of me I suddenly found an equivalent and internal tide coming out from some source in me to meet the outer horizon of power. It was one of the most physical and profoundly religious experiences I have had and as I stood there surrounded by overhanging cliffs and wheeling birds, I asked myself, out of nowhere, another question. “What if everything had changed?” The question came out in the wind more like a shouted declaration and I did not need to identify exactly what had turned with this incoming tide, but from that moment I began to write poetry day and night, as if I had been touched by something unspeakable, as if I had become newly youthful again, as if I had fallen head over heels for someone or something I had been searching for all my life. The nearest experience I can point to is in Pablo Neruda’s La Poesia.
And something ignited in my soul,
- translation David Whyte
Except that this is actually the symmetrical reversal of what I felt, because I began with the oceanic, heavenly waves opening and then felt the internal burning tide coming to meet it from within.
The tide kept arriving all through the coming Autumnal season all through last All Soul’s Day, all through the holidays, through winter, through my travels and through my home life. I wrote at the kitchen table, in the chair by the fire, in coffee shops, and once for five straight hours in seat 64A of a British Airways flight from London to Seattle. By coincidence, getting up to stretch I met one of my more faithful readers on the stairs of the jet and I read the new poem to him over a glass of wine. We clinked the glasses together as if celebrating the arrival of a new child.
But every child grows, every tide turns, firstly in January, I got up in the middle of the night in a remote Cotswold cottage in England and wrote a wild revelatory poem in a completely different voice, called Fintan. Here was the intimation of a new style, more profoundly, a new voice, saying in effect, the pilgrimage is coming to an end. The king is dead, long live the king. I wrote quickly after that to fill in the parts of the poem cycle If felt the book needed while I still had the energy and the power to do it, but now it was the sense of coming to a harvest, a sense of completion, and the beginning of the secondary, strategic wave that would get the book out as a completed physical package and into the world.
I can only describe the next stage as a kind of grief at no longer being in the alchemical depths of the cycle, and of covering it successfully with other endeavors while all the time finding another satisfaction in beginning to memorize the poems and integrate them into my talks. There was a lovely last hurrah when I found myself marooned for three days in a flooded Yorkshire village and recorded a double CD of all the Pilgrim poems with interpretations and stories, realizing, in effect, when the sound engineer broke down crying on the second day, what I might just have accomplished through the astonishing wave form that arrived at Thoor Anu and travelled through a year of my life.
Now at last, at the threshold of the season, just after this last All Souls' Day, I feel the peace of coming to rest and of letting go of the necessity for that creative intensity, and more subtly, a willingness to let go of the grief of that particular sweet cycle being over. Time to go into the night again, the internal sweet darkness, the horizon further than we can see, where we must learn one thing, that this world was made to be free in, whether we are in the white heat of the creative endeavor or no. Every different seasonality of our lives calls for a different form of freedom, whether the tide is coming in or going out, or whether it is at that hardly seeable subtle juncture where it is just about to turn.
I wish you all well in this great tidal imaginative endeavor we call life, welcome those who are new to my work and to the powers of the poetic tradition, and thank those who have given me a close readership and listenership over the years, and hopefully if I stay with the run of the tide, for a few years to come.