Sunday, November 21, 2010

Searching for Sir Isaac




I'll be talking, out loud this time, about Sir Isaac Newton soon at the Creative Technology and Arts Center salon series on December 2 at 6 pm at the Odyssey School at 90 Zillicoa Street. If you dig back a bit on this blog (a while neglected, since summer!) you'll see I went through a time when all I wrote about was alchemy. It is still very much what I muse about when I'm musing, and much of what I muse about are the connections between contemporary scientific discovery and alchemy. Both maintain that at the most subtle levels, matter behaves quite differently from its molecular, concrete nature. At the smallest level, all things are rising, attracting, sympathizing, communing. I don't mean that spiritually, though it certainly sounds it. These are the times in which we live: when science and spirituality are the same.

This is what John Maynard Keynes, the father of economics, wrote of Newton. It is part of a speech he was going to give regarding the scientist to the Royal Society, but he died a few days prior and his brother delivered the talk. I'll use this document as well as a letter Newton wrote to the Royal Society in 1645 as the anchors of the talk. What lies between these two documents is rich, deep and offers a worldview that includes all faiths and finds in sacred text a symbolic language of science.

In the eighteenth century and since, Newton came to be thought of as the first and greatest of the modern age of scientists, a rationalist, one who taught us to think on the lines of cold and untinctured reason. I do not see him in this light. I do not think that any one who has pored over the contents of that box which he packed up when he finally left Cambridge in 1696 and which, though partly dispersed, have come down to us, can see him like that. Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What Steve Orlen Taught Me


I was one of Steve's students at Warren Wilson MFA Program. It was my second semester, after my semester with Joan Aleshire, before my semester with Tony Hoagland. The genius of the program had something to do with that: I was "shaped" by a exactly who I needed at the time. When it was time to work with Steve, I was ready to fall apart, as Ellen Bryant Voigt had told a friend of mine when my friend was falling apart, I was doing right on time. During my semester with Steve, I went from working for an import/export company and being in a relationship to living alone in a very small cabin on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and teaching half-days at a basic education lab 30 minutes away in Port Angeles. (It was by the way, the most magnificent drive to work: past Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Forest, the Dungeness Spit, a herd of elk.) This was before I had email. The only person I called was my mother. And the only person I got letters from was Steve when he responded to the packets of poems and annotations I'd sent to him.

I wasn't doing any drugs, but I was very much experimenting with my mind. I felt that at the end of my 20s I ought to face what needs to be faced and write what needs to be written. Alone. In the Woods. My mind, I discovered, was a very tricky place. If I hadn't been teaching mostly people from the reservations and reading about their cultures and worldview, I might have just turned myself in at mental institution. Instead, I just stayed with it and, in order to maintain a sort of balance, I wrote Sonnets.

They were horrible sonnets. And Steven said so, except for one in which I placed Daphne in the modern-day world. The others were pure drama and rhapsody. Fortunately, my goal wasn't to write good poems during this time. I was learning rhythm, form and toying with that impossible paradox that constraint lends itself to freedom. This is the stuff Steve and I wrote about in our letters. The heavy heavy. But the way Steve wrote about the heavy heavy was so graceful, as though he were discussing a movie he liked. The mind was familiar territory to him, and he could follow me just about anywhere and enjoy the journey with a soft smile. The things that terrified me had already terrified him and he had come to terms with coming to terms with terror. He let me feel that the mind was something we can get used to. I remember one particularly searching letter in which he meditated on various "equalizers" in our lives, among them: death, and some of the letter were smeared. In the p.s. he explained he had "schnoodled" just as he was putting the letter together and apologized for the snot. Like this, the profound and the bodied co-dwelled in the six months we corresponded. I stopped with the sonnets after a bit and discovered I could write very long poems. I'd never explored that before, and I think it had everything to do with having Steve as a teacher and living with my solitude. I had space.

From the constraints of sonnet work I burst into the field of the long narrative poem, using the form to write my story, to find the poetry in the real things of my adolescence. I was deep-sea diving into my past and retrieving some stuff. It wasn't yet poetry, though. Strangely, when the faculty at the basic ed lab went to a conference at Western Washington University, I went for a walk and found an antique store which had a train set like the one my father had set up for us in the basement of our house in Canada. The smell of the smoke-making oil shot through me. I sat down next to it and wrote a poem. After, I wandered into a bookshop nextdoor and in the poetry section found a book by Steve, Permission to Speak. It was, it said on the back, his first book. In my next packet to Steve, I only sent the poem about the trainset and told him I'd found his book. He made some suggestions on the poem and wrote that he didn't think anyone had that book. He also spent more time writing about the poem I'd sent, drawing my attention to why it actually worked as a poem, why it was, in essence, the first successful thing I'd written, the thing that could stand alone in the world.

Steve knew, as I wish all teacher knew, that poetry is a process that take place only in a very small part on the page. He was my teacher at the very moment that I was becoming a poet, when I was letting go of so many parts of myself, the very way I had been shaped to think and perceive. Because he had already let go of these things and found a poet's path through the world, he was comfortable with my wild journey. I remember signing off a letter, "I'll go for a walk now to burn off some of this restlnessness. Maybe I'll get eaten by a panther." I thought it might have been too much. But he never judged, never restrained and, most importantly, he never, ever once pontificated or otherwise used my vulnerability to his advantage. He never crossed any of the invisible lines.

I consider myself among the luckiest of poets because I had the gift of working with Steve Orlen. I think of all his other students and know they also experienced his vastness, his ability to hold space for students without owning them, over-stepping or ever molding them in his likeness. He was an expansive man. And as much as one recalls Ben Jonson's words following Shakespeare's death, "a light has gone from the world," in seeing the words of Steve's colleagues and friends all over the Facebook world and how we, his students, are contacting each other, planning suppers in his memory, I don't think a light has gone from the world. I think it is just beginning to shine.