EATING THE HONEY OF WORDS: New and Selected Poems
       Robert Bly; Harper Collins, 1999
    Anthony Piccione
It's the damnedest thing about us and poetry. Alone, it sustains us deeply, and yet, just try publicly to say a few things real, or restorative, or obvious about it and see how many otherwise normal people start feeling murderous about your right to speak. Beyond the personal turf-grabbing in a suddenly teeming poetry arena, the divisions are simple and unswerving: What you see is what you get. Entire cultures work this way. But you'd think, given the wobbly electric rush of our info-craving century, we might be at least more humane, more tolerant or generous of anyone's agony to know what it is we have been born into in this life.

Why would anyone have to defend or delineate what is so substantively discoverable in the long blood line of the world's visionary art? More recent poetry, i.e., "easy reading," has followed the lead of those ghostly "in-depth" TV news pieces of late, signaling the turn toward a few shallow glancing breadth bits which require therefore a heavy load of performance to offset what is missing. The aim, I am guessing, is to displace or sidestep percent-depth and experiential content usually generated by the poetry of whole mind. Let's face it, ours is an age of speed, fragmentation, urban sophisitication and buddy-system authority. We're all on the same enormous committee! Who needs teachers or libraries when everyone gets a gold star just for showing up?

I celebrate EATING THE HONEY OF WORDS, and I'm glad to have it in these times. Robert Bly has worked fiercely over the last five decades towards that part of us which connects to the numinous, resonating presence generating in, from, and around phenomena. What is anciently, fundamentally obvious is that the universal given, the nature of our planet, offers its steadily unfolding witness to the double-world way in which things work and mean, at once 'physical' as well as 'spiritual,' or, simply, 'real' and 'invisibly real.' It's not that the rational brain doesn't know some of this, it's that its objectifying language can't describe or deliver such observation. But poetry can, as the most suitable language of all, and often does. This apparently is what infuriates those who think therefore this world is flat and linear.

I was happy to revisit those poems I've loved especially, and taught from, and found restorative through the years. What strikes me now, though, is that poem by poem, book by book, Bly has been a rather caring witness to our great struggle and stammer, colletively and privately, to acknowledge and make sense of those profound forces driving our culture's transformations through the last century. However we remember it-- triumph and despair, cruelty and compassion, uncertainty and hope--his neighborly intelligence has rankled or comforted us in our tiny community of letters, and that is the natural, inevitable climate of ethical consciousness expressed publicly.

The time of SILENCE IN THE SNOWY FIELDS (1962), THE LIGHT AROUND THE BODY (1968), and THE TEETH MOTHER NAKED AT LAST (1970 held our witness and our great upheaval: student revolt, generational confrontation on the Viet Nam war, poetry's impatience with literary tradition. Words were either real in the world or else worthless, even as the establishment could and thus would twist anything to maintain its status quo. Zen, Tao, mystical Christianity and depth psychology pointed to the disastrous split between the conscious and unconsicous which could be healed, apparently, by a unifying merging which admitted both sides of the psyche at once. Bly and others, namely Snyder, Ginsberg, Wright, Stafford, Kinnell, Merwin, Levertov, et al., had set about to come clean, come clear, in an image-based poetry which sought to recreate the paradox of the double-sided mind. The light of consciousness and its mirror counterpart, shadowy unconsciousness, comprised the hyman psyche, and therefore its contents and the process of their expression formed the province of the poem. "As it is above, so it is below." The stakes were enormous to anyone who fathomed that words are nver just words. They are everything.

How to snap out of it and wake up at all? We could enter into solitude and self reflection, for starters:

After Long Busyness

     I start out for a walk at last after weeks at the desk.
     Moon gone, plowing underfoot, no stars; not a trace of light
     Suppose a horse were galloping toward me in this open field?
     Every day I did not spend in solitude was wasted.

We could begin to acknowledge at least our own shadow material:

As the Asian War Begins

     There are longings to kill that cannot be seen,
     Or are seen only by a minister who no longer believes in God,
     Living in his parish like a crow in its nest.

     And there are flowers with murky centers,
     Impenetrable, ebony, basalt...

     Conestogas go past, over the Platte, their contents
     Hidden from us, murderers riding under the canvas...

     Given a glimpse of what we cannot see,
     Our enemies, the soldiers and the poor.

The work of revealing and honoring the shadow, bit by bit, bringing each fragment up into the light of conscious awareness is, of course, perilous and humbling. There are no short cuts, certainly, although Bly's A LITTLE BOOK ON THE HUMAN SHADOW was a generous attempt to move the reader closer to depth awareness. The real, the only changes in the human psyche must come from the inside or else they do not take. We now this just by hving been alive these past decades. But how clear in hindsight, how utterly odd when first encountered:

The Eagle

          Whenever a man tries to save a woman--
          As he once tried to save his mother--
          It means that he is married--
          To what? To that which
          Will tear him to pieces.

          Last night while I was sleeping,
          I dreamt an eagle had his head
          And beak all the way inside
          The body of a dead dog.
          He raised his head and looked at me.
              Loving A Woman In Two Worlds, 1973-1981

I'm feeling somehat clumsy, speaking of poems for the utility of expressing what his books have done more generally as they joined the other poetries of our recent past. I have my favorites, certainly, like anyone else. Still, in the context of Robert Bly's influence on contemporary poetry, and it is enormous, no matter where one's literary camp is, what does a Bly poem do? Characteristically it offers up images of the interior, striations of light and dark which enact the reality of the individual psyche strapped to its duality, split between the thought and experience of any human moment. All the while, Bly has been sounding another way of connecting more directly with the reader caught in his own psychic impasse: the prose poem. From THE POINT REYES POEMS (1974) to WHAT HAVE I EVER LOST BY DYING (1992) and beyond, here is a way to speak directly in image while 'grounding' in prose for the reader new to poetry.

Going out to Check the Ewes

My friend, this body is food for the thousand dragons of the air, each dragon light as a needle. This body loves us, and carries us home from our hoeing.

It is ancient, and full of the bale's sleep. In its vibrations the sun rolls along under the earth; the spouts over the ocean curl into our stomach. ... This body of herbs and gopherwood, this blessing, is a long ridge patrolled by water.... I get up, morning is here. The stars are still out; the black winter sky looms over the unborn lambs. The barn is cold before dawn, the gates slow.

This body longs for itself far out at sea, it floats in the black heavens, it is a brilliant being, locked in the prison of human dullness....

The new poems are spry and lively, new in many ways. I've been trying to think about them and to say something intelligent or helpful about them. It's as though they reject the laws of physics or something: they deliver the power-bound treasure right up to our noses, but they do so with declarative statements as the vehicle, and not, as we'd expect, with the twelve-dimensioning image with which he is so abundant. Isn't that odd? It's also impossible, but it's true. Rumi does it. And Mira. And Rilke. Kabir. The saints. Something forlorn about the crowds left standing empty-handed makes him turn and come back to us in what appears to be prose-declarative story, except it's the gift of what only poetry can deliver. Something like this, and difficult to say clearly.

The Dog That Pursues Us

          Oh well. The man whose head thinks on a pillow,
          filled with goosy down, all night
          Knows, or tries to know, if we are
          What we say we are. The down says no.

          We turn this way and that, trying to escape
          Our childhood, which keeps pusuing us.
          It's like a dog! And we are the master,
          Running on ahead in the mountain air.

          Oh dog, come closer. We've climbed up so
          High we've passed the sheep pens; and now
          We're dislodging stones. And still the dog
          Keeps nosing our feet up the mountain.

          We could climb higher but that would only
          Make more work for the dog. Haven't we
          Given enough of ourselves to the high air?
          The ancients would have long ago gone down.

Anthony Piccione's books include "Anchor Dragging," "Seeing It Was So" and "For the Kingdom" all published by BOA Editions Ltd. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals including American Poetry Review, Ohio Review, Chicago Review, Connecticut Review and others. For many years, Piccione was a professor of English at the State University of New York, College at Brockport. He currently teaches at the Upright Hall, the residency for poets he has established in Prattsburgh, New York. The website for Upright Hall is located at Hall.


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