Monday, July 2, 2018

Ruins: in American Journal of Poetry

I have a long poem called
in Volume Five of

The poem can be found


For years I've been meaning to write an essay about ruins. I love ruins. Many of us love ruins. Why? Villages, towns and cities have huge tourist industries based on the love of ruins. And so, I wanted to explore my own relationship with ruins; write about what passes through my head, my heart, my guts, when I'm standing in the middle of a thousand-year-old castle or looking at a pile of boards that used to be a ranch, or staring at the remnants of a paleolithic burial site (inside a cave above the waves of a sea that used to be a forest).

Everything is a ruin in the making. Think of the stars: light that's alive, that pierces our eyes, arrives from many suns that are already dead (What the poet Erling Friis-Baastad calls Fossil Light - the title of his last book).

I thought of the essay as moving through the denial, grief, and acknowledgement process that happens within proximity to any death. And so, I divided it up into different ruins I've visited and the emotions/thoughts that rose up while there. 

But once I looked at my notes, I realized they were close to being a finished poem. For me, a poem can get to the heart of something, and still make the associated connections (maintain the complexity), in a way that a linear essay cannot. Thus, a poem was born out of the notes for an essay...a poem-essay.

Below are some notes about the poem, which aren't necessary to "understand" the poem. I wrote the notes because I'm always interested in the process of other artists…

The poem can be



1. The introduction is a description of an abandoned farmhouse in Iowa I came upon in the early nineties. There was a rose bush outside and I sang William Blake's poem, The Sick Rose, to the rose (from Poems of Innocence & Experience):

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed 
of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

When dealing with ruins and death, Blake's poem seemed a perfect introduction. I've always interpreted it in terms of the worm that is always at everyone's ear, that's always whispering to us about death. This worm, the promise of eventual death, can be seen as a horror, something to be avoided, or it can be seen as intricately woven into life - that there is no true life (the feeling of being truly alive) without acknowledgement and acceptance of death.

2. Innocence about death: Playing in a World War One Trench, Belgium. When I was a kid (sixth grade) I was playing with some friends in a forest of spindly trees outside the town of Nimy. I suddenly realized - probably because I read books? - that we were playing in a former WWI battlefield. We were young enough to see the battlefield in terms of glory and mystery.

3. Romance about death: standing in the ruins of Tintern Abbey in Wales. The rich of previous centuries in the UK created a tourist industry based on the aesthetic appreciation - the haunting beauty - of ruins. Before the leisure class focused on these ruins, they were just piles of stones where poorer folks sometimes lived.

4. Fear of Death: the gravesite of a ten-year-old girl behind a crumbled wood house in Northeastern Colorado. I sometimes get a fear of death, of the passing of time itself, of transience, in some ruins. The moment when I feel the broken stones as my own bones. This is where you are going. This is where all things go…

5. Prophesy: wandering among the ruins of the pueblo village at Bandelier National Monument. What I found even more intriguing than the ruins (still a sacred site for nearby pueblos - the former domain of their ancestors) were some rock formations that seemed to be guardians of the place - so, a geological or cosmic view of human cycles.

6. Acknowledging Transience: this came about in the ruins of a concrete hotel built near the top of Mount Overlook, above the town of Woodstock in New York. I was thinking about the desire for wealth that kept spurring the building and re-building of this hotel. It was finally abandoned after three fires. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is "Dukkha." Meaning, all life is suffering. A truer translation would be: all life is transient. It's easy to accept intellectually, but hard to swallow when we suffer as love dissolves, as loved ones die, as things change beyond our comprehension. In those ruins I felt the space between my own atoms mirror the space - the holes - in the concrete.

7. Acceptance of Death: this castle is on the Gower peninsula, near Swansea, Wales, where I lived for two years. The castle sits next to a golf course. Which makes the whole gravity of "time passing" and "transience" kind of a joke. Fore! Acceptance comes in that sense of humor, I think. This section is somewhat surreal, as it should be. Acceptance also leads to strange doors that suddenly appear - strange signs pointing the way.

 8. Coda: After writing the poem, I thought of the US in terms of a ruin. But a ruin similar to the light in the night sky. All poetry, all writing now, is writing in the maelstrom: children being held in cages on the US border, a prison system lining the pockets of various corporations, the militarization of the entire culture (and still so little news of the wars), water in the streets of towns on the Atlantic coast, saltwater invading the land, the supreme court disassembling the New Deal (destroying the rights of labor), along with upholding an unconstitutional ban on people from middle eastern countries (I'll say it again: a ban on people)…
And so, the attitude of this section I thought somewhat resembled the irascible and prescient poet, Robinson Jeffers, a poet of praise (for the natural world) and a poet of rage (against destruction of the earth and the militaristic designs of the nation). As the poet Gary Snyder once said of Jeffers (a very loose paraphrase): "He was right. But why did he have to say it as if he was the only one who knew?" Some of Jeffers' poetry can be found here.

Robinson Jeffers