There are dark forces roiling beneath the surface of American life. Along with nearly everyone from my side of the political spectrum and many from the other, I am wringing my hands as I watch thousands of furious voters turning up for “Make America Great Again” rallies and candidates competing for who can be the most craven toward vulnerable people in our midst and grown adults behaving like they just learned a naughty word that they want to try out on the schoolyard. It’s not just the political entertainment class that is acting out either. There are shouting matches and fisticuffs and rhetorical venom exchanged between friends and co-workers and ordinary folks standing next to each other at a political rallies. Meanwhile, earlier this winter, armed, flag-waving men took over a wildlife refuge here in my own state, making proclamations about returning public lands to the people and a revolution to resist tyranny.
Meanwhile people like me respond with policy challenges—how exactly does Donald Trump plan to force Mexico to pay to build a 2000-mile wall? What are the nitty gritty details of how he intends to help Americans make “much more money” rather than increase the minimum wage? Why were the Bundys and their fellow occupiers trying to force a rural county to take over 190,000 acres it has no ability or desire to manage? What is the most tactical way to battle ISIL without harming innocent families and children?
But as I watch all this happen, it’s evident something else is going on here. This is not a policy debate at all. There are unseen forces at work. The other night, a friend said she feels like the id is run amok. I chose Jung over Freud, arguing that the unexamined shadow is emerging from the unconscious. I just wish Joseph Campbell were around to interpret all this for us. Either way, it seems as if the language of symbol has erupted in the most public and vicious of ways.
It was in that frame of mind that I went to see Haydn Reiss’s new documentary about the life and work of the poet Robert Bly. The film begins at the 1968 National Book Award Ceremony with Bly denouncing the war in Vietnam and turning over his $1,000 award check—which he undoubtedly could have used about then since he was living on a farm in Minnesota raising a young family—to some kid he found at the office of the draft resistance movement. As he put it:
As Americans, we have always wanted the life of feeling without the life of suffering. We long for pure light, constant victory. We have always wanted to avoid suffering, and therefore we are unable to live in the present. But our hopes for a life of pure light are breaking up. So many of the books nominated this year — Mr. Kozol’s on education in the slums, Mr. Styron’s, Mr. Rexroth’s, Mr. Mumford’s, Miss Levertov’s, Mr. Merwin’s — tell us from now on we will have to live with grief and defeat.
Right. That’s it, isn’t it? Americans have tied their fate to the galloping horse of capitalism with one rein and the rampaging bull of empire with the other. We believe in unlimited growth and new cars every two years and each generation doing better than the last and viral democracy and American exceptionalism and a cheerful liberty that is unburdened by recollections of slavery or Indian removal or Japanese internment. And maybe it isn’t quite turning out like we’d hoped; maybe we aren’t able to cheat the human condition and the limitations of the stressed planet. Maybe we have lost a few wars in a row and are carrying a huge debt and are finding that the wealthy are getting wealthier and that good fortune is not trickling down to improve the lives of Americans from coast-to-coast. Maybe—at least in part—we’ve been telling ourselves a big fat lie. And rather than turning inward to face our disappointment and suffering and grief, we’re just pitching an old-fashioned fit. We’re railing at our parents and the government and big corporations and the horse they all road on in. And here Bly was talking about it from before the time I could walk.
Haydn Reiss—who appeared at the screening I attended—said he had hoped to make a “legacy document” to share Bly’s life and work with future generations. And the film succeeds in giving us an overview of the whole Bly. From the opening at the National Book Awards, the movie returns to the farm of his birth and walks us through his life in more or less chronological order, interspersing footage of Bly in action with a interviews with a who’s who of American poetry—Ed Hirsch, Philip Levine, Donald Hall, Jane Hirshfield, Tracy Smith.
My own relationship with Robert Bly and his work has been complex. I first read him as an undergraduate, though I am not sure why since almost certainly I was not assigned This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years in any literature course I ever took. I suspect I was nipping from my secret stash of used poetry collections that kept me alive and at least partially intact while I wrestled with school work and romances and the new identities I tried on every few weeks. But I am nearly certain that This Tree was the first time I read—and probably ever heard of—Robert Bly.
After seeing the film a few weeks ago, I returned to that first book and every other Bly book lying around our house—Loving a Woman in Two Worlds, The Men in the Black Coat Turns, The Morning Glory, Silence in the Snowy Fields, and of course, The Light Around the Body, the book for which he won the 1968 National Book Award. I had already been poking my way through the cantankerous essays in American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity, and I finally got around to reading The Sibling Society.
I know that some of the other collections are more acclaimed, but returning to This Tree jerked me right back to my nineteen-year-old-self, reading poems and choking down espresso in a campus coffee house. I was a serious kid—serious about grades, serious about succeeding, serious about being good. I was a political science major with some moonbeam longings, though I did my best to keep those mostly to myself. And while I loved the rough and tumble of politics and the adrenaline rush that went with it, I still longed for connection to the inner life that only literature can deliver. So while by day I railed against the injustices of colonialism and imperialism, by night I read poems that that tapped into an unseen world in which the rules of materialism were askance and a feral intelligence reigned over the kingdom, poems like this one from This Tree Will be Here for a Thousand Years:
“Women We Never See Again”
There are women we love whom we never see again.
They are chestnuts shining in the rain.
Moths hatched in winter disappear behind books.
Sometimes when you put your hand into a hollow tree
you touch the dark places between the stars.
Human war has parted messengers from another planet,
who cross back to each other at night,
going through slippery valleys, farmyards where the rain
has washed out all the tracks,
and when we walk there, with no guide, saddened, in the dark
we see above us glowing the fortress made of ecstatic blue stone.
And the introduction to This Tree must have been just as stunning to the nineteen-year-old me who was trying to make her way in the late 2oth century world while still loving it in the particular way of a 12th century ecstatic nun or a Druid. But this, this must have pierced close to the bone:
Many ancient Greek poems, on the other hand, suggest that human beings and the ‘green world’ share a consciousness. Each of the poems that follow contains an instant sometimes twenty seconds long, sometimes longer, when I was aware of two separate energies: my own consciousness, which is insecure, anxious, massive, earthbound, persistent, cunning, hopeful; and a second consciousness which is none of these things. The second consciousness has a melancholy tone, the tear inside the stone, what Lucretius calls ‘the tears of thing,’ an energy circling downward, felt often in autumn or moving slowly around apple trees or stars.
When I first read it, I must have thought: Robert Bly was fifty-three years old when he published this book. He is startled by snow and amazed by horses and plough furrows. Surely there must be hope for me. I was desperate to make contact with—and then ride the contrails of—the unseen world. And Bly was right there as my traveling companion, goading me and apparently all of American poetry along with me, though I didn’t know it at the time. As he said at the end of his famous and cranky 1963 essay “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry”:
Most of our poetry so far has nothing to give us because, like its audience, it drifts aimlessly in the world. A country’s poetry can drift outward, like the lives of most people, or it can plunge inward, trying for great intensity. Inward poetry deepens all life around it. Other poets have given their countries this gift. If we fail in this, of what use is our life? As Lorca says, life is not a dream.
I suppose I fell head over heels for Bly because he was—as Ed Hirsch put it in the film—a “citizen and a mystic” who was both excavating the deep interior and speaking out against American policy in Central America. And I was desperate to believe that it was possible to do both things over the long haul.
As Bly warned in the movie: “It’s hard to live in metaphor in the modern world.” And, as he elaborated in his 1997 book, The Sibling Society:
The increasingly hurried and harried college education that comes before business means that many men and women graduate without ever having any experience of the ‘other worlds,’ or of deeper meanings.
Damn straight. Though at nineteen, I had no idea just how much harder it would get. It’s actually relatively easy to linger in the world of symbol when all you have to do is feed your mind, sit in coffee shops until 2 a.m., and fret over life on the other side of the higher education moat. It gets a lot harder when there are mortgages and ballet recitals and laundry and idiosyncratic bosses and brake fluid and dog food and immunization records and editorial deadlines and mammograms and school photos to worry about.
But I didn’t know that then. All I knew is that I was the girl who was interested in both folkloric magic and pressuring the university to divest its endowment from South Africa. And I mooned after a poet who could both write:
‘Living’ means eating up particles of death,
as a child picks up crumbs from around the table.
‘Floating’ means letting the crumbs fall behind you on
To live is to rush ahead eating up your own death,
Like an endgate, open, hurrying into the night.
and call out The Man—in all his forms—over the war in Vietnam:
What has the book industry done to end the war? Nothing. What have our universities done to end the war? Nothing. What have our museums, like the Metropolitan, done? Nothing. What has my own publisher, Harper & Row, done to help end the war? Nothing. In an age of gross and savage crimes by legal governments, the institutions will have to learn responsibility, learn to take their part in preserving the nation, and take their risk by committing acts of disobedience.
So I took it particularly hard when Bly published Iron John. And one of the great things about Reiss’s movie was that I got to feel anger and annoyance all over again. At the time, I was outraged. I had taken Bly to be an equal opportunity tender of the soul. I saw him as a magician, a shaman, a portal to the unseen world, and it never really occurred to me that this pied piper of the mythological wasn’t talking to me. I didn’t realize that this alluring version of human existence was just for the guys and that I was supposed to watch from the bleachers, as with so many other things in a young woman’s life.
After Iron John came out, I left Bly for dead. By that time, I had had plenty of experience with men celebrating their manliness at my expenses, sometimes at my great expense. So I rolled my eyes at the spectacle of dentists and tax lawyers binding up their psychic wounds with red ribbon and drumming in the forest. And though I still never have been able to make myself read Iron John, I enthusiastically joined in the feminist critique that went something like: enlightened and mythologically informed as it might be, patriarchy still sucks. After that, I never went back to those magical poems in This Tree will be Here for a Thousand Years or Silence in the Snowy Fields with any enthusiasm or particular attention. I completely missed the ghazal era and the late poems informed by the Chinese masters.
So I was puzzled by my own reaction to the packed Bly retrospective I attended last April in Minneapolis. Tony Hoagland, Marie Howe, and Jill Bialosky were on the panel, flanked with musicians and upstaged by a magician (this was, after all, Robert Bly). To my surprise, Bly and his wife Ruth turned up and sat right in the front row. At that point, Bly was eighty-eight years old and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for more than a few years. He was as tall and imposing as ever, but bonier, thinner, less electric. But after the tributes were complete, the moderator announced that Bly felt up to reading a few poems. So he turned his chair around and read poems from his most recent book, Like the New Moon I Will Live My Life. As he read the poems peppered with his trademark asides (“I don’t know what that means, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?”), there he was. The voice, the quickness, the snowy version of the exterior world juxtaposed with deep dives into the interior one. As soon as he started reading, I started to cry. And I didn’t let up until after we had walked out of the crowded lecture hall.
My attitude was a little confused by the time I attended the screening of A Thousand Years of Joy. Of course, there were a lot of dudes featured in the film, from both the poetry world and the men’s movement (though Jane Hirshfield and Tracy Smith and Louise Erdrich also made appearances in it), and there were a lot of older dudes in the audience, as well. And I did feel annoyed—all over again—at what I guess we are calling the mythopoetic men’s movement. But this time, even that huge diversion in Bly’s career made me feel a little tender toward him. He didn’t really seem like much of a threat in the end, and at least he swung for the fences. At least believed enough in the tools of poetry and myth and storytelling to try to connect American men to the interior world despite the fact that he subjected himself to both ridicule and rancor.
And overwhelmingly, both last spring and in the movie theater, I felt grief. I felt grief for Bly gripped by the nasty talons of Alzheimer’s. I felt grief for me that the years have passed so fast since I was that earnest co-ed. I felt grief that we are doing no better at staying out of wars and protecting the people and creatures of this planet than we were when Bly first started sounding the alarm. And I felt grief for a country that continues to be disconnected from the interior world and the wisdom that it might offer in the face of hate-filled rhetoric and demagoguery.
The fact is, grief is my closest familiar these days. I grieve for some Platonic innocence that has never existed for my children. I grieve that they are one day closer to being out in the world than they were yesterday. I grieve for the fact that racial justice seems further away than ever and that I feel increasingly unable to be a force for good in that fight. I grieve for the fact that my paved-over neighborhood was once the habitat for old growth fir and elk and gray wolves. And—this is the one that threatens to drag me into the undertow— I grieve over the fact that my entire generation, including me, has been so careless and greedy and addicted to convenience that we have likely doomed the planet and all of its inhabitants to a bleak and catastrophic future. At this point, I am awash in grief that could—and sometimes does—overwhelm all other emotion.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? That’s the difference in returning to Bly as a middle-aged woman rather than an undergraduate. Then, I was such a wound up ball of longing and fear that I all I could seek was hope and encouragement. And I found some romantic version of it. But Bly, he knew it was about grief all along. As he said—all those years ago—we are in an era in which we must live in grief and defeat. And that’s the place we’re unwilling to go as a culture. It is inconsistent with our televised vision of ourselves as “winners” and as “the greatest nation on earth.” And, honestly, it’s just too scary.
So of course the unconscious erupts. We will do anything not to feel awash in defeat and grief and hopelessness and guilt and shame, so we fight back with rancor and hatred and ugliness. But if we listen honestly to the voices of that other world, the one Bly spent his life tuning his ears for—in ways sublime and ridiculous—we know we have companions in our suffering:
Come with me into those things that have felt this despair for so long—
Those removed Chevrolet wheels that howl with a terrible loneliness
Lying on their backs in the cindery dirt, like men drunk, and naked,
Staggering off down a hill at night to drown at last in the pond.
Those shredded inner tubes abandoned on the shoulders of thru-ways,
Black and collapsed bodies, that tried and burst,
And were left behind;
And the curly steel shavings, scattered about on garage benches,
Sometimes still warm, gritty when we hold them,
Who have given up, and blame everything on the government,
And those roads in South Dakota that feel around in the darkness . . .
Unlike Bly, I am not inclined to dwell in the world of grief forever, but I know we have to pass through and we might have to stay a good long while. But Bly reminds us that, for now, our whole world lives under a sheen of grief, and if we are willing, we can see clearly here too and not feel so alone.