I want to write about two topics today that are related, at least to me, in this way that I am exploring both spirituality and poetry in this blog. If you’re only interested in the spirituality part, it will be easy to jump down to it below in bold: Porousness.
Last night, I went to a poetry reading by three women at Fergie’s Pub in Philadelphia. The trifecta are all related to Bryn Mawr College and know each other from there. JC Todd who teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr and two former students, Darla Himles and Elizabeth Catanese. I know JC from our years long affiliation with the Dodge Foundation. Elizabeth is my particular friend from the English Department at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Darla is Elizabeth’s long time friend from her Bryn Mawr days. I say these things to indicate that this is not an impartial review of the reading but a personal response.
Elizabeth Catanese read first, and to me she was the star of the show, not just because she’s my friend and some of the poems were polished in the informal workshop we used to do in my office lunch for a couple of semesters. She has a luminosity both in her person and in her poems. They feel to me like the perfect conversation among head, heart and gut. She and Darla Himles meet weekly at the Philly Trolley Car Diner and give each other prompts that they they write and revise. So both readings went, as Darla said, from citrus to crabs. Both read a poem about Audrey Hepburn and a lemon, it was the first in both of their lineups. Darla Himles is a bit like Hepburn, a gamine with a cap haircut with sly eyes and a sparkling smile. Her poems are linguistically interesting and smart. I admired them very much, the way Hepburn’s Holly Golightly admired the wares in Tiffany’s window. But somehow they did not strike the same chord of yoga, if you will, as Catanese’s, by reaching into my heart and belly, not all the time anyway. Third on the roster, the main act, so to speak was JC Todd. JC reminds me somewhat of Marianne Moore–not least because last night she wore a hat, one that belonged to her husband’s grandmother, a black felt affair with a red feather. She passed it around to raise money for a charity, a sweet touch. Her poems have the high polish of many years of craft, and they are intricate and intelligent on the ear. Her most impressive selections were from a series of Petrarchan sonnets about the Iraq war. They’re sort of prose sonnets in that they tell the story of a woman medical officer’s experiences in Iraq, and they were bold, bloody and embodied. They called to mind the still amazing sonnet sequence novela by Ellen Bryant Voigt called Kyrie about the influenza epidemic in 1918 -19.
There was a good crowd for the reading. The upstairs at Fergie’s is small, and by the time the reading was underway–following a set by the musical duo Attractive Nuisance, who were wonderful–there was standing room only, and had the Fire Marshall come up, he would have been a bit concerned as to whether we would have been able to extricate ourselves without trampling. But we were lucky in that; the only fire was in the words.
Now we come to the Porousness part. For me to be in a room packed with strangers is an exhausting experience. I find that I am soon saturated by the energy of so many people pressed so close together, which is why I don’t go out much. I feel a bit like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. As if I have fallen into another world where, although I’m dressed like everyone else and look like them, my body beneath my disguise is a skinless sensitive thing all nerves and receptors. I both can and can’t bear it.
In the beginning, I sat quietly until I was joined by a woman who is a painter and photographer, connected to the reading by a sequence of relationships that have to do with making poems from art, ekfrasis. Like me, she said she does not go out much. I introduced my self as Subhaga, which led to a conversation about how I got my name (from Amma), and a short Q and A about my spiritual background. We talked about meditation, awakening and painting in nature. It was sweet. Then we sat in companionable silence while the room filled beyond capacity and the noise rose, and the mic for the reading had to be turned continually louder to compensate for the sounds from Fergies’ downstairs room where the business of drinking and shouting was well underway.
Energetically, I was able to stay in the paradox of the noise,the crowd and the silent spaces in the poems. I had set the parking meter for 90 minutes, which I hoped would be enough time to hear what I had come to hear. But there was also an inner parking meter ticking at the same time as the one outside. The energetic meter for my capacity to be surrounded by so much human contact, each person with his or her transmission field, his or her anger, sorrow, grief, disappointment. Because, friend, beneath the disguises we all don to move around the world, in search, like the Bowie character, of clear, fresh water, the thirst to be met rises out of a Sahara of the soul. This being human is, after all, as Rumi says, like a guest house, constantly being visited by the difficult relative, some who come and never leave. For me, to be in this bath of human suffering damped down beneath a snappy demeanor and sated with draft beer and pub fries is exhausting. I’m the sponge that soaks in all that pain.
In the car, in the cold, at 13th and Sanson, I sat for a moment while someone idled off my drivers’ side door wondering if I was ever going to give up my spot. I waved her on and breathed the frosty silence. I felt into my body laced with exhaustion. I dialed up my friend the GPS lady to take me home–even though on some level, of course, I know the way–a sort of autopilot to allow me to bring my focus to the act of navigation. It was a bright starry night, and as I made my way through the inexplicable logjam of cars on the Schuykil Expressway back to Bryn Mawr, I began to unwind into the spaciousness that is always within me. I came home, greeted the dog, drank two liters of water, and read a few pages of Molly Gloss’s Wild Life then fell into a deep and unbroken sleep for 9 hours. Mine is a big battery and it takes a long time to recharge.