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Posts Tagged ‘Antonio Machado’

 

The Wheel of Being (My idea of ‘how’ to approach experience)

I thought that the poetic element was not the word in its phonic value, nor colour, nor line, nor a complex of sensations, but a deep pulsing of spirit: what the soul supplies, if it does supply anything; or what it says, if it says anything, when aroused to response by contact with the world.

(Antonio Machado, quoted in Alan S. Trueblood’s Selected Poems – page 7)

Given my recent triggering to go back yet again to David Gascoyne’s poetry I couldn’t resist republishing this short sequence.

As a result of the trigger described in the last post, yet again I come to the same kind of realization, of an insight into the importance of the heart, so recently diluted yet again by my habitual over-emphasis on left-brain pragmatics and planning.

Pattern-Breaking 

As  I have indicated in the previous post in more detail, I’ve been here before. This poem explored similar material to that which I am about to explore but from a more tentative angle.

On 6th January I scribbled in my portable black notebook:

Having worked out ‘how’ I want to do whatever I am doing, it looks as though I have been catapulted into being reminded of ‘what’ I need to bring more into focus. The book sent to me in the aftermath of an energizing conversation in Panchagani, with its themes of Rumi, poetry and The 40 Rules of Love, has forced me to recognize that spiritual poetry is something I need to read and if humanly (or do I mean Hulmanly?) possible write to keep my life in balance: at least that’s what it looks like right now.

Later I followed this up by writing:

The 40 Rules of Love parallels almost exactly my encounter all those years ago with the dancing flames dream itself and more recently with the rediscovery of my dream notes and the consequent epiphany, which I kept consistently discounting in the aftermath. In some way, because of the prolonged discounting, its impact this time has been even more powerful.

How am I going to break this pattern by which my left brain pragmatism and obsession with being useful keeps stifling my poetic heart until it almost dies. I must never let this happen again. I must keep poetry and song much closer. . .   I can get carried away with practicalities and fail to keep the two kinds of operation in balance as I am convinced the Faith would have me do.

And I am following this up by drafting this blog post to the strains of Beethoven in spite of the pressure to draft the minutes of a conference call yesterday.

I have now had three powerful reminders – the dancing flames dream, the hearth dream and now The Forty Rules of Love – to emphasise how important poetry is to my spirituality, to nurturing my heart. Maybe my recent enthusiastic and rather protracted exploration of the poetic style of Virginia Woolf’s late novels was nudging me in this direction but I failed to realise it by convincing myself that my focus was on consciousness – not that I have lost my interest in consciousness, I hasten to add.

Let’s hope it’s third time lucky!

Revisiting Gascoyne

But I badly need a plan. And it’s a plan that is going to need my left-brain on side. Usually, whenever I’m immersed in music, art or poetry, especially of the kind that is not immediately comprehensible, I can feel the fingers of my left-brain tapping impatiently on my skull. If that side of my mind doesn’t buy into the plan, its impatience will sink it, not just because it will be a distracting presence at the back of my mind, but also because I sense that I am too identified with my pragmatic and prosaic side. A tough bit of disidentification work and heartfelt persuasion is going to be needed to get that part of me on board. (Incidentally, this may go some way towards explaining my distaste for modernist poetry. It has little emotional appeal, so my right-brain’s not interested, and it usually doesn’t make any immediate sense, so both sides of my brain switch off.)

For now though, I am at least sticking to the spiritual poetry plan of reading and re-reading the books of that kind on my shelves as time permits, not at the expense of other priorities but persistently and mindfully.

Revisiting David Gascoyne is proving very rewarding. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to keep focused and remain fully aware that spiritual poetry is something that really matters. It will be easy to forget that this may be a key to help me bring all parts of my being to bear on experience and my responses to it, and that it may be telegraphing one of the most important things I am meant to be doing with my time from now on, not to the obsessional exclusion of everything else, but not to be sacrificed for anything else either, if I am to bring out the best in myself and become more integrated, unified, standing on the ground of my being rather than floating on the surface of my mind.

So, how is reading Gascoyne helping?

The introduction to my edition of his Collected Poems (edited by Robin Skelton) may help explain that. The comment I quote follows on from the editor’s outline of Gascoyne’s concept of the role of the poet as both ‘seer’ and ‘victim.’ He writes (page xiii):

This is a simplified interpretation, but it makes it easier to see how Gascoyne’s romanticism, left-wing sympathies, surrealist tendencies, and concern to explore deep into the world of dream, obsession, and suffering, could lead him towards a fundamentally religious poetry.

This is not done with arrogance or fanaticism. Skelton quotes from a poem I still remembered from my first reading of Gascoyne in 1982, just before I began to tread the Bahá’í path.

Before I fall
Down silent finally, I want to make
One last attempt at utterance, and tell
How my absurd desire was to compose
A single poem with my mental eyes
Wide open, and without even one lapse
From that most scrupulous Truth which I pursue
When not pursuing Poetry, – Perhaps
Only the poem I can never write is true.

As I began to read my way through the later pages of this collection I began to wonder whether I had seriously underestimated the influence of his poems on my eventual decision to tread the Bahá’í path. If poetry can do something so fundamentally important, it has clearly been a mistake to sideline it as severely as I have done at times.

I have always been aware of Peter Koestenbaum’s influence and have drawn attention to it many times in these posts. I feel I have done Gascoyne an injustice that I now want to correct.

Graham Sutherland – sketch for the Crucifixion

What really set me thinking in this way was re-reading a poem from which I have always remembered key lines but whose whole context had slipped into partial oblivion. I say ‘partial’ because re-reading it strongly suggested that it had continued to influence me in its entirety, not just by the few lines I remembered consciously.

The poem is ‘Ecce Homo.’ Only once on this blog before today have I mentioned this poet, and that was to quote, without comment, from this poem.

Not from a monstrance silver-wrought
But from the tree of human pain
Redeem our sterile misery,
Christ of Revolution and of Poetry,
That man’s long journey through the night
May not be in vain.

And yet there is so much else I could have quoted from just that one poem, let alone the rest of his work. He speaks of us as ‘Callous contemporaries of the slow/Torture of God.’ He obviously has in mind the toxic ideologies of his time when he speaks of ‘Black shirts and badges and peaked caps,’ who ‘Greet one another with raised-arm salutes,’ but what he wrote resonates still, I feel. A key stanza reads:

He who wept for Jerusalem
Now sees His prophecy extend
Across the greatest cities of the world,
A guilty panic reason cannot stem
Rising to raze them all as he foretold . . .

Why do I think he might have influenced my attraction to the Bahá’í Faith?

Well, in this same poem he asserts that ‘The turning point in history/Must come.’ And, writing still under the shadow of war he speaks (The Post-war Night) of how far we are from realizing ‘the innate sense/Of human destiny that we are born with.’ He defines this as ‘truly our aim on earth: one God-ruled globe,/Finally unified, at peace, free to create!’

Does that thought ring any bells among my readers?

The status quo will continue, he felt, as long as we remain ‘Comfortably compromised collusionists.’

‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era’ by Mark Tobey

He speaks to the artist in particular (The Artist) as having a crucial role in reversing this process, ‘by offering your flesh/As sacrifice to the Void’s mouth in your own breast!’ There is some hope in terms of the wider society (A Vagrant) in that many of us are ‘gnawed by’ our ‘knowledge of [society’s] lack of raison d’être.’ He wryly admits that ‘The city’s lack and mine are much the same.’

Perhaps it goes without saying that he does not have a conventional or simplistic view of religion (Fragments towards a Religio Poetae – Stanza 7):

Really religious people are rarely looked upon as such
By those to whom religion is secretly something unreal;
And those the world regards as extremely religious people
Are generally people to whom the living God will seem at first
an appalling scandal;
Just as Jesus seemed a dangerously subversive Sabbath-breaker
Whom only uneducated fisherman, tavern talkers and a few
blue-stockings of dubious morals
Were likely after all to take very seriously,
To the most devoutly religious people in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day.

There is much more to his poetry than this, including his subtle and unnerving way of describing how minds work and how adept we are at avoiding uncomfortable truths, but this is probably enough for now.

It is certainly enough to spur me on not only to finishing my re-reading of this collection, but also to embarking on revisiting many more of the long-ignored volumes of spiritual poetry on my shelves. To my surprise this has taken the shape of carefully re-reading the poems of Antonio Machado. Progress is slow as I’m not just relying on Trueblood’s excellent translations: I’m reanimating the corpse of my long neglected Spanish to soak up the sounds and the sense of the originals. More of that in due course, I hope.

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My solitude shall be my company, and my poverty my wealth.

(Bashō 1693 – quoted in the Penguin Classics Edition – page 45)

This is becoming rather weird.

Until the 9th April I hadn’t watched the BBC4 programme about Dufu, an early Chinese poet (712 – 770). It’s rather bizarre that I had already had the vivid experience of blossom, which I recorded in the poem I’ve just published, with its Chinese and Japanese associations, on the 7th, and then rediscovered Wang Wei (699–759) more recently on the 10th, which led me onto another rediscovery, Japanese this time, which I’ll come to later.

Wang Wei is another solitario, someone who had lost his wife far too early, after the pattern of Machado.

Looking back over his poems in a book bought in the early 70s triggered me to remember the poem Poet in the Country,which I wrote with my tongue in my cheek many years ago, when I was living in Hendon, overlooking a park and its brook. I tracked it in my notebook of draft poems: it was 1983 — just before my 40th birthday and soon after I became a Bahá’í.

Poet in the Country

River mist – no tinge of dawn –
Brackish tang – bird silence –
A specialist in Chinese loneliness –
Exiled – no Emperor to blame.

Even though I had found my Faith, in my diary I was still writing such entries as ‘my life is drained of all meaning by my yearnings for something lost (if it ever existed) in childhood. That’s how my life has been – making me the Chinese specialist in loneliness of my poem.’ Just over a year later I married, which certainly helped change things for the better, but it was only when I went on Pilgrimage to the Bahá’í Shrines in 1987 that I understood more deeply what at least some of those feelings of exile were about. Pilgrimage felt like coming home after a lifetime in exile.

I’ve a number of pared-back poems in that notebook, clearly influenced by Chinese and Japanese poetry – this one from April 1981.

Parting

The cold Plough shines and shines.
The stream’s flow glints.
I walk out, my eyes cloudy.

This refers to that same Hendon brook at a difficult time of my life, when divided affections were causing a great deal of pain.

There is a haiku I’ve always remembered, from the same year, written in my time at the Manor Hospital in Epsom when I was in training to qualify as a clinical psychologist. I can even remember the gravel path I was standing on as I stared towards a faraway copse of trees after a shower of rain.

Walking in Spring

Green mist gleams in distant trees.
I splash through puddles
reflecting cherry blossom.

Cherry blossom again – no surprise there then. Even more importantly, I didn’t know at that point how important the concept of reflection was going to become for me.

I was influenced not just by Wang Wei at this point in my life.

The Japanese Buddhist poet Bashō (1644–1694) was a favourite of mine as well. I don’t think I was consciously trying to pattern the poem on the model described by Noboyuki Yuasa in his introduction to Bashō’s writing when he says of a poem about a frog jumping into a pond that ‘the action thus described is not merely an external one, that it also exists internally, that the pond is, indeed, a mirror held up to reflect the author’s mind.’[1] I think there was a subliminal influence at work though nonetheless.

At the front of my notebook of draft poems I wrote these words of his:[2]

In this mortal frame of mine . . . there is something . . . called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business.

Elsewhere he refers to the ‘everlasting self which is poetry.’[3]

This led to a more complex poem in February 1982:

Candle in the Night

Flickering Spirit!

Poised like a frightened snake
to wound the dark —

or is it the dog dark
worrying the spirit?

more like a cat

trapping the soul
but taunting it
with illusions of release

before extinction bites.

Interestingly, in my diary  I was quoting from Yeats’ Byzantium as well, shortly before the writing of this poem:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

I saw poetry at that time as something that ‘endorses life, accepts death and always affirms.’ The best poetry, possibly, but not all of it.

It was not just their poetry that drew me to them. The power of solitarios, dwellers in solitude, such as Bashō and Wang Wei haunts me even to this day, as my sequence on Los Solitarios testifies.

Poems like Huatzu Hill by Wang Wei, whose Buddhism was a strong attraction for me at the time, were like looking in a mirror:[4]

Flying birds away into endless spaces
Ranged hills all autumn colours again.
I go up Huatzu Hill and come down –
Will my sadness never come to its end?

I must revisit him again, and I must also read more of Dufu as well. I have only a handful of his poems in my Late Tang collection (referred to as Tufu in my Penguin Edition): I don’t remember reading him at the time.

He resonates also:[4]

My ambition, to be pictured in Unicorn Hall:
But my years decline where ducks and herons troop.

The Unicorn Hall refers to his brief experience of thwarted ambition at the Emperor’s Court.

At this time of enforced isolation, for anyone who missed it, Dufu: China’s Greatest Poet, with Michael Wood’s enthralling commentary and Ian McKellen’s quietly powerful renderings of the poems, is well worth catching up with on BBC iPlayer.

Footnotes

[1] Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 33).
[2]. Bashō (Penguin Classics Edition – page 71).
[3]. Ibid: – page 30.
[4]. Wang Wei (Penguin Classics Edition – page 27).
[5]. Poems of the Late Tang (Penguin Classics Edition – page 42).

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My trigger for this sequence of posts was finding I had copied one of Elizabeth Jennings’ poems into my notebook. I had no memory of having read her, though my copy of her 1985 Collected Poems was riddled with my highlights and glowing comments.

I began re-reading her poems and ordered her recent biography by Dana Greene – Elizabeth Jennings: ‘the inward war’. My excitement carried over into the Death Café even before I had done more than just begun the biography.

The 1964 poem I read to them there was VII: For a Woman with a Fatal Illness out of Sequence in Hospital  (Collected Poems – page 80):

The verdict has been given quietly
Beyond hope, hate, revenge, even self-pity.

You accept gratefully the gifts – flowers, fruit –
Clumsily offered now that your visitors too

Know you must certainly die in a matter of months,
They are dumb now, reduced only to gestures,

Helpless before your news, perhaps hating
You because you are the cause of their unease.

I, too, watching from my temporary corner,
Feel impotent and wish for something violent –

Whether as sympathy only, I am not sure –
But something at least to break the terrible tension.

Death has no right to come so quietly.

Another member of the Death Café group immediately recognized the book I was reading from.

‘I’ve got that one,’ she said.

‘Do you like it?’ I asked, as possessing a book is no guarantee that you like it. I speak from experience.

‘Oh, yes,’ she said.

Why it matters that two people, out of the six attending that evening, both had copies of her Collected Poems and liked the poems in it, will become apparent later. Incidentally, the others seemed to appreciate it too.

As I read further into Greene’s book and revisited more of Jennings’ poems, I came to realize how closely her thinking about poetry mapped onto mine and differed from the critical consensus which seems to favour obscurity over accessibility.

I collided with this issue at the end of my sequence of posts on Machado. I will recap briefly here.

I acknowledged that coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights and that ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post, is a crucial function of poetry, with which Elizabeth Jennings would not disagree. But there is a problem.

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I was happy to go with them up to a point, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I now plan to explore at greater length. And I am not happy to blindly accept that popular poetry cannot, at least sometimes and perhaps more often than we think, take us beyond ‘our present state of awareness.’

The debate sparked by Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry frequently touches on this issue, albeit indirectly at times. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Nonetheless the book won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, which was generally written in strict form.’

I can’t join Hatcher and Hemmat again, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

This is also something this discussion of Elizabeth Jennings and her poetry will return to.

Poems too obscure or repellent to match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is. However, poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either, no matter how many people read them.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Elizabeth Jennings, as well as Machado, rises to this challenge in many of her poems.

And what follows will try to explain why. Stick with me. It might be worth it.

Some Basic Information

I need to start with a few basic facts about her life and poetic career before plunging into the issues I want to address.

Greene’s introduction confronts us with some fairly startling facts about her obsessive productivity (page xiv): in addition to what she published there are ‘30,000 unpublished poems and autobiographical writings.’

She was clumsy as a child, and kept falling over (page 11): ‘By the time she was ten she had had six severe blows to her head.’ She convinced herself she was therefore unlovable. Her relationship with her parents was not close, especially in terms of her father, which caused her problems with both people and God (page 16): ‘Fear of her father and God the Father dominated her psyche.’

Poetry, religion and relationships had both positive and negative effects on her state of mind (page 17):

There were three major turning points in Jennings’ life: her discovery of poetry, her sojourn to Rome, and a mental breakdown.

While, as we will see, poetry helped her in many ways, the intensity of her pursuit of it, fuelled by her need for money at times, led to dangerous levels of exhaustion. Religion constituted the same kind of double-edged sword: in the positive experience of Catholicism in Rome she found solace to compensate for and to some degree counteract her fear of God, but in the end (page 146) ‘[s[he confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

Before we look at the main issues we need to explore in a bit more detail two other important aspects of her life: the effect on her of her attitude to sex, marriage and relationships, and the impact of suffering.

Neither are straightforward.

Sex, Marriage and Relationships

Sex was a paradox for her (page 23):

She convinced herself that sex was filthy and something to be feared, but at the same time she was intensely interested in it.

This was something that contributed to her reluctance to marry (page 33):

. . . she saw marriage as tedious drudgery… This, plus her lingering fears about sex, limited her interest in marriage.

But that was not the only thing holding her back from tying the knot. In To a Friend with a Religious Vocation, as Greene describes it (page 71):

Jennings directly explores her quandary over the vocation of artist. She writes that she has no desire to have children or to be a nun.

Her conflicted position extended beyond the sexual though (page 131):

The principal psychic issue Jennings wrestled with . . . was how to love. She considered the need for love a part of the human condition which demanded that one be in a relationship with another. But love raised the problem of possession, both being possessed and possessing.

Love was further complicated for her by her religious beliefs (page 132):

For Jennings, the issue was not merely how to love someone purely, but how to love both God and another human.

Which brings us back to the quote I used earlier (page 146): ‘She confessed that she could only love God through people . . .’

When we look at her experience of and ideas about suffering in the next post we will begin to see that all these conflicts served as fuel for her poetry. Popular it may have been, but trivial and superficial it was certainly not, at least at its best.

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‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me . . .’

(Richard II Act 5, Scene 5, line 49)

After what seemed an interminable silence, I just have to say something else.

‘I’m not trying to minimise the problem with global heating. It’s an international emergency, I know that. I think we all do. But it is not the only issue. Genuine consciousness changing is far wider and goes far deeper than the consciousness-raising involved in the climate situation.’

‘Where’s this going exactly?’ Indie interjects. ‘Are we just going to be finding excuses for doing nothing?’

Fred comes to my rescue.

‘We’re very good as a species at focusing on one thing at a time with a narrow band of attention. That got us through the stone-age fine, when our main concerns were not getting eaten or wiped out by a neighbouring tribe, but it’s not so great when you are dealing with a wide range of complex and toxic problems stretching over a globally connected society. Plastics, potentially genocidal prejudice, a competitive ideology based on a distorted Darwinism preaching a divisive and misguided doctrine of the survival of the fittest . . .’

Emma groans out loud. Chris is nodding. Fred is oblivious, sitting at the back of the classroom on the right hand side, staring out of the window at the rain spattering against the tall glass.

‘. . . rampant consumerism and greed for profit fuelling an unbridled and unsustainable exploitation of the earth’s resources, extreme inequality, treatment resistant bacteria, as well as the climate crisis, to name but a few of the most obvious. And I can’t list the ones we don’t know.’

‘Have you quite finished now?’ Indie and Emma moan in unison, ‘or do you need another hour?’

Though I resonate to Fred’s line of argument, what he has said seems only to exaggerate the divide.

I hesitantly wade in again, from the doorway I first entered 53 years ago. My struggle with the lower sixth, when I eventually found where they were, is nothing compared with this.

‘Maybe we have to dig deeper still, much deeper than any of us have dug so far.’

‘What do you mean exactly?’ Chris queries, probably feeling that none of us could ever possibly have dug deeper than he has.

‘Well, first of all, I don’t think any of us, including me, is wise enough to know what’s best.’

‘But most of us think we need to be more active,’ Indie feels.

‘Half of the six of you, to be fair,’ I correct her.

Emma scowls.

I try again.

‘Look, the whole point is that even when we put our heads together we can’t agree what to do. We’ve got another stand off. Carrying on arguing, with feelings running so high, will never get an agreement on what’s best to do.’

‘We’re stuck then, I guess,’ Bill shouts from the back corner, his expression darker than the cloud outside. ‘But at least I can carry on writing poems, while Chris meditates and Fred learns more about the brain.’

‘That’s all right for you three but it’s not all right for the rest of us,’ Peat says. ‘Mum’s really upset and so is Auntie Emmie.’

‘That’s the problem,’ I respond. ‘We’re each seeing only a part of what’s wrong and so can just suggest a remedy that works for that bit only. We need to work out how to get closer to the whole truth. And, the way I see it, there’s going to be only one way to do that, given consulting together at our current level of understanding is getting us nowhere. We all have to step back from our attachment to the person we think we are.’

‘Sorry,’ Bill, leaping to his feet, jumps in. The desk rattles as he does so. ‘I know who I am. I’m a poet who loves nature. Nothing’s going to change that.’

‘And I know who I am as well,’ agrees Emma. ‘I’m an activist – always have been, always will be.’

‘I agree,’ comes the chorus from Indie and Peat.

Not surprisingly Chris and Fred seem to be taking a different line, with Fred speaking first.

‘I know about sub-personalities and I know that’s what we are. But that doesn’t mean, Pete, that you are not who you think you are. This isn’t going to break the block.’

Chris raises a hand in the air, asking for a moment’s silence. There is quiet for a moment.

He wades in, ‘Most meditative traditions contain some sense that a self of any kind is an illusion. I’m inclined to agree. So, yes, we could all be illusions, including you, Pete. The problem is that this doesn’t mean there is a real self of some kind we can tap into, which is where I suspect you are heading. Whatever self we discover apart from us, is going to be another illusion, believe me. We’ve been down that road twice already since this process started, and, with all due respect neither Peat nor Indie can claim beyond a shadow of doubt that they are the true self you seem to be looking for.’

I can see I’ve got a tough job ahead of me. Just as we couldn’t agree on what to do when the argument started, we’re not going to agree any time soon on this issue either.

I accept we can all get a long way by using all sorts of creative techniques to enhance our understanding. Dreams for one thing. The sand dream I was having when they barged in was a case in point. It flagged up the issue of how we use our time.

Reading and writing, perhaps especially poetry, are important others. My recent encounter with Machado’s blessed illusion poem is a good example of the fruits of those activities. Quoting the last few lines of my attempted translation illustrates how tricky the next stage of our development is going to be:

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

How am I going to explain the next step to them, something I don’t fully understand and I’m not sure I completely believe is possible for us? I could build on our hearticulture plan, but that didn’t carry everyone with it anyway, which is why it hasn’t got very far as yet.

While I was lost in thought just now they were all just staring at me in frustration, or at least that what it looks like now I’ve surfaced again. If anyone did speak I didn’t hear them.

I need to find some common ground, not just between them and me but among them as well. This story may not have a happy ending.

‘Do we all agree,’ I ask, ‘that we would like to achieve two things at the very least – one is to understand ourselves better and the other is to do as much as we can to make this world a better place?’

There are murmurs and half-hearted nods suggesting general agreement, with an undercurrent of suspicion. Bill is inspecting the bike shed through the rain-splattered window again.

‘OK. So, don’t pounce on me straightaway but, to explain where I’m heading right now I’ll have to use two words not all of you like.’

The stirrings of discontent begin to rise.

‘Let me guess,’ says Emma. ‘Reflection is one of those words.’

I nod.

She grimaces, looking across Peat at Indie. ‘We bloody knew this’d come up again, didn’t we?’

Peat looks confused. Indie whispers an explanation to him.

‘Look,’ I pleaded. ‘Can we strike a bargain here? The three of you are passionate about combatting the climate crisis. Did I use the right word there, by the way?’

‘It’ll do,’ Indie smiles, probably aware I’d learned the word from Fred.

‘Well, you claim I’m doing nothing, but that’s not quite true. I have been vegetarian since the late 70s and now I’m cutting down on dairy and trying to become vegan. Most of the science suggests that this is the single most important thing any individual can do, more effective than just flying less for those like me who don’t fly much, or giving up the car when you hardly drive at all. So, I’m asking the three of you in particular for whom this is so important, meet me halfway. At least think about working on our ability to reflect and learning to tune into our heart at the deepest level – that’s the second part.’

William James. (For source of Image see link.)

‘Nice move, Pete,’ grins Fred, ever the pragmatist. ‘You know you can drag the rest of us on board more easily. You know what? I’ve been thinking that we can treat it like an experiment. It’ll be hard to test properly for whether it’s working, because how will we know for sure that what we do has helped us get closer to the truth. Remember William James – you can discover the truth, but you can never know for sure that you have done so.’

Chris also looks reasonably pleased though Bill looks a bit glum still.

‘How is this going to help me break through my writer’s block?’

‘If what we finally plan to do works,’ offers Chris, trying to be helpful, ‘surely your poems will start flowing again because they come from the heart, don’t they, and we’re going to try and connect to that more strongly. I may distrust this true self stuff, but I have experienced how tuning in more deeply to what is going on beneath the surface of consciousness produces unexpected insights which our conscious mind cannot usually access. You’d go along with that as well, Fred, wouldn’t you?’

Fred nods in agreement. ‘You bet. It’s happened to me a lot as well. And there’s a lot of evidence to support this in the literature.’

Bill looks a bit happier.

‘So, where does this leave us?’ I ask, moving to stand near Fred at the front of the class. It makes me slightly nervous because of the memories it brings back of disruptive teenage lads muttering with each other, or fidgeting inside their desks instead of listening, and possibly planning their next unsettling move.

‘Are we all on board with at least an experiment to see where this gets us?’

While Chris and Fred have been working on Bill, Indie and Emma have been helping Peat keep up with the arguments put forward.

Indie nudges Peat. ‘Go on, love. Don’t be scared. Say what you want to say.’

‘I am glad you’re going vegan, sir.’ He’s obviously got a bit carried away with the classroom situation. ‘I think we all are. I hope we’ll be able to do more than that in the end though. For now, I’ll agree to try this experiment. But how long are we going to do this before we decide whether it’s going to work or not? We haven’t got forever.’

He looks nervous but speaks clearly.

‘I’m not sure, Peat. The experiment won’t mean we do nothing, remember that. I’ll be blogging and networking. I’m sure Bill’s poems will help people focus on important issues, and Fred’s reading and Chris’ meditation are both going to help as well. And what you three feel about climate change is going to still influence us all in that we do, write and say. The experiment will be a crucial focus for all of us, though. Because we will not be doing it full time, and because we’re not experts in what we are going to try and test out I think we’ll need to give it at least six months before we review. Would that be OK.’

Peat looks at Emma and Indie, checking out their expressions, before nodding his agreement.

‘That’s good,’ enthuses Chris, moving to sit in the front row. ‘So, what’s the exact plan then?’

‘I think we’ll have to work out the details after we’ve all given it some more thought. The key component will be using reflection, in the strong sense of the word, involving withdrawing our identifications not just from our thoughts and feelings, but even from our sense of who we are, so we can tune in more strongly to the depths of our being. I think we will also have to build in a pause button to press when we catch ourselves reacting automatically, particularly when we’re under pressure or in social situations. And in addition to learning how to remain more deeply grounded, we’ll need to find words to catch the insights that we find. This might mean we need to dig up the right images to do that with, rather than relying on ordinary prose. That should suit you, Bill!’

He doesn’t hear me. He has taken his notebook out at the back of the class and is scribbling something down as he mutters to himself – it’s about being as lonely as a clown, if I heard him right.

‘There’s always one,’ I find myself thinking.

I start to draw a diagram on the blackboard to try and explain how all these factors relate to one another. It doesn’t seem to work and I give up after a few boxes and arrows.

‘Shall we leave it a month to ponder on and then come back together again?’ I ask. ‘We’ve all got more thinking to do before we can make a clear plan.’

‘That makes sense,’ Fred agrees. ‘This is going to be really tricky.’

The walls of the classroom and the faces of my parliament of selves begin to fade as the need for a visit to the toilet takes control. Even in my dozy state I realise I’ve got some serious thinking to do about an issue that matters a lot to my waking self.

References:

For the first and last post in the original Parliament of Selves sequence see links.

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No one truth can contradict another truth. Light is good in whatsoever lamp it is burning! A rose is beautiful in whatsoever garden it may bloom! A star has the same radiance if it shines from the East or from the West. Be free from prejudice, so will you love the Sun of Truth from whatsoever point in the horizon it may arise! You will realize that if the Divine light of truth shone in Jesus Christ it also shone in Moses and in Buddha. The earnest seeker will arrive at this truth.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá Paris Talks – page 137)

Tu verdad? No, la Verdad,
y ven conmigo a buscarla.

[Your truth? No, the Truth,
and come with me to seek it.]

(Quoted in Xon de Ros – page 226)

In the previous three posts I’ve traversed a wide range of issues impacting on Machado’s poetry, including politics, life’s complexity, doubt, egotism, spirituality and dreams, to name but a few. Just to repeat, before I plunge right in, there are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Reality, Understanding & Language

I am going to move onto slightly different territory now. Truth is the first main focus. As we have begun to suspect, Machado’s characteristic stance is uncertainty. One Day’s Poem illustrates this as it meanders between humour and philosophy, taking its own sweet time. Just over half-way through we stumble over these lines:

Water from true springs
welling clear,
flowing on;
poetry, sprung from the heart.
Something to build on?
There is no solid ground
in the spirit or the wind.
Only oar and sail
drifting on,
down to the shoreless sea.

Trueblood unpacks what underlies this kind of thought (page 68):

. . . it is hard to conceive of his finding ultimate satisfaction within the limitations of a purely existential outlook. There would have remained the doubt of which he was writing…, not ‘doubt after the manner of philosophers… but poetic doubt, which is human doubt, that of a man solitary and uncertain of his path, among many paths. Among paths which lead nowhere . .’

The problem for Machado is that (Trueblood – page 39), ‘personal truths are not truths at all; one must seek the truth.’ He trusts experience but not necessarily his explanation of it (page 45): ‘One never doubts what one sees, only what one thinks.’

This reminds me of my encounter with William James. At the end of my three part sequence I concluded:

My best hope is fairly clear . . . I can always look to refine my imperfect understanding, bringing it ever closer to what I hope is the truth but never knowing whether I have got there yet or not.

Interestingly that completely coincides with what Lamberth reports as William James’s point of view, reinforcing further my feeling that he was indeed a kindred spirit and explaining satisfactorily why I got such a buzz out of finding this second book after reading these words in the first one I had read (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

So, exactly how does Machado think we can capture the closest possible representation of experience?

Reality is complex and fluid. That would make capturing it in words difficult enough. What makes it even more difficult is that our perceptions are not stable either. An understanding of this is not unique to Machado. Xon de Ros quotes Machado (page 5): ‘cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira’ [‘The sea and the mountain and the eye that sees them change.’] Munch expresses  the related idea that mood alters perception (Prideaux – page 81-83): ‘Experience told him that each individual found his own landscape based on his inner feeling. . . One sees things at different moments with different eyes… The way in which one sees also depends on one’s mood . . .’

Poetry, though, could be the best means of overcoming these difficulties (Xon de Ros – page 4):  ‘. . . the notion of immobility in perpetual change that defines living reality can only be communicated by poetic language (Macrí).’ A further confounding element though is the presence of the past (page 5): ‘Machado’s concern had moved from the past as it is filtered into our consciousness, to the past that inhabits and shapes are reality.’

Given that reality is to a certain degree ineffable there are limits to how far it can be captured, even in poetry (page 116):

‘. . . the effort to make sense of the unpresentable by means of metaphorical substitution inevitably leaves (leads?) the subject to appeal to connections already intelligible within [his] specific cultural context.’ Quoted from Kirk Pillow Sublime Understanding 2000 – page 253.

So not just history but current culture comes into play. These challenges, constituting (page 115) a ‘crisis of representation,’ pave the way for the use of one possible remedy, which is expressed by Mautner (page 209): ‘a predilection for ambiguity of language because it reflects the ambiguity of the world.’

This is where aphorisms come into play at times (page 211): ‘ambiguity is a virtue of the modern aphorism . .’ (Mautner page 816): furthermore, as Vickers points out (page 209): ‘the true aphorist has a fragmented kaleidoscopic vision from which this genre is the perfect form.’

This catapults us back into links with Cubism (page 225 re Nuevas Canciónes):

the contraposition of fragments, jumping and cutting from philosophy to the commonplace, seriousness to humour, seems to preclude a sequential reading, suggesting the simultaneity of the Cubist work. . . . Paradox and uncertainty are prominent in the series.

Obscurity again

The question for me becomes, as I discussed in an earlier post of this sequence, whether there is complete capitulation to unintelligible complexity or not. My sense is that Machado generally stays well this side of gibberish. We need this to be so because (page 227) ‘the mind, nevertheless, seeks pattern, continuity, and coherence in the disjunctive.’

We’ve been here before in my sequence on van Gogh:

He wanted to remain rooted in recognisable reality (page 223-24):

‘I find Breitner’s stuff objectionable because the imagination behind it is clumsy and meaningless and has virtually no contact with reality.’

[He has a strong sense] sense that disorder in art relates to disorder in the mind of the artist. Speaking of work he does not like he writes: ‘I look on it as the result of a spell of ill-health.’ He speaks of Breitner’s ‘coffee-house existence’ which creates a ‘growing fog of confusion,’ and of his having been ‘feverish,’ producing things which were ‘impossible and meaningless as in the most preposterous dream.’ Van Gogh felt that:

‘Imperceptibly he has strayed far from a composed and rational view things, and so long as this nervous exhaustion persists he will be unable to produce a single composed, sensible line or brushstroke.’

The ‘subliminal uprush,’ as Myers would term it (see Irreducible Mind), needs conscious organisation to make the best of it.

However, coherence should not be bought at the expense of new insights. Xon de Ros quotes Gifford as saying (page 15) that ‘every real poem starts from a given ground and carries the reader to an unforeseen vantage point, whence he views differently the landscape over which he has passed,’ adding ‘This remark is undoubtedly true of Machado’s best poems.

There was also something else that Frost valued (Matthew Hollis on Edward Thomas page 77), something akin to what Robert Hayden quoted as Auden’s version of it, that poetry is about ‘solving for the unknown,’ as dealt with in an earlier post:

‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’ [Frost] said that he never started a poem whose ending he already knew, for to have done so would, he believed, deny a fundamental purpose in poetry: that writing is an act of discovery. ‘I write to find out what I didn’t know I knew.’ Other times he phrased the idea slightly differently, but always the same basic premise: surprise leading to discovery. It was a thrilling and courageous approach to poetry . . .

In their introduction to their edition of ‘The Poetry of Táhirih’ John Hatcher and Amrollah Hemmat explore this further, initially referring to Hayden again (page 16):

The poet Robert Hayden was fond of saying that poetry is the art of saying the impossible. . . Another thing Hayden was fond of noting is that often the most popular poetry – if poetry has any sort of popularity of these days – is usually mediocre poetry because it can be easily understood. . . . great poetry, poetry with lasting merit, takes us from our present state of awareness to some place else . . .

I am happy to go with them this far, though I am not so convinced of the general mediocrity of popular poetry for reasons I will come back to in a moment. I find it harder to buy into where their next contention takes us (page 17):

We are urged to possess the cleverness to discern how language employs poetic devices to reach out beyond itself, to point us to some larger idea. . . . [T]he poet . . . is attempting something beyond description. . . . Those who are over the course of time considered to be the ‘good’ poets or the ‘great’ poets, most often happen to be the poets who are not always easy to understand.

And the clinching issue is this (pages 17-18):

The good poet, the demanding poet, thus writes for a small audience, people who think it worth their time to go through the intense and sometimes agonising process of trying to figure out what the artful use of language is trying to tell us.

It smacks for me of intellectual snobbery.

It also reminds me of the debate that sparked around Elizabeth Jennings’ poetry. Was it too simple and naïve to be of any real value, in spite of its popularity.

Dana Greene’s biography contains many instances of this position, for example, concerning her Extending the Territory in 1985 (page 149):

The detractors depressed her. John Lucas, writing in the New Statesman, criticized her ‘vapid’ poems, with their unvaried language and uninteresting subject matter.’

Some admirers of Geoffrey Hill would probably have thought the same as Lucas. Nonetheless it won the Southern Arts Society prize of £1,000.

Michael Schmidt, as her editor for 25 years and publisher of Poetry Nation Review described her as (page 186) ‘the most unconditionally loved writer of the generation of poets of the Movement,’ and  attributed ‘her popularity to her feel for ordinary people and her honest, straightforward, non-ironic, and non-satiric verse, this was generally written in strict form.’

I think, however, Hatcher and Hemmat do raise a valid point in saying (page 18):

. . . The artist may not always be concerned with what is the most effective way to communicate to others what insight he or she has achieved. Rather the artist is searching for the best sensual referent or concrete expression for what has been a thoroughly personal experience.

But I can’t join them, at least as far as Schoenberg and Beckett are concerned, when they write (ibid):

It takes a bit more energy and training to appreciate the atonality of Sternberg [sic – should be Schoenberg], Eliot’s The Wasteland, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot or Joyce’s Ulysses.… a good artist does not talk down to the audience, does not ‘dumb down’ the art.

A YouTube comment from P. Teagan on the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 pins down the reason for my reluctance:

‘Schoenberg, to me, and I’m no music professor, but this perfectly sums up the anxiety I feel constantly through life in its various forms and energy levels. Each voice of the various instruments, the different motifs, and the vigor in which they are played embody the many forms and sources of our daily worry and fears. All the subtle things nagging at our subconscious. The constant fear of death, loneliness, and pain. The true chaos of the universe and our existence. The feeling of loss of order. The realization that everything we experience is just a product of a soft computer sitting in our heads. I definitely don’t feel too great after listening to this, but I absolutely have to respect it for its ability to invoke these strange thoughts and confusing emotions.’

This is exactly why I think there should be something more in the mix, in the case of both Schoenberg and Beckett. We have more than a soft computer in our heads. Dissonance, no matter how well it reflects the jarring reality stretching tightly across the surface of our times, is not enough. There needs to be at least a taste of some sort of transcendence.

Their closing remark is unexceptionable speculation (page 19):

The artist may further presume that, having discovered this window on reality, we might somehow be better people for our efforts… the artist may take such delight in the existential act of creating that communication is the furthest thing from the artist’s mind.

My own feeling is that the question is more complex than they acknowledge. Perhaps poets are akin to psychotherapists, whose best pattern of action is to match their communication to where their client is coming from and encourage them to step onto different ground. Successful matching in this way facilitates a meeting of minds that means we are likely to be able to induce others to move from their current constricted position to a healthier place. In the process we learn as well.

Poems that do not match a large enough readership are hardly going to change the world for the better, no matter how brilliant their abstruse and inaccessible message is: by the time the future understands it, if it ever does, their message will either be too late or already understood without its help. Poems that do not challenge their readers to step out of their comfort zone will not do so either.

Striking the right balance is a matter of great skill, something only the greatest poets ever achieve: accessible enough to attract a wide readership and demanding enough to lift the consciousness of its readers to a higher level. I personally feel that Machado rises to this challenge in many of his poems.

Alter Egos

Another complicating factor of particular interest to me is how the task of capturing experience in words is complicated by the problem of how we decide who we are. Don Paterson raises the basic point, when he says (page 55): ‘there are several Antonio Machados.’ Xon de Ros quotes Machado on Proust (page 185): ‘No conviene olvidar nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’ [It’s best not to forget that our soul contains elements for the construction of many personalities.’] At the very least this triggers (Page 211): ‘the poet’s inner dialogue in which the addressed ‘other’ does not imply a social relationship with the world, but with the poet’s own self.’

The issue is fundamental to an understanding of Machado, as much so possibly as is the case with Fernando Pessoa and his heteronyms, though Machado distinguishes his position from Pessoa’s.  Xon de Ros unpacks its exact importance (page 244):

This conception of the self as an aggregate underlies Machado’s theory of the apocryphal, distinguishing this figure from those founded on an originary, unified consciousness: the double, the heteronym, and the pseudonym. Unlike these, the apocryphals are manifestations of what Machado refers to as the essential heterogeneity of the self. . . ‘No conviene olvidar tampoco que nuestro espíritu contiene elementos para la construcción de muchas personalidades.’

I absolutely accept that this is a not uncommon state of mind. My own sequence on my Parliament of Selves demonstrates that I’m not stranger to this myself. Machado is not wrong in that sense. I resonate strongly to his perspective. However, he is also not seeing it as a fragmentation that needs to be resolved if we are to change ourselves and the world for the better.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it completely clear ((Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: page 78):

. . . all souls [must] become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

That He needs to state this at all implies that most of us don’t experience things that way.

Why might this be so important? After all, having a crowd of selves inside sounds quite exciting.

The Bahá’í concept of unity is key.

The unity necessary to discover truth through consultation in the true sense of that word, and then act effectively, depends upon detachment. Bahá’u’lláh writes in the Hidden Words, ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

Not only that. Being detached enough from our lower selves to be at one within ourselves and connected to our true self, the soul in common speech, gives us the best chance of uniting with others, and vice versa of course. That level of unity is what is required if we are going to be able to solve the global problems confronting humanity right now, including the two most challenging – global heating and gross inequality.

Nature

There is so much more I could explore but this last post has already gone for longer than I planned. So, I will deal with an important aspect of his approach to poetry very briefly. Nature mattered greatly to him. Xon de Ros interprets this in a way whose relevance is greater than ever (Page 6):

Machado’s attention to the particular detail – the turn of the river, the quality of its water, the trees along the banks, and the differences between actual rivers – suggests an ecopoetic concern, in which the poet’s relation to nature is re-imagined in such a way as to encourage environmental awareness and responsibility.

Moreover (page 247) ‘[his poems] more often . . .  display a relationship with nature in which the human is not dominant but an integral part of the natural world.’ This view is supported by Gerald Brenan (page 430):

It is . . . a poetry that thinks, and by its thought endeavours to reach down to some inner, deeply hidden core. . . in Machado this language of the soul is expressed through the mediation of natural objects. All through [Soledades] we find certain things in nature appearing and reappearing – rocks, poplars, ilex trees, streams, water. Above all, water. Whether in the form of rivers, rocks, springs, tarns or fountains, his verse plays with it and draws from it a symbolical nourishment.

He concludes (page 435): ‘This was his message – “Awake!“ The eye must be taught to see, not merely to look: the brain to think and the soul to contemplate the eternal, if uncertain, things.

I can’t think of a better place to stop than that.

As usual I am adding at the end a poem that I find particularly resonant. The first version is the original Spanish, the second Trueblood’s translation and finally my recent attempt to render what it means to me in a poem of my own.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una fontana fluía
dentro de mi corazón.
Dí: ¿por qué acequia escondida,
agua, vienes hasta mí,
manantial de nueva vida
en donde nunca bebí?

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que una colmena tenía
dentro de mi corazón;
y las doradas abejas
iban fabricando en él,
con las amarguras viejas,
blanca cera y dulce miel.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que un ardiente sol lucía
dentro de mi corazón.
Era ardiente porque daba
calores de rojo hogar,
y era sol porque alumbraba
y porque hacía llorar.

Anoche cuando dormía
soñé ¡bendita ilusión!
que era Dios lo que tenía
dentro de mi corazón.

 

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a fountain flowing
deep down in my heart.
Water, by what hidden channels
have you come, tell me, to me,
welling up with new life
I never tasted before?

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hive at work
deep down in my heart.
Within were the golden bees
straining out the bitter past
to make sweet-tasting honey,
and white honeycomb.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamt of a hot sun shining
deep down in my heart.
The heat was in the scorching
as from a fiery hearth;
the sun in the light it shed
and that tears it brought to the eyes.

Last night I had a dream –
a blessed illusion it was –
I dreamed it was God I’d found
deep down in my heart.

 

The Closest We Can Reach (after Machado)

Last night my dreams were blessed. A vision
came to me. Deep in my heart a spring
of fresh water gushed from some hidden

source. Though I asked the water flowing
past, how its revitalising powers
were formed, it could not say. I am growing.

Tonight my dreams are blessed. From flowers
within my mind, crowds of bees return
to their hive, changing the bitterness

of past loss to soft wax and golden
honey for my cells, lifting my heart
up to a different, higher plane.

Will tomorrow’s dreams, to heal my heart,
again be blessed, with radiant sunlight
this time, hotter than the warmest hearth?

If that should happen, there’ll be no doubt,
in my mind at least – my heart does hold
within it, at its deepest point, what
feels the closest we can reach to God.

‘The Sun’ by Edvard Munch (for the source of the picture see link)

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The original Spanish will be in this Thursday’s post. For the source of the edited image, see link.

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