A Bit of Bly

When I read Robert Bly I get the uncomfortable feeling that I’m missing something important and that I should enjoy his poems more than I really do. For instance, my favorite parts of The Light Around the Body and This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years are the quotations he uses to begin the various sections of the first book and the quotations he begins the other book with. If I’m inspired by the same writers that he is, I should be more inspired by his poems?

Of the two books I read, the earlier one The Light Around the Body is my least favorite, though there are still poems I enjoy a lot. Still, it’s not a good sign that my favorite quotation from the book is a Jacob Boehme quotation that introduces section IV of the book


Dear children, look in what a dungeon we are lying, in
what lodging we are, for we have been captured by the spirit
of the outward world; it is our life, for it nourishes and
brings us up, it rules in our marrow and bones, in our flesh
and blood, it has made our flesh earthly, and now death has us.

Unfortunately, the quote inspired me to start searching Amazon for a book by Jacob Boehme, not finish Bly’s book

It seems that Bly is up to more here than I am capable of understanding, or perhaps I am simply unwilling to put in the amount of effort it takes to truly understand and appreciate his poems. If I’m going to have to put in this much effort, I’m going back and finally figure out William Blake. Kevin Bushnell in “Leaping Into the Unknown: The Poetics of Robert Bly’s Deep Image” explores some of the problems encountered in trying to understand the poems and has obviously devoted much more time to analyzing Bly than I am ever going to.

That said, I still find:

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…

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

an insightful, moving poem. Though the title at first seems a little misleading and the imagery somewhat disjointed, the phrase “longing to kill” provides enough structure to make the poem whole. The “dark” minister who no longer has Faith watching like a crow is a powerful image. And the “black rose,” or flower of death that cuts like basalt, contrasting with the red rose of love, is an equally powerful image. The western movement, though usually portrayed as the grand progress of history, leads to the slaughter of the Indians, with their “Asian” heritage, and, in turn, leads us back to the title of the poem. Finally, the last line with its subtle movement from “enemies” to “poor” calls into question America’s real motives in Vietnam. Anyone opposed to the war in Vietnam who has seen Jane Fonda’s Soldier Blue would have no problem following the imagery in this poem. Admittedly, this isn’t the only poem in the book that I found intriguing, but, on the whole, I was disappointed in the book.

I started reading This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years with greater expectations because the title comes from lines from Tao Yuan-Ming:

After a storm the leafy tree is no longer solid,
but the pine still throws a full shadow.
It has found a place to be.
For a thousand years it will not give up this place.

Perhaps as a result of my expectations, I did find this book more to my liking. That’s not to say, though, that my expectations were fully met. Too many of the poems simply elude me, hide out somewhere near the compost heap, waiting to be recycled next year into a new crop of more meaningful poems. At the moment I have no patience for the compost heap, I’m looking for more immediate gratification, a pepper burning in the mouth or a ripe melon to cool the fevers of the soul.

Still, for those willing to glean the harvest, there are delicious fruits to be discovered. “The Fallen Tree” is just mysterious enough, without being frustratingly mysterious, that I found it challenging and intriguing


The Fallen Tree

After a long walk I come down to the shore.
A cottonwood tree lies stretched out in the grass.
This tree knocked down by lightning —
and a hollow the owls made open now to the rain.
Disasters are all right, if they teach
men and women
to turn their hollow places up.

The tree lies stretched out
where it fell in the grass.
It is so mysterious, waters below, waters above,
so little of it we can ever know!

Of course, the poem raises more questions than it answers, but sometimes the right question is more important than any answer. What is a “hollow place?” Is it an empty feeling? A sense of despair? And what happens when we turn it up? Does God fill it up with water? Is it just ordinary water that chokes and threatens to drown? Or is it holy water that refreshes? And helps us to grow anew? And finally, what the hell are we supposed to do with that last line?

The Academy of American Poets has several Bly translations and lots of links.
Robert Bly’s home page, apparently pushing Bly for poet evangelist of the year.
And here, again, is that intriguing essay on Bly’s “deep image.
If you would like to read more, here are five more poems by Bly.

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