Tuesday, March 8, 2011

We have not yet begun to fight

Before poet/mentor Roger White died in 1992, he asked that his many and varied friends send him anything they had written about him or his poetry.  I sent along a few things, including this essay, written not long after Operation Desert Storm in 1990.  The Association of Bahá’í studies sent me a surprise letter accepting the essay for publication not long after Roger’s death.  The blessed boy had submitted it as a final gift.  It seems appropriate to republish it here during my month of peace, and in honor of Roger.

“Support our Troops in the Middle East.”  The signs were everywhere.  We might not agree with the war, but we surely would give those brave men and women our heartfelt support.  I did.  They were sitting in the sand feeling nervous, lonely and homesick, and I was sitting at home full of fellow feeling.  How grateful we all were to know they were coming home!  No more nights glued to CNN, no more bad Iraqi jokes.  Even the yellow ribbons were tired and bedraggled.

One night soon after the war was ended I had a dream.  I could see assault forces on the border of Kuwait while overhead planes were as plentiful as locusts.  I stood in the middle of the war, untouched by the weapons and unable to help the wounded.  Bodies piled up around me as I desperately tried to reach the living.  A dying soldier held out his hand to me and said, “This is your heart.”

I hate being slapped upside the head by the obvious.  Homer knew it.  Krishna tried to explain it.  From the beginning, war has been used as metaphor to explain the greater inner struggle.  The Prophets and poets have all had hopes that we might understand this great inner battle, and they have given us explanation after explanation of how it all works.

One poet with great hope was Roger White, who expressed the inner battle in several different ways through the body of his poetry.  I would like to discuss two of his poems which gave my subconscious some ammunition in an efforts to educate me.

Pollux to Castor
Now having come this far shall we go on?
You, dear, not dead and I but half alive
And weary, who think it easier to pawn
Divinity for respite than to strive
Against you in a duel so finely drawn
With yours a subtler skill, mine stronger steel.
How shall I gather heart for further bout;
What paean sing to kindle pulse and nerve—
(Who with but sloe-eyed glance you quickly rout
And with one kiss enslave)?  Would my death serve?
Oh, one must die, beloved, have no doubt.
This stern and fixed decree grants no appeal.
God’s very sky the gift your death will win—
Prepare to die, my love, my foe, my twin.

This is a retelling of the story of Pollux and Castor in a traditional sonnet form.  In most versions of the myth, the twins are the sons of Zeus and Leda the Mortal.  One is immortal and the other mortal.  In a battle Castor is slain and Polllux, because of great love for his brother, refuses his immortality in order that he might go to the netherworld with him.  Out of pity Zeus grants that the two brothers should remain together alternately in the heavens and the netherworld.

Roger White has added this twist to the story: Pollux is Castor’s murderer, killing him to fulfill the stern and fixed decree that will win God’s very sky.  In doing so he has given the myth a broader scope, that of the duality of human beings and the eternal struggle between their higher and lower natures.

With Pollux drawn as the higher nature (noble thoughts, divine virtues of love, pity, mercy, justice, and so forth) and Castor as the lower (ignoble self, animal passions, worldly aspirations), we see that Castor has the more subtle skill and can enslave the higher self with but one kiss.  All who have fought this battle can see themselves here—the effort to be “good” and the ease with which we remain “not good.”  Living with this dual nature can seem unbearable and many times we may think “Ah! If I could put a knife into the heart of that part of myself—eliminate it altogether and live only with the better part of me.”  But in doing this Pollux loses his immortality, or so the story goes.  And the story as told here is that one MUST die.  Pollux, the higher nature, is allowed still to choose who will die—either Castor by his hand or Pollux by enslavement.

A central point in this story is the love, the passionate love, between the twins.  This was no hate-filled battle but one fought by decree, stern and fixed.  By putting the story in a sonnet form it is focused and given grace and structure.  The traditional form, theme, and story all set the background for the unexpected idea of a passionate connection between the two natures and their complicity in the murder on one and the salvation of both.

(Suggested by Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha 275)

This, the perfect journey; this alone.
Although the spurious brother came
With petulant demand
He was substanceless in all that light.

The choices leading to this holy stone
I blessed in silence but could not name;
Outstretched a timid hand
But heard the banished sobbing in his night.

Turned to embrace him then.  To claim this home,
An angel spoke, enter whole or else remain
Eden’s orphan; understand
He blesses, too, though is not blessed with sight.

The quotation suggesting this poem says, in part; “Remember how Adam and the others once dwelt together in Eden.  No sooner, however did a quarrel break out between Adam and Satan than they were, one and all, banished from the Garden, and this was meant as a warning to the human race, a means of telling humankind that dissension—even with the Devil—is the way to bitter loss.”

Here again are two brothers, one spurious and making petulant demand on the other, who is making a pilgrimage.  Again we are shown the scene at the very last moment.  The pilgrim reaching out to touch the holy stone is stopped by the sobbing of the brother who has been banished from Eden by his very substancelessness.

There is no murder here, no collusion.  Here is an initial sense of rejection of that spurious brother, that lower nature which proves, in the end, not to be evil after all, only devoid of light.  Here is neither passionate love of all that the lower nature holds, nor the outright need to kill off that part of oneself.  Rather there is a calm acceptance of the lower nature as necessary for salvation: wholeness.

For centuries, pilgrimages have been made to shrines and holy places.  Muhammad institutionalized the pilgrimage, requiring that all true believers travel to Mecca once before they die.  Bahá’ís also make a pilgrimage to the holy places associated with their religion.

Bahá’u’lláh has stated that out of the whole world, God has chosen as “home” the human heart.  Understanding this holiest of places then becomes the true pilgrimage, of which the other is only an outward reflection and reminder,

The concept of Yin and Yang is reflected in this recognition, as Bahá’u’lláh has said that “the letters of negation, no matter how far they may be removed from the holy fragrances of Thy knowledge, and however forgetful they may become of the wondrous splendors of the dawning light of Thy beauty, which are shed from the heaven of Thy majesty, must needs exist in Thy realm, so that the words which affirm Thee may thereby be exalted.”  (Prayers and Meditations p 325)

Here there is no duality, merely a temporary separation for the purpose of our education.  The “stern and fixed decree” still holds, as the outward manifestations do not change merely because we view them from a different angle.  Now the murder by Pollux is transcended into sacrifice, as the brothers give up their separateness to enter whole into Eden.

In reading poetry there is a process of self-discovery that occurs, as the reader draws out from self the meaning each poem carries.  It is the same process of self-discovery that allows each of us to also draw meaning from current events and place them in the context of our true reality.  The poets have always done this but often to a small audience.

Now the outer wars and revolutions and famines and ecological disasters are daily reminders of our mortality, and, if we do not pay attention we may get more than “slapped upside the head” by our subconscious.  This world is indeed our heart, and “to claim this home” we must “enter whole or remain Eden’s orphan.”

Maybe it is time to bring out the metaphoric yellow ribbons and welcome some foot-sore soldiers home from the battlefields of our hearts.

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