Opening Prayer 4 of 4

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I don’t know if Opening Prayer is going to be my last book, and maybe that’s the best way to proceed. It seems that I have to live the books as I write them, and every lurch forward involves some sort of sacrifice, a giving up of what I no longer need, assuming I ever needed it to begin with. Last year, I decided to burn my notebooks, starting with a little gray journal I kept when I was 12 and solemnly declared in secret that I was an atheist. The stack was almost two feet high — Big Chief notebooks, school folders, loose-leaf binders, fancy little Moleskines, you name it. I’d already dredged through the lot when I wrote a memoir a while back, and I knew that the entries were mainly just grousing and existential agonizing, familiar stuff to most writers. Still, it represented a lifetime of diligence, a sense of self. I started burning the oldest one first, then the high school pieces, then college. After 20 minutes, I still had most of my adulthood left and the ashes were filling up the fireplace, so I put the rest in garbage bags and left them on the curb for the weekly trip to the landfill. “Wet garbage” as they say in recycling. Earth to earth.

 

That was a good feeling, getting rid of all that paperwork. I felt lighter, unburdened. You’ll notice fire as a theme in this book, and I keep in mind that creation depends on some sort of destruction, a tearing apart or reconstitution, as in cooking, carpentry or religious conversion. To be reborn completely, we have to die completely, no fudging. I’m 65. I’ve given up being a writer several times, and I keep trying to reach the silence that makes a place for language, that allows it to be understood, and a language that points to silence. At times, I think I’m making real progress. Then something happens.

Opening Prayer 3 of 4

The poems in Opening Prayer were written after we had moved from New York and landed on the shores of  Austin, Texas. The first section was drawn from my experience in business over the years, including ad agencies, freelancing and four software startups, two of which imploded and crashed, leaving few survivors.

 

I think it’s too easy to think ill of business. For most of us in this country, it’s where we spend the bulk of our waking hours. It can bring out the best in us, and the early years (or months) in some of those startups were glorious. I remember days when I found myself in the office at 7:00 in the morning and still there at midnight, giving everything I had to something larger than myself. I wanted to believe.

 

At the same time, believe me, I know that business can be savage. Survival has to be one of its mandates, and in many cases survival trumps decency or even basic morality if it comes to that. I think of business, corporations in particular, with images from ancient Egypt, a society that valued hierarchies and efficient organization, supported by a religion, successful for thousands of years, dedicated to mortal preservation, wealth and deathless monuments. If death is married to business, then most of us, directly or indirectly, earn our living as the necessary offspring of that marriage.

 

As I jumped from one startup to the next, my life began to feel like a piece of bad writing, like an essay that you get back from your English teacher with comments in the margins: “Be specific!” or “Use concrete images.” I wasn’t going through any crash-and-burn crisis. No divorce or mental breakdowns. I didn’t run off to South America and study with shamans. I just had a sense of creeping mediocrity. I was supposed to be famous by now. What had happened?

 

One of the last pieces I wrote for this section was “Song of the Middle Manager.” The divided life, the conflict that I felt in New York of art versus business, business versus the human spirit, remained inside me, but here I saw a man who had made peace with what he had done and failed to do. He felt a pride, however battered, in his business career. When I wrote this, I wasn’t a believer, but I wanted very much to give this man something that suggested belief. As in the poems from Success Stories, his career had been measured by subtraction. Despite this or because of it, his dreams were “smaller but stronger.” He was dogged, but he wasn’t a fighter. He “walked through other doorways filled with light.”

 

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Approaching 50, I went for a brief visit to a Benedictine monastery in South Texas. Again, something happened. I fell in love, first with the Mass — it was poetry — and then with God and the Catholic Church.

 

The second section was written after this conversion. What had seemed like a series of dead ends in my life turned out to be, I believe, a necessary preparation for what happened at the monastery — and not just certain events but those events in that order. If I had found the Church at 23 or even 43, who knows what weird little pocket of faith I might have fallen into. As it was, I think everything happened on schedule but God’s schedule, not mine.

 

The title of the third section, Economy, has a double meaning; economy in the sense of capital economies and economia, the working out of God’s plan in the world. Most of the poems are about a balancing act of some kind. That makes me think of the Taoism I studied when I lived in New York —  not just the balance between yin and yang but the understanding that at the very center of each is its opposite. Actually, I’d argue that Taoism shares that understanding with Catholicism. Faith and reason, the physical and metaphysical, Good Friday and Easter all come as a package deal. No trade-offs. It’s “both/and” instead of “either/or.”

 

I also discovered as I wrote through this section — and the book is arranged generally in the order that the poems were written — that conversion requires a belief in conversion itself, just as marriage requires belief in marriage itself as a possible institution. I’m not the man I was before becoming Catholic, but on any given day, I shake my head in disbelief at what remains inside me, the person I used to be and still need to acknowledge.

 

The work in the fourth section took an unexpected turn, focusing on the artist and creation of various sorts. Yeats suggested that if we can’t know the truth we can embody it (a very Catholic, incarnational view, by the way). I would add that we can also attempt to show it. That’s one of the reasons why the book contains a series of paintings. When I was growing up, I didn’t write much at all; I painted. I’ve never been in a writing workshop, I only started writing seriously when I was in grad school, but I’ve taken more art classes than I can remember. . That might be the reason why a poem is always a sort of painting in my mind – a cluster of images that “talk” among themselves, the way a painting works.

 

Opening Prayer 2 of 4

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Lauren and I were married in New York. My day job of copywriting turned into a career that eventually supported a family. At the time, however, I wanted nothing of it. I felt cheated. I thought about teaching in workshops, but decided against it. I had already spent most of my 20s in academia, and I had the hunch that if I returned to the classroom, I would keep writing the same book over and over. So I gave up. I knew I couldn’t be a creative writer and work fulltime on Madison Avenue, writing brochures for IBM.

 

Then, oddly, something happened. The obstacle, the stumbling block, became a stepping stone, a kind of permission to stop writing what I thought were “poems” and start writing about money, jobs, paying the rent, and trying to keep the soul-spark alive in a corporation. The problem  of what we now call the work/life balance became the subject of Success Stories. My style grew plainer and at times (some readers would agree) crossed over entirely to prose. If poetry had been a religion for me, my faith was failing.

 

Was the book true to its title? Considering the irony of what I meant by “success,” I guess it was. Everything my wife and I attempted in New York fell apart, and yet after 11 years, we were still together, still very much married and now with a prayed-for son and another child on the way. I had come to New York for what I could get, but the book follows what I had to give up, a via negativa, a way of subtraction not from our true selves but from the ones that we make up, the egos that constantly fret, compete and compare. The book ends in silence, as close to the Truth as I could get at the time, standing on the other side of the glass. Failure. Surrender. Some kind of blessing.

 

In the middle of life, I find myself still waiting

outside a library deep in the woods.

I stare through the window: tier after tier

of books bound in white leather, and I understand

now that the books are empty, nothing

but soft, blank pages. I press my hands

to the cold glass. This is my heart,

this silent building in the dark fir trees,

and the lights are left burning all night long.

 

Opening Prayer 1 of 4

The next four posts will be taken from the preface of “Opening Prayer,” my third book of poetry. I’ll be explaining what  I’ve been trying to write over the past four decades as a poet and how the three books follow, for better or worse, the development of a spiritual career.

 

*****

 

Over the years, two themes have emerged in my writing. The first is how we make a living — money, work, business, corporations, and everything we mean by “trade.” The second is the inner life, which in my case has included poetry, painting and a religious conversion. Their ongoing development, including their complex, uneven marriage with one another, is much of what this present book is about.

 

*****

 

I wrote my first book, The Glass Children, when I was trying to lead the ideal writer’s life, at least my notion of what that was. I lived on day jobs and little grants, delving inward to escape relationships or any responsibilities whatsoever beyond a dedication to the page.

 

When I stand at the brilliant edge of the roof,

There is always the man who continues forward

Without hesitation, slipping smoothly out of my skin

And I’m lost, watching the back of his head,

His strong arms spreading open as he steps

Soundlessly over the edge.

 

That seemed like a kind of courage at the time, but I was trying to make a religion out of art. Why not? Like so many young writers, I wanted to astonish. Beyond that, I felt there was something at the very core of things that I could reach if I only wrote well enough. At times, transcendence made a brief appearance. The book’s last poem, “In New York the Women Are Dreaming,” served, I thought, as a grand prelude, a kind of announcement of a new life, but the poem’s energy, a feminine energy, was all the greater from being checked, contained and forced inward. The book began with an image of limestone caves and ended with an emergence not yet achieved. Art was a beautiful shell. I was listening to music I couldn’t hear.

 

Inner Seed

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This started as a catastrophe but eventually found its way, perhaps with a little outside help. Who intercedes for us?