We each have unique emotional modes of survival. Some of us are genetically predisposed and conditioned to the practical efficacy of cheerfulness. We modestly claim neither innocence for ourselves nor blindness to life's many injustices. There are others distinctively predisposed and conditioned for melancholy or anger. And obviously many others live with varying degrees of stability along this axis. We, the cheerful, usually annoy the hell out of the angry and simply overwhelm the depressed. So normally I'm embarrassed to confess an affinity with the gladding crowd. That was until I read Geraldine Green's new chapbook, PASSIO. Occasionally I challenge myself and plunge the depths of initially alien sensibilities, to the best of my ability and limitation, but henceforth I shall unabashedly admit my comfort with the familiar. It's rare to find someone whose aesthetic is so similar to mine.
The very first page of Green's chap is a single sheet of turquoise blue paper, slipped between the cover and title pages. She begins with an etymology of the word itself, passion: L. passio, passionis from patior, passus, to bear, to suffer; allied to Greek pathos, suffering, akin to patient, passive, compatible, &c.1
Green begins her thirty-six poem collection with an exquisitely gentle devotion to the sacred experience of a new day. She shares a pagan reverence for the living cosmos with the precise sound and touch of her words.
EARLY MORNING PRAYER
This is the quiet indulgence, sitting here, these keys clicking together like
rosary beads, or the soft click of amber against amber
the rain's incessant window-tapping making a music, me space-filled, the wind
I'm listening to entering me like silk blowing
or spider's threads coming together to weave some sound from nothing,
thinking back to conversations and dreams the sweet insistence of diastole
the movement of breath among mountains, a Ghazal woven into a carpet, or
the soft click of raindrops ambered against a window.
It is almost a prayer this time of morning, that I may never know certainties,
it is almost a litany of outside coming in, an opening of blood and sinews and
bones, the interstices of my body allowing the universe to enter in all its
This is a prayer I am praying in the quiet, wild hours of morning, sweet lord of
night bless me, sweet lady of the far-seeing eyes cover me with a silk shroud.
Every person, plant, bird, tree, creature, and the multitude of other natural gems Green encounters are connected by subjectively experienced correspondences. She carries them inside her web of reality and explains them so carefully to the reader. Each phrase is an earthly metaphor with a rich history, and Geraldine Green has the fantastic ability to end each poem with a single line that leaves you suspended in a nearly timeless contemplation. She shares her aesthetic, her method of observation and communion, quite effectively. Convinced of her own bearings she rarely founders. I might struggle with a few of her metaphorical knots, but I'm an eager mate on her voyage, knowing and nodding yes to how she perceives.
Green's own agonies are barely perceptible to the reader, because she bears them so gracefully. She modestly betrays a bountiful ability to experience pleasure, with no grief too great to bear. Her personal travails find quiet relief in the memories of her pilgrimage and travel, which in turn generously spice her poems. She conveys memories so naturally, whether imagined, evolutionary, or conscious. The past is always present through language and memory. They don't exist without each other.
OIL is the story of a soldier who carries horrible memories of the war on terror to back his homecoming:
He wore the easy sound of a smile on his finger,
the ribbon-wrapped present on his tongue,
the smile of a thousand poor nations under his skin.
He carried the smile of a dying child in his eyes,
the smile of impoverished people with swollen
bellies of children in his kitbag, as he walked away
from the war.
He carried blackened corpses, broken rivers, peeled
lemons, wrappers of sweets, plastic bottles,
cones, bayonets, tank turrets, swarm of bees, ants
that stung like fire - or was that the rain of bullets?
easy swung hips of tall women, heads loaded
with water jugs, hearts loaded with nothing, wombs
full of unborn children.
His welcome home banner said, 'welcome
home' His mother said, 'Your father would have been'
His sister chewed her fingers, her child tugged
at her skirt, his friend went on tinkering under
the bonnet of his car. 'The oil needs changing',
I contemplate most westerners' calamities.
I think of Milton's Samson, eyeless in Gaza* and ask: who today are the Philistines? Who are the chosen? Who are the slaves? Who patiently bides their time with 'restrained' violence for that final act of bringing down the pillars upon themselves and all the 'infidels' - for the glory of their gods and oil? Every belligerent side of this ancient conflict has the power to plunge us into total darkness. Myths obfuscate ungodly intent. They glorify oppositions and fuel the fallacy of perpetual struggle and renewal.
Samson was a Palestinian Sun-god who, becoming inappropriately included in the corpus of Jewish religious myth, was finally written down as an Israelite hero of the time of the Judges. That he belonged to an exogamic and therefore matrilineal society is proved by Delilah's remaining with her own tribe after marriage; in patriarchal society the wife goes to her husband's tribe. The name 'Samson' means 'Of the Sun' and 'Dan', his tribe, is an appellation of the Assyrian Sun-god. Samson, like Hercules, killed a lion with his bare hands... and his riddle about the bees...was annually shorn of his hair and power by the Moon-goddess; his male adorants dedicating their forelocks to him in mourning...2
Green's title poem is very mythaphorical. Yes, I know Jesus is another sacrificed solar king, but the poem as a whole is a bit of a stretch. In it she uses twelve stanzas (stations of the cross) and the "My God, my God. Why hast thou forsaken me?" refrain. Unfortunately PASSIO comes across as only a minor 'tragedy' as she struggles to connect her observations of Skiathos, a beautiful Greek island, with an already muddled mythology. PASSIO belies a creative torment and ultimately it comes across as a contrivance. She suffers at the hands of the elements, primarily the scorching, merciless, blinding sun. The insurmountable heat is surrounded and taunted by the blue sea, succulent aloes, and there's "a calling of madness that licks the land like a cat in the morning." There is some sexual imagery, but if the poem is an erotic metaphor, like King Solomon's Song of Songs, it's far too oblique and confusing. If it's a hallucinogenic vision quest fueled by the spirits of ouzo, sugar cubes or wild woodbine, or an imitation of a Passover plot, I still can't connect with it. Green seems 'abandoned' to a situation which in reality she can easily escape but instead invokes sun gods who blaze and haunt Skiathos. Evening, a cool moon-goddess, arrives merely as a classic, formulaic balance. PASSIO is not the best poem in this book. The others work better because their spirituality is subtle. I suspect she agonized over the decision to make this poem less prominent. It seems almost pretentious compared to the other poems that more characteristically portray her understanding of the of all-or-nothing risk of passion. The title and contents of this chap don't depend on the inclusion of this poem which can only be marginally justified by Green's humility in the face of such a daunting, historic landscape. Almost miraculously, she seems aware of these 'sins' and redeems the island narrative with her more typical contemplation in the final stanza of PASSIO:
A hand rises beneath me as the land does the ocean
and if I never return to this island of shadows
I will remember the agony of sunshine
and the long, slow drop of honey drunk from the thread of wild woodbine.
I greatly enjoyed this piece of imagined memory...
A POEM NOT YET WRITTEN
- like the ones at Lascaux
O they were beautiful! My grandmother painted buffalo
on the earth's curves
to teach me of the stars' courses
she sang of deer stained her hair purple and cried
when I asked her where she went to in her dreams.
...this depiction of evolutionary memory...
In the days after we became wind and sand,
became the tight buds of coral
that the sea broke and planted in our garden
when we were once the cry of pines
plunging into the silence of a walled ocean.
...and this very personal phrasing of conscious memory.
I showed you my greenblue vein that runs from my heart finger
my bluegreen vein runs like a stream to my shoulder,
curves and rests somewhere close to my breast.
I know what it means,
you know what it means,
but we don't speak of it.
Green continues the tradition of ancient Celtic poets. We are not separate from nature. She even asks, "Is the design of flowers in the pattern of humans?" The first contemplative poets recognized the observer-participation phenomenon millennia before it was labeled quantum. For them it wasn't paradoxical. Both happen inseparably, no inside, no outside. All together now.
Here is Green's closing poem, her own rendition of a Celtic blessing:
May green lizards walk across the keyboard of your world,
pausing now and then to lick their feet clean of letters;
may a pheasant searching for its mate find her
under the Magnolia Stellata at the far end of your garden;
may monkeys scatter leaves for you as you search
for somewhere to lay your head below level of the wind;
may the spiders that haunt the crevices of your mind
go spin their webs in someone else's woodshed;
may the hot hand of a child always be there for you
when you're feeling sad or afraid.
May you hear my name when you least expect it,
may you always call out for me, I'll always hear
because it is there in the wind and the stars and the frogs
purring in the pond as they spread their nets of spawn,
because your voice is like a tiny bird struggling to break
out of the shackles of its shell,
because your voice is home to me when I'm afraid in the dark time
of morning when the house breathes its unexpected noises.
May you always have some snow on the north slopes
of your land to remind you of winter
and when the summer sun warms the soil to copper,
may you have crab chowder to eat after a day on the water.
May you come to me each night in my dreams,
hold me, call my name, hold me, call my name.
Geraldine Green's poetry is a quietly intense rebellion against withdrawal and the surrender of passion because pain seems unbearable. Isolation and numbness only trade one agony for another. Her poetry reinforces my own patience, to grind on when necessary, still hoping for the collapse of all obstacles to unfettered love, to the end of my own contemplation.
And calm of mind, all passion spent*
* Samson Agonistes by John Milton, 1671
1 from The Concise English Dictionary, Literary, Scientific and Technical, by Charles Annandale M.A. LL.D, Blackie & Son Limited, 1905
2 The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth by Robert Graves 1948, Amended and enlarged edition Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966 New York