Tagged: Jacobellis v. Ohio

Poetry for the Vigil

There’s something about a storm on the horizon that won’t let me sleep– maybe just the marvel that some primeval awareness of weather patterns and their onetime implications for shelter and sustenance still linger in some backwoods of bodily awareness. Even before becoming aware of the first quiet hints of thunder, I’m suddenly awake and can do nothing but lie there uselessly until the system has worn itself out and there are no longer any low, thrilled giggles beneath my window, from late-night walkers caught in the rain.

From ako-aleko at Wikimedia Commons.

It was somehow appropriate that I waited it all out tonight with David Whyte’s collection of poems, The House of Belonging. I’m not sure where I first heard of Whyte or his book, which has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years– and I purchased it so long ago that I no longer had any expectations at all about what I’d find there.

Well– the material seemed to fit my mood, or to allay my restlessness to some degree; in the midst of the general tempest that is existence, Whyte, in his poet’s guise, at least, maintains an often frustrating calm in the face of just about everything, exploring how he belongs in the world, and the time and patience necessary to discover that manner of being. The simplicity of the whole project is often cripplingly beautiful, as in the second poem’s reference to his home,

where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.(1)

And Whyte’s acknowledgment even within this belonging of all “the testaments of loneliness” strikes a familiar minor chord with any insomniac with only the pages of a book to talk to in the middle of a blustery night.(2) But there are entire chunks of this volume that seem as if they’d be more appropriate in a self-help manual, more nuanced declarations and reminders of Stuart Smalley’s assertion, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I started to wonder, in fact, if Whyte had also fallen in his past upon emotional times hard enough to have cried half-ashamedly in a bathtub over the truisms found in How to Survive the Loss of a Love (3); numerous lines such as the following made me question whether I’d been deluded about the really good stuff that had come before it:

Sometimes it takes the darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you. (4)

Maybe part of the problem was with what often felt like prose that had simply been sliced into separate lines– not prose poetry, and not quite “poetry poetry,” begging the question of what counts as authentically part of the genre. Even though I’m no fan of strict labels or parameters, I was still uneasy with my basis for wanting to disqualify these sections– namely, the same one US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define obscene material: “I know it when I see it.”(5) There was something about many of these run-on sentences that just couldn’t qualify for me as “it.”

But if nothing else, the book, which really did contain some gems, got me through the first phase of this rainy night; maybe I should take it to my upstairs neighbor, who’s chosen to wait out his own restlessness by pacing back and forth above my head on creaky floorboards. I’ll make another attempt, though, to get some sleep, even though the thunder’s returned, and a few little drops of rain, and I need to shut the windows again

while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.(6)

 

(1) David Whyte, “The House of Belonging,” in The House of Belonging (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997), 6.

(2) Whyte, “The Truelove,” 96.

(3) Peter McWilliams et al., How to Survive the Loss of a Love (Prelude Press, 1993). Credit where it’s due: this was a strangely powerful and necessary volume, a couple of years back. But I’m still going to be snarky about admitting that fact.

(4) Whyte, “Sweet Darkness,” 23.

(5) That statement was made as part of 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio, which declared Louis Malle’s film The Lovers not obscene.

(6) Whyte, “The Winter of Listening,” 29.