It was October 2004. I had come to this beautiful rural retreat in the Berkshires to hear Robert Bly and Coleman Barks conduct a seminar on “the poetry of the ecstatic.” Barks had become famous over the years for his translations of the Sufi mystic poet, Rumi and Robert Bly …well, he was Robert Bly. He had become just a bit more famous with his best seller “Iron John” back in the nineties, but that was only to augment an already distinguished career, as a poet and translator, as a cultural and literary critic, as an activist voice. I’d been reading him devotedly for more than twenty years. His gorgeous “A Third Body” was read at my wedding (by an achingly hung over survivor of my bachelor party, no less).
Yes, and it was mid October. The gorgeous autumn leaves seemed to smolder their colors in the misty light of that weekend. The sky was a strangely atomized milky substance, something surrounding, that dampened skin and sound. Chilled. Oceanic. We swam there.
This retreat had been a wonderful birthday gift from my family and I’d looked forward to it that entire Fall. The Red Sox had lost the first two games of the League Championship Series to the Yankees and so I was essentially okay with being away from television and emails for a rustic weekend of inspired poetry, a weekend of likening the beauty of one’s beloved to some unspoken language of God. The gorgeous logic of the Creator in the quiet of her eyes. That intoxicating essence. I was there and ready for that language and logic.
It was October 2004 and perhaps the one thing that had occupied my thoughts more than anything else in the months preceding was the presidential election. It was almost over now and there were, I believed, signs of hope. I’d helped put together fundraisers. I’d canvassed door to door. I’d written impassioned appeals and licked countless envelopes and stamps. I’d done everything I could think of to do. My son was just thirteen years old, my daughter ten. My brother, a soldier in The Massachusetts Army National Guard, was already overseas. This contest had become something more than an abstract question about political philosophy.
At this beautiful gathering of poets and writers, in the gorgeous mountains, with the other-worldly light, I found I wasn’t alone in how seriously I had taken my politics that season. There was no shortage of passion in the room as the subject came up again and again, in crowded lobby conversations, in our cafeteria mutterings over dour Unitarian cuisine. We were there for a differently stated purpose but the voice of protest wasn’t going to be silent. Bly read from a collection of anti-war poems he’d published with a small press. He gave out copies free. He read of the hidden sorrows and the disinherited grief of our wars, of how we were drowning in those cruelly disavowed tears. He spoke of “our angels… hiding in the jugs of silence filled during our wars.” So many of us nodded our heads, knowing he was right in what he said.
“I want you all to help me with my homework,” Bly announced as the crowd of us gathered into a meeting room the first evening. We sat mostly on the floor, crowded around and Barks and Bly had the stage. Bly had been asked to write an opinion piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He wanted our reaction and suggestions to a rough draft. It was due the next day and so he read it to us.
“In reality, the horrible event called the Bush presidency is over now.” That’s how the piece began.
It was October of 2004 and Robert Bly had his teeth sunk deep in the side of George W. Bush and all the unmistaken arrogance and fantasies of empire he stood for. The title of this piece was “The Emporer Has No Clothes”. The central point was that Bush was “not a fool, exactly,” but rather “a representative of our enlarged ability to lie to ourselves.” We all tell ourselves these lies, the poet argued: war will make things right, oil will be abundant, poverty is unreal, our empire is right. I’d read James Carroll argue the same point on the eve of the 2000 election. That sweet naked dangerous lie was the man’s appeal. That was the danger.
But that “horrible event … was over now.”
As I recall, my feedback for the poet (he did ask) was that he should temper some of the more fiery aspects of his argument. Sure, SUV’s might “represent our ability to lie to ourselves about the abundance of oil” but do we really want to draw the battle lines of some cultural armageddon on consumerism, or do we want to persuade just enough Americans to reconsider our most blatant folly? This is October. We only have a couple of weeks…
The poet stood by his argument, even the less politic aspects. He went to press with the piece basically as he’d drafted it. These past years I’ve argued the point in my head time and time again and I’m still not sure which of us was right.
In these past years I myself have refused to be silent when I thought wrong was being done in the name of my country, in the name of ideals like democracy and freedom. I have refused to accept the idea of a war without end or fixed purpose beyond a statistically acceptable rate of casualties. I will not be silent. I’ll mourn and question every last one of those statistics. I’ll not disavow that grief. I’ll not disown my tears. I will not fill that jug, damn it.
Thank you, Robert.
Still, at the same time, I’ve often found myself angry with the argument that there is no path between, no place beyond the argument itself. That there is only unthinking selfishness and fear at the core of those with whom we differ. Hawks and Doves. Conservatives and Liberals. I would dearly like to reject the notion of these as opposed camps, armies at crossed purposes. It doesn’t make sense to me, trying to offer the open hand of peace and to shake our angry fist, both of these at once.
We all have to wake. We all have to confront the lies we tell ourselves.
With the year ahead of us we will revisit some of the same landscape we were climbing in October of 2004. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to summon the same energy or passion, though I know I’ll carry many of the same facts within my heart. My brother is home now and safe, my children are that much closer to the age.
And this country, this world of ours still aches for peace.
Tom Driscoll publishes “Not Silence”