Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Letting Yourself into the River

Sometimes I'll read a poem by William Stafford and be taken by its simplicity. Further readings of the poem will peel back layer after layer of meaning, and I'll find more and more points of connection. That's what a good poem does with me . . . it allows me many places through which to enter into it, to find myself in it. Stafford's poetry gives me plenty of doorways and windows through which to enter.

As I read various poets, I find that many, many contemporary poets were influenced by William Stafford. Many feel indebted to him.

I don't know whether Robert Bly would say that about Stafford, but he might. Bly has something of Stafford's spirit about him. His poetry is often tied to images from the natural world, like Stafford's. Bly has devoted many years to helping men give attention to matters of soul and spirit. Though he has done so outside the Church, he is familiar with the human soul, and his poetry reflects his sensitivity to matters of life-meaning and soul.

I read both Stafford and Bly quite a bit. Awhile back my eye was drawn to Bly's poem, "When William Stafford Died." I've read it and pondered it quite often recently. I've given quite a bit of time to exploring the poem's points of entry, the places where I find resonance with it.

Here's the poem.

When William Stafford Died
Robert Bly

Well, water goes down the Montana gullies.
“I’ll just go around this rock and think
About it later.” That’s what you said.
When death came, you said, “I’ll go there.”

There’s no sign you’ll come back. Sometimes
My father sat up in the coffin and was alive again.
But I think you were born before my father,
And the feet they made in your time were lighter.

One dusk you were gone. Sometimes a fallen tree
Holds onto a rock, if the current is strong.
I won’t say my father did that, but I won’t
Say he didn’t either. I was watching you both.

If all a man does is to watch from the shore,
Then he doesn’t have to worry about the current.
But if affection has put us into the stream,
Then we have to agree to where the water goes.

[Robert Bly, Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 16 – 17.]

I can't say anything about what Bly intended through his poem. But I can say something about what I discover in it for myself.

The striking image for me is the water flowing downhill . . . gullies, streams, rivers . . . all with their current flowing downstream, flowing to wherever the gullies take you. Once in the current, you have little say about where you go. You have to accept the limitations of the banks. You have to accept what the terrain looks like and feels like as you flow down to sea-level. And you have to accept what is at the end of the journey.

The option is to stand on the bank, to never let yourself into the river. If you leave yourself on the bank, you can watch the current, you can notice the nuances of the stream and study its science, but you cannot really engage it. And you will never end up where the current goes. Bly says, "If all a man does is to watch from the shore, // Then he doesn't have to worry about the current."

It seems to me that this is a crucial image for life . . . that if something (Bly says, "affection") puts us into the stream, "then we have to agree to where the water goes." There are things in life that I don't get to choose. There are things in life I wouldn't choose if given a choice. But once in the current, I open myself to whatever comes, to wherever it takes me. And then my life becomes about how I navigate those waters, how I stay in the flow, how meaning comes from even the rocks and ravines of the journey.

Bly says, "If affection has put us into the stream . . ." I've wondered the last couple of weeks what that word would be for me. Is it affection? Or something else? freedom? passion? hunger? love? What puts me into the stream?

Then, last week . . . four days at the Benedictine Monastery in Pecos, New Mexico . . . the Pecos River valley and mountains on every side . . . walking on a trail that heads north from the monastery, along the Pecos River . . . this is what I saw.

Immediately my mind went to the poem. I had been with it enough to remember the lines, so when I saw this tree just off the trail, my mind immediately went to, "Sometimes a fallen tree // Holds onto a rock, if the current is strong."

This fallen tree, stubbornly holding onto the bank, refusing to drop into the current, resisting the life of the river became a kind of symbol for me. If this fallen tree would not let itself go, what about me?

The end of the river may be death -- the poem, after all, is called, "When William Stafford Died" -- but the tree that never drops into the current is dead already.

So the convergence of poetry with real-life images from the created world -- river and tree -- stays with me. The poem is not finished doing its work with me. And though my time in Pecos is over and I'm back in my daily life-work, the image of the fallen tree lives on within me.

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