Il n’y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent pas

View of the Pyrenees silhouetted against a streaky muted orange skye, looking over early morning mist amid dark lines of trees and the lights of a distant town in the Adour Valley
View over the Adour Valley to the Pyrenees

“Il n’y a que les montagnes qui ne se rencontrent pas”

… or so they say
Of the Pyrenees and other ranges
That stretch to heaven and stroll from sea to sea.

But in this small world
That encircles us and bears our circling,
Our molehills meet as mountains between you and me.

Do different love-types spawn different poetry?

Thoughts on Valentine’s Day

Thinking about Valentine’s Day, and the Love Poetry event at King’s Place tonight, to which I am looking forward immensely, I suddenly wondered which of my own poems had been inspired by love, in the sense of romantic love.

I am a very occasional poet, but, as for most people, those occasions are often linked to love or the loss of it.

Of course, I’m interested in the nature of love in its broadest sense, an interest developed through my years in the Christian church.

Four types of love as per Christian theology

We were taught to categorise love into agápē (God’s love — sacrificial love, the highest kind, a matter of choice), philia (brotherly love or friendship – the next best, perhaps imperfect, but also a matter of virtuous choice), storge (familial affection — a love to be expected, as good and natural) and eros (romantic love — also a natural love, but a dangerous and unreliable one, to be outwitted, outwaited, carefully managed, or repressed … and never trusted).

Nowadays, although I still find these concepts useful, I don’t see any of them as exclusive to particular types of relationships, which, I guess, reflects my more mature view of humans as psycho-sexual-spiritual beings who are inevitably always all of these things in all relationships. As the Wikipedia entries point out, the ancient Greek terms encompassed a wide range of concepts and affections.

But the goal of Christian teaching is usually to simplify life, rather than to revel in its complexity, so the above simple English translations and the relative values assigned to them by my teachers were what stuck for a very long time.

Finding these love-types in my poems

And yet, despite this drilling in the compartmentalisation of love, when I looked through the paltry collection of my own poems, I was startled to realise that I had never read or examined the love poems as a group. Each was born in its own time, and each out of a different relationship or phase in my life, and although I have worked on each of them for years, I have never related them to each other.

In retrospect, this seems strange, so today I looked at my poems to see a.) which I could call love poems and b.) whether I could sort them into the ancient Greek groups.

While in this “grouping” mode, I’ve enjoyed reviewing the more agápē-oriented poems arising from my spiritual quest, but that’s a post for another day.

Valentine’s Day is the day for contemplating romantic love (and friendship, I think, because there is often so much overlap). With these poems, I was surprised to see, firstly, how they reveal precisely that tendency toward synthesis of which I’m now conscious, and secondly, how different they are from each other.

At least, to me, they seem different from each other. I wonder if another reader would be struck by similarities or differences?

Poems on romantic love and on friendship




{Sun 18 April 2010}   Spring Poetry
Spring Poetry

“Spring Transformations” was the original theme for Saturday’s reading. I was a little worried that we might end up with a round of sickly sweet “positive” poems, but as it turned out, none of us brought poems specifically to do with change and renewal. These ideas are always associated with spring, along with youth, innocence, idealism and hope, but most of us found poems with “a shadow over them” as the poets looked back with a mixture of pleasure and regret on past springs. Perhaps, as none of us are exactly “spring things” ourselves, we are attracted to poems that have a more complex view of this season.

My favourite amongst those shared was the gorgeous Nocturne of Remembered Spring by Conrad Aiken. This is a bittersweet poem, capturing all of the above themes, but from the perspective of one looking back on the promise and potential of a path not taken.

Other poems shared included:

  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 98, From you have I been absent in the spring, a poem of longing where the lover declares that despite the spring all about, winter remains for him while he is separated from his lover.
  • Men ask the way to Cold Mountain (scroll down to read stanzas 6-8) by Han Shan. This does not seem to be a spring poem, but perhaps a reluctant spring is implicit – the reader spoke of a resonance with the feeling of deep-seated cold when the summer is not able to break the ice of winter.
  • Spring (8 Haiku) by Ben Gieske, a whimsical, funny and tender poem that is also of remembrance, of one or several springs.
  • A series of Spring Haiku by different poets, accompanied by photographs, curated by Ray Rasmussen. The Haiku poems sparked quite a discussion about Haiku and even inspired some sharing of poems written by the various participants.

We rounded off the evening by watching Michael Radford’s Il Postino, a funny and touching delight that was good to revisit as I’d last seen it many years ago. I was quite surprised to discover that in fact this story about Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s friendship with, and inspiration of, a humble postman on a remote Italian island is fictional… I suppose I believe so much in the power of poetry that it seemed to me perfectly plausible.

(Update 19/04/10: ) The Haiku shared included this one that I loved and which I can share now with the permission of the poet:

Drowning the day’s sorrow
Back and forth
The swimming pool

© Nitzan Marinov, Spring 2007

{Thu 14 February 2008}   The Merchant of Venice in Cape Town
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of hosting a reading of The Merchant of Venice with a new group in Cape Town. As is usual with a new group of readers who last engaged with a Shakespeare text anywhere from twenty to forty years ago (at school), there was a mix of attitudes as the evening began— uncertainty, excitement, cynicism, anticipation, etc. but as everyone gamely plunged in and gradually relaxed into the reading, some of the wonderful shades and possibilities of Shakespeare’s drama and poetry began to grip us all. The feedback I received afterwards suggested that the participants had really enjoyed the evening. Many were surprised at how accessible they had found it, despite their initial nervousness.

Armed with our recent exploration of the text, four of us then went to see the current production at The Maynardville Open Air Theatre. Setting (beautiful green open air stage), set and costumes (Italy, 1943), and acting were all great, or at least, interesting, and it all seemed to be adding up to a very enjoyable evening, until a peculiar epilogue was tacked on to the end of the play and spoiled it for me.

It was bad enough that after Gratiano’s final words (which should have ended the play), “Well, while I live, I’ll fear no other thing/So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring”, Portia and Bassanio suddenly used an interchange that should have been spoken earlier in the play, weakening the dry comic effect of Gratiano’s words without enhancing the final spoken scene at all. But worse was to come. Before the audience could respond with the applause that had already, at least in my case, been interrupted once, a little mimed morality play was suddenly inflicted upon us. It depicted Shylock being forced at gunpoint by the Nazis to wear a yellow star under some rapidly unfurled Nazi banners.

In a discussion this morning, I realised that I hadn’t even noticed that there was a Catholic priest in that final mime, because I was so offended by the reek of “political correctness” that I couldn’t concentrate on details at that point! It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had though. I was simply appalled by the grossness of the Holocaust imagery—the unfurling of Nazi flags and the guns pointed at Shylock and the yellow star, etc. These strange tacked-on bits so ruined what had until that point been a very good performance that I found myself unable to applaud at all.

I am of course aware that much of the action in any Shakespeare production is only “in the text” by implication or interpretation, but this odd added epilogue emphasized one strand of meaning in the text to such an extent that the ambivalence and complexity of the human interactions showcased in the play were annihilated in favour of the one anti-anti-semitism message. The hypocrisy and selfishness of all the characters and their inability to exemplify the highest ideals of either religion, or, said another way, the inadequacy of either religion for the task of overcoming the worst aspects of human nature, were completely lost.

Shylock is, of course, a victim of the Christians’ disgusting prejudices, but he is also a pretty nasty character in his own right—neither his own daughter nor his servant like or respect him. The law that he claims to exonerate him of wrongdoing in his unreasonable demand for a pound of flesh is not the Law of G-d but the law of the state. The Bard leaves one in no doubt that none of the other characters are perfectly lovely either. The apparently righteous Antonio shows very selective love and generosity (towards Christians only, rather than to his “neighbour” or his “enemy” as Christ exhorted); Bassanio is as interested in Portia’s fortune as he is in her face and her virtue, and less in her than in his “friendship” with Antonio; Portia is a blatant racist and spoiled little rich girl, is most interested in making the best of the bad deal her father has left her, and shows very little mercy to Shylock immediately after her “quality of mercy” speech; the Christian society endorses slavery, etc.

On reading the play, and seeing it in other productions, I’ve never been in any doubt that Shakespeare was extremely subversive and did not unquestioningly accept the prevailing attitudes of his day. The prominence given to the Jew and the woman Portia in terms of number of lines and quality of poetry makes this clear, and the careful development of situation to the point where Shylock is psychologically pushed over the edge makes one sympathise with him despite his meanness. Although in the final few lines Shakespeare apparently restores the Elizabethan “natural” order by making the three male lovers heads of their new households again, their real authority is very much in doubt because it is so clear that their fortunes are dependent on the wealth and the wit of their women. Shylock’s forced and therefore insincere conversion has left a bad taste in the mouth and the moral authority of the “Christian” state has therefore also been brought into question. The only real act of love has been that of Antonio towards Bassanio in risking himself for his friend, but that relationship has strong homoerotic overtones, so this particular self-sacrifice (commitment to suicide?) would not officially be sanctioned by Christianity…. It’s all deliciously complex and I really was extremely disappointed by the crassness of the ending of this particular production. For me, it negated both the outstanding job done by some of the actors, particularly Jeremy Crutchley as Shylock, and the apparently accurate and sensitive interpretation of the text by the director until that point.

Er, sorry, Mr Sargeant, but that’s really how I felt—intellectually insulted (and assaulted!). But good stuff, until that final scene… I had to wonder whether a producer or a funder made you do it…

Still on the topics of gender discrimination and of hypocrisy, the following articles in the Mail&Guardian today caught my eye:

Sex Bias and Hypocrisy by Lucy Ward begins with the following paragraph:

Teenage girls and young women in the United Kingdom overwhelmingly believe they face a future of discrimination in the workplace and elsewhere, with half worrying that their careers will suffer if they have children, according to a survey by the Girl Guides.

It goes on to say that while the majority of them believe that women can do anything they want to do, and that 94% expect to go back to work after having children, most of them also believe that they already and in the future face discrimination issues due to their gender.

In the same section, I came across an article by Sarah Churchwell (whose surname is doubtless considered ironic by members of the church, given her views) titled Who needs kids anyway? I think the title is slightly misleading, because it gives the impression that she thinks of kids as a burden and wouldn’t want any herself, whereas the article reveals that she is open to the possibility but is making the point that motherhood is a possible role, not the entire definition of a woman. The article starts like this:

Last week brought yet another report in the United Kingdom yelping about women “waiting too long” to have babies. I enjoyed this one, particularly as it was about graduate women born in 1970, of whom 40% have had children. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m one of the other 60%. The report had a clear message: get impregnated now or you shall rue the day. Oh, please. Can we get a few things straight?

She goes on to make four points with which I heartily agree:

  1. Raising children in the wrong partnership is painful and destructive for all concerned and when a suitable partnership isn’t available during the childbearing years then remaining childfree is far preferable.
  2. “… wanting children is not a foregone conclusion just because I am a woman.”
  3. “… not having children is not necessarily a selfish decision.”
  4. “… having children is not necessarily a selfless decision.”

For me, the most compelling reason is the last one. I am really irked by the hypocrisy of those who have had children for a huge complex of psychological reasons including the desire to live out an improved version of their own lives through their children, the need to feel empowered by controlling beings less powerful than themselves, the desire to achieve status in communities that value the number and/or achievements of one’s children, the need not to be considered inadequate by communities who believe that a woman is not fulfilled unless she is a mother, the hope that children will provide some kind of insurance against loneliness and poverty in old age, or even simply because it never occurred to them not to have children, and who then in retrospect justify the difficulties that they’ve faced in childbearing and childrearing by saying that they did it for love, or because they are “unselfish” in comparison with those who have chosen not to have children.

Of course, I understand the need to create meaning and a sense of purpose in order to sustain oneself through the struggles that having children entails, and I do believe that some people who start out selfish may become less so through the experience of having children, but it’s simply not true that the majority of women start out with the altruistic thought, “What can I give to the world? Oh, I know, I’ll have a baby.” Most people do it for themselves, or due to cultural pressure (which, in a way, is still for themselves).

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this isn’t a good reason for doing it, as it’s perfectly human. Just be honest. It’s no more or less selfish than the choice not to do so. And both choices may or may not have positive consequences for the world. One could be the mother of a serial killer. The other might be Mother Theresa.

{Wed 9 May 2007}   Love as yardstick of truth
Well, this started out as a comment on another blog, but rapidly grew long enough to be a post in its own right, so I decided to open it for further comment here. If you want a bit more background, go to the previous discussion on What Theology Looks Like at Father Stephen’s blog.

In response to Father Stephen’s gentle suggestion that my original conversion experience might have been emotional rather than content-based, I responded as follows:

I don’t think anyone would be able to continue living with the consequences of their conversion if it contained no content, unless they really had a pathological need for rejection by and isolation from family, former friends and mainstream society. Although my conversion experience was emotional and therefore highly motivating, it was strongly founded on a clear intellectual understanding of the Christian gospel and much bible reading.

I experienced many further “proofs” of the reality and effectiveness of my faith over my years as a Christian, being a witness to and facilitator of many other conversions and physical and emotional healings, and was very involved in leadership and church-building in different communities, including one of the first truly multiracial churches in South Africa, based in Soweto before apartheid fell.

All my experiences further convinced me of the truth I espoused, because my framework was adequate to contain and explain them as long as my exposure to other worldviews was limited. When I began to read and travel more widely, this was no longer possible as some aspects of reality simply could not be forced to fit any more. Do not assume that acknowledging this was easy or quick for me. Finding a stance from which I could live positively thereafter was an extremely painful and lonely process over 10 long years. I’ve only recently begun to name that stance “negative capability” after Keats, and I know that name may turn out to be inadequate. The key factor for me (at present) is personal responsibility.

I think the issue is not to do with content or the lack of it, but with the names we give to the content. Our naming systems are impossibly inadequate for the task of codifying suprarational realities, and our attempts to do so, while inevitable as part of our efforts to make sense of our world, usually amount to no more than Babel-building, because we don’t have sufficient humility to acknowledge our limitations.

This is not the same thing as saying that everyone is “right”. I’m not sure whether that is a “quintessentially American idea” – it may be, but I doubt whether it originated in America. In any case, I’m not an American, so my current position is not due to the undue influence over me of what you might perceive as negative forces in American thought!

In my opinion, the state of the world offers clearer evidence that everyone is wrong, than that anyone is right! I do believe that everyone may (although many choose not to) draw some enlightenment and some sharpening of conscience from their traditions, but I do not believe that all traditions are equally right (or wrong). They (and sub-traditions within them) may be closer to or further away from the kind of love that respects all persons equally and facilitates each person’s becoming all that she can be. This love-in-action is the yardstick I choose to use for measuring truth.

{Sat 24 February 2007}   Thanks for the lesson

And some days, one feels like this… as is the case with most of the poems on this site so far, I wrote this a long time ago, but it’s probably one to which many people can relate:

Thanks for the lesson

So you’re a lover, are you?
I can do that too:
I can lurve and leave you;
even I can screw
my head down tight and nasty,
move like a machine,
drive a forklift through the party,
decimate the dream
come true;
come, I can,
come through,
come, come,
can you?

{Wed 14 February 2007}   My Valentine
My Valentine

His sweet angelic face,
Gentle hands and quiet pace
Calm me: I who lack his grace
Am whole in his embrace.

His speech is soft and wise;
Pure joy lights up his eyes
When he sets his magic free
Or sometimes just looks at me.

And when I curl inside,
He curves around his bride.
What a privilege to be
The one he longs to see.

{Thu 8 February 2007}   virgin confidence
virgin confidence

it must be like this
to make love
feeling the sharp compulsive angle
of my suffering
received, absorbed, into the tender cushion
of your acceptance
feeling your smile’s fertile caress
diffusing pain
delivering me

{Mon 5 February 2007}   Coming to terms
Coming to terms

I miss him.
His otherwhereness is solid about me.

No longer raw,
I seem whole beyond tearing now, for him,
As I tore then.

But some days, musical days,
A sadness beyond tears hangs in, makes its own void in,
My breast:

I had dangerously given my heart as well,
When I thought I only loved him.

et cetera