Reflections on Poetics by the Author of As Far As I Can Tell

May 2019

Reflection XIV: Enjoying Slowly

Taste in poetry is a bit like taste in wine. Which can be as simple as “what’s good is what you like” or as complex as the study of terroir and zymurgy. The best advice I’ve been given is to start with what intrigues you and keep going with what moves you. I’ve quit reading more poets than I’ve kept up with. For the sake of encouraging future poets and poetry lovers, here’s an update on my current reading:

Right now, bedside, I have Ted Kooser’s Delights and Shadows, collected lyrics of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a selection of W. H. Auden, and the Everyman’s pocket edition of Constantine Cavafy. My reactions to these poets are quite varied.

First off, I don’t like Auden – yet. Though my friends assure me he’s brilliant, I feel like I’m walking around and around an extraordinary mansion and can’t find the front door. Lots of beautiful words, but I’m never quite sure what he’s talking about. I want to like him. I will keep trying.

Cavafy is my current hero. He combines the personal and the historical in fascinating and unexpected ways. He makes me see and feel that he is a kind of last outpost of Ancient Greece. That he’s a secret bearer of a culture I was told had disappeared from the Earth,

Kooser is a surprise. I often don’t like “modern poetry” (which I rarely find poetic). But Kooser is a combination storyteller and wordsmith. His poems are whole novels boiled down and spiced and served perfectly. There’s often a twist or opening at the end of his poems I would like to imitate in my own writing. Hats off to Ted.

But no one is like Millay. She is mystery, elegance, sorrow, perfection. She moves from rhythmic structures to free verse so easily you almost hear rhymes where she’s left them out. Few writers move me to tears. Millay hits me emotionally and intellectually at the same time, and that’s the trigger. The beauty of her writing and the beauty of her themes intertwine and stir me deeply. Graceful is the best word. It’s what I think we need more of.

So these are the poets I’m getting to know. Since I often think about poetry in big-picture termsof metaphysics and culture and psychologyI occasionally have to stop and just read a poem. Just have a glass of wine for no reason other than I liked the label or was in the mood for Bordeaux or took a friend’s suggestion.

When wine is enjoyed slowly, it reveals unexpected flavors and impressions. When a poem is enjoyed slowly, this is a likely sign that life is moving at a proper, poetic pace!

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

April 2019

Reflection XIII: Poetry and Biology 

Despite its current lack of popularity and even despite its loss of traditional forms and expressions, poetry still has the duty and privilege of articulating the central mystery: what is the source of our existence?

Perhaps without intending it, current philosophies divide existence from meaning. That is, the source of existence, of being, is understood as separate from the source(s) of meaning or purpose. Meaning is something added to existence at the discretion or whim of the individual.

Biological evolution is the first example of such a philosophy. As biology has merged with biochemestry to become modern genetics, the amount of gained information about the human body is staggering. So staggering that we are left to assume that somewhere in this delicate and dazzling tangle of systems within systems, not only our being but all meaning, emotion, desire, faith and personality must have emerged from there.

Somewhere in the body (most likely the brain) all the answers are stored up like data on a hard drive or key words in an infinite encyclopedia. With the right tools or enough time, we will find these answers.

Human origins, human meaning, human possibility. These are consciously or unconsciously understood to be rooted biology. Popularly, this understanding results in two mass activities, which seem unrelated but have a common root in an exclusively biological search for existence. They are: addiction to pornography and the current craze for genetic ancestry.

What both of these activities have in common is an underlying assumption that the physical body is a source of meaning and purposein one case the ecstasy of physical pleasure, in the other case the stability of origins. The addict believes in transcendence; the ancestry seeker believes in tradition.

The addict seems to say, “if only I can find the most intense physical experience or its virtual substitute, then I will be satisfied and fulfilled.” The seeker seems to say, “if only I can find where I came from, then I will know where I am going. If I know who my ancestors were, I will know who I am.”

Perhaps it seems that I have strayed very far from Poetry. But diagnosis is necessary for prognosis. And I believe it is crucial to unmask our ironclad faith in bio-genetics, so that we can really wonder first why we have come to such a point in our culture, and second, so that we can really wonder if our bio-genetic faith is solidly grounded.

Poetry does both: it helps us ask why we would throw off every beautiful human endeavor which doesn’t “produce” a new drug or experience or information. And it again opens us to the possibility that meaning does not come from biology, and that therefore, the body itself may be subordinate to higher things.

Allow me to employ a difficult word. One of the best definitions of “religion” I have heard is this: Religion is a particular coordination of beliefs and practices that attempt to integrate human nature and unite it to a transcendent truth.

I am suddenly referring to religion because I find this word very helpful despite its frequent derogatory misuse. From the above definition, we might easily understand that bio-genetics is a religion. We might also understand that a religion entirely depends on exactly to what “truth” we are attempting to unite.

Bio-genetics believes in nothing higher than the body. But poetry cannot be satisfied with this religion. Poetry resists the beliefs and practices that constitute the religion of the physical body. I do not think that poetry gives a new religionnot at all. What poetry does (along with all great literature) is not let us settle for less than transcendence.

Bio-genetics feels transcendent. The pleasure and purpose offered by the human body are astounding. Yet there is in us something always hoping for more, for higher, for better, for more open and free and unrestrained. In short, we are looking for a relationship with Truth, not just for information.

Poetryand here, I do mean its best examplescontinually breaks into physical and emotional life and says, “there is something more…your body is on loan to you for a short time… the truth you are looking for is connected with immortality…”

Poetry plays by different rules, it has different aims, than the religion of biological scientism. Poetry does not attempt to be a religion, but all religions use poetry to express transcendence. Poetry is at the service of human freedom, and is therefore not willing to make pronouncements about truths which it cannot fully contain. It gestures and refers to what is greater than itself.

Unlike bio-genetic scientism, which claims narrow, absolute knowledge, poetry leads us into a spacious mysterya mystery we can’t come to the end of knowing: what is the source of our existence?

The answer can only be expressed as poetry and lived with the whole Self.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection XII: Handmade Beauty 

I’ve been told that cursive handwriting is no longer being taught in public schools.

This alarms me for many reasons, though I’m sure it’s all explained as progress, as new teaching methods, as a push for STEM-based competitive curricula. But the real reason for removing handwriting from classrooms is, I suspect, much more sinister: our increasing discomfort with Beauty.

Beauty and uniqueness go hand in hand. Beauty loves repetition, but not uniformity. She wants variations on themes, not blue-grey mimeographs. Beauty resides in the unique quality of a person’s handwriting. Maybe this is to see Her “through a glass darkly”but a dim reflection is infinitely greater than an electronic approximation. It’s the difference between Virtue and virtual.

Beauty is not something that can be reduced to slogans or electronically transmittable forms. Beauty speaks on too many levels simultaneously for reduction. Of course, there are push-backs against electronic uniformityfrom the small-farm movement to the gender-fluidity movementbut unless these are grounded in a love of beauty, they will likely become just as commodified and commercialized as the mass-production they are attempting to avoid.

The act of handwriting, its grounding in Beauty, is irreplaceable. Handwriting involves the collaboration of the individual creative mind with the whole of an ancient written language. It can become a craft and a relationship between a writer and reader. You might ask how this is different from sending an emailor reading a blog post. Besides the obviousthat handwriting leaves a mark on the physical worldI believe it also leaves a mark within the persons involved in the creation and communication of the writing.

When the internet is down, I may still type on my computer. When the electricity is off, I may still write with pen and paper. If I have no paper, likely I still have graphite or ink. With none of these, I have nothing but my mind, my hand and perhaps a stretch of sandor a piece of charcoal, or a stone and chisel.

What I am thinking of here is the possible series of interventions between myself and the result of my labor. The more interventions, the less the labor is mine and the more it belongs to the intervening media. This, I believe, is why television shows and commercials tend to be so much alike. Why canned food tastes canned. Why google can give you a list of stock suggestions for email replies.

And why thousands of “bots” can have social media accounts with no one able to tell the difference.

There are still those who love a good (handwritten) letter, still those who journal, still those who think on paper first and then transfer to type. They have experienced how handwritten thoughts are different. The thinking is different because the body is involved differently. We think from the body as well as the souland “thinking” may largely be a dialogue between the two. Descartes was off his rocker when he said that the mind-things (res cogitans) and the body-things (res-extensa) were separate. They are possibly distinct, but never separatethe way New Mexico is distinct from Colorado.

To write a letter or a diary entry is to create a work of intimate art. An email, however, is grimly pragmatic. And a text message borders on the barbaric. I often think that our socially embedded image of the cave man grunting at his fellows has nothing to do with our ancestors and everything to do with our use of technology. We are becoming primitives who live in little hand-held caves and throw pictographs (emoticons) at each other with decreasing communicative effect.

Others are saying similar things right now. There are excellent books on the subjects of internet-brain, social-media-syndrome, teenage-cell-use. But I think the simplest, best sign of decay is the loss of the art of handwriting. Loss of literacy will follow. Then critical thinking. All of this is a flight from Beauty.

Beauty cannot save the world if we deliberately make ourselves unable to respond to her call. This post started as a conversation, where I first heard about changes in the public school. Then, I wrote thoughts down in a notebook. What you’re reading now came from those physical thoughts. The internet is now involved; it brings them to you in some form. But if you read and remember and considerand perhaps write your own thoughtsonly then will we have justified the internet. More than likely, these words, within reach of many, will actually reach no one. And of the few that read, few will remember.

Handwriting lessons train children in tradition, craft, expressiveness. Beginning from repetition, they will become unique persons who are yet able to share a common language:

Beauty and memory.
Memory and craft.
Craft and connection.

There are rich mysteries in these human endeavours we may never recover if we lose the ability to write beautifully.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

March 2019

Reflection XI: Ethics and Poetry

In all periods of human history, ethics is related to a vision of reality.”Hossein Nasr.

I’m currently working retail at an excellent bookstore, which gives me an opportunity to overhear excellent conversations on literacy, politics, world events. Rarely, though, do I hear conversations about ethics. Of course, one group will complain about the behavior of another. But it’s rare to hear people who agree on a behavior discuss why they agree and whether what they believe stands up to serious critique.

What I have found is that ethical expectations generally come from unexamined (therefore poorly articulated and perhaps faulty) ideas about the meaning of human life in the context of the Real. So one of the functions of the poet is to go and fetch Reality—to look out at the dark or light or rainbow of givenness and report on what is there. A true poetany good artistis as much a journalist as a craftsman. But the poet does this work not from duty, but out of a holy compulsion. The result should be that poets and readers of poetry are confronted with what was once beyond their vision, and adjust their lives accordingly.

Easy to consider in this regard, because we hear of it every day, is the opposition between political parties. This may be the best example I know of ethics-without-examination. Each side assumes the other to be “obviously” wrong. It’s more common to hear one party’s critiques of anotherloud, triumphalthan to hear a party seriously consider its own position. How can we even really be sure that Democrats and Republicans are all that different at heart, since rarely will either side engage in and disclose its self-examination?

Perhaps a humorous example, since politics dissolves so quickly into chaos. What if we were to discover that, at heart, “cat people” and “dog people” were nearly identical in worldview? Not because cats and dogs are the same, but because the two groups’ understanding of the meaning or purpose of cats and dogs is the same. We could take a statement by the “cat people” and simply negate its points or replace the word “cat” with “dog” and come up with a perfectly plausible statement in support of dogs.

We have done no serious philosophical work. We have failed to understand, perhaps, that cats and dogs are simply not interchangeable, not co-equivalent, not inversions. Cats and dogs may be ontologically distinct.

The poet’s work, then, is to quietly shed light on the meaning of cats and dogs. To get metaphysical: the poet must delve into the Form of Cat and the Form of Dog, without losing touch with fur and food and affection. This revealing may be direct or indirect. But it must be sincere.

The artist or poet has a very difficult work ahead. There are no audiences anymore for poetry because no one wants to see physics joined to metaphysics, ethics joined to reality. In fact, no one believes there is such a thing as metaphysicswhich is precisely the study of Form, meaning and purpose, from which ethics, conduct, and choice should come.

Homer understood metaphysics. Homer, physically blind, nevertheless had one eye on Olympus and one eye on the deep past. He was watching the battle at Troy unfold. He was able to speak poetic truthand his audience, hungry for truth, chose and debated and adjusted its ethics accordingly. They needed no distinction between poetry and reality, because one was a door to the other.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection X: A Pedestrian Nightmare

That dizzying, crushing, liberating moment when you look down and realize you have no feet. All your lifeseeing pictures of feet, reading about anatomy—all your life you assumed. Because you had something that looked like the pictures, you assumed you had feet. You walked, stood, shifted. The suggestion of feet was so often made. But suddenly you’re aware now that somewhere near your lungs, somewhere in the cage of your ribs, a gradual thinning begins. Your navel is a grey dimple in a fog, and your lusts are nothing more than a panicked nostalgia for what should be but isn’t, quite. And the gradual un-presence increases with such perfect unobtrusive smoothness that it’s difficult to see exactly where the absence takes over completely, like the last notes fading from a symphony. Maybe some see better than others. But your focus is now on that place where your feet should be, where something which looks like feet appears to be. Where would you best locate them? Can they be created through concentration or contemplation? Platonic Recollection? Nietzschean Force of Will? Can they, with enough clothing, be made to take form? With enough socks, shoes, jeans, boots, sandalscoerce, stretch, enticethen won’t the real feet emerge? Are they hiding? Were they ever there? And, do other people have feet? On what do they seem to stand? You might try, casually, to ask them about feet. You might form some kind of society for mutual assurance, develop a mutual vocabulary about feet. More words for more foot-ideas. When this conversation is far enough advanced, when foot-ideas are more common than foot-experience, then perhaps it won’t matter that you have no feet. Everyone will discuss walking. Everyone will seem to stand. Is it necessary to know they’re standing over a void?

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

February 2019

Reflection IX: The Falsity of Measurement

Say you’re sitting at home in your living room. The furnace has been running, and the thermostat reads a steady 68 degrees. Beside your chair is a lamp mostly made of wood, but with a metal base and a plastic switch. You reach for the switch to turn the lamp on, and your hand brushes the metal base. Perhaps you have thought of this before, but in that moment it is impressed on you that all the parts of the lamp seem to be different temperatures. The metal feels cold, the wood warmer, the plastic switch even warmer. The lamp has been off (so it hasn’t been generating heat) and the house has been 68 all day. What accounts for the difference in felt temperature in the parts of the lamp?

The engineers among us know that heat is not a matter of fixed degrees, but of capacity and exchange. The insulation values and specific heat of various materials are carefully cataloged and inform our use of them. But from day to day, we rarely think about capacity and exchange—that is, about transience and uniqueness. We rarely ask what is measurement? And are measurements an accurate account of the real world?

I’ve been thinking recently about the falsity of measurement. Our daily lives in our industrialized society depend almost entirely on the numbers we assign to phenomena, and rarely on our direct experience. If my phone tells me it’s 35 degrees outside, I get my coat. If my clock tells me it’s 8 in the morning, I get ready for work. Noon no longer corresponds to the sun crossing the center of the sky, but to the number 12. A piece of land is no longer known by its geographic features, but by its square miles or mineral wealth.

We can see that this transition from use of measurement to dependence on measurement happened recently—over the last two centuries or so—and it is clearly evidenced by the map of the United States. The earliest states (mostly) have rivers and mountains for borders—natural features. They were lived-in, settled places. But as the nation expanded during the transition from measure-use to measure-dependence, the shape of the states was less and less set by landscape and more and more by the handy fictions of latitude and longitude, bearing almost no relationship to geography. The idea of “rectangular states” should seem oxymoronic; that it doesn’t is another example of our universal acceptance of numbers in place of objects.

What has recently impressed me (and not in a good way) is the current rush to assign numbers to people. How many Facebook users is “proof” of the usefulness of Facebook. Credit score is “proof” of a well-adjusted life. Loss of a Social Security card means a denial of basic services and rights.

I fear the flood of measurement, not so much because it dehumanizes us, but because it seems to be the result of a previous dehumanization. We were overtaken even before we realized the need for war.

My thoughts on this subject are currently expanding. I don’t know if there is a problem here to be solved, or if a solution should be sought corporately or individually. But what I do see is that we are all, all day long, surrounded by artificial objects, by cars, roads, houses, artificial lights. We interact with computers projecting artificial images. Now that I think about it, if I watch a movie or television show, and compare the number of people in the show to the number of people I actually interact with during the day, then it’s likely I see and hear as many artificially-reproduced people as those I speak with face-to-face. And this imbalance informs (or misinforms) my imagination, my emotions, my hopes and expectations.

Are clocks and thermostats ultimately inaccurate because they cannot reveal true relationships? Are stock prices and popular brands just more fake news? Is social media an elaborate form of measurement, such that we collude in our own rapid quantification? Are the borders of nations a true portrait of the genius and beauty of culture?

I have many questions, few answers. But I am going for a walk now to feed the ducks at my neighborhood pond. They may give me some insight.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection VIII: On The Eagle and the Lightning

One of the oldest works in As Far As I Can Tell is the opening poem “The Eagle and the Lightning.” Deeply biographical, it is also something of an optimist’s prophecy. There were three direct influences on the writing of the poem which I want to consider here. But I am not an outsider, not a critic. I am standing in the middle of the poem, in a sense, looking back at the past and forward to the future, and all these times seem to constitute a single Word. What is that Word?

I returned to college quite late in educational life: I was 36 when I started the undergraduate program at St. John’s in Santa Fe. Not only a belated entry, but sudden as well: I moved to New Mexico with no intention of seeking anything but bright air and ancient places. But I kept meeting Johnnies (St. John’s grads) around town, and it became clear that the path forward was through—a bachelor’s degree.

The first few weeks were hellish. I felt completely out of place. I was the oldest student on a very small campus, and everything seemed calculated to disorient and confuse me. I’m used to a slight feeling of disorientation in new situations; I don’t adjust to new environments very quickly. But added to the stress of study and financial concerns was a series of very vivid dreams which never failed to wake me up in a state of exhaustion. They weren’t nightmares, just very intense memories of previous institutions of learning.

I would be wandering aimlessly through my elementary school because a teacher sent me on an errand, and I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be looking for. Or, I would be in a seventh grade science class, going over chemistry notes in my head, but the notes made no sense. Or, I would be in my old high school at night when no one was around, just looking through books in the library.

While starting school and nightly reliving bits of my childhood, I was also reading Black Elk Speaks. The prophetic visions of Black Elk made an extraordinary impression. The title of the poem is taken from his explanation of some of his people’s mythology. And since mythology is contagious, his stories became part of my story.

The final influence on the poem was an acquaintance who has since become a dear friend. He was in his 70’s when he moved into the apartment house where I was living in Santa Fe, and his stories of being raised by an African American family in inner city Detroit in the 1940’s changed and broadened my view of American culture. He had attended a Roman Catholic seminary but later became a Buddhist. When we met, he had converted to Orthodox Christianity, yet without in the least losing any of the hard-won truth and beauty of his earlier confessions.

So “The Eagle and The Lightning” slowly came together as a kind of composite oracle, with images pulled from new schooling, childhood memories and conversations with older friends about the stages of life. The “Seven Ages of Man” is a common motif in traditional societies, and the poem seemed naturally to divide and repose at seven stanzas.

The opening image of a child’s front yard is an actual early memory. The man being lost on the ocean is an oblique description of my early adulthood. The Revelation that “whispers paradox” is certainly my encounter with the Christian East. But some of the other images, I don’t have an explanation for. They were born as they are or were formed through revisions. Perhaps they really are prophetic, and will reveal their meaning at the appointed times?

In preparing the manuscript for the book, I returned the poem for the first time since I’d written it a few years earlier. This reconsideration prompted one of the concluding works—the poem “As Far As I Can Tell”— was a reaction to my re-acquaintance with “The Eagle.” The title of the book both comes from and inspires this later poem.

As a final thought, I feel I would not give the poem its full due without mentioning that the “search for the lost heart” seems to be my life’s leitmotif. I run into this phrase or some variation of it in a multitude of places, texts, conversations. From the Greek Patristic tradition, the Confucian sages, the Upanishads—this search for the Heart is a universal-but-silent Imperative.

This idea of the lost heart is stated somewhat openly at the conclusion of “The Eagle and the Lightning.” But as I reflect on it, I think the entire poem is a seven-fold, stuttering articulation of the imperative: Search.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection VII: What Heaven Reveals

In ancient Chinese culture, Heaven is both the realm of the gods and the place of stars. Hebrew scriptures, as well, speak of Heaven as the abode of God and the angels, but also as the location of stars and planets, sun and moon. In some passages, God is referred to as “Lord of Hosts”and this can mean both Lord of armies of angels or Lord of the myriad stars. For the modern or post-modern mind, this seems to be a confusion between the spiritual and material. We might even say it’s a mythologizing of the simple though untouchable forces of the universe. We would first divide the idea of gods from that of stars and planets, and then dismiss the first category altogether.

But in the mind of earlier cultures, Heaven’s significance is precisely that the gods are revealed in the stars and planets: the matter is spiritual, so a particular object is capable of being both a thing (a comet, for example) and a sign (good fortune, for example). Individual things could be signs, and whole vistas could be signsHeaven is a multi-layered text. On one hand, single things: comets, planets. But on the other hand, the whole character of the divine: the daytime sky as the source of life and the nighttime sky as the revelation of ultimate reality.

Perhaps, though, the starkest contrast with our notion of “outer space” is that Heaven was once believed to have will and volition. The Chinese dynastic tradition was founded on the Mandate of Heaven, and emperors were Sons of Heaven whose duty was to keep Heaven and Earth in harmony. Heaven was personal, was working toward its own benevolent goals and intentions which included peace and stability in the empire.

I had these ideas in mind when writing What Heaven Knows:

We stand, my friends, at the apex
of the sundial. Observers and participants;
Record-keepers, also kings;
Breathing knowledge unaware. Blind
while all our Self spreads out above us
absolute by day and nightly infinite
A veiled architecture, winding paths for us
building fates for us, singing
over coffins and cradles
Long before, long after

Johannes Kepler (whose genius is scandalously under-appreciated) lived and wrote at a time when the modern cosmology of Heaven as a center-less emptiness was beginning to replace the ancient cosmology of Heaven as the realm of the divine. Kepler felt that earth, no longer an immovable center, was still the place of humanity’s unique perception. For Kepler, Earth was something like an observation platform, a platform whose movement gave us the ability to observe through participation in the motions of the stellar bodies.

Kepler’s image resonates with me. Though I tend to have and to embrace geocentric leanings, I love the idea of Earth as a kind of “school for being in Heaven.” It puts me in mind of Moses being placed in a cleft of the rock on Sinai as God passes by, displaying His Glory. Earth is a cleft, where we can see the Glory without being consumed, or like the apex of a cosmic sundial: the best place for seeing the play of light and for communing with the truths which light reveals. Our positionas bodies and as soulsallows us to participate and to observe, to record our observations and to cultivate good relations with Earth and her neighbors. Our physical bodies depend on, and are therefore part of, the whole universe. In this sense, What we see (especially at night) is our Self. The sky is a mirror.

The sky is a mirror of humanity because it is first a revelation of the divine. For the cultures mentioned above, Day and Night correspond to the many complimentary pairs of reality. Day and Night are Yang and Yin, respectively, and they are our first teachers of the divine attributes Absoluteness and Infinity. Day, dominated by the Sun and by life and work, teaches us the oneness and centrality of God, who has no equal and no peers. Night, tended by the moon and by stillness and contemplation, teaches us the manifold attributes and immanence of God. Day is God in His Power; Night is God in his Mercy.

George MacDonald said, “they who believe in the influences of the stars over the fates of men are, in feeling at least, nearer the truth than they who regard the heavenly bodies as related to them merely by a common obedience to an external law.” In some way, more or less clear at different times and to different people, the Heavens predict, prepare, and protect our earthy existence. But the exact relationship is veiled. We seem to be living in a curtained house, with many walls and windows obscured. There are people gifted with the ability to see and know the Signs. Also, there are people charismatic and convincing enough to fool us with attractive lies. Who can discern?

We are left with the intuition that our kinship with Heaven is unshakeable. The “music of the spheres” is a common poetic idea because it is first a common prophetic experience. Fantasy worlds like Tolkien’s or MacDonald’s, are closer to this truth than the common notion of the planets as earth-like (read: arbitrary) stones trapped by and subjected to forces. If we happen to live in a culture that considers Heaven to be a wasteland of burning debris, is that because we are more more intelligent than our ancestors or because it serves some cultural purpose for us to believe so? If traditional cultures saw both gods and planets over and around them, were they aware of something we’ve forgotten, and if we wanted to, could we recover that lost awareness?

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

January 2019

Reflection VI: On the Two Types of Music

I often think about the nature of music. Almost no day passes without my listening to music somewhereat home, in a shop, at work. I have friends who are passionate about this or that genre or band or singer, and can discuss details of the lives of musicians for hours without losing their enthusiasm. But in the course of these conversations, we almost never discuss the two most basic kinds or modes of music: monophonic and polyphonic.

When I was studying music history in college, one of our reading assignments concerned the ‘development’ of music from monophonic “one voice” to polyphonic “many voices.” The writer assumed the superiority of polyphony, and declared the pre-modern (and nearly universal) use of monophony as primitive and immature. Monophonic music was, for that author, the music of unenlightened cultures.

At the time, I accepted this position. Renaissance historyand we are children of the Renaissancestates emphatically that polyphony was invented by Europeans and grew out of simple monastic chants and folk tunes. This idea is not quite true (the ancient Georgians had polyphony), but is the accepted understanding of what we now call Classical music.

Since my history of music days, I have had to revise my opinion that polyphony and monophony are later and earlier stages on a trajectory of increasing complexity. To put it simply, my current belief is that while polyphonic music harmonizes with itself (and can do so with extraordinary brilliance), monophonic music harmonizes with nature.

This change in my understanding came about gradually, but I can describe two particular moments. First, I was reading The Tale of Genji, with its lush and full-bodied descriptions of Japanese court life. The clothes, the ceremonies, the gardensall were clearly part of a whole, single expression of cosmology. Part of this whole was the presence of monophonic music, either the music of a woodwind instrument which plays notes singly, or of a stringed instrument like a harp played unaccompanied.

Second, I began to re-consider vocal music from traditional cultures. Byzantine chant, for example, can have two parts sung simultaneously, but one part is likely an “ison”a vocal part of one note that underlies and supports the movement of the melody. This style of singing is meant to elevate the words being sung, rather than enhance the beauty of the music as such.

The two modes, monophony and polyphony, are not incompatible, but their aims are distinct. Polyphony, to reach its full potential, requires a shutting out of other sight and sound, as these distract the listener from concentrating on the inner harmonies of the music. It is music best heard in a concert hall, seated, indoors. Monophony, on the other hand, invites the listener to hear, see, smell, and imagine. Monophony brings sky and earth into the art. Monophonic music is meant to refer not only to itself, but to the poetry, dance or ceremony around it. In short, it is meant to compliment and adorn its environment.

Though I appreciate the extraordinary achievements of the great European composers, I find that monophonic music expresses something more transcendent: a kind of selflessnessa selfless response to the amazement invoked by the beauty of the world and a wish not to distract, but to participate in this beauty.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection V: The Hidden Life of Time

Today, the weather is cold and homogeneous.
A heavy woolen cloud blankets the entire sky.

So, since Space seems dim and sleepy, I’m thinking about Time:

It occurs to me that the human relationship to time is very dynamic, much more rich and poetic than the contemporary notion of time as “endless unidirectional duration.” There are three ways we relate to time, which on one hand reveal something about the various cultures we live in, and on the other, are on aspects of time itself.

The first way of relating to time we could call “digestive.” From this perspective, time moves forward, from a definite beginning to a definite end; all points/times between the beginning and the end are unique and unrepeatable. This is straight-line, impersonal time. This is modern European, Protestant, Secular time.

Secondly, we might say that Traditional cultures have a “respiratory” concept of time. Time has cycles, a movement in the out, up then down. Religious man has this concept of timewhether the Hindu Yugas, or the Christian Incarnation. For Hindus cosmology, time is a series of cycles within cycles. For the Christian, there is one great cycle: all time leads to and from the Cross. The Cross is the “center” of timewhere time and space are most in balance. Day/Night… Yang/Yin… Inhale/Exhalethis is time as experienced less by the body, and more by the soul.

These two are the most common, most considered kinds of time. But it seems to me there is a third kind of time, one that is much closer to Eternity, and we might call this “circulatory” time. This kind of time is (unfortunately) relegated to the category of the mystical. But I think it should be considered the truly Christian, fully human time, because this is time in which all things are present. In a sense, it is time from before the Flood. Like blood moves through the whole organism, more or less quickly, with more or less pressure, circulatory time is qualitative.

Most of us are bound to digestive time, though our religious and cultural traditions may still refer to respiratory time. Our unquestioned immersion in digestive time is what allows us to, for example, live by clock and calendar rather than by daylight and seasons. We still have the terms ante- and post-meridian (a.m./p.m.), but few of us know what these terms mean. Even many Christians and others who would consider themselves spiritual or traditional don’t live their faith within a genuinely spiritual understanding of time. Few Protestants are even aware that there is a Church Year.

Ideally, we should be in touch with all three kinds of time, but preeminently, we should live in circulatory time. From what we see or know of the lives of the Saints and Sages, it is often said that they were able to read people’s thoughts, to know the future or to travel great distances instantly. Isn’t this due to their living in circulatory time?

The three kinds/experiences of time are not mutually exclusive. The respiratory contains the digestive, etc. And we can never really have one kind without something of the others. For instance, though it experiments as if things start and end, modern science has to propose both a ‘big bang’ and a ‘big crunch’leading to another ‘big bang’a kind of respiration. And though the Traditional Christians and others wisely repeat the Feasts and Fasts of a sacred calendar (respiration), we are encouraged to experience (and do experience) “timeless” moments of light and peace which are unexplained and unexpected (circulation).

I wonder to what extent we choose the kind of time in which we will live? And, if not choosing, are we simply carried along by the prevailing notion of time in the society around us? How would we choose to increase the experience of circulatory time? Is this why the emphasis on meditation, spiritual discipline, yoga, mysticismis so urgent?

Of course, I think poetry has an important part to play. Poetry is the language of the higher kinds of time. Poetry takes the inexpressible experience of circulatory time and communicates it in respiratory language. A re-cognition of time has to be done in steps. First, we should try to think deliberately and cogently about digestive timetime as we have been living it in the modern world. Second, we should participate more deeply in respiratory time: Sacred Calendars, attention to seasons and landscapes, etc. Thirdly, we should pay attention to poetry. Ancient insights, theologies and instructions were often given poetically. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, only poetry is considered adequate for expressing Revelation. The Gospels, which are narrative, all have an underlying poetic structure.

Finally, I have to say that I believe we encounter circulatory time by humbly requesting it. Something about circulatory time defies description and possession. It is more a relationship than a rational exercise; it is the time of Personhood. We cannot comprehend it; we must apprehended by it.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection IV: Some Thoughts on Poetry and Environment

First, you must look on reality
As being like yourself. Fragile and vast
Mystery clothed in metrics. Placed
Yet free. A self with fuel and desire
Strong enough to become all flame

One of the clearest signs of confusion in our relationship with the world is the Environmental Crisis. This is a spiritual malady, not a (merely) mechanical/physical cycle or event. Our inability to reverse the crisis is compounded by the loss of poetic language, by pseudo-Christian notions of Adam’s dominance over creation, and (relatedly) by the proponents of the scientific method. Francis Bacon, for example, believed that Nature should be forced to “reveal her secrets” for mankind’s practical use and intellectual curiosity.

In contrast, from the perspective of a poetic metaphysics, the whole of the physical universe should be regarded as humanity’s body. The cosmos is not something other than humanity; and when, under the guise of science, we vivisect and excavate the world, we are dissecting, distorting and (perhaps permanently) damaging ourselves. One of the obvious meanings of current scientific theories like the Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect is that we can never be impersonal and objective spectators when we interact with physical phenomenaprecisely because we are putting our own flesh under the microscopecutting, irradiating and engineering our body into oblivion.

Since I like allegory, here is an extended metaphor to illustrate what I believe modern culture has done to the environment

We are like a heart surgeon so dazzled by his own skill and so curious about his own circulatory system that he has forgotten his dependence on it. He decides to demonstrate his ultimate power and control over his circulatory system by attempting a heart transplant on himself. He realizes, vaguely, that he can’t survive without a heart. But he proceeds with the operation, undaunted, confident he will be able to devise machines that will perform the functions of the heart even better than the heart itself.

This metaphoric heart surgeon began with two fatal assumptions. First, he believes he knows from his research every aspect of what the heart does and how it works. Second, he believes his heart is something apart from his life. Having reduced his concept of personhood to his reasoning faculty alone, he assumes that everything not directly connected to the reason is (ultimately) unnecessary. For him, the heart is merely part of an improvable/disposable life-support system for the logical braina system destined to be upgraded, evolved or cured.

If we imagine that the heart surgeon succeeds with his experiment, then he has, in a sense, cheated death. He has not abolished death, but he’s made a compromise with it: Death can determine the content of his life, as long as it allows him to go on experiencing comfort and pleasure and curiosity. He is now dependent on lifeless machines, electricity and “resources” to keep and maintain his mechanical heart. From now on, he must be always mining his own body in order to maintain his pleasures and interests. When the planet runs out of resources, he will expire. But there are other planets, other elements, other “secrets of Nature” which Death might reveal to him to keep him in thrall for millennia.

The irony of this slow destruction of the body (earth) to maintain the damaged body (society) is that it eventually eliminates the need for reasoning faculty that devised the system! The whole of humanity, having forgotten its connection to the cosmos revealed through poetry, now also forgets its science and learning, its great ideas, its multi-dimensional Self, and reduces itself to body alone.

This seems to be where we find ourselves today. The whole cosmos is aging, becoming rigid and impenetrablea dead world. Society is becoming all body with no soul. Contemporary religion is concerned only with morality and texts, not with beauty and devotion. Contemporary philosophy is only interested in categories of wisdom, not in wisdom itself. Contemporary government is interested in economics, not well-being for its citizens.

The problem of the Environmental Crisis is reality-wide. Our spiritual and intellectual environments, once explained and nurtured by a poetic metaphysics, are collapsing. Along with this collapse of our soul, we are currently witnessing the end of the complex and irreplaceable physical environment of our body, the Earth.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection III: Time, Death and Science

Whatever I happen to be studying usually makes its way into a poem. Sometimes new information is stated rather bluntly. From After a Painter’s Death:

They call it
The Late Heavy Bombardment when ice
the size of continents cratered
the surface of the Moon

This bit of scientific nomenclature is borrowed almost directly from a text on astronomy. But I happened to be reading that text while still recovering from the unexpected death of a dear friend. So the aeons-old event of the cratering of the moon came to my mind as an image of terrible loneliness and suffering. Since I tend, child-like, to personify the objects around me, I couldn’t help but consider that the Moonher round shape and varicolored patterningwere the product of something like a lonely, isolated death and a luminous resurrection.

In a less direct way, the poem I Am Old So Soon also borrows some scientific references for its number list: in youthful instants 29, 47, 79, 82.

These numbers are possible ages of a human life, and are also the atomic numbers of Copper, Silver, Gold and Lead; which are, respectively, the metals anciently associated with the planets Venus, Moon, Sun and Saturn. Since ideas of time, space and “becoming” underlie this poem, I was thinking both of stages of human development and of the environment (elements, planets) in which development happens. It isn’t necessary for a reader to know all the symbols, but my writing tends to be prompted by and to grow along symbolic imagery more or less obvious. Numbers are one symbolic language among many, and I think they can be used to great effect in a poetic context. For our ancestors, and for adherents of traditional faiths, the whole universe is a Scroll composed of interpenetrating symbolsa hierarchy of conversation. Numbers have always played a significant role in interpreting and communicating hierarchy.

What does it mean to be born, to age and die among the stars, among the trees, among the gods? This is a constant, though not always deliberate, preoccupation of my poetry. And I find answers or suggestions of answers to this question everywherefrom mathematics and science books to stained glass and acorns.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

November 2018

Reflection II 

Often, writing is more like listening, and in those moments a poem is a transcription rather than a creation. Of course, some revision still follows the initial writing, because what I’m transcribing is only partially in English. The words I see and hear are color, mood, intuition, and other senses which have to be translated as well as the ideas. A Saint’s Home was written this way, as well as the not-yet-published Remembrance in Choriambs.  

A Saint’s Home

In some corner, the extravagant chaos
of a geranium throws out red fans of fireworks
and the butler’s trays of its leaves
offer the afternoon sunlight, fresh
from an open window—this is how I imagine
my house of undressed timber and rich tiled floors
a house made of the gifts of creative friends

I am not benevolent, but my home compels me
Beauty trains me in generosity. At its heart
an altar fills every room with humility; the altar
makes holy as right medication makes health
The home echoes all the worlds
in which the soul lives. Plants and paint and sky
spill into every quiet space; art, hope, and somehow
the afterlife, too, filters through the things—the presences
and placeholders of the Infinite. Even the ever-roving
angels must pause in the course of their sacred errands
startled by an image of the stillness of Heaven
on restless Earth.

The Home of a Saint—or of someone on the Path
is a little Eden, a seed from that Garden, strangely
germinating against all the backward progress
of busy forgetfulness. In this sheltering home
an unseen-but-felt geometry
nurses the wounds of the world
and sets the bones
of broken travelers

When I wrote down A Saint’s Home, I was sitting in a friend’s house, alone, staring at a sprawling and happily untidy geranium in a south-facing bay window. The poem rushed out all at once, because the poem and the light on that geranium were the same thing. I simply had to transcribe thing + moment + meaning. I saw the poem already written in the afternoon-sun-lit geranium.

Remembrance in Choriambs

Janie, I miss you. I miss you
so fiercely. I think of the milky way
winding above us, like some cosmic rainbow
so distant the colors are lost in the flying
from out there to Kansas
to where we were. Here we are still
on the trampoline, star-gazing, laughing
amazed at our honesty

Janie, I miss you. The years
haven’t dazzled me. I’m still
the same soul you recognized. Tell me
and tell me: that night? What is missing?
I want to remember it, every detail. I know
that my memory holds only half of it

If you were here, you would prove
(like you did) that the moon
is a woman. You promised as much
and the gravelly call of the raven
and wind in the hackberry
firmly agreed. Tell me:
what were those proofs? I too vaguely
remember. You said there were five?
And that one was her mystery?

Something of phases, and
something of darknesses.
Something of silverher vividness
veiled, but never removed

Remembrance in Choriambs is also transcription – in this case of a memory: an intellectual emotion from the past. The poem flowed out of the memory rhythmically, which must be related to how the passage of time softens, regularizes, and mythologizes an event. That is, how time takes an event and expands it in several directions, making it both more accessible and more remote. In this case, the intense rhythm of the words seems to me like the warp and woof of a tapestry, or the threads of a screen through which the past is seen and which become part of the seeing.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill

Reflection I

Holy Wednesday

Through the window of a Church
I saw a sparrow killed. The Raven
standing on the sparrow’s neck struck
the heart and broke

the wing. This little terror broke the Great
and Holy Wednesday vigil. Casually
over his black, sparrow’s-length knife, the Raven
sees grey winter grass, cars pass
cracks along the asphalt. I own
what I observe, carried in through

a window: my Sparrow, my Raven. The world
latently angry, violent, like the ocean
under northern ice. I will own
the Unction spilled
over every broken wing

During Holy Week, 2014, I attended the Unction at Holy Trinity Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was singing with the choir, and I happened to be in the row closest to the Church’s northeast door and window. From this position, I had a clear but limited view of the back parking lot.

During the Unction service, blessed oil is distributed to the congregation with prayers for healing from physical and psychological illnesses. So I was thinking about healing and the seven readings and seven prayers said before reception of the oil, when I caught a dark motion out of the window. As I turned, into that very small space—framed on either side by the curtains of the window, so that it was like some violent stage presentation—a huge Raven landed on the pavement with a sparrow caught in its beak. The Raven threw the sparrow down onto its back and stabbed at it twice in succession, first hitting the sparrow’s wing as it tried to escape, then piercing the sparrow squarely in the chest. The sparrow stopped moving immediately, and the Raven, with one foot on the sparrow’s neck, looked around and seemed almost uninterested in what it had just done.

If there had been any kind of contest, I think I would have tried to open the door and intervene. But the violence happened so fast—two birds struggling, then one dead—that I could only feel surprise and confusion, then shock. On the little stage formed by the chance linear positions of Raven, window and observer, I felt as if I’d witnessed some kind of whole-cosmos drama in miniature, played out in a few moments of time. It made me question what was the point of a church service for healing when nature didn’t even care, wasn’t asking or waiting to be healed. The sparrow was quiet and the Raven was quiet after their confrontation. Equilibrium was restored—by death. So why should human beings want something else? Why should we believe in or waste time on the idea that God has a better solution than mere equilibrium? Where is the source of Christian hope—not just the things we hope for, but the origin of Hope itself? The contrast between what we ask of God (Life) and what we observe all around us at every moment (Death) is more profoundly mysterious than we realize. Life and Death are not opposites, not a balanced pair. One is real, the other a negation of reality. One is a true description of true Being, while the other will fade and disappear—like a measure of music is caught up and fades into the Symphony of which it is only a part.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill


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