After all, breath is the one thing in our body that we have in common with the alligators and all other creatures.
– Robert Bly, Talking All Morning
After a motorcycle accident, surgeons reassembled a woman using prescriptions and pins. I’d see her at our neighborhood park with her mother, who moved from Oregon to California to help her heal. When I stated the obvious (“It must take so much patience to get better”), she laughed and said, “There’s no other way.” The woman also attended yoga classes. Week by persistent week, the rest of us students watched as she learned with her body how to be whole again.
In “Learning to Walk,” the speaker brings us along as she pushes “the blade of my will” through the poem.
Learning to Walk
Starts with sitting still, listening
to how time lengthens in silence.
A friend moves off the horizon, her words
of comfort a hook to grasp, to cling to
like the steel traps I sometimes throw down
in disgust. Need greater than pain, I pull myself
to the counter, reach for the cup,
the coffee, the spoon, inch it like a worm
from sink to microwave. Brew.
Place the cup on a chair, push it across
the floor with my good leg scrape by scrape
back to the table, collapse, drink.
Watch the purple delphinium petals drop
and not make a sound, not try to get up again,
knowing their bloom is over. We forget
the softness and light when a child cries
at the life provided and tear our hearts apart
a million times over, looking for the reason
as illusive as why anything happens.
Why apples are green or wheels round.
Why we lose attention, forget we’re on a downhill
ride with all the pushing up,
so I push against the stiffness as I sit,
do what I am told to build up my quads, slide
my rabbit soft footed sock back and forth
across the slick tile floor flatter than snow,
push the blade of my will
across all the small and grand favors.
And when a pin drops casting a fine note that echoes
in the empty house I know I must retrieve it,
no matter how far I have to reach, must go
out of my way, for going forward, for good luck.
Pair with: savasana
Speak: A gentleness enters the middle of the poem as the speaker looks outside herself at the flowers and the memory of a child’s cry. Allow the tone of your voice to shift as you read.
Consider: What is the relationship between “going forward” and “good luck” in the poem, in life?
Like climbing a hill, garudasana, or eagle pose, requires balance and concentration, and strengthens shoulders and legs. Eagle pose starts from tadasana, mountain pose. Together, the poses explore the area between stability and the unknown, as does this poem.
Can one be afraid of hills
Or is the fear more a fear
Of challenge. Of testing weak legs
Against the inevitable.
Finding, finally, that there are
Tasks you can’t meet.
And what about the hills
That are personal.
That were once your friends,
It’s a sad thing that they
Can’t comfort you now.
That they turn their backs
And stretch up and you’ll never again
See the city from the top of your climb
And you’ll never know if the world
Above has changed
Nor even know if the world
Below still holds you.
Pair with: garudasana
Speak: The poem shifts from third person (one) to second person (you). Does that shift make the poem more intimate? If so, bring that intimacy to your voice.
Consider: How does the promise of a fresh perspective motivate one to climb a hill? How do hills challenge us and allow us to accept our limitations?
Consciously walking in nature is yoga. Whenever we practice listening to the greater intelligence of the universe we are practicing yoga, whether we listen inside to the pulse of breath and blood or we listen outside to the workings of life expressed in the song of the bird and the splash of the waterfall. Yoga’s aim is to experience ourselves as we truly are, without the constant mental chatter of hankering and fear, past and future. Any practice that silences that chatter is yoga.
– from Walking Yoga by Ila Sarley and Garrett Sarley
Our two arms are stretched like wings from the pivot, centering all extremes, bringing in, integrating into the core, letting the new forms be born out of this wholeness now, the next wholeness to come. We are what we are, we clay angels, and our tone rings us round; farther we reach than we can see; we extend like the living vine, invisible before birth, carrying the lifelight like a miner’s cap, through the crossing point. Our imagination already extends us into our next season of growth. Out intuition tells us to keep faith with the cracks, the droughts, the withering–to go the cosmic serpent’s path–the coiling clay–never straight on. The next frustration may strike the brightest spark.
– M.C. Richards, Imagine Inventing Yellow (Station Hill, 1991)
Savasana, corpse pose, offers an opportunity for the body to be fully supported. In this poem, the speaker floats in a boat on a lake. Floating, grounding…support from water and earth allow for us to ask “big questions” like, “What does it mean to never be afraid?”
Going Home the Longest Way Around
We tell stories, build
from fragments of our lives
maps to guide us to each other.
We make collages of the way
it might have been
had it been as we remembered,
as we think perhaps it was,
tallying in our middle age
Last night the lake was still;
all along the shoreline
bright pencil marks of light, and
children in the dark canoe pleading
“Tell us scary stories.”
Fingers trailing in the water,
I said someone I loved who died
told me in a dream
to not be lonely, told me
not to ever be afraid.
And they were silent, the children,
listening to the water
lick the sides of the canoe.
It’s what we love the most
can make us most afraid, can make us
for the first time understand
how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water,
taking the long way home.
Note: first published in Another River: New and Selected Poems ; used by permission of the poet
Pair with: savasana
Speak: Each line of the poem offers an idea or image. Allow each line to linger in the listener’s ear by pausing slightly at the end of each line.
Consider: “It’s what we love the most/can make us most afraid, can make us/for the first time understand/how we are rocking in a dark boat on the water….” What is the relationship between love and fear?
A poem for me displaces silence the way your body displaces water.
– Billy Collins, in Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry, ed. Dennis O’Driscoll (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)
How to keep things whole? Downward-facing dog, Adho mukha svanasana, energizes the whole body and,
as an inversion, changes perspective.
Keeping Things Whole
In a field
I am the absence
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.
When I walk
I part the air
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
from Sleeping With One Eye Open (Stone Wall Press, 1964); published with permission of the poet
Pair with: Adho Mukha Svanasana
Speak: The longest sentence is in the middle of the poem, the second stanza. Notice how the line endings work within the sentence to create a feeling of both movement and air.
Consider: “I move/ to keep things whole.” How can that be?
We are beings in process, in a deep spiritual process that we recognize and intuit and do not understand at all.
-Carolyn Forche, in A God in the House
And It Has All Come to Nothing, My Weeping and Railing
The world is.
Prairies pass–coneflowers, coquelicots, thistle.
And the passerine birds.
Whatever’s monstrous stays monstrous,
and the beautiful, too–it stays.
So much wind
has passed through me,
so many invectives, blasphemies,
riffs and snatches of disputation.
And now I have come to see
it’s all to no avail: I am
what I am, dreams be dammed.
Only a true romantic
could hope to change me
only something stronger than the wind is
could gather me up
take me in its arms
and blow me peacewards.
Note: Poem was first published in And (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2009); used by permission of the publisher
Pair with: utkatanasana
Speak: The title of this poem provides a crucial set up for what’s to come. Pause and let the title sink in after speaking it.
Consider: The poem’s speaker says, “I am/what I am” and ends with the word “peacewards.” With acceptance, what direction, for you, is peacewards?
For more of Michael Blumenthal’s work, click here.