Robert Bly: The Dude Abides

Bly had written a lamentation for a bankrupt society. Since then Bly has published hundreds of poems. They alternate between the solitude of Snowy Fields and the energized cries of The Light.

Snowbanks North of the House
Those great sweeps of snow that stop suddenly six feet from
the house…
Thoughts that go so far.
The boy gets out of high school
and reads no more books;
the son stops calling home.
The mother puts down her
rolling pin and makes
no more bread.
And the wife looks at her husband one night at a party and
loves him no more.
The energy leaves the wine,
and the minister falls leaving
the church.
It will not come closer-
the one inside moves back,
and the hands touch nothing,
and are safe.
And the father grieves for his son, and will not leave the
room where the coffin stands;
he turns away from his wife,
and she sleeps alone.
And the sea lifts and falls all night; the moon goes on
through the unattached
heavens alone.
And the toe of the shoe pivots
in the dust.…
The man in the black coat turns,
and goes back down the hill.
No one knows why he came, or why he turned away, and
did not climb the hill.

The Hawk
The hawk sweeps down
from his aerie,
dives among swallows,
turns over twice in the air,
flying out of Catal-Huyuk.
Slowly a seeing hawk frees itself
from the fog;
its sleek head sees far off.

And the ocean turns in,
gives birth to herring
oriented to the poles.
Oregon fir needles, pungent as the proverbs of old men,
ride down the Rouge River,
enter the ocean currents.

Land and sea mingle, so we
mingle with the sky and wind.
A mole told me that his mother
had gone to the sky,
and his father lay curled
in a horsechestnut shell.
And my brother is part of the ocean.

Our great-uncles, grandfathers,
great-grandfathers, remain.
While we lie asleep, they see
the grasshopper resting
on the grass blade, and the wolverine
sweeping with his elegant
teeth through the forest.
And they come near. Whenever
we talk with a small
child, the dead help us
to choose words. Choosing words,
courage comes. When a man
encouraged by the dead goes
where he wishes to go

then he sees the long tongue
of water on which the whale
rides on his journey.
When he finds the way
long intended for him,
he tastes through glacial water
the Labrador ferns and snows.

Wise men don’t go into retirement. Like Ezekiel, Bly seems unrepentantly fervent and active. Though he’s almost eighty, he’s booked for readings and men’s conferences across the country this year. Several new books are at various stages of germination.

In 2001 Bly published The Night Abraham Called to the Stars, a collection of forty-eight poems written loosely in the old Islamic ghazal form. The style, known to many today through Bly’s and Coleman Barks’s revival of the thirteenth-century Persian ecstatic Rumi, is perfect for the gnostic Bly. The structure has stanzas moving from one idea to the next over amazing mental chasms. Bly leaps like a boy, drawing from his muses the likes of Monet, St. Francis, and Bob Dylan. The poems feel fresh and often ebullient. “My love has always been culture. Politics is one thing and nature is another, but somehow my love has always been culture. What great religious people have done and said, what great writers have done and said. I mention Emerson and hundreds of other writers, and I know people know less and less about people of the past. I say they have to look it up. I put it in deliberately. So I think it’s joyful, because the older you get the more rejoicing you can feel about the great people of culture.”

He talks of reissuing The Light Around the Body. “I’m going to add ten or so poems on the Iraq war. If nobody wants to publish it, maybe I’ll do it myself. Give it out to friends.” Scattered about his studio on desk, tables, and chairs, piles of paper tower like trees. “These are my selected translations, twenty-two poets that I’ve worked with over the years. It’ll come out in June with HarperCollins. I’m calling it The Winged Energy of Delight.” He’s also working with his wife Ruth, a psychologist to whom he’s been married for the past twenty-three years. “We’re doing a book together. She has written two brilliant essays on alchemy. I’ve done a series of twenty small essays on writers who are profoundly excessive. Wallace Stevens said, ‘In excess continualthere is cure of sorrow.’ Maybe we’ll use that as the title.”

But the monk still needs his solitude. “We have a place out on Moose Lake. I might go there two or three days a week. Yes, I still need to be alone. Poetry is a silent and introverted occupation. You need hours and hours and hours alone. At the same time it’s too lonely in this country. You need others who think like you. Friends are sweet.” He still has weekly drumming nights in his studio, but his Mondays are for other obligations. “Ruth and I babysit a grandson in town. Noah’s boy. He’s with us from seven-thirty in the morning until five-thirty at night. It’s a lot of work, but just amazing. You can see your grandchildren much more clearly than you can your own children. Ansari, the Persian poet, said, ‘If you cut the heart of a drop of water, a hundred pure oceans will flow out of it.’ That’s like being with a nineteen-month-old grandson.”

Bly offers one more poem, as yet unpublished, from his next ghazal collection.

Waking in the Middle of the Night
I want to be true to what I have heard. It was
So sweet to hear music last night. There is so
Much joy in being afraid of the world together.

The snow in the branches,
the sadness in your hands,
The foot tracks in the mud, the old Inca faces,
The trout who wait all year for the acorns
to descend.

The sitar player is so much like the crow,
who rises
Each morning in the sky above the black branches
And cries six cries with no memory of the light.
Every musician wants his fingers to play faster
So that he can go deeper into the next kingdom of pain.
Each note on the string calls for one note more.

The hand that has written
all these sounds down
Is like a bird who wakes in the middle
of the night
And starts out toward its old nest
on the mountain.

Robert, I don’t know why you would have such Good luck today.
Those few lines about the crows
Crying are better than a whole night of sleep.

Oh, just one more question, Mr. Bly. Did men really run naked through the woods?

“This is Minnesota. You’d have to be out of your mind. And besides, that was just all those corporate fools trying to mimic our real work.”

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