Jennie Orvino’s Blog: Piece of Mind
In my August 9 post, I reviewed A Breviary for the Lost: Poems for the During and After by Loren Niemi. The following excerpts from my 2012 memoir, Poetry, Politics & Passion, parallel portions of his book and fill in a bit more about our political history and friendship. The following paragraphs are found in PP&P’s first section, “My Life in the Peace Movement” pages 25-33. Copies still available!
The College of Saint Teresa no longer exists, having gone the way of many all-female educational institutions. In the mid-1960s when I attended, it was located in Winona, Minnesota, a little town nestled between tree-covered limestone bluffs and the Mississippi River, about 120 miles from the twin cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
During my upper-class years at the College of Saint Teresa, I was aided and abetted in my “subversive tendencies” by a 19-year-old named Loren Niemi. He lived at the Christian Brothers scholasticate at St. Mary’s, the all-male college that, in the manner of the times, was counterpart to my all-female school. When we met, I was unaware of his seminarian status; I knew only that he was taking classes in Saint Teresa’s art department. We lingered for hours in what was demurely called The Tea House, a literal vine-covered cottage that served as the CST campus café. Our conversation spiraled around painting, poetry and politics and it didn’t take me long to become captivated.
Then, as today, the pretty boys were often not as attractive as the smart, articulate ones who appealed to that biggest sex organ, the brain. Loren, with his prominent nose reminiscent of a wise-cracking cartoon bird, his dark-rimmed, scholarly glasses and lanky build, was not handsome. However, his rebellious mustache and intense blue eyes were winsome, and the way he loved to yak—about things of substance—that was damn appealing. In the first months of our friendship, what I did with Loren was mostly in the manner of steadying the ladder while he secured “Out of Vietnam NOW” posters on light poles out of reach of the campus police. Later, as we each amassed a litany of transgressions that threatened (at least his) continuation in school, we became each other’s mirror, confidante and inspiration.
In my files marked “L. Niemi,” among pages of mimeographed and typed letters, poems, slightly off-color drawings, and even a Valentine, I’d found the following, handwritten in paragraphs randomly scattered over the page:
Got tossed out of the Education Department. The selection committee decided that I was too immature, too imprudent to be trusted in the classroom. What it really means is that I am too honest and too radical for them to feel safe. No student teaching, no education courses, nothing at all. It’s like having one of your balls shot off. It hurts you know!
Loren showed me today, 38 years after our first cup of coffee and 34 years after last seeing each other, a photo of me sitting among the easels and canvases in the college art department, looking over my shoulder at the camera with an impish smile. He has it in a pocket-sized album, created perhaps in honor of the project he is now working on, a “novelized memoir” called “Bad Brother.” He proposed this Minnesota-to-California visit “so we might spend a day thinking together about those turbulent times (1968-71) to see how they shaped and informed who we were and who we have become.”
He taped our conversation on his old Sony cassette player and I recorded on my digital mini disc recorder. “You lived in the row of candy-colored duplexes on Erie Street. They looked like cupcakes that were left too long in a bakery window.”
He was talking about the summer of 1968, when I moved to Minneapolis for 3 months, ostensibly to be in near Sandstone Prison for visits with Bob my fiancé, who resisted the draft), but I think I really wanted to be in the city where Loren lived.
“Once I came over to your place after driving cab all night, and flopped down on your puke-green couch with a terrible headache,” he said. “You lay down on top of me with an aspirin between your lips, kissed me, and shoved it down my throat with your tongue.”
This I did not recall.
“In the afternoons, we’d sit in the back yard drinking beer. You read me obscure poetry and teased me with an unbuttoned blouse.”
This sounded vaguely familiar.
But what I remember for sure are the eight hours I spent at a job Loren secured for me at his father’s commercial laundry and linen service. I stood under a conveyer from which drawstring bags of soiled hotel tablecloths and sheets swayed like chubby ballerinas. After pulling the string to drop the laundry onto the table before me, I sorted, hoisted, smelled it all. I had sympathy for the women of color who were my co-workers, but not enough commitment to find out what this kind of manual labor was truly all about.
“Uh uh, I said well before the day’s closing whistle. “No thanks. Absolutely not.”
I punched out for my first and last time, and within a few days landed an 8-week job ushering delinquent preteens through field trips at a summer day camp.
In the meantime, students raised hell in the streets of Paris, as the Summer of Love was followed by the Summer of Riot. Our hopes rose with presidential peace candidate Eugene McCarthy, and then plummeted with the murder of Robert Kennedy and television images of the bloody batons of Chicago police outside the Democratic convention.
During our mutual interviewing about our joint past, Loren continued to ask: what would be the hardest thing to admit? What do you not want me to know about you? Besides spending his life in community organizing, teaching, and public policy work, Loren is a professional storyteller and author. He signed his book, Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking About Difficult Stories with: “For Jennie. Tell well, tell often, tell true.”
I’m having a hard time writing an “objective” review of the latest book penned by my long-time friend Loren Niemi. It would have been easier to describe how useful to me as a writer have been his prose works on storytelling—The New Book of Plots and Inviting the Wolf In: Thinking about Difficult Stories. I recommend these to anyone who writes, or anyone who wants to live an engaged life and tell the truth about it.
A Breviary for the Lost is in another vein; it is a memoir in poems about a time of personal, spiritual, and psychological upheaval, within circumstances of political and moral challenge. I met Loren when we were both college students and he was a fledgling member of the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious teaching order. The time we shared most directly was the late 1960s and early 1970s, although our friendship has matured and endured to this moment.
Loren’s book is formatted with first-person poetry providing the main, introspective narrative on the left-hand pages, and sidebars (numbered like footnotes) on the right-hand pages providing expansion and commentary in the third person. By choosing this inside-outside way of organizing, the author adds complexity and humor to his story. In sidenote  we find these lines: “Poverty/Chastity/and Obedience. He was good at/ One of them.”
A breviary is a prayer book, organized by the canonical hours beginning in the night and early morning (Matins and Lauds) and ending at sunset and end of day (Vespers and Compline). In case you’re curious, the poems that mention Jennie O. appear in the “first hour of daylight” (Prime) section.
I wonder if the “for the Lost” part of the title, refers not to the author, but those who were lost to war, lost to economic exploitation, racism, mis-education, faulty communication and just plain neglect. Loren did, of course, lose people who were important to him, both in the religious community and the political and artistic communities of which he became a part. He remembers them here and also in his volume of “ghost stories,” What Haunts Us (winner of a 2020 Midwest Book Award for paranormal fiction).
I recommend A Breviary for the Lost as an easy and insight-producing read. It takes you to unfamiliar and sometimes intimate places where you will be forced to question your own beliefs and aspirations.
The language of his poetry is deceptively simple. A favorite poem is about the young Loren finding a well-used pipe in the pocket of a winter coat donated to the brothers. He would return to that dusty basement “Just to smell the sweat of other lives/ and hold that pipe, trying to imagine/ who and what, when, and where/ it had been before it arrived at this/ pause in a Novitiate storeroom.”
Musings like this, ordinary as they seem, became the wellspring of subsequent stories, both easy and difficult, that have spilled from the keyboard, lips and heart of Loren Niemi. Check him out.
A Breviary for the Lost: Poems for the During and After. By Loren Niemi. Calumet Editions, Edina MN. First Edition July 2022. Can be ordered and subsequently reviewed at Amazon.com.
In Part 2 of this post, I will excerpt several sections from my 2012 memoir that tell a little more about my relationship with this poet, artist, professional performing storyteller, activist and teacher.
In my last post, I encouraged everyone, single or not, to create an online profile, for the introspection and self-knowledge it could provide. Because creating it forces you to brag about yourself, reading over the profile can lift you up when you’re feeling insecure or a little blue.
Here I share my coach-approved dating profile, along with a postscript that she didn’t quite approve.
SELF SUMMARY. Brains and beauty! I’m generous (with my time and contributing to causes I believe in), open-hearted, sweet and sensual. I know how to love, to listen, to be present. I’m vital, witty, have a great sense of fun. Like my grandmother, I am a fine Italian cook with the ability to make you feel at ease. I’m a writer/poet, journalist, dancer, avid film viewer, live theater goer, jazz fan. I enjoy lively discussions, reading in bed, and lounging on sunny beaches like Kamaole in Maui.
WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR. Seeking a partner, collaborator, lover and companion, who, like me, is politically progressive and interested in doing work that benefits the human community. I want a kind, responsible person who is affectionate, respectful of women, aware, fit, and well-versed in the arts of love. He matches me in some ways, provokes me in other ways. We support each other’s creativity, interests and aspirations. An intimate connection that has chemistry, shared values, and openness to personal growth and transformation is sure to thrive! We can walk and talk for hours.
WHAT I’M DOING WITH MY LIFE. Freelance writing for Bay Area publications and my own blog. Helping various non-profits by writing grant proposals. Participating in my neighborhood council. Creating a sustainable yard and beautiful garden with drought-tolerant and pollinator-friendly plants. In season, you might share with me a taste of apple juice, pear sauce, dried figs, or fresh tomato Bolognese pasta.
IN ACTION. I’ve lately taken up pickleball at our local parks and manage to draw my grandson away from his computer games to join me on the court. Caring about my body, eating well and exercising makes me happy, keeps me strong and ageless. All kinds of dancing, taking classes in yoga, weight training, stretch and balance is a great antidote to life’s inevitable stresses. It is also wonderful for making friends and creating community.
BOOKS and MEDIA: When I’m writing creatively, I go to poetry and novels for inspiration. Most recently-read nonfiction: Unthinkable, by Jamie Raskin and John Nichols’ Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers. Most recently-read banned book: The 1619 Project (Still working on this one). Three novels in a row by Jeanine Cummins: American Dirt, The Crooked Branch, The Outside Boy. Among the magazines on my nightstand are The Nation, The New Yorker, Poets & Writers. I listen daily to KPFA Pacifica radio.
GOOD AT: Listening, asking questions, articulating, noticing, organizing, keeping a journal, producing, writing, maintaining a clean and welcoming home, working out regularly, partner dancing, rabble rousing, reviewing films, keeping in touch, networking, random acts of kindness, making love.
The first thing people notice about me: Leo energy and presence, my smile, my curly hair.
An ideal date: Champagne tasting on the terrace at Domaine Carneros in Napa, complete with local charcuterie and cheeses. I did this once on my own when writing a feature on their female winemaker.
I spend a lot of time thinking about: The current state of war and peace in the world; ways to combat voter suppression; how to mitigate climate catastrophe. As a former elementary school teacher, I think about keeping books in the libraries, sex education in the classroom and allowing teachers the freedom to tell the whole truth of history. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how an ecstatic love affair would be a terrific balm right about now.
Message me if: You are a bit wild, articulate, funny, curious, affectionate and emotionally intelligent. You don’t like to spend a lot of time texting but want to connect with the “vibe” of a person through interacting in real time, first phone and then in person.
The most private thing I’m willing to say about myself. This OK Cupid question had me thinking. . . even up to this moment. Of the 101 possible answers my dating coach might not have recommended, I’d pick this one: “My perfect match is attractive (as well as attracted) to me; loves how I look, smell, taste and feel; and responds to my arousal with expertise and tenderness. I want to be with someone who makes me feel alive.”
Knowing who you are and what you want is the starting point for all the books I’ve read and workshops I’ve attended on Conscious Dating. However, I think anyone—married, partnered or single—can benefit from the exercises I did to “get ready to get ready” to write an online profile.
Make a list of what you want to be, what you want to do, what you want to have. Don’t censor, maybe time yourself for five minutes on each inquiry. Next, write out your personal values (examples: peace, connection, service, creativity, honesty) and follow by putting an asterisk by your top five. My choices were: communication love, personal growth, self-care and humor. Then write the top values you would like to share with your life partner. My choices included some of the same from the previous list (love, communication) and others (dependability/reliability, emotional intelligence, sexuality).
To get further into my subconscious, I eschewed words and used pictures torn from magazines and photos to express what I felt was my “life purpose.” Some teachers have called this work mind mapping, or visualization or dream boarding. I have made dozens of these in my life; for example, my Jubilación collage depicted what I wanted to experience after my retirement from a full-time job. While reading Katherine Woodward Thomas’ book Calling in THE ONE, I made a collage on that theme with that title.
What came out of all this was the formulation of my purpose statement: to inspire creative expression and encourage transformative political action for the good of all and survival of planet Earth.
What do all these preliminaries have to do with creating an online dating profile? It helps one discover one’s values and hopefully find a partner who shares at least some of those values. This introspection leads to discovering the “deal breakers” – those things you won’t accept in a potential partner if you want the relationship to last. Because liberal/progressive/radical politics has been central to my life since I was 18 years old, one of my deal breakers would be a potential partner who didn’t respect my political views.
Putting up a thoughtful dating profile is an act of vulnerability that is not encouraged by the limited character counts required by some sites (I am subscribed on three of them). Our Time allows 15 photos but only 200 characters for each descriptor. In my recent experience, only one out of 10 guys maximize their word count in describing themselves and tend to post photos with sunglasses on. Those willing to show their eyes and write a bit more are the ones that attract my attention.
The main advantage of the free version of OK Cupid is that it allows a generous word count for self-description and provides an array of (sometimes stupid) questions to help find a high percentage of “match” with another member who answers the same questions. I used the profile I wrote for OK Cupid as the text base from which to pull for two other sites.
In my next post, I’ll include my coach-approved profile and…some of the items she wouldn’t have approved.
If I found a sweetheart
we’d be in the honeymoon phase
until I turned 80;
when the 7-year itch arrived,
I’d be 83;
and chances are, when I hit 86—
the age predicted I would die by my yoga horoscope—
we’d be contemplating splitting up anyway.
I’m thinking of adding to my dating profile:
with realistic attitude about the long term.
With me, you won’t have a golden anniversary
but the honeymoon phase
will be amazing
and include the best sex you’ve ever had.
If I found a sweetheart
by Memorial Day or the 4th of July,
when my next cake and candles rolled around,
I’d have a cutie on my arm.
And if the plague has passed,
we could take a trip to Italy’s Amalfi Coast.
How wonder full to have
a mutually passionate pact
to love, honor, respect and communicate in truth.
I know it will be crazy, with worlds colliding,
fire, flood, discouragement and growing pains…
but I’m in, I’m in for all of it.
This poem of mine is one of four accepted for the Redwood Writer’s 2022 anthology, Crossroads. More information on the book here.
My visceral response to the complimentary session with Dr. W. convinced me that the longing for an intimate partner which I couldn’t seem to shake was legitimate, and that my desire possible to fulfill. I’ve used therapists and creative counselors all my adult life. Giving myself six sessions with a relationship coach seem an appropriate 75th birthday gift.
At this link is a video of “If I Found a Sweetheart” with a background of collages I created to “call in the one.” The Jennie who did this performance was feeling pretty bad-ass and confident.
After I expressed dissatisfaction, in a previous post, with my foray into online dating, kind folks have offered suggestions for other sites to try, such as Bumble (which requires the woman to make first contact) or eHarmony, the site where friends who just sent me their wedding invitation made their connection. Thank you all for caring.
I suppose that cookies tracing my online activity account for the ads I’ve received for numerous dating gurus who offer their services, their free eBooks, their seminars, support groups, etc. I am not disparaging the relationship/dating industry. I confess that in the distant past I paid an embarrassingly hefty sum to a useless matchmaker (see my 2012 book, Poetry, Politics and Passion for the essay “Make Me A Match.”)
The question I ask today is: do I have the heart—and the stamina—to peruse even more virtual meeting venues or is there another way to find single, sane, age-appropriate potential partners who match my values and aspirations?
I started my current “Partner Project” with hope. In April 2021, I attended a wine tasting in Mill Valley for single professionals with the intention of finding eligible bachelors a little farther afield. The evening had two highlights: I convinced two Tesla owners to cease their conversation about their beloved vehicles to join me and two other women at a table; and, I scored a coupon for a free consultation with a Relationship Coach and Love Mentor who co-sponsored the event.
Like all of us, I lived through the fear of catching a deadly virus, the fallout from an economic shutdown, months of social isolation, tension overs masks and vaccinations, and political upheaval I could not have imagined. In January, I decided it was now-or-never. I called the relationship coach I’d met the year before and set up a ZOOM appointment.
Near the end of our conversation, Dr. W. led me through a visualization exercise. She first had me close my eyes and imagine a year hence if nothing had changed in my life. What was I doing and how did I feel? Then she asked, “What if you found your match, the lover and partner you have been seeking? Describe in detail where you are. What do you see, smell, touch, feel, taste?”
I relaxed enough to experience sensorily a cliffside terrace overlooking a sun-drenched beach beneath an azure sky. I was sitting across a bistro table from a person who holds my hand and gazes into my eyes.
“What is your companion saying?” Dr. W. prompted.
“I love you. I’m so glad I met you. I’ll be with you to the end.”
After I said those words aloud, I began to cry from the depth of my soul. Fat tears drenched my face along with cleansing sobs that proved to me that I’d touched upon “my truth.” When I looked toward the computer screen, I could see that my coach was crying too.
[TO BE CONTINUED]
Recently I got a good scare from a phone call threatening an electricity shutoff “in one hour” for non-payment of my PG&E bill. I knew this was an error since I’d recently authorized direct payment of the bill from my bank account…or did I? It took several phone calls to the real PG&E to get a live person to verify that this was indeed a scam designed to elicit personal data that would be used to steal money or my identity.
Aside from a couple of hours wasted, this incident added to the anxiety load I was already carrying from mass shootings, possible World War III with Russia, and a corrupted Supreme Court poised to force millions of women living in the USA into childbearing against their will. The arrival of Spring seemed the right moment to focus on something pleasant and engaging, something that could be an antidote to post-pandemic isolation. Thus began my umpteenth try at online dating—or let’s say, online meeting of eligible, potential romantic partners.
In a subsequent post, I’ll share the history and circumstances of why, in the month of April, I reactivated my free dating profile on OK Cupid, and joined (which means I paid for 3-6 months) two other sites, one that was well-reviewed (Zoosk), and another that focused on singles aged 50-plus (Our Time).
A friend, in a moment of profound loneliness, joined one of these same sites, and told me he removed his profile within a week. “I couldn’t stand it,” was his reason. But, with support from my coach/therapist, I was determined to re-try the online format after a long hiatus.
I know the courtesies one finds in personal interactions don’t apply online, yet I do expect that if I arrange to have a phone conversation, with an agreed-upon time and day, that the call will happen. The first phone date I arranged was broken twice but followed with an apology and a series of bare chest photos from the guy whose opening message was: “Would you consider being romanced by a slightly younger man?” Thus, I remained curious. When the conversation date was broken a third time, well, I felt like a sucker. Red flag to heed: language that is too familiar (“Hi Gorgeous” “Can’t wait to hear your sexy voice” “Your photos are shell-shock amazing”)
Shortly after my experience with Mr. Open Shirt (he could well have been a real person playing games), I received a message from a semi-retired professional born in Amsterdam (“be prepared to hear an accent”) from Mill Valley. When I agreed to a phone call, “Bruce” sent a text at 6 a.m. to set it up. Red flag #2? He asked for information from me even though I said I was not interested in texting. When the time for the arranged call passed in silence, I sent a text inquiry. Then the call came.
The man’s accent was far from Dutch and when I asked why he texted me at 6 a.m., his response was not satisfactory. After a comment that sounded like it was scripted, I asked Bruce where he lived. “Denver,” he replied.” My immediate reply: “Your profile said you lived in Mill Valley; this is a scam and I’m hanging up now.”
You may say scams are to be expected. Yes, perhaps, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t disconcerting. Putting online beautiful photos of myself and information about who I am and what I am seeking sets me up to be prey.
As I was composing this post, my email pinged with another “Somebody likes you” notice. The message from “Joe” included a lot of misspellings and language I felt was not warranted by anything in my profile: “I like a romantic lady who can get wild reading your post gets my blood flowing and makes me hot under my collar for sure 💋♥️👅”
Yes, complete with tongue-out emoji. See why all this is getting me down?
After two months, I’ve yet to have a meet-and-greet, either on the phone or in person. Full disclosure: One gentleman from Berkeley, whose detailed profile on OK Cupid attracted me, texted a couple of times until he said he had met someone with whom he wanted to pursue a relationship and with my permission, he’d get back to me later.
The 2022 Partner Project TO BE CONTINUED
I’m posting the article I wrote for our South Park Newsletter (Community – Collaboration – Change) as a way of promoting our Santa Rosa neighborhood “Ice Cream and Safety Social” on May 14 at MLK park, 1-4 p.m. Under a grant from the Community Building Initiative, we have been working for several years to strengthen the influence and power of our beautiful, diverse community. The cleanup day I describe below has happened at least four times before, and we have succeeded in curtailing sideshow type events and homeless encampments on our streets (at least for now).
DOING GOOD IN THE ‘HOOD
On Earth Day, April 23, a few dedicated South Park Coalition members and neighbors fortified themselves with coffee and doughnuts and set out with litter buckets and picker-uppers for our neighborhood cleanup. While the turnout was small, the effect was mighty in spirit, fostered by bilingual posters plastering our South Park streets and an email message that said, “If you cannot join us, please consider spending a little time cleaning up in front of your house. Every little bit helps.”
I thought the best use of my time commitment was to weed the roundabout at Pressley and Grand Avenue. For safety’s sake, I wanted to cut the tallest weeds and uncover the reflectors which were overgrown with rock roses. I had worked up quite a sweat when neighbor Camille came by, pushing little Troy in a stroller. “Shall I send over my boys to help?” she asked.
Minutes later, Noah (age 11) tested my packed-full container of weeds and declared he could lift it. He carried it off to dump in the compost bin belonging to nearby neighbors. Noah’s brothers, Odin (age 10) and Orion (age 7), helped by yanking up grasses and sweeping the trimmings around the circle. The four of us pulled and carried weeds until the compost bin could hold no more!
During our labors, many cars and trucks drove carefully around us, some drivers shouting “Thank you” as they went by. On Sunday morning, I put in some more time weeding and when I’d filled another two big containers, the three boys appeared again, offering to help. They carried the yard waste, bag of trash, and my tools back to my house. After I thanked them, Noah, Odin and Orion resumed their play in the street in front of their house. This is a very good reason for the cars driving by to pay attention and SLOW DOWN.
South Park Coalition thanks all our residents for observing the Earth Day Neighborhood Clean Up and showing care for—and pride in—our wonderful community.
Is anyone else wondering why Donald Trump is not in jail yet? The latest law he broke, just in the news, is the Presidential Records Act which requires that all written communications, classified and unclassified, related to official duties be preserved, and subsequently turned over to the National Archives upon a given administration’s end. Fifteen boxes were just fetched from No. 45’s lair at Mar-a-Lago. Evidently, Trump had been ripping and flushing records in defiance of the law throughout his four years in office.
Some of those recently-retrieved documents had been pulled out of waste baskets and taped back together by White House staffers who said their boss was relentless in destroying both what he didn’t like and what he couldn’t be bothered with. They frequently put items, required by law to be saved, in “burn bags” to be destroyed.
Now we find, from the presidential plumber (actually a book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman), that the toilet in the residence was frequently clogged by wads of “clumped up printed wet paper.”
And we thought the stoppages were from the prodigious poops of the KFC gorging inhabitant! Additional details in a Washington Post article from 2/5/22. I can’t wait to see what late night comedians Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers will do with this information.
However, this news isn’t that funny. The string of Trump’s law-breaking includes violations of the Hatch Act, attempts to coerce and threaten Georgia’s Secretary of State of to “find more votes,” the outgoing president’s campaign of lies about the 2020 election, and his fomentation of the January 6, 2021 insurrection. All are quite serious.
In December of 2017, I posted a blog titled “Why I support the Impeachment of Donald J. Trump.” That piece was written before he was actually impeached, twice. I did not include the tax and other financial fraud crimes of this grifter prior to his election which are still under ongoing investigation and which I HOPE COME TO FRUITION SOON.
You have to ask if any of us (or hey, if Barack Obama) had committed these crimes, it would have been ignored with a shrug of the shoulders. (“There is no mechanism for enforcing” as some officials said of the Presidential Records Act.) I can’t understand how so many in the country can just carry on as if this all is normal.
I’ll close by recommending John Nichols’ new book Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers in which this investigative reporter insists that not only the 45th president but many of his cabinet members, need to be held accountable for the damage they caused our country during the health catastrophe of the past two years.
If not, then they and their ilk will be free to continue more of the same.
I see from Facebook that the literary giant Robert Bly has passed away. This blog post is longer than usual because it consists of an essay from my book, Poetry, Politics and Passion about my relationship with Bly. It’s the best way I can think of to memorialize him.
“You both have the same hairstyle.” This was my daughter Rachel’s comment when I showed her the photograph of Robert Bly and me in the July 2005 issue of the KRCB Radio program guide. True. Parted on the same side and about the same length, my curly blonde hair and his white wavy locks swept out from each of our faces in almost the same “do.” The picture was taken on the deck of Falkirk House in San Rafael where Marin Poetry Center members were hosting a reception before Bly’s reading at Book Passage.
Arrangements had been made with his agent to interview the renowned poet for KRCB’s literary hour, “Word by Word.” I had been a volunteer at the public radio station almost two years, producing more than 20 shows. I’d conducted phone interviews with such luminaries as Nikki Giovanni, Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, and Robert Hass, as well as several local authors. But this was my first in-person field recording opportunity, and a chance to see someone who was more than a celebrity I had brushed up against. Bly had been a correspondent, a literary friend and an anti-war ally. I was jazzed.
I first encountered him in 1969 when, as one of several prominent poets on a nationwide tour to raise money for Vietnam War resistance, he came to read at the Milwaukee 14 benefit. Bly had recently won the National Book Award for The Light Around the Body and donated his prize money to the Peace Movement. When I first heard him read, he was 46 years old. He had been publishing poems in translation in his magazine The Fifties, and then The Sixties, making Americans aware of the likes of Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo and Georg Trakl. From his farmhouse in rural Minnesota, Bly was to go on editing and publishing The Seventies as well as numerous books of his own poems, essays and translations.
In 1975, around the time my growth into feminism led me to Goddess spirituality and study of the divine feminine, Bly founded the Annual Conference on the Great Mother and the New Father. It seemed to me then that Bly was helping the cause of women’s liberation by teaching men how to be authentic. In 1978, he visited Milwaukee again, and, because we had been exchanging letters, the poet invited me to play my doumbek (belly dance drum) with the gang of musicians who accompanied his reading at Century Hall. Ten years after I first saw him, he was still wearing the same performance attire: a cream-colored wool serape with a bold, black border design that made him look like a stately, wild-haired Norse God who had landed in Mexico and taken up residence there.
During the height of Bly’s work in the mytho-poetic men’s movement (his international bestseller Iron John was published in 1990), we lost touch. I admired one of Bly’s other popular books, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart—an anthology of poems edited from his men’s movement work. And yet, I wondered if he had gone over the line into heterosexism. I remember writing to him with excitement that I had fallen in love with a woman, and being offended by his return letter that said my action had put me “on the endless grind of the karmic wheel.” It was an anxious and righteous time of my life, so I may have taken offense where none was meant. But I stopped writing to him, and he stopped writing to me. His growing mainstream accolades put him in a higher category of fame than most poets ever achieve—to the point that even stand-up comedians referenced “Robert Bly and the drum beating men’s gatherings in the woods where everyone shouts ‘ho!’ and hugs each other.”
Still, I treasured our brief common history in working for peace through poetry. When Bly came to Berkeley in 1998 for a screening of the film RUMI: Poet of the Heart, I made sure I was in the audience. Spotting him in an aisle seat before the performance, I knelt beside him to say hello. When I reminded him of our first encounter 30 years before, his face lit in recognition. He surprised me by asking about colleagues from those Milwaukee days by name. “It’s such a delight to see you again,” he said. “I’m glad you’re still writing.” We talked a while longer before he was called to the stage. Shortly afterward, I sent him a copy of my 1996 poetry chapbook. He wrote back promptly:
I’ve enjoyed Heart of the Peony very much. The poems don’t dance around at the edge of town, they head straight for the center. . .and I loved including a recipe for clam spaghetti in a book of poems! I’m going to use it this week. Love, Robert.
In 1999, when I asked permission to quote his one-sentence review of my poetry, he replied in the affirmative, and assured me that “the clam spaghetti was great.”
Our correspondence resumed in the form of exchanging publications—I sent him my 2002 spoken word/music CD, Make Love Not War, and he sent me autographed copies of his small hardcover books as they came out. His inscriptions were personal, intimate. He wrote quoting my own words back: “Thanks for your good poems! I like ‘the black cherries…with gratitude to have blood…’” Another inscription encouraged me: “It’s alright if we keep making the same mistakes/ It’s alright if we grow our wings on the way down.”
On that Sunday in May 2005, Bly exhibited the same warmth he had shown at all our previous meetings. Then 78 years old, he was on tour promoting two books: The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations of Poems from Europe, Asia and the Americas, and a collection of his own: My Sentence Was A Thousand Years of Joy. When he arrived at the Falkirk House reception, he walked straight over to where I was enjoying a glass of wine at a table by myself and sat down. As other guests began to press closer for their turn to chat with the poet, I quickly got down to the business of confirming a time for our radio interview. And, I asked someone to snap a picture of us together.
When the Poetry Center entourage arrived at Book Passage, Bly excused himself to “take a little nap” in a back office of the bookstore. He asked me to wake him up a half hour before he was scheduled to read. I tried to browse the shelves, but ended up checking and re-checking my mini-disc recorder, my batteries, my list of questions for 30 long minutes before I knocked.
“Yes, OK…” answered a dry, tired voice. I opened the door to find the septuagenarian rousing himself from the carpeted floor. His face was flushed and he seemed weary. He cleared his throat and situated himself in the leather desk chair as I attached the microphone to his shirt. I wondered then about the success of both our conversation and the two-hour reading to follow.
JO: You use a line from Rilke’s poem for the title of your book of selected translations. Do you want to say anything about why?
RB: He’s urging poets to do daring things. (Bly reads)
Just as the winged energy of delight
carried you over many chasms early on,
now raise the daringly imagined arch
holding up the astounding bridges.
Miracle doesn’t lie only in the amazing
living through and defeat of danger;
miracles become miracles in the clear
achievement that is earned.
Here he’s saying as a poet gets older you just can’t bubble forth your happy little tunes, you have to go to two different sides of the river and build a bridge between. Then he says—you want to write a poem in such a way that at the very last line the reader feels some kind of a miracle.
JO: I’d like you to read your poem “Call and Answer” that has been widely anthologized lately, although it was written in 2002, even before George W. Bush ordered the attack on Iraq in March 2003.
RB: I used the ghazal form, keeping each stanza to roughly 36 syllables…
JO: Why did you choose this Islamic form? Were you trying to bridge the so-called “clash of civilizations”?
RB: In a way. We’re involved in humiliating the Muslims and I’m involved in praising them. . . .
I was very upset by the fact that no one was writing poems against the Iraq war buildup, and I’m still upset. You know in the Vietnam War days they were coming out of our ears. Everyone was writing poems against the war.
JO: Do you think it’s too soon in the war, that’s why there isn’t much writing about it?
RB: In the sixties, the newspapers were not so panty-waisty. People wrote wild things and the papers printed them right away—think about Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers. The capitalists are trying to control everything and keep everything down. When I asked someone yesterday, “Why do you think there isn’t more against Bush?” he said, “I think it’s fear.” We are being coddled by so many happy television programs, we don’t realize that we are living in a desperate situation.
When our conversation concluded, Bly requested time alone to prepare. I left him and donned my headphones to verify the quality of my digital recording. There it was—his Midwest inflection, the sometimes growl-like voicing of his recitations, the reactive sounds he made to my comments and questions. Satisfied with what I heard, I felt my muscles relax. I joined the standing-room-only crowd in the south wing of the bookstore to wait for the poet’s entrance.
Bly had roused himself from his brief rest to give me a charming and informative interview but when he stepped up to the podium in front of 150 listening fans, his energy redoubled. The ageless bard read his own poems and his translations with verve. The highlight of the evening was the moment he read again his “Call and Answer.” When he finished reciting the poem, he pulled his battered suitcase up on stage, unlocked it, and threw out a few items of clothing before uncovering a stack of books.
“I’m giving these away free,” he said, as he took out perhaps fifty copies of The Insanity of Empire: A Book of Poems Against the Iraq War. It was a 2004 imprint of Ally Press in St. Paul. “I don’t want to carry them back to Minnesota, so be sure to take one.” I loved his generosity—giving away books in a bookstore! I took home my copy of the slim volume, as did a lucky third of the listeners.
Over the years, I’ve been drawn to Robert Bly, as others are drawn, because he is a bright light, as a writer and as a person of conscience. There is much to admire in all the phases he has gone through as a poet who managed to survive outside of academia and benefit from the freedom it provided. He developed a world-wide reputation as a writer/publisher/teacher/translator and has continued to bring the heart and culture of non-western civilizations, as well as the beauty of music, into every reading he does. I am inspired by this. I am nurtured by my personal encounters over time with him, and by those letters on 5 x 8 personalized stationery—return address Minneapolis—signed Love, Robert or Fondly, Robert, in rickety, almost indecipherable, hand.
On May 20, 2011, Bly appeared again in Berkeley at a KPFA Radio/Poetry Flash benefit titled, “Talking into the Ear of a Donkey.” At the age of 85, the poet reads sitting down, yet he maintains his charismatic presence. He chuckles and growls, repeats lines to make sure we understand, surrounds himself with musicians playing tabla and oud whom he directs with his eyes and a wave of his hand.
Bly was not costumed in a wide, red tie under a woven vest of brilliant colors as the event publicity photo showed, but in a casual, gray sport coat over a blue dress shirt with open collar. One of his legs trembled, and he read a poem twice, not immediately for emphasis but because he had forgotten he included it earlier in the program. He seemed to wonder why its funny lines fell flat. I was moved by this one awkward moment in which the famous performance poet seemed like an ordinary white-haired grandfather. Still, the audience remained attentive and delighted. Bly’s hold on the life force, or the life force’s hold on him, is undeniable. He continues to exhibit courage, grace and earthy good humor that belie his years.
“It’s alright if we write the same poem over and over,” he says. It’s OK if we grow wings even as we are falling.