Robert Romanyshyn Poetry
Poetry: Dark Light
"Anyway why did it have to be the death of the poet"-Carl Jung to Aniela Jaffe, October, 1954
"I would not object if some critic said I was not a poet at all. Indeed, trying to think of oneself as a poet is a peculair business. What does it feel like to be a poet?" (Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems,xiii)
Dark Light is the title of a strange book, which I have been working on for many years. It is a strange title because it names a work that has no specific form. What began as a book of poems has over the years morphed into a work that mixes poetry, prose, reflections, reveries, and dreams. In dark light forms soften and boundaries melt a bit at their edges. At twilight the world's structure dissolves and at dawn reassembles itself-slowly if you look! Perhaps that is the sense of the title. As I look back now on this effort I know only that I have been reaching-maybe all my life- for a way of saying things that stays faithful to these moments of coming into being and passing away. Dark Light is a record of this pathetic attempt, the record of a psychologist who regards himself-with conscious appreciation- as a 'failed poet.' What follows below are some portions of this work, beginning with the "Invitation to the Reader." Before I sign off here, however, please note that the pathetic quality of my efforts is testimony to the 'pathos' of the work, to the fact that it has been filled with passion, feeling, emotion, and suffering. The failed poet is pathetic. Let the gods be thanked and praised!
Invitation to the Reader
The psychology I have practiced as therapist, teacher, and writer for the last thirty years is finally a psychology that has no name. In these thirty years I have been as it were an eavesdropper on conversations about the life of soul spoken between and among its many traditions, chief among which have been psychology as a natural science, phenomenology, particularly the work of J.H van den Berg, depth psychology, particularly the work of its founders Freud and Jung with special re-gard for Jung's work on alchemy, and the poets, who have been and are for me the natural alchemists of the soul. The many voices in these traditions belong to those whom I have come to re-gard as com-panions on a journey of soul making, those with whom I have felt at home and with whom I have kept com-pany, have broken bread with and have had con-versations, which have turned me back on things, turned me around, upside down and inside out. And now if at a moment that feels like a kind of ending, I have no name for what I have been doing as an eavesdropper, then so be it.
Perhaps what I have been doing is not psychology at all, because it has no dogma, no creed, no precise method. Rather, what I have been doing has seemed to me to have been more of a style or a disposition, a way of being present in and to the world in a psychological way, no-thing as substantive then as a noun, but something adjectival, a qualifier to ways of living, loving and working with soul in mind, a way of being present which, like an adjective, modifies the events and occasions of one's life and assigns degrees to them, displacing what might seem an ordinary event or happening into a wider field, a larger context, a bigger story by comparing them and even on occasion distinguishing their superlative quality, when for example some small, quiet moment of joy fills one with the sense that this has been the most rare and wonderful experience thereby raising it to another level beyond the ordinary and the usual. Adjectival and adverbial, which too is a modifier but of time and its flow, a qualifier of the rhythm and movement of life as it is quickened by soul, when for example in some moment of grief the time of the clock slows down and the pace of one's life is experienced psychologically as moving more slowly. Not only adjectival and adverbial, but also flowing like a verb, attentive to the mood and tense of life.
A psychology with no name is a psychology that is not about nouns, a psychology that tries to break with the structure of our language and its nominative form in order to stay as close as possible to the flow of the soul. If we keep our psychologies tied to nouns what do we miss about the life of soul; and alternately if we try to do a psychology and be psychological, which starts with the verb, adjective and adverb what might we discover. I think of David Bohm's rheomode as the quality of a physics that breaks with the same noun bias. Would not the laws of physics be different for a creature that lives in the rhythm of flow, in a fluid world-like dolphins; would they not write a different physics? Would not the laws of psychology also be different for such a creature?
This is my experiment in dark light, an experiment in psychology for a psychology with no name. An experiment not thought up but one which has arisen from a long time experience of the gap between what I have been saying about the soul and what treasures always elude the net of my words. This psychology with no name uses words but in a different way, in a way that tries to be attentive to letting go. Hence the form of the book is more like punctuations of the soul, those moments of pausing between words when a shift is occurring, when things are coming into light or passing into darkness, moments that cannot really be fixed by an idea or a word that would name it and freeze it, moments that would be missed in light that has no quality of darkness. The world is a tissue of metaphors-first and forever, before and after we construct it as an assembly of facts and measures.
dawn, barely beyond promise
But named or unnamed this work in dark light has had the specific quality of a melancholic desire to give form to some vague and hardly remembered sense of longing, perhaps to some barely recollected sense of connection to things that I once knew, a connection to nature and creation that had a sense of the sacred about it. And it has been a continuing effort, which at many times has felt like an act of desperation, to be a witness for those simple and ordinary occasions that are always passing away with hardly any notice so that they are not forever lost, to preserve within the ordinary the miracle that might be overlooked, like that moment in Italy many years ago when the full ripe beauty of a rose in the mid afternoon sun convinced me that its color was the way in which sunlight fulfills its desire to become form and texture and sensuous delight. Named or unnamed, therefore, the teaching, the writing, the thinking and the dreaming have all been part of a journey, taken by one who slowly has become less uncomfortable with the image of the psychologist as failed poet, the one who as a witness in passing lays a very light touch upon the things, events and occasions that are encountered along the way and ask to be noticed with a word perhaps, which only settles on them like a soft evening breeze and does not disturb them. Perhaps in the end all of this has been only a piece of foolishness, a refusal to submit to the orthodoxy of the discipline, the stubborn selfishness of a lonely wanderer trying to give voice to what has been so often experienced alone so that others might not be alone in those moments that seem to have no name, or in those moments and experiences whose names seem to dissolve in front of us in the passing of time. If that is so, then perhaps this book is an attempt-once again-to choose my fate as my destiny, to embrace-finally?-that it has been better to have been a failed poet than a successful psychologist.
I am not being reasonable here, and I have no intention or wish to be reasonable in this work, for if what I have been doing all these years has no name I know at least that it has not had the name reason. I am and I have been a wanderer, following perhaps the destiny in my own name-Romanyshyn, which means son of a gypsy. I intend therefore only to wander and the invitation to the reader is to wander with me for a while. The invitation is to take a journey of the heart with me, and to join with those others who have been my com-panions along the way, including the dead who still live, a parade perhaps of fools and most certainly pilgrims.[Ways of the Heart]
If I ask why this journey begins again, why after all those other books, the wandering should start again, I can say only that there has been a convergence of forces, which, as always before with other works, have taken hold of me and ask for a voice. Ageing is certainly one of those forces, with its quieting of those ambitions that from the perspective of age seem beside the point, if not indeed false, and with the narrowing of time to a sharper focus that has allowed me not only to appreciate more fully the exquisite singularity of each moment, but also to be more attuned to the vocation that has been given to me for better or for worse. The affectionate and necessary challenge of J.H van den Berg, my old teacher-mentor-friend, coming at just the right moment has been another. The death too of two who were mentors-Ivan Illich and Kathleen Raine- has had the effect of calling me back through their words to something in myself that I felt I had lost. Perhaps then it is for them, and for what they gave me that the wandering begins again. Perhaps it is only for the sake of trying to preserve from time and forgetfulness the few visions of a world they gave to me, and which without them might slip away forever. And perhaps it is also in response to dreams, particularly a recent one in which the figure of a poet leads me out of a house where academics have gathered to a street so much like those of my childhood. The contrast in this dream between the formal and somewhat lifeless house of academia where I have spent so much of my life and energy and the bright, summer light of a street so busy with ordinary life has been insistent.
But how do I write for the dead? And how do I write for the things of the world that are forever slipping away when we lose our re-gard for them? How do I write for the visions of teachers and mentors who have in-spired me? And how do I write for the dream?
I have no real answer to these questions. I know only that the failed poet has always been the muted voice in my work, the voice of that longing spoken about above, but too often cloaked in the language of facts and ideas. And so, I want now to try something different. I want to be more honest. I want to take on the identity of failed poet in a conscious and deliberate way and write from that place. I want to do this because I believe now as I have always believed that psychology in its best moments knows that its work is not about finding or making solutions to the problems of life, but about dis-solving the ways in which and the places where we have become fixed and stuck. I do this now because I believe as I have always believed that psychology in its best moments knows that it fails and that it must fail in its efforts to serve the soul on its journeys of homecoming. How then do I write for the dead and the transient moment? How do I write for the ancestors and the dream? A way of saying is needed, which alludes to things but does not name them, which points to but does not grasp, which holds on to the world by letting go of it. A way of saying is needed whose failure to identify the ways of the soul with the certainty of facts or the precision of ideas becomes the measure of its success. A way of saying is needed whose energy and rhythm, imagery and animation serve the soul in its vagabond wanderings.
So this work is not a psychology book in the expected sense. Rather it is the book of a witness, psychological reflections on behalf of the elusive sheen and shine of soul, which emanates from each occasion and moment, each observation and encounter. Nor is it a book of poetry in the usual sense, because I am not a poet, because the term poet is a benediction conferred upon a person by others, and because as failed poet I take very seriously the quote by Jung that begins this book. A life that is lived in a soulful way should not be about the death of the poet, which Jung in his own life regretted. It should not be about this death because poetically is how we dwell upon the earth under the stars, a vision that the 19th century German poet Holderlin espoused, a simple truth really, which acknowledges that facts are too dense and ideas are too thin to adequately nourish a soulful life. But such a life is hard. Or, I should say it has been for me, because it is so easy to forget that Poiesis is the creative force of the soul, which continuously transforms the facts of a life into a livable fiction, and nourishes one's ideas and concepts with the dreams and myths that inspire them. "We are such stuff as dreams are made on," subtle beings really who grow dense only through the overuse of reason. So, while this is not a poetry book there are poems, moments of trying to attend to the extra-ordinary in the ordinary, moments of trying to make a place for the sheen of the divine to appear. Some of the poems are my own, written along the way, and some are from those poets whom I have trailed behind, fed and enriched by their musings.
In all this, my hope is that in consciously taking on the identity of psychologist as failed poet, I come a bit closer than I have to the ways of the soul in its poetic journeys through the world. My hope is that the moment of becoming aware of the death of the poet in my life becomes the moment of awakening to the condition of how in living a reasonable and too responsible life I have been living a life in exile from soul. My hope is that perhaps in the end the poet of the soul even if he/she fails does not have to die in a psychology that has no name.
This work is also not an autobiography in the familiar sense although there are autobiographical moments. It is not an autobiography because there is no consistent narrative line in this work, no singular vantage point that allows me to have a clear and distinct vision of who I am or where I have been. I have only moments that seem to collect together as shared qualities, and indeed that is all that I have, some qualities that seem to mark this journey as a psychologist who through sheer stubbornness and through the gift of grace has refused to let the poet die completely. All that I have in this backward glance is the record of a witness who has found in the ordinary occasions of the world occasional oases on a journey of homecoming. When I look back on these efforts, I see only a simple devotion to how the world with its abundance of things, others, animals, trees, stars, clouds, elements with myriads shapes and colors has everything we need for our journey. When I glance back I recall only ordinary events and occasions when the world for example took on the outline of some fading memory, or the contour of some ancient dream, or the shape of some hidden sorrow, or the echo of some ignored appeal, or the epiphany of some wondrous surprise, or the blossoming of a miracle in the midst of the mundane, or the scent of some magical mystery-all of this in a blade of grass, for example, being blown by the wind when I had a glimpse of how Blake saw the world when he saw a heaven in a wild flower, or in a flock of birds sitting on a telephone wire waiting out a rainstorm when I wondered what they dreamed, or in an encounter with a spider when I saw myself from its perspective as a vibration in the web of its creation. In each of these moments there has been a wonder and in each of them a hint that we are always at home in all of them and paradoxically so far away. In this work I want a way of saying that keeps me as close as possible to these wondrous epiphanies of the world, whose fragile and subtle outlines, shapes, contours and echoes have mirrored my soul and awakened it to its condition of exile.
Perhaps then what I am offering here can best be called a memoir, a term whose roots mean memory. But I hesitate even at this name, because the word has become more and more associated with the genre of autobiography itself, because in the end memoir carries the connation of describing events about the writer himself or herself, and in truth this work does not feel like it is about my life. At best, I am in this work only the one who is remembering, an agent for something other than myself, the failed poet whose account is a plea, which at times feels desperate, to speak on behalf of all that so easily and quickly passes away, too often without notice, regard, or even care. In so doing it is of course also a plea for some contact with others who also might notice all that we let slip by, an appeal then made from a place of deep loneliness to any and all who also feel alone. Writing this last sentence I wonder if psychology itself is a discipline of loneliness, if it exists because each of us in the depth of our hearts have become orphans.[The Orphan in Exile and the Journey of Homecoming] I wonder if psychology was created in response to those forces of culture and history that have taken us so far from our natural roots. I wonder and somewhere I know that this has been true for me. Psychology has been both the danger of forgetting soul and the way of remembering it.
So maybe this book is against forgetting, and what we call it simply does not matter.[Fantasies of a Life: Against Forgetting] Indeed, call it what you will. In the end I have no control over that nor wish to. All that I do control in this experiment to practice as a failed poet a psychology that has no name is how I arrange our encounter. And in this regard, the format of the book is also its content. What follows then are the qualities of this psychology with no name-the image, gesture, spirit, mood, vision, style, figure, myth-stated simply on the left hand page, which are then mirrored in a brief description on the right hand page, followed by poems, stories, reflections, reveries or dreams that I have gathered along the way in relation to these qualities. My wish here is that this format will allow readers to imagine themselves as fellow vagabonds, gypsies and wanderers eavesdropping on conversations with those com-panions I have had along the way and with their own. My wish is for the reader to imagine their reading as a walk about in the com-pany of those who are kin. My wish is that the reading becomes a remembering, and the start of a journey of homecoming.
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."-T.S. Eliot "Little Gidding"
From the Prelude
I grew up in a space between an Irish mother, whose grief flowed as an ancient deep river in her soul, and a Ukranian father, whose eyes always seemed to be set toward some far horizon. It was a house without books. But it was also a house where television had not yet stupefied the family into silence. That would come later, and it would be a loss, but before that happened there was communion, family conversation around the table. It was in this space between them, and in that place of communion, that I listened to my father's dreams and my mother's disappointments. It was here that my ears were opened to the magic of words, to the undertones and submerged currents that went deeper than the meanings being spoken.
My evening time, after dinner father, in undershirt and with cigarette in hand, was a storyteller. Wreathed in smoke, which always looked to me like an Angel's halo around his head, he would tell the story of his orphaned years. That was my favorite, and the one he told most often. Always the same it was still always new, except for the ending, which never changed, and which was delivered as a kind of declaration of his dream. Leaning back in his chair, drawing one more time on his cigarette, pausing just for a moment, he would end his story with his desire to one day become a hobo. That was his word, and no other will do here. And when he spoke that word, that word that was a piece of magic for me as its sound transformed him in that moment and for a moment into that very thing he wished to be, he would turn to me and say that I must know and never forget that a hobo was not the same as a bum.
This was my education, and from it I learned more than I ever did at school, because it gave me a vocation, which I have been working toward all my life. The turn toward writing poetry, which has come late in my life, is the turn toward becoming that figure, like the hobo, who struggles to live on the edge of complex and convention. Whatever else my father was, and he was many things, he was first of all for me this hobo drifter. The writing of poems is for me the work of the wanderer, and I suspect that poetry begins with an act of leaving.
"Who's turned us around like this, so that we always,
do what we may, retain the attitude
of someone who's departing? Just as he,
on the last hill, that shows him all his valley
for the last time, will turn and stop and linger,
we live our lives, for ever taking leave."-Rilke
Poetry, I believe, is born in this gesture of the backward glance, a gesture that re-turns you to the familiar world that you have left, so that you may re-gard it again, see it again, as if for the last time, and as if for the first. In this moment of a turning that is a re-turning, you discover in the face of the familiar and the ordinary that you are, and always have been, an orphan. Those places now re-garded on the eve of departure were lived in but never known, inhabited but never with a sense of home. The backward glance is a gesture imbued with a deep, rich melancholy that awakens the sleeping heart to its condition of exile and starts it on its journey home. In this respect, poetry, and the writing of poetry, is for me the work of remembering the true home from whence we have come and which we have forgotten, a supremely moral act that restores to the quotidian world its sacred depths that are veiled by our common wish to be ordinarily happy.
"I could have been as happily unhappy as the ordinary countryman in Ireland. I might have stayed at the same moral age all my life. Instead of that, poetry made me a sort of outcast."-Patrick Kavanagh - Collected Poems)
Orphan, exile, outcast--these are the conditions that enable one to know that, indeed, as the poet William Blake said, "all the world is holy." It is the state of being that William Wordsworth addressed when in Intimations of Immortality from recollections of early Childhood he wrote:
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
and cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about is in our infancy!"
Poetry, and the writing of poetry, is watered in the dark pools of melancholy. It arises, at least for me, from a heart shattered by a grief that begins in the personal but extends to the cosmic. This sadness of soul makes the poet a witness for those simple things and ordinary occasions that are always passing away without notice or re-gard. In this re-gard to be this witness is a foolish and daring act. It is foolish because it declares that every moment is a piece of eternity, and it is daring because it declares in the face of transience a fierce loyalty and wild love in the face of inevitable loss. Writing poetry, then, is a wild exclamation of joy that erupts from the soil of sorrow. I suspect that the title Dark Light has some of its roots in this grief, which flowers into joy and love. I suspect it, because in truth I do not know its origins. I know only that many of these poems have their beginning in loss, and that all of them begin in that backward glance, which is the start of homecoming.
It was always a Sunday, after Mass and before dinner, when my father would invite me to take a long walk with him. I was always split by these invitations, a part of me wishing to be with friends and games, while another, more unfamiliar, part wanted the adventure of this journey. To go with him was always a sacrifice of my Sunday time, but more often than not I chose to go. He always had that far away look in his eyes when he asked me, and his invitation had that tone of melancholy, a tone that transformed his invitation into an appeal.
Most of the walk was done in silence, allowing the rhythm of the steps to weave round us a soft cocoon, which seemed to enclose us within a dream space. And, indeed, we were walking not only as in a dream, but also into a dream. These dream walks were sacred pilgrimages, journeys my father was making in search of some lost, forgotten, neglected, abandoned part of himself, that visionary vagabond who had been crushed by the weight of responsibility.
The journey always followed the same path from our home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the lower east side of New York-Delancy Street-not far from the place where my father had been first a small boy and then a young man, two moments in time between which he had become an orphan left to drift for fifteen years in the devastation of Europe after the first world war.
On this journey, we had to cross the Williamsburg Bridge. In real time and space, this bridge connected two locations. But in the time and space of the soul, it was a bridge between two worlds. Of course, I knew nothing of this difference, but I felt it. The middle of the bridge always terrified me. Behind me was a world I knew, a familiar world where I felt safe. Ahead was a strange world filled with street merchants with foreign accents, with smells of exotic foods, and with an overflow of life that seemed to lack those clean lines and ordered harmonies of the 1950s American world on the other side of the bridge. It was his world, the world of Eastern Europe, the world of my father's ancestors, his true home. In this space he was a different man, perhaps no longer even my father. I could feel it in his walk, whose rhythm matched the slow time of this place. We could drift here, and perhaps even get lost in time. Here we could forget time as a demand, and perhaps never return. We could melt here into the slow stream of time and be carried far away by its currents. Looking back I can recall how hard he tried to interest me in these places, telling me stories of his youth and his family. He was attentive to me but in truth I think now that my presence kept him from disappearing into this landscape. My presence imprisoned him.
The journey back across the bridge was, therefore, always a sad one, and I knew, without knowing that I knew, that he was leaving some vital mystery behind. I felt, without knowing what I felt, my father's sorrow for having to return. Now, in my own ageing fatherhood, I sometimes wish that he would have accompanied me to the middle of the bridge and there would have turned away and walked back home into his dream.
At The Xerox Machine
Have you ever noticed how things,
especially simple things, wait for you?
wait for you to come back to yourself, to come home?
I was standing at the xerox machine, an ordinary day,
when I noticed a red plastic ruler, the kind that my father would buy,
along with a pencil case, copybooks, and a new lunch box,
on the last day of his August vacations,
just before my sisters and I would return to school.
Through that red plastic ruler that whole world came back to me:
My father's deep sadness, which he never spoke,
his sense of resignation at having lost the best part of himself
somewhere, long ago;
and my own sense as a young boy of his unspoken sorrow,
which over time has settled in my bones.
Back then I could only imagine
that this heavy, silent grief
was for the last days of summer.
Back then I could not imagine
that my father was teaching me
to mourn for lost worlds.
So much can depend upon a red plastic ruler
waiting patiently, like some old friend,
to remind you of what you have forgotten,
to open for you your own lost worlds.
This poem is that conversation between us,
now fifty years delayed;
his silent sorrows given breath
over a red plastic ruler beside a xerox machine.
Swiss Bank Account
It was a great poem.
At least I think I was.
Or maybe it was only a good enough poem.
But it was a poem nonetheless.
It's gone now,
vanished because of my laziness.
It came in a dream, but I was too tired,
and anyway I did not want to disturb
the warm cocoon that sleep had fashioned around my bed,
put my feet on the cold floor, turn on the light
to search for paper and pen.
So, it slipped away, this at least good enough poem,
to that place where poems are kin to dreams,
leaving me only this sad attempt to record its absence.
Someday, perhaps, it will come again in someone else's dream,
and they, less lazy, will write it down.
If they do, and it gets published,
am I entitled to claim co-authorship?
Can I ask for a percentage of the royalities?
Did Frost write his poems, or the poems of someone else's dreams?
And what about Yeats, or Rilke, or Sappho, or Dickinson, or Ferlinghetti?
Maybe all poems should be declared the common property of the dreaming soul.
And maybe all the royalties should be deposited in a secret Swiss bank account.
That would be fine with me.
Then I could make a withdrawal on those occasions
when I am not so lazy.-June 01
Once, now long ago,
in the fog and the rain,
waiting late at night,
on the streets of Berkeley,
for a bus to take me home,
a fat man,
dressed in motley cap and cloak,
waddled out of the mists,
and whispered to me the secrets of
Ancient Egypt.-Aug 26, 1991
A man and a woman sit across from each other at a table.
She eats a piece of chocolate cake,
and drinks a cafe latte.
He too eats a piece of chocolate cake,
but drinks nothing.
They do not speak.
She, quite heavy, is lonely,
and looks to him for some small sign of love.
He, quite thin, is guilty,
and looks to her for some small sign of release.
When they finish only the scattered crumbs remain.-1993
I want to be a black man
and wear red suspenders.
I want to take long, slow walks
on cool, blue, cloudy days,
in the autumn time of the year.
I want to think about nothing,
have the dignity of gray hair,
and kind memories of love
that brush my lips with a shy smile
and give my face the look of a quiet, old man.
I want to be a walking memory,
I want to be a cloudy dream.-Oct 9, 1990
A small child would understand. The sun does hide in the grass where you can stub your toes on slivers of light while walking barefoot through the green wonder.
But I have forgotten all this and I no longer stumble on sunlight. Green wonders have faded far away. Too far ahead of myself, I no longer see what is c