Is poetry relevant to us today? Do poets speak to the questions we live with? When I read writer Nicholas Samaras’s poetry, I say yes. Samaras’s new book is coming out this spring, American Psalm, World Psalm, and I can’t wait to read it. Samaras’s previous book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. About that book, Laurence Lieberman said, “Hands of the Saddlemaker earns all of late James Dickey’s enthusiasm, and then some…truly an overwhelming masterwork; the whole work is a transcendent marvel.”
Taking a closer look at some of Nicholas Samaras’s poetry found on Connotation Press, “Metaphor As Identity”, “Old Calendar”, and “Petition”, I love the way these poems create space between the images and lines, opening a space for the reader to step inside.
“Metaphor as Identity” uses images that are vividly alive and felt. The stanzas describe a self that reaches below the surface into the dark space of creation where we live. This is a place where presence and becoming co-exist, a place of longing, reaching, and deep yearning to connect to the Mystery. “I am the exact space between bell-tolls to chapel” Samaras writes, and continues later in the poem to say, “I am an ascetic who cannot pray. / I am a prayer in slow making.” These images, like others in this poem, are both present and absent at the same time. They open a window into a way of seeing that enables readers to notice and step inside the ephemeral nature of our being.
If you’ve ever visited historical monuments, you will have noticed the names written in stone with dates, kings and queens, perhaps, who ruled a country, but whom you know nothing about other than their names. Obituaries list what people have done, their accomplishments. Family trees list who married who and what their occupations were–lines leading back into time. But who were these people? What was the essence of their lives, their spirits? What was it to stand in their presence? Can a whole of a life really be summed up in these references? No. What we are is some deeper mystery, and if we ask our selves who are we, and keep asking, we will eventually move past the labels to a place where we stand wordless, a place of knowing and not knowing at the same time, and this is the place that Samaras’s poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, brings the reader to. This place of knowing-not knowing is where we meet our selves, in the place between naming and not naming.
This place of not naming and naming, connects to another one of Samaras’s poems, “Eve Naming Other Animals”, found on the Adirondack Review‘s site, where Samaras describes Eve observing animals. Eve notices the way the animals move and behave, and this deep looking enables her to define and name them. Definitions separate us from the whole. They name what sets something apart from other things, and they shape the mind by calling us to notice specific elements. The very language we speak and use shapes the mind in this way, and this poem calls attention to the process. When I was an undergraduate, I had a biology teacher that took us on a walk to notice plants. Students would ask him the names of plants. He refused to tell us the name, saying if he told us, we we wouldn’t look at it longer. We’d think we knew what it was and we’d turn away to another plant, or simply walk on. Instead, he wanted us to observe closely, ask questions, notice–to really see, not just take a snapshot with our brains. Samaras’s poem shows us Eve doing the opposite, she is looking long, noticing, and calling out the essence of what she sees.
Slender horns approach, and I find
my touch makes them shapely: fronds
of opaque light that dances from angles.
I like their intimacy more than angels,
more than that shimmer that stays in place.
Into the meadow of limbs and motion, I trace
the bent wheat to be with them there.
Like a gesture moving through the air,
it is a gesture moving through the air.
I find this given language spare,
suddenly. It leaves too soon in breath.
The poem goes on, but you can see how Eve, and the poet as well, are living with the animals as presences, taking them in, not merely naming them in a random act and walking on. She notices the animal’s gestures, and how it is a kind of language it uses to name itself, she is calling attention to what its essence is, and using that to name the animal. We live too much in a world where being seen, the way you present yourself and how you are labeled, how you brand yourself–as if you are a commodity, is given considerable weight, and the actual substance is hidden somehow underneath. It’s as if we have been taken over by a media presentation. The poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, however, takes us back into that place of mystery, where we can rediscover we are more than what we have branded ourselves as or how we have been labeled. We are like Eve again, looking into the face of the animal, noticing who and what it is before we name it. We are first of all being, the Samaras’s poem reminds us. We are presence, and we stand in a presence that is hidden from obvious view, and wondrously rounded in silence–“the dusty path out of sight.” We are more than what we have labeled ourselves as. We are enigma. We are mystery.
Our lives are the crossroads of all the other lives from which we come, one of the knots in the great fabric of being that we are connected to. This is part of the mystery, and we carry the history of those people and places in our bodies, even though we may be unconscious of it. We are ourselves, and we are part of the others who came before us as well. Samaras’s poem, “Old Calendar” carries the reader into myth, and into the ways we are connected to time–our own lives, but also to history in ways we don’t necessarily understand, but can feel the presence of if we listen in the dark silence. The clock, his poem suggests, may be ringing out the years of time, but we come from a place of darkness, and go back to it. The ancient Celts started their year in darkness. Out of darkness, the place of unknowing–the great void, so to speak, comes all that is. This is the wisdom of the ancients. “You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness,” writes Samaras in “Old Calendar”. We grow used to the clock tower ticking on satisfactorily, as Samaras says, but,
You hold on to the silence and chanting filters up to stars,
You hold to silence and let the years come.
Samaras’s poem shows us we live in time, but know we are part of the silence as well.
Another of Samaras’s poems, “Petition”, is utterly beautiful, so beautiful it makes the heart ache in the way it portrays the silence, the emptiness. But the silence this poem speaks of is one that opens the heart to awe, and allows us to see ourselves more clearly, humbly. There is almost an existential quality to this poem in its opening stanzas in the way the poem poem points us toward our aloneness in the universe, but it is not an empty darkness.
Ask the night to let you not be lonely.
Ask the night to heal your heart.
Step out into the black eve of winter
and breathe in the clarity.
Let the scarcely-seen stars glimmer
their small mercies on you, the air
The darkness and cold here are not hollow. Instead, they enable us to see ourselves more clearly, they offer us “small mercies.” I love the lines that go on to say, “to push a little past weariness is a good thing.” When we have pushed ourselves into weariness is when we are especially able to understand the intrinsic value of stillness, the absence of activity that enables us to regenerate. It is this stillness, the sabbath time, where we learn in our bones the “blessing of silence,” and where dialog with silence can begin.
Samaras’s poems speak to the deep places in the mind that we find ourselves wandering in as we try to understand who we are and how to live, and these are poems that teach us to listen in the silence and live inside the questions. I feel grateful for these poems, for the way they call my attention to what it means to be alive. The poems in both structure and content create a kind of space where learned answers are left behind, and we enter a kind of holy darkness that allows us to touch questions of existence and feel them in a tangible way. Reading them is like listening to the fine notes of a flute drifting across a winter’s meadow on a starry night from some distant place, crisp light outlining the tips of branches, and drawing shadows on the sides of buildings. You hear your feet crunch through the snowy meadow as you walk toward home. Just before you step inside your house, you turn and look at the sky–the myriad points of light, both faint and bright. You see the immensity of all that is, and know the wonder that you are alive amidst it all.