from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday 6 October 2011

the merlin, the grail, and wellsprings

This morning: heavy rain, and the huge white trumpets of convolvulus that have lit the lanes for weeks now have closed themselves tight in their spiralling way. Past the farm I hear a chatter of sparrows – that little bird is much rarer now in England than it was. I'm astonished to see a couple of house martins still in this colder wilder weather we've had.

Suddenly a yard from my face and at that level the grey form of a merlin slices the air from hedge to hedge. This is the third time in as many weeks I've seen one of these elusive birds of prey; more times than I've seen any in the last ten years, and each in a different place. I take notice of something if it appears three times or more to me in quick succession;  if you're a poet living in a universe in which what lies behind everything is a state of unity, or interconnectedness, you can see anything as symbolic.

As I'm walking I'm thinking again about waking up; what it means. How to live each moment as if it's precious, as if it's the only one you have (which in a real way it is), as if how you live it will colour the next moment (which again is a psychological truth). How to make the movement from living as a separate ego identified with its desires, needs, fears and hopes into a more spacious awareness of unity that can also see the bigger picture, and can see that our actions have effects on others, and to choose to act in ways that cause as little harm as possible. What this all means in the context of an individual and complex life that nonetheless is a life lived out in the 'family of things'...

And then I think again about the merlin, and it reminds me of a poem I discuss with my students in the poetry correspondence course. This is a poem by Irishman Eamon Grennan. (I'm not sure of the copyright etiquette online for posting others' poems; the usual proviso is for 'purposes of review', which is a very broad category. But if I find out that it's not OK and pull the poem, you can track it down online, as I just have.) In the poem, it's a sparrowhawk, but the two birds are not dissimilar.

by Eamon Grennan
I was watching a robin fly after a finch—the smaller
chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent
in light-winged earnest chase—when, out of nowhere
over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens,
flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn
scorching the air from which it simply plucks
like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three
cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence
closing over the empty street when the birds have gone
about their business, and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.

So this is overtly about the hunt of a small bird by a predator, as it seems to suggest. On another level, as Grennan makes explicit, it's about poetry: how you think you're bent on one small theme or subject, one motif, and suddenly the poetry-god strikes, and a much bigger truth subverts the journey, annexes the poem to its own larger purposes, which is what does happen sometimes in the creative process, I find. 

And of course behind that hovers a bigger truth still: this doesn't just happen in making a poem, but in life. So there you are settled, life, job, relationship, future – the grooves we try and make for ourselves, to offset against the transience of everything, and to which we might sacrifice a larger truer riskier life in the pursuit of security (which of course is an illusion, if we try to find that in material things, or in another). Suddenly the lightning bolt blows all this apart: we're made redundant, or we become ill, or we have an accident, or our parents die, or we fall in love, or our lover leaves us, or we wake up one morning and realise that we can't do this life any more, whatever 'this life' is; that this existence as we know it is too small for us; cannot allow us to grow into all we might be.

This train of thought leads me to a theme that has underpinned all of my adult life: the true meaning of the Grail Quest. My first book Riding the Dragon – myth & the inner journey was about all this: the way in which our myths, looked at it the right light, are ways of conveying the psychospiritual wisdom of a culture. I draw a lot on Jungian and post-Jungian thinking. In the book I explore the Grail as representing a state of wholeness that depends on moving beyond the limitations of a life dictated entirely by egoic concerns, and that allows one to live genuinely as an integral part of a greater interconnected whole. The shift in consciousness comes, in the myths, at the point where a person has woken up enough to recognise that our lives here are not just about the search for individual personal happiness, but rather about wholeness and meaning, and how to 'live right', which means in accord with the principles that contribute to unity, harmony and compassion in relation to the whole of existence.

In the Grail myths the 'hero's journey' starts with the individual, portrayed as an adolescent, turning his or her back on the old familiar ways. This comes as a 'wake-up call' – writers like Jung and Joseph Campbell name this the 'Call to Adventure' that sets us off wandering; often without knowing clearly what we're searching for, simply knowing that there is a search to be had. My book is largely about this whole heroic quest.

As I think about this, I think too of the Arthurian mythos and suddenly the significance of merlin/Merlin strikes me so that I chuckle to myself. In the poem it's the sparrowhawk that takes us off our little narrow-focus path into 'a greater truth'. In the myths, we could say that the Merlin as sorcerer represents that wise part of ourselves that enables transformation of consciousness to take place; that knows what we need to move beyond our small selves. So the connection here between the bird in the poem and the function of the Merlin in the myths, in a culture and in an individual life makes me smile.

Of course, there's a great deal more to be said about this, and no doubt I will say it. But for now I just want to comment too on the etymology of 'sorcerer', which you've maybe worked out for yourself: it comes from the French 'sourcier', he who divines (that's an interesting word, too) water sources, or wellsprings. In the Grail quest, looked at from a psychological perspective, this represents the return of heart, or the feeling function, to an arid and fragmented culture/psyche. And yes, clearly there is masses more to say on that too...

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