The Demands of an Image

So a few weeks ago, I attended a reading by the poet Marge Piercy at Denison University in Granville OH. Three of Piercy’s poem can be found in our silver gray hymnbook; and one of them, To Be of Use, she said to me that day, has “taken on a life of its own.”

Piercy was born here in Michigan, precisely on the west side of Detroit. One of her poems is called, in fact, Joy Road and Livernois, a geographical intersection that may indeed be known to some of us.

She read the poem you just heard, the Ark of Consequence in that classroom, and I loved the rich imagery at once. You just heard the poem but of course, but as you know, hearing doesn’t tell us anything about spelling, and the imagery here is complex because of that reality.

In the poem, Piercy uses the word ark spelled with a k, and arc spelled with a c.

Both words sound the same, but of course, mean something very different.

The arc with a c refers to a circular curve, in this case, the curve of the rainbow. She makes this perfectly clear… Commonly, she says, it’s a fraction of a circle. Indeed. I just saw a perfect half-circle rainbow the other day from the deck on the roof of my building in Columbus…a glowing sight to the east, arched brightly against purple clouds.

But Piercy, as a poet who often uses Jewish imagery in her work, knows very well that such a rainbow is an important detail in the story of that other ark, the ark with a k, which refers to the ancient Middle Eastern legend of an ark, a ship, which survived a great flood. A ship, indeed, which carries to safety a few living creatures, including the last human beings, after that devastation.

And so at the close of her poem, she uses that image of the ship kind of ark to talk about this world, this planet, of ours:

Think of it as a promise that what we do

is an arc of consequence, flickers

in our children’s genes, collects in each liver

and spine, gleams in the apple, coats the down of the drowning auk.

When you see the rainbow iridescence

shiver in the oil slick, smeared on the waves

of the poisoned river, shudder

for the covenant broken, for we

are only given this floating round ark

with the dead moon for company and warning.

In the mythic story of the ancient ark, the rainbow served the storyteller to stand for a promise… a sincere promise that there will be no more floods to wipe out the world.

But Piercy recasts that idea, and says, yes, “Think of it… (the rainbow she means…) as a promise… that what we do is an arc of consequence…for we are ONLY given this floating round ark… (our planet earth) … with the dead moon for company… and a warning.”

Why a warning? Because, she’s trying to get us to understand, we actually have the power to make our green planet as gray and lifeless as that big rock we call the moon.

Is she imagining, when she talks about the dead moon as a warning, that our world, our only world, is fragile, despite its size and great age? Is she speaking of the power of human beings to soil and even destroy their own nest? Is she lifting up the power reflected in our own era by human-caused factors in global climate change, which even the Pope frets about all the time now? Is she making reference to destructive consequences curled up within threats of nuclear missiles from certain paranoid nations? Is she shining her poetic light on the unending stories of gunshots killing people in schools or malls every week in this most racialized of nations?

Even though the poem was written decades ago, I think Piercy read this poem a couple of weeks ago because she knew we’ve had the power to destroy everything for quite a long time now, and that the only thing which has changed since she wrote it are the details.

But she is talking about more I think in her poem. She is lifting up an idea reflected in the wording of our seventh Unitarian Universalist principle…

“We covenant, that is we promise, to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

That is an unmistakable image. A web. A network. A lattice that connects everything. In all of the principles of our tradition, this really is the only image I can find… a web of all existence. The other words of our principles are abstractions for the most part…freedom, and truth and love and compassion…great words, certainly, but without images, without pictures to illustrate them.

But the idea of the web seems clear to me. Everything is connected. Everything we do, or do not do, is effective, and changes the world we live in. In fact, there is nothing but change…and holding onto something…. anything…as if it would last forever, is to betray the image of web of mutual accountability and consequence which connects us all. Galileo was saying this when he wrote: I am always quite surprised, and find it almost unbelievable, where I hear people telling me that what makes the universe great is that everything is permanent, and without change or alteration. Describing the universe that way makes it sound like a lump that just sits there, and an unnecessary lump at that. The difference between a dead animal and a living one is this: the dead animal just lays there, whereas the live animal leaps around and skips. The universe is alive…it is always changing. Nothing stays the same.

But Galileo goes on to other observations based on this assertion he has made, using very clear imagery indeed, imagery worthy of the poet Marge Piercy:

And I find it irritating when someone holds that a diamond, which looks like frozen water, has more value than water itself. Water is as precious as a diamond.

You see, in a world where everything and everyone is connected in a mutual existence of which each person is a part, you cannot claim that some lives are more valuable than other lives, that a diamond has greater value than clear flowing water. Ask the people of Flint Mi. They would probably agree with Galileo that clear water is every bit as precious as a diamond. Like Galileo, they must be irritated that it’s simply not true in their city. Because of decisions made by a few men in power which have had a dire consequence, because, as I said, all decisions we make, or do not make, do have a consequence. In a world of interconnection, where everyone is significant because they are part of the whole, you cannot divide the world neatly into “them” and “us” and call it a day.

Oh, sure, I agree. Don’t get me wrong. The differences between us are real, sure. Some are deep indeed.

In our modern American life, where trading insults, and hoodwinking each other, have achieved the status that once belonged to honor and dignity, the chasms between people may seem like un-crossable canyons.

Yet for those who see the basic inter-dependence of all people and things as clearly as Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter, such differences can have no final say. They cannot be permanent. Because, after all, as Buddha said, as Jesus said, as the Daodejing said, as Guru Nanak said, as every single liberation theologian and feminist and womanist have always said: nothing is permanent.

Now, historically, as I suggested during the story at the beginning, Galileo himself had canyons within his own soul that divided him…divided him on the inside. On one side, he was a true scientist, basing his conclusions on observations and reason. But on the other hand, he was also stubborn, cantankerous, and full of arrogance. Because he felt himself superior to most others, he sometimes would simply proclaim something to be true with no evidence at all. For example, he angrily taught that the tides were caused by the rotation of the earth. They are not so caused. Evidence tells us that it’s the pull of the moon’s gravity which is responsible for the tides. All of them.

And although later generations, especially the Protestant and Enlightenment folks, tried to make it seem as if the Church of Rome was monolithically anti-science by condemning him to house arrest, there is no compelling evidence to think so. Yes, some bishops taught that his understandings about the planets contradicted the Bible. There are still plenty of people here in the US of A who continue to think so; there are even websites still proclaiming the earth to be flat, because Genesis indeed describes the earth that way, if you take Genesis literally, which is a rather foolish thing to do.

Many of the Bishops, including the Pope himself, were well acquainted with science and wanted to support Galileo’s proclamation that the earth was not the center of the universe. But Galileo, besides being smart and wise, was also a fool sometimes, and in one of his books made sport of the Pope at the time, the pope who had once actually been his friend. His capacity for ridicule and arrogance was very unfortunate and very impulsive.

So the Pope allowed the conservatives to win the day, and the sad story of Galileo’s downfall has rung down the ages.

But still, everything is connected. Not just the stars to the earth, the rocks to the sea, the roots to the branches, but human hearts to human hearts, and everything we either do, or do not do, has consequences and changes the world…which includes our own lives.

Our principle, the one which invites us to affirm the interdependence of all things, including ourselves, places demands on us. It asks us to not just build bridges out in the world over the chasms which truly divide us, but to also build bridges over the chasms inside us which divide our own souls. We are, after all, just as human and just fallible as that great Italian scientist.

This is not an abstraction to me. When I read this week about George Zimmerman arrogantly trying to auction off the gun with which he killed Travon Martin, I was of two minds. I was divided. There was a chasm in my soul.

Part of me wanted to hurt Mr. Zimmerman. I was so angry about the further cruelty he inflicted on the Martin family in this deeply racialized country, cruelty to which he clearly feels entitled, that I found myself imagining harming him.

But there is another side of me, just as real, which affirms that even the imagination of violence within my soul does me no ultimate good, and that there has to be another way, more in tune with my deeper heart, to respond to such a thing without imitating him and stooping to my own version of his cruelty.

The seventh principle asks me to face the differences and divisions of common creation of which each of us is a part. Differences and divisions in myself, as well as out in the world. It asks me to find a way that moves me through the world honestly, aware that if everything is connected then nothing is simple, or, for that matter, particularly easy.

Sometimes people tell me that they think that our creedless religion is easy…no required theologies about sacred books,

salvation history, or theories about great teachers. It’s not much of a religion, I’ve heard it said…at least by lovers of external authority.

Well, I think they really don’t understand us at all. This religious path is one of the most difficult paths I have ever chosen to walk.

And for that choice earlier in my life, I have to tell you, I remain grateful and glad.

So no matter what poets, like Piercy, or other literary giants, who might enlighten us; no matter what scientists or teachers or holy stories may inspire us, no matter where our journey toward truthfulness takes us, may we rejoice that we have the power to build bridges, as well as destroy, that we have the power to embrace our unfolding lives with deep principle.

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