No, I’m not talking about the cult. This is the title of an anthology of spiritual writings by women, what I’m reading right now before I go to sleep.
In my waking and dreaming life, I am circling around this question of lineage, heritage, as a woman poet. The question leads me backward into literature, where I can see and hear strong women in the near past. But the further back I go, the more difficult it is to find the women poets, the fainter the female voice becomes. It fragments, crumbles, disintegrates into wisps. The image moves to the periphery, or slips behind glass, into stone. Women flatten and reappear as painted idealizations in poetry written by men.
So I am lately drawn to myth, to epic quests, and especially to quests into the underworld– a place I associate, in this beginning of my exploration of myths, with what is unknown and dark and scary inside and outside the borders of our bodies. Again and again in the oldest stories of all cultures, the arc of descent and ascent curves like a timeless wave through the stories humans pass on. The myths carry important information about the specific time and place in which they are told, and they also give us a brighter, wider depiction of the human journey, so inseparable from the cycles of earth.
Rebirth! Springtime! We get caught in a downpour from clouds that seem to menace, only to find the rain warm and sweet. It makes us laugh. We stop to watch a big black bird fling a worm on the sidewalk. Wise, it watches us watching it, and bides its time, refusing to enjoy the meal until we move on.
Looking, watching, searching, asking. Helplessly intruding on processes that are always there, always happening, do not need to be invoked or invented, in order to exist. Yet we continue to need invocation and reinvention. We want to participate in the process of creation, destruction, disintegration, renewal.
Through myth, I slam headfirst again into the oldest questions. What or who is “behind” all of this? Or what’s the preposition?
The mythic archetypes seem to carry me closer to that pre-position. Gods and goddesses, primal postures, poses. Asanas. I’m practicing yoga again, and feeling curious about Anusara yoga, with its embrace of metaphor. In class this morning, descending layer by layer into my body, through all the clouds and demons (“don’t forget to call so-and-so… how come she looked at me like that? is my mat too close to hers? maybe it is… man I have a lot of cat hair on my pants… need a new mat… no I don’t…okay, if I come every week this month, I can have one…”)
I’m handed a little purple card with the translation of the opening chant. Here we are, a circle of mostly pale-skinned people who somehow all have an hour free on a Monday morning, chanting in a language I’d wager few if any of us understand. I read the English words, wonder at the possible translations directly from the symbols:
I honor the essence of Being, the Auspicious One, the luminous Teacher within and without, who assumes the forms of Truth, Consciousness, and Bliss, is never absent, full of peace, ultimately free and sparkles with a divine luster.
Here the what or who is an ultimate, sparkly Being. Who is unfathomable freedom. Sexless, androgynous. “She” doesn’t discriminate or judge or label; “He” doesn’t divide, categorize, split. It doesn’t matter, for a few hours, whether the pages of history even out like a score card or not, if the marks made on pages were made by male or female bodies.
Here my body is my teacher. Its poem is that it likes the feel of voice vibrating in my throat, the humming of other voices against my ears in the room. Then it’s a handstand poem, full of trembling muscles and childhood scars. I find the staircase between fear and joy (who knew it was in the tilt of my fingers?) and see it open out into the same room where I started, but which is also different, upside down.
It’s good to get multiple perspectives on this journey.
Like Cass Dalglish’s Humming the Blues, a book of translations (or “jazz riffs”) of the Sumerian Priest Enheduanna’s poems to Inanna, the ancient Queen of Death and Birth. Enheduanna carved these poems into clay tablets over 5,000 years ago.
Enheduanna was the first woman to sign her name to a poem. Each cuneiform symbol (like Sanskrit, I imagine) carries multiple meanings, so a line of poetry becomes several possible lines of poetry. It becomes participatory. Apt, for a poem within a poem, where Enheduanna is comparing her own story of descent, loss, betrayal, return, to that of Inanna’s journey to the underworld and back.
So I’m drawn to these myths, these old old stories about gods and goddesses. And I’m also cautious. I don’t want to look directly at the blackbird with the worm in its mouth, for fear it will drop the whole thing.
I read Robin Podolsky’s “The Goddess Surfaces” in Storming Heaven’s Gate, and relate to her wariness to even begin the journey. She writes: “…I was furtively contemptuous of feminists who prayed to ‘the Goddess,’ who was always presumed to personify the receptive, fecund, gentle, flowing, giving, nurturing side of things. She was linked with essentialized notions of gender that reflected political despair… Women, it seemed, would always be Demeter– compulsively offering a breast to the world– when they grew up; men would always want to rape Persephone, the eternal victim.”
We need to tell and retell these sacred stories, on our own terms and in our own words, and yet there’s always the danger of distortion.
Podolsky writes: “It’s been said, referring to language and other logical systems, that the map is not the territory. It’s useful to think of paradigms as road maps; they have to be internally consistent and solve certain problems. And while several kinds of maps may be necessary to plot a journey, none of them are the quest itself.”
So, we just have to walk it then. We have to storm the gates ourselves.