Saturday, November 04, 2023

Isn't It A Pity by Richard Oxenberg


Isn’t It A Pity?...

Richard Oxenberg

Some things take so long

But how can I explain?

When not too many people

Can see we're all the same

And because of all their tears

Their eyes can't hope to see

The beauty that surrounds them

Isn't it a pity?

George Harrison

These words from George Harrison's song "Isn't It a Pity?" have been reverberating in my mind as I listen to the devastating news surrounding the latest Israeli-Palestinian war.

At times like these it can seem altogether pollyannish to speak of seeing "we're all the same," but I'm convinced it is the one and only way out.

Ironically, it is this message that is at the core of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, even as their adherents - indeed, the most 'devout' of their adherents - continuously murder each other in the name of the God of love and justice they all profess to worship.

How explain this?

First of all, we must understand the nature of religious language, which seeks to express the spiritual by representing it in material terms, with the resultant danger that the devotion due the spiritual will be rendered to the material, a danger the religions are forever falling into.

But to understand this itself, we must become clear about the distinction between the material and the spiritual, a distinction hard for us to grasp precisely because we are so immersed in the material.

The material is what allows for us to be separate beings, it is what makes my life mine and not yours, my interests mine and not yours. It is also, therefore, what divides us. Without the material we could not be distinctly ourselves, but to be wholly immersed in the values that stem from the material is to be wholly self-centered, egoistic, tribalistic.

In the Jewish tradition, the self-interested values arising from the material are called the "yetzer ha-ra," translated, "the evil inclination." But as the rabbis point out, the "evil inclination" is not itself evil, it is but a temptation to evil. It refers to the values of self-interest, self-concern, self-affirmation, arising from our material individuality.

The "yetzar ha-ra" - the "evil inclination" - only becomes truly evil when it fails to subordinate itself to the "yetzer ha-tov," the "good inclination." The yetzer ha-tov refers to the values that stem from the spiritual.

What are these values?

These are the values of love and justice, amity and compassion, solidarity and concord, that arise from our recognition of the Unity of all things, and of our own unity with this Unity.

It is this fundamental Unity that the religions call "God." It is devotion to the values that arise from recognition of this Unity that the religions call "holy," "saintly," "righteous."

This finds expression in the central declaration of the Torah: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is ONE. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might."

To love God in this way is - in the words of George Harrison - to "see we're all the same."

But why does it "take so long" for us to see this?

Because of the material condition of separateness and division in which we are immersed.

This is not to say that this material condition is itself evil. On the contrary, it is what allows us to be distinctly us. It is - ironically and paradoxically - this material condition that gives the spiritual its value. For the beauty of the spiritual is not inherent to the spiritual as such. It is inherent to the relation of the spiritual to the material, to the vision of the spiritual as disclosed to the material.

This is why God must create the material world. God could not be holy without the material world to be holy for.

The Bible expresses this in the first chapter of Genesis. God creates the material world and declares it to be "very good."

But this material world, this extraordinary world of diversity, multiplicity, difference, is only "very good" so long as it lives in relation to, and devotion to, the eternal Unity from which it arises.

When it fails to do so - when we fail to do so - the world becomes a miserable place. This misery is expressed as the "wrath of God," but it is not that there is an actual entity named "God" who becomes angry, it is that the failure to live by the values of God - the values arising from Unity - leads to ruin.

This is the essential message of all the great religions. They are all variations on this same theme.

We are seeing this "wrath" now, this ruin now, playing itself out in the most devastating way, in the war between Israel and the Palestinians.

How, we might wonder, has a nation devoted to Judaism, and a people devoted to Islam, two variations on the same essential truth, come to such a horrific pass?

The answer can be expressed simply: It is due to our failure to subordinate the yetzer ha-ra to the yetzer ha-tov, to our elevation of the material over the spiritual, indeed, to our failure to see the essential distinction between the two.

This is not a failure that began with the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is a failure that has plagued humanity since the beginning of human history, a failure that perverts the very religions designed to overcome it, a failure that created the conditions out of which the Israel-Palestine conflict emerged.

I'm afraid there is no easy answer, but there remains a hope, however faint it may seem amid the present darkness, a hope that has its basis in the Unity underlying the raging divisions of our time.

It is to this Unity we must ever struggle to dedicate ourselves, even as the darkness threatens to overwhelm us. It is the only way out of the darkness.

And so, in this time of destruction, I pray for the Jews, I pray for the Israelis, I pray for the Muslims, I pray for the Palestinians - I pray for us all to finally "see we're all the same."

Maybe then we'll also be able to see "the beauty that surrounds us," and dispel these bitter tears.

Dr. Oxenberg is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Endicott College 

Friday, November 03, 2023

Step On Up: Lawrence Kessenich’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing

 Step On Up: Lawrence Kessenich’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing

by Laura Cherry

As a poet, it feels increasingly difficult for me to respond to the times we’re in. I cringe, at best, when I open a news site or glance at a newspaper. The stories that aren’t horrific or overwhelming seem petty and gratuitous – it’s not, let’s say, a fertile environment for creativity. It’s easy to be jaded and even easier to be silent. 

So it was with gratitude and respect that I read Lawrence Kessenich’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing, a collection whose very title gives us a primer for navigating our difficult present and what is yet to come. I’ve long admired Kessenich’s poems, but for me this is truly the moment, and the collection, for his work to shine. Somehow, he can look at our mixed-up, often menacing world and manage to see the furious dancing all around us.

The dichotomy in the book’s title weaves through its themes of celebration and mourning. For every sorrow, there is a strand of joy. Life and death are co-present even in the most placid vacation scene:

The living cool off in the sea breeze

while the dead float high above.

“No Day at the Beach”

Kessenich is a magpie collector of odd, shiny bits: much of his work springs from quotes, overheard anecdotes, and unusual news items. He sets poems in his back yard and half a world away. He taps into the wonder of our beloved, beleaguered planet, its trees, stars, bees, oceans, lambs, daffodils, mountains, glaciers, and one unfortunate possum. He captures the delicious promise in a bag holding a cookie and a slice of lemon cake from Hi-Rise Bakery, and, on a magical evening, the once-in-a-lifetime realization that “to my astonishment, the planets have aligned for me.”

This is by no means to say that Kessenich’s work is all frolic and froth. On the contrary, these poems are full of both the timely and the timeless trials we face: aging and mortality, natural disasters, political chasms, disease, loneliness, despair. “Zoom-Size” wryly identifies our technology-based alienation from each other:

Everyone in the real world now was

far too big, lifted up on legs that went

all the way down to the ground, 

heads like Halloween pumpkins.

Kessenich doesn’t sugar-coat: this world, this life, this Anthropocene era – they are brutal. But there are compensations. Like beauty. Music. Friendship. And laughter, as in the one-two punch of certain titles and first lines:

Stealing Flowers from the Buddha

He didn’t need them. (Does he need anything?)


It does seem that God asks a hell of a lot.

Guardian Angels

They were stuck with us, I guess.

Though squarely facing the darkness, these poems are radiant, drawing on a range of spiritual traditions for solace and peace. And they are suffused with love for family, friends, and strangers, who show up here in portraits that reveal their eccentric glory. Kessenich tells his human stories with tenderness and awe, even as he anticipates the post-human hour when “the wind / will blow frictionless across our history.”

Reading this collection brought me back to what I love about this life. It gave me a respite from my own circuitous thoughts, and some glimmers of hope to replace them.

Hard times? Check. Bring on the furious dancing, stat. And read this book.

Red Letter Poem #181

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.

To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


––Steven Ratiner







Red Letter Poem #181









The sycamore cannot stretch as it grows

It splits its skin, shedding scales,

Leaving a mottled bark, taupe over cream.


The pond in today’s downpour is a boiling eye

With a brow of tumbled down briar.


Inside, I press myself into books like a flower, my day’s faltering chronicle.


While outside the dimensional world nests in the tree’s hollow trunk.


Let me break if I must, so that I might rise

From the dormant landscape of charred purple and muted gold.

Open-crowned, naked and pale, thirsty for rivers, rooted, unbound.



––CD Collins



Objective correlative.  T. S. Eliot coined the term to describe “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” that the poet hopes to evoke in the reader.  Where metaphor might simply compare an object to some other thing or feeling, Eliot is arguing that the objective correlative embodies another state of being, takes the reader inside its emotional and psychic unfolding.  When CD Collins first sent me her poem “Sycamore”, I didn’t just think it was an example of this concept, it instantly transported me back to my first autumn in Cambridge when, decades ago, I moved here from California.  I remember walking along Memorial Drive beside the Charles River, bordered by lines of stately sycamore.  There is a certain pale greenish light surrounding these trees that feels otherworldly; and the mottled bark conveys a sense of both visual drama and tremendous vulnerability.  I clearly recall the beautiful loneliness of that autumn––feel it now decades later when I pass beneath these trees––and sensed its presence right from the first lines of this evocative poem.


CD is also a New England transplant, having moved here from her Kentucky home.  Because I know that she is not only a poet but a storyteller, fiction writer, and musician, it would not surprise me if she was quite familiar with the diverse roles the sycamore tree plays in the Bible as well as a host of world religions and cultures.  To the pharaonic Egyptians, the tree was associated with a trio of goddesses (one of which, Hathor, was even given the title of "Lady of the Sycamore".)  Mummies were often entombed in cases made from its wood.  The ancient Greeks and Persians considered it the most beautiful of trees and planted them everywhere.  The sycamore makes frequent literary appearances, associated with figures like the awe- (and war-) inspiring Helen of Troy, as well as Hercules, Dionysus, and Apollo himself.  To many Native American tribes, it’s thought to offer protection against negative energies and malevolent spirits.  In the Celtic world, the sycamore is a symbol of wisdom and spiritual guidance.  All this is to say that the varieties of sycamore around the globe clearly convey a deep sense of mystery to their human neighbors.  I find hints of this divine presence in CD’s poem coupled with the mortal fragility of all those humans dreaming of the divine.


And so, not wanting to interfere with your own emotional intuition, I decided to place my commentary after you’ve had your own time with today’s poem.  But now I’ll say: look at those “shedding scales”; the pond’s “boiling eye”; the “day’s faltering chronicle”––and you’ll see how the poem is charged with that mythic energy Joseph Campbell describes so well in books like The Power of Myth – the universality of the oral tradition that links cultures across the planet into "mankind's one great story."  When a poet or storyteller is most acutely attuned to what is passing around them, their words may attain some of that universal energy.  I believe CD’s poem possesses just that and, entranced by its musical intensities, I find myself thirsting for underground waters that will remind me of where I stand––especially now, when the whole world seems to quake, bereft of peace.





Red Letters 3.0


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