Monday, January 20, 2014

Poetry Garden: We're All Living in 'The Guest House'


            This poem arrived two days ago, entirely unexpected, out of the ether, like a message from the gods.

                        The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

-- Jelaluddin Rumi,
    translation by Coleman Barks


            The poet often known simply as "Rumi" to English speakers must be one of the most widely quoted poets in America today. The thumbnail bio refers to him as a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and Sufi mystic. (Turks claim him too.) People who don't read poetry in English know about Rumi. His words appear on calendars, or wherever a concise observation or pithy words of wisdom, especially on the spiritual side, are required. My former yoga teacher used to read Rumi poems to us during the "quiet time" of the practice. They always worked, sounding like just what we needed to hear after we'd stretched all our muscles and tendons and turned our knotted sore spots to jelly. When it comes to food for the spirit, everybody's menu should make room for Rumi.
            I think this translation of this poem, "The Guest House," is excellent, especially the brilliant line at the start. "This human being is a guest house" sounds like it could have been written last week; very 21st century.
            The idea of being "grateful for whatever comes" is an ideal we'd all like to achieve. Clearly it's an easier job when things are going reasonably well as opposed to -- per the world news on any given day -- disastrously awful, as we know life always is for some human beings somewhere.
            But the rest of us have no excuse. And the poem's examples of difficult guests -- "the dark thought, the shame, the malice" -- suggest an emphasis on the events of the inner life.
            I would add, less spiritually, that these guests are all part of our story. Each guest at the door is an opportunity to address life's unfinished business. And just as they have a part to play in our stories, we have a part to play in the world.
            This is the perspective of the interrelated narrative -- someone's story, but everyone's story as well -- in some of the best fiction I've encountered in recent years. The novel of interrelated characters, who do not necessarily interact often but are related as part of a story that is partly their own and partly "owned" by a wider a circle, including the larger society we're all are a part of, appears to be a creative launching pad for a growing number of literary novelists. Eventually we'll come with a trendy term for this genre, style, or school.
            It's modern, but something more. It's arguably an outgrowth of postmodern, the school of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. Today, an outgrowth of that standpoint, we see the literary classics of the past "retold" from the point of view of some other, often minor, character. We have "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." We have Jane Austen's novels retold, modernized, re-imagined every which way.
            But the books I'm thinking of, such as the novels of David Mitchell and Colum McCann are of a higher order. McCann's fiction connects the lives of people we have not met anywhere else and in telling their story tells us a lot about the rest of us who share their world.
            Eventually all the stories in "Let the Great World Spin," his big prize-winning book, connect up, though you're generally not aware of the connections as you read the deep, involving novella-length stories of a series of engaging characters. In the end the stories lean on each other morally, intellectually; you can reflect on the impact of one upon another. The judge who's married to one of the main characters destroys the last hope of another central character when he sends her to prison. She's a street-walker, a prostitute "on the stroll"; one of dozens of similar cases he'll see each year. But we've come to know this woman from the inside. The world is a sadder, more tragic place without her.
            McCann recently followed this masterpiece with "Transatlantic," a novel about the connections between Ireland and America, a book I very much enjoyed, though it lacks the heft, in all senses, of "Spin." It begins, like its predecessor, with an account of a great public adventure, a dare-devilish expression of individual talent and, in the new book, of a new technology coming into its own.
            The author puts us on an airplane in 1917, a world war still going on, the plane adapted from military to civilian use, as it's flown from Newfoundland to Ireland, a first flight across the Atlantic. It's a feat lost to the popular memory of 20th century history that still remembers Lindberg.
            As the two pilots lose the ability to communicate with each other and the rest of the world, McCann tells the story through minutely depicted physical details. Pieces of equipment fly off the plane, others ice up; the men lose all sensation in their feet. They cope with the cold, the isolation, the deprivation of food, drink, equipment losses. As they fly into the void of a dark cloud, the adventure culminates in a crisis and a last-minute evasion of disaster.
            It's a magic carpet ride. It's also the piece of the book most likely to stay in our minds. Other sections are less successful even as we see them flesh out the theme. African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglas visits Ireland on a fund-raising tour (who knew?) during a starving year and is unable to cope with the poverty and hunger he sees there; or to confront his hosts with the question of how they can ignore the suffering of their own lower class while hailing his fight for freedom.
            Later we follow American peace negotiator George Mitchell as he waits out the last days of the Protestant-Catholic negotiations that led to the epochal "Good Friday" peace agreement. Unfortunately, all we really see him do is wait; we learn nothing of how or why this history-making agreement is arrived at. I think this slightness -- the details here are Mitchell's clothing choices and how he misses his young wife and daughter back in New York -- may come from the difficulty of writing novelistically about someone still alive and prominent. You're stuck with what he gives you.
            After the airplane section, the piece of the novel that most resonates with me is the story of the Ireland-born Civil War nurse, whose limited servant's life in the old country had been overthrown by a brush with Douglas, sending her to America. She arrives in time to birth a son who will die in the Civil War. But from there we learn the story of the rugged new life -- by turns prosperous and tragic, filled with gains and losses -- she builds in postwar America. Her descendants carry us to Canada and back to Ireland.
            The characters in this book greet each guest at the door. McCann's 19th century immigrants and their 20th century successors, many whose names history will not remember, deal with shame and malice, bad fortune, and ill treatment by others, taking the bad with the good. I don't know if, as the poem says, they "laughingly" let these " guests" in, but they kept holding up their end in "this human life" we are all part of.