Darkness First, Then Fire
[F]or years when I was younger, unknown to me, this gem sat on my mother’s bookshelf, St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle
, her guide for spiritual perfection – also, her (I like to think) account of the evolution of her own interior life toward such luminous heights, although she acknowledges every journey is unique and can’t be generalized in one volume. When was the last time you considered your interior writing life? Teresa imagined the soul as “a castle made of a single diamond … in which there are many rooms, just as in Heaven there are many mansions.” Teresa explains how a soul must journey through its own rooms (she defined seven levels) – mastering self-knowledge and suffering in its quest for perfection – until it reaches the soul’s center, innermost room, where it’s transformed and communes with God: “like rain that falls into a river or spring or like a small stream of water that flows into the sea. The water is one and cannot be sorted out or separated.” Once ultimately transformed, the soul mingles with God’s spirit, not to be divided.
And, what should the writerly soul look to mingle into? It seems to me that Interior Castle
should resonate with writers, as many of the subjects we cover in poetry – epiphany, longing and love, what we think we deserve and gratitude, addiction and satiation, saying farewell, learning how to die gracefully – are ones we wrestle with and try to transform or be transformed by, in our own interior rooms. And yes, echoing that from poets, of the transformative, inner creative writing process: Francisco X. Alarcon writes, “A poem/makes us see/everything/for the first time.” Czeslaw Milosz has called poetry “the passionate pursuit of the real.” And, one of my especial favorites, Virginia Woolf, who inspired many women writers to seek literal and figurative rooms of their own in which to self-discover and write: “Lock up your libraries if you like, but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind
.” In my own life – full-time position as a magazine editor, wife, mother of one, expectant mother, and then last, writer, reader and lover of poetry – my writing process often gets displaced to edit a late feature story that has popped into my inbox, to fill a bubble bath for my daughter and read an extra bedtime story, or to stay up late talking to my husband after he’s just come home from a 14-hour-plus workday. But the thing that I try to remember – and I want you to recall – is the excitement, the gloriousness of your inner writing life: where the craft of writing starts in your own darkness.
(From Rainer Maria Rilke: "You darkness, that I come from, I love you more than all the fires that fence in the world.
") On my two-week Christmas vacation from work this year, I’ve taken the time to really immerse myself in poetry (yes, that was me at the back corner of the library devouring Tu Fu), especially this gem from Franz Wright: Walking to Martha’s Vineyard
. In this beautiful book of self-reflection and discovery, there’s much to be admired, as always in Wright’s work. Look here, from his poem, “My Place,” the final line: “I believe one day the distance between myself and God will/disappear.” Like Woolf wrote in A Room of One’s Own
, this bit of poetry hits me on the inside and resonates out through my bones, frissoning the inside and then outside of my skin. That’s what poetry does: It’s born inside you or you take it inside you, and you feel it in your physical body. And yes, this is what I believe the writing process can do: Chop away at your imperfections, create witness art, and bring you closer to God.
So, back to Interior Castle
once more: It’s in Teresa’s sixth mansion where we encounter the physical/spiritual ecstasies she experienced as a mystic, painful on two levels: isolation from others’ misunderstanding of her experiences and longing for full union with God (she says the pain of ecstasy is like an angel spearing her in the gut and ripping out her innards). But this visceral pain, in its own way is to be desired, because it’s a union with the transformation of the self and toward one with God. It’s true: Writing is solitary, often hair-being-yanked-out painful; but yet cathartic, soothing and triumphant. Turn on a light in your own inner writing room.
Be kind to yourself. Endure any pain. Buckle down, and write, write, write. The poem lives inside of us and we live inside the poem, inside this investigative space (first a darkness, and then lit by fire) where we try to sort out our lives.
Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, will be published by ELJ Publications later this year. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at www.nicolerollender.com
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