Mr. Big Stuff

The crackling fire filled the silence among the group of strangers. Shadows danced around the surrounding forest, smoky embers rising into the cloudy night sky.

“This should do for now,” said a tall, strong-jawed man. He dropped a few twigs onto the fire and then settled down, pulling his long coat tighter. He cast a glance at a couple beside him, who smiled back. They had seemed to be the most useful so far, knowing how to start the fire and keep it from burning through the forest.

The rest of the group remained silent. Little had been said for some time.

It had been a few hours since their bus had crashed on the highway, swerving to avoid a deer. Although no one had seen the deer except for the driver, who had died sometime later. The only casualty. Now all that remained were the nine strangers. The bus was a turned-over wreck, and no cars appeared on the dark highway, so all that remained was finding shelter and keeping warm. They just had to survive the night, then find a way back to civilisation.

“Does anyone have any stories?” said a young girl huddled beside her boyfriend. Her wide eyes sparkled in the fire light.

A rotund man with a goatee shook his head, smiling. “What a good idea. It’ll help pass the time.” He looked around the fire-lit group. “Anyone have anything?”

Another man shook his head. “You don’t wanna hear my stories, man.”

The strangers looked between each other; some looked away.

“I have a story.” This came from an old, white-haired man who had yet to speak since the crash. “One of magic, immortality, and eternal tragedy.”

“What, like a fairy tale?” someone said.

The old man shook his head, his frown creasing his wrinkled features. “Not a fairy tale. This is the story of a man named Mr. Big Stuff.”

***

Snow fell over the small mountain town. White roofs were highlighted by the wavering lights coming from hundreds of little windows. The wind howled upon the cliff top, but I was numb to the bitter chill that night.

I stood there now, like I had stood many times before, overlooking the snowy town, my boots on the edge of the cliff. A moment that had once brought a serene bliss had now become a hollow, bitter resentment.

I have gone by many names in my hundreds of years, chained to this world as an immortal being. While my birth name has long been forgotten – if I was even born – the name that has stuck with me the longest is Mr. Big Stuff. A strange moniker, for sure, but one that came from a special person, so long ago.

The origins of immortals like me, of which there are few, have become lost throughout time. Some stories have been told of us, however, from the few that have seen more than our quiet human costumes. Those who have witnessed a bloodied battle, magical spells, or our heightened agility, have re-written us as fantastical beings. Some call us Vampires, although I have never sucked blood or turned into a bat.

My sigh blew a puff of smoke into the wintery air. I brought out a vial, its luminous blue liquid a beacon of light in the darkness. The light illuminated the specks of blood on my hands.

This is what I have struggled for, I tell myself. Everything has led to this potion. Drinking this will make me mortal. Make me killable. I cast another look down over the cliff, at the darkness below.

I could finally end it all, so easily. Return to the darkness that had likely spawned me.

What good is this life I have been given, if I can never truly live it? Despite the love I’ve known, the love I’ve given, it all ends the same way – me alone. But this vial can change that.

I look over my blood-stained hands, and the specks sprayed over my dark coat. So much death, so much hatred.

The horrified faces of my foes still flash through my mind. Ripping through their flesh, tearing limbs, I was a whirlwind of blood and death. Seven beings, once-immortal, were now a pile of mutilated flesh.

At least I know that this potion actually works.

The liquid was synthesised from a fabled crystal, known as a God Killer. A crystal that, when eaten, could turn an immortal into a mortal who would age and die. It had been a decades-long task of mine to find and bring the crystal to those men.

They had been so happy when I finally brought the crystal to them, not knowing that I’d synthesised a part of it into a liquid – which I had dropped into their wine.

I admit to taking pleasure in their shocked faces when they realised something was wrong. There was also pleasure when I attacked them, and they discovered they were mortal. Sprayed blood was highlighted by the flashes of sorcery thrown about. Decades of resentment and hatred unleashed on them.

I had to do it, I tell myself. Their hold on me was too strong, and I had caused so much destruction for them. But now I was free.

Not that it mattered anymore. My love had passed away, just a month ago.

“No more pain,” she had said to me. Her frail form was nestled in bed, her light slowly fading. “No more pain for me. And, promise me, my love, no more pain for you.”

I gripped her hand, feeling the loose skin of her wrinkled fingers. Six decades together had not been enough.

“Peace, Lucas,” she said quietly. “Let my death bring us both peace.”

Melina was the strongest, most special person I had ever known. Far greater than this world deserved. I had told her everything about me, and she accepted it all. When we vowed to spend our lives together, it meant turning our backs on civilisation. We moved to an old castle of mine in the Carpathian Mountains, only visiting the nearby towns and cities on occasion. No one could really know us, and see that I was not aging.

“Please, do not return to those men,” she said, pausing to cough and grimace.

“I promise,” I whispered. “Once you pass, there is nothing more for me.”

Melina smiled weakly. “Never use it, for any purpose. Please. It can do no good.”

We both knew that she spoke of the crystal, the God Killer, and of those evil men I was bound to.

“It will remain with me, I promise. There is no more vengeance left in me.” Even back when I said those words, I knew I was lying.

Melina turned away slightly, her eyes slowly closing. “I will tell the angels of Mr. Big Stuff. And they will tell me they have heard of you.”

I held her hand tighter, sorrow tightening my throat. Despite her aging, her mortal shell withering over the years, she remained the same person I loved. It was a remarkable thing.

“I will see you some day, my love,” I said, fighting back the tears.

Her expression softened, a small smile remaining. Then she became still.

The tears finally fell, and I remember strangely regretting not crying earlier, so that she could see my tears. But she would remember me being strong, and that was a good thing.

We had both come a long way since we first met, which had been strange circumstances indeed.

It was during a battle with a great enemy of mine. My foe and I were bounding through the city streets in an uncommon public display of our powers. Our darting forms must have been dark blurs in the night, although no one could miss our magical bursts.

A car was thrown into the air, hurtling towards a woman in the street below. I dove off a building, streaming down to catch the car just before it crushed her. Despite the moment – my physical exhaustion and the on-going battle – my breath was taken by Melina’s bright green eyes. Oddly, I remember smiling at her.

The heat from an oncoming blast of sorcery brought my urgency back, and I spun and caught the energy with the car, which melted in my hands.

My enemy landed in front of me, her hands blazing with the purple fire of Fie magic. She extinguished the flames and stepped forwards. Behind me, the shocked woman ran for cover.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” I told the sorceress, Alryan.

A heavy cloak flowed behind her, revealing the tight combat clothing beneath. A streetlight showed her long face, firmly set, her dark eyes shining. Her shoulder-length hair fluttered in the wind – much shorter than the long, sleek look she had when I last saw her. She raised her gauntleted hands and shook her head.

“Look around us, Mister,” she said, her voice breathy from the fight. “It’s too late for it to be any other way. It was always going to come down to this.”

I sighed and shook my head. “I never wanted it to, Alryan,” I said, frowning. “Not like this.”

My shirt was ripped and mostly hanging off me, smudges of dirt over my arms and trousers. Her left shoulder was bloodied. How did it all come to this?

I darted into the air, pushing off a window sill and landing onto a rooftop. At this time of night the streets were mostly empty, although I knew that several people were watching us and I wanted to take the fight away from them.

While Alryan wasn’t an immortal, she possessed superior magical abilities to me. But she was still mortal. While she was planning on overpowering me, likely intending to chain me up or keep me somewhere far away for eternity, I knew what I had to do.

The fight took us across the rooftops to a nearby riverside. I managed to barge into her, gripping her tight as we fell through the air and crashed into the water.

She struggled to throw surge after surge of sorcery, but we plunged further into the dark depths. Although breathing under water was not a problem for me, she only had minutes left. Her expression grew pained, her eyes widening, but I held on to her and dragged us down further.

I would never forget her face at that moment. Somewhat pleading, shocked, and something sorrowful. I’d like to think it was regret, a plea to start over. But it was too late. Alryan was taken from me. I had taken her from this world.

I know there was no other way.

But it wasn’t always like that, between her and me. We were lovers for many years, drawn together under the strain of tragedy. We were the best of friends before she changed. No, that wasn’t true. Maybe I changed. Maybe we just grew apart, because it wasn’t the same for a long while.

When she found out a dark truth of mine she erupted with fury. Sorcery entered our arguing and she attacked me then. Her anger brought the building down around us, and while I escaped, she was crushed under the rubble. Or so I had presumed for many years, until she returned, far more powerful, and tried to kill me.

I have never known anyone to possess as much passion and perseverance as Alryan Aldobrasse. She was a descendant of an ancient race of witches, and one of my greatest loves.

Before we became enemies – before we became lovers – we were students under the same mentor.

We trained and studied in a monastery in the mountains, under the mentorship of Yenophis Creel. As a young woman, she witnessed the murder of Yenophis. That face she made when I drowned her was similar to her horrified expression as Yen was killed, torn apart by a figure wreathed in shadow. I could never forget either of those expressions.

It was clear why Yen had been killed, for he possessed the only remaining God Killer crystal in the world. The only one that was known of, anyway. The dark creature took the crystal as it departed, never to be seen again.

Yen was the closest to a father figure I had ever known. I trained under him for many years, discovering the ancient art of Fie sorcery and gaining mental and spiritual strength. He was the wisest, most sincere man I have ever known. While Yen was an immortal like me, he was of a kind that could be killed by conventional means. That he had lived for over four hundred years was a testament to his abilities and strength, and it took a very dark creature to take him down.

Alryan became a student of Yen’s at nine years old; an orphan who had somehow stumbled upon the monastery in her wanderings. Yen saw this as fate, and agreed to bring her under his tutelage.

It was strange at first, me a grown man, learning alongside a young girl, but Alryan and I eventually became friends. I watched her blossom into a young woman, strong willed and fierce. We shared many great times together, visiting the mountain villages, sailing off the coast. Yen and I both marvelled at her feats in conjuring magic. It would be later that we’d learn of Alryan’s magical heritage.

One night, she and I stumbled upon a hidden room within the monastery. We were in awe of a small chest hidden in the ground. It was there we found the God Killer crystal. Yen appeared, full of bluster and anger, but he explained the crystal’s power to us. When swallowed, it could turn an immortal into a mortal, who would grow old and be killable. The crystals once belonged to his people, he told us, and this was the last that remained. I later wondered if his people’s prolonged exposure to the crystal was what had caused them to become killable immortals. Perhaps they were like me, once. But no one had those kinds of answers, as far as I knew.

I was a far different man when I first entered that monastery. Homeless, aimless – a wreck. I had heard of Yen and his teachings and was greatly relieved when he agreed to help me.

My time in that monastery contained some of the most pleasant and enlightening experiences of my life.

That all ended the night Yen was killed. Alryan ran away, and I was left all alone.

Alone, like I should be. Like I deserve to be.

I never wanted my life to go in the direction it did. I have owned many lands and properties, seen the world shift and communities grow and dissolve. I have possessed a great wealth, as well as lived without a penny to my name.

It seemed that those evil men knew just the moment to find me. How they knew of me, I couldn’t say. But there I was, a bum in the streets, having given up on life. I was ashamed at how weak I was, but could see no other way to go. A depression had taken hold of me. Several lifetimes of experiences and memories weighed me down.

They came to me as businessmen in suits, but I knew immediately they were more than that. When they took me in, they revealed they were immortals also. They had existed for almost as long as time, or so they claimed.

They offered me a deal. Do one thing for them, and eternal wealth and happiness would be mine. I was a fool to believe them, but I had no other choice as far as I could see. All I had to do was kill a man, and return a crystal to them.

Before I made the vow, I had to promise my soul to them. Until I returned the crystal, I would be bound to them. Once they found me, they could take away all that I loved, and all that I have ever loved before. They would burn my entire history if I went back on my word. I believed they could do everything they said.

Kill a man. Give them a crystal. It seemed simple.

I could never imagine that this man would become a father figure to me; a mentor I would love and respect above all others. While I tried to go back on the deal, once I had inserted myself into Yen’s life and seen what a great man he was, I found that there was no going back. Those men would take Alryan away from me, and take all that I have ever known and cared for. I had to do what I did. I was just glad that she didn’t know that dark figure was me.

Well, she didn’t know until many years later. But even our love couldn’t stop us from becoming enemies.

This was all so long ago, however. As I stood there now, on that cliff top, I had a choice to make. It seemed simpler now that I’d had time to reflect.

True happiness came from being with loved ones. To truly love and be loved. That meant sharing your life with someone. Someone who you can trust without question.

I removed the stopper from the vial and swallowed the blue liquid. The remainder of the crystal I kept with me, just in case I’d need later.

My body warmed and tingled almost immediately. The synthesised God Killer worked its way through me, turning me into a mortal. I was overwhelmingly tired, as if a great weight had come over me, and at the same time I felt lighter. Cleaner.

I looked over the snowy mountain town, knowing that somewhere out there was the monastery I once trained in. I had come to this cliff edge with Alryan many times, and had even brought Melina here a couple of times.

I studied the darkness below me. That was the last time I would look into that darkness, I told myself.

I turned from the cliff edge and began the rest of my life. Perhaps to love again.

***

“Whoa, that’s some story,” said the young girl who had requested a story.

“It’s nice alright,” said a man around the campfire. “But I call bullshit. Ain’t no one like this Mr. Big Stuff ever been around.”

The old man smiled, though his eyes were sorrowful.

“Hold on,” said the large man with the goatee. “Just how do you know all that?”

A gasp came from the group. They all stared in awe at the old man.

“You’re him,” the young girl said quietly.

The old man just smiled.

The Powers of Poetry: Story, Symbol, and Incantation

The Power of PoetryPDF icon

Introduction

The healing power of poetry has been apparent to many throughout the ages. Arguments to this effect can be made by informed poets at the drop of a feathered quill. The complications we face in life: the suffering associated with failed relationships, sickness, the deaths of love ones, and so on represent, in a sense, the beginning of the healing process. Writing or reading poetry can mark a commencement to such healing. Healing through poetry begins, as Gregory Orr contends, “when we ‘translate’ our crisis into language—where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it” (4). That is, by putting our suffering to page, we have given it a healthy distance from us as well as allowed a sort of reshaping rather than bearing it in an unresponsive way. A single step marks the beginning of a journey. Probing more deeply, however, it becomes evident that collective elements within the personal lyric serve to enhance and fine tune a poem’s healing power. In the following investigation, I will consider the questions of what these poetic rudiments are and how they work, both independently and cooperatively. Orr has it that “there are three abiding and primordial powers that shape language into poems: . . . story, symbol, and incantation” (94). The journey from the chaotic effects of trauma to an ordered understanding, or making meaning, is accomplished through setting symbolic stories to incantatory rhythms. I would argue that a study of these fundamentals may reveal some instructive possibilities concerning the making of lyric poems. Following Orr, I shall explore the poetic essentials of the power of story, the power of symbol, and the power of incantation.

 

The Power of Story

An examination of the element of story may offer clues as to how we can create our lyric poems to be more powerful. Perhaps the most revealing and persuasive means of communication between people is the relating of stories. For instance, I could tell you that my Uncle Larry is a great car salesman. At this, you might shrug as if you are not convinced. Or I could tell you the story of how he sold twenty cars in one day, two of them to passersby who did not even know how to drive. In this case, the focus of the story is Uncle Larry’s prowess as a salesman, and focus may be the central element of story. This story not only lets us know something about Uncle Larry, it also lets us know a little something about the world in which we live, of our societal values, of how we in the U.S. tend to honor those who perform well in their occupations. As the theorist Jerome Bruner might say, it helps us to “make sense of the world” (qtd. in Orr 95), which is another way of saying that through storytelling, we are establishing an ordered mindset in the face of disorder. In writing lyric verse, opposed to prose, the focus of our poems is particularly important because, as Orr points out, all that does not reflect the focus is “stripped away, and meaning is compressed into action and detail that reveal significance” (95). The final version of the lyric poem, then, is a scaled down portrait of the poem’s thematic focus.

While maintaining focus is imperative, conflict is another essential element of story. In personal lyric, nearly always there is conflict, often with someone. Someone close to us has hurt us in some way, is sick, or has died. This conflict does not have to be that outlaw meets sheriff at the O.K. Corral kind of dramatic action. In the words of Orr, “Merely introducing two pronouns into the opening line of a poem creates the tension essential to story” (95-6). That “I” and “you” tends to have the effect of drawing readers in because they naturally place themselves and their own situations into the equation. Cindy Goff’s “Turning into an Oak” is a good example of the merging of focus and conflict:

I looked down at my husband leaving me.

I’m seventy feet taller than he is now.

The bones in my arms splinter into thousands of twigs;

my legs grow together and twist

into the ground. It doesn’t matter

where my car is parked or where my house keys have fallen;

I no longer care what I weigh.

I am sturdier than a hundred men.

From up here I can see Cape Cod,

shaped like a lobster tail.

I watch my husband become a speck

and consider how I’ll miss

being touched. (108)

Nearly anyone could relate to the “I” and “you” in the first line of this poem; that is, any lover who has suffered the pain of a breakup. The conflict becomes apparent in line 1 and lies with the speaker and her husband. The focus begins to reveal itself as the message from each of the following lines meld into a single shattering idea: that empty, disheartening feeling we get when we are suddenly alone after having become used to being together with someone. Not a single line or word in this poem veers from this focus. If one did, as Aristotle reasons, it should never have been there in the first place, “for that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole” (1463). The conflict between speaker and husband is not resolved in the poem; rather, the conflict merges with the focus. The husband becomes “a speck” and is gone. That which remains is the speaker with an inner conflict, which could well describe the true nature of the heart of all personal lyric.

It is true that the focus of a lyric poem is usually on an idea, but this idea, however tragic, would do well to be grounded on a metaphoric center. While it is true that the story in a lyric poem evolves in a narrative fashion, it also, as Orr insists, “wishes to disclose meaning by focusing on something central and leaving out peripheral details unless they reinforce the central subject” (98). Goff’s title, “Turning into an Oak” offers a barefaced clue as to her metaphoric focus. In line 2 of Goff’s poem, her speaker has suddenly grown to an enormous height. In line 3, her arms transform into branches. In line 4, her “legs grow together and twist / into the ground” (108). Goff’s thorny language, that of splintering arms and nothing matters anymore confirm that she considers the metaphor of becoming an oak to equate with the hardhearted nature of her speaker’s newly found single situation. In reflection, Ariel, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was not turned into a tree, but was confined “into a cloven pine; within which rift / Imprisoned [he] didst painfully remain / A dozen years” (1.2.77-79). I bring up the Bard because of the possibility that becoming a great oak could be seen as a metaphor for a good thing; however, this is not the way I read Goff.

While abstract ideas have their merit in certain forms of narrative, it is the concrete details that give lyric poems their power. William Blake emphasizes this idea in verse: “Labour well the Minute Particulars:” he writes, “attend to the Little Ones; / . . . / He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. / General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; / For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars” (Blake). It is usually crucial that lyric verse be written using specific details from title to the final line. Goff’s title is not only precise, but it suggests the metaphoric center of the entire poem. As for concrete sensory details, her depiction of seeing “Cape Cod, / shaped like a lobster tail” presents a visual image that is novel and unique. As Orr notes, the “who, what, where, and when” (100) is organic to most all good writing. This includes lyric poetry! Goff shows in very specific detail the who: speaker and husband; the what: husband left speaker lonely as a tree; the when: the present; the where: at their house near Cape Cod. All these minute details merge to form a cohesive, barebones, and stirring portrait of experience. But they do so much more: such as, fill with affirmative narrative the place where silence might turn into shame or fear and rob us of our present experiences.

 

The Power of Symbol

While story is often the primary vehicle that carries lyric verse right through to its ending, the narrative is commonly rife with symbolic meaning. Some poems, however, seem to state only the trauma of an experience, offering no solution, no enlightened realization, no healing. In fact, these personal lyrics would seem to affirm the disorder, letting it into our minds and lives. Yet Orr insists “that it is precisely by letting in disorder that we will gain access to poetry’s ability to help us survive. It is the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves” (47). In essence, the mind, when it confronts chaos in narrative, begins to allow compensation to occur, like a person who loses one eye, and the remaining one compensates naturally by developing a wider peripheral range of sight. As Fox asserts, there may be some growing pains to deal with here, but “poetry can be a safe guide, a wise presence, so you don’t feel alone while moving through the inevitable dark place in life” (29). Bottom line, in lyric poems, such recompenses happen due to the symbolic language in the narrative. Marie Howe’s “The Dream” is a good example of just this kind of personal lyric:

I had a dream in the day:

I laid my father’s body down in a narrow boat

and sent him off along a river bank with its cattails and grasses.

And the boat (it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)

took him to his burial finally.

But a day or two later I realized it was my self I wanted

to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed

—oh, the light coming from down there,

the sweet smell of the water—and finally, the sense of being carried

by a current I could not name or change. (83)

In Howe’s poem, the speaker dreams of sending her father off on a watery burial, but the conflict becomes apparent when, “a day or two later [she realizes] it [is her] self [she wants] / to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed” and cast off upon the river of expiry in that small boat. The speaker and her father exist in a state of dramatic tension, connected undeniably by the poem’s focus: the idea of letting go to that impenetrable death experience. As far as the narrative alone is concerned, this is all we have to go on. However, to come to an understanding concerning the healing effects of the poem, we can look to the symbolic language for clues. The biblical story of baby Moses comes to mind. As an infant, in order to save him, he was placed in a small boat and hidden among the grasses and cattails “beside the bank of the Nile”. (Complete Bible, Exod. 2.3). Is Howe’s poem, then, about saving the speaker’s father? I think not because it is the speaker herself who desires death, so she really wants to save herself, but from what? The symbolic language Howe uses to describe the father’s death ark may provide clues: “(it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)”. This wood covered in skin could be symbolic for the body, and the fact that it is wet and bent could describe some form of trauma (both wet and bent tend to possess negative connotations) which would explain the speaker’s obsession with death, both her father’s and her own. The death Howe describes for the speaker is not a dark and scary death; on the contrary, it is one of surrendering to a state of illumination accented by the sensory image of “the sweet smell / of the water.” Howe’s speaker puts her faith in an afterlife myth associated with being carried along safely on a river of patriarchal benevolence, an experience she had not found in life. So, the poem confronts a trauma associated with the speaker’s father and fills the vacuum of silence allowing her to regain her identity, or create one. Having reinterpreted her trauma metaphorically centered on a slow ride down the tranquil river of death, the trauma now has less power over her. The writing or reading of the poem stands in the place of an actual death. The speaker is free to live and write another day. What sort of trauma is Howe really writing about? I’d say there is not enough information to say for sure. Abuse, neglect, the father not living up to the speaker’s expectations of what a father should be? Who knows? In basing such speculation on a few symbols, it would be entirely possible to get off the mark concerning Howe’s meaning. Symbolic meaning tends to vary from reader to reader, and readers tend to respond to symbolic language in accordance with their own unique experiences.

It is very likely that most any given symbol will possess more than one meaning, or that the meaning remains ambiguous. The small boat among the reeds and grasses is an ancient symbol, one that could hold a multiplicity of meanings. “All the meanings,” Orr writes, “do not and cannot emerge; they lurk still in the object/symbol, refusing to give up all their mystery to the need for understanding and explanation” (104). There could be a hidden meaning within an ancient symbol that we cannot recognize, or, moreover, meaning of which society no longer makes use. For instance, Isler, et. al point out that poetic incantation has been used throughout the centuries for not only relief of headache, but for the general maintenance health of all the body parts. Here’s a poem from an 8th century monastery at Lake Constance in Switzerland:

O King, o ruler of the realm,

o friend of Heaven’s hymn,

o persecutor of turmoil,

o God of the Heavenly Host!

In the first stanza, the poem repetitively and rhythmically invokes and calls on the Christian God. Today’s society certainly has a very good idea of the symbolism connected with God, but our ideas are very contemporary. The 8th century Westerners were very likely, as a whole, way more conservative in their outlooks concerning dogmatic Christianity, and so the symbolism, from their points of view, would necessarily be interpreted differently than most conservatives would interpret it today. Not to mention our societal liberal progression. I’ll move ahead to stanza 2 where God is called upon to cool “the noxious fluxes / that flow heated in my head.” We do know something of the symbolism concerning the “fluxes,” those excessive and flowing discharges associated with various health problems. But, again, medical conditions are looked at differently today than they were in past centuries. The third stanza of the poem takes the healing theme beyond the headache to other parts of the body:

that he cures my head with my kidneys,

and with the other parts afflicted:

with my eyes and with my cheekbones,

with my ears and with my nostrils. (Isle, et. al)

God is beseeched to heal and protect the individual parts of the body. Today, doctors would check all these parts but rely on scientific medicine rather than the spiritual for healing. I wonder if we have, in following science exclusively, found ourselves off the mark. At any rate, no one knows what all the body parts may have been symbolic of for the people who used this poetic remedy. Such symbolism is no longer needed. As society evolves, the minds of the people expand. As we learn more about the past, old meanings may become increasingly clear. New meanings will be discovered throughout the generations. Bottom line, we do not know all there is to know about symbols, but grappling with a poem’s meaning in light of its symbolic language is certainly one way of coming to a subjective understanding of it.

 

The Power of Incantation

While story and symbol merge to make powerful and healing expressions, it is through implementing incantation into our lyric poetry that we, like our ancestors, can confront the more serious traumas that come our way. Incantation, that rhythmic replication of poetic reverberations, according to Orr, “is like a woven raft of sound on which the self floats above the floodwaters of chaos” (106). The incantatory effects of a poem have to do not only with repetitive language but also with rhythm. Rhythmic or musical verse alone can be described as incantatory, but when the element of linguistic repetition is added in the spirit of high emotion, the personal lyric becomes forcefully and dramatically puissant. American poet Edward Hirsch observes that “Incantation [is] a formulaic use of words to create magical effect” (Hirsch). “Healing Incantation,” performed by Mandy Moore in the Disney movie Tangled is a good example of incantatory verse:

Flower, gleam and glow

Let your power shine

Make the clock reverse

Bring back what once was mine

Heal what has been hurt

Change the Fates’ design

Save what has been lost

Bring back what once was mine

What once was mine (Healing Incantation)

In the movie, the animated character Rapunzel, voiceover by Mandy Moore, uses this incantation to heal the character Eugene’s injured hand. I deliberately chose it because it presents an unobstructed view of incantatory verse; that is, it possesses no story and very little symbol and can be a universal panacea, effective in healing just about any trauma one could name. With her opening line, “Flower gleam and glow,” Moore summons the healing light; common in many of the light religions such as Paganism, the light is representative of an omnipotent healing force. Right away, readers sense the rhythm or musicality evident in the prosody of the metered lines. Flower, of course, is symbolic of beauty, so the poet healer confronts trauma with the combined powers of light and beauty.  “Make the clock reverse” seeks to bring the injured person back in time to where the trauma had not yet occurred. Here I get a sense that this poem could be used as a charm against aging. Many feel traumatized by the effects of getting older, our beautiful bodies sagging and wrinkling before our eyes. The poem probably would not stop this natural process, but it could possibly help to slow it down and certainly help a poet or reader to make the psychological adjustment to the change. After all, is it our young bodies that we miss, or is it really our youthful outlooks? We come to the beginning of the repetitive incantatory effect of the poem with “Bring back what once was mine.” Here, Moore is referring to ownership of wholeness. Things were good before, and she wants them to be good once again. The following lines all reiterate that which has already been stated: “Heal what has been hurt,”  “Change the Fates’ design,” “Save what has been lost” are all just other ways of claiming that ownership of wholeness that was the norm before the trauma set in. In a sense, the repetition occurs throughout most of the poem, and then we get toward the ending with the reoccurrence of “Bring back what once was mine.” And then the final haunting, echoing ending: “What once was mine.” As powerful as Moore’s poem is, I cannot help but wonder if it would be all the more prevailing written in concrete terms and ripe with symbol.

Many popular poets write in just this rhythmic, incantatory style, Walt Whitman among them. Further, many of Whitman’s poems are also written in story form and packed with symbolism. Here is scene 18 of Leaves of Grass, which inspired Martin Espada’s latest book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.

With music strong I come—with my cornets and my drums,

I play not marches for accepted victors only—I play great marches for conquer’d and slain persons.

 

Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?

I also say it is good to fall—battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.

 

I beat and pound for the dead;

I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.

 

Vivas to those who have fail’d!

And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!

And to those themselves who sank in the sea!

And to all generals who lost engagements! and all overcome heroes!

And the numberless unknown heroes, equal to the greatest heroes known. (18.353-63)

In the area of story, Whitman celebrates not the “winners” as many do in the U.S.—America, it is said, does love a winner—but the losers. The way I read Whitman, he does not celebrate the losers of battles because he believes such people are ethically or morally superior. Rather, he celebrates them because he has realized the value of seeing everyone as being the same. He sees men as being the same as women, a very enlightened concept for his time, 1819-1892. He sees the so called physically normal as being the same as those with deformities. Those of color being the same as those of no color. Those of same sex sexual orientation being the same as those of opposite sex orientation. The list goes on and on. The man was a social justice warrior! I believe he realizes this sameness not because we do not have our differences, we do, but because, when we look to our likenesses, we begin to heal our differences.

Whitman’s sketch is also packed to the brim with symbolism. Cornets and drums are symbols of music, that marching band sort of music played as a call to battle. Whitman describes it as strong music. Marching bands at sports events play fight songs to rally the spectators for the benefit of the home team. During the American Civil War both the North and the South used drummers and buglers on the battle field. Those sounds had the power to move soldiers emotionally to the place where they were willing to kill or be killed with musket, sword, or bayonet. In modern warfare we no longer bring marching bands onto the battle arena. But in the ceremonies before and after, those bands are still playing those celebratory songs. All this from Whitman in one symbolic line. Whitman, of course, gives us a new slant on old symbolism. His idea is to raise readers’ spirits for the benefit of those who lost their battles, that ship of a person’s life that sank into the sea of oblivion, that forgotten soul. Whitman seems to believe that the losers of battles are just as important to remember and celebrate as the winners, that, effectually, those who lost are the same as those who won because they share a commonality of spirit.

The incantatory effects of Whitman’s verse begin in the first lines with the rhythmic ordering of words. “The presence of rhythmic patterns,” according to Harmon, “lends both pleasure and heightened emotional response, for it establishes a pattern of expectations and it rewards the listener or reader with the pleasure of a series of fulfillments of expectation” (416). Whitman seems to very generally use a rising rhythm beginning with his own combination of iambics followed by anapests, terms which refer to particular schemas of stressed and unstressed syllables. I would say this rising rhythm works so well in this case not only because of the repetitional effect of the metering but because those reoccurring couplets also raise the scene to a final climactic quintet. And, in that last stanza, Whitman uses actual repetitive language: And to those, And to those, And to all, And to accented by three exclamation points drives the incantatory effect of the entire scene to an explosive peak.

 

Conclusion

I have followed Orr throughout this inquiry, and it seems on point to relate, in conclusion, his personal statement concerning the healing effects of poetry. Early in his life, he experienced a great trauma; being responsible for his brother’s death. Of course, he suffered emotionally for a number of years before he found poetry. On finally finding his way to poetics, he gives the following account:

I wrote a poem one day, and it changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was ‘magical,’ unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it. That first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done. I felt simultaneously revealed to myself and freed of myself by the images and actions of the poem.

I would certainly argue that such liberation from the energy of despair could only promote healing. Continuous worry without reprieve seems like a sickness in itself. This might well be another topic to take up in a future study citing healing poems from various sources.

At any rate, in considering story, the question comes to mind of which comes first, the abstract idea or the concrete details describing it. Good poems possess both. Perhaps this is not an either/or question. Perhaps in looking through the prism of our poet-self, it is essential that we remain open to discovering a priori ideas as we experience life in the concrete. I think, however, that every particular experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, is in reality central and necessary. It is the poet’s job to understand this and help others to understand as well. With an idea and a set of details in mind, as we write within the scope of some particular metaphor, those rudimentary symbols will appear quite naturally. In revision, we can shift those raw stones of symbolism into likely places where they can be polished to a glossy finish. Last, as we set our verses to a rhythm for incantatory effect, it may be helpful to be familiar with the various metering techniques, but it is through sounding out our lines that the arrangements are composed. We must write in a solitary cave in order to do this else we be thought insane by passersby.

 


Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Basic Works of Aristotle. Trans. Ingram Bywater. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 2001. 1454-87. Print.

Blake, William. “Jerusalem.” Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Espada, Martin. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Print.

Fox, J. “Heart, who will you cry out to? Giving silence words.” In Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making.  Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1997. 1-31. Print.

Goff, Cindy. “Turning into an Oak Tree.” Gorham and Skinner 108.

Gorham, Sarah, and Jeffrey Skinner, eds. Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance. Louisville: Sarabande, 1997. Print.

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 12th ed. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.

“Healing Incantation.” Perf. Mandy Moore. Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Disney, 2010. Film.

Hirsch, Edward. “Incantation: From a Poet’s Glossary.” poets.org.poets.org, 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

Howe, Marie. “The Dream.” Gorham and Skinner 83.

Isler, H., H. Hasenfratz, and T. O’Neill. “A Sixth-Century Irish Headache Cure and its use in a South German Monastery.” Cephalalgia. 16.8 (Dec. 1996): 536-40. EBSCO.Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Orr, Gregory. Poetry as Survival. Athens: U of Ga. P, 2002. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1611. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.

The Complete Bible. 1939. Ed. J.M. Powis Smith and Edgar J. Goodspeed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Bartleby.com. Bartleby.com, 4 July 1855. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.