For many writers, looking back on one’s own work is both exhilarating and painful. When we revisit the work we have published, we may see—all too clearly—not only how we have succeeded, but also how we have failed. Rather than looking back in judgment, I prefer to view my writing as engagement in a process that leads me closer to the place of my own illumination—about life, about art, about I how I might wish to use words in future. Is illumination a place or a way of being? I do not know. But I do know that each experiment brings more knowledge. Each step helps me to measure the distance I still have to travel.
“Celestial Navigations,” a long poem that appeared in my 2008 collection of poems, The Art of Nesting, was “given” to me, as poems sometimes are to those who write them. It grew, quite spontaneously, out of the fertile soil of my study of one of Bahá’u’lláh’s mystical works, the Tablet of the Holy Mariner, and my reflections on a personal loss. Over the course of a decade, I had lost three friends: one had died by her own hand, one by the hand of another, and another lost her life to bulimia.
In writing the poem, I did not make a conscious decision to draw my inspiration from the Bahá’í Writings or to work specifically with this tablet. At the time, I would have viewed a decision to engage in this way with any tablet revealed by Bahá’u’lláh, let alone one possessing such spiritual power, as an act of unmitigated hubris. Moreover, I felt I simply did not have the skill to undertake such a project.
Yet when I meditated on the fate of my three friends—my three Marys, as I call them in the poem—and their condition in the spiritual world, my imagination took up the metaphor of the sea voyage that is so central to Bahá’u’lláh’s tablet and began to weave it into a poem that explores the search of these souls for salvation. By the time I had finished the poem, the three Marys had set out from Castine, Maine, a town not far from where I live, sailed around the world and also through time, passing through much of contemporary and religious history, and ended up in a place so holy in the Bahá’í tradition that it is referred to as the “Point of Adoration”—the resting place of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahjí, near Akka, in Israel. It was an unexpected journey and the destination took me by surprise.
Why Castine, Maine? I had listened one long winter to a poet friend, Constance Hunting, reminisce about the literary life that once thrived in the town in the days when Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Mary McCarthy lived there. When I visited Castine, I found a seafaring village rich in history dating back to the earliest days of the settlement of North America. The town, with its lighthouse, its historic cemetery, and its marine academy—a town that serves as the backdrop for Robert Lowell’s quintessentially twentieth century poem “Skunk Hour”—appeared in poem as the place from which the Marys set out on their voyage through the twentieth century, the century during which they had lived and died, a century that could be summed up, as one of my undergraduate English professors so memorably put it, in three a’s: alienation, anxiety, and absurdity.
When I reflected on Bahá’u’lláh’s prophetic lament in the Tablet of the Holy Mariner, regarding His forthcoming banishment from Baghdad and the chaos and suffering that would attend it as a result of the vicious machinations of the clergy and the disunity within the nascent Bahá’í community, I marvelled at the repeated refusal of humanity, throughout the course of religious history, to honor the Covenant God made with it when He sent successive revelations. I realized that the story the tablet told about the consequences of turning away from revelation, was the story of the twentieth century, a century unique in human history for the scope and scale of its wars, a century during which the hands of the human race had been repeatedly stained with blood, and the human spirit soiled by repeated, persistent acts of discrimination—religious, racial, ethnic.
I imagined my three Marys adrift on a sea of contradictions, a sea surging with faiths at war and with religious traditions that had become bankrupt and offered little solace. The Marys could not make a landing as they sailed through this pre-eminently secular century, one rife with the existential angst unloosed by Jean Paul Sartre, with a little help from his friends. How could my three Marys, none of whom had, to my knowledge, practiced any kind of faith, find peace on the stormy sea of this century? When and where would their journey end? How would they find a place of landing—salvation?
The answer was delivered by means of the sometimes cryptic but always powerful language of imagery: the sea, with its wind and waves; the constellations and their stars; the music of the cello and the chant; the breath, in poetry and in life; otherworldly or mythical female figures, such as the Black-eyed Damsel and the harpies of Greek myth; the Persian Youth; and the Holy Mariner Himself—each of these images and symbols and others played a part in carrying the poem forward and in bringing the Marys to their final destination. I am not surprised that the themes of garden and gardening wove themselves into the poem: as someone with strong ties to the rich agricultural lands of southwestern Ontario, the garden is my spiritual home; and, of course, the garden has a symbolic significance as that place of repose, where our first parents dwelt before their fall into consciousness.
The truth is that although it fascinates me now, I knew nothing about the sea until one of the Marys took me on a sailing trip to Nantucket. That trip, taken decades ago now, interested me in the seafaring life. Years later, when I moved to Maine, I developed a fascination with the world of the clipper ships during the Great Age of Sail—the far reaching trade routes to places like China and the West Indies and the life of the families at sea. These sailors and their families were, perhaps, among the world’s first global citizens. These voyages make an appearance in the poem, though they are more than literal voyages, as is everything in poetry, which sails on its own sea of metaphor.
The sea voyage the Marys take is a long, turbulent one, but the strains of the cello as played by the Persian Youth and of sound of the chant, in the traditional Persian style and in the more modern style originated by twentieth century Estonian composer Avro Part, give them courage as they are tempted by the harpies—symbolic of the flesh and desire—who threaten to waylay them. Many approaches are made to a landing, and each fails, until, at last, the Marys set anchor off the English coast and make their way to London, where they visit the Great Northern Cemetery, the burial place of the Shoghi Effendi, whose commentary on the Bahá’í scriptures illuminates a path to world peace. As one of the Marys takes up her spade to tend the grave of Shoghi Effendi, she finds herself transported to an elaborate Persian garden, the resting place of Bahá’u’lláh, the Point of Adoration, and her soul is subsumed by the peace of that holy place.
What is the art of celestial navigation in the poem? In the literal sense, it is that ancient art of navigating by the stars used by sailors in the centuries before modern technology was invented. But in the metaphorical sense, celestial navigation in the poem is much more: it is the practice of spiritual life that keeps one connected to the sea of revelation Bahá’u’lláh describes in his Tablet of the Holy Mariner, for it is this surging and powerful sea of truth that can carry any soul to the shores of salvation and it is He Himself who must guide the craft, His ark of salvation—the same ark in which Noah floated for 40 days and in which the holy family sailed, as foretold in scripture, to their final place of exile—Akka, in Israel, the Promised Land. Their arrival was assured, but their journey, like that of the Marys, was a long and exceedingly difficult one. The story, alluded to in the poem, of the inedible cake made by Navaab, the wife of Bahá’u’lláh, when she reached, by accident, in the dark, for salt rather than sugar, tells us something, if not everything, about the family’s long, arduous journey from Tehran to the Sea Gate in Akka.
“Celestial Navigations” weaves together a tapestry of voices and perspectives. The Holy Mariner speaks in the poem, as does the God of the Book of Job. And woven into the fabric are many allusions to English literature (and some to Greek)—Lowell, Yeats, Joyce, Synge, and Melville. For, in addition to its other meanings, the sea in “Celestial Navigations” symbolizes the English literary tradition, which I studied in my youth with two of the Marys, though I was the only one who went on to practice the art of poetry.
Can and should a writer use the Bahá’í Writings for inspiration? Can he or she work with specific tablets when creating new work? I have to admit I was surprised when actual passages not only from the Tablet of the Holy Mariner demanded inclusion in the poem, but when a passage from the Book of Job also appeared. I was surprised, too, that the poem ended with a line from the Tablet of the Holy Mariner itself: “. . . the ship of fancy standeth still. . . .” I was not surprised, however, that the Marys ended their voyage at Bahjí. Where else could a sea voyage end but in a garden? And in what other garden?
Should we and can we, as writers, engage directly with texts of Bahá’í scripture? I would have to say, it depends on how deeply the words and the wisdom of those texts have entered into our imaginations. When we read, for example, the mystical, ecstatic poems of Herbert, Crashaw, and Vaugh, or when we look at the paintings of Da Vinci or Michelangelo, we are not likely to respond by observing that good use has been made of the theme of resurrection or the symbol of the crucifixion—the cross. We are more likely to respond by feeling, in our deepest beings, a sense of communion with Jesus and a heightened awareness of His supreme love for humanity. These artists had fallen in love with the teachings and the person of Jesus, and that love had spurred their pens or their paint brushes to praise and celebration.
I believe that the more deeply we internalize the truths embodied in the Bahá’í Writings and the more fully we integrate their themes, their imagery, and their symbolism into our imaginations, the more spontaneously we will be able to call them forth when we sit down to do our work. They will emerge organically, without intention or plan, because they are integral to our thought and being. Whatever work we create, what we believe to be true will be appear in it—and couched in all the splendid imagery and symbolism of the scriptures in which these truths are delivered. What we believe with our hearts, our minds, and our souls can guide our lives, but the scriptures that give these beliefs substance and life, must be deeply imbibed and powerfully imagined, if they are to issue in genuine art. And so, as writers, we must bathe in the wellspring of the His Words, be cleansed and made new. And once we have dried ourselves off, we must speak of it! In whatever words and images are given to us, for this gift of the holy spirit—art—is promised in this dispensation, as surely as Jesus once promised his gifts of the spirit. And it is this promise to which we, as writers, must cling to as we seek our own place of landing.