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Violin and Melody:  Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable

Violin and Melody: Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable

Violin and Melody:

Heschel’s Poetry as “Initiation” of the Ineffable, the Divine

Konstantin Kulakov
For The Philosophical Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel
Dr. Cornel West

It is difficult to picture the character of Western civilization without the rationalism of Rene Descartes; from the cartesian coordinate graph of mathematics, to the famous "cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am), Descartes looms large in our post-enlightenment thought. Still, from the Foucault’s book Madness and Civilization to Antonio Demasio’s Descartes’ Error, philosophers and neuroscientists have demonstrated the enduring influence and problematical nature of Descartes’s thought. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s philosophy-of-religion begins where Descartes left off, challenging Descartes’ rationalism. For Heschel, “philosophy that begins with radical doubt ends in radical despair.”[1] It is not a comprehensive and coherent system of philosophical propositions that affirm God’s attributes (i.e. Aquinas, Calvin); instead, Heschel argues that philosophy begins in wonder: for him, philosophy is “a retreat, giving up premises rather than adding one, going behind self-consciousness and questioning the self and all its cognitive pretensions.”[2]

I will never forget a fellow classmate’s response to Heschel’s collection The Ineffable Name of God: Man: “I didn’t like it. I felt that there is something missing there; it does not compare to the fullness of his prose.” However, it is exactly this poetic economy, efficiency of language that defines Heschel’s philosophy of religion. “Music, poetry, religion— they all initiate in the soul’s encounter with an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names.”[3] Along with Heinrich Zimmer, I argue that it is the particularity of poetry that provides a medium where the embodied, complex, and ambiguous nature of reality may be engaged without the reductionist, descriptive impulse. Through poetry, we may encounter the experience of an “activist theology” on its own terms.  Thus, it is my assumption that Heschel’s philosophy of religion is inseparable from his poetry just as his theology is inseparable from his activism. Throughout this paper, I will explore three maxims of Heschel’s philosophy of religion and critically examine how his poetry is a reification of each maxim: 1) wonder as the beginning of philosophy, 2) science and spiritual insight as distinct, objective reality 3) and wonder as a call to action.

Wonder as the Beginning of Philosophy

Heschel’s philosophy makes a powerful case for wonder; however, it is only by relating his prose (philosophy of religion) to his poetry may we engage the experience of wonder on its own terms. Heschel writes: “the greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches.”[4] Heschel already witnessed what he believes to be the logical end of modernity: the instrumental reason of Zyklon B and the atom bomb. Thus, for him, the Cartesian maxim of radical doubt will only lead to radical despair. By affirming wonder, Heschel claims that he is returning to Plato’s conception of thaumatism and disturbing mental placidity. Thus, Heschel does not sever his tie to what he referred to the ineffable. One of the words used to describe the experience of wonder is reverence: “Reverence is an attitude as indigenous to human consciousness as fear when facing danger or pain when hurt. The scope of revered objects may vary, reverence itself is characteristic of man in all civilizations….”[5]

However, by claiming that the essential characteristic of wonder escapes language, Heschel encounters a new problem: the difficulty of all discourse, including poetry, of engaging the ineffable. Heschel addresses this problem through the concept of the indicative, often turning to embodied sensory language of love, beauty and nature: “…while we are unable either to define or to describe the ineffable, it is given to us to point to it. By means of indicative rather than descriptive terms, we are able to convey to others those features of our perception which are known to all men.”[6] Nevertheless, Heschel admits that indicative terms may diverge for different people, but it is the “essence of perception,” the universal capacity that is recognizable.

            In order to explore the characteristics of wonder, it is necessary to ground the nature of the experience in the philosophical language of Heschel: “often it appears as if the mind were a sieve in which we try to hold the flux of reality, and there are moments in which the mind is swept away by the tide of the unexplorable, a tide usually stemmed but never receding.”[7] One of the strongest illustrations of this experience is in Heschel’s poem “Need.”

As still as the growing of a hair on me,
A feeling ripens deep in me, truly of You

And feeling Alarm—
I must lead them to words, to screams.
Where can I ferret out Your name […]

I’ll disappear in the night, through the stars and forest—
I’ll be silent.
I’ll scream and wail an alarm:
Haw Aw! Haw Aw!

As still as the growing of a hair on me,
A fire ripens deep in me—

I know not from where, I know not at all.[8]

In this poem, there is no need to fit the demands of philosophical categories, premises and conclusions, and soundness of argument; instead, we witness the experience on its own terms. First, it is important to examine Heschel’s broader view of wonder and meaning. For Heschel, “What we encounter in our perception of the sublime, in our radical amazement, is a spiritual suggestiveness of reality, an allusiveness to transcendent meaning.”[9] The line “A feeling ripens deep in me, truly of You / And feeling Alarm—” is relevant: the metaphor of a feeling “ripening” does not fit the accepted abstract psychological terminology. Thus, words are selected based on their dramatic effect as opposed to the precision in regards to scientific standards of judgment. If the experience of the feeling is metaphorized as “ripening,” then the feeling itself has a spiritual, transcendence meaning: organic, life-affirming, spiritual growth. Lastly, the choice of enjambment of “You / And feeling alarm” facilitates a dramatic, evocative experience that is indicative of a transcendent meaning.

In the fifth stanza, we encounter the complex nature of this experience and through its traditionally-non-sensical, paradoxical nature, further pointing to the experience of transcendence: “I’ll disappear in the night, through the stars and forest— “I’ll be silent. / I’ll scream and wail an alarm: / Haw Aw! Haw Aw!” Here, through the equally-affirmed statements of being silent and screaming, Heschel does not satisfy the principle of non-contradiction, but instead subverts it; nevertheless, Heschel is able to illustrate the character of the experience. In many ways, this stanza bears significance to Heschel’s pietism where the stream of consciousness and expletive “haw Aw!” enact the uninhibited drama of humanity’s vexed and transcending relationship to the ineffable God; for it is through this drama that humanity may approach some unexpected solution. In the Hasidism, the solution is in the problem: “There is a strange contradiction in man’s bringing charges in the name of Truth about the absence of Truth; such an argument can be meaningful only if it presupposes the presence of Truth. Is not our agony over the burial of Truth evidence of the life and power of Truth?”[10] 

The last stanza is the most clear illustration of the mind sieve that is swept away by the tide of the unexplorable: “As still as the growing of a hair on me, / A fire ripens deep in me— / I know not from where, I know not at all.” The last stanza begins with a repetition of the first stanza. However, there are two changes: 1) the feeling becomes a fire, 2) and the feeling loses its reference point completely. Thus, the experience ends in a strong affirmation of wonder and unintelligibility. Through the affirmation of unintelligibility, there is no immature ignorance, but instead, a wise humility. There is a much deeper phenomena at hand: “The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all.”[11] This insight is not new to even the community of Anglo-American, analytic philosophers (i.e. philosophers Thomas Nagel and Frank Jackson contribute to the problem of consciousness, defending the qualitative nature of consciousness through qualia).

Science as Legitimate yet Limited

For Heschel, modernity, and natural science in particular, is extensively engaged. However, in his poetry, Heschel does not engage natural science in an explicit way. Nevertheless, by studying the nature of the poetry, one may see how the experiances relate to the philosophy of religion as well as Heschel’s rudimentary philosophy of science. From penicillin to vaccines, automobiles, heart transplants, and Internet technology, natural science has ushered in a reality unimaginable to medieval society. However, natural science also helped usher in 20th century horrors like the atom bomb and Zyklon B as well as contemporary menaces like industrial pollution and drone warfare.

With the towering advancements of Einstein and Watson and Crick, Heschel neither retreated into an anti-scientific literalism of fundamentalists, nor did he believe that science was the only arbiter of objective knowledge: “Science extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge.”[12] In many ways, his writing resonated with the questions opened by the quantum revolution: “Scientific research is an entry into the endless, not a blind alley; solving one problem, a greater one enters our sight…”[13] For example, through the apparatus of the electron tunneling microscope, it was discovered that the more fundamental structure of the universe behaved in laws that contradicted classical mechanics; this only complicated things. Furthermore, for Heschel, the turn to secularize religion in order to fit into the narrow box of positivism was a narrow assumption. For him, the encounter with the ineffable was not reduced to an internal, psychological reality a la Maslow.

Instead, reality possessed meaning, an objective meaning. He wrotes, “namely, that meaning is something which occurs outside the mind in objective things— independent of subjective awareness of it.”[14] Thus, Heschel resisted the epistemological privilege that white liberal Christians and secular humanists gave natural science. Implicitly, this had important implications in regards to power and the oppressed. Even if they were interested in social justice, in promoting their ideology, liberals and secular humanists robbed many minorities of the only spiritual authority they had and raised themselves as the ultimate arbiters of knowledge.

Heschel does not explicitly write of or engage natural science in his poetry. However, I argue that it is precisely Heschel’s philosophy of religion that undergirds such artistic decisions. For Heschel, “reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.”[15] Nevertheless, poetry, among other practices, is fit for the encounter: “Music, poetry, religion— they all initiate in the soul’s encounter with an aspect of reality for which reason has no concepts and language has no names.” In other words, it can be said that reason and natural science, which are quantitative, do not engage qualitative reality; and they do not engage this reality because only metaphor, with its evocative qualities, may lead to qualitative dimensions (i.e. transcendence). Heschel’s poem, “The Right to Wonder,” allows us to examine the nature of religious experience and how it may enhance the human situation by encountering the spiritual dimension of erotic love.

Your face—God’s crest—
His scepter—your hands.
It’s your beauty, I know—
gives poets proof of God […]

When I first touched
your endlessly-tender shoulder,
like Heaven itself—
you sweetly sealed
my right to wonder.

Since then I carry you in my ear,
The distant pull of your voice,
and am as if by a thousand holy festivals

In these two stanzas, Heschel begins to show the correlational nature of physical reality and spiritual reality; again, this is because, for Heschel, reality possessed meaning, an objective meaning. The woman’s face takes on the objective meaning of divinity. Heschel, as a Jewish humanist, asserts that humans are God’s image on earth. The second half of the stanza, “It’s your beauty, I know— / gives poets proof of God” is a more explicit, even abstractly framed, illustration of the metaphorization of the previous line. The balance between imagery and the speaker’s narration makes a connection to the rational, practical, and empirical world. It could be argued that the word choice “poets” implies that the proof of God is beyond the limits of ordinary empirical science; it is another qualitative dimension: “beauty.”

In the second stanza, we encounter a different empirical reality; here, it is the “endlessly-tender shoulder” that is allusive to the meaning of “heaven itself.” This demonstrates that even the metaphors are correlational as argued in his philosophy of religion; in other words, Heschel asserts that metaphors or “indicative” words may be different, but the “essence of perception” is the same. Thus, it could be argued that for another poet, the face of the woman may become God’s light. Although the metaphor differs, the essential meaning is the same: transcendence.

Finally, the line “you sweetly sealed / my right to wonder” is the counter-point to the imagery and metaphorization before. Again, a more explicit, abstract noun “wonder” and “right” is employed as Heschel connects the imagery to the voice of the speaker. Furthermore, the title and line “right to wonder” is the legitimatization of spiritual “insight.” This is because for Heschel: “Insights are the roots of art, philosophy and religion, and must be acknowledged as common and fundamental facts of mental life.”[17] Lastly, it is important to address exactly how Heschel resisted the anti-scientific literalism of fundamentalists. The answer can be found in the context of his philosophy of religion. As opposed to employing scientific claims in his poetry, Heschel demonstrated that practices that “initiate the soul’s encounter with the sublime” are not even empirical claims. They are qualitative claims. In a time when scriptural texts were interpreted in literal, anachronistic methods, Heschel resisted this by reading scripture as spiritual insight and making claims that did not trespass unto the field of science, but opened one to the spiritual significance of reality.

Wonder as a Call to Action

For Heschel, wonder did not lead to complacency or asceticism, but to obligation and action. This theme is powerfully illustrated by Heschel’s poetry. First, in the section, What to do With Wonder, he writes: “The world consists, not of things, but of tasks. Wonder is the state of our being asked. The ineffable is a question addressed to us.”[18] In Moral Granduar and Spiritual Audacity, Heschel writes: “This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil…” We may ask how wonder may lead to a sense of responsibility, but we are missing something: For Heschel, the entire universe had a spiritual significance. As he wrote, “To be implies to stand for, because every being is representative of something that is more than itself; because the seen, the known, stands for the unseen, the unknown.” In the following poem, I and You, Heschel presents the most direct image of human-divine inseparability:

I and You

Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine,
trading, twining My pain with yours.
Am I not—You? Are you not—I?

My nerves are clustered with Yours.
Your dreams have met with mine.
Are we not one in the bodies of millions?

Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’ form,
hear My own speech—a distant, quiet voice—in people’s weeping,
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden.                       

I live in Me and in you.
Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me,                         
From your eyes drips a tear—its source in Me.                      

When a need pains You, alarm me!                        
When You miss a human being
tear open my door!
You live in Yourself, You live me.[19]


One of the most striking features of this poem is the unexpected shifts in speaker. The shifts are suggested by the capitalization of “You” and “Me.” In the first stanza, the speaker appears to be God because “Mine” is capitalized; however, in the last line of the stanza, suddenly “You” becomes capitalized indicating that the speaker is human. This interchangebility is punctuated by the statement “Am I not—You? Are you not—I?” In the second stanza, this interchangeability is expanded from the micro individual/God relationship to the macro humanity/God relationship: “Are we not one in the bodies of millions?” In the stanzas following, the texture of this is reified in the imagery of tears: “Through your lips goes a word from Me to Me, / From your eyes drips a tear—its source in Me.”        

The interchangeability and inseparability is not only a spiritual meditation, but a call to action. As Heschel asserts, “The world consists, not of things, but of tasks.” In light of the inseparability of God and humanity, liberalist individualism is impossible: love thy neighbor as yourself is reified, flesh and bone. First, if a tear drop falls from the cheek of any “disparate” human being, that tear drop is God’s. Second, if a tear-drop falls from the cheek of any “disparate” human being, it is also “the bodies of millions.”

Given poetry’s qualitative dimension, we are not only compelled to treat each other with respect by logical necessity. In other words, it is not only the ontological connection which is presented, but the experiential, evocative connection. The embodied imagery of a tear compels one to feel the suffering of others and such an emotional sensibility and worldview makes demands on humanity. This is why the last stanza includes these exclamatory lines: “When a need pains You, alarm me! / When You miss a human being / tear open my door!”

Today, the US holds military presence in a 150 countries with 172,966 active-duty personnel.[20] By strongly supporting tyrannical states like the Saudi Royal family, it robs Saudi citizens of basic freedom and refuses to participate in the international criminal court. Israel is now the closest alley to United States, supporting every invasion and expanding settlements against international law. Domestically, as documented in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, the United States holds the highest incarceration rate: 2.3 million prisoners with blacks and Hispanics accounting for 60% of the inmates. To struggle for justice during Heschel’s time was to choose life, to oppose explicit laws rejecting the humanity of others. But American racism has changed from explicit to hidden, an ugly systemic rejection of black lives.

During his life, Heschel confronted the injustices of his day head-on at their root from prose to poetry. As thinking and feeling creatures with a capacity for beauty, the fulllness of life's  picture, the question is how will we address these injustices of today and does our philosophy of religion, religious body, and culture (poetry, visual, film) urgently demand it.

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 289.

[2] Ibid, Kindle Locations 1068-1070.

[3] Ibid, Kindle Locations 537-538.

[4] Ibid, Kindle Location 265.

[5] Ibid, Kindle Location 401.

[6] Ibid, Kindle Location 377.

[7] Ibid, Kindle 232.

[8] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 63.

[9] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 385.

[10] Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), Kindle Locations 3796-3797.

[11] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 305.

[12] Ibid, Kindle Location 305.

[13] Ibid, Kindle Location 437.

[14] Ibid, Kindle Location 439.

[15] Ibid, Kindle Location 252.

[16] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 107.

[17]. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition), Kindle Location 341.

[18] Ibid, Kindle Location 884.

[19] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Ineffable Name of God: Man, (New York: Continuum Books, 2007), 31.

[20] "Total Military Personnel and Dependent End Strength By Service, Regional Area, and Country". Defense Manpower Data Center. September 30, 2014.

Tears or Holy Water: Post-9/11 Sermon Delivered at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Brooklyn, New York, September 18, 2016

Tears or Holy Water: Post-9/11 Sermon Delivered at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Brooklyn, New York, September 18, 2016

Last Sunday, my partner Sabrina and I embarked on our journey from elevated, compressed Washington Heights to the spaciousness of Cortelyou, Brooklyn. And as I walked, I saw many gardens. As we looked for the church, Sabrina remarked: it’s probably a house...where I see a house and read All Souls Bethlehem. And is that not what it is supposed to be….a home for those who are seeking. From the back of the worship space, I could see a homely staircase descend while people of different colors, ages, and genders entered and moved around.

Like the early church, we sang and we read scripture. And then something sacred began to emerge between all of us. Words began to rise, stories of disease and healing, murder and triumph. We sang and we greeted one another in one of the most non-awkward passing of peace. And then we raised the stories of a day that changed New York forever, that left tears on the eyes and lump in the throat for many in the room.

This July, looking over the Gri Gri lagoon in Rio San Juan, I managed to link to the Wi-Fi of our outdoor bar and a read news that forever changed my view of my homeland. I was visiting my partner’s relatives in the Dominican Republic, and as the power blinked in and out, the words of my uncle brought a weight I could not push away: I slowly read the news of the Russian “anti-terrorism” law that imposed an oppressive clutch of restrictions on the religious freedom, and really freedom of conscience, of my Russian people. “Religious activity” outside “designated places” is now illegal.

This is an incredibly weighty matter for me. I was nurtured by the courage of those who,  because of their religion, suffered Soviet persecution in Stalin’s labor camps or discrimination and brutality in their communities: my great-grandfather and grandfather spent ten and five years, respectively, in Stalin’s gulags; my father and mother challenged school and military authorities, facing discrimination and physical brutality. In fact, I witnessed this authoritarianism when my father’s visa back to the US was delayed for months in 2004.

That night, I poured tears for the people of my land and all peoples because we could not share this planet without the unjust structures of power and control. I poured tears for Latin Americans othered in their own lands, Haitians deported both from the United States and the Dominican Republic in a larger crushing of difference, of blackness. These were human issues, these were issues that emerged right here at All Souls Bethlehem Church.

The brutality, the fragmentation of relationships from the spiritual self to the family, local, religious, and national: the macrocosm. The weight, the pain, the immensity of it all. How could conversation, how could anything bring back those lost or take away the pain.  This ugliness, meaningless, this boredom of repressive cycles. The thorns in the flesh.  Perhaps, that ordinary, boring monotony of isolation, loss, and meaninglessness  that T.S. Elliot immortalized in his poem, the Hollow Men is real:  

his is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

But we have gathered here as followers of Christ, for us, it also unfolds within the Christian narrative. In fact, for the Israelites of the Hebrew bible, and really all religious folk, God is revealed in the vulnerable, in the absence, the silence. The Lord God says:, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for theLord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

Maybe, as we spoke of the trauma and loss of 9 11, Shakespeare was right in calling tears holy water, maybe the silence and pain that resonated through the room was no longer isolated in the abyss of loneliness, but seeped, broke-through and made us more whole. After my partner and I were leaving church, we remarked how we appreciated feeling welcomed and listening to such intimate personal recollections and reflections. But we did not just listen, we also re-oriented ourselves to something beyond, we entrusted ourselves to that which we can not control. I felt lighter.

Yes, it was not solutions, but the most honest and helpless pleas that gripped us, that bound us in a holy sense of feeling.  Perhaps, this is because vulnerability allows us to confront that which is repressed or rejected, consciously or unconsciously from the whole. And this whole begins from our own hearts to the borders built around nations. From the person we sit beside on the train to our support of tyrannical dictators in the middle East. We, we just visitors are a part of the ministry of presence. We showed up. We held-up and resonated with each other’s incredibly different struggles.

After returning from the Dominican Republic, I was reading Angela Davis’ book, Freedom. My thoughts were on Russia and the encroachment of freedom that returned. Speaking of her understanding of Black politics, in her book Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Ferguson, Palestine, And the Foundations Of Movement former black panther, academic, and activist, Angela Davis writes “the Black struggle in the US serves an emblem of the struggle for freedom. It’s emblematic of larger struggles for freedom.”

I came to realize that by claiming my personal vulnerabilities I was able to join the struggles of others and begin liberate myself from white supremacy.  I started from my vulnerability: my immigrant, religious minority, short, poet, experience. It was not male whiteness I had to defend or white guilt to absolve.  There is nothing to defend there: there is nothing good in domination.  I do not think whiteness as the Western, objective, absolute truth is real. It is the impersonal cultural and economic systems that continue to leave people of color disproportionatly invisibilzed, brutalized or killed that are real. And for me, that means there is only privilege to be shared within these systems of resources. I do not not have to invest time defending whiteness which was only a supremacist construct hurting us both on a social plane. This is taking our weaknesses and vulnerabilities as our starting points, not notions of supremacy. That means that there is something spiritually expensive, holy about tears. They have moved people towards insight and action.

Upon my return, I began to see wholeness, the repression of church communities in Russia as the same repression of alternate economies when people of color are harassed and even murdered by US police for “violations” like selling CD’s (Alton Sterling), loose cigarettes (Eric Garner). The wholeness of the global justice struggle began to uncover.  The Russian government’s attack on dissidents, LGBTQ, people of color, freethinkers, Muslims, and religious minorities is a crisis that to varying degrees joins the black struggle, the working class people’s struggle, the LGBTQ struggle, the feminist struggle across the world.

This fall will mark the first time I am not in school. Now I have loans. I am now in the world of adulthood. And I see how we become pulled apart by the gods of responsibility. Something has happened to the world of our daily life, especially in the screech and text vibration of the city. Job interviews and business pitches do not want vulnerability, but success, power.

Not only so, but constant attachment to solutions, the sound of verbal communication, to the certainty of light, digital connection, uncovers our deeper fear of silence, of darkness, of reality itself. It suggests that somehow, for us, words are superior to silence, light superior to darkness. And I think it is this kind of thinking, this orienation that allowed sexism, racism and neglect of nature and earth-spirituality.  It suggests an inner and outer world where something is rejected and unaddressed, controlled or kept at arms length. But when we approach the birth of Christ, we read of John the Baptist, strengthening his spirit through discipline in the steep desert terraces and blunt escarpments of the Judean desert (Luke 1:80). There is seclusion, stillness, and silence. And ultimately, we read of Jesus, after his baptism in the Jordan River, compelled by the Holy Spirit to fast and be tested in that same strenuous terrain (Matthew 4:1).

How much energy, bodily and spiritual, is wasted on unresolved inner conflicts or what we call stress. I am afraid that unchecked, at their most tragic, these same energies can result in violence, whether individual, domestic or global. This energy could be channeled into finding our creaturehood through co-creation. We must begin to become whole and that takes just doing it, where even an instant counts:

confronting the challenge of confronting the real self, of resting in all our whole being, where prayer becomes resistance through self-surivival and expression. It takes reconnecting with all creation, especially what is most repressed, our bodies, sexuality, the earth, which feeds us. That is the place where vulnerability is home and renewed. We preserve our spirit from the thousands of needs that pull us apart. We may confront the thorn in the flesh; instead of being something we neglect and step on, hurting ourselves and then others, it teaches us. Then, right in our hand, the greatest thorn we hold in the greatest darkness, can become a match lighting the way to our calling: something powerful, a strength born within weakness.

Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Where Excavating the Sky Came From

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by  Pascal Dombis . Public Domain. Wikimedia. 

Irrationnal Geometrics digital art installation 2008 by Pascal Dombis. Public Domain. Wikimedia. 


In a technoscientific age of near-cyborg-existence and capitalist social structure, we find ourselves pitted against each other and our own inner experience: whatever is not material, profitable, or logical is at best, distrusted, and at worst, banished: a very one-dimensional way to live. This has led to the abandonment of what spirituality is (derived from the Latin spiritus, to breathe)  and what it means to be human; and this abandonment is not only outside religion, but within it: the impulse to impose an absolute truth on diverse human experiences. Audre Lorde observed this when she alluded to post-Enlightenment thought on the world: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.”

For me, spirituality begins in the body and includes all inner (or “subjective”) experience, on its own terms. And at its healthiest, to be spiritual is to be open and in healthy tension to all experience: for example, it would view the findings of natural science, the Church Fathers, or the rituals of Haitian Vodou not as an opposition, not as a hierarchy of truth, but as different, different and equally legitimate dimensions. It may not be a dimension I enter or understand, but instead of being destroyed, it must be honored as still-unexplored and unknown. On this plane, the before-irrelevant beauty, wonder, hope, and love are able to emerge and continue to persist. Poetry, an embodied art because it is rooted in sensory perception and emotion, honores inner experience. As I write in the title poem of the book, "Excavating the Sky"

                                 In my room,
I punch in letters, mixing words

to bring-out sparks. And it is You, Yahweh. 

For me, poetry is spirituality and spirituality is poetry. Excavating the Sky is a spiritual experience and as such it is living and invites the reader to participate and shape that experience. 


Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Wikimedia. 9th-century photo of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra in Kiev, Russian Empire (now Ukraine). 

Born into a Russian family, tongue, and country, beauty and curiosity as a spiritual sensibility seems implanted in me. My parents often remind of my first time attending an Eastern Orthodox Church service and the way I was transfixed by the dizzying chanting, candles, luminous icons, and incense. It was not until I read my Professor Mckguckin’s book Standing in God's Holy Fire The Byzantine Tradition: “The synonymity of beauty and holiness is something that resonates throughout all Byzantine religious philosophy, emerging time and time again, even into the present Orthodox world. Prince Myshkin's exclamation in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot catches the idea exactly: 'Beauty will save the World!'” Those sentences alone pushed me to claim my Russian identity and its spiritual sensibilities with dignity, a sensibility I had repressed in order to blend in, or what I now think was "assimilate" into the United States at all costs. I remember that only now, after coming to New York, did I begin to claim my Russian identity completely in all spheres. 

In the first poem of Excavating the Sky, “Perestroika” you get a glimpse of my roots for the beautiful, the seemingly different and sensual. Amidst the sterile and muddy economic rubble of the Soviet Union, I remember what would become my first retrievable memory of existence, an experience ushered-in by my mother in the poem "Perestroika," a word I heard often signaling Gorbachev's reforms. After the first line reads "In the sterile-white room, I would look-out / the window and lose count in the snow," I my mother finally arrives, bringing a colorful fruit that I did not see in an store-empty Russia:

She would carry a small aluminum can
and set it on the white table.

Slowly, she would tear open the metal.
Inside: a mango cut in halves, aglow (p. 12)


A description of my book, Excavating the Sky, reads that it seeks to “relate the inner spirituality of [my] Russian background to the fragmentation of a market-driven New World.” Living in an information age, experience is uprooted from its holistic, present-focus in order to fit systems of power and control. These systems of power and control (multinational corporate capitalism, white supremacy, anthropocentrism, patriarchy) have no concern of the whole and thus betray the spirituality, betray the breath, and betray all of life. The fragmentation created a tension that existed in and between religions, between the city and the country, and between races. 

A significant portion of the poems in Excavating the Sky were written during a very difficult spiritual crisis (“Excavating the Sky”) where everything I thought or every decision I made was subjected to the supreme authority of “natural” science and “secular reason.” This experience is dramatized in the poem of the same name as the book title, Excavating the Sky. Here, there is an emptiness and silence that is "absurd as wreckage" almost in a Camus-like manner:

Each morning, I rise like the
wrestling Jacob, running

through parking lots. I pray,
“Break open my counting brain;

make me your holiest fool.”
What blessed psych ward

must they leadeth me to


Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

Audre Lorde, Meridel Lesueur, Adrienne Rich

From my wandering childhood starting in Russia, moving to the US, moving back to Russia, then to England, back to Russia, and multiple regions in the US, I have experienced exclusion. Thus, for me, beauty is connected to my commitment to heal chasms and put opposing forces into relation. During my now-failed Muslim-Christian relationship, I was able to survive through new ways of seeing because seeing leads to acting. Again, Audre Lorde's words are fitting: "For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action." This opens up an important topic: the relationship between art and activism that I will explore in other posts. 

The fragmentation I lived under turned out to be ultimately destructive and you can feel these tensions in many of the poems. However, it was poetry, specifically the poetry of Excavating the Sky that honored, unearthed, and charged me; I touched the integrity of beauty. For me, just like Van Gogh's Starry Sky painting is a reflection of what Van Gogh felt, Excavating the Sky is an affirmation of my inner experience. But not only so, it is an experience that is participatory. In other words, it is there to be experienced and shaped by you:

There, above Qur’an and Bible, two different heavens

rise-up and conjoin: it is rivers of milk, streets of gold,
hairless companions, and pearly gates.

I leave these thin wishes as words on a page. Here,
at my bedside, the Qur’an lies not far from the Bible.