“Transfiguring Angels”

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I was miserable as a lawyer.

It was the 1990s, and I was working at the Staff Attorney’s Office for the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Atlanta, Georgia, and had started closing the door to my office and pulling up files with drafts of my poems. I still marvel about how I got there to that office, and how I got out. In college, I’d fallen in love with poetry, with the Romantics and Transcendentalists and wanted to become a poet. But at the same time, I discovered another tradition, which pulled me in a different direction. I discovered yoga and meditation and was initiated into a Tantrik lineage of yogic practice. After several years, I began to feel that I had a calling to become a yogic monk—a homeless, celibate ascetic and revolutionary spiritual teacher. I gave up poetry, classical guitar, and a thousand other cherished attachments and was on my way to India for training and to take my final vows as a monk. I would never see the U.S. or my family again.

But, then I fell in love with a beautiful Charlestonian.

Which plunged me into a spiritual crisis. Would I become the monk I felt I was called to be, or would I marry Anne?  AAfter a year of confusion, in a desperate move, Anne and I were married in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, in the office of a justice of the peace. Part of me knew it was a mistake. Despairing and uncertain what to do, I applied to law school.  I thought that as a lawyer I could still work to change the world and maybe I could bury my spiritual life and all my monkish yearnings. We moved to Seattle and I enrolled at the University of Washington Law School. My plan did not work out. After graduating from law school, Anne and I moved to Atlanta where I clerked for a federal judge and she started grad school in psychology.  After a couple of years, one Sunday we visited Saint Bernard Abbey, a monastery in Cullman, Alabama, and on the drive home I confessed to Anne that I still felt called to be a monk. She was devastated. So, we started therapy. I started therapy. Counseling did not save our marriage. But it did save my life.

One day, during a session with Robin Kennedy, my great therapist, I was sitting on her couch weeping about something or another, and I suddenly blurted out, “And all I ever really wanted was to be a poet.”  Robin, after a long moment of silence, wryly replied, “Well, it’s a good thing you’re talking about it in the past tense, now that you’re ninety years old and everything.”  With Robin, I came to realize that I didn’t have to become a monk. Maybe I could still become a poet.

As I began to make my way back to poetry, I came across The Morrow Anthology of Younger American Poets, in an Atlanta bookstore, edited by David Bottoms and Dave Smith. I fell in love with this book and the poems between its covers. I learned that one of the editors, David Bottoms, was a professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. For the first time in a long time, the path to poetry felt closer, much more accessible, right there for me to walk.

While working my day job as a lawyer, I applied and was accepted into the MFA program at Georgia State. I had some trepidation, having heard about brutal workshops where arrogant professors destroy the dreams of young poets. David’s workshops were not like that. That first Saturday morning, David walked into class with his big beard, bald head, and kind blue eyes. I saw how he met each poet’s poem exactly where it was and steered the workshop toward improving it. Surprisingly, we didn’t distribute poems ahead of time. We read them cold. David read them cold. I was astonished at the feedback he could offer on the spot, so much wiser than what I heard in workshops where everyone spent the previous week with the poems. David taught me so much about writing, about being a poet. I learned from him the power of narrative—that even the most lyrical poems have elements of narrative; how narrative can move a poem with power and grace toward those revelatory, lyrical moments; how a narrator’s voice arises from a connection to place, to the land—something characteristic of so many Southern poets. I learned about the power of the image. David always said, “Let the images do the work for you.” I learned from him that “all poems are about two things, life and death,” but that they’re all “really about one thing. Death.” Why? Because poets are sensitive to the ephemerality of things, and feel called to honor, celebrate, bear witness to the things of the world passing away before our eyes.

In the personal renaissance and rebirth I was undergoing, greatly fostered by David’s workshops, I found my voice and my art and returned to my vocation. On many weekends in those days, true to my Transcendentalist roots, I spent a lot of time in solitude, hiking the mountains of North Georgia and North Carolina, working through the changes taking place in my life. I walked the ridges of the Smoky Mountains reciting David’s poems. “Sign for My Father, Who Stressed the Bunt,” about the boy who wants to be a baseball hero but at the end confesses to his father: “Like a hand brushed across the bill of a cap, / let this be the sign / I’m getting a grip on the sacrifice.” I memorized “In a U-Haul North of Damascus,” where the speaker, himself in the middle of a divorce, spends a night in a U-Haul at a truck stop and in the morning:

I roll down the window and breathe the pine-air, the after-scent of rain, and the far-off smell of asphalt and diesel fumes.

But mostly pine and rain as though the world really could be clean again.

I memorized “Under the Vulture Tree,” where vultures become “those dwarfed transfiguring angels . . . with mercy enough to consume us all and give us wings.”

Now, I’ve been teaching for more than twenty-five years, having taught at three different universities, and I am certain the letters David wrote for me played a central role in securing each of these jobs. As a professor and mentor to young poets, myself now, I try to carry forward lessons David taught me. I try to create nurturing and supportive workshops. I end the discussion of every poem, as he did, by saying, “Going once on this poem. Twice. Three times!”  And so very often before that final, “Three times,” some quiet student will speak up for the first time and add their voice to the conversation. I have tried to follow practical lessons he taught me, too, one of which is to guard one’s time as a writer, to be a professor who doesn’t have to attend every party or seek visibility and admiration by taking on more and more administrative roles.

But most importantly what I do every semester is teach David’s poems. Living in Utah and reading his poems I get to return to the landscapes of the beautiful South, the rivers and mixed hardwood forests, the oaks, dogwoods, and redbuds, the mockingbirds, cardinals, and blue jays. And before long, my students come to understand that it’s not really the vultures, but the poems and the poets, who are the real transfiguring angels. And David was one for me, who stood at the trailhead, welcoming me onto the path of this sacred art.