Shatter the bowl of heaven

Thursday, November 27th, 2003

Here’s what we believe: that men take orders and die silently more easily than they bare their souls.

I don’t think this is true, or men would not be poets, but still, believing this makes it too easy to explain how the world is — this hard, lonely place with so much suffering and indifference and so many lies.

We can’t change how men are, but we can change how they’re supposed to be, and when we do that we break the grip of the future that is projected for us: a proxy world, belonging to someone else, lived by celebrities and always ending up, it seems, at that brutal impasse and fait accompli called war.

I saw Robert Bly on stage, dancing as he sang, “Let’s shatter the bowl of heaven and start a new creation,” and I think he was singing about this. Let’s break imprisoned creation and the future that is not ours. Let’s set free a world where art and applause, and honest grief, and a full life, belong to all of us. Let’s settle for no less.

Bly, the poet, was one of the first to see that men must reclaim their birthright as artists and deeply connected human beings, and if they do that not just they themselves but everyone else — women, children — will benefit immeasurably. This is the men’s movement.

Welcome to Oakton Community College, in Des Plaines, Ill., northwest of Chicago, where Bly, the poet, and his fellow author and buddy, John Lee (the two are Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers of men’s soul work, someone said) spoke to 400 of us the other day at the college’s annual Men’s Day.

Something happened while they spoke that only about 15 of us were later privileged to bear witness to, because it entered the world as a small miracle within a circle we had formed. As Bly and Lee talked and urged us to access our creative powers, Bob Shiel listened and wrote about his father. His father had died a week ago.

He wrote tough, unstinting, heartfelt words:

Sucking water
through denture-less lips
from a sponge
on a popsicle stick
like a babe in infancy
lying, agitated, moaning
with grief for the father he was
for the son I am …

He wrote maybe 100 lines in all, about the experience of being at his father’s death bed. These were raw, uncensored words, coming out in that sudden stampede of creation that can happen, unbidden, when there’s no reason why it shouldn’t: a literate catharsis.

But the miracle, or perhaps it was just the fulfillment of the promise of art, is what happened next. And it happened because five years ago two visionaries in the men’s movement, Andy Mitran and Dick Levon, started a group called the Men’s Art Forum, which I was lucky enough to hear about and join, and I experienced the sympathetic sounding board of the circle as a place to open up my life and read and listen to others.

After Bly and Lee spoke, the group broke into various presentations, including one sponsored by the Men’s Art Forum, which Bob Shiel joined, and midway through he read his poem. Simply quoting it can’t do it justice, because as he read, each word caught on his heart and came out haltingly, as though it was being born in that moment.

… standing
hand in hand
around the original fire
goodbye father, grandfather, brother …

And he stopped, and silence reverberated in the circle for five or maybe ten seconds. The next word wouldn’t come out; it was too big. Then, at last, teacher …

And he went on: sacred clown, failure, hero …

Art in its original context is sacred expression, not entertainment, and somewhere near the root of the problem with our broken world is the loss of this context. “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you $50,000 for a kiss and 50 cents for your soul,” said Marilyn Monroe.

Let’s shatter the bowl of heaven and start a new creation.