Living In the Borderlands, Nicholas Samaras’s Poetry, Hands of the Saddlemaker

Most days we move through a world of familiar routines, often with unsurprising outcomes. The past few days I spent time with friends who own a house in Peschio, a tiny village situated above Alvito, Italy, a small community located on the edge of the Comino Valley a couple of hours below Rome in the state of Lazio. In Peschio, traditions still hold sway in people’s everyday lives. Bells ring on the hour, people have close connections with their neighbors and still live where they were born. Neighbors share gifts of food such as handmade pasta. In the evening, people gather for conversation at the local ice cream parlor or sit with friends on benches in the street. The town adorns the roads with ribbons for a celebration of the Madonna, carrying an icon of her through the streets. Here, communities aren’t driven by competition or pressed down with the weight of tasks to complete in a limited period of time. Life here is simple. Houses are not fancy, neither are their clothes. It’s true that the area struggles economically and that the population is aging, yet at the same time people have time to chat on the street or gather for an impromptu dinner on the neighborhood piazza. Human connection remains central to life.

I feel a connection to those living in a world where tradition is still a vital part of people’s understanding and way of being, but this way of being can’t be mine. I wasn’t raised with traditions that go back to the old world. I have lived in too many worlds with too many other lives, but there is a beauty there. Unlike the world in Alvito, the world most of us live in is filled not with space for human connection, but instead with human competition and the drive to get ahead, make a name, or gain power in some area, even if a narrow one. Minutes count, and finding time to sit outside and enjoy the evening air or to chat with a friend can be challenging. In such a world it is difficult to find satisfaction or wholeness. It’s challenging to find the time to reflect on life, hard to assume an attitude of receptivity instead of needing to act or be in charge, though receptivity is a central attitude that enables us to learn respect for our limitations and to value our interdependence with others, qualities that in turn engender connectivity with others and help us experience life as meaningful.

Occasionally, however, amidst the clatter and squeeze of everyday life that pushes us along from one event to the next, the extraordinary, like a giant fish rising from the sea’s depths or storm wind shaking a tree to its roots, occurs, and we are given a window into our lives that touches us at our roots and helps us see what we are. Having recently read Nicholas Samaras’s book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, I feel I have experienced the extraordinary. Echoes from the poems’ imagery and language move through my mind, rising at unexpected moments, floating up from the subconscious where the poems have been at work. The poems probe the  struggle to live purposefully with meaning when traditional values and ways of being no longer hold the world together.

Though we have access to unprecedented volumes of knowledge in our day, to live meaningfully and purposefully, all of us must negotiate between enormous areas of ongoing, continuous and rapid social, economic and technological fluctuation and change. It is no easy task to assimilate ourselves into these various worlds and learn how to integrate them into our lives in a way that allows us to develop wholeness. Each of us must explore how to direct ourselves through the current of these changes. Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich said, “Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name of God. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith,” and Samaras’s poetry is an exploration of meaning making while swimming in the sea of the postmodern era. The intensely vivid quality of Samaras’s descriptions, language and poetic narratives in Hands of the Saddlemaker pulled me below the surface of words into an interior current flowing between places of exile and belonging, faith, and loss, love and death.

From the opening poem, “Lost,” describing the ease with which a person can lose his or her way, to the final piece, “Decade,” depicting the transformative moment where pain and brokenness from a relationship are let go, the poems in this volume traverse the territory between the traditions, beliefs and practices that both bind and open us. The book’s ending poem, “Decade” returns to a place of confrontation with grief and loss that allows one to come to finally release from its hold and come to a place of stasis where healing might begin. Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” The ground we stand in our era is constantly shifting and most of us don’t have lives that thread us back to origins, place or carefully followed tradition. The poems explore the territory between and beyond borders, tradition and predefined boundaries, stretching into broader realms of experience and emotion where transformation is forged and meaning created amidst brokenness. This is a book of poems that speaks to our time and worthy of careful and repeated readings.

 One of the poems in the volume, “Easter in the Cancer Ward” describes the process of coloring and decorating eggs for Easter, while confronting the certainty of death and contemplating the significance of belief in life after death ends. One of the children in the ward with cancer directly states “I’m dying.” Another unexpectedly later asks the poem’s narrator if he believes in Christ and living forever, prompting him to search within in himself for an honest answer. Easter, as we know, is about life after death, but the poem places us in the moment where death lives inside of life and helps us see how the two are connected. The poem ends where the children put the narrator’s hands into the red dye, staining them red, the color of resurrection. The poem’s last line, “and we are laughing,” is especially poignant. Here is an image of life in death, death in life, and the hard territory one walks between the two. The child has led the speaker to touch that place, a world of pain and wonder inseparable from each other.

In his poem about crossing borders, “Passport,” Samaras writes, “In counties of the temporary, we are forever/ accumulating, possessing, leaving behind./ In the end, our hands will finally be empty.” This is an absolutely powerful piece about impermanence. In some sense, we are always standing at a border, the border between today and tomorrow, youth and age, innocence and experience. The border is a place of transformation–leaving a country, possessions, or a life. We exchange one way of being for another, one life for another. “I cannot help but be a citizen of transience,” writes Samaras, “always looking for the land beyond language.” Forever life is changing and we are leaving behind what we were, “our pale winter/ breaths losing the shape of our bodies.” There is death, but there is also the possibility of entering “the land beyond language,” a place where presence moves beyond the clothes we carry or the language our tongues wear, or any particular belonging, and we are “fresh and farthingless[ly]” ourselves.

Earlier this summer while walking in downtown Santa Cruz, California, I walked past a street preacher standing on his soap box calling out to passers by telling them they were sinners and to come to Jesus. While it’s true that we are all incomplete and need renewal daily, the word sin, is hardly in anyone’s vocabulary these days. I found the soapbox preacher’s tone disturbing. It didn’t compel me to examine my life. Instead, I wanted to push him away. I don’t like anyone yelling at me.

WW2 monument in Alvito, Italy

Religion today is bound up in politics, is full of lines drawn on many sides defining right from wrong. What may have once been clear divisions of morality has been manipulated by motivations of profit, of revenge and the love of control, often confusing our understanding of what is really being said so that it’s difficult to know and act on the truth, even as we understand it. While some people are certain they know what is right (as I suspect the street preacher did because of his tone) in this world–the correct beliefs and actions, or at least want to convince us that they do, Samaras’a poetry presents a different vision of belief in the Divine. “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” two men enter an abandoned NY city cathedral that is condemned and scheduled to be torn down, paralleling what is in fact a reality in Christianity today, where the church is being blotted out in its geographical place of origin (see William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain) and where the church has lost respect in the general population as a result of misconduct by priests, attitudes of bigotry, injustice, and through other acts contrary to the teaching of Christ who called people to love their neighbor. Even though the church in Samaras’s “In the Shell of a City Cathedral” is boarded up, abandoned, and set for destruction, though the homeless are lined up and sleeping outside it, the two men intuitively recognize there something inside the vestiges of its structure that nevertheless still offers refuge. “There is nothing worse than a safe life,” writes Samaras, and the faith demonstrated in this poem is not one of safety. The world inside the cathedral is broken. Wires and tubes twist across the floor, the staircase is dilapidated, and the roof opens to the sky and moon. What was once sacred is strewn together with the profane. The two men find it disturbing that “such a building, such a solidity can fall to man’s priorities.” The church’s broken state reflects our human inability to discern what is holy or pure. Svetozar, one of the two men, steps on a nail that pierces his foot. Similar to this unexpected wounding in a place once sacred but now desecrated, innocents across the world have been harmed in the darkness of wars that have changed lives forever, and in particular since the World Wars. Like the homeless sleeping outside the church walls, we are all in some sense homeless now, without belief and holding a general societal disregard or nonchalance regarding injustices. Ignore the nail that has pierced the foot, however, and we die.

Why enter the cathedral? Why call on faith in a time when to believe in God is to many an absurdity? “We climb to resist/ ourselves in a complacent country,” writes Samaras. “To enter this cathedral/ this edifice was necessary.” Faith isn’t arrogance or a person calling from a soapbox on a city street. It is the climb in a church of uncertain structure to

…a level footing, an icon

and a dusty mirror.
All through palpable darkness, the ginger

feeling for where the foot should go next,
the leaning the weight into it.

Here is humility. Here is a spirituality that connects to the suffering of humanity in the dark places of difficulty and pain. Here is where Samaras brings us to at the end of the poem, “wind filters throughout clothes. For a moment, I thought/ I heard the connected lives of others.” The speaker is holding the memory of one’s own hands wrapped around the broken bannister’s weight. The Christian ritual of communion and bread breaking represents Jesus’s self broken, like the bread, and the shared selfless giving with the community of humanity. Yes the church is broken, like all human institutions. But there is also the church that is still what a church is meant to be–God living through people on earth; Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teresa of Avila, Oscar Romero, Parker Palmer, and the myriad of every day people who do the work in the world and in themselves that creates wholeness. Faith is more than a set of beliefs. As Kierkegaard says, “It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”  The poem shows us those who take the risk and enter in can learn spiritual truths that remain beneath and inside the brokenness and with it, we can find strength to change our lives.

Perhaps I feel drawn to the poems in Hands of the Saddlemaker because inside the poems I hear a voice that tells me there are no easy answers. Several of the poems in the book deal with the hard work of reconciliation. We are all living in some form of exile and we must work out our own salvation. Having lived in other countries outside my own for 25 years, I feel an affinity for the voices of those living outside the boundaries of what might have once been home. I am from the borderlands. My parents moved to California from South Dakota and I was the first in my family to be born there. SanDiego County bordering Mexico was my childhood home. For me, everywhere and nowhere is home. I’m reminded of the old gospel song, “This World is Not My Home” (and here is a bluegrass version.) Though I live in one world, I am of another world too.

Woven through this volume of poems is the sense that the writing is born from a distinct, even painful awareness of the incompleteness of one’s own life, and the willingness to confront it honestly in order to cut through to the marrow of bone where the soul is laid bare and offered up on an altar like a prayer. I think of the Rembrandt painting I saw this summer in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, of Abraham offering up Isaac and the angel holding back Abraham’s hand. The story and painting is a metaphor for what powerful art and writing is. It functions as a sacred offering. In the act of making and reading poetry and art we can be saved, so to speak, through the power of art and words to restore.

It was 3:00 am at the border as I reentered India last night, serendipitously, just like the line in Samaras’s poem, “Passport” where he says “It is always three am at the border.” I had my bag with my yearly supply of vitamins, my clothes, my journal. Men pushed a long line of luggage carts, some leaned against a wall, listless with the weight of waiting. My shoes are old and wearing through the bottoms, but again I begin. Beyond the airport doors waited the city’s broken walls, the millions who sleep on the street. Tired, without sleep, aware of the world I left behind, the world I was about to step into, I left the airport’s bright lights and glossy tiles and rode out into India. There are so many brave people living on India’s streets, each day not knowing where or how their food will come, how they will meet with illness or loss. Continuously, I am reminded here of the need to step beyond my own lack of faith, to be brave–to better understand the need around me and to listen for the voices that help me understand and how to serve out of my own depths the world around me.

The poems in the volume embody faith in periods of grief and loss, a willingness to bear that loss in order to find a way through it. I learn from the poetry in this book, and am changed. Samaras’s poems are more than descriptive words with an insightful message. They have soul. The poems in the book speak to each other in a way other poetry books I’ve read do not. The poems echo off and weave back into each other. They breathe together, become more than they were individually. These are poems whose words hold integrity, life and spirit. They help us find how to bear the hard things of this world. By example, they demonstrate poetry’s power to show us our humanity and bring us back to ourselves. Reading the poems in Nicholas Samaras’s Hands of the Saddlemaker calls me to live more deeply, to feel gratitude for the many small joys of our existence. There is a humility present in the spirit that comes through the writing at the same time that the writing demonstrates mastery and beauty. Such writing is rare, and to read it is a wonderful gift.


Nicholas Samaras’ Poetry, Poems That Enable Us to See

Is poetry relevant to us today? Do poets speak to the questions we live with? When I read writer Nicholas Samaras’s poetry, I say yes. Samaras’s new book is coming out this spring, American Psalm, World Psalm, and I can’t wait to read it. Samaras’s previous book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, received the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. About that book, Laurence Lieberman said, “Hands of the Saddlemaker earns all of late James Dickey’s enthusiasm, and then some…truly an overwhelming masterwork; the whole work is a transcendent marvel.”

Taking a closer look at some of Nicholas Samaras’s poetry found on Connotation Press, “Metaphor As Identity”, “Old Calendar”, and “Petition”, I love the way these poems create space between the images and lines, opening a space for the reader to step inside.

“Metaphor as Identity” uses images that are vividly alive and felt. The stanzas describe a self that reaches below the surface into the dark space of creation where we live. This is a place where presence and becoming co-exist, a place of longing, reaching, and deep yearning to connect to the Mystery. “I am the exact space between bell-tolls to chapel” Samaras writes, and continues later in the poem to say, “I am an ascetic who cannot pray. / I am a prayer in slow making.” These images, like others in this poem, are both present and absent at the same time. They open a window into a way of seeing that enables readers to notice and step inside the ephemeral nature of our being.

If you’ve ever visited historical monuments, you will have noticed the names written in stone with dates, kings and queens, perhaps, who ruled a country, but whom you know nothing about other than their names. Obituaries list what people have done, their accomplishments. Family trees list who married who and what their occupations were–lines leading back into time. But who were these people? What was the essence of their lives, their spirits? What was it to stand in their presence? Can a whole of a life really be summed up in these references? No. What we are is some deeper mystery, and if we ask our selves who are we, and keep asking, we will eventually move past the labels to a place where we stand wordless, a place of knowing and not knowing at the same time, and this is the place that Samaras’s poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, brings the reader to. This place of knowing-not knowing is where we meet our selves, in the place between naming and not naming.

This place of not naming and naming, connects to another one of Samaras’s poems, “Eve Naming Other Animals”, found on the Adirondack Review‘s site, where Samaras describes Eve observing animals. Eve notices the way the animals move and behave, and this deep looking enables her to define and name them. Definitions separate us from the whole. They name what sets something apart from other things, and they shape the mind by calling us to notice specific elements. The very language we speak and use shapes the mind in this way, and this poem calls attention to the process. When I was an undergraduate, I had a biology teacher that took us on a walk to notice plants. Students would ask him the names of plants. He refused to tell us the name, saying if he told us, we we wouldn’t look at it longer. We’d think we knew what it was and we’d turn away to another plant, or simply walk on. Instead, he wanted us to observe closely, ask questions, notice–to really see, not just take a snapshot with our brains. Samaras’s poem shows us Eve doing the opposite, she is looking long, noticing, and calling out the essence of what she sees.

Slender horns approach, and I find
my touch makes them shapely:  fronds

of opaque light that dances from angles.
I like their intimacy more than angels,

more than that shimmer that stays in place.
Into the meadow of limbs and motion,  I trace

the bent wheat to be with them there.
Like a gesture moving through the air,

it is a gesture moving through the air.
I find this given language spare,

suddenly. It leaves too soon in breath.

The poem goes on, but you can see how Eve, and the poet as well, are living with the animals as presences, taking them in, not merely naming them in a random act and walking on. She notices the animal’s gestures, and how it is a kind of language it uses to name itself, she is calling attention to what its essence is, and using that to name the animal. We live too much in a world where being seen, the way you present yourself  and how you are labeled, how you brand yourself–as if you are a commodity, is given considerable weight, and the actual substance is hidden somehow underneath. It’s as if we have been taken over by a media presentation. The poem, “Metaphor As Identity”, however, takes us back into that place of mystery, where we can rediscover we are more than what we have branded ourselves as or how we have been labeled. We are like Eve again, looking into the face of the animal, noticing who and what it is before we name it. We are first of all being, the Samaras’s poem reminds us. We are presence, and we stand in a presence that is hidden from obvious view, and wondrously rounded in silence–“the dusty path out of sight.” We are more than what we have labeled ourselves as. We are enigma. We are mystery.

Our lives are the crossroads of all the other lives from which we come, one of the knots in the great fabric of being that we are connected to. This is part of the mystery, and we carry the history of those people and places in our bodies, even though we may be unconscious of it. We are ourselves, and we are part of the others who came before us as well. Samaras’s poem, “Old Calendar” carries the reader into myth, and into the ways we are connected to time–our own lives, but also to history in ways we don’t necessarily understand, but can feel the presence of if we listen in the dark silence. The clock, his poem suggests, may be ringing out the years of time, but we come from a place of darkness, and go back to it. The ancient Celts started their year in darkness. Out of darkness, the place of unknowing–the great void, so to speak, comes all that is. This is the wisdom of the ancients. “You sleep in darkness, and rise in darkness,” writes Samaras in “Old Calendar”. We grow used to the clock tower ticking on satisfactorily, as Samaras says, but,

You hold on to the silence and chanting filters up to stars,
You hold to silence and let the years come.

Samaras’s poem shows us we live in time, but know we are part of the silence as well. 

Another of Samaras’s poems, “Petition”, is utterly beautiful, so beautiful it makes the heart ache in the way it portrays the silence, the emptiness. But the silence this poem speaks of is one that opens the heart to awe, and allows us to see ourselves more clearly, humbly. There is almost an existential quality to this poem in its opening stanzas in the way the poem poem points us toward our aloneness in the universe, but it is not an empty darkness. 

Ask the night to let you not be lonely.
Ask the night to heal your heart.

Step out into the black eve of winter
and breathe in the clarity.

Let the scarcely-seen stars glimmer
their small mercies on you, the air

The darkness and cold here are not hollow. Instead, they enable us to see ourselves more clearly, they offer us “small mercies.” I love the lines that go on to say, “to push a little past weariness is a good thing.” When we have pushed ourselves into weariness is when we are especially able to understand the intrinsic value of stillness, the absence of activity that enables us to regenerate. It is this stillness, the sabbath time, where we learn in our bones the “blessing of silence,” and where dialog with silence can begin.

Samaras’s poems speak to the deep places in the mind that we find ourselves wandering in as we try to understand who we are and how to live, and these are poems that teach us to listen in the silence and live inside the questions. I feel grateful for these poems, for the way they call my attention to what it means to be alive. The poems in both structure and content create a kind of space where learned answers are left behind, and we enter a kind of holy darkness that allows us to touch questions of existence and feel them in a tangible way. Reading them is like listening to the fine notes of a flute drifting across a winter’s meadow on a starry night from some distant place, crisp light outlining the tips of branches, and drawing shadows on the sides of buildings. You hear your feet crunch through the snowy meadow as you walk toward home. Just before you step inside your house, you turn and look at the sky–the myriad points of light, both faint and bright. You see the immensity of all that is, and know the wonder that you are alive amidst it all.

If you want to read more about Nick Samaras, you might want to check out an interview on the blog, “Just My Eyes”, or on the Antler blog here.