New Year’s Resolution

In a 2007 Stronach Memorial Lecture, Peter Sacks explores the trope of the dolphin in poetry from Homeric to modern poets. An evocative and empowering image, the dolphin continually shows up in poetry as a surprise and as a mystic escort. As 2010 ends, I find the dolphin a fitting image of the soul in transit.

In past years I have made New Year resolutions, and they are often effective. I set specific goals using strategies I’ve learned as a professional: specific, attainable, timely goals whose outcomes can be measured. But this year I’m interested in what Sacks calls the dolphin’s turn, a metaphor for a process to realize outcomes that can’t be measured.

In the Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo, a dolphin intervenes with merchants on route to a trade city. The dolphin forces the sailors to turn their ship and sail to another coast, an unknown coast, and another life. Sacks draws a connection between the dolphin’s transformative veering ? and the transport system of poetry ?. As the dolphin leaps between two elements, language leaps between silence and sound, re-entering repeatedly the poetic world.

In News for the Delphic Oracle, W.B. Yeats has the ancient ones straddling each a dolphins back. ? As Sacks points out, the dolphin is a transformative power often preceded by trembling and vibration. The poem further eroticizes this phallic image with nymphs and satyrs copulating in the foam of breaking waves. In another poem by Elizabeth Bishop, the dolphin calls a man to his shamanic vocation. Following the dolphin in nightly journeys up the river the man asks, Why shouldn’t I be ambitious? ? In these poems, the dolphin acts as a guide along the waterways toward spiritual reward and attainment.

When the merchants in the Hymn to Pythian Apollo arrive at the coast the dolphin changes into a star and shoots into the mountains, indicating the site where the merchants were to build a temple. In the moment when the dolphin leaps from horizontal plane to the vertical plane, the men enter new lives. I envision two orthogonal planes joined by a third and traversed by the dolphin-star.

Bhanu Kapil describes her writing project in the introduction to A Vertical Interrogation of Strangers as a “tilted plane”. This is the way of poetic projects, using language at a slant to move along the hypotenuse to a yet unimaginable destination. As Sacks puts it, the method of the dolphin is the to and fro, back and forth, up and down of poetry. ?

This method, the dolphin’s turn, demands renunciation of hubris and the embodiment of Themis, goddess of the natural law, which is actually not a law but an unmediated acceptance of the universe. In my Shambhala training, this was called Basic Goodness, the realization that we can deal with the world as it is, that despite all the problems associated with life, our existence as human beings is basically good. Unfortunately, very often my creative aspirations are diminished because of my rejection of Themis. The poets and artists who touch me deeply all have a sincere love of life, even amid sadness, pain, and grief. Sometimes I do not.

There are moments when I despair, when I do not love life and reject the Basic Goodness of human experience, turning my back on the natural order. My writing suffers for it; I suffer. My heart breaks on the rock.

Sacks begins his talk with several epigraphs, one of which came from a poem by Judith Lee Stronarch where she writes of a half human sea creature who divides his time between dreaming of geometric categories and forging them. ? The dolphin is a sea creature, but unlike a fish, the dolphin knows that it is wet and lives its life in both worlds. The word itself derives from “delphys”, the Greek word for “womb”, and calls up creative forces, as well as transformative forces.

Responding to the prompt, Describe a morning you woke without fear ?, Kapil writes:

Unmentionable: the ephemerality of noses, gills, belly-buttons, and the blue green vagina of the sperm whale. ?

A page later she writes about dismemberment and the mutilation of wombs during religious conflicts in Serbia and India. My heart breaks open; I gasp for air. What is this now?

My New Years resolution for 2011 is to follow the dolphin’s turn, to be in sound and silence, to travel along the tilted plane, to love life.

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