The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Poetry Reading: Barbara Knott

Cafe Medusa

Seven Stages Theatre

Little Five Points, Atlanta, Georgia

June 30, 2012


(Reflections on freedom: An essay in the form of a poem composed during February 2011)

A catalogue for ordering classic films
unfolds on a table in front of me:
my eyes light on images of once-loved stories
that suddenly I know I don't want to watch again,
don't want, for instance, to see how
epic romance doesn't get more breathtaking
than in this tale of the Russian Revolution
in which a doctor who loves his wife is torn
from his home into service and falls
for the charms of his beautiful nurse.
I hated the rapacious horde of people
swarming Doctor Zhivago's house
destroying his privacy
threatening his art
(the private life is dead, they said)
not because I don't believe in liberty--
the word attracts my highest value
and my deepest devotion, next to love--but
some things, like privacy, are sacred.
Despite my reluctance to relive
the film's heavy emotional atmosphere
from which I now can recall only
Omar Sharif's moist brown eyes
in the role of Yuri Zhivago
responding to his world with love and poetry
and, juxtaposed with that vision,
the scene of shocking onslaught
by the People against his belongings,
despite my reluctance
I am flooded with memories.
It is 1965 on Peachtree Street in Atlanta,
the old Loew's Grand Theatre.
I am watching the newly released Dr. Zhivago
with my newly married husband.
The epic span of the film appears early.
A vast, desolate landscape:
a funeral staged in dark tones
with swelling music brings mourners slowly
from afar into closeup view
where we see the boy Yuri Zhivago
(played by Omar Sharif's son with eyes
that compel us to be present with him
in this event that so surpasses
our round of ordinary life)
carrying flowers for one on the bier
piled high with flowers,
the mother.
A balalaika's strumming
plucks at heartstrings.
My young husband
hearing heavy clang of closing coffin
knock of hammered nails
(before he can shield himself,
he tells me later)
through the camera eye
slips into the boy's imagination and
follows his mother's descent into her grave.
The boy stands by, not comprehending
the finality of death (as none of us can)
while wind sweeps across landscape
tearing leaves from a solitary tree and
music pulls from our hearts and eyes
every drop of woe. My husband
doesn't simply exhale a sigh as I do; instead,
he breaks into tears and sobs and leaves his seat
to walk up and down the lobby
until his feelings grow calm again, his tears
subside. I, who have followed him, am amazed.
A man whose father used to listen
to Caruso sing at the Fox Theater in Atlanta,
ears and heart embracing lavish sound
and large emotions, might be expected
to respond as my husband did
might have it in his genes to see and feel how
art mirrors nature, shows helplessness
in the face of old age and death
but this film has catalyzed in him an overflow
of feeling, greater than I had ever felt from art.
Some things, like art, are sacred.
I knew I would remember that experience
always and be grateful to have learned how
art can overwhelm emotions,
as later I would learn how we need
in art and in ourselves
the means to find the right closeness
for feeling the artwork fully
and the right distance to think clearly
about what we have felt. That is something
of what Aristotle meant by the golden mean,
a place between deficiency and excess
where we can have the fullness
of thought and feeling together
which is somehow a measure of
our humanity.
The golden mean is sacred.
I am struck by the tides of time and events:
for nearly a month I have been watching
a revolution in Egypt play out
on the world stage
beamed into my living room
in so-called real time.
I am deeply moved by figures and faces
and words of young men and women
hungry for food, work, education, opportunity
freedom to choose how they will be governed, for
the rights and privileges of people with dignity
to work and earn and live and learn all
they can to unfold themselves fully in this life.
Some things, like freedom, are sacred.
They want this world
and I am glad, for I love this world, too,
as Yuri Zhivago loved
Lara. The name still sounds the doctor's longing
and his anguish in my ears.
When he fell in love with Lara
he already had a wife.
Marriage is sacred. Romance is sacred.
Therein lies a dilemma.
Eros, unconfined to Greece or history,
and my best name for the carrier of
love's risky recklessness,
in this story removes "ought" from
love's language and lets spontaneity
make room for passion's overflow.
I, having dwelt some time
in the prisonhouse guarded by
should and ought, applaud the theme.
Any talk of love needs the arrow of Eros
to strike at the heart of the matter
which is the human heart, yielding
not from force but from desire
for unity with another in romance
and with others in community.
Spontaneity and passion are sacred.
The importance of love in revolution
is spelled out in letters exchanged
between Tolstoy and Gandhi
a few years after Yuri Zhivago's mother
entered her grave and left the boy
her balalaika, her emblem of art
with which she wished
to serve his talent, even in death.
Some things, like talent, are sacred.
The tale belongs to a time when
disparate cultures kept their politics
more carefully hidden
though the groans of upheaval
traveling on the words of writers
like Tolstoy and Pasternak,
could be heard abroad
by those who listened
sometimes long after the fact.
Some things, like listening, are sacred.
One who was listening before
the revolution in Russia
was Gandhi, then in South Africa
already testing non-violent protest.
His correspondence with Tolstoy
shows how farflung were the
subtle influences we are seeing
even now in the Middle East.
Tolstoy knew that the true enemy
and opposite of love is not hate
but power
Jesus also taught, as Tolstoi tells us, that
any employment of force is incompatible
with love as the highest law of life.
Zhivago calls our attention to this theme
when, appalled by the zombie-like response
of one soldier to the carnage around them,
(the soldier says, It doesn't matter),
the doctor-poet asks,
Have you never loved a woman?
He gets no answer as the camera
sweeps the fields littered
with bodies and blood.
Do we need to say that love is sacred?
The Bolsheviks
who carried out such destruction
who shot the czar and all his family
still did not demolish
their traditional culture even as
they built their world anew.
Worse fate fell from hands
of Afghan Taliban when they
with malice and forethought
blasted two (sacred) colossal Bamiyan Buddhas,
an act that shocked my mind
more than many seeming worse atrocities
of the past decade's warring in the Middle East.
And now, the artifacts in Cairo's
Egyptian museum are threatened:
the Minister of Antiquities
has filled the treasurehouse
with ancient pieces dug
from the sands of Egypt and with
some retrieved from
museums around the world:
pieces that were taken over time
are now returned, willingly or unwillingly
though Berlin, we read, has refused so far
to give up the bust of Nefertiti that so defines
Egypt's love of beauty.
That we cultures claim each other's antiquities
is a crime when it comes to stealing
(artifacts are sacred)
but also a movement toward
the evolution of a global view.
If we covet each other's icons
perhaps we can learn to tolerate
and even cultivate
the culture that comes with them.
The word thugs bandied about
by television journalists covering the revolt
is one we use in English without most of us
knowing it is a Hindi word, from Thuggees
which designates the gangs
of men who preyed on travelers
in ancient times in India, cults devoted
to the worship of Kali, mother of destruction
who also cleanses the world of corruption,
though the thugs, as humans often are,
were motivated mainly by greed, it seems,
like those who appear to have been paid
to ride on horses and camels
with whips and swords into crowds
of protesters in Cairo
where the art of storytelling has not yet
come again to create aesthetic distance,
that space in which we who look on
are moved but not terrified as we are now.
I praise the lovely, lively youth of Egypt
who want the world's support
without its interference
as they deliver themselves
from a regime that hoards
wealth for those at the apex of the pyramid
and makes the man at the top, the pharaoh,
a fortune that may be worth 70 billion dollars.
Consider this:
From a vantage point
high above the ground, an apartment balcony
overlooking streets where young men strive
to rid their country of a tyrant
stands Omar Sharif, now 79, who had the film role
of Yuri Zhivago half a century ago,
watching the present scenes play out below
of protest against poverty and lack of
opportunity, of helplessness against
a paternal, saturnine rule of law
that likely will be overthrown as it has been
from time to time throughout the world
even by people in isolation. Now
the whole world is watching,
the result of a global net of
communications systems used
to gather protesters
at Tahrir Square in Cairo.
We hear that Omar Sharif supports the youth
and thinks America, a large and rich
nation of many possibilities, still doesn't understand
what's going on in the rest of the world,
that we are ignorant of geography and
Eastern politics, and that he himself
would rather go "to the neighborhood shiek"
than cultivate democracy.
It's true. We are ignorant of many things, not
adept at geography, and most of us are
not dedicated citizens of the world.
As the regime holds on in Egypt now
we hear from one official who has not yet
let go that a country only 200 years old
should not be telling another
that is 7,000 years old what to do.
Yes, we are a young culture but
there is a voice in our ears, a
collective memory, that
echoes back to ancient times
through a spiritual song
that pleads, tell old Pharoah
let my people go.
Some things, like having a voice, are sacred.
And in our nation's brief history we have
examples that may be useful
to the world, of a general who
refused the offer to be king
and instead became our first president.
Our slave-holding hands are not clean
but we had another president who
made us wash them in blood
and lean toward the good.
Leadership is sacred.
It was a citizen of an even
younger America, Henry David Thoreau,
who thought of civil disobedience and practiced it
and wrote a treatise in 1848 that
a century later inspired India's Gandhi
who gave the idea of nonviolent protest back
to us, inspired our citizen King
who fought with intellect and will
and hardness and love
to make a new world, and did.
With the curiosity of the very young
we have discovered that evolution comes
to cultures as well as to species.
We are watching a moment
in cultural evolution now, and our need
is not to meddle but to do no harm,
to witness and wait until
we are needed (and invited)
to practice there what we believe to be good.
Some things, like independence, are sacred.
Nearly a century ago, the world learned
more slowly about the transition
to communist rule in Russia.
The present revolution
unfolding as we watch
seems more peacefully sought
and cheerful, festive, full of love
for all save the figurehead's
regime which the people wish to repel
from their hearts and minds and homeland.
Some things, like community, are sacred.
We hear of revolutionaries dancing
and reciting poetry to hold high morale
among those who are risking
what liberty they have
even their lives
and they will matter to the human race.
Dancing and poetry are sacred.
There are, of course, elements of danger
already creeping into the jubilant scenes.
Groping and Leering hang out among young men
unemployed and unable to marry.
Work is sacred.
They loose themselves on crowded streets
where women venture from seclusion
or come from other lands to make themselves
"fair game": a journalist (ironically, named Lara)
reports that she was brutalized by some
among the ones who filled the square
and was rescued by others, including women,
during the night's celebration of the tyrant's fall.
From all reports, sexual insults did not occur
for l8 days and nights of revolution but only
on the night of the day it succeeded, the night
when power came to the people and license
overflowed the bounds of decency.
Sex is sacred.
Would Yuri still love Lara
had he reached Omar's age?
We don't know. But I do know
it is right that we should choose
whom we will be governed by
and if not whom we love
(for that falling takes us sometimes
like a peaceful breeze
and sometimes like a storm),
then whom we will receive
intimately into our lives.
Some things, like choice, are sacred.
Anything less is not liberty
and may evoke the chaotic
cleansing of cosmic Kali who,
like the dragonfly, devours her prey
(and then strings their skulls
around her neck). Or there in Egypt
she may put on her mask of
lionfaced Sekmet
avenger of wrongs, who like Kali
is a scarlet lady, bloodletter
whose temples are full of tame lions
and who can be tamed with spirits
or of Isis, great goddess who seems
to speak to oppressors in all times
and places in these lines taken from
a Gnostic poem The Thunder, Perfect Mind:
Give heed to my poverty and my wealth.
Do not be arrogant to me
when I am cast out upon the earth.
And do not look upon me when I am cast out
among those who are disgraced and in
the least places, nor laugh at me.
And do not cast me out among those
who are slain in violence.
I am compassionate and I am cruel.
Be on your guard!
I have a feeling she does not like
old ones who sacrifice the young
whether in faraway wars
or in quarters close to home,
starving for work and
languishing in unfulfilled longing.
To open a closed society is not easy:
revolution leads to sameness
when people put on the tyrant's cloak
and do not see what they are wearing.
Mindlessness, madness, dehumanization
wait invisible in the shadows
of revolution, which nonetheless
brings fulcrum moments in which
the world can be renewed.
What are the tasks?
To give up gluttony?
To rid ourselves of religious
and patriotic monomyths?
To embrace the sacred in all its forms
and create from that embrace a
new world community that
leans toward the good?
The world is sacred.
It seems to me that all is sacred
in the mind that tunes itself
like a musician tunes a balalaika
where harmony
is the judge of what is right and good
for individuals and their communities
where all the world and
all the creatures in it are sacred
and the profane derives, like the sacred,
from the ways we use and abuse
ourselves and each other.
I return to the first time I understood
the power of art to cleanse the soul,
and I long for these largely peaceful
young Egyptians to find the art
to bring their protest to fruition.
I long for them to hold their freedom dear
and not to turn it in for lesser spoils
of lust and greed, of petty power and punishments.
Freedom, like love and poetry, needs
a fine instinct for organic form
to unfold from inward to outer shape
to quiver and fly and sing
to light down and hold in tender reverence
all that is in trembling balance in the world.
For Egypt and
the millions of people in the Arab world,
for Israel and Iran, for Russia, China, India, Africa
for the Koreas and Japan
for Europe and South America
and yes, for the United States
(we hear from songwriter Leonard Cohen that
democracy still is coming to the USA)
and for those quieter nations
I have not named
some of whom may be about to explode
this is my prayer:
Let freedom come
like refreshing water
in the streams of people flowing into town squares
and rounding rough corners with dances and songs.
Let breathtaking refer to beauty more than death.
Let brown eyes be moist for love, not grief
so that grief, when it comes, can be endured.
Let the dragonfly of discontent become
an emblem of winged loveliness
attached to universal rights: to life, to health,
to work, to love, to privacy, individuality, community
to creativity, and to happiness, defined by the Dalai Lama
as deep satisfaction, so that when we come to die
each of us can say
I have lived.
Yes! mine was a full and fitting life.

Copyright 2012, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.