The Power of Poetry to Heal the Spirit
“…my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.”
“When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
—John F. Kennedy
You never know what small, unexpected event will cause your heart to crack open. Strangely enough for me that moment came when I was at the Recovery Centre in Winlaw and a Lemon Creek resident brought in a dead hummingbird. She’d been watching it for some days and found it dead that morning, still clinging to a branch. I went home and, suffering from the pent-up angst of trauma by association, had a meltdown. Out of it came this poem, Shimmer No More. I find poetry offers a potent, distilled power of healing. Why? Because it opens a direct line to the heart.
As a reporter I have to try to keep a veneer of distance so I can function in my job. But I’ve always believed it’s essential that we never allow that veneer to fossilize, to make our hearts unreachable. Because after all, it’s only the heart that can see past the dollars and the scientific data. It’s the heart that can feel empathy, both for the people and all the other creatures affected by this violation of our watershed. And it’s the heart that will find a way past Draconian rules and regulations. If there’s a way forward through the madness of 21st century civilization, it’s through the heart. If we lose touch with that then it truly is too late for us.
The Heart + Common Sense = Connection
My father Art Joyce Sr., a 37-year veteran with the BC Forest Service (as it was originally known), is one of those rare individuals who understands this. His final posting before retirement was in the Chilcotin (Williams Lake) forest district, which involved rangeland as well as forest management. He says he always tried to encourage young people coming into the Forest Service to use their brains and their common sense. But it was an uphill battle—what he calls “the culture of the civil service” tended to damp this down over time. Very few were willing to take even minor risks that could endanger their jobs.
What did he mean by the “culture of the civil service”? If at all possible, try to avoid making decisions, waffle, or cite regulations. In other words, cover your own ass. And the best way to do that is to retreat behind the veneer of officialdom. It’s a syndrome that has become rampant in this age that is so dominated by insurance and liability considerations. The very institutions we’ve built to protect ourselves have become the oppressors. And what goes out the window first in this culture? The heart—our connection with others and with this planet that sustains our lives.
“I got more work done sitting at a rancher’s table over coffee than I ever did in the office,” says Art Sr. What he means by that is that by coming out from behind the safety of regulations and job titles he was able to connect with people and work with them to amicably solve problems. When he sat down in a rancher’s home to discuss an issue, he suddenly went from being “the Forest Service” to being a normal, everyday human—a neighbour. The veneer was dropped and contact made. If that meant finding a common sense, unofficial way to get the job done, then so be it. I’m proud to say that my Dad was so well liked in his district that when he retired, local ranchers made him an honorary member of the BC Cattlemen’s Association. And he’s never owned a single head of cattle.
The Way Forward
I have no illusions. I know that all of officialdom in the power structure won’t suddenly have an epiphany and come down to our level. But I’m confident in this community, which has displayed so much heart in the way it has responded to peoples’ needs. To be fair, I have no idea how much the folks at Executive Flight Centre, MoE, IHA and other ministries are motivated by heart and how much by liability concerns. I have no idea—yet—how much of the mishandling of the fuel spill has been due to confusion, incompetence or even deliberately undermining the community. And I know it will take clear, dispassionate thinking to get all our efforts coordinated so we can hold to account those who need to be.
But sometimes just hearing one family’s story, seeing one tiny hummingbird dead in a zipper bag, is enough to crack the veneer and open connection. And sometimes a single poem can say what all the books and editorials in the world can’t.
Shimmer No More
Your green shimmer—shard of sunlight
dancing like water—is silenced now.
Was it your first summer, supping
marjoram blossoms and kissing
the sticky mouths of feeders
laid out from the Gulf of Mexico
to the snow-crowned Valhallas?
What did you learn, little one,
of the mythology of hummingbirds?
A lore so arcane we never suspected
such tiny bodies could carry
so much wisdom.
A thimble full of your courage
could transport us thousands of miles,
from the steely roil of Gulf waters
through the rainbow shower of wings
falling to rest in a Florida wetland
and finally to alpine fields
all shouting nectar from horns
bright as any symphony.
Your odyssey felled
by the silent spring of our greed—
humans the only animal
that sups poison and makes of it
a virtue. Great paradox of creation,
this beast slouching
toward a ruined Jerusalem,
the fuel that feeds our ambition
raining fire on holy cities everywhere,
from Mecca to the miracle
of an anthill.
Lady hummer, even your death
is cloaked in irony, your wings
stiff and still, bagged and tagged
in a zipper bag made of oil,
your eyes wide open—
the Costa Rican chorus of petals
mapped and zinging in your brain.
©2013 Sean Arthur Joyce