From our Call for Submissions: “What exactly is knowledge? Is it a thing, an event, a practice, a movement toward? What does it mean to be intelligent? What is the nature of knowledge? What is worth passing on?” So asks Manulani Meyer in her book on Hawaiian epistemology Ho’oulu: Our Time of Becoming. We believe these questions are crucial at a moment where habitual ways of knowing and assessing knowledge are proving inadequate to the enormous risks and challenges facing all life on Earth.
Ed. Note: Deena Metzger had written several days before this conversation to say she wouldn’t be able to join us. I urged her to peek in just to say hello, even if for only a few moments. We were delighted when she popped up just minutes into our conversation. We had been considering this line in her piece: “What I am able do is listen deeply and try to fold the inexplicable into language.”
Andrea: I admire very much your persistence in bringing through the vision that was coming to you as you wrote this novel regarding knowing and how we know. “… There was another level of cognition, distinct from thought, knowing and mind.” The care you’re taking here: “It was not feeling. It was not intuition. It was not instinct. It wasn’t different from them. They might be incorporated in the experience, but these categories did not explain the irreversible shift in consciousness that occurred when such awareness became part of oneself. One was altered.” I just want to voice my appreciation for a lifelong staying on this track of what you are doing and what you are speaking for.
Deena: Yes and when I felt that this book I am writing might well be the last book, it felt so important to try to communicate the extraordinary limitations of Western mind and the harm that comes from the narcissistic way we think. There are other peoples and beings who experience the world in a larger, more complex, kinder way. And it has been a lifelong learning and then devotion. As I get older I understand more and then I’m devoted to that understanding because it feels like such a gift that’s been given to me. And can I find words for it? And in these critical times it feels so urgent to find words for what we know…and have that come into the world as ways of being. That’s why when I saw “What is knowledge?” when Lise and Kristin asked that question I thought there are some sections from this book raw as it is that fit. It’s been so essential to me in the last years, the lack of understanding we have is so often dangerous.
Margo: I know I imagine something at a given moment and the next day I feel totally ignorant all over again. As if I have to relearn on the physical plane but even more on the spiritual plane the things that I thought that I had devoted myself to and worked to embody in my being for years. All of a sudden I wake up and go “I don’t know how to do that.”
Deena: I really do know I don’t know.
Lise: I think this kind of humility is what’s required of us right now.
Deena: I did want to speak about one thing, and that was the section about the apple. It was such an insight to me, though it may not last in terms of an understanding more than 30 seconds. In that moment it came to me, that in biting the apple for knowledge Eve did not understand—nor did I after these thousands of years of reading that text and all the different interpretations—that it was the apple that had the knowledge. That it was apple-ness that had the knowledge. There was no abstract knowledge to be gained. That’s what I was trying to say.
The natural world is the repository for such profound understanding of the nature of reality. And to try to get knowledge—that is human—we’re thrown out of the garden. The native people say, “We were never thrown out of the garden. We live in the garden. We live in relationship to it.” And that story (the Adam and Eve story) is so committed to human knowledge as advanced, let’s say, and I’m trying to change my mind—and all my teaching has been about how do we change our mind, and might we be able to have a hint of the real nature of the world, and knowledge of that real nature of the world, which is not a thinking knowledge. I’m really passionate about the true knowledge of the nature of the world that exists implicitly in the natural world.
Melissa: I love that idea that the apple is the source of knowledge—not the act of eating —the apple is.
Deena: The apple is…!!! (Everyone laughs)
Deena signs off at this point.
Lise: There’s so much extraordinary work here. Please jump in as you feel moved.
Sara: For me, each piece wove itself into another, they were all part of one whole even though they seemed to be talking about very different things: poetry as a way of knowing, dreams, imagination, art, all of our senses, the idea of circular time, the importance of receiving and listening. Witching: herbal remedies, flower essences. I loved Andrea’s caterpillar story—the caterpillar who moves out on the edge to make room for others. If we pay attention to nature we learn everything we need to know about community. Nature’s been my teacher all my life.
And also something really important: death as teacher. In Margo’s “Half Notes.”
Melissa: An amazing piece.
Andrea: Yes, the repetition of “I am a woman who asks how close is death, how near is God.” Every time you said that I had to listen and take it in differently. “The great unknowing sits on my shoulders—yours—without wings.” I loved these phrases. The construction of your piece opened me constantly as I read it. I felt I was altered.
Margo: I admit that I felt that way in the writing and in the constructing of it. The central mantra—how close is death how near is God—has been with me for a long time. But I keep finding other ways that I need to integrate—like the core of an apple—and it keeps growing around itself.
Andrea: Well then you have been obedient to that process of coming back and then opening. It sounds like you have let that core teach you where it wants to go and how it wants to be said.
Margo: Yes very much so…
Lise: There’s something else that I loved so much about the piece: how present you are in all of your frailties and quirks: “I’d tell myself, Ok, blonde. Ok, sixty plus. Ok, an emotional centipede, a poet, a vagabond. Ok, she drinks tea with milk, café au lait, when it doesn’t make her breasts ache. .. Lucky bitch. Scared. Suckles love like every other human flesh. Fat. Thin. Needless. Meditative. Scared.” That kind of nakedness and honesty is so beautiful to me.
Margo: That’s what I want from myself and it’s what I want from others. When I was younger it was what I wanted from my lovers.
Andrea: I so love this line: “I’ve tried magicians. They’ve disappointed me. Rejected me.”
Margo: What I’ve been hearing myself say out loud this year when I come up with my nose against the wall is: what am I doing with this time if I’m given this kind of isolation, this kind of constriction. The only answer I keep coming back to is this is a time of soulwork. And am I giving due diligence to that work.
Sara: I would say you’ve given everything you’ve got to this work.
Andrea: Sara, I found your piece so profoundly moving I just felt heartache to hear you speak directly about your experience, how you’ve been abused for being indigenous. But you didn’t say it in a pity way, you held your own—“this is my reality.” That kind of pain doesn’t often get articulated so cleanly and clearly and I thought you did a magnificent job of that. And representing through it more than your personal experience.
Sara: I think it’s just wonderful you can pick up the pieces. There are just so many ways, If you’re open to it. That’s why I enjoyed these writings so much. They were like all these little star points everywhere.
Andrea: There’s a line I marked here: “Suddenly I began to speak about what I knew in a voice I didn’t know I had.”
Sara: Yes, up until that point everything was in my journals underneath my bed. So it was a big deal for me.
Andrea: And when you speak about the ancestors it comes with such authority. The weaving of that whole story of the ancestors coming through.
Sara: Well, you know to me all synchronicity does is demonstrate we’re all interconnected. It was a very moving story for me to write. And it was so surprising. I just came back from spending four winters in New Mexico and I had this amazing experience there over and over with these sandhill cranes with which I had no connection to at all—I thought. But I know better now….
Margo: Speaking of synchronicity, I was thinking of another line in Deena’s piece, the correspondence between Nagasaki Day and the start of the wildfires in California.
Sara: This inner and outer thing is uncanny. Only it isn’t, but sometimes it seems that way.
Kristin: Over the last couple of days I found myself thinking about the questions “How do we know?” and “What is knowledge?” And the questions themselves feel so uniquely human—this preoccupation with knowing—and perhaps that is indicative of how far away from living as a part of the web we are. I’m trying to imagine the birds who migrate from north to south each year having conversations amongst themselves about “how do we know that we know how to get there?”
Lise: H.D.: “Does the first wild-goose stop to explain/ to the others? No–he is off….“
Andrea: One perspective, Kristin, is that a tree has fulfilled its destiny by being a tree and a goose fulfills its destiny just by being a goose but collectively humanity has not achieved its destiny. We do not know our full maturity. So the question “how do we know?” forces us to grow more consciously into capacities that are innate or undeveloped or both.
Lise: I’d like to turn to some of the poems that Melissa pulled together.
Margo: There’s an overriding theme through all of them which is silence.
Melissa: Hmm. I think poets are really listening for that. Every line they’re listening to when do they stop when do they take a breath. So it makes sense that silence would be a way of knowledge that’s inherent in the poem itself.
Lise: You know when I read Tami Haaland’s poem I felt that even more than silence this poem was about trying to articulate the process of awareness, similar to what Deena was describing:
Now and then she had it, a firefly,
a flash, then nothing. It would come
her friend said. It would arrive
without words, silence a part
of the invisible. What if
it was so old it was not yet human,
what if it was old human, inherited
Melissa: These are all forms of knowing that women are said to have and are discounted. They’ve been disparaged because they’re women’s ways of knowing.
Andrea: It’s so beautiful how you framed each poet, the loving attention you gave to them, the way you wove all the poems with deep honor. Instead of pitting them against each other you wove them together.
Melissa: I totally believe in that. Thank you. Opening up literature by talking about it is another way of knowing. Fewer and fewer people are majoring in English anywhere because that whole field of humanities where we talk about what we’ve read and open it up and see different ways to do a close reading of anything is becoming rare. And I think we all need it, it’s a way of knowing poem as apple, to go back to what Deena said, and taking it inside yourself.
Andrea: At the beginning you say “All poetry opens our eyes to additional multiple and perhaps subtractive ways of understanding the world.”
Melissa: Yes, it’s what you were quoting in Deena’s piece. “It was not intuition it was not instinct.” That’s the subtractive part. What do we want to take away so we can see something else.
Lise: Every time I read Susan Terrence’s poem (“The Fall of All Things”) it scares the hell out of me. “Earth has died/ during this dance/or is dying &/we cannot save/ it b/c we too/ are gone …”
Melissa: “…who is/ not numb/from the fall/ of all things.”
Margo: In her notes she writes: “The brutal assaults on our lives and sensibilities have rendered any survivors numb. Perhaps becoming numb in this type of assault is a means of survival?” That just knocked me out.
Lise: To what extent are all of these writings on some level responding to these assaults. Margo writes: “…our collective terrible illness of 2020-21 has changed all I thought I believed. It hovers, angel or vulture, how can I know?” But isn’t it more than this illness? The illness itself feels like a kind of culmination.
Margo. Yes. Yes. And that’s our fear isn’t it. What we’ve been through, not just the virus but the years of being hammered by truth and untruth, we fear that it’s numbed us that it’s made us incapable either of rage or a healing kind of love that can encounter the rage. And I don’t have that answer.
Lise: I don’t think humans have any answers in these writings. The closest we come is in the writings channeled by Andrea: lake and snake and the Virus.
Andrea: I’m not sure those are answers though. They’re just probing into other realms.
Sara: I’m thinking about this question of numbing and wondering how pervasive is that numbing. Is that what’s happening to many of us as a result of where we are now?
Melissa: I would think so; I think it’s grief.
Chorus of “yeses”
Sara: The reason I’m asking is that it happens to me periodically. I never know when it’s going to happen and it’s shocking when it does. My tendency is to say if it’s happening to me it’s probably happening on the outside. I guess my question is how do we begin to make our way out of this numbing?
Lise: I want to say a word about Tanya Tagaq’s Split Tooth. Here’s a person who went through the most horrific forms of abuse, torture, humiliation. And there’s just no numbing. At one point she says, “We are the fingertips of the force that drives the stars, so do your job and feel.”
Melissa: And I loved this: “Sound is a conductor to a realm we don’t totally understand.” It circles back to Lois Red Elk’s poem about the infant’s first sound. “We remember the child’s first word, when they perceive…”
Andrea: Tagaq won the Canadian Polaris Prize for her throatsinging and movement. I’ve seen her perform live. A wild animal dance on stage. What she has done is taken all that pain and moved it through her body and her voice. You wake up when you hear her. She has twisted the pain into an incredibly wild voice.
Lise: Actually I’m not as moved by seeing and hearing her as I am by reading her. I loved the book. It did a number on me. As I wrote in the After•Word, reading it made me so aware of how my ears have not been able to hear, how separate I am.
Kristin: I felt something like that reading Andrea’s “What We Know in Our Bones”—how much I would need to change my life just to prepare to make the kinds of connections she does—never mind building the skills and learning to listen at that level. I tend to read her pieces like a meditation, and they work on me slowly over time. I’m always so impressed by the depth of her connection to the other realms, her access, but it is clear to me it comes with making the time. The devotion.
Lise: And damnit by dint of your devotion and hard work you have been able to access, as you said yourself, indigenous ways of knowing. So it’s a model for the rest of us who were not born in cultures that encouraged that.
Andrea: Well I didn’t set out to do that, to be quasi-indigenous. I just followed a path. People don’t have to work as hard as I did to access the voices of nature. I think it’s been part of my soul’s code to pave the way for a white person to listen to a plant or to a river or to snake.
* As of issue #6, our editorials have been edited versions of conversations between the principal contributors to the issue.
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