‘The Expressible and The Inexpressible’: Sarah Dowling

This post is the seventh in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

When One and One Equals Silence: The Mystic Way in the Poetry of Theodore Roethke and Charles Wright

by Sarah Dowling

Sarah is a postgrad student at ACU in Melbourne.  Both she and her paper were ‘beautiful,’ as defined the day before by Dominique (Beauty as Resistance).

My mid-life passion for poetry has developed in parallel to my passion for love as the source of all life and being.  There is something inextricably connected about the two, and today in the postgrad room I threw around some thoughts with my colleagues about what that is.  I think about an oft repeated phrase for poetry students: poets ‘show don’t tell’.  What if that is applied to love as a form of knowledge or communication: love ‘shows rather than tells’.  Whereas with poetry, the showing is still done with words – symbols, metaphors and allusions – perhaps with love the showing is done with the body.  In both my academic and my pastoral work, I am often reminded of the ‘fact’ that 55% of communication is done through body language, 38% through verbal intonation and only 7% through the actual words.  What if love is communicated through body language?  

This reminds me of my one of my favourite songs of all time, the 90s classic More Than Words!  Take a trip down memory lane and check out the ‘Extreme’ film clip on youtube!

Anyway, back to Sarah’s paper, she introduced me to two poets I’d not yet read, both of whom were influenced by Evelyn Underhill’s description of ‘The Mystic Way’.  They declare themselves to be be not mystics, and yet by challenging the location of mystical experience create poetry which reads mystically.  I found this wonderful – and instructive of so much energy in philosophy, psychology, theology and all forms of art at present: where is the location of the mystical?  How do we bring language to bear on that which is essentially mysterious?

Rather than ‘tell’ you more, I’ll just share the poems that Sarah shared with us, and hopefully they will ‘show’ you what I mean by this!

The first poem Sarah dealt with was by Theodore Roethke, In A Dark Time which can be found in The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (1963).

In A Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,

I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;

I hear my echo in the echoing wood–

A lord of nature weeping to a tree,

I live between the heron and the wren,

Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.


What’s madness but nobility of soul

At odds with circumstance?

The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,

My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,

That place among the rocks–is it a cave,

Or winding path? The edge is what I have.


A steady storm of correspondences!

A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,

And in broad day the midnight come again!

A man goes far to find out what he is–

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,

All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.


Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.


The second poet was Charles Wright and she presented two of his poems: Drone and Ostinato and Ostinato and Drone which are published in a volume called Negative Blue (1998).

Drone and Ostinato
Winter. Cold like a carved thing outside the window glass.
Silence of sunlight and ice dazzle.
Stillness of noon.
Dragon back of the Blue Ridge,
Landscape laid open like an old newspaper, memory into memory.

Our lives are like birds’ lives, flying around, blown away.
We’re bandied and bucked on and carried across the sky,
Drowned in the blue of the infinite,
blur-white and drift.
We disappear as stars do, soundless, without a trace.

Nevertheless, let’s settle and hedge the bet.
The wind picks up, clouds cringe,
Snow locks in place on the lawn.
Wordless is what the soul wants, the one thing that I keep in mind.
One in one united, bare in bare doth shine.

Ostinato and Drone

The mystic’s vision is beyond the world of individuation,
it is beyond speech and thus incommunicable.
Paul Mendes-Flohr, Ecstatic Confessions

Undoing the self is a hard road.
Somewhere alongside a tenderness that’s infinite,
I gather, and loneliness that’s infinite.
No finitude.
There’s radiance.  Unending brilliance of light
light drops of fire through the world.
Speechless.  Incommunicable.  At one with the one.

Some dead end – no one to tell it to,
nothing to say it with.
That being the case, I’d like to point out this quince bush,
Quiescent and incommunicado in winter shutdown.
I’d like you to notice its long nails
And skeletal underglow.
I’d like you to look at its lush
Day-dazzle, noon light and shower shine.

It’s reasonable to represent anything that really exists
by that thing which doesn’t exist,
Daniel Defoe said,
And that’s what we’re talking about, the difference between the
voice and the word,
The voice continuing to come back in splendor,
the word still not forthcoming.
We’re talking about the bush on fire.
We’re talking about this quince bush, its noonday brilliance of light.

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