“If, and how and when, we trace the roots of all life in myth, in real time, in and by writing: that I take to be mythography. And turning there to find figures of sun and moon ready-to-hand for the work of grasping just where and why we are so out of kilter, in this country, at the turn of the millennium, in our bodies, on this earth.”
— David Schenck, The Mythographer of the Sun
“A poem is an act of dissent,” proclaims local poet/social-justice advocate David Schenck. His boundless love of nature, nourished by extended solo journeys into the wilderness, fuels his passionate protest of its continuing destruction; his compassionate work among the poor in the streets of Asheville fires his indignation toward the perpetrators of their mistreatment.
Little wonder, then, that in The Mythographer of the Sun, his collection of poems and prophecies, Schenck plays the role of preacher/prophet confronting the political, religious and economic power brokers of our age. The sun poems (formatted down the middle of the page) are rants: provocative, intense, indignant. Our world, he contends in the introduction, has suffered from too much sun power: “Too much mad masculinity, too much yang-y abstraction aggression calculation without due balancing of moon’s body, dark, wetness, intuition.”
In contrast, the moon poems (representing the feminine, places of relief, healing and delight) are laid out along the margins, counterbalancing the dominant, aggressive power of the sun and the stultifying influence of a one-dimensional understanding of life: “moon’s truth flows so easily into nada/ unlike the sun’s, which only in agony of its saints/ implodes there through crucifixion and hell/ moon’s truth coursing in the lives of the poor/ in the strength of women, in all colors of/ all the peoples — in all dark and lowly places.”
Schenck’s passionate anthem, then, is really a prayer for deeper understanding, for fully integrating the sun and moon, the yang and yin aspects of all life. And poetry, he believes, is a potent vehicle for achieving this sacred balance. Citing the “pneuma hagion” (holy breath) of the Greek Bible and the “ruach” (divine breath) of the Hebrew Bible, Schenck maintains that any truly inspired poetry is becomes the very same divine breath of energy and inspiration that originally sparked the creation of the cosmos.
By way of illustration, the poet recalls a painting he once saw depicting Moses and the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea to escape Egyptian tyranny. The artist, says Schenck, shaped the letters of the Hebrew words into the forms of the sea, the mountains and the throngs of people — a graphic representation of the Hebrew words as the “literal stuff out of which the world is made.”
For Schenck, inspired poetry is as much the logos — the word of God — as the canonized scriptures of any religion. “Spirit,” he declares, “can speak right now, just as fully, as powerfully, as authoritatively as it’s spoken in scripture.” Indeed, in Schenk’s view, the church, by canonizing the “poetic voice and putting it into an unchangeable form, oppresses the spirit.”
In “sermon of the mad monk,” the poet traces the roots of this oppression to the suppression of women’s voices in the canonized scriptures of the Judeo-Christian Bible. He mentions the Gospel of Philip, one of dozens of such writings excluded from the Bible. The Gospel of Philip is part of the Nag Hammadi collection of sacred writings, discovered about 60 years ago in Egypt.
Another intriguing Nag Hammadi document is the Gospel of Mary, originally written in Greek in the second century. Although only eight pages have survived, the extant text explicitly states that it was Mary Magdalene — not the 12 Apostles — who received the secret teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Peter, in particular, was appalled that a woman had been appointed to teach the rest of the disciples, demanding, “Did he [Jesus] really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly?”
In this gospel, Jesus warns Mary Magdalene that the false church will quickly pervert his true teachings and that Satan will rule the church in his name. And in “sermon of the mad monk,” Schenck laments these developments: “it is sad that magdalene spoke as a woman who knew the all and peter refused to hear … for the women taught that jesus came not to take us/ to another world, but to give us his joy in this one” — a doctrine clearly at odds with the apostolic tradition.
In the poem’s final stanza, Schenck castigates the church hierarchy: “it is said satan knew he would find among the followers of jesus/ those who craved triumph and authority.” In contrast, the poet proclaims that “jesus exalts the poor because they know already/ the gospel of the empty./ … The true messiah, proclaimed by john, was emptyfull/ a king on a donkey. and john was a poet.”
Schenck’s most potent declaration, however, may be “A Blakean Peroration for the Cemetery at Riverside,” in which he brings these universal themes to bear on the state of affairs right here in Asheville, his hometown, where he has invested his own blood, sweat and tears as an advocate for the powerless.
A peroration is the concluding part of a speech, in which the speaker recapitulates the principal points, driving them home with full oratorical fury. In this case, the poet/prophet unleashes a pronouncement of doom against the local power brokers and the accursed gods of commerce: “The Angels of Dominion arose and declared/ War on the Poor, on the Trees, and Rivers and/ Mountains, to go with their Wars Abroad/ I have seen these Angels of Dominion/ presiding over Asheville–/I have seen them spread their Awful Wings/ to batter our feeble Heads/ I have seen them Flame-Enfolded/ and plunged into the River.”
David Schenck is a spiritual soldier, fighting for justice. In his role as prophet/poet, he seeks to expose the hidden powers that work behind the scenes, revealing their true nature. And in Schenck’s view, the dominating spirit of our economic system is clearly a “spirit of war, a spirit of dominion based on violence.”
Disturbing? Definitely. Controversial? Unquestionably. Yet there’s far more to Schenck than mere angry rants: In all his work, both on the page and on the street, the poet strives for balance. Even righteous wrath, he warns, must be succeeded by growth, healing and compassion. Having worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Schenck, I’ve seen him in action: This man truly walks his talk. And among Asheville’s homeless population, as well as the caregivers who assist them, there are many who will echo that assessment.
The yang must be balanced by the yin; the sun must be balanced by the moon.
[David Schenck’s books Z. Coming Home and other poems, Cold Morning East and The Mythographer of the Sun (which is free) are available at Malaprop’s.]