Today, I’m delighted to welcome poet George HS Singer to Diary of an Eccentric to celebrate the release of his new collection, Ergon. I was intrigued by the poem “To Charlotte Who Fled Hitler,” and I asked if he could tell me and my readers about his inspiration for the poem. Before I turn it over to George, I hope you’ll read the poem that caught my eye, and look for my review of Ergon in early November.
To Charlotte Who Fled Hitler
This year, ninety-five and blind.
Whose mind reaches
through her walking sticks
with spidery intelligence, their tips
scuffed rubber, canes of polished sapwood,
made kinetic by her hands
as if, released, they will stand of themselves.
Our short talks,
only clear words these forty years.
She says, This is very happy-making.
Or How terrible, how terrible.
Before a meal: Now the great experience begins.
Of her eyes: Now the skin must guide.
Please give a warm welcome to George HS Singer:
I’ve had the good fortune in my life of getting to study with and befriend some wonderful teachers. In my book, Ergon, I have written a few poems about them because of the powerful imprint they made and continue to make on me decades after last seeing them alive. And I suppose I want other people to know them if only from a glimpse.
The poem “To Charlotte Who Fled Hitler” is a remembrance of a remarkable woman, Charlotte Selver who taught a form of mindfulness she called Sensory Awareness. Though she was not blind, she became profoundly deaf as a relatively young woman after she escaped from Nazi Germany where she had been ejected from a university faculty because of her 25% Jewish blood.
In her late nineties she started using canes to aid walking and she did it with such awareness of the ground and the vertical rise of the sticks that the way she proceeded was balletic with a kind of natural panache. The sticks actually looked alive to me as she approached. She was focused entirely on awareness of the moment as well as letting her body move and breathe in ways that were fully responsive to what was there in the senses. She knew words could be a distraction and could do violence to experience when they block awareness of the present. So when she spoke it was with such care that her speech was plain, direct, and heart felt.
She and her husband Charles used to lead sensory awareness classes on Monhegan Island off of the Maine coast during the summer. Charles would make cod stew (the cod fishery had not yet collapsed) in an immense pot that could feed twenty or more. Once I was reaching into the pot with a ladle and Charlotte commented, “Ah now the great adventure begins.” I still remember the expanse and powerfully enticing smell of that pot of chowder after she got me to really give it my attention. She lived to be 104 and left a foundation and several former students who continue her work. It is quite wonderful in its simplicity but very powerful in its effect.
She simply had us do basic actions like sitting and standing up, reaching for a stone and lifting it, or walking across the room, all the while asking us questions: Is your breathe responding now to the weight (lifting a stone)? Can you sense the full length of you from the top of your head to the feeling of the floor under you (standing up)? She called “standing up”, “coming to standing” as a wondrous vital action that can happen of itself if not blocked by habit or muffled by inattention.
One of the outcomes of studying with her was that I became very interested in the sense of touch that I try to call upon in my poems to ground them. I still ask myself her kinds of questions when I have the presence of mind to wake up a little. She paraphrased Paracelsus to the effect that one should add nothing to nor take anything away from experience. The kind of direct positive encounter with the world that she exemplified and taught is something that maybe I will one day approximate in a poem. Ergon represents efforts in this direction. In the poem, I took the liberty of making her blind rather than deaf. I hope I captured something of her in it and wish I had written it while she was still alive. There is a video of Charlotte Selver giving a brief talk in one of her classes. If interested, you can see her beauty well into old age and hear her directness of speech as she taught.
About the Poet
George HS Singer, a former Zen Buddhist monk and student of Rev. Master Jiyu Kennett, lives with his wife of forty-two years in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he works as a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. He was educated at Yale, Southern Oregon University, and the University of Oregon. He wrote poetry in college but took a twenty-year break before taking it up as a regular discipline. He has been a long term student of Molly Peacock and has had the opportunity to work with other marvelous poets through the Frost Place in Franconia, N.H. He writes about life in and out of a Zen monastery, trying to live mindfully in a busy and troubled world, his love of nature and of his wife. The arts have become more central to his life. Singer’s poems were published in the Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, and Tar River Poetry.
George Singer’s Ergon is precise, delicate and fierce in its engagement with the world.
George HS Singer, a former Buddhist monk, has written a debut collection of poems about his life as a monk and in the monastery and about his life when he left to marry and have a family. As he tries to balance his spiritual principles with every day life as a husband and father, these poems utilize nature as a backdrop for his quest.
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