Deeply Perceptive Essay ‘On Listening to the Call’

Brian George’s most comprehensive perceptive understanding of both my books and how they relate to one another. This Essay traces the origins of understanding as well as the adaptation of the languages to express that understanding.

On Listening to the Call: From “A Shadow in Yucatan” to “Involution: An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God”

Brian George

“I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in creation’s dawn.”—John Muir

Philippa Rees has recently published a new edition of her book A Shadow in Yucatan. Many reviewers have already taken note of the near-hallucinatory verbal richness of this free verse novella, whose style contains echoes of such writers as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, and Dylan Thomas, while, at the same time, remaining very vividly the author’s own. “The monocle of light, now focused, flames her hair,/ it lifts, it falls, it curves, it conceals…/ Her open nectar-mouth, now shaded, breathes.” Among her other activities, Philippa is a cellist, and this play of echoes within echoes is what you will often find in a piece of classical music, so that, in listening to Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, for example, you can hear Haydn—the disjunctive trickster!—on one side and Stravinsky on the other, in what you had first assumed to be a kind of new and improved Mendelssohn.
Yucatan could productively be read, several times over, with only such formal concerns in mind. I am coming somewhat belatedly to the book, however, after wrestling with Philippa’s magisterial opus Involution: An Odyssey Reconciling Science to God, and so I am going to approach it from a different angle. I hope to show how the challenges faced by Stephanie, the protagonist of A Shadow in Yucatan, recapitulate, on an intimate scale, the more supernatural ones faced by Philippa on a beach on the southernmost tip of Florida; at the same time, they prefigure Philippa’s decades-long struggle to give form to her vision. In one moment, prompted by an accident, the whole of a person’s life can change. If a question is posed, does this mean that one has to answer?
Let me summarize the bare outlines of the plot: Yucatan tells the story of Stephanie, a young woman from an Italian immigrant family in Brooklyn who is working at a beauty parlor in Coconut Grove, Miami. In an experimental period, Stephanie seems to be living away from home for the first time, enjoying her freedom, and yet is, perhaps, far more the child of her traditional parents than she knows. The book is set in the late-60s, at a turning point in the culture, when new horizons have opened and many things seem possible. “I shall go hang on the Continent’s tail, beyond the Barfly at Sloppy Joe’s/ Heedless of his beard and belching, my oaths will be toes in the aimless water…/” For Stephanie, this moment of carefree floating is an evanescent one; soon, the spell cast by the wind and waves is broken. Unexpectedly, she discovers that she is pregnant, and this provokes not only a personal but also something of a metaphysical crisis. Due to fear of her father finding out, as much as anything else, she at first plans on having an abortion.
As if in a dream, Stephanie hitchhikes to an abortion clinic in a faceless suburb of New York, where the dream quickly turns into an eruption from the Underworld. A smokestack reminds her of Dachau. “Twenty two, buckle my shoe. That mini-brick incinerator ready for countdown?/ That ain’t nothing but a postal depot for unclaimed mail, sorted and stacked.” The abortionist and his assistants loom over her like the celebrants of a black mass. This is, so far as I can tell, not intended as a political statement, but rather as a personal turning point. Stephanie was brought up as a Catholic, and certain fears and attitudes have stayed with her, even if her orientation would appear to be mostly secular. At a minimum, there is a cautious sense of respect for the unknown. With this, comes a feeling that she must follow where she is led, and that the determining factor should not be that of convenience. It seems just possible that an accident should be read as an invitation.
After deciding to go forward with the pregnancy, Stephanie then returns home, where she is consoled by Mrs. Martins, her Jewish landlady, who possesses a kind of Sophianic presence and plays the role of a tribal elder. In Mrs. Martins, we can see how human frailty and deep knowledge can coexist. “Arthritic fingers fill the kettle./ The unswerving eye escapes the sockets of prejudice, and annotates with sympathy/ ‘And nu? To pull the sheet over your head I’m sure, but first coffee, and you eat a little something…’ Through the eyes of Mrs. Martins, Stephanie can begin to glimpse how her trials connect her to the human race as a whole, and in particular to the lineage of those who bring new life into the world. Here, the accident of pregnancy is re-imagined as an initiatory ordeal. As the child grows inside of her, so does Stephanie’s intuitive sense that she is engaged in a sacred act. “There is instantly all and endless time for the old woman, the young, and the obliging idiot clock./ Speech must now grow from silence, and the stones that cockle the black backs of women in prehistory, left alone with the consequence of men./ There will always be light on the sea;/ rocks to serve for washboards, and make wrecks./ Children to hide and seek through lives…/ Women remain, to spin the flax of deep unquestioning.”
After a brief stop at an adoption agency in Coral Gables, we next see Stephanie at a rustic retreat for unwed mothers—a “house in the hills,” with an orange orchard—where a kind of alchemical change is taking place. Stephanie seems to be a simple person, “not smart…but steady; plain, but clean,” as she is described in the first pages of the book. Here, at the retreat, however, we begin to see this simplicity in a very different light; she is Everywoman, the First Mother, the conscious vehicle of archetypal forces, the means by which new life will be brought into the world. So too, if her circumstances have not significantly changed, her capacity to work with and embrace them has. If her pregnancy is an inconvenience and an ordeal, it is, in spite of being one of the most normal of occurrences, also a great mystery, which tugs on her like the gravitational field of a slowly approaching comet. Like Inanna, from the Great Above, she has opened her ear to the Great Below. She has set foot on the road that does not turn back. A near apocalyptic storm scene precedes the act of delivery, and the whole of creation appears to be ripped apart at the seams. As in the forth movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the storm begins gradually, darkens, and then intensifies. “Pinned and poised on a vertical thread a dryad is drawn from the earth/ to spindle the light from the anxious trees, she begins to slowly rotate./ Flashing quick iridescence, she holds the prism of/ fear./ Eddied from greenwood, tossed, caught, thrown forward from branch to branch like a firework trailing smoke…” And then a bit later on, “The landscape lies down./ Spreads its limbs, and turns its head./ The cumulus mainsail darkens, lifts its scudding skirt, boils the seas in anger, braces a hidden keel…/ His teeth sink in earth’s jugular./ He swiftly snaps her back. Crack./ Wraps his thighs about her, and drenches with his seed.” For a timeless interval, Stephanie is able to enter into a depth of primal power, still, to some extent, hidden, but yet not entirely separate from her own.
Over Mrs. Martins’ protests, she does decide to follow through on her pledge to give the child up for adoption, as difficult as this is for her. “‘Let me see him, let me hold him…’/ ‘No, my dear. That wouldn’t be wise, or right./ Lie back, you’ve done a wonderful job…/(They stitched, washed and brushed, and wheeled her to lie in the dark; brought her tea routinely, and gave something to help her sleep.)/ While the galaxy broadcast new stars, Christopher slept in a plastic tray, under a pale blue shawl.” The last section of the book is bittersweet. Soon, both the child and the transformative experience are far away. Stephanie can, at times, regain some glimpse of the intensity of her breakthrough, but only from a distance. When anonymously introduced to her son’s adoptive mother, she is informed about herself, “‘She must have been a wonderful girl, you can see that he’s been loved…she even wrote a letter…Wait, I have it in my purse…say, could you hold him a minute?’” Both new life and archetypal understanding have become one more part of the external world.
So: in reading A Shadow in Yucatan when I did, I could not help but see it as a less abstract prelude to Involution, in the same way, let’s say, that Eliot’s Gerontion can be seen as a less abstract prelude to the philosophical trapeze act of his Four Quartets. Many later themes are present, but in a personalized form. Key to an understanding of both Yucatan andInvolution is the concept of “The Call”: A call has been issued, which results in the disruption of one’s normal habits, attitudes, and expectations. One may block one’s ears in order to postpone the hearing of this call; one may protest against it. In the end, there is no way that the call can be ignored, for forces have been set in motion, and one’s path, already, has been reconfigured. One must rise to the challenge posed by apparently chance events, which can also be interpreted as the confrontation with one’s destiny. That things will change is a certainty. The aftermath, however, will not be tied up neatly with a bow, and it may not at first be clear that something wonderful has occurred; a sense of irreversible loss will also follow from the upheaval.
Let me jump to the point of this round-about comparison: In 1969, at approximately the same time that Stephanie discovered that she was pregnant, Philippa became the recipient of and the vehicle for a different form of insemination. In yogic tradition, it is said that many lifetimes may be required to reactivate the dormant force of Kundalini, to remind it of its key role in the scheme of cosmogenesis and to nudge it from its post-traumatic rest-cure in the sacrum; at the same time, the inseminating force can be transferred by nothing more elaborate than a touch, a thought, a spoken word, or a look. As with a snap of the fingers, the sleepy serpent wakes, and then goes about consuming the whole world, starting first with the material body of its host. And as with any electrical current, the movement is from the higher source of energy to the lower, regardless of whether the vehicle has been adequately—or in any way—prepared. To Philippa’s consternation, this proved to be not an occult theory, but a fact. In only a few moments, her life’s purpose would be altered. The year was 1969. At dawn, on a beach on the southernmost tip of Florida, with a man she barely knew but with whom Fate had insisted on entangling her, she experienced a shared encounter with a disembodied  Eye—a large and luminous one, with a green-gold iris—which shattered all of her previous concepts of reality.
Philippa writes, in Lost in Translation—Scaffolding the Cathedral, “There is no avoiding the necessity of weaving the nature of its inspiration into this account so I will get it out of the way. I have to admit that the genesis of Involution was an unsought mystical experience, and like almost all others I later read about, (but knew nothing of at the time) it carried with it no content, no injunction, no structure. The material world fractured and slid away: luminescent light and a single compassionate Eye replaced it, and having been perused, detailed and indelibly absorbed, slowly withdrew and permitted the material world to return. Consent created reality. An infinite loving intelligence bathed creation. ‘Now you know’…A critical component was the sharing of that revealed vision with a man I scarcely knew, and that encounter, both shared and of some duration, ensured no possibility of doubt. A series of episodic and improbable encounters had brought us together in circumstances that severed us both from our past(s) as though clinically prepared for surgical excision.  Had either of us been alone, one might in time have persuaded oneself that it had been an aberration, the delusion of a fevered mind…What followed denied any return to prior existence, marriage, children, country and society. A new course had been set, but certainly never sought.”
The energy found in a light socket may seem to differ from that of a lightning bolt, yet it does not; they differ only in voltage, and the one is a stepped down—and more usable—version of the other. So too, the energy that was transmitted by the Eye did not cease to be active. After the violence of the first initiatory impact had subsided, the challenge posed was then projected into a decades-long series of steps. While Philippa says that the experience “carried with it no content, no injunction, no structure,” I would argue that such energy is inseparable from knowledge, even if its recipient remains unconscious of the transfer, and that light, by its very nature, constitutes an injunction.
Throughout A Shadow in Yucatan, I was struck by the omnipresent images of light—light falling, shifting, reflecting, leaking, floating, glowing, emerging, exploding—as if some form of primordial radiance were trapped behind the stage-set of the visible world and was looking for an opportunity to tear free. Here is one example: “Stephanie stirs to the flapping of sheets, and the creaking revolution of a line…Slatted sun flickers…The windowsill flares, and is doused by the closing eye.” The objects on this stage-set are not securely anchored in place. As detailed and as loving as the descriptions of South Florida are, there is also a kind of jagged quality to them, as if a mirror had been fractured and then only approximately put back together. If Stephanie’s unexpected pregnancy is an everyday occurrence, the world in which this occurs is far less natural than it seems; as if in the prelude to an epileptic seizure, there are auras around objects; it is not clear whether the light is falling from the outside in or whether it is emanating from the inside out, and the energy that pulses at the edges of one’s vision seems always just about to take off. This aspect of the writing in Yucatan points directly to such passages in Involution as the following:
“It came to me later that the Eye
Was both a hinge and a trapdoor. The first
Pinched out my life before, the second sealed return…
“Before its birth, it drew aside the curtain of the ‘real’
By an incision in the landscape; shattered spikes of surface glass
Slid on lasers sideways, and completely disappeared…
“The luminescence was more atmosphere than light; more
Clarity transparent, a boundless nothing of the all,
Pregnant with potential birth, yet already born…
“From the periphery, the wings of stage, the landscape now returned,
The spicules of curtain rent, moved back to reconnect….
A face with stricken swimming eyes, a freshly pearling sky…”
My sense is that, by the time of the writing of A Shadow in Yucatan, Philippa had more or less recovered from the overwhelming encounter with the Eye; at the same time, however, the author was no longer “Philippa,” nor was the world the commonly shared world. It goes without saying that an accidental pregnancy can change the whole course of a woman’s life. The changes may be physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and practical. We usually would not attribute this type of power to a book, yet Philippa sometimes refers toInvolution as “The Book That Wrote Her Life.” Involution was the Ur-Text, of which Yucatan was the backwards projected shadow, the echo of an OOPArt, (or out of place artifact).
Let me play with this comparison a bit further: In a biological pregnancy, a child, who does not yet even exist—at least on this plane of reality—is somehow able to create the mother who is able to give birth to it. That the process is a natural one tends to blind us to the depth of creative power on display. How strange it is that a world—which we refer to as a “human being”—can explode out of a single point, with each atom and cell falling perfectly into the place that it should go. In a literary pregnancy, the process can seem anything but inevitable, especially to the author. That it occurs across many decades, and in a complex series of steps, may tend to blind us to the inevitability of the outcome; a story that exists already in a flash of inspiration must somehow create the author that is able to imagine it. The process is a retroactive one, and a small glimpse of a landscape (Yucatan) leads, after many tests and trials, to a planet-wide panorama (Involution), with each shift of the Psyche finally locking into place.
In both biological and literary birth, an explosive force is present, a force that is not especially concerned about our comfort. We may think of this in terms of the horizontal and the vertical aspects of Kundalini. Projected outwards, Kundalini creates the multifaceted order of appearances. Vedantists call this “Maya,” the literalization of the primal force, or “Lila,” play, and Taoists speak of the “Ten Thousand Things” that have issued from the silence of the Mother. Whole populations are inserted into seeds. Systems swell and break as they struggle to get out. Mirrors petrify. Causes produce effects, and the future marches in lockstep with the past. Hence, accident is a necessity. Projected upwards, Kundalini burns through every blockage in the body, dismantling nature, as it returns to the overflowing “emptiness” of space. There, all events are simultaneous, and the future can easily reach back to the present—which is, in any case, far longer than we would guess. In 1969, an Eye blinks above a beach on the southernmost tip of Florida; some 45 years later there is a book called Involution. Cues wait only to be understood as such. Our hearts must be open, and our ears must be gigantic. There, in that luminous vacuum, all information is sucked from the sender to the receiver without any need to cross through the intervening gulf. Thrown against such emptiness, however, the mind can shatter like a glass. The individually-formatted story is complete, yet it takes time to revise the author.
Just as Stephanie’s life was changed by her encounter with a man she barely knew, for better AND for worse, so was Philippa’s by her encounter with the disembodied Eye. She did not go in search of it, and at no time did she give her informed consent, at least not on this side of her current incarnation. How could she, when she had no clear memory that such an Eye existed? It is possible to view Stephanie as a kind of ritual surrogate; as a hairdresser, she is very much a creature of quotidian reality. Her pregnancy functions as a catalyst, much like Philippa’s experience with unasked for spiritual awakening. Both were, in a fundamental way, disruptive; they caused a break in the normal flow of events, though which something new might enter. Both interruptions also could have been refused, in Stephanie’s case through an abortion, and in Philippa’s through a refusal of the call.
Note: Illustration at top: Brian George, Photogram (based on an engraving from Robert Fludd), 2003