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Fragments of eternity: A Review by M. Travis Lane of Kristjana Gunnars' "Ruins of the Heart, Six Longpoems"

Fragments of eternity

Ruins of the Heart, Six Longpoems, Kristjana Gunnars. Angelico Press, 2022.

Kristjana Gunnars’ new collection of longpoems, Ruins of the Heart, is full of profound thought and beautiful description; it presents a moving awareness of our inner selves. Gunnars defines her term “longpoem ”as a text that evolves gradually as a result of long meditative walks during which the undirected mind finds itself gathering observations and memories that reach toward and affect each other, small poems which grow into a single, inclusive longpoem — not an argument, but an experience. The reader follows the mind.





       Depression is a gift, its thoughts appear only
       when it’s dark.

       Life weathers you naturally, the way wind,
       temperature, time weather a barn

       and youthful enthusiasm becomes a burden you need
       relief from, relief from

                                          the unbearable lightness of being.
       The lightness of the hazy forest and the rain
       of dark words sailing down in rows from the sky.

       No, you do not always have to be cheerful, he says.
       Remember, it is an effective form of repression
       to give a thing excessive honour.

                       “A Moment in Flight” (19) (quotation from Lao Tzu)

The longpoems, we are told, are the effect of meditations after the painful breakup of an intense love affair. The poet had met a man who shares her interest in the great philosophers and poets, especially but not solely Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, transcendentalism. The couple’s love is described in rapturous terms as absorbing almost the whole of their attentions. We are told that the beloved man was depressed about the errors he had made in the past and had been yearning for death before they met (warning characteristics I should have thought) — that their short time together was ecstatic, and that he left abruptly — breaking the poet’s heart, and obliging her to realize that the life she expected for herself as lover was not going to happen. She must change her plans, her ideas of herself, accept loss and weakness — what, with her heart in ruins, does she do with her life? She mourns her lost love, but retains her love for nature, recalls the wisdom that she has been studying, and sets out on a life she had not intended or expected for herself.

Although the blurbs on the back cover of Gunnars’ collection speak of her “lyrical mysticism,” she is not a mystic. The mystic desires to be somehow in touch with the “Mystery,” and the desire, the reaching toward, is usually presented as arduous, even painful (“the dark night of the soul”) and the beingin- touch rapture as a sort of frenzy. Bernini’s sculpture of the rapture of Saint Theresa suggests an almost sexual rapture (and subsequent exhaustion). But the searchers for wisdom, or enlightenment, or relief from passion, stress the right way to live: with calm, good judgement, acceptance. These philosophers are always depicted as serene. The Buddha displays compassion, not passion. Nor does Gunnars write as a theist, although many of the philosophers and poets she quotes are. It isn’t “God” or “Mystery” that concerns her in these poems, but, rather, how to accept her circumstances.

       Let us be walkers
       and walk the path,
       the country road that has no destination.
       . . .
       Quietly we can follow the path of he sun,
       we can take the course of the pale moon,
       we can rest under the silken stars
       ravaged by age in their distance,

       where beauty is owed nothing.
       Beauty just is.

       I am told that all that is meaningful hides —
       truth and beauty will only appear
       when no one is searching.

       . . .
       Let us be like the trees,
       slow and constant,
       let us stay

       and stretch our limbs to the sky
       where the angel hovers darkly
       to wrest us from death.

       . . .
       She says the great room of her thoughts
       is filled with snow, and the words
           are falling into a well
           of loneliness.

       Let us reach out our limbs
       In loving attentiveness
       In the deep scent of the rose,
       In he cool touch of raindrops —

       Let us be like the trees, let us learn

       a new language, tell
       a new story.                         “Black Rose with Rain”(68-71)

Ruins of the Heart is written as if in constant dialogue with the observations and advice of the poet’s mentors. Very beautiful, full of wisdom — and very lonely. No living person, human or animal, visits her. In this wholly unlike the frequently sociable Thoreau, whom she so often quotes; too, unlike the Taoist sage illustrated as often accompanied by a companionable deer. And no music — because no performers. The poet, her present, sensual, beautiful, is isolated. The city, with its complexities of ugliness and beauty is not far from her house but its business, like the world’s generalized wars and sadnesses is something to move away from. She observes but as if uninvolved, except insofar as she continues from time to time to address the departed lover, as if her memory of him cannot be lost. Indeed the lost lover is almost continually present in memory and her imagination. In the last poem of the book she addresses herself, and accepts the possibility of a “never-ending light,” like Dante’s sun, an image of the unseeable divine.

       You always knew it is not your world
       but it is the world in which you live.

       A world of chalk and wooden stairs and light bulbs.

                     You knew that there was a never-ending light that
                          once seen, and always, kindles love.

       There is only you and the sun and the moon now

       and the sun is ablaze and the moon is on fire.

       The sun is still high in the sky. As it ever was,
       the sun has the face of everything.

       I try not to tell only stories of decline,

       how everything is degraded and ruined.

       You, me, everything. That declensions narrative,

                 that is not the only story.

                   Are you far or are you near?
                   Should I call or should I whisper?
       “Blue Moon 7” (130)

Are these concluding lines addressed to the never-to-be-forgotten lover? The book ends with a quotation from Hadîth QudsÎ:

       When I love him, I am his hearing through which he hears, his eyesight
           through which he sees, his hand through which he holds, and his foot
                                                                           through which he walks.

       Who says this? The author.

— M. Travis Lane

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