In the end all words turn out to be acts of violence
Which are weighed, and forgiven, in beloved God’s silence.
This concluding couplet from one of the 150 poems which make up In Dust I Sing gives a glimpse of the radical scope of the collection. Not content with the presentation of a poetic form new to English prosody, Francis is embodying the viewpoint of his Master, Meher Baba, that there is an element of false idolatry in all verbal constructs, that valid words deconstruct themselves to point to the reality underlying all volition and discrimination. Only self abnegating love can make the words attract the mercy and grace of the unconditioned Beloved to give the words a salvific function. The miraculous interplay between the immanent and transcendent reality, finally expressed only in the symbol of the God-Man, plays over and inspires the collection.
To get some idea of the fertility and variety of Francis’ output cast an eye over the index of first lines at the back of the volume. It is hard not to feel utterly intrigued by the aliveness on display. Meher Baba loved traditional ghazals sung by great singers, particularly those of Hafiz and would “sit up all night listening, commenting, revealing the hidden treasure in the verses….” (Preface). I think Francis would be happy to think that at least a pale reflection of this inspired richness was conveyed by his English creations. Hopefully this site will become a nexus of responses to the heart homage which Francis expresses here as we share their opening and deepening quality given to our communing with his words.
At present let us begin with one or two examples.
Today I looked in the mirror, and saw a dead man’s eyes.
A mirror when questioned always faithfully replies.
It’s no good thinking that once these eyes were alive and young-
Love requires that we return to stone, from which we have sprung.
Stone is the first stage on the path to dust – so stone-station welcome!
Now there’s the chance for the impress of God’s feet – and that comes seldom.
The whole world is in thraldom to material progress.
In the heart’s still center is the kingdom I would possess.
It is fitting that the eyes should die first before the breath escapes,
For the eyes invested my Beloved with a thousand false shapes.
My eyes have been two serpents that fed on my sense
And grew fat at my immortal spirit’s expense.
Now my mirror has given me some hope. Questioned about my eyes
It answered, Stone-dead. – And a mirror never lies.
It’s a bit of a cliché, ‘The mirror never lies.’ Here it is transformed into something at first disturbing and then into a message of what really matters. We all, at least after the first flush of youth, have moments when we gaze in a mirror and see in our eyes a disconcerting lifeless blankness which appalls our narcissism. But here it does not become a lament for lost sparkle and beauty. Rather it is an affirmation of the death to all separate individuality. We all need to die to individual asserting and desiring so as to attain to a stone-like state. This is not the impervious indifference of stone but rather a conscious resistance to all false allurements.
Stone is the first step to the lightness and utter surrender of dust responding to the breath of divine breath. But it is a tremendous achievement. It is patient enough to take and preserve the impress of God’s feet. The outstanding example here might be Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka where some footprints in solid rock are held sacred to four religions (Christians and Muslims that of Adam, Hindus that of Shiva and Buddhists that of Buddha, in all cases illustrating a profound spiritual truth.) The only poem I know that conveys this infusion of the divine into the stone of surrender is by Emily Dickinson:
How happy is the little Stone
That rambles in the Road alone.
And doesn’t care about Careers
And exigencies never fears –
Whose coat of elemental Brown
A passing Universe put on.
And independent as the Sun
Associates or glows alone,
Fulfilling absolute Decree
In casual simplicity –
The stone gains the whole universe by just being the still centre and Francis too wishes to turn away from the blandishments that the eyes have thrived on. Strikingly he takes the eyes as two fat serpents, beguiling him into Maya at the expense of inner reality. The eyes (like our multiple I’s) must die before the death of the body plunges us back into the cycle of desiring and illusion.
I find that the final statement of hope is given great poignancy by the magnificent painting of Francis as an old man by John Parry which for me captures not only the blankness of Francis’ last illness but also a great strength and acceptance, a wonderful emptying. See a copy on this site.
The poem itself acts as a mirror reflecting our fruitless clinging to the ephemeral. Each rhymed couplet makes its own statement. At the end we are returned to the statement at the beginning, but now the mirror of self-awareness tells a deeper truth. I think it is best vocalized as having four stresses per line. Thus in the first line: day, saw, dead, and eyes could be given a beat. This regular pattern lifts the poem above prose and gives it an unfussy strength.
Fellow seekers will realize that beneath the calm statements of the poem which keep emotion at bay lies the whole drama and struggle of the spiritual path, the wish to ‘die before you die’, to dissolve into the One, faced by the dilemma that the mirror is still there with its reflection. The mirror in fact always lies when we see our own reflection. The many moods of this drama are of course the mainspring of the whole collection. We are not being given a comfortable wisdom but being exposed to the fire of love. Notice that Francis only would possess the heart’s still centre, only has some hope.
With all its ironies and paradoxes his poetry shares our struggle, helping us remember. Its central image and message is that, as Meher Baba says, for Infinite Intelligence to manifest itself it needs the infinite thinking of the human form plus the absence of self-ness of the stone. (see Infinite Intelligence, page 29).
To turn now to a very different type of poem which suggests the variety to be found in the book let’s have a look at
What a lovely celebration of the flow and renewal of life which takes place with each morning. To convey this flow it reads well with six stresses in each line.It is poetry of vivid image, uniting senses, emotion and imagination, a wakeup call to remember the silence of the Awakener in the living life-filled moment.
After the night’s rain the sky was an inverted bowl of crystal
In which the kookaburra’s laugh was a musical repeating pistol.
The sky fell down in a glittering broken chord,
Each note being a mirror reflecting a face of the Word.
Splinters of light flew into our eyes but did not wound,
And tears, bright as flowers, sprang up and fell on the ground.
A great gentle wind, like the breath of a sleeping child,
Arose and filled every corner of a silent world,
And we had visions of voyages in ships with huge sails
To the Islands of the Sun where song never fails.
Then we noticed that the women had hung their diamonds on the she-oaks,
And that children were forming into choirs to recite Sanskrit sloks.
Then the Silence effaced every image from our minds and hearts,
And a seed of new love was sown that would become our new art.
The poem develops from vivid imagery brittle and beautiful to a conveyed quietness and serenity; and out of this comes a new creative awakening. Behind all words is the unutterable Silence. This is not romantic nature poetry but always points beyond to the mystery. It brings life by capturing the wonder of the newly given. Vision transforms the dew drops on the needles of the she-oaks to diamonds, the dawn chorus to sacred hymns. From the here and now the mind embraces the possibilities of the mythical, the Islands of the Sun of Hellenistic fables, no doubt for Francis the world of Homer of which he was so fond.
Poems can have the beauty and life that help us to be other than what and who we are. In this poem the beauty is a means to transport us to a sensing of the real. Our own personal concerns get pushed to one side so that we respond to presence beyond us but including us. It can open us to surprise and wonder. It helps us to feel ourselves as nothing so we can see things as they are.
It helps to read very slowly and sometimes more than once. Be aware of the form of the poem as well as the content.
Apologies to those who see this as teaching Grandma to suck eggs.