Painting with Words
Prattis’ poetry is a poetic narrative of our basest attributes as a species, our greed and propensity toward a savage violence, as well as our ability to love beyond the telling power of words. His verses awaken the sense of the infinite within us surging our hearts with the power of their message. His poetry aims directly for the heart speaking to the reader in clear and loud words, sometimes screaming the truth; it is incisive, devoid of redundant imagery and heavy-handed symbolism that might obscure the truth, both the poetic and human one.
Finding My Poetic Voice
During my teenage expedition to Sarawak, Borneo, with Voluntary Service Overseas, I kept a journal of the vivid surrounds and how I was feeling. From that time on I scribbled poetry wherever I went, accumulating poems that reminded me of the experiences. My extensive shamanic training with incredible First Nations medicine people was also carefully logged. Those notes and poems were a sign-post to always be authentic, even when it was difficult to re-read. As a professor I wrote text books and scholarly papers, which had particular protocols that were somewhat stifling. When I started late on the writing craft – I had to re-learn how to write without sounding pompous. I gave up on footnotes!
My challenging journey through life navigated shamanic healing of childhood sexual abuse, guru training as well as a near death experience in an ashram in India. From this vast range of experience I developed an ability to sculpt narrative in a novel way and this was expressed in my poetry and books. My life as a global traveler certainly stretched my attention beyond any limits I could have placed on it. Expansion of mind was inescapable. I stumbled through the first part of life, but then stood strong in my own sovereignty in the latter part.
My approach to life comes through experience, crises, difficulties and joys that may have common ground with many readers. To the best of my ability, I follow Gandhi's principles of ahimsa and the teachings on mindfulness. I live very simply as a planetary activist. As a Zen teacher my initial task is to refine my own consciousness - to be a vehicle to chart an authentic path. From this energy the poems and chapters simply emerge.
My first book – Redemption – was written in 1975. I wrote it as an extended prose poem. It became a lost manuscript as I did not know how to get published at that time. When I rediscovered it forty years later I could scarcely believe my eyes. Anita Rizvi had this to say…
"Redemption is a riveting chronicle of one man's journey through the stages of innocence, darkness, destruction and transformation." She goes on to say, "What is so exquisite is the tenderness and honesty with which the author deals with the human condition… When the main character's journey takes him ever closer to the abyss, the author refuses to 'sanitize' his experiences."
It is important for me to remain true in telling the grittier and more difficult aspects of a poem or story, also to touch the mystical elements that led to it being transposed to written form. Yet in 1975 I was writing over my head and lacked the maturity to understand the deep nuances emerging from my pen. The book was writing me and it is fitting that it was not published until 2014. The time lapse allowed me to grow into the insights and revelations writ large. I was a total mess in 1975 – with a failing marriage in the Hebrides and trying to keep my career intact as a young professor at Carleton University in Canada. I was not doing a good job with either. The surprise for me in 2014 was how could I have written such a powerful poetic novel while in a desperate state of mind.
The themes of mental illness and alcoholism are writ large in this turbulent Hero's Journey to emancipation. Redemption is an allegory for the depression and life difficulties I once experienced, though I did not realize it at that time. From the rhapsody of an idyllic childhood through traumatic tragedies to the derelict zone of alcoholism and then to a state of awakening – I depict the stations of a personal Calvary that ultimately leads to "Redemption."
The poetic voice in the book is a lyrical and moving tale of struggle, love, loss, transformation and hope. It reads like an extended prose poem reflecting the primal forces of nature and human nature. Its starkly gorgeous and remote island setting creates and reinforces the central themes of struggle, family, community and wonder at the beauty of the world. Its rich cast of characters offers numerous gripping interludes that brim with complex interpersonal drama that brings the poetry out.
In my career as an anthropologist I was fortunate to encounter many First Nation story tellers across North America: Dene, Hopi, Ojibwa, Algonquin, Inuit – to mention a few. Their poetic recounting of myths and history had a deep impact upon me. I would say that without poetry cultures implode. Over a period of thirty years, four extraordinary indigenous medicine people enhanced my process of remembering the power of the poetic voice. Through their mentoring, I learned how to reconfigure my understanding of time, place, consciousness, and re-write some of Carl Jung's psychology. I chose to listen to the feminine voice of Earth Wisdom rather than the multitude of competing voices in my deep unconscious.
I am not good at sitting down and writing four pages a day. I wait until the spiritual energy is present, then I write. Sometimes this is frustrating, as I want to get on with it, but when I do not stay still and wait – I write garbage! I use the in-between times to do research and edit. When the energy is sparkling, the writing flows effortlessly. I do not consider this as a necessary template for others. It is what works for me to connect to the Muse within. My books are screenplay-worthy epic tales that weave together seamlessly to create inspiration. Global citizens are staring into the abyss. Instead of being eaten up by it all, I say to them - "Awaken spiritually," for that transforms everything. We have made our world an unpredictable beast because we fail to work with it intelligently. Turning on the switch of awakening seems to be a good idea right now. That is the prod and direction of my poems and books. We just need to touch the sacred in ordinary experiences of lifeto find the courage and determination to transform. All of this funnels back into my writing.
The stories I tell in my poetry and books are offered as a gift to our planet. My purpose in life is to share my wealth of experience on how to live in harmony not just with ourselves but with the place we call home, Earth. I shed light on issues that will affect our world for generations to come. The human race does not need to be stuck with maladaptive options and patterns. My writing delivers a vigorous message about personal transformation in order to become responsible stewards of the earth and society.
Excerpt from Painting with Words
PART ONE: BITTERSWEET
"Bittersweet" growls rather than sings - a side show malady of words I sometimes prefer to hide. Despite my apparent concerns and insights, a darker side of anger, misfortune and despair arises. It relishes what I failed and flailed at – my discomfort with relationships, hierarchical structure and all that is phony. Growing up I was acutely aware that I was a maverick – on the outside looking in. I saw more clearly and deeply than allowed. I did not like being constrained by any form of hierarchical institution and searched desperately for Hail Mary's to outreach the limited designs of academics and institutional religions with their holier- than-thou perspectives. I grew to enjoy the maverick vantage point. It required a meticulous drive to excel in order to be free. I preferred to keep organizations at arms-length and walked to the beat of my own drum. For many years I chose to step away, for I saw that the only person who can walk my path was already doing it.
As I got older, I could let go of the maverick stance, though remain somewhat reclusive to this day. I now choose to engage rather than remain outside looking in. The tension, however, is there, revealed in these poems. "Corridors," written after a prolonged period of time in the anthropological field, tries to capture the culture shock of returning to a structure that seems trivial by contrast to an indigenous culture that is stark in its life-and-death realities. The "Vietnam War Memorial" is a scream of agony at humanity's stupidity, exploding into our real time of observing nature's cycle of death with "The Old Mare." "Culture of Revival" provides a reminder of what we can be, even when all seems impossible as in the "The Old Man's Song." In 1979 my mentor on the sea, Captain Archie Ruag McNeil, died from cancer. I was in Canada and my young sons took it upon themselves to represent me at his funeral. They absented themselves from school and journeyed to Vatersay, the island south of Barra in the Hebrides. On a rain- lashed day, they accompanied other men on Captain McNeil’s last journey. I miss him to this day.
"The Bear" takes ethnographic experience garnered from working with First Nations in British Columbia and the Canadian Arctic and applies it to a crisis in my own life. The power of the Bear motif had been passed to me by Kwakiutl and Inuit shamans. "Bear" invokes reticence in difficult situations, which is why the last line of the poem is said quietly despite the shout within. The final poems provide some relief to "Bittersweet." Rebukes to Foreign Policy, to learning Greek from a shepherd, to a lament of Gord Downie's demise – "The Man Who Walks Among the Stars" and the collective grief of Canada. "Punk Palace in the Moonlight" is a collaborative poem composed with my son. After an unexpected parenting adventure with him in Glasgow's drug underworld, we sat on the doorstep of "Punk Palace" watching the full moon rise above the city of Glasgow. We took turns composing lines of a poem to the moon. I cannot discern where he began and where I ended, which is perhaps just as it should be. Then "Bittersweet" finishes with the Spoken Word genre "The Future of War" followed by "Cabinet of Bigotry."
I became acquainted with Ian Prattis through his trilogy. Reading his literary tour de force reminded me of E.B. White's quote in which he compared writing to both a mask and unveiling. The profound truth of that quote brought greater clarity to a seemingly complex and intriguing man who dances between the roles author, shaman, environmentalist, a wolf whisperer and a human vessel through which ancient wisdom pours forth.
My enchantment with Prattis' creative opus continued throughout this volume of poetry. And what a befitting title for the verses that paint images like masterful strokes of a painter's brush!
This collection of poems features six thematically distinct parts displaying a full spectrum of human emotions, and capturing in verse the shared aspects of our experience. Each poem seems to reflect how deeply the author had travelled into his personal experience to retrieve and process its meaning, and to raise it to the level of the universal. Each part exudes, thus a singular atmosphere of spirit, and depicts the author's pilgrimage into the landscape of his soul, excavating the multiplicities of his self during the different legs of his spiritual journey. His poetry aims directly for the heart speaking to the reader in clear and loud words, sometimes screaming the truth; it is incisive, devoid of redundant imagery and heavy-handed symbolism that might obscure the truth, both the poetic and human one.
In Part One, titled "Bittersweet", Prattis explores his personal, as well as the universal darker side of humanity. His verses bear witness to the disillusionment, pain, senselessness and profanity of war, prodded and perpetuated by the greed for power. His criticism ripples forth from feelings of helpless rage, and from these feelings he shouts out his message to the humanity asking us not to abandon civilization, and not allow it to turn into "a monument to the dead." In this world of darkness and annihilation, a world brimming with the "smallness of men", Prattis sees poetry as a force of transmutation that "fills the Cosmos with meaning." In that sense, like many other artists, Prattis uses poetry as a vehicle through which negativity is alchemized into a higher aesthetic meaning.
Reflecting on the tragic and shattering events of 9/11, Prattis appeals to us to fight terrorism through the light of compassion, integrity and courage, thus shining a torch of light onto darkness, pitting truth against power.
The poem Punk Palace in the Moonlight presents a sudden shift in the mood embracing the reader in a dreamlike slow dance, in which one is fused with the stars, bathed in moonlight tinsels, enveloped in a tranquil mood conducive to the calm acceptance of life's dualities.
Part Two of this anthology puts on full display Prattis' passion for nature voiced through his gift of painting pictures with words. He infuses our senses with the colourful images of nature's cycles and its "undeterred rhythm" of change alternating from decay to renewal, from the melancholy of loss to the joy of a new beginning. His poem "Weaving in the Forest" paints a splendorous image of a lake, awakening the senses to the striking beauty of the depicted scene. Prattis' verses devoted to nature portray her as a living and breathing organism worthy of our utmost reverence and respect.
Reading Prattis' poem about the clouds, swerved my thought suddenly to Wordsworth's Daffodils, and to the poetry of the Romantic period in which poets found joy, solace and sheer exaltation "in synchrony with stellar rhythms" of nature.
Part Three, Agua Viva ushers the reader into the world of Mexico and the Mayan civilization. The poems are a perfect cocktail of ingredients ranging from the shock upon the author's encounter with "smog enveloped" Mexico City to the lulling cadence of the monk chants blended with the air fragrant with the intoxicating scent of flowers. Not only do Prattis' words paint sensuous and artful pictures of his surroundings, but also they create feelings of spiritual lightness and a meditative ambiance. In that world, with joy and laughter as an antidote to fear, we become capable of "realigning the Universe."
In the Footsteps of the Buddha, Part Four of the collection, Prattis chronicles his life in India, a land fecund with "wonders and miracles", as well as the starkest of contrasts between "facial grime, filth and death" and the "sublime peace and happiness." In this segment of his life's journey, Prattis came face to face with death overcoming the fear and surrendering unto life or death, whichever might have claimed him first.
Part Five, called Speaking of True Love celebrates the wonder of true love through Prattis' odes to it. Even though I enjoyed immensely this entire poetic opus spanning forty years of Prattis' life, I must admit that this part struck a deep resonance with me. The thematic focus of these poems is love of a purity that is almost divine in nature; it is a celebration of souls mirroring each other, souls bonded in a union reminiscent of twin flame bonds. The human souls in love are at the same time merged fluidly with nature, reflecting images of such utter tenderness that make the reader sigh with romantic longing; the eroticism in some verses is ever so subtle, and yet, it is this very subtlety that makes the reader think of the passion that is as fiery as molten lava. Again, I was reminded of the Romantic period in the English literature, or the Sturm and Drang in the German poetic expression, where ecstatic feelings prevailed over the poetic form. "Our soft spoken adoration blows on dandelions, creating parasols drifting to fertile ground" is one of the many verses that burrows its way ever so softly into the reader's heart.
The volume ends with Part Six and the thematic focus on the Ancient Wisdom humans can access through their communing with nature. Travelling through the wilderness, Prattis becomes like Thoreau in Walden, pulsating with the rhythm of the river, the spirit of nature and that of its ancient inhabitants. He criticizes again human greed and its human destructive impulses that result in pollution, contamination and annihilation of the natural world. He is nostalgic for the ancient ways of the people who had held earth in their most sacred regard. The two canoes in the poems coax readers into the heart of nature's Zen-like serenity, and sheer "thereness", and hurl them, at the same time onto the path of nature's fury expressed through extreme weather conditions. In spite of being exposed to the merciless harshness of the elements, the poet still smiles because he is a part of this world just like a tree or a rock.
The leitmotif connection between humans and nature Prattis illustrates so movingly in his image of a solitary tree and a man. In each other's presence, their feelings of aloneness vanish. The ancient wisdom is like the tabernacle of our collective memory, and Prattis, attuned to nature, harvests these ancient energies and weaves them into his own history, which he carries forth into the future.
With the multi-layered quality of the poems, Prattis takes the reader through the immensities of joy and pain, through the infinite and the mysterious. He dissects the dissonance of the modern world with the scalpel of his poetic musings, and describes the interflow between the human soul and the spirit of earth, paving his quest for spiritual evolution and higher meaning. Prattis' poetry is a poetic narrative of our basest attributes as a species, our greed and propensity toward a savage violence, as well as our ability to love beyond the telling power of words. His verses awaken the sense of the infinite within us surging our hearts with the power of their message. They restore the possibility of the ancient dialogue between humans and nature, and most of all they restore a sense of optimism.
As far back as she can remember, Jana has been fascinated by storytelling. Her love of reading
and writing propelled her toward studies of languages and literature resulting in B.A. degrees in
English and German Languages and Literature, an M.A. Degree in Literary Studies, as well as a
B.Ed. Degree in English and Dramatic Arts.
Among her publications are an academic article published by Cambridge Scholars, UK, the novel "Poisonous Whispers" published by Roane Publishing, N.Y., poetry, short fiction, articles, art reviews and blog posts featured in literary journals and other publications. Currently, she is working on her second novel, finalizing a collection of children's stories and acting as an editor for the literary arts journal, Ariel Chart.
She lives in Ottawa, Ontario and works for the Government of Canada as an education specialist in the field military language training.
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