Monday, June 16, 2014

Chat Between Two Poets - Susan Chast

Time for another chat, my friends and, when I saw this poem by Poets United staff member, Susan Chast, I asked if she might be willing to chat about it, and she replied "With pleasure!" Yay! Susan writes, as you know, at Susan's Poetry. We are very lucky to have her on staff, and don't we know it! So let's dive in!

I am Atlas, too,
one of you, training
to hold the pain of
the spheres differently
moment by moment—I
have no choice—
therefore I inhale
into every joint
and body organ
therefore I exhale
and reduce pressure.
I can’t put it down
and so I relax.

Moment by moment
Atlas holds her pain
and will not let go,
choosing whether I
hold pain with tai chi
arms against a soft
chi-centered body
or out in front where
I can neither smell
nor feel it, as if
taking out days old
garbage and anxious
to wash my fingers.

Forgive me.  Moment
by moment, Atlas
learns no garbage can
exists, smell remains,
that all the perfumes
of Arabia
will not sweeten these
hands—but she won't stop.
I am Atlas, too,
one of you, learning
to ease my task by
exhaling tension
and inhaling love.

Copyright © 2014  S.L.Chast

Sherry: This is my all-time favorite poem of yours, Susan. I struggle with the same task - seeing all that is out there, and learning how to hold it, while trying to stay loving in the now. This is a wonderful, uplifting and inspiring poem. Such a hugely appropriate message for these times. I am so interested in hearing  about it, what it means, how it came about, your process in writing it.   Please dive right in!

Susan: I will, I promise.  But first, can you tell me what inspired you? What you got from the poem?

Sherry: So much! On reading it, I felt replenished and hopeful because, while the poem addresses the fact of all that we earthlings worry so much about, it also gives us a prescription for “how to carry the pain,” and how to help ourselves handle the weight of all that we know, that might make us despair, if we did not have resources, faith and hope to offset the knowledge of all that is wrong on this planet that we love so dearly.

Susan: Wow, Sherry, that's what I had hoped!  Thanks.  I got the idea for this poem from reading the daily meditations of Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation. His meditations are available through his Facebook page as well. Recently he's been contrasting the energies of the first and second half of life. He says the second half is radically different from the first because we fight less, participate more and generally have a wiser and healthier approach to life.  I know I am oversimplifying.  His approach is new to me, yet it resonates with me. 

My poems lately wrestle with second half of life possibilities as if I am Jacob and aging is the angel.  Aging hurts, literally, so how can the fight end well?  I'm working it out in my writing.

Sherry: I’m working it out in my living!  I’ve got a head start on you, so I’ll let you know how it ends. Smiles. But the second half of life offers gifts of wisdom and understanding. I would not trade it for the first half. Heavy though the load might feel, on any given day.

                      File:Atlas Santiago Toural GFDL.jpg
[By Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons)(Lmbuga Galipedia) Publicada por/
Publish by: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Susan: In "Our Options," I use the image of Atlas holding up the spheres to examine the difference between continuing to struggle vs. stopping the struggle, to look at the possibility of laying the burden down altogether—a burden that is rightfully ours.  I toyed with the idea of using the image of Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill over and over—but Sisyphus is merely being punished. He is not responsible for the rock.   We are responsible for the condition of our skies; humans defeat ourselves.   I love the feminist/native American saying that "women hold up half the sky."  And I discovered on Wikipedia that Atlas wasn't holding the globe but the Celestial Spheres, and that he controlled astronomy, astrology, and navigation. Perfect!  

Without Atlas, Chicken Little may well say "The sky is falling."  And as you say, Sherry, our sky is falling.  One Atlas is not the answer; neither you nor I can hold it alone.  And that’s where the idea of being one of many Atlases came from. 

Sherry: This is so fascinating. I love getting into the nitty gritty of a poem. When we read, we often gain only the surface meaning. In this case, your poem has such depth, one could send deep sea divers down, and still not get all of the content.

“To look at the possibility of laying down the burden altogether”.......that gives me pause. I, too, love “women hold up half the sky”. At least half, given we mother all of humankind.  (Wow! No wonder we get tired!)

Susan: Next, I considered what it would be like to be an Atlas with my body, one with pain from nerve damage and fibromyalgia, especially in legs and knees.  I know that this is familiar to you and many others in “the second half” of life.   We take medicines, change our diets, move, and do whatever we can to ease the pain without curtailing too much activity.   In physical therapy, I am experiencing that strength and range of motion exercises are more effective  with  breath support, with relaxed and ready muscles and with mindfulness—rather than forcing and rushing.  I have to take my time when lifting, pushing, walking and climbing steps.  And I have to rest a lot.

My dramatically impatient flair is suffering, and my sharp ready answers are slowing down, but oddly enough, life seems more beautiful.  Imagine that in many Atlases?  A caring Atlas committed to his fate, but also fully himself, rooted, lithe, breathing, ready and present?   Able to see not only the mess but the beauty?   So we train to hold “the pain of the spheres differently” with regard to our purpose, the burden itself, and ourselves.  

Sherry: I resonate strongly with “training to hold the pain of the spheres differently” – the simultaneous joy and  pain of seeing the incredible beauty of life in this world,  of the planet itself, and its vulnerability. And our vulnerability. This  reminds me of what an environmentalist friend of mine once said to me: “Mother Earth feels your pain. Let her feel your joy, too.” That has stuck with me for over twenty years.

Our choice – whether to hold our pain “with a soft chi-centered body”, or out in front “as if taking out days old garbage” – anxious not to touch it,  to quickly wash it away. Then the clincher, that “no garbage can exists, and all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten these hands”. Wow, that says it all. The garbage is rising everywhere, even in the oceans, and we cannot wish it away, no matter how we avert our eyes. It will wash up on our shores.

Susan: The burden of the environment is ours, as you say, and I wish we could just make it disappear. But we can’t wish it or throw it away.  That made me think of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth who hurt herself by perverting hospitality into murder, and had blood on her hands.  I used her line “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten these hands.”  And then you, Sherry, filled in the blank by saying “The garbage is rising everywhere, even in the oceans, and we cannot wish it away, no matter how we avert our eyes.  It will wash up on our shores.”

Sherry: We cant put it down – the weight that we carry. All we can do is bear it, and find ways to ease it. Thus, your lines about breathing and trying to relax speak to me.

Susan: “Let us see what love can do” guided the holy experiment of William Penn, when he established colonial government in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, and has guided Quaker projects everywhere.  This is not a hippy love-in, but work within the unconditional love that many experience with their concepts of God.  It is the basis of restorative justice in South Africa, efforts to save animals after oil spills and deforestation, the attempt to prevent destruction of cultures and environments.  It is a matter of finding every living thing worthy of love, including yourself.

Sherry: “Including ourselves” is what we so often forget, given the desperate need all around us. I love that reminder.  I find the closing of your poem brilliant, and nurturing, and full of hope :  a prescription for alleviating the pain – always a good thing for people to take away from one’s poem.  

“I am one of you, too, learning to ease my task by exhaling tension and inhaling love.” This sent me away feeling reassured, and with renewed hope that all is not lost. As long as peaceful beings can keep breathing out love, compassion and peace, perhaps we can shift the transformation of consciousness after all. For if we don’t, the very axis of the earth itself might tip, and a new day will dawn – with or without us.

Yoiks! That just depressed me so much, I need to read your poem all over again!

Susan: I am happy if reading my poem helps.  (grin.)

Sherry: Thank you, Susan, for your poem and this chat. I will try even harder to inhale tension and exhale love. It is truly the best hope that we have.

"Exhale only love." Rumi

I hope you enjoyed this chat as much as I did, my friends. Do come back and see who we talk to next. I'll give you a hint: next week's interview is a poet who is also an amazing artist - there will be visual treats scattered through the entire post. Yay!


  1. This sent me away feeling reassured .... yes. Many thanks, ladies!

    1. I'm glad, Helen. We need reassurance, when we train our eyes on the state of the world. Thankfully, exhaling love is something we can do!!

  2. nice...i like the breaking down of the poem to hear susans helps us to appreciate the depth of the is our responsibility...true that...and the training to hold the spheres differently is intriguing and thought provoking...

  3. Thank you for this most interesting chat between poets, Susan and Sherry. I found it very thought-provoking. It is important for those of us who 'can't put it down' to remember that we are not alone, that we only share some of the responsibility in trying to make the world a better place.

  4. This is a wonderful poem from a wonderful spirit. This has also given me a new perspective to consider about aging well.

    Thank you for sharing.

  5. Sherry and Susan, I am greatly moved by the discussion of Susan's poem. We cannot put down the weight that we carry, but we can find a way to hold the pain that can make it bearable. Thanks to both of you for this!

  6. Wow....that exchange was awesome. .it has to give Susan a wonderful feeling to know her readers not only "get" her poetry but are inspired and renewed by them....Kudos Susan:-):-)

  7. Thank you all for reading and commenting. Having a conversation with Sherry about my poem was a great experience, and I hope you each get the opportunity. Thank you, Sherry, for giving me so much feedback in our chat and for suggesting it in the first place.

    1. I loved our chat! These chats are becoming my favorite feature, as each one is so different, each brings something exciting to the table. What I loved most was, before you began chatting about your poem, you asked me for my response to it, what I got from it.........that was kind of seriously cool, my friend. Then we had lots to talk about! Thank you so much for taking part. I enjoyed every minute!

  8. Wonderful! For some reason I think of the struggle being with my sides of the brain. The creative muse and the logic in me fight daily~
    A great inspired view-thank you Susan for sharing with us! Thank you Sherry for highlighting Susan's gifts~

  9. Truly ladies, that poetry is not mere fancy or pure imagination but a part of living is evident in this intimate chat....some enriching moments spent here...thank you Susan and Sherry :)

  10. what a inspiring conversation!! i am amazed!!

  11. What a fascinating discussion! Deep stuff, yet made so accessible.Thanks to you both.

  12. Loved the chat! Get deep into the poem.

  13. It was a good conversation. Stretched my gray matter trying to keep up with Susan, smiles........we're happy you enjoyed....more to come! Stay tuned!

  14. I tried to comment last night, but it wouldn't go through. Of course, Susan, you and Sherry both know how much I enjoyed this conversation. I imagined the three of us together, you two talking while I listened. Wonderful, wonderful.
    Love, Kay

    1. Kay, we would require you to join in - both the talking and the cackling! smiles.....

  15. Thanks so much for this thoughtful chat Sherry and Susan. I love the poem, too, and can definitely relate to trying to ease our second half of life.

  16. What a treat.
    Sherry, Thank you for highlighting our mid-week star so beautifully, and Thank you Susan for being there.

  17. Beautiful, uplifting, powerful...what a gorgeous poem that deeply resonates! As one who's in the second half of life, your words truly had an impact.


This community is not meant to be used in a negative manner. We ask that you be respectful of all the people on this site as each individual writer is entitled to their own opinion, style, and path to creativity.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Archive