The Increase of Existence: The Poetry of Marilyn Robertson

Deschutes River, Oregon, April 2121 (Jim Friedrich)

Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being. Each time we enter its word-woven and musical invocation, we give ourselves over to a different mode of knowing: to poetry’s knowing, and to the increase of existence it brings, unlike any other. 

— Jane Hirshfield[i]    

Spirituality and poetry share a common task: “the increase of existence.” This is holy work, and much of it involves coming to terms with time. Whether we waste it, use it, lose it or save it, it is never ours to keep. It is a gift that comes and goes. Whatever is meant by the increase of existence, it cannot be a matter of longevity. That would deny the fullness of time to those who die too soon, and I believe the universe to be kinder than that. No, the increase of existence is not in its length, but in its depth, what T. S. Eliot called “a lifetime burning in every moment.” [ii]

Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov described this depth as a relationship with the eternal: 

“For [the human person], eternity is not a specially qualified time that will arrive after temporal life, as an event in time itself; rather, it is the depth of [our] own being, a depth known in time and ceaselessly revealing itself. Eternity is [our] rootedness in God, and this eternal life both begins and is accomplished in temporal life.”[iii]

In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a small boy tells his bemused parents, “You’re just lucky you don’t have your whole life looming in front of you.” I wonder if that becomes funnier, the older you get. Certainly the nature of time feels different when it starts to run out. Some of us would not mind a little more looming in our later years.

Marilyn Robertson, Santa Cruz, California, January 2018 (Jim Friedrich)

My oldest sibling, Marilyn Robertson, is a poet. In her latest collection, “Small Birds Passing,” time is on her mind. “I like the moreness of time at low tide,” she writes. “Time for a stretch, a sigh. / Time for nothing perfect.[iv] But the stillness of the unhurried moment, the sense of “moreness,” is not inherent to time itself. It is rather the product of our own attentive awareness.

Days won’t wait for us. 
Hours drift away.
Time never got the hang of lingering.

Yet what if we dropped everything,
Stood still.
Looked around.

That red leaf.
Those cloud-sheep.
All the small birds passing.[v]  

In the first hour and the last, and all the moments in between, pay attention. Sink into the depth of things. Increase existence. Such temporal depth does not come naturally to a society obsessed with speed and surface. We need teachers. 

Animals keep trying to tell me 
how to live: 

cat, sunning herself 
on the grape arbor, 

dog, bouncing along the path, 
in love with everything, 

and rabbit, 
the ardent listener, 

her soft antenna ears 
always tuned to the present.[vi]

In “One Thing,” Moon joins Rabbit in modeling a spiritual practice:

One thing about a rabbit, or the moon,
is that they don’t waste time fretting about
what to do with the rest of their days.

They are living them, one after another,
those tidy packages of hours with their beginnings,
their middles and their ends.

Rabbit, hopping along a path through woods,
into briars and out again without so much
as a scratch on its soft jumpy body,

and Moon, sailing across the infinite ocean of sky,
spilling her poetry of light
into every window she can find. 

And yet, no matter how adept at sounding the depths of the given moment, poets and pilgrims of a certain age cannot help glancing toward life’s horizon. There are too many goodbyes in our latter days, too many deaths, to let us forget the “tears of things.”[vii] 

All the farewells in a lifetime.
All the ships that sail away, becoming pinpoints.
Becoming specks.

“You just missed her.”
“He said to say goodbye.”

All the clicks of latches, shutting of lids.
“Stand back. The doors are closing.”

There are roads. We have feet.
What we leave behind will soon forget our names.

All the losses. All the last words.
The telephone ringing, ringing in the night.[viii]

The last line could signify the news of death, received by phone at an untimely hour, but I hear it as a call to someone who is no longer there to pick up. The unanswered phone is a heartbreaking image of disconnection—the permanent loss of a precious voice. And then what? Is everything, in the end, gone for good? Or does the eternity we experience in the “depth known in time” persist for us beyond the grave?  In “After,” the poet admits our essential unknowing in this matter.  

After the fire,
what will I be?

A thing with feathers?
Or that little pile of ashes

just there, where
the water heater used to be.

And though the poet in her reticence prefers to let the “Thick pages of theology fly / out the window,”[ix] she nevertheless intimates the possibility of resurrection. The title of the collection’s last poem, “The Story So Far,” locates the octogenarian poet in the middle, not the end, of her divine comedy:

old flowers 
tossed on the compost

doorway of loss
blown open by a sudden wind

water jar broken three times
still beautiful

in the heart of the mother
one hundred poems

we are not dying
we are just waking up



For more of Marilyn Robertson’s poetry, see my 2017 post, Running on Fast Forward.

[i] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Collins, 1997), vii.

[ii] T. S. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets. The poet goes on to say, “We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity / For a further union, a deeper communion …” In other words, deeper and deeper into God.

[iii] Sergei Bulgakov (1877-1944), The Lamb of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 2008), 135. This classic in Christology was originally published in 1933.

[iv] Marilyn Robertson, “Low Tide,” in Small Birds Passing (2020). All her poems and excerpts are from this chap-book.

[v] “Taking Time.” 

[vi] “How to Live.”

[vii] This poignant phrase is from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book I.462. The Latin, lacrimae rerum, lacks the preposition which English requires, creating the ambiguity in translation of “tears for things” vs. “tears of things.” Seamus Heaney’s rendering speaks to the immensity of our grief in this time of pandemic: “There are tears at the heart of things.”

[viii] “Endings.”

[ix] “You Say”

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