A Rita Dove Poem About Adam and Eve, Consciousness and Desire

Poems can be read a thousand ways. We bring what we know, what we have read and heard, what we have experienced, to each of them in their turn, you responding to certain images and lines that inflame your memory or imagination beyond all explanation, me responding to others. Both of us adding all of it up for ourselves into a prevailing gestalt, an often inchoate feeling of, “Something about this moves me.”

Or not.

Often, as it does in former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove’s “I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land,” a poem takes its time, unpeeling itself onion-like with a series of evocative scenes and images that don’t coalesce until one hears a figurative “Bam!” that then takes one back to all that precedes the “Bam!” moment.

And then one exclaims, “Oh, so this has been a poem about Adam and Eve!”

More about Eve, actually, but then the very story of Adam and Eve in the Bible is much more about Eve than about boring absent Adam, isn’t it?

***

 ***

Eve, the mother of us all, World Creator, Consciousness Giver, Humanity Affirmer, who took the vital first step for all of us by scratching the itch of her curiosity, growing restless and bored with the perfection of Eden.

Courageous Eve, no wimpy, lockstep, vapid heaven life for her.

Nor for any of us pulled along in her wake as she steps out from the mind-numbing stupor of endless tropical days, blandly naked in Paradise.

Eve, who brought upon us the fig leaf and thus the deliciousness of mystery, hiddenness, slow disrobing, the revelations begat by mortal trembling flesh and its desires.

Eve, whose bold encounter with the apple, whose implicit challenge to Adam to be a man and stand up with her to claim the fruit of the world, supposedly brought upon us the wrath of God.

But come on now: God can’t have but secretly smiled, lauding the gumption of his daughter and her willingness to slake her curiosity and step into time, her assertion and acceptance of the suffering and death that would attend adulthood for herself and all the progeny who would succeed her.

“Yes!” said Eve, emphatically, “I’m having some,” while Adam bumbled about the garden.

“Yes!” to “the red heft” of desire, her “outstretched palm” brushing past any resistance, not needing any “whispered intelligence” from the serpent or anyone else to know what she would, what she must, do.

It was Eve who carried our consciousness on her back and brought us to it, to this, our beloved, enchanted, beautiful and suffering world.

Behold.

***

I HAVE BEEN A STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

By Rita Dove

Life’s spell is so exquisite, everything conspires to break it.
—Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t bliss. What was bliss
but the ordinary life? She’d spend hours
in patter, moving through whole days
touching, sniffing, tasting . . . exquisite
housekeeping in a charmed world.
And yet there was always

more of the same, all that happiness,
the aimless Being There.
So she wandered for a while, bush to arbor,
lingered to look through a pond’s restive mirror.
He was off cataloging the universe, probably,
pretending he could organize
what was clearly someone else’s chaos.

That’s when she found the tree,
the dark, crabbed branches
bearing up such speechless bounty,
she knew without being told
this was forbidden. It wasn’t
a question of ownership—
who could lay claim to
such maddening perfection?

And there was no voice in her head,

no whispered intelligence lurking
in the leaves—just an ache that grew
until she knew she’d already lost everything
except desire, the red heft of it
warming her outstretched palm.

(From the volume “American Smooth,” 2004, © W.W. Norton & Co.)

***

Cole Porter at his most devilish, channeled wickedly here by Ysabella Brave…

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10 comments to A Rita Dove Poem About Adam and Eve, Consciousness and Desire

  • Angela  says:

    I think curiosity, and desire, ARE part of the divine plan.

    Thank you for reminding us, in such a beautiful way.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m right on board with you, Angela, though I think the Buddhists would give us an argument about the “desire” part! Theirs is an ingenious solution to the problem of suffering and death, but in the end, I don’t think it quite holds up. Eve had it right!

      I’m glad this engaged you. Thanks for writing.

      • Chris Bell  says:

        Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism (and Zen), make much more room for desire, particularly the desire to be enlightened and to help others. And if you read the Buddhist poet Ikkyu, you’ll see that even lusty desire can be embraced in the mind of non-duality.

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Thanks much, Chris. I’m aware that I generalize at my peril, that saying “Buddhists-such-and-such” is no less problematic than saying “Christians-thus-and-so.” When even within each tradition, it is much more a Baskin-Robbins tableaux. That said, it seems to me that the Eastern traditions, even allowing for multiple exceptions and nuances, maintain a general, overarching focus on equanimity, non-attachment, and the taming of desire. More patient and content, less acquisitive not only of material things, but of anything that would bring ego aggrandizement to the glories of the small “s” self that is doomed to dissolve into the void.

          And just as generally, the West is more acquisitive, more brazen and pursuant not only of material wealth and personal advancement, but of individual heavenly rewards and an actual reunification with the bodies and beings of loved ones in the hereafter. (Talk about materialism run rampant; my word!)

          These different basic orientations seep into the cultures, religions, arts and even individual personalities within the different traditions, I think, though perhaps with so many exceptions that it is foolhardy to even attempt any generalized commentary about them. It all may require a lot more detail and depth than I have given it here.

          Never heard of Ikkyu, but I see Wiki calls him “eccentric” and “iconoclastic” and you mention the word “lusty.” This should be fun!

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Sometimes the fruits of curiosity are overwhelming. Thanks for the sweet reminder of why we keep asking questions.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Joan, your comment brings to mind Pandora and her box, another archetypal slapdown of an overly curious and grabby female. Not that there’s a pattern there or anything…

  • Chris Bell  says:

    Awesome post, dude! You’re a poet in your own right.

    I’ve heard others also herald Eve as heroine of the race instead of betrayer (notably Ken Wilber, Joseph Campbell, Jung, I think), and agree that’s actually the way to see it. Particularly since at the time of that fable’s construction, the snake was the symbol of wisdom, not of the devil. It’s the Trickster in this story, Prometheus, helping humanity.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So with the snake as the symbol of wisdom rather than deviltry, where, when and via whom did the tale take its turn toward casting Eve as the temptress and Eden destroyer?

      What’s dark and ironic is that there’s almost a straight, ever ascending line running from wicked seductive Eve, blamed for bringing suffering upon us after consorting with a snake, to the Virgin Mary (a VIRGIN, by God!), undefiled by all that messy lower body stuff, with her eyes focused primly on the clouds. We have all been a long time recovering from the devastation of those portrayals, though women have suffered their consequences far more grievously, to be sure.

      I’m very glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for piping up about it!

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