When Angels are Born: A Review

When Angels Are BornWhen Angels Are Born
by Ron Starbuck
Saint Julian Press

I awake most mornings at 5 a.m., shuffle around the house in half sleep, make coffee, and then I sit quietly to watch the arrival of another new day through the window. On most of these mornings, just as the sun reaches up to the sky, I turn on my laptop computer and my attention is immediately taken by the white hot flash of an LCD screen.

This morning was different. After a few moments sitting quietly looking out the window at the light changing outside over the silhouetted black buildings as the coffee machine gurgled away in the kitchen, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down Ron Starbuck’s latest volume of poetry, When Angels Are Born. I don’t know why I did that instead of turning on my computer, but I am grateful. It is as though a part of me needed a different kind of nourishment. Something softer and more contemplative, a kind of wish to make a connection to something that speaks to a deeper part of myself–a “secret self that we all have,” as the writer Katherine Mansfield once said.

It surprises me now to realize how little an effort is required to make one’s morning seem holy and significant. We just need to be attentive and to listen much like Ron Starbuck says in the introduction: “to open ourselves to the mystery of life.” Reading his poetry is to accept a gentle invitation from a friend to go walking in the fields of the spirit. You enter his words like a song, deeper and deeper still into “the mystery of life” and all of its “infinite possibilities,” much like the lightning bugs he describes in the poem “Youth & Rebellion:”

who guide us home
and guide us still.

When Angels Are Born is an honest and heartfelt invocation, a calling out to the sacred that is so desperately needed today “in a world that undervalues such an intimacy of spirit.” It is also a spiritual journey where we are continually aroused from our sleep and brought to think and to feel our common human situation. We are encouraged gently to “pay attention” and to “welcome the embrace | of heaven found in a single moment, between breathing in and out.” Ron Starbuck’s psalms, or sacred songs and prose easily guides us onto the path of many contemplative traditions and mystics like Meister Eckhart and Thomas Merton. And in the light of those traditions, we are asked to travel further than the known, to “empty out our small separate selves and to recognize the truth of who we really are–”to become a sacrament of seeing.”

There are no clear cut answers offered to the great metaphysical questions but rather a deepening of those questions. He speaks directly into the heart of each of us, as though drawing from an ancient source, giving us voice to our deepest and most powerful intuitions and longings. The question of what does it really mean to be alive is echoed throughout the book and his penetrating verse assures us that the world is filled with the Absolute and that we need only to listen and discover for ourselves that we are not separate–that we are all part of something much larger. Even difficult spiritual concepts like compassion, emptiness, and rebirth are distilled down to their essence and made accessible in a language easily understood by the heart. In the poem “Death,” for example, Ron Starbuck says:

Look at someone you love today
For one minute,
As if you saw them
for the first time.

When Angels Are Born is a gift. It is a wonderful book that can be read again and again. It serves to remind us to ask what is being given to us in each moment. Ron Starbuck’s poetry encourages us to try to see the world through fresh eyes, and to open ourselves up to gratitude for this life, or as he so eloquently puts it: “to give birth to our own angels in the world every day.”

Saint Julian Press

Guest Cabin at Loretto Maryholme Spirituality and Retreat Centre, Roches Point, March, 2012

Guest Cabin at Loretto Maryholme Spirituality and Retreat Centre, Roches Point, March, 2012

I am delighted to announce that Saint Julian Press has published a poem I wrote titled “Preparation” on their website

Saint Julian Press is a new nonprofit imprint whose mission is to identify, nurture, and publish transformative literature and art by encouraging the work of emerging, established, and world-renowned writers, poets, and artists. In our vision we seek to build a world community by embracing and engaging in a global literary and artistic dialogue that promotes world peace, cultural conversations, and an interfaith awareness, appreciation, and acceptance.

Thanks to Ron Starbuck (Executive Publisher-CEO/Author-Poet)


Andrew Wyeth, "Off at Sea," 1972.

Andrew Wyeth, Off at Sea, 1972.

The sun returns, pushing away the grey sky in forgiveness painted blue. Long shadows appear over the deck and the green of a small ficus tree is illuminated. The wind that rattled the stray beer cans is quiet now; leaving the neighbourhood eerily silent and waiting. She gives herself to the television in the next room. He sits on a once white plastic deck chair. He stops, smokes, takes a long sip of coffee—a break from the stream of words. It’s a late Sunday afternoon near the end of summer. He can smell the sourness in the air of autumn approaching. He can taste the acridness, the oranges, the reds, and the rusty browns. He feels the warmth on his skin, tickling the hairs, now golden on his arms. Looking up, he sees the birds dart among the rooftops, gathering together, and a moment later, dispersing again. The sun light settles gently over the trees. He asks himself if he has ever truly seen his backyard before—to have this direct impression of it, without his luggage of words. Has he ever listened to its orchestra of wind and trees? It is as though, behind all the seemingly ordinariness, something struggles to shine through.

Poet on a Mountaintop

Poet on a Mountain Top, ink on paper or ink and light colour on paper, album leaf mounted as a hand scroll, by Shen Zhou

“That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”

—Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and other Writing, Capo Press, 2005

Image: Poet on a Mountain Top, ink on paper or ink and light colour on paper, album leaf mounted as a hand scroll, by Shen Zhou, Ming dynasty; in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo., U.S. 38.7 × 60.2 cm.The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; purchase Nelson Trust (46–51/2)

The Empty Page

E.B. White writing in his boathouse

E.B. White writing in his boathouse

Dropping the anchor,
To try to find the middle ground.
Down into the “I don’t know” rather than the forms.
There is a hesitation.
In the chest, a question is uncovered.

Is it true?
Grounded in my abdomen,
I see that this turning inward, is just as vast and nebulous
As launching outward.

Opening to where I am, now
At this table writing, and listening.
The weight of this body sitting here on the chair changes
and a fragile silence appears
that is louder than me or you.

Breathing in and out,
in profound exchange.
Of emptying and filling
Silence and sound.

While navigating varieties of lost.
The light in the room shifts and
Something changes.
My abdomen is trying to tell me something
But the language is lost in the process
Of trying to find the right words.

–Luke Storms

One Book Opens Another: Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.”

Patti Smith“One book opens another” says an old proverb. I have just finished reading Patti Smith’s National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids. It is both a love story as well as an elegy. It describes the ascent of two young artists, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith behind the backdrop of the tumultuous New York art world during the late sixties and seventies. Essentially, the book is about the plight of two young kids driven to the path of art, devotion, and initiation, and how they sustained and encouraged each other along the way.

I always read with a pen. This way I can underline, write notes in the margins and put asterisks beside important passages. I can’t help it. But, interestingly, I am completely against folding over corners of pages. The great thing about reading an autobiography of an artist is that it is almost always filled with the influences and overall inspiration that fueled their quest. The books of Henry Miller come to mind, especially The Books In My Life. His books are filled with what inspired him. He holds nothing back. Throughout his books, Miller drops artists like Hansel and Gretel dropped food crumbs in the forest in order to find their way back home. If life was a bone, Miller sucks everything out of it, right down to the marrow, and when he’s done, it falls on the plate with a thud. I collect the scraps that are left behind and try to make them my own. I guess that is why I deface my books. Miller’s energy and enthusiasm for what keeps him going is contagious. I found Patti Smith’s writing also contained this quality of vibrancy and life.

When I started reading Just Kids, I realized that music was going to take center stage. I started making notes of all the artists and song titles Patti mentions and I made a musical playlist out of it as I read along. I was familiar with many of the artists but there were some new discoveries, like the folk singer, Tim Hardin for example. After I finished the book I also decided to make a list of all the writers, books, painters, photographers, and films Patti Smith mentions.  For the most part I have listed them here in the order in which they appear. I’ve also added  a few links just for the fun of it.

“The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.
I left Mephistopheles, the angels, and the remnants of out handmade world, saying, I choose Earth.”

–Patti Smith Just Kids, p. 256



“By chance, Jimi Hendrix came up the stairs and found me sitting there like some hick wallflower and grinned. He had to catch a plane to London to do the Isle of Wight Festival. When I told him I was too chicken to go in, he laughed softly and said that contrary to what people might think, he was shy, and parties made him nervous. He spent a little time with me on the stairs and told me his vision of what he wanted to do with the studio. He dreamed of amassing musicians from all over the world in Woodstock and they would sit in a field in a circle and play and play. It didn’t matter what key or tempo or what melody, they would keep on playing through their discordance until they found a common language. Eventually they would record this abstract universal language of music in his new studio.
“The language of peace. You dig? I did.”

–Patti Smith Just Kids, p.169

Tosca “Vissi d’arte” (*), John Coltrane A Love Supreme (*), The Doors “The Crystal Ship,” L.A. Woman (*), Jimi Hendrix “Hey Joe” (*), Bob Dylan Blonde on Blonde , Bringing it All Back Home & Nashville Skyline, “Lay Lady Lay,” “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,”  Tim Hardin “Black Sheep Boy,” &  “How Can You Hang On to a Dream?” (*), Lotte Lenya (*), Edith Piaf, John Lennon, Eleanor Steber Madame Butterfly (*), Rolling Stones Between the Buttons, “Sympathy for the Devil,” & Beggars Banquet (*), Joan Baez, Vanilla Fudge, Tim Buckley, The History of Motown, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman (*), Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin (*), The Byrds “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” (*), Nina Simone “Wild Is the Wind,” Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music, Brian Jones (*), Country Joe and the Fish (*), Jefferson Airplane, The Excellents “Coney Island Baby” (*), The Velvet Underground (*), Lou Reed (*), Johnny Winter (*), Patty Waters (*), Clifton Chenier, Albert Ayler, Kurt Weill “Speak Low” (*), Hank Williams (*), Blind Willie McTell, Neil Young “Ohio” The Band Stage Fright, “Medicine Man,” Billy Swan, Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson, Roger McGuinn, Kris Kristofferson, The Marvelettes, Silhouettes “I Sold My Heart To The Junk Man” (*), Phil Spector (*), Todd Rundgren (*), Holy Modal Rounders (*), Lenny Kaye (*) Maureen Gray “Today’s the Day” (*), Dovells’ “Bristol Stomp,” Lee Crabtree, Blue Öyster Cult, Marvin Gaye Trouble Man (*), Jimmy Cliff The Harder They Come (*), Big Youth and the Roys Screaming Target (*), Hank Ballard “Annie had a Baby,” The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka (*), Television: Tom Verlaine, Richard Lloyd, Richard Hell, “Marquee Moon” (*), Jonathan Richman, Ivan Kral, Van Morrison “Gloria” (*).

Patti Smith, 1975. Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe

Patti Smith, 1975. Photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe


“Swan, my mother said, sensing my excitement. It pattered the bright water, flapping its great wings, and lifted into the sky. The word alone hardly attested to its magnificence nor conveyed the emotion it produced. The sight of it generated an urge I had no words for, a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beating of its wings.” –Patti Smith Just Kids, p. 3

Arthur Rimbaud Illuminations, A Season in Hell (*), Frank O’Hara (*), Anaïs Nin Collages, Jean Genet Miracle of the Rose (*), Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maxwell Perkins (*), Tennessee Williams The Glass Menagerie, Janet Hamill (*), Timothy Leary Psychedelic Prayers, James Joyce Poems a Penny Each “the signs that mock me as I go”, Jules Laforgue (*), Anne Frank The Diary, Allen Ginsberg, Friedrich Nietzche, Paul Verlaine, Yukio Mishima (*), William Burroughs Junky, Andre Gide, Maurice Maeterlinck (*), Sylvia Plath Ariel, Gérard de Nerval (*), Bertolt Brecht “Pirate Jenny”, Antonin Artaud, Vladimir Mayakovsky (*), Mari Sandoz Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (*), The Golden Bough, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe You Can’t Go Home Again, Aleister Crowley Diary of a Drug Fiend (*), Walt Whitman, Blaise Cendrars (*), Raymond Roussel Locus Solus (*), Théophile Gautier (*), Henri Michaux (*), Thomas de Quincey (*), John Keats, Shelley, Gregory Corso The Happy Birthday of Death, Gerard Malanga (*), Gertrude Stein, Andre Breton, Djuna Barnes, Jim Carroll, Oscar Brown Jr. (*), Vachel Lindsay (*), Jack Kerouac, Alexander Trocchi Cain’s Book (*), Homer,, Herodotus, Sam Shepard, Nancy Milford (*), Ray Bresmer (*), George Mandel “The Beckoning Sea” (*), Anne Waldman (*), Robert Creeley, Ted Berrigan (*), Albertine Sarrazin (*), Stéphane Mallarmé, Bob Dylan Tarantula, Dave Marsh (*), Tony Glover (*), Danny Goldberg (*), Sandy Pearlman (*), Enid Starkie’s biography of Rimbaud (*), Charles Baudelaire Paris Spleen, The Koran of Muhammad, Gerard De Nerval Women of Cairo (*), Paul Bowles, Mohamed Mrabet (*), Albert Cossery (*), Isabelle Eberhardt (*), Thomas Mann Death in Venice, Richard Hell, Arabian Nights, Peter Reich A Book of Dreams (*), James Joyce Finnegan’s Wake.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937


Richard Poussette-Dart (*), Henri Michaux (*), Michelangelo’s slaves (*), Dada, Surrealism, Tantric Art, Willem de Kooning Woman I, Jean Dubuffet (*), Diego Rivera (*), Jackson Pollack, John Graham (*), Arshile Gorky (*), Maxfield Parrish, Joseph Cornell (*), Ronald Brooks Kitaj (*), William Blake Songs of Innocence and of Experience & Milton, Edward Gorey, Lee Krasner (*), Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol Index Book, Harvey Parks, Louise Delsarte, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Camille Claudel, Picasso Guernica, Hans Hofmann, Frida Kahlo, Sandy Daley, Edward Hopper, Salvador Dalí, Brice Marden (*), Larry Poons (*), Georgia O’Keefe, Alice Neel (*), Gio Ponti (*), Constantin Brancusi (*).


“Being allowed to lift the tissues from these photographs, actually touch them and get a sense of the paper and the hand of the artist, made an enormous impact on Robert. He studied then intently–the paper, the process, the composition, and the intensity of the blacks. “It’s really all about light,” he said.”

–Patti Smith Just Kids, page 190.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Flowers

Robert Mapplethorpe, Flowers

Jacques-Henri Lartigue (*), Billy Name (*), Cecil Beaton, Félix Nadar (*), Helmut Newton (*), Judy Linn (*), Diane Arbus, Man Ray, Ed van der Elsken Love on the Left Bank (*), Fox Talbot (*), Alfred Stieglitz “Georgia O’Keefe Nudes” (*), Paul Strand (*), Thomas Eakins (*), Lewis Carroll (*), Julia Margaret Cameron (*), Edward Curtis (*), Irving Penn, Lynn Goldsmith (*).


Bob Dylan

Richard Lester How I Won the War, Splendor in the Grass, Bonnie and Clyde, Jean Luc Godard Bande à part, One Plus One, Midnight Cowboy, Psycho, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Robert Bresson, Paul Joseph Schrader, East of Eden, Wages of Fear, Funny Face, Butterfield 8 (*), Films of Jeanne Moreau, Of Human Bondage, Howard Hawks Scarface (*), Andy Warhol, Don’t Look Back, Donald Cammel, Anna Magnani Films, Easy Rider, Beau Geste, Michelangelo Antonioni Blowup, Jean Cocteau Les Enfants Terribles, The Harder They Come, One Touch of Venus (*), Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones (*), The Night of the Hunter, Roger Vadim Barbarella.

“Yet you could feel the vibration in the air, a sense of hastening. It had started with the moon, inaccessible poem that it was. Now men had walked upon it, rubber treads on a pearl of the gods. Perhaps it was an awareness of time passing, the last summer of a decade. Sometimes I just wanted to raise my hands and stop. But stop what? Maybe just growing up.”

Patti Smith Just Kids, p. 104

Patti Smith

The Moment

Minor White, Windowsill Daydreaming, Rochester, New York, 1958.

Minor White, Windowsill Daydreaming, Rochester, New York, 1958.

Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
when,  nothing
no what-have-I-to-do-today-list
maybe  half a moment
the rush of traffic stops.
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.

Marie Howe

I Have News For You

Edward Steichen, “Miss Sousa (The Blue Sky),” 1933,

Edward Steichen, Miss Sousa (The Blue Sky), 1933

There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood

and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.

There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable

and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings

do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives

as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;

and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.

Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,

who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later
have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.

Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.

I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room

and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies

Tony Hoagland

Parable of the Equal Hearts

Agnes Martin, "This Rain," 1960 Oil on canvas, 70 x 70 inches from Zwirner and Wirth

Agnes Martin, “This Rain,” 1960 Oil on canvas, 70 x 70 inches from Zwirner and Wirth

Once there were two lovers that had equal hearts.
One would pursue one,
the other would pursue the other.

Then the angels looked down and said:
“What a waste,” and made them perceive each other.
Their hearts melted into one.

They had no use for the world
so they leaped into the swift river.
This heart was always restless
and the only place where it had any rest at all was on the beach.

But even on the beach one said:
“I wish we’d never been made one.”
And immediately one half flew up in the sky
and the other half into the sea.
But they yearned for each other.
And when it rained the one in the sea said:
“This is a message from my other half in the sky.”
And when the water was evaporated from the ocean and rose
up, the other said:
“This is a message from my other half in the sea.”

The angels were stumped.
There’s one thing that God is not able to endure —
a suffering heart.
He felt one half in the sky and one half in the sea.

God thought what to do.
So the one in the sky fell down into the sea
and immediately both turned to sea water.
Ever since that time when the water is drawn up from the sea
and it rains this is not an ordinary rain. It’s the rain
that affects people and softens them.
I painted a painting called This Rain.

Agnes MartinWritings published by Hatje Cantz, 2005.

“In the Green Morning, Now, Once More”

18th century Indian miniature. Artist unknown.

18th century Indian miniature. Artist unknown.

In the green morning, before
Love was destiny,
The sun was king,
And God was famous.

The merry, the musical,
The jolly, the magical,
The feast, the feast of feasts, the festival
Suddenly ended

As the sky descended
But there was only the feeling,
In all the dark falling,
Of fragrance and of freshness, of birth and beginning.

— Delmore Schwartz

I found this image over at the amazing Blue Lantern where Jane Librizzi has described this painting so beautifully that I feel I need to add her comment here. She writes, “Never put your subject in the center of the picture.” One of the first lessons of composition is upended in this touching 18th century Indian miniature. A young woman sits, huddled, by the water. One hand wipes her tears as she cries while the other hand braces her against the ground, offering some contact. The foliage behind her mimics her conflicted emotions: on one side a willow weeps downward toward the river; on the other blossoming branches reach up toward the light. Even the little flowers beside her join in. She is the fulcrum of the picture and we sense the movement of the planets in the trees behind her. “Distress: is its title, but the painting suggests an alternative. At the moment, the woman faces toward sadness, yet the possibility of hope is present even as she cannot see it. The unknown artist offers us in this exquisitely rendered moment, a world of wisdom distilled.”