By Kevin O’Keefe
Robert Bly (1927-2021)
During the 1990’s I spent enough time in the presence of the poet, translator and men’s movement leader Robert Bly for him to show up occasionally in my dreams. When he was cast, by whatever director made that nightly movie, I interpreted him to be a warm and positive father figure.
To say he had a presence would be a massive understatement. He dominated any space as if he were Thor’s father or King Lear. I can still recall, thirty years later, how he arrived on stage, a mane of long greying hair topped by a lopsided nordic wool hat. He wore his sartorial trademark colorful vest and cravat. He opened up a battered black case to pull out a bouzouki. He didn’t rush, the crowd settled as he took whatever time to tune and steel himself before leaping into the poetic world of ideas, myth and personal observations about American society. Always he summoned the poems of Rumi, Rilke, Antonio Machado and countless others, many of which he could recite from memory. I loved the way he would repeat poems a second time, giving his audience time to savor and reflect on the mysteries continued therein.
One misty morning in the Maine woods I watched as his fierce judgment exploded in publicly rebuking the conference photographer. Bly felt the man’s technology intruded upon his space. Then the next morning I watched as he apologized, again publicly, and sincerely, then rationalizing it as the result of rising every morning at 4 am to finish the book he worked on.
Once, in a ritual, while saying farewell to other conference members, we danced as if in a Greek wedding circle. Bly’s big head invaded my personal space, blotting out even the sky. His piercing playful eyes gazed into mine and said, “You’re a wild one, aren’t you?” Some golden honey warmed my stomach for days after.
Years later, at a camp lodge in Minnesota I recited a line of Rumi’s poetry: There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. “Let’s see some of them,” came Bly’s command. He sat above me on a platform stage, alongside two other teachers, in an armchair that looked like a throne. I danced, bounding over an altar, showing off what was left of my youth, while attempting to channel one or two of those hundred ways.
I’d guess I’m probably not alone in my desire to be called out as Bly’s special son, singled out from the hundred other men in the room. But I wanted that distinction without ever getting to know him well enough to find out that he wasn't my special father. In the tension of longing for his blessing and wondering what price would have to be paid to get it, I feel grateful to have erred on the side of restraint. Knowing about the book of Daniel and the clay feet of the mentor, I didn’t want the spell he cast intruded upon by the reality of finding out how human or flawed he could be.
The NY Times made me aware of the mainstream’s judgement of our burgeoning movement. But that didn’t diminish my exaltation. The media were not meant to hold mystery, magic, poetry, and myth. I’d seen them ridicule anything they couldn't understand. Parts of the dominant culture at the time still saw Sylvester Stallone or the Marlboro Man as the epitome of masculinity.Bly looked at the waste land of American culture and saw a distinct lack of real leadership, due in part to absent, abusive or alcoholic fathers. This left sons with no road map of masculinity. I didn’t fully understand where men or the larger society headed but trusted my intuition (and Bly’s mentorship) to put myself in the spring that fed us in ways nothing else could. Bly was our forest guide, poet-in-residence, and shaman.
After my initial weekend I called seven friends and formed a men’s group that met monthly for three years.
To me, Bly’s book Iron John tapped into the container of the sacred masculine while honoring the feminine. If there was a feminist backlash I sensed Bly brushing it off. Women were not the only ones the patriarchy locked in cages. Bly showed us the key, for some he proved to be a locksmith. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the power of being part of an army unit that had no agenda to dominate another.
After spending a week with him and (the Jungian psychologist) Marion Woodman in the Maine woods, an artist in the group presented them with a portrait as King and Queen. The tribute seemed obvious, appreciated, and generous.
The word mentor comes straight out of The Odyssey. That was the role he played in the movement that became synonymous with his name. In those days I spent with him and many others in conference, we lived inside of myths. Stories such as Iron John and Percival, the Quest for the Grail became narratives we could step into. Breaking into smaller groups we selected themes or potent images to re-create and mixed them with poems, personal stories of grief and reconciliation with our own fathers, and art-making. The alchemy gave me a reason to live.
I directly attribute that work and years of therapy with the ability to heal and connect with my own father. Bly said, “If a father and son are separated by a chasm, the bridge to a relationship must be crossed by the son.” After years of father/son wound and tumult, I flew to Miami and walked beside my Dad at the edge of the Atlantic ocean. Revealing to him how hurt I was and how I didn’t want to metaphorically live in our family home anymore resolved something. I was 38 years old at the time.
I anticipate with hope Mr. Bly continuing to appear in my dream world as a positive father figure who showed me how to lean into, and learn from, my own deep masculine.
swimming in poetry, mustc, food, pleasure, pain, honoring the individual and shared grief of absent fathers and straightjacket of masculinity John wayne etc.