The Way Under the Way
CITED BY SPIRITUALITY & PRACTICE AS ONE OF THE BEST SPIRITUAL BOOKS OF 2016
This collection contains three separate books of poetry, gathering 217 poems retrieved and shaped over the past twenty years. The first two books in this collection, Suite for the Living and Inhabiting Wonder, bear witness to the messy and magnificent journey of being human. First published in 2004, they were wonderfully received and sold out of their first editions. Evolving these books further, Nepo has integrated fifty-eight new poems. The third book in this collection, The Way Under the Way, gathers eighty-three of his most recent poems. It centers on the place of true meeting that is always near, where we chance to discover our shared humanity and common thread of Spirit.
About poetry, Mark says, “The poems are the teachers. They arrive with their wisdom and become my guides. What they surface becomes my inner curriculum and by staying in conversation with them, I grow. We’re all drawn to what we need to learn, which if engaged with honesty reveals insights common to us all.” Of the books, he says, “My hope is that the arc of these poems will be aids in living, listening, and beholding each other. I offer them as small wonders found and cared for through the years.”
“Mark Nepo’s poems are like rare wine that directly nourish the soul. These are stories of the heart, of brokenness that heals, of grief that awakens us to joy.”
—Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Ph.D., Sufi teacher and author
“When I read Mark Nepo’s luminous, meditative poems, one word stands tall in the mind and silence that follows—BEFRIEND. He does not avert his eyes from the difficult moment or the lost hour. He stays steady to feel the magnificence again.”
—Naomi Shihab Nye, author of Words Under the Words
“In this magical book, Mark Nepo ushers us to the depth of who we are and where we truly live. His words, like pearls for the Human soul, awaken us and transform the ordinary into the mystery of our being.”
—Agapi Stassinopoulos, Author of Unbinding The Heart
“A spiritual teacher’s conversation with the Universe through tough and tender poems, The Way Under The Way is the first large collection of Mark Nepo’s poetry. It is a robust and spiritually revelatory volume of 217 poems. What touches us most about these poems is the way they testify simply and humbly to Nepo’s experience of the Divine.”
—Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality & Practice (see full review)
Let no one keep you from your journey,
no rabbi or priest, no mother
who wants you to dig for treasures
she misplaced, no father
who won’t let one life be enough,
no lover who measures their worth
by what you might give up,
no voice that tells you in the night
it can’t be done.
Let nothing dissuade you
from seeing what you see
or feeling the winds that make you
want to dance alone
or go where no one
has yet to go.
You are the only explorer.
Your heart, the unreadable compass.
Your soul, the shore of a promise
too great to be ignored.
At the Window
I was at the window
when a fly near the latch
was on its back spinning—
legs furious, going nowhere.
I thought to swat it
but something in its struggle
was too much my own.
It kept spinning and began to tire.
Without moving closer, I exhaled
steadily, my breath a sudden wind,
and the fly found its legs,
rubbed its face
and flew away.
I continued to stare at the latch
hoping that someday, the breath
of something incomprehensible
would right me and
enable me to fly.
Joining the Circus
I just saw a handwritten note from
Galileo. He was under house arrest
for believing we’re not the center of
everything. Now behind me, in the park,
a dozen beginners, of all ages, learning how
to juggle. We have to start somewhere. The
young man who’s so magical at this is asked
to instruct. He smiles, “You have to keep
trying. Just not the same thing.” Earlier,
I leaned over a letter from Lincoln to a
dead soldier’s mother. This, just weeks
after losing Susan’s mother, sweet
Eleanor. I keep saying her name to
strangers. You see, we all have to
juggle joy and sorrow. Not to do it
well—we always drop something—but
when the up and down of life are
leaving one hand and not yet land-
ing in the other, then we glow, like
a mystical molecule hovering between
birth and death, ready to kiss anything.
A Conversation with Mark Nepo about his new book of poetry, The Way Under the Way: the Place of True Meeting
Question: What does the title The Way Under the Way mean?
Response: Over the years, I’ve learned that moments of deep living let us hear a deeper music, if all too briefly. Yet it’s this timeless terrain that brings us alive. We can call this foundational geography, the way under the way. Often, these moments are brought about by unexpected doses of love, suffering, beauty or truth. And behind every blessing we can’t explain, an unseen element brings us together when we’re too exhausted to resist. Everything visible rises out of a greater, invisible force that brings it into being. Under every act of courage or love, there’s a momentum of braveries and care that has gathered and passed through everyone who ever lived. This book explores that place of true meeting which is always near. It’s natural that we all try to distinguish ourselves in the first half of life, trying to find our unique gift and contribution, trying to discover how special, different, and extraordinary we are. But eventually, we’re transformed by experience to seek what we have in common with all life, so we might discover our one true kinship. This shift from trying to be special to seeking what is special in everything marks the way under the way.
Question: You speak about retrieving poems rather than authoring them? What do you mean by this?
Response: The poems are the teachers. They arrive with their wisdom and become my guides. What they surface becomes my inner curriculum and by staying in conversation with them, I grow. We’re all drawn to what we need to learn, which if engaged with honesty reveals insights common to us all. When young, I worked earnestly with the hope of creating a great poem or two. Then, during my cancer journey, I needed to discover true poems that would help me live. Now, blessed to still be here, I want to be the poem!
Question: In your opinion, what is the purpose of poetry?
Response: Poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul that comes at times to renew us when we least expect it. Poems show us how we belong to each other and life. Like all forms of art, poetry marries what is with what can be. Poems show us our possibility. There is a mystical assumption of Unity underneath all poems. Every honest, heartfelt expression shows how being connected to life in all its forms allows each of us to be more fully ourselves.
Question: So much of your work in all genres maintains a firm belief in the human journey and speaks to what is revealed for enduring hardship. How do these poems add to this theme?
Response: As we keep trying to voice the possibilities we carry within, we’re inevitably stopped by the fires that burn down the temple, whether it be the temple of our dreams or the temple of our love or the sanctuary of our secret ambitions. This is necessary because it’s the second breaking surface that liberates us. It’s coming alive again in the same life that releases beauty in the world. There are a thousand ways to break surface, a thousand ways to survive the burning temple of what we hold dear, a thousand ways to raise our heavy hearts so we might be surprised by the release of our soul’s beauty, and a thousand ways to enter the great opening that follows in which our lives settle into their meaning. These poems explore some of those ways. The poems bear witness to the many ways we all break surface and show our true nature through hardship and wonder alike.
Question: Can you share a poem from the book that has particular meaning for you?
Response: “Freefall” is the final poem in a sequence comprised of six smaller poems. Each was written at the crest of a troubled time, just before I broke surface in yet another way. The six poems appeared over a period of eighteen years. Each felt complete unto itself at the time and each served as a guide for the phase of life I was moving through. It was only after living with them for all those years that I realized—they belong together. Like beads for a necklace I didn’t know they would form, I worked to polish each. Only to discover, beyond any conscious knowing or intent, that these expressions were a suite of poems. The insights of our lives are formed this way, appearing one by one. Yet over time, the beads of wisdom we earn reveal their power as we discover that they and we and everything living belong to each other. I often end readings and retreats with this poem. It’s like a spiritual handshake for me.
If you have one hour of air
and many hours to go,
you must breathe slowly.
If you have one arm’s length
and many things to care for,
you must give freely.
If you have one chance to know God
and many doubts, you must
set your heart on fire.
We are blessed.
Each day is a chance.
We have two arms.
Fear wastes air.
Question: Can you share another poem that is fundamental to the book?
Response: When I was young, I found it hard to be here and to move through the world. Like many romantics, I wanted to transcend out of here. Of course, experience only landed me deeper into life. After my cancer journey, it became clear that there is nowhere to go, nowhere to transcend to but here. The image of sweeping a path though there is always more to sweep became a great teacher for me. That image led to this poem.
Transcending down into
the ground of things is akin
to sweeping the leaves that
cover a path. There will always
be more leaves. And the heart
of the journey, the heart of our
own awakening, is to discover for
ourselves that the leaves are not
the ground, and that sweeping
them aside will reveal a path,
and finally, that to fully live,
we must take the path and
keep sweeping it.
Question: What do you hope readers will take with them from The Way Under the Way?
Response: My hope is that the arc of these poems, across all three books, will be aids in living, listening, and beholding each other. I offer them as small wonders found and cared for through the years. I hope you might find one that, held close to your heart, will serve as a guide.