Imagination in Ruins

“Ruins of Dresden’s Kreuzkirche,” Bernardo Bellotto

Oh, the things students say. One sat in my office, face open and sincere. And then she said: “My favorite things you say aren’t about Jesus. They’re about love. I’m sorry, I just love the way you talk about love.”

I blinked, not exactly shocked. Well, not since the first time such a comment made me stutter and blush until I almost ran from the room. It happens once or twice a semester. Love comes up in theology, especially the more philosophical and existential sort that I teach. It is a way to reach students who sure as hell don’t care about God, but who do care about love.

Coughing away some nerves, I quirked my mouth into a half grin. “Well. Thank you. And please don’t be sorry.”

I really hate when people are sorry for thinking something.

She shifted, drawing in a breath and hesitating. I saw the question in her eyes before she whispered: “How do you know so much?”

I tried not to scowl. “Oh, I’m observant, you know.”

“You must have loved so deeply.”

Now I was trying not to roll my eyes. I know what sort of love she meant, and it definitely was not friendship or how I love kittens or anything like that. I verbally prodded her to move on, and she let it go.


She’s not entirely wrong.

And yet –

She is.

There are many, many kinds of knowing. None of them are secret unless we insist on not paying attention. Mostly we do insist. So it becomes very hard to explain that there is an imaginative shape to knowing that allows us to extend experience into new anticipations of the future, and even to foreshadow what has not been experienced at all.

Because the truth is my actual, real experiences of “love” are more horrifying than beautiful and romantic. Not that I went and decided to follow the path of amazingly traumatic options like it was the greatest idea ever. But there you go. My first-hand knowledge of love is not great. So how do I end up with students all in my face about love?

Our knowledge does not, and cannot, end with what we directly understand. Human beings are not reducible to their experiences. And thank God. Else all I’d be able to say about romantic love is that it is awful and violent and it is a mystery to me why people want it ever.

I rarely indicate that I am aware of the dark undercurrents that can claw apart human desire. In the classroom especially, I announce a much different reality. I think it is important to leave hope in the hands of those who bear it. So I do my best to interact with that hope and imaginatively grasp what love might be like, what it should be like. The ruined pieces of me, the burned hallways and wrecked rooms savaged without my consent, seem to somehow know.

So. How does one imagine what one does to know?

Something important that we do all the time is observe others. We watch them and imitate them; we draw close to people and learn what is wonderful about them and what is hurt. Their own experiences live in them as a portrait of what we might want to be, or might not. We are not, in other words, only thoughtful about our own experiences.

That is one way we broaden our ability to understand what might be real. Another is the inward orientation we all have toward what Plato would call “the Good” and that we might experience as a simple yearning for more. We want to improve, somehow, at something. Or somewhere. We want to “get better.” However we put it, we all desire a richer form of life. That desire itself is an anticipation of, a willing of the potential for – a hope for more than we have yet known.

There is yet that strange imaginative impulse that insists on trying to grasp more than we know before we have even encountered it. It has a way of attempting to know before we know. Things like daydreams about that future job. That future family. That extravagant new whatever from Apple. None of us has yet known that reality, and – not to be a raincloud – it might never happen. All I mean is it has yet to be at all, doesn’t exist yet. Still we imagine.

It is beautiful to imagine.

Beauty, you see, shapes the best imagining. Beauty is what draws together what we already know with the “more” that we yearn for wordlessly. We try to dream about beautiful things, and dreams are only really beautiful if they stitch together fragments of what is true with care for what is good. Or else we will only be fantasizing, or having a nightmare. When we imagine, we anticipate a better self. That better self becomes real for us in figure, in a shadowed “almost.” An almost that we might yet make real.

So I think that artists at their best are incredibly capable dreamers, and in an uncanny way they are able to know things that they don’t know at all. Perhaps that they never will. Sure: Rilke was a selfish womanizer. And still: that poetry. It is more than he was.

I was once a poet of sorts. I’ve admitted that before here, and I continue to feel sadness at the ways I lost poetry somehow. Perhaps there is darkness that poetry cannot overcome. It’s only poetry, after all. It’s not a light from Heaven. Still, I miss it and hope for its return.

Because the best of me was alive when I wrote poems. In my little way, with what little I could sew together. And through it I could do some remarkable things. Like the time – maybe my favorite time – that I wrote a love poem (of all things!) for someone else. On something of a dare, I wrote a poem for a husband to his wife. (Yeah, do the difficulty math on that one.) I remember smiling softly after they gently teased me to write a poem, saying I’d do it. Meaning it.

I remember walking through the cool sunlight in the afternoon of wintry Milwaukee, closing my eyes and thinking of him. Thinking of her. Drawing together everything I knew about them and everything else I knew, including what I did not know. Letting it blur together. All so I could create something beautiful and good and true.

And I did. Especially, I think, with respect to each of them. I created a poem an engineer might write if he could write poetry. I drew a picture of his love for her, and of someone she loved. I held in mind her love for him as much as his. This fiercely independent woman who would not be bothered with love unless it were equally as fierce and free. Wasn’t that what she loved about him? Wasn’t that the way he loved her? Even if he had the most irritating way of saying it – “you’re mine” (I mean, come on, dude) – didn’t the fumbling words mean something else they both knew?

Then I lit a fire underneath each stanza.

Because love is yearning.

Love wants.

With no violence at all.

And I included his damned favorite phrase, and made it shine with the secret gold it concealed.

None of which, of course, is what I know. And, somehow, is what I know. The poem was as much theirs and as much the impossible imagining of my own ruined heart. I include it below, and if you can’t see why I miss poetry after reading it, well. I don’t know what to say to you that isn’t mean. Just read it gently, is all I ask. It’s an important part of me I want back.


I am not weak.
I am wrought iron that, once
bent in bright primordial fires
(long before I met you)
never takes another shape.
I am not weak,
though all my angles,
my permanent contours,
turn to you.

I cannot change the way,
I cannot change –
my whole life curves toward you
like so many determined lines.
Threads gathered in and held
in your hands.
I could no more refuse you
than I could refuse myself.

Everything is yours.
My enduring curvature,
wrought before I knew you,
made for you alone:
time before time, dark
ages fashioned me for you –
and you alone.
And you…

And if you bent yourself close
to me, and felt the gentle
cool of my lasting shape,
the way my arms were made
to hold you (and you alone) –
you could rest here (with me).
If you curved yourself close,
you could feel that I am yours –
and you are mine.


One thought on “Imagination in Ruins

  1. danielimburgia says:

    I think there is much evidence that you haven’t “lost poetry.” Much obliged.

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