Aurora’s autobiographical narrative is a passionate paean to poets as the “only truth-tellers, now left to God”; she celebrates them as agents for personal and social transformation. As we come to the end of this National Poetry Month in the U.S., where truth is under siege, it’s worth recalling Aurora Leigh and its daring exploration of poetry, gender, divinity, and social justice.
I was in graduate school when I first read Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s fiery 1856 epic about a young woman claiming her vocation as a poet despite Victorian society’s patriarchal strictures. The poem was not on any assigned reading-list; I’d simply stumbled across it while doing research for my dissertation. The opening lines brazenly assert the speaker’s authority and ambition:
OF writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,–
Will write my story for my better self . . .
Encountering those words, I was immediately possessed by Aurora’s voice and vision, a welcome change from all the male poets and critics I’d been reading. I devoured the verse novel’s nine books in one night. The poem became the centerpiece of my dissertation, and I studied and enthusiastically taught it for years.
It started with Pelé, the Hawai’ian Volcano Goddess who governs fire, lightning, volcanoes, and the flow of lava. When my little family set off on a big adventure in June 2015, I knew I’d research and paint her as a Holy Woman Icon, but I wanted to get to Hawai’i first so that I could experience her power firsthand. After three months volunteering without running water in Vermont, a month in southern Virginia’s finest fall foliage, and a holiday season traversing the country from east to west in a camper named Freya, we crossed the Pacific in search of Pelé.
The long-term goal of nearly two years of full-time travel was to discern next steps for our queer little family, and to find land to open an intersectionally ecofeminist retreat center. We always imagined returning to the southeast, likely buying land and creating the retreat center in the North Carolina mountains. Pelé had something else in store.
I knew I’d paint her from the moment we discovered that we would spend three months of our Year of Volunteer Travel Discernment in Hawai’i. Little did I know how Pele would turn our world inside out, destroying what needed obliteration and recreating new life that we never could have imagined. Pele is the Hawai’ian Volcano Goddess who governs fire, lightening, volcanoes, and the flow of lava. According to legend, she lives in the Halema’uma’u crater of Kilauea on the Big Island.
For over a year, I’d corresponded with a retreat center on the Big Island for my wife and I to be Scholars in Residence, while I also taught yoga and my wife worked on the organic farm. We were beyond excited and arrived in Hilo this January with open hearts and minds, eager to begin our work. Pele had other plans for us. The retreat center where we were planning to work turned out to be a complete disaster: dengue fever, mosquitoes biting my child within five minutes inside our living quarters, proprietors clearly on drugs. We’ve roughed it with no running water in the middle of the woods for months at time, but this was squalor. My wife and I took one look at each other and knew that there was no way we were keeping our child in this environment. Continue reading “Drawing Pele, Retreating to Hawai’i by Angela Yarber”