The Material of the Spirit

We are all part of the universe; the universe is a part of all of us.


Perhaps some of my readers remember a fine song by the Police called “Spirits in the Material World.” It starts with a modern riff as tense with energy as “Flight of the Bumblebee.” Sting on bass, Stewart Copeland on drums, and a strained, haunting keyboard rushing around, circling a still point, somehow held away, but obsessively drawn. And then the lyrics, in Sting’s tenor/falsetto:

There is no political solution
To our troubled evolution
Have no faith in constitution
There is no bloody revolution
We are spirits in the material world

While I love the song and see it as a high point of intellectuality in pop music, I don’t think the lyrics are as strong as they could be. I think Sting got it backward.

I’ve moved away from poetry recently, but I’m sure someday I’ll return to it just as carelessly as I’m leaving it alone now. Even so, I remain haunted by the last great theme I worked with in my poetry, the title of my last collection of poems, “The Material of the Spirit.”

In contrast to Sting’s presentation, my sense is that the spirit comes before the material. It’s not a solid world misted with spiritual beings; we are material beings animated by the spirit of the universe.

It’s tricky to encapsulate in 600 words, but the spirit is the Big Bang, the repeating patterns of the universe, the fundamental physical principles, the passing of time, all the things that religious people call God. And we, and the physical universe(s), are the excrescence of that spirit.

The work that we do, the culture that accretes around us, the passing of time, the families that carry on generation after generation, are all examples of the material of the spirit. But perhaps poetry will help illuminate…

Vibrations of strings
Over a hollow body
Bar chords and vocal chords
Strumming and picking
Melody and harmony
From inert potential
The material of the spirit
Is the kinesis of music
The catharsis of song and story
The language we don't speak
That speaks for us
Surrounds us
Needs only to be plucked
Out of the air and hummed
Instrumental to life
To grief and isolation
Anger and love
Fingers and tongues
Lips and wrists
Move in unison
Come union
And thence to rest in time

“Spir” is a root that means “breath” in Latin. If you have breath, or if you are part of the breath of the universe, you have the spirit in you. And if you have it in you, then it is surrounded, and put into action, by the material of the universe: your body.

And the tremendous miracle, that the poet knows as surely as anything, is that we can know this at all. That Nature has created a being alive to its own existence, searching for comprehension of that existence, utilizing a tool called consciousness to formulate a meaning to existence, must be among the highest feats Nature has ever attained.

More than emptiness
The material of the spirit
Is emptiness manifest
Driven motion driving
Accretion, excrescence
Over time, into space

Planets interspersed
Attract and repel magnetically
Gravitational flow
Endless repetition, infinite variation
Rise and fall
More than emptiness

The suns shine like cells in a body
Coagulate sinew and vibration
Cranking out light and heat
Into more than emptiness
Where nothing remains
All unstable shining light years

Emptiness is ultimate reality
That which all becomes
The return from whence we came
Again birth and death
Again love and despair

Emptiness is the generator
Of more than emptiness
More than emptiness
Is equal to its opposite

And everybody who knows language has access to consideration of that miracle:

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are

Poetry and music are languages of the spirit, ennobling our quest for understanding, blessing our sufferings, spreading our joys. Because we can communicate, we can all share in each other’s journeys.

So, much as I care for Sting and the Police, I can’t help but think they got it wrong. When I look at “us,” I think, “We are the material of the spirit.”                                                                      

Y.S. Fing has followed in his father's (D. Selby Fing) footsteps and is a writer and teacher who seeks to make sense of the nonsense of life through Fingism, a philosophy based on irony with love.

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