Susan Cohen

Robert Eastwood

Aleta George

Jannie M. Dresser

Connie Post

Susan Terris

Susan Terris 11/6/21

Devorah Major

David Alpaugh


Discovery, It’s Personal   by Devorah Major 6/4/2022

When given the theme of discovery I used my typical writing process, first thinking and then writing down scraps of ideas. As I began to cement some of these meanderings into today’s talk, I thought that it might be interesting to look up the dictionary definition of discovery, knowing that one does not use the same word to define the same word.  How much clarity would that provide? But to my surprise the definitions for discovery were all some version of “the action or process of discovering or being discovered.”  That exercise was a discovery for me, aha I thought, one can indeed use a word to define a word if one is a lexicographer. 

My own definition had more to do with uncovering, revealing, seeing something that might be quite ancient, but for me was new, seen for a first time, discovered. It might be recovered from a hidden corner of history, a buried family story, or simply found by watching a flock of seagulls swoop down on the beach seeking evening feasts. Galileo did not, after all, discover the earth as round and orbiting the sun.  It had been round, or actually somewhat elliptical, for billions of years, and this was a galactic knowledge. A knowledge that Nubians brought to Egypt thousands of years before Galileo was born, a knowledge the Aztecs inscribed in their calendars a millennia before Galileo walked over Tuscany fields. 

Another historical example of discovery, closer to home, is Cuba. It, after all, existed before Christopher Columbus bumped into her sandy shores, the Taino knew it and the Cibones and before that the Guanhatabey.  It was only a discovery for Columbus and his crew, a discovery that was, as all discoveries are, personal.

Sometimes an innocence is lost in discovery, sometimes a purpose found and often it requires a measure of humility and reflection, it comes with gain and loss as poet Everett Hoagland, when arriving back in the USA after a sojourn in Africa, writes in The Return:

We are returned to this

departure point, without our shadows,

with what is

discovered with loss,

with what is 

gained with discovery. 

And that is what I want to speak to today. Not just the gains and losses of discovery but also how most discoveries are first experienced.  

Writing poetry is, for me, a continual act of discovery and rediscovery.

I came to the work of Bob Kaufman quite early as he was a friend of my father and had a poem that my father would often quote that gave my child self an idea of the fearsomeness of discovery.  But I rediscovered Kaufman in my teens when I was old enough to begin to understand that poem titled Suicide It ends:

The first man was an idealist, but he died,

He couldn’t survive the first truth,

Discovering that the whole

World, all of it, was all his, he sat down

& with a little piece of string, & a sharp stone

Invented suicide. 

We discover that what we thought was our history was at best a sliver of a story, for those of African descent we discover we were mostly only aware of the soiled parts, the stories of waste and destructive domination, which calls the question is domination ever not destructive. Our history was  polished up, glossed over, or simply omitted altogether and we had to discover, uncover, recover is truths. 

We all discover that all of our ancestors are not the humans we would want them to be, that they sowed seeds of self-hate and/or fear in our fertilized eggs along with strength and, if we are so blessed, a music than inhabits our center, a dance that stretches our muscles, a poetry that opens our hearts.  And in that discovery, we discover the world we inhabit.

We discover this world as a beautiful and terrifying place, “terrible beautiful” as my Sardinian poet friend called the still living Mount Vesuvio while telling me that I and Janine Pomo Vega, the only other American poet in this International Poetry Festival based in Salerno,  should climb with a small group of poets he was leading up the mountain and watch the steam rise through its crevices and see the terrible beauty of it all.  And seeing is after all the largest part of discovery.

As Quincy Troupe writes in his poem that is certainly a poem of discovering basic truths: 

…not who or what

you see but how,

you see it, thin

or otherwise, deep

this life is

what you make of it, not

what you hope it to be, but

what it is, right or wrong

Discovery is such a personal journey.  What we discover is always something that was already there and perhaps known by many, but it is new to us. We sparkle or shiver in the new knowing, are fortified or reduced by the new understanding, the new discovery.

And what of the continuing discovery of beauty, in ourselves, in each other, in the world, in our cultures.  Too often we are taught that there is one standard of beauty one definition of fine art. Born in 1915 African American poet and for a time Poetry journal editor Margaret Danner had not yet fully embraced the beauty of herself or the beauty of her ancestry, but years later when she wrote The Convert,  she had discovered both.

The Convert


When in nineteen-thirty-seven, Etta Moten, sweetheart

of our Art Study group, kept her promise, as if clocked,

to honor my house at our first annual tea, my pride


tipped sky, but when she, Parisian-poised and as smart

as a chrome-toned page from Harper’s Bazaar, gave my shocked

guests this hideous African nude, I could have cried.


And for many subsequent suns, we, who had placed apart

this hour to proclaim our plunge into modern art, mocked

her “Isn’t he lovely?” whenever we eyed this thing,


for by every rule we’d learned, we’d been led to discern

this rankling figure as ugly. It hunched in a squat

as if someone with maliciously disfiguring intent


had flattened it with a press, bashing its head,

bloating its features, making huge bulging blots

of its lips and nose, and as my eyes in dread anticipation


pulled downward, there was its navel, without a thread

of covering, ruptured, exposed, protruding from a pot

stomach as huge as a mother-to-be’s, on short, bent legs,


extending as far on each side as swollen back limbs

of a turtle. I could look no farther and nearly dispensed

with being polite while pretending to welcome her gift.


But afterwards, to the turn of calendar pages, my eyes would skim

the figure appraising this fantastic sight,

until, finally, I saw on its stern


ebony face, not a furniture polished, shellacked shine,

but a radiance, gleaming as though a small light

had flashed internally; and I could discern


through the sheen that the bulging eyes

were identical twins to the bulging nose.

The same symmetrical form was dispersed again


and again through all the bulges, the thighs

and the hands and the lips, in reverse, even the toes

of this fast turning beautiful form were a selfsame chain,


matching the navel. This little figure stretched high

in grace, in its with-the-grain form and from-within-glow,

in its curves in concord. I became a hurricane


of elation, a convert undaunted, who wanted to flaunt

her discovery, parade her fair-contoured find.


Art clubs, like leaves in autumn fall,

scrabble against concrete and scatter.

And Etta Moten, I read, is at tea with the Queen.


But I find myself still framing word structures

of how much these blazing forms ascending the centuries

in their muted sheens, matter to me.

What seems to be significant about discovery is how one gets there. 

That it begins in the seeing that Quincy Troupe says lives in not what you

see but how you see. And it is that seeing that Margaret Danner did by

returning again and again to the sculpture as a scientist does when

seeking an answer, as a mountain climber does when returning to a 

mountain to scale a higher and then higher peak, as deep-sea divers do 

by plunging so deep that they discover light inside the darkness. In 

Danner’s case the object always reflected a depth of beauty, but her own 

stilted values could not see it. She discovered its truth by truly seeing. 

Notably, she wrote a series of books in the 1960’s poetically discovering,

revealing and investigating African art.

Some discoveries are forced upon us heavy and solemn.  Others may

have known them for years, decades, centuries as most indigenous

people and people of African descent knew of the last few weeks

tragedies.  But for far too many it was an awakening, a harsh and

frightening discovery 

undeniable american truths


the elders were slain

and the tears flowed

they poured out of our eyes

down cracked sidewalks

and trickled into the gutters

where they traveled with refuse

into the nation’s rivers and oceans


the children were murdered 

and the tears flowed

they poured out of our eyes

they fell on hard concrete 

and were swallowed in gutters

where they were washed with waste 

into the nation’s streams and bays


more locks were bought

and of course 

more guns

and the tears flowed

onto the flat gray sidewalks

and seeped into gutters

where they slid with the litter

into the nation’s lakes and oceans 

as people beat their chests

pulled out their hair

buried their dead


and finally newspeak pundits 

discovered that 

this is indeed who 

we americans are


we murder our elders

we murder our children

we murder people at prayer

at music concerts

at dance clubs

at home we murder 

and then we lower flags to half-mast

and we speak of thoughts and prayers


we mouth condolences 

to the families and loved ones 

flowers are stacked 

balloons flown

ribbons tied at massacre sites

and candlelit vigils are held in dark shadows


and we cry 

and we watch our tears

fall on concrete

and get fed into sewers

as we stand as memorial statues

frozen in a pivotal moment of war

and do 


Copyright ©devorah major 2022


And perhaps that is the most difficult part of discovery, that it may show us the weakest parts of ourselves, the most frightening aspects of our world,  the uncomfortable truths that we would turn from be they about climate change or global or personal racism, be they about war as domestic, national, or international subjects. And when we make these difficult discoveries they can result in a loss of innocence, a shaking of faith, a creation of fear.

But we need not ever be discouraged by truth instead we should embrace our own discoveries and those of others that shed light and give us direction. This is why I find myself often with Mary Oliver as she discovers and helps me to rediscover the wonders of nature realizing that it is not just that that one spring, just that one winter, just that one morning but every morning

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches–
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead–
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging–

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted–

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

 “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver, Dream Work.

Mary Oliver was constantly discovering the realities of the natural world around us and sharing with us her discoveries in poetry. It is like Everett Hoagland’s Perspective when he realizes like Troupe, like Oliver that the discovery is in the seeing:  

How we see



selves, one

Another, and don’t.


What we want

To see and don’t.


What we bring to what

we see that


makes it what is

there for us,


can be seen

in a well-lit room


when we look at a large glass-

covered, framed photo.


Our reflection is super-

imposed upon what is


there under the gleaming

glass, and our vision


suppresses our mirrored image

so we see through it, focus


on what is

pictured beneath it,


away from what is 

at the edgers of our eyes


Which is the way insight reveals

what is not seen. Yet is there.


But by what we say, or do not

say, and all too often by what we do,


or do not do, does not seem to be.

For example, my innate ability to see


You in me, and, too, your born-with

ability to see me in you.

And that is a discovery many of us have yet to make, the innate ability to see the other in the self. And it may be one of the most fundamental and important discoveries we can make, more than the wonder of music, more than the majesty  of language, more than the exploration of our galaxies, we need to encourage the discovery of our true shared humanity and see what can grow from that discovery.  

I’d like to end my talk with poems about two of my personal discoveries.  The first while metaphoric did spring from a faint memory of me as a child being caught in an undertow and my discovery of what one needs to do to survive when one is drowning in water or in the madness of one’s life.

almost drowning



in the midst of it all

i know i must come up 

for air or quickly

learn to breathe 

under water  




cresting ocean

above my head


i hold back the gasp 

and open my mouth


deeply swallow air 

in one huge gulp


before descending again 

into the salted waters


to shoot up once more

towards the sun





lay back 



before again





i dive


than i can imagine


looking above i see

a glimmer reflecting 

below the ocean’s 

choppy surface


i cut the waves

break through

for a moment



as i let the waves

return me to the shore


from califia’s daughter

And I leave you with this cosmological and personal discovery that led to a poem about what we are made of.


out of clay 

they caution


dust to dust

they intone


from earth you came

and to earth you will return

they admonish


they remind us 

we are mortal

and subject to death

yet insist on their eternals


demons and angels

paradise or purgatory


merely human

with a finite

measure of days


but we have 

exploded as novas 

burned through galaxies

explored far reaches of the milky way

ridden on the tails of comets

danced on the edge of asteroids



in a dizzying frenzy of passion


we fell


through the viscous ozone 

past cooling clouds

to settle in the ooze

that feeds the ocean's floor


it was there that we decided

to grow limbs and tongue

all the while holding inside

the truth of our origin







we are the stuff 

that stars are made of


it is a scientific fact

a cosmic trust


in ignorance 

and in knowing

we hold grains of the divine

inside ourselves


and we always have


from califia’s daughter 

So, what do we as poets and poetry lovers need to do? We need to welcome what is, and may or may not be completely understood, but can make us wonder. We need to pay attention, to look, to not laud ourselves to much for our individual   discoveries,  but to share them , to investigate them to see them clear-eyed  as we welcome their truths.  


devorah major June 4, 2022

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