Point Loma Purple, The life and work of Katherine Tingley

I got this book off the author/publisher a few months ago. I let it lie sallow, as I’m not much into poetry. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t understand poetry. I had a discussion once on the first set op poems my brother got published. A year or so later he noted that he’d been amazed at the quality of my comments and interpretations of his symbolism, because I was supposed to be the non-literary person in the family. It’s not that I don’t have the mental tools to interpret poetry. It’s that I just don’t care.

So, when I’m forced, like with my brothers poems, I am not ill qualified to say something about them. But that doesn’t mean I’d pick up even my brother’s poetry just for the fun of it.

The same is true of ‘Point Loma Purple: The Life and Work of Katherine Tingley (1847-1929), an imagined history in mosaic verse’, by Bill Shute.

This is in a sense worse: it’s historical poetry. It’s poetry which gives a historical impression on one of the main characters of theosophical history. Which is why I’m writing this review. I can hardly NOT review this book, because of it’s topic. Still, this review is more of a historical commentary on the book.

As poetry it has been reviewed before, and the reviews were generally positive. As theosophical history this book is slightly partial to Katherine Tingley, mentioning Annie Besant‘s attacks on her, but not her attacks on Besant. Weirdly enough the two Theosophical Societies had women at the helm almost simultaneously, as they did again at the end of the 20th century. I’m sure astrologers would have something to day about that.

Katherine Tingley’s story is really something. Her life was not a success in any worldly sense, but her ideals certainly spoke to people. She built schools (like Annie Besant btw), set up a commune, closed down local theosophical branches and generally set the stage for the diminishment of her branch of theosophy. As Bill Shute writes: ‘For better or worse, the American Society was Katherine Tingley’ (ch. XVII) The Theosophical Society headed by Annie Besant had, by this time, also a growing branch in the USA, and they too would claim the title ‘Theosophical Society in America’.

In her time there were branches to Tingley’s Theosophical Society in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany.

But that’s how history will remember her. The poems start way earlier, with her life as a worker (without much pay) at the bottom of society. I say as a worker, because her ideals shone through there too. She was what one might call a social worker avant la lettre. Then, after the death of H.P. Blavatsky (1891) W.Q. Judge, leader of the American theosophists, found support in her. This despite the fact that … (Shute’s words)

About Blavatsky’s thoughts and work? A good idea, but she
Needed to arrange for fifty loaves of bread that night
At the Do-Good Mission … she’d get around to it … (ch. IX)

Katherine never did get around to it much. But she did give up her work as a medium ‘(for entertainment purposes only, one is tempted to add)’ (ch. X)

So, she meets William Quan Judge, whose story is told in a page or two (again – ignoring his part in any had been in) and ends up being his successor.

I could go on and on. The fact is, this is well done. Even I’m tempted to go through the whole thing. The style is informal and engaging. Tingley’s life gives one enough material for a lot of verses and that’s what Bill Shute has done. One should not expect historical nuance from a poet, yet even that’s there occasionally – though he’s clearly partial to Tingley’s side of the story and adverse to that of Annie Besant.

For a ‘re-imagining’ it’s quite historically accurate.

A word about the publisher. Kendra Steiner Editions / Word Mechanics (the poetry division) were founded by Bill Shute. As an interviewer said: ‘The focus is to give a voice to the underground by releasing their best work possible. It is not simply about releasing a chapbook with their name on it, the work must be focused, concise, and of a certain quality to be considered for release. It is this focus and Bill’s determination that will continue to drive KSE forward and allow them to find new exciting young poets.’

If you want a copy, contact the publisher and hope they still have a few.