Tuesday, May 17, 2011

More Poems Without Categories

What appeals to me right now about most spiritual literature—sacred poetry, scripture, personal essays by religious and ex-religious, sacred mythologies and philosophies; which is the sort of reading I tend to do in that first hour of the day, when I'm still waking up, meditating, slowly starting my day so that it can go forward on an even keel—is the qualities of serenity and solace it brings. I need both. I am preparing for major life-changing surgery—on one level, just one more life-changing event among a long sequence of events over the past few years—and time is ticking down towards the scheduled date, after which everything is going to be different, physically different, with consequences and maybe, if hope is not too toxic a zone to enter, cures. Whatever happens, life will be different: for awhile, and perhaps permanently. There will be a recovery period, and another surgery, and another after that. Removal, reconstruction, completion.

I can conceptualize this several ways, as my mind seems to want to work metaphorically around the topic, at the moment, rather than clinically. I can think of it as the three-part structure Japanese Noh drama, joh-ha-kyu, with the long slow introduction in no-time, the building of the narrative force to a revelation of the pivotal character, and the rushing towards the denouement, the stylized dance of the central, almost divine character, accompanied by the small orchestra of percussion, voices, and flutes.

Knives flashing in the light, while I sleep. This god who lives among the pine trees, dancing with his fan covering most of his face. Just a watchful bright eye. The threads that bind us together, that suture the world into place. Flesh and stone, the rising mist over a pond, the way exposed guts steam in an air-conditioned slaughterhouse. My calves still ache from the last dance. There is just enough fog over the mind to drive my canoe sideways. The blood is the life, and the wine is the color of blood inside the veins before it oxidizes in the revealed air.

What keeps me going, some of these mornings, as I get ever closer to that day when everything will change, is the certain knowledge that none of it matters: I'm just one small leaf drifting on a pond, in the grand scheme, and the Universe is too large to care. There's solace in being small

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

—Wu-Men

Keep it in perspective: don't let your mind be clouded by unnecessary things. Fear and worry fall into that category, although I have the habit of both. I inherited my mother's ability to brood over a cherished worry, and I do it well. One reason I've taken up gardening is to, literally, put those worries and fears into the ground: it really works, after an hour of my pushing my hands into the dirt, of planting, of weeding, of tending, I come back inside dirtier and more at peace. Gardening as spiritual exercise: a known connection amongst monastic communities for many centuries.

We are the driving ones.
Ah, but the step of time:
think of it as a dream
in what forever remains.

All that is hurrying
soon will be over with;
only what lasts can bring
us to the truth.

Young men, don't put your trust
into the trials of flight,
into the hot and quick.

All things already rest:
darkness and morning light,
flower and book.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

There are savagely judgmental postmodern poets who like to tell stories of the personal failings of great poets; there is glee in the telling. But are you behaving any better than the dead ones who didn't do so well? Whose dealings with the real world, with the so-called real world, were stuttering and problematic. At some point you have to realize that being a professional, whether poet or artist or philosopher, is not always the best option. We only turn professional as poets because our fingers are too manicured to stand in the flood and throw another sandbag on the levee. It's always about holding back the tide, when you turn professional, about mastering the forces of nature, about the triumph of engineering over chaos. To engineer is human, and so is failure. We learn a lot from what goes wrong. Even if that bridge is burned, we learn to build the next one better. If there had always been a happy ending, if Orpheus hadn't failed by turning on the last stair, his foot already half into the daylight, if he hadn't lost Eurydice in that turning, her shade falling back into the shadows—well, what would we have left to learn? What would we write about? The gift is in the failure. The gift of this long-term illness is how it has pared my life down to what really matters. You try to live a good life, and still, everything goes wrong. You do everything right, and follow all the right advice, and still you have to go forward knowing that none of might matter, in the end, that it could still fall apart at any second. There's some solace in knowing how fragile your plans are, some serenity. Still, something, as yet unnamed, comes into the gap, every time. Mind the gap: that last stair-step is the critical one.

Moon and clouds are the same;
mountain and valley are different.
All are blessed; all are blessed.
Is this one? Is this two?

—Wu-Men

When we separate the world into different parts, it's only conceptual. When we argue over different categories of poetry, over kind and type and style and worth, it's all in the mind. It's even less real than before. Does that make it a higher art form, because of its very abstraction, as some poets claim? In truth, it makes it lesser. Everyone likes their boxes. Ballet dancers conclude, after some consideration, that ballet is the highest artform. This would be a newsflash if it hadn't been reported, by ever artist for their own artform, a million times already. We like to think of ourselves as drawn towards the good and the beautiful. So we tend to think that what we like best, is the best, the most good, the most beautiful. That kind of conceptual engineering, though, builds walls around your boxes, rather than bridges to other game-tables. You are the spinning ball that locks itself inside a compartment of the roulette wheel and refuses to come out, not till the world stops spinning. But we live on a planet that never ceases its spinning. Add to that whirl of orbits, the sun's longer whirl around its own central star-pool. and you can see the truth of it: it's all vibration, all spinning, and nothing ever stops. What I like best is that there isn't anything to like best: it's all good. Is this one, or two? Your preference is as conceptual as your artistic abstractions: the result of prejudice and personal taste. It's not equally the same, but it's all blessed all the same. Every category, every box, equally blessed, when seen from on high.

When the mind is at peace,
the world too is at peace.
Nothing real, nothing absent.
Not holding on to reality,
not getting stuck in the void,
you are neither holy nor wise, just
an ordinary fellow who has completed his work.

—Layman P'ang

My mind is not noisy with desires, Lord,
and my heart has satisfied its longing.
I do not care about religion
or anything that is not you.
I have soothed and quieted my soul,
like a child at its mother's breast.
My soul is as peaceful as a child
sleeping in its mother's arms.

—Psalm 131



(Poems excerpted from The Enlightened Heart: An anthology of sacred poetry, ed. by Stephen Mitchell.)

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4 Comments:

Blogger David-Glen Smith said...

Sending positive thoughts.

The Japanese Haiku-Master Basho and the modern Richard Wright helped me through troubled times with their haiku.

Wright especially helped because he himself had a lung disease which slowly robbed him of the ability to sit upright at his typewriter. He could only compose short haiku in brief moments. His images can be emotive and intense and very insightful.

I bridged a link from my blog to your post.

Let us know your progress.

12:58 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, thanks for the link, the comments, AND especially for the positive thoughts. I'll take all I can get, and store them up for when they're most needed.

I have Wright's book of haiku, and I think it's terrific. (I read his impressive novels many years ago, back in school days.) I agree about Wright being inspirational, there, with everything he had to push through to get even a single poem done. It made for some luminous haiku.

I'll no doubt be writing about the surgery, the recovery, and everything. Probably more likely to write lyrically than clinically, but you never know. I've written a few posts (The Anemia Diaries) about it all, and of course it's all through recent poems and essays, being a daily fact of life the past few years. I'll see what comes out. Probably a poem or two.

Thanks!

4:19 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Wouldn’t it be awful if ballet was the highest art form and here neither you nor I can dance? (Please tell me you can’t dance.) I don’t think it’s a bad thing for any artist to think that what they’re doing is the most important thing they could be doing but I’m not going to suggest to any dancers out there that they should suddenly throw away their tutus and pick up pen and paper. What a waste that would be. I think it’s actually good that there are people out there who excel in ways we can’t get our heads around. I personally struggle to understand how people can live happy lives without any kind of artistic expression but I suppose scuba-diving and mountain climbing are what fill that gap. And there has to be art in things like that too.

4:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I agree about diversity of skills and means. I too cannot really understand how any person could go through life without any obvious kind of artistic expression—which is as normal as breathing for me, as for you and other artists—but then, I do know some chefs and florists and interior decorators that I think are very creative. I genuinely believe that creativity is a human birthright that everyone has access to, it just doesn't always show up overtly.

As for dancing, well, I'm not able to dance now, due to my poor health and exhaustion. But in high school I did train in jazz dance; it's how I screwed up my bad knee. And in my thirties I also trained in modern dance, including such styles as contact improv. Together with the martial arts training, it made for good physical training overall. I was pretty good at the modern styles, but then it's nothing like ballet, which is a lot harder on the body.

One of the things I love about Bill T. Jones as a choreographer is that on a couple of occasions he has taken ordinary people, non-dancers, and made a piece around them. ("Still/Here" is one the best examples.) It basically shows how "non-dancers" can still do interpretative movement, dance, ritual, etc. Very inspirational.

9:54 AM  

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