17 December 2011

The End of Desire

In the December issue of Poetry magazine, just inside the cover is an excerpt from the poem "Twigs" by Taha Muhammad Ali, printed in memory of the Palestinian poet, who died recently.  The stanza reads
And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts.
With that splendor comes stillness and longing at once, the paradox of the contemplative moment. In fact, the entire poem, which appears in Ali's collection So What? resigns itself to longing, desire, attachment and finally, the non-attachment we speculate we'll find in death.
Neither music,
fame, nor wealth,
not even poetry itself,
could provide consolation
for life's brevity,
or the fact that King Lear
is a mere eighty pages long and comes to an end,
and for the thought that one might suffer greatly
on account of a rebellious child.
So the poem begins.  It ends
After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we've done,
and on all that we've longed for,
on all that we've dreamt of,
all we've desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first thing
to putrefy
within us. 
Oh, to release our hold on that dark desire, to say farewell to hate at last! Is it so, only in death? Alas. And isn't Mortality the perfect muse, birthing her twins, Hope & Despair?


25 January 2011

It's Still Winter

It's still winter in the Northern Hemisphere, though we have a bit more sunlight each day.  In a mere few weeks, daffodils and crocuses will be poking up through the mud, and forsythia will froth up the hedges overnight here in Tennessee. Nevertheless, temperatures have been especially frigid in the North, well below zero recently, and we've had an unusual bit of snow in the South.  Though I'm not a fan of cold weather, I do like the way winter stills the world and forces me to attend to what I might not notice in the excitement and busyness of the warmer seasons.

Back in November, when the cold shredded the last of the bright leaves from the trees, I began to pay attention to how the trees' essential shapes were revealed.  At first, the word I chose to describe those black branches against the cold sky was "unadorned", but that word was not exactly right. The trees were very much adorned, fringed still with old brown leaves that had managed to hang on, and dotted with squirrels' nests I would never have noticed when the trees were full and green.  At the time, I was teaching Thoreau in my American literature course and kept returning to one of my favorite passages from Walden, one that I've already taken a look at in this blog: On Purpose.  In the passage, Thoreau describes his rejection of typical worldly pursuits in favor of what he felt would be a more meaningful life of quiet contemplation.

I couldn't help but read the wintry, stripped down trees as a metaphor for what Thoreau was trying to do, paring his life down to its most essential nature.  They also put me in mind of Patanjali's Sutra on Practice, 11.30.  This sutra enumerates the yamas, or abstentions of yoga.
The yamas are nonviolence, truthfulness, refrainment from stealing, celibacy, and renunciation of unnecessary possessions. (Translation by Edwin Bryant)
The yamas are a summons to mindfulness in our day to day activities, markers on that path to our essential nature.  Winter makes me notice the squirrels' nests, yoga awakens the consciousness. I'll still kvetch about the cold, but I want also to be grateful for the restraints of winter turning me inward as the season stills the world about us.

18 November 2010

On Song, Breath, and Wallace Stevens

A couple of days ago I heard a story on the radio about human responses to regional accents.  The story mentioned that songbirds also have regional "accents" and that, like humans, birds recognize these differences.  Curious, I searched a bit more for discussions of birdsong and accents, and I found another story suggesting that speech and language have their origins in song.  Then, like a good yogi, I started thinking about the role of sound in yoga practice, how chanting and bells and the sounds of the natural world help us find our way to our essential being...and then, of course, I thought about breath, how it sounds inside and outside the body.  And I realized that, while breath and sound are both rather magical things, the space between them, that stillness between the inhalation and exhalation, that silence before and after the tone, are just as magical.  So, of course, that all made me think about this verse from Wallace Stevens' famous "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird":

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendo,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

18 October 2010

All I Was Doing

All I was doing was being, and the Dancing Energy
           came by my house.
His face looks curiously like the moon, I saw it
           from the side, smiling.
             --Mirabai  "All I Was Doing Was Breathing"

Fresh out of joy? Put together a playlist:  a little Ravi Shankar kicking it over to The Rolling Stones, Tina Turner, the latest from Mavis Staples, some big brass funk on the bottom from the Soul Rebels...hit shuffle, crank it up, get your groove on and open the door!  You've got company, and his face looks curiously like the moon!

11 October 2010

Common Question

Today the bright blue October sky sinks into a pile of pink and gold clouds at dusk.  There's a ghostly slip of a crescent moon already dangling just above that same western horizon, so early, so soon.  As my dog Macy and I stroll about in this beautiful evening light sifting down through the maples out back (more orange leaves than green now), I recall a favorite May Swenson poem,  "Question".   In it Swenson considers what existence might be like without a body, asking, at the poem's conclusion

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

Most will read the poem as a little meditation on death (oh great...I know, I know...another autumnal mediation on death...), but I think it's also concerned with notions of attachment and non-attachment. How funny to think of a modest little soul trying to cover itself up with a bit of cirrus cloud!  Of course we know that there is no hiding from this final transformation out of the body, but I am quite amused by the prospect of that pale naked soul still figuring out what it means to be free of the body's boundary! The poet imagines that soul wondering how to exist without the protection of an earthly shell (a house, a body), and feeling itself merge into all creation ("wind for an eye"). There's no explicit suggestion here that a soul transformed by death joins some larger divinity.  Without the body, asks Swenson, what really becomes of us? Do we just melt into the sky?

In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna offers Arjuna an answer:

Whoever knows, profoundly,
my divine presence on earth
is not reborn when he leaves
the body, but comes to me.

Released from greed, fear, anger,
absorbed in me and made pure
by the practice of wisdom, many
have attained my own state of being.

So, I guess, no matter what, when faced with that ultimate transformation of our earthly energy into something else, we needn't worry about what to wear.

05 October 2010

Autumnal Upanisad & Shelley's West Wind

Autumn.  The ever-shortening days, the falling leaves swirled up and dropped by ghostly gusts, bleak skies framed by black branches, that chill -- winter's harbinger, settling in, seeping under the door.  No wonder those melancholy poets, in their eternal contemplations of mortality, can't resist it.  Go ahead, look 'em up and you'll likely find every poet you have ever liked has written a poem about autumn!

One of my favorites is Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind". Instead of being a simple contemplation of mortality, the poem becomes a celebration of change.  Shelley's west wind energizes the landscape; it's a transformational force, shaping and reshaping the planet, the mind, the soul.  The speaker addresses the wind as
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere,
Destroyer and Preserver
Many poets see this turning season as a summons to death lurking on the other end of November in winter's deep freeze, but Shelley's autumn isn't that at all; it's a reminder that immortality exists in the eternal cycle of destruction and renewal, that what destroys, preserves as well.  Or, to frame it in terms of the Isa Upanisad
Whoever knows becoming and destruction--
     Both of them, together --
By destruction crosses over death
     And by becoming reaches immortality.

26 September 2010

On Feeling Full

That is full; this is full;
     Fullness comes forth from fullness;
When fullness is taken from fullness,
     Fullness remains.
-- from the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 

It's all energy, baby.  It's all good.  It's all right there. Just hold that paradox up to the sun and have a look at infinity.  Make yourself at home in what poet James Berry calls " a mighty nest full of stars."