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."  

15 September 2010

Emily's Zen Beginner's Mind

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki-roshi explores this koan:

In the beginner's mind there are many
possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.

I spend my days working in academia, an environment where expertise is the coin of the realm.  People build entire careers around their reputations as experts.  For many of us it's easy to get caught up in the notion that one is one's expertise.  Thank goodness for Suzuki-roshi.  And Emily Dickinson, who also appreciates beginner's mind.

I dwell in Possibility --
A fairer House than Prose --
More numerous of Windows --
Superior -- for Doors --

Of Chambers as the Cedars --
Impregnable of eye --
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky --

Of Visitors -- the fairest --
For Occupation --This --
The spreading wide my narrow hands --
To gather Paradise

The more I read Emily Dickinson, the more I think she was probably a Zen Master disguised as a reclusive 19th century poet.

06 September 2010

What I Meant To Say Was...

Jump in and let go.  Not hang on.  Let go. So, I made a rather poor word choice for the title of my last entry, though I intended the "jump in and hang on" idiomatically, as in "Listen and follow what I'm saying here, boy. Take the plunge into another way of being."   What Krishna is actually telling Arjuna is that this warrior living in The World needs to LET GO of desire, of ambition, of attachment, not hang on at all.  For instance, have a look at the following passage from Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Bhagavad Gita.  Krishna says:

If a man keeps dwelling on sense-objects,
attachment to them arises;
from attachment, desire flares up;
from desire, anger is born;

from anger, confusion follows;
from confusion, weakness of memory;
weak memory -- weak understanding;
weak understanding--ruin.

But the man who is self-controlled,
who meets the objects of the senses
with neither craving nor aversion,
will attain serenity at last.  (2.62-64)

This detachment from the world of the senses, from desire and ambition, expressed here reminds me of a rather famous Wordsworth sonnet, "The World is Too Much With Us."  In it the poet mourns the dominance of materialism and ambition in the Christian west and expresses a Romantic notion of another world view, one in which Gods are manifest in Nature. Arjuna, meet William.  William, Arjuna.
The world is too much with us, late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
Are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything we are out of tune;
It moves us not.  Great God!  I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So I might, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

02 September 2010

Jump In, Hang On, Krishna Riffs

Suzan-Lori Parks is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights.  A few years back, she published a collection of short plays, 365 Days/365 Plays; she wrote a play a day for a year!  When she was done, selections from the plays were performed by theatre companies all over the country.  One can't help but admire the dedication with which Parks practiced her art every day, and the results are pretty remarkable, like one long improv jazz suite.  One of my favorite plays in the collection is the first, Start Here, in which the characters, Krishna and Arjuna, have a conversation about the illusion of free will and what it means to let go of our attachments in order to take up an unfamiliar path.  As in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is the wise one, Arjuna the sometimes reluctant student.  While the characters are derived from an ancient text and the theme itself is eternal, the groovy language of the play is all Parks':  Check out this excerpt in which Krishna riffs, encouraging Arjuna to take the plunge into a new reality:
Krishna: Yr having 2nd thoughts.  I understand.  Everything you own, everything you are, everything you know is back there, right ? Yr not prepared, you think.  You forgot to pack yr toothbrush.  You forgot to lock the front door.  You forgot to turn on the machine.  You forgot to turn off the stove.  You may have left the bathwater running.  You dont speak the language of --wherever it is we're headed.
Arjuna: Right.
Krishna:  Hear that sound?
Arjuna: Sounds like leaves moving in the wind.
Krishna: Its the sound of writing. Theyre writing yr name in the Book.
Arjuna: My name?
Krishna: Why not yr name?
Arjuna: Im afraid. A little.
Krishna: Good.
At the start theres always energy.  Sometimes joy. Sometimes fear. By the end, youll be so deep in the habit of continuing on youll pray youll never stop. Happens all the time. But dont take my word for it. Lets go and youll see for yourself.
Get up. There you go. Breathe. Okay. Come on.
Doesn't Parks just make you want to jump in and hang on? Keep going! Remember to breathe!

31 August 2010

Perfect Imperfection

On his good days, when Gerard Manley Hopkins was not so weighed down with the deep grief that comes from the heavy work of living on this planet, the poet-priest could render with incredible clarity the fundamental beauty of a world infused with divine perfection. I have yet to meet a person who does not enjoy his poem"Pied Beauty"; even readers who are not spiritually inclined appreciate the imagery and musicality, and more especially the way the poem's details teach us how to love the world and embrace its contradictions.

Pied Beauty
Glory be to God for dappled things--
  For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
    For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
     And all trades; their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
     With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                                Praise him.
Image from Mr. Cordova's Trout Blog

Contrast, opposition and change create beauty and prompt the poet to honor the eternal paradox: contrast, opposition and change are constant and therefore divine -- stippled, fickle, beautiful, perfect, all.

29 August 2010

On Purpose

I was trolling for some enticing tidbits of American literature with which to tempt my students into enthusiasm for what probably feels to them like dusty old writing by dead white guys who were never on Facebook.  I flipped the anthology open  and found just the right page from Thoreau, no mean accident, I'm sure.  Often quoted, yes to the point of cliche, but still worth visiting here is the following passage from Walden, Chapter 2, "Where I Lived and What I Lived For":
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation unless it was quite necessary.  I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life...
When we begin a yoga practice, it's not unusual for an instructor to encourage us to "set your intention to be present in your practice today."  I think old Henry David (who, by the way, studied the ancient texts of Hinduism and Yoga) offers some real insight on the matter.

23 August 2010

We are All Avatars

In Louise Erdrich's novel Four Souls, the character Nanapush considers the existence of a reality other than the one we see. Many of Erdrich's characters have the ability to understand and manipulate mysterious forces originating in some other reality, so to enter this novelist's world is to accept that other worlds exist beyond the one most of us consider "real". (And indeed, isn't experiencing a fictional world itself already a sort of alternate reality?) In Erdrich's fictional world, certain individuals simply accept that other realities exist and seem to understand that perhaps we can move back and forth among them. Others only intuit the presence of these various layers of reality, and still others just remain clueless. Nanapush observes
Each of us has an original, you see, living somewhere underneath the shadow of our daily life.  That life we live in the moving world is the dream life of the copy.   She runs, she breathes, she cares for others, she mends their clothes.  You gaze into the water of your day and there your face floats back, serene, unguarded.  See! See! Beneath that thin smile you are smiling somewhere else.  Your hand moves and the hand moves below you.  Perhaps in another country more real than you are, in another life.
There's something a bit Platonic about this notion that the physical world, or what our habits of mind dictate as "real", is merely a copy of another world.   But Nanapush's description of a  two-layered reality also reminds me of tales from many cultures that suggest what we consider a "dream" world, is more real than our "real" world.  Dreaming time allows us a momentary glimpse into the myriad other possible "realities".

So, while Marie Ponsot's Denis "sees what is there to see", and my previous post used that line to decry our over-dependence on metaphor and symbol to create meaning, I find Nanapush's view a helpful counterpoint.  So, while we strive to see "what is there to see", we live with the paradox that there is, most likely more to see that what is there to see.

21 August 2010

Figure Not

I love how really good poems focus the attention on the beauty of the ordinary, the divine details.  In her poem "For Denis at Ten" Marie Ponsot takes us walking with a boy, Denis, on his way to a brook to harvest watercress, a happy little chore he's been sent to do, by grownups no doubt, who probably need their world-weary palates entertained by something crisply cold & bitter.  On his way, Denis notices critters, cow poop, sky, stones. They are just there, and so is he, and that is that; he is on his way to the brook.  And,

                             He goes there, whistling.
                                               Nothing reminds him of something.
                             He sees what is there to see.

Oh, perhaps in her imagination Ponsot idealizes a tiny bit the child's sense of the world's immediacy, that be-here-nowness we somehow believe children naturally possess.  Still, I appreciate the poem's suggestion that a walk to the brook (or, by extension, down the street, across the room, around the continent) need not be laden with symbolism, metaphor, nostalgia, anxiety, imminence, the fancy figures we think make meaning.  The world is as the world is. Focus the attention.  See what is there to see.

15 August 2010

Something in Common with Kay

I've been considering the possibility that Kay Ryan, the U.S. Library of Congress's 16h Poet Laureate, and I share the same problem with the muses.  Well, it's not just Kay Ryan's problem, or mine of course.  Anyone whose creativity has gone a bit fallow might wonder about why the muses have gone mute.  In "Her Politeness"Ryan observes

                                                     how she
                                     isn't insistent, how
                                    she won't impose, how
                                    nothing's so urgent
                                    it won't wait

Now I don't mean to blame my laziness or general lack of discipline about blogging on the mute muse.  But what I like here in Ryan's ever aphoristic verse is the notion of non-attachment tweaking the nose of desire.  Of course we want that muse to whip us up, give the command, tell us the answer.  We wish for, as Ryan says

                                               the muse                               
              you'd have leap at your throat
              you'd spring to obey.

But Miss Museypants just sits there all meek and quiet, smiling politely, waiting for you to figure it out on your own.