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.