Last week a Buddhist friend organised a celebration of the elements, inviting contributions to his Facebook page. This stimulated me to look out some favourite works, mostly modern and mostly poems. Here is a cento on the Buddhist elements – earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness – with some comments:
Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground
The mildest February for twenty years
Is mist bands over furrows, a deep no sound
Vulnerable to distant gargling tractors.
Our road is steaming, the turned-up acres breathe.
Now the good life could be to cross a field
And art a paradigm of earth new from the lathe
Of ploughs. My lea is deeply tilled.
Old ploughsocks gorge the subsoil of each sense
And I am quickened with a redolence
Of the fundamental dark unblown rose.
Wait then… Breasting the mist, in sowers’ aprons,
My ghosts come striding into their spring stations.
The dream grain whirls like freakish Eastern snows.
‘Glandmore Sonnets I,’ Seamus Heaney
When I first read Heaney’s Field Work collection, this poem immediately leapt out. Heaney often writes of his connection to the earth and the land and the foundation it offers him as a writer. Here earth, language and Heaney himself are so fused that it is hard to say which is a metaphor for which: Vowels ploughed into other: opened ground. The elements are never only themselves: earth, here, is physical substance as it expands and gains meaning in the mind.
I was born in a drouth year. That summer
my mother waited in the house, enclosed
in the sun and the dry ceaseless wind,
for the men to come back in the evenings,
bringing water from a distant spring.
veins of leaves ran dry, roots shrank.
And all my life I have dreaded the return
of that year, sure that it still is
somewhere, like a dead enemy’s soul. Fear
of dust in my mouth is always with me,
and I am the faithful husband of the rain,
I love the water of wells and springs
and the taste of roofs in the water of cisterns.
I am a dry man whose thirst is praise
of clouds, and whose mind is something of a cup.
My sweetness is to wake in the night
after days of dry heat, hearing the rain.
‘Water’, Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry’s poetry draws me with the strength of both its imagery and his voice. Water and dryness are types of experience in this poem: I am a dry man whose thirst is praise of clouds.
The flame was sinewed like those angels Blake
Drew faithfully. One old log, flake by flake,
Gasped out its being. Had it hoped to rise
Intact from such a wrestler’s give-and-take?
My house is made of wood so old, so dry
From years beneath this pilot-light blue sky,
A stranger’s idle glance could be the match
That sends us all to blazes.—Where was I?
Ah yes. The man from Aetna showed concern.
No alarm system—when would people learn?
No outside stair. The work begins next week.
Must I now marry since I may not burn?
Never again, oracular, wild-eyed,
To breathe on a live ember deep inside?
The contract signed in blood forbids that, too,
Damping my spirit as it saves my hide.
James Merrill, Home Fires
Merrill’s poem (which is worth reading as whole here) is a reflection on the quenching of imagination in the banality of daily life. A sunset to end all. Life’s brave disguise— / Rages and fevers, worn to tantalize— / Flickers to ash
In the air there is a soft gleaming
As of fair light in certain hair, and wind
Through pale curtains streaming like moonlight
In the dark air that fills all the rooms of
Dreaming, like a perfumed tune that will ne’er
(Vanish? A snuffed lap in the dream of day)
This has all been of silver, But see now:
The man of earth exhales a girl of air,
Of her light who lies beside him, gentle
And bare, under the living shawl of all
Her long hair, while her short below softly
Touches his tired thigh with welcoming:
It is she that is there. It is the pure
Return of everlastingness in her
Hands and the redness of the sweet pear
In the touch of her mouth
— Even the air within the circle of
Her emptied arms with light beyond seeming
‘Yellow’, Spectral Emanations, John Hollander
I discovered Hollander’s work and Spectral Emanations poem through an essay in Harold Bloom’s book, Agon. The whole work, as in this extract, is surprising and beautifully written, and not as obscure as it sounds. It’s seven sections are devoted to the seven colours of the spectrum and the seven candles on the Jewish menorah. This is another muse poem, in which the beloved is both the air and the imagination: light beyond seeming.
Now I will tell you how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands.
Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support.
All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will only last so long.”
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I love Calvino’s meditations in Invisible Cities, which revolve around the meanings of place. The speaker is Marco Polo who describes the cities he has seen on his travels, though this is metaphysical and fantastic journeying rather than literal travel. Octavia exemplifies the contingency and precariousness our what we usually consider solid: There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void
This Consciousness that is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of Death
And that itself alone
Is traversing the interval
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men—
How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and none
Shall make discovery.
Adventure most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be—
Attended by a single Hound
Its own identity.
I’ve broken the rule of citing modern poems to include Emily Dickinson’s ‘This Consciousness that is aware’, which is obscure and perplexing, but in a way that matches its theme: the difficulty for consciousness of understanding ‘Itself’ … or even that which is not itself (None). I think ‘interval experience’ is Dickinson’s word form ‘the space that makes up our life’. The experiment is knowing oneself and confronting the baffling quality of experience when ‘identity’ gets in the way. At least, I think that’s what it means. Further interpretations are very welcome.
The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.
A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.
You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.
The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
This is Wallace Stevens last poem, and I agree with those who think it’s perhaps his greatest. Much of Stevens’ work is about the nature of imagination. Here he gives us what imagination sees when we have reached the end of the mind and gone beyond the last thought. What remains is an image. The bird dwells in iconic stasis, but it sings, shines and is moved by the wind. The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down. What a way to go!