Luminous Things

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For some reason, Saturday evenings seem the perfect time for curling up in my bedroom chair and reading poetry. One of my favorite go-to books is “A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry,” edited by Czelaw Milosz (1911 – 2004), a Polish poet, prose writer, translator and diplomat of Lithuanian origin who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.

After reading this collection many times, I finally got around to reading the book’s introduction where I found some very interesting and provocative observations about art and writing. In quoting Schopenhauer, Milosz states …

“Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life: ‘This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument to their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the aesthetic beholder does not look on without emotion: for they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.’

“The secret of all art, also of poetry, is, thus, distance.”

I pondered that last statement – the secret of art is distance – for quite a while. At first I felt I disagreed, thinking of the subjective art and writing so popular in the last century. But then I reconsidered. If I substituted the word detachment for the word distance, I saw another interpretation.

Any art that is too personal or too subjective runs the risk of egocentricity; one of the characteristics of great art is its universality. If an artist can create from a distant or detached position he will be in that peaceful, still place that invites the muse, and the audience, to enter.

In another section of the Introduction, Milosz says the Old Chinese and Japanese poetry has had a significant influence on American poetry since the turn of the century (20th). “Undoubtedly, what accounts for much is the very discovery that we can understand them, that through their lips eternal man speaks, that love, transience, death were the same then as now.”

This is exactly what I had discovered during my reading of the poetry in “The Book of Luminous Things.” I understood so many of the poems at an intimate level – the sadness of the Chinese traveler when parting from his friend 700 years ago is as real and immediate as it is today; the loss of the loved one just as poignant as that which took place a thousand years ago.

Good poetry enables us to speak to each other across the continents and across the centuries. What makes us human is not the color of our skin, not our politics, geography, philosophy or religion; it is our experience of this happening we call life.

After painting for the last several months, the quietness of autumn is drawing me back to words. As I reread some of my favorite poetry books, I’ll share them with you.

Winter Dawn by Tu Fu

The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.

Appearances

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At a busy intersection near the mall I often see a man standing on the medial strip begging for money from passing motorists. This is not your typical out-of-work guy, street person or welfare mother asking for charity. This is a black man who has been crippled and scarred, probably from a fire. His legs are skinny and bowed, a hand is missing one finger and bent back at a ninety degree angle to his wrist; his head is bald and the skin discolored in patches; his mask-like face is grotesque and deformed. He hobbles when he walks and his arms stick out at angles.

When he comes up to my car window and I hand him a dollar, he mumbles, “Sorry to bother you,” and stumbles to the next car. As I drive away I ponder his comment. Did he mean he was sorry to ask for money? Did he think his appearance was so frightening, he was sorry to show his face? Was he being ironic and making a comment on charity?

This incident also reminds me about the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawkins who has motor neuron disease (ALS) and can do nothing on his own. In an interview he was asked about his life. He replied, “Who could have asked for more!” When I heard this I was at first astounded. Yes, he had fame, his name would be listed in history, he was probably wealthy, but how could that in any way compensate for the state of his health, his life. I would be asking for a lot more, I thought.

It is instances like this that may cause us to ponder why things happen to people. Is it karma? Is it just bad luck? Is there a way we can act, believe, intend that may keep such a fate from our own lives? This then led me to remember a Sufi story in which a beggar dies in the street while a rich man is passing in his carriage. An angel explains that the whole purpose in the beggar’s life (who was a very evolved soul) was to awaken compassion in the rich man’s heart.

In both the street beggar and the physicist we must be careful not to judge the quality of their lives by how they look, their place in society, the state of the physical body. We really do not know what goes on in each person’s soul, the state of grace they may enjoy, the peace of mind they may have. Before we feel sorry for someone in a mistaken feeling of compassion, we should examine the beam in our own eye.

Who knows why things happen the way they do? Who can understand the meaning of life or the depth of eternity? Why is one person born healthy, rich and handsome while another has so little? To say it is karma is a facile explanation but most likely not true. As in the Sufi story, maybe those who in our eyes are less fortunate than ourselves have a different and higher mission that we cannot understand.

The Journey Home ebook

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I have created a small art book with the pictures I recently painted and paired them with some passages of prose and poetry. It is available for free download as a PDF. Hope you enjoy it. I am also posting this at www.sacredgate.wordpress.com so sorry if there is duplication.

The Journey Home ebook:bookpdf2

 

 

Art, Autumn 2014

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I have recently finished a cycle of painting and for the first time there is a theme to the images that were created. I call it “The Journey Home.” I am including some examples here on a separate page (see nav bar at top of this page). I am also putting together a little book with the picture series accompanied by prose and poetry; it will be available on line in a few weeks. Thanks for stopping by.

The Cusp of Autumn

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I hear the honking of the geese flying overhead on the way to warmer climes and the morning now has a crisp pinch in the air that fortells coming frosts.

I have not visited the park often this summer as I have in former years but today I place my chair in view of the dog park. The smaller dogs are preoccupied with scents and the threat posed by passing dogs which they meet with high pitched barks and aggressive stances.

In contrast it is play time for the large dogs. A recent arrival in the shape of a mid-sized black and white terrier has the shepherds, hounds and Great Dane in an uproar. This bi-colored bullet of speed drops into the pack with the subtlety of a firecracker and immediately had the other seven trailing in his wake as he tears in great circles through the field. Long legs scissor rapidly but are no match for the terrier who often looks back tantalizingly before putting on another burst of speed.

The larger dogs periodically drop off one by one, long tongues hanging out, sides panting and pumping. When a dog revives enough to rejoin the race it does not jump into the fray but takes up the last position as the pack speeds by. When the terrier calls a time out the dogs plop down in the cool grass with large smiles and wagging tails.

Then the romping begins and consists of bouncing jumps and hops. At times a dog flops down and invites another to wrestle. Is this where the expression “boundless joy” derived – the leaps and bounds of dogs at play is the personification of joy.

Meanwhile, the air is pierced with the ringing tones of “Little Brown Jug” playing incessantly as a rusting white ice cream truck slowly circles the parking lot. I wonder how appropriate it is to have a song about whiskey as the theme song for a children’s treat. As the truck passes by I check to see if the driver is wearing ear plugs as a precaution against insanity.

A young woman pulling a set of golf clubs briskly walks by and compliments me on my choice of seating and view. Moments later a man eating an ice cream bar asks me if I am drawing to which I reply that I am writing, and he quickly loses interest as writing is not a spectator sport.

Six dogs are sitting in companionable silence in the shade of a tall oak while two sniff the perimeter of the compound when the noon bells of St. Philomene chime. Nearby, the small dogs are sitting up, paws waving, for the small treats tossed by their owners.

In the larger playing field a large, lean black dog plays fetch with her master who flings the ball far down the open field, the dog flying in pursuit, her eyes measuring just where the ball will land and the trajectory of the rebound.

Soon, one by one, the dogs are escorted to waiting cars and trucks, all ready for a long afternoon nap in front of the TV while the family watches large men chase each other up and down the field trying to catch the flying football. Is this the human form of boundless joy?

Poetry for a Hawk

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This year’s season of the sun awakened a surprising appetite in me for poetry, all kinds of poetry – by those from other cultures, from other ages; romantic poetry and sacred poetry, by women and for women. In fact, I’ve read several anthologies, the latest being Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry, a weighty tome of nearly 2,000 pages.

I have degrees in English but in my early years my first love was fiction, not poetry. Perhaps it was all those epics like Paradise Lost, Faerie Queen, Idylls of the King that did me in. The strange words and syntax, classical allusions and lines that rhymed. I rarely, if ever, read poetry for pleasure except for the occasional foray into Kahlil Gibran or Pablo Neruda.

But this year for some reason my appetite has changed. Perhaps I have finally become old and/or wise enough to appreciate something of the soul of poetry. While fiction helps you escape life for a little while through vicariously living another’s, I think poetry can help you understand life more deeply.

One of the poets I have discovered on this journey is Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). He was very popular in the first part of the 20th century but fell out of favor when he opposed the US participation in WWII. He lived in Carmel, one of the most beautiful coastal towns in California, and many of his poems speak of a deep appreciation of nature.

One of his recurring symbols was the hawk, a bird particularly close to my own heart as a symbol of freedom. Nearly 20 years ago when I was recovering from an illness, I learned to whistle like a hawk and discovered that they would often respond to my calling as they flew overhead.

In my reading of Jeffers I found a hawk poem that particularly moved me in its beauty and power, and although it is longer than I usually include in a post I am quoting it here in its entirety. I hope it resonates with you.

Hurt Hawks

I.
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him:
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.

II.

I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight
What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.

Summer 2014

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The proof of the great drought is seen
in the small creek that runs through
the city park where now only smooth
round rocks lay where once
water flowed freely and
ducks floated easily
and fish swam just out of reach
of small boys with large hooks
at the end of the their father’s poles.

All is hard and dry now.
The mica in the river stones
glint in the morning sun
that recently delivered so many days
of hundred degree heat and
birthed baby fires that skittered
across the griddle of the city
and teased the edges of the yellow
ripening fields to bloom into black skies.

This morning is warm with a jacket-shedding
and a thirsty delta breeze that
prowls up the big valley from the south
where the fog lies lazily along coastal shores.
Men and women stride purposefully
down paths as large lawn-mowing tractors
rumble across fields like dinosaurs
patrolling their kingdom and leaving behind
the sweet scent of grass and gasoline.

Dragonflies, big as hummingbirds,
wings spinning like small propellers,
glide in spirals around the couple courting
under the dark tree who laugh and share
exuberant kisses that are heard across the lawn
where maintenance workers in bright orange vests
push wheelbarrows heaped with compost
as this person looks up into the white sun
and remembers rain.

 

 

All Paths Lead to Me

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He who knows me as his own divine Self,
As the Operator in him, breaks through
The belief he is the body, and is
Not born separate again. Such a one
Is united with me, O Arjuna.

Delivered from selfish attachment, fear
And anger, filled with Me, surrendering
Themselves to me, purified in the fire
Of my Being, many have reached the
State of Unity in me.

As people approach me, so I receive
Them. All paths lead to me, O Arjuna.

Composed between the 5th and 2nd century BC, The Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord) is Hinduism’s best known scripture. The Gita is presented as a dialogue between Sri Krishna, a divine incarnation, and his friend and disciple, Arjuna, a warrior prince who is trying to live a spiritual life in the midst of worldly conflicts.  

When I read this excerpt this morning I was reminded of the current conflicts raging in our troubled world. The Middle East and civil war in Iraq, the Palestinians and Israelis, the Ukraine. Many of these wars are fought in the name of religion, us against them, each claiming the only road up the divine mountain.

The belief in exclusivity or specialness is just another aspect of our egos that fear extinction, if not by physical death, then by return into the One. This belief in separation is the original sin, the apple which closed the gates to Eden. To think that we are or can be separate from our Source is the real meaning of suffering.

As the Gita says, we are not in charge, the Operator is in charge. We do not have a life, we are Life. There are many paths up the mountain and who is to say that one is better than another when God himself does not make that distinction.

 

“Seen From Above”

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On a dirt road lies a dead beetle.
Three little pairs of legs carefully folded on his belly.
Instead of death’s chaos –neatness and order.
The horror of this sight is mitigated,
the range strictly local, from witchgrass to spearmint.
Sadness is not contagious.
The sky is blue. 

For our peace of mind, their death seemingly shallower.
Animals do not pass away, but simply die,
losing – we wish to believe – less of awareness and the world,
leaving – it seems to us – a stage less tragic.
Their humble little souls do not haunt our dreams,
they keep their distance,
know their place.

So here lies the dead beetle on the road,
glistens unlamented when the sun hits.
A glance at him is as good as a thought;
he looks as though nothing important had befallen him.
What’s important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.

 Seen From Above, Wislawa Szymborska, 1921 –

I stumbled upon this poem the other day and found it quite touching for the modesty of its subject – not many poems are written about the lowly beetle – and because it reminded me of a short essay I wrote a year or two ago on a similar topic. My experience was not seeing a dead beetle but a beetle in the process of dying. (See Archives 2012, August 9)

“animals do not pass away, but simply die.” I like the irony Szymborska uses when she infers that the beetle’s death is so much less in importance than our own. Their death need not be draped in euphemism but baldly declared. The lowly beetle knows its place in the hierarchy of value. Its death is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. In contrast, how important we believe ourselves, how world-changing our own demise.

Yet when “seen from above” does not the same life which animates our hearts, also animate the beetles of the world, and the trees and rocks and birds? Isn’t the one life that connects us all, the one life that is All That Is? Perhaps this hierarchy of life in which we imagine ourselves as the evolutionary edge is, in fact, not a vertical structure but a horizontal configuration that moves from the center outward in all directions at once with no one form having primacy, all being equal and equally loved.

And, if by chance, we fulfill those dire prophecies of Armageddon who can say the world will miss our heavy footsteps and loud quarreling voices. Perhaps the meek will one day inherit the earth.

 

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