In Praise of “The Return” by R. S. Thomas

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The Return

Taking the next train

to the city, yet always returning

to the place on a bridge

over a river, throbbing



with trout, whose widening

circles are like the mandala

for contentment. So will a poet

return to the work laid




on one side and abandoned

for the voices summoning him

to the wrong tasks. Art

is not life. It is not the river




carrying us away, but the motionless

image of itself on a fast-

running surface with which life

tries constantly to keep up.

Current discussions of poetry usually avoid the old idea of “imitation” or “mimesis,” but that avoidance may have a downside of blinding us to the value of certain poems that ostensibly address themselves to the world the poet shares with the reader. On the other hand, it may be asked why should we discuss poems so traditional that they may be assumed to be about worlds no longer relevant to most readers. That’s an assumption that works at an unconscious level — like “prejudice” in general —  so it may be worthwhile to make an account of one of these old fashioned poems.

One sort of “imitation” that we do find in the R. S. Thomas poem cited above is a use of syntax to “follow” or “express”  the the meaning of the sentences. There’s a problem of validation here, since the  interface between style and substance is always problematic, they are always somehow already intertwined. But here  the way the syntax grips and pushes off the line endings gives one a visceral sense of the inertias involved in the return. The “mimesis” is of a mind deeply set in its ways.

Another aspect of mimesis that is always potentially relevant involves the structure of the poem — its dialectics.  The flow of imagery and concept in time goes on transparently as in conversation until it doesn’t — the introduction of a new image or concept will require adjustments in the whole environment of the poem. “Art is not life. It is not the river . . .” Which in turn prepares a space for the final image of the poem. The “charge” of this move, which I’d put down to “double relativity” lifts the poem into the imagination.

What I mean by “double relativity” is as follows. Can we say that the poem “imitates” a motion of consciousness towards something other beyond itself? This transformational moment depends on an expansion of values from the first scenario in which the habits of the commuter are judged in light of the “return” to the place on the bridge. Then THAT comparison yields to a comparison of the “place on the bridge” to the place of composition and participation, an awkward but perhaps justifiable way, given what is at stake,  to put what is suddenly on the horizon in this poem.

“The motionless image of itself” is, like many uses of the phrase “of itself,” obscure. Rereading the sentences allows one to proceed with some confidence that the “itself” is “art” which is not life, not the river. It is an image that appears on the “surface” of life (the river)

First the comparison of the place on the bridge to a state of mind via the phrase “mandala of contentment.”  I love the sense here that such a gorgeous phrase is, in this poem, a  kind of throw-away, structurally speaking, as we shall see. “Contentment” as temptation! (This is a poem by a priest, after all, and R. S. Thomas no less!)   Then we are led to a comparison between that and the work left undone. But that situation requires a further distinction, between “doing the work one abandoned” and reconsideration of life itself in light of the “motionless image” beyond it yet reflected on the “fast-running surface” of the river. That is not all: the judgement made by the relation includes an insight: life constantly tries to keep up with the surface on which the image of art appears. Life, relative to art . . . So even the mimesis of this poem senses its limits.

Thus “double relativity.”  Double relativity is a feature of Daoist philosophy, where everything is dependent on the Dao, which itself is no-thing. The phrase appears in a new work by William Desmond. In the chapter of The Intimate Universal (U. Columbia 2016), Desmond writes: “We see the double relativity of a metaxu, the self-relating, singular happening, in a field of communication where selfing is doubled over with being in relation to what is other” (83). The italicized Greek word “metaxu” — which can mean both with and beyond and was used by Simone Weil to refer to the power of human works to communicate spiritual truth –refers to the double reference in an image that relates both “with” and “above” its syntactic environment. The poem as “metaxu” refers to the sense of a dimension beyond the “mimetic.” This beyond, however, acknowledges a source of energy otherwise unaccounted for. “The motionless image” recalls the original image of the mandala, as an expression of the  commuter’s retreat to the contemplation of the boiling life of the trout in the river, but contrasts to “contentment”  a more perplexed, participatory image in keeping with the disjunction “art is not life.”

Thomas knew how to make an “image” of what can’t be represented. Yes, he was a priest. Yes, he was a poet. The tension is a topic of gossip; given a poem such as this, the conflict of values assumed by the two callings only inhibits our enjoyment of the poem the priest made for us.  The lamination of the image of the “mandala of contentment” and this more tense orientation creates in the reader a “space” between the images, a liminal space given its meaning by the “supernatural” or ‘hyperbolic” appearance of this motionless image.  It is a moment of “porosity” or flow-through between the finite world, richly evoked by the poem, and the unnameable origin to which the poem returns. And to which the reader may well understand herself to have returned as she comprehends the open wholeness of this lovely poem by R. S. Thomas.

 

Thanksgiving in the USA: a hybrid haiku

In USA, the day called Thanksgiving Day is troubled by memories of the racist imperial origins of the country, which included genocide; racial tension continues to define the USA. As does oblivion. Like most holidays it has suffered from the commodification of “times” — these “holy days” have become rituals of consumption. A lot of people know this and still enjoy the holiday as a time of redeeming time by feasting with family and friends.

The haiku I wrote yesterday and continued to worry about today is just barely a haiku. Of course the fun I have with haiku is predicated on the form’s openness to mixed genres. My haiku often have an epigrammatic element that when overdone can flatten the internal tensions of the form. Perhaps the turn of the poem towards outside/inner weather makes it sound more like a haiku. One of the integrated genres here is the song of praise, or psalm.

shopping done pack packed

I walk back slowly grateful

for the wind and rain

 

 

Winter States of Mind

Having grown up in a desert place, the austerities of winter communicate states of mind to me.  Back then, the bony dryness and the transparencies of cold air took me inward. My mental habits took root. Today, 60 years later, living in Portland Oregon, it is a seagull that holds my attention, and since then I’ve acquired the habits of the haiku poet.

Having reached this far

a seagull returns to the sea

under icy clouds

But a few years ago, on the opposite coast, it was a Pond and Thoreau that held my attention.  The lines are prosaic, awkward, discontinuous (at least on the surface) coming into view as the gaze penetrates the world of the pond on that day. While the poems often seem forced from this distance, several years of these “pond songs” provide me now with a notebook full of the imagery of a place intensely observed but now evoking distance as well as immediacy.

November 30, 2013
Pond Song 3.76

There is an other origin beyond the origin in the self with its own inward otherness. GB 176

sea-level pond no mountain top__wind-polished light-carved waves

this wind kept me up all night__day breaks what light saves

sparrows sit low in pale grass__milky ice drapes the shore

sunglare glazes the mudflats__where shallows darken more

wind-shadows spark across__out where buffleheads dive

in summer there’s only one now__it drops from sight its absence excessive

Poems Think Outside the Box

IMG_4287 (1).jpg

 

THIS WAS FIRST POSTED ON READINGTHEBETWEEN.COM

This is page 1 of Jan Zwicky, Wisdom and Metaphor. The Necker Cube figure reappears throughout the text, but only on page 1 do we get the quote from Wittgenstein’s Last Writings on the Philosophy of Psychology.

“Astonishment is thinking.” This riffs on Aristotle, of course. But thinking about the Necker Cube often loses its astonishment, at least as Zwicky uses it. She’s interested in the “internal” relations between the two aspects of seeing (Gestalt) : the box headed down to the right or up to the left. The Necker Cube helps her prove a point in philosophy.

But I think Wittgenstein’s point — “astonishment is essential to a change of aspect” —  directs us to the “outside” of the figure — to the fact that it can be taken both ways. Not at once, of course; but “transcendently” — apart from the time of the instant; it’s as if the only name we can give to the <em>potential</em> change of aspect is <em>astonishment</em>.

This kind of thinking illustrates  what I call “the habit of poetry.” In reading a poem, analyzing it, rereading it, over and over, we find it inexhaustible. As language, it points beyond itself to the hyperbolic dimension. People who read and write poetry have learned how to “see” poems as both finite structures and as participating in what Rowan Williams calls “the hinterland” of language. It’s almost as if the “tight’ construction of a poem — like the Necker Cube — tries to contain what is beyond it. Only the Necker Cube is NOT open to more than two aspects; Zwicky is right about that. But a poem?

Poems think outside the box. The wonder of a great poem only grows.

Memories/Ultimates

On the off chance yes

bits of heaven as that wee

bird sings its head off

Somehow as I dig deeper into the history of Zen poetry — now the rise of poetics in third century CE China (Lu Chi) — I want to return to my first love in poetry– W. B. Yeats. As a young teenager The Celtic Twilight; in my late teens, a more analytical study of the sound patterns in the poetry somehow reinforced my ecological bent. Summers in the Sierra. History is weird. One’s contingencies porous to the divine otherness baked into creation. Gads.

TEXT: In my notebook for the this day I had noted that on page 260 of God and the Between, Desmond writes: “Our passage through life takes firm form, but our passing makes fluid again the forms, and the abiding porosity prior to form and beyond form offers again its never closed off chance: chance of ultimate commication between us and the ultimat.”

As you can see from the structure of the passage above, the composition of the sentences uses poetic forms to weave a grammar of the between. Very few philosophers show such mastery of the potentials of language to communicate richly nuanced insights into our common reality.

Haiku 22.10.16

Moss-covered threshold
gate rusted shut the way through
is not to go there

As literary, even the smallest text has a unity based on a fold or turn. But before that level of analysis, there’s the forward motion by extending an aspect of a double. Hamill in his introduction to Lu Chi’s Wen Fu: The Art of Writing (Milkweed) describes the literary form of this third century Chinese classic  (Lu Chi was executed for treason in 300 CE) as follows:

“Lu Chi’s fu is that of the p’ien wen or ‘double harness’ style; the poem depends upon a kind of parallelism, often moving two ways simultaneously through the deliberate use of ambiguity: ‘Things move into shadows and vanish; memory returns in an echo.'”

In this haiku the first line leads us into a space; the first image of the next line stops the motion; the turn of the poem begins with the concept “the way through” which is followed by a surprising “not” — the way is not to go . . . It’s as if the wanderer remembered the phrase “not to go there”; it is indeed a vernacular turn at this moment, as in “don’t go there.”

“Metaxyturn” names the moment when the given spaces close in on themselves — an aporia — and then suddenly there’s a “way through” as if it opened up because of the aporia. Having accepted the finality of the closure, the opening comes from the other side. I think the sudden rhythm of the third line communicates that sudden opening, even though it’s just an acknowledgement of an alternative route. By ‘alternative’ I mean I suppose utterly other!

The lack of punctuation may initially be a problem for some readers but on rereading, the lack allows the reader to “perform” the metaxyturn in their own breathing. In this way I like to think that the poem has a “form” that depends on a happening, the shaping movement of the metaxy as contingency gives way to the im/possibility of grace.

Or, as Lu Chi says, whatever is given passes away and “memory returns in an echo.”

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Today’s Haiku

to take refuge un-

der the dripping maple tree

is to start over

 

Some say life is a journey– of fits and starts. But sometimes we start when we stop.  No waiting till you’re there. But staying, stillness, openness.  On such a journey we may get intimations of the origin.

Haiku 10/8:

traffic roars by

where I sit sipping hot tea

a part not apart

Today reading Hamill in Poetry of Zen on Dogen’s sitting.  Buddha-mind arises “only through deep spiritual communion between sentient beings and the Buddha.”

The stress is not on the content of the sitter’s mind but on her openness to the between.

I try to do Herbert in haiku

I’ve swept all those words

from the threshold so just knock

and it will open.

I posted an earlier version of this but it bothered me when I reread it later in the day. I’m reading Eleanor Cook’s new book Elizabeth Bishop at Work (Harvard) and her meticulous chapter on diction — Bishop very fond of Herbert — I think increased my uneasiness. I believe this version recalls Herbert, especially in the use of dialogue of man and God.

The Refresher

In my project to create a “world” of haiku along the lines of Herrick’s HESPERIDES out of my time in Oregon, I endeavor to create a poetry of unimaginable “things” — primal energies, “gods,” non-thing things that make things possible. So it’s a world “dependent” like the Taoist world of the Chinese classics on an Unnamed unmoved mover, the “Tao” or “way” (not much of a “name” is it?). The philosophical project of restoring this dimension of human consciousness seems appropriate for haiku, since the “genre” is both highly specific — a real moment in real time — and equivocal about what we can know in light of the fact that consciousness is always changing while searching for a “still point” etc etc. There’s really only so much you can say “in prose” without gagging.

The “nip in the air” today — perhaps a British expression recalling Robert Herrick — did make me think of the procession of seasons by which we are refreshed.  How can I be so naive!

A nip in the air

The Refresher just saying

now it's about time