New Year’s Poem: so where to now, mate?

For James Edgecombe


A breath of winter

I close the door behind me

cold breathed into me

from beyond the edge

where creatures greet each other

each from its own cloud

A State of Mind

The birds have vanished

from a thousand rivers– a

thousand years and more

ago Liu Tsung-Yuan

wrote about a state of mind

now  closer to fact.

An old man still wades

into the cold stream and casts

as he learned to do

watching the line’s glint

in the morning light over

the empty waters.



Christmas carols low

in the cafe, young voices

plan revolution.

I listen full of

pity, they are beautiful

and it’s warm in here.

My coffee grows cold,

the pages I am reading

connect us elsewhere.


Old Man’s Walking Song

I’ve learned to walk on

ice, walk on with shambling step,

my younger stride in

check, heel landing soft

as the snow. Even frozen

ground is Mother Earth.

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


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