When I arrived in Portland’s east side after moving out from Portsmouth New Hampshire, I was immediately struck by the light. Wind-washed, rain-washed: the light was oceanic. As I come to know the area I understand some of the geological reasons: the constant flux of air from the Gorge to the East and the Pacific to the West gives the area its distinctive freshness and even, at times, the scent of the sea.
Compared to the light of New England, dominated by extreme weather, especially the snow fall, the light here is both easy and generous, even bountiful. Somedays as I wander around I feel like a voluptuary. I had studied New England light for many years; I especially took in Yves Bonnefoy’s reflections on New England snow. In my lexicon there’s a dualism to New England light. Portland’s light is, on the contrary, a kind of transcendent immanence.
Which makes it a seductive light, a sponsor of Romantic moments of fusion of self-and-other. In the myth of America, if New England is a kind of new beginning, Portland is a perpetual ending.
But this area is historically rich with tales of violence, greed, imperial fantasy, on the one hand, and decidedly thoughtful human planning on the other. It is a dialectical place, desire flooding the spaces with dream and hope. Politically, it is loathed by Republicans and loved by Democrats. At least from afar. It is for all that, a real place, packed with stories. The light makes a big difference but the transformations must be seen in light of an overarching human fate of life lived between the limits of the beginning and the end, the light never quite transforming the chiaroscuro of life in the between.
a dewy rose
in a shady corner
I wrote this today in homage to so many classic Japanese haiku with simple kigos like “summer morning.” The simplicity seemed right for the image. But the narrative is clear to me: the rose, still wet with dew, has so far — it’s still early — been protected from the heat of the sun. It’s in a shady corner of the garden. Later the dew will dry and the sun will search it out, as it were. I felt this way myself this morning: I could feel the summer coming on. Yes, I identified with the rose but not so much with the rose-thing as with the process, from cool morning to something quite other. The movement is the thing.
in the field more numerous
than I remember
I write about meaningless things or rather the meaninglessness of things because in order to “represent” how such things appear to me I have to dislodge them from the hierarchies and grammars of the every day world. The lilies of the field . . . The fall of a sparrow . . Is this to see things in the “to be” of creation as opposed to the traditions of men?
It’s not to deny the archaeological or evolutionary narratives of things but to capture what is “excessive” in their appearance, their appearing, and we are used to think of this as Romantic or Mystical.
Put it this way: if all the discourses–the sciences — we have at our fingertips fail when we focus, say, on “the dandelions” in their bright numerousness, it may be that a certain degree of difficulty must be admitted, and the tropes or turns of phrase, the rhythmic patterns, of poetry may be resorted to in this crisis of representation. The other commonly resorted to strategy is simply to say that THAT is an illusion.
So why is all this bother worth it? I think it is a matter of our concerns about the “self.” Poetry in this case speaks to the “self” that has a double structure of self/other. In distinction from the self of deconstruction, this self does not disappear into the other, but knows its limits in terms of the other. The problem of representation we have been discussing would be no “problem” if it were possible to erase the self. At the same time, one may say that there’s something “excessive” about the self.
The poem gives voice to this excess. Rowan Williams writes (The Edge of Words 134): “The simplest poetic forms have the same purpose at their heart — the contemplating of what seems normal in order to uncover what “normal” perception screens out.”
The die cannot roll back
into your open hand.
Once out your words say what
you later understand.
In a disused lot
of golden poppies
Learning NOT to “see” the world as objects somehow projected into our minds but as the world itself may strip the world of value; there’s a long modern tradition that argues that values are “subjective.” But the dualism of mind/world is unsustainable. The “I” just does not look out on the world from its lonely balcony. We only know the world as we learn to talk about it: language is always part of what we observe. And so we talk about the “grammar” of experience and the “textuality” of experience.
And we still do “experience” value in the world. Words like “good” perform well in many contexts: a good cake, a good person. “Good” is a “perfection term.” Perfection terms adapt to many circumstances without losing their usefulness– quite the contrary. As models of excellence (“paradigms” in Stephen Mulhall’s THE GREAT RIDDLE), they are “indefinitely perfectible (without ever reaching a state of perfection), and they are inherently capable of being projected into new contexts” (82).
I think certain “images” do the work of perfection terms. Like such terms, the images have contexts; they are paradigms, or models of excellence, within a “world.” But they project “perfection” and so connect the scene they appear in to a larger and larger frame of reference. Poems showcasing such imagery are fascinating.
Placing the golden poppies in a “disused lot” allows the force of perfectibility to act on the emptiness of the lot. This is a trope we see in Wordsworth; the overlooked flower. A forgotten spot nourishes “perfectibility”; because we are wandering and not focussed on practical tasks at the moment, we discover the poppies and in the poppies experience a kind of perfection. Wordless, it would seem; but as we understand the use of perfection terms, the difference between word and image becomes equivocal at points. This is to be discussed! Anyway: The poppies act on the analogy of a perfection term. Haiku is particularly given to such experiences since it springs from a meditative state of mind, but that’s, again, another story.
In his Introduction to SWEENEY ASTRAY Seamus Heaney says that his “fundamental” connection to the Medieval poem is “topographical.” The poem is about the rage for autonomy — of the artist perhaps but more generally of the human self — but his own deepest connection he says is “topographical.”
Then it hit me: my first imaginings took shape in the deserts and mountains of California. Then I wandered in the midwest and eastern parts of the country for forty years. Now I’m back on the West coast.
During the wandering I connected in a visceral way with the Ch’an poets of ancient China and the classic haiku poets of Japan, who themselves were shaped by the Chinese poets. In terms made familiar by David Hinton, the two traditions, flowing into one great river of poetry, were the rivers-and-mountain tradition and the garden tradition. I have returned to the garden tradition in Portland OR. The Cascades influence our daily breath by contributing breezes that mix with the air from the Pacific ocean. The climate encourages gardeners.