Wandering back into the Garden

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.

Topography, yes.

A great poem is like a tuning fork for the creative spirit: Celan on the Between

My interest in the between (metaxy) picked up energy recently as I studied a poem by Paul Celan.

Celan’s poem on “the between” titled, in Pierre Joris’s translation, “Line the Wordcaves,” goes like this:

Line the wordcaves

with panther skins,


widen them, hide-to and hide-fro,

sense-hither and sense-thither,


give them courtyards, chambers, drop doors

and wildnesses, parietal,


and listen for their second

and each time second and second


This poem probes an aspect of the between not often noticed: as an image of “conversation” the between involves “the parietal” — walls, spatial division. And the between as a cultural phenomenon, is maintained, constructed, as well as discovered as a given.

The elegant couplets move deeper and deeper into the build of the between. The hollows become like a labyrinth or honeycomb or a system of Ice-Age caves.

At the turn of the poem, between the penultimate and the last couplet, it is clear that  the idea of construction must be revised in light of the process of discovery. The poem, elaborated with cunning, becomes a living thing; each tone gives way to a second.

That is, Clean was cunning enough not to render the poem subject to the fantasy of an eternal series: the between retains its dialogical sense. The “wordcaves” are themselves sources of sense.

The poem thus describes the process of “performing” a poem, of “playing” it like a piece of music. And as the artist he is, by extending the formal pattern at the very end to a “final” “tone” — on a line all by itself — Celan executes what I call “metaxyturn” and reveals, in a word, the pattern in the poem as an image of the “foundation” of the pattern, a resonant whole or unity “behind” all the parietal complexity.

A great poem is like a tuning fork of/for the creative spirit.

The Wee Butterfly and the Big Picture


As I walk along I’m always looking for things to photograph — things that may not be very important at first glance but which figure in the big picture.

We become aware of the strangeness of things when we stop to think about them. I am powerfully influenced by mystics like Julian of Norwich (Denys Turner’s book Julian of Norwich, Theologian is one of my favorite books), because they grant me reasons for paying attention to small indifferent things.

How can a little thing like a butterfly move me to wonder? Is there an aesthetic “law” that holds for inverse proportionality? No.Maybe. Who knows? But in such wee creatures we may experience an excess of beauty, and this excess, unexplainable in rational terms, prompting absurd wonder, depends “logically” on an infinite reserve of love we call  for want of better names God-the-Creator.

It begins in wonder: that excess that makes us feel foolish watching a butterfly with rapt attention. But thinking about such excess we discover the idea of a reserve, a dark enigma, or fertile void — that idea central to the Zen poets of ancient China but also to mystics like Julian and (in due course) the Japanese poet Basho who studied the Taoist/Zen poets.

THAT Big Picture.

NB: For this way of putting it — excess/reserve– I am indebted to William Desmond, whose systematic philosophy of the metaxy is quite in sync with Julian’s insights into the life of the Trinity.

How imponderable

the lightness of the butterfly

as it rides the wind

Are You Experienced? On a poem by Peter McDonald

One of the smaller poems in Peter McDonald’s new book of poems from Carcanet, Hermes the Hunter, goes like this:


A little squeal, and then the sound

of a spring being tightly wound

in on itself, is all there is

at first, a sudden note and whizz-

whir coming from the bunched-up grass,

but maybe as the minutes pass

and you lie still, you start to see

a round bird moving clumsily,

all body, getting ready now

to risk the air, and chance a low

flight that will take it further out

from the covey: as if in doubt,

and happier with the ground below,

it hesitates; it doesn’t go.

In its very small way, this is magnificent. McDonald, in criticism and creative work alike, is among the connoisseurs of poetic form. The management of the tetrameter meter, sacrificing nothing of “natural” speech or idiom, effectively conveys not simply what he wants us to see but the experience of coming to see something called Partridge. So the poem is a kind of naming; at the same time, the poem choreographs the ontological event of “naming.” It has been argued by philosophers and theologians, that “naming” takes part in a sharing of human understanding (structured in part by names) and the otherness of creative being itself.

As for the structured experience afforded by the poem, it follows what I call “inner form”: from the first “impression” in sense (“a little squeal”) all the way to the total image of the partridge sitting there “happier with the ground below.” The unfolding of this creaturely object goes in careful stages, each one qualifying the original “note.” The poem is “about” coming-to-know this creature as such: it is about listening, lying still, and as such it evokes an “inner” understanding of the creature. Hypothetical perhaps, “to risk the air, and chance a low / flight that will take it further out . . .”

The poem is also then about a mediative state of mind wooing what I call “metaxyturn”: the moment when the threshold of the objective is crossed over into the shared community of creatures characterized not by the eros of the hunter (hence its place in this book) but the agapeics of the loving understanding.

Rather than label this aspect of understanding as a “fallacy” or outmoded mode of misidentification, we can better appreciate the form of experience we call analogy: there’s a subtle analogy between the observer’s self-understanding and the “thing” out there. Many are the undergraduate lecturers who have snidely refused to condescend to such a phase of identity as Romantic.

As the inner form comes to fulfillment in the final image, we “know” the Partridge in its otherness only because, after quieting our own impulses, we come to know the beast as a creature like us in the only way we know how, by submitting ourselves-and-it to the flow of inner form as it takes shape in an experience.

‘The Tulip’ in the Mouth


With last night’s rain pooled

on  the leaves below the tulip

escapes its scape


This haiku was first posted on Twitter with a different last line:  ‘overflows itself.” Rilke?  I dunno. That didn’t quite capture the happening.  I did some research and came up with this version.  The verbal play makes it more like a riddle. I’ve been reading the Anglo-Saxon riddles in The Word-Exchange and very much like that approach to the mysterious presence of things.  Or maybe it’s just the abrupt act coming after the rather slow and literal l-dominated tune — mellifluous but still literal — well, so much of poetry is in the sounds of it, how they take place in that most sensitive and tender fleshy scene the mouth.



Haiku after Wittgenstein

I am already

riding this bicycle o-

ver the roadside curb


“Wittgenstein, in a well-known passage in the Philosophical Investigations, describes what happens when someone, watching another person writing down a sequence numbers, suddenly grasps how the series is developing: ‘Now I can go on!’ The principle of the series will be expressible in a formula: yet it is not, says Wittgenstein, that ‘a formula occurs to [the observer]’ when the observer successfully continues the series. Understanding is not in that sense a ‘mental process,’ the summoning up of a key principle by conscious thought, it is the skill or confidence to go on, to follow the series through: a skill in the exercise of a habit, if you like. It is as Wittgenstein goes on to argue, like the experience of reading. We don’t apply a procedure in our minds, a series of operations that allows us to move from seeing a sign to making a noise or at least imagining making a noise; we simply exercise a skill, closer to knowing how to ride a bicycle than performing a calculation.” Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words (2016) 68-69

Epigram: Epitaph of Skythinos, a Village School Teacher


My name is Skythinos, not the author

of Herakleitos Commentaries

but just one epigram. I wrote it while

at school and Plato saw it and kicked me out.

It was in praise of Beauty, origin

of mind. It sealed my fate. I tutored children

in this village and died a pauper. Do not pity

me; flowers grow here all year round.



Haiku: Time’s leaping into being

Time is mortal. It is perhaps the most mortal “thing” — the essence of mortality.  But in a particularly dense and poetic passage, Desmond speaks of the origin of time: “The ecstasy of time is time’s own ecstasy, but as given from the origin, it is also a rejoicing with the origin which leaps in its leaping . . .” (God and the Between 297).

eternity loves time

my cat toys with his old toy

a fine pas de deux


NOTES Other possible sections:  time’s ecstacy ,  time flows in time . . .

%d bloggers like this: