Rethink.

Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

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Suji Kwock Kim, “Rice-Field Road at Dusk”

Rice-Field Road at Dusk (from Poetry)
Suji Kwock Kim

After Ko Un

In the village it’s the season of dried grass,
the smell of burned dirt,
gaslight glinting through blackened stubble.
I walk home across the rice-fields,
brushing insects away from my face,
remembering old Namdong who was buried yesterday.
What does death ask of us?
I must change whatever it was I was
when the old man was alive.
I keep looking at the rice-fields, glinting in the dark.
Blasted by mildew, more withered than last year —
how much work and love it must have taken.
In autumn, no matter how bad the harvest,
how big the debts —
no thought of leaving here, no thought of rest.
As life goes on, time isn’t the largest thing to think of,
it’s the smallest.
Growing, going
in drought or monsoon, mold or blight —
what is the rice if not alive?

Comment:

Autumn tastes bitter (“smell of burned dirt”), appearing both burned (“blackened stubble”) and bright (“gaslight”). The scene consists of a certain poverty, but our narrator welcomes every detail, even the distraction of brushing insects away from his face. He wants to remember old Namdong, buried yesterday. His walk away is a walk toward, prompting this reflection:

What does death ask of us?
I must change whatever it was I was
when the old man was alive.

On the one hand, changing oneself because of the death of another makes perfect sense. The only true tribute to another involves a radical rededication of one’s life. On the other hand, this is insane. The dead took no pleasure in who we were when alive? Is the present nothing but obedience to the past?

No resolution exists to this dilemma; our narrator meditates on the work in the fields. “Glinting in the dark,” the fields are the strange mixture of good/bad, valued/worthless, beautiful/ugly, soul/body which is life and living. They are attacked by nature (“blasted by mildew”), nurtured by what is thought natural in man (“how much work and love it must have taken”). What is thought natural is indefatigable: no bad results alone break us (“bad…harvest,” “debts”). We make and uphold our way of life. We make our lives with our lives. This shrinks time – maybe a change has to be made, maybe it doesn’t. What ultimately matters is a kinship with the rice. In taking care of each other, bound by love to the land, there is endurance.

Ted Kooser, “Snow Fence”

Snow Fence (from Sure Signs)
Ted Kooser

The red fence
takes the cold trail
north; no meat
on its ribs,
but neither has it
much to carry.

Comment:

Decay can be an object all its own, but is most recognizable with a bold, sturdy object as its victim (“red fence”). The red fence marks the landscape – shows a trail, a way, even. Still, it is worn, thinned by snow and water and cold.

Which begs the question: how can snow, water, cold be so injurious a burden? A fence stands in all sorts of other weather. How does an emaciated fence come about? On a parallel note, why do we punish ourselves over seemingly insignificant things? How do we allow ice to form, why are we weathered by its melting?

Emily Dickinson, “Life, and Death, and Giants” (706)

“Life, and Death, and Giants” (706)
Emily Dickinson

Life, and Death, and Giants —
Such as These — are still —
Minor — Apparatus — Hopper of the Mill —
Beetle at the Candle —
Or a Fife’s Fame —
Maintain — by Accident that they proclaim —

Comment:

“Life,” “Death,” and “Giants” are motionless? Dickinson proclaims “Such as these – are still.” They are concepts, larger than the everyday life we wake into, move about in, die. “Giants” provide additional color to “Life” and “Death.” These are each literary concepts, essential to our myth-making and self-reflection, and they are purposely inflated. “Giants” implies that they are not the only inflated thing.

What is not inflated involves movement:

Minor — Apparatus — Hopper of the Mill —
Beetle at the Candle —
Or a Fife’s Fame —

Only the “Beetle at the Candle” is a living organism. A hopper is a minor apparatus, an inverted cone which reduces grain. A “fife’s fame” are musical notes which disappear as soon as they’re sounded. Dickinson brings our attention to the most significant problem with life, death, and giants: their attempt to be bigger than time itself. What’s left of the past has been processed like grain. Grasping the present is like being a beetle both enchanted and wary of a flame. The future, like music, depends on remembrance. Every further note depends on the consciousness of what came before.

These three things “maintain by accident that they proclaim.” Time itself, unlike the constructs life, death, and giants, does not proclaim anything. It does not always allow more serious events and personages to speak. Yet, some of them do, and a thinker more attentive to things in time, a writer who has purposefully made herself small, maintains an actual grasp on living. Whereas to sound off on the largest things without any sense of experience is to tell a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Basho, “Seek on high bare trails…”

Seek on high bare trails…
Basho (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

Seek on high bare trails
sky-reflecting violets…
mountain-top jewels

Comment:

Wandering constantly, sometimes aimlessly and exhausted, one begins to resemble the landscape (“high bare trails”). Balding, in thinner air, one pushes oneself to move upward (“seek”).

For what should you yearn on those “high bare trails?” “Sky-reflecting violets… mountain-top jewels.” The violets must reflect the sky, as there is nothing else there. Moreover, the violets are jewels because of where they are; violets in a field may not have the same significance. These considerations imply the relative character of wisdom for our lives. If one wanders seeking some higher truth, meaning, useful principle which makes life better or reconciles one to it, this is what one gets. To be sure, Basho is not cynical about the journey, the effort, the “mountain-top jewels.” Those violets still reflect the sky. A wiser life is a blessed life; the violets reflect the sky’s purity.

Seamus Heaney, Autobiography, and the Themes of Political Philosophy

for L.

1. I hate titles like these, as they pinpoint one an academic and are of no interest to anyone who is a real person. Yes, that means if you chose to read this because of the title, you need to get a life. Here’s a helpful link to get you started.

Nonetheless, I am in a terrible position to accuse anyone. I am an awful writer because I think I know what I am doing. This awful title, I guess, means to serve a purpose beyond keyword search.

By contrast, Seamus Heaney is a very good writer who certainly knows what he is doing. His command of every syllable lends itself to a style I can only render “solid.” Few or no passive verbs, let alone verbs of being. Nouns which resound with earthiness, with specificity. To know life is to know individuals, to see things.

That last sentence requires some elaboration. Appropriately, let us turn to Heaney’s Seeing Things, an autobiographical selection of poems. “1.1.87” sets the tone:

Dangerous pavements.
But I face the ice this year
With my father’s stick.

Like all normal people, I do not want to think about my parents dying. I expect to be sobbing uncontrollably for 20-30 years if such a thing should happen. Yet, here’s a statement that great grief can become resolve, that someone’s legacy can guide in life as you forge ahead. It is hard to imagine a more fitting, natural tribute to one’s father. Heaney dwells upon the weightiest objects, ones which can break us in an eye-blink. That the past can be harnessed for the future can only be known, I suspect, through certain people.

2. However, the harnessing of the past for power is the heart of political life. The oldest is the best; such an appeal unites God and country in our minds as it has for all those who have come before. Whether we defend or attack a specific convention, we do so in the name of a great authority, the true founder of our society or morals. I realize I am speaking in an airy, remote manner. More concretely: to preserve convention the Greeks assembled to take Troy. The conditions at sea were rough, and they could not set out unless the gods were placated. Agamemnon sacrificed his own daughter to start the expedition and make war. To make war is to throw away the next generation, to declare the present more important than the future. Heaney sees this clearly reflecting on the soldiers being driven around Northern Ireland in “Squarings,” xxvi:

Only to come up, year after year, behind
Those open-ended, canvas-covered trucks
Full of soldiers sitting cramped and staunch,

Their hands round gun-barrels, their gaze abroad
In dreams out of the body-heated metal.
Silent, time-proofed, keeping an even distance

Beyond the windscreen glass, carried ahead
On the phantasmal flow-back of the road,
They still mean business in the here and now.

So draw no attention, steer and concentrate
On the space that flees between like a speeded-up
Meltdown of souls from the straw-flecked ice of hell.

On the one hand, there’s the flimsiness of human making on those trucks holding the soldiers: “open-ended, canvas-covered.” Amazing any kind of spiritual comfort attends the soldiers, for the trucks cannot even provide physical comfort. They sit there “cramped and staunch.”

Yet conventionality is so thorough it dictates to most what courage is. It protects us from vulnerability, giving incredible power, turning flesh into metal, founding an island of the “here and now” against the flux of time:

Their hands round gun-barrels, their gaze abroad
In dreams out of the body-heated metal.
Silent, time-proofed, keeping an even distance

Beyond the windscreen glass, carried ahead
On the phantasmal flow-back of the road,
They still mean business in the here and now.

Heaney reacts to being behind this truck instinctually, fear and anger mixed:

So draw no attention, steer and concentrate
On the space that flees between like a speeded-up
Meltdown of souls from the straw-flecked ice of hell.

No true separation exists between him and the violence, as the space between them is violence itself. If one tries to pride oneself on not being a soldier, then one proclaims oneself more human than the mass of humanity, humanity itself. “Arms and the man” is a truth Virgil himself sung and resented.

3. Autobiography makes itself manifestly necessary in regard to political things. This is not to restate the banality that good citizens can articulate their own interest. Nor do autobiographical accounts merely serve as anecdotes to so-called “higher” debates. One such debate was outlined by Christopher Bruell when discussing the original meaning of political philosophy. Nowadays, most scholars hold that political science cannot “provide rational guidance as to what is good and just in politics.” Some, however, hold out hope for “normative political guidance” while deferring to “science as the only unquestioned authority of our age” (Bruell 91). Autobiography neatly sidesteps the question of how powerful or limited reason in general is. It embraces limits in order to simply express experience. That alone, it turns out, is task enough.

The space between his car and the truck of the soldiers echoes another space. Heaney, toward the end of the “Squarings” sequence, meditates on how others have been captivated by lands beyond. They had a definition for simply looking out into nothingness. “Squarings,” xlvii:

The visible sea at a distance from the shore
Or beyond the anchoring grounds
Was called the offing.

“Offing” feels where you can only see, never stand. Perpetual frontier, exploration, freedom. For our speaker, and perhaps for all those who previously forged ahead, the “offing” either attracts through its emptiness, or lures even more powerfully through its mere possibility:

The emptier it stood, the more compelled
The eye that scanned it.
But once you turned your back on it, your back

Was suddenly all eyes like Argus’s.

The possibility of possibility lures, but to what? What do we want? He sees soldiers again, the flicker of angelic order:

Then, when you’d look again, the offing felt
Untrespassed still, and yet somehow vacated

As if a lambent troop that exercised
On the borders of your vision had withdrawn
Behind the skyline to manoeuvre and regroup.

What I would expect, looking out at the offing, would be a patch of greenness, or maybe a number of flickering, momentary spirits. Heaney imagines nothing less than the cherubim, the perpetual loss of Eden. Those are hopes out there, and because they are hopes, they are losses all the same.

The offing brings us back to ideas with which one might be familiar in political philosophy. The martial imagery cannot be excised, but it can be transcended. The world may always be at war, but one can be at peace. This sounds like a rejection of the world, but is in fact a return to it. “Squarings,” xlviii:

Strange how things in the offing, once they’re sensed,
Convert to things foreknown;
And how what’s come upon is manifest

Only in light of what has been gone through.
Seventh heaven may be
The whole truth of a sixth sense come to pass.

At any rate, when light breaks over me
The way it did on the road beyond Coleraine
Where wind got saltier, the sky more hurried

And silver lamé shivered on the Bann
Out in mid-channel between the painted poles,
That day I’ll be in step with what escaped me.

No immediate solution to human ills resides in the offing. The conversion “to things foreknown” is the sense of knowing one’s own age and destiny. “What’s come upon is manifest only in light of what has been gone through.” That sense does not constitute a reversal of course, necessarily. It is a vision which allows sight of how one’s life does or doesn’t make sense. The examined life, examined in the terms others meant, gives us back a natural way. One takes a solitary walk, but no one would say the above narrator is lonely. Man as a social, speaking animal can be thought a hypothesis, or someone worth working toward.

References

Bruell, Christopher. “On the Original Meaning of Political Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato’s Lovers.” In The Roots of Political Philosophy: Ten Forgotten Socratic Dialogues, ed. Thomas Pangle, 91-110. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Heaney, Seamus. Seeing Things. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991.

Yosa Buson, “The old fisherman”

The old fisherman
Yosa Buson (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

The old fisherman
unalterably intent…
cold evening rain

Comment:

An aged, withered fisherman, his desire turned into habit into obsessive, otherworldly focus, is image enough. “Unalterably intent” describes the fisherman’s gaze and behavior perfectly. Why bother with “cold evening rain?” After all, it threatens to make the image comically pathetic. What if he catches no fish? Or struggles to respond to a bite?

But Buson is himself out in the cold, evening rain. To observe and think and reflect are fishing in the dark, too. Only, if the fisherman gets a fish, he has food or money or an actual good. Prior to poetry, attentiveness to being human produces nothing, and a few beautifully wrought syllables are a questionable good.

Which brings us back to the combination of intensity and depression characterizing the fisherman. It sounds like a lot of times we’d rather forget. Pining over someone pointlessly, lingering in memory over one’s own story being more cause than effect. I wonder if Buson is wondering whether we have to become a bit embittered as we grow older. Bitter, more precisely, because we hope to mean something.

Seamus Heaney, “The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii)

triptych, central panel

“The annals say…” (Squarings: Lightenings viii, in Poetry)
Seamus Heaney

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.

Comment:

A supernatural happening. Monks in prayer, visited by a ship flying, but for an anchor. The crewman sailing it wishes to be free. The monks obediently release him, told by their abbot he will otherwise drown.

Grief tells what is necessary. Fear almost acts the same, showing at least the destructive power of the imagination. Hope must exist, if only for the fact that a world drowning in sorrow may not always be so. The monks hope for a vision, a revelation. A ship appears, wondrous to them, the fulfillment of their longings?

The ship seems to have one crewman, normally floating above. The ship is the poetic imagination. I hasten to add that this is not a slap at belief. A divine order must translate into images; the anchor is the distance from us and those images. We could not believe without that distance.

What exactly is the value of belief? Here, its gentleness, its willingness to admit it is not knowledge. The abbot sees exactly what is happening. To make belief the literal fact of our world is to render it unintelligible, to destroy its value for everyone. What is marvellous for one sailing among truer images, perhaps a realm where all is revealed, is a realm where we can admit, perhaps even know, our ignorance.

Jane Kenyon, “Not Writing”

triptych, right panel

Not Writing (from Isak)
Jane Kenyon

A wasp rises to its papery
nest under the eaves
where it daubs

at the gray shape,
but seems unable
to enter its own house.

Comment:

Stuck, angered, frustrated. In periods of not writing, you savage yourself. Muddied prose, cliche ideas, absent organization: these things constitute a critical eye as well as conspire to close the mind’s eye. It feels as if you cannot enter your own brain, which may or may not resemble a wasp’s nest. If you could enter your brain, you would have produced some good, marvelous thing. Or, at the very least, feel a bit better about oneself.

All the same, creativity may have an existence independent of us. Fear of our own selves is a wasp that “daubs.” Does this mean representation turns self-consciousness into something more?

Kobayashi Issa, “Dew evaporates…”

triptych, left panel

Dew evaporates…
Kobayashi Issa (tr. Kenneth Yasuda)

On the death of his child

Dew evaporates
and all our world is dew…
so dear, so fresh, so fleeting

Comment:

His child dead, the grief deepens and transforms. Dew evaporates; the nights and mornings laden with it also disappear. He has to confront the daylight, live in a world uncognizant of his loss, his child. As beautiful as the everyday can be, it is unforgiving and forgetful. It shows no concern for its own emerging, even though “all our world is dew.” There are things we must mourn, as life does not exist without them. The dew is at once his grief, his child, the whole world: so dear, so fresh, so fleeting. It is amazing Issa could think in the face of such loss, that he could articulate a most necessary thought.

Kay Ryan, “Insult”

Insult (from Persimmon Tree)
Kay Ryan

Insult is injury
taken personally,
saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

We need insult to remind us
that we aren’t always just hurt,
that there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.

Comment:

“Insult is injury:” alone, a strong claim. Our emotional and mental well-being, perhaps our pride, is just as important as our physical well-being.

Immediately, a qualification. “Insult is injury / taken personally” introduces the more typical problem. What if we didn’t take injuries personally? Would we lessen our hurt in life, would we be stronger?

The poem begins to address those issues:

…saying, This is not
a random fracture
that would have happened
to any leg out there;
this was a conscious unkindness.

Ryan’s “Insult” speaks, and speaks weirdly. Not unjustifiably, we assume other people insult us. But other people may not be speaking these words. Perhaps they do think our specific legs deserved to break, which on one level is “insult,” sure. If such an idea rankles us, though, it does so because we are trapped in a cruel, bigoted climate where people can honestly believe their god hates others.

Maybe all insult, in a way, presupposes such a climate. “Insult,” speaking impersonally, is our perception, our reaction. One feels the universe against them, for in at least one case it empowered someone or something to cause harm to them alone.

These musings approach conspiracy theory. However, Ryan’s speaker realizes just how dangerous it is to posit that insult “is all in your head,” or some other dismissive tripe. If there is no insult, there is nothing capable of being insulted. That means we’re either gods, or we don’t exist:

We need insult to remind us
that we don’t always just hurt…

Insult reminds us that we’re real. We are not moral abstractions who cannot be injured. Degrees of hurt matter; that hurt can come from ourselves, another, or some part of society.

But what most questions our own reality, our own significance, is ourselves:

…there are some sources —
even in the self — parts of which
tread on other parts with such boldness
that we must say, You must stop this.

It’s not just in our head, but it’s up to us to stop it. That means in all cases making a decision, asserting ourselves against a part that wants to shut down or get obsessively angry. Maybe that means acting against the source of the insult external to ourselves. Still, first things first: we must show ourselves respect.

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