I’m in the last third of the National Poetry Month challenge. This is when haiku and other forms of brevity start creeping in. I used to write quite a lot of these spare cut gems, but they start to lose their luster when tossed into the rule bin. Being a merry anarchist, I don’t go in for rules, but I also feel like rules tend to get in the way of expression. Or at least make that expression too uniform. There is no room for outside voices like mine and, really, like most people who write, because the rules are made by the academics and other self-described experts, most of whom are of a very limited demographic.
So I lost interest and went on to other forms. But when there are daily deadlines, then the old impulse to spear a few perfect words together and hurl that into the world actually makes practical sense. It also doesn’t take much to read and enjoy brevity, though a good one has depths that can be savored over many readings. I suppose that is true of all poetry, but the fewer the words, the more impressive the trick of occult layering. Here is an example from last week:
wave breaking surface reaching after sunlit skies then inward turning quiet curling senescence to meld once more into all
This is a Japanese death poem, a form called tanka. It dances around ephemerality, what we call ‘the human condition’ but which is probably more accurately called ‘living’. Or time.
Here is another form of brevity:
the kelpie donned hooves under rising pearl moon for pure ecstasy of sprinting on sand lungs pregnant with the wind joyful splashing through surf fierce thunder in her wake for but this night, she is free to dance… and in the morn, she’ll away to the deeps
This snippet is like the tiny fantasies that can be found in illuminated texts, particularly in the margins. Bored copywriting monks dipping into a world of magic and metaphor. I empathize with them. Imagine spending day after day squinting in bad light and trying to coax dry text out of wayward but very expensive paper, quill and inks, never to write what is in your own head, your own words. Some of the most intriguing writing — the clearest windows onto time — comes from those little snippets of writerly frustration that slant off to the edges. Some even come with doodles. Few have any relevance to the official text. These are the carefully tended rubber-band balls of the early medieval cleric set. Who, it must be noted, were nearly all young men, many of whom did not choose their regimented and cloistered life of monotonous scribing.
But since I have a lot to say, on average, there have been more verbose writings also. Here are two that I like.
the sheltering forevers
and they built sheltering forevers where they might trip among cloud towers shedding flesh, fingers, bone, blood rejecting the confusion of viscera for the purity of negation ego unconstrained by mortal matter they whispered words of comfort imagining insurmountable gates of pearl to maintain division of royal we from the faceless in world-ending finality they sang of feathered spirits in their terror of eternity aged beings divorced from being and change no body to tend no skin to degrade no tooth or nail or broken limb to pass hence they say for fear of dying old virility spent long before the last day smooth youth wizened into a palimpsest of past days no relief from mirrors and the utter disregard from beauty yet they scorn the gifts of maturity knowing, equanimity, peace, wisdom which never did impress in life but look to recaptured youth in these eternal halls the ephemeral frozen in rictus grin but validation in every other changeless eye and they will live eternal in stasis before admitting the truth of time that gods are decrepit old men however we paint brawn under white beards give us the harps and hierarchies of heavenly bodies for this we comprehend they say so shall we always be as we dream wanted… for hell is dismissal just when you finally understand the body’s being
the noah plan
and it came to pass that the seal should be broken signs and omens, bird flight and entrails all betokening the fall like leaves before the squall the people were scattered and confounded trailing fears both true and unfounded shedding tears for the lost all the being that paid dear cost of being near in our time of tumult and the pure opened the book seeking ancestral ways the devious paths they took to delay dying days defray dire penalties of avarice, want, mistaken virtue awakening the eidolon in machine language build a boat the gods decreed if from flood and famine you would be freed provision hearts with home and hearth on the wing take two of each needful thing of beauty seven and heaven will bless the springing this sailing fortress bringing the chosen closer to god but two moons will govern the time and all that was will be forsaken body, desire, change, fire floating free of the frenzy wrought in your name this stain on creation this nation of waste your chaste belief upraising on airy pennons of angels leaving to die all those who failed to fly the wretched birth of this soiled earth
This second poem was inspired by an All Poetry prompt that gave a list of song titles from Peter Shilling’s new wave opera album, ‘Major Tom’, and asked that we compose poems to go under those titles. I spent a bit of time on YouTube remembering Shilling’s music (and listening to other blasts from my young adult past). I was forcibly struck by how coldly un-earthed Shilling was. The title song is about ‘escaping Earth’ into space. There is no sense that he felt that this was a death.
I have found similar delusions in those who claim that humans can escape mortality by ‘uploading’ themselves into digital space. These ideas reveal a marked revulsion for the body and other forms of dependency. In these strange fables, we become our most pure selves when we are yanked out of our material forms. Even stranger, there seem to be perfect bodies waiting in deep or digital space to clothe our newly liberated energetic spirits in eternal material youth without the limitations of feeding and procreating.
I’ve never believed in a pure spirit. I don’t believe in purity, per se, but I also don’t think there is any cause to believe in a being that is not created, nurtured and housed in the community of a matter-based organism. And all those organisms break down in time, to be reorganized into new beings. When that happens, the notions of self-hood, the I-Thou relationships, the memories and experiences that define the organism, all break down. I am rather non-dualist in that I don’t believe there is a self independent of a specific material incarnation and that not much survives of that self when matter breaks down and re-assimilates into new beings — though I’m not so strict on my material philosophy as to believe there is no spirit nor that some elements of experience might be preserved in a new being. Humans do seem to be able to feel bodily flight… that had to come from somewhere…
But in any case, I find stories like ‘Major Tom’ to be suicidal. There is no Major Tom once he cuts his life-lines to Earth. Similarly, I don’t think there is anything to upload into digital space. Memories and other forms of self-definition are not stored in our brains like bits on data chips. At any given moment there isn’t much in the brain at all, certainly not the everything that makes up a person. Everything in our bodies is relational, referential, experiential. There is no me up there to download. I am all of this organism working together. My experiences are felt and lived. Memories are physical states in the whole body — not just the brain — that are triggered by relationship to something that has happened to this body in the past. Hopes and dreams are projections of my lived experience into a time that has not yet happened. None of it has any sense or context without a sensual and contextualized body.
So listening to ‘The Noah Plan’, a chilling and deeply fascist tale of the chosen few abandoning Earth, sort of blew a gasket. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so casually accepting of allowing the wealthy to take off for the stars, leaving the masses to cope with all the destruction those wealthy have left behind. That I don’t believe there is a stars to take off to, that those who get into rockets are heading off to certain annihilation (I mean, it takes a lifetime merely to travel our solar system which does not notably contain any other inhabitable spaces for humanity but Earth), does not make this story any more just or right. Hence, the poem above…
Anyway, tomorrow is Earth Day! Please, live it! I will be in my Jungle, creating food webs for the future.
©Elizabeth Anker 2023
1 thought on “The Daily: 21 April 2023”
A fascinating read!
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