The Daily: 21 April 2023

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
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

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