Teacher

Fountain Reflected in Ice, Boston Public Garden, taken by Me, Feb 8, 2022

I am savoring Jane Hirshfield’s most recent poetry book Ledger

She is my idol. No one has better guided me through how poems work and what they can do. Her own poetry, for me, combines creative precision of language and air-in-winter-clarity-fed-by-Buddhist-sensibility.  What do I mean by “creative precision”? Hirshfield knows where the expected and the unexpected need to go, and what is just enough. 

I’ve also met her. I have. One of the two hands typing this has been held inside her two hands that she writes with. It really has.

She has translated women’s poetry from the ancient court of Japan. These poets often used the form of waka or tanka, a five-line poem that has 5-7-5-7-7 for syllables, as if a haiku got two extra lines. Centuries ago, the language of educated men in Japan was Chinese, as Greek and Latin were for educated English-speaking men in the past. Often it was women, writing poems that were part of the practice of their courtly love lives, that kept Japanese poetry evolving.

I love these forms as a reader and writer. I used to dig my heels into the challenge of sticking to the syllable count and still getting something expressed. More recently, I practice these forms as many other writers of English do, pursuing the spirit of the form instead of the exactness of the numbers. For me, that is a practice of writing from somewhere that is not my intellect, definitely a change from the past.

That being said, I have published examples of these forms with correct numbers, work I’m proud of. I can do it. I just don’t want to. The simplicity and moments of presence in these tiny poems are more fulfilling than making a puzzle of their syllables. 

I wrote a series of tanka dedicated to Jane Hirshfield, and now I am revising them without the syllable counts, but with more…well, both honesty and ambiguity. The ways those two forces work together in language, and support each other, currently has my attention. Reality is full of ambiguity to be reported honestly. Honesty is sometimes accomplished through being ambiguous. 

Here is the current draft of what used to be the by-the-number poems, opened up. I kept the form for the third stanza, but elsewhere I let it go.

Teacher
	for Jane Hirshfield

Precise hand
print from ancient Japan:
The deep drifts
of garment in the open
space, her room. Woman

writing to a lover
past sunrise, poems
that tell, that keep. This,
their way of moments,
of tristesse and breath. 

First five syllables,
seven, five, seven, seven.
In addition, may 
I reveal what I desire?
The first time. Are not all times

the snowfall yesterday,
your papers freshly dust?
Almost the picture, Lady
Teacher, write with me. Let’s
call them from the blankness.

Burn

There are books I read every few years. Do you have such books? I circle slowly back around to them like the orbit of Neptune because I’ve noticed interesting change between the first and second, and subsequent, readings.

Some books, read again, reflected back a new (older) reader with different responses. That helped me know my mind and sense of language better, as well as opening the vista a good piece of Art is.

Sometimes I return to writing of my own with the changed perspective of time. I understand them differently. Even the way I want specific words to communicate has changed

This poem started with a round burn on my hand got not long after noticing a small, dark rose in falling snow; it bloomed late, into a tight knot of petals, ready to face winter. The poem slid around on those two images, sort of a narrative about my own observations.

Buddhism likes to say…well, Buddha said….the world is burning. Our senses are burning. This simple, complex statement has to do with the nature of the world and our attachments to things. It’s a wake-up call about how easily we make ourselves suffer. It’s also now a new layer of the word “burn” for me, and there it is.

So what happens when I go back to this poem? The actual hand burn once got lifted into something higher through the image of the rose. Now my hand provides the poem with the metaphorical Buddhist burning the real rose can’t escape. Once the burn “bloomed” like the rose, and now the rose is burning. (If I’m not careful, I will justify the false impression that exists in the world that Buddhism is a real downer.)

The poem before was imagining connections, and I feel as if now it’s reporting a real connection I finally paid attention to. I have another “thinky” poem that is struggling to go in exactly the opposite direction and soak its reporting in imagination, to revel in imagined connections. My smile at this knowledge of my own tangled Creativity is both wry and satisfied.

 
 Burn
  
 The stove’s sharp blue heat
 invaded the pot handle
 you grasped without attention.
  
 The burn asserts itself
 like the red fist of a rose
 opened late, defying snowfall.
  
 Take note. The earth insists.
 The undulation of your palm
 has always resembled a drift,
  
 snow crept upon by claws
 of sunset, bloody hue under bare branches.
 There have always been things on fire.
  
 The body burns to say it. So
 your same grasping hand sets
 it down, sears white paper darker.
  
  
   

Winter Trees II, the Lost Partner

lost little tree alas

Small sidewalk trees on my busy street have it tough. There’s exhaust, the sides of buses, noise, windy storms that stampede up from the harbor, and the occasional drunk college student. I appreciate them and their stamina when I wait for the bus, when buds are appearing, or foliage is saturating a patch of my day. The bare winter branches have their own relationship to varying sky color and the streetlights and also inspire me.

The newest, a little ginkgo with fan-shaped leaves, became a favorite. The fans fluttered a snap-pea green that turned into lemon yellow in autumn. Its knobby branches with their rapier attitude enticed out the phone camera, and made me want to learn calligraphy and ink arts.

Alas. A recent storm’s gusts half-strangled me in my own scarf, and the next trip to the bus stop…alas. Only a thin stump left, looking gnawed. A yoga teacher used to remind us that every pose we do we also undo, that the force that creates also destroys, in its rolling loop. The wind catches words like “Stay” and “Mine” and whips them out of sight.  But there was no such philosophy at the bus stop. Just damp eyes.

It is what it is.  Being attached to a source of creative inspiration equals waiting for it to disappear, or knowing it will be there when you yourself are gone. Trees and I strive on.

Winter Trees I

Comm 1Comm 2Tree Lights 1

Boston, like many cities, has malls, and in ours, “stuffed lobster” can be either a cuddly red toy or your dinner. Moving on…

It also has The Mall, in the old-fashioned sense of a shady promenade, with benches, statues, and a central path flanked by trees, running up the middle of An Avenue of Note. Those it was originally designed to delight lived in Gilded Age urban mansions and townhouses.

In winter, the two rows of trees are wrapped in white lights, an eye-feast whether you’re looking up into branches or down at block after block of bright shapes. In the late winter twilight, they glow with a windy softness, like a field of fireflies. In the black dark of a clear winter night, they are fierce.

People chose creatively where to drape, what to wrap. There’s a sense of people seeing each tree’s individuality, the result of species, weather, angles of light, and the large, slow patterns of the Universe’s Creativity.

They’ll be shut off soon for the season, and leaves will take over from the lights as a different multitude, and everything will change.

Tree Pose

bc trees

I’ve mentioned my grandmother before. She was an  outdoorsy young person, even though she grew up poor on the Lower East Side. Dealing with life, I think she found her comfort in Nature.  In the pictures I have of her as a young woman, she’s wearing a bathing suit with stockings, or hiking shorts and hat atop a mountain.

A story I consider central to my life is the one she often told of the friend who said to her dismissively, “You see one tree, you’ve seen them all.” And that, Gram would always finish, was the Saddest Thing she had ever heard anybody say. I have a passion  the sight of trees, in all seasons. Because I’ve just never known otherwise; I’m fortunate in that way.

So this week I was listening to the On Being interview with artist Maira Kalman. She and host Krista Tippett had this exchange:

Ms. Tippett: Here’s another line of yours I love: “We see trees. What more do we need?”

Ms. Kalman: That’s really true….And so walking and looking at trees really is one of the glories of the world, and we say, “Rejoice,” when we see these things.

Well, yeah.

But a Buddhist teacher I once read explained that we don’t actually look at a tree. We look at ourselves looking at a tree. I bristled at that statement because, hell, I knew how to Look at Trees. But when I really got that he was right, experienced that as true, and my ego died one more death, I learned a lot.

I take many pictures of trees, even though they are surely still pictures of my own Looking: my sense of, and Need for, the world’s Creativity. That is OK. Trees are patient, and waiting, and I’m taking one human step at a time with the intention to see them.

My image is from Dec 24, 2018, on Boston Common.

Nose to Wall

 

Photographer Minor White told his students, including John Daido Loori who records the instructions in The Zen of Creativity, to “Venture into the landscape without expectations. Let your subject find you.”

I was actually waiting for the bus.  Behind the stop stretches a tall brick wall coated with ivy, Van Gogh-palette-knife-thick. All summer it spread and shone, and waggled in the street wind like nodding fox heads. I enjoy photographing the same places at different times, so waiting by the wall presented an opportunity.

I kept taking pictures of the Ivy Wall. I kept deleting pictures of the Ivy Wall. I really didn’t like the Ivy Wall. First, brick orange is not my favorite color, and the ivy was mostly a shade of green I would never want with it. Sorry, 1970s, no offense. From a distance, wide swathes of an unattractive color combination. Closer, the large, reptilian leaves that often looked Monstrous later.

It became a frustrating challenge. It didn’t matter, of course: I’m not any type of photographer except for pleasure, and to remember impressions I might want to write about. I thought about White’s advice sometimes, and hoped that if I kept trying, it might happen. I was not being quite Nobly Creative, but I was being stuck there with bags of groceries.

These cold days, the ivy is gone, and still, brown veins thread and tangle along the wall. But I love the forms of things in minimal winter, and I went over. And things kept pulling my eyes closer and closer. It felt as if the photos had just been waiting underneath all summer. How wonderful to see moss in the mortar, tiny oval yellow leaves that wind had tucked behind the vines, and the weary fruit and plant bits left behind.

I like details, forms, and shadows, things that feel like “moments” of space or color. I have no real idea how to take pictures. These photos record enjoying the Looking, and experiencing that, Hey, my subject did Find me at last. That’s a Creative lesson worth considering.

What I want to say about it is best summed up by John Daido Loori:

 I headed back to the school, for an appointment I had with Minor to discuss my work…

He looked at me and said, “You had a good day, didn’t you?” I smiled, and he smiled, too.

“What would you like to talk about?” he asked.

“Honestly,” I said, “I don’t have anything to say.”

“Good,” he replied. “Then let’s just sit here together.”