Saturday, April 23, 2016


Gentle readers, I beg your indulgence for the brevity of this post.  By way of explanation for the brevity, I must also beg you to indulge a brief foray into the personal.  First, nothing dire has occurred!  Rather, I am the grateful recipient of one of the many Modern Miracles of Medicine:  a hip replacement (right) as of this past Monday morning.

Given all that goes on in the world from moment to moment, I feel embarrassed for even having provided this information.  I consider myself both fortunate and coddled to live during a time, and in a place, in which such miracles are available.  I have nothing to complain about.  And I do not for a second take anything for granted.

     What a strange thing,
To be thus alive
     Beneath the cherry blossoms!

Issa (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 350.

Charles Ginner (1878-1952)
"Through a Cottage Window, Shipley, Sussex"

Everything is a matter of perspective.  A hip replacement amounts to absolutely nothing in this world of ours, but it does provide an occasion for perspective.

I can only feebly echo Patrick Kavanagh, who was a trillion times more entitled than I to feel gratitude after having dodged death by lung cancer in 1955.  Soon after, he wrote this:

                              The Hospital

A year ago I fell in love with the functional ward
Of a chest hospital:  square cubicles in a row,
Plain concrete, wash basins -- an art lover's woe,
Not counting how the fellow in the next bed snored.
But nothing whatever is by love debarred,
The common and banal her heat can know.
The corridor led to a stairway and below
Was the inexhaustible adventure of a gravelled yard.

This is what love does to things:  the Rialto Bridge,
The main gate that was bent by a heavy lorry,
The seat at the back of a shed that was a suntrap.
Naming these things is the love-act and its pledge;
For we must record love's mystery without claptrap,
Snatch out of time the passionate transitory.

Patrick Kavanagh, Come Dance with Kitty Stobling and Other Poems (Longmans 1960).  Kavanagh was a patient at the Rialto Hospital in Dublin in March and April of 1955.  The Rialto Bridge spans Dublin's Grand Canal, which Kavanagh walked along during his recovery period.

Charles Ginner, "Chrysanthemums" (1929)

As I have stated here in the past, I know nothing whatsoever about how to live.  But, as one ages, certain key themes begin to emerge, however thick-headed one might be.  This week, one word keeps returning to me: Gratitude.


That shining moon -- watched by that one faint star:
Sure now am I, beyond the fear of change,
The lovely in life is the familiar,
And only the lovelier for continuing strange.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).

Charles Ginner, "Plymouth Pier from the Hoe" (1923)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Some Trees Of Scotland And Japan

Trees are wonderful providers of perspective.  This past week, I have been preoccupied with various mundane errands and chores.  Then, a few days ago, I looked out into the backyard and noticed that the apple tree is now in full white bloom.  I thought to myself:  "When did that happen?  Where was I?"

             Message Taken

On a day of almost no wind,
I saw two leaves falling almost, not quite,
perpendicularly -- which
seemed natural.

When I got closer, I saw
the leaves on the tree were
slanted by that wind, were pointing
towards those that had fallen.

When I got closer than that, I saw
the leaves on the tree
were trembling.

And that seemed natural too.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Polygon 2009).

As I have noted in the past, I have no objection to anthropomorphism in poetry.  I am completely comfortable with the Pathetic Fallacy as well.  This is especially true when it comes to trees.  We humans need all the resources we can muster in our futile attempts to articulate the beauty of these wondrous beings.  And, thankfully, we will only ever scratch the surface.

Take a good look:
even the blossoms
of the old cherry seem sad --
how many more times
will they see the spring?

Saigyō (1118-1190) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home (Columbia University Press 1991), page 43.

Patrick Symons, "Oak Arch Grey (Wimbledon Common)" (1981)

Science?  Botany?  They are of no account in this matter of trees.  The poems by Norman MacCaig and Saigyō that appear in this post are all about individual trees, not about "the tree" as a concept.  I understand the human compulsion to "explain" how the natural world works, and to classify everything in it.  But part of me doesn't see the point.

I am more sympathetic with, for instance, the Shinto belief that particular trees are sacred because they are inhabited by, or serve as a portal for, spirits (kami).  Shimenawa (ropes made of rice straw) are wrapped around such trees in order to notify people that they are approaching a sacred space.

               Old Poet

The alder tree
shrivelled by the salt wind
has lived so long
it has carried and sheltered
its own weight
of nests.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

I have been acquainted with the apple tree in the backyard for nearly 21 years.  I don't know how old it is, since it was here when I arrived.  Some of its branches are now lichen-covered.  At times I imagine that it is feeling a bit weary.  But year after year, following the dark and soaking winter, its magnificent cloud of white appears.  Perspective.

A seedling pine in the garden
when I saw it long ago --
years have gone by
and now I hear the storm winds
roaring in its topmost branches.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 214.

Leslie Duncan, "Birchwood"

I received yet another gift earlier this week:  stepping outside the back door to open the mailbox, I suddenly smelled lilacs.  In addition to missing the blooming of the apple tree, I had also missed the blooming of the purple lilac tree that stands between two yew trees along the side of the yard.  Too much daydreaming and sleepwalking.

                  In Memoriam

On that stormy night
a top branch broke off
on the biggest tree in my garden.

It's still up there.  Though its leaves
are withered black among the green
the living branches
won't let it fall.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig (editor), The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

Paying attention seems simple, but it can be difficult to do in a distracting world.  The media and entertainment and political worlds have no interest whatsoever in repose, reflection, or serenity.  Their stock-in-trade is agitation, restlessness, and empty desire:  a grasping that never ends.  All of these trees around us have no part in those worlds.  They gently shake us by the shoulders and say:  Wake up!

In a tree that stands
on the crag
by abandoned paddies,
a dove calling to its companion
in the desolate twilight.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 154.

Walter Schofield, "Godolphin Pond in Autumn" (1940)

I harbor no illusions:  "beneath/[My] feet are implacable fate, and panic at night, and the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  That is not going to change.  But these trees that all of us come to know along the way provide perspective.  There is a certain reassurance in their yearly rise and fall. Constancy within constant change.

                  Rowan Berry

I'm at ease in my crimson cluster.
The tree blazes
with clusters of cousins --
my cluster's the main one and I
am the important berry in it.

Tomorrow, or tomorrow's tomorrow,
a flock of fieldfares
will gobble our whole generation.

I'm not troubled.  My seed
will be shamelessly dropped
somewhere.  And in the next years
after next year, I'll be a tree
swaying and swinging
with a genealogy of berries.  I'll be
that fine thing, an ancestor.
I'll spread out my branches
for the guzzling fieldfares.

Norman MacCaig, in Ewen McCaig, The Poems of Norman MacCaig.

At some point, the apple tree, the lilac tree, and I will all be gone.  This makes perfect sense.

         On Looking at the Pine
  that Stands in Front of My Hut

Live through the long years,
pine, and pray for me
in my next existence,
I who'll have no one
to visit the places I once was.

Saigyō (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Saigyō: Poems of a Mountain Home, page 184.

W. G. Poole, "Savernake Forest" (1939)

Friday, April 8, 2016

Staying Put

I suppose that most of us played this game as children:  close your eyes, spin the globe, and choose with a finger the exotic place to which you will travel in your future life.  As an inveterate daydreamer, I still play the game in my mind.  Thus, for instance, nearly every painting that I have ever posted here is one that I have walked into in my imagination.  I suppose there are worse habits and vices.

With these dubious credentials, I am not well-qualified to extol the virtues of staying put.  Nonetheless, that is what I intend to do.  Albeit with a fair amount of hemming and hawing.

     In my hut this spring,
There is nothing, --
     There is everything!

Sodō (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 34.

Dane Maw (1909-1989), "Scottish Landscape, Air Dubh"

Mind you, I do not wish to be thought of as a stick-in-the-mud or a curmudgeon.  I am as subject to wanderlust as the next person.  I concur with the old saw that "travel broadens the mind."  But Pascal's well-known pronouncement also comes to mind:  "I have often said, that all the Misfortune of Men proceeds from their not knowing how to keep themselves quiet in their Chamber."  Blaise Pascal, Pensées (translated by Joseph Walker) (1688).

                          Against Travel

These days are best when one goes nowhere,
The house a reservoir of quiet change,
The creak of furniture, the window panes
Brushed by the half-rhymes of activities
That do not quite declare what thing it was
Gave rise to them outside.  The colours, even,
Accord with the tenor of the day -- yes, 'grey'
You will hear reported of the weather,
But what a grey, in which the tinges hover,
About to catch, although they still hold back
The blaze that's in them should the sun appear,
And yet it does not.  Then the window pane
With a tremor of glass acknowledges
The distant boom of a departing plane.

Charles Tomlinson, Jubilation (Oxford University Press 1995).

The title "Against Travel" should be taken with a grain of salt:  Tomlinson travelled extensively during his life, and he wrote dozens of fine poems about the places that he visited (which included Italy, Greece, Portugal, Japan, Mexico, and various locations in the United States).  Yet, the poems of his which seem the most heartfelt and evocative are those in which he writes about his native England.  (Of course, other admirers of Tomlinson's poetry may disagree with this assessment.)

Eric Bray, "Allington, Dorset, from Victoria Grove" (1975)

Perhaps what I am circling around is the distinction between the living of an "extensive" or an "intensive" life that Hilaire Belloc makes in his essay "On Ely":

"Everybody knows that one can increase what one has of knowledge or of any other possession by going outwards and outwards; but what is also true, and what people know less, is that one can increase it by going inwards and inwards."

Hilaire Belloc, "On Ely," Hills and the Sea (1906), page 44.

In connection with travel, Belloc suggests that, either way, you will likely end up in much the same place:

"You may travel for the sake of great horizons, and travel all your life, and fill your memory with nothing but views from mountain-tops, and yet not have seen a tenth of the world.  Or you may spend your life upon the religious history of East Rutland, and plan the most enormous book upon it, and yet find that you have continually to excise and select from the growing mass of your material."

Hilaire Belloc, Ibid, page 45.

I have no answers.  On certain days, I feel that I ought to spend the remainder of my life immersed in, say, the four volumes of R. H. Blyth's Haiku or Thomas Hardy's Collected Poems.  There is more than enough in those books to fill a lifetime.  On the other hand, if someone I trust knocked on my door tonight and asked me to travel with them tomorrow to a village in the Carpathian Mountains or to one of the former cities of the Hanseatic League, I would be sorely tempted.

                         Angle of Vision

But, John, have you seen the world, said he,
Trains and tramcars and sixty-seaters,
Cities in lands across the sea --
Giotto's tower and the dome of St. Peter's?

No, but I've seen the arc of the earth,
From the Birsay shore, like the edge of a planet,
And the lifeboat plunge through the Pentland Firth
To a cosmic tide with the men that man it.

Robert Rendall, Shore Poems (Kirkwall Press 1957).

Myrtle Broome (1888-1978), "A Cornish Village"

The Siren song of an escape to paradise is nothing new.  The choice between views from mountain-tops and the religious history of East Rutland seems obvious.  But we mustn't be too hasty.

"More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all."

George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), pages 13-14.

Don't get me wrong:  we need to get out.  I'm not suggesting that we should hole up in a roomful of books.  But, in a world that encourages short attention spans and ephemeral desires, there is something to be said for staying in place.

     The Man from the Advertising Department

There's more to see
In the next field.
Not much here
But grass and daisies
And a gulley that lazes
Its way to the weir --
Oh there's much more to see
In the next field.

There are better folk
In the next street.
Nobody here
But much-of-a-muchness people:
The butcher, the blacksmith,
The auctioneer,
The man who mends the weathercock
When the lightning strikes the steeple --
But they're altogether a better class
In the next street.

There'll be more to do
In the next world.
Nothing here
But breathing fresh air,
Loving, shoving, moving around a bit,
Counting birthdays, forgetting them, giving
Your own little push to the spin of the earth;
It all amounts to
No more than living --
But by all accounts
There'll be more to do
And more to see
And VIP neighbours
In the next world.

Norman Nicholson, Collected Poems (Faber and Faber 1994).

William Peters Vannet, "Arbroath Harbour" (1940)

There is a restlessness that comes with being human.  There is also a natural tendency to think that something is missing in our life.  Hence the allure of movement, of travelling in search of paradise.

Is this an argument for staying put?  I don't know.  But perhaps this is where poetry, and art in general, come in.  They are not a substitute for life. Nor are they aesthetic trifles.  For all of their beautiful variety, their message is actually quite simple.  In one of our ears they whisper:  Pay attention.  In the other ear they gently remind us:  Time is short.

                          In the Same Space

The setting of houses, cafés, the neighborhood
that I've seen and walked through years on end:

I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.

And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), in C. P Cavafy, Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1975).

Bernard Ninnes (1899-1971), "Nancledra"