Jisei

I have been re-reading a lovely anthology called Japanese Death Poems, edited by Yoel Hoffman. I purchased this book years ago when I was immersed in the study of haiku, haibun, and the early Chinese poetry forms and approaches that influenced many Japanese poets. Hoffman’s book offers excellent examples of jisei (poems composed near the moment of death) and his informational text places the poems in the context of various cultural, economic, power, and belief structures.

For a person raised in a contemporary western culture, the concept of death as a constant partner in our consciousness seems–while perhaps obvious–rather uncomfortable. We are not likely to approach our deaths with a sense of acceptance, let alone friendly understanding: “This is how it is.” But the death poems, as I read them, suggest that while death is universal, each person’s awareness of it is unique, even among people in the same culture who may hold similar beliefs.

Jisei intrigue curious folk, because death is A Big Thing to Be Curious About. Digital photographer Hank Frentz, a young artist who’s been inspired by Hoffman’s collection of jisei, has posted a series of mysterious and beautiful photos paired with the death poems, a sample of which can be viewed here. Please follow the link, as his photographs seem to me to be aesthetically and “spiritually” close to the poems he chooses, creating a kind of haiga (俳画) effect.

~~

 

I have also been revisiting Earl Miner’s translation of Shiki’s brief verse diary, “The Verse Record of My Peonies.” Written in 1899, when Shiki was suffering agonizing pain from spinal tuberculosis (he died in 1902 at the age of 35), the haiku and the prose of the diary recommend the reader to an understanding of physical pain, uncertainty–will I live, or die?–and humor, friendship, grieving. The diary is as layered as a peony blossom; each time I read it, I find something new to contemplate in its few pages: joy, aesthetics, nature, the human body, the solace of friendship and the isolation of illness, the nearness of death, the challenge of uncertainty, the many ways poetry can supply a place or grounding for a person struggling with ambiguities.

Two flakes fall
and the shape of the peonies
is wholly changed.

[tr. Earl Miner]

 

Composer Libby Larson has used Shiki’s verse diary as a text basis for a 7-minute composition for voice available here.

 

 

The skill of grieving

In a recent post, Sigrun of the blog sub rosa pointed me to Poetry Society of America’s page on Natalie Diaz; I’m even going to post the same paragraph she does, in which Diaz states:

When I write, I bring all of my truths, even the Judas-truths that make me feel like the betrayer whose dirty hands are resting on the table for everyone to see, including God. For me, writing is less a declaration of those truths than it is my interrogation of them. Uncovering the darkness in me that led to some of the poems about my brother also lights up the hard, bright way in which I love him and the small wars I wage to win him back…the truths that have built in me a strength and compassion that help me to survive this world. Truth is that little animal we chase and chase until we suddenly glance over our shoulder and realize it has been chasing us all along.

This passage about “uncovering the darkness” and the hard ways in which we sometimes love–maybe with some people, there is no other way to love–interestingly coincides with my recent reading of Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, a manifesto on how we die and how we might die better (wiser) if we carried our darkness better, as Diaz suggests in the passage above. While I am reading Jenkinson for specific reasons around end-of-life concerns, there’s no doubt that there is often poetry in his philosophy that we need to learn the skill of how to grieve and to learn all that such a skill contains, including its “Judas-truths” and its unflinching confrontation with the ways in which death is a gift to us collectively and individually.

Most of us do not see death as any kind of gift, and Jenkinson admits it can be a challenging perspective; he endeavors to persuade the mostly-American or European reader that each of us and each of our societies or cultures would benefit by reclaiming death as a natural sequence in our being in the world.

Claiming or reclaiming death (you might read here: darkness), says Jenkinson, requires us to face the fact that we have no language for dying, not really. He says “we are taught almost nothing about what language to use or why when we are trained for the job [of tending to the dying].” The Dying, he writes, are “them,” meaning they are “not us.” Which makes them outsiders and invisible and yet all of us die; we are all of us dying–and we work so hard to distance ourselves from the fact.

Poetry is a language that, I think, sometimes guides us toward the hard truths, when poetry is well-made and conflicting and sundered with surprise. Poetry isn’t the language that gets us to dying, exactly; but it can do some of the hard work of teaching us how to grieve.

This is not to say that poets or artists are any better at dying than the rest of us. Sometimes the darkness uncovered in the fiction or poem or painting is true and authentic and deep, but the artist does the grief-working well in art and not so well in life’s physical dying process. Artists who choose suicide may be people who suffer pain and can express it artistically without actually learning the work of grief, which differs from suffering. If we learn that anything that does not last forever is meaningless (an idea drummed into many of us through the concept of “eternal life”), we are apt to feel bereft at every loss and may embrace a kind of horrible existentialism. Sometimes our artists strive to overcome the meaningless through lasting works of art, but their personal desire to be somehow immortal may bog them down as death nears.

We admire this artistic striving, but it is a kind of working against our darkness rather than confronting it with the love Diaz mentions. Jenkinson writes: “Dying isn’t the end of true things…It is one of the true things, that is all.” [My italics.]

However, I do believe that art–particularly the storytelling arts–can offer much in the way of teaching us the physical, on-the-level, hard work of grieving. Really good novels and plays can help teach us if no one in our “real lives” does. Even if we weep at the end of the book and wish the author had chosen a different way of ending it. Good poetry that leaves us excited and confused by complexity or blasted with gut-level sorrowing might be teaching us the ways of grief we aren’t learning from our culture.

When a loved one dies, we often get lost, pushed away from grief through the signing of papers and the bland condolences of marginal friends and the plea to move on with our lives. Good poems can keep us dangling in the now of real grief and force us to figure our way through the losses we incur–losses which do not exclude even our selves. Because “death waters the living.” And so does poetry.

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/82820.html

Rain [La Pluie] Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Thanks to the Philadephia Museum of Art

 

 

Renewal, work

One never can know when work will arrive. By the term work, I mean what some people call “inspiration” but which, for me, is more work than it is a shower of divine gifts from the Muse. The past week brought an uptick in poetry drafts, as well as the acceptance of a poem by a publication I admire. All the more reason, therefore, to continue the process of working on the composition of creative writing.

I wonder if there’s an urgency pushing me to write new poems–the semester begins this week, and once I am teaching and tutoring again, time to write seems to evaporate–so I had better get cracking! Or it could be my response to the losses about which I have recently written, supposing that there is merit to the practice of writing as a way of healing or the writing cure (and I do suppose there is merit).

Maybe, just maybe, one might presuppose a connection with the arrival of a new year. Renewal. That would be arbitrary and perhaps subconscious; but the possibility remains. I can consider myself in the not-quite-midwinter renewal period, wrestling with potential poems that might turn out to be essays or blog posts or total duds or, if I am diligent and analytical and compassionate and lucky, completed poems.

Wintry hours ahead

Winter arrives…in red & white

~

Wish me luck. And hard work. I don’t mind being urged toward hard work; it’s the only way renewal really ever happens.

In memoriam

Ariel Dawson, 1959-2013

I recently learned that a friend who was hugely significant in my life once, but with whom I had lost touch for 15 years, no longer walks the same earth that I do; in fact, Ariel Dawson died in 2013, unbeknownst to  me.

Ariel Verlaine Dawson

Ariel Verlaine Dawson

It is hard to lose friends, but losing the friends of one’s youth–those intense, passionate friendships that teach human beings how to navigate the world of human relationships–that loss cuts in a different way. For Ariel is perhaps the reason I am a writer. No–I would have become a writer. She is the reason I decided it was possible to be a poet. She amazed me with her vocabulary, her insights, her evaluative reading, her positively voracious and precocious reading, her charm, her gentle goofiness, her forthrightness, her neurosis; she seemed to fear nothing (but that wasn’t true); she had published poetry in real journals before she was 17 years old; she read Rilke and Yeats; had affairs with well-known poets; spent years fathoming Jung. In 1994, she wrote an opinion piece for what is now AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle responding indignantly to Dana Gioia’s article “Can Poetry Matter?”–a piece that started quite a dust-up among defenders of what has been termed “new formalism.”

Ariel had always been the sort of person who chose to disappear and then to reappear, to my joy, months or years later to take up the friendship without pause–and often without explanation for her absence. She had her reasons, and I respected that; but I missed her.

Ariel, 1977 or 78

Ariel, 1977 or 78

~

In the early 1980s, my (also late) friend David Dunn and I were publishing chapbooks under the small-press name LiMbo bar&grill Books. We approached Ariel for our second-ever chapbook: Poems for the Kazan Astrologer. She was, at the time, teaching creative writing at Old Dominion University. We were very happy with the outcome, but we had no good method of distributing the books. I may still have a box of 25 or so of these books somewhere in my attic.

Then Ariel became more intensely interested in Jungian psychology, though it had long been a passion of hers.

In subsequent years, she wrote less and less poetry and stopped submitting her work for publication. The response to her Writer’s Chronicle opinion was, I think, a bit shocking to her, though I know she stood by her opinion. She just decided, perhaps, that she felt more at home in the world of Jung and his followers.

During the past decade I have often tried tracking her down, imagining the internet would find her. My job at the college has made me a rather adept online researcher, but all that ever showed up was a listing for her psychotherapy practice in New York City. The number was incorrect.

Then, my father became very ill and other issues crowded my mind. Searching for a friend who clearly wanted to remain anonymous in an electronic era was not a priority.

Besides, I always assumed that Ariel would suddenly re-emerge, call me–my phone number remains the same as it was last time I saw her–and mention she was going to be in the area, and could she stop by? That’s how it had been before. And I’d be thrilled to see her, and we’d talk about poetry and art, and politics and pets, cheese, philosophy, psychology, parents, wine…

I assumed incorrectly. That’s what happens with assumptions. Just this past week, when I finally found myself with some spare time, I tried an internet search again. And found her “electronic obit” online, and the fact that she’d died in February of 2013.

~

I have no words to express how this information feels to me.

And also–

~

Arthur Cadieux, 1943-2015

Arthur Cadieux in 1978, a photo taken by Jim Terkeurst.

Arthur Cadieux in 1978, a photo taken by Jim Terkeurst.

 

 

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Arthur 2011, Eastport, Main

Arthur in 2015. Photo Elizabeth Ostrander.

Arthur in 2015. Photo Elizabeth Ostrander.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~

Arthur Cadieux was my art teacher at Thomas Jefferson College in the late 1970s. He and his wife, Helene, were exceptionally kind to young adults who had an interest in art and in observing the world around them. We had dinner at their house in Michigan and at their loft apartment in New York City. Years later, after Helene’s tragically early death, and after Arthur had moved back to Maine, he let me stay at their cottage on Leighton Point (he lived in a smaller house in town) so that I could have a personal “writing retreat.” He deeply understood the creative person’s need for reflection, evaluation, thought, imagination, boredom, and occasional moments of lively talk.  The universe needs people like Arthur Cadieux, talented and generous, who are constantly pushing their own boundaries. Many of us who benefited from his friendship will miss him. Arthur’s paintings can be found at his website, arthurcadieux.org.

~

May they be free from suffering and causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from the happiness that is free from suffering.

Epiphany

This week includes the date of the Epiphany, January 6th, the close of the Christmas celebration. Christian tradition confers religious importance to the day because it commemorates the visitation of the magi, the “Wise Men” or “Three Kings,” to the infant Jesus; more metaphorically, the Epiphany hallows “the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12),” as Google’s dictionary puts it.

12-01-05MagiFraAngelicoGoogle’s dictionary offers a little graph at the close of its definition, if the reader scrolls down far enough. The use of the word epiphany has risen considerably from the 1800s; I suspect the reason for that is that the term has migrated toward its other meaning as a revelation, particularly a creative revelation: “a moment of insight.”

Epiphany is a word encountered when reading about artists, inventors, philosophers, writers. It has become something to treasure–the AHA! moment, the reveal, the serendipitous appearance of a solution or concept–which is a meaning closely derived from its etymology: epiphainein, ancient Greek for “reveal.” The challenge for the artist or writer is to make manifest that revelation, if one is lucky enough to encounter it. The true epiphany must be acted upon, or lost.

~

And, of course, the other challenge is to continue to write day by day by day, when revelations seem few and far between or totally unforthcoming. That is a different order of activity, one which I’m currently engaged in, without epiphanies to help me along.

 

 

Writing the new year

To renew myself as a writer of poetry, I need–every now and then–some way of re-engaging with the work of writing itself. Revision, for example, often means hard effort slogging through material I wrote long ago; but the process renews my dedication to the salvageable poems and sharpens my analytical and evaluative skills.

Sometimes there’s no saving a poem, but the concept behind it might be worth exploring in an essay.

Sometimes there’s no saving a poem, but the words needed to be expressed at that time.

Revision requires taking a stance of compassionate distance from the work itself so that I can feel both judgment and kindness toward my own poems. The bonus here is that, often, the work of revision gets me writing new work.

Beside my desk at this moment is a stack of poems I spent the past few days thinking about and revising. The work creates its own energy; the buzz of words and imagery emanates…

I feel ready to write the new year.

:)

objects, stories