Wednesday, April 29, 2009
He may not have understood everything, but it made him happy and gave him some relief from his worries.
These ideas are better described by the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh:
In our mind, to be born means that from nothing you suddenly become something; from no one you suddenly become someone. That is our definition of birth. But looking deeply, we don't see anything like that. A cloud has not come from nothing. A cloud has come from the lake, from the river, from the ocean, from the heat. A cloud is only a continuation of something. When a cloud dies, and you say the cloud "dies," you think it means from something you suddenly become nothing, from someone you suddenly become no one. But if you look deeply, you will see that is is impossible for a cloud to die. It's possible for the cloud to become rain or snow or ice, but you do not have the power to kill a cloud, to make the cloud into nothingness....
Everything you think, everything you say. everything you do has already begun to continue you. It is only a continuation; it's not a transfer of something from there to here. And we can make it possible for the continuation to be happy or be pleasant.. Through mindfulness, we can make sure that our continuation is good and beautiful.
Here's to a happy continuation.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Saturday, April 25, 2009
But I am grateful for the quiet, and the chance to read and reflect a little. At least one other creature in our house is still awake. It's Ai, our fawn Abyssinian cat. She's always awake and interested in doing whatever I am doing.
I've been reading Villiers de L'Isle-Adam's Axel. It's a play with fascinating imagery. Here is a description of the interior of Axel's castle.
A great hall with a high oaken ceiling; an iron chandelier hangs from the center of the intersecting beams. At the back, a large main door opening onto a vestibule. Over the door, the Auersperg coat of arms supported by its large golden sphinxes.
To the left, a large gothic window, disclosing vast,misty forests on the horizon.
To the right, a stone stairway built into the wall; at the top of the stairway, and arched door leading to one of the towers.
Twilight, already quite dark.
The depth of the hall is such that it suggest a gigantic structure dating back to the very early Middle Ages. To the right, a huge fireplace with a blazing fire that lights up up the stage. On the wide mantelpiece is a pile of dusty folios. Set out on adjoining black wooden workbenches are alembics, astral globes, ancient clay laps, enormous bones from extinct species of animals, and dried herbs.
Axel, with his aristocratic haughtiness, his refusal of the earth that has become an illusion, and his metaphysical narcissism, lead him to discover that the only true Infinite is the pure interiority of the soul - is the first great embodiment of a whole family of symbolic characters who, according to Edmond Wilson, "drop out of the common life" and choose the often tragic way of realizing the Spirit within themselves.
Axel reminds me of one of my favorite Proust characters, Saint-Loup. I would like to write more on that later.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Rich in love and suffering, in crying and dreams and prayer.
She lived among her own people who were not very happy but
supported each other,
And were bound by a pact between the dead and living renewed
at the graves.
She was gladdened by herbs, wild roses, pines, potato fields
And the scents of the soil, familiar since childhood.
She was not an eminent poet. But that was just:
A good person will not learn the wiles of art.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
The name Żubrówka comes from żubr or zubr, the Slavic word for the wisent (European bison), an animal that is particularly fond of eating buffalo grass.
The Reader has an interesting review of David Garnett's Lady Into Fox by Michael Caines. I'll reproduce it here while enjoying my drink.
David Garnett was a lucky man: he had a fox for a wife.
She was a person, according to her sister, Frances Partride, 'reserved almost to shyness but perfectly self-possessed', and in The Flowers of the Forest (1956), her husband likened her to 'a woodland creature': 'among the beeches and the pines I saw her as I could never see her in London'. Rachel Alice Marshall, 'Ray' to her friends, 'R.A. Garnett' to readers of the books she illustrated, was with her husband in the woods near his parents' home one day, when their vain attempt to spot some fox cubs caused him to say, "There's no hope of seeing a fox - unless you were suddenly to turn into one. You might. I should not really be much surprised if you did'. 'You must write that as a story', said Ray, reminding him that he had recently bought a copy, with woodcuts, of Ovid's Metamorphoses.
The Garnetts had married in 1921, and Lady Into Fox appeared the following year, it made Garnett's name. Ray provided both the model for Silvia Tebrick - the lady who, within a few of its pages, turns into a fox - and her own woodcuts. David provided the words. The novella strikes a blance somehow between whimsical sophistication and being seriously concerned with the workings of love and loyalty.
Perhaps it is the husband who triggers his wife's metamorphosis. (The narrator calls it a miracle). Does Richard Tebrick betray his wife by turning his head away from her for one moment, while they are walking near their Oxfordshire home? When he turns it back, "Where his wife had been the moment before was a small fox, of very bright red."
This fox's beseeching gaze and demure behavior convince Richard that it is Silvia indeed. He puts her under his coat and whisks her home. The real trouble begins after the transformation has taken place. Husband promises to stick by wife, dismisses the servants, shoots the dogs, and lives in fear of the hunting season. Wife plays cards with husband, and struggles into dresses in order to cover her (furry) nakedness. Husband despairs as wife begins to take a less modest interest in chasing wildfowl.
'This womanliness in her never failed to delight him, for it showed she was still his wife, buried as it were in the carcass of a beast but with a woman's soul.' The less delightful beast is also present, however, and it has more interest in eating its meat raw and running wild than in piquet and the piano indoors. Richard's love is tested by his wife's attempts at escape. Her instantaneous physical transformation is less awful, it would seem, than the gradual but ineluctable mental shifting that is the true source of their tragedy.
Lady into Fox has stayed in print, in several languages, with good reason: it is, as the narrative promises, a 'strange' and resonant tale, its civilized prose rendering it all the stranger. If this Hesperus edition has advantages over its predecessors, they are threefold: its pleasing format, the inclusion of R.A. Garnett's woodcuts (not to be taken for granted) and John Burnside's insightful foreword.
Friday, April 17, 2009
The weather is warm for the first time in a while, and I find myself musing over another novel about young French people on the beach, Bonjour Tristesse. When Françoise Sagan failed to pass her Sorbonne exams in 1953, she decided to write a novel. At just 18 she wrote Bonjour Tristesse. It is a simple, classic work that stays with you long after you've read it. The language of the book is sensous. Color and romance are paired with the blight of jealousy.
There is more to all of this than young, French people in love on the beach. The narrative alternating between sensual joy and emotional angst in the hot summer sun. What's really enjoyable about these characters (in Bonjour Tristesse and Hallucinating Foucault) is their innocence.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
I love your eyes, my dear
Their splendid sparkling fire
When suddenly you raise them so
To cast a swift embracing glance
Like lightning flashing in the sky
But there is a charm that is greater still
When my love's eyes are lowered
When all is fired by passion's kiss
And through the downcast lashes
I see the dull flame of desire
- Fyodor Tyutchev
This beautiful poem appears at the end of Tarkovsky's film Stalker. I found myself thinking of it last night while reading Hallucinating Foucault. The book tells the story of Paul Michel, a celebrated French novelist who is so distraught at Foucault's death that he becomes insane. The novel's narrator is an English student studying Michel's work who sets out to rescue the writer, so bringing the author's words and the author's world together in a dangerous mixture of intimacy, madness and self-discovery.
It is also a story about the love between readers and writers.
In an interview regarding the book, the author says"Foucault once said, 'I wrote all my books to make boys fall in love with me.' And I think there's an element to that in all writing - books are messages in bottles.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
In a brief text written in 1995, Han Dong tried to sum up his ideas about poetry reading and writing in ten maxims.
1. The direction of poetry goes from bottom to top. Poetry is something dimly discernible in the sky which descends to the human world thanks to the productive force of the writer’s waiting and yearning. Poetry is not an excavation down into the depths; it is not coal. Writers are not labourers — they must set aside the attitude that writing poetry requires some form of exertion.
2. Poetry is waiting [shige shi dengdai]. Any exhortation to poets to root themselves in the earth is a lie, regardless of whether this ‘earth’ is that of a national language or of life. There is no guarantee that an advocate of life experience or a rhetorician of the mother tongue could come up with a single line of that thing we call poetry.
3. Poetry is distinct from knowledge: it is the province of those in whom innocence has not yet vanished. Writers and readers communicate on the basis of innocence, not knowledge. A good writer has no more right to speak about poetry than a good reader: the two are well-matched in terms of the quality of their feelings. A good reader is definitely superior to an inferior writer.
4. If we are unable to feel anything for a particular poem, then either the poem is not a work endowed by nature [bingfei shi tianfu zhi zuo], or we have lost our innocence. The probability of either situation occurring is equally likely: works endowed by nature and the spirit of innocence are both hard to come by. What is more likely is the situation where there is neither work endowed by nature nor a spirit of innocence — a genuine case of “trying to go south by driving the chariot north” in which no one’s needs are satisfied or, if they are, the level of taste is a poor one.
5. Bad poetry [zaogao de shi] is just as likely to excite people (both the writer of it and readers). Measuring the value of a poem in terms of the degree of excitement it generates is unreliable in the extreme. A good poem in the real sense of the word is an enduring thing: it shines in the dark without diminishing itself in the least. Poems that are depleted by intense emotion and thereby reduced in some way are highly suspect.
6. What distinguishes a good poem? It is seen at a glance and discovered after neglect. Occasionally it appears in a very inconspicuous position, but when we find ourselves in the right frame of mind, we feel strongly attracted by it. The opposite scenario: we confront the poem directly with a fixed gaze, authorities direct our attention to it, it is put on the uppermost shelf (the cover of the book it is published in has embossed gold lettering), but when we are feeling deficient in spirit or require consolation it always strikes us as being suspect.
7. The value of a good poem increases over time. A second-rate poem is consumed in one sitting: subsequent re-readings are never as good as the first. Our feelings possess a powerful capacity for the intake of nourishment — a second-rate poem is unable to withstand such a utilitarian intake. At the same time, taking in nourishment for the spirit cannot be the purpose of our reading. It is an error to read poetry for the purposes of diversion, entertainment, information or sympathy.
8. Read a poem when your feelings are heightened but in no sense bottled-up, relaxed and yet not lethargic.
9. Modern Chinese is a material different from the language of other nationalities: comparisons in terms of value can only be made when language has been turned into poetry. Often, what we are comparing is the material itself, and for this reason we arrive at appraisals that are either self-denigrating or inflated. This is plainly nonsensical.
10. Modern Chinese has a greater extension (in terms of meaning) than Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese lives in and through Modern Chinese, and not the other way around. The relationship of modern poetry to classical poetry is not that of a degenerate princely descendant left over from the decline of a once mighty empire. The relationship of classical Chinese poetry to modern poetry is simply that of an illustrious beginning. These are two very different historical perspectives. Western sinologists are always happy to endorse the former viewpoint, whereas we Chinese are always happy to endorse the view of the sinologists. This state of affairs is, for us, doubly passive, as well as being both a misunderstanding and a source of humiliation.
Han Dong (Translated by Simon Patton)
Saturday, April 11, 2009
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
I have acquaintances who are successful readers. They buy a new hardback book once a month, sometimes at the kind of chain bookstore I boycott, and they read it and like it. Or, they read it and think it’s “okay, although I haven’t gotten to the end,” and they recommend it anyway, and they don’t feel the urge to die of boredom. It is usually a New York Times Notable Book. This little system of production and consumption also brings us room fresheners that are not safe for homes with pet birds, happy pills that cause liver failure, processed ham from tortured pigs, and movies like You’ve Got Mail.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Before my bed, the bright moonlight
I mistake it for frost on the ground
Raising my head, I stare at the bright moon;
Lowering my head, I think of home.
The poet is awakened by brightness streaming in the window, and he misinterprets its origin. The moon up above seems to be the reflection of frost down below. The second couplet ties the images of moon and frost to the poet's homesickness and thereby make them significant.
Mei-mei, what follows is autumn
Sleep with closed lips, and tenderness
Tender is your scarf, to and fro, in the breeze
What follows is the palm of my hand - warm and full of memory
Not you, it's a garden that I am watering
Mei-mei, a safe place is spacious
On those delicate petals, what follows is
A silent, fleeting message
Moon, weather, windows lightly open
Clear bright lake
Close your eyes, Mei-mei
What follows is
a gentle rainfall
And my feelings hurt suddenly by the leaves.
Friday, April 3, 2009
Christmas day, 4 O'clock,
Stumps of cloud, like yellowing tower blocks,
The failing glimmer of Christmas lights
And the quays, utterly empty,
For one dark otter, slick with river slime,
Made of dark Lee water,
Of thick fluid,
Of rippling muscle,
Swaggering, like any pedestrian,
Up the steps from the riverbed,
Across the street,
Past dim shop displays,shuttered windows,
Toward an empty car askew on the footpath,
Its engine idling, its front door open,
Its headlights ploughing the gloom,
And a girl, its driver,
Standing alone on the pavement,
She leans over the otter,
Her long hair hanging down
As a second slinks up from the riverbed,
Like a hand sliding slowly
From a hip to a breast.
Ramsell writes, “I try to avoid the following: my family, my childhood, a certain type of rural idyll, a certain way of writing about history, poems that explicitly concern themselves with Ireland and Irishness, local characters.” Yet although he may stay away from traditional Irish poetic themes, there is a sense of Irishness in his work. It is a more modernized, urbanized Ireland. A person can enjoy his poetry, and its Irishness, without feeling sentimental and inauthentic.