Monday, April 10, 2006

Poem of the Week 4/10/2006: Four Poems for Robin

Four Poems for Robin

Siwashing it out once in Siuslaw Forest*

I slept under rhododendrom
All night blossoms fell
Shivering on a sheet of cardboard
Feet stuck in my pacl
Hands deep in my pockets
Barely able to sleep.
I remembered when we were in school
Sleeping together in a big warm bed
We were the youngest lovers
When we broke up we were still nineteen.
Now our friends are married
You teach school back east
I dont mind living this way
Green hills the long blue beach
But sometimes sleeping in the open
I think back when I had you.

A spring night in Shokoku-ji**

Eight years ago this May
We walked under cherry blossoms
At night in an orchard in Oregon.
All that I wanted then
Is forgotten now, but you.
Here in the night
In a garden of the old capital
I feel the trembling ghost of Yugao
I remember your cool body
Naked under a summer cotton dress.

An autumn morning in Shokoku-ji

Last night watching the Pleiades,
Breath smoking in the moonlight,
Bitter memory like vomit
Choked my throat.
I unrolled a sleeping bag
On mats on the porch
Under thick autumn stars.
In dream you appeared
(Three times in nine years)
Wild, cold, and accusing.
I woke shamed and angry:
The pointless wars of the heart.
Almost dawn. Venus and Jupiter.***
The first time I have
Ever seen them close.

December at Yase *

You said, that October,
In the tall dry grass by the orchard
When you chose to be free,
"Again someday, maybe ten years."
After college I saw you
One time. You were strange.
And I was obsessed with a plan.

Now ten years and more have
Gone by: I've always known
where you were--
I might have gone to you
Hoping to win your love back.
You still are single.
I didn't.
I thought I must make it alone. I
Have done that.

Only in dream, like this dawn,
Does the grave, awed intensity
Of our young love
Return to my mind, to my flesh.

We had what the others
All crave and seek for;
We left it behind at nineteen.

I feel ancient, as though I had
Lived many lives.

And may never now know
If I am a fool
Or have done what my
karma demands.

*West of Eugene, Oregon. Siwashing: camping with light equipment, roughing it.
**Fourteenth-century Zen monestary in Kyoto.
Yuago: a woman from The Tale of Gengi who, after a brief amorous encounter with Gengi, dies suddenly and mysteriously. After happening on a dress of hers, he writes a poem
***Snyder both names the planets and alludes to the Roman gods. Venus, goddes of love and beauty; Jupiter, ruler of all the gods.
* Near northeast Kyoto

Gary Snyder 1968

Gary Snyder, I just learned, is part of the Beat Generation, a group of poets I have dismissed wholeheartedly in the past. I still believe that much of their work is overrated, but it is never advisable to automatically reject anything. Besides, this poem is so quiet and lovely; it deserves a second look. I didn't actually want to include the entire thing, because the final section interests me most. I felt that I couldn't do "December at Yase" justice unless you all had read the first three. In three separate scenes, they establish the eastern influences, the narrator's memories of Robin, and his long-steeped loneliness. They give us a sense of the meditative, nostalgic, sad approach he expands upon in the final stanza. They also show how the final section is a departure; while the first three poems are episodic memories, the fourth is a memory layered with reflection and questions. It is by far the most interactive part, which is, I suppose, what interests me.

I want to look at the eastern influence and the introspection in this poem, two elements that work together. The eastern philosophy informs the narrator's thoughts, while the landscape mirrors his close, tight attention to the world around him. The diction in the first stanza is sparse and exact, the lack of punctuation almost methodical. The lines "You said, in October, / In the tall dry grass by the orchard / When you chose to be free," establish who, what, where, and when in less than 25 words. This economy of language makes the memory seem rehearsed, as if the narrator has found the best possible way to say it because he has done so so often. "The tall dry grass," parallels the state of their relationship. What was once organic and alive is now barren, thinned, listless. The grass, like their relationship, is now bleak.

Even Robin's break-up has been reduced to its essential terms; "Again someday, maybe ten years" is an end in that it implies "not now." Then, too, that the narrator chooses to quote this statement reveals what was important to *him* about her speech. The door is open in his mind, even if he's only seen her once since college. This interaction, too, boils down to its core. The interaction was awkward; their paths led in different directions. This terseness questions what is essential in our everyday lives. We get so concerned telling each other every detail, analyzing this searching look or that slight lean of the neck, but what happens when only the facts remain? Is it advisable to strip experiences to the bone? This poem perhaps hints that it is inevitable, or perhaps that heaping piles of words on experiences devalues them. I don't necessarily agree with this (it doesn't make for good conversation, for one, and it enables a disconnection with things, for another), but I see that this may also concentrate an experience's impact. By leaving some things unspoken, we perhaps respect the power that is there, not attempting to force them into sentences and conversations. One phrase suffices.

This space (for there is space in this kind of simplicity; the absence of detail allows the reader time for reflection of her own and lets her imagine the specifics) increases as the next stanza wears on. One gets the sense that the narrator nearly trails off, lost in thought. "I didn't" is the shortest line in the entire poem, but its implications are far-reaching. Why didn't he go back, we wonder. Is the reason too complex to even begin to explain? Or would he simply prefer not to let us in? One of my best friends from long ago told me about how her Chinese mother dealt with things. Everything was internal, private. Struggles are best kept to the self in Chinese culture. This is the brave way, the strong way, the right way. In the West, we are encouraged to be open, direct, confrontational with our emotions. Perhaps that is where some of the mystery in this poem comes from - the interaction of two cultures. I am, after all, sitting here trying to explain why the narrator is not using more words to describe his heartbreak, while it might be as simple as he is from the Eastern tradition. That doesn't make my questions about it any less valid, though. Indeed, the interaction between my ranging Western mode of communication and this tight, Eastern one illuminates characteristics of both. I would simply accept wordiness as the natural way of things were it not for experiences like this. This conjunction reminds me of a book another friend lent me, "Elsewhere Communities" by Hugh Kenner. He talks of forging bonds with Others so that we may grow. Or know ourselves. This is one thing literature does for us, I think. It forces us to listen, to pay attention, to experience things otherwise outside our normal realms.

That was a little tangent. It was just so interesting to notice my own perspectives in the face of this poem. It just affirms who I am, in a way, and it is strange and public to have that happen writing about a poem on a blog. But this is why poetry amazes me. I love the trance-like nature of writing - writing is discovery, the saying goes. That said, I really ought to be writing for an art history paper, but I got too caught up in this poem of the week. I will have to finish my reflections on the narrator's reflections later. Goodnight!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I'd catorgize Gary Snyder as simply a "beat poet," since he's much more than that; he may have been affiliated with that label, but definitely has his own -legitimate- style of writing aside from that slightly stereotypical grouping. Check out for some further details on his biography. Gary Snyder is now primarly a naturalist, having grown up in the pacific northwest though he spent a number of years in Asia studying Zen Buddism. Nice choice of poem, though; I especially enjoyed that last poem of the four that you focused on in your critique. It's great to have such variety of authorship and style in the poems you've chosen to critique over the weeks. Keep up the good work!