The Yawning Void

"Dave Korn," Mustang, Nepal, 2009

"Dave Korn," Mustang, Nepal, 2009

What can we gain from sailing to the moon if we are unable to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.
— Thomas Merton

Dear Everybody,

That beautiful, ominous thought has appeared on the final page of every issue of The Lune for a year. It has been and continues to be a reminder that the interior life — of identity, memory, imagination, mythos, descent, obscurity, etc. — is worth living, that internal work transcends external valuation. This is a particularly powerful reminder for poets — and I return to it largely to assuage my own existential concerns — because the practice of poetry has tenuous ties to material success, at best. (Poetry's ties to stability, however, is an entirely different matter, contingent upon the stuff in which one's reality is rooted. But I digress. Or do I? Who knows.)

During my time in the Kerouac School (in this case one of Naropa's brilliant Summer Writing Programs, five years ago) I was fortunate enough to take a workshop with Jack Collom. The workshop's title was "Comedy and Nature." (Jack Collom is to ecopoetics as Joseph Campbell is to mythology.) The very first thing Jack did was ask us all a question: What is nature? We gave some answers: birds, cosmos, landscape, organic processes, systems, poop, and so on. Jack agreed with all of it and summed up by saying (what else) "Nature is everything."

To give you a very general idea of how comedy entered the discussion and how our workshop moved forward, Jack helped us understand that nature-as-everything is a confounding reality with which to contend. Life, it would seem, is invariably ridiculous. And humanity's response to ridiculousness is remarkably diverse, like nature itself. "We're all wild" would be another way to say this. Annie Dillard — who could be called an ecopoet, if it were helpful to do so —  has a wonderful way of putting this in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974):

"Nature is, above all, profligate. Don't believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn't it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once."

Yes, we most certainly will! Dillard finds a way to show us that "deranged manic-depressive" is also natural, as much as it may hurt to admit it. From ominous to ridiculous and everything in-between, Jack Collom's compositional mode is a lesson in purposefully confusing work and play in order to embrace all the gifts at our disposal. Society's current treatment of work and play seems like a tragic manifestation of Merton's "disastrous" voyage. Dillard, like Merton, gives us a technical context for the emergence of disaster in The Writing Life (1989):

"One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes."

She recognizes "the impulse to save something good" as a "signal," exactly that which portends meaning, the trustworthy gesture, the poet's voice. And the key is not to put it away, but to give it away. It sounds like an ethical imperative, this generosity of spirit. So I'd like to think about the in-between, the "abyss that separates," in order to discover something about reservation, sabotage, and self-doubt. The investigation stems from my recent exposure to a study titled "Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets", coupled with the fact that where I am (in California) the abundant pine forest is experiencing an alarming die-off. In other words, I am feeling apocalyptic and would like to see beyond the veil of climate change (drought, infestation, urbanization, etc.) in order to explore the source(s) of the great separation, the yawning void.

In a sort of psychoanalytic-paleontological mode, I now explore the poem at right (titled "architecture") for fossils of the mind. Over the course of the poem the speaker goes from a calculated act to a spontaneous one. In trying to equate memory and metaphor, s/he admits (parenthetically, matter-of-factly): "I don't get very far." And in failing to bridge the gap, so to speak, s/he falls into it, into the sacred space of a vision. Reason returns to the individual, no longer a mythopoeic whole. Everything is temporary, a condition the speaker associates with movement. In movement, s/he rediscovers nature. And nature decides the right action, the real world equivalent (in this case) of "naming": "fishing."

The space of the speaker's initial fall — "an agora," where names and people fall into place — is sacrosanct. The speaker is coy but doesn't want to trivialize space itself, for fear of getting structurally lost "in the mirror." But is that even an option? Are we not trivial compared to the greater workings of space? The "yawning" void is a sort of casual omnipotence, a sort of bathroom mirror...

Collom's workshop was about more than funny writing. It was about coming to terms — in actual, living language — with the fabric of reality. In a different course with Jack, I wrote down something he said verbatim. It is a Collom lune (fittingly), a three/five/three word tercet:

The poem is
a living, breathing creature. Don't
name it yet.

This brings me to something a renowned medium says in Lawrence Durrell's The Dark Labyrinth (1947):

"The sage has nothing to tell us, you know. It is by his silence alone that we deduce the fact of his existence."

And back to Annie Dillard, this time from Teaching A Stone To Talk (1982):

"The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega, it is God's brooding over the face of the waters; it is the blinded note of the ten thousand things, the whine of wings. You take a step in the right direction to pray to this silence, and even to address the prayer to 'World.' Distinctions blur. Quit your tents. Pray without ceasing."

Earlier I suggested the sanctity of space to the speaker; here Dillard urges us (directly) to honor the sanctity of silence. What is the difference between space and silence, after all? Perhaps it would be helpful to think about the difference between poet and saint — speaker and believer, respectively (so, to think about what speaking has to do with believing, and what they both have to do with truth). In a forthcoming manuscript of what I'll call metaphysical etudes, the poet David Mutschlecner questions the distinction this way:

"The saint's will is to be simple, but is it the poet's will as well?"

Mutschlecner graciously admits not knowing the answer. But what he is doing is masterful in the truest sense: he holds the notion of simplicity up to the poets as if to ask, "What can you learn from this, from the saints?" Susan & Lloyd Rudolph illustrate the difficulty that underlies this question in Gandhi: The Traditional Roots of Charisma (1967):

"In an era that takes matters of religious faith lightly, it is difficult to consider a man who is suspected of saintliness. The task is particularly vexing for Americans whose origins in flight from Europe and its feudal legacies mute their memories of a time when saints were important people."

Their use of the word "mute" here feels particularly significant. The feudal systems held as much as possible over the heads of the people. What Mutschlecner and the Rudolphs seem to be doing is placing the saints right back on Earth where they came from and where we can look at and learn from them. This reminds me of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Interim" in Renascence and Other Poems (1917), this stanza in particular:

The room is as you left it; your last touch —
A thoughtless pressure, knowing not itself
As saintly — hallows now each simple thing;
Hallows and glorifies, and glows between
The dust's grey fingers like a shielded light.

Millay gives us the most subtle of separations, the space "between | The dust's grey fingers." I feel closer now to the mortality at the heart of apocalyptic events. As if to wipe out the five stages in one go, Richard Dawkins shares this perspective:

"We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?"

But it seems we have the choice, at least — we can choose from our ways and means, however limited, however frail. Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle ("Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night") is a perfect and perfectly moving example of the choice — how to act upon the feeling — and the spirit behind it. But it is Maya Angelou's "When Great Trees Fall" that puts me, personally, back to work, in spite of (or at home with) the dying trees, the disappearing wilderness, the yawning void. Here's the last stanza:

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

Yours under the volcano,

⎯ Joe

P.S. Next week I'm excited to share what will hopefully be an entertaining reflection on the lines people sent in response to "What is memorable about contemporary poetry?" Another wholehearted thanks for your feedback, and for keeping in touch.