Last week I blogged the first part of a longer essay first published in the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London. What follows is the second half of it. The whole piece starts and ends with thoughts prompted by my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. Dad has since suffered a series of heart attacks and died on May 24th. I am re-producing the essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such morbid reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.
In Part 1, I linked my father’s forgetfulness and confusion with recurrent references to “nothing” in King Lear and to Anne Carson’s concept of “the dementia of the real”. I suggested this was also a correlative of Yves Bonnefoy’s interest in the “state of indifferentiation” he often refers to as “Presence”. For Bonnefoy, Presence contrasts the conceptual/linguistic world through which we most often move and we take to be real.
Yves Bonnefoy’s poem ‘Wind and Smoke’ (from The Wandering Life (1993)) has the abduction of Helen as its nominal subject. But he allows the poem to be taken over by dissenting voices, irritably seeking to “explain, to justify, ten years of war”. Such an expense of men, ships and spirit (argues one such “commentator”) must have been for the sake of something more permanent than the merely human figure of Helen. The poem entertains the suggestion that she herself was never abducted, “only an image: a statue”, something of great beauty to be displayed on the terraces of Troy, a fixed image of Helen, blessed with permanence, “always [. . .] this smile”. The poem is concerned then with the limitedness of the conceptual view which finds worth only in things of assured, definable permanence. In contrast, Part One of the poem ends with a proliferation of images of “spilling”, lovers as “clouds” or “lightning” on an “earthly bed”, so fully involved with time that their pleasures in the moment are “already empty, still full”. [i]
There’s that paradox again and Bonnefoy’s versions of it articulate the impossibility of capturing Presence because it encompasses and exists in time (and language wishes to stop time):
Every time that a poem,
A statue, even a painted image,
Prefers itself as form, breaks away
From the cloud’s sudden jolts of sparkling light,
Helen vanishes [. . . ][ii]
The “jolts” here are akin to Lily Briscoe’s “jar on the nerves” as our paradigms and preconceptions are challenged. The figure of Helen has become that visionary experience – for Bonnefoy usually of beauty, for Carson more often a violent disturbance – that we intuit exists just beyond the range of our usual instruments. Helen, the poem argues, “was only / That intuition which led Homer to bend / Over sounds that come from lower than his strings / In the clumsy lyre of earthly words”.
Part Two of ‘Wind and Smoke’ concludes with a child, an image of the poet, the last person to see the figure of Helen as Troy burns:
He had taken in his hands a little water,
The fire came to drink there, but the water
Leaked out from the imperfect cup, just as time
Ruins dreams and yet redeems them.[iii]
This same image of water slipping from our human grasp is recurrent in the Ancient Chinese writings that make up Laozi’s 4th/5th century BCE text, the Daodejing. Since they were published earlier this year, I have been reading my versions of these texts up and down the country and the one thing audiences want to say about them is they contain “wisdom”.[iv] It’s an old-fashioned word but it’s also bound up with the nothing that is really a fuller something we seldom manage to grasp. The Daodejing texts use water as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies behind all things. They employ water metaphors in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined. So Chapter 1 deploys water imagery but is clear about the short-comings of all language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through further metaphors: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomenal world can only be gestured towards through figures such as “mould”, “source”, “mystery”. Even then it’s “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains beyond our grasp. Chapter 14 puts it this way:
because a straining eye catches no glimpse
it is called elusive
as the ear attends but latches onto nothing
it is called rarefied
since a hand reaches but clasps only thin air
it is called infinitesimal
and these are resistant to further analysis
The difficulty of grasping this something that seems nothing is revisited in Chapter 4. There, the tenor of the metaphor is reduced to “it”, the context indicating this refers to the Dao itself, the One, that state of wholeness and plenitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource as “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. But the image is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry”, yet this follows four other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects: “fretted edges are smoothed within it / knots untangled all dazzle eased / all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared”. The poem calmly declares its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin or beginning is not adequate to convey the nature of the Dao. But the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – comes close.
That there is wisdom to be gained from such visionary encounters with the mystery of nothing is clear in Chapter 66. It’s no coincidence that these lines can serve as a commentary on Lear, his suffering bringing him low till he realises he has paid too little attention to the “looped and ragged” nature of his own nation:
—how do rivers and seas secure mastery
over the hundreds of lesser streams
through lying lower than they do
so to govern or teach you must stand
and acknowledge you are beneath the people
to guide them put yourself at the rear
But as Auden suggested and Chinese tradition affirms, such visionary insight cannot be actively sought or taught. This is one of the points of the traditional narrative trope in Chinese poetry of ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’. Don Paterson turned this into a good joke in a poem called ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.[v] The reader’s eye descends from this lengthy title only to look in vain – it’s a blank page. Perhaps Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu.[vi] The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. But such poems were never just an excuse for descriptive nature poetry but related to the frequent ‘spirit-journeys’ that Li Po was fond of writing. We are all like that student in Li Po’s poem, seeking out certainties and facts, a something to depend on when true wisdom gently (or violently) deflects us away from shelter towards a world where we glimpse a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with what really is.
I have really been talking about two attitudes to knowledge or to put it more carefully, two contrasting “ways of being”. This is how Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) expresses it.[vii] McGilchrist argues parts of the human brain deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left brain perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”.[viii] This is the attitude to knowledge and education the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses as well as the place where most of us live amongst Carson’s clichés and Bonnefoy’s conceptual language. In contrast, McGilchrist associates the right brain with the perception of “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”[ix] yet one at risk of being perceived or judged as a mere confusion, a seeming nothing.
This is the view of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the as-yet-uncarved block of wood, who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage, dependent as it is on conceptual thought, is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. Li Po’s teacher is surely hiding somewhere beyond the cherry blossom – and this is part of the student’s lesson. Don Paterson’s blank page represents a rather glib, post-modern joke, a scepticism about language in danger of throwing out the interconnected but bewildering “dementia” of the real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth”[x]. Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battles with the early stirrings of French post-modernism, declared: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us.”[xi] The right brain knows this and it’s from there we want to write poems; the left brain serves to fragment it, utilise it, get it under control, disappear it. And yet . . . there’s no much here suitable for a chat with a forgetful father. His visions are more frightening and may get worse; here, for a while, his son has been imagining ways of seeing that need not be so.
[i] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, pp. 197-203.
[ii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 201.
[iii] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, p. 203.
[iv] Laozi, Daodejing, versions by Martyn Crucefix (Enitharmon, 2016). All quotations are from this version.
[v] Don Paterson, God’s Gift to Women (Faber, 1997).
[vi] Li Po and Tu Fu, selected and translated by Arthur Cooper (Penguin Classics, 1973).
[vii] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary (Yale UP, 2009), p. 25.
[viii] McGilchrist, p. 31.
[ix] McGilchrist, p. 31.
[x] McGilchrist, p. 6.
[xi] Yves Bonnefoy, The Tombs of Ravenna, tr. John Naughton (1953; PN Review (No. 226, Nov-Dec 2015), p. 62).