Everything Burning: Review of Maitreyabandhu’s ‘Yarn’

I love to follow the development of a poet’s work. This is often imaged as the finding of a voice but is really a process in which the poet brings into focus what centrally concerns them and sheds what is extraneous. A recognisable voice may be a secondary consequence of this but it is achieved through technical advances and deep thought about poetic predecessors and possible role models. Maitreyabandhu’s second collection, Yarn (Bloodaxe, 2015) is fascinating from this perspective.

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Born Ian Johnson in Warwickshire, Maitreyabandhu was ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order in 1990. I once started a review of James Harpur’s  Angels and Harvesters (Anvil, 2012) by saying that I wanted contemporary poetry to address spiritual matters, so I was obviously excited to get hold of Maitreyabandhu’s first book, The Crumb Road, when it appeared in 2013. Given my rather narrow line of expectation, I suppose was a bit disappointed. But the book is full of vivid colloquial detail, many poems about childhood and a moving account of a homoerotic relationship between two young boys which ends with the death of one of them. The crumb road of the title is the Hansel and Gretel trail back to the past rather than a trail of stations towards spiritual enlightenment, though ‘Visitation’ is an awed encounter with something like that: “I saw you, in the mess of things, / [. . .] as a slant of grey”. The book was a PBS Recommendation, rightly praised for its melancholy modesty, quiet expression, its alert and attentive qualities, its models evidently Edward Thomas and Thomas Hardy.

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Yarn develops similar materials. Maitreyabandhu’s poetic technique is even more evident in the range of forms – free verse, rhyme, prose poem, blank verse – employed to great effect. The Warwickshire childhood features again in a section called ‘The yard’ with the father’s wine-making – damson, raison and berry – and his war service, the mother’s involvement in the coach driving business, school, various distant relations. The first book’s portrayal of young love cut tragically short is echoed here in an elegiac sequence to a Buddhist friend, Mahananda. This man’s longer life (his mother’s flight from the Gestapo, his conversion to Buddhism, living in Primrose Hill, his friendships) is touchingly evoked and it is a thoroughly grief-stricken sequence: “what can I conclude on your departure? / that nothing came of it, with everything, / everything undone” (‘Souls’).

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Ryokan

There is a curious echo of this latter phrase in a poem about the Zen Buddhist monk/poet Ryokan for whom the temple bell and old books seem to say “how everything is burning”. Such a sense of the ultimate insignificance of earthly things arises elsewhere in this book and Maitreyabandhu explores such spiritual issues more explicitly here than in The Crumb Road. Though there is often a strong response and pleasure in the natural world, ‘These Days’ suggests “our human calculus precedes / the given world” to negative effect. There is a fearful recognition that what we contribute amounts to no more than “error bred in the bone, the daily rancour / of the mind, / our clever ways to be unkind”. But the erasure of those things that we cling too can be almost as frightening. Nietzsche’s ‘The Parable of the Madman’ (1882) is alluded to, a sponge wiping away the “entire horizon”, yet the consolation (as in the death of a valued friend) can be hard to access: “I strained to see Vajra Guru’s face”. Perhaps the character in ‘The Postulant’ has “closed his eyes on this world” more successfully:

 

When night fell, the space between two worlds

Was all the shape he made, an empty dark [. . . ]

What he thought to be himself he didn’t know:

His pain was all that stopped the worlds unite.

 

But inevitably, what is ultimately not graspable in words is hard to write about and Maitreyabandhu’s often chosen model (the rhyming, song-like lyric voice) can lead to a mellifluousness that over-sweetens a poem, especially when trying to evoke more successful intuitions of “the Lotus Born” and the “illumined image” (‘The World of Senses’).

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But Yarn contains three long yarns or stories in which the voice of the teller plays at least as much part as the narrative of events. This is what is new and particularly exciting in this book and reveals the influence of Robert Frost (not Edward Thomas who tried this early on with ‘Up in the Wind’ (1914) and then dropped it as not fit for his own purposes). Frost’s eclogues (especially in North of Boston (1914)) manage to convey a bleak, anti-pastoral, godless, modern world of death and often inexplicable suffering. One similarity is that ‘The Cattle Farmer’s Tale’ is spoken by a proprietorial, rather self-satisfied farmer (read Maitreyabandhu on the influence of Frost here). Like Frost, Maitreyabandhu immediately catches character and voice brilliantly. He encounters a mysterious figure: “his not pretending / to be meek or grateful to set me at my ease / and, funny thing, it stopped me in my tracks / so for a moment I stumbled on my words”. This is so like Frost’s ‘Death of the Hired Man’ – the enigmatic visitor, the farmer and his wife, the carefully sketched context, the skilful handling of dialogue in blank verse. Maitreyabandhu adds a few songs too but this is in no way a pastiche but a development of a neglected form for different purposes. The visitor is in fact Buddha and though he talks in cryptic terms, the farmer’s rootedness in the land, his evident pride in his worldly achievements, his bossiness followed by regret in dealing with his wife serve to make the Buddha’s pronouncements palatable in the poem’s world:

 

There are two thoughts, Dhaniya [. . .]

one leads to suffering, the other to joy.

The first is yoked to yearning like a calf,

a suckling calf that’s yoked unto it’s mother,

the other’s like a shadow that never parts.

 

So this really is the cattle farmer’s tale – his response to his encounter with a wholly different set of values (he and his wife are in fact deeply impressed by the visitor who stays for a month). The form of the poem allows the reader room to be sceptical in our modern fashion but also to be moved by the insights and wisdom (old fashioned word) being offered.

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The second yarn, ‘The Travellers from Orissa’, is even more ambitious. Bhallika (the narrator) and Tapussa are again farmers, cattle men, who encounter Buddha in their younger days. Bhallika is again a sceptical voice (“I’m not a fool”) but is nevertheless impressed by the Master, who “spoke in a funny way with gaps / between the words as if he’d just been woken [. . .] his smile, / I shan’t forget, was like gazing at the sea”. But this is not an experience he can easily share with others and he resolves to “keep it to myself”. Tapussa’s response is quite different. The poem makes it clear Tapussa’s character inclines him to “yarns” and in the telling they grow “more fantastical each time”. His response to the meeting with Buddha is to cast himself as the rather attention-seeking disciple, who succeeds in becoming something of a cult figure: “his nodding head, how he held his finger up / each time he spoke to emphasise each word”.

But Tapussa dies, as does Bhallika’s wife and the widower lives on quietly, distantly aware of the Master’s growing fame and influence. At last he meets him again: “I said ‘Master’ before I knew I spoke”. Only now does Bhallika share the details of the original meeting with his son. In fact Tapussa had failed to understand, turning “the whole thing upside-down” to make it all “about himself”. What is moving in this yarn is the fact that Bhallika evidently understood the Buddha’s message (“There is a thorn buried / in the heart of man”) but with his commitment to wife and family and land he “walked back into [his] own life and tried to take it up”. Even years later, he understands “I’d betrayed my life” on that day and with that decision.

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Coleridge’s Mariner and Wedding Guest

Such false and true followers feature in the third yarn too though the human situation is even more finely drawn and prevents any simplistic response to the questions it raises. In a still sketchy but more Westernised context (Sunday morning church) it is ‘Aaron’s Brother’ who narrates. Like Tapussa, it is Aaron who is the more overtly spiritual figure, famously suffering visitations and visions. But there is again a self-regarding quality in the way he readies himself for church before the mirror, “combing his hair”. The story is told to an unnamed guest – there’s much of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner here – who is eager to speak to Aaron and not much interested in his brother. But the brother is in fact adopted and has further secrets to disclose of a homoerotic love between himself and Aaron and (he implies) this partly fuels Aaron’s interest in his young male acolytes.

The treatment of these ingredients of a far grander and dramatic tale than Maitreyabandhu wants to develop suggests a powerfully imaginative act by the poet, the kind of thing Keats admired in Shakespeare. In this third yarn in particular, there is no irritable reaching after facts and clarity; it is a poem which explores the perhaps irresolvable tensions  between the spiritual and the sensual life, the spiritual and materialism and fame, the spiritual and our mundane earthly loves and commitments. I’m interested that Maitreyabandhu has not yet attempted such renovations of the Frostian form in a more overtly contemporary setting. His skills with form and his brilliant capture of colloquial speech, his obviously profound engagement with Buddhist thought and his commitment to poetry as a form of expression make him a unique figure in the UK literary landscape and I really look forward to discovering the direction and innovations of his next collection.

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Maitreyabanhu

Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 2

What follows is the second installment taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing, published by Enitharmon Press. More information and comments on the book can be found here. References to the traditional 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions. The first section (to read it click here) concluded by indicating how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with.

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Proceeding to consider how such awareness (more commonly the absence of it) impacts on our personal (and hence political) lives is also a primary concern of the Daodejing. It comes as no surprise that our battle against the tyranny of the self, that intense, intoxicating selfishness that Coleridge calls “the alcohol of egotism” is the key (the phrase is from an unassigned lecture note, date unknown, on Milton’s Satan, specifically concerning his preference to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. See S. T. Coleridge, Collected Works, ed. Foakes (Princeton UP, 1987), Volume 5, Part 1, p. 427). This is where the untranslatable idea of wu-wei arises. The phrase is intended to characterise actions performed in accordance with, in harmony with the Dao; hence they are driven not by the blinkered and shuttered individual self, but by a more open awareness of the expansive, interconnected reality of the Dao. This is the significance of the recurring idea that the follower of the way should attend not to ‘that’ but to ‘this’. The former implies a divided world (self and other – ‘that’ out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one. Hence, the narrow intentionality, the forcefulness of the self is withdrawn from actions performed in accordance with wu-wei.

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In translating these ideas, I have used the phrase ‘indirect direction’ to suggest the methods of our dealings with others and the ‘unacted deed’ in an attempt to characterise the pursuit of our own intentions. Both phrases are woefully inadequate, but I hope to convey as plainly as possible the paradoxical nature of these ideas. How they are played out in real human behaviours can be glimpsed through the ‘Three treasures’ (Chapter 67). These treasures are: to be compassionate, to be frugal, to lack personal ambition. In each behaviour, egocentricity is diminished through empathy and there is an inclination towards wise passivity. There is a corresponding reduction in the individual’s personally directed desires (‘Wishes’ (Chapter 3)); we are to act ‘Like water’ (Chapter 8), flowing passively, dispassionately towards lower ground in both personal and political spheres (‘Influence’ (Chapter 66)). We are being urged (to switch the metaphor as the Daodejing deliberately does) to work with the grain of the Dao.

This is what the sage pre-eminently promulgates and performs. I have consistently translated this figure as ‘teacher’, often ‘my teacher’ and (though literary Chinese does not mark gender) there is something unmistakably feminine about her behaviours. This is a point the poems declare insistently. The Dao itself has female qualities (‘Valley’ Chapter 6)) and the teacher also reflects this in her quietness, passivity, sensitivity, lack of overt force (‘Raw material’ (Chapter 27)). Stephen Mitchell’s much praised and popular version of the poems carefully uses ‘she’ at least as often as ‘he’ to refer to the teacher figure. (See Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: a New English Version (Harper and Row, 1988), p. xi). But I wanted to go further and have consistently feminised, even personalised this figure. Early on in the translation process, I felt a need to make this shadowy figure more manifest, to ground her pedagogic statements for our more liberal, democratic age with its absence of deference. As I set about this, it was clear she had to be female and she soon took on a dual role, both as representative or personification of the Dao itself and as its incarnation in actual human form, a mother figure, a female teacher, a friend.

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The ways in which these teachings translate into the world of politics are summed up in the terse, witty, metaphor of ‘Recipe’ (Chapter 60). The art of good governance is like the art of cooking a delicate fish: don’t interfere, don’t force it, be watchful, assist, adapt, proceed only with the lightest of touches. Laozi’s politics are impossible to translate to our modern age but given the proviso that he is determined to preserve the simplicity and frugality of people’s lives, many of his sentiments read as politically anarchic, primitivist, conservative, environmentalist. For those of us from a Western tradition, there is a Rousseauistic quality to his thinking, a belief in the goodness of mankind as noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious (‘Codes of kindness’ (Chapter 18)). Laozi is certainly vigorously anti-war, the pursuit of which he regards as the quintessence of the over-determined masculine self in action in utter disregard of the Dao.

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Historically, translators have approached these poems in many ways. Benjamin Penny’s recent review of the field shows how many early versions were motivated by a Western cultural imperialism, searching out affirmations of its own monotheistic tradition (See Benjamin Penny, Introduction to Laozi: Daodejing, tr. Edmund Ryden (OUP, 2008)). Later attempts were spurred by a contrasting desire to find something different, to revitalise moribund Western values in search of exoticism, anti-rationalism, the non-Christian. Still others, keeping a firm hold on a wide variety of already settled spiritual/religious beliefs, plumbed the frequent ambiguities and lacunae of the Daodejing to re-affirm those beliefs. More recently, scholars and academics have brought an ever-growing understanding of Chinese history and culture to bear on these delicate texts and it is surely impossible to avoid accusations of Westernisation in any English version of the Daodejing. Even Stephen Mitchell – who had “a fourteen-years-long course of Zen training” to draw on – has since been accused of colonial mis-appropriation (See Mitchell, ibid., translator’s Forward. For the vigorous accusation, see Russell Kirkland and his book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Routledge, 2004)).

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In my case, it was as a long-standing teacher, poet and recent translator of Rainer Maria Rilke that I first came to the text. I found myself in astonishing sympathy with many of the things it has to say about language and poetry and especially about the pedagogic process, both formally and in our everyday interactions. Laozi suggests the teacher’s role is to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. We must be honest, be ourselves, give the tools, give opportunities, do our job well, but then let go, don’t dwell. We need to be someone to emulate, be quiet, still, attentive, be present, not absent, be mindful, be welcoming. Our role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Laozi knows that our teacherly interventions – whether physical or verbal – must inevitably alter the material we hope to engage with; we set in motion a swinging pendulum. Our actions call forth responses to the fact we act, plan, demand. Students may re-act to this (against this) simply because we are seen to act. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else. Laozi believes students come upon discoveries by themselves. So we must work via indirect direction and the unacted deed. Progress will be seen to happen of its own accord. The deed we desire will remain undone; this is the best way of getting it done.

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Idealistic? Of course, as can be seen most vividly in ‘The commonwealth’ (Chapter 80) which is Laozi’s evocation of the contented society adhering to the ways of the Dao. For Western readers, this poem echoes Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in its turn lifted from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ (Montaigne, Essays (1580). Shakespeare read and paraphrased John Florio’s 1603 translation into English). Laozi’s original gift to the gatekeeper is not to be read as a handbook, not an instructional scripture, but as inspiration. Bearing that in mind, we ought correspondingly to resist the temptation to approach it with the dismissive cynicism of an Antonio or Sebastian, Shakespeare’s all-too-modern sounding cynical ‘evil men’. I think we ought to listen to these poems open-mindedly, mindfully. We ought to resist following the crowd so vividly portrayed in ‘Adrift’ (Chapter 20) who always say, “Prithee, no more; thou dost talk nothing to me” (The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1, l.169). When the true teacher stands in our house, no matter how detached, untidy, unimpressive, even muddled she may superficially appear, Laozi is reminding us “there are treasures beneath” (‘In your house’ (Chapter 70)).

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