On the Importance of Considering Nothing #2

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.

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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.

Part 2

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]

 

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Helen of Troy (Red Figure Vase)

 

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:

 

singing,

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]

 

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Traditional image of Laozi

 

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

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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

 

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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.

 

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Iain McGilchrist

 

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.

Elevation of Tomb of Theodoric, Ravenna

Notes

[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).

2016 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5: Harry Giles

This is the fifth and final installment in the series of reviews I have been posting of the collections chosen for the 2016 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 20th September. Click here for all 5 of my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The 2016 shortlist is:

Nancy Campbell – Disko Bay (Enitharmon Press) – click here for my review of this book

Ron Carey – Distance (Revival Press) – click here for my review of this book

Harry Giles – Tonguit (Freight Books)

Ruby Robinson – Every Little Sound (Liverpool University Press) – click here for my review of this book

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book

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Thanks to Freight Books for providing a copy of Harry Giles’ book for review purposes.

I’d only come across Harry Giles’ work as a Guardian featured poem in June in response to his Forward short-listing. The chosen poem was ‘Piercings’ and suggested Giles was working the same area that Andrew McMillan did so successfully last year. What might be an autobiographical masculine narrative voice recognises a passer-by as an old encounter: “four years since / he hauled me into a lift with / Want to make out?” But the man had then been sporting various body piercings which have since been removed in order to become “employable, less obvious” whereas the narrator has continued making “more holes”, continued to accumulate the badges of a rebelliousness the other has given up on. The final question, “So what do you do now?” is therefore made poignantly redundant, each, surely, reading the tell-tale signs of the other’s body.

But ‘Piercings’ is by far the most conventional poem in Tonguit and Giles is no McMillan, nor does he want to be. On the facing page is a poem made from extracts from One Direction’s Harry Styles’ fanfiction. The title, ‘Slash poem in which Harry Giles meets Harry Styles’, gives a feel for its playfulness though the poem itself does not seem to amount to much. Perhaps it amounts to more if read in the context of Giles’ other manipulations of texts and discourses which have a more obviously seditious intent. The last poem in the collection offers ‘Further Drafts’ of a phrase often used by Alistair Gray: “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”. Giles works various rhyming turns on the first and last words of this phrase eventually to arrive at “lurk as if you live in the early days of a better sedition”. It’s ‘Harry Styles’, manufactured pop idol and X Factor/Simon Cowell cash cow, that is the real target of Giles’ poem (though it lurks with some seditious intent, it’s still not among his best).

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Giles is interested in the processing of texts, sampling from George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, or creating cut-up texts from information associated with Abu Dhabi’s artificial island and cultural centre, ‘Saadiyat’.  The satirical effects are delivered through simple repetition and disjunction, questioning the original source’s coherence and integrity, where ecological sustainability becomes “a core value integrated into the design approach / in terms of throughout the the the concept design” [sic]. ‘You Don’t Ever Have to Lose’ does something similar with advertising text from IT services company Atos. ‘Your Strengths’ is a more powerful text in its own right, this time using source material from the Department of Work and Pensions Capability Assessment, the UK Citizenship Test and other psychometric tests to make a thunderous barrage of questions ranging from the invasive, absurd, profound, squirm-inducing and piddling to the politically loaded. Giles also works textual legerdemain in ‘Sermon’, based on a speech by David Cameron in which the word “terrorism” is replaced by the word “love”:

 

We must make it impossible

for lovers to succeed. We need to argue

that love is wrong. To belong here

is to believe in these things.

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This processing of texts, often randomly, often derived from the internet or Google searches, sometimes with editorial influence in the final result is presented as politically subversive. As the Tonguit blurb suggests, it derives from the belief that we are all warped and changed by the language/s that surround us and inhabit us. The hope of the lyric poet working towards his/her own truth is devalued, considered delusional, impossibly bound up in Blake’s socio-psycho-political “mind-forged manacles”. We liberate ourselves by breaking these, unpicking or smashing the dominating discourses around us. And if our deliberate intention is already suspect then we must achieve it randomly, perhaps via a machine. It’s a form of surrealism which profoundly questions our use of language and owes a lot to the Oulipian experiments of Raymond Queneau. Giles’ collection title, Tonguit, productively seems to hover between an urgent imperative to individual vocalisation – tongue it! – and more passive implications about the way other people’s language/s oppress the individual – we have been tongued!

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The more imperative mood is obvious in ‘Curriculum’ which takes aim at normative education and gives it both barrels:

 

Mix me a metaphor of noble gases,

economic engines and avant-garde

taxonomies, with Kingdom Phylum Order

gone to bloody Dada. Get down and dirty

 

with transects, quadrants.

 

There is a Wildean element to this sort of systematic over-turning though there is no doubt about Giles’ seriousness beneath the often funny, ludic quality of these poems and there is none of Wilde’s self-regarding quality. Harry Giles himself – as a recognisable, recurring, coherent, autobiographical figure – is curiously absent from most of these poems though I don’t doubt the sincerity of a poem like ‘Waffle House Crush’:

 

I’ll have you smothered n covered

diced n peppered n

capped n lathered n

lustred n smoothed n

spread

 

Giles’ various linguistic masks don’t hide so much as free him into more liberated forms of expression. I’ve deliberately not yet mentioned his most obvious, deliberately chosen mode of expression: what he calls his own “mongrel and magpie” form of Scots. Dave Coates has pointed out that, as in Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Giles provides no glosses in the book on his particular Scots, “an implicit assertion of the language’s place within the broader spectrum of Englishes”. Giles’ Scots sets itself deliberately against discourses like those of the DWP and Atos as a declaration of variousness. Nor is he averse to something like a declaration of war:

 

Let’s be arsonists. Let’s birn the year.

[. . .]

Let’s mak like airtists

n birn the leebrars [libraries] acause we shoudna, n birn

Pairlament acause we shoud.

 

What follows is an apocalyptic conflagration of all things, down to the “thocht o fire”.

But the sheer vigour of Giles’ intent means his Scots is a lot harder to follow than Jamie’s. In fact, he does provide his readers with a full gloss/translation on his website. I needed this to be honest to deal with a lot of the Scots text, though the ‘translations’ then read as somewhat awkward, watered down versions of a quite different language (rather than a form of English). But it is worth the effort to really appreciate the tour de force of national- and self-assertion that is ‘Brave’. Like some Highland Whitman, making himself and his nation through singing (I’m losing some of the lay-out here):

 

A sing o google Scotland

o laptop Scotland,

o a Scotland sae dowf on [dulled by] bit-torrentit HBO

drama series n DLC packs fer

paistapocalyptic RPGs

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But also the Scotland “whit chacks the date o Bannockburn on Wikipaedia” and fears “o wan day findin oot / juist hou parochial aw hits cultural references mey be”. ‘The Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ takes all the clichés that phrase might suggest and instead describes a man who “has thay lang white scairs on / baith sides o his mooth fae smiling that damn wide” (my italics). This is of a piece with the Cameron subversion as we hear that the man is “that bluidy haird he’s a hairt tattoed wi Dulux on his bicep n aw hit says is A LUV YE”. There’s a risk of this getting as caricatured as the cliché it intends to subvert but Giles’ Scots is put to terrific seditious intent in ‘Tae a Cooncillor’ – a kind of one-sided flyting in which the local councillor who wants to close down a swimming pool is mocked mercilessly:

 

Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart,

whit unco warld maks ye wir maister?

Whit glamour has ye risin fest as

projectile boak?

Hit’s time tae gie yer feechie fouster [nasty fester]

an honest soak.

 

This is committed, bolshie, rebel-script done with great skill and immense energy but Harry Giles is too interested in too much to settle merely for this. I was interested in his Scots (or rather specifically Orcadian) versions of a few chapters of the Laozi’s Daodejing. He astutely titles these ‘Aald rede fir biggin a kintra’ [Old advice for building a country] again recalling Alistair Gray’s dictum. The opacity of the language makes Giles’ versions a hard read but (if I may) here’s his boldly economical version of chapter 53 (some indentations lost here again) followed by my own recently published version:

 

53

a bit wittins

whan waakan the wey

are a rod tae dree

 

the wey is snod

an fock cheust fancy the ramse

 

govrenment divided

sheens growen-up

kists empie

but heidyins’ claes are braa

thay’ve barrie blads

are stecht wi maet

gey rowthie

 

caa this the darg o reivers

an no the wey

 

Crooked avenue

chapter 53

 

—perhaps you have begun well

one step after another along the way

 

yet you walk in fear of side-tracks

the great way running level and plain

 

still who can resist those side-tracks

soon as good governance is in place

 

we’re liable to neglect our business

too soon the tall barns lie empty

 

sooner wear fashionable clothes heels

daggers for glances glut on food and booze

 

have more than we can sensibly use—

dawn breaks on some crooked avenue

 

what was it happened to the way

 

Tonguit is a bubbling cauldron of a book, willing to take risks that don’t always come off, but guided by a belief in the need to challenge the assumptions and languages of the status quo. Harry Giles is a fascinating figure (go to his website here ) and his characterisation of his Scots as “magpie” is as much applicable to his multifaceted work in theatre, software, twitterbots and visual arts, all forms of “art about protest and protest about art”. Whether contemporary poetry, as in books like this one, will prove sufficiently interesting and flexible for his creativity remains to be seen.

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Here There Now Then – A Touch on the Remote

There are occasions when events from the past seem to become so fully present in the moment as we live it that it’s as if a gulf has been bridged between them. It’s a sort of redemption – though the events themselves may need no redeeming. What is salved is the permanent vanishing of the earlier through the intensity of attention accorded it by the later, perhaps especially so if our attention is manifested in language, a poem. There is an aspect here of Seamus Heaney’s idea of the redress of poetry which I ought to figure out more clearly.

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But I was left with thoughts such as these last week, having read for Dawn Gorman’s Words and Ears series of poetry readings in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire. We’d set it up many months ago and I had been looking forward to it especially as this is close to my home town, Trowbridge, and my mother’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Bradford. I was also delighted to be reading with Linda Saunders who has just published a new collection with Worple Press, A Touch on the Remote. I’d had a few meetings with Linda many years ago (in the 1980s) when she would go up to Oxford to visit my old friend and mentor, Tom Rawling. There were several workshops at his house, I think, in that peculiarly intense summer sunshine of the past, full of hope and literary expectation. Like much of Rawling’s work, the opening sequence of Saunder’s new collection is composed of poems concerned with acutely observed landscape – in several cases observed with an almost visionary sense of history . . .

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Linda Saunders

My mother was christened Bernice, first child of Graham and Elsie Hale in 1922. Her sister, Gwen, quickly followed. There was no immediate prospect of their leaving the White Hill house which was a one-up, one-down with attic. The two girls had to share the middle room with ‘Gran’ (as they called Elsie’s mother, Rhoda). They walked up White Hill to school at Christ Church. They skipped down to the sweet shop, to the ‘bake house’, to the centre of town. On Sundays they climbed Coppice Hill to the Methodist church and Sunday School.  In good weather, the two girls hooked their arms over the iron railings outside the house with Elsie in the doorway warning them not to stray far. They jumped up and down the high kerb stones, played whips and tops on the steep, quiet street. On wet days, they stared through the front window, across the roofs of the town below to the spire of Holy Trinity. Bernice was badly ill with scarlet fever when she was eight years old and for a long while afterwards was so weakened that she had to be helped everywhere in an old pushchair.

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Saunders’ own strong sense of history can be seen in ‘Washing the Horses’ where the narrator watches people who “sleek soap-lather” on their horses’ wet hides. A bit later, the horses dry off on the bankside, “bays, pintos, strawberry roans, a shetland / with a foal no taller than an Eohippus. // This has been happening forever”. In ‘The Bridge at Iford’, a couple kneel as if in a ritual act, “like pilgrims” to watch the water flow under the bridge, themselves being watched by statues of “Greco-Roman deities”. Then the arrival of a newly-betrothed couple for photographs at the picturesque scene leads to thoughts of the future too – “Live happily. I think to them in passing, / ever after – the wish as ultrasonic as / the pipistrelle’s twitter”.

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The Bridge at Iford Manor

The narrator’s image of the pipistrelle bat’s piercing signal could serve as one of the key images in Saunders’ work. Elsewhere she jokes about the onset of deafness: “Something I say, something she said / flies past us into the wood” (‘Hidden Valley’). It’s these forms of strained/successful communications across time and across distance (with a son living in the USA) that also provide material for a later sequence of poems: “I see him stepping over the door sill / across a crack of time” (‘Into the Blue’).

We would squeeze into the Standard 10 to visit my grandparents on Winsley Road, Bradford. It was a dark, terraced house which had an immense front garden with a pleasingly straight path from the front gate to the door in the centre of the facade. This path was lined with planted borders, the earth heaping up from the lower level of the path and there were roses and vegetables elsewhere and I am sure an allotment somewhere. At the back of the house was a tiny yard containing the outdoor toilet, a fascinatingly musty dark cramped garden shed, a sweltering little green house which seemed always full of tomato plants. There was also a raised piece of grass – you could not call it a lawn – where we tried to play football or cricket but the risk of the low walls was really too great. Instead, we often played on that long front path; Corgi cars pushed to and fro as we breathed in the acrid-sweet smell of lush cushions of blooming white alyssum.

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Saunders’ background is in History of Art as well as literature. You can see this in ‘Reserve’ where she describes the processes of a painter preparing the ground for an object on the canvas, in this case an apple. The poet is interested in the absence, the vast potentiality before the object appears: “There are moments I sense // the inter-touch of me with everything – / this unselving reach”. During the Words and Ears evening, I read a number of poems from my Daodejing versions which also suggest that such an “unselving” might prove a happier and more fulfilling line to take in life. With our own “unselving”, the more aware we become of our surroundings, our context in both space and time.

It is Saturday tea – laid out on the living room table. There is a second front room hardly ever used which, if you open the door and peer in, feels chilled, dark, a little musty and formal and a baffling waste of space. We sit round the table and eat sandwiches, perhaps crumpets, malt loaf, Victoria sponge or the pink and yellow check of Battenberg cake which I loathe because of the marzipan covering. Nan or Mum often slice the rounded ribbed milk loaf that I have never seen anywhere else, turning it on its end and slicing horizontally, perilously.

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In ‘Love Portrait’, Saunders describes a window on another canvas as yet “unpainted”. She wonders “could this be the light that slips / past time”. Because the artist has yet to define it, perhaps this is also the light that communicates between times.

We wore short trousers, of course, and I still can feel the way the thick dark tablecloth with its tasselled edges brushed my thighs making me want to scratch them. Elsie’s husband, Graham, was a quiet mild man, always limping because of a shrapnel wound in the leg from the battle of the Somme. He sang in a local choir, had worked all his life at Nestle in Staverton, gardened keenly and seemed a loving husband and father though to us he was a rather remote, taciturn grandfather. Just once he exploded at us for something I have now forgotten – perhaps just making too much noise or not clearing the table of toys or drawing books quickly enough when he wanted to swing the heavy cloth across it in readiness for the meal. Given his generally gentle demeanour, his blazing, brutal anger astonished and appalled us.

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The final poem of Saunders collection is ‘Stepping Stones’. Another artist, a sculptor this time, makes “foot-shapes of stone”: “The child found them one at a time, / spotting the next from where she stood on the last / up to her thighs in seedheads and buttercups. / Where will they go? she asked the sculptor”. They lead onwards inevitably into the next moment, then the next – but to live wholly in the present, only in a language composed of present participles, is a form of dementia, a quite different and destructive form of “unselving”. Our making sense of things requires our awareness and exploration of the temporal.

Explaining Water Images in the ‘Daodejing’

Daoism has been referred to as the Watercourse Way because of the importance of water images in its key source, the Daodejing. I thought much about these images in translating/versioning these ancient Chinese texts and I want to record a few thoughts systematically here. However, as you’ll see, trying to ‘fix’ something runs counter to the Way – yet even if what we seek runs through our hands, the effort to consider the role of such images is worthwhile. (I have blogged about other images in the Daodejing here).

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The Daodejing uses water images in two ways. Firstly as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies at the heart of all its thinking – imagine the vastness of the ocean, the unfixable flux of flowing water, never the same river twice. The texts also use water images to suggest aspects of our behaviour (personal and political) if we are acting in accordance with the Dao or Way. Many use metaphors of water in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined because in its nature indefinable in language or figures.

So Chapter 1, ‘Nursery’ (I’ll give my titles as well as traditional Chapter numbers), introduces water images while giving a clear indication of the short-comings of all language. It deploys a metaphor that immediately undermines the efficacy of its own figurative 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 a further metaphor: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomena of our world can only be suggested through additional metaphors such as a “mould”, a “source”, a “mystery”. Even this is not enough; more than a mystery it is “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. In my version I introduced a watery context for the source itself (indefinably, untrackably “adrift”). I then developed this to image it as a body of water held behind a “flood-gate” which only in release and inundation delivers “greater truth”. 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 just beyond our grasp.

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A similar image of a body of water occurs in Chapter 4, ‘Something greater’. The tenor of the metaphor is again reduced to “it” in the opening line.  The context indicates that “it” is the Dao itself, the One that precedes and contains all things, that state of wholeness and plentitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. Here the tentative nature of the metaphor is indicated firstly through the opening imperative – “imagine” – and then because the text itself consists of proposed alternatives to this very image. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource: “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. This image of a bottomless water source is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry” yet this follows 4 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

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And the poem calmly goes on to declare its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin, or beginnings, is not adequate to convey the full force of the Dao but the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – seems to come close.

The second way in which water images are used in the Daodejing is as a gesture towards actual human behaviours which occur when we are influenced by the Dao: in knowing that the truth of the Dao is like a watery flood, we behave in a water-ish fashion. So ‘The great rivers’ (Chapter 32) reminds that the Dao “has no name” and uses one of the other recurring images of it (the uncarved block of wood). If “the powerful” would attend to the nature of the Dao they would be successful “without recourse / to compulsion or law”. One of the recurring political beliefs of these texts is that if society is organised and governed in accordance with the Dao then people will live in “harmony” without even trying (indeed it is the trying that causes the harm – see wu wei below). Metaphorically, this translates as a society knowing “when to call a halt” to our distancing from truth (the hacking of the block, the reliance on naming/language, our remoteness from the ‘water’ source that is the Dao). The poem ringingly concludes with the image of right human behaviours being likened to the natural flow of water:

 

all things come to those

who follow the way

as all wild streams

and all unruly torrents

drive eventually

to great rivers the sea

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Water is also the image used to consider more individual behaviour. ‘Best teaching’ (Chapter 43) opens rhetorically, alluding again to water:

 

—what of all things is most yielding

tell me what overwhelms the hardest

 

without solid form itself what flows

penetrates even the smallest gap

 

This understanding of the action of water in its pliability and fluidity, its erosion effects and its penetrability, reminds the poet of the concept of wu wei, or non-action, another untranslatable but key idea in the whole sequence. This is the wise person’s ability to achieve actions or goals without determined or intended pursuit of them. I have translated this as “unacted deed” and this poem immediately links this to the art of teaching, the best of which “occurs in the absence of words” (show not tell?). Water is an appropriate image for this in its passivity yet power, its pliability yet ineluctable nature. The poem ends almost with a shrug at the difficulty of grasping such concepts or behaviours:

 

the unacted deed the indirect

direction—it’s hard to comprehend

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The text of ‘Clearest words’ (Chapter 78) reinforces the image of water as a key aid to understanding Daoist thought:

 

—there is nothing in the world more soft

more yielding than water

yet in conflict with hard resistant things

there’s nothing better

and there is no way to alter this

what is yielding will defeat what resists

these are facts clearly known to all

why don’t we make better use of them

 

In these final lines we can perhaps hear Laozi’s legendary disgruntlement with the parlous state of the real world – why don’t we put known truths into action? Yet here again, the poem concludes by recognising how difficult such simple principles can be to grasp: “even clearest words are contradictory”.

Chapter 61, ‘Tributaries’, returns to a more political perspective with its comments on how “strong nations” ought to behave. The action of water in relation to both geography and gravity is the figure used on this occasion:

 

—strong nations must play the low ground

to which all contributing waters flow

the point to which all things converge

 

This ensures that any exercise of power by such nations will “issue from stillness” and “quiescence” (according to the principle of wu wei) rather than self-assertion, anxious, fearful imposition, bullying. It’s this (former) sort of behaviour that the Daodejing repeatedly returns to and characterises as “female” and what follows is one of the most beautiful passages where water images are integral to the meaning:

 

[ . . . ] and the male cannot

resist he brings his watery tributes

and she gains adherents he procures favour

as she looks to embrace and empower

he finds himself part of a greater thing

in this way becomes part of creation

so both thrive both discovering bliss—

real power is female it rises from beneath

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This coincidence of water images and female images and the description of the passive exertion of power, nourishment, subtlety, irresistibility, is wholly characteristic of these poems. The image of water collecting at its lowest point – power exerted by doing nothing – is likewise the focus of ‘Influence’ (Chapter 66) which explicitly links such calculated passivity with virtuous potency:

 

—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

 

only in this way can true leaders rise

not stifling people with their being on top

not bullying them into harm’s way

 

only this way all things under heaven

are content to range under your influence

not find instruction provocative—

 

a teacher achieves not by trying to achieve

and because she does not strain to succeed

there’s no-one comes forward to compete

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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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Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 1

What follows is taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing. References to the tradition 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions.

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It’s said the keeper of the western gate, whose name was perhaps Yin Xi, realised the old librarian from the royal archives of the state of Zhou did not intend to return. He knew the old man as a quiet, wise character, never someone at the heart of activities, never excluded by others, an observer, seldom observed, always ready to offer advice, not eager to thrust himself forward, often ignored, never wisely. The gatekeeper called, ‘Old Master, Laozi! If you intend not to return, if you mean to renounce the world, then leave a record of your thoughts. Write me a book to remember you by.’ The old man climbed down from his humble oxcart, borrowed pen and ink. A few hours later, he handed Yin Xi a script of some 5000 characters and then continued westwards, never to be seen again.

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So the poems of the Daodejing are a gift, freely given at a point of change, a gateway to new experience. They are also a turning away from the world (Laozi is said to have despaired of its venality and corruption), yet a transmission intended to aid, an inspired out-pouring of poetry as much as a moral and political handbook. Perhaps above all we should think of them as a response to a personal request. Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 poem, ‘Legend of the origin of the book Tao-Te-Ching on Lao-Tzu’s road into exile’, seeks to praise the “customs man” who “deserves his bit. / It was he who called for it” (tr. John Willett). Modern scholarship, of course, has long since stripped away such eloquent myths. Most likely, the current 5000 characters of the Daodejing were far fewer to begin with, a series of orally transmitted seed verses compiled by many hands, an aide memoire, certainly an aid to teaching from as far back as the 7th century BCE. Passed on orally, then transcribed, with the usual levels of error, displacement, ‘correction’ and happenstance, the text has also been subject to the Chinese tradition of written commentaries and these intercalated texts have themselves become vanishingly absorbed into the original. Such an uncertain state of the text legitimates considerable levels of ‘correction’ for most would-be translators; in this case, I have excised material only from ‘Dangers of prominence’ (Chapter 13) and ‘The great clamour’ (Chapter 23), silently removing a few lines of (what I thought of as) redundant repetition.

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Yet the poems are still vivid, astonishingly fresh, irresistible. They are also still subject to continuing textual debate and archaeological inquiry. The standard text has long been the one associated with the scholar Wang Bi (226-49CE) which divides the Daodejing into 81 Chapters and those into two sections. On the importance and insights of Wang Bi, see Wagner, Rudolf G., The Craft of a Chinese Commentator: Wang Bi on the Laozi (SUNY Press, 2000). The Dao or Way is made up of the first 37 Chapters; the De or Power occupies Chapters 38 to 81. But an archaeological dig as recently as 1973 at Mawangdui revealed two new versions of the text, dating from around 200BCE. Surprisingly, both Mawangdui texts reverse this order and some recent versions into English have adopted this change. Most notably, see Robert G. Hendricks who produced a re-shaped Lao-tzu Te-Tao Ching: A New Translation Based on the Recently Discovered Ma-wang-tui Texts (Ballantine Books, 1989). Also see D. C. Lau’s second translation of the texts published as Lao-Tzu Tao Te Ching (Everyman Books, 1982). I have not done so. The traditional division between the Way and the Power of the Dao is by no means watertight or proven but I feel it makes more sense to explore the nature of the Way before considering its more specific manifestations. Also, as a sequence of poems, ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1), summing up as it does so much of what is to follow, surely has to come first.

Though probably the work of many hands over many years, it’s still hard not to hear (with Wang Bi) a distinctive voice, a coherent poetic style – alluringly laconic, clipped, coolly enigmatic; it flaunts its paradoxes, is boldly metaphorical, juxtapositional, repetitive to the point of liturgical, urgent, unashamedly epigrammatic. In short, we seem to hear Laozi writing a kind of poetry which enthusiastically accepts that its profound and heartfelt messages are inevitably compromised by the need to express them in the form of language, hence demanding that it employ a variety of technical manoeuvres, that it stays light on its feet. Of course, language is imperfect but it’s what we must use and I have given titles to each of the Chapters to encourage contemporary readers to approach them in large part as language, I mean as poetry.

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For a text so geographically, culturally and temporally remote, some consideration of key images and ideas is necessary. The Dao is not an individual entity, still less anything divine, it is more a mode of being that is all encompassing, a phenomenal, an existential primacy – perhaps akin to the western idea of original chaos. It can usefully be seen from epistemological, temporal, perceptual, political or environmental perspectives, though none of these exhaust its real nature. It is not subject to time yet contains it. It is never fixed. It is the ever-here, both omnipresent and unchanging. We might be tempted to say the Dao is the substratum of all things, the ground base – but language’s introduction of levels and hierarchical ideas is not helpful to our already feeble grasp of it. Certainly, it is the whole, the one that precedes the many.

So these poems explore how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with. They suggest the Dao initially gives rise to two things, heaven and earth (‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1)) and the poems subsequently make use of the formulation ‘the ten thousand things’ to suggest the Dao’s proliferation or subdivision into all there is. It is in this way that the Dao is the mother of all things (‘Of all things’ (Chapter 25)); it is like water, a pool from which all things draw life (‘Something greater’ (Chapter 4); it is the uncarved block of wood that has inherent within it all things that have been, are, will be (‘Uncarved wood’ (Chapter 15). Most importantly, the Dao is beyond conception and so beyond any conventional use of language, the limits of which constitute a recurring motif in the Daodejing: ‘Nursery’ (Chapter 1); ‘Awareness (Chapter 56); ‘Store (Chapter 81). Of course, our quotidian lives must pass in this ‘fallen’ state, full of a misplaced confidence in the reality of the ten thousand things, including our own discrete selves, so Laozi emphasises – in recurrent images of reprise or re-visiting – that only if we can return to a more clear awareness of the presence and reality of the Dao, can our behaviour and experience of life be more true, fulfilled, harmonious. Tennyson’s otherwise unremarkable poem, ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), describes approaching the “mortal limit of the Self” and passing “into the Nameless [. . .] and thro’ loss of Self / The gain of such large life as match’d with ours / Were sun to spark – unshadowable in words”.

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 Part 2 of this Introduction to the Daodejing will be posted next week (and is now available by clicking here).

 

 

Images of the Child in Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’

Most images of the child in Laozi’s Daodejing appear as metaphors. For a text that has a strongly backward-looking, even primitivist tendency there is surprisingly little of our own post-Romantic fetishisation of childhood. For Wordsworth, the child could be seriously considered father of the man and the loss of childhood an event from which we never recover. But for Laozi (almost as paradoxically) the child is more often used as an image of the state of being towards which the wise man or woman strives.

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For example in Chapter 20, the narrative voice compares himself to a child (all translations in what follows are from my forthcoming book (Spring 2016)). This is one of the few parts of the Daodejing where we hear a reasonably consistent lyric voice (not the figure of the teacher) expressing a troubled state of mind because he tries to adopt the teachings of Laozi. Though opening optimistically, “—in putting by what / passes for knowledge / truth is there are / fewer reasons to grieve”, the narrator is soon perturbed by his observations of “the grinning crowd”. What follows is a vivid description of the worldly mob, intent on their own petty, material lives, their narrow purposes:

 

as if celebrating

closing some deal

 

about to embark

on a summer vacation

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This is the world that Laozi (the putative author of the Daodejing) is said to have despaired of in his own time. The story goes that he vanished from Chinese society sometime in the sixth century BCE, leaving behind only the 81 Chapters of the Daodejing as a kind of despairing, if consolatory handbook. In Chapter 20, the narrator reaches for the image of a child in trying to characterise himself:

 

I live in solitude

I’m like a quiet child

 

though one who’s yet

to take his first steps

I’m like an infant

incapable of smiling

 

I dither and droop

find no place to belong

[. . . ] I seem

to have let things slip

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His contrast to the determined mob is vivid and for most of the poem it seems not strongly in his favour. However, the concluding lines present a more satirical tone, a more defiant effort at self-confidence, declaring that he finds:

 

no significance

in those things

that do not drive roots

deep in the way

 

On several occasions, the poems present those who follow the way, the teachings of Laozi, as ill-adjusted to the world as we find it. Chapter 28 begins to explain why. The follower of the way does not divide or discriminate; her vision of life is comprehensive:

 

—know the male

yet hold to the female

become a valley

in receipt of all things

 

in becoming a valley

know the power

that cannot be

called on in vain

 

In achieving such a state of perception (we might say vision), the poem again calls on the image of a child: “this the reprise / to the child-like state”. That this is a reprise, a return of some sort, is an idea repeated throughout the 81 Chapters of the Daodejing. I think this sounds more Wordsworthian than it really is. Laozi is more concerned to draw his readers’ attention back to the wisdom of a previous age rather than one innately the preserve of childhood and subsequently lost as the bars of the prison house fall. But perhaps both images really ought to be read as no more than metaphors. Interestingly, Chapter 28, deploys an alternative metaphor in its effort to convey the wholeness of vision:

 

be the reversion

to the uncarved block

when the block is cut

shaped for use

 

by the teacher’s hand

a controlling force

the truth is who carves

best carves least

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Reprise here becomes “reversion” but the “uncarved block” represents the oneness of being that Laozi’s teaching is founded on. The resort to the figurative suggests the basic inadequacy of language to encompass this oneness – just one of the very modern-seeming themes of these wonderful poems.

The premise of this oneness yields the (again modern-sounding) corollary that even our individual selves are provisional at best. The opening of Chapter 49 suggests:

 

—the true teacher is like a poet

who has no self to speak of

using the self of others as his own

 

And Laozi is under no illusions about how such beliefs distance the believer from the world as it is lived. The sage, or master, or (as I have translated it) the teacher, inevitably seems a square peg in a round hole. But it is ironically she who perceives the underlying truth of things:

 

in the way she deals with the world

the teacher may seem dazed

confused as if her wits were dull

 

yet even as the nation’s households

strain ears and eyes she listens

she watches in the guise of a child

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The most developed consideration of the image of the child comes in Chapter 55. Those who manage to follow the way possess a child-like innocence that William Blake would recognise as built not on narrowness, naivety and ignorance but on a fullness of knowledge beyond what most of us can aspire to and such transcendent innocence is like a protective charm. In Chapter 55, images of children include indications of sexuality and pain suggesting a world undivided by conventionally shallow ideas of morality or ‘happiness’, a world of profound harmony discovered in the recognition of the oneness of all things. The poem also powerfully argues that to be ignorant of this truth breeds egotism and greed which, under the guise of acquisition and self-aggrandisement, turn out to be nothing less than a primrose path to a form of extinction.

 

Dead inflexibility

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—the immunity of one pursuing the way

is like the charm of innocence about a child

 

winged insects will not sting nor beasts

attack sharp beaks do not swoop to peck

 

though bones may be soft and sinews weak

yet the grip of the child is powerful still

 

and though the sexual life is still remote

the boy’s prick stands stiff as a thumb

 

despite the hungry child’s keening all day

she sleeps with no rawness in her throat

 

the body of a child has such harmony—

to know harmony is to find the ever-here

 

finding the ever-here is enlightenment

but cramming life to the brim is foolish

 

when such a person asks so much of life

the resulting glut is dead inflexibility

 

such irritable reaching only ends in decay

 

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