Poem of the Week | September 29, 2014
Jennifer Atkinson & Gillian Parrish: "Dream Test: a renga of devotion"
This week we’re delighted to offer a collaborative poem by Jennifer Atkinson and Gillian Parrish. Jennifer Atkinson is the author of four collections of poetry. The most recent, Canticle of the Night Path, won Free Verse’s 2012 New Measure Prize. Poems have appeared in journals including Field, Image, Witness, New American Writing, Poecology, Terrain, The Missouri Review, and Cincinnati Review. She teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at George Mason University.
Gillian Parrish’s poems have appeared in various journals, including American Letters & Commentary, Gulf Coast, and The Literary Review. She curates spacecraftprojects, an online journal that features conversations with various artists as well as some poems.
In a year of hard travel, Gillian reached out to old poet friends to write collaborative poems/lyric essays in a renga-like mode of oblique linking that would make a space for contemplative conversation on topics that matter most. She approached the poet Jennifer Atkinson to think through the idea of devotion, given their shared interest in the Buddhist tradition and Jennifer’s mystic Christian aesthetics, seen most recently in her book of canticles: Canticle of the Night Path. Both writers draw from stories of saints or siddhas, crossing waters and walking towards wells, whether in Ireland, India or Samaria. Jennifer opened the series with the first entry, followed by the third, fifth, seventh and ninth. Gillian’s are the even numbers. She includes a few direct quotes or references, starting with Blake’s “ghost of a flea” in the second entry. In the sixth, “In thunderous silence” is from the Vimalakirti sutra, a text that, like the Flower Sermon, refutes any attempt to speak about ultimate truth. The last entry contains some pieces of Paradise Lost, Book 1, and the closing words echo Samuel Beckett’s in The Unnamable, a work that grapples with questions of doubt and faith in language, and language in silence.
Dream Test: a renga of devotion
Remember how in San Juan de la Cruz’s sublime, erotic, surreal canticle of devotion, in which the I climbs what seems to be a spiraling dark stairway (upward? downward?) looking for the Beloved? When they finally do find one another, the I’s naked breast blooms under his Beloved’s resting head. Such tenderness! And then the Beloved strikes him, leaving him senseless—no, more like beyond the senses—lost in forgetfulness among sugar lilies.
It is a quirk of saints that start to finish, they are lost. Lost in thunder and thorns. In dull light of latrines, in kitchen-swill, in stables, sweeping away the work of years. Lost in the locust wilderness, bewilderment of honey. Lost in bellies of beasts, in billows of flood or fire, as if fire is some kind of fun and water the leviathan tide between stars. For saints are nothing if not carried away. It is the work of saints that they are always leaving, and they like to leave for good. Left the palaces, the plum-ripe places. The red shoes, the lutes and the dancing. Left the child and mother and every last wish. For they even leave the one true love, standing there in the garden. Just as the hyacinth bloomed. Left the leavings of the ones they left, a book half-read, the ribbon-bound lock of hair. Left themselves for dead. They follow amnesiac flickers, fall towards a dream or death of a dream. Not knowing what they do. Saints are satellites tuned to the color of rain. Saints hum. They stutter, shout, they sing. Of bees, of blood, of frozen ground, of mansions, arson, nothing left. All in answer to some call that they can never quite believe. Calling in the voice of noon, the pollen-filled heart, the midnight ghost of a flea. Called in the voice of winter, so even the grass is crooning. Dog-call and mockingbird, who’s there? Some half-word half-heard strung between belly and breastbone. Something speaking the language of stars. In the dark wood they sat down. Sat down in the charnel ground, hospital, wrong side of town. In tar pits, in thickets, in lotus-blossom lakes on fire. In prisons, in burned ruins. At the snow line, sat down. At their backs, the green seam of glaciers. In front, it’s always the ends of the earth—the desert, the cliff and long fall to the sea. How they floated for days, not knowing. Bellies full of moonlight. Roaming the boneyard outside the city walls. For saints are far from our protection. And anyway, they know how to die well. For it is a trick of saints to die a lot. Death on the mountain-peak-meadow-parking-lot-corner-of-main-street. Death like a dove or death like a door kicked in. Tornado-train-roar coming down, pulling the walls apart. All the air whooshed out and the world is a wheel. Death a red sun a white sun shock of the dark. The one they found stunned at dusk, who stood all day at the well; beside her, the broken jar.
In the longed-for bewilderment of honey and blood, the saint, devoted to her devotion, to her attentive forgetfulness of everything else, everything other than the whoosh of the wheel crossing this exact moment, stops. Never mind the track the wheel leaves in the dust. Never mind the cart and its cargo of butchered meat. Never mind the cart-driver dozing, the bullock pulling, the dogs by the road hoping for a stumble. The saint is oblivious. She is gone, plucked from the onwardness. The minutes and hours deepening before her, piling up like unbreaking breakers, like a glassy wall of not-yet-collapsing waves. Gone and right there by the road, by the well, in the shade of the swaying cobra’s hood. Gone and as here as a child playing in the dirt, creating the world from acorns and stones. Has she died or woken up elsewhere?
The saint has turned the real realer. She’s reeling. Shadows fall at acuter angles, the trees’ leaf-tips sting even at a distance, the rainy scent of the heartwood stuns her to sharper alertness, and the saint can taste the fruit that hasn’t yet burdened its branches—maroon, beety, granular on the tongue. The moment is too present, too physical to endure. And yet this is what the saint has prepared for, thought she wished for. For this the saint has stood, has knelt, has lain down. For this the saint has sought out the dark, the snowfield, the stony shores. For this—this this there is no word for.
It’s as if thunder has reverted to silence or silence to thunder. The serrated knife of lightning has struck, has punctured the clouds and it’s pouring down milk. The saint trembles like a wren held in the hands of something awful. Maybe it’s not death. Not death like a door or a dove kicked in. Not death like a sun or a cave. Not death like a sister or a swoon or the winter solstice. Not an end. Not a start. Not the spark or the ash. What?
And what if, she said, it’s more like a bell? Gone and gone and gone and gone.
An iron hook out of the mire (at the cost of your skin)? What if it’s the rock
in the road, the spit in your soup? Hide-and-seek in the midnight wood, alone? All that could be, but maybe not. Maybe devotion is a question riddled with questions, riding the shadow of a doubt. Stop the clock and bar the door. (‘Where the [angels] stand ready at all six times of day and night, ready and waiting. And if you have both faith and longing then they’ll all come rushing towards you.’) But bruised but bells but bank accounts. And what of that sweet burn we thought we wished for? That cat-piss cinnamon scent, the certain myrrh we wanted from moth wings and flames? Now it’s no metaphorical fire, but the plastic stench of a household burning. What’s real can be hard on the body, the pinch of seared sinus, lungs near collapse. How now the faraway looms too large. Too close too hot too sharp too fast. It pushes, tests the edges. The woman hopped up, the snake in her lap. The one who fed on nettles, turning his skin thin green. All of us learning to fall. Yearning for something like dawn. Laid down on the road, the river of bones, laid down in the grasses in the tents in the fields. Turning to slow beasts, to servants, the ones who stand by. Turning to dreams realer than days: Cut down, the heart cut out, pine wind in a cool grove. Shot in the forehead, throat, the heart. Cried out but no sound came. Woke to the unreal room, the air the color of a bruise. Now I’m like a word crossed out. Something indelible bleeds beneath the skin. Bleared, for I am in question.
In not-quite absentia. I as thin as a stinging hair on a nettle leaf, as delible as a lion’s tongue, a spore on the wind, a dying word, a breath-wobbled flame; I as breakable as dry bone, as lithe as smoke, as live as noise in the throat of the bell, as light in the well at noon. I is in question.
Not there and not not-there either. Shifting, re-sorted, a last word’s molecules of CO2 having been spoken, die into the dark, disperse and persist in new breath, new sound—reborn in/through/as the language and bodies of bodhisattvas and ravens, cormorants and Christs, prophets and servants, sex- and aide-workers, reborn in/as a thousand thousand thousand selves—part and parcel, whole and slivered, gone and more present than ever. Again and never and still.
It terrifies I—the promise of severance from the body—and the process hurts. The final cutting of I from it, cell from cell, that last dispersal and re-allotment of breath might not hurt, but the aches and burns I feels on the flesh, blood, bone, and nerve-strung body’s way to that moment sure does. And what of the synapse between nerves, that raveling smoke-thread of I? What happens to that emptiness when the thread snaps?
[In thunderous silence sat.]
[Else held up a flower.]
But since we must speak here, let the words be of a flower’s blur and binding. Bound in flesh in breath in birth in death in the daily devotions to bread and speech and dreaming. And since we hurt and ache and burn and break, we are in question. We wonder, whisper, shout, we sing and light the candles, cry out, pour out the black tea for all who need protection.
And who does not?
You eat bread, drink tea, steam fogs your glasses. For that moment your attention is undivided. A holy moment, devoted to that very moment. You turn, smear a roll with butter and jam for a child who wolfs it with joy, then lets the dog lick her fingers clean. A holy moment, devoted to pleasure in its quick passing.
What is it that makes a moment holy?
You break the loaf, pull a bit from its core, dip it in the juice and eat. For the moment your attention is undivided. A holy moment, devoted to that very moment. You turn and offer the bread to the one beside you, who takes some, dips, eats, and passes the plate to the one beside him. A holy moment, devoted to passing.
Is it the pure attention, the devotion itself?
Gustave Sobin writes in Luminous Debris that in second century Gaul devotees of Aphrodite wore tiny mirror amulets around their necks, glass disks, silvered to make them reflective, and framed in lead. The mirrors were just one eye wide, meant to catch and hold the glance of the goddess. Looking in, whose eye would the seeker see? Who would look back at whom? Whose spider lashes, whose bright tears, whose pupil shrinking to a pinprick? Whose gaze would behold and whose be held? It takes two eyes to complete a full parallax view: with her tiny light and lead mirror held up to one eye like a monocle, what would the devotee see before her?
What if half your vision were a god’s? How would the world look? How would the bread taste then?
“‘What,’ it will be Questioned,” wrote that god-eyed devotee Blake, ‘When the Sun rises,
do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?’ O no no, I see
an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy Holy Holy….”
Could we wake to the sky like a song, the celestial singing of rain and buses passing?
In the most perfect meditation, keep the senses open wide. (Say Ah.)
Hearsay that the Hasids say everyone is born for the sake of a minute. A particular event you must be present for. Something you were born to do or to watch happen. Trouble is, you don’t know what or when. Waiting, not knowing and ready. Each moment a test of attention. Need not say love.
And what does passing that volley of tests gain? A guinea of gold, a scruple of salt, a wish come true, a day’s reprieve. And another worksheet of sums and problems, after which another test, the test of submitting to tests. Set the table, set the bone, set the tea aside to steep…
You know you ought to feel grateful, joyous, alert with expectation always because every moment is that one—holy, holy, etc.—but sometimes words are sodden bread, bread is tasteless cotton. Sometimes the scent of lilies is laced with rot, and not in a good way. You know a saint would not falter. You know the right answers to the test but can’t quite see why to fill in the scantron bubbles. Yes, the lit-up silence before and after the thunder is holy. Yes, the thunder is holy. And so is the hail that flattens the wheat and ruins the crop. And so is the moment after that and the day and the day and the day. You know you shouldn’t give up. “Keep your hand on the plow, eyes on the prize, etc.” But where are the singing angels? the host of celestial busses? Where is the A for acing test after test? Where is the hacker’s triumphant breakthrough into encrypted, classified files? Is the secret password surrender? Or willfulness? Willingness or will. Willingness and will.
Devotion is entering a cavern with a single candle stub and walking deeper and deeper into the darkness until, in time, as you knew it would, the candle gutters out. What will you do? Go on walking further inward? Stumble back through the maze of cavern chambers to the entrance and open air? Sit down and wait for rescue? Sit down and curse the foolish pride that led you in? Sit down and let the darkness settle like dust on your lap?
Devotion is watching the fire go out.
Laid thus low.
Gone in the gut, gone my oh my only flower. Cut down my heart cut out. World-
without-end. What could be could be such splendor, endless. Lost in this dissolving
world. Thunder is nothing but thunder. No reward or rescue. Nothing but love
and death here. Folly of tests and the terrible things we do. As our angels fall and fail us,
flail and fall. Angels with their eyes on the prize. Angels, you see,
don’t see us. And the terrible pearl and heedless swine. Heartblood
poured out, for you for you for you and you. Though some are so far
from protection—this seat of desolation, voyd of light. Devotion can be walking
away from devotion. Knowing only you don’t know. No host of celestial busses.
No cavalry is coming. What’s real is hard on the body, bleared. Have you died
or woken up elsewhere? Somehow you’re kinder when you’ve died. (And sometimes
there’s a breeze that smells like rain.) No more tests to take. No more sums or bubbles.
Nothing to do but wait here (‘No end to this’) no spark no ash no little flame,
you’re gone, you can’t go on, you’ll go on.
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