Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Two Passages from Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius is neither a sublime mystic nor a brilliant poet, but he is an admirable devotional writer. He convinces every reader of his sincerity, even of his humility, no mean trick for a Roman emperor, and he seems primarily concerned with stilling his own mind; indeed, he seems indeed to have called his volume Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν or To Himself. Christians were quite right to value this work; its attitude, though not its language and imagery, is strikingly similar to Thomas a Kempis in urging ego-sacrifice and acceptance as the highest wisdom.
Yet, the philosophical and emotional differences are significant. Concerning the former, I will only note that, though Marcus intuitively accepts the quasi-theistic Logos, he consistently qualifies his comments by admitting that the more materialist Epicureans may in the end have it right. Though this may imply that Thomas embraces god more whole-heartedly, yet Marcus is the one for whom the world is illuminated, with divinity all about him, while Thomas focuses on his own shortcomings, the “fallen-ness” of the world, and the otherness of the divine.
After reminding readers at the beginning of Book III of the fragility and brevity of life, Marcus pushes the point, adding that one must strive for enlightenment since, even before death, senility can destroy an individual’s mind. Immediately then, without transition, he moves into a glorious poetic passage that betrays the fundamental emotional origins of the joyful affirmation that underlies his philosophic posture.

It is necessary to pay close attention to those things consequent to nature’s changes which have each one a charm and an allure. Thus some splits appear in the crust of baking bread, and these have nothing to do with the baker’s plan, yet these have always a certain rightness and stir up a stronger desire for food. And also figs, when they are ripest, gape, and in overripe olives the very closeness to decay adds some beauty to the fruit, and the lion’s furrowed brow, and the foam from the mouths of a boar at bay, and many other things, which, if examined severally, seem far from fair in form, still, having developed closely following the principles of nature, these all help to adorn the world and attract the soul. Thus, if one has a feeling and deeper thoughts concerning the things that come to be in the cosmos, hardly any at all of the things that happen fail to be sweet.

This enthusiastic attitude is the more striking as he regularly goes beyond skepticism into what sounds like nihilism. In Book VII he compiles a list of metaphors for life reminiscent of Macbeth’s “Life's but a walking shadow . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The Diamond Sutra offers a longer series: “like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream; like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.”
I do not mean to suggest that these poetic assertions are precisely equivalent. Marcus’ metaphors form a unique semiotic field. It is useful to consider each separately. The notion of a “grand procession of empty bustle” suggests indeed the vacancy or vanity of “busy-ness,” but sets it against the magnificent pageant of existence. The theater metaphor (similar to Shakespeare’s Jaques saying “All the world’s a stage” or the implications of Calderón’s La vida es sueño) justifies his reminders to himself that, born an emperor, he must accept his lot no less than a peasant or a beast; one is, after all, simply playing a role. As a play, the human condition is presumably beautiful and absorbing, though it may be ultimately absurd. The animals come next, reminding the reader that a human has no greater place in the cosmos than they. And even then, after sheep and cattle, the image shifts following the interruption of the “contending spears” image, a neat representation of pushy egos. The zoological diminuendo then continues, first to puppies, then fish, then ants, then not mice merely, but little mice. The series concludes with the grim determinist metaphor of puppets. (Elsewhere, Marcus says our desires are what make us puppets.) The potentially bleak implications of this may seem to overwhelm the joy of apprehending the the Logos or World-Fire, but in fact, the final clauses warn against pride, admonishing the reader to be generous and great-hearted to others who may be less enlightened.

[Life is] a grand procession of empty bustle, action on a stage, flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, clatter of contending spears, a little bone tossed to puppies, bits of food tossed into a fishpond, the arduous labor of ants who carry great burdens, a scattering of little mice in all directions, puppets controlled with strings. It is necessary then to be gracious and not to show disdain, realizing that each has merit to the extent that those things do with which he occupies himself.

VISTA Trains Me

In 1967 I received my B.A. with the ordinary Angst concerning the step to follow. My distaste for capitalism eliminated most career options at the outset even if anyone might actually care to employ an English major with minors in German and Ancient Greek. To complicate matters, graduation meant I would lose the student exemption that had held the draft at bay for four years.

My desire to avoid money and career coalesced with my wish to dodge the draft and with the government’s interest in coopting the radical spirit of the young. Foreign as the inclination to work for subsistence may seem to the present generation, I was far from alone at the time. My social conscience combined with more than a dash of infatuation with the Other, and I joined VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, created in 1965, later to change to a division of AmeriCorps and only recently all but eliminated. The protection from Selective Service was never guaranteed, and, in fact, one of my cohort was drafted a few months later and went promptly underground.

Though another may be able to characterize such service as part of a glorious continuum of human betterment stretching from early abolitionists and labor organizers through the SDS ERAP projects and Barack Obama’s days with the Developing Communities Project in Chicago, I cannot.

I had specified a preference for work on an Indian reservation, but I was assigned to inner-city youth. The six weeks training period began with classes but quickly turned into a month-long internship. I was to work with Hull House, the historic settlement house in Chicago. At this time Hull House was conducting a pilot program for Job Corps in their rural work camp.

The concept of Job Corps from the start had been that taking individuals out of their own neighborhoods and placing them in a new environment might allow them to develop new habits and values. For years Hull House had operated a summer camp for poor city kids called Bowen Country Club near Waukegan which had been donated by the banker, manufacturer, and Hull House chair Joseph Bowen in the ‘30s. This had since been sold and another property purchased in East Troy, Wisconsin, a short distance across the border from Illinois. I don’t know whether some sociologist had suggested the change, but the plan at Hull House’s camp was to bring groups of gang youth en masse so that people’s friends could accompany them to ease the transition. They were to receive a low hourly wage during the week, be paid on Friday and returned to Chicago for the weekend where the administrators hoped they would seem successful with their earnings and attract more youth to give up the gang life and work for a living.

Thus I came to know a few dozen members of the Vice Lords. Referring to the north Lawndale neighborhood where the group had originated they would call out “K-town -- from hell we came to claim our fame – mighty, mighty Vice Lords.” Their leader was Looney, a physically unimposing young guy with a jaunty little fedora on the side of his shaved head. Looney was able to direct his troops by means of oblique and imaginative language. When rendering an opinion or a mandate, he seemed only slightly more explicit than the Delphic oracle. “Weeell,” he would slowly begin, “I knew a lady once, lived about 29th and Federal, and this little dog would bark at her ass every day and she never said a word and one day that little shit-ass dog don’t bark and don’t nobody know where it is and when they asked her, she said, ‘Why you asking me?’ And the son-of-a bitch never bothered her again.” In his crew were Hawk, Cowboy (also called Mossie), Three-Corners (aka Wolfman), Spooky, Peyton, Butch, Midnight (or Captain Midnight), and Peanuts. These are the people with whom I worked and lived. The other main faction was a group of Latin Kings who called each other names like Chico, Flaco, and Bongo.

The blacks were close enough to migration from the South for the urban/rural contrast to be a status distinction (as it is in line from a Willie Dixon song that Bo Diddley made a hit: “I may look like a farmer, but I’m a lover.”). They were always calling out, “You dumb-ass Mississippi-bred nigger,” “Hey, black-ass country-bred boy.” They had an elaborate set of literary conventions and tropes. One might say “You my man – die for you – killed three panthers, a lion, and a mountain goat.” I also heard the ironic inversion of this figure: “I killed three roaches, a fly, and a gnat for you, my man.”

I had arrived at the work camp with two VISTA comrades, though the other two were gone after three days. The first was a very nice fellow, a bit callow perhaps, who had just dropped out of training as a Jesuit. As most of us were solidly middle class, during our lectures in preparation for service, we had been instructed about the nature of the poor and the under-class. One speaker had enlarged upon class distinctions among blacks based on income, hair, skin tone, and the like, linking this invidious system of values to the distinction during slavery days between house niggers and field niggers. On our second day in the camp, the first day of contact with “clients,” my colleague found himself washing dishes next to a proud Vice Lord. Probably something at a loss (he wasn’t particularly at ease even in bourgeois company), he seems to have recalled his lesson and made some comment about house and field niggers. Doubtless his interlocutor heard only the epithet and immediately knocked him to the floor with a single punch. Though he shortly came round, he departed that evening.

I had suspected my second colleague might be a government agent. He introduced himself as a Berkeleyite, active in the Movement, and wore political buttons as though to reinforce the claim. I had already as an undergraduate known a few infiltrators and agents provocateurs, and I thought this fellow seemed quite suspicious. I must have been wrong this time, though, since, on the evening of our very first day in camp, while socializing, he offered some marijuana to our young charges. Though he may have imagined this would help him to establish rapport as a cool white guy, he was in fact immediately given up when one of his new friends was busted in the city that weekend. “My social worker gave it to me!” VISTA quenched the legal consequences, but he, too, vanished from the program. Though I cannot claim to have accomplished much, I at least had enough sense to avoid such catastrophes.

Some of the urban youth were disturbed by the darkness and silence of the countryside. A few were clearly reluctant to stray from the lighted areas after dark. Before long the belief in a malevolent monster called Grippo began to emerge. Grippo lurked in the woods, awaiting an opportunity to rush in on horseback and seize some careless human. Some of his characteristics, I feel sure, derived from Southern stories of violent night riders. I can’t say whether some of the more clever guys made this up intentionally to mock the credulous, but I think it is fair to say that the belief spread as time went on. There is no doubt, though that the forest ogre was associated with a real-life figure. My time at the Work Camp coincided with the civil rights demonstration led by Fr. James Groppi in Milwaukee. Rather like Martin Luther King’s open housing campaign in Chicago the year before, Fr. Groppi dramatized Northern segregation in a series of militant marches. The Vice Lords, however, viewing news footage of the priest leading mostly black crowds into hostile neighborhoods, did not seem to view him as a friend. Even to those unsure of exactly what his con was, his motives seemed dark. I heard comments that implied that he was the enemy of blacks, that he was taking advantage of the people with whom he marched. Somehow this suspicion coalesced into a misprision and he achieved the status of a myth. Talk of Grippo increased.

The management was concerned about our image in the small town nearby. Though the camp did patronize local stores and thus curry favor with some merchants, the country folk virtually never saw the urban youth unless they were driven to town for a medical appointment. Several were being treated for gonorrhea, and our administrator thought this might reflect badly on the operation. As many of the gang members were interested in music, he hit upon the expedient of inviting the local village’s big shots to a talent show showcasing their abilities. He could begin with an elaborate dinner to show off the skills of the kitchen staff. He wanted an open bar – not just wine and beer, but all sorts of spirits -- to ensure the jollity of the locals. He even purchased elaborate floral displays from a local shop to impress the guests. When the florist arrived, he caused considerable hilarity when he turned out to be an effeminate guy who was clearly interested in the young campers. Not surprisingly, a good share of the liquor was diverted the instant it arrived. By the time dinner was prepared, we staff members assigned to the bar were taking our own share as well. In spite of various snafus, we made it through dessert. Unfortunately, by this time, at least half the acts were in no condition to take the stage. Those that did perform made, for the most part, a sorry spectacle. And then, suddenly, a Latin King who had not long before suffered a femur-shattering gunshot wound and walked with an artificial leg, came forward out of turn with some urgent message which he never managed to deliver since, as soon as he had gained the stage, he tripped and stumbled and lost his prosthetic while announcing something in Spanish that he considered very important.

The training concluded, and I made it to a permanent assignment in Minneapolis. I heard that the director was fired shortly after I moved on. If the mingling of middle-class and underclass was to change society, I could not see it from my perspective. What had been learned during my training was, I am afraid, little to the credit of any of those involved.

Chaucer's Version of the Myth of a Golden Age

Chaucer's short poem “The Former Age” states a commonplace theme, that of a golden age from which mankind has fallen, and it recognizes its own dependence on tradition by recalling classical precedents with references to Jupiter and Diogenes. Moreover, the poem is directly derivative of several works (the most important being Chaucer’s own Boethius). But the use of literary convention is often a highly dynamic process, and this particular restatement is fully effective in both exploiting the potent resources of the archetype and freely yet harmoniously creating new details, new tones. The poem’s implications are enriched not only by its sources, but also by analogous stories whose images parallel its own.

Golden age myths are, of course, current world-wide. The Hindu concept of the satya yuga and the Daoist vision of a primal utopia are two essentially similar variations. The most fundamental import of such stories is to complain against suffering, mortality, and wickedness. Lamenting the fall provides an etiology and a type for any specific lament of the limitations of this life.

But in Chaucer's poem moral corruption associated with the fall is not unspecified. He defines it largely in economic terms. The coming of technological innovation and a cash economy has poisoned relations between men and created an undesirable selfish “delicacye” within individuals. The prior perfection represents a reminiscence comparable to Engels’ primitive communists, [1] or their more modern incarnation -- Gary Snyder’s neolithic communard ecstatics. [2] The present-day failing is described in terms similar to those of “Lak of Stedfastnesse” as the duplicity resulting when men prey upon men prompted by “the anguysschous love of havyinge.”

The second system of corruption the poet suggests is sexual. Though punishment for sexuality is heavily suggested in the Biblical story of Eden it is not explicit here. The ambiguity of line 28 is heightened by line 29. Though the explicit topic is the covetous pursuit of jewels and precious metals, the combination of “swety bysinesse,” “lurkinge,” and “derkesse” in a story of the fall cannot fail to have sexual meaning. (The term “swety” alone is often used by Chaucer in a sexual context — in the Miller's Tale and. in Troilus and Criseyde, for instance. ) ln addition, the sexual associations of caves are explicated not only by Freud but also by countless others (e.g. the Memphis Jug Band in their “Cave Man Blues”). Finally, the second stanza’s description of the crime of wounding the earth with a plow to sow seed more efficiently (objectifying and exploiting the earth) is suggestive enough to drag half The Golden Bough behind it.

Thus, Chaucer attributes to deranged or unhealthy, “fallen,” economic and sexual relations the aggressive content in human society. While the primary stream of meaning in “The Former Age,” this is not the only one. I believe a contrary value system also resonates within the same narrative images. Frequently in fairy tales underground caves are said to contain a treasure guarded by a powerful and malevolent being. The hero proves himself by gaining a victory over the guardian (as in Beowulf). One might generalize such a successful quest as representing adaptation to the world and characterize the dreamer after a golden age as solipsistic and infantile. Further, the very wealth of detail in Chaucer's poem's picture of our degenerate age, the piling up of parallel phrases suggests a delight in the plenitude of the world. Just as Christians speak of that felix culpa that made movement and action possible, that made oneself possible, so here the fall has “thickened the plot.” The final list of crimes (“poyson, manslautre, mordre”) is so extreme as to remove the application from one”s every day to the realm of moralizing about others, as when suburbanites speak of “crime in the cities.”

Finally, one must regard the author himself as to some extent dwelling in the golden age since his values are those of the original creation. As a virtuous man he partakes of the nature of that earlier world and proves that it is not wholly lost. All these factors combine with the rather spartan character of life in the golden age as it is portrayed to generate a sort of ambivalent complexity of a sort that would, have been foreign to those who had, as Chaucer says, “no fantasye to debate.” Poignant and vigorous though the lament is, it contains currents of meaning running contrary to the explicit content, which, by their opposition, render the poetry more accurate and more effective.

1. From Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: There can be no poor and needy – the communistic household and the gens know their responsibility towards the aged, the sick and those disabled in war. All are free and equal, including the women. There is as yet no room for slaves nor, as a rule, for the subjugation of alien tribes.

2. from Snyder “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution”: In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

Yet Two More Versions of Wang Wei

empty mountain without men
(one hears some distant sound of speech)
light and shade in deepest wood
green moss creeps up where sun can reach.

mountain void
no one else
in the distance
men’s voices
in deepest woods
green moss rises

The Wang Wei poem illustrates the difficulties of translation a forteriori. The poem is written in “five syllable unregulated verse” which typically includes a primary caesura after the second syllable, a secondary one after the third or fourth. The even lines rhyme, couplets mirror each other syntactically, and the tonal patterns link pairs of lines as well. The parallelism will recall the significance of the yang-yin concept in Chinese thought, but it also has links to, for instance, such structures as the classic blues lyric in which the third line answers, opposes, or completes the repeated first line and the Finnish epic pattern in which every line is followed by a weakened repetition. Surely here we are entitled to invoke the words of A. J. Arberry in the introduction to his translation of Sa’adi’s Gulistan Kings and Beggars who declared that rendering poetry in rigorous traditional forms was an acrobatic performance not unlike “setting an elephant to walk a tightrope.”

In my first version I sought to retain the rhyme pattern of the Chinese, though I do nothing with the tones and substitute a four stress line for the five syllable one. The accentual meter is, of course, far less insistent and information-laden than the original with its syntactic parallelisms. The rhyme may threaten to trivialize the lines for a contemporary American reader with associations of nursery rhymes and advertising jingles.

In the second version I have emphasized the apparently spontaneous descriptive impression such lines create in the European reader by spreading the phrases in a sort of verse field and heightening the aesthetic values with the art historical term “chiaroscuro” and the philosophical/spiritual ones with the loaded word “illuminated.”

Both versions sacrifice the intertextuality of the original with its use of words and phrases recalling Buddhist texts or other poems by Wang Wei or by others. For instance, the title is often translated “Deer Park,” recalling the site in Sarnath of the Buddha’s first sermon. In line three the words “fan jing” suggest sunset and the “western paradise” of the Pure Land School. The characters can mean “late sun” or dusk, but more literally denote “returning view” or “pattern.” On the level of the ideogram, the characters might be read as “movement in reverse,” and “sun above hill.”

Furthermore, other hermeneutic directions are suggested by, for instance, the fact that this poem, though often printed alone, is generally paired with one by Pei Di, as are all the poems of the Wang River collection. Thus in the original each text holds a direct if dialectical relation to another, and the meaning must be sought between the two. Some readers (such as John Holcombe) regard the poem as a comment, not on natural scenery, but rather on examples of landscape panting. These approaches by no means exhaust the possibilities. The poem invites new readings.

For comparison’s sake, thanks to Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem Is Translated:

Deer Park Hermitage

So lone seem the hills; there is no one in sight there.
But whence is the echo of voices I hear?
The rays of the sunset pierce slanting the forest,
And in their reflection green mosses appear.
(W.J.B. Fletcher, 1919)

There seems to be no one on the empty mountain...
And yet I think I hear a voice,
Where sunlight, entering a grove,
Shines back to me from the green moss.
(Witter Bynner & Kiang Kang-hu, 1929)

An empty hill, and no one in sight
But I hear the echo of voices.
The slanting sun at evening penetrates the deep woods
And shines reflected on the blue lichens.
(Soame Jenyns, 1944)

La Forêt

Dans la montagne tout est solitaire,
On entend de bien loin l'écho des voix humaines,
Le soleil qui pénètre au fond de la forêt
Reflete son éclat sur la mousee vert.
(G. Margoulies, 1948)

Through the deep woods, the slanting sunlight
Casts motley patterns on the jade-green mosses.
No glimpse of man in this lonely mountain,
Yet faint voices drift on the air.
(Chang Yin-nan & Lewis C. Walmsley, 1958)

On the lone mountain
I meet no one,
I hear only the echo
At an angle the sun's rays
enter the depths of the wood,
And shine
upon the green moss.
(C.J. Chen & Michael Bullock, 1960)

On the empty mountains no one can be seen,
But human voices are heard to resound.
The reflected sunlight pieces the deep forest
And falls again upon the mossy ground.
(James J.Y. Liu, 1962)

Clos aux cerfs

Montagne déserte. Personne n'est en vue.
Seuls, les échos des voix résonnent, au loin.
Ombres retournent dans las forêt profonde:
Dermier éclat de la mousse, vert.
(François Cheng)

Empty hills, no on in sight,
only the sound of someone talking;
late sunlight enters the deep wood,
shining over the green moss again.
(Burton Watson, 1971)

Empty mountain: no man is seen,
But voices of men are heard.
Sun's reflection reaches into the woods
And shines upon the green moss.
(Wai-lim Yip, 1972)

A Problem on the Border

When I first traveled abroad, I thought I was a bit more clever than others. Forty years ago many people used cash or traveler’s checks (or “cheques” as American Express would have it). In those distant days, even credit cards were uncommon, and I certainly had none. I obtained a letter of credit from the Northern Trust Company, my bank in Chicago, a document usually used by businessmen. In this way I would risk carrying no money and my savings could continue to bear interest in my absence. I then plagued banks throughout Europe and North Africa by showing up and requesting twenty or twenty-five dollars in the local currency. This worked well, we found, even in out of the way places.

We were proceeding across North Africa mostly by train. At that time, the Moroccan trains had four classes. The last of these was our inevitable choice and we rumbled across country in cars with backless wooden benches that reminded me of trains in old Western movies. Oujda was our last Moroccan town – we bought some Algerian money from a street hustler before boarding the train. The black market existed because the Algerian government currency was controlled; that is, it did not trade freely but was maintained at an artificial level by the government.

We had had some difficulty entering Algeria. My profession was listed as “editor” on the visa form, and the USA was uneasy with the Algerian National Liberation Front which had clear alliances to the Vietnamese one. After all, under Boumédienne, members of the Panther “international section” were guests there and, in a few months, Tim Leary would arrive to join them. I convinced the immigration people that I was harmless, and I was admitted to the land by someone who presumably understood that I would receive money through the banks’ approved pipelines.

In fact, I had no difficulty using the letter of credit in Algeria, and I retained all the documents and receipts accompanying the transactions. In Annaba we sought to buy tickets through to Tunis, but the clerk insisted that we have a bon de passage, while the issuing official, unfamiliar with letters of credit, wanted to see the more conventional document recording currency imported, changed, and carried out. Having imported no money – well, we had, in fact, but that was illicit unreported cash – we had never received this form.

We were stalemated. It did no good to point out that the immigration man’s principle would mean that we could never leave his country, a result desired by no party. He simply turned up the palms of his hands in impotence. He had the bureaucrat’s taste for asserting power when possible as well as the typical minor functionary’s fear of doing anything outside of standard operating procedure. He surely toadied to his superiors and thus had a reasonable expectation that his inferiors would do him the same courtesy.

We decided to head toward the border anyway. Early in the morning we took the train to Souk Ahras, built on the ruins of Tagaste, Augustine’s birthplace and a Roman municipium. There, in an office at the train station, we encountered the same obdurate official refusal to allow us to leave. The immigration officer had returned to his heaps of paperwork, and we were quietly discussing what might happen if we simply walked to the border when the chef de gare strolled by, resplendent in his perfectly pressed uniform. He wore decorations like a soldier’s and walked with military bearing.

Pleased to observe that something out of the ordinary was transpiring in his domain, he took an interest and summoned us into his office. He offered tea and we could see things were looking up. We passed a few pleasantries back and forth in our imperfect French and exchanged opinions on world events. We discussed the glories of Algeria and the virtues of the current regime. When I ventured to ask about our immediate circumstance, he sighed, as though such trivial matters were very nearly beneath his level of perception, signed the necessary paper, and pushed it toward us. Beyond the stage of relishing manipulation, he knew the meaning of noblesse oblige. As a big man, he demonstrated his power by patronage. Fortunately, that day, he chose to patronize us.