Waters purl, silky over smooth stones. A far flung echo curves out among undiscovered inlets. Contours of round sound flow out of mouth, forming a long bubble that snaps off and floats away on the wind. Dandelion gone to seed, seeds leaping from the porous sphere. Landscape of a horse’s back and haunches. Moon setting over dunes. Wisps of air through lips of a monk as he opens the shrine, breath humid round the folded slip of paper in his mouth. Stillness of plants. Through a microscope, tines and barbs of a feather: but still a feather, floating, arcing, tipping in air.
This is one of mine, published here in the second issue of Dusie. Actually, though, when it was first posted there it had an additional sentence. It was this:
A restraint that is not because the idea doesn’t enter.
This was between the "Wisps of air ..." and "Stillness of plants", so the last part read
Wisps of air through lips of a monk as he opens the shrine, breath humid round the folded slip of paper in his mouth. A restraint that is not because the idea doesn’t enter. Stillness of plants. Through a microscope, tines and barbs of a feather: but still a feather, floating, arcing, tipping in air.
Funny, originally I was attached to that line. Like, very attached.
The whole poem had come as a stream of consciousness writing one morning -- I was writing upon stillness and pools, riffing on words, as Charles has put it, to suit the mood of the morning.
(Here, although unbidden except by some emotional agency of my own, I'll proceed with a kind of Introspections reminiscence about the poem -- but I'll get around to my main point eventually. Introspections: American Poets on One of Their Own Poems is a book I highly recommend, fascinating and very instructive about process behind the writing of some good & excellent poems. Another book well worth ordering of a similar nature is Ecstatic Occasions: Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman.)
A childhood memory came to mind, of blowing on a dandelion gone to seed and seeing the seeds floating off over a field, and it so happens there was a magazine open on the kitchen table -- a certain issue of The Sun, I don't know which one -- which showed a large black and white photo of haunches of a horse with the moon setting or rising over it, which looked like dunes, so that got in the poem too. Then I came upon another memory of opening a Buddhist shrine at our cultural centre when I had volunteered there as "Gajokai" (receptionist and, more traditionally, "guard of the shrine"), and amazed at how quiet it was there, how there was such a natural restraint that the very idea of restraint doesn't even enter the mind (until of course it did, in my case, but doesn't usually).* This was the idea that clinched the poem, it seemed, the still point around which the whole poem moved. As for stillness of plants -- well, our kitchen table is surrounded by plants -- and I was thinking "stillness" with that abstract realization. That image of the feather beneath the microscope came from childhood -- at around twelve I had owned a microscope, more of a toy than a serious microsope, and there were slides with feathers and spores and moth wings and blood samples that revealed themselves as shingled and spiky and crystal worlds... this whole sense of the infinite being found within the infinitely small has always fascinated me, and may date back to my hours of peering through that microscope at sugar, at salt, later, through a much more powerful microscope at high school, at a the tail of a live goldfish, the glossy, transparent tubes of arteries with their charge of corpuscles and platelets hurtling by...
Anyway, reading the poem out to my poetry group a month after it was taken by Dusie, a friend of mine, an honest and sensitive critic, said he loved the poem but was stopped by that sentence. It seemed rather obscure to him, and on the face of it, didn't even make sense ... what idea? enter where? Even the effort to figure it out disrupted the poem. I (and the others there with me) tried a number of alternatives to clarify it -- I really wanted something there, a suggestion of mental reaching, as it were, which approximated my original experience of the poem -- but then suddenly realized the line really didn't contribute, that it actually distracted, absorbed energy away. Reading it out without the line, the poem was freed. What I had attempted to make explicit was implicit in the images as they were, which expressed so many other things besides.
So often it is the case that commentary or summarizing within a poem actually distracts. I think it often comes out in drafts because in poems we are trying to come literally to terms with our experience, and language is also used for commentary and analysis to the exact same end.
In this case it was one of those pieces of scaffolding that could be knocked down now that the house was built. And so I did. On the publication of Issue 2 the editor of Dusie had invited even those who had published in Issue 1 to make any editorial changes they wanted -- so I wrote her saying I was taking her up on her offer. Though she took a while to get around to it, eventually the sentence was removed.
Revision after publication -- that's one thing you can't do in a print review!
*"The folded slip of paper in his mouth" -- in an ancient Japanese tradition continued in the Soka Gakkai, at enshrinements or re-hanging of the Gohonzon scroll or mandala the senior leader (once the senior monk, but now, in SGI, it's a senior lay person) puts a small, folded piece of rice paper in his mouth to prevent the moisture from his breath from accidentally staining the scroll. My own friend and mentor Sekai, a senior leader in this organization, did this at the enshrinement of my Gohonzon, in front of which I chant most days...