contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Nature poetry

POEM: CONFRONTED BY CHRYSANTHEMUMS

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966 (translated with an introduction by Nobuyuki Yuasa)

The introduction names Matsuo Basho (1644-94) as one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature, and describes his life and work. A younger son of a minor samurai family, at nine years old he was sent to the Todo family as page and study-mate for Yoshitada, its eleven year old heir. Yoshitada, born with a delicate constitution, was more interested in literary than in military arts, and he and Basho studied the fashionable art of linked verse under the poet Kigin.

When Yoshitada died at the age of 25, Basho left the service of the Todo family by running away to Kyoto where he spent five years studying Japanese and Chinese classics at Buddhist temples. Later he based himself in the younger city of Edo (now Tokyo) where he felt greater freedom to find his own direction as a poet.

Dissatisfied with the, to him, superficial culture of Edo’s ‘floating world’, Basho turned to Zen and learned meditation from the Zen priest Buccho. Poetry still came first for Basho, but his understanding and practice changed. He wrote of his own work: “What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry”. Basho is a pen name, and the name of a species of banana tree about which Basho said: “the big trunk of the tree is untouched by the axe, for it is utterly useless as building wood. I love the tree, however, for its very uselessness … I sit underneath it, and enjoy the wind and rain that blow against it”.

Discussing the relationship between the poet and nature, he wrote: “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective pre-occupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry might be – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.”

By the time Basho came to write travel sketches, mixing haiku and prose in the genre known as haibun, he had spent some years casting away his material attachments. Now he had “nothing else to cast away but his own self which was in him as well as around him. He had to cast this self away, for otherwise he was not able to restore his true identity (what he calls ‘the everlasting self which is poetry’ in the passage above). … He left his house ‘caring nought for his provisions in the state of sheer ecstasy'”.

I love the haiku at the top of this post. I love the freshness and naturalness of the priest’s encounter with a flower that is steeped in the formal (and auspicious) symbolism of both Buddhist tradition and Japanese national culture, but is offered here in its simple yet extraordinary essence.

I cannot claim real understanding of traditional Japanese Zen culture and its relationship to creative arts. I have a smattering of knowledge and an awareness of some principles. But I am sure that much is lost in translation. What I do have is the capacity to open myself up to the words and images. Here I find the resonance of a richer experience of being, better grounded whilst also more spacious.

For his morning tea

A priest sits down

In utter silence –

Confronted by chrysanthemums.

POEM: SENT TO A HUA MOUNTAIN MONK

I do not know of a Druid or Pagan currently living contemplatively in a mountain cave. But I would not be surprised to learn of one, somewhere in the world. The poem below comes from the contemplative culture of ancient China, where the Taoist and Ch’an Buddhist traditions, in some ways rivals, developed in a mutually influencing way. I believe that there is something for contemplatively inclined Druids and Pagans to appreciate and learn from these traditions. I like this poem because it is a nature poem as much as a contemplative one. Even the meditative turn towards mind is embedded in its natural setting, as the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ is softened to the point of vanishing.

“From afar,

I know your white-rock hermitage,

hidden in a haze

of evergreen trees.

When the moon sets,

it’s mind-watching time;

clouds rise

in your closed eyes.

Just before dawn, temple bells

sound from neighbouring peaks;

waterfalls hang thousands of feet

in emptiness.

Moss and lichen

cover the cliff face;

a narrow, indistinct path

leads to you.”

Poem Sent to a Hua Mountain Monk from When I find you again, it will be in mountains: selected poems of Chia Tao (2000) Somerville, MA, USA: Wisdom Publications. English translation by Mike O’Connor.

Chia Tao (779 – 843) an erstwhile Ch’an monk, became a poet during China’s Tang Dynasty. Ch’an was the Chinese predecessor of Japanese Zen.

BOOK REVIEW: SOUL LAND

Highly recommended to anyone who values the poetry of place. Natalia Clarke’s Soul Land: Nature, Scotland, Love (1) is a chapbook featuring 22 poems about her connection with Scottish landscape. That connection is intense, and shared in these poems through a powerful and distinctive voice.

The poet grew up in Siberia, enjoying “immersive life and experiences with nature and magic” (2), before being exposed to “intense emotions of love and loss at a tender age”. Her journey took her to England and its publishing industry with a later shift into the field of psychotherapy and a personal spiritual awakening. This is the context for the visit to Scotland “that changed me on a profound level”. She fell in love with what she came to call her “Soul Land”.

In the poem Love Everlasting, she writes:

“My knees touched the greenness

of your body and in

awe I stood amidst a stone

circle feeling protected and

contained.

I lowered myself into your

cooling stream imagining I

washed myself anew”.

The words have both erotic and mystical resonances: perhaps it misses the point even to make the distinction. In another poem The Land of Me, she talks of the land “stealing my soul” and how this theft feels like “the gentlest fall into paradise”.

This is not a song of life and work within a landscape and the human culture it has shaped, and which has shaped it in turn. It is a personal I-Thou connection with a sacred space that the poet visits from time to time. Natalia Clarke is clear and sensitive about this, as shown in Through the Eyes of A Highlander, where we find a different consciousness of place, and in his case, its human history: “Where I see beauty he sees barren landscape … where I feel silence he shudders with sorrow”. Natalia Clarke knows that her sense of home, in this for her newly discovered land, is bound up with her own life and longing, and what she brings to the encounter.

In the later poems we find a closer observation of detail – “water silky soft and the colour of silver … green pine needles hitting my senses with clean potent fragrance”. The land feels more maternal – even, in a sense grandmaternal. In the poem In My Dreams You Visit Me the poet finds herself “transformed into the old Cailleach walking the hills and mountains with deer by her side”.

Natalia Clarke feels blessed in this wild space: “inhaling paradise, assured, grounded, humble, in your exquisite perfection”. Although led by her intuition and her feelings, she shows how her experience of the Scottish landscape has indeed grounded her.

“’All is well,’ the land whispers

into my soul spreading her

seasons around me”.

In a prose conclusion to the collection, Natalia Clarke also spells out the conceptual basis of her way of experiencing and relating. The key terms are ‘home’, ‘soul’s calling’ and ‘nature’. Home is “our secure ground, safety and knowing” with a feeling-tone that is “contented and contained”. She speaks here as a person who has lost her link with her “original motherland” and has needed to find ‘home’ elsewhere. A soul call is “very impulse driven, animalistic and instinctual”, asking us “to be more, to feel more” and join “something beyond yourself, new, meaningful and expansive”. Nature is not simply about solace. Deep understanding of nature can bring both peace and turmoil into our souls, “as processes are parallel within nature and if we tune into nature’s rhythms, we risk deeper understanding of ourselves”. True homecoming, the homecoming that involves soul, asks us to take risks as well as offering safety. For Natalia Clarke, Nature favours the brave.

(1) Soul Land: Nature – Scotland -Love Kibworth, UK: Matador, 2020

(2) https://rawnaturespirit.com/ (The collection can be ordered from this site by clicking on ‘publications’.)

POEM: NOTIONS

I like this poem for its depiction of a young person’s best efforts, leading to the experience of ‘discourse by dismissal’ and a counter-affirmation of the ‘vigour of heresy’.

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate

Plurality should not be posited without necessity

                William of Ockam

In my first serious essay

For Religious Studies

I apply Occam’s razor

(Choice of budding scientist)

To God’s reputation:

All power to do all things,

All essence in all things,

All guidance for all things,

Past, present, future.

Keeping it simple, I favour

The universe as it is, in its cycles

Of boom and dust, orbits

And double-helix feats, all

Loosed by laws of urge

And reaction, lure and strife,

First seed, last song,

Billiard balls colliding

Ad infinitum, no recourse

To maker or judge.

I await appreciation

Of insight and logic, but

None comes, others praised

In a covenant of dogma,

My first taste of discourse

By dismissal, my first vow

For the vigour of heresy.

Earl Livings Libation Port Adelaide, AUS: Ginninderra Press, 2018 www.ginninderapress.com.au

NOTE: Earl Livings lives in Melbourne, Australia and edited Divan, Australia’s first all-Australian online poetry journal from 1999 to 2013. His first poetry collection Further than Night, was published in 2000, and in 2005 he won the Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Competition. His poetry and fiction have been published in journals and anthologies in Australia, Britain, Canada, the USA and Germany. He is currently working on a Dark Ages novel and his next poetry collection.

My thanks to Nimue Brown for drawing attention to the Libation collection at http://druidlife.wordpress.com/2020/03/29/

POEM: FIELD

They will not mesh, the very small and the large.

They will not converge.

On that side of the mirror, flickering fringes –

Superposition, quantum probabilities,

Shimmering light and dark; on this,

Nature has made its choice.

Time, space –

They will not bend both ways at once.

When the little ideas slip into bodies like clothes

They step through the mirror, enter

An irreducible level of noise –

Gravitational decoherence, dependent on mass.

Worlds, how sad we are to leave our dreaming behind.

So lovely we were then, so light, so playful.

But how compelling to have a body. In fact,

Irresistible.

From: Katrina Porteous Edge Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2019

Blurb note: “Edge contains three poem sequences, Field, Sun and the title sequence, which extend Porteous’s previous work on nature, place and time beyond the human scale. They take the reader from the micro quantum worlds underlying the whole Universe, to the macro workings of our local star, the potential for primitive life elsewhere in the solar system on moons such as Enceladus, and finally to the development of complex consciousness on our own planet. As scientific inquiry reveals the beauty and poetry of the Universe, Edge celebrates the almost-miraculous local circumstances which enable us to begin to understand it. All thre pieces were commissioned for performance in Life Science Centre Planetarium, Newcastle, between 2013 and 2016, with electronic music by Peter Zinovieff.”

WOODLAND HAIKU

This lone shape

emerging from under-wood:

Who am I?

SACRED SOUNDSCAPES

“Concepts of animism can take many forms. … The idea of the land being capable of speaking to humans was probably widespread in ancient sensibility. Sacred soundscapes were simply a natural corollary.

“The basic notion of the land having speech, or being read like a text, was lodged deeply in some schools of Japanese Buddhism – in early medieval Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kukei, for instance. He likened the natural landscape around the Chuzenji temple and the lake at the foot of Mount Nantai, near Nikko, to descriptions in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pure Land, the habitation of the buddhas. Kukei considered that the landscape not only symbolised but was of the same essence as the mind of the Buddha. Like the Buddha mind, the landscape spoke in a natural language, offering supernatural discourse: ‘Thus, waves, pebble, winds, and birds were the elementary and unconscious performers of the cosmic speech of buddhas and bodhisattvas,’ explains Allan Grapard (1994).

” …. ….

“Throat singers in Tuvan, an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, developed their vocal art originally as a means of communicating with their natural environment, not for entertainment. Throat singing involves the production of resonant sounds, overtones and whistles within the throat, nasal cavities, mouth and lips, and was used to provoke echoes or imitate natural sounds like waterfalls or wind. The master throat singers can select precise locations inside caves where the resonances are exactly right to maximise the reverberations of their songs. They even wait until atmospheric conditions are perfect for the greatest effect. It is in essence a technology of echoes. At one locale, where a singer called Kaigal-ool performed in front of a cliff face, ethnomusicologist Theodore Levin reported that ‘the cliff and surrounding features sing back to the musician in what Kaigal-ool calls a kind of meditation, a conversation I have with nature‘ (Levin & Suzukei, 2006).

“It is only in our modern culture that we have stopped listening to the land within a spiritual context. If we could fashion a modern, suitably culturally-ingrained animistic model, we would treat the environment with much more respect.”

Paul Devereux, in his Foreword to Greening the Paranormal: Exploring the Ecology of Extraordinary Experience August Night Press, 2019. Edited by Jack Hunter. See: http://www.augustnightpress.com

POEM: WALKING

Poem by seventeenth century Anglican mystic Thomas Traherne, whose life will be celebrated tomorrow, 10 October.

To walk abroad, is not with Eys

But Thoughts, the Fields to see and prize;

Els may the silent Feet,

Like Logs of Wood,

Mov up and down and see no Good,

Nor Joy nor Glory meet.

Ev’n Carts and Wheels their place do change,

But cannot see, tho very strange

The Glory that is by;

Dead Puppets may

Move in the bright and glorious Day,

Yet not behold the Sky.

And are not Men than they more blind,

Who having Eys yet never find

The Bliss in which they mov;

Like statues dead

They up and down are carried,

Yet neither see nor lov.

To walk is by a Thought to go;

To mov in Spirit to and fro;

To mind the Good we see;

To taste the Sweet;

Observing all the things we meet

How choice and rich they be.

To note the Beauty of the Day,

And golden Fields of Corn survey;

Admire the pretty Flow’rs

With their sweet Smell;

To prais their Maker, and to tell

The Marks of His Great Pow’rs.

To fly abroad like active Bees,

Among the Hedges and the Trees,

To cull the Dew that lies

On evry Blade,

From evry Blossom; till we lade

Our Minds, as they their Thighs.

Observ those rich and glorious things,

The Rivers, Meadows, Woods and Springs,

The fructifying Sun;

To note from far

The Rising of each Twinkling Star

For us his Race to run.

A little Child these well perceivs,

Who, tumbling among Grass and Leaves,

May Rich as Kings be thought.

But there’s a Sight

Which perfect Manhood may delight,

To which we shall be brought.

While in those pleasant Paths we talk

‘Tis that tow’rds which at last we walk;

But we may by degrees

Wisely proceed

Pleasures of Lov and Prais to heed,

From viewing Herbs and trees.

Denise Inge (ed.) Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2008 (Canterbury Studies in Spiritual Theology)

WHEN I WAS A CREEK

When I was

a tree,

I sang and danced

with the wind

and offered

food and refuge

to all who came.

When I was

a cloud,

I floated freely,

bringing

shade and rain

wherever they

were needed.

When I was

a creek,

I flowed effortlessly

around stones

and nourished life

everywhere

I went.

When I was

a seed,

I held

the story

of what

I would become

inside me

until the sun

and rain

let me know

it was time

to share it.

When I was

a flower,

I opened up

to reveal

my beauty

and invited the bees

to share

the sweetness.

Now I am

human

and can do so many things,

yet I am

full of questions

about who I am

and why I’m here.

Kai Siedenburg Poems of Earth and Spirit: 70 Poems and 40 Practices to Deepen your Connection with Nature Our Nature Connection, 2017

CONTEMPLATION

I like this poem for its economy and simplicity, and for its gentle, shape-shifting animism – for the ease with which it moves between identities in nature. For me, there is power and beauty in this, all the better for a relative lack of ornament.

As a human, I do feel a bit set up. Whereas the rest of nature is awarded an innocence and generosity not always evident in the apparent world, we humans are implicitly stigmatised for our questions, and thereby separated from the rest of nature. In our mainstream culture (both religious and secular) we place ourselves above the rest of nature, so the polar opposite perspective does have a corrective value. But it leaves me unsatisfied.

My sense is that the writer is placing herself alongside me, the reader, and the other humans. She is not awarding herself a free pass on the grounds of her vividly present and enacted imaginative empathy. So I would say to her what I say to myself. As I read it, there’s a strong invitation to self-compassion in the last verse.

Our finite minds are as natural as anything on earth.. Our questions about who we are, why we’re here and what to do are part of us. For me, the only way through them is become more skilled in the process of inquiry and to learn to live by its fruits. I value this poem partly through what it evokes directly, and partly because it stimulates useful inquiry.

 

 

POEM: A SPECIAL DAY (CHOSEN FOR ELAINE)

Today

is a very special day.

Today we celebrate

sun and rain,

light and dark,

the cycles of life,

the great turning

of the wheel.

Today we celebrate

every leaf on every tree,

every feather on every bird,

every drop of water in every stream.

Today we celebrate

green growing ones and winged ones,

two leggeds and four leggeds,

all who walk, crawl,

swim or fly.

We celebrate

each breath of air,

each morsel of food,

each beat of our hearts,

each healthy cell.

We celebrate

the profound miracle

of being alive

in this body

in this moment

on this planet.

Today,

like every other day,

is a very special day.

Kai Siedenburg Poems of Earth and Spirit: 70 Poems and 40 Practices to Deepen your Connection with Nature Our Nature Connection, 2017

(Poem shared on the occasion of my wife Elaine’s birthday. It was transcribed for me  on a card sent to me on my own birthday last month. It prompted me to buy the collection, which I recommend.)

 

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