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A mood of gratitude

Thank You Thank You 1211120 PS2

In the spring of 1985 I visited the Republic of Ireland for the first time. Four months earlier, my mother had died at the age of 82. Having lost my second parent, I was feeling vulnerable, perhaps more so than I realized. And Ireland itself was none too stable, being in the midst of a fierce sectarian conflict. Known to the Irish as the Troubles, that conflict was centered mostly in the North, in the cities of Belfast and Derry, but its presence could be felt in Monaghan, the rural border county where I had come to live and write.

I had applied and been accepted for a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center (aka Annaghmakerrig), a workplace for artists and writers near the village of Newbliss. By way of preparation, I had read multiple histories of Ireland and immersed myself in Irish literature, particularly modern Irish poetry. Among the poets I became familiar with, none engaged my sympathies more than the “ploughman poet” Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), who grew up on a farm near the village of Inniskeen (pronounced INNISH-keen), which is also in Co. Monaghan. Even before I had laid eyes on the low green drumlins and the furze-bordered tillage fields of the Monaghan landscape, I had experienced those features through Kavanagh’s verse and prose. As the bus from Dublin rolled through the countryside on its way into Monaghan town, what I saw through the window largely confirmed what I’d already imagined.

“My black hills have never seen the sun rising,” wrote Kavanagh, whose vision of his native ground is unfailingly vivid but deeply ambivalent. His early poems project a countryman’s intimacy with the “flocks of green potato stalks,” the “lime and copper smell / Of the spraying barrels,” and other physical objects in a subsistence farmer’s world. But they also project a loathing of the “stony grey soil of Monaghan,” which, he came to believe, had “clogged the feet of [his] boyhood” and “burgled the bank of [his] youth.”

That enduring inner conflict, which permeates his poems from first to last, undergirds his early sonnet “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” where he observes the bicycles going by “in twos and threes,” their riders headed for a dance in “Billy Brennan’s barn.” He notes the “half-talk code of mysteries” and the “wink-and-elbow language of delight,” but he also notes the unsettling quietude of Inniskeen Road and the absence of even “a footfall tapping secrecies of stone.”

The mood of loneliness conjured by those observations reaches its peak in the sonnet’s closing stanza:

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

Likening himself to the marooned Scottish privateer whose plight inspired Robinson Crusoe, Kavanagh expresses both his sense of mastery over his surroundings and his acute sense of alienation. Both are suggested by the phrase “every blooming thing,” which conveys both its literal meaning and overtones of dismissal and disdain.

The place name Inniskeen means “peaceful island.” Having felt the power of Kavanagh’s sonnet, I was eager to visit that tiny village (population 370), where the poet and his wife are buried. So one afternoon, an artist friend and I drove over to the village and found our way to the local cemetery. There we came upon Patrick Kavanagh’s final resting place: a gravesite covered with rough slate stepping stones, at the head of which stood a plain wooden cross. A plaque bearing four of Kavanagh’s lines was fastened to the cross:

 And pray for him

Who walked apart

On the hills

Loving life’s miracles

Affecting as this memorial was, its impact was superseded by what we discovered, moments later, on a nearby wall. Twelve lines from one of Kavanagh’s poems, in the poet’s own handwriting, had been reproduced in a holograph and mounted on the wall:

We are not alone in our loneliness,

Others have been here and known

Griefs we thought our special own

Problems that we could not solve

Lovers that we could not have

Pleasures that we missed by inches . . .

I thank you and I say how proud

That I have been by fate allowed

To stand here having the joyful chance

To claim my inheritance

For most have died before

The opening of that holy door.

These lines are excerpted from Kavanagh’s poem “Thank You, Thank You,” which was published in the spring of 1963, four years before the poet’s death.

By all accounts, Patrick Kavanagh was not a good farmer. As one of his neighbors told me, he “paid no heed to his fields,” being too busy reading books. At the age of thirty-five Kavanagh left Monaghan for the literary lights of Dublin, where he became both a famous, influential poet and a notorious controversialist. In his last decade, however, having barely survived a life-threatening bout with lung cancer, he experienced a spiritual rebirth, adopting an attitude he called “not-caring.” That profound change of heart infuses his late poems with a tone of humility and, as the Kavanagh scholar Sr. Una Agnew has pointed out, with a pervasive mood of gratitude.

“Curious this,” wrote the poet in his Self-Portrait, “how I started off with the right simplicity . . . and then ploughed my way through complexities and anger, hatred and ill-will towards the faults of man and came back to where I started.” Coming back to that “right simplicity,” he also found his way back to one of the simplest but most powerful phrases in the English language. Little wonder that his lines, encountered on a sunny afternoon some thirty-five years ago, have found a home in my memory and indeed in my daily awareness.

______

Patrick Kavanagh, The Complete Poems, ed. Peter Kavanagh (Goldsmith, 1972), 349, 390.

Una Agnew SSL, The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh (Columba, 1998), 239-240. “Blessing in a Christian context returns all reality to God in delight and mutual appreciation. It has taken Kavanagh a lifetime to achieve this sense of blessing. Gratitude is the mood which now characterizes his work . . .” (Agnew, 240).

Photo: Courtesy of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan, Ireland. Special thanks to Rosaleen Kearney for her kind assistance.

The woven old brocade

Here in early November, as I look out on the faded reds and golds of the Western New York landscape, I’m reminded of two verses from The Book of Equanimity, a foundational text of the Soto Zen tradition:

   Mother Nature goes on weaving warp and woof;

   the woven old brocade contains the images of spring–

Derived, oddly enough, from the same root as broccoli (L., broccus, pointed, projecting), the word brocade refers to a woven fabric in which a pattern of ornamental figures, often floral in character, stands out in low relief against a plain, contrasting background. Embodied in what is called an “unstructured weft,” the threads that form the figures of brocade were at one time made of silver or gold. The complex, labor-intensive process of brocading was performed by hand, and for most people its materials were prohibitively expensive. For those reasons, brocade has historically been associated with the royalty, the nobility, and the ecclesiastical hierarchies. In earlier centuries, in countries as diverse as India, Japan, Italy, and France, handwoven brocade was the fabric of choice for exquisite saris, kimonos, dresses, vestments, and the like. In keeping with this illustrious history, the word brocade connotes luxury, antiquity, and uncommon beauty.

In the verses from The Book of Equanimity, Mother Nature is the weaver of the “old brocade,” and the fabric she weaves is the natural world. Her brocade includes the fall colors, but it also contains “the images of spring.” In this inclusive metaphor, the cyclic rhythms of the seasons are evoked, as are the contrasting colors of the changing seasons. The one contains the other. And, just as the figure of the “woven old brocade” celebrates the enduring beauty of the natural world, it also brings to mind, in the image of the weaver, such human qualities as patience, care, and the capacity to envision a time and place other than the one immediately present.

In her essay “A Brocade Cannot Be Woven in One Color,” the Soto Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi alludes to The Book of Equanimity and examines the figure of the brocade in relation to human experience. More specifically, she relates that figure to what are known in Zen as the Eight Vicissitudes: pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute. All are components of the human condition, and to a large extent, all lie beyond our control. But if we cannot always prevent the vicissitudes from occurring, we do have some say as to how we respond to them. Aoyama Roshi puts the matter this way:

Life goes on without regard to our partial or selfish desires. Accordingly, joy and anger, sadness and happiness, love and hate, and all kinds of thoughts and emotions are woven together. If everything, including misfortune, illness, and failure, is unconditionally accepted as it is, then all experience may be constructively enjoyed.

Extending the metaphor of weaving from the realm of objective, external changes to those that shape our inner, emotional lives, she underscores the metaphor’s inclusive nature:

Birth, old age, illness, and death, as well as happiness and misfortune, gain and loss, love and hate—all these are important tools for weaving the brocade of human life. A brocade cannot be woven with the single color of happiness. Given time, place, and occasion, everything “contains all colors.”

Rather than view adversity from the narrow standpoint of the immediate present, or expect all of our experience to manifest the “single color of happiness,” we are enjoined to take the long view and to embrace those conditions that we are inclined to deny, resist, or avoid.

In The Book of Equanimity, the figure of the brocade appears in “Case 1,” a “case” being the original term (“public case”) for a Zen koan. The general theme of Case 1 is the unconditional acceptance of things as they are. Such acceptance, it must be said, does not preclude corrective action. Paradoxically, full acceptance is the most reliable basis for such action. But as the figure of the brocade implies, and as Aoyama’s commentary makes explicit, such radical acceptance requires us first to set aside our “partial or selfish desires” and acknowledge the totality of human experience. Such a response is challenging, to say the least, especially when the reality we are admonished to acknowledge is changing rapidly, and the conditions to be accepted are dark and dire. But the figure of the brocade is also consolatory, insofar as it suggests that in the fullness of “time, place, and occasion,” other and potentially better conditions may lie ahead. However worn or tattered, the woven old brocade contains the images of spring.

_______

Gerry Shishin Wick, The Book of Equanimity (Wisdom, 2005), 11.

Shundo Aoyama, Zen Seeds (Shambhala, 2019), 20-21.

 

Derek-Mahon-BW

Derek Mahon

1941-2020

The Irish poet Derek Mahon, who died earlier this month at the age of 78, grew up in a working-class Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father worked in the shipyards, his mother in a linen mill. Against his father’s wishes, Mahon pursued an interest in poetry, first in grammar school and later at Trinity College Dublin and the Sorbonne. While in his twenties he worked in various low-paying jobs in North America before settling in London in 1970. For the next fifteen years he earned a precarious living as a freelance journalist. At the same time, he was establishing a reputation as the author of superbly crafted lyric poems, in which a skeptical, darkly ironic outlook coexists with contemplative calm and a singing line. When “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,” his requiem for the “lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii,” appeared in The Listener in 1973, it was widely recognized as a modern masterpiece. In the 1990s, with twelve acclaimed collections to his credit, Mahon returned to Ireland, living for a time in central Dublin, whose newly prosperous, commercialized culture he satirically decried. In his last years he retired to the historic port of Kinsale, where he composed expansive meditative poems and enjoyed the consolations of domestic life. At the time of his death he was universally regarded as one of Ireland’s leading and most influential poets. His lifelong friend and fellow Belfast-born poet Michael Longley observed that “there is much darkness in his poetry, but it is set against the beauty of the world, and the formal beauty of his work. I believe that Derek’s poetry will last as long as the English language lasts.”

Mahon’s early departure from Northern Ireland left an indelible mark on his work, infusing his poems with ambivalent feelings of disdain, regret, and longing. In 1977 he accepted a two-year appointment at the University of Ulster at Coleraine, in Co. Derry, and he returned with his wife and two children to their native province. It was a homecoming of sorts, but not a happy one. By this time Mahon had been diagnosed with a serious drinking problem, his marriage was teetering, and his writing had come to a virtual standstill. And the murderous sectarian conflict known as the Troubles was at its height, one of its flashpoints being the area where he was then living. Acutely aware of these adverse conditions, Mahon composed “Everything is Going to be All Right,” the poem by which he is best known to the general public.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.

In this formal, twelve-line poem, the narrator awakens in an upstairs bedroom in a house on the northern coast. In contrast to his still-immobile state, the natural world is luminous and active: the tide is up, the clouds are flying, and the sky is clearing. If the imagery of the poem sets the narrator’s stillness against the dynamism of his surroundings, its antithetical syntax (“but there is no need to go into that”) reflects a tension between the narrator’s dark thoughts and the untrammeled beauty of the natural world. Out of these tensions arise two affirmations, both them framed in plain declarative sentences.

In asserting that “The lines flow from the hand unbidden / and the hidden source is the watchful heart,” Mahon affirms one of the traditional wellsprings of the poet’s art. “Look in thy heart, and write,” advised the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney, whom Mahon had studied at TCD. Following Sidney’s lead, Mahon places his faith in poetic intuition, which a poet can awaken through patient contemplation. For a formal poet like Derek Mahon, whose craft requires meticulous attention to every syllable and element of form, this recognition of a vital source beyond his conscious control is at once revelatory and liberating.

The second affirmation is even more consequential. In his title and closing line, Mahon places his trust in life itself. “In spite of everything,” the sun rises, and the beauty of the “far cities” persists into the future. In a lesser context, Mahon’s affirmation might seem platitudinous, or might even be interpreted as ironic. But in its present context it calls to mind a cryptic statement by the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck. “Practice,” she asserts, “is about finally understanding the paradox that although everything is a mess, all is well.” Although themes from the Zen tradition appear here and there in Mahon’s work, he was not a committed Zen practitioner. But the paradox he explores in “Everything is Going to be All Right” has much in common with the one to which Joko Beck alludes. And though his poem was written in a time and under circumstances very different from our own, and his “momentous celebration of a moment of well-being,” as the critic Hugh Haughton has described it, may well be a “dream of living which is also a dream of writing,” the reassurance he articulates speaks eloquently to our present, vexed condition.

______

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (Gallery, 1999).

Charlotte Joko Beck, “What Zen Practice Is,” Open Heart Zen Sangha.

Hugh Haughton, The Poetry of Derek Mahon (Oxford, 2007), 147-148.

236. Profound silence

DB 1a

                                      Dzogchen Beara

“Profound silence,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “is not something we fall into casually. This may indeed happen, and a blessed happening it is, but normally we choose to set aside a time and a place to enter into spiritual quietness.”

            For me, the time was a week in July, 1998, and the place was the Beara Peninsula in southwest Ireland. Traversed by two mountain ranges and jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, Beara offers a landscape rich in Bronze Age antiquities and rugged natural beauty but inhospitable to human habitation. The winters are “full-on,” a local resident told me. And even during the summers, when the temperature peaks in the 60s, and hikers and cyclists converge on the scenic Ring of Beara, the stony hills, steep cliffs, and fierce winds challenge the faint of heart. At one time the population of the Beara Peninsula was nearly 40,000. Today it is fewer than 6,000 hardy souls.

            I came to Beara not to hike or cycle but primarily to meditate. My specific destination was Dzogchen (pron. ZOGH-shen) Beara, a Buddhist retreat and conference center situated near the colorful village of Allihies. Perched on a high cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the center is affiliated with the Dzogchen school of Tibetan Buddhism, and during my weeklong stay, a few long-term residents were undergoing training in Tibetan Buddhist practice. But the ethos of the center was ecumenical, welcoming, and international. The then director was an Englishman, the staff mostly Irish. The bookshop included selections in English, Irish, and several other languages. Dzogchen Beara now boasts a modern, well-appointed conference center, bright commodious cottages with spectacular vistas (rentable at € 150/night), and a café that caters to tourists as well as retreatants. But twenty years ago, the ambience of the place was far more austere, and the “self-catering” cabin where I stayed was spartan, to say the least.

            The cabin’s most conspicuous feature was a long, old-fashioned bathtub. When I drew my first bath, I discovered that the water was amber-going-to-brown. This color, I was told, was caused by the peat in the soil. Not only was this additive harmless, I further learned, it was also, like Guinness, supposed to be good for me. Although I grew accustomed to bathing in the visual equivalent of pale ale, I cannot report any salubrious effects.

            The other prominent features of my home from home included a pot-bellied, peat-burning stove; an elderly, encrusted cook stove; a tiny fridge; a writing desk and lamp; and a single hard bed, which looked and felt like an oversized church pew. Fortunately, this Thoreauvian dwelling also featured a large window, from which I could look down at the water far below. In the mornings I watched the fishing boats emerging from the darkness onto Bantry Bay. In the evenings, I watched the sun setting on the distant ocean horizon.

            Dzogchen Beara had no fixed schedule for visitors, and after a brief orientation we were left on our own. But I soon developed a daily rhythm. Rising early, I brewed a pot of coffee, wrote in my journal, and worked on a lecture I would deliver the following week at the Kerry International Summer School in Tralee. After breakfast, I joined a few other visitors for guided meditation in the main hall. Looking out through tall windows on the ocean, we contemplated impermanence and cultivated the primordial awareness known in Tibetan Buddhism as rigpa. In the afternoons I explored the rocky hills and trails around the center, while listening to talks by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh on my aging Walkman. Toward evening, I prepared my simple dinners from provisions I’d bought in Castletownbere and brought with me. My most memorable meal: roasted bell peppers stuffed with quinoa and flavored with fresh herbs. Suitable fare, it seemed at the time, for a part-time eremite. In the evenings I sat in solitary meditation before retiring to my monkish bed.

            And what did I take away from this experience? Of the welter of memories I’ve retained, two in particular stand out.

            In southwest Ireland, which is warmed by the Gulf Stream, the wild fuchsia blooms abundantly in July. In his poem “The Fuchsia Blaze,” the Cork-born poet Greg Delanty recounts how this deep-red flower, imported from South America, “ran amuck . . . & wildfired the land / becoming the spirit of Kerry’s / Aztec farmers.” The Irish-speaking populace named the wild fuchsia Deora De, meaning “God’s Tears.” In Delanty’s poem, “each branch weeps / their God’s blood tears / as if sensing the earth’s hurt.” But at Dzogchen Beara, the spectacle of thousands of wild fuchsia cascading down the rocky cliff felt more celebratory than elegiac.

            That feeling was of a piece with the deep silence I experienced at Dzogchen Beara. “It seeps into you,” one visitor remarked. Early one morning, as I wrote in my journal and looked out at the bay, I realized that the only sounds I was hearing were those I was making myself: my heartbeat, the scratching of my pen on the page. As the Irish poet Sean Dunne (1956-1995), a native of Cork who also spent some time at Dzogchen Beara, wrote in his memoir The Road to Silence (1994): “silence is not just the absence of noise. It is also the absence of distraction and of mental busyness which prohibits the creation of an inner quiet. Silence is not a passive or quietist quality but an active one. . . . It is tactile, like the pages of a book or the texture of stone.” Such was my experience at Dzogchen Beara, and I have carried that nurturing, necessary stillness with me to this day.

______

Greg Delanty, Southward (Louisiana State, 1992).

Sean Dunne, The Road to Silence (New Island, 1994), 73.

Shunryu Suzuki

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree,” said Abraham Lincoln, “I would spend four hours sharpening the axe.”

That famous saying is commonly invoked to underscore the value of preparation—or, more precisely, of an attitude of preparedness. Whether we are preparing to cook a meal by chopping onions or preparing for a long drive by checking the air pressure in our tires, preparation is understood to be a necessary part of any serious undertaking. And an attitude of preparedness is regarded as a mark of a mature, responsible person.

All that said, preparation is often seen, consciously or otherwise, as subordinate to the main event. It is what the prep cook does before the chef arrives or what the warm-up band does before the stars take the stage. When I was teaching courses in English literature at Alfred University, I would often spend three hours or more preparing for a fifty-minute class. Yet until I began to practice Zen, I would not have thought of those hours as on a par with the dynamic experience of teaching itself. Essential my preparations may have been, even when teaching a text I had taught many times before, but in the back of my mind I still viewed the time spent locating sources, organizing the discussion, and selecting passages for special attention as mere preparation—the sorbet, as it were, rather than the main course. Continue Reading »

234. Peace is possible

Thich Nhat Hanh
        2006

Early one summer morning, two decades ago, I walked with several hundred other people down a sidewalk in Amherst, Massachusetts. Leading our walk was the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who wore the plain brown robes of his monastic order. Walking beside him were the children of participants in our weeklong retreat. In the next row were robed monks and nuns from Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France, followed by our own assembled body. Transcending the boundaries of age, class, race, religion, and gender, our diverse group included Jews, Catholic nuns, Protestant clergy, lay Buddhist practitioners, secular professionals, and American veterans of the Vietnam War.

This was not my first walk with Thich Nhat Hanh, nor would it be my last. In a previous year, I had walked with Thây (Viet.,“ teacher”), as we affectionately called him, down a wooded path at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and I would walk with him again, in a future year, on the quiet campus of Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts.  But the walk in Amherst stands out in memory, chiefly because it occurred in an urban setting. The sounds of construction were in the air. Down Massachusetts Avenue, traffic flowed as usual. To my surprise, when we crossed a busy intersection, commuting drivers waited respectfully, even when the light had changed. No horns blared; no angry voices yelled at us to get a move one. Continue Reading »

233. Garden time

Sue Stuart-Smith II

Sue Stuart-Smith

Sue Stuart-Smith is an English psychiatrist and an avid gardener. Her many original insights derive, on the one hand, from her clinical practice, particularly her work with victims of trauma, and on the other, from her long experience in planting and tending her gardens. Grounded in those realities, she is not inclined toward lofty abstractions or metaphysical speculation. But in her book The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, Stuart-Smith propounds an abstract, metaphysical concept, which she calls “garden time.” By this term she does not mean “a time for gardening.” Rather, she is speaking of a sense of time qualitatively different from the ordinary. Continue Reading »

232. Be a wind bell

Wind bell PS

As a wedding gift eighteen years ago, two of our friends gave my wife and me a wind bell. Tall, pyramidical, and unadorned, it has hung from the branch of a spruce tree for nearly two decades. Its three steel sides and the triangular plate suspended from its clapper are rusted now, and the tree has long since died. But whenever the wind comes up with sufficient force, we are summoned by a distant, resonant clang, clang, clang—a reminder at once of continuity and change.

Wind bells have been around for millennia. In the late twelfth century Tendō Nyojō, a revered Zen master and the teacher of Eihei Dōgen, wrote a poem about his own: Continue Reading »

231. Coming home

Edward Espe Brown

 “Let things come and abide in your heart,” advised Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, “and let your heart abide in things.” Applying this principle to the culinary arts, Edward Espe Brown, a Zen priest, author, and celebrated chef, instructs the students in his cooking classes to do the same. “The world of flavor opened up,” he reflects in his book No Recipe, “when I began to let tastes come and abide in my heart.” Rather than try to make the food “behave,” or the final product conform to a preconceived standard, he learned to “allow for an intimate meeting with the world,” and the world of food to “awaken [his] heart.”

As with food, so with classical music. If music be the food of love, as Shakespeare’s Duke Orsinio posits, it too can be allowed or not allowed to abide in one’s heart. And just as different foods have different flavors, so do the works of classical composers, which may by turns be sweet or sour, salty or bland, pungent or bitter. Bach, for example, can be ineffably sweet, as in the Largo movement of his Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. Bartok can be bitter. Brahms can be deeply pleasing to the palate—or seasoned, as it were, to a fault. And just as we as diners may be drawn to one range of flavors rather than another, we as listeners may feel affinities at different times in our lives for the works of particular composers. Continue Reading »

In his book The World Could Be Otherwise (Shambhala, 2019) the Zen priest Zoketsu Norman Fischer Roshi makes an arresting remark, as notable for its subtlety as for its bold assertion. “When I am sick at a retreat,” he writes, “I don’t try to perform as if I weren’t sick . . . I try not to waste time wishing for another condition. I just live within the condition I have.” (My italics)

Norman Fischer is a poet as well as a longtime Zen practitioner. He chooses his words with care. Had he written with rather than within—“I just live with my condition”—his statement would have been unremarkable, even banal. But instead he wrote within, a word that means, among other things, “in the interior of.” And between those two prepositions, so common in speech and prose but so wide-ranging in their implications, there is a significant and telling difference. Continue Reading »