I’ve been a fan of Peter Mathiessen’s since I discovered At Play in the Fields of the Lord in the 1970s. Unlike many of his admirers, though, I think I have liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. Maybe I just have a problem with “environmental writing” that spends most of its energy in describing the environment. I already know that the Himalayan wilderness is beautiful — I’m not sure what pasting words over it really accomplishes, except inviting a kind of smug moral complicity on the part of the reader. Well, that’s hyperbole, but I nevertheless prefer a writer like John McPhee, who tends to focus more on the human presence within the environment. Perhaps I am too on guard against sentimentality to appreciate real sentiment sufficiently.
In any event, Mathiessen’s book of Zen journals has several passages of very clear exposition of Zen principles, but much of this — as one would expect from a journal — emerges from very fine-grained and small scale descriptions of the writer’s interactions with his teachers and — especially in the third section of the book — his travels around Japan visiting various Soto temples. This final part contains some of the best “Zen writing” but also tends to get lost in paragraphs of landscape painting and descriptions of peripheral Soto places & personalities. My own preference is for Mathiessen’s historical anecdotes, as opposed to his contemporary accounts. For instance, in Chapter 11, visiting the Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura, he relates the story of the 13th century nun Chiyono, who attained enlightenment while hauling water. Apparently, she had been studying a long time without experiencing kensho, but one evening her wooden bucket gave way & she “understood the great matter,” to paraphrase Master Dogen. To commemorate the event, she wrote a poem:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
. . . has won a prize from the American Literary Review.
Here is what Joanie Mackowski, who judged the poetry contest, thought of the winning poem, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds”:
“Stretching its keen observations and minutely choreographed sentences over the advancing paw prints of its lines, “Lake Surface Full of Clouds” makes language ductile and makes the reader recall the animal and chemical pleasures of reading. This poem finds an atomic pulse: ‘thing & song// in their wild fullness full’.” The poem will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of ALR.
I’ve been reading a lot of books about mental illness, the brain, & madness over the last few months in preparation for teaching a course with my colleague Stephen Casper, a historian, called The Literature and History of Madness. I’ve been reading mostly in the “popular” rather than the scholarly literature, which I will get to soon enough. Most recently, I’ve finished Michael Greenberg’s memoir of his daughter’s crack-up, Hurry Down Sunshine. One is not likely to read a less sentimental and more clear-eyed account of psychosis than this. Told with great sympathy for all involved, especially Sally, Greenberg’s daughter, the story is presented without a trace of sensationalism; but what I found most intriguing about Greenberg’s account is his exploration — almost entirely in asides and very brief digressions — of the the paradox of psychosis: that it is born of the basic human need to make sense of the world, often through language, but that when this drive goes wrong, when it seeks totality, madness results. (I still remember my friend B.A. lying on the couch in my Capitol Hill apartment in Seattle in 1975 listening to the radio because it was telling him the meaning of life & how everything made sense.) Greenberg’s daughter Sally, though “learning disabled” is a verbally brilliant teenager, who ultimately gets tangled up in her own twists & turns of language & meaning. There is a moment near the end of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, which is the ur-text of modern American psychosis, in which the wise psychotherapist who has drawn her patient out of hell vehemently insists that there is no connection between madness and imagination, psychosis & creativity; but if there is no necessary connection, there is a borderland across which the two entities regard each other, that’s clear. It is a borderland into which Greenberg’s sensitive account shines a narrow beam of light, revealing a few salient features of the place, which is perhaps all we can ask.
One of the nice things about being an academic with tenure is that I have big blocks of time that I can use however I want, but that’s — for me, anyway — also a problem. I tend to fritter away time when I don’t have structures and deadlines. I get the most done when I am busiest. I’m trying to figure out how to structure my days more effectively. The need to do this has come into focus as my Zen practice has “deepened,” as they say. (It’s a bit of religion-speak I find a bit off-putting.) Basically, what this means is that doing meditation morning and evening creates a certain structure around which other things can be organized, so that creates a starting point.
I’ve always tended to work to deadlines and to write in spurts and dashes of energy separated by wide deserts of non-writing. I’ve heard all the advice and rules about establishing a regular time and just keeping at it, but I’ve never done that with writing, but now I am finding it pretty easy to sit on a regular schedule, so why not sit and write the same way? I have to weave this around my teaching and other academic duties, but in that respect I have it very easy. so that’s what I’m going to do over the coming weeks heading into summer and I’m going to keep up some kind of daily writing even when I travel. It has taken a long time to come to this, but increasingly I have the sense that not-writing, like not-sitting, is not an option for me.
And it’s not an ego-thing anymore, this writing and even publishing poems. When I was a boy I wanted to be famous, but I quit being a boy — at least that kind of boy – at about age 52. (Not that long ago, true.) I just want to make sense of things and language — poetic language — is the way I’ve always done that, even when I was a boy. Buddhism puts a lot of emphasis on silence and even sometimes overtly relegates language to a secondary status, not more than a practical instrument, necessary but deeply flawed. At the same time, Buddhism has produced its share of great poets. The genius of language lies, as the old Zen hermit-poets understood, lies in its impurity and imperfection.