At the Edge of Whole and Part

'Subsume,' by user Squid ProQuo on Flickr

[Image: “Subsume,” by user Squid ProQuo on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license; thank you!) The photographer includes almost no information about the photo or its subject, other than that it was taken in Japan in 2009. I haven’t seen any more information about this sculpture elsewhere, but I’ll keep looking.]

From whiskey river:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses. We can extend our senses with the help of microscope, stethoscope, robot, satellite, hearing aid, and such, but what is beyond our senses we cannot know. Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality. Sometimes, of course, a diner comes too close, and each year a certain number of fugu-lovers die in midmeal…

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth… Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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Forever Beginning

'Âmes entrelacés par la lumière,' by user viewminder on Flickr.com

[Image: “Âmes entrelacés par la lumière,” by user Viewminder on Flickr.com. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) Translation, per Google Translate: Souls intertwined by light.]

From whiskey river:

I wish that I could put up yesterday’s evening sky for all posterity, could preserve a night of love, the sound of a mountain stream, a realization as it sets my mind afire, a dance, a day of harmony, ten thousand glorious days of clouds that will instead vanish and never be seen again, line them up in jars where they might be admired in the interim and tasted again as needed.

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and (italicized portion*):

We like to think that we are finely evolved creatures, in suit-and-tie or pantyhose-and-chemise, who live many millennia and mental detours away from the cave, but that’s not something our bodies are convinced of. We may have the luxury of being at the top of the food chain, but our adrenaline still rushes when we encounter real or imaginary predators. We even restage that primal fright by going to monster movies. We still stake out or mark our territories, though sometimes now it is with the sound of radios. We still jockey for position and power. We still create works of art to enhance our senses and add even more sensations to the brimming world, so that we can utterly luxuriate in the spectacles of life. We still ache fiercely with love, lust, loyalty, and passion. And we still perceive the world, in all its gushing beauty and terror, right on our pulses. There is no other way.  To begin to understand the gorgeous fever that is consciousness, we must try to understand the senses — how they evolved, how they can be extended, what their limits are, to which ones we have attached taboos, and what they can teach us about the ravishing world we have the privilege to inhabit.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Begin

Begin again to the summoning birds
to the sight of the light at the window,
begin to the roar of morning traffic
all along Pembroke Road.
Every beginning is a promise
born in light and dying in dark
determination and exaltation of springtime
flowering the way to work.
Begin to the pageant of queuing girls
the arrogant loneliness of swans in the canal
bridges linking the past and future
old friends passing though with us still.
Begin to the loneliness that cannot end
since it perhaps is what makes us begin,
begin to wonder at unknown faces
at crying birds in the sudden rain
at branches stark in the willing sunlight
at seagulls foraging for bread
at couples sharing a sunny secret
alone together while making good.
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.

(Brendan Kennelly [source])

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Groping at (but Never Grasping) Mystery

[Video: “Who Done It?” by Harry Nilsson (on 1977’s Knnillssonn album). The string opening is reportedly the only so-called “Nilsson” recording not actually written by Nilsson himself; it’s the Allegro movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E Flat, Opus 127. (The Adagio movement is referenced in Jan Zwicky’s poem, below.)]

From whiskey river:

Nirvana is this moment seen directly. There is no where else than here. The only gate is now. The only doorway is your own body and mind. There’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing else to be. There’s no destination. It’s not something to aim for in the afterlife. It’s simply the quality of this moment.

(Jane Hirshfield [quoted many places around the Web, apparently sourced from a PBS documentary on the Buddha])

…and:

There is the moment when the silence of the countryside gathers in the ear and breaks into a myriad of sounds: a croaking and squeaking, a swift rustle in the grass, a plop in the water, a pattering on earth and pebbles, and high above all, the call of the cicada. The sounds follow one another, and the ear eventually discerns more and more of them—just as fingers unwinding a ball of wool feel each fiber interwoven with progressively thinner and less palpable threads, The frogs continue croaking in the background without changing the flow of sounds, just as light does not vary from the continuous winking of stars. But at every rise or fall of the wind every sound changes and is renewed. All that remains in the inner recess of the ear is a vague murmur: the sea.

(Italo Calvino [source])

…and:

Beethoven: Op 127, Adagio

1.

Here at the end of summer
the heart talks to itself,
a thin stream braiding
over a lip of rock.

To go through a wall, then another—
galleries of silent, stone-ground light.
To go through, to that third room on the other side,
to empty the forest of your thoughts, the forest of your lungs,
this is where the heart goes in late summer,
the empty forest. Even the sunlight is alone.

In the third room, the heart sits on the floor
talking to itself. A little stream,
braiding over a lip of rock.
It is saying what it has said
from the beginning, no doors, no windows,
if anyone could hear.

(Jan Zwicky [source])

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The Gravity of the Unknown

'Remarkable things, passing,' by user PhotoGraham on Flickr

[Image: “Remarkable things, passing,” by user PhotoGraham on Flickr.com. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) See the note at the foot of this post for more information.]

From whiskey river:

Think of how little has been salvaged from the compost of time, of the hundreds of billions of dreams dreamt since the language to describe them emerged, how few names, how few wishes, how few languages even, how we don’t know what tongues the people who erected the standing stones of Britain and Ireland spoke or what the stones meant, don’t know much of the language of the Gabrielanos of Los Angeles or the Miwoks of Marin, don’t know how or why they drew the giant pictures on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru, don’t know much even about Shakespeare or Li Po. It is as though we make the exception the rule, believe that we should have rather than that we will generally lose. We should be able to find our way back again by the objects we dropped, like Hansel and Gretel in the forest, the objects reeling us back in time, undoing each loss, a road back from lost eyeglasses to lost toys and baby teeth. Instead, most of the objects form the secret constellations of our irrecoverable past, returning only in dreams where nothing but the dreamer is lost. They must still exist somewhere: pocket knives and plastic horses don’t exactly compost, but who knows where they go in the great drifts of objects sifting through our world?

(Rebecca Solnit [source])

and:

Abraham Joshua Heschel, a very interesting rabbi and mystic, said he didn’t pray for faith; he prayed for wonder.

That is also my prayer. Wonder is the heaviest element on the periodic table; a tiny fleck of it stops time. My periodic table of the heart also has many other elements, still unidentified by science. One of them is unattainium. That’s the one that continues to drive us forward whether or not we expect to succeed.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Balance

I watched the arctic landscape from above
and thought of nothing, lovely nothing.
I observed white canopies of clouds, vast
expanses where no wolf tracks could be found.

I thought about you and about the emptiness
that can promise one thing only: plenitude —
and that a certain sort of snowy wasteland
bursts from a surfeit of happiness.

As we drew closer to our landing,
the vulnerable earth emerged among the clouds,
comic gardens forgotten by their owners,
pale grass plagued by winter and the wind.

I put my book down and for an instant felt
a perfect balance between waking and dreams.
But when the plane touched concrete, then
assiduously circled the airport’s labyrinth,

I once again knew nothing. The darkness
of daily wanderings resumed, the day’s sweet darkness,
the darkness of the voice that counts and measures,
remembers and forgets.

(Adam Zagajewski [source])

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I Used to Think… But Now…

'On second thoughts...,' by Tim Norris on Flickr (used under a Creative Commons license)

[Image: “On second thoughts…,” by Tim Norris on Flickr. (Click to enlarge.) Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

Insight roams the sea of the unconscious like the Loch Ness monster, a rumor whose wake occasionally becomes visible, but even then it’s mystifying and scarcely believed.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and:

Words are substance strange. Speak one and the air ripples into another’s ears. Write one and the eye laps it up. But the sense transmutes, and the spoken word winds through the ear’s labyrinth into a sense that is no longer the nerve’s realm. The written word unfolds behind the eye into the world, world’s image, and the imagination sees as the eye cannot see — thoughtfully.

(Dan Beachy-Quick [source unknown])

and:

Inspiration is not the exclusive privilege of poets or artists generally. There is, has been, and will always be a certain group of people whom inspiration visits. It’s made up of all those who’ve consciously chosen their calling and do their job with love and imagination. It may include doctors, teachers, gardeners — and I could list a hundred more professions. Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous “I don’t know.”

(Wislawa Szymborska [source])

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The Uncertain Sum of Definite Parts

'I dreamed about a human being,' by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license)

[Image: “I dreamed about a human being,” by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The Life of a Day

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

(Tom Hennen [source])

and (italicized portion):

The brain’s dynamo runs millions of jobs, by mixing chemicals, oscillations, synchronized rhythms, and who knows what else. It is like looking at a mosaic or a pointillist painting in motion. Study the whole and the parts disappear; study the parts and the whole disappears. Maybe stronger brains will solve that problem in future days. I believe consciousness is brazenly physical, a raucous mirage the brain creates to help us survive. But I also sense the universe is magical, greater than the sum of its parts, which I don’t attribute to a governing god, but simply to the surprising, ecstatic, frightening everyday reality we all know. Ultimately, I find consciousness a fascinating predicament for matter to get into.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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The Surface, Transcended

[Video: “Surface Tension,” an improvisation by pianist Eve Egoyan with artist David Rokeby. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river (from which I could have quoted everything this week):

We inhabit a deeply imagined world that exists alongside the real physical world. Even the crudest utterance, or the simplest, contains the fundamental poetry by which we live. This mind fabric, woven of images and illusions, shields us. In a sense, or rather, in all senses, it’s a shock absorber. As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse — hopelessly, irredeemably harsh — if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions. One of the most surprising facts about human beings is that we seem to require a poetic version of life. It’s not just that some of us enjoy reading or writing poetically, or that many people wax poetic in emotional situations, but that all human beings of all ages in all cultures all over the world automatically tell their story in a poetic way, using the elemental poetry concealed in everyday language to solve problems, communicate desires and needs, even talk to themselves. When people invent new words, they do so playfully, metaphorically — computers have viruses, one can surf the internet, a naive person is clueless. In time, people forget the etymology or choose to disregard it. We dine at chic restaurants from porcelain dinner plates without realizing that when the smooth, glistening porcelain was invented in France a long time ago, someone with a sense of humor thought it looked as smooth as the vulva of a pig, which is indeed what porcelain means. When we stand by our scruples, we don’t think of our feet, but the word comes from the Latin scrupulus, a tiny stone that was the smallest unit of weight. Thus a scrupulous person is so sensitive he’s irritated by the smallest stone in his shoe. For the most part, we are all unwitting poets.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and (italicized portion):

The Greatest Grandeur
(excerpt)

But it is the dark emptiness contained
in every next moment that seems to me
the most singularly glorious gift,
that void which one is free to fill
with processions of men bearing burning
cedar knots or with parades of blue horses,
belled and ribboned and stepping sideways,
with tumbling white-faced mimes or companies
of black-robed choristers; to fill simply
with hammered silver teapots or kiln-dried
crockery, tangerine and almond custards,
polonaises, polkas, whittling sticks, wailing
walls; that space large enough to hold all
invented blasphemies and pieties, 10,000
definitions of god and more, never fully
filled, never.

(Pattiann Rogers [source])

and:

And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.

(Zadie Smith [source])

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The (Generally Sweet) Awakening

The yeti crab

[Image: the Yeti crab. (See here, here, and here for more information.) I’m no connoisseur of deep-sea life, but this fairly recent discovery — 2005 — woke even me up. Gently. In a way, it woke up even its discoverers.*]

From whiskey river:

In order to awaken, first of all one must realize that one is in a state of sleep. And in order to realize that one is indeed in a state of sleep, one must recognize and fully understand the nature of the forces which operate to keep one in the state of sleep, or hypnosis. It is absurd to think that this can be done by seeking information from the very source which induces the hypnosis.

(George Ivanovich Gurdjieff [source unknown])

I should say that I couldn’t find a source for these specific words. But this passage is a coda of sorts to Gurdjieff’s tale of the magician and the sheep, recounted in various places around the Web.

and:

When you consider something like death, after which (there being no news flash to the contrary) we may well go out like a candle flame, then it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are. It probably doesn’t matter if a passerby sees us dipping a finger into the moist pouches of dozens of lady’s slippers to find out what bugs tend to fall into them, and thinks us a bit eccentric. Or a neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in the other, its color hitting our sense like a blow from a stun gun, as we stand with a huge grin, too paralyzed by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move.

(Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses)

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Breath of Life

'Termite Lunch,' by user bananeman (Edgar Vonk) on Flickr

[Image: “Termite Lunch,” by bananeman (Edgar Vonk) on Flickr.com. Used under a Creative Commons license. Wondering about the title? See Wikipedia.]

From whiskey river:

Wonder, to preserve itself, withdraws. It withdraws from the mind, from the willing mind, which would make of mystery a category.

I remember being told a story about an old culture that believed the center of the forest was holy and could not be entered into. Even in the heat of the hunt, should the chased beast enter into the sacred center, the hunter would stop and not pursue. I think often about that line — which is not a line in any definite sense, is no certain marking, but rather is itself somehow without definition, a hazy line, a faulty boundary — that marks the periphery. One side of the line is the daily world where we who have appetites must fill our mouths, we who have thoughts must fill our minds. The other side is within the world and beyond, where appetite isn’t to be sated, where desire is not to be fulfilled, and where thoughts refuse to lead to knowledge. I like the moment of failure that finds us on that line, abandoned of intent, caught in an experience of a different order, stalking the line between two different worlds and imperfectly taking part in both. Such a place risks blasphemy at the same time that it returns reverence to risk.

(Dan Beachy-Quick [source])

and:

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

(Wallace Stevens [source])

and:

I’ve been thinking about something for a long time, and I keep noticing that most human speech — if not all human speech — is made with the outgoing breath. This is the strange thing about presence and absence. When we breathe in, our bodies are filled with nutrients and nourishment. Our blood is filled with oxygen, our skin gets flush; our bones get harder — they get compacted. Our muscles get toned and we feel very present when we’re breathing in. The problem is, that when we’re breathing in, we can’t speak. So presence and silence have something to do with each other.

(Li-Young Lee [source])

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Midweek Science/Poetry Break: Diane Ackerman, “Night Letter to Loren Eiseley”

Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, by Diane AckermanCorrect: no Midweek Music Break this week. I’ve been working on this year’s Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix, which will show up here on Saturday, so am a little burnt out on music at the moment. :)

Instead…

I’ve been re-reading Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain, from 1979, which deals mostly with the edges which lie between science and, well, everything else. In one chapter, he discusses science fiction: what he likes and what he hates about it. And I came across this curious claim: “…in the verse of Diane Ackerman can be glimpsed the prospect of a mature astronomical poetry, fully conversant with standard science-fiction themes.”

Eh? I thought. Diane Ackerman writes science-fiction poetry?!? This turns out to be the case, all right — or at least, she has done so. I refer you to her collection called Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, for example, which includes (among much else) excerpt from a complete cycle, perhaps a collection of its own, called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral.

In Jaguar of Sweet Laughter, I also came across the poem below. Not strictly speaking a “science-fiction poem,” nevertheless it does feature an imagined correspondence with one of the great workers at those edges between science and “everything else.”

Night Letter to Loren Eiseley

All night an illness barred me
from that loam-rich sleep
we mammals are born to,
we who lie flat for eight hours
in darkness, then rise, barely rested,
for half a sun, watch color TV
because ancestors had eyes cued
to ripening fruit, laze on platforms
in the sun, and still marvel
at hand-me-down miracles like birth.

Near dawn, I took your Immense Journey
from the shelf, and found myself soon
with lantern-jawed humans, trapped
in the Lost Horizon of our past,
with deft orb-weavers, oracular fish,
and marsh birds that stilt
from pond to pond. Then, nodding
in ricochet delight, I feasted
on the spellbinding fruit you grew—
that way of beholding
which is a form of prayer,
and, on the still white winter morning,
knew I would carry its seeds
to an unworldly place.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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