The Unbearable Lightness of Metaphor

'Light - Day Two,' by Lucy Maude Ellis on Flickr

[Image: “light – day two,” by Lucy Maude Ellis. (Found it on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) I came across this image while searching for images having to do with weightlessness and such; the photographer’s Flickr photostream seems to exhibit a particular fondness for “levitation pictures.” In such pictures, the human subject is posed in such a way that s/he appears to be floating in air — the photographer then edits the photo to remove all traces of whatever device(s) are used to support the model. This image, though, “felt” better to me as accompaniment to today’s theme.]

From whiskey river:

The Mountain

My students look at me expectantly.
I explain to them that the life of art is a life
of endless labor. Their expressions
hardly change; they need to know
a little more about endless labor.
So I tell them the story of Sisyphus,
how he was doomed to push
a rock up a mountain, knowing nothing
would come of this effort
but that he would repeat it
indefinitely. I tell them
there is joy in this, in the artist’s life,
that one eludes
judgment, and as I speak
I am secretly pushing a rock myself,
slyly pushing it up the steep
face of a mountain. Why do I lie
to these children? They aren’t listening,
they aren’t deceived, their fingers
tapping at the wooden desks—
So I retract
the myth; I tell them it occurs
in hell, and that the artist lies
because he is obsessed with attainment,
that he perceives the summit
as that place where he will live forever,
a place about to be
transformed by his burden: with every breath,
I am standing at the top of the mountain.
Both my hands are free. And the rock has added
height to the mountain.

(Louise Glück [source])

and:

What Light Does

Today, I did nothing.
Light went on as usual,

throwing leaves against the white wall,
as if no one were watching, as if

there’s no meaning in the trembling
of the leaves. Later, light moves

the leaves onto the tile floor,
and once I might have thought them

dancing, or that the shadow
of a thing is more beautiful

than the thing itself, but it’s not,
it’s just ordinary light, going about

its ordinary business. Now, evening is here,
and I’ve made it through another day

of shadows. This is not metaphor, or poetry,
it’s how the unbearable is

a blade that gleams and remains
visible, long after light has gone.

(Patty Paine, Blackbird [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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What’s the Matter?

'Jeu injuste' ('Unfair game'), by  Rémy Saglier on Flickr

[Image: ‘Jeu injuste’ (‘Unfair game’), by Rémy Saglier (user “doubleray”) on Flickr.
Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

The unreal is more powerful than the real.

Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it.

Because it’s only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs, fantasies that last. Stone crumbles. Wood rots. People, well, they die.

But things as fragile as a thought, a dream, a legend, they can go on and on.

If you can change the way people think, she said. The way they see themselves. The way they see the world. You can change the way people live their lives. That’s the only lasting thing you can create.

(Chuck Palahniuk [source])

and:

Since a three-dimensional object casts a two-dimensional shadow, we should be able to imagine the unknown four-dimensional object whose shadow we are. I for my part am fascinated by the search for a one-dimensional object that casts no shadow at all.

(Marcel Duchamp [source])

and:

Concerning the Atoms of the Soul

Someone explained once how the pieces of what we are
fall downwards at the same rate
as the Universe.
The atoms of us, falling towards the center

of whatever everything is. And we don’t see it.
We only sense their slight drag in the lifting hand.
That’s what weight is, that communal process of falling.
Furthermore, these atoms carry hooks, like burrs,

hooks catching like hooks, like clinging to like,
that’s what keeps us from becoming something else,
and why in early love, we sometimes
feel the tug of the heart snagging on anothers’ heart.

Only the atoms of the soul are perfect spheres
with no means of holding on to the world
or perhaps no need for holding on,
and so they fall through our lives catching

against nothing, like perfect rain,
and in the end, he wrote, mix in that common well of light
at the center of whatever the suspected
center is, or might have been.

(John Glenday [source])

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Here (for Now)

'Too bad about old Ainsworth,' by Barney Tobey in the New Yorker

[Image: cartoon by Barney Tobey in The New Yorker of September 13, 1982 (source)]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

The Sensual World

I call to you across a monstrous river or chasm
to caution you, to prepare you.

Earth will seduce you, slowly, imperceptibly,
subtly, not to say with connivance.

I was not prepared: I stood in my granmother’s kitchen,
holding out my glass. Stewed plums, stewed apricots —

the juice poured off into the glass of ice.
And the water added, patiently, in small increments,

the various cousins discriminating, tasting
with each addition —

aroma of summer fruit, intensity of concentration:
the colored liquid turning gradually lighter, more radiant,

more light passing through it.
Delight, then solace. My grandmother waiting,

to see if more was wanted. Solace, then deep immersion.
I loved nothing more: deep privacy of the sensual life,

the self disappearing into it or inseparable from it,
somehow suspended, floating, its needs

fully exposed, awakened, fully alive —
Deep immersion, and with it

mysterious safety. Far away, the fruit glowing in its glass bowls.
Outside the kitchen, the sun setting.

I was not prepared: sunset, end of summer. Demonstrations
of time as a continuum, as something coming to an end,

not a suspension; the senses wouldn’t protect me.
I caution you as I was never cautioned:

you will never let go, you will never be satiated.
You will be damaged and scarred, you will continue to hunger.

Your body will age, you will continue to need.
You will want the earth, then more of the earth —

Sublime, indifferent, it is present, it will not respond.
It is encompassing, it will not minister.

Meaning, it will feed you, it will ravish you,
it will not keep you alive.

(Louise Glück [source])

and:

Aphorism #33

One of the best means for arousing the wish to work on yourself is to realize that you may die at any moment. But first you must learn how to keep it in mind.

(George Ivanovich Gurdjieff [source])

and (italicized portion):

Sabbaths: VII

Again I resume the long
lesson: how small a thing
can be pleasing, how little
in this hard world it takes
to satisfy the mind
and bring it to its rest.

With the ongoing havoc
the woods this morning is
almost unnaturally still.
Through stalled air, unshadowed
light, a few leaves fall
of their own weight.

The sky
is gray. It begins in mist
almost at the ground
and rises forever. The trees
rise in silence almost
natural, but not quite,
almost eternal, but
not quite.
What more did I
think I wanted? Here is
what has always been.
Here is what will always
be. Even in me,
the Maker of all this
returns in rest, even
to the slightest of His works,
a yellow leaf slowly
falling, and is pleased.

(Wendell Berry [source])

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What Doesn’t Change

[Video: “Every Day the Same Dream,” based on the Flash-based game of the same name]

From whiskey river:

I do not believe the meaning of life is a puzzle to be solved. Life is. Anything might happen. And I believe I may invest my life with meaning. The uncertainty is a blessing in disguise. If I were absolutely certain about all things, I would spend my life in anxious misery, fearful of losing my way. But since everything and anything are always possible, the miraculous is always nearby and wonders shall never, ever cease.

(Robert Fulghum)

… and:

Formaggio

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

It never healed itself.
But in the deep fissures, smaller worlds appeared:
it was a good thing that human beings made them;
human beings know what they need,
better than any god.

On Huron Avenue they became
a block of stores; they became
Fishmonger, Formaggio. Whatever
they were or sold, they were
alike in their function: they were
visions of safety. Like
a resting place. The salespeople
were like parents; they appeared
to live there. On the whole,
kinder than parents.

Tributaries
feeding into a large river: I had
many lives. In the provisional world,
I stood where the fruit was,
flats of cherries, clementines,
under Hallie’s flowers.

I had many lives. Feeding
into a river, the river
feeding into a great ocean. If the self
becomes invisible has it disappeared?

I thrived. I lived
not completely alone, alone
but not completely, strangers
surging around me.

That’s what the sea is:
we exist in secret.

I had lives before this, stems
of a spray of flowers: they became
one thing, held by a ribbon at the center, a ribbon
visible under the hand. Above the hand,
the branching future, stems
ending in flowers. And the gripped fist —
that would be the self in the present.

(Louise Glück)

and:

You normally have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of daffodils, sunsets and uneventful nice days.

(Alain de Botton)

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Ready (or Not) for Surprise

[See the note at the foot of this post for information about this video.]

From whiskey river:

I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. There’s a certain humor in realizing that. I can never figure out the kind of tie to put on in the morning. I don’t have any strategy or plan to get through the day. It is literally a problem for me to decide which side of the bed to get out on. These are staggering problems. I remember talking to this Trappist monk in a monastery. He’s been there twelve years. A pretty severe regime. I expressed my admiration for him and he said “Leonard, I’ve been here twelve years and every morning, I have to decide whether I’m going to stay or not.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.

(Leonard Cohen, 1988 interview with Jon Wilde in Blitz [source])

and:

Solitude (I)

I was nearly killed here, one night in February.
My car shivered, and slewed sideways on the ice,
right across into the other lane. The slur of traffic
came at me with their lights.

My name, my girls, my job, all
slipped free and were left behind, smaller and smaller,
further and further away. I was a nobody:
a boy in a playground, suddenly surrounded.

The headlights of the oncoming cars
bore down on me as I wrestled the wheel through a slick
of terror, clear and slippery as egg-white.
The seconds grew and grew — making more room for me —
stretching huge as hospitals.

I almost felt that I could rest
and take a breath
before the crash.

Then something caught: some helpful sand
or a well-timed gust of wind. The car
snapped out of it, swinging back across the road.
A signpost shot up and cracked, with a sharp clang,
spinning away in the darkness.

And it was still. I sat back in my seat-belt
and watched someone tramp through the whirling snow
to see what was left of me.

(Tomas Tranströmer [source])

and:

There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.

(John Green [source])

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It Calls Me On and On

[Image: audio-animatronic scene at the 1960s-era Disneyland “Carousel of Progress” display. See yesterland.com for more information and a larger version of this image.]

From whiskey river:

The Bones
(excerpt)

…Shells were to shut out the sea,
The bones of birds were built for floating
On air and water, and those of fish were devised
For their feeding depths, while a man’s bones were framed
For what? For knowing the sands are here,
And coming to hear them a long time; for giving
Shapes to the sprawled sea, weight to its winds,
And wrecks to plead for its sands. These things are not
Limitless: we know there is somewhere
An end to them, though every way you look
They extend farther than a man can see.

(W. S. Merwin [read the whole thing here])

and:

We clutter the earth with our inventions, never dreaming that possibly they are unnecessary — or disadvantageous. We devise astounding means of communication, but do we communicate with one another? We move our bodies to and fro at incredible speeds, but do we really leave the spot we started from? Mentally, morally, spiritually, we are fettered. What have we achieved in mowing down mountain ranges, harnessing the energy of mighty rivers, or moving whole populations about like chess pieces, if we ourselves remain the same restless, miserable, frustrated creatures we were before? To call such activity progress is utter delusion. We may succeed in altering the face of the earth until it is unrecognizable even to the Creator, but if we are unaffected wherein lies the meaning?

(Henry Miller [source])

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Well-Fancied Choices

[Video: “custom movie trailer” for the 1945 film Detour. A piano player hitchhikes across the United States to be with his girl. On the way, he crosses paths with The Wrong Woman…]

From whiskey river:

Bees

In every instant, two gates.
One opens to fragrant paradise, one to hell.
Mostly we go through neither.

Mostly we nod to our neighbor,
lean down to pick up the paper,
go back into the house.

But the faint cries — ecstasy? horror?
Or did you think it the sound
of distant bees,
making only the thick honey of this good life?

(Jane Hirshfield, The Lives of the Heart [source])

and:

What we have deduced about the Big Bang is almost exactly wrong. Instead of a Big Bang, the genesis of the universe consisted of the uneventful, accidental, hushed production of a single quark.

For thousands of millennia, nothing occurred. The solitary particle floated in silence. Eventually it considered moving. Like all elementary particles, it realized that its direction of travel in time was arbitrary. So it shot forward in time and, looking back, it realized that it had left a single pencil stroke across the canvas of space-time.

It raced back through time in the other direction, and saw that it had left another stroke.

The single quark began to dash back and forth in time, and like the individually meaningless actions of an artist’s pencil, a picture began to emerge.

If it feels to you that we’re connected by a larger whole, you’re mistaken: we’re connected by a smaller particle. Every atom in your body is the same quark in different places at the same moment in time. Our little quark sweeps like a frenetic four-dimensional phosphor gun, painting the world: each leaf on every tree, every coral in the oceans, each car tire, every bird carried on the wind, all the hair on all the heads in the world. Everything you have ever seen is a manifestation of the same quark, racing around on a space-time superhighway of its own invention.

It began to write the story of the world with sagas of war, love, and exile. As it spun out stories and allowed the plots to grow organically, the quark became an increasingly talented storyteller. The stories took on subtle dimensions. Its protagonists engaged in moral complexity; its antagonists were charming. The quark reached for inspiration into its own history of loneliness in an empty cosmos: the adolescent with his head on the pillow, the divorcee staring out the coffee shop window, the retiree watching infomercials — these became the prophets of the quark’s text.

(David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives [source])

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All in Good Time

[A favorite minute from Citizen Kane. See the note at the end of this post.]

From whiskey river:

To Waiting

You spend so much of your time
expecting to become
someone else
always someone
who will be different
someone to whom a moment
whatever moment it may be
at last has come
and who has been
met and transformed
into no longer being you
and so has forgotten you

meanwhile in your life
you hardly notice
the world around you
lights changing
sirens dying along the buildings
your eyes intent
on a sight you do not see yet
not yet there
as long as you
are only yourself

with whom as you
recall you were
never happy
to be left alone for long

(W. S. Merwin, from Present Company [source])

and:

We’re here, there, not here, not there, swirling like specks of dust, claiming for ourselves the rights of the universe. Being important, being nothing, being caught in lives of our own making that we never wanted. Breaking out, trying again, wondering why the past comes with us, wondering how to talk about the past at all.

(Jeanette Winterson. from Lighthousekeeping [source])

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The Breathing of Summer Mountains, the Hissing of Summer Lawns

From whiskey river:

It was almost dark on an early summer eve, and the forest was never more enchanting than now, at dusk. At dusk the mountain begins to withdraw its force back into itself and become quiescent. If you too can become quiescent, so still that you can’t think of your name, you can feel this as a palpable fact. Just become so still that your mind won’t be bothered to remember the mundane, and then you’ll feel it like you feel the shifting of the winds. Then you’ll know when the mountain changes from exhaling to inhaling. That’s not so important in itself, but the mind that is quiet enough to notice is. The mind that is not always caught up in detail is your only treasure. Stop chasing details and become still to feel it. The mind that sees details clearly but is not caught by them is like a vast borderless mirror. That mind does not oppose itself.

(G. Bluestone [source])

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