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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Paradox on the Mat

To meditate
Is to prepare
For immersion in
An eternal present 
Undefined by a past
That never happened and
A future that will never arrive

By sitting cross-legged
Leaning neither forward
Nor back but with
Shoulders aligned and
Head held high
Letting slip all
Ten thousand things
Into the accord
Of by and by

Letting mind drift
Like the wind as it passes
Through the wheat
Of the here and now
Unthreshed and

Yet holding onto truth
In a small bundle
Of energy compacted
Into the mudra of
Hands encircled
But unclasped

Drawing by Christine Shields

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The King of the Trolls from Queens

Actors and poets 
And all of good will
Shakespeare got it all wrong
When he said first we’ll kill
All the lawyers
Donald’s got other ideas
So you better listen up
And pay careful mind
Let no one dare step
On Donald’s lines

If it's not Rosie
This week it's Hamilton next
Let's grate on America's nerves again 
Making theater a safe and special place
With another feud from fearless Trump
No more a melting pot nation but
Instead a chaffing dish state
As we the people keep warm
Through endless friction
And drummed up hate
Between plebes and celebs
And our would-be potentate

Not exactly reared
In the John F. Kennedy
School of Governance
Much more in the vein
Of his mentor Vince McMahon
Or like other Dons before him
From Brooklyn and Queens
All it takes is one dirty tweet
To know exactly what he means
That’s the way it always is with
Our King of the Trolls from Queens

Poem for John Cage

This is a poem
I wrote today dedicated
To John Cage
The first verse
Is the most explicit
Even though the second
Leaves everything and
Nothing unsaid
It's far less wordy
Yet still it extends
For as long as you wish
Stilled but attuned
To the life we're living
And then some besides

* * * * * * * *

I've been thinking about John Cage recently.  This poem is the result of my finally figuring out how silence can be enfolded into a poem much as Cage accomplished in his groundbreaking work. Silence can be folded in a manner similar to space and time or to a pair of trousers for that matter. Incorporating silence into a poem in this way is an order of magnitude different from simply including an extended pause in a poem - a technique often used for emphasis or ironic effect.  Silence becomes something much more than the space between words.  It becomes an expression of something in and of itself.

But now, just as I have learned this invaluable lesson, silence has turned the tables on me.  Or to paraphrase the great line from Shakespeare, I played with silence and now silence doth play with me.  It turns out that this poem for John Cage will serve very nicely as the last poem of the Lampoetry collection.  Silence (at least for now) has overtaken my poetic voice, which will be stilled subject to further notice.

Poem for the Missionaries I Met Walking Along Fourth Neck

Because every day
Is another chance
To turn your life around

For instance just yesterday
Walking along Fourth Neck
I met two missionaries
Of the Mormon faith
Keen to recite chapter and verse
With me after I introduced myself
As a fellow missionary sent
To preach among the assembled
Shorebirds and shellfish
About the wonders
Of the Way

But now 
I repent of my mistake
Realizing I'm only a supplicant
Come here to this strand 
To learn a more litoral way
Of thinking and being
Not to convert or be converted
But only to be newly submerged
At least twice each day

Friday, November 18, 2016

Thinking About Bartleby: an election update

No Trump.  Not my President.  I’d prefer not.  There is something about this simple demurral that seems both appropriate and necessary under the circumstances.  Necessary because it may be the best (if not the only) response that many of us are capable of at present.  Besides I don’t think there’s any need for further explanation.  The U.S. electorate has shit the bed, and we should feel no compunction about simply declining the opportunity to roll around in it.

Against this backdrop, I’ve been thinking a lot about Bartleby the Scrivener.  I have the sense that this is a Bartleby moment for many of us.    If asked to express my feelings about the recent presidential election my response is simply thus:  I’d prefer not to.  I see no reason to cooperate or involve myself in any material way with what’s currently happening in American public life.  Bartleby’s dead-wall reverie seems like a completely rational response instead of watching the latest updates on the circus now in underway in Washington and at Trump Tower in New York.

Not watching television news or reading the papers since the night of November 8th  (which is when my self-imposed news blackout went into effect) has already provided a number of significant benefits.  My mood has improved immeasurably.  It has also given me lots of time to catch up on more worthwhile reading.  Yesterday I decided to go back to the source, as it were, and took the occasion to reread Melville’s classic story about the scrivener of Wall Street.  It made an indelible impression when I first read it more than 40 years ago, no matter how dimly I may have understood it at the time.  So if nothing else, I was curious to see how it holds up, particularly in light of its strong resonance with my current frame of mind.

And I was pleased to discover that it’s still a great read, even better than before.   Back in high school I remember thinking it was a relatively straightforward story – more a fable really – something simple enough for even a high school student to grasp; Bartleby being a symbolic figure much like Billy Budd, the namesake of the only other Melville story I remember reading in high school, I thought of him as the personification of long-suffering humanity.  Ah Bartleby.  Ah humanity!  That’s the note of pathos that stuck in my craw. 

But rereading provided an entirely fresh perspective.

First of all, it’s incredibly well written, rich in subtle irony.  Far from being a somber, or straightforward moral fable, it’s really social satire of the highest order, worthy of Dickens or Thackery.  The descriptions of Wall Street office life are laugh out loud funny as well as dead-on accurate in the portrayal of the spiritual vacuity at the heart of a commercial law practice -- as I know only too well from first hand experience.  Turkey and Nipper, Bartleby’s fellow scriveners, one of them a dipsomaniac the other dyspeptic; the squirrelly office clerk Nutter, who is always being sent out to fetch Ginger Nut cake; Melville provides a brief account of the absurdities of office life that is really second to none in American literature.  

And funniest of all is the sly portrayal of the unnamed narrator, Bartleby’s well-intentioned employer, the Wall Street lawyer (or Conveyancer) who alternates between feeling pity and rage at his inscrutable scrivener.  As the target of Melville’s sharpest satire – it’s the story of his moral obtuseness after all -- the narrator's tone perfectly captures the spirit of Wall Street pettifoggery, full of sanctimony, always ready to applaud himself for his good scruples and common sense, yet strangely ineffectual, impotent with his own clerks, particularly powerless in the face of Bartleby’s impassivity, and most of all craven in his fear lest anything should happen that would diminish his social or professional standing.  He is the embodiment of Wall Street’s then emergent commercial culture, which Melville skewers with precision, eloquence and irony.

And what of Bartleby, the cipher at the center of the story?  As I read it today, Bartleby doesn’t strike me as a symbol for pitiable humanity so much as a stand in for the author himself.  Intransigent in his dead wall reverie, Melville pulls this strange switcheroo by placing Bartleby, the impassive cipher and the narrator’s mysterious semi-doppelganger, at the moral and emotional center of his universe.  I prefer not to thus becomes much more than a reply to any particular unwanted task requested of the scrivener.  It’s Melville’s cri du coeur (however oddly impassive) and overall response to newly emergent social order -- the commercial and legal culture of Wall Street, typified by the “reasonable man” standard -- which was already well on its way to redefining social obligations in the US of A, very much in derogation of the country’s traditional Puritan heritage.

And it’s very much in that same spirit I offer up Bartleby as a potential role model for us today.  The problem we face is how to position ourselves as the certainties of the old neo-liberal political and social order slip away, and well before anything else has emerged to take its place.  What should we do in response to the rampant insecurity and instability in American public life?  Please make no mistake about it:  the problem is not Trump.  He is merely the most glaring symptom of deep systemic dysfunction that is the root cause of our distress.  Most of us realize that at all costs we must avoid acting in a way that would normalize what is in no way a normal situation.   But beyond that, it’s damn hard to know where to turn or look for guidance. 

Old walls are rapidly crumbling and the new one that Trump has promised we can only hope will never rise to take their place.   For the moment, then, dead wall reverie seems to be the best response that we can muster; far from appearing pitiable, Bartleby’s utter impassivity seems to be a very sensible course of action (or inaction) given the current state of our nation state, so utterly lacking in sound policy choices, leadership or grace.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Meditating on Tonight's Super Moon, Enlarged but Concealed

Picture that you’re sitting
Eyes closed on the blue
Exercise mat
Head facing east towards
The full moon as it’s rising
It’s a super moon at that
But obscured by a thin
Scrim of cloud cover
It’s unseen but felt
As a distinct presence
From crown to nape
You’re sitting up straight
Meditating in fact
On the yin power as it is
Most perfectly expressed
Now when it is both full
And concealed

Which is why
Tonight’s super moon
Hanging somewhere up there
In the sky’s eastern expanse
Is such a perfect metaphor
For my soul – immortal or otherwise -
It’s simply a gift of borrowed radiance
Bouncing off rocky barren soil
Evident only as a faint flickering
From the curtain’s other side
No more than a lumen or two
That's barely detectable
With my eyes either
Open or closed


*  *  *  *  *

Since moving to East Quogue this year it has become a ritual for me to walk down to the end of Weesuck Avenue in order to watch the full moon rise over the Creek. At first, I was somewhat disappointed tonight because there was a thick cloud cover that obscured the sky to the south and east. But then a few fingers above the horizon I began to detect the super moon rising, evident at first only as backlighting (worthy of the finest Santo Loquasto set) that lit up a plane of stratus clouds facing eastward. The illumination gradually increased revealing a vast cloud structure that had been jerry rigged to encase the moon. Quite an incredible site really. And I realized that to see the super-moon rise this way, by implication, is to experience the Yin power in its greatest extremity - when it is both engorged and concealed.  The poem above was written a little bit later, after returning home and meditating some, thinking about this striking Yin apparition.  And the photo below was taken by my wife a little bit later in the evening as the moon continued to play hide and seek.

Super Moon Super Scrim (M. Bridge)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Not Heeding the Siren's Call

It's been five days since I last read a newspaper or watched any news on TV.  Among other things, this means I'm stuck in a pre-election mode, still not having heard official word or news report about the returns from the 2016 presidential election.  As far as I'm concerned the outcome may still be in doubt.  And please understand, I'm not raising a question regarding procedural deficiencies in the Electoral College so much as pointing to potential problems with the innermost workings of reality itself - or at least our current version of it.  It's at this deepest level of experience that something seems to have gone seriously askew for many of us.  As a poet, this is a subject that I feel well equipped to reflect and comment on, without need or recourse to any input from the news media.
Of course, over the last few days, I've had several conversations with family and friends in which the election's outcome has been broadly hinted at.  But I consider that all to be nothing more than second hand smoke.  I refuse to succumb to it.  For now I am perfectly content to persist in a state of knowing unknowingness.  As far as I'm concerned, a Trump branded version of our present day reality is a siren's call I'm not interested or ready to pay heed to.

Staying true to my news blackout best as I could (notwithstanding headlines on passing news-stands) I spent yesterday in New York City and found many people in Manhattan seem to be similarly inclined.  There were demonstrations popping up all over town  - with a strong police presence besides.  In the subway station at Union Square I saw a wall along a long subterranean corridor that had been entirely papered over with post-it notes declaring Not My President and other obvious truisms.  It was a strong reminder of the pop up shrines that had appeared around the City in the days and weeks after 9/11.  My friend Robin (who is a therapist) confirms the comparison is apt for her and her patients.  Robin says that most of her patients were far more agitated this week than at any time since 9/11.  This sense of irreality is apparently pervasive and may soon reach pandemic proportion.  

Under the circumstances it's possible to think of not watching the news as just a cheap form of self-medication.  Ulysses found it necessary to take more extreme measures by plugging up his ears with wax.  For you and me it turns out to be much easier.  We just have to get up and hit the off switch, avert our eyes or walk out of the room.  If you haven't tried it already you will be pleased to hear that this homespun remedy will prove remarkably effective in helping to eliminate discomfort from the most serious symptoms of your present ailment - even though it remains unclear what role it might play (positive or negative) in the search for a long term cure.

Meanwhile, in the City yesterday I also had a chance to visit a Staples Superstore where I stocked up on a new batch of notebooks.  Here's the poem I wrote to commemorate the occasion of my fifth day of news detox, now that I'm feeling a bit more upbeat and the extreme revulsion has all but disappeared:

Two black and blue notebooks
I bought at Staples today
Markings is what it says
On the receipt
That I promptly stuffed
Into my pocket
So eager was I
To make my first markings
Reflecting our new reality
On the pristine page
As the time for deductions
May come somewhat later
But time for close observation
Is already here

Because now we all can feel
The world shifting into higher gear
Reaching a supercharged state
Volatile and uncertain
Yes it’s the super moon
About to break the horizon line
(don’t you believe @NeilTyson)
Everything is swollen with portent
Far beyond its normal size

Demonstrators demonstrate
And agitators agitate
While the media still bloviates
It’s not just the ship of state
But all of reality that seems
To be slipping the moorings
Commencing to drift away