Category Archives: books

summer reading

Need atmosphere? Just add local wild-fires, and you've got a great excuse to stay indoors and read.

We’ve had our annual time in the woods and at the beach, and here are a few highlights from my reading:

CROCUS

For months now I am bleak and primitive.

The congregation of crows refutes

the resurrection of anything.

 

I sleep all day, drink all night.

I believe only in certainty of equations,

the curvature of space, words used merely for incantation.

 

This cold wind I sway in, this continual lent–

But wait, the first crocus

throws dirt.

–Nancy K. Pearson, Two Minutes of Light

 

ARCHITECTURE

I peer into Japanese characters

as into faraway buildings

cut from the mind’s trees.

 

In the late afternoon a small bird

shakes a branch, lets drop a white splash.

 

In the wind, in the rain,

the delicate wire cage glistens,

empty of suet.

 

Poetry’s not window-cleaning.

It breaks the glass.

–Chase Twichell, The Snow Watcher

 

Anthology

That evening I was reading an anthology.

Scarlet clouds grazed outside my window.

The spent day fled to a museum.

 

And you– who are you?

I don’t know.  I didn’t know

if I was born for gladness?

Sorrow?  Patient waiting?

 

In dusk’s pure air

I read an anthology.

Ancient poets lived in me, singing.

–Adam Zagajewski, Mysticism for Beginners

 

Don’t ask us for the word to frame

our shapeless spirit on all sides,

and proclaim it in letters of fire to shine

like a lone crocus in a dusty field.

 

Ah, the man who walks secure,

a friend to others and himself,

indifferent that high summer prints

his shadow on a peeling wall!

 

Don’t ask us for the phrase that can open worlds,

just a few gnarled syllables, dry like a branch.

This, today, is all that we can tell you:

what we are not, what we do not want.

— Eugenio Montale, Cuttlefish Bones

 

refreshed

Red oak base moldings, reclaimed/belt sanded/planed

I’ve been busy in the studio since school ended, with new sets of oil and ink paintings underway.  The wood shop has been getting plenty of use as well.  I was fortunate to reclaim several truck loads of red oak base moldings which were otherwise destined for the landfill.  There are plenty of nails to remove but the wood cleans up well, as you can see in the photo above.  Because the oak is red and flat sawn, there is not much to compel a full clean-up.  Instead, the wood tends to hold more life in the median state– refreshed without being made new, cleaned up without being stripped of its history.  During this process I happened to be reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, and came across the following resonant passage:

The spring flood brings us more than high adventure; it brings likewise an unpredictable miscellany of floatable objects pilfered from upriver farms.  An old board stranded on our meadow has, to us, twice the value of the same piece new from the lumberyard.  Each old board has its own individual history, always unknown, but always to some degree guessable from the kind of wood, its dimensions, its nails, screws, or paint, its finish or the lack of it, its wear or decay.  One can even guess, from the abrasion of its edges and ends on sandbars, how many floods have carried it in years past.

Our lumber pile, recruited entirely from the river, is thus not only a collection of personalities, but an anthology of human strivings in upriver farms and forests.  The autobiography of an old board is a kind of literature not yet taught on campuses, but any riverbank farm is a library where he who hammers or saws may read at will.  Come high water, there is always an accession of new books.

Capturing a Plum Blossom

Our first plum blossoms-- photo taken on April 9, 2011

Sung Po-Jen's "tilting bowl" plum blossom

In preparation for the birth of our daughter, we thought it might be fun to plant a tree.  Somehow it took four years for this plan to actually be accomplished, so I planted four trees across our front yard instead of just one.  We have two apple trees, a cherry tree, and a plum tree which have now survived their first winter, and during the first week of April I was happy to see the first blossoms appear on the apple and plum trees.  It reminded me of one of my early introductions to Chinese poetry, Sung Po-Jen’s Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom.  The book is described as what might possibly be the world’s first printed book of art and literature– it was first published in A.D. 1238, and the image above is reproduced from the edition of 1261. The poems are composed of just four lines, but are packed with complex references, implications, and shades of meaning.  Translator Red Pine was kind enough to follow each poem with a commentary through which we can gain some insight into the mind of a 13th century scholar.  I include one of my favorites, below, which relates to the blossoms in my front yard as I so recently saw them:

39    Tilting Bowl

fill it and it empties

more or less are both mistakes

all things have a balance

don’t think this one isn’t right

 

This “bowl-on-a-swivel” was placed next to the throne to remind the emperor that whatever was full would soon be empty.  Only when the bowl was half-full was it stable.  According to Hsun-tzu, Confucius saw a device like this in the ancestral hall of Duke Huan: “An attendant poured water into a container that hung at an angle.  As the water level approached the midpoint, the container became upright.  But when the attendant went beyond the midpoint, it tipped over, the water poured out, and only after it was empty did it resume its former position.  Seeing this, Confucius sighed, ‘Alas! Whatever becomes full becomes empty!'”

— Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, by Sung Po-Jen,  The Chinese Classic Translated with Commentaries by Red Pine, Introduction by Lo Ch’ing

a reading list

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

After my gallery talks a few people expressed interest in pursuing the topics further, so I am including a list of works that were informative and influential in my own preparation. Black Robe White Mist includes an excellent set of essays, by far the most comprehensive source that I found regarding the life and works of Rengetsu.  Francois Cheng’s Empty and Full has been a source of inspiration and understanding in my own work for several years now, and was worth re-reading.  The other texts vary widely in their density, some being quite accessible and others requiring a slow and careful read with no distractions.  In any case I hope that this list will get you started on your own search.

Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, by Francois Cheng

Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism, by N. J. Girardot

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Lotus Moon: The Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, translated by John Stevens

Black Robe White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, catalog for the exhibition, National Gallery of Australia

Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning, by Frederick J. Streng

Religion and Nothingness, by Keiji Nishitani, translated by Jan Van Bragt

Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry, by Jonathan Stalling

Metamorphosis of the Private Sphere: Gardens and Objects in Tang-Song Poetry, by Xiaoshan Yang

77 Dances: Japanese Calligraphy by Poets, Monks, and Scholars, 1568-1868, by Stephen Addiss

Working Emptiness: Toward a Third Reading of Emptiness in Buddhism and Postmodern Thought, by Newman Robert Glass

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound

The Structure of Emptiness, by Graham Priest, Philosophy East and West, Volume 59, Number 4, October 2009, pp. 467-480 (Article)

Emptiness as a Paradigm for Understanding World Religions, by John P. Keenan, Buddhist-Christian Studies, Volume 16 (1996), pp. 57-64