Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Dragon in the Rock: Animism

Everything is in Motion

There is a trail near where I live - just down the road - that I walk at least two or three times a week. It winds its way up into the foothills among juniper and pinyon. Here and there, poking out of the trees, I can see the adobe walls of the houses of the very, very rich. "Those who live on the hill."

Bobcat Tracks
Along the trail are stones, broken by wind, occasional rain, sliding down the mountainside, on their slow pilgrimage back to their source. Dust in the dry washes. Deer prints, coyote prints. Every so often, bobcat prints. And, right now, mountain blue birds darting in and out of the pinyon, on their migration north.

Everything is in motion - the birds, quickly; the stones, slowly.

I am fascinated by, and have a deep heart-felt attraction, to stones. Their texture, their color. The lizards that will soon appear out from under the rocks, crawling out from the dark tunnels that connect this world to the underworld, sometimes understand - in brief flashes - the language of the stones. It is far older than the lizard's tongue. The blue-collared lizard speaks in a language that can only be interpreted as various shades of blue. But the stone-language is older than the color blue…

Animism: Everything is Alive

Horned Lizard
I could be labeled an "animist." Animism (from the Latin anima, "breath, spirit, life") is the understanding that objects, places, and all creatures are alive. I feel sentience and spirit in everything. For me, it is not a "belief" that everything is alive, it is more of a lived experience. Granted, what I mean here by "alive" is a bit vague. While a stone is not alive in the same way that a human is alive, is not sentient in the same way as a bobcat or horned lizard is sentient, it shares in the shimmering, pulsating, transient motion that is life on earth, life in the universe.

Maybe what I'm talking about when I say sentience or spirit others would call "energy." Maybe I am feeling the energy of a thing. Look up into the sky. How is it not possible, in moments of stillness - accidental or purposeful - to feel that the stars, the moon, the planets, and the sun are also alive? There is a language going on between all things - an exchange of atoms - that is heard deep, deep in the body, on the cellular level. When I look up into the night sky, there is communication going on between my cells and the blue light of Sirius, the red of Mars…and the weed stalks rattling near my feet.

The Dragon in the Rock

There is a place on the trail where two sandstone boulders have been sitting on a ridge for god knows how long. One of them resembles a dragon. Dragons, in both eastern and western traditions, are energy incarnate. I have spent a lot of time sitting next to that dragon rock. At the foot of the rock, there is a great view of the Jemez range.

Lately, I've noticed that the tips of the pinyon branches all along the trail are turning rust-brown. This is probably from lack of water. Or black scale. We are in a drought. It is the result of climate change. The terrain is beginning to change because of the lack of rain, snow; rising temperatures. We barely have a winter anymore. It is heart-breaking to see the hillsides tinged with brown in early spring.

At the same time, from where I sit at the foot of the dragon, I see the looming triangle of the foothill Picacho to the south and the Jemez range to the west. It's always a stunner. And, as I sit here, one thought keeps coming back: at what point, ten thousand years ago or more, did human beings decide that they needed more than this? The need to accumulate, hoard; to make surplus for themselves and so deprivation for others; to destroy in order to stockpile. To claim one can step outside the web of energy, the interconnection between all things, reign over it, and create a world of "houses on the hill." What wounds in their hearts?

Jemez Range
The world has been wrecked. Things are going to get so much worse before they get better. And probably not in our lifetimes. But there are moments - sometimes brief, sometimes long - where I am stunned, possessed by a feeling of wellness, of being part of the living, breathing, beautiful and terrible web all around me, always in motion…and joy spirals through me.

However brief these moments are, they get me through. I wish you those moments, too.

Song of the Lover of the Dragon in the Rock:
A Praise-Chant

Shadow in the cupola at the top of the long horse-snout
where the left eye watches me; curious, fierce.

Every rock has a name the dead must learn to sing

Green crustose lichen tattooed across his side, where
feathers, flaps, and flags of desire once clung, now solidified.

Every rock was once a flame

Circle of orange-yellow lichen, mid-forehead. Third eye
follows the progress of four ravens in the valley below.

Every rock is a mouth keeping the silence before the name

Black wings, black bodies merge, separate. A continually changing
black hieroglyph: grass-sorrow, pinyon-laughter, heart-lightning…

Every rock is continually unravelling back to the place it was made

Wind through juniper, he rides flying snow-dust, escapes
this geo-spell for a few seconds, body equal to the sun.

The dead sing the names, but they don't know yours,
they don't know yours, will never know yours

(previously published in The Bitter Oleander)

Badlands, New Mexico

Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year's Eve 2017: Eldorado, New Mexico

This morning Michaela and I were in Eldorado, a small town just south of Santa Fe. Although only a twenty-minute drive from where we live, Eldorado seems to always have a slightly different weather pattern. When its dry here, it's snowing there. When it's light here, it's dark there. Strange winds blow through Eldorado, winds we jokingly (and sometimes not so jokingly) call: "Bruja/Brujo winds." Witch wind…

 But that's not what I want to talk about…

From anywhere in town you get a shot of the Cerrillos Hills to the west. They look dusty and cragged, probably because black and gray shale is widely exposed across the hills. 

Standing in an empty parking lot this morning, studying them, I thought, because of how ancient they are - the sense that they have been keeping watch for so, so long

- how they could be related to something I sometimes feel inside my body when I am going through intense emotions (terror, joy, grief…from the death of a loved one, a life-threatening situation, love lost…) 

an eye that watches it all, extremely curious, thinking "oh, this is interesting…" 

I suppose I could put this down to detachment or dissociation from the emotion, but that doesn't really do the sensation justice - because while this "watching" is happening, I am still feeling the emotion burning through all my cells…

And so, the new year's eve poem:

Eldorado, New Mexico,
New Year's Eve Morning

Leaves scrape across an empty parking lot.

Purple, brown shades in the nearby brush. Faint tints of red.

A rabbit waits beneath the brush, imitating the dead.

Across the flats, silhouette of the Cerrillos hills, cragged
                      and dark with shale, ancestors
   of that part of us that keeps endless vigil; a curious eye,
                                                 through fire, grief, fear, loss…

The dead leaves move towards me.

Wind rustles the rabbit's fur, my hair.

Winter's colors deepen.


Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Solstice 2017: The Under Realm

Winter is the time when everything returns to the earth, when the energy burrows deep into stone, pools in tree roots. Down in the cold realms of the dead, everything begins to transform, change. 

The shadows from the realm of the dead like to walk among us in winter. They slip into this world through the seams in stone, cracks in old boards, old snake holes. It is easier for them to blend in during the long nights when even shadows possess shadows. 

They like to feel the cold stone beneath their exposed bones - but they always leave deer and bobcat prints behind, to fool us (sometimes a bobcat is a bobcat; sometimes a bobcat is a spirit from another realm).

I like to think that the dead take on the roles and masks of the creatures and people who fill our dreams. They play whatever part suits them: a man in a Stellar's Jay headdress and wings, a pedestrian in a busy asylum corridor, a teacher monitoring an endless exam, a woolly rhino thundering across the winter desert, a car that has no brakes, a potted plant in a dusty office…

When I think of the winter solstice, I think we have entered a long dream. Dream and reality merge. Which is which? Are we sure we knew the difference before?

Winter Solstice: The Under Realm 

(a work in progress)

A rusted water tank on the side of a hill,
forgotten. Cold gathers beneath it.
                    I tap the side: emptiness taps back.


Cartilage of a guitarfish inside a cloud,
cloud inside the Stellar Jay's eye, Stellar Jay
     inside last night's dream: echoes
                                               of the coming dark.  


A woman slumps on a curb, counts her change,
     repeats the pattern of words in her head:
     conspicuous sedition, sorrowful mechanism,
     reason for the season, reason for the treason…

Someone has forgotten something,
                                                left something out.
She is making the connections that need to be made.


What is silence? The sound of iron, traveling
sun to sun, feeding off pale light.

What is stillness? How black branches weave
the songs of the dead into a red horizon.

What is time? The loneliness of the dead rabbit,
roadside, waiting to step into its own shadow.


Shadows settle on the stones,
       scattered among scrub juniper. They watch
a man with Stellar's Jay head and wings
           pick up a pebble, hold it to the sky.
They can see the fish cartilage folded inside.


Breath hangs in the air: water and salt.
Breath hangs in the air: earth and unwanted thoughts.
Breath hangs in the air: fire and a raven's feather, lost.
Breath hangs in the air, then dissolves.


Last light disappears into the water tank.
All shadows merge.

Light in the Dark.
Dark in the Light.

Have a Strange and Beautiful  

(Solstice blogs from the past, along with poems,
can be found by hitting the "Series" tab above)

Monday, December 18, 2017

Thinking about Li Po during the Geminid Meteor Shower

I live in a place where I can see the stars- there are no streetlight obstructions. It is the first time in my life I've been so lucky. Stepping out my door at night, I look up into the milky way, the star river. So, it was easy to stand on the stone wall right outside the door and watch the flashes and streaks of the geminid meteor shower last Thursday night.

Over the last few weeks, I've been re-reading the Selected Poems of Li Po   
(also known as Li Bai and Li Taibai), translated by David Hinton. I've had the book since it first came out in 1996. It is one of the few books, along with Hinton's translations of the selected poems of Tu Fu (Du Fu), that I have managed to hang onto in all my travels and moves. 

Li Po and Tu Fu are among the best  Chinese poets. They both lived during the High T'ang Dynasty period (712-760), a period that was marked, at the beginning, by a flourishing world of art; and ended in a rebellion (the An-Lushan rebellion) that plunged Chinese civilization into incalculable destruction, widespread famine, and death. The fall in census figures from a population of 53 million to 17 million after the rebellion's end, tells the tale of the incredible catastrophe.  

Li Po was a skilled swordsman, lived in a cave as a Taoist recluse, spent time in the emperor's court as a translator (being perpetually drunk and refusing to follow the usual protocols, he  gained the nickname "Banished Immortal" - one who has been banished from Heaven, or as Hinton puts it in his introduction to the selected poems: "an exiled spirit moving through this world with an unearthly ease and freedom from attachment."). 

During the rebellion, he was adviser to a prince who replaced the emperor for a brief period. The prince eventually lost the throne to his brother and Li Po was tried for treason and sentenced to death. He was granted clemency by the aid of a general he had once saved from court-martial, and was eventually exiled. He spent his last years wandering. 

The legend of his death says that he died, drunk, while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon on the Yangtze river. At least one third of his poems mention the moon. "In a universe animated by the interaction between yin (female) and yang (male) energies, the moon was literally yin visible." (Hinton, Introduction to the Selected Poems). 

Song of the Merchant

On heaven's wind, a sea traveler
wanders by boat through distances.

It's like a bird among the clouds:
once gone, gone without a trace.

(Li Po, trans. David Hinton)

I have always been drawn to the spontaneous aspect of Li Po's poetry. He was friends with the masters who developed "wild-grass" calligraphy, those who would get drunk and, at the right moment, plunge brush into ink and scrawl indecipherable characters across silk. It seems as if he created his poems in much the same way. With Li Po, act and poem merge. Another aspect that draws me in, is that everything is placed in the context of larger natural patterns - there is always "the wild" - stars, waterfalls, gibbons, the moon...

Thought in Night Quiet

Seeing moonlight here at my bed,
and thinking it's frost on the ground,

I look up, gaze at the mountain moon,
then back, dreaming of my old home.

(Li Po, trans. David Hinton) 

Because I am a creature of the 21st Century, my own experience of the wild, of natural patterns, extends to the why light flashes across the sky, and how the wildness of the natural world is also within us, our bodies, our nervous systems. Shooting star, thought-flash - same thing.

At Fang-Ch'eng Monastery, Discussing Ch'an with Yuan Tan-Ch'iu 

Alone, in the vast midst of boundless
dream, we begin to sense something:

wind and fire stir, come whorling
life into earth and water, giving us

this shape. Erasing dark confusion,
we penetrate to the essential points,

reach Nirvana-illumination, seeing
this body clearly, without any fears,

and waking beyond past and future,
we soon know the Buddha-mystery.

What luck to find a Ch'an recluse
offering emerald wine. We seem lost

together here - no different than
mountains and clouds. A clear wind

opens pure emptiness, bright moon
gazing on the laughter and easy talk,

blue-lotus roofs. Timeless longing
breaks free in a wandering glance.

(Li Po, trans. David Hinton)

The meteors flashed and I thought of Li Po, standing a little further off, among the trees in the dark, both of us staring up at the same stars...

Heaven & Earth:
Thinking of Li Po While Watching a Geminid Meteor Shower

(a work in progress)

Meteors whip flammable gas into flame -
        brief streaks of light
                  between seemingly immortal stars.
Li Po, last poet to hunt immortality,
                wandered city to cave to monastery,
followed the moon across the surface
       of dark water, desperate
                                  to drink that light down.
A brilliant white line scars the night
                  beneath Orion's belt, across Eridanus,
river of souls,
                 pierces the mind, mirrors the flash
         across a synapse. Messages sent from before
the earth was formed:
              What is a thought? What is a dream?

The afterimage haunts the eye: eerie black
                                                light. There, not there;
   same as the poet's legend, illusion as history:
         Li Po dove into the moon and drowned.
But the poetry was real, spontaneous, shadows
                         thrown onto cave walls by torchlight.
Undaunted, (probably drunk), he questioned
        the tigers and dragons that emerged from stone:
              What is a thought? What is a dream?
    What is this strange longing I have for the moon?

I stand on a stone wall, shivering, feet cold,
 watch stone after stone burn the night sky
                            alive. Anchored to earth, the mind
rides the brief light (…a thought, a dream…).
                   Spontaneous whoops and sighs erupt 
from my mouth at each flash:
                        the nervous system recognizing itself…

Li Po was the last poet to hunt down immortality,
             knew the search was futile - and yet
found that a life, a full life, can be made in pursuit
            of the joke:

                                Li Po dove into the moon… 

Another great translator of Li Po is J. P. Seaton, editor and translator of the Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry

A recent book of his Li Po translations: Bright Moon, White Clouds.