Reflections on Poetics by the Author of As Far As I Can Tell

January 2019

Reflection V: The Hidden Life of Time

Today, the weather is cold and homogeneous.
A heavy woolen cloud blankets the entire sky.

So, since Space seems dim and sleepy, I’m thinking about Time:

It occurs to me that the human relationship to time is very dynamic, much more rich and poetic than the contemporary notion of time as “endless unidirectional duration.” There are three ways we relate to time, which on one hand reveal something about the various cultures we live in, and on the other, are on aspects of time itself.

The first way of relating to time we could call “digestive.” From this perspective, time moves forward, from a definite beginning to a definite end; all points/times between the beginning and the end are unique and unrepeatable. This is straight-line, impersonal time. This is modern European, Protestant, Secular time.

Secondly, we might say that Traditional cultures have a “respiratory” concept of time. Time has cycles, a movement in the out, up then down. Religious man has this concept of timewhether the Hindu Yugas, or the Christian Incarnation. For Hindus cosmology, time is a series of cycles within cycles. For the Christian, there is one great cycle: all time leads to and from the Cross. The Cross is the “center” of timewhere time and space are most in balance. Day/Night… Yang/Yin… Inhale/Exhalethis is time as experienced less by the body, and more by the soul.

These two are the most common, most considered kinds of time. But it seems to me there is a third kind of time, one that is much closer to Eternity, and we might call this “circulatory” time. This kind of time is (unfortunately) relegated to the category of the mystical. But I think it should be considered the truly Christian, fully human time, because this is time in which all things are present. In a sense, it is time from before the Flood. Like blood moves through the whole organism, more or less quickly, with more or less pressure, circulatory time is qualitative.

Most of us are bound to digestive time, though our religious and cultural traditions may still refer to respiratory time. Our unquestioned immersion in digestive time is what allows us to, for example, live by clock and calendar rather than by daylight and seasons. We still have the terms ante- and post-meridian (a.m./p.m.), but few of us know what these terms mean. Even many Christians and others who would consider themselves spiritual or traditional don’t live their faith within a genuinely spiritual understanding of time. Few Protestants are even aware that there is a Church Year.

Ideally, we should be in touch with all three kinds of time, but preeminently, we should live in circulatory time. From what we see or know of the lives of the Saints and Sages, it is often said that they were able to read people’s thoughts, to know the future or to travel great distances instantly. Isn’t this due to their living in circulatory time?

The three kinds/experiences of time are not mutually exclusive. The respiratory contains the digestive, etc. And we can never really have one kind without something of the others. For instance, though it experiments as if things start and end, modern science has to propose both a ‘big bang’ and a ‘big crunch’leading to another ‘big bang’a kind of respiration. And though the Traditional Christians and others wisely repeat the Feasts and Fasts of a sacred calendar (respiration), we are encouraged to experience (and do experience) “timeless” moments of light and peace which are unexplained and unexpected (circulation).

I wonder to what extent we choose the kind of time in which we will live? And, if not choosing, are we simply carried along by the prevailing notion of time in the society around us? How would we choose to increase the experience of circulatory time? Is this why the emphasis on meditation, spiritual discipline, yoga, mysticismis so urgent?

Of course, I think poetry has an important part to play. Poetry is the language of the higher kinds of time. Poetry takes the inexpressible experience of circulatory time and communicates it in respiratory language. A re-cognition of time has to be done in steps. First, we should try to think deliberately and cogently about digestive timetime as we have been living it in the modern world. Second, we should participate more deeply in respiratory time: Sacred Calendars, attention to seasons and landscapes, etc. Thirdly, we should pay attention to poetry. Ancient insights, theologies and instructions were often given poetically. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, only poetry is considered adequate for expressing Revelation. The Gospels, which are narrative, all have an underlying poetic structure.

Finally, I have to say that I believe we encounter circulatory time by humbly requesting it. Something about circulatory time defies description and possession. It is more a relationship than a rational exercise; it is the time of Personhood. We cannot comprehend it; we must apprehended by it.

Reflection IV: Some Thoughts on Poetry and Environment

First, you must look on reality
As being like yourself. Fragile and vast
Mystery clothed in metrics. Placed
Yet free. A self with fuel and desire
Strong enough to become all flame

One of the clearest signs of confusion in our relationship with the world is the Environmental Crisis. This is a spiritual malady, not a (merely) mechanical/physical cycle or event. Our inability to reverse the crisis is compounded by the loss of poetic language, by pseudo-Christian notions of Adam’s dominance over creation, and (relatedly) by the proponents of the scientific method. Francis Bacon, for example, believed that Nature should be forced to “reveal her secrets” for mankind’s practical use and intellectual curiosity.

In contrast, from the perspective of a poetic metaphysics, the whole of the physical universe should be regarded as humanity’s body. The cosmos is not something other than humanity; and when, under the guise of science, we vivisect and excavate the world, we are dissecting, distorting and (perhaps permanently) damaging ourselves. One of the obvious meanings of current scientific theories like the Uncertainty Principle and the Observer Effect is that we can never be impersonal and objective spectators when we interact with physical phenomenaprecisely because we are putting our own flesh under the microscopecutting, irradiating and engineering our body into oblivion.

Since I like allegory, here is an extended metaphor to illustrate what I believe modern culture has done to the environment

We are like a heart surgeon so dazzled by his own skill and so curious about his own circulatory system that he has forgotten his dependence on it. He decides to demonstrate his ultimate power and control over his circulatory system by attempting a heart transplant on himself. He realizes, vaguely, that he can’t survive without a heart. But he proceeds with the operation, undaunted, confident he will be able to devise machines that will perform the functions of the heart even better than the heart itself.

This metaphoric heart surgeon began with two fatal assumptions. First, he believes he knows from his research every aspect of what the heart does and how it works. Second, he believes his heart is something apart from his life. Having reduced his concept of personhood to his reasoning faculty alone, he assumes that everything not directly connected to the reason is (ultimately) unnecessary. For him, the heart is merely part of an improvable/disposable life-support system for the logical braina system destined to be upgraded, evolved or cured.

If we imagine that the heart surgeon succeeds with his experiment, then he has, in a sense, cheated death. He has not abolished death, but he’s made a compromise with it: Death can determine the content of his life, as long as it allows him to go on experiencing comfort and pleasure and curiosity. He is now dependent on lifeless machines, electricity and “resources” to keep and maintain his mechanical heart. From now on, he must be always mining his own body in order to maintain his pleasures and interests. When the planet runs out of resources, he will expire. But there are other planets, other elements, other “secrets of Nature” which Death might reveal to him to keep him in thrall for millennia.

The irony of this slow destruction of the body (earth) to maintain the damaged body (society) is that it eventually eliminates the need for reasoning faculty that devised the system! The whole of humanity, having forgotten its connection to the cosmos revealed through poetry, now also forgets its science and learning, its great ideas, its multi-dimensional Self, and reduces itself to body alone.

This seems to be where we find ourselves today. The whole cosmos is aging, becoming rigid and impenetrablea dead world. Society is becoming all body with no soul. Contemporary religion is concerned only with morality and texts, not with beauty and devotion. Contemporary philosophy is only interested in categories of wisdom, not in wisdom itself. Contemporary government is interested in economics, not well-being for its citizens.

The problem of the Environmental Crisis is reality-wide. Our spiritual and intellectual environments, once explained and nurtured by a poetic metaphysics, are collapsing. Along with this collapse of our soul, we are currently witnessing the end of the complex and irreplaceable physical environment of our body, the Earth.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill


Reflection III: Time, Death and Science

Whatever I happen to be studying usually makes its way into a poem. Sometimes new information is stated rather bluntly. From After a Painter’s Death:

They call it
The Late Heavy Bombardment when ice
the size of continents cratered
the surface of the Moon

This bit of scientific nomenclature is borrowed almost directly from a text on astronomy. But I happened to be reading that text while still recovering from the unexpected death of a dear friend. So the aeons-old event of the cratering of the moon came to my mind as an image of terrible loneliness and suffering. Since I tend, child-like, to personify the objects around me, I couldn’t help but consider that the Moonher round shape and varicolored patterningwere the product of something like a lonely, isolated death and a luminous resurrection.

In a less direct way, the poem I Am Old So Soon also borrows some scientific references for its number list: in youthful instants 29, 47, 79, 82.

These numbers are possible ages of a human life, and are also the atomic numbers of Copper, Silver, Gold and Lead; which are, respectively, the metals anciently associated with the planets Venus, Moon, Sun and Saturn. Since ideas of time, space and “becoming” underlie this poem, I was thinking both of stages of human development and of the environment (elements, planets) in which development happens. It isn’t necessary for a reader to know all the symbols, but my writing tends to be prompted by and to grow along symbolic imagery more or less obvious. Numbers are one symbolic language among many, and I think they can be used to great effect in a poetic context. For our ancestors, and for adherents of traditional faiths, the whole universe is a Scroll composed of interpenetrating symbolsa hierarchy of conversation. Numbers have always played a significant role in interpreting and communicating hierarchy.

What does it mean to be born, to age and die among the stars, among the trees, among the gods? This is a constant, though not always deliberate, preoccupation of my poetry. And I find answers or suggestions of answers to this question everywherefrom mathematics and science books to stained glass and acorns.


November 2018

Reflection II 

Often, writing is more like listening, and in those moments a poem is a transcription rather than a creation. Of course, some revision still follows the initial writing, because what I’m transcribing is only partially in English. The words I see and hear are color, mood, intuition, and other senses which have to be translated as well as the ideas. A Saint’s Home was written this way, as well as the not-yet-published Remembrance in Choriambs.  

A Saint’s Home

In some corner, the extravagant chaos
of a geranium throws out red fans of fireworks
and the butler’s trays of its leaves
offer the afternoon sunlight, fresh
from an open window—this is how I imagine
my house of undressed timber and rich tiled floors
a house made of the gifts of creative friends

I am not benevolent, but my home compels me
Beauty trains me in generosity. At its heart
an altar fills every room with humility; the altar
makes holy as right medication makes health
The home echoes all the worlds
in which the soul lives. Plants and paint and sky
spill into every quiet space; art, hope, and somehow
the afterlife, too, filters through the things—the presences
and placeholders of the Infinite. Even the ever-roving
angels must pause in the course of their sacred errands
startled by an image of the stillness of Heaven
on restless Earth.

The Home of a Saint—or of someone on the Path
is a little Eden, a seed from that Garden, strangely
germinating against all the backward progress
of busy forgetfulness. In this sheltering home
an unseen-but-felt geometry
nurses the wounds of the world
and sets the bones
of broken travelers

When I wrote down A Saint’s Home, I was sitting in a friend’s house, alone, staring at a sprawling and happily untidy geranium in a south-facing bay window. The poem rushed out all at once, because the poem and the light on that geranium were the same thing. I simply had to transcribe thing + moment + meaning. I saw the poem already written in the afternoon-sun-lit geranium.

Remembrance in Choriambs

Janie, I miss you. I miss you
so fiercely. I think of the milky way
winding above us, like some cosmic rainbow
so distant the colors are lost in the flying
from out there to Kansas
to where we were. Here we are still
on the trampoline, star-gazing, laughing
amazed at our honesty

Janie, I miss you. The years
haven’t dazzled me. I’m still
the same soul you recognized. Tell me
and tell me: that night? What is missing?
I want to remember it, every detail. I know
that my memory holds only half of it

If you were here, you would prove
(like you did) that the moon
is a woman. You promised as much
and the gravelly call of the raven
and wind in the hackberry
firmly agreed. Tell me:
what were those proofs? I too vaguely
remember. You said there were five?
And that one was her mystery?

Something of phases, and
something of darknesses.
Something of silverher vividness
veiled, but never removed

Remembrance in Choriambs is also transcription – in this case of a memory: an intellectual emotion from the past. The poem flowed out of the memory rhythmically, which must be related to how the passage of time softens, regularizes, and mythologizes an event. That is, how time takes an event and expands it in several directions, making it both more accessible and more remote. In this case, the intense rhythm of the words seems to me like the warp and woof of a tapestry, or the threads of a screen through which the past is seen and which become part of the seeing.


Reflection I

Holy Wednesday

Through the window of a Church
I saw a sparrow killed. The Raven
standing on the sparrow’s neck struck
the heart and broke

the wing. This little terror broke the Great
and Holy Wednesday vigil. Casually
over his black, sparrow’s-length knife, the Raven
sees grey winter grass, cars pass
cracks along the asphalt. I own
what I observe, carried in through

a window: my Sparrow, my Raven. The world
latently angry, violent, like the ocean
under northern ice. I will own
the Unction spilled
over every broken wing

During Holy Week, 2014, I attended the Unction at Holy Trinity Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was singing with the choir, and I happened to be in the row closest to the Church’s northeast door and window. From this position, I had a clear but limited view of the back parking lot.

During the Unction service, blessed oil is distributed to the congregation with prayers for healing from physical and psychological illnesses. So I was thinking about healing and the seven readings and seven prayers said before reception of the oil, when I caught a dark motion out of the window. As I turned, into that very small space—framed on either side by the curtains of the window, so that it was like some violent stage presentation—a huge Raven landed on the pavement with a sparrow caught in its beak. The Raven threw the sparrow down onto its back and stabbed at it twice in succession, first hitting the sparrow’s wing as it tried to escape, then piercing the sparrow squarely in the chest. The sparrow stopped moving immediately, and the Raven, with one foot on the sparrow’s neck, looked around and seemed almost uninterested in what it had just done.

If there had been any kind of contest, I think I would have tried to open the door and intervene. But the violence happened so fast—two birds struggling, then one dead—that I could only feel surprise and confusion, then shock. On the little stage formed by the chance linear positions of Raven, window and observer, I felt as if I’d witnessed some kind of whole-cosmos drama in miniature, played out in a few moments of time. It made me question what was the point of a church service for healing when nature didn’t even care, wasn’t asking or waiting to be healed. The sparrow was quiet and the Raven was quiet after their confrontation. Equilibrium was restored—by death. So why should human beings want something else? Why should we believe in or waste time on the idea that God has a better solution than mere equilibrium? Where is the source of Christian hope—not just the things we hope for, but the origin of Hope itself? The contrast between what we ask of God (Life) and what we observe all around us at every moment (Death) is more profoundly mysterious than we realize. Life and Death are not opposites, not a balanced pair. One is real, the other a negation of reality. One is a true description of true Being, while the other will fade and disappear—like a measure of music is caught up and fades into the Symphony of which it is only a part.

All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2019 by Joshua Alan Sturgill