a way to stay true to what arises: Gillian Parrish’s of rain and nettles wove
What a rarity. This book – Gillian Parrish’s of rain and nettles wove — is actually as good as the blurbs claim it is. Indeed, it is a pleasure to dwell with these poems, to re-read them, and to think about their implications for a poetry that is at once a phenomenological & spiritual practice.
And though I will be writing about Parrish’s book, I am also compelled to note a deluge in recent days and months, an arrival of quite a few woderful books that also compel my attention and my joyful perusal. I am finding the writing of essays increasingly difficult, and knowing that it is very likely that I will not find the time to write about these new books, let me at least mention them in hopes that you might track some of them down (and perhaps even take the next step by buying a copy?!): David Hinton, Desert; Jennifer Bartlett, The Hindrances of a Householder; Henk Rossouw, Xamissa, Tyrone Williams, As iZ; Norman Fischer (two books!) – On a Train at Night and Untitled Series: Life As It Is; Megan Burns, Basic Programming; Jake Marmer, The Neighbor Out of Sound; Lissa Wolsak, Lightsail; Joel Bettridge, The Public Life of Chemistry; Paul Naylor, Anarcheology; Jake Berry, Trilogy: Kenosis; Soleida Ríos, The Dirty Text; Omar Pérez, Cubanology; and Charles Bernstein, Near / Miss.
Increasingly, I find myself drawn to poetry that I think of as a form of spiritual practice. Or, as is the case with Parrish’s book, at once a spiritual practice and a kind of training in phenomenology. This book of hers, somewhat unusual for a first book, is not a momentary or trendy display of a fashionable technique or tone of voice. The poems in of rain and nettles wove transmit clearly the integrity of Parrish’s writing. She means these words (to the extent that we can ever fully mean what we write). The writing is more of what I would call a discipline, a practice, and a record of ongoing training. The coming into being of these poems is a form of learning.
This is a book of astonishments – at the beauty of this world, & the pain & suffering of it:
in the book in the sky
behold such glittering ships
such tongue and flicker
crow scrawl & starling
out the window the day
breaks into white sycamore
bewilderment, my rooms—& wilder
streets in bloom
in singing blood
Throughout this review, I will be suggesting various affinities for Parrish’s work. Let me be clear: I am not claiming that the writers/writings named are “influences” on her poetry, nor am I even claiming that she has read these works. I am seeking out affinities, kinships, which help us to locate a broader locale for her writing. For example, when I called Parrish’s writing a kind of phenomenological training, I immediately think of a similar sense I get when reading Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s poetry, particularly Hello, the Roses. For me, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception constitutes a touchstone that helps to bring into focus what’s at stake in Parrish’s writing.
Merleau-Ponty takes the position that “true philosophy entails learning to see the world anew” (lxxxv) and “The world is not what I think, but what I live [ce que je vis]; I am open to the world, I unquestionably communicate with it, but I do not possess it, it is inexhaustible” (lxxx-lxxxi). The kind of openness that I find in Parrish’s poetry is very much in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s notion of seeking: “Seeking the essence of the world is not to seek what it is as an idea, after having reduced it to a theme of discourse; rather it is to seek what it in fact is for us, prior to every thematization” (lxxix).
So much damage and reductiveness results from the identification – by writer, and even more perniciously by readers (and teachers) – of poetry with its alleged themes. That identification and the resulting method of reading, as I see it, constitutes a kind of verbal strip-mining.
In Parrish’s book, there is an active resistance to thematization – through the gaps within lines and poems, to the sprawling and fragmentary nature of the book itself. Instead, we get an ethics of openness – to the possibility of seeing the world anew. Even though we make the fullest use possible of what we see, how we see, what we can know about what see and experience, Parrish’s ethics as a writer, as a body in the world, match Merleau-Ponty’s sense that “understanding is a deception or an illusion, knowledge never gets a hold on its objects, which drag each other along, and the mind functions like a calculating machine that does not know why its results are true” (16).
While toward the end of the book’s opening poem, we read “sometimes my body knows,” the life-in-the-body is typically understood as a more erratic path of knowing, as earlier in the opening poem,
the caveat : my body
column of chatter column of water
these bruised bones these bruised streets
but where can i rest?
if the streets are water
and the tongue is a blunder
A central question in a reading experience of Parrish’s book (and I also have this recurring question when I read Larry Eigner’s poetry too) is what does it mean to “write the body”? If the “body knows,” how does it know and what does it know? Among other things, what I admire in Parrish’s book is that this journey and seeking by means of the body, by means of the practice of increased and nuanced physical attentiveness, does not become reductive, does not evade the complexity of such a pathway.
Once again, Merleau-Ponty’s writing about the body may help to illuminate the complex but crucial physicality of Parrish’s book. While Merleau-Ponty might state that “existence accomplishes itself in the body” (169), the body also doubles or repeats and gives us access to the enigmatic nature of existence: “If the body can symbolize existence, this is because it actualizes it and because it is its actuality” (167). It is both a means of knowing, and that which we wish to know. (Thus, an impossible task?) The body both provides an access or path to knowing, while simultaneously erasing elements of its own presence:
Insofar as it sees or touches the world, my body can neither be seen nor touched. What prevents it from ever being an object or from ever being “completely constituted” is that my body is that by which there are objects. It is neither tangible nor visible insofar as it is what sees and touches. (94)
Thus, Merleau-Ponty concludes, “the ambiguity of being in the world is expressed by the ambiguity of our body, and this latter is understood through the ambiguity of time” (87) and “nothing is more difficult than knowing precisely what we see” (59).
Parrish’s poetry of the body is distinctively synaesthetic, where touch and hearing cross:
sometimes my body knows
the sudden flesh inside
the church bells the empty the emptying
Parrish’s is a book of searching and questing. Perhaps the fundamental question of the book is
how will i go
where i’m going
Parrish wears her research and reading lightly in this book, but there is a depth of information condensed within the writing, and her concluding Notes to the book gives us some sense of how this book, with its many embedded quotations, came to be. For example, the concluding line above pairs with this note: “‘play-woman’ from William LaFleur’s chapter on the inn as symbol of the body in his study of medieval Japanese poetry, The Karma of Words.”
It is a book where the self and the body are perhaps best thought of as a location for realizations:
(secrets i learned from saints)
ford the river by trapped light ‘by half-light blest’
by loosed skins by tendril crossed
to the green isle made
of myself a well
The body then becomes a crossing-point, a location told within a myth or fable wherein forces and phrases come to lodge, so that the self takes on the depth of a well.
And Parrish’s book is not so much a story of knowledge in the manner of pride and domination, rather it is the story of a self that is submerged in the story itself, merging with and back into the world:
clinic said my heart was alright
the ice is breaking in the trees the trees are breaking
the nowhere the lure the forest the dogs
‘Subhiti, why is it?’ thought : mountain thought about
the dream green of it former skin
and that was an end. stood for a while
on a bridge I think
in the pinewoods dreamt the dark awake
These lines occur in a poem aptly titled “so that we can say it in our own voices,” but an admirable humility before what has been written and is being written now by others makes it clear that a way to say it in “our own voices” is by acknowledging and merging with other voices (as in Oppen’s great modification of Eliot being “till other voices/ wake us or we drown”). Thus, Parrish’s Notes for this particular poem points us toward these sources: Marie-Louise Von Franz’s Redemption Motifs in Fairytales, John Crowley’s Engine Summer, the Rohitassa Sutta from the Pali canon, and the Diamond Sutra – fair indication of the rich textual soil from which Parrish’s work comes forth. A richness of source material that belies the humor and casualness when Parrish, a few stanzas later in the poem, writes,
‘for a long time I yearned learned to be useless’
like a faraway field ‘that may be likened to rain’
so what the fuck if I must be mistook
‘of rain and nettles wove’
The self and the voice then are woven into their perceptual context, far different than (and credit for this next phrase goes to my wife, Jane, who dislikes most poetry) singing in the me-me-me choir.
Parrish’s is an earnest book – earnest in its seeking of a kind of non-dogmatic wisdom, and in its effacing of the self (which in most poetry written in America today leads to the writing of a poetry of “self-expression” and the finding of “my voice”) – which, in its fragmentariness, exists at a the intersection of vision, fable, dream, and a shifting & inspired reading which becomes the beautiful weave of intertextuality.
Perhaps my favorite poem in the book is the prose poem “transmission,” its deliberate pacing of perception reminding me of kindred poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. The poem begins
Across the river the fields have deepened and dried to a darker
green. No longer empty, flecked with bent backs in blue cotton,
the rows croon with April’s issue: cabbage sheen and the lean
white stars of pepper blossoms. Next time we’ll pay attention,
see how each changed thing advances.
Parrish’s observations – exact, thorough – remain resistant to the transcendental twitch of glibly turning seeing into symbolizing (usually in an allegorical equation). It is (as Thoreau’s Journal shows us, if we ever needed proof) enough to see – to slow down, and see clearly:
We live inside an hour here, a thin skin, a minute, a pow-
der of tinted currents and cleft fields. We can’t hold things very
long, but our strung plants and blistered hands might mean
we’re living. Watch out, the world’s behind you, and nothing’s
holding anything, and the word’s a curled wing in the dark.
“transmission” concludes, “Everything is a tumbled procession. And we stand here in our hunger boots trying.” Indeed, this is a book of trying – honestly & humbly so. Each fragment, each step, each moment constitutes a practice: to be as fully present in the moment as possible. (And thus perhaps the deepest of kinships underlying Parrish’s book: Zen and Daoist practice, as found, for example, in the writings of Norman Fischer, Shunryu Suzuki, and Thich Nhat Hanh [I think, for example, of You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment].)
To return to the fundamental pairing of my essay-review, to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty’s thinking offers a helpful extension of the anti-symbolic transcendent moments in Parrish’s poems: “When I say that things are transcendent, this signifies that I do not possess them, that I do not encompass them; they are transcendent to the extent that I am unaware of what they are and blindly affirm their bare existence” (388). Merleau-Ponty goes on to ask, “But what sense is there in affirming the existence of something unknown?” (388). His answer seems to me to be very much in keeping with both the precision of vision (or broadly, of sensing) in Parrish’s poems, along with her insistence on not claiming to know more than she knows. Merleau-Ponty writes that this seeking, even as we know the extraordinary limitations of our knowing, matters “because the actual contact of the thing awakens in me a primordial knowledge of all things and because my finite and determinate perceptions are the partial manifestations of a power of knowing that is coextensive with the world and that displays it fully” (388).
Though it is not a flashy thing, not a technique-bauble on display, Parrish’s poetry brings with it a lyricism that, like the poems’ moments of vision, asserts itself now and again, as in these three lines:
but where can I rest?
if the streets are water
and the tongue a blunder
Her tongue (& ear) are rarely a blunder, as one can readily hear upon repeating these two lines:
morning sycamore I’ll miss
this white waking to brightness
Parrish’s poems are instances of Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion that “We would then find that words, vowels, and phonemes are so many ways of singing the world, and that they are destined to represent objects, not through an objective resemblance, in the manner imagined by the naïve theory of onomatopoeia, but because they are extracted from them, and literally express their emotional essence” (193). Merleau-Ponty concludes that the sounds of our many words constitute “several ways for the human body to celebrate the world and to finally live it” (193).
Parrish’s poems exist within a milieu of a bodily pathway to a spiritual (partial, felt) knowing of the world. While I am principally citing Merleau-Ponty as a means of articulating that phenomenological milieu, Parrish herself, in a thorough Notes section which delineates many of her source materials, is more likely to draw upon Zen or Daoist perspectives, as in her note to a phrase in her poem “so that we can say it in our own voices”: “The phrase ‘this fathoms-deep body’ is adapted from the Rohitassa Sutta from the Pali canon (“In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and thoughts there is the world, the origin of the world, the ending of the world and the path to the ending of the world”).”
Yes, this book by Parrish places great emphasis on the knowing body, but her modes of knowing include the written works that shape, guide, and participate in the soul-making (Keats’ term) that is our schooling in & by means of the world. She writes “the body is but eros and erosion/ in all the old stories,” but it is the question that immediately follows that is a central preoccupation of this book: “but what would you make of it?”. It is the next page that might offer an answer. The entire page consists of three italicized words smack in the middle of the page:
meadow meadow meadow
What we make of it is not what we make of it: what we see, where we are, takes precedence over our specific acts of creativity and will. Blank and open spaces are part of Parrish’s writing & witnessing, and the appearance of her poems on the page often reminds me of other skilled practitioners of a functional absence or blank space in their writing: Lissa Wolsak, Susan Howe, Larry Eigner (to name but three).
Moments of a kind of liminal vision, a threshold emerge on occasion in the poems:
my linden-crook’d dowsing rod
my flesh arms and i and i
stopped on the stairs looking out
a habit of exile
‘mere hull’ ‘mere quiver’
and the awful blank of my palms
but oh the windows
Yes, the first-person singular does appear frequently in Parrish’s book, but that first person is really more of a location and an occasion for a more generically human process of learning, knowing, and being grateful for this (common and uncommon, generic and specific) incarnation. Parrish writes,
there’s a field inside my body
where i listen in the grass
and thus have i heard the falling
rain on the wind the seeds of no color
‘sometimes it’s heaven
when you look at things’
Merleau-Ponty refers to “the life of my eyes, hands, and ears, which are so many natural selves” (224), and offers a description for the phenomenological existence in the natural world which informs Parrish’s poetry as well: “ I experience sensation as a modality of general existence, already destined to a physical world, which flows through me without my being its author” (224).
Or, if instead of locating this kinship network within a modern French philosophical writing, we might instead look to the 13th century writing and talks of Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen lineage. In the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master’s Shobo Genzo, we might begin with the congenial and not so astonishing insights that “Here is the now of the body, the now of the mind. This is the bright pearl” (36) and “You hear with the body, you hear with the mind” (93). But soon, we find ourselves in a more enigmatic realm when we turn to Dogen’s 1240 seminal talk, “The Time Being (Uji),” and a decidedly different relationship to the body:
Mind is the moment of actualizing the fundamental point; words are the moment of going beyond, unlocking the barrier. Arriving is the moment of casting off the body; not-arriving is the moment of being one with just this, while being free from just this. In that way you must endeavor to actualize the time being. (110-111).
So that in “Thusness” (in 1242), Dogen tells us,
You are an accoutrement that exists in the entire world of the ten directions. How do you know this? You know it because your body and mind are not you; they appear in the entire world of the ten directions.
Your body is not you; your life is transported, moving in time without stopping even for a moment. (324-325) [emphasis mine]
Which may lead one to wonder, if I am not my body, and I am not my mind, what am I? For of course, you are and are not your body and your mind.
Parrish can also ask the question quite directly:
and what are you?
shadow of glass
shadow of water
but we suffer
Or, in thinking about the question what are you, Parrish may also think back in time:
as a child
thought about books and endings thought about rain
and the owl living under the rooftiles
Her summary arrives at a rather Buddhist answer to this question what are you: rain, books, years, time, and suffering.
After quite a few years of doing this kind of writing, it comes to me that as with this writing about Parrish’s book, I treat a book as a unit of thinking. Poems too, for me, are intervals of thinking. The book, too, is a kind of meta-poem, an aggregated (or congregated?) thinking, a duration of consideration given. Not necessarily to one theme or question, for this is the kind of reductive reading of poetry that I liken to strip-mining, but a messier investigation, a less methodical and often unintended (as in unintentional or beyond intention) exploration for a duration of dwelling in the particular and peculiar house of language that is poetry.
In what amounts at once to a phenomenological guide and a Zen practice, Parrish asks,
am i learning to love
how things are
(as much as they are) the slow
eyes of our eyes we might call trust
While Parrish’s poetry is obliquely personal, it is not an ego-centric or self-centered poetry. (Hurray!)
Once again, as I identify what I think of as kindred perspectives, the nature of the self in Parrish’s poetry strikes me as striving to be what poet and Zen priest Norman Fischer (in his superb book of essays, Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language & Religion) describes in his discussion of the relationship between poetry and meditation:
Somewhere we’ve developed this misconception that poetry is self-expression, and that meditation is going inward. Actually, poetry has nothing to do with self-expression; it is a way to be free, finally, of self-expression, to go much deeper than that. And meditation is not a form of thought or reflection; it is looking at or an awareness of what is there, equally inside and outside; and then it doesn’t make sense anymore to mention inside or outside.
Experience, I think, is a never-ending adjustment. (9)
So that Parrish’s poems do not evade the presence of the self and of the body. Nor is there even a suppression of the personal. Rather, there is the growing awareness that the self and the body are a location, a doorway, an instance in time through which change and a vision of the world come to be. That opportunity – which is the joy, miracle, and suffering of incarnation (and consciousness) – is cause in Parrish’s poetry for gratitude. Or, as Norman Fischer sees it, such gratitude is engrained in that vague and difficult to define thing that we call spiritual experience or a spiritual path:
To me, spiritual path isn’t separate or apart from ordinary life, it’s not an unusual life, an alternative to emotional life and material life. Spiritual path is simply a way to stay true to what arises in the course of a human lifetime, whatever that may be. … Spiritual reality, spiritual truth, is always bewildering, never entirely knowable. We can know some things. For a little while anyway we can feel we know something that is true. Mostly we can be surprised by a feeling of wonder – or a feeling of gratitude or gentle perplexity. (91)
Perhaps at this point, I should indicate that in thinking of a book of poetry as a unit or duration of thinking, my own citations jump around (as they always have when I do such writing). It now occurs to me that the jumping around has to do with a sense that the duration of thinking is anything but strictly consecutive. The books, phrases, and passages can be moved around, not so much to demonstrate that all along there was a hidden unity or a linear mode of thinking that somehow got jumbled in transmission, but to highlight certain recurring or perhaps connected lines of thinking that were disseminated across the entire book. Of course, my own created connected thinking is simply another dissemination, another gathering, and another reader (or my own reading another time) would create another set of pathways. What I make of these passages is not “what the poet really meant to say”; it’s simply one possible arrangement of related phrases/thoughts among many such possible arrangements.
Parrish’s book, appropriately for these dark times, has a sense of impending apocalypse:
one day you will have to let go of everything
and what can help you
is it the wide fields the dark eyes of the deer
i have been awful things
i have been the light falling
over us the wing beat of vultures
of swans from the north
where the road crosses over the water
Of a life lived in what Parrish calls “this dissolving world.”
As I think of Parrish’s book as a kind of phenomenological guide, a schooling in perception (and thus a schooling of the soul), I might wish to lean on the line “the eye is a clear place.” But vision, in Parrish’s book, while clear, is not simple. Or, at least it involves its own study and practice. What I admire in this book is Parrish’s restraint, her reining in the impulse to make something (else, perhaps symbolic) of what she sees. Instead,
I’m not reading thinking about a green river
moon falling half the night through the tree
each thing resembled only itself
There is a learned, wise, practiced humility throughout Parrish’s poems – an ethics of respect for the limitations of knowing (try as we might) which I find, once again, to be in keeping with Merleau-Ponty’s thinking:
My voluntary and rational life thus knows itself to be entangled with another power that prevents it from being completed and that always gives it the air of a work in progress. … I am never at one with myself. Such is the fate of a being who is born, that is, a being who once and for all was given to himself as something to be understood. (362)
Parrish’s poetry too shows a similar passion for understanding – self, body, & world – along with the wisdom to recognize the mystery that consciousness faces and the impossibility of full knowing.