Netsuke [ lizard ]

April 2, 2012

(For Thomas Davis)

A reptile carved, a breath of language, one
That one imagines to be real, like
A lizard given life, pretend for fun,
Perhaps, a supervening thought, so like
A kite, but not airborne at all: We hold
Its substance in our hands and come to think
That this is all there is. We even hold
It in our thoughts, still nameless, and we think
That its vital beauty make it a part
Of God. Soft, small, patina-rich, handmade
From stone or bone, rhinoceros horn: its art
Is in its existence, perfection paid
For by its half-life in our hearts and hands.
So reptilian, what poetry demands.

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4 Responses to “Netsuke [ lizard ]”

  1. Thomas Davis Says:

    Actually, this discussion is interesting, Jim. I actually think all of poetry arises from the basal ganglia. It is from those parts of the brain that the power of really good poetry comes from, and though you sometimes makes light of your abilities, I think I should be allowed some credibility when it comes to judging poetry. I don’t, in my comment, mean to suggest that the poetry arising from the reptilian part of the brain, where, I assume, the small statues (netsuke) rise from, stays there. Rather, especially in your poetry, but to a large degree in all poets, its begins there where it impacts our senses in powerful ways and then rises through the parts of the brain that have to do with words, logic, meaning, music, images, etc., arriving eventually at a poem.
    I may have read too much into the sonnet, but that’s how I read it, as a description of the breath of language, the creative impulse, the making of a perfect netsuke. I find it fascinating
    I’m glad you’ve talked about your PD in this format. You are not trading on your disability as a poet. Far from it. That’s just a part of you that is difficult to control. It is not who you or your poetry are. Your poetry is much too much poetry for it to be anything but songs arising from a mind that is beautiful, ironic, biting, clever, erudite, obscure, brilliant, and altogether fascinating, each of these in their turn.
    You and Tom D’Evelyn are the only ones on the web that I suspect may be more erudite in the study of poetry than I am, though I find others, such as Ethel. Betty Hayes Albright, you, and Anna Mark, among others, to be better poets than I am. I really believe you are a better than fine poet.

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Thomas:
    I was somehow talking to you when I was writing this: Hence the dedication. I don’t know how much of an honor I am conveying—but there it is.
    You raise two interesting points. Is there an implied ‘but’ after
    ‘we think
    That its vital beauty make it a part
    Of God’?
    When I was a kid, I used to punctuate sentences with ‘but’.
    I was going to do all my homework on Friday, but…
    I was going to clean up my room, but…
    It’s a rather useful sentence construction. You raise an issue, you suggest an examination, but.
    We think it’s a part of God, but…what? God does not exist. We are wrong. How could we know?
    I was once having a long theological discussion with a friend of mine (the sort of thing you might have in a dorm room late at night) who finally interrupted me with an abrupt: ‘I can’t even tell if you believe in God or not.’
    ‘Oh, good,’ I smiled. ‘Then I’ve succeeded.’
    Yes, there probably is a ‘but’ there, but…
    The much more interesting idea you raise is the difference between the poems you wrote when your son was dying and these ‘reptilian’ poems that I’ve been doing. Clearly the power of your sonnets comes from the human situation they are about. (Let’s call this the ‘heart’.) I tell you frankly I don’t know how you did it. Such control. And such confrontation. I don’t really like reading them; they are too heart wrenching. I’d much rather be piddling around with reptiles and spiders and muses. These poems speak very clearly to our life here on planet earth—how precarious it is. They are not ‘imaginary gardens with real toads in them’, they take on the tides head on, they grieve, they live, they breathe. They are, I think, a rather singular achievement—beyond the realm of ‘just poetry’.
    Now, to your question: does the poet, tapping into the reptilian part of himself/ herself ever know what these poems mean?
    First, I hope I have made it clear that I don’t think the ‘reptile’ poem is somehow more basic than the ‘heart’ poem—quite the contrary. But I also don’t think the reptile poem is some game we might play to avoid what is really real—or what we really mean. As April is national poetry month—here in the States—and as it is also Parkinson’s Disease Awareness Month, this seems a good place to mention that I have Parkinson’s disease and have had it (been diagnosed with it) for some six years now—so, it’s had time to move through my brain and soul. We’ve had this discussion off line, but I rather think it’s time to put it on the blog. I really don’t treat it as a secret. Every semester I stand up in front of all my classes and hold up my right arm. You see this tremor? I ask. My thinking has always been that I didn’t want what I was writing to be part of some sort of a general dispensation…what? Disability poems? However, the whole ‘reptile’ thing has got me thinking. To what degree is the PD responsible for the poetry (the poetic thinking?). ‘From this the poem springs: that we live in a place that’s not our own and much more not ourselves…’
    Thomas, you jumped from the ‘lizard’ and ‘reptile’ of the poem to the reptilian part of the brain. This may or may not be justified—but…consider, the so-called reptilian part of the brain is where the basal ganglia are and it is the basal ganglia which produce the neurotransmitters that allow the body to move in a coordinated manner. In PD these cells are dying. Do we understand the messages from the reptile part of the brain?
    …perfection paid/ For by its half-life in our hearts and hands.
    Yes, I rather think we do.

  3. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, I saw this the other day, but missed your dedication. Thank you. A dedication by a great poet should always be treasured.

    So reptilian, what poetry demands.
    eh? From the limbic part of the brain, dredged up from the depths of who we were through the ages of our becoming.
    …its art
    Is in its existence

    A reptile carved, a breath of language, one
    That one imagines to be real

    a supervening thought, so like
    A kite, but not airborne at all: We hold
    Its substance in our hands and come to think
    That this is all there is. We even hold
    It in our thoughts, still nameless, and we think
    That its vital beauty makes it a part
    Of God.

    Out of thoughts, so like kites, but not airborne at all, we hold the substance of poetry in our hands and come to think that this is all there is, that it’s vital beauty makes it a part of God. But? I hear a but in here, Jim. I do.

    …perfection paid
    For by its half-life in our hearts and hands.

    So our poetry is carved from the limbic (reptilian) heart and mind of who we are, its vitality in our thoughts confused with the idea that it comes from God, at least in the old Greek sense of God, but its art is really from our existence and not God’s at all: It’s art in its existence as art:

    Its substance in our hands and [we] come to think
    That this is all there is.

    What a sonnet, Jim. What a sonnet!

    I do have a question, though, and that is this: Does a poet delving into the reptilian part of themselves to write their lines ever know for sure what they mean when they write it? Or is it more like magic that tingles the skull and makes hair stand on the back of our neck (the last part this sentence paraphrased from A.E. Housman, I’m afraid).

    The sonnet sequence I wrote while my son was dying is very clear about where it comes from, but other poetry I’ve written is dredged from an imagination that may lie in the reptilian part of my brain. These are ideas and questions I’ve thought about for years. Now you’ve gone and stirred them up again–the task of a brilliant poet.

  4. Anna Mark Says:

    I, too, have written a poem lately about a statue, another – breath of language – and it capture some of the same sentiments here…its half-life in our hearts and hands, the idea of perfection and time, of God, immortality. I especially enjoy your last line: So reptilian, what poetry demands.


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