Netsuke [ Buddha ]

April 9, 2012

It’s like tea strained through silk,
so pure, so like a tabula rasa
constrained for us to use amid our doubts.
Stay, carrion, stay and sit beside me.
For we must carve the lines of
a language into ivory conventions;
we must starve out the demons when
they cry out their so-called interventions…
Why are they here when we are not?
Too easy the simile; too easy the regret;
too easy that we are not majestic,
that our life ends in rot.

His face an ivory façade,
the Buddha smiles, unlike our God.

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5 Responses to “Netsuke [ Buddha ]”

  1. Thomas Davis Says:

    Good Lord, Jim. You are producing poetry at a prodigious rate! I’ve been down, not up, as Anna, in her elegance, once expressed it in a comment, lately, but I have to do better, although eavesdropping in on a conversation that is so robust between you, John, and Anna is better than any meal I’ve had a fine restaurant.
    This new sonnet built around the idea of a statue is striking. I see, as John and Anna, saw the link between the earlier sonnet and this one. This one, however, hit me in the teeth metaphorically because of the fourth line. How can the statue of a Buddha be
    …like tea strained through silk,
    so pure, so like a tabula rasa
    constrained for us to use amid our doubts…
    Well, the Buddha is a symbol of purity on earth, of someone who has gone through trials to read a state where he can understand that only through a process of giving away can you find yourself.
    But then?
    Stay, carrion, stay and sit beside me.
    What is startling about this line is that you directly address carrion, the carrion of decay and death, the spectre which always broods in, or upon, human spirits. You invite carrion to come sit beside you.
    Then you say that we, carrion and you,
    …must carve the lines of
    a language into ivory conventions;
    we must starve out the demons when
    they cry out their so-called interventions…
    You and carrion must carve the lines of language into ivory conventions, into the conventions of beauty in the western sense of that word, but that is not enough. The two of you must also starve out demons when they cry out interventions in, I assume, the process of carving out language, ivory conventions.
    You seem to almost be saying that our end as carrion walks with us, and is part of the process as we create conventions (poetry, art) that is beautiful. What a striking thought!
    Why are they here when we are not? is a line that I take is referring back to the demons. It is a strange line, Jim. I have been worrying over it like I worry over so much of your poetry. Perhaps our demons are here when we are, but are not. Perhaps they simply outlast us in the body and spirits of other parts of humanity.
    In the end,
    Too easy the simile; too easy the regret;
    too easy that we are not majestic,
    that our life ends in rot.
    We create our art, and it is all too easy even though we are not majestic and our life ends in rot.
    Then the magnificent reversal in the couplet,
    His face an ivory façade,
    the Buddha smiles, unlike our God.
    acknowledging the different interpretations of God, the beauty of the Buddha, the netsuke. the sculpture, the sacredness of art as it tries to deal with life that ends in rot.

  2. John Stevens Says:

    Fascinating how a small poem can open the door to a large debate: well done poetry and well done you, Jim!
    I’ve read the discussion on Buddhism between Anna Mark and you with interest and with the curiosity of the uninitiated.
    May I pick up on a different point and a detail?
    In your preceding poem you have that image of the half-life, which I found so striking and pertinent. Here you tell us that you’re pretty sure this came up at because you needed an extra beat in the line. That wouldn’t be the first time someone writing a poem hits on an idea or image as a consequence of following through the mechanics of the thing, but keeps it because the discovery is right and pleasing for itself. The writer’s judgement – to retain or revise – is what matters. So full marks for this despite your modesty!

  3. extrasimile Says:

    I’ve been reading Edmund de Waal’s book, “The Hare with the Amber Eyes”. This is the source of the interest in netsuke. He inherited a collection of a hundred and twenty six (or so), and used this collection to look back at his family history. He treats the netsuke very much as objects d’art—sculpture rather than buttons. But of course they are small objects, and I see the parallel with the sonnet—a moment’s monument, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have it. John, my thought about ‘Night Watch’ needing strong imagery, was to some extent about your poem and to some extent about these two—though let’s face it neither ‘netsuke’ captures a moment exactly. Let’s just say that the moment’s monument stuff was part of the genesis of these two poems. It’s a nice idea.
    De Waal writes about the pleasures of holding these tiny sculptures in one’s hand. Of course, one always wants to touch sculpture—it’s only grouchy museum guards who don’t think this is a good idea. And of course if everyone touched, say, that Noguchi basalt stature it would be worn away in…a couple million years or so. Thinking about the material of sculpture does lead to long term thinking. I’m pretty sure the ‘half-life’ idea came up at some point because I needed an extra beat in the line.
    The conclusion—So reptilian, what poetry demands—is yet again my examining the alien nature of poetry—at least as it comes from yours truly.
    Buddha’ partakes of a similar dynamic. If there is irony here, it comes from the situation of taking a bit of elephant tusk and turning it into a Buddha. But no, Anna, I don’t see the ‘Stay, carrion…’ line as ironic. So the story goes, the young Siddhartha, kept in garden, when finally exposed to the real world and shown a dying old man, was told, ‘This thou art.’ You too will die; you too will get old, rot.
    Let me just mention the last line, ‘The Buddha smiles, unlike our God’, has the interesting effect of reflecting back on to the poem, reinterpreting it. THE Buddha, OUR God.
    And, yes, Anna, though I haven’t read this book, Steven Batchelor is quite good on Buddhism.

  4. Anna Mark Says:

    In your poem’s three opening lines, I think about the way sculpturesque forms are often made “pure” or generic (like blank slates) so that we, the observers or practitioners, can project our doubts and concerns upon their silent, receiving postures.

    Their constraint gives us permission to lose all of our own inhibitions, to fully express our doubts and laments.Their purity is an altar.

    Asking for death to stay and sit beside you is a surprising contrast to the opening lines. I read them as a bit ironic, somewhat dark humour. You want all of our human rot to be with you as you carve language — an extension of this rot –into ivory. What dies as we try to carve language into “ivory conventions”? and perhaps more importantly: what still lives? Demons? Realms of spirit within decay are, paradoxically, not lost in idealization…? [I have often found reincarnation and other “beliefs” within Buddhism contradictory, rather than paradoxical. Reincarnation involves a sense of something carrying on, a kind of “faith” in what seems to me to be a kind of permanence, or at least a “spirit” of something. I have enjoyed Stephen Batchelor’s book, “Confessions of a Buddhist Athiest.]

    Too easy the simile; too easy the regret;
    too easy that we are not majestic,
    that our life ends in rot.

    I sense some irony here again. A Netsuke, or a sculpture of Buddha, is a human response to rot, to the end, death, not at all majestic and often full of regret. And why is the Buddha’s face an ivory facade? is it full of contradiction? irony? unlike our God?

    I enjoyed reading this poem and thinking about all of these things. It especially creates a compare/contrast with Buddhism and Christianity toward the end, but I’m finding it ambiguous…I see how both Buddhism and Christianity say that we are not majestic, both say that our lives end in rot, both allow for regret…and in both traditions we can be “born again.”

  5. John Stevens Says:

    I’d somehow missed your first netsuke poem (sorry about that that Jim) so I’ve read these two together. They make a most interesting pair: formally the same sonnet form, and in content the same idea of an exquisite carving. The dictionary told me that a netsuke is a Japanese carved ‘button’ but (as Anna Mark noted) it is also a miniature statue.
    From your lizard netsuke I have carried forward the thought of such an object of beauty having a half-life in our thoughts. I find this a brilliant image! How true that is: a memory of some sublime or enchanting place or object is likely to stay with us a long long while, but it slowly loses some of the finer detail, something of its radiation, or power. That image is spot on! (And immeasurably better than that daft and untruthful proposition from Wordsworth that the full force of a recollection of daffodils will “oft” [really?!] flash upon his inner eye).
    However, you are ruminating in these two poems as much about language, or poetry, as about physical objects of beauty. Now there’s an interesting thought: that a poem might also have such a half-life in our minds. That is surely so. And the simile of carved object for poem may be extended a long way very profitably. So there’s a rich seam to be be mined here. Well done you!
    Then again, this second sonnet clearly speaks of something else as well: the tabula rasa, the face of the Buddha as an ivory facade – and the striking contrast with the face of the western God. I don’t know where you are going with this but, given your references to language, its hard not to think of the Christian idea of God as the Word.


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