A Parchment of Bones

October 20, 2013

The last wasps inside the temple
—oh, only two or three are left—
un-fold their wings and prepare to die.
The temple grows in the silence.
A skin of frost forms
across raked sand, across
the carefully placed stones.
The garden browns.
A spider inside and outside the temple:
A last wasp twists in its web and dies.
We remain sitting, the last to celebrate
our innocence in silence,
the first to approach winter
as a parchment of bones.

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4 Responses to “A Parchment of Bones”

  1. extrasimile Says:

    Anna, John, and Thomas: Thank you for taking time out of a busy life to puzzle with this thing. Let’s see if I can clear up some of the issues raised—mostly by Thomas. I’m going to try to read this poem backwards. This gets us to concluding phrase (and title) ‘a parchment of bones’. I don’t know if I have a complete understanding of what it means. It jumped into my mind as is, and I decided to leave it alone—after briefly trying ‘for’ for ‘of’. Parchment is skin that has been rendered suitable for writing. The ‘of bones’ suggests that this parchment has been made by bones. Hence, it could be a kind of periphery and a kind of center (rolled up in one, so to speak). That the skin can be written on, I take to be important. One reads other people’s faces every day, don’t they? Body language?
    The ‘we’ has to start wth the monks. I don’t think there is any doubt that on some level this is a Buddhist temple—presumably a ‘sitting’ Buddhism. How many other levels of interpretation you want to do is sort of, shall we say, up to the reader. That the temple is a stand-in for the body and the speaking voice a stand in for the mind, also works for me. The mind/ body problem may be the key here. Thomas, I told my neurologist your theory about poetry coming from the basal ganglia cells—which he hurriedly, embarrassingly dismissed. How to test this, eh, Doc? I personally conjure up an image of a brain cell hunched over a writing desk—something out of Dickens. But of course, the issue of the brain’s relationship to consciousness is still to be decided. Thomas Nagel in his latest book (sorry the title eludes me right now) makes the point that science has progressed nicely by ignoring consciousness. I guess poetry is going to handle it alone. (Just kidding. Way kidding.) The point here is that the ‘we’ could be a single person, with body and mind speaking.
    The temple grows in silence.—actually Anna gets this perfectly and sums it up well. Though it is questionable in my mind whether innocence and silence should be coupled together. As states of mind, they are rather different, aren’t they? You know when there is silence, innocence can have many levels. Let me say tat again: you know silence differently than you know innocence. The question in my mind is, just how reliable is the narrator here when he says that ‘we’ are the first to approach winter in this way. Innocence may be renewed every winter. Necessarily. The cold is going to sting, brother.
    Lastly [maybe] I would like to mention the power of words to conjure [of which poetry is only a special case]. What does this poem conjure? But we’re back to Thomas’s poem. What do our prayers conjure? Unfold your wings and prepare to die? Roar into the wind?
    Thomas, I recognize your conclusion: Perhaps, as the spider of winter spins its web of frost, we always celebrate what we were as we recognize the sting taken from the wasps that have plagued us.

  2. Thomas Davis Says:

    This is really a complex poem, Jim. The first question is, what is the temple symbol about? An actual temple in the east somewhere? The body’s temple? Or, perhaps, the temple of the spirit? The wasps are dying from the coming cold, but what cold? An answer to the previous three questions give us three different ideas about the cold. Winter’s cold? The aging of the body? Or a spiritual cold? Or all three.
    Then there is the line: “The temple grows in the silence.” The temple grows? This would seem to be more about spirit rather than an actual temple. An actual temple can grow from a spiritual standpoint, but probably not from a physical standpoint. If this is just a poem about the coming of winter, then this is a strange line. It is a line that hints of depth rather than age or anything physical.
    The lines:
    “A skin of frost forms
    across raked sand, across
    the carefully placed stones.
    The garden browns.”
    are powerful, and even beautiful, but then they become
    “A spider inside and outside the temple…” The frost forms across raked sand and stones and garden browns. The spider encases the temple, season, body, spirit, into its web, and then
    “A last wasp twists in its web and dies.”
    The wasp at this point is a metaphor, seemingly, for physical life, but physical life with the ability to sting.
    Sting what? The physical temple? The body? The spirit? Life dying as the spider of winter spins its web inside the temple.
    Then the sudden appearance of “We…” Humankind? The poet? Both? The reader and poet? We?
    “We remain sitting, the last to celebrate
    our innocence in silence…”
    Perhaps “we” are always innocent in our spirits as we sit inside the temple of life. Perhaps, as the spider of winter spins its web of frost, we always celebrate what we were as we recognize the sting taken from the wasps that have plagued us.
    Perhaps in the winter inside the temple of our bodies and spirit, we have no choice but to be:
    “the first to approach winter
    as a parchment of bones.”

  3. John Stevens Says:

    I agree. What a vivid picture, and such a powerful mood! It resonates with emotion. There’s a change of season here, but also of course a change in the seasons of life. Grim but inviting
    Stoicism. As you said on Thomas Davis’s blog, quite a contrast with his sonnet on a similar seasonal theme.
    This is one I’ll come back to and read again Jim.

  4. Anna Mark Says:

    Up early(ish) on a Sunday morning to appreciate these words. I like the way this poem flows loosely from one image to the next and back again. I connect the “skin of frost” across raked sand and placed stones with the “parchment of bones” at the end. And again I connect the idea of how the temple grows with the sitting in the innocence and silence, an inner expansion. The fragility of life captured in the wasp, no more sting, almost dead is striking. It is not a fly, but a wasp. The whole poem makes me feel as though surrounded by coldness, starkness and decay, winter air.


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