[We're continuing with Sheila Graham-Smith's review of my recent book, Ullambana in Portland]
An interlude translation of Li Shangyin’s “Ornate Zither” introduces the themes of transformation and the wanton heart, both integral to the eponymous Ullambana in Portland section of the book.
Master Zhuang was perplexed by his daybreak butterfly dream:
Emperor Wang’s wanton springtime heart entrusted to the cuckoo—
Time seems to have passed since the last raintown poem, and significantly, the view of the world has shifted.
“the camellia rag” opens with a strange image – a “spinet piano transmogrified to dormant tree” - which, oddly enough, is the city’s first appearance in the Ullambana poems, a reference to a spinet that sits outdoors in a courtyard on North Williams Ave. The spinet has been painted with the bottom of a bare tree and the rest of the tree is painted on a brick wall immediately behind the spinet. Two things change with the appearance of this image. The first is related to the dormant tree. Portland is famous for its trees. There are a quarter of a million of them lining the streets alone, and they show up in almost every one of the raintown poems. The narrator could identify some of them but one of the indicators of his isolation, his status as a stranger in a new place, was the remark —“it devastates me not to know the trees’ names”. This painted image of a leafless tree is the last reference to the anonymity of the flora. From here on in the poems pay intimate attention to everything that leafs out or blooms or goes to seed, or sheds its foliage, and they share all of it with the reader. The second change is related to the spinet the tree grows out of. The soundtrack of the raintown poems was synthesised from bird calls, snatches of overheard and reported conversation, the sound of rain and water, but the spinet in “the camellia rag” introduces the entire acoustic ecology of the city, and the music that grows out of it –
an A# diminished scale’s black & white keys
tumbling into this January sky—
there is nothing to resist:
hoarfrost on green lawns, a single camellia bloom
dangles in a welter of branches, a red quarter note—
exuberant felt hammers,
the song sparrows in their boxwood hedges—
the syncopation of breath & step & peripheral vision,
the many walks I’ve taken down this very street
with you, yes, you
There is music everywhere, accompanying “the many walks I’ve taken down this very street with you, yes, you”. And with that “you, yes, you!” comes a third change; the mysterious, mutable, interchangeable, multifaceted “you”, who will play such an important role in the remainder of the collection, appears, moving it, decisively into a more intimate relationship with the city at the same time as it reflects a much more intimate view of various personal relationships. Our poet is on foot, in contact with the pavement and everything and everyone on it.
The word Ullambana refers to the traditional Buddhist Hungry Ghost Festival, during which ghosts and spirits come up from the underworld to visit the living, but the spirits in this Ullambana are not necessarily those of the dead. In fact, for the most part the spirits are living people – friends, lovers, muses - from Hayes’ past and his present life.
The single exception to these living spirits is Hayes’ parents. His father, dead for several years, is beautifully met in “black ghost sutra”, amidst “aromas of Carter Hall pipe tobacco &/pine sawdust jumbled”. Memories of
a shop light’s fluorescent
quaver, shellac’s jagged odor, fly-tying vise
gripping a number 4 hook, yellow saddle
hackle & white maribou & peacock herl:
remnants of birds
move from the creation of the black ghost lure, to its apotheosis through swift water, and from there to a quiet glimpse of the poem’s second ghost.
the brook trout’s copper & gunmetal
flash where Cold River churned: above us white
birch with green moss veneer, below the riverbank
brambles: a cast into autumn waters beneath
floating golden leaves:
black ghost streamer darts: alien in-
animate visitor in a world of motion it mimics:
feathers in that current, spasmodic, darting at
the play of your wrist:
as you sit hunched
immobile in these small hours, briarwood
spent, you must require tending
That last line, with its image of the poet looking back at his father in his workshop, gestures obliquely at the Ullambana idea. The key word is “tending”, in its many meanings - to turn one's ear, give auditory attention, listen, hearken. To turn the mind, attention, or energies; to apply oneself. To attend to, mind. To apply oneself to the care and service of (a person); now esp. to watch over and wait upon, to minister to (the sick or helpless) To bestow attention upon.
The veneration of the dead is intrinsic to the ghost festival, and filial piety involves, and indeed requires tending the visiting spirits of one’s ancestors in all these ways. No words pass between the two of them:
by night you appear
aloof as though living yet: head bowed, bald pate
hemmed in by the usual crewcut, gray-faced,
"lullaby in violet & green", on the other hand, is essentially one half of a conversation between the poet and an unknown person we can infer is his mother.
Immediately rooted in time – back in an indefinite personal past when there was still static snow on the television screen – and place – somewhere in Vermont, east of some unnamed hills – the poem opens with the white noise produced by disrupted signals.
static on a tv set broadcasting
weather from Poland Springs, that Vermont
horizon purple above the neighbors’ big
oak & the pine fringed hills to the west
And yet, the second stanza opens with a clear voice, not one that is transmitted over radio waves, but a reading voice in a room alive with the memory.
you reading aloud "The King of the Golden
River" at blue dusk in a bedroom with one
open dormer window, curtain floating
on the scent of lilacs blooming like twilight—
The poem has moved from the wider Vermont landscape to a bedroom, from the nonspecific past to blue dusk and early summer, from a context defined by “neighbours” to the intimacy of you reading aloud from a childhood fable of kindness and compassion, wrong righted and evil undone. Who is this you who reads? We have no idea, beyond what is given us by the shift we’ve made into relationship with the speaker, who lures us with the quiet reader, the scent of lilacs, the floating curtain, the blue dusk. We have moved in.
How far in?
can you sleep? can the train whistle sing in
harmony with the whip-poor-will in the green
night in a summer that existed once
beside a river & the brown-gray riprap?
Can you sleep? is a very intimate question, unless it’s your doctor asking. A question full of concern, and knowledge. Things have changed. The you who read aloud once upon a time in an attic bedroom is on the receiving end of concern, the summer is long gone and the tale of a valley flooded and destroyed by the river that made it rich has been replaced by a more ordinary but much safer river armoured and controlled by riprap. And where does that leave us? Have you ever entered a room and felt the charge of an unknown argument, or discussion or whispered confidence, that left you discomfited, unsure of whether you should advance or retreat? The poem feels like that, but here, you’re forestalled. Before you can act on your unease the speaker interferes – “but time doesn’t move in summer’s direction—though it does stop:”
He’s speaking to you, the reader, and also to that other you, the one who read aloud in the childhood bedroom, the one who does or does not sleep and is reminded of that long-ago summer. Time doesn’t go backward, but it does stop going forward. The voice shifts, we’re given what appears to be the speaker turning over his worries about the you who can or cannot sleep. We have moved, within the closed circle of the poem, from an evoked image of a child being read to in bed, to the bedside of the reader in old age.
at day’s end always so much
undone & where you are it’s snowing snowing
now because you have no winter blanket
It is winter, day’s end, both literally and metaphorically. The lullaby drifts from the realm of a childhood bedtime to a voice singing on the threshold between life and death, the falling snow provides the only necessary blanket for a final resting place, and the narrative voice is still attending.
Please check back tomorrow for part 3 of Sheila Graham-Smith's Review.
Information on the images
1. Steel Bridge & Chinese junk: photo © John Hayes
2. Piano & wall art on N Williams Ave: photo © John Hayes
3. "Step One In Fly Tying -- Securing The Thread and Flash" by Mike Cline, who has released the image into the public domain. Image links to its source on Wiki Commons.
4. King of the Golden River - Title page. Public domain. Image links to its source on Wiki Commons.
5. "Chinese floating lotus lanterns on a pond." [from the Ghost Festival] by Mike, who makes it available under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image links to its source on Wiki Commons.