Saturday, December 10, 2016

Ullambana on Portland: The Review - Part 4

[This is the fourth & final installment of Sheila Graham-Smith's review of my book Ullambana in Portland. I owe Sheila the deepest gratitude for this wonderful, close reading.]


The penultimate poem in the collection, and the last of the sutra poems, is one the poet could have dedicated to the city of Portland, even though it never makes an appearance as the elusive you wandering through the pages of the book. The you in “walking sutra”, like the you almost everywhere else in the poems, is part of 10,000 phenomena, and exists as you only in the current instant of any given line. She is as radically dynamic as the phenomenal world she belongs to.

“walking sutra” opens with dozens of crows taking to the air. The poet crosses the street and “inexplicably… you aren’t there”. Who is it, you wonder, who isn’t there. Your mind might return to an earlier poem in which the poet says “because needless to say you weren’t/on any of the streetcars” and decide he’s speaking here to that woman, the one he imagines strolling hand in hand with, later in the same poem, “at the edge of a photograph”, and you may be right, at least insofar as that earlier woman was in fact one woman; lover, friend, muse, whoever. Half a dozen lines later the observation is repeated -

             you aren’t here: though the one
hawthorn, those drooping brown-eyed
                          Susans, a handful of
cirrus skimming east above high-rises:
                           company of sorts—

and your mind follows those brown eyed Susans back to “weather report sutra”, to the lines about:

                                                my first
memory walking with you through the
meadow beyond the Chinese
                         elms the black-eyed Susan
in bloom

And since you know those words, and those flowers belong to his mother, you wonder if it is in fact his mother he misses as he steps up on the curb on the other side of the street. The walker continues on his way and is struck for a moment, not by any particular, absent you but by “the many/materializing along the sidewalk”, and then, significantly, by a present particular representative of that flow of bodies passing –

                 & yes, I smile, walking south
& yes she smiles walking north—

A brief exchange that turns attention back to some aspect of the absent you, one who appears to remind him time is passing, and she still isn’t there, and we begin to suspect at least some part of the absent you represents “the one” (as in the Townes Van Zandt lyric quoted as an epigraph to Hayes’ “blue octets”: “you’re the only one I want and & I've never heard your name”) who is absent, and the long engagement between the one and the many takes on a slightly less philosophical face for a minute or two:

               you’re right I’m not young:
in just a few minutes the planets will turn on,
              scarlet phosphorescent metallic: a plane’s
just inches from colliding with Mars on high—&

            magnolia’s cone fruit dangling above that
bus stop where
            white blossoms once strewed the lawn &
             you aren’t there as the southern
sky grays, the contrails blanch
              wraith white in the west

before his attention turns again to a present someone  - “though/at the market the woman weighs black/plums, calls me dear” - then back again to an absent you who still seems like a particular, absent you, one he’s actually speaking to, if only in his head, and not one of her more abstract manifestations.

              & you aren’t there—back east
fireflies luminesce cold without ultraviolet before they
go extinct, here the ginkgo yellows ignoring the fact it’s

August & you aren’t here: still, tomorrow
two planets will coruscate incandescent love &
             thunder over the park & plane trees’ leaves will
you say stretch out their big hands—

okay: across the street those colored lights, frayed
prayer flags on a string & of course the dark:
             the next step is bound to happen next

Back and forth, back and forth, a potent layering of memory, longing, and direct observation of the moment as it passes. Jupiter and Venus may be about to come closer than at any other time in the year but they share the poet’s attention with the plane tree in the park, a string of frayed prayer flags across the street, with the descending dark, and with the conclusion to be drawn from the endless perambulation and observation - the next step is bound to happen next.


Portland, in this collection, carries an immense weight of emotion and personal association and is undoubtedly one of Hayes’ most significant muses but perhaps most importantly, it is the home of those 10,000 phenomena he can’t let go of in this life, and on the pages of Ullambana in Portland he has laid out what he has seen of them for our examination, so we too can appreciate what they have to offer. He may give fair air time to idea of unified one, but nowhere do we see something that might be mistaken for “The City of Portland”. We see the multitude of details that make it what it is, and the burden of meaning those details bear, and we come away thinking Hayes, in his heart or hearts, loves the concrete presence of the myriad parts over the abstract whole, if only because it’s the fragmented, partial, particular, many always accompanying us and showing us the way.

A couplet from “esplanade octet”, the poem that precedes “walking sutra” in the collection, comes to mind:

a fish breaks open the black water,
vanishes: such brief transit through light

 Sheila Graham-Smith
© 2016

All photography © John Hayes

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