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Sea King

Remains of the Sea King at Barnegat Light

 

Eupalinos (2nd Part)

 

Given the 'found object' motif intercalated within Paul Valery's imaginal Socratic dialog, I've been alert for any related materials coming to hand, in keeping with my more or less unsystematic approach to this or any other subject (and to these blog posts more generally). Somehow the relevant material keeps surfacing, thankfully, much as the stone figure surfaced through the waves (or emerged out of the sand) at Barnegat Light that many years ago. Before proceeding I want to mention that a striking feature of the beach on that part of the coast are the remains of a trawler, the "Sea King", that foundered offshore in a storm several decades ago (within living memory), and with subsequent beach building activity of the surf, has been almost entirely buried many yards inland from the current shoreline, its main mast a solitary figure, jabbing up from the dunes.     

 

Of course, the serendipitous discovery of what lies beneath the planetary surface can be of immense significance to the self-understanding of humans. I'm thinking here of the discovery, in the middle of the last century, of the cave at Lascaux. I especially like Clayton Eshleman's description of this find, which positions that discovery in the imaginal realm:

 

Wicks made of quarter-inch juniper branches were used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux.

Over the cave, a tall juniper had fallen, lifting up with its roots a large mass of earth and creating a pit, soon entangled with brambles. On September 8, 1940, Marcel Ravidat (a young garage hand from nearby Montignac) was drawn to the pit by his barking dog, caught in the undergrowth. While cutting the dog out, he discovered a dead donkey and under it, a vertical shaft. On September 12, with his friend Jacques Marsal, Ravidat returned. Working with his knife, head first, he dug down some twenty feet, at which point he tumbled into the cave.

Juniper as the wick of the cave!

 

This conjunction of juniper wick and juniper tree, forming a conduit between what lies beneath and what lies above, is profoundly significant. Eshleman was an influential poet and publisher, whose early exposure to Lascaux formed a bedrock of his life's work, exploring the depths of the human imagination. (Eshelman's book is Juniper Fuse, Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld). And of course, there are countless examples of similar finds, many ultimately consigned to the realm of the professional archaeologist. My stone figure is likely unavailable to that realm, at least to my knowledge (although someone else may have picked it up and turned it in); it's unclear, however, whether my discovery at the Jersey shore would fall within the scope of any putative archaeological interest.

 

I note this because it's not clear in all cases what value provenance may contribute. Gustaf Sobin (a poet who occasionally published in Eshleman's landmark literary journal, Sulfur), may have had a similar experience, pondering an inscrutable object from the Paleolithic. Sobin expounds:

 

Might we even begin constituting, indeed, a collection, an entire library of questions? A whole, inexhaustible archive devoted exclusively to wonder, to query, to the unlimited breadth of human speculation? For the curtain that has fallen between the known and the unknown, between the magnitude of our questions and the paucity of our answers, affects not only archaeology but every other field of human endeavor as well. As a result, we've grown estranged from origins, deprived of even the vaguest glimpse of those first, founding landscapes. Today, nothing can be acknowledged that hasn't first been processed, electronically channeled, compiled. (from his essay, "The skull with the seashell ear", in Luminous Debris, Reflections on Vestige in Provence)

 

I've wanted to avoid any disjuncture between Sobin's eloquent avowal, and my own retelling of the stone figure episode, moving hopefully toward a universe in which ostensibly ancient objects inhabit their ontological origins, existing alongside though not necessarily within the range of human understanding.

 

But there nevertheless exists the urge to collect – to collect objects or, as Sobin has it, questions. I suppose I've tended to opt for the latter – and now, questions are all that's left of the stone figure. But what about collecting? I seem to recall reading somewhere that collecting is a distinctive part of ego development, forming a usable component of self-identity (perhaps especially for middle class individuals?). But collecting may simply offer access to the past, to that which otherwise would be lost or forgotten. I'm thinking here of scavenging, a purposeful but otherwise unstructured discovery process. Which same appears to motivate the people who scour the shoreline of the Thames, a tidal river, as described in Mudlark, In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames by Lara Maiklem; who distinguishes between serendipitous, unassisted scavenging and outright digging assisted by metal detectors:

 

Our knowledge of the city and the lives of its inhabitants over millennia has undoubtedly been increased by the objects society members have dug up over the years, but I think the time has come to ban digging completely. There is no need to keep disturbing an already fragile and fast-eroding foreshore for more and better objects. They are better left where they are for the future, rather than putting them at the mercy of an indiscriminate spade or fork… They [diggers] hack through centuries in an afternoon, and in their rush to beat the incoming tide, they smash delicate objects and miss the small and non-metallic pieces that don't register on the sweep of their metal detectors…and the objects they overlook are left to the mercy of the tides. I have made some of my best finds where the diggers have been at work and I hate to think how much more the river has claimed.

 

Maiklem is inadvertently exposing the synergy between diggers and scavengers, the latter following along in the diggers' wake to gather items they may have missed, or disregarded. Contra Sobin, this author's interwoven discussion of the historical value and narrative potential of found objects proceeds from research rather than from an absorbed and undistracted contemplation of her found materials. And there is an irony embedded in this passage, the author suggesting that found objects should be left as they lie. Needless to say, this attitude may have informed my thinking as I tossed the stone figure back into the sea that day.    

 

In a tribute to fellow poet Anthony Thwaite, Peter Scupham recalls visiting the cottage where his longtime friend lived with his wife Ann:

 

…moving into the long low living room lit with a chequered light from the riverside windows, is to move into a room which is a metaphor for lives lived as travellers in space and time. A Roman bust shares its gaze with the staring eyes and flowing beards of Bellarmines, those stoneware drinking jugs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…Books, of course, are everywhere, shelved and nid-nodding to each other, heaped in piles; drawers open to reveal fragments of pottery…This is a world of suggestions, shadows of lost knowledge…We came from a collecting generation of schoolboys: mine were seashells, military badges, wildflowers… Ever since, as a boy, Anthony was given a silver denarius, he had been a looker and finder, alert for the secret signs which lie buried all around us. ("Chimes at Midnight", PN Review 260)

 

Scupham begins his piece with a quote from Brian Aldiss, an underappreciated writer, in my view:

 

Mr Gudgeon, the elderly bookshop assistant in Brian Aldiss's first novel, The Brightfount Diaries, is given to sardonic aphorisms: 'A miscellaneous collection of objects is man's only defence against time,' is one I particularly like.

 

There is a passage in Pierre Michon's Winter Mythologies, in the section titled "Simon", which turns on the idea of returning a found object to the earth, while searching for another of potentially appropriate significance. In Michon's sketch, the Abbot Dalmatius has tasked Brother Simon, a monk in an ancient monastery in process of revival, to "establish the legitimacy of the monastery in the mother tongue"…

 

Simon ponders. He has the earth dug up beneath the choir of the old chapel, which has long since been ruined. Three skeletons, each holding a sword, are discovered, which he immediately has covered up again. Another is found, overlaid by the shreds of what was once a dalmatic and a stole. Simon ruminates at length over this one, and then after three days regretfully has it buried for a second time. A slighter skeleton is found whose dark black plaited hair has been well preserved and has gleams of life in it. It looks like a woman. "Yes," says Simon. He carefully cleans the hair and, one by one, the bones. He places them in a small wooden chest. He kisses the chest. He asks the carpenter brother to depict Our Lord on the Cross on one side of it and on the other a female saint.

 

Simon next asks Brother Palladius to establish the identity of the imaginal saint, who as he explains, appeared to him "in the form of plaited hair beneath the earth, and that she will appear to Brother Palladius in the form of a name in a monastery archive." Palladius ventures forth, returning three years later having established that the remains are those of Saint Enimia ca. 1610…

    

Brother Simon writes the Vita sancta Enimia...

 

 

 

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Whistler

Musicians on Horseback, Maker Unknown; China Mid-7th Century (Tang Dynasty); Philadelphia Museum of Art

 

Eupalinos (1st Part)

 

Returning to this blog after a long hiatus, I'm providing scattered notes and reflections which I'll try to bring into focus later, in subsequent posts. Even the most casual reader will know that my posts can be grab bags of sorts, gathering in various materials that lie close to hand – on the shelves of my library, or gleanings from current reading in various publications. That said, I've been working on this blog post for quite a while, raking in ideas and associations that would invent, expose, or ideally, clarif the underlying theme of this post. That process remains incomplete, but given the long hiatus, I'm eager to put something up, if only as placeholder (hence the "1st Part" of my title here).

 

I'd first begun this post on reading a review of the collected essays of Hans Blumenberg, a name I've known for many years (he's written among other things on the Copernican Revolution, a subject of long and abiding interest for me). Toward the end of the piece, the reviewer quoted briefly from one of the essays in the book which immediately piqued my interest. Here's that quote:

 

Rejecting eternal truths and definitive certainties, Blumenberg was fascinated by those precious interruptions and "disturbances" of the lifeworld that "resist being converted back into authenticity and "logicality", those stumbling blocks that help "dismantle the obvious" and prompt us to think anew. Nachträglichkeit, "pensiveness", was a crucial term for him, conveying the meandering of "real" everyday thinking in its circuitousness, pauses and delays. For Blumenberg, man was first and foremost a "creature who hesitates", and he made repeated reference to Paul Valéry's dialogue Eupalinos, in which an imagined young Socrates encounters an "ambiguous object" on the seashore that eludes identification and classification. Confounded, Socrates throws it back into the sea, only to regret his action moments later. By exposing to view the liminal spaces between the lifeworld and theoretical enquiry, pensiveness "let the indeterminacy stand" and offered the aesthetic potential of returning a completely determined realty to its state of pure possibility". For Blumenberg, only by "break[ing] open the immunization of consciousness ... by means of paradox, contradiction, and the absurd" could something be shown to be truly possible.

 

I've reproduced more of this quote than absolutely necessary, but context is always helpful, and who knows? I may want to refer later to what may at first seem extraneous. But for the moment, I'll isolate a few ideas from this mix and focus on them briefly. The first is those "precious interruptions and 'disturbances' of the lifeworld", so important to Blumenberg; without which, by the way, there would likely be no art, no poetry, no science. In fact artists, poets, and scientists make a regular practice of "meandering" in order to engage with the motivating forces of "paradox, contradiction, and the absurd". And this experience of "disturbances" is testified it seems everywhere these days. In a recent issue of the Brooklyn Rail, for example, artist Ahmed Alsoudani credits his inspiration -- and ongoing motivation – to his reading of contemporary poets: "Their work puts me in an uncomfortable, unstable situation. I'm sometimes pushed to the edge and, in order not to fall, I go to my canvas to do something with it." (February 2022, interview with Ann C. Collins)

 

Okay. Back to Blumenberg. So far I've left out what for me is the salient part of the Blumenberg quote: the reference to Paul Valéry's imaginary "Socratic" dialog, "Eupalinos". This connection may be unclear at first, but I'll get to that, "by a commodius vicus of recirculation", as James Joyce would have it. Meanwhile, here's something on Eupalinos, with more to come later:

 

Eupalinos was a Greek engineer who in the 6th century BCE designed a tunnel, or viaduct, to supply water to the principle town of Samos, an island in the Aegean Sea (birthplace of Pythagoras, by the way; Blumenberg touches on the twinned themes of music and architecture, and makes reference to Pythagoras only briefly, in a footnote). Long considered a notable or even remarkable feat of ancient engineering, the aqueduct functioned reliably for centuries, until finally abandoned during the Byzantine era, in the 7th century CE. As Blumenberg suggests, Valéry's dialog was a profound consideration of the Platonic theory of forms, of permanence, and of beauty. But here I confess that this has little to do with my immediate interest in Valéry's imaginary dialog. Instead, my interest is likely more superficial – arising from Blumenberg's reference to Valéry's "objet ambigu" (Blumenberg's essay is titled "Socrates and the objet ambigu").

 

In his imaginary dialog Valéry has Socrates describe an incident involving a mysterious object he found while walking along the beach. He picks it up, hefts it, puzzles over it, then recommits it to the sea. Valéry's Socrates recalls that,

 

I found one of those things cast up by the sea; a white thing of the most pure whiteness; polished and hard and smooth and light. It shone in the sun on the licked sand, that is somber and spark-bestrewn. I took it up; I blew upon it; I rubbed it against my cloak, and its singular shape suspended all my other thoughts. Who made thee? I pondered. Thou resemblest nothing, and yet thou art not shapeless. Art thou a sport of nature, O nameless thing, that art come to me by the will of the gods, in the midst of the refuse that the sea this night has flung from her?

 

Sport of nature? Nameless thing shaped by the tossing and turning of the waves? Or the will of the gods? Something offered on purpose, but what purpose might that be?  

 

I stood still for some little time, examining it on all sides. I questioned it without stopping at an answer…I could not determine whether this singular object were the work of life, or of art, or rather of time – and so a freak of nature…Then suddenly I flung it back into the sea.

 

And later:

 

Intrigued by this object the nature of which I could not get to know, and which was equally claimed and rejected by all the categories, I sought to escape from the perplexing image of my find. 

 

There's more, but that's enough for now. But I'll note that Blumenberg's essay is subtitled, "Paul Valéry's Discussion of the Ontology of the Aesthetic Object and its Tradition". This explains quite a bit, but in closing this first part of my post, I'll briefly tell my own experience with encountering an unfamiliar object, as was the case wth the imaginal Socrates. I've looked through my notebooks from that time, but there's no specific mention of this experience. So let me first tell it more or less plainly:

 

Whenever I visit the ocean I go out early to walk along the beach, watch the shorebirds feeding at the surf's moving edge, look for sand crabs, note whatever flotsam has been tossed up by the waves, relish the varying light. There are few people on the beach at those hours, which inspires a certain mood, of introspection and of quietude, joining in contrapuntal harmony with the rising and falling waves. Walking, looking out over the sea, gazing across the sand, catching the myriad shapes there, the temporary tracks of shorebirds, the gliden tracings of the sand crabs, the waves leaving a temporary shading of the sand. Any stray object lying there, fully exposed or partly buried, will affect the regular flow of the tide.

 

So then, walking along one morning in August 2008, at Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island, off the New Jersey Coast, I discovered an unfamiliar object lying face up, half buried in the sand. I picked it up, and right away was impressed — and a little haunted — by its strangeness, alongside its seeming familiarity. As I held it in my hands and looked down at the stone figure, I could only speculate. I wondered whether it was an ancient fishing weight, carved as a human figurine. The features were worn, as though it might have been used quite a lot — had spent time in the water for years, or centuries. So did I speculate, as my imagination took hold. Might the stone figure have been a ritual object, invested with a magical potency? Had it been deposited on the beach overnight? Or had it been buried there long ago, surfacing just that morning?

 

I walked back and forth along the beach, hefting the object, considering whether to keep it or put it down. I was troubled, unsettled. I walked north along the beach, distractedly hefting the object, weighing my options as I approached a stone jetty where I would turn west and walk alongside the jetty and into the adjacent neighborhood lying faintly past the dunes. Instead I walked out onto the jetty, and suddenly flipped the object back into the surf, watched as it spun lengthwise on its axis, pounding into the water with a deeply resonant splash, then sinking below the waves. At that moment it seemed to be a sensible creature, projecting agency of some kind. I'd been deeply ambivalent about keeping it, and equally ambivalent about returning it to the sea. As it hit the water I wondered whether I'd somehow betrayed it! At the same time, especially in the context of its possessing agency, imagined or otherwise, I felt a strong aversion to "collecting" the stone figure, or "possessing" it myself.

 

Nevertheless this anthropomorphic figure had projected an aura passing strange. I walked on, back toward the house where I was staying that weekend, thinking to write my impressions down. I didn't! The only note I could find in any way relating to my experience that day made no mention of the object but did reflect briefly on the experience of beachcombing, as I knew it at that time. I make no specific mention in that entry of the stone figure — perhaps I'd discovered it the following day? — but reading those notes it seemed that the frame had been established, the real world defamiliarized, so to speak, setting me up for that strange discovery! As I noted in that notebook entry:

 

I understood — walking along the tide every morning here last month [that] I saw a radically different world on each successive day: I was out there more or less at the same hour each morning but that world was strange and new — or only vaguely familiar. It was as if time itself had shifted, it was that radical a transformation: the space itself was utterly the same.

 

Looking through other notebooks from that time period, I found the following note I'd written down in March 2004, on reading something by Octavio Paz from his Monkey Grammarian. Paz writes, "I did not know that each of those stones was a prodigious cluster of symbols."

 

Shifting gears I'll note here that, later in the same notebook, on 24 July 2004 I jotted the following note:

 

Paz writes about whistling figures. Or am I misremembering? He says that those figures are from an age prior to the development of the great Mesoamerican religions. Do I have that right? Whistle, Smile. Whistle and smile…

 

In another notebook, p. 76, dated 23 January 2006, I made a drawing that I labeled "Whistler"!

 

That's all for this part. 2nd Part coming soon.

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Ekphrasis

Egret/or Heron

 

Yesterday as I walked alongside Lake Champlain, I came upon a Great Blue Heron, fishing in a tidal pool near the shoreline. I stopped and watched for a while, and then walked on. Walking on, I thought to compose a simple haiku-type poem to memorialize the incident -- dwelling inland now, I sometimes long for Salt-meadow; Ocean. The heron took me back. This is what I came up with at first:

 

Great Blue Heron in a tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?

 

That's 17 syllables, as in traditional Japanese haiku, though my poem does not reflect the pattern of 5-7-5-syllable lines. But my first thought, walking along, was to strengthen "in a tidal pool", and quickly came up with "stalking a tidal pool". I'm not sure I finally like that substitution, but it works for the moment:

 

Great Blue Heron stalking tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?

 

All the while as I walked, I was counting syllables on my fingers, to make the traditional 17 syllables of the Japanese haiku. And as I counted syllables, it occurred to me that the Japanese pattern doesn't always translate very well into English. Even so, I decided to try shaping my poem to the traditional Japanese form, thinking that might impart a measure of clarity via line or word breaks that my original poem was lacking. One version based on the 5-7-5 pattern might then be:

 

Great Blue Heron stalk
-ing tidal pool hunter
or fisher which are you?

 

I liked this version a little better. Heading back to my office along Pine Street, I walked by a print shop, Queen City Printers Inc., and I thought - there's a good title for my haiku, but changing "inc" to the homophone "ink" I came up with, Queen City Printers Ink! With that, I thought of a book I have on my shelf called Ink on Paper, a set of lovely poems by John Wilson, college instructor, and member of the creative writing faculty at UC Santa Barbara. It occurred to me that there might be a "heron" poem in Wilson's book, so when I got back to my office I pulled the book off the shelf. And indeed there was such a poem. Here is the relevant verse, though Wilson's bird is an egret (a bird very much alike to a heron):

 

Poise,
directness, vigilance —

An egret
Cocked in the reeds

Absorbed in its own stillness,
A straight line of soaring geese.

 

In fact, Wilson is reacting to a drawing of a heron by the Chinese artist Tan-an, which is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. I couldn't locate that particular image online, so I've provided an alternate image above which closely resembles the one that's reproduced in Wilson's book.


I like Wilson's poem better than I do mine, but mine is just a note taken while walking, in order to capture the Great Blue Heron experience; Wilson's is a well-crafted poem that conveys something of the manner and spirit of the bird. It is not haiku.

 

But there's more, of course, on this subject of syllables in Japanese haiku, versus syllables in American or English-language haiku. David F. Schultz characterized this difference in a blog post several years ago. Here's an excerpt from that post, which can be found at https://davidfshultz.com/2017/12/17/5-7-5-haiku-form-strengths-and-weaknesses:

 

After discussing the differences in Japanese and English sound systems and the rhythm of haiku, Higginson makes a compelling case that the best phonetic English equivalent of the haiku form is successive lines of 2, 3, and 2 accented syllables, for a total of 7 accented syllables (and roughly 12 syllables overall, including the unaccented syllables). This would "approximate the duration of Japanese haiku", establish similar rhythmical proportions, and yield a similar "sense of rhythmical incompleteness" that is characteristic of Japanese haiku. (This latter point recognizes that the English poetic tradition, with deep roots in iambic verse, and in particular iambic pentameter, creates a sensation that the poem should continue after the final line in a 2/3/2 accented pattern, leading to a feeling of openness.) ["Higginson" refers to William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook]


Schultz glosses Higginson by noting that traditionalists among English language composers of haiku may nevertheless cling to the 5-7-5 form, producing perfectly fine haiku. But Higginson offers another approach to my poem, so that the question arises, how would I shape my poem to fit the English-language format of haiku, according to Higginson's criteria? — keeping in mind that Higginson's formula pertains to stressed rather than unstressed syllables. Schultz provides an example of a basic 2-3-2 form, all stressed syllables:

 

bus stop


cold dark night


rainstorm

 

So how would I re-do my heron poem according to Higginson's formula? Here's one possibility:

 

Blue Heron
Hunter or fisher
One or two

 

I like this version too!

 

Note that the second syllable of "heron" in line one is unstressed so that what is ostensibly a three-syllable line doesn't offend the 2-3-2 stressed-syllable format; the second syllable in "hunter" and "fisher" is also unstressed, adding up to three stressed syllables for line 2 (but is "or" stressed or unstressed?). All of which is to say by way of conclusion that the formula is a guide, not a rule!

 

One more thing, by way of memory. Way back in the late 1980s I had a gig teaching public speaking and writing to MBA students enrolled in the Communication Program at the Wharton School. In one class I had a number of students from Japan, some of whom were reluctant to speak in front of the class. Thinking to make it easier for them I asked them to read haiku from a book of Japanese haiku, with the poems transliterated, then translated into English. Here's an example of what I mean, taken from Bashō's Ghost by Sam Hamill:

 

Ki no moto ni

shiru mo namasu mo

sakura kana

 

As it happens this poem was written by Bashō himself. Notice that the syllables of the transliterated Japanese conform to the 5-7-5 pattern. (Note too that the English translation given below does not.) In case of interest, here's the translation of Bashō's poem as rendered by Hamill:

 

From all these trees--

in salads, soups,

   everywhere--

cherry blossooms fall

 

The students proved themselves good sports; they all got through the exercise, some of them even coming up with their own English translation of the assigned poem. And their audience was enthusiastic and supportive. It was only later that I realized I'd posed a daunting challenge — the transliterations were confusing, and weren't much easier for them than just reading the English version! With benefit of hindsight, I understood that I might have offered the poems in the original kanji!

 

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Rodin and Apsara

Cambodian dancer, with study of joined hands. Plate 308 from Auguste Rodin, Drawings and Watercolors by Antoinette Le Normand-Romain and Christina Buley-Uribe

 

Work on this post has proceeded slowly, but since learning that Auguste Rodin had witnessed Cambodian dancers perform at Marseilles on the occasion of the Colonial Exposition of 1906 in that city, I'd decided to look into it and pick out some threads to follow. I hadn't known that Rodin had been exposed to this deeply affecting cultural tradition; prior to that serendipitous encounter at Marseilles he had no knowledge of it. Moved and inspired, the great artist made a number of pencil sketches of the dancers in situ, applying color afterward. I gather that Rodin made more than 30 drawings of the dancers, along with several portraits of King Sisowath: members of the dance troupe were part of an extensive entourage accompanying the Cambodian king on his official visit to France that year.

 

Cambodian dance is deeply implicated in the mythology of the Khmer people, as attested by the sculptural friezes adorning the ancient temple walls at Angkor, and on temple sites and artifacts that pre-date the Angkor era. It's been argued that Khmer dancers are associated with fertility rites, perhaps especially in the earlier period (prior to the 6th century of the Common Era). But there is an interesting association as well with the widespread mythic phenomenon of dragon killing (in Khmer culture the dragon is represented by the nāga).  


According to Paul Kravath, a scholar of Cambodian dance drama,

 

At the bottom of the sea a great nāga serpent stretches the entire forty-nine yards of this mythical ocean... Above this, the nāga appears a second time -- a convention suggesting a later action -- supported by two groups of figures. On the left are ninety-two yakkha (ogres) pulling on the head; on the right are eight-eight deva (gods) pulling on the tail. The nāga, the most frequently used oldest Khmer symbol of the earth's forces, is wound around the stone, mountainlike seat of a four-armed deity. The effect of the resultant churning is seen along the top of the carving: thousands of flying dancers emerge from the ocean's foam.

 

Calvert Watkins has traced a fundamentally significant world myth in his book, How to Kill a Dragon; I wonder whether the Khmer version, with celestial dancers (apsara) and nāga serpent at its core, may correlate with the general framework of the dragon myth, though it seems that Kravath spins the story differently. But my purpose is not to explicate Khmer myth in any detail, but rather tease out some possible implications of Rodin's encounter with Khmer dancers at Marseilles. This will likely entail further consideration of Khmer dance, alongside a glancing look at Japanese Nō theater. Needless to say, the influence of Asian art on Western culture during Rodin's lifetime is large; the subject vast.

 

A word about my personal involvement with Cambodian dance and dancers. I began working with members of the Khmer community sometime around the year 2000, when I was hired by an arts agency in the Washington, D.C. area to help make meaningful contacts within the diverse cultural communities there. At some point, I wandered into a Cambodian dance practice at one of the local community centers in Northern Virginia, chatted with the parents in attendance that day (the classes were partly intended to introduce young American-born Khmer to essential elements of Khmer culture), and after many more visits I'd established strong relationships with community members, and with the dance instructors – all of the latter widely known within the Khmer diaspora, some whose original training was with the Royal Cambodian Ballet in Phnom Penh, a prestigious company and training center associated with the royal palace. Several of these dancers had defected some years earlier during a performance tour of the USA. I subsequently studied Khmer language at Madison, Wisconsin over two consecutive summers, and have maintained relationships with members of the Khmer community since that time.

 

Cambodian dance is ritualized and patterned, with gestures, postures, and movements well-established and formalized through the centuries. Dancers convey meaning, emotion, and narrative through facial expression, and through highly stylized gestures and movements -- of the whole body, but perhaps especially by means of the hands and feet. In classical Cambodian dance, the narrative component of the dance has its source in the Reamker, which is regarded by some as the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. While there are significant correspondences between the two, the Khmer version is distinctively Khmer – much as the dance itself is distinctive and independent from classical Indian dance, despite similarities and early scholarship arguing for the derivative nature of the Khmer tradition.

 

I feel that anyone who encounters Cambodian traditional dance for the first time will be overtaken by the beauty, the intricacy, and the skill of the dancers, and will readily appreciate the challenges they face incarnating the spirit of the characters they portray. The dancers are assisted in this by their traditional costumes, which serve as guideposts to the characters, and perhaps especially by the intricate and beautifully crafted crowns and masks, which are made by one of the master dance instructors in D.C. (who was a prominent member of the dance company at that time).

 

When considering which direction to take for this post, I wished to understand why Khmer dance may have mattered so much to Rodin at that point in his career (which had been languishing). I don't know that I can provide that understanding here except in a rather perfunctory way. But the Rodin material was suggestive, and I found myself thinking of other cultural traditions, such as Cambodian shadow theater, Japanese Nō theater, and even traditional Hawaiian concepts of cultural knowledge and transmission.

 

Khmer dance is indeed akin to Cambodian shadow theater – the dancers wear elaborate, highly stylized costumes and crowns (and sometimes, masks too); they move with precision but always according to an established or routinized system; they enact traditional narratives, in many if not all cases based on the Reamker. Perhaps especially, they affect to achieve an otherworldly, suprahuman effect. The  shadow theater animators must also dance, as they contrive to make the shadow puppets dance, all action taking place behind the white screen. Both traditions date to the pre-Angkor era; both are sacred to the Khmer people; both are accompanied by the classical pin peat orchestra, consisting of an array of traditional Cambodian instruments. And both are very popular with tourists! According to puppet explicator Kenneth Gross, the shadow animator translates their own "thought, will, gesture, and voice" to the puppets, and these are "made visible the more strongly for his invisibility, showing us gods, demons, ghosts, giants, and warring clans and nobles." Strong magic indeed! And an apt descripton as well of what the living dancers can achieve.

 

How then does Camdodian dance differ from Cambodian shadow theater? There are many points of convergence, but what are the differences between the two traditions? There are historical explanations for the rise of shadow theater, linked to the fate of the living female dancers at Angkor -- with shadow theater created to provide ritual enactments in their absence. As such the two traditions may be fundamentally the same. In any case, women have played important and varied roles for the Cambodian king. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese merchant who visited Cambodia in 1295 C.E., observing the royal dancers, reported in his Record of Cambodia that,

 

In the eighth month there is an "ailan", a dance that selected female dancers perform daily in the palace. There are boar fights and elephant fights as well, and again the king invites foreign envoys as spectators. Things go on like this for ten days.

 

Women might also function as musicians, or as part of the royal guard:

 

I stayed for a year of so, and saw him [the king] come out four or five times. Each time he came out all his soldiers were gathered in front of him, with people bearing banners, musicians, and drummers following behind him. One contingent was made up of three to five hundred women of the palace. They wore clothes with a floral design and flowers in their coiled-up hair, and carried huge candles, alight even though it was daylight. There were also women of the palace carrying gold and silver utensils from the palace and finely decorated instruments made in exotic and unusual styles, for what purpose I do not know. Palace women carrying lances and shields made up another contingent as the palace guard. Then there were carts drawn by goats, deer, and horses, all of them decorated with gold.

 

This aspect of women's roles, where they participate in the protection of the king, was attested centuries later, at the time that Rodin observed the Cambodian dancers at Marseilles. During his sojourn in France, King Sisowath was attended by Xavier Paoli, who served as a sort of interlocutor for the king. In his book My Royal Clients, a memoir recounting many years of service to royals from around the world, Paoli focuses attention on perceived gender ambiguity of the dancers:

 

Sisowath's dancing girls are not exactly pretty, judged by our own standard of feminine beauty. With their hard and close-cropped hair, their figures like those of striplings, their thin, muscular legs like those of young boys, their arms and hands like those of little girls, they seem to belong to no definite sex. They have something of the child about them, something of the young warrior of antiquity and something of the woman. Their usual dress, which is half feminine and half masculine, consisting of the famous sampot worn in creases between their knees and their hips and of a silk shawl confining their shoulders, crossed over the bust and knotted at the loins, tends to heighten this curious impression. But, in the absence of beauty, they possess grace, a supple, captivating, royal grace, which is present in their every attitude and gesture.

 

To my knowledge the dances were traditionally performed only by females, who played either male or female roles as needed. Over the course of centuries and likely due to historical contingencies, male dancers were integrated into the performances -- though even today women dancers may assume either male or female roles (sometimes depending on availability of male dancers).

 

I've continually strayed back into a discussion of Cambodian dance, but before closing this post I want to suggest additional connections of possible interest. Having mentioned Japanese Nō and Japanese aesthetics earlier in this post, I want to return to them now, as a means of closing. In his influential essay A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics, Donald Richie discusses the aesthetic concept of yūgen, which I believe may be relevant to the foregoing discussion of Khmer dance. Richie suggests that,

 

As a quality yūgen is now mostly associated with the No drama, with a veiled nature seen through an atmosphere of rich if mysterious beauty. Here the yūgen is defined by the dramatist, actor, and aesthetician Zeami Motkiyo (1363-1443) as combining the yūgen of speech, the yūgen of dance, and the yūgen of song. The actor must (in the Rimer and Yamasaki translation) "grasp these various types of yūgen within himself." No matter the character (lord, peasant, angel, demon), "it should seem as though each were holding a branch of flowers in his hand. He should offer this fresh, mysterious reality."

 

Zeami Motkiyo was perhaps the foremost exponent of Nō theater in Japan; his treatises on Nō are foundational. In "Teachings on Style and the Flower", Zeami employs a version of the Socratic method, casting his lesson as a dialog between master and student:

 

Question: What is the relation between movement and text in a nō performance"
Answer: That matter can only be grasped through intricate rehearsal. All the various kinds of movement in the nō involved in the performance depend on the text. Such things as bodily posture and carriage follow from this, as well. Specifically, one must project feelings that are in accord with the words being spoken…As the body is used in the service of all that is suggested by the text, these gestures will of their own accord constitute the appropriate acting style. The most important aspect of movement concerns the use of the actor's entire body. The second most important aspect concerns the use of the hands, and the third, the use of the feet. The movements of the body must be planned in accordance with the chant and context expresses in the nō text. It is hard to describe this effect in writing. It is best to observe and learn during actual rehearsals.
When one has practiced thoroughly with respect to the text of a play, then the actor's chant and gesture will partake alike of the same spirit. And indeed, the genuine union of music and movement represents a command by the actor over the most profound principles of the art of the nō. When one speaks of real mastery, it is to this principle that one refers. This is a fundamental point: as music and movement are two differing skills, the artist who can truly fuse them into one shows the greatest, highest talent of all. Such a fusion will constitute a really strong performance.

 

These comments may apply equally well to Cambodian dance, where there is a shared emphasis with Nō theater on expressive use of the hands and feet, on the close alliance of music with movement, and on the seamlessness between the dancer's body and the performed or enacted text. As with shadow theater, the key element of performance in these traditions hinges on the dancer's (or the actor's) ability to embody character and text, and convey these to the audience. Zeami concludes that,

 

After all, the actor who has mastered the means to realize his text and to fuse music and movement, he will have learned how to give a strong performance and how to give that performance the quality of Grace as well. He will truly be a masterful performer.

 

So what does all of this have to do with Auguste Rodin, apart from the transformative experience of witnessing Cambodian dance at Marseille in 1906? In a piece she wrote in connection with a Rodin exhibition at Phnom Penh in 2007, Penny Edwards, a scholar of Cambodia, noted that,

 

For Rodin, the dancers fused all he admired in classical statuary with the enigma and suppleness of the Far East. They were fragments of Angkor "come to life" - the living incarnation of an apparent contradiction that remained a central preoccupation of his work: that of "motion in stillness." In his artwork, this fascination merged light, fluid strokes in diverse media in a bid to capture light through experimentation with color tints. These features are all hallmarks of the 150 sketches that emerged from Rodin's trip to Marseille.

 

Indeed, Rodin's biographer Frederic Grunfeld quotes from Rodin's own correspondence to amplify this point:

 

But after a few days the dancers had to return to Marseille to fulfill the rest of their engagement. "To study them more closely I followed them to Marseille," Rodin told Mario Meunier. "I arrived on a Sunday and went to the Villa des Glycines [to see the dancers]. I wanted to get my impressions on paper, but since all the artists' materials shops were closed I was obliged to go to a grocer and ask him to sell me wrapping paper on which to draw. The paper has since taken on the very beautiful gray tint and pearly quality of antique Japanese silks. I draw them with a pencil in my hand and the paper on my knees, enchanted by the beauty and character of their choric dances. The friezes of Angkor were coming to life before my very eyes... I loved these Cambodian girls so much that I didn't know how to express my gratitude for the royal honor they had shown me in dancing and posing for me. I went to the Nouvelles Galeries to buy a basket of toys for them, and these divine children who dance for the gods hardly knew how to repay me for the happiness I had given them. They even talked about taking me with them."

 

In his essay, Donald Richie cites Arthur Waley's definition of yūgen, which he says means "what lies beneath the surface", which Richie glosses as "the subtle as opposed to the obvious; the hint, as opposed to the statement." This suggests a connection to a book I've been reading, called Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen, which examines Hawaiian indigenous knowledge as collected and preserved by two native writers in the early decades of the 20th century. Here is a brief passage, first in Hawaiian then in English translation, which briefly addresses the key concept of kaona, which may reflect the Japanese concept of yūgen in conveying the cultural values of "understatement" or "intimation":

 

O ka olelo Hawaii me ke kaona o kona manao, ka pookela o na olelo i waena o na lahui o ka honua nei, ma na hua mele a na kupuna e ike ia ai ka u'i, ka maikai o ke kaona o ka manao, aole hoi e like me ko keia au e nee nei, he hoopuka maoli mai no i ka manao me ka hoonalonalo ole iho i ke kaona.

 

The Hawaiian language with the kaona of its meanings is the finest of all languages among the peoples on earth; the beauty and the excellence of the kaona is seen in the song lyrics of its ancestors; not like it is today, where the meaning is just said with no hiding of the kaona.

 

It strikes me that the dynamic interplay between revealing and concealing, which the Ancient Greeks would define as aletheia, or truth, is a most important function of art -- of art with deep cultural resonance and especially, of art with mythical associations. I'll leave it there for now.

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The possibility of writing

Printer's tray, Cuneiform Press postcard

 

Still struggling to form and finish the next post (following on from the post dated 2 September) I'm once again resorting to interpolating a poem here, complementary to the poem I published last month (23 September). In fact I see both poems, each a poem in progress, as two parts of a single, longer poem, or as two closely interrelated poems. As with the previous poem, I'll continue to work on this one here, in the more or less public space of this blog. In the spirit of the relationship between the two I've altered the title of the previous poem -- or provided a title: the September poem is now, "The possibility of memory", with the current poem titled "The possibility of writing".  I'll see where that goes. Meanwhile, I think that both poems are grappling with the writing process; with crafting, rather than with inspiration, since neither is inspired in the usual sense of that word.

 

The possibility of writing

 

[first line?]

A clutch of elk

A forest door

Light tilting against

A thickening sky  

The gloaming

Tentative then

      Flaring

Touching nose flank tail

Elk growling at low thrum

"Indefiniteness is an element

Of the true music"

      says Spicer

The poet

 

Dreaming

Riding

Bareback through the forest

I taste the trail in my mouth

And I think to write this down      

 

Walking the streets

Shadows stippling the sun

I'm a cotton weevil

Caught in a loose cotton weave

Unbuttoning one ear

I listen for the congregate elk

      

Chiseled from the glowing rod         

      heated shavings  

      swarming

Coalescing into letters

      clustering

      just enough

To make one sentence

      maybe

 

The press goes

Clacketyclacketyclack

Crowding my dream

Planetesimals whirr the dark

Seventeen billion

     aggregate spheres

Formed from superheated metal

Seventeen billion

      trees

In a red-shifting forest

Our names carved

      into this

      one tree

 

 

 

 

 

["clutch"?] of elk

rim of light

forest lane

printing press

etc.]        

 

 

 

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