On Symbols

Symbols attract as well as repel, signal good or evil, nearness or farness. Roadside signs first used to advertise products, cigarettes or shampoos, evolve to say something abstract: Jesus Saves. A symbol is a belief.

An abandoned roadside sign, the billboard, its wooden legs leaning askew, its paper layered panel weather faded, becomes a symbol of change, of nostalgia, its country road long ago bypassed by an interstate highway, its message no longer visible or intelligible to the passing strangers, one of whom, at a quick glance, scratches his head and wants to shower or reaching into the glove box finds the pack empty and begins to watch for a filling station, motel, or cafe to appear on the horizon.

A series of signs spaced along the side of a road at planned intervals may form pieces connected to frame a storyline, like a sentence connects words to form a complete thought. The symbols pass fast and furiously. The whole edifice constructed by some outlier becomes part of the local landscape. In town, the abandoned grade school is converted to a micro brewery and bed and breakfast inn. The old one room church is now a real estate office.

The romanticist, who loves symbols, is a quick change artist who substitutes his own for the ones he was given:

“It is always, as in Wordsworth, the individual sensibility, or, as in Byron, the individual will, with which the Romantic poet is preoccupied; and he has invented a new language for the expression of its mystery, its conflict and confusion. The arena of literature has been transferred from the universe conceived as a machine, from society conceived as an organization, to the individual soul.”

Edmund Wilson, “Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870-1930,” Scribner, 1931.

That soul comes and goes like the moon, now new, now waning, and the reader might be caught in the moon illusion, where symbols appear larger when closer to the tree line, where a tree is traded for shade or a home.

In today’s political jargon, as writ large in media, classicism is conservative, romanticism liberal, the symbols of the conservative fixed and permanent, those of the romantic fluid and ambiguous:

“Blake had already contradicted contemptuously the physical theory of the eighteenth century. And to Wordsworth, the countryside of his boyhood meant neither agriculture nor neo-classic idylls, but a light never seen on land or sea. When the poet looked into his own soul, he beheld something which did not seem to him reducible to a set of principles of human nature.”

same as above

The classicist looks at the billboard and sees an advertisement upon the landscape; the romantic looks at the billboard and sees an advertisement as part of the landscape:

There is no real dualism, says Whitehead, between external lakes and hills, on the one hand, and personal feelings, on the other: human feelings and inanimate objects are interdependent and developing together in some fashion of which our traditional notions of laws of cause and effect, of dualities of mind and matter or of body and soul, can give us no true idea.

same as above

And, as science advances, the soul retreats. It’s difficult if not impossible to register and catalog the movement of the soul:

“Every feeling or sensation we have, every moment of consciousness, is different from every other; and it is, in consequence, impossible to render our sensations as we actually experience them through the conventional and universal language of ordinary literature. Each poet has his unique personality; each of his moments has its special tone, its special combination of elements. And it is the poet’s task to find, to invent, the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his personality and feelings. Such a language must make use of symbols: what is so special, so fleeting and so vague cannot be conveyed by direct statement or description, but only by a succession of words, of images, which will serve to suggest it to the reader. The Symbolists themselves, full of the idea of producing with poetry effects like those of music, tended to think of these images as possessing an abstract value like musical notes and chords. But the words of our speech are not musical notation, and what the symbols of Symbolism really were, were metaphors detached from their subjects – for one cannot, beyond a certain point, in poetry, merely enjoy color and sound for their own sake: one has to guess what the images are being applied to. And Symbolism may be defined as an attempt by carefully studied means – a complicated association of ideas represented by a medley of metaphors – to communicate personal feelings.

same as above

The classicist wants to be sure of things, and has a fixed point of view, wants to demolish the target; the romantic lives with variable viewpoints, ambiguity – it’s enough to get close. The symbols of the classicist do not suggest beyond convention, but can only denote. In any case, neither seems satisfied with what unwritten laws they develop. A tree at an oasis to a desert nomad is not the same tree as the one under which the family on vacation parks its recreational vehicle in the state forest campground, not to mention the one in the wilderness no human has ever seen. And, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake says in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

Or a billboard, for that matter.

Machines

for Bill Currey, after Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
a poem lovely as a machine.

A machine whose mouth is closed for good
and holds no metaphor under its hood.

A machine whose words number the stars
infinite yet for talk has no reason for.

Can’t remember when it was young
was never drunk won’t grow old.

A machine with no laughs or cries
but all night long creaks and moans.

Out of oil the machine starts to rust
like pages of a book turned to dust.

Moonglow

It must have been moonglow
drop these words down to me
must have been moonglow
I’m up in the old oak tree.

Your supermassive hug
your stellar eyes of blue
I can’t get out and away
I’m disappearing into you.

It must have been moonglow
high up in the old oak tree
that night you said those words
and held me so close to you.

Christmas Wish List

To see the Star
where you are
near and far.

“Zat you?
Santy?”
“No, not me.”

A message
from Mary.

fir tree shadows
wet planet
atmosphere.

There is no list
like this
upon Santa’s
largesse lap.

The Star that turns
Christmas Blue
the hue of you.

Blues
for Christmas.
Baby, it’s cold.

the fallen leaves to fly
back up to the trees!

plants asleep
astonishingly
the cat goes out.

To hear what
what does not
make noise
silent sphere.

Wanna rock around
a well-lit tree
barefoot with thee.

Foggy morning snow
blur of yellow lights
across the street.

thru rear windows
to watch the night.

and comes back in
as white as snow
in the longest night.

To hold the star
in your hands
to warm
your fingers.

Christmas, 1969

Blue Skies

History, a day game, his story, a looper machine, a rhythm continuously churning the same old fat. The past cannot cure this present precious moment as it is devoured by his own story. The ark sinks, the birds do not return, the sacrifice runs on and on and on. He was so Goddy Dodgy that he gave his only Son so that no one would need to sacrifice or be sacrificed again, to bring peace, yet every son and daughter is still sacrificed. Moloch. The Earth rolls forward, will not be stopped, leaves no tracks, nothing motionless as this tiny airplane 8 miles high begins its descent to a 9 inning game where I sit in the center field bleachers in the Tucson sun for an inning before retreating to Sylvie’s air conditioned suite next to the press box over home plate, with a glass of iced tea with a slice of lemon and a sprig of spearmint stick. Perado grounds to short, out at first. Alofme strikes out, looking hot and dehydrated, too exhausted to swing the bat. Carmone drives a hard ball to deep right center and already rounds first when Waltzer up against the fence leaps and pockets the shooting star. Sylvie mentions a few fine restaurants where we might later dine. She likes to eat out, under the blue skies, in the open air, and there’s a one story place she knows in South Tucson with a roof patio, with shade palms in huge buckets and fine water misters cooling the outside tables and a water fountain running against the traffic noise, bubbling and burbling, colorful umbrellas. The game was booked, we left the ballpark for the restaurant, and on the menu we found Berkshire Pig Tacos, Ossobuco with Gremolata, Peruvian Roasted Chicken. Sylvie ordered a bottle of cold dry white Merlot and another of dusty purple Sangiovese. The skies were blue, the sun setting solid gold, the heat lifting quickly in the cloudless desert evening. Your skies are never blue, Sylvie said. Always cloudy, or foggy, grey, cold. Why don’t you come live in the desert for some time away. There are ways to cool off. Swimming holes, sunhats, shorts and t shirts and sandals. The shade of the Tipu trees, Velvet Mesquite, the Blue Verde. Why do you gotta be so desperate all the time? Find some blue skies, enjoy the porch shade, relax. Stop worrying about the world. You’re the King of Anhedonia. Take off that crown of thorns. Feel some joy. Joie de vivre. Sit out with me and talk and dine and let the blue skies seep deep into your body. She reached across the table for my hand and I let her take it in hers and I tried to feel some pleasure in it.

“Blue Skies” is episode 58 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Trees

Some poems speak of love
others hate.
If you’re like me
you like poems about trees.

Trees are lovely and cool
because they make shade
which is nice to sit in
with a mint tea in summer.

A tree will grow hot
turn crisp and line
into stone menhir
not even booklice will like.

This poem is not about trees.
Would somebody please
send me a leafy poem?
The shade here is thin, the sun so near.

More On Trees

Are trees intelligent? We are how we define. In this week’s New Yorker (23 Dec), Michael Pollan takes a fresh look at the compare and contrast conversation over animal versus plant kingdoms: “The Intelligent Plant: Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.”

At what cost do we hold the brain primary in a hierarchical view of consciousness, problem solving – in short, life? Picture two planets. On one, life forms with a torso and five appendages have evolved to invent marvelous technological tools, but the essential nature of the life form does not appear to have improved. Persuasion remains the name of the game. On the other planet, a similar life form appears to live in symmetry with the planet’s plants and animals (and, by extension, with one another), in a positive symbiotic relationship made possible by the nurturing of life sustaining partnerships and the recognition that all life contains the same kernel of consciousness, a kernel that may or may not be located in a central control system called a brain. But the artificial technology remains rudimentary. Is one planet smarter than the other?

In perhaps the most persuasive part of Pollan’s discussion, he asks, in response to the criticism that plants can’t think because they don’t have brains, no command center, where in the brain is the brain, where in the brain is this command center? It appears that the brain may function in much the same way as a plant’s root system.

In other news, the Toads Dec. 6 piece, titled “Trees of Christmases Past,” has been posted at the Berfrois site. Have a happy holiday diversion at Berfrois!

Meantime, we celebrate Christmas with this more on trees photo gallery. Click on any pic to view the gallery.

The Root of the Matter

A
poem
in the shape
of a tree. A poem
about a tree in the shape
of a tree. Some will argue it’s neither
a poem nor a tree, not a real tree, anyway.
Critics will argue the tree is not a poem, because
it has neither rhyme nor stanzas, though the lines do
present shape. Some will say, as a critic once commented
following an investors’ viewing of a B movie still in the editing cut
phase: “Does anyone else feel a better use of this particular roll of celluloid
would be to cut it up for guitar picks?” Some will say the tree should be cut down,
or yanked out by enormous
dentistry-like heavy equipment,
the kind used to clear cut forests.
Thus we arrive at the bare tap root
of
the
ma
t
t
er.

Trick Photography and Trees

There are, some argue, two forms of life on our planet: animal and plant. It’s generally conceived that only animals have consciousness, but not all of them. When Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am,” he may have ruined possibilities for a lot of potential ams.

“The unconscious passes into the object and returns,” Robert Bly says (213), discussing Francis Ponge’s prose poem, “Trees Lose Parts of Themselves Inside a Circle of Fog” (217).

Yet Joyce (XXXIII) says:

A rogue in red and yellow dress
Is knocking, knocking at the tree;
And all around our loneliness
The wind is whistling merrily.
The leaves – they do not sigh at all
When the year takes them in the fall.

The “rogue” is nature, nature falling, falling kicking, yet the wind “merrily” whistles, anticipating the irony of winter’s undressing summer, when the leaves can no longer feel. Bly would argue that the leaves do sigh, and that we can hear them sigh, if we learn to listen. But earlier, Joyce had already (XV) said:

From dewy dreams, my soul, arise,
From love’s deep slumber and from death,
For lo! the treees are full of sighs
Whose leaves the morn admonisheth.

The tree of the avenue, particularly at night, dressed in dappling neon or enamored moonlight, suggests another kind of consciousness for Joyce’s (II) trees:

The twilight turns from amethyst
To deep and deeper blue,
The lamp fills with a pale green glow
The trees of the avenue.

For in the catechism of Episode 17, “Ithaca,” in Joyce’s Ulysses, Bloom and Stephen are apparently discussing the ability of trees, or leaves, to turn toward or away from light (paraheliotropism, or tropism):

“Was there one point on which their views were equal and negative?
The influence of gaslight or electric light on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic trees.”

The ideal photograph captures not necessarily the object, though the object must at least be attracted, or the light, which the photo must also catch, but the perfect photo snaps Bly’s passing and returning “into the object,” the epiphanic journey. This is the trick of photography, the lure.

Bly says Ponge doesn’t “exploit things [objects], either as symbols or as beings of a lower class.” Yet the desert creeps closer and closer. “The union of the object with the psyche moves slowly, and the poem may take four of five years to write,” Bly says.

Pieter Hoff, talking to Burkhard Bilger in “The Great Oasis” (New Yorker, Dec. 19 & 26, 2011), says, “A seed can afford to wait. Encased in dung from a passing bird or other animal, it can survive for months without rain. If the soil is dry, it can put all its energy into sending a single taproot in search of groundwater…It can worm itself into the tiniest crack, then expand a few cells at a time, generating pressures of up to seven hundred and twenty-five pounds per square inch – enough to split paving stones or punch holes through brick walls” (114).

The desert of the human imagination also creeps, reasoning against its very nature that it is the only perspective that matters, that is aware of itself. Bly says: “Descartes’ ideas act so as to withdraw consciousness from the non-human area, isolating the human being in his house, until, seen from the window, rocks, sky, trees, crows seem empty of energy, but especially empty of divine energy” (4).

Bly, Robert. News of the Universe: poems of twofold consciousness. [Chosen and introduced by Robert Bly] San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980.

Joyce, James. Collected Poems [Chamber Music]. New York: Viking Press, Compass Book Edition, 1957 [eighth printing, July 1967].

Photos in this post were taken this week in Mt. Tabor Park, in SE Portland, with a Canon PowerShot A560, set on Auto – no tricks, but the top photo was “enhanced” using iPhoto.