Commentary on Poem: "Entering the Dark Ark of the Moment"|
Crack! Boom! Flash! thunderous explosion
Line 75: Streamlined from conception crack! boom! flash!
Line 24: Gente nova? A population explosion
"Crack! Boom! Flash!" these are words of thunder, and coming after
in Merrill's poem (line 75), seem to suggest "beginning"
or "originating of something in the mind". Merrill's line 24
"Gente nova? A population explosion" may be interpreted as
"Supernova Big Bang explosion" that resonates with his lines 76-77
"Glaze soaking inward as it came to mind / How anybody's monster breathing flames"
Surely, the Big Bang was greater than any Supernova and its fiery explosion may be
likened to a "monster breathing flames" and the "population explosion" is
the creation of atoms that populate this expanding universe. The Big Bang may be
visualized as an idea or thought in the Mind of God. A Gnostic poem
"The Thunder: Perfect Mind"
in Coptic (ca 300 A.D.) discovered at Nag Hammadi (1945)
translated by George W. MacRae, speaks in an authorative
thunderous feminine voice of One who unites all opposites. (See also Final Notes at end of this Commentary).
Illustration: Of course there's no recorded image of the Big Bang's explosion,
but this photo was found at Geeked.Info "Loud Explosion Wakes Up San Francisco"
of the greatest magnitude and brilliance
Line 25: Of the greatest magnitude and brilliance?
If this Cosmos emerged from Chaos of the Big Bang, that first light must have been
"of the greatest magnitude and brilliance" (Merrill's line 25). A Gnostic Coptic text
On the Origin of the World tells about that primeval light emerging from the Shadow men called Darkness.
Gnostics on the Shadow: "They are all mistaken, because they are not acquainted with
the origin of chaos, nor with its root... How well it suits all men, on the subject of chaos,
to say that it is a kind of darkness! But in fact it comes from a shadow, which has been called
by the name darkness. And the shadow comes from a product that has existed since the beginning.
It is, moreover, clear that it existed before chaos came into being, and that the latter is
posterior to the first product... after the natural structure of the immortal beings had
completed developed out of the infinite, a likeness then emanated from Pistis (Faith), it is
called Sophia (Wisdom). It exercised volition and became a product resembling the primeval light.
And immediately her will manifested itself as a likeness of heaven, having an unimaginable magnitude;
it was between the immortal beings and those things that came into being after them, like Sophia
functioned as a veil dividing mankind from the things above."
On the Origin of the World (II.5 & XIII.2),
Nag Hammadi Library,
Edited by James M. Robinson, HarperSanFrancisco, 1988, pp. 171-172
from a pinpoint of dark this universe
is born again La Vita Nuova
Line 26: Who are these thousands entering the dark
Line 23: Grumbles: per me va la gente nova
I've reversed Merrill's line 26 "thousands entering the dark" to emerging "from a pinpoint
of dark this universe is born again". Merrill's line 23 "la gente nova" was substituted with Dante's
La Vita Nuova (The New Life). Cosmology tells us that birth of the universe
began with a Big Bang some 14 billion years ago from
a pin-point singularity.
Buddhist cosmology which resonates with modern physics, says the universe is cyclical with its own phases of
birth and death. So the Big Bang is like La Vita Nuova a new life.
Illustration: Evelyn Paul for Dante's La Vita Nuova (1916) portrays a zodiac
with twelve constellations. The floral petals and the darkened center seems to depict
the starry galaxies flowering outwards from a Big Bang creating the New Life of the universe.
Dante concludes his La Vita Nuova saying "After writing this sonetto a miraculous vision appeared to me,
in which I saw things which made me decide to write nothing more of this blessed one until such time as I could
treat of her more worthily. And to achieve this I study as much as I can, as she truly knows. So that, if it
pleases Him by whom all things live, that my life lasts a few years, I hope to write of her what has never been
written of any woman." (Online Text).
Dante made good on his promise and wrote La Commedia
(The Divine Comedy) from 1295-1321 on his love
for Beatrice and his soul journey from Inferno to Purgatorio to Paradiso. Dante's epic poem was completed in 1321 just
before he died. But the poem of this universe is still going on in its one song (uni-verse) or perhaps many songs
(multi-verses). (See Stanford lecture "Universe or Multiverse")
heavenly life in all its mystery
Line 39: Than earthly life in all its mystery:
I've substituted Merrill's line 39 "earthly life in all its mystery" with
"heavenly life in all its mystery" not because there's no mystery to earthly life
but to be more in tune with the lines preceding that dealt with the birth of the
universe which came billion of years before earthly life.
dark matter, dark energy, thick and fast
Line 45: Thick and fast bell, flagstone, napkin, fork
Modern cosmology tells us that the universe of atoms which we see is composed
of only 4%, with 22% dark matter and 74% dark energy that are invisible to us.
Dark matter is hypothetical
matter that is undetectable by its emitted radiation, but whose presence can be
inferred from gravitational effects on visible matter.
Dark energy is a hypothetical
form of energy that permeates all of space and tends to increase the rate of expansion
of the universe. Dark energy is the most popular way to explain recent observations
that the universe appears to be expanding at an accelerating rate.
The Cosmic Microwave Background temperature fluctuations from the 5-year Wilkinson
Microwave Anisotropy Probe data seen over the full sky. Before the universe was
one trillionth of a second old, there was only
a soup of quarks speeding around
"thick and fast". About one thousandth of a second or so, the universe became
cool enough that quarks could combine to form protons and neutrons.
blur of couples protons and electrons
reproducing the table of elements
Line 39: Inflicting on it a fleet blur of couples
Line 40: Many of whom, by now, have reproduced
In the early universe after the Big Bang,
matter & anti-matter were
created in equal proportion from energy (electromagnetic radiation).
However, these pair production often resulted in collisions or annihilations
when protons bump into anti-protons and electrons with anti-electrons (positrons).
Poem on proton and electron marriage
Periodic Table of elements was devised by
Dmitri Mendeleev and published in 1869. Since the first element Hydrogen with
atomic number 1 is composed of a proton and electron, we may say it is the
building block of all the elements in the periodic table.
Illustration: Protons and electrons zipping around and
paired 300,000 years after the Big Bang when the universe cooled down (Recombination).
from baby hydrogen to uranium
and everything in between
Line 53: Of that black gold-earringed baby all in white
Merrill's line 53 "gold-earringed baby all in white" conjured up the
Period Table of Elements
from Hydrogen (Atomic #1) to Uranium (Atomic #92)
and everything in between including Gold (Atomic #79).
the body's resurrection, sense by sense, man, woman, child
Line 47: The body's resurrection, sense by sense
Line 38: Man, woman, child; a place; shatterproof glass
Merrill's line 47 "the body's resurrection, sense by sense" is
a reference to his line 44 "Late in his Passion come its instruments".
The Instruments of the Passion or Arma Christi
(Weapons of Christ) are the arms Christ used to achieve his ends. Miniatures of
these objects were attached to rosaries and crucifixes, as aids to contemplation
of Christ's suffering. The items include: nails, scourge, spear, dice, robe, reed,
column from Christ's flagellation, crown of thorns, stone, torches, ladder, and
bucket (for the vinegar). As Christ was tortured during his tribulations and Crucifixion
at Calvary, his physical body suffered "sense by sense" while he
kept his spiritual composure. Merrill's line 38 "Man, woman, child; a place; shatterproof glass"
may be a reference to Giorgione's painting
which shows a man on the left side with woman and child on the right side of the stream.
The "shatterproof glass" may be referring to this painting exhibited at Gallerie dell'Accademia
in Venice protected under glass. In this poem "the body's resurrection" refers to the universe's rebirth,
of which the "child" is born from "man" Pistis (Faith) and "woman" Sophia (Wisdom) according to the Gnostics.
Illustration: Christ as Man of Sorrows between Four Angels (1460)
by Meister E. S. (Kupferstiehkabinett, Dresden).
dream of essence from the flowering field
Line 60: Dram of essence from the flowering field
I've changed Merrill's line 60 "dram of essence" to "dream of essence".
Dram means "a small portion of something to drink"
or a unit of weight in the apothecaries'
and avoirdupois systems. An apothecaries' dram contains 3 scruples (3.888 grams) of 20 grains each
and is equal to one-eighth apothecaries' ounce of 480 grains. The avoirdupois dram contains 27.344 grains
(1.772 grams) and is equal to 1/16 avoirdupois ounce of 437-1/2 grains. The term also refers to the fluid dram,
a measure of capacity equal to one-eighth fluid ounce.
Illustration: Flowering Field
by Jerome B. Thompson (1814-1886),
a painter of luminous landscapes, often allegorical with rural figures in the foreground.
I've used flowering field to denote Mind and the universe as its flower. Since
the essence of Mind is Pure Consciousness of which waking, dream, and deep sleep are but
transitory states, "dream of essence" is being aware of the Eternal rather than the temporal
(See Mandukya Upanishad).
desires heaped on desires filling up
Line 48: I've read Proust for the last time. Looked my fill
Buddha's Four Noble Truths tell us that
Life is suffering. Suffering is caused by desires. End desires to cease suffering. Follow the Eightfold Path
to Enlightenment. Desire or craving
(Trsna, "thirst") is the eighth link in the Buddhist doctrine of
Twelve Nidanas Dependent Origination that leads
to the cycle of rebirth.
palace pleasure-domes like Kublai Khan
Line 7: Palaces seem empty-lit display
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem
or, A Vision in a Dream" (1797):
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
(Coleridge Notes on poem).
Illustration: Kublai Khan (1215-1294), fifth Great Khan of the Mongol Empire
from 1260-1294. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan, and welcomed
Marco Polo to his summer palace
Xanadu in Inner Mongolia, 171 miles north of Beijing (1275).
Xanadu Castle was also the fictional estate of Charles Foster Kane, the title character of Orson Welles' film
Citizen Kane (1941), described as "the costliest monument a man has built to himself"
whose monumental "I" of stone must sink
as all titanic egos by the sands of time.
Lines 2-3: The monumental / "I" of stone on top
Line 12: Sinking, titanic ego mussel-blue
Merrill's "monumental 'I' of stone" & "Sinking, titanic ego"
reminded me of Shelley's 1818 sonnet "Ozymandias":
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Colossal Bust of Rameses II, 'Younger Memnon' (1250 BC) in the British Museum.
Shelley probably saw this 7.25 tons statue fragment which inspired his sonnet "Ozymandias".
Sinking of the Titanic is likened to the demise of the ego's pride before the fall.
See Thomas Hardy's poem "Convergence of the Twain" (1912) on the mating of Titanic with the Iceberg
A whole heavenly city is gleaming
nets of nerve synapses firing
Line 11: A Lido leaden. A whole heavenly city
Line 13: Abulge in gleaming nets of nerve, of pressures
Neurons or nerve cells are excitable cells in the nervous system that processes and transmits
information by electrochemical signaling. Neurons are the core components of the brain, the vertebrate spinal cord,
the invertebrate ventral nerve cord, and the peripheral nerves. Neurons communicate with one another via synapses,
where the axon terminal of one cell impinges upon another neuron's dendrite, soma, or less commonly, axon.
The human brain has a huge number of synapses. Each of the 1011 (one hundred billion) neurons has
an average 7000 synaptic connections to other neurons. It has been estimated that the brain of a 3-year old child
has about 1015 (1 quadrillion). This number declines with age, stabilizing by adulthood. Estimates
vary for an adult, ranging from 100-500 trillion synapses. The first time I saw a slide of neurons and synapses
firing in the brain, it felt like bright galaxies in space or "a whole heavenly city gleaming". It's interesting
that the Hubble Space Telescope estimates up to 500 billion galaxies in our universe.
A composite image of two neurons. (Left) Red shows the attachment of ADDLs to a nerve cell;
green indicates synapses, parts of nerve cells where memory formation begins. When ADDLs
are attached, synapses are eliminated. (Right) A nerve cell treated with insulin before
being exposed to ADDLs. The cell is normal, with high levels of synapses (green) and almost no ADDLs (red) bound to it.
dying love and regret reflecting in
Lines 20-21: undying / Love and regret are dying, and high time.
all the jewels on this Net of Indra
Line 13: Abulge in gleaming nets of nerve, of pressures
Hua-yen Buddhism's image of universal interconnection in the
Net of Indra:
"Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful
net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it,
stretches out indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with the
extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering
jewel at the net's every node, and since the net itself is infinite
in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels,
glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a remarkable sight to behold.
If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look
closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are
reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that,
but also each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting
all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite."
Avatamsaka Sutra (translated by Francis H. Cook,
Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, 1977).
Illustration: The Net of Indra by Gail Atkins.
presence of Giorgione's Tempesta
Line 13: To sit out the storm in the presence of Giorgione's Tempesta
La Tempesta is a famous
Renaissance painting (1508) by the Italian master Giorgione (1477-1510).
It is housed in the Gallerie dell'Accademia of Venice, Italy. The Tempest has been called
the first landscape in the history of Western painting. It portrays a soldier holding a long staff
on the left side of a stream. He smiles and looks to the right, but does not appear to notice
the breast-feeding woman on the right side of the stream. Art historians have suggested that
the man is a soldier, a shepherd, or a gypsy. X-rays of the painting have revealed that in
place of the man, Giorgione originally painted another female nude. Others say that the male
symbolizes steadfastness and strength, pointing to the pillars behind him. However these pillars
are broken, symbolic of death. The stork on the rooftop on the right represents the love of
parents for their children. The distant dark clouds seem to anticipate an oncoming storm
much like El Greco's
"View of Toledo (1597).
Scholars have cited La Tempesta
as having influenced Manet's Luncheon on the Grass (1863).
The Czech poet Ladislav Novák wrote a poem "Giorgione's Tempest" where Meister Eckhart
explains its symbolism in a wealthy man's study. According to him, the man is a shepherd who represents
Giorgione, and the lady is a woman the painter loves but cannot hope his love will be requited. Then he's
shot and wounded, falling into an orchestra pit.
petites madeleines of Proust's lost time
Line 48: I've read Proust for the last time.
Madeleine or petite madeleine is a small sponge cake
with a distinctive shell-like shape from northeastern France. Their flavor is similar to, but lighter than
pound cake, with a pronounced butter-and-lemon taste. In Marcel Proust' novel Remembrance of Things Past (1927)
(more recently translated as In Search of Lost Time),
the narrator experiences an awakening upon tasting a madeleine dipped in tea "And suddenly the memory revealed itself.
The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not
go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it
first in her own cup of tea or tisane... And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her
decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery
of why this memory made me so happy)" (Swann's Way).
seeing Saint Jerome's vision of life
Lines 80-81: for St. James' / Vision of life
Saint James or James the Just (died 62 A.D.) was the brother
of Jesus. He was the first Bishop of Jerusalem and author of
Epistle of James in the New Testament
(Text). James says the "wisdom from above is pure,
peaceable, gentle, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace."
(James 3.17-18). These are wise words
for a vision of life. However I've changed Merrill's "St. James' Vision of life" to
Saint Jerome (347-420 A.D.) because I adore
Albrecht Dürer's engraving of Saint Jerome in his Study (1514). Here we find
Jerome translating the Vulgate Bible from Greek into Latin. Jerome was a Christian priest and
recognized as a canonized saint and Doctor of the Church. His version of the Bible is an important text in
Catholicism. He is often depicted with a lion, due to a medieval story in which he
removed a thorn from a
lion's paw. If this story is true, then Jerome had compassion for animals and showed fearlessness
toward the king of the beasts. Sometimes he is shown with an owl, the symbol of wisdom and scholarship.
Over 30 paintings of Saint Jerome may be seen at ABC Gallery,
many of them showing him doing penace in the desert or wilderness
in addition to his study. Thus, Saint Jerome is
at home with his books as well as being immersed in the landscape of Mother Nature.
and Christ's Passion in Veronica's Veil
Line 44: Late in his Passion come its instruments
Christ's Passion is the theological term used for the events and suffering
of Jesus in the hours before and including his trial and execution by crucifixion. These events are central to Christian beliefs
and are recounted in the Gospels beginning at
John 12 with the conspiracy against Jesus.
Saint Veronica or Berenice (1st century A.D.) was a pious woman of Jerusalem
who, moved with pity as Jesus carried his cross to Golgotha, gave him her veil that he might wipe his forehead.
Jesus accepted her offering and after using it, handed it back to her, the image of his face miraculously imprinted on the cloth.
This event is celebrated as the 6th station of Via Dolorosa
or Christ's Fourteen Stations of the Cross. Veronica's Veil was presented
to the Roman Emperor Tiberius when she later travelled to Rome. Medieval legends tell of the Veil's miraculous powers such as
quenching thirst and curing blindness. The name "Veronica" is a colloquial portmanteu of the Latin word Vera (truth)
and Greek icona (image). The Veil of Veronica was therefore regarded in medieval times as "the true image", and the
truthful representation of Jesus, preceding the Shroud of Turin. Dante cites
Veronica in the Tenth Heaven of the Empyrean in Paradiso XXXI:
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Paradiso 31.103-108
Qual è colui che forse di Croazia|
viene a veder la Veronica nostra,
che per l'antica fame non sen sazia,
ma dice nel pensier, fin che si mostra:
'Segnor mio Iesù Cristo, Dio verace,
or fu sì fatta la sembianza vostra?';
who, from Croatia perhaps, has come|
to visit our Veronicaone whose
old hunger is not sated, who, as long
as it is shown, repeats these words in thought:
"O my Lord Jesus Christ, true God, was then
Your image like the image I see now?"
Allen Mandelbaum translation, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982, pp. 282-283)
Illustration: Saint Veronica (1470) by
Hans Memling, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Maya, Maya this world but an illusion
Line 54: (Maya, Maya, your Félicité?)
Maya Deren (1917-1961) was an avant-garde filmmaker and close friend of James Merrill.
She was also a choreographer, dancer, poet, writer, and photographer. Born in Kiev, Ukraine, her family moved to Syracuse, New York
in 1922 when she was 5. She went to Syracuse University and received a Master degree in English literature
at Smith College. She became secretary to choreographer Katherine Dunham.
In the 1940s, her social circle included André Breton,
John Cage, and
Anaïs Nin. Her book Divine Horsemen:
the Living Gods of Haiti (1953) documents her research in voodoo ritual in Haiti. Maya Deren died in 1961
at age 44 from brain hemmorrhage brought on by extreme malnutrition. Her ashes were scattered in Japan at Mount Fuji.
James Merrill includes her in The Changing Light at Sandover, an epic poem of revelations from the dead
obtained by using the ouija board. Here are two citations on her from "The Guest List": "Miss Austen, MB, Congreve,
Colette, MD [Maya Deren], Dante, Eliot, Frost, Goethe..." (pp. 546-547) and "There's Goethe / Drumming his fingers
while Colette and Maya / Size one another up through jet-set eyes" (p. 557).
I didn't know about Maya Deren as James Merrill's friend, and assumed
"Maya, Maya" to be the Sanskrit word maya
for "illusion" of this physical universe. Maya is derived from its Sanskrit roots Ma "not" and ya "that".
In Advaita Vedanta philosophy, Maya is the limited physical world in which our thoughts have become entangled.
Maya is an illusion veiling the true Self or Cosmic Spirit, Brahman. Joseph Campbell showed his understanding
of Maya when he told the guru Atmananda, "Surely, if there is no reality except Brahman, this state of illusion is also Brahman."
(see Alan Watts). Illustration:
Maya Deren: The High Priestess of Experimental Cinema.
In 1943, Eleanora Deren married Alexander Hammid, a Czech filmmaker whom she collaborated in making her first film
Meshes in the Afternoon. She changed her name to Maya Deren and moved to New York. Her new name was particularly
apt for a filmmaker. Buddhists and Hindus understand Maya to mean "illusion" and in Sanskrit it also translates
as "mother". Queen Maya was Gautama Buddha's mother.
Maia in Greek mythology was the eldest of the Pleiades
and mother of Hermes, messenger of the gods. The month of May was named for her.
a computer simulation beeped in space
Line 51: Beeped by a computer into Space.
"Are You Living In a Computer Simulation?" is a paper
by the Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom
published in Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 53, 243-255 (2003).
A summary of the paper appears in John Tierney's "Our Lives, Controlled From Some Guy's Couch"
(New York Times, August 14, 2007).
This simulation would be similar to the one in
The Matrix film, in which most humans don't realize
that their lives and their world are just illusions. In Dr. Bostrom's notion of reality, you wouldn't
even have a body made of flesh. Your brain would exist only as a network of computer circuits. Professor Bostrom's
talk "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation" at Stanford (May 15, 2006) as a
Symbolic Systems Program Distinguished Speaker
was quite persuasive to a sophisticated high-tech audience.
by some timeless Supermind
Line 46: Through superhuman counterpoint to work
Line 49: At the Tempesta, timeless in its fashion
In Jorge Luis Borges description of "What Is a Divine Mind?" in "The Mirror of Enigmas" from
Labyrinths (1964), we get a glimpse of the timeless Supermind
"The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time
an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle."
Illustration: Leonardo da Vinci, "Head of a Tousled Young Woman" "The painter's mind is
a copy of the divine mind, since it operates freely in creating the many kinds of animals, plants, fruits,
landscapes, countrysides, ruins, and awe-inspiring places by promising results which are not obtainable."
playing not Second Life but Infinite Life of matrix games.
Line 50: As any grid-epitome of bipeds
Second Life is a virtual world developed by Linden Lab (June 23, 2003) and
is accessible via the Internet. A free client program (Second Life Viewer) enables its users, called Residents, to interact
with each other through avatars. Residents can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group
activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, and travel throughout the world,
which residents refer to as the grid. In Septembert 2008, just over 15 million accounts were registered, and on average,
38,000 residents were logged in at any particular moment. In the first quarter of 2009, the number of avatars recorded is 88,200.
In March 2009, a few Second Life entrepreneurs made profits exceeding 1 million US$ per year.
Second Life Grid is promoting real work being done in virtual worlds.
(Second Life web site). While Second Life is attracting much online
action, there may be an Infinite Life of matrix games we're not aware of that going on in our universe or
multiverses. Infinite Life Sutra is a Mahayana
Buddhist text of Pure Land Buddhism. The original Sanskrit was translated twelve times from 147-713 A.D. The sutra
begins as a discourse between Buddha and his disciple Ananda. Buddha describes his awareness of the existence of other
Buddhas, who in turn are aware of him. Michael Talbot's
Holographic Universe (1991) may be
likened to the Hua-yen Buddhists perception of tiers of universes in the past and future.
Hold still and catch the gap between thoughts
Line 63: For holding still, for being held still. No
While reading the 52nd Hexagram of the I Ching Kên / Keeping Still,
it occurred to me that it's connected to the
52nd word of Genesis = God.
When pilgrims asked the Hindu sage
Ramana Maharshi for advice
in finding God, he would cite Psalms 46:10 "Be still and know
that I am God." It is interesting that King Wên and the Duke of Chou
wrote The I Ching around 1000 B.C., the same time that King David
composed the Book of Psalms. I was surprised that the 52nd line in Merrill's
Book of Ephraim (pp. 75-77)
is "Now give me the alerted vacuum". When our rambling thoughts are slowed down in meditation,
the mind is being held still. Now we experience "the alerted vacuum" and catch the gap between thoughts.
Yoga Sutra I.2 (200 B.C.) opens with
"Yoga is the stopping of mental flow of thoughts." Once we
stop our mind's agitations, we catch a glimpse of the Eteranl and the Great Spirit flows through.
entering the Dark Ark of the moment
Lines 26-27: Who are these thousands entering the dark / Ark of the moment, two by two?
Ark is a boat or ship which Noah and his family were preserved from the Flood
Ark (from Latin arca chest) is the sacred chest
representing to the Hebrews the presence of God among them.
In Dictionary of All Scriptures and Myths (1960), G.A. Gaskell describes
"Ark of Noah" as "a symbol of the causal-body as a means for the preservation of
the individuality and the qualities of the soul, while lower conditions of
growth are swept away... The Ark does in a measure correspond with the Cross,
in that they both indicate the junction between the higher and lower natures."
While Merrill's "dark Ark" may refer to the biblical Noah's Ark, this line
which the poem takes its title is hinting at the second meaning of "ark" as
"the sacred chest where the presence of God is revealed" that is in
the gap between thoughts, the silence between musical notes, the twilight
zone between sleep and wakefulness, and the substratum or essence of all.
Ark of the Covenant from
King Solomon's Temple
into the Light of Now beyond two by two
Line 27: Ark of the moment, two by two?
Merrill's lines 26-27 "thousands entering the dark / Ark of the moment, two by two?" depict
Noah bringing animals into his Ark two by two (Genesis VI.19).
We're seizing the "Ark of the moment" focusing on "the Light of Now" the precious
present moment. Eckhart Tolle's
The Power of Now:
A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (1997) is a recent classics on this theme.
Tolle says "Nothing exists outside of the Now. What you think of as the past is a
memory trace, stored in the mind, of a former Now. The future is an imagined Now,
a projection of the mind. When the future comes, it comes as the Now." Just as
moonlight is borrowed sunlight, so the reality of the past and future is
"borrowed" from the Now. A Zen question: "If not now, when?" (pp. 41-43).
Once we're in the Now Moment, darkness (ignorance) turns to light (knowledge),
and we're "beyond two by two" transcending the pairs of opposites.
of presence and absence lies Nirvana
Line 1: Venise, pavane, nirvana, vice, wrote Proust
The Buddhists have postulated that this universe vibrates at astounding speeds
between the manifest and unmanifest that we perceive only the seen (sound) and
not the unseen (silence). Nirvana is apprehending the Emptiness (sunyata) as
well as Form. That's why The Heart Sutra begins with "Emptiness is Form.
Form is Emptiness." (See Text, Body & Soul;
Wei Wu Wei offers some insights in Chapter 8 "The Fasting of the Mind" in his
Open Secret (1965): "when Ch'an monks 'sit' they seek to empty their minds,
to practise a fasting of the mind, for while the mind 'fasts' there is no more
conceptualisation; then no concept arises, not even an I-concept, and in the
absence of an I-concept the mind is 'pure' (free of objects); then, and only
then, it is itself, what-it-is and as-it-is. When that is permanent it is
objectively called being enlightened, when it is temporary it can be called
samadhi. In that state of fasting the mind is only 'blank' in so far
as there is a total absence of objects; itself it is not absent replaced by
'subjectivising'; both counterparts are absent, and the subject-object process
(whereby subject, objectifying itself as object, thereby becomes object, which
object is nothing but subject), the 'spinning of the mind', ceases to operate
and dies down. The mind ceases to 'do'; instead, it 'is'. In the absence of
objectivisation the apparent universe is not, but we are; which is
so because what we are is what the apparent universe is, and what the apparent
universe is is what we are; dual in presence, non-dual in absence,
sundered only in manifestation. (p. 17). In Wei Wu Wei's gift copy of this book
(January 1980) he wrote this
cryptic koan: "To whom could I be present?
From whom could I be absent?"
where Han Yu has slain his crocodiles
Line 4: And his slain crocodile, both guano-white
Han Yü (768-824) was a Chinese poet during
the Tang Dynasty and a precursor of Neo-Confucianism. The
Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature calls him
"comparable in stature to Dante, Shakespeare, or Goethe" for his influence on the Chinese
literary tradition. Han Yü served as the teacher at the Imperial University
in Ch'ang-an. He was twice exiled, the second time because of the famous memorial
he submitted to the emperor, admonishing him for worshipping a tooth of the Buddha.
Han Yü opposed the Buddhists in escaping from life, and the Taoist for
prolonging life in search for immortality. He championed the Confucian philosophy
of living life here and now in the present moment. He dared to criticize the emperor
and did not care in losing his prestige positions. When exiled to a jungle village,
the farmers asked this poet to rid the crocodiles in their rivers that were eating
up their animals and children. Han Yü's
"Proclamation to the Crocodile" (819 AD)
threatening to shoot them with poison arrows finally chased them away. Han Yü's
slaying the crocodiles symbolizes conquering one's beastly nature or cravings
for the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.
thousands have crossed Joshu's stone bridge
Line 22: The wooden bridge, feeling their tread no longer,
Line 26: Who are these thousands entering the dark
The Chinese Zen Master Chao Chou (778-897) or Joshu lived to be 120 years. When a disciple complained
about not having enough time, Joshu replied: "You are being used by the 24 hours, but I am using the
24 hours." Even after his enlightenment, Joshu wandered from temple to temple, paying respect to other
Zen Masters to polish his learning. The stone bridge of Joshu was one of three famous stone bridges in
in 9th century China. They were made up of rocks placed in the river that acted as stepping stones.
When a visiting monk came to see this famous stone bridge (Blue Cliff Records, Case 52), he was
sorely disappointed to find only stepping stones. Joshu said: "You see only the stepping stones and
do not see the stone bridge." The monk said, "What is the stone bridge?" Joshu said, "It lets donkeys
cross over and horses cross over." Nothing special. As James Joyce would say in Finnegans Wake 52.9-10:
"a quiet English / garden (commonplace!)". Confucius says: "The Tao may not be left for an instant.
If it could be left, it would not be the Tao." (
Doctrine of the Mean). The wave needs not make a pilgrimage to find the Kingdom of Water, for water has never
left the wave, but is its very nature. Likewise the star that illumines our mind is not out there in
space, but right here at home in our heart (See
What is Your Star?). Akihisa Kondo writes: "The stone bridge of Joshu represents
the ever-functioning dynamic spirit of Zen Zen in action which has been transmitted,
from mind to mind, from generation to generation, in the history of Zen... D.T. Suzuki lived a life
of the stone bridge in the exact sense Joshu meant."
[See Akihisa Kondo, "The Stone Bridge of Joshu", The Eastern Buddhist
D.T. Suzuki Memorial Issue 2, no. 1 (August 1967), 90-98; reprinted in Masao Abe (ed.),
A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki Remembered (1986), Ch. 17, pp. 181-188]. Here's a lecture
"Zen & Bridges"
by Fukushima Keido Roshi (Chief Abbot, Tokufuji Monastery, Kyoto)
that conveys the spirit of Joshu's Bridge.
Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill (1857), Brooklyn Museum. Crossing Joshu's stone bridge
symbolizes going to the other shore, abandoning this temporal realm for that which is eternal.
Old Man of the Sea has found his way home
Line 69: Cold hissing whitethe old man of the Sea
The Old Man and the Sea is a novella
written by Ernest Hemingway in Cuba (1952). This book was a significant factor
in Hemingway's selection for the 1954 Nobel Prize
in Literature. It tells about Santiago, an aging Cuban fishermn who went out for 84 days without catching any fish at all.
On the 85th day, he went far out in the Gulf Stream and hooks a giant marlin. After three days of struggle,
he harpoons the fish and succeeds with the largest catch of his life. He straps the
giant marlin to his skiff and heads home. While he journeys back to the shore, sharks attacked his boat
devouring the marlin's entire carcass, leaving a skeleton. Santiago loses his big catch to the sharks, but
arrives safely home and goes to sleep dreaming of lions on the African beach. Merrill's line 69
"Cold hissing whitethe old man of the Sea" may be referring to Melville's white whale
Moby Dick ("cold hissing white") and Ahab ("old man of the Sea"). However, I've capitalized "Old Man" so
that the first two words "Old M" may symbolize "OM" or the pilgrim's goal
on his spiritual journey ("Sea") back "home" to Pure Consciousness. The long sea
Odysseus from Troy back home to Ithaca for his reunion with Penelope may be viewed as the
mind's agitation (war and strife) to finding peace at home (one's original Buddha nature).
and Mona Lisa is still smiling
Line 31: To be forever smiling, holding still
I still remember the day when the United Nations Secretariat-General Dag Hammarskjöld
died in a plane crash in North Rhodesia on September 18, 1961 en route to negotiate a cease-fire in the Congo.
I was at Camp Columbia in Litchfield, Connecticut with other
Columbia students in Chemical Engineering taking a required summer Lab Course when my friend Richard Hanauer
told me the news. My heart just dropped as Hammarskjöld was one of my heroes whom I admired greatly. President
John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld "the greatest statesman of our century". When Hammarskjöld's
was published (1964), everyone was surprised that it didn't contain any of the political leaders he had
met during his tenure at the United Nations (1953-1961). Instead this "white book" was Hammarskjöld's dialogue
with God. I bought the book and read it eagerly jotting many quotes in my own diary. But back then, I didn't
know anything about the mystics like Meister Eckhart or Rumi whom he quoted. I was intrigued greatly by
Hammarskjöld's 1956 entry (p. 123): "During these days, I have been searching my memory. And suddenly, I found
the smile of Mona Lisa. It was then, an hour after her death, that I saw it a secret vision,
a silent certainty, a peaceful joy saw, and thought I understood its message." I've taken art
history classes and Leonardo's Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Now what
is it about Mona Lisa's smile that Hammarskjöld had finally understood? Fifteen years later (1979),
when I was at the Louvre in Paris, I waited until the crowd had left, and stood in front of the Mona Lisa
for an hour in meditation. Then it happened Mona Lisa graced me with her smile and inspired this poem
"Mona Lisa". My epiphany came when I realized that Mona Lisa's smile was the same
as Mahakasyapa's during Buddha's silent
Flower Sermon. Hundreds of monks were perplexed that Buddha
uttered no words, just holding a flower in silence. When Mahakasyapa smiled, Buddha gave the flower to
Mahakasyapa for he was awake and understood the message. This is called the Transmission of the Lamp
where the Teacher transmits his wisdom to the student from mind to mind. Note: Leonardo achieved
Mona Lisa's smile by sfumato blending
of colors or tones so subtly that there is no perceptible transition. In Italian,
sfumato means "smoky" and is derived from the Italian word fumo meaning "smoke". Leonardo
described sfumato as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane."
His Mona Lisa was painted using tiny dots in several layers, around the eyes and mouth as many as 40 layers.
Since Merrill's poem began with "Venise, pavane, nirvana, vice, wrote Proust"
(p. 75), I was surprised
that Proust knew about nirvana
of Things Past: Cities of the Plain II, p. 302): "As a matter of doctrine, I have no objection
to offer to some Nirvana which will dissolve us in the great Whole". So I wish to continue in the same
spirit with this poem "Entering the Dark Ark of the Moment" beginning with "Crack! Boom! Flash!
thunderous explosion" that catapults us to Nirvana land. Wei Wu Wei writes in
Ask the Awakened (1963):
We can now see why every one of the awakened tells us ad nauseam that all we need to do is to arrest
the movement of though in order to know whole-mind and find ourselves awake. It explains also why wu or
satori is always precipitated by a sudden sound, anything from a clap of thunder to the snapping
of a twig, or, indeed, any other sensory perception whatever. Such perception momentarily arrests the
eternal tic-toc of thought and, the subject being ripe, whole-mind takes possession and is no longer split...
But it is surely an error to suppose that we do not know whole-mind in our daily life for the
consciousness that is aware of our having though is certainly that, a consciousness that is ever
awake, is always present, and that alone is 'real' (p. 22). This poem begins with the physical
birth of the universe (stanzas 1-3), evolving to man's desires, loves, and regrets (stanzas 4-5).
In the 6th stanza after "Net of Indra" are sense perceptions sound (storm in Giorgione's Tempesta),
taste (Proust's petites madeleines), sight (Jerome's vision of life), and touch (Christ's Passion
after wiping off his sweat with Veronica's Veil). Veronica's miracle show this world as Maya
or illusion (stanza 7) and being in the "Now Moment" provides us with a glimpse of Reality (stanza 8).
In the final stanza 9 after "Nirvana", we're in the metaphysical realm, joining the minds of enlightened
sages overcoming one's lower nature (Han Yü's slain crocodiles), abiding in the Eternal
(crossing Joshu's stone bridge), sage at peace (Old Man found his way home), and mind in bliss
(Mona Lisa or Mahakasyapa still smiling after receiving Buddha's flower illumination).