Notes to Poem: Courting Remembrance

Peter Y. Chou,

Preface: A friend phoned and told me that Robert Bly's poem "Courting Forgetfulness" appeared in the July 21, 2008 issue of the New Yorker. I realized it was a ghazal, a Persian poetry form consisting of 6 stanzas of 3 lines containing 36 syllables. Each stanza contained the word "forgetfulness". Bly read nine ghazals at his Stanford Poetry Reading (May 7, 2008). He also conducted a ghazal writing exercise in class (May 21) where I wrote "Say No More". After reading Bly's "Courting Forgetfulness" online (July 21, 2008, 6:23 pm), I printed several copies for friends. There are many lovely images in Bly's ghazal that are concrete and grounded to the earth. Bly would advise us in class that if we can't paint it, the lines are too abstract. I was inspired to write this haiku: Thanks for forgetfulness / so our mind is less cluttered / to remember more." At bedtime on July 22, 5 am, I wrote another haiku: Remembrance & Forgetfulness— / two sides of the same coin / called Consciousness." A day earlier at Office Depot, I bought a ruled notepad of 150 for 15¢. There were 27 lines, just enough for a ghazal. So at 5 am I began a response ghazal "Courting Remembrance" to Bly's "Courting Forgetfulness". It was finished at 6:50 am and I went to sleep. I typed the poem at Stanford Art Library at 6:45 pm, and completed the Poem Notes at Stanford Green Library at 8:45 pm on July 23, 2008. The place where angels have gathered in the first stanza was revised three times from in the "here and now" to "concert hall" to "hall of records". Since I wished to mirror Bly's ghazal in my response poem, it was not possible to include two favorite references on memory— Frances Yates book The Art of Memory (1966) on the history of mnemonic systems and Jorge Luis Borges's short story "Funes the Memorious" (1942) about a boy with prodigious memory of everything he sees as well as historical events to the minutest details. Often the autistic savants with such memory feats regard their lives as a curse rather than a blessing since they find it difficult to sleep with so much cluttered information in their brains. So this ghazal on courting remembrance is not for accumulation of useless facts but of selective stories of wisdom that lead us to enlightenment.

sweet music... to remembrance of heaven
My first spiritual mentor Anthony Damiani said after hearing Schubert's Quintet in C: "Once I heard that piece, I knew there was a heaven." Anthony introduced me to Beethoven's Last String Quartets (Opus #127-135 composed 1816-1826) which has become my favorite music for meditation. J.W.N. Sullivan in his Beethoven and his Spiritual Development (1960) writes about the transcendental quality of these pieces. Other music that inspires us heavenward include Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio in G minor, Jules Massenet's Thaïs: Meditation, and Domenico Zipoli's Elevazione.

angels have gathered in the hall of records
The Hall of Records is reportedly a library buried under the Great Sphinx of Giza, rumoured to house the knowledge of the Egyptians by papyrus scrolls. The Akashic Records are collectively understood to be a collection of mystical knowledge that is encoded in the aether or space containing galactical memory of the universe. Finally, Angel Records is a record label belonging to EMI. It was formed in 1953 and specialised in classical music.

a lifetime can go by in the space between sleep and wakefulness
In Chapter 6i of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams (1899), Maury is struck on the back of his neck by a board falling above his bed while he was dreaming of episodes in the French Revolution ending with him being guillotined. In the seconds of time before Maury's awakening, years have elapsed in his dream state. The board that fell on his neck (waking state) was in the same place as the guillotine blade that struck him in the dream.
(Alarm clock dreams, Another guillotine dream)

cotton balls wrens found for nests in the woods
I read an ornithology study many years ago that birds who attracted mates were not the best songsters but had cotton balls as padding in their nests. I forgot which bird species were studied. I selected "wren" because of its assonance with the words "remembrance" and "ram" (random accessory memory).

lost remembrance of our true heritage
We have forgotten our true Buddha Nature that we are Sat-Chit-Ananda, Being-Consciousness-Bliss. We live in samsara (ignorance & suffering) instead of nirvana (illumination & bliss) because we've identified with the body which is limited and temporal instead of the Self (Mind) which is infinite and eternal.

craving for crumbs instead of enjoying the feast
Because of our ignorance, we crave for material things (crumbs) instead of enjoying the spiritual blessings (feast). There are many Buddhist and Hindu tales of a pauper who was really born a prince and didn't know his true heritage. Once he found out that the entire kingdom is his, he stopped begging in the streets and claimed his home in the palace. The sage does not crave for the castle for he knows that the entire universe is home in his mind. The Chinese sage Lu Hsiang-shan (1139-1193) said: "The universe is my mind, and my mind is the universe."

six-cornered snowflakes and hexagonal honeycombs
The philosopher Pythagoras discovered that "6" is a perfect number, one whose number is equal to the sum of its divisors. Thus: 1 + 2 + 3 = 6 = 1 x 2 x 3. Nature found that the closest packing polygons are 6-sided, so bees utilize this hexagonal figure in their construction of honeycombs. Why are snowflakes 6-cornered? Kepler addresses this question, in his book (1611) to the Emperor. Now we know it's because that's the crystal structure of ice molecules. How does Nature remember these laws of geometry and chemistry is still a deep mystery.

the soul's past strivings
One of my favorite quotes is from Isa Upanishad: "Om. O my soul, remember past strivings, remember!" This invocation reminds us that we've been here before, and if we tap into our inner self with its vast storehouse of memories, we'll know our Cosmic Self that's infinite and eternal. Buddha said "You have shed more tears than the oceans filling this earth" alluding to the many past lifetimes we've had. In Greek myth, the River of Lethe wipes out our memories of previous lifetimes so we may begin anew. However karmic seeds from previous lives may fructify in this lifetime which may account for childhood genius such as Mozart and unexplained happenings such as good fortunes or tragedies in life.

be attentive to the present task at hand
Reflections on Things at Hand (Chin-ssu lu) is a Neo-Confucian Anthology (1175) compiled by Chu Hsi (1130-1200) (portrait at left). This work was translated by Wing-tsit Chan (Columbia University Press, 1967). The term comes from the Analects XIX.6 where Confucius' disciple Tzu-hsia (507-420 B.C.) said: "To study extensively, to be steadfast in one's purpose, to inquire earnestly, and to reflect on what is at hand— humanity consists in these." The words chin ssu lu mean "near-thought-record". What is near at hand means what can be of immediate application, that is, things of daily concern. The Neo-Confucian philosophers of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) opposed the Buddhists in escaping from life, and the Taoists for prolonging life in search for immortality. They followed the Confucian philosophy of living life here and now in the present moment. Mary Oliver ends her poem "Upstream" from Blue Iris (2004) with this insight: "Attention is the beginning of devotion." In Chapter 13 of Merging with Siva (2002), Subramuniyaswami outlines the five steps to enlightenment: "Attention, concentration, meditation, contemplation, and Self-Realization." Being attentive to our daily task is the first step to enlightenment. This is what we need to remember.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (7-23-2008)