Notes to Poem:
The Letter B

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: Mohr Visiting Poet, Stephen Dobyns told his Poetry Workshop class (English 192V) that our assignment for January 26 is a 350 words essay on his handout—Chapter Four: Aspects of the Syllable (pp. 89-119) from Poet's Work, Poet's Play (2008). In this chapter, Dobyns focused more on William Barnes's poem "The Hill-Shade" for its richness of syllables, stresses, and symbolic meanings. I never heard of William Barnes (1801-1886) before. After learning that Barnes was a philologist with Philological Grammar (1854) quoting from more than 70 different languages, I noticed "The Hill-Shade" has 10 "T" in a row as the first letter of lines 5-14 symbolizing the flow of time (essay). The first and last lines of this poem begins with the letters A and B—first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph () Bet (). This inspired the 16-line poem "The Letter B" (2-6-2011 draft). Since Dobyns told the class to write closed quatrains for Feb. 9 class, I turned in "Enlightenment to Enlightenment" instead. For our last class, March 9, Dobyns told us to write a poem of 14-25 lines, so I increased my original 16-line poem to 24 lines— "The Letter B". Since Emily Dickinson used a lot of "B" words in her poems, I've cited several of her lines in this poem containing 60 "B"s.

Commentary on Poem "The Letter B":

Before the beginning all was black—
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]. Black Hole is a region of space from which nothing, including light, can escape. It is the result of the deformation of spacetime caused by a very compact mass. Around a black hole there is an undetectable surface which marks the point of no return, called an event horizon. It is called "black" because it absorbs all the light that hits it, reflecting nothing just like a perfect black body in thermodynamics. Despite its invisible interior, a black hole can be observed through its interaction with other matter. In 1998, astronomers found compelling evidence that a supermassive black hole of more than two million solar masses is located near Sagittarius A region in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Recent data suggests that the supermassive black hole is more than 4 million solar masses. (Does Our Universe Exist Inside a Black Hole?). (Black Holes on StarDate, 3-8-2011) (Image: Our Black Hole Universe,

BOOM the Big Bang— burning brilliant
blaze of light— this universe was born

"Streamlined from conception— crack! boom! flash!" from line 75 of James Merrill's "The Book of Ephraim" (1992) resonates well with this universe's birth— explosive sound BOOM and burning brilliant blaze of light. Big Bang was the event which led to the formation of the universe according to prevailing cosmology theory. The original state of the universe existed around 13.7 billion years ago after the Big Bang. Surely, this event was greater than any Supernova and its fiery explosion may be likened to a "monster breathing flames" (Merill's line 77). 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. Since there are no recorded images of the Big Bang's explosion, the photo found at Geeked.Info will do as a poor substitute. (Image: "Loud Explosion Wakes Up San Francisco", Geeked.Info)

from four elephants standing on the back of a giant tortoise
Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) was a French astronomer and author. The engraving at left According to Hindu Belief the Earth is Supported on Elephants Standing on a Tortoise is from Flammarion's History of the Heavens (1877)— "The Hindoos made the hemispherical earth to be supported upon four elephants, and the four elephants to stand on the back on an immense tortoise, which itself floated on the surface of a universal ocean. We are not however to laugh at this as intended to be literal; the elephants symbolised, it may be, the four elements, or the four directions of the compass, and the tortoise was the symbol for strength and for eternity, which was also sometimes represented by a serpernt" (pp. 238-239). The earliest citation may be found in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690)— "Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise". The phrase "Turtles all the way down" is a jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the Unmoved mover paradox. The phrase was popularized by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time (1988)— "A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever", said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!" Another source gave the scientist to be William James. (Image: Elephants on Tortoise,

That ancient belief replaced by physics of a bare bubble starting it all
In 1979 Alan Guth (MIT) developed an inflationary model of the Big Bang, which offered a mechanism for inflation to begin, the decay of a so-called false vacuum into 'bubbles' of 'true vacuum' that expanded at the speed of light. The Chaotic inflation theory or bubble universe model (1986) is a variant of the inflationary model of the big bang. This model, proposed by physicist Andrei Linde (Stanford), postulates that our universe is one of many that grew from a multiverse consisting of vacuum that had not decayed to its ground state. Linde belives that our universe is but one of many interconnected universes that inflate and contract like so many soap bubbles (Stanford Report, 4-9-2003). ("Multiverse or Universe", 3-23-2003) (Image: Bubble Universe,

From blank to blank bees buzzed beyond the dip of bell—
Emily Dickinson's Poem 761— "From Blank to Blank— / A Threadless Way". Poem 1405— "Bees are Black, with Gilt Surcingles— / Buccaneers of Buzz". Poem 378— "I saw no Way— The Heavens were stitched— / I felt the Columns close— / The Earth reversed her Hemispheres— / I touched the Universe— / And back it slid— and I alone— / A Speck upon a Ball— / Went out upon Circumference— / Beyond the Dip of Bell—" Bee Symbolism: In Greece the bee was emblemaic of work and obedience. According to a Delphic tradition, the second of the temples built in Delphi had been erected by bees. In Orphic teaching, souls were symbolized by bees, not only because of the association with honey but also because they migrate from the hive in swarms, since it was held that souls 'swarm' from the divine unity in a similar manner. In Christian symbolism, bees represented diligence and eloquence. Bell Symbolism: Its sound is a symbol of creative power. Since it is in a hanging position, it partakes of the mystical significance of all objects which are suspended between heaven and earth. It is related, by its shape, to the vault and, consequently, to the heavens (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1962, pp. 22-23). Emily Dickinson's Poem 1755 is one of my favorites— "To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee, / One clover, and a bee, / And revery. / The revery alone will do, / If bees are few." I love the image that only one bee and a clover can turn a blank field into a prairie of flowers. But it bees are few, Emily's revery could do the same. Thus in Poem 378, when the Heavens were stitched, she alone "Went out upon Circumference— Beyond the Dip of Bell" and "touched the Universe—" How brilliant! How bold! (Images: Bees on flowers,; Bell ringing at St. Saviour's Church,

Moses attentive by the Burning Bush
Burning Bush Symbolism: Divine manifestation; the presence of God. The burning bush becomes the Cosmic Tree in Vedic fire symbolism of Agni (J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, 1978, p. 27). God appears to Moses in a burning bush (Exodus 3.2-4): "And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I." (Image: Moses & Burning Bush,

Buddha pensive under the Bodhi-Tree
Siddharta Gautama (563-483 BC) was enlightened under the Bodhi Tree and became the Buddha, “The Awakened One.” He would spend the rest of his life teaching meditation & mindfulness as a way to enlightenment. The Bodhi-Tree was a large and very old Sacred Fig tree (Ficus religiosa) located in Bodh Gaya (62 miles) from Patna in the Indian state of Bihar. In religious iconography, the Bodhi tree is recognizable by its heart-shaped leaves, which are usually prominently displayed. It takes 100 to 3,000 years for a bodhi tree to fully grow. This tree is a frequent destination for pilgrims, being the most important of the four main Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Buddha was enlightened on the full moon of May, 528 BC, with the rising of the morning star (Venus). At the time of his awakening, Buddha realized the cause of suffering, and formulated the Four Noble Truths". Studying these truths and practicing his Eightfold Path, one experiences Nirvana, a state of supreme liberation and bliss. Buddha's enlightenment day is celebrated on May 8 and on December 8 (Rohatsu). (Buddha on peace) (Image: Buddha under Bodhi Tree,

I am with Brahman and Beethoven— Bach's an ocean and not a tiny brook



J. S. Bach
Brahma is the Hindu creation god, and one of the Trimurti, the others being Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer). Brahman is a symbol of the Supreme Spirit, the One Absolute Being; the manifest God— he Higher Self of all (G.A. Gaskell, Dictionary of all Scriptures and Myth, 1960, p. 123). "In the beginning Brahman was all This. He was one and infinite, infinite above and below and everywhere infinite... The Highest Self is not to be fixed, he is unlimited, unborn, not to be reasoned about, not to be conceived. He is like ether (everywhere), and at the destruction of the universe, he alone is awake" (Maitreya Upanishads III.1-24)
The word "Brahman" is derived from Sanskrit brh, to grow, and connotes greatness and infinity. "I am with Brahman" links the Hebrew God "And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM" (Exodus 3.14), positioned at the transcendental number π, with the Hindu Brahman, the transcendental Supreme Spirit and "Thou Art THAT". In Beethoven's Tagebuch (1812-1818), he copied passages from Upanishads— "Brahman is eternal, omnipotent, knowing all things and present everywhere." (Maynard Solomon, Late Beethoven, 2003, p. 176). Beethoven framed these quotes to inspire his music (5th Symphony). Since "Bach" is the German word for "brook", Beethoven said "Not Brook but Ocean should be his name." In an account by Karl Gottlieb Freudenberg— “As for Sebastian Bach, Beethoven honoured him greatly: "Not Bach (brook), but Meer (sea) should be his name, because of his infinite, inexhaustible wealth of melodic combinations and harmonies."” (Beethoven: Letters, Journals and Conversations, translated & edited by Michael Hamburger, 1960, p. 239) (Images: Brahma, wikipedia; Beethoven,; Bach,

The boys of summer played baseball in Brooklyn's backyard

Dodgers (Duke Snider, Gil Hodges,
Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo)

Brooklyn Dodgers (George Shuba,
Pee Wee Reese, ?, Jackie Robinson)

Ebbets Field (Flatbush, Brooklyn)
Home of Dodgers (1913-1957)
The Boys of Summer (1972) is a book by Roger Kahn. After recounting his childhood in Brooklyn, the author relates some history of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team up to their victory in the 1955 World Series. The book's title comes from a Dylan Thomas poem "I See the Boys of Summer". The first part is a memoir about growing up in Brooklyn, and covering the Dodgers for the New York Herald Tribune as its sports writer (1952-1953) when the Dodgers lost the World Series twice in a row to the Yankees. The second part is devoted to the players from their playing days to middle age (Clem Labine, George Shuba, Carl Erskine, Andy Pafko, Joe Black, Preacher Roe, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson and Billy Cox). James Michener called it "America's finest book on sports." A Sports Illustrated panel recently selected The Boys of Summer as the greatest of all American books on baseball. "Brooklyn's backyard" refers to Ebbets Field where the Dodgers played baseball in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, and Ebbets Field was demolished on February 23, 1960. (Image: Brooklyn Dodgers,; Brooklyn Dodgers,; Ebbets Field,; The Boys of Summer,

blue jays ate berries under blue skies by the bay
The Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is a passerine bird in the family Corvidae, native to North America. Emily Dickinson writes about Blue Jays in Poem 1177— "A prompt— executive Bird is the Jay— / Bold as a Bailiff's Hymn— / Brittle and Brief in quality— / Warrant in every line— / Sitting a Bough like a Brigadier / Confident and straight— / Much is the mien of him in March / As a Magistrate—". In Poem 1561, the Jay is called "Brother of the Universe / Was never blown away— / The Snow and he are intimate— / I've often seen them play..." In Poem 1635, Emily compares the Blue Jay's song to a castanet. Blue Jays are loquacious birds, and can mimic hawk calls and even humans. The alliteration of five "b"s in this line depicts the blue jays in a tranquil atmosphere during the summer baseball season (above). (Image: Blue Jay and berries,

butterflies waltzed and rested on a beam
Emily Dickinson's Poem 533— "Two butterflies went out at Noon— / And waltzed upon a Farm— / Then stepped straight through the Firmament / And rested, on a Beam— / And then— together bore away Upon a shining Sea— / Though never yet, in any Port— / Their coming, mentioned— be— / If spoken by the distant Bird— / If met in Ether Sea By Frigate, or by Merchantman— / No notice— was— to me—" Butterfly Symbolism: Among the ancients, an emblem of the soul and of unconscious attraction towards the light. Psychoanalysis regards the butterfly as a symbol of rebirth. In China, it has the secondary meanings of joy and conjugal bliss (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1962, pp. 33-34). In Gerard's painting of Cupid Kissing Psyche (1798), there is a butterfly hovering over Psyche's head. The Greek word for Psyche means butterfly, and also means soul. Apuleius' tale of Cupid and Psyche is about the soul's transformation through suffering and purification to enjoy the blessedness and joy of eternity. (Image: Butterflies in a rainbow,

the best ballet dancer learned balance
on earth before leaping into the breeze

Martha Graham (1894-1991) was an American dancer choreographer regarded as one of the foremost pioneers of modern dance. Graham was a galvanizing performer, a choreographer of astounding moves. She invented a new language of movement, and used it to reveal the passion, the rage and the ecstasy common to human experience. In This I Believe,"God's Athlete" (1954), she wrote "I am a dancer. I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God." Elsewhere, she wrote that "a spontaneous leap seen on stage took years of practice". (Poem: "How I Learned to Dance") (Images: Joffrey Ballet dancer,; Dancer's leap,

Genesis begins with the letter B— Bereshith as in baby and birth
"In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness." (Genesis I.1-4). In A Mystical Key to the English Language (1975), Robert M. Hoffstein notes that Genesis opens with the letter B in Hebrew— Bereshith (in the beginning)— Bible's first line translates "Bereshith bara Elohim et hashamayim ve'et ha'arets." B is a foundation letter, marking the emergence of life (bio— life). The letter B, only slightly modified, has become the word to express life: to be, or to exist. Other B words associated with beginning includes baby and birth as well as Big Bang. It is interesting that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi-Tree. (Image: Michelangelo's God Separating Light from Darkness, Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Vatican City,

Beth, boundless bowl of being
In Hebrew Aleph () is the "father" of the Aleph-Bet. Aleph also alludes to the ineffable mysteries of God's oneness. In Hebrew Bet () means house. The letter A symbolizes first principle— Ain Soph Aur (infinite light) of the Kabbalah. "A" also means "without". "A" is then non-being or ground of our being, out of which being arises. This B (Beth) is the house or container of the Lord (Aleph). I recall attending a talk by Carlos Suarès, author of Cipher of Genesis (1970) in Cambridge, Massachusetts (circa 1974). He said that Aleph is the unthinkable first principle of all that is and all that is not. Bayt (Beth) is the container, archetype of all dwellings, the bowl housing this universe. The Hebrew glyph Bet () resembles a house constructed of three Vav () glyphs whose numerical value (Gematria) of 6 add up to 18, the same numerical value for chai or life (also linked to the 36 righteous souls, Lamedvavniks). The house of creation is then the life of the universe. Was Barnes aware of this when composing "The Hill-Shade" with 18 lines? By placing AB as the cornerstones of his poem, Barnes may also be alluding to Egyptian hieroglyphs AB for heart and BA for soul. (Image: Beethoven's B, from March 21, 1824 letter, photographed at Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies, San Jose,

brings sunset in a cup and breadths of blue—
First stanza of Emily Dickinson's Poem 128— "Bring me the sunset in a cup, / Reckon the morning's flagons up / And say how many Dew, / Tell me how far the morning leaps— / Tell me what time the weaver sleeps / Who spun the breadth of blue!" Imagine while others are having tea in their cups, Emily is drinking the sunset in hers. The next three stanzas continue the celebratory vein of "the new Robin's ecstasy", the Bee drinking Dews, "the Rainbow's piers" and her spirit "to fly away". I've chosen Emily's image of "sunset in a cup and breadths of blue—" for they reflect the previous line's "Beth, boundless bowl of being". This second letter of the alphabet, Beth () is the container and home of Aleph, creator of the universe. (Image: Sunset over Danube, Chris Photos,

the babe drinking at mother's breast

Pierre Paulus
Mother & Child

Leonardo da Vinci
Madonna & Child

Beautiful Artemis
Ephesus (100 AD)

The "Twin Hills"
Beauty of Konkan Railways
The shape of the letter B when turned horizontally resembles a woman's breasts, inspiring "babe drinking at mother's breast". The Belgium semipostal stamp (Scott B699) is from Breastfeeding on Postage Stamps. It shows Mother & Child painting by Pierre Paulus issued December 7, 1961. There are many paintings of Madonnas Breastfeeding, and I've chosen Leonardo's from the State Hermitage Museum. The Greek goddess Artemis (Roman Diana) is shown as Beautiful Artemis, a marble statue (1st century AD) at Epheus Museum. Artemis of Ephesus is commonly regarded as a fertility goddess, primarily because of the multitude of 'breasts' that cover her cult image. Artemis (Diana) is also a Moon Goddess. Since the moon is connected with planting and crops, the numerous breasts on Artemis are not so far-fetched, as they feed us with nourishment from Mother Earth. As a representation of Gaia, Earth Mother, I've chosen a photo of "Twin Hills" (Beauty of Konkan Railways). Thus, we are all babes drinking from the breast of Mother Earth (cf. I Peter 2.2). (Images: Mother breastfeeding babe,; Madonna & Child, State Hermitage Museum; Beautiful Artemis,; "Twin Hills", Pratyush Sahay photo,

blossoming with beauty and blessings
Even though the letter B follows A in the alphabet, we've seen how Genesis begins with Bereshith, and Beth is the container and house for the universe created by Aleph. There are so many significant words beginning with the letter B. In closing this poem with blossoming with beauty and blessings, I'm honoring blossoming for the enlivening spirit within us that is always growing with awareness of the Infinite and Eternal. I pay homage to beauty the way Plotinus did in his Enneads I.6.9: "Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless itself be beautiful." Lastly, I give thanks to blessings for the wonderful parents, friends and mentors in my life that made everything so joyful. This celebratory spirit is conveyed in Isaiah 35.2— "It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing". Emily must had a sense of this in her Poem 756: "One Blessing had I than the rest / So larger to my Eyes... / I knew no more of Want— or Cold— / For this new Value in the Soul— / Supremest Earthly Sum—" And in Emily's Poem 1726: "If all the joys I am to have / Would only come today, / They could not be so big as this / That happens to me now." In selecting an image for this feeling, I've chosen the Castle of Chillon by Lac Leman, Montreux, Switzerland. When I first met the sage Paul Brunton (August 30, 1972), he pointed to me this beautiful Castle where Byron wrote his poem in one night. His story inspired my research in unravelling the language of life in protein structures and encouraged me in writing poetry, the language of the human heart. (Image: Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva, Montreux, Switzerland,

                                                                                                Peter Y. Chou
                                                                                                Mountain View, 3-9-2011

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