Waverley Writers: Reincarnation Story

By Peter Y. Chou

Monday, January 25, 2005—
After a C. K. Williams Poetry Reading at Stanford's Kresge Auditorium, I see someone sitting behind me that looked familiar. I tell him, "You're a poet from Waverley Writers I've met years ago. I don't remember your name, but I know that you were Gérôme, the French painter in your past life." His face lit up with surprise as he shook my hand— "I'm Ron LeBlanc, it's amazing you remembered my reincarnation story." I tell Ron that I've not been to Waverley Writers for some time. We exchange business cards, and he gives me a flyer of a Sunday poetry reading he's hosting in a Palo Alto Art Gallery. He tells me that he's writing several poems a week. Later I learn that Ron LeBlanc was the first place winner in the Palo Alto Midtown Poetry Wall Contest with his poem "A Tree Calls Out". I also find my journal of 15 years ago.

Journal Entry: Tuesday, March 6, 1990—
Someone sitting on a bench calls out "Peter" as I walk down University Ave. I recognize him from Waverley Writers Poetry Reading last Friday. He's well groomed, impeccably dressed, and reads his poems from a binder. He tells me that he enjoyed my love poems reading, and introduces himself— "Ron LeBlanc". His business card shows an Ionic column at the right, "Interior Architecture & Lighting Design" in the center, and a ray of light at the left shining on his name. When I tell him about my writing aspirations, Ron says that he's also interested in bringing spirituality to everyday living. He tells me about the mosaic in back of Rockefeller Center Building— an angel shedding spiritual light amidst modern science and technology in the heart of New York City. I mention John D. Rockefeller's Credo plaque by the skating rink, and Ron says "It's amazing that a titan of business could write such a beautiful spiritual message."

Ron tells me he's also President of "Rays of Light", an organization which he founded to spread spiritual awakening. He says to me, "I have a proof of reincarnation" and tells me how as a boy of 13, he had wandered alone in the Boston Fine Arts Museum. "I went from one painting to another when Gérôme's L'Eminence Grise hit me suddenly like a flash of lightning. I felt a chill along my spine and hairs tingle on my arms and legs. It dawned upon me that I had done that painting, that I was Gérôme in a previous lifetime. At the time, I knew nothing about reincarnation. I thought it was the monk's portrait that moved me, but other paintings of monks didn't trigger the same response. Later, whenever I saw Gérôme paintings in other museums, I'll have a similar reaction. They were not as intense as my childhood experience, since I was more guarded emotionally and not as innocent and spontaneous as in my youth."

At the Palo Alto Main Library, I learn that Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris for 40 years. He painted historical canvases with a precise draftmanship, great compositional skill and photographic realism. I locate Gérôme's L'Eminence Grise (1874) in an art book. The Grey Cardinal is François Le Clerc du Trembly (1577-1638), a Capuchin Friar, known as Père Joseph. He became Cardinal Richelieu's secretary and assistant, confidant of King Louis XIII, and shaped French foreign policy that would sow discord through Europe. After studying the painting and reading about Richelieu and Père Joseph, this poem comes out:

Gérôme's L'Eminence Grise

Père Joseph maintains his monkish manner,
while colorful courtiers and nobles huddle
to one side to give him unobstructed space
as he descends the grand marbled staircase.
He had his talks with Cardinal Richelieu,
planned escapades of war for the glory
of the French Kingdom. He need not flaunt
his authority. The coat of arms tapestry
on the staircase reminds everyone of his
ecclesiastical and political power.
Like squeamish sheeps, they bow
obsequiously to this crafty fox,
a brown robed, barefooted friar.
He's oblivious to their kowtows,
those icy stone-faced eyes glued
to his dark contemplative manual
as he chants silent secret mantras
to hex and destroy his enemies.

Now I recall an art print that I bought at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in 1976 that resembled Gérôme's style. After some search, I find it— Gérôme's erotic painting Phryne Before the Judges. I look up Phryne in Lempriere's Dictionary and compose this poem:

Gérôme's Phryne Before the Judges

It was one of those Aha! moments of history.

So beautiful is this Athenian courtesan
that she modelled for Praxiteles's
"Aphrodite" sculptures and Apelles's
painting "Aphrodite Rising from the Sea".

So rich is her coffers from lovers
that she offered to rebuild Thebes
if they would inscribe on the walls,
"Alexander destroyed these, but
Phryne, the hetaera, rebuilt them."

So revengeful was Euthias when
she asked too high an honorarium
that he sought revenge by indicting
her before a court of elders for impiety,
for profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries.

So eloquent was Hyereides the orator,
a court member, her secret lover who
defended her and when he failed to
persuade them, threw off her tunic,
baring her breasts of globular fruit.

So awed were the judges by her exquisite
body, the sheer beauty of it all, that
they acquitted her amidst huge applause
of the crowd, by whom she was carried
in triumph to the temple of Aphrodite.

I've not seen Gérôme's Phryne for years, yet it invokes the same satori euphoria upon viewing it in Hamburg fourteen years ago. It's interesting that Gérôme's Gray Eminence & Phryne— the heavily cloaked monk and the heavenly bared beauty invoke such opposite emotions in the viewer, fear and pleasure— both products of thoughts occurring in time. Like the rise and fall of ocean waves, so are thoughts in the mind. But H2O is eternal. When we identify with our essence instead of form, we are free. We speculate about reincarnation in the past and future that we fail to incarnate now! Is the present Ron LeBlance, the former Gérôme in the 19th century? or perhaps one of those 17th century courtiers? Is the present Peter, one of Phryne's lovers in 4th century BC Greece, so when I saw her exposed nude before the judges on that museum canvas, I bought the art print to relive a past memory? But I also purchased Paul Klee's Golden Fish at the same time. Could I have been a goldfish in a previous lifetime? Is it possible that all lifetimes have already been written in some master cosmic textbook, that in each life, we play out or act to a previous written script? Is our body just some VCR playing a film that we plugged in before we were born and have now forgotten. From what Dream Archives are our astral bodies flying to at night? And what about deep dreamless sleep where we see, feel, and think nothing at all? Or perhaps, it's really "deep timeless wake" where we are everything, everywhere, everytime— the experience so overwhelming, grandiose, and mind-boggling that we faint into unconsciousness?

Waverley Writers: Valentine Reading

I thank Mary-Marcia Casoly who sent me an email, snail mail, and a phone
message asking me to contribute to Waverley Writer's 25th Anniversary book:
"We'd like you to write up something perhaps with an enlightened, spiritual
or philosophical angle on poetry and your experience with Waverley."
Luckily, I found my old journal notes and contributed this story.

Some poems read at Waverley Writers are posted on my web site:

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P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: peter@wisdomportal.com (6-4-2005)