Some of us share a social agreement that poetry is the best way to communicate essential things. Poetry is such a narrow, low impact form of communication. How can we make a few words on a page express our experience of living beyond thought in someone else’s mind? How can we look out of our self and into the world that we are part of and separated from?
It’s the old story told again
Lost in the brush of the sentence
Looking through the bars
At the invincible caged world –
Norman Fischer has written a marvelous book of poems about the experience of thinking the unthinkable. The book consists of two parts: ‘I Was Blown Back’, a group of untitled short individual verse, and ‘Ask A Difficult Question’, a long numbered series of poems. The latter has the subtitle ‘Variations on Rumi’ each section beginning with a quotation from that 13th century Persian poet.
Norman Fischer is a religious man. He is not an English professor or creative writing teacher, the two most common professions American poets gravitate towards. He is a priest in the American lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism and he has been actively practicing that profession for thirty years. To demystify, since Zen and Buddhism are loaded words, he is a meditation teacher and pastoral counselor. He sits, he leads groups of people in the practice of ‘just sitting’, he lectures and counsels people who are trying to attain religious insight. It is a profession that involves a profound combination of isolation and confrontation. The reader can sometimes find glimpses of the priest in the poems, a figure whose costume is a sign and a metaphor, playing with the robes and knots, beads and burning incense sticks.
I put on these robes long ago not for the purpose
Of covering but to uncover
All these knots not for the purpose of
Untangling, which would be the end
But so as to set aflame, cool,
So that all float down while I watch
And leap and journey
These poems seem to be a result of that daily fluctuation, this practice of focusing the mind without grasping at meaning. As a result, while it is not difficult to tell what the poems are about, it is difficult to say what Fischer’s poems mean. The poems are hard to hold on to. The words go by, one line after another, occasionally snapping together into couplets or phrases that fall apart again, leaving the reader unsure whether the meaning is happening on the page or in the reader’s experience of similar words, similar metaphors, similar landscapes. The music is soothing and easy to listen to. Fischer often demonstrates a mastery of technique, building metaphors from jarring opposites and surprising juxtapositions, joining lines of words with assonance and alliteration, weaving syncopated rhythms.
How hard I work
To open locks for which there seem to be no keys
Stranded here as usual beside the pump
While the social body blunders on in the forced march of its deceptions
Toward a lurching just maybe possible dream
That seems to saturate my soul like starch in a shirt
But always comes to nothing when I can’t wake up
Is ‘the pump’ a beating heart or did I make that up? I had never thought of religious experience acting on the soul in the way I have seen starch cause the limp and wrinkled fabric of a white shirt to temporarily appear stiff and smooth, the way we would like a formal shirt to look when we appear at a formal occasion. This metaphor blossoms among all the variations of ‘s’ sounds, when the metaphorical mind joins ‘saturate my soul’ and ‘starch in a shirt’ with the grasping fingers of analogy. But in these poems nothing is quite like anything else for more than a line or two. The most predictable and the most astonishing things happen simultaneously. The poem concludes with an invocation of mechanical regularity and cartoon surprise.
Still, planes take off into sky
The way you imagine something that might occur tomorrow
That won’t quit once you start in on it
Nor blow up properly when the fuse is lit
Giving life that razor’s edge quality
After all, the predictable happens, and so does the unpredictable.
Most poets write to make meaning, to record some relationship between feeling and thought in the form of words. Fischer writes poetry as a way to search for relationship between language – memory, passing thoughts, sensory experience, globs of words that coagulate into associations – and its opposite – a space so empty of conceptions, pre- or post-, that it might be the place where the world actually exists.
Poetry’s a way not a topos
In which something appears
It’s a sway among a swarm
To be hurled from side to side
Against the language walls
That tunnel subversive
Through what is
As far as it is known
Occasioning a gap in mind
Through which you could theoretically drive a truck
If that passage is a statement of intention, it goes some way to explain why Fischer is attracted to formal writing projects that literally fill ‘a gap’. His recent book Success (Singing Horse Press, 2000) was selected from 28 lines written each day for one year, filling the pages of a daybook. The long poem sequence that makes up ‘Ask A Difficult Question’ consists of lines written to fill the blank space in a book pre-printed with quotations of a saint from an Islamic tradition quite distant in time and culture from contemporary America. The setting of the poem, the context as it were, is the poet’s return to his hometown in northeastern Pennsylvania, one of the places where Polish Jews settled after the great migration at the turn of the last century, on the occasion of the death at the age of 52 of a close family member. The poem is a meditation on a particular kind of death, the death that comes, by social convention, too soon.
But by describing the poem in this way, I am making it into something that it is not, a narrative experience with characters, a setting, even a plot. The poem doesn’t work like that. It passes in and out of focus, moving from assertion to observation to internal meditation at the turn of a line. Every once in a while, such as in this last part of section 5, I feel I can see what’s going on.
And they believed in the words that reminded them
Said, Pay attention to what has been told
To what has passionately been repeated and sung
What has been sounded out on trumpets
Pay attention to that
When you come in and when you go out
By your arm and on your head
Do not imagine or construct anything
Because you cannot make anything that is not tainted
By wild desire, it is not new
Running along another road
But remember the story of what’s been repeated
In the comfort of authority
Be bound in that for the goodness it brings
Being a fine person is that
Held in the flaming words
Of how you are, be that
In the town create people to depend on to use
For the going
Of the entanglement of where you are to go
A white piece of cloth
Only knotted that way
Call it a name but do not say the name
Know it but do not think of it as a name
I can see a man, perhaps myself, standing in a synagogue surrounded by family members, repeating prayers that exalt God, prayers that existed before they were memorized and, once memorized, now exist deep in the complex where thought and feeling arise, “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be an ornament for your head between your eyes.” (Deuteronomy, 6:4-8) I see a man standing ‘In the comfort of authority’, describing for my benefit an interior dialog of what it feels like to pray the way Jews pray. But as soon as I fabricate this picture, I look back at the poem and wonder where it came from. Not simply from the words on the page. Another person might see a different picture, or might see nothing. That ‘white piece of cloth’, is it a prayer shawl or an image in a Buddhist sutra that is not already stored in my brain? Why do we ask, like Adam, for everything’s name?
It is a noble gesture to speak about the unspeakable.