Presence in Absence

The following text is the afterword to In the Garden of Absence by Stella Pierides, published in November of 2012 by Fruit Dove Press in Neusäß, Germany. First written in October of 2012.

 

“Our true home is the present moment. To live in the present moment is a miracle. The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Readers of any book of poetry can assume that each poem has substantial personal meaning for the writer. The poems in this collection go one step further, offering personal meaning to the reader, even if subtle. Many of this book’s poems are haiku. Ogiwara Seisensui once referred to haiku as being “unfinished” poems, in the sense that they require the reader, more than with any other kind of writing, to fill in the details or finish the story. More importantly, the genre of haiku invites the reader to interpret each poem however he or she will, or at least to have an emotional reaction. We can see a simple example of this in the following poem:

 

moment of stillness

just before the light

changes

 

It is easy to assume a traffic light here, but the poem does not say that, so we have the larger opportunity to imagine the changing of light outdoors as the sun nears the horizon, or to picture some other changing of light. Whatever the case, the poem brings us to attention by its focus on a moment of stillness. We can feel the moment itself even in the way the poem pauses, or hitches up, as we read line two and then down to line three. We feel gratitude, too, for this moment of stillness, for this miracle of living.

        One of my favourite Zen stories is as follows:

 

A student came to Master Ichu and said, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.” Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.” The student said, “Is that all?” The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.” In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?” Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”

 

This is the realm of the haiku poet, paying attention in simple ways (and sometimes vast ways) to the surrounding world, noticing the warmth of a hen’s eggs on Mother’s Day, that only a dog makes eye contact on a crowded train, or in observing the tiny dark holes in a pin cushion as we extract its pins. As Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.” This is the attentiveness that haiku and other short poems ask of you—to join the poet in really seeing, in paying attention. Henry Miller wrote that “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” The art of paying attention is not only to see, but to let appreciation for what you see wash over you, typically generating a feeling of gratitude and belonging.

        Another example that demonstrates how we can apply varying interpretations to a poem is as follows:

 

slow stream

a heron stretches his beak

towards the sky

 

The ambiguity of this poem—a trait I like to call “perpetrated ambiguity”—enables us to imagine at least two possible scenarios. One is that the heron has just caught a fish, and tosses its head back to swallow it. The other is that the stream is so slow that it offers no fish to feed the heron, causing the heron to stretch impatiently, perhaps in an attempt to look around before it flies away to a more promising location.

        We are then left with the question—what difference does the interpretation make? That may not matter, or may not be the point, because the careful use of ambiguity can compress the poem, suggesting two meanings where a lesser poet would present only one. Often both meanings are true, and the reverberation between them points to the larger sense that life itself is full of ambiguity and uncertainty. Either way, we are drawn to a point of action, where a decision can be made. Either the heron stays put, with renewed purpose, or it flies off in search of a more fruitful bend in the stream. As readers, we too may come to a decision point, even if we don’t realize it.

        The preceding two examples offer imagistic immediacy, the central building block of haiku poetry. Consider the following poem, which takes a more abstract and conceptual turn:

 

butterfly moon

the delicate structure

of white lies

 

Here too we are given the gift of interpretation. We are empowered to deduce. What is a butterfly moon? What physical structure could lies possibly have, let alone white ones? Is the moon lying to us about its dark side? We see the moon’s whiteness echoed in the whiteness of white lies, but what are we to make of this? Are to make anything of it? T. S. Eliot has reminded us that genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood, and perhaps that is all we need to know. This is one way to “finish” the unfinished poem, to feel it without necessarily understanding it—or analyzing it. But if we choose to, we can still seek out meaning and understanding. In that sense, perhaps haiku are like flashlights or torches. The writer points the flashlight, choosing what to focus on. But the reader must still turn on the light. This is how the engaged reader takes the poem from unfinished to being a little flash of illumination. We thereby perceive, as R. H. Blyth put it, “a temporary enlightenment in which we see into the life of things.” This illumination is communal, belonging to both the writer and the reader as they share an experience, a feeling, a revelation.

        Short poetry, and especially haiku, gives the audience empowerment, letting readers take the hint offered in the poem, telling readers to fly with it, to take the poem wherever it may go—in ways that the poem itself might not even lead. Whatever is absent in the poem, even if not intentional or consciously omitted, affords an opportunity for emotional and intellectual exploration. The poems in this collection by Stella Pierides give us much to explore.

 

forget-me-nots

in the garden of absence

mother’s gaze

 

        As the author points out in her introduction, she values the capacity to be alone, or as E. E. Cummings referred to it, oneliness—which he viewed as the true heart of loneliness. Such “creative aloneness” offers abundance rather than absence, finding presence in absence. Whatever is absent, whatever is missing, is not lamented but venerated, giving the poet as well as the reader a sense of fullness, of transcendent oneliness in place of despairing loneliness. Much is absent in haiku, making these poems themselves a garden of absence. Yet much is found in such short poems, making them as full and as present as imaginably possible.

 

autumn wind

shifting the weight

of loneliness