Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Why I Am Not a Buddhist"

I love desire, the state of want and thought
of how to get; building a kingdom in a soul
requires desire. I love the things I've sought-
you in your beltless bathrobe, tongues of cash that loll
from my billfold- and love what I want: clothes,
houses, redemption. Can a new mauve suit
equal God? Oh no, desire is ranked. To lose
a loved pen is not like losing faith. Acute
desire for nut gateau is driven out by death,
but the cake on its plate has meaning,
even when love is endangered and nothing matters.
For my mother, health; for my sister, bereft,
wholeness. But why is desire suffering?
Because want leaves a world in tatters?
How else but in tatters should a world be?
A columned porch set high above a lake.
Here, take my money. A loved face in agony,
the spirit gone. Here, use my rags of love.
Molly Peacock

I came cross this poem on a blog, and it immediately struck a chord so I printed it off to keep. I found myself rereading it with real pleasure every time I "accidentally" came across it again in my big box of "might-be-useful-one-day" print offs and cuttings. And since I couldn't chuck that poem out, I clearly needed to blog about it!

I am a great admirer of Buddhism, and certainly went through my Buddhist phase in my late teens. (I've tried on and failed at almost all of the world's principal religions in turn!) I liked that the starting point of the religion was not belief (which I have terrible problems with, as one of nature's unredeemable cynics) but observation and reason. Four noble truths? Fine. An eight-fold path? It made sense but I couldn't quite get round to implementing it in my own life.

And whilst I can see that all suffering in the end comes from attachment, I couldn't even imagine not being attached to things and people.

Isn't loving and getting our stupid hearts broken, trusting and getting let down and disappointed, what makes us human, and in the end makes us grow? How do we experience joy without desire?

The speaker in the poem has a quirky and idiosyncratic list of the things that she would find it hard to let go of. I think that any one of us could supply our own list and it would be, like hers, composed of both the petty and the overarchingly significant. Desire is, as she says, ranked. Not everything we want has equal weight.
How else but in tatters should a world be?
This is the pivotal question of the poem, and of course, rhetorical. How could any of us begin even to know how to answer it?

I have some difficulty with the last three lines. What is "the columned porch" to which she refers? Why does she offer money? How does the face in agony fit with the idea of desire? I'm not sure this ending works (dare I say?).

But the last image: "my rags of love" is effective. This is all I can give you, but you're welcome to it.

And I love the conversational tone and the flow of the piece. As if the speaker is talking to us directly to her lover, building up her argument thought by thought, piling on thoughts as they come to her. And I think this is a case worth making!

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Blogger dreamer idiot said...

This is a really interesting poem, mixed between a personal, whimsical air, a touch of the irreverent irreligiousness (mauve suit and God) and a deep, sincere longing for some form of redemption in life. I really like how the speaker in the poem unabashedly celebrates her life: sensuality, material possessions and off course, the sinfully delicious foods one indulges in – that I can definitely identify, haha.

But, the poem then turns serious with death coming into the picture. The paradoxical lines, “but the cake on its plate has meaning,/ even when love is endangered and nothing matters.” suggests a reaching out for some kind of meaning in darkness, conveying an ambivalence towards desire and the celebration of life… which brings to the Buddhist philosophy of emptying oneself of all that is transient. What kind of life is there without desire – the zest of living and of life itself? Yet it is very much part of the human condition as the inevitability of pain.

I am not sure either how the last few lines pull together in the end, but I would like to venture a few guesses. “A columned porch set high above a lake” could very well be a vague attempt of trying to picture or represent some possibility of a higher power or being in the cosmos. I draw this from the sense of temples in the ancient world with its columned architecture, and the porch as a kind of ‘homely’ throne, if you will, from which us mortals are looked upon. But then again, it could also be some cherished property owned, that one would be willing to give away, along with money, and everything that one possesses, if only to relief,, alleviate the suffering of one’s loved ones (presumably sister and mother, from the earlier line). All in all, the poem strikes me as personal, and if it be not too crudely put, one that hovers between the something-ness and nothingness of life.

Thanks for sharing this. PS. one more hour to Champion's League football - one of the pleasures in life :)

2:28 AM, March 08, 2007  
Blogger Sharanya Manivannan said...

I liked this poem. I liked how it starts off with an almost dismissive attitude (keep your lofty ideals -- gimme some cake and clothes!), but just as you're settling into the notion that it's going to be a cheeky sort of poem, you're drawn into a deeper introspection. Like you say, Sharon, it really is like a conversation. The more she talks, the more she gets contradictory or into different sorts of thoughts -- and that is captured so well, altogether. But the columned porch is lost on me too.

1:02 PM, March 09, 2007  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

I like this poem too, especially when the first line, the first three words, answer already why the poet cannot be a Buddhist - she loves desire. And she repeats 'desire' and 'love' and its cognates a few times more. She loves physical things, and hates to lose any of them.

But, in the wake of 'why is desire suffering' I can see some 'redemption' for her: she understands that 'want leaves a world in tatters'. 'Tatters' here implies wreckage, disaster, even war. Even so, she sees some exalted sight - physical realisation of some kind of nirvana? She can still be a Buddhist if she wants, as she is selfless and has charity in the end, and compassion, seeing suffering.

Her 'rags of love': this harks back to 'tatters', so that we see it also as poverty and humility, this time. In some Asian countries Buddhists have to undergo or experience, some time in their lives, some manner of suffering, not agony, by shaving their heads, living for some short while wearing only safron cloth and only accepting food from people, for their daily meals.

1:35 PM, March 10, 2007  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Sorry to continue this on another comment: just noticed something significant. The first lines start off quite lengthy, and a bit complex in syntax. The last few lines have very much shorter and simpler sentences, to denote a change from a complex or complicated life, to a simpler or simple (Buddhistic)life.

1:57 PM, March 10, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Very interesting idea, Leon, on the asceticism or simplicity in the later lines. This will keep me thinking.:)

7:18 PM, March 10, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

I would like to tackle just the final four lines.

I think that it is significant that after the question, "how else but in tatters should a world be?" she offers a single end-stopped sentence with a single, unambigous, and--most importantly--whole image: "A columned porch set high above the lake."

I'm not very well-versed with Buddhist philosophy but I hope I'm not too far off if I say that after the series of questions, very much like koans, this line precisely captures a moment of awakening... of enlightenment.

Clear vision. One almost always imagines that anything that is over a lake is reflected clearly on the water's surface.

Notice also that there is no description of movement in the image. Completely still, and the line is appropriately hard-stopped. Perhaps performed with an extra-long pause.

Also, when I got to the line the first image I had was of the Parthenon in Athens (but I don't think that it overlooks a lake), and that is the only image that sticks. I can't recall any Buddhism-related (or rather, eastern) architecture that has a columned facade. It is very much a western-born aesthetic.

Nevertheless, I feel that the allusion to the Greek temple is intentional, in that as a symbol of western materialism, it is in opposition to Buddhist spiritualism.

After this pause immediately comes action.

"Here, take my money", suddenly the speaker addresses us (or some imaginary listener, perhaps her mother or sister. Notice that before she desired health for her mother and wholeness for her sister, both who are presumably suffering from ill-health and loss, respectively.)

Then another image, "A loved face in agony," why? because "the spirit gone" or lost. A failed/conflicted Buddhist, maybe?

This is followed by another action, of the poet offering the use of her "rags of love" ... I'm not inclined to think that this description is a substitution of money, rather, it is an elevation from a material offering to a spiritual one. "Rags of love" implying that there is more love within, if only she could give it wholly.

Or, more likely, she realizes that herself 'loving desire' does not have enough love herself... only rags to give.

Apologies if all this is rather vague. My grasp of the philosophies involved is still very slippery.

3:09 AM, March 14, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

I just noticed this.

Interesting that the poem seems to follow a rhyme scheme (near rhymes in some cases):

abab cdcd efgefg hihl

It looks like a sonnet to me, even if not a traditional one.

It works like one, though, in the sense that the final lines brings together two opposing ideas--which I have shown above.

3:14 AM, March 14, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

"Or, more likely, she realizes that herself 'loving desire' does not have enough love herself... only rags to give."

sorry this was a terrible sentence.

I meant to say: more likely, by her own admission that she loves desire, she feels that her capacity to love is limited (as desire would impair giving), thus able to give out 'rags'.

3:21 AM, March 14, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

apologies again for continuing in yet another comment... Leon is infectious hahaha

I'm beginning to feel confident that the poem is loosely based on the sonnet form.

The way the ideas were developed within the poem seem to be consistent with a sonnet's structure, and when read as such, the final lines make a lot of sense.

3:38 AM, March 14, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Machinist, you are a genius!

Yes, it is a sonnet, absolutely. I didn't see it then. Your reading of the columned porch and its materiality sounds way better than mine, though there's still a case for my reading... I still mch prefer yours.

I guess that is what's good about this poem, that it doesn't foreclose its meaning altogether, and remains in ambiguity - an ambiguity on desire, and ultimately of life itself and the suffering which is a part of it.

12:22 PM, March 14, 2007  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

thanks all so much for your comments and making the effort to unravel the tougher bits. you all have some very good suggestions.

the image that came into my mind when i read about the 'columned porch' was a folly in a country estate in england! many land owners in the (18th built mock greek temples or romantic ruins to set off the landscape and improve on nature ... but i don't think that's what the poet herself had in mind, because she's american ...

thinking about that troublesome line again i wonder if "a columned porch" represents a kind of untouchable perfection, an ideal as opposed to the messy reality of life which is often in tatters. i.e. there is a deliberate opposition of images here.

i hadn't noticed the rhyme scheme machinist and now kick myself! rereading it, i appreciate it ... and admire the way that it is so unobtrusive

but i don't think we can call this a sonnet. the definition of sonnet can be pushed and pulled of course, but it always has 14 lines. here we have 18!

6:51 AM, March 15, 2007  
Anonymous notapoet said...

Hey, i'm just doing this for a school project but i think i've figured out the columned porch above a lake. If you look at the american penny, it has the columned porch of the Lincoln memorial center on it, which just happens to be beside a lake. The next line also says, "Here, take my money". i still don't know what it means though

11:48 AM, December 04, 2017  

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