by John Wall Barger | Contributing Writer
1. The First Gate
In Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia, there is one oak tree that’s taller, broader than the others.
It’s November, 2021. Yesterday the tree’s leaves were bright red. Last night it rained and today its leaves are in the grass. All summer I’ve watched people watching this tree, making little awestruck sounds. Some took selfies with it. Others ate lunch or did yoga under it. Once, while I was sitting under it, an old woman appeared beside me looking up at two hawks circling.
We’ve been in the middle of the Covid-19 epidemic for twenty months. Three quarters of a million Americans are dead. I, like many I know, have been feeling an encroaching sense of dread. It’s a lonely, isolated time; all of us in masks, keeping our distance. One point of respite, where we can commiserate, is social media. But I’ve become hopelessly addicted, checking my emails and notifications every minute of the day.
My ability to concentrate has suffered from social media’s demand for quick results and rewards. Even out on a walk, rather than looking at the world around me, I’m formulating posts for later. I’m learning to limit social media to an hour per day. And I take daily walks to the Woodlands Cemetery to look at the oak tree, and do not post about it.
As I slow down and look at the oak, day after day, it changes. Yesterday it was a Gustav Klimt painting: lush, golden, teeming. Today it’s an Egon Schiele drawing: gaunt and braced for winter. Some days it reaches up with 8,000 arms. On others it bows, an acolyte. Over time the tree has become part of my mental landscape. I’ve absorbed it into my broader, archetypal story of the Earth.
Through the tree I’m learning to look again. When I unleash my mind upon it, sustaining my gaze, something happens. I see the seed it came from, and the mulch where it goes when it dies. And I see its opposite: the broken bottle, the truck coughing smoke, the fizzing electrical wires. I see my own body: my nervous system, my bones. My brain a tree, a cauliflower of existence. There is a growing between mind and tree. Blood coursing through the eye, chlorophyll pulsing in the cells of the leaves. Back and forth.
The tree reads me. Embeds itself in me, my psyche. As I stop below it and look up at the nerve endings of its branches, the tree reaches into me, my imagination, my historical memory, taking up space, growing, pooling. It’s the tree beside our house in Bear River, Nova Scotia, when I was six, which I once fell out of. It’s the skinny plaster tree Giacometti designed for Beckett’s 1961 production of Waiting for Godot.
The tree reads everyone differently. Perhaps you see the tree you climbed with your first lover. Perhaps Dylan Thomas saw “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Perhaps Lorca saw the Barren Orange Tree that cries, “Free me from the torment / of seeing myself without fruit.”
In a flash, through the tree I see the root from which we all grow. An every-tree, spiraling outward, linked to every living thing.
As a poet I’m a magpie. I see a shiny thing and collect it.
Looking is simple: there’s an eye and a thing. My eye and an oak tree. It’s easy to glance at things, but difficult to keep looking. The real work of poetry, I think, is in the original looking. I want to see as I did as a child: awestruck, absorbed. In that state of mind the poem floods in. To become a better poet, I want to foster that kind of seeing.
I scoffed when I first heard Wordsworth’s claim that he’d written “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” entirely in his head, in the carriage on his way home from the church ruins that day. I still doubt that all those lines of decasyllabic blank verse just came to him, ready-made. But I think it’s possible that Wordsworth held his gaze on Tintern Abbey, looking deeply, and the form and spirit of the poem came to him in a flash.
The shiny thing I’ve collected is the oak tree. Later, at home, I reenact with language the reverie of my original seeing. This is what vision means for an artist, I think. If I succeed in transmitting that reverie, the reader can see the oak too. But if I can’t, there’s no amount of razzle-dazzle language, or playing with forms, that can revive my poem.
I’m learning, slowly, to see not just with my eyes, but also with fingers, nose, ears, tongue. To see with the mind, which is imagination. With feelings, memories, dreams. The hands, the heart. Reading, too, is a kind of seeing. Even talking.
Everything inside me, everything I am, brings me to the tree, to the moment of looking. The tree asks, What is inside you at this second? Anger, agitation, hunger? Or breath, heartbeat, focus?
What would the objects around us look like if we were centered, open? William Blake suggested, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, in finite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
I am dead sick of my “cavern.”
The tree sends me to my bookshelves, to movies, to Google. My curiosity, like lightning branches, flashes in every direction.
I’m sitting in my living room beside a small stack of books of Japanese poetry. Haikus, I read, contain a seasonal reference. I find a shiny poem by the 17th century Japanese poet Bashō: “The oak tree: / not interested / in cherry blossoms.” That’s my oak tree!
Bashō wrote in a simple, natural style, combining haiku, poetics, and his impressions of things he came across. He traveled alone, off the beaten path, on the Edo Five Routes. He was prepared to die on these dangerous roads, probably at the hand of bandits. His walks lasted years.
I find myself reading one passage from his book, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, over and over.
What pertains to the pine tree, learn from the pine tree;
what pertains to the bamboo, learn from the bamboo.
To do that you must leave behind you all subjective prejudice. Otherwise you will force your own self onto the object and can learn nothing from it. Your poem will well-up of its own accord when you and the object become one, when you dive deep enough into the object, to discover something of its hidden glimmer.
However well you may have made your poem, if your feeling isn’t natural, if you and the object are divided, your poem will not be true, it will be instead a subjective forgery.
I feel instinctively that this is where I’ve been heading. It’s unclear to me from this translation of Japanese whether Bashō intended the word glimmer, whose root comes from Old English glæm, “brightness.” The spirit of Bashō’s “hidden glimmer” seems to be scintilla: from Latin, “spark, glimmer,” hence “least particle, trace,” from figurative: “particle of fire, spark, glittering speck, atom.”
I can easily imagine a “particle of fire” rising up out of the oak tree, as if formed by the friction and heat of my attention. The phrase “hidden glimmer” captures what happens in my mind when I have the patience to sustain my gaze on the oak tree.
Bashō recommends that, while looking, we abandon “all subjective prejudice”: empty ourselves of expectations, rather than projecting our bias onto the object. Simply keep focus, he says, and the poem “will well-up of its / own accord.” With this looking comes a feeling of oneness with the object, and with the world as a whole. When watcher and watched are one, the “hidden glimmer”—more often translated as underglimmer—comes to the fore.
For me, that’s when language recedes and the object I’m looking at suddenly seems weirder. It’s no longer an “oak tree,” but an alien many-armed monolith; the dog is no longer “tan” or “Rottweiler,” but a drooling comical thing of myth; the man is no longer “ugly” or “hairy,” but pure energy, eyes blazing in mid-air.
It’s in that place without language, I think, that the poem sparks. The release of the name of the thing feels almost palpable.
I think of it, the name, as a gate. Inspired by Bashō, I walk through this gate, into the unknown.
2. The Second Gate
I find myself reading an old favorite, Anne Carson’s Short Talks, and daydreaming about sneakers.
At fifteen I became fixated on the new Air Jordan sneakers. It began with a worship of basketball god Michael Jordan, and jealousy of a classmate who wore a pair to gym class. I made my father drive me all over Manhattan to find the exact colors Jordan wore on the poster on my wall, his tongue extended, dunking the ball. And finally the sneakers were mine, out of the box, on my bed: clean, brand new, dazzling.
In retrospect, I think my longing for the sneakers peaked before I owned them. My desire was not dependent on how they looked: though they were, I still think, impressive. I wanted the sneakers because of what having them meant about me. I wanted a little flake of what Jordan had. The sneakers spoke to my ego, my insecurities, my fantasies.
Bashō tells us that looking should not be a one-sided projection, a tyranny of the eye, as it was with me and my sneakers. Instead, looking should involve a kind of exchange between watcher and watched. Carson, in “Short Talk On The Mona Lisa,” describes Leonardo da Vinci looking at his model, Lisa del Giocondo:
Every day he poured his question into her, as you pour water from one vessel into another, and it poured back. Don’t tell me he was painting his mother, lust, et cetera. There is a moment when the water is not in one vessel nor in the other—what a thirst it was, and he supposed that when the canvas became completely empty he would stop. But women are strong. She knew vessels, she knew water, she knew mortal thirst.
In the deep silence of Leonardo, his utter absorption in Lisa’s face, there’s a communion between them. Is there desire? Perhaps, but also recognition. The scintilla rises between them, drifts back and forth, dynamic.
As I look at the oak tree I feel this exchange. As if the tree had agency: reaching inside me, scanning me like a text. In even the most jaded of us, this feeling of connection can suggest some greater infrastructure, something bigger than ourselves.
And in this communion, this pouring back and forth between watcher and watched, there is another palpable shift: desire falls away. The second gate is desire.
In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young anti-hero Stephen Dedalus experiences such an internal shift. He’s on a walk by the Irish Sea, struggling with his guilt for visiting a prostitute, his mind full of fire and brimstone Catholic stories, when he sees a woman in the water:
She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird . . . He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling . . . Her eyes had called him and his soul had leaped at the call. To live, to err, to fall, to triumph . . . A wild anger had appeared to him . . . to throw open . . . the gates of all the ways of error and glory . . . He felt above him the vast indifferent dome and the calm processes of the heavenly bodies; and the earth beneath him, the earth that had borne him, had taken him to her breast. He closed his eyes in the languor of sleep. His eyelids trembled as if they felt the vast cyclic movement of the earth and her watchers, trembled as if they felt the strange light of some new world. His soul was swooning into some new world, fantastic, dim, uncertain as under sea, traversed by cloudy shapes and beings. A world, a glimmer or a flower?
Typical of Joyce, this passage can be read in divergent ways. First, it describes Stephen the instant he becomes conscious of his power as an artist. Joyce employs the language of ritual and myth: envisioning the woman as a “strange and beautiful seabird,” half submerged in water, half reaching up to the stratosphere. Not a creature to be possessed. A language informed by the liminal “languor of sleep.” A reverie. This is Stephen’s artistic revelation: an attainment of vision. The woman appears as a rite from deep in the earth, a “glimmer.” The earth itself rises up in the form of a woman.
But as we continue reading we realize that the woman is probably urinating (“The first faint noise of gently moving water broke the silence, low and faint and whispering …”) and Stephen is probably masturbating (“… to throw open before him in an instant of ecstasy the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!”). The scene is more problematic than I’d assumed! Not free of desire at all. This doesn’t fit into my essay as well, because it doesn’t describe a Bashō-like relinquishing of “subjective prejudice.”
But, also, there’s a third way of looking at the scene: as not being either profane or holy, but somewhere in the middle. Certainly Stephen’s gaze objectifies the woman. But if we read on, we see that the woman is looking back, too: “She was alone and still, gazing out to sea; and when she felt his presence and the worship of his eyes her eyes turned to him in quiet sufferance of his gaze, without shame or wantonness.” The woman, far from passive, participates in the scene.
So is the passage transcendent artistic ecstasy, or smut? Can’t it be both? Perhaps, for Stephen, desire—or its momentary suspension—is integral to artistic revelation. Perhaps his revelation is triggered by being watched in return, that communion, echoing the exchange between Leonardo and Lisa: “as you pour water from one vessel into another, and it poured back.”
Looking isn’t pure. It’s messy. Desire is messy. Vision is messy. The gates are messy. Everything about being human is messy.
The first gate, when the name falls away, is well-oiled, free-flowing. I’m used to looking at things and the name for them vanishing. But desire is a different story. This second gate, in my experience, is rusty, stuck, broken.
That said, sometimes, fleetingly, desire does evaporate while I’m in the process of looking. I’m in a mall holding the new Air Jordans, and suddenly they look weird, alien, fascinating. I’m connected to the sneakers, but how? I don’t care what they give me, what they mean about me. In that moment I’m no longer a consumer, with what marketing theorists call “buyer’s eyes.”
There is, in my experience, no complete relinquishing of desire. Just instants where desire is suspended. We pass through this second gate and return where we started in an eyeblink. Stephen’s artistic revelation flashes by, and his desire floods back. We can try to retain these moments, but the history of Catholic priests warns us of the dangers of forcing unenlightened abstinence.
There are moments when I look at the oak tree and don’t want anything from it. Where my bias and my ego seem to fall away. Lightning bolt moments which I remember and carry to the poem.
For the magpie, such flashes are enough. The glittering world leaves us slightly dazzled, constantly.
3. The Third Gate
A poet is the porous rag of the world, drenched and stained by everything they witness. Through their poem, we see with them, as they see. We are their proxy seers. The poet says, I have been looking. Here is my gold. “Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you,” says Annie Dillard. “You open your safe and find ashes.”
I, still a bit drunk from the vision of the oak tree, watched two films by Chris Marker tonight: Letter from Siberia and Sans Soleil. Marker’s films are documentaries, critical essays, non-fiction reflections, science fiction, photography, poetry, prophecy. Brimming with awe and wonder. Not reported information, but jewels between cupped palms. Every frame personal, an offering, the way my generous mother offers me a folded article or photo or book every time I see her, which she’s been dying to show me and only me.
Marker’s films come from a zone of endless scintilla. Poem unlimited. Blinded by revelation. Visionary.
His films are full of looking, with the world looking back, like Leonardo and Lisa. Letter from Siberia looks at Russia. Sans Soleil looks at Japan and Guinea-Bissau and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. With “obsessive curiosity,” as Marker called it, he collected images for years to make each film. One feels with Marker the sense of the artist as magpie, out in the world collecting bright things for us. In subways, markets, temples, bars, streets. The brokenhearted beauty of real folks. Their dream worlds. In Sans Soleil, as we watch images of taxidermied animals in sex poses, the voiceover tells us, “the Japanese secret—what Lévi-Strauss had called the poignancy of things—implied the faculty of communion with things, of entering into them, of being them for a moment.” The scene shifts to Kiyomizu-dera Temple in Tokyo, a crowd of reverent people, clasped hands, downcast eyes, traditional robes and beads.
There is a ceremony for brushes, for abacuses, and even for rusty needles. There’s one on the 25th of September for the repose of the soul of broken dolls. The dolls are piled up in the temple of Kiyomitsu consecrated to Kannon—the goddess of compassion—and are burned in public.
Like Joyce, Marker loves how the sacred and profane mingle: rusty needles, broken dolls. An animatronic JFK in a shopping mall. A TV with wavering paintings of deer, with this voiceover: “I’ve spent the day in front of my TV set—that memory box. I was in Nara with the sacred deers.” Then a photo of a white bird in a tree, reflected in the river:
“I was taking a picture without knowing that in the 15th century Bashō had written: ‘The willow sees the heron’s image … upside down.’”
Marker transmits, somehow, a mindset we all recognize: deep attention. The mind quiet, present. Without worries, without plans. A mind I associate with making art. Being so immersed in a poem that if my wife is talking to me, or music is playing, I don’t hear it.
Ironically, Marker’s films are noisy. While making Sans Soleil, he captured documentary travel footage with a 16mm Beaulieu silent film camera and a non-sync tape recorder. He added sound later: voiceovers, recorded audio, music. The music—composed by him under the name Michel Krasna—is haunting: drone, ambient soundscapes, looped reverberations. It’s unsettling, dissonant, but also absorbing and, somehow, as timeless as Tarkovsky’s alien Zone in Stalker, which Marker often refers to. A Zone separate and, as the title suggests, sunless.
They say that when you’re watching a mainstream movie you shouldn’t hear the music. Music’s role is to foreground action. If you do hear music, it has jarred somehow; your mind has separated it from the action and you’re no longer immersed. Marker, similarly, creates a noise-scape in order to draw us into the broader cumulative effects of the film. Sound, in his films, urges us into a mind state of deep concentration, like meditation. A reverie.
The third gate is noise. Walking through this gate, we enter silence.
I’m not a silent person. I struggle to sit still and listen. But the more I cultivate silence, the more it becomes normal. Suddenly I’m in an Uber looking out the window at a limping dog. Everything in my mind, everything I’ve done, everything I know, brings me to this moment of looking. A poem bursts out of the blue, as it did to Wordsworth in his carriage. In my Uber I whisper “Eureka!” as the Greek scholar Archimedes did when he discovered the principle of buoyancy in his bath, and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse.
My mind, after an extended period of concentration, feels flexible, pliable, open. Mercurial, untethered. Silent.
It’s our superpower, I think, as artists and humans. Attention is all we’ve got. My wife can feel my attention even if I say nothing. My cat, feeling it, reciprocates. This is how we show reverence, respect, affection. It’s our whole power, our only access to the deep song and to the supernatural. It’s at the center of artmaking, meditation, prayer, and love.
Marker has found, in his singular film-essays, a form that holds many images, many ideas at once.
I’ve described what happens to my eye as I observe the oak tree. But the process of looking becomes very complicated quickly. First, no object is really still. Objects move. Buddhists and scientists agree that everything, however inanimate, is gravitating toward its own end.
Also, what happens when we look at two things, or two hundred? Before our eyes, a child becomes a chaotic schoolyard; an anthill becomes a swarm; a city street becomes a mob. The thing blurs, abstracts. Morphs.
What happens when we try to hold an entire culture, or the whole world, in our mind? In “Vorticism,” Ezra Pound—whose poetic montages in The Cantos surely inspired Sergei Eisenstein’s influential film montages—wrote that things juxtaposed “create their own relationship.” Marker thrives in this new space, as he said in an interview, created “in the fashion of a musical composition, with recurrent themes, counterpoints, and mirrorlike fugues.” His films relish montage, anachronism, synchronicity. The heat emerging from unlikely things—Japan and Guinea-Bissau, taxidermied animals and spiritual acolytes—rubbed together. In Letter from Siberia, a passing image becomes a central symbol of the film, a revelation about history and time itself:
And now here’s the shot I’ve been waiting for, the shot you’ve all been waiting for, the shot no worthwhile film about a country in the process of transformation could possibly leave out: the contrast between the old and the new. On my right, the heavy duty truck: 40 tons. On my left: the telega, two hundred forty pounds, the past and the future, tradition and progress, the Tiber and the Orontes, Philomena and Chloe, take a good look because I won’t show them to you again.
High afternoon sunshine on a dirt road, a river in the background. A truck hauling gigantic logs drifts right, revealing a horse and carriage drifting left. Somehow these unlike things together, this anachronism, fits.
Marker’s films hold unholdable things. Linking everything—countries, people, art, past and present and future—to create a holistic immediacy. He transposes two simple images, then adds more and more and more, for hours—weaving images the way, in Heart of Darkness, the three old women knit the threads of human destiny—forming a tapestry that, I feel, enacts the entire world.
Slowly what has seemed unlike becomes like. Rivers from different countries, characters from different mythologies, are shown—as the noise lifts—to be part of a single story. The past comes to us out of the present like a revelation. Like a thought we already had.
In Sans Soleil, Marker drags us with him past the third gate, into silence. We feel that we are with him, beside him, in his visionary moment.
To achieve this intimacy, he breaks every rule of film school: using bizarre angles, subjects staring into the camera, images out of focus or upside down. Anything to bring our attention to this moment, now, with him across time and space. Any innovation or mistake that works in this moment. Like Tarkovsky’s Zone, the space Sans Soleil occupies morphs, disintegrates, reassembles, reinvents itself. A holistic dream, free of categories.
We are looking at a woman. She looks away, shyly. We see, gradually, that she’s aware of the camera. She allows herself a quick glance at us:
My personal problem is more specific: how to film the ladies of Bissau? Apparently, the magical function of the eye was working against me there. It was in the marketplaces of Bissau and Cape Verde that I could stare at them again with equality: I see her, she saw me, she knows that I see her, she drops me her glance, but just at an angle where it is still possible to act as though it was not addressed to me, and at the end the real glance, straightforward, that lasted a twenty-fourth of a second, the length of a film frame.
I’m riveted, first, by the intimacy of this sequence, the electrical jolt of that twenty-fourth of a second. The filmmaker is in love. And I am, too. But, as with Joyce and his “seabird” woman, it’s complicated. In Marker’s case, a white man looks at a Black woman in a country with a history of colonization by Portugal. Perhaps, one has to think, her version of this moment would have been different.
Was Marker, like Stephen Dedalus, ogling the woman? The exchange feels like affection, to me. But maybe that’s what I want it to mean. In the end I don’t know. The film, its context, its montage, reads me. It asks me what I’d like to take from this moment. It asks who I am. It allows me, in its silence, to create the scene myself.
That twenty-fourth of a second will strike you differently. Will light up different villages of your mind.
Watch it yourself.
4. Past the Gates
The gates are mental markers I cross, consciously or unconsciously, when I maintain my attention on a thing. For the first gate, the name “oak tree” falls away and the shape in front of me suddenly seems bizarre. For the second gate, I don’t want the sneaker any more, and feel that I could never possess it. For the third gate, my concentration on the limping dog deepens into a hushed reverie.
For me, looking deeply is difficult at first, and then tremendously comforting. I’ve always been a bit nervous and restless; patience does not come easily to me. Years on social media—that oasis of immediate gratification—exacerbates my impatience. Before my focus expands, I wade through waves of restlessness.
But the more I visit this precious and rare space, the more my writing practice grows.
I am, of course, describing my own mind. You might cross the three gates in a different order, at different speed. But I trust that everyone recognizes the deepening of concentration that comes with crossing the three gates. It’s the link between “hobbies” like stamp collecting and checkers, and “high art” like piano playing and oil painting. This muscle, which came to us naturally when we were kids, goes slack if we don’t use it.
Since the space past the gates is nonverbal, it’s tempting to reach for grandiose language to describe it. As such, we reach for shorthand words like, perfect, essence, God, soul, and silence. The language of faith and philosophy. Even Bashō, when he suggests that we renounce “all subjective prejudice,” might be reaching. Letting go of bias seems like a helpful suggestion rather than an iron-clad necessity. As we look at an object, surely there will be some residue of who we are, our egos and personalities. Isn’t it enough to try to let go of our prejudice, and let the object be what it is?
Such hyperbolic language, while sometimes effective, can also be a trap. An excuse for us to stop looking and to sound clever in the process.
For as soon as we name the thing, or desire it, or stop being absorbed by it, we stop looking at it. Naming and possessing are illusory kinds of knowing, which provide a momentary balm because of course it’s uncomfortable not to know. But, ironically, when we think we know, we’re as ignorant as ever, and robbed of the pleasures of looking.
The scintilla arises when I allow myself to look, to be absorbed, and not to know.
I stand, again, under the bare oak tree in Woodlands Cemetery. Despite my best effort to extricate my ego, as Bashō suggested, the tree still resembles the one I fell out of in Bear River, 1976; and the one in my backyard in Halifax, 1982. I cast my soul out over the million trees I’ve seen, a blur of smells and touches and images and feelings.
This oak tree, my madeleine, triggers me.
When Bashō looked at the pine tree, he saw the poem. His own desire for the underglimmer. And his desire for us to see it, too.
When Louise Glück looks at a tree, in “Copper Beech,” she sees her childhood. The tree reminds her, like me, of a tree from her youth, when the speaker “was a child like a pointed finger.” Through the tree, Glück sees back in time: “The copper beech”—tree of the past, present, and future—“rearing like an animal.” Then come revelations: “I had two parents, / one harsh, one invisible. Poor / clouded father, who worked / only in gold and silver.”
For Glück, as for us, literal looking—bringing attention to an object through our senses—is the initial trigger. Then comes the work of the poems and of our lives: concentrating, remembering, feeling, opening. As we pass through the gates, looking becomes figurative. And some glimmer always rises up. That’s the gift of the world. We can’t force the process but if we’re patient, staving off aversion, every tree is a locus mundi.
In Alice Oswald’s “Fox,” the ear does the looking. The speaker wakes to “a cough”: a real-world trigger that sets off the poem like a fuse. What comes after is all figurative, in the mind of the speaker. She imagines a thief-like fox “in her fox-fur / stepping across / the grass in her black gloves.” The ending—“my life / is laid beneath my children / like gold leaf”—is in the voice of the fox but is, we trust, actually about the speaker. A moment of reverence and devotion to her own kin.
In Franz Wright’s “September Sunflower,” the eye triggers an epiphany. The speaker is convalescing in bed, looking at a sunflower. Although his ailment isn’t clear, we know that Wright was hospitalized numerous times for substance abuse and manic-depressive disorders. As he stares at the “intense yellow flames” of the sunflower petals, an inward transformation takes place: “Light filled the room // light I assumed / coming in through the window / but no …” Through the sunflower the speaker “loved again // And walked again.”
Reading the poem, we experience a portion—a flake, a fragment—of the speaker’s recovery.
What if we do not pass through the gates? What if we keep holding the name, embracing the desire, letting the noise in? Unabsorbed.
Many of us, me included, remain in this state most of our lives. Perceiving the world anxiously, nervously, hastily. Hoping for quick answers. In this mindset, I’m less likely to have the forbearance to outwait my first impressions. I project my preconceived ideas onto the thing, without experiencing the intense exchange or “mortal thirst” Carson described.
When I write this way, my poems are drained, anemic. Written quickly. Read quickly, if at all. Forgotten.
But is this process (we gaze, glimmer rises), which I’ve described as a kind of magic, also naïve and possibly dangerous? Doesn’t obsessiveness have a shadow side? I seem to be assuming that obsession leads to good outcomes.
When Hafiz looked at a rose, light emerged. But what about when Sylvia Plath “looked” at her dead father? Or when Hitler looked at a Star of David? When a stalker looks at a woman on a dark street, does a glimmer arise?
Not every looker is the same.
In Sans Soleil, out of nowhere, without preamble or voiceover, a giraffe is shot.
A male giraffe like a lighthouse in the desert. First he staggers on stick legs, blood spurting from his neck. A thread breaks and he falls back on himself. The ground rises to meet him. His neck unrolls like parchment, like a river. His massive body shudders horribly, grasping for what is indestructible. Druidical knobs of his head in sand. His wound retches. He strains to stand, huge body in the dust. A man walks over, slow, and shoots him in the head. Two vultures stroll into the frame, unhurried, feathered bankers. One pokes its beak deep in his eye like a key.
How does light come from this? But it does.
In the objects around him, Lorca saw the torches and bullfighters of Andalusia. Mary Oliver, late in life, saw the dogs of Provincetown. Jack Gilbert saw the hot rocks of Santorini. Charles Olson saw the boats of Gloucester.
These are their images, the most beautiful things they’d ever come across. Their idea of the sacred. Lenses through which they saw everything else.
My favorite kind of looking is compassionate. Sans Soleil is punctuated with prayer. Marker shows us minutes of prayer at a time, at various temples around Japan. He admires people’s devotion, unironically.
On a train in Tokyo, Marker shows us face after face, nodding off, sleeping. Somnambulists. Gradually, when we’re lulled into a reverie, he intersperses a montage of dreams, their inner worlds: cartoons, eyeballs, naked bodies, a swordfight, shadows on the ceiling, sheets in the wind. “The train inhabited by sleeping people puts together all the fragments of dreams, makes a single film of them—the ultimate film.”
And I realized that all of Sans Soleil, with its reverence and respect, has been prayer. And Marker’s entire life. And my entire life.
Because looking is prayer.
John Wall Barger’s poems and critical writing have appeared in American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review Online, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, The Hopkins Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth collection of poems, The Mean Game (Palimpsest, 2019), currently in its second print run, was a finalist for The Phillip H McMath Book Award. His next collection, Resurrection Fail, is forthcoming with Spuyten Duyvil Press (Fall 2021). He is a contract editor at Frontenac House. Barger lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches Creative Writing at The University of the Arts.