Poetry from Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
followed by Q&A
bonism in the finite field of senryu
calcium, flakes of chalk
blanket of snow–droves, sheets
city to city
from ridge to terrain
new fonts pinned to the bridge
its roof red, shellac
where do we go now
from bridge into rain, terrains
as foreign and white
read the lunation
what it says about winter
then perfect the step
as with the clear sky of senryu
there was no window
evening mood as funereal
hasse in the blue room
handel in the drawing room
now coatroom for guests
there was no time for talk–
no coffin or loss
a button under the couch
its hand-carved edge gold-tinted
its light dwindling
as with atomism a pearlescent senryu
what is knowable
in the here and now and world
of visible things?
in the mix, squares suspended
like this doubt, staying
repainted over with red dye
a deep, loveless hue
the monad stilling
like a stray flower landing–
rock garden quiet
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has a forthcoming chapbook by Firstfruits Publications, the inaugural installment of Nicholas Liu’s Storm Glass Project. Trained in publishing at Stanford, with a theology master’s in world religions from Harvard and fine arts master’s in creative writing from Notre Dame, Desmond has edited more than ten books and co-produced three audio books, several pro bono for non-profit organizations. He is the recipient of the Singapore Internationale Grant and Hiew Siew Nam Academic Award. Desmond also works in clay, his commemorative pieces housed in museums and private collections in India, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.
Q: Every schoolchild is taught to write haiku–can you discuss the place of senryu in Japanese literature, and why perhaps we should be teaching that form?
A: The senryu has essentially the same form as the haiku, with its three lines. And morae, or syllable count. The haiku focuses on nature and the seasons, while the senryu differs in subject matter and tone. The senryu is permitted to adopt a darker demeanor, take on cynicism and black humor, like some koans. I view the senryu as the burlesque of Japanese poetic forms. All this said, within a postmodernist sensibility, all the rules may be jettisoned, with only the spirit of experimentation to re-establish the senryu as its own figural reconstruction, and what it might be attempting to be or achieve in that moment of existing, of being.
In my senryu, for instance, I shamelessly carve in the “kireji,” or cutting word, used quite liberally across lines, across stanzas. Each title tends to be deliberately reflexive, while standing on its own as a monostitch. I’m also pulling both forms–of haiku and senryu–out of their normal climate through the inclusion of isms–to foist, as if to put the screws on–the use of such theoretical abstraction rarely associated with either form.
In the poem, “as with atomism a pearlescent senryu,” I remember reading a chapter of G.L. Hagberg’s Arts as Language: Wittgenstein, Meaning, and Aesthetic Theory, before embarking on its first stanza. Here’s an excerpt from the sub-chapter titled “The Mirroring of Emotion”: “Logical atomism and formalism are not the only influences on [Susanne] Langer’s theory of art…. Virtual form, she claims, is the property that all artworks share; indeed, only through the presence of virtual form are they works of art…. The work is divorced ‘from its usual causal and practical surroundings,’ and it is this divorce which accounts for what Langer calls the ‘unreality’ of art. What is of interest in a work of art is, in the way it was for Kant and Schopenhauer, out of this world: it lies beyond the physical. Thus it is only through this special perceptual channel that the virtual form is visible. The artwork has been defined as a symbol, and ‘a symbol,’ she says, ‘is any device whereby we are enabled to make an abstraction.’”
I liked the idea of turning the naturalistic representation of these Japanese forms on their head, and to allow abstraction an equal stage within the form, as if the abstract could be as concrete a sound, as definite an image as “light snow on pavement / yucca line and a sidewalk / against curve, grass, lawn”. I’ve since surprised myself and gone on to work with the choka and gogyohka, the latter a new form invented by Enta Kusakabe in 1957 as a revisioning of the five-lined tanka.
To answer your question, I agree that both the haiku and senryu would make for fun exercises for children. They involve simple acts of counting, and pay such attention to sound–not rhyme as much as units of sound in phonology. And the larger references to nature or our collective human folly is easy enough for kids to identify and establish in their poems. Compared with the daunting sestina and ghazal, I guess these short forms are easier to get a handle on, more suitable for getting a child interested in poetry, and literature in general. The teacher might throw in this line by Yeats, like an anchor into a boat, to round off the session: “A line will take us hours maybe; Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, our stitching and unstinting has been naught.”
Q: Your line “a button under the couch” made us think of those forgotten or discarded combs in classic Asian poetry … what poets or what traditions do you see as formative in your writing?
A: It’s really interesting how you highlighted that particular line. It’s a very specific image, a moment from my childhood. I penned “as with the clear sky of senryu” after reading about Peter Orlovsky’s passing sometime in mid-2010. I began wondering what it would be like to survive your lover for more than ten years. A poet himself, Orlovsky was Ginsberg’s lifelong partner. Yes, Ginsberg who said that “Poets are Damned… but See with the Eyes of Angels.” The whole idea of death made me reminisce about my grandmother’s death. The image of the button is a fond memory I have of my grandmother. One time, Ah Ma had dropped a button she was trying to sew. It had rolled under the couch, and she asked me to retrieve it because I was the youngest, and had the smallest arms that would fit under the couch. I remember feeling happy and empowered, to be of use, to be able to do something an adult couldn’t.
The forgotten comb in classic Asian poetry! It’s this sort of absence–of lost time, of the unseen object or story–that seems so prevalent in Asian poetry, and indeed, provides even a small poem much intensity and range, despite its seeming simplicity. I’m no authority on classic Asian poetry but let me share something I like from Michele Marra’s Modern Japanese Aesthetics, an excerpt from the chapter “The Space of Poetry: The Kyoto School and Nishitani Keiji”: “According to Nishitani, the space of the concept of emptiness is better located once the character for emptiness (ku) is dissociated from its Buddhist implications and understood in its original etymological sense of ‘the empty space,’ ‘the empty sky’ (koku)…. The infinitude of emptiness is finally caught in an image, the sky, whose finitude allows one to grasp the notion of the unseen. The infinite is brought to a graspable reality by the image of a concrete sky that makes infinity a manifestation of the concrete. ‘Manifestation of the concrete’ is the etymological meaning of the Japanese word for ‘reality, actuality’ (genjitsu). The mediation between the graspability of the mind (the infinite) and the graspability of the eye (the phenomenon) takes place at the level of poetic language through the metaphorical power that language has to say the unsayable. Poetic language gives form to the formlessness of the infinite.”
If I had to pin down some writers who have influenced me, it would be Auden, Kafka, Camus, Beckett, Hopkins, Plath, Eliot, Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, James Joyce, Aimé Césaire, Robert Duncan, to name a handful from the canon. I know it’s an eclectic selection that traverses a bizarre spectrum of poetic styles. I constantly stumble upon a contemporary work that makes me sit up and take notice. I felt that with Joshua Beckman, Nathaniel Bellows, Cole Swensen, William Fuller, among so many others. So much poetry has been written–and so much groundbreaking work has been coming out in the last fifty years–that to discover a new voice, a new way of seeing the world, is always exciting. And completely refreshing.
One of my all-time favorite books is The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson, which surprises me given how removed I feel from nature having lived all my life in a thoroughly urban landscape. I love how in Peter O’Leary’s afterword, we find out Johnson returned to Kansas for good in 1995, to live in Topeka with his father, and continued working in turn as a handyman, gardener and cook. O’Leary writes that it was there that The Shrubberies “took form,” that Johnson appeared to have “considered at least two schemes” for the book: “one as a tour through a garden; the other as a record of the changing seasons…. By the last poems, his attention turns from the particularities of the natural world to the cosmos at large.”
Q: Discuss the interplay of your studies in both theology and literature.
A: My scholarship has been complex, with a bit of every peculiar thing thrown in–this was deliberate, as if to feed my own kooky bazaar of interests. I like to think that my studies in comparative religion and contemporary literature has helped in my writing that constantly grapples with ideas of truth, knowledge, beauty, alienation, suffering, violence, love, sexuality, freedom, death, and yes, faith.
I have come to appreciate using the term “spirituality” rather than “religion” or “theology”. That said, theology works perfectly fine as well–after all, theology is the matter of faith seeking understanding, and that definition, in my opinion, is very inclusive and welcoming.
In Stephan van Erp’s book, The Art of Theology: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics and the Foundations of Faith, there are delineated four kinds of contemporary theological aesthetics, with van Erp touching on the sometimes bittersweet history of how theology and the arts have conversed throughout the last two millennia. From Plato to Augustine. From Aristotle to Plotinus to Pseudo-Dionysius. Or Aquinas and Cajetan naming ‘the beautiful’ “as one of the transcendental concepts,” this same notion later rejected by philosopher-theologian Francisco Suarez.
The freedoms necessary in art creation can sometimes seem disquieting and bristly to theology, which can sometimes expect of itself only an unflappable, collected cool. For me, this struggle only aids in surfacing healthy questions that beg new depth and insight, of forgotten or remote things sometimes taken for granted. I think the notions of truth and beauty are inextricably entwined, and continuing the dialogue about the two and their relationship to each other, is a wonderful and much needed thing.
At the beginning, I found myself intrigued by this theoretical threstle and interstice. What is this idea of theological aesthetics? I found in Alejandro García-Rivera’s book, The Community of the Beautiful, an easy understanding: “Asking the question, what moves the human heart?, I believe, brings us closer to the mysterious experience of the truly beautiful, an experience that transcends geological space and prehistoric time, an experience that holds the most persuasive claim to being what has become an aporia in our day, the real universal.”
Beyond the intellectual ruminations, I think it’s just amazing how much beauty there is in the symbols and rituals of the world’s various faith traditions. What one is left with eventually is the object, whether it’s a material artifact or written script. “It is only in the world of objects,” as Eliot astutely observed, “that we have time and space and selves.”
It could be admiring the craftsmanship of the Habdalah wine cup, spice box and braided candle. It could be noting how for the Persians, the rose and other flowers feature so prominently in miniatures of the Timurid and Safavid periods. Or noting how trees feature in biblical texts, like the acacia in Exodus, cinnamon in Kings, myrtle in Isaiah, or sycamore in Luke. Or noting how in the Kalachakra mandala, within the stupa and Mount Meru, are symbolized the five natural elements – of earth, water, fire, air, and ether – and how a ring of fire circles the mandala, the presence of “fire” in turn allegorizing “knowledge” in Tantrism.
I’m all the more grateful for my scholastic training because my own poetry has been so enriched by the knowledge, a knowledge that I keep adding to, and questioning, with no end in sight. I recall reading such interesting academic essays comparing, say, the Bhakti poet-mystics and the Spanish Carmelites. Or Masao Abe and Keith J. Egan sharing their thoughts on Zen and Christian contemplation. Then I would sit with the texts, truly let their importance sound their soft trill and ring, and then begin my own words. In poetry, I find myself at my most free, allowed the open space to explore these different tropes–the imagery, the metaphors, the symbols–and let them interact with each other in new ways. As words jostling on the page to liberate a new oration, a new narrative. “At the entrance, my bare feet on the dirt floor,” as Czeslaw Milosz wrote. “Here, gusts of heat; at my back, white clouds. I stare and stare. It seems I was called for this: To glorify things just because they are.”