Reviews and extracts


BEDE 673-725

 
Thirteen hundred years since you were born
Whose quiet voice settled the date of Easter,
With your book history for the English
Was begun. After so many years
Familiar to us and venerable,
Like an old schoolmaster who taught the sixth
Form’s grandfathers, in a green and chalky gown.
The chieftains flickering outside your light
Found you a kind of Merlin, maker of runes,
No spell more binding this side the Wendel sea.
Sixty years almost on a spit of land
Above the Tyne! Northumbria bounded
By a wall the Romans built to keep out
Anarchy, the long ships of the Northmen
Would bring it in by sea.
Prayer, study, teaching was what you called
Commitment, in these ‘I ever took delight.’
To-day on Jarrow’s central square two figures
Stare from stone and both are Vikings.
Only destroyers need a monument.
The Church has placed you in her calendar.

— Frank McKay *

A LETTER FROM ROBERT GRAVES

 
By Courtnay Place, waiting for the lights to change,
A girl from a class I hardly knew
Slipped from the arm of her boy and held my thought
By the hands. Voice too urgent for greeting
She told how the poet of the three-fold
Goddess found time to write. Hair
Thrown to the wind, eyes blue with mystery,
She whispered his words:
                                ‘Heroes of truth
And innocence are almost gone. Watch for them.’

The southerly blew through her eyes, tears
Came. ‘No,’ she cried, ‘there are none,
Not even one.’ The lights changed and she left me.
Her dress brushed the noses of throbbing cars.

— Frank McKay *

(* “This small collection of poems by Frank McKay has been printed by several student hands to mark his retirement after twenty years as a member of the Department of English, Victoria University of Wellington.”)


Rumpelstiltskin

 
Meeting you again
after all this time,
I’m afraid I won’t like you
Rumpelstiltskin,
King of Compression,
Lord of Inanimate Things!
Why must you stamp
your jewelled words
into the ground at my feet?
I will spin straw
into gold for you
if I must, but know,
cantankerous wretch,
that, being woman,
I am the queen of all
that is transformed.
Little King of Straw, think!
It is I who make you great.

— Meg Campbell

Only My Woes

 
Being unusually happy these
past few weeks, I have stopped
talking to you, my friend–
there is little to say. How can I
tell you of the seemingly trivial
things that elate, or calm me?
‘Tonight, Venus lies close
to the new moon. Tonight
he smiled at me, and I remembered
how his eyes used to burn approvingly.’
I won’t tell you these things
because my happiness bores you
in a way that my misery never does.
By the flickering of your eyes,
I know that your mind is elsewhere.
Something tells me you wish
to hear only my woes.

— Meg Campbell
 

Dream on a Good Friday

a love poem

I slept, and woke
and slept again
and dreamed, inside your arms,
of two darkened figures
moving quietly towards
a brilliant screen.
I was surprised to see
that they were irises–
purple, and black, like secrets
buried in me. I cried out,
and you hushed my mouth,
and took the night watch
and the haunting left me.

–Meg Campbell

8.

For you
or memory of you
my mind writes letters
composing phone calls
things to say, as every day
is rescued, by patterns of its own

these days
the dawn is something
worth getting up for —
kahawai in the estuary
a new neighbour to meet
plans for moving south

but there’s still you
or memory of you

and messages with nowhere to go

–Pat White*

(* on the inside cover of the book:
Prospero:
“What seest thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?”

— The Tempest: Act 1, Scene 2. )

Poems by obscure New Zealand poets, whose small, hand-set and printed volumes found in a Wellington second-hand bookshop.

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From the nearby archery range came the twang of a bowstring – a sound that made him think of the cold bite of the winter wind – followed by the dull thud of the arrow striking home as if the target were a slack-tuned drum.

His own heart seemed to him to be much like an arrow stripped of the flashing white feathers that gave it direction.


His Majesty seemed to be rather more frail than his imperial father had been, and although he was listening to the reading of his own composition, his face showed no sign of complacency, but retained an icy composure. Kiyoaki suddenly shook in fear at the totally improbable notion that his Imperial Majesty was in fact suppressing an anger that was directed at him.

“I’ve dared to betray His Majesty. There’s nothing to do but to die.”

He held fast to that one thought as he stood there, the atmosphere around him heavy with the rich fragrance of incense, feeling as though he might collapse at any moment. A thrill ran through him, but whether of joy or dread he could not tell.


The rain was still falling outside the windows and veiled the courtroom in a bleak light which seemed to focus on Tomi Masuda. She stood there as though she were the sole representative of all the complex emotions of man, living, breathing, grieving, and crying out in pain. She alone was endowed with the privilege of emotion. Until a few moments before, the spectators had seen nothing but a plump, perspiring, thirty-one-year-old woman. But now with bated breath and staring eyes, they were looking at a human being wracked by her feelings, writhing like a fish carved up alive for the dinner table.

She had absolutely no protection from their gaze. The crime that she had once committed in darkness had now taken possession of her to reveal itself before the eyes of them all.

from ‘Spring Snow’, Yukio Mishima

1914: “There was a time on the limits of two epochs in human history whence one could more easily see the end of that epoch which was closing than the beginning of the new one which was opening.”

“Stikovic was a born egoist and a monster, a man who could love no one and who as long as he lived, himself tormented and unsatisfied, would torture all those whom he deceived and who were near to him. Glasicanin did not speak much of his own love, but it was evident in every word, every glance and every movement. The girl listened to him, remaining silent for the most part. After every such conversation she felt more serene, more at peace with herself. For the first time after so many months she had moments of respite from her internal storms and for the first time succeeded in looking at herself as othes only an illusion even as her dream of love the previous summer had only been an illusion.”

——

“So be it, thought the hodja. If they destroy here, then somewhere else someone else is building. Surely there are still peaceful countries and men of good sense who know of God’s love? If God had abandoned this unlucky town on the Drina, he had surely not abandoned the whole world that was beneath the skies? But who knows? Perhaps this impure infidel faith that puts everything in order, cleans everything up, repairs and embellishes everything only in order suddenly and violently to demolish and destroy, might spread through the whole world; it might make of all God’s world an empty field for its senseless building and criminal destruction, a pasturage for its insatiable hunger and incomprehensible demands?”

“Anything might happen. But one thing could not happen; it could not be that great and wise men of exalted soul who would raise lasting buildings for the love of God, so that the world should be more beautiful and man live in it better and more easily, should everywhere and for all time vanish from this earth. Should they too vanish, it would mean that the love of God was extinguished and had disappeared from the world. That could not be.”


Extract: from Chapter 44, ‘Spring Snow’, Yukio Mishima

The circumstances that had led so rapidly to her renunciation of the world were as follows. When the Abbess had heard the entire story from Satoko that first morning, she had known at once that she must allow the girl to become a nun. Keenly aware that each of her predecessors at Gesshu had been an imperial princess, she felt bound to revere the Emperor above all else. And so she had come to the decision that she had to allow Satoko to enter even if this involved a temporary thwarting of the imperial will. She had concluded that, given the circumstances, there was no other way to discharge her loyalty to the Emperor. She had happened to uncover a plot directed at him, and she could not allow it to proceed unchecked. She was not one to countenance a breach of loyalty, no matter how elegant the cunning that disguised it.

Thus it was that the normally so discreet and gentle Abbess of Gesshu made up her mind, determined to give in neither to the force of authority nor to the threat of coercion. Even if all the world should be ranged against her, even if she were forced to ignore a particular imperial decree, she would persist in what she had to do — to be a silent guard of the sacred person of His Majesty.

Her resolve had a profound effect on Satoko, who became all the more determined to turn her back on the world. She had not expected the Abbess to grant her request so readily. She had had an encounter with the Lord Buddha, and the Abbess, her eye as keen as a crane’s, had immediately discerned the firmness of the girl’s decision.

Although it was customary for a novice to undergo a year of ascetic discipline before her formal induction as a nun, both Satoko and the Abbess felt that in the present circumstances this period should be dispensed with. But the Abbess could not bring herself to disregard the Ayakuras so completely as to allow Satoko to take the tonsure before the Countess returned from Tokyo. Moreover, there was the matter of Kiyoaki. Would it not be wise, she thought, to allow him and Satoko to bid each other a long farewell before she sacrificed what hair she had spared so far?

Satoko could hardly endure the delay. She came to the Abbess every day and, like a child teasing her mother to give her some candy, begged her to be allowed to take the tonsure. Finally, the Abbess found herself prepared to yield.

“If I were to allow you to take the tonsure.” she asked Atoko, “you would never be allowed to see Kiyoaki again. That wouldn’t trouble you?”

“No.”

“Well, once you make the decision not to see him ever again in this world and so advance to initiation, any later regrets would indeed be bitter ones.”

“I will have no regrets. In this world I shall never set eyes on him again. As for parting, we’ve had farewells enough. So please . . .”

Her voice as she replied was clear and firm.

“Very well. Tomorrow morning, then, I will preside at the tonsure ceremony,” the Abbess replied, allowing one more day of grace.

Countess Ayakura did not return in the interval.

From that first morning at Gesshu, Satoko had plunged herself, of her own volition, into the disciplined routine of convent life. The distinctive character of Hosso Buddhism was in placing greater emphasis on the cultivation of the mind than the practice of religious austerities. Gesshu Temple, futhermore, was traditionally dedicated to praying for the households registered with it as parishoners. Sometimes the Abbess would observe with gentle humour that the “Grace of tears” was something never encountered in Hosso Buddhism, thus underlining the contrast with the more recently arisen Amida cult of Pure Land Buddhism, with its great stress on ecstatic prayers of gratitude.

Then, too, in Mahayana Buddhism in general, there were no precepts to speak of. But for the rules of its monastic life the precepts of Hinayana Buddhism were often borrowed. In convents such as Gesshu, however, the rule was the “Precepts of a Bodhisattva” contained in the Brahamajala Sutra. Its forty-eight prohibitions began with ten major injunctions against such sins as the taking of life, stealing, excess of any sort, and lying, and it concluded with an admonishment against destroying Buddhist teachings.

Far more severe than any commandment, however, was the monastic training. In the brief time she had been at Gesshu, Satoko had already memorized both the “Sutra of the Enlightened Heart” and the “Thirty Verses” expounding the doctrine of Yuishiki, Each morning she got up early to sweep and dust the main hall of worship before the Abbess came for her morning devotions, in the course of which she then had an opportunity to practice the chanting of the sutras. She was no longer treated as a guest, and the senior nun, whom the Abbess had placed in charge of her, was now a changed woman in her severity of manner.

On the morning of the initiation ceremony, she carefully performed the prescribed ablutions before putting on the black robes of a nun. In the hall of worship, she sat with her string of beads wrapped around her hands, which she held clasped together in front of her. After the Abbess herself had first taken the razor and begun the tonsuring, the old nun in charge took over. And as she shaved steadily with a skilled hand, the Abbess began to chant the “Sutra of the Enlightened Heart,” accompanied by the junior nun.

When she had consummated the works of perfection,
The Five Aggregates of living being became as
Things void before the Bodhisattva Kannon’s eyes,
And stricken from her was the yoke of human suffering.

Satoko, too, took up the chant, her eyes closed. And as she did so, her body became like a boat that is gradually lightened of all its cargo and freed of its anchor, and she felt herself being swept along on the deep swelling wave of chanting voices.

She kept her eyes shut. The main hall had the penetrating chill of an ice house, and so, although she herself was floating free, she imagined a vast expanse of pure ice gripping all the world around her. Suddenly the cry of a shrike came from the garden outside, and a crack raced across this icy plane with the swiftness of a jagged streak of lightning. But it sealed itself almost at once, and the ice became whole once more.

She felt the razor working its way with scrupulous care across her scalp. Sometimes she imagined the frenetic gnawing of a mouse’s tiny white incisors, sometimes the placid grinding of the molars of a horse or cow.

As lock after lock fell away, she felt her scalp begin to tingle with a refreshing coolness that was quite new to her. The razor was shearing off the black hair that had separated her from the world for so long, sultry and heavy with its sorry burden of desire; but her scalp was now being laid bare to a realm of purity whose chill freshness had not been violated by any man’s hand. As the expanse of shaved head broadened, she began to feel the skin coming more and more alive, just as if a cool solution of menthol was spreading over it.

She imagined that the chill must be like the surface of the moon, directly exposed to the vastness of the universe. The world she had known was falling away with each strand. And as it did so, she became infinitely removed from it.

In one sense, it seemed as though her hair were being harvested. Shorn black clumps, still saturated with the stifling brilliance of the summer sun, piled up on the floor around her. But it was a worthless crop, for the very instant that the luxuriant handfuls ceased to be hers, the beauty of life went out of them, leaving only an ugly remnant. Something that had once been an intimate part of her, and aesthetic element of her innermost being, was now being relentlessly thrown aside. As irrevocable as the amputation of a limb, the ties that bound her to the world of transience were being severed.

When her scalp at last shone with a bluish glint, the Abbess addressed her gently.

“The most crucial renunciation is the one that comes after formal renunciation. I have the utmost trust in your present resolution. From this day on, if you seek to purify your heart in the austerities of our life, I have no doubt that you will one day become the glory of our sisterhood.”

*

This was how Satoko’s premature tonsuring came about.

Lam 1
1:19 I called for my lovers,116
but they had deceived me.

Jeremiah 6:26
Dear Daughter. Weep most bitterly, as for an only child.

Jeremiah 31:15
[ Mercy on Ephraim ] Thus says the LORD: “ A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.”

John 11:33-35
35 Jesus wept.

Thus says the LORD:
“ A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation and bitter weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted for her children,
Because they are no more.”

Rev21:4
4 And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”

Matthew 5:4
Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted.

MOTHER COURAGE: He must be a very bad commander.

THE COOK: Just a greedy one. Why bad?

MOTHER COURAGE: Because he needs brave soldiers, that’s why. If his plan of campaign was any good, why would he need brave soldiers, wouldn’t plain, ordinary soldiers do? Whenever there are great virtues, it’s a sure sign something’s wrong.

THE COOK: You mean it’s a sure sign something’s right.

MOTHER COURAGE: I mean what I say. Listen. When a general or a king is stupid and leads his soldiers into a trap, they need the virtue of courage. When he’s tight-fisted and hasn’t enough soldiers, the few he does have need the heroism of Hercules – another virtue. And if he’s a sloven and doesn’t five a damn about anything, they have to be as wise as serpents or they’re finished. Loyalty’s another virtue and you need plenty of it if the king’s always asking too much of you. All virtues which a well-regulated country with a good king or a good general wouldn’t need. In a good country virtues wouldn’t be necessary. Everybody could be quite ordinary, middling, and, for all I care, cowards.

— Bertolt Brecht, ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’

We all know that we are material creatures, subject to the laws of physiology and physics, and not even the power of all our feelings combined can defeat those laws. All we can do is detest them. The age-old faith of lovers and poets in the power of love, stronger then death, that ‘finis vitae sed non amoris’, is a lie, useless and not even funny. So one must be resigned to being a clock that measures the passage of time, now out of order, now repaired, and whose mechanism generates despair and love as soon as its maker sets it going? Are we to grow used to the idea that every man relives ancient torments, which are all the more profound because they grow cosmic with repetition? That human existence should repeat itself, well and good, but that it should repeat itself like a hackneyed tune, or a record a drunkard keeps playing as he feeds coins into the jukebox…

That liquid giant had been the death of hundreds of men. The entire human race had tried in vain to establish even the most tenuous link with it, and it bore my weight without noticing me any more than I would notice a speck of dust. I did not believe that it could respond to the tragedy of two human beings. Yet its activities did have a purpose… True, I was not absolutely certain, but leaving would mean giving up a chance, perhaps an infinitesimal one, perhaps only imaginary… Must I go on living here then, among the objects we both had touched, in the air she had breathed? In the name of what? In the hope of her return? I hoped for nothing. And yet I lived in expectation. Since she had gone, that was all that remained. I did not know what achievements, what mockery, even what tortures still awaited me. I knew nothing, and I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past.

— Stanislaw Len, ‘Solaris’

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