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The Art of Attention

I live in Swords, but I experience very little of its detail. My daily walk through Rivervalley Estate is brisk and only for exercise. I’m usually lost in rumination, sensing but not sensing, seeking my poetry elsewhere. 

That’s how it was on the second of April 2011. I was considering recent difficult decisions and their consequences. My i-pod was on shuffle and I wasn’t hearing it. Without knowing why I stopped, I became aware that I was looking up. So deep was I in the tangle of inner wanderings, it took some seconds to realise that the sea of white above my head was a cherry blossom tree in full bloom.

The tree entered my private world and snatched me out of it. We connected, as if we both had senses. This wasn’t like the other cherry blossoms in the front gardens of the estate. It stood apart, on a patch of grass that serves only as a buffer between the community centre and the church. It was more like a lone thorn, self-aware within its twisted bark, under a flat cap of leaves. I had walked past it at least two hundred times and never noticed it.

I knew I could make a poem of this, but didn’t know how. I’d have to explore everything about the moment – my state of mind, the season, the world news. I checked my i-pod to see what had been playing. It was the song of the Norwegian sailors from the third act of Der Fliegende Holländer by Richard Wagner, a track from a Classical compilation. I’m no opera buff, the opposite, but now I was on its trail. I had to learn about Wagner and listen to this opera right through. The tree itself naturally led me to Japanese culture and history. My morning walk turned into a complex series of intersecting tracks. Would they have any central logic or unifying theme?

To the Japanese, the cherry blossom represents transience and transcendence. It embodies the concept of ‘mono no aware’, the power of things to produce a depth of awareness. In its condensed exuberance we experience the enormous capacity of the world to give and take. The Japanese know life’s fragility more than most, living as they do in the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, host to 90% of the world’s earthquakes. The month before my 'moment', the country's largest ever quake had caused 18,000 deaths.

Japanese history is conflicted, insularity informing its culture and politics. There’s a long tradition of harsh martial practice and a record of war-time atrocities. The gently elegant cherry blossom has been used as an inspirational motif in the most violent of contexts. In World War II, kamikaze pilots took branches of the tree with them as they set off on their missions. Given the particular complexity of the national psyche and its legacy of guilt, Japan has something in common with its former ally, Germany.

Wagner was anti-semitic and believed that the Germans were a morally superior race, but these views didn’t detract from the splendour of his music. Der Fliegende Holländer / The Flying Dutchman is a story of hubris and the triumph of virtue. Faced with impassable seas round a cape, the Dutchman pledges to sail for eternity rather than give up his attempt to conquer the hostile strait. Satan hears and condemns him to do just that. He must keep sailing, only every seven years allowed to put in to shore. His only redemption will be through unconditional love. This he finds in Senta, who sacrifices her life to prove her devotion.

Opera grew from the marriage of poetry and music, the voice becoming the intrinsic vehicle of meaning. By contrast, Japanese haiku and tanka are powered by the symbolism of concrete objects, discovered by meditative attention. The short nature of the haiku tends toward silence.

It became clear that the poem would be about guilt and forgiveness, not least my own. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, John Donne wrote. Ask neither for whom the tree blooms. It blooms for thee. It doesn’t ask what you have done, or whether you love enough. It’s there, with all its branchings, for whoever pays attention.

The poem that resulted is in twenty-seven parts, using different styles and metres. Haiku and tanka crop up among couplets, a quasi-sonnet, 'free' verse and news quotes. It’s a walk, a web of thoughts, a storm, a sinning, a singing, a coming home. It ends as its inspiration began, with a luminous moment of attentive, white silence.

For the year since the second of April 2011, I've been watching the tree. It's been 'my tree'. A few months of that period I was writing the poem. Then I was writing other things. In times of confusion, yes, I embraced it. I grew to love its quirky stance and its modest, naked persistence. I've been waiting for the recurrence of bloom, and today, 23rd March 2012, here it is. A promise kept. What does it mean? White, weather, season, what grows, what changes, what remains, nothing except itself.

The poem isn't published yet, so I'm being retentive, but here's a tiny section:

reverse into dock
white flags bedeck the harbour
the colour of home

 
 


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