Meditations on Lost Psyche — Robert Nelson
Songs for the end of rhapsody
The thoughts that thrill the mind are of their time
and don’t transcend the hour from which they sprang.
We dream of fixing moments, holding smoke
that streams between the fingers as we clutch:
the harder is our grip, the less we grasp,
the more we squeeze it out and end the space.
I think my thoughts stand tall, expand, transmit,
are in a thousand listening ears at once,
that beauty which is shared could range beyond
and spread its happy humours outward, onward,
yet buoyed by copious vanity: how it’s mocked
when future ears are deaf and eyes are blind
to all the witnesses of closed experience!
To think that moments, cut from time, endure
and shed the very substance of their being,
as if the ashes of my intuition
once having birth in me would rise again,
and spread fecundly, striking fertile seed,
engendering thence prolific parturitions,
no longer me but mine in sempiternity!
My language dates me more than hoar and wrinkle.
The things I hear and see are all consigned
to ancient chambers, broken books and pictures
crazed with sombre layers; every screech
that shatters peace with piercing imposition
is either entertained within my library,
encrusted well with antique preconceptions,
or else disperses, muffled. It follows then
that all the things I say which find an ear
will either reach an alien shelf to rest on
or fly in air till nothing more is heard.
My consciousness is made from me. It lives
because I gave experience this receptacle:
me, that confluence of past events
whose meaning multiplies within the frame
that also hosts a will, a love, a hope.
In countless currents coursing over time
experience folds its meanings one by one
in rushing strands that overtake each other
until outreaching one another’s drift:
if breathless streams could reach an equilibrium
and form a pool, that patient pond were me,
a depth of aggregated droplets calmed
from high confusion into settled volume.
You too are like the waters, formed in flows
that share their changing substance wave by wave
with all contiguous fluids racing free
and then compounding thus to form your core.
Chaotic histories make us what we are,
both shared and random, striped with running strands
whose slippery likeness neither rises elsewhere
nor even might recur in you yourself.
Each moment lived is gone. But what we are
though nevermore is whole and indivisible,
of that integrity that singly trumps
the tossed vicissitudes of restless change,
to spell our final triumph: that we have been!
This shore is where I am and where I stay.
A home is something else, a place where waves
have crashed and wiped the basis of the past
that swims like flotsam, floorboards now unmoored
to toss their figments of a gentle future
in seething agitation. I came from there,
a gracious place of rich resplendent streets,
a place that now submits its distant grace
to present floods of monstrous weight and fury
as if submerged by all the zeal to own it.
It’s gone. The site remains but not the place itself
whose very fable now is cast adrift
like froth that mocks the ear by dampened roar
and whisks its foam in airborne permutations
as if to tell a path that leaves no trace.
If I could say: ‘that place was generous, warm,
of such a noble cast that sage and songster
migrated there, attracted by the conversation’,
unconsciously, you’d scornfully react:
‘how dare she speak of virtues from that place
that so refused to house her! Where’s her gratitude?
To celebrate the place that shut you out
insults the tolerant folk who took you in.’
And yet for me to reconcile these poles
defines my whole experience: these contentions
describe the person who I am and stay.
Sublime traditions perish; cultures ebb.
Another coast, less beaten by the storms,
receives my sad entreaty; tempests rage
within that country too; they too divide
like heavy waters caught in frenzied gales,
though condescending to the placid beach
to make a weak pretence of calm civility.
O great horizons shared by all the elements
and so comprising us of every contintent:
we still have time to mourn and start again.
I bring seductive truth and sweet deceit,
unpleasant facts and also spiteful fibs
in guileful equipoise. No story told
has art or grace but something in the texture
enjoins your wishes, like the carded yarn
whose catchy fibres stretch their clumps of fluff
and pull their likeness to each other, threadlike,
to form a single line. Just so my stories
entreaty your desires in countless twists.
My diction rolls around your need to know
and folds it in with calm rhapsodic wiles.
My gentle pitch upon a grassy bank
where only things imagined flow and stay
belies the fearsome grip with which I clutch
the world’s imagination. The world is language
and all the stories make the ponderous sum
that is your larger life’s combined instruction.
The land itself contains a narrative. Whose?
A story woven by the original folk
or one of equal fantasy, one which says:
this land is yours to take at such a price
and then possess for endless profits hence?
Though stories map the river-course of history,
I never say: I speak for you alone
and therefore not for her who idly joined.
All stories presuppose a friendly audience.
Though artificial, weird, invented, wanton
provoking sadness with the Wyven’s cry,
my story comforts, pleases, makes a promise
and then disperses through the country air.
I live in transformations, and am myself
transformed beyond the orbits that I’ve spun.
Till now, my stories wind their loopy skeins
on faithful bobbins pegged upon a loom;
but now the story boasts a heavier weave
of endless capital, entrepreneurs who seize
the gift that is the luscious narrative poison
and turn it out on vast industrial scale.
The story might be mine but not to keep.
Once trafficked far the story gets its fame
from those who take it on and build it up
who act, design, direct, produce and market
in corporate plans beyond the story’s edge.
I’m gone and yet I stay. What story next?
My world was horizontal, tame and perfect.
The charming reason for my studious being
was for curating nature and to polish,
to render perfect nature yet more scrupulous.
This horizontal world lies flat like me
to match a point to which all parts defer.
The bridge is for a path, the bush a prospect,
the tree’s a temple made for tone and balm,
the grass a carpet, nature’s minimal way
to show respect to greater things and lords.
This kind vignette submits its glorious peace
to open up the heart to perfect days
where nature and our minds are intertwined.
Yet now the world is vertical. Townscapes soar
and all around the towers implacable symbols
express ambition, zeal and endless energy.
Where once exotic things were borne in miniature
they now achieve distinction in their vastness,
in noise and tumble, height and brightest flash.
Retiring nature now means twice the fantasy.
It always was imaginary, even when
in feudal times the garden kept its bud
to mimic stately pleasures by its ornament;
but now this leafy haven hangs its fronds
in pictures, virtual vistas, branded horticultures.
I’m not and never was my garden’s gardener.
I make the garden yours and make myself
that gladsome image which you’d most possess
if gardens could be ploughed with vigorous seed
and turn their fertile beds to sprouting shoots,
where limbs that languish rise in virile regrowth.
This damp and porous place I keep for you.
It has no purpose other than for us.
My song transfers from place to place and lives
by sundry skies to thrill the eager stalls;
it draws its borrowed breath from those who hear
and makes communal empathy by enchantment.
My tent is swollen with the infectious sounds
that so engorge the ear with complex harmony
that words and music billow forth their consonance
till every humble cell forgets its lowness
but reaches out in uncontainable buoyancy.
I too am filled with public inspiration
and crave that crowd that waits and sits for me
and harks, despite the numbers, like a friend
who joins in confidential intimate closeness.
I animate hundreds; they, though, animate me.
But then the mob moves on and leaves me here
to plan my next appearance somewhere else.
To play the minstrel leaves me on the edge
of being who I am through love-sick song;
I trade my sadness, trysting for a while
till people gain the measures of my plaint.
The happy chant belongs to someone else
who knows to make the listener share the bliss
as if the very ownership of pleasure
could be transferred by music’s dancing pitch
and you, the reveller, love to be seduced
to prove that rightful claim to access joy
whenever whim should strike and work bows out.
Not me. My music tickles languid heart-ache
a world inside where aspirations clash
with amorous hardship, all the heart’s travails
that sleep their torpid dreams in listless chords,
and rise and fall as if their cadence imitates
some reasoned march of passion, consolations,
a solace borne in sweet but strained abstractions.
If I were glum, it’s only that this song
has spent its melody nor will chime again.
I sing of moody existential moments,
narrations cast between a static picture
and epic tales that start and end in passion.
My subject isn’t just the scene or story
but rather how my language gains a grip
on each conception, every word or phrase
arising in the texture of the thought.
To know that thought has weave and fold and stitch
commits our hasty diction to the warp of time
where all the threads that make our story hang
stretch out their grid in quaintly laboured metres
as if their loom encased the thought’s experience.
O rhythmic object, ply your twisty artifice
and make your tidy convolutions spell
the fabric’s fringe beyond the argument!
The art of language means extrapolation
a word beyond the word whose sideway tug
invokes extensions, lateral wanton meanings.
O metaphor, slip and churn, distract the term!
Define the insight as a form that runs,
that madly scurries over facts and fictions
to seek suspected parallels, not a monument!
The handsome word that sings is just a symbol
whose thrust is most direct when least contained,
as if to muster seas and soaring skies
the word has shifting fins and beating wings,
that dives and glides in atmospheric volume
to clinch whatever existential moment
might hover through the thickest clouds of memory.
My craft is now dismissed as convolution,
not talking straight, obscure, indulgent, idle.
An anxious culture seeks control of language
and calls for rationality, verbal plasma
that’s free of colour, symbol, skew analogy,
a non-elitist language good for children
that never mimics how the mind proceeds,
how language seeks organic correspondence
to hatch ideas distilled from random wishes.
What desolation now defines the field
I know too well: it sits around our eyes
with dull discredit to the fanciful impulse,
a wasteland built from economic modules
of no creative flight of near and far
that sharply hems our every flounce and feather
to bring discouraged wit to rest in ruins.
My mother’s tongue is English. English language
creates the scaffold of the thoughtful edifice
that is my intellectual shrine and temple.
My education, though, has many storeys
that rise from deep foundations built with stones
that antedate my towering mother tongue
and also jamb their blocks from other places,
exhumed from ancient Greek and Roman soils
with lustrous crystals grown to hold the glint
of sun-struck lands with brilliant myth and lore.
I study ancient texts, divine their sense
and take their meaning home to lay my walls,
my claim to hold the past and stretch my footprint
upon the classic ground that props my birthright.
The past and present both secure my place.
Italian, French and Spanish, sundry others:
their accents give me access, path and road
to claim and boast familiar conversation
not only with the folk but with the place.
I seize the language, seize the precious card
whose writing grants the passport and authority.
From there, I seize the fine impassive marble
from careful excavations, digs and shops
whose agents know the archaeological price
and gladly sell their cultural goods to me.
I know you scorn my project, hate my claim;
your judgement crimps my page with deprecation
and all my learned papers prove to you
that scholars turn their arts to pious treachery
denuding those whose soil they would befriend
of all that once belonged to them and theirs,
their humble heritage, reassigned to me,
so stripping them by charm of precious ancestry.
I feel your keen contempt. The shovel’s edge
now disinters my rest and reputation;
it’s wrested from my grasp and starts to dig
beneath my feet, my seat, my proper place,
by angry hands that want their treasures back.
I’m gone and blame has buried all my hopes.
No history helps me now. But note, brave critics:
that sanctimonious sneer and cold disdain
that you direct to me is yours in future.
You all retain an antiquarian soul
and carpetbag the whole of cultural experience.
No person lives who ever learnt of Others
but didn’t grow by taking foreign stock,
by making friends, exploit colonial language
and then abscond, enriched with fat identities,
and with impatience dropping any obligation
to cross the broken bridge of fractured time
and bring the plunder back. Oh no, oh no,
you make the cunning rapprochements to brag
that I was there and understood the Other.
In modern guise you’re just as rude as me
but I had faith where you are only sly.
The Summer Clown
The seasons change and I transmute with them.
Today the air is calm and time can stretch
through humid grossness, almost slowing down
as if held back in atmospheric inertia
to drag its languid hours through denser measures.
The light itself retards its course but grows the brighter
by hanging longer, bearing luminosity
as if the rays could aggregate their shine
by whiling longer through the hazy air.
And so with time, the heady breezes waft
as if distracting all the things we count,
to lull the steady beat of marching seconds.
So time itself is stretched but then compressed,
seduced in step but cloyed with thicker presence.
How nature, like myself, has timeless rhythms
of faint subjective long and short durations
composed in constant hum, a thrill, a tickle!
This light and heavy mole of time and air
reminds me just how like an insect I,
how like a buzzing gnat that gads about
with pretty wings and frenzied stroke and flutter
who lives a busy day without exhaustion
but then will perish, going beyond its pace,
not tired, never sensing time as spent
but gobbled up, consumed and at an end.
Ephemeral act! My fine serene performance
projects a tranquil soul but struggles madly.
I’ll only last this season. Autumn comes
and all the measured scenes within my play
will toll the time to quit and leave the stage.
Mind you, my season comes again: it blows
with eerie regularity back to shore
and all my springy steps can recommence.
For you, however, the changing seasons stop.
You live indoors in constant filtered air
consuming foods of several disparate climates.
Your transport masks the sky and bans the breeze
with bland denial of hot and cold in cycles
afforded by immense expense of energy.
Your planet doesn’t turn, respects no orbit.
Your comfort needs no humour nor distraction.
Your satisfaction shapes its needy course
by arch complaints that something isn’t perfect,
like restless children spoilt by absent love
constructing all relations on the gripe,
the bitter spleen of automatic resentment
that more is owing—more is my entitlement—
for which no flood or endless tide can compensate.
But here’s the happy truth to break your frown:
the antidote to brat remains the clown.
My aristocratic lace, though once a symbol
of haughty status now adorns vulgarity.
Now every person has the aspiration
and better still by modest means at large.
The captured takes her captor captive. Thus
though gone, I still enshrine persistent hope
where privilege can’t begrudge dissemination.
Prestige and wealth are all that people want,
beyond their health, by social organization.
Democracy only makes my values grow
in mass consumption, marketing, commerce, ads
whose underlying pulse describes your zeal
to go beyond yourself in high prosperity,
exceed your nature, be more gorgeous, young
and rich, for which our culture makes its pledge.
Democracy, do your work and spread your blare,
your loud and raucous din of contestation!
Where once a despot ruled in rigid silence
a thousand tyrants strive to gain a perch
and screech their wild appeal to public deafness.
Like angry birds that seek to lead their flock,
pretenders all around make protestations
whose flap and fury dive and rise and plunge
to guide the lead to no gregarious purpose.
A spirit born of fairness, set to glide
through thick tumultuous air with noble freedom
alas achieves a consonance of squawks,
where difference jockeys for a higher pitch.
The public buildings laid on deep foundations
that boast controlled and settled styles and ornament
are like a cage for shrieking beaks and feathers.
Our politicians now transact their yelling
beyond the bars in media built for show
where fast amusements reach their speedy pace
for rapid superficial entertainment.
Debates of serious kind detest this platform.
It makes the mountains stoop beneath the clouds
the rivers stanch their flow and dry their banks;
no natural earnest language knows its place;
no breath of wisdom streams the vapid air
but that it first belongs to entertainment.
Democracy, run! You need a safer place
to hark and speak to those who want to hear.
Your soul is all contention not with voices
projecting wise or bad ideas in struggle:
the competition lies between the topic
and greedy market discourse promising bliss,
with values set on selling superior lives
by goods and services made for gross consumption.
The leaders speak to one another’s theme:
with me, you’re better off; you’ll have more money;
with me, you’ll pay less tax and work for more;
with me, you’re earning more and paying less.
These tawdry claims cement the ugly discourse
that none can alter. No sustainability
can enter there, no talk of other values
that aren’t composed of greed or mean resentment.
From grim autocracy now you’ve seized the hate
and turned it into hope with broken trumpets.
You wrangle fairness, yet in blasting waves
you duplicate the error. Participation
has disappeared; the public disengages
and lets its thousand tyrants course at large
with venal promise, vulgar rants and insults
to make absurd emotion do its work
and let the less unworthy team prevail.
The left discards its virtues like the right
to follow any popular chance in sight.
For foreign ports I sent the sacred leaf
whose weak infusions lend such mighty force
to slow and many-folded contemplation.
I saw my trade as blessings from afar,
that gilded swill would swirl in foreign cups
and bring delight to me as well as them
who ply their trade in other spheres to mine.
In time, I sold the china, lacquer, paper,
and sundry wares that pleased a growing market.
The manufactures here increased in vigour
like plants that rise on soil enriched with dung.
The exports thrived and struck their business roots
in every kind of clay or silty bed
where hungry folk would gladly fill my carts
with all that spawned an invoice. It made me rich;
the ships, the warehouse: these were like my toys
upon a board-game, jointly chance and wisdom,
entailing loans and irksome threatening risks.
So even now in envied high prosperity
unsettled qualms attend my grateful leisure.
My fortunes, sure, are stable, full of equity;
but commerce has no bounds nor even compass.
It spreads like empire, keen to make its inroads,
encroaching everywhere, crushing competition
like rival weeds that still pretend to grass.
I sold in bulk, where now the jars and bags
are hijacked by their label. Now the contents
assume their value not by taste or substance
but immaterial virtues superimposed
by branding, marketing, claims to global fashion.
I didn’t know, while building grand emporia
that this my work would lead to globalization.
This force has flattened mountains, seas and values.
I didn’t know that selling things that people want
would one day make a world that’s just a market.
No sacred things exist unless they’re marketed
and therefore match industrialized desire.
The things that people did uncued by commerce
have died beside the stronger stimulations
of sexy youthful fantasies, greed, prestige,
excitement felt by jingling: this is currency!
The popular made by claiming popularity
in endless reels of solipsistic illusion!
Beside these signals, nought retains its charm.
A tune upon the pipe has winded breath;
a basket woven with those self-same hands
is like a tomb for lost naïve autonomy;
a walk, a wide idea, a conversation,
a blessed moment spent in holy contact,
these ancient joys are either gone or languish,
unsponsored by a market, ad-campaign
or promise, like a gift of false identity.
To be immune from commerce means to die.
No zeal by marketing takes the concept on.
A joy, though intellectual, meets its doom
for want of minting by the mill of fantasy.
All pious cultures now confront their end.
Triumphal globalization scorns their spirits.
As holy wars erupt, I know their reason.
The priests declare that ‘we reject your culture,
your market porn, your meretricious brands,
co-opting all our youth to learn prestige
from false enticements steeped in sex and cash’.
I too despise this global force and wish
that commerce stayed the servant, not the chief.
This tranquil sky with tardy breeze is mine.
I own the waters, sands and far horizon.
I boast: my empire reaches, further, further,
than feet can tread or calculation measure,
that all around the globe it wraps its arc
of such immense diameter. So large it is
that only in my inmost intimate thought
can such a scale be felt; and then it shrinks
to me as if that compass point that turns the orb.
The sun can never set beneath this canopy
as more will spool around. Eternal daylight
distributes myriad kisses upon the ground;
the seas that gently stir reflect the rays
and send their languid dazzle through the clouds
where space describes the infinite dome of dreams.
To own the elements doesn’t require estates,
dominions, palaces, holdings; nor, indeed
is peace obtained by owning costly property:
more likely such possession spoils the gift
and taints the grace of time and space that float
with anxious cares and anchorage. Nor does travel
conduct your soul beyond the clutch of zeal
that fills you both with greed and indignation
that time and space deny you opportunities
and so you hunger more and still resent
that while you’ve travelled here you can’t be there
and when you’re there you can’t be somewhere else.
To claim the mighty arch that spans the heavens
requires no solitude either. I bask in peace
but like the space, it’s something made by me.
Around my figure a dense and turbulent throng
betakes its hectic business hither and thither;
a teaming surge of human company seethes
in constant uproar, locked in fervid tumult.
Why not? The world is made of endless movement
and who can blame my friends for tireless energy
for thriving thus and making raucous noise?
To dream by day means taking leave of scorn,
forget complaining, take the noisy company
and find the nook in time, the breach of moments,
that interstitial blessing: that’s my consciousness!
To dream by day is free; and there’s the rub.
Who drives a dream? Who gives it stingy strategy?
To which aggressive plan can dreams belong
that makes the corporate individual pay?
Construct your dreams as hope, as sharp ambition.
Let’s redefine the dream as hungry zeal
that turns to bitter anger once denied;
let’s market dreams, demand that people have them,
declare their dreams as needing wakeful help
to climb toward an aspirational nightmare
where new fulfilment aches by old frustration
and closed desires beckon hope to failure.
Condemn the daydream: henceforth no one wanders.
A life is planned. Within it certain holidays
are set aside and even these have blueprints.
The plan for life expunges empty moments.
That child’s distracted, dreaming through the day,
and needs instruction. Fix her loosened stare:
let vigorous motivation structure feelings
to set a course against depressive dangers,
to prime her best for goals in competition.
Then learn to strive; denounce the daydream: go!
Achieve your business, great competitive culture!
With all your striving, nought to dream remains.
The daydream’s gone; instead, the anxious checklist
describes a ledger signed by disappointment.
Rip up your registry; lose your sterile catalogue
where scripted leisure equals dissatisfaction!
I know to dream and rhapsodize endless calm,
transcend the end of garbled teleology
and leave a world of reckless agitation
to learn in infinite charmed expatiation.