20110521

Martin Burke


LI PO’s LETTER TO LAO TZU

This way, that way, there it was where there it wasn’t, and one name as good as another where neither could describe it

Yet each of us were there with desires and passions which were thought of as different but which were the same

As if as soon as you opened one gate you had to open another

Something which, while not burdensome in itself, seemed as endless as the path I had without knowing what I was doing put my foot on

For every word I possessed they possessed an altered version which I could never make my own

Lexicons were studied daily, then adjusted to some new condition of which I knew nothing

Whatever was harsh was easy, whatever was long was short

Clearly the world knew something I didn’t—but the reverse was equally true, where even if I could not sing I started singing

Not to annoy the neighbours you understand nor even to placate whatever gods might choose to listen

No, I was singing to the wind what the wind sang to me

As if by such we might impart to the world a necessary lullaby

Not that I knew a contradiction from a paradox

Not yet I didn’t but that did not deter me

I saw that whatever you dressed in silk you could equally dress in canvas without changing the nature of what you were disguising

That there were names for the world that no one had yet learned but which if I was to know I would have to wait for them to speak to me

So that when the contradiction became a paradox I was not surprised—no more than you should now be by anything I’ll say

*

As was to be expected the path led to a well but I could no more name the well than I could the path

You might be surprised to hear me say this after having said that I was not surprised but the wisdom which serves you in one field is not necessarily right for the new field you walk in

Bucket after bucket–I lowered the rope on a pulley but there was always as much water remaining as there was of what I took from it

I was at that point of exhaustion the well would never reach

At which if there was ironic laughter it did not come from me who lowered the bucket again, stubbornly human as I am

So, if heaven could be as ruthless as a warlord little wonder the warlords were

Ambition has more pretty names for itself that a girl has ribbons for a dress -but underneath both are dealing with a plastic doll

And it’s not as if history happens in a no-man’s-land—it doesn’t, but there are spaces and locations in the world where everything gets turned upside down making you as giddy as a first-timer on a merry-go-round

More watching and less talking will serve you best

The eventual aim is to populate the silence with your thoughts but for this you must be patient—even if it means moving from paradox to contradiction so that you can move back again

*

It’s getting confusing

Everything seems to be its own opposite

Everything seems to be other than what it seems to be–so why complain at the emptiness of a valley? Or that water is wet? Or that there are words you have no words for?

The world is what it is and always will be–not even if tomorrow I say something totally different which will also prove to be true

Even though I sometimes give the impression I know what I’m talking about I’m as much confused by the various perspectives given to us and demand that we, if not understand, then at least come to a workable compromise with

No matter how stable our thoughts seems to be something comes along to upset the apple-cart, the ironic laughter of which we say is the voice of heaven

Only don’t ask me what or where that is—I’m as much in the dark as you are

However if that’s what it means to be human I’ll gladly accept the weight which heaven has thrown across our backs to carry to some conclusion

Like water falling into its own stillness, or emptiness inviting itself into a jar, or a wheel or any circle about an element you cannot see

However take away the jar and water spills till it’s wasted, and the cart collapse without a wheel, forcing–yes, forcing you to come to terms with your dependence on that which you cannot explain

*

Darkness can be as blinding as light and silence as deafening as loud noise in a wind

Our apetite for the world kills our hunger–as least according to certain wisdoms-however, what would it be if we should be what we are by denial?

You see, even exhausted and empty, I can still ask a question which you cannot answer, something which you should not confuse with wisdom but see as a trick of my trade

I know of course that by now some civil servant is checking the I’s and dotting the T’s of this page and carefully placing it in a folder marked Subversive

Perhaps this should alarm me but it doesn’t and why should it?

The misunderstanding which the State has of me does me less harm than what a brother might say of my intentions

Which is why I never set out to explain what I don’t believe

No more than the cunning linguist can understand the grammar of ripples caused by a stone in a pool

Even the image of a stone in a pool is misleading but what else have I to work with where ice is thawing in a valley as empty as a jar is

And either he is foolish beyond belief or knows something I don’t know but here comes a ploughman unconcerned at my pronouncements nor the world's condition

Whose one concern, whose only concern, is to make countless things flourish no matter how hostile the ground is

So yes, he knows what I don’t, what you don’t, and nothing that might be said will move him one iota from his intention

So is this stubbornness or wisdom or a plough-line as wide as it is narrow?

I ask but he won’t answer, won’t be distracted, won’t be torn away from tearing the earth so as to see the ground beneath his feet

*

But some caution would be apt now

I’m liable to rant where I should listen and my judgements ate more often formulated on the hoof than by any prolonged consideration

Yet if there is much to be said for the latter it will never totally cancel out the validity of the former

A candle doesn’t worry about the shadow it casts no more than a mouse does about his footprints in cheese

See–there is nothing which just happens everything has something moving it forward even if it stays in the background

Like two ministers in a coalition government who never say what they can get the other to say

Which is why, and I ask no forgiveness for this, I sometime–sometimes? no, frequently feel the need to disturb the shadows and scatter the dust from the apples in a porcelain jar resting idly on the table

No doubt some effect was intended by their arrangement there, some sought-for mastery and craftsmanship

As it was the day an acquaintance invited me for a tea-ceremony-at which the kettle boiled over and the tea was ruined and I, thankfully, never saw him again

*

And now I’m throwing pebbles into a stream of no importance

Hardly a ceremony but on days like this you do your best and hope that something of your intention survives the no-doubt ridiculous figure you must appear to be

Yes, I’m laughing at myself, I’m able to do that because I know yes and no are words of a divided mind

And whatever I may be I’m not that

And two passing monks mumbling something about virtue

But of course I’ve no idea if that’s my achievement or my confusion

And there may even be a point at which the one is the other

No, I’m not wise, I’m only as wise as I need to be in order to know that as the monks straggle on at least my confusion won’t desert me

*

And now the damned rain and I haven’t an oil-cloth to protect me!

Life can be a real bitch—just when you achieve some degree of serenity along comes the weather to knock you off your feet

Still, it could be worse

I could be with the monks whose sandals squelch in sudden mud and have to pretend that this is somehow divine

No, I’ll take my ill-luck over theirs—it may not be much but at least it’s mine and the rain will eventually pass

I lit a fire, in my own backyard, of useless twigs and leaves but the ecologists, latterly arrived from the city, berated me in no uncertain terms

Having moved into our village they spoke of wanting to be part of the community but I am the only one who seems to notice that the community-centre is only open whenever they say it can be

Suddenly the established hypocrisy of monks is more acceptable than the fervour of the newly pious

*

I think I’ve said enough

In wanting to say something we sometimes say more than we intended to-I call this a condition of my tribe rather than viewing it as a personal trait, which may not be much to leave you with but it’s all I’ve got

And now that I’ve gotten that off my chest I’m off to study frogs or read the Tao


Martin Burke is an Irish born poet/playwright currently living in Belgium. He has published more than twelve books of his work in the USA, UK, Ireland, Belgium. He is the founder/director of the bilingual theater company Theater Zonder Thuis (The Homeless Theatre Company) He is also co-editor of the international arts magazine THE GREEN DOOR.
 
 
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