Saturday, September 10, 2016


Earlier this week, I awoke suddenly in the middle of the night.  As I came to consciousness, these words floated up:  "out into the phoenix world." Complete nonsense?  The sole remnant of a forgotten dream?  Most likely. But I was intrigued by the phrase.  So please bear with me, dear readers.

Why the word "phoenix"?  I haven't been pondering the myth of the phoenix.  I haven't visited Phoenix, Arizona, for at least ten years, and I have no plans to travel to that fair city.  It has been quite some time since I heard Glen Campbell sing "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

Nor do I recall seeing the word "phoenix" in anything I have read recently. Yet, might my reading choices account for the unexpected appearance of "out into the phoenix world" in the dead of night?  At the beginning of the week I read Alfred Tennyson's "Ulysses."  The entire poem is wonderful, but these four lines have been preoccupying me:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.

Alfred Tennyson, "Ulysses," lines 18-21, in Poems (1842).

I have been thinking in particular about the lovely line "I am a part of all that I have met."  Why didn't Tennyson write instead:  "All that I have met is a part of me"?  This would seem to be more "logical."  Thus, one might say:  "I have been to [insert name of place] only once, but it will always be a part of me."  On the other hand, "Ulysses" is a monologue by Ulysses, who is not known for his humility.  The line is immediately preceded by these two lines:  "And drunk delight of battle with my peers,/Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy."  Yes, Ulysses did leave "a part" of himself on "the ringing plains of windy Troy," didn't he?  And, thanks to Homer, he haunts the place to this day.  But I do not wish to explicate the line to death. Needless to say, I defer to Tennyson:  the line is perfect as it is.

Did my reading of "Ulysses" give subconscious birth to "out into the phoenix world"?  There is a phoenix-like element of rebirth or regeneration in the poem:  in the end, Ulysses decides to embark on yet another journey in pursuit of a world that for ever "gleams" in the distance:  "Come, my friends./'Tis not too late to seek a newer world."  It is worth noting that the image of an unreachable "gleam" in the distance reappears in "Merlin and the Gleam," a poem written by Tennyson near the end of his life.  The poem concludes with these lines:

O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow the Gleam.

Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (Macmillan 1889).

But I do not wish to overreach:  I've never been fond of analyzing dreams for hidden psychological messages, nor do I wish to read too much into riddling phrases that appear from out of the realm of sleep.  Still, if a message arrives from a mysterious place, we ought not to reject it out of hand.

Richard Kaiser (1868-1941), "Landscape (Werratal)" (1939)

Autumn has been making its presence felt in gentle increments since mid-August.  It begins with a slight change in the angle of the light, which also takes on a deeper tinge of yellow.  This is accompanied by the lengthening tree shadows, which move across the streets and paths earlier and earlier in the day.

Recently, while I was out on my daily walk, autumn moved a few steps closer:  the afternoon was sunny, but there was a slight chill in the breeze that came from the west -- a just perceptible undercurrent in the stream of air.  As I strolled north in the sunlight, the left side of my body was in balmy August, while the right side was in cold October.

"All I have been able to do is to walk and go on walking, remember, glimpse, forget, try again, rediscover, become absorbed.  I have not bent down to inspect the ground like an entomologist or a geologist; I've merely passed by, open to impressions.  I have seen those things which also pass   -- more quickly or, conversely, more slowly than human life.  Occasionally, as if our movements had crossed -- like the encounter of two glances that can create a flash of illumination and open up another world -- I've thought I had glimpsed what I should have to call the still centre of the moving world.  Too much said?  Better to walk on . . ."

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures (Delos Press/Menard Press 1997), page 4.  The ellipses appear in the original text.  The book was published in France in 1979 under the title Paysages avec Figures Absentes.

Philippe Jaccottet is now 91 years old.  He was born in Moudon, Switzerland, but he has lived in the town of Grignan in the Rhône-Alpes region of France since 1953.  The prose passage quoted above is characteristic of the quiet, ruminative, and lovingly attentive beauty of Jaccottet's prose and poetry.  Earlier this week, prior to the appearance of "out into the phoenix world," I read the following poem by Jaccottet, which is part of a sequence titled "To Henry Purcell":

Imagine a comet
returning centuries hence
from the kingdom of the dead,
crossing our century tonight
and sowing the same seeds . . .

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Derek Mahon), in Derek Mahon (translator), Words in the Air: A Selection of Poems by Philippe Jaccottet (The Gallery Press 1998).  The poem is untitled.  The ellipses appear in the original text.

A comet "returning centuries hence/from the kingdom of the dead" perhaps has something in common with the phoenix, which, according to some traditions, lives 500 years, its successor then arising from its ashes.  Might this be the source of "the phoenix world" of my dream remnant?  There is no way of knowing.  The phrase is probably nothing more than a non sequitur released from the fortune cookie of the mind.

Emanuel Baschny (1876-1932), "Village in the Sun" (1910)

At this time of year our eyes are drawn to the leaves.  On a September afternoon, towards sunset, you look up at a tree and notice that the leaves of a single spray or bough have turned yellow, orange, or red.  There they are, set against a backdrop of deep green.  There is no doubt a scientific explanation for this phenomenon.  There always is.  I prefer to remain ignorant.

At the moment, a meadow that I pass by on my daily walk is full of pink-purple and purple-white sweet peas.  In this part of the world, they usually bloom in July and August, and then dry out before autumn arrives.  Their appearance now may be due to a spell of wet weather we had a few weeks ago.  Whatever the reason, it is delightful to see them fluttering in the slanting, butter-yellow sunlight.

     The Oak

Live thy Life,
     Young and old,
Like yon oak,
Bright in spring,
     Living gold;

     Then; and then
     Gold again.

All his leaves
     Fallen at length,
Look, he stands,
Trunk and bough,
     Naked strength.

Alfred Tennyson, Demeter and Other Poems (Macmillan 1889).

The oak's yearly transitions from "living gold" to "summer-rich" green  to "soberer-hued gold" to emptiness do not proceed in lockstep.  Red leaves and blossoming sweet peas exist side-by-side.  The World's beauty is in its fragments, and in their juxtapositions, ever-changing.  "The flecked river,/Which kept flowing and never the same way twice."  (Wallace Stevens, "This Solitude of Cataracts.")  Or:  "the half colors of quarter-things."  (Wallace Stevens, "The Motive for Metaphor.")  We do not live in an all-or-nothing World.  For which we should be grateful.

We live in a World of constant change.  But that change takes place within a cycle of renewal and recurrence.  With the promise of an end for all that is mortal, of course.  There's no getting around that.  But here is something to consider:  "If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Proposition 6.4311, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) (translated by David Pears and Brian McGuinness).

Richard Kaiser, "Landscape in Oberbayern" (1939)

What, then, of "out into the phoenix world"?  If I ever receive messages from other realms, I do not expect them to arrive in words.  Thus, when I awoke in the middle of the night, I was only talking to myself.  I suspect that I needed to give myself advice:  "Whatever you are looking for is out there, not in here."

Weight of stones, of thoughts
Dreams and mountains
are not evenly balanced
We inhabit yet another world
Perhaps the one between

Philippe Jaccottet (translated by Mark Treharne), Landscapes with Absent Figures, page 156.  The poem is untitled.  It is immediately followed by this prose passage:

"This is how I once tried to capture in a poem the feeling that there must be two measures, two orders of measure; because what we experience -- pain or joy -- in a lifetime, or even in a brief moment, we clearly see as unrelated to the millions, the billions of years or miles of science. . . . This feeling of somehow escaping from, or having some essential inner resistance to what can be quantified, could perhaps be the beginning of a hope.

"Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of a belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience:  the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, at the very centre of our being.  But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history."

Philippe Jaccottet, Ibid, pages 156-157.  The italics appear in the original text.

Emanuel Baschny, "Before a Thunderstorm" (1913)


tristan said...

Hurrah ... thrice !

Stephen Pentz said...

tristan: Thank you very much. I appreciate your visit, and I hope you'll return soon.

George said...

Perhaps because of some Herder I have been reading, it strikes me that "the Phoenician world" is plausible. That would have been big world, for they apparently made it around Africa two thousand years before the Portuguese, and traded with Britain probably before Rome had heard even rumors of such a place. But why would you have been thinking of Phoenicians?

The only phoenix reference that comes to mind from literature is Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle"; yet that says nothing about a phoenix world.

Fred said...

I think Tennyson is correct. All that I have met is a part of me is far more arrogant than I am a part of all that I have met. In the first he takes in everything, but in the second, he is absorbed by all that he has met, something beyond his control.

Fascinating to follow a pattern of free association like this--one thought and memory leads on to the next.

Anonymous said...

Your posting (to me the best you have ever done) "Immanence" ends with your quoting a prose paragraph by Philippe Jaccottet:

"Of all my uncertainties, the least uncertain (the one least removed from the first glimmers of belief) is the one given to me by poetic experience: the thought that there is something unknown, something evasive, at the origin of things, as the very centre of our being. But I am incapable of attributing to this unknown, to that, any of the names allotted to it in turn by history."

I think Whitman in much of his poetry says the same thing. We "know" things" that are evasive to us, resist our shaping them with words. Whitman says that "logic and sermons never convince," that "the damp of the night drives deeper into his soul." He'd rather stand and look at the stars sown about the night sky than listen to the ratiocinative astronomy professor with his charts and signs. He says below that a pea in its pod mocks the deepest learning. He urges us not to be curious about God, for God is omnipresent. He understands God not in the least: only that he is there behind it all, in the most common sights of the quotidian. We walk abroad, you there by the Sound, the presentiments of autumn in the sighing of the afternoon breeze, that fugitive leaf that catches your quick and keen eye, yes, we walk abroad and find letters from God dropped in the street. And these letters, these bountiful and commonplace letters lying before us will be there for others when our bodies have blended with the dust, but who knows, ask Whitman, but that we shall be watching them, the fiery leaves of all burning for eyes one hundred and fifty years from now, the message of the afternoon always the same, the wind singing with the same tongue.

(I enclose section 48 of Song of Myself. It is below)

I have said that the soul is not more than the body,

And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,

And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is,

And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud,

And I or you pocketless of a dime may purchase the pick of the earth,

And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times,

And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,

And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel'd universe,

And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.

And I say to mankind, Be not curious about God,

For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,

(No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.)

I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,

Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,

I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,

Others will punctually come for ever and ever.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Phoenicians: that's an interesting possibility, and one that hadn't occurred to me. But the Phoenicians haven't been on my mind lately, nor have I been reading about them. But the idea of their far-flung travels fits well in this context. And who knows how deeply the mind might go to dredge things up? For instance, I am fond of C. P. Cavafy's poem "Ithaka," which contains this: "may you stop at Phoenician trading stations/to buy fine things." (Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.) But I haven't read that poem recently.

I also recall that Herodotus, at the outset of his History, suggests that the Phoenicians, by kidnapping Io, caused the Greeks to in turn kidnap Europa from Tyre, which in turn prompted the Trojans to kidnap Helen, which eventually led to bad blood between the Greeks and the Persians due to the Greek siege of Troy (which was considered by the Persians to be part of Asia -- their realm). (But my recollection may be faulty.) In any case, I haven't read Herodotus lately either. But, again, who knows where these things come from?

I had forgotten about "The Phoenix and the Turtle" (which I confess I have never read). I appreciate the reference.

Thank you very much for providing some intriguing clues, and for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for those thoughts. I think that that is an excellent way of looking at the line. I like the idea of us being, as you say, "absorbed by all that [we] ha[ve] met," and that this is "beyond [our] control." As I said in the post, I think that Tennyson's line is perfect as it is. And your angle on it gives me a greater appreciation of it.

As always, It's nice to hear from you. Thanks for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. And thank you very much for your meditation, which is both lovely and thought-provoking. I love your closing thought about all of this still going on "one hundred and fifty years from now": the leaves and the wind of autumn, "the message of the afternoon always the same" (a beautiful thought). The interplay between our own mortality and the yearly cycle of change that goes on for ever is a wonderful thing. I think that being aware of the fact that all of this will still be going on long after we have vanished can be a source of serenity.

I had never thought about Jaccottet and Whitman as sharing these affinities, so I am extremely grateful to you for having placed them side-by-side in this manner. It enriches my view of both of them. The passages from Whitman are very illuminating as I think of Jaccottet's view on things. I love Whitman's "I find letters from God dropt in the street." Wonderful. I think that these words are perfect in considering Jaccottet's view that we receive "glimpses" of "another world" that are difficult to articulate, and that are lost in our attempt to articulate them.

Again, thank you for your sharing your thoughts and insights.

Jeff said...

As I've learned from a year in the woods, Stephen, the autumn world is its own sort of phoenix. It's tempting, and easy, to imagine that only spring brings rebirth, but here in my grove, the camel crickets are prowling, the stick insects are breeding, pollinators are loving the flowers of herbs that are past human use, we've had a population explosion of young hummingbirds—and we'll see all sorts of new life well into December, if we know where to look for it amid the more showy examples of decay. It's possible that you were reminding yourself, or something was reminding you, to enjoy even more fully the season before you. And the blog post that resulted is a pleasant and satisfying walk in itself for the rest of us.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: That's a wonderful way of looking at it, and it accords with my interpretation of the phrase: "the phoenix world" is the world around us, which is forever in a state of rebirth and regeneration. Your examples of autumnal evidence of this are lovely, and you have a keener eye than I do! But, as did you, I noticed this week the bees hovering at the remaining still-blooming wildflowers along the paths. In addition, the ants still seem to be at work, the maple seed pods are dropping from the boughs, and one afternoon this week I noticed the thousands of seed-bearing brown cones in the pines, each one of them illuminated by the setting sun. Today, a small black snake wound its way across the path in front of me and disappeared into the woods. As you suggest, all of this is the phoenix world.

I like your thought: that I (or something) was telling me to "enjoy even more fully the season before [me]." As I suggested in the post, even though, as mortals, our time here is short, I always find it reassuring to know that all of this seasonal activity will be going on long after I am gone.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post, and for sharing your thoughts.