Friday, July 14, 2017

Past Lives

Looking back into your past, you may see someone who resembles you, but who no longer exists.  Yet, despite doubts and misgivings ("Who is that person?"), there is no getting around it:  that vaguely familiar stranger is indeed you.

I recall a windy, bright blue and gold autumn morning on the Isle of Skye. Another life ago.  I followed as someone dear to me walked ahead across a wide green field toward a grey stone crumbling castle on the edge of a cliff. Beyond the castle lay the deep-blue of the Little Minch, white-capped.  Am I imagining it, or did she turn and smile?

                    The Occultation

When the cloud shut down on the morning shine,
     And darkened the sun,
I said, "So ended that joy of mine
     Years back begun."

But day continued its lustrous roll
     In upper air;
And did my late irradiate soul
     Live on somewhere?

Thomas Hardy,  Moments of Vision and Miscellaneous Verses (Macmillan 1917).

Stephen McKenna, "Foliage" (1983)

Of course Hardy would think this way!  It is he who wrote:  "I believe it would be said by people who knew me well that I have a faculty (possibly not uncommon) for burying an emotion in my heart or brain for forty years, and exhuming it at the end of that time as fresh as when interred."  Thomas Hardy, The Life and Work of Thomas Hardy (edited by Michael Millgate) (Macmillan 1985), page 408.  (How like Hardy -- so conversant with, and so fond of, graveyards and tombs and revenants -- to use the words "burying," "exhuming," and "interred" in this context.)

"Irradiate":  "illumined; made bright or brilliant."  OED.

We may not now recognize those strangers of our past lives, but how lovely, and how comforting, to think that their irradiate souls live on somewhere.

Still there, somewhere:
the moon off behind the mist
     traversing the night.

Shōhaku (1443-1527) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 307.

Richard Eurich, "The Road to Grassington" (1971)


Clarissa Aykroyd said...

Thanks for this post, thoughtful as always.

I actually feel as though I'm more or less the same person I was age 7, only around 30 years later. In essence I don't think I've changed much.

At times I doubt whether this is a good thing, but I think it's some form of societal pressure making me feel that way (quite a lot of people seem to take pride in feeling ashamed of their past selves, often because that past self was somehow "uncool".) Within myself, I'm largely ok with it. I must have had a fairly fully formed sense of identity at that age and I was definitely reading some great literature already!

Fred said...


Your post reminded me of this one:

Dead my fine old hopes
And dry my dreaming but still...
Iris, blue each spring
-- Shushiki

A Little Treasury of Haiku

Regardless of what happens to us, the world goes on.

Lee Hanson said...

Wonderful post. Love the Eurich painting. Your words recall to mind this poem by Charles Causley:


Who is that child I see wandering, wandering
down by the side of the quivering stream?
Why does he seem not to hear, though I call to him?
Where does he come from, and what is his name?

Why do I see him at sunrise and sunset
taking, in old-fashioned clothes, the same track?
Why, when he walks, does he cast not a shadow
though the sun rises and falls at his back?

Why does the dust lie so thick on the hedgerow
by the great field where a horse pulls the plough?
Why do I see only meadows, where houses
stand in a line by the riverside now?

Why does he move like a wraith by the water,
soft as the thistledown on the breeze blown?
When I draw near him so that I may hear him,
why does he say that his name is my own?

Anonymous said...

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful '
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
--The Mirror, Sylvia Plath

A mirror, unlike a human being, does not indulge in illusion. It's a human failure, no doubt, for one to look into a mirror is a perfunctory way most of the time, the eye seeking no profound delineation, seeing not much at all, just skin that needed to be shaved. Occasionally, however, the mirror viewer, for inexplicable reasons, at least to the one gazing into the glass, suddenly sees a disturbing sight. Not too long ago, as I looked into my mirror, checking a small scratch on the mend, when suddenly I saw my dead Aunt's face looking back at me. It was of course an amalgamation of my face and my aunt's. People said we looked alike. It might be significant that she died when she was the age I am now. For an instant, a terrifying moment, the face I saw in the mirror was the face I bent over in the hospital the day before she died. It could be that within our imaginations we tend to think of ourselves as ageless, in that place where no calendars reside. Once in a while, however, as I said, sometimes a deep look into a mirror reveals to us how others see us. A veil is lifted. What really reflects back at us during these short but intense moments is the image of mortality, Time, and its weathering years, reminding us of its inexorable progress, reiterating, if we needed to hear the refrain again, our fate. As I say, though, these dark moments are brief and infrequent. Soon the world beguiles us. The sun shines and the birds sing, and the dismal image in the mirror is forgotten.

John Ashton said...

Stephen, I just wanted to say what a beautiful,touching and moving post this is.
I have been away on the island of Kefalonia for a few weeks, enjoying the peace and tranquillity, a rule I have for myself is no internet or email when I'm on holiday. I like the slower pace of life and freedom from distraction that its absence allows.

Your previous post " Peaceand quiet" chimed very strongly with me.

I hope all is well with you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Aykroyd: It's a pleasure to hear from you again. Thank you for the kind words about the post.

Your observation about being "more or less the same person" you were at the age of 7 resonates with me. I cannot identify so precise an age, but I do feel that my essential emotional core (for lack of a better phrase) was present from early on. This confession may sound horrifying to some people, since it would seem to imply a complete lack of maturity! But it is what it is. I don't think it is a bad thing. (This leads directly to consideration of the nature of one's soul, but I won't venture there at this time.) Still, although something essential has always been present, those past selves I see in the distance do seem strange at times.

As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you for sharing the haiku, which is new to me. Yes, "the world goes on," as you say. But it provides a sense of constancy amidst constant change as well: each spring, the blue iris greets us, though we may be a different person than we were the previous spring.

As always, I greatly appreciate hearing from you. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: Thank you very much for stopping by again, and for the kind words about the post.

Yes, the Eurich painting is wonderful, isn't it? It is perhaps my favorite of his. I suspect that you are familiar with the location.

Thank you as well for sharing the poem, which I wasn't aware of. It is lovely, and fits perfectly here. "A wraith by the water . . ." Exactly.

Thank you again. It's always good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you very much for sharing the poem by Plath, and for providing your own meditation on mirrors. Your thoughts bring to mind Hardy's poem "Moments of Vision" (which you are no doubt familiar with), which opens with this stanza:

That mirror
Which makes of men a transparency,
Who holds that mirror
And bids us such a breast-bare spectacle see
Of you and me? . . .

Mirrors can indeed hold up frightening prospects to us, can't they? And we do sometimes see a stranger there.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

Lee Hanson said...

Grassington is around 20 miles from where I live (Guiseley, between Leeds and Bradford) and the Dales landscape and roads have barely altered. I just acquired a book on Eurich: Richard Eurich, Visionary Artist by Edward Chaney and Christine Clearkin. It is well worth a read. Incidentally I am currently holidaying in the States, a Florida road trip.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: I'm delighted to hear about your holiday. I wasn't aware of Kefalonia, but I have now researched it on the internet: what a beautiful place! Your rule about disconnecting yourself from the computer world while on holiday is a wise one. (Doing so while not on holiday is not a bad idea either, and is something I am trying to do more of.)

I greatly appreciate your kind words about the post. Thank you. One of those little known, sometimes forgotten Hardy poems that you and I have talked about on occasion in the past. I hadn't read it for a few years, and this time around it set me to thinking. Hence, the post. He provides us with more than enough for a lifetime, I think.

I have recently returned from a two-week road trip from Seattle to Boulder, Colorado, and back. A quite different sort of landscape from your island in the Ionian Sea! Vast, empty, and beautiful spaces.

As ever, it is good to hear from you. Thank you for your thoughts.

Albertus said...

Very moving. Everything. Thank you for this. I enjoyed the comments too, especially the poems.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Hanson: Thank you for the follow-up thoughts. It's good to know that Eurich's landscapes may not have entirely vanished. I am aware of the book on Eurich that you mention: it has been on my "to buy" list for a while, but I haven't gotten around to doing so. Based on your recommendation, I will find a copy.

I hope you are enjoying Florida! I have only been there on one occasion: a long ago post-college graduation, around the USA road trip with friends. I fondly remember humidity and fireflies at night, while camping out of a Volkswagen van.

Thank you for taking the time to comment while you are on the road.

Stephen Pentz said...

Albertus: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm pleased you enjoyed the post, as well as the comments. I am extremely fortunate (and grateful) to have such thoughtful and well-read readers and commenters -- I am always learning something new, and seeing things from a different angle, based upon their contributions.

Thank you again. I hope you'll return soon.

Esther said...

This vignette from the Isle of Skye, which I believe you have shared with us before (I was just thinking about it the other day), is, for me, your blog's finest hour. It smashes the heart to smithereens, particularly when coupled with The Occultation, as it is here. Speaking of which, at the Santa Barbara County Bowl back in the '70s, Bonnie Raitt prefaced her rendition of Nothing Seems to Matter ("and Mexico will never be the same") by saying, "And from what it took to write this, I never want to write another one." Thank you for this deeply moving post. I'm so glad you shared that bright autumn morning with us again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for the kind words. Yes, that Skye moment has appeared here before. We all have our own assortment, don't we? Who knows why they stay with us? For some reason, "The Occultation" brought it back. Strange how these things work.

Thank you for the reference to the Bonnie Raitt song, which is new to me, and which I have now listened to. Mexico, the Isle of Skye, . . . I can understand why the song was difficult to write.

"Santa Barbara County Bowl back in the '70s": a nice coincidence, that: I attended UC Santa Barbara from the autumn of 1975 until graduating in June of 1978. So I know whereof you speak. Now, that is another life entirely!

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. It is always good to hear from you.

Esther said...

I see our time in SB overlapped a couple of years. I left in 1977. There was a coffeehouse out in Isla Vista where I used to sing back then. As you say, another life; and, as your lovely, insightful Shohaku poem says, "Still there, somewhere...." I feel I have finally been shown the reason for my uncanny sensation of inhabiting several parallel universes. :)

phil mcdermott said...

Dear Mr Pentz

thank you for this superb blog, I am a newcomer and feel I have been missing out all these years! Briefly; I noted among all your excellent posts your Brexit observations and wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments. Our present condition fills me with some dread but latterly oddly with some excitement - despite being vehemently opposed to the result. I have been drawn to McNiece and Auden in the late Thirties for some succor, and it has to be said, for some perspective. Both have much to say about self examination in straightened circumstances and are steadfast in looking forward to a robust future where we confront ourselves and our failings toward others - "All I have is a voice/ To undo the folded lie....We must love one another or die." Of course our situation is incomparable to the danger of theirs and the mortal consequences, however me, mine and my neighbourhood are very likely to suffer somewhat. We must be more collective which is why I am drawn towards 'Thalassia'(thanks for the reminder in another post) - "Put out to sea my broken comrades...Our end is life. Put out to sea"! That's the spirit!
Thanks also for your introduction to Chinese poets - 5000years for me to explore, the joy!
I think I see that you have, not surprisingly, quite a few readers in the UK. I am glad to join the as a regular. Many thanks.
Phil McDermott

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: A poem by Robert Herrick comes to mind:

Once Seen, and No More

Thousands each day pass by, which we,
Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Well, it is entirely possible that you and I passed each other on a street (or on a beach) in Santa Barbara or IV during those years and went our separate ways, but now, 40 or so years later (yikes!), here we are again.

Yes, I remember a particular coffeehouse in IV, but only vaguely. I had friends who went there often, but I wasn't much of a coffeehouse person. But I suspect that there was more than one coffeehouse in IV. In any case, as you say, a "parallel universe."

Thank you very much for the follow-up thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. McDermott: I greatly appreciate your generous words. Thank you very much.

I think MacNeice and Auden do make good reading at the moment (or any time, actually). I agree that the times they faced were more dangerous than ours, and we ought to have more perspective on the current situation. But it seems that our knowledge of history is lacking. But this is always the case with each succeeding generation, isn't it? "Thalassa" is a wonderful poem. And it does provide inspiration, as you suggest.

I'm pleased to think that I may have helped introduce you to Chinese poetry. You will see these names here often if you keep visiting, but I recommend the translations of Arthur Waley and Burton Watson as an excellent starting point.

Thank you again for your kind words. I'm delighted that you found your way here, and I hope you will return often.