Friday, November 29, 2013

How we go on: for Dad

My father died a year ago today. No surprise, then, that he has been on my mind quite a lot since last November. Absence sharpens loss is at least as true as time dulls edges.

I've found my way to more than a few books about fathers and sons this year, some of them recommended by thoughtful friends (My Father's Books by Luan Starova, about which I wrote in The lives of books in late January); some of them found by chance, if you believe in such things (Paul Harding's Tinkers, about which I wrote in July: Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity ...).

But as I approached the end of my first year without a living parent, poems that treat themes of persistent effect in the world, beyond death -- all is not lost poems, if you will -- kept returning to mind.

First, and perhaps best-known in this vein, here's a passage from William Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now forever taken from my sight,
            Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
            We will grieve not, rather find
            Strength in what remains behind;
            In the primal sympathy
            Which having been must ever be;
            In the soothing thoughts that spring
            Out of human suffering;
            In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
Or this one, from East Coker, a passage from the second of Eliot's Four Quartets whose evocation of earthy circularity might have appealed to my biologist father:
                                    In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
But, as keenly as Wordsworth and Eliot each, in their own keys, see and give voice to the cycles through which all our lives turn -- and even though the Four Quartets remains the slimmest volume I can imagine taking on a desert island exile to read over and over and over again, in saecula saeculorum -- no poem struck me quite so deeply in these months as Gary Snyder's Axe Handles.

It's an odd thing, though not so surprising, that losing a parent shines an insistent light on aspects of one's own self -- from physical to gestural to the intricacies of personality -- bequeathed by a father or mother. That light illuminates Axe Handles as well.

Snyder builds his poem, and the eponymous collection in which it appears, on a passage from the Doctrine of the Mean, written some 2500 years ago and attributed to Kong Ji, the only grandson of Confucius.

James Legge translated that passage, from Chapter XIII,  in 1861, as follows:
In the book of poetry, it is said, 'In hewing an axe handle, in hewing an axe-handle, the pattern is not far off.' We grasp one axe-handle to hew the other, and yet, if we look askance from the one to the other, we may consider them as apart. Therefore the superior man governs men, according to their nature, with what is proper to them, and as soon as they change what is wrong, he stops.
In Ezra Pound's translation of Confucius, the twentieth century poet interprets the same passage:
In cutting an axe-handle the model is not far off, in this sense: one holds one axe-handle while chopping the other. Thus one uses men in governing men.
Snyder's poem tells of teaching his son Kai to throw a hatchet into a tree stump, whereupon Kai decides he wants one of his own. The boy remembers an old hatchet-head he has seen in his father's shop. Snyder shows his son how to reshape a broken axe handle to fit the hatchet-head, and in doing so remembers centuries-old wisdom he learned by reading Pound.

From Axe Handles:
"In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand."
My teacher Shi-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
A week ago today, the same friend who gave me a copy of My Father's Books brought her first child into the world, a strapping, beautiful boy, graced by his parents with a middle name drawn from another link in the great chain of human culture: Voltaire.

How we go on.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
The lives of books
The lemming situation: things we've known for 50 years about environmentalism
Books everyone should read


  1. Really thoughtful and moving. May his memory be a blessing.

  2. yes this is lovely....I would add My Ear at His Heart: Reading My Father by Hanif Kureishi,Steve.k

  3. Matthew, Katinsf, Karen -- thanks to all of you