1. We say I’m made of atoms.
2. When we say I it means my body, brain breasts belly legs feet.
3. When we say atom it means some neutrons and protons and a vast space with a few bits in it.
4. To get a sense of the vastness, focus on the nucleus.
5. Why must my awareness be focused in this little nucleus?
6. The electrons are so far away, like stars.
7. Does the universe have hardware, or only firmware?
8. David Bohm thinks space and time are emergent properties of a deeper level.
9. Does the body have hardware, or only firmware?
10. Hardware, firmware and bits don’t make it a box.
0. We put in the zero once we had made the other numbers.
-1. Counting to zero is quite something.
-2. Counting to -1 is something else.
Unlike you, kid,
he never did anything —
just kicked balls
and chased rabbits
At 12 I watched him, 15,
tossing hay off the flatbed —
calling to the cows
I never got to touch
his dull white scars
or hear his
His was the cry of the power tool —
the diamond saw dividing a brick,
the rotating driveshaft sticking out of the back
of the tractor, the three-point linkage
I wrote him imaginary letters,
the dull white voice of the paper
flickering in my hands
Last time I saw him
I was 29 and married
The dust-encrusted crush
shook itself off,
rose and swirled in my head
like a ghost violin,
but there was nothing
we could talk about
Like she said
he’d kicked balls
and chased tails
The door with its old brass hook
where once I’d hung
my cowy heart
I don’t want to see anything.
I’m tired of seeing, moving, searching.
I want to sit somewhere, be still, listen.
Somewhere no-one will expect me to talk.
Somewhere I am no-one.
A ghost in the world.
Zhuangzi says chasing even that
is not the Way. You’re chasing an object:
something outside you that always recedes.
The quiet place is inside you
in all the sounds of space.
What do you want to hear? says the sky.
No more questions, I say.
I want to hear the lap-slap of wavelets at the edge of a lake
I want to hear a dove coo / and another answer
I want to hear a car pass without being afraid it will kill us all with its carbon
I want to hear a man whistling / as he walks to his place / of work
I want to hear the ten pm train / without wondering / in what year it will cease to run
I want to sleep / without dreaming / that all the butterflies die at once and are not reborn
Without dreaming / of a strange sour land / too hot to inhabit
I want to wake up without that / in the back of my head
People carry on
as if death will never come
Making five year plans, ten year plans, investing
People carry on as if death will arrive tomorrow
Eating, drinking …
In spacetime, says the sky,
or in Hawking & Hartle’s imaginary time,
every moment, then now when,
You can carry yourself
as if death has / already come
A sadhu, a monk, a ghost in the world …
Or just a practitioner
of wu wei:
First published as part of “The Dream”, in my PhD thesis, October 2018
Because they are to be published in 2019 as a book (“A coat of ashes”, Recent Work Press) the poems are not included, except those used as examples in the final essay. However, the thesis includes links to those poems that have been published online.
A coat of ashes and Poetry, Daoism, physics and systems theory: a poetics
This thesis comprises a book-length creative work accompanied by a set of essays. It explores how poetry might bring together spiritual and scientific discourses, focusing primarily on philosophical Daoism (Taoism) and contemporary physics. Systems theory (the science of complex and self-organising systems) is a secondary focus of the creative work and is used metaphorically in theorising the writing process.
The creative work, “A coat of ashes”, is chiefly concerned with the nature of being. It asks, “What is?”, “What am I?” and, most urgently, “What matters?”. To engage with these questions, it opens a space in which voices expressing scientific and spiritual worldviews may be heard on equal terms. “A coat of ashes” contributes a substantial number of poems to the small corpus of Daoist-influenced poetry in English and adds to the larger corpus of poetry engaging with the sciences. The poems are offset by a metafictional narrative, “The Dream”, which may be read as an allegory of the writing journey and the struggle to combine discourses.
The four essays articulate the poetics of “A coat of ashes” by addressing its context, themes, influences, methodology and compositional processes. They contribute to both literary criticism and writing theory. Like the creative work, they focus on dialogues between rationalist or scientific discourses and subjective or spiritual ones.
The first essay, “An introduction”, discusses the thesis itself: its rationale, background, components, limitations and implications. The second, “Singing the quantum”, reviews scholarship discussing the influence of physics on poetry, then examines figurative representations of physics concepts in selected poems by Rebecca Elson, Cilla McQueen and Frederick Seidel. These poems illustrate how contemporary poetry can interpret scientific concepts in terms of subjective human concerns.
The third essay, “Let the song be bare”, discusses existing Daoist poetry criticism before considering Daoist influences in the poetry of Ursula K. Le Guin, Randolph Stow and Judith Wright. These non-Indigenous poets with a strong awareness of the sciences have, by adopting Daoist-inflected senses of the sacred, been able to articulate the tension engendered by their problematic relationships with colonised landscapes. Moreover, the changing aesthetic of Wright’s later poetry reflects a struggle between Daoist quietism and European lyric commentary.
The final essay, “Animating the ash”, reflects on the process of writing poetry, using examples from “A coat of ashes” to construct a theoretical synthesis based on Daoism, systems theory and contemporary poetics. It proposes a novel way to characterise the nature and emergence of the hard-to-define quality that makes a poem a poem. This essay also discusses some of the Daoist and scientific motifs that occur in the creative work.
As a whole, this project highlights the potential of both the sciences and the more ancient ways of knowing — when seen in each other’s light — to help us apprehend the world’s material and metaphysical nature and live harmoniously within it.