Komachi on the stoop: Writing and the threshold life
At the beginning of Sotoba Komachi (“Komachi on the Stupa”), a Japanese No play written by Kan’ami in the fourteenth century, a priest from Mount Koya is traveling with his attendant toward Kyoto. As they walk, the two priests discuss the teachings with one another; the first words they speak are these lines:
In the worn-down mountains are secret places, in the worn-down mountains are hidden places, but the true depths, surely, are in the human heart. The Buddha of the past is long ago vanished, the Buddha of the future has not yet arrived, and we as in a dream, are born into the time between, not knowing what we should understand as ReaL Only by chance were we born into human form, only by chance were we lucky enough to hear the teachings of Thusness, to receive the seeds of enlightenment into our hands.
We have only one intention in our hearts, single as the single layer of the black cloth robes we wearto know the self before birth. Knowing the self before birth we would be freethere would be no parents to tie us to this world no children to tie our thoughts to this world Though we travel a thousand miles now, it is not far-these fields where we sleep, these mountains where we rest these are our true home. Now let us pause a while.1
At this point, an old woman dressed in rags enters the stage from another direction. It is Ono no Komachi, a legendary figure in Japanese culture, supposed to have been not only the most accomplished poet but also the most beautiful woman of her time, the mid-ninth century. Though she probably had at least one child, she never married, instead taking many lovers, some of whom she treated harshly. When she grew too old to continue in service as a kind of lady-in-waiting at the imperial court, Komachi moved into a tiny hut outside the city of Kyoto, then called Heian-kyo; though her reputation as a poet never faltered, Komachi herself lived on in complete obscurity, eventually becoming a half-mad crone wandering the mountain trails. It is this figure-the woman who left the capital’s life of the center and came to dwell at the periphery in a number of different ways-whose story I believe may have something to tell us of what it means to be a writer, and of a direction we may wish to look when we consider what lies at the heart of the writing life.
She begins to speak: I am a floating reed, waiting an invitation from the water. A floating reed, but no water asks me to come.*
In the past I held myself highbewitching, they said, my hair graceful as a kingfisher s crest my body like willow boughs swaying in a spring breeze. My voice, like a nightingale s, opened more lovely than the murmuring bush-clover blossoms heavy with falling dew.
Now, everyone shuns me, even the most common women find me loathsome. In this shame of age, unhappy days, unhappy months heap up, and I have become a crone of a hundred years. I fear the eyes of men now, fear that someone, seeing, might say “It is shel” Only at nightfall, by moonlight do I go out Avoiding all eyes, avoiding the guards of the palace I hide among trees that hide also the tombs of lovers, the mountain of autumn.
Look, in the moonlight, on the river, a bargewho can the rower be who can it be?
No. I am tired, worn I will sit on this half-rotted stump and rest
At this point, the two priests come upon Komachi and immediately begin to berate her:
You, old beggarcan’t you see that you sit on a stupa, a sacred symbol, body of the Buddha? Get up at once go sit somewhere else.
Komachi answers at first submissively:
You say it is a stupa, but I do not see any signno words, no carvings either. It just looks like the rotting stump of a tree.
The Priest replies:
Just as a decaying log deep in the mountains bursts into flower and you know it’s a tree, so it is with this log sculpted into the Buddha’s body. How could you fail to see?
But I too am a half-buried tree. My heart still opens into flowers . . . I might offer them up in this place Still why do you insist
that this old stump is the Buddha’s body? They then enter into a dialogue about stupas and their symbolism, and the Priest quotes the saying: “To look even once on a stupa is to become free of the Three Evil Paths.” Komachi, grown bold now that she has become caught up in the conversation, answers immediately with another saying, taken from the Flower Garland Sutra:
“One whole hearted thought is enough to attain the mind of Buddha”Do you think this a lesser way?
The Attendant then says:
If you aspire to the mind of Buddha, you should despise this world and its ways.
Komachi answers at once his implicit criticism that she has not taken formal Buddhist vows, as they have:
It is not through outer appearance that I have renounced the world, it is in my heart
The Priest then says:
It is because you are heartless that you fail to recognize the Buddha’s body.
And Komachi replies:
No, it is because it is the Buddha’s body that I chose to approach it!
And still, without any gratitude you sat on it!
It was already lying down, this stupawhy should it be wrong that I also rest?
That goes against Right Action.
But Wrong Action may lead to salvation too!
The Priest, the Attendant, and Komachi then begin to speak the following words together, in alternating lines, though within the conventions of No it is clear the thoughts are hers:
There are stories that even a wicked man can know the mercy of the teachings of Compassion, that even a fool can become awakened through the teachings of Wisdom. Evil may become Goodness, even the Passions can lead to the Mind of the Way. The root of enlightenment is not some tree that can be planted or not the clear mirror of awakening has no need of a stand In truth, when all things are known as One, there is no difference at all between Buddhas and sentient beings. If to save foolish mortals by any means has been the one true vow from the beginning, then surely even wrong actions must lead to Awakened Mind
At this, the Priest and Attendant give in:
You are an outcast beggar who is truly enlightened!
And saying this, they touch their heads to the earth three times in homage.
That is the culmination of the first part of the play. Next, the priests ask the woman who she is, and discover to their amazement that they are speaking with the legendary Komachi. They reminisce about her former beauty and glory, and comment on her circumstances now: her white eyebrows and hair, the sack she carries around her neck with only a few grains of dried millet and beans for food, her clothing covered with dirt, her tattered raincoat of straw, her ravelling hat of woven reeds, and the madness which comes over her at times.
Then, that madness is visibly played out-Komachi’s spirit is taken over by the angry ghost of one of her former lovers, who recalls the nights he waited outside her door in the darkness and wind, through first the time of falling leaves and rain, then of falling snow. Reliving this, Komachi cries out in pain and ultimately, also, in compassion for the lover, who died on the ninety-ninth night of the hundred she had asked him to prove his steadfastness. The play ends with her vow to continue traveling the path of enlightenment until both their spirits are freed.
There are many ways to look at this story and its images. It invites our contemplation in its presentation of Buddhist understanding, as a protofeminr st story, for the luminosity of its poetry, and for the pathos and dignity of the human tale it holds. Here though, I would like to consider the play in the light of a concept from anthropology-to look at the aged poet Komachi as a figure who exemplifies the realm of the liminal, a word derived from the Latin limen, or “threshold.”
In The Ritual Process, anthropologist Victor Turner describes the liminal as a period of transition which occurs in all rites of passage. During the time spent in this condition, a person abandons his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. Only after undergoing this process may the initiate enter into new forms of identity and relationship, and rejoin the everyday life of the culture-but now as adult or married person, as healer or holder of clan secrets.
A number of characteristics mark the liminal state of being “betwixt and between.” First, the initiate goes through a process of removal of status and identity-he or she becomes nameless; conventional clothing is foregone; the usual constraints of gender no longer apply. Ordinarily forbidden behavior may now be allowed, or, conversely, the person may enter into an extreme discipline. Often there is a period of silence and of non-doing, of fasting or going without sleep. Threshold-persons are treated as outsiders and exiles, separated from the group and often either reviled or ignored. Their state during this period may be described as akin to the unborn in the womb or the dead in the afterlife: they are not present in the community in any normal sense. They descend into invisibility and darkness, and, symbolically or literally, are sent away from both the physical and the ideological structures of society and into the wilderness.
Turner points out one more important aspect of liminality-the experience of this condition is an essential part of understanding the true nature of community. This means that the liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion of particularity and identity. By removing the person undergoing initiation from the usual definitions by which society assigns power and status, rituals of entrance into the liminal not only allow individuals to change who they are in relationship to society, but also offer them a chance to know for themselves their oneness with the community as a whole. A concise description of how this happens appears in the final section of Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End: “Awareness of emptiness brings forth the heart of compassion.”
It is for this aspect of the liminal that not only individuals but at times entire societies must step into the condition of the threshold-so that the whole community may experience its most intimate connection with all of existence, not just with the part the members consider “theirs.” During the Middle Ages, much of Europe celebrated a holiday of the threshold, the Feast of Fools, in which a mock King or Bishop was elected, anyone of the slightest power was subjected to ridicule and parody by everyone else, and general chaos and celebration were the order of a day in which nothing was exempt from reversal. Halloween is one remnant of such a ritual, a night when all members of the community agree to open their doors to intimacy with ghosts and demons, vandalism and trickery. It is just such an opening of the door to what lies outside the order of ordinary life that Czeslaw Milosz alludes to in his poem “Ars Poetica?” Describing the writer as a person who must be willing to be inhabited by a daimonion, the poet asks, “What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons?” He nonetheless goes on to say that, despite the genuine dangers possible in taking up such a course, it is exactly this which is to be desired:
The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.
As Milosz’s poem tells us, then, entrance into the liminal is a fundamental aspect of the life of writing. By speaking from the open awareness of threshold and the point of view of multiplicity and betweenness, the writer becomes a person who allows both individuality and community to ripen into their truest and widest expression. In the work of such a person, a range of experiences beyond the more simplistic, conventional, and “authorized” versions of a culture’s narratives can find voice, and a newly broadened knowledge and conception of being is made available to all.
It isn’t hard to see how these ideas relate to Komachi’s story. From the play’s opening words, the two monks situate us in a place of threshold, amid worn-down mountains and hiddenness and the world of uncertainty that exists between the past and future Buddhas. But while they are in many ways liminal figures themselves-as all monks are-they also represent in Sotoba Komachi the world of role and structure and of society’s habitual ways of thinking. Their understanding of Buddhist teaching isn’t bad, but it is incomplete, and their role in the play will be to be instructed and initiated by Komachi, a woman who represents the deeper wisdom of the threshold-person whose long immersion into hardship and a stripped-down being has freed her from conventional thought. The monks, for example, say that the fields they find themselves in are their one true home, but for Komachi, this is not doctrine, but the actual truth. Though as unsui, “wandering clouds,” they have taken vows to become home-leavers, the two priests are in fact passers-through, on their way from their home temple on Mount Koya to the capital. Komachi is the one who lives fully and permanently in the condition of “outside,” a forgotten person separated from her former identity, her roof falling open to the wind and moonlight. One of her more famous poems describes it this way:
This abandoned house, shining, in a mountain village. How many nights has the autumn moon spent here?4
From her first speech, Komachi is identified as having stepped out of human culture and into the wider natural world-she is, she says, a floating reed; and even when describing the time when she was a part of the court culture, every physical comparison is with something from naturewillow branches, kingfishers, nightingales, bush clover. But now, she has truly entered exile and anonymity, leaving her name behind to live beyond the walls of the city, venturing out only by moonlight and darkness. She dresses in clothes barely distinguished from their sources in the wild, clothes that are on their way back to being the reeds and grasses that they were made from; she lives by begging; she who was once beautiful is now loathed and reviled even by the lowest members of society; her very age places her on the cusp between life and death. In each of these characteristics, she embodies Turner’s description of a liminal person.
And what about that other aspect of liminality, the way it opens into a more universal sense of community? In the debate surrounding the stupa, Komachi sits squarely on the side of non-separation and oneness: for her, a fallen log and the body of the Buddha are truly the same thing. And, just as this symbolic stupa has mostly rotted back into the earth it arose from, so has she, the once-great poet who now calls herself “also a halfburied tree.” Her chosen path to awakening lies not in putting on the formal black robes of a monk, but in a cultivation of the single-minded intention to attain the Bud&a’s Way that takes place inwardly and without visible signs, amid the common life of this world. And where the two monks speak of trying to break free of the attachments to parents and children that come of being born, she speaks for a different path-the belief that even wrong actions and the life of the passions may lead a whole-hearted person into awakening. It is perhaps more than a mere accident of No play structure that the speech that meditates upon these ideas is put into the mouths of all three, making of them for that moment a visible and audible embodiment of community’s shared life.
Komachi’s path is the way of immersion rather than escape, of oneness rather than separation, of a radical insistence upon non-duality. Later in the play, she is shown as possessed: so permeable of identity that even another’s spirit may enter hers as a road toward both their salvations. This too is the understanding of the threshold-person, who, like the Budhist bodhisattva who vows not to enter enlightenment until every last blade of grass may enter as well, is engaged in her work on behalf of everyone, not only the individual self. Just as Komachi’s wisdom comes from her entrance into the liminal mountain wilderness that lies beyond the capital, it comes also from her willingness to experience, over and over again, the life of relationship and of the causes and effects we call karmathe bewildering mountain pathways of the human. Komachi’s practice is to live through every part of her life. And when the priests recognize her understanding, they no longer speak in terms of received doctrine but touch their foreheads to the earth in acknowledgement of her hard-won truth.
mmersion in the life of this world, and the willingness to be inhabited by and speak for others-including those beyond the realm of the human-is the practice not only of the bodhisattva, but of the writer. While Komachi’s story is useful for anyone, it is perhaps especially useful for those who write, because it shows so clearly the way that the life of the threshold can be a path of both permeability and knowledge-a way, in the words of the thirteenth-century Zen teacher Dogen, to study the self, forget the self, and awaken into the ten thousand things.
For most members of a cultural community, the liminal is a point of transition, a state entered briefly and at particular points of their lives, as a passage to something else. They are dipped into non-identity and selfforgetfulness in order to change who they are. But for some, the liminal becomes their only dwelling-place, becomes home. How to live in such a condition is something that writers must often figure out for themselves, in solitude, but it is a task in which they are not alone. As was mentioned above, a long-standing example of such a person is the monk, the wandereramong-clouds, and perhaps something can be learned of the underlying patterns of a liminal life by considering a few of the ways that monastics move through the world.
The outward clothing of the monk is traditionally simple and plain. The okesa, or Buddhist priest robe, is a patchwork garment, originally sewn together of re-dyed rags. According to Dogen, the cloth to be used is what would have customarily been thrown away because it had been burned by fire, gnawed by oxen, chewed by mice, or worn by the dead; what the monk wears, then, is the discarded, abandoned, and unneeded. Similarly, the monk traditionally eats only what has been donated to the community or placed in the begging bowl-one of Teresa of Avila’s greatest difficulties in opening each of her Reformed Carmelite convents lay in persuading both the Church and local civil authorities to allow her nuns to live the precarious life of day-to-day charity rather than under the protection of an endowment. And again, when the rainy season forced the Buddhist monastic community to stay in one place, it was not to the city but into the peripheral life of the forests that they retired, just as early Christian monks made their place of practice in the desert. Even now, in America, both Buddhist and Catholic monastic communities tend to be found either in the country, or, if in the cities, in the worst parts-the Tenderloins, the ghettos.
All a monk’s needs for clothing, food, and refuge are satisfied (in symbol, if not always in actuality) at the margins of society, within what those who dwell more at the center consider extraneous or useless. Monks are recyclers, compost-makers-out of unwanted waste and communal labor, they create subsistence, beauty, and wealth. This, then, is the work of the threshold: to step into places of seeming barrenness or emptiness or neglect and bring back new wealth. For writers, such a life often entails making a place outside the mainstream in outward ways-jobs, housing. The novelist Anne Lamott has commented, for example, that there are almost no women writers today who haven’t worked in “the food service industry,” and my own informal surveys (and experience) have thus far proved her right. Inwardly, though, the writer’s embodiment of threshold activity has to do with his or her fundamental relationship to language and culture itself. Words that are common currency for everyone become treasure in the hands of the writer-transformed into greater depth, luminosity, and meaning for the entire community because they have been immersed in the freedom of the liminal.
One sign of a healthy society is that its threshold people are granted their role in a way that does not deny them their essential grace. In an essayS considering the debate over welfare in this country, novelist Marilynne Robinson reminds us of the ancient law of Moses: “When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow: that the Lord thy God may bless thee in all the work of thine hands” [Deuteronomy 24:19]. As Robinson points out, it is important that not only orphans and widows are permitted this gleaning, but also the true outsider, the passing stranger; and important, too, that the ones who are granted the trees’ remaining olives after the main harvest, the late-ripening grapes and forgotten wheat, are dignified by their role as well-through them the community is blessed. The same understanding might be brought to the debates over whether there should be public funding of the arts, or whether or not we are willing to share our places of habitation with the coyote, the cougar, the wolf, and the fringe-toed lizard.
Generosity to the stranger acknowledges that community exists beyond one’s own social group or species-what it requires of us, of course, is a true altruism, beyond any possibility of direct repayment, even to the point of surrendering what we might rather keep: an extra three sheep on an overgrazed commons; an overly-fixed idea of what is beautiful or of the justice of the current social order. As Lewis Hyde has pointed out in his remarkable book The Gift, it is precisely in this spirit of nonpossession and surrender that art flourishes best. It is also this threshold spirit that makes the liminal writer not only an independent thinker but also an engaged one-when a person identifies with the full range of citizens of a place, sentient and non-sentient, he or she cannot help but speak on their behalf.
The Chinese Zen teacher Lin-chi described the process of awakening as becoming a “person of no rank.” The person who has found his or her true nature, like the ordinary person when in the liminal state of transition, is free of the forms of status. To be of “no rank” means to be equal with everyone, whether beggar or king. A single parish priest might be confessor to the local prince as well as to the village fool. Saint Francis wrote of Brother Wind and Sister Water, and treated all creation as being equally the radiant image of God. One reason that entering the wilderness feels liberating is that it allows us to enter an existence free of statuswhatever our encounter with a canyon wren, it will take place at another level of being than that of rank. When we give our attention over to the non-human, self is released from self and into the ten thousand beings and things of the world.
A fully awakened person will bring this freedom to encounters with other humans as well. There is the story of Bodhidharma, the wandering monk who brought the teachings of Buddhism from India to China. When he was first asked to the court of Emperor Wu, he refused to go, busy as he was with the work of transmitting the teaching; but eventually, he gave in-being of no rank means being equal to the emperor too. When he arrived, the emperor said, “I have built Buddhist temples, I have bestowed upon them great wealth. Tell me, what merit will I gain from these acts?” “No merit,” the wanderer replied. “Vast emptiness, nothing holy.” And having given those words, he turned his back on the capital and went away, back to the margins.
Writers, too, must be wanderers and persons of “no rank,” for whom no part of existence is more holy than the rest. The writer offers herself or himself to everything and everyone, turning to the inconsequential and almost invisible weeds for meaning as much as to the glorious blossoms, valuing the dark parts of the story as much as its light. Milton is in love with Lucifer; Shakespeare’s affections go with Caliban at least as much as with Ariel, Thomas Hardy’s with the fallen Tess. Galway Kinnell has said, “The secret title of every good poem might be `Tenderness,”‘ and this too is the thinking of a person free of ideas of rank-for the writer to write at all, he or she must cultivate a heart that opens to all things. Not long ago, I found myself writing a poem that tries to look at this question:
Tenderness does not choose its own uses. It goes out to everything equally, circling rabbit and hawk. Look. in the iron bucket, a single nail a single ruby, all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound
The poem is called a prayer because in writing it I was asking, during a time of difficulty, for such a mind and heart; but I hope it is useful in general as well. A writer cannot identify with the rabbit, or with the hawk -it is our job, from the point of view of the threshold, to include both. We cannot value a ruby more than a nail, or find the sound of one more beautiful than the other-both will be needed, if we want to include the world in our words.
One well-known saying in Zen is Seng-ts ‘an’s, “The perfect way is not difficult, only avoid picking and choosing.” Seng-ts an knew of course that in human life we are always doing one thing and not another, using one word and not another. But he also knew that such choices need to be made within a fundamental non-attachment. If you side too much with the rabbit, the hawks will starve. If you side too much with the hawk, there will be no more rabbits. It is up to the writer to love everything that happens to him or her and each thing that comes under the eye’s contemplation, inner or outer. To set up straw men is not only a failure of heart-it will also be, inevitably, a failure of writing. In this way the lessons of ecology, Zen, and artistic craft are the same.
To be of no rank is also to be of no name, and as we have seen in the figure of the crone Komachi, anonymity is one of the qualities of the liminal. During a rite of passage, there is a gap between the old and the new, a state of non-personhood, an immersion into the commonality of the unborn and unparticularized. In this state, the self becomes part of an undivided life in which both who we are and who we might become vanishes. And it is just then, when we are at our most permeable, that something new can emerge. See how it is described in the opening stanza of Pablo Neruda’s “Poetry”:
And it was at that age . . . Poetry arrived in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where it came from, from winter or a river. I don’t know how or when, no, they were not voices, they were not words, nor silence, but from a street I was summoned, from the branches of night abruptly from the others, among violent fires or returning alone, there I was without a face and it touched me.6
(translated by Alastair Reid)
“Show me your face before your parents were born,” says the traditional Buddhist koan alluded to by the priests in Sotoba Komachi. For Neruda, that face will become a poetry of all things, a long praise-song to salt in the mines and in the ocean, to a wristwatch ticking in the night’s darkness like a tiny saw cutting time, to the dead body of a fish in the market-and it is worth remembering, thinking of his abundance of heart and imagination, that the threshold is a place that is at once empty and full. It is on the margins, where one thing meets another, and in the times of transition, that ecosystems are most rich, most diverse-birds sing and deer, fish, and mosquitoes emerge to feed at dawn and at dusk.
The gate to this richness, for Neruda, lay in that first moment when he surrendered his narrow identity and was touched by a life larger than his own. This is what Wang Wei, hermit-poet of China’s T’ang Dynasty, referred to as well when he wrote, “In a former life I was a poet-a mistake-and my old body used to belong to a painter. . . My name and public face may speak of who I once was, but of this my heart knows nothing.” Then there are the words of his contemporary and kindred threshold spirit, Han Shan: “Who can leap the world’s ties and sit with me among the white clouds It is the same, too, for Emily Dickinson: “I’m nobody,” she writes in 1861, and means it, this woman who habitually likens herself to the most common of flowers, a daisy.
Both Dickinson and Walt Whitman are examples of American writers who stepped fully, if by different means, into the role of threshold. Dickinson retired from the world, changed her clothing to white in a private ritual of status-leaving, ordained herself into the whole-hearted practice of the word. Her attic writing room in Amherst is not so different from the small leaf hut into which the ceremonial initiate retires. Whitman’s version of the role is closer to the chameleon liminality of the trickster figure-in his passionate espousal of democracy and all its citizens, he frees himself from society’s structures, limitations, and seemliness, and becomes a person who has studied the self, forgotten the self, and awakened, in poem after poem, into the ten thousand things:
Space and Timer now I see it is true, what I’d guess ‘d at What I guess ‘d when I loaf d on the grass, What I guess ‘d while I lay alone in my bed, And again as I walk ‘d the beach under the paling stars of the morning.
(Can you hear the threshold in these things-how the poet is engaged in non-doing, or out walking during a time of transition, from night to day?) My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps, I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents, I am afoot with my vision
By the city’s quadrangular houses-in log huts, camping with lumbermen, Along the ruts of the turnpike, along the dry gulch and rivulet bed, Weeding my onion-patch or hoeing rows of carrots and parsnips, crossing savannas, trailing in forests, Prospecting, gold-digging, girdling the trees of a new purchase, Scorch’d ankle-deep by the hot sand, hauling my boat down the shallow river, Where the panther walks to and fro on a limb overhead, where the buck turns furiously at the hunter, Where the rattlesnake suns his flabby length on a rock, where the otter is feeding on fish, Where the alligator in his tough pimples sleeps by the bayou, Where the black bear is searching for roots or honey, where the beaver pats the mud with his paddle-shaped tail Over the growing sugar, over the yellow-flower’d cotton plant, over the rice in its low moist field,
Over the sharp-peak ‘d farm house, with its scallop ‘d scum and slender shoots from the gutters, Over the western persimmon, over the long-leav ‘d corn, over the delicate blueflower flax, Over the white and brown buckwheat a hummer and buzzer there with the rest, Over the dusky green of the rye as it ripples and shades in the breeze…. This sentence rolls on, naming the self as everything and everywhere, “a hummer and buzzer there with the rest,” for another sixty-seven lines before it is done.
If the liminal and a sense of participation in the community of the whole are integrally linked, it is fair to say that no poet in the English-language tradition speaks more explicitly from the threshold-life than Whitman. Let me pick out for you a few more lines, remembering that communitas, as Turner calls it, is not about the disappearance of the one into the many, but the recognition of each particular one, as an equal part of the many, none to be called better or worse, none to be hidden, none to be excluded. “I will not make poems with reference to parts,/ But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble,” Whitman declares, and enacts this vow everywhere.
In “Leaves of Grass” he says, I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise, Regardless of others, ever regardful of others, Maternal as well as paternal a child as well as a man, Stuffed with the stuff that is coarse, and stuffed with the stuff that is fine. . and a little later, These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and all lands, they are not original with me, If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing, If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing. . .
Throughout his work, Whitman takes his stand with the marginal, the taboo, the outcast. His vow is that he will speak for them, embrace them, and, ultimately, as in these lines from “Song of Myself,” become them:
For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch, It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night. Not a mutineer walks handcuffed to jail but I am handcuff d to him and walk by his side, (I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.) Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and sentenced Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp, My face is ash-color’d my sinews gnarl away from me people retreat. Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them, I project my hat sit shame-faced and beg.
There are lines, too, in which Whitman explicitly rejects the ways of orderly, structured society for threshold existence, where live both mystery and joy. There is the famous, “I think I could turn and live with the animals,” and there is this
When I heard the learn’d astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look ‘d up in perfect silence at the stars.
(“When I Heard the Learned Astronomer”)
My point-if one can make a point in the face of Whitman’s abundanceis that it is by taking the position of the threshold-person that Whitman is able to throw off the limits of what he is “permitted” to say, the limits of what he is “permitted” to be, to speak finally for and as the kosmos.
Dickinson’s path, of necessity, is different. Her threshold life is more inward, traveled almost completely within the grounds of her family home and in the privacy of her own heart. But like Whitman, she too must find a stance somehow between the realm of belonging to society and the solitude which permits embracing. In one well-known letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson she writes:
Of “shunning Men and Women”-they talk of Hallowed things, aloud-and embarrass my Dog-He and I dont object to them, if they’ll exist their side. I think Carlo would please you-He is dumb, and brave-I think you would like the Chestnut Tree, I met in my walk. It hit my notice suddenly-and I thought the Skies were in Blossom
Then there’s a noisless noise in the Orchard-that I let persons hear(#271, August 1862)
You can see in this letter how Dickinson moves away from the obvious kinds of intimacy, perhaps, but toward another: intimacy with her dog Carlo, with the chestnut tree she “meets” in its almost overpowering beauty, and with that “noiseless noise” in the orchard that she alone, perhaps, may midwife into the attention of “persons.” In that last, of course, the work of making communitas clearly appears. Dickinson does not forget the society she is part of: her characteristic gesture is almost always a simultaneous retreat and advance. She knows herself and her capacities well enough to recognize that it is by the device of withdrawal itself that she may enter essential experience-and even simple communication-best. And so, she places herself firmly and adamantly on the threshold, claiming this as her place of intimacy: letters preferred to meetings, visitors to the house met only by her presence just beyond the parlor door. Yet, Dickinson, like Whitman, stands finally free of societal expectations. There is the famous poem in which this writer-who knew her own worth and who composed close to two thousand poems during her life-states that “Publication-is the Auction/ Of the Mind of Man”and the auction she would have had in mind was the auction of slaves. There is also a letter to Higginson in which she writes unabashedly, with her characteristic leaping juxtaposition, “You kindly ask for my Blossoms and Books-I have read but a little recently-Existence has overpowered Books. Today, I slew a Mushroom-.” For anyone who has ever felt woefully under-read as a writer, there is some consolation here.
Open Dickinson’s poems almost anywhere and you will find her declaring her liminal status of outsider:
Between my Country-and the OthersThere is a Sea
And yet, as Komachi offered her heart-flowers of a half-buried tree, so Dickinson does as well, in this poem’s concluding lines:
But Flowers-negotiate between usAs Ministry.
Where Whitman proclaims himself male and female, embracing sex and the life of the body, Dickinson seemingly (though perhaps not entirely-there are the “Dear Master” letters, and the intense passion of certain of the poems) turns away from sex, certainly away from the conventional female life-course of her time, and so frees herself as well of some of its hold on her identity. In one letter to Louise and Frances Norcross, she signs herself, intriguingly, “Brother Emily.” Both poets rejected organized religion, yet both are ecstatics, seeing the holy as infusing everything around them. Each belongs to the lineage of the mystics, and to the tradition of inclusive paradox that we find so often placed into the mouths of female wisdom figures-in Komachi, with her praise of Wrong Action as a path to enlightenment; or in the speaker of the Gnostic Gospel “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” who calls herself wife and virgin, holy one and whore, force of joining and of dissolving; or in the female figure of Wisdom who appears in Proverbs: 8, present in the world from before the time of its birth.
A part of this paradox is yet another characteristic Turner notes of the liminal: the willing embrace of pain. We are familiar with the fasting and exposure to the elements that is an aspect of many rites of passage, and we have seen the way Whitman allies himself with the most difficult human circumstances. Here is Dickinson acknowledging this necessity of the threshold:
Essential Oils-are wrungThe Attar from the Rose Be not expressed by Suns-aloneIt is the gift of ScrewsThe General Rose-decayBut this-in Lady’s Drawer Make Summer-When the Lady lie In Ceaseless Rosemary
The issues of birth and death hover always near the condition of threshold, and death, of course, is Dickinson’s obsession. She returns to it over and over, imagining her way into its alabaster chambers past fly-loud, light-failed windows, inquiring again and again in imagination what may be found there; yet those windows also look the other way, into an openness and capacity for joy that few poets have equalled. Through the seemingly narrow gate of a sequestered life, Dickinson found the entrance to something priceless, illimitable-by spreading wide those touchingly described “narrow Hands,” she gathered “Paradise.”
One other founding figure of American writing has left an explicit description of a writer placing himself on the threshold: “I went to the woods,” wrote Thoreau, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” What he wrote in the concluding chapter of Walden is worth considering as well: I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct . . . The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
What this second passage makes clear is that entering the threshold is not a matter of going into the literal woods, though that may help; it is a matter of mind, and of going off the trail of convention and norm, whether in the city or in the wild. Naturalist David Lukas speaks, for example, about the dangers of surrendering too easily to the names and taxonomies given us in field guides, pointing out that such systems may prevent us from seeing the many other ways in which the world and its multiple relationships can be organized and named-what begins as an aid to clear seeing may end by becoming a blindfold. It is worth noticing as well that a superficial marginality can become an identity as conventional as any other, and then it too becomes only a thing to be dropped. There is also the obvious risk of using the idea of the threshold to romanticize and so tolerate suffering: unchosen homelessness or being forced to the fringes of society by poverty or psychosis are not the same as a liminal life.
To speak, and to write, is to assert who we are, what we think. The necessary other side is to surrender these things-to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being. One aspect of traditional rites of passage is often a stage of deliberate humbling, when the initiate must accept what is said of him or her without argument. For those who have ever found themselves in such a position-whether as writers receiving feedback, or as children, spouses, employees, parents, or friends-I offer the good company of the person about to be installed as chief in the Ndembu tribe of Africa. In a rite Victor Turner calls the “Reviling of the Chief-Elect,” the chieftainto-be is publicly harangued as part of the process of helping him give up his attachment to the old, private way of life and his selfish desires. Any member of the community he has ever slighted or insulted reminds him loudly of his failings, and he is accused as well of possessing a generally bad character and greedy actions, and exhorted to give them up:
You are a mean and selfish fool, one who is bad-tempered! You do not love your fellows, you are only angry with them! Meanness and theft are all you have! . . . Put away meanness, put aside anger, give up adulterous intercourse, give them up immediately! . . . Abstain from witchcraft! . . . You must not be killing people! You must not be ungenerous . . . ! You must know the people . . . If you were mean, and used to eat your cassava mush alone, or your meat alone, today you are in the chieftainship. You must give up your selfish ways . . . you must laugh with everyone . . . you must welcome everyone, you are the chief!
An interesting point is the command that traditionally opens this harangue: “Be silent!” This is the decades-long silence of Komachi as reviled beggar-woman, before her encounter with the priests. It is also the silence and simple acceptance that appear in a famous story about the Buddhist poet, painter, and teacher, Hakuin, who wrote in his “Song of Zazen”:
In this moment what is there to look for? This very place is the Lotus Land This very body is the body of the Buddha Just as Komachi is not free of the world of karma, so it was with Hakuin. One day, a girl in the village where he lived became pregnant. Seeking to protect her lover, the son of a neighboring farmer, when her family asked who the father was, she named the young priest instead. After the child was born, the enraged grandparents brought it to Hakuin’s home. “Here,” they said, “this is your child, take it! “Is that so?” Hakuin replied, and reached out his arms.
It was difficult for Hakuin after that-no one is particularly generous with alms to a priest known to have fathered an illegitimate child-but he continued to make his rounds, accepting rice or insults as they came. After a few months, the girl gave in to both guilt and her longing for her child; she broke down, and named the true father. Her parents returned, chastened, to the hut where Hakuin lived and, making profuse apologies, explained that they now knew he was not the father. “Is that so?” Hakuin said, returning the well cared-for baby to its family.
A certain freedom from the opinion of others is a useful thing, of course, for all threshold-people, and especially perhaps for writers who plan to publish; but there is another lesson of the threshold in this story as well. As a person who carries the liminal for his culture, Hakuin’s role is to be undefended and to take what is given. Sometimes what is given is rice, sometimes it is derision, sometimes it is a poem or a painting, sometimes it is the call of a California scrub jay or the backfiring of a truck engine, sometimes it is a baby. The heart that knows there is nothing to look for beyond this moment will accept them all. Like the Ndembu chief, it will “laugh with everyone, welcome everyone”; like Komachi, it will be a reed that is willing to go where the water takes it; whatever wants to enter such a heart will be allowed to enter.
It is the task of the writer to become that permeable and transparent; to become, in the famous words of Henry James, a person on whom nothing is lost. What is put into the care of such a person will be well tended. Such a person can be trusted to tell the stories they are given to tell, and to tell them with the compassion that comes when the self’s deepest interest is not in the self, but in turning outward and into awareness. What I have been trying to sketch out here is one idea of the creative life and its means and sources-an idea having to do with the surrender of our ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance. Ultimately, though, threshold-consciousness is not about our ideas, whatever they may be. It is, like the act of writing itself, about stepping past what we already think we know and into an entirely new relationship with the many possibilities of being, with the ultimately singular and limitless mystery of being. Above all, it is about freedom, and the affection for all existence that only lives within genuine freedom. And so let us close with one more brief poem, by Gary Snyder, which holds in the open embrace of its few words the threshold life of particular time and of timelessness, a knowledge of true community, and an infinitely boundless freedom married to an eternally binding affection:
ON CLIMBING THE SIERRA MATTERHORN AGAIN AFTER THIRTY-ONE YEARS
Range after range of mountains Year after year after year. I am still in love.
(4 X 40086, On the summit)9
1. This is a rather free translation-adaptation, with abridgements. For two rather different translations of the whole play, see Ono no Komachi Poems, Plays, Stories, by Roy S. Tele (NY: Garland Publishing Co.,1993) and The No Plays of Japan. by Arthur Waley (NY: Grove Press, n.d.).
2. These lines echo one of Komachi’s most famous poems, written near the end of her time at court in response to an invitation from one of her lovers to join him in the provinces:
This body, grown fragile floating, a reed cut from its rootsIf a stream would ask me to follow, I’d go, I think.
3. from “Ars Poetica?,” by Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems (Hopewell, NJ: The Ecco Press,1988), p. 211.
4. For more of Komachi’s poems see The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Japanese Court, translated by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani (NY: Vintage Classics, 1990).
5. Harper’s Magazine, July 1995.
6. from Selected Poems, edited by Nathaniel Tarn (NY: Delacorte/Delta/Dell, 1972), p. 457.
7. translated by Gary Snyder; from Riprap, & Cold Mountain Poems (SF: Four Seasons Foundation, 1969), p. 44.
8. The Ritual Process, by Victor S. Turner (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company,1969).
9. from No Nature: New and Selected Poems, by Gary Snyder (NY: Pantheon, 1992), p. 362.
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Sep/Oct 1996
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