|Photo credit: mimicry from morguefile.com|
wire and piled dishes, sheared-off doors stacked five to a
wall, you're walking like cripples. Toward a dirty window,
obstructed by stacks of chairs.
And once you move them, one by one, palm circles through
the grime and cup your hands round your faces, finally able
to see through—
Charged night. Sheet-flashes of green, threaded with sparks,
the pale orange pan of the moon—
Finally, what turns the wheel: the moon ghosting a hole
through a rainbow, the rainbow's rage to efface the moon,
which the moon sails through slow as a ship, in the shape of
Lotus-folded, a figurine. The kind you once found in the
Chinatown markets, for a dollar and a dime—
Saying you're dying, you're dead. You can withdraw from this
orbit of mirrors.
I was first drawn to this piece because of the way it engages with everyday objects and has such a lovely melodic flow of sound and rhythm--"pale orange pan of the moon."
But when it came to interpretation, well, I admit I was rather at a loss for some time. It's easy to let these sorts of interpretive puzzles scare one off of poetry entirely. But some of the most interesting ideas have layers, and the best way to express them is through figures of speech including allusion and metaphor.
With that in mind, I examined the poem again, looking for recurrent images and themes, as well as references to larger ideas or works (allusions). A few recurrent images are of mess/ruin, night, and things that mediate our views (dirty window, mirror). I think the key to unlocking the set of symbols here is the Buddha figure, and what he represents.
My knowledge of Buddhism is limited to an undergraduate comparative religions course. But I do know that a core concept is the idea that this present world is an illusion and that to attain enlightenment, one must enter a state of oneness with the universal life in which there is no division, no individual. This piece is a meditation on finding enlightenment--understanding "what turns the wheel" (of Dharma) and knowing that "you can withdraw from this / orbit of mirrors." I'm sure far more could be said by someone who's well versed in the teachings of Buddhism. (If you are, please chime in).
I'm sharing this poem with you, and my rudimentary process for puzzling it out, to illustrate some important things about poetry. First, if you don't immediately "get" a poem, don't despair. Poets' networks of symbol and meaning often can be "decoded," at least a little, if you're willing to take the time. Second, it can be very helpful creatively to read outside your own intellectual and religious tradition. Levin's approach to expressing big ideas is an intriguing one.
How do you approach a piece of art that's initially not easy to understand? What's your take on this poem? Which lines or images stand out to you?
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