Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Surprised by the River

Waking up this morning, I was surprised by the river. Not a literal flood, but a sudden realization, of the kind that might get described as "flooding into consciousness." Please be patient with my slowed-down and roundabout explanation . . .

Over the past couple of weeks I have been every evening at bedtime reading a chapter or two of the Tao Te Ching. I first encountered the Tao in my early teens when I began searching for alternatives to the Methodist Churchianity I was being raised in, and it has been a bedside book, off and on, ever since. The first copy I owned (I still have it) was Witter Bynner's 1944 translation, in a 1962 paperback edition. I also have a conveniently pocket-sized 1988 edition by Stephen Miller. My long-time favorite translation has been the one by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, published in 1972, and that is the edition currently on the bedside table, However, I also admire Ursula Le Guin's 1997 translation and I like her assessment of the work:

It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring. – Ursula K. Le Guin, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way

What brought the flood on was recalling as I was waking up just the last half of Chapter 32 of the Tao, that I had read just before falling asleep:

Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.

There are already enough names.

One must know when to stop.

Knowing when to stop averts trouble.

Tao in the world is like a river flowing home to the sea.

And thinking, "That's the poem I wrote about canoeing on the South Anna River in Virginia in 1985!"


written after canoeing the South Anna River
with a friend during a stay at Twin Oaks Community,
Virginia, May 10, 1985

 I was thinking of the river

as a kind of order, mountain laurel

on the right bank, blackberries

on the left, and the importance

of paddling on the right side,

the certainty of the spring

in the mountains, the finality

of the Chesapeake.

 At morning I am surprised

in the gifts of the great flowing,

this good bread, the dream-touch of hands,

the river itself returning, the wild azaleas

sliding from color to river-color,

the flavor of the blackberries rising

where the wind-shifts flash on the water,

where the thousand-year sweetness

of the river-rock runs.

Different words, same poem. Same truth? Well, you decide. 

I then went and looked up Ursula's version of Chapter 32 for comparison:

To order, to govern,

Is to begin naming;

When names proliferate

It’s time to stop.

If you know when to stop

You’re in no danger.

 The Way in the world

Is as a stream to a valley,

A river to the sea.

Again, different words trying to snare the same elusive truth. But perhaps an even better fit with my poem-snare. Though I could not in 1985 have read her 1997 version. I especially like Ursula's far more crafty and better nuanced last three lines.

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