Mary Oliver & Tomas Transtromer

Mary Oliver & Tomas Transtromer

by Laura K. Secor

Hello my friends,

This is the second to last of my Nuggets for the year, which means we ought to be thinking about wrapping up this conversation between Mary and Tomas.  (Mary Oliver and Tomas Transtromer, for those who need reminding.) And yet I feel as though we are just beginning a more complex phase of their dialogue, as they begin to interact with Chinese ways of thinking about spirit.  I think this exploration will continue into the fall, although we are going to add a third poet. I hope you’re eager to find out who, but I’m going to let the suspense build.

Last month we considered how Mary embraces Eastern ways of thinking in her poems, the ability to be comfortable in uncertainty.  Did you wonder whether Tomas’ work would resonate with Eastern thought? I wondered. I read many of his poems this last month, asking myself, does this philosophize through a non-Western lens?  To be completely honest, I didn’t understand quite a few of the poems. Late last week, I was getting frustrated and nervous. Was this conversation going to fall silent? But then I found this:

From the Hilltop
Tomas Transtromer

I stand on the hill and look across the bay.
The boats rest on the surface of summer.
“We are sleepwalkers. Moons adrift.”
So say the white sails.

“We slip through a sleeping house.
We gently open the doors.
We lean toward freedom.”
So say the white sails.

Once I saw the wills of the world sailing.
They held the same course – one single fleet.
“We are dispersed now. No one’s escort.”
So say the white sails.

Before I weave this poem into my intuitions about the Tao, let me give you a little more background on what Tao is or isn’t, in the metaphorically limber words of Alan Watts.

“It must be clear from the start that Tao cannot be understood as ‘God’ in the sense of the ruler, monarch, commander, architect, and maker of the universe.  The image of the military and political overlord, or a a creator external to nature, has no place in the idea of Tao. Yet the Tao is most certainly the ultimate reality and energy of the universe, the Ground of being and nonbeing.

The great Tao flows everywhere,
to the left and to the right,
All things depend upon it to exist,
and it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claim.
It loves and nourishes all things
but does not lord it over them.

“Thus the Tao is the course, the flow, the drift, or the process of nature, and I call it the Watercourse Way because both Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu use the flow of water as its principle metaphor.  But it is of the essence of their philosophy that the Tao cannot be defined in words and is not an idea or concept. As Chuang-tzu says, “It may be attained but not seen,” or, in other words, felt but not conceived, intuited but not categorized, divined but not explained.  In a similar way, air and water cannot be cut or clutched, and their flow ceases when they are enclosed. There is no way of putting a stream in a bucket or the wind in a bag. Verbal description and definition may be compared to the latitudinal and longitudinal nets which we visualize upon the earth and the heavens to define and enclose the positions of mountains and lakes, planets and stars.  But earth and heaven are not cut by these imaginary strings. As Wittgenstein said, “Laws, like the law of causations, etc., treat of the network and not of what the network describes.” For the game of Western philosophy and science is to trap the universe in the networks of words and numbers, so that there is always the temptation to confuse the rules, or laws, of grammar and mathematics with the actual operations of nature.  We must not, however, overlook the fact that human calculation is also an operation of nature, but just as trees do not represent or symbolize rocks, our thoughts – even if intended to do so – do not necessarily represent trees and rocks. Thoughts grow in brains as grass grows in fields. Any correspondence between them is abstract, as between ten roses and ten stones, which does not take into account the smell and color of the roses or the shapes and structures of the stones.  Although thought is in nature, we must not confuse the game-rules of thought with the patterns of nature.”

And yet, what is poetry if not the game-rules of thought frolicking in the patterns of nature?

Just as an understanding of Tao sneaks up on you, like fog on little cat feet, so does the understanding of poetry approach and dance away, tantalize us with insight that evaporates with the next thought.

I read Tomas’ poem and I see the Tao.  The white sails mean something to him, they are in conversation with him.  They suggest order in the universe, then scatter the order. They could be companion or vast distance.  They are elusive on the one hand, and offer friendship on the other.

Don’t try too hard to find connections.  Let your mind unfocus a bit. Read the poem again, and wonder…