Wally Swist. Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love. Southern Illinois UP, 2012.
In Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love, Wally Swist invites us to contextualize his exquisite eco-poetry within a subtly Buddhist life philosophy, weaving personal landscapes into natural ones. Although Swist’s poems arrive at countless reminiscences of a lover who is gone, his speaker nonetheless succeeds in being present in each moment and quietly teaches us how individual persons are always present, perhaps, as facets of Huang Po’s conception of a transcendent, all-encompassing Mind.
As no more than an afternoon scholar of the specific teachings of the Tang-era Zen master Huang Po, I questioned at first how romantic love—at least as portrayed in this book—could fit into a philosophy that appears to eschew attachment. Whether it does, however, has no bearing on whether the personal and natural subject matter in Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love blend with and balance one another to create aesthetic harmony. They do. Consider these lines from “The Jones Library Pine”:
Most obvious are the uppermost
branches bundled with cones,
three thick trunks growing halfway
up the girth of the rooted one,
the trailing top, splayed and bending,
its evergreen prayer flags unfurled…
…I find you in the immeasurable
sifting of its branches, whose resinous
fragrance thickens at the slightest
stir of the summer wind.
Swist’s vision of a kind of poetic pantheism taken in combination with charity, prayer, and romantic love should suggest to us the futility of too-rigorously applying any simplified understanding of ancient belief systems to poetry or to life. In these poems we find Zen coexisting comfortably alongside Rilke, astrology, Jack Gilbert, “the Christ in me,” and the Gospel of Thomas.
Swist also finds room in these poems for the sheer simplicity of Buddhist thought concerning hunger: If you are hungry, eat. In poems like “Breaking Open Garlic” and “Cinnamon Sticks” the preparation of meals for and with a companion is elevated to an almost sacramental beauty. But, in the more subdued “Ode to Squash Soup,” we also find the perspective of the solitary, meditative speaker who so gingerly observes the world around him in poems like “Scrub Meadow” and “Mount Toby, Spring Thaw” and “Red-Tailed Hawk.” This lone spiritual man who, line after line, elevates some serene, isolated moment and then just barely hints that the “I” is there.
Though the speaker is so often alone in these poems, I admit that after my first reading of “Ode to Squash Soup,” I imagined a woman hovering near the cutting board in the cozy winter kitchen of the cabin that recurs in many of these poems. I imagined this because many of the poems in Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love—particularly poems such as “Putting up the Mailbox” and “Moving the Woodpile”—carry a similar charge to that of love poems. There are throughout the book, of course, more direct love poems such as “The Fire,” in which the woman is absent as the speaker builds the fire—until the fifth stanza, at which point she enters stealthily:
He first watches the blue flames,
then the white, those lights they see
when they are together,
the incandescent tongues that burst
above his head when he speaks to her.
In “Moving the Woodpile,” the meticulous language and affection for detail are the same, yet the burn of a sacred romance is replaced by a baptism of labor. The poem begins “I am rinsed in quiet living here in this cabin in the woods,” and thus we are invited to attend the event of making room “for a clothesline between white pine and sugar maple.” Swist often lifts his eyes skyward to look for birds, but in this poem we note his attention to a cast of earthbound creatures: the white-footed mouse, the black salamander, the leopard frog, and the wolf spider. Ecologically and meditatively speaking, the location is cleansed and cleansing:
I restack the wood on the skids, then chink in the splits.
When the sky clouds over, and my sweat beads on the wood,
it is filigreed with the gills of beige and white mushrooms.
After I rake that spot of chipped bark and slivers,
sunlight bolts between the leaves, and shines on cleared earth,
then lights on the newly stacked wood.
Overall, Swist’s poetry finds transcendent experiences in everyday ones, and only very rarely does it describe extraordinary moments (such as those of near-death-experiences). “Threshold” and “To Psyche” are two of those exceptions. Perhaps it is no coincidence that for these (relatively short) poems Swist trades the multiple two- or three-line stanzas that he often uses throughout the collection for one single stanza. What is evoked is quite different from that of a typical Swist nature poem, yet we see that getting lost in a swirl of light, or envisioning the Annunciation or the Kingdom of Heaven, are metaphysical parts of the journey to which Swist consistently returns. The closing of the eponymous poem, “Huang Po and the Dimensions of Love” provides a clear picture of Swist’s recurrent philosophy:
We confuse seeing the wood with the true wood,
and lose each other halfway—
we see the wood of ourselves,
but miss the divine grain of the ordinary.
—Julie Ann Brandt