Monday’s Poem: ‘My Aging Lover in My Arms, the Dharma,’ by Jeanne Larsen

My Aging Lover in My Arms, the Dharma

affirms itself: the simple truth of how
things are. 1 long fall of water
here in a landscape of waterfalls & we 2
not sitting still to observe, not crossing

over. Immersed. We’ve walked this trail [the bracken,
shadows, these river-birds flitting & trilling]
for decades. Call our enjoyment the energy
body
. Call it clinging, or both. Call the breathtaking Law

of cause & effect sanditthikō, evident
here, now
: I may think I get it. Say
ehipassiko, inviting, engaging
: I might idiotically smile,
cherishing you & your invitations, bowing before

my own confusion like 1 who mistakes
a clay doll for a buddha, the wayfinder’s map
for the way. You too smile. & that bending
of flesh that ripples & runs

like whitewater, onyx, like tangled streams
of causation, moves on. Headlong, it sinks
into the porous underground lime. I warm
at the sight, clutch at the warmth, begin to think bound

to samsara by what to each other we
are
. But, love, we’ve long known desire
is impermanent. We’ve known these slick rocks
& the footway, the brush against skin

of the alders. We’ve known how body
shouts as a master might to a student, Do you
understand, do you? Speak up. Quick,
quick!
As if the student cherished

bewilderment. As if the student, the wrong
-headed student, stuck on the riverbank, stared
at twist-shining chains of actions, results.
Were smiling & clutching. Hadn’t much time.

Copyright ©  by Jeanne Larsen.  Printed by permission of the author.

Jeanne Larsen’s new book is Why We Make Gardens (& Other Poems) (Mayapple Press, 2010). Her first book won the AWP award series in poetry, and she has since published two collections of translated Chinese poems as well as three novels. She is the Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University.

Commentary from Arts & Academe’s poetry editor, Lisa Russ Spaar:

Mountain waterfalls flowing kinetically from clouds to earth in a setting of stone, a prevalent element in Asian painting and poetry, are in accord with the teachings of Zen Buddhism, which focus, among other things, on impermanence in a context of changelessness. In Jeanne Larsen’s poem, the speaker and her long beloved companion, out for a hike over familiar terrain (“we’ve walked this trail [the bracken, / shadows, these river-birds flitting & trilling] / for decades”), find themselves suddenly not only “in a landscape of waterfalls,” but inside a sanditthikō “here/now” Zen moment complicated by enchantment, beguilement, and desire.

It is possible to read Larsen’s title, “My Aging Lover in My Arms, the Dharma,” which is also the first line of the poem, as a definition, in which “the Dharma” (the Dhammapada, the Divine “Law” and body of Buddhist teachings) is apposite to “My Aging Lover in My Arms.”  And although the next line adjusts our parsing of the syntax a bit, the meaning hangs there:  the body of my aging lover in my arms embodies the Dharma, the body of Buddhist teaching, “the simple truth of how / things are.”  That is, there is something about this aging body of my lover in my arms that is at the heart of the truth of the Dharma. Like a mondo, the what is that something? of this proposition compels the poem.

Larsen goes on to implicate the experience of the two lovers with Zen lessons.  “My Aging Lover In My Arms, The Dharma,” she writes,

affirms itself:  the simple truth of how
things are.  1 long fall of water
here in a landscape of waterfalls & we 2
not sitting still to observe, not crossing

over.  . . .

In this passage, Larsen conflates what might well be a list ( 1 . . . 2 . . .)  enumerating “how things are” with another reading, in which “1” is “one” (“won”?) and “2” is “two” or even “too,” making sure to contrast the individual’s inner cultivation of a path toward nirvana with a very clear sense that this speaker feels herself to be part of a pair, a two,  a couple who, though they’ve “long known desire / is impermanent,” have nonetheless found themselves unexpectedly not in a place of meditation or quiet, detached observation, zazen. Instead, they are caught up, “immersed,” almost giddy with surprise in their delight, their physical “enjoyment” of one another.  “Say / ehipassiko, inviting, engaging,” the speaker confesses, and “ I might idiotically smile, / cherishing you & your invitations, bowing before // my own confusion like 1 who mistakes / a clay doll for a Buddha, the wayfinder’s map / for the way.”

When the aging lover smiles, “that bending / of flesh . . . ripples & runs // like whitewater.”  Landscape, Zen teaching (“tangled streams / of causation”), and the lovers’ bodies all turn into one another everywhere, and by the time the aging lover’s “bending” flesh “sinks / into the porous underground lime,” the speaker can’t help but “ warm / at the sight, clutch at the warmth, begin to think bound // to samsara by what to each other we / are.” Yet these lovers know that physical desire is as fleeting as “the brush against skin // of the alders.”  What to do, how to act, what response to make in such a moment?

In the penultimate stanza, Larsen takes up the mondo trope implied at the start of the poem, a mondo being a question posed by a master teacher to a student, requiring an immediate response, the spontaneity and seeming tangentiality of which can be enlightening.  Note, again, how the lover’s body is blurred here with the body of the teacher:

. . . We’ve known how body
shouts as a master might to a student, Do you
understand, do you?  Speak up.  Quick,
quick!

The teacher is the body, and its students, the lovers, are called by its urgings. Cherishing their bewilderment, “stuck on the riverbank,” the speaker and her partner dance in the energy of the “here, now,” marveling at all the possible “twist-shining chains of actions, results” that have brought them to the brink of an illumination. The sensual motions of the mutable world and of the still cherished beauty and attraction of their physical selves force them afresh into the predicament of the young student of Zen, from whom an immediate response is demanded by his rōshi. “Smiling and clutching” one another beside the waterfall, the aging lovers are like the neophyte who must answer quickly, as if he or she “hadn’t much time.”  These lovers don’t. None of us does, of course, but the truth of this is intensified for the pair by their awareness of Time’s winged waterfall, of mortality.

How, then, does the aging lover’s body affirm the Dharma?  Perhaps, the poem suggests, by situating the thrillingly awakened bodies of these experienced lovers—vulnerable, mutable—not only in the consciousness of the certainty of human mortality, but perhaps more importantly in the steadfastness of their life-spanned ardor.

(A&A illustration derived from photos by Flickr users gregoconnell and Dan Zen)

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