Three adventurous editors here at the Curator have agreed to attempt explicating each others’ work. In cold blood. Today, I do one of Lynn Martin’s, next week Lynn will do one of Obi Martin’s, and then Obi will do one of mine.

Snow Temple Summer

by Conrad Martin

On the clock of the year it is high noon and the world is a steady wealth of green and blue and all manner of teeming, trickling life. But once not long ago it was winter, and simple, and white. If the earth keeps breathing, we will soon find ourselves again in that still, smooth sameness.

My friend Lynn wrote the poem “Snow” the winter before last, while visiting me in the small northwest Pennsylvania college of Faith Builders. The windows of the student lounge that Saturday looked out into hypnotic whiteness falling. When I stepped outside, there was no sound.

Snow

by Lynn Michael Martin

Here stands the temple echoless,
walled by the world’s edge, the horizon
no farther than a tree-row
greyed by snowfall.
Ornate with non-ornation,
shrine splendidly unclothed
by images, statuettes, friezes,
and if there is any shape,
it is the stormfronted gargoyle,
spitting sleet and snow;
or the censers, unscented, unglowing,
pouring out smoke, grey on sky,
white on the earth;
or the font curved outward,
bathing all the world
in sleep and mysteries.

Holiness is silence,
and world-pain released
by pure knowing,
all
experienced and become,
washed in and forgotten
in the numbness of the eyes,
and the opening of the eyes.

Gargoyles for the heathen,
censers for gods,
baptism for those who stand
over-earth and under-sky
bathed in the sleep which leads to waking.

The poem being a very impressionistic one, it would be dangerous for me to attempt to explain it. One must wait until the poet is dead to do that safely. But I will impose upon it some ideas of my own which help me relate it more fully to myself.

What sort of thing is the poem saying—what does it intend? I say it is an attempt to speak the mystery. Which mystery? The mystery of being, I suppose. The mystery of consciousness, the mystery of everything-at-once, or of experience, of moments, of the soul, of identity perhaps, of existence. When tempted to say that it is the mystery of God, resist—I believe this poem implies otherwise, as we will see.

At one level the poem is simply an expression of the wonder of snow—a wintry mood-poem with oddly obscure language. It can be read that way, but it is more involved and more definite than that. It looks through a revelation of snow to speak openly of universal mysteries, even making a gently philosophical statement about the nature and meaning of the encounter. Despite apparent obscurity, the lines of this poem outline the shape of a definite, central image and idea. Keeping a consistent mood, it uses a few select images and a repeated paradox to form this idea.

Note first the primary theme of emptiness, absence, and negation. “Here stands the temple echoless.” Echoes are next to nothing, but this “temple” has not even echoes. Unlike most temples, it is barren of ornate “images, statuettes, friezes.” There is no visible shape anywhere—the possible gargoyle is “stormfronted” (obscured by falling snow), and if there are censers, they are “unscented, unglowing.”

Yet this blank emptiness and opaque invisibility is a paradoxically rich fullness. The temple is not merely lacking ornation, it is “ornate with non-ornation” (a masterpiece of cumbersome coinage, itself splendidly non-ornate). Somehow the lack of anything tangible, definite, and life-like is felt as meaning and richness. This describes a common experience of snowfall. The whiteness obliterates all distinct shapes, mutes all sounds, blends even earth and sky into one continuous whole: reality seamlessly surrealized.

Two kinds of spaces may be echoless: a space so enormous that the voice never returns to you, or a space so close that the return is immediate and indistinguishable from its origin. This temple might be both. The space seems so formless that it resembles nothing human or knowable, and yet one could also say that it appears unknowable precisely because it is so identical to the human act of knowing, a suggestion I will further develop. Note that this conception of the snow as uniquely revealing of the mind itself does not come directly from the poem. I am letting it stand as one of the possible interpretative lenses, justified by the vision it enables. Linking two mysteries together explains neither away.

This temple is enormous—it has for its border the edge of the universe, “walled by the world’s edge,” yet the whole universe is within a visible row of trees, “the horizon/ no farther than a tree-row/ greyed by snowfall.” In the muted silence, the space seems close, intimate—almost within you, and yet there is nothing else outside—within-ness is ‘all there is.’ To feel an aloneness so present is an enormous peace. This mood leads to the central statement of the poem.

Holiness is silence,
and world-pain released
by pure knowing,
all
experienced and become,
washed in and forgotten
in the numbness of the eyes,
and the opening of the eyes.

The word “all,” with a line all to itself, is the center of the poem. This is a universal claim—a statement of philosophy. Consider that the desire of the mind is for a perfect unity, an utter identity of all. Here is satisfaction and fulfillment for that desire.

“All experienced and become”—is perhaps something like ‘becoming one with the universe.’ Despite the cheapening overuse, it is not a trivial idea. We associate it with Eastern mysticism and pantheism, and as far as I can tell, we do so rightly. This poem shows itself fully aware of the pagan associations and makes a complex statement about the validity of that perspective from a Christian view.

The paradox of full emptiness and close distance appears here in a paradox of knowing. “Pure knowing” is apparently something like forgetting. Silence is a lack of sound—a negative concept. If “holiness is silence” is not a quote verbatim from the Buddha, it could have been.

The concept of “world-pain” does not welcome explanation. I think of it as the crushing pressure of the extravagant multiplicity of things, of the uncountability of forms and patterns and inter-patterns, of endless awareness, of being awake, and the consciousness of awareness. Memory and thought totalize the mind. The “pure knowing” which is the release of this world-pain is a fullness—“all experienced and become”—and yet it is an emptiness—“all . . . forgotten.”

The most unknowable thing of all is the act of knowing itself. Perhaps, after sustained effort to attain to the inwardness, in the eddying calms of inevitable exhaustion, something within eases, turning about inside the mind . . . perhaps the incomparable shimmering in the reality of things is an echo of that turning, returning on a knowing now faced outward. Perhaps “pure knowing” is not the search, or the lack of the search, but the turning. “All . . . become.”

“The numbness of the eyes” is the blindness of too much seeing—the numbness following world-pain. Here is the ancient weariness of the East, and the silence after long philosophy. Perhaps “the opening of the eyes” suggests something else though—something more: the turning, a baptism of sight. Notice that “numbness” suggests but does not state the closing of the eyes. Leaving it implied skillfully effects an internal blink, effortless, like pure knowing.


Return to the first stanza to pick up another, somewhat separate theme. The paradox of a full emptiness introduces the possibility of seeing invisible things, and this suggestion opens into a deeper mystery. Notice the three images; they will return at the end of the poem.

. . . if there is any shape,
it is the stormfronted gargoyle,
spitting sleet and snow;
or the censers, unscented, unglowing,
pouring out smoke, grey on sky,
white on the earth;
or the font curved outward,
bathing all the world
in sleep and mysteries.

A gargoyle is grotesque by design, but “spitting sleet and snow” is not unambiguously malicious. The censors are likewise safe, pouring out an alien smoke which seems nevertheless quietly fitting. We are under the banks of large works which think nothing of us; we find ourselves in the shade of a higher dimension, observing great mysteries out in the open. Perhaps the primary intended meaning of these two metaphors is their invisibility, but the ambiguity of their goodness is also important.

The third metaphor is more. Gargoyles, censors, and baptismal fonts all originate outside Christianity, but all make their way into the church. Still, they vary in their degree of Christian association. Gargoyles are more at home on pagan temples, censors are universal, and fonts are decidedly Christian, being linked to the rite of entrance. All three are used here to say something about hiddenness manifesting itself, but the last is to me different and uniquely rich in suggestion.

. . . the font curved outward,

Consider the enclosing meaning—the centering purpose of a curve. A curve is an inwardness and a protection. It cradles the one it includes. The font is not the altar—not the space of divinity itself. It is the space of the human—of becoming—of belonging. Under the water which we cannot breathe—which is life when it is within us, and death when we are within it—we pass. By excluding us out of itself, it gave us life and we became. By taking it into ourselves, we live. By passing into it again, we unbecome, and die. According to the laws of reality, it is by exclusion we live; the removal of all exclusion is death. A curve cradles what it includes. It contains the water which excludes.

“. . . the font curved outward/ bathing all the world in sleep and mysteries.” Snow is water we may inhabit.

This poem is about a mystery which is like dying. The font curved outward is the paradox at its deepest. It is a holy simplicity become sacredly profane—the excluding water now strewn extravagantly abroad in a paradox of total belonging. The whole sky is snowing. Identity is become universal—the inside now larger than the outside—the center everywhere. Somewhere an inner door opened quietly on perfect hinges, and the unseen inwardness of things is falling softly all about us in a light too broad to be day, but for all the white. It must be a holiday.


Gargoyles for the heathen,
censors for gods,
baptism for those who stand
over-earth and under-sky
bathed in the sleep which leads to waking.

Sleep, indistinction, the great blur, the collapse of all dualities, silence—this is good, but not the highest good the poem speaks of. It speaks of these things ambiguously or positively throughout the poem, but here at the end it hints that there are two kinds of meanings to give the sleep. We could see behind it the final cosmic truth–this would be “gargoyles for the heathen,/ censors for gods.” Or we could see the sleep as one part of the cosmic truth, or better, we should feel it as one season in the cosmic truth. It is a baptism.

Gargoyles and gods are the kind of names some give the mystery, and the names we may perhaps sometimes give it, but only in a mystery, and only knowing it is not the truest mystery. These shapeless things are real in the way the imagination is real. What we see in invisibility is ourselves, and our selves seeing. If it is a mystery of gods, we are the gods. It is a mystery of Man, which is not the whole of the mystery of God.

Sometimes, we see truly that we are a blur, but then we are not the only real things. Other times, we see truly that we are not a blur, but again, we are not the only real things. We are not merely blurs—we have definition and place, “over-earth and under-sky.” Even as we are falling asleep, we note the pattern and the distinction, grey on sky . . . white on earth . . .

This sleep is good—very good—if it is our baptism and not our death. In a perfect snow, we could say truly, “Holiness is silence,” except that in thinking it we have been unsilent, and we know that silence is not all, and that there must be a waking, where lines and circles will leap straight up and furl out, green and blue on edge, balancing in a richness of shape, identity, desire, poise.

And we were right, because right now it is summer and not winter, though very late in the night. On the round clock of the year it is just past straight north, and the horizon is far away—very far away, under the moon, behind strange trees.


Artwork: A Summer Landscape with Boats on a Waterway, Cornelis Kuypers (1864-1932)