For all the rising fury of summer afternoons in the 21st century, they yet transpire in an almost bewitched stillness — a wilderness of eternity. I look out the window and it’s a photograph of clouds in blue stasis framed by trees growing a millimeter a day for their century. All is in motion, and yet singles down into one frame.
Stillness is the singularity of all possibilities merged into one — light on the lake on late summer afternoons, the pause of an egret feeding by the shore, a forest of sycamore leaves bending in one tree’s ecstasy in rainstorm.
We have gone far and wide searching for that wild. (Sherry has just taken us to wild African shores.) But isn’t that wild in every still frame we pull to view, if we would but notice it? If wild is the weal of our earth, poetry its wilderness.“There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet,” Emerson writes in “Nature.” To be in that integrative moment, “a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child.”
… In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity … which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe ai and uplifted in infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me … I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
A transparent eyeball is transfixed by stillness. How much can one behold in daffodil? For Christopher Smart, “flowers are the poetry of Christ” whose “right names” are “still in heaven.” In the Psalms it is written: “Be still, and know that I am God.” So we enter heaven, stilled.
For those of you south of the Equator who are reading this now, you know that stillness holds to the depths of winter as well. Thoreau writes in Walden:
After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where? But there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight. The snow lying deep on the earth dotted with young pines, and the very slope of the hill on which my house is placed, seemed to say, Forward! Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask. She has long ago taken her resolution. “O Prince, our eyes contemplate with admiration and transmit to the soul the wonderful and varied spectacle of this universe. The night veils without doubt a part of this glorious creation; but day comes to reveal to us this great work, which extends from earth even into the plains of the ether.
Stillness is the essential pole which balances its opposite of action in the world. It also allows us to embrace the warring tendencies of the time. Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes in Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit:
Amphibious, we wander at the singular, radical intersection of science, nature and spirit. Here resides a multifaceted understanding of the interdependence of earthly life and the engaged activism that such an understanding inspires and requires. Here are the interwoven pathways of inward, wild stillness and outward, feral action. At this crossroads there is intelligence, and sacredness, and wildness, and grace. There is clear-sighted hope in a time of despair. Rooted ways embolden us to remember that with our complex minds we can feel — and live — more than one thing simultaneously. Anxiety, difficulty, fear, despair. yes. Beauty, connectedness, possibility, love. (22)
For all its purity, stillness yet must be nurtured. We are beings of a hurtling time. Things happen so fast that yesterday is a Sphinx. How are we to properly see and value anything if we can’t hold it in stillness? “Take your well-disciplined strengths and stretch them between two opposing poles, for inside humans is where God learns,” Rilke writes in “Just As The Winged Energy of Delight.”
Let’s write this week of WILD STILLNESS, and find the wilderness there.
Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stillness. One of the doors
into the temple.
from A Thousand Mornings, 2012
BETWEEN GOING AND STAYING
Between going and staying the day wavers,
in love with its own transparency.
The circular afternoon is now a bay
where the world in stillness rocks.
All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.
Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.
Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.
The light turns the indifferent wall
into a ghostly theater of reflections.
I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.
The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.
translated by Eliot Weinberger
from Collected Poems, 1986
In this place, beside a sigh of traffic
Regretting nothing as it passes, there
Was once an endless trilling in a wood.
They say it, & saying it makes it so.
Nor does it matter whether these miles
Of warehouse quiet a hundred years ago
Had as their tenant & overseer only
The gray snake hidden among gray leaves,
A smell of roots decaying in a stillness
Meant to last forever, & no one there,
Not even the mad widow with her axe
Lying in wait to welcome you, her smock
A faded yellow blending perfectly
Without her into the grasses of some rumor
Until what was gnat song, swamp, and carp eyes
Rising slowly in their sullen yellows
To nibble at the pond’s taut skin,
Became wind in the pines, an unending wood
Which was never there but rises now;
Behind the nothing & number of what
We are, the billboards’ blank amnesias,
That wake of all we were still trembles:
First nakedness & summer & that hush,
Its hymen no more than a cuticle
Of cattails bordering a marsh,
And beyond it, the hem of the darkest wood.
The worst thing one can know on days
Glazed by ice is that the cattails & marsh
Are there, as they’ve always been, their deep browns
Perfect, & perfectly unaware of it,
Swaying listlessly, then going still again.
The worst thing one can know is that
Gazing at them would be different now,
With something off to one side always &
Nudging you away from them, & you going
Willingly with it in the weightless air,
Allowing it to lead you up the hill,
Though nothing is there, no one is there,
The usher at your side not even the rustling
Of wind in the grass, until it all seems distant,
As if the cattails in the waters of a marsh
Belonged to a castle in a book by now,
And to the child reading it, as if the sawing
Blades of sea-grass that once cut your thumb,
Or the speckled, rosy fading of some blossom,
Had all been make-believes, a fakery.
The place of desire has no place for you.
Now, whoever you are, whatever you meant
By stopping here, has ceased to matter, for you
No longer can possess a speck of anything
Slipping toward the river’s mouth & the sea
Not the leaf gliding onto the smooth water
And outside history, not a grass blade,
Its pallor more solemnly blonde than ever
You had imagined it. You turn away,
Noticing nothing but that sharp, passing
Taste of yourself in your mouth, that hint
Of metal with a flavor of the end,
A taste you savor the rest of your days,
Something as blank & familiar as the light
At dawn filling the abandoned squares
Of the city & spreading effortlessly over
The green identical benches in the park.
from The Widening Spell of the Leaves, 1991