Plumstones: Cartoons of No Heaven
It is pleasure and pain
through these realms.
Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven is the latest product of Michael McClure's
restless, inventive, ceaselessly experimental consciousness:
BEDRAGGLED. GLAMOROUS. OLD AS COYOTE BREATH,
NEW AS COMME DES GARÇONS. HERE. GONE.
Like the earlier Touching the Edge: Dharma Devotions from the Hummingbird Sangha,
this volume is explicitly Buddhist--but some sort of Buddhist stance has been an element of
McClure's work for some years now. Here he declares that "EVEN DADA FAILED" and moves on into
an extraordinary devotional poetry:
EACH. EACH SIDE OF EACH DUST SPECK
turning in sunlight is a movie.
in the movies
reach to the tiny end of infinity
and each speck grows
to fill all.
"If the type and placements of lines seem strange," he tells the reader, "read them aloud and
they will take their shape."
McClure's poetry is nothing if not self-referential, and over the years he has built
up, along with his typographical innovations, a vocabulary which allows his readers to
recognize a McClure poem at a hundred yards away. That is present in this book. ("SPECKS," for
example, is the title of one of McClure's books; the great McClure word "SWIRLS" shows up here
as well.) Yet the Buddhist stance and the wonderful specificity which is always an aspect of
McClure's writing give the book a texture which is fresh and new--no small achievement for a
poet who, at 69, is about to enter his eighth decade. ("Michael stands on my back / growing
wrinkles," the poet grouses.)
Like much of McClure's work, Plum Stones deliberately echoes itself, with lines
from previous poems becoming the generating elements of new work--as if any single direction
were essentially illusory. The poem took one form at this point, but at another point it might
take another form. The rush, the speed of the verse is considerable. One does not "contemplate"
these poems in the way that one might contemplate a haiku standing alone on the page. With
McClure you rush through the poetry "for the sheer, ordinary, mammal / joy of it." Though the
author is an accomplished writer of haiku--the concluding section of Plum Stones is a
collection--McClure remains closer to Shelley than to Basho. In a McClure book, the mind moves.
(From the point of view of "cartoons," one thinks of the Road Runner: "zooms" is an important
word here.) In a way, the central figure of Plum Stones is Manjushri, whom McClure glosses as
"the bodhisattva or 'enlightenment being' of wisdom":
seated on his white lion,
swinging the sword
into deeper mines
than our knowing.
(Cf., later in the book, "TO / BE / SLASHED / by a wise sword / freeing / WORLDS.") As always,
the poet includes some of his patented, enchanting lyricism:
Bring quiet to Lorca
and the unending memories
of tiny black beetles,
and pink seaweed
of crusty coral
of the pool;
Garma C.C. Chang's The Buddhist Teaching of Totality: The Philosophy of Hwa Yen
Buddhism is one of Michael McClure's favorite texts. Declaring that "Upon the grand stage
of the infinite Dharmadh tu [the infinite universes], countless various dramas...are being
enacted in numerous dimensions of space/time throughout eternity," Chang writes of "liberation
from all obstructions":
Here is a perfect melting and merging of all realms, the all-in-one and the one-in-all,
the dissolving of being and non-being, the convergence of Voidness and existence...All
these mysteries of totality consist...in one basic principle: namely, all things...are
void. In contrast to doctrines of various monisms and monotheisms, the Hwa Yen Doctrine
holds that the wonders of Dharmadh tu are brought into play not because of the one, but
because of the great Void. This is as if to say that zero, not one,
is the foundation of all
numbers. It is because of Voidness or Emptiness (S nyat) that the mutual penetration and
Non-Obstruction of realms becomes possible....
Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven (the last two words are a glance at John
Lennon's great song, "Imagine": "Imagine there's no heaven...") is an exploration of the
constant interpenetration of infinite voidness and infinite plurality-the nothing at the heart
of absolutely everything. "Thoughts," writes McClure,
Garma C.C. Chang asserts that Buddha's
primary concern was to point out the way to liberation--liberation from the deep-rooted attachment to a delusory self which is the source of all passion-desires and their resultant pains and frustrations.
Such "liberation" is McClure's aim as well. "Blackness" in all its senses, positive and negative, has haunted this poet throughout his career, beginning perhaps with his experience of the "cartoon" character, Batman--a kind of "black" version of Superman. Here, from the point of view of "the lion's eye," even blackness (in the form of the Buddhist pillow) becomes an aspect of compassion. Throughout the book, McClure's assertions, no matter how "absolute" they may appear, are consistently tentative, open-ended, and accepting:
of a seated figure.
Plain as disturbance and straw
and Grandpa's tin snuff box.
Plum Stone's concluding poem--an atypical moment of rest and respite--is
addressed to the poet's old friend, Philip Whalen, a fellow Beat who also followed the Buddhist
path. In the end, all our activity issues in stillness:
In the lion's eye
THE BLACK CUSHION
[The Alsop Review]