Religious poetry was probably the first kind of poetry, but that doesn’t make it easy to write. What impresses me about this poem is how it is unafraid to draw from various traditions and approaches in a small space, while confronting a religious difficulty that is both ancient and very contemporary.
At the threshold of the divine, how to know
But indirectly, to hear the static as
Pattern, to hear the rough-edged white noise as song—
Wait, not as song – but to intuit the songbird
Within the thorn thicket, safe, hidden there.
Every moment is not a time for song
or singing. Imagine a Buddha, handmade,
Four meters high of compacted ash, the ash
Remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer.
With each breath, the whole slowly disintegrates.
With each footfall, ash shifts. The Buddha crumbles.
To face it, we efface it with our presence.
An infant will often turn away as if
Not to see is the same as not being seen.
There was fire, but God was not the fire.
— from Crow-Work, by Eric Pankey (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Eric Pankey. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. milkweed.org
We start “on the threshold of the divine” – that is, near something mysterious, revelatory, but not in it or on it or whatever. The first sentence of the poem is abstract, and at first the poet might seem to be wondering about how to get over that threshold, but that’s not it. Instead he wants to learn “how to know / But indirectly.” In a sense the desire he’s articulating is about living comfortably on the threshold, to have his ear pricked to what’s happening over it. As Pankey zeroes in on this idea he’s able to find metaphors to approach it – the static, and then the songbird. There are problems in both, though: hearing “the static as pattern,” for example, would be an illusion, finding meaning or intention in a phenomenon that actually has none. (An atheist’s accusation of the foolishness of a believer is that she sees a pattern in static.) On the other hand, Pankey’s form of belief isn’t quite ready to proclaim an actual bird singing in the thicket (“Wait – not as song”), but only the possibility of intuiting a hidden presence there. Pankey’s language is exploratory, tentative, careful – there are so many obstacles to portraying genuine religious experience and he seems to be trying to navigate between the obvious pitfalls.
One of those pitfalls is simply focusing attention on a sensation that is supposed to function outside of articulate thought. By writing the poem at all, Pankey is gesturing toward feelings that defy or transcend language, and so his next step, the most vivid image of the poem and the one that takes up the most space here, is about how our very conscious presence precludes the possibility of pure revelation.
The image of the crumbling ash Buddha evokes a few things for me. First, Pankey is referring specifically to the work of artist Zhang Huan, who constructed an Ash Buddha at the Sidney Festival in early 2015, and has done similar work elsewhere. (You can see his Sidney Ash Buddha being unmasked here, and another more recent installation in Macau here.) One essential aspect of the work is that it disintegrates over time, partly because of the presence of the people who view it. Another is that the ash itself is gathered from the remnants of others’ religious rituals (“Remnants of joss sticks that incarnated prayer”), and so represents a kind of accumulation of hope.
The image of the disintegrating Buddha also seems connected to the “observer effect,” an idea in quantum mechanics that certain phenomenon are disturbed by any attempt to measure them. The familiar illustrative example is tire pressure – in order to measure tire pressure, you have to let a bit of air out of the tire, which slightly changes the very pressure you’re trying to measure. Contrary to our usual scientific practice, observation in these cases is an obstacle to understanding.
A similar notion has been present in poetry since the Romantics – the idea that we can’t describe transcendent feelings (religious, emotional, artistic, sexual, etc) and experience them at the same time. For Keats, the choice is to fall from the ecstasy of hearing the nightingale song in order to write his poem or, by submitting to it permanently, “become a sod.”
For Pankey the choice is to face the ash Buddha and accept that our presence will contribute to its disintegration, or to turn away and take it on trust that the Buddha still stands. It’s worth noting that the first word of this description (starting on line 7) is “Imagine,” and it seems that, in the mind of this poem, as it was for the Romantics as well, imagination can be a facilitator, a bridge between conscious thought and transcendence.
I should mention that there’s a lovely light music here too, mostly based on un-rhymed alliterative pairings – static/pattern in lines 2-3, thorn/thicket in line 5, then whole/slowly, ash/shifts, and face/efface/presence later. It’s understated, a bit of not-song in the white noise.
If the ash Buddha image seems to encourage a lingering, attentive turning away from the divine, the penultimate lines point to its inverse, an immature kind of turning away. The infant who believes that “Not to see is the same as not being seen” is clearly mistaken, and Pankey seems to imply that those of us who turn away from the possibility of spiritual transcendence are doing the same thing. Not everyone would agree, perhaps, but I like Pankey’s willingness to allow a bit of the affectionate admonishing preacher to make an appearance here.
Last point: to my mind the biggest obstacle to writing about religious experience is the massive amount of texts, histories, and arguments that have already traveled there. We probably don’t wish to adhere too closely to ideas that are antiquated, but we also don’t want to dismiss our predecessors just because our cellphones have better resolution. Pankey takes this challenge head on at the end of “Ash,” drawing forth one more important origin text.
“God was not the fire” circles back to how the ash in Huang’s Buddha was created, but is also a reference to First Kings chapter 19, in which the prophet Elijah has a vision. It’s worth quoting a bit from verses 11-12: “And behold God passed by, and a great strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”
Notice how much more time the biblical authors spend talking about what isn’t God. The wind and the earthquake and the fire – such things are vividly evoked, but they are not where God can be found. Even the final phrase stops just short of pointing at God’s presence. The “still small voice” is clearly intended to be seen as where “God is,” but refrains from explicitly declaring it.
Why do I mention all of this? This whole poem has been circling around our struggles to connect with transcendence, to encounter God, and despite numerous near-misses we still end up where “God was not.” Buddha and the God of the Hebrew Bible have made their appearances, as have Romanticism, quantum physics, and child psychology. But the God that Eric Pankey is looking for isn’t in the Buddha, but rather in the disintegrating ash. Not the bearded patriarchal God that reaches for Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in the space between the fingers. Not in any vision, but in our periphery, as we turn away, pretending not to see.
“Ash” is about the search for God, about trying to be open to an encounter with the divine, despite its inherent, tantalizing ephemerality. What I love about this poem is that it is willing to live in its uncertainty, in fact to articulate that uncertainty, that longing for something just beyond our reach, freighted with conflicting traditions and frustrations, and yet still propelling us toward a higher sense of ourselves and the world.