Where do I live?
In the space between Monday and Sunday
In the retina of the crow’s eye.
I am a skin of prickles under a blue balloon
Always, the salt spills. The cupboard’s shadows
Fall across the floor.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
Sheena Blackhall is the voice of the North-East. She's probably the most prolific poet in Scotland, publishing two or three books a year in English and her distinctive Aberdeenshire Scots. But she's no Doric Stereotype (her own phrase) - rather she's a sophisticated, technically gifted writer who flits with ease through different modes and registers. This wee poem of hers in English caught my eye - gnomic, aphoristic, mysterious. It has all the spare dreamlike clarity of a surrealist painting.
Occasionally poems write themselves. They scurry out from a dark corner of the psyche like spiders. The poem 'Existentialist' is one of those.
If I was to try to unpick the flies from its web, I'd begin with the end lines. The bedroom I slept in as a child with my grandmother was full of heavy, antique furniture, which firelight transformed into grotesque shadow-monsters. I loved my grandmother dearly, and was very aware of her age and the fact that at any time she might be snatched away from me. At night, she would recite the Lord's Prayer, King James Version, whilst I was taught to say the following child's prayer:
Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
My mother was a Protestant, and devout. Sin and suffering were the cornerstones of her religion, women being especially damned for their part in the expulsion from Eden. The Devil also featured in this religion. For some reason never explained to me as a child, if I spilled salt I'd to throw a pinch over my left shoulder into the Devil's eye. He, like God, was constantly watching me I was told, two invisible policemen, a cheerless thought, rather like two Astral CCTV cameras tuned to different receivers. I was learning the lessons of ageing, impermanence and suffering, as we all must do. 'a skin of prickles under a blue balloon'. Intellectually, discovering Buddhism felt like crawling out from underneath a stone into pure light.
The first three lines refer to the non-self and the pure land of the void, an attempt to describe the non-duality of subject and object. I am an image in the crow's eye, an illusion. It is difficult to express the inexpressible. The following two quotes come near to what I try to convey in the poem:
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass
Dogen: 13th Century Zen Buddhist monk
Are the mystics and sages insane? Because they all tell variations on the same story, don't they? The story of awakening one morning and discovering you are one with the All, in a timeless and eternal and infinite fashion. Yes, maybe they are crazy, these divine fools. Maybe they are mumbling idiots in the face of the Abyss. Maybe they need a nice, understanding therapist. Yes, I'm sure that would help. But then, I wonder. Maybe…an individual's consciousness does indeed touch infinity—a total embrace of the entire Kosmos—a Kosmic consciousness that is Spirit awakened to its own true nature. It's at least plausible.
And tell me: is that story, sung by mystics and sages the world over, any crazier than the scientific materialism story, which is that the entire sequence is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing?
Listen very carefully: just which of those two stories actually sounds totally insane?
Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything, 42-3