the Arakaki Permutations by James Maughn
(Black Radish, Lafayette, LA, 2011)
Worldbook: 1925—a poem by James Maughn
([g.e. #5] Poetry Flash & g.e. Collective, San Francisco, 2010)
James Maughn has four books out now that I have, and they just keep getting better. That is to say, from book to book as I read them they are sharpening their practice, and as I read them again and again I get more from it. The last two to come to me are the Arakaki Permutations (SF: Black Radish, 2011) and Worldbook: 1925—a poem [g.e. #5] (SF: Poetry Flash & g.e. Collective, 2010). These books deal, each one of them differently, with form and feeling. These are the two most basic of the five skandhas or “heapings up” of consciousness in Buddhist thinking. These are no orientalist volumes, though, despite the presence of Maughn’s serious kara-te practice in one of them. In an “Author’s Note” at the back of the Arakaki Permutations, he explains his use of the kata forms that he has studied (and mastered, from what I’ve seen) in a previous book called Kata:
In that book, I explored the connections and intersections between my practice of traditional Karate and my practice of poetry … . I aimed to write a poem, grounded in my study of particular kata, that would somehow partake of the kinetic signature of that form.
He succeeded nicely in Kata, and now in the Arakaki Permutations he continues and deepens the poetic practice parallel to “focusing on a handful of kata” in his karate. He tells us of this more pointed practice:
In keeping with this change, I wanted to write a book that would reflect my new relationship with the kata I’ve chosen to make my own. Rather than writing one poem for each kata, I’ve written new poems for each line of the original kata poem, and tied the writing of those poems to my daily study of particular techniques and sequences in the kata. (117)
This is a serious practice and this is the more seriously “feeling” of the two books under consideration here, but lest this seem too serious—I would insist that the poems can be read nicely without this note and that Maughn did well to put it at the end. I have seen him read these poems and I have seen him demonstrate karate kata, each standing well for itself.
These are not illustrative compositions. They are not really demonstrative either, though they enact something. They demonstrate attention to the heapings up of consciousness described by the five skandhas: form, feeling, perception, concept, and consciousness. They delight a mind that can sustain a little “negative capability” for seeing how wording fits into this scheme. The empty mind of the “empty hand” (kara-te) practitioners is at the heart of this book.
There are five sets of poems played out from lines in the Kata poems based from these kata, five now gone further into. The reason I say they deal with form comes from both their kata forms, which I have seen but don’t know well enough to recall, and from this form of the book and the forms the individual poems take. Here’s one from “Niseishi Permutations”:
X. (cast light)
This shows the form as precipitous, grammatical, and shifty. Meanings gleaned along the falling through are not intercepted by a pre-conceived concept but moved up by the giddy vertiginous motion. And emotion.
The reason I say they deal with feeling comes from the feelings you get as your eye/mind moves through these poems; the raw data of emotion formed at the concept/consciousness levels are held here in precipitate suspension. It’s a feeling I trust to be accurate to the kata gone into here, but I don’t have or need any notion of what that form is; it is there throughout.
Here’s part of another from “Sochin Permutations”:
I. (fit to and awake)
what all I’m fit to finish
gets better left under
up and without iron
except fitted over
shirt I’m bent on
The foreshadowing vocabulary of a sliding frame here lets “iron” link with “shirt” and “under” and “fit” and “fitted,” “under” also with “up” and “over,” “bone” with the un(der)stated “hair” suggested later in the image of an anchorite, as “bent on” recalls the sense of “fit to finish” even as it also fits the iron a smith might forge upon. That “bone / shirt I’m bent on” can only be the body and yet … and yet.
There are poems in this book that I don’t “get.” There may be some that you won’t either. But it is well worth finding out. The piling up of meaning is at work and on display here. I’d have to say that the Arakaki Permutations is a lesson without object in how the mind works, and I mean works.
Worldbook: 1925—a poem, on the other hand, is playful in its use of where it comes from. A little reading in it will reveal its source as the 1925 edition of the famous encyclopedia volume “from A to Bee” as it says on the title page. The language may all be found there. The composition is what we’re after. Diction encompassing everything teaches what a mindset is like. The composition gives the critical angle, and it’s hilarious. From the simplicity of “XVIII.”:
Give four reasons why basketry should be popular.
to the wild set of study questions in “XX.” about bees, we can see and laugh at the encyclopedia’s efforts to teach even as we learn about their more pernicious aspects in the image given of an Abyssinia looked at from the white world in “I.” “VI.” gives a serious critique of arithmetical calculations even as it makes us laugh; it asks:
how much stovewood in one
standing tree? does poultry
pay a profit? how
to determine the advantage
his neighbor may have over
him? with common
fractions & some fair degree
of rapidity largely occupied
with figures as true
as if a tool of perfect control
This is fine poetry both in its Jakobsonian use of grammar and its Lakoffian sense of parsimonious framing, as well as in its simple satire or its deeper perceptions. I get a kick out of it; you will too.
T.C. Marshall is a beautiful curmudgeon living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, chasing the seasons as they come to him, book by book. He pays the bills, accepts gifts, and teaches. Friend him on FaceBook to converse and to find out more.