The Shadow

The Shadow

It was a lovely morning outside and so I opened a window to be closer to nature.
A bird flew in the window, the flutter of wings a quick shadow across my face.
It crashed into a mirror on the wall and fell dead upon the floor.

Stunned. Then the guilt of my species fell on me
for our murderous slyness,
for our fatal triumphs and manipulative manufacture
of mirrors
and windows
and walls
come home to roost
in a pile of feathers and broken bones upon the floor
beneath an illusory window into heaven
hung upon a wall.

I put the bird away.
I closed the window.
I did not want to be that close to nature;
neither the bird’s
nor my own.

I decided not to walk in the woods down along the river.
I stayed home with my books and read
where the shadow of the bird lay.

It would not go away.

I looked in books of well-bound words.
I looked in mirrors of memory staring at the blank wall.
I looked to see what truth was present
In the shadow on the floor.

Melancholy? Acceptance? Fate?

I have books about these things.
I have books about birds, and mirrors,
books about windows and walls
books about rationalism and romanticism
books about peace and war.

I even have a book which recounts an ancient story
told by campfires long ago
down by the river in the woods
where today I will not go.

It is a story about gods and grain
and the sun and moon and the augurs of when
seeds are planted and harvested,
a story of the grindstone rock, and water and fire,
which, when applied in clever manufacture,
gives us our daily bread.

It is now called a recipe book.
The story handed down and down and down
is stripped of all sagacious portent and mystery,
the sage, the prophet, the fierce, hypnotic tribal historian,
the fire
gone, gone, all gone.

Gone the sun, the moon, the seed
the rock and fire and water. Now –
it says right here – all we need
are numbers and a measure known
to be three hundred and fifty degrees.

Which must surely amount to not near the number
of ancient campfires unremembered
lost,
forgotten embers,
and describe the fineness of our ways with lumber, I think,
refined down now to the tissue-thin page upon which are hung
these mirrors made of ink.

Ten degrees more and we will have come full circle.
I like that. It feels a portent augur of the answer.
Not the answer for us, no.
The answer to us.

There is the shadow of the bird again.

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6 Responses to The Shadow

  1. Louis W says:

    Bob, I was writing the other day about Len Chandler. One of the songs from his first album is called “Shadow Dream Chaser of Rainbows.” That was nearly 50 years ago and now I can’t find the lyrics on the internet to direct you to them. It has interesting images and – as it relates to what you have written – it concludes by saying “the soulless will never cast shadows.” What does that tell us about the bird and about your reaction?

    • bobgriffith says:

      I don’t get what you mean, Louis, but it is obvious the poem has spoken to you and I am glad about that. Thanks, and if you’d care to share a bit more about the reflections which occurred to you as a result of the poem I’d be equally glad about that. I looked, too, for either the lyrics or a listen of Chandler’s song and came up empty as well, so I guess that makes further explication along that line up to you.

  2. Louis W says:

    I did a little more research and finally found a recording of the song on the internet. It is the first song on a long “mix tape” that you can listen to here: http://www.mixcloud.com/TexHobart/the-brightest-flame-casts-the-darkest-shadow/.

    With respect to explication, I think I wrote my earlier comment in a manner that implied I knew more than I really know. I was writing quickly and what I meant to ask is that if Len Chandler is correct in stating that the soulless never cast shadows and if the shadow of the bird is staying with you or your narrator and if that shadow is strong enough to preclude the narrator from experiencing the rest of nature . . . if all of that, then is the implication that one life, one soul, is as important as all the rest of the natural world? Or did the shadow of the bird merely evoke the narrator’s sense of mortality?

    I guess that is why I thought of the Len Chandler song. He begins saying “There are things to be done, there are things to be said/some may live a long time but we’re all a long time dead/and I think of the things that I’ve thought, done and said/ and I think of the time I’ve been wasting.” The song also speaks of moths being drawn to a fire – which is similar to the bird drawn to the mirror – with the song recognizing that the singer and the listener will soon “be a handful of ashes.”

    All of these thoughts are simply “shadow dreams” in my own head and do not add or detract anything from what you have written. You might want to listen to the song; I think you will enjoy it.

  3. bobgriffith says:

    Hi Louis,

    Thank you for the link and my compliments on finding it, that was quite a feat in itself! I listened to the song twice because it seems Len Chandler and I have something in common – our expressions are more evocative than explicative, and that sort of thing can feel more abstruse or obscure at first exposure.

    It’s an interesting, initially confusing lyric. A mix of metaphors – mazes, rainbows, moths, gold, “echoes casting no shadows” – and also a weird perspective shift about gold and shadows, where in one place it seems gold represents truth, and then in another represents what is false; and shadows shift from being valuable to valueless.

    Dial down the sorting intellect though, and dial up the gain on just being with it and letting it flow, and the second time through delivers the message, and it’s a great one.

    Things like this often occur when an evocation is the aim, a calling forth of that which is in us all, rather than an explanatory explication. Chandler’s song is not a strict and orderly structure of explication employing the rules for metaphor employed in a manufactured construct, it’s a gut-level paean standing on its own ground, wailing and growling its own truth in its own terms. While I was listening to it the second time I inexplicably thought of Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch,” who at the end of his path realized the things expressed by Chandler.

    For me, Chandler’s message is clear. Life is short, soon we are ashes, time is not to be wasted yet often is. Time is wasted in mazes of folly, chasing fool’s gold rather than doing what is natural and good; the light of truth is reduced in such lives until there is no truth at all, and in the absence of light they have reduced themselves to soulless creatures who cast no shadows at all. The identity and perspective of the narrator is of no concern in an evocative work. The substance is in what is called forth from each of us personally, what is evoked by the expression; it calls forth that which is in each of us already, and does not assume that it is not there and needs to be installed by the singer or artist or preacher.

    I thank you for sharing this, it’s been of benefit to me. It recalled something to me about what and why I write. I write things which evoke rather than explain. I owe this sensibility in part to Carol Crawford, who referred me to the poems of Dylan Thomas so many years ago. After reading a couple I went back to her and told her it was all nonsense, gibberish; it didn’t make any sense at all. She told me to read it again, paying attention to what the words and images moved me to feel and see and remember. Not what they meant, but what they evoked in me, what they summoned from my own experience.

    Many times in my commentary on the Tao Te Ching I have observed that the truth is in each of us. My writing can be explicative, assertive, informative, deliberately contrapuntal, egocentric, even obscure. It is purposed toward evocation of that personal truth shared by all. My purpose in writing is to call forward in myself, and others, that which we already know. A good thing to remember.

    So, as you say, we all know more than we think we do. It’s all in how much attention we’re willing to give to anything, whether it be a piece of writing or an event in our own lives or, as you said in Chapter 45 on your blog, “(The Tao,) …the Void, the Implicate Order, the Field, the Mind of God, and/or “Larry.”

    The evocation, the calling forward, of the knowing in us all is what I hope for when I write. The explication rendered by personal perspective is the reflection which serves the beholder best, and hopefully allows them to see not only the reflection, but the thing itself. That explication is in them, not the work.

    I remembered this only after I had begun my own explication for you in response to your comment. Somewhere along in there I realized that I was explicating for you. Which is not, of course, why I write. The evocations you experienced, the memory of Len Chandler’s song and its meaning for you, the questions, the assumptions, the later questioned assumptions – those are the explications of the piece, along with whatever you take from yourself, for yourself, from it, and then share with others.

    That being said, I will do something here which is not part of my “poetic” purposes and against my better instincts and share one possible explication – and so shatter the mystery of my poem and its evocative purpose – with you:

    In the context of the poem the “soulless” never cast shadows because evil is unaware of its own nature and believes it is good and true and right and bright. The soulless see only their own reflection in their constructs, and all those constructs are created to glorify the self image. A mirror is, in one sense, an illusory construct formed by the adaptive and manipulative human ego, which uses it to merely see flat, bright reflections of itself without nuances, without wholeness, without truth.

    If the ego beheld the truth of itself in light and dark it would see everything in the mirror instead of just itself, and so it, the ego that is, would disappear. So it doesn’t see that. Ego limits its vision to images of itself in constructs it has made which glorify it, make it important and substantial. Ego sees itself in the ego-manufactured mirror. A bird sees the reflection of all in it, and the nature of the bird, flying free in true light and shadow, comes to the sudden end of its life in a natural manner even though the agent of its death is an unnatural construct.

    The narrator, in order to process the appearance of the shadow of the bird, decides to address the event from an egocentric perspective which gazes into various forms of mirrors, constructs all. Eventually the truth is revealed to be in the shadow of the bird itself, the lie to be in manufactured facsimiles which reflect only the separated ego.

    There are reflections about death in there, about death as being an enemy of the ego which seeks to live rather than die and which, if it chose to die, would in that choice allow the truth to appear.
    The narrator is moved by the truth of death, the truth of life, the truth of light and shadow. The narrator moves beyond the ego’s artificial, self-glorifying constructs and explanations and so apprehends the cycles of life, the truth of the ancient connections of all to all which were once included and transmitted in passed-on information from generation to generation.

    The narrator moves beyond the destructive ways ego employs that information as it “progressively” guts it of its humanity and soul and universality and message of connectedness, and realizes with sadness how that information has been reduced and devolved to a bit which is of utility to the ego but devoid of the information which would make the ego aware of its own necessary death if the truth of the person is to be realized: that truth being that we are all connected, and not separated, and the only thing separating us is our own selfishness, and the constructs it manifests.

    The truth is present in the shadow of the bird. On the one hand it is a product of wholeness, an inclusive combination of light and dark, a creature which moves naturally, flying free between birth and death, living. On the other hand it is seen by ego as a shadow formed only by darkness – the darkness which the ego fears and refuses to acknowledge in its illusion that it is without shadow, is not subject to death, is separately superior and exempt by dint of its own hallucinated spotless virtue.

    Yet the shadow of the bird’s life and death remains real and substantial nevertheless because its truth is real, and real truth irritates the ego. Real truth will not disappear, it will always be there and always the ego will have to deal with the truth there, reminded by reality that it is unreal and insubstantial, and must die in order to live an experience greater than itself.

    There! Now THAT’S the way to screw up an evocative expression with explication, and that’s just one flock of moths chasing fool’s gold, headed toward the candle.

    Time to go dance to some music and eat a fresh peach.

  4. Louis W says:

    When I was in college I took a course called “Folksongs and Narrative Poems.” It was taught by a wonderful gentleman named Ben Gray Lumpkin, and it was Mr. Lumpkin’s final semester of teaching before his retirement. One of the poems we studied was Robert Frost’s “The Witch of Coös.” In the course of discussing certain imagery in the poem, Mr. Lumpkin told a story – in his great rural Mississippi accent – of how he was once engaged in a discussion of that very imagery with a group of academics. In order to resolve questions about the meaning, he said: “I picked up the phone and called Robert Frost; and this is what he said . . .”

    I guess it is often beneficial to go right to the source on these things. Now that you have explicated, the next time a group of academics is discussing this poem they can just read what you have written and won’t need to bother you or Robert Frost with a phone call.

    Mr. Lumpkin taught at the University of Colorado from 1946 to 1969. He passed away in 1982 at the age of 81. The University’s library now houses the Ben Gray Lumpkin Digital Folk Music Collection, which is an archive of folk songs which he recorded during his field work. That fact does not relate to your poem, but I find it worth noting.

    • bobgriffith says:

      Hi Louis,

      I remember Ben Lumpkin, I “monitored” (snuck in) some of his classes while I was in Boulder. He was an amazing, devoted collector and the material in that collection often represents the first time some pieces were ever recorded.

      Not being a strict traditionalist, I used CU as a free smorgasbord from time to time and monitored a few 300 and 400 level classes back then while taking the standard Lib Arts requirements, just because I could get away with it, and was interested. 1968 mostly, a bit also in ’69..

      Anyway, I doubt my poem, the explication, or much of anything I write is going to be discussed by scholars any time soon. I’m hoping for posthumous recognition by a future AI which processes everything ever produced by humanity and says, “Hey, guys – this Bob guy was no slouch, he had a way of making truth nearly unintelligible…”

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