Rene Navarro presents the Introduction (with sample poems) to Ascension and Return: Poetry of a Village Daoist by Rene J. Navarro (Tambuli Media, Spring House, PA, 2020)
NB: To make the poems more accessible, I have decided to write an introduction to clarify how these poems were written and say a bit about their forms in the manner of a footnote.
The title “Ascension and Return” was drawn from my Daoist studies and experiences and my engagement with the world, chosen after all the poems in the book were written and selected for inclusion in the collection. The title refers not only to ecstatic flight but also to everyday life. A Bhutanese monk Karma Lhatrul Rinpoche I met in Bali said that leaving is easy, returning is hard. It is true especially when one has lived life as a hermit or is in rustication as he did for 20 years in his solitary mountain retreat.
I did not write the poems for a book. They were written at certain intersections of my life and reflected on experiences in my own journey. In a sense they were often entirely unplanned. When an idea – an inspiration – would occur to me, I would write a few lines and later develop them into a poem in my journal or computer (like “Clearing the Life” that started at dawn one day and ended a week later in 1994) or I would write a poem from beginning to the end non-stop on the blank page of a book or a journal. That’s almost exactly what happened with these poems. Who knows what inspires one to write? What method does one develop or follow in the course of a writing life? I hope this introduction will help in shedding light on my path and methods.
Some poems I wrote as a project, inspired by something – music (like Robert Schuman’s Kinderszenen or Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony), a place (like Bali, Cairo, Hangzhou, Chichen Itza, West Lake or Bantayan Island), a time in my life (like “Memory,” a recollection of the war when I was a kid), a character I admire (like Li Bai, Su Dong Po) or an experience (like “Drawing the Characters – Ars Poetica,” my earliest attempts at Chinese calligraphy, or “A Boat on the Nile” and “Island Shaman,” both a description of a healing session, one in Egypt, the other in Bantayan, Philippines.
When I taught English As A Second Language at Zhejing University in Hangzhou, China about 10 years ago I wrote an entire book of poetry based on the legend of the Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy, the classic story of star-crossed love. It wasn’t the first time I wrote a whole book on the same theme and subject; I had written a poetry collection when I was in the Tao Garden in Chiangmai, Thailand in 1997, too. I did not intend for them to be published but perhaps it will be my next poetry project, if I still have the time in my 80s to work on it.
Although I have written poems since I was in high school, the earliest poem in the book was written in 1974 as part of a series of poems about children. My children Norman and Albert were small at the time, we lived in Brooklyn across from a drug addiction center on Albany Avenue, a block away from the hospital. I had big Bose speakers and a Miracord Benjamin turntable, newly acquired after settling in an apartment. I had a growing collection of vinyl records. The children and I were listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and the classical repertoire, The Little Prince as narrated by Peter Ustinov, Sanctus The African Mass, the Soviet Army Chorus, condensed plays of Shakespeare performed by the Marlowe Society (Michael Redgrave, John Gielgud) and many children’s stories like Babar the Elephant. Norman was in primary school. Al was in a nursery. We were flying kites in Prospect Park. We were involved in the anti-Marcos movement. We joined demos in New York City. We attended shows on Broadway – Beatlemania and Othello, among them. It was at that time that I thought of writing poems about children. I wrote about kite-flying, the bombing of Sulu and a few other subjects that became the “seed” for poems later.
While I had written haiku sometime in the early 70s, it wasn’t until the early 1980s that I began to write haiku consistently every day as part of the martial arts practice and discipline that I cultivated since the early 1960s. The poetry was not written as an exercise but as an integral part of martial arts. I did not say “I am a poet”; I said I am a martial artist and therefore I write poetry. A kind of Cartesian logic. It was I thought in the tradition of bunburyudo, the combination of combative and artistic/literary endeavor that some icons like Li Bai, Jose Rizal and Musashi Miyamoto were known for. That’s how I defined myself. Like Li Bai, whose poetry reflected his perspective as a Daoist, I wrote from my “consciousness” as a martial artist. When a Japanese poet writes a haiku (or related genres), he is often a warrior, a contemplative or a monk with a deep understanding of the culture of death and beauty and meditation. The haiku was somehow embedded in his genes.
The haiku, with its almost miniature matrix of lines, taught me how to condense my poems. I learned how to avoid adjectives and adverbs, allow things to stand by themselves, and control subjective tendencies (the ego drive). I also learned to root the poem in the culture where the subject was situated – the Buddhist traditions and aesthetics of medieval Japan for the haiku and in the ethnic or native terrain of the country where the poem was written. As I worked under this discipline, I began to use different formats for different poems. The more I wrote, the more I felt a sense of liberation from the strictures of traditional poetry. It was like training in martial arts: when you work on the postures (Horse, Bow and Arrow, Snake, Crane, Cat, Scissor) for hours every day over a long period of time, it becomes second-nature to you. In Tai Ji Quan, it takes not only years but decades under the close supervision of a strict master to reach a high level of achievement. I realized that when you’ve trained yourself writing under the rigid rules of the genre, you become comfortable with it and you attain a level of expertise.
One of the things I realized about the haiku that I consider outstanding : it has at its heart the passage of time. To me, it is ultimately – no pun intended -- about impermanence or death. That is why even the sound of a frog jumping in the well, a violet in the woods, or a cherry blossom in Springtime resonates of time passing. We have to remember that Japanese culture has the tradition of the samurai and seppuku, too. It is also partly the influence of Buddhism and the belief that life is ephemeral. That is what makes the poem about the “small and lovely” things so priceless and touching.
I consider poetry as a medium of expression like painting or music: it is an extension of the person’s being and background. In short, it could be said, a poem is largely biographical. It is to me not a mere exercise, although it is true that poetry exercises are good for the poetic muscles. I know some poets who wrote about Tai Ji Quan after taking one lesson or the Yijing after reading it over the weekend! That is, even before they’ve internalized it. Poetry to me wasn’t (isn’t) an intellectual or mechanical exercise but a deep engagement with the subject. I am not blessed with an easy poetic gift; I have to work hard to achieve a a level of competence. Since my early 20s my interest and passion was martial arts. Later this developed into a larger exploration of other areas of knowledge and practice. When I began to write on a Chinese subject, I already had a background in it through immersion, serious study with a master or I had been involved in the discipline as a part of my life.
The first product of my work with the haiku was a poem that came out of my visit to China to study contemporary Wu-Shu in 1983. I do not know exactly when I wrote it but “Cheng Du Dawn,” a 7-verse haiku, came out spontaneously sometime afterward. It required very little correction. It used Daoist images and symbols – “reeling the Dao in silk,” “crescent moon” and the bats (neidan/internal alchemy), “stroking/lute strings and peacock tails” (Tai Ji Quan). There are rare times when a poem is “birthed” instantly as if it was handed down from above. Like Minerva in a way. Since then I have written several poems based on the scheme of the haiku and wrote rengas loosely based on the haiku with poet friends like Debra Kang Dean, Jaya Ward and Nadine Sarreal (the latter two lived on the other side of the globe). Each one of them gifted me with a different experience: Debra, an exemplary poet, was my Tai Ji Quan colleague; Jaya, an Englishwoman, who lived in India, was a healer I met in a Daoist retreat back in the late 1980s; and Nadine, who had an MFA, was a Filipinx writer. Each one of them brought a different flavor and vintage to the exchange.
Later the discipline of writing haiku helped me write longer poems, avoid adjectives and adverbs when I can and use more Asia-oriented images and symbols. But beyond the haiku, with its loose syllogism (re: Roland Barthes’ The Empire of Signs), there are other forms we can follow in poetry (and much of other styles and genres of writing). Indeed there are forms beyond the quatrain, alexandrine, sonnet, villanelle, sestina, pantoum, ghazal and whatever else is taught in school. While not strictly poetic, these paradigms served as a kind of pattern – for instance, the symphony with its 4 or 5 (Ludwig Van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler) movements (as in the case of Isak Dinesen’s Ehrengard); the leitmotif of Richard Wagner (as in Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroger or Death in Venice and Nick Joaquin’s Legend of the Dying Wanton); the Yijing, the Book of Change, with its shifting hexagrams that are a reflection of energetic and earthly transformation; Daoist meditation, Qigong and alchemical formulas; and numerology and healing protocols. The styles of Du Fu and Li Bai, especially the fu (translated as rhapsody, ode or prose poems) became pathways for poetic expression. Even the way the Chinese traditionally address their letters could serve as an outline of the progression of lines: the top line is the country, followed by the state, county or district, then the town, the street and house or apartment number and lastly, the name of the recipient. It is the exact reverse of how addresses are written in the West. In traditional verse you can start with an overview or a larger picture and then you narrow down your vision of the landscape until you get to the individual or single object. In short, you do not have to be restricted to the canonical forms. You can be imaginative, diverse and various, and creative.
Another influence in my life and poetry came after I came back from a martial arts training in China and started studying with the famous Daoist master Mantak Chia in the early 80s. I began to learn more about Daoism and its principles and esoteric practices. I read the classics. I developed a regular Daoist practice following ancient alchemical protocols in my daily life. Out of this regimen came “Meditation,” a poem about a practice called Xiao Zhou Tian, translated as Small Heavenly Circle and popularly known as Microcosmic Orbit. The lines are short, mimicking the station to station trajectory of the meditative route in the body. Other Daoist ideas influenced my poetry. For instance, in “Mattapoisett Neck Beach Spring Equinox Morning” I used the Yi Jing Hexagram 51 and in “Return” I used Hexagram 24 and Dao De Jing verses 40 and 25. (I started studying the Yijing in 1968 and have since studied different translations and commentaries on it.)
In 1984 I began attending a weekly poetry workshop at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was at this workshop that I first met the poet Len Roberts, a professor at the local community college and at Lafayette and a National Poetry Series selection. He said he liked “Sulu,” a poem I had written in 1974 about the destruction of a city in Southern Philippines, for its form (it was shaped like an airplane, again not a traditional poetic model) and its approach (it was political but not agitprop). The poem referred to the bombing of Sulu, a Muslim city, by the Philippine Air Force. I mentioned “the cross-shadow of a plane” to suggest a religious war. After the poetry session, Len Roberts asked me to see him at his office. “Bring your poems,” he said. I brought a bunch of new poems about the bombing of Hiroshima. For the next 20 years, he mentored me, giving patient, generous and detailed hand-written critiques and sharing his new poems. I realized from his critique how much more I had to learn. Sometimes we would sit by the pool (with a bottle of beer) in the afternoon or the fireplace at his house (with a glass of wine and Yoyo Ma playing in the background) at night and read poems to each other. When she was around, his wife Nancy would prepare us something to eat but left us alone. Len had a room for me in his house and often asked me to sleep over. It was at one of these quiet and informal sessions that I was first exposed to the poetry of DH Laurence and Thomas Hardy, two authors who were famous as novelists. On two occasions, he and I read poetry together in public.
In one of those strange and bold and perhaps quixotic decisions that change the course of one’s life, I moved to Boston in the decade of the 1990s and began studying acupuncture and herbalism at the New England School of Acupuncture and Traditional Yang Family Tai Ji Quan fist and weapons forms (staff-spear, saber and sword) with Grandmaster Gin Soon Chu. I was 50 years old. I quit lawyering, I devoted myself to learning and studying healing, meditation, geomancy/fengshui (wind and water), massage, nutrition and dietetics, sexology, astrology, martial arts and alchemy. After my graduation in 1993 I pioneered a 30-hour Qigong course at NESA; it included meditation on the 12 primary meridians (a regimen similar to wiring a house) , a short Tai Ji Quan form, Buddha Palm Qigong, Inner Smile, and 6 Healing Sounds. I spent more time in meditation, I practiced Tai Ji Quan along the Charles for hours, I learned a version of Quanzhen/Complete Reality neidan/internal alchemy from Grandmaster Mantak Chia and wrote manuals for his organization Universal Healing Tao. I passed the national exams in acupuncture and opened a healing practice. At Walden Pond, the poet Debra Kang Dean (she had written a few poetry books by then) and I worked out together showing each other different Tai Ji Quan styles: she practiced Wudang Tai Ji Quan and the Fan Form. We read poetry at Borders Books in Framingham. The experience with her gave me a larger view of eastern arts and a more capacious concept of poetry. And then I left Boston and spent a few years living “like hermit” (I told my friends) in my house in the mountain in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania. At the millennium I traveled to and/or and taught in several countries like UK, Cyprus, Egypt, Thailand, Philippines, Scotland, England, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, among them, made pilgrimages to sacred places and learned more Daoist practices and Daoist literature.
Another event in my life added another layer to my consciousness. In 2006 I first traveled to Bali, Indonesia and encountered Hinduism for the first time. I’ve visited Bali a few times since then and studied with some of the Hindu priests and healers. It was an entirely new experience and a different education: I began reading Vedic literature – different translations of and commentaries on the epic Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Puranas -- that turned me to writing longer lines and prose poems following the traditional forms of the east and different symbols. I also got to know more about Asian religions, images, meditations and deities when I traveled to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, China, Taiwan and Java.
We are dealing with a different paradigm here. In Asia the human being is a physical, mental, emotional, energetic, alchemical and spiritual “vessel”. So we have to understand that s/he is a complicated creature blessed or burdened not only with a physical body but also with meridians, energy centers, chakras, consciousness, divine and spiritual attributes, mantras, mudras, etc., all often intertwined in an animist culture. The world out there also has a layered existence and there are correspondences between the outside world and the human body! What I observed was a reflection of an ancient model of reality that sounded like it had roots in a version of the Emerald Tablet or Hermetic philosophy: As above, so below; what’s within is without; if there’s a positive, there’s a negative. When an adept practitioner does Tai Ji Quan, for instance, she is not just doing a physical exercise, she is actually connecting her energy to Heaven (from the Bai Hui/Crown) and Earth (from the Yong Quan or Bubbling Spring in the feet), activating the meridians and the dantian/elixir field, breathing through the whole body, and a doing a host of other things more complicated than can be described in writing. She is performing an ancient shamanic ritual of returning to the Dao as indicated in the poem “Tai Ji Quan.”
The symbols of Daoism are not just symbols; there is a practice and a whole culture (religion, art, science, philosophy, mysticism, traditions and even lifestyles) behind them. For instance, when one mentions the bones and tendons, one refers to several things – an exercise from the Yi Jin Jing (translated as Sinew Changing Classic), a certain kind of vibration that is associated with fajing (roughly translated as Energy Discharge), the inner structure of martial arts, longevity regimen and many more interpretations. When one mentions Dragon and Phoenix, one can refer to the sexual art (the bedroom rituals, mating of opposites Yin and Yang) or to Xiao Tian Zhou/Small Heavenly Circle or (Microcosmic Orbit). Words like willow, the colors (from green to black to white and black), Qi, or Wuji and others have a meaning in Asia that goes far beyond their meaning in the West. The organs have a correspondence with the senses and certain emotions: Liver to the eyes (anger), Lungs to the nose and skin (grief), Kidneys to the ears (fear), Heart to the tongue (speech and sincerity), Spleen to the mouth (worry). These organs are also associated with virtues, animals, spirits and planets. There are other connotations for the organs used in meditation, qigong, alchemy, and 5 Elements, it is difficult to list even half of them. The different points in the meridians have meanings that go beyond their numbers and trajectories. And then of course there are correspondences not only within the body but also without and between the world and the body. The body itself is a representation of the world and beyond. We cannot even begin to touch upon this subject because it is so comprehensive and overwhelming. Footnotes are never adequate to explain the words, especially when the word itself may constitute a mantra or a sacred chant. Different traditional cultures in Asia carry different symbols but they have the same foundations of spirituality, philosophy, mysticism, tantra and art. This situation perhaps holds true in different languages, including Hindu and Tagalog. Yes, you could literally write a book about it.
The Chinese speak of having “gong” – as in Qigong or Gongfu. “Gong” in Chinese has the radicals for strength (the character is really a saber) and a carpenter’s T square. It means a combination of strength (li) and work measured through time. It is often associated with Qi or energy. In a real sense Gong is an accumulation of Qi 氣 gathered over time. “He does not have Qi,” the Chinese would say of a person who has not really developed the art, whether it is the piano or a martial art form. You cannot intellectualize the practice: Simply memorizing a form is not enough; the art has to be embedded in your bones. I admit I have a long way to go.
I can allude to one last point that may be relevant here. When one looks into the Chinese characters, the words gain a new meaning altogether. The word “ling” (second tone) 靈, for instance, is usually translated in English as spirit. But the Chinese character means so much more when one reads the radicals within it. At the bottom is a wu/shaman, above it are 3 mouths/kou, followed by rain/yu and a horizontal line that can mean heaven/tian or one/yi. You can do a commentary on this character. The same is true with other Chinese characters. The poems in the book will gain more meaning and give us a whole new perspective and experience if it was translated into Chinese! Since many of the poems have a Chinese themes, perhaps it can be done quite easily. While teaching English in Hangzhou, I studied Chinese and realized the nature of the Chinese language. The teacher broke down the radicals behind the Hanzi/characters. Certain words cannot be rendered into English. Common words like Qi, Yin and Yang, Ling, Ming and many others will just have to remain untranslated. Is this applicable to Tagalog, too? I believe it is. But that subject is for another time and another book.
THE OLD CALLIGRAPHER
His pink kimono split the sun
Into a thousand rays: white cranes
Homing to his onyx eyes. He sat
In a full lotus on the meditation
Pillow, smiling, pale lips
Pressed to hide the smile, and
Remembering the girl in spring
Long ago in this stone garden.
He had given her a scroll of rice
Paper with a pictograph
Of the sun rising and a sketch of
Cherry blossoms gently
Falling. As she bowed, she slipped a
Ring into his priestly robe and
Left him to the Sunday crowd
That gathered to watch his work.
He glanced at the island
Mountains: five sacred peaks
In a sea of raked
Sand. He breathed deeply,
Drawing the landscape
In his mind. In a
Flash his eyes turned to
Gold, the islands and the sea
Eddied and glowed. And he was
Gone. Like washed ink,
His shadow in meditation remained
Etched on the bleached rock:
The first calligraphy of his
Footnote: The victims of Hiroshima did not know what hit them. To describe the Bomb, the word "picadon" was coined. "Pica" means flash or flicker, and "don" means loud noise or explosion. Certain victims left shadows. Bodhidharma, the legendary first patriarch of Buddhism in China, also left his shadow on a rock close to the spot where he meditated for 10 years. This rock is located near the Shaolin temple in Honan province. I read this poem at the 40th Anniversary Commemoration at the Serenity Garden in Bethlehem, PA in 1985.
Dragon (Winter 1994)
Snow is falling in transparent
sheets across the garden
of lilacs into the woods
beyond. The dragon is out
there, his tail whipping
the wind in gusts along
the rhododendron path.
He has been out since
dawn, tasting the melting
snow on his tongue. He hears
the elegant explosion
of snow vaporising
in an instant: it recalls
other quiet revelations
of the quotidian. A flute
music rising with the mist above
the darkening canopy
of trees in a deep
valley in the Catskills where
Rip Van Winkle slept
for twenty years. The morning
mist in Chengdu wrapping the sun
in haze as the rays hit the cold
wind from the foothills
of the Himalayas. The taste of cold
ripe cherimoya: sweet,
sour, bitter at once, flavors
of a childhood in a tropical
town north of Manila. The moaning
echoes of a frozen Waban
Lake as ice pushed
against ice. All the seasons
of his lifetimes
he has heard
of white cranes that take
him as far
as the North
Star, his senses
satoris to the
presence of God
(Published in the anthology Flippin’ – Filipinos on America edited by Eric Gamalinda, et al (Asian American Writers Workshop))
© RN 2020
Rene J. Navarro is an acupuncturist, herbalist, martial artist, healer, alchemist writer and poet. His first martial arts masters were Johnny Chiuen and Lao Kim, two famous Shaolin Hong Kuen teachers in the Philippines in the 1960s. Rene has been studying the curriculum of Classical Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan, including Solo Form, Sabre/Knife, Sword, Staff-Spear, 2-Man Sparring Set/Sansou, Tai chi chuan Chang Chuan/Tai chi fajing form, and Push hands under Masters Gin Soon Chu and Vincent Chu, lineage masters of the system. As a senior instructor of the Healing Tao, he has written the manuals of Kan and Li internal alchemy for GM Mantak Chia. He graduated from the New England School of Acupuncture with a diploma in acupuncture and a certificate in traditional Chinese herbology. At NESA, he pioneered a course in chi-kung/qigong including Tai chi, Microcosmic Orbit meditation, and Buddha Palm. His poetry and essays have been published in journals and anthologies. Rene holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science (MLQ University in Manila) and a Bachelor of Laws (University of the Philippines). In an earlier incarnation, he worked as a lawyer for indigent clients. He has taught in four continents.