Emerson, my dear dog’s long-done death & some deep family utterances

Winter Jasmine climbing overthe courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm.JPG
Winter Jasmine climbing over the courtyard wall at Calderstones during a hailstorm            16 January 2018

Yesterday I started reading ‘Brahma’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson, though I only read the first two lines. Here it is;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

I was thinking about the  violence of the words ‘slayer’, ‘slays’ and ‘slain’.  The poem makes death seem a vile and brutal battering and this morning, as I reread what I’d written yesterday, I thought that however a death happens,  it usually feels a brutal psychological experience to those who witness it.  Is that why Emerson has gone for that violent word?

Thinking about when my dog, Davy, died, oh, it’s years ago now. He was at the natural end of  his life and had  lost his sight and then had a stroke. He was dying and I knew it, and surely he did too, one beautiful summer morning when the garden was warm and sunny at 6.30am, and he lay on the lawn along the edge of a flowerbed, just as he had always lain along the edge of things,  the edge of the sofa, the edge of the bottom stair, the edge of the  Esse cooker. His poor dying body, panting slightly,  made a lovely golden shape, because he was a dog with great shapes, and everything about his physicality was beautiful.  I lay beside him knowing that soon it would be over and the time was gentle and peaceable, and full of love. There couldn’t have been a better goodbye.

Yet, there’s a violence to it.  In the weeks following his death he haunted me. His head,  just at the height your hand is when you stand there wanting something golden to stroke, seemed to be close to my hand.  His poor sideways sightless walk came back to me and made me cry when driving or looking for tomatoes in the supermarket. I missed him and it hurt.  Slayer, slay, slain.

Those elements of violence seem in every death because they cut us off from our time-bound, our mortal, relationships. Then the cuts hurt, because we love and because we know we are mortal.

But the second big word in the opening two lines is ‘think’. Could it be  that the sense of violence, of slog, of battery, is to do with the way we think of it? After all, ‘the mind is its own place and can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n’.  Could I have thought differently about my loss?

Many years before, our little son stood at the grave we had dug in the woods for our first family dog, Chia, and as we laid her, wrapped in a blanket, into the grave, he raised his arms in an embracing-the-universe-gesture and said, ‘Chia, you are gone, into earth, into heaven.’  That made us laugh and was a wonderful comfort in its unexpected and appropriate gravity. We buried/planted her beneath a tiny sapling.  Years before that my little daughter had written a poem about Chia, then a pup:

Little Chia,
Little loving Chia,
I’ll always remember you
When you’re gone.

The last line seemed to have  adult brutality – facing it! always facing it! – but now I concentrate on what turned out to be true; ‘I’ll always remember you when you’re gone.’ But where has Chia ‘gone’?  Into Earth? Into Heaven? Yet she’s in our brains, as memory, in our hearts. Is that a place? In our brains she has a physical being, in the energy of the  firing neurons. Is she with us? Odd the sensation of a Welsh great (or great-great) Grandmother, Niyne, whom I never met and only knew through my grandfather, Sid Smith, whose mother or grandmother she was, so powerful in his mind years after her death that she was part of  my childhood and is, even now, in my mind.

What is that passing on of memory, of being?

To remember the text:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

There’s one way of thinking – slayer, slays, slain, slain. And there is another. ‘I keep, and pass, and turn again.’ Who is the ‘I’ here, then?

Going to reread the whole poem;

Brahma

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

Is there another, let’s call it a dimension, in which there is no such thing as slayer, no slay, no slain? In which whatever it (‘I’ in the poem) simply keeps moving?

Those of us living in the world of difference between life and death do not know, or forget

the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

I’m struck by ‘keep’, ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ as the actions of this force or being. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong, perhaps  ‘pass’ and ‘turn again’ are not the actions of the force but of those who think… so it would read,

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep,

and they pass (me, my ways, by) and they turn again.

I think that makes more sense.

Time to stop. Still in the first stanza, but it’s not a race, is it? It’s a reading meditation.

See Davy running on Caldy Hill at the bottom of the page,  here. And here’s a poem I wrote about him (see, the deep family likeness will come out) when he was a young dog:

Dog Geometry

On a lead he’ll bisect my line with an obtuse angle.
When he sets his haunches down in mudpond
he becomes the perfect long-backed isosceles.

Wheeling like the stars dog feels joy describing
gigantic circles bending low into the arcs
he draws gold across the sodden field.

One thought on “Emerson, my dear dog’s long-done death & some deep family utterances

  1. loubyjo January 29, 2018 / 7:18 pm

    “It was only a dog ”
    this statement is only made by people who have never known the joy of having one or the heartache when they go to the so called rainbow bridge
    T he tail wagging when the u turn the key in the lock and and u know what they are feeling although maybe not what thinking ahh a meal or a play now .
    The overwhelming peace u feel as the tail wags and the melancholy wag of the tail which a dog never gives a judgement by , u never judge me or care w hat i think of u the peace of siting on the grass stroking your coat as look up at the sky ,

    A DOG NEVER judges or cares what your religion , political view point is wether u follow the blues or the reds or even the white cos you just are u

    a dog will never worry about the future or what going to do tomorrow or worry about what it did wrong in the past and nothing i do in life w ill ever impress you cos u are just u just here in the now !!!!

    I had poppy put down 8 years ago this May and was obviously distraught but still managed to get to a reading grp that evening although did what i used to say a lot ” not staying but did and the pain left me til got back home and their was no thud of tail and walked in but u can learn awful from dogs or most animal as they live in the now !!

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