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Reading As Layered Ritual

“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

This is part of a favourite poem of mine; favourite because of the economy of language coupled with the infinitude of the poet’s ideas. In just 44 lines, Kunitz covers life, death, friendship, family, god and the angels, the heart, “the turn”, art, fate, and the self. After sweeping us across this vast vista, the poet steps aside and offers some really simple advice, in a voice not his own: “Live in the layers,/ not on the the litter.”

Having crafted a clever linguistic twist, Kunitz declares his human limitation, his humility: that his “art” — i.e. this art we are reading right now, this poem right before us, which lays it all out — cannot decipher the real message. By declaring his inadequacy, even after getting out of his own way, the poem and poet perform incompleteness: a fundamental building block of our universe. However, natural language (and poetry especially, as “language against which we have no defense”) offers us a solution not available to mathematicians and cryptographers. The poem is only like ciphertext, flowing from somewhere beyond the poet and his art…

What else could be required to decrypt it but you, and your inborn ability to interpret; to observe performance?

You are the key; reading the ritual.

Further down the rabbit hole and there are also many different layers of observation to be explored, even in these last 8 lines. The poet’s “book of transformations/ is already written” — his fate sealed, even before the arrival of a new voice he lacks the art to decipher. The final line can be read as strengthening this assertion: he is not done with his changes because there are yet more pages already written in his book of transformations. However, we can also read it very differently, rendered as two distinct and juxtaposed ideas: his book is already written, but the poet has the ability to edit his own changes, to leave (at the very least) marginalia and other hurried marks that change grammar or repair syntax and make the overall meaning more clear.

Such poetic edits — like all marginalia — amount to adding layers to a text, altering one’s own changes while still moving within the total river of transformation to which we are all subject. They reveal how more than one mind moved through this particular forest of symbols, forging a different path to finish at the same point. We may not control fate, but perhaps it is possible to direct it by living in the editorial layers: not fighting inevitable change, but using direct and meaningful language like poetry to implement our own changes in dialogue with all this changing life, like so much litter left behind by less attentive souls.

Change Without Change

I work in an industry obsessed with change and disruption. This is sometimes a blessing, because it can make people more conscious about what it is that they would really like to see change, though many continue blindly to rip out pages simply for the sake of being noticed. The more subtle point about poetic edits to the book of transformation is that they must be carefully considered from many different layers of abstraction (not just observation) if they are ever to produce more happiness than suffering.

This is the key natural language offers that maths and science cannot. It gives us a metaphorical ability not just to observe and describe in the succinct eloquence of mathematical symbol; but also to abstract away and see the problem analogously from entirely different perspectives. One could say that natural language — with its implied multivariate observer — misses the ability directly to manipulate matter (which mathematics can offer us), but retains the ability to abstract over the whole picture and — much like a zen koan — give back the ground on which the problem first appeared, rather than provide a binary “answer”.

The decision that then appears seems to be one of choosing which layer(s) you wish to change. I once had a fantastic conversation by a bonfire in Berlin about exactly this with Kevin Owocki. It was mind-bending, but deeply inspiring, simply because he made the point that he was very happy operating at a different layer of thought and action to what I was prattling on about at the time. Rather than trying to convert others to see the world the way you see it, it is in fact more comforting to celebrate the obvious fact that they don’t and never will. Far from separating us, this gives us all the ability to take some slightly different position with regards to the same, simple ciphertext; Kunitz’s aptly-named “book of transformations”.

The certain slant of light that comes from our basic choice of which position and angle to observe from is the thing itself which ends up rendering the book in all the many colours of this one wild, precious life you have been given. So,

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
— Mary Oliver