Di Brandt provides some truly fascinating insight into the careful work that went into writing her latest collection, Glitter & fall: Laozi's Dao De Jing: Transinhalations.
What were some of the joys of putting this collection together? What were some of the challenges?
Writing Glitter & fall was radically different from writing any of my other books. I found myself in an extremely wide intercultural reach, re-translating and transporting to contemporary Canada an ancient sacred text from a tradition halfway around the world. It was daunting, and involved setting aside many of my previous ideas of what it means to write poetry: what it means to dance with the "other," what it means to foreground reverence and humility and listening in the writing process, more so than innovation and expressiveness and adventurousness. Though there was lots of adventurousness in it as well, of the sort that people often feel when travelling for pleasure, leaping into the unknown in getting to know someone from a completely different cultural heritage and tradition. Armchair travel at its best! Imaginative engagement across space and time, across galaxies....
The wisdom in the book, I need to underline, comes directly from Laozi and the Daoist contemplative tradition, albeit filtered through my own contemporary, Canadian prairie, feminine understanding. After I began the project, I realized how much deep learning would be involved in order to get the poems approximately right. Learning of the sort that entails both research and meditation, thinking and intuition, focus and wide-eyed dreaming, dialogue with others and going deep within, high seriousness and the fun frivolity of play. Learning of the sort that requires courage and effort, but also something that is nearly its opposite, letting things be what they are, going with the flow, melding in, wu wei, seeing what emerges.
It was all breath-taking and took me to a very different kind of book than I've been used to writing until now. Uniting traditions and experiences of East and West in this poetic way led to the image in my mind, every once in a while, of the planet itself as a human head, with its two different sides of the brain, its different ways of knowing and being, reaching across differences and shaking hands, making tracks across the cultural and existential gaps between our worlds. That's what "globalization" and transnational and intercultural dialogue and exchange could be, at their best, right? At the same time, paradoxically, this whole experience restored to me my own heritage and traditions, I felt reconnected to the spiritual practices and teachings of my own Mennonite (part Christian, part European pagan, part new Canadian immigrant) people. Engagement with the "other" at its best!!
I had no idea how this book would be received, I had no bearings on that. I'm so happy to see the very warm responses the book has been getting from readers. Obviously the project resonates with what many other people are thinking and feeling.
Hmmmm. The great creative Nothing is there, inside us, and all around us, all the time. It's not a matter of learning to inhabit the Nothing, we're all suspended in the Nothing, held inside the Nothing, already. Knowing that in the Daoist way means first of all, I think, not being frightened in those—usually startling, sometimes distressing—moments when you suddenly become aware of the great Nothing in and around you. It feels like non-existence, like death, like the void, at times. But in fact it's the great Source of all life, the place of magic, and creation, and Infinite Love, the Divine. But you have to approach it in the right frame of mind to understand it that way. That's the wisdom of Daoism, and of all true spiritual discipline, I think.
I had a visceral encounter with the great Nothing when my mother died. She was 91, I was 61. I accompanied her quite far in that sacred journey, singing and praying and just being with her as supportively as possible as she went through the astonishing process of shedding her earthly human coordinates and going to spirit. For many days during her dying and afterward, I kept singing, keeping fires, reciting prayers for her, as her spirit wafted up, up, up into higher realms. At one point her departing spirit seemed to be getting stuck; she turned around, not wanting to go on. Keep going, keep going, higher, higher, I sang to her. The higher you go, the farther you go, toward the Light, the more you can help us. If you get stuck in old regrets, what good will that do us, or yourself?
It was hard to come back down from that heady journey. For several weeks, the trees seemed to me to be transparent. I could "see" big holes in the trunks and the leaves. Everything seemed transparent, weightless, immaterial. I felt I could have easily walked through walls, through trees, and floated off to another dimension. The physicists say the size of the tiny revolving electron in relation to the holding field of the slightly larger atom is like a grain of rice in an empty football stadium. So perhaps it's not really all that odd to have occasional visceral glimpses of the great Nothing in front of us, in us, around us. Certainly we all experience gaps like this existentially, on a daily basis, probably. Levitation is an experimental way people sometimes experience the Nothing, riding the wave of material resonance, suspending gravity. (Adolescent girls seem particularly adept at levitation in this culture, ask any twelve-year-old girl about it.)
You could come to understand the spaces of Nothing as Divinely infused, as filled with the golden flowing potential of Life, as the very source of Creation. You could ride the waves of the Divine Nothing, or to put it more pleasurably and even comically, as the Dao De Jing does, you could suck on the plump soft breasts of the Great Mother who gave birth to us and to Everything, and be comforted and nurtured and filled with light and joy and the sweet juicy milk of creation, no matter how bumpy the waves of your particular planetary boat ride are. I can't say I've accomplished the fullness of such extraordinary equanimity and cosmic pleasure myself, but I have had the occasional glimpse of it, tasted the occasional drops of cosmic bliss, as I imagine most people have at some time or another. Mmmmm.
You specifically focus on amplifying the Divine Feminine in this collection. Has the process of writing this book revealed anything new to you about what it means to be a ‘woman’ in the modern world?
Laozi's Dao De Jing, written many centuries, maybe several millennia, ago, imagines the public sphere as masculine (in the sense of inhabited by men), and by implication, the domestic sphere as feminine (in the sense of inhabited by women). Interestingly, the cosmic and earthly realms are also described as feminine, and generative, maternal. Not just qualitatively but also functionally. The galaxy is a maternal body that brings forth new life from its empty place of Nothing. The Black Hole as womb, as birth canal. The Divine, too, is maternal, both qualitatively and functionally.
So we can take our cues for a larger understanding of our lives as part of divinely infused evolutionary and cosmic processes more directly, easily, and usefully, from the (traditionally) human feminine and maternal activities of nesting, of birthing and raising children, of cultivating intuitive relationships, of generosity and collaboration and reciprocity in a local context, than from the more externally oriented, quest and conquest inflected (traditionally) human masculine sphere. This Daoist way of understanding the world and its place in the larger cosmos and divine Everything (and Nothing) has the advantage of avoiding the dualistic orientation of Western thinking, where gender often gets abstracted into a dualistic understanding of reality, nonsensical at some level: where mind = active = masculine, and body = passive = feminine, requiring the radical and continual subjugation of women and women's reproductive responsibilities and powers, in order to mobilize these equations accurate socially. The non-Daoist part of Chinese culture often reverts to this kind of binary thinking and behaviour as well.
The modern feminist movement has championed the possibility of women entering and sharing the (traditionally masculine) public sphere. There has been some reciprocal movement among men to enjoy a greater share in the responsibilities and joys of the (traditionally feminine) domestic sphere. We've been very successful in making these changes in a relatively short period of time. But I feel the domestic sphere itself has greatly suffered, and nearly vanished, now, alongside these changes. And with it, our sense of "home," of the extended local community, and the privileging of dynamics of collaboration, gentleness and generosity as central and irreplaceable world-making skills and activities. Not to mention the erosion of respect and support for women still primarily engaged in the intensive, time-consuming, incredibly important labour of birthing and raising children—a privilege and responsibility we want to keep, and protect, and cherish much more than is presently common. Ask any harried young mom trying to "do it all" with very little support from anyone.
These are unintended outcomes for the feminist movement! We weren't trying to turn women into men, or to reduce the feminine or the domestic sphere, the deeply human activities of nesting, family-making, intimacy relations, practically to non-existence! I feel that highlighting the really remarkable Divine Feminine aspect of the Dao De Jing in our present context can help us rethink contemporary dynamics and directions vis a vis gender in creative and re/productive ways, and hopefully help us to recuperate the most beautiful aspects and functions of the feminine domestic and the Feminine Divine for everyone's enjoyment and benefit in the ongoing.
A divine “spirit” lives at the heart of this collection and many poems read like sermons, yet the book never seems to advocate for a more traditional brand of blind “faith” that is present in some other religions. Can you explain why that is?
Laozi's Dao De Jing, the source text and inspiration for Glitter & fall, is not a theological text. It is rather a collection of simple, practical precepts for how to achieve the good life. Mind you, their simple practical logic sometimes runs counter to prevailing social practices and so might be hard to enact. For example, the idea that it would be better to stay home than to travel, to protect and shore up the sense of "home" and our individual and group commitments to a particular locale and a more local economy. Seems obvious when you put it that way, yet how many people would be willing to go back to that once common and even universal way of life, stepping out of our petroleum fuelled postmodern travel delirium, unless they were made to? And yet, it's one obvious and simple solution to the carbon crisis, no? (Sometimes this simplicity and contrariness to ordinary practices reminds me of the Beatitudes of Jesus, which also sound implausible and impractical, and yet contain great wisdom and the "keys" to a sustainable future: "Blessed are the poor," "Blessed are the meek," "Blessed are the peacemakers," and so on. How to forge a path to a viable future, it's all there, people! Look to the wisdom of our ancestral traditions, they knew what it took. We have a lot to learn from them.)
The tradition of Daoism, which grew around the text of the Dao De Jing, does include a venerated religious heritage, complete with priestly hierarchies, and an elaborate cosmology of divine figures and rituals with which to appeal to their powers. There is also a strong contemplative stream in Daoism, which encourages monastic practices and eclectic, visionary perceptions and understandings. And the writing of beautiful poetry, by women as much as by men. Li Bai, the medieval Chinese poet best known in the West, was directly influenced by monastic women poets, whose work is breathtakingly visionary. And then there are the shadow martial arts like Tai Chi and Tai Chi Chuan, and Tantric meditation practices, which recognize the power of the Feminine in Her many aspects as part of the practice of cosmic reverence.
Many contemporary translators of the Dao De Jing into English focus on ethical precepts and rational understandings related directly to a contemporary context. In doing so, they risk losing the colourful array of traditional figures and relations so richly present in Laozi's poems, in favour of a generic vision disconnected from the visionary, and also for the specific consolations of landscape, gender, time and place. Stephen Mitchell's recent translation, for example, is elegant and filled with deep insights and understandings, but tends to genericize the precepts of the Dao De Jing rather too much, for my taste. His generic understanding feels very white middle class American male inflected, without necessarily understanding itself as such: a pervasive character of the English postmodern.
I wanted to preserve the richly metaphorical ambience of Laozi's poems, the vivid presence of landscape and human figures and relations, and then to transport and translate them into my own time and place and understanding, to make them present and real here and now on the Canadian prairies. In the end, though, I think we can agree that the results of my poetic experiment fall in the category of contemplative poetry rather than academic scholarship or religious practice or spiritual arts teachings, though it is poetry that partakes of the dynamics of these other ways of engaging with the Dao De Jing in the process.
It's very cool that Daoism contains such a wide range of possible engagements and applications. And that Laozi's simple little poems can speak to us so directly and creatively several millennia later, in a completely different historical and cultural context. It says something about the transcendental powers of poetic inspiration, I think, and also something about the universality of human experience across cultures and time periods. We're being taught to think of life and history and even human nature as rapidly changing, and the imminent future as unrecognizably different from the world we know now. But these changes can be enacted culturally only because in fact there is a stable, sustaining structure of being underneath. We need to honour that underlying structure more, we don't want to tamper with core processes that imperil life on this Earth. Better to err on the side of humility and generosity and doing nothing, taking the time to enjoy our amazing ride through the galaxy, whose mysterious magic we barely understand but often feel, intuitively, stirring in our bones, and inspiring the most amazing songs from the human in concert with all other living species, on this singing, buzzing, cawing, chirping, gurgling, magical earth.