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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Between Brilliance

Considering all the facets of my life, 
I should sometimes feel
more like a diamond
--once in the rough--
but cut to catch the light
and gently cast its glimmer 
to a glancing eye.
But dice have facets, too:
six sullied sides,
pockmarked squares
that claim to cast our fate
or dictate our next move.
Far better, I believe,
to cast the light than fate
and to profess
the former holds the latter
in His hands.
And yet, I must confess,
too often do my best-laid plans
fall short and hover hopelessly
between brilliance... and a crapshoot.
© Copyright 2011 Tom Kapanka/ Patterns of Ink
Thoughts about the writing process:

In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carrol explains what he calls portmanteau words which carry meaning by blending two or more words into one. The word brunch is an example of a portmanteau word, blending breakfast and lunch since it is served somewhere in between. This term makes a metaphor of portmanteau, a hand-held suitcase, into which two or more things may be packed. [Port is of Latin origin, meaning to carry (e.g. portable) and manteau is Middle French for coat or cloak.]

I mention this only to say, that if you read a sampling of short pieces including the one above, you may see that I use something I call “carrier terms,” Like portmanteau words, they are meant to pack more meaning into the few words around them by vaguely alluding to another piece of literature. Quite often I will use a term or phrase from scripture or a hymn. Some might call them code words, because unless you know the code, the greater work alluded to, the terms hold meaning in and of themselves. It is only extra meaning that comes from knowing the source or connotation of the carrier term.

In my library, I have an old paperback copy of Jacob Korg’s introduction to poetry entitled The Force of Few Words. Taking nothing from the contents of the book, the title alone makes an enormous contribution to the study of poetry. It lays bare the secret: the essence of poetry is its power to spin our minds with a tiny sip. In that sense it is not so much like vintage wine as it is distilled spirits, boiled down to potent drippings of thought. Carrier terms are a tool in that process. Changing metaphors a bit, carrier terms crystallize more meaning than the words themselves convey in saturated prose. Like all effects, they are more effective when they go unnoticed.

There are at least two examples of carrier terms  in "Between Brilliance." The first would be more subtle had I not included a link and capitalized the word His. The carrier term is light. The first image of the poem is diamond with cuts that capture light and cast it. We call this brilliance or sparkle. And if we recall that Christ said “I am the light of the world,” we understand that all the facets of our lives are meant to reflect Him. Likewise, the line “the former holds the latter in His hands” means, Life is not a roll of the dice, not left to chance, the Light holds our fate is in His hands, in his sovereign plan.

So why then end the poem on a less certain note? Because life is lived somewhere short of where we know it’s meant to be. Somewhere short of brilliance. Sometimes, in spite of what we believe (inwardly) or profess (outwardly), we find ourselves in times of uncertainty where we simply don’t know how things are going to turn out. Which brings me to the second carrier term: “best-laid plans.”

To some "best-laid" may simply be a hyphenated adjective, bringing nothing else to mind. To others it may evoke the old saying, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” And to still others, it brings to mind the entire poem from which the original version of that quotation comes. For readers in this last category, the carrier term is a fully loaded suitcase bringing far more meaning when unpacked.

I’m speaking, of course, of Robert Burn’s poem “To a Mouse” in which the speaker is plowing a field in late fall and breaks open a mouse’s borough. He feels bad for the small creature and begins talking to it, but as is true in much of the poetry from the Romantic Period, the conversation transcends the brush with nature and addresses man’s condition. What begins in common experience ends in wisdom. The second stanza says,

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
And justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
And fellow mortal!

The familiar quotation is found in the last two stanzas:

But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!

Still you are blest, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects drear!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!

And thus my purpose for using “best-laid plans” as a carrier term at the end of the "Between Brilliance" is to invoke (for those who know or subconsciously remember Burn’s most famous poem) all the feelings of uncertainty we sometimes have about the future.

I’ve heard it said that we should “work as if it all depends on us and pray as if it all depends on God.” The problem with that advice is that it reflects isolation from God rather than collaboration with him. It is probably better to say, “Work as if you work for God; pray as if He’s working with you.” The latter suggests a more fatherly, side-by-side relationship. But either way, if we’re honest with ourselves, there are times when our faith seems too short a blanket for our bed, we pull it up to our chin and expose our feet. There is sometimes tension between the brilliance we hope to show and the sullied commonness that comes when we settle for the work of our own hands.

It’s in the uncertainty of waiting when we wonder and rejoice that we are not at the mercy of fate or a roll of the dice. It’s in such times, when we stand palms high, face up, eyes closed, as if longing for a needed rain. It’s when we cannot see that we see what matters most.


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