About a Poem" Linda Bamber on Mark Halliday's "Green Canoe"
If I were sitting in a green canoe on a hot morning
having drifted gently into an odorous swamp, alone
with the speckled gross density of yellow-green slime
all around me and the sun on my head
I might then say
“It’s not about books”
aloud to the plants and the muck and a swimming frog
“It’s not about books”
with the sun on my head and shoulders and the world
odorous and its oeuvre oozing and green
and my saying so then might be very beautiful—
but no one would hear it—
no one would keep it—
my voice washing instantly into lost molecules in the
warm air over the swamp—
I could speak again “It’s finally not
about books” but still no one hearing it
and less beautiful now,
my hand tightening cautiously on the paddle
“I’ve never been a Hindu,” writes Mark Halliday in “64 Elmgrove”; “I want to keep things.” Who doesn’t? (Including Hindus.) But as time goes on, particularly if we practice, the object of our attachment may shift from people, money, and possessions to those “higher” states of mind we sometimes enjoy. The rest of it was just there to induce them in the first place, so why not cut to the chase? In “Green Canoe,” a great mind-state arrives, but it doesn’t last. All alone in a “yellow-green” swamp, Halliday’s speaker suddenly sees that “the world and its oeuvre” are far more real than the stories we cook up about them. “It’s not about books,” he unexpectedly thinks. These few words are code for the exhilarating freedom the speaker suddenly feels from his usual pursuits. It’s not about constructing ourselves and each other as readers, writers, teachers, or opinion-mongers. Yay, it’s not about books! But in the next instant the expansive feeling is replaced by anxiety as longing for witness and approval comes up. “No one would hear it,” thinks the speaker, mildly panicked. “No one would keep it.” This is no good. How to get back to that great state of mind?
“It’s finally not about books,” he repeats in some desperation. What was an inspiration the first time it was spoken, words to describe an unexpected gift, is now an empty phrase. The speaker has turned panna (nonconceptual knowledge) into sanna (a verbal concept), the better to hang on to it. He wants to substantiate the sacred, the Real—or, in any case, the ephemeral—so as to keep it. What a topic for a poem! With comic, brilliant self-awareness, Halliday puts his finger on something almost too subtle to describe: our automatic, unconscious, probably universal reaction to the passing of insight. The funniest phrase in the poem may be the last, “my hand tightening cautiously on the paddle.” A canoe has no oarlocks, so its paddles only stay in place if we hold them there. What stability can they provide? Good luck if that’s all we’ve got to grab at when insight fades; and it is.
Linda Bamber is the author of Metropolitan Tang, a collection of her poetry, and Comic Women, Tragic Men: Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. She teaches in the English department at Tufts University, where she offers a course on Buddhism and American poetry.