Chasing shadows

Like a grain of sand added to time,
Like an inch of air added to space,
                                                  or a half-inch,
We scribble our little sentences.

Charles Wright, Appalachia (FSG, 1998)

For some time I’ve been chewing on an old bone of contention between artists and critics: is the image older than the symbol? I think yes. I remember Borges, not too long before his death, folded into his very tweedy jacket and staring sightlessly out at the fawning audience. The auditorium was packed for his evening lecture, which, he had said earlier in the day, he wished to be a discussion – but who was kidding whom? – about metaphor. Funny how an image stick in one’s head, the Chinese graduate student wrote in his spiral-bound notebook. (Penn State got them from the mainland even then; they stood out from other East Asian students with the bathroom slippers they wore everywhere.) Speaking through his interpreter, our honored guest discussed his favorite contention, that Life is a Dream. “But isn’t that itself a metaphor?” one of our more alert members of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts wanted to know. “No,” Borges intoned to the delight of many, who found said faculty member a little hard to take. “It is the truth!”

This would have been a scandalous notion had it come from anyone but the Great Writer. There was a bit of murmuring, to be sure. I remember murmuring something myself; I’m not sure what. “Freud have mercy!” perhaps, or “Pinch me!” But up spoke another of our champions to ask for an example of a poetic image with no metaphorical function. “Consider Japanese haiku,” said Borges. “‘The ancient pond. A frog jumps in. The sound of water.’ Where’s the metaphor?” “Couldn’t you say the entire poem functions as a metaphor?” “You could, but it isn’t necessary. The poem doesn’t have to mean anything.” Japanese – ancient pond, mean nothing, wrote the Chinese grad student in the seat beside me.

I am oversimplifying as usual; you don’t have to tell me that. Symbols and metaphors aren’t exactly the same. But I find it interesting to try and imagine how the brain of an intelligent, social, non-human animal such as a dog or raven actually works, how it might see the world. Because of course the one big difference between us and the others is their lack of a symbolic language. No abstractions! But dreams, memory, emotion, anticipation, basic reasoning power – they have all that.

Well, the image that sticks in my head is of Fred First’s one year-old dog Tsuga chasing – or perhaps attempting to herd – the shadows of butterflies. He also bobs for rocks. There’s something awfully darn metaphorical about a blogger’s dog chasing the shadows of butterflies. Is he a literalist, I wonder, or a skeptic? It is equally easy to imagine him saying: “The Butterfly listeth where it will,” or: “I don’t believe in Butterfly. I know what I see.”

But I’m just being clever, as humans are wont to do. There’s enough meat there already without any help from me.

*

The retriever pup
chases butterfly shadows
even in his sleep.

*

Butterfly’s shadow:
the dog’s nose goes wild
at the lack of odor.

*

Muzzle to ground,
his legs get ahead of him:
herding shadows.

*

Butterfly shadow
on the lawn shrinks, vanishes.
The dog digs for it.

*

Head under water
the golden retriever
keeps his eyes open.

*

On the creek bottom
every pale stone’s alive with shadows.
Delicious!

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