Pascalle Burton Reviews Jackson’s A Coat of Ashes

By | 15 November 2019

Repetition is a key feature of mystical writing, familiar in General Intercessions, chants or mantras. Poems like ‘The light’ or ‘The centre’ have trance-like properties. Jackson allows complex systems’ potential for expansive patterns to interact with poetic form, and this is most effectively realised in the right-justified villanelle ‘a beach’, where the repeated lines help the stanzas create a rhythm of wave-to-whitewash and the poem transforms into gentle, lapping waves.

I am neither proficient in Daoism nor science, so I delved into this book with naivete but openness. Jackson applies the concepts of these knowledges rather than their material and complex contexts. She does consider the issue of cultural misappropriation with regards to Daoism in a chapter of her thesis, ‘“Let the song be bare”: Daoism and the poetry of Randolph Stow, Judith Wright and Ursula K. Le Guin’, and it is worthwhile to raise it in reading this collection. Scholar Russell Kirkland argues that there should be no distinction between philosophical and traditional Daoism, or that undertaking mystical Daoism as opposed to liturgical Daoism makes the practitioner a ‘cog in the cosmos, but not in the community’. If we are free to engage with a tailored version of Daoism – as a living spiritual ideal – we ignore the temples, gods, goddesses, the active and interactive rituals of traditional Daoist practice and we strip the ancient religion of its cultural significance.

In his scathing lecture, ‘The Taoism of the Western Imagination and the Taoism of China: De-colonizing the exotic teachings of the East’, Kirkland says that due to selective English-language translations of traditional texts into publications like Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh or Ursula K. Le Guin’s translation of Lao-tzu, Western readers:

… have been conditioned to understand “Taoism” in terms of an appealing vision of personal simplicity and a so-called “harmony with nature”, both delightfully free of any unpleasant cultural baggage.

Kirkland suggests:

… we need to be fully aware of our own values, and alert to the possibility that the intellectual and religious values at work within our own culture (whether Chinese or Western) might at times colour or even distort our efforts to make sense of a cultural tradition like Taoism.

Turning our attention to science, the ideal concept should follow a clean process: pose meaningful questions, test methods, find answers and retest to protect established laws and theories. In reality, this can be muddied by factors such as prohibitive opportunities to replicate results or incentives to ask questions that garner funding, which impedes scientists’ freedom to ask questions that matter or that might be controversial. In The 7 biggest problems facing science, according to 270 scientists, Julia Belluz, Brad Plumer and Brian Resnick worry that:

when independent, government, or university funding sources dry up, scientists may feel compelled to turn to industry or interest groups eager to generate studies to support their agendas.

Still, pure scientific concepts and the spiritual philosophies embedded in Daoism both deliver a constant sense of wonder, which is beautifully interspersed in Jackson’s poems, for example, ‘The huge word’ or in ‘The tiny echo’:

But gravity is very weak.
It takes something huge 
to make a tiny echo.
They detected the tiny echo
of two black holes whomping together
(my two fists punched each other)
a billion years ago.

A billion years, she said.

Yes, I said. It’s all over the web.
Everyone knows.

I didn’t know, she said.

There are poems that depict a person undertaking lifestyle changes like discarding belongings (‘a coat of ashes’, ‘I cut my hair short’), ascribing to minimalism (‘Enlightenment’, ‘The socks surrender’) or practicing mindfulness (‘On eating shepherd’s pie from a plastic takeaway box’, with its killer image, ‘licking the fangs of my/ plastic fork’). The stages of grief also emerge, such as in ‘William, an elegy’ or ‘Wake’ (‘Every one of me/cried’) and in the emergence of issues like extinction, poverty, climate change and genocide. ‘It happened’ outlines the impact of war-driven carnage on nature:

the whales    bloated with water
moaning    a terrible noise the sea
emptying     of whales

But the heart of Jackson’s collection is a movement towards the acceptance sought by Agnès Varda. In ‘At the University Library’, the narrator keeps an inventory of ‘What will be lost’, ‘What has been lost’ all the way to ‘What was lost’:

A wetland
A hunting ground
Many black swans
A thousand chanted centuries
An infinite number of spirits
A pattern of rainfall
The names of stars and stone
The knowledge that everything was here

In her thesis, Jackson describes how Judith Wright, Randolph Stow and Ursula K Le Guin turned to Daoism as a response to the tensions of being curious ‘Westerners born in colonised countries’. A jarring awareness of injustices to First Nations people at the hands of their descendants combines with a ‘sense of belonging to the landscape’. In the above poem Jackson – who may well share the views of both her poem and essay’s subjects – portrays a researcher drilling down through the accepted non-Indigenous violation of a space to the country’s irreversible loss; trying to do something (anything) about it.

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