Who coordinates this awesome spectacle
of concept, object, thought and weighty task?
How long can such a marshalling cohere,
as if it does, suspended in midair?
No, I am not coherent or even half alive,
but dreaming perplexed stones uphill in stony sleep.
Questions and Answers
What inspired “The Tasks”?
“The Tasks” is deliberately short but it belongs to a series of ruminations I’ve had over the past ten years about the pressures of work and need to be productive in a culture that admires action and getting things done, and doesn’t have much patience with what the ancients called contemplation. It ended up as part of a volume of poems called Lifting the Stone, whose imagery is drawn from the Gospel of Thomas where Jesus as wisdom teacher says,
Cleave a piece of wood,
I am there;
Lift up the stone
And you will find me there.
It seemed to me that this unfamiliar saying of Jesus captures something about how spirit and matter are not so separable and distinct as we have assumed. The large “I am” or what we call Spirit is omnipresent in the world if we have eyes to see it. So running alongside this Jewish and early Christian imagery of hoisting stones is the classical Greek story of good old Sisyphus, working like a Trojan hauling rock up hills in the underworld, only to have them smuck him out again and again. This image of futility more readily captured my daily state of consciousness at the time; so in this poem, the speaker ponders why we knock ourselves out to make all the pieces of our lives come together in some kind of coherent whole. At the time, my exterior life was in a bit of a mess, as lives tend to be, so that even in my sleep I was with my cohort Sisyphus, hauling metaphoric rocks up metaphoric hills.
What poetic techniques did you use in “The Tasks”?
The tidy, end-stopped couplets in the poem suggest the speaker is trying to bring some kind of order to the world herself, but the world, sadly, doesn’t imitate the poetic form; therefore the poem remains a couple of unanswered questions followed by a negation: “No, I am not coherent or even half alive.” The stones themselves seem “perplexed” about why the dreamer is trying so hard to push them up the hill against gravity, so there is in this personification an implied counterdesire in favour of letting go. When used as an analogy to the creative process, the poem is about trying too hard, not letting the Muse or higher Self, or hidden Ground of Being, or whatever you want to call it, do the work. It hints there is a great doing beyond our puny efforts where everything that needs to get done gets done, but we are not often able to access it. Somewhere, the speaker tentatively hopes, maybe “a marshalling cohere[s]/ suspended in midair.” The imagery of air contrasts here to the heaviness of downward-falling earthy rock. The poem employs rhetorical questions, a stanza form that echoes content in the couplets, personification of the “perplexed” stone, internal dialogue, alliteration, varied line-length and rhythm. The last line of the poem, for instance, is a perfect alexandrine with six rather than five heavy stresses, contrasting the other lines which contain four or five loosely structured iambic and tetrameter beats. This technique draws out and reinforces the sense of lengthy, exhausting labour and gives the poem closure. The speaker poses and answers her own query, coming in the process to some recognition of her dilemma and limits. At another level, it is unclear if this is an internal dialogue between parts of a single self, that is, a sort of dialogue of self and soul, or a dialogue between God or the divine and the individual self. In the latter reading, the divine voice asks the first two questions about why the ego is toiling so much, and the ego replies that it isn’t “coherent or even half alive.” The questioning process helps the soul come to this recognition. As I reread my own poem, it occurs to me that both “compossibilities” coexist in the poem.