with critique by Jendi Reiter
What is there?
What is there, when looking out
From the narrow sill of your eye,
Window to what is?
What will you see
When you finally see?
Light and dark limit the possibilities.
Does light pool like a fluid around the little shards of matter
Disguised as dogs and cars and trees?
Can you drown in the all?
I think the ocean of what is
Is there only for me.
I hear its incessant surf beat upon the strands of my mind.
I am so alone in here,
I welcome the sound.
What is there?
How do you define it?
Everyday, I bang a drum;
The vibrations propagate
Across the lawn
Over Jim's house,
They ring all around Kobb Boulevard
And then they bounce off the shells of air and ripple
Upon the placid sea of stars that swells with the night.
And the sound that returns to me,
Is the echo of nothing.
The emptiness is beautiful.
What is there?
I can answer the question now,
But why would I spoil the surprise
Copyright 2009 by Robert J. Frankland
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Those who have practiced meditation know that the question "What is there?" is the first step on an infinite journey of discovery. We think we know what surrounds us, or at least our perceptions of it. Perhaps we're even bored with the world as we imagine it to be, not sure why we should bother asking the "obvious" question that Robert J. Frankland's poem poses. Yet once we try, with a truly open mind, to quiet our ideas and observe what exists, what vast spaces open before us—and inside us!
"What is there, when looking out/From the narrow sill of your eye,/Window to what is?" Frankland asks. We first become aware of the situated nature of our own viewpoint, and then of its limitations. Most of the time, we live in the closed room of our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, experiencing them as if they were the whole world. The question "What is there" invites us to understand the self as a window opening onto something larger.
"What will you see/when you finally see?" Fresh awareness contains the promise of exciting, unsettling new visions. The narrator of the poem glimpses a unity underlying the phenomena we normally perceive as separate, as expressed in these elegant lines: "Does light pool like a fluid around the little shards of matter/Disguised as dogs and cars and trees?" When he says, "Light and dark limit the possibilities," I interpret this to mean that it takes effort to see past our surface reality, full of oppositions and differentiation, to the unity that he believes is more real.
However, this boundary-dissolving vision can also be frightening. If you asked me why I avoid meditation and prayer, even when my body and mind are clearly calling for the relief of stillness, I would express the same concern as Frankland does in the next stanza: "Can you drown in the all?" Because we can never fully escape the fact that we are ourselves and not another, seeing the world as an illusion can plunge us into a lonely place where there is only the self, face-to-face with the Infinite: "I think the ocean of what is/Is there only for me./I hear its incessant surf beat upon the strands of my mind./I am so alone in here,/I welcome the sound."
In the next stanza, the narrator seems to have emerged from this solipsism by reconnecting with ordinary phenomena in a more humble way. "Everyday, I bang a drum"—the sum total of his words, actions, efforts at communication, reduced to this almost childlike repetitive act, which is nonetheless disciplined ("everyday"). The echoes of the sound spread outward, from his neighbor "Jim", to an entire boulevard, all the way to the stars, yet "the sound that returns to me,/Is the echo of nothing." It's a sublime vision of interconnectedness that resists self-aggrandizement.
I admit I was taken aback by the sudden introduction of named characters and places, halfway through a poem that otherwise took place in a wholly conceptual, spiritual realm. I understand how these details function to re-situate the narrator in common human experience, and to show the continuum from the individual to the cosmic connection. Still, I wonder whether the transition could be less abrupt. Where is Kobb Boulevard? Why is "Jim" introduced without a modifier, as if we should know who he is? ("Across the lawn" implies that he is a neighbor, but the search for contextualizing details creates a speed bump in the reading of the poem.)
After these two isolated facts, we are thrown back into the non-specific heavens. The lines "they bounce off the shells of air and ripple/Upon the placid sea of stars that swells with the night" are beautiful and I wouldn't change them, but I might put a comma after "night" and add one more line referring to specific constellations. Alternately, add one more intermediate layer of detail between Kobb Boulevard and the cosmos—the skyline of a named city, perhaps, or a recognizable landscape (e.g. Midwestern corn fields).
Neither of these solutions really satisfy me, though. The basic problem is that Jim and Kobb Boulevard seem to belong to a different poetic voice or genre than the rest of the poem. It would make more sense to weave such details into earlier stanzas as well, but the first part of the poem is so well-written that I would prefer to go in the opposite direction, take out Jim and Kobb Boulevard, and replace them with brief images of unnamed people and streets.
I'm also not sure the ending is strong enough for a poem this profound. The last three lines felt a little cutesy, perhaps because "I can answer the question now" seemed too neat a conclusion. The whole point is that "What is there?" is an endless question. It's not a finite surprise that the narrator coyly withholds from the reader. I would prefer an ending that puts the narrator and the reader on a more equal footing, as companions in an ongoing exploration of the mystery.
Overall, "What Is There?" is a lyrical and well-paced poem that expresses important truths. With a little work on the consistency of its poetic voice, it could be a winner.
Where could a poem like "What Is There?" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Fish International Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by March 30
Irish independent publisher offers prizes up to 500 euros and a reading at their West Cork literary festival; mailed and online entries accepted
David Burland Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by March 31
Prize of 150 pounds for poems in English or French is sponsored by French philosopher Michel François; fees in sterling or euro cheques only
Tiferet Writing Contest
Entries must be received by April 1
$500 awards for poetry, fiction and nonfiction from ecumenical journal of spirituality and the arts; enter online
Kay Snow Writing Awards
Postmark Deadline: April 23
Oregon's largest writers' association offers awards up to $300 in adult and $50 in student categories for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and children's literature
The Ledge Poetry Awards
Postmark Deadline: April 30
Competitive award of $1,000 for unpublished poems, any length, from the literary journal The Ledge
The Shine Journal Poetry Contest
Entries must be received by April 30
Small online journal of flash literature and art offers free contest with prizes up to $100 for unpublished poems; enter online
Connecticut Poetry Award
Postmark Deadline: May 31
The Connecticut Poetry Society offers prizes up to $400 for unpublished poems, 80 lines maximum
This poem and critique appeared in the March 2009 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.