Drawing from the Well: A Review of Indebted to Change: The Beggar Poet’s I Ching
Stephen Falconer, Indebted to Change: The Beggar Poet’s I Ching, Resource Publications, Eugene, Oregon, ISBN 978-1725298316, 280 pages, $25.00
There are 64 poems in Indebted to Change, which deliberately parallel the 64 hexagrams in the I Ching, or The Book of Changes, an ancient Chinese book of divination and philosophy. When I was asked if I might write a review of Stephen Falconer’s new collection of poems, I thought I’d at least take a crack at it, being somewhat familiar with the I Ching, discovering it through the writings of Karl Jung and his theory of synchronicity, (a hypothesis that the coincidence of events in time and space, even subjective and objective ones, can be more meaningful than mere chance), though I do not know Chinese and am not a scholar of Chinese history with a knowledge of ancient texts. For about a decade I was quite enthralled with the I-Ching and frequently consulted the oracle by casting the yarrow sticks or coins to conjure up the hexagrams that would show me the current configuration of my state of being, what forces were bringing themselves to bear at that moment, and what I should and should not do before my situation evolved or “changed” into another configuration of forces and events.
As Jung did before he wrote his forward to my Wilhelm translation of the I Ching into German (subsequently translated from German to English by C.F. Baynes), I consulted the oracle on the likelihood of my writing a successful review of the 64 poems included in Indebted to Change.
Using the traditional coin toss method of divination to get the two trigrams, I tossed 3 coins 6 times. Heads = 2 and Tails=3. Even number totals are broken lines; odd numbers are straight lines. They fell in this pattern:
Searching in the table of 64 hexagrams, I found that the top trigram= “K’AN, the abysmal, water,” and the lower trigram=”SUN, the gentle, wind, wood.” Together they form the hexagram CHING/ THE WELL, hexagram # 48 (185). Wood is below, water above. The wood goes down into the earth to bring up water, as in water drawn into a bucket, or roots reaching down into the earth for water. The I Ching explains the meaning of the image and so makes this judgment concerning the situation:
THE WELL. The town may be changed,
But the well cannot be changed.
It neither decreases or increases.
They come and go and draw from the well.
If one goes down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the Jug breaks, it brings misfortune (185).
A further commentary on the hexagram goes on to explain how to interpret the image of the well: it is the center of the village or town, for without a well, the community could not exist. The water in the well is the inexhaustible source of life. The problem is whether or not we can draw from it. The rope may not be long enough to reach the water. The jug may break (186).
How do I interpret this? It may be that both the poet and the reviewer will reach deep enough to draw water; it may be that I and my review may not be able to reach the water of meaning in the well of this book of poems, Indebted to Change, or it may be that this book of poems itself has not reached deep down enough to bring up the inexhaustible waters of wisdom in the depths of the I Ching. The problem—if there is one—could be with either of us, neither of us, or both.
We are told that on the back cover of the book that the voice behind the poems is that of an invented narrator, a beggar poet, (like Basho or his disciples) who lives the life of a “mendicant writer or a solitary seeker—one who has tasted love, joy, and the depths of human despair.….In fashioning his life to the changes of the I Ching, each of the sixty-four hexagrams … by living sincerely….he can be said to be living by the evolving revelations of consciousness.”
We are also told, in a biographical note, that Stephen Falconer, the poet-author, likewise immersed himself in the I Ching for a time to bring forth this book.
A poem is also a kind of divination, a metaphor shaped into lines (much like a hexagram), it describes the state of the imagination at the moment it is written; when a reader encounters it, a poem is like a jug of water drawn from the well of being.
I like the idea of this book very much. But just how does it attempt to live through the sixty -four hexagrams? Through the poems we encounter moments in the life of the poet narrator in a world that could be anytime, anywhere, but because there are no references to the stuff of modernity—the internet, cars, TVs, computers, Big Macs, airplanes etc. — it evokes more of an ancient or medieval time– and with references here and there, for example, to a temple or to a junk– a place and time such as in the Tang Dynasty in China (618-906 BCE). The narrator seems most similar to the Tang poet Li Po. The voice of the narrator poet comes across in contemporary English and in some ways the book is like a fragmentary novel, as we catch 64 glimpses into the hermit poet’s attempts at poems, his love affairs, quarrels, and encounters with neighbors, thieves, wanderers, oceans, rain, rivers, moons, flowers, and birds.
The poet uses a lot of white space on the page, as he likes to let a lot silences into his poems, which are usually in short lined 3-5 line stanzas, spanning 3 to five pages with lines, phrases, and words often isolated for impact. The language is rarely stale, though at times obscure and a bit obtuse, and sometimes beautifully startling and inventive.
Take the poem number 38, “at Opposite Ends” 166-170).
You’ll put sugar in your tea
and I’ll drink it straight from the urn
one hand will grab the base,
Clear enough, as you read on that the poet is drinking tea with a female friend or lover. Then he appears to tell her to gaze out the window where grass and flowers are wet and glistening with rain and see herself reflected in the thousands of raindrops and where a few stanzas later:
in the clouds
will brighten your cheekbones
while my face will remain in shadow.
These are what I think are vivid lines, but later the poem moves on to this stanza where the poet says to the woman who is with him:
will bring more rain, reach the lee
of a trunk
and feelers retreat into a moist casing”
“With each drop, momentarily
until joining the puddles on the ground
an insignificant feeler locates on of its kind.”
Unlike the present alive
where you find solace,
a recluse born with the sun in the night sky
will count to the heart formed out of the rhythm
of another counted back to.
Beginning with line 4 of the first stanza, I cannot follow. The language in the last 9 lines strikes me as a bit clunky and unclear. This is a fault that recurs from time to time in this collection as lines and stanzas trail off into awkwardness and obscurity.
Many of the poems start out as narratives, which suddenly shift in time and place, or from speech to thought, and possibly move into the introspective mind of the poet where I cannot always follow them. There are pronouns I could find no referent for elsewhere in the poem (possibly referring back to a character in another poem), sometimes I encountered abrupt leaps where I could not follow the thread of thought, narrative of not. Though I must admit as I read more and more poems, becoming a bit more acclimated, I found more poems coming clear to me. This is a book that requires an effort from the reader, and while it seems to me it does not always meet the reader halfway, there are frequent passages and poems where the reader is rewarded with lines like the ones in “Beauty” #22, (104-106
The scrawl on white paper,
afternoon glow brightening each sentence
to the heart hope
I’ll renew the impetus
to discover what lies under my skin,
of a fingernail, ancient names
Saturday’s work crunched up
and thrown into a receptacle
and then several stanzas later when the poet peers into a picture in an old book, he envisions there:
A swallow’s curve against the pale blue sky,
light behind the trees….
A creak in dead limbs as the wind rises from the east,
clouds beyond tinged with black,
a few drops upon the canopy overhead
the pristine call
of a warbler.
the response from another in the woods,
silence as they find one another
every second belonging to a ripple on a lake,
haze in the distance,
and rise of lonely breath
the luminous bird fluttering over the waves before sleep.
Here the poet skillfully exploits sound, line breaks and spacing to create significant silences within the phrasing, controlling when and how we arrive at the next exquisite image. When the poems work best, this is what they achieve.
Though I do not see how the book evokes the I Ching directly other than including the same number of poems as the I Ching has hexagrams, it does, however, evoke a world like the one in which the I Ching may have originated and where there is undistracted time and space to contemplate it and provide us with some fragmentary visions —down into the depths of the well— recreating a world where a poet immerses himself in the changes within and all around him – indebted to that great teacher, Change—the Tao, the way.
If the reader is drawn to the I-Ching, Basho, or the Tang poets, (I recommend reading them and about them first.) or interested in discovering and exploring them– it may take a bit of effort, and some of the poems may not succeed— but this is a book that will draw up some sweet water for you.
As the book closes, the last 10 lines of “Almost There.” #64 (277-280), I think demonstrate the faults of occasional obscurity but also the ultimate virtues of this collection of poems, note the brilliant last three lines below:
I am not sure what lies under your skin,
but with one brusque remark, a caress?
I could enliven the thread joining Mercury
and frozen zones,
unearth a witness
before the earth evacuates under an aging sun:
who’ll make daylight appear
where night has opened a blind eye.
© Stephen Falconer and Michael Fallon
Years have passed since Stephen Falconer first glanced at the pages of the I Ching. The readings were prophetic. He was not to concern himself with wealth and outward symbols of success, but to concentrate on the book itself, and to follow where it led–to a love for Santoka Taneda, Basho, and Tang dynasty poetry, yet at the back of it all a respect for the Changes and the fruits it would engender. This creates a certain mythology behind the book which tries to lend the book some authenticity. I assume he will want to use it. It makes the poet narrator into a kind of alter ego who is very close to SF himself. If you want more from SF, you might have to ask him for it, but it may shatter the aura he wants to create around the book.
Michael Fallon is Senior Lecturer Emeritus in English at UMBC. Poems have appeared recently in Northeast Narrative, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, The Connecticut River Review, The Loch Raven Review, Illuminations, Southword, and other magazines. He is the author of 4 collections of poetry: A History of the Color Black (Dolphin-Moon Press, 1991); Since You Have No Body (winner of the Plan B Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, 2011); The Great Before and After (BrickHouse Books, 2011,); and Empire of Leaves (Singing Man Press, 2018). Essays have appeared recently in The New England Review, on lit hub-The Best of the Literary Internet, The Concho River Review, Broad Street Literary Review, The Razor, The Northern Virginia Review, and Blood and Thunder, and on Pendustradio.com.
The I Ching or Book of Changes, translated (into German) by Richard Wilhelm, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, 3rd ed., Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ: 1971.