The Still Point: A Review
By Donna Bauerly
(The Still Point: Haiku of “Mu.” By Raymond Roseliep. Uzzano, 511 Sunset Drive, Menomonie, WI 54751. Softcover, 64 pages, $2.50 postpaid.)
My first encounter with The Still Point, Raymond Roseliep’s 8th volume of haiku, was strange, even frightening.
A friend handed the volume to me with the rest of the morning’s mail on a day I was in bed attempting to recover from a miserable cold. Imagine my surprise at these words, Roseliep’s introductory remarks to The Still Point: “When I was recuperating from surgery in the summer of 1978, my friend Nobuo Hirasawa in Tokyo sent me an ‘omimai,’ which he explained was a gift to comfort a person in bed, whether in the hospital or at home.” This “mirror experience” marked the gateway of my first reading of Roseliep’s “mu,” his “Zen-Christian pilgrimage,” his fifty-three haiku to “nothing; none; empty.”
The rest of my journey into his was even stranger.
Usually the central image of each separate haiku holds me for a long time. But not at this first reading. My mind kept flashing one image—in black and white. And suddenly, breathless (because I discovered I had been reading and holding my breath), I recognized that image.
This past summer when some friends and I were in Europe, we visited Dachau. The German concentration camp remains as it once had been when it was in operation. Two of the barracks were rebuilt—the rest were destroyed and are marked by tall poplar trees at each end of where the barracks once stood. On the site of the former administration building is a museum, and bigger-than-life photographs in black and white of the whole “experiment” are ranged in two long rows, beginning with the opening of the camp when prisoners upon arrival were still in normal physical condition. The photographs arranged thus in chronological order take the viewer gradually deeper into a numbing horror.
At first we walked slowly, “reading” a visual history of this camp. Then we heard there was a documentary film about Dachau to be shown at the far end of the museum, and my friends asked me to go ahead and find out what time the film would be shown. I began moving faster down this long “corridor,” the pictures flashing past me as I walked. I tried to shut them out because I soon realized the accelerated pace of absorbing all that “death” was affecting me physically as well as psychologically. I was not breathing, just hurrying through, trying to get “past” the experience. But these black and white images kept intruding, registering with greater force, so that by the time I arrived at the far end I had to find a place to sit for a while. I dropped by head between my knees, all systems inside me “shut down” with overload. For a long time I could only star vacantly at my odd-looking hands which seemed very far away. Dachau was a place of suspension for me: between here and there, real and non-real (or ultra-real), life and death.
The first reading of Roseliep’s The Still Point took me to that same place, wherever that is. I was not horrified as I was at Dachau, but I was frightened upon recognizing the sameness of experience. Breathless again. At one point in the reading of his “mu” I wondered if I could remember how to breathe anymore:
goes into the light
Thank God for the “vermillioned whisk” on the next page.
Since that initial encounter with these “mu” haiku, I’ve re-read them a number of times, never going back to Dachau again, but often wondering at the power of Roseliep’s seemingly simple expression which carries the reader so swiftly to his “Therewhere.” Once I participated in a group discussion of The Still Point. I found talking about these haiku almost too painful to tolerate, and every time I tried to write this critique I became short-winded.
Exaggeration? I’m tempted to end here with a dare. But critiques need more examples than the one an don-third haiku I have quoted.
Roseliep says that the fifty haiku of his text (three are a dedicatory triptych to Nobuo) “arranged themselves.” Even knowing the process of Zen only a very little, I do understand that this means there is an intricate patterning, but one recognized through the inner silence that is completely open to the innate order of things. Essences. The only way I know to arrive at a true understanding of this arrangement is to go by the way Roseliep goes. I haven’t quite managed that yet, but my “eyes” see the poet and the reader gradually moving from the periphery of the concentric circles (made by Basho’s frog, perhaps?) to the center where that same frog plopped in.
First, Roseliep quiets us down:
not winding the heart
Then he arranges our bodies:
My lotus legs
He invites us to look (really):
He gives us the gift of himself. Roseliep, the “man of art who loves the rose”—
the rose in hay
cellar of my self
What has “happened” thus far, four haiku of “mu” into The Still Point? Much “un” doing: “not-nor-no-un.” A paradoxical active participle “wintering” naming the kind of passivity which is dynamic. Word play that is serious: “winding” or “winding”? Doing neither, of course. “No-how” of “know-how”? Both, of course. “Cellar” or “seller” of self?
Roseliep taking us along, moves, unmoves, to the center of his experience (his volume of haiku as well as his priestly life). Centers are important places. Confucius once said that if you want to be safe, go to the heart of danger. The Still Point is dangerous territory. All around, the reader is threatened by “hanging”—suspension. “Therewhere.” In that safe-dangerous Center we find these haiku:
the Mass priest holding bread
holds up bread hands
the still point are empty
Most Catholics are still vaguely aware of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. What was once bread is no longer bread. It may look like bread, feel, smell, and taste like bread, but after the words of consecration the priest is not holding bread. In that respect his hands are empty, but his hands (his being) are filled with Jesus Christ. Yet, the true priest is empty—more so than hands filled with nothing material. At that still point is All. The rush, the weight, of everything: world, after-world, is crushing. No possibility of an escape in symbol, though that alone would be powerful enough; the reality is Eternity, now.
If we make it past this Center, we must still work our way back to the far edge of the pond, cresting circle after circle. A warning: we could get caught in something this simple:
If we do make it back to land, it is night in the outer world—
shapes of night
(It was “cockcrow” at the entering moment.) Our souls are given back to us:
the luna moth leaves
bequeathing my soul
And our spent bodies (souls) have only enough energy to hear:
the cricket cries
There have been times I’ve almost “cursed” Roseliep for The Still Point. It clings to me like a burr I keep brushing from finger to finger, drawing a little blood each time I attempt to rid myself of it. The demand of these “mu” is overwhelming—like Dachau was. The corresponding responsibility: awesome. Yet, Roseliep has given me (and here I bless, not curse) for the rest of my life
A frog to sit with
and not say
Bauerly, Donna. “The Still Point: A Review.” Delta Epsilon Sigma Bulletin, Volume XXV, Number 2, May 1980: 59-62.