Notes to Poem:
We Are The Function

Peter Y. Chou

Preface: On January 19, 2010, Kay Ryan asked students in her Stanford Poetry Workshop (English 192V) to bring poems conveying lightness based on our reading assignment of Italo Calvino's chapter on "Lightness" from Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988). Catie shared Jack Gilbert's poem "Maybe She Is Here" (from Refusing Heaven (p. 92). Afterwards it inspired the haiku "She might be here secretly / with her right hand / a little visible." When I read Jack Gilbert's latest book The Dance Most Of All (2009), the last poem "We Are the Junction" inspired me greatly. The theme of "body, mind, heart, sun, moon, music, silence, snow, truth, sanctity, secret, glory" conveyed a sense of the sacred. This poem is light in both aspects— elevation and illumination. It reminded me of my first meeting with Jack Gilbert in 1987. I took buses from Palo Alto to San Francisco to attend Father Alberto Huerta's talk at USF on Jorge Luis Borges. I don't remember much of his lecture except that he met Borges personally, and also during the introduction it was mentioned that Father Huerta buried Kenneth Rexroth, a poet whom I admired. After his talk, Huerta told me that Rexroth had all the Bollingen books in his library and read profusely from them. When I told Huerta that I changed my career from biochemistry to poetry, he escorted me to meet his friend Jack Gilbert. As I've not read modern poetry at all then, I didn't know that Jack Gilbert is a renowned poet. He was interested in my protein research in understanding structure and function. Then we engaged in a spirited conversation on Apollonian and Dionysian philosophy. Since I don't drink wine or alcohol, Apollo, the Sun God, patron of music and poetry, appealed to me more than Dionysius with his intoxicated orgies. However, Gilbert told me that Dionysius is equally important if I were to write good poetry. He gave me his phone number to get together for further talks on this topic, but I never followed up to my regret. It is New Year's Day 2011. In Chinese custom, whatever one does on this day will carry over for the rest of the year. I had planned on going ballroom dancing at Cubberley Pavilion as no dance was scheduled Saturday on Christmas Day. But they are open on New Year's Day and teaching the tango. But at the last minute, I decided to stay home and write a response poem to Jack Gilbert's "We Are the Junction". Since the body is made predominantly of proteins, biochemists do research to understand their structure and function relationship, my poem is titled "We Are the Function". Webster has "duty" and "purpose" as synonyms for "function", which is akin to the Buddhist "dharma". Using Gilbert's poem as a template, I found rhyming words to his in composing my response poem. With the aid of Penguin Rhyming Dictionary, this poem was completed in three hours.


The body is the herb,
the mind is the honey.
The heart, the heart is
the undifferentiated.
The mind touches the body
and is the sun.
The mind touches the heart
and is music.
When body touches heart
they together are the moon
in the silently falling snow
over there. Which is truth
exceeding, is the residence,
the sanctified, is the secret
closet and passes into glory.

— Jack Gilbert
     The Dance Most Of All (2009)

The body is superb,
the mind is sunny.
The heart is pure bliss
all radiated.
The mind embraces the body
and is the One.
The mind embraces the heart
and is cosmic.
When body embraces heart
they together swoon
in the brilliant glow
right here. Which is truth
preceding all the evidence,
the purified, is the poet
weaving hourglasses into story.

— Peter Y. Chou
     Mountain View, 1-1-2011

Commentary on Poem "We Are The Function":

The body is superb
"Our Bodies' Worth Only 84 Cents — Dr. Mayo." (Northwestern Health Journal, Dec. 1924). The calculation was based on the human body's chemical composition— Oxygen 65%, Carbon 18%, Hydrogen 10%, Nitrogen 3%, Calcium 1.5%, Phosphorus 1%, Potassium 0.35%, Sulfur 0.25%, Sodium 0.15%, Chlorine 0.15%, Magnesium 0.05%, Iron 0.0004%, Iodine 0.00004%. However, if we tabulate the enzymes, hormones, DNA, and neurotransmitters in the human body, the cost will exceed the "six million dollar man". Thomas Edison remarked "From his neck down a man is worth a couple of dollars a day, from his neck up he is worth anything that his brain can produce." Leonardo da Vinci's drawing of the Vitruvian Man (1487) is not only an accurate anatomical rendition of the human body, but a celebration of sacred geometry and the divine proportion. Leonardo believed the workings of the human body to be an analogy for the workings of the universe. Saint Paul wrote in his Letters to the Corinthians (I.3.16, I.6.16, I.6.19): "your body is the temple of God". When we look at the myriad of protein interactions and chemical reactions in our body to sustain life, it is truly a miracle. Hence the body is sacred and superb. (Image Source: Muscles in the Human Body, Internet Encyclopedia of Science)

The mind is sunny

William Blake, Glad Day (1794),
British Museum, Blake's Notebook Glorified Body; Seeing Angels: Blake
In "Maybe She Is Here", Jack Gilbert wrote "her skin honey against the simple / white of two thin straps". Here he writes "the mind is the honey." While "honey" denotes sweetness or a beloved, "sunny" was chosen to rhyme with "honey" and to describe the mind. Traditionally, the mind and memories are regarded as the function of the brain in a person's head. Recent research suggests that our brain is like a radio receiver, just as music is not stored in the radio but comes from a broadcasting station (Memory & Brain; Imagination & Innovation; Rupert Sheldrake: Extended Mind). Sages taught students that the world we see is not outside of us but within. Here are the views from a sage— "Just as the sun at dawn illumines the physical world, so the Sun behind the sun, the mystical Light of the World-Mind illumines man's mental world at the same time, penetrates it through and through, provided he is present and passive in consciousness to receive its power. He must thoroughly steep himself in this wonderful mystical stillness wherein Nature is plunged for a few moments." — Paul Brunton (1898-1981), Wisdom of the Overself (1943), Ch. XIV, Yoga of the Discerning Mind: Sun Meditation (pp. 230-231). Ficino has many insights in his Book of the Sun (1494). My poem "Hymn to the Sun" pays homage to the physical sun in our sky as well as the metaphysical sun in our Mind (Notes, Sun Symbolism, Spiritual Sun).

The heart is pure bliss all radiated

Alex Grey (born 1953)
Heart on Fire (1970)
Gilbert's "The heart, the heart is / the undifferentiated" speaks not the ego's heart of differentiation and separatedness, but the cosmic heart of unity and oneness. It's hard to change his visionary statement, so I tried to rhyme "bliss" with "is" and "radiated" with "undifferentiated". Joseph Campbell's dictim of "Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you" came to mind in following our heart's desire. I'm also reminded of Ramana Maharshi saying that our True Self is not in our head but our heart. That's why when someone calls you, you never point to your head "Who me?" but always to your heart. In the Katha Upanishad I.2.20 (circa 500 BC), we find that the soul resides in our heart— "Atman [soul], smaller than a barley grain and greater than the wide universe, is hidden in the human heart. One who is free from desires beholds the majesty of the Self through tranquillity of the senses and the mind and becomes free from grief." Alex Grey's painting "Heart on Fire" came to mind, showing spiral of fire energy radiating outward from the heart's center. (Image Source: Alex Grey; Heart on Fire)

The mind embraces the body and is the One

Jacques-Louis David

Death of Socrates (1787)
I matched Gilbert's "The mind touches the body and is the sun" with "The mind embraces the body and is the One." The "sun" may be equated to the "One" on chemical grounds since Hydrogen (atomic number 1) is the main constituent of the sun (74.9%) followed by helium (23.8%). The "sun" is a metaphor for the "One" on metaphysical grounds. Socrates tells Parmenides "The All is one." Plotinus (204-270 A.D.) writes in The Enneads V.1.6— "The Divine Mind must be a circumradiation produced from the Supreme unaltering, as the brilliant light encircling the sun is ceaselessly generated from that unchanging substance... What then are we to think of the All-Perfect but that It can produce nothing less than the very greatest that is later than Itself? This must be Divine Mind, the loftiest being in the universe, Soul being an act and utterance of the One."
(Image Source: Jacques-Louis David, Death of Socrates, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

The mind embraces the heart and is cosmic
Gilbert's lines "When mind touches the heart / and is music" certainly relate to composers such as Mozart and Beethoven whose mind and heart are merged when their music pours out to delight us. I've rhymed Gilbert's "music" with "cosmic" since Beethoven always aspired to the cosmic while composing his music. In his letter to Archduke Rudolph (1823), Beethoven writes "There is no loftier mission than to approach the Divinity nearer than other men, and to disseminate the divine rays among mankind." Johann Stumpff records Beethoven's conversation— "When in the evening I contemplate the sky in wonder and the host of luminous bodies continually revolving within their orbits, suns or earths by name, then my spirit rises beyond these constellations so many millions of miles away to the primeval source from which all creation flows and from which new creations shall flow eternally. " Beethoven copied passages from UpanishadsYou are present throughout the whole world and sustain all things. Sun, Ether, Brahma." It's my belief that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a wake-up call to Cosmic Consciousness (Poem). I've used Alex Grey's Wonder: Zena Gazing at the Moon (left) as illustration for this poem since it reminds me of the sage asking his student "How far is the moon from us?" When he replied 238,000 miles, the sage continued, "That's the distance from your body. But how far is the moon from your mind?" The student had a satori awakening— "The moon is in my mind!" Thus Lu Hsiang-shan (1139-1193), "Sage of the Elephant Mountain" made the bold declaration "The universe is my mind, and my mind is the universe." (Image Source: Alex Grey (born 1953), Wonder: Zena Gazing at the Moon, 1996)

When body embraces heart they together
swoon in the brilliant glow right here

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

The Kiss (1908)
Gilbert's lines "When body touches heart / they together are the moon / in the silently falling snow / over there" are so beautiful and my favorite in his poem. Here are my rhyming counterparts— "touches" (embraces), "moon" (swoon), "silently" (brilliant), "snow" (glow), "over there" (right here). I recall Dante's snow images in Paradiso describing angels in the celestial rose— "Their faces were all living flame; their wings / were gold; and for the rest, their white was so / intense, no snow can match the white they showed." (31.13-15); also his fading vision— "such am I, for my vision almost fades / completely, yet it still distills within / my heart the sweetness that was born of it. / So is the snow, beneath the sun, unsealed; / and so, on the light leaves, beneath the wind, / the oracles the Sibyl wrote were lost." (33.63-66). Dante's golden image of angelic faces reminded me of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss painting in gold leaf of lovers embracing and kissing— "they together swoon / in the brilliant glow / right here." Gilbert's "snow over there" felt somewhat distant, that's why I chose "glow right here" to describe "when body embraces heart"— the immediacy of the lovers in Klimt's painting. (Image Source: Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna)

Which is truth preceding all the evidence
I matched Gilbert's lines "Which is truth / exceeding, is the residence" with "Which is truth / preceding all the evidence". In a court of law, evidence is needed to convince the jury that something is true. In science, experiments are conducted to test the truth of theories. However Truth that is a transcendental spiritual reality is a priori and self-evident. Truth may be defined as "that which is uncontradictable", hence it precedes evidence. "Allegory of Truth": Women figures appeared so prominently in paintings and engravings because French nouns for the qualities and virtues were usually feminine (Truth = La Vérité). Nicolas de Courteille's painting (left) Truth Bringing Republic and Abundance (1793) shows Allegory on the French revolution. The ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes with his lamp is on the right, with three women draped in the French tricolors. Pistis Sophia is an important Gnostic text (2nd Century) translated as Faith in Wisdom. The female divinity of gnosticism is Sophia, identified with the Holy Spirit, or the Universal Mother. She was envisaged as the Psyche of the world and the female aspect of Logos. Goethe's Faust ends with the words “Eternal feminine leads us above” similar to Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching 28: "to cling to the feminine". In Dante's Divine Comedy (1321) on the soul's ascent, the poet Virgil took Dante only up to the heights of Mount Purgatory. From that point onward, only Beatrice could guide Dante to Paradise. Perhaps the male principle (yang or animus) as represented by Virgil or logic could take our intellect only so far, and we need to harness the feminine principle (yin or anima) as represented by Beatrice or intuition to penetrate the realm beyond space-time so we could experience the transcendence and bliss of paradise. (Image Source: Nicolas de Courteille, La Vérité), 1793)

the purified, is the poet
weaving hourglasses into story

Gilbert's last two lines "the sanctified, is the secret / closet and passes into glory" were modified to "the purified, is the poet / weaving hourglasses into story". Gilbert opens his poem "Maybe She Is Here" with "She might be here secretly". Here he says "the sanctified, is the secret closet". While sanctity is connected with holiness, "secret closet" may be a sacred shrine for prayer. We find in Matthew 6.6: "when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly." The Chinese word for poetry, shih () is composed of yen (): "word; language" and szu (): "temple, monastery". Hence, poetry is a "temple of words" and the poet resides in the temple (secret closet of prayer). Here are my rhyming counterparts— "sanctified" (purified), "secret closet" (poet), "passes" (hourglasses), "glory" (story). After rhyming "hourglasses" with "passes", the image of a Spanish Sahara stamp showing a "winged wheel and hourglass" depicting "time flies" or "time passes" came to mind. I realized that the wings also symbolize the poet's flight of imagination. The poet Muriel Ruykeyser has a quote "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms" that inspired my last poem of 2010. Now I'm rhyming "story" with "glory" as my first poem of 2011. (Image Source: Spanish Sahara B59, "Winged Wheel & Hourglass", 15 c + 5 centimos, issued June 1, 1960 to commemorate Quevedo's Hora de Todas)

                                                            — Peter Y. Chou
                                                                Mountain View, 1-4-2011

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