Brownian Life by John Tischer / Bibliotheca Universalis / Bucharest, Romania / 2015
John Tischer was born in Chicago. He graduated from Carleton College in 1971 and was a student of Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master who was also a scholar, teacher, poet, artist and disseminator of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. In 2004, Tischer settled in Tepoztlan, Mexico where, in his own words, he divides his time between meditation practice, writing and doing nothing. In an interview with Daniel Dragomirescu, the full text of which is printed in the book, Tischer tells us that he started writing in College. He claims that he has never had a writing teacher, that “it’s all trial and error” and that he has “a suitcase full of writing” that he wrote for the first 20 or 25 years which is at his daughter’s house in Vermont. He cites many poets who have influenced him along the way: e. e. cummings, Salvador Quasimodo, Antonio Machado, Charles Bukowski, William Blake, Robert Bly and Miroslav Holub, to name but a few.
Brownian Life is his debut collection and is a bilingual (English / Romanian) book published in the Bibliotheca Universalis series currently publishing the work of honorary contributors to Orizont Literar Contemporan (Contemporary Literary Horizon) – a multi-lingual journal of literature and the arts, published in Bucharest, Romania. Credit should be given to the team of translators from the University of Bucharest for translating this book into Romanian.
The title of this collection takes as its starting point the “transport phenomenon” named after the Botanist, Robert Brown. In 1827, while looking through a microscope at particles trapped in cavities inside pollen grains in water, Brown noted that the particles moved through the water but was not able to explain the mechanisms that caused this motion. Many decades later, Albert Einstein was able to explain in precise detail how the motion that Brown had observed was a result of the pollen being moved by individual water molecules. This explanation of Brownian motion served as definitive confirmation of the existence of atoms and molecules. In Brownian Life, this is how Tischer expresses it in poetry:
Eating a meal in open air.
Denizens of that dot of
Infinite space, move in
Brownian attraction and
Repulsion dreaming free
Will. It’s so obvious it hurts,
But then, it hurts anyway.
Tischer is refreshingly modest about his poetic output and not at all phased by the reactions that it might provoke. In a short essay on poetry, posted on Radio Free Shambhala in 2009 he writes:
My critics are those that want me to learn to write poetry their way, and I say there are as many ways to make art as there are to make love…someone gets off on Van Gogh, someone else on Norman Rockwell…It’s not so much that some art is intrinsically better…it’s the art’s ability to communicate that measures its worth. Poetry uses language as its palette, but it is an art of communication, not of language, just as music is not an art of sounds and painting is not an art of paints.
I could be a “better” poet, and I am from years back, but my goal is not to be a better poet. It’s to write poetry. For many years I shared my writing, but now that I’ve achieved a certain level of mediocrity, I’ve found that some people like some of my poems, so, my ambition has found its natural limit. If I become a better writer, it’s merely a side-effect.
Tischer’s Ode to John Lennon’s Diary reflects this “take it or leave it” attitude:
Sometimes I write poems
Some people read them
Sometimes I sit in a café for hours
Sometimes I smoke some cigarettes
Sometimes I like the music in the café
Sometimes I don’t…
This is very much a poetry of passive observation – of casual engagement with the present with little thought for the future or even the past:
Sometimes I think about the past
but not very often.
By contrast, the poem “Happy Nuclyear!” is a hard-hitting “protest poem” with its play on words (drain bamage for brain damage, etc.) in the true tradition of the Beat Generation:
I lost the preceding poem
because of drain bamage
and nuclear holochaostrophy,
extending McKenna’s word
to something he couldn’t see
because he was right about
novelty, but as he said in his
last interview, “novelty” does
not mean necessarily something
you would see as “good”…It
just means “change”…so…
Fukushima is included in the
paradigm…You can open your
Tischer is at his best in poems like “Kafka’s Birthplace” where he succeeds in conjuring up a surreal atmosphere that is a cross between the menace of The Trial and the suspense of a Hitchcock movie.
Further references to math and science are to be found in “The Mandelbrot Set” – a short poem that relates back to Benoit Mandelbrot who is recognised for his contribution to the field of fractal geometry, coined the word “fractal” and later discovered “the Mandelbrot set” – a set of intricate, never-ending fractal shapes, named in his honour. In Tischer’s poem, these shapes take on human form, they are:
the ones that live in their jets
and fly around in infinitely
intricate swirls of trivial pursuits
going nowhere but continuously
unfolding like hopeless flowers.
“Missing Frames” finds Tischer in philosophical mode. Trying to piece life together is not a simple matter. Using cinematographic imagery, we all have “missing frames” and even the things that we do see are subject to different interpretation by different people – hence the reference to the Rashomon effect, derived from the film Rashomon where the accounts of witnesses, suspects and victims of a rape and murder are all different. (In the 1960’s the British playwright John Hopkins attempted a similar thing in his TV play Talking To A Stranger where the same scene was aired in four different episodes but seen through the eyes of a different character in the drama). Paraphrasing a quote from Chögyam Trungpa, Tischer writes:
…relative reality says a lot and means
very little…absolute reality says
nothing at all…
…it takes courage just to be there.
Tischer is a poet who likes to splash his mind into words. In the interview with Daniel Dragomirescu he says “I’m an ordinary human being who may have some worth as a writer, but, I don’t see it as a “calling” or something…rather, it’s just what I do…it’s as simple as that.” This book serves as a useful introduction to his work and brings it to the attention of the wider reading public.