Michael Heller: From Victor Segalen's 'Ode to the Sky on the Esplanade of the New,' newly transposed


Familiar spirit!  If nevertheless this is what you wish to be,

a high sovereign,  sky lord of the lit temple,

one who has spoken, embracing the bowl reversed in air,

the majesty of blue, of jade and of iron,


truly, if you are a construct of  that which you proclaim:

being, light of all and everything, and one who rises up to and yet

remains fixed under the roof of the great void, surrounded like a wall

of spiraling ether, profoundly hard and pure —


still what deprivation!  What prostration of the orb’s height

where my forehead reigns at the resting place of the sages,

over the trebled paving that rounds out their image.

What humility belittling my face.


What nakedness raises me toward yours?

What unreasonableness growls as though infused with lightning

from the lowest places where, sifting among the self’s particles,

I am the mere pivot of the millstone that grinds.




Is it necessarily thus, beingless one, that you could be

not undeceived?   Not yourself, the cancelling dust collector.

Not the disappearing.   Not transparent.  No aim?

Not always, confoundingly, the lone one of your self-vows?


Without doubt and without end, evoking your certitude,

feigning knowledge, I strike three times at my own demons.

I laugh at respect.  I glare feverishly toward those at bay.

I strongly sound out hope and distress.


Without fear, heart exposed, flooded by light and water,

I raise with two hands my appeal.  I reach out to touch.

Manifestly, it is necessary that you appear to me:

Your sky is not futilely distant, nor your clarity.


See: I await you:  I keep the dance to myself,

carrying my spirit, calling for you in the world,

throwing my weight in reverse so that I probe--

a diver plunging toward vertiginous depths under the ice cap.



You are, all at once, all that you are.
Your true essence and your numerous assumptions,
your names, your attributes: a world your world overwhelms.
Contemplation transformed into rapture.

You are the lord of science, a body more light than smoke,

thus penetrant, burnished until you are pure spirit and its echoes.

You are rich in years, first one,  born from chaos.

You know how to discern the imbecile from the hero.


Glacial, Comforter, Divined Diviner.

One. Exorbitant.  Contemplated.  Contemplator.

In all that is animate, in which all returns and dies.

Heard.  Numerous.  Perfume, music and color.


Double. Dome and God.  Temple formed of the vault.

Triple. Hundredfold place of the ten thousand ways.

Worried father of all who are bewitched,

your perfect eye profoundly hard and beautiful.          



So beautiful, so perfect in opposition to the human

that I am silenced—my words nulled,

never attaining to the ninth sphere

nor to the space below nor to the spirit lords who have fled.


Most high, let us walk the ordered esplanade!

Let us carry high the numerous and the just whirlwinds.

Let us grasp the circle: let us catch the assailing blue.

So high?  Without hope: there are no rays.


To aid here:  the new embers of our appearance.

Here the three mountains and the renewing of the hours.

Recommencing: strong interior life.

So we must let them blaze!  Let us devour flesh and blood.


It is necessary to arouse one’s self, its fire crackling, to burn red.

To penetrate one’s heart with  the deepest of gouges.

To traverse on the vertical fires that the sky stirs,

carrying ourselves to the level of the horizon filled with winds.




Here the self’s ransom and the crude mediation;
here falls the torrents of rain and of gratitudes,
the sky spilling tears on the fullness of me.
All abundance, a cataract pummeling me.

Dizziness weighs down the flesh and the earth’s blood.

Futility of flight so high without lure:

vulture frozen in the blue: agony without death.

To cut the links?  Not even a giant dares.


And then all disposes itself and then all is closed and gloomy.

The yellow taken back.  I am to kneel down.  To flatten.

On my face, the master’s eyes, the eyes living but without brilliance,

the spirit exhausted, the heart too breathless to beat.


Truly, he has been what was --

Sovereign, lord of sky and temple clear

who has spoken--the bowl reversed in air.

This of your majesty, of blue, of jade and of iron.




                                                After Segalen                                                                                     


Author’s note: 


These poems from “The Tibet Sequence” are loosely based on the writings of Victor Segalen,  whose work has spoken deeply to me for years.  In his short life (1878-1919), Segalen, a medical doctor for the French navy, traveled extensively in Polynesia and the Far East.  Like Gauguin, with whom he is often linked, Segalen was one of the great travelers of indwelling, of otherness.  In his little-known “Essay on Exoticism,” he explores  “the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one’s self . . . Exoticism’s power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise.”  In his Odes suivies de Thibet, he takes up his interests in Buddhist and Taoist thought, attempting at times to mimic the language of the Sages whose genius, compassion and knowledge of the illusory self  he venerated.   My own poems are written in the spirit of Segalen’s phrase “to conceive otherwise;” which I believe to be the poet’s essential task.  In following  Segalen’s habits of mimicry, my work involves an opportunistic, even perhaps exploitive mingling of Segalen’s thought and language with my own.  Playing with his words and with mine, I have called these poems “transpositions” and not “translations.”  All along, my aim has been to conjure through language an imagined, timeless  “Tibet,” a place not only of great and rugged beauty but of spiritual instruction and ethical hope.