Online Edition: Fall 2001

The Metaphysics of Gerrit Lansing

by Robert Baker

Growing directly out of the complex music of Gerrit Lansing's poetry is a metaphysical doctrine of considerable sophistication. But unlike many systems, Lansing's demands the full participation of the world-creating power of the imagination. Lansing's belief in the ultimate power of the imagination, however, raises some interesting questions regarding the status of reality, particularly the reality of the natural world. To what extent is the "not me" of nature a product of imaginative creation? Is it possible to separate the experiencing of the natural world from the capacity to create experience through the power of the creative imagination?

The question of the relation of the creative mind to the natural world is central to Emerson's essay Nature. For Emerson, nature is a teacher of spiritual truths whose objective existence is uncertain at best. "Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses." In his view, the universe as we know it is "the externisation of the soul." It exists primarily to provide an opportunity for self knowledge through creative world building: "Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world." However, Emerson also defines nature as "all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME." In "The Poet" imagination is a "very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees." This implies an imaginative identification with an object beyond the self. Through the use of the imagination it is possible to achieve a kind of correspondence to nature that can "restore" both humanity and nature to their "original and eternal beauty."

Lansing, a careful reader and interpreter of Emerson, shares his rich ambiguity as to the exact "location" of nature relative to the human mind. His writing also exhibits the tension between seeking a kind of imaginative, salutary and restorative correspondence to an independently existing natural world and seeking in the world an externalized version of our own realized creative imagination and will. Section IV of Lansing's long poem The Soluble Forest offers an imagined glimpse at the "root" of perception and this root's connection to the creative acts of writing and ritual (write and rite). "From zero jumps two, two being how something is apprehended. Only a stone's throw from writing to root. The rite of winter is the root of spring." Separation is a primary quality of apprehension, "as things emerge from the void of no-thing." But the imagination, through the act of writing and rooting, also provides a route, "a way and the map of a way." The creative imagination roots/routes our way to the world of things. For Lansing there is no fundamental unity underlying our separation from nature, but writing and rooting/routing anchor a void of no-thing to a human mapping.

A particular mapping, however, can outlive its use and become rigidified and stifling, as we see in Lansing's major work on nature "In Erasmus Darwin's Generous Light." Echoing Blake, Lansing berates the priesthood of the "social web" by viewing it through the eyes of Erasmus Darwin: "He saw how joys were trampled in the priests' black rounds / twisted by quibbles / of ministers and schools / knotted secure." The "worship of document" seals off humanity from a direct experience of nature, even as the "reductionists" mount an attack on "within." For Lansing the experience of nature and the experience of "within" are inseparable; as Lansing puts it in "Stanzas Of Hyparxis, "How far out you go / it is within." In "Erasmus Darwin's Generous Light" unmediated contact with nature is demanded in concert with a proclamation of the infinite nature of within: "within within / all & everything." Here is Emerson's rich ambiguity. Salutary contact with nature is immediate, but ultimately that contact takes place within; it is a product of the creative imagination and cannot be acquired through the filter of document and fossilized text. The imagination must generate fresh roots/routes through nature or come to see nature as "nothing but pages."

For Lansing, nature too exhibits the qualities of creative imagination. In section IV of The Soluble Forest, we find "the crown of a tree flourishes the idea of its root." The most intimate contact with nature is like that between lovers, as in "Perianth": "By far the best farmers / lovers are / whose bodies glisten in the light they make." By the end of this poem the language becomes explicitly sexual. The word "perianth" is used, the speaker informs us, "to remind me of the floral unity of love." To meet nature on its own erotic terms is orgasmic: "we double on ourselves the world / when our bodies shoot / and the heavens open." In terms of Lansing's doctrine of nature, it makes no sense to ask if this encounter is real or entirely subjective. What counts is that humans encounter nature "in the light they make," and that we "double on ourselves the world." The "two," having emerged from "the void of no-thing" find their nexus in the creative imagination. In "The Castle of Flowering Birds," we encounter a group of birds "dumb with feeling." The observation of these birds leads the speaker to an encounter with the passionate soul of nature:

The company of love,
Safe in the garden that is themselves,
More ghost than garden, more brute than bird,
Acclaim the throbbing animal,
The beastly petals green with blood.

The birds are in the "garden that is themselves" and that is more "ghost" than garden. Yet the speaker has access to their world through the power of his imagination to the extent that we cannot help but sense a strong note of affirmation in the last two lines. We are all "throbbing animals" encountering each other and the world on the plane of the imagination, but the encounter is no less intense because of this.

Lansing's view of the interrelations between nature and the imagination is also much like the views inherent in the Magick of Aleister Crowley. For Crowley the universe is ultimately subject to the powers of humanity. "Man is capable of being, and using, anything which he perceives; for everything that he perceives is in a certain sense a part of his being. He may thus subjugate the whole Universe of which he is conscious to his individual Will." In Lansing's poetry there are moments when nature seems to offer to consciousness a power that is on the very brink of the unattainable. For example, the speaker of "In Northern Earth," meditating on nature in a graveyard, states the following:

Dissolve, coagulate, the chemists say:
but the first darkness blinds the human eyes
that climb the ladder of the visionary spinal chord to issue in
                                                                     the thousand-petalled sun.

It is possible for human consciousness to "climb" the "visionary spinal chord" to the "thousand-petalled sun." (The allusions here are to Kundalini yoga, a form of yoga heavily reliant on intensive use of the creative imagination.) The ascent of the "ladder" is in no way guaranteed and must be wrested from a nature that normally "dissolves" consciousness at death, and "darkness blinds the human eyes" of even the most accomplished "climber." The struggling mage must conquer nature to win the final visionary state. This is also the case in one of Lansing's best known poems, "The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward." In this poem those who bury the dead "must from the grave / establish a habit." In order to "rise again," the dead are buried "in fetal position / knees pulled up to chin." What is interesting is that the motion of rising is opposite to the movement of the "Heavenly Tree." The quest for any type of immortality must be won from nature through a kind of ritual, or rite.

The writing/riting of poetry is for Lansing a testing of the human imagination against the creative and destructive powers of nature and the universe. It is the most serious of games and should only be played by those who would risk everything, but for those, there are worlds to gain. As we hear in "The Cutting of the Lotus," in the depths of nature "water and mud are not separated." There is a god there whose utterance is the creation of his own light: "The words tumbled from all the mouths of the god at once. He rubs himself with his utterance. He shines." This god is a poet.

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