by Tanya Mykhaylychenko
I discovered Hakuin Ekaku’s poem “The Monkey is Reaching” in a thin Zen Koan book I picked up at The Word bookstore in Montreal, shortly before leaving the city. While several other used bookstores changed locations or got forced out by landlords in favor of more lucrative tenants in recent years, The Word has been on Milton Street for decades, since the 1970s.
I had often come to bookstores to let a book find me: a collection of Glenn Gould interviews once fell into my hands while I was reaching for something else; I picked up a very old copy of Emerson’s essays from a $1 shelf by the door on my way out; I took with me every book about Alfred Pellan I ever saw; and I opened a book of poems by Saint–Denys Garneau on “Lassitude”, my exact feeling on that day. A chance encounter, the company of a voice I did not actively seek yet invited fully into my hours of that day. An act of playfulness, a quest for a word of wisdom. Will a random page remind me that another human has already felt what I was feeling? Will a random page shed some light on my inner musings?
At The Word, the poetry stall in the back of the room was my casino. If I did not know what book I wanted or if I had found what I wanted and could welcome a surprise, I would go there and touch a few thin volumes in the anticipation of a discovery of a poet unknown to me. Zen Koan was my find on one of my last days in the city. Thoughts of measuring the work that was done and undone to get to a new place, weighing what I remembered of home, marveling at the potential of last-minute encounters – all crowding in the mind, knocking on doors of memory and hope.
The poem reads:
The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.
I revisit it many times since my first reading of it. Often when I linger on my wishes and visions that occupied my mind and motivated my choices for years—but have not come to pass—I recite to myself the opening line: The monkey is reaching for the moon in the water. Often when thinking about the pureness of resignation and presence in the moment of the ongoing life, I think about Agnes Martin’s paintings and writings.
“In my best moments I think ‘Life has passed me by’ and I am content.”
“Walking seems to cover time and space but in reality we are always just where we started. I walk but in reality I am hand in hand with contentment on my own doorstep.”
“I believe in living above the line. Above the line is happiness and love.… Below the line is all sadness and destruction and unhappiness. And I don’t go down below the line for anything.”
Much has been written about Martin, particularly since her major retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2016. In 1967, she left New York and stopped painting until 1974 when she returned to art with a new vision of horizontal stripe painting. In 1984, at the age of 72, she became a property owner in New Mexico. Much was let go to achieve the quality of these later works – the stillness and purity of expression. Her works are often named after the emotion felt and evoked: Tranquility, Benevolence, Gratitude, Innocent Love, Early Morning Happiness.
An older woman at the 2016 Guggenheim exhibition meets my eye after I see the painting Friendship (1963) for the first time. Gold leaf stands out from other works in its abundance and brilliance, generosity and glow. Her look says, This is it, isn’t it? We exchange affirmative glances, kindness, a soft smile. We both seem to acknowledge the inspiration, quietude, and gratitude in the air on the spiral floors that December day – and our being in the world at that very moment, presence and the fleeting encounter.
“[…] you find out that failures are inevitable. That you cannot possibly, none of us, you can’t even draw a straight line.”
I put my face very close to the corner of one of her watercolors – thin double lines in black ink holding the soft color stripes, slight imperfections in the vastness of patience and care. On another visit to New York, I sit down in the Agnes Martin room at MoMA, without so much looking at the paintings as simply sitting in their presence. I go to the library at the National Gallery of Canada and exercise my patience with old computers to access her catalog raisonné (645 works), watching pictures load as they did in the early days of dial-up internet, marvelling at the unseen color shades and arrangements or the density of lines, sometimes counting the rows or stipes. I spot her painting Untitled # 12 (1981) on loan at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts one humid August day and rush toward it across the room, this being the only time I see her work on display in a Canadian museum.
Achieving simplicity and purity of being is life’s work. James Baldwin said in a 1984 Paris Review interview, “You learn how little you know. It becomes much more difficult because the hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had. You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.” He was 60. To touch order and balance through decades of practice in abstraction, write a clean line for an idea you have lived your whole life with, or even out the eagerness in matters of love and homemaking takes infinite instances of letting go. When I am stilled by a tone of words or a pure visual expression, I take it as a gift of deep time. A monk, a painter, a writer – from any point in history – are there to tap my hand lightly with a reminder to stop trying, then begin again.
Tanya Mykhaylychenko is an art enthusiast who works in career services.