Permanent Impermanence

Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce


(This is a revised and expanded version of an essay published in Last Word on Nothing, April 29, 2022.)


Like many poets, indeed many artists of all media, I am strongly drawn to nature, both as a source of imagery and a provoker of emotion. It is my belief that humans stand in a peculiar relation to nature: We are clearly part of it and yet our consciousness sets us at the same time outside of it. Among other things, this situation has led us to a sense of alienation from nature, which in turn has allowed us to see nature as a resource to be exploited, on the one hand, or as a home to return to, to merge with.


The latter animates my favorite English poem, "Ode to a Nightingale," by John Keats. As he listens to the melodious song of the nightingale, the poet longs to taken out of the world of aging and death, wishing to become one with the bird and its melody. His longing rises as he contemplates the bird's seeming immortality that he would himself take on, "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!" Keats imagines that the nightingale's song is the same heard by the Bible's Ruth "amid the alien corn" and that it has sounded through the ages. Then the word "forlorn" tolls like a bell reminding the poet that he will die and cease to hear while the bird's song continues through eternity. The extreme impermanence of human existence is contrasted with the nightingale's apparent immortality.


In our time of degraded nature, poisoned and choked bodies of water, and climate change, however, nature suddenly appears to be exceedingly fragile and endangered. This state is what my poem "Assateague" addresses. The sand itself constantly shifts, reminding us that barrier islands are constantly changing shape and size, are extremely vulnerable to the sea level rises that come with warming oceans. The speaker is uncertainly rooted, aware of far off storms intensified by climate changes, and only maintains a tentative stance.



The waves curl in and lave the shore,

drop their cargo of shells and polished glass,

then withdraw, clawing back the sand.

Sanderlings scatter, poke and pick, flee

incoming waves, chase them back out,

reverse, repeat.

I stand on spongy sand, solid enough

if a bit shaky, sea foam washing my feet.

Somewhere to the south on this overheating

planet, the ocean is boiling up, surging

under the lash of fierce cyclonic winds.

But for now I'm safe on the margin,

feet drawn into the restless sand.

"Katydids," on the other hand, does offer some small hope in its reminder that these insects have been sounding in the summer night air for time immemorial and may go on for a long time into the future.



Katydids' rattle
rises above crickets' rasp
this mid-August night.
It was ever thus
in dwindling summer, evenings

I have heard katydids my entire life and only recently realized that they were not another kind of cricket. One night in Arlington a few years ago I paused below a tree right in front of my apartment building and suddenly heard their chirping as "katy-did katy-did."

Similarly, the slow darkening of a late spring evening can seem to both suspend time and evoke its endless forward movement while simultaneously making the past present.


Dusk, Late May

This is the hour

of catbirds—broken songs deep

within the branches


Hour of crows—churning

the air, imprinting inkblots

on the slate-blue sky.


Hour of starlings— dark

shimmer, dropping fast like leaves

onto waiting trees.


Hour of stillness—

the wind drops to soft breath

ruffling grass like hair.


Hour of regret—time

timeless, suspended, voices

call from distant past.


(First published in Barren, January 18, 2021.)


Indeed, one could say that the purpose of art is to celebrate as well as rue the impermanent nature of existence. An artist discovers an image or a sound, or a phrase, and holds it up for contemplation. A work of art, whether poem. picture, musical composition, or any other form, captures a moment of perception or imagination, and gives it longevity, if not permanence. A true artistic production sincerely and thoughtfully crafted outlives its creator.


A Picture of Flowers

perfectly fixed

           in their moment

of ripeness

           dead now

before the artist

           also dead now

intimate and near

           and distant

as the dead stars

whose light I see

at this moment


(Originally published in Mad Rush, Issue 1.)


Dharma and modern physics both describe a universe in flux, moment succeeding moment and in constant movement. As the Buddha says "Ardently do today what must be done. Who knows? Tomorrow, death comes." The artist offers a temporary respite from the relentless flow of time.


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Gregory Luce | Scene4 Magazine

Gregory Luce is a Senior Writer and columnist for Scene4.
He is the author of four books of poetry, has published widely in print and online and is the 2014 Larry Neal Award winner for adult poetry, given by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Retired from National Geographic, he is a volunteer writing tutor/mentor for 826DC, and lives in Arlington, VA. More at: https://dctexpoet.wordpress.com/
For his other columns and articles in Scene4
check the Archives

©2022 Gregory Luce
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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