By ROBERT SAXTON.
SIX-WAY MIRROR IS CONCEIVED as a poem rather than as a collection of poems. However, this does not imply that the reader is expected to progress through the work in page order in the usual way. The structure of the poem is panoptic: there is no line of narrative or logic requiring a linear approach. No doubt, as with a collection, many readers will be inclined to be selective, delving at random within the text, or focusing on specific topics that attract their interest. Some may prefer to read conventionally, from the beginning. However, for the guidance of any who would like to try reading systematically in the spirit of the fictive principle that underlies the poem, a set of 64 hexagrams is attributed to 64 headings in a manner that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the I Ching.
Following the customary usage of that ancient Chinese text, the reader is invited to toss three coins six times, using the resulting permutations of heads and tails to cast a hexagram—a graphic figure of six horizontal lines in a vertical stack. In certain circumstances, as described below, the hexagram thus derived will yield a secondary hexagram alongside it. Each hexagram, linked to a specific theme, directs the reader toward a particular section of the poem with which he or she then engages.
The content and intention of Six-way Mirror have little relation to the I Ching. This was not planned as a work of divination or spiritual wisdom; and no attempt is made to generate a Chinese atmosphere. Accordingly, the method of approaching the work suggested below does not mimic I Ching procedure precisely: indeed it departs radically from the classic method after the initial hexagram has been cast. For anyone who wishes to read more of the poem than one or two of the 64 sections, my method takes a turn towards the numerological, following a simple practice that is quicker and less tiresome than repeated coin throwing. From this point onward your reading is shaped not by chance but by a pathway encoded into each of the hexagrams like DNA. You unfold this pathway by working with a chart, such as the one above, which serves also as a quick-reference index for the hexagrams, directing you to the numbered sections (cantos) of the poem.
To readers who wonder why they should go to the trouble of casting a hexagram and then following a chart, rather than dipping into the poem serendipitously or reading it all the way through, I offer the following response, articulated from the heart of the project.
When an arrangement of passages for reading is made by a procedure that incorporates the operation of chance, the result will be a specific text for that particular reader at that particular time. In this case, if the method is applied to all 64 sections, a distinctively ordered version of the whole poem will be created. Or if the method is applied to fewer sections, a poem within the poem is revealed: a micro poem within the macro. The macro poem is conceived as a holistic organism, not as a linear sequence, and this gives authenticity to a ‘cutting’: it is hoped that any segment, or series of segments, will partake of the vitality of the whole.
Six-way Mirror has been devised as a territory, not a journey. Thought has been given to the order of themes: in fact, they form in themselves a kind of mirror, whose reflective surface falls at the half-way point (32/33). However, the thematic organisation, with its 64 numbered sections, is intended to function like a grid on a map: it helps you to navigate; it has no substantive significance.
In the absence of a single prescribed route, a reader given licence to roam, without an itinerary, would surely be entitled to feel somewhat abandoned. Inevitably, chance played a large part in the writing; on the other hand, the poem’s subject, in part, is the logic of cause and effect, in a variety of circumstances. A reading method that in a precise way brings together chance and causation, even if the reader exercises his or her right not to follow it, is integral to the enterprise as a whole. This method is not a courteous afterthought gifted by the poet to the reader but a quasi-neurological system that has made poetic thought possible in the first place.
Browsing freely within the book would also, it is true, bring causative factors into play, but they would be elusively personal to the reader, or elusively circumstantial, or a mysterious mixture of the two. There is infinite scope for the subjective in the reader’s response to Six-way Mirror. Hence, the rest of this introduction is taken up with proposing a reading method that excludes the subjective and narrows down the circumstantial to comprehensible limits.
Casting a hexagram
YOU BEGIN BY TOSSING three coins, all together, six times. After each of the six triple tosses you contribute a line to the hexagram, building it up from the bottom. The line will be either broken (yin) or unbroken (yang) according to the permutation of heads and tails shown by the throw:
2 heads, 1 tail unbroken((_________ ……———
3 heads, _ ]_………unbroken (changing line)…———
2 tails, 1 head–)-.–.-broken((___________ …__—- —-
3 tails, _ ____–)-.–.-broken (changing line)…__—- —-
If your hexagram includes any changing lines, you draw a second hexagram alongside it. This supplementary hexagram is identical to the first, except that the changing lines are transformed into their opposites—broken where the first hexagram has unbroken, and vice versa.
Here is an example of how a particular set of throws results in a primary hexagram with a supplementary hexagram alongside (since the second and fifth throws have prompted changing lines):
6th throw: 2 h + 1 t …..——–((_______……..——–
5th throw: 3 h _ }}……——– (changing)……— —
4th throw: 2 t + 1 h……— —((_______,,,,,,,,,,— —
3rd throw: 2 t + 1 h,,,,,,,,— —((_______……..— —
2nd throw: 3 h _ }}……——– (changing)….,,— —
1st throw: 2 h + 1 t……,——–((_______……——–
Selecting and reading a canto
THE POEM IS ORGANISED into 64 numbered cantos, each of which comprises a rubric (almost all of these are imaginary quotations), a preamble and seven numbered stanzas (paragraphs).
Having cast your first hexagram for a reading session, consult the hexagram index chart below (or on the last page of the book) to find the numbered canto to which it refers.
The upper trigrams (three-line figures) of the hexagrams are arranged along the horizontal axis and the lower trigrams along the vertical axis. With the help of the numbering sequence (in lieu of page numbers), turn to the relevant canto in the book and begin your reading. Read the whole canto—rubric, preamble and all seven stanzas. Then, if your hexagram included one or more changing lines, read the stanzas that correspond to those particular lines a second time, with additional concentration: these are, as it were, the foreground features of the canto, expressing a primary meaning. (Remember that ‘1st’ means the first line you drew, which is the one at the bottom of the hexagram; and that ‘6th’ is the top line.) It is unlikely that all six lines in your hexagram will be changing lines, but if they are, the foreground meaning is to be found in the last stanza, entitled ‘All six’.
Next, if you have cast a second hexagram based on the changing lines in the first, look up the corresponding canto in the same way. Again, give extra emphasis in your reading to the lines that have changed.
Continuing the reading
TO DETERMINE YOUR route for further reading, consult the hexagram index chart again and re-locate within its grid the number of the canto to which your first hexagram directed you. From that square count off seven further squares, proceeding horizontally from left to right. If you reach the right-hand edge of the grid, make a 180-degree turn, downwards, and continue your count along the adjacent row beneath, in the opposite direction. The seventh square you land on, after jumping the six-square interval, directs you to the next canto for reading. Continue in this way, plotting your route through the grid and reading, in their entirety, each of the cantos whose squares you land on. Turn 180 degrees downwards at the left-hand edge of the grid whenever you encounter it and double back as before. Your pathway will be continuous until you reach the end of the grid (bottom corner square): at that point jump up vertically to the top and continue your counting, whether to the left or to the right, along the top row.
If you happen to land again on the supplementary hexagram, whose corresponding canto you will have read already, use it merely as a stepping stone from which to execute a further seven-square leap; do not re-read the text for that hexagram unless you particularly wish to.
Concluding the reading
THE ADVANTAGE OF LEAPING repeatedly over six squares to land on the seventh is that you will be able to do this uninterruptedly for seven circuits of the grid, covering all its squares without ever landing on the same square twice. If your aim is to read a complete version of the macro poem (all 64 cantos), this is a neat procedure to follow.
If you prefer to commit less time to your reading and confine yourself to one of the micro poems, you might find this more satisfying if you decide on the number of cantos in the micro poem beforehand. I would suggest you take six as a suitable number—or twelve, or eighteen. Or you might decide to complete a single circuit of the grid, since this will give you a satisfying ten cantos (not counting any supplementary canto if your initial hexagram yielded changing lines). All these extents are to be taken as authorised micro poems.
However, there is no reason why you should not go off-piste and devise your own unauthorised micro poem of a different extent, using any permutation of the coin-throwing and numerological methods, or any other method you might choose to invent for yourself.
(Of course, with the grid method, instead of progressing rightwards and downwards you could, if you wish, work leftwards and upwards, or upwards and leftwards, or in any other direction available to you. These options might be of interest if you wish to explore alternative versions of a micro or macro poem, all starting from the same hexagram.)
The changing lines
IN THE SUGGESTED procedure described above, the changing lines have a part to play only at the start of the reading. However, another (hereby authorised) approach to Six-way Mirror would be to use coin throwing to generate a handful of hexagrams—let’s say three, which after all may possibly yield twice that number if changing lines appear. Given the narrower focus provided by three to six cantos, or even four to eight, you are more likely to derive an additional layer of interest from the foregrounding of the changing lines, as previously described. It is in short, concentrated readings, and particularly divinatory readings, that the changing lines come into their own. For those open-minded about chance, intuition and destiny, and the possible connections between them, it might be fruitful to experiment with the poem as an instrument—a mirror—for oracular introspection in the manner of the I Ching. I lay no claim to clairvoyant talents. But if a tree does not know how to dance, the wind will sometimes teach it.
Robert Saxton was born in Nottingham in 1952 and lives in north London, where he works as a freelance editor and writer. He is the author of six books of poetry published prior to Six-way Mirror: from Enitharmon, The Promise Clinic (1994); from Carcanet/OxfordPoets, Manganese (2003), Local Honey (2007) and Hesiod’s Calendar (2010); and from Shearsman, The China Shop Pictures (2012).
In 2001 he won the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association’s poetry prize for ‘The Nightingale Broadcasts’. His latest book, Six-way Mirror is a prose poem borrowing its structure from the I Ching. It comprises 64 sections, each addressing a universal theme, from “The Mirror” to “The Book”. The first nine of these sections are published on the pages that follow, preceded by the book’s Introduction.
Here, as an alternative to conventional reading, the author invites you to discover your own pathway through the poem by throwing coins to cast a hexagram, which directs you to your starting point; subsequent sections are selected with the help of a hexagram chart. The author has made the book available in paperback as a self-publishing enterprise, under his new Angle Shades Press imprint – the name comes from a species of moth, which is mentioned in the poem. Details may be found on the poet’s website, here.