Jamie McKendrick, “The Carved Buddha”

The Carved Buddha


Within the lotus bud of sandalwood that needs
to be pried open by a thumbnail the Buddha sits
cross-legged on a flower exuding the odour of resin
under a light coating of gold leaf.

It belonged to Mrs Ogilvie from Aberdeen;
when she opened the perfect fit of the upper lid
I knew that nothing made by the hand of man
could hold a candle to it. Its beauty blazed

but quietly, a tiny inexhaustible thing.
I instantly forgot the ban on brazen
idols, and remembered the mustard seed.

You could not guess what the small plain
capsule concealed, and when you saw
you guessed another light burnt from within.


I find this sonnet a remarkable achievement, beautiful, haunting and unsettling in ways that are sometimes easy to set down but ultimately rather mysterious. Like Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, or like the Buddha in its sandalwood capsule, it achieves an extraordinary sense of vastness within its small spaces. I should probably simply leave its blazes of imaginative power, its huge, smooth changes of gear and the feline subtleties of the speaker’s tone to speak for themselves but analysis brings its own pleasure.

I said “spaces” rather than “space” because one of the things that makes the poem work so well is how formed its separate stanzas are, how strong the sense of coming to a point of rest and completion at the end of each one is. In the first quatrain this is achieved partly by making the stanza a single measured sentence, involving what Yeats called “a complete coincidence between period and stanza”. Within that sentence there’s an intricate play of phonetic echoes and contrasts that it would be redundant to explore in detail. There’s also a very subtle form of couplet rhyming which I’m sure works on us even if we don’t consciously notice it. This is a rhyming not of sounds but of parts of speech – the two verbs “needs” and “sits” followed by the two nouns “resin” and “leaf”. But these words are just the completion of larger echoes – the whole phrase “sandalwood that needs” is balanced and completed by “the Buddha sits” and “odour of resin” by “coating of gold leaf”.

Having set our expectations to the idea of the stanza as a unit of thought, McKendrick gives this pattern a magical twist at the end of the second quatrain. The coherence of the stanza is proclaimed by the rhyme scheme, with its alternating half rhymes – “-deen”, “lid”, “man”, “blazed” and by what you might call the self-sufficiency of the thought. It’s also given definition as a unit by having a different rhyme scheme to the previous stanza – rhyming by sound instead of parts of speech and in an abab pattern instead of in couplet pairs. The second half of line eight doesn’t need anything added to it to make a powerful statement. The whole stanza seems complete, rounded, shapely, sufficient in itself, but instead of stopping there McKendrick goes on. The effect, it seems to me, is to make that extraordinary gear change to “but quietly” feel like a new beginning.

With the two tercets that complete the poem McKendrick returns to the coincidence between period and stanza. The way the second both starts and finishes a thought is obvious.

Emphasis on the stanzas as self-contained units creates imaginative space, inviting us to linger over each in turn, enjoying their sounds and the precision of their phrasing, slowing our reading down in a way that lets us take in the rapidly moving, multiple suggestions that shimmer within them. However, even as we focus closely on one stanza at a time a larger pattern is forming at the back of our minds. Rhymes link the stanzas or call across from one stanza to another. I won’t work through them in detail but it’s obvious that some of the rhymes between stanzas are stronger than the rhymes within them – “blazed” and “brazen”, the reverse rhyme of “need” and “-deen” and the further rhyme with “seed”, for example. It seems to me that the co-existence of these complementary patterns is another thing that gives the poem its imaginative largeness, its sense of working on our perceptions in many different ways at once.

Contrasts of tone and the co-presence of different, contrasting imaginative worlds are vital too. The idea of the tiny box containing the Buddha parallels the old metaphor of poem as container, a house of as many rooms as there are stanzas, or lines or images. No, that’s too abstract. When I read this poem, everything it says about the tiny box and the Buddha seems to describe the experience of the reading itself, of vast ideas and rapidly changing feelings unrolling shining out of the small box of the poem.

I’ll just jot down a few of the different directions we’re pulled in, the different worlds we cross as we read.

One contrast is between different poetic styles. Those intricate patterns of sound that I’ve mentioned create a sense of lyrical beauty that fits with the religious subject and express the speaker’s wonder. They are set against a quite different tone of prosaic literalism: “pried open by a thumbnail” and “It belonged to Mrs Ogilvie from Aberdeen”. The interplay is elusive and open-ended – for one reader, the prosaic details will act as a foil to the lyrical beauty, giving it sharper definition. For another, the same contrast will ground the lyricism and religious feeling in actuality, make them more solidly and really a part of the world we know. For another it will ironically undercut the lyricism. I think it does all those things, keeping the whole experience alive and unsettled in our minds.

There’s a subliminal play on words that makes the poem’s statements shimmer not with double meanings but with fleeting suggestions of additional meanings behind the main ones. “Light” and “leaf” both seem to me to work in this way. Literally, of course, “under a light coating of gold leaf” is an exact physical description of the decoration of the carving. This meaning stays solidly in our minds, but others bud off it as flickering mental presences: on the one hand a metaphorical or spiritual image of the Buddha as clothed in light (which, after all, is what the gold leaf is there to suggest), on the other humorous associations of light clothing and DIY house painting. And the double meaning of “leaf” subliminally links it with the bud and the flower, so that we see the Buddha in the forest. But perhaps I’m making this sound too solemn. There’s also –as so often in McKendrick’s work – a sense of sheer play, a puckish relishing of these verbal coincidences, the biggest of which, after all, is the way “bud” is contained within “Buddha”.  And of course delight in that isn’t confined to the coincidence itself. There’s an aesthetic pleasure in contemplating the way the relationship of the words “bud” and “Buddha” is the mirror image of the relationship between the things – the word “Buddha” contains the word “bud”, the physical “bud” contains the Buddha. I think it plays on ideas of God as at once the heart of the world and containing it, but I’ll leave that thought to the side for now.

I said “It belonged to Mrs Ogilvie from Aberdeen” was a prosaic line. I was referring to its factualism and lack of sonic patterning but in context, in contrast with the more lyrical lines, it takes on an evocativeness and poetry of its own, suggesting an atmosphere, bringing echoes of the Aberdonian accent, setting her Scottish interior against the Eastern outdoors of lotus flowers and gilded statues, making us wonder who Mrs Ogilvie is, how she obtained the carving, and in the next line why the speaker was with her being shown the tiny treasure. Tiny film clips of the scene seem to flash in our minds. We see their two heads bending over it before in a flash moving into the interior world of the speaker’s wonder at what he sees.

References to different religions extend the imaginative field of the poem in different directions. Complementing the Buddhist carving there are Christian and Judaic references. I’m not sure how specific the allusion to the banning of brazen idols is – there are various denunciations of such idolatry in the Old Testament – but the reference to the mustard seed echoes the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew; in Matthew’s version of the parable

The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field:

Which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.

Poems think for themselves and think in conversation with other poems. Whether McKendrick had this specifically in mind or not, “Nothing made by the hand of man / could hold a candle to it” ignites with a moment in Robert Lowell’s “Beyond the Alps” when he contemplates the impact of the Pope’s making Mary’s assumption into heaven a part of Catholic dogma – “The lights of science couldn’t hold a candle / to Mary risen – at one miraculous stroke”. McKendrick’s poem reaches out for Lowell’s and a force field is created between them setting up a flow of thoughts which will vary from reader to reader.

I’ll say no more about that now because I really have been murdering to dissect. But there’s one more thing I want to mention as contributing to the poem’s sense of largeness and that’s an ingenious feature of how it’s made. It emphasises the powerful shifts of gear that I’ve mentioned. As the poem develops it seems to change genre. We start with a timeless, placeless contemplative stanza that seems like the opening of a meditation – something that will be structured like any number of sonnets, the kind that essentially tell us about what the subject of the poem – in many sonnets that would be the poet’s mistress is and what it or she means to the poet. The second and third stanzas shift to narrative, like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” (changing gear almost instantly from the anecdotal triviality of “it belonged to Mrs Ogilvie from Aberdeen” to a tone of awe befitting an experience of life-changing intensity). And then there’s another striking shift, from the I point of view to a you that pulls the reader in imaginatively. Approaching the subject from such different angles it’s almost as if we were reading three poems at once.

And the more I think about it the more Shelley’s “Ozymandias” seems to me an imaginative presence in the poem, so that the vastness in a tiny space of the miniature Buddha contrasts with the nothingness of the gigantic statue of Ozymandias, the modesty and selflessness of the Buddha with the vaunting arrogance of the Pharaoh:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.


I would like to thank Jamie McKendrick for giving me permission to post his sonnet with my comments. He hasn’t seen what I’ve written, or discussed the poem with me. I can only hope I haven’t misinterpreted it or overinterpreted it too grossly.

You can find links to my reviews of McKendrick’s Anomaly, Selected Poems and Out There by clicking on the titles.

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