Connecting with Elizabeth Spires’ “Ensō”

by Anna Schuurmans  ·  April 22, 2019

Elizabeth Spires’ poem “Ensō”,  published in Vol. 18, No. 2 edition of Five Points, details the characteristics of a zen circle. The poem is short, only 25 lines, but its message is powerful.

For me, the description of a zen circle is secondary to the true meaning of this poem: the identification of our identities. Beyond our common definition as human beings, what defines us? What makes us who we are? What makes each and every one of us unique?

These questions plagued my thoughts after my first reading of the piece, as I have been experiencing some of these issues myself lately. I have been struggling with my own multicultural identity, as I was born and (mostly) raised in France but both my parents are foreigners. I speak English, French, and Dutch fluently but have never felt like I truly belonged in France.

“Ensō” is a whole journey towards self-identification, and that is why I chose to comment on it; I love it when the poet writes “An oval. An oblong. / An orb. Lopsided.” (lines 6-7) simply because it is as if there were classifications inside the drawing of zen circles. I interpreted it as a reflection of the classification of humans on earth, all of them human beings; the color of their skin or their socio-economic status differentiating them from being “An oval” or “An oblong.”

The poet then continues on to write that it was done in an instant: “one brushstroke, / it’s done.” (lines 10-11). There, the drawing of a zen circle is finished, and the shape of it determines the classification as an oval- or an oblong-shaped item. In correlation with that, I believe humans are classified the same way, in an instant: if you are born in a certain socio-economic class, it may be easier for you to participate in what the best that mankind has to offer, according to your peers and family; whereas it may be difficult for some to even participate in human society due to isolating factors such as a lack of residence or money. This is bleak.

Are some humans destined to stay stuck in the same place they were born into? Is “social mobility” a reality? I believe it is.

The socio-economic class I was born into may have shaped some of what I am, such as a capacity to differentiate people who are rich in adventures and knowledge and people who are only rich with money and status. It is sad to think that in the twenty-first century, there is an increase in the rift between the very rich people who keep getting richer and the poor people, whose lives can just about be defined as surviving.

Consequently, it is important to keep in mind that no matter where you stand in the world we all have the same destination: death. That was for me the climatic point of the poem: we all die in the end and our identities will no longer matter. Whether you are of a particular country, society, community, religious group, social status, economic status: it does not matter. There is no avoiding death. Some of us will become legends, recalled either fondly or with animosity, but all people will die eventually.

This poem gives me hope, however, thanks to the last few lines of it: “In the center of/ this one : a dot./Self-portrait/of what I am/ and am not.” (lines 20-25). We are defined in part by where we start in life, but it is up to us whether we stay there or strive for better.

I believe that is something to keep in mind: Make yourself better. Every day of your life, try to distance yourself from where you started and imagine at what your best self would be like. Aim for it.

Anna Schuurmans is a 22-year-old international exchange student from France. Reading books and watching motorsports are her two passions. She hopes to make a career in either editing or motorsports.


Image credit: Pixabay and Creative Commons.