Fox News and Rick Perry have stirred the pot again — complaining about the growing pluralism in the United States, and consequently how wishing folks “Happy Holidays” is a sign of western society’s decadence and decay… Hmmm… I’m not sure about that. Or — let me re-phrase that. I am sure that the minions of conservatism feel utterly under assault and that they fear a world in which ‘spirituality’ cannot be controlled and manipulated to their powerful advantage. Having cleared that up, however, I’d like to propose a parallelism to this commotion that’s apparent in the very gospel record account of Jesus’ birth.
What I suggest is that the words of King Herod (quoted above) are similar to the words of those who make cynical use of Christianity. These contemporary Herodians in effect abuse that testimony of the first century Christians and attempt to mandate a faith commitment that is thereby reduced and whittled down to the least common denominator. Soren Kierkegaard with many of his pseudonymous works and his Attack Upon Christendom had this dynamic pegged back in 19th century Denmark. Those who attempt to “get fat off the blood of Christ” do the genuine transmission of the Jesus narrative no favors. On the contrary, by removing the offense and by trying to instill in all others (from agnostics to zoroastrians) an inferiority complex, my claim is that the propagators of a one-monolithic civil religion are the heirs of Herod himself.
Of course, the ante-dote for the rambling rhetoric is sometimes difficult to come by. Bill O’Reilly is so inflammatory (in the self-promotionally, narcissistic sense that an arsonist might be inflammatory) — railing away at all the Gas ‘N Go’s. Sean Hannity has a ubiquitous kind of cowardice about him — like the time he vowed to get ‘water-boarded’ and show us all how it wasn’t torture (and then, of course, failed to keep his promise).
Phew! Smell those fumes. Plus, there’s the latest morning trio of ventriloquist-puppets on the network of Rupert Murdoch — the old Aussie who made phone-hacking standard journalistic protocol in Great Britain…
Yes, to truly celebrate the claims of Christmas in terms of the Incarnation of God – the Divine Other fully enfleshed as an ancient Palestinian Jew — an outcast — a peasant carpenter’s son — the off-spring of a teenager from Galilee — to really get at this mysterious stuff will not be easy. It’s nothing like Sunday School for toddlers or Catechism Class for those threatened with rulers (or bribed with expensive gifts) . A rite of passage in Christendom, where everyone who breaths the air is Christian, in no way corresponds to what believers in Jesus endured during the three or four decades after his crucifixion among many rebellious Jews of the time. And that’s kind of the point… when it comes to Christmas!
The actual date of Jesus’ birth — and even how that birth took place — is irrelevant to the essential stories that swirled around the Nazarene, most of which involved his activities (teaching & healing) after he turned 30 years old. And so, when the ratings gurus insist on keeping the “Christ in Christmas” — they fail to point out that neither the Apostle Peter, nor Paul, would argue the issue. Neither, it seems, would St. Augustine of Hippo (a fourth century African bishop):
He, through whom time was made, was made in time; and He, older by eternity that the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world; He, who made man, was made man; He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence; He was carried in hands which He formed; He nursed at breasts which He filled; He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!
Obviously — the author of The Confessions and The City of God has more to say on the paradoxical nature of the God-Man, Jesus. But, let’s be clear about what’s absurd here. It’s absurd and utterly ironic to declare that THE Uncreated Maker OF THE UNIVERSE can simultaneously exist as a human being, among a plethora of other organisms, all of which are made. And if a person is asked to agree with Augustine — or Martin Luther or John Calvin or Karl Barth or Mother Teresa — the onus should be on us. We should be among those who risk and who are put at risk. We, by virtue of the absurd truth-claim, must not turn what requires “faith seeking understanding” into a no-brainer, into banality at which the elite yawn and to which they say, “What else is new?”
I totally enjoy that scene from Talladega Nights, in which the Will Farrell character, Ricky Bobby, prays to the “baby Jesus” because he simply likes the eight pound infant-god best. I totally enjoy it, but my laughter may morph into tears if too many of the population don’t appreciate the humor. What’s so funny about that prayer is the domestication of the deity, the god who becomes a figment of our imagination and that’s all, the sacred saccharine-sweetness of sublime-sentimentality…
Ugh! Is that the matrix of our belief system? Is that what Christmas has become — a mere defense of how quaint the Bethlehem birth is?
Recently (the exact situation I will leave obscure) a person got upset with me for referring to the Bible as “boring.” This individual in my circle of acquaintances said something like, “Do we really have to disrespect the Bible?” He made this remark with a straight face as if to imply that if the Bible is perceived as exciting, that more people may believe it… that if the Bible shares the reputation of Charlie Sheen, who is always “WINNING,” that all unbelievers and skeptics will find every jot and tittle so compelling they will come to faith in droves… Again, I’m not so sure faith, or an authentic spiritual search, works like this.
Well, maybe the “homage” that Herod wants to pay works like this.
But that’s why the witness of Matthew’s Gospel tells the tale the way it does. The magi are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who is only interested in the foretold child because he wants to make use of him.
Please tell me that when we open presents and sing carols and drink egg nod that we are NOT playing his part perpetually in the world. Tell me the old, old story… But tell it with a life — your life — that’s put at odds with the culture-wars, with a life — your life — that can’t be sure, can’t be one-hundred percent-without-a-doubt, but certainly can be passionate about the mere possibilities:
-- By Wislawa Szymborska I prefer movies. I prefer cats. I prefer the oaks along the Warta. I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky. I prefer myself liking people to myself loving mankind. I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case. I prefer the color green. I prefer not to maintain that reason is to blame for everything. I prefer exceptions. I prefer to leave early. I prefer talking to doctors about something else. I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations. I prefer the absurdity of writing poems to the absurdity of not writing poems. I prefer, where love's concerned, nonspecific anniversaries that can be celebrated every day. I prefer moralists who promise me nothing. I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind. I prefer the earth in civvies. I prefer conquered to conquering countries. I prefer having some reservations. I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order. I prefer Grimms' fairy tales to the newspapers' front pages. I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves. I prefer dogs with uncropped tails. I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark. I prefer desk drawers. I prefer many things that I haven't mentioned here to many things I've also left unsaid. I prefer zeroes on the loose to those lined up behind a cipher. I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars. I prefer to knock on wood. I prefer not to ask how much longer and when. I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility that existence has its own reason for being.
I’ve Observed these Seasons from a Certain Hemisphere, but am Leaving the Premises
“the right hemisphere towards cohesion… the left hemisphere towards competition…”
–Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary
Mount Vesuvius erupts. Pompeii citizens die encased
in mud-flows and ash. Herculaneum is the sister city
where decomposed bodies also leave cavities. Loaves
of bread harden in ovens next to bakers on August 24th.
King Cyrus of Persia conquers Babylon. A few years
later and Jews, who’ve grown cozy in exile, may head
back to rebuild the Jerusalem temple. Messiah calls
the occupation Yehud. Vanity of vanities tops the charts.
Canned beer first goes on sale. With Prohibition over
and labor-costs cheap, the American Can Company coats
tin, pressurizes Gottfried Krueger’s creamy ale. To open
the heavy-gauge-steel top, consumers use church-keys.
The Civil War begins. Confederate batteries bombard
Fort Sumter’s five-foot thick walls for 34 hours. The
Pocahontas and Pawnee have already come and gone,
steaming supplies. Abner Doubleday’s first to return fire.
The Wadda Wurring people of aboriginal Australia push large basalt stones
into place, forming a vast oval near present-day Wurdi Youang, Victoria. As
they lift their heads toward the dark patches of night — everywhere Milky Way
stars are not — each child, woman and man spies the Great Emu, and knows it’s
the season to gather eggs (among other things). I’m telling you this not to be
smart, but because the Great Emu also bakes, builds, brews and bats left-handed.
The Retractions of Stories We Took As Truth: The Famed Psychiatrist Who Wanted Her Quintessential Case
There’s something disturbing about the truths that are being retracted in a seemingly constant flow.
For example, the famous case of Sybil, a person diagnosed with multiple personalities, has been debunked. Sybil didn’t have multiple personalities at all (she didn’t even know her multiplication tables). All of her personalities have been exposed as “fake,” and this revelation exposes an even greater revelation.
That is, Dr. Connie Wilbur, who discovered Shirley Mason (Sybil’s real name), had a passionate interest in the disorder and her patient, learning of that passion, presented for the psychiatrist what she wanted. The next thing you know, not only is old Jed a millionaire, but there’s a 1973 best-selling book and in 1976, a film, starring Patty Duke or maybe it was Sally Field. And then, consequently, we cannon avoid the torrent of copy-cat disorders — which produce, in turn, a statistical spike in multiple personality disorder.
Beautiful, isn’t it?
But what we have here is not, let it be understood, “a failure to communicate” a’la Cool Hand Luke, escaping from prison. What we have is a brilliance of interpersonal communication with the goal of authoring a 1970′s truth, which must be propped up and maintained like any human construction (or fabrication). A cover-up, which is interesting in prospect but not so much in consummation.
Ultimately, the issue is not why Shirley Mason did what she did — in suddenly delivering the goods and launching into a bunch of phony voices, etc. — but why Connie Wilbur WANTED her to, and essentially willed her ward into this splintered and fictitious mode of being in the world.
Wanting, of course, is not a straightforward topic. We are told repeatedly (or were told repeatedly) that the heart wants what it wants. And that these wants include men who are not our husbands, women who are not our wives… ahh… men who are not our wives, women who are not our husbands… as well as all that slick stuff that accompanies the sale of a valued commodity. If that commodity happens to be “Sybil,” so be it. What else are we going to do with our lives? (Don’t answer that just yet.)
How do you explain why elephants
appear to move their unwieldy hulks
with greater dignity than most humans do
in their finest moments,
as if they had evolved beyond wanting
anything but what they have? …
Have we made too much of our own?
And did you notice afterward the dawn
opening up with a tentative eagerness
as if there were something crucial to illumine,
as if we would wake up early just to see it? …
Once again I’d like to return to the theme of truths which have been retracted. There’s a trend if anyone’s paying attention — a veritable cycle in which we go with the spin of the immediate news flashes and then keep going until a book and a movie come out… At that point, so many people are making so much money, and living in a lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed, that the original story cannot fail. It’s too big to fail.
Then again, to paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is in the universe that does not like a lie. Something there is that will not tolerate a load of crap and will eventually sniff it out and break it back down into its constituent, organic parts. Something there is that will not leave Sybil lay dormant and unexposed forever.
The current story is that Shirley Mason, as disturbed as she was, moved into a home near Wilbur’s. She died in 1998. Whether or not she ever felt known is a matter of debate. But I will refrain from debating it here.
A fascinating possibility that we may consider, however, is as follows: What if those news items and factoids we cherish turn out to be utterly vacuous in a ten, twenty or thirty years? Does that mean, ipso facto, that these tall tales did not point elsewhere toward some deeper truth about ourselves and the cultures in which we are embedded? No. On the contrary, I think it means there is a truth to be found, or a truth that actually finds us…
In the short term, there are things to learn and to learn well about Dissociative Identity Disorder and the struggles of those who are born into a sort of mental wrestling match with angels and demons. These mythic ways of understanding or conceptualizing the trauma are useful at times. And yet, as we’ve seen there are myths like Hercules and Harry Potter and there are myths like the need for a quintessenital patient of our professional dreams… Beneath or beyond them, however, the dichotomies between healthy and unhealthy folks go away. The truth, that poets have known for quite some time, is we’re always ordering our disorders.
So, I’m helping to teach a class of undergraduate students, and on the book list for the series of lectures are both Moby-Dick and The Vagina Monologues, back to back, one week after the other… This, it seems, is the nature of survey courses in literature. When we’re dominated with male writers and want to throw in a token female, among a series of classics, the 10th anniversary edition of Eve Ensler‘s screenplay works well…
Then, of course, comes the snickering and the under-your-breath, sneaky asides, those remarks that play on the title-images. ”Moby Dick,” as you may know, is a whale. But when the proper name for a man’s phallus isn’t readily available, there’s always some dick nearby to get the word on the public record.
By contrast, it’s nice to hear a woman’s bare essential characterized with a little decorum on a book cover. (When my younger six-year-old son, however, first heard the word in casual conversation, he thought my wife and I said “China,” and proudly blessed his parents with this health education ditty: ”Boys have Penis. Girls have China.”)
At this juncture, you see, the reader may appropriately expect a transition. That is, a hinge or a bridge or a nexus by which one idea or theme or description links with the next. And yet, lo and behold! We’ve already experienced at least one transition in the parentheses in the prior paragraph: we went from books, to whales (not to mention great literary archetypes), to the phallus, to one of the female reproductive organs… to an up- and-coming economic powerhouse, the People’s Republic of China. Isn’t this awesome?
Transitions, like these, are often called intuitive or implicit, as opposed to logical or explicit. And I’d like to make the case that we need many more of the former to be bantered about in academia today. And if these types of obtuse turns seem too much trouble, you might stick to reading cereal boxes and directions for putting together some Ikea furniture (although have you seen the eclectic bookshelves that can be built with an Allen-wrench?).
I will admit to having some hugely embarrassing moments lately.
Like the time we were reading some Kokinshu love poems aloud. About twenty of us in a circle went round and round, reading these brief, five-lines pearls of delicate beauty, and here’s mine:
does the beribboned
cock of Meeting House share my
is it for love alone that
we raise our solemn voices
Now, please understand. I’m not always this immature when discussing Japanese poetry from the 9th century or so. And probably, if I had made the effort to speak the original language, the verse wouldn’t have done what it did, which was send me into a seizure of junior high giggles. Alas, where to go from here?
My sense of things — first hand experience as well as second hand literature — is to make this broad and sweeping claim: IT’S ALL ABOUT IDENTITY. Transitions happen in wild and wonderfully creative ways, given the fact that we engage various moment with a unitary frame of reference. We ourselves — I myself and you yourself — relate Moby-Dick and The Vagina Monologues and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida lying about when his parents moved from Cuba to Florida (not 1959, fleeing Castro, but 1956, two years prior to Castro coming to power). You see how painless that was?
Anyway [transitional word de jour] — here’s an identity soliloquy on the lips of Captain Ahab, coming all the way from chapter 132 of Melville’s novel:
What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not himself; but is as an errand boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does the beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I.
And, without further adieu, p. 87 of the Monologues:
I eventually named all the parts of my body. My hands–Gladys. They seemed functional and basic, like Gladys. I named my shoulders Shorty–strong and a little belligerent. My breasts were Betty. They weren’t Veronica, but they weren’t ugly either. Name my ‘down there’ was not so easy. It wasn’t the same as naming my hands. No, it was complicated. Down there was alive, not so easy to pinpoint. It remained unnamed and, as unnamed, it was untamed, unknown [sort of like Moby Dick].
I added that last part myself. Couldn’t resist.
Yes, yes, yes, for the sake of clarity and not blowing up the world and doing stupid acts of stupidity unto ourselves and unto others — some explicit, well-signaled moves are necessary!
Ah, but the identity which moves about the universe in the blink of an eye, aye, there’s the mystery that’s worth pursuing. Is it a great white whale, beneath whose blubber beats the eternal verities? Or is it the enigmatic parts of our anatomy, which send us wildly into the existentialist’s void?
Almost any transition can get you there.
Bob Hicok‘s poem, “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,” is playful — playful like that old toy that was entirely safe for toddlers. And yet, baam! The poet’s words are the stuff of revolution, although he probably wouldn’t admit to it:
I know a woman about to lose her house.
It’s not missing, she’s certain
where the water shutoff valve is
and which stair squeaks when she goes up
at ten to rise at four. I promised myself
I wasn’t going to do this, no one listens
to this kind of poem anyway,
it might as well be a sermon or the side
of a cereal box: ”The Lord
has heard my cry for mercy,” “contents
may have settled during shipping.” Now
she has to “Self-Store” her stuff
but doesn’t have the moolay to do so,
and her brother’s stuff from his repo’d house
is already in their mother’s basement, so she’s sold
what she can and given the rest away
or left it on the street for neighbors
to pick at through January. Ever watch
the woman who backed over your cat
hold one of your dresses
across her winter coat, pinning it
with her chin and turning
as if in a mirror before rejecting
your sunflowers, dropping them
into the curbside thaw and moving on
to a pair of black pumps she’d be a fool
to wear, given the apples of her ankles?
Now caption that image “Redistribution of Wealth“
and write down on a piece of paper
how you’d change the world. You never
have to show that paper to anyone, not even
yourself, the god you are inside or pimp, the ax
in case of, the glass, to break, if fire
is emergency, is now. It’s hard
being a Wobbly these days, like the head
of Marx if not the fist grafted on, there’s nowhere to go
to belt out “Look for the Union Label,”
an admittedly crappy, anachronistic song
I miss like I miss the sense
of being together in this, there was Rockefeller
and there was the rest of us, there was Aristotle
being right: we are political, we are animal,
we are lost.
I, of course, have no way of knowing if what we’ve just read (from pages 71 and 72 of Words For Empty and Words For Full) will even make a dent…
And yet, it’s worth believing that cyclical things like toys and social trends have a prophetic sort of feel to them.
That is, what we remember nearly sticking in our mouths — the dreaded oral fixation — may be what saves us in our old age. Weebles, unlike the Barbie and Ken Collection, have a future. Are you one of them? No one is asking you to choose up sides just yet… But the writing is on the wall of the proverbial dollhouse at Toys R Us (reverse that R). The majority are not able to own what once had been owned with no forethought by the biggest bailed-out banks. Moreover, the conflation of capitalism and democracy has failed to the degree that now veterans from the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan are lecturing the police, telling them not to brutalize those who peacefully protest in the streets. What is it that we want to say to the world at large? That the United States has promises you a good return on your investments? Or that this experiment in human freedom will risk the freedom of expression and the daring dialogue that all other empires of the past had shunned or shut out?
Apparently, the sun may not set in the west after all. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe may have been a cross-dressing dude. Apparently, Y2K did happen and we are presently living in a pseudo-fully-computerized matrix in which The Matrix Trilogy was like a decoy to throw us off the trail, and apparently Keanu Reaves is really an android as we suspected from his acting… And apparently there is some debate about who wrote MacBeth, Hamlet, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing — not to mention assorted sonnets like Sonnet 29 (which I will quote below)…
You may be shocked to find out, of course, that William Shakespeare may have merely taken credit for these works of art, and that the true author is an aristocrat, a person of means and property: Edward de Vere.
Huh? What’s gives?
Well, Roland Emmerich has made a film. And the film, to be released on October 28, is called “Anonymous.” And in that First Folio Motion Picture, the whole, weird diabolical charade is coughed up once again. Did the famous bard truly put his pen to paper? Did each iambic foot come from his own creative genius? It’s not possible, or not probable, say the skeptics, inasmuch as Shakespeare had been the son of a glover and a money-lender (one of those bi-vocational guys). His mother, although not mentioned, was perhaps a hamster and smelled of elderberries. And the thrust of the argument is that only a well-to-do man-about-town could have crafted such intricate, in-depth narrative arcs. Only a wealthy Earl or Duke could have pulled off the magic… And do you smell what I smell?
When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone be weep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoyed contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee; and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
I will be among the first in line when it comes to doubting the semblance of things and when it comes to piercing the clearest veneer that shines and and all but ruining the cherished fables and cultural myths we hold dear.
Let me take a moment and say I don’t believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I think maybe Oliver Stone had some interesting and worthwhile questions to raise about the whole investigation and the Warren Commission. Arlen Specter is probably the biggest ass ever to hold office in Pennsylvania or any state (and where was he when Anita Hill made her case against Justice Clarence Thomas?).
Let me also take a little time to affirm the X-Files and the notions of conspiracy and cover-up that surround Roswell and the U.F.O. that crashed. Plus, I did enjoy that episode about the monster dwelling in the drainage system of that suburban gated community — the one in which Fox Mulder pretends to live there with his wife, Scully, and then Mulder plants a pink flamingo on the lawn and dares the monster to come to papa. ”Bring it on,” I think the F.B.I. agent blurts as he keeps the weedless front lawn under surveillance.
(Pardon these digressions… And yet?).
Are these digressions? You should be comforted, O blog-reader, that I practice a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding every text (sacred or not) under the sun.
Methinks, there is something rotten in Denmark…
Or among the gentry of English society, where, apparently Edward de Vere died a full ten years prior to the plays of William Shakespeare were written.
Could the fact that stuff like this gets any traction be related to the class struggles we are having now? Could it be that oligarchic regimes do actually believe in their superiority in all things (not simply liquid assets)?
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate.
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting,
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving,
Thyself thou gav’st, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gav’st it, else mistaking,
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter –
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.
W.H. Auden has some things to say. Still. Even now. The poet has turns of phrase and syntax that haunts both all the religious and secular sensibilities that we bifurcate and keep carefully separated to this day.
And yet, Auden is nothing like Joel Osteen, which is odd. Don’t you think?
Osteen preaches, without drawing a salary from his 30,000 seat stadium-congregation, and starts each message with a joke. Auden has at least that many readers.
Osteen does in-depth analysis of difficult biblical passages. The literary giant (again, not Osteen) returned to the Anglican Communion after experiencing the trauma of war in the early part of the twentieth century; he in turn wrote a little something called “The Quest,” which scholars have criticized as naive… Alright, so they don’t have EVERYTHING in common.
But you get my gist, eh?
In Osteen’s most recent book, Every Day A Friday, he draws out the nuances of Psalm 2:4. That’s where we read “God sits in the heavens and laughs.” Pastor Joel then has the intelligence to ask, “Can you envision that?Right now God is on the throne. He’s not mad. He’s not worried about the economy. He’s not upset with you and me. God is on the throne, full of joy.”
- Interesting — considering the fact that the context in which God is laughing includes “the nations.”
- Interesting — considering that verse three, just prior to verse four, says, “Let us burst their bonds asunder and car their cords from us.”
- Interesting — considering that verse five, just after verse four, says, “Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury…”
In other words, God is laughing as the nations conspire and plot in disingenuous ways (see verse one) and that means, huh?, that God is NOT “not upset,” as Joel Osteen suggests in his book.
Wow! I guess I’m getting a little disoriented.
Who’s naive now, you scholars who once picked on W.H. Auden?!!
The fact of the matter is — we don’t know what we’re missing.
Joel Osteen’s verbiage is about as close to poetry as the mold in a mayonnaise jar, the one buried at the bottom of a back-alley dumpster, is to pati de fogroi.
Moreover, compared to Auden’s series of twenty sonnets, Osteen’s principles for How to be Happier 7 Days A Week resemble the gum that might accumulate at the bottom of your shoes if you attend the Lakewood Church‘s megachurch venue.
If Osteen’s teaching is a beacon of light and truth, Auden’s is a flaring meteor that’s about ready to pummel your world and mine seven days a week:
I. The Door
Out of it steps our future, through this door
Enigmas, executioners and rules,
Her Majesty in a bad temper or
A red-nosed Fool who makes a fool of fools.
Great persons eye it in the twilight for
A past it might so carelessly let in,
A widow with a missionary grin,
The foaming inundation at a roar.
We pile our all against it when afraid,
And beat upon its panels when we die:
By happening to be open once, it made
Enormous Alice see a wonderland
That waited for her in the sunshine and,
Simply by being tiny, made her cry.
II. The Preparations
All had been ordered weeks before the start
From the best firms at such work: instruments
To take the measure of all queer events,
And drugs to move the bowels or the heart.
A watch, of course, to watch impatience fly,
Lamps for the dark and shades against the sun;
Foreboding, too, insisted on a gun,
And coloured beads to soothe a savage eye.
In theory they were sound on Expectation,
Had there been situations to be in;
Unluckily they were their situation:
One should not give a poisoner medicine,
A conjurer fine apparatus, nor
A rifle to a melancholic bore.
III. The Crossroads
Two friends who met here and embraced are gone,
Each to his own mistake; one flashes on
To fame and ruin in a rowdy lie,
A village torpor holds the other one,
Some local wrong where it takes time to die:
This empty junction glitters in the sun.
So at all quays and crossroads: who can tell
These places of decision and farewell
To what dishonour all adventure leads,
What parting gift could give that friend protection,
So orientated his vocation needs
The Bad Lands and the sinister direction?
All landscapes and all weathers freeze with fear,
But none have ever thought, the legends say,
The time allowed made it impossible;
For even the most pessimistic set
The limit of their errors at a year.
What friends could there be left then to betray,
What joy take longer to atone for; yet
Who could complete without the extra day
The journey that should take no time at all?
IV. The Traveler
No window in his suburb lights that bedroom where
A little fever heard large afternoons at play:
His meadows multiply; that mill, though, is not there
Which went on grinding at the back of love all day.
Nor all his weeping ways through weary wastes have found
The castle where his Greater Hallows are interned;
For broken bridges halt him, and dark thickets round
Some ruin where an evil heritage was burned.
Could he forget a child’s ambition to be old
And institutions where it learned to wash and lie,
He’d tell the truth for which he thinks himself too young,
That everywhere on his horizon, all the sky,
Is now, as always, only waiting to be told
To be his father’s house and speak his mother tongue.
V. The City
In villages from which their childhoods came
Seeking Necessity, they had been taught
Necessity by nature is the same
No matter how or by whom it be sought.
The city, though, assumed no such belief,
But welcomed each as if he came alone,
The nature of Necessity like grief
Exactly corresponding to his own.
And offered them so many, every one
Found some temptation fit to govern him,
And settled down to master the whole craft
Of being nobody; sat in the sun
During the lunch-hour round the fountain rim,
And watched the country kids arrive, and laughed.
VI. The First Temptation
Ashamed to be the darling of his grief,
He joined a gang of rowdy stories where
His gift for magic quickly made him chief
Of all these boyish powers of the air;
Who turned his hungers into Roman food,
The town’s asymmetry into a park;
All hours took taxis; any solitude
Became his flattered duchess in the dark.
But, if he wished for anything less grand,
The nights came padding after him like wild
Beasts that meant harm, and all the doors cried Thief;
And when Truth had met him and put out her hand,
He clung in panic to his tall belief
And shrank away like an ill-treated child.
VII. The Second Temptation
His library annoyed him with its look
Of calm belief in being really there;
He threw away a rival’s boring book,
And clattered panting up the spiral stair.
Swaying upon the parapet he cried:
“O Uncreated Nothing, set me free,
Now let Thy perfect be identified,
Unending passion of the Night, with Thee.”
And his long-suffering flesh, that all the time
Had felt the simple cravings of the stone
And hoped to be rewarded for her climb,
Took it to be a promise when he spoke
That now at last she would be left alone,
And plunged into the college quad, and broke.
VIII. The Third Temptation
He watched with all his organs of concern
How princes walk, what wives and children say,
Re-opened old graves in his heart to learn
What laws the dead had died to disobey,
And came reluctantly to his conclusion:
“All the arm-chair philosophies are false;
To love another adds to the confusion;
The song of mercy is the Devil’s Waltz.”
All that he put his hand to prospered so
That soon he was the very King of creatures,
Yet, in an autumn nightmare trembled, for,
Approaching down a ruined corridor,
Strode someone with his own distorted features
Who wept, and grew enormous, and cried Woe.
IX. The Tower
This is an architecture for the old;
Thus heaven was attacked by the afraid,
So once, unconsciously, a virgin made
Her maidenhead conspicuous to a god.
Here on dark nights while worlds of triumph sleep
Lost Love in abstract speculation burns,
And exiled Will to politics returns
In epic verse that makes its traitors weep.
Yet many come to wish their tower a well;
For those who dread to drown, of thirst may die,
Those who see all become invisible:
Here great magicians, caught in their own spell,
Long for a natural climate as they sigh
“Beware of Magic” to the passer-by.
X. The Presumptuous
They noticed that virginity was needed
To trap the unicorn in every case,
But not that, of those virgins who succeeded,
A high percentage had an ugly face.
The hero was as daring as they thought him,
But his pecular boyhood missed them all;
The angel of a broken leg had taught him
The right precautions to avoid a fall.
So in presumption they set forth alone
On what, for them, was not compulsory,
And stuck half-way to settle in some cave
With desert lions to domesticity,
Or turned aside to be absurdly brave,
And met the ogre and were turned to stone.
XI. The Average
His peasant parents killed themselves with toil
To let their darling leave a stingy soil
For any of those fine professions which
Encourage shallow breathing, and grow rich.
The pressure of their fond ambition made
Their shy and country-loving child afraid
No sensible career was good enough,
Only a hero could deserve such love.
So here he was without maps or supplies,
A hundred miles from any decent town;
The desert glared into his blood-shot eyes,
The silence roared displeasure:
He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the exceptional, and ran.
Incredulous, he stared at the amused
Official writing down his name among
Those whose request to suffer was refused.
The pen ceased scratching: though he came too late
To join the martyrs, there was still a place
Among the tempters for a caustic tongue
To test the resolution of the young
With tales of the small failings of the great,
And shame the eager with ironic praise.
Though mirrors might be hateful for a while,
Women and books would teach his middle age
The fencing wit of an informal style,
To keep the silences at bay and cage
His pacing manias in a worldly smile.
XIII. The Useful
The over-logical fell for the witch
Whose argument converted him to stone,
Thieves rapidly absorbed the over-rich,
The over-popular went mad alone,
And kisses brutalised the over-male.
As agents their importance quickly ceased;
Yet, in proportion as they seemed to fail,
Their instrumental value was increased
For one predestined to attain their wish.
By standing stones the blind can feel their way,
Wild dogs compel the cowardly to fight,
Beggars assist the slow to travel light,
And even madmen manage to convey
Unwelcome truths in lonely gibberish.
XIV. The Way
Fresh addenda are published every day
To the encyclopedia of the Way,
Linguistic notes and scientific explanations,
And texts for schools with modernised spelling and illustrations.
Now everyone knows the hero must choose the old horse,
Abstain from liquor and sexual intercourse,
And look out for a stranded fish to be kind to:
Now everyone thinks he could find, had he a mind to,
The way through the waste to the chapel in the rock
For a vision of the Triple Rainbow or the Astral Clock,
Forgetting his information comes mostly from married men
Who liked fishing and a flutter on the horses now and then.
And how reliable can any truth be that is got
By observing oneself and then just inserting a Not?
XV. The Lucky
Suppose he’d listened to the erudite committee,
He would have only found where not to look;
Suppose his terrier when he whistled had obeyed,
It would not have unearthed the buried city;
Suppose he had dismissed the careless maid,
The cryptogram would not have fluttered from the book.
“It was not I,” he cried as, healthy and astounded,
He stepped across a predecessor’s skull;
“A nonsense jingle simply came into my head
And left the intellectual Sphinx dumbfounded;
I won the Queen because my hair was red;
The terrible adventure is a little dull.”
Hence Failure’s torment: “Was I doomed in any case,
Or would I not have failed had I believed in Grace?”
XVI. The Hero
He parried every question that they hurled:
“What did the Emperor tell you?” “Not to push.”
“What is the greatest wonder of the world?”
“The bare man Nothing in the Beggar’s Bush.”
Some muttered: “He is cagey for effect.
A hero owes a duty to his fame.
He looks too like a grocer for respect.”
Soon they slipped back into his Christian name.
The only difference that could be seen
From those who’d never risked their lives at all
Was his delight in details and routine:
For he was always glad to mow the grass,
Pour liquids from large bottles into small,
Or look at clouds through bits of coloured glass.
Others had found it prudent to withdraw
Before official pressure was applied,
Embittered robbers outlawed by the Law,
Lepers in terror of the terrified.
But no one else accused these of a crime;
They did not look ill: old friends, overcome,
Stared as they rolled away from talk and time
Like marbles out into the blank and dumb.
The crowd clung all the closer to convention,
Sunshine and horses, for the sane know why
The even numbers should ignore the odd:
The Nameless is what no free people mention;
Successful men know better than to try
To see the face of their Absconded God.
XVIII. The Adventurers
Spinning upon their central thirst like tops,
They went the Negative Way towards the Dry;
By empty caves beneath an empty sky
They emptied out their memories like slops,
Which made a foul marsh as they dried to death,
Where monsters bred who forced them to forget
The lovelies their consent avoided; yet,
Still praising the Absurd with their last breath,
They seeded out into their miracles:
The images of each grotesque temptation
Became some painter’s happiest inspiration,
And barren wives and burning virgins came
To drink the pure cold water of their wells,
And wish for beaux and children in their name.
XIX. The Waters
Poet, oracle, and wit
Like unsuccessful anglers by
The ponds of apperception sit,
Baiting with the wrong request
The vectors of their interest,
At nightfall tell the angler’s lie.
With time in tempest everywhere,
To rafts of frail assumption cling
The saintly and the insincere;
Enraged phenomena bear down
In overwhelming waves to drown
Both sufferer and suffering.
The waters long to hear our question put
Which would release their longed-for answer, but.
XX. The Garden
Within these gates all opening begins:
White shouts and flickers through its green and red,
Where children play at seven earnest sins
And dogs believe their tall conditions dead.
Here adolescence into number breaks
The perfect circle time can draw on stone,
And flesh forgives division as it makes
Another’s moment of consent its own.
All journeys die here: wish and weight are lifted:
Where often round some old maid’s desolation
Roses have flung their glory like a cloak,
The gaunt and great, the famed for conversation
Blushed in the stare of evening as they spoke
And felt their centre of volition shifted.
Newly published findings reveal what we long suspected, which is that science and mytho-poetics have much in common — that each discipline often strives for truth that is edgy, interactive and utterly elusive.
First, to ruin the suspense, here’s what researchers have found and made known through assorted media outlets today:
And second, let this be a lesson to us. What words we craft into poetry, legend and song very often have their snags still in the living or dead bodies of creatures and events that gave rise to those forms. Am I being naive? When you look up ‘gullible’ in the dictionary, is my face next to the definition? Moreover, even if the scientific confirmation never really comes (with 100 percent certainty), isn’t it intriguing that our minds seem hard-wired to go there? That is, we have evolved not only to ask the big WHY question regarding existence itself, but we also want to picture ourselves enmeshed in mysterious and sometimes monstrous things.
All I can say, at this point, is what Elisabeth Barrett Browning writes at the end of her poem, Human Life’s Mystery:
And sometimes horror chills our blood
To be so near such mystic Things,
And we wrap round us for defence
Our purple manners, moods of sense—
As angels from the face of God
Stand hidden in their wings.
And sometimes through life’s heavy swound
We grope for them!—with strangled breath
We stretch our hands abroad and try
To reach them in our agony,—
And widen, so, the broad life-wound
Which soon is large enough for death.
And so, the kraken argument goes like this: apparently Giant Squid and Octopi are in the habit of rearranging the bones of their victims. Biologists have noted how octopi at the Seattle Aquarium have attacked sharks and then hauled their corpses to a sort of cache. In the depths of the Pacific they do likewise, messing with the deceased prey and playing something akin to linking-logs with their cartilage. At any rate, now a paleontologist has brought that observable phenomena to bear when it comes to the pattern with which we have found the bones of ichthyosaurs, as they were air-breathing reptiles who swam in the Triassic seas. Apparently, the creature who made these configuration would have to be like the Giant Squid, only twice the size, about 90 feet long, with a nasty beak, designed to break an animal’s neck — and that’s not even to mention the terrible tentacles that could tear off limbs and fins and keep you trapped in an under-water lair (for 248 million years) until… until now.
Whatever excites us about these soft-bodied beasts of the deep, however, may pale in comparison to the so-called “95 percent certainty” with which scientists boast of hard evidence of the Yeti, Siberia‘s abominable snowman — a Russian version of Bigfoot. What they’ve found, of course, is hair and footprints and both are being tested as we pontificate on what’s actually happening in those vast stretches of tundra, where temperatures get a little chilly, especially at night, when we really can’t see too well and where things go bump and no one can be sure that we’re alone out there.
You see, I hear these wondrous reports and cannot help but pay attention. “Finally comes the poet,” once said Walt Whitman, “after all the oceans have been crossed.” Well, maybe the poet does come then. Or maybe there’s room to declare that not everything everywhere has been conquered or tamed or tamped down like a noxious weed. If that’s the case, well then, the poet might regroup with others and buck up. Reality may not be as advertised as we might think. And death may not be the only frontier left to explore. There may be more life than we know what to do with — imagine that. And if there’s more life than we know what to do with, what does that say about life? Is there something beyond the doing of life, the next thing on the list, and the thing after that…
of ice. Deceptively reserved and flat,
it lies ‘in grandeur and in mass’
beneath a sea of shifting snow-dunes;
dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined
made of glass that will bend–a much needed invention–
comprising twenty-eight ice-fields from fifty to five hundred
of unimagined delicacy.
‘Picking periwinkles from the cracks’
or killing prey with the concentric crushing rigor of the python,
it hovers forward ‘spider fashion
on its arms’ misleading like lace;
its ‘ghostly pallor changing
to the green metallic tinge of an anemone-starred pool.’
The fir-trees, in ‘the magnitude of their root systems,’
rise aloof from these maneuvers ‘creepy to behold,’
austere specimens of our American royal families,
‘each like the shadow of the one beside it.
The rock seems frail compared with the dark energy of life,’
its vermilion and onyx and manganese-blue interior expensiveness
left at the mercy of the weather;
‘stained transversely by iron where the water drips down,’
recognized by its plants and its animals.
Completing a circle,
you have been deceived into thinking that you have progressed,
under the polite needles of the larches
‘hung to filter, not to intercept the sunlight’–
met by tightly wattled spruce-twigs
‘conformed to an edge like clipped cypress
as if no branch could penetrate the cold beyond its company’;
and dumps of gold and silver ore enclosing The Goat’s Mirror–
that lady-fingerlike depression in the shape of the left human
which prejudices you in favor of itself
before you have had time to see the others;
its indigo, pea-green, blue-green, and turquoise,
from a hundred to two hundred feet deep,
‘merging in irregular patches in the middle of the lake
where, like gusts of a storm
obliterating the shadows of the fir-trees, the wind makes lanes
What spot could have merits of equal importance
for bears, elks, deer, wolves, goats, and ducks?
Pre-empted by their ancestors,
this is the property of the exacting porcupine,
and of the rat ‘slipping along to its burrow in the swamp
or pausing on high ground to smell the heather’;
of ‘thoughtful beavers
making drains which seem the work of careful men with shovels,’
and of the bears inspecting unexpectedly
ant-hills and berry-bushes.
Composed of calcium gems and alabaster pillars,
topaz, tourmaline crystals and amethyst quartz,
their den in somewhere else, concealed in the confusion
of ‘blue forests thrown together with marble and jasper and agate
as if the whole quarries had been dynamited.’
And farther up, in a stag-at-bay position
as a scintillating fragment of these terrible stalagmites,
stands the goat,
its eye fixed on the waterfall which never seems to fall–
an endless skein swayed by the wind,
immune to force of gravity in the perspective of the peaks.
A special antelope
acclimated to ‘grottoes from which issue penetrating draughts
which make you wonder why you came,’
it stands it ground
on cliffs the color of the clouds, of petrified white vapor–
black feet, eyes, nose, and horns, engraved on dazzling ice-fields,
the ermine body on the crystal peak;
the sun kindling its shoulders to maximum heat like acetylene,
dyeing them white–
upon this antique pedestal,
‘a mountain with those graceful lines which prove it a volcano,’
its top a complete cone like Fujiyama’s
till an explosion blew it off.
Distinguished by a beauty
of which ‘the visitor dare never fully speak at home
for fear of being stoned as an impostor,’
Big Snow Mountain is the home of a diversity of creatures:
those who ‘have lived in hotels
but who now live in camps–who prefer to’;
the mountain guide evolving from the trapper,
‘in two pairs of trousers, the outer one older,
wearing slowly away from the feet to the knees’;
‘the nine-striped chipmunk
running with unmammal-like agility along a log’;
the water ouzel
with ‘its passion for rapids and high-pressured falls,’
building under the arch of some tiny Niagara;
the white-tailed ptarmigan ‘in winter solid white,
feeding on heather-bells and alpine buckwheat’;
and the eleven eagles of the west,
‘fond of the spring fragrance and the winter colors,’
used to the unegoistic action of the glaciers
and ‘several hours of frost every midsummer night.’
‘They make a nice appearance, don’t they,’
happy see nothing?
Perched on treacherous lava and pumice–
those unadjusted chimney-pots and cleavers
which stipulate ‘names and addresses of persons to notify
in case of disaster’–
they hear the roar of ice and supervise the water
winding slowly through the cliffs,
the road ‘climbing like the thread
which forms the groove around a snail-shell,
doubling back and forth until where snow begins, it ends.’
No ‘deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness’ is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where ‘when you hear the best wild music of the forest
it is sure to be a marmot,’
the victim on some slight observatory,
of ‘a struggle between curiosity and caution,’
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with glass eyes,
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice-water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch-trees, ferns, and lily-pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paint-brushes,
bear’s ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the moss-beds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American menagerie of styles
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.
‘Like happy souls in Hell,’ enjoying mental difficulties,
amused themselves with delicate behavior
because it was ‘so noble and fair’;
not practised in adapting their intelligence
to eagle-traps and snow-shoes,
to alpenstocks and other toys contrived by those
‘alive to the advantage of invigorating pleasures.’
Bows, arrows, oars, and paddles, for which trees provide the
in new countries more eloquent than elsewhere–
augmenting the assertion that, essentially humane,
‘the forest affords wood for dwellings and by its beauty
stimulates the moral vigor of its citizens.’
The Greeks liked smoothness, distrusting what was back
of what could not be clearly seen,
resolving with benevolent conclusiveness,
‘complexities which still will be complexities
as long as the world lasts’;
ascribing what we clumsily call happiness,
to ‘an accident or a quality,
a spiritual substance or the soul itself,
an act, a disposition, or a habit,
or a habit infused, to which the soul has been persuaded,
or something distinct from a habit, a power’–
such power as Adam had and we are still devoid of.
‘Emotionally sensitive, their hearts were hard’;
their wisdom was remote
from that of these odd oracles of cool official sarcasm,
upon this game preserve
where ‘guns, nets, seines, traps, and explosives,
hired vehicles, gambling and intoxicants are prohibited;
disobedient persons being summarily removed
and not allowed to return without permission in writing.’
It is self-evident
that it is frightful to have everything afraid of one;
that one must do as one is told
and eat rice, prunes, dates, raisins, hardtack, and tomatoes
this fossil flower concise without a shiver,
intact when it is cut,
damned for its sacrosanct remoteness–
like Henry James ‘damned by the public for decorum’;
not decorum, but restraint;
it is the love of doing hard things
that rebuffed and wore them out–a public out of sympathy
Neatness of finish! Neatness of finish!
Relentless accuracy is the nature of this octopus
with its capacity for fact.
‘Creeping slowly as with meditated stealth,
its arms seeming to approach from all directions,’
it receives one under winds that ‘tear the snow to bits
and hurl it like a sandblast
shearing off twigs and loose bark from the trees.’
Is ‘tree’ the word for these things
‘flat on the ground like vines’?
some ‘bent in a half circle with branches on one side
suggesting dust-brushes, not trees;
some finding strength in union, forming little stunted grooves
their flattened mats of branches shrunk in trying to escape’
from the hard mountain ‘planned by ice and polished by the wind’–
the white volcano with no weather side;
the lightning flashing at its base,
rain falling in the valleys, and snow falling on the peak–
the glassy octopus symmetrically pointed,
its claw cut by the avalanche
‘with a sound like the crack of a rifle,
in a curtain of powdered snow launched like a waterfall.’
‘Bereft’ and ‘Barefoot’ in “Beowulf” are Inter-Changeable: Conversations with Anonymous Old English Bards
What follows is to me a classic — a classic misreading of the anonymously written old english, epic poem, Beowulf. I’ve tried, with limited time and effort, to present it in a manner which might lend gravitas to the event that occurred yesterday in a college classroom:
Misread bereft in Beowulf
and win your fate back again.
I saw it happen paraple-
gic-style as the student,
so stricken, sat ensconced
upon his regal apparatus.
His helper, severed hand
and wrist herself, leaned
all the way into passages
assigned at night and said:
Barefoot without blinking
a nervous eye. Barefoot with-
out so much as I beg your
pardon as I never promised
you a rose garden, or even
the semblance of stumble.
Barefoot as bold and bra-
zen as graffiti holding
up crumbling over-passes
out of ruined towns.
Barefoot without a hiccup
from guzzling mead-hall
ale, not even the slightest
tinge of turning pale. Bare-
foot as Geats must brawl.
They miss not bereft
and have worn out their shoes.
I tried to pass on a few easy rhymes because the original nordic material didn’t so much rhyme as bear a drum beat into the darkness. Moreover, alliteration (often ridiculed today as trite-sounding, purple prose) has a way of driving that rhythm further and further into the abyss.
Now the reason, I think, this misreading didn’t bother me so much is that the one who perused the words could possibly relate to all the butchered body-parts that Beowulf, the hero, boasts, and that Grendel, the monster, leaves strewn around the sturdy benches of Heorot. This young woman, offering assistance to another incapacitated individual, had lost an extremity.
“I could do naught with Hrunting in the fight, though that weapon is worthy, but the Ruler of men
vouchsafed that I should see a huge old sword hang gleaming on the wall — most often He has guided those BEREFT [read BAREFOOT] of friends — so that I swung the weapon.”
Classic. The actual context of this line involves the heroic figure’s conflict with Grendel’s mother, a kind of watery demon with a hankering for vengeance. No one will escape the conflict unscathed, least of all the non-human fiend, whose head is chopped off.
Anyway, as I consider the context of on-going life and on-going death and the students who continue to put their minds toward such words, it occurs to me that we do them a dis-service by not emphasizing how great literature is great because of the brute depiction of chaos and our grappling with it. This tedious muck-and-mire mayhem still lingers. That is, even with the technologies of swords (Hrunting is a sword) and Apple computers and more, we can easily become stuck. Teachers, in this predicament, endeavor to pass on a few details from the tale. They may even succeed in bequeathing some of the love for the eloquent turn of a phrase. But, I say, if we don’t deliver the linkage to our own blood, sweat and tears, we’re not engaging the literary giants of yesteryear; we’re merely memorizing them; or we’re writing books on them to get tenure; or we’re making movies about them to generate a box-office bonanza for Hollywood studios.
I’ve come across a poem by Robert Frost, entitled, of all things, “Bereft.” Mary Oliver explains how this verse exists for the reader, not just “literally and intellectually, but palpably.” She’s a good teacher:
Where had I heard this wind before
Change like this to a deeper roar?
What would it take my standing there for,
Holding open a restive door,
Looking down hill to a frothy shore?
Summer was past and day was past.
Somber clouds in the west were massed.
Out in the porch’s sagging floor,
Leaves got up in a coil and hissed,
Blindly struck at my knee and missed.
Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known:
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.
Likewise, here’s a poem that Anne Sexton called “Barefoot.” Although appealing less to form and to the four-beat count, we’re getting at the same stuff–the corporeal, mandible-chewing, deliberative stuff.
And you see, whether bereft or barefoot, there is a meaningful conversation that we’re having:
Loving me with my shoes off
means loving my long brown legs,
sweet dears, as good as spoons;
and my feet, those two children
let out to play naked. Intricate nubs,
my toes. No longer bound.
And what’s more, see toenails and
all ten stages, root by root.
All spirited and wild, this little
piggy went to market and this little piggy
stayed. Long brown legs and long brown toes.
Further up, my darling, the woman
is calling her secrets, little houses,
little tongues that tell you.
There is no one else but us
in this house on the land spit.
The sea wears a bell in its navel.
And I’m your barefoot wench for a
whole week. Do you care for salami?
No. You’d rather not have a scotch?
No. You don’t really drink. You do
drink me. The gulls kill fish,
crying out like three-year-olds.
The surf’s a narcotic, calling out,
I am, I am, I am
all night long. Barefoot,
I drum up and down your back.
In the morning I run from door to door
of the cabin playing chase me.
Now you grab me by the ankles.
Now you work your way up the legs
and come to pierce me at my hunger mark
I’m spent nearly the entire day working on a sonnet, a Petrarchan sonnet (so-called). And I must confess a kind of mental/spiritual fatigue. What happens when we wrestle with the ancient and time-honored forms — forms like sonnets, like sestinas, like villanelles, like pantoums, like ghazels, etcetera, etcetera…?
Etcetera, you realize, is not a proper form — not that I’m trying to win a prize for identifying every possible form!
But I am now very curious about the disciplines to which many poets give themselves, given the fact that there’s aren’t many in other aspects of their lives.
So here we go. I’m sweating. And yet, unlike the times I used to sweat when it came to conformity to certain doctrinal formulae or certain implied evangelical code — I am willing to work hard at formal poetry because of what it reveals in the long, long run. That is to say, writing a sonnet actually forces the writer to identify and empathize with those who have tried to tackle or to dance with the 14 line, iambic verse with the abbaabbacdecde end rhyme. Don’t necessarily try this at home (because there are several variations on the sonnet which defy the rules of the form, but which are still considered sonnets). Hmmm.
Well, you might imagine a baseball game in which an outfielder tried to catch a ball off the wall and call it an “out.” You might picture running back in football who gets turned around and runs in the “wrong” direction; what if the athlete then spiked the ball and assumed that he scored pseudo-touchdown? You might take in a hockey game, in which a fight breaks out along the boards (no surprise there), but then, suddenly, those who engage in the fisticuffs dare to ask for the points they’ve scored with each blow to the head. You might see a forward slam dunk a basketball and shatter the backboard; suppose he then turns to the scorekeeper and expects five bonus points… Imagine playing any number of sports, which boast a set of rules or guidelines and simply flouting that what predecessors to the game have done.
This, you see, is what various variations on formal verse seems to suggest about the whole genre. But it differs in this respect. Unlike competitive athletics, as a tradition, poetry cooperates with all generations of experience and all expressions of culture. Moreover, this cooperation means that, yes, we go off the tracks but at least we recognize how those tracks get us to other wild encounters from which we might have remained utterly isolated. Sort of like trying to get to the rugged Oregon coast without I-5…
I apologize for the metaphor here, in which trains, planes and automobiles miss a lot of good, down-to-earth stuff. A sonnet is not a train, running on time from the Rhine to the Thames. A sestina is not an Italian sports car. A villanelle is not a Concorde flight from Paris. A ghazal is not a Persian carpet… But writing according to these prescribed patterns actually gets me to the Jutland bogs. It allows me to taste the wines of Tuscany, to smell the cafes of the Chanselise, to feel the sands of the Iraqi desert and more. More and more details and experiential insights are available to us via the forms that may appear initially restrictive.
–By Edmund Spenser
- One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
- But came the waves and washed it away:
- Again I wrote it with a second hand,
- But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.
- Vain man, said she, that doest in vain assay
- A mortal thing so to immortalize,
- For I myself shall like to this decay,
- And eek my name be wiped out likewise.
- Not so (quoth I), let baser things devise
- To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:
- My verse your virtues rare shall eternize,
- And in the heavens write your glorious name.
- Where whenas Death shall all the world subdue,
- Out love shall live, and later life renew.
- Passengers–By Denis Johnson
- The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through these intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always these definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning — her languid flight of hair
traveling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.
- Winter Thirst
- –By Gerald Stern
- I grew up with bitumous in my mouth
and sulfur smelling like rotten eggs and I
first started to cough because my lungs were like cardboard;
and what we called snow was gray with black flecks
that were like glue when it came to snowballs and made
them hard and crusty, though we still ate the snow
anyhow, and as for filth, well, start with
smoke, I carried it with me I know everywhere
and someone sitting beside me in New York or Paris
would know where I came from, we would go in for dinner—
red meat or brown choucroute—and he would
guess my hill, and we would talk about soot
and what a dirty neck was like and how
the white collar made a fine line;
and I told him how we pulled heavy wagons
and loaded boxcars every day from five
to one A.M. and how good it was walking
empty-handed to the no. 69 streetcar
and how I dreamed of my bath and how the water
was black and soapy then and what the void
was like and how a candle instructed me.
What’s to become of all the convenience stores? You know, all the little consumer-venues at busy intersections, selling six-packs of Bud for $4.99, compact cases of chewing tobacco, plus all the beef-jerky you might ever need for the road… All the Qwik-Marts, all the Gas-n-Go‘s… all the WaWa‘s with the barricaded booths for employees who speak through vents in the Plexiglas… What’s going to happen when the zombies take over?
I don’t want to alarm anyone with 30 days to go before Halloween, but let me invite you to ponder what may be even more frightening than the possibility of a pandemic or the detonation of a dirty, nuclear bomb or any other catastrophe of which a Hollywood blockbuster may conceive. And that is, of course, the aftermath of such an occurrence.
Visually speaking, you see, the landscape will be laden with boxy, nondescript buildings with lots of computerized cash registers that no longer work — not to mention rack upon rack of foul-smelling cartons of expired milk. It’s going to be ugly. Much of the remaining population will grieve the loss of life and the degradation to the environment in which surviving generations must make a new “go” of it. But, if you ask me, one thing we might do for them while we have the imagination is to jettison the whole category of “quick and easy” architecture. Once this category is dumped we might then replace it with a renewal of concern for aesthetics, community and spirituality. The essential criteria here would involve beauty. We’d want whatever remains (after the plague or after the radioactive flash) to be almost bucolic and somewhat quaint.
How beautiful and vast and bright and empty
inside the quick-stop’s inextinguishable glow.
Night has just begun to have its say.
The being in the checkered frock is free
to read the tabloids with a face like a broken window
and dream of being known and extraordinary
and towel the handprints off a jar of murdered jerky
and feel like a moviegoer in the very last row.
Night has just begun to have its say,
the pickled eggs seem older than all creation this Monday
or Tuesday or Wednesday, and years from now
how beautiful and vast and bright and empty
it may feel to be alive and mildly happy,
to walk between the aisles of a brand-new Stop-N-Go.
And when the century has its final say
may the tiny motels of our voices pray
that all the neon sings and wonders so
beautiful and vast and bright and empty
won’t even have begun to have their say.
Yes, this is admittedly disturbing. But the earth’s ecosystems have always been very resilient. And I have every confidence that what might be one age’s graffiti might be another’s sacred artifact or retro-kitsch. The point is, when we uncover the seedier locales of the first century they always appear more wholesome with the years of erosion, corrosion and sediment piled against it.
I’m thinking now about the Life After People series and how its viewers evidently find the human population of zero extremely fascinating. I don’t. What’s more fascinating to me is that human consciousness will survive with a vague sort of memory. It would be sad for future enclaves of people, however, to remember our ethic of convenience and try to emulate it again. And again. And again.
I would, therefore, argue that architects owe us something when it comes to those generic places where we spend most of our lives. What they owe is ironic, isn’t it? They must create and leave behind a milieu that speaks of specific mountains and specific rivers and specific kinds of grass and maybe a little dew on each blade of grass to boot.
Mark Wallace, in his poem, “Prediction,” makes some wondrous turns:
In the future, we’ll plan the future better.
In the future, you can just become your TV.
In the future, your sexual partners will meet all the qualities on your checklist.
And this anxiety you’re feeling now? In the future you won’t feel it.
In the future, technology will always work, and there won’t even be weekend downtime for systems repair.
In the future, Friday night parties will never be boring.
In the future there will be less deadlines and they’ll be easier to meet.
In the future, all pollution will contain its own self-cleaning element.
In the future, if your house burns down, you’ll have another house by the time you get home.
In the future, your insurance policy will actually pay.
In the future, your friends won’t talk so constantly about everything they think they should already have.
In the future, no good deed will go unrewarded.
In the future people will like you just for who you are.
In the future, everyone will have their own sky marshal.
In the future, fires and floods made worse by ecologically damaging overpopulation will lead to photo-ops for everyone.
In the future, that eleventh-rate doctor you married who’s seeing a nurse in Oceanside behind your back will stay home more often and cut the grass.
In the future, people will fart less.
In the future, corporations will pay you for gas. …
It’s official: the objective reality of yesteryear has been superseded and supplanted with no-reality whatsoever. We don’t even have the reality of the present to sooth our anxieties and keep us warm on those chilly autumn nights. What am I talking about? Well, the flipping United States Postal Service, of course.
The institution that receives no federal tax subsidies and that has functioned for six days a week, if not flawlessly, at least relentlessly, since the time of Benjamin Franklin, has been rendered…. wait for this…
Isn’t that harsh? And doesn’t the fact that Congress will consider reducing mail delivery to merely five days a week make you want to question the whole mechanism of interpersonal communication? Damn. I understand how awesome it is to give and receive e-mails. Social media like Facebook and Twitter have distinct advantages in today’s world of bloated-information-overload. And yet, mark my cyber-space words — when hand-written, ponderous confessions are reduced to high-speed depressions that we make with our thumbs alone, we’ll miss the way our fingers used to cramp up. When assorted glossy advertisements no longer arrive at our doors, and from there, into our waste-paper baskets, we’ll have to search high and low for something we can literally tear into little pieces — with our hands.
You see, it’s not that I feel bad for the dudes and dudettes who deliver my mail — that their pensions have been handled so sloppily — it’s that obsolescence itself is not to be trifled with. Here’s a poem by Tracy K. Smith that summarizes the issue:
The Museum of Obsolescence
So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,
Instead, its own quick span, returning
To uselessness with the mute acquiescence
Of shed skin. It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale heat, hearts
Ticking through our shirts. We’re here
To titter at the gimcracks, the naive tools,
The replicas of replicas stacked like bricks.
There’s green money, and oil in drums.
Pots of honey pilfered from a tomb. Books
Recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars.
In the south wing, there’s a small room
Where a living man sits on display. Ask,
And he’ll describe the old beliefs. If you
Laugh, he’ll lower his head to his hands
And sigh. When he dies, they’ll replace him
With a video looping ad infinitum.
Special installations come and go. ”Love”
Was up for a season, followed by “Illness,”
Concepts difficult to grasp. The last thing you see
(After a mirror — someone’s idea of a joke?)
Is an image of the old planet taken from space.
Outside, vendors hawk t-shirts, three for eight.
Obsolescence refers, of course, to practices that have become outmoded in style, design or construction. We now supposedly have better and more advanced ways to pay the water bill, which will never be late again. Letters that record our deepest hopes don’t have to wait for a quiet moment of reflection. Send. Send. Send. And if the system bogs down with too much traffic, Ctl Alt Delete.
But here’s where I part company with all that would hurry along my communication: The mail.
Is there anything for me in the mail today? Well, is the Pope still Catholic after paying a visit to Erfurt, Germany — after acknowledging that Martin Luther wasn’t such a bad guy? Do bears still maul unsuspecting hikers in the woods? Let there be a linkage with the leaflets of Thomas Paine, lest pain be subdued by the marketers who make the case for no pain at all. Let there be some semblance of a place where we wait and wait in line and where the packing tape makes this incredible noise. And let those who embody sending continue to walk their routes in snow, sleet and Seattle.
Just imagine. Christopher Howell writes from the perspective of some sleuth who found “Three One-Hundred Year Old Postcards And Two Letters…In An Envelope At An Estate Sale.” Here are two of the items in poetic form and keep in mind they were never delivered:
We are having a fine old time in
Billings, Pat Rogers is up here too I guess
this is the poor hitting the high places, going
out for a ride on a automobile. Couple of fine
kids from Miles City & my good boy
setting proud as cats and then the rain come
all over purple in the sky and we hide out
in a barn. Mable hugged up with Clemons
that was there and me and Jessup did too and it was
fine with the rain coming all day
we didn’t see but one other person going on
down the road.
They brit Jessup and the others in today all
bloody. The other ones died right off I guess but Jessup
had breath in him still and they let me in to
this room where he was flat on a big table
and he tole Sherif Dobbs we didn’t know nothing
and said hes sory and loved me and wisht
he never had done it all. I was holding
his hand when he left this earth smiling
and peaceful. Billings is a awful place now
but me and Mable wonder can we come home
after all the trubble and foolery and shame we
brung on we are lost soles I think like lanterns
that is broke and don’t have no more light or
good times in us. Please pray for me and tell
the folks in Forsyth not to come here or ever
leave there families and there good names.
Goodbye dear Addie you was always my best
There’s a way of reading the Wall Street Protests as something more than training for the NYPD.
There’s a way of looking beyond the lack of a parade permit and the pepper spray and the 80 arrests — and it’s the way of The Odyssey:
“… and there is now this greater evil still:
my home and all I have are being ruined.
Mother wanted no suitors, but like a pack
they came — sons of the best men here among them –
lads with no stomach for introduction
to Ikarios, her father across the sea;
he would require a wedding gift, and give her
to someone who found favor in her eyes.
No; these men spend their days around our house
killing our beeves and sheep and fatted goats,
carousing, soaking up our good dark wine,
not caring what they do. They squander everything…”
So says Telemakhos, the son of Odysseus, in Book II of Homer’s epic narrative. And the reason I bring this up now is that the squandering continues. To this day, the corporate elite lives off the resources that we have stored for the vulnerable of this vast household, known as the United States of America. And to this day, the conniving of Penelope’s suitors threatens to dismantle those structures that protect us from avarice and greed and gluttony.
An avid watcher of the news may take a dim view of the clashes with police, dismissing the peaceful marchers as freeloaders. Not so! Here’s a quote from Chris Hedges, former reporter with the New York Times and author of The Death of the Liberal Class:
The real radicals have seized power and they are decimating all impediments to the creation of a neo-feudalistic corporate state, one in which there is a rapacious oligarchic class, a thin managerial elite, and two-thirds of this country live in conditions that increasingly push families to subsistence level… They want us to remain passive and to remain frightened. And as long as we remain passive and frightened, entranced with their electronic hallucinations, we are not a threat. … The moment people come out and do this [kind of protest], the corporate state is terrified — and if you doubt me, look around you at the huge numbers of cops, and not only that but the kind of brutality the cops have visited on peaceful protesters.
You see, the point is not that we should simply work hard, keep our noses to the grind stone and take whatever wages trickle down to us from on high. Protestantism’s ethic also implies that we pay attention, and that we debunk the protocol by which our households are abused. What is it that we want? High-paying jobs by which we can subjugate others before they subjugate us? Or meaningful and generous opportunities to serve and to be served?
The poetics of the past prove very enlightening as we venture a response to these core questions. Classic literature, we like to think, is classic because of the truth that it bequeaths from one generation to the next, from one culture to the next. That is, we don’t memorize verbiage from The Iliad and The Odyssey for the sake of passing a pre-requisite at the Community College. Rather, we engage its artistry at a subterranean level. The so-called “primary world,” to which literary critics refer with occasional disdain, may be read heroically from the perspective of the “secondary world” of the creative genius. The masterful work of J.R.R. Tolkien, for example, may speak with eloquence and insight at a table where the evil Sauron is the least of our problems.
Wake up, you English Majors! You Interdisciplinary Humanities Scholars! We may have a role for you after all.
–By Warren Slesinger
Liftboat (lyfe.boht) n-s 1. A small boat
for saving lives at sea with a centerboard,
two or more sets of oars, and a rudder;
it’s capacity depends on the ratio of men
to women and children, and its safety on
the height of the waves and the strength
of the wind: a dazzling white lifeboat with
“America the Beautiful” stenciled on the side.
2. A means of escape in a crisis. See lifeboat
ethics. 3. The situation of someone fortunate
enough to find a seat in a lifeboat surrounded
by splashing, sputtering people too numerous
to be take on board, the occupants cursing
and clubbing the knuckles that clutch the side.
See Third World.
In the wondrous tale that Homer tells, Telemakhos goes in search of revelation. He leaves the confines of his home, which is being plundered, and seeks word of his father’s life. Telemakhos travels by ship, over treacherous seas. He’s sort of like the biblical character, Jonah, in that respect. Or even the Apostle Paul, getting shipwrecked on Malta… and on his way to trial in Rome.
And so, here’s our metaphor. Not just a lifeboat. But ultimately a lifeboat that takes us to shore, where there is news, good news!
The descendants of William Clark, the legendary colleague of Meriwether Lewis, have acknowledged the theft of one monster-sized canoe, an item lifted from the Clatsop Nation in 1806. According to the Associated Press, Lotsie Clark Holton uncovered records pertaining to the stolen vessel while working in Washington, DC. with Ray Gardner, who chairs the tribal council for the Chinook Nation (into which the Clatsop had been incorporated). This finding led Holton and her family to then commission the construction of a canoe replica. Custom built in Oregon, the craft was presented yesterday to the tribe 205 years after the original mischief… And now, let the healing begin.
No one, of course, should underestimate the value of a gesture like this. And apparently the ceremony in which the presentation took place included songs and prayers. But I have to wonder if a little Sherman Alexie is in order:
On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City
The white woman across the aisle from me says, “Look,
look at all the history, that house
on the hill there is over two hundred years old,”
as she points out the window past me
into what she has been taught. I have learned
little more about American history during my few days
back East than what I expected and far less
of what we should all know of the tribal stories
whose architecture is 15,000 years older
than the corners of the house that sits
museumed on the hill. ”Walden Pond,”
the woman on the train asks, “Did you see Walden Pond?”
and I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break
her own by telling her there are five Walden Ponds
on my little reservation out West
and at least a hundred more surrounding Spokane,
the city I pretend to call my home. ”Listen,”
I could have told her. ”I don’t give shit
about Walden. I know the Indians were living stories
around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born
and before his grandparents’ grandparents were born.
I’m tired of hearing about Don-fucking Henley’s brothers saving it, too,
because that’s redundant. If Don Henley‘s brothers and sisters
and mothers and fathers hadn’t come here in the first place
then nothing would need to be saved.”
But I didn’t say a word to the woman about Walden
Pond because she smiled so much and seemed delighted
that I thought to bring her an orange juice
back from the food car. I respect elders
of every color. All I really did was eat
my tasteless sandwich, drink my Diet Pepsi
and nod my head whenever the woman pointed out
another little piece of her country’s history
while I, as all Indians have done
since this war began, made plans
for what I would do and say the next time
somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own.
It’s difficult to read a poem like this and not feel, either defensive (as a white euro-centric person), or vindictive (as a marginalized person of any ethnic group). But what happens if the “respect” with which the speaker treats the woman or persons “of every color” began to mean something more than silence?
I’m not exactly challenging the poet to step away from his own culture’s sensibilities. And yet, even an “elder” may need the helping hand or the jackhammer of a new mythopoetic narrative. That is, generations of anglo-saxons, who have been encased in asphalt and cement, don’t have the slightest notion of being encased. We actually need to be told. We need to be knocked upside the head — in the figurative, if not the literal, sense. And without that shock to the system, we replicate the rapport of the Lewis and Clark crew at the mouth of the Columbia River.
You see, while I very much appreciate the maiden voyage of a replacement canoe, replication is not the soul-stuff that mediates the vibrant and mutual relationships that we’re after… Perhaps it’s a start. But now, let the poetry of North America blaze a new trail! Let’s not “pretend” to call Spokane or any place a home. Let’s give voice to the pilgrimage, to the sojourn… to the walkabout into the wilderness. Let’s neither claim history as conquerors, nor as victims. Let’s not claim it as anything but a reservoir of potent images on which we can survive and perhaps someday thrive. Or maybe our forays into this rush of centuries is more like a cobble of stones into the mountains. Either way, what we do together is not replicate or reproduce an original. We make new steps.
–by Gary SnyderLay down these words Before your mind like rocks. placed solid, by hands In choice of place, set Before the body of the mind in space and time: Solidity of bark, let, or wall riprap of things: Cobble of milky way, straying planets, These poems, people, lost ponies with Dragging saddles and rocky sure-foot trails. The worlds like an endless four-dimensional Game of Go. ants and pebbles In the thin loam, each rock a word a creek-washed stone Granite: ingrained with torment of fire and weight Crystal and sediment linked hot all change, in thoughts, As well as things.
Evidently, the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite — as big as a school bus — has finally penetrated the atmosphere and come crashing down to earth. Welcome home!
It’s been a while since NASA launched you as an entirely intact apparatus, and now that you’re back, in fragments, strewn out like drift wood in the vast Pacific Ocean, we’ll have to catch up… So what’s it like to go from the benign six tons, hanging loose and free-floating and going round and round, to the dangerous debris that’s simply falls until it hits the bottom of the sea, or makes a dent in some barren stretch of Siberia?
God, so much has changed since you were sent away twenty years ago… the rise and fall of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell… Enron’s collapse… Duke basketball’s not as good… Brad Pitt‘s become a decent actor… Rachel Maddow is the new Peter Jennings… Keith Olbermann is on his second Countdown and maybe his third meltdown… R.E.M. has disbanded… Joe Paterno‘s still coaching, but nearly every one of his joints is made of titanium alloy… Lots of new coffee shops are springing up all over the place… there’s free wifi (except at Chicago’s O’Hare)… Jerry Falwell‘s kicked the bucket… Congress may shut down the government again… the skyline of New York City looks different… the polar bears are missing a few slabs of ice… a man with a Kenyan father and a Kansas mother has been elected president and may be again… But, can I confess something to you, O Personified Space Junk? Would you mind?
Well, ah, the fact is… We’re in a state of re-entry too. That is, much of what has comprised our wholeness has been burned off and disintegrated. And so, Fragments R US… You should take comfort in that — which is to say, you’re gonna fit right into things. You probably won’t miss a beat. Wherever you land, you’re going to land on your ass. Sideways. Bent. Bruised. All fucked up. And eventually the barnacles will be all over you like groupies on Justin Bieber. You’ll look a little bit like that other hunk of technological debris that we cast off back in April of 1912… There won’t be any deck chairs that we can salvage. But hey! — the Titanic has nothing on you. Nothing but the memory of a few thousand lives scarified, not to mention, sacrificed, to our collective hubris. And, as far as we know, not a soul will even be maimed by your flaming re-entry of assorted 300 pound parts!
As far as we know…
I guess what I’m trying to say is THANK YOU. You’re like this giant metaphor that is yet to be discovered. You’re so close to declaring something that really matters, something true about us and what we strive for, who we aspire to be and those disparate particles we will all ostensibly become.
Am I stretching this too far? Am I reading into your plight what I want to see? Hell, no! I don’t want to see more fragmentation and deconstruction. I’d like to experience some sort of cosmic unity. The sad thing is I’ve made various efforts and overtures; and when I have a chance to catch my breath, I’ve got souvenirs of a place where I’ve never vacationed. I’ve got heirlooms from relatives who aren’t that familiar. Anyway, I really appreciate you listening. For a defunct satellite you’re not so bad a conversation partner… Better than most.
The Second Coming
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
It starts with a strand of hair. A strand of hair from an aboriginal australian, something collected and saved for posterity over a hundred years ago… And now, the distinguished and scholarly journal, Science, has published their findings, which include the genetic testing of the hair and how its genomes suggest sea travel by an initial wave of ancient Africans who landed down-under between 62,000 and 75,000 years ago. Whew!
The reason I say, “Whew,” is that I’d like to re-affirm what William Stafford calls “the thread.” And latching onto the thread happens to be where hard-core rationalism merges with subjective intuition in profound and positive ways. Think “thread” in terms of the D.N.A. strand that’s become so important in research (not to mention forensics). But then think about a person’s life and looming death: Is there a thread that each sacred individual tracks throughout her/his experience? Moreover, isn’t it appropriate for us to ask why evolutionary biologists wouldn’t want to simply accept the standard protocol on how human beings came to colonize the planet? Why wouldn’t they?
And why wouldn’t Martin Richards just sit back and chill out? Why publish a new theory which speculates that what we knew to be the historic truth is not, shall we say, rock-solid?
In short, why de-stabilize what’s been stable?
Well, I’m not sure the scientists themselves are prepared to answer. But poets like William Stafford are. Here’s “The Way It Is“:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
You see, self-knowledge goes hand-in-hand with that information that we may document with data. What we pursue through analysis with test tubes may put us on the trail of what we pursue existentially, with as much half-cocked emotion as we can mustard.
This week I’ve encountered some of my students in an introductory literature class. Many of them make hard and fast distinctions between information they can memorize and those little experiential tidbits that give them goosebumps. My job, as I see it now, is to poke holes in that dichotomy — to question in such a way that they begin to appreciate how something as mundane as their own split-ends could become a sort-of spiritual nexus!
Sappho is an ancient Greek poet, whose fragmented works are available to us only because someone wanted to pack assorted clay pots in strips of papyrus. Here’s one of her glimpses from the 7th century BCE:
We put the urn aboard ship
with this inscription:
This is the dust of little
Timas who unmarried was led
into Persephone‘s dark bedroom
And she being far from home, girls
her age took new-edged blades
to cut, in mourning for her,
these curls of their soft hair
How amazing and wondrous is the thread! Hold on! It’s going somewhere good!
The President of the United States is giving a speech at the United Nations Assembly. I listen to him, enunciating his syllables — Pal-es-tin-i-an State — and wonder about the first few days he spent at school. In each pregnant pause of his delivery, with the delegates of each nation nodding their heads, folding and unfolding their arms — I hear teachers. I hear lesson plans in the background, still lingering, still massaging his cerebral cortex and still waiting for that final test. What will it be? What will be the question that won’t allow him or them or us to pass, to punt, to defer on a process of peace…?
The hikers, held on charges of espionage in Iran, are being released. As I write, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal are apparently in flight to Oman, and will be greeted there by their families. And, as bizarre as it may seem, I am so curious at this moment about their first few days of school — how they scribbled their first words, added that infamous sum — 2 + 2 = 4 — and then glanced at their first map of the world. Where is Iran? Can you point to its capital? What are its principal rivers? Who lives there on the streets and in the countryside? What languages do they speak? I see these words on a blackboard or a half-sheet of blank paper. Shane and Josh then absorb them like chewable vitamins into their bloodstreams. Their teachers will help them imagine the very dirt between their toes, and one day they will go.
It’s not surprising to me that teachers have an impact. It is surprising, however, to find their seeds growing and bearing fruit in the decades that follow. Just think of the hefty chunks of old macadam that have been back-filled into the soil of learning. Take a gander at the addictions to drugs and to alcohol that kill, rather than coddle, those brain cells. Appreciate the vast spectrum of electrifying entertainment that inhibits us from following that rabbit trail. Moreover, we have years now of teachers who are mandated to teach to the test — to actually stifle the hunger for reflection and placate it with regurgitated stock-answers. Yes, consider the obstacles… and it’s amazing that teachers continue to haunt the hallways of our consciousness and that a hall pass is not necessary.
The School Children
The children go forward with their little satchels.
And all morning the mothers have labored
to gather the late apples, red and gold,
like words of another language.
And on the other shore
are those who wait behind great desks
to receive these offerings.
How orderly they are — the nails
on which they children hang
their overcoats of blue and yellow wool.
And the teachers shall instruct them in silence
and the mothers shall scour the orchards for a way out,
drawing to themselves the gray limbs of the fruit trees
bearing so little ammunition.
I remember to this moment the following names and more faces who occasionally still gaze over my shoulder: Mr. Betts, Mr. Monastra, Miss Corbett, Mrs. Fries, Mrs. McCool, Mrs. Boss, Mr. Livingston… Many of them are probably now in their 70′s or 80′s. Obituaries, for some, have already gone to print in newspapers that have already gone defunct. And yet, so much hinges upon the door they’ve left open, or upon the window shades they’ve pulled.
–By John Hodgen
When Miss Sokoloski, our first-year French teacher, leaned over her desk to get out
our quizzes from the lower-right-hand drawer, we all leaned with her, even the girls, to see
that softness and shadow under the scoop neck of her Jackie Kennedy two-piece suit.
Dumb as we were we knew she was too sweet to teach French, too pretty as well. When she
went to the board we studied declensions we never even knew we had. When she cried one day because some of us cheated, none of us could say in any language, Romance or not,
that it was because she was so beautiful. A year later she left and we figure she married,
someone fluent in French who loved her like we did, tout de suite and tongue-tied. And when
Mr. Burke, Junior English, who looked like Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird and wore
the same suit three times a week, slumped in his seat and would not speak when the PA
announced JFK had been killed, he taught his best lesson, that we all lived somewhere
between what was right and what was wrong, that beauty lived right in the middle,
that teachers felt the same thing we all felt too, they just kept it inside like a test in a drawer.
And we thought if only he could marry Miss Sokoloski, read poems all night and translate
each other, but she was too pretty and he was too poor. My teachers, all dead now or pretty
close to it, like Jackie, the Kennedys, and Marilyn Monroe, who knew everything once,
except what they taught us, the tests that were coming, the things we would know.
The shocking insights from the recently released Arthur Schlesinger audio tapes are these: Jackie Kennedy didn’t think women had the constitution for politics. Jackie Kennedy said that JFK feared for the country if Lyndon Johnson were to become president. Jackie Kennedy called Martin Luther King, Jr. a “phony.” Jackie Kennedy had a snobbish view of Pat Nixon‘s hair style. Jackie Kennedy loved her late husband and tolerated his philandering. And finally, if the Cuban missile crisis had spiraled out of control, Jackie Kennedy wanted to die with her “elusive man” and her children rather than survive in some underground bunker…
And there we have it. The princess of Camelot sounds downright catty, and by today’s standards of discourse, scandalously backward. But perhaps the only thing we should say about anyone whose been taped in 1964 is that she’s merely stuck in her time (and had no other recourse but to be stuck).
Stuck, of course, may seem a little pejorative. I don’t intend it to be. Jackie Kennedy, like all of us, had to move with the flow of history and respond to her interviewer with the upper-crust elegance in which she had been born and raised. She had a bias, if not a prejudice, that came silver-spoon society of New England and saw no reason to shake loose from it. But, I would argue that the bulk of Jackie Kennedy’s provincial take on the world had its source in a time that had its time and is now long, long gone.
We should remember that when we assume the posture of speaking for future generations — as if this time of 2011 has the pinnacle point of view from which all timeless truths may be uttered. Not so. We’re stuck too. Consider the “Recent Changes at Canter’s Deli,” by Ed Skoog:
The telephone is no longer upstairs.
Cut fruit in cold cup will never be whole.
Nothing is where it was. The plate
is beside the bowl. My mind’s all fucked up,
distorted, pale light reflected on stainless steel
of the walk-in cooler. It is not where it was.
Here’s the spike to build a body of receipt.
Sweat collects on the water pitcher lip
like the goodbye of a woman I loved.
The clerk bends his body to pray the miracle
of the hand washing station, turns knife to loaf.
The present pours into the pepper shaker.
It settles on the silk ivy of the now. Odds fade
in the sports section fallen between the counter,
where paying my bill I orphan a dime
for a silver mint, and the window snows sun
brilliant on Fairfax, demanding the commute.
They are not letting me drive anymore
and turning onto Melrose on the bus,
the driver, I overhear, has another job,
one he doesn’t know the name for.
Up in the haze some undiscovered animal
watches us, its plan mapped out, fire
swinging up the canyons, unfolding
until flame may flicker tip of sabertooth fang
in the museum where rare finds are hidden.
I, too, am a dinosaur. Rawr. My little claws.
I’m the dredge flopping for tar from the pits.
Click. I am a kind of David Bowie
in the Amoeba everything’s-a-dollar bin.
I have four fingers and a thumb on my right hand,
equal representation on the left, and fourteen
billion toes. I’m a windup rooster. Who I am
and what I feel are irrelevant enough to be central
to the project of contemporary American poetry.
Or perhaps any art. Poetry’s just the form
of unimportance I teach teenagers above L.A.
under slanted windows that kill, by surprise,
the birds we then write about, gathering bonfire
around the small corpses, because it’s cold here.
Ed Skoog, I think, may be onto something. Being stuck in history makes for the best poetry. Without it we launch speeches into the public domain that sound over-confident as to our overall impact upon the civilized world. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t reach for eternal things. I’m not saying the sublime verities aren’t out there “blowing in the wind.” Rather, let’s just search for poetic ways and artistic disciplines by which we might keep ourselves in check.
In fact, we may discover that while not even trying to stand the test of time, some wise reader from the year 2061 will boil down a grandiose thought that we ourselves never had. Go figure. By paying attention to our own stuck-ness in our time we help the George Jetson family of tomorrow recognize their own finitude.
Even Canter’s Deli can be put on the endangered species list. Apparently, the Dodgertown Deli has displaced the franchised vendor at Dodger Stadium and will serve arugula salad with goat cheese. (Now, that’s more Jackie Kennedy’s style.)
“The Night of No Planes,” by Alberto Rios, is a subtle poem about the experience of 9/11 from as far away from the tragic events as Arizona. I appreciate its profound simplicity in that my own sons have grown up in the shadow of the twin towers’ collapse — not as those thousands who literally lost a family member or a dear friend. But, like Rios and his offspring, we’ve seen some “ancient practice” slandered or mildly rebuked, and it’s still hard not to taste the ash in the air, even ten years later:
We walk out into the light dark of the evening,
My son and I, so many times before
Having walked here, so many years and reasons.
The steps are easy and not many.
We stand by the ash tree, which has not grown
In the ten years since we planted it.
The tree is sickly, I suppose, and still
It is what I have sometimes wished onto my son –
That he might have stayed
All the ways I have known him, that baby,
That boy, that young man shaving in the bathroom.
But the tree is a good reminder, having no more leaves
Than it ever had, no more of anything. Together,
Our job tonight is not the tree, but to look up,
To look for airplanes tonight,
Our own ancient practice, my son’s and mine,
A night that has been reported in the news
As not having any.
Today, of course, various tributes will mark the occasion in ways that earlier generations remembered Pearl Harbor. Unlike the encounter with imperial Japan, however, the attacks of ten years ago really had no recognizable, sovereign nation from which they were orchestrated and eventually carried out. Even with the association of terrorism and “Al Qaeda” we, in the west, may feel as if we’re doing battle with chaos itself… And maybe, in some sense, we are.
I remember September 11th, 2001, as an extremely bright and blue-sky day. My wife and I were in the fifth year of starting a new congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA), known as Crossroads. We maintained offices in an old brick schoolhouse, in which a Southern Baptist church plant had also rented space. And, on that fateful morning, I recall feeling somewhat ‘hemmed in’ by religious rhetoric. I wanted a little elbow room. The competition between the two churches was palpable (at least in my own tortured mind)… And then came the news!
Then I stood, with my spouse and with the Southern Baptist leaders, and observed the smoking skyscrapers on the television screen. Freak accident? Pilot error? Malfunctioning equipment? What could it have been that caused THIS?
Well, eventually, we learned. We learned about the 747 crashing into the Pentagon. We learned about Flight 93 taking a nosedive in the fields of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But the over-arching lesson came to me as I crumpled up in a fetal position in my suburban cocoon. Namely, those planes being diverted in those ways taught me the close proximity of chaos. And they reinforced for me and for many in my sphere of influence the tenuous nature of our relationships. Had we been hanging from a thread all this time? Did Jonathan Edwards have it right? Are we “Sinners In The Hands of An Angry God“? Damn it. I said, NO!
These categories of Good Guys and Bad Guys did not work for this… And although, politically and militarily, the George W. Bush administration promised retribution — “the people who knocked down these buildings will hear from us all very soon! — I could no longer bring myself to declare that God was here… there… or anywhere!
On that Tuesday night, we hosted two prayer services — one in which we held hands in a circle on the property where Crossroads would eventually be built — and the other, with the Southern Baptist contingent, back at the schoolhouse. On each occasion we cried out in the tradition of Psalm 40 as best we could: “How long, O Lord?!”
But, you see, from that moment I realized that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. That is, I don’t want to rush to make sense — let alone to judgment. I don’t want to apply hard and fast solutions in diplomacy. I don’t want to build up stronger and stronger defenses against the outside forces who are determined to overthrow our American ideals. Moreover, I don’t want to lead a church group to pray over or sanctify any of these ‘wants,’ which are very tempting to indulge even now.
What do I want?
I want a plain ordinary day in September to be remembered as extraordinary.
Our First Ancestors Put Their Feet In Their Mouths With Their Hands — And Then Reflected On What They Had Done!
BREAKING NEWS from Johannesburg, where Dr. Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand has discovered two skulls, an intact pelvis, a foot that looks like it could have walked upright and one right hand, capable of tinkering with tools… The remains have been carbon-dated to about 1,977 million years ago, and apparently Berger’s nine-year-old son contributed in some “hands-on” way to the paleoanthropologist’s find… But, for the balance of this ancient “sound bite,” we turn to poetry.
The number of poems which focus on a hand (or two) probably exceed the number which defer to the foot. Why is that? Why does John Keats, in “This Living Hand,” not offer up some verse that a podiatrist could hang on a waiting room wall? We can’t be sure. And yet, who are we to question the correspondent’s work:
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
Were cold and in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience calmed — see, it is here –
I hold it towards you.
I’m just guessing at this stage, but my sense of cultural morays is that the lower extremity (ie., the foot) borders on the risqué. Think of the scandal with Ruth uncovering the tootsies of Boaz on the threshing floor. Or, if that’s too Hebraic for you, note the sensuous woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ little piggies, and then wiped them down with her hair. Oh, good heavens! Didn’t they have the “Shamwow” back in the first century? Did she have to tangibly touch his foot fungus in order show her devotion? (And isn’t that a kind of artistic and imprudent thing to do?)
Anyway, let’s return our attention to the opposable thumb and (if one is fortunate) the fantastic four digits. The hand. Recent digs in South Africa have revealed a human ancestor whose hands ”reflect a greater emphasis on tool use,” Steven Churchill tells ABC News. That is to say, according to the Duke University scholar, the feet of the Australopithecus sediba may permit some upright walking. And the brain cavity of the prehistoric skull may be small by today’s standards. What distinguishes human from non-human or human-in-process is the dexterity of the hand.
Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last few months, you know the story of my left hand and the severing of my ring finger. My identity is now wrapped around that missing digit and that embodied sense of loss. With every grasp of a steering wheel or a baseball bat I rehearse my lack of symmetry. Every time, however, I reach for change at Starbucks and the nickels and dimes fall through that phantom-space, language comes to mind and amazingly to my mouth… “We know from experience,” writes Iain McGilchrist, “that there are many connections between the hand and language. For example, there is clearly a close relationship between spoken language and the wealth of gesture language that often accompanies it” (The Master and His Emissary, p. 111). This, you see, is the essence of poetry that I’d like to explore through a variety of disciplines and cultural forays — on the one hand and on the other.
Take a gander at this wondrous video of a three-year-old boy who recites the poem, “Litany,” by Billy Collins. As he summons each word to his young and impressionable consciousness, watch the hands. Watch what the little tike’s doing with his hands AND his mouth.
So, you may ask, what’s the connection with the archaeological find mentioned earlier? How does a potential missing link in the evolutionary chain of hominids relate to a talented young man nailing Collins to the playroom floor? Well, it’s a question of what constitutes the emergence of homo sapiens, I guess. My rationale for engaging this discussion, which is completely over-my-head, focuses on the distinction between using tools (technology) and the self-reflection that begins to occur with the repeated use of tools (spirituality).
J. Wentzel Van Huyssteen (a professor of theology and science at Princeton Theological Seminary) has raised this inter-disciplinary issue, and I’d like all incognito poets to warm to its validity. That is: ”On this view the human person emerged biologically as a center of self-awareness, religious awareness, and moral responsibility…” (Alone In The World?, p. 147). And in arriving at that and other summary statements, Van Huyssteen makes a huge deal about another paleoanthropological discovery, the Cave of Lascaux in France. What’s fascinating here, of course, is the ancient painting of human figures hunting game with spears and using tools to create art — art which helps them ponder themselves in relation to their environment. You get me?
The trajectory looks like this: A couple of hominids in South Africa begin to use tools which they’ve made out of stone. These tools are initially just functional, a means of survival. At some point, then, the continual application of this technology changes the brain, grows it in profound ways to meet increasingly more complex challenges. Then, suddenly, there’s a thought or a feeling. And this thought/feeling turns the tables on the tools and their use. The question in the embodied mind of the first humans is not simply, How do I eat well and survive, but Why am I here? Van Huyssteen refers to this as “the need to create meaning.”
Here’s a poem, by Robert Bly — of Iron John fame — called “A Week after Your Death.” I love the allusion to tools and rudimentary technology which may offer a hint as to the context of the original relationship. But pay special attention to how the struggle for meaning transcends “bolts and nails and bins.” Plus, is the “ivory jar” a shout out to the biblical story I mentioned earlier — about the woman who pours perfume on Jesus’ feet?
I dreamt last night you
Lived nearby, not
Dead at all, but safe
In a blacksmith’s storage room,
With bolts and nails and bins
From floor to ceiling.
You came and brought me
An ivory jar,
Holding a precious fluid,
Which I took. I knew it meant
The time had come,
But I let you leave.
Later a man pushed open
The door and threw
Your body down, a wizened,
Astonishingly small body –
Rope still tied
Around the neck.
I woke and cried to my wife:
“He didn’t die
That way! There was no rope!
All that is wrong!” She
Your dream he did.”
Supposedly Stone Henge is all about fertility… Or was about fertility. Getting pregnant or timing the copulation just right in order to become pregnant. Or, in an agrarian culture, to gauge the seasons of planting and harvesting crops… Mother Earth kind of spirituality or the Druid equivalent …
That’s the latest theory anyway. (See this link for MORE.) And, as we all know, a theory may be challenged and otherwise put to the test — even a theory regarding this famous archaelogical hotspot and why its massive stones came to stand in these intricate juxtapositions… hmmm, like a birth control dispenser.
But I remain skeptical about the prehistoric site near Amesbury, Wiltshire. Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize winning poet, has made me skeptical about the fertility theory. And here’s why: when I read ”Tollund Man” what springs to mind is human sacrifice!
That is, although the suspicious remains found in a peat bog near Silkeborg, Denmark are approximately 2,000 years old, and the Stone Henge ruins have been carbon dated to around 2,100 B.C.E., my gut tells me the same general folk were involved. Is that a leap in logic?
Perhaps. But read the poem for yourself and then tell me you’re not convinced. Not convinced of pretty much anything:
Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint’s kept body,
Trove of the turfcutters’
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.
I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambused
Flesh of labourers,
Laid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.
Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.
You see, it’s a question of the haves and the have-nots. Then, as now, some human life is disposable. Then, as now, they had polite ways of justifying the sacrifice of a lower-peasant class, and they probably paid tribute to these poor sods for doing their duty. And yet, in the words of Nacho Libre (Jack Black character), maybe we need “a different duty”!
Maybe now, unlike then, we need a different kind of mythopoetic story in which sacrifices are truly shared among various ethnic groups, income groups and on and on.
I’ve been dumbfounded recently as I’ve watched Dick Cheney promoting his new book, which absolves him of any responsibility regarding the bogus build-up to war in Iraq and countless lives lost in the process. Dick is good with the whole gig. His conscience is clean with regard to the water-boarding of sundry detainees. Moreover, although he doesn’t make a huge deal about it, “In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir” totally omits his military service in Vietnam… Oh, that’s right. Dick Cheney, like George W. Bush, conveniently got out of that boots-on-the-ground mode of combatting the enemies of the United States.
Aug. 29, 1964: Dick and Lynne Cheney marry.
July 28, 1965: President Lyndon Johnson says draft calls will be doubled.
Oct. 26, 1965: The Selective Service declares that married men without children, who were previously exempted from the draft, will now be called up. Married men with children remain exempt.
Jan. 19, 1966: The Selective Service reclassifies Dick Cheney 3-A, “deferred from military service because service would cause hardship upon his family,” because his wife is pregnant with their first child.
Hmmm… About nine months later. Very interesting.
There’s that fertility theory all over again. It’s funny how history repeats itself, isn’t it? Check out this video of Seamus Heaney reading his poem, “The Tollund Man.” The photographic images that accompany it are remarkable.