Aug 132015
 

Nietzsche

 

For a man with such little ears, Friedrich Nietzsche heard a multitude of deep pulses within the heart of European culture. The great despiser of liberalism and humanitarianism was also no less than the great despiser of conservatism and capitalism. As is the case with many important thinkers in the Western canon, Nietzsche’s dislikes greatly outnumbered his likes, just as the contradictions in his thought served to develop them all the better. Adoring power, he hated the powerful of his time for their unearned privileges. Adoring culture, he hated the cultured milieu of his time for its abiding philistinism. Adoring the sanguine bigotry of nineteenth-century society, he hated anti-Semites and the Darwinian biology that Herbert Spencer would later develop into a lethal social philosophy. His reputation in the popular consciousness is inaccurate as often as it is unflattering.

Nietzsche has been called the philosopher of a Hell that would put any of Dante’s to shame; he has also been called the original entrepreneur of the self-help genre. Who can say that most of this popular genre doesn’t boil down to “how to be what you already are?” The majority of humankind sickened him—“suffering from solitude…I have only ever suffered from ‘multitude…’”—even as his own sanity famously deteriorated during his final productive years. The overman himself was a botched invalid, internally contradictory, eloquent even in his madness. It is this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought that proves the most interesting of all his many interesting thoughts. For the epistemological break[1] in Nietzsche, from his relatively sane years to the period in which his syphilis destroyed him, is the hinge of his oeuvre, the unhinging of which provided the world with its own worst reflection.

*

There is, first, a need for some biographical context. In life, Nietzsche was a soft-spoken, gentle man. Like Schopenhauer before him, he detested the animal vivisection of his time and the Christian dogma which supported it. Descartes had taught that animals were only machines: only humans could say cogito ergo ego[2]. The beaten horse of Thus Spake Zarathrustra, saved by the anti-Christ himself, is probably the most famous beast in Western philosophy. Nihilism mingled with antihumanism when it came to Nietzsche’s view of war, however; he saw in war a great synthetic process that improved humanity for all its loss of life. This is a paradox, considering he considered himself totally opposed to nihilism in all its forms[3]. All of life was a battleground, power was the world’s skeleton, and whoever could not gain power was rightfully doomed to serve those who could. Nietzsche went far beyond a basic philosophy of “sink or swim” in his preachments—he taught that swimming in the ocean was a belittling affair compared to declaring oneself its personal god. He was a thoroughgoing sexist[4], too, although most men, even Christian men, were sexists in the deeply religious nineteenth century. Had he been more progressive on the sexual question, Nietzsche might have retained more relevance after the sexual turn of contemporary philosophy. Some of his flaws, it must be said, caricature him even at his most solemn.

The timid bachelor held that morality was a mechanism spun into culture in order to enslave mankind to its lower orders and that, once the Victorian liberalism became ascendant over the old feudal regime, the slaves had won the game. Of course, Nietzsche’s view of slave morality was rather idiosyncratic: he thought the rich were slaves, the skilled workers were slaves, and homeowners were slaves par excellence. For Nietzsche, the overman, the man who was himself, the man who had transcended both culture and contingency, had not yet been born. In this respect he thought himself the foe of determinism and the very midwife of a new aristocracy freed from every circumstance save those that were worthy of the next evolution in human ethics. Whether he invented modernism or postmodernism, he invented.

It would be no travail to produce a fruitful thought experiment concerning the man in the flesh. Imagine the phenomenology of being one of Nietzsche’s friends, of knowing him, of having been at first repulsed by his eccentricity and then inevitably drawn into its orbit. He would either entice you or estrange you. Who can say that Ignatius J. Reilly, of Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, was not modeled on Nietzsche’s physical appearance: a lumberman’s mustache, slicked-back hair, and lunatic eyes? Given that the nineteenth century was a bit less normative than our own—most periods in history respected eccentricity more than our own, in fact—he might have struck a social note less strange than any of the illiterate handiworkers of his day. But if one had the benefit of hindsight, it must have been an event bordering on the uncanny not only to have met Nietzsche, but to have known him for what he was: a world-historical creep, an unsound man, a profound critic of the everyday, a scholar steeped in far-flung days, an iconoclast who couldn’t keep a friend anymore than he could keep a lover. Had he been alive today he would be brushed off as a mouth-breather, or a gloomy diarist, or cast aside as an unsocialized loner incapable of integrating into the status quo[5]. Of course, Nietzsche expected this expelling of singular persons from respectability, writing in Daybreak[6] that

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

The only cure for the unqualified sameness of human civilization was eccentricity, then. Behaving like the mass was to be equivalent to the mass, and this, for Nietzsche, was a sin greater than any concoction of the Christian gospel.

Given his valuation of difference, what would Nietzsche say about the sane-insane dichotomy which was only coming into scientific discourse during his lifetime? Unenlightened society often calls its outliers insane, and even enlightened society has no limitation of names for psychological deviations. Much of Nietzsche’s writing sounds bipolar, or schizophrenic, or amoral (to this last accusation he would yelp an astounding yes). A more anti-social philosophy the nineteenth century never produced. But it is a mistake of psychological prejudice to denounce him as merely insane, and therefore fit only to be ignored[7].

When he wasn’t a crank, he spoke truths so frightening they hardly bear countenance; when he was a crank, he still provided insights of more worth today than that of most of our credentialed moralists. To be an atheist in the nineteenth century was to count oneself a member of the Ship of Fools. Today, we would sooner declare insane the man who declares his personal affinity with God than the village atheist, who would look incomparably more normal, a veritably endowed member of consensus reality. Nietzsche himself taught that conventions and customs change over time, borrowing this from the German higher biblical criticism of his era. Were it not for the empirical understanding of his venereal disease and its effects on the brain, we would have little evidence of his insanity, except that Der Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, and Zur Genealogie offend us.

If, as Peter Sloterdijk has it[8], Walter Benjamin universalized the category of prostitution in his critique of capitalism, then Friedrich Nietzsche universalized the category of the godforsaken in his critique of Christianity. The modernist Christianity of today bears almost no resemblance to the Christianity of Nietzsche’s era—it was very much the nihilist construction he painted it to be. If it affirms earthly life today, it is only because it denied it in the past; it preached asceticism to the “factory slaves” (Nietzsche’s term, as well as Karl Marx’s) and reserved praise and pleasure for the powerful alone. He thought Christianity had smuggled weakness into the former majesty of Western culture and, in preaching the essential equality of practically unequal people, vulgarized all that existed. To defend the botched was to condemn the perfected. Of course, Nietzsche’s failure to recognize himself among the botched was a lasting error of his philosophy, which even H.L. Mencken, the journalist who introduced him to the English-speaking world, pointed out in a humorous essay condemning the pseudoscience of Jazz Age eugenics[9].

Prescience eludes even the most astute of prophets, at times. Nietzsche was weak and preached the demise of the weak, or their enslavement; perhaps the one remnant worth preserving from this particular labyrinth of power relations is his insistence that race did not determine the worth of a man. Nietzsche was many unsavory things, but he was not a racist. Such a construct as race could only be inherited, and was therefore below the status of the self-made man no longer all too human. While he did not view race as modern biologists do—that is, he did not think it was purely a myth, as post-racial biology insists it is[10]—he did think it was an anxiety of influence the overman deserved to shed. It is a historical quirk that European fascism found a hero in Nietzsche, since he would not have supported totalitarianism[11] or the embrace of capitalism. Such atmospheres, in abolishing solitude, would stifle the Nietzschean overman. He probably would not have deplored the war casualties of the second World War—he was overjoyed at the prospect of Europe depopulating by a fourth-measure after the turmoil of his own mid-century—but he would have deplored the idea of philistines winning the game of international politics. National Socialism was as far removed from the core of Nietzsche’s existential thought as American liberal democracy or Europe’s vying theocracies of the Middle Ages.

*

What to make, then, of the elder Nietzsche’s lunacy? Did it inform his philosophy and thereby disqualify it, or did it oust him from the confines of mere convention and therefore render his worldview absolute? Hating the world as it was, he denounced Christianity for preaching the same, that the mundane was only a pathetic reflection of the platonic Heaven. Proving unfit for war, he preached war and the death of able-bodied inferiors. Flitting from one antimony to the next, Nietzsche’s existence contradicted his philosophy in almost every respect possible. Like the individualist Emerson with his wife’s financial support, Nietzsche lived off a university pension for most of his authorial life—on the nineteenth-century equivalent of welfare. He himself could not have survived in a Nietzschean universe. Every site of his contradiction devalues his philosophy in the abysmal concrete.

But philosophy, as Kant said, is the science of concepts. The Nietzschean concept is beautiful, if terrifying; even if it is not practicable for the uppermost portion of human beings, it inhabits a special place in the imagination that yearns for betterment of self and world. His books were not his body. That his own mind was split in twain by a biological infestation is immaterial in relation to his philosophy, which exists beyond the carnal body. His demon of the “loneliest loneliness” that preaches the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence is a valuable thought experiment anyone and everyone should perform in their private introspection. That this life, being the only one we have, ought to be as perfected as possible is surely not the stuff of sin. It exemplifies the American ideology better than any belief system concocted in America. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, he writes

It is not impossible to conceive of a society whose consciousness of power would allow it the most refined luxury there is—that of allowing those who did it harm to go unpunished.

What statement better exemplifies the American maxim that it is better to travel the high road than the low when confronted with adversity? What better display of power than the power that goes unused? If only the American government’s foreign policy followed such advice as Nietzsche’s—not the Nietzsche of the fascist parody, but the aristocratic Nietzsche who sees warfare as a means to a peaceful end rather than the indefinite extension of the military-industrial complex, or the global hegemony of a single statehood. Against modern capitalist dynamism, which can enslave as much as it can emancipate, and against the medieval Great Chain of Being that inhibited social mobility completely—like it or not—Nietzsche posed his formula of amor fati. Even if one is unable to navigate the world, to bend it to his will, he nevertheless must love that he is in it, be he the hangman or the hanged.

With his decade-long period of invalidity in his sister’s care, he even portrays mankind at its most vulnerable: in him, the brutality of competition melds utterly with the essential impotence of the human experience in this vale of tears. If Nietzsche was insane, his insanity was more valuable to the human race, which he despised, than the sharpest clarity of an Emerson, a Spinoza, a James, a Niebuhr, or a Wittgenstein. We have his books precisely because he could not live up to their ideals[12], because his esoteric and idiosyncratic epistemology was so problematic that it could only be birthed through the medium of text. Few today would recognize that he originated the adage “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Modernity—right or left[13]—owes to him its viable atheism, its insistence on individual progressive striving rather than collective cow-towing, and the relativist morality that bolsters its liberal achievements. The disease that devoured his unfortunate brain, in turn, enlightened and enriched our own thinking, however much the man himself was damned in the process. Where would we be without Friedrich Nietzsche but lost and raving in the intellectual gutters?

— Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy

Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In treating Nietzsche’s 1889 “epistemological break,” I borrow the concept from Louis Althusser’s symptomatic reading of Karl Marx in Reading Capital (Verso, 2009), since Nietzsche is, no doubt, better treated by philosophy than psychiatry.
  2. Descartes, the founder of modern Western philosophy, dissected cats in his spare time. Although Nietzsche was morbid, he never was so morbid as that, and hesitated to harm a fly. It is odd that Descartes is remembered as a positive influence and Nietzsche as a psychopath.
  3. See Heidegger, Martin. “The Word of Nietzsche: God is Dead.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Harper Perennial, 1977.
  4. See Nietzsche. “First Part, 14: On the Friend.” Thus Spake Zarathrustra. Oxford, 2005. Pg. 50. This section, among others, explains the subtleties of Nietzsche’s sexism. In it, he condemns women as essentially still being slaves, and therefore incapable of friendship—even calling them birds and cows—but at the same time he condemns most men for being in the same debased state. It must also be remembered that the narrator is an ambiguous conceit exemplifying madness.
  5. Once a full professor, Nietzsche benefited from his later estrangement from the German academic establishment. His alienation from scholarship solidified his audience, who were still reeling from the revolutionary movements and institutional storms and stresses of 1848. In fact, had he been a more normal man with the same ideas, it is unlikely he would have been remembered by posterity. See also Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer. “Nietzsche as Educator.” American Nietzsche. The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pg 169.
  6. See Kaufman, Walter. The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin, 1982. In this definitive anthology, Kaufman translates Daybreak as Dawn.
  7. In contrast to his earlier demand for sober aesthetics, Nietzsche exhorts in Twilight of the Idols that “for there to be art, for there to be any kind of aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” The Dionysian worldview is the quintessence of what lay psychology would call insanity. See also Ronell, Avital. Crack Capitalism. 1992.
  8. See Sloterdijk in the 2010 film Marx Reloaded , a short philosophical documentary concerning the re-emergence of Marxist philosophy in the light of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. It is also worth noting that, contrary to some popular opinions concerning Nietzsche and laissez-faire capitalism, he would in all likelihood detest elite capital as much as he detested the common man. He would sooner have been impressed by a breath-controlling yogi than by a financial magnate.
  9. See Mencken, H.L.. “Dives into Quackery.” Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series. Library of America, 2010. Mencken introduced the Nietzschean philosophy to America with his 1908 book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, but given that he did not have access to the mountain of scholarship on him now extant, Mencken’s book now reads rather superficially.
  10. See Sussman, Robert. The Myth of Race. Harvard UP, 2014.
  11. See Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”. Picador, 2003. “Here we have the beginnings of the famous great portrait of the ‘barbarian’ which we will go on finding until the late nineteenth century and, of course, in Nietzsche, [for whom] freedom will be equivalent to a ferocity defined as a taste for power and determined greed, an inability to serve others, and constant desire to subjugate others…” (149). Foucault’s portrait of Nietzsche was apolitical, whereas totalitarianism demands over-arching political structures that, in the philosopher’s view, could only limit the individual in his quest for overman status. If, as he aged, he revered a strong state, it was only to keep the masses from limiting the liberated overmen, not as an end in itself. He is also notorious for despising hero-worship as embodied by the proto-fascist Carlyle’s historicist great man theory.
  12. See Nietzsche. “Why I Write Such Good Books.” Ecce Homo. Oxford, 2007. “I am one thing, my writings are another…I myself am not yet timely; some are born posthumously.” Pg.36.
  13. See Berman, Marshall. “Marx, Modernism, and Modernization.” All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Penguin, 1988. Pg 100-01. While Berman’s book is ostensibly more about Marx’s relation to modernity than Nietzsche’s, in this chapter he thoughtfully links Marx to Nietzsche’s attack on nihilism to the whole administration of contemporary capitalist-bureaucratic society.
Aug 072015
 

15th Cen. St Brenden, stranded whale, B. Museum15th Cen. St. Brenden & The Stranded Whale, British Museum

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There shines in us, though dimly in darkness, the life and the light
of man, a light which does not come from us, which however is in
us, and we must therefore find it within us.
Gerhard Dorn – Philosophia specuativa

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“As the dead prey upon us,
they are the dead in ourselves,
awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,
disentangle the nets of being!”
Charles Olson

1 – Pedrolino

WOKE THIS MORNING in the house where the poet Vincent Ferrini lived and wrote for decades, now the Gloucester Writers Center.August 17th, 2014, at 7:30 AM, newly risen light washes purple drawstring shades, which I keep half-shut. Perched on the shoulder of East Maine Street, a two lane coastal road that runs between downtown Gloucester and Rocky Neck, traffic up and down the hill sets up a constant rush of sound. The front door opens on a gas station/ convenience store at the far side of a parking lot. In back workmen level ground to pave a narrow alley. People walk close to the windows. There’s a small kitchen at one end, and a bathroom off the main room. I’ll be the poet-in-residence here for a week, which ends with a reading from my latest collection, Fishing On The Pole Star.

Last night, after a chicken/vegetable stir-fry dinner, I turned on the overhead fan, moved a lamp to the side of the vintage pull-out bed and perused a book case lining the wall stacked with copies of Vincent’s collection, Know Fish. Among them I found a copy of Charles Olsen’s Collected Works and fell asleep reading his signature poem, “The Kingfishers.” This morning I dimly remember a dream in which I’m standing in a rowboat fishing from the stern with a child’s rig. I understand the implication that I am still developing as a fisherman, but have no doubt that knowing fish has brought me here.

Framed poems hang on white walls beside images of Ferrini and his friend, larger than life poet Charles Olson, who mythologized Gloucester as Joyce did Dublin. Standing 6’8”, aka Maximus, and former rector of Black Mountain College, Olson played a major role in the dynamic changes that drove mid-20th Century American poetry. Ferrini appears small beside him, but no less haunting.

Vincent & MEVincent Ferrini, (monoprint) by Jain Tarnower @ The Gloucester Writers Center

I work on a table facing a print of Ferrini outlined in white on a black field—an image dominated by his white face and hands. He wears a domed hat, like a novitiate in an obscure Italian order, but might as easily be Pedrolino, the moon-faced dreamer out of the comedia dell’arte. His smile is enigmatic. It reads like a confidence, an intimate whisper in my ear:  Pay no attention to what is going on outside and around you. Do as I did. Listen for what comes through the inner doors and windows.

I follow the instruction, submit to the inner sensorium.

What enters is as much shape as sound, ideas like iron filings on a magnetic field. The field becomes an ocean, the magnet a star. Fish swim below or break the surface. Constellations in space dance without touching. This ghost in the room I think of as Pedrolino has awakened a ghost in me. I see myself standing beside Amfortas, the Fisher King, in the Pole Star watching a king fisher dive. How did Amfortas end up in my boat, both of us in the stern waiting for Parzival or his equivalent? Olson’s poem, “King Fishers,” which influenced me as a young poet, has set up an inexorable call to the obsession of my later years, the wounded Fisher King!

Amfortas drops his line next to mine, and with it the orderly content of my inner world breaks down. I can’t predict what will emerge from this matrix, what looks like a massa confusa, but is possibly the first stage of important work.

Pedrolino nods.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I accept.”

I’ll take the risk, go where the currents lead. I am a navigator with faulty maps and a ragged compass. But there is a mystery on the tip of my tongue waiting to be revealed, a series of linkages I had not suspected before that will pull valuable information out of the shadows into the light of day—if only I will engage the journey.

Pedrolino is pleased. His smile deepens.

I let him know that in addition to my reading I will give a talk, because the title just popped into my head like a mackerel: “Trolling With The Fisher King.”

That is, after all, what this about. Whether alone in the boat, or with Amfortas trailing in Charles Olson’s wake, fishing is what connects us. It is as though now all three of us were working the same line after the catch we were all hoping for—the wisdom that whispers, “What wounded thee will make thee whole.”

I email my host Henry, old Ferrini’s nephew, proposing the talk and its title and suggest it immediately follow my reading.

Almost instantly, I get a reply: “You’re on!”

Pedrolino likes this.

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2 – Spreading the Net

The Fisher King figure in its present form appears prominently in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th Century epic, Parzival, set in a landscape devastated by war. Armies returning from the Crusades, and mercenaries hired by expansionist nation-states, have pillaged the countryside. Against this backdrop, knights governed by the archaic laws of chivalry kill each other in the name of love and honor, leaving a trail of widows and fatherless children in their wake. Parzival’s mother, stricken by the loss of her heroic husband, takes their son into the woods vowing he will not perish in this way. She raises Parzival in a state of nature ignorant of his lineage and his real name, which means piercing through. One day at an age when most young men leave home, he sees a brace of knights in armor riding through the woods and mistakes them in their shining armor for gods. Parzival follows them to King Arthur’s court, where he gains entry by killing the Red Knight who blocks the entrance with a lucky throw of his lance through the eye-slit in the seasoned warrior’s helmet. Still innocent (unconscious) but triumphant, the fledgling sets out to prove himself, and becomes what his mother feared most, a man who kills in the name of love and honor.

Riding past a lake one evening at dusk Parzival spies a man fishing from a dingy who directs him to a castle where he can spend the night. He doesn’t recognize that the fisherman is Amfortas (without strength), keeper of the Grail. Under the banner of AMOR, Amfortas killed a Saracen warrior in single combat, and ever since that time has carried a piece of the Infidel’s lance in his groin. Because his pain is greatest in the presence of the Grail, Amfortas can no longer function as Grail Keeper. He now sits with a line in the water to ease his pain waiting for one pure in heart to ask the question that heals his wound, and restore the Waste Land.

In some versions, the question is, “Whom does the Grail serve?” in others, “What ails thee?”

The innocent (unconscious) Parzival doesn’t recognize himself as the one for whom Amfortas and all attendant on the Grail are waiting.He follows directions to the Castle and is welcomed by attendants who bathe and dress him. In the Great Hall he witnesses the procession of the Grail that once held Christ’s blood, and the lance used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce His side. Joseph of Arimathea, who prepared Jesus for burial was said to have brought these sacred objects to England.

Galahad_grailGalahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co.. Wool and silk on cotton warp, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

From his divan in the Great Hall, Parzival watches robed acolytes parade with the spear that pierced Christ’s side. After this another set of acolytes carry the Grail, which fills the tankards, bowls, goblets, trenchers, platters and baskets with all manner of delicacies, from fowl, and mutton to cheeses, fruits, breads and wine until everyone at the banquet is provided for. There appears to be no limit to what nourishment the Grail can bestow. In the right hands, such abundance might feed the world.Seated across from him Amfortas writhes in pain waiting to hear the question that will deliver him. But Parzival has been taught that it’s impolite for a guest to question his host, and so he fails to ask the question. He wakes next morning to find the Castle empty except for spectral voices jeering from the battlements. The drawbridge slams shut behind him. Slowly, it dawns on Parzival that he has failed to recognize this opportunity.

It’s a bitter pill.

All of his assumptions, the received wisdom given by those in authority, dissolve in the first light of consciousness. He will spend the next twenty years wrestling with this failure. In the end, confronting his own wounded pride, he is able to “pierce through” to the recognition of his true identity as heir in that lineage as Grail Keeper.

Two details must be noted: after recognizing his role, Parzival rejoins his wife in true union, a Holy Marriage (heiros gamos); and, finally, he encounters his dark brother, Fierfize, (piebald), the son their father, Gahmuret, sired with the black Moorish Queen Belcane, in the North African Kingdom of Zazamanc, on his way home from the Crusades. Concealed by their armor, they face off without knowing the identity of the other. Just before delivering the death blow Parzival sees his brother’s face free of the helmet, recognizes him, and the once embattled knights embrace.It begins as a reprise of the battle in which Amfortas was wounded, and ends with a resolution. Parzival welcomes his dark Muslim brother as a part of himself. He can heal the wounded Fisher King by asking the question which he now embodies. Amfortas, free from pain, dies in peace. may be a cipher and a prescription for our own time..

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3- Mare Nostrum

The reading at the Gloucester Center for Writing from Fishing On The Polestar is scheduled for later this week. The poems record my experience trolling the out islands of the Bahamas, exploring obscure inlets, crossing the section between Eleuthera and Columbus Point known as “the tongue of the ocean.”

What would the tongue of the ocean say if it could speak?

I recall last night’s dream, and reel it up from my store of memories.

As a child I hooked crappies (small sunfish) in Prospect Park. In the 70s , I hauled in snapper on a hand-line from a dugout off the coast of Belize. Later, I trolled for bill fish in a 42’ Bertram from Ft. Lauderdale to Crooked Island. In time it dawned on me that as a poet and psychotherapist drawn to the unconscious, my lures were set to bring up something concealed in my own depths. I have come to understand the Fisher King wound and why a line in the water brings relief.

Olson’s Collected Works lies on my bed open to “The Kingfishers”. I read: What does not change / is the will to change…

He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
Remembered only one thing, the birds, how
When he came in, he had gone around the rooms
And got them back into their cage, the green one first,
She with the bad leg, and then the blue,
The one they had hoped was a male.

Since the poem was published in 1949, no one has been able to give “The Kingfishers” a definitive reading. Those who engage it are drawn or repelled; few are indifferent to its movement. Some critics call it a dreamscape, and there is reason to treat it as such. Others cite it primarily as a response to post-Holocaust trauma.But what’s most haunting about it is less historical than psychological. “The Kingfishers” occupies a limbic space, that threshold between sleeping and waking where the conscious and unconscious are open to each other. This is also where we locate the Grail Castle that appears and disappears, a quantum space beyond fixed coordinates. Here, Charles Olson drops his lures.

MarillDialogue at Five (Provincetown) – Herman Maril

Lines from “The Kingfishers” float through dream-time into morning light trailing brightly colored green and blue feathers from two caged birds. Still in bed, I hear seagulls outside squawk and cry. Sea-birds have trailed in my wake for hundreds of miles, like my golondrina. As a merchant seaman crossing the Pacific I watched a tiny swallow hitch a ride from the Golden Gate to Subic Bay on our United Fruit ship. Even through the roughest storms. When I thought it had been blown away, there it was the next morning perched on a boom. Long after I returned from the South China Sea, the swallow haunts me. Like Olson’s kingfishers, my golondrina, exists as an ache in the present—an unhealed wound.

I follow my ghost bird into the poem.

Neither “The Kingfishers” nor the Fisher King is primarily concerned with the act of fishing, but each links deeply wounded cultures, lacking coherence, to fishermen, fish and fishing birds. A lost but crucial piece of psyche must be restored. I fish for the clue in Olson’s paradox: everything changes but the will to change.

What is the lure attached to this line?

unnamed paul pinesWayne Atherton – Mounting The Bounty

It isn’t change that carries the charge, but the “changeless will,” and what that implies.We are drawn to what is concealed in changeless will. Calculations will not reveal it. Otherwise discourse—words, ideas and numbers alone would heal the Fisher King wound.Better to follow the kingfisher into limbic space, watch it circle, dive, and emerge with a fish in its beak. Reason will not tell us what lies beyond it, like the sublime—or how to locate “changeless will” in the wound, the fisherman, or the fish.

Better to follow a ghost bird.

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4 – Fixing the Colors

Olson’s narrator wakes fully clothed from a dream. Seated at my computer, under Pedrolino’s watchful eye, I recall that seabirds following a school will mirror the behavior of the fish, then feel a tug, rock back and forth as if I were in the fighting chair. What I bring to light surprises me, a dream fragment from last night. I enter a room where people dressed in blue and green are waiting to hear my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King”. Olson’s birds are blue and green. This is not insignificant. He quotes 16th Century Belgian alchemist/psychologist Gerhard Dorn: “Color/ is the evidence of truth.”

I agree. Color is important.

As an eight-year-old fishing for crappies in Prospect Park, I watch my cork bob on a bed of light that splinters when the float sinks. As I reel in a sunfish, brightness falls from the air (a line James Joyce borrowed from Thomas Nash). The brilliance of its scales fires my imagination. These sparks are evidence of an underwater rainbow I might pull up whole as all those other kids marvel. It will give me super powers, change my life by calling forth the power inside of me.

Years later, at sixteen, reading Freud’s Future of an Illusion, I understand that fishing my dreams is more likely to yield that life-changing catch. The flashes of color I glimpsed as a child were aspects of myself yet to be identified.I’m still waiting for a vision to break the surface like a marlin.

Color…fixes the statement,” (Olson via Dorn).

What shall I say about “The Kingfishers” to my dream audience in kingfisher colors?

We trail lines defined by the color of our lures.”

ArthurDoveSunSun, Arthur Dove, the Smithsonian

The first thing Olson does in “The Kingfishers” is to pluck color from dream-water, the green female bird “with the bad leg,” and the blue male returned to their cage by someone named Fernand who “ had talked lispingly of Albers & Angkor Vat,” and subsequently leaves the party that is taking place…

When I saw him he was at the door, but it did not matter,
he was already sliding along the wall of the night, losing
himself
in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he
who said, “The Kingfishers!
who cares
for their feathers
now?”

Fernand dissolves like a shadow in “some crack of the ruins.” He points to what we otherwise can’t see, and seeing, turn away. No wonder the poet regrets that it should have been Fernand who poses the question: who cares? The shadow’s voice, peripheral to awareness,delivers a message that draws us down, even as it hangs in the air like an accusation. The poet wishes the question had been his to ask.

Parzival also begs the question; the part of him that would ask it remains buried in his split-off shadow. He must become fully conscious to ask the healing question: What ails thee?

Fernand’s question points to, rather than discloses the disconnection, and so rings both as desperate and ironic: Who cares?

Outraged, Olson raises a more pressing question: Who is Fernand anyway, this shadow that speaks what must be said, then vanishes, leaving behind him a cloud of regret? Fernand’s question, “Who cares?” exists as a statement yet to be understood by those at the party, including the poet.This Post-Parzival situation finds us in stagnant waters.

Bright blue and green sparks in the kingfisher feathers at the opening of the poem disappear into the rapidly deteriorating natural world. Observing from the shadow’s point of view, Fernand comments.

His last words had been, “The pool is slime.” Suddenly everyone,
ceasing their talk, sat in a row around him, watched
they did not so much hear, or pay attention, they
wondered, looked at each other, smirked, but listened,
he repeated and repeated, could not go beyond his thought
“The pool the kingfisher’ feathers were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

Those at the gathering are confronted with the degraded pool at their center, evidence of unconsciousness. They are unmoved, look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear—remain in a peculiar state of indifference, partying in a Waste Land. Part one of “The King Fishers” ends here, with Fernand’s unanswered question.

It was then he left.

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5 – Consciousness / The Wound

How did we become deaf to the voice that reminds us to wake up? Mother earth calls from the depths, warns us to pay attention. This was the purpose of the Great Mysteries. The Dying and Reviving Gods like Tammuz, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Ba’al and Jesus demand we remain conscious. Their myths and ceremonies of wounding and healing model the birth, death and resurrection of consciousness, a transformative experience open to those who understand it. In her study The Language of the Goddess (1989), Marija Gimbutas points out that wine and bread were revered as sacraments in Neolithic cultures because they represented the inherent potential for transformation produced by fermentation and yeast. Early Egyptians drank beer and tasted Osiris wafers to partake of an eternal blood and body. The Pyramid Text, dating back to the 5th Dynasty (2,400 BCE), instructs the king to rise from his tomb

Take your head, collect your bones,
Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not

unnamedUnnamed, Matt Daly

The same text, perhaps the world’s earliest known religious document, records the worship of Osiris, Egyptian lord of the Underworld. Depicted with green skin, a pharaonic beard and ostrich feathers on either side of a conical crown in later hieroglyphs, Osiris is the poster boy for death and resurrection. Dismembered by his jealous brother, Seth, and re/membered by his sister/wife, Isis, Osiris knits worlds above and below into a seamless whole, just as the wounded Fisher King embodies the potential to restore the Waste Land. But there is a shift in this mythos between Dynasty V and the 12 Century AD, and again into our Post-Internet culture. The drama is no longer the provenance of the Gods. The transformation requires human participation. Parzival must become conscious of his own wound before he can heal Amfortas and accomplish his mission.

We are dealing in symbolic terms with human development, the ordeal through which split off material in the unconscious is brought to light and integrated. Carl Jung found in Alchemy a compelling description of transformation applicable to the totality of the psyche. For him, the writing of adepts like Gerhard Dorn revealed in symbolic language the relationship of the unconscious to the conscious as the agent of psychological transformation. Jung recognized in Alchemy an intuitive iteration of Psyche’s drive to realize itself. Olson also quotes Dorn suggestively: “Color is important.”

the blackeningCombat, Marc Shanker

The Alchemical Work broadly speaking unfolds in four stages, the first of which is a condition of decay, the “blackening” known to practitioners as nigredo. It is analogous to the initial wounding, the early call of the unconscious to become conscious. Olson’s poem locates it in Fernand’s recognition of the pool become slime. He points it out to those gathered but no one hears him. Only when there is some acknowledgment of the condition can the Work move on to stages known by their colors, white, yellow and the reddening, rubedo. Here, the transformation is realized in the body of the “Philosopher’s Stone”, or as Parzival beholds it, the lapis exilies, another name for The Holy Grail.

Olson’s poem can be read as the search for materials in anticipation of the Alchemical Work, which is increasingly difficult as we are blinded by distractions. Psyche’s drive toward transformation, the hidden telos in Olson’s “will to change,” calls out to us. His poem, “The King Fishers” is an attempt to hear it, a plea for us to open our ears or suffer the consequences. Riding the stern of his work, feathered lures in the water, I see Charles Olson become the Fisher King. It’s not the nigredo alone he fears, but that he (we) will get stuck in it, and stay that way—trapped in

a state between
the origin and
the end, between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest

Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny: the principle states that each of us in our development recapitulates the evolution of the species, and possibly the entire universe, from chaos to cosmos. If true, there is a moment when that movement becomes conscious of itself, a shift (or fall) from undifferentiated “time before time” into time as we experience it—antiphonal, polarized, and fleeting. In a number of myths, the creation of cosmos from chaos involves horrific violence, a wounding and dismembering that becomes embedded in nature.

For the Aztecs creation begins with a many armed female monster, a hungry mouth at the juncture of each arm. In this myth, the agents of “the will to change”, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, become serpents, wrap themselves around the insatiable matrix and twist until she comes apart. From her parts they construct the ordered world which remembers the pain and exacts tribute in blood. Sumerian hero-god Marduk does the same to the complaining sea-serpent Ti’amat. The mother of us all, pre-conscious chaos incarnate, must be torn apart. This process, essential to creating and sustaining order, also produces the consciousness that re/members that pain.

The wound requires appeasing. Host cultures enacted blood rituals of reparation to a matrix that might exact revenge if disregarded. If we forget or cease to feel the pain inherent in becoming conscious, degradation of the psychological and natural worlds follow as surely as slime on the pool. Numbed and disconnected, we dismiss Fernand’s warning, whisperings from the shadow in the wings.

kingfisher-3Kingfisher hovering, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

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6 – Re/member Me

In Greek mythology the wind god, Aeolus, intervenes when his daughter Halcyon attempts to follow her mortal husband drowns in a storm. Aeolus prevails on Zeus to turn them into birds. Zeus does this, but requires that she nest on the shore for two weeks in mid-January ever year during which he stays the waves and winds to let her young hatch in safety. These become known as Halcyon Days; we know these birds as kingfishers.

It is true, it does nest with the opening year, but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There,
six or eight white and translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds.

I have observed riverine kingfishers nesting in the muddy banks of the Sibun River in Belize. We steered our canoe through an uncharted stretch that flowed between the Pine Ridge and jungle low-lands. I noted anhinga, heron, hummingbird and toucan—among other exotic avian life—but the kingfishers where most memorable. They darted in and out of tunnels in which they built their nests. I think of them as I read Olson’s description of that process, how they construct those nests of decomposed fish bones—evidence of which was visible and odiferous as I passed them on the river bank.

Mostly it was the sea-birds I followed.

swallowHieroglyph Swallow, a.frostly.com

E.H. Gombrich tells us in his Little History of the World: “If you want to know where Egypt is, I suggest you ask a swallow.” That’s where they fly every autumn, over the Alps to Italy, across the sea, to the Nile valley. My golondrina: the swallow, for centuries the talisman of seamen—square riggers manned by seamen with barn swallow tattoos on their arms and chests. The swallow delivered a lost sailor’s soul safely to the Underworld. A Pharaoh tells us in the Pyramid Texts he has “gone to the great island in the midst of the Field of Offerings on which the swallow gods alight; the swallows are the imperishable stars.”

Poems in my book, Fishing On The Pole Star, describe birds circling or diving into weeds banked on shoals where small fish are feeding, larger ones under them, and at the bottom tier great creatures with silver fins that break the surface, incarnate beams of light. Aloft on the tuna tower of our boat, a small seat on top of a ten foot ladder rising from our bridge, I admired the weave of worlds from Bimini to the Planas. For years the sun drenched waters appeared to be as they had always been. Then the veil fell from my eyes. I’d been like those Fernand addressed at the pool-party, unaware of the slime.

The Waste Land referred to in Parzival, and revived as a theme by T.S. Eliot, links the mythic to the ecological narrative. The state of the physical world is a reflection of the psychological one in which we live. Our willingness to read and understand it depends on our ability to tolerate the pain in that recognition, and our desire to heal it.

Changes in Bahamian and Caribbean waters have been incremental, but can be measured in bleached reefs, diminishing schools of tuna, the paucity of local catch, and marlin moving further south to Piñas Bay. Sea birds—cormorant, frigate, pelican, heron, and kingfisher—that dive with satellite precision, are the unifying connection of above to below. What becomes of them as the fish populations dwindle? “Who cares for their feathers now?”

Changes in temperature provide a breeding ground for stinging mites that make it impossible to swim in certain locations without a wet suit.

Cays with white sand beaches that held no footprint are now virtual stages where Bahamians set up a fake village for Holland American Line cruise ships, where tourists buy folk art, drink rum punch, and dance to a reggae band before cruising on, unaware they’ve been in Disneyland. It might’ve been a protected beach for halcyon birds to hatch their eggs, but who can protect them from cruise ships?

We’ve come a long way from the Pharaoh’s great island tenanted by imperishable sparrows. All assumptions about endlessly resilient Mother Nature are no longer tenable. NASA photos reveal we live on a frangible sphere wrapped in atmospheric lace. We are now cognizant of five previous extinctions.
Where does the extinction of our species fit in?

In addition to species, we are also aware that words and feelings can become extinct, the once rich chords on the emotional scale reduced to simple notes. Awe, a word once a referring to a transformative experience, has been reduced to a trivial response in every day speech.

What happens to us, and to the natural world when we remain unconscious and therefore unable to address the wound?

Olson puts it another way: What happens when only the feathers are left?

Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, ca. 1350 BC, British Museum

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7 – Focusing on the Feathers

Olson’s emphasis on the bird and its feathers makes me think of ancient Egypt. In the Ur-myth Isis re/members the severed parts of her husband Osiris thrown into the Nile by his jealous brother, Seth. With the help of Ibis-headed Toth, she retrieves all but his phallus, swallowed by a fish. This doesn’t prevent Osiris from fathering an only begotten son, Horus, his representative on earth. We might call Horus, the falcon: Consciousness Fathered by the Wounded One.

Osiris takes his place as Lord of the Underworld (Duat) where he presides over the fate of souls after death, depicted in hieroglyphs as birds that fly into the underworld. Osiris guides the soul, dis/membered by death, in a transformation through which the wound is healed and the soul restored in the body of Osiris—fulfilling what will be articulated in the Great Christian Mystery: “my father and I are one.”

baNerfertari as Ba, Tomb Painting, 3,200 BC

The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom clearly tell us that souls in the Duat are “regularly and continually” challenged to undergo transformation.  The union of the ba (embodied soul) and the ka (vital spark), form a third, the akh (the effective one). The akh, as the pure light of consciousness, is represented in hieroglyph by a crested ibis, bird of the wise god Toth. The Pyramid Text stipulates that should the ferryman refuse to transport King Unas’ soul to the other side: He will leap and sit on the wing of Toth.

Papyri and tomb walls exhibit images of birds and feathers everywhere. For the world’s oldest high culture, birds embodied distinct intelligences essential to specific gods and goddesses. Amon, the “hidden source” or uncreated creator is a feathered crow.  Amentet, the setting sun, who prepares souls for rebirth, appears with wings and holding a hawk’s feather. Shu, god of the atmosphere, wears ostrich feathers. Isis, wife of Osiris, mother of Horus, sports a vulture head dress and the rainbow wings of a kite. Horus is a falcon. Osiris wears white feathers on either side of his crown. Ra, the Sun and first Pharaoh, has a hawk’s head. Kephri, at sunrise, becomes the Bennu, or risen Phoenix. A single feather belonging to Ma’at on the scale in the Hall of Two Truths determines the fate of all souls. Souls lighter than her feather become Akh and are welcomed to paradise. Those less fortunate are devoured by the crocodile jaws of Ammit.

ostrich wingsGoddess of Balance, Ma’at spreads her ostrich wings over gods and humans.

Sea-birds also link the world above to the one below. Their feathers are talismans. Olson’s kingfishers vanish into the shadows. Their feathers are evidence of a forgotten unity that calls to us unheard. Birds, visible by day, accompany Ra’s solar barc on its Night Sea Journey through the underworld, as did the golandrina, which I failed to recognize as my ba-bird. Birds, especially the swallows, become the vehicles for souls in the underworld, and for their transformation. The Bennu, the Egyptian phoenix, rises and sets with the sun.

The Osiris Mystery, as both myth and ritual, marks the early intuition of an objective intelligence in the unconscious. The drama of transformation in the Underworld describes the potential that takes place in our own psychological depths. Olson’s representation of the soul as kingfisher, a force precipitating the unchanging will to change, and its loss, constitutes more than his own gloss on the old myth, but a new one for our time. Perhaps the de-potentiation of mythology itself, the loss of any symbolic narrative that gives culture coherence and the way of enlarging individual consciousness.

Parzival’s healing question can only be asked by one who has been weighed in the balance of Ma’at and become an akh. Olson’s poem, “The Kingfishers,” is an 11th hour cry for help!

“The pool the kingfisher’s feather were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

When the symbolic links disappear, we are left with lassitude. Anything more is difficult to grasp, certainly the world as a coherent whole. Fernand speaks from the shadows about the devalued kingfisher feathers. He addresses those who sit mindlessly around the stagnant pool full of slime. In the end what he asks is rhetorical, not so much a probe as a hook.

Drawn by the potential for transformation, the changeless will to change, Parzival becomes an embodied soul and asks the healing question. But what happens when Parzival, the Fisher King and the Grail itself disappear from consciousness altogether?

.

8 -Rubedo, The Reddening

Olson loved to dig among stones. Indecipherable Mayan Glyphs spoke to him of buried intelligence in images of serpents and birds, heads dressed in woven feathers, the rise and fall of a high civilization incised on clay tablets. These elusive messages held valuable if undisclosed information: how do advanced systems decline into devalued plumage, slime in the pool.

I pose you your question:
Shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among the stones

In the coastal Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, and rubble of “Dogtown”, the Gloucester settlement abandoned after 1812, Olson was drawn to the haunt of civilizations that carved the clues to their demise in stone. He knocks on the door of the unconscious.

b8899ccb1dcf17ffe1cdcfddad9775edCourage, Dogtown, Gloucester/Cape Anne

Olson asks, Shall we find honey where maggots are? He might be speaking of the alchemical work which begins in the decomposing nigredo. He may be referring to the condition of mythological structures that once supported these high civilizations now sinking into the earth, and our own, on the way to becoming a Waste Land.

Olson begins Section 2 of “The King Fishers” with the self-mythologizing Mao, who forbids the centuries old custom of binding women’s feet, while proclaiming the risen sun, la lumiere,” as the symbol of a mythless society. In 1934 he will lead his followers on a long march toward l’aurore, and later, in 1949, as leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China, mount a cultural revolt outlined in his Little Red Book to entirely erase the past. After considering Mao’s position, the man who hunts among the stones weighs in.

He thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said

la lumiere”
mmbut the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
mmbut the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
mmhe got the color of his breast
mmfrom the heat of the setting sun!

In search of a myth for a mythless world, Olson’s avian avatar flies west, redness baked into its breast. He invites us to ride Ra’s Sunship into the underworld accompanied by swallows. In the Egyptian narrative the sun is totally eclipsed and for a moment faces the danger of total extinction. This happens every night. It appears to be what Olson wants us to consider.

8892_originalRa in the Sun Ship, Egyptian tomb painting, 1,200 BC

There are twelve houses one must pass through on the Egyptian Night Sea Journey corresponding to hours between sunset and sunrise. Each hour presents its own dangers. A Coffin Papyrus shows three ba-birds in the 5th hour there to protect Ra against devouring chaos, the serpent Apophis.

Temple at OptetRa uniting with Osiris, Temple of Optet, 1,200 BC

Ra grows darker and weaker as the hours pass; even his guardians are afraid. There is no guarantee that chaos will not at some point swallow Ra’s light. At the darkest hour, when it appears all may be lost, Osiris, “the Hidden Soul”, meets Ra face to face. In that moment, the high-voltage transformation takes place. In the Mystery of the Two become One, both are renewed. In the Duat souls are continually transformed into enlightened akh.

light_core_darkness_jungLight at the core of darkness, The Red Book, C.G. Jung

On a cosmic level this takes place nightly when wounded Ra consciousness is united to the Osiris intelligence in the unconsciousness. The union gives birth to a third in Kephri, the newborn Sun. This is also the end result of the Work, the red which alchemists call the rubedo. The transformation which starts with the blackening nigredo, moves through the bright white albedo, to Kephri’s light. Both the Egyptian Night Sea journey and the Alchemical phases can be viewed as the movement from despair, through understanding, to enlightenment.

A Hymn to Osiris states: “Thou risest in the horizon, thou givest light through the darkness…”

220px-Theatrum_Chemicum_Vol_I_page_1Theatrum Chemicum, Gerhard Dorn, 1661

Gerhard Dorn, the 16th Century alchemist prized by Charles Olson and Carl Jung, speaks of a “hidden third” arising from the two as “the medium enduring until now in all things…” Jung refers to this as a “synthesis of the conscious with the unconscious,” as a unio mystica. Ra’s transformational connection to Osiris can be compared to Parzival’s to the Fisher King; both describe this underlying unity in the alchemical marriage. Ironically, this was also observed by Chinese alchemists in antiquity and recorded in The Secret of the Golden Flower, which survived Mao’s “cultural revolution.” What the Egyptians called Akh, Western alchemists like Dorn the “philosophical stone,” the Chinese text refers to as the “Diamond Body”.

warhol-maotse-tung-seriesChairman Mao, Andy Warhol

Mao wasn’t interested in hieroglyphs or alchemy. Symbolic thought of any kind became anathema. His demythologized Revolution reduced civilization to a simple surface. Hence Olson’s open question: What happens when only the feathers are left?

He answers it in “The King Fishers” by attempting to re-mythologize the wounded cultural psyche, to locate the place in which the archetypal transformation enshrined in the sacred traditions of all cultures can occur. Even so, Olson feared that it might be beyond reach at the beginning of a period which he was the first to call “Post-Modern.”

Olson asks: Where do we find what we have lost?

“The Kingfishers” is a fragmented psychological treasure map missing that piece where X marks the spot. We are given clues: the changeless will to change, the king fishers, and in the absence of the seabirds, their lore and feathers—representations to challenge us in the absence of a living mythology. Of course there is always the possibility that what Mao did by coercion in China, we are doing in a Post-Internet world by attrition. We may be losing the ability as a species to bring the latent intelligence to light.

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9 – The Alchemical Nest

Chaos stalks our hi-tech lives more powerfully than ever; one inspired hacker-child could send our infrastructure into a tailspin. The same holds true of our personal infrastructure. The Underworld is no longer the place in which souls are weighed or balance restored by Ma’at’s feather. Our psychology is haunted by forces denied, degraded, or disguised as ideologies, religious and political, that set us at odds. Fundamental religious beliefs fused to nationalist politics are fueled by thanatos, an unconscious death-wish. The ecology deteriorates while gods past and present disappear beneath the waves.

untitled colourPacal Descending to Xibalba, Tomb at Palenque, Mexico

In his study The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden Robert Johnson paraphrases Jung: “We no longer have Zeus but we have headaches instead. We no longer have Aphrodite and her noble feminine realm but we have gastric upsets. To dethrone anything from consciousness to unconsciousness is to diminish it in stature to a symptom.” Just so, the wounded Fisher King, split off from ourselves, becomes a hive of symptoms. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is inhabited by hollow men.

Will you leave it there? Pedrolino’s question is rhetorical. What will you tell them?

From his post on the wall, this black figure in his domed hat outlined by a white line on a black field gazes down from a moon face that glows like polished silver. He is the soul of old Ferrini, author of Know Fish. His words crawl through my mind.

“Tell whom?” I protest.

Pedrolino doesn’t answer, but I know. He is referring to those who will come to hear me read from Fishing On The Pole Star, directly followed by my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

It occurs to me that when only feathers are left, we must use them as lures.

Olson does just that; he uses feathers and stones the way a shaman employs a single bone to re/constitute the entire body. He builds the poem as king fishers do their nests with the remains of rotting fish bones. By gathering the “rejectamenta,” decaying bone splinters of myth, personal, and historical memory he builds to re/member.

it does nest with the opening year but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There
Six or eight white or translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
Not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds

I’ll describe to my audience the scene I witnessed on a bank of the Sibun River. I could smell the rotting fish bone chips from my canoe. Warmed by the heat of that decaying mass kingfisher eggs hatch on the bones of their prey. Future generations will rise from this matrix of remains. From its heat, words are born, take flight, hover and dive. It suddenly strikes me that Olson’s poem about the process is itself a nest of decaying bone chips.

Pay attention, whispers Pedrolino. “You’re close.”

I stop and listen. An idea comes in an open inner window—an insight. Not simply a piece of information, but an epiphany. I must instruct my audience not simply to see what is being described here with the mind’s eye, but to bring all the senses to bear—to hear the birds chatter, feel the river flow beneath the craft, touch the oars, the gunnels, smell the decaying bone chips, let the sulphurous odor of the nests sting the nostrils. Instead of solving the mystery he presents in the opening of “The Kingfishers”, Olson gradually shifts the emphasis from product to process. We must be in it totally to realize what is going on here. The question of what happened to the kingfishers is never answered in the poem—but by the poem. What fledges from it dives like a sea-bird into the unconscious.

Contemplating-the-Origin-of-Thought-An-Exercise-from-The-Secret-of-the-Golden-FlowerContemplating Mind Before Thought, Secret of the Golden Flower, 1668

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10 – Parsing (Parsivalizing) the Question

In his Holocaust memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel describes the secret teaching received by his young alter-ego, Elie, before the entire shtetle was transported to Auschwitz. Bare-foot Moshe the Beadle, who cleans the synagogue, instructs his young protégée, “At the end of your life God measures you by the depth of your question.”

In this teaching, authority isn’t captured by the answer. The deepest question answers itself by deepening. The mythos lies too deep for words but can be alluded to in a myth. Such is the wisdom imparted at the beginning of Wiesel’s narrative that portrays the naked depravity under the veneer of civilization capable of destroying ancient cultures and turning cities into rubble.

Olson asks, “The Kingfishers! / Who cares/ For their feathers/Now?”

Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in The Rye, wants to know, “Where do ducks in winter go?”

Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval inquires, “Who does the Grail serve?”

Von Eschenbach’s Parzival wants to know, “What ails thee?”

From Isis to Olson, we are challenged to re/member what has been left to languish in the dark. In every case, the healing power of the question is measured by the depth of the one who asks it. But what if the question itself is forgotten, lost, out of reach—or, more to the point, there is no

one to bring it full voice into the world?

25Parzival on journey lighter72_900Parzival, from the Feirefiz Project, Liz Neilson

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11 – Spreading the Word

Olson’s vanished kingfisher constitutes a loss of myth, and with it our connection to the unconscious, its potential to transform fragmented souls, the ka and ba of us, into an akh, “the effective one” or pure light of consciousness. As a consequence, something has slipped from our grasp that once linked atoms to the stars and bound existence into a unified whole.

“The Kingfishers,” begins with a comment that might easily go unremarked: He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He / remembered only one thing, the birds

I might have disregarded it entirely had I not been for my encounter with the spirit of place, the essence of old Ferrini caught by an etching on the wall. No sooner had I named him Pedrolino, than he spoke to me, as he does three days later, after I wake from the same recurring dream. I’m in a room full of folding chairs. They are empty at first, then people file in to fill them. They’ve come to hear my talk. I smile at them. They smile back. Everyone is dressed in blue and green: my ba-birds. I wake in cold sweat.

osiris_nefertariOsiris, Tomb of Nefertari

There has to be something I can tell them about “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

Listen, counsels Pedrolino.

I just need a little more time to tie things together. These are my two thoughts and perhaps from them a third will follow. 1) Olson fishes the imagination for something born on a nest of decaying bones, that voice from the underworld speaking through him, the poet, telling us to hear in this moment what “was differently heard// as, in another time…” and 2) birds guide dead souls in the underworld, and shield Ra in the 5th hour of his Night Sea Journey from the devouring maw of Apophis, which would extinguish the light. Then it comes to me, out of the tension of the two, a third suggested in von Eschenbach’s Parzival 3) that the lapis exilies, or Holy Grail was delivered to us by “the neutral angels” while a war between opposing camps raged in heaven. This may be an expression of the unchanging potential inherent in our psychic structure, a constant that binds our atoms to the stars; our mission is to apprehend what we already contain, the numinous as the thing in itself.

The message I will convey to my audience of ba-birds, is this: each one of us is a wounded Fisher King trolling uncertain waters. We must keep our lines in, follow the sea-birds. The voice we listen for is equally uncertain. It comes through us, “heard differently//as in another time,” but is not our own. The fate of the world from which it rises depends on it.

ad7c4-olson-birdseye2cjpg“O city of mediocrity…”, Olson is Gone, But We Are Here, Peter Anastas, 12.24.14

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12 – Epilogos

Charles Olson sought out Carl Jung when the latter spoke at Harvard in 1938, and engaged him in conversation about Herman Melville. The fever dream of wounded Ahab’s obsession with the whale pales in anticipation of the world driven to the brink of the abyss. Olson published “The Kingfishers” in 1949, long after public knowledge of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima had redefined civilization, and the year that Mao established the Peoples’ Republic of China. Jung was also putting together the connection between the transformations described by the Sun’s journey through the underworld, the Alchemical Work and his own theory of individuation as a transformative relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

The Belgian alchemist Gerhard Dorn summed up the situation in his Theatrum Chemicum: “The sun is invisible in men, but visible in the world, yet both are of one and the same sun.” Olson and Jung were drawn to Dorn, a fellow Fisher King.

Olson plaquePlaque on Fort Street, Paul Pines, 8.2014

I feel Olson this afternoon as I walk through town to Fort Street to find the modest multiple dwelling house facing the bay. A plaque affixed to the peeling white wall is a tribute to the insistence of Henry Ferrini, as much as it to Charles Olson. My host at the Gloucester Writers Center, and Vincent’s nephew, Henry petitioned the city fathers for the installation until they relented. It remains the only physical evidence that locates Olson where he lived, looking out at the channel between the Inner and Gloucester Harbor.

Today, Gorton’s huge plant that hugs the shore along Roger’s Street facing the State Fish Pier processes frozen catch from foreign waters. The depleted local fishing grounds, and the plant that packages fish for export echo the missing kingfishers in the poem. I marvel that it was Olson who coined the term that defined such an age: Post Modern. And that he found in Gloucester material to create a mythic monument to what had been lost.

In Parzival the question is asked and answered; at the end, the Fisher King is healed and the land restored. In our time, we have yet to frame the question.

We fish to bring it to light. This is the theme of my book, Fishing On The Pole Star.

There’s a moment in my book, after weeks on the troll, just beyond Concepcion Island, when I hook a three hundred pound marlin, fight him for almost two hours, then bring him to the starboard side of our boat. Our mate holds him in place to “swim him.” The idea here is to quiet the creature and move him slowly until the water circulating through his gills restores color depleted after our struggle.

Color is important.

No shark in the ocean can best a marlin in full bloom. Dimmed, he is doomed.

Our big boy allows us to swim him until bands of green and blue blossom the length of his body. Then he bites down gently on the hand of the man who is holding him to signal he’s ready. The power in his great jaws could take the arm of his handler off at the shoulder with little effort—but the touch is delicate, almost reverential. Upon release, he rides up over the gunnel to meet our eyes with his large circular orb, full of an intelligence so balanced, so complete, I glimpse in it the Divine Child, and also The Grail. I think, Here is the constant which links the atom to the stars, and binds existence into a whole.

And then he is gone.

surrealist-art-2-by-artist-vladimir-kush-on-desartsSunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

—Paul Pines

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Pines_Paul

PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published twelve books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, BreathAdrift on Blinding LightTaxidancing, Last Call at the Tin PalaceReflections in a Smoking MirrorDivine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros,  Fishing On The Pole Star, and Message From The Memoirist. His thirteenth collection, Charlotte Songs, will soon be out from Marsh Hawk Press. The Adirondack Center for Writing awarded him for the best book of poetry in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia have been performed internationally and appear on the Summit label. He had published essays in Notre Dame Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and Numero Cinq, among others. Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend

Aug 052015
 

Janice Galloway via The ScotsmanJanice Galloway via The Scotsman

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I.In the eponymous story from her most recent collection, Jellyfish, Janice Galloway shows her genius for the ‘ouch’ principle: the wince-inducing collision of something exposed and over-sensitive with something brutal and sadistic.

We feel it coming; harbingers and hints surround Monica and her four-year-old son, on an outing to the beach as a last hurrah, the day before school starts. Alert to the impending separation, Monica sees danger and careless indifference all around her: in the mother who chats to a friend, unaware that her toddler in his buggy hangs over the kerb, too close to the wheels of a passing lorry; in the angry father swearing viciously at his little boy. She worries too much, she wants to protect. Somewhere between the wild beauty of the coast and the unsavoury piles of rubbish dumped by locals, they come across a parliament of stranded jellyfish. Transparent and ‘gummy’, out of their natural environment, one of them is little more than viscous pulp, object of blunt force trauma by human hand. How is the mother to explain this act of random violence on something so exquisitely vulnerable? ‘Maybe they hurt it – her voice faltered – they hurt it just because it can’t stop them.’ Ach, the jellyfish, so hopelessly undefended, not even a skin to mask its insides; the stupid jellyfish, out of its element and asking for trouble. The sight is painful because Monica – and through her eyes, the reader – knows how it feels, recognizes how easily one might end up in its place, how a cherished child might end up in its place. Characters in Galloway’s books are often alive to their inner jellyfish, and aware of – even enduring – the myriad situations in which the hammer may fall.

The recent Guardian review of Jellyfish suggested that these stories held new departures for Galloway in their focus on the parent-child relationship and the natural world. But both make fine provocations for the sort of catastrophic thinking typical to her work; thinking that has flowed and been repressed so many times it creates a carboniferous pragmatism. In the story that intrigued me perhaps the most, Eric Blair (otherwise known as George Orwell), is living with his young son on the Scottish West Coast island of Jura after the death of his wife, Eileen. It’s a hardscrabble existence in a place with no amenities and only the most basic of resources, and Blair is in denial over the diagnosis of his own soon-to-be-fatal tuberculosis. ‘You don’t fight an illness by fighting it; it gives not a hoot about your stoicism,’ the doctor tells him. But Blair is nothing if not stubborn: ‘Rest was not an appropriate response to encroaching lack of breath, lack of power. They had no idea what they were asking.’

Jellyfish - Janice Galloway

Inside his mind, two concerns breed fear; his belief that another war is coming, and his determination to ‘toughen up’ his young son. Excessive fear promotes a formidable fight response, but Blair cannot allow himself anything as weak as emotions; they must harden into ideologies. The story follows his trip to the general stores where he asks whether his parcel – a firearm – has arrived (it hasn’t), and then he begins the twenty mile return trip on his motorbike. The sound of a gunshot from the hills unsettles him so much he comes off the bike, but he’s okay ‘after a fashion’. Menace and machismo shadow box across the pages. He continues hoping for another five years in which to finish his novel and form his son: ‘He’d ruddy well achieve it by means of will alone.’ He was to die less than two years later. But his novel, 1984, the crystallisation of sadism and denial of feeling into a society in which only the broken would survive, lived a dark and splendid life after him.

It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist, from an artist who grew up in what seemed to be a sort of Scottish working-class family microcosm of 1984. Love in the form of brutality, the grim reckoning that the worst would be likely to happen and the best would be to face up to it, deprivation of all kinds, were basic elements of Galloway’s upbringing that transmuted into her writing. But her literary imagination tempers its casual cruelty with tenderness and a cautious optimism. Critics use the word ‘visceral’ a lot, but note the glittering seam of black humour. The New York Times Book Review memorably claimed her work ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy rewritten by Sylvia Plath’, which we might reasonably take to mean that she is an original. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989) won the MIND/Allen Lane award, and was followed by two more novels, two short story collections and, before Jellyfish, two extraordinary memoirs that took the reader deep into the phenomenology of childhood whilst advising caution towards a simple overlap of reality and narrative. There were prizes all around. Not bad for a woman who claimed that an artistic vocation was unimaginable for her as she ‘thought writers were wealthy people who just wrote things out of the goodness of their heart and gave them as gifts.’

 

II.

Janice Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Scotland, to a mother who ‘thought I was the menopause’. In the mythic version Galloway tells in her memoir, This Is Not About Me, which might be the true one for all she knows, her mother was unaware of the pregnancy until her waters broke, perhaps in denial of the freedom-busting, life-ending truth. The young Janice is never in doubt about her status as nuisance. ‘If I’d kent, she’d say, her eyes narrowing. If I’d just bloody known.’ Galloway’s father makes scant appearance in the pages, dying when Janice is only six, though when he’s there, he makes his mark felt. By throwing supper out the back door in a fit of temper, locking Janice inside and making her play chequers with him while her mother is locked out, knocking pitifully on the windows. And finally, setting fire (he was drunk and smoking) to the cigarette stand they owned but had not insured. Just over fifty pages in, she and her mother move into a tiny attic flat above the doctors’ surgery where her mother finds work as a cleaner.

This relative idyll does not last, for Janice’s older sister, Cora, joins them. Cora is seventeen years older and has left behind a husband and son of her own, and once her loud-voiced, gleefully selfish, hard-hitting, pan-sticked presence erupts into the pages, she stalks them like the fifty-foot woman of a B-movie. Galloway calls her Cora, though her real name was Nora, some sort of psychological distance being necessary even in a memoir. Cora takes up all the oxygen in their family and is dangerously jealous if her space, status and rule are in anyway infringed upon. ‘Delight to spite took seconds: there was no middle ground,’ Janice recalls. ‘She’ll be found dead up a close with her stockings around her neck one of these days, my mother said. Too bloody cheeky by half.’

Though it’s Janice whose life seems daily endangered. Cora is ‘handy’, which seems to mean useful for violence. She slaps, punches and headbutts her little sister, locks her in a cupboard, sets fire to her hair. Their mother is too tired and too defeated to intervene, and she loves Cora and cannot escape her thrall. The potency of the daemonic, the Greek concept of an unstoppable force of energy that could be turned either to good or evil, is Cora’s superpower. ‘Even wedged into a chair, Cora charged the air with electricity. Something around her crackled fit to kill flies and drop them at her feet in crispy little packets. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.’ She’s mean, but she’s fearless and vividly sexual. Janice is allowed to watch, enthralled, as Cora paints her face on, pours herself into a too-tight bodice and seamed nylons. A trip to the fair with her is high-octane stuff, all thrills and reckless spending. As Janice staggers dizzily off the walzer, Cora ‘walked in a straight line with her hands on her hips to prove it. Nothing beats me, she said. I could stay on that thing all night and not turn a hair.’ But one minute Jekyll, the next Hyde. When their mother has the chance to work full-time, her concern about Janice being all right alone in the two-bed council flat (they moved back in once her father died) becomes Cora’s decision she won’t get in at all. ‘You give her a key and she’ll let people in. Either that or somebody will take it off her. She can wait in the fresh air. It’s good for her.’

this is not about me

In fact, Janice likes the peace in the garden, and there’s the coal-shed if it rains or snows. Although Galloway would later say in interview with Stuart Kelly that ‘The expectation of brutality used to be a commonplace part of most [Scottish] upbringings’, there is a particularly intense quality of disenfranchisement about young Janice, a too-stark awareness of her lack of value, except as emotional punch-bag. The drama in her small household, ruled by Medusa and the Furies, turns her inward, gives her the obsessive good-girl mentality of someone who knows she does not simply deserve the oxygen she breathes. The memoir displays the close-grained hypervigilant powers of observation that come from the traumatised, or as Gareth McLean in The Guardian puts it, ‘her eye for detail comes from having watched life occur while maintaining not so much a dignified silence as a petrified one.’ We’ve been told from the start that this is not about her, and the key to understanding Janice’s story is to recognise the myriad truths in this statement. Her mother’s suicide attempt, her sister’s disappearance, from which she returns bruised and close-lipped, the screaming rows, all the crucible of disturbing events in which Janice is forged, stem from a history that predates her.

‘Watching their faces as they hurled half-understood insults at each other, the feeling of being in the way while most of it raged over my head was letting something else dawn as well. This wasn’t about me…. This was about Cora and mum; mum and Cora doing something they’d done since Cora left Glasgow behind and turned up at the attic… Longer even than that. Weans, my mother said. As though there had been more than one baby Cora had left behind. If I’m man-daft, where did I learn it? I’ve dealt with my troubles. My troubles. It was always the same in our house. Nothing you knew was solid.’

If the young Janice is obliterated by the emotional warfare carrying on around her (in a way that psychologists would suggest is the basis for most severe neuroses), she finds some comfort in knowing she is not its cause. Her place in the world is formed before she ever entered it, by a cross-hatching of fierce emotional currents, the legacy of ancient events, bitter disappointments and sacrifices, in the lives of those who supposedly care for her. Galloway is clear that there is love, that her own childish spirit, even if oppressed, still finds ways to slip free, but the climate and the conditions in which love and freedom find form are not in her control. This is the reality of all childhoods, but most children feel guilty and responsible anyway. The extreme weather of Galloway’s young life may stunt her growth, but it liberates her perspective.

If This Is Not About Me was about the origins of that ‘ouch’ principle, the collision of Janice’s innocence and vulnerability with her sister’s ruthless violence and her mother’s tough love, the next volume of memoir, All Made Up, is about putting Janice together again from the scraps of self left over after the carnage. As a child, she was good at schoolwork and liked singing. As she becomes an adolescent, music will take an ever greater role in her life. Latin will become an unexpected love. And there will be boys, of course, and inevitably. It’s not that conditions change much – within a couple of pages of the start of the book, Cora has broken her nose. And at the end, when Janice is dressed up in borrowed finery for an evening out with her fiancé, Cora takes one look before launching a plate of stew at her. So no change there, then; but Janice grows into her hardiness, her ability to flourish on very little soil and sunshine, and despite her family’s injunction to cultivate shame and self-doubt. ‘I think it’s part of the Scottish temperament: always waiting for something to cut you down to size,’ she later said in an interview.

all-made-up

The memoir races through the key points once Janice has left home for Glasgow university and a degree in music. Her mother died when she was 26, Cora died of a smoking-related illness in 2000 (and the sisters had barely met since Janice left home). This means that when Galloway sat down to write her memoirs, the main characters of her cast were not breathing over her shoulder. She was aware of writing exactly the sort of truthful account of their living conditions they would have hated, but Galloway had come to understand that old, uncomfortable need to pretend was motivated by working-class shame. When she gave her mother a telephone, she would only speak on it in a Yorkshire accent: ‘Even her voice wasn’t good enough to expose,’ she said. But in all the interviews she gave about her memoirs, Galloway is insistent that the mother and sister who appear within their pages are not direct transpositions: ‘I am a writer. You’re not writing people, you’re writing versions of people that fit into a story version of something universal as well as something ideosyncratic.’ But I have to wonder whether this barrier is not there to protect the dead, but to keep Galloway safe from their ghosts. In an article she wrote in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, she admitted that her sister had tracked her down once she realised she was ‘writing stuff’. ‘She phoned me. How she got my number I haven’t an idea. I recognized the voice immediately, however: if I thought I was It I had another think coming, she said. Do you hear? Pack it in. I felt 11 again and almost wept.

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III.

Janice Galloway’s first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is an unruly narrative of a distressed and disobedient mind. The ironically named Joy Stone is a teacher in her 20s whose chaotic love life has tipped her over the edge of breakdown. The married man she has been living with – enough of a scandal in itself – drowned on a holiday abroad they took together and Joy’s grief is all the more unwieldy for being that of a mistress, socially unrecognized and unpermissable. She lives in Michael’s house (subject to further legal battles) on a sterile estate with poor transport links, while her own jerry-built house is slowly rotting away. Joy has no one to turn to. Her best friend, Marianne, has emigrated to America, her family consists of a sister, Myra, who ‘could just stand and scare me to death.’ Health care professionals are worse than useless. Joy imagines saying to her weary and indifferent GP: ‘Ok, let’s talk straight. You ask me to talk then you look at your watch… Can’t you send me to someone who’s paid to have me waste their time? You don’t know what to do with me but you keep telling me to come back.’ And all the time she is sinking deeper into bulimia and depression. She is the prototype jellyfish; a quivering wreck of exposed nerve endings.

Or you could read her as a 20th century version of Job, a woman crumbling under an onslaught of calamities specific to being an abandoned Scottish woman in the late 1980s in poor mental health. This is not a story that begs our sympathy, though, despite the rigors of Joy’s plight. Her exquisite vulnerability, which we readers are invited to witness as intimately as possible, from a ringside seat within Joy’s psyche, is played out on the page as an innovative typographical display that’s entirely distracting. There’s a cordon around Joy’s pain that comes from her own lack of lack of sympathy towards herself and the velvety-black humour that springs irascibly from her narration, as well as the experimental features of the text, attention-grabbing features of a verbal energy that ricochets around the pages, out of control, the underside of a too-tightly held persona masking inner collapse.

‘o yes
when I was good I was very very good but
but
there was more going on below the surface.
There always is.’

In the fragmentary text, words jump out from unexpected places and bleed into the margins, sentences trail unfinished, white space marks missing time and emotional dislocation, italics indicate the presence of memories that remain unintegrated. There’s no order to the story, and no neat boundaries either in the form of orthodox chapter divisions or quotations marks around speech. There’s just an uneven torrent of words acting out, or else a parodic inclusion of conventions: play scripts, for instance, marking cliched conversations, lists, excerpts from magazines spouting cultural commonplaces, and marching imposingly across the narrative, the dreaded mantras of mental health:

The More Something Hurts, the More it can Teach Me…
I write:
…..Persistence is the Only Thing That Works.

I forgot to write:
…..Beware of the Maxim.
…..Neat Phrases hide Hard Work.
…..Everything Worth Having is Hard as Nails.’

A beautifully unarticulated paradox rises up from all this verbal play, in which the insufficiency of such mantras is almost insulting in comparison to the depth of Joy’s disorientation and pain. But such inadequate linguistic supports are all that exist as a bridge back to normal life. Galloway is nothing if not respectful to the reality of her protagonist’s state, and little is resolved by the end of the narrative. But there are the earliest hints of healing; tiny shards of optimism that stud the conclusion with welcome precursors of light.

Talking of cautious optimism, her second novel proved that her characters were at least ready to risk travelling abroad again. In Foreign Parts (1994), Rona and Cassie are friends of long-standing, and mildly mismatched travelling companions who have come to spend their precious fortnight off work in France. Short of cash and feeling unworthy of culture, they know ‘that proper holidays are for proper people with proper money and that real travellers, in denim bermudas of uneven leg length, travel to real faraway places in search of real poor people enduring real life in the raw. We are neither real nor proper: just fraudulent moochers in other people’s territory, getting by on the cheap.’ Cassie, source of the narrative voice though it floats, according to Cassie’s mood, between first, third and even second person, is sensitive, observant, moody and questing for something real and meaningful. Rona is stolid, calm, accepting and happy to tick the vacational boxes. Their differences come to a crunch mostly over the guidebook they have brought with them, entitled ‘Potted France’, whose injunctions to notice historical features enrage Cassie with their vapidity.

foreign parts

Threaded in between the stages of their journey are descriptions of photographs from holidays Cassie has taken with boyfriends in the past and the memories they evoke. Not that these holidays have been any better than the one Cassie is currently on. Holidays fall into a similar category to horoscopes, magazine articles and self-help books for Janice Galloway’s main characters: they are places where the commonplace fantasy of achieving something splendid cracks under the weight of recalcitrant reality. Rona, Cassie tells us, at times when they are sleeping in the car, or in some terrible 50 franc-a-night dive, ‘loves games of not admitting hellishness is hellish.’ But Cassie, like Joy Stone, is in no mood to pretend. And more than that, there is an unspoken but deep-rooted belief in both books that anything revelatory, real, valuable or significant, can only come from an unflinching scrutiny of the situation. When Cassie does transcend the ordeal of pointlessness that is tourism – in Chartres cathedral, playing house in a gîte they hire, standing on the beach at Veulettes before taking the ferry home – these moments have a full-bodied poetry about them that can only come from patient attendance on the authentic.

As such, this is a novel wilfully rejecting a number of conventions; it is not the buddy road trip or travel novel that we might be expecting. Cassie’s sharp edges puncture any such glib journeying. More confusing to its readers (if Goodreads reviews are any indication) is Cassie’s conclusion as the end of the trip nears, that she is no longer interested in a heterosexual relationship, but considering the possibility of moving in with Rona. Cassie and Rona may squabble and bicker, but there is a mutual understanding and recognition between them that is missing, as far as Cassie is concerned, from a relationship with a man: ‘They don’t have the same priorities, to be able to organise their priorities in a compatible way with ours,’ she explains. Cultural fantasy rears its head again, to be cut down to size: ‘The knight on a white charger is never going to come, Rona. You know why? Because he’s down the pub with the other white knights, that’s why.’ If there are generalisations going on here, then they belong to a Scottish culture that lags behind the times (‘There are real gender problems in my country,’ Galloway said once in interview). But what Cassie wants is something free from all sexual and domestic norms. The life she envisages with Rona has no recognisable, culturally-approved shape, resists all labels and orthodoxies.

Right at the start of the book, the first sign Cassie and Rona see when they get off the ferry says: BRICOLAGE. This is a common sign in France, indicating a D.I.Y. store, but its original meaning is one of Heath Robinson-type construction, using bits and pieces of other things to create something new. For this reason it was borrowed by the nouveaux romanciers in the 50s and 60s to describe a kind of literary experimentalism that took apart the nuts and bolts of narratives and put the pieces back together in innovative ways. It stands as a fine sign to hang across Foreign Parts, too, in which the patchwork of travel guides, lists, overheard conversations, street signs, flashbacks and letters correspond at a technical level to the unorthodox ways of experiencing travel and building relationships that are its themes. The disparate and the heterogeneous are more playful, less threatening than in Trick, the anxiety and anger about a dissatisfying present are soothed in this novel into something forward-looking and hopeful.

Galloway’s third novel, Clara (2002), was in some respects a departure, a long, lyrical account of the life of Clara Schumann, child prodigy, world-famous concert pianist and composer. Clara passes from the tyrannical hands of an overbearing father, a piano teacher whose love for her resides in her responsiveness to his teaching and who basks in her reflected glory, to those of her husband, Robert Schumann, mad, melancholy, ambitious in his own right and unequal to tolerating a more famous and successful wife. It’s essentially a study of the discipline, the strategems and the sacrifices a woman like Clara must make in order to stay in touch with her musical creativity. Concerns about gender, freedom and madness abound, tethered to historical and biographical realities.

There is still experimentation, but what’s intriguing is that it is so seamlessly incorporated into the narrative it’s oddly harmonious, rather than disruptive. There are phrases from musical scores, poems, lists (of course) and the use of different font sizes. The latter are easy to decode, for they range from the huge beetling-black words of fortissimo, to the smaller fonts of diminuendo. Lists are staccato, poetry is cantabile, all is effortlessly woven into a smoothly flowing, wordy andante narrative. The voice nimbly skips between the heads of Clara, her father and her husband, able to pick up on a wide variety of moods, constantly singing.

clara

In her interview with Stuart Kelly, Galloway denies that her use of experimentation in the early novels was ‘politically motivated’, saying instead that she ‘just didn’t know how to write a story’. Whispering in her ear, perhaps, was the shade of her sister, telling her that if she thought she was It she should just pack it in. The experimentation, in all probability instinctual, reveals a sophisticated understanding of the landscape of the mind when functioning in a state of extreme fear, duress, or misery. Those fragmented, discontinuous texts showed how words could perch unabsorbed upon the mind’s surface, how other voices within might be heckling from the sidelines, how memories repeatedly broke through any stable crust in the present with unwelcome or alien messages. But over the years there is a distinct progression in Galloway’s novels, one that has the appearance, not of anything as facile as healing, but of steady incorporation, acceptance of the ‘hellishness’ for what it is, a breaking down of old parts in order to put them together again, economically, in something new. After Clara came her memoirs, her darkest and her funniest works, the most revealing and the most accessible. Galloway had always been a formidably innovative storyteller; now the novelty was that the story could tell itself straight.

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IV.

In the final tale in Jellyfish, ‘distance’, Martha is all alone on a trip to Jura, site of George Orwell’s last days. Many years ago now, when she was an insecure young mother, her small son cut his head open on a glass table and the accident unleashed some reckoning with the arbitrary and inevitable nature of catastrophe that has never been resolved. Her solution back then was to divorce her husband and allow him custody, afraid that her own fears would prove contaminatory to her child. Since then, Martha has cut herself off, taking only supply teaching work so she should never be lulled into the responsibility of relationships. Though the invisibility begins to tell. Attempting to teach Orwell to a class of resistant children, she tells them about the time he saved his four-year-old son from drowning in a sailing incident. ‘Sometimes, she said, there’s more to people than meets the eye. Repressed and paranoid and dying is not a whole picture of anyone.’

And maybe Martha is dying; in her forties now, with an burgeoning disease that is gynacological, possibly serious, possibly not, she decides to take this solo trip to Jura. The freedom feels easeful, at night watching the waves she understands: ‘There was no hidden code, no message, no meaning. What happened out there was random, wholly without blame or favour. In the end, nothing hinged on human decisions, nothing demanded retribution or just deserts: what happened was just what happened.’ Then, driving back to her lodgings in the darkness, listening on the car radio to Mozart’s Queen of the Night, she runs over a deer. Martha staggers over to the beast, longing to comfort it, afraid her touch will terrify it further. ‘Dislocated bars of Mozart were gusting like feathers in the night air,’ as she tends to the animal and her own relentless blundering in the world. ‘I’m here, she said, her words bouncing off the surrounding rocks and rising, furious, into the solid dark. I’m here. I’m here.’

And here Galloway’s voice remains, holding fast to its lament of risk and vulnerability, innocence and brutality that cannot be resolved. Instead, the elements are left suspended in uneasy harmony together, awaiting conclusion, a perfect augmented chord.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

Jul 032015
 

IMG_2289

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My grandmother, Yoeum Preng, passed away recently at the age of eighty-six.  At the funeral our family came together, along with saffron-robed monks from temples in Revere, MA, and Utica, NY. Also present were white-clad nuns from the local community, to help mourn our beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  Earlier in the week my uncle, the oldest child, and his cousin went to the temple in Revere, had their heads shaved by a monk, knelt in front of a row of monks, and were given robes and instructions in Pali.  They were becoming honorary monks following our Cambodian Buddhist custom.

I wondered what my uncle was thinking when he knelt and listened to Buddhist chanting. He was becoming a monk to honor and pay respect to his mother, whom he had been taking care of twenty-four seven for the past five years.  Eyes closed, face focused, determined, he was handed a bright orange-yellow robe.  The next day, the seventh and last day of our funeral rites, when, according to our belief, my grandmother’s spirit woke to discover that she was no longer of this world and needed us to guide her to her proper place, my uncle was asked by the head monk to speak.  He rose slowly and deliberately.  One hand clutching the microphone, he thanked the community of monks, nuns, and friends for their show of support and for their kindness.  But when it came to speak about Lok-Yiey (i.e. “ grandmother” in Khmer), all he could muster was, “I have no more words.”

Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006Grandma in Breakheart Reservation 2006

My crying came hard. I was inconsolable.  Like a possession, my shoulders shook, chest heaved, body convulsed.  The world became bleary.  After my uncle said what he could say, which meant that the suffering he was experiencing was beyond language, the head monk asked if anyone else would like to speak.  I felt the silence hang heavily in the air and my family turning to me, the most educated in the family, a college professor whose job was to speak clearly and intelligently in front of people.  When my aunt looked at me and saw what I was going through, she said, “Leave him alone.  He’s in no shape to give a speech.”  I walked backwards until my back was against the wall, found a seat, and sat down, head in hands, sobbing uncontrollably.

IMG_1752BK and his aunt, Bunyien Prak, who had her head shaved to become an honorary nun (in honor of BK’s grandmother) in front of grandmother’s picture. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

I am a writer.  I use words to tell stories.  And I love writing.  It’s my way to control the chaos of life, make sense of it, and share my thoughts and feelings with the world.  But when it comes to real-life events, when I come face-to-face with another human being or surrounded by people, I fumble, mumble, and falter.

Writing is a private activity through which my inner world connects with the external world of family, friends, and strangers.  But on that seventh day of our mourning, words failed me and, by extension, I felt I had failed my family when they needed me the most.  I couldn’t find the words, any words, to encapsulate the hurt, loss, and suffering I felt that day.  All I did was sob like a child.  On that day I understood the limits of language and felt utterly helpless and alone.  I lost my faith in the power of words, as I couldn’t console my family, who turned to me for words to comfort, guide, and heal.  They also looked to me because I had a special relationship with Lok-Yiey, with whom I shared a common loss: the death of my mother.

IMG_1870BK’s uncle, Bunyonn Tuon, and his cousin Bunpak Tuon becoming honorary monks.  This was their way of honoring his grandmother. Picture taken at Wat Ratanarangsey in Revere, MA.

My family wanted me to express what she stood for, what she meant to all of us, what we should tell the younger generation about her—in short, how we should remember and honor her.

When I was in graduate school, I began collecting my family’s stories.  I was in my late twenties and didn’t know the story of my life; I had never sat down with my aunts, uncles, and grandmother to ask them about my deceased mother and father.  So, one year, I returned home during the holidays, armed with a list of questions and a tape recorder.  Naturally, I started with the story of my birth.

According to family’s legend, my birth brought everyone together.  To celebrate the birth of the eldest son of the family, my father’s family came from Khmer Krom, now in Southern Viet Nam, crossing the Mekong by boat and riding the train from Phnom Penh to Battambang in Western Cambodia, where my mother’s family had lived for many generations.  But this family celebration was marred by my constant crying.  I cried and cried so much that even my parents didn’t want to hold me.  It was Lok-Yiey who held me, fed and cared for me, while everyone else slept through the night.  It was Lok-Yiey who took me to see lok-gru (i.e. a village elder), who explained that my spirit mother missed me and wanted me back with her in the spirit world.  His solution was to trick this spirit mother into not recognizing me by changing my name.  After my name was changed to Bunkong, which means “endurance” and “longevity,” I stopped crying.

On one of my visits home, I heard a story about how Lok-Yiey risked her life to keep me alive.  It was late afternoon, after a family barbecue to celebrate a niece’s birthday, and the guests had already left.  My uncle, his friend, and I were cleaning up.  I was sweeping the driveway; my uncle and his friend were picking up the numerous soda cans and beer bottles that had been strewn about after the party.  For some reason, the subject of survival came up.  Maybe it had to do with the flies swarming around the grilled chicken wings, skewered beef, and papaya salad left on the table, the wastefulness of American wealth that made them quiet, and got them thinking about hunger under the Khmer Rouge regime.  During those times people ate whatever they could find to stave off death: leaves that resembled the light-green vegetable they used to eat, larva worms for protein, and crickets, bugs, and insects that jumped and crawled about while they dug irrigation ditches and carried mud on their shoulders.  Like two million other people, my mother fell victim of the Khmer Rouge regime when she died from sickness and hunger.  It was at this point that Lok-Yiey became my mother.  As before, she cared for me, made sure I was fed.  But unlike before, her love for me battled against the Khmer Rouge law.   She stole a few grains of rice from sahak-gor, the collective kitchen of Angkar, so that she could make rice gruel, barbor, for me to eat.

My uncle’s friend said, “She risked her life to feed you.  If the Khmer Rouge had found out, she would have been ‘disappeared.’  That’s how much she loves you.”

“I didn’t know any of this.”  I then asked, “Do you remember what I said about the gruel?”

My uncle answered, “You say, ‘What’s this?  It’s better than chicken curry.’”

Even to this day, I have no memory of hunger and starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime, despite the fact that more people died from hunger and sickness during that time than from execution.  I only remember my grandmother’s love.

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During the couple of years before her passing, Lok-Yiey was in and out of the hospital.  When she was first taken to Mass General Hospital, in Boston, my uncle, the one who took care of her, didn’t call to tell me what had happened.  Whenever I called home, my uncle only said, “She’s doing fine.  Everything’s fine.  How’s your job?  Are the students and professors treating you well?  Are you done with your book yet?”  He didn’t want me to be distracted, knowing that I was going up for tenure the following year, so he kept asking me questions about my job to keep me focused on achieving my American dream.  It was a cousin who texted me, “Grandma is in the hospital.  Liquid in her heart.  Come home if you can take time off.”  At one point, this cousin confronted this uncle, “He’s an adult.  Treat him like one.  He needs to know the truth about his own grandmother.”  My cousin said to me afterward, “I know the old generation wants to protect you from the truth.  But they need to trust us.  We know about America more than them.  They have to learn to rely on us, especially when they are getting old and will need to be cared for.”  Caught between my uncles’ and aunts’ way of dealing with difficult subject matters in our lives and my cousin’s American way, I called my uncle and told him what I needed: “I have to know what’s going on with Lok-Yiey, so that I can decide what I need to do with work and my classes.  My department is extremely understanding and supportive.  Knowing myself, not knowing the truth will drive me crazy.  Do you understand what I mean?”

There was a long silence on the other end.  Then he said, “Okay, boy.”

Somehow Lok-Yiey was able to pull through and survive these harrowing experiences.   I remember one time the family was given an ultimatum: either she was to have surgery or she would live out her last few days at the hospital.  My uncles and aunts drove home, sat down in the kitchen, and discussed their plan.  “She can’t have surgery at her age.  It’s too much for her body to handle,” an aunt said.  “But without surgery,” an uncle countered, “she doesn’t have long to live.  At least with surgery, there is hope.” So they decided on the surgery. However, when the nurses were prepping grandmother, they discovered her blood pressure and heartbeat had returned to normal.  They kept her overnight for observation and let her leave the next day without any other explanation except to say that she was “a medical miracle.”  When I got home a few days later, Lok-Yiey was resting in her room.  My uncle heard my voice, said to Lok-Yiey, “Your medicine is here.”  Lok-Yiey turned her head, asked, “Who?”  “He’s here, standing at the door, your grandson,” my uncle pointed at me and laughed.  Lok-Yiey smiled, called out to me, and asked if I had eaten anything.

What forces in the universe drew us together and made us the kind of grandmother and grandson we were to each other? Was it fate?  Was it history?  Was it a combination of the two?  I don’t know.  An uncle who usually refused to talk about his experience under the Khmer Rouge regime told me this story during one of my holiday visits.  “Before we left for the refugee camps in Thailand in 1979, Lok-Yiey went up to your father and told him she was going to take you with her.”  He spoke while cutting the red and green peppers for the stir-fried steak he was making.

Horrified, I asked: “What did my father say?”

“I don’t know.  I know that a week later in the camp, we met someone from the village who told us that your father came to our old home looking for you.”

My heart sank when I heard this story. I wonder what compelled Lok-Yiey to walk up to my father and tell him she wanted me to be with her?  Was it because my father had taken another wife?  Did she sense that my father would have children with this woman?  Was she then afraid that I might be abused by my stepmother and neglected by my father?  And what did my father say to her?  What was he thinking when he was told that I was leaving him?  Why didn’t he come after me sooner?  Why didn’t he come with me and leave Cambodia?  Did he talk to his new wife about it?  What did she tell him?

Or did the reason Lok-Yiey took me with her have something to do with my mother?  Did I remind her of her oldest daughter?  Was it my round face and almond-shaped eyes?  By this time, Lok-Yiey had lost so much already. Her youngest brother, who worked as an interpreter and tour guide in Siem Reap, had disappeared when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia.  Her oldest child, who went to study in Phnom Penh, had also disappeared.  No one heard from him after the great purging of the capital.  Still, Lok-Yiey held onto hope, believing that he was still alive somewhere, since no one had seen him taken away by soldiers and his body was never found.  Then, in 1978, a year before Viet Nam invaded Cambodia and liberated it from the Khmer Rouge, Lok-Yiey watched my mother, her oldest daughter, wither away, her body shriveled and dried, as she was slowly dying from starvation and sickness.  She saw pus oozing from her open wounds.  Was Lok-Yiey determined to keep me, what was left of her daughter, to replace what was taken from her?

I held no resentment towards Lok-Yiey.  Without her decision to take me with her, I wouldn’t be here, in the United States, teaching American students about the Cambodian Genocide.  It was the working of life’s great mysteries, a kind of poetic, cosmic justice, where Cambodia was shrouded in mystery under the regime, kept in silence, until survivors broke their silence and told the world about the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. It was Lok-Yiey’s quick and heart-felt decision on that day that allowed me to talk to today’s students about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and share it with the world in my poetry and prose. But still, somewhere in my mind, a thought flashed to my father: that moment when he came to Lok-Yiey’s thatch-roofed house and found it empty. No trace of me, his son, to be found. In my throat, I ached a little.

I carry the following memory with me: It was in 1979, and we were crossing the Cambodian jungles for what seemed like at least a week to my undiscerning consciousness.  Too young to walk on my own, I was carried on Lok-Yiey’s back.  We walked in single file.  My uncles and aunts were ahead of us.  Trailing behind was Vanna, the surviving daughter of Lok-Yiey’s youngest sibling, the one who disappeared as soon as the Khmer Rouge captured Siem Reap, guilty of the crime of being educated.  I remember the rain falling hard over our heads, making our path muddy and slippery.  A few years older than me, Vanna walked behind us until, too tired to see the puddle in front of her, she slipped and fell.  When she got up, her face was covered with dark, earthy mud.  All I could see were the whites of her eyes.  From my perch on grandmother’s back, I pointed and laughed.  Vanna was fuming, angry at me.  Thus began years of childhood bickering between the two of us.  But I relate this incident to illustrate how I was shielded from suffering, protected from life’s horrors, both large and small, by the love of my Lok-Yeay.  People in my family, especially Vanna, say I’m lucky that I had a grandmother so loving, so kind, and gentle.  I think they are right.

In America my uncles and aunts got married, had children, and took jobs.  After a few years of working, they pooled their savings to purchase a three-story Victorian house in Malden, Massachusetts.  Over twenty of us lived in that house, but Lok-Yiey wouldn’t want it any other way.  While my uncles and aunts were busy working, Lok-Yeay took care of us all,  her grandchildren.  She cooked and cleaned; she bathed and fed us.  She woke us up for school.  In her bell-bottom pants and puffy winter coat she took from the clothes bin at our sponsor’s church, she walked my little cousins to school.  I have no idea how she found her way home. Did she ask other parents for directions?  But how was that possible?  She spoke very little English.  All she could do was point and smile. And when we got home from school, fried fish or Chinese sausages appeared, like magic, on the table, with cooked jasmine rice in a pot on the stove, just in case we couldn’t eat American food or we got hungry after a day of studying.  That was her magic: No matter how poor we were, none of us ever felt hungry under Lok-Yiey’s watchful eye.

But it wasn’t really magic. Whenever I think of Lok-Yiey, I always see her in our kitchen preparing food. She is in her red-and-orange sarong and light blue shirt, hair dark and curly, wearing large round orange-rimmed glasses. She is either sitting on the floor with a huge meat cleaver in hand mincing pork for the prahouk, crushing garlic, red and green chilies, ginger and galangal in a mortar and pestle for sralauw, or standing in front of the stove stirring a hot pot full of boiled potatoes, onion, and beef curry. Lok-Yiey was five feet tall, sturdy, with broad shoulders and powerful forearms, a frame strong enough to bear the tough life she led. I remember one evening in Revere. I held her hand while she slept, studied it, turned it over, traced the grease surrounding her life line and touched the calloused bulbs at the beginning of each finger. Then I looked at my own hand, soft and tender, a baby’s hand. I remember her snoring. I reached out to touch her shoulder, shaking it. She opened her eyes, told me to go to sleep, and resumed her snoring. I lay there in her arms, feeling her breath on me, and tried to breathe in synchronicity with her.

Family 1980 in refugee camp in ThailandFamily 1980 in refugee camp in Thailand

At the funeral, Vanna, who took a red-eye flight from Arizona, whispered to me, “She was so strict with me.  I couldn’t go out at night.  No boys whatsoever.  We butt heads, of course; I was a teenager, after all.”

I didn’t say anything.  I sat watching Lok-Yiey lying peacefully in the coffin.

Vanna continued, “You know what?  Looking back at it now, I realize she was doing the right thing, teaching me to be good.  Without her, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.  She was like a mother to me.”  Then she sobbed.

Lok-Yiey was a mother to all of us.  While my uncles and aunts worked at lumber companies and factories in cities and towns throughout the Greater Boston area, she became our Great Mother.

When my aunt, grandmother’s youngest child, bought a house in Wakefield, a twenty-minute drive from our family’s home in Malden, Lok-Yiey was worried that her family, which she had built and nurtured throughout the years, would spread out and be like other American families whose members only see each other during the holidays.  She knew that, if we were to survive in America, we had to stick together.  That was her lesson for all of us.  But our family never became distant, and my aunt learned well the lesson of her mother.  She continued visiting Lok-Yiey every day.  When Lok-Yiey passed on, my aunt shaved her head, donned a white robe, and became an honorary nun.  For a week she attended services at the temple in Revere each morning and evening.  She didn’t shed her material possessions (hair, clothes, makeup, etc.) out of blind obligation.  She did it out of love for her mother—the mother who continued to care for her even after she got married.  When my aunt and her husband decided to pursue the Cambodian-American dream by leaving Massachusetts for Southern California to buy a donut shop, Lok-Yiey went with them.  She cooked and cleaned while my aunt sold donuts in her store in Bell, California, and my uncle slept in the upstairs room, exhausted after a night of making donuts.

Looking back through the years, I have no memory of Lok-Yiey saying to me, “I love you.”  But not once in my life did I ever doubt her love for me. Like the old generation in my family, who came from a culture of polite modesty, she expressed her feelings through actions rather than words. Her love was in the food she made food for me, such as prahouk with minced pork or salor srae or tirk kreoung. Whenever I came home from college, she would prepare Khmer dishes she had known all her life, peasant food for farmers. I don’t know what it was, but the flavor she created seemed magical.  When I came home one day from college armed with pen and paper to document these recipes, she laughed and told me I was foolish. Like others from the old country, she didn’t use measuring spoons and cups, had no book of famous recipes, and didn’t consider her cooking worth preserving. Lok-Yiey learned to cook from her mother who learned it from her own mother, and so on. Everything related to food was passed down through memories of loved ones.  And when Lok-Yiey couldn’t cook anymore, she had my aunts make food for me. I’m sure Vanna would say I was “spoiled.” But I would say simply that I was lucky to be loved by my grandmother.

We were all loved by Lok-Yiey.  For her, nothing was more important than family.  When her first husband died, Lok-Yiey was in her thirties, a single mother with six children, the oldest in his teens and the youngest, the aunt who would later shave her head, too young to remember her father’s funeral.  She cared for them by getting up at dusk, putting wood in the stove, making fried rice and noodles to take to the train station in Battambang and sell to businessmen and travelers with her daughters’ help.  She would run after the train when a customer forgot to return empty bowls and plates.  After the morning rush hour, she would walk to the field and help her teenaged son farm the land.  By afternoon, she would return home and cook food for businessmen arriving at the train station after work.  When there wasn’t enough money to feed her children, she smuggled spices, eels, and fish across the Thailand-Cambodian border.  One time, she was caught by the police at the train station in Poipet, but they took pity and let her go when she told them she did what she had to do for her hungry children.

Lok-Yiey put her children above everything.  The truth is, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and their children wouldn’t be here without her love.  In refugee camps, she continued to barter goods with Thai people through the fence surrounding our lives, risking beatings from the military police.  In America, she sold fried rice and stir-fried beef at her daughter’s donut shop as a way of expanding the business.  Lok-Yiey was a survivor, an entrepreneur, a fighter.  And she did it all in the name of family.

Lok-Yiey didn’t receive a doctorate from Harvard or a business degree from one of the top universities in the States.  She was the wife of a farmer; her children are the sons and daughters of farmers in a small village in Battambang.  She didn’t use big words to impress people. But what she lacked in vocabulary, she made up for with a heart as big as the world.  That is her lesson for all of us: family love.

Grandma and her family todayGrandmother and the family picture taken recently. Note the contrast with the picture taken in Thailand.

It’s been three weeks now since Lok-Yiey left us.  I am still sad.  We have lost an era; a way of life where goodness comes from hard work, commitment to do the right thing, and love for family and friends; a worldview where the self is intricately connected to community, where a person’s actions are more valued than her words.  She is gone now, and I don’t know how to fill that void, that emptiness, in my life.  How do I keep Lok-Yiey with us and honor her memories?

I remember teaching In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo at my college and asking the same question during class discussion.  At the end of the novel, the protagonist loses his grandfather, the one who had given him emotional support and moral guidance ever since his parents lost their lives in a plane crash.  “How do you honor the memory of such a loved one?”  I asked my students.  They were quiet for a moment, then one raised her hand, another followed, and so on.  Of course, I had my own answer, which I shared with them.  For me, it’s maintaining the values she stood for and the ideas she cherished.  For Lok-Yiey, it could be as simple as cooking the food that she made for us when we were young, eating and sharing her favorite dishes with family and friends.  More importantly, it is the symbolic value such culinary space represents: working hard, expressing love through actions, sharing what you have with others, and, ultimately, understanding the importance of family and friends.  It is more important than ever for our family to uphold this value system.  No matter what happens, we must not undo what Lok-Yiey had worked so hard to build.  We must stick together as a family, forgive each other, care for and love one another, the same way that Lok-Yiey cared for and loved us.

To the younger generation in my family, it is now our turn to carry what Lok-Yiey and your parents have carried all their lives.  We know the language and culture of the United States, as if they were our own, that’s because they are; we must therefore help the older generation navigate with dignity its social and political systems.  We are, after all, Americans with a Cambodian accent.  The first generation have carried us this far, and now we, the 1.5 and second generation, must carry them.  It is the way of life, a cyclical pattern of the karmic order of things.  It is Buddhist; it is Cambodian; it’s the human thing to do.

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On that day when the head monk asked family members to speak their last words about Lok-Yiey, I wish I could have mustered self-control to speak from the heart.  If I had, this is what I would have said: “Lok-Yiey, I know that in our Cambodian culture, we don’t speak directly and openly.  But I’ve been in America for too long and have picked up some of its wayward customs.  So let me speak from the heart.  Thank you for all you have done for us, Lok-Yiey.  We are gathered here to show our respect and deep love for you.  Thank you for everything.  I love you.”

—Bunkong Tuon

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Bunkong Tuon teaches writing and literature in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, New York. His recent publications include Nerve Cowboy, Más Tequila Review, Chiron Review, and Patterson Literary Review. Gruel, his first full-length collection, is recently published by NYQ Books: http://books.nyq.org/title/gruel

Jul 022015
 

Lefer by Robin Gibson (2)Diane Lefer by Robin Gibson

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One morning in October I waited at the gate of the Air Ground Combat Center Marine training base in the Mojave Desert, Twentynine Palms, CA. I’d been invited with a community group about to take a public tour of what is essentially a grad school for combat. Marines from around the country–units 1,000 members strong–who’ve already completed basic training and are almost ready to deploy come here for 35 days of intensive work, including live-fire training and urban warfare practice in “Little Iraqi villages.”

The mockup of an Iraqi village for trainingMockup of an Iraqi village for training.

“I don’t care if you learn anything today,” said the retired Marine who would lead our tour. “I’m here to keep you entertained. At the end of the day, if you don’t have fun, it’s my fault.”

But first, our drivers licenses were collected. Quick identity checks “just to make sure you’re not a terrorist.”

We waited. A woman near the front of the parking lot stared, scrutinizing me.

For a few years, my emails carried an automatic tag at the end: I am a terrorist. By paying US taxes, I provide financial support to State-sponsored terrorism and torture. I don’t remember when I deleted the statement, but it occurred to me my past might have caught up with me.

The woman beckoned to me. “Are you a writer?”

Well, yeah, but I wasn’t there on assignment. A nonprofit I’m associated with was interested in doing outreach to vets and active service members in the area.

“You’re media.” Her definition turned out to be rather encompassing: Anyone with a blog. “You’re not allowed on this tour.”

I hadn’t planned to write about the day but I let her know I would damn sure write about being left outside the gate.

During the 4-hour drive home, I realized what I really needed to write about was the loaded word fun.

Warning sign at 29 PalmsWarning sign at 29 Palms.

****

Does any culture have as much of it as we do? When I try to find “fun” in other languages, I can’t seem to come up with a true equivalent. I find terms I would translate as amusement, diversion, joke, prank, leisure. None of which to me quite conveys the same meaning as fun.

****

A few days later I’m at one of the monthly workshops on nonviolent action led by civil rights hero Rev. James M. Lawson, Jr. We’re considering violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, and why governments see no alternative to war. Why is military force the default position? Why isn’t the peace movement effective?

I brought up the Marine base. What did the nonviolent movement for peace and social justice have to equal the promise of fun? To get people’s attention these days, so we have to compete with pulse racing, adrenaline-pumping excitement? The Civil Rights Movement was one of the most successful examples of nonviolence, and I dared to say it drew people to it through the promise of risk and adventure.

I knew the words were wrong, but I was trying to figure something out. What elements made it possible for the Movement to mobilize a whole nation, cutting across lines of race and class and gender?

Two of the Black participants in the group caught me at the break. Maybe it was an adventure for white kids who went to Mississippi for a month or two, they said, but for the Black people who actually lived there, there was no adventure. There was the same violence and oppression they had always lived under.

Of course they were right. And forgive me, insensitive, offensive, I kept talking. Instead of thinking aloud I should have just kept my mouth shut. Instead, I knew they were right so I stopped listening and kept trying to figure out what I meant, trying to account for the difference between suffering the constant threat of violence versus choosing to put your life on the line. There was something galvanizing in the Civil Rights Movement. Something made people embrace the cause and the risk. Wasn’t there excitement at the idea that through people claiming their own agency things might actually change?

****

Rev. Lawson doesn’t often focus on what’s happening overseas. He’s said we must confront the culture of violence here, not over there. The road to peace is justice. Dismantling racism and poverty, stabilizing families by good employment, by health care in the United States–that’s what is critical for the security and wellbeing of the nation. “Only by engaging in domestic issues and molding a domestic coalition for justice can we confront militarization of our land.”

****

“Our job is to engage and go through the enemy. Our job is not to take and hold territory,” said Mike, the ex-Marine tour guide.

I was back at the gate. See, after I gave up and drove home, Barbara Harris, who leads tours in the Joshua Tree area, wrote a complaint about how I’d been treated. The response came from public affairs officer Captain Justin Smith. I had his personal guarantee that I could tour. And he made no objection when I said I would, after all, write about it.

Mike said, “We kill everything that we see and let them (the Army) hold it.”

Mike wears a cap from Disneyland.

****

1200 square miles of desert. Even for someone like me who loves the desert, this barren landscape is hard to love. Marines here are housed (when not out in the field) in small K-Spans, structures that used to be called Quonset huts. Concrete floors, no cell phone reception, no A/C, no heat for the freezing desert nights.

60# of gear.

But foodie-inspired MRE’s? I spot a pouch labeled “Chicken and Pasta in Pesto Sauce”–a far cry from what my father said the mess hall served during WWII: DVOT (Dog Vomit on Toast) and SOS (which I later learned–because he always refused to tell us–stood for Shit on a Shingle). Then I try to picture that grainy green sauce and imagine today’s Marines, too, have come up with a suitable acronym.

****

Mike divides us into three groups to try out the Combat Convoy Simulator. Each group is in a separate room with a fullsize Humvee to drive, with gunners armed with M16s to provide security front, rear, right and left. We are to start off from Camp Dunbar and travel Highway 1 to the village of Asmar. Our mission is to get there and return without getting killed. “Don’t shoot people that are not shooting at you,” Mike warns. “If you shoot the noncombatants they get cranky and everyone will be your enemy.” The whole room becomes a 360-degree video game projected on the walls. We can see the other vehicles. We can see “Iraq” all around us.

video view of Iraq highway created for trainingVideo view of Iraq highway created for training.

Captain Smith hands me an M16 and I hold onto it awkwardly as I try to put my camera and notebook away. “Here.” He takes it from me and replaces it with an M4– “the girl version.”

The rifles in the simulator fire compressed gas, making a sound like live gunfire. The recoil is just like real.

We’re the first vehicle in a convoy of three. I’m guarding the left side of the Humvee, watching for bad guys as video images move across the wall, and while I know I’m not as strong and fit as a young Marine, I’m still shocked at how much the weapon weighs, how my heartbeat speeds up and adrenaline surges from the mere stress of holding it in ready position.

We drive past market stalls where locals eye us, past fields where men move with their flocks, past kids on bicycles. Mike tells us to watch out for anything that might be a roadside bomb. Watch for people running towards us. They’re the insurgents. You don’t shoot at people running away.

Inside the Combat Convoy SimulatorInside the Combat Convoy Simulator.

My group wiped out some insurgents and didn’t kill any civilians. One of the other groups was too trigger-happy. In the end, we’re blown up by a roadside bomb.

Even after the exercise ends and I relinquish the M4, my hands are still shaking.

****

Humvees are obsolete. Too vulnerable to IED’s. Defense contractors came up with the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle–the MRAP. The thing is, to make the vehicle adequately protected, it’s so top heavy that it will roll over even on an incline as gentle as 15-17 degrees. If it does, 8-10 Marines and sailors, with all their bulky gear, have to be able to open the 18″ x 18″ escape hatch and get themselves out, evaluate anyone who is wounded, and establish a 360-degree security perimeter. In 90 seconds.

Eight of us climbed in, fastened (with difficulty) our 5-point harnesses, held tight to our possessions as the MRAP tilted over on its side, and then the other side, back and forth and almost upside down as we screamed with shock and dizziness and delight.

We weren’t asked to escape. We climbed out, disoriented and shaken, asking How on earth do they do it?

Equipment waiting for us at the MRAPEquipment waiting for us at the MRAP.

Captain Smith smiled and told of other impossible feats the Marines are trained to accomplish. As we walked on, I thought, but of course! It’s not a race. It’s not every man for himself. It’s about preplanning and teamwork. At least I think it must be. That’s what the training was for, so the men already know who opens the hatch, who climbs out (or gets boosted out) first, and how or if they help others, and where they stand in the perimeter and how the plan adjusts if someone is wounded and can’t perform his role. It would have been interesting to hear how men learn to cooperate. Instead, we had a Disneyland ride.

****

90 seconds to egress an MRAP. 60# of gear.

A young man my niece dated for a while joins the Marines. He wants to serve and I insist he should have joined the Air Force where you get treated better. I don’t understand that being treated better isn’t what some young people look for.

How on earth do they do it?

First the sheer physical and mental endurance, the brutality of basic training. Then Twentynine Palms. I come to appreciate the thrill and the pride that must accompany the challenge of accomplishing acts that seem impossible until you actually accomplish them. Even before they’ve faced threats to life and limb, they’ve had to prove themselves in ways I can hardly fathom.

What do I do–what have I ever done?–that demanded so much of me, that was so worthy of stunned respect?

For an effective nonviolent movement, don’t we need to be every bit as  committed? To accept that waging peace is every bit as difficult as waging war and demands just as much sacrifice? In the Civil Rights Movement, people knew they might be injured or killed. Those who were Black were in constant danger of being injured or killed with or without a Movement.

But there’s something Sisyphean about the young Marines.

What is the point of pushing men and women to the breaking point, training them to perform superhuman feats if all we’re going to do is send them off to kill and risk life and limb in unjust, ill-conceived wars? Wars we cannot win.

****

World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and a century later historians still can’t make sense of it. Millions of lives lost, carnage, destruction, suffering and no one can give a good reason why. The Great War was so horrific, humankind was supposed to have learned its lesson. Instead it turned out to be merely the prelude to more death, more suffering, more war.

To mark the centennial, the Goethe Institut-Los Angeles offered Make Films, Not War, a series of screenings, lectures, and workshops. When Ajay Singh Chaudhary, the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and his colleague Michael Robert Stevenson presented their work on video games, I was there.

Please credit Chaudhary, Stevenson, and the Institut when I refer to gaming as prior to their workshop, I had never played a video game. I had never watched anyone play, none of which had ever stopped me from talking about how terrible the games are.

My only experience was this: Before Antioch University-LA moved to its campus in Culver City, when I taught there, classes were held in a modest building in Marina del Rey. The floor above us was occupied by a defense contractor developing video war games. A student might be reading her work aloud or we might be translating Chinese poetry or doing a rhetorical analysis of the Declaration of Independence, our words punctuated with explosions coming through the ceiling and walls.

More than 2,000 video war games are on the market. Some of the most violent games young people play for entertainment–for fun–were developed with funding from the Department of Defense.

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Do violent video games lead to violence? Chaudhary says the studies are contradictory and inconclusive. Wouldn’t they have to be? Every individual reacts in his or her own way.

Years ago I’m sitting in the auditorium at the New York Public Library for a free screening of Buñuel’s film, Un chien andalou. Insects emerge crawling from the hole in a hand and a man in the audience rises to his feet. “That’s what happens!” he cries. “I told them! It’s true!”

This year, while writing this essay, I rush to see American Sniper, sure that it will bolster my argument about fun and entertainment. I don’t even mention it in the early drafts. No point in talking about the politics of the film, I thought, when in spite of the violence, it’s really pretty dull. Such an mediocre movie won’t get much attention, I thought. Shows you how much I know.

While in the meantime, ISIS posts online graphic video of beheadings. Most people are appalled. Some are thrilled. Some conclude ISIS should be destroyed. Others, drawn by the display of raw power, want to join.

Do we have to think about how every conceivable person will react to every conceivable content?

Specially designed video games are being used experimentally, I’ve read, to treat combat veterans suffering from PTSD. Virtual reality puts them back into the extreme situations that caused the trauma. The hope is to desensitize, to let the veteran relive the experience but in safety and with the ability to stay in control. Virtual violence that heals.

We watch a little boy as he plays Call to Duty, his hands flying, his body moving rhythmically with the first-person shooter action. The scenery changes at high speed and the kid is shooting and killing. A dog appears on the screen and for a moment, the little boy stops and just looks. “Dad,” he says, “can I have a dog?”

The game, the fantasy of the game, doesn’t change who you are.

Or does it? You get to choose your weapons. There’s a whole array with all their technical specs. The game can develop some serious expertise about military arms and it seems to me that expertise is something a person wants to use, and using it to play a game may not be enough. When you become confident and expert, won’t you identify with the endeavor? Are these video games excellent recruitment tools for militarization and war?

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There’s a powerful resistance to killing deep in our moral structure, maybe even in our genes. Up until the time of the US war in Vietnam, most soldiers refrained from firing their weapons or intentionally fired above the heads of the enemies. So, as Lt. Col. Dave Grossman explains in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, by the time we charged into Vietnam, the military had developed psychological methods to improve the kill ratio by breaking down this natural resistance. But what happens afterwards? For some soldiers returning to civilian life, violence may no longer be taboo. For others, this sense of moral injury, of having become something he or she cannot even recognize as the self, remains an open wound. We can break down a person’s character. How do we build it back up?

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Can peace be fun? Well, the Sixties. Sex. Drugs. Rock n Roll. Make Love Not War. But did that bring peace?

How do we compete with kicking down doors and blowing things up?

Video war games have extraordinary production values. They put you right into the action. They are expensively produced, sometimes with funding coming right from the Department of Defense. Many of the pro-peace games I saw use comparatively low-budget graphics. Little more than cartoons. And instead of adrenaline-pumping excitement, they offer earnestness.

We Come in Peace, more sophisticated, uses 3D satellite imagery but apparently only a trailer is now available. It’s designed so that when you play you see our earth. The goal is to move in on location after location and eliminate the stockpile of weapons. I see how a player can get involved in the task, but you can’t compare it to the excitement of a first or third-person shooter game. Instead it resembles more closely the experience of a drone pilot. Except the pilot is eliminating human beings.

The drone pilot may learn days later that he or she hit a wedding party or a funeral and will have to live with that knowledge. But it’s not quite the same as the player of Spec Ops: The Line who has a mission to accomplish in the Middle East. As the game progresses, you find yourself on a killing spree, women, children. By the end of the game, you realize you are not a military hero but a psycho killer.

Will some players smile with satisfaction? Embrace the identity of a psychopath?

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I strike up a conversation at the workshop. The guy is Israeli and he tells me about Peacemaker, a game which challenges you to bring about a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians and win the Nobel Prize. You can play as the Palestinian president or the Israeli prime minister. You are called upon to make decisions in response to events and you then see the consequences of your decisions.

When he played the Israeli side, he told me, it was relatively easy to choose actions that led to peace. But he was entirely unable to imagine his way into the role of the Palestinian president. “Why?” I asked, bristling. I thought he was suggesting that “they” don’t have the same mentality “we” do. No, he explained. From the Palestinian side, he found himself frozen. There was pressure and influence and problems coming from all directions. He’d never before appreciated how difficult and precarious is the situation of a Palestinian leader.

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If you’re going for true realism, much of military life is boring. Mike tells us that the Convoy Simulator, such fast-paced fun for us, is very boring for the Marines and sailors who use it for training. For 6-8 hours at a stretch, the Marines drive and drive and drive as they practice keeping their Humvees a set distance apart. It’s bad enough if a bomb takes out one vehicle. If you’re driving too close together, it could be two. Drive through the village and back to the base. No insurgents appear on the screen. Hold your weapons ready though most of the time you won’t have any reason to fire. Spot a possible roadside bomb? Stop and call for a security perimeter. Wait.

Staying awake–let alone staying alert–that’s a big part of going to war.

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The wind howls. The scene is bleak, black and white, and a soldier trudges head down through the snow in the aftermath of a terrible battle.

You are that soldier. Men lie dead and wounded across the field. Some whisper pleas for help. There are bombed out buildings. There’s shelter in the distance and a fire–the warm orange flames the only color in the scene–and your mission is to comfort the suffering, to get survivors to that warmth before they freeze to death. Before you freeze to death with them.

The game, The Snowfield allows you to walk and to pick up objects. That’s all. You can pick up a bottle of whiskey. A rifle (but it seems you can’t fire it). Your movements grow slower and slower and more labored, your footsteps drag the further you get from the fire.

The SnowfieldThe Snowfield.

The action is slow. Very little happens. I couldn’t stop watching.

The scenes are sad, horrific, but the game is created with such an eye to aesthetics, it all has a strange and compelling beauty.

Would a young male used to Call to Duty appreciate The Snowfield?

Could an action game include segments where to advance to the next level you have to slow down, you have to experience boredom, you have to face the ugly aftermath of killing? Of course such a game could be designed but who would bother? Who would market it?

The Call of Duty franchise has sold 139,600,000 games through the year 2013. Admittedly, sales have dropped. In 2013, only 14,500,000 copies of that year’s most recent game were sold.

That’s ten times as many people as actually serve in the US military today.

I look at the empirical study about civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth who was named by Foreign Policy magazine as among the Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2013. Looking at nonviolent social movements worldwide, Chenoweth she found that none failed “after they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population.” Doesn’t sound like much. OK, take the US population of approximately 316 million. They means you only have to mobilize a bit over 11 million people. A lot, but fewer than bought the new Call of Duty game in 2013.

3.5% can bring down a dictatorship. What can it do in a country where many people don’t recognize their own oppression?

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We’ve always known we can’t bomb our way to peace. We have to win hearts and minds. We just can’t figure out how to do it, even here at home.

When I bring up the violently misogynistic content of some games. Ajay Chaudhary suggests the greatest danger is when video games “reproduce social inequalities” by reinforcing stereotypes about identity, race, gender that are part of our daily lives.

The Stolen Lives Project documents cases of people killed by law enforcement agents. From 1990 to 1999, they collected over 2000 reports from public records. Most of the dead, people of color.

How much patience can we (of the up until now majority community) ask of people who’ve been waiting centuries for equal protection and equal rights and justice?

I want to get rid of the word “waiting,” as though African Americans have stood by passively. They have not been waiting, but rather working for justice, dying for their rights, struggling for centuries.

****

In the year 2000, I had just begun working on a theater project with a Black actor and director named Anthony Lee. A week later, a police officer shot and killed him. A tragic mistake. I was horrified, heartbroken, angry. But I also believe the officer was devastated.

I attended the trial of Johannes Mehserle who shot and killed Oscar Grant. I saw no remorse. There was not a trace in the statements of Darren Wilson. Is it possible they really felt none? Self-appointed security guard George Zimmerman showed us only self-pity. Do our legal system and our polarized society encourage self-justification and the angry refusal to accept responsibility?

When you take a life–justified or not–if you’re not a sociopath, you suffer a moral injury. How can it heal if you are not allowed to feel the guilt and to grieve?

****

At Twentynine Palms, Marines drive through the desert terrain, slowly, 15-35 mph on the alert for roadside bombs. Roads signs are in Arabic as they approach and enter one of three mock Iraqi villages.

At the height of training for combat in Iraq, the Marines hired 1,000 roleplayers– men and women of Middle Eastern nationality or descent–whose identities were closely guarded to protect them and their families from reprisal. They were just intended to be warm bodies providing local color. They were given scripts to follow, but according to Mike, it soon became clear they were needed for much more: to teach cultural competence.

Furnished Iraq interior for practising raidsFurnished Iraq interior for practising raids.

A Marine goes into a meeting with the town mayor and local notables and within minutes offends all of them.

A Marine passes an Iraqi woman in the street and greets her with a courteous “Good afternoon, Ma’am.” He’s immediately surrounded by a group of hostile Iraqi men, disturbed that an unrelated man has dared speak to a woman.

Surely it’s better to know something than nothing, but how much good did this training do when we were clearly in way over our heads? Marines learn a few words in Arabic, but Mike explains that in Afghanistan there are so many different languages, the military doesn’t even try.

I think of Anand Gopal’s book, No Good Men Among the Living. US misreading of situations and people in Afghanistan had us paying huge sums to dishonest informants, sending innocent men to Guantánamo, jailing Afghan allies because of false reports. However bad you thought it was, read the book and learn it was much much worse.

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So where do we (the nonviolent movement for peace and justice) find 11 million people?

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We love action. Video games with cars racing, weapons discharging fire and explosions all happening faster than you can blink. We love kicking down doors and blowing things up.

(But the little boy didn’t ask his father for a weapon!)

This essay is not concise. It meanders. On and on. Will anyone keep reading as I try to think my way forward?

We are addicted to the quick fix. Violence is instant gratification. When you want results NOW, with violence you can cut through the crap, the bureaucratic red tape, the naysayers, the law. But maybe not.

Shock and awe–the bombing of Baghdad by US forces–began on March 19, 2003, the strategy known as “rapid dominance.” We are still there.

Torture. Get a quick answer when faced with an imminent threat. Only the ticking time bomb scenario never actually occurred and torture yielded horrific injustice when we interrogated innocent people with no information to offer and yielded lies and misinformation when we tortured terrorists.

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CIA apologist Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr. has justified torture again and again by repeating the imminent threat and ticking time bomb scenario. But in his self-serving memoir (Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives)  here’s what else he says. Of course they knew that people being tortured will say anything. That’s why, he says, they never asked a single question of the prisoners while they were being waterboarded. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” were intended just to break their spirits. Then, during the months that followed, interrogators hung out with the prisoners. Rented DVDs and watched movies and shared popcorn with them, building rapport and garnering bits and pieces of information over the course of months. His own words then acknowledge there was no ticking time bomb. No imminent threat. No justification.

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Peaceful methods take patience and time and skill. Violence is the quick fix when a person feels bullied, disrespected, ignored. When a person feels sad.

Only violence can resolve matters in an instant. Only it doesn’t.

After 13 years, the US leaves Afghanistan. Mission unaccomplished.

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You’ve heard of brainwashing. What if brains aren’t washed, but poisoned? By war, exile, oppression. By toxic stress when family members are killed, incarcerated, deployed, deported; by surviving violence, including the violence of poverty and of racism, the mother’s stress hormones flooding over the fetus during pregnancy. The pain of sexual violence, of torture, of being trafficked and sold. The list goes on and on in endless cycles of pain and abuse, pain and retribution. Can we at least stop contributing to the cycle?

Children growing up in some Los Angeles neighborhoods show levels of PTSD comparable to children in Baghdad during the worst violence of the war. But understand: Not every person who’s been traumatized will grow up violent, without impulse control, likely to self-medicate through substance abuse. Can we maximize resilience instead of vulnerability?

We’re talking about millions of people.

Can we re-humanize our society? I talk about nonviolence and compassion but lose my temper on the phone after 40 minutes on hold trying to resolve a simple problem with the bank. What happens when frustration has left many of us numb and deadened till the rage breaks through?

Know Justice, Know Peace.

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According to Commander John Perez, police officers in Pasadena feel really bad when they have to kill a dog–an attack dog which is also a family pet–in the process of making an arrest. So they tried alternatives. Foam didn’t work. Pepper spray didn’t work. One officer made a suggestion and was laughed at. He tried it anyway. Turns out at least some of the time, a Milkbone will tame an angry pitbull.

Our culture allows–even expects–police to express remorse over dogs. Out of remorse comes the search for solutions. If officers could be as open with their regret over taking human life, would they learn ways to de-escalate situations instead of relying solely on the gun?

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If we can get rid of “waiting,” I’d also like to get rid of “police brutality.” Certainly we have too many examples of just that, but going after brutal and sadistic cops won’t stop the tragic mistakes, the deaths of Black men like Anthony Lee and like Akai Gurley, gunned down in a Brooklyn stairwell. Or Kendrec McDade, killed by Pasadena police responding to a 911 call that turned out to be false.

The word “brutality” won’t help us correct a culture in which Michael Brown’s family was treated with offhand disrespect, and which teaches central nervous systems to respond instantly, signaling “Danger!” when a Black man comes into view.

Instead of turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio, officers of the NYPD should thank him. By teaching his son how to conduct himself when faced with the police, the mayor protected his son but also made it less likely that a cop will have to carry the lifelong burden of a “tragic mistake.”

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“Tragic mistake” = the least damning phrase I can offer for the US bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq.

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From the immigrants rights movement I learned a principle, expressed in a slogan: Nothing About Us Without Us. The people most affected must be heard. If we’re going to reform policing, communities of color must be at the table. So must the people who best know what the job requires of them: the police.

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Gandhi wrote, “We win justice quickest by rendering justice to the other party.”

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Every small victory proves the oppressive power isn’t omnipotent after all. Every step is one crack in the edifice of unjust power. In the Civil Rights Movement of the Fifties and Sixties, mass marches raised awareness and spirits, created solidarity, forged alliances and suggested the power that might lie behind such numbers. If many white consciences remained untroubled by racism, they were still shocked by the brutal repression of peaceful and dignified resistance. (In those days, unlike now,  mainstream media coverage advanced the struggle.) Local campaigns targeted local issues–buses, lunch counters, voter registration. Each local demand was focused but part of something bigger. Each victory, no matter how partial, advanced the larger goal of equal rights and justice without regard to race.

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Wait a minute. Isn’t that what’s been happening?

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May Day 2006, millions of immigrants and some of their allies took to the streets in nonviolent protest. No legislation passed. It seemed nothing changed, but as people came out of the shadows, the marches helped organize and mobilize local grassroots organizations and find new supporters for groups that had struggled for decades all over the country. Local groups championed the cause of specific immigrants and convinced judges to use discretion and cancel deportation orders. The young people who became known as DREAMers won executive action that protected them from deportation and allowed them to work. Undocumented immigrants are gaining valid drivers licenses. Some are about to win temporary protection.

Slowing down doesn’t mean waiting. It’s not that sort of patience. It’s about moving forward, step by step.

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At the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, panelists spoke about considering everyone a “client”–including the government agencies and entities often seen as adversaries. Instead of fighting them, educate them.

The system won’t come to you. You must go to the system. Department by department, person by person.

I’ve seen examples here in Los Angeles. Here’s just one: Community-based organizations that offer an alternative to incarceration won over people from the D.A.’s office after they gave tours of their facilities and programs to show their effectiveness and share information about what they do. Of course it helps that we elected a new, very receptive D.A. Now Jackie Lacey’s office plays a role in educating hundreds of prosecutors, judges, and even defense attorneys who’ve had no idea what might be possible.

Vote in local elections. D.A., Sheriff, School Board may matter to you more than Congress or even the President.

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On Monday evenings, leaders from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network bring Latino musicians to the street in front of the Metropolitan Detention Center. They serenade the immigrants locked up inside the building awaiting deportation proceedings, offering solidarity and a little joy while commuters, watching the scene from the elevated Gold Line, learn just what is going on in that strange edifice downtown.

YouTube Preview Image

So, music. I remember the Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement. Rhythm is the heartbeat. Voices raised together in song create a force.

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At the grassroots, people agitate. Allies in law, the faith community, professionalized nonprofits don’t take the lead, but stand in solidarity, lobby, negotiate.

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I’m sick and tired of marching. There are other ways I can offer my support. No more shifting from foot to foot for an hour or more waiting for the damn thing to get underway. Of the self-anointed leaders shouting through bullhorns and giving each other adulatory introductions. Of every fringe group in existence showing up to push every conceivable agenda.

But then I’m on the phone with Laurie Cannady, educator, Army vet, and author whose memoir of girlhood in the ‘hood–Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul–will be published this year. We’re talking about Ferguson and about Eric Garner and she is convinced this is the tipping point. There’s a new Movement now and we’re going to see change. I’m skeptical. Where was the change after Trayvon? Oscar Grant? Anthony Lee? And now, months later, will we have reached that elusive tipping point with Walter Scott?

I Can't Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric GarnerI Can’t Breathe shirt to protest the death of Eric Garner.

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Laurie came to mind when I heard through social media about a nonviolent march scheduled for December 27th in the streets of LA to protest the killing of unarmed Black Americans. I’d never heard of the organizers. Turns out they keep a low profile not because they have anything to hide but because they are committed to an organization based on We, not Me.

At the Millions March LAAt the Millions March LA.

The march starts with thousands of people, on time, at the scheduled hour of 2:00. The 500 of us who want to join in conversation arrive at noon, seated in an amphitheater, not shifting foot to foot. It turns out to be a youth-led movement, almost everyone under 35. We meet each other, listen to poetry and spoken word and song, not speeches, though we are given rules: No aggressive language, no F the police. No leafletting, no soliciting, no outside organizations. We’re here, said a speaker to “promote healing, peace, and love in order to process pain and anger and turn it into effective action.”

I wish Laurie could see this. I can see 3.5% now within reach.

We set off, chanting, and I think I’ve gone about this all wrong, looking for excitement, adrenaline. Having fun is just one way to feel alive. There’s something about fun and games–purposeless frivolity–that breaks through the constraints and tedium that weigh us down and trap us in so much of daily life. But purpose–being engaged and interested, committed and active–is every bit as enlivening.

Hands up! Don’t Shoot!

Millions March LA.

I used to imagine people marching in silence. Yes, we want to raise our voices and be heard. But I always thought if you could get a mob of people to stay silent, that would be an extraordinary show of discipline and power. That would send a message of serious, unwavering intent. I never thought I’d see it till we stopped and observed 4-1/2 minutes of silence to mark the 4-1/2 hours that Michael Brown’s body was left in the street. At the end of the almost 3-hour march, we stood together, no chants, no shouts, no drums, no bullhorns, no words. We stood together sharing a powerful silence.

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When you play a game, I think, anything can happen. Same with being part of a Movement. You can’t predict the outcome but you play to win.

—Diane Lefer
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Diane-Lefer

Diane Lefer‘s latest book is the novel, Confessions of a Carnivore, an antic romp through the minefield of recent US history. With her colleague Hector Aristizábal, she wrote and produced Second Chances, a play in which torture survivors and their family members, now rebuilding their lives in Los Angeles, performed their own stories. She is currently posting survivors’ oral histories–as they give permission and remove details that could put them or their families in danger–and she invites readers to visit http://secondchancesla.weebly.com/

 

Jul 012015
 

Pierre JorisPierre Joris

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IN THE BEGINNING WERE THE WORDS. And the words were double from the word go: the cool black on white words in the book, & the loud, fast & hot words on the radio. To begin with the word on the radio let me cold, while the word on the page was what asked me to light up my nights with a flashlight under the covers. This happened, age 5: I remember the room – it was dark & thus I do not remember what was in it except for the bed in which I lay with covers drawn up, trying to read. Later on, in daylight, this room became or had become a living room, & I sat on the daybed & I watched the green eye of Nordmende, the box from which the hot words came. But first the cool ones, black on white, a book grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings in it, ink drawings in a multitude of lines that made up faces, scenes, thin, scraggly ink lines, like very square handwriting writing a picture, “modern” in a fifties sense (& this was 1951). The book I took I could read the title of: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Feodor Dostoiwski. But I wanted to read & read I did or just looked at the first page of print & eventually taught myself the letters with whose help I don’t remember. Parents too busy running a small hospital called St. Pierre’s, my name, my patron saint as I was to inherit it later, be, like father, a surgeon in the capital. But I had already started on the road downhill or elsewhere: lying on the bed reading The Idiot, teaching myself to read. And I did manage a few sentences, a paragraph, half a page, maybe, before my parents discovered me & took this precocity as a good sign & hired a retired school teacher to teach me to read a year before I could officially go to grade school.

I read laboriously no doubt, and in secret to begin with, this book I remember only physically: a white hardcover with black print & black ink drawings. The Idiot. Chapter One, paragraph one – so this are the first sentences I deciphered, the first silent written language that traversed me:

Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine oclock in the morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and it was impossible to distinguish anything more than a few yards away from the carriage windows.

Some of the passengers by this particular train were returning from abroad; but the third-class carriages were the best filled, chiefly with insignificant persons of various occupations and degrees, picked up at the different stations nearer town. All of them seemed weary, and most of them had sleepy eyes and a shivering expression, while their complexions generally appeared to have taken on the color of the fog outside.

But these were not the words I read – the book I had with me under the covers was in German, was a translation, i.e. something I would spend the rest of my life getting in & out of.

START OVER:

Is there life before reading? I am not certain — & grow less certain as time passes, as I grow old & memory, like nostalgia, isn’t what it used to be. So if you ask me what it was like to be a child, I will have a hard time answering — and not just because I do not remember it as being the best time of my life. Not that I wouldn’t be interested in finding out for myself. But how to be a historian of one’s own past, if istorin — the Greek word for history — means for the one historian I trust (because I love to read him) to find out for oneself. How can I go there from now? Maybe I can write myself there, i.e. activate dreaming and reading and come back forward?

And thus the earliest state of childhood — supposedly paradisiacal, even if, or maybe exactly because, forgotten — I cannot help but associate with non-reading, so that “prelapsarian” always rhymes with preliterate in my mind. Where was I? Rue Glesener, in the southern quartier de la gare of Luxembourg (the capital city of the eponymous country). When was I? Not yet, not yet. I lack photos of that time, cannot see myself, and the google map doesn’t get me closer than 200 meters for an inch. The street was maybe 300 meters long, that much I can make out; it started from the Avenue de la Liberté and ended in the rue Adolphe Fischer.

We lived — but this I was shown later, it is not my memory, just something I was told — we lived for awhile in the last house on the North side of the street, the one giving onto the large open space used by civil engineering company Karp-Kneip as depot for its construction materials and as parking lot for its caterpillar tractors, steam rollers, and asphalt laying and paving machines. I must have looked down on that machinery from an upstairs window, or tried to get glimpses through slits in the wooden barrier surrounding the site. But I do not remember the specific occasion of doing this, or, better, all I remember is the shared fondness of children and grown men to peek with mouths agape through any available opening into construction sites where big machinery moves about.

The only thing I do remember from that house — because in the next house we lived in I already remembered it and its location in a room I furthermore remember every detail of, especially the daybed in the corner upon which I taught myself to read — the only thing I do remember from that first house is a large Mahogany radio set with built-in record-player on top and box to keep the old shellacked 78s and later the first “long-playing” 33-rpm records at the bottom. A Nordmende, I think, but who knows, it could just as well have been a Phillips, Telefunken, Grundig or Saba. Sleek, elegant, probably taller than I was the year my father bought it. It stayed that size, I kept growing. I like to think that for some time we saw eye to eye — for what has remained with me always was the magic green eye that, cat-like, would widen or narrow its pupil in relation to how good the signal was. I would press my blue eye to its green & with one hand play with the tuning button to make the eye twitch.

But I would have my hand gently slapped for playing with the tuning button because father didn’t like me to un-tune the one station he listened to — long-wave Radio Luxembourg. Not much stays with me beyond the fascination of the green eye, except for two auditory memories, though these must be from the second house. The first of these is the opening soundtrack and half-screamed title of the 12:50 p.m. radio-drama: Ça va bouillir, Zappy Max! Although French was always an available language, I don’t remember anything of the story lines, except for Zappy Max’s breathless voice, and the fact that the weird nasty bad guy was called “le tonneau” — the barrel. What made the show for me were the incredible variety of noises, screams, screeches & other sound-effects that pushed whatever story line there was ahead at breakneck speed.

What has stayed with me more essentially was something else: a sequence of sound I couldn’t make sense of but were the most seductive, the most wondrous and mysterious language-sounds I had ever heard. And that inscribed itself immediately and forever in my brain. This sound sequence would come over the radio in the program my father listened to after Zappy Max, the one o’clock news. Later on I translated the music the vocables made into semantic meaning: it turned out to be a name, much in the news at that time: Krim Bel Kacem. I can still hear it in the singing French inflections of the news announcer – returning, repeated, over and over: Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem.

With no semantic referent to attach to the sound sequence, I was utterly seduced by its sheer musicality, from the repetition of which I drew an immense pleasure I recall to this day: first, the initial hard, nearly explosive consonantal rub of “r” after “k” followed by the elongated high vowel sound of the “i” and down into the calm “m” — a peaceful “om” after the crime-evoking sounds of the first three letters. Then the high bell-sound of “bel” a clear peel, short but echoing loudly and in its very clarity hiding or making me forget the reference to the obvious (but misplaced) French semantic meaning. This was followed by the alliteration of the “k” sound, though this time with the variation of the “a” vowel replacing the “are” of krim, a descent in pitch from the “e” of “bel,” but a widening of the scope of sound, a deepening into that initial and initiating sound of human language, the long “a” that can carry pain, pleasure, surprise, exhilaration and so on. After the “c” planes down and alleviates the harshness of the two initial “k”s, the sequence finishes on a second alliteration, that of the final “m,” easily drawn out to bring it even closer to the calmness of the seed syllable “om.”

Maybe father did tell me that it was a name, no matter, I don’t remember if he did, and if he did do so, I must have forgotten instantly, or else willfully worked on forgetting, as I do remember that “Krim Bel Kacem” was my favorite word sequence for that marvelous childhood play consisting in repeating a sequence of words without pause or interruption until any semantic meaning is rubbed out and all that’s left is the pure jouissance of a sound that now arises from the very chora of language.

Now you may say that the foregoing answers my initial question: clearly, there is life before reading, and it is the life of sound….But how do I know? Much of the time listening to Radio Luxembourg in that room with the green eye gleaming were spent on the daybed at the other end of the room with … a book in my hand. The first such book was a tome grabbed from my parents’ shelves maybe because it also had drawings. I could read the title: The Idiot. I am sure I could not read the name of the author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But I wanted to read & I read or looked at the first page of print & taught myself the letters, with whose help I don’t remember. A year later I was put immediately into second grade, given that I could read — & just as immediately proceeded to exchange the Dostoyevsky for the first fifteen issues of “Akim,” the Tarzan wanna-be character created in 1950 by the script-writer Roberto Renzi, with artwork by Augusto Pedrazza in the handy Piccolo strip-series. They were the perfect size to read in school under the desk, or on the daybed out of the parents’ sight and under the protection of the cool, unphased green eye of the Nordmende, while “Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem Krim Bel Kacem” would eventually echo through the other words, “Akim, Akim, Akim” and I would make up new names for new heroes I dreamed I would later write about or draw strips for or put on the radio and I could already here the announcer in Zappy’s voice breathlessly screaming: “Ça va bouillir, Kim Akrim Bel Kacem.”

 

—Pierre Joris

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Pierre Joris has published some 50 books of poems, essays & translations, most recently Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014), Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG 2014) & A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly (coedited with Peter Cockelbergh, Contra Mundum Press 2014). Previous books include Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press and The University of California Book of North African Literature (volume 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced and translated by Joris (Black Widow Press), & Cartographies of the In-between: The Poetry & Poetics of Pierre Joris, edited by Peter Cockelbergh came out in 2012. When not nomadizing, he lives in Sorrentinostan, a.k.a. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia performance artist and writer Nicole Peyrafitte.

 

Jun 132015
 

W B YeatsYeats, 1932 by Pirie MacDonald

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Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth….(“The Tower,” II)

The genesis of this essay was a talk I was invited to give as part of Le Moyne College’s commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the birth of W. B. Yeats. I’d been asked to say a few words, in the Bernat Special Events Room of the Library, about three of the books to be displayed, and then, widening the gyre, to try to present what I took to be the “quintessential” Yeats: the Identity of the Man beneath the many Masks (to fuse the titles of Richard Ellmann’s two pioneering Yeats studies). To prepare for the next event in our anniversary celebration (the Curlew Theatre production, The Muse & Mr. Yeats), I was also asked to recite some poems to and about his principal Muse, the improbably beautiful and never fully-attainable Maud Gonne. She is the “woman lost,” the “great labyrinth” that fascinated Yeats and from which, he admits in the surprising lines cited in my epigraph, he somehow “turned aside.” I’ll return to this point.

Of the three first editions I discussed, the first was my copy of the pamphlet, On the Boiler (1939). The other two are rare volumes: my signed copies of the Fountain Press edition of The Winding Stair (1929), and of the Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats (1957). What follows begins with, but goes far beyond, what I said in the library, though I’ve retained some of the talk’s casual tone. Taking advantage of the essay format, I’ve added many poems to those I quoted in the library, most related to Maud Gonne. That is true even of the major poem on which (to borrow Soul’s language) I have most “fixed” my “attention”: “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the dominant poem in both versions of The Winding Stair. I focus primarily on Self’s life-affirming emblem, the ancestral sword wound in embroidered silk, and on Self’s peroration, affirming that most painful yet “most fecund” experience of Yeats’s life, his unrequited love for Maud Gonne. Finally, here as in the talk, I try, at some risk of “reducing” the poetry to autobiography, to get beneath the various Yeatsian masks in order to reveal, as he himself did in several late poems, the man at his most human, the poet who moves us most.[1]

§

In the final movement of “A Bronze Head” (1938), the last Maud Gonne poem, Yeats seems to use her as his mask, imagining her “supernatural,/ As though a sterner eye looked through her eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall,/ On gangling stocks grown great, great stocks run dry, / Ancestral pearls all pitched into a sty.” In On the Boiler, also written in 1938, Yeats comments on what he saw as the current decline of European civilization. He had earlier employed female personae, “Crazy Jane” and the “Woman Young and Old,” as masks through which he could speak with remarkable sexual candor. The considerably less appealing mask in On the Boiler is male: the persona of an old seaman (the depiction on the cover is from a design by the poet’s artist-brother, Jack) Yeats once heard ranting from atop a ship’s boiler. Ill, cranky, but energized by what he called (in “An Acre of Grass,” a late fusion of Blake and Nietzsche) “an old man’s frenzy,” Yeats vents some of his least inhibited notions about preserving aristocratic values threatened by cultural, intellectual, and physical “degeneration.”

He had been reading about eugenics, a pseudo-science that infects the final stanza of “A Bronze Head,” as well as “Under Ben Bulben,” too often taken as his last testament (I will conclude by suggesting other candidates for that honor, including Yeats’s own surprising preference). Coupled with the nightmare aspect of Nietzschean Recurrence, eugenics also figures prominently in the remarkable play Purgatory, first published in On the Boiler (along with three previously unpublished poems, one, “Crazy Jane on the Mountain,” featuring the reappearance of his best-known female persona, now commenting on politics). Eugenic theory is most notoriously prevalent in the section of the pamphlet titled “To-morrow’s Revolution,” where Yeats laments biological and cultural “degeneration” and calls for war as a preferable alternative.[2] Though Yeats, a man of the theater after all, is being theatrical, flamboyant, and hyperbolic, there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough daylight between the poet himself and that old seaman ranting from atop the boiler.

But it must be added that Yeats, attracted to Fascism, was repelled by National Socialism. Nor, despite his praise of the most skillful of the German submarine commanders of World War I, could he have foreseen the full horror of the Second World War, let alone the most rancid and horrific fruit of eugenic theory in practice: the genocidal extermination carried out in the Nazi death-camps. Like James Joyce and his own “strong enchanter,” Nietzsche, Yeats was resolutely opposed to anti-Semitism (the same cannot be said of Maud). Like many others, he underestimated the threat presented by Hitler when he first came to power. But, for all his reckless talk about a coming revolution and salvation through destruction, the sole substantive reference he makes to the Führer has to do with cruelty. As he reports in a February 1934 letter to his most intimate correspondent, Olivia Shakespear, Blue Shirt neighbors had put to death a collie Mrs. Yeats believed (mistakenly as it turned out) had eaten her prize white hen. After quoting the neighbor’s brutally brusque response, “have done away with collie-dog,” Yeats comments: “note the Hitler touch.”[3]

§

We can turn now from lesser to greater Yeats and to those two signed editions. In the library talk, I discussed the provenance of both, and, taking up the teaser in the flyer that had been distributed, explained how it was that I came to own a signed copy of a book published in 1957, almost two decades after the poet’s death. It takes no ghost from the grave to explain that posthumous signature. Shortly before he died, Yeats signed 825 sheets to be bound into selected volumes of the long-delayed Edition de Luxe of his complete works, to be published, finally, in 1940. Two events intervened: Yeats died in January 1939, and, eight months later, World War II broke out. The deluxe edition was cancelled, and the signed sheets disappeared. Until they were discovered in a vault in the mid-1950s, just in time to be bound into selected copies of the much-anticipated Variorum Edition of the Poems of W. B. Yeats, published eighteen years after his death. Precisely eighteen years after that, I was married, and my best man gave one of these signed copies (No. 49) to my wife Ann and me as a wedding present. That was in 1975. Much has changed since then; but I’ve hung on to the book, which has appreciated tenfold in value from the $300 paid forty years ago.[4]

Yeats’s signature in the Variorum requires no ghostly explanation. But is it true (as the poet prophesied in September 1938) that “Under bare Ben Bulben’s head/ In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid”? I’m no fan of the poem where that dramatic announcement was made, just four months before Yeats died but ten years before his headstone was erected. For decades, “Under Ben Bulben” was printed at the end of the Collected Poems, not Yeats’s intention, as we know from a list he prepared shortly before his death. He meant it to open his final volume, so that everything else in what we know as Last Poems would seem, as it were, spoken from beyond the grave.[5] We should all be loath to accept as Yeats’s final testament a poem whose occasional magnificence is tainted by bombast about “the indomitable Irishry” and Anglo-Irish “Hard-riding country gentlemen” accompanied by a picturesque “peasantry,” not to mention (On the Boiler versified) the eugenic revulsion from “Base-born products of base beds.” And yet the poem rises from its detritus at several points, certainly in the final funereal drumbeat, ending with the “unconventional” and enigmatic epitaph:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:

…………Cast a cold eye
…………On life, on death.
…………Horseman, pass by!

yeatsgrave

The famous epitaph should be read, as should most of Yeats, as an interaction with tradition. The epitaph becomes less cryptic when we interpret it as a vital equestrian and notably pagan response to morose admonishments to travelers to stop (Siste, viator) and reflect that, as the dead are, so shall we be. Instead, Yeats’s “unconventional” advice for visitors to his grave is to look on life and death with equanimity, then, energized rather than enervated, to “pass by,” getting on with our own lives. It should be added that “cold” for Yeats is often an exhilarating adjective. He speaks of the “cold and rook-delighting heaven” (“The Cold Heaven”), hopes to someday write a “Poem maybe as cold/ And passionate as the dawn” (“The Fisherman”), and presents the girl in the opening poem of “A Woman Young and Old,” less responsive to ethical demands and village morality than to aesthetic impulses, as thrilled that her young man’s “hair is beautiful,/ Cold as the March wind his eyes.”

The epitaph’s mystery can be illuminated. The mystery still surrounding precisely what is buried beneath it is less easily resolved. The poet died in southern France on January 28, 1939. “He disappeared in the dead of winter,” Auden begins his great elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” and that wasn’t the end of the disappearances. Yeats was buried in Roquebrune cemetery, near the French-Italian border. When a friend and late lover, Edith Shackleton Heald, who had attended the funeral, visited the cemetery in 1946, the marker was still there. But the following year, when she returned, the marker was gone and she was told that the remains had been moved to a common area. The cemetery records were ambiguous. In September 1948, three years after the war’s end, the poet’s supposed remains were exhumed, shipped to Ireland, and reinterred under the great mountain he had made even more famous. The Sligo Chamber of Commerce, benefiting from the thriving Yeats Industry, doesn’t want to hear about it, but the truth is that we’re not altogether certain what “is laid” under Ben Bulben and beneath that commanding epitaph. One thing that is certain is Yeats’s posthumous literary reputation. Despite shifts in styles and sensibility over the three-quarters of a century since he died, Yeats continues to be generally considered the major poet of the 20th century—“certainly,” as T. S. Eliot said in commemorating his rival in the first Yeats Memorial Lecture, in 1940, “the greatest in this language, and so far as I am able to judge, in any language.”

§

I want now to distinguish the 1929 Fountain Press The Winding Stair from the 1933 Macmillan The Winding Stair and Other Poems, Yeats’s longest volume and, along with The Tower (1928), his greatest. I purchased the Fountain Press edition for $225, after phoning the leading expert in the world, my friend the late George Mills Harper, to confirm my decision. That was in 1979, precisely a half-century after its publication. It’s a slim volume, containing two very short poems (“Death” and “Oil and Blood”) and four major texts, beginning with “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” its beautiful first lines, “The light of evening, Lissadell,/ Great windows open to the south,” establishing the volume’s mixture of elegy and affirmation. Then come “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Blood and the Moon,” and the volume ends with the eleven-poem sequence, “A Woman Young and Old.” Despite the many “other poems” later added, both the 1929 and 1933 volumes begin with an elegy for two women (recalled as “Two girls in silk kimonos, both/ Beautiful”) and end with a concentrically-structured sequence spoken by a woman, its final framing poem an elegy for Antigone.[6]

And that rondure is continued beneath the surface since that concluding elegy, “From the Antigone,” was drafted at the same time as the volume-opening elegy for Eva and Con; we know because the ink has leaked through the manuscript page. As suggested by the titles alone, as well as the omphalos-structure of “A Woman Young and Old,” the 1929 and 1933 editions of The Winding Stair are “female” in orientation, countering the preceding, essentially “masculine” volume The Tower—though the fact that, in Yeats’s actual Norman tower, the inner spiral staircase is, of course, part of a unified structure, suggests that the poetic as well as architectural tower and winding stair are ultimately complementary rather than antithetical. The same is true of the relationship between the sword and the silken embroidery wound about its sheathe in the crucial symbol in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” a poem that figures centrally not only in both editions of The Winding Stair, but in Yeats’s work as a whole.

The “Dialogue” also interacts with the whole canon of Body-Soul “debates.” That tradition, going back to Plato and to Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (“The Dream of Scipio”), can be traced in Middle- English debate poems and, in the 17th-century, among others, George Herbert’s “The Collar” and Milton’s masque, Comus. Though wit complicates the tension in Marvell’s “A Drop of Dew,” “A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure,” and “A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body,” Yeats stands the whole venerable tradition on its head, affirming life and human sexuality in the struggle with soul’s commands and demands. In “Father and Child,” opening the Woman Young and Old sequence concluding both versions of The Winding Stair, Yeats echoes “The Collar” in order to alter it. Herbert’s rebellious speaker, who “struck the board and cried, ‘No more!” grows ever more strident, proclaiming himself to be “free as the wind.”

But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
…………………….At every word
Methoughts I heard one calling, Childe!,
…………………….And I replied, My Lord.

Whereas the Childe in Herbert’s poem ultimately submits to divine authority, the Yeatsian Child remains quietly defiant, oblivious to Father’s ranting. Unmoved by what troubles him (conventional morality reflected in village gossip), she affirms instead beauty and the dangerous, liberating wind of sexual awakening:

She hears me strike the board and say
That she is under ban
Of all good men and women,
Being mentioned with a man
That has the worst of all bad names,
And thereupon replies,
That his hair is beautiful,
Cold as the March wind his eyes.

The victor in the “debate” between “Father and Child” is clear because Yeats makes it so, the poet in him overcoming his own paternalism (the poem is based on a breakfast-table exchange between Yeats and his daughter Anne, a child he advances to puberty for the song’s sake). We may turn now to the related but more momentous agon between opposites in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”

x

Some critics have thought The Winding Stair a book misleadingly titled. Presumably because, influenced by the Soul’s opening line: “I summon to the winding ancient stair,” they have taken the book’s emphasis to be on the transcendent ascent rather than the cyclical winding. But the “winding stair” of this volume, the spiral staircase within Thoor Ballylee—that “winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair” which Yeats declares, in the opening movement of “Blood and the Moon,” to be his “ancestral stair,” still bearing the “Odour of blood”—is not only, or even primarily, a scala coeli or Jacob’s ladder by which we mount to spiritual vision.[7] Soul would have it so, of course, in “Dialogue”; but the protagonist, the antithetical Self, is not to be bullied into submission. Imperiously commanded to fix his “wandering” attention “upon” spiritual ascent and “ancestral night,” Self remains diverted by the greatest of Yeats’s fused symbols: the “ancient blade” (given Yeats as a gift by a Japanese admirer, Junzo Sato) scabbarded and bound in complementary “female” embroidery. That sheathed and silk-wound sword—“emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night,” fusing the sacred and the profane, war and love, the phallic and the vaginal—becomes Yeats’s symbol of gyring life, set against the vertical ascent urged by the Neoplatonic Soul. And the sword’s winding embroidery is associated, as we shall see, with the labyrinthine Maud Gonne.

In the opening movement of the poem, the half in which there is still a semblance of actual dialogue, hectoring Soul repeatedly demands that Self “fix” every thought “upon” the One, “upon” the steep ascent, “upon” the occult Pole Star, “upon” the spiritual quarter where all thought is done. But the recalcitrant Self remains diverted by the Many, by earthly multiplicity, by the sword wound in embroidery replicating the windings of mortal nature. In unpublished notes to the poem, first printed in full in 1987 in my Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition, Yeats describes “Dialogue” as “a variation on Macrobius.” The reference, here as in “Chosen,” is to the Neoplatonist to whose Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis Yeats had been directed by his friend F. P. Sturm. In Cicero’s text, despite the rhetorical admonition of Scipio’s ghostly ancestor, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and contemn what is mortal?” young Scipio admits he “kept turning my eyes back to earth.” According to Macrobius, Scipio “looked about him everywhere with wonder. Hereupon his grandfather’s admonitions recalled him to the upper realms.” Though the agon between the Yeatsian Self and Soul is identical to that between young Scipio and his grandfather’s spirit, the Soul in Yeats’s poem proves to be a considerably less successful spiritual guide than that formidable ghost.

Yeats and Tower

Turning a largely deaf ear to Soul’s advocacy of the upward path, Self (revealingly called “Me” in the drafts of the poem) has preferred to focus downward, on life, brooding on the consecrated blade upon his knees with its tattered but still protective wrapping of “Heart’s purple.” That “flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress and round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound” makes the double icon “emblematical” not only of “love and war,” but of the ever-circling gyre: the eternal, and archetypally female, spiral. When Soul’s paradoxically physical tongue is turned to stone with the realization that, according to his own austere doctrine, “only the dead can be forgiven,” Self takes over the poem. He goes on to win his way, despite considerable difficulty, to a self-redemptive affirmation of life.

Thoor Ballylee, Yeats’ 14th century Norman tower house.

Self begins his peroration defiantly: “A living man is blind and drinks his drop./ What matter if the ditches are impure?” This “variation” on Neoplatonism, privileging life’s filthy downflow, or “defluction,” over the Plotinian pure fountain of emanation, is followed by an even more defiant rhetorical question: “What matter if I live it all once more?” “Was that life?” asks Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. “Well then! Once more!” (Zarathustra 3.2). But Self’s grandiose and premature gesture is instantly undercut by the litany of grief that Nietzschean Recurrence, the exact repetition of the events of one’s life, would entail—from the “toil of growing up,” through the “ignominy of boyhood” and the “distress” of “changing into a man,” to the “pain” of the “unfinished man” having to confront “his own clumsiness,” then the “finished man,” old and “among his enemies.” Despite the Self’s bravado, it is in danger of being shaped, deformed, by what Hegel and, later, feminist critics have emphasized as the judgmental Gaze of Others. Soul’s tongue may have turned to stone, but malignant ocular forces have palpable designs upon the assaulted Self:

How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?

This would be, as Yeats says in “Ancestral Houses” (1921), to lose the ability to “choose whatever shape [one] wills,” and (echoing Browning’s arrogant Duke, who “choose[s] never to stoop”) to “never stoop to a mechanical / Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call”: Yeats’s rejection of “slave morality” in favor of Nietzschean “master morality.” The centrality of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is enhanced by its repercussions in his own work and its absorption of so many influences outside the Yeatsian canon. Aside from the Body/Soul debate tradition, and the combat between Neoplatonism and Nietzsche, this Yeatsian psychomachia incorporates, among other poems in the Romantic tradition, another Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” and Blake’s feminist Visions of the Daughters of Albion.[8] Self’s eventual victory, like Oothoon’s, is over severe moralism, the reduction of the body to a defiled object. In Yeats’s case it seems, above all, a triumph over his own Neoplatonism or Gnosticism: an instance of Nietzschean Selbstüberwindung, creative “self-overcoming,” for, as Yeats said, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (Mythologies 331).

thoorballylee-sketch

Since “Dialogue” is a quarrel with himself, the spiritual tradition is not simply dismissed, here any more than in the Crazy Jane or Woman Young and Old sequences. For Yeats, the world of experience, however dark the declivities into which the generated soul may drop, is never utterly divorced from the world of light and grace. The water imagery branching through Self’s peroration subsumes pure fountain and impure ditches. There is a continuum. The Plotinian fountain cascades down from the divine One through mind or intellect (nous) to the lower depths. As long, says Plotinus, as nous maintains its gaze on and contemplation of God (the First Cause or “Father”), it retains the likeness of its Creator (Enneads 5.2.4). But, writes Macrobius (Commentary 1.14.4), the soul, “by diverting its attention more and more, though itself incorporeal, degenerates into the fabric of bodies.”

Viewed from Soul’s perspective, Self is a falling off from the higher Soul. When the attention, supposed to be fixed on things above, is diverted below—down to the blade on his knees wound in tattered silk and, further downward, to life’s “impure” ditches—the Self has indeed degenerated into the “fabric,” the tattered embroidery, of bodies. And yet, as usual in later Yeats, that degradation is also a triumph, couched in terms modulating from stoic contentment to fierce embrace:

I am content to live it all again
And yet again, if it be life to pitch
Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,
A blind man battering blind men;
Or into that most fecund ditch of all,
The folly that man does
Or must suffer, if he woos
A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

Following everything to the “source” within, Self spurns Soul’s tongue-numbing doctrine that “only the dead can be forgiven.” Instead, having pitched with vitalistic relish into life’s filthy frog-spawn, Self audaciously (or blasphemously) claims the power to forgive himself. In a similar act of self-determination, Self “cast[s] out” remorse, reversing the defiling image earlier “cast upon” him by the “mirror of malicious eyes.” The sweetness that “flows into” the self-forgiving breast redeems the frog-spawn of the blind man’s ditch and even that “most fecund ditch of all,” the painful but productive folly that is the bitter-sweet fruit of unrequited love. It would violate decorum—and is hardly necessary—for Yeats to name the “proud woman not kindred of his soul,” but I will return to her at the end.

That sweet flow also displaces the infusion (infundere: “to pour in”) of Christian grace through divine forgiveness. It is a claim to autonomy at once redemptive and heretical, and a masterly fusion of Yeats’s two principal precursors. “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” Yeats claimed. If, as he also rightly said, Blake’s central doctrine is a Christ-like “forgiveness of sins,” the sweetness that flows into the suffering but self-forgiving “breast,” the breast in which Blake also said “all deities reside,” allies the Romantic poet with Nietzsche. He had been preceded by the German Inner Light theologians, but it took Nietzsche, the son of a Protestant minister, to most radically transvalue the Augustinian doctrine that man can only be redeemed by divine power and grace, a foretaste of predestination made even more uncompromising in the strict Protestant doctrine of the salvation of the Elect as an unmerited gift of God. One must find one’s own “grace,” countered Nietzsche in Daybreak, a book read by Yeats. He who has “definitively conquered himself, henceforth regards it as his own privilege to punish himself, to pardon himself”—in Yeats’s phrase, “forgive myself the lot.” We must cast out remorse and cease to despise ourselves: “Then you will no longer have any need of your god, and the whole drama of Fall and Redemption will be played out to the end in you yourselves!” (Nietzsche, Daybreak §437, §79)

In 1902, enthralled by his “excited” reading of “that strong enchanter,” Yeats drew in the margin of a Nietzsche anthology a diagram crucial to understanding much if not all of his subsequent thought and work. He grouped under the heading NIGHT: “Socrates, Christ,” and “one god”— “denial of self, the soul turned toward spirit seeking knowledge.” And, under the heading DAY: “Homer” and “many gods”—“affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.”[9] That diagrammatical skeleton, anticipated by the pull between eternity and the temporal in such early poems as the crucial “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” (1892), is later fully fleshed out by Yeats’s own chosen exemplar in “Vacillation” (1932)—“Homer is my example and his unchristened heart”—and Self’s choice of Sato’s sword wound in “Heart’s purple,” flowers “from I know not what embroidery”: “all these I set/ For emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” While Yeats could never bring himself to endorse Nietzschean atheism, the final chant of Self in “Dialogue”—“We must laugh and we must sing/ We are blest by everything,/ Everything we look upon is blest”—is clearly the product of Yeats’s brilliant in-gathering of Nietzsche and Blake, whose Oothoon cries out climactically, “sing your infant joy!/ Arise and drink your bliss, for every thing that lives is holy!” To be sure, Self’s final lines are riddled with other echoes.[10] But the critical figures remain Blake and Nietzsche. It is under their twin auspices, as manipulated by Yeats, that Self finds the bliss traditionally reserved for those who follow the ascending path. Yeats’s alteration of the spiritual tradition completes Blake, who considered cyclicism the ultimate nightmare, with that Nietzsche whose exuberant Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into “golden-emerald delight”:

In laughter all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss; and if this is my alpha and omega, that all that is heavy and grave should become light, all that is body, dancer, all that is spirit, bird—and verily that is my alpha and omega: oh, how should I not lust after eternity and the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence? (Thus Spoke Zarathustra 3:16)

We might say that Zarathustra here also “jumps” into a cluster of images and motifs we would call Yeatsian, remembering, along with Self’s laughing, singing self-absolution, “Among School Children,” where “body is not bruised to pleasure soul,” and we no longer “know/ The dancer from the dance”; the natural and golden birds of the Byzantium poems; and the final transfiguration of Yeats’s central hero, both in The Death of Cuchulain and “Cuchulain Comforted,” into a singing bird.

In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the Yeatsian-Nietzschean Self, commandeering the spiritual vocabulary Soul would monopolize, affirms eternal recurrence, the labyrinth of human life with all its tangled antinomies of joy and suffering. In subverting the debate-tradition, Yeats leaves Soul with a petrified tongue, and gives Self a final chant that is among the most rhapsodic in that whole tradition of secularized supernaturalism Yeats inherited from the Romantic poets and from Nietzsche. In a related if somewhat lower register, it is also the vision of Crazy Jane and the Woman Young and Old: the female embodiments of the often anguished but ultimately life-affirming vision that dominates, first, The Winding Stair, and then— four years later, when the volume was fleshed out by Words for Music Perhaps, beginning with “Byzantium” and concluding with the Crazy Jane sequence—The Winding Stair and Other Poems.

§

One purpose of the original library talk had been to prepare the audience for a more formal celebratory event: the Curlew Theatre production of The Muse & Mr. Yeats, written and produced by Irish poet Eamon Grennan. I therefore said a few poems I had by heart, centering, inevitably, on the poet’s only-once-named but known-to-all Muse, Maud Gonne—according to George Bernard Shaw, not an easy man to awe, “the most beautiful woman in the British Isles.” I began with an early, mythologically-disguised Maud poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), originally and reductively titled “A Mad Song,” which at least clarifies the action-initiating “fire” in the speaker’s “head.” The speaker and seeker in this almost miraculously beautiful lyric is the Celtic god of poetry, love, and youth, though here he ages in his eternal quest of the transfigured beauty, palpable but elusive, he had once glimpsed in the evanescent form of one of the shape-changing women of the Celtic Sidhe:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl,
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

That “glimmering girl with apple blossom in her hair,” however magically transformed (even that is connected to Maud by the self-pitying “The Fish,” in this same volume), [11] will remind us that when Yeats first saw Maud, in 1889, “she seemed,” he recorded in 1922, “a classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation ‘She walks like a goddess’ made for her alone. Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple-blossom through which the light falls, and I remember her standing that first day by a great heap of such blossoms in the window.” By then he had described her in a poem, “The Arrow” (1901), as “Tall and noble but with face and bosom/ Delicate in colour as apple blossom.”[12] Nevertheless, the exquisite “Song of Wandering Aengus” is cloaked in mythology. An earlier, even more covert Maud poem, “The Cap and Bells” (1893), was accompanied by an evasive note when it was published in The Wind Among the Reeds. Describing it (as Coleridge had described the genesis of “Kubla Khan”) as coming to him in a dream or vision, Yeats concludes, “The poem has always meant a great deal to me, though as is the way with symbolic poems, it has not always meant quite the same thing. Blake would have said, ‘The authors are in eternity,’ and I am quite sure they can only be questioned in dreams.”[13]

He had reason to deflect the curious. For him, “The Cap and Bells” was, in retrospect, a counter-poem to the beautiful but abject “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” which he described as “the way to lose a woman.” Being “poor” (the nonce word in this poem “Enwrought with golden and silver light”), he cannot afford “the heaven’s embroidered cloths,” and so “I have spread my dreams under your feet;/ Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

tread-softly1

This is to invite the female response Nancy Sinatra threatened a half-century ago: “These boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do. / One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” as well as the recent pictorial spoof by Annie West.

tread softly2Annie West cartoon from her series “Yeats in Love”

If he was not engaging in either massive repression or sardonic irony in describing the even more beautiful and even more masochistic “The Cap and Bells” as “the way to win a woman,” Yeats must have believed that Maud Gonne was to be won only through total sacrifice.

In a chivalric scenario set in the evening in a garden beneath the palace-window of a young, beautiful, and aloof queen, a lovelorn jester bids his blue-garmented soul, “grown wise-tongued by thinking” of her “light foot fall,” to rise upward to her window-sill. Unresponsive, she decisively “drew in the heavy casement/ And pushed the latches down.” He then sends her, in a “red and quivering garment,” his heart, “grown sweet-tongued by dreaming/ Of a flutter of flower-like hair.” It “sang to her through the door.” But the dismissal of the heart is even more painful because so nonchalant: “she took up her fan from the table/ And waved it off on the air.” With soul and heart, thought and dream, both rejected, he sends the young queen what is most quintessential, at once the symbol of his occupation and (it takes no Freud to tell us) of his manhood: “I have cap and bells,” he ponders; “I will send them to her and die.” And, “when the morning whitened/ He left them where she went by.”

She laid them upon her bosom,
Under a cloud of her hair,
And her red lips sang them a love-song
Till stars grew out of the air.

In the original draft, “She took them into her chamber/ Her breast began to heave,” less in grief than triumph. Though Yeats deleted these lines disturbing the poem’s ethereal tone, their morbid eroticism (which would flower perversely in his late dance plays where lowly fools are decapitated to appease haughty queens) offers a psychological glimpse into the poem’s human, all-too-human origins. When, at last, the queen lets in soul and heart, they set up a “chattering wise and sweet,/And her hair was a folded flower/ And the quiet of love in her feet.” But it seems too little too late. Soul and heart had “grown” through suffering. Now her “red lips” sang his final offering “a love-song/ Till stars grew out of the air.” Grew, because, in a variation on the mythic origin of the constellation Coma Berenices,[14] her star-making song’s genesis lies in his lethal self-sacrifice. Here as “always” in Yeats, a “personal emotion” has been “woven into a general pattern of myth and symbol” (Autobiographies [1955] 151). But on the “personal” level of this medieval Poet/Muse drama, the belle dame sans merci to whom the lowly jester gives “all” is unmistakably Maud, “that one” who (in “Friends”) “took/ All till my youth was gone/ With scarce a pitying look.” “The Cap and Bells” ends with “the quiet of love in her feet”; but they are the very “feet” under which he had “spread my dreams” in the abject poem supposedly rebutted in a ballad of terrible beauty, lyrically lovely but psychologically rooted in a symbolic act of self-castration.

These are covert Maud poems. The most overt, the only poem in which Yeats claims, in his own name, that his passion for Maud was reciprocated, is “To a Young Girl” (1915) in The Wild Swans at Coole.[15] The girl addressed is Maud’s daughter Iseult (not adopted, as she publicly claimed, but the fruit of her liaison with the French activist, Lucien Millevoye). Like many of Yeats’s middle poems, this one is short and “thin”: a single sentence, one syntactical unit spun out over eleven three-beat lines. In another irony, Iseult had come to Yeats, of all people, for advice in love. His response contains perhaps more than Iseult needed to know:

My dear, my dear, I know
More than another
What makes your heart beat so;
Not even your own mother
Can know it as I know,
Who broke my heart for her
When the wild thought,
That she denies
And has forgot,
Set all her blood astir
And glittered in her eyes.

He acknowledges his own intensity in “Friends,” written four years earlier. “Now must I these three praise—/ Three women that have wrought/ What joy is in my days….” Naming no names, he begins with Olivia Shakespear, praised because, over fifteen “troubled years,” no thought “Could ever come between/ Mind and delighted mind.” Next is Yeats’s friend and patron, Lady Augusta Gregory, whose steady “hand” had the strength to unbind “Youth’s dreamy load, till she/ So changed me that I live/ Labouring in ecstasy.” But the third and climactic figure to be praised presents a challenge. Yeats poses two questions, and answers them:

And what of her that took
All till my youth was gone
With scarce a pitying look?
How could I praise that one?
When day begins to break
I count my good and bad,
Being wakeful for her sake,
Remembering what she had,
What eagle look still shows,
While up from my heart’s root
So great a sweetness flows
I shake from head to foot.

That image will be repeated in the “Dialogue,” where “So great a sweetness flows into the breast” that it absorbs and absolves the “folly” the Self “does or must suffer” if he loves a “proud woman not kindred of his soul”: that most painful yet “most fecund” ditch of all. If there were no Maud Gonne, Yeats would have invented her, requiring, like most poets in the Romantic and Celtic traditions, a Muse, an enchantress, a femme fatale who is a life-giving yet destructive goddess. But there was a Maud Gonne, a pre-Raphaelite “stunner” who combined all three roles, along with being a committed and passionate Irish patriot. The impact on Yeats as a man and as a poet is attested to by innumerable shorter lyrics, and she figures in major poems as well—in “The Tower,” II, as the “woman lost,” and in the “plunge…/ Into the labyrinth of another’s being.” And she is at the heart of one of Yeats’s indisputable masterpieces, “Among School Children.”

Maud serves as warning and counter-example in the paternalistic, conservative, but nevertheless beautiful “A Prayer for my Daughter.” The protective father prays that Anne, “half-hid/ Under this cradle-hood and coverlid,” yet born into the violent world and “rocking cradle” evoked in the immediately preceding poem, “The Second Coming,” will be granted moderate rather than excessive, troubling beauty and “natural kindness” free of rancorous political hatred. For “Have I not seen the loveliest woman born/ Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,” because of her politics and “opinionated” mind, “Barter that horn and every good/ By quiet natures understood/ For an old bellows full of angry wind?” I’ll later propose a relationship between “Among School Children” and the final Maud Gonne poem, “A Bronze Head.” But for now let’s browse through some earlier Maud lyrics.

§

Beautiful as many of them are, most of the poems to his “Beloved” in The Rose (1893) and even in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), are too “heavy” with dream and dew, too perfumed with fin-de-siècle “lilies of death-pale hope, roses of passionate dream” (“The Travail of Passion,” 1896), too filled with languor and dim hair, to move most modern readers. My favorite poem in The Rose—the song James Joyce sang in lieu of the requested prayer at his mother’s deathbed and that haunts Stephen Dedalus throughout Bloomsday—is “Who Goes with Fergus?” The king of Ulster who put aside his crown to live in peace and “pierce the deep wood’s woven shade” invites a young man and maid to join him in his forest paradise, where they will “brood on hopes and fear no more”;

And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all disheveled wandering stars.

Maud Gonne

But despite the emotional respite promised, the poem’s imagery—“shadows” of the wood, the “white breast” of the sea, the “disheveled” stars –extends to this supposedly peaceful paradise all the erotic tumult of “love’s bitter mystery.” That phrase alone might summon up Maud, but the beautiful final line suggests a deeper connection. “All disheveled wandering stars” fuses Eve’s “disheveled hair” (Paradise Lost 4:306) with Pope’s echo in The Rape of the Lock, which ends with Belinda’s shorn tresses consecrated “midst the Stars”: “Not Berenices’s Locks first rose so bright,/ The Heavens bespangling with disheveled Light.” A year after writing the Fergus poem, Yeats would have his young queen, a medieval version of Maud, place her lovelorn jester’s cap and bells under “a cloud of her hair,” and “her red lips” would sing “them a love song/ Till stars grew out of the air.

Stars reappear in the most familiar poem in The Rose, “When You Are Old,” which departs from its original in Ronsard. As Maud grew older, Yeats obsessively summoned up her youthful beauty; here, he imagines her, at the age of twenty-five, “old and grey and full of sleep,/ And nodding by the fire.” Then, he tells her, take down “this book,” written by the “one man” who “loved the pilgrim soul in you”;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

But the first Maud poem in Yeats’s more naked style is “The Arrow” (1901), which opens the Maud-cluster in In the Seven Woods (1904), poems addressed to a Muse now in her ‘thirties. The enjambed lines of “The Arrow,” in tension with its taut couplets, are all in “feminine” or double rhyme, a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable, a falling pattern established with the title-word itself :

I thought of your beauty, and this arrow,
Made out of a wild thought, is in my marrow.
There’s no man may look upon her, no man,
As when newly grown to be a woman,
Tall and noble but with face and bosom
Delicate in colour as apple blossom.
This beauty’s kinder, yet for a reason
I could weep that the old is out of season.

In the next poem, a “kind” friend (in fact, Lady Gregory), counseling “patience,” suggests that “time” and the diminution of Maud’s extravagant youthful beauty should “make it easier to be wise.” But

…………………………….Heart cries, “No,
I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.
Time can but make her beauty over again:
Because of that great nobleness of hers
The fire that stirs about her when she stirs,
Burns but more clearly. O she had not these ways
When all the wild summer was in her gaze.”

O heart! O heart! If she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.

He has, he tells Maud and us in “Old Memory,” thought and written about her “Through the long years of youth, and who would have thought” that it would all have “come to naught,/ And that dear words meant nothing? But enough,/ For when we have blamed the wind we can blame love.” In “Never Give all the Heart,” he advises us to “never give the heart outright” to passionate women. For they

Have given their hearts up to the play,
And who could play it well enough
If deaf and dumb and blind with love?
He that made this knows all the cost,
For he gave all his heart and lost.

In the next poem, the plangent “Adam’s Curse” (1902), Maud sits silently by while her sister Kathleen and the poet discuss on a late summer evening various forms of “labour.” They include the poet’s quest, even if a line “takes hours” to write, to “make it seem a moment’s thought,” and Kathleen’s intuitive knowledge that a woman “must labour to be beautiful.” It’s certain, he responds, that “there is no fine thing/ Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.” There have been

……………..“lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

So much for the courtly love tradition. This same year, Yeats had put Maud on stage as Ireland herself in Cathleen ni Houlihan. That “Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland” was her favorite Yeats poem is unsurprising. Written in 1894 but now incorporated in this sequence, it makes Maud indistinguishable from Cathleen as Ireland. Most readers are thrilled by the couplet on one queen’s mountain cairn: “The wind has bundled up the clouds high over Knocknarea,/ And thrown the thunder on the stones for all that Maeve can say.” But it was surely this stanza’s final lines—echoing “the quiet of love in her feet” from the finale of “The Cap and Bells,” written a year earlier—that appealed to Maud, servant of another queen: Angers like “noisy clouds” may have “set our hearts abeat;/ But we have all bent low and low and kissed the quiet feet/ Of Cathleen, the daughter of Houlihan.”

The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) opens with a cluster celebrating Maud as a Helen of Troy redivivus. He has dwelt on and written about her for so long that he dreams he has “brought/ To such a pitch my thought/ That coming time can say/ ‘He shadowed in a glass/ What thing her body was.’”

For she had fiery blood
When I was young,
And trod so sweetly proud
As ‘twere upon a cloud,
A woman Homer sung,
That life and letters seem
But an heroic dream.

Now that he has “come into my strength,/ And words obey my call,” he hopes, in the next poem, “Words,” that, “At length,/ My darling understands it all.” Yet “Had she done so who can say/ What might have shaken from the sieve?/ I might have thrown poor words away/ And been content to live.” But Yeats does not really believe that the poetry was a mere substitute for life and sex. Even if it is in part sublimation, the poetry itself matters. It is in a poem, after all, that he speculates that, had his love been requited, he “might” have “thrown poor words away.” It wasn’t; he didn’t. The poet in him “turned aside” from Maud to “words.”

“Words” is followed by the more famous “No Second Troy,” consisting of two five-line rhetorical questions, followed by two more, each distilled to a single line. We are initially seduced into sharing the poet’s complaint; he had abundant reason to “blame” her, she having “filled” his days, not with joy, but “with misery.” But Yeats is setting us up; his rhetorical strategy reveals our own pettiness faced with a Helen born out of phase, a classic figure living in a modern age unworthy of her.

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?

With no Troy to burn, her incendiary energy had to be directed to what was at hand: whether Ireland or Yeats himself, both, perhaps, lacking “courage equal to desire.” But she could do no other. In acting as she did, she was being true to her quintessential being: “what she is.” What is to “blame,” outrageously enough, is not the terrible beauty of Yeats’s magnificent heroine, “high and solitary and most stern,” but the low, gregarious, and ignoble modern world itself, for not being (as Richard Ellmann once wittily remarked) “heroically inflammable.” The question of “blame” is also raised in the opening line of the next poem in the sequence.

During a public lecture in 1903, Yeats was suddenly informed of Maud’s marriage. The unexpected news struck him like a thunderbolt. “Reconciliation,” the poem immediately following “No Second Troy,” records that reaction. The background includes her subsequent separation from John MacBride (later an Easter Rising martyr, but at the time a drinker abusive to Maud and, perhaps, Iseult), and the reunion of Maud and Yeats, at long last, if briefly, sexual (in Paris in December 1908).[16] Like “No Second Troy,” “Reconciliation” is twelve lines of iambic pentameter, though this time in couplets:

Some may have blamed you that you took away
The verses that could move them on the day
When, the ears being deafened, the sight of the eyes blind
With lightning, you went from me, and I could find
Nothing to make a song about but kings,
Helmets, and swords, and half-forgotten things
That were like memories of you—but now
We’ll out, for the world lives as long ago;
And while we’re in our laughing, weeping fit,
Hurl helmets, crowns, and swords into the pit.
But, dear, cling close to me; since you were gone,
My barren thoughts have chilled me to the bone.

The sequence ends with “Peace,” depicting her fascinating and oxymoronic mingling of “charm” and “sternness,” Scripture’s lion and the honey-comb (“All that sweetness amid strength”), and concluding, “Ah, but peace that comes at length,/ Came when Time had touched her form.”

Gonne2Maud Gonne

Responsibilities (1914), much more focused on public issues, contains only a handful of Maud-related poems toward the end; but the volume is prefaced by intimately personal untitled lines directed to his ancestors, asking their “Pardon that for a barren passion’s sake,” he has no child, “nothing but a book,/ Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.” The little cluster of Maud poems begins with “A Memory of Youth.” Reminiscent of “Adam’s Curse,” it records moments of play and wit, until “A cloud blown from the cut-throat north/ Suddenly hid love’s moon away.” Praise of his beloved’s body and mind had brightened her eyes and brought a blush to her cheek, “Yet we, for all that praise, could find/ Nothing but darkness overhead.” They sit in stony silence, knowing, “though she’d said not a word,/ That even the best of love must die.” They had been “savagely undone,” but for a sudden burst of emotion-revivifying illumination, when “Love upon the cry/ Of a most ridiculous little bird/ Tore from the clouds his marvelous moon.”

Gonne1Maud Gonne

The next poem, “Fallen Majesty,” records “what’s gone.” Although “crowds gathered once if she but showed her face,” now one might gather, and “not know it walks the very street/ Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud.” Following “Friends,” cited earlier, come two somewhat mysterious, almost apocalyptic poems, “The Cold Heaven” and “That the Night Come.” The latter presents a woman who so “lived in stir and strife,” that her soul, desiring what “proud death may bring,” could “not endure/ The common good of life,” seeming “To bundle time away/ That the night come.” The thrilling but enigmatic “The Cold Heaven” requires A Vision to be fully explicated, but no mumbo-jumbo about the posthumous “Dreaming Back” stage of the “Spirit” is needed to explain why

…………….imagination and heart were driven
So wild that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,
Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro,
Riddled with light.

The next volume, the autumnal The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), is haunted by the memories of a man in his fifties, but feeling older. He is thinking of Iseult in “The Living Beauty” (“O heart, we are old;/ The living beauty is for younger men:/ We cannot pay its tribute of wild tears”); but the heartache in the volume’s title poem mingles echoes of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” and Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” with memories of Maud and of his own lost youth. In autumn, at twilight, he has looked on the swans, paired lovers, “And now my heart is sore.”

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

The swans seem changeless, but “All’s changed” with him, not only because the “nineteenth autumn has come upon” him since he first counted those wild and “brilliant creatures,” but because he is writing in the immediate aftermath of Maud’s recent rejection of yet another proposal of marriage. Perhaps that is why there are “nine-and-fifty swans,” one unpaired and solitary.[17]

Five poems in The Wild Swans at Coole focus on Maud herself (“Her Praise,” “The People,” “His Phoenix,” “A Thought from Propertius,” and “Broken Dreams”); and the poem preceding them, “On Woman,” is a Maud poem in biblical disguise. Since “Her Praise” and “The People” pay tribute to her work on behalf of the Irish people, they are not quite Muse poems.[18] The lighthearted “His Phoenix” ticks off, in jaunty hexameters, a “crowd” of women “through all the centuries,” starting with Leda and including the famed dancers Ruth St. Denis and Pavlova. “And who can say but some young belle may walk and talk men wild/ Who is my beauty’s equal,” though that his “heart denies.” For none could reproduce her “exact likeness”: the “simplicity of a child,/ And that proud look as though she had gazed into the burning sun,” as well as that “shapely body” with not the slightest detail “gone astray./ I mourn for that most lonely thing; and yet God’s will be done:/ I knew a phoenix in my youth, so let them have their day.”

In “A Thought from Propertius,” echoing the second Elegy of Sextus Propertius, Yeats imagines Maud “fit spoil for a centaur/ Drunk with the unmixed wine,” yet “so noble from head” to foot that she might have “walked to the altar/ Through the holy images/ At Pallas Athena’s side.” (In 1938, enumerating “Beautiful Lofty Things,” images of “Olympian” nobility impressed on his memory, Yeats concludes with “Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting a train,/ Pallas Athena in that straight back and arrogant head”—the single reference to her by name in his poetry.) The Propertius poem, eight tight lines, is followed by “Broken Dreams,” 41 lines of artfully rambling reverie, rhymed but written in a semblance of free verse to match its almost free associations. Maud was now in her early fifties, a fact registered in the poem’s opening lines: “There is grey in your hair./ Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath when you are passing.” Yet

For your sole sake—that all heart’s ache have known,
And given to others all heart’s ache,
From meager girlhood’s putting on
Burdensome beauty—for your sole sake
Heaven has put away the stroke of her doom,
So great her portion in that peace you make
By merely walking in a room.

He imagines some young man asking an old man, “Tell me of that lady/ The poet stubborn with his passion sang us/ When age might well have chilled his blood.” In a desperate certainty reflecting his reading of Plotinus and Swedenborg, he is confident that “in the grave all, all shall be renewed,” and that “I shall see that lady/ Leaning or standing or walking/ In the first loveliness of womanhood,/ And with the fervor of my youthful eyes.” And yet, though she is “more beautiful than anyone,” she had a flaw; her small hands were not beautiful, and he is afraid that she will run, and “paddle to the wrist” in “that mysterious, always brimming lake/ Where” the blessed “Paddle and are perfect. Leave unchanged/ The hands that I have kissed,/ For old sake’s sake.” The “last stroke of midnight dies,” ending a day in which he has “ranged” from “dream to dream and rhyme to rhyme,” in “rambling talk with an image of air:/ Vague memories, nothing but memories.”

This Maud-cluster is preceded by “On Woman” and framed by two short lyrics to be discussed in a moment. Written in May 1914, “On Woman” anticipates the 1918 “Solomon to Sheba” and “Solomon and the Witch.” But unlike those poems, composed after his marriage and addressed to his wife, this Solomon and Sheba poem has to do with Maud. We are told that Solomon “never could,” although “he counted grass,/ Count all the praises due/ When Sheba was his lass.” The sexual “shudder that made them one” anticipates “Leda and the Swan,” but the lines that immediately follow (and conclude the poem) anticipate Self’s choice, in the “Dialogue,” of eternal recurrence, with its “fecund” intermingling of joy and pain. The thought might make you “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth,” says Nietzsche’s demon in the passage introducing the thought-experiment or ordeal of Eternal Recurrence. But have you, even “once,” experienced a “moment” so “tremendous” that you “fervently craved” it “once more” and “eternally”? (The Gay Science §341). The speaker in “On Woman” prays that God grant him, not “here,” for he is “not so bold” as to “hope a thing so dear/ Now I am growing old,”

But when, if the tale’s true,
The Pestle of the moon
That pounds up all anew
Brings me to birth again—
To find what once I had
And know what once I have known,
Until I am driven mad,
Sleep driven from my bed,
By tenderness and care,
Pity, an aching head,
Gnashing of teeth, despair;
And all because of some one
Perverse creature of chance,
And live like Solomon
That Sheba led a dance.

'The_Visit_of_the_Queen_of_Sheba_to_King_Solomon',_oil_on_canvas_painting_by_Edward_Poynter,_1890,_Art_Gallery_of_New_South_Wales‘The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon’, oil on canvas by Edward Poynter, 1890.

Here, as in “Broken Dreams” and, a decade and a half later, in “Quarrel in Old Age,” Yeats invokes renewal beyond the grave. “All lives that has lived,” he announces in “Quarrel” (1931); “Old sages were not deceived:/ Somewhere beyond the curtain/ Of deceiving days/ Lives that lonely thing/ That shone before these eyes”: Maud, who seemed armed like a goddess and “Trod like Spring.” It is a recurrent hope, compounded of Plotinus, Swedenborg’s vision of frustrated lovers posthumously united, and the embrace, by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, of the eternal recurrence of passion and joy, no matter the attendant and inevitable suffering. And “all because of one/ Perverse creature”—“that one.”

The two short framing lyrics I referred to both consist of six trimeter lines rhymed abcabc, and both emphasize the indelible imprint of the One among the many. Again, she is unique; there are all the “others,” and then there is Maud. The title of the first, “Memory,” could refer to all the Maud Gonne poems:

One had a lovely face,
And two or three had charm.
But charm and face were in vain
Because the mountain grass
Cannot but keep the form
Where the mountain hare has lain.

What better image for the impress of memory than the crushed grass where the elusive mountain-rabbit has lain? She is gone, but the “form” remains forever.

Maud told Yeats she would never marry him, and that he should be “glad,” since “you make such beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness.” But she also swore she would marry no one else. She did. “A Deep-sworn Vow” registers that broken oath and its sexual consequences for him. Yet he has been faithful in his fashion; for “always,” at intense moments of truth, when the defense mechanisms are down, there is a sudden return of the repressed:

Others because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
Yet always when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.

However expected, the revelation is sudden. As in the discovery of true love in Poem IV of “A Woman Young and Old”—“And now we stare astonished at the sea”—Yeats is here recalling the sestet of the sonnet in which Keats compared his discovery of Homer to the awed moment when the ocean’s Spanish discoverers “stared at the Pacific,” and the conquistador and his men looked at each other “with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” In “A Deep-sworn Vow,” Yeats does not fall asleep; instead, he vigorously “clambers” to its visionary “heights.” He also repeats (heights, excited, wine) the long i of Keats’s wild, surmise, silent. And both poems end with a double-caesura preceding the abrupt revelation: in the case of “A Deep-sworn Vow,” Maud’s “face” looming up from the subconscious. It is a chthonic apparition; the highly unusual exact rhyme makes her “face” indistinguishable from the “face” of death, as befits a femme fatale.

§

Since the death’s-head image culminates in the last and most somberly impressive of the Maud Gonne poems, “A Bronze Head” (1938), I will move directly to that poem, deferring comment on two Maud-related poems (“An Image from a Past Life” and “Under Saturn”) from Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), the volume that follows The Wild Swans at Coole. I have already noted the presence of Maud in the 1921 volume’s “A Prayer for my Daughter.”

As mentioned earlier, “A Bronze Head” is related to “Among School Children.” Just as Purgatory is the dark twin of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” animating the terror implicit in Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence (the enactment “again, and yet again,” ultimately embraced in the “Dialogue”), so “A Bronze Head” seems a darker reexamination of the relationships explored in “Among School Children” between unity and division, the One and the Many, underlying substance and its various manifestations. The crucial philosophic question and speculation in the later poem is restricted to Maud, ever a shape-shifter: “who can tell/ Which of her forms has shown her substance right?/ Or maybe substance can be composite….” This would be no less at home in the poem in which the Yeatsian old man walks through the long schoolroom “questioning,” dreaming of a “Ledaean body,” Maud’s, and what came before and after: the beloved as “child” and in her “present” form, feeding on the insubstantial, her image (visually Dantesque, verbally Shakespearean) “Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind/ And took a mess of shadows for its meat.”[19]

That is the image, though even further time-ravaged, sculpted in the plaster of Lawrence Campbell’s bronze-painted bust in the Municipal Gallery. But not even the titular sculpture could permanently fix the protean image of his beloved for Yeats. She is an artifact, but also something “Human, superhuman, a bird’s round eye,/ Everything else withered and mummy-dead.” Though now a “great tomb-haunter” sweeping the “distant sky” and terrified by the “Hysterica passio” of her “own emptiness,” she was “once” a “form all full/ As though with magnanimity of light.” Yet she is also “a most gentle woman.” And there is more. As the poet first saw her, she was an unmanageable filly—“even at the starting post, all sleek and new,/ I saw the wildness in her”—and a vulnerable human creature, her animal wildness transferred by empathy to the protective poet-lover, who “had grown wild/ And wandered murmuring everywhere, ‘My child, my child!’” Finally, returning to the “bird’s round eye” of the opening stanza, Yeats describes her in her anything but vulnerable aspect: “Or else I thought her supernatural;/ As though a sterner eye looked through her eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall….”

Dispensing round his magnanimity of images, Yeats goes beyond the triads of “Among School Children”—though there too Maud had been evoked as child, beautiful woman, and aged crone, even as bird (a Ledaean “daughter of the swan”) and animal (a wind-drinking chameleon). “Among School Children” questions the chestnut-tree of the final stanza: “Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?” It is of course all three since we can no more break down the organic unity of that “great-rooted blossomer” than we can “know the dancer from the dance,” or isolate Maud as child from Maud as “Ledaean body,” or from her “present image” as hollow-cheeked but still voracious crone. Yet it is as a crone that Yeats compels us to envisage Maud Gonne in “A Bronze Head”—compels us by ending his poem in a repetition and intensification of that “present image.” The birdlike “sterner eye” looking through Maud’s eye—that “mysterious eye” that, Yeats reports with fascination and dread (Memoirs, 60), British journalists felt “contained the shadow of battles yet to come”—seems not only Yeats’s own eye, as I suggested at the outset, but that of the Morrigu, the one-eyed “woman with the head of a crow.” It seems to be that Celtic war-goddess who presides here, as in The Death of Cuchulain, her “sterner eye looking through [Maud’s] eye/ On this foul world in its decline and fall,” and wondering “what was left for massacre to save.”

The Morrigu, the Celtic demoniac bird of the dead who haunts corpse-strewn battlefields, is the dark side of the Old Woman, Cathleen ni Houilihan, who demands “all” of her devotees in the passages Yeats wrote for Maud in the 1902 play in which she personified the oppression and resurrection of Ireland: the old crone transfigured into “a young girl” with “the walk of a queen,” rejuvenated by blood-sacrifice. That climax was anticipated, reports Stephen Gwynn, present on opening-night, when Maud’s Cathleen rose, “still bent and weighed down with years or centuries; but for one instant, before she went out at the half-door, she drew herself up to her superb height; change was manifest; patuit dea.” Gwynn’s Virgilian allusion is apt; though she is disguised as a Spartan huntress, Venus was revealed to Aeneus as she walked away, vera incessu patuit dea, “the true goddess revealed in her step” (Aeneid 1.405). But Gwynn also “went home asking myself if such plays should be produced unless one was prepared for people to go out to shoot and be shot.”[20] As we will see, Yeats asked himself that very question preparing for his own death. Maud, too, comes full circle: from the beautiful woman, bent and hidden under the rags of the Old Woman of Cathleen ni Houlihan, to an actual old woman: the literal terrible beauty of “A Bronze Head.”

4

No wonder there were “others,” none as magnetic as Maud, yet minor Muses. Olivia introduced him to sexual love, but could not uproot Maud. “I had a beautiful friend,” he mourns in an 1898 poem, “And dreamed that the old despair/ Would end in love in the end:/ She looked in my heart one day,/ And saw your image was there.”[21] Despite the tearful parting that followed, lovely Olivia remained his lifelong friend and most intimate correspondent. In one late letter (December 18, 1929), Yeats sent her the moving “After Long Silence,” its heartache distilled in the single word “young” hovering at the end of the penultimate line:

Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

Olivia ShakespearOlivia Shakespear

The late marriage to his wife, Georgie Hyde-Lees, in 1917 (he was 52, she half his age) ushered in Yeats’s most creative period. Her interest in the visionary and occult matched his, her gift of automatic writing generating his book A Vision (1925, 1937). In “Under Saturn” (November 1919), he asks “how should I forget the wisdom that you brought,/ The comfort that you made?” But he has to ask the question in the first place because, having “grown saturnine,” he fears she might “Imagine that lost love, inseparable from my thought/ Because I have no other youth, can make me pine.” Like Olivia, George (as Yeats preferred to call her) saw Maud’s image there. In “An Image from a Past Life,” the immediately preceding dialogue-poem, She, possessed like George of occult powers, senses that

A sweetheart from another life floats there
As though she had been forced to linger
From vague distress
Or arrogant loveliness,
Merely to loosen out a tress
Among the starry eddies of her hair
Upon the paleness of a finger.

William Butler Yeats and his wife Georgie in the late 1920s.

He reassures her that any such image, “even to eyes that beauty had driven mad,” can only “make me fonder.” Unconvinced, She does not know whether the uplifted arms of the spectral figure intend to “flout me,” or “but to find,/ Now that no fingers bind,/ That her hair streams upon the wind.” What she does know is that “I am afraid/ Of the hovering thing night brought me.”

Given the context of the ghostly and mysterious wisdom brought to the poet through Mrs. Yeats’s occult “Communicators,” it is unsurprising that his greatest “love poem” to his wife should occur in the Browningesque dramatic monologue, “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid” (1924). The “gift” the great Caliph gives to his friend and learned treasurer Kusta Ben Luka is a woman who “shares” his “thirst” for “old crabbed mysteries, “yet “herself can seem youth’s very fountain,/ Being all brimmed with life” (85-90), Whatever the “Voice” of the Djinn she heard, Kusta comes to realize that his young wife is not simply a conduit; that that mysterious voice has drawn

A quality of wisdom from her love’s
Particular quality. The signs and shapes,
All those abstractions that you fancied were
From the great Treatise of Parmenides;
All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things
Are but a new expression of her body
Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.
And now my utmost mystery is out. (179-87)

But this revelation is followed immediately by the poem’s concluding lines, in which Kusta-Yeats insists that, while “A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner,” he is neither “dazzled by the embroidery, nor lost / In the confusion of its night-dark folds.” Within the poem, this imagery echoes the opening lines about the “banners of the Caliphs” hanging “night-coloured/ But brilliant as the night’s embroidery” (6-7). However, in the context of the full canon of Yeats’s love-poetry, the image inevitably recalls “the heaven’s embroidered cloths”— “Enwrought with golden and silver light,/ The blue and the dim and the dark cloths/ Of night and light and the half-light”—the young, Maud-infatuated poet wished to “spread…under your feet.”

Now, a quarter-century later, he is no longer “dazzled” by the storm-tossed and night-dark but brilliant embroidery because, ostensibly, he is choosing wisdom over beauty—autobiographically, George over Maud. This is what he had actually done in January 1919, when he turned Maud from the door of her own house, 73 St. Stephen’s Green, which she’d rented to the poet and his wife. Returned from London to relish the Sinn Fein victory in the December 1918 elections, Maud was in Ireland illegally. George was not only pregnant with Anne, but gravely ill of the influenza that killed millions in the aftermath of World War I. Fearing the police might burst in during such a crisis, Yeats, soon accused of cowardice by Maud and her supporters for his threshold rejection, “turned aside” from her, choosing the Vesta of hearth and family over his storm-tossed night-visitor and Muse.[22]

Still, as we’ve seen, and as suggested by the intrusion of the embroidery-image on the heels of Kusta-Yeats’s tribute to his bride, Yeats’s genuine feelings for his wife did not preclude ghostly visitations by past images of Maud—and present images of Iseult, to whom Yeats, in September 1917, having been rejected yet again by Maud and before approaching George, had proposed marriage. Like mother, like daughter. As Yeats’s “Heart” tells him in a poem written the following month: “How could she mate with fifty years that was so wildly bred?/ Let the cage bird and the cage bird mate and the wild bird mate in the wild.” This poem, “Owen Aherne and his Dancers,” was saved for The Tower, where it leads directly into the sequence “A Man Young and Old,” autobiography masked as Everyman. The emotional/ erotic tensions involving Yeats and his new wife, Maud and Iseult, also play out symbolically in The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), the most lyrical of the Cuchulain plays. That play opens with the First Musician’s “Song for the folding and unfolding of the cloth,” in which the “loveliness” of “a woman’s beauty” is compared to that of a “white sea-bird alone/ At daybreak after a stormy night,” and to an “exquisite” sea-shell the “vast troubled waters bring/ To the loud sands before day has broken” : a beauty-producing violence “imagined within/ The labyrinth of the mind,” an autobiographical maze intricate enough to enfold three women barely detectable beneath the otherworldly mythology.

Iseult Gonne

There were more palpably intimate post-marital relationships,[23] including a late liaison, following others with Margot Ruddock and Ethel Mannin, with Edith Shackleton Heald, who, as we’ve seen, visited Yeats’s grave in Roquebrune cemetery. His relationship with Lady Dorothy Wellesley was poetic (they collaborated on “The Three Bushes” and its attendant lyrics, and talked much of poetry) and, though passionate, was non-sexual; she was lesbian. But she did inspire the eerie and rather overwrought “To Dorothy Wellesley” (1936), in which he imagines her stretching her hand “towards the moonless midnight of the trees,” and, “Rammed full/ Of that most sensuous silence of the night,” climbing to “your chamber full of books.” The poem strains toward, and attains, a final sublimity:

……………………..What climbs the stair?
Nothing that common women ponder on
If you are worth my hope! Neither Content
Nor satisfied Conscience, but that great family
Some ancient famous authors misrepresent,
The Proud Furies each with her torch on high.

But, to state the obvious, there can be no doubt that it was, above all, Maud— “that one”—who simultaneously broke Yeats’s heart, fascinated him, and inspired the greatest love poetry of the twentieth century. Harold Bloom, an anything but uncritical admirer, has rightly said of Yeats as a love poet: “one can wonder if any poet of our century enters into competition here with him.”[24] She also transfigured him in the process. I’m alluding to “First Love,” the opening poem of “A Man Young and Old,” which concludes The Tower just as “A Woman Young and Old” concludes The Winding Stair.

Here, Yeats’s mask as Everyman slips from the outset, and the lunar figure is clearly based on Maud. “Though nurtured like the sailing moon/ In beauty’s murderous brood,” she “walked” and “blushed” awhile and “on my pathway stood/ Until I thought her body bore/ A heart of flesh and blood.” But since he “laid a hand thereon,/ And found a heart of stone,” he realizes that “every hand is lunatic./ That travels on the moon.” She “smiled and that transfigured me/ And left me but a lout,” wandering aimlessly, “Emptier of thought/ Than the heavenly circuit of its stars/ When the moon sails out.” And this final stanza of the first poem leads directly to the lunar opening of the next in the sequence: “Like the moon her kindness is/ If kindness I may call” what has no “comprehension” in it, “But is the same for all/ As though my sorrow were a scene/ Upon a painted wall.”

It should be mentioned that, in contrast to most of this man-centered sequence, poem IV, “The Death of the Hare,” expresses unexpected empathy for the female in the love-hunt. The Man’s “heart is wrung,” when he remembers her “wildness lost.” He experiences the “yelling pack,” and, finally, the death of the pursued animal. “The Death of the Hare,” looking back to “Memory,” anticipates the “stricken rabbit” whose death-cry “distracts” Yeats’s “thought” in “Man and the Echo.” It also anticipates the empathy with the female perspective expressed throughout “A Woman Young and Old.”

The poems that follow in the “Man” sequence emphasize the tragedy at the heart of the Yeats-Maud relationship. Poem VI, “His Memories,” and VIII, “Summer and Spring,” allude even more unmistakably to that relationship. In the guise of an anonymous old man, his body “broken,” Yeats can claim, even more graphically than in the poem addressed to Maud’s daughter, “To a Young Girl,” that the relationship with his Helen was sexually consummated. His “arms” may be “like twisted thorn/ And yet there beauty lay”;

The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take—
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck—
That she cried into this ear,
“Strike me if I shriek.”

Two decades later, that night in December 1908, no matter how fleeting, remains paramount among the “memories” of Yeats’s “Man Old.” In “real life,” after their night of lovemaking in that Paris hotel, Maud had quickly put the relationship back on its old basis, informing Yeats in a morning-after note that she was praying that he would be able to overcome his “physical desire” for her. In a journal entry the following month (21 January 1909), Yeats referred despairingly but realistically to the “return” of Maud’s “old dread of physical love,” which has “probably spoiled her life….I was never more deeply in love, but my desires must go elsewhere if I would escape their poison.” Hence, those “others.” Since Maud was, ultimately, “not kindred of his soul,” Yeats sought complete union, if only in memory, in poetry, and specifically, masked as “A Man Young and Old.”

In “Summer and Spring,” poem VIII of the sequence, two lovers grown old reminisce “under an old thorn tree.”

And when we talked of growing up
Knew that we’d halved a soul
And fell the one in ‘tother’s arms
That we might make it whole.

We recall, as we are meant to, “Among School Children,” written in the same year. In transitioning from the first to the second stanza, we shift abruptly from Yeats’s persona as senator and school inspector, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” to the inner man, the poet himself reporting an incident Maud once related from her childhood:

I dream of a Ledaean body bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy—
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

The tragedy lies in the need “to alter Plato’s parable,” since the blending here is empathetic and partial (there remains a separation between yolk and white even within the unity of the “one shell”) rather than the full sexual union of Aristophanes’ haunting fable in The Symposium. It is a “whole” union the old man claims in “His Memories” and in “Summer and Spring,” which concludes with a sexual variation on the unity of being symbolized by the dancer and the “great-rooted blossomer” of “Among School Children.”

O what a bursting out there was,
And what a blossoming,
When we had all the summer-time
And she had all the spring!

Even here, however “fecund” the bursting out and blossoming, it is all memory and heartache. As in most of the poems having to do with Maud, “Love,” mingling strength and sweetness, is at once vulnerable—that “bitter sweetness,/ Inhabitant of the soft cheek of a girl”—and immensely powerful. I am quoting “From the Antigone,” the final poem in both editions of The Winding Stair. Echoing Sophocles’ choral ode, but also expanding on “No Second Troy,” where Maud would have “hurled the little streets upon the great,” Yeats calls on Love, “O bitter sweetness,” to “Overcome the Empyrean; hurl/ Heaven and Earth out of their places,” that in “the same calamity,” brothers, friends, and families, “even “City and city may contend,/ By that great glory driven wild.”

In “No Second Troy,” Yeats tells us that Maud could not have “done” otherwise, “being what she is.” And, from “No Second Troy” to “A Bronze Head,” what she is or was, under all her myriad “forms,” is a Helen reborn. As Yeats reminds us in “The Tower,” II, “The tragedy began/ With Homer that was a blind man,/ And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.” That establishes the pattern for both Maud and Yeats, whose Self in “Dialogue” is “a blind man,” plunging into “a blind man’s ditch,” especially “that most fecund ditch of all,” the folly one does or “must suffer” if one falls hopelessly in love with a woman fated to reenact the role of Homer’s Helen. “No Second Troy” and, even more, “From the Antigone” (altered with the help of his friend Ezra Pound) suggest that, like Pound in Cantos II and VII, Yeats was fully aware of the punning epithets on her name in the choral ode in the Agamemnon where Aeschylus calls her helénaus, hélandros, heléptolis: destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities. Maud, mythologized by Yeats as a reincarnation of the Greek Helen, is not only the paragon of beauty, but of a terrible beauty at once destructive and inspiring.

§

That is her quintessence, at least as Muse. If we are to locate the “quintessential” Yeats, it will have to be he who could not have “done” other than be what he is, a poet, and a poet both cursed by and blessed with an incomparable Muse. But what is it about his poetic legacy that compels most of us to judge him the greatest poet of the 150 years since his birth in 1865? As Auden noted in his elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” writing shortly after Yeats’s death and thinking of some of his less respectable dabblings in the occult and politics: “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” Auden’s threnody proper begins:

Earth, receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry….

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.

Though that last line recalls the tragic joy of Yeats’s sages in “Lapis Lazuli” and Self’s final chant in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” Auden’s meter and couplets here, in the final section of his elegy, echo the tetrameter couplets of “Man and the Echo” and, most obviously, the final movement of “Under Ben Bulben.” That was, perhaps, inevitable; but, in terms of the whole of that poem, we should follow the poet himself in rejecting “Under Ben Bulben” as his “last word.” If we must choose a final poetic “testament,” we might consider, along with the final chant of Self in “Dialogue,” a handful of very late retrospective poems, beginning with “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” completed in September 1938.

In “The Municipal Gallery Revisited,” looking on the images of his life’s companions, men and women who shaped modern Ireland, Yeats concludes: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,/ And say my glory was I had such friends.” One of those images in the Gallery was Campbell’s bronze head of Maud, who also plays a central role in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Here the poet and playwright, enumerating “old themes,” focuses on the early work; and the “heart mysteries there,” though “Covered with embroideries/ Out of old mythologies” (“A Coat”), are mostly associated with Maud. That “sea-rider,” the hero of The Wanderings of Oisin, had been “led by the nose” by the goddess Niamh; “But what cared I that set him on to ride,/ I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.” Its “counter-truth,” his play The Countess Cathleen, dealt with physical starvation. The mythical Countess’s benignly Faustian sacrifice of her own soul to save her starving people reflects Maud’s actual efforts to feed the populace in famine-struck Donegal; but, intensifying Maud’s bartering of the horn of Plenty for an “old bellows full of angry wind” in “A Prayer for my Daughter,” Yeats cries out: “I thought my dear must her own soul destroy/ So did fanaticism and hate enslave it.” These “heart mysteries” were transformed into “masterful” images, “complete” images that “grew in pure mind but out of what began?”

Having deconstructed his early work to reveal its partial genesis in the unrequited love of Maud Gonne, Yeats audaciously gives us, as his mature genetic material, the lowest, most profanely debased matrix-forms of the central icons of his greatest poetry: the starlit or moonlit dome of Byzantium revealed as, or reduced to, “a mound of refuse,” the ancestral sword wound in silken embroidery, to “old iron…old rags.” The Muse herself becomes “that raving slut/ Who keeps the till,” tallying up the loss and gain in the transformation of pain into poetry. (That is true even of that “changeless sword” covered in “embroidered dress,” which lay, in Part III of “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” in Sato’s house five hundred years, “Curved like new moon, moon-luminous.” Yet, “if no change appears/ No moon; only an aching heart/ Conceives a changeless work of art.”) In the end, the old man, deprived of his means of ascent, both Platonic and phallic, must return to the place of origin: “Now that my ladder’s gone/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/ In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” The drafts of the poem reveal that all references to the “heart” were added late in the process of composition; but the Maud-inspired creativity that rose from Yeats’s “heart’s root” and “aching heart” was always already implicit. In what was also a very late addition, in this case to “Two Songs from a Play,” we are told that “Whatever flames upon the night/ Man’s own resinous heart has fed.”[25]

5Lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats

And yet, if I had to select just one last testament, aside from Self’s chant, the choice would narrow to the final movements of three of the last poems: “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo.” Written in July 1936, “Lapis Lazuli” was published with war imminent. Yeats is annoyed by those who cannot abide the gaiety of artists creating amid impending catastrophe. To counter their consternation, dismissed as “hysterical,” Yeats presents Shakespearean figures who—like Ophelia, Cordelia, and (by implication) Cleopatra—“do not break up their lines to weep.” Above all, “Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Fusing western heroism with Eastern serenity and Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian joy (“He who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness”), the poem turns in its final movement to the mountain-shaped lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats as a gift, and which, in turn, giving the poet his title, serves as the Yeatsian equivalent of Keats’s Grecian urn.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,
Are carved in lapis lazuli;
Over them a long-legged bird,
A symbol of longevity;
The third, doubtless a serving man,
Carries a musical instrument.

Aside from the obvious resemblance to the Grecian urn, the repeated “or” seals the connection, with description yielding to a stunning exercise of the creative imagination, worthy of its precursor, the 4th stanza of Keats’s ode. Since the place of origin of the figures in the sacrificial procession is not depicted on the urn, Keats speculates: “What little town by river or sea-shore,/ Or mountain-built….” Yeats ups the ante to four repetitions:

Every discoloration of the stone;
Every accidental crack or dent,
Seems a water-course or an avalanche,
Or lofty slope where it still snows
Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch
Sweetens the little half-way house
Those Chinamen climb towards, and I
Delight to imagine them seated there;
There, on the mountain and the sky,
On all the tragic scene they stare.
One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.

Yeats turns every discoloration and “Every accidental crack or dent”26[26]into a feature of the mountain landscape. But the even greater creative leap in this exquisite final movement is the setting of those sculpted figures, frozen in lapis as Keats’s were on the marble urn, into motion, with the poet delighting to “imagine” them having attained the prospect of the gazebo half-way up the mountain. That the perspective is not quite sub specie aeternitatis, that the “little half-way house” is situated at the midpoint rather than on the summit, makes this a human rather than divine vision: an affirmation, registered in full awareness of “all the tragic scene,” in which the eyes of Yeats’s sages, wreathed in the wrinkles of mutability, nevertheless glitter with a tragic joy lit by the poet’s own creative “delight.”

The end of mutability is death. The ancient Chinese sages’ gaiety in the face of tragedy may remind us of Yeats’s central mythological figure, Cuchulain, the hero of several Yeats poems and a cycle of five plays, ending with The Death of Cuchulain. The poet’s final encounter with his Celtic Achilles takes place in a ghostly poem completed on January 13, 1939, two weeks before his death.[27]The magnificent and eerie “Cuchulain Comforted,” composed, appropriately, in Dante’s terza rima, finds the nameless hero, wounded in battle and slain by a blind man, in the Underworld among “Shrouds that muttered head to head,” and “Came and were gone.” He “leant upon a tree/ As though to meditate on wounds and blood.” He is among his polar opposites— “convicted cowards all,” according to one “that seemed to have authority /Among those birdlike things,” and who informs the still armed hero: “Now must we sing and sing the best we can.” The poem ends with the hero’s apotheosis imminent. Having joined these spirits in a kind of communal sewing-bee, making shrouds, he is soon to undergo their transformation, described in haunting final lines reminiscent of Zarathustra’s vision of evil absolved by its own bliss so that all that is body should become dancer, “all that is spirit, bird”:

They sang but had nor human tunes nor words,
Though all was done in common as before,
They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.

The triumph of this mysterious and yet revelatory poem is that it discloses, along with an unexpected aspect of the solitary hero, Yeats himself: the man under the many masks, “one that,” in yet another bird-image, “ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”). It recalls the similar if more personal triumph-in-defeat of “Man and the Echo” (1938), a poem that borrows the questioning and tetrameters of Coleridge’s confessional, “The Pains of Sleep.” A “Man” halted in a rock-cleft on the mountainside shouts “a question to the stone.”

All that I have said and done,
Now that I am old and ill,
Turns into a question till
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
Did words of mine put too great strain
On that woman’s reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked
That whereby a house lay wrecked?

It is unclear what Yeats might have said to save Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, or have not said to preserve the sanity of Margot Ruddock, the infatuated and crazed girl memorialized in “Sweet Dancer” (1937). As for “that play of mine”…. Cathleen ni Houlihan, the ostensible celebration of blood-sacrifice written for and starring Maud Gonne as Ireland herself, did send out men that were shot in the Easter Rising; in fact, the first to die was an actor cast in a revival of the play. The “terrible beauty” born that Easter had many causes, but Yeats, fingering the “links in the chain of responsibility,” wondered “if any link” was forged “in my workshop.” Along with pride at its popular success, he felt guilt in having produced a patriotic but propagandistic play that was, at heart, a love-offering to his own terrible beauty, Maud Gone, and a betrayal of his own better judgment.

We cannot simply dismiss some of Yeats’s late and irresponsible ranting (as in On the Boiler), and his theatrical waving of Sato’s sword, and cry for “war,” in responding to an Indian visitor’s request for “a message for India.” Nevertheless, a tame, double-minded Yeats was no less opposed than Joyce to the blinkered, rabid nationalism most memorably embodied in the crude and violent “Citizen” in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses. That one-eyed Fenian, a reincarnation of Homer’s Polyphemus, may also be a male equivalent of Ireland’s own one-eyed Morrigu, the overtly dark side of Cathleen ni Houlihan. I have a suspicion amounting to a conviction that Yeats thought “that play of mine” not really his (in fact, most of the dialogue, though not the lyric passages, was written by Lady Gregory), and that, when he wasn’t basking in its popularity, sometimes wished it had been omitted rather than committed. In “Man and the Echo,” his responsibility for its impact is the first “question” that causes him to “lie awake night after night.”[28]

Here is Coleridge, as sleepless and anguished as Yeats: “All confused I could not know/ Whether I suffered or I did: / For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe.”[29] Yeats concludes his questioning in the same perplexity: “And all seems evil until I/ Sleepless would lie down and die.” Echo: “Lie down and die.” But that, Man responds, would be “to shirk / The spiritual intellect’s great work.” There can be no thought of ending life until he can “stand in judgment on his soul.” Once “all’s arranged in one clear view,” and “all work done,” he will be ready to “sink at last into the night.” But, given Echo’s sardonic repetition, “Into the night,” that prospect only raises more, and more metaphysical, questions (“Shall we in that great night rejoice?/ What do we know but that we face/ One another in this place?”), until all cerebral self-centered thoughts stop together, interrupted:

But hush, for I have lost the theme,
Its joy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck
Dropping out of sky or rock,
A stricken rabbit is crying out
And its cry distracts my thought.

“Take physic, pomp,” cries a chastened Lear out on the storm-beaten heath, finally exposing himself to feel pity for life’s naked victims. The greatness of “Man and the Echo” has to do with a similar intervention from the existential physical reality outside Yeats’s own self-absorbed thoughts about death and the fate of his soul. Above all, the poem’s triumph lies in the old man’s setting aside, as in “Cuchulain Comforted,” of the “heroic mask”— of Swiftian arrogance or Nietzschean master morality, of the perspective of the predatory hawk, of Cuchulain, that “great hawk out of the sun”—in order to fully and humbly accept common mortality: the radical finitude he shares with human rags and bones, with cowards, with the pitiable death-cry of a rabbit, struck down by hawk or owl. At the end of “Man and the Echo,” amid uncertainty (“joy or night,” “hawk or owl” dropping out of “sky or rock”), the one certitude is death.[30] “Mortality touches the heart,” epitomized by what Virgil calls the “tears that are in things” (Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt). Yet here the tears are unshed from “an eye” that has “kept watch o’er man’s mortality.” Like Wordsworth at the end of the Intimations Ode, Yeats is touched by the human heart’s “tenderness, its joys, and fears,” but, registering the death-throes of one of the humble, transient things in nature, he is left with “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”[31]

§

“The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo,” are deeply moving retrospective poems, the fully-ripened fruit of an aged but major poet working at the height of his undiminished creative power. Two other retrospective poems, less formidable than occasional, should also be discussed in rounding out Yeats’s life and career, the second of them the poem he himself chose to be his final word.

Two years before his death, Yeats received a request for a “representative” poem for The Erasmian, the magazine of his old Dublin high school. He selected “What Then?” (1937), which lays out for the Erasmus Smith students a planned life of disciplined labor, aimed at achieving what Yeats’s own schoolmates, his “chosen comrades,” believed to be his destiny, a belief in which he concurred: that he would “grow a famous man.” Writing intimately though in the third person, “he” tells the young students and us that he “crammed” his twenties “with toil,” and that, in time, “Everything he wrote was read.” He attained “sufficient money for his need,” true friends, and that predestined yet industriously sought-after fame. Eventually, “All his happier dreams came true”: house, wife, daughter, son; “Poets and wits about him drew.” But this self-satisfied rehearsal of accomplishment has been challenged by the refrain ending each stanza: “‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘What then?’” As in “Man and the Echo,” despite best-laid plans, an ultimate uncertainty attends the certainty of death. In the fourth and final stanza, as the litany of achievement mounts in passionate intensity, the opposing challenge from the world beyond earthly accomplishment also reaches a crescendo:

“The work is done,” grown old he thought,
“According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought”;
But louder sang that ghost, “What Then?”

In “The Choice,” in the 1933 Winding Stair, Yeats had declared that “the intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.” The “something” brought to “perfection” here is clearly the second choice. Must “he” therefore, as in “The Choice,” “refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark”? Momentous in import despite its casual tone, “What Then?” revisits the “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” with the spiritual spokesman, despite being restricted to two words, at last mounting a potent challenge. The refrain Yeats places in the breathless mouth of that formidable ghost—“What then?”—fuses the Idealism of that “Plato [who] thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghostly paradigm of things” and the Hindu tatah kim (you may have gained glory and accomplished all your desires: what further?) with the question raised in the synoptic gospels: what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his immortal soul? Here as always, dialectical Yeats is not quite succumbing to the spiritual; “his” litany of achievements is essentially imaginative rather than material, and it is warranted. Instead, Yeats is vacillating “between extremities” or “antinomies” (“Vacillation,” I), and, in the process, making poetry out of the quarrel with himself. It was Yeats’s chosen counter-weight to Plato and Plotinus, Nietzsche, who said, “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[32]

Yeats himself wanted to end his canon on a lighter note, “seduced” to flesh-and-blood “existence” from the outset (and confirmed in the conclusion) of a poem even shorter and more occasional than “What Then?” Apparently frivolous, even irresponsible or unseemly on its surface, the little poem “Politics” (May 1938) responds to its epigraph, a recent comment by Thomas Mann: “In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.”[33] Yeats’s response, anticipating the modern cry to make love not war, looks before as well as after:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here’s a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

Why would Yeats choose this seemingly offhand poem rather than the portentous “Under Ben Bulben” to be his final word? In part, I think, because under its colloquial surface, “Politics” resonates with poetic tradition. Even in the midst of political turmoil and looming war, Yeats is affirming the primary theme of lyric poetry, epitomized in the old and anonymous cri de coeur petitioning the Western Wind to blow so that the lover can return home: “Christ, if my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again!” But the seemingly minor “Politics” also, like “What Then?” and “Vacillation,” echoes the major poem at the heart of this essay.

In their “Dialogue,” Soul commanded Self to “Fix every wandering thought upon” the spiritual; to keep the mind, which should be focused on the One, from “wandering/ To this and that and t’other thing”—especially (in the case of “a man/ Long past his prime,” who should “scorn the earth”) to things emblematical “of love and war.” Yeats, as we saw, was echoing Cicero’s dream of Scipio, whose ghostly grandfather had asked rhetorically, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and condemn what is mortal?” But young Scipio “kept turning my eyes back to earth,” just as the Yeatsian Self turns his eyes down to the blade “upon my knees” wound in female embroidery, choosing, not to be delivered from “the crime of death and birth,” but to plunge into life’s ditch, and “that most fecund ditch of all,/ The folly that man does/ Or must suffer if he woos/ A proud woman not kindred of his soul.” In “Politics,” in a variation on Soul’s imperious command that Self “Fix every wandering thought” on the One rather than wander to the Many, the restrictive one (“politics”) is actually many (Roman, Russian, Spanish), while the One is “that girl” upon whom the aged, lovelorn poet—as “distracted” from “larger issues” as the speaker was by flesh-and-blood immediacy at the end of “Man and the Echo”—cannot help but “fix” his “attention.”[34]

Yeats arrives in New York in 1932 for the American premiere of The Words Upon the Window Pane.

The ribald old man may be cavalierly abdicating his responsibilities in a world of war and war’s alarms, but his own instinctual and poignant cry from the heart is a hard-to-resist affirmation of life and an acknowledgement that lust can still spur him into song. For Yeats, as for the enthralled warrior in Antony and Cleopatra and Thomas Hardy in “The Annals of War,” star-crossed romantic love is simply a more profound poetic theme than war and politics: a theme that had haunted him from The Wanderings of Oisin on, certainly as meditated on in retrospect. And, whether or not we see the last line of “Politics” as looking back to The Wanderings of Oisin and so “giving a circular, reincarnative shape to the ‘book’ of Yeats’s poems,”[35] the opening and closing lines of “Politics” bring us, in Yeats’s version of Joyce’s inevitable vicus of recirculation, back to Maud Gonne.

For even here one wonders if “that girl standing there”—“not a real incident, but a moment of meditation,” he told Dorothy Wellesley—is not one more “form” of Maud (“Which of her forms has shown her substance right?”). In “Among School Children,” having just recorded that “tale” his “Ledaean” Maud “Told of a harsh reproof or trivial event/ That changed some childish day to tragedy,” the poet and senatorial school inspector looks out at the Many, one child or the other in the classroom, wondering “if she stood so at that age—/ For even daughters of the swan can share/ Something of every paddler’s heritage”; and “thereupon my heart is driven wild:/ She stands before me as a living child.” If “that girl standing there” in “Politics” is in any way a “form” of Maud, it would clarify both the old man’s distraction from war and war’s alarms, and the climactic placement of “Politics” as Yeats’s poetic farewell, a last kiss given to the void.[36]

In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” that central text radiating out to so much else, Maud may also seem a vivid presence that disappears. Even the folly that man does or must suffer in unrequited love seems absolved in the final blessing, and subsumed by the all-inclusive symbol of Sato’s sword wound in silk. Crucial as that double-icon is, such Romantic symbolism may seem both antiquated and unrelated to that “proud woman not kindred of his soul.” But sword and embroidery might be illuminated by juxtaposition with three earlier Maud Gonne poems. In 1899, the poet wished to spread at his beloved’s feet “the heaven’s embroidered cloths.” As we’ve also seen, when, four years later, Maud “went from” Yeats, he “could find/ Nothing to make a song about but kings,/ Helmets and swords, and half-forgotten things/ That were like memories of you” (“Reconciliation,” 1909). In the title phrase of a poem written between these two, in 1905, he advises us, “O do not love too long,/ Or you will grow out of fashion/ Like an old song.” Returning to “Dialogue,” we can finally name the “proud woman not kindred of his soul,” and find, in that poem’s sword and silk, half-forgotten and out-of-fashion things that were like memories of Maud.

Yet, the lovelorn heart, the place “where all the ladders start,” is not where they end. For in the end, says Yeats in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” it was the playwriting and the poetry that “took all my love,/ And not those things that they were emblems of.” It was in this sense, even more than in his marriage and intimate relationships with “others,” that Yeats “turned aside” from the “great labyrinth” of Maud Gonne. Fergus had falsely promised a haven where frustrated lovers would “no more turn aside and brood/ Upon love’s bitter mystery.” But Yeats could turn aside from Maud Gonne only, paradoxically, through the power of his own words written for her: not even she could triumph over the poetry she inspired and which then absorbed its genesis. Unsurprisingly, given that Yeats intensified polarities for dramatic effect, “all” is by far the most frequent word in his vocabulary, as it was in that of his mentor, Blake, who declared that “without Contraries” there could be “no progression.” Yeats had asked in 1911, “What of her that took/ All till my youth was gone?” In old age he counters with another hyperbolic more than half-truth: the poems and plays “took all my love,” not those things that they were emblems of.[37]

Finally, what of his central “emblem,” that “male” sword wound in “female” silk? The sword’s “flowering, silken, old embroidery…round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound,” may have personal associations with the “heaven’s embroidered cloths” he once wished to spread under the feet of Maud Gonne, her beauty at once palpable and “imagined within/ The labyrinth of the mind.” But that embroidery has emblematic reverberations beyond Junzo Sato’s gift, and exceeding autobiographical connections with Maud Gonne. Here, as always in his mature work, Yeats has woven a “personal emotion…into a general pattern of myth and symbol.” For that labyrinthine, wound embroidery replicates the archetypally female, ultimately life-affirming spiral. Not only the gyring stair in Yeats’s Norman tower and in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” but in the overarching design—rondural and “feminine” —of The Winding Stair as a volume, both in 1929 and as expanded in 1933.

—Pat Keane/ April 2015

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Patrick J Keane smaller

Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980),Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics(1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Emerson reminds us. In pursuing my particular theme on this occasion, I’ve neglected much of the other poetry on which Yeats’s claim to preeminence rests. Even being highly selective, I need mention only “September 1913” and “Easter 1916”; the two Byzantium poems; the two “Songs from a Play”; the two Coole Park poems; the great triad of world-transforming annunciations: “Leda and the Swan,” “The Mother of God,” and “The Second Coming”; the two splendid sequences added to The Winding Stair, “Vacillation” and the Crazy Jane poems; and, above all, the two sustained political sequences: “Meditations in Time of Civil War” and (arguably Yeats’s single greatest masterpiece) “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” In self- justification, I would insist that, if what I’ve said here is only part of the truth, it is part of the truth
  2. Having donated it to the library, I had been asked to say something about On the Boiler, which, reluctantly, I did. In this pamphlet, Yeats deplores the replacement of “the better stocks” by the “stupider and less healthy.” Culturally, too, the best is being driven out by “the inferior.” There “was once a stock company playing Shakespeare in every considerable town”; but now the signs of civilizational decline “are already visible in the degeneration of literature, newspapers, amusements.” Three-quarters of a century later, it is hard to disagree. But few will want to follow Yeats, who elsewhere longs for “minds strong enough to lead others,” when he calls upon “the educated classes” to take “control” before the “uneducatable masses” multiply. In his most reckless and fascistic romanticizing of violence, the man on the boiler dreams of civil war, “with the victory of the skillful, riding their machines as did the feudal knights their armoured horses.” He even praises the skill of the “twenty-four” among the 400 German “submarine commanders” who accounted for 60% of the shipping damage in World War I. “The danger,” in 1938, he says, “is that there will be no war, that the skilled will attempt nothing, that the European civilization, like those other civilizations that saw the triumph of their gangrel stocks, will accept decay.”
  3. What Yeats calls in the letter “our most recent event” included the killing of five additional dogs by these neighbors. He notes that his wife “hates ‘blue shirts’,” the nationalistic-fascistic movement with which he himself flirted, though he is clearly appalled by “the Hitler touch.”
  4. My best man, Bill Baumert, was resourceful as well as generous. His wife, who was ill, had not come to the wedding. She’d packed the book, but not his trousers!—a discovery he made an hour before the ceremony. Bill drove frantically into Hartford, a city he did not know, found a suit (the inseams were shortened by gluing the material), and got back just in time for the wedding.
  5. The list was discovered by Curtis Bradford. See his “Chronology of Composition” and “The Order of Yeats’s Last Poems,” in Yeats’s “Last Poems” Again, Dolmen Press Yeats Centenary Papers (1966), ed. Liam Miller.
  6. The sequence is an example of ring-composition. Flanked by two framing poems (I and XI), the others lead up to and away from the still center, Poem VI, “Chosen,” in a concentric pattern, with II paired with X, III with IX, IV with VIII, and V with VII. In “Chosen,” the “lot” chosen by the old woman is the same “lot” chosen and “forgiven” by Self in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” When the old woman is questioned about her “utmost pleasure with a man,” she takes “That stillness for a theme/ Where his heart my heart did seem/ And both adrift on the miraculous stream,” a stream “Where—wrote a learned astrologer—/The Zodiac is changed into a sphere.” Yeats borrows his stanza structure from John Donne (“A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”) and his astrology from Macrobius, the same 4th-century Neoplatonist whose Commentary on Scipio’s Dream helped define the debate in “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and shaped (or deformed) the occult musings of the opening four lines of stanza V of “Among School Children.”
  7. “Odour of blood” echoes the lines, written a year earlier, in which Yeats brilliantly synopsized the logic-defying god-as-man miracle that disrupted the rational classical world: “Odour of blood when Christ was slain/ Made all Platonic tolerance vain/ And vain all Doric discipline.” In The Winding Stair, “everything” connected with “power” and “life” has “the stain of blood,” though —according to the final lines of “Blood and the Moon”—“no stain/ Can come upon the visage of the moon/ When it has looked in glory from a cloud.” The short poem, “Oil and Blood,” immediately following “Blood and the Moon” grotesquely simplifies its antithesis. In contrast to holy men and women entombed in gold and lapis lazuli, under loads of trampled clay “Lie bodies of the vampires full of blood,/ Their shrouds are bloody and their lips are wet.” The only poem in the volume, both in 1929 and 1933, more theatrically blood-drenched is Poem VIII of “A Woman Young and Old,” in which a woman “too old for a man’s love,” to “find if withered vein ran blood,” tears “my body that its wine might cover/ Whatever could recall the lip of lover.” This act of sexual mutilation evokes a vision of her slain Adonis-like counterpart, her “heart’s victim and its torturer”—“That thing all blood and mire, that beast-torn wreck.”
  8. The gleam of the “malicious eyes” that cast upon Self a distorting lie so powerful that he falls victim to it is borrowed from the opening stanza of Browning’s quest-poem, in which the first thought of Childe Roland was that he was being “lied” to by that sadistic cripple, “with malicious eye/ Askance to watch the working of his lie/ On mine.” (The earlier allusion, to Browning’s Duke, refers of course to “My Last Duchess.”) Even closer to Self’s temporarily mistaken belief that that “defiling” shape “cast upon” him by mirroring eyes “must be his shape” is the initially deluded, masochistic cry of Blake’s Oothoon (2: 36-39) for her “defiled bosom” to be rent away so that she “may reflect/ The image” of the very man (the moralistic sadist, Theotormon, who, having raped her, now brands her “harlot”) whose “loved” but unloving “eyes” have cast upon her precisely this “defiled” shape—one of Blake’s, and now Yeats’s, grimmest ironies. But both recover.
  9. The diagram was drawn on p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (1901). Given to Yeats as a gift in 1902 by attorney and patron of the arts John Quinn, it is now in the Special Collections of the library at Northwestern University. First mentioned by Richard Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats), these annotations were transcribed for me by another late, great scholar, Erich Heller.
  10. To mention just the three most salient: along with Shakespeare’s chastened Lear (“We’ll live,/ And pray, and sing, and…laugh”) and the Wordsworth of “Tintern Abbey” (sure “that all which we behold/ Is full of blessings”), there is, minus his orthodox “kind saint,” Coleridge’s watersnake-blessing Mariner, who tells us that, having perceived the previously “slimy” creatures in all their iridescent vital beauty, “A spring of love gushed from my heart,/ And I blessed them unaware.”
  11. This poem, long titled “The Fisherman,” precedes the Aengus poem in The Wind Among the Reeds. The fish-woman “may hide in the ebb and flow/ Of the pale tide when the moon has set,” but people in time to come will know how the poet cast his net, “and how you have leaped times out of mind/ Over the little silver cords,/ And think that you were hard and unkind,/ And blame you with many bitter words.”
  12. The Trembling of the Veil (1922): Four Years, 1887-1891, §V. In the unpublished version, he writes of that first encounter: “I was twenty-three when the troubling of my life began. I had never thought to see in a woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past” (Memoirs [1973], 40). Though Maud thought they had first met in 1887, at John O’Leary’s house, Yeats, as the more thunderstruck, is likelier to be right about the date: January 30, 1889. That meeting was at Bedford Park when Maud came, bearing an introduction from O’Leary, to visit Yeats’s artist father. That was the ostensible purpose; but, as Yeats’s sisters surmised, she may have been more interested in meeting the young poet who, having just published The Wandering of Oisin, seemed a promising talent to be enlisted in Ireland’s cause.
  13. In an 1803 letter to his friend Thomas Butts, Blake said he was able to praise his epic poem Milton, “since I dare not pretend to be any other than the Secretary; the Authors are in Eternity.”
  14. For a Berenice-related Yeatsian fusion of Eve’s “disheveled hair” in Paradise Lost and Alexander Pope’s earlier combining of Milton and the Berenice myth in The Rape of the Lock, see the discussion, below, of “Who Goes with Fergus?” The myth is straightforwardly adopted in Yeats’s much later poem, XIII in “Words for Music Perhaps,” in the 1933 Winding Stair. A woman dreams “That I had shorn my locks away/ And laid them on Love’s lettered tomb:/ But something bore them out of sight/ In a great tumult of the air,/ And after nailed upon the night/ Berenice’s burning hair.” (“Her Dream,” 1929)
  15. A decade later, in “His Memories,” the Man of Poem VI of “A Man Young and Old” (in The Tower) claims that, while his aged body is now broken, he can remember when the “first of all the tribe”—“She who had brought great Hector down/ And put all Troy to wreck”—lay in his arms and “did such pleasure take/…That she cried into this ear,/ ‘Strike me if I shriek’.” Readers would know, of course, that any reference to Helen of Troy was to be read as meaning Maud.
  16. To Yeats’s immediate grief, though it triggered a mature reassessment on his part, Maud quickly reverted to their previous, intimate but non-sexual relationship. See below, discussion of “A Man Young and Old.”
  17. Along with the odd number of swans, there is another anomaly in the poem: lines 1 and 3 of each stanza are unrhymed. From the time of his first visit to Coole Park, in 1897, Yeats had associated Maud with swans. He told her in an unpublished poem written that year, “it is/ of you I sing when I tell/ of the swan in the water.” In this volume, even a creature of change–the charming yet mysterious replicator of the lunar phases who, in “The Cat and the Moon,” creeps through the grass, “Alone, important and wise,/ And lifts to the changing moon/ His changing eyes”—is related to lunar Maud. Referred to by name, Minnaloushe was her black male Persian.
  18. In “the old days,” we are told in “Her Praise,” because of her beauty and revolutionary energy, “she had young men’s praise and old men’s blame.” But “Among the poor both old and young gave her praise.” In the second, Yeats, defending art from philistine attacks, complains of being unappreciated by the Irish people. But then he recalls remarks made by Maud, who—even when the “dishonest crowd I had driven away…set upon me” those she had “served” and sometimes “fed”— never, then or ever, “Complained of the people.” He responds that she has “not lived in thought but deed,” and so has “the purity of a natural force,” while he finds it hard to hold his “critical tongue.” And yet, “because my heart leaped at her words,/ I was abashed, and now they come to mind/After nine years, I sink my head abashed.”
  19. Yeats is fusing images from Hamlet and King Lear. “How fares our cousin Hamlet? asks Claudius. “Excellent, i’ faith, of the chameleon’s dish,” quips Hamlet; “I eat the air, promise crammed. You cannot feed capons so.” In addition to drinking the air, the voracious image of Maud “took a mess of shadows for its meat.” When he foolishly casts his child Cordelia from him, Lear makes his “sometime daughter” as alien to him as “he that makes his generations messes/ To gorge his appetite.” The closeness disclaimed by Lear, “propinquity,” is echoed by Yeats in “A Bronze Head,” an even more richly Shakespearean poem. Yeats borrows from King Lear not only that rare word, “propinquity,” but, obviously, the “hysterica passio” of Maud’s inner “emptiness.” Most importantly, when Yeats wonders which of Maud’s “forms” has shown “her substance right,” he is echoing Sonnet 53, where Shakespeare wonders about the beloved’s Platonic essence and its relationship to her accidental attributes, her external appearances: “What is your substance, whereof are you made,/ That millions of strange shadows on you tend?”
  20. As noted earlier, Yeats was remembering the same passage of the Aeneid in recalling his first glimpse of Maud. She seemed to him a “classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation ‘She walks like a goddess’ made for her alone.” Gwynn was a Protestant constitutional nationalist. For his vivid description of the electrifying impact of Cathleen ni Houlihan, see his Irish Literature and Drama (1936), 158-60.
  21. The poem is “The Lover mourns for the Loss of Love” (1898), in The Wind Among the Reeds. Privately, Yeats quotes Olivia directly: “There is someone else in your heart” (Memoirs, 88-89).
  22. Maud had been arrested on suspicion of complicity in the non-existent “German plot.” The splendid “On a Political Prisoner,” written in January 1919 (published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer) is about Con Markiewicz; but, as Yeats wrote to George “I’m writing [a poem] on Con to avoid writing one on Maud. All of them in prison…” After her release, Maud was living in London, forbidden to return to Ireland, when she suddenly showed up at 73 St. Stephen’s Green. She was furious at being turned away from her own door, and, as Denis Donoghue remarks, “it took several years for the wounds to heal, if they ever healed” (We Irish, 224).
  23. Prior to his marriage, among other affairs with Abbey actresses, there were a few nights with the gifted and sexually-sophisticated Florence Farr, who remarked, “I can do this for myself.”
  24. Bloom, Yeats (1970), 459.
  25. The rest of the poem, songs to open and close the curtain of the play The Resurrection, was written in 1926; this final stanza was added in 1931. For the late addition of the “heart” references to “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” see Curtis Bradford, Yeats at Work (1965), 164.
  26. Damage to which I very nearly contributed in 1995, when I almost dropped the piece of lapis I’d been invited to examine during a visit to the home of Michael and Gráinne Yeats.
  27. A week later, dictating to his wife days before his actual death, Yeats wrote “The Black Tower,” in which he resumes the heroic mask shed in “Cuchulain Comforted” and “Man and the Echo.” Here, “the men of the old black tower,” though down to their last provisions and faced with a relentless, sordid enemy, remain “all…oath-bound men;/ Those banners come not in.” Their final exclamation—“Stand we on guard oath-bound!”—echoes an assertion Yeats liked to quote from his favorite Anglo-Irish hero. Defending the merits of the Ancients against the Moderns, Jonathan Swift pronounced himself a man “appointed to guard a position.” “The Black Tower” has its own merits, but we are right to regret its place of honor as Yeats’s very last poem.
  28. “Can you give me a message for India?” Professor Bose asked Yeats at the end of their 1936 interview. Insisting on “the antinomy,” Yeats’s “message” was war. “He strode swiftly across the room, took up Sato’s sword, unsheathed it dramatically and shouted, ‘Conflict, more conflict’.” (Quoted in Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats [1943], 491). There may also be a hint of melodrama in the more important question Yeats asked himself: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” No, according to the irreverent Paul Muldoon, who has W. H Auden respond (in the “Wystan” section of Muldoon’s long, many-voiced poem, “7, Middagh Street”): “‘Certainly not.//If Yeats had saved his pencil-lead/ would certain men have stayed in bed?’” Muldoon’s point, appropriately placed in the mouth of Auden (who had declared in his elegy for Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen”), is that history is the “twisted root,” and poetry, “art,” its “small, translucent fruit//and never the other way round.” On balance, I think Yeats’s question is sincere.
  29. Coleridge’s language here (uncertain whether “I suffered or I did,” with all seeming “remorse or woe”) was earlier echoed and altered in the “Dialogue,” where Self “cast[s] out remorse” regarding “the folly that man does/ Or must suffer, if he woos” a woman like Maud Gonne.
  30. The repeated “or” seems to me to echo not only Coleridge’s “whether I suffered or I did,” “remorse or woe,” but, more importantly, as in “Lapis Lazuli,” the repetition in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In all three cases, the description is of things not seen, but vividly imagined.
  31. Virgil, Aeneid I.462. Wordsworth, final lines of “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of early Childhood.”
  32. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. III.3.The young editor of The Erasmian who phoned Yeats for a submission and first printed “What Then?” was A. Norman Jeffares, who went on to become a biographer of Yeats and a pioneering scholar of his work. Essays in his memory have recently been published in a special issue (#18) of the Yeats Annual. J. M. Kennedy, the first translator of Nietzsche’s Die Morgenröte (Dawn or Daybreak), also translated, in the same year (1913), the Satakas (or Wise Sayings) of the Hindu hermit-poet, Bhartrahari, whose Vairagasataka §71 I paraphrased in glossing tatah kim.
  33. Mann’s remark was quoted in Archibald MacLeish’s spring 1938 Yale Review article, “Public Speech and Private Speech in Poetry.” Yeats was pleased by the article’s praise of his work. In a letter to Dorothy Wellesley (DWL, 163), he revealed the immediate stimulus of his poem: MacLeish’s remark that because of his “age” and relation to Ireland, Yeats was unable to use this “public” language on what was “obviously considered the right public material, politics.”
  34. Roman, Russian, Spanish: did German politics, even responding to Thomas Mann, a prominent opponent of Nazism, play no part in Yeats’s thoughts in 1938 about impending war? In lines intended for “Under Ben Bulben” he presented a different triad, wondering about “the odds if war must come/ From Moscow, from Berlin, or Rome?” Having declined to nominate for the Nobel in Literature an anti-Nazi German writer, Yeats explained to Ethel Mannin (in an April 1936 letter) why, despite her urging, the prize should not be politicized. He cited “The Second Coming,” a 1919 poem that “foretold what is happening” in 1936, as evidence that “he has not been silent,” and that he is not now “callous”; that “every nerve trembles with horror at what is happening in Europe, ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’.”
  35. A suggestion advanced and retracted by Warwick Gould, in his appendix to Yeats’s Poems, edited and annotated by A. Norman Jeffares (1989). In Appendix Six, 749n76, Gould finds the suggestion “tempting,” but suspects it may be “too neat to accord with Yeats’s last days.” Perhaps; but, as evidenced by the rondural design of The Winding Stair and the concentric structure of “A Woman Young and Old,” Yeats was fascinated by such circularity.
  36. As just noted (n.31), “Politics” was the poet’s direct response, as he reported to Dorothy Wellesley, to MacLeish’s reference to Yeats’s “age” and the question of “politics.” He also told her that the poem’s subject matter—the distraction from discussion of potential war caused by “that girl standing there”—was “not a real incident, but a moment of meditation.” Who better to meditate on than “that one.”
  37. The Concordance reveals that Yeats used “all” twice as often as its nearest competitor, “old.” There are some double-“alls,” almost all Maud-related. “Never Give all the Heart” (1905) ends: “He that made this knows all the cost,/ For he gave all his heart and lost.” A decade later, in “Broken Dreams,” he is certain that “in the grave all, all shall be renewed,” and that he “shall see” Maud again in her “first loveliness.” In “The Cold Heaven” (1912), he assumes all the guilt for love’s failure, then instantly takes it back: “And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason.” In a forthcoming essay on ‘The Cold Heaven,” Denis Donoghue refers to this line as “the line I most dislike in Yeats’s poems.” He adds that “its only competitor for me in that regard is the line in ‘The Tower’ about Mrs. French, ‘Gifted with so fine an ear.” I seldom disagree with Denis Donoghue on Yeats, but I can think of lines more bombastic than “And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,” and I have to confess that I actually like the black humor of the line on Mrs. French, especially the outrageous pun on “gifted.” Donoghue’s essay, “Reading ‘The Cold Heaven’,” will appear in Yeats 150, a volume of essays (including one of my own) compiled by Declan Foley to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth.
Jun 052015
 

New Mexico landscape

Pants

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THE CAR IS SILENT until we’ve left Saranac Lake and are headed towards Tupper, and then the road begins to wind and curve, to climb and descend, and we’re thrust into deep, swampy Adirondack forest. It’s a freezing day in January, and Pants, the cat, begins to fidget. She growls, a low, guttural sound that matches the car’s grumbling engine. I sing to her, and her tail swats at the mesh walls of her carrier. Finally, she turns away from me to face the passenger-side door. Through the mesh, I can see that her ears are pricked.

Pants, I say, and she yowls.

My father recommended this curving route through Blue Mountain Lake and Indian Lake, towns built on the shores of those bodies of water, white buildings with red roofs, Adirondack mountains in backyards. Those are the last of the High Peaks, my father had said, and then there’s nothing til you hit the Rockies.

I am bound for New Mexico: I have two friends there and a teaching job. My father thinks New Mexico is the least American of all of the states, and from the moment I told him about the job offer in Santa Fe, he rooted for it. He proposed to my mother at Taos, on a day when it was snowing. I don’t know much about my father’s cross-country trips, just that he took them periodically through and after college, crashing in cheap hotels and in tents and checking the maps for the routes with the most mountains. Once, as we were driving under a bridge on the Colorado interstate, my father said, I slept here once.

There are trees still around us, but soon there will be none; that’s when I’ll have to start trusting him.

Soon, I say to Pants, we won’t recognize this country at all.

McCahill3

We spend our first night in Rochester, which is farther west than I’ve ever driven from home. In the morning it feels so strange to get in the car for a second day and go farther. The landscape flattens, the spaces between houses lengthens, the road empties. We reach the Great Lakes and there is water to the right, to the north, long stretches of it that reveal themselves through breaks in the lines of trees. There’s nothing between the Adirondacks and New Mexico, my father had said, but he hadn’t mentioned that there’d be these. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes until now; we drive alongside water for miles and miles, wind whipping across the road and smacking the car.

Through Pennsylvania we drive; we sleep in Illinois. We sleep in Missouri. By Oklahoma, I’m starting to worry, for how blank and brown the landscape is, and how windswept Tulsa. Is this how New Mexico will be?

When I cross the border, though, I know I needn’t have worried. Everything instantly changes color. The wind stops its howling, blocked by the distant ranges. The land is red and green and brown and gold and studded with dark green shrubs. All that lines the road are occasional wire fences, occasional grazing cows, and the beautiful, sprawling land. The shift from northern Texas into New Mexico is miraculous.

Look, I say to Pants, but she’s gone to sleep.

The sun warms the car and we drive west, farther and farther from our old home and closer and closer to our new one. In the distance, I see snow on peaks. I’ve never driven this empty road before, but somehow, it feels familiar.

road to nm

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Desert Nights

In Santa Fe, they call the speed bumps, ‘speed humps.’ I hear equal parts Spanish and English in the grocery store, at the gas station, in the library. The terra cotta walls of the homes match the color of the earth, and the riverbed that runs alongside our street has formed itself of clay, of wind-blown sage, of crumbling stones and of the mountains that rise up in the distance. My roommate’s dog gets prickers in her paws and limps; a man stops us to tell me that they’re called goat-heads, those thorns.

You aren’t from here, are you? he says, when I ask him a second time what the prickers are called. We talk for ten minutes; the rain begins. He seems not to notice. I learn that the rain is rare but these types of conversations are not; in the shops, at the school, on the street, people talk. People slow down and wave me across the street; people smile.

Meanwhile, the rain gusts and wanes and then turns to snow. The air smells of piñon and smoke. People decorate their yards not with grass and flowers but with gray and white stones, with antlers bleached silver and with driftwood worn smooth. I hike in the woods; I peer into the windows of shops, decorated with chili-pepper lights, and glance at the paintings inside.

Winter

Just before darkness falls here, the sky turns violet, and in the early hours of morning the mountains glow pink. I wake in the night and look out my window; the sky is brittle, the moon a round and shimmering orb, the stars icy dots far above us. Pants purrs from the window, making peeping sounds at the tiny, hopping birds I cannot see.

Here we are, three thousand miles and six days from home. And so it begins, our new life: we’ve traded water for sky and tall trees for grass.

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Dark Rooms

It’s hot in the classroom on the first day of my teaching job. Every seat is taken. I unpack my things, write my name on the board, announce that this is English 109, and I am the adjunct instructor. My new students suggest Red or Green? as a get-to-know-you question, and I’m the only one who doesn’t know what that means.

Be careful, they warn me when they learn I’ve come from the east coast. Start with green.

For their first essay, my students must write about a challenge they’ve overcome. From that very first set of papers, I learn that some of my students go home after class to hoards of children, who clamor over them. One has a mother who is silent all the time, and one has a father who hates fat people. One has an uncle who takes her into a dark room from time to time and closes the door. One has a father who burns her writing; one has a memory of a bad-smelling room, a winter afternoon, the first time he said good-bye.

sf nm

One woman writes that she can still remember being locked in a closet as a child with a bucket and a dish of water on the floor. One man, who can’t be more than 22, has been to jail already twice. He has two daughters and a wife, and he teaches me what the word recidivism means.

When they read their stories aloud, their voices sometimes tremble. Sometimes people weep. We close the classroom door but take inside with us our families, our lovers, our road trips, our childhoods crumpled by domineering mothers, by a life without a father, by a sideways glance that almost killed us and by the gleam of a bottle, half-full. We remember hard times, but there is much beauty as well. Sometimes, words pour over us and bring us somewhere else, far from this room, this desert college, this date and time.

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Arroyos

In New Mexico, Pants discovers the outdoors. A Boston cat before, she now routinely squirts out the screen door before I have time to stop her. She darts to the smooth cement patio and rolls there with urgency; her tail thickens and the strip of fur along her back raises to a ridge. I can hear her purring throatily as she jumps the stone fence, skitters up the cedar tree, races down the stairs to the cellar door. She sniffs everything: the air, the trees, the stones, and I chase her out of the yard and into the desert, up and down the rolling hills and along the sandy arroyo.

Pants2

While I’m out, I sometimes imagine Pants lying pressed against the window, a screen the only barrier between her and a world she is dying to learn. I imagine her slipping out and my chasing her, farther and farther each time until eventually I chase her right out of sight. Is letting her leave a sign of love? Must I trust that she’ll return, and that between the trees and on the dirt is where she most wants to go?
I go over to pet her. We’ll have to find out a better system, I tell her, and she gazes out at the birds on the stone fence, then up at me.

It’s only a matter of time, her green eyes say, and I wonder where she sends herself when her eyes are closed. Are her dreams a river of scents and gusts of wind?

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American Roads

I learned to drive in Boston, sharp turns and quick blinkers and the pedal constantly pressed against the metal. In New Mexico, I learn that yes, some people actually are out on leisurely Sunday drives, despite it not necessarily being Sunday. People drive slowly, and they don’t use their signals. It’s not unusual to share the road with a trucker, an immigrant boy in his grandfather’s ancient Ford, a tractor going thirty miles under the speed limit, a couple of horses galloping alongside the road. A pickup pulling a trailer, a horse’s head sticking out the window, its main fluttering in the breeze.

another road

The oldest cars you’ll see in America can be found here in New Mexico, because our environment is just right for them—no salt, hardly any rain, and no moisture. Dry. High. Only the sun can hurt your car, peeling the paint over the course of months and years, bleaching your roof and hood bright white. Gas is the cheapest in the nation, I am told.

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Windows

Winter rolls into spring, and the sky is a seamless blue. The air grows warm but never muggy, and even in the nighttime everything smells of baked pine. Stars fill up the sky. I walk down empty roads. At nighttime, coyotes come eerily close, their cries like human wails, frightening and familiar both. Pants watches them in the darkness; out my apartment windows, there’s always someone to watch. Birds live in a nest in the rafters, and beetles creep over the brick floor.

Backyard

The seasons pass, and I feel my world broaden a little more each day—a new friend, a new trail to ski, a new view of distant Albuquerque. A new town, nestled in the hills, where the residents paint their houses teal and salmon and sell expensive turquoise and painted bones.

At the community college, I learn to start my lessons late. Only half the class is ever there when I arrive, and missing ten or a dozen students, I discover, is normal. This is the New Mexico way, I quickly realize. You ease into things here.

And so I start my lessons at ten minutes to nine. Students trickle in, people arriving as late as ten o’clock, and not even sheepish. They are a laid back group—sometimes too laid back when it comes to staying awake in class, turning in essays on time, avoiding words like u and thru and nowofdays. Trying not to write dessert when what they’re really describing is the desert in which they live. People look out the windows a lot; I learn not to scold but to ignore.

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Fires

The semester ends, and the campus empties. The smell of fires from the Jemez Mountains thickens the air. Fire season, people say to each other in the grocery store, shrugging their shoulders, peering out the windows. The smoke smells sweet and strange.

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Open Doors

On the fourth of July, I wake up and the door is open and Pants is gone. She never goes out at night; the coyotes are rampant, now that we’re in a drought. There’s no food, no water, and so they come scavenging in our yards.

I run out into the darkness, barefoot, not even feeling the goat-heads. I am shivering; my heart is pounding. She doesn’t come, and she doesn’t come. For an hour I stumble, calling her name. In the morning, she still doesn’t come. I walk weeping through the neighborhood, pasting up signs and knocking on the doors of complete strangers, who are kind and take my number and give me a drink of water. They tell me they’ll call if they see anything, and no one is cruel enough to mention the brazen coyotes that sing every night.

Months pass, and still I don’t give up hope. I wait for someone to find her in a garage. I walk the neighborhood, softly calling her name. Only when winter comes do I finally stop looking; when the first snow of the season falls, I go outside and kneel in the brown grass and close my eyes. There is no stone for her, nothing to bury that she left behind. I pray that she’s found her place between the trees and coyotes, the hawks, the velvet nights, the sun and moon. I listen hard, but only the wind comes.

A hundred times I will think of the open door, the wind and the darkness beyond, the chattering night and the sliver of moon. I’ll imagine cooling jewels of fireworks. I will think again and again of that night, when something wild came and took her away.

door

American Roads

Where I live, the days are long and clay-colored. By March, waves of heat blow in through the windows. Spring Break comes and goes, and my students start to fidget. People wear flip flops to school. Young women bare their bellies and guys their muscled arms, wound in tattoos. Trees begin to bud. We taste summer early here.

Now, I live on the plains with a long-haired man; we find pot shards in the garden every year. The mesa in the distance is long and red. There are trailers out here and old burial mounds, tiny adobe churches with bells mounted to the roofs. A peacock screams in the morning, and at dusk, coyotes come.

mesa

I have another cat, calico like Pants was, but this one came with a nipped ear and a strong desire never to go outside. She skitters away from open doors, content to purr and blink and flick her tail at the window. She also came with a name: Mora, after a northern New Mexico town. Pants is dust and sage now, dust and sage and piñon and wind.

The desert has taught me to pray for rain. I search the sky for clouds, and when the drops finally fall, I can smell water before it hits the ground. The scent creeps in through adobe walls. I can hear it on the roof. I stop what I am doing and listen and breathe, because I have learned what it means to wait for water.

This desert is at turns bitter and wild, sweet and enchanted. Tonight, the sky is the color of a cactus bloom. My father doesn’t blame me for never wanting to leave: he comes to visit; we ski at Taos; we hike in the canyons. He sees what this place has done to me: I am a teacher now, and in the summers I am a writer and a farmer. Money matters to me less than it did before. Pot shards line the windowsill, and the cat eats cobwebs on the stairs.

Flowers

Kate McCahill

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Kateportrait

Kate McCahill’s essays have been featured in Best Women’s Travel Writing and Best Travel Writing (Travelers’ Tales), The Lowestoft Chronicle, Wellesley Magazine, Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Born in Lake Placid, New York, McCahill now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is a member of the English faculty at the Santa Fe Community College. Read more at www.katemccahill.com.

Jun 042015
 

NicoleChuNicole Chu

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Ray Bradbury reminds us that the plot of a story is contingent upon characters chasing after their desires. “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations,” he says in Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. “It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic” (152). What makes the difference, then, between a mechanical plot and a dynamic one? Bradbury suggests that characters will write your story for you if you simply get out of the way and let them go. But I know my characters’ footprints reveal more than just a direct trail to their desires – by charting the plot steps of any story, I can discover what makes a plot dynamic.

I begin by looking up the definition of plot in J.A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory:

The plan, design, scheme or pattern of events in a play, poem or work of fiction; and, further, the organization of incident and character in such a way as to induce curiosity and suspense in the spectator or reader. In the space/continuum of plot the continual question operates in three senses: Why did that happen? Why is this happening? What is going to happen next – and why? (To which may be added: And – is anything going to happen?)

Cuddon defines plot as a pattern of events organized to arouse curiosity and suspense for the reader. He implies that the organization of incident and character must continually incite the reader’s interest; we are not just wondering what’s going to happen next, but we’re left wondering why these particular events are important to the characters and the story. He mentions E.M. Forester’s example of plot versus story to highlight the emphasis on causality: “‘The king died and the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot’” (Cuddon 676). Plot is not just the ordering of events but the ordering should be accompanied by the cause or motive of why an event occurs.

Cuddon’s definition also includes Aristotle’s ideas on plot. In Poetics, Aristotle sees plot as ‘the first principle’ and ‘soul of tragedy’ (Cuddon 676). Aristotle calls plot ‘an imitation of the action,’ as well as the arrangements of the incidents (I learned from Stuart Spencer’s The Playwright’s Guidebook that ‘imitation of action’ is not a physical action but rather “an internal, psychological need.” In other words, we can discuss plot in terms of a character’s need or desire and the related incidents that occur). Aristotle requires the plot to be ‘whole’ (to have a beginning, middle, and end), and he also distinguishes between simple and complex plots: the complex has a crisis action that involves recognition and/or reversal, and the simple has neither (Cuddon 676). Aristotle’s ideal plot, therefore, ends with a moment of revelation to the protagonist that coincides with the protagonist’s sudden change of fortune.

aristotleAristotle

Douglas Glover further explains how dramatic narrative can be developed after the initial desire and resistance have been established. In Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing, he states: “A character first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats, reels back, makes compromises with necessity, concedes a position out of politeness, ponders his own reactions, realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior” (Glover 26). Put simply, the short story form consists of a character going after something, being blocked from getting it, and changing his behavior to get it another way, and this sequence is repeated over and over. Glover emphasizes that this pattern of conflict must occur such that the opposing forces (A and B) “get together again and again and again” (three being the critical number or minimum). He notes that in the repetition of these poles conflicting, writers are “forced to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way and you are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships” (Glover 27). Glover argues form opens up more possibilities in that writers must create new material related to the same conflict.

In the following discussion on plot, I focus on the repetition or pattern of conflict. In three example short stories, I trace the pattern of character desire and resistance within a story. I am interested in how increasing pressures force characters to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict.” After I identify the pattern of conflict, I see how each story’s sequence of plot events build to a climax and forces characters to “go deeper” and eventually change significantly.

Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point” is about 13-year-old Kurt Pittman who, at his mother’s request, agrees to escort his mother’s friend, Mrs. Gurney, back to her home. Kurt is used to chaperoning drunk locals home, but he quickly realizes that Mrs. Gurney will be difficult. Before they can get across the playfield, she falls on her ass twice and begins to sift through the sand. Kurt finally gets her onto the boardwalk and, despite her protests, dumps her on a wagon to pull her. When he takes a break to breathe, she disappears further down the boardwalk, takes off her nylons, and runs towards the sea. When Kurt repeatedly tries to redirect them to get her home, Mrs. Gurney vomits over herself, babbles on about her age and beauty, threatens to commit suicide, and finally comes onto him by undressing herself, throwing both her blouse and bra into the wind. Kurt at first refuses to look, but he ends up looking at her aging body and expressionless eyes. She presses against him, and he must decide whether to take advantage of the situation or take her home. He decides to bring Mrs. Gurney to her house and tucks her into bed. When Kurt returns home, he can’t sleep and decides to read an old letter written by his father, a Vietnam veteran who has committed suicide. In the letter, the father describes being a medic during the Vietnam War, trying to save the wounded, including a 19-year-old soldier who eventually dies from an explosion. Kurt walks out to the playground, sits in a swing and recalls finding his own father’s body with a bullet wound in the head.

the point

“The Point” is approximately 7,700 words and is told in first-person from Kurt’s point of view. D’Ambrosio breaks up the story into five sections, using line breaks. The major conflict steps between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney (opposing forces A and B) take place in the second, third, and fourth sections. By major conflict, I mean the structure of desire and resistance: Kurt’s desire to bring Mrs. Gurney home and Mrs. Gurney’s resistance to this desire. The first four sections are chronological, moving forward from the party to Mrs. Gurney’s house in about an hour. D’Ambrosio ends the last section with a scene outside of the main plot, a scene that shows Kurt reading his father’s letter and remembering his father’s suicide (thus it is backfill, not plot).

The conflict really begins at the opening of section two when Kurt attempts to walk Mrs. Gurney across the playing field, and Mrs. Gurney plops herself down in the sand, “nesting there as if she were going to lay an egg” (7). She takes off her sandals and tosses them behind her, which prompts Kurt to fetch them. This is Mrs. Gurney’s first action to derail Kurt from his goal. He responds by reiterating his goal (the plot desire): “The problem now is how to get you home.” As if Kurt’s goal isn’t already clear, he thinks to himself, “I’ve found that if you stray too far from the simple goal of getting home and going to sleep you let yourself in for a lot of unnecessary hell.” They start walking again and take “baby steps” across the playing field before Mrs. Gurney falls back “on her ass into the sand” again – another hitch that prevents Kurt from reaching his goal (10).

Once on the boardwalk, Kurt decides to bring Mrs. Gurney home another way: drag the drunkard in a wooden wagon. Despite Mrs. Gurney’s protesting, he somehow gets her into the wagon and starts pulling. When Kurt pauses for a break, he finds “Mrs. Gurney was gone” (11). She slips down the boardwalk, farther from her home, and tries to engage him in drunk talk about Mr. Crutchfield, another local who died earlier that summer. This is Mrs. Gurney’s second major resistance against Kurt’s attempt to bring her home; she no longer sits in the sand but makes it more difficult for Kurt by fleeing the scene.

In section three, Kurt repeats his desire to get Mrs. Gurney home four different times in the span of four pages. The first time is after she pulls her nylons off and he runs and fetches them. He says, “We’re not too far now, Mrs. Gurney. We’ll have you home in no time” (14). She then vomits between her legs, he consoles her with a cigarette, and he again repeats, “We just have to get you home” (15). When she asks him to guess her age, he reminds her, “You’re going home, Mrs. Gurney. Hang tough” (16). When she continues with her drunk talk of how bad life can get, he says, “We need to get you home, Mrs. Gurney … that’s my only concern” (17). In Mrs. Gurney’s four separate attempts to derail Kurt from his goal, he responds with four clear affirmations of his desire.

In section four, Mrs. Gurney poses the most resistance by trying to seduce Kurt. At the beginning of the section, Mrs. Gurney lies down in the sand and takes off her blouse and bra. Kurt looks away and tells her they should go. When she tries to get him to sit, he thinks: “I’d let us stray from the goal and now it was nowhere in sight. I had to steer this thing back on course, or we’d end up talking about God” (19). He says to Mrs. Gurney, “This isn’t good. We’re going home,” once again repeating his goal (for the sixth time, not counting the times he thinks it). He also mentions he can see the house, observes it’s only “one hundred yards away,” and that they’re “so close now” (19-20). Mrs. Gurney, however, tries to engage him in conversation again by offering her house to him after she dies, threatening she’ll kill herself, and babbling about how she met her husband – all her ways of resisting going home.

When none of Mrs. Gurney’s attempts seem to faze Kurt, she tries to seduce him. Mrs. Gurney steps closer and leans in – he resists by saying, “Mrs. Gurney, let’s go home now” (his seventh time). He looks into her “glassy and dark and expressionless” eyes, and he then feels her hand brush the “front of his trunks” (23). He wonders whether he should go “fuck around” and “get away with it.” In the climactic moment, he chooses to resist Mrs. Gurney and hands her his t-shirt to cover up. They move away from the shore and cross the boardwalk to Mrs. Gurney’s home. The plot ends when Kurt leads Mrs. Gurney by the elbow into her house.

Kurt comments at the beginning of his journey that “everything … had a shadow and this deepened the world, made it seem thicker, with layers, and more layers and then a darkness into which I couldn’t see” (9). I had a similar experience of seeing layers and more layers of this story after I separated the plot from the rest of the story. The repetition of the same desire and resistance makes up the main conflict: Kurt wants to take Mrs. Gurney home, but she does not want to go home. Kurt repeating his simple desire versus Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance drives the story forward – there’s nothing unclear about what he wants (since he says it seven times). The protagonist doesn’t hint at or suggest his desire –Kurt uses the phrase “I want…” to make the reader aware of his concrete desire.

Glover states that the repetition of the same desire and resistance forces writers “to vary the conflicts in a dramatic and interesting way … [writers] are forced to go deeper into the moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and the relationships.” Kurt’s desire to take Mrs. Gurney home may seem humdrum or routine at first – he doesn’t have any stake in his relationship with Mrs. Gurney since he’s just doing his job. The tension rises with Mrs. Gurney’s increasing resistance: she first falls over, then wanders away, then takes off her nylons, and starts to babble nonsense. But her dialogue in the third section begins to take on an ominous tone: a threat to kill herself is more loaded than her previous statement of how bad life can get. Notice how the tension increases in the following dialogue right before the climax:

“I’m thirsty,” Mrs. Gurney said. “I’m so homesick.”

“We’re close now,” I said.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “You don’t know what I mean.”

“Maybe not,” I said. “Please put your shirt on, Mrs. Gurney.”

“I’ll kill myself, “Mrs. Gurney said. “I’ll go home and kill myself.”

“That won’t get you anywhere … You’d be dead … then you’d be forgotten.”

“My boys wouldn’t forget” (21).

This dialogue serves two functions: 1) The back-and-forth between opposing forces A and B creates the suspense that plot should incite (according to Cuddon’s definition), and 2) The content of the dialogue foreshadows Kurt’s flashback at the end of the story since Kurt did not have any forewarning of his father’s suicide, and he could never forget the bloody and emotional mess.

These previous plot steps build to the climactic moment in which D’Ambrosio must escalate Mrs. Gurney’s resistance dramatically: the drunk woman takes off her bra and tries to seduce Kurt. Her actions force Kurt to “go deeper” into himself and reveal what Glover calls the “moral and spiritual complications of the conflict and relationship”– on the surface, Kurt must decide whether to stick to his goal of getting Mrs. Gurney home or give in to her seduction. On a deeper level, the adolescent questions his beliefs by asking himself, “What is out there that indicates the right way?” (23). In a later flashback, Kurt mentions he misses “having [his father] around to tell [him] what’s right and what’s wrong, or talk about boom-boom, which is sex … and not worry about things” (31). Kurt finally expresses his emotional need for his father after the plot ends, but the main plot between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney allows us to see how his internal conflict plays out in their actions.

The main conflict between Kurt and Mrs. Gurney only takes up three of five sections. D’Ambrosio could have ended the story after section four when Kurt gets Mrs. Gurney home, but the author ends with the backstory of Kurt’s father – specifically, the ending focuses on the father’s mission as a medic during the Vietnam War and his suicide. The father’s story ties in with Kurt’s story because they both have a “mission” to carry out: the father helped the wounded in Vietnam, and Kurt helps the drunk (and wounded) in his hometown. Kurt considers himself a “hard-core veteran” ever since his father assigned him the job when he was 10 years old (5). Both Kurt and his father mention the “job” and what happens when you “lose sight” of the job or “stray too much from the goal” (28). D’Ambrosio includes the backstory of Kurt’s father to resonate with the main plot structure: Kurt’s “mission” to escort Mrs. Gurney home.

By extracting the plot from the rest of the story, I notice what is left on the page: the subplot of Mr. Crutchfield’s death, the root image of the black hole that splinters into white image patterns, Kurt’s internal monologue expressing thematic motifs, and the backstory of Kurt’s father’s suicide. I mention these non-plot devices to point out that if I hadn’t previously traced the plot beforehand, I would have naïvely assumed that the father’s story or Kurt’s flashback to his father’s suicide were all part of the main plot instead of devices that enhance the plot. In many stories, ancillary devices can echo the structure of the main plot, which, in this story, deepen the meaning of the protagonist’s desire to get his job done. “The Point” portrays character desire and resistance mostly through dialogue and action, but the next story shows how another writer captures the main plot in internal monologue.

In “Under the Surface” by Slovene writer Mojca Kumerdej, the narrator is a woman who desires to be alone with her lover and have him all to herself. When she sees an attractive woman flirting with him, she gets pregnant in hopes to keep him forever. She gives birth to a daughter, but the new daughter seems to steal her lover’s attention. The little girl interrupts their Sunday mornings in bed, and on the narrator’s birthday, they celebrate as a whole family – not romantically and privately. One day on vacation, the narrator goes to up to the house while her lover and daughter remain by the shore. She watches her lover napping in the sun while the daughter gets dragged out into the ocean. She lets her daughter drown, drinks brandy, and falls asleep on the bed. Her friend wakes her up and tells her the news. The narrator reflects that she may have let her daughter die, but the narrator now has her lover all to herself.

The story is 3,000 words and is written as an interior monologue mixed in with dramatic monologue. A retrospective narrator reveals to the reader her secret that she withholds from her lover, but Kumerdej uses the second person “you” to direct the monologue at the narrator’s lover. This story covers the span of more than eight years (pre-baby years, five years with child, and three years after the child’s death). Kumerdej also uses a conventional circular structure to the story: the beginning of the story is also the end of the story that takes place three years after the narrator’s daughter drowned. The rest of the story is told chronologically and focuses on the narrator’s relationship with her lover and daughter.

The plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, is created from the narrator’s desire to be alone with her lover and the apparent threats that the narrator sees as a danger to her relationship. I say “apparent” threats because we only see the story from the narrator’s perspective (from an outsider’s perspective, she needs professional help to separate her delusions from reality). The pattern of conflict plays out in the following steps: 1) the narrator has a baby to gain her lover’s attention, but the little girl cries and steals the spotlight, 2) the narrator wants to sleep in with her lover on Sunday mornings, but the little girl physically gets in the bed, 3) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover on her birthday, but the lover wants the whole family together, and 4) the narrator wants to be alone with her lover in the future so she lets her daughter drown.

The set-up of the conflict starts when the narrator sees another woman flirting with her lover by “calculatedly moving around [him] … and “licking her lower lip” (7). The narrator never thought to have a baby – what two people in a relationship who love each other usually do – until now. The real action starts in paragraph two when the narrator announces she “had to take action” and get pregnant (7).

But when the baby comes, the narrator notices that the child doesn’t solidify their love but instead comes between them. The narrator observes that the lover first kisses and plays with their child, leaving the narrator to “wait [her] turn” (8). Even at night when the narrator is woken up by the daughter’s “piercing screams,” the lover rarely gets up to spend time with the narrator. The narrator becomes so angry that she slaps the child, which in turn angers the lover. She considers her baby competition, which drives the couple further apart thus propelling the plot forward.

In the next plot step, the narrator describes again how the daughter intrudes on her alone time with her lover. On Sundays, which were usually reserved for sleeping in, the little girl would run into the room and jump on the bed to hug her father. The narrator thinks: “Our time was becoming more and more the little one’s time, she was the one giving rhythm to our mornings and nights. You didn’t want us, as I suggested once, to lock ourselves in” (10). When the narrator tries to regain alone time with her lover, the lover responds, “That isn’t good … she needs us.” This prompts the narrator to ask, “But what about us?” The narrator feels reproached by him and looks “towards the door in fear … wishing not to hear the tiny footsteps coming towards our bedroom” (10).

In a third plot step, on the occasion of the narrator’s birthday, the narrator suggests to her lover that she wants to celebrate her birthday differently, just “the two of us together” (11). She suggests that they drop the girl off with his parents, but the lover opposes the suggestion “both times.” The narrator assumes he prefers to be with the “whole family,” and he acts as if his parents would be insulted if they didn’t invite them. Each time the narrator tries to be alone with her lover, she feels her lover straying further away.

The last five pages of the nine page story focuses on how the narrator finally gets her lover all to herself: by letting her daughter drown in the ocean and allowing the lover to take the blame. She watches her daughter chase after an inflatable dolphin and get dragged out to sea. The narrator knows she could alert her lover by screaming, but at that moment she “saw a chance for things to be the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone …” (13). The plot ends when the daughter’s body is “sucked into the depths” (13). In this moment, the narrator achieves her goal at the expense of a dead daughter and a guilty conscience that she suppresses by taking showers.

Kumerdej-foto Joze SuhadolnikMojca Kumerdej

When I met Mojca Kumerdej in Slovenia this past summer, she mentioned that her readers – regardless of what country they’re from – want to argue about the mother’s actions in “Under the Surface.” Kumerdej said many readers attack the narrator because they think the narrator’s actions are highly unbelievable – “no mother would ever do that!” they claim. I would argue that the narrator’s obsessive desire partially explains her psychotic actions (or rather lack of action to save her daughter). A closer look at the plot, however, shows a carefully crafted sequence of events that makes the narrator’s actions seem justified in her own mind.

Unlike “The Point,” Kumerdej’s chosen point-of-view brings us into the mind of the narrator, in which we are only presented with her perspective. Plot is not entirely made up of scene as it is in “The Point” where D’Ambrosio uses dialogue and actions to express desire and resistance. Instead the narrator in “Under the Surface,” in a stream-of-consciousness-like confession, proves how far she will go to be alone with her lover. At first glance, the story appears to be a long rambling about the narrator’s undying devotion to her lover (she says she loves him five different times in the span of the story). But the story still includes a clear desire and resistance pattern; the narrator articulates immediate obstacles that become clear plot steps creating tension in the story. The baby arrives, cries and steals attention, grows up and physically and emotionally gets in the way of the narrator’s relationship with her lover. In these plot steps, Kumderdej builds to a crisis action that forces the narrator to commit the unthinkable. The only “logical” action in the narrator’s mind is to permanently get rid of her daughter – as soon as the narrator has the opportunity, she lets her child drown in order to have her lover all to herself.

The narrator’s internal monologue at critical points in the story adds even more tension to the main plot. Kumerdej creates a pattern in which every other paragraph leading to the climax ends with the narrator’s intense desire for her lover and the sacrifices she made:

When for the first time you put your hand on my stomach I knew I had you, and that’s when I decided to have you forever, wholly and completely, without intermediary, disturbing elements that could jeopardize our love (second paragraph).

But no woman in the world is capable of loving you as much as I do, no woman in this world would be capable of doing what I did … (fourth paragraph).

And precisely that is what I did for you, and once in my life took away what meant the most to me … (sixth paragraph).

These lines are not directly part of the main plot structure, but the narrator’s repeated thoughts emphasize her fixated desire. The narrator justifies killing her daughter as a form of her devotion and love. To clarify, the opposing forces aren’t the narrator and her daughter but rather the narrator’s desire to be with her lover (A) versus the narrator’s apparent threats in her mind preventing her from having her lover all to herself (B), which repeat in four distinct steps.

In the climactic scene of “The Point,” the plot steps lead up to a moment that forces Kurt to take action: he ultimately chooses to rebuff Mrs. Gurney’s romantic offering and takes her home. In “Under the Surface,” the plot steps lead to a climax in which the narrator chooses not to take action and leaves her daughter to drown: “I didn’t do anything – and by doing so did everything” (7). Similarly in both of these climactic scenes, each character wrestles internally, even if briefly; both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej include the characters’ internal thoughts that allow us to see how the pressure forces them to change (or not). Kumerdej writes: “At that moment, I saw a chance for things the way they used to be. Me and you, the two of us alone … I was watching the scene, and it seems to me I didn’t feel anything. No pain, no kind of fear, I was only watching what I thought as things happened” (13). Interestingly the narrator doesn’t “feel anything” in this moment but expresses her emotional transformation after the plot ends.

After the narrator has her lover to herself, Kumerdej includes five short paragraphs that reveal the narrator’s change of emotions. The narrator still desires her lover, but she’s also haunted by the image of her drowning daughter dragging her “into the depths.” The narrator feels isolated because her lover will never know the truth, and she wakes up in “terrifying pain” from guilt-ridden nightmares (14-15). Both D’Ambrosio and Kumerdej could have ended their stories when the plot ended, but they chose to include backstory and internal monologue that illustrate how their characters transform after the crisis action occurs. In one last story, we see again how the sequence of plot events builds to a climax that significantly changes the characters, especially in regards to their emotional and mental state.

Gabriel García Márquez’s “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” is a novella about fourteen-year-old Eréndira who survives her grandmother’s cruelty and, with the help of a young man, becomes free. The story begins in the grandmother’s ornate mansion where Eréndira exhaustedly completes her endless chores. When she falls asleep, the wind knocks over a candlestick she left burning and destroys the property and the grandmother’s possessions. The grandmother decides to prostitute the girl so she can pay off an impossible million-peso debt she has incurred by causing the fire. During her servitude, after countless encounters with men and paying customers, Eréndira meets a young man Ulises who falls in love with her. Among other adventures, a group of missionaries kidnaps Eréndira to protect her, but the grandmother pays an Indian boy to marry Eréndira and free her from the mission. Having fallen in love, Ulises disappears from the story for a while but inevitably returns to run away with Eréndira, but they don’t get far; the grandmother captures Eréndira and chains her to a bed to prevent a future escape. Eréndira entertains the thought of killing her grandmother with boiling hot water but has no confidence in her ability to kill her oppressor. Ulisses returns, and she begs him to murder her grandmother. After two failed attempts with rat poison and a bomb, Ulises slaughters the grandmother with a knife, and the old woman finally dies. Instead of turning to Ulises, Eréndira runs in the direction of the wind and is never heard from again.

The novella is approximately 16,200 words and is divided into seven sections with line breaks. Márquez uses a third-person omniscient narrator with the exception of a two-page transition to a first-person narrator who tells his personal account of seeing Eréndira and her grandmother with his own eyes. Unlike “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” we get to see, from a limited distance, the perspective of multiple characters. Márquez tells the story chronologically (Eréndira is 14 at the beginning and 20 by the end), and his use of the techniques of magic realism creates a fable-like quality. The story also carries the “wind of misfortune” motif that governs Eréndira’s actions– first it blows at Eréndira and causes the fire, then the wind brings along the missionaries and also incites her to run away, and, in the end, she runs into the wind and beyond it.

The main plot takes up only a small portion of the entire text and concentrates on Ulises’s and the grandmother’s conflict over Eréndira. Ulises falls in love with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from being with her. The following plot steps occur between Ulises (A) and the grandmother (B): 1) Ulises wants to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother denies him entry into the tent so he sneaks in and sleeps with the girl anyway, 2) Ulises falls in love and convinces Eréndira to run away, but the grandmother captures Eréndira and dog-chains her to a bed, and 3) Eréndira magically summons Ulises, and he attempts to rescue her by killing off the grandmother (third time’s the charm). With the grandmother dead, however, Ulises doesn’t end up with Eréndira since she runs into the wind and disappears forever.

Marquez portraitGabriel García Márquez

Márquez delays the main plot, the pattern of desire and resistance, until the third section of the story. The grandmother’s unrelenting abuse of Eréndira seems like a one-sided conflict until Ulises, the son of a Dutch farmer and Indian woman, poses a threat to the grandmother’s scheming. In the first plot step, Ulises lines up with the other soldiers to sleep with Eréndira, but the grandmother prevents him from seeing her: “No, son … you couldn’t go in for all the gold in the world. You bring bad luck” (298). He later sneaks into the tent and manages to sleep with Eréndira while the grandmother talks in her sleep. Eréndira loves Ulises “so much and so truthfully” – their connection solidifies the continuation of the main conflict. The two lovers are separated after this point since the missionaries kidnap Eréndira in order to protect her.

In the second plot step, Ulises’s mother notices he’s “lovesick,” and he sets off to trek across the desert and reunite with Eréndira. When Ulises finds Eréndira sleeping with her eyes open, he tries to convince her to run away by tempting her with his father’s homegrown diamonds, a pickup truck, and a pistol. He tells her, “We can take a trip around the world.” Eréndira says, “I can’t leave without [my] grandmother’s permission,” but that night her instinct for freedom leads her to flee with him (316). Their romance is short-lived; the grandmother initiates a car chase to get her granddaughter back. The grandmother then dog-chains Eréndira to the bed slat so the girl can no longer escape (325).

Ulises doesn’t reappear until six pages later when Eréndira calls out Ulises’s name “with all the strength of her inner voice.” This time, Ulises crosses the desert and instinctively (or magically) knows where to find her. While the grandmother sleeps, Ulises kisses Eréndira in the dark and they both hold “a hidden happiness that was more than ever like love” (329). After sobbing in her pillow, Eréndira asks him to kill her grandmother, and he says for her he’d “be capable of anything.” This reunion sets Ulises up to encounter the grandmother for a final time.

In the last major plot step, Ulises and the grandmother meet face to face, and he attempts to kill her on three separate occasions. First, Ulises lies to the grandmother and says he’s come to apologize on her birthday. The grandmother concedes and devours his cake that’s secretly baked with a pound of rat poison. Instead of dying, the old whale sings until midnight and “went to bed happy” (332). Next, Ulises tries to blow up the grandmother with a homemade bomb, and the woman was left with her wig singed and her nightshirt in tatters “but more alive than ever” (334). In Ulises’s last attempt, he grabs a knife and stabs the grandmother’s chest, her side, and a third time for good measure, but she doesn’t go quickly and yells, “Son of a bitch … I discovered too late that you have the face of a traitor angel.” Covered in the grandmother’s green blood from head to toe, Ulises manages to cut open her belly, avoids her lifeless arms, and gives “the vast fallen body a final thrust” (336). The plot ends when the grandmother finally dies, but Ulises doesn’t end up with his love since Eréndira runs into the wind never to be heard from again.

As I mentioned earlier, Glover states that plot is a repeating desire-resistance pattern between two poles A and B. Readers may at first confuse the grandmother’s abuse and sexual exploitation of her granddaughter as the main plot. It’s not. Márquez begins “Innocent Eréndira” with a lengthy dramatic set-up that isn’t part of the main plot structure: a meek, soft-boned girl cannot escape her grandmother’s horrible exploitation. In the narrative set-up, Márquez keeps our interest by pushing the limits of the grandmother’s brutality: she negotiates Eréndira’s virginity for 220 pesos, she orchestrates a bazaar – complete with musicians, a photographer, and a circus tent – to attract hundreds of solicitors, and not until Eréndira shrieks like a frightened animal and thinks she’s dying does the grandmother give her a break. Eréndira doesn’t fight back and consequently doesn’t pose a formidable resistance to her grandmother. Márquez can only sustain readers’ interest for so long (before they ask, “will anything else happen?”) and introduces Ulises in the third section as the real resistance to the grandmother.

Once Márquez establishes the two opposing forces in conflict, he increases the pressure and varies the conflict in an interesting way (he also interrupts the plot steps to reinforce the grandmother’s malevolent behavior and the granddaughter’s helplessness to escape). Notice that in the first two plot steps, Ulises tiptoes and sneaks behind the grandmother’s back in order to physically interact with Eréndira. In these scenes, Ulises doesn’t face any real confrontation with the grandmother other than their first brief encounter, but the old woman and her command over Eréndira still pose a threat. Márquez intensifies the pressure when Ulises comes into direct physical contact with the grandmother; the boy quickly fabricates a story in order to save himself and carry out the grandmother’s murder. This confrontation forces Ulises to take greater risks: he poisons her, fails, blows her up and fails again. Ulises’s actions follow Glover’s definition of plot when the character “first acts on one impulse and then the other, goes forward, retreats … realizes that he prefers disorderly love to antiseptic order and changes his behavior.” Only when Ulises notices Eréndira’s “fixed expression of absolute disdain, as if he [doesn’t] exist,” does he finally carry out the murder. In this climactic moment, Ulises has the choice to either kill the grandmother in order to win Eréndira’s love or he can retreat – he, of course, chooses “disorderly love” over “antiseptic order” and kills for love.

Just like “The Point” and “Under the Surface,” the plot ends with the crisis action, and the author includes the transformation of characters in the aftermath of the climax. In a final scene, Márquez describes Eréndira watching with “criminal impassivity” the final fight between Ulises and the grandmother. In fact, the girl embodies “criminal impassivity” throughout the entire story. Not until after the grandmother dies does Eréndira suddenly “acquire the maturity of a [20-year-old]” and escapes into the wind where “no voice in this world could stop her.” Eréndira’s bold action is the exact opposite of the once cowering, servile girl who couldn’t live on her own freewill. Ulises, on the other hand, suffers greatly after he kills the grandmother. The crisis action leaves him “lying face down … weeping from solitude and fear” since he has just lost the love of his life and is “drained from having killed a woman without anybody’s help” (337). Márquez deliberately arranges the plot steps to finally reveal the emotional and dramatic reversal and recognition that the characters experience.

Márquez’s novella reads like a fairytale because of his use of magic realism (not to mention the similar overtones to the Cinderella story-line: note the use of threes – three plot steps, three murder attempts, very much like a fairytale). In particular, Márquez utilizes magic realism to bring characters back together “again and again and again” in order to continue the main plot. For instance, when Ulises falls in love, every glass object he touches turns blue; Ulises then runs to find Eréndira and tempts her with his father’s magical oranges that contain “genuine diamonds.” Ulises also reunites with Eréndira for a third time when she summons him by calling out his name; in his plantation house, he hears her voice “so clearly” that he knows exactly where to find her. In a last example, Márquez uses magical realism to prolong, rather humorously, the conflict between Ulises and the grandmother. Instead of the grandmother dying after Ulises’s first (or second) murder attempt thereby ending the plot, the old woman lives on to croon her songs and babble in her sleep. Ulises even knifes her open and gets splattered with her green blood, but she’s not yet dead. Although Márquez seems to randomly pepper magical realism throughout the story, he strategically uses the technique to reunite characters and advance the plot. These moments defy our expectations and incite the very suspense and curiosities that plot should stimulate. Márquez’s story exemplifies how imaginative qualities, engaging characters, the combination of horror and humor, and a narrative set-up can coexist with the main plot structure so long as it sustains the reader’s interest.

The example stories I analyze may follow the same form or pattern, but the writers construct the plot in three distinct ways. In “The Point,” the plot is straightforward – Kurt and Mrs. Gurney battle it out until Kurt overcomes her resistance. The unreliable narrator in “Under the Surface” muddles the plot steps in her internal monologue, but she still articulates her desire and competition. In “Innocent Eréndira,” the plot is delayed for nearly a third of the story and yet still manages to mold into the same structure in the end. Plot, however, is not the same mechanical formula applied to every story – plot is a dynamic form that we identify as a pattern of desire and resistance between two opposing forces, but infinitely varied by each writer.

These stories were also originally written in different languages (English, Slovene, and Spanish, respectively), which suggests that in any culture (and time period), plot translates to the same pattern. Why do stories follow this particular pattern of desire and resistance? If plot is to “induce curiosity and suspense” in the reader, writers must invent new ways for characters to pursue their desires, charge through increasing resistance, and come out of a crisis action significantly transformed. No matter what the native language or nationality is of a reader, he or she will inherently invest in characters who chase after their desires, fail, get up and try again. We root for characters who, in our minds, allow us to imagine what it is like to step into their skin and travel to “incredible destinations.”

— Nicole Chu

Works Cited

Ambrosio, Charles. “The Point.” The Point and Other Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1995. Print.

Bradbury, Ray. Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. Santa Barbara: Joshua Odell Editions, 1994.

Cuddon, J. A., and Claire Preston. A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. 4th ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1998. Print.

García Márquez, Gabriel. “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother.” Collected Stories. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.

Glover, Douglas H.. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing. Emeryville, Ont.: Biblioasis, 2012. Print.

Kumerdej, Mojca, and Laura Turk. “Under the Surface.” Short Stories Collection:

Fragma. Berkeley, Calif: North Atlantic Books, 2008. 7-15. Print.

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Nicole Chu is about to receive her MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is originally from California and currently lives in New York City, where she teaches English Language Arts at a public school in the Upper West Side.

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May 122015
 

John Malcolm BrinninJohn Malcolm Brinnin 1916-1998

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.”

—Julie Larios

 

Imagine this scene in Florida’s Key West: the sun beats down on a white sand beach,  a hot breeze blows the palm fronds, and six middle-aged men sit around a table playing anagrams. They rearrange the letters of words to make new words; they argue about the rules; they yell a lot. If it sounds to you like these men should be Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza and their friends, I agree. But the group consists of composer Leonard Bernstein, journalist John Hersey, and poets John Ciardi, Richard Wilbur, James Merrill and John Malcolm Brinnin.

Anagrams A Favorite Pastime Among the Literati of Key West

Three or four times a week, depending on how many of them were in town, these men played anagrams and poker together in Key West. Ciardi was the most aggressive of the group and, according to his biographer, expected to win every game. Bernstein, according to the same account, insisted on his own rules. They were all successful and well-known artists – all, that is, but John Malcolm Brinnin, who was described by the literary critic Phyllis Rose this way: “Even some of us who saw a good deal of John Malcolm Brinnin in his later years forgot he was a poet….John was known to us, his friends, for the high drama of his eye glasses, massive horn affairs that were as much a product of his wit and conscious choice as his courtesy, his conversation, his skill at anagrams. A lot of poetic spirit went into his self-presentation.”

Of the several poets presented in the Undersung series here at Numero Cinq, there is not another one among them who could be said to have had his or her poetic reputation subsumed by self-presentation, and I think Rose chose the words of her reminiscence carefully. In it, she implies both affection for Brinnin and criticism of him – she enjoys his elegance and his contribution to the party atmosphere (“He dressed so well one always looked forward to his getup as part of the fun of a party….”) but chastises him for his “conscious choice” of style over substance. To subordinate your talent to self-presentation (though some people might call self-presentation an art in itself) is a puzzle. What Rose seems to be saying is that Brinnin was  – like a good formal poem – elegantly composed, but also  – like a bad poem – overfabricated.

Well, we don’t have to judge poets by their self-regard, nor by how well they dress. We can choose to judge them by the poems they wrote, and Brinnin’s work more than measures up. It’s true that the poems in his first book (The Garden is Political, 1942) were called “mannered” by one critic who was, most likely, eager for the diction of poetry in the 1940’s to to be looser and more modern. It’s true, also, that Brinnin’s work does not sound loose; his language is denser, more opaque than the broken lines of prose that became more and more popular as the 20th-century progressed. Not many authors survive the curse of being called old-fashioned. But whatever the reason for the mannerisms some critics accused him of, Brinnin’s poetry pleases me in the same way Shakespearean monologues and sonnets please me: they’re the product of someone with large things to say, someone using his or her intelligence to put pressure on the English language to be simultaneously truthful and beautiful.

La Creazione degli Animali

Here that old humpback Tintoretto tells
Of six day’s labor out of Genesis:
Swift from the bowstring of two little trees
Come swans, astonished basilisks and whales,
Amazed flamingos, moles and dragonflies,
to make their lifelong helpless marriages.
Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells
From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.
The patriarch in that vicinity
Of bottle seas and eggshell esplanades
Mutters his thunder like a cloud. And yet,
much smaller issues line the palm of God’s
charged hand: a dog laps water, a rabbit sits
grazing at the footprint of divinity.

From the largest moments of that poem (Heaven, Hell, Time, divinity) to the smallest (a dog lapping water, a rabbit at the feet of God) Brinnin offers up the “dumb wonder” a person feels in the face of such an ambiguous world, and in the presence of work produced by a master artist.  The poem follows some of the rules of a sonnet – fourteen lines, with a slight turn or refocus after the eighth line. But Brinnin is no stranger to adapting the rules to his own purpose – the rhymes assert themselves clearly but without establishing a conventional pattern (ABCA/DEAA/FGHG/HF.) The couplet which usually closes a conventional Elizabethan sonnet is buried mid-poem (“Time is a place at last; dumb wonder wells / From the cracked ribs of heaven’s gate and hell’s.”) The full rhyme of “vicinity” and “divinity” still chimes loudly despite being separated by four other rhymed lines – not an easy task.

Tintoretto - la creazione degli animaliTintoretto – la creazione degli animali

Brinnin published five books of poetry between 1942 and 1956 but his work was not embraced by a large audience. It’s true that Brinnin’s meanings are not easily grasped on first reading. Norman Rosten, who published the Communist review The New Masses, complimented Brinnin by calling him a “poet’s poet” (that kiss of death in terms of popularity) but explained his decision not to publish Brinnin’s work in the magazine by saying, “You, being a fastidious worker of images and rhythms, are not too easy to grasp. A compliment, really. But the revolution must go on – even with lousy poetry.” Rosten rightly said that “the question of ‘popular’ understanding is very important to a revolutionary magazine.”

So Brinnin was not a poet of the people; his poems are layered and dense and must be worked out slowly. I suspect hearing them aloud would untangle them more quickly than reading them on the page. In fact, when I read Brinnin, I often imagine someone reading his poems to me – someone like Ian McKellen or John Gielgud. Again, his work has a Shakespearean elegance. Being read aloud, the complications of syntax might settle down, while the musicality of them would shine. Brinnin’s sentences are long, which ups the level of difficulty; the verbs sometimes hide within the verbiage, so their narrative thrust – that is, their “sense” — is not immediately discernible. Brinnin’s words will never make their way onto a revolutionary’s placard, and clarity is not their goal. Take this example:

A River

A winkless river of the cloistered sort
Falls in its dark habit massively
Through fields where single cattle troll their bells
With long show of indifference, and through
The fetes champetres of trees so grimly bent
They might be gallows-girls betrayed by time
That held them once as gently as Watteau.

Electric in its falling, passing fair
Through towns touched up with gilt and whitewash, it
Chooses oddments of discard, songs and feathers
And the stuff of life that must keep secrets
Everlastingly: the red and ratlike curios
Of passion, knives and silks and embryos
All sailing somewhere for a little while.

The midnight drunkard pausing on the bridge
Is dumbstruck with a story in his eye
Shuttling like his memories, and must
Outface five tottering steeples to admit
That what he sees pass under him is not
Mere moonlit oil and pods of floating seed,
But altogether an astonishing swan.

The river, I mean, for all is riverine,
Goes slowly inward, as one would say of time,
So it goes, and thus proceed to gather in
The dishes of a picnic, or the bones
Of someone lost contesting with the nations,
Glad in the wisdom of his pity to serve
Though the river’s knowledge, whelming, overwhelms.

This isn’t subject/predicate/object territory; a sadistic high school English teacher could make her students suffer by requiring students to diagram the sentences of it. Each seven-line stanza is a single sentence, nouns often sit quite a way from the verbs they depend on, and lush dependent clauses make readers push to figure out exactly where the sentence goes. The effect of this poem is similar to a cubist painting; like Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” we see the movement before we quite understand the figure; we grasp the gestalt before we deconstruct the individual lines. From “fetes champetres” on, we know we’re in for some work. Questions pile up: In what way was the artist Watteau gentle? What does it mean to say that a river goes “slowly inward”? What does the river represent – to me, to other readers – and what did it represent to Brinnin himself? Who exactly, or inexactly, is “lost contesting with the nations”?

Answering or not answering these questions is a matter of personal preference; I’m comfortable being “riverine” and flowing past some of the difficulty, then following up later with a little research. Without much trouble I find images of Watteau’s paintings and realize that many of his people face away from us, just as “the stuff of life that must keep secrets.” I can ponder that for awhile, and isn’t pondering part of the pleasure of poetry? I read the best of Brinnin’s poems again and again, and I understand them better each time; I find new beauties each time. I’ve read the following poem several times and still have questions; to my mind, that’s a plus.

Rowing in Lincoln Park

You are, in 1925, my father;
Straw-hatted, prim, I am your only son;
Through zebra-light fanwise on the lagoon
Our rented boat slides on the lucent clam.

And we are wistful, having come to this
First tableau of ourselves: your eyes that look
Astonished on my nine bravado years,
My conscious heart that hears the oarlocks click

And swells with facts particular to you –
How France is pink, how noon is shadowless,
How bad unruly angels tumbled from
That ivory eminence, and how they burned.

And you are vaguely undermined and plan
Surprise of pennies, some directed gesture,
Being proud and inarticulate, your mind
Dramatic and unpoised, surprised with love.

In silences hermetical as this
The lean ancestral hand returns, the voice
Of unfulfillment with its bladelike touch
Warning our scattered breath to be resolved.

And sons and fathers in their mutual eyes,
Exchange (a moment huge and volatile)
the glance of paralytics, or the news
Of master-builders on the trespassed earth.

Now I am twenty-two and you are dead,
And late in Lincoln Park the rowers cross
Unfavored in their odysseys, the lake
Not dazzling nor wide, but dark and commonplace.

Brinnin was perhaps best known to his generation as “the man who brought Dylan Thomas to America.” As head of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center (now known as the 92nd St. Y) from 1949 to 1956, Brinnin founded a series of poetry readings that included some of the best known poets in America and Britain. He acted as Thomas’s “agent” in America, scheduling readings and arranging for places Thomas could stay. During the Welsh poet’s last cross-country tour in America, Thomas fell ill; despite efforts to fulfill his public obligations, he ended up being taken to a hospital in New York City where he died a few days later; Brinnin’s strange lack of response to the emergency (he didn’t come down to New York from nearby Connecticut until several days later, after the poet had died) stirred up quite a bit of controversy, especially when Thomas’s doctors assigned the cause of death to pneumonia and Brinnin claimed it was alcohol poisoning. The postmortem showed no signs of alcohol being involved in Thomas’s condition, and doctors insisted it had not been an alcoholic coma that Thomas was in but a severe bronchial condition; nevertheless, Brinnin’s assertions played into the myth of the Poet as Self-Destructive Madman, a myth quite popular at the time (and, possibly, still popular now.)

Even more controversy was caused by Brinnin’s publication of the book Dylan Thomas in America, in which he continued to propagate his assertions about the poet’s death and to paint the poet – not completely undeservedly – as a boozer and a womanizer, out of control, in a self-destructive spiral, and functioning without a strong sense of duty to his professional, collegial or marital relationships. Thomas’s family considered Brinnin persona non grata for failing to attend to the poet’s needs while in America and for spreading gossip about him. One reviewer of the biography had this to say about it: “A fascinating read, even if you are not interested in DT. On the surface, a story of wretched excess and inevitable self-destruction, but even in this entirely one-sided account one senses an anxious, self- serving agenda. It was keenly interesting to later read the accounts of Thomas’ family, who regard Brinnin as an exploitative hanger-on who added character assassination to his almost criminal failure to help the dying poet.” Critics have considered the possibility that Brinnin’s indifference and inattention at that crucial time was due to Brinnin being in love with, but rejected by, Thomas. The fact that Brinnin kissed Thomas full on the lips in public on the occasion of one of Thomas’s departures from America might have contributed to that theory.

In spite of the controversy (or perhaps because of it), Dylan Thomas in America sold well, better than Brinnin’s poetry collections had. Brinnin resigned his position at the Poetry Center but continued to spend time with and write about other celebrities in the literary world, many of whom he had met there. He published books about Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and Truman Capote (a lifelong friend who, according to Brinnin, abandoned his talent and took on “the role of mascot to cafe society.”) Maybe Brinnin submerging himself in the world of other poets meant withdrawing from that world as a poet himself. As he once told an interviewer, ”I think I’m as well known as I deserve to be.”

In any case, he wrote less poetry after the controversy, publishing only one more collection twenty years later, and he focused on cultivating friendships, editing anthologies, and writing biographical pieces and accounts of travel on ocean liners (a passion of his – he crossed the Atlantic Ocean over sixty times.)  In some way, his role in Key West was that of the leader of a private literary salon, making sure he was a star in that firmament. His book Sextet is full of gossipy anecdotes about celebrities, including some his own friends or the friends of friends. T.S. Eliot, according to Eliot’s roommate, John Howard, was no slouch when it came to self-regard. Hayward told Brinnin “On the day Time magazine came out with his face on the cover, [Eliot] walked for hours looking for wherever he might find it, shamelessly taking peeks at himself.” Christopher Lehman, who reviewed Sextet for the New York Times, said, “…there’s something about these six easy pieces that makes a reader faintly uneasy in the author’s company – something that makes one feel slightly compromised by having to meet these people under Mr. Brinnin’s auspices.” And Brinnin could be vicious. In a review of one of William Meredith’s books of poetry, Brinnin kills three giants with one stone: “In poetic terms, Meredith takes us into a region recently charted by the knuckleboned asperities of Robert Lowell and by the vaudeville turns of conscience played out in the ‘Dream Songs’ of John Berryman.”

I’ve met enough poets and sat through enough lunches with them to know that their personalities are not always in sync with their poetry — affable and upbeat people can write pessimistic and mean-spirited poems; conversely, whiny and egotistical people can write poems that lift our spirits and fill us with wonder. For me, Brinnin the Gossip comes across at times witty, at other times narcissistic; Brinnin’s poetry, on the other hand, is humble and full of wonder. Without wonder (and its co-conspirator, curiosity) poetry cannot exist, and  I agree with Brinnin’s own take on the subject: “Unfortunately, a sense of wonder cannot be instilled, installed, or otherwise attained. Rather it is something like a musical sense — if not quite a matter of absolute pitch, a disposition, something in the genes as exempt from judgment as the incidence of brown eyes or blue.”

The Giant Turtle Grants an Interview

How old are you, Old Silence?
…..I tell time that it is.
And are you full of wonder?
…..Ephemeral verities.
What most do you long for?
…..No end to my retreat.
Have you affections, loves?
…..I savor what I eat.
Do shellbacks talk to shells?
…..Sea is a single word.
Have you some end in mind?
…..No end, and no reward.
Does enterprise command you?
…..I manage a good freight.
Has any counsel touched you?
…..Lie low. Keep quiet. Wait.
Your days – have they a pattern?
…..In the degree of night.
Has solitude a heart?
…..If a circle has a center.
Do creatures covet yours?
…..They knock, but seldom enter.
Have you not once perceived
…..The whole wide world is yours.
I have. Excuse me. I
…..Stay utterly indoors.

Choosing to put Brinnin’s work in front of the readers of Numéro Cinq, I found myself wondering whether we need to admire an artist — the man himself or the woman herself — whose work we admire. The question was raised pointedly in the movie Amadeus — Mozart as a man is a giggling fool but as a composer is a genius, while Salieri the man is serious and committed to his art while the art he produces is mediocre. Some days I find myself thinking that if a poet is a son of a bitch, a bigot, a boozer, a racist, a loud-mouthed fool, a shameless self-promoter and/or a misogynist in real life, I’d rather not read his work, thank you. Other days, I couldn’t care less who the poet is — I just want to see if the necessary element of wonder is present in the poems; if it is, I can relish them and ignore everything else. My conclusion right now is this: John Malcolm Brinnin may, like Capote, have wasted his talent and become another mascot to café society, but he was wrong about himself — he is not as well-known as he deserves to be. I might not choose to play anagrams or poker under a beach umbrella in Florida with someone like him — by many accounts backbiting, gossipy, and self-aggrandizing . But that has nothing to do with how much I enjoy and admire his poems.

Key West Writers“A Day at the Beach, 1984″ – Key West Writers

From top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright. From bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin. Photo by Don Kincaid.

— Julie Larios

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Numero Cinq photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize; her work has been published in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, The Atlantic, Ecotone and Field, and has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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May 052015
 

Adorno

 

That we live in turbulent times is a matter of consensus. We live in an age where people on one side of the world can engage in the most enthusiastic hedonism imaginable in the name of freedom and people on the other side of the world can shoot up school-buses full of children for that very same ideal. Uneven development is not always an evil of the global situation; more often for competent observers, it is local. It begs the inevitable question: if mankind is not sovereign as a species, what kind of species are we in being mankind? Have we any innate or potential freedom or are we, as the English philosopher John Gray suggests in his upcoming book, merely The Soul of the Marionette? Since the end of the Middle Ages, we in the West have based our entire historical tradition on the notion that we are sovereign beings living in sovereign states that, as history progresses, resolve into the sovereign nations we now constitute. But what if we were wrong in our original assessment, if we have lied to ourselves about our historical situation for centuries, if we have concocted freedom as a philosophical antidote to our real conditions of existence?

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In order to understand our present we must exhume our past. In the 18th century, Immanuel Kant, the foreman of Western ethics, formulated his philosophy of human autonomy, a quality which he ascribed only to a certain segment of the world: the educated European who alone among the species was endowed with the capacity for pure reason. Kant’s philosophy found an enduring audience in the West, not least for its message of rational freedom and for its insistence on Enlightenment. The Europe of his time was utterly drenched in a presumptive racist and cultural supremacy. Kant’s later successor in German idealism, Hegel, thought that Asia and Africa were ahistorical regions that did not participate in the meaningful currents of history. Exclusion of the particular and inclusion of the general defined high thought in all its aspects. Despite Kant’s anthropological exclusion of the majority of mankind from meaningful history, his paradoxical universalism found a broad audience—and to this day his philosophy, internal contradictions and all, pervades American and European thought and neoconservative policy. The 18th century, with all its innovations in technology and social formations, soon enough ushered in the 19th century, with its nascent capitalism and internationalism, which in turn ushered in the 20th century and its ambition to relieve the world of its suffering only to provoke catastrophe after barbaric catastrophe. The philosophy of that century witnessed mass murder and spoke of it with the reverence it had once reserved for the Absolute Idea. Had Kant witnessed the terror his Enlightenment eventually provoked two hundred years after he wrote his Critiques, he might have enacted the modernist poet Fernando Pessoa’s observation that “could the heart think, it would stop beating.”

Following upon centuries of first ethno-religious and then specifically racist warfare against the Jews in the West, the German philosophers of the Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote their treatise on philosophy Dialectic of Enlightenment during the darkest hours of the Holocaust. They poised this book against their contemporary technological zeitgeist, which placed supremacy upon racial distinction, material domination, and the ruling of nature by a subsegment of mankind who thought themselves abidingly separate from Nietzsche’s reckoning of “the herd.” From the misinterpretation of Nietzsche and the forefathers of German nationalism, philosophy produced the horrors of Nazism and its own best criticism, a criticism Adorno thought equally poised against an America in ascendancy, whose intensive capitalism mirrored Nazi Germany’s own, along with its cultural ideals of law by caveat, family centrism, and international superiority.

Adorno did not locate in particular this parallel between America and Nazi Germany in, say, the alliance between Henry Ford and his model of conveyor-belt capitalism and the focus on efficiency the German wartime economy demanded. He located the parallel in American science and German science, and the cultural value they imparted to their scientific practices. For Adorno, the Holocaust was the dialectical result of technocratic rationality, of what he called “the administered world,” a social sphere completely opposed to egalitarianism or ethical Enlightenment but one rather geared solely to administering law as formatted into being by those who had attained historical power. Whereas Karl Marx, whose critical theory influenced that of the Frankfurt School, had located this power nexus in the European bourgeoisie’s relations to its proletariat, Adorno located it in the managers and the administrators of the world in their relations to those employed unto death.

These powers did not need truth in order to operate. They needed only the will to truth, and as the Holocaust set out to prove, the content of will was more important than the content of cognition when it came to realpolitik. The manifold insanities of Nazi Germany did not depend on the cognitive content of the reflective mind, since all they had in their cultural arsenal was a foundational myth so obviously wrong it could only be taken seriously by the cynical, the desperate, or the naive. “The fake myth of fascism,” Adorno wrote, “reveals itself as the genuine myth of prehistory, in that the genuine myth beheld retribution while the false one wreaks it blindly on its victims.” The Nazi philosophy depended on the administrative method and its ideal of rational conquest of nature, in which realm mankind too was included. Adorno, a Jew by birth if not religion, was expelled by the Nazis, who no doubt lamented that they could not kill him, that they could not, per the peculiar invention of the Nazis, administer the science of death to him and his inconvenient discontent.

The administrators of the Holocaust used the latest methods of social control then available, inverting the formula for human freedom into the formula of human extermination. Sovereignty, like the mythical Uroborus, consumed itself and produced its opposite. If man is not a sovereign species, whose every individual is sovereign, then what kind of species is he? For Kant, mankind was a paradox of freedom, for certain of its members were disbarred from participating in freedom by virtue of their race. Contemporary science, as in Dr. Sussman’s The Myth of Race, has once and for all done away with the biological concept of race and so too with Kant’s more destructive contributions to history. For the fascists, who adored capitalism in its every facet, man was not autonomous but a slave of the state and the necessity of its markets, which thought itself the perfect and utter representation of objective reality. If racism has been revoked by the biological sciences, what of the sciences of capitalism?

Fascism is the loudest boogeyman of history, its outermost dark and nihilistic undercurrent from which we think ourselves now permanently delivered. But for Adorno, that deliverance from fascism was only an illusion. It is not that Ford, the face of American capitalism, thought fascism viable in its mythical assumptions or its focus purely on power itself. Ford thought fascism was viable because of its method — its intentionality toward control, its will to method. The temporary political alliance denounced itself and assumed instead an alliance with its method, which, unlike the name of fascism, might hope to continue its aims nevertheless. In what kind of world do we in the West now live but a world governed by method, by administration? If we are not sovereign, it is because we have seen through the Church Militant, that bastion of medievalism, and replaced it with what we thought was a better form of polity: the secular government. Under its auspices we have prospered in virtually every human sphere imaginable. But, as all things occur in sequences, what has become of our secular government? Adorno might say it has become the godhead of administrative method, a hegemon and its semi-conscious dictates according to which all must live in obeisance. We are ruled not by atomic facts but by the inter-penetrative method of law which, even when liberal, regards all with total purview.

Dictatorship need not have a face provided it has hands. Certain of our actions under liberalism might now be permitted whereas before they might have been condemned by the theory of religious sin, as political philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it in his thoughts on “permissive oppression,” but they are all regulated in their method, by the method of our rational governmentality. In being moral agents we always locate authority not in the God of former ages but in the state and its legalism. It is as though, in launching the governmental method of the classical liberal John Locke and the American Founders in order to free ourselves from our originary monarchy, we have merely subsumed ourselves to the logic of our own abstractions, which have come to rule us all even though we ourselves first invented them. According to Adorno, in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity, “number became enlightenment’s canon.” It is now unconventional madness not to conceive of the world quantitatively rather than qualitatively, for all quality has been subsumed by the technocratic rationality of Adorno’s forewarning. If theocracy abused quality in its endless theorizing, secularism has abused quantity in its applied form. Christopher Caudwell, the 20th century English Marxist critic, wrote in his Studies in a Dying Culture that “the unparalleled increase in productive powers has given birth, not to peace, plenty, and happiness, but to war, famine, and misery.” Caudwell had not heard of the Frankfurt School before his death; but such is the outcome of Adorno’s dialectic.

Western philosophy has long been enamored with the debate between human determinism and indeterminism, ranging from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s theodicy of free will to the later natural sciences. These last have for centuries suggested we are but limited points in the progressive logic of the world, not its agents but components of its relations. Wherever philosophy roams, mankind too is supposed to roam free, even when philosophy condemns him to a freedom he dislikes. The behaviorist sciences of the early 20th century, which denied free will completely, petered out into the neuro-cognitive sciences of our modern era. Science is at a crossroads as to the age-old question “are we free or unfree?” But whether such a question is even in the purview of science to answer is, itself, up for debate, for scientists and philosophers continue to claim the domain of human destiny for themselves. The more interesting question to consider is how method influences the questions we ask, a la the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend and his unruly epistemology of scientific inquiry, and the parallels its internal discussions might uncover as to our larger condition. For, where Adorno and Feyerabend intersect, the question of method within the human drama comes to predominate. “Are we sovereign” sounds very much like “are we free,” only it seems much more a propos not of biology but of the structural violence of the state. For Adorno, “enlightenment is totalitarian,” a system proposing complete administration and the abolition of autonomy. The anarchistic aspects of Adorno’s criticism of industrial society sound chiefly like the whimpers of a man who saw mankind’s best hope plunged into its coffin prematurely, only to leave its creators enslaved to circumstance and each other. Under fascism heroism and capitalism were one.

Adorno and Horkheimer are often classified as European pessimists or mere aesthetes preaching doom through critical theory at the dawn and end of fascist Europe. Adorno suffers this indictment in particular, not least for his aphoristic monograph Minima Moralia, a long lamentation for bourgeois European society; though Horkheimer’s anti-Western Critique of Instrumental Reason certainly deserves a mention for his penetrating indictment of modernity. In “The Concept of Man” from his Critique, Horkheimer wrote:

In the historical period after Kant the material conditions for a rational administration of the world improved to a degree undreamt of… In the century of Enlightenment free thought was the force that knocked the solid supports of stupidity from under institutions which bad conscience had driven to adopt terroristic methods; it was the force that gave the bourgeoisie its self-awareness. In our own time, on the contrary, the feeling is abroad that free thought is helpless. Mastery of nature has not brought man to self-realization; on the contrary, the status quo continues to exert its objective compulsion.

Such a mood no doubt stemmed reflexively from postwar European self-criticism. But this philosophical duo was onto something whether or not their pessimism was misplaced: the rebelling students of the 1960s cited them in their chants against authority as surely as they cited the French Marxists, Thomas Paine, and Dr. King. In their angry optimism these students posed the question: “what is method, once it is taken from the realm of pure science, and applied to nature and mankind?” The fascism into which that generation had been born had posed method as the answer to human life, but America, a supposed bastion of liberty, had replied in kind: method is everywhere. Thus Adorno’s hallowed critique of the American culture industry and its paler reflections in the psychology of everyday life under late capitalism. The governors of the administered world “posture as engineers of world history,” spreading first the culture of representative democracy and then its neoconservative and neoliberal dimensions, which convert mankind into “mere objects of administration.” Whether by domination through sheer power, as with the military apparatus of the Nazi state, or through the pro-capitalist propaganda which Adorno thought identical with American cinema, the cultural potentials for subversion are now, as then, shunned to the realm of philosophy where they pose no threat to the status quo. The will to cataclysm has now super-imposed itself over the will to philosophy with the people at its epicenter: although Adorno was a bourgeois, like Marx, he despised the abolition of intellect from any class that could, with persistent theory and action, free itself thereby.

In the 19th century, although it was concerned with emerging markets in the private sector, the apparatus of American government was not quite so solidified as it is now. In America, at least, government simply did not want the purview of all human behavior that its European counterparts had sought to dominate for centuries. From antiquity to the Wars of Religion in the late Middle Ages, Europe had sought to intrude its governmental apparatuses into every sphere of human life, from the social and economic to the moral and private. Its popular history of libertinage was largely a response to its invasive government. America thought it had saved itself from this damning total purview: it was internationally reserved, except for its internal (and brutal) policies of expansion, until the 20th century, when it entered into the World Wars. From that decisive point on, it has sought to develop governmental method to its highest degree, first in its domestic and international markets, with Fordism at the birth of American economic dynamism, and then with our contemporary panopticon of surveillance and our unending series of Wars on Poverty, Drugs, Terror, etc.. Whereas once America left method to nature, it has now fulfilled Adorno’s warning, and turned nature into a method. We have turned ourselves into factota, our species-being into a being of servitude, and the world into an office-space.

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If free will ever existed as a viable metaphysical postulate, the modern world has wiped it out. Postmodern insights have roundly condemned what used to be called “the human being,” after the manner of the humanists from the Renaissance to the 18th and 20th centuries, as merely “the subject,” an entity only biologically human but philosophically conditioned. From Freud to Foucault we have discovered we are not what we appear to be to ourselves — even Freud’s notion of the ego had something of the substantially determinate, if not determined, about it. But we have also lost the ego itself. Now, we have a sum of relations to compose ourselves, which are likewise but social products. The soul has been abolished by the intellect, which in turn was abolished by the condition of the global office-space. Bourgeois idealism, the creator of that office-space, assumes that man is substantially free of the social relations that took their most vicious form in the feudal restrictions but is apparently enslaved to them. Thus, the bourgeois will to freedom is not philosophical but social — in locating himself purely in himself rather than in the social totality, and with himself his laws, sciences, and arts, he wants to remove himself from mankind and exist as though in a vacuum. To be free is to be free from social relations, which throughout the centuries he has mistaken for the return to feudalism. From this he produces his Protestant Christianity and capitalist individualism; but it is an ignorance to assume that man is ever free from man. To even speak it is to acknowledge with a socially-received language that man is always social, never individual or at least not purely so, that man is composed by society which in turn is composed by man. Social relations constitute a man far more than do the private fantasies of not-belonging, of Cartesian and Freudian ego, of the willful alienation from the social into the self. Capitalism is the economic manifestation of this asocial tendency; Protestantism is its religious manifestation; America is its national form. In Adorno’s view, we moderns are administered from without, not determined from within. The ancient philosophical distinction between subject and object has been erased by capitalist relations and their larger, more modern applications.

What an impoverished accountant in Bangladesh does, as his paid labor, affects after a manner one’s own Western phenomenological consciousness — even if it is merely at the level of a two-cent increase in the price of beef. More expansively, what an archivist does in the US State Department affects entire feudal villages in the Middle East, from whether or not they can continue to wear their traditional garb without the imminent threat of retaliation from local extreme moralists to whether or not they can expect to raise children who do not die of starvation by the age of five. Globalization, the manifest destiny of Adorno’s pessimism, affects us all and does so totally — the very nature of the process ensures it affects we in the West as much as it does those more dismally disposed to it in the rest of the world. Between “the West and the rest,” we are composed by our global relations to capital and its desires, and by virtue of that relation, we are also determined: capitalism has never been a humanism. Augustine of Hippo and the other theorists of free will had sought eternal propositions, but it must not be forgotten that our current dilemma is decidedly modern in genesis. Adorno wrote in the Dialectic that:

Even the ego, the synthetic unity of apperception, the agency which Kant calls the highest point, from which the whole of logic must be suspended, is really both the product and the condition of material existence. Individuals, in having to fend for themselves, develop the ego as the agency of reflective foresight and overview; over successive generations it expands and contracts with the individual’s prospects of economic autonomy and productive ownership… The conspiracy of rulers against peoples, implemented by relentless organization, finds the Enlightenment spirit since Machiavelli and Hobbes no less compliant than the bourgeois republic. 

Adorno would locate the roots of this administration in the Enlightenment’s insistence on the rational distribution of both material goods and intellectual goods, such as values and the roles of ethical systems. Originally egalitarian, the enlightening tendency produced its own antithesis: Spinoza and his reason transvalued into Hitler and his myth. Enlightenment directly produced fascism, Adorno thought, because it provided the intellectual underpinnings and global desires of the fascist imperative. Thereafter, it syncretized global capitalism and value-universalism into the current American vision of monoculture, the “end of history” as characterized by the global spread of capitalist relations disguised as liberal democracy. It cannot leave things as they are: it must transform us all until we are on the clock. To be a Westerner is to be always already administered from without. What we used to attribute to the whims of God, we now must attribute to an absurdly impersonal history we once thought individual heroes composed.

To make the general particular, consider your job. It supports your entire material existence, for without it you would soon become homeless and perhaps starve to death. But your job, in turn, depends for its existence on the capricious global market, even if you are a lowly cashier at a franchised local grocery store, or a mid-level insurance agent. If the price of pork and broccoli plummets too low or raises too high, or if the set rate on return clashes with your overhead, you’re the first one downsized — and so your life undergoes a whole revolution involuntarily. Precarity defines your whole existence because precarity defines us all, but this precarity is daily manipulated by consumer price indices and capitalist lobbies in the political sphere. You, and therefore the rest of us, have very little control of your daily life, no matter how contrarily your unreflective thoughts might countenance this fact. Comfort is always a temporary phenomenon under capitalist dynamism. You are administered from the outside, if not by historical market forces, then by individuals expressing their class interests in the market sphere. And so, whether a product you depend on obsolesces into the rubbish bin of history, or the price of your labor specialty nullifies, you come to realize that our materialism is always aleatory, based on chance, and where it is not based on chance, it is administered from above. What you see at eye-level is determined by a constellation of actors far beyond your vision. Sociology, the paranoiac’s science, understands that human beings are always social, from the individual to the sprawling entirety of civilization in which we live without exemption.

Adorno’s philosophy of total administration owes some of its insight to the sociologist Max Weber and his theory of impersonal bureaucracy. For Weber, bureaucratic regimes, whether benign in scope or not, could act as automatic machines once they had access to a labor supply and a formally-rigorous operational system. The IRS is a good example of a Weberian bureaucracy. To be a bureaucrat, for him, was to be a nameless cog, an instrument of the institution rather than its actor. Its work could well be completed by the cyclops Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey who gives his name as No Body. Because administration does not depend on faces but on numbers — the tattooing of the wrist in Auschwitz being most prominent in Adorno’s mind — it can do its far-reaching work without resource to personal morality or the institutions of religious reflection. Speaking of the machinery of civilized man, Horkheimer declared in his Critique that “if the dream of machines doing men’s work has now come true, it is also true that men are acting more and more like machines.” Such is the admittedly pessimistic rendition of administration. It has its better sides, of course. We daily depend on its machinations in our complex civilization, in which literally everything is interconnected, from the maintenance of our streets to wage schedules. There are no islands in a nation-state of 300 million people.

Survival for the vast majority is not possible without administration. What the classical economist Adam Smith called “the hand of God” is now the hand of bureaucratic consensus and scientific management. Hegel himself considered the bureaucracy of his native Prussia a “universal class” removed from the competitive interests of civil society that, through its mediation, ensured a relative peace amidst commercial conflict. But for this abundance, Adorno asked, what resultant cost? We subject ourselves not to a “lordly gaze” but to an administrative network the size of which is now identical with global civilization. Amid such abundance, even the Hegelian slave might be well-fed as civil society directs him this way and that way, though he remains a slave nevertheless. Wage-slavery is not only an analogy but also a synonym for feudal slavery; in its succession of forms, it has only changed the slave’s relation to his directive imperative from the master’s dominance to the dominance of wholly impersonal capital. For the majority of mankind, even for those in the developed world, freedom from methodical determination is as fictitious as the City of God. What the formal relations of bondage encompassed for the medievalist, global Taylorism accomplishes for the modernist: Rousseau’s agony in endless repetition.

As to the philosophical condition in which this leaves us, our end is ambiguous. We are certainly not free, as bound by market forces and government forces and social forces as we are. In being administered, we are also fed and clothed, given as though children all that we need to subsist. We live within a liberal tradition, so at least nominally we try to avert future Holocausts, we try to support human comfort rather than human misery, and we try to use our technocratic methods for the common weal rather than the common woe. Outside of war — in which respect America is particularly adept — our administrations ensure we can count on having enough food to eat, enough adequate clothing to wear, and schools to send our children to in order to receive at least passable educations. Without rational administration of the division of labor, we would be lost, as though blind in the modern wilderness –– what philosophers used to call “man in the natural state.” Only there never has been such a natural state untainted by want and death unmitigated: with or without method, mankind has always lived as though above an abyss.

This rationalized organizing principle is double-edged, however, or as Adorno would declare, dialectical: in being fed, we are also enslaved to administrative circumstance. “Poverty,” he wrote in the Dialectic, “as the antithesis between power and impotence is growing beyond measure, together with the capacity permanently to abolish poverty.” Decades after Adorno and Horkheimer wrote their philosophical treatise on the encroachment of methodical administration, the will to abundance has become the will to impoverish, free will has become the will to governance, and the popular will has succumbed to mumbling resignation. Now that we are all poor we dwell in a worldly paradise so wealthy it “radiates disaster triumphant.” The nightmare of Adorno’s century has through our silent consent found a home in our own 21st, replete as it is with ever-increasing economic disparity, ever-decreasing historical literacy, fundamentalist religion become ascendant, drone strikes dubbed humanitarianism at a distance, and a structural fascism of global aspirations that first introduces itself as the very concept of freedom and which then proceeds to abolish freedom completely.

–Jeremy Brunger


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Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

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May 042015
 

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Six years old in Phoenix, Arizona, and I wanted to sing country. I’d walk to Squaw Peak Elementary by myself; my two sisters too young for school.  There was a house on the corner with a desert yard, a looming saguaro instead of a tree. A low fence kept kids from kicking up the sand. In that sand was something shiny, a glinting by the base of the cactus tree. I’d eye it every day, and every day I wanted it more. Often, walking to school, singing under my breath, I’d practice my twang, the one I thought necessary for a singer. This aspirational twang is forever wed in memory to the shiny, forbidden object buried in the sand.

We are meant to sing. Words want to dive and swoop in the air. A considered tune wants words. I have wanted to sing for decades now, and I’ve sung to myself, quietly, or in closed spaces.

Too, I am drawn to things that need no metaphor. In looking for an invisible thing, my voice, I take singing lessons.

Your voice box sits atop your windpipe, which sits atop your bellowing lungs. Exhale through this apparatus while flexing your vocal cords, and you will make sound. Your head is a maze of boney caves. The notes you make will echo in the passageways and hollows of your body. You can pinpoint the thrum of each pitch. Middle C rings down at the collarbone, the C above by the eyes, High C springs from the top of your head.

HeadAndThroat

The voice is an instrument made of bone, modulated by flesh. It is wind squeezed through a hole. A bone flute.

In Mozart’s Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night sings a famously difficult, unreasonably high aria. She must hit the F more than two octaves up from middle C. Repeatedly. She must do so with trills – and the appearance of ease. She must launch her voice into the stratosphere.

Queen of Night Aria 1Mozart’s Magic Flute, Queen of the Night Aria

A recording of Edda Moser singing this aria is in included in the collection of sounds from Earth on the Voyager 1 spacecraft. This is what the inhabitants of  some future, faraway world will hear. This is what they will know of us.

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But since you are here, and now, listen also to Diana Damrau’s rendition. Watch her mouth.  The shape of the mouth shapes the sound.

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It’s all about holes. Holes through which the world enters, and out of which come babies, words, blood, shit, song.

And it’s about bones, the structure for our living mess.

Or. A bone in the hole. The bone thrust in a hole at the start of a soul.  The baby grows amidst a confusion of metaphors and hypotheses and then, when that song has ended, the clatter of bones lowered into a hole.

People expire when they take their last breath.

Inspiration feels like talking to god, being filled with something beyond yourself.

Spirare, to breathe.

I can’t breathe, I have thought before, in panicked states.

When I lived in the Canadian Rockies, work would sometimes have me driving at night through blizzards. Being tailgated by trucks. I was terrified. The only way I kept calm was by singing to myself.  There is the song, with its own calmative force, and also the deep breathing it requires.

Singing lessons are mostly lessons in breathing.

When I was a girl, my father would bring home discarded x-rays from the hospital. My two sisters and I would cut out the bones and tape together skeletons. You would think I’d know what the inside of a body looks like; I thought the diaphragm was a vague thing shaped like a birth control device, wedged into the rib cage. It is, instead, as I learn in a singing lesson, a huge, thin muscle stretched across the bottom of the rib cage like goat skin across a drum. When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm expands downward. I imagine it like a balloon, and our lungs like balloons-within-balloons.

A diaphragmatic breath is the singer’s breath. You make yourself a loose and empty thing, a vessel. Air rushes in. The space between your gut and your sex expands. You are pregnant with song.

Sometimes I’ve wondered if aliens would see much difference between humans and nematodes, a basic worm type.  We are both bilaterally symmetrical animals, sharing what is called a tube-within-a-tube body plan. We are tubes with holes at the beginning and at the end. Tubes for air and food. When we die, we are worm-food. Alive, worms are bird food.

Songbirds can produce two notes at once. Some can imitate chainsaws, barking dogs, and crying babies. Swooping through the air, they echo the world around them.

Why are angels never described as bird people? They sing and they fly.

My ex-husband believed that some singers were angels and that’s why they were always crashing in planes. It seems to me that angels should stay aloft.

Plague doctors were another form of bird people. Convinced that pleasant aroma would prevent the inhalation of miasma, the foul breath blamed for plague, the men wore bird masks, and would burn sweet herbs in the beak.

The ancient Greeks feared bird women. They knew they were helpless when they heard the sirens sing.  Sappho was described as a nightingale with misshapen wings.

Hypothesis: Angel minus person does not equal bird.

Aviary. Loggerhead Shrike by Sara Angelucci 

When you sing, you can’t hear yourself accurately, the echo chamber in your head distorts your sound. You must learn to feel where the sounds are in your body, how to perceive the sympathetic vibrations. You must imagine that you are opening spaces you didn’t know were there, spaces you thought of as secret. You are a tube of air, a tube with holes that, when closed or opened, makes notes. A wind instrument.

A warm-up exercise has me singing a scale of “kee” sounds. Keys, I think. I might unlock something.  The hard k sound requires breathing into the lower belly and is a voiceless velar plosive. Explosive.

My husband, in his sixties, compares peri-menopausal women to volcanoes. Sappho lived on a volcanic island. I am in my forties, and just learning to sing.

The voice resonates in the chest, in the head, and somewhere in between. There are two breaks in the female voice, one between the chest and the middle voice, and another between the middle and the head voice. A break is where the voice can crack. A break is also known as a passaggio. How you navigate these passages affects the song. I can’t help but think of periods, monthly punctuation. Starting to bleed and stopping are the two passages of the female body. How do you navigate these passages? I was a hot mess of a teen.

Anybody could be in the high school choir, but jazz choir was for the elite. I could read music, sing in tune, and follow directions. I auditioned. The choirmaster rejected me on grounds that I shouldn’t be allowed to have everything I wanted, citing my good grades as proof that I was spoiled. I was a diligent, quiet girl; he was a soft-bodied man in beige slacks the same color as his skin. He wanted to hang out with the cool kids; jazz choir swelled with cheerleaders. I started throwing up. I am not saying that the choirmaster, that unwitting prick, caused my bulimia, but I am saying that if you have a song inside you, it will find its way out, it will erupt. It may no longer be a song, and it may not be beautiful.

The song will find its way out, a distortion. Or you will silence it, an erasure.  For a while, as a teen, I went quiet, I stopped eating. I thought spirit and bone were all that mattered. That flesh, my womanly flesh, was dangerous.

EpiglottisEpiglottis

Ancient Greeks thought the womb wandered around the body, causing a variety of female problems, another way of saying that being female was the problem. Foul odors repelled the womb; pleasant aromas attracted it. And so, a suffering woman would have garlic stuffed into her mouth, sweet herbs up her crotch. The womb could thus be held fast by smells. The wandering womb was described as an animal inside an animal.

The voice is an instrument inside the body, a living thing of and within us.  An animal inside an animal.

A wild boar lays waste to a kingdom; two brothers set out to kill it. The cowardly brother goes to a bar and gets drunk. The brave brother is given a magic spear, and with it, kills the boar. Jealous, Drunk kills Brave.  Drunk claims the prize, the king’s daughter. One of Brave’s bones is found and made into a flute. The bone sings out the story of what really happened. The king hears the song, hears the truth, and orders Drunk’s death. The princess is freed from the boor, and the brave hero, though dead, triumphs, thanks to his singing bone.

Mozart’s Magic Flute, Queen of the Night Aria

The Queen of the Night gives Mozart’s hero a magic flute, somewhat smaller than a spear, but perhaps size doesn’t matter. She wants him to save her daughter. The flute in Mozart’s opera can change men’s hearts, that’s why it’s magic. A skin flute, a meat flute. The hero triumphs, thanks to his melodious pecker.

I could sing about bones.

I could sing about the feeling of quickening desire, of a cock crowing, of a bone bonering against my back as I lie between sheets, embraced.

I would sing of domesticity and the marriage bed.

The echo chamber in our head distorts our sound, we can’t hear our own songs truly. We need each other to be heard.

When I was going through divorce, I listened to Keith Jarrett moaning above his piano notes and Glenn Gould above his.  These raw and moaning men.

When I was going through divorce, I made a film about a singer. The singer loses her marriage, her faith and her voice, in no particular order. She can’t tell the difference between falling and flight, her voice cracks on the high notes. My favorite poem at the time was an ancient lament with many translations. The last line: what was never one is easily split: our song together.

I went to Newfoundland. I’d had dreams about humpbacks, the singing whales, and the high cliffs diving into sharp water.  My heart was broken in several directions. I am a bad guitar player, but I needed to sing, and so I did, shut away in a little rented room. The song was another presence, it made me feel less alone.  One day, my landlady and I went out in a skiff, we were looking for whales. Two soon found us, they swam under and beside us for over an hour. I was over the moon. Blissed out, as in my singing whale dreams. One of the pair lifted its monstrous tail in dripping goodbye as he dove down and away. My landlady said, You’re looking for a whale in the shape of a man. I think what I was looking for was a song together.

Sappho-001Sappho

Sappho was described as a whorish woman, love-crazy, who sang about her own licentiousness. Looking for a song together, I fell in love like crazy, always with writers. I can see myself in scraps of their poems, their stories. A muse’s mirror.

I have settled on an island now, in sight of a volcano. I am married again and we have a boy. I write myself. And, I am learning to sing.

Hypothesis: Volcanoes are to love as sex is to singing.

It is discombobulating and also thrilling to learn that I might be a soprano. In high school choir, I was shoved to the back row of altos, and have thought of myself as alto ever since. My would-be soprano is faltering, fledging. Aspirational. Paper airplane rather than rocket.

To jump, one must push against the ground, against gravity. The deeper the knees bend, the harder you push, the higher you go. Same deal with voice. To sing the high notes, I press down, inside my self, down through my cunt.  Giving birth. At the same time, the high notes feel like flying. I feel them in my head, above my eyes.

The Greeks made much of the mouth/cunt connection, had the same word for them.  When I search the words “vagina” and “mouth” in an effort to learn more about Classical theories of same, Urban Dictionary tells me that “vagina mouth” refers to somebody who’s always talking about vaginas, or a person always down on their knees, open-mouthed and ready.

Classical virgins were open, ready for penetration. When a parthenos finally had sex, she was forever transformed by the man’s sperm and spirit.  All her words were an echo of the masculine presence now inside her, her songs were his.

The Oracle of Delphi, a virgin priestess open to Apollo, would sit astride a crack in the earth, a crack from which hallucinogenic fumes, the breath of god, spewed.  She breathed these vapors in through her cunnus, her cunning, her cunt, and out from her mouth came the word of god. Some say she raved, some say she spoke in poetic meter. Maybe she sang her advice?

The epithet for Echo, a nymph who was nothing but voice, was the girl with no door on her mouth.  She never shut up, and in her conjugal relations with Pan, she had sex with all of nature. No door, indeed. And no words of her own, poor thing. Poor thing.

How to love, and yet be essence as well as vessel, meaning as well as mouth?

Sappho stayed open, she stayed her self, she sang her own words. It didn’t matter whom she fucked.

LaSirenaLa Sirena

The ancient Greeks feared sirens.

In college, my roommates and I had our gimlet eyes fixed upon a lacrosse player, a frat boy with Greek letters on his jacket. There was a rumor that he’d done it in the bushes outside our dorm, and ever after, my roommates and I would tease each other with an ironic slam, well, you do it in the bushes with X. We were virgins; the thought of sex was terrifying and hilarious.  One day, one of us did do it with X.  According to the post-coital report, he emitted high-pitched squeaks as he came.

The sounds we make in sex are often honest,  spontaneous, and I have always loved these sounds almost as much as I have loved the sound of an unencumbered laugh.

The ancient Greeks, those old vagina-mouths, also had a word for a female scream of intense pleasure or pain. Ololyga is described as disorderly and/or divine.

I once heard a story of a woman who’d lost her voice in the range where she would scream. As I remember it, she’d been raped, had screamed, and hadn’t been heard. She wasn’t saved. Ever after, her screams were silent.

An old man steals the Queen of the Night’s daughter. The queen finds her girl, and gives her a knife. The Queen, in her famously high aria, commands her daughter to stab the old lech to death. The name of this fancy, super-femme song is Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart.

The Queen of the Night gives the hero a magic flute, but she gives her daughter a knife.

My singing teacher teaches screaming. She also works with bel canto.  I practice breathing. I practice shaping my mouth. I practice, practice, practice. What we want, after all, is ease. Beauty. The wedding of order to chaos, light to dark, reason to rhyme. The voice made true, the word made flesh.

We are nothing if not memory. We are nothing if not together. We can’t hear our own songs truly.

Singing is a sympathetic resonance of souls across time, across space. We echo each other, with variations.

aviary_curlewAviary. Curlew by Sara Angelucci

The world needs more songbirds, more sirens, more humpback whales. We are meant to sing.

In the beginning, there were three muses. Memory, Practice, and Song.

Then, six more were added, I don’t know why. Nine total.

Sappho was called the Tenth Muse. The Mortal Muse. Her music clings to time-worn fragments like spirit to the bone.

What happens when a muse serves not as inspiration for someone else, but sings her own song?

Hypothesis: She cannot be erased.

—Julie Trimingham

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NOTES & SOURCES:

There are, of course, many interpretations of The Magic Flute / Die Zauberflöte. It is a complex work. Mozart was a Freemason. It is not original to note that the flute is a penis, a creative force; some readings posit the flute as the penis of Osiris, the Egyptian god who looms weirdly large in Masonic culture and in the opera.

Wulf and Eadwacer is an Old English poem, the only copy of which was found in the Exeter Book.  It, like the Queen of the Night’s aria, is famously difficult.  The narrator is presumed a woman; Wulf and Eadwacer might be husbands, lovers, sons, one might even be a dog. You can find a million interpretations. The woman is on an island, and she is speaking for herself. The line quoted above, about our song together, is hers.

Etymologies: Ancient Greeks used stoma to refer to the mouth that eats and speaks and also for the mouth of the uterus. Cunnus is another Latin word for vulva, and has a few possible sources, including Indo-European roots meaning woman, cover, and wedge. Cunning comes from the knowing root that gave us ken and canny. Cunt has tangled and uncertain etymologies, but seems unrelated to the Latin. Germanic in origin, cunt likely comes from a root meaning hollow space.

I construe marriage bed loosely. I like the sound of it, and it means, to me, a bed in which two people who truly love each other fuck, sleep, talk, and hold each other.  I am glad to live in a place where gay marriage is legal.

Laughter is the daughter of uncontained sound: Iambe, offspring of chatty Echo and wild Pan, was the Greek Goddess of Jokes. We get the prosodic term iambic from her, too.

Lyric poetry was meant to be accompanied by a lyre. These words were lyrics, words for a song. Sappho was a lyric poet; she sang.

aviary_fpigeonAviary. Female Passenger Pigeon by Sara Angelucci

Artist Sara Angelucci has created a provocative series of human/bird hybrid photographs, Aviary. Loggerhead Shrike, Female Passenger Pigeon, and Curlew are featured in this essay.

In A Mourning Chorus, women make beautiful birdlike sounds and songs in an elegy for disappearing songbirds.

In the video of the Art Gallery of Ontario performance, Fides Krucker and other bird women keen for vanishing species.

Fides Krucker is a Canadian singer, vocal composer, teacher and writer. She is also a friend and my singing teacher. This essay owes much to long conversations we have had about voice. Her teaching incorporates extended voice techniques, bel canto, and her own philosophies and techniques developed over years of personal experience. In particular, Fides talks about the dropped breath, about the pelvic floor, about effortlessness, about the female body and emotions in a way that is unique to her pedagogy.  The Girl with No Door on her Mouth was an opera Fides commissioned, produced and sang, and was based on Anne Carson’s work. She performs regularly in Canada and Europe. She is part of the Mermaid Collective, which will be staging the opera Dive, based on the Lampedusa story The Professor and the Siren, in summer 2015. The recording of Dive will be released in the spring of 2015. Fides is working on a book about her pedagogy, as well as a memoir.  You can read Documentary Singing, her blog.

Some years ago, I took an intensive and formative voice workshop with Richard Armstrong, who was a student of, and continues work influenced by, Roy Hart. After this workshop, Richard introduced me to Fides, and the three of us worked on Butterfly, a three part project:

Butterfly, a documentary;

Opening Night, a music video;

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and From an Opera Without Divorce, a fictitious opera,

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all on the subject of voice. I also studied briefly with Susan Carr; I first really understood what the diaphragm was in a lesson with her, and her exercise using the “kee” sound are referenced above.

She has produced an extensive app featuring videos and exercises for all levels of students, as well as screaming techniques. Sue coached Seahawks fans on how to scream loudly and safely as they cheered their way to a world record crowd roar, recorded at 137.6 decibels.

Diana Damrau and Edda Moser are both German coloratura sopranos, famous for the their Queens of the Night.

My favorite male singer these days was, I thought, a woman. I am glad for such surprises. He’s no boy soprano, no castrato. He inhabits a female voice, an adopted voice, like an animal within an animal. In his song Bang Bang, Asaf Avidan blurs the line.

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If you are magnetic, the world is yours, is an example of a maxim from Vocal Wisdom, Giovanni Battista Lamperti, transcribed by William Earl Brown, Taplinger Publishing Company. Mostly, though, it’s a primer on breathing, diction, and other bel canto techniques.

Confronting the Classics,  Mary Beard, W. W. Norton & Co.

Glass, Irony, and God (1992) Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound.”

Greek Virginity, Giulia Sissa, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Harvard University Press.

The fairytale of The Singing Bone was formalized by the Brothers Grimm.

Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, translated and with a forward by Willis Barnstone, Shambala Press.

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Julie Trimingham is a filmmaker and writer.  Her first novel, Mockingbird, was released in 2013. Way Elsewhere, a collection of fictional essays, is forthcoming from Lettered Streets Press. She loves writing for Numéro Cinq. Stories she has told at The Moth Story Slam are posted at www.julietrimingham.com.

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Apr 302015
 

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When members of Jimmy’s family told Jim McQuade, Director of Schuyler Hill Funeral Home, that, at Jimmy’s request, we were having neither priest nor funeral mass, he warned us that we might have trouble getting Jimmy into St. Raymond’s Cemetery. He proved prophetic. Growing up, Jimmy and I had been thrown out of a couple of Bronx taverns, but getting barred from the graveyard was a new experience. In lieu of a priest, I had been invited by Jimmy’s family to give a eulogy. “That would be fine,” said Jim McQuade, as we sat at a table; I could “just briefly sum up Jimmy’s life.” We laughed because, more than anyone I’ve ever known, Jimmy’s life was not one to be glibly summed up. Everyone thought they knew Jimmy; but they knew only aspects of the whole, complicated man. His life, rich and multifaceted, fell into many different, apparently incompatible phases. Yet there was an underlying integrity, in both senses of that word.

Jimmy had been a hell-raiser and legendary fist-fighter growing up; then a father who raised one son early, and later two young children single-handedly when their mother, Sharon, died young. Professionally, he was chief consulting engineer for the Bronx from 1980, and was in charge of the capital budget program, overseeing money allocated for such construction programs as the Grand Concourse rehabilitation and the parks improvements from Hunts Point to Riverdale. “But he was a lot more than that to me,” said former Borough President Fernando Ferrer. “He was indispensable.” As the go-to person for district leader Michael Benedetto, Jimmy handled housing and zoning issues; in addition, demonstrating Assemblyman Benedetto’s description of him as a “tremendously giving person” who quietly helped many people, Jimmy, each year, did the income taxes, gratis, of more than a hundred seniors who couldn’t figure out the forms or afford to pay a professional.

After retiring in 1995, Jimmy stayed on for almost two decades with the borough president’s office as a part-time consultant. In these years, he also taught physics at Bronx Community College. As engineer and architect, Jimmy created—pro bono—the building now housing the Chippewa Democratic Club, of which he was treasurer for more than 40 years. Still vital, energetic, and physically powerful, Jimmy was, in 2005, diagnosed in a late stage of a particularly horrible form of incurable cancer.  It was in valiantly battling multiple myeloma for ten years (which must be the world’s record) that we all saw Jimmy’s stamina and real courage. So, is there any key that helps explain so varied a life? Not really, but let me make a tentative triple-suggestion that will seem strange to those who didn’t know the “whole” Jimmy: strength, stars—and pigeons.

The pigeons, a group shot.

From the time he was a kid, Jimmy had a coop, and flew pigeons.  Later, residing in Locust Point, he had a flock that numbered almost two hundred. Jimmy and his sons David and Alex lived very near the Throgs Neck Bridge, its under-structure a favorite nesting place for peregrine falcons and hawks. Jimmy flew his pigeons every day and loved how they out-maneuvered the predators, making undulations and quick turns in the air, so that it was almost impossible for a falcon or hawk to kill one. (When many were killed, including Jimmy’s pair of beloved black homers, it was not by a hawk, nor by the family of feral cats Jimmy fed daily, but by a raccoon who got into the cages.)  Once, a frustrated brown hawk pursued some pigeons right into those cages. Jimmy’s first instinct was rage, but he quickly appreciated the magnificence of the hawk and he knew that it, too, had its part to play in the natural order. So he kept it for a day or two, admiring, studying, and photographing it.

As for strength: When we were growing up, Jimmy was himself a hawk, a warrior who never lost a fight even against much larger opponents. I’ll give just two examples, but they represent many stories of Jimmy’s almost mythical prowess as a fighter. My neighborhood, Alden Park, had (laughably enough) a so-called private beach, consisting of a pier and about 50 yards of water. Once, when we were sixteen or so, Jimmy came over to hang out with me. We went down for a swim. An older guy, a blond and brawny 6-foot, 220-pound wire-lather, informed Jimmy, who weighed about 145 at the time, that this was a private beach and that he wasn’t welcome. Jimmy started to leave. But the Big Man couldn’t leave well enough alone: “And don’t come back, you little guinea.” About ten seconds later, Jimmy did leave; but they had to carry the wire-lather home. Jimmy, 75 lbs. lighter and 3 inches shorter, had cut him down with a half-dozen lightning-fast punches that left the would-be hero and actual bigot sprawled and bleeding on the pier.

This is a photo I took myself about 60 years ago circa 1956. Jimmy is standing with two of the girls in our crowd Diane Schleininger and Janet Gartner

On another occasion, a year or so later, Jimmy faced down even bigger odds. In a nocturnal raid, we had snuck into a pool and concession called Bronx Beach and stolen 17 cases of beer. Having “borrowed” a rowboat, we transported our booty to a small cabin cruiser moored off a waterfront stretch called Big Oak. The plan was to return early the following morning and move our goods to a safe location. Unfortunately, when we arrived shortly after dawn the boat was gone. We discovered that the owner and his friends (who must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven) had left for Oyster Bay on the north shore of Long Island to fish and camp out. A few days later word reached us that they were back and were having a grand time in what was then an orchard that sloped down to our own Bay, not really a “bay” since it opens onto the Long Island Sound. When Jimmy and I arrived and peered through the foliage we saw eight guys and their girlfriends listening to music and enjoying “our” beer. This was a moral outrage, a violation of the code of honor among thieves. We jumped the fence and Jimmy walked right up to the biggest guy, the fellow who owned the boat we’d used for temporary storage. “The party’s over,” Jimmy announced, ordering the leader to pack up the beer, put it in one of their cars (we were carless) and take it to where we wanted it. Even with their girlfriends present as witnesses of their humiliation, he and the others complied. Even at odds of 8-2, they were afraid to tangle with Jimmy.

Back then, he seemed all strength and speed. The first time we ever saw a set of weights, Jimmy, 14 years old and weighing about 140, military-pressed 20 pounds or so above his body-weight, astonishing the older guys who owned the barbell.  He ran the 100 and 220 at Cardinal Hayes, winning at both distances; and once, at a Rice Stadium meet where I was running the 440 for St. Helena’s, Jimmy was asked to substitute for an injured shot-putter. I watched amused as Jimmy, a complete novice at the event, outdistanced the competitors, but was disqualified on all three shots, one of which was so off it actually grazed someone in the audience.

But under all that physical power there were other, deeper qualities. Jimmy had a formidable brain, and dreams. When he and I weren’t getting into trouble, we often sat on the sea-wall, gazing at the opening to Long Island Sound off City Island, looking out at the beautiful green lantern of Stepping Stone Lighthouse, and up to that greater lighthouse, the stars above our heads. In time, Jimmy would know almost everything there was to know about the birth and death of stars, as well as about black holes, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics. Back then we would discuss “escape velocity,” the speed a rocket would have to attain to break earth’s gravitational pull: 7 miles a second. And this was long before John F. Kennedy pledged to send a manned rocket to the moon and back.

Jimmy and Alex2Jimmy and Alex

Earlier this week, when Alex invited me to look through his father’s books, I was re-reminded of the range of Jimmy’s interests.  There were books on the Bible, and on Jesus alongside volumes on the universe, on string theory and quantum mechanics; several books on Einstein; on history and philosophy; novels, poetry, books of literary criticism (not all, but most by me, since Jimmy was as proud of me as I was of him). From the time he was a boy, Jimmy was what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called an “Inquiring Spirit,” especially when it came to questioning, from the perspective of science (physics and evolutionary biology) the religion in which we had both been raised and long believed. In later years, he was particularly fond of two passages I’d cited in my book on Emerson. In his essay “Intellect,” Emerson posed a choice between “Truth and Repose.” He who simply accepts the comfortable “creed” he has inherited will find rest,

but he shuts the door to truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as a wall, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

This passage had a momentous impact on the lives of both Emily Dickinson and Emerson’s greatest disciple, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, both of whom were raised in deeply religious families. Nietzsche, the son and grandson of Protestant ministers, echoed Emerson’s thought, and choice, in a youthful letter to his sister. Should we, the twenty-year-old Nietzsche asked rhetorically,

arrive at that view of God, world, and reconciliation which makes us feel most comfortable?….Do we after all seek rest, peace, and pleasure in our inquiries? No, only truth….Faith does not offer the least support of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.

Restless (as his sister Barbara told us) from the time he was a colicky baby, Jimmy never, ever sought “repose,” either in his life or in his intellectual inquiries. I should have added that his library included, along (of course) with studies of pigeons, books on aviation. When, after he got out of the Marines, Jimmy was living with his wife Beth and their baby, Jimmy Jr., in a trailer in Moonachie, N.J., he was working full-time and studying for his engineering degree. Yet he somehow found time to learn to fly a plane!  Why?  Well, pigeons fly, don’t they?

Jimmy in the Marines.Jimmy (right) in the Marines

Armed with his engineering degree, Jimmy eventually rose through the ranks of the New York City Highway Department and other positions to become chief engineer of the Bronx, working, as I said, out of the Borough President’s office. Whatever lunacy and law-breaking we engaged in growing up, once Jimmy was in a position of power, he proved incorruptible. As many told me at one of his retirement parties, Jimmy’s word was his bond. His agreement over the phone could be, literally, taken to the bank. Many projects in the Bronx are the visible results of Jimmy’s efforts.  As boys looking up at the stars, we talked about escape velocity; but Jimmy, unlike the rest of our crowd, never wanted to escape from the Bronx. Instead, he wanted to stay and improve it. And he did. As current Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., remarked in his tribute: “James Cerasoli gained the respect and admiration of all through his tireless work in the Bronx. His signature is imprinted on numerous maps; his work and his memory will live forever.”

Jimmy with David as a baby

That most endearing of Jimmy’s qualities—his intense and lifelong love of animals—bore enduring fruit in improvements to the Bronx Zoo.  In charge of the capital budget, Jimmy made sure the Zoo got its share and more of the borough funds. Our close-knit crowd of two dozen, which has kept in touch for six decades, always loved the Zoo as kids; for us it was an oasis, a Magic Kingdom. When Jimmy and I, with my own family, visited it as adults, Jimmy was treated like a king by those who appreciated his support. Why was the Zoo such a priority?  Of course, it was the borough’s main tourist attraction. But for Jimmy, it was personal. The bank robber Willie Sutton was once asked why he robbed banks. His answer was as famous as Willie himself: “that’s where they keep the money.” For Jimmy, the Zoo was where they keep the animals and, if they had to be in confinement, he wanted to do what he could to insure that they were kept in state-of-the-art comfort and able to enjoy maximum freedom. The big cats are no longer in cages.

Jimmy among the deer at Catskill Game Park.At the Catskill Game Farm

The one photograph his sons submitted for Jimmy’s newspaper obituary shows him, a quarter-century ago and looking much younger than his 52 years, feeding deer at the Catskill Game Farm (closed, sadly, in 2006). As his son David rightly said, the photo exemplifies Jimmy’s love of animals. I think that love of animals, especially his doting on his pigeons, even helps explain Jimmy’s liberal politics; he always championed the underdog rather than the predatory and powerful. His pigeon-skills certainly honed the qualities that made this tough athlete and undefeatable street-fighter a loving and nurturing caregiver when he was left with two young boys to raise on his own. He had learned whatever he needed to master in order to care for his pigeons; now he learned whatever he needed to know to take care of his boys—even learning to cook, and to cook well.

Jimmy’s final decade was incredibly difficult, but he fought this terrible and terminal disease with the same courage and skill that he’d once displayed in fist-fights. (He studied multiple myeloma, and soon knew as much about it as his doctors). In this battle, however, he had the support and love of a close-knit family: his sisters Barbara, Arlene and Pinky, his brothers Hank and John and his young sons David and Alex.  For years every Friday was set aside by Hank and John for lunch with Jimmy at a restaurant of John’s choosing.  When I was visiting from upstate, I was invited to join them.

Jimmy Jr. and his wife and three children lived far out on Long Island, but for Jimmy’s 75th birthday, the whole family got together, and again I was invited. Ironically, Alex, who had been at his father’s side virtually every day since he’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, had to be in Florida. But it was good that the rest of us were there, since, just a year later, young Jimmy suddenly died of a heart attack. This was, in many ways, the last twist of the knife. I came down for the first of two wakes, right here at Schuyler Hill. But Jimmy (burdened with an oxygen tank that embarrassed him and which he relegated to Jim McQuade’s office rather than draw attention to himself) had to endure a second wake and funeral out on Long Island.  When I came over to the house the next day, and asked the stupid but inevitable question as to how it had gone, he said, “Pat, I felt feelings I didn’t know I had.” Alex told me that that was the beginning of the end for Jimmy; that much of the fight—and it had been a long and brave fight—went out of him.  David, Hank, and John agreed, and I sensed it myself, though Jimmy tried to maintain a stoic front. I can’t talk here about David’s and Alex’s own relationship to their father because I will be reduced to uncontrollable tears—as Alex was at Jimmy’s deathbed while David, my godson, tried to hold it together.

Jimmy with his three sons.

Terrible as that death was, it was peaceful, and Jimmy, who we think was able to hear us, was surrounded by those who loved him—no small thing.  It seemed to me at the time, and even more so today, that it was particularly appropriate that when his time came, he died in a hospital named for his intellectual hero, Albert Einstein.  The last long conversation I had in Jimmy’s kitchen (I’ll tell you in a moment about our last phone conversation), we talked about Walter Isaacson’s book on Einstein.  I knew why Einstein had (one of his few errors) rejected quantum mechanics; but Jimmy actually understood quantum mechanics! Though Einstein acknowledged that it explained much, he could never bring himself to accept quantum theory because it was random and Einstein was committed to strictly determined mathematical laws of nature. As he famously said, quantum theory “says a lot, but it does not really bring us any closer to the secrets of the old one [der Alte]. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play dice with the Universe.”

 That kind of God-talk led many—especially in his adopted country, America, where he was much beloved and had become a pop-culture icon—to conclude that Einstein believed in a personal God, one who cares about us, is accessible to prayer, and promises (for good or ill) an eternal Afterlife. Einstein did not believe in such a deity. In a letter written to a little girl in the sixth grade who wanted to know, “Do scientists pray?” Einstein, endearingly, took her question seriously. He responded that scientists are not likely to be inclined, in a world where “everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature,” to believe “that events could be influenced by prayers to a supernatural being.” Nevertheless, he continued,

Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe—a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

His God, Einstein told the New York Times, was “Spinoza’s God,” a divinity inseparable from Nature itself—though he was also convinced, like that sublime and “god-intoxicated” yet “atheistic” 17th-century Jewish philosopher, that no matter how we try to “penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature,” we find that, “beyond all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend, is,” said Einstein, “my religion.” That “humble admiration” and “deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” Introduced to the philosophy of Spinoza by his friend Coleridge, William Wordsworth, in “Tintern Abbey,” captured that “presence” (the essence of Spinoza’s pantheism) in deliberately vague but deeply moving lines:

MMMMAnd I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

In 1930, Einstein concluded his credo, “What I Believe,” by defining what he actually meant in calling himself “religious”:

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead….To sense that behind everything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly; this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.

In that sense, and that sense only, Jimmy, an inquiring spirit in the mode of Spinoza and Einstein, was a devoutly religious man—to the very end of his life and beginning from the time when, as kids, he and I gazed out on the water on moonlit or starry nights and then up to the stars themselves. When we were rummaging through Jimmy’s books, Alex showed me something his father had inscribed on the library wall, and which Alex intends to carve out and save: “My improbable God: before Infinity, there is God; after Infinity, there is God.” If that’s not good enough to get into the “religious” cemetery, to hell with them.

Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years2Jimmy facing reality at the kitchen table he was practically chained to in the final years.

I’ll end with that last phone call, and with the final lines of a Wallace Stevens poem, both of which involve deer and, of course, pigeons.  I phoned Jimmy one day while I was looking out the window at my back yard.  Out on the lawn were three deer, a few squirrels, two mourning doves and two pigeons. “How are they interacting?” Jimmy asked, the old enthusiasm still there despite the pain. “Harmoniously,” I said.  But the peaceable kingdom was interrupted.  There’s a 100-foot spruce in my yard and a huge female goshawk (bigger than the males of the species) often nests there. She swooped down. The deer were unnerved, the squirrels scampered to safety, and the mourning doves ducked into the hedge. But the pigeons took off with the hawk in fierce pursuit. I was disturbed, but Jimmy assured me, “don’t worry, she’ll never get them.”  He was right.

This scene prompted me to quote to him over the phone the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” a poem centered on a woman who does not go to church that morning, but instead seeks her religion in nature.  She finds herself in what the poet calls in the final stanza “an old chaos of the Sun, unsponsored”: a beautiful but perishable universe in which we must all die. This is our mortal condition; what are our consolations? Jimmy loved the ending of the poem, finding in it, along with the appreciation of deer and birds, a beautiful and brave death-image, an image that applies, as my friend Barron Boyd recently remarked, to Jimmy’s characteristically courageous acceptance of his own impending descent:

Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness,
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Jimmy, who seemed unconquerable, is gone. But nothing can erase, as Borough President Diaz noted, Jimmy’s permanent “signature imprinted” on the Bronx. That “will live forever,” as will the memories that will be preserved—until our own deaths—in the hearts of family and friends who loved and valued this remarkable and many-sided man. And I will think of my brother-in-spirit as inextinguishable in a more profound sense. When, without that funeral mass, we were denied permission for burial in the Catholic cemetery, we decided to have Jimmy cremated. Back in 1957, when he was 19, Jimmy shared with me a now famous essay in which four astrophysicists argued that the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones, the oxygen we breathe, are the remnants, the ashes, of stars that died in supernova-explosions billions of years ago. When, this summer, we scatter Jimmy’s ashes in Long Island Sound, it will be into water we now know derived in part from a titanic gas cloud older even than our solar system. Out on Hank’s boat, we will be returning Jimmy to the world of nature he loved, and to the cosmos that fascinated him, stardust back to stardust.

Pat Keane/ April 10, 2015

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Afterword: For David and Alex

I returned to Syracuse in time on April 11 to make, I thought, a Curlew Theatre play about W. B. Yeats, for which I’d written an introduction and which was scheduled to be performed at Le Moyne College at 7pm. I didn’t know that while I was in New York City for Jimmy’s death and wake, the time had been changed to 4pm. It was good that I didn’t know, because something rather wonderful happened in my walk over to the college—as I told Kate Costello-Sullivan, Le Moyne’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, in the following email, which I’m now sharing with you.

Dear Kate,

Unaware that the play had already been performed, I left for the college at 6:50. I was walking due west on Salt Springs, thus directly into the setting sun. As I came over the rise in the road, I suddenly found myself looking at 7 or 8 deer: they were just standing there, stopped in the midst of crossing from the college side. I heard two cars coming fast, maybe 100-150 feet behind me. Between the brightness of the sun and the fact that the deer were just over the rise, neither driver could see what was ahead. I jumped out in the middle of the street and started waving. One driver slammed on his brakes, the other swerved onto a lawn alongside the road. The little herd of deer took off. The drivers understood.

When I got to the college, the doors were locked. I tried another possible venue, and that’s when I saw a poster, with the time, 4:00, and featuring a line excerpted from one of Yeats’s finest poems: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” I’d felt pretty good about the deer episode right off. But as I started walking back, it dawned on me that if I hadn’t been precisely where I was at precisely that moment, one or both of those cars would have plowed into the deer.

My friend Jimmy had been cremated that morning. As I’d emphasized in my eulogy, along with being a legendary fist-fighter when we were growing up, Jimmy was, among other things, a deep and lifelong lover of animals. Later, as Borough Engineer of the Bronx, in charge of the capital budget, Jimmy was responsible for many improvements in the Bronx Zoo. He hated the idea of animals in captivity; but if they were to be confined, he was determined to insure that they were comfortable and enjoyed maximum freedom. And they do.

Jimmy kept and flew pigeons from the time he was in grade-school; and on his last visit up to see me, he loved seeing the deer in my back yard. I ended my eulogy with the final lines of Stevens’s “Sunday Morning,” beginning, “Deer walk upon our mountains,” and ending with pigeons, at evening, making “Ambiguous undulations as they sink/ Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”

I don’t believe in miracles, but I’d been despondent walking over to see the play—a play that, as it happened, had already been performed. Thus, I had no reason to be on that road at 6:50. You apologized, Kate, for not getting my phone call in time to stop me. I’m obviously delighted that you didn’t. Walking back to my house, the more I thought about having “saved” the deer, the more elated I became. I remembered that little Robert Frost poem, “Dust of Snow”:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

That’s what happened to me yesterday. The reminder that we still live “in nature,” with creatures other than ourselves, altered without erasing my sadness at the death of a friend I loved and admired, got in trouble with, and discussed literature and science and religion with, for two-thirds of a century. But last night, going to bed still thinking about those deer, I slept for almost 11 hours—more than the preceding five nights combined. Being on that road at 6:50 was a gift, and it comforts me, even as I’m writing these words, to think, intuitively rather than rationally, that it was a last gift from Jimmy, still watching out for the animals.

—Pat

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Pat Keane and Jimmy.

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

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Apr 122015
 

Last Judgement by Jan van Eyck


“Consider a little, if you please, unmerciful Doctor, what a theater of Providence this is: by far the greatest part of the human race burning in flames forever and ever. Oh what a spectacle on the stage, worthy of an audience of God and angels! And then to delight the ear, while this unhappy crowd fills heaven and earth with wailing and howling, you have a truly divine harmony.” 
Thomas Burnet, De Statu Mortuorum Et Resurgentium Tractatus, (On the State of the Dead and the Resurrection) posthumously pub. 1720

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George Coyne, S. J., former Director of the Vatican Observatory and currently McDevitt Chair at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, recently repeated to me in conversation a question posed to him by the late Carl Sagan, of Cornell and Cosmos fame. Sagan’s more-than-rhetorical question, as fellow astronomer and seeker, was a compelling one: “Why should you be given the gift of faith, and not me?” Coyne acknowledged that he had no full answer, though he surmised that his reception of the gift of faith had much to do with his own actions, specifically his having read Augustine and Aquinas.

So have I, but, alas, that reading gradually but permanently shook rather than bolstered my faith. Listening to Fr. Coyne’s report of his response to Sagan, I recalled being disturbed, as a student at Fordham University, by the insistence of Augustine that since humanity is stained with a primal sin, we are utterly dependent on God’s grace, a position that seemed to severely limit human freedom. As Peter Brown notes in his magisterial biography, Augustine of Hippo (1967, updated in 2000), the idea of an ancient transgression as an explanation for present misery was current in both pagan and Christian thought. And Augustine was, of course, steeped in Paul, especially the Epistle to the Romans, and haunted by Paul’s Adamic argument that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5:12-13). This is a succinct statement of what would become known as Original Sin, a doctrine we associate in particular with Augustine, who, I couldn’t help feeling, spun it, whatever its pagan and Pauline antecedents, primarily out of his own entrails. Convinced that only divine grace could curb a libidinal drive he often felt personally powerless to control, Augustine, on the basis of his own sexual psychology, extrapolated a universal doctrine of primal sin, inherited guilt, and absolute dependence on the grace of God.

Augustine -Jaume_Huguet_Consecration_of_Saint_AugustineConsecration of Saint Augustine by Jaume Huguet

The result was a biographical-theological mélange that minimized, without utterly excluding, the role of individual free will. Even when he gestures toward free will, the pessimistic Augustine emphasizes the wrong choice, that of the lower rather than the higher. In a notably Neoplatonic passage in Book 12 of The City of God, he observes that “when the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil, not because that to which it turns is evil, but because the turning itself is wicked.” That wicked turning, which began in Eden, reduces the whole of fallen humanity to what Augustine calls a sinful “lump” [massa]. The allusion is to Paul’s Potter-God molding a “lump” of clay (Rom 9:20-21), but Augustine goes beyond Paul, for whom the lump has no right to question its Maker, who chooses willy-nilly to produce “vessels” reflecting his “mercy,” or “vessels of wrath made for destruction” (Rom 9:22-23). Mere clay is not low enough for Augustine, for whom postlapsarian humanity is a collective “lump” of sinful and damnable filth—massa peccata, massa perditionis, massa damnata (Enchiridion, 98-107). In his treatise “On Grace and Free Will” (426-27), Augustine writes that while “God foreknows what we are going to will in the future, it does not thereby follow that we are not willing something freely” (255). But his emphasis is always less on human than divine will, with salvation a free and foreordained gift of God, given gratis and independent of a person’s individual merit. Reading the newly discovered letters Peter Brown printed in the 2000 update of his biography, I was less than fully persuaded by his claim that they substantiate Augustine’s place as the “inventor of the modern notion of the will.”

On Grace and Free WillSt. Augustine by Antonello da Messina

“Those who love [God] are called according to his purpose,” and “those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:28-30). This passage from Romans clearly contributed to Augustine’s own version of predestination, which intensified in the later phases of his increasingly furious combat with Pelagius and his followers. When I first read Augustine’s anti-Pelagian tracts, I connected them with another obsessive and sustained assault I was studying at the same time in a Fordham history course: Edmund Burke’s protracted attempt (1788-95, the longest trial in British history) to convict the impeached Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India. In the end, though he was financially ruined, Hastings was not convicted: an acquittal, fumed Burke, who had stressed the “moral” dimension of Hastings’s alleged “corruption,” which redounded to “the perpetual infamy” of the House of Lords.

Augustine’s equally fervid confrontation was with the infamy of Pelagianism, embodied in Julian (380-455), the bishop of Eclanum, and the semi-Pelagian monk John Cassian, both of whom, in responding to Augustine, gave as good as they got. Like the British monk Pelagius and Julian, Cassian, an ardent disciple of Origin, emphasized human capability and responsibility in actively co-operating with God: a mixture of optimism and insistence on human agency that provoked the now elderly and crusty bishop of Hippo into angry responses, including his most extreme assertions of precisely what the Pelagians had accused him of: predestination. Or so I saw it; and though my Jesuit professors at Fordham suggested otherwise, I begged (mostly quietly) to differ. When, two years after I graduated, I read Gerald Bonner’s Saint Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1963, rev. 1986), I felt vindicated. Bonner admires Augustine and the best part of his book is his informed and balanced account of the Pelagian controversy (also discussed at length in Part IV of Peter Brown’s biography), which makes his conclusion, a mixture of admission and dismissal, all the more compelling: “Augustinian predestination is not the doctrine of the Church but only the opinion of a distinguished Catholic theologian” (592).

Bonner

Obsessed with the monstrous transgression of Adam and Eve, transmitted as Original Sin, and by his theology of grace, did late Augustine plunge into the heretical pitfall of strict predestination? Certainly his pessimistic view of fallen human nature, darkened by the contemptu mundi perspective he had inherited from the Neoplatonists and the Stoics and by his own idiosyncratic emphasis on the role of sexual reproduction in transmitting Original Sin, led Augustine to claim that our natural proclivity is toward evil and that all our impulses to good are dependent on God’s grace. What makes his position darker still is Augustine’s post-Pauline insistence that the decision on God’s part as to who receives this grace is, as the word itself suggests, gratis—gratuitous, arbitrary.

According to Augustine (and Aquinas after him), while God wills the salvation of all, certain souls are granted special grace that in effect foreordains their redemption. But “why one is called and the other not” has to do with the “inscrutability” of God. “Why God draws this one and not that other,” Augustine admonishes, “seek not to know or to judge.” And later in the treatise I am citing, in a chapter titled “The Difficulty of the Distinctions Made in the Choice of One and the Rejection of Another,” he concludes that we have no right to question God and that “he who is condemned has no ground for finding fault” (De dono perseverantiae, chapter 16). Augustine is alluding to those “called according to” God’s “purpose” in Rom 8:29-30, and to a passage he specifically cites: Paul’s rhetorical question, “who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me thus?’” (Rom 9:20).

Boethius.consolation.philosophyAn early printed version of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy 

In short, Augustine restates rather than responds to the crucial question posed by Carl Sagan to Fr. Coyne: “Why have you been given the gift of faith, and not me?” Though, as with countless others over the past millennium and a half, I found help on this issue in the lucid prose and dialogue form of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, as a sophomore in college, I was hardly equipped to unravel the paradoxical relationship between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. So “Seek not to know”: simply accept the idea that, by means of his mysterious “grace,” an all-foreseeing God—who made his decision before the oceans rolled, indeed before “time” itself— “predestined those he called” to eternal life, leaving others in their sin, but “justly” condemned as a result, paradoxically, of their own “choice.” Wherever one finally comes down on this simultaneously fascinating and repellent issue, Augustine more than flirted with the unspeakably horrible doctrine of predestination as it later culminated in Luther, an Augustinian monk after all, and, especially, Calvin, who claimed he could have written an entire book “out of Augustine alone” to justify his theology, a theology based on the adamant insistence that while “some,” the so-called Elect, are “predestined unto everlasting life,” all “others” are “preordained to everlasting death.” That is to say, hell—about which Augustine himself has much to say.

In The City of God, Augustine distinguished between the Last Judgment and a Particular Judgment (which he illustrates with the story, in Matt. 16:19-31, of poor Lazarus and Dives, the rich man who had turned the beggar from his door and now, dead and suffering in the flames of Hades, begs Lazarus for a drop of water.) There may be hope following the “first death” and the Particular Judgment, but after the “second death” and the Last Judgment, reward or punishment is irrevocable and eternal. Citing scripture, Augustine resisted those who argued, or at least hoped, that hell’s punishment, however fierce, would not be eternal. It would be both, he insisted—basing his position, as always, on the Original Sin in Eden:

Hell, also called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned, whether men or devils—the solid bodies of the one, and the aerial bodies of the others; [for] the evil spirits, even without bodies, will be so connected to the fires as to receive pain….One fire certainly shall be the lot of both…eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions, because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that purest and highest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed by that first transgression. (The City of God, Books 10, 21)

Augustine, writing in 426, is more severe than Yahweh himself, who told the perpetrators of that “first transgression,” Adam and Eve, that they would “die” if they ate of the forbidden fruit, not that they were risking eternal torment in hell. To be as literal as the literalists, an eternity of pain cannot be the fate even of their son, the first murderer, since anyone who killed Cain would suffer punishment “seven times greater” than his own. In fact, from Genesis on, there is no clear reference in the Hebrew scriptures to a place of eternal punishment. Christian preachers often allude to, or actually cite, Old Testament passages. But while they habitually turn “Sheol” and the dark valley of “Gehenna” into figurative equivalents of “hell,” no Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into English does so. The most “hellish” text—handled gingerly by Jewish scholars, but seized on with relish by Christian exegetes eager to prove the eternal punishment of the wicked—is the rhetorically magnificent but horrific climax of the Book of Isaiah. There the Lord says that he will make a “new heavens and new earth” for the faithful, who shall “go forth and look on the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (66:23-24).

That final verse, the one Hebrew text on which a doctrine of eternal torment can be based, “is so gruesome,” John Sawyer notes in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993), “that in Jewish custom the preceding verses about ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ are repeated after it, to end the reading on a more hopeful and at the same time more characteristically Isaianic note” (327). Countless Christian theologians and preachers went in the decidedly un-hopeful other direction, harping on, and taking sadistic relish in, Isaiah’s imagery as proof of eternal punishment. As we’ll later see, in the unforgettable Hell-sermon at the center of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s Fr. Arnall not only cites Isaiah’s worm and stench, but takes for granted that they are sensuous aspects of eternal anguish, climaxing in that “quenchless fire.” Yet it could be argued that even in his most “gruesome” image, Isaiah refers to rotting and noxious carcasses, “an abhorrence to all flesh,” not to the rebels’ continuing personality—nephesh, the soul or living being—which alone could be subject to eternal torment.

Augustine’s central ideas often had horrible consequences. In an early public debate “Against Fortunatus” (August, 392), he had declared, “There are two kinds of evil—sin and the penalty for sin” (Earlier Writings, ed. Burleigh [1950], 15). Since we are all allegedly stained from birth with Original Sin, what penalty is to be suffered by infants who die before being baptized? The Church, understandably, has long anguished over this issue—beginning as early as the 4th century, with the treatise on the early death of infants (De infantibus praemature abreptis libellum) by Gregory of Nyssa, an early believer in universal reconciliation. To my dismay, I soon discovered that the dilemma persisted long after Gregory’s attempt to humanely resolve it. A millennium later, the great Council of Trent (1545-65), famed for its lucid definitions, concluded, in its fifth session, that, “Infants, unless regenerated unto God through the grace of baptism, whether their parents be Christian or infidels, are born to eternal misery and perdition [perditionis aeternum].”

Council_of_Trent_by_Pasquale_CatiCouncil of Trent by Pasquale Cati

There have been many intellectual efforts, notably including the desperate if humane hypothesis of the now defunct Limbo (on which the theological doors closed in late 2005), to get the babies out of hell. But even the eminent thinkers subsequently gathered in the Vatican to form, in 2007, an International Theological Commission, though reading the “signs of the times,” could offer only a wistful “Hope”—to cite the final subtitle of the concluding section (“Spes Orans: Reasons for Hope”) of their lengthy and learned final document. Their inconclusive Conclusion was that, “there are strong theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation.”

Such are the fruits of the toxic doctrine of Original Sin, as promulgated, above all, by Augustine, whose preeminence as a theological juggernaut eclipsed all rivals until the advent of Aquinas. For the formidable but bleak Bishop of Hippo, no one was exempt from punishment “unless delivered” by an inscrutable God’s “mercy” and by “grace,” which was “undeserved.” And those delivered will be a minority. Jesus himself distinguished between the narrow-gated road that will lead the “few” to salvation and the broad-gated road that will lead the “many” to destruction (Matt 7:13-14). An echoing Augustine, consigning the bulk of humanity to perdition, writes, “Many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it in order”—he adds, setting up damnation as a grim example even for those who made the cut through no merit of their own—“that it may be shown what was due to all” (City of God, Book 22). In short, because of Original Sin, we are all guilty, and deserving of hell. And when that stain has not been cleansed by the sanctifying grace of baptism, it follows, and Augustine unhesitatingly followed that appalling logic—even if the prospect of babies in hell is more hideous than the doctrine of predestination itself— that unbaptized infants must be damned: a singularly atrocious example of what “was due to all.”

The most gifted and persistent opponent of Augustine on infant perdition, indeed on Original Sin root and branch, was Julian of Eclanum, the most prominent second-generation follower of Pelagius. His writings have been preserved, primarily and ironically, by Augustine himself, who quoted freely from Julian’s attack on the doctrine of Original Sin in his own refutation, contra Julianum Pelagianum. In countering Augustine’s dark view of human nature and sexuality, Julian went to the other extreme, his optimism verging on perfectionism. He also set against Augustine’s emphasis on eternal punishment his own version of ultimate reconciliation: a theory of universal salvation (apocastasis) first fully worked out by Origen (c. 185-254), the most brilliant and radical student of Clement of Alexandria. Origen’s belief that through Christ’s sacrifice even Satan might be redeemed (restored by the refining fires to his original angelic state as Lucifer) led the Christian bishops gathered at the Synod of Constantinople in 543 to condemn anyone who said or thought that “there is a time limit to the torments of demons and ungodly persons,…or that they will ever be pardoned or made whole again.” The target was Origen, posthumously excommunicated at this Synod, and, for good measure, at subsequent synods in 553, 680, 787, and 869.

Keane5Nave of Church of the Gesù by Giovanni Battista Gaulli

Julian was himself excommunicated by Pope Celestine in 430, the year of Augustine’s death, for earlier refusing to sign on to Pope Zosimus’s excommunication of Pelagius. But despite the contemporary and historical triumph of his rival, Julian’s rejection of Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and his revulsion from the idea of unbaptized infants roasting in hellfire has always seemed to me a welcome alternative to the somber broodings of the Bishop of Hippo. In Book 6 of his contra Julianum Pelagianum, responding to the final Book of Julian’s treatise, Augustine had reasserted his position that, because of collective guilt stemming from the sin of Adam, the inherited “contagion” of Original Sin, “infants who die without the grace of regeneration [the sole source of which is the sanctification of baptism] are excluded from the kingdom of God.” I continue to share Julian’s humane indignation at Augustine’s presuming to speak for God in condemning infants. By an intriguing accident, the theological and ad hominem attack I quote here survives only because it happened to be among the unfinished work on Augustine’s desk at the time of his death:

Tiny babies, you say, are not weighed down by their own sin, but are burdened with the sin of another. Tell me then, who is this person who inflicts punishment on innocent creatures? …you answer God. God, you say, God! He who commanded His love to us, who has not spared His own Son for us…He it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who sends tiny babies to eternal flames….It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far, indeed, from mere common sense, in that you think your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians. (Opus imperfectum contra Julianum, I. 48ff)

As revealed by the final report of the theologians convened in Rome in 2007, the Catholic Church has still not found a definitive way to extricate itself from this grotesque spectacle. The Commission labored, and brought forth a mouse—a “hope” that the babies might be saved, but a hope lacking any “explicit” scriptural basis. What, one wonders, about Jesus, who, indignant at his disciples’ attempt to rebuke those who were “bringing children to him, that he might touch them,” insisted (in all three synoptic Gospels), “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14; cf. Matt 19:14, Luke 18:16). Or, moving beyond scripture, one wishes these male theologians had been moved by the account of the third-century martyr, Perpetua, who envisioned, in her own prison-cell, her younger brother (who had died as an unbaptized child) liberated from a place of heat and thirst, and now, thanks to her prayers, drinking at a pool and “playing joyously as young children do.” Or, finally, why not take into account Julian’s rebuke of Augustine for lacking “religious” or “civilized” feeling, mere “common sense” and “justice”?

But the deliberations of these 21st-century theologians were dominated and (to my mind) warped by Original Sin, much of its obsessive doctrinal burden to be tracked back to fifth-century Hippo. For all his indisputable greatness, this is part of Augustine’s ambiguous legacy. Historically and officially, the Catholic Church may have denied, downplayed, or backed away from, the more extreme of Augustine’s doctrinal obsessions; but because of his sheer intellectual power and the magnitude of his authority, he has cast a shadow over the past 1,600 years of Western Christianity, for me, a remarkably dark shadow. Augustine’s particular pessimistic vision was shaped by his own sexually-obsessed psychology, the theological controversies in which he engaged, and, of course, by his response to the history he witnessed in an age of barbarian invasions, culminating in the Fall of Rome in 410, and the siege of Hippo itself in the final years of Augustine’s life. But one wishes that readers, especially theologians, who have adopted or succumbed to the Augustinian darkness would also have remembered the following sentence: “Here also is a lamentable darkness in which the capacities within me are hidden from myself, so that when my mind questions itself about its own powers, it cannot be assured that its answers are to be believed” (Confessions, Book 10:32).

An admirable questioning of his own certitudes, but hardly enough to make up for the subsequent damage caused by Augustinian “answers” that were “believed” by far too many for far too long. While the Confessions and parts of The City of God remain indelible in my memory, the reading of Augustine certainly failed to bestow upon me—as it did upon George Coyne, to revert to his response to Carl Sagan—the “gift of faith.”

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Whatever his inclination toward predestination and his insistence on the eternity of punishment (even of the little ones Jesus wanted near him), Augustine seems rather dispassionate about the actual witnessing of that punishment. He does remark that those who enter into the joy of the Lord “shall know what is going on outside in the outer darkness” and that the saints, “whose knowledge is great,” shall be “acquainted…with the sufferings of the lost” (The City of God, Books 20, 22). But he doesn’t seem to have taken sadistic pleasure in the torments of the damned. That ultimate form of Schadenfreude, and another pivotal challenge to my faith, was awaiting me in the pages of the other theologian cited by George Coyne as a pillar of his faith: Thomas Aquinas.

Keane2An image from the Winchester Psaltery (c. 1225)

I learned a great deal from working through the Summa Theologiae, my reading of which began in 1958, the very year George Coyne himself graduated from Fordham. Indeed, for a time I re-oriented my thinking, replacing Augustine’s Christianizing of Plato (or, rather, the Neoplatonists) with Thomas’s Christianizing of Aristotle. Then, one fateful day, I came upon a passage in the Third Part of the Summa, Supplement, Question 94, First Article, titled “Whether the Blessed in Heaven Will See the Sufferings of the Damned.” Here, the good Doctor tells us that “Beati in regno coelesti videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitudo illis magis complaceat [The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will be allowed to see the sufferings of the damned in order that their bliss may be more delightful to them].

More than a half-century later, I can still recall my shock in encountering words I found morally repellent. In the years to come, I would, like all of us, encounter innumerable examples, ranging from the pettiest to the most malicious, of people taking pleasure in the temporal misfortune, even the suffering, of others. And literature provided still more illustrations. I was struck, in reading The Iliad, by those panoramic scenes of the Homeric gods looking down from Olympus, taking pleasure in the entertainment provided by the spectacular carnage of the Trojan War. I was aware, too, of a famous passage in a favorite text, De rerum natura, where Lucretius captures the emotion of Schadenfreude in an extended image: Suave, mari magno turbanti aequora ventus, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem [It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds]. At the same time I was reading Augustine and Aquinas, I was also deep into the Romantic poets. And so I was familiar with Lord Byron’s moving portrait of the Gothic gladiator, torn from his native land, his children, and his wife, and now about to die in the Coliseum, “Butchered to make a Roman Holiday!” (Though there was a scene outside the Coliseum in the 1953 Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck film, Roman Holiday, it seems unlikely that whoever titled this delightful and poignant movie had the full Byronic context of the phrase in mind.)

In light of the very different, but Coliseum-related, passage I will soon be quoting from Tertullian, it is worth noting that this butchery to please the bloodthirsty Roman spectators is not the only Schadenfreude-moment in this famous passage from Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The spectacle of the dying German gladiator, a sacrifice that pleased the sadistic Roman crowd safe in their seats, aroused the compassion, and stirred the anger, of the anti-imperialist poet: “Shall he expire, / And unavenged? Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire!” And the passage ends on a final note of commendable Byronic Schadenfreude: a glimpse of “Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill”—a sort of proleptic vision of vengeance Byron empathetically shares with his coerced and slain gladiator.

Lord_Byron_Childe_Harold's_Pilgimage

But in 1958, for all my delvings into theology, philosophy, and literature as a member of the advanced “A” Class at Fordham, I was still an inexperienced naif from the Bronx and a practicing Catholic. To encounter this passage about the bliss of the blessed being enhanced by delighting in the torments of the damned, coming from, of all people, Catholicism’s central philosopher-theologian, stunned me—especially since elsewhere in the Summa (Second Part, Question 74), Aquinas identifies delectatio morosa [morose delectation] as a sin. In fact, I was still disturbed enough a year later to finally seek out a particularly eminent Jesuit on campus, who referred me to literature on what has been called “the Abominable Fancy.”

farrarFrederick Farrar

The term, coined by the 19th-century cleric and writer, Frederick Farrar, refers to what I learned was a long-standing Christian idea that witnessing the sufferings of the doomed intensified the bliss of the saved. Farrar himself was a believer in universal reconciliation, a position he defended at length in Eternal Hope (1879) and Mercy and Judgment (1881). In his 1963 book The Decline of Hell, D. P. Walker remarks that the idea of eternal punishment in hell (a tradition “almost unchallenged” until the 17th century) was often accompanied by the idea that “part of the happiness of the blessed consists in contemplating the torments of the damned.” He offered a persuasive double-explanation: “The sight gives them joy because it is a manifestation of God’s justice and hatred of sin, but chiefly because it provides a contrast which heightens their awareness of their own bliss.” Nevertheless, echoing Farrar, he describes it as a particularly “abominable aspect of the traditional doctrine of hell” (29).

Advocates of what Farrar and Walker condemn as an abomination cite scriptural roots, some tenuous in terms of eternal vengeance. In Psalms, for example, “the righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance” (58:10) and, in 68:2-3, when the “wicked perish before God,” the righteous shall “be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy.” In a favorite phrase of devotees of the abominable fancy, the righteous shall “go forth” to enjoy the suffering of the damned, an allusion to the famous finale (Isaiah 66:24), in which the faithful “go forth and look” on the rotting corpses of the rebellious; as earlier noted, the reference may be restricted to mutable bodies rather than eternal souls. But in the more explicit and far more vengeful New Testament Book of Revelation, we are informed not only that, thanks to an avenging God, the saints and prophets” shall “rejoice” over the fallen city of Rome (18:20), but that the vengeance announced by the Third Angel will be eternal and witnessed by the whole of the heavenly host, including Jesus: a gazing-down scene popular in ancient and medieval iconography. Whoever “worships the beast,” thunders the Apocalyptist, “shall drink the wine of God’s wrath,” and “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (14:9-11).

This is presumably the passage to which Thomas Burnet was alluding in ironically describing the “divine harmony” produced by the burning of most of humankind in “the presence of an audience of God and angels.” But another text Burnet may have had in mind in satirizing the delight of that “audience” enjoying the agonies of the damned as an infernal “spectacle on the stage,” is the very book to which my Jesuit mentor directed me without further comment: Tertullian’s De Spectaculis, “On the Spectacles,” perhaps the most sustained and sensational illustration of the Abominable Fancy. I repaired to the old Duane Library and found the text, newly translated by Rudolph Arbesmann, and included in Tertullian: Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works (Fordham UP, 1959). Pagan public spectacles, such as those in the Coliseum, are despicable. Thus far, Tertullian and the Byron who elegized the dying gladiator are in agreement. But their versions of Schadenfreude could hardly be more antithetical.

ByronPortrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips

Rebelling against but haunted by Calvinist indoctrination and harangued by a pious mother and scripture-spouting nurses, Byron was simultaneously shadowed by the fear that he was predestined to damnation and appalled, on humane grounds, by the very concept of eternal punishment. In serious works, like his great closet drama Cain, he identified with the title character and even with rebel Lucifer; and in his jocoserious moments, especially in his two ottava rima comical masterpieces, Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment, Byron mocked aspects of a religion whose catechism he knew more intimately than most believers, praising Jesus but targeting Christian cant and cruelty. In Don Juan, he dealt with the pitiless but pious burning of heretics in a single wittily-rhymed couplet: “Christians have burned each other, quite persuaded/ That all the Apostles would have done as they did” (I.83). And in stanza 14 of The Vision of Judgment, he displays a universalist tolerance and compassion alien to Tertullian’s relish in the agony of the damned: “I know,” says Byron at his ironic best, “this is unpopular; I know/ ‘Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damn’d/ For hoping no one else may e’er be so….”

TertullianTertullian

Here, at last, is Tertullian on Spectacles. The greatest, and by far the most entertaining, spectacle of all, he gloats in Chapter 30, will be the Final Judgment, when the mighty of the world shall be consumed in flame. (In the extraordinary passage that follows I do not adhere to any single translation):

You are fond of spectacles? Expect the greatest of all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe. How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs and fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded pupils; so many celebrated poets trembling not before the judgment-seat of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of Christ—a surprise! So many tragedians, more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings, should be worth hearing! Dancers and comedians skipping in the fire will be worth praise! The famous charioteer will toast on his fiery wheel; the athletes will cartwheel not in the gymnasium but in flames….

The scenes in which he exults, taking “greater delight…than in a circus,” are in the future. “Yet even now,” Tertullian concludes, “we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination”—just such a topsy-turvy “picturing” as he has here vividly presented. In this reversal, the pagan gods are supplanted by Christ (as in Milton’s “Nativity Ode”), pagan thought and art by the new religion, present suffering by future bliss. Oppressed by prideful pagan masters who tortured and martyred them in public spectacles, Christians will have the last vengeful laugh, looking down, as it were, from the good seats in the Heavenly Coliseum, at the “greatest of all spectacles,” the fiery Hell of the Last Judgment.

Though Tertullian’s fervid and vindictive rhetoric, a masterpiece of Schadenfreude, was reduced by Arbesmann (in a footnote) to “a colorful description of the millennium,” it had been, I soon discovered, singled out by Edward Gibbon for special censure. In his great history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon notes that early Christian hatred of “idolatrous” pagan spectacles and games embraced all pagan art and scholarship—an eternal condemnation, at the very least of those who persisted in their obstinacy after the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross. “These rigid sentiments,” writes Gibbon, “which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony…[T]he Christians who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph.” After citing at length the “stern Tertullian” of chapter 30 of De Spectaculis, Gibbon adds: “But the humanity of the reader will permit me to draw a veil over the rest of this infernal description, which the zealous African [Tertullian is believed to have been born or at least raised in Carthage, in Roman North Africa] pursues in a long variety of affected and unfeeling witticisms.” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 15)

As intended by the Jesuit who had directed me to it, the passage of Tertullian placed Aquinas’s comment in historical and religious context, that of imperial Rome in the 3rd century AD (De Spectaculis was probably written in the second decade of that century, after Tertullian had allied himself with the prophetic Montanist sect). But that context did not make the statement of Aquinas, a millennium later, any less repellent; and Gibbon’s humane rejection of the “resentment and spiritual pride” into which Tertullian had clearly been “seduced” tallied with my own aversion from the echoing passage in Aquinas. Tertullian’s relishing of this one “spectacle” may also be echoed in another passage likely to have influenced Aquinas. The pre-Thomistic scholastic theologian Peter Lombard, in his Sentences (Libri quatuor sententiarum), written in the mid-twelfth century, speaks of the “elect” sallying forth to witness “the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved,” but rather “will be satiated with joy at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious” (Sentences, IV. 50).

But the more I looked into the abyss, the more I realized the extent to which the retributive hell envisioned in the Sentences and in the Summa had been preceded not only by Tertullian, but, minus an emphasis on the gloating bliss of the saved, by Paul and, with wrath rather than sadistic resentment, by Jesus himself. On eternal punishment, Paul goes into less detail than does Jesus and the author of the Book of Revelation. In the remarkably intense opening chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians, however, Paul foreshadows the apocalyptic fury of Revelation, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire inflicting vengeance” on those “who do not know God” or who “do not obey” Christ’s gospel: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:8-9).

Early in Romans, his longest and most influential letter and the one in which he has most to say about divine wrath, Paul observes that while “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance,” those with hard and impenitent hearts are “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath,” when “there will be “tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (2:6-10). As we have seen, the Potter-God analogy (Rom 9:21-23) imprinted itself indelibly on the rather fevered imagination of Augustine, who turned Paul’s “lump of clay” into a sinful, filthy, and doomed “lump”: massa peccata, massa perditionis, massa damnata. Even though he makes it clear that the clay vessels are preordained for either glory or destruction, Paul strikes a better balance than the Bishop of Hippo:

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and anther for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of his mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…?” (9:20-23)

Paul advises us, still later in Romans (12:17), “Do not repay evil for evil.” But there is a catch; we are to forego personal vengeance in order to “leave room for God’s wrath.” In this way, by refusing to “take revenge” against your enemy, “you will heap burning coals on his head” (12:18-21). Moderate commentators have sought to make the final and most graphic image more palatable, suggesting that it refers to a form of ceremonial repentance or a shaming of one’s enemies. Perhaps. But when, in Paul’s likely source (Psalms 25:21-22), David cries out, “May burning coals fall upon them,” he is not talking about merely shaming his enemies. He is invoking what Paul (in the very epistle in which he has most to say about the subject) has just referred to as “God’s wrath.”

Divine wrath was certainly emphasized by Jesus, who—despite his embodiment of the Love thought to be the very antithesis of the God of Wrath—spoke more, and far more graphically, about Hell than about Heaven. In an unforgettable passage (John 10:7-10), Jesus presents himself as the “door” to salvation, as the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” as he who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” In the light of such moving and redemptive imagery, one wants to repress the darker side of Jesus’ ministry. My heart and head are with nuanced theologians, yet it seems to me that Jesus is speaking (or being made to speak by the Gospel-authors) literally rather than (as many would prefer) figuratively in those passages in which he opens the mouth of hell.

For the “door” swings both ways. In the passage I earlier suggested was echoed by Augustine in observing that “many more” are punished than are “delivered,” Jesus said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14). The road most traveled by (and Jesus does suggest that most of humanity is on the road to perdition) leads to a hell that is a place of both “darkness” and flame, a “fiery furnace” where (in a phrase attributed repeatedly to Jesus, mostly in Matthew, to describe the torments of the damned) there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12, 22:17, 25:30; cf. Luke13:27-28). And when Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41), the departure implies more than separation from God and is obviously permanent. The damned are “cast into eternal fire” (Matt 8:18) its flames “unquenchable” (Matt 3:12, Luke 3:17, Mark 9:43). Thus, the “many” depart to a place of agony both intense and “everlasting”—the Greek word for which, aionios, occurs 71 times in the New Testament.

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That the adjective “everlasting” is applied in the New Testament to Heaven as well as Hell points to the Love/Wrath symmetry that ostensibly reconciles the great paradox: that eternal punishment is not inconsistent with the character of God, who is at once loving and benevolent, but also righteous and a God of justice, who metes out punishment as well as reward. The radiance of Jesus shines through the Gospels, despite such passages. But whether or not the hellfire passages accurately depict what Jesus actually said, they are there, and cannot simply be selectively dismissed by those who want a gentler Jesus—a Savior, but not a Sentencer. A major 19th- century theologian tried to do just that. The moderate and much-admired Anglican F. D. Maurice was dismissed from his position as Professor of Theology and Modern History at Kings College, London, when his Theological Essays of 1853 revealed his growing conviction that the notion of eternal punishment was erroneous, and based on a misunderstanding of biblical passages. Others went farther.

Frederick_Denison_Maurice._Portrait_c1865F.D. Maurice

In accord with their optimistic doctrine of apokatastasis, the idea of eternal punishment was rejected by prominent theologians, from Origen through Gregory of Nyssa, Julian, Scotus Erigena, and George MacDonald, whose 1879 rejection of the idea of eternal punishment cost him his post, as it had Maurice—in MacDonald’s case, his Church of Scotland pulpit. Such universalists, right up to the present, believe that divine Love will conquer all. In the words of Rowan Williams, the controversial former Archbishop of Canterbury, “if salvation is for any, it is for all” (The Truce of God [2005], 30). Yet the idea of universal redemption also reminds me rather too much of the Dodo Bird’s response to Alice’s query about how—since the runners in the race they are watching start when and where they want—a winner can be determined: “Everybody has won,” says the Dodo, unconsciously launching a thousand theses on moral equivalence, “and all must have prizes” (Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 3).

Alice_John_Tenniel_Alice and Dodo by John Tenniel

Others, seldom with the resentment-fueled malice of Tertullian, want a judgmental Jesus, since it seems only just that the wicked be punished, if not in this life, then in the next. For those more repelled than awed by the idea of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” the punishment is justified on the basis of the free will minimized by Augustine. Human beings are free to accept or reject Christ’s offer of salvation. C. S. Lewis is emphatic about this choice. But while he bases his argument on freedom to choose, and wishes hell away, its horrors are presented with all of Lewis’s considerable imaginative power. He also grimly notes, in The Problem of Pain (1940), that our final choice is irrevocable and that “the gates of hell are locked from the inside” (127). Free will is also stressed by prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, in God and Other Minds (1990), and elsewhere. Free choice was starkly presented in 2005 by Robert Jeffress, in Hell? Yes!—a cleverly glib title synopsizing his Schadenfreude-dripping certitude that “every occupant of hell will be there by his own choice” (85).

hell-yes-book

The smug, stony coldness of that verdict is intensified by the fact that the hell of the secularist-baiting Jeffress (as well as of Lewis and Plantinga) is “everlasting.” Even if punishment of sin is thought justifiable, surely eternal damnation, Augustine notwithstanding, is disproportionate given the brevity of human life; and grotesque in the case of those for whom history and geography ruled out knowing let alone choosing Christ. I am chilled by the thought that the gates of hell are “locked from the inside” and that every inmate “will be there by his own choice.” Nevertheless, as a professor opposed to grade inflation, I am with Alice rather than the Dodo. I also confess to being oddly stirred by the frisson of a remark the poet and Catholic convert Lionel Johnson, “his tongue loosened” by drink, once made in casual conversation with his friend Yeats: “I wish those who deny eternity of punishment could realize their own unspeakable vulgarity.” My response is precisely that of Yeats, who adds, “I remember laughing when he said it, but for years I turned it over in my mind, and it always made me uneasy” (private note, published in T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats [1950], 291). But even in Johnson’s remark we find hauteur and hyperbole rather than the flippant coldness of the author of Hell? Yes!, let alone the sadism and resentment Gibbon condemned in Tertullian’s catalogue of pagans groaning in darkness and liquefying in fire—to say nothing of his other “unfeeling witticisms” at the expense, for example, of the tragic poets now burning in hell, who have grown “more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings.”

There is no dearth of preachers who take an unseemly pleasure in terrifying, or gratifying, their audiences with fire and brimstone. Celebrated theologians, perhaps most prominent among them Jonathan Edwards, have delivered sermons depicting the terrors of the pit of hell to motivate their flocks to repent and be saved. Edwards was, along with the more flamboyant George Whitefield, the key figure in the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s in America. Speaking softly, he terrified those attending his classic 1741 Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:

The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive the wicked! The flames do now rage and glow. The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way one hold a spider or some loathsome insect, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. (Works, VII, 499)

And, however intellectually enlightened he may have been, Edwards was an enthusiastic advocate of the abominable fancy. The “view of the misery of the damned,” he proclaims in an April 1739 sermon, “will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven,” for whom the “sight of hell torments will exalt [their] happiness… forever (“The Eternity of Hell Torments”). A close disciple of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), though a humanitarian activist motivated by disinterested benevolence (indeed, an opponent of the slave trade who envisioned establishing colonies in Africa for liberated slaves), was rather less humane in contemplating the divine design involving hell, and the psychological as well as retributive purpose it served. He was even more explicit than his mentor Edwards about the suffering—specifically, the eternal suffering—of others being required to maximize the happiness of the blessed:

The display of the divine character will be most entertaining to all who love God, [and] will give them the highest and most ineffable pleasure. Should the fire of this eternal punishment cease, it would in a great measure obscure the light of heaven, and put an end to a great part of the happiness and glory of the blessed. (Works, 458)

Of course, to “all who love God,” there was also a “world of love” awaiting. Jonathan Edwards concluded his 1738 sermon, “Heaven is a World of Love,” by conditionally assuring his listeners, “if ever you arrive at heaven, faith and love must be the wings which must carry you there.” He would seem to be echoing the 1708 prayer of his fellow Congregationalist, Isaac Watts, whose hymns were known throughout Protestant Christendom:

Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys,
How bright their glories be.

But Watts was also capable, enthusiastically if less characteristically, of attributing the “joys” of those “saints above” to the Abominable Fancy. The following quatrain comes from a hymn that presumably once fired up, or terrified, congregations, but which is seldom sung these days:

What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
When they in glory dwell,
To see the sinner as he rolls
In quenchless flames of hell.

And what if the sinners rolling in quenchless flames happen to be the nearest and dearest of the ransomed? When asked if the saved will not be saddened by seeing loved ones tortured in hell, Martin Luther responded, “Not in the least.” And Johann Gerhard, the leading Lutheran theologian of the 17th century, observed that “the Blessed will see their friends and relations among the damned as often as they like but without the least of compassion.” Addressing a series of rhetorical questions—“Can the believing husband in heaven be happy with his unbelieving wife in hell? Can the believing father in heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in hell? Can the loving wife in heaven he happy with her unbelieving husband in hell?”—Jonathan Edwards responded quietly but exuberantly, “I tell you, Yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss” (Discourses on Various Important Subjects, 1738). In his 1924 collection of essays, The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child, the “Great Agnostic,” Robert Ingersoll, observed of this repudiation of the familial bond, “There is no wild beast in the jungles of Africa whose reputation would not be tarnished by the expression of such a doctrine.”

packer1J.I. Packer photo by Ron Storer

Such heartless theological sentiments persist. As we were recently assured by Canadian minister and theologian J. I. Packer, “love and pity for hell’s occupants will not enter our hearts” (“Hell’s Final Enigma,” in Christianity Today Magazine, April 22, 2002).Two years later, actor Mel Gibson, later notorious for a drunken anti-Semitic rant and various sexual infidelities, surprised an interviewer for the Australian Herald Sun by stating that his wife, Robyn, though “a much better person than I am,” indeed a “saint,” was an Episcopalian, and therefore headed to hell, since he was doctrinally certain that there was no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church. Gibson, an ultra-conservative Catholic, either didn’t know or didn’t care that the ecumenical post-Vatican II Church had revised the old dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus. In any case, as a Catholic, he was going to heaven, from which perch he would ultimately and eternally be looking down on his wife in hell: a woman almost certainly “a much better person” than he—and, in her pre-infernal existence in the temporal world, remarkably well-off, having received 400 million dollars, the largest settlement in Hollywood history, when she divorced Gibson in 2011, less than a decade after he had consigned her to the pit of hell.

That dogma, and the familial heartlessness that turns, in Edwards and others, from wife, husband, and children in the name of theology, was still operative in the late 19th century, when, writing in Spanish, Cuban Archbishop Anthony Mary Claret composed a series of 35 meditations on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (translated into English in 1955 as The Golden Key to Heaven). Some meditations are admirable, but in addressing the “Pains of Hell,” Claret noted that “for all eternity,” a condemned “wretch” will be abandoned by friends, without a “kind word.” Rather, “they will be satisfied to see him in the flames as a victim of God’s justice. They will abhor him. A mother will look from paradise upon her own condemned son without being moved, as though she had never known him.”

In my junior year at Fordham, precisely a decade after Archbishop Claret was canonized by Pope Pius XII, we had a retreat that employed Ignatian “composition of place” to evoke the physical and spiritual agonies of eternal punishment: a presentation as graphic and horrifying as the hellfire sermon that sends a terrified Stephen Dedalus scurrying off to confession in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The sustained double-sermon in Portrait (it takes up most of Part III of the novel) was delivered by Fr. Arnall, Joyce’s fictional name for the priest, Fr. James Cullen, who led the actual retreat Joyce attended as a Belvedere College student. In fact as in fiction, the retreat was based on traditional Jesuit sermons. The main text Joyce used was Giovanni Pietro Pinamonte, S. J., Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It, first printed in Bologna in 1688, and frequently reprinted in English translations (though fluent in Italian, Joyce used a late 19th-century translation printed in Dublin).

Keane1Four Woodcuts from Pinamonte’s Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It

As I can attest from my own experience, the order, imagery, phrasing, biblical citations, and graphic images to which we were exposed at Fordham in 1960 were virtually identical to the pattern laid down in Giovanni Pinamonte’s uncompromising ur-text, a rhetorical set-piece at once salutary and terrifying. Another model for Fr. Arnall may have been the appropriately-named Fr. Furniss, a sadistic 19th-century Anglo-Irish priest who specialized in terrorizing children with the threat of hellfire. We can catch the flavor of the preaching of both Pinamonte and Furniss in the hell-passages of the sermon in Portrait. Though Fr. Arnall covers in sequence the four “last things, death, judgment, hell, and heaven,” the section of the retreat that struck terror in the soul of Stephen Dedalus, as in mine in 1960, followed the opening of the maw of hell—fusing Pinamonte’s title, Hell Opened to Christians, with the “opening” of the “mouth” of Sheol in Isaiah:

Hell has enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without any limits—words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ Jesus, from the book of Isaias, fifth chapter, fourteenth verse….

—Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned to which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke ….By reason of the great numbers of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick…They are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it [echoing, like the coming “stench,” that old favorite, Isaiah 66:24]….They lie in exterior darkness…for the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness…

—The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by the awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scums of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world…Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

But more and worse was to come: namely, the pain, intensity, and eternity of the fire “created by God to punish the unrepentant sinner”—a litany of tortures that out-Dantes Dante. Earthly fire consumes itself,

but the fire of hell has this property that it preserves that which it burns and though it rages with incredible intensity it rages for ever….The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls…And the strength and quality…of this fire is as nothing when compared to its intensity, an intensity which it has as being the instrument chosen by divine design for the punishment of soul and body alike. It is a fire which proceeds directly from the ire of God, working not of its own activity but as an instrument of divine vengeance….Every sense of the flesh is tortured… and through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.

Fr. Arnall concludes by praying “fervently to God that not a single soul of those who are in this chapel today…may ever hear ringing in his ears the awful sentence of rejection: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels!” (Portrait, 119-24).

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The emphasis of our retreat-master at Fordham was, as with Fr. Arnall, on repentance and salvation. But even their final prayerful citation of Jesus (Matt 25:41) intensified rather than alleviated the terror of being cast into “the everlasting fire.” There was nothing merely figurative about our preacher’s detailed descriptions of the myriad torments of hell, and, though I knew nothing in 1960 of Pinamonte or Furniss, it was sometimes hard to separate the tone and sensuous immediacy of our priest’s Jesuit rhetoric from the vindictive glee of Tertullian relishing the agonies of the damned.

NietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche

Shortly after I graduated from Fordham, in 1961, I read Nietzsche seriously for the first time. I had earlier responded to the excitement of his literary style and to what W. B. Yeats described with remarkable tonal accuracy as this “strong enchanter’s curious astringent joy.” But in reading On the Genealogy of Morals, arguably the most substantial of his works, I discovered that Nietzsche had responded to the very passages in Aquinas and Tertullian that had so troubled me a few years earlier at Fordham. Quoting both passages in Latin, Nietzsche attributed their sadism—as expressed particularly by that “enraptured visionary,” triumphalist Tertullian—to what he repeatedly condemns (always in French) as the ressentiment characteristic of “slave morality”— here, future “blessedness” as Will to Power in disguise (Genealogy of Morals 1:15). Gibbon’s image of oppressed Christians “seduced…by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph,” may have helped generate Nietzsche’s crucial concept, first announced in Beyond Good and Evil §260 and fully developed in the Genealogy, of ressentiment as the driving impulse of “slave morality”: the desire of the weak, the “good”, for vengeance against the strong, depicted not merely as “bad,” but “evil.”

The dubiousness of the doctrine of eternal punishment of those condemned as “evil,” let alone the appalling notion that, far from eliciting empathy, their suffering is a source of glee for the saved, becomes even more repugnant when that pleasure is extended from his creatures to the Creator himself. Some Christians claim that the bliss of the saints, enhanced by looking down on the suffering of the damned, is shared by God—as we just saw in quoting Joyce’s version of the standard Jesuit retreat-sermon as well as the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and his disciple Samuel Hopkins. Whatever the values of its spiritual revival, its influence in effecting social reforms, and its often splendid rhetoric, the Great Awakening seems to me more of a Great Nightmare. The God of Jonathan Edwards, whether the “angry God” who abhors the sinners he holds in his hands, or the “just” God who presides over a system in which the happiness of a father who has made it to heaven is increased rather than diminished by the sight of his “unbelieving children in hell,” is obviously a God to fear, but hardly one we would wish to love or to be coerced into worshiping.

Mills_Examination

I have in mind the conclusion of John Stuart Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), a book more revealing of Mill’s own philosophy. Putting aside the “glad tidings” of Jesus, Mill aligns himself with Hamilton in denying any “immediate intuition of God.” But some claim that the “infinite goodness ascribed to God” is not “the goodness we know and love in our fellow-creatures distinguished only as infinite in degree,” but is, rather, “different in kind and of another quality altogether.” In concluding, Mill, risking hellfire, defiantly rejects this God of transcendent, ineffable morality in the name of the highest form of morality among human beings, fellow-creatures with whom we interact ethically, compassionately, and, at our best, with love. “If,” Mill writes, “I am informed that the world”

is ruled by a being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, except that the highest human morality does not sanction them—convince me of this and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say, in plain terms, that I will not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, then to hell I will go. (Works, ed. John M. Robson (1963-1991), 10:103.

Of course, human beings are not always “good.” We can, though it would fly in the face of centuries of Christian tradition, dismiss the notion (hardly restricted to Puritan or Jesuit hellfire sermonizing) of an angry and vindictive deity as an anthropomorphic projection, a reflection of human rather than divine cruelty, sadism, and ressentiment. And it is true that, in what Nietzsche called “these more humane ages,” most Christians, other than rigid traditionalists and literalist fundamentalists, think and speak less of a God of Wrath than of Love, and of hell (as even Billy Graham thinks) as separation from God rather than a literal “place.” Against the Great Awakening of Edwards and Whitefield may be set a more significant awakening: the dawning of the American Enlightenment, best personified by those two once-bitter political rivals and later great friends among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. “I can never join Calvin is addressing his God,” wrote the deist Jefferson to Adams:

He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be….If ever a man worshipped a false God, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge, the creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. (17 April 1823)

My friend Paul Johnston recently quoted an observation, made five years earlier, by this letter’s recipient. Writing on 14 September 1818 to Jefferson, Adams attacked reliance on miracles and prophecies, the idea of a vain and vengeful deity, and the awful belief that most of humankind is eternally doomed to Hell. He also offered a personal, rational and humane definition of what he believed it meant to be a Christian:

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or of any miracle…as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature’s God….Can prophecies or miracles convince you or me that infinite benevolence, wisdom, and power created, and preserves for a time, innumerable millions, to make them miserable for ever, for his own glory? Wretch!…Is he vain, tickled with adulation, exulting and triumphing in his power and the sweetness of his vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these awful questions. My answer to them is always ready. I believe in no such thing. My adoration of the author of the universe is too profound and too sincere. The love of God and his creation—delight, joy, triumph, exultation in my own existence—though but an atom, a molecule organique, in the universe—these are my religion. Howl, snarl, bite, ye Calvinistic, ye Athanasian divines, if you will. Ye will say I am no Christian. I say ye are no Christians.

After so much hellfire and rejoicing at its torments, we can find respite in the refreshingly unorthodox voice of Enlightenment Reason, blasphemous though it may be to traditionalists. The deist sobriquets for God, civic and civil, have, in contrast to the sound and fury of sectarian conflict and theological hairsplitting, a euphemistic charm. Momentarily setting aside the angry God and loving but wrathful Jesus of historical Christianity, we can join Jefferson in acknowledging the “benevolent governor of the world,” just as we share Adams’s exultation in his own existence, and appreciate his love of the benign “author of the universe.”

Baruch_Spinoza_-_Franz_WulfhagenBaruch Spinoza by Franz Wulfhagen

Jefferson’s insistence on intellectual and democratic freedom from a tyrannous religion, like the skepticism of Adams regarding the reality of “miracles” and his reinterpretation of the nature of “prophecy,” are aligned for me with the earlier and even more profound enlightenment provided by an Amsterdam Jew writing in the 17th-century Dutch Republic: the great Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. Despite being expelled from his synagogue and condemned as an atheist, Spinoza proved to have immense appeal, exerting an influence that crossed sectarian divisions. Fervently and famously embraced as a “god-intoxicated man” by the German Catholic Romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich Hardenberg) and—by the English Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth—as a pantheist for whom Nature was indistinguishable from God, Spinoza was also profoundly admired by the atheist Nietzsche, an opponent of all other Idealist philosophers, who rightly venerated Spinoza for his simple and sublime nobility of spirit. As did Einstein, who, because of the “God-talk” in which he expressed his sense of awe and wonder in contemplating the beauty, majesty, and ultimate mystery of the universe, was mistakenly thought, by American admirers in his adopted country, to be a believer in a personal God, one who intervened in human affairs and was accessible by prayer. No, explained Einstein, his “religion” was limited to reverence of the order (since “God did not throw dice”) of the cosmos itself, and his only deity was “Spinoza’s God.”

The first serious philosophy paper I wrote at Fordham was on Spinoza’s Ethics, and I still remember that my Jesuit professor, in grading the essay A+, added a remark more gracious than accurate: that I was “farther along than he on the via illuminativa.” But the work of Spinoza I later wished I’d focused on at Fordham was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), an immensely influential treatise pioneering the argument that the Bible, written by prophets of superior ethics but vivid imaginations, was not to be read “literally.” Authentic religion had nothing to do with “miracles and prophecies,” church authorities, or divisive sectarian dogma. Instead, “true religion” was based on the moral imperatives to seek the truth, to love one’s neighbor, and to be tolerant. The book’s political chapters, as far in advance of their time as those on theology, were a sustained plea for democratic toleration, especially in defense of “the freedom to philosophize” without interference from religious or political authorities.

For such thoughts, Spinoza was driven from his synagogue in the harshest terms. The cherum (or ritual of expulsion and ostracism) reads in part: because of his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” we “excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch Spinoza, with the consent of God and with all the curses…written in the Book of the Law.” The vicious backlash against the Treatise also came from Christians. Within weeks of its publication, it was denounced by a prominent German theologian as “a godless document” that should be banned in every country. One of Spinoza’s Dutch countrymen described it as an “atheistic book full of abominations…which every reasonable person should find abhorrent.” Another, not to be outdone, called the deeply moral and eminently reasonable Tractatus “a book forged in hell,” written not by the ethical thinker toiling as a lens-grinder in Amsterdam, but by the devil himself.

In short, before and after welcome bursts of Enlightenment, Dutch or American, there remains a long, problematic, and continuing history of religious intolerance and induced terror. Despite being surrounded by and taught by smart and compassionate Jesuits, and despite (perhaps because of) the fact that I was in the advanced theology course, and attended that terrifying retreat, I have always found it difficult, after those impressionable years at Fordham, to glibly dismiss the concept of the vengeful deity fearfully accepted, or sadistically embraced, by so many believers for so long. And, like it or not, and however softened or “symbolic” much non-fundamentalist Christianity has become in these “more humane ages,” the doctrine of eternal punishment—and the concept of a God willing to initiate, approve, and even occasionally take relish in such monstrous cruelty—has defined traditional Christian theology for most of its history.

The widespread phenomenon often described as the “decline” or even “disappearance” of hell—a trickle in the 17th century, a stream in the American Enlightenment (including the Divinity School Address of Emerson), and cresting in England and continental Europe in the later 19th century, first among Protestants, somewhat later among Catholics—is, taken as a generalization, a historical fact. But while hell’s heat has been lowered, its flames a mere flicker in comparison to their former raging in incendiary hellfire texts and sermons, the old time religion is still alive and well, among some televangelists, and in much of Bible-belt contemporary America.

As for Catholicism: A tonal and gestural sea-change has recently occurred. The election of Pope Francis, an Argentina-based Jesuit, signaled a dramatic double-shift: from Eurocentrism and from dogmatic harshness to compassion and tolerance. That shift seems decisive, but is it permanent, and how far can tone take us in tempering let alone altering doctrine? It was, after all, just seven years earlier that Francis’s conservative predecessor, Benedict XVI, strenuously reaffirmed traditional Church teaching on hell. Benedict’s own predecessor, John Paul II, had referred to damnation vaguely as an “eternal emptiness.” Reacting to the “decline of hell,” especially in Western Europe, Benedict complained that the place of everlasting torment was no longer much talked about. He went on to describe Satan as a “real, personal and not merely symbolic presence” and proclaimed that hell, far from being a mere state of mind, or a condition of separation from God, is an actual place, one that “exists and is eternal.” We were spared fire-and-brimstone details, but listening to this March 2007 proclamation on the radio, I was transported back almost a half-century to that Fordham retreat.

Having lost my faith while remaining fascinated by the figure of Jesus, attractive despite his apparent consignment of most of humankind to eternal punishment, I sometimes want to cry out with the boy’s father in Mark 9:24: “Help thou my unbelief.” But the theological Problem of Suffering goes beyond the posthumous torments of hell to pain right here on earth, with the undeserved suffering of the innocent presenting the single greatest challenge to my own ability to “believe” in a God simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving. As David Hume has “Philo,” the more skeptical of his two spokesmen, note in Part 10 of his posthumously-published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered”—questions we may apply to the presence of evil and suffering in a world “groaning” for “deliverance” (Rom 8:19-22), or to the groaning of hopeless souls in hell. Simplifying Epicurus, Hume has Philo ask, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then cometh evil? (75).

Nothing I read in Augustine or Aquinas about God’s “justice,” or about the constrained freedom that makes eternal punishment the “choice” of sinners, enabled me to answer those questions. And my subsequent immersion in the pornography of the Abominable Fancy only deepened my alienation from the faith I was raised in, and problematized the beliefs I had brought with me as a Freshman entering Fordham. Beginning college was hardly the time to abandon reason; and, in fact, as my classmate and lifelong friend Bill Baumert has often noted in retrospect, we received a first-rate and rigorous education at Fordham—far superior to what generally passes as education these days at colleges and universities where the canon has been “exposed,” the curriculum softened, and demands on students drastically eased, as their prose deteriorates, tuition costs soar, and the party goes on.

But I’ve also had other thoughts in retrospect. Being shocked into intellectual as well as emotional resistance by my reading of that fateful passage in Aquinas, I may have betrayed my own growing commitment to the Romantic poets by embracing a too-narrow intellectualism when it came to theology. Not that I was willing, then or now, to honor Imagination by a descent into irrationalism, any more than the great Romantics did. Neither, for that matter, despite some of the words by which we best remember them, did Luther (for all his distrust and frequent condemnation of “that whore, reason”), nor even Tertullian, the passionate evoker of that circus-scene in which Christians would posthumously join him, exulting in the spectacle of pagans writhing in hellfire. Tertullian is even more famous for having said he “believed because it was absurd,” but it isn’t quite that simple.

In arguing, in de Carne Christi 5:4, that the resurrection of Christ’s body, crucified and buried, was certain because impossible [credibile est, quia ineptum es, et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile]—Tertullian may not have been relying on blind faith (the fideism of the oft-misquoted tag, credo quia absurdum est), but following, as James Moffatt suggested a century ago, “in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle” (Journal of Theological Studies 17 [1915-16], 170-71). Since, in lines he quotes from the tragedian Agathon, “what is contrary to probability sometimes occurs,” it can be argued, says Aristotle, that “the improbable will be probable” (Rhetoric 2.24.9); even that some stories are so improbable that it can become reasonable to believe them. For Tertullian, the most improbable story is that of the incarnate, crucified, buried, and risen Jesus—which is, paradoxically, what makes it credible. This is the very point made by Shakespeare’s Hippolyta in an exchange in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a riposte to her soon-to-be husband, Theseus, that would have delighted Agathon and Tertullian—and, perhaps, Aristotle.

In the opening of that final act, Theseus, a self-assured rationalist, dismisses (“more strange than true”) the lovers’ tales of their adventures in the moonlit wood. They are “fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends,” and thus to be grouped indiscriminately with the merely imaginary constructions common to “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet.” But we in the audience know to be “true” what Hippolyta shrewdly intuits: that however individually fantastic the tales may be, they are part of an over-all consistency that makes each of them credible. To Theseus’ cool skepticism and reductive characterization of “imagination,” she responds:

But the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy,
But howsoever strange and admirable. (5.1.23-27)

A similar case has often been made, certainly in one of my Fordham theology courses, to demonstrate the “historicity” of the gospels. Tertullian would concur, since those gospels tell the story, “howsoever strange and admirable,” of Christ, a man who is God and a God who is a man, who died in the flesh and rose from the sepulcher: a story “certain” because “impossible.” And yet Aristotle, it is worth recalling, was quoting a playwright, and Hippolyta, though wiser than her betrothed, is, like him, merely a character in a play, even if it is a play by Shakespeare. Tertullian’s central figure, on the other hand, is non-fictional, not only a dying and resurrected God, but a Savior and Sentencer, a loving Good Shepherd and harsh Judge, with the divine power to deliver on his threat: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

That was the “awful sentence of rejection” our retreat-master at Fordham, and Joyce’s at Belvedere, prayed we would never hear “ringing in our ears,” but which has never completely stopped ringing in mine—even years after I had rationally concluded that the real absurdity was the doctrine of eternal punishment itself, to say nothing of the abominable fancy that witnessing the endless agony of “many” of our fellow human beings could enhance the pleasure of the “few.” For Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, Peter Lombard, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Archbishop Claret, and, last and least, Mel Gibson, this privileged audience may have been the “blessed,” the “saved,” even the Elect. But if its members were consigning most of humankind to hell, some even taking pleasure in that horrible prospect, it seemed to me—to alter Milton, who also had a few things to day about hell—an “unfit audience though few.” And just to cap my blasphemy: to the extent that the God of infinite Wrath (preached, along with the God of infinite Mercy, by Jesus and Paul) seems eager and willing to act in ways which, however ineffable and transcendent, seem petty, vindictive, and everlastingly punitive—alien, as Mill puts it, to “the highest human morality”—he, too, seems less a Father than a Tyrant.

So, while I am fond, and in part envious, of George Coyne, my final question is not the one posed to him by Carl Sagan (“Why should you be given the gift of faith, and not me?”), but, rather, is this a “gift” I want? And yet, George Coyne is more than a foil in these ruminations. Obviously, we took very different religious paths as a result of our exposure to Augustine and Aquinas at Fordham. But we’ve become friends, and we agree on many things, among others, that Intelligent Design, while an engaging surmise, is not a scientific theory to be taught in biology or physics classes. We agree, too, that kindness and consideration matter crucially, among friends and in the way a professor interacts with students. And we concur on the greatness of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J., a handsome edition of whose poems and letters I gave George in first welcoming him to Le Moyne.

In the month I am writing, November 2014, we participated together in an event, held in Le Moyne’s Panasci Chapel, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Hopkins’s death in 1889. I introduced the keynote speaker, Hopkins expert Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., author of The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2008), and the scholar who had, a decade earlier while working in the Jesuit Archives in London, unearthed an unpublished poem written by Hopkins in 1875-76, displaying that “playfulness” and the delight Hopkins took in the companionship of his fellow-Jesuits at St. Bueno’s College in Wales. The poem George read that evening, his favorite, was “God’s Grandeur,” a magnificent, breathtaking celebration of God and God’s Nature. I read the exuberant “Hurrahing in Harvest.” If I were ever to regain my faith, it would have more to do with engaging Hopkins—poems both ecstatically celebrating and darkly “wrestling with (my God!) my God”—than with revisiting the gospels and Paul, let alone Augustine and Aquinas, who led me away from Christianity in the first place.

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Coda

A widely read friend and believer to whom I sent this essay responded that he wasn’t sure what the “story” was primarily “about”–was it autobiographical or theological? about my own “personal loss of faith” or a disquisition on “salvational schadenfreude“? He also asserted that the God in whom I had lost faith was a sadistic deity that “virtually all [my] believing associates would also repudiate.” He further wondered if, in my unbelief, I had become an “atheist,” bereft of all “sense (feeling) of something infusing the material, Hopkins’s glory in dappled things.” He concluded by suggesting that he was “not the right audience” for this essay because he had had spiritual “experiences” that allowed him “to hope that there is something beyond dead, contingent materialism.”

The paradigm for such dramatic spiritual experiences is Saul-Paul’s conversion-moment on the Road to Damascus, which, remarkably enough, Paul himself never mentions (we hear of it in Acts, a particularly corrupt text). Though they’re often life-transforming, I have never had such an experience myself, perhaps because I have not been “given” the “gift of faith,” and thus have no way of judging their ontological, as opposed to their subjective, significance. In thanking my friend for reading the essay and raising probing questions, I assured him that, while I hadn’t had the sort of epiphany he mentioned…

I have had “experiences”—in love, in nature, with animals—that rule out at least “reductive materialism.” Such experiences have long been enhanced by my reading of the Romantic poets and of Hopkins, so I most certainly do have “a sense (feeling) of something infusing the material”—not just Hopkins’s Christ-haunted glory in dappled things, but (in the passage you seem to allude to) Wordsworth’s Spinozistic and (in 1798, when he wrote these lines) non-Christian sublime:

………………………And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man :
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought….

Nor, given the mystery of the universe, am I arrogant enough to label myself an atheist; I’m agnostic, though unconvinced of the existence of a personal God who cares about us.

What is this essay “about”? I’m not sure myself. “Confessional” in both the common and Augustinian senses, it was a convulsive outpouring, written in less than two weeks; and the initial “audience” was… myself: an attempt to lay out the history of, and thus clarify, my individual fall from grace. Eternal punishment, hell, and the accompanying schadenfreude (the sadistic pleasure far too many have taken in relishing the sufferings of the damned), are at the heart of it. But it’s precisely this combination that produced my “loss of faith.” Thus, the “story” is not one of Either/Or, but of Both/And.

The God in whom I lost faith is not simply the God of Augustine or Aquinas, but the God presented to us by the Founders of Christianity: Jesus and Paul. I cite some of the most wonderful utterances of Jesus, as child-loving Good Shepherd and the “door” to salvation. But Jesus also talks more about damnation and hellfire than any person in either testament of the Bible (as I note, the Hebrew scriptures are virtually silent on that subject), and Paul provided the template for the predestined damnation of most humans: the theory of predestination taken up by Augustine (and, to a lesser degree, by Aquinas) and which culminated in the theology of Calvin.

As Calvin himself said, his entire theology is based on Augustine, and much of Augustine (on original sin and on God’s foreordaining of a “few” souls to glory and “many” to damnation) was drawn from Paul, particularly from his longest, weightiest, and most influential epistle, to the Romans. Paul, in turn, was echoing passages of Jesus: the “narrow” gate leading the “few” to heaven, the “wide” gate leading the “many” to hell. And the terrible sentence at the climax of the hell-sermon, in Joyce and at Fordham in 1960–“Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels”–are, of course, the words of Jesus, as reported in Matthew.

As I say in the essay, “the radiance of Jesus shines through the gospels,” often despite those gospels, written decades after his death. But they’re all we have as accounts purporting to have witnessed Jesus in the flesh, and recording what he said. Though written earlier, the letters of Paul are those of a man who never saw Christ—unless we give credence to the conversion-moment on the road to Damascus. Since Jesus is hardly mentioned outside the New Testament (there’s are references to the Jesus cult in Josephus and in Tacitus, though, in the case of the latter, the reference was added much later, by a Christian editor), we have to rely on the New Testament texts: the gospels, the various letters, especially the epistles of Paul, Acts, and the exciting but crazy Book of Revelation: that world-masterpiece of schadenfreude.

Reading these texts led me to the inevitable conclusion that the God in whom I lost faith is not some bizarre and sadistic deity dreamed up in the pessimistic imagination of Augustine or in the darker pages of the Summa. It’s the Wrathful aspect of the God of Love preached by Jesus and Paul: the God who, they both insist, sentences most of us to everlasting fire. Along with most of my “believing associates,” you want to selectively “look on the bright side.” I mention in the essay the historical phenomenon known as the “decline of Hell.” However, while only a tiny percentage believe that they are headed to the pit, a majority of Evangelicals and Catholics still believe in the traditional hell and in a God of Wrath. In fact, the God in whom I lost faith, that “God that virtually all of [my] believing associates would also repudiate,” is one aspect of the God of Jesus and Paul, which, if we follow the logic, you must “repudiate.”

Coming from my own particular background, including the intense reading in my Fordham theology classes, I find it hard to delete the dark bits. I wish it could be otherwise, but, in contemplating the prospect of eternal punishment as well as this temporal world of massive, mostly undeserved suffering, I find scant evidence of a benign God. Given my particular early experiences, I feel cut off from the option of being what used to be called a “cafeteria Catholic.” Instead, I find myself in the absurd but honest position of being fundamentalist in my agnosticism.

— Patrick J. Keane


PAT kEANE

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves(1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

a

Apr 072015
 

Agri Ismaïl

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Premise: Four men sit around a giant bottle of vodka, picking at various unappetising appetisers as waiters hurry to bring them an assortment of mixers and pour clumsy blends of vodka and juice. The men raise a toast, welcoming each other, and talk of work, politics, war. One of the men tells the story of when, in 1996, he had saved up and bought his very first portable cassette player after toiling away at the reception desk of a local hotel for months. He describes the specifications of the lost device (auto reverse! 20radio station memory!) with affection between modest sips of his drink. He recounts how when the city was taken, he was sure that his house would be looted due to his political affiliations, so he considered whom among his friends and family members was least enmeshed in the political situation before driving it to his young cousin, sure that his house would be spared. The man starts giggling then, before he has even told the funny part: of course, in the end, the cousins house was the only one in his family to be looted. All the men laugh in recognition. They drink to all that was taken, all that was lost.

§

IMAGINE THAT THIS STORY has roused whatever part of you that is interested in narratives, for whatever reason, and that you are about to undertake the increasingly non-trivial process of deciding what form said narrative is to take.

Imagine, furthermore, that you are a Kurd, that the event takes place in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in Northern Iraq and that the men in the above scenario are all Kurds speaking in a Sorani dialect. The first conclusion presents itself as evident: this should be a narrative in Kurdish.

At first, this seems satisfactory. It pleases the dreadfully lazy part of you to know that minimal effort will be needed to achieve an acceptable level of verisimilitude (dialogue will admittedly need to be polished somewhat to achieve a certain degree of artificiality in order to pass for realism, but can otherwise be reproduced more or less verbatim).

Also, to write in a minor language is to a certain extent its own reward. It is not just about reaching an audience (which for Kurdish literature is minuscule, even if you were to disregard the fact that Kurds use two completely different alphabets; it is also, perhaps even foremost, about preserving and enriching said language. The thought that something you write can, fairly easily, have such lasting power feeds your ego tremendously. You imagine cyborgs in the future attempting a comprehensive account of the extinct human race by reverse-engineering our technology to be able to read today’s hard drives and noting that there was such as a thing as Kurdish literature. This will, you imagine, please the cyborgs.

You think back on the Kurdish novel, a feeble object that has barely been allowed to breathe, kept alive by authors like Sherzad Hassan, Bakhtyar Ali and the dearly departed Mehmet Uzun, in spite of overwhelming evidence that literature is pointless in a society that wants to emulate the capitalist wonderlands of our most generic cities (to echo Rem Koolhaas), our Singapores and Dubais and Heathrow Terminal 5s, while simultaneously fighting off the medieval LARP currently en vogue. A tricky juxtaposition, that. But it has always been thus, literature has never had it easy here: texts were uniformly banned for being written in a language that several governments tried their utmost to eradicate during the 19th and 20th centuries. A novel cannot be written, after all, if the language to write it in does not exist. When novels appeared at all, it was often small editions printed by clandestine presses, an arrestable offence for author and publisher alike. That we then define 1929’s The Kurdish Shepherd by Erebê Şemo, 1961’s Peshmerga by Rehîmî Qazî and 1972’s Jani Gal by Ibrahim Ahmad as some of the first Kurdish novels merely attests to the fortune of these manuscripts to have survived. Indeed, there are no extant copies of the first edition of The Kurdish Shepherd, which was originally published in the Soviet Union and heavily censored. That it has survived is only due to a 1947 Beirut reprint. Similarly, Ahmad’s Jani Gal had to be rewritten twice from memory after the original manuscripts were burned or lost, and it wasn’t until a French translation appeared courtesy of L’Harmattan that the text appeared in its complete state, including geographical locations and the overt references to the regime that had been previously excised. It is indicative of the subjugated state of Kurdish writing that one of the very first Kurdish novels ever to be written appeared in its entirety not in Kurdish, but in French, as late as 1994.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

You fortunately no longer have to worry about censorship, about having to burn your only manuscript in the garden before Baathist police get to it, about having to hide a printing press in your bedroom. Even the Turkish government, which for decades insisted the Kurdish language did not exist (and, in a wonderful display of incoherent logic, that this thing that did not exist should, because it did not exist, be banned) has begun to begrudgingly tolerate texts written in Kurdish.

And yet, there are other obstacles. Such as the invisibility of your work by merely writing in a non-Latin script, where it will be hidden to all but those who can conjure the signs to summon it. You often labour under the belief that everything can be found online, yet forget that in order for this to be even slightly true, you must master alphabets that mean nothing to you, alphabets that your computer is reluctant to write in. The non-Latin text is sealed off, unsearchable by the Latin index, hidden behind the limits of written language. You think of the character in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia who is only known by a non-standard, unpronounceable, symbol (which you cannot reproduce in this text other than as a screenshot: 

and therefore would never be able search for it). You suspect it is not a coincidence that throughout Negarestani’s novel this character is missing.

Another obstacle: Microsoft Word on the Macintosh Operating System cannot use Arabic fonts (let alone Kurdish ones). You could of course use another word processor (e.g. Apple’s own Pages) but the fonts remain often incompatible with other word processors and so e-mailing a file in Kurdish, more often than not, will result in something like this:

☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐.

Now this is perhaps impressive in a formalist kind of way, a uniform representation of thought and language and whatnot, but you doubt that you can convince an audience that what they have before them is the Great Kurdish Novel (to take a silly term from the Americans, because lord knows they’ve taken their fair share from us) when all they are looking at are a series of Unicode squares. The computer was not designed, after all, with non-Western languages in mind, nor was any of the software (though you envy the Chinese who you imagine, by virtue of their logographic writing system, would be able to write entire short stories on Twitter in 140 characters — if China had not banned access to Twitter, that is). The electronic age is upon us and that age was coded using a specific writing system. You would be insane to think this does not matter.

Also, and you’re ashamed to have to mention this but even though Kurdish is your native language you don’t really master it: you are a child of exile with the exile’s unnatural feel for language; you frequently mis-use words and your handwriting is all haunted-house seance scribbles of the dead trying to communicate with the living in crude approximations of letters. You are far more comfortable with English, even though you have no tie to that language other than the fact every book you read and every movie you see is in English. You have not read more than a handful of Kurdish novels because as already mentioned, Kurdish novels are hard to come by. You should, of course, practice your mother tongue; you suspect that you could become a half-decent writer if only you put as much effort into reading and writing in Kurdish as you have done in English but this is a multi-year project, akin to reading Proust. And you have yet to read Proust.

At this point you start doubting yourself: if writing in Kurdish means more effort than writing in English why not just write in English? You also begin suspecting that the above premise may not be interesting to a Kurdish audience as everyone has had their house looted at some point. Everyone has lost a family member to genocide or internecine warfare. For you, the exiled one whose portraits would invariably reek of privilege and Eurocentric notions, to comment on the Kurdish situation to a Kurdish audience can easily become patronising and in bad taste. What can a foreigner possibly have to teach people about themselves? You may instead want to shine a light outwards, towards readers unfamiliar with Kurdish history, and this requires another language. “Texts must experience the condition of exile.” said Emily Apter, and which better way to exile a text than to force it into a language which is not its own?

So you choose English, because, yes, “the Anglicized subject is at once bullied and seduced into accepting the corporal burden of English,” to cite Susie O’Brien & Imre Szeman.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

Though this is the right choice (you hope), problems arise immediately, as they tend to for immigrants pretending to be something they are not. You are suddenly tempted to add explanations for your audience that you would refrain from adding if you were writing about a people to themselves.

For instance:

1. The men would have to be defined as Kurdish, as you suspect merely writing “men” would conjure a group of white people to the reader.

2. A Kurdish reader would understand that the choice of vodka, rather than the traditional arrak, indicates that these men are rather affluent or at the very least cosmopolitan (mostly this cosmopolitism is derived from a life in exile, from refugee camps, from being a foreigner where fluid thoughts have had to be rendered as malformed syllables and broken grammar and have been mistaken for stupidity), so when you lose this element you may well be tempted to linger on other details, the brand of vodka, the logos on their polo shirts, in order to convey the same thing in a much cruder manner.

3. You will have to explain what happened in 1996, a reference that would be evident to Kurdish readers but an obscure historical footnote for everyone else. Also you’ll want to briefly touch on the sanctions, embargoes and the overall financial situation that made the purchase of a cassette player in 1996 – when even CDs were beginning to be replaced by MiniDiscs and Mp3s – something that required significant capital.

Your text is now overwritten, heavy with exposition, and you haven’t even dealt with the question of language.

The dialogue will be laboured, tortured into resembling Kurdish. Perhaps you will try to mirror the cadence of a Kurdish speaker; perhaps you will keep the expressions intact, all the “may I be sacrificed in your honour”-style sentences that seem so clunky when translated. You could also use the trick that all those world lit novels of the 1990s used: sprinkle English dialogue with some non-English words for added authenticity. You try, you try, you fail, you delete.

(All fiction is based on artifice, but for some reason writing non-English dialogue in English often seems like an artifice too far. If only there was some form of literary subtitle, you think. [1])

You also worry, as all translators are wont to do, about the weight of words. You are reminded how for centuries, the French have been misunderstanding Nietzsche because the French “sujet” does not contain the “critique of the effects of subjective submission” that the German “Subjekt” does (cf. Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslability and Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles). The Kurdish word for looting, تالان, best transliterated as “talan”, has an inherent weight to it from its frequent use in Kurdish society under various dictatorships and processes of ethnic cleansing that is immediately lost in translation, as the English “looting” has since long lost its primal association to times of war (and is mainly used in times of riots, as a byproduct of temporary capitalist collapse).

What you are left with, then, is a text that panders to its audience in its need to hold the reader’s hand through a history with which she is not familiar, a text infused with exoticism, a narrative forced into a form that is inherently Western, with all the issues that arise when, to cite Franco Moretti, “Western form meets [non-Western] reality”. These texts, as selected by Western publishers, often seem to include an outmoded paean to humanism, as though to comfort a bourgeois reading culture, to ensure that the narrative that we are all the same is heard. Fredric Jameson, in his otherwise unspectacular essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism (wherein he actually states that “Nothing is to be gained by passing over in silence the radical difference of non-canonical texts. The third-world novel will not offer the satisfactions of Proust or Joyce.”) provides a rare insight when he notes that “Indeed our want of sympathy for these often unmodern third-world texts is itself frequently but a disguise for some deeper fear of the affluent about the way people actually live in other parts of the world”. This is echoed by a much-debated editorial in N+1 wherein the editors argue that “Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience” and that “the bestselling Kite Runner, by the Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, made some Americans feel better, and others worse, about our war over there”.

Above all, perhaps, it rankles to use English because of the ravages that the British Empire wrought on Kurds and the possibility of Kurdish statehood. If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is accurate in his assertion that “African authors should be clear about the fact that when they write in English they are contributing to the expansion of, and dependence on, the English language.”, then to write in English is a betrayal.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

***

international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one and unequal: with a core and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality.i.e. the destiny of a culture [] is intersected and altered by another culture (from the core) that completely ignores it’”

(Franco Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature”)

Most novels that you read today seem like relics, as though modernism never happened at all, Flaubertian narratives in which characters hold the latest consumer technology to make you, the reader, realise that it is meant to take place in the now. But it does not feel like any reality you experience on a daily basis, it feels literary: as though what we consider realism is merely what authors convinced readers reality looked like a hundred and fifty years ago, static narratives that embrace the provincial when finance and politics are now global. The very conventions of the realist novel, so daring when they were perfected by Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, have now trapped narratives in an individualistic, humanistic world order. After all, how to describe the light-speed flow of capital, the corporations with human rights but without human obligations, the drones killing the anonymous in a form that is structured around individual agency, about self-realisation and a human perception of time? The novel is doomed to fail. If contemporary capitalism and consumer culture are a part of contemporary fiction, it is often as a mere gloss, rather than the actual spine of the constructed reality. Similarly, the challenges of globalisation are reduced to facile exotifications, the non-Western reality forced into a Western form. The novel was not designed, after all, with non-Western cultures in mind.

What you want is the literary future imagined by Bhanu Kapil — an author who has managed to dismantle all the problems listed here with aplomb — namely “a literature that is not made from literature.” The heroine of her novel Incubation: A Space for Monsters is half girl, half machine/cyborg, her identity and culture shifts along with the text, as essential a creation as any archetype. You are heartened by Julius’s dérive in Teju Cole’s Open City where the character maps out a New York of immigrants and asylum seekers before he transforms the 20th century urban dérive into an international one, by travelling to Belgium, to Nigeria. You embrace the aforementioned Cyclonopedia, a dense but fragile text that can barely even carry the categorisation of novel, with its fake translator’s notes (e.g. “The linguistic structure of the original Farsi text is highly inconsistent, to the extent that one assumes it to have been written by more than one author.”) making the reader realise just how many truths a narrative can contain.

We heed the warning in the aforementioned N+1 essay that “Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations,” but why should literature not instead revel in these deformations? You realise that English literature always has been “an unsteady amalgam of [the] voices of the vanquished, along with the voices of the dominant English regions” (to cite Stephen Greenblatt) and if you are to dissent from Lorde and try to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, you could do worse than making English your own Latin, a tool for a vulgar novel. Let there be allusions that remain unexplained, let there be dialogue that is not naturalistic, let there be disregard for the master’s rules, let the work contain the fractured realities as we see them today.

—Agri Ismaïl

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Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose work has appeared in the White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera, and the Swedish journal Glänta among other places. He can be found on Twitter.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Yes, of course there is the footnote which has a long literary history: remember how War & Peace began with a long chunk of French dialogue, which Tolstoy then translated (badly, one might add) into Russian in the footnotes. But this does not seem like a very good option: if none of your readers understand the dialogue in the original language, in effect you’re just asking them to do more work. You suspect your readers would hate you after one or two pages of this.
Apr 032015
 

cid corman and gregory dunneCid Corman & Gregory  Dunne

Cid Corman was born in Roxbury, Boston, in 1924. His seminal magazine Origin was one of the first to publish poets such as Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. In addition to the magazine, Cid, a poet and translator, organized poetry events around Boston and started the country’s first poetry radio program, This Is Poetry at WMEX featuring readings by Creeley, Stephen Spender and Theodore Roethke amongst others.  In 1958 he moved to Japan where he continued to edit Origin and in 1959 published Gary Snyder’s first collection Riprap. He began to translate Japanese poetry, in particular work by Basho and Kusano Shimpei. A prolific poet, he published over a hundred books and pamphlets. In 1990 he published the first two volumes of his selected poems Of. In all there are five volumes each containing 750 poems. Volumes 4 and 5 were just published in January of this year. Although described as a selected poems, Corman did not necessarily see it that way. He saw it as a single book that told his life in passing. Cid Corman died in Kyoto on March 12, 2004.

cid-corman

I am grateful to Greg Dunne, not just for the extract from his new book but for the wonderful opportunity he gave me back in 2000 to spend an afternoon visiting with Corman in his home in Kyoto. I had been travelling with my wife and young children in China for several months and stopped off in Japan on the way back to visit Greg. Over the years I had heard the story many times of how after moving to Kyoto Greg had stopped in at a coffee shop, CC`s, that sold western style ice-cream and cakes. The shop turned out to be Corman’s and Greg soon joined with a small group that met with him every two weeks for gatherings that lasted five hours or more. Cid read and talked poetry with them, discussed their work.

That afternoon, however, we talked to Corman about his work and his life. I got the feeling that he liked visitors so that he could relate the stories of his past to them, and through those stories reaffirm his true relevance to American poetry. This seemed to me to be borne of disappointment, sadness even – an awareness that his decision to live in Kyoto had left him largely forgotten in his home country. Nevertheless, it was evident that deep-down he knew that the poet’s life was exactly that – a life, a way of living. And he talked that day too of not even wanting his name on his poems at all, at refusing publicity when it occasionally came his way.

He excused himself at one point and left the room briefly returning with a copy of the first issue of Origin. He was proud of it, and rightly so. He spoke then of his writing routine. His morning began by writing letters, long letters to anyone who had taken the time to write to him. “If you write to me,” he told me, “I will write back.” After his letter writing he began work on his poems. He took me in to see his study. It was stacked high with manuscripts, heaps of paper across his desk and all around the room. “I write a book of poems a day,” he said. Most of these pages would probably never see the light of day. The act of writing to him, it appeared, was akin to the act of breathing – a breath in/a breath out, a word given/a word taken. This was not a rushed process; it was not a mountain of first drafts, of beginnings, but an ongoing expression of self.

Cid Corman

Later we took a pleasant walk to the post-office to mail off his letters and then said our goodbyes.  Despite his generous offer, I never did write to him. I regret it enormously of course but, in some ways these feelings of regret seem apt – a more fitting response to our short afternoon together.

—Gerard Beirne

quiet accomplishment cover

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What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. …….~ Homi Bhabha

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.…..~ Martin Heidegger

IN 1990, CID CORMAN PUBLISHED the first two volumes of this five-volume magnum opus book of poetry, of. The work was monumental in scope – each volume consisted of 750 pages of poetry. The book included many translations of poetry from around the world and from many different time periods that stretched from the earliest of times – Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese texts – up through contemporary poetry translations. In an unusual move, Corman left his translations un-sourced, that is, he did not attribute his translations to their original authors openly. Some fellow writers, notably Clayton Eshleman, found Cid’s practice suspect and wrote to Cid concerning it. Eshleman explained his dismay in the following way: “I was shocked to find Cid’s translations here, of Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, T’ao Ch’ien, Montale, Villon, Rimbaud, Basho, Malarlarme, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Celan, Artaud, and Scotellaro, treated as Corman poems. So I wrote to him questioning such appropriation” (Eshleman).

To do justice to the book, a book of this size and scope, and a book that is the culminating event in the life of a significant American poet, more attention is warranted in exploring the act of his incorporating un-sourced translations into the book – how it was accomplished – and what rationale there may have been for the move, assuming the act is not simply one of appropriation. To understand, appreciate, and comprehend more fully what Corman was up to then, one needs to begin with his poetics, with what informs them – his sense of poetry and its role and place in culture, society and life.

Translation came early to Corman and through the activity – within it – he found himself drawn into a larger community of poetry that would sustain his interest and attention throughout his life. For Corman both the writing of poetry and the translating of poetry developed at about the same time when he was in high school. Here he began translating Greek and Latin poetry. Later, during the war years (World War II), when he stayed home from the war due to his youth and illness, he went deeper into translation. In conversation, some years ago (1994), at his home in Kyoto, he told me about his start in poetry and how intertwined it was with his activities in translation:

…The first quatrain I wrote one Sunday two weeks after Pearl Harbor was… (shakes his head in disapproval)… almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time. I had studied Greek in high school, and I was very interested still in Greek literature and read quite a bit at University, mostly on my own, this was not for any course. is was just for my own satisfaction. I had read no translation of Aeschylus that struck me as being accurate or true to the thing…. when I started out… I wanted to know about meter. I wanted to understand how poetry was structured, why they used rhyme, the way poetry moved. (Corman, APR 25)

The translation of poetry affects his poetry. Even as a young man, he was able to see the effect that translation was having on his poetry. The force, or influence, is so strong that he seems to recognize a need to disassociate the two: he is unsatisfied with his own poem because it reads too much like the work he has been translating: “. . . almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time.” The translating of poetry is shaping this poet – the translation work is exerting an influence that Corman recognizes and understands as becoming a part of him. Though he seems to understand the influence can be negative at times, he does not disavow the overall positive influence that the practice is having in teaching him how to become a better poet. In our conversation that day, he went on to make the following points:

By the time I was a sophomore, I was studying Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. And those poets struck me very strongly. They were new to me, and they were different than American poetry. But, I figured by translating I had a way of getting closer to what they were doing, and by doing that, I could learn.

So… it was the beginning for me. So I translated almost all of Les Fleurs du Mal for myself. They weren’t meant for publication. To learn. So it was for me, my education. (Corman, APR 25)

One sees from these comments that Corman understands his beginnings as a poet to be closely associated with his beginnings as a translator. We see also his passionate interest in non-English poetries, and his interest in translating as a means of education, of educating himself as a poet. In looking at the poetry of others, at other poetries, and translating that poetry into his own language, Corman put himself in conversation with other poets, and more importantly found himself within a conversation of sorts that involved poetry – a community of poets that carried him beyond the borders of language, state, and time. In this community, poetry itself became a unifying force –– a center that actually did hold, at least for Cid Corman.

We see further evidence of Corman viewing himself as working within a tradition and within a community when he collects his prose writings and publishes them as one book in two separate volumes. The first volume, Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), contains essays related directly to his own poetry and poetic theory. The second volume, At Their Word/Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow, 1978), concerns itself with translation, and with the work of other writers: “At Their Word.” The two volumes make for a whole; with each volume informing what is said in the companion volume. Corman knows how essential translation has been in helping him to shape and refine his own understanding of poetry and how, in turn, his poetics have informed his translations of other’s poems.

And as it turns out, the first two essays in the second volume take up the topic of translation. Here, in the first essay, Corman offers five translations and commentary upon those translations: “translator’s notes.” The poems he offers are from Rilke, Baudelaire, and Montale. In his prefatory comments at the start of the essay, he offers the following explanation:

The versions here offered (my emphasis) are representative of different approaches possible. In all cases, however, the poems are pieces that have been savored and put into English originally for no other purpose than to prolong the translator’s own pleasure and perhaps to discover some possibility in them for his own tongue. Only where the results seem felicitous poems too (my emphasis) have offerings (my emphasis) been made to a larger audience. (Corman, ATW 10)

Corman’s use of the term “offer,” underscores his sense of giving – or gifting – the translations to the reader with humility – he makes no claim that the translations are definitive. They are offered – the reader can take them, or leave them: “The versions here offered . . .” They are being offered because the original poems were poems that he appreciated so deeply that he was moved to translate them, poems he “savored and put into English to prolong his own pleasure.” His versions of the poems, and only those versions that have become poems in English, and thus deemed worthy of being shared, become “offerings” to a wider audience. Corman’s explanation, particularly his use of the word “offerings,” implies both his giving something of himself to the reader – his work as a translator – and also – and more to the point here – his gratitude for the gift of the original poems. In this gesture and use of the word “offerings,” he implies his awareness of being part of a community that has involved many others over time.

He shows this attitude of gratitude towards the original poets and those who have translated the poem when he speaks of titling one of his translations, in this case the Baudelaire’s poem, “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie.” Unlike other translators who have tried to approach the untitled poem by translating the poem’s first line as the title and coming up with titles such as “The Servant” or the “The Kind-Hearted Servant of Whom You Were Jealous,” Corman titles his translation simply “after Baudelaire.” In his “translator’s notes,” he explains that “’After’ . . . is quite honest, for countless versions over many years achieved this result – which is finally a sort of homage to feeling shared.” The word “homage” as in the case of the word “offering” suggests an awareness on Corman’s part of being involved in a community – a world poetry – and a world that can be shared across time, space, and culture. Here is Corman’s version of Baudelaire’s “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie:”

after Baudelaire

The bighearted nurse
you envied, buried
sod, merits flowers.
The living thankless
rest between warm sheets
while the poor dead feel
all alone, no one
to bring them fresh trash.

If, at the good fire,
I saw her sitting,
some December night
found her in my room
crushed from the long bed
gazing at this child,
what cold worlds tell her
tears filling those eyes?
(Corman ATW 10)

Corman felt a need to translate, as well as a need to share his translations of poetry with others: To make “offerings” to a larger audience. We see further evidence of this in the story of his coming to translate the poetry of Paul Celan and to publish that poetry in his magazine Origin.

After leaving the University of Michigan, and after a few years back in Boston where he hosted a weekly poetry radio program, Corman was awarded a Fulbright and traveled to France to study at the Sorbonne. In Paris, Cid wrote poetry and immersed himself in translation. During this time, in 1955, he met the poet Paul Celan, virtually unknown in North America at the time, and began translating his work into English. Some years later, when Corman wanted to publish his Celan translations in his magazine Origin, he contacted Celan to ask permission. Celan refused to give permission and threatened litigation against Corman if he pursued publication. After some consideration, Corman went ahead and published the poems in Origin and, as promised, Celan wrote an angry letter to Corman threatening “persecution” – an ironic typographical error, as Corman would later remark to me, considering Celan’s persecution by the Nazi’s during the Second World War. Celan had meant to write “prosecution,” of course.

In 1994, when I asked Corman how he first meet Paul Celan, he told me the following story:

My friend. I was living with her at the time: 1955, in Paris. Edith Aron (German, but reared mostly in Argentina, of Jewish descent too) who had helped Paul Celan get a job with UNESCO introduced me personally to him one day. He seemed very dour to me and they did most of the talking. Both near my age – early 30s. And she gave me his first two books and suggested we translate from them together. We did. And I did the first English versions ever and a few were published in Toronto by Ray Souster at once. I didn’t like those first two volumes as much as what followed. And I bought each of his books as they occurred thereafter and translated each – with someone native to German assisting. I met him just as he was really coming into his own. And I have translated all his work – much of it still unpublished.

I asked Corman what specifically attracted him to Celan’s work, and he answered in the following way:

His depth of language use – not as technics (cf. Zukofsky) but as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me. I couldn’t /wouldn’t be as obscure and “difficult” as he allowed himself/his language to be, but I could feel the truth of what he was doing, or trying to do. And that moved me. To want to share that work – despite his challenging me. (Corman, APR 26)

Corman speaks in terms of feeling “moved” to translate the work, feeling compelled to share the work of Celan with others. He decided to publish the translations despite Celan’s “challenging” him. His rationale being, in so many words, that he felt compelled to share it – that he could feel “the truth” of what (Celan) was doing: “His depth of language use . . . as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me.”

One might find fault with Corman’s rationale as stated here. Is his desire to share the work reason enough to publish his translations without Celan’s permission? But in questioning Corman rationale, one would also do well to consider Corman’s passion and sincerity to share the work. Every- thing about Corman’s life in poetry suggests that his reply to Celan was sincere. Of course, I do not mean to assert that passion and sincerity, in and of themselves, make Corman’s actions right or absolve him of honoring the wishes of Celan. What I do want to point out is that Corman was deeply motivated to act in the way that he did act, and that his action speaks to his understanding of poetry in the world, and per- haps also to questions of ownership of it.

Corman felt Celan’s work should be shared – that it needed to be shared. This desire to share poetry has remained consistent throughout Corman’s life: his poetry radio program in Boston was a way for him to share poetry with a wider community. It was a way of creating a community around poetry, for poetry. His founding of the magazine Origin was another way in which he worked to share poetry with a larger community: he wanted to get poetry into the world, particularly the kind of poetry that mainstream poetry magazines were not taking seriously, at least not taking seriously enough to publish.

Written correspondence was a further way in which Corman shared poetry with others. Correspondence, i.e. letter writing, was a central part of his life as a poet. In conversation once, he referred to it as his “life-line.” When I asked him if there was anything that stood out in the letters that he received – anything remarkable? He told me, “Everything. Every letter is my news. Is poetry” (Corman APR 26). At the time, I didn’t think he meant that the letters were themselves really poetry – but over the years I have come to doubt that first understanding – maybe he did mean it, literally. After all a letter, like poetry, involves the experience of one person sharing news, to use Pound’s word for poetry – news that stays news with another. Letters and poetry are correspondences, if you will, that share an experiential quality about them: the words of the writer being shared with the reader in an intimate way. So for Corman, this idea, of letters being “poetry,” is not as far fetched as it might at first sound. Perhaps his feeling on this accounts for his publishing letters right alongside poetry in his magazine Origin. In the first series of Origin (1951-1957) Volume XIV/Autumn, for example, he published the following section of letter by the Canadian poet Irving Layton:

Letter to Cid Corman

Lac Desert, County Lab
Quebec
August 5, 1954

Dear Cid,…

In all these poems I’ve tried to express the idea “in the image,” for although as a rule I leave theorizing about poetry to others, there are one or two work-a-day rules I try to govern myself by when writing verse. For me, rhythm and imagery usually tell the story; I’m not much interested in any poet’s ideas unless he can make them dance for me, that is embody them in a rhythmic pattern of visual images, which is only another way of saying the same thing in different words. If I want sociology, economics, uplift, or metaphysics; or that generalized state of despairing benevolence concerning the prospects of the human race which seems to characterize much of present-day poetic effort, I know my way around a library as well as the next man. Catalogues are no mystery to me. I regard the writing of verse as a serious craft, the most serious there is, demanding from a man everything he’s got. Moreover, it’s a craft in which good intentions count for nil. It’s how much a man has absorbed into his being that counts, how he opens up continuously to experience, and then with talent and luck communicates to others (my emphasis) without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply …

Yours, Irving

This letter appeared in Origin alongside Layton’s poems. It was not set off as a prefatory statement of any kind but appeared on the page as if a poem, in the flow of the poems presented there, with several poems preceding it and several poems following it.

Poetry is a craft, according to Layton, that demands much of the poet: “demanding from a man everything he’s got.” It is also a craft that demands the poet open up “continuously to experience,” a craft that calls upon the poet to communicate to others “without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply . . .” These ideas are all in sympathy with Corman’s own poetics, as editor and as poet. Certainly, an open- ness to experience, and a direct form of communication/address are characteristic of Corman’s poetry. Here, Layton’s letter may be seen to be a poem in Corman’s eyes in so far as it achieves a rhythmic liveliness in its prose while communicating in a direct, unaffected and sincere way. A piece of writing that opens up to experience and communicates with others. In publishing the letter, we see Corman, the publisher, opening up to the experience of the letter and sharing that experience with others. In placing poes and letters in the magazine in such away, Corman seems to ask, “Why can’t a letter such as this be read as a poem?” Corman opens himself to the possibility of the letter being read in such a way – opens himself to that experience. In publishing the letter, Corman participates then in a reciprocal gesture of gift giving, and communicating with others – he shares Layton’s letter with a wider audience.

Corman’s active life as a correspondent is legendary, and the books of correspondence that have been published over the years indicate this – no doubt more books will follow.  The many letters between Corman and Charles Olson, for example, were edited and published in 1987 and in 1991 (Charles Olson & Cid Corman, Complete Correspondence 1950 –1964 Volume 1 and Volume II. Ed. George Evans, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine Press); Olson’s letters to Corman were published earlier in 1970 (Charles Olson, Letters for Origin, Cape Goliard [London] and Grossman [New York] Ed. Albert Glover); a collection of Lorine Niedecker’s letters to Corman was published in 1986 (Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 – 1970, Ed. Lisa Pater Faranda, Duke University Press); a more recent volume of Corman Letters was published in 2000 (Where to Begin, Selected Letters between Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, Ed. Keegan Doyle. Ekstasis Editions).

The contemporary American poet and translator, Andrew Schelling provides a telling and instructive story of his coming into correspondence with Corman through the aegis of Clayton Eshleman, who had known Corman in Kyoto years earlier and knew first-hand of his approachability, and his willingness to help younger poets. As Schelling recalls in a tribute that he wrote after Corman’s passing in 2004, he was a “fledgling poet . . . just beginning to publish . . . in the early to mid eighties” when he first corresponded with Cid Corman. Clayton Eshleman told him he had “to get in touch with Cid Corman.” Eshleman’s suggestion was a piece of “true counsel,” and not simply “a piece of advice.” Schelling listened to Eshelman and contacted Corman and they began corresponding. In short order, Schelling and Corman became correspondents. Corman replied “to every letter instantly,” Schelling says, expressing wonder at Corman’s generosity and attentiveness: “his aerograms usually leaving the day my own had arrived. Always an aerogram, always every patch of space on it filled with typewritten words—almost always a small poem or two or three typed onto the outside.” (Schelling)

As a poet living far from the American scene, one might expect Corman to have less to offer Schelling than an elder poet based in the U.S. and familiar with contemporary American poetics. Schelling however did not find this to be the case. While it was true, Schelling concedes, that Corman was not always up to date on the latest developments on the American scene, and that poetry news reached him “in curiously winnowed ways,” Schelling felt that Corman had something special to offer. According to Schelling, Corman’s “expatriate status gave him an in-touch status hard to qualify but completely visible to all who knew him. He was more a citizen of the world than are most American poets. His correspondence permitted him equal access to friends in Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.” Corman was in his own curious way at the center of things – his correspondence had him in touch with poets around the world. For a young poet like Schelling, a poet interested in translation, Corman’s international contacts and his active engagement with translation had much to offer Schelling.

Corman wrote tens of thousands of letters to contacts around the world during his lifetime. His correspondents included friends, family members, and poets, as well as politicians, philosophers, artists, and religious figures. His correspondence with others was something that he wanted to share, that is, he wanted not only to connect with others through correspondence, but he wanted to connect others to others through correspondence. If he thought that one of his correspondents would benefit from getting to know another of his correspondents, he would try to put them in touch with one another. Through his correspondence then, Corman tried to introduce different writers to each another. When I first began corresponding with Corman on a regular basis, he frequently went out of his way to send me contact information about writers he thought I should connect with.

When one looks at the sum of Corman’s life then, one feels convinced that Corman felt poetry was, in large measure, about sharing and community. He felt that one of the most fundamental qualities of poetry was found in its ability to bring two individual lives together – to create a community of two: a conversation between the reader and the poet. This sentiment is found throughout his oeuvre. Here are four poems that demonstrate some of this:

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.
(Corman, ND 86)

Assistant

As long as you are here –
Would you turn the page?
(Corman, APR 23)

The Call

Life is poetry
and poetry is life — O
awaken — people!
(Corman, APR 21)

There’s only
one poem:
this is it.
(Corman, ND 121)

In elegant and conversational language, Corman asserts the primacy of poetry in human relations in these poems: “Poetry becomes / that conversation we would / not other- wise have.” Poetry is unique and solitary in what it offers – nothing else is quite like it.

In the second poem we see a humorous and yet quite serious invitation for the reader to participate actively in the reading of the book. It is as though Corman himself were reaching out through the poem to make contact with the reader and participate in the reading of the book: “Would you mind turning the page?” The poet shows up and speaks directly to the reader – let’s the reader know that he, the poet, has thought of him. The poet has envisioned the reader one day finding himself on the page and reading. This is the community that Corman values – the interaction of one person conversing with another through the medium of poetry. Corman moves through time and space in doing this, he is aware of the poem’s ability to transcend time and space and remain relevant – to still speak. Here he quietly alludes to times’ passing and to the ephemeral nature of life: “As long as you are here.” This conversational line, a line we commonly hear, is brought to bear its full measure of import within the poem: the weight of intonation and stress falls precisely on the word “are:” “As long as you are (my emphasis) here.” If Corman were not the poet that he is, he might have written “you’re” instead of “you are.” Corman wants the reader to sound “are:” “As long as you are . . .” In other words, as long as you are here, and alive, will you turn the page?

This subtle gesture points to one of the enduring qualities and strengths of poetry: the poem speaks to the reader even when the poet is gone. It speaks to the movement of time, the movement within a lifetime, to the human condition of being here now and knowing we will not always be. The poet after all, is not really with the reader on the page in the present moment of reading. He has passed on. The reader in reading the poem understands this, feels it through the poem.

The final two poems cited above get at similar notions as the first two poems. “The Call,” again announces the primacy of poetry, equating it with life itself: “Life is poetry/and poetry is life – O.” And the final poem makes the playful and, at first glance, seemingly audacious statement, that “There’s only/one poem:/this is it.”

Of course, in a real sense, Corman means exactly what he says, and that is, that the impulse behind the writing of a poem, the engine of the poem, the origin of any poem, of all poems, is the same at its source – it is the impulse to speak, it is the “O” of breath and being – the reaching out of one to another through language – the poet and reader together – the song that brings one to another. It is at base a connectivity, and communication, a form of communion, or community: ”the conversation/we could not otherwise have.” Seen in this light, we understand the claim that the poem makes: there is one poem and it resides in our very breathing and breath. It is life.

This poem, this last one, is an especially helpful poem to consider in relation to Corman’s book of and his questionable act of incorporating un-sourced translations into the book alongside his own poems. I say this because in this poem, we see a clear statement which may be seen as supporting what Corman has done in the book; that is to say, he makes his poems and his translations one book, one unified book, one poem: “There is /only one poem:/ this is it.”

***

Of is, at first glance, a strange title for a book. How many books can one think of that contain a preposition for a title? Strange as it is, it is a title that is precise and telling, and one meant to draw attention. When one opens the book, one finds a preface that immediately addresses the rationale behind the titling of the book:

for those who find themselves here
and sounding the words care to be

this is a book of a life as exacting as any
other, not in chronological order, but
through as for all time: a small proportion of
what has occurred to me and to which the work
unseen is complementary

the title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics:
the meta the indissoluble unfathomable fact: the
genitive case: to which we are all beholden and
within which we remain hopelessly particular

and to the extent that a poetry can, these poems
articulate it – which humbly (meaning – aware
of there being no choice) reveals transparently,
whatever else may be felt, I trust (trust implying
you), wonder, gratitude, pain, and love.

(Corman, of Vol. I, 2)

The Preface begins by immediately engaging the reader: “for those who find themselves here/and sounding the words care to be.” The reader is said to be “sounding” the words, suggesting that the reader is actively involved in both sounding the depth of the words – the depth of their various and associative meanings – as well as physically making the sound of the words in their mouths – “sounding” them. The words themselves are said to be things that “care to be,” underscoring Corman’s emphasis on our appreciating “words” as having an existence beyond the individual’s control – emphasizing, reminding the reader that words exist independent of the individual speaker – that they are thus shared within a larger community. If words did not possess this characteristic capacity, of what use would they be? To the extent that words are shared, they carry meaning and significance for us, and they bring us together, allow us to communicate with each other. Readers can “find themselves here” (my emphasis) precisely because the words on the page belong to the reader as much as they belong to the writer.
 As Corman says, “The title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics,” that is, it attempts to underscore the existent relationship between the individual and the world beyond the individual to which the individual is both separate from and a part of: “the genitive case: to which we are all beholden and/within which we remain hopelessly particular.” Language is thus the bridge, or the “connectivity,” as the post-colonial scholar Inderpal Grewal refers to it (Grewal 236).

Corman continues to elaborate upon this theme on the following page of the book with another epigraph. Here he translates the Greek of Philo of Alexandria (20 B. C. E. ~ 50 C. E.). It is salient to note that Philo himself was writing a literary work in Greek that was based on the older Hebraic writings of the Bible (Genesis), namely the Old Testament. Thus Philo too, like Corman, was involved in translation – the crossing of linguistic borders. Corman translates the epigraph as follows:

The soul of the most perfect is fed by the word as a whole; we may well be content should we be fed even by a portion of it.

PHILO: Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis. III, Ixi, 176.(Corman, of, Vol. I. 1)

In this epigraph, Corman once more alludes to there being a whole to which we belong: “the word as a whole.” With my layman’s knowledge of ancient texts, I cautiously interpret Philo in the following way: I take the “most perfect” as referring to God. Following upon this, I understand God is fed “by the word as a whole.” I read “the word as a whole” to refer to the whole of humanity, and that humanity’s offering God prayers, songs, poetry – praise feeds God. If the word as a whole is what God – “the soul of the most perfect” – is nourished by then we lesser ones might be sustain by, and should be “content” with, even a portion of it, the word: our own individual languages. The divine world and the human world are bound by, and through, the word. For Corman then, poetry is nothing less than manna – an essential thing – meant to be shared. Further, it is the diversity of languages that Corman is signaling as being of importance. It is not one particular language but the word as a whole – all poetries contributing to the whole that feeds the most perfect.

With this title, preface, and epigraph, Corman makes the case, rhetorically, for including un-sourced translations from many different languages and time periods into the book. His gesture is to say that we are OF this material – that the poetry of the world belongs to all of us. Moreover, he means to suggest that we are shaped by our inheritance of these languages, poetries, and cultures. We are of them – born into a scene and situation that we did not ourselves wholly create. He honors the inheritance.

In 2000, Corman responded to the charge of appropriation – whether or not his use of un-sourced translations in of was a form of appropriation. Did he deliberately leave the names of the original authors of his translations off the page? In his characteristically frank way, he acknowledged that he had done so while emphasizing that he did so with a purpose:

Yes, of course. Take Eshleman, who I know very – have known very well: very angry at me for doing that, not to give the credits. But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize… Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is. Anyone who’s really interested could easily find out. But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous; and if you look at my books that I myself designed without fail, my name is not on the title page. This is unique: there’s nobody else that ever has done this and I do it deliberately. My name is put as a signature at the end, but actually, I would rather have my name not in the book at all…

(Corman, ICPR 1)

“But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced.” Corman doesn’t want the names introduced because he wants the work, of, to be that whole that he alludes to in the epigraphs. His own poems will be part of the book, but they will find themselves within a community of poetry – his poems will be at home within a greater whole.

While I think it is understandable how the charge of appropriation could be leveled at Corman – for he does incorporate translations of others’ poems into his book – I believe under close analysis the assertion of appropriation does not stand up. “Appropriation” doesn’t adequately come to terms with the nuanced complexity of Corman’s gesture, and it is in the nuance and carefully balanced aesthetic manner in which the translations are brought into relationship with Corman’s own poetry that matters. The manner in which the translations are incorporated allows for them to be felt as translations, known as such, while not overtly crediting them as translations nor naming the authors.

Corman asserts in the interview that anyone really interested in finding out the source of a poem can easily do so because the poems are well known, or they are tagged in a way that allows them to be identified: “But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize . . . Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is.” In other words, Corman maintains that the translated poems remain in some fashion distinct and particular, in some way known and sourced.

This is in keeping with what he announces in the Preface and through his use of epigraphs. In some measure, “a precisely physical metaphysics” is enacted in the book: the translated poems remain particular within a constellation of other poems, including Corman’s own. The ability of Corman to translate poems and incorporate them so that they become both distinct and a part of the whole is one of the signal achievements of the text. And in so much as readers experience the poems as translations within the book, that is, poems different from Corman’s own poems, a multitude of voices are allowed to enter the book and circulate through and between Corman’s own poems.

For Corman to insert the names of the original authors on every page where a translation appeared would be to break (brake) the resonant play of the poems echoing off each other. It would be, in short, contrary to the aesthetic intentions suggested in the titling of the book. This is to say that the listing of sources would break the text into discrete parts and detract from the whole that Corman is trying to create.

When readers encounter translations in the text, the readers should understand that the poetry is other than Cor- man’s own. When Corman’s friend and fellow poet, Clayton Eshleman read the book, he had precisely this experience – he recognized certain poems as translations despite their lack of citation. The first poem, for example, is entitled Shingyo; as such, it immediately signals a foreign language – in this case Japanese. The poem is actually a translation of an ancient prayer, a sutra that comes from India. Just as Philo’s use of the Genesis story demonstrates his awareness of precedent, Corman too chooses a work that demonstrates his awareness of precedent, and the way in which languages and ideas cross borders and are shared among and within communities. The sutra, which is well known in Asia and in- creasing in the West, was written in Sanskrit at around 350 C. E. Later, Buddhist monks brought the sutra to China where it was translated into Chinese. Then the Japanese brought the sutra to Japan, and translated it into Japanese. Here, the sutra, known in English as “The Heart Sutra” is a work that has passed over and through many national borders, languages, and cultures to be shared anew through further translations. Interesting to note, and apropos to what Corman has said about his own wish for anonymity in poetry, the poem he begins the book with – his magnum opus – is an anonymous work, a poem that has been chanted by many different people of various cultural backgrounds for ages.

Beginning the book with this poem amplifies the theme struck by the epigraphs and the Preface, that is to say, the poem moves us to confront the paradox that we find ourselves in – we are particular and yet each exists within a community – in relationship with others – our shared language tells us as much: no one person invented the language, and no one owns it. It is shared. Shingyo speaks to a condition of enlightenment, which would have us acknowledge being both a part and a whole, a poem that celebrates non-duality:

SHINGYO

Seeing reflecting sense nonsense
Friend – here is emptiness here is form
Unborn undying – untainted
unpure – no more no less – therefore
Friend – nothing to know or not to
to come to this – the suffering
reaching where it is and is not
Come – body – and go – body – no
body – gone to the other – gone.
(Corman, of, Vol. 1. 5)

The poem speaks to a sensibility that is unified, a non- dualistic sensibility – one that recognizes both the part (“body”) and the whole (“gone to the other”). It reaches through both – goes beyond opposites – to locate a site of commonality in a singular word of compassion “Friend.”

It is not only by titling the poems carefully then, as in the case of “Shingyo,” and by including well-known translations that Corman indicates which poems are translations: Corman also employs other techniques that quietly signal translation. The entire first section of the second volume of the book, for example, is indexed in the back under the title “Offered,” echoing the title of the book, of. Indexing the poems in this way, suggests that the majority of the poems in the section are translations, as they indeed are.

And it is not only by his unobtrusively marking the poems as translations that Corman succeeds in building the polyphonic quality of the text; He also succeeds through skillful translation. Corman is careful to honor the text, to honor the rhetoricity of the original. This is to say that his translations are distinguished by what the post colonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “fraying,” a manner of translating that eschews the long searched-for equivalency between the original and the target language in favor of acknowledging qualities of the original that may be better left un-translated, giving the text a frayed or roughened feel. As Spivak puts it, “The task of the translator is to facilitate love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.”

Corman’s translations leave the text open and rough with possibility. When balanced between the translator’s agency and the reader’s expectation, Corman honors the rhetoricity of the text. In 1964, long before the term of fraying came into use in translation studies, Corman spoke about his willingness to retain Japanese words in his translations. For example, in the Preface to his translation of Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi, (Back Roads to Far Towns, Munjinsha 1964) he and his fellow translator decided to retain original Japanese words in the translation. Corman expressed their decision this way:

If the translators have often not accepted Western approximations for particular Japanese and/or Chinese terms, it is not to create undue difficulties for readers, but rather to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible. As a result, notes may be needed in greater profusion than before. (Basho, BRFT 10)

Corman is not going to smooth the text out so that it reads comfortably in English if that means compromising too much of the complexity of the original. The original words, rich in associative meanings, may offer a complexity that the English words cannot adequately represent, that is, the English equivalent is not accurate enough. This decision on the part of translators (Corman and Kamaike Susumu), make it is necessary for them to use original Japanese words in the translation. In translating Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi, Corman and Kamaike retain original Japanese words in both the prose and the poetry. Here is some of their translation work – the poetry following the prose:

Afterwards off to the Sesshoseki on horse sent by
the kandai. Man leading it by halter asked for a
tanzaku. Beautiful he wanted one:

across the meadow
horse take your lead now from the
hototogisu
(Basho BRFT 25)

In this brief passage, Corman and Kamaike retain four Japanese words. Their notes in the back of the book relate the following:

kandai: Castle overseer
Sesshoseki: Still exists, though fenced about. The legends associated with it are told in Noh of the same name.
tanzaku: Narrow strip of fine paper to write poetry on; a poem
hototogisu: Japanese cuckoo, whose name is its song.
(Basho BRFT 122)

In using original words the translators intend “to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible.” They bring the Japanese flavor of the original in – they “admit” it – because English does not have similar words that are reliably precise. By retaining the Japanese words the translators allow the shadow of the original to be felt and appreciated. By “shadow” I mean to suggest that Corman and Kamaike’s translation emphasizes that while it is not the original it does retain some of the original’s defining qualities. Hototogisu, for example, is the Japanese cuckoo, but more to the point – and the point Corman and Kamaike want the reader to experience – is the fact that the name of the bird IS the bird’s song. When the reader reads “hototogisu” the reader hears what the Japanese themselves believe the bird sounds like when it calls. And it just so happens that this has a further meaning (or possibility of meaning) – the sound of the song is imaginatively thought to be the sound of a Buddhist sutra. Thus, the bird is thought to be, figuratively speaking, chanting a sutra. The bird and its call are steeped in the folklore of Japan, and its literary history and culture. The reader gets the onomatopoetic sound that the Japanese themselves feel best represents the sound of the bird. The reader is thus connected in this way with Japan: its animals, culture, language, and people.

Corman frays many of his translated texts in of in similar ways. When he translates Catullus, for example, he uses the Latin title of the poem and translates the poem in the following way:

IUCUNDUM, MEA VITA

Happy, my life, to me you propose love
This ours between us perpetual be.

Great gods, see that she really can promise
And she say so honestly and from heart,

So that it be ours all life to continue
Eternal this trust of blest affection.

I will tell you the secret.

(Corman, of, Vol. II, 30)

Encountering a poem such as this would lead any observant reader to conclude that she is indeed reading a translation. Why else would the poem be titled in Latin? If this doesn’t wake the reader to the fact of the poem being a translation, the reader could Google the title and find the poem ascribed to Catullus. In other worlds, the poem calls out to be understood – read – as a translation. The fraying one finds in the translation makes this even more abundantly clear. This translation is not rendered in Corman’s contemporary American English, but in a distinctively textured, tonal, and syntactical manner quite foreign to it, resulting in a poem that sounds ancient. Some of the ancient sounding qualities of the translation come from Corman’s mining the possibilities of the original Latin poem. Corman draws our attention to the word “ours:” “Happy, my life, to me you propose love/this ours between us perpetual be.” Here, “ours” functions as a noun and retains its Latin sense of something not only as something shared between people but something alive and living, and “ours” that is, “perpetually to be, a love that comes “honestly” and “from heart.” The word “ours” is struck again in the penultimate line with stress and weight – “So that it be ours all life to continue.”

Beyond the polyphonic and the symphonic qualities that the book achieves by bringing in such a rich variety of voices from various cultures, languages, and time periods, Corman’s book, of, reminds us that we come from this stuff – from this poetry – and that our languages and poetries have played a role in shaping the world we live in – the way in which we see and understand ourselves and the world.

Homi K. Bhabha, the literary scholar and cultural theorist, in commenting upon the contemporary Mexican American musical artist Guillermo Gomex-Pena, who travels between Mexico and American to sing songs on both sides of the border, both old and new songs – a man who sings to different audiences – Spanish-speaking audiences and English-speaking audiences, may provide us with the clearest lens yet by which to discern and appreciate what Corman achieves in his own crossing of boundaries – the boundaries of time, space, languages, cultures, and poetries – not to mention his crossing back and forth between his own poems and his translations.
 According to Bhabha, Gomez-Pena’s actions of performing songs in both languages on both sides of the Mexican and U.S. border – songs that are traditional as well as new – creates a generative “inbetween space” that allows for the artist to elaborate “strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity . . .” This “inbetween space,” he asserts, is a site of “collaboration, and contestation.” (Bhabha LC 336) Corman’s work too creates such an inbetween space. It also creates a site of collaboration and contestation in so far as we see him collaborating with other poets through the act of translation, taking their poems and translating them into English. We can see the contestation in terms of his own voice, his poems, asserting themselves through the surrounding poems, many voices vying, if you will, to be heard.

In fact, Bhabha prefaces the above comments by saying that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of “originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is precisely this activity that opens up what he terms “the inbetween space which leads to new signs of identity . . . in the act of defining society itself:”

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of sellfood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” (Bhabha, LC 337)

Corman’s inclusion of poems from many languages – translations – poems both old and new – creates an “inbetween space” that is at once familiar and de-familiarizing – Corman’s own poems written in vernacular contemporary American English sound familiar to the American ear, whereas the translations, such as a poem like “Shingyo,” sound much less familiar because they are sourced in different languages, time periods, or cultures and because Corman’s renderings in English of those translations tend to be deliberately marked or frayed, creating a degree of dissonance between his own poetry and the translated poetry. In this way, Corman creates a gap, a space, and in-between, that allows, admits, a larger world of poetry to enter. He gets beyond, as Bhabha would have us do, “originaries and initial subjectivities” and allows the reader to experience a larger world of poetry by allowing her “to focus on moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is through this performance, this act, that Corman succeeds in initiating “new signs of identity,”which would lead to “the act of defining the idea of society itself ” (337).

The new identity that Corman wants us to embrace says that WE are OF this stuff, this material, this poetry. It is an identity that includes others – other languages, other poetries, other stories, and it accepts them graciously and identifies with them as human stories, familial stories. The new identity implies that the poetry of the world is gifted – offered – in the way that language itself is gifted to each of us, that is, handed down to us by our mothers and fathers, freely given. Corman’s move is deliberate and provocative – an insurgent act – and we should understand it as such and appreciate it as such. Rather than apologize or become defensive in responding to Eshleman’s question regarding appropriation, he becomes more assertive: “. . . the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous” (Corman, ICPR).

In placing translation directly beside his own poems, Corman forces us to ask questions about poetry and poetry’s role and place in the world at a time when cultures and languages are crossing borders more rapidly than ever before. He asks us if we are ready to hear what a world of poetry has to tell each of us about the nature of our existence on the planet. Do we understand the generous loving gesture that the poem itself is offering each of us? Can we approach not only poetry but each other with a larger sense of gratitude, or, as he would say in another poem, can we listen to the poem and each other?


Listen.
What is it – you ask?
I keep telling you:
Listen.

(Corman, ND 64)

Corman wants us to understand that poetry is as important now as it’s ever been in helping us through the night in helping us understand who we are, and what we are – even if poetry is nothing but cry in the night, even if it’s simply one person reaching out to another. Corman is not concerned with copyright issues, or questions of appropriation. It is as though he deliberately pushes these concerns aside in order to get at something more elemental and vital, and that is to remind us that poetry bring us together into a conversation – that language itself comes before ownership, that it is held in trust and commonly constructed. What ever it is that compels a person to write a poem, or for a person to read a poem, gestures toward shared community.

Corman’s magnum opus, of, by combining both translations from other poetries and placing them beside his own poems in a single book allows us to think beyond boundaries into new spaces that allow for a world of poetry to open up, a large world we find ourselves a part of. In doing this, the book reminds us that poetry, to be worthy of the name, to remain vital in our lives, must remain within the community as something offered and shared.

Family

We know it is love
Because we are – as
The stars are – because

Dante and Shakespeare
And Homer were and
So many others

Who never leave us
Alone – light shining
Under the closed door.

(Corman, of Vol. II 378)

—Gregory Dunne

§

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Locations of Culture.” The Transnational Studies Reader: Interdisciplinary Intersections and Innovations. Ed. Peggy Levitt. New York: Routledge, 2007. 233-237. (Print)

Corman, Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California. Black Sparrow. 1978. (Print)

Corman, Cid. Back Roads to Far Towns. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press. 2004. (Print)

Corman, Cid. “Cid Corman in Conversation.” Interview with Philip Rowland. Flash Point Magazine, 16 Sept. 2000. (Web) 06 May 2013. <http://www.flashpoint mag.com/corman1.htm>.

Corman, Cid. Interview. “An Interview with Gregory Dunne. “American Poetry Review. (July/August 2000): 25. (Print) Corman, Cid, Mike Doyle, and Kegan Doyle. Where to Begin: Selected Letters of Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, 1967-1970. Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis Editions, 2000. (Print) Corman, Cid. Nothing Doing. New York: New Directions,

  1. (Print) Corman, Cid. of. Vol. 1 and 2. Venice, California: Lapis. 1990.

(Print) Corman, Cid. The Gist of Origin, 1951-1971: An Anthology.

New York: Grossman, 1975. (Print) Dunne, Gregory. “Getting the Secret Out of Cid Corman.” Poetry East: 44 (Spring 1997): 9 – 23. (Print) Eshleman, Clayton. “Cid,” Cipher Journal. 12 June 2004. <http://www.cipherjournal.com/html/eshleman_cid_ii.

html> (Web) Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America. Durham and London: Duke. 2005. (Print)
Heidegger. Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Harper Colophon Books, New York:1971.

(Print) Niedecker, Lorine, Cid Corman, and Lisa Pater Faranda. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham [N.C.: Duke UP, 1986. (Print)

Olson, Charles, Cid Corman, and George Evans. Charles Olson & Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence 1950- 1964. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, Univer- sity of Maine, 1987. (Print)

Schelling, Andrew. “Schelling CC Death Notes.” Web log post. Schelling CC Death Notes. Cipherjournal, 28 Mar. 2004. (Web) 03 May 2013.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation.” Destabilizing Theory. Eds. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips. London: Polity Press, 1982. (Print)

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Gregory Dunne is the author of two collections of poetry: Home Test (Adastra Press, 2009) and Fistful of Lotus (a handmade book by Canadian printmaker Elizabeth Forrest, 2000). He has contributed to Strangest of Theaters: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeneys and the Poetry Foundation, 2013). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous magazines, including the American Poetry Review, Manoa, Poetry East, and Kyoto Journal. He lives in Japan and teaches in the Faculty of Comparative Culture at Miyazaki International College. Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman was published by Ekstasis Press in 2014.

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Mar 112015
 

r f langley 2 copyR. F. Langley 1938-2011

“By the end of my time spent with Langley’s work that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice.” —Julie Larios

 

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LIKE SEVERAL OF THE POETS I’ve written about for Undersung, Roger Francis Langley (known as R. F. Langley) was seriously unprolific. Seventeen poems were gathered together for one book, twenty-one poems for another. Apparently eight other poems appeared uncollected in The London Review of Books and PN Review. But unlike most other poets I’ve written about, Langley has not been a secret favorite of mine for years. In fact, I just heard about his work this January, when a friend mentioned a memoir titled H is for Hawk by the British writer Helen Macdonald. Macdonald, whose book recently won both the Costa Book Award for Biography and the Samuel Johnson Award for Non-Fiction, mentioned in an interview for The Guardian that, among a few other influential books which “opened her eyes to nature,” she had enjoyed a collection of diary entries by a poet I’d never heard of: R. F. Langley. Her description of that book, titled simply Journal, hooked me:

“These journals, Langley wrote, are concerned with ‘what Ruskin advocated as the prime necessity, that of seeing’, and pay ‘intense attention to the particular’. They speak of wasps, of thrips, grass moths, stained glass, nightjars, pub lunches and church monuments, everything deeply informed by etymology, history, psychology and aesthetic theory. The prose is compressed and fierce, and its narrative movement is concerned with mapping the processes of thought, the working out of things. It is founded on careful, close observation of things that typically pass unnoticed through our world.”

Being a fan of all things which pass unnoticed (or rarely noticed) I figured Langley’s journal might be worth looking through. Macdonald’s list of subjects (from thrips –thrips? – to pub lunches) intrigued me, and I was betting that Langley’s attention might be both focused and digressive, a combination that often produces fine essays. First, though, I had to see what kind of poetry he wrote.

I don’t own any of Langley’s books, and I couldn’t find individual poems anthologized in anything on my shelves. His work is not in my public library, and a search of databases produces not much more than basic biographical material (born in Warwickshire, England, 1938, educated at Cambridge, studied with poet Donald Davie, taught high school, retired to Suffolk, died 2011) and obituaries in major newspapers. Reviews and articles are few and far between, most of them simply remembrances. The obituaries warn that Langley did not produce a large body of work, having only begun to publish seriously in his sixties when he retired from forty years of teaching literature and art history to high school students.

There are only a few links to his poems online. Over at Amazon, his earlier out-of-print books/chapbooks are listed as “Unavailable at this time.” Later books listed there “may require extra time for shipping” which is code for any book that takes weeks to arrive from the U.K. and is obscure, published probably by a small European press. Luckily, I found two of Langley’s books (Collected Poems – 2002 – and The Face of It – 2007 – both still in print, published by Carcanet) at the university library near me and spent a slow afternoon reading them. The 2002 edition of Collected Poems (nominated for a Whitbread Book Award) contains only seventeen poems. It would be better titled Selected Poems; fortunately, a new edition is forthcoming from Carcanet in September of this year, and it is the definitive collection. It contains everything from the 2002 edition plus previously uncollected poems and supplementary material — I believe the total number of poems is 48.)

By the end of my reading that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice. Langley’s poem “To a Nightingale” was awarded the 2011 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem:

To a Nightingale

Nothing along the road. But
petals, maybe. Pink behind
and white inside. Nothing but
the coping of a bridge. Mutes
on the bricks, hard as putty,
then, in the sun, as metal.
Burls of Grimmia, hairy,
hoary, with their seed-capsules
uncurling. Red mites bowling
about on the baked lichen
and what look like casual
landings, striped flies, Helina,
Phaonia, could they be?
This month the lemon, I’ll say
primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch
along the hedge then turn in
to hide, are Yellow Shells not
Shaded Broad-bars. Lines waver.
Camptogramma. Heat off the
road and the nick-nack of names.
Scotopteryx. Darkwing. The
flutter. Doubles and blurs the
margin. Fuscous and white. Stop
at nothing. To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine. Mites which
ramble. Caterpillars which
curl up as question marks. Then
one note, five times, louder each
time, followed, after a fraught
pause, by a soft cuckle of
wet pebbles, which I could call
a glottal rattle. I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

In this poem, Langley opens directly onto the physical world, minimizing the human presence, unlike “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, where the speaker (all agony, in the Romantic mode) dominates the first forty lines of the poem. Nature is somewhere out there in Keats’s poem; his speaker says, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,” though he’s willing to take a few guesses. Langley’s poem, on the other hand, goes down to the ground immediately and sees clearly the non-human world: petals, burls, mites, lichen, flies, lemons, moths. The speaker of Langley’s poem is present only in his desire to name correctly what he sees and hears (a flower, “Helina / Phaonia, could they be?’ and a color “I’ll say / primrose-coloured” and  a sound “which I could call a glottal rattle.”) Human involvement in the scene comes quietly:

               Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine.

He does not romanticize nature, as Keats does when he compares the bird’s “full-throated ease” to a man’s being half in love with Death. Instead, Langley celebrates what is mysterious and even nervous about the natural world (“Caterpillars which / curl up as question marks” and the “fraught pause” of the nightingale, the bird finally making its appearance at the very end of the poem. The man in the scene stands still , but nature is in motion; for Langley, the speaker’s role is that of a careful observer of an active, natural world.  William Wordsworth’s “Ode to a Nightingale” also begins with a man on a bridge and involves a nightingale’s song in the distance (no coincidence there – Langley is surely building on the English tradition of ornithological poems) but the center of that poem is also, as with Keats’s poem, clearly Man, not nature. Langley’s hidden subject might turn out to be the same upon careful observation, but his poetic trick is indirection. Langley, like many good poets, uses the tools of a good magician.

Look, too, at the subtler technical details of Langley’s poem, beyond the large idea it offers. It starts by saying “Nothing on the road.” Then, structurally, the poet unfolds his long list of everything that is actually there. He slows down after the opening four words and takes another look. And the poem come back structurally to that “nothing” by the end; the design of the poem is curvilinear, almost like the little caterpillar’s question mark.

                                          I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

Like many of Marianne Moore’s poems (and like the quantitative verse of ancient Greece) this poem is built on counted syllables, with seven syllables per line, but without the lines feeling unnaturally stunted. Langley’s inspiration for this attention to the syllable was Charles Olson’s essay on “Projective Verse,” in which Olson says, “It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets [that] objects share.” Olson goes on to say that the syllable is “king and pin of versification” and describes what syllables do as a dance. “It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose.”

Counted syllables are not in and of themselves what a poet wants a reader to be aware of – the counting is simply part of the puzzle-making challenge the poet sets himself in order to see what kind of words will fill the particular vessel of the poem. Peter Turchi discusses a poet’s delight in this kind of challenge in his book A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, reviewed in the January issue of Numero Cinq. Turchi also talks about nursery rhymes in that book; several of Langley’s poems involve nursery-rhyme rhythms:

You grig. You hob. You Tom, and what not,
with your moans! Your bones are rubber. Get back
out and do it all again. For all the
world an ape! For all the world Tom poke, Tom
tickle and Tom joke!

(excerpt from “Man Jack”)

Meter established by syllable count is not the only technical tool used in the poem; there is also a generous amount of internal rhyme:

To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff.

A light touch with alliteration also plays its part in the appeal of the poem: petals/pink, hairy/hoary, bridge/burls/bowling/baked, shells/shaded, nick-nack of names…alliteration runs through the poem, as does near-rhyme (“the soft cuckle/ of wet pebbles….”) With such a tight syllabic count, the choice of words that manage to chime off each other like that is especially difficult.

Then there’s the specificity of the Latin names, countered with the goofy sound of giff-gaff and chiff-chaff (which is actually a type of bird.) Langley had a naturalist’s command of information, a linguist’s command of etymology, plus good comedic timing and a modern voice in the style of Wallace Stevens. Some of his phrases in this poem seem non-sensical on first reading, until you look up the less-familiar meaning of a familiar word – the “coping of a bridge,” for example, refers to the architectural detail of its capped wall; “mutes on the bridge, hard as putty” are bird droppings.

Retired in 1999 at the age of 61 and able — finally — to turn his full attention to writing, Langley might have anticipated two decades to do so. But “To a Nightingale,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in November of 2010, was his last published poem; he died in January of 2011. As Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote in his remembrance of Langley for the Cambridge Literary Review, Langley managed to personify Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” that is, the state of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In one poem about a medieval church in the moonlight, Langley says, “There are no / maps of moonlight. We find / peace in the room and don’t /ask what won’t be answered.” In “To a Nightingale,” there are no blunt answers, no overt message, nor is there any clear metaphor-making to draw lines between speaker and scene, yet we feel the mystery and melancholy in both, and we understand Langley’s play on the double-entendre of the word “coping” as it relates to both man and bridge, and the slight rise (of hope?) for both road and man as the poem ends. Daniel Eltringham summarized Langley’s skill in his article “‘The idea of the bird’: Bird Books, the Problem of Taxonomy, and Some Poems by R.F. Langley,” when he said, “Roger Langley’s writing lies between two worlds: the certainty desired by the amateur naturalist and its implications for artistic and taxonomic records, poised against the uncertain, plural, deferred, evasive character of an experimental artist. But poised without explicit tension: he is not a tense writer, more curious and exploratory, content to allow contradictions to remain contrary.”

Here is one more poem, offered up without commentary, other than to mention the character of Jack, who makes his appearance (like John Berryman’s Henry) in many later poems. There is also a noticeable use of end rhyme in this poem in addition to the internal rhyme, and the use of counted syllables (ten to the line.)  You’ll see the same sensibility at play, the same fine control of sound, the barrage of images, the refusal to straighten it all out and over-explain. Some of the work, Langley seemed to believe, belongs to the poem’s readers.

Jack’s Pigeon

The coffee bowl called Part of Poland bursts
on the kitchen tiles like twenty thousand
souls. It means that much. By the betting shop,
Ophelia, the pigeon squab, thuds to
the gutter in convulsions, gaping for
forty thousand brothers. So much is such.
Jack leans on the wall. He says it’s true or
not; decides that right on nine is time for
the blue bee to come to the senna bush,
what hope was ever for a bowl so round,
so complete, in an afternoon’s best light,
and even where the pigeon went, after
she finished whispering goodnight. Meanwhile,
a screw or two of bloody paper towel
and one dead fledgling fallen from its nest
lie on Sweet Lady Street, and sharp white shards
of Arcopal, swept up with fluff and bits
of breadcrust, do for charitable prayers.
The bee came early. Must have done. It jumped
the gun. Jill and the children hadn’t come.

How hard things are. Jack sips his vinegar
and sniffs the sour dregs in each bottle in
the skip. Some, as he dumps them, jump back with
a shout of ‘Crack!’ He tests wrapping paper
and finds crocodiles. The bird stretched up its
head and nodded, opening its beak. It
tried to speak. I hope it’s dead. Bystanders
glanced, then neatly changed the name of every
street. Once this was Heaven’s Hill, but now the
clever devils nudge each other on the
pavement by the betting shop. Jill hurried
the children off their feet. Jack stood and shook.
He thought it clenched and maybe moved itself
an inch. No more. Not much. He couldn’t bring
himself to touch. And then he too had gone.
He’s just another one who saw, the man
who stopped outside the door, then shrugged, and checked
his scratchcard, and moved on. Nothing about
the yellow senna flowers when we get home.
No Jack. No bee. We leave it well alone.

Jack built himself a house to hide in and
take stock. This is his property in France.
First, in the middle of the table at
midday, the bowl. Firm, he would say, as rock.
The perfect circle on the solid block.
Second, somewhere, there is an empty sack.
Third, a particular angry dormouse,
in the comer of a broken shutter,
waiting a chance to run, before the owl
can get her. The kick of the hind legs of
his cat, left on the top step of a prance.
The bark of other peoples’ dogs, far off,
appropriately. Or a stranger’s cough.
His cows’ white eyelashes. Flies settled at
the roots of tails. What is it never fails?
Jack finds them, the young couple dressed in black,
and, sitting at the front, they both look up.
Her thin brown wrist twists her half open hand
to indicate the whole show overhead.
Rotating fingernails are painted red.

Who is the quiet guard with his elbow
braced against the pillar, thinking his thoughts
close to the stone? He is hard to make out,
and easy for shadows to take away.
Half gone in la nef lumineuse et rose.
A scarlet cardinal, Jack rather hoped.
A tired cyclist in a vermillion
anorak. Could anyone ever know?
Sit down awhile. Jill reads the posy in
her ring and then she smiles. The farmer owns
old cockerels which peck dirt. But he is
standing where he feels the swallows’ wings flirt
past him as they cut through the shed to reach
the sunlit yard, bringing a distant blue
into the comfortable gold. How much
can all this hold? To lie and eat. To kill
and worry. To toss and milk and kiss and
marry. To wake. To keep. To sow. Jack meets
me and we go to see what we must do.
The bird has turned round once, and now it’s still.

There’s no more to be done. No more be done.
And what there was, was what we didn’t do.
It needed two of us to move as one,
to shake hands with a hand that’s shaking, if
tint were to be tant, and breaking making.
Now, on the terrace, huddled in my chair,
we start to mend a bird that isn’t there,
fanning out feathers that had never grown
with clever fingers that are not our own:
stroking the lilac into the dove grey,
hearing the croodle that she couldn’t say.
Night wind gives a cool hoot in the neck of
Jack’s beer bottle, open on the table.
Triggered by this, the dormouse shoots along
the sill, illuminated well enough
for us to see her safely drop down through
the wriggling of the walnut tree to find
some parings of the fruit we ate today,
set out on the white concrete, under the
full presentation of the Milky Way.

Though Langley’s work is new to me, I want to put his name in front of readers here at Numero Cinq and to recommend that we all make the effort to find his work and read it. I’ve purchased his Journal and now wait for it to wing its way across the Atlantic and into my mailbox. If your library responds to World Cat requests, you might find copies of his books through that resource. Meanwhile, listen to the wonderful audio recordings he made for The Poetry Archive – he has a perfect reading voice, not melodramatic but full of feeling, which is no small accomplishment. There are two recordings available: first, the odd and interesting “Cook Ting” and then his compelling “Blues for Titania, ” which you can read along with as he reads it – it’s a complicated and masterly poem, four stanzas long, nineteen lines each stanza, eleven syllables per line, and swoon-worthy.

—Julie Larios

 

With Jackson at Mo's 2

Julie Larios’s Undersung essays for Numéro Cinq have highlighted the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Mar 062015
 

StaffordWilliam Stafford via the Poetry Foundation and others

 

At the library of Congress in 1994 there was a memorial tribute to William Stafford, the brilliant American poet who, in 1970, had been what is now called the Poet Laureate of the United States.

There were the usual accolades: Bill Stafford was a poet whose plain language fitted his flatland Kansas sensibility. He was a man who thought peace (Stafford was a conscientious objector during World War Two) was good; war was wrong. There were other kind words. About the self-evident and the oblique stories in his poems. About those poem’s gifted reticence. Then something extraordinary was said. One of his children, his daughter Kit I think, told us of her father’s repeated advice to them as they were growing up: “Talk to strangers.”

By chance I was Bill Stafford’s student in the sense that I learned from him about writing and life: Do it all and do it all now. The threshold is never so high as you imagine. The beginning may not be the beginning. The end may not be the end. These aphorisms applied not only to his craft and mine, but to the way we lived. And there was a sense in what I learned from Bill Stafford that the two might not be easily separated.

Not far where I live in Kansas (and about the same distance from where Bill Stafford grew up) there is a high school in a town of roughly a thousand that has a video security system of which they are especially proud. I had been asked to be part of a literary program there (my talk was on Bill Stafford), and came to know about the surveillance cameras because I saw one posted in the room where I was speaking. Later, I saw the black and white glow of the monitors in the school’s office. I watched as the system projected pictures of the gymnasium (empty on this autumn Saturday); various hallways (also empty); our meeting room (adults milling around drinking coffee and eating donuts); and finally a shot outside the school: the wide Kansas prairie as background, a small Kansas town in the foreground.

One of the school’s officials and a parent stopped to say that you couldn’t be too careful these days, what with Columbine and Amber alert. Bad things happen in schools. And out of schools. Better to be vigilant than be sorry. When they left, I could see them on the monitors as they walked across the buffalo grass lawn to where they were parked. They talked for a moment over the bed of a pickup truck, and then drove off, safe, I suppose, in the knowledge that someone might have been watching them.

Over the years Bill Stafford and I wrote back and forth: letters, post cards, copies of our work sent to one another with inscriptions. As he was one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century, I got plenty more of the latter than did he. But no matter how far apart we were, Bill in Oregon and me in Kansas or in Europe, he would sign off with something like “Adios” or “Cheers”, and then, as if we were just across the pasture, he’d note: “And stop on by.” My sense now is that when I’d get to him, windblown and dusty from the walk over, he’d want to know if I’d met any strangers on the way, and what stories they had to tell.

Have we become an America where it is stupid to give the same advice to our children that Bill Stafford gave his, and where stop on by means please don’t? Have we come to believe that surveillance cameras in the high schools of tiny prairie towns will teach our students the eternal vigilance they’ll need to live in towns beyond their own? Or in their own? What with Columbine and Amber alert. Or is the answer from Bill Stafford’s poem Holcomb, Kansas?

Now the wide country has gone sober again.
The river talks all through the night, proving
its gravel. The valley climbs back into its hammock
below the mountain and becomes again only what
it is: night lights on farms make little blue domes
above them, bring pools for the stars; again
people can visit each other, talk easily,
deal with real killers only when they come.

Or are we all real killers?

There may be no reclaiming Bill Stafford’s vision of America, but once upon a time, in his plain voice, didn’t he speak for you?

— Robert Day


Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

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Feb 102015
 

Syd2The Author with his Grandson Arthur

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Thank You Note

……Newbury Burial Ground, 2014

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My wife says we’ll be eternally close to Tink and Polly, old-time Vermonters, that vanishing stock, and best of neighbors. To me, she seems like some madwoman, talking about how we should stipulate a bench instead of a headstone to stand at this grave she bought yesterday, when I was out of town. A bench, she explains, will enable our children and grandchildren to sit, have picnics, enjoy the scenery. As they take in the panorama, she adds, they can think of us, and in this setting their thoughts will necessarily be happy ones.

Now I’ll admit she’s always been uncannily good at knowing what our children, and now their children, may need or want, but I’m skeptical of this rosy vision of hers. Our kids aren’t as needy as many I’ve known in any case. Even when they were small, they often proved delightfully resourceful.

The two youngest daughters dreamed up sisters for their games: Sharlee was the bright one, Sally the drunken fool. They had Bunnum the rabbit too, and the younger girl often took on the role of Moodyhawk, an odd, mean character who claimed to rule the world. She came, as I recall, from Guam.

An older brother conceived and played the part of a dog named Ruffy. He would school his father or his mother, or often both at once, in their lines of dialogue with Ruffy, often scolding us for faulty inflection or body language. “Not like that!” he’d snap. (When he became a teenager, his grief at the death of his real dog, a sweet Labrador bitch called Plum, would keep him home from school one day.)

The eldest daughter, at four years old, reported, lisping the plural, that she’d found two slugs on a pumpkin. There was gusto, even mirth, in her description of how the orange of the mollusks and the orange of the fruit “didn’t go together.” She was visibly disappointed when she led me out to the garden; she couldn’t find the slugs themselves, merely the pale paths they had left on descending and heading who knew where?

The firstborn child was obsessed with Jeeps, and in bumbling, nightly drawing lessons, I guided his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen. He’d whistle between his teeth in concentration, his breaths turning to small clouds in that frigid space, no matter the ancient Round Oak woodstove glowed red in the corner. Draft after draft after draft. He wanted perfection. Who doesn’t long for that?

Standing on my grave, I start mourning, because I’ll lose these moments and others accrued over so many years. In short, my own vision is far less cheery than my wife’s. Is this a matter of gender? I’ll never know. I can’t speak for motherhood. But can anyone have been a father and conjured such random memories without some inward weeping?

Now, from the plot she’s just bought, my wife sweeps an arm at the view again: looming above all else, there’s our favorite mountain to eastward, purple with May but still holding snow at the summit. An eagle appears before it as if the woman had willed it there, the bird’s reflection complete in the river’s languid oxbow. Sun-spangled, it skims the treeline along the near shore. My love claps hands in witness, eyes joyous.

Meanwhile, and as always for no palpable reason, my mind makes its oblique jumps. I suddenly think of a check I left this morning for a woman who comes now and then to clean house. She bore a child in her teens, and might have gone on to harm, misery, or dependence; but her boyfriend stood by her, married her, helped her to raise that daughter. I admire that woman greatly: her industry, her constantly upbeat mood, whatever a given day’s circumstances and despite her rheumatoid arthritis.

I scribbled a thank you note to her along with the payment. Typically broody, I think just now how the note resembles so much I’ve put my hand to: a note is no more than a note, and still it’s one more thing that will disappear for good.

Those children’s children: how could I ever have known how much I’d love them? You see, it’s not the abstraction death that daunts me; it’s the leaving behind of all the beloved, particular creatures with whom I’ve walked the earth that will cover my ashes, and all the places on earth that have proved so dear to us. And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me that an apter feeling might be gratitude. I have had so much to lose in the first place.

I should study that. Maybe the bench is a fine idea after all.

 

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River, Stars, and Blessed Failure

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I pause in my drive back home from a reading, unknotting my legs and back, which have stiffened while I’ve sat at the wheel. It’s a joy to behold the moon as it breaches the mountain, though I feel even slighter than one of the beads of froth down there in the rapids, which are winking back at more stars than I’ve ever seen in New England. How can there be so many? They rob my breath and speech.

I could almost read my poems out loud again by that moon and those stars. But I’m not in the least inclined to do that. I’m banishing words for the moment, as if by strange instinct – not just my own words, but all. I find it more than peaceful out here to articulate nothing, to feel myself on the farthest edge of conscious thought.

Over the river’s crackle, I catch the lyrical calling of a coyote, and from it can imagine ones nearer to home, their sopranos mixed with the altos of owls and the lilting descant of a freshet. I picture my wife in our house. Perhaps she pauses by a certain window just now, the big one through which at this time of year we watch the deer glide in to browse our night-black lawn. Against that darkness, their bodies show ashen, ghostly, elegant.

Our children are all grown and gone. And yet in this moment their distance feels slight. No longer are we at the exact center of a family constellation, but even so –or is it therefore?– we still know this thing we crudely call joy.

Of course, as one who always longs for the freshest and rarest expression of feeling he can muster, I might easily wince at so paltry and common a noun as that – joy indeed! if I didn’t find this a time, precisely, for rhetorical failure, no words quite apt for what shimmers out there above any one person’s construals of meaning.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

The essays published here will appear in a collection forthcoming this spring by Green Writers Press.

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Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

Herewith an enchanting multimedia (song, image & text) memoir, a piece about childhood, from Vietnam-born singer, songwriter, and author.  The memoir is excerpted from Strom’s forthcoming book We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album East/West.

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The song (as well as the excerpt/essay) both belong to the same larger project, due to be released/published Summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions — I’m calling it a hybrid book/music project (hard to find a good term for it).

The book is called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album is called East/West. The song “Two Rivers” comes from the “West” segment of the album. Inspired initially by a Wallace Stegner story of the same title, the song draws a picture of the meeting point between two rivers and a child’s memories of landscape. I think the song and the photo-autobiography traverse the same thematic and emotional terrain, that of negotiating the space between two streams/landscapes.

The catalog description reads:

More than a book, We Were Meant to be a Gentle People  is a song-cycle working in concert with prose fragments and imagery. The author seeks to articulate two concepts of “geographies” — East and West — and the mythos associated with each, through the lens of a writer/musician of the Vietnamese diaspora. Strom combines multiple mediums of “voice” with an investigation of the intersection between personal and collective histories to elucidates the transition between cultures.

—Dao Strom

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Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).

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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming book/music project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). The New Yorker praised Dao’s last book,The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, as being “quietly beautiful…hip without being ironic.” She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award, among other recognitions. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

www.theseaandthemother.com
www.facebook.com/theseaandthemother
www.daostrom.com
twitter: @daostrom

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