Web of mutuality

Just rolling along with Ravenna Diagram.  (Dante Alighieri is buried in Ravenna.)


Listen to the waterfall.
Late-autumn rain.
Shadow of a raven
passing.  Mirror on the wall.

Through this hollowness of things
reflected... way-off echo
of a chord.  Blow,
Memphis trump.  The milk-train sings

at dawn.  I see a pine-swamp
in the background.  Gaunt
figure, shoulders bent
into the wash.  Her upright tramp.

The long fields, where trashmen sang,
collecting time, scars.
Equal among stars
is your little lamp, my lambchild.  Strong.

Underwater, in the river, borne
downstream... your friend.
In my beginning... end.
Blackboard scrape of railroad horn.

We seek a broad place, a place
to land.  Slave quarters,
the servants’ house (yours).
Squire’s antic foal is full of grace,

Jessie.  The minister of joy
praises with baritone,
bearing the tune (bone-
dry).  So we give thanks, Dante.



Personal Advent

Poets employ a type of fuzzy laser-light, reflecting & deflecting the living & dead poets who seem to be signaling them in turn.  Semaphore, smoke-signals.  I keep going back to the main poets who interest me, while also trying to spread out & venture into new regions.  I circle around Ezra Pound, for one.  There's a strange blinking mixed code emanating from him, so right & so wrong.

For some reason over the past year or so I've been delving a lot into anthropology & ancient belief systems & mythologies & prehistoric rites & the roots of human motivation... at least the theories about those roots...

I wrote an essay about the "New Gnostic" poets a while back (published online in the Coldfront zine).  Pound is important in that constellation of developments, along with Yeats.  Both of them deeply caught up in hermetic & occult philosophy.  Am now re-reading a good book on this topic, The Celestial Tradition : a study of Ezra Pound's The Cantos, by Demetres Tryphonopoulos.  The author explores what was called "the rising psychic tide" of all kinds of heterodox & occult beliefs & practices around 1880-1920, from the scholarly to the "thaumaturgic" & the fraudulent/comical hocus-pocus (see "Madame Sosostris" in Eliot's The Waste Land, for a sample).

Pound took no interest in Yeats' style of "practical" spiritualism (magic).  His was a more theoretical focus on the so-called ancient hermetic wisdom.  & his sifting of those traditions and values through the shaping of his poetry was very refined & remarkable, in some ways - and simultaneously extremely harmful & ugly.  His anti-semitism ran deep, his ideology always promoting the "pure, clean, luminous" mythology of the Greeks & the Romans, as opposed to the "dirty, evil" oppressions of the Judeo-Christian (Biblical) cultures.  He was fascinated by Catholicism - but as an expression of more ancient pagan "truths".

Just setting aside for a moment the hatefulness of Pound's anti-semitism - which parallels so closely the despicable Nazi ideology & program of degradation & de-humanization - I am struck by the irony of Pound's very serious, & sometimes beautiful, devotion to the spiritual heights of philosophical-poetic Wisdom.  As Tryphonopoulos so cogently explains, The Cantos are designed not as a narrative journey so much as a mystical initiation.  The process of reading The Cantos is meant to lead the seeker toward an inner spiritual enlightenment, joining the mind through poetry with the heights of wisdom represented by Confucius, the medieval saints & theologians, Ovid, Dante, etc. etc.  It's a very high-minded symposium of mystic illuminati, to which Pound is offering the reader an exalted poetic invitation.

What do I mean by "irony" in this case?  I'm thinking of the juxtaposition between Pound's fervent philosophical/mystical theme and his actual spiritual blindness.  There is the sense, reading his biographies, that perhaps, toward the end of his life, he himself had some awareness of this contrariety, this impasse.  Of course by calling his situation one of "spiritual blindness" I am expressing my own personal worldview...

The legacy of Biblical/Judaic/Christian spirituality includes, at its foundation, the sense that the Creator of the Universe (as we know it) is somehow "personal".   I see here a root contrast with Yeats, Pound, and the legacy of Neo-Platonism & hermetic gnosis.  In their case, spirituality and wisdom are a progress toward a kind of abstract higher wisdom itself.  The seeker is transfigured by spiritual knowledge into a kind of divine being.  Whereas, for Judaism & Christianity, spirituality is ultimately a relationship.  Though we cannot comprehend how the Origin of the Universe could possible be personal - except in some form of the person who reaches down into our own limited vision of the same - yet that is what we sense & believe the case to be.

This is underwritten (for Christianity) by the Trinitarian doctrine of "persons".   The philosophical synthesis (Greek-Judaic) achieved by such thinkers as the Byzantine monk Maximus the Confessor seems foundational - if not yet complete - in this regard.  (Not yet complete, in that while it represented a philosophical synthesis, it did not yet express a full reconciliation with Judaism : a task for the future.)  God is simultaneously present in the original Creator-Spirit, in his "Son-Servant" (Jesus), and in the "Holy Ghost" (present in the world, in infinite manifestations, now and everywhere).  In this way our notion of "person" is not abstracted into some merely transcendent sphere, but is fused with the personhood represented by a particular, historically-contingent, individual - which then serves as a kind of template for humankind in every other situation (rooted in loving relationship).  

For Pound, apparently, the essence of spirituality can be characterized as subjective experience.  For Judaism & Christianity, on the other hand, both the beginning and the end of spirituality rests in relationship.  This is not to say that Ezra Pound did not cherish his own dreams of utopia, human fellowship, and social justice.  But his basic orientation toward knowledge and wisdom - as a kind of abstract goal or measure, something to be achieved and learned - leaves aside any acknowledgement or  recognition of the prior (originating) presence of a sacred Personhood.  The fleeting appearances of Diana or Aphrodite as psychological experiences do not seem, in the end, to provide a firm ground for belief.  But he was searching.

I realize for some this is only another mode of mumbo-jumbo.  But I find reasonable support for this position in, among other places, the 20th-cent. philosophy of the scientist and polymath Michael Polanyi.  Polanyi's major work, Personal Knowledge, is a theory of epistemology.  What is knowledge, actually?  And how do we know anything?

For Polanyi, as his book title implies, all knowledge - including objective, scientific knowledge - is grounded and bounded by human subjectivity - by "personhood".  We don't develop "new knowledge" in the sciences, or any other field, without the mediation of human persons.  This sounds pretty obvious (in my sketchy summary) : but Polanyi draws out its consequences in quite profound ways.  He is able to bring the materialism and objectivity of 19th & 20th-cent. scientific positivism back into the moral/spiritual matrix of human persons : which was what Yeats & Pound themselves set out to do, a generation earlier.  With "faulty instruments" (cf. Eliot's Four Quartets).  The great ideological struggle of the "two cultures" (science and art, science & humanism, science & religion) finds a philosophical reconciliation in Polanyi's epistemology : one which Yeats & Pound so brilliantly sought, & so dramatically failed to find.

Michael Polanyi


Gateway Arch dream songs

I picked up this week's New Yorker (12.8) out of the mailbox tonight, & was surprised to see the cover art - a drawing of the Gateway Arch Monument in St. Louis.  It's a great image : the nation's racial divide surfacing in the very shape of one of the country's key architectural symbols - which happens to be in St. Louis.  The Arch also happens to be the key to a long poem of mine called Lanthanum, which was triggered by a strange dream I had one night about the Gateway Arch - which I've never seen, and had never previously given any thought.

The poem is not exactly topical - more like a long daydream or dream vision.  But the closing poem seems to gesture, a little bit, toward the basic question reflected in the magazine cover.  The poem was finished the day before the 4th of July, 2012.

       ...nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, 
       and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.  They grasped not only the whole race of men then
       living, but... reached forward... seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon...     
          – Abraham Lincoln (Aug. 17, 1858)

Your birthday tomorrow, Grandma   born
on the 4th of July, 1900   far off there   in
Sunset Land   I’m thinking of you   & of
Great-Grandma   J.   2-wheeler captain’s

daughter   Jessie O.   Ophelia   the river-girl
now   at the end of this   milk-train rainbow
way back in   summertime   prairiespace   O
Jessie, little tree   I hear that lonesome horn

wail   my old St. Anthony trystle-humlet
suspended 7th   plunged into black earth
a shiny hinter-horn   of milky lanthanum
(dawn-anthem)   &   Amaranthousa   sets

her Pocahontaseal   a Morning Star   some
menorah-constellatio   over 50 more   their
hard-earned stripes   a chord (accord)   for
ear attuned   to Jubileeday (freequilibrium)

only a promise of   soul liberty   (Everyhew-
manever)   under these stars   their birthright
mine   may be   new birth of freedom   (night
brings dawn)   the sun of justice   risen again

to bloom   as once   on earth   in stable   born
out of the Pharaoh’s precinct   into happiness
just over Jordan (almondejoie) by wilderness
to mercy   forgiveness   peace   a Restoration

of all things   beneath two tender-tending wings   lark
tempering my mumbling   well, contrapuntal   polar
sarabande   (labor & rest   yin & yang).  Soar,
7/4   to 4x7 : welded   annealed   (almond birchbark)



The New Masons

As usual, I'm immersed in a serial poem which feels like a long-term construction project.  Only the most recent in a series of long poems (I've written 8 or 9 of them in the last 20 years).  I'm calling it, for various reasons, Ravenna Diagram.  (A Venn diagram, as you probably know, is based on a simple geometrical figure describing the intersection of two circles.)  In my experience, whenever I started fiddling with numbers & geometry, a poetic project is being born.

As part of my "research" I recently discovered a book from the 80s by John James titled Chartres : the masons who built a legend (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).  An eye-opener.  James is clearly someone with a builder/architect's background.  But he's a wonderful detective, too.  By studying the smallest changes & differences in details of Chartres' masonry & design, he's able to sketch out the individual masons/architects behind each part of the building.  There were at least 4-5 of them.  I find it marvelous how he illuminates their decisions in shaping & setting-out elements of this unbelievably massive stone structure.  He is also extremely sober, modest & circumspect in his judgements : there are no theoretical flights of fancy here.

One theme James emphasizes is the difference between the medieval artistic ethos & that of the post-Renaissance, modern era.  All these master designers & craftsmen are anonymous.  There is no cult of individual genius - no exalting of the fine artist (the sculptor, say) over the other workmen.  They work in teams.  Teams of teams, actually : each one guided by the characteristic artistry & temperament of the master mason, or team leader.

I started musing about this issue in relation to making poetry.  On the face of it, poetry today seems a typical phenomenon of that Modern individualism - maybe even an extreme manifestation, in comparison to other fields of endeavor.  I myself have certainly tried very hard to remain independent & idiosyncratic - absolutely free to do my own thing in poetry.

But if you scratch a little deeper you find traces of collective effort & collaboration in poetry.  Some poets in fact make an explicit counter-attack on individualism, forming group movements, defining their collective ethos & goals, engaging in collaborative writing projects.

I think there is a further level of collaboration, on a more implicit level.  It comes out of the poetic process itself - of reading, imitation, allusion, parody.  We model & shape our poems following, & revising, forms that have already impressed themselves upon us.  This process is in turn further shaped by collective "canon-formation" - when poets & poems enter the cultural bloodstream, moving from alien products to a kind of "second nature" (see Eugenio Montale's essay, "The Second Life of Art").

Long ago I became fascinated with the Acmeist group of pre-WWI St. Petersburg.  In many ways they were no different from the other modernist art movements springing up at that time (Futurism, Imagism, etc.).  A small group of young poets developed a shared sense of style & thematics - & sometimes formed personal friendships & alliances which long outlasted the platforms of the groups themselves.  In their early days, the Acmeists were quite formal about their activities - meeting at a long table at the prescribed time each week, reading & discussing poems with a kind of official sobriety, dedication & gravitas.  (At least that's one of the historical impressions which they left us.)

There seems a strange kind of literary eschatology involved here.  By that I mean the manifestation or instauration of an actual literary group seems to bring the implicit collective nature of art & craft to an explicit crystallization.  Something briefly surfaces which is perhaps there all the time.  Mandelstam's art of trans-historical allusive richness - & his emphasis on architecture as a prime analogue of the poetic art - are a key dimension of the Acmeist ethos.  Pushkin & Ovid are his contemporaries, Mandelstam proclaims.

There are parallels in American poetry of the same period.  John Irwin, in his massive study of Hart Crane, has brought to light the truly "Masonic" dimensions of The Bridge - the many layers of allusive groundwork laying a foundation for the song itself.  The poem is a "choral" piece, harmonizing American themes with ancient poetics (Crane clearly drawing on the "mythical methods" of Joyce, Eliot & Pound).

(As an aside, I am absolutely flummoxed by the striking parallels between Crane's mythography of Virgo, Astraea, & the Statue of Liberty in The Bridge - as outlined by Irwin - and the hidden Masonic thematics of the constellation Virgo - "the Corn Maiden" - explored by David Ovason in his fascinating book The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital.  This work seems to be more than just another New-Agey fantasy-occult book.  The intricate historical scholarship is remarkable.)

We are probably only beginning to explore this new (neo-medieval?) dynamic of artistic interaction : the collective building project & the characteristic thumbprint of the individual "master".  They go together.  Meanwhile nations & cultures, along their devious, submerged, counter-intuitive, dialectical paths, go about shaping the canonical myths of the future.

Poets : builders in the high room of the Pentecostal word.


Simone & Maximus & me

The French writer/philosopher/mystic Simone Weil appealed to me in the mid-1980s (still does).  Ascetic worker/dreamer; deep Biblical exegete.  I remember walking down to Seward's Folly bookshop, at the Fox Point end of Brook St., & asking Mr. Seward, the freewheeling eccentric bookseller & former Connecticut goat farmer, to look for a scarce book by her.  Seward threw up his hands.  "Simone Weil!  I adore that woman - but sometimes I want to grab her by the shoulders & give her a good shake!"

I can't remember much of what I read back then.  But I have a vague idea regarding some of her commentaries on the growth of the human soul.  How at a certain point the natural energies of the human person (like vegetation that runs out of water) wear themselves out; through mistakes & sufferings, the natural person reaches a psychic & physical limit.  Then only an infusion of supernatural grace can save the soul.

It meant something to me; I could identify with it.  I'd been there.

This is all by way of a lead-in to a second writer who (like Osip Mandelstam) has meant a lot to me, periodically, intermittently, over the years : the Byzantine theologian (& ordinary monk, & martyr) Maximus the Confessor.  I'm back again reading him, & about him (Microcosm & Mediator, by Lars Thunberg, is a magisterial study, a terrific book; Cosmic Liturgy, by Hans Urs von Balthasar, is another one).

My "professional" life in the vocation of poet has been a very strange & frustrating experience.  I think I speak for all poets when I say this (just kidding, sort of).  I'm absolutely sure that 99% of the mistakes along the way - moral, ethical, intellectual, aesthetic, etc. - have been my own.

But there is a kernel of strangeness in this overall experience - not so much strange, as uncanny - which I attribute to objective reality, rather than to my own quirks of psychology & moral turpitude.  This uncanny crux has something to do with Simone Weil's schema of the end of nature & the beginning of grace.

Maximus, I hazard to think, would trace Weil's divide back to the ur-distinction of his own theological vision : the difference between Creator and Creation.  What the worldview of brilliant Maximus does, however - with the suavity of Shakespeare & the incisiveness of Aristotle - is to reconcile this basic difference without blurring the distinction.  That is, he propounds a cosmic landscape, wherein the simple unknowable Oneness of the Creator is reconciled with the multitudinous Manyness of the Creation.  Incarnation is the name of that process by which the Many are harmonized with the One - by which all beings are united in creative Love, without losing their distinct identity & freedom as unique replicas of that original Creator.

I realize how hokey this sounds.  But it has a lot of resonance with the worldview of a poet who inherited - after many long centuries - the Orthodox legacy from Byzantium : Nikolai Gumilev, the founder of the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry, which Mandelstam & Akhmatova brought to full flower.  Gumilev adumbrated an underlying worldview for Acmeist poetics : he called it "chasteness".  It is something maybe akin to Walt Whitman's visionary sense of the "Union" of many equally beautiful things (small & great, humble & vast).  The idea is that poetry's moral purpose has to do with celebrating the "chasteness" - the inherent dignity - of all things on earth : because it (poetry) is a loving response - an echo - of the supernatural good will of their creative Origin.

This is a sort of mystical idea, I guess.  My own life as a poet is rooted, paradoxically, in a spiritual crisis & break from poetry.  I came to the end of my vegetable nature, so to speak (in Weil's sense), at the age of 19.  It was a common thing, & still is : a young person torn apart by the world's chaos, & by his or her own sense of betrayal (self-betrayal, betrayal of others).  The fanatic young enthusiasts of ISIS are not really that different.  They are Simone Weil's déracinés - the spiritually uprooted.  There but for the grace of God go I.

So I worked back slowly into poetry (thanks mostly to Stuart Blazer, John Tagliabue, Edwin Honig & Osip Mandelstam).  We are talking about things that happened 35 years ago, in the late 70s.  But these spiritual experiences marked me.  I have lived on the margins of "professional" poetry ever since.  There are many reasons for this, I admit, not all of them having to do with the present self-mythologizing.  But the central motive, the reason which keeps impelling me to write, is the theological one.  Once you have this salt of the realm of Jesus planted in you, it does not easily fade away.  It's a realm of supernatural joy : an infusion of saving grace : who would want to throw that away?


509 to 509

Wrote another quasi-occasional poem today.  A Thanksgiving yodel, completed at exactly 5:09 p.m. this afternoon.  I grew up at 509 Arthur St., in the Mendelssohn neighborhood of Edina/Hopkins (first settled in the 19th century by a bunch of young musicians of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, hence its name).  & now, after much travail, my parents have moved to the Episcopal Home (senior living) near their old neighborhood of Tower Hill (Minneapolis) - into apartment # 509.  I'm very glad they made it there before Thanksgiving.  "There's a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will." (Hamlet)


The drizzle of sleet, monotonous
snare drum.  New England gloom
(Nor’easter coming).  To whom
shall we give thanks, U.S.?

Fields furl their cornucopia
to pumpkin horns.  Blow,
milkweed, for Fergus now –
so low on oil of gladness.  Yeah.

Can you loop some snarly comet
with your lariat?  Invite
that hobo down the street?
Unleash the joy in Joyce – the might

in Lincoln’s painful mite?  Mosey
on up with Moses, Jordan
way – beach Promised Land
in Plymouth sand?  Say yes in Yeshuee?

Wampum rests with Wampanoags.
Holidays rewind
red Vinland soil – to bind
the serpent to Kid George’s

fleecy cradle-calumet.  Your eyes
are Mirror Lakes, child;
Mendelssohn’s a neighborhood
for Minnesota symphonies;

the deep stars comprehend our schemes.
The bears all harmonize
& tumble through the skies
their growling round (hearth-beams).





Elkhart.  Planed (horizontal)
onto flat plate of the fields.
Winnebago windshields
flock to leeward (behind motel).

I mosey through October park.
Light amid oaks, the old
Masonic bandstand.  Lake-bound
rivers intermingle through dark

Indiana valves.  Small-town museum
could be Russian (one
spare Burchfield windblown
farm, out of Depression).  Hum

the highways, south of the lake (U.S.
80).  Truck route, grain-
belt shuttle.  Hymnal (plain-
song).  Bible radio.  Esso, S.O.S....

Black Elk might have passed through here
(on the train).  The Buick
shuttles east-west, slick
with amaranth, milkweed... sheer

sunset loom-dust (grain elevators).
My father in rehab,
voice faint (grabs
phone with one good hand’s

bone grip) at the end of the line.
The left-side vision’s
gone.  Yet mind’s precision
lifts hoarse laughter (like a highway sign).