lanthanum 6.21


November’s end. Near-nadir of the year.
Ash-pallor in the light today, lunar ‒
enveloping leafless branches. Cold &
colder. Green-sapphire earth, grown sere.

Only this thread of moonlight, spider-light ‒
evasive zig-zag, lightfoot rodent-scuttle.
Skittering, shuttling... a whisper-tunnel,
underground. Toward zero. Midnight.

One shell of shimmering almond-coracle...
the point of its stern set where two wheels
converge, invisible, secret. Where twin keels
are buried, married ‒ merged there, coeval

with the prologue of the universe. Mirror-
image of gam-bowling prow (perpendicular
to the earth, oriented to the North Star) ‒
bent rainbow, magnetized, centripetal ‒ your

listening soul, attuned to one slow Providence.
Of each & all. The earth. Just like the calm
rotation of a sunflower ‒ great circus-thronging
brow turned toward its source, its provenance ‒

this planetary history of recollection, memory,
entails recovery at last ‒ when self-effacing
servants in disguise (that humble Robin-rabbi &
his Madeleine) join in one almond, tout-monde joie...

O my soul. Such pallid daylight lingers in
palladium tree-limbs (haunted, hunted).
Anthousa, Flora, Rose... summer’s glinting
traces. Cemetery Ridge. Green fingers.



Metaphysical Acmeism : Man's Place

This terse early poem by Mandelstam expresses a central insight of the Russian Acmeist worldview :

Let the names of imperial cities
caress the ears with brief meaning.
It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.

Emperors try to rule that,
priests find excuses for wars,
but the day that place falls empty
houses and altars are trash.

"Man's place in the universe." In my stray thoughts I return to this concept again and again, as if it might conceal a sort of secret key of enlightenment. A touchstone. No, let me be more forthright : I think it does offer such a key. (Roger Williams, in the introduction to his pamphlet A Key into the Language of America, wrote : "A little key may open a box, where lies a bunch of keys...")

How to put this, so as not to spoil & ruin it with Henryesque banality...

I think in order to grasp what I'm trying to explain, one has to spin several conceptual frisbees simultaneously. The first is a notion about the nature of God. We have to accept, provisionally, the axiom that God, though certainly mysterious & unknowable & incomprehensible, must be understood, if understood at all, in terms of mind & consciousness & personhood. We cannot grasp, reasonably & common-sensically, how this can be so : but we must accept the idea that our only pathway to a provisionally-accurate notion of God, is by way of an extrapolation from what we do know about mind & intelligence. The door to understanding the divine goes through our sense of conscious personhood. A phrase from the Gospels comes to mind : Jesus says, "God is Spirit, & those who worship Him must worship him in spirit & truth."

The second notion or axiom which we must provisionally accept, is related to the first : that is, the idea that Man (humankind) is made "in God's image & likeness." If you (conceptually) overlay this second notion across the first, you might catch the image that comes to my mind : that we can glimpse God, the mysterious invisible Original One, the "Ancient of Days," through the human person as we see her (Blake's "human form Divine").

The third (& again, related) notion we have to entertain, provisionally, is sometimes extremely difficult to comprehend, much less accept. It is a specifically Christian notion : the idea of the incarnation of God in Man, in Jesus. What this says to me, among other things, if one can accept it, is that the universal God chooses to make himself a microcosm in the form of a human being, and in this way, join the divine with the human in a new synthesis. When in the Gospels Jesus insists that I am the Way; I and the Father are one; I am the Beginning and the End, etc., I find that one way to understand these claims is that by means of the Incarnation, God has not only created Man in the divine image, but God has in a sense set a permanent seal of absolute fulfillment on the whole order of nature & time & history : has shaped the entire scale of nature around this manifestation of the place of the unique human person within it. So we draw near to God, or God draws near to us, within the framework of the distinct person, the individual, the self... you & me. Through becoming this "microcosm", God has entered the inward marrow of each person, the inward subjective life of each individual self & soul. How? He has, ceremonially, sacrificially, & humbly-regally (as a kind of servant), joined us - become like us. (See Mandelstam's unfinished essay "Pushkin & Scriabin", for his thoughts on how this idea, the Christian notion of Redemption, provided the underlying sanction for the "joyful freedom" of Western art ; Man's playful game of "hide & seek with the Father.")

So keeping these three basic notions or axioms in mind, we go back to Mandelstam's verses :

It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.

Now with this new background, the verses suggest a deeper substance. The dignity and stability of human culture, which Mandelstam & the other Acmeists affirmed, is grounded in something like this threefold background, where through the dignity of the human person shines, as if through a transparent screen, the majesty of the divine. That normative equilibrium which is the aim of civilization, that grounding of human history in hope & renewal, is underwritten by a metaphysical sense of a Providential order, a comprehensive global goal - in order to return to which, mankind must struggle, re-orient, & self-reform.

As I was walking to work this morning, I was pondering these things... some thoughts formulated... it occurred to me that it is a basic wonder & miracle, how out of stellar fire eventually came water, as if out of a cosmic Sahara emerged an oasis. And we humans dwell in the midst of this strange wonder. The Gospels tell of how John the Baptist baptized the people with water, for purification & repentance : an ancient symbol for such; through water of baptism people washed away their evil deeds in repentance & forgiveness, & entered upon a new life, a new relation with God & their fellows. But then, the Gospel say, Jesus came along, saying, "John baptized you with water; but the Son of Man comes baptizing with Spirit & fire." So what does this suggest to me, as I'm walking along to work? That the "fire" with which the Son of Man baptizes is that primal fire out of which the whole creation emerged, the stellar fire, the solar fire. In this case, the actual stellar fire is a kind of parabolic metaphor for the intellectual fire of the divine Word : a fire of light & enlightenment, which opens & burns the mind out of its habits, mythologies & preconceptions - back to the source, the origin of its being : the living intellectual force of a light which makes persons no longer "children of men", but "children of God." Like Jesus, the newly-baptized becomes a fiery microcosm, taking her place in the midst of a cosmos made for her.

This is a beginning, then - a beginning-anew of everything. Further, to be "baptized with Spirit" suggest to me that the one baptized by fire is thus fused & conjoined with everyone else so baptized, so as to share this dignity & enlightenment & freedom which belongs to all the "children of God" (as in the scene of Pentecost, when the Spirit descends on everyone in the room in the form of a flame over their heads, & immediately they understand each other's differing languages...).

I find this scenario, this way of seeing things, rather intellectually stimulating, to say the least. Theology or metaphysics can be exciting, thrilling - though you wouldn't know it from most modern & contemporary depictions of religion over the last 200 years or so. We are steeped in doubt & disillusionment... but not always in the poets. When you read Whitman or Blake or Hopkins or Dickinson or Gumilev or Mandelstam on these ranges of dream & speculation, you find a different tune.


lanthanum 6.20


So the year tends toward its own dregs. Nigredo
for alchemist, those last pale yellow lozenges
‘gainst midnight arms of prehistoric elms.
Shadowy, nigh-horizontal sunlight. So.

Imagine that alchemist, that Blackstone-monk
with rusty scales, takes measure of the earth
entire. In Bruegel-twilight, crepuscular serf-
surf ‒ inch-line of frost-crystal, along a trunk

of winter iron. Sanctioned, authorized & liable
for the fate of the whole round wobbly pear.
In trust (light apples in hand). A solitary-planetary
& dou-doughty deed, O rotund Prospero (fragile

island, Ariel). Where sophists, pharisees &
patchy politicians (pirate-parasites) declaim
a claim ‒ then let the moody gardener (Jaimie
or Sam) stand up, & (halting) speak ‒ cry clear

for all to hear. For the commonweal, the spiritual
union (weightless lightwing over the battlefield).
There’s more Horatio in your philosophy, field
sparrow ‒ more heavenly earth, most punctual

stool-pigeon. The king (his name was numbered)
the king must die. Hard to conceive the rune
who’s most yourself : singular substantial royal
Person, triple-crossed (cross-haired).

Decorated (on the Niger River). Like a constellation
now... tickle-tingling primordial spinal Milky Way
(ancestral habitat-belfry of fire). One Bukovina
baobab ‒ goldfinch in eld elm tree (the sun).


Harriet Poetry News Update

Don't tell them you heard it here first, because you know they won't believe it : it's already all over the blogosphere and beyond. Yes, as William Carlos Williams famously put it, "It is difficult to get the news from poetry, but robots die miserably every day for lack of what is found there."

We're talking about (as if you didn't know) the new Wallace Stevens robot from Google-Mattell. Launched in a Paris subway this morning, the Stevens robot walks and talks like the real thing : suited-up immaculately in a Brooks Brothers Executive Special gray plush 3-piece, topped by a natty fedora, our virtual insurance-man slash poet will likely bamboozle you just like it did us. "He" even throws in a few choice French phrases to go with his sophisticated yet philosophical & streetwise banter. Press a small button behind his left front cufflink, and he will recite "The Snow Man"; press the right-hand cufflink, & he'll do some cool riffs from "Ordinary Evening in New Haven." Not!

Here's the link (hot off the cuff, haha!). But don't tell them we sent you.


The Skim Milk Masquerade

Experimentation unites a willingness to improvise, to take the plunge, with a painstaking care for the most minute shadings, variations from the norm. In other words, experiment may not seem "experimental."


What if the truth...

What if the truth is ultimately relational. I don't mean relative : I mean what if truth is ultimately a relational situation between "subjects" (ie., "persons").

In other words, what if truth at the deepest level is in some sense alive : bound to consciousness & choice, living growth.

In other words, imagine a cosmos in which there is indeed a God : & yet the essence of this cosmos is freedom. So that this God can be said to have given the entire cosmos to Man - the entire cosmos, including the freedom to attend to God or not, conceptualize God or not, believe in God or not, love God or not...

In other words, what if human consciousness is truly "god-like", universal : in that we live in it, and we make our own reality out of it. & God simply says, "come & see me if you like."

This is a sort of Renaissance notion of the range & reach of human powers & capabilities, I think : & it set the groundwork for Modern thought & culture. Except Modernity is sort of haunted by a guilt feeling about God, a repressed anxiety stemming from the choice to deny & reject the possibility of this very non-demanding & un-assertive God : this God who simply waits for us to show up, if we feel like it.

"I am the Way, the Truth, & the Life... no one comes to the Father but by me..."

p.s. Maybe one of the paradoxical consequences of this general idea would be to "demythologize" some aspects of traditional religion. Because we would be able to recognize more clearly just how much of what we think we understand & believe about God & metaphysical things, has its source in the human imagination - its ability to project and model its own images of mysterious reality. This acknowledgement does not necessarily deny God's existence or even action upon & within the world : but it is a recognition of the range & extent of the powers of the human mind. (This line I'm taking simply expands upon previous remarks about Nicolas of Cusa & Wallace Stevens...)


Between Eliot & Stevens (or Bard & Bible)

My own way out toward the future involves a confidence in the spiritual role of the poet. - Wallace Stevens

When I was around 20 yrs old, in the early '70s, at the height of the brief "Jesus freak" era - a sometime-communal monastic-peripatetic neo-Christian version of the broader countercultural/hippie "youth movement" - I went through a religious/psychological breakdown that radically & permanently shifted the direction of my life. For me this happened in a kind of bell-jar solitude : I wasn't "converted" by anyone (I was already a lapsed Episcopalian). Rather it was a quasi-literary experience - a sharp, spasmodic reaction to reading Shakespeare's sonnets & the Bible, at a time when I was very vulnerable to both depression & manic enthusiasm... & by the same token, open to new ideas.

I'm not trying to explain away or psychologize, reductively, what happened to me : far from it. In that weird crucible I started morphing into the religious believer I am today. As such, I can in some ways identify with the stance of T.S. Eliot. When I reflect on the 35 years or so of brooding, meditating & writing (about God, religion, tunafish & the cosmos) which followed that crisis, I think I can say that my way of responding to those events & ideas has basically been the that of a poet, a poetic response. I have tried to think my way into a perspective in which poetry is an expressive medium & imaginative force which is especially empowered to articulate and give access to a spiritual vision or version of reality; & often on this blog & elsewhere I have argued for such a position. I've often & in various ways asserted that the harmony & internal coherence & self-sufficiency - the integrity - of poetry, offers a kind of analogy for a view of reality as meaningful "creation" or dramatic, Providential event. I've advanced (often vaguely & confusedly, I admit) the idea that a restoration or renaissance of a kind of humanism is possible : a synthesis which balances faith and reason (the reunion of "Athens and Jerusalem"). I've argued that poetry represents the vital consciousness - personal, passionate - which can get buried & displaced beneath the abstract determinisms of other modes of discourse.

Nevertheless... I need to add a caveat to all of this. Despite my personal "credentials" of religious belief & experience, & my resultant affinity with Eliot's (often-maligned) stance - this general position does not quite give the whole picture. I want to be able to say that my view of poetry draws as much from, say, Wallace Stevens or Hart Crane, as it does from Eliot. Not out of some national chauvinism or American nativism (as in W.C. Williams) : but rather with respect to Stevens' & Crane's sense of poetry, which is ultimately closer to the Romantic poets than to the high Moderns (or perhaps closer to Yeats than to Eliot).

I'm not sure how best to explain why I need to add this reservation. But I believe in the integrity and dignity - even the primacy - of poetry as such. I think this dignity & integrity is grounded in the wholeness of the human imagination itself, and the artistic/aesthetic constructs (Stevens' "fictions", Crane's "vision") which the imagination produces. An analogy here, from the religious life, might be between, on the one hand, a person's inward, nourishing and active faith - expressed in concrete acts of devotion & discipleship - and on the other, the merely verbal formulae of dogmatic belief. Poetry inhabits, of course, a verbal realm : but its whole labor is, in a sense, (as Frost famously put it) to make its "saying" equivalent to "deeds" : to fill mere words with the passionate concreteness & authenticity of lived experience. In this way, "blind" poets, attentive to the obscure workings of the imagination (their "muse"), produce those beautiful & accurate representations which do justice to reality : which is a kind of blessing - culture bringing nature to fulfillment. & this imaginative-creative process occurs within its own sphere : rather than being subservient to received dogma, it lends meaning to religious assertions. It acclimates & complements revelation. Some remarks by Matthew Arnold (so liable to Eliot's derision) seem apropos :

"[Religious language] is approximative merely, while men imagine it to be adequate; it is *thrown out* at certain realities which they very imperfectly comprehend. It is materialised poetry, which they give as science; and there can be no worse science than materialized poetry. But poetry is essentially concrete; and the moment one perceives that the religious language of the human race is in truth poetry, which it mistakes for science, one cannot make it an objection to this language that it is concrete... Everything turns on it being at realities that this... language is aimed." [from the Preface to God and the Bible]

Now I would hesitate to assent to this paragraph myself, in toto : I think Arnold magnifies "science" in typical 19th-cent. fashion, while at the same time weighing religious discourse too lightly on the scale. Religious thought itself - say, in Aquinas or Augustine or Maximus the Confessor - gets beyond the dry scaffolding of dogma, and approaches the particular (& I would say humanist) "accuracy" of philosophy. Nevertheless I think Arnold's basic point is central and worth defending : religious language is both approximate.and poetic. (& one can see what a close affinity this shows with the stance of Northrop Frye.)

Here I would like to gesture toward the intellectual stance & figure cast by that Renaissance humanist/Catholic priest, Nicolas of Cusa. In Cusanus' philosophical essays and dialogues, one finds a playful excitement at work, stimulated by the sharp recognition and celebration of the power of the human imagination - scientific, philosophical, aesthetic & religious all melded together in one activity of Mind. Cusanus was writing at the crest of Renaissance humanism, when translations of ancient Greek philosophy (Plato, Aristotle & others) exerted a powerful influence : his own philosophical writings seek to find that logic which can balance the human and the divine - the ineluctable certainties of divine order, with the equally stubborn fact that we live in a "conjectural" world : ie. a world bounded by the limitations of our own imaginative reach & constructs. Even our notions of God are human "conjectures", which bump up against the ineffable mystery - as well as, for Cusanus, the historical facticity - of God's presence & manifestation (in the Incarnation).

This notion of "conjecture" - close to Giambattista Vico's later views on human history as a playing-out of consciousness, a cultural construct - allies itself with a sense of the ongoing project & projections of the human imagination, as expressed in the fictional shapings, the representations, of poetry. & here we are drawing very close to Stevens' central obsessions concerning imagination & reality - the logical grounds for his "supreme fiction".

So I want to think of my own work in poetry as standing somehow within a field shared by both Eliot and Stevens, where poetry is a distinct, secular, universal & human phenomenon, with its own independent basis and raison d'etre & sphere of activity : & yet where poetry is also capable of expressing the substance & pith & concrete values - as well as the uncertainties & mystery - underlying & surrounding the verbal summae of historical belief & dogmatic testimony.


lanthanum 6.19


Gloom (November womb-life). In a place
of recollection (planetary memory).
Heavy Earth’s own pregnant melancholy
(seeded with strange hope). Odd, disused

periplus ‒ a roundabout sea-path, secret.
Across a square of wakes, curled within one
figure 8... & then another week... & then...
old greenface U.S. Grant’s halfway to a scent

of Lincoln lilac (O some crimson-violet-rainy Day
ob Jubilee
). Only oscuridad of goldfinch poverty ‒
shrouded in a seaman’s net from a Black Sea
caravel ‒ modeling its humble bow (Mare

Nostrum) & the milky dome on the promontory
where they waited for the black sail or the white.
It’s only Everyman in disguise (on Milk Street)
play-acting the nostos-turn of Noah’s triple-storied

ark. It’s where we live (in a history
of human expectancy). So set your compass,
Columbus, to the Orient ‒ this is a dress
rehearsal for the New-Found Land (so very

histrionic, Hamlet!). The orchestra is in the pit,
they’re tuning up the instruments ‒ with an iron
fork shaped like a horseshoe (set in a limestone
mound, or salience). Pitched to a perfect fit

of attunement, in the universal key (b-flat) ‒
the milky, misty chord of galactic circling fifths.
Seeded for farming, lapsarian un-luxury... manifest
just as a Robin meets the sea-blue eyes of Marion (fiat).



Had a dream the other night

Down Around Angola - take 2

Down Around Angola - take 1

lanthanum 6.18


Unreadable gray sky. November twilight.
Remnants of maple finery, moss-green & gold.
Season of low eaves, rain... a conjectural world
comes into threadbare focus (iron-wrought

urn). The human stance is listening. A listing
balance, tenuous : tightrope & gyroscope, bold-
tentative : to trust, to verify : to say, We hold
these truths
, & yet to cry, Where is thy sting,

O Death? At the apex of wisdom’s honey-
dome, the pendulum rests, revolves... where
we acknowledge that edge of knowledge (hair’s-
breadth line, irrational number). Beneath a sea

of flickering mirrors (Marmara). Elliptical,
elongate compass rose, risen through bifocal
lens ‒ All-Man mandala (kindly universal
individual) ‒ a human tuning-fork (humble,

endless). So play that wedding number again,
Jonah, with your indescribable grey-eyed bird’s
floating accompaniment. Needs to be heard
now, amid the grinding bass of minor flattened

reds, blues ‒ the rival teams, insiders &
outriders ‒ rubes & snobs (both arrogant)
who murmur in Byzantium. Parse that elegant
passage to more than indigo, my little Indian

summer violet; for the matrix of this fractured
maze is like your nutmeg orchardist, at home.
Nestled twixt Athens, Jerusalem ‒ Ithaka, Rome...
St. Maggie in a peasant scrim (unseen, unheard).



Rusty Russian Bells

No-Name Poetry : or, The Word As Such

A poet walks onto an empty stage, facing a silent audience. He or she has no amps, no electric ukelele. No Power Point, no video. No advertising, no campaign signs, no brand names. No back-up singers, no celebrity emcee. No award ribbons, no academic certificate or graduation cap. Sometimes not even a microphone. No status symbols at all.

The poet stands in a small circle of light and silence. & then he or she begins to read (or recite or chant) some words - a little scary, almost embarrassing in their nakedness & solitary singularity.

This is one way that poetry upholds the dignity and integrity of speech, of a language : by celebrating the word as such(1). Our language, our speech - set apart within its own distinct circle - thus manifests the art which is most proper to itself. In poetry, language reveals its interior structures & proportions, its specific gravities, its particular aesthetic values. & in doing so, it dignifies all speech & language, both the artistic and the everyday. (This is one of the meanings of Wallace Stevens' epithet, "Poetry is a sanction of life.")

I would like to see thinking & talk about poetry today move away from, resist, those forces which tend to push it toward commercialization, toward hybridization, toward triviality & ephemeral gratification, toward sensationalism, toward crude & crass anti-intellectualism, toward brandings & rankings & the philistine chatter borrowed from sports & showbiz, toward reactionary or nihilistic mass-pop culture, toward the servile mimicry of more fashionable arts & pastimes, toward the fakery of pseudo-movements & academic jargon-campaigns, etc. etc....

& I am suggesting that the best & most powerful way to express such resistance is to remember & recognize that poetry - poetry per se, authentic poetry - is the art of the word as such. When poetry shows the courage to stand alone, in all its humility & naked simplicity, it enacts the integrity & dignity of the language at large. & in so doing, it keeps culture alive.

(1) "the word as such" : a key notion in the aesthetic formulation for the Russian Acmeist movement of the early 20th cent.



All Souls' Day Bells

Po-biz Blues

Howlin' at the Harvest Moon

Strike Zone Blues

My tiny labor union at the Brown Library is in contract negotiations. Last night I had a little musical brainstorm, & got out the electric guitar, which has lain dormant for a couple years.... & YouTube is very seductive...