Jamming in Melaka (Malaysia), 2007


Filmed by Phoebe on her camera. In a park at the old Melaka fort, met this street musician, who let me play along. (It was about 95 degrees there, & humid : typical fall weather, I guess.)


Dark Lady on the bus

In the late 60s I attended Blake School, in Hopkins, MN (west of Minneapolis - poet Allen Grossman's alma mater) through high school. Every senior at Blake had to deliver a "Chapel Speech" at some point (I wrote a novella called Chapel Hill which describes what this involved). Anyway, my "chapel speech" in 1969 was a long poem, which came to me suddenly (one day in the fall of 1969) after I had stalled for a long time in the putting-together of that speech. The resulting poem (along with some others) was part of my successful college application to Brown U. I don't think I had ever read Shakespeare's Sonnets before writing this : the "Dark Lady" was just part of the cultural air. (Another element of the atmosphere was that Blake at the time was a "boys' school" : we were required to wear coats & ties every morning, in Chapel.) Anyway, here is the poem :


Hi there glad you could all come
just straighten your ties and listen to a tale
my name is Prester John
I'm a king from deepest Africa
ancient coptic christian
in heathen jungle,
where tigers and Tarzan
compete for prize money,
while cameras roll and monkeys scream
I'm Prester John
son of the magi
magi that's right magic
teller of lies/teller of truth/teller of lies
so just straighten your ties and listen.

I'm an old man
once I was young rolling in hay
heaving bright air through fields
bones of beasts not yet risen burned
me through laughter, silence.

Then one day
then one day the day turned aquick black
then back again new before I knew
I was pounding in the dark and afraid
but I could not go back to Smileand.

I pounded and frowned and groaned
pounded and groaned and frowned
groaned and frowned and pounded.
I moved slowly into enclosures of steel
then quickly broke them down
fearing dreams and fearing days
writing my name in different ways

(my name remember is Prester John, priest john.
your neckties are asleep. wake up and listen.)

So I climbed fresh-blaked on a bright bus
which wound its way toward washington
where we meant to carry candles, chant
and further exorcise the place.
we shall be a million strong, we sang
and we shall overcome. we rode like children.

and then
and then far back deep under the dark
rear of our bus arose a flower
arose a dark, dark lady on a seashell
from beneath the green seat
a dark, dark lady riding a seashell
a dark, dark lady riding a shell
and she drew me and drew me and drew me
back, back into the bus, back, back, back
back, back into the bus, back, back, back, back

(Wake up! Remember! I am Prester John,
mythical ruler in northern rockies
a holy flower colony of children
where our own few seeds sprout, and
we survive and live and grow.)

So she drowned me
and my lady and I were lost
and I was lost, and white washington
temples were lost and we awoke
exhausted in Ithaca, New York.
I read the news of Washington,
groaning in Ithaca nowhere.
My dark lady laughed her rage
and screamed her laughter
into frozen nights.
So I went away, away, away, away.

Wake up! This is the last time! Remember!
I'm an old man making food
in my children's colony, bearded
like Moses or Ulysses or Prester John
I rule my flower children with a fist
so they may survive in wilderness.
but my days grow yellow.
my children are not sane.
the ground lies fallow, while
my sons steal down the mountain to find
a hamburger stand, and my eldest now,
he wears a coat and tie, and my youngest, now,
he wants to be a business man, and my daughters, now,
they want to go to school...


Tangled up in rose

Have been reading this fascinating essay by R.H. Winnick, on some evidence that Shakespeare infused the Sonnets with intricate anagrams on the name of his early patron, Henry Wriothesley (the most likely model for the beloved "friend" celebrated therein).

The opening sonnets strike a comically-avuncular pose, in which the speaker advises the beautiful young man to marry & beget children, in order to share & sustain his loveliness into the future, rather than imprison it in a barren self-regard. Gradually, however, the sonnets develop another theme : that though the young man may not sustain his image in an actual son, that image, that "son", will live on forever in the literary dimension of the poems themselves.

As I have written here & elsewhere, Shakespeare's Sonnets, had a terrific impact when I first read them (as an undergraduate at Brown) in 1973. My reading precipitated a psychic crisis, replete with uncanny coincidences, etc. - elements of psychosis, or near-psychosis. It wasn't only that I thought William Shakespeare was (somehow) addressing me personally, directly - through some kind of time-cancelling occult sonnet-semaphore : it was also that the strictly poetic power of the verses reinforced the sensation, the feeling of being so addressed.

More than a quarter-century of (I guess) relatively sane living later, I still recognize & must acknowledge that that long-ago crisis represents maybe the most important turning-point in my vocational development, if not my life as a whole. My immediate reaction was to renounce poetry itself : but the psychological claims of that crisis - along with my very early orientation toward a literary career - compromised any such absolute revocation. Eventually I came back to it.

& somehow my inborn gamesmanship (& maybe megalomania) push me (seemingly ineluctably) toward a further iteration of that strange encounter. I've written elsewhere about how my own sonnet sequence, Island Road, encrypts a sort of re-encounter with Shakespeare. I think also of all the poetry-games I've played repeatedly with Shakespeare, John Berryman, & the name "Henry." & now, reading R.H. Winnick's piece, I am thinking again... (perhaps giving some pointers to future investigators)...

Winnick cites Helen Vendler's exploration of sonnet 67's word-play around the phrase "roses of shadow." He links this with line 2 of the 1st sonnet - "That thereby beauty's rose might never die" - which another scholar, Martin Green, has suggested, evokes (sonically) the name of Wriothesley (pronounced variably as "rizzly", "rizely", or "rozely"). Then Winnick unpacks a fabulous network of anagrammatic encryptions of "Henry Wriothesley" found in several different sonnets.

What I want to propose (with tongue only partly in cheek) is that one could read back through my own poetry for word-patterns and biographical patterns which actually emphasize the strange sense that Shakespeare was indeed writing to me and for me ("what's past is prologue"). Consider the manifold connections established in my work between Henry and Rhode Island (the first being that my birthday - May 29th - is also RI Statehood Day). Then there is the very long (600+ pp.) poem, Forth of July - the original title of which was Stubborn Grew the Rose. The line "stubborn grew, the rose" is underlined (bookends, actually) the 1st volume of that poem (Stubborn Grew). The poem is, in some respects, an RI epic (& we note that "Rhode Island" is another way of saying Rose Island). & further we note that Stubborn Grew narrates the adventures of a poet named "Henry" and his ghostly guide ("Bluejay") as they construct a kind of geomantic character - the letter "W" - across the landscape of Providence, RI. This "W" stands for various things... but in the context of this particular wild speculation, we remark some dimensions of that unusual name - "Henry Wriothesley." Henry... W... RI... risely... rosely.... Rose...


lanthanum 7.7


Blackstone’s laborious, painfully non-
Euclidean scribbles toward squaring the circle
(on anterior hypo-moose antlers) percolate
with improvisational symmetry ‒ some canon

of fifths, that wheels with all the little candles
sweating wax & blood across expectant earth.
& it is a kind of flute-call summons (a lovers’
lonely train-hoot, far-off track, or tendrils

of lilacs’ trailing scent) that beckons him
toward those blank snowfields on every map
where he must renew & be renewed ‒ like that
saw-tooth spruce shaking snow from its shoulders

straightening up & starting over (toward
Paulette Polaris ‒ redhead northern star).
O most laborious-harmonious composer ‒
scored for vermilion wind-vanes ‒ crowded,

crowing earth-choirs! Aurora sways now
over your shoulder (serpentine, spectral)
as you orient your glittering triangle
into a matrix of such local-honey sounds

as Beatrice herself might hive (humming,
habitation). For the geometer of bees
& homing pigeons sights by crosshairs
infinitely finer than your banjo-string,

Blackstone; her olive-almond glance
you mimic with your skitterish vesica
(or wandering eye) is like Jessie Ophelia,
that river-ark (a buoyant permanence).



Oren Izenberg intro

I'm very intrigued by this preview/intro to a new book by Oren Izenberg. It reads as quite clear & sensible to me... looking forward to seeing the book itself. Some of the emphases he outlines here seem related or fairly close to some things I've been blogging about (more incoherently) for some time : that is, the connection between a philosophical and ethical concept of "the person" as fundamental to our engagement with the aesthetic & artistic dimension of poems & poets...

I see this as a dimension I've sketched out elsewhere as "incarnational." A loaded (overloaded) word, I realize : in my scribbles it refers in part to a sense of life, reality, time, the cosmos, etc. as centered in, & somehow proportioned for, the person... the person as an ethical, teleological, aesthetic "end" or ultimate & self-sufficient framework or life-purpose...

A few days ago, reading a book by Hubert Damisch, A childhood memory by Piero della Francesca, I came upon a passage where Damisch discusses a theological concept called the Verbum infans, or "infant Word" (as the Piero work he analyzes is an image of the pregnant Virgin Mary). Damisch remarks that the Verbum infans, as (purely verbal) Word of God, in a sense disappears, or goes silent, as it is "made flesh", become incarnate, in the living divine Person (of Jesus).

The comment fertilized some inchoate ponderings on my part, which I am still working out. I thought about the particular aesthetic dimension of poetry - of the imaginative constructions of art & their inherent value as beautiful things, as ends in themselves. & I thought about how this involved representations : mimesis, recognizable impressions & images from the shared experience of both artist and audience, poet & reader. & I thought about how poetry seems to tend toward the dramatic : from the mini-dramas of a lyric poem to the full-fledged spectacle of a narrative or dramatic story, a novel or play. & I thought about something that Plato worried about : the danger that our artistic ("virtual") representations might actually displace or replace the reality which they represent. This is a way in which "Word becomes flesh" - the poetic word embodied in dramatic mimesis - which loses itself, goes silent, is absorbed in the larger synthesis, the synthetic whole, of its mirrored images.

How might poetry resist this displacement of reality, this turn to the self-absorption of its own mirrored irreality? I think perhaps poets themselves resist this pressure of the unreal, in various ways... One way they might do this is through a kind of reduction or abstraction - an intentional self-limitation. The poem does not aspire to be a "universal whole" or total mimesis : rather it aims for its own quiddity, or unique integrity - which might very well involve the making of literary fragments & very short poems, rather than cosmic epics or play cycles. (I'm thinking of this in terms of my original reaction to reading some short lyrics by Mandelstam in a Providence bookstore : how I was so taken with their brief, sudden, puzzling, musical but mysterious imagery. A kind of "experience-shorthand" or telegraphy.) Another way that poets might offer resistance is through the intentional cross-over or intercalation of person & poem, of art & experience : with the result that in responding to a poem we react to the presence of both a person & a poem, an artistic creation and a personal communication.... Poets & poetry have a way of pushing through the barriers erected between the objectivity of the art work and the personal charisma or presence of the poet....

But I have to think about this some more. (Paul Celan dealt with some of these questions in his little story "Conversation in the Mountains"...)



In my (imaginary) American version of Russian Acmeism (the St. Petersburg poetry group of roughly 100 yrs ago), there are certain basic AA ABCs :

1. Making poetry is a free & independent activity, capable of constructing its own means & ends, with its own inherent value & meaning - something to cherish & enjoy, aside from any spiritual, religious, political, ideological or economic usefulness that others may demand or ascribe to it.

2. Yet AA "autonomy" differs from standard-brand Modern & Postmodern orientations, in that AA's independence is not dependent on revolt. There is no violent severing of the bonds of ordinary life, history, or culture in general. In other words, the freedom of a poem is not dependent on either a private (hermetic) language (a symbolic code) or upon verbal or logical incoherence of any kind.

3. To put this another way : in art & poetry, acts of free exchange, of sharing, are of the essence. But how does one share the unintelligible? One doesn't. The AA has a certain faith (or hope) in the ground of culture, no matter how storm-beaten & humanly corrupt & problematic & crisis-ridden. We are intelligent & intelligible beings; nature is fundamentally intelligible, if mysterious; poems want to participate in this circus of meaning.

4. In terms of aesthetics (let's say), the art work is a kind of thing, a quiddity, a distinct whole, distinct from everything else. We enjoy wholeness; we enjoy exploring the distinctness of things, their difference. Poetry is the art of the word. "The word as such," as the old Russian Acmeists used to say. Words themselves - the material of poetry - also exhibit wholeness, as well as sociability (as they join in the carnival of speech, grammar, sentences, style). The AA treats the wholeness of the poetic material with kindness & respect & care. Words are not torn violently from their milieu - at least not without some intelligible (if cryptic) purpose. Rather the AA poet seeks the elegance of the mot juste, & the rightness of the accurate statement. For the world as we know it deserves no less; and we know no other world. The unknowable remains, as Gumilev (the Russian Acmeist) says, what it is (unknown).

lanthanum 7.6


Close the books now, blear-eyed Willie,
Blackstone mumbles to himself. So glad
brother Roger lingers near ‒ my Galahad
of old soul freedom doctrine ‒ principium he

balances on delicate line (drawn from nature,
plein air). That is, give unto Caesar what’s
his dues
; unto God your inner weather. Chaste
chestnut of unseen mercy, secret charity ‒ your

innocent conscience, or consciousness of
innocence (my child, my child). Pearl
signet of my days in the sun, sweet girl
(your dance, your prance before the stars

were, maid). For this, that St. George of old
Rhode Island, steely armorer of his own city-
state, set up a wall of separation : civility
for the brash mint-silver’d world ‒ & gold

for its hallowed background (vested, chaste,
sequestered from all eyes, save God’s alone).
So my song’s but a game for whistling home,
sezto humself. Memory-gnomon (if so graced)

for Noman Everyman (fret like a viol
in a triolet). He leans there, solitaire
into the pine of his foot-pedal. Where’s
the bride of my joy then, brother Will

Good Will? & forth from the mandala
full of starry tinder in his eye, she comes :
an eyelash curve... silvery strand from
Natasha’s temple... cosmopolitan, selah.



brief chord sketch

lanthanum 7.5


Windblown snow-motes in the frozen sun,
winter sparklers, light-quanta... each
fresco’d in its own fleet galaxy.
Blackstone pries open Maximus again ‒

rapt in a riddle of his three-in-one. Some
summa-sum, encompassing cross-
purposes ‒ lassoed canoes, tossing
through gray Atlantic gust, pale, grim...

& all the while, shrouded in steerage,
the rose in the lute sings out, persistent,
mild. For the widow in the window, stranded,
near ‒ strangely buoyant, imperturbable...

So all my leewordings are just one song,
he mutters; seeds of one shady alas, alack
blown from green milk-way’d shofar-sack
(scattered, aloft). To lean the blue prong

of my fault-lines against your equilibrium
on the meridian of every latitude ‒ & give
thanks so, & be at peace (even in this dive
of tainted chips, a-bob on the burnt flood

of all betrayals). Hope is the anchor,
mumbles stubborn Will, though it curl in the
parallax of wistful memory
. Bend your eye
now inward, heart; fond navel-admiral, or

ostrich hovercraft, wild silly peacock
of my soul, we’ll step a wedding-march
at last, under a canopy of April, May ‒
under the arc of the seal’s sea-rock.



They builded better than they knew

Have been re-reading the incomparable Architectonics of Humanism, by Lionel March. This is a profound exploration of ancient architectural methods (& their survivals in medieval & Renaissance eras), which involved the synthesis of math & geometry with the gematria, or numerology of words & names (back when ancient Greek & Hebrew alphabets & numerals were one & the same, and every word had a corresponding "number" - the Greeks called it the pythmen).

In a chapter investigating Roman architecture, he analyzes a (conceptual) building model described in Vitruvius - the basilica of Fano, & suggests not only that the full name of "Vitruvius" is encrypted in the dimensions of the building, but that Vitruvius might actually be a nom-de-plume of Roman polymath Varro, whose name is also encrypted, numerically & geometrically, in the design. Furthermore, March finds that the name of Julius Caesar - one of Varro's friends - is also memorialized in key elements of the building's design.

Now this I found especially interesting, because the pythmen, or root number by gematria, of Caesar's name, is the number 528. When I read this I almost fell off my chair. Because I've played a lot of number games, using names & dates etc., in my own poems (in this methods are a throwback to some very old bardic procedures). And the long poem Forth of July - especially the 3rd book, July - is quite involved with this number (528). July was finished on 5.28.2000. 5.28 is the date that William Blackstone, New England pioneer & a sort of "keystone" for the book, was buried on his property in Cumberland RI. July's chapters are also structured as 5 parts of 28 quatrains each. Moreover, one of the key verbal themes/games of the poem is a sort of turning inside-out of "Julius" (Caesar) to "July" (or Juliet, or jewel-eye, or "J", etc.) : which is intended in part to represent a kind of overturning of empire, militarism, "Iron Age" values (Caesar), & their replacement with "Golden Age" (or "Jubilee") values.

What I didn't realize, when I was "building" this poem, that the actual "number" of Caesar's name - & Vitruvius' symbolic building - is also encrypted in my poem...


lanthanum 7.4

cold virgin snow upon my heart

So walk with me, says Hobo-Blackstone-Maximus,
once-impounded rare-earth future eagle-ghost
(of millions of estrang├Ęd shades, the host).
Let’s contra-dance along irrational diagonals

aside the squires of New Jerusalem
!, he cries;
& so we do. Toward heart’s own inmost bridge
(its arc a silver Russian willow leaf ‒ knife-edge
perimeter of ancient almond shell). Mine eyes’

own gateway, longing for home : backyard garden
sequestered in Shakespeare’s glance (your eyes,
your smile). Magnetized enantiomorph (trice-
grounded lightning-bolt). A figure dwells therein ‒

one like unto a lamb-Mandela, whose blood & sweat
imprints your own Shaker-mandylion... a blooming
aerie-rose, beneath whose circling light (zooming
& skidding) goes thy sweet daughter (mote

without fright, in her cascade-canoe). & while
Apocalypse looms, & earth wobbles on its pivot,
& the signs are changed, constellations hefted
from their traces ‒ just then, just now - the sail

bumps its foretold horizon (white as snow, &
black as steppe soil, Bukovina compost). Betwixt
this crack in the galactic hinge, a yew-turned
bow, a sprig of green, springs up (almond

surprise)... Melchizedek comes from his tents,
smiling ‒ King Melek (out of lakes-jungle) emerges
like a star ‒ a member of the milky choir (Taigetos
honeybee) sings from the amygdala (its Sheba-sense).



Tu comprends

Lanthanum 7.3

Place... makes it possible to name.
‒ Charles Olson

Dazed, numb, numbering... Blackstone pioneer
taps his fingertips (pianissimo) upon a plain
ice cube. Black, Blackstone ice. Thin man’s
narrow mirror, wintering o’er a sneaky river

(snaking south). Translucent membrane
wiped clean by snow. Divide Roger Williams’
parabola-canoe crosswise, across the gunwales

(he muses) you make enantiomorphone

figure for twoness
. Thinks on the young widow
across the way ‒ there we hung up our harps
& cried
. One still takes air, walks, weeps ‒
while another sleeps underfoot (so long ago).

Muted Orpheus, loco Ulysses, brought to stillness
somewhere in the wilderness. Aleppo, maybe ‒
Salem, Providence...? A milky track (blindly).
Iron magnet weighted with lead (lawrencium,

krypton) spiraled by simple gravity to a center
of centers, a stone of stones. Hexagonal
sun-kite, adrift above Rio ‒ or solitary snow-
flake (landed on the Rock). Almond of winter.

Your arc of memory, half-buried in limestone
cliff, Blackstone ‒ earthborne prong
you must make for home. So long,
. Like a steely kind of smile, lone

rambler, reflected in the Lethe-water (Nile).
Gone not-really-gone. Just hide-n-seek
through spindly galaxies, Sully (meek
pilot; Melchizedek). Rose aisle, precessional.



Method not a method

Teaching? .... I could probably teach grammar & composition. If I had to, & if I prepared myself, I could probably teach a passable intro course in history, philosophy, theology, literature...

Yes, I could teach grammar & composition, and I could teach literature, but I don't think I could teach poetry writing. Why not? Because the only method I know is inspiration. & inspiration is not a method. & most of the "methods" taught in poetry writing classes just get in the way of inspiration.

As I understand it, poetry is deeply-rooted in something you might call "breaking-into-song." No one breaks into song without being lifted-up, being inspired. There is something holy, sacred, & surrounded-by-fire in this experience, this song-rapture. The words, the poems, the traces of such inspiration give off the heat & light of that experience, & are tinctured with that "divinity", that sacred awe, that... apartness, strangeness...

Don't get me wrong : I don't think inspiration is a replacement or short-cut for craft & hard work. I just tend to think that that kind of labor - the path from "grammar & composition" to inspiration to finished work of art - is best struggled at sort of privately & indirectly. You must wrestle with the angel to win your birthright. Not necessarily in solitude, by any means : but it should be an individual artistic search. Otherwise there are too many middle-people involved, muddling up the distinction between writing true poetry and versifying, between inspiration & method.

Maybe I'm mistaken, but this is how I've always understood poetry. & I can't teach inspiration : I can hardly ever find it myself.


In Memory of Salman Taseer

O hear, Pakistan : those who murder in the name of God are the true blasphemers.


Long & winding Rhode

Serendipity... I have a postcard from James Merrill, who was a friend of my Uncle Jim (Ravlin). Jim was my mother's older brother (by 15 yrs). My mother (Mary Ravlin Gould) was a childhood friend of the granddaughter of Longfellow (the daughter of "laughing Allegra"). (My mother had her first drink - sherry - in the Longfellow home in Portland ME, when she was 13.) In the late 1990s I wrote a book-length poem called "Stubborn Grew", the plot of which turned on the fate of Jim Ravlin's daughter, Juliet Ravlin (my cousin). It was published in 2000, at Tod Thilleman's invitation, by Spuyten Duyvil Press. Tod wrote to me that my long poem reminded him more than anything of James Merrill (a poet I have in large part avoided reading).