Ambrogio ("Honey") Lorenzetti painted
the missing Mappamondo, across the room
from a canopied Maesta (red, white, bloom).
A wheeling disk on the wall, centered

on Siena or Jerusalem (we don't know)
surmounted by a bold and burly majordomo
(Guidoriccio) - his horse checkered red-gold,
black (goldfinch caparison). 1352

(after the funeral). City by the Sea,
Castle by a Lake... mute panel-trophies
of the subjugated suburbs; Sienese
big game, hung up in framed humility

around a proud procession of possession.
On the far wall, in a niche, kitty-
corner to the Virgin Majesty -
a later friar, Bernardino (franciscan

hobo - voluble, acute - Byzantine-
thin-sharp - smirking, barely)
stands barefoot on a mini-Mercator
of his own... modest Napoleon,

the self-crowned ruler of himself.
Through a door, the panorama of Good
(girlish neighborhood,
primavera ring-dance); then riff-raff

of the Palio (thundering hoofsparks
on the Campo bricks) out in the streets
a smoldering explosion of communitas
joyous throngs surging through the parks

mincing jostling pirhouetting prancing
Mappamondo, Mappamondo... horsemen
circle round a single steed (your golden-
black caparison)... I'm getting dizzy, going

blind. Still center of yon middle-earth
(Jerusalem) Saena Julia (a sign of J).
A workeman that hath copies by...
might fix my ferris wheel into a wreath.
The Janus-face of poetry. One one side, an art form, with its own raison d'etre and center of gravity. On the other, a social act, a form of participation in the general endeavor of living on earth.

One would think that both poets and critics, in their respective ways, would want to take this doubleness into account somehow.

Writing (and art) can present itself as a sort of Archimedean lever - a means of mirroring/distancing phenomena in order to examine and understand them. With some writers and writings, this can take the form of a moral accounting, an ethical judgement.

John Barr's essay in Poetry, in which he urged poets to get out of academia and root their poetry in life-experience, triggered a lot of criticism (not directed so much at this particular argument, but at his related call for a more popular, populist poetry). It is tempting to couch such exhortations in debonair or rugged iconolatry (Hemingway and all that) - but one could interpret his position as a subset of the broader notion of the Janus-face : that art and poetry stand on two legs (representation and reality, or experience). (Of course, the idea that two such legs exist at all has been the source of vast volumes of scholarly cogitation, debate, obfuscation, and artistic prestidigitation over the last 40 years - ie., aren't they really one leg? Or no leg at all?)

Meanwhile... all this reading & writing about Renaissance Siena has got me in an ut pictura poeiesis state of mind. So I am thinking of poetry, not just as a visual canvas, but as a civic mural in a public space, presenting a dual, dialectical, Janus-like substance.


- slowly, slowly, he bumbles toward some meaningful expression...


See how those Tuscan cities rise
like dandelions in the April sun,
ablaze with pollinated ben comun,
the solidarity of parish bees

sworn to barn-raising (in sweet
conventicles). Across a burnt-
sienna chessboard, over gaunt
republican piazzas, the Paraclete

(pseudonym for tennis bum
or mild-eyed hobo) poses a zig-
zag clue (lilac for fig), figuring
clematis, climax forest (arboretum

). Red bloom
with dusty feet, thorns -
Assisi vagabond (he scorns
not Poverty
) - bridegroom

dawdling (someday... eternally).
In sheepish green
of roadside weeds - in San
Francisco (Ramirez portfolio).



A little hilltop town somewhere
in Tuscany modelled the Mount
of Earthly Paradise. When Dante
and his antique guide slowly felt their

way (blind men, circling around
the ruined breastworks of a ridge,
following a scroll over the edge
of the known universe) they found

themselves humming a familiar tune
(the way potter X's fingers flicker
aslant a red-leaf bole - quicker
than thought figures an X-strewn

cosmos). Love, the rest note
at the foot of ranging harmonies -
the knot in incunabular interstices
of ink, time, jealousy. The mote

in the builder's eye, the tear
in the mosaic... pervasive
octave-frequency, alive
and breathing (here, here).


- yet another riddle for you -


S. Martini, City by the Sea.
A blue-black sea, with a single double-
sailed vessel. A puzzle-castle
and a lonely little tree.

In the turquoise elbow of a stream
a nude figure with golden hair
(hunched over) dabbles, barely
there - all flowing, fleeing from the frame

(except for the red-blue garments flung
upon neon grass). In Camelot
they married; now she's married not

(in the City by the Sea). Unsung

Hero, waiting by the shore,
she is the negative of charity,
the mirror of the eye's motion -
the molten origin of lapidary lore.

Homer felt his way along the walls
of fate, blindly, tenderly. The earth
is rounder than the measure of wrath
or the squeak of fractious Percivals;

what was given from heaven whispers
in featherweight horsehair, the touch
of hand upon brow (to whom much
is given, much will be required
, sailors).

And tender fingers melt into the clay
spun round, round (even, ineluctable)
til the branch of a ferris-railroad (by
and by) is a goldenrod, crying Crucify.
Spring's on the way (even in Minnesota). An old painting by my mother - 2 old Minnesota babushki. Looks a little Sienese.

I think the books I've been reading over the last few months - about Dante, Siena, theology, & etc. - are helping me crystallize some ideas, figure out what I'm doing. A little light seemed to go on last night (I could be fooling myself).

It's not so much a new set of ideas, as recovering a certain trajectory which seems to appear & fade intermittently.

I'm sort of a transcendentalist. For whom - prior to the details of any religious tradition - there is a more basic orientation : that of the human being facing the fact of a higher consciousness (the "ground of Being", & etc.). (Thinking of Hart Crane, out cold in the dentist's chair, hearing a voice repeating "you have the higher consciousness! You have the higher consciousness!")

And I've become preoccupied with the notion that this kind of orientation has become unfamiliar - difficult for us to grasp. It might be said that the 20th century replayed (in its own fashion) the cultural-psychological egocentricity which so strongly marked the Renaissance. Our civilization has no formed "theodicy" - no way of speaking about God (beyond a sort of religious positivism constructed out of magic verbal formulae). (By this I don't mean to denigrate anyone's faith, or any of the valid cultural phenomena. What I mean is that our civilization is not intellectually comfortable with a transcendentalist viewpoint. The travails and horrors of the 20th century made 19th-cent. Romantic idealism obsolete; but the root of it all - the basic stance toward reality - stepson of earlier stances, which can be placed under the general designation "piety" - has not been effaced.)

The differing entailments for one's sense of life and reality, stemming from these two paths - the one, in which the ground of being is centered in the psychological self, and the other, in which the ground of the self is located in some kind of higher spiritual-intellectual source - seem quite serious (while remembering that consciousness itself is a riddle, and that the boundary between subjectivity & otherness is more like quantum spookiness than Euclid).

Various forms of materialist philosophy & psychology have found ways to avoid this issue, or dismiss it. But I can't avoid it myself.

The little light that went on for me last night was a kind of retrospective grasp of previous notions regarding the socio/political/historical/literary consequences of this basic "transcendentalist" position. I have some ideas (or share some ideas) about the mystery of the shaping role of "the Word" - how it intervened in human history, how it is fulfilled (recapitulated) in personal, individual experience - which I want to set forth as poet and in poetry.

I think of poetry as a form of expression which is specially adapted to reflect the "elan vital" of this stance toward reality. Dante, Blake, Whitman, Hopkins, Dickinson & many others - via many different tonalities - worked in this vein.

The bland little poem posted below - "Riddle of the Ridda" - really is a riddle (a riddle which is not a riddle!). Its submerged meaning has to do with what I see as that underlying form of human life and the history of the world, under the sign of the circling Verb. The "riddle" is sort of shorthand for themes I want to investigate more specifically as this poem develops. ("Ridda" - traditional Italian folk dance - shown in the Lorenzetti fresco in Siena.)


12   The Riddle of the Ridda

An eagle slants above a circle of walls
surrounding a ring of dancing maidens
singing a round, around, around (hidden
in shade of a painted Town Hall).

The wheel of the Nine (town volunteers
elected every other month) follows
the seasonal round, around - fellows
in harness, their creaking axle veers

perpetually. And the shapely word
drapes a fleeting frame as she pivots
around, around, around - one bare foot
suspended (bright glance of orbiting bird).
Reading Auerbach on Dante's early poetry (Vita Nuova). "In Dante the esoteric lady of the stil nuovo stands forth clearly for all to see; she becomes a necessary part of the plan of salvation, decreed by Divine Providence. The blessed Beatrice, identified with theological wisdom, is the necessary mediatrix between salvation and man in need of enlightenment..." [p. 62; 1st publ. in 1929]

When poetry (Dante's) requires a personal mediatrix for wisdom, two ideas are implied : first, that all (human) knowledge is "incarnated", or mediated by particular individuals; and second, that theological wisdom is necessarily synthesized by the psyche and the imagination - it's not literal, transparent, absolute, in the way fundamentalists and dogmatists insist it must be.
The poem seems to be shifting gears somewhat, so I've taken off a couple sections I just posted... (they may be back).

Reading (again) Erich Auerbach's Dante, Poet of the Secular World. He sets a very high standard (one of the great readers & critics of all time). Still, even after reading Auerbach, I feel OK (for the time being) about this Fonte Gaia poem.

Dante & Henry VII - literary strange attractor localized in Siena.


Good reading on Sienese art & the cultural-political background - Sienese Painting, by Timothy Hyman. Very helpful to me. (I know I've mentioned this before.)

City-republic vs. politics of Empire, Aristocracy & Church. The comune of "the Nine". Art history from the Sienese vs. the standard Florentine perspective (Vasari).

Duccio's art was the last of the Byzantine & the first of the Italian. Sienese fusion of mystical remoteness and urban street vernacular.

I'd like this Siena to take shape as a metaphor for America (& for Providence, & for experience generally).

Byzantium : Mankind is the imago of God. Siena : art is the imago of humanity. The dialectic of these two positions, played out in the symbolic-psychological sphere of religious ideology (iconolatry, iconoclasm, idolatry)... still with us today. (ie. are the words of "sacred books" to be taken literally or symbolically? Or somewhere in between?)

Red-blue states. Imperial purple. On the nether side of Duccio's Maesta altarpiece, in the scenes of the Passion narrative, Christ's garments are always red & blue (except in the Transfiguration & post-Resurrection scenes, where they are gold).


There's a method to my madness (& vice versa).

The gnarly, devious, rhymy-rheumy quatrains form a wall from which I toot my independent trumpet. Stand back - I'm having a fit.

They owe something (forever) to Mandelshtam's Voronezh poems.

The method owes something to Nicolas Cusanus's Game of Spheres (9 circles & an asymmetrical wooden ball).

I'm building a labyrinth to hold Theseus & Minotaur, Daedalus & Icarus. And the reader.

Fonte Gaia... rivers & streams run through all my run-on poems of the last 10 years. Maybe now I'm reaching the source (an old Italian fountain).

I'd like to be a successful writer someday, but for the time being I'm fascinated with the trumpeting, shapely otherness of poetry. It's good to be working in the Outer Limits, despised, ignored, condescended-to, defamed, etc. As long as I can stand it. (The Goulds of my tribe are known to be a very, very stubborn bunch. & I'm right in there with 'em.)

I work in humble isolation at the edge of despair. I don't despise other poets or the literary scene - no, I want to be part of it. But on my own terms.

I'm not publishing my poems to the blog simply to be different, or to take the easy path to dissemination. I'm well aware that people don't really want to read poems blasted out over the internet - that the sensible thing is to work patiently behind the scenes & then look for a publisher. The trouble is, I'm not sensible. & it's a serial poem I'm working on. & putting it on the blog has become part of my habit of composition. (That may change overnight, who knows...)


# 11 was a lemon - sorry, dear reader. Removed it from here.


Think I'm going to call this poem-in-progress Fonte Gaia.

Siena has always had problems with water supply (not near a river; up on hilltop), so when they managed to siphon it to the town square (via large tunnels called "bottini", dug between the soft sandy soil (tufa) and the hard clay layer beneath it) - they had a big celebration in the Campo. Hence the name given to the fountain eventually built there ("Fonte Gaia").

I'm celebrating the end of a long dry spell myself.



The shadow of the campanile (Torre del Mangia)
sweeps across the Campo, a silent sundial.
The soaring tower, the feminine seashell...
and at the crown of the piazza - Fonte Gaia.

Through Roman bottini (clay and yellow tufa)
they channeled water, finally, uphill (1342) -
and danced and sang around the fountain - Fonte
Gaia, Fonte Gaia
! - bubbling up - miracola!

Tower and seashell... apposite coniunctio
where snorting horses of the Palio
rush round and round... a rondo
or riddle (for braincells in the Palazzo).

Dante, Plato, Aristotle too -
what set of all sets contains itself?
What infinite eagle's wing serves as parent-
parenthesis (under what oaken aegis, bow of yew)

Blood surges through the crippled horse's neck
and through the local channels of the soil's
prolific prodigal (hill town) : soul's free potential,
Aristotle notes (Thermopylae to Alexander's wreck).

Freedom burbles in the wellspring (Fonte Gaia,
Fonte Gaia
!) of the spark of understanding
as the utter Indeterminate, the winging
Unaccountable (king-servant, shepherd-pariah)

folded into the heart of an origami bird
or papyrus flight. Distant voices (Fonte Gaia...)
from a frozen waterfall; far reaches (Primo
). Alter ego of an altar (trumpet-word).


Martin Ramirez, ultimate outsider artist, remained mute during the decades he spent in confinement in a California mental hospital. Observers said he mostly hummed. But he did speak occasionally. He was visited exactly once by a relative (a cousin) during that time. His cousin asked him if he wanted to come home & see his wife again (in Mexico). He replied, "tell her I'll see her again in the Valley of Jehoshaphat".


Those large, pensive eyes... that gaze
goes back to Byzantium (ripple of pebbles
on a curving dome). The Emperor trembles
in her presence - offers his prize :

a little model of Byzantium. Jasper walls,
carnelian towers, sapphire gates. A rainbow
slipped like dew into its dream (tomorrow).
A teeming beehive spun from its own entrails

(immaculate and blind). It was Byzantium.
O city of sea-walls, washed in salty spray!
Here you are (Siena-California) on display -
Ramirez matrix-vortex... (hear the painter hum).

...as I try to figure out where I'm going with this Siena poem, I keep thinking of the fact that most of the famous long poems - whether verse dramas or narratives - are stories (or groups of stories). & since Don Quixote at least, poetry has faced a big rival in the novel.

Long narrative poems continued to be written through the 19th century. Thomas Hardy was maybe the last of that line, with his King Arthur verse novels (though there have always been a few verse epics & novels here & there - Archibald MacLeish wrote one, I think; Stephen Vincent Benet...). Frost wrote little verse short stories, and others imitated him.

In an essay over yonder I wrote about the theories of some of the Chicago Critics - in which they offer a sense of "form and content" almost diametrically opposed to the received 20th-cent. notions. With them, the verbal surface (the diction, style, figuration, verbal texture etc.) is, paradoxically, the content (the material out of which the poem is made). A poem's form is the complex intellectual-emotive gesture or shape which emerges from the combination of theme (argument) and plot. In this sense, an achieved poem's form is unique and inimitable.

What I'm thinking (tentatively) of doing with this Siena obsession is constructing a sort of altarpiece. Sienese pre-Renaissance art is well-known for multiple narrative perspectives. They will have a set of small pictures showing vignettes from a saint's life - or even cartoon-like action sequences, showing different stages in a single dramatic event. These little pictures will surround the large group image (Madonna & Child often involved); then there will be another whole set of images on the reverse side of the altar.

So the idea is to present a mosaic of lots of different small insights or perspectives, leading toward a larger, enfolding set of themes or design. What that design is I am not at liberty to expatiate on at this time.

The difficulty here is that this kind of long poem seems to lack narrative drive. Or it takes a heck of a long time to get the momentum going in that direction. This is an example of a problem with current poetry generally. It's like an art form which has had its top layer taken off (& shunted over to fiction). What poetry is left with is primarily anecdotes. Diaristic, essayistic responses to actual events in the real world. The similarity between much contemporary poetry and private journal-keeping - or journalism per se - is perhaps something poets tend to avoid thinking about. What myth-making and fiction used to do, was establish an imaginary surround - within which the elaborate thematic and allusive powers of the poet could flourish & play. I don't want to suggest that contemporary poets lack the wit and imagination to re-work the real world in very playful and effective ways... in fact, the opposite may be the case. Necessity is the mammy of invention : in the desert of the (un-fictional) real, poets have to play even harder.

What "Siena" might do for me (I fervently hope) is offer sort of a parallel, indirect version of that "imaginary surround" which a straightforward narrative plot provides for fiction.
little old poem for Valentine's Day (from Way Stations) :

                            in RI

No one will blame me
on the whispering shore
for lingering so long
near your small rose island.

Bees' slow honey
is the measure of summer;
morning and sundown,
by that rose double-arch.

And my tongue's dark island
leaves a late russet shadow -
dry relic of the voyage,
our lips' broken compass.
Finished The Underground City, by H.L. "Doc" Humes (published in the 50s). This book is what they call a "sleeper". Probably soon to be re-published, in tandem with documentary film coming out about Humes, produced by his daughter Immy.

A huge book, over 700 pp. Set in wartime & postwar France. Big panorama of Resistance fighters, Communists, US Embassy & military people, etc. Probably one of the deepest & most knowledgeable, subtle evocations of the French Resistance written (at least in English). The style has Gallic clarity and simplicity. But it's a strange, melancholy book. The protagonist, "John Stone", an American officer working with the underground who gets caught up in postwar scapegoating and political machinations, is a curiously affectless, absent personality. Maybe related to the literary atmosphere of the time (Camus, Sartre, Existentialism...). He's also in shock during & after his wartime experiences. Furthermore it's clear Humes is grappling with questions of American direction in the shadow of Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Striking foresight in the way he focuses on the relation between "security" and civil liberties. Humes brings his characters & their situation to life with tremendous, vivid realism. Questions of loyalty & betrayal are at the core of this novel steeped in war and soldierly values.



Think of it - in the heart of town
in the well of the piazza's madeleine
in the inner chambers of Siena's
nerve center : a fresco-sun.

Shines through the Black Death night
(vale, Brunetto). He was a bookish
city journalist, his panoramas flush
with tags, encomiae, Italo-Latinate

cartoon balloons... memos for precepts
to be kept in mind, aides-memoire
for puffy counselors (collected there
within the glow). Dream-ships -

papyrus-barges of the word (parchment
and ink the lifeblood of the civitas);
packets of ben commun, epitomized
in pithy brush-light (air apparent).


Shines through the Black Death night
an image of measurement (wisdom's reproof).
The mind (unclear, uncertain... pregnant, aloof).
And it is not enough. The anchorite

in solitude, the nurse in the Baghdad ward
reach understanding in extremity
deeper than any rational city
can celebrate (cerebrally). Hard

is the path, and narrow is the way

- or Ramirez, the immigrant
in the mental hospital (with his crayon).
In the Beginning was the Word, Jose.


I learned how to play the 2-handed quatrain from my uncle Jimi Poe, way back in 1938. Uncle Jimi was something else. Nothing he couldn't do with a basic 4-liner. If I could play a tenth of what he could, I'd be more than satisfied. As it is, I do the best I can. Many's the poets tout their theoretical chops these days, make hay in the college circuit, jive around the little-ary co-Z clubs, what all. As for me, I've got my riff down, & that's all I care about. They can't dress like me.



The little city-states were local politics,
the politics of local knowledge, local pride.
The brick town blossomed on the green hillside
empurpled like a bursting grape. Natural genetrix

or gesture of dominion, the campanile soared
toward imperial skies (burnt sienna blaze
of civic energies) to match that enterprise -
a local rebuke, rooted (immemorial, round).

There, in crested shields and emblems,
dragons, eagles, intricate insignia,
the might of unaccountable dominion
met midget heralds of a parish realm -

the merchants of the Nine - and lost
their sway (temporarily) to a democracy
(partial). Upstart, vain, swaggering city
complained Dante (from a rival Boast

of Italy) - forever seeking access to the Sea
(irascible wasp still whispering denunciations
in the shade of an eagle's pyrotechnic turns)!
Meanwhile Lorenzetti freres (in their piazza

seashell) turned sunlight inward (against
the walls of the Palazzo). Soothing massage
of frescoed radiance framed a stern message
for elected lords : rule by violence

results in anarchy (and desolation,
finally); rule by justice (on the other wall)
results in joy. It was a note to the imperial
Henry (in the end) : peace is earth's foundation.


...talking to myself again, through you (& vice versa).


As he brushed in the crown of the steep-
combed hills' rust-green, Lorenzetti
must have felt like those travelers he
scribbled across them (ready for sleep

in his own bed, finally). And when Martini
(daubing patriarchs, bordering the Virgin
Maesta) scrolled a miniature stern
warning for all subtle, muffled mutiny -

malevolence against the commonweal -
there in Palazzo Pubblico (Sala
del Mappamondo
) - he spoke through Maria
herself (like an infant Word through the royal

She). Pure color glows like a proverb;
the gesture represents what's bent
too shy for speech (abiding, swelling up
sometimes). Angels lift bowls of herbs

and flowers toward them, under their canopy
of red and white, of royal blue. The sky
is midnight. A mirror of the old country
glimmers (signing) in your old unhappy

heart. The sun shines there, also -
intermittently. Your heart's a mappemunde
(scan it and weep). Where the sea resounds;
where your hand reiterates a silvered blue.

(p.s. "Ramirez" in previous post : reference to Martin Ramirez, subject of marvelous show
currently at American Folk Art Museum in NY)


more perturbed quietude from Siena...


When droning sages dared to speak of God
they seared their tongues (sappy mountains
of audacity). They stumbled - they incensed
the panicky demons (with their babble-screed).

God shrugged, and turned his back. A vast
crescendo of dry leaves (frail Armada) sailed
out of the library. Humble, inconsequential,
the serviceable word. It accumulated (ballast).

Words and spittle split the world's contempt.
Only harsh masonry of absolute dream
(prestidigitation, Midas massage, scam
of platre-de-Paris effigy) appeared exempt.

From anemone-whorls of spooky midnight blue
on the edge of the highway, to zebra-
stripes of an ineluctable cathedral
the dumb world answers back (I see you) -

I see, I see chants Dante too
in the celebrity fresco of Ambrogio
- there like an angry bee (gone solo)
thrust from the hive, pacing his peripetio

(longhouse-home). Playing hide-and-seek
in marble rafters painted with images
of marble rafters, in the troubadours'
hill-town nestled (hidden) in peaks

of hills (with Beatrice). Horsing around
with pals of Palio - cantering across his
can-can-cantos - toward a Ramirez ferris-
wheel, in Mexico (tiered vale of Jehoshaphat).

The quiet in paintings... more quiet
than whisper of hand and horsehair.
Sound of small waves, the patter
of rain. Vanishing point (silent).

Something labors at the perpendicular
of the planes... where sweet cacophony
of vernal streets extends coarse (funny)
tendrils in a chorus of counterparts

the sea-depths of the air beckon
into tremulous reaches (embodied
cloud-light). And the painter's eye
steadied so (calm reconnaissance

of lion-glance) edges toward
molten serpentine... where
a principle (urbane particulars'
hewn symmetry) is its reward :

dead reckoning of dancers in a round,
or masons of a bow-taut campanile.
Dread judgement of the Nine (final).
Eagles' mantle (burial mound).



A sky-backdrop of mordant turquoise
smudged with bronze rust. Ivory
balcony intersects curved alcove.
In the background, pink battlements.

The center of gravity sits in the High
Priest's triangular white-gold cap.
Hesitant hands of aged Giuseppe,
young white-frocked Maria

hover beneath that woolly patriarch's massive
beard-fountain. By the door old Joachim is
fending off a pack of jilted hoodlums.
Striped heralds blow bull-roarers. Conceive,

conceive... conceive she does, like light
through glass (mirrored in the Lago al
San Leonardo
). This painterly minstrel
(Lippo Vanni) had a feel for multitudes -

bees swarming (droning) in the chancel below
barely distinguish between his perfect scene
and the pellucid serpentine of the marble barn
enfolding same (step into the dream, Tommasio).

And the Glory of the Lord shone round about them.
In the pluperfect of her girlish gown... veil
of wellspring everlasting
. Mist, maze, riddle...
slant of glancing eyes. Jerusalem.


Spring sweeps like a flowery bas-relief
along the stony reaches of the porticos.
Emblem or enactment? No one knows
how tender fingers melt to solid grief.