Lanthanum 9.8


Low sun, gold-creamery December light
mark the end of another year on earth.
& what is Man? Mindful? His worth
a little under-angelic (more than ant,

anyway) – tendered (legally) amid the regal
eggshell of an Humpty-Dumpty sin. Remind him,
homunculus, his microcosmic status – sign him
up for the Y & wherefore – before the urnful

vigil & last rites, so he may right his wrongs
beneath a shared seesaw (yon looming doomy
tombtree). He aim a little whorl – whee-zoomy
Higgs bos’un. Particle of puny-verse (songs

have sung thus before, friends) whose dignity
is but a tear in her em-passionate upwelling eye
– one diamond octahedron adamantine guy’s high-
wired disCERNement (solomonseal pipmass) she

will lift (with Rog-whim) through the double hoop
of Eviemine Allpebbles. The rose of her hopeful
encompassment d’étoiled a sundance inside steel
of risen dust on every side – chicken-coop

or Henry-O-meter of the last buried man slept
off cottonblood (Sioux peacepup-kaleidoscope)
to lift prong against grain, & shape
flow of paradisal waterfalls (promise kept

in limestone palimpsest). Scratched with rod
of iron through rain of epluribus omnitears,
blab of tout-monde baobab (all ears) –
shaggy Maggie Sophia (minitransmogriffin-eyed)

at the limpid garden gate. It was in her mind
to finally do & say it, after seeing him dead-or-
alive to the very end of the pier, & the year –
& so she did, like piñata or katydid. Near 28 Pine.



Friday Thoughts on What the Heck

For poets & readers raised on modern-postmodernism, the sovereign autonomy of art is a foundational tenet. So I would hardly be surprised if some people viewed my poetry, & my :"theoretical" writings, with suspicion : a dangerous mix of incommensurate categories, a sloshing-together of art & religion, a shackling of free imagination with dogmas of theology...

This might have something to do with the somewhat narrow, squinched contemporary sense of what a poet is, & what is a poet's proper social role. For us, today, it seems to be either/or : either one is a detached, thumbs-twiddling artiste, exuding free & playful & harmless arty baubles : or one is engaged - convinced, angry & convicted about the crisis du jour, the world situation - full of passionate intensity, ready to man the ramparts on behalf of a slogan greater than ourselves.

What's lacking for the moment, perhaps, is a confidence (across culture at large) in effective speech as a form of social action. By effective here I don't mean solely political, but rather meaningful discourse in a more general sense (social, cultural). The fact is we live in an unprecedented Babel-explosion of varying, contradictory & rivalous tweets & chirpings (including those philosophical trends which deny any purposive connection between language, meaning, & action whatsoever). So the idea of a poet, and poetry, actually contributing something of substance to more general public discourse - in poetry - seems to have grown steadily more absurd and impossible, since those (19th-cent.) days when Matthew Arnold began to voice qualms about the situation. We are far gone from the Victorian Poet-Orator.

Again, I'm not referring to the engaged poet - the populist - the voice of the streets. This kind of poetry is enjoying a great resurgence, actually : from the Occupy encampments to Kremlin Square to Tahrir Square, the rapping-tweeting poet-singer is the heroine & hero of the day. And it is certainly "effective speech", and to be admired & praised. But what I'm thinking of is a form of discourse perhaps quieter, simpler and more basic : the kind of philosophical or theological musing/reasoning which is world-shaping : foundational in terms of humankind's most basic worldview and orientation with regard to life's meaning & purposes. I mean the visionary storytelling represented by Biblical prophets, the Psalmist, Homer, Dante, Blake... many others. For example, Hesiod and the pre-Socratics shared an interest in enunciating "first and last things" : theogonies of origin, ultimate verbal formulae. This is a very ancient and primary social role taken on by poet and philosopher alike.

I wouldn't try to pole-vault myself up among that exalted company of visionary propounders. But what I can say is that I'm drawn to a sketchy outline of this mode of poetry, this concept of a poet's social role. I look to the special faculties and resources and potentialities within the specific craft and modes of poetic making - its rhythmic/harmonic/conceptual/referential density - as powers which create the conditions for adequate verbal equivalents for the real and possible nature of things : an adequate or accurate model or mirror of the way things might be...

And just how might such things be? Let's say that poetry might be culturally - humanly - foundational if - and this is a big if! - if reality as a whole is ultimately founded and grounded in ecstasy, wonder and joy. In the joy of creation.

I think it was Aristotle who described God, the Prime Mover, as "the thought that thinks itself." It occurred to me today that this might also describe one of the avenues for reflection on the structure of human being, human nature. That is, perhaps we can imagine human nature as essentially reflective - as the consciousness which considers its origin. Today I have the sense that this is one way to describe - to body forth, characterize, depict - our human situation with respect to consciousness per se. The dominion of human thought and action on the planet earth (imperfect, still wrongful & destructive, not yet hopeless) is a miniature analogue, a proportionate ratio, to the everliving Consciousness existing in creative dominion over the universe, reality, as a whole. When one recognizes this Consciousness as infinite love and goodness & joy, one begins to grasp the import and purpose of the message of Jesus, his "good news". When Jesus says he offers the keys to "eternal life" he means exactly that joyful recognition of an undying creative Being which suffuses the entire cosmos. This "eternal life" is the real Holy Grail : the source of spiritual fortitude, hope and joy in the face of every earthly sorrow and pain.

So if in my poetry I attempt to stand with Blake & Hopkins & Dante in sketching out (singing) a version of this most basic ontological concept of reality - of its meaning & purpose - of first & last things - well, this is the rational confidence underlying my little craft. (See, in this regard, contemporary philosopher Alvin Plantinga on the "normative" quality of belief in God. According to Plantinga, faith in God cannot be proven - but it doesn't need to be, in order to be accepted as rational. One can legitimately believe something to be true, without proof, as long as it has not been proven to be false : just as I believe I am going to leave work for home soon, although there's no way to prove that to be true.)

& my faith in the joyful-creative substance of things has consequences for society. If we are all children of God, then we ought to love our neighbor as ourselves. Ask Black Elk about this.

(p.s. just so you know : I don't believe it's Friday yet. I'm pretty sure it's Thursday.)

p.p.s. But I also hold that poetry is good in itself, whether it poses problems or asks questions or provides answers or simply delights & entertains. Poetry has its own proper glow. Yet also I'm saying it's that glow which allows it to carry these other burdens too.


Thought for the day

It seems to me that a basic dimension of religious faith is entirely personal and individual. It has to do with the psyche and personality, and with one's own individual stance toward spiritual things : with what you and I actually do : how we think, how we act, how we proceed. Our personal way in life.

Thus there are severe limits on what can meaningfully be said about faith and religion in a general way : abstractions, theoretical constructs, ideology, criticism, scholarship, journalism, public debates and polemics, & so on. Faith always involves a personal dimension : an individual orientation & practice (with others) - a private history of repentance, let's say - which is resistant to theoretical abstractions & descriptive conveniences.

This situation makes me think of the contrarian, paradoxical quality (or non-statements) connected with Zen Buddhism (not that I know anything, really, about Zen Buddhism). Or the warnings, in the Gospels, about prayer & fasting. I'm thinking of Jesus' comments about the "tower of Siloam" incident. A big tower falls, killing a lot of innocent bystanders. Jesus says, "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." The warning is to urge us to be wakeful, to "gird up our loins", to be aware, to be prepared & ready. (The parable of the "wise & foolish virgins" is similar.) Jesus also repeatedly warns against hypocrisy, against substituting empty words for actual commitment. "Beware the leaven of the Pharisees" : ie. avoid the temptations offered by seductive theories or fashionable paraphrases of the actual ethical content of your faith. This is a "leaven" (a fatty substitute) you do not actually need to add to the unleavened bread of heaven.

An early passage in Stubborn Grew :


It was only a moment coming round.
Bowled over, on the Terrace.
And then she got mad, got gone–
and he eloped with his pen–

witch! Falcon Ace!–
of which he was deeply fond.
Some said he drowned.
Someone–a siren cantatrice–

mare of the night, see–
might rob his rich rhyme
of all reason. . . sometime.
What will be, will be.

Repentance is all.


Advent Message

I don't have the strength to blog like I used to. I'm working out every morning, doing jumping jacks & so on, to try & get my mojo back. Jump along with me, dear reader.

The year is drawing to a close, Christmas is coming, Advent is here... am sketching out a few stray memories of the poetry & Lanthanum-writing experience in 2011... what it all means...

One high point was reading (re-reading?) Gemstone of Paradise, by G.R. Murphy. This is a remarkable book. The author explores Wolfram von Eschenbach's medieval romance, Parzival, & attempts to discover why Wolfram, unlike other narrators, insisted on describing the Holy Grail as a "stone". The inquiry leads deep into Wolfram's humane & spiritual vision - a very ecumenical vision, which presents the grail as emanating from the stone Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was buried, as transmuted into the elegant, & portable, stone eucharistic altars - miniature holy sepulchres - inlaid with precious stones and carved with designs representing the 4 rivers of Paradise, etc. Wolfram's eucharistic version of the grail represented the universality, the "portability", of the Holy Spirit & divine Love - which breaks down barriers, draws enemies back into familial harmony (we are all children of God). In Parzival, grail-searchers, Crusaders, Muslim "infidels", all participate in a comedy of errors & mistaken identity, as they discover themselves, in the end, to be brothers (actual blood relations).

Of course, most of the books I read are things I stumble upon in my search for grounds & inspiration for this ornery poem (Lanthanum), which I've been struggling with for some years now. A poem is also a kind of symbolic object, hopefully harmonic (a sort of music box). & we write in the shadow of history & memory. Part of the long argument (sometimes explicit, mostly implicit, I guess) in this & other poems of mine involves a kind of response to other poets who "included history" in various ways - Pound, Crane, Eliot... History for me has this theological or spiritual dimension : there is this (dove-shaped) shadow of the presence of Jesus... the strange light of the empty sepulchre... light through stone... the testimony of other minds - centrally, for me, the elusive (partially-erased?) Mary Magdalen... (it is her primary witness, of Christ as a living gardener, standing by the tomb, I'm thinking about)...

It's all a faintly absurd hobbyhorse, I'm sure, to the sceptical - but we can only bear witness to what we've experienced, & let people scratch where they may itch. I've been lifted out of my own tomb more than once - & that memory is, for me, like an immovable Rock.

So this was one high point this year. But I find I'm proving inadequate to the task of relating what's happened, happens. Writing a poem is partly a matter of waiting for the impulse, the hunch, the intuition - & it's also partly a construction project. What I feel I've been experiencing somewhat this year is a kind of correlation or harmonization of different symbols or aspects of reality. Happens to the craziest & sanest amongst us! What I'm talking about is a kind of overlay or fitting-together of disparate symbolic elements. For example : this concept of the paradisal grail-sepulchre, and the spiritual "gate" represented by the Gateway Arch monument in St. Louis (built just across the river from the primordial "grave-mound" of Cahokia). This notion of an object full of spiritual "mana" & power, a matrix, a center, and the idea of a mandala. The puns uniting mandala, mandorla, Mandelstam, "almond branch". The mandala & the rose windows of cathedrals, like the one in Chartres (sponsored by & built during the reign of St. Louis). The atomic abbreviation for the element lanthanum - and the abbreviation for the state of Louisiana (La). An obscure "painted church" located in the woodlands of Romania, near Bukovina (birthplace of Mandelstam-translator & kindred spirit, Paul Celan) - with a fresco of a "Tree of Jesse" (say, an almond) in which the branches are ornamented with an ecumenical collection of poets, prophets, saints, apostles, philosophers...

I'm rambling a bit now, but I want to combine these references with something architectural.... a humane architectonic, as in the theory of the Russian Acmeists (Akme... Kamen (stone)). A sort of poetics of analogies or equivalences... by way of which mankind & the cosmos - nature, reality, universe - are brought into a vital harmony. A vision of proportion : logos, ratio : through which we begin to sense & recognize, & participate in, the primal joy of universal Creation. What is this primal proportion? The kinship - the familial bond - of God & Person (God's imago). "We are all God's children" runs the timeworn phrase - familiar, yet true. This is the invisible crystalline framework of the spiritual Power of Love itself. Love is this loving relation, by which we have all been touched throughout our lives, whether we notice it or not : & the "good news" is that this love of which we have had an inkling & a brief taste, has its cosmic & universal & metaphysical & vital ground in reality itself - the whole reality, the cosmic One. This is why Wolfram calls the woman who "keeps" the Grail by the name of Repanse de Joie, or "overflowing joy" - this cosmic creative ecstasy of eternal Beginning & Being, the cup of which we have all had a little sip, a premonition.

So in the poem Lanthanum I've also wanted to ground everything in what's personal & real to me, my own place, my own memories, my own country.... & thinking of the unaccountable dream I had of the Gateway Arch monument - I began imagining it in a kind of "figure & ground" reversal. In other words, I had the odd dream of the Arch, which began to filter into the poem, as figure on a ground; but then I began to sense the Arch-symbol as a kind of matrix, or magnet, or center of a mandala or force-field, exerting a sort of metamorphosis on the surrounding "land" which it celebrated - so that, in other words, the actual Arch began to generate notions of a "dream America" : a future land, a regenerated & healed nation...

When you start taking on such vast challenges in a poem, you inevitably come up against your incapacities. To even think of a possible "spirit of America" nowadays : it sounds hopeless! But maybe it's not. & this brings me to the most recent of this year's spadework/explorations. For me, any "re-encounter" with America brings to mind the original settlers - the Native Americans, the Indians. As I mused away at the poem, I imagined sloughing off my own 'Euro" origins... coming into a relation with those others who were here first, & all the terrible & wild history of that encounter. I had always thought of the poem Lanthanum, & of the Gateway Arch, as a sort of synthesis-project of New World & Old, of Hart Crane & TS Eliot, of contemporary & medieval : now I started thinking that the mandorla, the canoe, the vesica formed by the intersection of those 2 circles had to include Native America as one pole, one center of a union. I began re-reading Black Elk Speaks and The Sacred Pipe... & then I happened upon some studies & a biography of Black Elk. I was surprised to discover that not only was Black Elk a very great spiritual teacher in his Lakota world, but that he also, in turn, crossed over to the other circle in my imaginary mandala. He converted to Catholicism, and became a catechist & lay teacher at Pine Ridge. I'm still busy reading in these sources : but in a way this discovery encouraged me to keep going in this direction with the poem. America - along with every other locality on earth - is a sort of "colony" of a more universal humane civilization : & this is part of the deep project of poetry, music, & all the arts. We are not meant to forsake our cultural origins on behalf of some merely intellectual or shallow ideological formulae; rather, the universal & the particular are set in a stance of fruitful synthesis - a wedding of opposites. (This is one of the deep meanings of Incarnation, as the Orthodox monk Maximus the Confessor so eloquently explained : the whole cosmos beautifully participates in the harmonic Union of God & Man.)

Finally, one of the funniest things I realized recently was that this imaginative immersal, this diving back into Indian-Land, this "going native" (Roger Williams' & William Blackstone's task)... was not new. I realized : I've been here before. The even longer poem of the late 90s, the vast Forth of July, is essentially another such plunge into the physical & spiritual "center" of America - with me, the poet-narrator, led along by my nose by that trickster-figure out of NW Coast Indian lore, old Bluejay...

I suppose this is a very representative Blog Post : verbose, vague, rambling, confusing... but I'm trying to sum up some of the octahedral facets of the diamond sutra of the Lakota ceremony of the six directions in the sacred hoop of the people on the windy grasslands where I come from & where I go back to longingly in my daydreams....


Lanthanum 9.7


Winter dark drawing on, Blackstone lingers late
beside his companionable willow-leaf of flame. O
Rock, afloat there, higher than I am
... & became
his own salty psaltery. Pine-bough (compassionate

in heartbeat’s quiet). Look you, if the ratio
of loving river-flow between a father & a son
is bright, clean, perfect token – mumble-icon (or
lips’ manger) for a cosmic oratorio – say,

welling up eternally with overflowing & maternal
harborings – yea, spousal rapture! – why,
then, we have reason to be glad alway
& every which way, aye! sez I
(the watchful

hermit, smilingly). Sudden attunement
startled up his spine – high notes of nether-
cloudy zither-strings, like Degas feathering
a pastel La-La Land beneath the bent Arc

de Triomphe of an octahedral cathedral
(somewhere north of N’Orleans). Its gray
pigeon-nave (adrift, heavy) anchors a-weigh
right here, forthright, upstream : a sundial

planted on sunburnt clay, or airy diamond’s
undisintegrated flare – adamant prow-brow, set
to blaze through water out of limestone night.
Rose from old St. Louis graveyard (someone’s

woeful man-measure) like pink dawn-eye
or rubicund mandorla – dust-cloud gardener
held in huntress-glance. Magdalen myrrh-
box, cask of emerald foresight. Hey-ya-weh...



Lanthanum 9.6


November. Melancholy Bruegel-sky
freckled with lost leaves (set adrift,
sent into exile). What thanks to lift
out of year’s graveyard? Selah (sigh)...

Crows float over reservations, over
blank spots on maps, colonial footprints.
Ghosts of old vexed souls squint through
far panes... their windvane, bloodvein choir

of air, silence, distance. Blackstone, too
(exile, Injun-lover) curls into his cave,
soaks his couch with futile rain (his dry
ravine, his autumn gloom). Wh’cheer, Netop?

Not much. Yet these same barren trees
just now blanched gold, alchemical – rose
flagrant, flush with vineyard glose of
astonishment (choral rainbow-melody)...

He closes one good eye (vestigial retina-
glow, blushing Yellow Sweeting) only to fold
in a trim tackle, passionate wrestling-hold
the whole dappled manifold (soul-cornucopia);

within cloud-rim of funereal sky
reframes a welded reunion of horizons :
tongue-laced, -lashed dome of fiery orisons
capping ruddy mandala (lamb-candelabra)

sunleapt out of limestone clay (warble
of exiled turtledove become foundation-
stone). Enter a dewdrop, mournful sun.
Fly from your autumn grave, leaf-people.



Black Elk & the 4th of July

I recommend a book to anyone interested in America... that is, America as a spiritual/historical/cultural... entity. Something. The book is Black Elk : Colonialism and Lakota Catholicism (Orbis Bks, 2005). I just sent a copy to my son for his birthday.

Full disclosure : I am not, & have never been, a Catholic. Though I guess some might say I'm a crypto-Catholic (Episcopalian). How did I become an Episcopalian? That's another story. My grandmother, Florence Ainsworth Gould, born on July 4, 1900, was the 1st Episcopalian in the Gould clan (our local clan, anyway). Why? Because her father died when she was about 15. Of TB, or pneumonia : one of those scourges running through America in 1915. Florence became very gloomy... so a school friend invited her to a youth group at her church (which happened to be Episcopalian). Everything else followed (my infant baptism, for instance)...

The Episcopalians, I think (I'm not very informed on this) had a lot to do with missionary work among the Ojibwa, in Minnesota. But that's another story. THIS story is about a book, about Black Elk's conversion to Christianity, & what it all means...

This is a very valuable book. I would hazard to say that there is only one Truth - universal, local, personal, cosmic : but there are many ways of expressing it, paraphrasing it, or denying it.

This book is especially valuable to me. I've been dancing for a few years now around a long poem called Lanthanum. The poem emerged out of a dream I had, one night, about the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. And this book (Black Elk, by Damian Costello) seemed to materialize in my hands, in response to some intuitions or hunches I was having with respect to the poem. (One of the advantages of working in a library.)

In my intuitions I saw - in a vague way - I kind of conjunction of 2 circles. First, the circle of old Europe (see, for iconic example, Henry Adams' book Mont St. Michel & Chartres) - and beyond that, old Byzantium (St. Maximus, WB Yeats, Osip Mandelstam) & old Israel (Paul Celan, Osip Mandelstam). Second the circle of the New World (I could cite a lot of examples here... but for now let's just say Hart Crane, Roger Williams, William Blackstone, Malcolm Lowry, Black Elk).

Anyway, I had a vague sense of these two circles intersecting, forming a vesica (geometrical shape something like a canoe - formed by 2 intersecting circles)... around the space of the Gateway Arch. Old World, New World. Pound, Eliot/Crane, Stevens. St. Louis/Black Elk.

I was having these impulses before I read Damian Costello's book (& others about the Lakota) : & reading these things seems to have complexified my understanding as well as confirmed my intuitions.

It was the impulse, as a poet, to shed my (Anglo-European) skin : because there seems no other right way to get in touch with the sensible actuality of American soil... the feeling of the prairie & the woods & lakes. (Which is also part of my childhood nostalgia. My Dad & my brothers & I were active in the "Indian Guides", in the 60s - a sort of alternative to the Cub Scouts, based on "Indian" values... & there was a lot of this incorporated into Boy Scouts, too. I was initiated into the "Order of the Arrow" in Scout camp (which also happened to be an Episcopalian summer camp... Camp Lawton, near Balsam Lake, Wisconsin).

The funny thing is that as I started going in this direction I realized I was repeating myself. The very long poem Forth of July (finished in 2000) is a kind of Anglo-Native masque... a real (Ojibwa-style) Dream Song.

An aside : my mother was a childhood friend of the granddaughter (the daughter of "Laughing Allegra") of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. They grew up as neighbors on the River Road, along the Mississippi in Minneapolis. The Longfellows invited my mother to their vacation place on the coast of Maine when she was 12 or 13... & so she had her first alcoholic drink (my mother's parents were Iowa teetotallers) - a glass of sherry - in the Longfellow House in Portland, Maine. HW Longfellow, of course, wrote the famous "Hiawatha" - a poem my father memorized (in part) in elementary school, in Minneapolis - based on an Ojibwa story (& set by Longfellow to a meter from the Finnish epic, the Kalevala). There's a statue of Hiawatha carrying Minnehaha across Minnehaha Creek, in Como Park, in Minneapolis, near the Falls... where we used to have a picnic on the 4th of July every summer...


Lanthanum 9.4


Quiet Sunday in New England. November eye
(low glance through ancient tenement panes).
Lights up a fleeting countenance – shines
there, your face... Blackstone’s Mont-Joie,

beyond their corny wine. My learned Sunday
scholar, true to his spirit-bull’s eye. Attuned
thereby to all hope & charity – seedling rune
of human future (out of planetary ruin). Hey,

who kin shave us any good? the blind men cry
& gnaw each other’s shoulders. I’ll shew you
everlasting gladness
, mumbles Will (from yew-
bough hermitage) – here in my hand : an eye

of murmuring myrrh. & he lay down on his bed.
Communed with mine own heart (silent
figman). Old monk, stooped figure, patient
at the morning gate (of the Land of the Dead).

Cryptic groundskeep. Eld priest, old shaman...
medicine man. Henry Thunder Winnebago
croons in the prairie twilight... I’d go
there with you, Henry – shed my skin –

become that other Henry – Henry Lightfoot,
released from grief at last (& gravity
too). The shadow of a peacock’s wing... see?
Through an eye-rainbow... serpentine sky-root.

Inverted arc, smiling through rain. Swim
through the shiny pillar
, shuddered Jiminy Hobo
parked on his iron rail. Toward absolute zero.
Yon Ojibwa wheel
(Arowra Bury All-Ice). Dream.



Let go the superflux!

Just as in the Elizabethan age, or that of Sophocles, theater sheds oblique moonlight on the "form & pressure of the time".

So today we have the Tea Party & Occupy Wall Street, both in protest agains the status quo : the Tea Party, against a patronizing liberal consensus, which supposes every problem can be solved by throwing taxpayer money at it; the Occupy movement, against an amoral & greedy crony capitalism, piling up its own wealth without the slightest sense of mutual responsibility, compassion, or common welfare.

& also we have a new film, "Anonymous", the premise of which - that "Shakespeare" was a front man for an aristocratic ghost writer - has stirred up populist/elitist antagonism (within the little snow-globe of Shakespeare scholarship) for almost a century.
99% vs. 1%.

Moreover, the "Oxford" theory of Shakespearean authorship sends a tremor of unease through the settled layers of western literary culture. The idea shakes the historical foundations : this is one reason it is dismissed so vehemently & sarcastically. It's troubling to all sorts of grand traditions & accepted ways.

I don't have a firm opinion on the controversy one way or the other. But I will say : if the author of "King Lear" was an aristocrat & nobleman, he was an aristocrat with a pretty radical sense of the common humanity (cf. the character of the Fool) underlying all the pomp & circumstance of noble place & privilege.

So here we are in 21st century USA, split apart like old Byzantium between red & blue, right & left. Underlying both TP and OWS, however, is a protest against the status quo, on behalf of what is thought to be the ordinary people (silent majority or 99%). It's an ethical protest on behalf of the common good.

What the OWS movement has failed as yet to recognize, maybe, is that high-minded protest is not sufficient. If you are going to tear down capitalist privilege then you have to take responsibility for the consequences, you have to be prepared to govern. What the TP fails to understand, perhaps, is that neoliberalism - the true legacy of Reaganism - every (rich) man for himself - is a theory of political economy which fails the test of public ethics. It cannot provide the minimal basis of mutuality and shared responsibility which humane civilization requires in order to survive.

Maybe "Shakespeare" could assist us in finding that common ground... whoever he was.

"Poor naked wretches, whereso'ere you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O I have ta'en
Too little care of this. Take physic, Pomp;
Expose thy self to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayest shake the superflux to them,
And show the heav'ns more just."

- King Lear



Lanthanum 9.3


You slept & woke & found the earth had changed.
Cycling octaves on a muted pedal. Your voice
gone south, like William Blackstone (nice
Anglican, gone to live with Indians). Strange.

Plangent chords played on iron threads of rails
in the back of your mind (while you
bunked). From the side of your mouth, Ruth
(burbling young mother, looped in corny sky-

trails). You woke to find a January snow
at October’s end – gemstone sunlight, all
a-glint through dogwood remnants – tawny
gold, a few ash leavings – still-green lilac, O.

Green grows the still lake so, by All Souls’
Eve. I would go down into the ruby depths
with you, dogwood – where Blackstone sleeps;
step blind along yon rose-bent labyrinth (Mole’s

Way) into the sleepy heart of the country.
Like those little children walking brave (brave
) into a night of masks & terrors. Have
no fear, for I am with you
, warbles drab paltry

pigeon with rainbow throat (from near your
feet). From the emerald moss in the cleft
of the trunk, in the midst of the darkest
wood – toward that coppery sheen (iron,

serpentine) – rusty gold dust, silvery
starlight – where the volcano glows
all winter long – the hearth turns snows
to brimming tears (rivers from mountain rills).



A Carpenter's embrace

Last week I joined several friends of the late Edwin Honig, along with his sister, Lila, in a memorial tribute to him sponsored by the Brown Univ. writing program (which he was largely responsible for establishing back in the 1960s).

I read the last poem in Edwin's collection Time & Again : poems 1940-1997, a poem titled "Hymn to Her." & I prefaced the poem with some off-the-cuff remarks, things I had been thinking over in preparation for the event. Will try to summarize them here.

I met Edwin in the spring of 1971, when he was a visiting poet in my freshman 'writing" class, held at a young prof's apartment on Medway St. in Providence (I met the late Michael Gizzi in the same class). So I knew Edwin for just 40 years.

One of my favorite poets, Osip Mandelstam, had a talent for pithy aphorisms. When asked by an interviewer for a definition of the "school" of poetry from which he emerged (Acmeism), he said : "nostalgia for world culture." I think this applies very well to Edwin Honig. But with Edwin it wasn't just a matter of longing : he was busy making world culture, contributing to it, as multilingual poet and translator, as learned literary scholar. His cosmopolitanism spanned both time & space.

Edwin's global perspective had a strong impact on me, a young writer coming out of a suburban high school deep in the Midwest. But his cosmopolitanism wasn't just a matter of sophistication, of connections. I think Edwin really sensed, and believed in, and looked to the future for, a real internationalism, a humane culture transcending political, ethnic, linguistic & other boundaries. I think he wrote for this future world culture (which Mandelstam longed for too).

But what is it in particular about poetry which gives it a usefulness in this endeavor? How is it that poetry, like music, can make these crossovers & connections?

I think that poetry, when all is said and done, is human language under the sign of love : or as the Song of Songs puts it, his banner over me was love. Now the word love, in English, is a rather multivalent term... a "many-splendored thing"... So what do we mean by it more specifically, in this context?

Love - eros, agape, caritas - is a mysterious force or "spirit" which is essentially integrative, synthesizing, harmonizing, mediating, healing, and constructive. As St. Paul expresses it (in his most moving paean), "love builds up, it does not tear down." This harmonic, harmonizing force unfolds and reveals the relation between different or opposing things (heart & mind, thought & feeling, you & I, I & Thou...) - brings them into mutuality and shared being. & as anyone who has ever fallen in love can testify, this force of affinity & new relatedness can be immensely powerful, metamorphic, transfiguring : suddenly heart & mind are transposed (translated) into a new & "melodic" reality : & the whole universe seems to be transfigured along with us.

So if we say that poetry is human language under the banner of love, we are adumbrating its essentially harmonic, musical, and experiential quality. Poetry is language directed not so much toward knowledge for its own sake, an objectivity & objectification for purposes of control : rather it is essentially dialogic : it is a sharing of experience & what we know under the sign of wholeness & synthesis (both mind & heart, intellect & sensibility, thought & action).

Lately I've been thinking a lot about TS Eliot's notion of the "dissociation of sensibility" : of how the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century offered an example of some integral vitality which poetry somehow lost soon after. Edwin had an interest in that era, too. Perhaps every literary scholar of the generation coming after Eliot had to take such an interest - but Edwin brought his own special intensity to the reading of Donne, Marvell, along with Shakespeare & Jonson. & there's a metaphysical wit lurking in the last poem in Edwin's collected, which I'm going to read ("Hymn to Her").

Who is the "her" of this poem? A particular woman, perhaps. Maybe also Edwin's mother : note the emphasis on "hard labor" - Edwin was born on Sept 3, 1919 - Labor Day (his mother's own pun). And also, I think, Poetry itself, its "muse". It makes sense to me that Edwin would choose, in his closing poem, to address the theme of "poetry" itself. So the "her" of the title is both woman, or a woman, and poetry.

Now what is a "hymn"? In this case, it's another pun : the hymn is also "him" ("him to her"). A kind of love poem. And the word "hymn" has been connected etymologically, of course, to the Greek god of marriage, Hymenaeus : a hymn, in ancient Greece, was a praise song to this god, sung by the wedding celebrants on their way to or from the wedding chamber.

So we have a kind of witty conjunction of opposites, a metaphysical conceit (in embryo, anyway). We have "him & her" as both persons, and as facets of poetry itself. There are more such oppositions : heaviness & lightness, mistakenness & rightness... (the poem seems especially suffused with Edwin to me : he was a large, imposing personage in many ways, carrying a lot of heavy & painful psychological & intellectual burdens, yet one who never lost his swift lightness of mind & humor...). I love the word "bracing" in this poem. Bracing here has a double sense : as both invigorating, enlivening (awakening), and as supporting, in an architectural sense. (Edwin, whose grandfather was a carpenter in Jerusalem, who worked on the facades of temples there...). Love is the power of harmony, the bond of mutuality which makes civilization, world-renewal. Bracing. "Love builds up..." & embraces.


The load you take
is dense, backbreaking
and mistaken.

It can be otherwise:
and in full light
wholly undertaken,

the load is slim,
and to the one that
takes it, bracing --

owed to none but
for the life
that lifts awakened.


Saying & Doing, Reading & Watching, Dream & Act

Many, including myself, have posed the situation of poetry in America today as a problem or dilemma. But maybe it's more like a puzzle - a puzzle for each poet to work out for themselves.

Maybe it's not so much a problem of institutionalization - MFA programs, official & semi-official authorization mafias (MFA = MAFIA). & maybe it's not so much a problem of politics (blue poets in a rageful red world). Maybe, in fact, it's something more mundane and technical : like the disconnect between poetry as a reading experience and poetry as a performance. There's a slight gap or dissonance there, which, if unacknowledged, just maybe grows into a sort of malignancy (sounds scary, Henry!).

Because reading is a pure & exquisite pleasure, for some. More than that : it's an exercise of the mind & imagination. We read : & a whole imaginary psychic theater leaps up into cognizance, the boundaries of our inner world are lapped in a tingling metamorphosis. It is possible we haven't yet acknowledged the silent resistance, even resentment, of the reader for the performer. The poet who performs his or her work with dazzlement & panache might just possibly be felt to be taking away something from the reader. (This kind of theory really pleases the bad actors & readers among poets out there, like me.) This might be the source also of the amused contempt in which the idea of "poetry reading" is held by many. The poet is out of place reading his/her poem out loud.

What's the "solution" to this problem? TS Eliot had an idea : the verse play. (This was something which occurred also to the Elizabethans - folks like Marlowe, Shakespeare... you know.) For Eliot, dramatic poetry was the telos of intelligible "objectivity" in verse.

Ben Mazer is aware of this, I think. His little verse play "City of Angels" has come in for some carping & sniping - but it got some people's attention. Why? First of all, because Mazer has a real gift for verse. & secondly, because he's pioneering in this direction - this corn maze, this labyrinth which has wrapped itself like a snail shell around the gap between poetry and performance (between word & deed).


Wings of the Dove

Poetry is no more sacred-holy-divine than any other phenomena. Language is powerful, but communication - signs, semiosis - involves a wider range of verbal, non-verbal semaphor.

Nevertheless one dimension of a poet's intent might be to evoke, express, represent, or transmit a sense of the sacred : an intelligible model of reality under the aegis of what is holy. In this case poetry might serve as a medium for the fulfillment of such an intention.

Poets in past times have marked this distinction (between secular and sacred). There are, for example, John Donne's love lyrics, on the one hand, and his divine sonnets, on the other; there are his verse satires, and his verse meditations (on last things).

Recently while working on a book review of some recent poets, I had occasion to reconsider TS Eliot's famous theory of a "dissociation of sensibility" in literary style, which he claimed took place in the early 17th century. Some reading in literary historians Harold Fisch (Jerusalem & Albion) and Charles Nicholl (Chemical theatre) has confirmed my view that something like this dissociation did actually take place, and that it was part of a larger shift in Western thought : a disenchantment, a desacralization of Nature. To put it baldly : the new scientific rationalism excised "Spirit" from Nature. God was the remote machinist who turned on the switch, but that was the limit of his involvement in what followed, which was fully explainable and determined by mechanical, material causes.

It was a convenient intellectual move for the purposes of dissection. But then poetry, in this view, was lumped into the inevitable collateral damage : rendered obsolete, mythical : mere verbal mystification, sleight-of-hand : a marginal hobby, serving strictly sentimental ends.

Nevertheless, I like to think this preeminently modern worldview - this mechanistic rationalism - has not had the last word. Standing, I hope, as a writer who aims to instill an opposing perspective into poetry, I vote for spirit and consciousness over the discourses of materialism. In this I am not at all opposed to science per se, which I hold to be a spiritual vocation in its own right; but I hold for the over-arching presence of a mysterious spiritual reality, an intellectual architecture which frames and upholds the physical universe.

Poetry, in this view, is a kind of intellectual play, which is analogous to the play of Nature as a whole, in its character as Creation-from-nothing. It is the Sabbath rest of human thought - abiding in a sense of the mystery of life and human civilization shaped toward graceful, happy, and ultimately victorious ends.

This is not always an easy way-of-seeing to grasp and keep hold of : it can seem strange, otherworldly, or simply naive and ludicrous, to modern "realists". But as it happens I find it more realistic to believe in a cosmos which is spiritually grounded in consciousness, a form of universal "soul" or personhood, which manifests itself (a flowering) in multiple planetary histories as the Ur-Drama of compassionate self-sacrifice and graceful redemption. This is the "holy grail" and "philosopher's stone", the "light" in light of which all things take on a new and vital aspect. And it's the theme of many poems & songs. I'm trying to sketch out one version of a sense of never-ending Vitality - the source of a kind of unstoppable, unceasing spiritual joy, even hilarity. Death is not the end; death is that over which an infinite, eternal Spirit is victorious.


Just so you know

Went to the bookstore and picked up a new paperback, Tom McCarthy's novel C, which sounded intriguing in a review I'd read. Skimmed a few pages... put it back down. I don't much care for novels or stories written in the present tense, which seems to be all the rage these days. Actually I have a strong distaste for it. I'm not reading a film scenario; I don't need the extra illusion of watching a movie unroll directly onto the printed page. I like the residue of the past tense : it's like the shadow cast by the fictional scenes evoked in the imagination.


Lanthanum 9.2


Fat autumn bumblebee wrings out the nectar
from a hosta’s swaying purple belltower –
irenic furball, dawdling black-&-yellow toward
the equinox, you are the imperturbable Hector

of your own sweet Troy-town (elementary
tumble-sovereign of late summer air).
Deep sunlit mumbling brought you to bear,
to ferry such weight from earth to airy

eyrie; your floating gravity’s a droning lesson,
homing, homing, with relentless waywardness
– a single-minded monarch in disguise
of threadbare color, training her magnifying lens

on Cedar Mountain. For them (for monarch &
for bee) it is the mountain of mountains,
melodious matrix of cosmos jocose (someone’s
playin’ hide-’n-seek). The lasting laugh of an arch-

archeus (muy mysterioso, señor) – your soul’s
galactic rim – a twinkling cosmopolis, or
Noahide grapevine, one eld pre-Roman oar
of well-doing & well-being. Bruno’s original &

interstellar hearth (hexaemeral & ever-living
nimbus-lamp). So why do the nations rage,
the unrighteous puff themselves
? sez page-
boy Dave, with zither all a-quiver – sing,

stars, sing with the bumblebee
, he cries –
the prong of whose iron lyre is grounded now
in lanthanum-earth, central, centripetal – bow low,
ye proud – bend limbs before those almond eyes



Lanthanum 9.1


i.m. Edwin Honig

just like a tree,
standing by the water

You feel the autumn coming on now, in the slant
of plangent sunlight – the foam of starry clematis
breaking over the old iron fence. The sense
of a closing scene, a dénouement, in the chant

of crickets, lodged in their grass caskets, whirring;
of a turn, now, toward eschatology, at last –
& I’m thinking of you, Edwin, who almost
matched your father’s age (a birthday bell rang

yesterday). Your excellent elephant ear, elegant
master of Lips Monastery : bespeaking a faith
in the embodied word, steadfast. Only a wraith
of willow limbs toward the end, hanging on, gaunt

(haunted) through the fog of Alzheimer’s, you’ve gone
to the light of your old high home, big-hearted boy;
dancing on home, through a rain of hobbledehoy-
providential by-ways, awkward prodigal son...

tenderfoot father-man, magnanimous. The poet
stands for the embattled, earth-bound word : &
for the silent ones (everymen-&-women) whose
halting speech is only the stone (clean, upright)

of their deeds. You lay in their shadow, durable,
year after year – a willow, standing by the river,
with them – shading them too, fleet word-giver.
Now as I arch for the last fluted pillar (a stable-

argument – Jachin, Boaz) I see your grandfather
the carpenter – he of the temple, in Jerusalem...
& the long curved eyelash of an almond limb :
a shade that reaches to embrace – closer, farther...



Jerusalem & Albion

Am in early stages of putting together a review of some recent poetry books. In the process have gone back to T.S. Eliot's theory of the "dissociation of sensibility" (sketched out in his essay on the metaphysical poets). Which led me back to a great & remarkable (& out-of-print) book by Harold Fisch, Jerusalem & Albion : the Hebraic factor in 17th-cent. literature (NY : Schocken, 1964).

At this point can't really say much about it. He starts by investigating (& pretty much taking apart) Eliot's seminal notion : but it leads him into an exploration of some dimensions of poetry in English which seem to me to be very weighty & central & still important (... they are to me, anyway). It has to do with the interface between poetry and worldview, poetry and science/philosophy/theology : the effects of larger (vast) changes in Western intellectual/cultural history on the character & place of poetry.

These topics & fields have been gone over SO many times, it seems impossible to find much new to say. & I'm hesitating here to supply yet another resume which will come across as a rehash. But the fact is I'm finding (or re-finding) something which seems of great import... just beginning to come to grips with it.

The question of "poetry's place" in America seems to be a perennial & recurrent preoccupation. Most recently the 20th-cent. debates over art & kitsch, poetry & kitsch, have re-surfaced (see Don Share's recent blog post of Daniel Tiffany work-in-progress, or the latest issue of New Yorker, & Louis Menand's piece on Dwight Macdonald - a key figure in this debate). This gets at the question of the relation between poetry's role or place, on the one hand, and the question of style, diction, mode of address, on the other (high/low, Modernist/Pop, serious/lightweight, etc.).

I guess for me - thinking about my own efforts in testifyin'-versifyin' - this question of poetry's and the poet's role or status hinges on poetry's capabilities - and limitations - to represent Truth, or the Real. Over the centuries, Western culture has wavered back and forth on this issue : from Plato's scepticism about poetry and its representations, and the Biblical prohibitions on pagan idolatry, to the present day. Fisch focuses on what still seems like a very pivotal moment in that history : when the Medieval-Scholastic unity of Faith and Reason, and the Renaissance unity of Aesthetics and Ethics, began to crumble. Under the pressures of Protestant iconoclasm, Baconian scientism, and Machiavellian (worldly) cynicism, the old zeitgeist was swept away. Bacon, on behalf of an emerging scientific pragmatism, was the most programmatic theorist for imposing an intellectual separation between faith and science, and between "mere" language and experimental knowledge. This dual attack on the status of language, and on the relevance of religion, had the deepest consequences for the future : it basically shaped what we think of as the "modern" (detached, observational, sceptical, Stoic) intellectual perspective and stance, which is so familiar to us (and which in turn, perhaps, is drawing to an end).

The various manifestations of Baconian philosophical scepticism, about language, rhetoric, and poetry, created a framework - represented a portent - of cultural developments far into the future : it filtered into the abstract-analytical style of Restoration (discursive, didactic) poetry; it was the force against which the metaphysical idealism of the Romantic movement rebelled; it lurked within the Victorian sense of fatalism & discouragement with regard to the intellectual relevance of poetry. And the "spirit of science" was there at the birth of Modernism ; both spurring a desire for greater relevance, realism and "exactitude," and inspiring a new turn (or reaction) toward abstraction, psychological inwardness, and aesthetic autonomy.

What Fisch examines are some of the counter-currents to this inexorable roll-out of the Modern age. But where Eliot leaned toward a sort of pure Medievalism of the mind, with its rejection of any Puritan taint (ie., Milton & his offspring, the Romantics), Fisch explores the "middle way" writings (prose & poetry) which opposed the splitting-apart of faith & reason, language & knowledge : which aimed, instead, for their synthesis (Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, Milton, Marvell are some of the more familiar names). In so doing, Fisch reminds us of the fundamentally poetic character of the Bible (his "Hebraic" dimension). And what is Biblical poetry, in Fisch's terms? He focuses mainly on the Psalms : & what the Psalms do is represent Truth and Reality as, at root, a metaphysical drama - the plot of an encounter between human and divine, the iteration of a foundational I-Thou actuality. We are sketching out the ground of a mode of synthesis or integration of the psychological, the cultural, the historical, the intellectual, the religious, the scientific, the philosophical, the cosmological... & the aesthetic : a kind of architecture of reality grounded neither in Renaissance humanist confidence nor in counter-Renaissance unease, but rather in something more ancient, simple, and personal. This is the ratio, or logos of the I-Thou relation - dramatic, ongoing, & insusceptible to "objectification" - between the human soul or identity and its creative source/origin, the concept of humankind as Imago Dei.

I've written elsewhere about the humilitas-sublimitas (humble sublime) mode of Western literature, analyzed by Erich Auerbach, M.H. Abrams, R.P. Blackmur & others : a thread running back to the Biblical-comedic mode of Yahweh's tumultuous intervention in human affairs. It seems to me that this mode is one place to start if one wants to reconfigure a direction for poetry, a "place" for poetry in the larger intellectual life of contemporary culture. Another is the Petersburg-Acmeist notion (out of Gumilev, originally) of a "chaste" vision underpinning poetry, or supplying its vital spirit. Because the notion of "Word made flesh" which grounds both these modes has ramifications for all those other forms of thought & culture mentioned above (ie. their potential for integration or synthesis).

Maybe I'm ascending into clouds of the vaguest theological hoo-doo here. But I think not. I think the vivid, emotionally-integrated, intellectually-holistic discourse of poetry dramatizes that which is substantially dramatic in itself ; ie. the whole truth, the real, the conscious, the loved, the (I-Thou) relational. This power in poetry was challenged by the analytical scepticism of the modern world, which divided Man from Nature, Man from God, Thought from Feeling, Heart from Mind, and finally, Poetry from Prose - all on behalf of a chilly, sceptical, no-nonsense, pragmatic utilitarianism, which, in our post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima world, has begun to seem neither pragmatic nor useful, in the long run.

(An aside : let me just say I am aware that many readers will have qualms about what may seem to be my extreme & romantic religiosity. But what do you expect : I'm a poet and graduate of Blake School, in Hopkins, Minnesota...)

Here's a pertinent passage (of many) from Jerusalem & Albion :

"Bacon makes Physics not a technique but a religion, and Induction becomes for him not so much a useful mechanism for the discovery of certain limited axioms, but rather a mystic path, an ultimate revelation and a millennial hope. And let it be said that this part of Bacon's philosophy, this pseudo-religious faith in the possibilities of the scientific method has worked even more powerfully (howbeit surreptitiously) in the history of modern science and modern civilization, than his immensely influential stress upon a mechanical Physics, and indeed to this day when the mechanical account of natural law has proved its inadequacy, Bacon's Faustian dream of magical power over the world continues to possess us and drive us on. It is in that sense that Bacon is, as Whitehead has well said, the architect of the modern mind." (p.86)

Postmodernism, some will claim, has moved beyond that "modern mind". But that's a debate tangential to my topic here : the question of the intellectual & social status of poetry today. What Fisch clarifies somewhat for me is that the roots of poetry's dilemma - its "low self-esteem" (see Auden's famous remark about his sense of being intellectually out-classed in the company of scientists), its "unserious" aura, its schizoid zigzag between aloof High Modern disdain and kitschy Low Postmodern obliviousness - does lie indeed in something near to Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility" : a symptom Fisch has diagnosed with a more acute precision. And what I am trying to suggest is that there are some firm grounds for some kind of restoration of the balance...


Poetry & kitsch

Sent this comment to the 2nd in a series of long posts from a work-in-progress by Daniel Tiffany, conveyed by Don Share at his blog (Squandermania) :

"Very interesting subject.... & Mr. Tiffany covers a lot of ground, reconfigures a lot of received notions about kitsch.

Not sure I would want to identify the "poetic" so directly with the values of kitsch, however. Kitsch - in the sense of a mindlessly-manufactured product of mass commercial appeal, which reproduces (simulates) authentic art - ie. the binary kitsch/art - seems analogous to Coleridge's binary fancy/ imagination, in that the products of fancy are somewhat superficial & calculated rhetorical ornaments - frills, let's say - as opposed to the organic-formative-substantial structures of imagination. And for Coleridge the synthetic (as in "synthesis", not "artifice") power of the imagination to unite disparate aspects of experience into meaningful intellectual wholes is the essential mode & purpose of poetry. Poetry exhibits a vivid vitality which stems from its emotional empathy with that which is depicted - powers of ethos & pathos which are absent from many streams of analytical prose.

This whole discussion might well be framed by attention to an incisive study of 40 yrs ago by Harold Fisch, Jerusalem and Albion. Fisch begins with a critique of Eliot's rendering of the famous "dissociation of sensibility". The real split between poetry and prose occurred BEFORE the 18th-cent. flowering of bourgeois literature, which is the period of Tiffany's focus. The split began under the impact of dual 17th-cent. phenomena : 1) Baconian scientism, with its suspicion of language in general and of rhetoric and poetry in particular, and its desire to supplant them with a mode of "pure" scientific observation; 2) Puritan iconoclasm, with its emphasis on virtuous "plain speech" as opposed to the snares of flowery rhetoric, luxurious poetry. As Fisch demonstrates, when Baconian scientism melded with Puritan suspicion of language, a tremendously powerful anti-poetic animus was infused into the intellectual-cultural make-up of English-speaking society : an ironic situation which involved the elision or avoidance of the main stream of poetic sensibility and eloquence (the King James Bible). The repercussions of this fundamental divide are in very clear evidence in the stance and ideology of William Blake, for one example, with his "prophetic" attacks on Locke & Newton, etc.

This, it seems to me, is the locus of the real battle between poetry and prose, even today : it has less to do with the maneuvers of "fancy" (kitsch) than with the ontological (& social) status of the imagination."


Lanthanum is a Book

New edition of Lanthanum now available : Books 1 & 2. Larger print, easier to read, with introduction and extensive explanatory notes. Restoration of world civilization, at no extra charge.


Grossman, Lerner, Maximus & all

The Poetry Foundation's Yak Disseminator highlights an interesting interview. Ben Lerner emphasizes his debt to the writings of Allen Grossman (my fellow Blake School graduate of previous generation) : a basically tragic perspective, mourning the limits of art, language & poetry, and the gap between Paradise and life as we know it. Lerner apparently finds a way to make this deeply ironic worldview work for him.

I've only read parts of Grossman's book (The Long Schoolroom) - it's on my desk, actually : but the reason I've left it unfinished is I find myself almost immediately resisting and disagreeing with his formulations. (Interesting that Grossman years back wrote a seminal short essay on Hart Crane, a poet whom Grossman clearly cares for as deeply as I do myself.)

I'm fundamentally an optimist - a comedian (in Dante's sense) rather than a tragedian. In my "Acmeist" world, wholeness - intellectual, spiritual, physical, historical, moral, cosmological - trumps division, irony and brokenness. Am reading again in Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor (as I try to get ready to work on the 3rd & final book of the poem Lanthanum), and encountering some clear cogitations on the nature of difference (distinction). For Maximus, difference does not automatically entail complete division, separation, or antagonism. Differences can co-exist, be harmonized. His thought in this vein is basically folded into an anthropology rooted in the concepts of divine Creation and Incarnation. The divine and human are dual and distinct, but are united "without confusion, without separation" in the incarnate God-Person. This unity is at the core of all the cosmic arrays of difference, of individual & species, of many & one.

In this perspective, an "Acmeist" poetics might acknowledge sharp distinctions between word & thing, art & life, poetry & truth - while at the same time remaining open (hopeful) to the possibility of their real coherence, their harmony.


Lanthanum 8.24


In Evening Land near Minnehaha Falls
in August at beginning of the end of summer
when chirring crickets commence their Sumerian
eulogy in 7/9 time when the walls tumble

& the multiplex day a monarch butterfly
skitters down too into night’s monotone
(one late cicada out of the gloom) when
weaving swallows metamorphose into bats (high

up across the wistful pastel) & back again
then you’ll behold curious figures interlace
merge in a waltz of compass arcs across a
sixfold stone rosette out of Iran or Babylon

on an old stone sepulchre in Haifa (or Jerusalem)
between Jachin Boaz the two tall twin
amphorae (clay mimicking limestone) with a fan
of peacocks preening astride each funereal rim.

In Romania’s gold haze Czernowitz, Bukovina
the unmarked graves bend stoop with grass
of hot dog days under leaf-light shade (mass-
ive). & your imaginary friend (baobab, the

noman’s rood) becomes friendly little bird,
or tree (goldfinch, almond) tipping his eye
your way like a Chaplin hat or prairie (sigh)
all in one day, one night as soldiers slumbered

between night & day under milkweed portal
your starry canopy or wisdom-dome Hagia
Sophia in Cleopatra-coracle, light Cahokia
canoe or Memphis barge (small portable grail)

only some garbage truck, rumbling down 44
while the monarch waits on the balcony
near the microphones fate’s falconry
winging along toward Mexico (high cedar air)


Lanthanum : draft for an introduction

Short poems are usually better off on their own, without preliminary paraphernalia. But before asking a reader to plunge into the trackless Siberia of a work in verse that runs for hundreds of pages, if not miles, it might help to offer a brief survey of the territory.

Lanthanum is a work-in-progress, and I can’t predict where it will tend – but the poem is designed numerically around the number 57 (the atomic number of the element lanthanum), and at least in terms of simple length, this volume represents about 2/3rds of the whole – two books out of a projected three. And so I believe there are a few general things which can now be said about it. First, the poem has a narrator (the poet) who discourses in his own voice, but also assumes brief masks or personae, or speaks through (or by way of) distinctly different persons : Hobo, Maximus the Confessor, Roger Williams, William Blackstone, Berryman’s “Henry”, etc. Second, these splintered personae are aspects of a general ambience, at the poem’s opening, of loss, loneliness – as of a situation in which the speaker is missing a close friend, a companion, a beloved person. This predicament is never really clarified or explained : but in a literary sense it parallels the dilemma outlined by Dante in the Vita Nuova and Divina Commedia, or, going further back, the plot of the myth of Orpheus : in which the poet has lost a beloved person, the personal embodiment of love – and he must come to terms with that, and he goes on a journey to do so.

To some extent the poem itself is that journey. There is a mutual enfoldment of “orphic” song (lyric) with plot (narrative), of medium with message. In this way poetry offers a promise of healing through its own constructive elaborations : the “muse” becomes the imaginary friend who replaces the lost real friend. Obviously there is a real danger here of withdrawal into empty solipsism (literary, psychological) : yet there is also the possibility that poetry might become a proving ground for intellectual and spiritual resources beyond mere psychic substitution. This, after all, was the “comic” theme of Dante : that the loss of the beloved’s physical presence entailed the poet’s self-examination, a moral-philosophical struggle with the real nature of love itself. Something of value might emerge from suffering; what seems lost might be restored.

Obviously to speak of one’s work in the same breath with Dante’s is the extremity of foolish impudence. There is no point of comparison between Lanthanum and the epochal Divina Commedia. The latter is a didactic poem, in which the whole elaborate and fabulous architecture of medieval thought is brought to bear, toward the end of re-orienting the individual and culture as a whole toward everlasting goodness. Ezra Pound once famously complained that modern poets (and modern humanity generally) no longer have access to Dante’s Scholastic blueprints. And we don’t – at least not directly. Much of what was dogma now reads like myth; much that was taken for history has since become fable; what was understood as science looks now like dream. One cannot read Lanthanum and find anything approaching Dante’s encyclopedic morality play. The effort here is more primitive, basic : to investigate how poetry can re-intepret experience, the substance of things, in its own terms. The title (Lanthanum) is evocative of this aim : the reference is to something elemental, that is, number 57 in the periodic table of elements. Lanthanum : a rare earth which is actually not rare at all; named by its discoverer after the Greek word for “secret, hidden, overlooked;” of which one practical application is as part of a compound used in innovative road surfaces, in order to draw particulates out of the atmosphere (“clearing the air”).

I began writing this poem in December 2008. A few months later, in spring 2009, I had an extraordinary dream, which seemed to help focus and crystallize my intentions. The dream came out of absolute nowhere : I was looking at the Gateway Arch monument in St. Louis, Missouri. Now I have never seen the Gateway Arch, and prior to this dream I had never given it a moment’s thought. So the dream impressed me : it appeared to offer an implicit confirmation of some pathways I had been following in poetry for years. I have long been fascinated with structural frameworks for poetry, the technical and thematic analogues offered by mathematics and architecture. The origin of this interest lies in my affection for the poetry and life of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam, along with fellow Petersburg “Acmeists” Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, constructed an approach to poetry which offered a kind of architectonics of gratitude-for-existence. Gumilev called it “chasteness” : a moral conscience, a fundamental respect for unique and living phenomena on earth – as they are, humble or grand. Poetry, music, architecture share in this fundamental harmonics, transversing time and eras in somewhat Proustian/Bergsonian fashion. And in my explorations of these poets, I found affinities, both stylistic and conceptual, with the work of Hart Crane – whose long poem The Bridge offers a similar “architectonic” worldview : a paean to reality, grounded in material/historical particulars, on the one hand, and in a kind of cosmic-orphic optimism, on the other.

So my dream of the Arch served to confirm these compositional motives and directions. But Lanthanum is not only a reiteration of Acmeist or “New American” themes. The poem emerged before the dream, and its motives are deeper and more obscure than any enthusiasms I might have for fellow poets. The “plot” as previously sketched still shapes the song : an attempt to discover and come to terms with the deepest strata of love, reality, experience : an attempt at recovery (in all senses of the term). So the Arch begins to resonate for me : to serve as a sort of magnet, a multifaceted cluster-image of something at the spiritual root of time, history, life on earth. Something substantial and enduring, under the violence and suffering on the surface of things.

These are some of the dimensions of the versified wilderness up ahead. I won’t try to characterize my personal style, which is full of games and puns and secret allusions; such things intrepid readers will have to dig out of obscurity on their own. I am grateful to all of you, my readers, intrepid or not – and I hope you find something rewarding in these woods.


Lanthanum 8.23


They are always with you, ghosts in the shade
of the raven-knife – sprigs of the innocent,
personal sketches. Though death was sufficient.
They no longer suffer the human hell we made

for them (for ourselves) on earth. They
will not be transmuted by sublime Concept;
they are your brothers, sisters, & you wept
too late – the stain cannot be washed away.

Their water & wine run down into clay
glimpsed in an arc-light (everlasting form).
Their hope & sorrow are your paradigm –
their almond bark a sheepdog gate. A way.

It floats in the tattoo of an evening rain
that ripples like wind through the hair
on your arm echoes the few spare
notes of milk train waning over prairie

Where the motes gather & lost letters
raven-black on yellowed onionskin
outline of a cherished face on wooden
outside wall in Voronetș a potter’s eyes

light blue a painter’s olive-green the dove’s
grey deeps the ocean-sigh gull-cry oils,
in the mosaic mish-mash, the what-all
collage under almond ash oak-leaves’

deep shade those philosophic walls of a tree-
the wisdom-loving love of Love (that
cricket-Magdalen a summer prodigy hove-
to ancient cicada in dying dogwood) free



Lanthanum 8.22


The peaceful evening out of which the poem comes
or maybe doesn’t – the special quiet of the poem’s
own hum imposed upon squawky cacophonics (home
street home
) of yon triple-deckered, cumbersome

dronopolis (I mean the poem of Providence)...
the quiet of homesick willow-violin, its wayward,
solitary hobo tune... what’s at the heart of it,
Edward? Figment of sister-dove flown hence,

mayhap – melodifying on her spiral Jonah-horn
between the dry ribs of a dead grey world-whale
somewhere (my heart, my heart). Hear, O Israel!
The chariot of Elijah & the steeds thereof – worn

like a bracelet round her Sabbath-tambourine!
Waltzing menorah! Footstep of Shekinah,
... ancient familial concert-pal... J-
bird (furtive, always in flight). Has-been

Hobo’s will-be (again... again). ‘Member her...
Like a dream of the Gateway, she comes
from nowhere, some new whirr : freedom’s
Imago : quick-change artist (Shakespearean

erector set) : as if Earth were born anew
from flash of sympathetic lightning (Imago,
) : as if all be splendor... & what do you
make of it, Horatio
? A mortal debt last narrow

bed a love poured out like wine, like blood
at apex of the Sparrow Hills, one harrowing
hill at base of skull unknown, unknowing
lamp lambent, surrounded by fire (bluebird)



What's new?

Seth Abramson compiles a grand list of some of the wee corruptions of the literary profession (Poetryland version), here. A good-intentioned list of good intentions gone awry, I guess. I remember thinking & saying similar things (if not so well) 10-15 yrs ago.

But then I suppose the alchemists of olde also had their array of petty schemes & self-serving vices, their egotisms & narcissisms & jivings & trimmings, in their day... but what we remember is that they were simply wrong most of the time - that their theories were based on myths, not scientific reasoning & experiment.

& I get the feeling today's poetry scene is much like the alchemy scene of yore... some underlying askewedness puts all those petty corruptions in the shade. I can imagine a literary culture that repents of, and washes itself clean of, all the vices on his list - purifies itself morally - yet still fails to produce any good art or poetry. It makes me think of Joseph Brodsky's provocative & Promethean assertion that ethics is determined by aesthetics. I don't really hold with this, either - but what if the fundamental problem is a failure of imagination? What if we are living in the deep shadow of the mythos-styles of the late 19th and 20th century - or a conservative reaction against these styles - resulting in the manufacture of cultural cliches on an industrial scale? I'm thinking of the shadow (the great Poe-ish raven-shadow) of the Baudelarian anti-hero & flaneur-dandy : the Dostoyevskian underground man : the Camusian Rebel : the Joycean/Svevoian Chaplinesque shlemiel. We inhabit an age of the pop-culture glorification of the anti-hero & the anti-heroine, oe'rtopped with an epicene academic culture of creative 'writing" designed to memorialize the same (our wild youth) in award-winning verse & prose.... & how does a culture with such a pre-installed & -approved Mythos - a zeitgeist, a worldview - how does such encounter the authentic, the real, anymore? This I would like to know.

I wonder if artists need to turn back to the "new" - but not the packaged & certified Modern, Postmodern, or Pre-modern new - but something actually.... different.... a vision of life based on a different set of philosophical grounds, a new architectonic, or an old made new (really new)... I actually think Hart Crane & Wallace Stevens, in their different ways, were searching for these grounds, this newness : but I'm showing my old biases there, I guess...


Lanthanum 8.21


A whiff of old earth-smell after belated rain
leads me back to August, winding down
in Mendelssohn. Light fluttery bell-sound
of Heidi-piano... cicada sawmill-drone (against

the grain)... a slip of willow in his hand
will guide blind Hobo back to wavebent limbs
over the riverbank (yonder, where WW swims
in a dream that is no dream). A promised land

that slumbers yet beneath catastrophe – where
Melchizedek climbs from Cahokia mound
with bread, wine... where every Charlie chap &
Harlequin finds Pulcinella, somehow (near

edge of tsunami, by Heartbreak Ridge, under
petrified gaze of cratered power plants). How
can it be? The soul survives, the heart (slow,
slow) regenerates – these will not surrender... &

so today (in this RI holdout of veteran memory)
shall be no longer V-J Day, but Victory-of-J
– the Victory of J : kingfisher-melody,
furled seashell-game, Euphrates boat-shanty... for

a dream is a dream of Everywoman, Everyman –
unaccountable & indestructible; & this life
is tailfin of an ocean-mind (bride-wife
of buried ghost-Jonah); its denouement began

one night (a thousand years ago) when
a jay-pianist of Voronetș blue (perched, hidden
on an almond branch) let spout her siren-
88s (at a young fellow in far-off willow). Amen.



Lanthanum 8.20


A Sunday rain soaks this recumbent spine
of Providence ‒ old town like a sleepy dinosaur
that would be lofty bird. Fine water-veil for
Iowa Isis, Osiris paddleboat ‒ some sabbath-mind’s

own fancy daydream (liberation, Jubilee).
Key to the highway ‒ like a roadside icon
leaning home. Faint inkling, rosy Rubicon,
rounded square beneath bus-shelter Milky

Way. Above that crossroads’ lowly drop
of martyr-blood, not far from Memphis ‒
Martin’s bull’s-eye witness, crosshairs
of a brooding sentience. At the top

of the tentpole of Polaris, the shrouded gate
of a third heaven ‒ architectonic of glimmer-
sense ‒ moss-grey intuition ‒ willow’s wonder-
branch. Out of Solaris ocean-mind, the frigate-

harbor of the human form. Just a sketch,
an outline of an understanding (sympathy)
hidden in wisdom-submarine (highly holy) of
an oscillating universe. A thought, a touch ‒

a mason’s 20-20 hand ‒ bent on restoration,
reconciliation, joy. Soul-victory is innocence,
. That sign of love-swelled sentience,
a rood-sign planted over galaxies. Bus-station

by the frozen cemetery, near the river... at
the fringe of the veil of definitive quid. A
rain-wrought mandorla crowning your head.
Yours, mine ‒ equal, always. Elemental Fiat.



Lanthanum 8.19


These gray clouds loitering, chary with rain
& that drop of red, far off in a black walnut
like a cardinal point, figure my inward Orient
on goldfinch ground (of flighty song, & pain).

You love the earth... so trust the magnanimity
(shady grey bran, intellectual) that formed it ‒
forms it, unaccountably, on All Souls’ Night :
this light-sped masquerade, spirit-birthday

frisbee’d on high, beneath a frosty brow
of Milky Way (insouciant, happenstance &
milkweed monarchy). Night wake of Argo-
salience... Europa-trail (scarred Voronetş blue).

& the signs in the sky, the prong in the earth
are only emblems of a sweet conception,
lamb-lamps of a fiery warmth ‒ your heart’s
limehewn scriptorium (wavy mandorla-berth).

O my little tree of Jessie O., adrift
in your shaky-leaf experience... your flow’ry
shallop-shell, your thunder-coracle... O be
at ease there in your honeycomb, left-

over wreath of empty hands
... O bee
at ease. Here in woodlands of Bukovina
an ear can hear you still, steadfast cicada
(near rainbent eyelash-hull of almond-tree).

The throaty pigeon-maudit pecks at a bread-
crust (rarified coot of everyday gray stone);
she’ll watch for that gardener again ‒ the one
who looks for her (amid the veteran dead).



Lanthanum 8.18


From Cahokian mundus in heartland, soaring
up a Finnish ladder (lofty thought-swerve)
to the finish line. Candelabra, spinal-nerve...
red leaves, rain-skimming back to commingling

clay. Like that vine planted on Jacob’s dream-
limestone, on the way from Padanaram ‒
after wrassling with a light-bermed, harum-
scarum heavyweight... meet the extreme

bow-taut communion (eyes, tears). Of sense,
intelligence. Here. Hear. Only here ‒ inhering
in your heart. So the mandala-rose coheres,
nearing... looms, beginning (woven-fine parlance).

This grail, this spousal, this conjunction ‒
plainchant of YHWH-shade, keening ‒ your
turtle-ghost, who haunts us, here & there...
sad-merry morsel, Everyman : Louis’ royal

unction-prayer (inward, homeward). Bare.
There are as many spirit-trails into this wood
as there are feet to walk them : the neighborhood
is infinite : but the way is narrow, drear ‒ your

own (lead-Lenten plumbline). Shaking off
the grave, the gravity, is not for Icarus,
but Israel (after the last sacrifice,
the burial). 12 gates to the city, O

my Lord
. So, after 12 moons & a year
of doubtful drought, this double prong (folk-
tuning tong) leaps as a willow branch (divining,
rude) in my hands ‒ an eye in my hand. Here.



Lanthanum 8.17


On a coign of Prospect & Waterman, near
bird-peak of Providence (Roger’s palace)
a crew of masons rectifies the balance
of Tuscany belltower ‒ Carrie’s sheer &

spousal sepulchre (Love is Strong as Death).
No pizza-tilt worktable here. We must aim
for the perfect. Orthogonal. Cusa’s Game
of Spheres
‒ spiritual akme. Starry zenith

of Einstein-wand (here, there... hear).
Heart’s hyper-geomancy requires no less;
its subtle foreknowledge, its feeling-sense
scans horsehair-spectra (near, far... near).

Why? Cuz th’hairspun plats of Prov’dence
depends on youse ptahticipation, Haht ‒
one global splinteling (careening charity)
dubbed on the brow of deep-down river-

sentience. Its voice a whisper, whole &
holy (wholly whole, by golly) from strum-
circadian, Circassian cicada-circus ‒ sum
of circles of the sun. One baker’s dozen

(almond buns). Get off the pogrom,
Oddity ‒ evening urns its bleed. Your
own. Settle up accounts with the fore-
crawdads (Mam’ship) for the fleet I AM

is faster than a canefield smartphone
(sliver-horn of mirror-Mammon) &
more real, churl. Under an amplified
sand viol... Rosie Oasis (swell-photon).



Lanthanum 8.15 (& 8.16)


Summer in Providence is cresting now.
On the cusp of evening, seashell sunset.
Caribbean pastel pinks, blues... inlet
of cricket equanimity (in shadow

of night). The granite hand of the founder
floats over the prow of his canoe, at the edge
of the Terrace. Blackstone, brooding, hidden,
tries that pledge (in profounder flounder-seas

of lostness, anonymity, oblivion). Finds
it fair (& kind, & true). Soul liberty...
your spiritual magnanimity is poetry.
Your metaphysical gratitude binds the

ensemble in its upsurge of a cosmic urge
toward harmony ‒ that rose-petalled state
where many states & planets merge (what
forgotten melody-memory rises to the edge

of her cave-mound now?) in an almond curve ‒
an eyelid buried in the garden-cemetery... one
teardrop planted by the vernal sepulchre (wan
limping Wanda of an everliving-leaping vault).

Only the sign of the whisper, out of the shell.
Like a tattoo on the shoulder of a rocky brow.
Like an air out of nothing; like a game of Clue
or Hide n’ Seek (one eyelash, lofted out of hell);

or like a glance from a cherished face, toward you ‒
of measure, law & cognizance; of mercy, patience,
lovingkindness ‒ substance of soul-confidence,
ration of the bread & wine (of Magdalen-Yeshu).



Under the byzantine bickering in Washington
lurks a kind of autumnal undertone ‒ the wobbly
gait, the straitened happenstance of an elderly
citizenry (O senile generations...). Peevish

widower’s refrain (mothballed Uncle George)
There’s not enough! Then cut some more!
reverbs the pensioner’s paltry share (just one
lottery win, Chief, will even the score
). Gorge

yourselves on bile & special perks, ladies
& gentlemen of the pork-fed Beltway!
You’ll buy a lengthy trial in the illusory
labyrinth-mirage ‒ yon Babylon-daze

of symbolic checkers (who’s keeping track?)
for egomaniacs (& other spoiled characters
with something to prove, absolutely
nothing to lose). Take me back,

little Sheba
! chants remorseful Solomon ‒
the world’s too big to fail... meanwhile
the kids are not all right (Absalom in exile
twitches his next move, under a pseudonym).

The world’s too big to fail ‒ isn’t it?
Or maybe not... or maybe it’s just me.
Lately I’m alert to the flyweight harmony
of a simple salt ‒ that Black Sea anchorite

with hands chopped off (by tyranny) ‒ yet
continued writing his hopeful letters (elegant)
with imperial stumps... So what’s his secret,
Jason? What’s yours, Ariadne? Not yet, not yet.

There’s a revolving door beneath the everlasting
dome of heaven ‒ where fingerprint of Everyman
whorls in its sovereign mystery (of one is one
& all alone
). Tattoo of trumpet... flowering.