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’├ętoiled 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 pi├▒ata 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...