Jesus Thoughts (30) : Rapture & Poetry

For my 30th entry in the Jesus Thoughts thread - thinking of 74 years ago, 12.27.1938, the date of Osip Mandelstam's death in a Vladivostok prison camp - I'm going to play a rerun here of an older post, titled Rapture & Poetry.

Speaking of which, here's my translation of one of Mandelstam's Octets :

I'll whisper it - in an outline.
Its hour has not yet come.
The chessgame of measureless heaven
is mated with sweat - and wisdom.

And under purgatory's transient sky
we grow absent-minded - forget
that lucky heaven-vault on high
- is a limber, everlasting habitat.


"& tomorrow... is only a promise."


Jesus Thoughts (29) : happy birthdays

It occurred to me today - the day after Christmas, my mother's 85th birthday - that the enormous holiday which is Christmas is first of all a birthday celebration.  A feast-day, a name-day. & it brought to mind how important birthdays are in so many cultures around the world; & how, despite that fact that there seem to be much more weighty dimensions of Christianity (the kingdom of God; conversion, repentance; eternal life; the Trinity, & so forth), Christmas still a sort of birthday party, after all.

But maybe there's a way of thinking about this which reconciles these aspects - the kingdom of God & birthday parties.  What is the kingdom of God, after all?  Something we cannot enter "unless we become as little children."  A kingdom of metamorphosis : not just a Disney fantasy or Tolkien movie, something we go back to "real life" from (out in the theater complex parking lot).  The claims of Jesus for the kingdom of God are absolute : it's life outside the kingdom which is only a mirage.  The actual Way, Truth, and Life emerge in tandem with the real kingdom of heaven.

Jesus's message ravels together many threads, and centers them on his own person.  As Messiah, he brings the kingdom with him into Israel.  As the Son of God, he reveals the true character of each person's relationship with his or her Creator : he is the exemplar of an actual spiritual bond each of us can claim with God.  He celebrated this new actuality with feasting.  We behold the image of Jesus traveling about, opening doors wide - welcoming the sick, the poor & sinners into his banquet of kingdom come - of God come to earth as Man, binding the two together.

What is it about birthdays?  On birthdays, we celebrate & honor the unique, irreplaceable person.  There is no substitute for a life : there is no one just like my mother; there is no one just like you; there is no one just like me.  On birthdays we draw a magic circle around the life of one person, beginning with the day it began on earth : the day we came out of our mother's womb into the light of day : of time, space, love, pain, suffering, mortality...

Our birthday tracks back to our origins - in the womb, before the womb.  Thus birthdays have a metaphysical dimension, residing in a mystery, "the original origin."  Jesus says we must be born again to enter his kingdom : we must have a new birthday, which acknowledges the cosmic context of our original birthday.  We are born into a relationship with the mysterious personhood of God.  The entire cosmos was shaped to allow this bond of truth and love to become, to bloom - to fly free into multifarious, interplanetary "incarnations."  Bloomsday, indeed!

& it occurs to me that the feast of Epiphany, coming soon, is another kind of birthday celebration (the Orthodox Christmas, in fact) - since the Magi, the "wise men," sought out Jesus following a star - an astrological, natal star, guiding them to the royal one who has just been born.

(Of course birthdays seem to be a writerly obsession with me... if you do a google search of this blog with the word "birthday" you'll see what I mean.  Here's one example...)


Jesus Thoughts (28) : the numerology of 28

Friends, this is a diary, a journal, a record of stray thoughts, not some kind of formal essay or academic discourse.  I guess that's obvious to everyone... I just want to reiterate this apologia, since today I might really wander in my ramblings.

 Tomorrow, 12.21.2012, the ancient, subtle Mayan calendar goes into rewind.  But the world ended last week for 28 people - children, teachers, a mother, and one young suicidal murderer.  A whole town and nation have been draped in mourning black.  Tomorrow the bells of the National Cathedral in Washington (epicenter of a new gun-control movement) will ring 28 times - once for each person, once for each of these violent deaths.

Maybe - we can only hope - this traumatic event will signal a new era, marked by stronger curbs on these killing machines.

Forgive me now for a seemingly detached, arcane aside.  The number 28 became important to me this year, in the course of composing and finally finishing a long poem, Lanthanum.

Numbers in ancient times and cultures had a symbolic, even aesthetic value, which has been replaced in the modern era by an emphasis on pure calculation (mathematical, scientific, statistical...).  But poetry is (or can be) a kind of throwback to old days - when "numbers" was a synonym or term of art for verse, when counting and rhythm were essential to poetry and mnemonics.  In the early '90s my own work was inspired by Alastair Fowler's studies of numerology in ancient, medieval and renaissance poetry.  I became fascinated with the symbolic/artistic potential of the "architectural" design of poetry.  The process of number-design seemed to go hand-in-hand with the other elements involved in writing a long poem (theme, plot, etc.).

Symbolically, 28 is a "moon" number - a pattern of the lunar (monthly) calendar.  This may partly explain the centrality of this number for some Native American tribes : Black Elk, for example, emphasized its importance, noting how the circular tepee used in Dakota Sun-Dance ceremonies was always constructed with 28 poles.

Quite a bit of my poetry has been influenced by Native American legends and concepts.  The cross-cultural amalgam, in the long poem Forth of July, of "Orpheus-Dante-Jesus-Bluejay-Juliet-J" was shaped to re-tell the story of a descent/ascent to hell/heaven, and a journey into the interior of both the mind and the American continent.  The "Jay" punningly combines Jesus, Juliet, and "Bluejay", an orphic trickster-figure from Northwest Coast Indian mythology.

Lanthanum carries on with many of these themes and symbols.  The poem culminates in a kind of Dantean "rose wheel" mandala-figure, shaped by the conjunction of two circles, forming the geometry of a mandorla, or vesica (often used in ancient and medieval art as an ornamental border or alcove-shape around Christ, Mary, or the saints).  The merging of 2 circles represents the wedding of contraries, the hieros gamos, the joining of earth & heaven, the synthesis of opposites : Lanthanum narrates or unfolds such a visionary process by way of both symbolic images and numbers.

Lanthanum is one of the elements of the atomic table - #57.  It is a rare earth (not actually so rare).  The poem Lanthanum is itself designed using this number, and its "factors" : ie. the basic building block of the poem is a strophe or section of 28 lines (the 4-line quatrain stanza, times 7).  The mandala design is built on a pattern of 28-1-28, with the "1" in the center representing the pivotal figure of synthesis (the "wedding number").  The climax of the poem is a visual (concrete) symbol of the mandorla, with the words "Jesus Christos" in a crosswise pattern inset within.  The shape also mimics the "catenary" arc of the Gateway Arch monument in St. Louis - ie., a mandorla prong rooted in the earth, at the center of the North American continent.  The same mandorla or vesica design, rendered as a 3-dimensional octahedron, outlines the form of a diamond shape - the same shape drawn by the traditional Native American ritual offering of the peace pipe to the six directions.

There are a lot of complex elaborations on this basic numerical design, in the poem Lanthanum.  Since finishing this long-term project, in July 2012, I have been struggling to find my creative bearings and direction for further poetry.  One of the paths I've begun to follow involves an intensification of the methods and patterns I've used before : ie. I'm working on a loose series of poems patterned on a quatrain stanza of 28 syllables, in poems of 7 stanzas (or 28 lines).

I am very aware how abstruse or pedantic all this might sound.  Where is all this symbolic numerology coming from?  To what exactly is it relevant?

In one sense, all this is an outgrowth of my own activity as a poet over the last 40 years.  And the process of welding personal, national, and religious symbols together in poems has roots in my own psychic/aesthetic experience.  In a way I look back on my life as one long, very slow, very incremental, very hesitant and halting, process of spiritual conversion.  Maybe it's my own sort of interior Dantean journey through hell, purgatory and paradise.  It began around 1972 : at age 20, I had already been a poet for several years.  In 1972-73 I went through a psychological breakdown and spiritual crisis - a "conversion experience" - which changed my whole moral orientation, yet which was also very intimately tied up with poetry (and the poetry of the Bible : the poetry of Jesus-the-poet, the Nazarene, the Nazir : chanting, proclaiming his original parables).  And the slow, incremental labor on these very extended, journey-like poems - their structuring around numerical-geometrical-symbolic numbers - can be seen as a creative process of drawing, or illustrating, or symbolizing the growth of a personal worldview of time, history - what is human and divine.  My poetry is a response to world history, and a response to my personal experience, and a response to the tradition of American literature - all in one.  Lanthanum, for example, is a kind of synthesis (welding, wedding) of America and Europe - centered in "St. Louis", between Melville & Crane on the one hand, and Henry Adams & T.S. Eliot on the other : between Notre Dame and the Gateway Arch.  And it attempts a renewal, a re-visioning, of Dante's effort - to weld together Man and God, earth and heaven.

The slow, stubborn constancy of this particular approach to poetry has not been taken seriously by my contemporaries.  But what can I do?  That's not my business.  I've basically lived in my creative workshop for the last 25 years.  I've disseminated and published my work as best I could, under the circumstances : it's here & there for anyone who takes an interest.  Maybe someday my work will gain a readership, and a place in the story of American poetry : I can't say.  I just keeping doing what I do, under antithetical conditions.

So concludes Jesus Thoughts (28) : my Jesus-poetics of the number 28.  (But there's much more to this, secretly squirreled away in my poems : numbers, dates.... 5.28, 5.29....)


Jesus Thoughts (27) : massacre of innocence

The holiday-season tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut must give any scribe pause.  Especially someone writing a blog-diary called "Jesus Thoughts."  I began this thread around Halloween, going into the Advent season leading up to Christmas.  Now the news is filled with the funerals of little children, and with journalists floating Job's old question, what kind of God permits such evil, such grief?

As it happens, I've started reading another book by Carl Jung, called Aion.  I have very mixed feelings about Jung, as noted before - my final personal judgement is still out.  He begins this book by arguing that psychology can offer a path by which modern humanity can comprehend certain realities symbolized in traditional Christian faith and ritual - eucharist, heavenly beings, redemption, etc. - which in the course of 20 centuries, he says, have lost their meaning for everyday modern life; we no longer understand them, they do not touch us or help us.  Jung is writing around the time of WW 2, when it seemed that all vestiges of "Christian Europe" had been scattered, reversed - and modernity exhibited a truly "anti-christian" spirit (epitomized by totalitarian fanaticism and global violence).

Jung sometimes seems more of a pagan or Gnostic than Christian, but maybe his heart was in the right place.  In any case he posits a kind of Gnostic dualism of good and evil at the roots of reality, in which the spirit and doctrine of Christ would inevitably be confronted by its deflected, repressed opposite - absolute evil, the anti-Christ.  He sees this as working out historically in the culture of the West.  Fundamentally he understands this as a problem of the human psyche : how to acknowledge and integrate the shadow, the dark side, of human nature, into a more complete psychic and ontological wholeness (Jung's "Self")?

I think the fundamental problem I have with all of this is that, in the process of exploring the dark side of the human psyche, Jung reifies spiritual reality within his own architecture of fixed categories (animus, anima, shadow, self, quaternion, mandala, etc.) - resulting in a kind of timeless psychic domain which seems to bear more resemblance to Greek mythology or to alchemy than to the (perhaps more simple) truth of the Gospels.

I'm not ready to deny that there is a dimension of psychological truth in Jung's doctrine.  His idea that a basic quaternion - a 4-sided, cruciform geometry, which resolves the 3-sided Trinity by way of a 4th point (the personal, the individual, the singular, the excess, the shadow) - appeals to me, to a certain degree.

But I want something more.  I want a wholeness which is not simply a metaphysical or psychological construct "beyond good and evil."  I want a wholeness rooted in the fusion of divine and human consciousness : the fusion represented by the formula Jesus, Son of God.

It seems Jung's mistake might be that, in the labor of constructing his intellectual edifice, he loses sight of the primary reality : a divine and benevolent Mind-Person - a Creator-Spirit - from which we have come, and in whom we dwell (as "images" of same).  This primary reality is personal and relational : the geometry of such inter-personal affinity, sympathy, and fusion is the very ground of our existence.

One is called into a personal relation with the conscious Source of all goodness - and draws life and truth from this deepening bond. This is the communal "Body of Christ" we share.

So to return to where we began today : how can religion, Christianity, personal "spirituality" respond to, give an answer for, the enormity of evil which just happened in Connecticut?  Jung tries to re-interpret religious symbols from 2000 years ago in order to re-imagine their relevance.  But after immersing myself in John Meier's reconstruction of the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew (see previous posts), I want to try to imagine the reverse : not "how do we interpret Jesus for today?", but rather : "how would Jesus respond to the Newtown tragedy?"

Obviously, neither I nor anyone else can "imagine" accurately, in its fulness and variety, how Jesus might respond.  But I will hazard an imperfect hypothesis.

For Jesus, the "kingdom of God" is a living, embodied, communal reality, which the coming of the Messiah has actually brought to earth, brought to historical actuality.  This, I take it, is one of the meanings of his mysterious Gospel saying : "the Law and the prophets were until John; and from the days of John until now, the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and violent men plunder it."  In other words, with the coming of the Son of Man, the eschatological age - the end-time - has irrevocably appeared on earth.  The kingdom of God is at hand, is "in your midst."  And precisely because the kingdom is no longer merely a hope of the future, but is here - is now embodied in Jesus and the people of God - it suffers violence : violent men attack it by force.  The struggle for the redemption of the world is now fully engaged : Jesus has come.

What was the witness to Israel of both John the Baptist and Jesus?  : that divine Judgement is at hand.  Jesus only differed from John in the unaccountable lovingkindness he offered - the healing ministry, the casting out of illness and evil - as signs of the presence of God's reign.

How would Jesus respond to the horrors and sadness of the massacre of innocents?  he would say come closer : come into the reign of God, into the rule of God's love.  Save yourself from the old human habits which open the door to evils such as this.

I think Jesus would look at the town of Newtown as a kind of Everytown, USA.   What happened in Newtown could have happened anywhere in the United States.  There is no special sinfulness to the place where this occurred : yet this violence might be a sign of spiritual sickness which the whole nation (the whole world) - and every person - needs to address.

What are the dimensions of this spiritual illness?  First, an attachment to the self and its pleasures - say, for example, guns, shooting, the collection of weapons of mass killing.  But these are not the only superficial, materialistic and selfish pleasures which corrupt the soul : they are only perhaps the most obviously dangerous (or seem to be, after this tragedy).  John the Baptist and Jesus both consistently preached the necessity for repentance and spiritual change - for turning toward a new communal life in God - if one hopes to see and experience the reign of God's benevolence.

A second dimension is related to the first : in our attachment to our selfish pleasures, our personal self-pleasing, we neglect those deeper values of charity, love and understanding, generosity, and justice - which are at the very root of both Judaism and Christianity.  What does Jesus call the Great, the central Commandment?  "Love God with all your heart; and love your neighbor as yourself."  Judaism (along with many other ancient faiths) emphasizes the great duty to welcome the stranger in our midst : to help the poor, to heal the afflicted.

And who is the stranger in our midst today?  There are many : but certainly one of those strangers was Adam Lanza.  The troubled, the afflicted, the mentally-ill young person.  The loner, the outcast, the self-outcast : like that sufferer in the Gospel, possessed by a demon, who kept hitting himself with stones.  Where were the helpers, the interveners, the welcomers for Adam Lanza - when he needed help?  Why was he living in solitude, at age 20, with his mother - and going to the rifle range?  Obviously it's too early for me to speculate on these matters : but the outlines of this situation are clear not only in the Newtown event but in other such recent tragedies all around the country.  And woe be to us, if we convert this moral crisis into some kind of mere surveillance or punitive control of the afflicted in our midst.  This would be merely the next anti-Christian, anti-Judaic step.  No : we must find ways to love the stranger, and heal the afflicted, and draw the loner into the circle of hope and joy.

We are all selfish; we have all gone astray.... like the wicked of the Old Testament, we are captured in the nets of our own wicked imaginations.  As Jesus said, when someone addressed him as "good rabbi" :  One is good, the Father only.  (This statement, by the way, is a very concise rebuttal of some of Jung's speculations about the "blind idealism" of Christianity).  We need to turn in charity - me, you, every one of us - to those in need, and cease treating life as a free ride for our own complacent hobbies and pastimes.

I think these are some of the things which Jesus might have said about the Newtown tragedy.  But he (along with Martin Luther King) would have summarized by proclaiming, again : the reign of a loving God is here.  God is my father and mother, and yours, too.  All things are possible through faith in God's love.  God is the creative Spirit who has brought all this about - to redeem the world.  Come into the living body of faith, into the community of the kingdom - and together we shall overcome.


The Purple Heart, continued

I've produced a chapbook of Helen Ainsworth's poems for children.  Calling it The Purple Heart and other poems.

Now these poems have been published, 100 years after they were written - and in the shadow of Newtown.   "Means of war", writes Helen Ainsworth - if only our nation can subdue the "means of war", we might deserve the Purple Heart (see previous post).

Still a most timely message.


The Purple Heart

My father recently handed me an old manila folder, with a sheaf of poems and notes written by his grandmother, Helen Hale Ainsworth, about a century ago (ca. 1910).  I have dim memories of my great-grandmother, whom everybody called "Mom", in my grandparents' apartment near the Univ. of Minnesota.  She was very old then, both blind and deaf, but she still presided at the head of the dinner table, under an old print of Lafayette and George Washington at a fancy ball.

I had no idea she had been a poet until Dad handed me this folder.  She had produced a book-length manuscript of children's poems, along with a few others - and sent it to a professor of children's literature at the U., asking her advice (in the folder was an enthusiastic letter from the prof.).  My father also said she recited the following poem at a Memorial Day event at his elementary school (this would be early 1930s).

What strikes me about "The Purple Heart" is its political theme.  It's really an anti-war poem - or at least an anti-military-industrial-complex poem.  And she read it in public, to a gathering of students, teachers and presumably parents.  I wish we had a video recording of that event...

Here's the poem :

                        THE PURPLE HEART

            The Purple Heart, bestowed in praise
            Of singularly gallant ways,
                    Could decorate a hero’s breast
                    To show what courage he possessed,
            In Revolutionary days.

            A wounded service man displays
            This emblem now.  His country pays
                    To him, his courage to attest,
                            The Purple Heart.

            While “Means-of-War,” that Might which sways
            The world and greedily betrays
                    It, prospers!  Should our land divest
                    That Might of profits, on our crest
            For courage would not Time emblaze
                            The Purple Heart?


(p.s. speaking of "national" themes : Helen's daughter Florence Ainsworth, my grandmother, was born on the 4th of July, 1900.)


Jesus Thoughts (26) : fatherhood near & far

Is religion redundant?  Is the idea of God a terrible waste of human thought, time & energy?  A fantasy, a projection of weak-minded, feeble people - looking for Mommy or Daddy in the sky?

There is so much to do just to keep the world in half-decent working order... food to grow, tools to make, houses and machines to build and maintain, clothes to weave, illness to treat, crime & violence to subdue, poverty & injustice to resist, alleviate...

There are so many subtle, practical decisions to be made inside each active human association, each group out there devoted to carrying out some necessary task...

Where does religion come into play here, if it does at all?

For some reason as I was trying to get to sleep last night I was thinking about my father, some of his ordinary "manly" qualities : his work ethic, self-discipline, responsibility, probity, diligence, sobriety, prudence, devotion, humility, enterprise, stoicism.  His "salt of the earth" aspect... thinking of him, in his 80s, sitting at his little card table paying his bills, taking care of other people....happy simply to be able to keep his own free house in order, every day... (and of my mother, who sustained him through many dark hours...)

& thinking of the symbolic image of "the Father" - this activity of providential providing (Robert Frost's line comes to mind, "Provide, provide!").  This image of the sustainer, the solid Rock... one who has been given responsibilities to carry out, and who, in order to do so, must make a habit of self-denial.  The guardian, the manager, the caretaker... the servant... (there's another word I'm trying to think of in this regard - ? stewardship).

& the spiritual freedom of the one who acts and serves creatively, energetically, in these ways - freed from his or her own merely egotistical self-indulgences, by way of helping others...

So again, though : where do religion, God, Christianity come in here, if they do?  Aren't we talking about ordinary virtues, human qualities of character - making good with the cards one is dealt?

 What a hard question to answer!  And there is no simple answer.  On the one hand, many people are guided and sustained by a moral universe informed by their faith in God.  On the other hand, there is no doubt that secular and non-religious people can be just as loving and morally upright as any of their God-fearing neighbors.

I like what I think was Roger Williams' perspective on this questions.  I think he might assert two basic things about it.  First, he would say that God offers spiritual light, by which we can actually see : and what we are able to see are the manifold goodness and virtue in people everywhere - a whole world of varied tribes & faiths, yet sharing in this universal inheritance from God : the inherent propensity to love and do good.  Not that all are good : but that Mankind in general has been given the capability to be and do good.  Second, I think he would say that faith in God, and in Jesus Christ, is itself a gift of divine grace to the believer.  It is something extra - a dose of spiritual joy direct from God, direct from the kingdom of heaven.  Yes, life can be good on earth, for those who love and do well : but what Jesus offers is the "good news" : the message of everlasting life.  The essence of this playful extra is intellectual joy - is spiritual glee - is (in Roger's term) soul liberty.

"I am the Way, the Truth and the Life."   "No one comes to the Father but by me."  So Jesus in the Gospels declares.  Does this represent merely an outmoded, superstructural ideology, mythology?  A psychological compensatory mechanism?  A false consciousness?

Ultimately your answer to these questions depends upon the roots of your worldview.  My own answer (today, anyway) draws again on my own understanding, ie. : 1) the cosmos we experience is inextricably bound up with mind and consciousness; 2) meaning and consciousness, in turn, are rooted in identity, in Personhood; 3) there is a substantial, cosmic, shared Personhood, of which our own experience is only partial, only a foretaste.  Such basic ideas, for me, provide a kind of intellectual ground for this further, more mysterious perspective : that our life on this planet is a drama, a "miracle play", a divine comedy.  It is the play of a Creator who works to restore this particular creation - by coming in person, and asking us to join him in one Spirit (children of God).

We are finally "at home" on earth, and in the universe, when we can hear this "still, small voice" - this speech which emerges from and penetrates through mankind as a whole - this "prophetic" sound of a loving Maker - this Logos, this order - hidden, manifest, living & dying in us and with us.


Jesus Thoughts (25) : thumbprints in sync

We continue to go traipsing along through the unknown remote Henry-field of scrubland interconnections, finding obscure Serengeti serendipities (in sync?) and conceptual rhymes, running into things seemingly by chance (or is it a narrow circle of H-recessive obsessions?).  Yesterday I chewed the cud (in Jesus Thoughts #24) about the metaphysical frame-up of History, the intervention of Yahweh into the stream of Earth-time... as an impression of the Creator's inimitable thumbprint upon Nature (Stephen Dedalus's "signatures of things"). 

& last night I was re-reading Charles Stein's book about Charles Olson & Carl Jung, Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum - which digs deep into Olson's own radical sense of individuation & quidditas ("that which exists through itself is what is called Meaning" & all that).  Olson wanted to shake up what he saw as the false consciousness of abstract "Greek" rationalism with a very earth-bound, local, particular kind of mysticism (he wouldn't call it "mysticism") - the Oneness of the "field" of all phenomena reflected in the integrity of the grounded, physical, real things we encounter....

Others (including Stein) have interpreted Olson much more scrupulously than I can here ... & there's much in Olson that gives me pause... yet I was struck reading this last night how closely - in some ways, not in others -  Olson's values seem to rhyme with the program of the Russian Acmeists.  Gumilev's notion of "chasteness" as a literary value - which he defined as a basic & spiritual respect for the particular dignity of all things as they are - & that such actual things provide the substance, the matter, the themes of Acmeist poetry (as against "Symbolist" otherworldliness).

Of course the Acmeists were also tremendously different from Olson : they had not that radical streak of American Emersonian (Poundian, Wm Carlos Williamsian) do-it-yourselfism - their sense of the spiritual integrity of things is perhaps closer to Joyce's neo-medieval Aquinas-quidditas; they were rooted in Russian Orthodox Christianity, with its contemplative emphasis on the whole as divine Creation...  Yet this mystical aspect of Olson - late scribblings about everything having meaning-in-itself because All stems from the Black Chrysanthemum (his "Black Gold Flower" mandala-figure) - is not so different from Dante's final vision of the mystical Rose, the triple wheel of the Trinity...   This ancient notion can give one sparks of glee, if you ponder it : that the One is reflected in the "oneness" - the beautiful distinction, the nonpareil wonderful whatness, the splendid unimaginable unique & hilarious actuality of all separate unique things...  (in fact it's possible to see an analogy here with the spectacular 4th-of-July dazzle of metamorphosis, Transfiguration - eternal life)... Note this relevant, definitive passage from Mandelstam's essay "Morning of Acmeism", which Christian Wiman chose as the epigraph to his new collection of Mandelstam translations, Stolen Air : "To exist is the artist's greatest pride.  He desires no paradise other than being."

Everything is paratactical in Olson, as in Pound - the poet is a bower-bird, joining things by affinity, contiguity, proximity, rather than logic...  Speaking of which brings me to the other book I was reading last night - Sacred Fortress, by Otto v. Simson.  About the Byzantine mosaics and architecture of Ravenna, which Dante saw.  Simson explores the political-historical background to the art of these churches - and also their religious meaning.  We can't grasp the artistry of the mosaics without understanding how they were united with, and illustrated, the rites of baptism and Eucharist, the sacramental processions, which happened below them, under the gaze of the icons.  Simson goes very deeply into the meanings and messages which both the rites and the icons conveyed.  He describes, better than anyone I've ever read, how the communicants, by participating in these sacraments (baptism, eucharist), enter into a symbiosis, first of all, with Christ in his self-sacrifice and martyrdom - in his dying - and at the same time, with Christ in his resurrection : his transfiguration into a heavenly dimension (early rites of baptism involved clothing the baptized in white robes : a representation of this dying-into-new-life most clearly imaged in the Book of Revelation - and in the mosaics of St. Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna).

Proximity, contiguity, affinity....  I had just been writing earlier in the day (in the Jesus Talks #23 post) about the divine play of gender roles... and the hieros gamos dimensions of the rites of the church, their sensitivity to a feminine psyche - only to find Simson characterizing the mosaics of the "virgin martyrs" in St. Apollinare, bringing their jewelled crowns of martyrdom to offer to the Bridegroom, in the very same terms I had been using (hieros gamos, etc.).   So I felt a slight twinge of synchronicity there....

But I'm really rambling today.  The deeper affinity or proximity I want to relate here is this clustering together of Jung's individuation, Olson's "things in themselves", the Acmeist devotion to the "chaste" dignity of things, Joyce's epiphanies...  and what I was calling, in JT #24, the thumbprint of the Creator as witnessed by his righteous prophets (John the Baptist...).  I'm finding these things all assembling in some kind of creative sandbox playpen...

(thinking of Olson's notes about the "Black Stone" - the "diamond" - the "Black Gold Flower" of his Maximus-vision.... & its echoes or rhymes in my poem Lanthanum - "Blackstone" leading to "St. Maximus the Confessor" by way of the octahedral, baptismal diamond of Black Elk's native American sign (pointing to the six directions)....

Affinities, proximities.... the church as tomb and marriage bed.... Olson & Mandelstam, hard-cut diamond figures, thumb-prints, opposing themselves to the drift of the times...

This coming weekend Sarah & I will be driving down to Princeton NJ, to visit Princeton cemetery, where Sarah's parents are buried.  They just finished the memorial stone for both of them (her mother Pat passed away last year in November).  They are buried just a few feet from the grave of Kurt Gödel, the great mathematician.  Olson, maybe, would have appreciated Gödel, whose "incompleteness theorem" proved that some things in mathematics cannot ever be proved (rationally).  I'm not a mathematician, but maybe Gödel in this way made an arc of closure back to the ancient Greeks, who were troubled by the "irrationality" of the diagonal to the square.  There is a Jungian aspect of this uncertainty, this mystery, at the core of human reason....

So we'll be visiting a grave, and graves, there, in Princeton, at the dying of the year.  I'll be thinking about them... & I'll be thinking about Simson's eloquent evocation of the mystery of death & martyrdom & glory articulated in the early church.... & I'll be thinking about the Princeton Univ. library, nearby - where they house the archive of the papers of Osip Mandelstam....


Jesus Thoughts (24) : rule by thumbprint

I want to think out loud a little more about this question of dominion, God's rulership (reminded of Wallace Stevens line, "the fatal, dominant X").

Image of Stephen Dedalus, near the start of Joyce's Ulysses, wandering along the shore muttering "signatures of all things I am here to read" (or something like that).  Connected with his interest in Thomas Aquinas' theory of artistic beauty as consisting of "integritas, consonantia, claritas", or "beauty, wholeness, harmony and radiance." & this linked with his (Joyce's/Stephen's?) idea that the artist pays attention to the quiddity of particular things : their unique substantial particular essence, their character, their individuality.   Similar to Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev's Acmeist dictum (developed about the same time, early 20th century), that the poet must evoke and celebrate the "chasteness" of things - their inherent value as "creatures", the individual value and dignity of particular things, large or small, humble or great.

We each have our irreducible personhood, our unique thumbprint.  And I think somehow that the rage of Yahweh, as presented in the Bible, is the rage of a Creator speaking through his universe, his cosmos - challenging the merely human urge for domination (so evident in human history).  Yahweh stands up and rages at those Pharaohs and Assyrian kings and Philistine giants who are themselves raging to impose their will on their peoples - to command and lead their cultures by sheer force & violence.  The Biblical Yahweh would check them all, as He reigns in the waves of the sea, and sets their bounds.

& I think of Jesus's mysterious declaration about John the Baptist : "from the days of John until now, the Kingdom of God has come by violence, and violent men take it by force.  But it shall not be so with you."

Thinking also of the righteous rage of John the Baptist : this strange, liminal preacher, who heads out to the "waste places" of the Jordan river delta, where it spreads into the Dead Sea (like other semi-wild, swampy, undeveloped delta regions - like the Mississippi Gulf, or the Danube outlet) - & from this point of wilderness & freedom, sets out to stop the time & history & culture & political order of Israel in its tracks.  He is not part of the priestly orders, not even associated with the desert communities (like Qumran) : he is alone, he is a "voice crying in the wilderness".  he goes to the delta of waters in the desert to preach an apocalyptic end-time warning, and to establish his baptism - a seal of the repentant soul, committed to a change of ways.  And prophesying that "one greater than I is coming to judge Israel"....

This rage of the lone prophet seems to embody or transmit the rage of the Creator : a stance which transcends the flow of history and cultural violence & corruption : the coming-to-surface of that divine Personhood who says to Moses, when he asks : "Tell them I am that I am has sent you."

What I'm circling vaguely around here is this idea of a divine manifestation - an intervention of God which stops time & history in order to lift up & repair the quiddity, the dignity, of His own Creation.  This, it seems to me, starts to get at, or at least approach, the deep plot of the "sacred drama" of world history : framed by the thumbprint of a mysterious Presence.... invisible, but so close...  a "still, small voice" emitted through our own bones...

Stevens, again (from "The Idea of Order at Key West") :

Oh!  Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.