Rusty Russian Bells

Going out to all my Russian & Ukrainian blog fans! (Are you really there? Does this have to do with Mandelstam, Elena Shvarts? Lanthanum... St. Maximus the Confessor? Mystery.)

Jesus Thoughts (21) : poet is a troublemaker

I think I've been thinking like a poet since Thanksgiving.  Soon I'll go back to vol. 2 of John Meier's great study of the "historical Jesus", A Marginal Jew - and hence maybe I'll hew more closely to the main theme of this thread.  But for the time being, some very wayward and somewhat troubling thoughts & cloudy speculations have been rolling in over my mental landscape.  The poet is above all committed to the exercise of imagination, Lady Imaginativa - & has to follow where it leads, no matter what.

Poets have a special sense of the power of words, since they are held captive by language : but this awareness can at the same time give poets a sense of the limitations of human speech and writing.  There is a solid spine of historical actuality in both the old and new testaments of the Bible : in fact this concrete "chronicle" dimension is a key element of the Bible's fascination.  & yet the whole of it is suffused with poetry : moreover, the whole of it is enveloped in layers of tacit meanings - concepts of the sacred and the profane, earth and heaven, which are rooted in a very ancient cultural world.  Context is everything.  The acts of Jesus as Messiah : the declarations with regard to his mission and the works of God : all this testimony is part of a larger "universe of discourse" or set of cultural perspectives.

So we have to hold two distinct things in mind : first, that there is a real, historical actuality - a "facticity" - which undergirds the testimonies of the Bible; and second, that all the statements and language of Biblical religion call for - require - interpretation.  They are not to be absorbed uncritically : rather they are to be understood.

All this may sound fairly obvious.  But as I say, I've been thinking like a poet : like a prophet, like a natural-born troublemaker.  "The Spirit blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it..."  So we have to follow where it leads, because it is indeed (we desperately hope & believe) the "spirit of Truth."

Jesus was a scandalizer; Elijah was a "troubler of Israel"; now I (though not in their league) am thinking like a troublemaker too.

I think (here in this Advent season) maybe a new age is dawning.  The astrological "age of the Fishes" is passing away; the "age of the Water-Carrier" is coming in.  Jesus walked in Galilee, Palestine, Judea 2000 years ago : and it struck me this week that perhaps somehow we have to re-think the symbolism and vocabulary of the Divine Trinity.  And I don't say this lightly, without trepidation.  In many ways I think I'm close to the mentality of the current Pope!  I sympathize with his warnings to the West, his criticism of the spiritual Flatland of secularism - our vain devotion to merely human things, our idolatry of worldly "celebrities" as opposed to the life of the spirit in Christ.  I am nostalgic for medieval sensibilities; I wonder at the beauty of Byzantine art.  Yet at the same time I wonder if the time is approaching for a massive spiritual sea-change, a re-interpretation (not a rejection) of the ancient doctrines.

I'm pondering the spiritual geometry of Father, Son & Spirit.  I'm wondering if there will come a time when the Church no longer recites by rote the gender roles played out in these terms.  I would like to be able to conceptualize them in a new way, without rejecting them.  I realize many feminist theologians have already explored these issues in great depth (& I should read them!) : but generally I have to reflect & work things out for myself.

I think the fundamental meaning of the Incarnation is that God assumes the actual, fully historical, fully personal humanity of mankind.  God is Man in Jesus.  Jesus describes this actuality in terms of Fatherhood and Sonship for two main reasons : first, because this relationship illustrates the closest bond of love, merging with Oneness; and second, because, since in this oneness Jesus becomes the Father (God) on earth - he is "one with the Father" - this divine act has ramifications for the destiny of spiritual authority on the earth.  In other words, when Jesus says "I and the Father are one", or "no one comes to the Father except by me", he is declaring the will of God to rule (through his spiritual kingdom) in the lives of men and women and kingdoms and societies.

Yet Jesus also declares : "God is Spirit, and those who worship him must do so in spirit and in truth."  When I think of the personhood of God - the triune, distinct personhood(s) of the Trinity - I remember the words of St. Paul, that "in Christ there is no male & female".  I understand the personhood of God as a category of integral, substantial being, for which our own ordinary experience of persons (our own and others) gives only a limited, imperfect foretaste.  The consciousness of personhood, and the personhood of consciousness, is something deep, substantial, integral, and spiritual - involving conscious and unconscious, intellect and dream.  And it is something which transcends gender differences.  We have all learned over & over the various cultural stereotypes of gender roles, but we should remember that these shift and change across time and different cultures.  Strength and courage are not essentially "masculine" : empathy and compassion are not essentially "feminine".   The person subsumes and integrates all intellectual and emotional character traits within a more basic wholeness (the person per se).

So where does this leave us with respect to Biblical testimony, the language of Scripture?  Well, for one thing, I don't find the third Person of the Trinity - the Holy Ghost - identified anywhere in scripture as "male."  The Holy Ghost is Spirit, as the Father is Spirit.  When Jesus declares that he "is going to the Father" (after his resurrection and ascension) I think one could read this as saying "I have fulfilled my role in manifesting God's spiritual authority (the Father) on earth."

So I think we could start to imagine this authority, as defined by the terms "kingship of God" or "kingdom of God", as summarized or encapsulated or defined by a verbal formula.  This formula, or formulation, though on the surface exhibiting a "gendered" character, is actually just that - a formula, a verbal token for a deeper, unspoken actuality.   God is neither solely Father, nor solely Mother, but Spirit.  The union and distinction of the Persons of the Trinity - God the Father, Jesus, and Holy Spirit - is a kind of symbolic play, representing an underlying fusion/distinction of divine and human which is neither male nor female, but incorporates both.  An integral Personhood - and shared Person(s)hood - which we experience as a deepening actuality in our own shared life, as persons of the human race.

I've run on longer than I would have liked - hopefully without too much obscurity and murkiness.  My overriding sense is of some kind of coming change - a metamorphoses of religious life in an age to come.  Not involving a rejection of the past, but an embrace of the past, with new understanding.  We must re-interpret our own sacred testimonies in the light of today : not to corrupt or destroy them, but to enliven them with "new things".

In this regard I was interested to read the recent New Yorker article by Kelefa Sanneh, on the "rock star" megachurch evangelical preacher Ron Bell.  Sanneh narrates Bell's dramatic theological struggle with traditional notions of the reality of Hell and divine judgement (and the effect of his changing views on his popularity, in his wildly-fluctuating world of evangelical preacherdom).  I haven't read Bell's best-selling book of meditations on this issue, Love Wins : but in some ways the whole controversy strikes me as a non-issue.  Why? Because I think if you interpret Scripture carefully on the question of Hell, you will find that we cannot assign any definite characteristics or structure to it (Hell).  Listen carefully to what Jesus says to those who do wrong : you are in danger of being cast into "outer darkness".  And : to those who claim to follow him but don't obey his will, he warns : on the Last Day, the Son of Man will say to them, "I never knew you."  Think of what this means in the context of a spiritual cosmos defined by an integral, spiritual Personhood.  Everything we do affects our relationships with others : in the same way it affects our relationship with God.   What worse hell could there be, than simply to be rejected by this Person at the end of our time on earth?  "I never knew you."

Furthermore : why would God ever define Hell as some fixed structure (ala Dante, or the human legal system) when we live on earth in a state of suspense - a constantly changing interaction with our neighbors and with God?  A time always open to inward change and repentance - with potential for repaired and renewed relationships.

I think possibly this mode of interpretation offers an (imperfect) example of how (one way, at least) to approach the sacred texts : we cannot take them "literally", beyond the historical record itself : we must read them so as to penetrate the veils of symbolic meaning and ancient worldviews, and discover what truth they bring now, today.

p.s. an afterthought.  I don't want to be misunderstood.  I may be a monkish old librarian, but I don't want to appear to diminish or deny the real differences between men and women.  No doubt our biological inheritance (male or female) involves differences in the way we think, feel and behave - some of them obvious, some of them delightful - part of the dance of polarities, the sexual dance, which is so basic to everything beautiful & joyful, painful & sorrowful in life.  Indeed much of the charm and majesty of the Middle Ages, explored famously by Henry Adams in Mont St.-Michel and Chartres, and other books - reflecting the Catholic worship of the Virgin Mary - probably involved in part a feminine cultural counterweight to the masculine brutality of that era.  But as Jesus states in the Gospel - "God is Spirit : & those who worship Him do so in spirit and truth."  This spiritual dimension is, as St. Paul wrote, "neither male nor female, neither slave nor master, neither Gentile nor Jew" (rough quote from memory).  This is the spiritual personhood which we all share alike : it is the actual bond of person to person and person to God, which leads us all together into a "deeper communion".


Reviews of "Stolen Air" : a follow-up

Here's the link to my review of Stolen Air (Christian Wiman's book of Mandelstam versions), in Critical Flame.   James Stotts also has a very different review of the book in the same issue. 

I admire James Stotts' clear analysis and fine writing here.  It's unusual to have two such opposing views in the same issue of a journal.  The chasm between our perspectives obviously points up some of the difficult, inherent ambiguities involved in translating poetry.  Stotts displays pretty convincingly just how variant are Wiman's versions of the originals.  But I think it's a little unfair of him to impugn Wiman's motives.  Stotts implies that Wiman is a literary opportunist, whose motive is simply to "align himself" (parasitically) with greatness; he claims Wiman's versions are so extremely inaccurate as to be unethical.

But Wiman, in his afterword, describes very clearly how this particular translation project came about, and his guiding principles.  He emphasizes that his are creative versions, and that he balked himself at calling them "translations" : he displays candor and humility in the self-characterization of his unusual method (but not unprecedented : see Robert Lowell's "versions", for example).

I also rate Wiman's results in English much more highly than my fellow reviewer.  I have to admit that when I first read them I had very mixed feelings myself : it was like hearing a sort of "simulation" or "virtual reality" Mandelstam : a transmogrification of my dear great Russian poet into a sort of angst-ridden 21st-cent. American hipster.  But the more I read these versions, the more I enjoyed Wiman's gusto and finesse - the obvious joy he was taking in finding parallels for Mandelstam by ransacking sounds from the great English/American poetic stream.  Rather than seeing this project as some kind of arrogant betrayal, as James does, I see it as a great homage to Mandelstam. 

Wiman's Stolen Air not the be-all and end-all : in fact, I think the great Mandelstam translations into English are yet to come.  But as I state in my own review, with Mandelstam, "there is always another facet to the crystal."  And Stolen Air is a lovely tour-de-force.


chords for Thanksgiving

Jesus Thoughts (20) : how to give thanks

Somewhere in his Adagia or other writings (you'll have to look it up) Wallace Stevens says that his (difficult) aim is to achieve "the normal".  What does he mean?  Well, perhaps he's thinking - or maybe I'm thinking - about the notion of "saving the appearances".  The idea of life as a continuum, a balanced wholeness.  Healthy, hale & whole is the ideal... the normal, the sane, the happy ending... the minor/major chord.

Plato (I think) has Socrates say somewhere that "the unexamined life is not worth living."  True enough; but what if at the end of our examination we come to the conclusion that the human capacity of analysis and detached objectivity is not equal to the task?  Not so much that we can't test for the truth : but that we lack the capacity to express it.  All our formulas come up short before the continuum of wholeness; our words don't do life justice.  Maybe only the glorious hymn of praise approaches what we want to say.

Yet our imperfect efforts are also natural, a part of the whole.  There is something stubborn in the heart which resists simplistic, reductive abstractions - explanations which demean their subject.  I think this is part of the artist's calling : to respond holistically to the Whole.  To make icons rather than arguments (even though these two often trade places).  The heart has its own hunches.  "The Spirit blows where it wills : and you hear the sound of it, but you know not where it comes from, or where it goes."  It seems like my own strange halting path through school and life has something to do with this inward struggle between holism and abstract knowledge.  Poets often stupidly romanticize their ignorance; yet there is an argument to be made for intuition and vision, for wholeness vs. intellectual deracination.  It's a balance with dangerous extremes at either end (Fascism, for example, was built on the cult of Romantic irrationalism).

We seek the normal, we seek peace, we seek reconciliation, we pursue happiness.  We dream of a continuum of ordinary life, a "sane and productive atmosphere."  Not to repress differences and individuality & eccentricity, on behalf of some prison of bourgeois conventionality - but rather a generous, magnanimous world, not afraid of change and otherness, but also, at the same time, cherishing the ordinary.

Wholeness and holiness sound similar, and share a common root.  Around Thanksgiving, is it still possible to give thanks to the Creator?  Or did the concept of God die off a long time ago?  Wholeness, in this sense, is a kind of spiritual anti-gravity, which lifts the mind's eye past particular things toward a cosmic view.  Jesus somewhere in the Gospels says something like "Get right with God, and all these good things shall be your as well."  This is the epitome of the stance which used to be called piety : to see all things within the context of God's loving, creative will.  To try to orient ourselves in the light of this conception.

The anti-gravity force pulls us away from self-centeredness, injustice, wrongdoing.  Its consequences radiate throughout the socio-political fabric of human civilization on this planet, in every corner of the earth, in every dimension of human relationship.  How can we come to the table of Thanksgiving with neighbors, friends and family, if we are not right with them?  If some oppression, injustice, unkindness, manipulation, exploitation, thoughtlessness, heartlessness, indifference, malice, hidden wickedness, hatred - if any of these things lurk beneath the continuum of our "normality"?  I think this is why the keynote, the touchstone, of the mission of Jesus is mercy and forgiveness.  We cannot sit at table together, neither on this planet nor in our own homes, without acknowledgement of our own wrongs and mistakes, without mutual forgiveness and the grace of divine mercy.  The "unexamined life" indeed!

Thus Christians at Thanksgiving have a lot to be thankful for : they could start by thanking the Jews.  For the Jewish faith has served as a sacrificial priesthood to the whole planet.  Where would we be, as a civilization, as a world, without the message of these ancient concepts - repentance; acknowledgement of sin; and mutual forgiveness, kindness, mercy, welcome?  These are the true Biblical values.  They echo in the universal human heart and find home there : they are the knot which binds us all together, Martin Luther King's "seamless fabric of mutuality".  For Christians, the coming of Jesus, the Way he proclaims, is a fulfillment and a return to the basic values introduced through Judaism from the beginning : it could not have happened otherwise : it began within the families of Israel.

As I understand it, the artist expresses inborn talent for making beautiful things (music, art, literature) - a talent which often emerges in early childhood.  I see these gifts as something offered to the continuum of wholeness : the dream of a peaceful world, a shared communion : this is the "providential" plan for the planet as a whole.  & I think this vocation is the source of the artist's stubborn resistance to reductive abstractions, merely intellectual explanations for phenomena.  The artist must love & merge with & celebrate the continuum of experience : this is how the over-arching serenity & balance of the greatest works of art come to manifestation.  (I've written about some of these things more specifically with respect to poetry, in some of the review essays in Critical Flame.)


Jesus Thoughts (19) : toward Thanksgiving

Reading 2nd vol. now of John Meier's magnum opus on the historical Jesus, A Marginal Jew.  It seems to me he shows great acumen, care, discernment & humility in his way of research and interpretation.  He carefully separates out the evidence for what we can know about Jesus in the strictly factual, historical sense, from any speculations about what it might mean in a religious or theological dimension.

This work seems so valuable in a number of ways.  For one thing, it sends a very clear and powerful message to "Gentile" Christians - which they need to hear again and again - that the roots of their faith lie in Judaism.  The first Christians were Jews : the religious and political controversies between various sects and groups in Palestine, in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, became gradually re-shaped, over decades and centuries, into a religious divide separating Christianity and Judaism, Gentiles and Jews.  Some of the original polemics, which find their traces in the New Testament, were transformed by some streams of Christianity into a condemnation of Jews and Judaism in toto

Obviously a huge, profound historical subject, and a very ancient stumbling-block for relations between the two faiths.  I can't do it justice here, today : merely wish to emphasize the value of Meier's study, which might be (probably has been) very useful and stimulating for inter-faith dialogue.

Another basic strength of A Marginal Jew, it seems to me, is that it presents a challenge to fundamentalist thinking on all sides.  Every culture re-shapes and interprets its defining texts to suit its own values and priorities : no human society is exempt from the limited vision which results from ignorance, chauvinism, parochialism, nationalism, etc. etc.  But historical work like Meier's has its analogue in scientific objectivity : the aim is disinterested pursuit of truth, wherever it may lead.  This is a kind of light which needs to be shed into the dark corners of Biblical literalism and narrow fundamentalism, which cut and tailor the Biblical texts to suit their own mythologies of value.

But alongside all this, what is my reading of Meier doing for me?  How is my own thinking affected?  I transport Meier's evidence & historical interpretation into my own "theological" thought-world : that is, what seems to be my constant contemplation of this mystery of Father, Son, & Holy Ghost - "one substance in three Persons" (in the Orthodox, and Catholic, formula).  This riddle feels like an infinitely-rich & generative matrix... a conceptual "mandala",  or an overarching framework for the vast & particular dimensions of reality.

I envision this pre-existent Logos - that is, some ineffable order of divine Being & consciousness somehow preceding the physical reality of time, space & matter- which flowers in our planetary time (history) as a revelation of Personhood : the divine become human.  I see this (Incarnation) as a manifestation, a presentation of a kind of sacred theater : the drama of the loving self-sacrifice of Jesus, in a spiritual victory over death.  I see this strange work fulfilled in the "procession of the Holy Spirit" - the Holy Ghost as God in 3rd Person, suffusing the church as a whole and each of its members - the "body of Christ" - with the same spirit, the spirit of Jesus, in surprising, charismatic, distinctive, revelatory signs, and "personal" ways.

I see this work of divine love going on both secretly and openly through the unfolding of earthly history, in order to save the world through a shared recognition of God's own nature : for when we finally realize we are "at home" in a universe created and maintained by supernatural Love, we will go home, like the Prodigal Son of the parable, to the great, the real, the profound, the planetary Thanksgiving....


Jesus Thoughts (18) : fragment of anti-matter

I started this series with a response to the work of John Meier, A Marginal Jew - his 4-vol. investigation of what we know about "the historical Jesus."   Reading, play-acting, daydreaming about history have been part of my life since childhood.  My parents bought for my brothers & me all those Random House and American Heritage series of history & biography for young readers, & I loved them all.  In 7th grade I wrote the script for a school pageant based on George Washington's (Christmas) crossing of the Delaware (in which I played, conveniently, the "narrator").

As a teenager, fiction & poetry pushed aside somewhat this early interest, but it never really went away.  After all, literature and history are inseparable...

In the early 1970s I went through a pretty extreme set of moral/psychological experiences, which amounted to a kind of spiritual awakening, and also led, gradually & partially, back to my roots, in a family of mainstream 60's midwestern Episcopalians.

Part of my writerly evolution, through the 70s and early 80s, led to an encounter with the Cantos of Ezra Pound & the "long poem" (epic?) modes of W.C. Williams, Olson, Crane, Zukofsky, & David Jones.  At the same time, I was soaking up exotic lyric radiations from Osip Mandelstam & other Russians (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, et al.), along with Celan, Montale, many others.  I was responding to these poets while struggling to find my own way - it was difficult for me to achieve a manner & tone which felt right (we are talking about a 20-year struggle).

To oversimplify : it seems the example of Mandelstam helped me integrate my spiritual point of view with a path back into poetry & art; while at the same time, the model of the epic, the "long poem", offered models of how to integrate history - factuality, time, concrete world events - into poetry : melding together my original focus on both literature & history.

I apologize for the long-winded back story.  But it leads to a question about the place of the poet - the poet's "office".   When I started exploring American stream long poems, I came up against a roadblock.  On one hand, my "re-conversion" experience - including reading the Bible, & many related works - had given me a changed sense of history.  Now, for me, world history was ultimately challenged by, pivoted upon, the life & message of the historical Jesus.  World-time is crossed with a deeper dimension.  On the other hand, American poetry was divided between the stream represented by Pound - American, modern, and in many ways anti-Christian, and the stream represented by Eliot, who promoted a worldview rooted in European culture and a medieval, authoritarian mode of Christianity : anti-democratic, and thus in many ways anti-American.

Of course to pivot everything on Pound & Eliot is a distortion of 20th-cent. poetry : but I think it can be said that any approach to the American long poem "containing history" cannot avoid these two.  And, considering my background as I've sketched it here, a simultaneous attraction-repulsion may be understandable.  They stood in my path.

Then I discovered a kind of mediating affinity between the harmonic, imagistic mode (& the American, democratic affirmations, contra both Eliot & Pound) of Hart Crane, on the one hand, and Mandelstam.  So Crane's Bridge offered a concrete bridge in my efforts to synthesize all this poetic "information."  & gradually - over about 25 years, through about 8 different book-length "long poems" - I worked into my own, less derivative expression.

The basic mystery of "divine intervention" in history (to put it baldly) : the key questions of being & reality, the riddle of truth, remain.... like a well or plumbline in the midst of time.  Now I think the Welsh poet David Jones - with a very different style, & in a different way - may have been on a parallel track.  There is a Poundian Cantos-effect emanating from Jones's long poems : yet his underlying vision is closer to my own : that is, we see the personhood of Jesus as spiritual crux, irreducible crossroad, unavoidable.  Like Mandelstam's epithet for poetry : "The poem is a stone fallen from heaven / No one will judge it."

So now for me poetry is like air from the future... wine of the Jubilee.  That wine of which the Son of Man will not partake until He comes into his Kingdom.   The Kingdom of God, & of children, & Humankind... which reigns through the Word like Hart Crane's Christ-Dionysius.  ("I am the vine, & ye are the branches...")   Or in many of the deep dark cryptic poems of Celan ("He was washing the world...").

But what I say or do in poetry is of no interest to the American scene.  From top to bottom, from New York to San Francisco, I do not matter to them.  I'm basically invisible, a sort of anti-matter.  Not to be taken seriously.  A type of internal exile, in a literary gulag which operates by some other set of interests & values.  I don't say this lightly, or with anger, either : it's probably a good thing.  Silence & solitude leave room for independent work.  Meanwhile, they just don't see me, or hear me.  Maybe someday they will.  A few years ago I tried to put some of these issues relating to Pound & Eliot within a "Dantesque" frame, as figures in Purgatory, on board a ship.  Whitman and Edwin Honig make cameo appearances, too.

– so we moved along the bank upstream,
   and where the river bent in a broken circle
to the left, beheld a busy municipium:
welter of gleaming glass and flickering steel
   resembling vast shuttlings of water bugs
(chaotic, breaking apart the smooth still
surface into myriad coarse shags
   of garish noise).  Then my eyes shifted
to the river itself, and picked out a brig
there – hermaphrodite, trim, she drifted
   with peculiar motion, perpendicular
to the flow.  At prow and stern were lofted
pennants (princely St. George at the fore,
   and aft, a black-green, jumbled image
fusing, it seemed, some fasces with a star).
Upon the poop, a gaunt man in a rage
   stood, yapping imprecations toward the bow,
whereat a lank chap, dignified with age,
responded languidly (voice diffident and low).
   Apparently, they each commanded wheels,
and piloted the ship as if to go
both ways at once – causing the luckless keels’
   erratic laterality (crosscurrent,
at cross purposes).  I turned to him, whom eagle’s
perspicacity once lifted to the firmament
   on high.  Stern and melancholy then
he gazing, spoke.  “Throughout the Occident
once reigned supreme in poetry, these men –
   their tandem sway the ultimate authority.
In talent matchless, their forceful mien
bore down all before them.  Yet, perdie,
   an overweening awe for ordered rule
(drawn, I blush to say, from De Monarchia!)
caused them to miss that inlet whence the whole
   sweet cataract of liberty descends;
and so you see them, netted in such moil
of turbid aimlessness.”  “And yet,” contends
   me – “if there be contempt for duty,
honor, justice, loyalty –  neither high lands
nor low – no fear of that sublimity
   called holy – what remains, but feud and die?
What path leads out of universal enmity –
that peevish self-engorged impiety
   which desolates the vernal countryside
with fattened castles – that blighted antipathy
to common good, which makes the cities bleed?”
   My dear guide, pensive, murmured then:
“Remember this (your elder teacher’s screed
of long ago):  Freedom builds within,
   or breaks your bones.”  And on that note
I glanced upriver – glimpsed the leonine
white crown, the heavy shoulders, the stout
   birch staff, the hiking boots – the veteran’s
cap, askew – the slouching, musing gait –
pioneering through cane reeds, alone –


Jesus Thoughts (17) : it tolls for thee

Humankind cannot bear very much reality, wrote T.S. Eliot in Four Quartets.  I doubt he was thinking here of some arcane, ineffable reality.  I suppose he was thinking, ironically, of the ordinary passage of time.  We avoid it.  We can't bear it, the ineluctable wave-force of it.  Great scientists and philosophers have constructed complex theoretical sand castles to evade the power of will be, is, was - all pretty much in vain (check out The Natural Philosophy of Time, by G.J. Whitrow, for an extremely incisive, erudite exploration - full of physics & math equations which I can't follow, but lots of other wonderful things too, in ordinary language).

It's why the Old Testament somewhere (Psalms?) calls out, Lord, teach us to number our days.  It's why those strutting, arrogant Renaissance princes made sure to keep a skull in their private study, for a memento mori.

Passing time.  We avoid the knife-edge of it, the "raven-knife" (Mandelstam), the voron-nozh (in exile, counting slow hours, in Voronezh).  Quoth the Raven...

Old cantankerous literary exiles like me write screeds about it... young poets ignore us (all the time in the world).  Number our days, says the word to the wise.  We don't listen : too much reality.

& if someone comes to us & says : I am the Way, the Truth, the Life....  I am the sheep-door to eternal life.... we show them a short-cut to Golgotha : we don't want to hear about it.  The impertinent suggestion that there are two separate dimensions of reality : earth & heaven, mortal time & eternity... no, no - we can't bear it.  We crush our hands over our ears.  Let me just get back to my favorite pastimes, please!

But then here is another dose of reality : feel it in your bones.  Feel the knife-edge, Now, scraping your skin.  Now.  & meanwhile imagine there is this ineffable realm - some kind of soul-space, some "kingdom of heaven", where this death-bound world is abrogated, changed, redeemed - transfigured.  Like that monarch butterfly, on the milkweed pod, drifting (nonchalant, inexorable) across America, toward death-haunted Mexico... that monarch only recently a silk-bound worm...

When I try to hold this doubleness, these two circles, this Venn diagram, in my mind - time & the Eternal - what comes sharply home to me is the so very strange (weird, uncanny) dramatic quality of our ordinary, mortal existence.  We keep moving, in this play of Time : moving toward our own inevitable Golgotha.  We hold the end of it all in our mind, our limbs, our bones : & we go on walking through the day, each day, as the seconds move along & pass.

We are all on stage in this mortal play together... so John Donne writes, with such eloquence : "No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were;  any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." (Meditation 17

Or Shakespeare' s Prospero (in The Tempest), speaking of actors

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. 


A strange dream it is.  Life is a dream (the play, by Calderon).  "A dream within a dream" (Poe).  Time bearing all of us mortals, each bearing a Golgotha within, down the stream, toward... - & in the middle of this dream, say, an image of the Shroud of Turin : that ghostly-pale, naked, prophet-like, bearded carpenter, his eyes closed... or maybe just a "babe in a manger"...

What am I getting at?  We carry this live coal around in our hearts : this flicker of mortal time, this spiritual thing.  "You are the salt of the earth."  And, "You shall all be salted with fire."

Teach us to number our days, the Psalmist says (Psalm 90).  & lift this mortal gravity with a featherweight, or a butterfly wing.  So we can dance a little.  As old man Eliot, Old Possum,  writes : "Where you must move in measure, like a dancer."

"There is indeed a profound connection between the reality of time and the existence of an incalculable element in the universe." (G.J. Whitrow)


Jesus Thoughts (16) : electromagnetic spark-wave

Maybe it's because I'm a Gemini, or schizophrenic, who knows... but I'm often thinking about God on both sides of the fence : I hold two worldviews, one in each hand (secular & religious).  That is, I imagine how a non-believer might respond to this series of Jesus Thoughts.

I can see very clearly how the series might come across as a bunch of airy noodling; disconnected from the hard concrete facts of both physical & social reality.  Deracinated from the objective forces (physical, historical, political, economic, etc.) impinging on the planet, & all the anxiety, pain & suffering they can bring - the horrors, actually - as well as, on the far other hand, all the fizzy pleasures & joys of life, the gusto of animal spirits.  I'm writing like some old stuffy preacher, pontificating & sermonizing, using hoary symbols for social realities long gone, long ago worn out.

Understandable, that attitude.  A no-brainer.

Yet the fact is, I'm a poet.  I operate with a part of the brain Coleridge (was it Coleridge?) called the "synthetic imagination".  I'm with William Blake (I attended Blake High School, in fact).  I put together the cosmos as I see it & feel it.  Moreover, I believe in inspiration (some scientists do too, believe it or not).  I think of the physical brain as more like a radio receiver or cosmic archive than as the ultimate originator of meaning.  The human mind is the receptacle, the womb of a new world : but we didn't design it ourselves ; we encompass & comprehend the design.  This is how we work with God.

Third thing : I'm 6o years old (hard for me to believe).  Some of the things which obsessed, worried & excited me 30, 40 years ago, no longer really interest me - or I see them differently now.  What joggles the political or poetical blogospheres seems pretty ephemeral & boring most of the time.

What gets my synapses flashing, the spark-waves moving, is one thing now : the Ratio, the Logos.  In a universe of analogy & metaphor, there is one central analogy which, as I see it, binds Dante's scattered leaves of the cosmos in one volume.  Man = Imago Dei.  The persons we see & encounter & know & love stand as measurable reflections of the immeasurable Personhood, the enfolding consciousness which sieves through all experience.  As Mandelstam put it, the free artist is playing a game of "hide & seek with the Father" : we are meant to plunge deeper & deeper toward that hearth, that maternal-paternal spousal-bridal central hearth at the very core of both planet & universe : the breath of Spirit hovering with seraphic wings over & around Time & Space.

This "kingdom" is near at hand : it is coming with the "birth-pangs" of the earth : it is within you, it is amidst us.  This is what Jesus keeps saying : proving with his person & his presence, right through death to everlasting life.

Jesus Thoughts (15) : Venn sketches

Fleeting note in the interstices of work, to follow up on (14).  Word to the wise : those of you who bump into this thread for the first time might want to start at the beginning, posted on Nov. 1 (the prologue).  The early parcels lay out the foundations for these later, perhaps more baroque (confusing?) flights of stone steps.

So, if we accept the hypothetical proposal of the previous posting - if we consider the possibility that we ourselves embody the resurrection of Jesus (being, through the Holy Ghost, his "body" on earth) - what are some of the consequences?

I read somewhere (& now I'm surely garbling it all - oh yes, it was in a monograph on the theology of the Byzantine monk, Maximus the Confessor) that when we think about the nature of personhood, of the person in the context of Jesus, we are not talking about the biological, genetic inheritance which we all share as human beings.  What distinguishes the person from humanity in general involves more than just our unique pattern of inherited DNA.  What distinguishes a particular person is their way of being in the world : their pattern of responding, choosing, acting, changing - alone and with others - through all the jungle of a life-experience.

One of the warnings Jesus in the Gospels directs to his disciples is this : "If you would emulate me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me."  So one of the immediate consequences of being the resurrection is that we are called upon to follow in the way of Jesus the person : casting off some of our own ways on behalf of this new spirit we embody.

In many ways it's like living at the matrix of a Venn diagram (the shared area of two intersecting circles).  We are ourselves, in our own place & time - and we are also bearing, or showing-forth, the "name" (the personhood) of Jesus, who inhabited his own place & time (as well as transcending it).  We are two-in-one : a parallel to the original duality of the God-Man (the basic Venn diagram).

This Venn diagram, then, is rooted in actual history.  As noted in the previous post (14), Christianity is in part a commemorative society : we remember the presence of Jesus on earth.  So what we do & are is grounded in the actuality of world-time.  Both history at large, and our own individual history, are united in a recognition of the personal enactment accomplished in, represented by, the life of Jesus.

A Venn diagram is a representation of fusion & synthesis, of two-in-one, of two-&-one.  The two remain distinct, but they are joined.  So Jesus says, "take up your cross."  We each face a crossroad, a matrix of time, chance & necessity - a focal point of existential choice & decision.  The cross is an image of suffering and death.  Yet it is also the matrix of supernatural reality : the dramatic focal point in which & through which God says, "Behold, I make all things new."

So we each have our own cross.  And if indeed we are the resurrection, here & now, then we are, in a sense, "children of the Most High" just as Jesus was : we stand at the center of the cosmos given for us, to us.  We must "be the Messiah" of our own lives, our own place & time.  We must build up in love, & healing, & encouragement, & wisdom. We must repent - change - "deny ourselves" - for the sake of God & our neighbor.  We must break the spiritual chains of oppression & hate, through a turn to the everlasting Love.  And each step on this "way" promises a qualitative change in the texture of our own experience : we actually become the "children of God", lifted by love toward the source of the universe.

When we open our eyes, we recognize that every human being is this same imago Dei - image of Christ - in their own lives.  Some may have distorted or tarnished this image, some might remain in a sense "in embryo" - but moment by moment we don't know what will burst forth from the consciousness of an "image of God".  This is the irreducible egalitarian reality at the root of the "Great Commandment" : "love God with all your heart, mind & strength, and love your neighbor as yourself."

The Great Commandment, at the matrix of Judeo-Christian faith, itself forms the geometry of a cross (horizontal, toward the neighbor, & vertical, toward God).  & I've been thinking a lot lately about the Native American gesture, performed in ritual services - lifting a branch of cottonwood toward the six directions (up, down, east, west, north, south).  Ordering the cosmos toward the Great Spirit, in the outline of a diamond, an octahedron.  This six-pointed, 8-sided shape can be said to represent a cross that wheels in every direction, like an internal gyroscope - or a sign carried over from the original cross (in Jerusalem) into the "New World" of every person's spiritual life.


Jesus Thoughts (14) : on Resurrection

News that a famous American poet, Jack Gilbert, passed away on Nov. 11th.   A solitary figure, who avoided the limelight, working away on his spare, very free, very moving poems.  He was 87, afflicted with Alzheimer's (as Edwin Honig had been).   But his Collected Poems had just come out, from a major publishing house.  Poetry is all about time & timing.  Now the mourning & celebration sounds are coming from the literary world, & his poems shine brighter than before.  (To tell the truth I've never been very aware of him, or familiar with his work; but I picked up this new volume from the library shelf today, and am realizing I missed a lot there.)

A person dies, but leaves a ghostly trace in the work they have done.  In the case of art, music, poetry, sometimes it bursts into flame repeatedly long after they are gone.

I'm thinking about Jesus, and recalling a certain idea about the Resurrection that struck me a few months ago.  But I'll get to that in a minute.  I'm thinking about the impact Jesus had on those around him : this figure of brilliant charismatic gifts - his magnetism & affection, his healing powers, his teachings, his eloquence, his prophetic utterance.  The electricity that must have surrounded him like a buzzing power field.  And especially his radical, uncompromising claim : to be the expected Messiah : that claim which brought him inexorably into conflict with the established authorities in Jerusalem (and Rome) : which brought him to crucifixion on Golgotha ("the place of a skull").

The Resurrection is a deep-shaded mystery.  But I think we can hypothesize that, whatever "really happened", the way of life which Jesus's friends & followers began after his death amounted to the most serious form of commitment to mourn & remember him.  It may sound heretical or out-of-bounds to compare their response to other cults of martyrdom and mourning (say, for beloved poets, or the martyr-figures or deceased spiritual leaders of other religions) - but I think it's fair to say there are at least some resemblances.  Christianity is in a certain sense the largest, most powerful association of mourning & remembrance the world has ever seen.  Christianity is much more than that : but I want to sketch this scene out as a kind of background to keep in mind.  This religion still registers the visceral shock & grief which Jesus's followers felt, when this incomparably vital, earth-shaking, life-changing presence in their midst was suddenly, violently thrown down.

The Resurrection is a deep well.  I like to think about Mary Magdalen as she is sometimes called, the "first apostle" - since according to the Gospels, she was the first to spread the news that Jesus's tomb was empty - that angels had told her to seek him in Galilee.  (The mysterious Gospel of John has a slightly different version : Mary meets the resurrected Jesus in the garden beside the tomb, & at first mistakes him for "the gardener".  I can't get away from the notion that this lovely, slightly comic scene - straight out of Shakespeare's late romances - has some kind of underlying symbolic meaning.  The gardener - as Adam?  Maybe.)

The message of the early Church is that the resurrected Jesus appeared to them several times; ascended to the Father in heaven; and sent the Holy Ghost : to be within & amongst them all, binding them together as the reborn body of Christ on earth, until he comes again.  I'm convinced of the essential truth of this message, even though the whole process remains a great & alluring enigma, & even though I believe that as regards the Bible, things "literal" must be taken with a grain of salt.  We must "judge for ourselves what is right," as Jesus says to the Pharisees.

But it occurred to me a few months ago that one could think about the meaning of the Resurrection in the following way.  I'm not saying this is orthodox, or even acceptable; maybe it's not even true.  But it's an imaginative approach.  The thought occurred to me that the process of Jesus' death, Resurrection, & sending of the Spirit could be conceptualized as follows : simply, that Jesus died, yes - & is resurrected in us.  This is the ultimate, over-arching power of the Holy Ghost working in us : this is the power that God grants - that "glorious freedom of the children of God" to which St. Paul attests.  To be the Resurrection in our own place & time on earth : to be Christ, here, now - as manifested in our own distinct personhood, our own fate & vocation.

This, I admit, does not jibe perfectly with the doctrine of the Church : that we are waiting for the 2nd coming of Christ - that nothing is fully accomplished until that "end-time" takes place.  But I think, on the other hand, this perspective might possibly give us a glimpse of what it might mean to live in constant gratitude for the simple fact of existence, of being alive.  (This "gratitude-for-existence" is something which Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, and the Acmeist poets, expressed as a basic principle.)  If, having been "born again", we are the resurrection of Jesus - then suddenly "all things are made new" : we have a task to re-present Christ, here, now.  & maybe this would be understood to "fit" the orthodox doctrine after all, in some sense : if we re-examine the pattern of death-resurrection-ascension-glorification, then each of us is at the stage of resurrection - the pre-ascension stage, which still awaits the ultimate "end" of history, the "end of the age".

Somehow I like this notion, anyway, if only perhaps in a poetic sense.  The early Church mourned the living Jesus, who had died, who was gone; we were all, as Paul wrote, "baptized into his death".  Yet at the same time, in the power of the Holy Ghost, we also live out the resurrection : in the most particular local distinct personal & global & contemporary sense of the word (here & now).

There is an saying of that terse, cryptic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus - something like "living each other's death, dying each other's life" (how does it go?) - which encapsulates the unusual schema for resurrection I am sketching here.


Jesus Thoughts (13) : Psychic Sidestep

Being what they call a glutton for books, a non-stop reader, & working in a big library, & always following vague hunches & intuitions in my hunt for material, which is all caught up with what I'm trying to do in poetry, which is an obsessive pursuit in tandem with the reading.... well, it leads me into obscure corners.

"Synchronicity" : the term from Jungian psychology for the uncanny conjunction of seemingly chance events in the outside world, with one's own thoughts, or the inner world of the psyche.  I'd been thinking about this lately since I was working on a book review of Christian Wiman's volume of Mandelstam translations (Stolen Air) - why?  Because the review work brought back memories of my own first encounters with Mandelstam's poetry, back in the 1970s... which led me to reflect on the psychic crisis I went through in college, & the literary-synchronic strangenesses which happened to me - the happenings - in those days.

& perhaps I also began to triangulate recently on these issues due to some other recent researches, into the cathedral of St. Apollinare in Clase, and its connection with imagery in Dante's Paradiso (see Jeffrey Schnapp's book, Transfiguration of history... on that). A pun is a sort of miniature synchronism (of senses in sound)... & it got me thinking about one of my favorite poets from the old days (my old days, early 70s), Guillaume Apollinaire (though come to think of it that's not really a pun : who knows, Apollinaire may have originally been named after the saint).  Soon enough I was immersing myself in a flurry of old French poets, as if part of me was sinking back into a 2nd literary childhood...

What does all this have to do with Jesus, you ask?  Well, I was going to say that this general trend of my book-devouring led me to a very interesting & curious little-known (eccentric?) interdisciplinary book by Marie-Louise von Franz, a student & disciple of Carl Jung : Number and Time.  This is an extremely erudite & wide-ranging meld of physics, mathematics and Jungian psychology, which examines this phenomenon of synchronicity, and proposes a sort of cosmic order rooted in basic numbers (1, 2, 3, 4...) which embody forces shaping both the mind and the physical universe - Franz's unum mundus (world-unity).   It's rooted in Jung's metaphysical psychology, which posits a cosmic Self uniting all opposing forces in nature, mandala-like.  An awesome and mysterious (strictly beyond conscious awareness) Mind or conjunction of opposites (subsuming good & evil).

I've always had mixed feelings about Jung.  On the one hand, he seems remarkably perceptive about the artistic personality, and many of the things I went through in late adolescence seem amenable to a "Jungian" interpretation (those uncanny experiences in the midst of a crisis).  On the other hand, he strikes me perhaps as a kind of Gnostic : as a "scientist" of the mind, he pursues explanations of things down dark corridors of mind & personality - explanations which reach toward the mystical & the cosmic.  Yet I wonder if his  theory of the cosmic Self might be a sort of spiritual over-reach of some kind.  It's so close to the religious vision - the sense of a metaphysical dimension transcending & ordering the physical - a dimension which is also personal in some mysterious fashion; yet in trying to present a theory of Totality rooted in a Self which combines good & evil, it seems like he may also be reaching beyond Christianity.

There is much of warning in the Gospels about the awesome threat of God the Father's eternal judgement.  "If your hand causeth offense, it is better to cut it off than to lose your whole soul to hell" (rough paraphrase from memory).  Or : "Do not fear those who can destroy the body; fear Him who can destroy the soul in eternal fire!" (another rough paraphrase).  A Jungian might see these warnings as evidence of a parallel notion of the frightening aspect of the ultimate Self.  But what Jungianism might be missing is the time dimension of salvation history.  The work of the Christian Trinity is manifest in time as a procession of saving acts.  We have to grasp that this invitation to salvation and renewal is addressed directly to us, now, spoken by God-become-Man : the context of understanding (the insight of the Holy Ghost) is everything in these realms.  We have to move beyond theory & intellectual speculation to action, to personal commitment, body & soul.

Jung, it seems, was fascinated by the mathematical structure of the psyche : the basic orientation by four (in the human body, in mandalas, in maps, etc. etc.).  Marie-L. von Franz explores these concepts in great depth.  Jung saw an oscillation (in the psyche, in reality) - a flickering - between three-four... I find these concepts very fascinating too, esp. in relation to making poetry.  If we think of the Trinity - the Son & the Father, leading to the "procession" (the manifestation) of their witness & "advocate", the Holy Spirit (the very spirit of God in the body of the Church) - perhaps the matrix of that body - be it the Virgin Mary, the center of the earth, the center of the church, the center of our own individual soul - could be thought of as the "fourth".  I think Jung might assent to this (though I'm by no means an expert, or even very familiar with his complex work).  Where I hesitate to "follow" Jung is that sometimes in reading him I sense a curious kind of gnostic pedantry at work : the "explanation" of mysteries takes the place of a more active, direct commitment to the historical, actual embodiment of faith.

I'm probably not being fair to Jung.  After all, Jesus himself says "God is Spirit and truth : & those who worship him do so in spirit and truth" - and there's something heroic about his liminal truth-search into the dark underside of the human mind.  Often enough he prefaces his writings with a disclaimer : they are psychology, not theology.  Maybe it's my own problem : a personal hesitancy to grapple with some of my own "unconsciousness".

I have to say I'm deep into Number and Time, though.  Franz's discussion of the numerical dimensions of Chinese thought - the mandalas of number from the I Ching etc. - is very absorbing.  Having just finished a very very long poem designed ornately around a symbolic number (the atomic number of Lanthanum, #57) - I feel an affinity here...

p.s. (a few hrs later.)  I'd like to summarize with a little more precision what appeals to me in M-L von Franz's Jungian approach, and what gives me pause on the other hand.  One of the main themes of Number and Time is the view of number as a mediator or mid-point between the psychic and the physical; Franz examines ancient Chinese modes of divination as representing an approach to reality which is irreducibly personal.  The aim of divination is to examine the "field" of phenomena (by numbering) at a certain moment in time, in order to understand its meaning for the person for whom the die are cast.  The play of chance allows for the decree of fate.  Franz explores how this attitude is not that different from certain streams in 20th-cent. physics; time & space and physical phenomena are inseparable from the position of the observer (I'm drastically simplifying Franz's thesis here).  She concludes (in a Jungian mode) that the ultimate meaning of phenomena involves the person, the self - perhaps in a dramatic analogy to the cosmological or collective Self at the creative source of all phenomena.  These are "fields" which cannot be objectified or depersonalized.  This I can agree with, I think : & it rhymes with my sense of the epistemology of Michael Polanyi (in Personal Knowledge and other writings).

What I am less taken with, in the Jungian approach, is the idea of a collective unconscious, structured by  fixed "archetypes" shared by all human beings, and unified by an unknowable Self (in the unconscious) with which the ego seeks to be (re)integrated.  There may indeed be certain "constellations" of mythological projections, representing durable aspects of human nature & personality : I'm just not sure I would grant them autonomy within an unconscious "structure".  To do so seems to lead in the direction of what I was trying to describe above as Jung's turn to abstraction or gnostic "knowledge" in the description of ultimate Reality.  Again, this is probably being unfair to Jung, a many-sided, subtle thinker if there ever was one.  Yet for me the ultimate Reality does not "reside" in the unconscious, or in any identifiable metaphysical "place" or intellectual formulation.  The ultimate Reality is not an objectively describable "Self" (no matter how awesome or obscure) : it is a relation between persons and Persons, not fixed by anything other than agape, caritas, love.

Again, to repeat : I'm not representing either Franz or Jung very thoroughly or accurately here.  I'm just responding to them, informally, provisionally (this is a conversation, not a paper).


Jesus Thoughts (12) : & Jimi Hendrix, too

Well I stand up next to a mountain
Chop it down with the edge of my hand
- Jimi Hendrix, "Voodoo Child"

 “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.
- Gospel of Matthew

I don't think I can stand up next to a mountain and tell it to jump into the sea (though I'm sure Jimi Hendrix could).  This is because I don't believe I myself am capable of doing that.  If I did, I certainly would tell a mountain to jump into the sea - especially if it happened on a Friday afternoon after working all day in a library.  Tossing a mountain into Narragansett Bay would be a nice change of routine.

& yet I do have faith in God (for which I'm grateful).  It's grown more firm over time - maybe I've ripened somehow.  Perhaps I'm fooling myself, but I feel less enmeshed in my own web of mistakes, troubles & distractions than I did when I was young (now I've jinxed myself!  Watch that mountain fall on my head).

My faith is like a GPS system, or a lighthouse projecting beams into the imponderable fog around me.  My imagination projects my conjectures about things... I model my hunches based on what I believe to be the case.

What do I see through these faith-goggles?  I see a kaleidoscope of millions of people like me, billions of individual faces of persons; & I see how much I don't see : that is to say, what I (with my partially-blind vision) comprehend about people and persons is extremely limited, distorted, vague & fuzzy.  What I comprehend about persons is really only a surface sketch, or a mental analogy, of that mysterious substantial something, the "I am" of each individual.  & I believe the person per se is more profound & substantial than I can project or imagine.

So I believe in this world of a cloud of leaves of persons, flowing & standing together in a mystery of planetary time & space, heading through suffering experience on paths toward deeper encounters, clearer understanding, more light, more light.  I see an almost Dantesque image of swirling circles of affectionate persons, joined together by a natural & supernatural agape - Dante's Man, the animale compagnevole (the friendly animal) : in a communion beyond time & space, transcending timespace - what Walt Whitman humorously celebrated as "adhesiveness".

I sense these lifting circles of spiritual joy - something seraphic, angelic - rising through time, as each one of those persons lifts up their own cross of spirit & truth - that is, the cross of showing forth love for God, neighbor, enemy - offering service to others, denying oneself... I see the outcome of those hidden good deeds ("as ye sow, so shall ye reap;"  & "to those who give, shall more be given : good measure, overflowing, shall be poured into their lap").  I see the invisible, unacknowledged, humble works of service & charity carried out now and at each moment everywhere by millions upon millions of such persons on earth, of whatever tribe or faith, human beings...

I see humanity being transfigured in toto by the Word of God as a shared bread & wine of joy & a "peace which passeth understanding" - a transfiguration which is the purpose and telos of the earth itself, its "birth-pangs" in time & history : this is God building the human house on earth, through the Word become Person & arriving amongst us....

... & Jimi Hendrix too.  Toot-toot!  Tout suiteLaissez les bons temps roulez.

Reply to Brandon Brown & the Harriet blog

Harriet, the popular poetry website managed by the mighty Poetry Foundation, recently featured a "Craft Work" posting by Brandon Brown.  Brandon fashions his essay in reply to some comments I had posted to a previous Harriet feature, way back in February, 2010 (which was a dialogue on the art of translation between Brown and David Larsen).  So I'd like to respond briefly to this recent article.

(As an aside, it seems slightly ironic to me that the editors of Harriet, after closing down their "comments" function and no longer allowing online discussion, would feature an article whose entire argument is a response to some comments posted there over two years ago.)

First, I apologize to Brandon Brown for giving him the impression that I was tarring him personally as "effete, decadent."  For despite his claims to the contrary, his essay is in fact a light-hearted parody of his own "decadent" lifestyle.  He seems to have taken my comments to heart indeed.  My criticisms of Brown & Larsen's positions were most definitely not meant to be "about" Brown & Larsen : they reflect differing views on the craft of translation, & nothing more.  Again, I'm sorry if my oftimes grouchy-old-guy manner hurt anyone's feelings.

As for the substance of these debates, though, my own view remains the same.  Brown & Larsen's take on translation seems to participate in trendy recent currents in the American poetry scene.  They involve different kinds of procedural interventions, meant to detach art from perceived outdated modes of originality, uniqueness, personality, and willed craft.  "Conceptual poetry", "uncreative writing", chance operations based on appropriation of prior texts, parodies and pop-cult travesties of "traditional" works - this is the mode in which Brown & Larsen participate.  They represent a generation following in the footsteps of Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein & the "Language" school, who sought to replace the conventional "creative writing" styles of the 1970s with methods modeled on postmodern theory (abstraction, displacement, non-referentiality, simulacra, etc. etc.).

Both generations piggyback on the 20th-century zeitgeist of Western science, in which "objective" technical knowledge is rooted in abstraction, de-personalization, and a detachment of language from direct representation of things.  Western science deals in aggregates, probabilities and statistics, rather than distinct entities or individualities.  (This reigning zeitgeist, however, is not actually congruent with the most advanced thinking in 20th century physics and mathematics.  See a little-known work by Marie von Franz, Number and Time, for a terrific comparative exploration of Western & Chinese science/philosophy.)

Works of poetry and art, like ancient China's oracles and modes of divination, are rooted in distinction :  an irreducible uniqueness and singularity.  Art is an expression of wholeness, or a vision of the whole, by way of the particular : the unique moment :  the incomparable person, place or thing.  Art is a conjunction of opposites : the one with the many, the specific with the general.  These may sound like commonplaces, conventional cliches : but the attitude one takes toward the unique and incomparable has implications for the art of translation.

There is no doubt that chance and creative spontaneity play a huge role in both art and science.  But translation and the making of original poetry are two different activities.  Original poetry subsists in a particular milieu : a distinct language, culture, landscape and historical time.  Poetry emerges and speaks from that distinct milieu.  It is from that irreducible field that poetry addresses our own particular place and time.

The only real conversation involves a recognition of the other : an acknowledgement of a personhood distinct and different from our own.  The only real learning that takes place involves an encounter with something different, something unknown.

The principles I'm trying to sketch out here seem to be rejected by the trends in poetry and translation represented by Brown & Larsen.  When Brown (half in jest, I suppose) proclaims an art of translation based in a "revolt" against the quasi-political or ideological "sovereignty" of the original work, I read this as an admission of cultural solipsism.  We are not going to encounter the original, by way of an effort to understand a foreign language or a different culture.  We are going to forgo any attempt (however limited & imperfect) to transmit the values of a foreign literary text into our own language.  Instead we are simply going to appropriate chunks of already pre-translated versions, or untranslated originals, and absorb them into our own creative projects - leaving the original and its distinct milieu lying in the dust.  We are not really interested in the other writing, the other culture, or interested in trying to share it by way of an equivalence : we don't actually believe in the substance of translation, which is that literary values can be shared (in a limited, imperfect way) across different languages.

Paradoxically, the capacity to transmit and exchange poetry and literature depends on an a recognition of the irreducible singularity and otherness of the works we are trying to share.  It seems ironic to me that American poets would, even in jest, dispute the ideological "sovereignty" of a work in another language, from another land.  Here we are, in the great & powerful United States, pathetically unwilling and unable to master diverse foreign languages, incurious about history, geography, and just about anything outside our own sophomoric pop-cult narcissism.  How sad.


Jesus Thoughts (11) : on a Bruegel day

Fleeting short thoughts this morning, at work.  Glancing out the library window, at a Bruegelish autumn scene : snow on the rooftops, the Unitarian steeple.  Low clouds roving up from the south (Narragansett Bay); a few flickers of gold leaf flaking off the maple trees; huddled shrouded monkish people walking by, leaning into the wind.

The recurrent, obscure & pleasant fantasy-sensation of drifting into the seamless continuum of a Bruegel landscape.  Or is it a sense of heavy stones dusted with snow in the Middle Ages.  Or is it a sense of a time-warp, an anachronism, a synchronicity.  Or is it just an imaginary (willfully imagined) feeling of stillness : of Time slowing down, the wheel coming to a halt.

Forgive me for my self-indulgence here; maybe I'm just an old monkish librarian.  Thinking this morning of one of Jesus' parables of the kingdom of heaven (& I've probably got it slightly wrong, you'd better look it up).  Here's my rough paraphrase :

The Kingdom of God is as when a rich householder throws a wedding feast.  He invites all his friends, all the rich & powerful & intelligent, the priests, the scribes, the lords; but nobody shows up.  So angrily he throw open the doors and invites everybody in : sinners, criminals, the sick, the homeless, the poor.  & they flock inside, happily celebrate with their host.  But one young man shows up without a wedding outfit : the servants of the householder confront him : "What? No wedding suit?"  & toss him out.  & so it will be for each & all, when the Eternal comes upon you.

"When the Eternal comes."  What does this mean?

To repeat : I think Jesus believed he was the Messiah, the Son of the Most High - & understood what it meant, its implications.  One of those consequences was that "in his name" - in his name - salvation, healing & blessings were coming into the world.  What was "his name"?  Among other things, it was the sign of his individual personhood.  Through the action of God coming into the world as an actual person, the form of the individual human life, the life of the person, is blessed, is made holy.  As it's been put in another way : Man as the original Adamic "image of God" is cleaned, polished and restored through the "name" (the personhood) of Jesus.

Once he began his "public" career, Jesus lived his life as a sacrificial priest, making a sacrifice of his life : & in doing so, every such public act became symbolic, a dramatic sign.  The life he lived became framed within the aegis of its end : he was moving toward his own death, he was moving into the dimension of eternity.

And there must be an "eternal" dimension to every person's life.  The Bible, the "Word", sets up a kind of light-reflective mirror.  On the one hand, we see the outward, "objective" traces of the historical record, the chronicle of the radiating vibrations from Jesus' actual life on earth.  On the other hand, in the mirror of the word, we sense the inward meaning of the Gospel message as it impinges on own personal consciousness (within our "subjectivity").  A curious doubleness, a complementarity of inner & outer weaves itself together in this "mirror" Logos.

I'm looking out the window, at the wintry Bruegel-world.  Sensing strange oneness, underlying time & distance : like these dark red-gold leaves, flying, floating & clustering everywhere, pervasive, omnipresent - under a worn old lamb-statue, leaning out from a cathedral door.  "When the Eternal comes..." (will I have my wedding coat?).


After Apollinaire (long after)

As part of my current 2nd childhood project, I've been wrapped up in Guillaume Apollinaire.   Much absorbed in his Villonesque, Verlaineish life & verses.  Goes back to an early attraction, affection.  Here's the first poem of mine published in RI, written as a freshman at Brown U., outside sitting on the sidewalk around the corner from the library where I work today...

(after reading Apollinaire)

I made this notebook thoughtlessly
out of marks that separate me
from what my feet touch
though it bakes my eyes
each morning leaving a room
I find a lot of people without shoes
are whistling down the street
without caring about stars or dark bowls
a girl's hair beckons the evening on

in the warm air the first fly of spring
drones about my face looking for summer
short-legged people with winter hats
glance at the sun and bounce off the sidewalk
my back to a warm wall
I know how silence defeats love
leaning like an old man
against a warm day like this


Now that I AM (just about) an old man,  around the corner from this poem (40 yrs ago)...

Jesus Thoughts (10) : the Son of Man goes...

Only stray thoughts here today : I don't have much time or energy.

This line from the Gospel of Luke crossed my mind this morning (King James Version) : "And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!"  Actually in my mind I had mixed up two different passages from Luke.  Here's the other one : "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!"

So similar in tone and meaning; maybe they hearken back to a single teaching.  The first one is applied to Judas (who betrays Christ to the authorities); the second to people in general.  It's been (traditionally) interpreted that Jesus is saying, though everything that happens is ultimately determined by God's providence, this does not excuse those who do wrong : they can expect to face "woe" for their actions.

This morning, when I thought about this phrase ("the Son of Man goes as it has been determined"), once again I was struck by the double meaning Jesus is playing with here : the "Son of Man" conflates Jesus himself, the Messiah, with another, generic sense - the "Son of Man" is Everyman.  What happens to Jesus in person is unique and personal; yet it is also representative of human fate at large.

I hear someone uttering this sentence : "the Son of Man goes..." with their eyes open, directly facing their own ineluctable mortality.  It is like the voice of someone already speaking from beyond the grave.  "The Son of Man goes as it has been determined..."  It is a haunting phrase.  It is also simply a warning, a word to the wise.  What we do on earth has its term, its end : yet, if we indeed have a soul, we will carry the trace of all our actions into the "next world" : what we do impinges on our soul : how we stand toward others will be represented & reflected in how we stand with others for eternity.  So it's an admonition : think about how you live with others, while you have time : your love & your hate, your kindness & your cruelty, your affections & your enmities, your generosity & selfishness, are carried over into that realm of invisible quantum-timespace-"spooky action at a distance" fellowship to come.


Jesus Thoughts (9) : Election affinities

As it's Election Day here in the U.S., I will endeavor to steer this imaginary conversation toward the galaxy of spiritual election.

Cosmic oceans of ink have been spilled on the subject of monotheism, its historical/cultural development, & (recently) on the shifting, tricksterish, unaccountable personality of Yahweh as portrayed in the Bible.  I'm just going to try to articulate what strike me as the most basic & important features of this portrait.

Three features stand out :
1) this God is a Creator.  As I tried to describe early on in this thread, the Genesis story of "creation in 7 days" sets the cosmos within a solar/planetary framework of day, week and year - a way of "domesticating" the universe for Man.  The seasonal rituals of Judaism are in part, then, a kind of annual dance of celebration within this scheme.  And this feature lays the groundwork for :
 2) this God is a Savior.  This may be the most distinctive aspect of Yahweh : he enters History as an agent on behalf of the lowly & the oppressed (saving the Hebrews from exile and oppression in Egypt : leading them to their Promised Land).  The Bible is in this sense an epic, quasi-historical chronicle - a "transgressive" mix-up of genres (theology, history, poetry).  Which leads to the third, fateful characteristic :
3) this God is Universal.  The texts of the prophets make two great claims in the latter portions of the Bible : first, that Yahweh is the God of all things and all people, who has called the Jews to be a "priestly nation", offering worship and sacrifice for all nations; and second, that the Messiah promised through Moses is coming, at some future time, to complete the salvation of Israel and the whole world.

When, firstly, the Bible portrays a personal (though at the same time invisible, ineffable) God, who intervenes in history in order to establish his elect - his chosen people - for the purposes of world salvation - and then, secondly, declares through his prophets that he will send his Messiah - the combination of these two elements lays the ineluctable groundwork for the appearance of one who will claim that mantle, bring it to fruition (the Messiah).  The Messiah, as the personal "representative" of a personal God, is what you might call "the elect of the elect" : one can imagine the wonder, unease and tumult that such a claim would unleash at any time or place.

I want to go back to the 2nd of the three original characteristics of Yahweh for a moment, since the Messiah is, again, presenting an enactment of salvation.  The Hebrew "God as Savior" is distinct from other gods and religions in that, rather than being welded into a hierarchical, authoritarian structure of cultural power (say the Egyptian or Assyrian sacred kings), Yahweh is the God of the lowly, the poor & the oppressed : he challenges, undermines, and overthrows kings and empires on behalf of a universal spiritual relation between every person and his or her Creator.  We need to underline this distinctive quality of the Bible (pointed out memorably by Eric Auerbach in his masterwork, Mimesis) : here even the great kings and priests of Israel (Moses, David, Solomon...) are delineated in all their comical human weakness and imperfection - as wholly dependent on the grace of their saving God.

One of the implications of this egalitarian emphasis is that it short-circuits, again, the official mediation of "sacred rulers" (priests or kings), who would "authorize" the relation between human persons and God.  The barrier is beginning to be broken down.  But the radical claim of Jesus : to be the Messiah himself, to be, in fact, "one with the Father" - coexistent with the eternal Spirit of God - completely dissolves that barrier of mediating authority.  The personal God has manifested in person : the circle has come round.  Man and woman - persons - made "in the image of God" have been set in a contextual frame of earthly time and space (of history) which incarnates, embodies, this abstract ratio (Logos).  The spiritual relation between God and Man has been simultaneously universalized and personalized.  The "God of slaves and servants" has appeared fully embodied, as Isaiah predicted, "in the form of a servant" : but in this lowly approach (through suffering), Jesus serves by opening the cosmic door : the "Way" which unites the cosmic Source with the "children of God", and the children with each other.

Many of the early Christians suffered persecution and martyrdom as they traveled through the Roman Empire proclaiming this new "kingdom" of God.  But a pivotal change took place when, in a.d. 313, Emperor Constantine ended the suppression of Christian worship.  The Church, especially in the East, gradually became aligned with the authority of the State; while in the West, the decline of the Empire and the social disorder caused by the barbarian invasions forced the Church to take on many of the former responsibilities of government; bishops oversaw the safety and welfare of local communities.  The development of the Byzantine theocracy and medieval feudalism not only re-established archaic forms of mediating authority between the person and God; they also set in motion fateful changes in the relationship between Christians and Jews.  What had formerly been a matter of polemic and religious debate, became a rule of enforcement and discrimination (once Christianity became aligned with the power of the State).  The destiny of this fateful divide unfolded catastrophically in the 20th century, when malevolent Nazism exploited ancient religious divides and social enmities, the deep & poisoned well of anti-semitism.

The original message to Man is direct, without mediation of any earthbound authority.  It is a personal spiritual invitation to believe and understand.  Roger Williams (of Rhode Island) - who called himself a "seeker" - is the great saint of this principle, which he termed "soul liberty."  Williams' Rhode Island colony is considered the first government in history founded on an explicit separation of church and state.

I feel a curious personal connection with this particular story, since I was born on May 29, 1952, & thus celebrated my first birthday exactly 500 years after the fall of the Byzantine Empire (the conquest of Constantinople, 5.29.1453).


Jesus Thoughts (8) : repentance & belief

Will continue as I can with this line of conjectures, come confusion, rain or shine.  Gentle blog readers might want to start with #1 of these Thoughts - otherwise the drifts might be too high, the cloud banks too dark.  They will be dark enough anyway...

Have been thinking out loud here about the spiritual claims Jesus makes : that he is the Messiah, that with him the gate and the way to God's presence, the kingdom of God, is opened : which is a personal presence.  Which means that the ultimate ground of the cosmos is in some way, somehow, personal - beyond our sharpest consciousness & comprehension of what that might mean (in the abstract, anyway : we might experience it, however, in some kind of unknown spiritual trance or rapture).  In the depths.

But Jesus does more than simply make a claim for his status, for who he is.  His message, his mission, is to invite people to join him there.  The NT repeatedly summarizes the announcement he made as he wandered around Galilee and Judea :  "Repent and believe in the Gospel (the good news)."  

These two go together : repent and believe.  Why?  Well, for one thing, the spiritual pigeon-code, the message, he is delivering, is so earth-shaking, so transformative - such a shock to our ordinary earthbound perceptions and way of thinking, that we have to repent - to turn, to make an inward  moral change - in order to receive it.  it's simultaneously a moral and intellectual change which is demanded here.

If we accept the message, we are no longer grounded in common sense or material calculations : we are suddenly participating in some kind of previously-unknown spiritual community.  We are grounded in a relationship with the creator of the universe : as the NT puts it (I paraphrase from memory), "he gave men the power to become children of God."  Children of God.  It's an assertion which requires an almost incomprehensible revolution of consciousness. 

And it has a moral component.  If God is the pure power of infinite Love and Wisdom - the "whole Good" in a Platonic sense, or the goodness of the whole - then we are called upon to refashion our lives in response to this invitation to infinite love & joy.  We're asked to re-evaluate the partial goods we pursue on earth, in the context of an acknowledgement of a new spiritual dimension : the life of our eternal soul.  Inner and outer correspond to and influence each other, as in the saying "Give, and you shall receive."  What we acknowledge and do with respect to loving our neighbors as ourselves, will have repercussions on our inward state of mind and soul - every day, in every situation.  It really is an invitation to be "born again" into a new way of life, rooted in a spiritual dimension which we have until now shunted to the sidelines (a low priority).

It's an invitation, not a command.  I hold firmly with the notion that Jesus's message was never intended to condemn the world, but to liberate our minds - from an enslavement to anything less than eternal life.  God the father in Jesus's words, is a God of infinite love, mercy and forgiveness.  The renewal of repentance and belief which Jesus outlines is a challenge for every person - not an easy path.  We all have our burdens of inward & outward trouble, suffering and shame - our selfishness, our complacency, our moral obtuseness, our unkindness, our stupidity & rage, our fears, our despair.  "For unless you turn and become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God."  - this is a saying both easy and hard.  But listen to this : "Come unto me, you who are burdened and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.'  My burden is.... light.


A letter from World War I

Grandpa Edward Gould was an artillery captain in WW I.  He was around 20 yrs old at the time.  My brother Jim recently emailed this transcription of the 1st letter he wrote after the Armistice :

Envelope: (this was probably not original envelope – has a 5 cent Lincoln head stamp that is part of the envelope)

Writing on outside of envelope:

“Letter –

Edward S. Gould


His Dad Nov. 24th 1918”


“Nov. 24, 1918, Ville France –

Dear Pa: -

This is Fathers Xmas letter with a few events and dates to show how fast we went in this last drive.

After the Battle of Argonne we were sent back to Brocourt for a little rest and to get enough horses to haul our carriages.

We left there Oct. 26 and marched 30 kilometers thru the blackest nights without even a star out. On Oct. 27 we came to our first position for the drive. Romagne. This was a veritable hellhole – The German planes had us spotted and for three days we we[re] subjected to enfilading fire – The last day when the order for the advance came I had just completed a rolling barrage and the horses caissons and limbers having just pulled in to the side waiting for the fire to cease so they could limber up and make a quick getaway -  Four German 150mm high explosive bursts right square amongst them. Two of my caissons were blown so far in shell holes we just left them. But it would have done your heart good to see how those drivers of mine cut loose those horses hit and down and there was about 15 horses killed and many of the others had slugs in them and it wasn’t long before we were on the road. I had my hand roll in an ammunition shed and that was blown up and my hand roll looks like the pup played with it but luckily nothing inside was damaged. During all this heavy shelling though when we were getting direct hits on the battery position those gun crews did not miss a shot in the barrage.

We pulled out and up the road. This was Nov 1 and went in a position south of Remonville. This was a regular mudhole and the next day Nov. 2 we pulled up again – Our horses had been in the harness 60 hours without a rest and the mud was so heavy it took 5 pair to pull a gun carriage out to the road.

We advanced to a position in an aviation field near Barricourt. All along the road effect of American artillery on German retreat could be seen. German dead horses were everywhere along the road side.

Nov. 3 we advanced again. You can see by our advances how they were being pushed back, but they put up a heavy resistance all thru the drive. This time our position was just north of Beauclair. My reconnaissance officer was up selecting a position before the first wave had gone over and when we went into position we were only a kilometer behind the advancing infantry. On the night of Nov. 5 we were advancing again and going into position in woods thru a mudhole road when orders are changed and we are given orders to follow close on the infantry and protect the crossing of the Meuse. We came up on a dark night thru Laneuville and about 4 kilometers up the road toward Beaumont. It was lucky for us that it was misty and dark for the road was in direct view of the German hills for quite a distance and subject to constant shelling.

We came up between the 89th and 90thdivision [s]. We could see the first wave and the reserves back of us in the woods. Machine gunners on our right flank burning flares to protect bridges. I never will forget that march. Suppose you have read in the Newspapers of the crossing. I went over to the other side the next day to look around and a long hedge ran on the other side of the river. Behind this hedge machine gun pits were placed one right next to another.

We are back now at Ville France 7 kilometer from DunSu [not sure spelling] Meuse.

Hoping everyone will have a merry Xmas and a Happy New Year –

Yours Very Truly