Poem for a New Year


Quietness in Providence,
for them that can afford.
Calm streets (no Ford
Blunders).  Sabbath silence.

Another year is gathered in
to history.  Beautiful
vast former battlefields
blend into distance now (someone

booms a bell across a plain).
Only earth remains.
Infinity stains
each rusted blade, unreckoned pain.

Have you not felt, have you not seen
the lovely icon of
her face, beamed from above
on limpid threadsburied in the grass

so green?  Trepanned Apollinaire
smokes by her bedside,
spies stars in tears that slide
across her wide land’s cheek.  There,

there.  Everywoman wears
Night’s 99 candles now,
he mumbles.  On your brow
anonymous rain rinses the lairs

of lost crusaders, broken kings.
Your rustic diorama’s
humble panorama
magnifies in miniature – brings

crèche-gifts from the galaxy
to crushed paisan, bent
slave, dishonored filament
of glory.  A raven’s orthodoxy,

player’s rule – world-overturning
in one mild eye’s glance.
Epiphany or trance
transfigured into bird-learning –

the earth seen through a blade of grass,
a child’s infinity –
cosmic society
of spooky charity – forgiveness

born of magnanimity (O just
justice) & gratitude
(just being).  Simple prelude...
groaning Shostakovich, glittering dust

of Bach & Mendelssohn – a swirl
of sound now shapes your
ghostly figure (hour-
glass, bright everlasting Pearl) –


Two strands crossed, hidden in a field.
Of night & day, of earth
& sky, of raven-black
& light-brown, blonde.  A low tone sealed

their bond, a hum, a servant-song –
& then a lens caught fire
magnifying everywhere
Love’s equanimity (calm tuning-prong).



Allegorical Holiday

I wrote this poem about 35 years ago, soon after the birth of my son... seems to have some Christmas resonance (& maybe Hanukkah & Eid as well).


Only just arrived from the Milky Way
and still dwelling in the mountains,
the soft hills of the small planet
of your mother – you can relax,
your cradle snug in the branches;
all around you vague motions,
sounds of mingling birds or people;
over your head a bright mobile, swaying
and glittering like a sailing ship.

Only just lifted from the river,
still rocking with the evening ripples,
at that quiet hour when the earth
settles down to dream – who are you?
An echo of some voice, a reflection
at the water’s edge, in Egypt,
in the wilderness, in the Milky Way –
your little boat bumping the shoreline,
floating to the ocean sound asleep.

Only just delivered from your absence,
lifted from the mineshaft, from empty space;
only now beginning to awaken, to remember
all these familiar rhythms; just lifted
from the water and now lifted and held
aloft in your father’s arms – still
almost weightless, but gaining momentum,
little planet, little sun, coming down
to bear the full weight of the earth.

All Clear

... from an old poem with Christmas overtones (the Holy Family, after all, were homeless at the time) called "All Clear".   Published about 10 years ago in Fulcrum magazine.  (Note : poem was written during the 2000 Presidential campaign.  Reference to "pallid prize" in penultimate stanza : there are 132 rooms in the White House.)
Christmas is coming      but here      in sleepy-febrile Florida
tied at the neck      under stage lights      one big brother
wrestles with another      and      when this battle is over
who will wear the crown?      as a gospel voice in the rotunda

croons in my ear      and as reporters cluster by the grave
of Robert Trout (“Iron Man of the Blitz”) and you perceive,
ephebe, the idiom of this      intervention      (requiem
for a midnight sun      or century)      and through the nave

today      they bore a body to the columbarium
(rotund profundity beneath nine bells)      only him
(Brown, William Wallace, Jr.)      a homeless man
and blind     who stopped the wheels of the imperium

one day      right on the street      asking the father of
George W.      please pray for me      and he paused there
(the President)      and said      come along with me
to St. John’s      we’ll pray together

the music of what happens      when      no man is
and the bell tolls for thee      like Janis Joplin’s
high note      who will wear the crown?      your doom
Kosmos      a little world      curls into bronze

and sounds      from the 132 rms of a pallid prize
to the 132 acres of N. Main Cemetery (Providence)
where you’ll find me (here now      there then) mourning
a vagabonded      end of century      where a dove strays
from San Francisco      down to Florida      an unknown
hobo Noman      left behind      his leaf gone brown
is your redemption      (sleepy time and railroad
nation)      W.W. is his name      crowned    here    and    gone


Web of mutuality

Just rolling along with Ravenna Diagram.  (Dante Alighieri is buried in Ravenna.)


Listen to the waterfall.
Late-autumn rain.
Shadow of a raven
passing.  Mirror on the wall.

Through this hollowness of things
reflected... way-off echo
of a chord.  Blow,
Memphis trump.  The milk-train sings

at dawn.  I see a pine-swamp
in the background.  Gaunt
figure, shoulders bent
into the wash.  Her upright tramp.

The long fields, where trashmen sang,
collecting time, scars.
Equal among stars
is your little lamp, my lambchild.  Strong.

Underwater, in the river, borne
downstream... your friend.
In my beginning... end.
Blackboard scrape of railroad horn.

We seek a broad place, a place
to land.  Slave quarters,
the servants’ house (yours).
Squire’s antic foal is full of grace,

Jessie.  The minister of joy
praises with baritone,
bearing the tune (bone-
dry).  So we give thanks, Dante.



Personal Advent

Poets employ a type of fuzzy laser-light, reflecting & deflecting the living & dead poets who seem to be signaling them in turn.  Semaphore, smoke-signals.  I keep going back to the main poets who interest me, while also trying to spread out & venture into new regions.  I circle around Ezra Pound, for one.  There's a strange blinking mixed code emanating from him, so right & so wrong.

For some reason over the past year or so I've been delving a lot into anthropology & ancient belief systems & mythologies & prehistoric rites & the roots of human motivation... at least the theories about those roots...

I wrote an essay about the "New Gnostic" poets a while back (published online in the Coldfront zine).  Pound is important in that constellation of developments, along with Yeats.  Both of them deeply caught up in hermetic & occult philosophy.  Am now re-reading a good book on this topic, The Celestial Tradition : a study of Ezra Pound's The Cantos, by Demetres Tryphonopoulos.  The author explores what was called "the rising psychic tide" of all kinds of heterodox & occult beliefs & practices around 1880-1920, from the scholarly to the "thaumaturgic" & the fraudulent/comical hocus-pocus (see "Madame Sosostris" in Eliot's The Waste Land, for a sample).

Pound took no interest in Yeats' style of "practical" spiritualism (magic).  His was a more theoretical focus on the so-called ancient hermetic wisdom.  & his sifting of those traditions and values through the shaping of his poetry was very refined & remarkable, in some ways - and simultaneously extremely harmful & ugly.  His anti-semitism ran deep, his ideology always promoting the "pure, clean, luminous" mythology of the Greeks & the Romans, as opposed to the "dirty, evil" oppressions of the Judeo-Christian (Biblical) cultures.  He was fascinated by Catholicism - but as an expression of more ancient pagan "truths".

Just setting aside for a moment the hatefulness of Pound's anti-semitism - which parallels so closely the despicable Nazi ideology & program of degradation & de-humanization - I am struck by the irony of Pound's very serious, & sometimes beautiful, devotion to the spiritual heights of philosophical-poetic Wisdom.  As Tryphonopoulos so cogently explains, The Cantos are designed not as a narrative journey so much as a mystical initiation.  The process of reading The Cantos is meant to lead the seeker toward an inner spiritual enlightenment, joining the mind through poetry with the heights of wisdom represented by Confucius, the medieval saints & theologians, Ovid, Dante, etc. etc.  It's a very high-minded symposium of mystic illuminati, to which Pound is offering the reader an exalted poetic invitation.

What do I mean by "irony" in this case?  I'm thinking of the juxtaposition between Pound's fervent philosophical/mystical theme and his actual spiritual blindness.  There is the sense, reading his biographies, that perhaps, toward the end of his life, he himself had some awareness of this contrariety, this impasse.  Of course by calling his situation one of "spiritual blindness" I am expressing my own personal worldview...

The legacy of Biblical/Judaic/Christian spirituality includes, at its foundation, the sense that the Creator of the Universe (as we know it) is somehow "personal".   I see here a root contrast with Yeats, Pound, and the legacy of Neo-Platonism & hermetic gnosis.  In their case, spirituality and wisdom are a progress toward a kind of abstract higher wisdom itself.  The seeker is transfigured by spiritual knowledge into a kind of divine being.  Whereas, for Judaism & Christianity, spirituality is ultimately a relationship.  Though we cannot comprehend how the Origin of the Universe could possible be personal - except in some form of the person who reaches down into our own limited vision of the same - yet that is what we sense & believe the case to be.

This is underwritten (for Christianity) by the Trinitarian doctrine of "persons".   The philosophical synthesis (Greek-Judaic) achieved by such thinkers as the Byzantine monk Maximus the Confessor seems foundational - if not yet complete - in this regard.  (Not yet complete, in that while it represented a philosophical synthesis, it did not yet express a full reconciliation with Judaism : a task for the future.)  God is simultaneously present in the original Creator-Spirit, in his "Son-Servant" (Jesus), and in the "Holy Ghost" (present in the world, in infinite manifestations, now and everywhere).  In this way our notion of "person" is not abstracted into some merely transcendent sphere, but is fused with the personhood represented by a particular, historically-contingent, individual - which then serves as a kind of template for humankind in every other situation (rooted in loving relationship).  

For Pound, apparently, the essence of spirituality can be characterized as subjective experience.  For Judaism & Christianity, on the other hand, both the beginning and the end of spirituality rests in relationship.  This is not to say that Ezra Pound did not cherish his own dreams of utopia, human fellowship, and social justice.  But his basic orientation toward knowledge and wisdom - as a kind of abstract goal or measure, something to be achieved and learned - leaves aside any acknowledgement or  recognition of the prior (originating) presence of a sacred Personhood.  The fleeting appearances of Diana or Aphrodite as psychological experiences do not seem, in the end, to provide a firm ground for belief.  But he was searching.

I realize for some this is only another mode of mumbo-jumbo.  But I find reasonable support for this position in, among other places, the 20th-cent. philosophy of the scientist and polymath Michael Polanyi.  Polanyi's major work, Personal Knowledge, is a theory of epistemology.  What is knowledge, actually?  And how do we know anything?

For Polanyi, as his book title implies, all knowledge - including objective, scientific knowledge - is grounded and bounded by human subjectivity - by "personhood".  We don't develop "new knowledge" in the sciences, or any other field, without the mediation of human persons.  This sounds pretty obvious (in my sketchy summary) : but Polanyi draws out its consequences in quite profound ways.  He is able to bring the materialism and objectivity of 19th & 20th-cent. scientific positivism back into the moral/spiritual matrix of human persons : which was what Yeats & Pound themselves set out to do, a generation earlier.  With "faulty instruments" (cf. Eliot's Four Quartets).  The great ideological struggle of the "two cultures" (science and art, science & humanism, science & religion) finds a philosophical reconciliation in Polanyi's epistemology : one which Yeats & Pound so brilliantly sought, & so dramatically failed to find.

Michael Polanyi


Gateway Arch dream songs

I picked up this week's New Yorker (12.8) out of the mailbox tonight, & was surprised to see the cover art - a drawing of the Gateway Arch Monument in St. Louis.  It's a great image : the nation's racial divide surfacing in the very shape of one of the country's key architectural symbols - which happens to be in St. Louis.  The Arch also happens to be the key to a long poem of mine called Lanthanum, which was triggered by a strange dream I had one night about the Gateway Arch - which I've never seen, and had never previously given any thought.

The poem is not exactly topical - more like a long daydream or dream vision.  But the closing poem seems to gesture, a little bit, toward the basic question reflected in the magazine cover.  The poem was finished the day before the 4th of July, 2012.

       ...nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, 
       and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows.  They grasped not only the whole race of men then
       living, but... reached forward... seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon...     
          – Abraham Lincoln (Aug. 17, 1858)

Your birthday tomorrow, Grandma   born
on the 4th of July, 1900   far off there   in
Sunset Land   I’m thinking of you   & of
Great-Grandma   J.   2-wheeler captain’s

daughter   Jessie O.   Ophelia   the river-girl
now   at the end of this   milk-train rainbow
way back in   summertime   prairiespace   O
Jessie, little tree   I hear that lonesome horn

wail   my old St. Anthony trystle-humlet
suspended 7th   plunged into black earth
a shiny hinter-horn   of milky lanthanum
(dawn-anthem)   &   Amaranthousa   sets

her Pocahontaseal   a Morning Star   some
menorah-constellatio   over 50 more   their
hard-earned stripes   a chord (accord)   for
ear attuned   to Jubileeday (freequilibrium)

only a promise of   soul liberty   (Everyhew-
manever)   under these stars   their birthright
mine   may be   new birth of freedom   (night
brings dawn)   the sun of justice   risen again

to bloom   as once   on earth   in stable   born
out of the Pharaoh’s precinct   into happiness
just over Jordan (almondejoie) by wilderness
to mercy   forgiveness   peace   a Restoration

of all things   beneath two tender-tending wings   lark
tempering my mumbling   well, contrapuntal   polar
sarabande   (labor & rest   yin & yang).  Soar,
7/4   to 4x7 : welded   annealed   (almond birchbark)



The New Masons

As usual, I'm immersed in a serial poem which feels like a long-term construction project.  Only the most recent in a series of long poems (I've written 8 or 9 of them in the last 20 years).  I'm calling it, for various reasons, Ravenna Diagram.  (A Venn diagram, as you probably know, is based on a simple geometrical figure describing the intersection of two circles.)  In my experience, whenever I started fiddling with numbers & geometry, a poetic project is being born.

As part of my "research" I recently discovered a book from the 80s by John James titled Chartres : the masons who built a legend (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).  An eye-opener.  James is clearly someone with a builder/architect's background.  But he's a wonderful detective, too.  By studying the smallest changes & differences in details of Chartres' masonry & design, he's able to sketch out the individual masons/architects behind each part of the building.  There were at least 4-5 of them.  I find it marvelous how he illuminates their decisions in shaping & setting-out elements of this unbelievably massive stone structure.  He is also extremely sober, modest & circumspect in his judgements : there are no theoretical flights of fancy here.

One theme James emphasizes is the difference between the medieval artistic ethos & that of the post-Renaissance, modern era.  All these master designers & craftsmen are anonymous.  There is no cult of individual genius - no exalting of the fine artist (the sculptor, say) over the other workmen.  They work in teams.  Teams of teams, actually : each one guided by the characteristic artistry & temperament of the master mason, or team leader.

I started musing about this issue in relation to making poetry.  On the face of it, poetry today seems a typical phenomenon of that Modern individualism - maybe even an extreme manifestation, in comparison to other fields of endeavor.  I myself have certainly tried very hard to remain independent & idiosyncratic - absolutely free to do my own thing in poetry.

But if you scratch a little deeper you find traces of collective effort & collaboration in poetry.  Some poets in fact make an explicit counter-attack on individualism, forming group movements, defining their collective ethos & goals, engaging in collaborative writing projects.

I think there is a further level of collaboration, on a more implicit level.  It comes out of the poetic process itself - of reading, imitation, allusion, parody.  We model & shape our poems following, & revising, forms that have already impressed themselves upon us.  This process is in turn further shaped by collective "canon-formation" - when poets & poems enter the cultural bloodstream, moving from alien products to a kind of "second nature" (see Eugenio Montale's essay, "The Second Life of Art").

Long ago I became fascinated with the Acmeist group of pre-WWI St. Petersburg.  In many ways they were no different from the other modernist art movements springing up at that time (Futurism, Imagism, etc.).  A small group of young poets developed a shared sense of style & thematics - & sometimes formed personal friendships & alliances which long outlasted the platforms of the groups themselves.  In their early days, the Acmeists were quite formal about their activities - meeting at a long table at the prescribed time each week, reading & discussing poems with a kind of official sobriety, dedication & gravitas.  (At least that's one of the historical impressions which they left us.)

There seems a strange kind of literary eschatology involved here.  By that I mean the manifestation or instauration of an actual literary group seems to bring the implicit collective nature of art & craft to an explicit crystallization.  Something briefly surfaces which is perhaps there all the time.  Mandelstam's art of trans-historical allusive richness - & his emphasis on architecture as a prime analogue of the poetic art - are a key dimension of the Acmeist ethos.  Pushkin & Ovid are his contemporaries, Mandelstam proclaims.

There are parallels in American poetry of the same period.  John Irwin, in his massive study of Hart Crane, has brought to light the truly "Masonic" dimensions of The Bridge - the many layers of allusive groundwork laying a foundation for the song itself.  The poem is a "choral" piece, harmonizing American themes with ancient poetics (Crane clearly drawing on the "mythical methods" of Joyce, Eliot & Pound).

(As an aside, I am absolutely flummoxed by the striking parallels between Crane's mythography of Virgo, Astraea, & the Statue of Liberty in The Bridge - as outlined by Irwin - and the hidden Masonic thematics of the constellation Virgo - "the Corn Maiden" - explored by David Ovason in his fascinating book The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital.  This work seems to be more than just another New-Agey fantasy-occult book.  The intricate historical scholarship is remarkable.)

We are probably only beginning to explore this new (neo-medieval?) dynamic of artistic interaction : the collective building project & the characteristic thumbprint of the individual "master".  They go together.  Meanwhile nations & cultures, along their devious, submerged, counter-intuitive, dialectical paths, go about shaping the canonical myths of the future.

Poets : builders in the high room of the Pentecostal word.


Simone & Maximus & me

The French writer/philosopher/mystic Simone Weil appealed to me in the mid-1980s (still does).  Ascetic worker/dreamer; deep Biblical exegete.  I remember walking down to Seward's Folly bookshop, at the Fox Point end of Brook St., & asking Mr. Seward, the freewheeling eccentric bookseller & former Connecticut goat farmer, to look for a scarce book by her.  Seward threw up his hands.  "Simone Weil!  I adore that woman - but sometimes I want to grab her by the shoulders & give her a good shake!"

I can't remember much of what I read back then.  But I have a vague idea regarding some of her commentaries on the growth of the human soul.  How at a certain point the natural energies of the human person (like vegetation that runs out of water) wear themselves out; through mistakes & sufferings, the natural person reaches a psychic & physical limit.  Then only an infusion of supernatural grace can save the soul.

It meant something to me; I could identify with it.  I'd been there.

This is all by way of a lead-in to a second writer who (like Osip Mandelstam) has meant a lot to me, periodically, intermittently, over the years : the Byzantine theologian (& ordinary monk, & martyr) Maximus the Confessor.  I'm back again reading him, & about him (Microcosm & Mediator, by Lars Thunberg, is a magisterial study, a terrific book; Cosmic Liturgy, by Hans Urs von Balthasar, is another one).

My "professional" life in the vocation of poet has been a very strange & frustrating experience.  I think I speak for all poets when I say this (just kidding, sort of).  I'm absolutely sure that 99% of the mistakes along the way - moral, ethical, intellectual, aesthetic, etc. - have been my own.

But there is a kernel of strangeness in this overall experience - not so much strange, as uncanny - which I attribute to objective reality, rather than to my own quirks of psychology & moral turpitude.  This uncanny crux has something to do with Simone Weil's schema of the end of nature & the beginning of grace.

Maximus, I hazard to think, would trace Weil's divide back to the ur-distinction of his own theological vision : the difference between Creator and Creation.  What the worldview of brilliant Maximus does, however - with the suavity of Shakespeare & the incisiveness of Aristotle - is to reconcile this basic difference without blurring the distinction.  That is, he propounds a cosmic landscape, wherein the simple unknowable Oneness of the Creator is reconciled with the multitudinous Manyness of the Creation.  Incarnation is the name of that process by which the Many are harmonized with the One - by which all beings are united in creative Love, without losing their distinct identity & freedom as unique replicas of that original Creator.

I realize how hokey this sounds.  But it has a lot of resonance with the worldview of a poet who inherited - after many long centuries - the Orthodox legacy from Byzantium : Nikolai Gumilev, the founder of the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry, which Mandelstam & Akhmatova brought to full flower.  Gumilev adumbrated an underlying worldview for Acmeist poetics : he called it "chasteness".  It is something maybe akin to Walt Whitman's visionary sense of the "Union" of many equally beautiful things (small & great, humble & vast).  The idea is that poetry's moral purpose has to do with celebrating the "chasteness" - the inherent dignity - of all things on earth : because it (poetry) is a loving response - an echo - of the supernatural good will of their creative Origin.

This is a sort of mystical idea, I guess.  My own life as a poet is rooted, paradoxically, in a spiritual crisis & break from poetry.  I came to the end of my vegetable nature, so to speak (in Weil's sense), at the age of 19.  It was a common thing, & still is : a young person torn apart by the world's chaos, & by his or her own sense of betrayal (self-betrayal, betrayal of others).  The fanatic young enthusiasts of ISIS are not really that different.  They are Simone Weil's déracinés - the spiritually uprooted.  There but for the grace of God go I.

So I worked back slowly into poetry (thanks mostly to Stuart Blazer, John Tagliabue, Edwin Honig & Osip Mandelstam).  We are talking about things that happened 35 years ago, in the late 70s.  But these spiritual experiences marked me.  I have lived on the margins of "professional" poetry ever since.  There are many reasons for this, I admit, not all of them having to do with the present self-mythologizing.  But the central motive, the reason which keeps impelling me to write, is the theological one.  Once you have this salt of the realm of Jesus planted in you, it does not easily fade away.  It's a realm of supernatural joy : an infusion of saving grace : who would want to throw that away?


509 to 509

Wrote another quasi-occasional poem today.  A Thanksgiving yodel, completed at exactly 5:09 p.m. this afternoon.  I grew up at 509 Arthur St., in the Mendelssohn neighborhood of Edina/Hopkins (first settled in the 19th century by a bunch of young musicians of the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, hence its name).  & now, after much travail, my parents have moved to the Episcopal Home (senior living) near their old neighborhood of Tower Hill (Minneapolis) - into apartment # 509.  I'm very glad they made it there before Thanksgiving.  "There's a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will." (Hamlet)


The drizzle of sleet, monotonous
snare drum.  New England gloom
(Nor’easter coming).  To whom
shall we give thanks, U.S.?

Fields furl their cornucopia
to pumpkin horns.  Blow,
milkweed, for Fergus now –
so low on oil of gladness.  Yeah.

Can you loop some snarly comet
with your lariat?  Invite
that hobo down the street?
Unleash the joy in Joyce – the might

in Lincoln’s painful mite?  Mosey
on up with Moses, Jordan
way – beach Promised Land
in Plymouth sand?  Say yes in Yeshuee?

Wampum rests with Wampanoags.
Holidays rewind
red Vinland soil – to bind
the serpent to Kid George’s

fleecy cradle-calumet.  Your eyes
are Mirror Lakes, child;
Mendelssohn’s a neighborhood
for Minnesota symphonies;

the deep stars comprehend our schemes.
The bears all harmonize
& tumble through the skies
their growling round (hearth-beams).





Elkhart.  Planed (horizontal)
onto flat plate of the fields.
Winnebago windshields
flock to leeward (behind motel).

I mosey through October park.
Light amid oaks, the old
Masonic bandstand.  Lake-bound
rivers intermingle through dark

Indiana valves.  Small-town museum
could be Russian (one
spare Burchfield windblown
farm, out of Depression).  Hum

the highways, south of the lake (U.S.
80).  Truck route, grain-
belt shuttle.  Hymnal (plain-
song).  Bible radio.  Esso, S.O.S....

Black Elk might have passed through here
(on the train).  The Buick
shuttles east-west, slick
with amaranth, milkweed... sheer

sunset loom-dust (grain elevators).
My father in rehab,
voice faint (grabs
phone with one good hand’s

bone grip) at the end of the line.
The left-side vision’s
gone.  Yet mind’s precision
lifts hoarse laughter (like a highway sign).



Minnesota kenosis

Late Tuesday night, I'm in a semi-underground motel (former locker room?) off positively 4th St, in Dinkytown, Minneapolis (U of M neighborhood. Giant Koons-esque plastic statue of toothy Gopher in mini-lobby.  Nice place otherwise).  Have been here for a few weeks, far from typical subterranean hutch in Providence.  Trying to pilot parents into retirement abode - big project, since my mom, Mary Ravlin Gould, has been a plenipotentially prolific painter/potter/prosaist/packrat (the genuine article of unrecognized Tower Hill local artist, with some special 40's-ish, Sheeleresque, Burchfieldoid, oils & watercolors, streetcorners, grain elevators, Hopkins, people...).  & my dad, John Gould the patent lawyer (Frisbee, anyone?  Pacemaker?) is just hanging on, it seems, these days...

Anyway, just rambling here.  Was able to spend a good part of last Saturday at some of the "Berryman at 100" conference just across the river. Wish I could have taken it all in, including the large Irish contingence of convergent evence.  The talks by Kamran Javadizadeh (JB & Hart Crane), Alex Runchman (JB & Delmore Schwartz), Philip Coleman (on Berryman's influence on JM Coetzee & other novelists), Radu Vancu (on JB & his Romanian soul mate Mircea Evanescu), & Claudio Sansone, especially (on JB, EP, & EPic) were ultra-wonderful & supremely convergent for this Henry.  I was even emboldened & nervy enough to get up & recite a poem at the end of Saturday's proceedings.  I hope some people enjoyed the Ecclesiastes references.  I was, indeed, too nervous & too silly.  Would have liked to have properly introduced myself, as the person designated in the spring of 1972 to organize a weekend-long memorial reading/event in honor of Berryman (who taught at Brown briefly at Edwin Honig's invitation (I think, not positive), before going to Minnesota).

Well, all this terrifically academic information doesn't quite get at the quiddity of what's on my mind.  It's been a long couple weeks in my old home town.  Berryman lived at the eastern & western borders, respectively, of 3-4 generations of Goulds & Ravlins, who, non-academics all, occupied houses & apts in an area bounded roughly by Tower Hill and the Washington Bridge.  My grandfather John Ravlin, a civil engineer, built a number of the grain elevators dotting the immediate skyline (along with the Pig's Eye sewage plant).  My other grandfather, Edward Gould, another engineer, was a veteran of WW I, & acted as marshal for the Vets Day parades every year in Minneapolis (on horseback).  He was City Assessor of Mpls for 35 years or so.  I guess I'm from old Twin Cities people.  So I spent last Saturday - John Berryman's 100th birthday - shuttling between my parents' old apartment (where I currently serve as librarian, cleaner, nurse, cook, mover, etc.), & this marvelous poetry conference : shuttling across the bridge where Berryman most mournfully ended his marvelous life, on my grandfather Ravlin's birthday.  Me, Henry, thinking about my own Hart Crane/Berryman/Ezra Pound epical efforts (orbiting in turn around Grandpa Ravlin's granddaughter, my tragickal-ghostly cousin Juliet)...

Me, Henry.  When I thought about the implications of this red-letter day, & my odd part in it at the end, so close to the bridge there - I was reminded of Russian Czar Peter the Great's legendary (but historical) visit to Amsterdam in disguise.  The king in disguise.  I wrote about the connection between epic poetry and the theological concept of kenosis, once upon a time.  & I felt a happy affinity for material presented in several of the talks, esp. those by Radu Vancu, Claudio Sansone, and Kamran Javadizadeh. Yet on Saturday, at the end of the conference, I seemed more like the flaky clown among serious literary personaggi - the scholars, the editors, the lauded poets...  I was just a minor nobody, hopping up to recite my goofy Berryman pastiche at the tail end of the show.  Maybe I was just Henry in disguise that night.  I hope a few people got the joke.

Once upon a time, when I was in high school (around 1969), I visited the home of my friend (& really my idol) Jeffrey Greenspoon, jazz guitarist, hipster guru, deep writer, old before his time (future doctor).  On his desk in his bedroom I noticed a book : John Berryman's Dream Songs.  He was reading it.  It was over my head.  Turns out Berryman was a personal friend of the parents of Jeffrey's girlfriend at the time.  He said Berryman used to show up at their suburban Minneapolis parties, with his wild Irish beard & thrilling talk, with intent to delight & astonish...


On the road

I write this evening from a motel in Elkhart Indiana, the "RV and Band Instrument Capital of the World."  I drove here down Interstate 80, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, & Indiana, on a couple of beautiful October days.  The farmlands roll out to infinity, trailing soft earth colors.  Some say Elkhart's name derives from a Potawatomi phrase for "heart of stag".  The island in the middle of town - now a park - between the St. Joseph & Elkhart Rivers does seem heart-like, with the two river veins merging there.

Anyway, this is a record of a brainstorm I had, driving west on 80.  I left early this morning from Mercer, PA, & turned off the radio in order to focus my mind a little.  I've been on a leave of absence from work since August, hence these trips to Minneapolis (to help my parents move to a retirement place).  The leave has been a blessing as far as my poetry-writing goes.  But something different happened on the road today.

I don't want to be too explicit.  Let's say there was a sudden sense that it's time for me to step out more as a poet.  I began to foresee a new way to address my - mostly American - world.  Along with the necessity of doing so.  One must dive into the arena and embody the poetic telegram - dramatize it, drive it home.  One must be less the shrinking violet & more like Vachel Lindsay, maybe : or Pindar, the impresario (Hart Crane once expressed a desire to be "a suitable Pindar for the dawn of the machine age"), or... Whitman.

Not every poet has or requires a "message".  A poem is a dandelion, an end in itself.  A poet with a theme or a message is no better - not in the slightest - than any other.  The poet who has an over-arching message to convey simply has a particular inner obligation : a certain job to do.

All I want to report here, for the moment, is that today I had that realization : along with some inklings about how to proceed.  Time to amp up my game.

p.s. just noticed again the photo to the right on this blog : the caption (from a very old postcard which a librarian colleague from Illinois handed to me once, about 30 years ago) reads : "Henry Thunder Winnebago, recording songs in a grove".  Clearly this image dates back to the early 20th century, when teams of anthropologists fanned out across the U.S. to study the "vanishing cultures" of the Native Americans.  The Winnebago of Wisconsin were near neighbors to the Potawatomi.  &, of course, the Winnebago is now the trademark model RV.  We are indeed on the road... but what road?  (The road from Elkhart.)


The Language Trap

For some reason, not sure why, a few weeks ago I started immersing myself in anthropology.  Books on human prehistory, ancient kingship, ritual.  Reading Sir James Frazer, A.M. Hocart, Rene Girard, Walter Burkert, Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King (very interesting novel), many other things.

Burkert and Girard both published their seminal works (Girard, Violence and the Sacred; Burkert, Homo Necans) in 1972.  Their theories of violence and human origins are close parallels, but not the same.  Burkert traces the origins of human culture & consciousness back to animal life, & the emergence of hunting (homo sapiens distinguished itself early as the "hunting ape").  Homo Necans : "man the killer".  In Burkert's view, the violence involved in killing other large mammals - and the close proximity of hunting to "intraspecific" (man vs. man) killing - ie., murder, cannibalism - was the ground on which the rituals which structure later society developed.  Even after hunting was displaced by agriculture and animal husbandry, the ritual patterns remained, imprinting human culture with traditions of awe and taboo.

Girard offers a more radical and astonishing - a global, or total - theory.  (There is a fascinating book titled Violent Origins, edited by Burton Mack, which is a symposium of texts & conversations between Girard, Burkert, & anthropologist Jonathan Z. Smith, along with others).  Girard builds his global explanation of human consciousness & society on a re-fashioning of Freud.  For Girard, humankind is essentially the "mimetic (imitative) animal".  Violence instigated by "mimetic rivalry" - "what he has must be good : I must take it" - proved unstoppable, without limit, in primitive human collectives.  Rivalry and feuding threatened human self-extinction, until one day, the rival mobs united against a scapegoat.  The victimization of the scapegoat is the very ground of human social concord, of the peace necessary for social order.  But along with this act of mob violence went the "founding lie" : the human collective had to pretend 1) the killing was the victim's fault; 2) the victim actually initiated the violence;  3) the victim was therefore an alien being, superhuman, not one of us : that is, a god.  Thus Girard sees mimetic violence as at the root of social order (with its laws, rituals & taboos) and of human imagination.  The vast mythologies of divine beings turn out to be an elaborate ruse - a double displacement of responsibility for murder.  First, violent death is displaced onto the scapegoat victim; second, the scapegoat is held to be responsible for - or, what amounts to the same thing, the rescuer from - the original state of violent collective chaos.

This is a dark, but powerful theory.  Girard, a literary critic, draws his conclusions (as Freud was wont to do) from the evidence of myth & literature.  He also reserves a special place for the Bible and Christianity in his schema.  Judaeo-Christian texts are the antidote to the false consciousness of human culture (built as it is on the version of reality written by the victors, the scapegoat's persecutors).  Biblical texts, especially the New Testament, are instruments of disenchantment : they reveal the scapegoat mechanism from the perspective of the victim.

There are many elements of Girard's theory which I find both shocking & enlightening.  (One can read, for example, about the bear-hunting rituals of the Ainu of Siberia.  When the Ainu killed a bear, they apologized to it, and then they announced - "We didn't kill you; the Russians did.")  But I'm not yet quite convinced... I can't quite accept this total, global theory in toto.  What gave me pause was a passage in Mack's symposium, where Girard, in conversation, states that "Man is the mimetic animal".  In the end I find this to be a reductive formula.  Human nature is not defined merely by the impulse to mimic that which strikes us as the source of what is powerful, desirable or necessary.  I think that ultimately human nature is defined by a kind of freedom with respect to the "source" of reality itself.  It is in this sense that we can define ourselves as "children of God".  We are undetermined by everything except the spiritual source of all things.

(This view is closer, I think, to the writings of another remarkable anthropologist & theorist (of the prior generation), A.M. Hocart.  Hocart views human society as structured by ritual.  But ritual, for Hocart, is not primarily a mode of negative or false consciousness (a la Girard).  Rather, ritual is the form(s) applied by the human pursuit of Life itself : Life understood (by early human cultures) as a gift of the divine in its totality.)

Now Girard, as an anthropologist & scientist as well as a self-defined Christian, might not disagree with this : but he would say that our very language of the sacred is shaped & defined by the victimage scenario which was "hidden since the foundation of the world" (as he quotes the New Testament).  Unless we acknowledge this reality, we are "part of the problem" - we are merely continuing the false consciousness of a human culture structured on persecution.  This, too, I can almost accept : you could say in a sense that my representation of basic human nature is that of the "redeemed" Mankind - redeemed precisely by Christ's enlightening message - whereas Girard's schema offers a kind of prophetic warning about the real status of "unredeemed" Man.  They are two sides of the same coin.

Yet I guess I find something slightly oppressive itself about Girard's totalizing theory.  Man is not merely the "mimetic animal" - but also the "inventive, changing, transformative, originating" animal.

Girard constructs his illustrations from the Bible on the primal story of Cain & Abel.  And it is true that the Cain story implies the historical origins of urban, collective human society in Cain's murder of his brother - a murder spurred by envy (a frustrated mimicry).

Yet there is another story in Genesis, even more primal than Cain's : that is the story of Adam & Eve.  In this tale, human error is not motivated by imitation - though Adam's immediate effort to shift the blame to Eve (telling God, "she offered me the fruit, & I ate it") seems like the very "earliest" example of scapegoating.  But the point here is, Eve (& Adam after) are not motivated by mimicry, but by ignorant desire.  The great irony is that their physical desire - the "desire of the eyes" - is for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge : the one tree in the Garden God forbids them to touch.

There is some special blend of ironic humor & pathos at play in this story... something infinitely complex.  & oddly enough it suggests to me a return to the theory of Girard's "twin" in this field - Walter Burkert.  Think of it like this.  If anthropoid human culture was deeply shaped in its beginnings by the hunt, then there must be something "hunterly" about human language itself.  The Bible, we are told, is the language, the Word, the message of the one invisible Most High God.  So think of it as both a hunter's trap, and a trap for hunters.  In a sense, the Genesis story of the garden of Eden represents a sort of hunter's trap set for mankind.  Man is forbidden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge - the knowledge that will make him "like God" (according to the serpent, anyway).  Nevertheless, unknowingly & willfully, Adam & Eve eat from the tree. The fruit of the tree is the knowledge of death : of their own mortality, their infinite distance & alienation from the eternal living God.

The long lesson of Biblical monotheism here begins to be enunciated.  When you choose merely the visible, the tangible, the timebound goods - the "desire of the eyes" - you simultaneously blind yourself to the ultimate source of such "partial" goods.  As Jesus noted, much later (according to the gospels) : "First get right with God, then all these (material) things shall be yours as well."

God the hunter set a trap for Man - called the Word, the "tree of knowledge".  (He set the serpent nearby, to attract Man to the bait.)  Essentially, the Bible is the voice of the divine hunter, mollifying & healing the wounded animal in his trap.

So what we have represented in the first Genesis story is not so much a tale of mimicry, envy and murder, but rather a lesson of blind desire : of "lost sheep."  Man is not inherently or necessarily violent; homo sapiens is not irreparably aggressive.  Man, you might say, is the animal most capable of failure to imitate, to follow : Man is the animal who gets lost.  Man is not only wolfish : Man is sheepish, too.

(p.s. I'm not a proponent of Biblical literalism, by the way, in any sense.  I can accept that the scriptures were "inspired" by the spirit of God, as a whole, in general : but they were written by men.  There are contradictions, mixed messages, many elements open to mistaken interpretation.  Through the ages, the Bible has sometimes been abused for purposes of bigotry & scapegoating.  This should never be forgotten.  In fact it should be investigated : & Girard offers a powerful hermeneutic for such exploration.)


I, too, find it unpopular

The powerful machinery of instantaneous discourse-proliferation & dissemination has its effects on poets' lives & careers.  Meanwhile the forces at work, the loci of the pressure, seem to become more visible.  Nevertheless these phenomena take on the tincture, exhibit the deformations, of the general strangeness of the times.  Thus we have the monotonous drumbeat demanding that poets & poetry become more socially engaged & transparent - that poets must claim their place & make their stand on the burning political & moral issues of the day.  Then we have the backbeat  (it's a duet of sorts) : journalistic/media experts, bemoaning the death of poetry, its irrelevance to the larger scheme of contemporary life.  Then a 3rd, dialectical, voice leaps into the fray - poets, editors, & poetry teachers, for the most part - who insist with vehemence that, to the contrary, poetry is becoming more & more popular, relevant, dynamic, pervasive, & culturally powerful!  Poetry is on a roll!  Poetry is coming into its own, shedding the old stodgy elitism & academic fetor, & emerging as the revolutionary expression of the people & the common life, the 99%!

The common thread here seems to be that poets have a moral obligation to serve populist movements & what appear to be the political questions of the moment.  & the technology of media dissemination actually promotes & forwards this attitude.  The popularity of poets & poetry now seems to be a product of very sophisticated public relations & media manipulation, rather than an effect of poems themselves.  Am I being paranoid?  Is this sour grapes?  I don't know, but there does appear to be at least an element of "selling" & Babbittry to the whole poetry enterprise - & it seems to be rather pronounced in our days.

OK, let's say I have no problem with the notion that serious poetry has an obligation to engage with the moral dimension of human history & life.  & I do not.  What I do have reservations about is how this gets translated simplistically into popular/populist memes, movements, celebrity, & (supposedly-) critical attention.  (I hate Pop Art, by the way.  I like Jasper Johns, though.)

I am not going to drag out this mini-jeremiad.  But let's just look for a moment at the micro-technology of literature.  The arts of the word (poetry, drama, fiction) are constructed around quasi-ritual acts : that is, they mirror the continuum of reality, while at the same time distancing themselves, becoming strange forms of serious play.  The verbal art of a long family novel, to give one example, offers us a telescoping of ordinary time & experience - & thus opens a window upon both life's pathos & its ironies.  What this character says & does now is framed inside an unforeseeable future, with consequences & ramifications (emotional, existential, moral, spiritual) which cannot be predicted in advance : & this situation is the very marrow of plot, the very essence of our emotional engagement with narrative.  & remember : it's art.  It's not everyday life.  It's not a speech, it's not a program.  It's a very complex mimetic evocation of an ultimately inexpressible wholeness.

Poetry telescopes the same foreshortening of fiction, with all sorts of other complicating effects (the mimicry of presence, the prosody of suspense...).  In general, though, all three modes (poetry, fiction, drama) aim toward the same telos, the same end, which is essentially aesthetic.  That is, the end of these arts has something to do with the beautiful.

How then can we have "the beautiful" by means of some kind of inherent distancing effect?  Isn't there a problem, or a danger, here, of diffidence, detachment, moral indifference?  Certainly : but it's the same  moral, existential & personal problem which faces us in all modes of human social life.  The arts do not have a monopoly on detachment & indifference.  You notice it also, by the way, in economic & political life - the various deviously-systematic modes (all rooted in selfishness & callous pride) of amoral indifference with regard to the common welfare & the rights of the poor.

The pressure for populism, political engagement, relevance & mass popularity with respect to poetry is underwritten by a kind of devil's bargain : we will trade aesthetic values for social power.  We will actually deny that there exists something objectively "beautiful" in itself (even if "objectivity" & "subjectivity" are impossible to delimit in a reductive way), for the sake of a persuasive political argument or a naively self-gratifying sense of our own political righteousness.

These pressures all seem to be part & parcel of the downgrading of the arts & humanities in education generally.  We are enslaved to various modes of functionalism & determinism today - all in the name of liberation, justice, &, yes, economic realism.

How boring.  It's enough to make me feel like writing another unpopular poem.


Rene Girard & the latest war

Following the terrible sequence of summer news from Syria & Iraq, all the atrocities... occurred to me today that the strange convolutions of recent upheavals might find some meaning through the anthropological-theoretical lens of Rene Girard.  Girard knows One Big Thing (he's the perfect example of Isaiah Berlin's "hedgehog" - as opposed to the "fox", who knows a little bit about everything) - & I have to approach his totalizing theory with caution.  Yet here we have a formation of current events which apparently could be illustrations of his Big Idea.

For Girard, human life & culture are rooted in subconscious "mimetic rivalry", culminating in "mimetic violence", & resolved (very imperfectly) by ritual sacrifice/scapegoating.  Is it possible to consider the Sunni-Shiite divide in Islam as an example of this?  Girard says that what begins as mimetic rivalry over a desired object - the psychological mechanism whereby because he has this thing, it must be good, so I must have it - morphs eventually into pure rivalry : the object itself is forgotten, it becomes simply a matter of me against him, us against them.

The appearance now of the "Islamic State", or ISIS, seems to have upended the formalized (& centuries-old) rivalry between the two sects.  For the time being, & in some places, Shiite & Sunni political groups are actually working together.   The transgressive violence of ISIS has set this in motion : Girard's idea that the vertiginous magnetism of social breakdown, leading to the obliteration of all social differences in a chaos of destructive violence, is that most-feared thing, the only thing that could bring the two sides to work together.  So now Iran & Saudi Arabia & the US are all converging to combat the common menace.

The trouble is, ISIS does not quite fit the Girardian pattern of the "arbitrary sacrificial victim" - the scapegoat whose sacrifice "resolves" (for a while) the pattern of violence, rivalry & vengeance.  History is a little "messier" than theory (as Pres. Obama noted recently).  Once ISIS is defeated, another candidate for the leadership of glamorized political violence will arise, another iteration of the crisis.

It seems to me that the phenomenon of militant Islam is rooted in a theological notion, perhaps a distortion of normative Islam (I don't really know).  The notion is that humans - followers of the Prophet - can know God's will, and carry it out in terms of a political sovereignty based on force.  It is the totalizing concept of theocracy : that divine law and human laws are one & the same.  God is essentially an invisible cosmic commanding officer; & if you know God's will, and those others do not, then those others must eventually submit to your will.

There are other ways of thinking about God, and the human soul, and the destiny of the earth; other ways of thinking about law and political justice.  The ancient Egyptians, for example, had very considerable notions of law & justice, in a civilization which lasted 3 or 4 thousand years before the monotheistic religions arose.  Not that I am lobbying for ancient Egyptian culture : this is just one example.

The Western concept of "natural law" is another example.  It's possible to believe that "divine Providence" has provided humanity in general - across the globe - with innate notions of good & evil, right & wrong, which are suitable & equipped for the ordinary challenges of civil, earthly society.  The "theological virtues", on the other hand, are distinct spiritual gifts, which lift the human soul toward its supernatural, eternal destiny.  This is inevitably a personal journey; one cannot compel a person, either by law or by sheer force, to inhabit a moral/spiritual dimension which only God can offer.  This kind of idea is at the root of Roger Williams' pioneering political construct, the "separation of Church & State".  Let human law govern one global humanity; let divine grace govern the individual soul.

Some such alternative theological ideas might come in handy, during the long future struggle with militant & violent political ideologies of all kinds.



Another sort of topical poem.  I'm on a Ravenna Diagram allegorical roll.  You, cher lecteur, are meant to look beneath the surface, as well as surf the surface.  For example : "prose Popeye" is a pun for the Greek rhetorical term prosopopeia.  A very old thing in poetry... in culture generally.  "Personification."  Archaic, prehistoric, in fact.  You put on a mask (persona) in order to represent something very hard to picture.  An absent Presence.  So the idea here is that fanaticism has a very weak or corrupted "picture" of the Good, the Divine, the Holy, the Person.  So they attack ancient religions they know nothing about.  ISIS, for example (so ironically, the ancient Egyptian goddess...).  What is your "picture" of God?  We are all imperfect, many of us suffering from various mental distortions... so this might affect the image in our minds.  I think of Jesus in the Gospels saying "You must become as little children to enter the kingdom of God.  For these little ones always behold the face of their Father who is in heaven..."  Think of the adoration of children for the image of that which they need & love.  This is a psychological insight, you might say... to which my silly "prose Popeye" is pointing.


O big zebra-striped cicada
with the Air Force wings
found adrift this morning
in Sophie’s baby-purple wading

pool – can I identify with you?
Or maybe only your husk
was left behind.  Ask
Jonah in his whale, or Zarathustra

in his Cyrus-shade (serene
weatherman).  Inquire
of the Yezidi-martyrs
on their mountain.  Savage scene

of human inhumanity
today.  The mimic-men
love Mickey Mouse – then
spool to hate such levity;

they kill what they deny (themselves)
persecuting poor Me
in the name of purity –
pure folly (petty peevish dwarves).

I’ll circulate the prose Popeye
instead.  A sailor-sketch
of Pappy in his ketch
(the Pope, perhaps?).  Only the sigh

of Peacock Angel – delicate thread,
goldfinch trompette marine...
yet you sense what I mean :
bright Joan – ah! – surfing from the dead.



A Game of Chess


Another eleventh (August this time)
on brick-silly wasteland of
one shady summer patio.  Well
of hurry-up peas... bee-balm...

Joe-Pye weed... & yet this elfin
flower-team backyard
is not exempt.  The hard
news (frenzied shrunken headlines)

bearbaits me too.  From River Alph
to Yezidi desert, innocent
Peacock Angels get bent
down again.  The gibbering gulf

twixt glib libel & Guelf remains kiln-set
in demosthenic night.  Rainbows
of violets against violence? – how
coin bowl for Guinea-worm alphabet?

Sketches of Spain... Spanish Castle
Magic.  Convivial Jorge
the Gardenia been draggin’
me, all over.  Plays chess, too.

Iris, sez I, is a yurt-mother.
King’s taken baby steps
between crooks, bishops...
Q’s unreadable.  & here’s another

pawn to put in (yawning spacesuit).
A pair of carpenter asps
of the caduceus, Jasper –
dove from the deep.  Shalom (checkmate).



On the Inability of our Elected & Well-Paid Partisans to Enact Immigration Reform, or Any Other Useful Legislation


August, goldenrod of the Caesars...
& the paisan smile (inscrutable
& sad).  Drawn to the water table
of lakes & seashore, the sea’s recess.

Fold-on-fold cascades (irretrievable
decades).  In the crazy-quilt
of recursive fields... your guilty
maize, & mine (South-Sea Bubble

of the mind).  The Omaha train
pulls out at 7.  Osage
family.  On the last stage of
mourning (in the land, under the rain).

Traveling without their kids (Honduran,
Guatemalan)  refugees
from the stupidities.
Natural harbor (salty, hardpan).

Paralloid Congress troops into recess.
Up to the lake somewhere.
Collective crowd-esteem, hot air
fog spectacles with greediness –

navigators led by speech-balloons
exhale (from stingy lungs)
each bartered hearts’ unsung
remorse.  So an unseen moon’s

ray numbers our undoing.  Unkind
theoreticals & partisan
we mold a house from sand
that cannot stand.  Yet, love is blind...