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.