Snowbelt doodle redux

Left RI about 3 weeks ago, drove to Minneapolis, expecting about 20 degrees colder weather. Instead, it's balmy here (mid-30s) : Providence is digging out.

Busy negotiating senior care options for 2 stubborn old Goulds (parents). "Negotiating senior care options" - a euphemism. Let's say it gives you another perspective on the usual priorities (check the TV schedule). Bombs terrorism lotion ads. Viagra Florida Vacationland. "We are here to help you". Ultra-boring, super-pretentious NPR sponsor slogans. "And when you practice charity, do not trumpet your generosity in the marketplace, but give alms in secret - and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

We abhor the fundamentalist monsters & authoritarian Neanderthals. Yet our own money-culture seems dehumanized. I feel very detached from Poetryland, too. Real life is the only tonic.



Seedy universe

My long-term plan to seed the universe with Ravenna diagrams is very slowly, haltingly, coming to fruition... some more just appeared in the Battersea Review.... (others not too long ago in Blackbox Manifold... more due soon in Notre Dame Review)....


Charlie Hebdo, Peter Chaadaev, moral freedom

Two Frenchmen, brothers, apparently with training & inspiration from the Yemen branch of the terrorist network Al Qaeda, murder a group of Paris cartoonists & journalists, for the crime of publishing satirical images denigrating the Prophet.

Obviously the shock waves produce varying responses, of many kinds, on many levels.

A phrase occurred to me today in this regard : "moral freedom".  The phrase comes from an early essay by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, titled "Peter Chaadaev".   This curious short prose work reminds me of some writings of Whitman.  In describing Chaadaev, the 19th-century Russian thinker, Mandelstam seems on the one hand to sketch a version of his own iconoclastic mind & personality, and on the other, to offer a nationalistic icon of the spirit of Russia, situating itself dialectically (as St. Petersburg was perennially called upon to do) between the prestige of Western Europe, and the vast inchoate future of the Russian soul.   Chaadaev is presented as both that rare Russian emigre who returns to the motherland, with a message of intellectual rigor and cultural order - as a "Westernized" Russian, in other words - and as a representative of Russian moral freedom - the "diamond" of a perfected individual soul (in contrast to the enfeebled West, sunk beneath the weight of its own unquestioned tradition).

This Chaadaev is a fish out of water, a free spirit, an exile's exile : his rectitude is inward, spiritual, personal.  His moral freedom seems to stem (via Mandelstam's interpretation) from Orthodox Christianity, with its relative devaluation of "objective history" in favor of inward spiritual unity, perfection, "divinization".

What does all this have to do with Charlie Hebdo?  With events in Paris?

"Moral freedom."  The phrase rings.  Mandelstam says Chaadaev was obsessed with unity : the basic unity of intellectual vocation & moral value.  This was the source of his charisma, his personal integrity.  But where did he discover this unity?

I'm not a Russian scholar.  My guess is, Chaadaev was drawing from the well of traditional Orthodox values.  & what strikes me about Orthodox Christianity is its visionary focus on the unity and divine origin of the whole creation.  Life, with all its suffering & injustice, is beautiful & good because God made it so.  The Acmeist poetic movement, founded by Gumilev, Akhmatova, & Mandelstam, was grounded in this ordinary Orthodox sensibility.  Gumilev called it "chasteness" : an idea not very different from Whitman's notion of cosmic goodness. Each individual thing in nature is inherently valid & beautiful because it has its source in the supernatural Artist.  With this spiritual grounding Chaadaev (& Mandelstam) could represent a version of "moral freedom" : the dignity of humankind (& Russia) without the overpowering weight of Western grandeur & authority.  As Mandelstam wrote :

Let the names of imperial cities
caress the ears with brief meaning.
It's not Rome the city that lives on,
it's man's place in the universe.

But again : where am I going with this?  What has any of this to do with Charlie Hebdo?

My point is this.  So the phrase "moral freedom" - from Mandelstam's Chaadaev - came to mind as I pondered the events in Paris.  Why?  Because both Chaadaev & Mandelstam underline the central, sine qua non place of freedom in any architectonics of civilization.  For them, moral freedom is the primal divine gift.

& what then exactly is "moral freedom"?  It is the recognition that the whole benign cosmic order is balanced on a "givenness" or original context of moral choice.  The universe is designed for Man to choose goodness & righteousness : it is rooted in free will.  The path to Paradise and "divinization" is open to those who accept this free offer.

But if this is the case, then where are the powers of tyranny, force, compulsion, fear?  Where are the gods of domination?  Where are the thought police?  They have no place to stand.  They are vanquished.  They have been defeated by a supernatural power Who authorizes moral freedom : by the law that you must choose the path of righteousness yourself.

I tried to explain this in my letter to the editor published in the NY Times on Monday.  This is a basic theological tradition shared, actually, by both Orthodox East and Catholic/Protestant West.  You cannot impose spiritual values by force.  Why?  Because God ordained Nature for moral freedom : we are free creatures, as God is free : we are made in God's image.

The fanatics of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State want to punish others for disobeying the commands of their God.  In the process they commit murder and other outrages against God's own creatures, & against divine Law.  It may be that they are driven by political pressures and deep grievances : but my point is that their ideology, which provides them with propaganda and "moral" justification, represents the worship of a false god, an idolatry.  If God is neither hateful nor murderous, but instead calls on persons to redeem themselves through love of neighbor, then the propaganda of fundamentalism has no basis in reality.  They need to be saved from their own delusions.  There needs to be a new conversation about the nature of God.

Magnetic North

This weekend I'll be driving to Minnesota, so won't be blogging-flogging so many poems as of late.  Here's the new addition to Ravenna Diagram.  (Was interested to learn that Bruegel's great painting "The Hunters' Return" plays a role in two of Andrei Tarkovsky's films, Solaris and Mirror.)


Snow on backyard pine, a winter
scene.  With bitter words
the hunters return.  Bird’s-
eye view.  A raven’s splintered mirror

integrates the earth with cold
& calm – ravenous fire
with ice-skating, the hounds’
dire hunger with a master’s hold.

Strange distance in this place of graves.
Graven with flames... a tinder
touch.  So you will render
up the whole of life, in silent waves

windblown, articulate (ash-
hexagon from one
remote hearth-rune).
Only dappled light (reed-wash,

acacia screen).  In the continuum
of strange dream-song, a black
milk pours into Black Elk,
Melchizedek... slips back to you, O

Somno-Man (where sparrows hum
across the mirrored ice).  Your
wing-palms print once, twice
beneath aurora burial (drum-

roll, funereal).  Snow gathers
at magnetic north.  Rose
dust & wilderness
meet on your lips (coal-cinders).



Old bells, old beret

Listened to news from Paris today, after the Charlie Hebdo attack.  This afternoon they broadcast the bells tolling - old Paris bells, deep & groaning.

I blogged recently about "occasional poems".  My method, time & again, over 25 years, has involved a sort of recursive movement - a fold-back on what came before.  I have a lot to work with.  The poems roll out for a while; then they turn, making a kind of feedback loop, & going forward at the same time (hopefully).

This process is a motif in the poems themselves.  It's about recollecting what came before.  There's also a theological dimension to this.  History is about remembering something - someone - buried or misunderstood, but stubbornly there - will not go away.

I see someone on the street who re-appears often in my poems (over decades).  At the same time, I notice the final two stanzas of a poem I posted here the day before the Charlie Hebdo incident : lines which seem to celebrate or beautify the very name of the magazine.  Very strange.  This too is a kind of backward glance, an elegiac impulse.

Here's another occasional poem, then, written today.  Another collage, another cartoon - maybe topical, maybe not.


Cherish yet this goblin-goblet
buried in George’s field.
Iron curve, silvered
by time & rain – thin graphene net.

Your delicate recursive thread
bears planetary load.
Her slow gait (pigeon-toed)
& long brown coat, her bowed head

musing down the street, black hair
beneath an old beret.
Agenbite of inwit,
egret; sad, by shoreline (ancient ire).

Time shunts loom’s backbrace (thundering
boom).  Young Charlie’s oak,
febrile with Hebrew spokes
(dove-speak).  Gdspd, my blundering

cartoon – your secret sunny man
is safe with me.  I fell
from towers of Notre Belle
Dame, late of Galilee (bold Magdalen)

when the lights went out.  Hawk’s eye
& raven’s wing, a shadow-
script of Jonah’s prow
just now emerging from the sea,

the Southern Cross of everything.
Rose octahedron in
your heart... ponderous bronze
groaning (pain)... OK, Ahaz.  Palm-king.



Occasional Poems

I write a lot of occasional poems.  This is one reason many (though by no means all) of them appear here, on me blog, hot off the brain-pan - because they are knotted to a specific date on the calendar or current event.  So this ongoing project, Ravenna Diagram, is a kind of crossweave of recurrent themes and motifs, with more spontaneous combustions, improvisations.  The result can be a sudden mosaic or collage of old hobby-horses and immediate happenings.

Today's effort, posted here, is an example.  What may seem very confusing on the surface is actually a tissue of old & new.  There's a nod to the late Bernard Jordan, a British WW 2 veteran known as "the Great Escapee", because not long ago he walked away from his nursing home in Hove, England to attend a memorial service at Normandy Beach (see article in NY Times today).  There's a reference to the "leap-second" process of setting the atomic clocks in Paris (see today's London Telegraph).

Then there are the recurrent motifs circling around Apollinaire, WWI, the "Rite of Spring" first performance (which Apollinaire attended, in Paris, on May 29, 1913), my cousin Juliet, who had her fatal leap from the Golden Gate (which opened to the public on the weekend of May 27-29 1937), and the French ship SS Normandie, which had its maiden voyage on May 29, 1935, and which sank in NY harbor in 1942.  A statue from the ship, called "La Paix", was rescued from the boat & now stands in Pinelawn Memorial Park on Long Island.

OK, got all that?  (There's more to it, but I can't tell you everything today.)  So here's the poem, fresh off the garage roof...


Fresh snow crowns a fresh year
with infinite white
diamonds – even the summit
of that garage in back, a pyramid

of blinding hexagons, brilliant.
Don’t know if I’ll ever see
Mont Saint-Michel – may
have to cross that Jordan very ancient

& in secret, like Mayor Bernard,
Great Escapee
(of blessed memory).
Not Proust nor any Time Lord

in Paris can hold back the earth
entirely (though she’s
ralentir, apparently)
from wheeling pear-wise (O mirth-

cunning ham) toward her favorite
star.  Thus my mental
golden spider must recoil –
revert apsidal synapses, knot

quipu cloverleaf across
this bubble-octagon
(Emanu-El, the sun).
Apollinaire dreams toward his Croix-

de-Guerre; Bernard pops into PX
for a final cigarette;
Stravinsky’s Juliet
leap-seconds to St. Vitus rite (La Paix).



Epiphany poem

My grandfather John Ravlin would have turned 130 today.  He was born in La Porte City, Iowa, and worked as an engineer with the Barnett & Record Co. in Minneapolis, building grain elevators & other big structures.  This poem is dedicated to him.

A grain elevator is a kind of gigantic silo, a barnyard building, a seed container.  Sort of a manger for wheat & corn, a rustic-industrial edifice.  This poem jumps all over the place - my grandfather's in there, along with Dante, Ravenna, Epiphany...  part of Ravenna Diagram, another large construction project.

                               i.m. J.H. Ravlin

Strings of tiny Christmas lights
buried in prickly green
spine-fans, almost unseen.
Grandpa’s Tannenbaum, his birthday

night.  Where trillions of miniature
Lincoln logs emerge
(Railsplitter’s urge
to mend all men, amen).  Within your

triple rainbow, Alighieri.
Omnipresent OMO,
eagle’s starry memo...
Beatrice glowing in your eye.

Starlight, moonlight, chill, ghostly
behind those tamaracks.
Swamplands (weathered shacks,
old rowboats).  Adriatic Sea.

You trace the ineluctable distinctions
of your fork-tongue land –
Chief Broken Hand
or Florence Ainsworth – widows, orphans –

Juliet, my lost Ophelia-
Ravlin – granddaughter –
twig-bent ever after
from that bridge – ey yo...

Wrath simmers in the stolen earth
many buffalo years.
Pathos echoes, whispers
from your ghost-dance birth-


star (veinous branchings from
on high thread winglets
for an infant Jonah’s
prow).  & each squaw-mummer

bears the whole universe
bundled on her back –
houseboat, tepee or shack,
motel or Royal Oak – all mangers

everywhere.  That gangly monk
with the blue-white beard
felt your pulse, heard
your wedding-sigh (on Black Sea bunk

in prison cell) – beheld the chaste
conjunction of a cosmos
with its heart’s anonymous
warm hand, bright eye...  Make haste,

make haste to find her here, him
there, hid in the vineyard,
my Beloved, O... (weird
Janus-coign of almond bloom,

warm elbow of imperial yardarm).
Charlie sleeps in the oak,
a slumber-king, a bloke
with head round as an apple.  Charm

in a name there be, like Charmion
or Charlemagne... a rose
smiles through its rainbow’s
reign, your charity incarnadine.


The Incredible Shrinking Letter to the Editor

I'm not ungrateful.  It's not easy getting a letter published in the New York Times (they receive up to 1000 letters a day).  Here's a link to mine, published in the paper today - thank you, NY Times.  It's just a little painful to watch the original whittled down so much.  Some of the flavor is lost.  Also, I think editors nowadays apply certain prevalent pseudo-rules of grammar - like the one that says "always replace the word which with that" - resulting in a duller, more awkward style.  Anyway, here's my original :

To the Editor:

General Michael Nagata displays welcome intellectual humility in voicing puzzlement about the nature of ISIS, and how to combat it.  As he gathers his "unofficial brain trust", he should add theologians and religious leaders to his group, because it is clear ISIS is about manipulating the disconnects between the theocentric worldview of Middle Eastern societies, and the generally secular, anthropocentric viewpoint of Western political systems.  

ISIS expands by offering a visionary alternative to decades of dictatorship and civil disorder in the Middle East - but it is an option which is more tyrannical and dehumanizing than the regimes it seeks to displace.  It is rooted in a propagandistic version of theism - the rebirth of the caliphate in the name of service to God.  The best counter-narrative which the West can offer is a vision of society rooted in a dual sense of freedom : a synthesis of both religious and civil liberty.  But post-Enlightenment Western societies are no longer very adept at thinking in terms which include a theistic perspective (hence, in part, Gen. Nagata's bewilderment).  

Yet there is a Western religious tradition, stemming from the concept of free will as essential to God's benign purpose for creation.  Individuals and societies, in other words, must freely choose goodness and righteousness : spiritual values cannot be applied by force.  Historically, this principle has been the basis for the separation of church and state.  If General Nagata and others like him can develop a holistic narrative, which meshes the sacred precept of spiritual freedom with the secular values of civil liberty, the West might have a better chance against various seductive ideologies of tyranny and fanaticism.

Henry Gould