Palmyra, Palmyra

I heard part of a BBC broadcast on the ISIS rampage in Syria.  A British scholar was asserting that the neoclassical architecture of Washington, DC was modeled in part on the ruins of Palmyra.

That's not where this poem came from, exactly.

A poem is the idiom of an idiot, full of flounders & slurry, signifying (maybe) something.  Ezekiel saw dem wheel's a'glory, way in the middle of the air (Louis Armstrong).  Eugenio Montale waxed lyric about this particular LP.

"Nummulitic" : art historian Adrian Stokes talks about the particular kind of limestone used to build the pyramids - called "Nummulitic".  After the nummulites, small protozoic creatures trapped in Egyptian limestone - from "nummus", or coin, in Latin, because of their disc-like shape.

Somehow we got from Egyptian nummulites to American dollar bills (with the pyramid & the disc) - from money to Mammon - George Washington on the other side.

Long way from the Lincoln penny.

Poetry is a work-in-progress, like the Earth (according to divine Providence).  Ursus here is a sort of image of the State as Beast (USA, RUS, USSR).  But the bears might be redeemed.  "Without vision, the people perish."


August departure... evening crickets
elegize on wooden
logs.  In Peto’s brownian
study, a sad decade disintegrates

like Queen Zeno’s palm-fronds, in
Palmyra.  One wing-scratched hand
pleads Washington’s jarred band
of masons (keening for Syrian

widows, orphan sons).  Important
information inside.
Your gravy train can’t hide
from Grace, her chaste Nubian portent –

always arriving never quite,
a Paradise for turtle-
dives.  So melt the mortal
Quito coin, our double-down knight

(shy U-bird cycling her parking
lot).  Concentric wheels
of Nummulitic seals...
one bears dawn for Ursus (barking

Mammon flipping tails) – the other
gyrates toward his irate
Beatrice – oceanic
ex, Czech mate (cyclonic mother

coated in cute limestone slime).
One down, one to go
up again, Horatio.
Antique Atlantis corals rime.


Reminiscences of 1865, by John F. Peto (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)



Madmen stalking with their legal pistols,
Warheads ticking in their sacred silos.


The whole race is a poet

The whole race is a poet that writes down
The eccentric propositions of its fate.
                 - Wallace Stevens

My wife Sarah & I have been enmeshed in a drawn-out campaign to pack our belongings & sell our house & make a move out of Rhode Island, back to my home town (Minneapolis).  We're vacating this place & buying my mother's house.

"Home to his Mother's house private return'd."  So ends Milton's mini-epic sequel to Paradise Lost (that is, Paradise Regain'd).

His mother's house.  Milton's Jesus goes home, after his confrontation with Satan - back again, out of poetry & mythology, to his mother's familiar house, encrypted somewhere in the archaeological past, in the disputed chronology of an actual, historical Nazareth...

In an interesting study first published in 1950, titled The Nazarene, Eugenio Zolli traces this epithet for Jesus not so much to his native village, but to the term "Nazir" - which he refers not only to the sect of holy men called Nazirites, but also, etymologically, to one of its meanings in Hebrew : "singer, poet".

The past many months have been relatively changeful & tumultuous for me, the meek little library worker inured to Brown-mouse quiet, books, walks, silence, routine.  I made these choices at least 25 years ago.  I didn't want to teach.  I didn't want to be an activist anymore.  I didn't want a high-energy job.  I wanted to read & write.

Did I have the moral-political grounds to make this choice, to have such an option?  I don't know.  I was responding to what felt like a calling, a vocation.

The fact that I'm even sitting here noodling these ruminations is due to the aforementioned disruptions of my usual mode.  I'm trying to revive the productive state of mind, which I've been unable to do for a couple weeks at least.

It really is a kind of trance state.  Not so much irrational as sponge-like, responsive - yet focused on certain landmarks or compass-readings.  Ravenna Diagram, the big canvas I'm working at, does indeed have its own sort of structural foundation or center of gravity.  The "trance" process is aligned with that.  "The way, when we climb a mountain, / Vermont throws itself together." (Stevens)

I don't yet understand my fate, in Stevens' sense (see epigraph above).  Maybe I'm blind, a sleepwalker.  Maybe I inhabit a solipsistic ego-bubble.  But I don't think so (at least not quite yet).  It is hard to avoid the doubts, the undermining of self-confidence, when the reception for one's labors seems effectively nil, sums up to zero.  Is this evidence of my mistake?

I try to grasp the self-designed blockades to such reception.  There are all sorts of personality issues as well as problems related to the work itself.  Regarding the former, I haven't helped myself.  I am introverted & shy.  I over-compensate with an internet poet-persona I started to manifest in the late 1990s - often annoying, iconoclastic, provocative.  I do not swim with the schools, I don't "network" very well.  I do not teach writing.  Yet I have become something of the typical online self-promoter - self-publishing book after book... understandably, this does not sit well with fellow poets & editors.

But I have tried to get published in journals.  It has been an uphill battle.  It seems likely that, with regard to reception, the issues with the work itself are the more determinative.

I've been writing poetry for nearly 50 years!  The hegemonic critical mantra about "two American poetries" - mainstream and postmodern/avant-garde - has always been a waste of time.  I've liked neither Language Poetry nor New Formalism.  I've been engaged longtemps with the long poem - as Berryman was, & others.  Berryman is not considered part of the "experimental" wing, which seems ridiculous to me (see Brendan Cooper's book, Dark Airs, on this whole question).

Unlike Berryman, in the early 1980s I got absorbed into a mode of elliptical "telling it slant", sourced in the radiant music of Osip Mandelstam.  I found analogues for this approach in both Pound and Hart Crane.  It took me 20 years to elaborate my own manner in this general field.

Such obscurity & obliquity is probably one of the rocks piled on my personal blockade to reception.

Probably a bigger rock, though, has to do with the worldview, the preconceptions.

But enough about me!  Let's get back to the trance state.  What is my trance?  Who is my "muse"?

I think maybe my writing telegraphs on a frequency out of range for many.  The preconceptions & background are too abstruse or occluded.

Why am I writing about "Ravenna" (if I am, even)?  Ravenna was an outpost of Byzantium.  It is a nest of amazing mosaics, towering icons - an outlier from Hagia Sophia and Byzantine Orthodoxy.  But for me, in my poetry, this is a kind of meta-icon for something else.  It leads back to the "Russian" roots - in Mandelstam, in Acmeism.

But those roots too are like the upper layer of a psychic puzzle-box.  Why Mandelstam?  Why Acmeism?  Why Nabokov?

Orthodox Christianity - one aspect of which includes "iconophilia" - is bound up in my mind with the purposes of art, for one thing.  It is incarnational.  The theological dimension includes a commitment to the divine embodiment in the human - their fusion in the process of overall cosmic purpose, the "plan" of the whole.  Art is a limb of Creation in general - a bloom, the flower of flowerings.

Dante is buried in Ravenna.  Pound is buried in Venice.  Rimini sits on the Italian coast between these two.  The complex here is a way of symbolizing something perpetual in poetry - something tying together Dante & medieval Italy with Pound and contemporary America (by way of the "long poem").

But why do this?  Here we get down to another layer of the archaeological dig.

Why Christianity?  Why incarnational, etc.?  This is the 21st century, after all!

Jesus, the "nazir", the poet, the singer, may be the eternal 2nd Person of the Trinity : I'm not going to go into that here.  My focus is on the "Jesus of history" - the real individual who acted and spoke & made claims & taught, suffered, died.

Jesus had charisma.  I think it was founded on his confidence in the divine goodness.  No one, ever, has expressed more serene joy & love for the "Author" of life, the source.  St. Francis tried to replicate this spirit, & perhaps came closer than anyone else.  But Jesus expressed it first and most firmly.

"Home to his Mother's house private return'd."  What shall we say is represented by "his mother's house"?  I would say Judaism itself, the historical people & faith.  The Jews are & have been many things, but perhaps most signally they have been a people of the Word.  Poets.  The Psalmist & prophets sang of the promises of their God - promises of a land of milk & honey, of an era of peace & safety & abundance.  These words were crystallized in writings, encased like scarabs or butterflies in exact & exacting speech, which drills through centuries & eras like the point of a diamond - the hardest thing on earth.

Literalists & fundamentalists & sectarians (of many Abrahamic strains) try to reduce it to their own stingy formulae.  They don't understand, they do not grasp the message.  It is a global human message, representing the whole earth, Earth as a whole.

So, Henry!  Here we go with another preacherly rant.  No wonder you have no readership as a poet!

The matrix of Ravenna Diagram is a Venn diagram.  It is Henry, the American poet, writing in America, now, at one point of the Venn design (of double circles).  It is Jesus, the Jewish poet, singing in Galilee & Judea, at the center of the second circle.  The mandorla in which they overlap (the middle of the Venn diagram) is poetry itself - epic poetry, long poems, on the track of Dante (who finished his Paradiso in Ravenna).

Poetry is one mode of spiritual metamorphosis, of transfiguration.  In this case the epic poem is a vehicle for transmuting history into an expression of divine purpose.  Reality is henceforth framed by the personal : that is, by the human person, who experiences & interprets the given & its meanings.  Prose is the "objective" and impersonal : poetry is the ecstatic and personal.

Poetry is essentially affirmation, the praise song of the "nazir".

Obviously this is far too much baggage for most readers, editors.  It certainly has to be proven by the work itself : no amount of explanation will suffice.

Why must Henry pile Pelion on Ossa to establish such a Baroque or Gothic superstructure for poor little ol' poetry?  My enthusiasm must scare people.  Literary folks like to sit back & evaluate, which is only right.

It's simple, really.  I had an encounter with "the Word", back around 1972.  I was around 20 years old.  I was burned, I was branded, by Gospel fire.  The Word sinks its tongs into you - the word of the old desert, going back to prehistory.  The proverbs, the parables drive like nails into your conscience.  Yet the meaning proves true.  It is enough to transfigure life on earth - it is Milton's "divine Providence".  For poetry has its lion-claws, too - digging down through the sediment of time & shifting cultures, of languages and nations.  They might be one & the same, these nails, these claws.

design by Joachim of Fiore


What thou lovest well

Have been reading about art lately.  Adrian Stokes, author/artist, fused a psychoanalytic approach (via Melanie Klein) with a deep knowledge of Renaissance sculpture & painting.  (Came to this discovery by way of a stray tweet by Jeremy Noel-Tod, about a Carcanet book he had edited, collected poems by R.F. Langley, a British poet much influenced by Stokes.  All this has been delightful new territory for me.)

It has some relevance to my latest unrealistic writing project, Ravenna Diagram, which has something to do in places with triangulating Venice-Rimini-Ravenna.  Ezra Pound is buried in Venice; Dante is buried in Ravenna; and both Pound & Stokes were fascinated with Rimini. (I guess they also crossed paths at some point.)

So these recent preoccupations of mine coincided with the latest ISIS atrocity in Syria, the murder of Khalid al-Asaad, longtime director of antiquities in Palmyra.

Asaad's devoted life & iconic death reminded me of some remarks by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, about how a person's death somehow sums up and defines their life.  This was certainly true in his own case : Mandelstam died a victim of a personal vendetta by another Osip (his evil twin), Joseph Stalin - after Mandelstam had written a brief satirical poem featuring Stalin as its target.  Not a prudent thing to do in 1930's Russia (nor in today's Russia either, as a matter of fact).  Yet Mandelstam had a commitment to something beyond his personal survival.  As did Khalid al-Asaad.  This is perhaps the "true" form of martyrdom, which, unlike the standard model popular today, does not require the mass murder of innocent bystanders in order to achieve its glorified apotheosis in Paradise.  No, you only have to give up your own life.

Melanie Klein's neo-Freudian psychology focuses on childhood development.  The personality of the  infant & very young child is shaped by a dynamic & dramatic relation with the nurturing & distanced mother : Klein (& Stokes as well) reads deeply into adult experience grounded in this primal & primary & ambivalent/conflicted relationship.

For Stokes, art presents models of human victory & plenitude, through the integrations of these subconscious conflicts by way of the hard-won justification of the beautiful (the work of the artist).

In view of some such angle of vision, the depredations of ISIS against anything that threatens their "control of the narrative" comes across as the panic of the child who has rejected his mother.  Maybe Judaism & paganism & Christianity, the whole Syrian melting-pot out of which Islam emerged in the first place (in about the 7th century) comes across as a subconscious feminine threat, from the vewpoint of fundamentalist (Saudi, Salafist, ISIS) Islam.  I don't know, maybe ISIS is frightened of the Jewish mother against which it has gone to irrevocable war.

Judaism and Christianity have also fostered similar strains of iconoclastic rejection of art and images. After all, one of the Ten Commandments prohibits the making of any "graven images" of Yahweh.  The idols of the pagans, in the eyes of monotheism, are regarded as wooden follies of darkened minds.  Scriptural Puritanism rejected medieval Catholicism on similar grounds.  ISIS simply takes this direction to its "logical" conclusion : all art is verboten, all art is from the "infidel".

I wonder what images they see when they sleep at night, if they are able to sleep at night.  Do they ever see their mothers in their dreams?  Or perhaps they glimpse fleeting snapshots of the mothers of the "kaffir" young women they have enslaved and violated?  Maybe they don't need to sleep.  They can thrive, momentarily, on their canned & indoctrinated daydreams of paradise.  Livin' the propaganda dream, courtesy of their cynical Ba'athist warlords.  (Ba'athism, by the way, modeled its modus operandi on Stalinism.  Stalin was one of Saddam Hussein's heroes.)

My own particular confessional tradition has to do with the Incarnation, the appearance of God as Man, in the body, in one particular place & time - so I am inexorably committed to the idolatry of physical timebound mortal earthly existence & all its consequences.  This does not put me in good stead with the extreme iconoclasts of whatever theological persuasion.  I would rather stand with Khalid al-Asaad, devoted as he was to some local piles of classical statues & pillars & broken ancient ruins.  His devotion & his death reminded me of some lines of another fanatic old codger, Ezra Pound (from Canto LXXXI) :

What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee


Don't ask me

Not much to say about this, except that it's part of a series, and that Stephano and Nunzio are father & son from Sicily (my regular haircut here in Providence).  "Agnes" is Agnes Eizenberger, from Vienna, my Uncle Jim's onetime companion.  (Also thinking of another icon-maker & diagram artist, Agnes Martin.)


Klimt was a kind of crooked wicket
out on a creaky limb
in Cricket City (rim
of Rimini, Parisian rivulet).

Gold.  Vienna veins of Ravlin
violins (we were there,
Agnes).  Do not compare.
It’s only an American Robin

Redbreast, hooded, yodeling...
he’s calling out your name.
Not Stephano (fair game
for Fame) nor Nunzio (clipping

the locks that flood across your face)
– though they are near.  The Boot
strides on.  The man is moot.
Your Crown is Everwhirr – mesh-lace

of spy-veil, ambling the source...
a poverty of materials
in a land of burials
& sunshine (Italy, of course).

Klimt limns the anguish in your eyes.
Through vales of Solomon
or Sheba, all the broken
kingdoms, poppy-fields (Grandpappy’s

ripe Epiphany).  Pain circulates
through straitened means
somehow – corny Earth-scenes
beyond our ken (Thanksgiving plates).


Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907)


Sunk too deep for publication

Still here in Providence, for now... still on the poem (Ravenna Diagram).

The "mule" who appears in Verona has been noted by the bona fide historian Ernst Kantorowicz (legend has it the "foal of an ass" Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday somehow ended up there... where of course Romeo & Juliet takes place... Juliet being also the name of my cousin...)

Sail on, Rolando...


She hides now, like a bit of clay
dissolved in the Pacific.
& you hear my heartsick
braying, like that sovereign Sunday

mule – foalish, stubborn, somehow
barnless in Verona
(down the trail from Dante
à Ravenna – è finit).  How now,

Ariel?  Where to, Joachim?
At the end of the third aevum
crowned with the cosmic hum
of a trillion honeybees (Love’s hymn)?

There’s some empyreal raisin
soleil, raison d’état
in my four-legged squat –
stray goose-honks trying a bassoon

for the implicate symphony to come.
Maestro di colori, turtle-
dove monarch of universals...
flame-whisper, omnivagrant kingdom-

Sikh of butterflies... Vladimir’s
Veracruz (shy
brown bird, swampy sigh
of cedars).  Single yarn (gray hair).

Grey sea.  Matière de Bretagne.
Whole whorl in curl
of eyelash (salty pearl) –
Roland waves (to Charlemagne).



Farewell to florid Rhode Island.

This is a blog that actually has a beginning, middle, & end.  Wally wrote his "Farewell to Florida" : this is my farewell to Rhode Island.


The Illustrated Stubborn Grew stubbornly persists

Finished tour of Stubborn Grew part one yesterday.  On to the second half of the book.

To my knowledge this online survey of a long poem is fairly unique.  I'm not aware of similar examples.  Who knows, maybe it will be found worthy of interest to the public one day.

Sometimes I think my poetry is ignored because it outshines everybody else, but then I could be biased.  Duh, maybe.  I say the roar of the poets of America is the sound of 50 million gerbils !!


Walk through the painting

Been very busy of late over there in yon Illustrated Stubborn Grew.  Have to be - I'll be leaving town soon.  I'm revisiting old Providence by way of an old poem.

A bit of Providence, from Prospect Terrace