L’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle


You there – coiled on quiet side street
in Ravenna, your flickering
sabre-tooth tongue barely
echoing now – like that complete

grey gentleman, cornered by paint-cans
in Antonioni’s stony
Red Desert (who is he?)
mutely suffering blessed senseless

Giuliana’s windblown St. Vitus dance...
Maybe he beheld
her triple rainbow, welded
somehow over arctic heavens;

or this winter-silvered river, slowly
inexorably mirroring
its way to New Orleans.
An emblem of continuum (sea-

borne).  All things are moved by love;
thus you conclude your song,
rapt raptor, eagle-prong –
wisdom Minerva signaled Jove

among hard-bitten Romans.  Glancing
blow, ineffable blade-
point (that steely Maid
of Orleans would ratify) – slung

thread-thin from remotest eye
of polar bear (Mama
& Papa Bear... ah, now
I see!).  Heart-music.  Organ-sigh.


*p.s. All things are moved by love is actually a more precise translation of a line from an untitled early poem by Osip Mandelstam, which begins "Insomnia. Homer...")

Yeats' Tower Hill (almost)


The long year closes on snowfall,
finally.  Over the ridge
to the Witch’s Hat, a ledge
over Arthur Ave. (#33 - les

jeux sont faits, John Berryman).
My father’s flinty ashes
by the creek, that washes
through my mother’s thoughts.  A man,

c’est tout.  Her lacquered plate
of autumn gold (Yeats’
Tower Hill, almost)
shines for the poet now, like fate.

A circle, fiery wheel of light...
Apollo’s chariot,
or Noah’s boat... a plot
of Plotinus, from cloudy height

of thunderherd – heart-mirth
of chuckling Apollinaire
(his swaddled head a pear
donated to interstellar 4th

or 14th (Q) Juillet).  The pattern
gold, shot through by fencing
needles, under the glancing
plectrum of wind-beaten mast.  Stern

heights & forthright gunnel-curves
of one gaunt ghost-ship
surging through the deep –
one orange alba-ange flares (swerves).



California lovebeats


Dante paced the perimeter of Florence
with mumbling gravitas
& halting step.  He was
building a grainy microcosm, dense

as diamond, light as linden leaf;
light as this Minnesota
snowfall (speechless alpha
blanketing state fairgrounds beef

– bandstand omega).  Orientation
toward North Star becomes
entangled with kingdoms
of heaven, world – a mule’s way station

to a Gold Rush claim, staked down at last
in San Francisco (keystone
of stark orange span).
A vortex (raven-blonde, vertiginous)

immurèd round painful iconic pair;
a song of songe (statute
of liberty) no more astute
than any lovebeat California dreamer

in midsummer.  Melodious emblem
for those deeper waters
(azure heights) that course
around foundations... Jerusalem

temple under Roman beams, arch
that forms the tensile wing
of eaglet eyrie (singing
scroll)... knife-edge of Raven-church.



Light riding, westward


On the shortest day, in these northern parts
the river is quiet, the sky
is gray.  A heaving sigh
of flesh, my body is... (the old poet’s

confession).  Too heavy for
this rusted lattice, locked
in Mississippi ice (rock-
frigid rictus).  JB – metaphor

for Job, mayhap.  Job, an icon
of hectored humanity –
who in latter day will see
my Redeemer stand before me, on

the earth.  Sparse light, thin
calumet of raven-smoke...
parting curtains with a stroke
of ink, an Ariadne-thread (woolen

quipu).  The trumpet plays tattoo
above furled Flemish loess
in Queequeg runes (remorse);
lambfields of returning, clumps of yew

veiling a furtive limestone chapel.
Under an alcove of
blu oltramar, Piero’s dove
rays Mary’s robe into mandorla

made with fingertips – Umbrian beam
piercing raven-umber
(barely).  & though they slumber
now, soon shall they wake... in Jerusalem.



Bathsheba takes a bath


Nocturnal nadir of the year.
Gray oaks along the river
nestle in a manger
of their own dry leaves.  Cold here

for the wanderer, the no-count
strangeling (shiver-er).
Bring them in, Pierre.
We have room.  Starlight will haunt

the here & now (parochial).
Already the axe is laid
to the waste land, cried
Granddad (civil engineer).  O

Tannenbaum... (his favorite carol).
Would save the sacrificial
pine (last year’s Noël)
for this year’s fire.  King Cole

in Mississippi wood (sacred) –
The Bear, a Memphis barge
in Iowa (suspect
at large).  Uriah (Scapegoat Snared).

Bathsheba Takes a Bath (sit tight,
Hittite).  In poetry
Hamlet will flip & fry –
like Salem for bluff Endicott,

Sweet William in the vacant pine
(a free perennial).
Romany iron, after all.
This hobo span beams red & green.


RR bridge, Minneapolis (red & green navigation lights barely visible)

A nighttime sun

If my own experience in poetry is reflected in, or has any bearing on, the common culture of our times, then I would have to insist that the obscure mirror or skeleton key to understanding our times is to be found in that obviously & oddly unfinished fragment of an essay by Osip Mandelstam, "Pushkin & Scriabin".  It was first published outside Russia, long after the poet's death; but scholars believe it was written about a century ago, probably in 1915.

The unfinished character of this text is like an open invitation -  pregnant with future (exploratory) life.  It's been for me what they used to call a touchstone : a word, a gospel, a message - a voice that keeps coming back, recurrent, at unpredictable intervals.

Mandelstam is writing about Pushkin, and about Scriabin - but the words are prophetic in their weird self-portraiture.  He himself is foreshadowed in Pushkin's & Scriabin's exemplary suffering.  "They served as an example of a collective Russian demise, they died a full death... their personality, while dying, extended itself to a symbol of the whole people, and the sun-heart of the dying remained forever at the zenith of suffering and glory." [tr. Sidney Monas]

This is only in the opening paragraph!

M. sketches out a symbiotic contrast between the two culture heroes, with Scriabin as a sign of Russia's cultural regression from the wholeness and integrity of the "Christian chronology".   Pushkin is the perfect icon of an "encrypted" Christian sacrifice for the whole people; Scriabin is the sign of its dissipation or betrayal.  Yet watch how Mandelstam refuses to descend into some kind of elegiac complaint!  He himself is enmeshed in both Pushkin's chaste clarity (the whole essay is rooted in prior Acmeist insights & formulations of his martyr-friend Nikolai Gumilev) and in the "Hellenic" (revolutionary) frenzy of Scriabin - the Dionysian element of the Greek dyad (Dionysus/Apollo).

But the substantial, the quintessential nectar embedded in this garbled fragment is sketched out in Mandelstam's vision of the relation between Christianity - as the fulness of God's free & loving redemption of the whole cosmos - and the soul and personality of the individual artist.  It is this "logic" of soul freedom and integrity - again, foreshadowed in Pushkin and Gumilev in particular, along with Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Nadezhda Mandelstam, so many others - as actually a result of the divine gift of free grace & redemption - which, for Mandelstam, explains the vitality, wholeness, and integrity of Western art in general.

"Christian art is free.  It is, in the full meaning of the phrase, 'art for art's sake'.  No necessity of any kind, even the highest, clouds its bright inner freedom, for its prototype, that which it imitates, is the very redemption of the world by Christ.  And so, not sacrifice, not redemption in art, but the free and joyful imitation of Christ - that is the keystone of Christian esthetics.  Art cannot be sacrifice, for a sacrifice has already been made; cannot be redemption, for the world along with the artist has already been redeemed."

"What then is left?  A joyful commerce with the divine, like a game played by the Father with his children, a hide-&-seek of the spirit!"

Mandelstam does something here akin to one of his 19th-cent. heroes, Chaadev.  He distinguishes clearly between religion and art, in order to illuminate the actual relationship between the two.

"Nourishing art, giving art of its flesh, offering it in the way of a sturdy metaphysical foundation the most real fact of redemption, Christianity demanded nothing in return."

This is a very fascinating formulation.  But for contemporary Western culture, it sounds like some arcane, indecipherable mathematical equation.  This too, however, is foreshadowed here (Russia has a strange way in general of foreshadowing & echoing cultural phenomena in the West).  Mandelstam talks about the contemporary regression from "the Christian calendar", the sense of history under the sign of a metaphysical Redemption.  There is no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel.  We have forgotten, or forsaken, or bowdlerized, the pure affirmation of the message upon which our culture was built.

"O ye of little faith!  Verily, if you say, lift up this mountain & toss it into the sea, & ye have faith, it shall be done for you!"

What is the meaning here?  It is not to declare that any one of us can perform weird magic tricks at any time of our choosing.  It is to say : The Son of Man is coming with Power, on the clouds of heaven.  The Earth has already been redeemed, by the manifestation - the incarnation - the sacrifice - & the heroic victory - of perfect Love.

This is a kind of pure Christian Classicism.  It can be heard in the taut moral scales of Shakespeare.  It can be heard in the ineffable organ-music of Donne.  It can be heard in the melody of Andrew Marvell.  It can even be heard lifting under the anxious heartbeat of John Keats.

It's that to which Wallace Stevens alluded, perhaps unknowingly, as his desire to celebrate the "normal" (a hard thing to do).

The world is not "normal" now.  The world is undergoing the symphonic stress of global birth-pangs.  Yet the Redemption stretches out the warm spiritual hand of healing, reconciliation, sanity, wholeness, integrity, hope, joy, freedom & love.  The structural harmony of the world is - the Redemption itself.   This metaphysical-historical fact, according to Mandelstam, is the substance of the "poetic license" of artistic freedom & truth.

America has in some respects lost sight of its own cultural inheritance.  The arts, and society as a whole, are overwhelmed with a righteous, judgmental, Puritanical fervor - splintered into multifarious factions, partisans of subcultural identifications.  The soul seeks some kind of moral justification : but it's an anxious, deracinated search, akin to the Dionysian frenzy of Scriabin & the revolutionaries of 1915.  God is playing hide & seek; but no one knows where to look for release... & yet...

"I shall be released."


Deserto Rosso


In the film like a dream, or film-like dream,
amid inalienable pine-
swamps of yourself, a line
scratched by crow divides team

from ox, sheep from flock.  Ineluctable
quiddity of ramshackle
vernacular.  You will tackle
each day’s unaccountable trouble,

snaking sly-inching replicas
of raven-versts across
your brow (Voronezh
barb-shears).  & those hills, alas!

in Tuscany... & here the tang
of spoiled fish, seaweed,
salt-marsh...  Hobo-reedy
outcast, you’ll note the rusty clang

from vertical train-tracks – glamorous
icons of onion-dome
supremacy, driven home
by battery ram.  Yet chasteness

still shines from Black Sea mirror
(gray pebble in a seagull’s
beak).  Galilean silence
rustles on lakeshore.  After the furor

of a jealous djinn tears past, the sun
will peek forth without wrath –
retrace your raven-path
in filaments of violet, moss-green.


(Chester, live cat, in the rocker; metal replica of Pushkin on the floor)


Touch of tuning fork


Gray world, wind washing rain across
the enormous limestone crevasse
down River Road.  Slant layers
of pre-Cambrian scrawls (wrinkles

of periwinkles, snails, seashells)
pre-date the hieroglyphs –
those Isis-&-Osiris skiffs
loaded with already-hoary piles

of Horus-eyes, gold scarab beads...
Cottonwoods like willows here –
divining rods bent to the River’s
imperturbable Runnymede.

The stream’s a mobile parallax.
One touch of tuning fork
will resonate through stark
tenebrous time-caverns – axe-

marks of Raven shadow Dove
into a treasure-trove
of hunter’s glove (apes
channel fright to constellation-love).

I would sound that iron undertone
down through the catacomb
of trench-war years – hum
Psyche-Wisdom’s will be done,

track Ariadne’s thread, from Chartres
to Notre Dame, from Magna
Carta to the Frisco Bay –
where Lady knots her safety net.



Occasional poem (from Ravenna Diagram)


A droning of iron chariots on
U.S. 80.  Straight through
Elkhart.  Winnebago
memory (in the amygdala).  One

whisper groans like an oak in Mendelssohn.
Becomes a benevolence,
a shade for Sabbath silence.
Word become flesh (my father’s own

right hand, gripping mine, until
he was gone).  Amygdala,
a tower, a butterfly
net for memory (little

Rorschach mirror-wings); the stone
with the 12-leafed rosette,
with Abraham’s whetted
blade, upheld in time... (atone,

atone).  Little portable temple,
your body (innocent son
of mine) – odd grail-stone
now, for a trial in Jerusalem.

Where they open bronze doors for Jubilee.
Let the land rest every 50
years, in the name of mercy;
let the mind roam in humility

of Franciscan donkey (chariot
of Elijah, sparking fire
of futurity).  Dear
Mary, with your high dark heart...


Tower Hill (Minneapolis)

Defense of a Diagram (4)

An explanatory introduction, an apologia for a literary work, is a double-edged sword.  In the process of unveiling an informal "defense" (or preface) for Ravenna Diagram, the side-notes are inevitably extraneous, maybe counter-productive.  For one thing, the poem has to stand on its own two (3, 4) feet.  For another, the explanations fall short of clarity & cogency.  I'm left with a nagging sense of things unsaid, or ill-said.  To render things explicit seems to muddle them at the same time.

Despite my disclaimers, the problem remains that I am offering, as a ground or argument for the poem, a worldview which perhaps 70% or more of contemporary readers will find puzzling, mystifying, off-putting, deluded, or simply wrong.

Yet there's something worthwhile in setting out on a journey against such long odds.  Intriguing, anyway.

Let me elaborate, then, a little more - a mini-defense within my Defense.  I have suggested (with Pound, Hart Crane, et al.) that the American epic is a "poem containing history".  The historian, of necessity, approaches the chaos or illegibility of human history with some kind of epistemological lens or measuring implement.

My particular lens is a form of theological vision.  (Some personal history laid the groundwork for this stance : I've written about it elsewhere on this blog.)  Previous efforts are part of the same song, in different modes.  The most recent poem, Lanthanum, parallels what I'm doing now, with changes.  In Lanthanum the idea was to find a place within American poetry to juxtapose and reconcile the American with the European, the modern with the medieval, T.S. Eliot with Hart Crane.  That poem circles around the Gateway Arch Monument in St. Louis (at the geographical mid-point of the continent, and Eliot's birthplace) - as a national-poetic symbol analogous to Crane's Brooklyn Bridge.

But what was the motive for juxtaposing modern & medieval?  It's basically the same impulse that motivates Ravenna Diagram : a particular way of seeing, an ontology of the nature of things, a model of human destiny on earth.

Roger Williams, the Rhode Island founder and prophet of religious toleration, is a pivotal figure for me, standing at the border between medieval and modern.  His message is still vital.  It provides a key with which to reconcile the sacred and secular, spirituality and civic liberty, the individual and the social, the one and the many.

The "medieval" mode assents to a spiritual concept, the Christian article of faith that Jesus was the living synthesis of human and divine - God and Man in one person.

The "modern" mode recognizes the limitations of theological vocabulary.  It acknowledges that what we mean by the "historical person Jesus Christ" may not (or not easily) be recognizable or acceptable to others, that the process of understanding one another across diverse human cultures and ideologies and experiences and forms of knowledge is ongoing, and utterly complex.

The task for this poet is to express the crux of this dichotomy or interface.  It is also to make claims and propositions about the nature of things - & celebrate the consequences.

A poem including history from a Christian perspective has its modern precursors (Eliot and David Jones among them).  Jones I find particularly appealing for a certain optimistic tenderness, for which one searches in Eliot mostly in vain.  His message is the "good news" : but it involves of necessity a translation or transfiguration of secular history into a pattern of spiritual meaning.  Christ is the pivot of earthly time - the Good Shepherd who lifts the human soul a little bit out of this world, from time to eternity.

Obviously, the notion of a divine manifestation has repercussions for any theory of history.  This is where poetry brings its special visionary powers of enthusiasm to bear.  We could suggest an analogy between the translation from secular to sacred time with the transmutation of prose to poetry.  "If you are willing to accept it."

But I also see a "poem including history" as having special obligations to that very prosaic reality which underlies the mystic icons of spirituality.  It is by way of a nekuia or the kenosis into the depths of the local, the temporary, the accidental, the mortal, that we discover the terms of shared experience - across religious and cultural differences.  This is the only path to shared understanding, a recognition of the kinship of experience, and the universality of truth.  It is only though this journey into the earth of details that new vision, new perspectives on old realities, is made possible.  The ground of actuality beneath "the historical Jesus" is still being excavated.  Our own, contemporary historical and cultural orientations continually react with newness to the unpredictable discoveries of ancient "artifacts".  The old is made new; is seen in a new light.

Again, I don't want to work at cross-purposes and defeat my own aims.  Ravenna Diagram is more than a "Jesus meditation", as anyone can see who bothers to explore it.  It's epic aspirations involve articulating a specifically American poem; this requires voicing a perspective on our land, people and history which echoes back and boomerangs within this larger, more global sketch (the theological framework).  It would be incumbent on anybody writing such a poem to attempt no less, if she wants to be heard, or say something of value to an American audience.  Thus the American literary background is part of the design of Ravenna D.  I am writing within the thematic and modal context of Eliot, Crane, Olson, Pound, and many others, who have traveled these regions before.

& herewith (I hope & believe) concludes my fourfold, flat-footed Defense of a Diagram.

Roger Williams at Prospect Terrace (Providence)


Defense of a Diagram (3)

I've started reflecting out loud, in a slapdash way, on Ravenna Diagram, an ongoing work-in-progress, comprising a certain diaristic sequence of poem-segments, some of which have appeared on this blog, and which are collected into an incremental design of chapters and books.

The first two postings under this heading ("Defense of a Diagram") might give the impression that the poet in question (that would be me) is merely filling out a pre-existent didactic pattern, standing on a very narrow, marginal, & maybe obsolete theological/confessional set of beliefs.

I hope the reader would be freed from such assumptions by simply encountering some of the poems themselves.  The life of any poetry is deeply bound up with improvisation, contingency, surprise : as Whitman said of Leaves of Grass, it's a kind of language experiment.  Perhaps paradoxically, poetic language (as Osip Mandelstam argued) is much more primal & "raw" than prose.  It is "the cry of its occasion" (Wallace Stevens).  It is a kind of verbal embodiment or model of actuality (the closest linguistic approximation to "incarnation").  Thus, within the dramatic entity which is the poem, any & all kinds of verbal signs, propositions and abstractions are tested in the (poetic) field.  It doesn't matter, in the end, what the argument is, what the doctrine, what the theology, what the cultural tradition - if it doesn't manifest as actual poetry.

So part of the "drama" of what I'm trying to do here is the suspense of a geste.  The poet takes on a difficult task : & can she do it?  Can she make it work?  Can she cross Mandelstam's "two strands" of the "poetic material" - the subject-matter with the verbal medium itself?

What I'm attempting - & have been working at for a long time (say about 35 years) - is an adventure in vastness, enormity, & grandeur.  The long, long, long poem, the epic.  Melville's American "anti-Bible" (Moby Dick) - Pound's "tale of the tribe" (The Cantos) - these are models.  Ravenna Diagram was preceded by a number of earlier such works from my hand : In RI, Island Road, Stubborn Grew, Lanthanum, et al.

Thus there is a genre, a mode, a literary context, and a history (a tradition, you might say) which helps to place what I'm trying to do.  There are many other poets working this vein, in one way or another.  (Robin Coste Lewis' "Voyage of the Sable Venus" is a recent, celebrated example.)

But what spurs me on?  Is it some kind of character flaw - obsessive-compulsive behavior?  Megalomania?  Competitive, rivalrous overdrive?

Not really, I think.  The motive gets back to the question of the "argument" or the over-arching theme.  A work of literature has a specific gravity - heavy or light, depending on the poet's skill and the gravitas of the theme.  The Idea, the First Idea.  The one who attempts the epic must have something to say, something urgent to get across.

At root, poetry is a spiritual activity.  "A Tear is an Intellectual Thing / And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King" (Blake).  Spirit and conscience guide the creative freedom of the artist.  As such - as a spiritual activity - the poet & the poem make absolute claims about the "nature of things."  Thus I have harped repeatedly, on this blog, in many different ways, that poetry is the most adequate (& thus accurate) verbal representation of Reality as a whole, as a wholeness.

These notions lay a burden of obligation - a "burden which is light."  The inherent suspense, the drama of the poet's geste, is to prove worthy of these claims, in the fulfillment of the work.  What is your definition of poetry? the interrogator asked Mandelstam, hoping to catch him in some kind of Soviet fallacy.  The poet's sense of being right, he replied.  You can actually hear Mandelstam's conscience speaking there - his feeling of obligation to express the inner rightness of his vision.

So no, with Ravenna Diagram I am not filling out a simple pre-ordained ideological pattern.  Rather, I'm exploring a mystery - trying to express what little I can see of the underlying nature of things.  That this involves an historical sense seems basic to my own interest.

If one is proposing a metaphysical or theological way of interpreting experience, then one can sketch out a plain model of vectors or intersecting lines of force : history, time, the divine (the spiritual), the personal (subjectivity), poetry, and the history of poetry (tradition).  & if one is willing to conceive of Jesus (in the manner of David Jones) as the point in timespace where Man (humankind) and the Divine intersect "in the order of signs"... as the living template or paradigm of every human person - then "the historical Jesus" - or the "Jesus of poetry" - is where all these vectors coincide.  Obviously, not every reader of poetry is going to be prepared thus to conceive the nature of things!  But that's part of the joy & thrill & suspense of the enterprise : how the strange encounter is tested & plays out in the poem itself.  One need not accept the doctrine (inchoate, mysterious & confused as it is) in order to enjoy the song.


Defense of a Diagram (2)

"What is your definition of poetry?" barked the Soviet apparatchik/journalist.  Osip Mandelstam straightened up, took a deep breath - & declared : "The poet's sense of being right."

Blogging is a notoriously loose-flappy kind of prose.  (Nevertheless, I like it.)  My previous post under this heading was not put together very well, and probably did my own grandiloquent poema something of a disservice.

I spoke of the argument, the theme, as the spine or bone-structure of a literary work.  Proposed that every poem makes some kind of argument - exists within some frame of (Einsteinian-relativistic) world-lines and logical architecture.

Works of visual art or music impinge on our sense of things with an unspoken or implicit language of signs.  Imaginative literature (poetry) does something analogous by way of symbolic analogies.  The testimony is direct, perhaps, but it is also more than that.  The story echoes with meaningful imagery, the way a symphony shimmers with overtones.

I suggested that underlying Ravenna Diagram - the long ongoing poem in the mode of Pound's Dantesque Cantos, or Olson's Williamsish Maximus, or Zukofsky's Poundian "A" - lies a foundational argument, rooted in a specific worldview.

Poems make arguments within an ecosystem of clashing worldviews, ideological systems which talk past each other.  They can be acts of intellectual resistance, as well as free-standing creative constructs.

Dante's life, whether he knows it or not, is drawing to a close along with his poem, in the quiet backwater of Ravenna.  He looks up at the mosaics of San Vitale or Sant' Apollinare, and infuses the Paradiso with their imagery.

Pound, in another age, jaunting around Italy, becomes enamored of Sigismondo Malatesta, the noble warlord, who stole statuary from Ravenna in order to construct his Tempio, dedicated to Isotta (with whom he was besotted).  He constructs a quasi-Dantean architecture for the Cantos, based on a set of horizontal friezes or frescoes in the Tempio.

Dante's Paradiso concludes with a visionary contemplation of the Trinity, symbolized as 3 interlocking rainbows in the heavens.  The poet concludes humbly : he says the logic of their facets eludes his mind, reducing him to baby-talk.  This is how the poem ends - with a vision of supernal cosmic Love, beyond rational explication or human comprehension.

So when I say that Ravenna Diagram is grounded in a poetic argument regarding the nature of the Trinity, and that the poem is set within a matrix of evocations and allusions to Dante's Ravenna... well, perhaps you can see where this is leading.

The Trinitarian ontology or worldview, emanating historically from the theology of the Greek fathers and early Christian Orthodoxy, could be seen as an intellectual extrapolation or superstructure, grounded in the collective spiritual experience of the early Church.

Dante wrote a thousand years later, from the center of the medieval Scholastic flowering (Thomas Aquinas et al.).  Yet fundamental questions about the destiny of individuals, and of the human race as a whole - about the progressive direction of history toward some kind of theological manifestation or end-time - were neither set aside nor resolved.

The questions facing St. Maximus the Confessor, in the age of the early Church convocations, creeds, and collective self-definitions, were even more basic.  The obsession of the Byzantine civilization revolved around the status and character of the Three Persons of the Trinity.  In the process of resolving these issues and defending Orthodox doctrine, Maximus developed a very acute and creative anthropology (drawing in part on the Byzantine absorption of Aristotle and Classical philosophy in general). Maximus's intellectual formulations have been deeply studied by scholars like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Lars Thunberg (wonderful books, highly recommended).

I seem to have gotten away from the topic at hand, and dribbled into obscure volumes of forgotten lore.  But not really.  This is background.

The anthropological lens developed by Maximus provides a means of interpreting the process of human history as a whole.  And this, as Pound asserted, is what epic (or his epic, anyway) is about : "a poem including history".

Imagine seeing the "historical Jesus" within such an interpretive framework.  Imagine a poem which grapples with the recognition that Christian theology - especially in its relationship with Judaism - has its own lacunae : perhaps will experience in the future a total renovation or re-configuration of its meanings.  Not on behalf of some demythologizing critique, but rather out of the cumulative experience of history itself, which sheds new light on old words and deeds.

Think of a poem which sets up dramatic historical juxtapositions, on behalf of a dramatic theory of history (see Urs von Balthasar on this, too).  Thus : we don't yet really know the "historical Jesus" in the fulness of historical actuality.  Imagine a mythopoiesis of history (as with Olson's or Williams' localism, for example, or - perhaps more important - a feminist interpretation of the Gospels) which sets up a dialectic in juxtaposition to the abstract formulae of theological statements.

Add to this the dramatic dimension of the enunciation of the poem itself : impossible project which only magnifies the historical here & now of the poet's own time.  But this absurdity & impossibility opens up creative (theological) possibilities, too : Jesus himself was called the Nazir, the holy man, the singer, the poet (in the line of poet-king David).

This is just a sample of the arcane shrubbery forming the backdrop of an "argument" for the said murk-in-progress (Ravenna Diagram)...

Primary colors


A warm December, Pearl Harbor Day.
Pale & luminous radiance
suffuses the primary colors
of the workmen’s big machinery

in the river (below Franklin Bridge).
Dazzling maternal uncle
Jim’s birthday – a Ravlin
clé to the mystery.  Mrs. Elledge

added those little busts of Bach,
Mozart, & Beethoven
to my piano-lesson
collection (when I finished each book);

I loved her.  Jim waltzed Agnes,
the Viennese musician’s
daughter, around Lincoln
Center – while his own jeune fille was

in the shrouds of late-adolescent
angst, despair.  O
Juliet... swallowed at last
by Frisco Bay (agenbite

of inwit, James).  The pearl in the harbor
was a vivid soul, before
that fall; maybe somewhere
the wind still ruffles her black hair.

The soul, like a robin redbreast, wavers
high on its dogwood branch
over each day’s routine
avalanche.  Hunts for life-savers.


Franklin Ave. Bridge

Defense of a Diagram

This blog has mutated over the years.  I've grown less glib, or less articulate; more disengaged from various fizzy cyber-corners of Poetryland.  I've narrowed my range, posted a lot of poems - starting with bits of the long poem Lanthanum, and lately from the current obsession, Ravenna Diagram.

These changes are certainly due in part to my getting older (I'll be 29 in 2024). Moreover, the last year has been full of changes.  I'm no longer a busy little drone at work in that marvelous academic library at Brown University.  I'm no longer in Providence.  My father passed away in May; suddenly I'm back in my home town (Minneapolis) after a 45-year absence - back in the midst of family.

Back when, in illo tempore, when I was a swimmy sub-sub-librarian-cormorant, I came upon a good book by Jonathan Kertzer, called Poetic Argument.  The argument of the Argument was that scholars had neglected an essential dimension of poetry - its logic, its argument.  A good poem becomes an organic ding an sich (or however it goes), a living body, knit together on the strong bone structure of its argument - the thing it wants to say.

This is not a very popular approach these days.  In fact it hasn't been since the days of the Restoration poets and critics (Pope, Johnson et al.).  The Romantics, the Symbolists, & the Moderns who followed, each for their own reasons, shunned the whole notion of an apparent or explicit "argument" for a poem.

"To justify the ways of God to Man" - Milton's great Argument in Paradise Lost - was paradigmatic.  Milton's ghost leapfrogged the Restoration era, hovering over Keats, Wordsworth & the other Romantics; but apparently a more basic aesthetic dictum - show, don't tell - became the rule.

Argument becomes implicit, or unnecessary.  Poetry becomes a matter of unique short lyrics; the strong poet is someone with a distinct, original manner, style, voice, siren-call - transported across a variegated splendor-garden of anthology anthems.  Anthems, not themes.

But there's something fuzzy and logically suspect about a poem that lacks the spine of proposition/evidence/conclusion.  This is the area Kertzer explores.  Unfortunately, since I read the book at least 15 years ago, and I no longer work in an academic library, I will have to leave further investigation of the details up to you, dear reader.

At this point, let's try turning the tables on me.

What, then, pray tell, is the "argument" of Ravenna Diagram - that most obscure & obliquely wayward divagation I've been imposing upon loyal perusers of this blog now for several years?

Ah, this is a hard question you pose me, Queen Sheba.

The poem had its roots in a barely-conscious impulse, not an idea.  But one is naturally curious about these emotional surges, these elusive kicks from the Mare of the Night; it's like being drawn by a will o'the wisp.  An obscure longing, a memory of the ancient flame... something like that?  Proust's muffin...

Why did I feel this unreasonable affinity or attraction for the swamplands around neglected, very ancient churches in Ravenna, Italy?  Was it seeing Antonioni's great 60s film Deserto Rosso, set in the industrial wasteland of the Ravenna coast?  (Or beautiful Monica Vitti, its crazy lead?)

I'm not positive why, even after 2-3 years - but I'm beginning to see the outlines of my own argument.

First, let's remember : the Moderns too, and the Romantics - even the Symbolists - had their "arguments", their themes, their worldview.  Authentic poetry is an expression of conscience, wrote Wallace Stevens (inexact quote from memory).  And conscience is conscientious : the human conscience defends and articulates an idea of the truth - a sense of how things really are, and how they should be.  Pound had an argument.  Joyce had an argument.  Eliot, Stevens, even Hart Crane had their arguments. Frost had his "lover's quarrel with the world".  Marianne Moore was famously forthright in her demonstrations.

I have a hunch one reason my poem (Ravenna Diagram) is so extravagantly indirect, is because its argument is so hazardous and powerful.  It's almost impossible to enunciate.

Imagine a poem so radical and earth-shaking that it requires the most extensive grounding in local & personal historical circumstances - offered as a kind of evidentiary documentation.  But more than that : offered as a kind of poetic mimesis of a reality which cannot be "described" in any other way.

This sounds like mumbo-jumbo, I guess.  Charles Olson in a cardigan sweater.

Let me try to sketch out or improvise a kind of diversionary illustration.  One of my postulates is that poetry & literature are deeply allegorical, while at the same time historically-grounded and aesthetically-symbolic.  In other words, it's not an either-or choice : the poet can do both at once.  The Bible is playfully allegorical; it is also a semi-historical chronicle (or a parody of a chronicle).

So, allegory.  If I imagine Dante toward the end of his life (he died age 57), in the backwaters of Ravenna - engaging (as local pedagogue & litterateur) with his compassionate patrons & students; maintaining his family; secretly plotting (through the greatest poetry ever written) his return to Florence... & trying to finish up the Paradiso... & gazing at those ancient (even then) & Bach-Beethovenish magnificent transcendent mosaics hidden in the Ravenna churches of San Vitale & Sant'Apollinare... (some scholars have attributed specific imagery in the Paradiso to these artworks)...

Apollinaire... Apollinare...

The argument of Ravenna Diagram is an historical-poetic argument, paralleling those of other American practitioners of the ambitious longish epic mode (Whitman, Pound, Crane, WC Williams, Olson, Zukofsky, et al.).

An historical-poetic argument, you might say, comes across these days as a sort of shamanism : anybody claiming such pompous verbal authority (in this world of science, social media & journalism) must be a real throwback.

Let's say I'm moving slowly toward making that argument.  I think it's going to be a very unorthodox kind of Orthodox theorem.  (One of my earliest poems points in that direction.)

The awe-inspiring mosaics hidden like pearls in the shells of old churches of Ravenna represent their own theological argument : they are excrescences from Constantinople, the 1000-year theocracy where Christos Pantocrator reigns in golden, glittering, everlasting spiritual splendor (think Yeats' Byzantium).

Maximus the Confessor is my favorite theologian, even though his anti-Jewish polemics are hateful to me, & depressing.  Maximus had his limitations (this was the 5th century) : but he also loved (an intellectual love), & was philosophically astute (visionary).

He's my favorite, because his powerful dialectic comprehends and makes sense of the Orthodox theology of the Trinity.  Now I realize this sounds like a very specialized, pedantic hobbyhorse.  Yet the capacity to make an argument for a Trinitarian anthropology &/or metaphysics has implications, has consequences, for all the other preconceptions and postulates we happen to harbor about our own existential situation, and about reality in general.

If the Trinity is real, then the appearance of a particular human person, an individual, in the vast desert expanse of human history, has a certain spiritual meaning which otherwise would not obtain.

In other words, if God-as-Spirit became Man-as-Person, then suddenly reality-in-general has become, somehow, spiritually Personal.

Ravenna Diagram, the poem, is, in one sense, an extrapolation from Hart Crane's The Bridge.  As The Bridge tried to make an argument for Cosmic Consciousness as the ultimate ground for the Platonic Beauty which inspires epic (American) poetry, so Ravenna Diagram follows the last steps of Dante toward a quasi-Dantean poetry of (American) spiritual consummation.

In my argument, such a consummation would have to be grounded in the actual historical process : thus I look toward various bridge-supports or foundational strata in order to "support" this theme.

The most basic foundation rests in mimesis, Aristotle's paradigm of poetic art.  Thus I try to "mirror" (anthropologically, so to speak) my own historical vectors with the vectors of the "historical" Dante and the "historical" Roger Williams and even the "historical" Jesus : I stretch threads of affinity between these actors - each of them propounding elements of the whole argument.

What is this great argument, then?  "God is Spirit, & those who worship Him must do so in spirit & in truth." (Gospel of John, roughly)

Check with Black Elk (or Manitou) on that.


A ruffled mirror


In the ruffled mirror of the lake
scatter sibylline shards
of ice-light – winsome chaos
fabulating carousels a child might make.

To the attunement of a ball of clay
dissolving into Mendelssohn
spring mud – spry union-
unison of infant birds (with day).

It cannot last, cry Paul & Augustine.
Yet lasted long enough,
croons woodman Joseph’s
son – justifying all her children.

Afternoons of used-up antique men
shift with shy Psyche –
hope to melancholy,
grief to resolve (determination).

Dusk filters into codex ink.
The dapple of the harbor
shrinks to one iron
anchor, parallactic (in the drink).

Yet teeming Earth still whispers
its new whorl – the mind
rewinds, sea-myths unbind
their clams.  Heroes (Coke, Roger)

ripple in the river, over the rim
of light birch canoe;
Psyche’s eyelids flicker too,
tap signals from tall Joachim.


Grace Ravlin, Gloucester (ca. 1920s)


Circus leaps


This winter Mississippi, silver-
blue as a kingfisher,
must be my Ocean here,
now.  Old Rhode Island (Roger

Williams tugging at his oar
along the Narragansett
shore) is like an inlet
glinting on Ravenna door.

This plain flatland’s no nacre
objet d’art – no Rimini-
Jiminy jingle-tree
nor fizzle-pop of firecracker.

It’s the tip of a massive iceberg
mound, with Ojibwa scrawls 
from International Falls.
It’s a raven-furled ironwork

Father of Waters (del Espiritu
Santo).  The dark ink spills
from Andean condor hills
like shade from a single pine... you,

yew.  One sinuous dove-grey thread
from woolen crown (above
almond eyes) – Love’s
quipu, drawn from riverbed –

the peacock bow of freedom’s O
(a circuit of Noahtic leaps
that signal seamanship).
Her line grips like a sheepfold

fence (through centuries of snow).



Grapes in a landscape

Another topical sketch for Ravenna Diagram, ripped from these headlines :

Israel Aims to Recreate Wine that Jesus and King David Drank

Hope for Nefertiti's Tomb, and Egypt's Economy


Articulate inchworm, lifting
little arches across
King Tut’s chambers –
shape-shifting hero (glyphic

frogman), testing the submerged
crevasse for Nefertiti.
O Jealous Fertility
Goddess of the Wine-Splurged

Sea!  Accept our offerings –
these cracked amphorae
full of ancient air
& semaphore (dusty grain bins).

Do whatever he tells you, she
directed them; the wine
from prehistoric pine-
nuts will transport us into Galilee.

But you have saved the good wine
until last.  These grapes
are not Israeli types,
nor Palestinian; they shine

in the landscape; this is beautiful.
The purple embroidery
around your lips, my
Queen!  The fiery eye of Yule,

the burning hearth of infantile
desire.  A trim Beatrice
flickers through bound hay-
bales (kayak, limping up the Nile).