Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Friday, December 10, 2004

Quit Yer Bitchen (Endure)

O ancient curse of poets!
Being sorry for themselves instead of saying,
forever passing judgment on their feelings
instead of shaping them ...

... Instead of sternly transmuting into words those selves of theirs,
as imperturbably cathedral carvers
transpose themselves into the constant stone.
That would have been salvation ...

The big words from those ages, when as yet
happening was visible, are not for us.
Who talks of victory? To endure is all.

-- Ranier Maria Rilke, Collected Works SW i, 654, transl. Leishman


Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind--
Thy windy will to bear!

-- Emily Dickinson

The Permanence of Ice

It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence-
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness-not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination-
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations-not forgetting
Something that is probably quite ineffable:
The backward look behind the assurance
Of recorded history, the backward half-look
Over the shoulder, towards the primitive terror.
Now, we come to discover that the moments of agony
(Whether, or not, due to misunderstanding,
Having hoped for the wrong things or dreaded the wrong things,
Is not in question) are likewise permanent
With such permanence as time has. We appreciate this better
In the agony of others, nearly experienced,
Involving ourselves, than in our own.
For our own past is covered by the currents of action,
But the torment of others remains an experience
Unqualified, unworn by subsequent attrition.
People change, and smile: but the agony abides.
Time the destroyer is time the preserver,
Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops,
The bitter apple, and the bite in the apple.
And the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

-- Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” from Four Quartets

Yule Blues (Dec. 10, 2004)

Sometimes this season
is pure blues, yuletide
spirits like iced vodka
sliding down the hourglass
into mouths expecting
oblivion in lieu of
those forever lost
sugarplums in a life’s
acquired tasted for
ruin. My wife worked
for two days assembling
20 holiday sachets,
embroidering a
Christmas pattern
on each & then stuffing
‘em with jasmine
potpourri, trying
to market them at
a holiday event a
friend invited her
to. She came home
last night not having
sold a one, all that
time wasted and
the money we so
needed denied
and an awful hammer
knocking her down
just when she could
use some confirmation
that her dream of
selling embroidered
fabrics will make good.
Nothing to do but
hug her and say
they were just hicks,
make a salad & order
pizza and let it go
watching recorded
episodes of “The King
of Queens” in a
living room now bright
with the tinkly lights
of our Christmas tree.
And sigh, and yawn,
and head to bed. I
dreamed of a long walk
down and up some
present and past
avenue, at first a local
stretch, like the Orange
Blossom Trail I ride
to work on every day,
a road which cuts
through the heart of
this heated land
I chose to live in
long ago; and then
I walked back the
other way, north
and homeward, in
what seemed like
Scotland, the streets
and hamlets named
in a Gaelic sounding
tongue, the sense of
things more primal,
Formorian, the closer
I got to home. At last
it seemed like I
was watching all
with underwater eyes,
a sort of infrared
exposure which viewed
my plebian afternoon’s
trudge from 5 fathoms
under all, the strip malls
and shuttered houses warm
with that otherworldly glow
which warms the sockets
of every interred skulls.
And then the alarm was
pinging, pinging, hauling
me up to my day’s launch
at 4 a.m., a restless,
still-warm wind auguring
a cold front in the
opened windows of
our upstairs bedroom,
my wife sleeping oddly
above the covers, as if
the hot flashes were
at it again with their
caustic moods, as if
our life was drowning
her. Nothing to do but
kiss her on that fretted
sleep-tossed brow
and get up to mend
things here as best
and only I know how.
All dark now outside,
the Christmas lights
long off, the faintest
high rustling of traffic
on the Trail carried
on a muscular tide
of breeze, the hard day
ahead and Bush still
in office, the mortgage
payment due and
not much left after
that for the rest of
our Christmas spending
and small comfort to
be found anywhere
in today’s vowel
movement. Thank God
I know in my bones
that booze would only
make the mess abysmal:
so wrap up this poem
matey, and heave off
from its sad shore.
There’s so much work
to do to earn those
insufficient funds, to
love the leakage
and its spoor, and light
again come dusk
those starry Christmas
lights on the tree
in the garden and in
our house -- lights
so eager and hopeful for
that problematical
Christ child’s first cry
and all the days to
walk before we, my
love, die. Yet what abundance,
what great wealth
we find right here
in stroking our cats
so, their heads lifted
in sweet pleasure and
hunger for the food
which follows. Luckily
we have so much of
what we love that
there’s small need
to find it under that
tree, having given
it to ourselves with
work we love to do,
and daily trying to
live the impossibly
underwater way, where
worth is work and
love is pay and every
song and embroidered
fabric counts no
matter what those
chilling Yuletide spirits
say out on the breeze
which brings the
next cold front our way.

The Bad Years (2003)

My bad years were a
sleep I could not wake
from. She held
me from below
pressing her blue
thirst to my lips,
a honey milk
with a threat
of gall through which
She poured her angels
and devils in.
Poured them all.
Yesterday I
remembered a
Christmas at my
father’s place in
1977 when I
thought I would
abandon my useless
and unworthy
and broken life out
West and come
to live at last
with him, partaking
there of a New Age
dream of devas
rousing winter
gardens and raising
ley-lords from
their witchy rooks
in the stone
foundations never
far below. We drank
his B&B Scotch
(cheap and plentiful)
next to the fire
that late December
hashing out David
Spangler’s "Principles
of Manifestation,"
those quantum
mechanae of the
soul which, as
we boiled them down,
seemed only to
say, To Be Is Being’s
Be-All: So Be.
Dry ends indeed
to such high yeasty
talk, but we kept
on talking and drinking.
Up the road in a
double-wide trailer
lived drunk Karol and
his even drunker
son Randy, both
catastrophes of
the same booze
we thought we caged
with all that high
talk. The father was
a Polish refugee
from World War II’s
boneyard of atrocity.
He hated the Germans
but despised the
Russians worse, who
one hoary winter’s day
rounded up he and
his fellow villagers
into a cattle car
and chugged into
deep woods, where
they disembarked
the men and lined
them up along a ridge,
and solved all seed
of feared insurgency
by emptying their
ratatats into Karol
and his tribe.
He fell in sync
with the rest, miraculously
free of shot, and
faked his death
sprawled in that
pile of cooling meat.
After dusk he crawled
up and out, a revenant
who had only in the
coldest sense of
things survived.
Hid out til war’s
end then worked
his way this way,
setting up at last
in that trailer
up the road to work
his days like a bull
and drink his nights
like the worst whale.
My father loved
Karol’s workhorse
ways, hiring him
now and then for
some or other
big job on his land,
which back then
was a total mess,
years from becoming
something fine,
a Yankee Piccu
shored between
high rhetorics and
a damn fine, soul-
rich ground. Back
then it was only
guesswork and
long long hours of
work, days and years
of it. Those early
times required a titan’s
back and hands,
and Karol for some
while was the
best of that. By
day, at least; they’d
drunk some Scotch
together but the
beast who emerged
in the third pour
was no man my
father cared to house,
and told Karol he’d
had to drink elsewhere.
By the time I
had gotten there,
Karol was mostly
a story, his sweat
and swath something
reserved for spring
days down the road.
A day or so
before Christmas
my brother roared
into town, a party
boy like me in full
bored merriment,
on fire just as I
but lacking my
dad’s approval,
mostly because the
words were not in
his mouth but
further down in
his hands. It would
be years before he’d
find use for them;
back then they were
most adept at
chugging and charging
at the night. He linked
up somehow his
Randy and Randy’s
sister and drove
off with them to
party wild and long,
fucking the sister
in the back seat while
Randy cheered,
the station wagon’s
interior a furnace
for a winter’s night.
My brother told me
off all this the next
day as he came
to with coffee and
some snuck-in shots
of Scotch, his eyes
like black holes,
a dark sad woman
staying back
far far far below.
A week later Randy
invited us up to
his father’s trailer
to celebrate the New
Year’s. Karol was
already roaring drunk,
one meaty fist
choking the life
out of a half-gallon
of vodka, the other
keeping time to
a polka band on
the stereo, his eyes
red with all he still
could see too well.
The trailer was decked
with streamers and
glitter, too sickly-bright,
too campy, composing
a merriment almost
infernal in its gleam.
Ilsa the mother
back then stayed far
from sight, clucking her
tongue at all the
errancy her men
brought to this small
house perched on doom.
Randy came falling
through the door
with a case of
champagne -- tumbled
through the threshold
then collapsed, shattering
half the bottles
on the floor in a
wavelike, bright
careen of sound.
Randy lay there
swearing but the
father just roared
with glee; that’s
when I got the
hell on outta there,
backing out shouting
Happy New Year’s!
and wheeling into
a cold cold frozen
Pennsylvania night,
slipping helter
skelter on icy
asphalt, sure that
every bat in hell
was wheeling overhead.
Back in my father’s
house all was settled
and noble and
warm -- my father
smoking his pipe
reading in a chair,
Pachelbel’s "Canon
in D" on his stereo,
a big cross over
the mantel blessing
for sure this
enterprise. It was
exactly where I
wished to be:
though I knew
somehow it was
exactly the place
it was somehow
most dangerous
to remain. One
of those nights
the dreams began --
a horrible parade of
desperate scenes,
as if some warning
was shrieking from
a sidhe that bound
my sleep. In one
dream I was trapped
inside some
motherish castle,
a feminine keep,
while some fatherish
light assaulted
from without, promising
to annihilate every
living presence with
the audacity to
keep the door tight.
In another dream
I voyaged in a balloon
into mystic China
with a strange stone
man who bore
inscriptions on his
neck in no language
I yet could understand.
As we began the most
dangerous passage,
the stone man
scrambled out of
the basked and
fell like stone below,
leaving me alone
just when the
clouds were thickest
and the strangeness
most intent. I’d
belt awake from
those dreams,
my heart hammering
hard, certain only
that my promise
to stay on at
my father’s place
was not at all
concurred with
from below; that
not matter how much
I wished to stay,
I had only one
way to go and
survive -- away, back
west to my own meager
awful limited life.
My dad was hurt
and perplexed when
I eventually announced
that as much as I
loved all there, it
was not mine nor
what I must build.
I said those words
to my father in
January 1978, and
I have never since
been able to stay
there for very long.
At the end of
that month I flew
back to Spokane
to that cold house
I rented, entering
the spring semester
of my junior year
in college, which
turned out to be
the last full-time
school effort I
could manage. It
was the semester
of good poetry
at last and a woman
who emerged from
the blue dark
corners of some
party who eventually
took me by the
hand and drowned me
in my own bed.
That I guess was
the fate sealed on
the stone man’s lips
when he followed
a deeper instinct
and left the air
with its New Agey
wisps and aetherizing.
He dove into what I
followed and here
keep sinking to -- Mystic
rivers and oceans
which will never
quite do, a harpuscry
or hagiography or
mantic musings of
some blue I could never
find on my father’s
higher ground.
Sometime soon after
I returned out West
my father called
to tell me that
Karol was dead.
One night he’d
gotten roaring drunk
as usual and then
drove home on
quite icy roads.
He didn’t make
it round that big
curve behind my
father’s house
and sailed off the road
and down the
ravine, catching
a broad tree right
between the eyes.
Finis. That story
didn’t really surprise
me -- you saw bad
ends hanging all over
that Christmas tree
in his doublewide
up the road -- And
we both agreed that
the roar of rage
at old wounds could
only be quieted in
the grave. Hearing
that story way back
then didn’t change
my ways at all, for I
was young and much
smarter than all
that, with all my
history ahead, and
my words of such
a finer distillation
as to keep me
wide of those
widest curves.
Ha ha. That I survived
and have lived to
tell the story is
somehow Her
prerogative, as if I
am now not the
mantic but one
gifted by God or Goddess
to read his stony
lips, a pen dipped
in deep old ink
now asked to write
it out. Many years
later in my first
round of sobriety,
I heard from the son
Randy who had
seemed sealed into
his father’s aphotic
shoes. But instead
he had gotten sober
in AA and found a
way into the live
above and beyond
that grave, working
as a nurse and going
still further to love.
The man I saw in ‘92
was like a sailor
who’d been lost
for years but somehow
returned, much aged,
his face almost
completely changed, like
a stone worn
smooth washed
long in blue. We
didn’t really have
much to say to
each other, but
just seeing us
both on the other shore
from so many bad
years was satisfaction
enough, like twins
separated at some
brutal birth will
recognize the
other instantly though
there’s nothing else
to say. We lived on
beyond those black
and revenant years,
to begin our lives
at last. We safarewell, and that
was that. Years later,
in an AA meeting
yesterday, the story
came bubbling up
to view in my mind,
much covered with
weeds and barnacles
and faded to a greyish-
brown: Yet as
the others told Christmas
memories of their
drinking worst, this
one for me began to
gleam and unfold its
strange wings at last,
an oracle, if you
will, from the grave
of bad years lost.
The voice reminded
me to be thankful
with the rest of my life
to be sitting here
and not back there
where the moon
over Christmas
wore the devil’s
ice pegnior, and my
thirst for darkness
was so endless:
And to be thankful
too exactly for
that way in which
She grabbed and held
me long below,
whispering those
strange blue words
which makes every
poem now go
and glow and make
all ripened curves
on dark roads show.

Deck the Shoals (2003)

Three dread cups I
have tasted in my thirst
for you: white and green
red islands spread
across the night’s
deep and darkest blue,
shoals which held me
in such thrall I
threw my arms, my
seed, my every song
though nothing could
hold you very long.
Each time you sighed
and faded in an
archetypal mist,
a dawnlike saturate
tearing sky from sea.
Image, if you will,
a sprig of holly on a
bough ladened with
snow: cold white starch
surrounds the three
sharp leaves, their
dark almost gray green
color a bower to
the three red
berries which are
perilous to dream
and poison to consume.
There is a late 15th-
Century tapestry
series from the Netherlands
called “The Hunt of
the Unicorn.”
Here is love’s silk
Gundestrup; the gods
woven there command
the view, but none
may hold for long
the the fabled beast
with the soft blue
eyes and pale long horn.
In the mortificatio
of my divine lust
I’ve whiled away the
years, in one ordeal
or another on her
many, complicate beds.
The holly sprig
appears in a panel
called “The Unicorn
Leaps from the Stream,”
and it reminds me
of how I began and
rowed and still am.
Son, my mother
once told me as I
was pushing off from
home to ride the
El downtown to see
my father with a
telescope in tow --
to watch the stars,
I said, though really
it was because he
lived next to the
Playboy Tower in
Chicago -- David, she
said, there’s more to
life than a bed, a babe,
and a bottle of booze.
Full throttle I set out
to prove her right
in love’s drifting wood,
chasing that dream
purity who wears
the holly crown.
I have been Love’s
monk and exile and
crucified son, scourged
and oared and nailed
by my desire: yet
none of it much helped
to pen the pale beast
within Your breasts.
It always hooved
free, leaping every
fence or moat
or couplet I could
devise to circle off
the drowse. Always
the sad ellipse three
times punctuating
the hallows of that
kiss which smiles
and fades away
and leaves me standing
here at the shore
once again with
nothing more to show
than another blue
soul-stain between
all these lines,
one more salt reminder
that I forever will
remain at this.
I keep standing here
searching an endless
surf for that one
repeating door to
widen once again
inside a wave’s
aquamarine hiss,
holding high this
holly sprig, closing
my eyes, parting
my lips to receive
once again the
deep draught of
her triune, crashing
bliss. Wait ...

Early Snow (Mary Oliver)

Amazed I looked
out of the window and saw
the early snow coming down casually,
almost drifting, over
the gardens, then the gardens began
to vanish as each white, six-pointed
snowflake lay down without a sound with all
the others. I thought, how incredible
were their numbers. I thought of dried
leaves drifting spate after spate
out of the forests,
the fallen sparrows, the hairs of all our heads
as, still, the snowflakes went on pouring softly through
what had become dusk or anyway flung
a veil over the sun. And I thought
how not one looks like another
though each is exquisite, fanciful, and
falls without argument. It was now nearly
evening. Some crows landed and tried
to walk around then flew off. They were perhaps
laughing in crow talk or anyway so it seemed,
and I might have joined in, there was something
that wonderful and refreshing
about what was by then a confident white blanket
carrying out its
cheerfiul work, covering ruts, softening
the earth’s trials, but at the same time
there was some kind of almost sorrow that fell
over me. It was
the loneliness again. After all
what is Nature, it isn’t
kindness, it isn’t unkindness. And I turned
and opened the door, and still the snow poured down,
smelling of iron and the pale, vast eternal, and
there it was, whether I was ready or not:
the silence; the blank, white, glittering sublime.

Azaleas (Peter Meinke)

In the morning, in December
they lean like flares over our brick pathway,
vessels of fragrant energy,
their bright explosions enclosed by the frailest membrane:
they tremble with their holy repressions.
We watch; we tremble, too. We learn.
They thrive on acid, these azaleas; they burn
in darkness, loving the shadows of old oaks
whose broken leaves flutter down to feed
their flowering fantasies.
For surely azaleas are not real, they grow
in some deep wilderness of soul, some known
ideal of vulnerability made palpable,
whose thin petals float dying to the ground
even as we walk by, without touching.
Our very presence seems to kill.
We know more than we can say: we live
in waves of feelings and awareness
where images unfold and grow
along the leafwork of our nerves and veins;
and when one morning late in March
we walk out on our porch and see
the white azaleas open to the air
we recognize them from our dreams
as every cell projects our affirmation.
O Pride of Mobile, Maiden Blush,
Prince of Orange, President Clay:
the names are humorous examples
of human hubris—O Glory of Sunninghilll
And yet they’re touching, too: my salmon
colored Duc de Rohan’s fragile aristocracy
doomed like his forebears to lose his head;
your Elegans, that early bloomer,
whose petals lie like butterflies on our walk
or pastel Kleenex thickly strewn
in some orgy of melancholy weeping ...
Dwarves and Giants, Pinkshell, Flame—
O my dear, so many azaleas are dying!
We must have a party! Here! This afternoon!

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Liban the Sea Woman

The time Angus Og sent away Eochaid and Ribh from the plain of Bregia that was his playing ground, he gave them the loan of a very big horse to carry all they had northward. And Eochaid went on with the horse till he came to the Grey Thornbush in Ulster; and a well broke out where he stopped, and he made his dwelling-house beside it, and he made a cover for the well and put a woman to mind it.

But one time she did not shut down the cover, and the water rose up and covered the Grey Thornbush, and Eochaid was drowned with his children; and the water spread out into a great lake that has the name of Loch Neach to this day. But Liban that was one of Eochaid's daughters was not drowned, but she was in her sunny-house under the lake and her little dog with her for a full year, and God protected her from the waters.

And one day she said "O Lord, it would be well to be in the shape of a salmon, to be going through the sea the way they do." Then the one half of her took the shape of a salmon and the other half kept the shape of a woman; and she went swimming the sea, and her little dog following her in the shape of an otter and never leaving her or parting from her at all.

And one time Caoilte was out at a hunting near Beinn Boirche with the King of Ulster, and they came to the shore of the sea. And when they looked out over it they saw a young girl on the waves, and she swimming with the side-stroke and the foot-stroke.

And when she came opposite them she sat up on a wave, as anyone would sit upon a stone or a hillock and she lifted her head and she said "Is not that Caoilte Son of Ronan?" "It is myself surely" said he. "It is many a day" she said "we saw you upon that rock, and the best man of Ireland or of Scotland with you, that was Finn son of Cumhal. "Who are you so girl?" said Caoilte. "I am Liban daughter of Eochaid, and I am in the water these hundred years, and I never showed my face to anyone since the going away of the King of the Fianna to this day. And it is what led me to lift my head to-day" she said "was to see yourself Caoilte."

Just then the deer that were running before the hounds made for the sea and swam out into it. "Your spear to me Caoilte!" said Liban. Then he put the spear into her hand and she killed the deer with it, and sent them back to him where he was with the King of Ulster; and then she threw him back the spear and with that she went away.

And that is the way she was until the time Beoan son of Innle was sent by Comgall to Rome, to have talk with Gregory and to bring back rules and orders. And when he and his people were going over the sea they heard what was like the singing of angels under the currach. "What is that song?" said Beoan. "It is I myself am making it" said Liban. "Who are you?" said Beoan. "I am Liban daughter of Eochaid son Mairid, and I am going through the sea these three hundred years.' Then she told him all her story, and how it was under the round hulls of ships she had her dwelling-place, and the waves were the roofing of her house, and the strands its walls.

"And it is what I am come for now" she said "to tell you that I will come to meet you on this day twelve-month at Inver Ollorba; and do not fail to meet me there for the sake of all the saints of Dalaradia." And at the year's end the nets were spread along the coast where she said she would come, and it was in the net of Fergus from Miluic she was taken.

And the clerks gave her her choice either to be baptized and go then and there to heaven, or to stay living through another three hundred years and at the end of that time to go to heaven; and the choice she made was to die. Then Comgall baptized her and the name he gave her was Muirgheis, the Birth of the Sea. So she died, and the messengers that came and that carried her to her burying place, were horned deer that were sent by the angels of God.

A Book of Saints and Wonders
by Lady Gregory (1906)

Kirsteen M’Urich, The Sea Witch

Fiona MacLeod in Iona tells the story of Black Angus, a huge black seal who cursed Colum "the White" in the fine heathen Gaelic of the Picts and Northmen and mocked the saint’s clerical white garb.

But then, the seal-man did a puzzling thing: he asked Columba for the whereabouts of his wife and daughter. Columba later asked one of his fellow monks about Kirsteen M’Urich, and the monk replies that she was a servant of Christ in the south isles until Black Angus won her to the sea a thousand years ago. She became "the woman that weaves the sea spells at the wild place out yonder that is known as Earraid: she is called the sea-witch; she is Adam’s first wife (Lilith); and Angus’s soul is Judas."

Melusine (1995)

She is the dark startle
of a dream staining
my first thoughts today—
the one with short black hair
and wild curves of milk
swelling black velvet underwear.
A melusine dripping on
the shores of a wilder world,
she called my name in a kiss.
How could I resist the winds
keening round her or
the surf crashing on
boulders older than time?
She slid her sleek body
all night long over the aching acres
of my flesh. I woke this morning
bleeding honey from every pore
she nippled. All that remains
of her is this long longing shadow
and these lines dripping seaweed
on the page.
Some spillage of that swoon
has me thinking of you
so like and unlike her,
now far too many miles away.
today my heart's bed
refuses to warm me
from the sweet smash
of that bitterly fading surf
in which the two of you
wrapped your arms
around me in a wave
and then sent me away
as wild as wind.

Setebos (Ted Hughes)

Who could play Miranda?
Only you. Ferdinand -- only me.
And it was like that, yes, it was like that.
I never questioned. Your mother
Played Prospero, flying her magic in
To stage the Masque, and bless the marriage,
Eavesdropping on the undervoices
Of the honeymooners in Paris
And smiling on the stair at her reflection
In the dark wall. My wreckage
was all of a sudden a new wardrobe, unworn,
Even gold in my teeth. Ariel
Entertained us night and day.
The voices and sounds and sweet airs
Were our aura. Ariel was our aura.
Both of us alternated
Caliban our secret, who showed us
The sweetest, the freshest, the wildest
And loved us as we loved. Sycorax,
The rind of our garden’s emptied quince,
Bobbed in the hazy surf at the horizon
Offshore, in the wings
Of the heavens, like a director
Studying the scenes to come.
Then the script overtook us. Caliban
Reverted to type. I heard
The bellow in your voice
That made my nape-hair prickle when you sang
How you were freed from the Elm. I lay
In the labyrinth of a cowslip
Without a clue. I heard the Minotaur
Coming down its tunnel-groove
Of old faults deep and bitter. King Minos,
Alias Otto ((Plath’s father)) -- his bellow
Winding into murderous music. Which play
Were we in? Too late to find you
And get to my ship. The moon, off her moorings,
Tossed in tempest. Your bellowing song
Was a scream inside a bronze
Bull being roasted. The laughter
Of Sycorax was thunder and lightning
And black downpour. She hurled
Prospero’s head at me,
A bounding thunderbolt, a jumping cracker.
The moon’s horns
Plunged and tossed. I heard your cries
Bugling through the hot bronze:
"Who has dismembered us?" I crawled
Under a gabardine, hugging tight
All I could of me, hearing the cry
Now of hounds.

-- From Birthday Letters (1998)

Nereid Of The Well (2004)

This well has a hymen
the day will break
and scatter with its
penetrate light and heat:
And all the secrets
of this well will thus
become known, the
properties of its waters
to physic art or
history. The vowel-like
sound of its cold plash
will find a saint to
garb our devotions in,
an oak or stone to
altar our prayers.
God’s will is divined
by what eventually
happened here
this hot summer day:
but at this moment
before first light
none of that can
yet be known, the
quiet hour like
a nereid’s dream of
still waters and sleeping
fire, the moonlight
icy on the liquid panes
of mind, faint, crystalline,
every fragrant mystery
within and below
all enclosed in the
fullness of God’s maternal
round which wombs
that high sound which now
starts to twinkle out, star
by fading star, replaced
by a low breath reaching
from a distant brightening
coast, pale blue and
swelling pink, tumescent:
And from that waking
heated sound
cry back from spreading
waters this ache, this
need, which makes a
belling cry to birth and
nurse and woo and fury
a wild summer’s day,
to be the white mare
this next day’s king
must ride from dawn
to dusk, partner and principal,
the milk of summer
swelter. She mirrors
the dazzling sky with
a silver bed of
chromatic fire, and drums
within for later storms,
eyes gleaming with the
bolt and thunder
and crash, mouth
receiving wide the dissolving
rains which slowly
fill and quell her well.
When last light
kisses the old gal good
night, she falls into the
futurity of dream, fashioning
the maid from that
lunar silk and leaving
her to hang on the branches
of the trees far down
there to vigil unto dawn,
singing that ancient
lay of springtime love
in the naked glade.
But wait -- to east
a flutter of that flute
which pipes the paling
blue -- in the well’s
black glass I see a
pale face peering back --
mother, sister, lover,
muse and fury
disclosed in one
sweet face rising
there, slowly,
oh so slowly,
by every silken degree
of this next waking day --
she arrives at the
calmed cool surface
opening her
noctilucent oh too
blue eyes: The coming
day pursed for
that moment I say Yes
and we for one instant
pause, and close, then kiss.

Window Poem #2 (Ranier Maria Rilke)

You propose I wait, strange window;
your beige curtain nearly billows.
O window, should I accept your offer or,
window, defend myself:? Who should I wait for?

Aren’t I intact, with this life that is listening,
with this full heart that loss is completing?
With this road running in front, and the qualm
you give this excess that stops me with its dream?

-- transl. A. Poulin, Jr.

Sea-Witchery (2004)

And what of the sea-witch,
my thousand-year bride?
She was once the nun
who prayed matins
like a shore but I
lured her to the dark
waters with the music
of the tide between
these protean hips,
ensnaring her white
calves with a bony laugh
& dragging her all the
way out and down. I
had my way with her
but good, the envy
of every narwhal bull
and deep-diving
spermacetti ram.
And then I lost her in
that keep, & become
an exile of love’s spleen
on a hard-smashing shore
of basalt ruins, searching
every wave for a trace
of her seem amid the
drifting dozing
manes of low sea-grass.
I know she’s there
but I’ve lost the way
I used to see her,
or she has simply
wearied of my eyes
and now fins the
arteries of a darker,
deeper man than
I have balls to go.
The news each day
washes in the
battered corpses
of her undinal ways,
naked cyanotic sailors
with still-red lips
pursed to kiss what
you keep drawing
5 more fathoms down.
Look at all the pumpkins
we carve recalling your
raw pudenda’s ire.
And oh the darkened
forest spreading round
the heart of he
who finds you nightly,
black stumps creaking
in a cold autumn
night’s breeze, a
bonier sound knocking
from your last soiree
into the noirish
tableaux of bars
and cars you dreamed.
I should have rid my
loins of this thirst
for you so many lives
ago -- divorced the
demiurge, renounced
the sea, bled white
my salt iniquities:
Yet this muse of
darkness I call my
own, albeit for
bitter and perverse,
the moony incandescence
inside my every wave’s
dying sigh. I am here
for her declision
on shores of nascent
white pages gleaming
white as bone. Her
name is Kirsteen M’Vurich
and she is that much
further out, sprawled
on a bed of chorda filum,
staring in the silver mirror
in which she sees me
in its gleam. I can hear
a high and ghastly laughter
beyond the booming stones,
a twittering of teeth
that picks the pelvis clean
and blots its lips with foam.

Muse of My Betweens (Dec. 9, 2004)

I keep scanning the marge
for that blue door
you welcome and depart
through, but you’re
actually much closer in,
your salt physis
beckoning my nous
not from beyond
but between. Is that
why you sometimes
cusp the wave nude
from belly to breasts
to unrepentant lips
while the other way
you’re all fish, from
wave-strider’s hips
to scaled sex, fanning
down in a sleek,
long, powerful tail?
Infernal muse, you
fanned the waters
inside the wave
approaching shore
for 300 years
before the monks
arrived to build
their bulwarks of
vellum and wild ink,
glossing you in
psaltery: but you
kept weaving songs
on your seawitched
loom, beckoning
dry souls from shore
into the plash of
cold fire, that drowning
embrace which billows
down the leagues
of sweet descending doom.
Muse of beds between
the swells, your lyric
croons in grayblue eyes
staring up at the
keel of this hand
which is nervous
to have you so close.
My voyage is a cop-out,
a safe man’s blue travail
on sheets as dry as
the bones of the lovers
you send hightiding
home; would I just
relent the itch and let
the music go, perhaps
I’d be free to sink
right from this chair
into your pink
diluvian, my upper
half all fish --- the
ocean’s mortal half --
and all man plunging
below, til I am
fast in you again,
like some prodigal,
heavy-balled moon,
delivering to you
at last all the mail
I’ve ferried since
time began -- angel
Os and whale-bass
organum, the Ah
of every titan of the sea
to grunt and
croon “I die” in
that collapsing wave
we boomed together
down our shifting shore.
Topless fish, meet your
bottomless man.
Here’s to the coinage
of a moony gleaming shore
no coracle may reach
nor sea-witch bleach,
a song to rouse and
rump and plunge
the rest my years: Now
I see you further in
than I have ink to welcome,
much less woo. But give
me time, my sweet abyssal
swell. I pouring every
breast of yours I’ve cupped
into this lucent well.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Imago Dominus (1978)

She stands at the bedroom door,
half in, half out,
shadow cupping breast and belly,
smiling at me across the room,
a fine mist in her eyes, night behind,
and water coursing over her feet,
crystal blue and deep and silent.

Mirror (Mark Strand)

A white room and a party going on
and I was standing with some friends
under a large gilt-framed mirror
that tilted slightly forward
over the fireplace.
We were drinking whiskey
and some of us, feeling no pain,
were trying to decide
what precise shade of yellow
the setting sun turned our drinks
I closed my eyes briefly,
then looks up into the mirror:
a woman in a green dress leaned
against the far wall.
She seemed distracted,
the fingers of one hand
fidgeted with her necklace,
and she was staring into the mirror,
not at me but past me, into a space
that might be filled by someone
yet to arrive, who at that moment
could be starting the journey
which would lead eventually to her.
Then, suddenly, my friends
said it was time to move on
to the next party.
This was years ago,
and though I have forgotten
where we went and who we all were,
I still recall that moment of looking up
and seeing the woman stare past me
into a place I could only imagine,
and each time it is with a pang,
as if just then I were stepping
from the depths of the mirror
into that white room, breathless and eager,
only to discover too late
that she is not there.

(New Yorker, Dec. 6, 2004)

Tristan (2004)

A weathered, broken cross in St.
Oran's Chapel bears your image,
Seated in a boat alone, this harp
In hand. Singing god, no one knows
If you were always there, or if
Time's hand wrote you in, across a
Sea of vellum and worn stone. No
Matter: Whenever you played that
Harp, a boat plashed home inside fair
Isolde's heart, a South awakened
Most urgent roots to hurl her kiss.
A song which harrowed every hell
Mortality conceives. Now distant,
Almost lost, I find you just ahead,
Your boat and muse crossed heart to head.

Fisherman and Mermaid

It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound ...

-- John Keats, "On the Sea"

How can you find her
so beautiful, diving off
that bleak rock ahead
in the channel,
her flashing breasts
and that wayward-
beckoning smile
recoiled by what
follows in a spoor
of oily scales, ending
as she splashes
down in that alien
black fin?
How is she different
from the sprawl of
stinking fish stiffening
at your feet, their paling
blues eyes like hers
drifting into
massive rooms below?
What is this nail
of blue desire, so
driven by a blackened
sea and cauls
her hauntingly
beautiful song in
awfulness, drenching
you with icy spray
and menacing
the boat's hide
with your doom? Surely
to join her in that bower
of fair song would prove
a fatal leap, the road
a gauntlet of brutal
brine, the promise
of her kiss draining
the last warm
breath you'll ever
casually fling. Yet that's
just what makes
her so impossible
to resist; your land-
bound mind and cock
is enthralled with
her come-hither,
melting wavelike shape,
her ever-distant
unwavering smile
drifting down and down
further than you can go,
beseeching you
with honeyed voice
to renounce your boat
and your life behind
with its trade and
community and that
home inland,
your terran wife
& married mundanes.
You do not dare
trust that soft
bewitchment in the
crashing wake,
yet something finned
within you choirs
back, begging you
stand up in that boat,
strip naked to
the gale & make
that homeward flying
leap that will (she
promises) envelop you
in the sweet arms
of a drowning bliss,
a kiss of ocean honey
that lasts one
downward mile,
the duration of
every merry, hell-bent fall.
Who cares about
the hard-fought
comprimised and
substantial life staggering
the other balance
pan? It's not enough!
Amazing how what you
imagine cries to be
more real than all
your surely know.
-- And is, though in
the sense of a blueblack
bourne you'll never
fully enter, much
less name. It's tragic
only when the boat-
breeching act is
actual, when you
really take that dive
to sea-weedy
Davy Jones has a
locker crammed with
the boners of
ten thousand sailors
and fisherman who
thrust through
those waves, sotted
on their curves.
Tragic too that she
returns ten thousand nights
and more to wait
upon that moony rock,
praying to all her water gods
for a landed man to
row steadfastly by,
tossing only his love
of fancy in, a water-breathing,
feathered king who's
song enough to woo
her terran dreams, and
wing her far to dry bed
high in trees and gently
pull that scaled dress
from her hips and
spread that brutal
wing-tipped fin
like thighs wider than
the soaring sky:
And truly plunge
what's in her song,
praising the readiness
in her womb's sea-
bed with an emboldened
molten choir of
ten thousand winging seed.
She's as bad
at this as all her boated
prey, halves as they are
of that one desire
we cannot lose
nor ever touch.
If there's an altar
to this, it's that
rock still wet with
her dripping hair
and breasts;
but the music --
that sweet black
voice of Hecate
inside every crashing
wave -- the
music's in the water just
beyond my gaze,
too dark to see
the ripples spreading
in an echo of my heart.

Window Poem #1 (Ranier Maria Rilke)

It’s enough that on a balcony
or in a window frame
a woman pauses … to be
the one we lose
just by seeing her appear.

And if she lifts her arms
to tie her hair, tender vase:
how much our loss gains
a sudden emphasis,
our sadness brilliance!

-- transl. A. Poulin, Jr

My College Career (Dec. 8, 2004)

In some ways I never
left college, that
wounded buried time
when every young man's
fuse in me spluttered
in the world but found
both ground and nurture
in the word--and has
burned and sustained
me all these years
away far better than
had I been successful
and remained through
all the degrees and
positions and published
work. That school
in the woods of northwest
Washington -- so
brilliant and vehemently
Outside, the massed
pines and their creaking
sailing sound through
which the classes
came and went, spraying
a fresh scent and
mountainish murmur
over talk of tests
and parties: that
school for me was a
door downstairs
into the bowels of
the dorky guys' dorm
into a leaky room
I filled with books
and cigarette smoke,
the anchorite who
walled himself with
book after book,
caressing the words,
eating them whole
in lieu of battens
up and out there
on the surface
of the real life. World
history, philosophy,
biology, poetry --
all those subjects
I had glossed over
in the daze of earlier
years, but now I
entered them in
venereal fever, an
unrequited fire
which I rogered
to the hilt with
a monklike scholar's
ire for getting
it all down and
in my arid,
blueballed heart.
The yearbook images
forever enthrall
me in some strange
sad way, I who had
the faintest life
upon its pages --
besides my mugshot
I'm in one crowd
shot at a football
game, all the way
back in the last
high row, sandwiched
between two other
of my basement
dorm-freres -- and
yet, what thirst
I still feel for
those budding young
women who looked
every where but
at me who had back
then as now so
little to be seen.
Clio, Urania,
Euterpe, Erato--
those women and
my studies merged
back then on
one strangled praise,
each page I
turned another
woman walking away.
What I do here
today is the college
career I never left
though my actual
tenure ended long
ago: Reading world
as text, your billows
in sweet sounding
words, my knowledge
of such things
diabolical and underground,
cauled in those
scant few years
I walked alone
amid the pines
and loved that
sighing, primal sound,
watching you smile
at the blurred man
next to you
and then walk
off into the
drifting snow
of my next song.

White on Green (Summer 2004)

It is only when I'm home sick
lying gut-cramped in our bed
upstairs that I realize what
wild artistry you bring to
every surface of home: The
wan spring morning breezing
in cool through an opened
window across the room
and everything either white
or the palest green, white
linen walls and furniture
so balanced with plants
and jadeite glass that the
eye doesn't even see the
whole perfection, but rather
floats in it as on a tide,
the ivy tumbling from
white iron planters, the
chairs and dressers
moved so many times
that the absolute correctness
of their placement contains
all the energy of a poem
revised down to three pure
words which you would
never say, and refuse
to call an art. "Just
another woman's
gift for home," you
might concede, though
such craft is the very
hearth I can't ignite
in the cold demense of
my lake-bottom dives.
If a room could wash
a votive heart clean,
it's here in the room
which you devised, the
one which you say
you can never get
quite right, what with
this sloping ceiling, crooked
walls and ill-placed a/c
vents. Orchids on either
nightstand wake the purity
with tiny violet blossoms,
like the eyes of our cat
half-lidded in her chair
in the closet, drowsing
down as I now do laying
in the bedroom you
composed in the upper
room of our life. The
poem you never wrote,
the art you swear
is simply banal, lulls
me beyond all I
would say to exactly
where I most desire
to be. Those three words?
You are here.

Monday, December 06, 2004

One of St. Brendan's Isles

Inishglora is probably the best known and considered the holiest of all the islands ((to the west of Ireland)). Local people claim that in the past all ships sailing by lowered their top-sails to honour St. Brendan the Navigator, who founded the settlement here. He is credited, in popular legend, with having discovered America, long before Christopher Columbus did. This is rather unlikely but he almost certainly sailed to the Scottish Islands and to various parts of England and Wales. There are many interesting remains on the island. St. Brendan's Church, now roofless, is of the Gallerus type - an example of primitive Christian architecture in Ireland - the west gable still intact. In the north east corner of this little chapel there was a wooden statue of St. Brendan, 4' 3' in height, which had always been an object of great devotion to the people who lived on the island and local people who visited there. It was certainly a figure of remote antiquity. When Dr Charles Browne of Trinity College saw it about 1895 it had been reduced, from exposure and damp, to a shapeless lump of decayed wood - the hands, which had been in the thanksgiving position. almost worn away.11 O'Donovan saw a striking resemblance between it and the statue of St. Molaise on Inishmurray - the latter being better preserved because it was placed in a roofed chapel. The islanders believed that anyone lifting this statue three times in the name of St. Brendan, received the power to relieve a woman in labour by touching her with his hands. Kate Gaughan of Cross, who lived on Inishglora from 1932 to 1936, says the statue was not there at that time and she had never heard of it. The only object of devotion when she was there was the finger-bone of a Saint, which lay in a walled grave and which was always touched by pilgrims doing stations there.

There are fragments of two other churches - Teampall na bhfear, (men's church) - larger and several centuries more modern than St. Brendan's, and Teampall na mBan, (women's church) which has none of the characteristics of primitive Irish churches, but is several centuries old. Tradition says that it was a nunnery. There are remains of a group of three torthithe or trátháin (Oratories) of the beehive cyclopean style - the largest of which is referred to as St. Brendan's cell. There are traces of a casual, or dry-stone wall, surrounding these. O'Donovan thought this and the beehive cells may have been of pagan origin - homes of the Fir Domhnainn perhaps - later used as penitential cells by Brendan and his monks. It has always been the custom that all visitors to these should break bread with one another.

Steps lead down to St. Brendan's well - the subject of an old pisreog (superstition) regarding women, We are told that if a woman takes water from the well it turns to blood and is full of worms. However, Dean Lyons took some ladies there, who partook of the water and found it wormless and quite refreshing. One finds that most "pisreogs'' or taboos had a practical origin. This one was probably no exception. I have heard it whispered that the well was a trysting place. Celibacy was as difficult then as it is to-day. The Church was young. Those people did not have the benefit of our education on Occasions of Sin. They had never heard mission priests thundering from the altar about the dangers of going into lonely places with members of the opposite sex. So there they were - a community of virile monks and a community of nubile young nuns - living in close proximity on a small island. Worse still, they drew water from the same well. That well was surely their undoing. It is easy to imagine the early scenes - a glances a smile. a helping hand with the water vessel, a rough male hand touches a soft white one. Celibacy takes a fall! We do not know who invented the red water or the red worms. Perhaps the Abbot became suspicious of the enthusiasm of some of his young monks for drawing water from the well. He may even have followed them and surprised them in some compromising scenes. So it became essential to keep the nuns away from the well. Or perhaps some of the male culprits had the brilliant idea - to ensure that their furtive encounters would not be interrupted by virtuous older sisters coming to the well. We will never know now - it all happened so long ago. One thing we can be quite sure of - the red worms in the water were the product of testosterone inspired male minds, rather than of the gentle hands of women. There are also several early cross slabs and pillars, and seven stations, four of which are in the western half of the island. The last of these is a large rock with two small heaps of stones and is called Cloch na h-Athchuinge (Rock of Prayer). Garlic grows in small enclosed gardens. Local people say it was planted there by the monks and will grow forever.

lnishglora is steeped in legends and traditions. The most widely known is that of the Children of Lir, who were changed into swans by their evil stepmother and condemned to spend 300 years on Lough Derravarragh, 300 years on the Sea of Moyle and finally 300 years on the Atlantic, off the Erris coast. There are various versions of this story. The end of their sentence coincided with Brendan's arrival on Inishglora. Every Sabbath they attended Mass there, sitting on the roof of Teampall na bltFear, and each time the host was raised, they drooped their wings and bent their necks. Such devotion did not go unrewarded. They were baptized by Brendan, regained their human shape, but only briefly, before they crumbled to dust. Fionnuala had given burial instructions:-
''In this way arrange our graves,

Conel and Con the Strong
On my two sides,
And on my bosum between my two arms
O'Cleri - place my Hugh."

They were buried on the island. While the Gaughan family lived there they kept the graves covered with white stones. There is a small rocky island, to the south of Inishglora, which is still called Carraig Aoidh - Hugh's Rock. Another great legend of the island is that bodies buried there do not corrupt. This is mentioned in the Book of Ballymote as one of the wonders of ireland and O'Flaherty says of it in his Ogyia ;-

"At Inisglóire in view of lrrus shore,
Should we the bodies of our sires explore,
We'd find them blooming, both nails and hair,
No human-flesh can fade or perish there."

Gerald of Wales, writing in 1146, went even further :-

"ln this island human corpses are not buried and do not putrefy, but are placed in the open and remain without corruption. Here men see with some wonder and recognise their grandfathers, great grandfathers, and great great grandfathers and a long line of ancestors''.

They are certainly not there now. Perhaps their descendants, out of consideration for our sensibilities, buried them after all. Without wishing to seem unduly irreverent, it occurs to me that a wonderful tourist attraction was missed here. The many bones which have been uncovered on the island would prove the story to be a myth, though local people claim that it was true until the monks left the island.

It is also claimed that rats or mice cannot live there and that sand or clay from the island would banish these pests even on the mainland. Gerald of Wales had no doubt about it. He wrote :-

''There is another remarkable thing about this island.While the whole of Ireland is infested with mice, there is not a single mouse here. For no mouse is bred here, nor does one live if it be brought in. if by any chance it is brought in, it makes straight for the nearest point of the sea and throws itself in; if it be prevented, it dies on the spot. ''

There is a less well-known tradition that infertile couples who did a station there were blessed with a family. Having done the station they repaired to a special bed on the island - Leaba na h-Athchuinge. One of the earliest fertility clinics! We are also told that Inishglora is frequented by a curious blackbird, whose only other habitation in Ireland is Sceilg Mhicíl.

-- Rita Nolan, on life on Inish Glora, from the St. Cronan’s School webpage

Holy Exile

... In the fourth an fifth centuries Europe was flooded with Irish males who became known as the peregrini. The ordeal of going “overseas was thought moire effacious than exile within Ireland itself. Crossing water symbolized a threshold and the kind of spiritual cleasning the exiles were seeking. "

-- Gills, Islands of the Mind


Bardsey Island off the St. David peninsula in Wales, where as many as twenty thousand Celtic saints are said to be buried, is famous for having “enjoyed an almost limitless reputation for sanctity.” It was even called a second Rome “in virtue of so great a concentration of holiness within so small a compass.”

-- ibid

The Peregrini (Dec. 6, 2004)

Clearly I am no more salted
by your disquieting gaze
than any other man
to stare too long offshore.
Look: the far islands are
fat reliquaries of desire,
each wave dislodging
a saintly skull or darker
pelvis bone from sands
you once walked on.
Between the fourth
and fifth centuries AD
the drifting coracles
were legion, each packed
with a man in exile,
his eyes weak upon
the vast blue main,
his heart that psalter
which you intone
with a voice from
every hurtful door.
That tide of saints
washed on every
lonely shore with
the same force that
would later raise
cathedrals, wave after
wave, with such
inconsolable stone.
Those coracle
to bone motions I
repeat here in
daily jaunts from I
to Thou -- peregrini
of ink on paper
which leave every
known and home behind
to sing the next psalm’s
distant shore, each
as wondrous as wine
for pouring blue seas.
Around and far behind
me stand the viscous
shades of such
devout desire, egregious
in their cock-hard
basalt, waist-high
in time’s lost sands.
Fathers of my fathers,
toll with me here
this lonely matin hour
which calls every boat
from shore to shore.
Join me in this song
for ageless sailing
through her futile,
fructive door.

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