Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Friday, December 17, 2004

Secrets of the Sea

There are three waters of the sea now around the world, The first of them is a seven-shaped sea under the belly of the world, and against that sea hell is roaring and raising up a shout in die valley. The second is a sea green and bright round about the earth on every side; ebbing and flood it has and casting up of fruits. The third sea is a sea aflame, nine winds are let out of the heavens to call it from its sleep; three score and ten and four hundred songs its eaves sing, and it awakened; a noise of thunder comes roaring out of its wave-voice; flooding and ever flooding it is from the beginning of the world, and with all that it is never full but of a Sunday. In its sleep it is till the thunders of the winds are awakened by the coming of God's Sunday from heaven, and by the music of the angels. Along with those there are many kinds of seas around the earth on every side; a red sea having many precious stones, bright as Flood, well coloured, golden, between the lands of Egypt and the lands of India. A sea bright, many-sanded, of the colour of snow, in the north around the islands of Sabarn. So great is the strength of its waves that they break and scatter to the height of the clouds. Then a sea waveless, black as a beetle; no ship reaching it has escaped from it again but one boat only by the lightness of its going and the strength of its sails; shoals of beasts there are lying in that sea. A sea there is in the ocean to the south of the island of Ebian. At the first of the summer it rises in flood till it ebbs at the coming of winter; half the year it is in flood it is, and half the year always ebbing. Its beasts and its monsters mourn at the time of its ebbing and they fall into sadness and sleep. They awake and welcome its flooding, and the wells and the streams of the world increase; going and coming again they are through its valleys.

-- Lady Gregory, A Book of Saints and Wonders, 1906

The Book and Its Voyage

According to "The Voyage of St. Brendan," Brendan burned a book containing stories about the wonders of God's creation out of disbelief. For this reason he is sent on a voyage so as to see with his own eyes certain divine manifestations which earlier he had refused to credit. In this way he is to recover the book by refilling it with the wonders which he witnesses on his voyage. The majority of the phenomena which he comes across are related to man's actions and behaviour in this life and the circumstances consequent upon them in the Afterlife. Brendan encounters souls in hell, heaven and paradise. The astonishing and sometimes frightening experiences restore his belief.

n Clara Strijbosch, "The Heathen Giant in the Voyage of St. Brendan"

Heraldic Dolphins

The dolphin was early employed by Asiatics and Greeks as a symbol of maritime power, and by the latter also as emblematic of youth. It was not only placed on the shield of Ulysses in token of his voyages, but was sacred to Apollo. It took the bodies of shipwrecked lovers of music and the gods safely to land, or conveyed their souls to the Fortunate Isles. In heraldry they represent sea-power and travel, and so may be seen alike on the shields of sailors, merchants, and sea-ports.

Dolphin (Robert Lowell)

My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Phèdre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will. . . .
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself--
to ask compassion . . . this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting
my eyes have seen what my hand did.

In Your Hands

The great sea has set me in motion,
set me adrift,
moving me as a weed moves in a river,
the arch of sky and mightiness of storms
has moved the spirit within me,
til I am carried away
trembling with joy.

-- Song of the shaman Uraunuk


Suddenly as he peered down and down into its depths, he profoundly saw a white living spot no bigger than a white weasel, with wonderful celerity rising, and magnifying as it rose, till it turned, and then there were plainly revealed two long crooked rows of white, glistening teeth, floating up from the undiscoverable bottom.

-- Melville, Moby Dick

Abyssal Plainsong (2002)

There is a God (some say),
A deep, but dazzling darkness.
—Henry Vaughan

While we sleep
the night hauls us
through deep billows,
cold and ever-black,
tiding us in surges
we can’t hold onto
or name, just dream.

Lost in the marges
of that boneless toil,
we ferry the dead
in St. Elmo’s Fire,
our pulse lucent
in their basalt veins.

Seals fan the
cold waters of our
oblivions, their
long-lashed eyes
weeping like beloveds
in lost windows
or children carried
off in dark hands.

We wander through
floorless rooms all night
as the centuries
glow from split
whalers and the
spires of lost towns.

No wonder when
the alarm clock
hauls us back
we’re like someone
rescued from a riptide
who must sit awhile
dazed on the shore:

To him our day
is strange, almost painful,
as infinity ebbs
in scowling thunder,
leaving this scrawled
only plunder.

Here to There

By the eight century, the peregrini had been replaced by the navigatini as Christian superheroes. Travel by water was regarded as the ultimate ordeal, adding to voyagers’ reputation for having special qualities. The pagan Celts had their shamans whose spiritual visits to otherworldly islands were told in stories called echtraa. By the eighth century these were displaced by another kind of voyaging tale, the immram, in which the destination was no longer supernatural. They featured heroic men “rowing about” in a real sea filled with islands that belonged to this world rather than to the nexts. In the Christianized version of the immram saints replaced warriors as central figures. They went to sea in search of God rather than glory, but they encountered many of hte same monsters and demons that had tested their pagan prececessors.

-- Gillis, Islands of the Imagination

Who is St. Michael?

"The 'Iollach Mhicheil' -- the triumphal song of Michael -- is quite as much pagan as Christian. We have here, indeed, one of the most interesting and convincing instances of the transmutation of a personal symbol. St. Michael is on the surface a saint of extraordinary powers and the patron of the shores and the shore-folk; deeper, he is an angel, who is upon the sea what the angelical saint, St. George, is upon the land: deeper, he is a blending of the Roman Neptune and the Greek Poseidon: deeper, he is himself and ancient Celtic god: deeper, he is no other than Manannan, the god of ocean and all waters, in the Gaelic pantheon: as, once more, Manannan himself is dimly revealed to us as still more ancient, more primitive, and even as supreme in remote godhead, the Father of an immortal Clan"

-- Fiona Macleod, Iona

Elegy (Bran and Manannan)

The God in the Sea Greets Bran
In the Land of the Waves

(from the Eighth-Century Irish “Voyage of Bran”)

transl. Seamus Heaney

When Bran and his companions had been at sea for two days and two nights, they saw a man in a chariot coming toward them over the sea. The man sang to them and made himself known, saying he was Manannan. These are some of the verses he sang:

Bran is astonished at the beauty of the waters;
his coracle lifts on the clear wave.
I ride where he rows; my chariot plunges, I
surge through a blossoming plain.

Bran rolls with his boat, the sea lifts and
lays him, he leans to the prow.
My chariot axle threshes a surf of wildflowers,
my wheels are spattered with flower juice.

Bran sees the backs of the waves like the quick
backs of dolphins; the sea surface glitters.
I see greensward, wild roses and clover,
the pelt of the grazing.

You look and next thing salmon leap out
of the foam; mother-wet silver.
They are my calves, my calves’ licks, my
lambs, my bleating cavorters.

One chariot, one charioteer—me at full tilt—
that’s all you can see.
You are blind to what’s here. The land is a drumming
of hoofbeats, a mane-flow, a host at full gallop.

The land is immense, we swarm in its
bounty, it flourishes for us.
You are welcome; from the prow, gather up
the fruit of the branches.

Men and women, lovely, at ease among
windfalls. No sin and no forcing.
They rise off the forest floor, they pour
out the wine.

We are from the beginning, won’t grow
old or go under the earth.
We cannot imagine debility; we
are unmarked by guilt.

St. Michael and Manannan (1995)

based on the drawing by William Blake
of St. Michael binding Satan

1. St. Michael to Manannan

He was part of the darkness
that was once my own.
But you bid me rise
so many leagues
that he became
my abandoned depth.
I think of him now
like the amputee
who wakes cupping
a breast in the dream
of a trembling hand.

Once he tried
to drag me home
and we fought halfway
to the bottom of the sea.
As we wrestled
my hair grew white
and his eyes
slit to dragon coals.
The waters
boiled round us
in a terrible swirl,
chasing sea
beasts to the broken
porches of Atlantis.

When I finally
broke his hold
and fettered him
in your chains,
his face sank
the thousand
leagues of grief.
Often these days
I think of him
disappearing into
those silt shadows.
My heart at least
has never been a blade.

You've built your walls
and towers now,
demanding a new
heaven of Gothic stone.
But understand
that each time
I intercede for you
and jam my white
sword in to
the bloody hilt,
an ancient narwhal
suddenly breaks
the sea to pierce
God in the back.

2. Manannan to St. Michael

When the last lock
snapped into
the links of doom
and he rose like
a white sword
to the sky,
I fell into deep
chill moodier
than any fairy spell.
The waters darkened
about me in a cloak
that forever hid
me from your view.

To me you portioned
hoof and horn,
the least parts of
the king's stag.
You paupered
my waves with
cunning boats.
Banished from
the cities to hide in
distant hills and islands,
I became a sleek
captain of absence,
forced to ply my
trade in dream
and sensual smoke.
My gold meadows
blazed to stubbled char.

I understand
that every time
I meet him the white
sword wins all.
Ah, but if you only
understood how those
losses make me strong!
I ripen on a vine that curls
about your sickness,
sorrow and death.

If you would only love
the gall now chilling
into winter, the gates
of my damnation
would forever close.

Perhaps then
the white prince
and I could resume
our song upon that
apple branch
where the fruit is
sweet and cold
and heavy as sleep,
where each bite
fills the mouth with moon,
and the juice runs darkly
down God's uncertain smile
the way eternal lovers
find the greatest grace
exactly where they fail.

Bran and Manannan (2004)

Our kiss to me is velvet slush,
A door to wild infinities.
To you the door is also there
But opens to your dream home, the
Order and security of days,
Bright flowers on a tabletop
I’d sweep violently away
To swive you merrily, then eat
Dinner there with great repast, and
Take you up to bed for a last
Toddy, leaving the mess for day.
Ah but the care of things is just
The point of your love, an eros of
Things laced with a cat’s even grace.
Yet our far hearts still make one race.

Oran's Hell (2003)

Lots of dead folks down
there: Drowned sailors
from the Pequod,
Graubelle men pitched
in peat, explorers trapped
in low caves, their
bone knapsacks spilled
of their booty: Musicians
and alchemists and
architects who built
towers that drowned
when they died:
Revenants stuck in mortal
error, a legion of pere
Hamlets stuck in the frosty
hours before dawn
with all their sins unconfessed
sighing swear ... swear
in their sons’ moody ears:
My father’s St. Oran bell tower
is the reverse of this Well:
His tower is forever without
a roof, open to the sky, stars,
jets, moon: No bottom here
either folks, just new heads
rising in the depths: Oran’s
sinister skull, yodeling Orpheus,
the Green Knight’s noggin
with its nougat of spleen:
Women and children too went
overboard here: My mother’s
voice over me on my first
drowning beach: Paula my first love
who at 3 played topless in the
wading pool down the block
& led me into big woods in
search of worms:
The girl of my fancy who fell
into a pond and would have
drowned had I not jumped in
and saved her: That early
fantasy was such a thrall, I’d
place my face on a pillow
& squirm my hips to the
narrative: I thought I rescued
her but she still calls from
the thralls below: The girl
on the playground holding
my forget-me-not bouquet for
one perfect second before
she snarled & tossed it back
First kisses, first feels, that
first shock of nakedness &
the squeeze of pussy walls:
The heart’s descent in that
down down down down down
till I drowned say Halleloo!
Loves lost due to youth
& idiocy, who walked away
or were left sleeping in their
beds: Big loves of fantasy,
& bigger loves that were real:
wives, a daughter, cats:
Ogres, too, the Man in the Car
& the Girl in the Woods &
The Four Dread Legacies
of Song, Sodomy, Burnt
Fiddles, Divorce: That naughty
drunk trapped in a bottle five
fathoms down: Big fists beating
the bejezus outta me: Errant
blades and can-lids and guitar
strings splicing deeper my split
fingertips: A bricolage of words
stewed from the hair of Homer,
cock of Ovid, heart of Chaucer,
saucer-eyes of Will, Spenserian
ears, tongue a la Joyce: All the
the shadows they cast deep
beneath every letter of every word
in infernal resonance:
On and on the inventory of souls,
all now insubstantial & yet killingly
potent: Distant and watery hands
knock on the bucket as it rises
from Oran’s bourne to burn here,
bones tossing in a ring or token stone,
praying to me to sing of them,
sing loud of the blood’s toll
in this drowned abbey of soul.

Same Boat Different Day (Dec. 17, 2004)

Night sea journey, Odyssey,
Christian immrama, whaling
tale: The islands have all
changed to greet the
aches of voyagers with
names the age required,
but the heave from knowns,
the open sea, and sight
of the next shore
are ever wild, old gods
reborn in each day’s
dripping, heaving sun.
I’ll never know what
I’ll say next, nor where
you’ll catch my eye
with glint or curve
or hollow, though I
trust my long oarings
down the page to
lean into whatever
current your provide.
I don’t even have
a name for this --
it’s not poetry
the world remits
but rather prayer
of a newer old sort,
a prowing and
plowing of the vowels.
Nor do I have
a lasting name for you,
beloved shore, lost
lover, Oran’s mouth
like’s Christ’s without
all the whiteness.
This sea chantey’s
content to simply
ride the morning’s
waves like Arion
on his fish, singing
loud and twixt the
ages from shore to
shore to shore. Let me for
my so short while fin
the depths where whales
weave round swoony
nerieds. May all I’ve sung
house in a sea-salt
cellar for your blue
cookery, a shot of
bittersweetness folded
in that big night music
crashing down
forever’s shore.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Steerage (Dec. 16, 2004)

Another cold night -- into
the 30’s -- sleeping beneath
a heavy overwarm quilt,
my wife restless -- fretting
against the Tylenol PMs’
tide of obliviate peace --
our cat running around
the bedroom at 1 a.m.
overeager for treats I guess,
or just crazed by the cold.
I got up before 4 a.m.
just to quiet her down
with DoubleDelights
& allow my wife some
decent sleep. Downstairs
in my chair with my
cuban coffee & a blanket,
the heat on, tree in the
garden outside the
living room window still
lit, its bright white lights
like a burning icicle or
a too-near constellation
of an old winter night,
Pinkie in the box on
the chair on the porch
with its heating pad
& towels mewling a plaint
as I checked on her
through the guest
room windowed door --
just a head poking
out with sad eyes,
tough night again
for those indomitably
outside cats. All of
that calyxed around this
troubled, sea-stormy Christmas
season, heart wounds below
salted and tossed, unsettled,
all of the old childhood hurts
groaning in their graves,
rattling their chains, the
awful loneliness of so
many bad winter nights
drunk, lost, wandering alone
in polar regions of lost love,
crying your name into
emptying bottles, those
immense Siberias of need’s
permafrost shelling a soul
in ice hundreds of feet thick.
I carry such my broken
legacy like everyone else --
to each their own willed
and fateful cross, their own
great fire in ice. For all that
I pray for a happy heart:
that over such cold and
ancient sea-deities a
house or abbey or bed
or song may be erected
with a central door flung wide
and good food on a table
inside steaming into
the merriment of harp-
music, all in welcome
to the next desperate drunk
or lost lover or needy
river, to shores which
“protect and border and greet”
(Rilke) fellow labors,
companion songs. Despite
the grim facts of the day
poking up from the tide --
all those GI’s from Poortown
USA getting blown up
alongside Iraqi soldiers from
the poor world beyond USA,
villagers in Sudan getting
raped and split wide by
marauders of Allah,
the sea overfished and
polluted and emptying daily
of life, children in Kissimmee
getting murdered by stepdads,
drunks on the highways
like rogue waves headed
this way, flowers dropping
petals now iced: All of
that poking up in sullen
waves which are raw and
grey in the cold certainty
of first light, flotsom
which surely would haul
me by the ankles out
of this chair into the
long falling of a lost
silent scream: All of
that an yet the kingdom
of heaven blooms also
this day for those who
would loose their hands
from the rudder and let
the day course where
its tide allows and welcome
whatever appears on
the next shore. Every day
has its shitpile to dig,
ten feet forward and
ten lives down; you
can toss the dirt into
your grave or over
the wave with a smile.
Friend, may your season
be bright over the ice.
Lord, may songs delight
and entice the whole steerage.
Ferry this infant hope
to the bright star ahead.


When an old cultural canon is demolished, there follows a period of chaos and destruction which may last for centuries, and in which hecatombs of victims are sacrificed until a new, stable canon is established, with a compensatory structure strong enough to guarantee a modicum of security to the collective and the individual.

- Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness

Back to the Mere

When Arthur lay mortally wounded, he begs his knight Bedivere three times to throw his magic sword Excalibur back to the Lady of the Lake.Finally the knight consents:

Then quickly rose Sir Bedivere, and ran,
And, leaping down the ridges lightly, plunged
Among the bulrush beds, and clutch’d the sword,
And strongly wheel’d and threw it. The great brand
Made lightnings in the splendor of the moon,
And flashing round and round, and whrl’d in an arch,
Shot like a streamer of the northern morn,
Seen where the moving isles of winter shock
By night, with noises of the Northern Sea.
So flash’d and fell the brand Excalibur;
But ere he dipt the surface, rose an arm
Clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful,
And caught him by the hilt, and brandish’d him
Three times, and drew him under the mere.

-- Tennyson, Idylls of the King, “The Passing of Arthur”


From How The Irish Saved Civilization
by Thomas Cahill (Doubleday, 1995):

The Irish received literacy in their own way, as something to play with. The only alphabet they'd ever known was prehistoric Ogham, a cumbersome set of lines based on the Roman alphabet, which they incised laboriously into the corners of standing stones to turn them into memorials. These runelike inscriptions, which continued to appear in the early years of the Christian period, hardly suggested what would happen next, for within a generation the Irish had mastered Latin and even Greek and, as best they could, were picking up some Hebrew. As we have seen already, they devised Irish grammars, and copied out the whole of their native oral literature. All this was fairly straightforward, too straightforward once they'd got the hang of it. They began to make up languages. The members of a far-flung secret society, formed as early as the late fifth century (barely a generation after the Irish had become literate), could write to one another in impenetrably erudite, neverbefore-spoken patterns of Latin, called Hisperica Famina, not unlike the dream-language of "Finnegans Wake" or even the languages J. R. R. Tolkien would one day make up for his hobbits and elves.

Nothing brought out Irish playfulness more than the copying of the books themselves, a task no reader of the ancient world could entirely neglect. At the outset there were in Ireland no scriptoria to speak of, just individual hermits and monks, each in his little beehive cell or sitting outside in fine weather, copying a needed text from a borrowed book, old book on one knee, fresh sheepskin pages on the other. Even at their grandest, these were simple, out-of-doors people. (As late as the ninth century an Irish annotator describes himself as writing under a greenwood tree while listening to a clearvoiced cuckoo hopping from bush to bush.)

But they found the shapes of letters magical. Why, they asked themselves, did a B look the way it did? Could it look some other way? Was there an essential B-ness? The result of such why-is-the-skyblue questions was a new kind of book, the Irish codex; and one after another, Ireland began to produce the most spectacular, magical books the world had ever seen.

From its earliest manifestations literacy had a decorative aspect. How could it be otherwise, since implicit in all pictograms, hieroglyphs, and letters is some cultural esthetic, some answer to the question, What is most beautiful? The Mesoamerican answer lies in looped and bulbous rock carvings, the Chinese answer in vibrantly minimalist brush strokes, the ancient Egyptian answer in stately picture puzzles. Even alphabets, those most abstract and frozen forms of communication, embody an esthetic, which changes depending on the culture of its user. How unlike one another the carved, unyielding Roman alphabet of Augustus's triumphal arches and the idiosyncratically homely Romano-Germanic alphabet of Gutenberg's Bible.

For their part, the Irish combined the stately letters of the Greek and Roman alphabets with the talismanic, spellbinding simplicity of Ogham to produce initial capitals and headings that rivet one's eyes to the page and hold the reader in awe. As late as the twelfth century, Geraldus Cambrensis was forced to conclude that the Book of Kells was "the work of an angel, not of a man." Even today, Nicolete Gray in A History of Lettering can say of its great "Chi-Rho" page that the three Greek characters-the monogram of Christ-are "more presences than letters. "

For the body of the text, the Irish developed two hands, one a dignified but rounded script called Irish half-uncial, the other an easy-to-write script called Irish minuscule that was more readable, more fluid, and, well, happier than anything devised by the Romans. Recommended by its ease and readability, this second hand would be adopted by a great many scribes far beyond the borders of Ireland, becoming the common script of the Middle Ages.

As decoration for the texts of their most precious books, the Irish instinctively found their models not in the crude lines of Ogham, but in their own prehistoric mathematics and their own most ancient evidence of the human spirit-the megalithic tombs of the Boyne Valley. These tombs had been constructed in Ireland about 3000 B.C. in the same eon that Stonehenge was built in Britain. just as mysterious as Stonehenge, both for their provenance and the complexity of their engineering, these great barrow graves are Ireland's earliest architecture and are faced by the indecipherable spirals, zigzags, and lozenges of Ireland's earliest art. These massive tumuli, telling a story we can now only speculate on," had long provided Irish smiths with their artistic inspiration. For in the sweeping lines of the Boyne's intriguing carvings, we can discern the ultimate sources of the magnificent metal jewelry and other objects that were being made at the outset of the Patrician period by smiths who, in Irish society, had the status of seers.

Brooches, boxes, discs, scabbards, clips, and horse trappings of the time all proclaim their devotion to the models of the Boyne Valley carvings. But this intricate riot of metalwork, allowing for subtleties impossible in stone, is like a series of riffs on the original theme. What was that theme? Balance in imbalance. Take, for instance, the witty cover on the bronze box that is part of the Somerset Hoard from Galway: precisely mathematical yet deliberately (one might almost say perversely) off-center, forged by a smith of expert compass and twinkling eye. It is endlessly fascinating because, as a riff on circularity, it has no end. It seems to say, with the spirals of Newgrange, "There is no circle; there is only the spiral, the endlessly reconfigurable spiral. There are no straight lines, only curved ones." Or, to recall the most characteristic of all Irish responses when faced with the demand for a plain, unequivocal answer: "Well, it is, and it isn't." "She does, and she doesn't." "You will, and you won't. "

This sense of balance in imbalance, of riotous complexity moving swiftly within a basic unity, would now find its most extravagant expression in Irish Christian art-in the monumental high crosses, in miraculous liturgical vessels such as the Ardagh Chalice, and, most delicately of all, in the art of the Irish codex.

"Codex" was used originally to distinguish a book, as we know it today, from its ancestor, the scroll. By Patrick's time the codex had almost universally displaced the scroll, because a codex was so much easier to dip into and peruse than a cumbersome scroll, which had the distinct disadvantage of snapping back into a roll the moment one became too absorbed in the text. The pages of most books were of mottled parchment, that is, dried sheepskin, which was universally available--and nowhere more abundant than in Ireland, whose bright green fields still host each April an explosion of new white lambs. Vellum, or calfskin, which was more uniformly white when dried, was used more sparingly for the most honored texts. (The "white Gospel page" of "The Hermit's Song" is undoubtedly vellum.) It is interesting to consider that the shape of the modern book, taller than wide, was determined by the dimensions of a sheepskin, which could most economically be cut into double pages that yield our modern book shape when folded. The scribe transcribed the text onto pages gathered into a booklet called a quire, later stitched with other quires into a larger volume, which was then sometimes bound between protecting covers. Books and pamphlets of less consequence were often left unbound. Thus, a form of the "cheap paperback" was known even in the fifth century.

The most famous Irish codex is the Book of Kells, kept in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, but dozens of others survive, their names-the Book of Echternach, for instance, or the Book of Maihingen--sometimes giving us an idea of how far they traveled from the Irish scriptoria that were their primeval source. Astonishingly decorated Irish manuscripts of the early medieval period are today the great jewels of libraries in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Italy, and even Russia.

(pp 164-169)

Scriptorium (2002)

The scriptorium of the Sixth Century
was a cold, dark and brute room
where copyists inked their ecstasies
amid the bitterest rigors—reeking
sheepskin, claw-hand so carefully
moving across the page, each line
a curragh voyage from I to Thou.
Each copy of a book exacted a
raw chunk of someone’s life.
Nothing’s changed though
conditions have much improved:
I sit in an easy chair in the soft
augers of the early day, bright lamp
over one shoulder, cup of coffee
to my left; but it’s still pen in
hand and the next blank line
in this journal, embellishing
a text whispered in my ear
by one of those dirty angels
gone to dust long ago
when from so little came
ineffably more: voices like
a soundboard rising
from an invisible floor,
from a distant, gnashing shore.
The huts of the copyists
were built that way,
according to the lines of
the more ancient Poet’s House,
rooms of total darkness
where the master inscribed
all history in the
ears of his craftsmen,
line by patient line,
tale by tale,
life after life.
This hand is freighted
by a thousand older hands,
this ink an hourglass measure
of far immenser sands.

Black Kells (Jan 2003)

A page torn from the
night’s black book
of Kells, drunk at some
music club a lifetime ago
& chasing a fattish
Icelandic gal, whose
eyes were blue as blindness:
Pawned angels dance
to phat jazz, their huge
black wings scraping
the backs of deacons
who stand at the bar
pounding back their
wasted genius, work and lust
in tiny shots of Jaegermeister.
Down down down
burns the the
black fuse of white
thirst no poured
heaven can allay
or alloy, minting
balled fists of
desire unclinched
nowhere, not even
in the grave.
Even the eventual
bed is a fraud,
apportioned from
a business-class
hotel close to
downtown, adrift
in the deep a.m.’s
of blackout, TV,
and sex, cold and nearly
sick, the slick inches
narrowed & grit
& flubbed then
jawed whole. Cho Ri
page of my demon
gospel, face of the
Savior inverted,
limed, or drowned,
the glow too far
to swim safely to,
too faintly red
to matter,
the last bubbles
drifting up past her
ice blue eyes
fixed over my
shoulder at what
passed back then
for day, out toward
the esplanade where
children riffle
crack vials & a
wind blows
your last dream away.
Not all pages
of Kells were saved:
Two gospel title
pages are hidden
still, or lost,
evangels of a night
there is no ink
dark enough to
write & jaws
the copyist entire.

Whale Song (2004)

Sometimes the song
that guides my hand
arrives from way below,
down where the blue
whale swims, his voice
the deepest register
sea’s brine organum.
His voice under mine
is terrible, the angel
of Jonah and Ahab
who demands more than
short mornings here afford.
It is brutal and cold like
plainsong in my father’s
stone chapel at the
winter solstice, and yet
agelessly sweet like a
blue piano’s kiss.
Such sounds hold in words
only vaguely and at
great cost. I would have
that music pass over me
sitting here in my life
with my wife upstairs asleep
and our cat drinking in
the night air of an opened
window: And yet
such trebles shine
because of his bass clef,
each note of merry
surface bliss
resounding in those
deepest tones which
swim only with the whales,
hurling Thor’s chords
down a thousand-
fathom trench. Poems
inked there drown
their makers, so beware.
Labor carefully
at the organ-pipes
of that lumbering whale.
Go shore to shore
on the highest wings
of his dark hell-booming bell.

Holy Ghost (Ranier Maria Rilke)

Behind an altar in the chapel
I found a demolished Holy Ghost;
he hadn’t perished from wrong-doing,
but, instead, from the eternal

loss of things that suprises us
with its inimitable power;
the rest, he admits, is as harrowing
as making absence into mother.

- transl. A. Poulin, Jr

Longing (2002)

I sometimes wonder whether longing
can’t radiate out from someone so
powerfully, like a storm, that nothing
can come to him from the opposite
direction. Perhaps William Blake
has somewhere drawn that?

— Rilke, letter, 1912

There is a longing in us which
grows from sigh to starry shriek.
Perhaps comets are charred furies
of that pain, a whirl of frozen fire
which ghostlike tears to God’s porch
and back, insatiable and unanswered.
Perhaps. All I know is that
it’s infinitely perilous to think
that longing has a human end.
In my cups I once believed
a woman mooned for me,
her longing a white welcome
over my million nights alone.
I met and passed her many times
those hard years, blinded by the aura
of her unvowled name.
Surely when two longings touch
it’s like when great waves collide,
the wild sea witched flat.
Our deeper thirst can never sate:
as each draught of booze
was never enough, so each
embrace tides a milkier door.
I recall a young man
walking home drunk on a
frozen night long ago,
his beloved nowhere
to be found in the chalice
he had named. Winds hurled
steel axes through the
Western sky, failing to clear
the cruel foliage of fate.
In his defeat he was greater
than any angel beckoned
by that night: his heart so
hollowed by longing
as to chance in pure cathedral,
her absence the clabber of a bell
shattering the frozen air,
trebling the moon
without troubling a sound.

Love's History (Jan 2004)

Again I walk this small white shore
Amazed at all the blue. In love
My sins are legion: I never
Get it right. Dozing on the couch
This wan winter Saturday, I
Rolled the tapes again, of weeks and
Nights and precious minutes where She
Smiled and bid me in. I never could
Keep her though, not the way I dreamed.
My words could never trance that smile
Back. I’m still at it in this my
Fifth decade, inside a marriage
And much in love. Still trying to
Sing loves’ hour back to that beach dawn
When all the sands turn upside down.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

They Sailed To You

Thrice fifty true pilgrims who went with Buti beyond the sea.
The twelve pilgrims who went beyond the sea with Moedhog of Ferns.
Thrice twenty men who went with Brendan to seek the land of promise.
The twelve youths of whom Brendan found the survivor in the Island of the Cat.
Three descendents of corra, with their seven companions.
Twelve men encountered death with Ailbe.
Four-and-twenty from Munster who went with Ailbe upon the sea fo find the land in which Christians never dwell.
Twelve youths who went to heaven with Molaise without sickness.
The confessor whom Brendan met in the promised land, with all the saints who have perished in the isles of the Ocean.

-- from “The Litany of Oengus,” in William Flint Thrall, “Clerical Sea Pilgrimmages and the ‘Immrama’”

The Voyaging Ascetics

E.G. Bowen writes in his study of Celtic culture that although asceticisim in the Eastern Mediterranean was marked by a movement into the desert, in the West it was marked by the creation of innumerable island sanctorium. Initially, coastal islands were simply way stations to the deserts of the European forests. Later, wehn the papacy cracked down on the peregrini because of their undisciplined habits, continental wildernesses became off limits. The penitents returned to Ireland and found another, even more enticing form of exile, this time in oceano desertum, the desert of the sea. At first they were satisfied with little isles in their native lakes and rivers, not far from the monestaries forming the civitas. Then they began to retire to numerous islands off the Irish coast, and when these were no longer places of solitude, a voyage in frail boats was to search out some desert isle in the ocean. In what became known as the “white martyrdom,” the sea became the spiritual desert, the last refuge of holy wilderness in Europe.

-- John R. Gillis, Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World

The Hermit in the Middle of the Sea

An episode in the Life of Mael Duin relates an encounter with an ancient man discovered on a rock in the middle of the sea. The old man tells Mael Duin his story. Once it was that his boat of tanned hide lay becalmed far from the sight of land. As he looked about him, he saw a man sitting on a wave. The man tells him that his aloneness on the waters is an illusion and that, in fact, the voyager is surrounded by demons, “as far as thy sight reaches over the sea and up to the clouds,” all because of his covetousness, pride, haughtiness, theft, and “other evil deeds.” “Fling ... into the sea all the wealth that thou hast in the boat,” the mysterious man counsels him. Having done that, the voyager is given a cup of whey-water and seven cakes. “So I went,” saith the ancient man, “in the direction that my boat and the wind carried me: for I have let go my oars and my rudder.” Thus he was cast on the rock, and there he had lived in contentment for seven years, surviving on the whey-water and the seven cakes.

-- from Carolyn Hares-Stryker, “Adrift on the 7 Seas: The Medieval Topos of Exile at Sea”

Into The White

By stepping into the coracle that bore
him beyond the horizon (into exile),
(St. Columba) entered the Irish pantheon
of heroes who had done immortal deeds
against impossible odes. As he sailed off
that morning, he was doing the hardest thing
an Irishman could do, a much harder thing
than giving up his life: he was leaving Ireland.
If the Green Martyrdom ((of forest exile))
has failed, here was a martyrdom that was
surely the equal of the Red ((the traditional,
bloody martyrdom)); and henceforth, all
who followed Columcille’s lead were called
to the White Martyrdom, they who sailed
into the white sky of morning, into the unknown,
never to return.

-- Thomas Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilization

White Martyr (Dec. 15, 2004)

I push off here into endless white,
trusting this poem’s fate to its god,
praying only for knowledge of that will
and oars to carry the song through
to its own bare lonely rock
in the center of white heaven.
Wild and breasty the wide-armed sea,
inking my pen with blue infernity,
an ichor rising from depths below,
from the aching beyond, from
the memory of you sleeping
on white sheets in a bed I
stumbled on and lost, so many
years and lives ago. Anchorite
of those crashing shores, I wend
my way across the main
singing all your names to the bitter
wind and petrel cry, the last bit of bread
offered three days ago to waves which
forever hide the view ahead. When am I
most in your arms than in loneliest
transit here, my pen’s small prow
cutting down the page between blue lines,
singing matins to the shadow of an ache
more gorgeous than last night’s moon
hanging over all with the faintest
crescent of a smile? Outside this morning
it’s cold -- the first freeze of the winter --
a bit ago I peeked out the back french door
to see Red in the box we set up
with towels and a heating pad set
on medium -- his face miserable
and aswoon to be washed by cold above
and warmed from below. I pray the
other cats are OK, and that the garden
will survive this hard-hearted spell.
My wife and I wrapped as many as we
could last night in sheets & I set fir-boughs
cut from the Christmas tree on the lower-
laying flowers. All those lives are in this boat
with me this boat’s travail through
the worst of a cold night, with the sun
hours away and their fate our God’s
inside these hands. Such white surrender’s
the hidebound keel I drift on today,
its craft all mine and its end full yours,
the poem our bedded island bliss
between the margins of white noise
and its shore further than the one
verse martyred yesterday. Pale paps
of foam upon the cresting wave,
here is your suckling son: I hear that
crashing further on which signs today’s
next final page. A martyr ferries gods
forward on the white course of a
surrendering rage: may my mouth
open and spill the hoard of Moby
and Thor, carried from the whitemost
page you once dreamed with me
still in you. May these last words limn
the door you vanished through
with a blue sanctorum on a rock
stubborn enough to survive the sea’s
erasing, rapturous, white eternity.

Ocean Dragon's Stone

The stone of Fanes in the lands of Aulol
(comes) out of the stream of Dam. Twelve
stars there are seen in its side and the
wheel of the moon and the fiery journey
of the sun. In the hearts of dragons it is
always found that make their journey
under the sea. No one having it in his
hand can tell any lie till he has put it
away from him. No race or army could
bring it into a house where there is one
that has made away with his father.
At the hour of matins it gives out sweet
music that is not the like of under heaven.

-- from “Four of the World’s Wells,” in
Lady Gregory, Saints and Wonders,
Book Five: Great Wonders of the Olden Time (1906)

Inscribed Upon the Wave

I am orphaned, alone; nevertheless
I am found everywhere.
I am one, but opposed to myself.
I am youth and old man
at one and the same time.
I have known neither father
nor mother, for I have been fetched
out of the deep like a fish,
or fell like a white stone from heaven.
In the woods and mountains I roam,
but I am hidden in the
innermost soul of man.
I am mortal for everyone, yet I
am not touched by the cycle of aeons.

- Jung's alchemical inscription on the
cornerstone of his stone house.
(from Memories, Dreams, and Reflections)

Singing Stone (Dec. 14, 2004)

What I ferry here to our next shore
was married long ago in that burning bed
you entered and left without a word.
You held me head to your soft breasts
as I ranted crooned & swore, mouthing
every exquisite name of God inside
all the names I’ve thrown. How could
any words suffice to nail that embrace
fully down, much less hope tokeep it there?
By the third day you were gone, flowed on
to destines closed to my own fate’s stream.
But I remained at that pouring, incandescent
bed, sniffing every inch of blue for just one
floral trace of your kiss, other times nailed
to my knees surrendering the fury of what
it both annihilates and frees. Blue madonna,
this heart is that ancient stone the first
passion lifted from the sea, its orbit round
you oh-so-close but always just off shore.
Its music is hot with a silvered lucence
poured from that roaring sound I heard
when you clenched me and cried YES,
thus opening every psalter, flask and
fold-and-crashing door I ever hope to find.
My song’s a wax and wane in measure
to your empty and yet resonant tide:
May all the ink between our shores
slake that dragon squid who bid us ride
the wildest ocean for one night so many
lives ago. May this moon of that remembered
bliss ignite the indigo and path the next
course to you here tomorrow at the pad,
same time same place, same babel down
the falling spire of all you vaulted
in that sleepy face that just smiled
and closed blue eyes, never and always
to return. Singing stone, your eons marrow
my every endless shoring bone

Monday, December 13, 2004

Oran's Voyage to the North

It is commonly said that the People of the Sìdhe dwell within the hills, or in the underworld. In some of the isles their home, now, is spoken of as Tir-na-thonn, the Land of the Wave, or Tir-fo-Tuinn, the Land under the Sea.

But from a friend, an Islander of Iona, I have learned many things, and among them, that the Shee no longer dwell within the inland hills, and that though many of them inhabit the lonelier isles of the west, and in particular The Seven Hunters, their Kingdom is in the North.

Some say it is among the pathless mountains of Iceland. But my friend spoke to an Iceland man, and he said he had never seen them. There were Secret People there, but not the Gaelic Sìdhe.

Their Kingdom is in the North, under the Fir-Chlisneach, the Dancing Men, as the Hebrideans call the polar aurora. They are always young there. Their bodies are white as the wild swan, their hair yellow as honey, their eyes blue as ice. Their feet leave no mark on the snow. The women are white as milk, with eyes like sloes, and lips like red rowans. They fight with shadows, and are glad; but the shadows are not shadows to them. The Shee slay great numbers at the full moon, but never hunt on moonless nights, or at the rising of the moon, or when the dew is falling. Their lances are made of reeds that glitter like shafts of ice, and it is ill for a mortal to find one of these lances, for it is tipped with the salt of a wave that no living thing has touched, neither the wailing mew nor the finned sgAdan nor his tribe, nor the narwhal. There are no men of the human clans there, and no shores, and the tides are forbidden.

Long ago one of the monks of Columba sailed there. He sailed for thrice seven days till he lost the rocks of the north ; and for thrice thirty days, till Iceland in the south was like a small bluebell in a great grey plain; and for thrice three years among bergs. For the first three years the finned things of the sea brought him food; for the second three years he knew the kindness of the creatures of the air; in the last three years angels fed him. He lived among the Sidhe for three hundred years. When he came back to Iona, he was asked where he had been all that long night since evensong to matins. The monks had sought him everywhere, and at dawn had found him lying in the hollow of the long wave that washes Iona on the north. He laughed at that, and said he had been on the tops of the billows for nine years and three months and twenty-one days, and for three hundred years had lived among a deathless people. He had drunk sweet ale every day, and every day had known love among flowers and green bushes, and at dusk had sung old beautiful forgotten songs, and with star-flame had lit strange fires, and at the full of the moon had gone forth laughing to slay. It was heaven, there, under the Lights of the North. When he was asked how that people might be known, he said that away from there they had a cold, cold hand, a cold, still voice, and cold ice-blue eyes. They had four cities at the four ends of the green diamond that is the world. That in the north was made of earth; that in the east, of air; that in the south, of fire; that in the west, of water. In the middle of the green diamond that is the world is the Glen of Precious Stones. It is in the shape of a heart, and glows like a ruby, though all stones and gems are there. It is there the Sìdhe go to refresh their deathless life.

The holy monks said that this kingdom was certainly Ifurin, the Gaelic Hell. So they put their comrade alive in a grave in the sand, and stamped the sand down upon his head, and sang hymns so that mayhap even yet his soul might be saved, or, at least, that when he went back to that place he might remember other songs than those sung by the milk-white women with eyes like sloes and lips red as rowans. "Tell that honey-mouthed cruel people they are in Hell," said the abbot, and give them my ban and my curse unless they will cease laughing and loving sinfully and slaying with bright lances, and will come out of their secret places and be baptized."

They have not yet come.

This adventurer of the dreaming mind is another Oran, that fabulous Oran of whom the later Columban legends tell. I think that other Orans go out, even yet, to the Country of the Sidhe. But few come again. It must be hard to find that glen at the heart of the green diamond that is the world; but, when found, harder to return by the way one came.

-- William Sharp, The Works of Fiona Macleod Volume IV, Iona

Cold Song (2003)

This song is hauled up from a cold well
Nearby -- Oran’s, I sense, though
His skull is just the topmost phosphor
In the darkened flow. From this chair
In sleepy Florida I taste
The salt of Hebrides -- brutal,
Male, like iron on the tongue, wild
As the huge rollers which smash
The Orkney coast. I tried this sea-
Chantey strapped to a guitar, but
The roar would not be amped or staged
or spermed in nereid blue. All
that puerile wattage drowned the song.
I threw my guitar down a well.
Oran sings from that falling shell.

My Father's Chapel (1988)

In a black-and-white photograph
my father stands before his chapel.
His face is set hard and grey
like the standing stone he rests a hand on.
The sky behind is troubled.

This is my altar to him.

My father’s chapel is hidden in the woods,
assembled from stone rows that grew from
generations of field-clearing.
Inside the chapel it is damp, dark, cool,
a descent into old regions of the world.

A quartz-veined, granite boulder
ten feet round fills the center of the chapel.
It is a heart forged in brimstone and eternal cold.
It was in my father for years before he dug it up.

My father says he is a steward of ancient spirits
he calls The Guardians. He met their chief at Iona:
Thor, the black blasted warrior of the Hebridean wind,
How my father’s heart burst with love for him. . .

One winter solstice, my father’s chapel
was bitterly cold. Frail candles flickered in
the windows, sad winds bent the bones
of trees. The death of the year.

My father and I sang together that solstice night,
our voices deepened by the resonance
of stone walls. We sang a plainchant of loss
and of infant hope. That was the dream of my father,
That is the shadow of my heart.

Tonight, on this winter solstice, I raise my
voice in song to my father’s bitter sea
that blusters deep in the conch of my ear,
a song forever trapped in the chapel of these bones.

Bed of Drowned Dreams (Melville)

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about the sea, whose gently awful stirring seems to speak of some hidden soul beneath; like those fabled undulations of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John. And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures, wide-rolling watery prairies and Potters’ Fields of all four continents, the waves should rise and fall, and ebb and flow unceasingly. For here, millions of mixed shades and shadows, drowned dreams, somnambulisms, reveries; all that we call lives and souls, lie dreaming, dreaming still, tossed like slumberers in their beds; the ever rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.

-- Melville, Moby Dick

The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket (Robert Lowell)

For Warren Winslow, Dead at Sea

Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air
and the beasts and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.


A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,-
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our north Atlantic Fleet,
when the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble feet,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs;
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of red and whites,
It's open, starring eyes
Were lusterless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. we weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks at its nose
On Ahab's void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.
Sailors, who pitch this at the portent at the sea
Where dreadnoughts shall confess
It's hell-bent deity
When you are powerless
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste
In his steel scales; ask for no Orphean lute
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet
Recoiled and then repeat
The hoarse salute

Whenever winds are moving and their breath
Heaved at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,
Then terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death
In these waters. Sailor, can you hear
The Pequod's sea wings, beating landward, fall
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall

Off 'Sconset, where the yawing S-boats-splash
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward. The winds' wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea's throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab's whaleboats in the East.

All you recovered from Poseidon died
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,
Nantucket's westward haven. To Cape Cod
Guns, cradled on the tide,
Blast, the eelgrass about a waterclock
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and the sand
Lashing earth's scaffold, rock
Our warships in the hand
Of the great God, where time's contrition blues
Whatever it was these Quaker sailor's lost
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died
When time was open-eyed,
Wooden and childish; only bones abide
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news
Of IS, the whited monster. what it cost
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale's slick
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:
"If God himself had not been by our side,
If God himself had not been on our side,
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,
Then it had swallowed us up quick."

This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:
This is the end of them, three quarters fools,
Snatching at straws to sail
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls

Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals:
Clamavimus, O depths. Let the sea-gulls wail

For water, for the deep where the high tide
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,
The beach increasing, its enormous snout
Sucking the ocean's side.
This is the end of running on the waves;
We are poured out like water. who will dance
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?

When the whales viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Wood's Hole
whistle and fall and sink into the fat?
In the great ash-pit of Jehoshapat
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
And rips the sperm-whale's midriff into rags,
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,
Sailor and gulls go round the stoven timbers
Where the morning stars sing out together
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers
The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side.

Our Lady of Walsingham
There once the penitents took off their shoes
and then walked barefoot the remaining mile;
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file
Slowly along the munching English lane,

Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose
Track of your dragging pain.
The stream flows down under the druid tree,
Shiloah's whirlpools gurgle and make you glad
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see:

Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar. There's no comeliness
At all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
Non est species, neque décor
Expressionless expresses God: it goes
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,
Not Calvary's Cross nor crib at Bethlehem
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.

The empty winds are creaking and the oak
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,
The boughs are trembling and a gaff
Bobs on the untimely stroke
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It's well;
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, winged clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And the blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

The dreadful mysteries (Rilke)

... More and more in my life and in my work I am guided by the effort to correct our old repressions, which have removed and gradually estranged us from the mysteries out of whose abundance our lives might become truly infinite. It is true that these mysteries are dreadful, and people have always drawn away from them. But where can we find anything sweet and glorious that would never wear this mask, the mask of the dreadful? Life — and we know nothing else — , isn’t life itself dreadful? ... Whoever does not, sometime or other, give his full consent, his full joyous consent to the dreadfulness of life, can never take possession of the unutterable abundance and power of our existence; ...To show the identity of dreadfulness and bliss, those two faces on the same divine head, indeed this one single face, which just presents itself this way or that, according to our distance from it or state of mind in which we perceive it — : this is the true significance and purpose of the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.

-- Ranier Maria Rilke, letter, quoted on Mitchell, Selected Ranier Maria Rilke

Deep Song (2003)

Deep in the body’s hollows
between bone transept
and gut nave, chilled in
the stone marrow of our lives,
there breathes a ghostlike,
garbled presence, half fish,
half horse, a hoarder of
old treasure in the
soul’s aphotic keep.

Here is the ur-father,
demi-dad, a galloper
on crest and surge,
a man’s man with
boulders for boots
and a cudgel for a cock.
Prime and primeval,
he’s balled down
there in the world’s vesicle,
his white magna
balled in every vowel.

When my words
revise to this line
they sink down to him
like skipped stones
at throw’s end
to irritate the shit
outta him (and you
don’t want to
piss off god whose
horse shits Texans).

His art is rimmed
with basalt keels,
the deep end of all ceasing:
to me this cry,
this ravening song
eared from stars
and poured deep.
For me the spear plunge;
for him, the feasting.

Chapel (2004)

St. Oran’s Chapel lies in a
Nook of the Iona abbey,
A bleached room with a broken now
Reassembled cross, upon which
Scripts of paper have been hung - psalms
For the dead, I’ll guess; for though Saint
Columba built on this old ground
Saint Oran rules what’s further down,
His buried mouth the boat which sails
Cold bones through the breasts of angels.
In that small room starved light washes
The walls with milk from Paradise.
I’d lick each one clean if I could.
Suffice to sing of that saint’s room
Where deep light bastes the paps of doom.

Til the fire and the rose are one (T. S. Eliot)

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

--- from "Little Gidding," in Four Quartets

Watching "King Lear" (1998)

All the readings
of this play
& all the arias of critics
who sang its greatness
(lately reading
Bloom's dark pearl)
bring me here tonight
to watch King Lear on PBS
but shelter me no better
from this wild crack
in our skull with
its blood torrent
of grief and rage
thrilling eye and ear
with the eternal death
of fathers, nations, kings,
and millennia at the
hands of what
we love so deep and dear.

Perhaps it makes
no difference what
was crucified here,
which nail pierced
the caul or whose
blood washed the stage:
This pain is
primal, geologic,
chiseled into
the heart's basalt
as rivers mourn valleys
and days shrink to
zero and love always
loses to night,
a bier strolling
offstage into what's
forever empty.

Will those words
suffice, deeper and darker
and more divinely
terrible than
all our common deaths?
Don't ask Will:
he's less than dust
and none of his children
were survived by
their own. All that
remains is this
pyre of words
which burned
for hours in every sinew
and nerve as I failed
to sleep that night,
desperate to wrap
myself in warm
loving things,
stroking old mean
ass Buster cat
where he curled on
the bed and watching
my wife as she slept.
Wishing I could
hold them forever
without Lear.

And then --
would you believe it?
A storm gusted
over round 3 a.m.
I listened to its
slow approach
from sighs to troubled
breeze breaking in
a flurry of wet gusts
that slapped and
dashed the roof a
few times, made
one vicious swipe
that made my heart
leap and then fled.
How I loved this
house right then
for holding steady
against that storm,
our bed like a bridge
in a great ship
crossing the night,
wrapping us warm
in all Lear lost,
drowning his voice
in down.

Let the future come
and wash away
what Will. Ghosts, like gods,
fall from ripeness into
the dark we coffer.
Heaven wakes
every dawn upon our
fluttering lids.
This isle of heart
and home between
life and Shakespeare
is pearl enough.

If only "King Lear"
were not echo
and shade
of the day's first kiss

"Advent blows in from the sea ..."

(From Thomas Pynchon’s, Gravity’s Rainbow -- my Book of the Dead. This portion of the book is set in England during the worst years of WWII, as the German V2 rockets came screaming across the sea. Here it is winter, a time like this, close to Christmas ...)


Advent blows from the sea, which at sunset tonight shone green and smooth as iron-rich glass: blows daily upon us, all the sky above pregnant with saints and slender heralds' trumpets. Another year of wedding dresses abandoned in the heart of winter, never called for, hanging in quiet satin ranks now, their white-crumpled veils begun to yellow, rippling slightly only at your passing, spectator . . . visitor to the city at all the dead ends. . . . Glimpsing in the gowns your own reflection once or twice, halfway from shadow, only blurred flesh-colors across the peau de soie, urging you in to where you can smell the mildew's first horrible touch, which was really the idea--covering all trace of her own smell, middleclass bride-to-be perspiring, genteel soap and powder. But virgin in, her heart, in her hopes. None of your bright-Swiss or crystalline season here, but darkly billowed in the day with cloud and the snow falling like gowns in the country, gowns of the winter, gentle at night, a nearly windless breathing around you. in the stations of the city the prisoners are back from Indo-China, wandering their poor visible bones, light as dreamers or men on the moon, among chrome-sprung prams of black hide resonant as drumheads, blonde wood high-chairs pink and blue with scraped and mush-spattered floral decals, folding-cots and bears with red felt tongues, baby-blankets making bright pastel clouds in the coal and steam smells, the metal spaces, among the queued, the drifting, the warily asleep, come by their hundreds in for the holidays, despite the warnings, the gravity of Mr. Morrison, the tube under the river a German rocket may pierce now, even now as the words are set down, the absences that may be waiting them, the city addresses that surely can no longer exist. The eyes from Burma, from Tonkin, watch these women at their hundred perseverances-stare out of blued orbits, through headaches no Alasils can ease. Italian P/Ws curse underneatb the mail sacks that are puffing, echo-clanking in now each hour, in seasonal swell, clogging the snowy trainloads like mushrooms, as if the trains have been all night underground, passing through the country of the dead. If these Eyeties sing now and then you can bet it's not "Giovinezza" but something probably from Rigoletto or La Boheme—indeed the Post Office is considering issuing a list of Nonacceptable Songs, with ukulele chords as an aid to ready identification. Their cheer and songful ness, this lot, is genuine up to a point-but as the days pile up, as this orgy of Christmas greeting grows daily beyond healthy limits, with no containment in sight before Boxing Day, they settle, themselves, for being more professionally Italian, rolling the odd eye at the lady evacuees, finding techniques of balancing the sack with one hand whilst the other goes playing "dead"--cioe, conditionally alive--where the crowds thicken most feminine, directionless . . . well, most promising. Life has to go on. Both kinds of prisoner recognize that, but there's no mano morto for the Englishmen back from CBI, no leap from dead to living at mere permission from a likely haunch or thigh-no play, for God's sake, about life-and-death! They want no more adventures: only the old dutch fussing over the old stove or warming the old bed, cricketers in the wintertime, they want the semi-detached Sunday dead-leaf somnolence of a dried garden. If the brave new world should also come about, a kind of windfall, why there'll be time to adjust certainly to that. . . .But they want the nearly postwar luxury this week of buying an electric train set for the kid, trying that way each to light his own set of sleek little faces here, calibrating his strangeness, well-known photographs all, brought to life now, oohs and aahs but not yet, not here in the station, any of the moves most necessary: the War has shunted them, earthed them, those heedless destroying signalings of love. The children have unfolded last year's toys and found reincarnated Spam tins, they're hep this may be the other and, who knows, unavoidable side to the Christ mas game. In the months between-country springs and summers--they played with real Spam tins-tanks, tank-destroyers, pillboxes, dreadnoughts deploying meat-pink, yellow- and blue about the dusty floors of lumber-rooms or butteries, under the cots or couches of their exile. Now it's time again. The plaster baby, the oxen frosted with gold leaf and the human-eyed sheep are turning real again, paint quickens to flesh. To believe is not a price they pay-it happens all by itself. He is
the New Baby. On the magic night before, the animals will talk, and the sky will be milk. The grandparents, who've waited each week for the Radio Doctor asking, What Are Piles? What Is Emphysema? What Is A Heart Attack? will wait, up beyond insomnia, watching again for the yearly impossible not to occur, but with some mean residue-this is the hillside, the sky can show us a light-like a thrill, a good time you wanted too much, not a complete loss but still too far short of a miracle . . . keeping their sweatered and shawled vigils, theatrically bitter, but with the residue inside going through a new winter fermentation every year, each time a bit less, but always good for a revival at this season. . . . All but naked now, the shiny suits and gowns of their pubcrawling primes long torn to strips for lagging the hot-water pipes and heaters of landlords, strangers, for holding the houses' identities against the w inter. The War needs coal. They have taken the next-to-last steps, at tended the Radio Doctor's certifications of what they knew in their bodies, and at Christmas they are naked as geese under this woolen, murky, cheap old-people's swaddling. Their electric clocks run fast, even Big Ben will be fast now until the new spring's run in, all fast, and no one else seems to understand or to care. The War needs electricity. It's alively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes, gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night's Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands. Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are. But over the sea the fog tonight still is quietly scalloped pearl. Up in the city the arc-lamps crackle, furious, in smothered blaze up the centerlines of the streets, too ice-colored for candles, too chill-dropleted for holocaust . . . the tall red busses sway, all the headlamps by regulation newly unmasked now parry, cross, traverse and blind, torn great fistfuls of wetness blow by, desolate as the beaches beneath the nacre fog, whose barbed wire that never knew the inward sting of current, that only lay passive, oxidizing in the night, now weaves like underwater grass, looped, bitter cold, sharp as the scorpion, all the printless sand miles past cruisers abandoned in the last summers of peacetime that once holidayed the old world away, wine and olive-grove and pipesmoke evenings away the other side of the War, stripped now to rust axles and brackets and smelling inside of the same brine as this beach you cannot really walk, because of the War. Up across the downs, past the spotlights where the migrant birds in autumn choked the beams night after night, fatally held till they dropped exhausted out of the sky, a shower, of dead birds, the compline worshipers sit in the unheated church, shivering, voiceless as the choir asks: where are the joys? Where else but there where the Angels sing new songs and the bells ring out in the court of the King. Eia -- strange thousand-year sigh-eia, warn wir da! were we but there. . . . The tired men and their black bellwether reaching as far as they can, as far from their sheeps' clothing as the year will let them stray. Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it's been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn't true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell-or maybe just left behind with your heart, at the Stage Door Canteen, where they're counting the night's take, the NAAFI girls, the girls named Eileen, carefully sorting into refrigerated compartments the rubbery maroon organs with their yellow garnishes of fat-oh Linda come here feel this one, put your finger down in the ventricle here, isn't it swoony, it's still going. . . . Everybody you don't suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let's not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty's wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell-what do you think, it's a children's story? There aren't any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it's Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 6o miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It's a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one-something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only .the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there's too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody's around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who're naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they're wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping ... and Herod or Hitler, fellas (the chaplains out in the Bulge are manly, haggard, hard drinkers), what kind of a world is it ("You forgot Roosevelt, padre," come the voices from the back, the good father can never see them, they harass him, these tempters, even into his dreams: "Wendell Willkiel" "How about Churchill?" "'Arry Pollitt!") for a baby to come in tippin' those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin' he's gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined. . . .But on the way home tonight, you wish you'd picked him up, held him a bit. just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, some how, save him caring who you're supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.

0 Jesu parvule,
Nach dir ist mir so weh . . .

So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age, men fattening despite their hunger, flatulent because of it, pre-ulcerous, hoarse, runny-nosed, red-eyed sorethroated, piss-swollen men suffering from acute lower backs and all-day hangovers, wishing death on officers they truly hate, men you have seen on foot and smileless in the cities but forgot, men who, don't remember YOU either, knowing they ought to be grabbing a little sleep, not out here performing for strangers, give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping threeand fourfold, up, echoing, filling the entire hollow of the church-no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward -- praise be to God! -- for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the past you must create for yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home ...

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