Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Blue Rhymes, Salt Riddles

How different are the marriages of mythology! Just as the hero’s birth has an outward resemblance to the most disgraceful births in human society, so does his marriage have more in common with abductions and elopements than with the socially approved forms of marriage.

... In parts of Wales, the bridegroom’s representatives were at first refused admission at the bride’s home and a contest in verse between the two parties ensued. Such contests “in the doorway” also featured in certain seasonal rituals and riddles were sometimes embodied in the verses. Riddle contests took place in the marriage rituals of parts of Russia and central Asia until modern times, and in some cases the riddles consist of requests for impossible things. Thus, in one of the villages of the Government of Yaroslav, the “bride-seller,” sitting by the bride, invited the best man to “bid for the bride,” offering him the choice of trading either in riddles or in gold. The choice always fell upon the riddles, and half a dozen or more tasks were then set by the “bride-seller.” For example: “Give me the sea, full to the brim, and with a bottom of silver.” The best man gave him a bowl full of beer with a coin at the bottom. “Tell me the thing, naked in itself, which has a shift over its bosom.” He gave him a candle. “Give me something which the master of this house lacks.” The bet man then brought in the bridegroom -- presumably to remedy the lack of a son-in-law.

-- Rees & Rees, Celtic Heritage, 267, 268-9

WOOING RIDDLE (Feb. 17, 2005)

These songs limn a narrow
shore, like a skin which
borders two worlds,
a place where wave and
land are hostile yet arouse,
where out and inner words
face each other and
the impossible love they must,
somehow, in lust of souls,
requite. In every kiss two
worlds collide,
uprooting solitudes
& washing griefs away
so suppler, abler
hurts may salt a
greater tenderness with
tears. Oh the gentle way
you walked to the
bathroom from our sated
bed of wooing, many
years now gone -- what
frightening registers rippled
out from there, beneath
the gauzy undulations
which had entranced
then drowned my
heart ... raging horsemen
with bright blades of
moon and more
awakened also in
that womb, ogres with
clubs the sizes of narwhal
horns, blackened dicks
swinging further down
like tiger sharks. How
could such downy
billows rouse the
rippingest regions of
black tides? How could that
spume-exultant YES
invoke the mess of years
in which I proved
so much less than
all you dreamed?
The songs harrow
that blue interface
where nothing quite will
do but your thighs
up round my hips and
all there is of you is
boneless ocean, salty
motions devoid of
face or loin, as if
one single desire had
at its core an
emptiness as deep
as the soulless sea?
And how but in verse
can I name these dry
days as the closest I
will get to you, my lonely
strolls in predawn wastes
cathedrally intoned,
adding cleffs and modals
and quartertidaltones
to the drone inside the
conch shells you lift
on some faraway beach
to hear high news of me.
What wild music rises
from this chair
where I write your
kisses down, those
puckers of sweet abyss
a heart may till
and perhaps distill,
but never fully ride, not in
a life so shored by
two worlds that
there’s no purity not
assed in all the
rudest ways, no devil
not gossamered come
dawn upon that beach.
In the end only the
song remains, you gone
back into your self,
ditto beach, the years
since conspiring
to smooth and bleach
our dance on down
to faintest glimmers
on dark waves, a babble
of silver tongues long
freed from human throats.
Those two worlds once
bordered by our lips
have poured fully through
the other, leaving only
the sound of the tide
far down the shore,
a washing, reaching,
ebbing verse for
all we once conspired
to greet and riddle
and forever since
are source.

(Edmund Spenser)

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide and made my pains his prey.

Vain man (said she) that dost in vain assay
A mortal thing so to immortalise;
For I myself shall like to this decay,
And eke my name be wiped out likewise.

Not so (quod I); let baser things devise
To die in dust, but you shall live by fame;
My verse your virtues rare shall eternise,
And in the heavens write your glorious name:

Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue,
Our love shall live, and later life renew.

THE BURIED HARBOR (Giuseppe Ungaretti)

The poet arrives there
and then resurfaces with his songs
and scatters them
All that left me
of this -- this poetry:
the merest nothing
of an inexhaustible secret

- Mariano, June 29, 1916

(transl. Andrew Frisardi)


My song is a merman
bereaved of his scales
sitting on a rock
between his sea and
this world we call our own.
He’s crying low
in a sweet-salted voice
for Swinburne’s tides
on a Joycean beach.
For him this pale page
so raw at first light
is hardly a vantage,
for he can dive
three miles down
on the back of a whale
and when Leviathan
falls no further, bid adieu,
and leap all the the way
down beneath abyss
to a merry world
where coral bungalows
are the teeth of
Tiamat’s split jaw.
-- Lost to him now,
my ancient brine captive,
who now lives in this hand
walking a pale white sand,
singing of low mansions
to the ear’s desperate strand.


Nomina sunt consequentia rerum
(Names are the consequences of things)
— Dante, La Vita Nuova

Ipso facto the poem,
an arrival which
forces wide the mouth
& go ooh la wee
or yee-haw. Panged
by the world’s is-ness
we ply the business
of saying
roller or height,
crescent oranges

sweet sour bright.
I see with angel eyes
the white of her
thighs, & wow
mountain heights
with the crest
of my sighs;
coo to the cat with
a cow-ululant moo,
& low sable swoon
between soror and moon;
the ink I’ve hurled
in one florid line
burl dead space
—an articulate spine
through white billows
where she once came
crying my name.
I’ll curve all my meters
til they curl that lost flame!


Poetry’s for words that never
Quite see heaven, or her naked,
Or the shore of an exiled home.
Kind David stroked his harp singing
to the God of distant rooms, as
If a psalm was a boat for seas
He never meant to cross. The verse I
Hammer down here forms a cup shaped
For pouring past as brims, for blue
Draught I’ll never quite slake, much less
Ever sip: Yet there’s physic in bright
Wings which cannot fly toward any
Heaven this heart knows, a God’s grace --
Synecdoche of a stolen kiss
Which tides and hurls sufficient bliss.


Praise the monkey in the middle
Of my days, mute yet aroused, his
Penis straining up every curve,
His pen writing everything down.
He’s at it all the ding dong day,
Down in a wet scriptorium
Of pelt and poop and prayer, his salt
Gibberish an angel’s brogue, white
As saints in song, blue as the imp’s
Cold refrain. What I write here is
Just poor calligraphy of him
Who says it all with tightened lips.
Inside this hour a beast scrawls poems
On the shores of this darkling heart:
What you read here is his brute art.

CONGRESS (Feb. 2004)

My head’s a congress of high selves
At this hour; their voices loosed in
Water mount the sea stallion of
The next poem -- light cavalry with
Swords for carving waves. Jung has
Less value as a shrink than psycho-
Pomp, a witch doc only for words;
Dante’s travail in Love’s bright name
Sings a bride of whitest metres;
Joyce.s noises in the chamber
Toot low angels across the shore,
A cochineal arrest which wakes.
Each sings in my head at this hour
Long after their towers fell to sea.
Dawn finds me clacking their bones
Not for rough magic but gruff tones.


(Wendell Berry)

... No one has made
the art by which one makes the works
of art. Each one who speaks speaks
as a convocation. We live as councils
of ghosts. It is not "human genius"
that makes us human, but an old love,
an old intelligence of the heart
we gather to us from the world
of the creatures, from the angels
of inspiration, from the dead --
as intelligence merely nonexistent
to those who do not have it, but
to those who have it more dear than life.


Many mornings now I
wake at 3:15 or 3:45
gripped by an urgency
to get up & get on with
this work which I hardly
fathom, much less name.
Today Violet woke us
both from her chair
talking in her dream.
In mine she was trying
to name her kittens
or the ones we now
feed along with a badly
chewed momma: Around
Violet’s neck were
place cards on which
names were written,
names I couldn’t read.
Her dead-of-night fit
of naming stuck with
me, oiling the gears of
my own cause. Am I
trying to find God’s
name for things -- the one
inside the names we
use --, or is it that I’m
seeking God’s own name
in this ritual naming
game? In my dream
I drove an old car through
an old familiar course
which was like so
many things: the long
roads I travel each day
to work and back; the
course my first wife and
I used to walk in
downtown Orlando
(through quiet neighborhoods
& by a middle school
to a lake & back);
the way I drove
my bike to my own
middle school in
Evanston Illinois
35 years ago; and it
was the way my father
went when he travelled
between his secret
gay urban life in downtown
Chicago and our crazed
suburban home. I could
wind all those routes
with my eyes closed;
they may all be carved
in granite. In the dream
the way had grown
cluttered, packed close
with garbage and other
leavings of time, like
archaeological walls,
grown out into the streets
like fatty tubes of blood.
It made for tight
passage. In the car
with me was some
black woman from AA
& we talked about the
God we try to serve,
whose heart we try
to daily bathe our
rebel wills. -- I woke
from the dream at
4:15 a.m., my verbal
engines roaring on
octanes drawn from
(or to) this inky well.
I know I must be
careful, because deep
things love to drown
makers foolish enough
to believe they can
possess any of this.
Me? I’m just a bucket
of safe enough passage.
I only hold so much
which I must spill here
before there’s any more
blue gold. Besides, it’s
only writing poems too
early in the day. It’s
5:45 a.m. now, time to
shift to the study, fire
up the iMac, pour another
cuppa joe, & sit down
to type these lines in,
maybe revise a poem or
two, pack the next boat
to send down Oran’s
Well. Then -- the day:
A shower, some chow,
then up I go to lay next
to my wife’s indigo
cool-cotton sleep. Hopefully
we’ll wake together there,
and assemble at that
shore from which we
must both embark,
me out into the labors
of the day in corporate
trenches, paying the bills,
scansions further out
where my parents age
and God turns the page.
A name for this visit,
this travel and rappel
to a holy dark and back?
Another poem, another
splash on morning stones
which soon will gleam
in hot summer’s first light,
and catch the distant
croon of some wave’s
recessional foam.


The most ancient witness to
grammatical teaching in Ireland
is to be found in the little manual
called Ars Asporii (or Apseri)
... ((this book)), in stark contrast
to the wholly secular tone of its
model ((the Ars Minor of Donatus)),
derives from the ascetic world
of sixth-century Irish monasticism.

- Daibhi O Croinin,
Early Irish Monasticism

While I sat in classrooms
pickling in the drone
of American grammar
-- the official Latin of
verb-subject agreements
and modifiers rescued
from their dangling
precipices -- She was
writing it down in my
ear some other way,
a brogue inside my
writing’s new arches and
tenons, turning nouns
into nipples jazzing motions
I couldn’t master, only
ride. Before me all the
fixtures of learning
were composed and steady --
my book opened wide,
a #2 pencil in my hand
copying down the forms
on lined paper in a rough
miniscule, the late-
morning hush striated
with boredom and
hunger and a free-floating
toothed angst. On one
level it was all a
cultural Latin the way
it must be learned,
line after line, correct
and succinct, either
to be admired or strafed
with red ink: Yet further
down I wrote in Vulgate
about the places I
dreamed or sought
or would but dare not go:
My hands round the back
of the girl sitting in front
of me cupping new breasts,
fighting the evil one in
his lab far at sea,
swaggering nude
in the locker room
with a cock twice as
big as my own, three
times, no, four, shaming
all they boys with my
hammerlike stylus.
She was re-writing
the story the world
bid me learn
in a grammar which
shattered those schoolhouse
walls. There, in the midst
of such strict schooling
(if strict it ever was)
an infernal ars was
copied from the ass
of true love -- forms I’ll
never quite learn,
swimming away on
every sweet wave, a
language always just
out of reach, laughing,
cajoling, calling me home.
Of it I here write
in rooms far below
the cathedral which
pays for everything else.


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