Voyages from I to Thou.

Location: Skellig Michel, Ireland

Friday, February 18, 2005

Jammin' With the Heathen Giant

Walk a dun blink roundward this albutisle and you skull see how old ye plaine of my elters, hunfree and aurs, where wone to wail whimbrel to peewee o’er the saltings, where wilby citie by law of isthmon, where by a droit of signory, iceflow was from his inn by Byggnning to Whose Finishtere Punct. Lete erehim ruhmuhrmuhr. Mearmerge two races, swete and brack. Morthering rue. Hither, crashing eastuards, they are in surgence hence, cool at ebb, they requiesce. Countlessness of livestories have netherfallen by this flage, flick as flowflakes, litters from aloft, like a awaast wizzard all of whirlworlds. Now are all tombed to the mound, isges to isges, erde from erde.

-- Joyce, Finnegans Wake, from the dialogue of Jute and Mutt


(In episode 4 of The Voyage of St. Brendan) Brendan, having had a ship built for him, finds the exceptionally large head of a dead man on the beach. Its forehead measures five feet across. When Brendan asks what kind of life he has led, the man’s head answers that he was a hundred feet tall and very strong. He was a heathen who waded through the sea to rob ships. This he did for a living. In a heavy storm which whipped up the waves to extreme heights he was drowned. Brendan offers to pray for the giant, and to beg God to revive him so that he may be baptized. Once that is done, the giant may even, if he lives to praise God, find forgiveness for his sins, and eventually ascend to paradise. The giant refuses; his is afraid that in his new life he might not be able to withstand the temptation of sin. What if he started robbing again? He would be a lot worse off then as, according to the giant, Christians are punished much more severely in hell than pagans. Moreover, the prospect of having to suffer the pain of death as second time frightens him. He wants to go back to his torments / poor companions in the place of darkness. He departs with Brendan’s best wishes. Brendan then proceeds on his way.

-- Clara Strijbosch, The Seafaring Saint


The Life of Colum Cille (Columba), written in Irish by Manus O'Donnell and written in 1532, contains the following episode:

"Once when Colum Cille was walking beside the river Boyne a human skull was brought to him. The size of the skull was much bigger than the skulls of the people of that time. Then his followers said to Colum Cille, "It is a pity we don't know whose skull this is, or the whereabouts of the soul that was in the body on which it was." Colum Cille answered, "I'm not leaving this place until I find this out from God for you."
"Then Colum Cille prayed earnestly to God for that to be revealed to him, and God heard that prayer so that the skull itself spoke to him. It said that it was the skull of Cormac mac Airt, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, king of Ireland, and an ancester to himself, for Colum Cille was tenth generation after Cormac. And the skull said that although his faith wasn't perfect, he had a certain amount of faith and, because of his keeping the truth and that as God knew that from his descendents would come Colum Cille who would pray for his soul, He had not damned him permanently, although it was in severe pain that he awaited these prayers.

"Then Colum Cillle picked up the skull and washed it honorably, and baptized and blessed it; then he buried it. And Colum Cille did not leave that place until he had said 30 masses for the soul of Cormac. And at the last of the masses, the angels of God appeared to Colum Cille, taking Cormac's soul with them to enjoy eternal glory through the prayers of Colum Cille."

- O'Donnell, The Life of Colum Cillle, transl. B. Lacey, Dublin 1998


After three days and nights Columba became curious to know how his follower had fared and ordered him dug up. The monks excavate the spot where Oran had been sacrificed, finally uncovering his face. Oran’s eyes pop open, and staring right at Columba he declares, "There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all." Horrified, the saint had Oran buried again at all haste, crying "Uir! Uir! air beul Odhrain" or "Earth, earth on Oran’s mouth!" (The saying "chaidh uir air suil Odhrain" or "Earth went over Oran’s eye" is still widely heard in the Highlands and Hebrides.

Despite the frightful encounter, Columba dedicated the monestary’s graveyard to Oran (Reilig Odhrain) and honored Oran’s sacrifice by saying that no man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran.


THE HEATHEN GIANT (Feb. 18, 2005)

The old nights lay like massive bones
scattered on the beach, the skull
like a split moon buried in the sand.
Sea-sounds through its occiput
are the voices of memory, faint
and ghastly as the depths I once
fell to find you in the darkest
beds of sweet abyss. He remembers
the feral heart of old, icy and
on fire for plunder, parting thighs
with blue gusto & launching his
dragon ship there with the pith
and pitch of awfulness,
rowing voices crowing one pent
dragon seethe. Eye-sockets big
as church-doors retain the marrow
of those nights, their dark abcessa
still lucent, even lewd, harrows which
invite the next arriving saint to
find a heaven wide enough to
revive and save a soul so massive,
old and hungry. But he will not
rise again, not for all the pearly
virginettes bent in heaven’s
puffy marge. Wholly dark now, he
strides between this beach and
those dark nights, sporting
in a sea of finned and ghostly
salt delights, unrepentant
as my backwards glance which
call his life and ways both holy.
I appoint that house of bleached
ribs apt chapel of the wilder
half of my heart and God’s and
yours, you who would embrace
the seven seas to slake
your womb’s blue belling need.


THE TOLLUND MAN (Seamus Heaney)

Some day I will go to Aarhus
To see his peat-brown head,
The mild pods of his eye-lids,
His pointed skin cap.
In the flat country near by
Where they dug him out,
His last gruel of winter seeds
Caked in his stomach,
Naked except for
The cap, noose and girdle,
I will stand a long time.
Bridegroom to the goddess,
She tightened her torc on him
And opened her fen,
Those dark juices working
Him to a saint's kept body,
Trove of the turfcutters'
Honeycombed workings.
Now his stained face
Reposes at Aarhus.


I could risk blasphemy,
Consecrate the cauldron bog
Our holy ground and pray
Him to make germinate
The scattered, ambushed
Flesh of labourers,
Stockinged corpses
Laid out in the farmyards,
Tell-tale skin and teeth
Flecking the sleepers
Of four young brothers, trailed
For miles along the lines.


Something of his sad freedom
As he rode the tumbril
Should come to me, driving,
Saying the names
Tollund, Grauballe, Nebelgard,
Watching the pointing hands
Of country people,
Not knowing their tongue.
Out here in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel lost,
Unhappy and at home.



From “A Breviary of Guitars”

The energies call
and caul and cowl
and cull us
beyond our every
pale imagining:
Just when we
think we know
how to master
‘em, a different
flame rises up
to scorch us
in the ass,
hissing that
heaven is not
as commonly
supposed nor
hell as imagined:
Poison physic
returns to scotch
its maker: Hooch
unmade me for
sure, it drank
my rock ambitions
down to the
dregs: Sure it
kept me loose,
the eyes must
be lidded to
perceive the
thrall of dark
desires, equiporpoise
in winnowing
waves & parting
willing thighs:
You had to
be half-looped
to fly rather
than fall:
But a drink
never made me
a better guitar
player: And
neither did a
guitar make me
any better lover:
The energies
are savage
cunning and
patient: When
my every ambition
wrecked out
on the alcoholic
reef there was
nothing to do
but put the
plug in the jug
& chuck my
guitar down into
the pit where
all my loves
were buried too:
Eight years of
AA rebuilding the
ruin of a life
or maybe starting
the first one
for the first time:
Jung’s formula
for beating the
bottle is simple:
spiritus contra
“it takes spirit
to counter spirits:”
The living you
see cannot endure
the full gale of
energies which
call us beyond:
Our survival
requires us to
harness ‘em with
oblique forces,
Rein in the
hot horses of
spiritus with the
cool slake
of spiritus:
Addition is
false veneration,
worship of
whatever we
wish our gods
promise: Cure
consists then
in surrendering
to the terrible
truth that our
gods are not
the way we think
they are at all:
Not that eternal
glow between
the second and third
Scotch: Not
a prolonged orgasm
water & wild
between her
perfect parted
thighs caressed
by venereal
ululations of
my name: Not
more passionate
singing over
some irredeemable
suburban abyss:
Try to drink
your fill of
these things believing
this time
it will all come
true: The energies
will batten
on these dreams
like maggots:
No: The only
hope in
surviving immortal
desire is to
sacrifice that
passionate singing
to another song,
another spirit:
change the
lucre, invert
the worlds: It
was almost a girl /
who, stepping away
from / the single
harmony of song
and lyre, / appeared
to me through
her / diaphanous
form / and made
herself a bed
inside my ear

sings Rilke in
Sonnets to
Almost a girl:
Almost rock
and roll: Almost
a bottle:
bears imp and
angel faces which
both lead us down
the primrose path
to hell: The song
wants me to
believe with all
my might that it’s
a girl, almost:
And it’s all
too human
to build
cathedrals round
the first part
of the phrase
& bury
the second:
Wallace Stevens
transcends the
old-time religion
when he writes,
the poem must
resist the
intelligence /
almost successfully:

“Almost” is the
vault where in
lie the dead’s
final, forever
saved up, forever
hidden, unknown
to us, eternal
valid coins of
again, this time
his Fifth Elegy):
Almost is the
dragon of
metaphor loosed
from the foundations
of certainty:
A threshold
which restrains
us from our
godlike addictive
falls: Allen
Greenspan criticized
the market’s
exuberance” 2
years ago
which just
seemed to goad
the new market
mavens on: Stock
money is the
coke of the Oh
Ohs, promising
fantastic boundless
unstoppable returns:
Even last week
when there was
a whopping selloff
the investors
returned with
a vengeance
gaining it all back:
in nature is
a tyranny

(“Macbeth”) Ask
any addict:
is bull territory:
Alas! How hard
we’ll fall before
we accept that
money is almost
but never never
never ever enough:
Some day we’ll
hurl into the
pit our stock
options & margin
calls & Rolexes
& brokers: Clean
& sober & broke,
perhaps for the
rest of our lives
our generation:
Though at the
window we’ll
always see her
dancing so
beautiful & pure,
weaving gold round
her every curve
and curl:


VOYAGER (Feb. 2004)

we voyage.
The second singer
lifts wings to sail
to blue horizons
rid of this hooved
anchor that holds
me here. Rain and more
rain this morning,
cold and riveting the
hard talk between my
wife and I last night
in drear punctuation.
O how far yet we must
go before any real billows
spread for me in
her real arms. So I
get back to work here
reminded infernally
that all work is suspect.
But this Oran the
second archon obeys
the master builder
and goes down anyway
beneath the stone
floor of all abbeys,
singing his way down
through the cracks
in the ocean’s basalt
text. He falls so this flies.
Ornate capitals writhe
in Kells to the samba
of that finalizing sigh.
And seeks the words
behind the words
which dot the marges.
He sails toward the sea
god who can never
be shared or shored.
This home I live in
is the best I will ever have
and I intend to stay
on long with her
finding the actual
difficult and always
imperfect garden the
mortals call love. And
perhaps only because
my heart remains
does he find harbor
loose enough to
launch these boats
of longing with their
wordy sails. Send the news,
O traveller, on and down.
Harrow this life on
dry land with the salty
wave-smash of the voyage.
I may never set foot
on the Iona you dream;
love bid me duration
here instead. Be my
long back inward
down-imploring glance
where I’ll never quite
find her, nor should.



Each poem is a skull
hauled up from a well
of words and their
ripe fury, eye-holes
dazzling dark, teeth
like castanets.

The voices I hear
in them is
an orchestral
in disarray,
oboes of woe,
fluting fair days,
gravid soul-cellos
What to do with
all these skulls?
Set ‘em in the arches
of some viaduct
gone dry? Or arrange
them like a
ghoul’s xylophone?

Far kinder to
to loose each one
back into the well’s
back maw having
spoken it’s peice.

Here’s another skull
up from cold hell,
fished from the waters
of an ancient tongue:

Oracle and bless
that moment we shore
where night and this
waking cusp and
break, and roar.



Lave a whale a while
in a whillbarrow ... to
have fins and flippers
that shimmy and shake.
— Joyce, Finnegans Wake

You say you egressed
here through the best
poems, but rather
you’ve sunk here
reaching for the
starlingest gleam
of stellarmost truth.

Your best descends
like a fat Bismarck
three miles down
to a cold grave.
It fails even to
fin that chill absence
at the bottom of the blue.

But what did you expect,
singing there on the
beach? Did you think
she could actually
return to you there,
stepping from some wave?

All that’s just a door
into this salt cellar
of dark savagery.
From her narrow waist
these whale roads where
the music of what falls
is what her smile calls.


The Weird of the Gods (2003)

Poets are in the beginning
hypotheses, in the middle
facts, and in the end values.

-- Randall Jarrell

Each of us
completes our history
and History’s.

Or tries to.

There was a time
when the river
in springtime
was such a wild flow,
bursting over
the falls the way
I wanted to collapse
inside a woman’s
embrace. I played
guitar that way too,
trying to loose
all the horses inside
a loud song. Instead
it was I who was
trampled, a suburban
door ripped from
the floor.

Then I learned
to forget such passionate
music -- learned.
I turned into that
votive who buries his
old self in the
foundations of its tale,
reading about songs
& entering the hard
world of pedigrees
& senex greed
& slow publication.

Or tried to. But by
the time I got there
the learned music
had blown through
and was gone,
leaving stone viaducts
in the words
to arch emptiness
and gall and
endless sand.

Truly there was
nothing left for me
to do but retrace
my steps through a
back door and down
cold rotting steps
until I found the stone
which covered this well
and pried it loose.

First my old head
floated up (I stacked it
here), then his totem,
a naked man riding
a feral fish (I loosed
them here). Soon
the others rose
in a raw torrent,
giants and dwarves,
the dog Garma
the wolf Fenris, even
the Midgard Serpent
(he stretched the
length of a 5000
page poem).

O how the sea
rose up through that
hole, a sea of seas,
up to devour every
trace of the scholar
I once was: Every
trace of that bone
was soon lost inside
a raging and
ripening foam.

And now this
third song, risen
from that river
and the cathedrals
that it mortared
and then fled.
My mouth now is
flung wide like some
Leviathan’s maw,
spilling the oldest
treasures inside
a raw but sacred brine.

Now I must forget
all that I learned,
or make of it some
onward, inward thing
-- A dashed heaven
far beneath the sea
where my blue
familiars sing.

Watch my hand
now cross the page
-- A Ouiji boat which
shores on runes
in Neolithic caves
and writes of a rage:
Counting the fangs,
ferrying the staves
of the darkest tunes.


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