Diagnostic test of certain hypotheses about the Old Norse worldview, with the able assistance of Dr. Williams

“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty / when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”

And so I’ve been tracing threads through books and on the web, through bad translations and worse. Weighing the scholar’s no-more-than against the modern enthusiast’s no-less-than. The Christian clerics who wrote down virtually everything we know about pagan thought were already unthinking it, whether they intended to or not. They wrote dom and thought legis – or apocalypse. They wrote Hel and thought of the rack for heretics, the fire for wizards and dissidents. But is it possible that the unwashed, drunken tribesmen of northern Europe, violent bastards as they were, knew a thing or two that we would do well to remember? Is it even possible to re-member it, or are we doomed to embroidery? Some say my ancestors believed something along these lines:

The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned / Memory is a kind / of accomplishment / a sort of renewal / even / an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places / inhabited by hordes / heretofore unrealized, / of new kinds – / since their movements / are towards new objectives / (even though formerly they were abandoned)

And yes, one could reach deep into the gone-before to learn about the apparent necessity of the just-now. But it isn’t gone, exactly – it is simply beyond alteration. And as such, it serves as a mirror for the could-be and the should-be.

My surface is myself. / Under which / to witness, youth is / buried. Roots? // Everybody has roots.

Mirror, mirror, I call you Weird. Urd. Wisest of the three sisters who guard the deepest of the three springs that water the roots of the ash tree Yggdrasil, sustainer of the worlds. Water still enough to reflect clearly but never stagnating, renewed continually from the ground and from the sky.

. . . grubbing the page / (the burning page) / like a worm – for enlightenment // Of which we drink and are drunk and in the end / are destroyed . . .

Old words from dead tongues: ORLAUG: “Personal destiny”? Not so immutable. “Well-being”? More portentious than that. NORN: “Goddesses of Fate”? Not goddesses. Not Fate. DISIR: “Guardian angels”? Not by a long shot. The word means women. And while they may be invisible, when they show themselves they are solid presences.

Who are these people (how complex / the mathematic) among whom I see myself / in the regularly ordered plateglass of / his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles? / They walk incommunicado, the / equation is beyond solution, yet / its sense is clear –

FYLGJA: “Fetch,” itself nearly an obsolete word. The one that follows. The double-which-may-be-animal-but-is-usually-woman. VALKYRJA, HAMINGJA: More supernatural women. Impossible now to sort out which were synonyms, which were regional variants, which were inherited from the ancestors (both male and female lines), which died with the death of their human charge, which accompanied it to which of multiple afterlife destinations. In the sagas, when a man meets a strange and beautiful woman who somehow reminds him of himself, that is the signal to turn fey (another nearly obsolete word). To go forward into death with eyes wide open.

Haunted by your beauty (I said), / exalted and not easily to be attained, the / whole scene is haunted: / Take off your clothes, / (I said) / Haunted, the quietness of your face / is a quietness, real . . .

But it is true, they fear / it more than death, beauty is feared / more than death, more than they fear death

The fetch is steadfast, but sometimes a bad man’s dis may work his doom. The disir are zealous for justice. According to one theory, they are Freya’s equivalent of the valkyries. But what about this doom? It seems it is not unalterable, it can be commuted in some circumstances. From the tapestry of Urd a seer or seeress can undo a few, critical threads.

Not prophesy! NOT prophesy! / but the thing itself!

Even Ragarnok, the doom of the Aesir, is a beginning as well as an ending. Fenrir is in some sense only

A tapestry hound / with his thread teeth drawing crimson from / the throat of the unicorn

What can we know? Snorri calls Odin the All-father, but he is flesh-and-blood, no Yahweh. He is a trickster, a shapeshifter, a supernatural being who is himself on a quest for wisdom. For poetry he turned into a serpent, slept with a giantess, risked his life. For the mead of poetry, which tells the truth through riddles and by rearranging the order of things.

. . . A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is . . .

Q. Aren’t we supposed to understand it?

A. There is a difference of [sic] poetry and the sense . . .

Q. But shouldn’t a word mean something when you see it?

A. In prose, an English word means what it says. In poetry, you’re listening to two things . . . you’re listening to the sense, the common sense of what it says. But it says more. that is the difficulty.

For wisdom one time he plucked out one of his eyes, and another time he sacrificed his whole body, hung himself from one of the limbs of Yggdrasil and later returned to life, less like Jesus than a magician who, instead of a rabbit, pulls himself out of his hat.

The (self) direction has been changed / the serpent / its tail in its mouth / “the river has returned to its beginnings”/ . . . the all-wise serpent

Odin too has his fylgjur, the twin ravens named Thought and Memory. Every morning they fly all over the earth gathering news: like the raven of Moses, except that they return each evening to give a report, like the Biblical dove.

A voice calling in the hubbub (Why else / are there newspapers, by the cart-load?) blaring / the news no wit shall evade, no rhyme / cover. Necessity gripping the words . scouting / evasion, that love is begrimed, befouled . / . . . begrimed / yet lifts its head, having suffered a sea-change! / shorn of its eyes and its hair / its teeth kicked out . a bitter submersion / in darkness . a gelding not to be / listed . to be made ready! fit to/ serve . . .

Enlightenment is never final. Nothing is ever final, over, finished for good. Instead, renewal and a return to wholeness through a weird undoing:

The descent / made up of despairs / and without accomplishment / realizes a new awakening : / which is a reversal / of despair. // For what we cannot accomplish, what / is denied to love, / what we have lost in the anticipation – / a descent follows, endless and indestructible .
__________

All quotes are from William Carlos Williams, Paterson (New Directions, 1963), itself a montage of quotes, a tribute to the burning library of the mind as much as to the river and the falls and the many-voiced hypostasis called Paterson, NJ.

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