Dooryard Eurydices

As daylight lengthens, dawn and dusk grow briefer. I’m already in mourning for their gradual demise. That’s what I like best about winter: these long dawns, slow to the point of luxuriousness – though I suppose it seems odd to use that word about such a frozen season. Days like today, when I sleep in until 5:30, I’m not out on my porch until a quarter to 6:00, by which time it’s tempting to linger long past the time when the coffee in my thermos mug begins to cool. (This is about as sybaritic as it gets for me, folks.) I especially like those minutes right before the sun comes up, when the trees are silhouetted against the clear eastern sky, which has progressed from black through indigo through lighter and lighter shades of blue until it appears almost white. The trees’ bare branches are outlined down to the smallest twig, the superimposed crowns creating (from my perspective) an intricate filigree, black on white. Unaccountably, I am in put in mind of graceful models lounging about in lingerie . . .

And it’s usually around this time of year that the northern cardinals add their voices to the still-rudimentary dawn chorus. They start tuning up in late January, but it’s not until mid-February that their contributions become a regular thing, triggered by the lengthening photoperiod. Theirs is not one of more spectacular bird calls, but there’s something cheerful and spring-like about it, and I guess I’m just happy for anything to listen to besides the supremely monotonous peter-peter-peter of the tufted titmouse. To my ear, most of the time what the cardinal is singing sounds like Purty purty purty. Peterson says: “Voice: Song, clear slurred whistles, lowering in pitch. Several variations: what-cheer cheer cheer, etc.; whoit whoit whoit or birdy birdy birdy, etc. Note, a short thin chip.” I believe I have heard all three variations, but I wonder – how can a whistle be simultaneously “clear” and “slurred”?

Despite its common name, the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) ranges from southern Ontario down to Central America. In fact, its expansion north out of Dixie dates only to the 20th century. It is the quintessential dooryard bird, denizen of brushy and edge habitats, and since it doesn’t migrate one gets to see it in all seasons. Both male and female cardinals are spectacular against the snow; I am especially fond of the female’s more muted tones. No fresh snowfall, no matter how gingerbread-y, seems complete until I have spotted both cardinals. Then, pure magic!

Evidently, at least some American Indians accorded the cardinal a prominent role in their sacred stories. According to John Bierhorst (the Mythology of North America, Oxford, 2002), “In an unusual Orpheus myth recorded among the Cherokee, the people of the ancient time are said to have tried to kill the sun because her rays were too hot. By mistake her daughter was killed instead, and the grief-stricken sun stayed in her house, causing darkness. In hopes of restoring the light, people traveled to the dead land and started carrying the daughter back in a box, not to be opened until they reached home. But before the time was up, they gave in to the young woman’s plea for air, opened the box, and watched her fly off as a cardinal. From this we know that the cardinal is the daughter of the sun. And if the people had obeyed instructions, there would be no permanent death, as there is now.”

James Mooney’s compendium, “Myths of the Cherokee,” published in the Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology in 1900, is available online at the Sacred Text Archive. Here’s the complete myth, Daughter of the Sun. This is a fun story, and very southern: it’s full of snakes and haints and the Little People, and the Sun is a total bitch – kind of a homicidal Scarlett O’Hara. There’s even a horned devil-type dude, and one can see the Native origins of the snake-handling cults: “Since then we pray to the rattlesnake and do not kill him, because he is kind and never tries to bite if we do not disturb him.”

According to Mooney, the Cherokees hear the cardinal’s song as kwish kwish kwish!

Update: A visit to the Encyclopedia Mythica confirmed my nagging suspicion that my original title, “Dooryard Persephones,” was in error. Orpheus’ babe was Eurydice. Interestingly, the parallel with the Cherokee myth extends as far as cause of death: Eurydice, too, was killed by a snakebite.

Blue devils and the legend of Robert Johnson

1. A shady connection

Barely in time for Black History Month, I want to correct a few common misconceptions about Robert Johnson and his supposed pact with the devil.

I hope no one will be too shocked by the news that the 1988 movie Crossroads is a wildly inaccurate guide to the life and death of the historical (as opposed to the mythic) Robert Johnson. For example, in the movie, Willie Brown is a harmonica player, still living in the 1980s. In real life, Willie Brown was an older mentor to Johnson, one of the three or four greatest bottleneck guitarists of the first generation of Delta bluesmen to make it onto record. He died in 1952.

Johnson was far from the only ambitious bluesman of the 20s and 30s to exploit the bad man image, including the European-derived myth of the pact with the devil. According to the recollections of people who knew him, Johnson lived up to the image, constantly fighting and womanizing and using several aliases to keep ahead of the law. But neither “Cross Road Blues” nor “Me and the Devil Blues” were among his signature songs. None of his friends, former flames or traveling companions who were interviewed by blues fans from the 1960s on had ever heard about a pact with the devil.

The connection between the figure of the devil in southern Afro-American folklore and the Yoruba/Dohomean deity Legba is probably valid. But outside of places like New Orleans and the Georgia Sea Islands, explicitly African elements of hoodoo are submerged in a thoroughly Christian milieu. It would be much more accurate to say that a bluesman like Johnson was living out the Christian archetype of the Prodigal Son than to maintain that he was some kind of underground practitioner of an alternate faith. That is to say, he might have been anti-Christian at times, but he wasn’t non-Christian.

Johnson died too young to go through the complete cycle, but many of his contemporaries (Son House, Skip James, Ishmon Bracey, etc.) periodically swung between the two poles of blues singer/sinner and sanctified Christian. The lyrics to Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” are powerful precisely because they exploit this tension and ambiguity. The narrator begins,

I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees,
I went to the cross road,
fell down on my knees.
Asked the Lord above “Have mercy,
Save poor Bob, if you please.”

So the cross road initially appears to be a Christian image. The strongest echo is of a revival service, with the narrator as a sinner repenting and seeking grace. In the following verse, Johnson seems to echo the parable about the man fallen by the wayside, waiting for a Good Samaritan who never comes:

Mmmm, standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Standin’ at the cross road,
I tried to flag a ride.
Didn’t nobody seemed to know me,
everybody passed me by.

Only in the third verse do we catch a note of premonition, but longing for love and/or worry about where the narrator will sleep overshadows it.

Mmm sun goin’ down boy,
dark gon’ catch me here.
Oooo ooee eeee,
boy, dark gonna catch me here.
Ain’t got no lovin’ sweet woman that, love and feel my care.

And then (given the severe time constraints occasioned by 1930s record-cutting techniques) we’re already at the last verse. Johnson seems more interested in reminding his listeners of his relationship to the famous Willie Brown than in suggesting any supernatural partnership:

You can run you can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown.
You can run,
tell my friend, boy, Willie Brown,
Lord that I’m standin’ at the cross road baby,
I believe I’m sinkin’ down.

2. Singing in tongues

So where did the Robert Johnson-crossroads myth come from? Over-enthusiastic blues scholars, steeped in West African mythology (where the crossroads is indeed a potent symbol) simply invented it in the 1960s. According to blues scholar Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chasin’ That Devil Music, Miller Freeman Books, 1998), it was Pete Welding who, in 1966, first proposed a “selling his soul” interpretation to the song “Cross Road Blues” in an article in Down Beat. I confess I haven’t seen that article, but I do resent the oft-encountered implication that blues songs were primarily autobiographical. Some were, but many were not. I’m bothered by what I see as a persistent unwillingness to accept blues artists as fully creative lyricists who were capable of adopting alternate personas. In fact, their lyrical creativity is well documented: as in modern rap, the ability to extemporize was highly prized. Further, most blues singers employed a variety of dramatic techniques, including alternating voices and dramatic monologues; an authentic blues song is worlds away from the purely personal mode of a contemporary singer-songwriter. We know from an interview with the musician, for example, that Bukka White’s first-person “Fixin’ to Die Blues” was written in the “expected voice” of an alcoholic he once knew.

“In the 1975 book Mystery Train,” Wardlow continues, “Greil Marcus ‘symbolically’ implied Johnson mastered the guitar because of his alleged pact with the devil . . . In 1982, Peter Guralnik added the Ledell Johnson story of Tommy [Johnson] ‘selling his soul’ at midnight at a Delta crossroad.” Tommy Johnson – no relation to Robert – was another master bottleneck guitarist with a decidedly more desperate tone to his lyrics. He also died young, but not under such mysterious circumstances as Robert did: he fell victim to the blue devils of “Canned Heat” (i.e. sterno) and “Alcohol and Jake” – the titles of two of his songs which, according to his contemporaries, did indeed draw heavily on his own circumstances. (See below for more on the blue devils.) Thus it was Tommy – not Robert – Johnson who was portrayed in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? as having made a pact with the devil.

The only Robert Johnson song to explicitly elaborate upon a connection with the devil is “Me and the Devil Blues.” Though again, some ambiguity remains: is it Satan himself, or is the narrator simply saying his woman is the devil in disguise?

Early this mornin’
when you knocked upon my door.
Early this mornin’, ooh
when you knocked upon my door.
And I said, “Hello, Satan,
I believe it’s time to go.”

But in the second verse, the narrator owns up and admits that it is he who is bedeviled, and he who bedevils others:

Me and the Devil
was walkin’ side by side.
Me and the Devil, ooh
was walkin’ side by side.
And I’m goin’ to beat my woman
until I get satisfied.

While the listener is still recovering from the shock of that boast, Johnson shifts gears. The narrator has the woman speaking up – and psychoanalyzing him. She says he suffers a compulsion he hasn’t come to grips with; he protests that she’s to blame. It’s not clear which of them decides to blame the devil. By the end of the song, the narrator is defiantly proclaiming his own devilish identity. The segue to the last verse exemplifies the “linked verse” technique of blues composition at its best.

She say you don’t see why
that you will dog me ’round.
[spoken:] Now, babe, you know you ain’t doin’ me
right, don’cha?
She say you don’t see why, ooh
that you will dog me ’round.
It must-a be that old evil spirit
so deep down in the ground.

You may bury my body
down by the highway side.
[spoken:] Baby, I don’t care where you bury my
body when I’m dead and gone.
You may bury my body, ooh
down by the highway side.
So my old evil spirit
can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.

It probably go without saying, but the deity Legba is neither evil, nor is he associated with an afterlife destination “deep down in the ground.” This is as Christian a song as anything Black Sabbath ever wrote.

3. Blues as spiritual ju-jitsu

Another Robert Johnson song, “Hellhounds On My Trail,” partakes much less of specifically religious imagery than it may appear to. The eponymous hounds were actually intended to evoke the police and their bloodhounds, according to Wardlow, who traces the verse to a record by an obscure East Texas bluesman. Given the widespread use of bloodhounds during slavery, when church songs often contained coded messages about the Underground Railroad, it’s hard not to hear some echo of an otherwise lost spiritual here.

Diverse roots (or as the philosopher Giles Deleuze would say, multiple rhizomes) are at work here. A modern listener might need reminding that in Johnson’s world the police were anything but enforcers of justice. Instead, they represented an oppressive and brutal system designed to thwart the ambitions and crush the spirits of African Americans. The word “blues” is Anglo in origin, dating from the late 19th century. Its original usage denoted the blue devils that are said to appear to an alcoholic going through delirium tremens. It would not have escaped the attention of African Americans that the police in their blue uniforms were the most visible counterpart to the now-generalized inner torments known as the blues. I can think of a couple lyrics offhand that come close to spelling this out: Bessie Smith’s “In the House Blues,” and the barrelhouse standard known usually as “Vicksburg Blues,” which Howlin’ Wolf turned into “.45 Blues” (with the reference to policemen judiciously removed). But doubtless there are many more.

People on both sides of the sinner-sanctified divide would have agreed about the absolute necessity of spiritual resistance to this internal and external oppression. In fact, what really distinguished the ‘sinners’ was their insistence on individualism and self-expression, as opposed to the collective, communitarian spirit of the black churches. Although it might be a bit of a stretch to say that bluesmen and women were revolting against the accomodationist stance of the churches, explicit, satirical critiques of church people are not hard to find in the recorded blues. Blues singers tended to stereotype preachers as charlatans, only interested in a free meal ticket and easy access to women. Of course, bluesmen often portrayed themselves as rakes and scoundrels too, but the subtext of the many “Preaching Blues” songs is, “at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

Robert Johnson’s own “Preaching Blues,” subtitled “Up Jumped the Devil,” is a fascinating exception to this pattern. More than that, it is a masterpiece, musically as well as lyrically. In it, Johnson suggests a fusion of church and blues through words that, for me, come closer to true Hoodoo Man conjuring than anything else he recorded. The preacher is evoked through Johnson’s style of vocal delivery alone, and the Devil is nothing but the blues personified: a malevolent force that only a visit to the distillery can exorcise.

Mmmmm mmmmm,
I’s up this mornin’,
a blues walkin’ like a man.
I’s up this mornin’
a blues walkin’ like a man.
Worried blues,
give me your right hand.

And the blues fell mama’s child
tore him all upside down.
Blues fell mama’s child
and it tore me all upside down.
Travel on poor Bob,
just cain’t turn you ’round.

The blu-u-u-u-ues
is a low-down, shakin’ chill.
[spoken:] Yes, preach ’em now.
Mmmmm mmmmm,
is a low-down shakin’ chill.
You ain’t never had ’em, I,
I hope you never will.

Well, the blu-ues
is a achin’ old heart disease.
[spoken:] Do it now. You gon’ do it? Tell me about it.
Well the blu-ues
is a low-down achin’ heart disease.
Like consumption,
killing me by degrees.

I been stuttering, oh, oh drive,
oh, oh, drive my blues –
I been stuttering,
I’m ‘onna drive my blues away.
Goin’ to the ‘stil’ry.
Stay out there all day.

4. Real devils, real contests

All too many white blues fans appear deaf to the racial subtext of blues music. They literally don’t want to hear about it: the blues is good time party music, they say. It’s for everybody, regardless of race.

Well, yes. And it is also potent medicine of the homeopathic variety, as countless blues artists have testified. But if the classic country blues songs seem deep and eerie beyond words, it is because they represent a passionate attempt to escape the devils of poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, alienation and hopelessness. A consideration of the specific social and cultural matrices from which the music emerged should not diminish its universal appeal.

The immense, inland delta formed by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers has been called “the most southern place on earth.” It is a thoroughly domesticated landscape, a sea of perfectly flat cotton fields stretching from horizon to horizon, interrupted only by mosquito-ridden streams and backwaters. Its floodplain soil is hundreds of feet deep: rich black earth with nary a stone. As so often in the Third World, great natural wealth has permitted the growth of a powerful and vindictive elite who traditionally possessed no sense of responsibility toward land or people. Why conserve? The river and soil will last forever.

Thus, violence or the threat of violence against black sharecroppers was intense and pervasive throughout the period when the greatest bluesmen and women were getting on record. In this climate, explicit references to racism were off-limits, at least in the recording studio. But the desire to escape is palpable in songs like Johnson’s “Walking Blues” and “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and songs about guns (“32-20 Blues”) fairly crackle with electricity. I personally find these sorts of themes far more challenging to contemplate than the sadly diminished echoes of African religion.

Robert Johnson was a brilliant guitarist, and yes, he mastered the instrument quite quickly. But there seems to have been no shortage of musical geniuses in the Delta region in the first four decades of the 20th century. Johnson’s stature among modern-day, white blues fans seems to derive as much from the myth as from the songs. In the case of the latter, Johnson was lucky to have been remarkably well recorded, and to have found many posthumous fans among top-selling rock musicians who covered his songs. In real life, Johnson is said to have had a relatively weak voice, but you don’t hear that on the record. The poor quality of surviving sides by greats like Charley Patton and Willie Brown militates against their ever achieving even the limited form of mainstream popularity accorded to Robert Johnson.

For hard-core country blues fans like me, Johnson doesn’t hold a candle to fellow-Delta natives Son House and Johnny Shines. These men didn’t have the sense to play up the bad man image and to die young, and thus will remain forever unpalatable to the youth culture that grew up with rock ‘n’ roll. But House, Shines and others who managed to live to a ripe old age had the satisfaction of enjoying what those who died young never could: escape. Not only from the daily humiliations of Jim Crow-era apartheid, but even from the bipolar disorder that was African American society under Jim Crow.

The first- and second-generation bluesmen and women who survived into the 1970s and beyond may never have earned have earned great wealth, but they did at least get the satisfaction of mentoring and playing to fanatically respectful audiences of mostly white people. They got their dignity back, and with it, I would guess, experienced the confirmation of their individualistic ethos. The choice between church and blues became less stark, less black-and-white. If the recorded statements and relatively tranquil later lives of the majority of the “elder statesmen of the blues” are any guide, in the last decades of the 20th century blues artists no longer felt themselves to be stranded at a lonely crossroads, forced to choose between go-along-to-get-along and self-destructive defiance. Unlike Willie Brown, Charley Patton, and Tommy and Robert Johnson, they were able finally to beat the devil at his own game.

Note: transcriptions have been modified from those that appear on-line at The Robert Johnson Notebooks, which gives little hint about the extent of scholarly disagreement about some of these lyrics. The “stuttering” interpretation of verse 5 of “Preaching Blues” is my own, but it seems to fit the song’s dis-ease imagery. The website’s interpretation, “I’ve been studyin’ the rain” is extremely far-fetched, in my opinion.

Questioning the pornography of violence

Commonbeauty has a fairly trenchant analysis of The Movie. “As a continuing sign of our impoverished public discourse, there is a silly debate about whether or not the film is ‘anti-semitic.’

“Well, as the kids would say, duh!

“It’s based on the gospels, isn’t it? I have an intimate familiarity with those texts, and I can tell you, they’re not exactly pro-Jew.”

A little farther along: “This film isn’t primarily about ‘God’ or about ‘accuracy’ or about any of the other trite formulations Christians around me (there are a few!) have been spouting. This film is about the power of the camera, the ability of soft-lighting, precious sound design and fake blood to reduce America’s suburban evangelicals to a giant heap of fanatical sobs and thoughtless sighs. It is a work of pornographic fidelity to dangerous and outdated ideas: blood sacrifice, collective guilt and the redemptive power of torture.

“It is no less than this nation deserves, really, that defines its reality either according to what is projected on the lit screen of the movie theatres or what trails across the lit skies of the theatres of war.”

I dropped some comments in the box as is my wont whenever ol’ CB goes on a truly righteous rant. I am particularly interested in his final statement, about our definitions of reality.

It’s true, NPR interviewed folks as they came out of the theatres. The most frequent comment was about how “realistic” it was. Even the people who labeled themselves as non-Christians were impressed by that. But what is so realistic about making a fifteen-minute whipping alluring enough to watch? In real life, most of us – the 95% who are not clinically psychopathic – wouldn’t be able to watch for a fraction of that time.

I don’t want to sound dense here, but what is it about violence that says ‘realism’ to so many people? Or should I be asking, what is it about people’s perceptions of reality that makes them look for it in extreme violence rather than among the thousand odd, beautiful, serendipitous and inscrutable moments, the acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that make our day-to-day lives worth living?

Could it stem perhaps from the modern cult of honesty, which demands that every ornamentation and decoration, every narrative flourish or poetic touch, every mask and costume, even (ideally) the skin itself be stripped away? It reverberates through proverb and cliche: “Bred in the bone.” “Beauty is only skin deep.” “That’s the way I really am, this is how I really feel.” The same cultural predilection that leads us to scorn the civilized art of rhetoric in favor of cant and sound bite and redneck anti-intellectualism. The same naivete that leads us to feel we can ignore the customs and mores of other cultures – and persuades us that the stark language of guns and bombs is all we need to change minds. The same blindness that keeps so many Americans (and Australians, I gather) from discovering an elemental social fact: that the hoary gestures of hospitality and respect, still practiced in places like Iraq and Old Europe, have a purpose, and that that purpose is to humanize. Reality isn’t just there, a given thing, raw matter. We shape it; we embellish, we embroider it. Some, mindful of transcendence, would say: we co-create it.

I’ll leave for sharper minds questions about the role of Hollywood and market forces and pop culture and imperialism. What seems clear to me is that Gibson – and millions of Christians like him – commit a grave error if they think the testimony of the emotions is sufficient. Would you discount the critical and creative faculties in deference to some literal interpretation? An old proverb about hiding a light under a bushel comes to mind. “Literal truth” is an oxymoron; reductionism leads to nihilism and brutality. So-called faith in the literal truth strikes me as little more than the blind worship of power. If you are religious, you might choose to look at it like this: God gave us imaginations for a reason. We need to combine the ancient Jewish teaching Love Thy Neighbor with the ancient maxim of Delphi: Know Thyself.

Know thy neighbor, love thyself.

Or something like that.


Deep hanging out

I got a letter from my friend Chris in Africa last week. He retired, sold his house in D.C. at the end of December and moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with his girlfriend, who started work with a major NGO there in January. Her work takes her all over the continent and Chris gets to tag along, lucky dog!

Chris spends most of his time drinking beer and visiting breweries, but his excuse is it’s all research for a book – the same justification Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner has been using for his peregrinations. Chris’s book will explain How Microbrewing Will Save the Earth by fostering local economies, creating “public space,” encouraging attention to high-quality, organic ingredients, and the like. He refers to this as “fermenting revolution.”

So in January he was in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, just in time for the biannual Pan-African Film Festival. In addition to a thriving film industry, Burkina apparently has “a solid brewing tradition,” Chris writes. As luck would have it, one of his girlfriend’s colleagues there was “well connected to one of Ouga’s biggest traditional brewsters. I spent a couple days in her ‘factory’ observing, taking notes and digital photos. The beer itself was, when fresh, quite drinkable of course. The only ingredient was red sorghum, plus yeast cakes to get it all fermenting.” (I’m not sure just what a beer would have to taste like NOT to be drinkable in Chris’ view, however.)

Then in Mali the next week he ran into an old acquaintance from D.C. More serendipity: the guy was working on his anthropology PhD in a nearby village, where he was able to set up a demonstration of local millet beer production for Chris to “research.” In a subsequent e-mail to family and friends Chris included a snapshot: “A little village in Mali called Kaniko. The woman in the background is a brewer, feeding her baby some nutritious beer.” (An excellent source of B vitamins and amino acids, I trust.)

But indigenous flavors weren’t the only option; Bamako (Mali’s capital), for example, boasts a Belgian beer bar. I’ve never managed to develop a taste for it, but I gather that, for serious beer afficionados like Chris, the Belgians make the dopest brew on the planet.

Meanwhile, back in Addis, Chris is – as I post this – drinking for free in honor of my recent birthday. Or so he just e-mailed to say. I had told him he’d have to drink for both of us; I fell out of the habit when I started this blog.

I’ve been encouraging him to start a travelblogue if he can. But on the other hand, I also advised him to enjoy his early retirement (he’s around 33, I think) and save all his energies for drinking.

I think it was the anthropologist Clifford Geertz who described his work as “deep hanging out.” That might be an apt description for the sort of research Tom and Chris are engaged in, as well. And why not? After all, most minor and many serious medical conditions are linked to an excess of tension. Ambition kills! Goofing off is more than a just a lifestyle choice – for many of us, it is a way of life.

If the evidence of modern ethnography is any guide, our hunter-gatherer ancestors “worked” an average of only four hours a day. Be that as it may, subsistence-related activities in most societies are not approached with the kind of grim, Protestant, no-pain-no-gain determination that all too many Anglo- (or German-) Americans seem to feel is a direct index of moral virtue.

So Happy Friday, y’all. Be sure to goof off as creatively as possible this afternoon. And this evening, drink a toast to my friend Chris over there in Africa. For the health of the planet!

Clifton again

what spells raccoon to me
spells more than just his
bandit’s eyes
squinting as his furry woman
hunkers down among the fists
of berries.
oh coon
which gave my grandfather a name
and fed his wife on more than one
i can no more change my references
than they can theirs.

Lucille Clifton, Next (BOA, 1987)

Who has ears to hear

“D nt d uttrth spch; nght nt nght shwth knwldg.” Wht ds t mn tht th Hbrw Bbl ws wrttn sll wth cnsnnts? Wrld wtht vwls – r wrld ncmmnsrbl wth th txt? “Hr, Srl!” Mr thn mr pzzl. Th lgnc f t. Th (nvtbl wrd!) grc.

Hv th vwls trl gn mssng, r wr th cnscsl xcldd? Nd f xcldd, cld t b bcs th prtk f th thr-ntr f wmn? Mss t Sn: “B rd gnst th thrd d: cm nt t yr wvs.” Bcs th dvn prsns – th Shkhnh – cnnt tlrt cmpttn? Fr th Wrd tslf s rrdmbl fml.

T prnnc s t sprt; t sprt s t nsprt nd t dsprt. Yhwh tslf prhs rgnll nmtp: tk dp brth, Yh. Nw lt t t – slwl. Wh. Wht th dctr ss, cl nstrmnt prssd gnst r rbs.

“Day unto day uttereth speech; night unto night showeth knowledge.” What does it mean that the Hebrew Bible was written solely with consonants? World without vowels – or world incommensurable with the text? “Hear, O Israel!” More than mere puzzle. The elegance of it. The (inevitable word!) grace.

Have the vowels truly gone missing, or were they consciously excluded? And if excluded, could it be because they partake in some way of the other-nature of women? Moses at Sinai: “Be ready against the third day: come not at your wives.” Because the divine presence – the Shekhinah – cannot tolerate competition? For the Word itself is irredeemably female.

To pronounce is to aspirate; to aspirate is to inspirit and to dispirit. Yahweh itself originally onomatopoeia: take a deep breath, Yah. Now let it out – slowly. Weh. What the doctor says, cool instrument pressed against the ribs.


[from the vault]

Heeding the Call
. . . And after the fire a still small voice.
1 Kings 19:11-12

Sure–the ordinarily pious,
perhaps even the faint of heart
could’ve withstood the windstorm
& the earthquake & fire but
a voice of such utter thinness?
Like a circle of knives
unsheathed with
the barest
what a dodge to call it conscience
as if a smoothly functioning
digestive system were the whole
aim of religion (thus spoke
Nietzsche for example).
And as if such peptic talk would’ve
been proof against that great
movement of liquid vowels
that made the old partisan
of flint & brimstone
bury his face in his cloak.

Note: In the popular homiletic tradition of mainstream Protestantism, the “still, small voice” of Yahweh is attributed, instead, to Jimminy Cricket. (Awkward question: where was that voice of the modern conscience when, in the previous chapter of I Kings, Elijah directed the public slaughter of “450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah” with God’s blessing?)

“Faith is not a product of our will. It occurs without intention, without will. Words expire when uttered, and faith is like the silence that draws lovers near, like a breath that shares in the wind. . . .

“Polytheists are blind to the unity that transcends a world of multiplicity, while monists overlook the multiplicity of a world, the abundance and discord of which encounter us wherever we turn. Monism is a loom for weaving an illusion. Life is tangled, fierce, fickle. We cannot remain in agreement with all goals. We are constantly compelled to make a choice, and the choice of one goal means the forsaking of another. . . . God is one, but one is not God. . . . God means: Togetherness of all beings in holy otherness.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (Noonday Press/FSG, 1951)

Learning language, learning poetry

Metaphor is defined [by Aristotle] in terms of movement.
Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning in Language (Robert Czerny, trans., University of Toronto Press, 1984)

Yesterday’s fresh inch of snow and cold temperatures overnight gave everything a sparkle this morning as the sun rose into a cloudless sky. I remembered my niece Eva’s first use of metaphor at the age of 2 years, 9 months. She had just begun speaking semi-coherently the summer before, when she was in Honduras, and had a very limited vocabulary of mostly Spanish words. One night, during a prolonged Christmastime visit, her grandpa showed her the stars. She always accompanied him to the compost heap/wildlife feeding area after supper, taking out the scraps from the kitchen. It was an exceptionally clear night, and the stars were beautiful; Eva practiced saying “estrellas,” which tripped off her tongue with surprising fluency.

The next day dawned equally clear, and as Eva was riding on my shoulders up to her grandparents’ house for lunch, she surprised me by pointing at the ground and yelling, “Estrellas!” I looked. She was pointing, of course, at the sparkles in the snow.

I don’t suppose this sort of thing is too uncommon. It makes sense that facility with metaphors would be a normal part of language acquisition, since analogic or metaphorical definitions are common for many words (and are probably essential for abstract thinking; all of mathematics is based upon the ability to analogize, for example). Learning a new word involves figuring out the extent of its semantic coverage. In the case just described, was this really an example of the conscious use of metaphor? Perhaps, instead, it was simply an attempt to figure out whether “estrellas” meant solely “sparkly things in the sky,” or if it also included sparkly things elsewhere.

One way or the other, I would like to think that this kind of active, joyous measuring of the world through spoken language is fundamentally poetic. This is the argument Heidegger makes in his essay on a theme from Hölderlin, “‘…Poetically Man Dwells…'” To Heidegger, the comparison of sky with earth is an integral part of this measure-taking. “The upward glance spans the between of sky and earth.” It encompasses “everything that shimmers and blooms in the sky and thus under the sky and thus on earth, everything that sounds and is fragrant, rises and comes – but also everything that goes and stumbles, moans and falls silent, pales and darkens.” The poet does not merely describe such sights, but “calls … that which in its very self-disclosure causes the appearance of that which conceals itself, and indeed as that which conceals itself. In its familiar appearances, the poet calls the alien as that to which the invisible imparts itself in order to remain what it is – unknown.” (Albert Hofstadter, trans., Poetry, Language, Thought, Harper, 1971.) In other words, in her making-strange the poet merely testifies to the ultimate unknowability of everything language seeks to measure and describe.

I remember how fascinated Eva was with birds that year. It helped that her daddy was an ardent birdwatcher, I suppose. But more than that, I think birds appealed to her because they were small and quick, always in motion – just like she was. Her word for bird(s) was “Pio!” and she used it constantly – hardly a bird escaped her attention as we walked around the farm. One evening, we gave her a ballpoint pen and a pad of cheap paper and encouraged her to draw. She would put the pen on a blank page, move it rapidly in circling, sweeping strokes, turn the page and do it again. The pad quickly filled up with actionist creations that had little to do with representational sketching. After a while, one of us asked her what she was doing. “Pio!”

By sheer serendipity, one or two of them did end up looking like birds. I saved one that bore an uncanny resemblance to a resplendent quetzal. I wish I’d saved the whole pad.

This is not a test

I have always resented serious personality tests and laughed off the not-so-serious ones. Why would anyone want to put themselves in a box like that? And in the same vein I have been extremely intolerant of astrology.

So you can imagine my consternation upon discovering this description of my birth sign, which comes closer to describing my inner motivations and temptations than anything I’ve ever seen. Joe at The Soulful Blogger writes,

“Pisces is linked to the archetypes of the mystic, the poet, and the dreamer. It is the sign most closely connected with all that dissolves the ego’s false sense of being ‘real.’ Its goal is the realization that what is most real is not the self or the world that we usually take to be real, but reality is inextricably linked to consciousness itself. Pisces aims for the realization of a universal oneness.

“The shadows of Pisces are numerous, for the higher that consciousness climbs, the greater the potential for destruction. Pisces aims to dissolve the ego through transcendental awareness, yet if the individual is not ready for these lessons of awareness, then the self may be dissolved through other means. Pisces is connected with escapism and all manner of destructive addictions. Pisces is also linked to delusion, flights of fantasy, pointless daydreaming, self-sacrificing martyrdom, and a tendency to become unhealthily unmeshed in drama and chaos.”

Yep, that’s me. Sheesh.

Always get a second opinion . . .

All these female helpers: not only fetch and dis but muse, angel on the shoulder, the better half. Williams’ “beautiful thing.” I don’t believe a word of it, much as I might want to. Because the whole time the real women have been stitching together their own versions of events. These days, scores and scores of women poets are saying things that are truer (or at least more interesting) than the old and shopworn Truths of the Great Thinkers. What might they have to say about the Well of Urd? Here’s Lucille Clifton, who composed poems in her head for fifteen years before she ever sought publication:

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
from my own hands. i did not.
the past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother’s itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning language everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

(quilting: poems 1987-1990, BOA EditionsLtd., 1991)

And here is the white working-class poet Mary Fell, in her very first book:


We lived on Winter Street. Bricks escaped from factory walls, distraught. Ours was a building with too many corners. Families got lost and were never heard from again, small names gathering dust or pinned to the wallpaper like religious medals, their blue ribbons fading.

Every step shook plaster from the ceilings. We carried it into the street on our shoulders. Whole rooms blew away by morning. Old aunts went on shopping trips and never returned. Dishes vanished as we ate breakfast. My own mother disappeared into her bedclothes one day, thinking she was better off.

All my life it’s been like this. I tell you, there’s no sense believing what you see. I learned early to practice not being fooled.

(The Persistence of Memory, Random House, 1975)

And the gifted storyteller Naomi Shihab Nye, in “Telling the Story,” reports:

I answered a telephone
on a California street.
Hello? It was possible.
A voice said, “There is no scientific proof
that God is a man.”
“Thank you.” I was standing there.
Was this meant for me?
It was not exactly the question
I had been asking, but it kept me busy awhile,
telling the story.

Some start out
with a big story
that shrinks.

Some stories accumulate power
like a sky gathering clouds,
quietly, quietly,
till the story rains around you.

Some get tired of the same story
and quit speaking;
a farmer leaning into
his row of potatoes,
a mother walking the same child
to school.
What will we learn today?
There should be an answer,
and it should

(Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, Eighth Mountain Press, 1995)

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.