What I told the fortuneteller

From the vault (Capturing the Hive). Every aspiring poet sooner or later takes on Joan of Arc. I imagined not so much the fanatic Maid of Orleans shouldering the immense weight of her own destiny, but a real prophetess, a kind of Gypsy Queen with humor and confidence to spare.


Like a fly in amber this world
she wants to save: golden. Brittle.
A talisman that burrows into the breast,
impervious to all but the sharpest instruments.

Or with a spin of the wheel, an ordinary pebble
wedged under the shoe
of her carousel horse.

While the world she has no use for
goes soft, pulpy, membranous,
inebriate with shadows.
Wobbles like an old newsreel
about the Enemy: delusional.
It cannot be bargained with.

In her neck of the woods it’s no big deal
to hear voices. I don’t get
love letters,
she jokes as
she suits up. Just chain mail.
With her left palm making
circles on her scalp: rosemary oil,
specific for vagaries of the brain –
equally good for weddings as
for wakes – and henna,
for that hint of flames.

Even so, to ride without a helmet –
Men will follow a flag only
if they think it’s inviolate.

I watch the unlit spliff
in the corner of her mouth
bobbing, waggling
with every consonant.
Little white bone how you shake,
how you never fall!


If forced to describe my own religious beliefs – I mean the things I really believe, not the things I would like to think that I believe in because they appeal to me intellectually – I would have to conclude that I worship Lady Luck.
What a disgrace! How more immature and egotistical could I get? For we know, don’t we, that one man’s good fortune is another’s disaster? Luck seems finite almost by definition. She is capricious, imperious, beholden to no one by herself. At least give her a pair of wings and call her Grace!

But hold on a second. It’s all in the interpretation, yes? If I can convince myself that everything that happens to me happened for the best, luck becomes, in effect, infinite. Plus, there is no reason why I can’t share in the good fortune of another – or, if the occasion demands, try to mitigate another’s bad luck by sharing from my own virtually inexhaustible store of good will. (Good will and good luck are close cousins; I haven’t quite figured out the relationship, but I don’t think you can have one without the other.)

O.K., but what morality? Despite my abundant admiration for Judaism, Buddhism and the other Organized Religions, I guess I still incline toward the position of the ancient Daoists: that the explicit formulation of an ethical system is a sign of failure. Only chronic social chaos and the disintegration of ordinary human bonds can explain the need to spell out something so self-evident. Most people know intuitively that you shouldn’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself – it’s human nature to avoid conflict and work for social harmony. Our minds and bodies revolt against the artificial pressures of conflict and competition: 98% of men will crack up after 60 days of continuous conflict, according to studies of British troops during World War II. And the pressures of life under monopoly capitalism destroy the bodies of the rulers along with the ruled: their insides turn themselves into knots.

Thus when Daoism itself, in competition with Buddhism, morphed into a religion, it focused on body-as-microcosm, with this-worldly, personal immortality as the unreachable utopian goal. The Chinese are a uniquely earthy people. In Chinese popular religion – a rich blend of Buddhism, Daoism and folk beliefs of diverse origin – the god of good fortune is a quintessentially Rabelaisian figure, like Santa Claus crossed with the Carnival King. And yes, divinatory systems like I Qing and astrology occupy an honored place – much as they do in peasant religions the world over.

To die-hard rationalists, this sort of belief system is anathema. But I think they’re missing the point. In virtually every traditional society I’ve ever read about, personal auguries are meant to function much as the communal fortunes told by the nebiim (“prophets”) of the Hebrew Bible: as visions of what could happen, not what will happen. It makes sense that fortunes read for an individual’s benefit would tend to be quite a bit sunnier than the national prophecies of Isaiah et.al.: their purpose is self-empowerment, not moral self-questioning.

But what is morality? If it involves nothing more than an utterly fatalistic dependence on the inscrutable will of an infinitely wiser and more powerful Being – the situation, I fear, with vast numbers of the adherents of Organized Religions – it seems more likely to breed irresponsibility. “Why should I care about the earth? It’s in God’s hands. Why should I involve myself in social change movements? It’s up to God to change people’s hearts.”

So yes, my trusting in Fortune may seem naive and superstitious. It certainly seems that way to me, sometimes! But to the extent that reliance on Lady Luck has taught me to expand my definition of fortune to include, basically, the very “music of what happens,”* is it such a bad thing? And if I end up viewing my life as the result of an active collaboration between my own imagination and the sum total of social and natural events that are too fearsome and wondrous and complex for any human mind ever to encompass – well, that leaves me in pretty good company. As near as I can tell, the vast majority of all the people who ever lived believed something very similar.

*from the Fenian Cycle, translated by James Stephens in Irish Fairy Stories and reprinted in John Montague, ed., The Book of Irish Verse (Macmillan, 1974):


Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.

‘Tell us that,’ said Fionn, turning to Oisin.

‘The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,’ cried his merry son.

‘A good sound,’ sad Fionn. ‘And you, Oscar,’ he asked, ‘what is to your mind the finest of music?’

‘The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield,’ cried the stout lad.

‘It is a good sound,’ said Fionn.

And the other champions told their delight: the belling of a stag across water, the baying of a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the laughter of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.

‘They are good sounds all,’ said Fionn.

‘Tell us chief,’ one ventured, ‘what do you think?’

‘The music of what happens,’ said great Fionn, ‘that is the finest music in the world.’

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