And now for some real teaching . . .

I know there must be some long-term readers of Via Negativa who are disgusted with me lately because my posts have become so much shorter than they used to be. If so, hie thee over to Velveteen Rabbi’s 7,000-word post about a week-long retreat with the incomparable Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

The mystics talk about bittul ha-yesh, destroying “thingness,” ego. But I don’t want to destroy my ego! It’s a good manager, though a lousy boss. My goal instead is to make the ego more translucent, more transparent. To remove opacity so divine light can shine. The ego says, “it’s all me.” But we need to own that everything in us is God. Some days I wake up and think, “Oy, God, you decided to be Zalman again today?”

And here’s a quote that relates nicely to today’s post about love/desire/zeal/whatever:

Torah isn’t just information; we don’t just read it for the literal meaning of the text. Imagine if Eve [his wife] said to me, “Zalman, I love you,” and I replied, “Yah, you told me that last week, I know already!” It’s not about the information.

O.K., I need to stop cherry picking. Stop on over there and find your own favorites! Zalman is da Man. (See here for a review of his latest book.)

Ring of fire

There’s been some very impressive blogging on the subject of desire recently, beginning with Coffee Sutras (also here) and continuing with Vajrayana Practice, Lekshe’s Mistake and A Line Cast, A Hope Followed. Each of these posts is a gem. I especially admire those who are willing to bare so much, to let themselves be seen as “human, all too human.”

In many ways, the question of what to do with desire is one of the central concerns of all religions. In Buddhism, with the presumption of reincarnation, overcoming desire becomes linked to the escape from otherwise endless suffering. In modern world religions in general, the salvation of the individual usually assumes a central importance, despite the lip service given to charity or compassion. Neither of these scenarios has much attraction for me, I’m afraid. To me, the quest for human perfection would be better sought through more pragmatic ends – caring for each other, building community, defending political freedoms, and the like. That is to say, through love . . . which can never, and should never, in my opinion, be divorced from desire.

Does saying so make me a Christian? I don’t know. I do know that that portion of the Bible held sacred by both Jews and Christians speaks to me as few other works of world literature ever have. (There are a few others.) Here is the climax of the great poem known as the Song of Songs (8:5-7):

Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I raised thee up under the apple tree: there thy mother brought thee forth: there she brought thee forth that bare thee.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.

Marvin H. Pope’s 743-page translation and elucidation of the Song of Songs for the Anchor Bible series takes advantage of modern discoveries such as the Septuagint (the ancient translation of the Bible into classical Greek) and tablets from the 12th century BCE pagan Hebrew city-state of Ugarit. He renders the same passage as follows, with dashes to denote an elision in the text, and brackets indicating a poetically discordant later interpolation:

Who is this ascending from the steppe,
Leaning on her lover?
Under the apple tree I aroused you;
There your mother conceived you,
There she who bore you conceived.
Set me as a signet on your heart,
As a signet on your arm.
For Love is strong as Death,
Passion fierce as Hell.
Its darts are darts of fire,
Its flames — — —
Mighty waters cannot quench Love,
No torrents can sweep it away.
[If a man gave all the wealth of
his house for love, would he be despised?]

Pope tends strongly toward the reductionist, source-critical view that the Song of Songs is simply a pagan hymn for the annual “sacred marriage” fertility rite. I’m not sure it’s so simple; this interpretation requires us to assume that the compilers of the Tanakh were utter dolts, which I doubt. The Song’s inclusion in a fiercely Yahwist collection of texts suggests that the impulse to spiritualize erotic love carried over from pagan into orthodox Hebrew practice at an early date. (To this day, Hasidic couples attempt to “elevate” the sexual act through sacred love-making on the Sabbath. As I understand it – not well at all! – something akin to tantra, i.e. sacred role-playing, is involved. See here ).

Pope does agree with the Apostle Paul and many other traditional commentators that the line “For Love is stronger than Death” provides a sort of key to the entire poem. It seems that people in the ancient Near East used to celebrate funerals with orgiastic feasts, and ancient depictions of sacred marriage rites frequently depict a dog under the bed, chewing on a piece of carrion. So erotic love has been seen as a way of defying the power of death since very ancient times.

The problem with poems, from a scholarly point of view, is that if they’re any good they possess multiple layers of meaning from the outset. It is quite easy for me to imagine a devout Yahwist composing the Song of Songs, taking lines and verses wholesale from the folk tradition as would be normal for quasi-oral composition, and improvising passages that played skillfully and daringly with what must have been simply the dominant metaphorical language for love in the ancient world. What appears as a mishmash from different sources is in reality no more chaotic than, say, a good extemporaneous blues song, or a medieval Japanese renga (linked verse) composition. The shifting perspectives and alternating voices in the Song of Songs wouldn’t seem out of place in either genre.

More than that, the polyvocalic and montage effects may have been intended to suggest something about the realm and personality of the sacred itself. If God is not alluded to anywhere in the poem, that may have reflected in part a conscious intention to show what the godhead was not. Here, by way of contrast, is Pope’s translation of an Ugaritic text describing the behavior of El, the father of the gods, at a banquet:

El offered game in his house,
Venison in the midst of his palace.
He invited the gods to mess.
The gods ate and drank,
Drank wine till sated,
Must till inebriated. . . .
[El] drank wine till sated,
Must till inebriated. . . .
He floundered in his excrement and urine.
El collapsed, El like those who descend into Earth.

This is the kind of grossly physical, licentious deity that their neighbors worshipped – and that the Yahweh-worshippers rejected with fanatic zeal. The single most essential fact about this Yahweh was that s/he was above and beyond all priestly or mimetic control. We can continue to use old names (El, Elohim, El Shaddai) interchangeably with the new, because after all, as God reminded Moses at the burning bush, all names are suspect and provisional anyway. “I will be whoever I will be.” Any attempt to conceptualize Deity therefore represented a transgression against the very laws of Creation. The first of the canonical Ten Commandments forbids idolatry.

“Idolatry makes love impossible,” observes the gifted poet and Christian memoirist Kathleen Norris (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith). The commandments to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself occur in close conjunction with the fairly arbitrary list of Ten, and many rabbinical commentators in fact gave them precedence. But however ordered, it’s clear that, as Norris suggests, statements about true and false forms of love lie right at the heart of Biblical religion.

All of these loves are interrelated: self-love is nothing if it doesn’t include the love of our neighbor, and of the God who created us all in the divine image. A measure of balance in these objects of our devotion is a safeguard against idolatry, which can give any of the three too much weight. We can love ourselves too much, but we can also love others to a possessive excess. And even religious devotion . . . can become an idol. We can become so focused on our love of God that we demean other people in the process.

In a way, it’s unfortunate that this observation, which would be fairly commonplace for anyone versed in Rabbinical Judaism, seems so revelatory in the context of the Christian tradition. I believe that the intense focus on hierarchy in the churches descended from the Roman Empire, as well as on thinking the right thoughts, conspired to make love compulsive, and thus impossible. I don’t think that the extreme mind-body duality of the ancient world would ever have had such a tenacious hold over the Western imagination were it not for this insistence on hierarchy, this idolatrous clinging to a violent and intolerant Lord not so different from the Ugaritic El – or dozens of other Near Eastern divine and semi-divine potentates.

Nor has this prejudice died with the “death of God.” Though it’s dangerous to generalize, one thing I find most objectionable about New Age thinking is the perpetuation of the mind/body or spirit/body split, in which the spirit is always “higher,” and human beings must “evolve” to a “higher plane” or “higher consciousness.” Sometimes one may hear about depth instead of height, but this inversion still presumes a rejection of the material/physical realm in favor of something else. Sometimes, too, this “something else” is described in quite materialistic terms – some form of “energy” or “aura” – that may be ultimately accessible to the instruments of modern science. How exactly then do matter and spirit differ?

Shorn of centuries of interpretation influenced by Roman intolerance, Persian dualism, Hellenistic misogyny and Egyptian neo-Platonism, and freed from the idolatrous and nonsensical notion of biblical inerrancy, the unique and beautiful anthology called the Hebrew Bible bears eloquent testimony to the struggle of human consciousness to escape its own extinction. This may not be immediately apparent. Apart from the youngest prophetic books, concerns about the personal immortality of the individual may be read into the texts that make up the Old Testament only with great difficulty. The primary concern of a great deal of the myth and history is with the survival of the corporate personality Israel, at once a man and a people. Jacob/Israel is not the first, the best, or the highest – he is, like his father, the second son, and he is surrounded and somewhat dominated by powerful women. In myth and in history, Israel remains locked in an agonistic embrace with a divinity whose own personality verges on the corporate, with various forms of separated entities deputized to assume a material form on behalf of the ineffable YHVH.

If the Hebrew Bible largely ignores the (to us) more familiar kind of immortality, that’s not because the desire to transcend the self wasn’t recognized. It’s simply because such immortality is really proper only to YHWH and (perhaps!) His chosen people. To aspire toward indefinite continuation on one’s own, as an incorporeal spirit, could only have been seen as an act of supreme blasphemy and self-idolatry.* Even Job, the great rebel, does not go that far. The worst he can do – and his wife urges him to it – would be to “curse God and die.” But he will die in any case, he knows that. His anger at God stems from the inexplicable and seemingly unjust termination of his descendents – and hence the erasure of his name – and only secondarily his own physical suffering.

The book of Job strikes at the heart of idolatry in more ways than one. William Blake was one of the few commentators to understand that the book may have intended a subtle attack on that form of idolatry mentioned by Norris, substituting solemn faces and patriarchal concerns about the survival of one’s “seed” for the joyous abandon proper to true worship. In Blake’s first engraving for the Book of Job, a patriarchal deity surrounded by seraphim has its counterpart below in the figure of Job, surrounded by his children, who hold books and scrolls on their laps. A dog sleeps under the table. By contrast, the final plate depicts a completely non-hierarchical universe, with the moon and sun to the left and right and the family of Job ranged in between, with lutes, harps, flutes and horns in their hands, jamming for all they’re worth. Job’s left hand is upraised like a conductor’s as his right hand plucks the harp strings. Sheep and sheepdog sleep peacefully in the foreground.

This may seem like a flight of fancy with little scriptural basis. But it’s telling that the one example we are given to illustrate how Job’s “latter end was blessed more than his beginning” is that, alone among his new descendents, his daughters are singled out for special attention (42:13-15):

He had also seven sons and three daughters.
And he called the name of the first, Jemima; and the name of the second, Kezia; and the name of the third, Kerenhappuch.
And in all the land were no women found so fair as the daughters of Job: and their father gave them inheritance among their brethren.

Some kind of levelling clearly seems to be at issue here.

In the worldview of the Old Testament, love of God, love of self, and love of neighbor (which includes not merely one’s own tribe, but widows, orphans, even the naturalized alien) are indeed intertwined in one passionate knot. Certain psalms, as well as the Song of Songs and other portions of the text, suggest that self-transcendence should be sought in a form of love between God and human being in which a kind of equivalence may ultimately be achieved. For in true love, whatever the roles that passion might inspire, there can be no permanent inequality. “God is not indifferent to man’s quest of Him,” says the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (God in Search of Man).

He is in need of man, in need of man’s share in redemption. . . . The words ‘I am a stranger on earth’ (Psalms 119:19), were interpreted to refer to God. God is a stranger in the world. The Shechinah, the presence of God, is in exile. Our task is to bring Him back into the world, into our lives. To worship is to expand the presence of God in the world. To have faith in God is to reveal what has been concealed.

To reveal, but also to hide – in this world, with all its flaws. In the comic universe of the Song of Songs, concealment and revelation follow each other in dizzying succession. Who is seeking, who is being sought? At more than one spot in the text, scholars no less than the rest of us must confess to some confusion.

But that’s not from any vagueness, any airy spirituality. The poem overflows with concrete imagery and physical motion, the names of flowers and spices, people and animals. A coherent geography can even be teased out of it. Yet in this overwhelmingly material realm, “Love is stronger than Death.” We ascend from the wilderness to the garden, to the apple tree, to the spot where birth-and-death had its tragically illuminating origin in the taste of a wondrous fruit. Since that time, says the tradition, there is no going back to a simple living-in-the-present – except in moments of divine ecstasy. Wisdom teaches that we possess nothing; everything belongs to God, and everything must ultimately go back to God (literally, in the case of the Jubilee). Symbolic mutual possession, the exchange of rings or bracelets, is part of the divine game.

Marvin H. Pope’s exposition on the meaning of “passion” in his translation is worth quoting at length.

The term qin’ah is here rendered by [the Septuagint] as zelos and by Vulgate, aemulatio. Luther rendered Eifer, “zeal.” [The Revised Standard Version’s] retention of KJ’s “jealosy” was apparently influenced by consideration of the passages where the term qin’ah is applied to a man’s suspicion that his wife may have been unfaithful (Num 5:14, 29-30) and his venomous and vengeful rage toward her violator (Prov 6:34); cf. Ezek 16:38 where qin’ah is joined to blood and wrath as the reward of the adulteress. Yahweh is similarly provoked to jealousy and anger by Israel’s idolatries (Deut 32:16,21; Ps 73:58), and is given the title qanna or qanno, using the nominal pattern applied to professions, as designating one especially zealous or jealous . . . The term qinah, however, is used of emotions other than jealousy . . . It is clear that the word can designate a variety of strong emotions, anger, envy, jealousy, fury, and in the present context, the sexual instinct and ardor which is one of man’s [sic] strongest propensities.

The essential point here, I think, regardless of what spin one wants to put on it, is that the same word is used for God as for humans. This is what I like about the Bible: it doesn’t try to push uncomfortable realities under a pious rug, much less shy away from ambiguity and paradox.

“. . . The coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” What gives light must also give out heat. To become enlightened, in the Biblical view, is to endure great burning. Only thus can the waters of chaos and death be transformed into so much harmless steam.

*This is actually my own theory, I confess. But it makes perfect sense, don’t you think?

UPDATE: I got the Blake analysis a little wrong. The source I was using showed the second illustration (the one with God above, and Job below) in place of the first. Blake’s actual first illustration showed the patriarch and his wife sitting under a giant tree, open books on their laps, children ranged to right and left, on their knees. So there is still a slight element of hierarchy. But more significantly, all the musical instruments are hanging from the branches of the tree. In this way, I think, Blake makes his criticism of the pre-trial Job explicit. The same tree is in the background in the last plate; I hadn’t noticed it in the other reproduction. The same sheep are in the foreground, but in the first illustration they are all asleep, whereas in the last one, the rams have their heads up. Also, the sun and the moon trade places: in the first illustration, the sun is on the left; in the last, it’s on the right.

How could I have missed that tree? For it is that, more than anything, that ties this in with the Song of Songs!

(Thumbnails of all 21 plates may be viewed here.)

Big I, little i

From time to time I like to go back in the vaults and dig up poems I have long since filed away and forgotten about because for one reason or another they just weren’t up to snuff. (Not being good enough for a “real” publication doesn’t necessarily disqualify a poem from inclusion in this blog, I think. Especially since poetry isn’t the central focus here, just an important source of data.)

Here’s one I wrote maybe eight years ago. I was musing on the fact that so many unrelated languages the world over contain a word for “mother” that begins with the m-sound, if not in fact the syllable “ma.” Mothers and infants speak a truly universal language, it seemed to me – something rarely acknowledged by male thinkers down through the millennia, for whom a universal language was to be sought in the distant past, future, or (for shamanistic peoples) in visionary trance or dream.

The result didn’t strike me as especially authentic, but I still feel it has a few good lines.

The Philosopher Considers Her Breasts

Even with the mind’s dark mirror wiped clean
The merest suggestion of a touch can prompt them to make their concise points, ah
They’re all the proof I need that self-consciousness precedes individuation
Just as a toddler can speak unhampered by syntax
Can extrapolate from breast – Ma – to smile
& simply double it to invent the world
Everything the male thinkers imagined they could exclude
Eliminate all supposed redundancies & take what’s left
Be it only a shadow in the depths of a cave
They’ll cover it with hand prints
Conjure a spirit game bristling with arrows
(Here come for instance the one-breasted Amazons)

But look how even the driest of abstractions tend to divide by a sort of mitosis
You can’t elevate the host without humbling the guest
Big I little i what begins with eye
What begins with lips & tongue & helpless cries
The thousand-mile journey of a kiss that still cannot encompass a single waist

Then let these roles retain their provisional status
Their essential shimmer
& see how entranced they become, my learned lovers
When I have them whisper into my nipples their own pet names

Here’s another odd one, dating from five or six years ago. It was sparked by a particularly vivid dream, and influenced by my study of Noh dance years before.

Monsieur Butterfly

Not the princess bride but the aging dragon’s nurse, ripe and firm as an Asian peach, she demands fealty from my dream-double, a type of Updike hero who’d let himself be slayed before he’d commit to any entangling plot, the threat of happily-ever-after dispelled by a painless death.

Her tears – a trick of shadows – failing to revive me, she lets the open fan fall like a useless wing, plucks a halberd from the wall, this spurned-yet-loyal caricature sprung from god knows what corner of my sleeping brain.

In plain view, no intervening curtain, she kneels for the costume change, girds her loins like a man and places the no-longer-fitting mask of a maiden at my side to keep my ghost – a hollow hungry thing – from worming free, pinned by the sightless epicanthic slits.

Traveler, my tale is yours. Be careful where you sleep.

And here at last is a poem based on a conscious experience. I had the misfortune some twelve years ago of attending the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl. The immediate family wasn’t at all religious, but they had hired this fire-and-brimstone preacher, who hadn’t even known the deceased, to deliver the eulogy – I think to placate the grandparents, or something. It was hard not to imagine how the deceased, whom I had known fairly well, might have felt about such an imposition. This came out of that. I can’t remember now exactly why I excluded it from Capturing the Hive. (Actually, I can’t remember much of anything. I just had to go click on my own website to get the title of that manuscript, which I worked on for years. Christ Almighty!)

Memorial Service

Can you believe
how many songs have been committed to stone
& none to the water that wears it down?
How many lines get lifted from the surf–
& none from the living ocean?
I was the dead girl who lay in the coffin
with her corona of hair cut short.
I wasn’t listening to that stranger
whose hands held their fire,
whose teeth trapped dust.
But when the women one
by one stood up to testify
I heard the first rumor of rain.
It was as if I’d awakened precipitously
in the night, forehead filled
with mist & the dreams
still crowding close.
I push them back

& blink, remembering–
recalling my role. I was
the nice guy who never refused
to buy a six-pack for a teenage drunk
(even though that night it had been
someone else’s turn) & now
I’m sitting in the back with my feet
tucked under my chair, alert
to the slow dripping of grief & the ripped
tissue cradled by uncertain fingers.

A song can sag
on the page, consigned
to some abstract solar kingdom
more inviolable than a tomb.
A river can lie down behind levees,
drained and channeled to hold
the flood in check. Who then
will bear witness to the current,
the profligate flow?
She was always so full of spirit, says
the neighbor lady. It’s hard
to believe.

Pay no attention to the man behind the weblog

I don’t know what I don’t want, my friend L. said yesterday. Indeed, who does? If life is nothing but a process of elimination, God help us all, as the man with hemorrhoids said with a note of despair.

I don’t know what I don’t want, and I don’t know what I’d do with it if I did. Almost makes we wish I knew how to play guitar!

But hear the voice of reason: Take what you need and leave the rest says the dung beetle. Walk backwards if that’s what works. A very pragmatic chap. No wonder the ancient Egyptians put him in charge, the solar system’s chief engineer.

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ . . .

But suppose it’s really a treasure hunt we’re on? Shouldn’t I be working on a Master’s Degree, then? asks my friend, in what is clearly meant not to be a non sequitor. If we keep talking about the quarry by name, I answer, don’t we kind of run the risk that it’ll hear us coming? It’s like, if you think about possible omens in advance, doesn’t that pretty much rule them out?


When I went to get ready on Saturday morning, I decided to brew a thermos full of tea. I went out to pick some mint and almost stepped on a box turtle in front of the springhouse. She was sitting in the sun with her eyes closed. Was she O.K.? I tapped once on her shell with my index finger. The turtle’s eyes snapped open. She let out a cry like the sound of a rusty hinge on an old barn door, and in went all five appendages, snap! I felt like a Jehovah’s Witness.

I remembered the King James translation of the Song of Solomon: The flowers appear on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.*

Then, walking down the hollow, I heard the wind in the treetops like the wheels of a car on wet pavement passing overhead. I thought, unfinished business. I don’t know exactly what I meant by this, but evidently it was something significant, because I wrote it down in my little pocket notebook. (I make provisions, you see, for those times when I can’t get to my blog right away.)

Ephemeral thoughts are the best kind, I think. Even as I jotted down the foregoing, I must’ve realized I wouldn’t be able to recapture the intimation of something-or-other that found momentary expression in two, cryptic words. Because I followed up with the outline of a brief lecture on the pitfalls of expression: To write these thoughts is to commit – Until words are uttered, they are free – but powerless – (No power without entanglement) – which, while concise, seems clear enough.

Later on that afternoon, speeding back from an outing in the state forest, hoping to get tickets to Fahrenheit 911 before they all sold out, we almost hit a small snapping turtle. I got out and tried to herd it off the highway. Snappers don’t really herd. So I picked it up, firmly yet gingerly, by the back of its shell.

This turtle didn’t cry – it hissed. The whole time I held it, carrying it back down to a little pond off the road, it had its ugly jaws opened as wide as they would go, straining back around on its ugly neck, desperate for a piece of me. Just as I was ready to set it down, the fucker lunged. Okay, so its landing was a little rougher than I would’ve hoped. Talk about piss and vinegar!

One turtle is a lucky happenstance, I thought. Two is a pattern. In retrospect, possibly even a portent.

As for the movie, I hope never to be subjected to so much footage of George W. Bush in one sitting ever again. Let others hiss and crane their necks; I will make a strategic retreat.

God’s hand is cupped
over the crickety heart
of the turtle.

I don’t know exactly who wrote that poem. But I found it in Braided Creek, by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser, so that narrows it down considerably.

On Sunday, we went out again on our treasure hunt. We had begun referring to the quarry as mouthwash so it wouldn’t hear us coming. The Latin name is Listera cordata; the English is heart-leaved twayblade. When we finally located it at one of the few known spots, it turned out to be three times as large as we had expected – and already in blossom, a good two weeks early! Sprouting through a bed of sphagnum, yes, but not in the shade. Had our search image been faulty all along? Could we have passed up other examples because we had been looking for something much tinier and still only in leaf?

Frankly, I doubt it. I mean, it was hard to miss. This had been, I thought, a weekend of obvious sights where perhaps a little more subtlety might have been in order.

The blossoms were a rich brown. The appeal of orchids must have something to do, I thought, with the way they appear to be sticking their little tongues out. In the case of Listera, the tongue is distinctly forked.

We celebrated our find with several sections of a large and expensive bar of imported chocolate.

*In the early 17th century, “turtle” also meant “turtle dove,” which is what the Song of Songs is referring to, of course.

From the “Why I Love America” Dept.

My brother Mark once suggested that a useful exercise for us anti-government types is to compile a top ten list of Things We Love About the U.S. of A. His list included things like free public libraries, the world’s first National Park System, the Bill of Rights and the Freedom of Information Act. Actually, it was such a good list, I couldn’t see how to improve it, so I never did follow his advice.

But in any case, I am sick to death of the America of grand gestures and grand self-delusions. Who, after hearing Governor Bush bray about how They Hate Our Freedoms, can ever again view the export of our political ideals with less than a jaundiced eye? What I want to do here instead, through this occasional feature, is to highlight much smaller things, publishing links to articles or sites that somehow inspire me with affection for my native land.

What could be more all-American than the World’s Largest Pile of Empty Feed Sacks? Actually, that was a Garrison Keillor invention – an ingenious parody, I thought.

The World’s Largest Collection of World’s Smallest Versions of World’s Largest Things, however, is for real.

This one of a kind roadside attraction and museum travels all over the country, stopping at World’s Largest Things, community cultural centers, roadside attractions, colleges, universities, art events, and museums. Originally a public transportation vehicle for the elderly of Anderson County Kansas, the bus has been transformed into a traveling museum by artist Erika Nelson. This customized bus contains display space for its unique collection of miniature replicas of things such as badgers, otters, bulls, balls of twine, and baseball bats billed as World’s Largest.

But wait, there’s more! Much, much more about very small reproductions of very large versions of ordinary-sized things – and other wonderfully campy roadside attractions from America the Beautiful:

This one of a kind collection is displayed (when parked) through the passenger side windows, while the interior front space is open to visitors. Inside are additional displays of Roadside Attraction mineatures (such as Carhenge), photos and meta-photos of World’s Largest Things, a library of research materials and documentation of sites, and gift shop. When traveling down the road, the curtains act as a carnival-esque tease like an old-time sideshow, complete with theme song and barker broadcast (written and performed by Big One Man Band – a rockabilly group of one, who plays everything you hear simultaneously!) on a 103.1 FM frequency so cars around can tune in their radio and learn more about it.

Don’t these sound like people you’d want to party with? Hell, they bring the party with them – all you’d have to provide would be the drinks and eats, I’m guessing. Just this past week, says the website,

Winlock Washington convinces the Traveling Roadside Attraction to extend its planned 1/2 hour stay in to a week long extravaganza of egg-citing egg-tertainment, leading up to Egg Days June 25, 26, 27 2004!

One gets the impression that they may be having entirely too much fun. The website has a kind of haphazard look, as if it only gets updated when the one-man rockabilly band needs a break from performing for the World’s Smallest Traveling Radio Station.

One handy feature they have uploaded, however, is a list of the World’s Largest Things in the United States. The number of entries for Minnesota is indeed impressive, including an outsized doorknob, a couple monstrous ears of corn, numerous gargantuan fish, and the world’s largest ball of twine. But alas, no artificial, mystic energy-channeling, roadside mountain of feed sacks – yet.


O.K., listen up, please! Quiet in the back. Is this thing on? *Taps monitor, blows into mouse. Clears throat.*

I hereby designate Emily Dickinson the Poet Laureate of Via Negativa.

If ever there were a poet who needed no introduction, surely it is she.

But there are many other poets I could choose for this honor(?). Why Dickinson?

In the first place, because she’s long dead, and therefore can’t protest.

Second: I’ve always loved her. She was my first serious poet, whom I started reading at the age of eight. Though I’ve found other favorites over the years, I never stray too far, and I always go back to her eventually. She kept me company through a lonely adolescence, when I spent six long years as the class pariah.

Beyond that, she’s just a good fit. In the spirit of the via negativa, many of her best poems succeed in part because of their very indirection. She likes to write about things without specifically naming them, though for close to a century this feature was obscured by the imposition of titles. Perhaps a better word for it would be circumspection. It works to convey a profound impression of independent existence outside the poem to the subjects so treated (a hummingbird, a “narrow fellow in the grass,” a “formal feeling,” etc.).

When she does name names, the reader is thrown off balance even more. “Is this Bee merely the bee – Or is it She – Or is it Me – Or is it possible the Three – Buzz equally – ”

Three years ago I got a copy of F.W. Franklin’s variorum edition, which chooses from among surviving versions, as best as any editor could, those versions the author herself probably considered definitive. I read it though slowly from start to finish, over the course of two weeks – something I hadn’t done with Dickinson’s complete poems since I was ten. I developed the overwhelming impression that I was reading brilliant translations of 13th Century Persian Sufi poetry, by the daughter of Hafiz, say. But as far as anyone can tell, Dickinson knew nothing of Sufism. And it seems as if, surrounded by the stifling bigotry and simple-minded utilitarianism of mid-19th Century American Protestantism, she discovered the via negativa all on her own. For example, here’s Franklin’s #611:

Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie –
When, stirring, for Belief’s delight,
My Bride had slipped away –

If ’twas a Dream – made solid – just
The Heaven to confirm –
Or if myself were dreamed of Her –
The power to presume –

With Him remain – who unto Me –
Gave – even as to All –
A Fiction superseding Faith –
By so much – as ’twas real –

I could go on listing reasons: for example, the semantic ambiguities enhanced by her minimal punctuation, her slant rhymes and eccentric orthography often produce a delightful sense of disorientation. I dig her occasional, deft and understated social criticism.

But I want to stop playing critic here, especially given the hundreds of books and tens of thousands of papers that real critics have penned – a virtual library of Dickinsonia, from which I confess I have yet to read a single page (aside from Franklin’s brief introduction).

Why have a poet laureate at all? For the same reason as any state with a shady past and blood on its hands: to provide a very secular sense of sanctification to what really can’t be excused. My own crimes of omission, imprecision, inaccuracy and occasional outright mendacity may be looked upon with a more forgiving eye if I throw in a Dickinson poem now and then.

And the simple fact is, as I’ve been saying, there are few poets more compatible with this weblog. I’m sure I could find a suitable quote to accompany almost every post, if I wanted. Take Wednesday’s post on clarity, for example. Dickinson wrote:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

(Franklin #1263)

Even the conclusion to yesterday’s post, un-Dickinsonian in tone as it might’ve seemed, finds its answer in her oeuvre:

He was my host – he was my guest,
I never to this day
If I invited him could tell,
Or he invited me.

So infinite our intercourse
So intimate, indeed,
Analysis as capsule seemed
To keeper of the seed.

(Franklin #1754)

Of course, in one sense this official designation does break with the tradition of poets laureate: there’s no exclusivity clause. Dickinson’s dead; she belongs to everyone – and no one – now. But that fits, too, since as a left libertarian I owe at least nominal allegiance to the oft-abused ideal of free love.

And how could one ever have so honored Dickinson were she still with us? You know what she’d say:

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate . . .

and of course:

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Nobody here but us pollywogs, Emily.

(The poet in the shape of a great-blue heron circles low for a landing.)