holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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Taking pictures leaves a smudge on my glasses. Did I get it from the garlic shot, or from the poison ivy?

I’m reading the blogs this morning rather than writing in my own, still catching up after a week and a half of offline distractions. If I collected my various comments on other people’s blogs, would they add up to something I could post here?

Beth’s post on “Stealing the Image” and the comments it garnered have me thinking about self-consciousness – though, looking at my pocket notebook, I see I was already thinking about this first thing in the morning. Pure coincidence (as if there’s any other kind).

“So often,” I wrote, “my writing for the day begins with reflection on the act of writing itself.

“Is this just me, or does the composition of text involve self-reflexivity from the get-go? One translates perception into image, image into sound, sound into object – writing. Before, as speech, even in the mind’s ear, words were embedded in a flow. But on the page or screen they achieve some kind of autonomy – they become knowing witnesses rather than mere participants.

“The writer feels both more powerful and less powerful than the orator: more powerful, because able to employ vastly more arrangements than the mechanics of oral composition and delivery permit; less powerful, because the newly autonomous words turn the scribe into a servant of meanings that now seem continually to elude judgement. The flux is no longer between words but within them.”

In other words, to occupy oneself with written words is to become involved in a sort of infinite regression. Artists and musicians, by contrast, dwell in closer proximity to the origins of consciousness.

Sounds like horse-pokey to me, Dave!

But see, that’s the thing: I may be self-conscious, but I’m also an exhibitionist. I don’t mind letting it all hang out: the warmed-over philosophy, the half-finished poems, the ingrown toenails, the bad teeth. I revel in my imperfection.

“My body may not look like much, but let me tell you: it’s one unbelievable multi-tasker! I get dizzy just thinking about all I get done without thinking.”

I had just written the preceding sentence in my notebook when I bethought myself to stop by Maria’s blog, alembic. There I read this:

Some people collect rare coins. Others, antiques. Me, it seems, I like to keep my body well stocked with autoimmune diseases…

But the comments to that post are closed, so I am left with my mouth hanging open.

“It’s only news if the man bites the dog.” I remember an old story from the Weekly World News in which a collie carried a small child back into a burning building. “I know my dog anywhere I hear him bark,” says the old blues verse. It’s the sound of home, no matter where you are.

“You are waiting for the poodle to stick out its tongue at you and wag a friendly tail,” Maria wrote – though “you” in this context means, of course, “I.”

But the diagnosis says Lupus, “the sharp-toothed stealthy wolf.” (It helps to know that Maria is originally from Romania, which still has a healthy population of wild wolves.) And: “Poetry has turned on me, and maybe the cure, the only effective cure for it is silence.”

“No comment” is still a comment, though, isn’t it? This thing keeps turning back on itself, like a dog chasing its own tail – that wagging monstrosity of domestication that any self-respecting wild canid would long ago have caught and put to a merciful end.

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Mountain state (2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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the song of the winter wren goes spiraling
into the treetops down cliff under ferndrip ledge
follows the loop of a fox grape vine
& lodges in the bend of birthwort’s
pipe-shaped flower

it twines across the altar of my concentration
electric now with offerings
every part of worry anxiety hope

& tunneling through a weave of rhododendron
the trail goes straight, gently undulating
like the narrow-gauge rail bed it once was
carrying out trees in short sections
from what somehow managed to remain wild
high bowl of a remote mountain watershed
& freed from any need to watch our feet
we scarcely notice how much we have climbed
how much we have left behind

I glide as through a gallery, hungry for visions
saunter as if along a city sidewalk
each tulip tree and oak another body
to measure against my own
each of us a stranger only to ourselves
the slick fictions we grow year by year
in rings around the so-called heartwood
where sap long since ceased to flow

I see myself held in an eye of wood
I am implicated in a ripple of grain laid bare
when the bark dropped off

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but the plant people if you want
to call them that are far more timid than we are
we look at them carefully out of
the corner of an eye & pretend
only to care about identification
as if membership in a tribe or species
tells us anything beyond what name to use
when talking behind their backs
what they really have to say I think has
something to do with how to hold our ground

even the most active beings can make me feel
less like a discoverer than the discovered
is this for example the same tiger swallowtail
weaving drunkenly above the water
for the last three miles
every time I catch a glimpse of the creek?

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the trail wanders past an old cellarhole with a new
display of plastic flowers that spell “Mom”
& a garden site gone wild with mountain mint
we stuff our pockets with the fragrant leaves

we pause at a spring where mossy stones sleep
like small green bears
I pull out my camera & my friend bares her teeth

here’s a veery, descending call
like a flute inside a bottle as
my friend puts it
or perhaps two flutes played by a single flautist

we cook lunch among the boulders on the creek
& afterwards go browsing for lichen patterns
my friend seeing endpapers for hand-made books

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I spend a short century in a smiling contest
with the mossy head of a demiurge of stone
rising from the water, lines of bubbles
swimming slowly through its patch of sun
rich baritone voice in a language I feel
I can almost understand
& all around it the creek in shadow

& I am whispering encantado,
like a child
slowly plucking the spokes of a daisy
cantar is still the commonest
verb for “sing” in Spanish so
to be encantado really means to be caught
in a web of song I muse
focusing one at a time on each
voice in the watery chorus

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on the walk back we find a redrock shelf
at the edge of the creek pitted with potholes
some empty, others cupping moon-shaped pieces
of sky & a few mosquito larvae
wriggling back & forth in what
doubtless only looks like ecstasy

I can say anything, I think, arrogant
in my power to make little worlds from words
but anything I can say falls short of this world
its liquid laughter pure from the beginning
free of the salt of tears

just before leaving we stop at a spring with a waterfall
& a black PVC viaduct strung on a cable
gravity water for someone whose dog barks
from the other side of the creek
we fill all our bottles
& thrust cupped hands into the flow

surely water clear as glass should let us
see into some kind of future
or at least as far as the mountain’s stone heart
but it’s my own arteries I see
throbbing in my wrists
I lower my face to the would-be window & drink

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the next day on the flat-topped Allegheny Front
I study the cousinship of peak & bog
the same plants so often growing on both
& here the two kinds of places merge into one
when I piss at the edge of a dry boulder field
I hear the splash of water into water

Dolly Sods is still beautiful still teeming with life
despite its horrific usage by arrogant humans
who saw nothing but timber, pasturage
& a bombing range during World War II
natural extremity makes it at once more vulnerable
& more likely to resist the tendency of the badly used
to become ugly common & mean

& I know nothing, I think, suddenly ashamed
of my inability to look beyond wounds to
the grace & power of the wounded
which includes virtually every part of this land
which has been your land and my land for far too long
& needs to be its own land again

an interpretive sign explains how
wind-tortured red spruce trees grow branches
only on the leeward side for decades until
other spruce grow in around them & then
they knot their roots together among the rocks
gather stillness & the spongy beginnings
of new humus between their trunks
make a place too moist for lightning
to strike a spark & then all together
they rise up

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on the drive home the edge of my concentration
grows blunt as a butter knife
which is to say I lose my temper
& my ordinarily kind companion loses hers
& we ride in silence for a while
discoveries made in a mountain state
must not be transferable
I think glumly
everything we found remains behind

but the truth turns out to be otherwise
because unbeknownst to us
three craneflies got into the car at the last stop
before our long descent
& we can’t get rid of them
rolling down the window at the strategic moment
only blows them into the back of the car
& though for a while we think they’re gone
eventually they reappear
dancing in front of the windshield on flimsy wings
their long legs dangling & we give up
& laugh & let them ride & by the time
we get back I’ve forgotten all about them

I carry my gear into the house unpack & sit out
on my front porch watching the fireflies blink
under a second-quarter moon
until my eyes won’t stay open any longer

where state lines fall is an accident of history
& come to think of it I have yet
to leave the mountains
we will keep on returning whichever way we travel
the mountain state is still there & so are we

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Cibola 117

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 116 of 119 in the series Cibola


Simon Zopeloxochitl (conclusion)

My lord, this stranger whose dream-
double I could never find, this shaper
of destinies, his mist still lingers.
Though one who took
the ash heap for a mother,
the crossroads for a father–
though a slave–his rumor
still lends an iridescence
to these ruined cliffs.

In the end as in the beginning
no tongue is equal to its task,
a soft piece of leather flapping
between flint knives.
The sayings of the wise,
the paintings,
the flowery songs–all vanish
in the flames of rebirth. And since
even the sages couldn’t tell
whether we dream or wake,
how can our strongest spells
be more
than smoke?

My lord Yacatecuhtli,
the vulture is a thing that circles
& never has to land.
Everything he sees is on the way
to its final appointment:
all words to him
are last words.

Grant your servant instead
the penultimate: the four-
cornered flower
turning in the dark, rooted
between fire & water, is & was.
In the day that nears,
let the dawn star alone
feed the sun.

Most of the metaphors in this segment are based on classical Aztec kennings. The two sentences beginning “The sayings of the wise” echo common themes in Aztec poetry.

dream-double – An animal alter-ego who lives in the underworld, where the sorcerer travels in dreams. Killing someone’s double results in their own death.

Yacatecuhtli – Patron deity of travelers, especially long-distance traders. Simon is addressing his human patron as if he were the avatar of this god.

Accident, take 2

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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THERE ARE NO ACCIDENTS. I think it was no accident that I came across a quote from Franz Kafka last night – to the effect that if you remain quite still and solitary, “the world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Will it? I am an empty cup. What will show itself?

– Tom Montag, Curlew: Home, Chapter 1 – “The Journey,” third paragraph

The natural history of peace

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

A couple newly scanned articles were added to the archive of articles on peaceful societies at Peaceful Societies.org this morning. Of greatest general interest is one called “The Natural History of Peace: A Positive View of Human Nature and Its Potential,” by Leslie Sponsel.

Sponsel reviews a vast range of literature to support his argument that peace is an essential part of the human experience. While he does not deny the obvious reality of violence and warfare in the past and present, his evidence casts strong doubts on many of the arguments made by those who maintain that humanity is intrinsically violent. The author reviews literature from biology, primate ethology, human ethology, human paleontology, prehistoric archaeology, ethnology and ethnography to make several critical conclusions: that human violence is not inevitable; that warfare is not universal; that peacefulness prevails, and has prevailed, in many societies; and that humans, by nature, can be either peaceful or violent.

Mountain state (1)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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High in the mountains
one hayfield remains uncut.
A doe’s ear twitches.

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Bed of the Dry Fork
scored for tic-tac-toe: water fills all
the squares with zero.

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Camp at the woods’ edge.
Morning sun brings rhododendrons
into your tent.

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Steep banks, big boulders,
pools – everything but otters
in Otter Creek.

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At Dolly Sods
when the wind slows down, it’s delicious:
wild azaleas.

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When they cut the forest,
the soil burned off. Bleeding hearts
bloom among the rocks.

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On two different hikes
I looked at lichens & left
the map in my pack.

Visit the Monongahela National Forest webpage for more information about some of the places referenced here, including Dolly Sods Wilderness (history here) and Otter Creek Wilderness. For a previous Via Negativa post on West Virginia, see Almost heaven.

Cibola 116

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 115 of 119 in the series Cibola


Simon Zopeloxochitl (cont’d)

My lord, it’s true, everything
I’ve written: they honor the Lords
of Earth & Sky without drawing
a drop of blood.
Any man can carve a god
in his own image: feathered shaft,
sacrifice reduced to mere intent,
pure attention.
Their priests, sitting in darkness,
can raise the Earth’s very pulse.

Despite their suspicions, they let me
observe their ceremonies–though once
they found a pile of my sketches
& burned them. I learned
of a lake to the west where
the ancestors live, a place of herons.

It’s true, they impersonate
the gods of our youth:
Xilonen, Xochipilli, Xiuhtecuhtli.
No writing, no calendar competes
for the Sun Priest’s loyalty;
his accounting is immaculate.
The nameless days
announce themselves
simply by showing their unrepeatable faces.

I have learned
the Popoloca murmur
of wind through dry reeds,
the blood-colored canyons
where the rivers go
to hide under roots of willows.
I have seen the sun & the moon
trade places.

Toward the end, the nahualli
rarely slept except in snatches.
He half-believed a yellowbeard fable
that left no place for him,
an above-ground version of
that World where every locale
melts into every other.

Out of cliffs & crags & buttes
he tried to dream it:
a No-Place just for him,
garden within walls.
They scattered his remains
like dangerous seeds across what they call
Corn Mountain.

When I found the hidden trail to the top
I brought two scraps of deer hide
I’d prepared in lieu of paper,
one dyed red, the other painted black.
On the red parchment
in black ink I inscribed
the names of Christ–
Dios, Plumed Serpent,
Tloque Nahuaque, Sacred Heart–

& on the black scrap, in red ink
the mirror-words
for Tezcatl-Ipoca:

I opened a vein, scattered my heart’s
petals across both pieces,
placed them at opposite ends of the butte.
In four directions I sent my breath,
calling Vulture by his secret name,
Lord of Oracles.

Six days later
when I went to check
both scraps were gone.
Two scrolls of coyote shit
sat in their place,
concise & pointed.

Popoloca – Barbarian. What the Aztecs and other Mexica invaders of the Valley of Mexico were called by the urbanized Toltec, whom they eventually supplanted.

the gods of our youth – I.e., those presumed to predate their cultural assimilation into Mesoamerica.

a yellowbeard fable – I.e., the Seven Cities myth of a Christian utopia in the wilderness.

one dyed red, the other painted black – The Aztec kenning (traditional metaphor) for writing is “the black and the red,” referring to the colors of ink used for the glyphs and illustrations.

mirror-words – Aztec kenning for a kenning.

Tezcatl-Ipoca was the patron deity of sorcerers and the mythological opponent of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. The former was identified primarily with the Mexica and the latter with the Toltecs and their predecessors.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Welcome to Accident, Maryland

In the town of Accident, lawns are cratered from the impacts of meteorites and loose pieces of passing jets. People who would never consider sitting in a tree during a thunderstorm regularly commit themselves to four-wheeled suicide machines for work and pleasure. Hometown boys and girls volunteer for slavery and the slaying of enemies, because they need the work. No one deliberates for very long before taking action – or inaction, as the case may be. People huddle anxiously in front of their televisions awaiting news and updates about the gods, who live outrageously as only immortals are able. “We work hard, and we play hard, too,” they say when prompted.

In the town of Accident, they’ve never not been at war. The Indian wars, the wars for political independence and/or somebody’s freedom, the mine wars, the war against nature – it’s always the same terror, a cold winter coming on with hunger already showing its sallow face. Better stock up on happy meals. The wolf must be kept from the door, they say, placing bounties and sending their crack shots off into the wilderness. Their love is a jealous love, but their friendships are chancy affairs which they feel free to walk away from as soon as the other turns out not to be a comfortable mirror image of themselves.

In the town of Accident, license and power are frequently dressed up as Freedom and led around the streets in an open cart. On Memorial Day, they serve magic funnel cakes that reappear as often as they are eaten. Here is the church and here is the steeple, and here is heaven right now where we can enjoy it. Why seek enlightenment if you can’t know when you’re enlightened? Knowledge is fucking, this we know, for the Bible tells us so! (“And Abraham knew his wife Sarah, and she conceived.”) In the town of Accident, no one can conceive of different ways of knowing. In their public schools, children learn about frogs by picking through their corpses rather than by sitting quietly at the edge of a marsh for several years.

In the town of Accident, New Agers view nature as a treasure house of archetypes and spirit guides, and spokespeople for the extractive industries wax rhapsodic about Mother Nature and Wise Use. Their mythology employs a special, arcane term for the outcome of conflict: progress. They think that those who do not know the truth – such as the people in all the neighboring towns – will be much the worse for it, so they’re really doing them a favor by burning their crops and houses and killing all their fighting-age males.

In the town of Accident, a single backward glance can turn every accident into a happy one. Perhaps it’s true that, as our mayor says, mistakes were made. But Someone has a plan, and we’re all in it. This, in fact, is the pinnacle of wisdom: to know that there is not and has never been such a thing as Accident. Spread the word.