Brick and mortar

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I’ve been coming to Penn State’s Pattee Library since I was a kid. My dad worked as a reference librarian there, and I learned my way around the Library of Congress cataloguing system before I learned my times tables. I remember when they first started to computerize the catalogue, how novel that seemed. Dad was active in the American Library Association’s Machine-Assisted Reference Services (MARS) committee way back in the dark ages before the p.c. revolution. Now, so many library materials are available through electronic databases, slogans such as “the true university is a collection of books” seem mossy indeed.

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The library has almost doubled in size since I was a kid, with the addition of the new Paterno wing. Everything’s been changed: what’s shelved where, what the different sections are called, how you get from one part of the library to another. They even repainted the ceiling above the central stairwell in the oldest part of the library a few years back. It had been monochrome, but I kind of prefer the new look.

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As an aging alumnus, I most treasure those parts of campus that remind me of the way it was when I was a student. It’s been undergoing a building boom for the last ten years or more, but two of the main ingredients of the central campus landscape that haven’t changed are locally quarried limestone blocks and American elms. The limestone seems especially appropriate because it’s faithful to the underlying geology. Preserving the presence of the American elms seems noble in a kind of Sisyphean way, since Dutch elm disease is such a threat. As soon as a tree contracts it, down it comes and a new elm sapling is planted in its place.

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Since universities may now exist partly or even wholly online, the phrase “brick-and-mortar” has become the usual modifier to distinguish the traditional kind. Built of limestone blocks below and brick above, Old Botany is easily the coolest building on campus. It’s not very big, and no classes meet there, so a lot of people don’t give it a second glance. It reminds me for some reason of the kind of student I used to be, gazing out at the sky, my mind elsewhere.

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I was always dreaming about a shortcut to knowledge, like everyone else since Adam and Eve. These kids today – well, they have that shortcut. Some other dreamers actually set about designing it. It’s called the Internet. Or maybe Google. Or the Wikipedia. Heck, I don’t know – call it the Tower of Babel if you want! Now, hand me another brick…

Always present

This entry is part 38 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’ve been reading Paul Zweig, and responding to his poems with poems of my own. This is the twenty-second poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or two to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

And Yet . . .
by Paul Zweig

It’s true, we carry the world inside us,
Always present like light.

* * * *


It’s false, the world we carry inside us,
like a stone in a chicken’s crop,
that false tooth.
The winter light;
the red haze of maple buds just beginning to swell;
the story in the paper about the walled-off beach in Haiti
where cruise ships disgorge their passengers
without telling them where they are,
& the local man interviewed for the story says
They want to come here, because they’ve been everywhere else
& my country is the loveliest of all

it hurts, this world, it makes us ache with longing.
And yet no amount of saliva will grow a pearl around it,
because it is not the real world, which we do not know.

But the world knows us.
It doesn’t stop where we do, at the fingertips,
doesn’t get sidetracked in the labyrinths of lung & gut.
We glow in its shadow the way the moon glows, lurid,
during an eclipse.
It seeds us with cities, this world that was once a womb.
When we die, the abandoned residents
eat themselves out of house & home.

Like the wish hiding in the wishbone,
I take my own sweet time.
If you want to see me sooner, stand
between two mirrors turned to face each other.
Though the antibodies will all muster out,
crane your neck as best you can,
look over their shoulders.
There at the end of the tunnel:
that darkness. A hint of stars.

Walking on the crust

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Geez, Ben, has it really been nine years since you checked out? It was late January, I remember that. Three or four days after getting the news, I was still consumed by violent fantasies of revenge against that unrepentant son of a bitch who got you hooked. I needed someone to blame, I guess. I went out for a walk around the mountain, which was a bit of a struggle due to a deep snowpack with an icy crust that wasn’t quite strong enough to hold me up. So I lurched along, trying hard not to slip and falling through at unpredictable intervals. I made a bet with myself: “If I can take twenty steps on top of the crust without breaking through, I’ll stop fantasizing about violence and try to forgive.” And what do you know? Twenty steps later, I still hadn’t broken through! So I amended it: “If I can make it all the way down this hill on top of the ice…” Damn, how’d I get so light all of a sudden? It was spooky! Finally, I said, “If I can make it all the way back to the house” – and I almost did. I guess it had just been a matter of concentration all along. I could see the smoke from my chimney rising straight up, lighter than the air.

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You know, it’s funny – I’ve never actually sat on your bench. Well, it’s all wrong, the way they installed it facing away from the street. Probably when the plan for downtown benches was first put forth, someone in the Borough Council objected that they might become an inducement for the Wrong Element to loiter and scare people, so they compromised by putting in benches that no one would actually want to sit on for more than a few minutes – shoppers resting their weary arms, someone taking an important call. But your family did well in putting your name on the closest bench to the record store. You know, they have a new bus stop across the street, now. Big new library, too. And dude, right across from your bench, someone just opened a Jamaican restaurant! I heard it’s good.

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The kids still sneak down into “Little New York” to drink. They think they’re gangbangers now – it’s pretty funny. You should see them walking along with their pants down around their knees, all rebelling in step. I’m sure it’s no easier than it ever was to grow up blue-collar in State College, PA. But these days, as every place gets more and more like every other place, probably the only towns that aren’t full of fake-ass shit are the ones that are just about dead. And State College is booming.

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There’ve been a hell of a lot of changes in town and on campus in the last nine years, but one thing hasn’t changed: no matter where you go, in the borough or the surrounding townships, someone is always tearing something down or putting something up.

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“Happy Valley” may have started as a tourism promotion campaign, but then people started to believe it. Penn State even runs its own retirement community now on a hill above the bypass. Who wouldn’t want to grow old on the frontiers of utopia? Somewhere in State College, there’s always a light left burning in broad daylight to reassure us that progress is on the way.

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Proof that at least some people in State College can laugh at themselves: the State College Centennial Pigs. I guess you’d remember this. The official story is that the sculpture was based on an historic photo of a sow nursing two piglets right in the middle of College Avenue, but with the Penn State campus right across the street, the symbolism is pretty hard to miss.

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The shoppes and restaurants downtown come and go, seemingly unaffected by all the new box stores on the outskirts. I’ve never seen so many upscale clothing stores and hair salons in one place. You can actually buy pre-ripped jeans now – imagine that! Instant authenticity! And there are more pizza places, coffee shops and tanning salons than ever. The owner of one tanning place just got busted for making secret videos of his patrons. Sick bastard.

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There are not one, but two Wal-Mart Supercenters now, one for each end of town. A group of about forty local activists staged a protest outside of one of them last month, holding signs and handing out literature. The funny thing is, according to the article in the paper, nobody really gave them a hard time, and some people were downright friendly. Does anyone actually enjoy shopping in a place like that? Go into Wal-Mart and all you hear is stressed-out parents yelling at their kids. I think being greeted at the door by people who are paid to act cheerful sets the tone – the whole place stinks of humiliation.

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Bouyed up the university, State College is still bubble-land surrounded by Bubba-land, metastasizing suburbs with no urban core, its bounty untroubled by the occasional small mutiny.

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Anyway, I don’t want to bore you. I saw your bench sitting there empty next to the record store and thought I’d just say Hey.

Please note that the last photo is not a double exposure, simply a shot of reflections in a store window to the inside of which a poster of John Coltrane had been taped.

Why I love the Old Testament

These generalizations about the Tanakh – its proper name – don’t quite hold for the latest books, Ezekiel and especially Daniel, which betray a great deal of Iranian influence and thus should really be classed more with the intertestamental apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. NOTE: This is a draft post, subject to further refinement. These reasons are basically all right off the top of my head – the kind of things I would tell you if we were sitting down to coffee, and you happened to ask me how the heck a professed anarchist like me can love the Bible.

1. It does not depict a creation ex nihilo, but opens (pace the usual translations), “When God was beginning to create the heavens and the earth…” God creates as a sculpter does, day by day uncovering an emergent order from the primordial wilderness (see 15, below).

2. It contains no theology (aside from God’s teasing statement to Moses in Exodus 3:14, the sense of which is “I will be whoever the hell I want!”).

3. It is not entirely monotheistic, alluding in a few places to other gods (e.g. Psalm 82); depicting Yahweh as having divine offspring and/or representatives (“angels”); and suggesting a multiple nature for divinity itself with Yahweh’s frequent alternate name Elohim, which is a plural form. (Adonai is also a plural form, but this “is usually construed as a respectful, and not a syntactic plural,” whereas “it is argued that the word elohim had an origin in a plural grammatical form.” See the Wikipedia article Names of God in Judaism for further discussion of the way different names reflect different aspects or personalities of divinity.)

4. Its Yahweh is not incorporeal, all-good, or all-wise, and in some stories resembles an amoral trickster deity similar to the Norse Loki, the Yoruba Eshu or the Maidu Coyote. Yahweh kicks ass.

5. It is free of the poisonous influence of radical dualism (good and evil – or matter and spirit – as wholly separate, mutually exclusive categories). The problem of evil is raised but not “solved.”

6. The destiny of the individual soul after death is alluded to, but nowhere treated as a matter of consequence.

7. The language is direct, rhythmic and repetitious in the manner of the best oral epic. The graceful language and vivid imagery recall poetry more than prose.

8. It is full of analogic thinking and creative leaps, such as “Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward” or “As the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools.”

9. So-called “Biblical parallelism” extends from the level of the verse to the overall organization (alternate tellings of the same story, even alternate histories – e.g. Judges-Kings vs. Chronicles), teaching a tolerance for alternative interpretations.

10. For every passage that seems hateful and exclusive, there’s a passage that’s accepting and inclusive.

11. Hints of an earlier matriarchal order abound, and despite the overwhelming patriarchal emphasis, there are more strong female characters than in any comparable work from antiquity. In Proverbs, Wisdom is allegorized as a woman. By way of comparison, Zhuangzi, my other favorite anthology of sacred literature, contains virtually no references to women.

12. The Saul-David cycle has a depth of psychological realism worthy of the greatest novels. In general, Biblical characters are three-dimensional, flawed beings.

13. No one has ever written a book on The Plants of the Prajnaparamita Sutra.

14. Human beings are consistently depicted as a very small and weak part of an overwhelmingly large universe, and become guilty of the worst kind of impiety if they start to believe otherwise.

15. Desert or wilderness (tohu) is portrayed as part of a separate order that in some sense (as the tohu-wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2) predates and gives rise to Creation; thus, it is a place of testing and renewal (for Jacob/Israel, David, Elijah, etc.) and an image almost of Emptiness in the Buddhist sense.

16. Even as captured and subverted by end-time and Messianic theologies (including Christianity), its literary richness and depth of ambiguity has provided a much-needed moderating influence on radical movements, from the hey-day of gnosticism, through the Scholastics and Kabbalists, down to the Inquisition (which is, in one form or another, on-going).

17. It spawned two translations (the King James Version and, I gather, Martin Luther’s) which rank among the most beloved and influential works of literature in their respective languages – mainly by virtue of cleaving as much as possible to the literal meaning, even at the price of excessive strangeness.

18. The opening chapter of Genesis justifiably served as Exhibit A for the pagan author Longinus’ work On the Sublime. In the Bible, things don’t have to be ideal or perfect in a Platonic sense to inspire awe or reverence.

19. The Bible’s emphasis on mitzvot (“commandments,” duties) basically reinvented religion in the West, turning it away from a primary emphasis on the worship of power and toward an emphasis on the cultivation of individual morality and social justice.

20. The Bible makes room for scathing critiques of kingship and priesthood, and its nebiim (“prophets”) constitute one of the earliest and most important literary and historical models for conscientious objection to institutional power in the West.

21. Because awe is the beginning of wisdom, as the Bible repeatedly suggests, and because spirit and breath are intimately connected, as the Hebrew word ruah (and possibly the very name Yahweh) implies.


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In all that snow, the only spot of flame was a white pine snag.

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In the white pine’s former life, its sap, trickling down from woodpecker holes, would’ve been the one thing close to white. Now, the woodpeckers can drill all they want – the wells have run dry. Not that that’s what they’re after, of course. And not that the sap has left the wood: that’s why the tree lingers for so many decades, wonderfully well preserved.

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A pine knot is like a cross between an eye and a knuckle bone, the last part of the tree to succumb to rot. Pine knots go off in a fireplace like firecrackers – that’s how full of life they still are. This isn’t just hyperbole: dead snags harbor more living things – fungi, molds, bacteria, invertebrates – than a living tree every could. It’s not death they embody, but a different kind of life.

Essential blogging

Most bloggers I know are happy to come up with maybe one really good post per week, if that. Due to the very nature of the blog beast, few readers expect the kind of consistent brilliance I’m seeing at two different blogs right now. Each blog features a tightly focused series mingling art and personal narrative with a larger social critique.

Teju Cole’s month-long Nigerian travelogue and meditation is due to expire at the end of January, so if you haven’t heeded any of my previous plugs, please consider doing so now. Here’s an excerpt from his latest post:

A phrase I heard often in Nigeria was idea l’a need. It means “all we need is the general idea or concept.” People would say this in different situations. It was a way of saying: that’s good enough, there’s no need to get bogged down in details. A flip, improvisory attitude. Idea l’a need. I heard it time and again. After the electrician had installed an antenna, all we got was unclear reception to CNN. The reaction wasn’t that he’d done an incomplete job. It was, rather: we’ll make do, after all idea l’a need. Why bother with sharp reception when you can have snowy reception? And once, driving in town with an older relative, I discovered that the latch for the seatbelt was broken. Oh pull it across your chest and sit on the buckle, he said, idea l’a need. Safety was not the point. The semblance of safety was what we were after.

The other thing I want to call your attention to is Natalie d’Arbeloff’s ongoing memoir project at Blaugustine. This seems to have happened almost by accident – sparked, as luck would have it, by a comment from none other than Teju Cole. While on the surface d’Arbeloff’s memoir appears more modest than Cole’s in its aspirations toward a larger critique, the sense of a life boiled down to its lyrical essence gives it a highly suggestive quality. Here’s an excerpt from the January 17 post, “Lost Treasure”:

So when and why did I decide to bury Mickey?

I’ve tried but can’t get back into the state of mind I was in when on a certain day of that happy Paraguayan childhood I went walking (was it by the river or in the orange grove or in the wide open flat expanse of thorny palms?) and at some point, bent down and started digging (with my fingers?), laid my beloved little Mickey Mouse in the hole and covered him with dry red soil.

Didn’t I even leave a marker on the grave, some stones or sticks? Why would I want to bury my favourite toy? All I know is that I was sure I’d find him again and when I couldn’t, some time later (how much later?) I was devastated.

And why is it that after all these years I’m still desolate about losing the Mickey? “Taking the Mickey” means to make fun of. What does Losing the Mickey mean?

Winter weaving

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Weaving: the word is now three-quarters given over to clichéd usage. However, seeing the world as a woven thing – a net, a tapestry, a basket – is a time-honored insight in many traditional cultures, now given renewed force by the discoveries of modern ecologists. And how is it, I wonder, that a stock metaphor can avoid becoming a cliché in oral societies, and can enter song and narrative as consistently and beautifully as a warp thread? Maybe because, as long as it exists only as sound, language can avoid the impression of lifeless objecthood. Or because, in an oral society, metaphor remains close to the ritual context, in which common things are referred to by special terms designed “perhaps… to impress upon the participants that these common things are not at all what they seem to be but possess a hidden meaning and hence a profound ritual efficacy when they are used in the context of the cult,” according to Victor Turner (Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual).

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The Dogon elder Ogotemmeli, as interpreted by French anthropologist Marcel Griaule (Conversations with Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas):

At sunrise on the appointed day the seventh ancestor Spirit spat out eighty threads of cotton; these he distributed between his upper teeth which acted as the teeth of a weaver’s reed. In this way he made the uneven threads of a warp. He did the same with his lower teeth to make the even threads. By opening and shutting his jaws the Spirit caused the threads of the warp to make the movements required in weaving. His whole face took part in the work, his nose studs serving as the block, while the stud in his lower lip was a shuttle.

As the threads crossed and uncrossed, the two tips of the Spirit’s forked tongue pushed the thread of the weft to and fro, and the web took shape from his mouth in the breath of the second revealed Word.

For the Spirit was speaking while the work proceeded. As did the Nummo in the first revelation, he imparted his Word by means of a technical process, so that all men could understand. By so doing he showed the identity of material actions and spiritual forces, or rather the need for their co-operation.

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Physicist Fritjof Capra, in a 1997 lecture based on his book The Web of Life:

The systems view of life was formulated first by the organismic biologists. It holds that the essential properties of a living system are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships between the parts. These properties are destroyed when the system is dissected, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements. Although we can discern individual parts in any system, these parts are not isolated, and the nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts. It took many years to formulate this insight clearly, and several key concepts of systems thinking were developed during that period.

The new science of ecology, which began during the 1920s, enriched the emerging systemic way of thinking by introducing a very important concept, the concept of the network. From the beginning of ecology, ecological communities have been seen as consisting of organisms linked together in network fashion through feeding relations. At first, ecologists formulated the concepts of food chains and food cycles, and these were soon expanded to the contemporary concept of the food web.

The “Web of Life” is, of course, an ancient idea, which has been used by poets, philosophers, and mystics throughout the ages to convey their sense of the interwovenness and interdependence of all phenomena. As the network concept became more and more prominent in ecology, systems thinkers began to use network models at all systems levels, viewing organisms as networks of organs and cells, just as ecosystems are understood as networks of individual organisms. This led to the key insight that the network is a pattern that is common to all life. Wherever we see life, we see networks.

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Pioneering participant-observer anthropologist Gladys A. Reichard, in Spider Woman: A Story of Navajo Weavers and Chanters:

Much is said [in the book Indian Blankets and Their Makers] about keeping designs open so that the weaver “does not weave her spirit in.” The idea is still believed by some women. Atlnaba makes many rugs with borders. The tapestry of the Sun’s House has a black border. But at the upper right-hand corner she has one gray thread across the border to serve as a “path.” The little red-background rug she made for me also has a black border, but it is unbroken.

From the discussion and criticisms of my [Navajo] guests this day I gather that many designs with openings, especially those that are irregular are really due to miscalculations and ill-adjustments. They may be later rationalized as “sacred.” One figure [in the book] is, because of its age and texture, a beautiful piece; these modern weavers have nothing but scorn for it. The separate motives are not woven regularly, nor are they well spaced. My critics and teachers refuse to make a rationalization for “holiness.” They continue with their remarks, leafing the pages over and over and back again to begin once more.


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At 7:05 yesterday evening, winter returned with a bang – actually, several bangs. Thundersnow! The wind picked up, and rain turned in less than a minute into driving snow. I had to go up to my parents’ house to make some phone calls; the second one was to a friend who lives along this same ridge about twelve miles to the southwest. He told me the storm had passed right over them, and the wind roared like a tornado. When he and his family emerged from the basement twenty minutes later, an inch and a half of snow were on the ground – “and it has a really strange consistency, dry but still sticky,” he said.

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We only got a quarter inch right then, but a couple more inches fell during the night. The wind continues to gust, blowing the snow around almost as if it were January or something. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the thaw is finally over, but the long-range forecasts aren’t good.

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I found something I’d written last year and forgotten about, at the end of a post from January 23:

If you’re going out, be careful
where you step. The wind
has been everywhere, erasing
its own tracks. Who knows
what the snow might hide.

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I took my camera for a walk in the lee of the ridge, and found some treasures – enough for three posts, at least. Up on the ridgetop, the wind roared and snow was plastered on the west side of the tree trunks. You didn’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind had been blowing.

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When the clouds lift


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Photography can demystify vision, which is good. It teaches you that the ability to see, really see, depends on a kind of aesthetic muscle that gets stronger with use. It teaches you about grace: that “chance favors the prepared mind,” as Louis Pasteur once put it.


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“As I was walking up the stair, I saw a man that wasn’t there.” Well, O.K., I was actually walking down the road, and it was a tree rather than a man, but you get the idea. The sun sets early in a northeast-facing hollow in January. Right around the next bend, I would drop down into the shadow.


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When I was younger and more idealistic, I thought that a direct, Zen-like seeing of things as they are in themselves, completely free of the veil of interpretations, was the only worthwhile goal of authentic insight. Now, I feel that the more ordinary kind of defamiliarization – the anthropomorphic, “othering” impulse – might be just as important. Last week, at a public lecture by the preeminent historian of American religion, Martin E. Marty, I learned a new word that incorporates both the process of making the familiar unfamiliar and making the unfamiliar familiar: syntectics, from the Greek syn-, together, and ektos, outside or external. It seems to have been coined by educational theorists interested in trying to find ways to teach creativity back in the 70s, and if it remains obscure – well, I can think of some pretty obvious reasons for that! Learning to see as a poet, artist or scientist sees involves a relentless questioning of every cliché, every assumption, every accustomed view. But how else, barring enlightenment, can we retain a sense of wonder and at-homeness in a universe far more complex than we can ever hope to imagine?


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“The sacred is that which repels our advance.” I remember when I first came across this quote in a book by the contemporary philosopher Alphonso Lingis, feeling ridiculously pleased with myself that I had also had this same insight not too many months before. But by now, some four or five years later, I’m afraid this discovery has calcified into another comfortable view. Isn’t the immersion and attempted dissolution of self in other also a sacred thing? Isn’t compassion at least as necessary as syntectics to the perception of holiness? Must the eye or the finger inevitably diminish whatever they touch? Must the mind always grasp in order to understand, or can it learn also to dwell in openness, like an inexhaustible ear?


This entry is part 37 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’ve been reading Paul Zweig, and responding to his poems with poems of my own. This is the twenty-first poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of Zweig’s Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or two to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Parting the Sea
by Paul Zweig

Fog hides the shallow ditch, no more
Than a grassy furrow, marking the edge of our land.

* * * *

Molding the Image
              Aaron speaks

Stay up on the mountain too long, & it changes you.
Droplets of cloud cling to your beard.
Your skin begins to glow like a salamander’s belly.
The occasional groans of the trees start to sound
like the way a crowd should murmur.

Waking up every morning to find the same,
present moment whispering
its incessant demands in your ear –
it makes you intolerable.
You lose touch with the teeming pleasures
that ordinary people crave, because their days are long
& time points in one direction.

Living in the clouds, you lose all perspective,
until one day your worst fantasies
rise up against you:
the luster of gold unfastened from wrist & ankle,
oiled bodies ready for some glistening bullock.
The smashed tablets.
The swords dripping with gore.

Look, I am not that man Moses,
so incoherent with whatever strong emotion
happens to possess him.
God gave me the subtle tongue of a go-between
& the vision to match, bending
in both directions. Look,
the needs of the people are holy to me.
I have been to the mountain, & I can tell you,
there’s nothing up there that’s even faintly human.