Beginning with pain

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Someday, at the end of the nightmare of knowing,
may I emerge singing praise and jubilation to assenting angels.
May I strike my heart’s keys clearly, and may none fail
because of slack, uncertain, or fraying strings.
May the tears that steam down my face
make me more radiant: may my hidden weeping
bloom. How I will cherish you then, you grief-torn nights!
Had I only received you, inconsolable sisters,
on more abject knees, only buried myself with more abandon
in your loosened hair. How we waste our afflictions!
We study them, stare out beyond them into bleak continuance,
hoping to glimpse some end. Whereas they’re really
our wintering foliage, our dark greens of meaning, one
of the seasons of the clandestine year–; not only
a season–: they’re site, settlement, shelter, soil, abode.

Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Tenth Elegy,” translated by Edward Snow

Rilke composed – or as he would’ve said, received – the ten Duino Elegies in two great fits of inspiration separated by ten years of drought. In the case of the Tenth Elegy, I personally feel the lengthy conclusion written in 1922 barely begins to fulfill the promise of the first fifteen lines, which were among the sections completed in 1912. So I prefer to think of Duino Elegies as an incomplete and imperfect work – and like it better that way. (For those who know German, the original may be read here.)

May I emerge . . . May I strike my heart’s keys . . . How we waste our afflictions!

The shaman’s self-conjuration is the original resurrection, following his initiatory self-sacrifice: in northern Europe, Odin hanging himself from Yggdrasil is one, dim echo. As particularistic ways of knowing are displaced by the great monocultures we call religions, this pattern, like so many others, loses its connection to lived experience, gets turned into myth. The pretended universalism of religions, with their exclusivity clauses, ends up obscuring the true universality of human experience. To some extent, of course, the primordial patterns are retained as esoteric, would-be “inner traditions”; in that sense, the world religions can resemble Trojan horses. Our excessive fondness for the myth of progress leads most modern students of religion to assume the existence of an upward trajectory, from “primitive” to more advanced. But in fact, a dispassionate look at the anthropological evidence shows that spiritual practices grow less and less complex the more stratified and oppressive – i.e. “civilized” – societies become.

The earliest artworks we know about – 25,000-year-old cave paintings from the south of France – are already highly sophisticated and beautiful creations. They may be viewed, in a sense, as heartworks, figures emerging from and returning to the earth’s own, dark viscera. To this day, through art, music, dance, poetry, I believe we do retain the ability to connect with more primordial ways of knowing, though in the absence of vital traditions the results may turn out to be, well, primitive. For example, I’m not sure to what extent, if at all, our modern, autonomous and unitary selfhood may resemble the roomier, more populous pysche of the pre-modern human being. But I give artists like Rilke and his great teacher Rodin a great deal of credit for rediscovering at least a few pieces of the puzzle on their own.

What about the rest of us? We can, of course, put the received text on a pedestal, turn it into an idol, whelp another religion. We can choose a number of such signposts to direct all our energies toward some fancied goal, such as awe or salvation or direct seeing – getting on the wrong bus just to grab a seat, as my friend the Sylph likes to say.

Or we can leave the poem alone, as Rilke himself advised: Snow says that he “distrusted commentaries as dilutions and foreclosures of the individual’s reading experience. When a friend wrote to him that she felt the key to one of the Sonnets to Orpheus lay in the idea of the transmigration of souls, he responded: ‘You are thinking too far beyond the poem itself . . . I believe that no poem in the Sonnets to Orpheus means anything that is not fully written out there, often, it is true, with its own secret name. All “allusion” I am convinced would be contradictory to the indescribable “being-there” of the poem.'”

Better yet, we can find the courage – or chutzpah – to write our own endings to the Tenth Elegy. Edward Snow’s apprenticeship to these poems suggests the level of insight and humility that must be brought to bear. Think how many other translators – most of them highly accomplished poets in their own right – have fallen short where he succeeded. This would be a nearly impossible task – and therefore, perhaps, the worthy goal of a true spiritual vocation.

Beyond that, it seems to me that seeing the world as a heartwork in whose creation we all participate is the first step. I do not know what the last step – or even the next – may be. But I do strongly suspect that nothing more or less than healing may lie at the center of this “journey of a thousand li,” this so-called Imitation of Christ, this self-mockery, this whatever-you-will.

Conjuring place

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The bi-weekly topic at Ecotone Wiki is “Imaginary Places.” Go there.

All places are imaginary.* It’s how we imagine them that makes all the difference. Do we come in peace?

Do we come to conquer, to colonize, to pioneer, to inhabit, to celebrate, to lose ourselves, to find ourselves?

When we move, do we move as the Amish do, following careful investigation and in full consideration of the needs of the community that will move with us?

If we move in answer to the demands of job or family, do we look for places that remind us of the last place we lived? Do we seek a new version of the first place we ever knew, having perhaps imprinted upon it like a newly hatched chick upon its mother?

When we arrive, do we test and taste the air, the soil, the water? Do we come to a place with all our old dreams intact, convinced that if we can find our own quiet little corner, all our unhappiness and anxieties will melt away?

Are we passionate, casual, indifferent? Surely the places we inhabit will reflect the level of intensity we bring to them. Do we arrive in a new place like a suitor looking for his one true love, or like someone on a quest for the ultimate orgasm? When we fantasize about getting away from it all, do we picture a tent or a cabin in the midst of the perfect, airbrushed, Sierra Club calendar pin-up? Do we come like a hermit or a monastic community, looking for the right combination of sublimity and enchantment to lead our minds away from more worldly temptations?

Do we imagine the land as a stage for individual or divine action, as an environment, as an ambience? Do we pledge ourselves to the cherished wild only to domesticate it, like the stereotypical Southern woman marrying a rogue? Are we seeking a powerful or distinguished father- or mother-figure, or a charismatic teacher who will know just what to do with the confusion of desires that follow us around?

Do we seek a laboratory for scientific, spiritual or aesthetic experimentation? Do we seek symphony or silence? Natural complexity? A blank slate?

If we concede to places the right to elude human control, can we be comfortable with the uneasiness, the sense of permanent homelessness this might inspire? Can we preserve open spaces within our own hearts?

Can we become, as Aldo Leopold suggested we must, just plain citizens of the land community?

Can we imagine the land finally as its own person, imagining and inhabiting each of us in turn?

Do we dare?

*That is, spaces can be delimited and described at varying scales in a theoretically endless number of ways, within the limits of human observational skills, sign systems and/or trans-human revelations.

For related discussions, see Ten Thoughts About Possession, Learning language, learning poetry, and Holding forth (among others).

Some notions about peonies

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Peonies open only to fill with rain.
Lightweights, they quickly reach their limit
and set their inverted cups down in the dirt.


In their native East
when peonies bow
does the gardener bow back?
I look for Mecca in every direction,
envy the ground beetles
these censers spilling over
for no one. With legs uncrossed
I medidate upon the absence
of thorns.


Perhaps we should regard the bud as the main event: asteroid no realer than the dominion of the Little Prince, light green and each day more shot with pink – like a nugget of April smuggled into June. Outpost for a troupe, a squadron of small black ants whose duties evidently involve unstinting circumambulation.

And how directly this tumescence suggests to a student of human sexuality some alternate node of climax, some new biological imperative that the blind hand of evolution even now is groping toward, a focus of higher feeling a la Teilhard de Chardin – if not indeed the very apotheosis of erotica as pioneered or even invented (we are led to believe) by the French in general.

But this of course is just the sort of analogy their sloppier thinkers prefer – sex calling to sex across the divide between arbitrary “kingdoms” – while in fact the peony’s too prim to take part in any insurgency. More Hagia Sophia than pleasure dome, its dark leaves a jacquerie of pikes in pageant only, tough roots rumored to hold an antidote to melancholy – itself a narcotic for believers of a Manichaean bent. I’d often wondered what had become of it, that lovely funk I used to fall into each spring when the trees had finished retaking their four fifths of the sky, a recoiling, a hunkering down that used to blunt the sharp corners and muffle every bright and eager note. And when the fog finally lifts there’s a New World in diminuendo, growing ever softer and more diffuse, settling almost imperceptibly on its much too slender stem.


Now the thrushes have gathered
to sing on the sprigs without thinking:
how could you hear their song in the trees
and not be glad with all you’ve got and start drinking?

What could be better than branches renewed
by time, with buds peeking
into the garden? When a wind comes on
they nod to each other, it seems, as though they were speaking.

Solomon Ibn Gabirol (11th century), translated by Peter Cole


There are those who put
words into the mouths
of every flower: poets,
lovers and lawyers.
I resolve to stop
right here, to go
and listen.

The Cape of the End of the Earth (dream fugue)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The light, they said, the light. Don’t laugh! Someone one must bear witness to the play of things we have no words for: the way the memory flutters her figure. It has gone to my head, the flattery of aspen leaves.

In a dream we steered a car gingerly though a cobblestoned labyrinth in the transplanted medieval heart of a Middle American hometown. I was eluding our sinister pursuers, I was teaching silence to the night birds and the Lord’s Prayer to the crickets, who played everything backwards with their feet. It was nice to be able to hear where we’d been, not as if in a soundtrack to a near-death showing of the movie of our lives, but as an ascent to some snow-lined cirque in the French Pyrenees. They had a sign advising all park visitors to turn off their radios and “listen to the music of the mountains”–a sentiment we heartily endorsed, primarily because the rental car’s stereo didn’t work. We hiked for a while through the alpine meadows and watched through binoculars as the chamois clambered on the cliffs.

This was a long time ago, a one-day diversion from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and Cabo Finisterre, the Cape of the End of the Earth, which was covered with blooming wildflowers when we finally got there one day in May. Franco had only recently passed; the streets of every Spanish town still belonged to the Guardia Civil in their sinister black capes. We chanced on a saint’s day celebration in one small town where the men were put in charge of peeling and chopping onions, piles and piles of large, sweet onions with the dirt still clinging to their roots. This was a task well suited for a family of pilgrims, they thought, handing my father a knife. Come weep with us, even if we share no more than fourteen words in common. Weep and be glad, since no one can ever recall anything by its proper name.

Ah, father onion! We strip off all your masks–for what? To give the stew its fundamental tone. And in my dream the car shrank and shrank until it was small enough to fold up and stick in a back pocket. We came out onto the square and strolled nonchalantly in a counterclockwise direction so we could look directly into the damp faces of all the town’s inhabitants one by one. (Remember, there was nothing on TV in those days.) “The eye doesn’t shine,” says Levinas. “It speaks.”

But I prefer the mysterious pronouncement of Vladamir Khlebnikov, who said, “Words are the living eyes of secrecy.” Sometimes even my own words strike me that way. Like right now, for instance. What am I trying to hide? Behind all masks of the onion, what remains? Nothing but the good soil it grew in–and the rain, and the medieval sun that still drops off the end of the earth and swims back each night through the labyrinths where hell used to be. Nowadays, with Franco long gone, who needs all those subterranean prisons, those sadistic inquisitors?

And Cabo Finisterre? The land has almost reached its limit, yes–and the Spanish, at least, seem well aware of the fact. They have said no to the sorcery of the backwards prayer and the blind mask, to words with their eyes put out. Last year an oil spill blackened Finisterre and much of the rest of Galicia’s verdant shoreline. This year the blood of soldiers and their victims seeps into the uranium-enriched soil of a battlefield that used to be a country. We will visit cemeteries on hills in our own country where the groundskeepers permit no real flowers, only plastic, and where the older coffins leak poisons into the groundwater. Death like an old whore must be covered in thick makeup. I will remember those who died young in the service of their country, like my friend Ben, who was born on July 4th, 1976, believe it or not, and died 20 years later from an overdose of artificial stimulation, having found nothing else worth dying for. And the teenaged alcoholic who used to pass out on my bed and piss all over the sheets–such a sweet girl, really, too much in love with life. She died looking for a bathroom, fell down a steep set of stairs in a strange house and broke her neck.

Today we will be overcome with nothing more than shouts and laughter, the high-strung preparations for a potluck supper and the giddy feeling that comes from dipping into and out of two many different conversations in too short a space. There will be no alcohol and no wallowing in maudlin sentimentality, beyond a simple mealtime invocation that we may or may not remember to have somebody say. I don’t know if we’ll visit the cemetery or not, but if we do, I am thinking that on my grandfather’s grave I’ll leave a subversive peony or two. It’s funny the things we do for the departed, the way we honor our imaginations–“s/he would have liked that,” we say, not even thinking about the literal realities of possible afterlife destinations. It’s important somehow, for a moment at least, to turn off our radios and TVs and just listen to the music that the hills are supposed to be alive with, and then to look–really look–into each others’ damp faces. Those dark tunnels, those valleys of the shadow, and the stage lights that beckon from beyond.

Afternoon of a fawn

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I’ll be gone until at least Monday. Happy Decoration Day, y’all.


I watched an indigo bunting on
the topmost branch silhouetted
against the sky: blue
& still more blue. If I told you
all I could see was the yellow of
his bill, would you believe me?


In the bare crown of the elm tree
where a porcupine gnawed all winter,
a hummingbird perches with his back
to an indigo bunting. How odd to see him
sit so still so long, I think, though
his head pivots back & forth the whole
time. The bunting calls & calls.
Could this battered tree with
its foliage like a crazy woman’s skirt
hide two nests? A crow flies sideways,
silent, against the wind.


Putting the chili to simmer, I walked into the dining room and found a bat – some myotis, probably little brown – hanging between the storm windows. The sun shone full on its scrunched up face. I left a note on the table and went for a walk, chased down the unfamiliar whine of 17-year cicadas in the corner of the field, looped into the woods. A hen turkey took off from her nest among the ferns. Looking for the eggs, I found instead a nest in a barberry bush with three naked purple nestlings. A towhee scolded from the next bush. Jesus, I thought, what next? Then cutting back across the meadow I almost stepped on the head of a newborn fawn.

Two hours later when my eight year-old niece returns from town I lead her to the spot, tramping behind me through the thistles in her sandaled feet, too impatient to put shoes on. The fawn’s still there, curled up like a question mark. Its dark eyes blink. We are its first two humans, I tell Eva, this is the first afternoon of its life. Eva explains all about hunters, miming the crouch, the bang, her voice getting louder & louder, pointing an imaginary rifle at its heaving ribs. The wet black nostrils flare & quiver with the strangeness of our scent.