On the wing

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Found Object
for G. Z.

The knot of roots that used to be
a bird perched in the lilac bush
now sits long-legged atop
my file cabinet, fast
friends with an alarm clock
and an aloe vera that has dangled
its tattered crown down on
a ridiculous length of rope. What I
can only call a knot may not ever
have been bird – but certainly
something difficult to name
that spoke of hope, Dickinson’s
thing with feathers. The lifted wings,
the fanned tail tell of just-
arrested flight, as if by window
(the wingbone broken in mid-wish,
the tiny clot in the brain that clogs
the unfathomable works) or
from a cell phone tower’s fatal wink.
Frayed muscles can snap, they said,
appalled – the survey team
that found an entire midnight
flock of warblers dead or dying,
littering the ground all around
some guy-wired, steel-girdered
ridgetop Lorelei. It seems
the low clouds & fog forced them down
& the tower’s lights were just right to take
the place of polestars. Imagine it:
to have one’s deep instinctual quest
(like a sex drive, except it’s toward a place)
derailed in favor of this frantic circling –
a comet captured by an unexpected sun.
They will not tell you this on the 6:00
o’clock news. There’s always
some lurid tale of a car crash or drug
bust right down the street, my God,
they were all such good kids, too – straight As,
athletic scholarships . . .
But this – knobs & bumps
of wood, clumped
ends of rhizomes, the grain
that could be feathers, the missing
claws and beak that I neglected
earlier to mention – this isn’t
bird in the hand, but in the bush.
I was myself to blame or credit for it.
(It was I, said the sparrow, with
my little arrow.) I cut it
from the bank with a shovel
when I moved the wall back.
The lilac seemed unaffected.
It remains a sturdy refuge from
the sharp-shinned hawk, a place
where bluebird or cardinal straight
from the bath can ruffle dry their feathers, &
where a hundred other contingencies
might flourish – wholly unguessed at –
down among the baroque
& deliberate roots.

The way of a naturalist

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Idries Shah’s observation that humility is not merely a virtue but a technical requirement points to the deep kinship between authentic self-knowledge and empirical knowledge about the so-called mundane world. (See the quotes from conservation biologist Reed Noss from one of the entries on December 17.) Islamic mathematicians, geographers and scholars of a thousand years ago made much of this kinship, of course; when Western European naturalists picked up the torch half a millennium later, however, initial allegiance to a kind of decayed theosophy quickly faded. For whatever reason, the greatest revolution in human thinking the world had ever seen bequeathed to us the modern view of a universe in which almost everything is dead, inert, or at best robotic. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the majority of behaviorists continue to assert that only humans possess “consciousness” (continually redefined to exclude other species that are strongly suspected to dream, anticipate, mourn the dead, experience joy, etc.). Even fellow humans can be shown to operate mostly on the basis of self-centered urges and instincts. It is commonplace to speak of DNA as “programming” – never mind that this completely ignores the role of chance (or God, if you prefer) in shaping all outcomes.

Originally an elite, minority view, this way of looking at the world has become dominant even among those who consider themselves to be most in revolt against modernism (or postmodernism, which is a fairly undistinguished offshoot in my opinion). “Scientific creationism” is an obvious example. But I would go even further: I don’t believe there’s any evidence that literalistic interpretations of religious texts and traditions held any sway before the modern era. Yet today such interpretations are at the root of a worldwide phenomenon – religious fundamentalism – and it isn’t hard to see why. Humans are an intensely visually oriented species; the overwhelming material and technical elaboration of modern societies and the raw power that that confers adds up to an argument that is extremely difficult for the adherents of more traditional worldviews to confront head-on. Even without the direct experience of conquest and slavery or debt-peonage, folks living more-or-less contentedly for centuries on subsistence and gift economies now suddenly understand themselves to be impoverished. Lacking. Inadequate and inferior. (Helena Norberg-Hodge writes movingly about observing this process in the kingdom of Ladakh, where India has been the direct source of the modernist malaise, in her book Ancient Futures.)

A generation or so later, the reaction sets in. But power once gained is difficult to give up, and where the modernist project is concerned that power is expressed in stark, shameless reductionism. The world is nothing more than a grab-bag of resources to be exploited for human use; human beings are nothing more than consumers/taxpayers/voters whose well-being derives ultimately from adequate access to resources. Fundamentalists – be they Christian, Muslim, Ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Hindus, even American Indian – in asserting the validity of their own traditions, attempt to exploit the power of reductionism rather than to challenge its primacy. (They are after all reactionaries, not radicals.) The materialist’s simple-minded dichotomy opposing objective, concrete reality to subjective, imaginary interpretation – “just the facts” vs. “just a myth” – has already insinuated itself into their thoughts and their language.

But all this has been a digression from what was to have been my main topic today. I want to look at a few of the ways in which a modern scientist might cultivate what a Sufi (or Zennist, or Christian mystic) would recognize as authentic ways of knowing. Our guide will be the late Lawrence Kilham.

Lawrence Kilham was a distinguished virologist who also wrote extensively about woodpeckers and crows for the ornithological journals. He is a relatively rare example of a laboratory scientist who also honored – and employed – the skills of a field naturalist. (As most readers are probably aware, the culture of modern science fetishizes laboratory work and, even more, the ‘pure’ theoretics of physics; biologists who engage in such lowly tasks as observation and systematics are near the bottom of the totem pole, along with anthropologists and other unworthy aspirants to the testosterone-charged arenas of Pure or Hard Science.) In the introduction to The American Crow and the Common Raven (Texas A&M Press, 1989), Kilham discusses the kinds of intellectual tools necessary for the scientific enterprise, mostly by quoting others. (Honoring the chain of transmission, as a Sufi might say.) Here, in quoting Kilham, where he simply lists author and date in parentheses, I’ll include the titles of the works referenced.

“‘Each scientist,’ wrote Agnes Arbor (The Mind and the Eye, 1954), ‘should be able to say to himself, like Descartes, that his intention is to build upon a foundation that is all his own.’ This may seem difficult when one is starting out, but it is the only way likely to be enjoyable. There is no such thing as one scientific method that all must follow (J.B. Conant, Two Modes of Thought, 1964). As Nietzsche said of philosophy, ‘This is my way. What is yours? As for the way, there is no such thing.’ Each must find or invent techniques best suited for his individual approach.’ . . .

“Preferring to be a free agent, I have always shunned the idea, whether with birds or viruses, of starting with a hypothetical problem and sticking to it. The challenge is to get from the known to the unknown. Almost any problem can set the wheels in motion. But once under way, I know I can do best by observing all that birds do, taking notes, then reviewing and reflecting on them when I get home. Persisting in this pedestrian fashion I find that something exciting almost always turns up. It is the chance discovery that makes science exciting. As [Konrad] Lorenz (Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, 1970) states in a chapter entitled ‘Companions as Factors in the Bird’s Environment,’ ‘The factual data upon which all of the following investigations are based derived almost entirely from chance observation.’ The chance experiment, he thinks, assures an impartial observer freedom from any initial hypothesis. I have long found such ideas congenial. They echo Louis Pasteur’s dictum, enshrined at the Harvard Medical School . . . that ‘chance favors the prepared mind.’
(Kilham, The American Crow and the Common Raven, 5-6. Emphasis mine.)

Whether in the lab or in the field, Kilham preferred to keep it simple: “I like to work with a minimum of apparatus,” he admits, and quotes Rousseau: “The more ingenious and accurate our instruments, the more unsusceptible and inexpert become our organs: by assembling a heap of machinery about us, we find afterwards none in ourselves.”

For behavioral studies in particular, Kilham says, “All one needs is a pair of field glasses, a notepad, and an open mind. One cannot, at least I cannot, study bird behavior and be occupied with a complicated piece of apparatus. Observing is a full-time occupation. You have to have your mind on what you are doing. Important bits of behavior – a copulation, a glimpse of a passing predator, or something new and unexpected – can take place in seconds. If one’s mind is on a camera, wondering how to get a good picture, one’s mind is not on what a bird is doing; being a good photographer is also a full-time occupation.” And he goes on to describe how one attempt to bring a tape recorder into the field caused him to miss a distressing amount of crow behavior.

“If one concentrates on producing a statistically sound publication, one may overlook much of what the birds are doing. Emphasis will be on covering as many nests or pairs as possible. But in trying to study birds as whole, living entities, noting everything they do, I find that two pairs of woodpeckers or, with crows, two cooperatively breeding groups, is the maximum I can study effectively. I am committed to this approach and thus feel that simple narration, or an anecdotal style, is the soundest way of presenting how animals live.” (Ibid, 7)

One problem with his kind of approach finding a wider acceptance among scientists, Kilham recognizes, is the mechanistic biases of the reigning “scientific” worldview. He quotes the ornithologist Olas Murie, who complained in a 1962 journal article that “we are extremely timid about assigning to other animals any of the mental or psychological traits of man. One would think that the scientist is the perfect fundamentalist, carefully maintaining a wall between man and other animals.”

The problem is that individual observations are hard to quantify. Even the most fascinating or tantalizing observation is likely to be dismissed by the worshippers of Hardness and Purity as anecdotal. Kilham again quotes Lorenz to the effect that the supposed centrality of quantitifiable methods is “one of the dangerous half-truths which fashion is prone to accept.” “The fallacy,” Kilham adds, “is what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead referred to as ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.'” He quotes a biologist named Donald Griffin, who thinks that the mechanistic view of nature is in error not only “because it belittles the value of animals, but because it leads us to a seriously incomplete and misleading picture of reality.”

After a paragraph on statistics and its lack of utility in either of the disciplines which formed his life-work, Kilham concludes, “There is much that is enjoyable in thinking for oneself and studying birds in one’s own way. Few seem to realize that even an ordinary person can make discoveries. The hitch is, as Polanyi (The Study of Man, 1959) pointed out, that ‘you cannot discover or invent anything unless you are convinced that it is there ready to be found. The recognition of this hidden presence is in fact half the battle. It means that you have hit on a real problem and are asking the right questions.’ This book is mainly an account of my search for the ‘hidden presence’ in crows and ravens. There has been no magic involved. Only the thousands of hours of watching, none of which has been dull.” (Ibid, 9-10. Emphasis added.)

We might argue with Kilham’s limited definition of magic, but never mind. The immense significance attached to birds in many different cultures is another topic to reserve for fuller treatment some other time. But I can’t resist closing once again with the motto to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (invoked also in one of the foundational entries for this weblog):

How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?

Shah on "The Commanding Self"

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Since I’ve mentioned Idries Shah twice now in the past couple of days – both here and over at Vajrayana Practice – I thought it might be a good time to let the man speak for himself, as it were. Shah was an extremely influential 20th-century Iranian-British teacher in the Naqshbandi tradition of Central Asian and Middle Eastern Sufism. Although it would be much more entertaining to transcribe one of his teaching stories, a passage from the introduction to The Commanding Self (London: The Octagon Press, 1994) seems more appropriate, because it touches on themes I have raised in the past several posts. And unlike the darn-near impenetrable teaching stories (collected in many volumes such as Tales of the Dervishes, Thinkers of the East, Caravan of Dreams, etc.), here he actually tells the reader what he’s about.

It’s a lengthy excerpt, so I stuck it up on a separate page for now. Click here.

Death takes a holiday

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Pica raises the question of violence and religion in the comments thread to yesterday’s post. Is violence at some level intrinsic to religion, or is it simply something that insinuates itself into the myths and/or ceremonies of cultures that are violent, or were violent in the past? To what extent might religion license and perpetuate violence? These are huge questions, and if I seem like a coward to dodge them (or pass them off onto my Dad, who is a peace scholar), so be it.

The journalist and longtime war correspondent Chris Hedge’s book, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, offers a rare example of a completely unsparing portrayal of modern warfare. He examines, at great depth and with abundant examples from the classics, the hold that warfare has over our imagination – how exciting and addictive it can become to writers like himself. Hedges is a former seminary student, and as the title suggests, he does not shy away from critiquing the role of religion or religious-seeming behavior. With good reason: the language of sacrifice is still used heavily by those who seek to give large-scale, organized butchery an air of nobility. (Liberals have criticized Bush for not employing the language of collective national sacrifice often enough. His response to 9/11 was “Go shopping!”)

Whether or not we can say that most religions are built on a foundation of violence, I think it is almost axiomatic that nation-states are. Patriotism is a covert form of religion, in my opinion – covert in the sense that it is disguised simply as the bedrock of all civic virtue. In the U.S.A., patriotism is particularly virulent because of our lack of an official state religion. This only works as long as we are in denial about the true nature of the situation, given the First Amendment’s clear guarantee of a freedom from religion. There is almost no escape from patriotism, especially during times of war. In virtually no other country that is not a totalitarian regime can one observe national symbols displayed everywhere, including in homes and offices. Like any icon or fetish, the U.S. flag transcends mere symbolic value. It is not only highly charged and ambiguous, invested with multiple meanings (anthropologist Victor Turner’s definition of a symbol), but for many people, I believe, it actually is animated somehow by a mystical essence (America, Freedom). It requires regular feedings of blood to retain its power – or so I would conclude from the most commonly cited justification for banning flag desecration: that the flag is sacred because so many people have died for it.

To be opposed to violence as a legitimate way of accomplishing social ends is perhaps the most revolutionary stance you can take. People from all over the political spectrum react with horror, disgust or simply bemused condescension to such a position. “Of course we, who are grownups, understand that sometimes unpleasant tasks are necessary, the world being as it is.” In fact, it is rare that the proponents of violence do not immediately resort to essentialist arguments about “human nature” – which suggests to me a strong tendency toward avoidance of the specific dilemmas that peaceniks tend to annoy us with. It may not be an exaggeration to say that such discussions are in fact taboo. At any rate, this brings us back to one of the main themes of this weblog, which is, can we say anything meaningful about (human) nature at all?

The 16th-century Quiche Mayan text Popol Vuh (see the Dennis Tedlock translation published by Simon and Schuster) is full of violence – murder, cannibalism, you name it. Its story of the journey of the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, to the underworld of Xibalba to defeat the lords of death pivots on what I consider a profound insight into the nature of violence. The twins allow themselves to be killed and bring themselves back to life through their own power but – unlike Christ’s resurrection – that act alone does not constitute a complete victory over death. They use a combination of what we might call high and low magic – that is to say, transformations of both surface appearances and deeper identities – to compose a comic and enticing display. Traveling through Xibalba in the guise of ragamuffin acrobats and parlor magicians, they amaze all and sundry by their songs and dances, which include real sacrifices of one brother by the other, followed by his resurrection. News of this spectacle quickly reaches the ears of the rulers, who have them summoned to the palace.

The lords of death thus are enticed to become willing participants in their own destruction: their power is turned back upon them. “Sacrifice my dog, and bring him back to life again,” the chief lord says eagerly. They do so. “Set fire to my house.” The hall is engulfed in flames, but miraculously no one is injured – just like a Hollywood action-adventure flick! “Make a sacrifice without death!” Universal delight. “Do each other!” Pandemonium.

“And then the hearts of the lords were filled with longing, with yearning for the dance of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, so then came these words from One and Seven Death:

“‘Do it to us! Sacrifice us!'” they said. “‘Sacrifice both of us!'” said One and Seven Death to Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

“‘Very well. You ought to come back to life. After all, aren’t you Death? And aren’t we making you happy, along with the vassals of your domain?’ they told the lords.” (Tedlock, Popol Vuh, 153)

And of course they don’t come back to life. Caught up in violence-for-the-sake-of-violence, they fail to understand the higher import of the game.

One message I take from this is that comedy does triumph over tragedy in the end. Both may employ violence, but for completely different ends. If you look at the world in its tragic aspect, it will appear that violence is inevitable: are we not, after all, part of the food chain? Isn’t biology destiny? We carry our deaths within us; our appetites are without limit. Life is, as the Buddha observed, unsatisfactory. But – cruel as it seems – the very fact that death is no respecter of persons suggests the limitations of the tragic view, which cannot get beyond the perspective of the individual organism.

A friend of mine who is a Voudun initiate is ridden (“possessed”) by Ghede* during the spontaneous sacred dramas that are at the center of almost all Voudun convocations. Ghede is the orisha (“god”) of the crossroads and the graveyard, and acts as the master of ceremonies in these dramas because he is an intermediary between life and death. (As with many peasant religions, the main focus of Voudun is simply to commune with the ancestors.) Ghede is a quintessentially comic, Rabelaisian figure. He wears dark glasses, smokes a stogie, and drinks Bacardi 151 straight from the bottle with no apparent effect. (My friend says the effect does hit him after the orisha goes away, though not nearly as hard as it would if he had drunk an equivalent amount in a purely secular context. He knows from rum.) Ghede is extremely fond of dirty jokes and is certainly no respecter of persons, poking fun at everyone who crosses his path.

Ghede is subversive. There is a famous incident in which he simultaneously possessed hundreds of people in Port-au-Prince back during the days of the dictator Baby Doc Duvalier. (Keep in mind that Duvalier himself used Voudun to project an image as a lord of death, with his secret police acting as the dreaded Tonton Macoutes or bogeymen.) Picture a crowd of men wearing black suits, dark glasses and big, ear-splitting grins, striding jauntily along with the aid of white canes, making their unruly way (an anti-army!) up the broad avenue to the very gates of the palace while the dictator cowers inside. Tap tap tap tap tap tap tap go the canes upon the gate, an anarchic rhythm like a sudden hail of bullets. Ghede has a message for you: the doctor is in. “Nothing cures everything like death,” my friend is fond of intoning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that religion is fundamentally utopian, thus comic. At one level, the denial of death’s importance simply helps perpetuate violence and suffering. At a more advanced stage of awareness, the self that perishes is seen as extrinsic to the real self, part of the play of transformations in which death is a mediator rather than the final judge.
*Also spelled Gede, Guede.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

It’s probably far from obvious to a reader of the previous post that The Sylph is in fact a friend of mine who prefers to remain pseudonymous. (I don’t know the cloudshift/photoblogger from Adam, and just plug his blog ’cause I like what he’s trying to do.) I included that e-mail because I really dug the way it played with the “cloud of unknowing” concept. But I do feel a more profound issue is at work here. The Sufi thinker Idries Shah says that the presence of people who feel somewhat lost by the discussion but who nonetheless can listen with an active, open mind is essential in order for any genuine teaching to take place. I don’t know if this would apply here, however, since I am by no means a qualified teacher myself, simply a freelance, masterless student with various headstrong preconceptions about what should constitute a valid teaching. It seems to me that it is a strong possibility, almost an inevitability that, in the course of my blogging, I will bark up many wrong trees. That’s why I feel reassured by the presence of blithe spirits like The Sylph, who can balance bafflement and wisdom and know enough to keep the tongue firmly planted in the cheek at all times!

Meet the cloud

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Yesterday I received the following communication:

“I like reading your blog but have given relatively little thought, when one considers a lifetime of time to think, to most of the topics discussed in ViaNegativa. My presence as blog consumer would best be represented as a virtual cloud floating through the text, lingering on a poem, the odd wisp filtering into cassandra, back to hover over the reference section…weightless…mere vapor. No piece of my mind (yuck) but breath of my attitude.
[signed] The Sylph”

This made me go check on cloudshift/photoblog, my first visit since the New Year. This is a great site with mysterious photos and spontaneous, gnomic interpretations from a practicing Buddhist. (You can tell they’re spontaneous, ’cause he doesn’t bother to correct misspellings and typos.) In the entry for January 6 he could be conjuring our Sylph here. I won’t attempt to describe the photo, but the legend reads as follows:

“Shifting in and out of crowds (clouds), avoiding piercing stares… I followed and lead and pushed on towards my destinaion… It was a sight to see, and a sight to be seen.

“My reflection exists in the eyes of those I love.

When the world is filled with evil,
Transform all mishaps into the path
of bodhi.”

Not bad. But Friday’s cogitation was more along my line. The photographer tilts his head, captures a split-second’s play of light and shadow (red and black and gold) and ruefully admits,

“I apply my conceptual knowledge to my surroundings, and therefore put everything into a small box of my own making. If I can see outside these boundaries, perhaps then I can really see.”

Check it out – and drop some comments in his box. He might be lonely, too. As for me, now that I know Via Negativa has a spirit-guardian, I feel quite reassured.

Sorcery and the limits to knowledge

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Does geography determine culture? The indigenous Mojave people, living in the hottest and one of the bleakest corners of what is now the United States, were obsessed with death. Funerals and mourning anniversaries were their main ceremonials. They were one of the few cultures in which sorcerers – that is to say, shamans who use their powers for self-aggrandizement and murder – practiced openly. “I am going to kill you,” a Mojave sorcerer frankly told the anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 1910. (1)

One of their sacred stories offers an interesting contrast to the postmodern notion of deus abscondus – a god whose purported abandonment is used to explain manifold suffering and injustice. The first sorcerer kills one of the two creator gods. The other one, his younger brother, has just rescued the people from a world flood which he himself produced. Their Ararat is Avikwame, today known as Newberry Mountain, north of Needles, CA. John Bierhorst describes the conclusion of their Creation cycle in his authoritative Mythology of North America (Oxford UP, 2002, p.102 ):

“On the mountain he gives future shamans their dream power while they stand before him either as unborn children or as little boys. Afterward, he teaches the Mojave to farm, to cook, to speak, and to count, then changes into a fish eagle and flies off ‘without power of recollection, ignorant and infested with vermin.'” (2)

* * * *

It is a commonplace among cultures where magic is regarded as an authentic way of knowing, that knowledge is inherently limited and available only for a price. There is a strong appeal to the idea that many forms of understanding must be hard-won. For example, I’m told you can read the full details of most “secret” tantric teachings – they have been published and translated. But they are nonetheless still hidden, in the sense that their true content can only be grasped by someone who has been gone through proper training and is prepared to receive them.

To take another example, most of us probably have the experience of meeting “uneducated” individuals of a certain age whose every utterance radiates wisdom. (If you haven’t, you need to get out more!) The reason why these kinds of folks seem like sages, and the average PhD does not, presumably stems from the way in which they have acquired their knowledge about the world.

On the other hand: you can decry our society’s own “disenchantment” and the supposed Death of God all you want. But I’ll bet you take for granted things like free public libraries (thank you Andrew Carnegie, you murderously oppressive, self-aggrandizing son-of-a-bitch!). This is the absolute bedrock of civil liberties in the United States: the freedom not only to say what you want and think what you want, but to access knowledge that, in almost every other society the world has ever seen, would have been off-limits to all but an elite few. Sure, we still have “experts” whose typically mendacious interpretations dominate the airwaves. And most professions and disciplines employ occult terminology with a strong gatekeeper function. But we also have – possibly for not much longer – the Freedom of Information Act. Many individual states have Right-to-Know laws. And of course, we have the Internet – though more and more of it is off-limits to non-subscribers.

If, as some say, we are living in the twilight of the Free Information Age, we should be concerned about what this could mean for democracy. The Bush/Cheney regime has displayed an unprecedented obsession with secrecy and utter contempt for laws and customs mandating accountability. The more that the powerful can withhold access to knowledge, the more difficult it becomes to fight them. Thus their monopoly accelerates. What prevents them from becoming like gods – lords of death, arbiters of the planet’s fate? Is there something intrinsic to the power of understanding, that it might ultimately desert those who seek its ultimate control?

* * * *

An afterthought on the Mojave myth: this god, whose name is Mastamho, cannot be equated with deus abscondus. In the first place, however altered and diminished, he is still with the people as long as there are eagles. Moreover, by the ingenius conception of presence-as-future-possibility for the unborn, all religious specialists can claim to have communed with him directly! Which was, of course, the point. As masters of the dream, shamans always have access to the illo tempore of sacred story, the dreamtime where death and forgetfulness can be reversed, humans and animals are all just people and outward forms are, if not quite unreal as Plato thought, infinitely supple. The mind that can master these transformations is indeed a dangerous thing.

(1) I think the date is right. I read this a while back, and don’t have the reference at hand.
(2) Bierhorst should have updated the translation. By “fish eagle” he means, of course, the bald eagle.

Gimme hell!

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

After much fussing and several moments of near-panic, I have finally installed a comments feature! So, if there are any postings you’ve had some reactions to, but didn’t want to bother me with an e-mail (always welcome, of course), now you can let me have it! Or just, you know, start a conversation.

For those who (like me) are new to this: click on where it says “Comments” at the end of the post. If you’ve disabled pop-ups on your computer, you will have to hold down the Ctrl key while clicking. Type in name or pseudonymn, e-mail, website url if any – that should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that it will cut you off at 1000 characters, which is about two medium-length paragraphs. To avoid losing your work, always copy and save before sending. You can do this by right-clicking the mouse with your arrow in the box; paste into a new box by the same method. Pretty nifty, eh?

Apropos of nothing, except that the heading for this post made me think of it: I have Dr. John’s take on an old blues verse running through my head now (can’t remember the title of the song), goes something like –

Give me whiskey
When I get a little frisky,
‘Cause it’s a mighty good thing
When I get a little dry,
Give me tobacco
When i get a little sickly
And give me heaven
Before i die!

After the breakdown

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One of life’s chief pleasures is discovering great works of literature slumbering peacefully between the covers of a 20-year-old, well-thumbed paperback in the dusty shelves of one’s favorite used bookstore. That’s how last year I became acquainted with the Swedish poet Artur Lundkvist and his searing Agadir.

This is pretty lame of me, but I’m just going to quote the back-cover blurb so you’ll see why I am re-reading this book now. “Artur Lundkvist and his wife survived the massive earthquake in southern Morocco which destroyed Agadir in March 1960, killing almost all of its 40,000 inhabitants. This poem grew out of that experience . . . [It] falls easily into four sections, the opening describing the unearthly calm before the disaster, the second, the disaster itself, the third, the vision of the destroyed city and the fourth, a coda . . . By accurately recording the event, Lundkvist presents a verbal picture as horrible as any surrealist nightmare. Agadir, the shining white city, becomes to the poet’s inner eye a city in which life is clasped by death, a mirage forever reminding him of what may lie in store for all humanity . . . ”

Lundkvist was already a renowned writer at the time of the disaster, apparently, specializing in travel poetry and fluent in eleven languages. In the translation – by U.S. poet William Jay Smith and Leif Sjoberg – each page is a separate, untitled sub-unit with long, Whitmanesque lines. The style is realism with abundant touches of lyricism for the first three sections; the proportions are reversed in the final section, from which I include an excerpt here. I don’t know how to indent lines in Blogger, so some enjambment (depending on the viewer’s screen size) is apparent rather than real. This section is in quotes, indicating that this is not the author’s own voice but that of some other, nameless survivor.

“Words also crumbled, broke into pieces, scattered in shreds,
in vain I tried to find some still unharmed and usable
but found only splinters of metaphors, cracked, like a split mirror;
visions floated about, islands adrift in air as white as milk but thicker,
almost like molten, viscous marble,
trees floated about, torn up by the roots and turning slowly upside down upon themselves,
people floated like driftwood, many whole and outwardly unmarred, others cut in half or worse,
floating about in the white with eyes wide-open, hair streaming upward,
the whole scene spotless and beautiful, like a devastation of statues,
black tabletops turned slowly, became round holes of dark tapering into a streak,
horses floated on their backs, legs galloped in the void,
so many things went by: sandals two by two as if held together by invisible feet, bolts of cloth unrolling,
a sidewalk cafe filled with people leaning over an abyss,
a fire burning in the void, a sports car filled with young girls,
and whether I closed my eyes or kept them open made no difference; the sights were there inside,
my brain was stripped of words, white and blank,
only images floated after the breakdown.”

Artur Lundkvist, Agadir, translated by William Jay Smith and Leif Sjoberg. Ohio UP, 1980, p. 49.

Strangers in the earth

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Lost in the woods, a thousand possible avenues opening among the trunks and thickets, panic rising in the throat. Stuck in a shopping mall, fascination at the initial strangeness of it turning sour in the stomach. Is alienation always a bad thing? Isn’t it possible that some very necessary lessons come at the price of a certain disassociation from oneself, from one’s safe nest of habit and comforting thoughts? Perhaps I am groping for a word that doesn’t yet exist, somewhere in the hair’s breadth of difference between alienation and ecstasy, strangeness and intimacy, nothingness and Ein Sof.

Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears;
for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner,
as all my fathers were.
Psalm 39:12

Not for love as the sweet pretend: the children’s game
of deliberate ignorance of each to allow the dreaming.
Not for the impersonal belly nor the heart’s drunkenness
have I come this far, stubborn, disastrous way.
But for relish of those archipelagoes of person.
To hold her in hand, closed as any sparrow,
and call and call forever till she turn from bird
to blowing woods. From woods to jungle. Persimmon.
To light. From light to princess. From princess to woman
in all her fresh particularity of difference.
Then oh, through the underwater time of night,
indecent and still, to speak to her without habit.
This I have done with my life, and am content.
I wish I could tell you how it is in that dark,
standing in the huge singing and alien world.

Jack Gilbert, “Don Giovanni on His Way to Hell.”
Monolithos, Graywolf Press, 1982, 7.

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world.

Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is the reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Aldo Leopold, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”
A Sand County Almanac, Oxford UP, 1987 (1949), 129.