The bait

The working class couple at their first symphonic concert did not realize that they were paying to see a man dressed like a penguin dance with the upper half of his body. The woman likes it; the man isn’t so sure. “The music is always a half-second too slow,” he will complain during the intermission. What neither of them needs to say is that dancing is a thing for couples. During the slow movements, he puts an arm around her shoulders. When the tempo picks up, he folds his arms across his chest.

No talking or even whispering is allowed, and who the hell can tell when you’re supposed to clap? This is like being in an art museum – you don’t know how to act and everyone can tell that you don’t belong. If it’s not about feeling good and having fun, what’s the point, then? This whole thing is obviously enormously complex and requires something beyond a 12th-grade education to understand, he thinks. But the woman is impressed by the sense of something handed down essentially intact from the days when men dressed up for an ordinary night out on the town and women piled their hair on top of their heads and wore fancy gowns and all theaters looked just like this – dark green walls and gold leaf gleaming like an endless summer. She likes the quiet parts, the silences where no one claps, the lack of amplification. She is used to listening for what’s down deep, rather than simply paying attention to the ripples on the surface.

It’s like the way church used to be when she was a kid. She understands that the conductor is not performing for them; he is a servant to the music, which he merely shapes and draws out of the orchestra, out of the score in front of him the same way the priest used to pull meaning out of the Bible when it was all still in Latin. Every movement of his hand means something different. Watching him, she feels as if she can see a little ways into the future – a timeless place where nothing happens until we arrive, which we never quite manage to do this side of the grave. Something holy and even magical is taking place, like with the wine and the wafers.

When the on-stage lights go out three minutes into the third movement of the first piece on the program, no one seems especially upset. The conductor lowers his arms and the music stops almost immediately. He bows his head. The audience is absolutely silent with the surprise of it, staring into the darkness where the black-suited musicians have virtually disappeared. The light from the exits catches the polished wood of violins and violas dropping from chins to laps, like fish glimpsed at the bottom of a pond moments after you realize that something has taken the bait cleanly off the hook.

Religion Bestsellers of 2005

Jesus told me that the following titles will have dominion over the Publisher’s Weekly Religion Bestsellers list by year’s end.

1. Your Second Best Life Now: Seven More Steps to Living Your Full Potential

2. Baked Beans for the Soul

3. The Prayer of Jezebel: Breaking Into the Blessed Life

4. Thou Shalt: The Power of Positive Commandments

5. Left Behind: How to Spot a Godless Liberal From the Rear

6. My God Can Whup Your God

7. Driven By What’s Inside: Ancient Secrets of the Subaru

8. Never In Vain: Using the Lord’s Name to Heal Anger and Spread Righteousness

9. The Lost Gospel of O™

10. Sacred Heart: Spiritual Wisdom of the Aztecs

Primordial wonton

I’m in a bibliophiliac ecstasy. Yesterday I got two new books in the mail: Robert Alter’s magnificent translation and commentary on the Pentateuch – The Five Books of Moses (Norton, 2004) – and the “philosophical translation” of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David T. Hall (Ballantine, 2003), a groundbreaking work. I am going back and forth between them like a dog with two supper dishes, or a bigamist who can’t decide which wife to spend the night with.

Dividing my attention this way – especially between two such contrasting works – may not seem like such a good idea. Eventually, of course, I’ll have to settle down with each in turn, take them to bed with me, read them with all the slowness and attention they deserve, lingering over each beautiful footnote. But in the meantime, this compare-and-contrast exercise has already yielded some tasty fruit. Last night, in the Appendix to Ames and Hall, I found the following:

Daoist cosmogony does not entail the kind of radical initial beginning we associate with those metaphysical cosmogonies that describe the triumph of Order over Chaos. In fact, the Zhuangzi‘s well-known account of the death of Lord Hundun – often translated negatively as Lord Chaos, but perhaps better rendered positively as Lord Spontaneity – provides a rather strong Daoist objection to the “One-behind-the-many” reading [of passages in the Daodejing that appear to refer to Dao as a kind of first principle]:

The ruler of the North Sea was “Swift,” the ruler of the South Sea was “Sudden,” and the ruler of the Center was “Hundun, or Spontaneity.” Swift and Sudden had on several occasions encountered each other in the territory of Spontaneity, and Spontaneity had treated them with great hospitality. Swift and Sudden, devising a way to repay Spontaneity’s generosity, said: “Everyone has seven orifices through which they can see, hear, eat, and breathe. Spontaneity alone is without them.” They then attempted to bore holes in Spontaneity, each day boring one hole. On the seventh day, Spontaneity died.

But why according to Zhuangzi shouldn’t one wish to bring order out of hundun? A reasonable question, indeed, if hundun is the confusion and disarray – the formless surds – that other cosmogonies describe as primordial Chaos. But if hundun is the spontaneous emergence of novelty that honeycombs all construals of order in the continuing Daoist present, then the imposition of order upon it means the death of novelty. After all, it is spontaneity that makes the life experience deliciously indeterminate and, in some degree, unpredictable. To enforce a given design is simply to select one of a myriad candidates for order and to privilege that one over the rest. Swift and Sudden have transformed the unsummed and causally noncoherent dao into a single-ordered world.

Well, yeah. But every act of artistic creation, every authentic making represents such a privileging, regardless of its origins in spontaneity. That’s the tragic beauty of life, it seems to me – and that is why I continue to draw so much inspiration from the great expressions of theistic faith, such as the Bible. This notion of a seven-day-long process of imposing a creative and destructive will sounds awfully familiar! But again, Chaos and Order are modern – or at least Hellenic – categories that don’t always fit the most ancient parts of the Bible. (After all, as a god of storm and whirlwind, as the agent of watery or fiery destruction, YHWH works as often through “chaos” as against it.)

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day.

Alter says about “first day” that, “Unusually, the Hebrew uses a cardinal, not ordinal, number. As with all the six days except the sixth, the expected article is omitted.” So perhaps we would do better to translate as if this were a Mayan text: “And it was evening and it was morning, Day One.” Because these are the days that will recur week after week and year after year until the end of time, no? I find it difficult to credit that the original authors of this passage understood divine creation as a one-time event. The mythic imagination doesn’t work that way.

Alter’s note for “welter and waste” points up the contrast with the Zhuangzi‘s hundun.

The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later Biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce word coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

But that desert, or wilderness, remains an essential testing ground for spiritual heroism and a major locus of theophany throughout the Bible, so perhaps we are meant to understand tohu as empty more in the way that a womb might be construed as empty, rather than as a mere nullity or vacuum. Tohu wabohu could perhaps be seen as Openness – a close cousin of Spontaneity. And indeed, in this cosmogony God shapes or distills things from this omni-potential matter; there is no creation ex nihilo in the Bible.

Set against the vivid language of Genesis, the Daoist allegory may seem a little dry. And I’ll admit, I’ve never been a big fan of allegory as a genre, which may explain why I never focused on this passage in A. C. Graham’s translation and commentary (Chuang-Tzu: The Inner Chapters, Hackett, 2001 – another philosophically and philologically informed effort).

Graham, I discover, chose to leave “Hun-t’un” untranslated, supplying the following note:

Hun-t’un is the primal blob which first divided into heaven and earth then differentiated as the myriad things. In Chinese cosmology the primordial is not a chaos reduced to order by imposed law, it is a blend of everything rolled up together; the word is a reduplicative of the type of English “hotchpotch” and “rolypoly”, and diners in Chinese restaurants will have met it in the form “wuntun” as a kind of dumpling.

So there’s God in his white apron at the Panda House restaurant, rolling out the dough to make dumplings. Thus, at least, the pictures taking shape in the tohu-bohu of my mind, all higglety-pigglety.

Loose canon: 20th century poetry in English

In a recent post at The Vernacular Body discussing favorite novels, reference is made to Nabokov’s notion that “there aren’t really any great authors, only great books.”

I have always felt this to be true about poetry. Some of my favorite poets, such as Louise Glück and Sandra McPherson, have written only one book I really like. And for me, the book-length collection is the highest expression of the lyric poet’s art.

So this morning, I decided to try compiling a brief, annotated list of my favorite books of poetry in English from the 20th century. I went through my shelves, being careful to pull out only those volumes that I would want to have with me on the proverbial desert island (which is not so far from my reality here, when you come right down to it). As I did so, I was reminded of the agony my friend Jo has been going through over the past two years as she attempts to give away all but her most essential books in order to complete a long-distance move.

The pile at my left elbow is now close to three feet tall, and teeters dangerously. In the interest of brevity I’ll skip the usual bibliographic information in favor of links to Amazon. (I am not endorsing, they just happen to have the most complete information of any on-line bookseller of which I’m aware. Though for some of the older volumes here, they don’t give much, and you’d be better off using Google.) I have rather arbitrarily limited myself to one book per favorite author. I will not – probably could not – rank them in any way, other than to mention in passing which one might be my favorite of all.

American Primitive, by Mary Oliver. A difficult choice, since every one of Oliver’s books is worth its weight in gold. She is in my opinion the finest nature poet in the English language – ever.

A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, by Wendell Berry. I remember not thinking too highly of Berry when I was in my late teens and twenties, but either he changed or I did. This book is unified both by theme and method of composition: each poem describes a walk he took on a Sunday morning in lieu of going to church. Other people write about sacred time; Berry lives it.

Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. I love books in which the dead speak; I think this was my first.

The Folding Cliffs, by W. S. Merwin. If I’d compiled this list a year or two ago, I probably would’ve included The Lice instead. But Merwin’s lyric poems are beginning to wear on me, whereas this book-length poem about 19th-century Hawaii is, I think, one of the most satisfying narrative poems I’ve ever read.

Praise, by Robert Hass. Hass has equally mastered the line, the poem and the book-length collection. Each of his books contains an argument of sorts, though it’s less logical than ecological – not something that one could spell out in a review. (It’s in the nature of a poem that it can’t be summarized, Cleanth Brooks maintained.) I haven’t yet read all his books, so my selection of this volume is highly provisional.

Selected and Last Poems, by Paul Zweig. Normally I wouldn’t include a “selected poems” in this sort of list, but C. K. Williams has done a marvelous job of editing Zweig’s incandescent deathbed poems and matching them with the best from the three books published during his lifetime. The Last Poems by themselves make a satisfying, chapbook-length cycle.

Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, by William Carlos Williams. The last and most beautiful poems of a poet who didn’t always practice what he preached, in my opinion. Perhaps it took until the end of his life before he found a place in his plain poems for the luminosity that had always suffused his prose.

The Poems of Wilfred Owen. Like Zweig’s Last Poems, a posthumous collection that coheres better than most books whose authors were alive to cull and augment and rearrange. Owen would probably make most people’s lists of the greatest poets of the 20th century, on a par with Rilke, Neruda and Lorca.

Song of Napalm, by Bruce Weigl. Some of the best wartime poems since Wilfred Owen. (Yusuf Komunyakaa has written Vietnam poems that are equally searing; I simply haven’t read enough of him to include one of his books on this list.)

North of Boston, by Robert Frost. “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” “The Mountain.” ‘Nuff said.

Even in Quiet Places, by William Stafford. Why not Traveling Through the Dark? Actually, it was a toss-up between his last and first books. (There aren’t many poets you could say that about!) I simply prefer the effortless quality of his late work to the more obvious craftsmanship of his earlier poems.

The Branch Will Not Break, by James Wright. Another tough choice. One of the first books of American poetry to fully assimilate the lessons of 20th century Spanish-language poetry and translations from classical Chinese and Japanese.

Aunt Carmen’s Book of Practical Saints, by Pat Mora. So much better than Eliot’s stupid cats! Manages with unpretentious virtuosity what few novels ever could: to create a well-rounded and likable character (Aunt Carmen) entirely from the idiosyncratic prayers she addresses to her santos. So well crafted, you might not even notice how many of the poems rhyme on the first read-through. Beautifully illustrated with full-color photographs, this book also functions as an authoritative reference on Sonoran folk Catholicism.

Red Suitcase, by Naomi Shihab Nye. Nye is always making such exquisite music out of the silence between direct statements!

The Colossus, by Sylvia Plath. When I was a kid, I really hated the melodrama and narcissism of Ariel. So it was a susprise to discover a few years back how much I liked this book (and Crossing the Water, too). Not too many modern poets do grotesque as well as Plath and Ted Hughes did.

Crow, by Ted Hughes. An invented myth cycle with all the inconsistency and variety in tone of the real thing. The Amazon reviews call it violent and nihilistic, but to me it’s just a fun book.

Montage of a Dream Deferred, by Langston Hughes. Jazz poetry is its own category now, but this was the original bebop masterpiece. Very close to oral poetry in the way it’s put together, reminiscent of the dance cycles of the Piman and Yuman-speaking Indians of the southwest.

Butterfly Effect, by Harry Humes. Very understated yet enormously affecting poems by the unofficial poet laureate of Pennsylvania’s hard coal region.

Winter News, by John Haines. If Alaska didn’t exist, John Haines would’ve had to invent it. Actually, I’m not so sure he didn’t. I love the shamanic/prophetic tone, at its freshest here in Haines’ first book.

Monolithos: Poems, 1962 and 1982, by Jack Gilbert. A first masterpiece is followed by twenty years of silence, then matched with poems equally pure but twice as wise. On the one hand, it would be great if more poets were this severe in their determination to write only necessary poems. On the other hand, I myself aspire to be like William Stafford, writing a poem a day.

Radio Sky, by Norman Dubie. I’ve only read this twice, but I was very impressed both times. He does religion very, very well: Jacob Boehme, Thomas Merton, Philip K. Dick and the Aztec Lord of the Near and Close are all here.

Passing Through: The Later Poems, by Stanley Kunitz. A master and a mage. Kunitz has written more perfect poems than anyone else I can think of. And though a “Selected and New” volume, this has a very pleasing shape to it.

Elegy, by Larry Levis. A posthumous collection for which Philip Levine deserves much credit. Possibly my favorite book in this entire list – which says more about me than about the book, I suppose. I don’t care how short your attention span might be, once you start this book, I promise you will not be able to put it down. And when you have finished it, you will drink yourself into a stupor.

The Jacob’s Ladder, by Denise Levertov. The prophet of “holy presence” at her best.

Radiation, by Sandra McPherson. Erudition without irony; a bracing work. Few books are titled so aptly.

Cathay, by Ezra Pound. Barely long enough to qualify as a chapbook, I suppose, and not the translation it purported to be – more like original poems based on borrowed outlines. But what vivid poems they are, what a satisfying cycle!

You Can’t Have Everything, by Richard Shelton. Shelton does for the Sonoran Desert what Humes does for eastern Pennsylvania and Haines for Alaska: “we are here we cannot turn back/soon we hold out our hands/full of money/this is the desert/it is all we have left to destroy”

The Lost Son and Other Poems, by Theodore Roethke. The Far Field is the more obvious choice, but this book edges it out in my opinion because of the short cycle of greenhouse poems. Roethke really had a gift for writing about plants.

The Wild Iris, by Louise Glück. The best way to describe this is: a book of hours from a fallen Eden in which the poet addresses a God in whom she does not believe – and God and the plants in her garden talk back.

Flamingo Watching, by Kay Ryan. Ryan is the quintessential thinking person’s poet, and can turn word play into an extreme sport. A tortoise “lives/below luck-level, never imagining some lottery/might change her load of pottery to wings.” An osprey’s nest is “a spiked basket/with hungry ugly osprey offspring in it.”

City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, by Martí­n Espada. My favorite political poet, populist in a way Carl Sandburg could only dream about. Makes one wonder why more lawyers don’t write poetry.

Fragments From the Fire: The Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire of March 25, 1911, by Carolyn Llewllyn. Though others, such as Mary Fell, have put poems in the mouths of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company workers, none had the vision and the audacity to make them complete human beings and reconstruct the contexts of their tragically curtailed lives. What’s astonishing is that this was Lllewellyn’s first book.

Riffs and Reciprocities: Prose Pairs, by Stephen Dunn. One of our wisest living poets at his most inventive. Few books of poetry satisfy so completely Mina Loy’s definition: “Poetry is prose bewitched; a music made of visual thoughts; the sound of an idea.”

The Gathering of My Name, by Cornelius Eady. Kind of Espada meets Langston Hughes: street-wise, jazz- and blues-inflected poems exploring the intersection of the personal and the political. (Which sounds awfully darned cliched, doesn’t it?)

BioGraffiti: A Natural Selection, by John M. Burns. Who knew doggerel could be this good? I suppose it helps to know something about nature, though. Chock-a-block with outrageous puns and illustrated with hilarious old engravings.

Loterí­a Cards and Fortune Poems: A Book of Lives, by Juan Felipe Herrera with linocuts by Artemio Rodrí­guez. A Mexican artist and one of the foremost Chicano poets collaborated on this reinvention of the card game known as Loterí­a, which is similar to bingo. Herrera’s hip improvisations are the closest thing on this list to “beat poetry.” I don’t know if I’d like them half so well without the linocuts they’re reacting to, though.

Next: New Poems, by Lucille Clifton. Clifton has remained in my personal top ten list of favorite poets longer than almost any other, aside from Emily Dickinson. Next edges out her other books for me because of the sequence about her husband’s death from leukemia, the “shapeshifter poems,” and the way the whole collection moves from outrage to something approaching acceptance.

Dismantling the Silence, by Charles Simic. The “so-whatness” that infects some of his later books is nowhere in evidence here. “I’m searching/For what my left hand/Hid secretly/From the right,” he writes, which is just about the best brief I can imagine for the method behind his abundant madness.

The Angel of History, by Carolyn Forché. The poet makes a virtue of fragmentation, acting as a spirit medium for “a haunting mosaic of grief,” as it says on the back cover. Epochal.

Cruelty/Killing Floor, by Ai. Actually two collections in one, of course, but better for it. Whether you like Ai’s work depends I suppose on how strong a stomach you have, and how much you value empathy. But she is a consummate wordsmith as well as a gifted seer.

Questions of Travel, by Elizabeth Bishop. If anyone knows of a better book of travel poetry in the English language, I’d like to hear about it.

O.K., that’s all! Kind of frustrating how few of your own favorites were included, isn’t it? If so, please feel free to leave a comment. I’m not averse to posting a list of favorites from Via Negativa readers, as well. Or post your own list and I’ll link to it. Let a hundred canons bloom!

UPDATE: Readers’ picks

(From Elck)

Handwriting, by Michael Ondaatje. “In my opinion, leagues ahead of his earlier poetry.”

North, by Seamus Heaney – “or, who are we kidding, just about any of his books.”

The Star-Apple Kingdom (earlier) or Tiepolo’s Hound (later) by Derek Walcott. “Omeros left me unmoved.”

Fredy Neptune, by Les Murray. “A bold book-length keen/narrative . . . Very Aussie, very colloquial, and quite accomplished.”

(From Susan Susurra)

It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, by Charles Bukowski. “I suppose what I appreciate in that one is his wry self effacement. He can be so dark and crass and ruthless, I guess I feel a bit more comfortable when he is aiming at himself.”

“For Heaney I’d pick Death of a Naturalist for you, and borrow it when I’m in a happy mood, North for me when I’m in a state of melancholy and want a walk with stories of death.”

(From Dale)

The Walls Do Not Fall, by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

(From Butuki)

Turtle Island, by Gary Snyder

(From Siona)

Diving Into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich

Longing (5): the narrow road

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”


Cue up Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, “Djam Leeli” (“The Wayfarers”)

I want to begin this last installment with a salute to all casual or first-time readers: you who have just alighted briefly in the course of a Google search for something else entirely and are wondering, “What the hell’s all this, then?”, or you wanderers who have been whiling away a few hours in a maze of links. “Longing? You gotta be kidding! How can anyone blog longing? What’s to say?

“On the other hand, what’s not to say?”

This extended meditation/collation of texts was sparked by the close conjunction in my mind of two very dissimilar things. One was the Robert Hass quote with which I have been heading each installment. The other was a chilling series of graphic photos and journal entries purportedly from an S&M slave that I stumbled across online, just as some of you have now stumbled here. I don’t normally get too worked up thinking about what consenting adults might choose to do to each other in the privacy of their own homes. It’s a free country, right? What disturbed me about this site was the lucidity with which the self-described slave extolled her torture, humiliation, and loss of will.

One page contained a critique of desire that could almost have been written by an adherent of some more extreme world-denying religious sect – a modern-day Manichaean. Like most people, she said, I grew up in a soulless American suburb convinced that the key to happiness was to acquire more and more stuff and to indulge myself in every way possible. But I found that the more I fed my desires, the more insatiable they grew, and the unhappier I became. But since I found my master, I have become a completely new person. The person I used to be no longer exists, vanished along with all consideration of “happiness” or “fulfillment.” I no longer have any will or desires of my own apart from his. I am his whore, a possession for him to dispose of as he wishes. If he took me to the edge of a cliff and told me to jump, I would do so without a moment’s hesitation.

I’m paraphrasing because I can’t quite bring myself to go back there (the torture photos were kind of harsh). In the past I have encountered some equally disturbing blogs that explore these issues from both master and slave perspectives; they shouldn’t be hard to find if you’re curious.

The point is, a little while later when I read that poem by Hass, I had a bit of a “Eureka” moment and decided to launch what would be in effect a brief for unquenchable desire. I wanted to avoid moralizing as much as possible, concentrating instead on presenting a comprehensive epidemiology, if that’s the right word. Deciding which among untold thousands of applicable cases to include has been daunting. Many of the blogs I read (mole, Lekshe’s Mistake, The Coffee Sutras, the vernacular body and Nomen est Numen, among others) deal with themes of desire, suffering and impermanence on a regular basis, so I knew I could avoid the more obvious sources.

It’s not exactly an original subject. And as the 20th-century Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz maintained, it may be every poet’s most essential theme: “The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved,” he maintained. (English translations of his selected poems by Naomi Lazard have been published by Princeton University Press under the title The True Subject [1988].)

I guess if I had to articulate my own position, I would say that for societies or individuals to achieve health and harmony, they must seek a balance point between longing and satiety, transcendent and immanent forms of the divine. There must be a middle way, whether or not one follows the Buddha’s eightfold path. In this last installment, I want to celebrate the journey itself.


Cue up Bessie Smith, “Long Old Road”

Blues lyrics so often look flat and disappointing on the page. If you can’t actually hear Bessie Smith’s world-weary contralto balanced by Louis Armstrong’s horn, the drummer’s snare interpolated between the Empress’s phrases – call and response, I and Thou – then the words she happened to sing on that long-ago day at the beginning of the Great Depression might seem a little lacking. It would be like trying to intuit a tapestry merely from the warp on the loom.

The frank despair of “Long Old Road,” while it might conform to popular stereotypes about the blues by people unfamiliar with the music, is something rarely found in an art form that was intended, first and foremost, as catharsis – medicine, as so many blues performers have testified in recorded interviews. Blues music in the early and middle decades of the 20th century functioned as a kind of secular alternative to organized religion for African Americans struggling to escape the daily indignities of Jim Crow in the South and discrimination in the north. It was unusual for a singer to declare on record, as Smith did in one of the last recording sessions before her tragic and untimely death,

You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
be alone.
Found my long-lost friend, and I might as well
stayed at home.

It has always struck blues fans as darkly symbolic that Bessie Smith died in the heart of that vast, deltoid-shaped piece of floodplain known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, origin of what would become the most famous style of guitar blues. Actually, the Delta included several distinct musical traditions, but the one that people most identify with the region was invented in the environs of Clarksdale – the very place where Bessie Smith’s road reached its untimely end.

In the years following Bessie Smith’s death there were conflicting accounts of how she actually died. What is known is that after a late night performance somewhere in Mississippi, probably Natchez, Bessie headed for Memphis in a car driven by her boyfriend, Richard Morgan. In 1937 there were no expressways and Route 61 was a typical poorly lit, winding two-lane road. Near the outskirts of Clarksdale, in the early morning hours of that September day, their car, being driven at a high rate of speed, crashed into the back of a truck stopped on the side of the road.

A visit to this area two years ago finally gave me the images I needed to complete a poem I had been trying to write (and had even gotten published once, in an earlier version) for fifteen years.

Bessie Smith, September 1937

From here to home an empty stretch
of Mississippi mud. Step on it,
Ten years after the great flood
& everything still smells musty.
Could be
the Delta’s always like that–
overbearing sun fathering
cotton clear to the horizon,
rich black soil deeper than memory
& never a stone to throw.
The moody river & its serpent brood of bayous.

But I stay too long in any one place
& it heats up until I can hardly think
without boiling over, the fat
hits the fire & the whole
joint catches hell.

I need two bodies–the other
a refuge of Arctic relief for this
weary one, this jinxed & ginned
smoked glass-translucent skin
they spend a week’s wages to see
in the glare of gas lamps.
And the voice they skip revival for–
sure it’s mine. But the way
it takes hold of me sometimes
like a dog with a piece of old rag,
shakes me from head to foot,
I don’t know. That’s when I give
the word, hire a car
or hitch up with the next train out.

Keep moving. In all this flatness
I stand out like a bug.
But the moment I close my eyes
I’m stepping up to my house
back in Tennessee. With a sweet
soft absence of sound
I ease into the dark parlor,
my furs & silks whisper to the floor,
there’s the briefest of rattles as I slide
the deadbolt home.


Cue up Johnny Shines, “I Don’t Know”

Highway 61 was, even more than Route 66, a road to (relative) freedom. The northward migration of African Americans in the last century, flooding into the cities as economic refugees, was in many ways comparable to the earlier immigrations of peasants from Europe and China. U.S. Route 61 was the main north-south corridor between Mississippi and Chicago, and people, money, and music flowed in both directions. But even as some African American men were able finally to achieve a measure of security with a job from Henry Ford, their economic conditions remained still too marginal for many to provide for their wives or girlfriends, and those who had work as servants or cleaning ladies in the south were all too often unwilling to take their chances in a cold and alien north. In a country where employment was an essential accoutrement of manhood, the price for increased dignity and freedom was further instability in family relationships that had been fragile since slavery times.

This was the backdrop for Johnny Shines’ masterpiece, “I Don’t Know.” Again, while the lyrics in themselves are suggestive, one needs to hear Shines’ plaintive-yet-booming tenor, his understated slide guitar behind it. It is an ostensibly hopeful, even joyful, song with just a hint of melancholy about it – the opposite of “Long Old Road.”

Well I’m goin’ on the high road,
Gonna cross over on the eastern side. (2 x)
I’m gonna flag every passerby
Til someone give me a ride.

Well I’m goin’ to Chicago,
that’s what I’m gonna do. (2x)
Make a couple of paydays,
send back here after you.

When I’m gone, if you get lonesome
and you want to have some fun, (2x)
Just go on over to West Memphis, baby,
that’s where they barrelhouse all night long.

Shines grew up just south of Memphis in the northern tip of the Delta, and traveled all over the country playing music on street corners in the company of Robert Johnson. A moderately religious man, he never had much time for people who considered blues “the Devil’s music,” as he told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1992:

You want me to tell you where that all came from? It ain’t nothing but bullshit. That was told to us as a way of scaring us into never leaving the farm. Them overseers tried to prey on our religion, whenever they might see us playing guitar or mouth harp or drums or singing, they saw it as us trying to liberate ourselves, and they didn’t like it. Especially anyone who was running to another plantation to play a gig. We was freeing ourselves, and they couldn’t stand for that. So they told us that if we sang anything else but gospel music, we would die and go to hell and burn by fire and brimstone forever and all that mess. They even got our own colored preachers believing that stuff, so they preached it to us, too. Now, if a man had spent his life on earth in hell, he sure don’t wanna die and go to hell, so he changes his ways. A lot of black people got so scared to sing the blues, they would find an example within the town who was, say a bluesman, and they’d make him an outcast, call him the devil’s tool. And they invented folklore about blues musicians going to the crossroads at midnight and letting the devil himself come up and tune their guitar (laughing), and selling their soul to play the blues. It’s all a lie, just a plain lie. And when Robert made that song about ‘I went to the Crossroads and fell down on my knees/ asked the lord above have mercy/ save poor Bob if you please’ – well, that was proof to them that he done sold his soul! Boy, they really gave Robert hell in those church towns. They told him he would burn.

Then, everybody wants to know what exactly he was singin’ about in that song? It was just some old crossroads in Mississippi – I think it’s probably where the Southern crosses the Yazoo Dog [Railroad], up there in Moorehead. He was mocking the myth, more than he was fearing it.

Shines eventually got a factory job in Chicago. Despite a great voice and virtuoso command of the acoustic and electric guitar, he was unwilling to accept what he considered the humiliating demands of the recording industry. Only with his “rediscovery” by white blues fans in the late 60s did he finally enjoy a second career as a full-time musician, but he remained very much his own man. Like Bessie Smith, Shines put a premium on originality, refusing to adapt his style to conform to anyone’s stereotype, no matter how flattering. Greil Marcus described the effect of his music in a review in Rolling Stone: “Shines steps outside himself, considers his place in the world, draws you into his body, and then, still standing a few steps off, tells you where you are: where, for the moment you live . . . ”

homage to Johnny Shines

blue ribbon of tar runs by
my baby’s door where
I am bound

make a couple
of paydays
play it tight

write: here’s luck
you can bell the cat & clip
the eagle’s wing

sing: everybody
talkin bout heaven
aint goin there

prayer: in this city lord
there’s no horizon
where can I rest my eye

cry: baby
on You


Cue up the Sabri Brothers, “Kali Kamaliya Wale”

I’ve never been very good at separating the physical from the spiritual. The distinction strikes me as a little phony, despite a few, millennia-long traditions that assert an unbridgeable distance between the two. I’m not even sure that the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade’s distinction between the sacred and the profane represents a universal truth. (Haven’t we had enough of universalizing ideologies by now?)

Nevertheless, to me, heaven remains a very potent word, more signpost than destination, pointing beyond the objectives born of shallow cravings. A strong flavor of heaven attaches to the holy aspiration itself:

Shaykh Nizam al-Din said that in Kaithal there was a saint whom they call Sufi Badhni. He was so completely ascetical that he went about totally naked. Shayk Nizam al-Din comments that according to Islamic law, any person who abstains from the minimal amount of food and water required to keep the body functioning, or who does not wear at least enough clothing to cover the body parts . . . is commiting a punishable offense, but Sufi Badhni was a saint of such high character that he was exempt from these restrictions. . . .

Sufi Badhni loved the life of prayer. He sat in the mosque in front of the mihrab and had no other occupation but offering prayers day and night. One day some ‘ulama’ came to see him, as many people used to. The shaykh queried the ‘ulama’: “Will there be prayer in paradise?” They answered: “Paradise is the abode of reward, where no desire will go unsatisfied, no need unfulfilled. Devotions are only necessary in this world.” When Sufi Badhni heard that there would be no prayer in paradise, he exclaimed: “I’ll have nothing to do with a heaven where there is no prayer,” and then he added something in Hindi not fit to repeat.

“The Life of Sufi Badhni,” Bruce B. Lawrence, in John Renard, ed., Windows on the House of Islam (University of California Press, 1998)

The poems of the 16th-century Vishnavite saint Mirabai – a Rajput princess who renounced her title and privileges to live as a wandering beggar – remind us that the attempt to locate God or heaven is in some sense a game; we might as well enjoy it.

I’m like
the cloth
that someone dyed.

I’ll go now,
play at hide
and seek to please

my lord,
wearing five
teasing colours.

When found,
I will become
one-hued with light.

With lovers
away, girls write
line upon line.

My love,
he is here

He does not leave,
he doesn’t
need to arrive.

Says Meera, I gaze
at the path day and night.

(Shama Futehally, tr., In the Dark of the Heart: Songs of Meera, HarperCollins, 1994)


Cue up Toshiro Mayuzumi, “Mandala Symphony”

What about pilgrimage, then? What is being enacted when, after many hardships and reversals, the pilgrims finally arrive at the threshold of the very image of heaven – right on earth?

The peyoteros assembled in a line, in their proper order, facing the ever-brightening eastern sky while Ramón chanted, prayed, and gestured with his plumes, until he directed them to set down their bundles. Ramón, at the head of the line, then beckond forward the first pilgrim, Carlos. Ramón squatted beside the largest water hole and taking up some in his gourd bowl removed Carlos’ hat and poured water into it. He then touched both of Carlos’ eyes with his plumes, sprinkled water on his hed, and had him drink that remaining in the bowl. The ritual varied somewhat for the primeros [first-time pilgrims]. Ramón took more time and care with them, praying over them longer. After they had drunk the Sacred Water instead of sending them immediately back to their places in line he removed their blindfolds and urged them to gaze up and behold the sacred place to which they had returned as gods. He pointed out the important features of the landscape, the places the gods had stopped and rested, eaten, sung, or talked with the animals while traveling back to their homeland. Especially affecting were Ramón’s ministrations to [his wife] Lupe at this time. He carefully led her from her place to the water and she remained motionless for a moment after he had removed her blindfold. He bade her to lift her eyes, to behold the place of the Ancient Ones, where it all began, and she did so slowly, almost reluctantly. The sun struck her face fully. She seemed transfixed and tears spread evenly down the wrinkles of her rapturous face. Seeing her thus no one could help but know that she found the Sacred Land as beautiful as she had been told all her life. . . .

Offerings were then spread out by each pilgrim, lined up, and displayed . . . With great care, each peyotero laid out or held heavenward his treasures, displaying them to the ascending sun. Impassioned prayers by Ramón told the gods that these were the offerings being brought for the hikuri. Ramón drew from his bags tortillas which he blended in his gourd bowl with some of the Sacred Water, stirring the mixture with the end of his candle, and then placed some of the resultant mixture in each pilgrim’s mouth. This was the sacred food of the First People. All prayed aloud but independently with great emotion, weeping and shouting, waving plumes and feathers and candles to the sky and in the four directions, pointing out the beauty of their gifts to the gods. Even the shyest and youngest among them, Victoria and Pablo, were outspoken and animated, imploring the deities to give them success in their quest.

The mood changed after the consumption of the sacred food. Laughter and shouts of joy replaced the weeping and praying, this because the “deities” had glimpsed their homeland and had been promised a successful return and peyote hunt. There was now much capering and cavorting. Francisco leaped about the springs like a rabbit, dazzling everyone with his agility. He had the gift of surprising people usually by looking one moment like a wizened fragile old man who would break if he moved, then suddenly and without warning leaping straight up in the air or dancing a little jig without reason. The bottles and gourds were brought out and everyone moved among the springs to gather the Sacred Water . . .

(Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, Cornell University Press, 1974)


Cue up Bela Bartok, “String Quartet No. 5, Movement IV (Andante)”

The months and days are wayfarers in eternity – wrote the aging poet-priest, echoing a long-ago preface to a poem by Li Bo – and as another year comes around it, too, turns vagabond. Those who float away their lives on boats or arrive on the threshold of old age leading a horse by the bit – traveling is a constant for them; they are at home wherever they end up. Many are the worthies who, in centuries past, met their deaths on the road, and for my part, it’s been years now since I first found myself unable to watch a solitary cloud drifting on the wind without succumbing to an aimless longing. Last year I wandered down along the coast, and in autumn when I returned to my hut along the river and swept out the cobwebs, I found the year already drawing rapidly to a close.

With the new year came skies filled with springtime haze, and I thought about crossing the Shirakawa Barrier into the far north. I became so possessed by wanderlust, it was as if the god of travelers himself had taken hold of me, and I couldn’t keep my mind on a single task.

So I patched up my tattered underwear, strung new cords on my bamboo rain hat, and had three moxa treatments on my legs. I couldn’t get the thought of the moon at Matsushima out of my head. I sold my patch of land and moved into temporary quarters at Sampu’s villa. When I left, I hung a poem on a post in my hut. It began,

Kusa no to mo sumikawara yo zo hina no ie.

Even a thatched hut with one turn of the wheel can become a house for dolls.

– Matsuo Basho, Oku no Hosomichi, “Narrow Road to the Far North” (1690)

Longing (4): mindfulness

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Longing: Anthology and Meditation


Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

1. Whale souls

Silent reading, as we know it in the West, is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Ivan Illich, popularized only in the 12th century by the influential French abbot Hugh of St. Victor. Prior to that time, even a monk reading alone in his cell would sound the words out. How else could their full power be felt?

The origin of silent prayer is not so easy to pinpoint. The practice of meditation in one form or another is probably as old as the hunter’s profession. Such meditations – of necessity silent, so as not to spook the game – need not be the especial province of men, either. A while back I quoted Tom Lowenstein (Ancient Land, Sacred Whale, FSG, 1993) about the bowhead hunt as formerly practiced by the Inuit of Tikigaq, in North Alaska. The male and female skinboat owners (umialik) had equally potent roles in visualizing and conjuring the prey animal:

In contrast to her “Raven” husband’s freedom on the sea, the woman umialik stayed at home in her iglu and did nothing for most of the whale hunt. This, in essence, was her mythic role. Secluded and overtly idle like the uiluaqtaq of the story, the umialik woman was completely passive. . . . Within this inertia lay shamanistic power. How this functioned may be seen in the umialik’s parallel actions.

The woman’s springtime ritual in fact started on the sea-ice. On the first day of the hunt, when the male crew left Tikigaq, the woman walked ahead to the open water. With the help of the woman the crew would have found a good place to wait, and the woman lay down on the ice with her head pointing toward Tikigaq while the men embarked and pushed off from the ice. After travelling a short distance the steersman brought his boat round and returned to the ice-edge. Silently, the harpooner leaned over the prow, dipped his weapon in the water opposite the woman and then touched her parka. When she had been “struck”, the woman got up and, without looking back, walked home.

The moment she reached her iglu the woman ceased activity, and for the rest of the hunt sat passively on the sleeping bench. . . . While her posture on the ice had resembled the rising whale and the position of her head indicated the direction from which the whale must come, woman had been the whale’s body. In her ritual tranquility she now enacted the whale’s soul. Not only did she transmit to the whales the generous passivity that whales were supposed to feel towards their hunters, but she already was the whale’s soul, resident within her Tikigaq iglu, suspended between the conditions of life and death that the hunt counterpoised and made sacred.

It is difficult for most of us to grasp the depth of affection one might feel toward an Animal whose body is not only food but also the Land itself. How the overtly active man and the overtly passive woman together contrive to weave a net of longing for the beloved animal was at the heart of the annual drama of the Tikigaq Inuit.

Quiet as the woman remains, she and her husband are in balanced partnership. . . . But the whale brought home through the shared operation implies a third partner in the myth-role. This third partner is the land itself. Land, like the woman, is externally quiet but dynamic within. And like all symbols of the whale hunt the land remains ambiguous. . . . Tikigaq [peninsula] is primal sea-beast, its iglus microcosmic versions of the whale and the sea-beast. When a Tikigaq harpooner strikes the land whale stirs; when the katak [iglu entrance hole] gives birth with the death of a bowhead the whale in the katak is both Tikigaq nuna [land], and bowhead, and just katak.

As Lowenstein’s informants put it:

Samaruna said:
These small whales, inutuqs,
small round fat ones
come to us from down there,
from their country south of us.

The women sit at home.
They are whale souls in their iglus.
The whales listen and sing.
They hear Tikigaq singing.

Listen to the north wind!
Listen to the sea-ice!
Listen to the inutuq
rising, breathing!

2. A mindful god

According to Jewish tradition, silent prayer was invented by a woman.

Now there was a certain man of Ramathaimzophim, of mount Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah, the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. And he had two wives; the name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other Peninnah: and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

And this man went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the LORD of hosts in Shiloh. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, the priests of the LORD, were there. And when the time was that Elkanah offered, he gave to Peninnah his wife, and to all her sons and her daughters, portions. But unto Hannah he gave a worthy portion; for he loved Hannah: but the LORD had shut up her womb.

And her adversary [i.e. Peninnah] also provoked her sore, for to make her fret, because the LORD had shut up her womb. And as he did so year by year, when she went up to the house of the LORD, so she provoked her; therefore she wept, and did not eat. Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou, and why eatest thou not, and why is thy heart grieved? Am not I better to thee than ten sons?

So Hannah rose up after they had eaten in Shiloh, and after they had drunk.

Now Eli the priest sat upon a seat by a post of the temple of the LORD.

And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.

And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli marked her mouth. Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken. And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? Put away thy wine from thee. And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD. Count not thine handmaid for a daughter of Belial: for out of the abundance of my complaint and grief have I spoken hitherto.

Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace: and the God of Israel grant thee thy petition that thou hast asked of him. And she said, Let thine handmaid find grace in thy sight. So the woman went her way, and did eat, and her countenance was no more sad.

And they rose up in the morning early, and worshipped before the LORD, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah: and Elkanah knew Hannah his wife; and the LORD remembered her.

Wherefore it came to pass, when the time was come about after Hannah had conceived, that she bare a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him of the LORD. And the man Elkanah, and all his house, went up to offer unto the LORD the yearly sacrifice, and his vow. But Hannah went not up; for she said unto her husband, I will not go up until the child be weaned, and then I will bring him, that he may appear before the LORD, and there abide for ever. And Elkanah her husband said unto her, Do what seemeth thee good; tarry until thou have weaned him; only the LORD establish his word.

So the woman abode, and gave her son suck until she weaned him. And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the LORD in Shiloh: and the child was young. And they slew a bullock, and brought the child to Eli. And she said, Oh my lord, as thy soul liveth, my lord, I am the woman that stood by thee here, praying unto the LORD. For this child I prayed; and the LORD hath given me my petition which I asked of him. Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there.

Thus the King James Bible, 1 Samuel 1. For Hannah’s song of thanksgiving – model for Miriam’s song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) – let’s turn to the Anchor Bible translation by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr.

[Hannah] said:

My heart exults in Yahweh!
My horn is raised by my god!
My mouth is stretched over my enemies!
I rejoice in my vindication.
For there is no holy one like Yahweh,
And no mountain like our god!
Do not speak haughtily
Or let arrogance out of your mouth.
For Yahweh is a mindful god,
And a god who balances his actions:
The bows of the mighty are broken,
While the feeble are girded with armor;
The sated have hired out for bread,
While the hungry are fattened on food;
The childless wife has borne seven,
While the mother of many sons is bereaved.
It is Yahweh who slays and quickens,
Who sends down to Sheol and brings up.
It is Yahweh who makes poor and makes rich,
Who debases and also exalts;
Who raises the poor from the dust,
From the scrap heaps lifts the needy,
To give them a seat with noblemen
And grant them a chair of honor.
For the straits of the earth are Yahweh’s . . .

3. Red wedding

Behold, a female anthropologist married a god, a warrior diety of a people doubly exiled: first from Africa, then from Haiti. Like the god of Israel in exile ramifying into the ten-fold sefirot, this god too has subdivided.

As Sen Jak Majè (Saint James the Elder), Ogou is a “man of war” who fights for what is right and just. As Ogou Panama, he is a pèsònaj (an important person) who demands to be treated with ceremony and deference. As Ogou Ferray, he is fierce and uncompromising. As Ogou Badagri, he is shy, handsome, brave and loyal. Yet, as Ogou Yamson, he is an unreliable drunkard who finds power in booze and swaggering talk; and, as Ag&#232ou, he is a liar and beggar. And when Ogou is called by the names Achade or Shango (the two are sometimes conflated into one character), he is said to be a sorceror.
(Karen McCarthy Brown: Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn, University of California Press, 1991)

There are many more Ogou besides these, says Brown. What qualities unite them?

Ogou teaches that to live one must fight. Pride, endurance, self-assertion, discipline, and a firm commitment to justice are qualities that bring success. But in one turn of the screw, pride can become braggadocio, endurance can become stubbornness, self-assertion fades into mere bullying, and discipline is transformed into tyranny. An overly developed sense of justice, one that is tempered neither by humor nor by graceful resignation, can lead to suicidal rage. . . . Because the constructive and destructive parts of Ogou’s character are so close together, none of the various Ogou is good or evil, right or wrong, in a simple, unqualified way. Each contains his own paradoxes of personality, which are teased out in possession-performance and in song. In July of 1979, for example, [Brown’s priestess] Alourdes’s community sang a lively song for all the Ogou:

Ki-ki-li-ki, o-ewa!
Papa Ogou, tou piti kon sa.
Papa Ogou, anraje.

Cock-a-doodle doo!
Papa Ogou, all children are like that.
Papa Ogou, enraged.

Such lean phrasing, replete with double and triple entendre, is characteristic of Vodou songs. From one perspective, Ogou is counseled in this song to show forbearance toward his children, his followers. From another, Ogou is a strutting banty rooster who throws childish tantrums when he cannot have his way.

As with the storm-god Yahweh’s evolution into the LORD of Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity, when the African gods crossed the ocean, they “submerged their connections to the natural world and elaborated their social messages.” But they did not at the same time retreat into an ever-more remote heaven, accessible only to true believers and only in the afterlife. Quite the opposite: the gods became more down-to-earth and accessible, entering directly into the bodies of their followers for frequent dramatic performances that mingled high seriousness and low comedy. And whereas the People of the Book stress the believer’s inner intention, all one needs to bring to the Vodou spirits (in addition to the appropriate offerings) is an open mind. “Try it and see if it work for you,” the priestess Alourdes urges her clients.

Vodou practitioners have little use for abstractions. “Vodou seldom halts its kinaesthetic and sensory drama to force its wisdom into concept or precept; proverbs, anecdotes, ancestral tales, and songs are the only vehicles subtle and flexible enough to cradle the messages when the truths of Vodou are put into words,” Brown notes. In this respect, it resembles indigenous and village-based religions the world over. In some sense, can we not agree with the ancient Chinese philosophers who argued that when religion has to promulgate formal precepts, it’s simply a sign that society has entered a crisis phase, a breakdown in communal norms? Viewed from the ethnocentric perspective of inhabitants of an urbanized civilization, we tend to view “tribal” religions as earlier stages in a progressive evolution leading (of course) to us, and perhaps beyond. But which kind of religion tends more closely to reflect the true, mind-boggling complexity of nature? Is the desert- or alpine-dweller’s longing for transcendent Godhead, moksha or nirvana automatically superior to the Vodou priestess’s regular experiences of immanence within a rainforest-like profusion of sacred roles?

But of course, there’s no reason to see transcendence and immanence as necessarily opposed; Haitians certainly don’t. Virtually all Vodou devotees consider themselves good Catholics. They would disagree strongly with my use of the term “god” for Ogou – he is considered a spirit.

Bondye (God) is singular and supreme in Haitian Vodou. He is a deity with roots in the Christian god as well as in the so-called high gods of West Africa. Yet in the Haitian view of things, Bondye, like his African models, rarely gets involved with individual human lives. Attention to the everyday drama of life is the work of his “angels,” the Vodou spirits. . . .

In Vodou, as in virtually all religions, “the spirits select their special devotees, not the reverse.” In fact, I suggest that if we are to draw any meaningful distinction whatsoever between religion and magic, this question of who selects whom would make an excellent criterion. The sorcerer commands and attempts to exert control over the animating forces of the universe with little concern for their own sovereignty or well-being. The religious person petitions, offers sacrifice, bows in thanksgiving, offers devotion. The religious person partakes; the sorceror consumes. For in many, many cultures the relationship to the sacred finds symbol and expression in the most essential forms of union: eating and making love.

Within Alourdes’s group of special spirits, one stands out. He is her mèt tèt (the master of her head), Ogou Badagri. But the dominance of Ogou Badagri in her life does not go unchecked. . . . For example, even if a situation has called out the aggression of the Ogou in Alourdes, Gede can possess her and put the matter in an entirely different light through his iconoclastic humor. . . .

Because Alourdes has gone through the Vodou marriage to Ogou Badagri, she calls him her “husband.” She sets aside one night a week for him. On this night, she receives the handsome soldier in dreams, and no human lover shares her bed. . . .

The most striking part of Ogou Badagri’s character is his ability to endure in the face of trials that would break many others. . . . Forsaking attack, Alourdes, like Badagri, chooses wakefulness. She draws her power around her like a cloak, holding it close to her body. She does not dream of extending herself outward and conquering the world. Rather, she controls what experience has taught her she is able to control – herself.

The anthropologist too has Ogou around her head. From the very beginning of her involvement with Vodou, she says, “every priest or priestess who chose to make a diagnosis told me that Papa Ogou was my mèt tèt.”

Although I had witnessed many Vodou marriages and been fascinated by them, I originally had no intention of going through the ritual myself. Then, one day in 1980 when I was alone in my apartment and full of rage (I had some things to be angry about at that period of my life), I found myself muttering, “Stop trying to make the anger go away. It only makes it worse. It’s yours. Marry it!” I picked up the phone and called Alourdes.

Brown resolved to do, as she put it, “fieldwork on my own psyche.” Alourdes performed divination, diagnosing her as suffering from a blockage of will or energy. She thinks too much, acts too timidly. As Brown explains, “a life of energy or flow” is the Vodou ideal. “The goal of all Vodou ritualizing is to echofe (heat things up) so that people and situations shift and move, and healing transformations can occur.”

The marriage took place the next month at Ogou’s regularly scheduled July birthday party. Around two o’clock in the morning, when the songs summoning Ogou began, I excused myself from the twenty-five or so people gathered around Alourdes’s sumptuous altar tables. I went upstairs to change into my wedding clothes – a bright red sundress purchased especially for the occasion and, on my head, a red satin scarf. When I came down the stairs half an hour later, everyone oohed and aahed over my fine attire. Everyone, that is, except Papa Ogou.

He had mounted Alourdes in my absence, and I found him decked out in his own finery, his red velvet military jacket with the gold epaulets. But Ogou ignored me. I stood by patiently while he talked to one person after another without acknowledging my presence. No matter how I maneuvered, he always managed to keep his back to me.

Everyone was getting nervous. One woman said, “Papa Ogou, your beautiful bride is here, behind you. Don’t you want to talk to her?” Ogou ignored the question. Then a man whispered in my ear, “Go on!” and gave me a shove in front of Ogou. The spirit looked at me with a cold eye. “What do you want?” he asked. I found my voice. “I am here to marry you. You promised you would marry me. You have made me wait a long time. I am ready.” Papa Ogou threw back his head and laughed. It was a deep, rich laugh. “Begin the ceremony!” he shouted, and, taking my arm, he propelled me toward the largest of the altar tables. Once again, Ogou had taught me the warrior’s lesson: know what you want and fight for it.

4. Pronouncing no name

The African American poet Lucille Clifton composed a moving series of poems on her husband Fred’s death from leukemia at the age of 49. They are included in her book Next (BOA Editions, 1987). Toward the end, Lucille’s own voice has become submerged in the voice of her dying husband:

leukemia as dream/ritual

it is night in my room.
the woman beside me is dying.
a small girl stands
at the foot of my bed.
she is crying and carrying wine
and a wafer.
her name is the name i would have given
the daughter i would have liked to have had.
she grieves for herself and
not for the woman.
she mourns the future and
not the past.
she offers me her small communion.
i roll the wafer and wine on my tongue.
i accept my body. i accept my blood.
eat she whispers. drink and eat.


chorus: lucille

something is growing in the strong man.
it is blooming, they say, but not a flower.
he has planted so much in me. so much.
i am not wiling, gardener, to give you up to this.


the death of fred clifton
age 49

i seemed to be drawn
to the center of myself
leaving the edges of me
in the hands of my wife
and i saw with the most amazing
so that i had not eyes but
and, rising and turning
through my skin,
there was all around not the
shapes of things
but oh, at last, the things


“i’m going back to my true identity”
fjc 11/84

i was ready to return
to my rightful name.
i saw it hovering near
in blazoned script
and, passing through fire,
i claimed it. here
is a box of stars
for my living wife.
tell her to scatter them
pronouncing no name.
tell her there is no deathless name
a body can pronounce.

Longing (3): Butterfly

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”


Late morning. I’ve just polished off what I hope are the last re-writes to “Longing (2)” when the intercom buzzes: a phone call. When I go up to my parents’ house, the place is rockin’. Mom’s playing that darn loud music on her kitchen stereo again! I take the call upstairs in her study. It’s my friend Jo, wondering if I’ll be able to attend the Yusuf Komunyakaa reading at Penn State next Friday night. The whole time we’re on the phone, I can hear my mom’s rich mezzo-soprano, singing along with Madama Butterfly – the old RCA Victor recording with Leontyne Price and Richard Tucker.

When I come downstairs, I poke my head in the kitchen. It’s well into Act III. I think they’re at the part where Butterfly is desperately clinging to her last shred of hope.

È qui, è qui . . . . dove è nascosto? (He’s here, he’s here . . . where is he hiding?)

Mom’s mincing onions; her eyes are wet but she’s grinning. “I just love this, it’s so beautiful!” she enthuses. “I keep thinking, ‘You poor girl, why you don’t realize what a bastard he is?'”


George R. Farek, in an essay included in the liner notes, “The Failure and Success of Butterfly”:

These frail, fragile creatures, these unheroic heroines who, loving wholly, are wholly broken by love, these are the ones who fired Puccini’s mind. . . .

Puccini did not seek to storm the heavens. His music lives not on a mountain top but in a small house, in the case of Butterfly a very small house with sliding walls, rented for nine hundred and ninety-nine years with the privilege of cancellation at any time. Here the composer was at home, here he could express, in a language of incomparable sensitiveness, the romantic pulse of his heart. . . . To be inspired, he had to, as he himself said, fall in love with his Mimìs and Liùs, and we may take him at his word when he tells us he loved Cio-Cio-San more than any other of his women.

The literary possibilities of the mysterious East were being discovered at the turn of the century and Puccini was aware of it. To the romancers Japan was a country exclusively inhabited by people of refinement where every man’s thoughts were subtle and every woman bowed low in sweet submission. Novels and stories with a Japanese locale abounded and its art was influencing European art, particularly the work of the French impressionists and Whistler. The public, to quote Bunthorne in Patience, longed for all one sees that’s Japanese.


Have you ever gone to an opera performance and wondered about the musicians, playing this heart-rending music night after night in darkness down in the pit? When at last they stand and turn, bowing, you applaud as if for fellow audience members who have done an especially fine job of cheering, driving the performers to new, impossible heights of emotion.

Kate Light is the award-winning author of two books of highly urbane poems in the neo-formalist mode, The Laws of Falling Bodies and Open Slowly. She works as a violinist for the New York City Opera. Several years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting her and attending a reading she gave at Penn State. Given the formidable learning on display in her poems, I was surprised by how unpretentious she was – basically still an ebullient, down-to-earth Midwesterner despite her years of residence in New York. In physical appearance, she rather resembles that Puccini-esque ideal – small, delicate-featured – but the voice in her poems, most of which deal with love in some form, is very wise and anything but fragile.

One of the poems she read that night, a villanelle called “After the Season,” deals directly with her feelings for the characters onstage at the opera. By way of introduction, Light said something like, “Can you imagine what it is like to witness the same tragic errors night after night and feel powerless to stop them?” Yes, of course we can: it is at the root of every opera lover’s longing, the thing, more than anything else, that inspires that lovely throb in the throat.

. . . I am making madness sane, setting prisoners free,
cooling the consumptive cheek, the fevered glow.
Do not talk to me just now; let me be.

Pinkerton and Butterfly make such a happy
couple; Violetta has five gardens now to show …
I am reuniting all the lovers, fishing the drowned from the sea . . .

Please read the complete poem, which appears in her second book, Open Slowly.


I remember reading, years ago, about the initial reaction to Western opera among Japanese. It was sometime in the early Meiji era, not long after Japan’s forced opening by Admiral Perry’s black ships. Someone – let’s say the American ambassador – had invited a number of dignitaries to his residence to hear a recital by a well-regarded Italian soprano. The Japanese listened politely as long as they could, but finally they couldn’t take it any more and burst out laughing. The distance between this aesthetic and those governing Japan’s own operatic traditions, Kabuki and Noh, was simply too great.

For years, as a one-time student of Noh dance, I was unable to appreciate Western opera myself. It’s odd, isn’t it, that the same basic emotions – longing and pathos – can give rise to such starkly contrasting aesthetic ideals. Or are they the same emotions? To suppose that they are assumes that such refined feelings can exist independently of the cultures that shape their expression . . .

At any rate, according the liner notes, something similar – and far more disastrous – happened at the world premiere of Butterfly, at La Scala in Milan, on February 17, 1904.

As the gentle chirping of birds was heard, the audience answered: they barked like dogs, burst into cock-a-doodle-doos of roosters, brayed like asses, and mooed like cows as if – [the lead soprano, Rosina] Storchio said – dawn in Japan was taking place in Noah’s Ark. Nothing after that failed to strike the audience as funny. The final scene, the preparation for the suicide and the suicide itself, was heard in comparative quiet, but when the curtain fell, Butterfly ended amidst laughter and derogatory shouts. There were no curtain calls, not a single one.

For a native Italian audience, such a reaction seems inexplicable. Although I confess I’m not a huge fan of Puccini’s music, as I read about this fiasco last night, I found my eyes tearing up with sympathy. And one can’t help but admire his decisiveness and resourcefulness in the face of such humiliation, canceling all scheduled performances, paying off La Scala, withdrawing the score, revising the opera a bit, and finally, on the 28th of May, premiering the revised version in the nearby town of Brescia – an unmitigated triumph. This sensitive and reclusive man, who had little use for heroic male roles in his own works, rose magnificently to the occasion in the service of his fiction, his beloved Butterfly.


Why “Butterfly”? The answer seems obvious: butterflies are delicate, ephemeral creatures, easily blown astray by the storms of fate. Then, too, they can symbolize transformative realization, though I’m not sure to what extent Puccini might have been thinking along those lines. Given his penchant for Orientalism, however, he must have read a version of Zhuangzi’s famous parable about dreaming he was a butterfly, then waking to wonder if perhaps instead he himself were merely the dream of a butterfly. Certainly the composer wished to convey a sense of dream-like insubstantiality about the existence of women like Cio-Cio-San, and he had read enough about Japanese aesthetics to understand the value accorded impermanence there.

The literalist in me wonders, though: are butterflies really so helpless? In light of current knowledge, should we perhaps stop thinking of butterflies this way?

As luck would have it, just this morning my mother lent me a copy of the Fall 2004 issue of Hawk Mountain News, which carries her article “Amazing Monarchs.” Yes, of course monarch butterflies are vulnerable to habitat destruction – no less than jaguars or polar bears. But otherwise they seem, collectively, quite resilient, as suggested by their rapid rebound from the massive die-off caused by freezing rain in January 2002. Individually, too, these insects defy human expectations. Individuals weighing just half a gram fly 2,000 miles to a very circumscribed destination they have never seen in central Mexico, over-winter there, and then travel as far north as the southern U.S. the next spring before mating and dying. Just how they manage to navigate is still a hotly contested issue among scientists.

The inter-migrational generations are certainly ephemeral, though being suckled exclusively on milkweed milk makes them nearly invulnerable to predation.

In their summer territory, which includes most of North America, adult monarchs live from two to six weeks. The cycle begins in mid-June, when monarchs can be observed coupling, flying high in the air, abdomen to abdomen. In Pennsylvania, three or four generations are produced each summer.

After mating, the female lays between 630 and 1,260 minute, golden eggs over a 30-day period on the undersides of tender, young milkweed leaves, the exclusive food source for the monarch larvae. Soon after the female lays her eggs, both the adult male and female will die.

A while back I wrote a strange poem about butterflies, based on – yes – a dream I had in which I thought I was a mourning cloak. The mourning cloak and its relative the Compton’s tortoiseshell are the earliest butterflies to emerge in spring, because, unlike the monarchs, they don’t migrate, but over-winter right here. In the dream, I pursued an illicit, inter-species affair with a deeply feminine Compton’s. I awoke feeling an immense sadness and longing, and decided to try and translate that feeling into poetry.

The result was probably, I fear, a bit obscure. I chose the title “Brushfoot,” an allusion to the genus that includes both species, but this is a little misleading since one of the other species mentioned in the poem, the red admiral, is also a brushfoot. Now I’m thinking perhaps I should keep it simple and go with “Butterfly.” It’s currently the opening poem in my manuscript Capturing the Hive – one of three insect poems in that collection – but now I’m wondering if it wasn’t kind of dumb to lead off with such a potentially obscure poem.


I said you, you, until my tongue curled up.
You the delectable pair of antennae,
bright shard
of a tortoise shell
& I in my mourning cloak,
waiting all winter in the form of a dead leaf.
When the warm weather came it didn’t stay,
the new leaves were roused out of their buds
& punished by frost after frost.

The spring ephemerals held
a solid month: bloodroot, mitrewort,
hepatica, Solomon’s seal.
Clouds of pollen filmed our mirrored glasses.
At length the hotter sun conspired
with the encroaching shade
to do away with indeterminacy:
lost spot where we used to meet,
where our tastes coincided,
now & again overlapped.

Our fling appalled
the guardians of natural order, for whom
the world belongs to the young, thrills
to the mastery of monarchs,
the rakish esprit of admirals–all
those that glide from bank
to bank of ranker weeds,
those that soar.
So far from you whose genius it is to flit.


Whatever the merit of Puccini’s other guesses about Japan, he wasn’t wrong about the premium placed on childlike fragility in traditional Japanese notions about feminine desirability. I remember how shocked I was back in 1985 when I first arrived in Japan, got on a bus and heard the hyper-feminized voice in the recordings announcing each stop. At the time, this was an ideal that unmarried Japanese women still sought to approximate. After marriage, however, they often underwent a transformation scarcely less astonishing than that of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Especially after the birth of their first child, women’s voices deepened with authority as they assumed full responsibility for the economic management of the household. Their bodies filled out, once-delicate limbs turning into daikon no ashi, as popular wisdom had it: legs like Japanese radishes, sturdy white columns of pungent flesh.

I gather that Japan has undergone something of a feminist revolution in the two decades since. When I was there, the subject of women’s liberation came up frequently when I talked with co-eds at the college I attended. “American women need liberation more than we do,” they would insist, appealing to a widespread stereotype. “They’re so weak! They have to ask their husbands for money!”


The anonymous 12th-century manuscript Tsutsumi Chunagon Monogatari has been called the world’s oldest collection of short stories. Its stories display a concern, unusual for the late Heian period, with the bizarrely comic. They parody the affectations and pretensions of Heian literature with an effect rather like laughter at the performance of a tragic opera.

The most famous of these stories, “The Lady Who Loved Insects,” finds comedy in the affairs of a young, would-be naturalist. Here’s how it begins:

Next door to the lady who loved butterflies was the house of a certain Provincial Inspector. He had an only daughter, to whose upbringing he and his wife devoted endless care. She was a strange girl, and used to say: “Why do people make so much fuss about butterflies and never give a thought to the creatures out of which butterflies grow? It is the Natural Form of things that is always the most important.” She collected all kinds of reptiles and insects such as most people are frightened to touch, and watched them day by day to see what they would turn into, keeping them in various sorts of little boxes and cages. Among these creatures her favourite was the common caterpillar. Hour after hour, her hair pushed back from her eyes, she would sit gazing at the furry black form that nestled in the palm of her hand. She found that other girls were frightened of these pets, and her only companions were a number of rather rough little boys, who were not in the least afraid. She got them to carry about the insect-boxes, find out the name of the insects or, if this could not be done, help her give them new names.

She hated anything that was not natural. Consequently she would not pluck a single hair from her eyebrows nor would she blacken her teeth, saying it was a dirty and disagreeable custom. So morning, noon and night she tended her insects, bending over them with a strange, white gleaming-smile. People on the whole were frightened of her and kept away; the few who ventured to approach her came back with the strangest reports. If anyone showed the slightest distaste for her pets, she would ask him indignantly how he could give way to so silly and vulgar a prejudice, and as she said this she would stare at the visitor under her black, bushy eyebrows in a way that made him extremely uncomfortable.

Her parents thought all this very peculiar and would much rather she had been more like other children; but they saw it was no use arguing with her. She for her part took immense trouble in explaining her ideas, but this only resulted in making them feel that she was much cleverer than they. “No doubt,” they would say, “all you tell us is quite true, and so far as we are concerned you may do as you please. But people as a rule only make pets of charming and pretty things. If it gets about that you keep hairy caterpillars you will be thought a disgusting girl and no one will want to know you.” “I do not mind what they think,” she answered. “I want to inquire into everything that exists and find out how it began. Nothing else interests me. And it is very silly of them to dislike caterpillars, all of which will soon turn into lovely butterflies.” Then she again explained to them carefully how the cocoon, which is like the thick winter clothes that human beings wear, wraps up the caterpillar till its wings have grown and it is ready to be a butterfly. Then it suddenly waves its white sleeves and flits away. . . .

(Arthur Waley, tr., in Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation of Arthur Waley, Ivan Morris, ed., Creative Arts Book Company, 1981)

The rest of the story, which purports to be the first scroll from a lost novel, records the archly sarcastic poems and practical jokes sent her way by other young ladies and two pretend suitors. A woman who thinks for herself, ha ha. Scientific curiosity about the natural world – how unfeminine and absurd.

But the portrait itself is so compelling, so realistic and so true to type, for anyone who has ever read about the lives of female naturalists in our own society, it’s hard not to feel that it was based on some real person. I’m reminded of the 18th- and 19th-century pioneering women naturalists portrayed in my mother’s book, Women in the Field. At the thought of this long-ago, misunderstood woman, the butt of jokes, the model for an unflattering literary portrait probably circulated widely among the sophisticated young men and women of Kyoto’s incestuous elite, I feel a familiar catch in my throat. Ah, if only . . .

Longing (2): the hidden country

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Longing: Anthology and Meditation


Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”


The first text I want to present here today consists of an extended passage from the Kojiki, or Records of Ancient Matters, compiled by order of the Japanese imperial court and completed in 712 A.D. (Donald L. Philippi, tr., University of Tokyo Press, 1968).

After the death of the emperor, the crown prince Ki-Nasi-no-Karu was to have assumed the sun-lineage; but before he ascended the throne, he seduced his younger sister Karu-no-Opo-Iratume, singing this song:

Making a mountain paddy,
Because the mountain is high,
An irrigation pipe is run
Underneath the ground, secretly –

My beloved, whom I have visited
With secret visits;
My spouse, for whom I have wept
With a secret weeping –

Tonight at last
I caress her body with ease.

This is Sirage-Uta [a song ending in a raised pitch; or possibly, a song in the style of the ancient kingdom of Silla, on the Korean peninsula].

Also he sang these songs:

The hail beats down
On the bamboo grass
tasi-dasi [i.e., “to the full”] –
After sleeping with her to the full,
Then, even if she leaves me . . .
[or, “Then, even if people try to separate us . . . ]


With each other as beloved,
If only we sleep together,
Then, even if we are separated
Like threshed reeds, let us be separated [or “disheveled”] –
If only we sleep together.

These are Pina-Buri no Age-Uta [songs in the rustic style with elevated pitch and/or sentiment].

For this reason the various officials as well as all the people in the kingdom turned against Prince Karu and adhered to [his brother] Anapo-no-Miko.

Prince Karu flees, taking refuge at the palace of an ally. But when Anapo-no-Miko arrives with his army, this supposed ally turns the fugitive over to them, accompanied by appropriate songs (uta). (Presumably acknowledging the semi-divine character of the future emperor, the Kojiki describes the nobleman “lifting up his arms and hitting his thighs . . . dancing and singing.”)

When he was captured, the crown prince sang this song:

O sky-flying
Karu maiden –
Should I cry loudly,
People would know.
Like the pigeons
On Pasa Mountain,
I cry secretly.

Again he sang:

O sky-flying
Karu maiden:
Come hither secretly,
Sleep here and then go your way,
O Karu maiden!

Prince Karu was exiled to the hot springs of Iyo. When about to go into exile he sang this song:

The sky-flying
Birds are also messengers.
When you hear
The cry of the crane,
Ask my name of it.

These three songs are Amada-Buri [Field of Heaven songs].

“Sky-flying” is a conventional epithet for “Karu,” based on the homology with kari, wild geese.

The translator elsewhere notes that, in ancient Japanese religion, birds were credited with the power of revitalizing a person and/or in transporting the spirit. Also, Japanese believed until quite recently that a living person’s spirit could manifest itself in more than one location at the same time. Thus, I suppose, it wouldn’t have been necessary for the prince to have died in order for a crane to transport something of his name/spirit/essence back to the yearning princess. At any rate, the birds are more like avatars than passive messengers here.

Then he sang this song:

If the great lord
Is exiled to an island,
There are ships [or “burial caskets”]
By which I may return.
Leave my sitting-mat alone!
Although I speak
Of sitting-mats, I really mean:
Leave my wife alone!

This song is Pina-Buri no Kata-Orosi [song in a rustic style with a half-descending pitch].

This song has the force of a spell. Prince Karu is threatening to come back from beyond the grave, a threat that would have been taken very seriously. Philippi notes that “the sitting mats of travelers were carefully kept at home and preserved from pollution during their absence in order to ensure their safe return.”

So-Toposi-no-Miko [i.e., Princess Karu] presented a song; the song said:

Oh, do not go, lest you tread
On the oyster shells
On the beach of Apine
Of the summer grass –
Spend the night and return in the morning!

Philippi: “The place name Apine may also mean ‘sleep together.'”

Then later, overwhelmed by her feeling, she went after him. At the time she sang this song:

Since you have set out,
Many days have passed.
Like the
yama-tadu [elderberry] tree,
I will go in search of you;
I can no longer wait.

Since the text itself interrupts the narrative to comment on poetics, perhaps it’s O.K. if I do the same? These – like the first song attributed to the Princess – are both borrowed wholesale from the oral tradition; the last exists in a slightly different version, with different attribution, in the Manyoshu. (Like many of these songs, it employs a device called a pillow-word: a conventional simile based on a homophonal relationship, i.e., a cross between a pun and a metaphor.)

When she caught up with him, he had been waiting and yearning for her, and he sang this song:

On Mount Patuse
Of the hidden country,
On the large ridges
Are erected banners,
On the small ridges
Are erected banners.

As upon a large ridge,
Do you rely upon our troth,
Ah, my beloved spouse.

Like a Tuki bow
Like an Adusa bow
Standing up –

Later, I shall hold you close,
Ah, my beloved spouse!

Philippi notes, “. . . Komoru, ‘to conceal oneself’ . . . might be interpreted here as ‘to hide within the tomb.’ Patuse is known as an ancient burial place. Banners were set up in religious ceremonies and funerals.”

Again he sang this song:

On the river of Patuse
Of the hidden country,
In the upper shallows
A sacred post was staked,
In the lower shallows
A true post was staked.

On the sacred post
Was hung a mirror,
On the true post
Was hung a jewel.

My beloved,
Who is to me as a mirror,
My spouse,
Who is to me as a jewel –

Only if I hear
That she is there,
Do I wish to go home,
Do I yearn for my country.

Thus singing, they committed suicide together.

These two songs are Yomi-Uta [“reading songs,” probably meaning they were chanted with little inflection].

The actions described in the first and second stanzas of this final song have strong theurgic connotations, perhaps evoking rites to cleanse oneself of the pollution of death. Prince Karu is singing a song of conjuration to his wife/sister/mirror, collapsing the present into the immediate future of their death, and the wild country around them into the other world’s back-of-beyond. (Philippi cites a Japanese scholar who “believes this [song] was originally a prayer for safety during a journey.”)

If I quote at such length, risking copyright infringement, it is only because I suspect that the Kojiki is not nearly as well known as it should be among fans of world literature. The translation available on the Internet, by Basil Hall Chamberlain, is painful to read, both for its stilted language and its lack of scholarship. Many of the songs are extremely difficult to translate, so Donald Philippi’s expertise is indispensible. (In addition to his translation of the Kojiki, I highly recommend Philippi’s This Wine of Peace, This Wine of Laughter: A Complete Anthology of Japan’s Earliest Songs [Mushinsha, 1968].)

As Philippi observes, the Prince and Princess Karu story provides “the earliest documentary evidence of the double suicides that so enlivened the stage during the Edo period” a thousand years later. “In fact, the theatre-conscious commentator Nakajima [Etsuji] even claims that this chapter reflects a rudimentary dramatic performance.” I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. In addition, their song exchange prefigures the widespread practice of frequent poem exchanges between friends and lovers that so shaped literary expression during the Heian Period.

The contrast with the Biblical story about the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13) is striking. Stylistically, they couldn’t be farther apart. In its psychological depth, the entire David cycle resembles a modern novel, while the Prince and Princess Karu story anticipates the poetic profundity of later monogatari. And despite similar openings, the two stories diverge quite widely. Amnon experiences revulsion the moment he has consummated his passion for his sister, and sends her rudely away. The real, enduring longing in that story is revealed at the very end of the chapter, after Amnon is murdered by his brother Absolom in retaliation: “So Absalom fled, and went to Geshur, and was there three years. And the soul of king David longed to go forth unto Absalom: for he was comforted concerning Amnon, seeing he was dead.”

For me, the story from the Kojiki perfectly encapsulates that special sense of longing for unattainable and/or transient beauty that permeates Japanese literature, from the elegies and laments of Kakinomoto no Hitomaru through the great Heian Period poets and novelists such as Ono no Komachi and Lady Murasaki, to the Heike Monogatari and even some of the works of famous monk-poets such as Saigyo, Basho and Ryokan, not to mention the dramas of Seami and Chickamatsu. Donald Keene, the most prolific English-language translator and critic of Japanese literature, put it this way:

Beyond the preference for simplicity and the natural qualities of things lies what is perhaps the most distinctively Japanese aesthetic ideal, perishability. The desire in the West has generally been to achieve artistic immortality, and this has led men to erect monuments in deathless marble. . . . The Japanese have built for impermanence, though paradoxically some of the oldest buildings in the world exist in Japan . . . . Whatever the subject matter of the old poems, the underlying meaning was often an expression of grief over the fragility of beauty and love. Yet the Japanese were keenly aware that without this mortality there could be no beauty.
(Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodansha, 1971)

Pathos, like other emotions, can best be gotten at through indirection: the blank spaces on the landscape painting no less than the words not uttered outright in a poem are essential to draw the viewer, listener or reader in. The animist mindset of Shinto helped focus poets’ attention on particularities, on the possibilities for sudden illumination inherent in a beautiful detail, long before the introduction of Zen Buddhism. Among the things to which autonomy and spiritual power were attributed, place names, personal names and all other poetic words occupied a prominent position. As the preface to the 9th-century anthology Kokinshu put it:

Japanese poetry has its seeds in the human heart, and takes form in the countless leaves that are words. So much happens to us while we live in this world that we must voice the thoughts that are in our hearts, conveying them through the things we see and the things we hear. We hear the bush warbler singing in the flowers or the voice of frogs that live in the water and know that among all living creatures there is not one that does not have its song. It is poetry that, without exerting force, can move heaven and earth, wake the feelings of the unseen gods and spirits, soften the relations between man and woman, and soothe the heart of the fierce warrior.

(Burton Watson, tr., in From the Country of Eight Islands, Doubleday, 1981)

Out of the countless expressions of this uniquely Japanese take on longing that I could cite from the modern era, let me round off this post with two poems by Takamura Kotaro. Takamura was a sculptor – the son of a carver of Buddhist images – and one of the first 20th-century poets to write successfully in the vernacular. Some of his most memorable poems are those he wrote for and about his common-law wife and fellow artist Chieko, chronicling their three-decade-long relationship from first meeting through her eventual, chronic insanity and death.

Both these poems are translated by Hiroaki Sato, from Chieko and Other Poems of Takamura Kotaro (University Press of Hawaii, 1980).

Chieko Playing With Flowers

Where there is no one on the sands of Kojukuri
Sitting on the sand Chieko plays alone.
Innumerable friends call to Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii
Leaving tiny footprints in the sand,
plovers come near her.
Chieko who is always talking to herself
raises both hands to call them.
Chii, chii, chii
Plovers beg for the shells in her hands.
Chieko scatters them here and there.
Rising up in a flock the plovers call Chieko.
Chii, chii, chii, chii, chii
Leaving off entirely the task of being human,
now having passed into the natural world
Chieko seems just a speck.
Some two hundred yards off in the windbreak, in the evening sun
bathed in pine pollen I stand, forgetting time.


Invaluable Chieko

Chieko sees what one cannot see,
hears what one cannot hear.

Chieko goes where one cannot go,
does what one cannot do.

Chieko does not see the living me,
yearns for the me behind me.

Chieko has cast off the weight of suffering,
has strayed out to the endless, desolate zone of beauty.

I persistently hear her call to me, but
Chieko no longer has a ticket to the human world.

Just as I prepare to post, I hear the cries of wild geese overhead, invisible in the thick fog.

Spell: against the moving of mountains

(For what it’s worth, this is Via Negativa’s 500th post.)

The spell says everything connects. Though sometimes I long for a little more randomness in events, you know? Without mere chance, without the notion that the mind can somehow lift itself above the web of causality and inference, where might true autonomy be found?

Dale’s had some interesting things to say lately about the illusory nature of individual autonomy. I alighted on his site mole last night before bed and read a really evocative essay on rain, the nearly endless rain of winter in the Pacific Northwest. This put me in mind of Jorge Teillier with his rain- and nostalgia-drenched poems from his childhood in the south of Chile, and I thought I might start the morning with him.

And so I do. It’s raining here, of course – the remnants of Hurricane Ivan – and I’m sitting on the front porch with my morning coffee and a copy of the bilingual In Order to Talk with the Dead: Selected Poems of Jorge Teillier, translated by Carolyn Wright (University of Texas Press, 1993). I open the book at random, and the first lines I come to are these:

Ruega por mí­, reloj,
en estas horas monótonas como ronroneos de gatos.

Pray for me, clock,
in these hours monotonous as the purring of cats.

And this brings to mind a dream-image from a few hours before: a crate full of purring kittens, each packed carefully away like fine china among rags and crumpled newspapers. I remember setting the crate down on the hardwood floor here in my writing room and lying down next to it, pressing my ear to the floorboards to listen to the loud hum from all that purring.

In reality, of course, it’s my old computer that sits on the floor and hums like a dozen cats. Cats upon cats! It seems as if this computer, the worldwide web and the endless chain of felines at the Infinite Cat Project have begun to blend together in my subconscious.

There was another animal in my dreams, too: a little black bull that ran slow figure eights, trying to escape a matador. But somehow the scene shifted from Spain to Great Britain, prompted perhaps by news of Parliament’s debate over outlawing foxhunts. The bull became not quite a fox but something like a wild boar, I think, and the matador turned into a picador with a sword, then a hunter with a rifle, who walked casually behind the wounded, staggering animal with the barrel almost touching its hide. Why didn’t he shoot?

In Order to Talk with the Dead doesn’t seem to fit my mood this morning – I guess I’m looking for gravity more than nostalgia – so I go back inside and pull a volume of Charles Wright off the shelf: Appalachia (FSG, 1998). Again, I open at random and read:

Only the dead can be born again, and then not much.
I wish I were a mole in the ground,
eyes that see in the dark.

Star-nosed mole, I think. Blind, but carrying a beacon, a prehensile headlamp.

It’s always a dilemma, you see. Should I write poetry or prose this morning?

Wright, in “The Writing Life”:

Give me the names for things, just give me their real names,
Not what we call them, but what
They call themselves when no one’s listening –
At midnight, the moon-plated hemlocks like unstruck bells,
God wandering aimlessly elsewhere.

Elsewhere: there’s a ball I could run with! But I forgot to say that mole in the ground made me think momentarily of the waterlogged soil hereabouts – and then back to cats, again. Because ordinarily that’s the only way I ever get to see a mole: if a cat kills one and then leaves it in the grass when it discovers how bad it tastes. And right on cue – I swear! – a feral cat trots down the driveway. The black one with white stockings, out in the rain no doubt because she’s hungry and has no choice, and/or because she knows the rain will give her cover. Sure enough, she makes it down around the bend and out of sight without a single heckling squirrel or wren marking her passage. It’s been so long since my unilateral cease-fire went into effect that I don’t even remember to squint as I once would have done, drawing an imaginary bead on the back of her neck.

It’s so dark, I think, it might as well be 7:30 at night instead of 7:30 in the morning. Flash floods are forecast for later on today as Ivan moves through, and I worry about our access road. Two days after Frances, a section of the road bank slid into the stream down in the steepest part of the hollow, leaving a new, precipitous drop-off right at the edge of the track. We half expect to walk down to the slide area tomorrow and find the road half gone. If that happens, we’ll be cut off from the outside world for a month or more, until a contractor can get the necessary permits to bring his equipment up and rebuild the bank with limestone riprap.


Black cat in the rain, hunter,
avatar of luck I cannot begin
to classify, may the first star you see
herald a clearing sky. May it lead you
to slow prey & a quick kill: mouse
or vole or chipmunk, no star-
nosed mole. May hunger make you
attentive, disinclined to play with
your food. One slip
& the owl’s talons, those four-
pointed throwing stars, can find
their mark. May you keep
your distance from anything
with feathers, large
or small. I’ve never given
you a name, O wary one – I couldn’t
begin to hazard it. The bullets rest
in the cartridge case now
like little gold eyes, any one of which
could bore a blind tunnel through
the back of a neck. Let lead
lodge elsewhere, its paths
uncrossed. May all miners
stay dry in their tunnels, pray
that the mountains stand firm,
don’t backslide, & the creeks
don’t rise.

UPDATE (Saturday morning): The creek rose. Ivan has caused the worst flooding here since Agnes in 1972. The Plummer’s Hollow Road is still there – barely. Several portions are channelized too deeply for auto traffic, however. In addition, the river is over the highway at the bottom of the mountain. It looks as if I’ll be backpacking in groceries for a little while. Oddly, we never lost power.


I’m still working my way slowly through Bruce Kapferer’s tour de force on Sri Lankan sorcery practices, The Feast of the Sorcerer. I share with Kapferer the view that an accurate understanding of magic and sorcery offers more valuable insights into the nature of communities and the formation of human consciousness than any amount of social or psychological theory.

Almost every one of Kapferer’s generalizations jibes with what I’ve read about sorcery or witchcraft in other, very different societies (Pueblo, Nahuat, Songhai, Herero, Melanesia). It’s interesting to see how sorcery fits into a Buddhist worldview. The major word for the condition of being ensorcelled is huniyam or suniyam, also the name for the demonic deity most closely associated with sorcery practices. Its derivation is unclear, but

Aduras (exorcists) and some shrine priests (kapuralas) indicate that it is borrowed from the Tamil cuniyam. The lexical definition of this word, and its derivative compounds, carries many of the meanings of Sinhalese ritual and everyday usage: for example, such senses as barrenness, defilement, ruin. Some exorcists tell me that the word comes from the Sanskrit sunya, “void,” and this has similar meaning in Tamil, as, for example, “nonexistence, vacuum, nonentity, defilement.” The notion of sunya has much more resonance with the existential nature of sorcery elaborated in sorcery and antisorcery rites and in the experiences of sorcery victims.

Note that the very ambiguity of the concept of “void” serves its purpose here. The “negative emptiness” of nihilism – a very different, perhaps opposite goal from the “positive emptiness” of nirvana – is of course what is invoked, because

The ultimate effect of sorcery is the radical extinction or obliteration of the victim or the whole circumstance of the victim’s existence, the social relations and the means whereby victims sustain their life world. The fear that people have of sorcery is that it strikes at both the victim and the ground of the victim’s being. The major myths and rites of sorcery express themes of cosmic destruction and renewal. They indicate the condition of sorcery as being a virtual return to the void from which existence springs. Sorcery projects death, actual physical extinction, which is also a chief metaphor for the anguish of sorcery as a kind of death in the midst of life, a living death. The extinction threatened by sorcery is not a release from existence, the source of suffering, as in the achievement of nibbana (nirvana), but an obliteration in the continuity of existence. Again in the myths and major antisorcery rites, the force of the sorcerer and of sorcery is ranged against the Buddha teaching and the ultimate release from existence and suffering. The figure with whom sorcery and the destructive powers of Suniyama are often associated with is Devadatta, a kinsman and follower of Gautama Buddha who broke with his teaching.

“An obliteration in the continuity of existence”: whereas in other societies the ultimate horror involves simple erasure of being (and descendents), the Buddhist influence here makes the situation more complex and – I would have to say – perhaps more accurate. Whether one lives in a relatively atomized, modern urban environment or in a more traditional village setting, one’s reality as a social being arises from one’s participation in a complex web of interactions and attachments. The trick is to interact without getting too caught up in one’s attachments, without surrendering to negative emotions like envy and jealousy, which, in some circumstances, can ensorcell all by themselves. “People may not be aware of the dangers of their talk or realize the envy of their thoughts, but such action can nonetheless cause harm and in effect is sorcery.” Attention and intention are everything.

The notion of binding or tying (bandana,* vb. bandinava) is basic to sorcery action. Sorcerers tie their charms to their victims or bind their victims to their destructive work. The idea of binding or tying has strong associations of union with the sorcerer and of constraint to the terms of a relation dictated by the sorcerer. The term hira bandana (tight or marriage bond) is a sorcery trope that indicates the controlling intimacy of the destructive sorcerer and his victim. Sorcery is infused with the metaphors of sexuality, and these express the intense intimacy of sorcery’s relations as well as its capacity to strike at the core of generative being. . . .

The bond of sorcery limits and denies life. In effect, it is an antirelation, and in the rites to overcome sorcery, the aim is to cut (kapanava) such bonds. . . . The ultimate object of [antisorcery] rites is to tie or bind victims back into the life-regenerative aspects of their life world and to break the life-threatening bond that sorcerers and their demonic agents have established with them. Indeed, the bonds of the sorcerer must be broken, and sorcerers must themselves be bound and contained. Several ritual experts in antisorcery have described to me how they capture the essence of the agents of sorcery in bottles and throw them into the sea. At Kabalava, a major shrine to Suniyam, his destructive potency is understood to be constrained in a book (Kabala Patuna) bound by nine threads.

As I have argued here before, the intimacy of lovers and the intimacy of predator and prey are not necessarily as far apart as we would like to believe. “You either live in love, or you live in fear,” Einstein proclaimed. But we shouldn’t be so naive to assume that this can be a simple, polar opposition. There is a bit of fear even in the strongest love relationship. As the new-to-me blogger Doc Rock (thanks, Tom and Beth!) wrote just yesterday,

War is a conventional, convenient (and until recently all-male) anvil on which to try Character. But it’s not the ultimate test. Not really. Experience has recently taught me that Love is a far greater test of character than War. In Love, one is even more vulnerable, even more at risk, even more fragile, than in War.

And all this talk of binding and testing brings me back to the Bible, once again, and that brief, disquieting story about a boy and his aged father traveling up into the mountains with a load of brushwood . . .

*Yes, this is a cognate with the Hindi word from which the English bandanna derives.