Feast your eyes on this

Today is St. Lucy’s Day, one in a series of December celebrations of light.

Lucy is a Sicilian saint, the patroness of Syracuse where she was martyred in the reign of Diocletian. One story says that when a suitor admired her beautiful eyes she cut them out and sent them to him, asking to be left in peace thereafter (like most early Christian virgin martyrs, she refused marriage). Now she is the patron of eye diseases and the blind and is often depicted carrying her eyeballs on a plate….

Apparently untroubled by the gruesome imagery, Italians eat St. Lucy’s eyes, cakes or biscotti shaped like eyeballs….The celebration of St Lucy spread over all of Europe. But the place where she is most beloved is Scandinavia, where light is especially welcome in the long hours of winter darkness. On her day, the eldest (or youngest) daughter rises before dawn and fixes a breakfast of special pastries and coffee for her family. She appears in their bedrooms, dressed in a white dress belted with a red sash, and wearing a wreath of greens and four (or seven or nine) lighted candles. Sometimes the wreath is made of green rue and decorated with red ribbons. She serves traditional pastries called lussekatter (or Lucy cats), x-shaped pastries, sometimes flavored with saffron. Other traditional foods served in her honor include saffron buns, ginger biscuits and glogg, a hot spiced wine with aquavit.

Here in central Pennsylvania, the weather gods are celebrating St. Lucy’s Day with our first real snow of the season. And why not? A blanket of snow is the only real way to diminish the darkness this time of year.

UPDATE: Check out the great poem, and additional links, at Watermark.

Janus poem

Mirror, mirror

Hello, silk: a girdled witch hazel switch, curdled-milk yellow.
The stark noose of bare wood bears no tooth mark.
Light snow fogs the view, logs glow white
as egrets, Victoria’s secrets, as
hope against hope.

Blog picks of the week

1. Marin Outings, the brand-new blog by Maria of alembic, looks promising. It features photos matched with finely-wrought poems or prose poems. Start at the beginning.

2. Suzanne’s Sapphodes are not so much spacey as they are holey – maybe even via negativistic.

3. From the guys this week, metaphysical wrestling with the Big Questions. (You know how much we guys obsess about the size of our questions!) First, Chris Clarke wondered about Worship:

In an old edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, someone once responded to the Spaceship Earth metaphor as like being out in the New Mexico night, looking at the stars, and gasping “it’s just like the planetarium!” Church is like going to the Oakland Museum, looking at the wonderful diorama of Joshua tree, Tegeticula moth, loggerhead shrike, and Mojave green rattlesnake, all artfully preserved and decorously posed.

Reality? Reality bites.

Then Grace and other curses came in for some sharp questioning at the vernacular body:

Fortunately, grace doesn’t require belief of me. In this, it is like many of the wonders of our world. No belief required. A thing is what it is, regardless of what I might choose to impose on it. My believing or disbelieving is immaterial.

This at least is my explanation for what happens in that precisely callibrated moment (precisely callibrated: look at me talking like a believer!) when I encounter the work, or when the work encounters me.

Finally, Kevin of Big Hominid entered the ring (three-way matches are allowed in metaphysical wrestling, right?), guest-blogging at Ditch the Raft on Zen and Postmodernism.

As Korean Zen master Seung Sahn says, if you want to “attain watermelon,” you have to cut a piece and eat it. “BOOM! Your experience!” Seung Sahn cackles. You and the watermelon are not-two, of course. In a deep sense, you don’t really “attain” watermelon any more than you “know the taste of” watermelon. Nothing to attain; nothing to taste; no you. Think of the watermelon as your dharma talk, a sermon about the nature of all things….

4. But my favorite single line of the week appeared in a diatribe by Natalie at Blaugustine last Sunday:

But, like many people, I go to hell sometimes because you can find bargains there.

Sad but true.


I’m still accepting nominations for the “Reader’s Picks” addendum to Tuesday’s post, Loose canon: 20th century poetry in English. The only requirements are that it be a book- or chapbook-length collection of poems in English (no translations, though I fudged a little on Pound’s Cathay) published between 1901 and 2000 – and that, most importantly, it be a strong personal favorite of yours.

Object lesson

John McKay, where are you? Some names are kind of hard to Google, you know.

John was my roommate in my last semester at Penn State; we’d studied abroad in Japan at the same time, though I didn’t get to know him too well then. He was always chasing after one redhead or another. Must be an Irish thing.

Anyway, it was John who first introduced me to the blues –

“Good morning blues, blues how do you do?
Good morning blues, blues how do you do?”
“I’m doin’ all right, baby, how ’bout you?”

– for which I remain eternally grateful.

I was thinking about John yesterday. He was an English major, and for a fiction class he had embroidered a bit on a real character he had met during a summer job at the morgue, a guy named Shorty. I can’t remember whether Shorty starred in a short story, a novella or a full-length novel. Whatever John was working on, it seemed always to take a back seat to the parade of redheads in and out of his bedroom. But I do know that I got into the act myself a couple years later:

Shorty’s Ballad of Unrequited Love

I want to love you slowly sweetly
One spoonful at a time
I want you holy & completely
For no good reason or rhyme

I want your love to refine me
Like sugar from sugarcane
I want you to seal & sign me
Over to a home for the insane

I want to feel your teeth your nails
Your hands around my throat
I want the blues when passion fails
In each pocket of my overcoat

I’ll stand outside convenience stores
In the middle of July
I’ll wave my sleeves like semaphores
Until I learn to fly

And then my sweet I’ll change my name
Bus drivers will call me Bill
I’ll put your face in a pretty frame
Beside my windowsill

So don’t call me unromantic dear
Because I don’t talk nice
It’s really been a frantic year
Since they laid you out on ice

I was reminded of all this yesterday, when some of our hunter friends were giving us an update on the progress of the 2004 deer season. There’s a general paucity of bucks this year, they said, and what few are around are still in full rut, possibly because the weather has stayed so warm.

“You don’t want to get in the way of a buck when he’s chasing a doe,” said Troy. “Ray, down here in Sinking Valley? He shot a doe from his tree stand last week, and when he got over to it there was a big buck working her over. It’s like he didn’t even notice that she was dead! And he would not go away.

“Ray got a friend to help chase him off, then stand by with a loaded rifle while he gutted her out. The whole time, they said that buck was just a few yards away, acting like he was gonna charge. I said to Paula, if that buck had made up his mind to charge, that rifle wouldn’t’a done no good whatsoever. He shoulda just left it alone and come back later. You don’t want to mess with a buck when they’re like that.”

Words to live by.

Thinking in claymation

I’m sitting at a public terminal in one of the largest open-stack libraries in the United States. Behind me are rows and rows of shelving with the current issues of thousands of journals in the arts and humanities, including literary and poetry magazines. The curious thing is, I feel almost no urge to go browse them any more. I mean, poems on tree flesh! How retro! How barbaric!

But just now, when I explained this feeling to a librarian friend who stopped by to say hello, her reaction was that expecting everyone to go electronic is unfair. What about all those people over 65? My solution: clay tablets. Ashurbanipal had the right idea. Burn the library down and the “books” just get harder. That’s why we can still read the Epic of Gilgamesh today.

I’m serious. I think a lot about what will and will not survive the inevitable collapse of our civilization. Paper, digital and microform texts seem about equally doomed. “Can you imagine how many tablets that would take, and how much they would collectively weigh?” my friend objects. “How would you ever store them?” “Can you imagine how few texts will really stand the test of time?” I reply. I mean, how many commentaries on Hamlet does the world need?

Perhaps the best way to celebrate the impending one-year anniversary of the launch of this blog would be for me to pick two or three posts out of the 700 or so I’ve “published” here and inscribe them into clay. I used to be half-decent with calligraphy; clay would present an interesting challenge.

In any case, it would be fun to start one’s own clay tablet collection, if for no other reason than to have an excuse to reproduce the warning Ashurbanipal had posted in his library in the 7th century BCE.

Right above the computer monitor here is a wimpy little sign – on paper, of course – that reads, “Thank you for safeguarding the collections with a Library-approved-beverage container.” Yes, that’s right: whoever had these signs made up didn’t even grasp the rules of hyphenation.

Ashurbanipal didn’t thank patrons in advance for their cooperation. His warning read:

May all these gods curse anyone who breaks, defaces, or removes this tablet with a curse which cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless as long as he lives; may they let his name, his seed be carried off from the land; and may they put his flesh in a dog’s mouth.

Who in the 7th century BCE would have guessed that Ashurbanipal’s library would outlast even the gods that were charged with its protection?

The Blogger spellchecker doesn’t even include the word “blog”!? I tell you, this electronic civilization is a flash in the pan.


The English language is unusually rich, they say, in words to describe silence, quiet, stillness, noiselessness, peace. I wonder if it isn’t in the nature of things for a language to multiply expressions for whatever an economic system based on scarcity renders dear? Water is the most ubiquitous and necessary substance on the planet, but how many ways do we have to describe it?

Lately I have found myself wishing especially for a richer vocabulary for the sounds of water. We’ve had two full years of record-setting precipitation here, and with my porch right at the headwaters of Plummer’s Hollow Run, I’m learning to distinguish subtle nuances of trickle, burble, flow. Every season but the heart of winter is mud season now. A year ago, when I started this blog, I think I imagined I’d be dealing more with images of blankness, the smooth refusal of fresh snow. Instead, I have begun visualizing the via negativa as a place where fresh boot prints fill quickly with water. It’s a bit like the 8th-century Japanese priest Sami Mansei’s one surviving poem. To what shall I compare the world? A boat that rows off with morning, leaving no trace behind, he wrote in one, almost continuous arabesque of ink, the brush sliding wetly over the scented paper. This was a culture, let’s remember, where in order to be thought attractive women had to blacken their teeth and draw faint clouds on their foreheads an inch above the place where their eyebrows had been. People took ink and lacquerware seriously. Occlusion was honored.

No road, no trace of a path, nothing more than the briefest of wakes: only the anonymous authors of the Daodejing thought this sufficient to base a coherent philosophy upon. But it’s not as if no one else ever took notice of such things. There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four things which I know not: The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid (Proverbs 30:18-19). I am not sure in what manner Agur ben Yakeh committed his words to writing – quill and papyrus? But of course this may have been a popular saying for generations before this otherwise unknown sheik captured and preserved it – just the shell, no soft vowels – on whatever scroll.

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting out on my porch at quarter till five in the morning, still warm from my shower, when a flock of tundra swans went over – the only swans any of us heard all autumn. After last spring’s glorious northward migration, it was a bit of a disappointment. What I heard might well have been simply the last flock in a nightlong caravan. Steering by the stars as they do, the swans would’ve had to fly high to clear the clouds that had settled in around us. With the stream so loud and my windows all shut, I wouldn’t have heard anything.

Or perhaps the muffling effect of the fog made them sound higher and farther away than they were? In any case, I remember the auditory wake that followed their passage.

An hour before dawn, voices
drift down through the fog
like the first & most perfect
snow crystals of the year.

I picture fast moving shadows
against the stars, snow disappearing
into dark water, a far-off tundra
where the night goes on for months.

I lean out over the porch rail.
The creek runs high from all the recent rains.
Two weeks later I’m still hearing
the last treble notes.