winter solstice

Happy/Merry Yule, Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, and Epiphany to all our readers from Luisa and me. This videopoem is a joint production of Via Negativa and Moving Poems, my poetry-film site. Via Negativa just celebrated its 11th birthday last Wednesday, and this time of year “when nights are longest” has always seemed full of creative possibilities to me. I also found out yesterday that December 21 (or possibly 22) was the date when, in 1818, John Keats coined the term “negative capability”—”when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”—which I think is more or less the same as what Zen Buddhists call don’t-know mind or beginner’s mind.

So yesterday I found a mysterious, dark but light-filled home move at the Prelinger Archives, selected and arranged some of the images into a composition that made sense to me, emailed the link to Luisa and asked her if she thought she could find a poem in it. Indeed she could! After a little back-and-forth about the title and opening lines last night, she settled on a final form for the text this morning and sent me a terrific reading that she recorded with her mobile phone. I found a Creative Commons-licensed sound recording on SoundCloud through my usual method of clicking on random links and trusting in serendipity: it’s a field recording by Marc Weidenbaum of Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” boombox procession passing a certain point in the streets of San Francisco on December 18, 2010.

Here’s the text of the poem.

When nights are longest

by Luisa A. Igloria

In the dark, it takes the eye
a moment to adjust,

but we won’t even feel
the pull of gravity

that slows us down,
nor the drift of the moon

just slightly more
out of reach.

And there is nothing
to do, really, but trim

the flourishes from the roof,
gather the scraps,

burn them to make
more fire. There is

no point asking
if the garden still

needs weeding, if the flowers
will come back, or if the fish

will flash their dangerous
golden charms again

through ice. Come share
a shard of bread: we’ll set

the pot to boil and skim
the fat off the stew.

We’ll feed each other
with no need to speak,

watching our thoughts ignite
like fireflies into their afterlife.

Last year at this time I was putting together a deliberately chaotic personal website. Now, as the longest night of the year approaches, without really thinking about the timing I’ve launched this weblog to document and celebrate the limits to human knowledge – if possible, to “speak the shade.”

And being the kind of crank that I am, as others are celebrating the return of light, I will be mourning the gradual loss of darkness. My cousin Josh sent around the .url for a site on Celebrating Winter Solstice as a Pagan. As usual with this kind of thing I feel a vague nausea at the squishiness of it all. All the world’s a spiritual Wal-Mart – let’s go shopping! Put everything that comforts in your basket, and let nothing you dismay!

I have a theory that the Hebrews fled Egypt to get away from just this sort of thing. Memphite theologians developed a whole system for squeezing the life out of local traditions and sweeping up everything with a Vacuum. Next thing you know, over-awed Greek merchants are pulling their money out of pagan temples to endow chairs in philosophy. This was the original spiritual conquest – not so different in its methods from the economic colonialism that Athens made such a science of.

The Romans were New Agers par excellance. Christianity was just one of a whole panoply of exotic cults that found favor in the later days of the empire. Goddess worship was rife among upper-class matrons. The Roman legionnaires tended to worship Mithra, the Persian personification of light, apparently because his cult celebrated loyalty, obedience, fraternity and celibacy as its chief virtues. Ironically, Persia was Rome’s arch military rival for hundreds of years, but the prestige of its religious traditions was immense in the ancient world. “There was a Persian dispersion similar to that of the Israelites. Communities of magi were established not only in eastern Asia Minor, but in Galatia, Phrygia, Lydia and even in Egypt. Everywhere they remained attached to their customs and beliefs with persistent tenacity.” (Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, Dover, 1956, p. 139.)

Yes, Virginia, there were Magi. It is thanks to their influence that Christian doctrine ended up demonizing Nature and propagating the absurd doctrine of Original Sin.

The Romans saw themselves as a tolerant and enlightened people. What they didn’t like about Christians was their ideological intolerance, their claim to a monopoly on truth. They were dangerous subversives, because they refused to acknowledge the divinity of the emperor. Both Roman and Christian – like the Muslims after them – insisted that they were pursuing the way toward peace and justice and the Brotherhood of Man. It was a clash of competing universalisms. The verdict is still out on which ideology triumphed.

Blah blah blah, whatever. Meanwhile I have become “attached with tenacity” to the phrase, “Persian dispersion!” No wonder Cumont’s translator(s) chose to remain anonymous!