Notes on Form

Old tools in a fallow field.

There is an exuberant history of forms to be found in these fields, compelling a witness to show how surfaces of knowing can be tilled with the tool of some adopted custom or cadence which, once discovered, can be carried solidly as a birthright through corridors of memory still in blueprint.

The challenge is measure, balance––and the joyous enterprise pains with enthusiasm, the center of any nascent art.

***

Inspired by and using borrowed phrases from the introduction to The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

Waving

Seen at a distance, near the shore.

Not yet. Sea from sky

wrinkles grey. They

neared the wave,

paused, the sky

cleared bars of 

white flaming red.

Burning incandescence

became transparent,

rippling until the dark.

Now the light, one

bird, a pause. Chirp,

by the bedroom window,

this blind, blank melody.

***

Virginia Woolf died on this day in 1941. Her writing is celebrated for the layers evoked in her stream-of-consciousness narratives. Her work left a lasting impression on me, and I am eternally indebted to her for illuminating possibilities within language. The above is a found poem gleaned from the opening section of Woolf’s novel The Waves.

Piercing the Veil

A poet’s manifesto.

“We do not fly, we ascend only such towers as we ourselves are able to build.”

Osip Mandelshtam

When it comes to discussions of art, let’s balance our excitement with restraint. A worldview is a hammer, but not the end. Use it to shape the art. The only pride, for an artist, is existence.

In a poem, the reality is the word, and yet. Consider how signs and symbols so often fulfill their purpose without words. Let’s have the word no longer creeping on all fours, hulking accepted logic on its back. Let it rise, instead, to enter a new age.

The architect must be a good stay-at-home, having genuine piety before the three dimensions of space. To build means to hypnotize space against the dreaded emptiness. Consider the anger of the bell tower, as if to stab heaven.

To love the existence of something more than itself­­––including your own––here is the highest commandment. A poet’s greatest virtue is the ability to feel surprised. If logic is the kingdom of amazement, let us dance to the music of proof.

***

The war in Ukraine has drawn me more deeply into the poetry of one of my favorite living poets, Ilya Kaminsky. I’ve been following his regular updates about the needs and concerns of his family, friends, and fellow poets in Ukraine. At his recommendation, I have been reading Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, composed during Stalin’s Great Terror. Akhmatova was part of the Acmeist movement,  and this morning, while reading Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa, I came to “Musica Humana” (an elegy for Osip Mandelshtam, a leader among the Acmeists) and realized I wanted to know more about Mandelshtam, and found a translation of his Acmeist Manifesto. This morning’s post collects ideas and found phrases from this text, as translated by Clarence Brown. 

Exodus

It’s an old story.

There’s a chronicle, now familiar, which begins with the names of the dead, to announce how the land was filled with them before their children ripened and became more and mightier than those that had meant to harvest them year after year for profit.

The king got wise, orchestrated erasure of the boys first. But the midwives saved them and among these was one from the tarred basket in the river who once saw his brother badly beaten by a guard and was moved to kill and bury the body. Back into hiding, he was found again by a woman at the water, and because he helped her, she bore him a son, and when the king died it was time to cash a check in the name of the children.

So went the keeper of Jethro’s flock, to the mountain to witness a burning light. Take off your shoes, said a voice. Here is holy ground.

The voice continued: I’ve heard them, know their sorrows. Now you go, release them. The man asked for a name, saying they will want to know who sent me, but all that came was this reminder, I am.

He got the elders, and they took a lamb to the desert, and nothing was known at all but this command to go forth, and begin the work of ––don’t say freedom, because if salt loses its flavor what is the point? Say instead, not having to hide the babies in the river. Say instead, not having to hide the bread, or trade bodies for bread for hidden babies in the river.

Again, the voice: Take the serpent by the tail. Show them a sign with your hands. If they won’t see it, offer another. Teach your mouth, too, and leave me to the ears. 

***

With prayers for the safety and protection of all who flee persecution and war.

Chorus

Against the dread.

Where terror shattered our speech, there came some who showed us how to make a song with the silences between our words. We listened, and the poets taught us how to meet what was coming. Look, they said. When the enemy explodes the bridge between the beginning and the end of a thought, only the form changes. What was concrete is now a fibrous web, and all of us in it. What was solid is now porous, and like other porous substances, we now absorb what may come. While the enemy creeps its silent convoy, we are here, and as we listen, one among us begins to sing. Soon, our bodies are saturated with song. The fullness is almost too much, but here we are, holding.

***

Inspired by stories like this of people singing while sheltering from attack. And by poets across time and nations, united against war. With love and prayers for the persecuted people of Ukraine in this hour. May you continue to hear one another, and hold.

Story Threads

A mycelium-inspired montage.

Be the hero, we say to one another, of your own life.  The logic encourages these rampant proliferating fantasies, each body the focal point of motion. It’s something else to assume a body like a riverbed. One logic trains heroes for noble departures from known worlds across manufactured thresholds, through theme park underworlds and back again, and in the retelling a people can learn to take as given idea of the world as something to travel through––in order to finish on top. It would be another choreography entirely if the crossing in question was over forbidden mountain ranges of the calcified remains that stagnate between the origin of music and the sound of a single voice, bereft of chorus, learning to hear again, a call across hemispheres of knowing, waiting to respond until fully immersed in the dirt, each limb stretching from self into selves into another body entirely, vast and webbed across acres of time, humming Here.

Advice From the Silver Mollies

In honor of Robert Bly’s birthday.

Keep an eye out. You never know when the next mortal blow is coming. Look around. Notice your numbers, and don’t let them go to waste. When they come for you, don’t just lie there in stunned silence. Spin, turn, shout! Get those around you to move. You’ll never command the whole group, but there’s no one who isn’t touching some of the others and everyone is connected. Move the ones you are touching. I don’t want to frighten you, but they are coming for you. There will always be another attack and you’re never going to prevent that. All your movement will only prolong the time between attacks. We can cut their success in half, maybe. So do it. They will keep attacking. Keep moving.

The silver mollies will tell you, it’s not a matter of escape, but of letting the enemy know, after they pick off a target, that they’re going to have to work for the next one.

You have a friend who studies bees. A hornet is much bigger than any bee and can easily get away with whatever prey it can pick off. Except when the bees move quickly enough to surround the attacker, vibrating their wings to cook it to death. It’s important to act quickly here, before reinforcements are signaled.

Please don’t expect that you’re going to solve the problem of ongoing attacks, or that they’ll stop on their own at some magical hour, or when some critical mass of those wearied by plundering is finally reached. You’re not going to get that, and it’s no good waiting for the next flight on a magical dragon in the sky.

Listen earthling, you’ve always been too prone to watching clouds, and you miss the enemies in the trees, poised to eat you. 

I have to tell you, the bees involved in cooking their enemy won’t live as long as the others. I have to tell you, the bees involved in cooking their enemy are also more likely to be involved in subsequent attacks, each of which takes its toll, but if you dwell on this, you’ll be missing the point.

Four o’clock in the morning is the best time to see the moon

Soon, you’re going to be without a choice. You need to know this. So much suffering goes on in prison, and in the prisons of self-isolation, every hour a reminder of who and what may not be touched. 

You too will not be spared if you refuse to notice.

***

Inspirations:

I noticed it was Robert Bly’s birthday this morning, and so I decided to do a post inspired by his “Advice from the Geese.” Yesterday’s New York Times had an interesting article about the synchronized defensive behavior of silver mollies (Why these Mexican Fish Do the Wave), so I decided to begin with them. Thoughts of animal synchronization reminded me of something I had read earlier this year about the behavior of honeybees when attacked by hornets. I also consulted Frontiers: Functional Synchronization: The Emergence of Coordinated Activity in Human Systems.

Reading and the Ark

From contemplation to reason, against the storm.

A lesson in the voice of Hugh of St. Victor, adapted from his writings on education in the art of reading, and his interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark.

When it comes to knowing, logic is the last to be discovered. For learning, it is a good place to start. Just remember, real things do not always conform to the conclusions of reasoning. One needs to learn for certain, what forms of reasoning to trust, and which to hold suspect. Without such discernment, reasoning may mislead as often as it may lead. The ancients offer plenty of examples. Take Epicurus, for example, equating pleasure and virtue. Yikes, but he meant well.

Better to start with the true and whole nature of argument. Consider this: exposition includes the letter and the sense–– beyond both, the inner meaning. No study of a worthy text is complete until the last of these is reached, but most stop short. The great depths resound beyond the words, like strings resound toward music. And yet, the music is not the strings.  The pleasure of honey is enhanced by its enclosure in the comb.

It is one thing to understand words, another the meaning of phrases, passages. But what about the whole? That is another matter altogether. There is much confusion about the old texts, written in the idioms of an unfamiliar language. Many, professing with confidence, miss the point entirely. But the divine deeper meaning can never be absurd, and never false.

Now I want to tell you about the ark. It is the house of mystery within the heart, which each must protect against the world’s storms. You build a great ark, three stories, welcome inside all the creatures of the earth. Protect them, too. But we are not made to stay in contemplation. That’s why there’s a door and a window. The window offers a way out through thought, and the door a way out through action. But neither thought nor action will be right, unless it begins here, within the sacred ark. Let’s begin here.

***
Adapted and using borrowed phrases from Jerome Taylor’s translation of The Didascalicon, or On the Study of Reading (1125) and also The Mystic Ark as interpreted by Conrad Rudolph.

The New Science

On signs, symbols, and the origins of meaning.

Trace it with me: age of gods, age of heroes, age of men.

Our first language was born of knowing its poverty. 

We relied on signs and symbols. Then came metaphor, 

and then our measly letters, where we pretended 

to be saying precisely what we meant. 

Hieroglyphs suffice when observance 

is more important than discussion, 

as with religions and the like. 

Which came first, I wonder? Letters or language, 

chickens or their eggs? 

Attempting to separate one from the other is folly.

The first speakers, by necessity of nature, were poets. 

Here is the key to any meaningful science worth following: 

the source of all poetry is poverty of language, 

catalyzed by a need to express.

The point? To learn the language 

spoken by some eternal history, 

across time. Another: to name 

the beginnings of learning. 

To our unseen source, knowledge 

and creation are one 

and the same. We 

are mind and spirit; 

intellect and will, but 

it’s the function of wisdom 

to fulfill both.

Children of nascent mankind 

created things according to their ideas, 

which are not to be confused with God. 

But usually are. 

The role of fear 

should not be discounted here, 

in stoking robust ignorance, 

corporeal imagination. 

Frightened men, 

in their infinite vanity, 

no sooner imagine than they believe.

Natural curiosity, the daughter

of ignorance and mother

of knowledge, gives birth:

to wonder.

By Jove, the thundering sky.

***

Adapted from The New Science of Giambattista Vico, translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch.

A Word Beyond

Learning by signs.

Inspired by this morning’s reading, from Augustine’s The Trinity, as translated by Stephen McKenna.

All things are learned by signs, and every sign is also a thing. Each thing must be understood just as it is, but a sign may only be known by appreciating how it signifies something else.

Smoke needs no special will to signify fire, neither do the tracks of an animal to point to its presence. Same goes for naked expression of emotion on the face. Words, on the other hand. Also consider sounds of trumpet, flute, harp, and drum, each with its own layered invocations to nuanced representation.

A vibration in the ear passes quickly; hence, a need for letters. Here is where pride limits those who would build a tower to claim the heavens as their own. In retribution, voices and signs in the rubble of Babel are dissonant. We can neither hear nor read each other, fully.

Allegory, enigma, parable, irony. Recognition of these tropes may reveal what is hidden––and yet, never more than through a glass, darkly. Some thoughts are speeches of the heart. It is what leaves the mouth, not what enters it, that may defile or edify.

Speech is one thing, sight another. To reflect is to make these one. How will you understand those words that belong to no language?