Orphic Journeys

With Jan Carew.

In the dreaming month when sea drums echo, here come the opposing spirits of ancestral dead, and here is the body in-between. Also here, a motley collection of other spirits of various purposes and temperaments, each with their own will to interfere. Balancing between limbo and nothingness, the dreamer leaves, searching for an end to exile.

The first sign of trouble was the ignorance of proper names, and then came erasure in the land of wind. Now throbs the ache of missing limbs and thirst beside these drained reservoirs of memory. Dispossessed of a place in the sun, the dreamer enters the tombs, to gnaw at the bones of collected griefs in shattered time.

And then, trespassing through prehistory to recover a lost Eden, the dreamer returns to the hills, and then to the river and finally, to the same sea that was the beginning of looking out and beyond.

***

Today is the birthday of Jan Carew (1920-2017), Afro-Caribbean poet, playwright, scholar, and novelist of far-reaching influence. In honor of this day, I spent the morning with his essay, The Caribbean Writer and Exile, published in Journal of Black Studies (Jun. 1978). This post is assembled using images and phrases found in Carew’s essay. 

Moon Solo

With Jules Laforgue.

You gave voice lessons to your followers, reminding them back to the poetic possibilities of their own idioms. You knew the absurdity of lovesickness, the hopelessness of waiting, and the dogged persistence of stubborn hope. You lamented time’s slow passage even when you found it making still too quick an interval between before and after.

How do you catch a heartbeat? Build a poem to break everything, until what is left is the syncopated feeling of forest voices, to polish the mirror where the Unconscious seeks itself. What escapes the lover’s reach?

You knew the maddening moon, your death, beneath the dripping branches, the work of the web undone; you heard the tragic anthem of the unattended sun . . . like a gland ripped from the throat, and still. You could not keep from singing.

***

It’s the birthday of Jules Laforgue (1860-1887), French symbolist poet whose work strongly influenced T.S. Eliot’s development, and who championed the expansion of free verse. The opening line of this post references an enthusiastic comment of Eliot’s, soon after he encountered Laforgue’s early work in an anthology of symbolists. Much of Laforgue’s later work was not published in his lifetime (he died at the age of twenty-seven, of tuberculosis). This morning, I read Moon Solo: The Last Poems of Laforgue, published by William Jay Smith in a 1956 issue of The Sewanee Review. Some of the images (and italicized phrases) above are from these poems.

Ask the Oracle

The weight of remembrance.

In the days of constant violence and plagues, when the crops are dead with drought and fire and even the shade trees are gone, the citizens gather. The cry is help, and the answer calls to mind a riddle and a mirror, and who is the most mysterious of all?

––And the mirror answered back with a reflection, the face of the king and all behind him. But what does it take to read a body’s history? 

Ask the oracle, she’ll tell you again: not until there is justice, will you know peace in your homes and shade for your children. The old questions return: whose death continues to echo within the city walls; whose blood stains the soil of these charred acres? What severances between life and the living continue to bleed.

Bring in the blind prophet to remind the assembly of the weight of this knowledge and what it means to have it, where no gain can come except through the death of a timeworn dream. 

Nevertheless, they resisted.

***

I am inspired by the work of Brian Doerries and Theatre of War in placing Greek tragedies at the center of community discussions around central challenges of the moment. I jotted these notes while reviewing his translation of the Oedipus Trilogy and related notes.

Elegy in Blue

For Robert Hayden.

Your preference for the long view was balanced by an exquisite attention to the ragged, beating heart of the impossible moment. You called history a long, bloody becoming toward what might finally be, this beautiful, terrible, needful thing, still stirring.

You were moved by the idea that against failure after failure, something wars, something goes forward, something lights a match, and remembered the winged man of the laughing, longing night.

You kept your eye on the sharp sails that flayed the albatross and on a promise that it was yet possible to walk back home over Galilee’s waters to be washed of the effluvium of living death.

Your own aches bent elsewhere, you trained your eye toward life upon these shores, to study the deep immortal human wish amid a timeless yearning for the good old days that had never been good.

You studied the choreography of spirit hanging on, dancing its own shelter with an intensity bright enough to shine through the sordid and cruel deniers of hearts, of lives, of life itself.

You argued that a poem is an action unto itself, a catalyst of compassion, a weight to bend the moral arc ever slightly toward a softer hand, toward community, toward home.

You knew despair could seed a song to raise the roof and the hard loving of laughter in bed with misery and as a constant reminder you drew heart-shapes in the constant dust, as if to mark this side of heaven.

Even as you mourned the moaning empress of the bluesfour bullets in her heart, you lifted us up with ostrich feathers to feel her still shining forward, to look with you, through the transience of loss, to the way they would rise early next Sunday, even against the next fistful of snow.

What did any of us know, anyway, of love’s austere and lonely offices?

***

On this day in 1913, American poet Robert Hayden (d. 1980) was born. The title of this post is adapted from an article Frank Rashid published in the Winter 2001 issue of Callaloo, “Robert Hayden’s Detroit Blues Elegies.” This post is composed using ideas and phrases from Hayden’s work and interviews, as well as a line (italicized above) from Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, a work that moved and influenced Hayden, particularly his historical vision. Where possible, I have linked lines above to the works from which they are adapted.

A Soft Touch for Depths

For the seeker in the dark.

You weren’t always sure you were writing poetry, only that your words could mean something to the truck driver, the soldier, and the one closing the bar. You had harsh words for critics too quick in judgement to listen to what they were not expecting to hear. With both feet in soil, you celebrated the ancient of ancients, and were not too proud to honor what eluded your knowing.

Prone to embrace strangers far and wide with a gaze bent on honoring how the best of the wonders each carried was in tune with an old and ancient song, you could not stop yourself from humming as it moved through your working bones––that which stains dark and touches soft, with a flair of great loneliness, those also softly treading, searching in the dark.

***

Over coffee, I noticed that on this day in 1967, the American poet Carl Sandburg died (born 1878), and I decided to spend some time reading a journal article Sandburg published in February 1916 edition of Poetry Magazine, praising the (often misunderstood and maligned, at the time) work of Ezra Pound. I find that a person tends to reveal a great deal by the bend and texture of their admiration. I borrow some of Sandburg’s phrases (italicized) above, praising Pound, and blend these with ideas commonly attributed to Sandburg’s work.

A Joyful Noise

The transformation of silence.

How to speak, that what would live may live,

even if bruised. Even if misunderstood.

Death will come anyway, with its final

silence. Why rush its hand?

If fear is here anyway, let us use it. Your

silence will not protect you. There is

love here, even in war. And company,

in the refusal to swallow a tyranny 

of silence, the refusal to comply

in becoming the next casualty.

In becoming, may we live visibly

to speak, share, spread life

creative and continuing

in growth,

to find 

the others.

***

Inspired by Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” from Sister Outsider. Italicized phrases are Lorde’s. 

After

What the falcon sees.

The poets arrived after the disaster. We learned to change colors for camouflage, as chameleons do. Sure, we were terrified, but we were also drawn to it, the gravity of this widening gyre––out, out. Where was the invisible falcon, the one who could no longer hear the old calls? These were creatures who could see what we couldn’t, and we wondered when they scanned the below of wherever they had flown to, in the unwinding beyond far from the center where we had once thought we knew ourselves––if they saw us in it.

***

Inspired while thinking about a concept in Samuel R. Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (which I couldn’t find online this morning so am including a link to the anthology where it appears) in the context of William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

Fragilities

Considering emergent occasions.

Common practice refers to any “I” with consistency, but there is no monument here, only these constant aberrations. A body may be well one moment, wounded the next, then ill. Same for soul, spirit, mind, and whatever else we try attaching to this ongoing flux.

Also common, at least after a certain point, to wonder each morning, how now? Check pulse, blood pressure, eyes. Are the dark circles back? I remember the years I could not look because I knew. How cold, this seeming indifference. I was angry at her, for being so much less than solid. And possibly more, too; more than I wanted to imagine. I wasn’t myself, we commonly say, looking back on moments like this. And yet, I never asked, who are you? I never asked, how is your name? or what form shall we take, next?

We move more gently now. I check the pressure, coaxing encouragement. C’mon, I whisper, while I wait. Don’t let up. The translation might be a little prayer, some invocation to this small, quaking of tentative flesh and fluctuating fluids, to hold. We are still emerging.

***

Inspired while reading John Donne’s opening meditation in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624).

Mother Wisdom

Reflections of the unseen.

To revise knowing itself, inverting worlds without end, you passed your liquid form easily between solid and mythic, seen and unseen, sacred and profane, in constant devotion.

First there was the Word, and you transformed what they took as given into what was not yet understood, with such deft agility that you were forbidden to teach. You continued invisibly to your invisible audience, understanding that your censors didn’t know how to look.

You saw no Eve, only Ave, and in her humility, no mortification, only the merit of a queen reigning over wisdom, co-creator with creation, who became a bird when needed for the purpose of the miracle.

You watched her fool the imagists, passing their censorious eyes by assuming the appearance of a vessel, passive and waiting for another will to be done, and you put a pen in her hand, beheld wisdom running from the fonts at her feet, made her dean of the house of intellect, reigning over the archangels, the non-humans, the insignificant wonders everywhere.

***

Inspired by the life and work of Juana Inés de la Cruz whose legacy defies categorization, except as representative of one of the most brilliant visionaries in recorded history.