Mar 082016


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The Burning Anvil

Prose aesthetic and malefic.

Occasional essays and digressions surging up from the source I’m tempted to say that this retrospective collection of thoughts and scribbles will veer from the ridiculous to the more ridiculous. But that would be a slur on the creator, and so I shall refrain from such malignity. Often, very often, I’ve been told that I over-introduce my tropical topics with a blizzard of disguising digressions. I’m informed variously that this is helpful, too helpful, not helpful at all, and by Jacko Monahan to “just shut up and read da po-EM.”

Inexplicably, I’m collecting these various thought-episodes into a prose collection of essays and introductions (and, here and there, a stray letter let loose in the direction of an attentive ear). One feels that these tidbits and tiddlywinks must fare better on their own than when attached like an irreverent dingy to the magisterial ship of a book of verse. Many of the vagrant flares can already be spotted skimming the skies of my website (, or falling among the reeds of my various collections of poems.

I’ve dusted them off and re-written them for the sake of coherency and tang. What was only hinted at before in the emergent wood of a metaphor has now been hunted down and turned into trophies. And yet, in spite of this effort at editing, the writings here, like poetry still immanent in the poet, may have kept a twinge or two of their raw, unfinished feelings about them. A wary air of maybe remains. However foggy this may be for my readers, it retains an inner rightness for me.

I may be all wet, but I always feel a sea of possibilities within me. A flotilla of rowboats that randomly explores this sea both day and night—under storm or star. Only when I pour myself onto one of the tipping decks, a watery sailor with an icicle hook and a plastic eyepatch, and start to chart a course does my rowboat grow from slip to sloop. Then the seas part for me and the drama of time and circumstance take on a willful weight as one arctic or another hoves into view. Tahitis and Rios unroll around the scrolled deck-rails and purpose deliberates itself into arrows. Then I am in danger of being defined, caught and corralled by my momentary manifestation on a tilting Earth. Then I may flounder when the ship’s staved in, and the arrow under my feet is emancipated back to static. Then I must remember in a minute that I am water and wind as well as pilot and perceiver or I risk the timid end of dying on the spot. I’m not the little engine that could. I’m the little sailboat that swiffered.

Inspiration is my only soul. Without that sacred puff at my back—howsoever briefly—I may not move my inch, nor endure at my dirty task for forlorn years. But, once that shift in the winds has hit, I am well able to sail and survive; able to see the Tahitian shores that inspiration whispered about in my bellying ears. This afflatus never afflicts but brings its simmering divinity to every ache and wail. Poetry is my obsession. My mantra, my mania, and my manna all-in-one. Many of the essays that follow have to do with the various supposes and suppositions of poetry. The quixotic shifts and subtle intonations of how what happens in the world and in the poet combine to combust into the vari-colored flames of verse. Poetry is more of a symptom than a system. The essays here partake of that same secondary nature.

They are sparks thrown off from a hammer’s blow, and not the central fire incensed by a bellows. If I were to clip my quill in the light of one such errant flare, I might write: Poetry is never an exemplar of some organized method of thought—or at least is rarely that. Poetry participates in the ding an sich, the thing in itself, the welter and wildness of this world. It is as unconquerable and crazed as an edelweiss, forever fluttering among the Alpine steeps. The greater a poem is, the harder it is to whittle into a system. A great poem will subvert its own premises just to jaunt to the dark side of the moon for a line or two.

You could say poetry has a willful fascination with freedom, but its chains of rhymes would gainsay you. You could say poetry is an irrational response to an irrational world, and it would be harder to find contradiction in that, but its very truth would be a rational nugget in that chaotic onslaught, and so overthrow the assertion that the world is irrational indeed. You could say… why you could say any of a million things, like a child feeling out the holes in his parents’ arguments to find an excuse to do just as he pleases. And, I suppose, none of the things you said would be wrong exactly, and yet they would not find a bottle to keep this breeze in. But they might, whiffing and puffing frenetically enough, just might, participate in the thing in itself that poetry is, the forever Zephyr and viceless edelweiss.

Gregg Glory November, 2012

The Burning Anvil 

My breast is a burning anvil 
Cannot hammer a likely shoe 
Stern enough to trace unglued 
A racing lifetime through and through.  

My breast is a burning anvil 
Full of causal smokes and coughs, 
More than youth at times had thought, 
Between hammer and anvil caught.  

My breast is a burning anvil 
That sparks with the loss of heat 
When edge and edge, hard and hard, compete 
To shape each and each to mate.  

My breast is a burning anvil 
Cannot cease to pause or cool— 
As industrious, dedicate a tool 
As any I’d forgot I forged.  

My breast is a burning anvil 
Full of tragic din and error 
As any beating thing that mirrors 
The hotness of my terror.  

My breast is a burning anvil 
Cannot pound out a likely star 
As real as evening’s first clear 
At whose clarity I stare.
Sep 192014

An essay on revising “The Willow-Switch” from epic to acerbic

The Willow-Switch

He spat the words. "Go get it." 

I approached tree-fringe and felt
The willow, green and supple,
Lay knots across my knuckles,
My throat a knot of guilt.

I've forgotten what misdeed
Left me standing blank,
My father at my back,
His breath as loud as bees.

I returned in tears and dread.
The willow-wand I held
Waved more fishing-rod than flail
Passing hand to hand.

I determined not to flinch, 
Not to give my Dad an inch. 
I thought only of the flensing switch, 
How it would lay into my fear 

And tear. And tear.

This is a good example of revising down to detail to create the meat of feeling in the reader. The original draft of the poem presented here is the result of a lot of its own revisions, but the sense of a story told only from the child’s point of view, out his fear and resentment, is all over the poem. The story is a bit oversold, with the father playing the villain’s part, his teeth black with tobacco. Who wouldn’t hate this beast?

In the revision, the father is a main actor, but is not held as exclusively blameworthy of the event transcribed by the poem. In the revision, the speaker remembers feeling a “knot of guilt,” even if the reason for the punishment has faded. In the original, the reason for the memory loss is part accidental, and part active repression. The child, now grown, doesn’t want to revisit what seems to be some horrific event–and there is no real blame attached to the speaker; he’s innocent as daisies. While fine enough, the reader disengages with every loss of emotional complexity. Details allow the readers to bring their own response to any given scenario. If the author is able to hang back, yet be deeply re-engaged with the experience the poem relates, he can have some of the perspective of a director of a play sitting in the back row of the theater, waving his arms at the scene, the ultimate spectator.

On rereading the original version of the poem out loud, I found myself getting miffed at the whiny sense of victimhood that the speaker was demonstrating. Now, I don’t like to be mean to kids any more than the next guy, but this kid was both bawling and blameless; too much protestation left a whiff of suspicion in me as a reader. So, since I liked the poem–and love being done with things–I hesitated to start a wholesale revision. Instead, my editor’s eye began to look for details that just didn’t add up. And, instead of glossing over them with a friendly “eh, so what, it’ll do” attitude, I let the inconsistencies prickle. The editorial itch began to build. Well, goddamnit, what was that business about the Dad undoing his belt? This is a poem about getting switched on the backside, not being spanked with a belt. I had had doubts about it before, and let concision win the decision, leaving the final detail as agnostically simple as I could manage with the bland line “Belt unhitched.” But now, simmering with my editor’s misanthropy, that compromise wasn’t enough. I’d have to deal with that detail if I wanted to lazily continue letting the poem wallow in its welts. I unhitched my editor’s belt, and got down to work.
As it turned out, one of the last things I was able to usefully address was the first thing that had prompted me to edit the thing: the belt detail. It was late in shrinking this poem down that I came up with the “knot of guilt,” like a scarf tied too-tight, as the rip-rhyme for the simple “felt” and as the replacement for that dangling “belt.”

The first detail I excised, to bring the poem back into the main relationship of the moment it creates, and away from a cozy sense of joining in the reader’s condemnation of the punishing father, was each of the “tobaccoy teeth.” The kid in the poem would be well-used to his father’s tobacco use, and probably thinks blackened teeth look cool. The sense of menace in this detail is completely adult, imposed retrospectively by the speaker. So, snip-snip went the editing shears. In a trice I was left with a single line in place of an entire stanza:

He spat the words. "Go get it."

Being bit of an inveterate formalist, I thought I should balance out any singleness at the start of the poem with a one-line stanza at the end. I took a look, and it seemed that luck was on my side–the last stanza was already a single line. With the poem losing space for excursions and digressions (after all, I’m no high-flown Dickinson with her cochineal wheels and zipping trips to Tunisia “an easy morning’s ride”), I saw that the whole retrospective stuff about the photobook, which I had been at such pains to embellish with savory verbal details like “Kept bald by fresh erasures” just had to get deleted. Down came the red pen, and washed the spider out! I still had “What had prompted censure / Has faded to a blank” which itself had been an edit of moving from an abstraction of “pain” toward some more specific, though still unnamed, occasion for punishment via willow-switch.

I played with eliminating the whole idea of not remembering the reason for the punishment. Just stay in the moment; let that be enough. That’s the thought that had me finally untangle the second stanza from its belt-nightmare. That belt had grown as troublesome as a wig-fitting for Rapunzel. I imagined approaching the willow tree as a child about to be punished. I clipped “hair” out of the description as too fanciful and romantic for a kid whose main experience of hair is smelling the barber’s aftershave, and threw the lifeline to the waves as too literary for the slim poem to save. This second stanza felt great now–forthright–but it was only three, maybe two, lines long! Perhaps I could trim the periwigs of the other stanzas down to three, or maybe four, lines apiece. That way, if I had to, I could reabsorb that harsh first one-line stanza into the body of the poem.

The third stanza was already down to two lines, and hung on only because it added a mystery to the reason for the punishment. And that’s how things long ago recalled as an adult often feel–significant, sharply etched in memory, but with the reason for it all faded grey, a dead appendage. I decided to shut the father up, take away his petty advice to “stop crying.” After all, most dads aren’t “The Great Santini,” and his speech made the poem too much about him.

Now I had the bones of a good poem.


The Willow Switch [DRAFT]

He spat the words.  "Get it."
His blue-black chaw a seethe
Between tobaccoy teeth.
Dad repeated, "Get it.
Or you'll get the belt."

Like hair the willow switches
Hung, laying their supple
Knots along lifeline and knuckle;
While, lightly, his leather-stitched
Belt unhitched.

What had prompted censure
Has faded to a blank
In my life's photobook--
A dead spot bored in circumstance,
Kept bald by fresh erasures.

I walked back in tears and dread,
The willow-switch flailing
Limber as a monkey's tail
That I handed to his hand.
"Get over now, son," he said.

"And stop crying."  Then and there,
I determined not to flinch,
Not to give my fear an inch.
I thought only of the flensing switch,
How it would lay into my fear

And tear.  And tear.

Feb 282013

Chained to redemption by the individuality of each human consciousness


The very astonishing hour has come.
The very astonishing hour indeed!
Green Heinekins, jade brain and rose-coral vodkas
--Exhausted! In one final, fantastic evening.

Hosannahs invade the empty windows, 
        spurs of blacks, mysterious

As the tender invitation of the body.

Bright, alcoholic after-haloes sift
Timid ash upon stale, upraised lips.

Sobriety has entered us
As mourners enter a white church.

Enough of this pathetic quietness!
This simpering, dog-like wish for 'temperament' 
The madness of faces full of 'sound judgement.'
I forgive all disasters, all accomplishments,
Every disguise that announces 'I am finished!' 
Choking its inhabitant as a mirror chokes beauty. 
Songs of sporadic intensity, wicked verses,
The poem of flayed skin, blind eyesight
Mutes imagining laughter, I forgive you!

Pathetic quiet!
Bring tympans, wild sibilants,

Drunken elephants of sound, mists, 
          the harsh clangour of brass.

New eyes, new hearts, new senses!
Bring a speech of bloods, the invention of Angels! 
Why was one ever afraid of waking?
Eh! a little daydream I had in the haypile.

But now the new era has arrived--this moment! 
Let us revenge the sky for an hour!

Let us run out, muds of new births upon us,
And seize in hands of ice the very flowing waters-- 
--Dreams of incorporeal perfection!

Dawn leaves splinter in my eye 
Enacting the death of Satan.

Vertiginousness in the closet! 
Very astonishing!

It is the witching hour in this poem of rebirth. This is the “very astonishing hour” when anything can happen, and does. There’s an echo here of Goethe’s Walpurgisnacht (“one final, fantastic evening”). There’s a Satanic suggestiveness in the darkness of the scene, and in the exhaustion of ribald modes of stimulation. The Bacchanalian means of inspiration and change of one’s mental state through alcohol have ended…

and yet the desire for change, for growth, for experience continues, if anything, more intensely. The soul searches for new forms of re-invention, new means of exultation; for connection with the “infinite” as Baudelaire would say.

A stanza break occurs at the moment of “giving up,” when the exhaustion of the previous celebrations and vineyard methods of ecstatic outreach are at their peak. A moment of silent nothingness… the death of all mystic oneness with that which “makes the world go round.” And then….

“Hosannahs invade the empty windows”–the windows are empty, the mystic connection is dead, the speaker is in a world where what surrounds him is the void; there is no ultimate referent to anchor his searching. “Hosannahs” is used in both the Jewish and Christian sense. In the Jewish sense as a plea to God and to the more modern, pagan Beyond to “save me now” from this state of exhausted disconnection. And in the Christian sense of praise and excitement that “the One,” the Messiah, has come–as is evidenced in the rest of the poem. “Hosannahs” sit at the fulcrum of the poem. But this second sense of “Hosannahs” hasn’t fully dawned on the speaker yet. We are to accompany the speaker on this journey to ecstasy. Right now there is a wary sense that something new has entered his consciousness, something not necessarily easily distinguished from the “blackness” of the windows looking out on nothing. There is only a dawning sense that some alchemical change is starting to occur–and this new beginning, after the death of the old forms of ecstatic insight, is “as tender as the invitation of the body.” This is a parallel to God’s being made flesh in Jesus. This is as curious and crazy a newness as when we ourselves first arrived to experience life as babies. Everything is unknown and seems unknowable.

The death of the old way to ecstasy, the “timid ash” of Bacchanalia, is taken in faith of its being about to be renewed, with a teasing reference to the “new life” of the Catholic communion; but here, instead of crackers transubstantiated into the flesh of Christ and symbolic of a “new life in Christ,” we have phoenix-like ashes, the sour mash taste that sticks to the mouth after a weekend bender. Is the speaker being ironic? The speaker at this point registers the “death” of the old way, and joins that mourning in sobriety. It is a painful experience of grief, to give up the known to embrace what may be–for all the speaker knows–nothingness itself.

Then, with the irritable brashness of a new convert, the whole parade of human life comes in for a sober reassessment. The speaker will no longer be silent about the variety and extent of falseness apparent in our communal human life– everything from status-symbols (“accomplishments”) to our private vanity (“as a mirror chokes beauty”) become obstacles to the new life, the rebirth, of the individual. Although he doesn’t know what this new life might yet entail (the empty windows), he knows that the old chemical passage to heaven is done, and that the status quo does not provide any enlightenment on its own. This is the psychological atmosphere of all destructive revolutions, and “the people” are ripe to be ripped-off by any huckster passing off a latest-edition paradigm shift. The “pathetic quiet” of the status quo is condemned not once, but twice, as if merely raising a hullabaloo will help forward the project of rebirth that is at hand. “Make a joyful noise!” goes the old psalm; but there, the reason for joy has already made itself evident through a process of revelation–either via Moses comin’ down the mountain, or by Jesus being crucified to the skies and then defeating death in his own body. Here there is no such revelation, only the ground-clearing destruction of the status quo.

As if “tympans [and] wild sibilants” aren’t enough, the speaker calls for metaphorically questionable “drunken elephants of sound.” What is being demonstrated in this poem is the very process, the very moment of revelation itself. Every truth, “every disguise that announces ‘I am finished!’,” has been abandoned or destroyed in a process as madly methodical as Hamlet’s ripping through excuses for inaction and his stabs at attempting to get to the truth of the past through various rhetorical stances and the linguistic investigations of his one-off soliloquies. Deliriously radical in approach and existential in stance, this is the antithesis of a poetry of string emotions “recollected in tranquility” as such as Wordsworth recommends. This poetry has more in common with the confessional poetry of the 1960s, perhaps the reportage of a drug trip, or the witnessing of a baptist tent revival than with traditional poetic forms and resources. Intent, intensity, and the willingness to report from the edges of self-knowledge, seemingly without any guess as to where this reporting will lead either the reader or the speaker all combine to give this piece an almost tragic tension.

The danger of such a far-out technique, of course, is the arousal of frustration in the reader. Religious conversions have a set script and goal that the entire community of believers is deeply aware of; Greek tragedy tells stories similarly well- known, although the catharsis is tragic rather than ecstatic in nature. “Slave of Glory” leaves us in doubt as to what the final outcome will be. Are we to become mystically empowered by “new eyes, new hearts, new senses”, or is this attempt to synthesize a fresh religion on the fly going to leave us as disastered as Icarus? I believe it is this very uncertainty, and this willingness to explore the edges of experience and insight anyway that this poem is hoping to make explicit through its uncertain technique. It has something in common with jazz, but the original melody itself is improvised; there is no variation on a theme here–all themes are consigned to the wood-chipper of history, failed ecstasies, old golden moments no longer valid. As ambitious as this project sounds–the founding of a new religion or new mode of consciousness–the speaker seems, once roused to the task, to take it in steady stride:

Why was one ever afraid of waking?
Eh! a little daydream I had in the hay pile.(1)

Then a series of fantastic, indeed hardly creditable actions and incitements are listed, ice hands holding water, revenging the sky, all contained under the oxymoronic rubric of embodying “dreams of incorporeal perfection.” Indeed the tension of ambition vs. realization reaches its epic height (at least, as codified in the Judeo-Christian tradition) when the speaker claims to see his new world “enacting the death of Satan.” This is the apotheosis! And to think, only a few moments ago, the speaker had just awakened with a cracking hangover! Has Time itself been put to the sword? Since, however, we are in the linguistic tangle of a poem, the reader may feel prompted to recall Wallace Stevens’ observation that “the death of Satan was a tragedy for the Imagination.” With this cautionary note sub-consciously struck, can irony be far behind? How are we to take the next, deeply ambivalent (ecstatic? spastic?), stanza:

Vertiginousness in the closet!

There’s no telling. The poet is keeping his cards guardedly close. Does your life satisfy without the blast and lambast of a new religion? Are you interested in defying the cage of bones and memories that define your personhood?

What do you think you want, and what do you really want? Is desire itself a fool’s mission? You’ll get as many definitive answers here as you will re-reading The Tempest a trillion times. What is left to say when our limitedness meets with the infinite?

Very astonishing!

October, 2012

1 Cf. the first recorded Old English poem, “Caedmon’s Hymn,” reportedly given in a dream-vision to a stablehand asleep in the straw sometime in the early eighth century.

Feb 192013

Born into the wrong civilization

Attend with me a modern poetry reading. The audience is well-versed in literature, its current trends and attendant ills, but without the careworn weight of erudition that makes for a joyless or too-careful listener. Friends have come to hear friends, and life-long readers arrive in a steady flow for the pleasing frisson of hearing an ancient art touched and propounded by its living practitioners. This is no high-school event, where poetry erupts as naturally and plainly as a pimple. This is no mere excess of passion, or blind pursuit of an ideal more sensed than certain. This is a gathering of votaries, long- time acolytes, lovers who have shared years of glances and passion and have retained a complex togetherness in spite of all.

In the temperature-controlled building, a library, five thousand years of literature sit in taut attendance. All has been arranged with energy and ingenious diligence. A table by the door has a beige cash box, and hopeful pyramids of books written by the night’s readers sit quietly stacked there. A local fellow from channel one-hundred and thirty documents the entire affair, archiving the very faintest waves of sound and sight for channel-changing generations yet unborn. Here, if anywhere, the artful origami of the heart might be attempted.

A scribble of hates, and a mashed trash of imprudent, and yet hidden, loves, are in evidence as the speakers proceed. One has serial contempt for her progenitors, snide, sly, and slimy all at once. All the personality of the pieces comes from them, their habits, their wretched, wrenching cowardice as seen through the adult eyes of their too-quiet child. Another speaker confesses an undue love of her vacation time in France. Photos of Matisse’s famous chapel appear and we are whisked away to vestigial references to greatness; not allusions precisely,—a formulaic, rather than formal, fortune-cookie Confucianism.

The recaller of childhood slights contends that the weight of details carries all her story, and not the coalescing consciousness that hones these details home in the repeating breast. She’s angry, impatient with her students, who make a brief appearance in her talk as examples of clueless youth. “They take flight with their ideas…. Oh, it’s enough to make me and Marjorie boil sometimes….” Maggots are the Maginot Line in her example. “Stop there,” she implores her students in her didactic poem, “stop at the erupting, spoiled sack of yams. We do not need to know more.” The audience hums a mobile appreciation—their minds full of the rotten sacks she has, with hard art and suffering effort, placed there.

In such a case, it is as though one is watching the high art of poetry turned into a Seinfeld episode; all the wit and concision of fine comedy displayed with a peacock’s pride, but centered on a vacuity. All the order and greatness of art churned into the claustrophobic chaos of a hurricane. All is agitation without either cause or destination.

Such riled ranting seems to me to be starkly marred by a deeply frivolous approach to reality, a viciously superficial finesse that forgets the poised purpose finesse first flourished to display. The only way such an attitude can manage to excuse the dowdy hours laboriously burned in pursuit of such fine technique and then pissed away on such minor whims, sadly, is not to rear up and embrace some grand passion, some stirring triumph fought for by one drummed into the gutter…. No, that is not the way of such self-convinced trivializers. In such a case as this, where the wallpaper takes supremacy over the wall, the only cure for the imposed claustrophobia of the artist’s perspective is to tear down the edifice itself—each slash of the brush must rip down a wall as well as display an erudite decoration. The harp of discord is sounded in all such efforts, and the horn of war herself is never very far behind this recourse to insult. For how can one sing even of one’s own virtuosity, when pride himself has been assailed as impermissible, when praise is pigeon-holed as a madman’s gambit and not known as the due beautiful things demand?

So seemed the evening to me as I cried in my car at the horror that the best of our efforts had hobbled themselves to here. That this was our articulate pinnacle, and not some wayward way-station on the trail to grace. Had our civilization only heaped itself thus high? A diminished soul aghast in perished light, marking time with sardonic jokes bolstered by biblical texts and a deconstructionist’s exegesis equally? This was not the Dadaist’s protest of a civilization viciously off-track. This was the exquisite dingus itself. This was the fullness of our self-story presented in all the timeless trimmings of an artist’s hardest artifacts.

I grew convinced, as the night fell down on my humming Subaru, that I had been born into the wrong civilization.

January, 2006

Jan 312013

Mustering trust in “wild, whole-page insertions” to read-between-the-lines of

Dissembling Semblance

Lie there, my art. — Prospero

Ho-ho!  From out his party grave, up-popped
The skeletal self that Tenor'd tamed.
Dewy longings drift half-wet, in ziggurats,
Down the dirty sticks of his dry fact,
Lending a silver-inlay to his polar bones.
Desire sniffs for roses through groutless nose-holes
And musty wines slalom a gorgeless gob.
Nothing of the lover, of the brother
Lingers here.  I stick four mournful fingers
Through his clackers for a tongue, wagging
Idiot digits in mime Shakespearean.
No Yossarian voice, Horatio, ensued.
No Ophelian sonnets rained in daisy-chains.
Lipless ivories inferred infernal grins.
Tongueless Tenor Semblance, disinterred,
Master-man and mirror-me, was DEAD!  And I?

I am no Poet-Frankenstein, evoking souls
From wounded earth.  For me, a hole is a hole
Is a hole.  Love caressed, love cupped, love cuffed
Suckles living teats, not this bony xylophone.
Still, I loiter here half-longingly and toe
Pale parabolas of a pelvis furred with mold.
I, too, shall one day come undone, un-
Buttoned before the mawkish gawkers in the wood,
Dining on no niceties but dusty praise.
And you, and you.  Bluets brush my boots,
Sans author in penless processional.
Tallied Tenor here, pure loss, is less and less,--
A condensate escaped in Gobi air.
What last farewell, or goodbye cry, can I
Cachinnate for such luckless kin?
Feral fate!  The day, the hour, is late.

Though crass and cursed and cloistered
In a hole, my man of clay, who I made,
Unmade me.  Iffy gift!  Solitude still knows:
To live our lithest days in sackcloth is a sin.
My vampire mirror blings, bingeing on blanks.
I miss the mischievous elf I myself had minted,
Wry coinage of a brain love-benumbed.
Impresario of puppets, piccolo fish
Waving in a world wigged with sideways seagrass,
I command my scarecrow scalawag, Tenor
(Whom I marched off to death, alas) a last
Resurrection reappearance imagineer.
Coffin-lid, crack!  Earth erupt and burp-up
Voodoo me, vanished voice and vair ermine.
Pffft!  And see, through misty mazy day,
In his water-wings and goggle-gear. . . .

"Irksome apparition!  Clavicle and skull
But prank the picked-out polychromes of life
More sullied dull. Pink is less pricked than pinky.
How can twanged canaries out-crow sepulchres?
Muddy mausoleums high-rise our tipping tropes.
No quip out-kids a skeleton's ghastly grin."
So I solemnized in my preacher's best.
But cut-rate Tenor in his rotted tux
Retailed another fable, made gritty
By eternal Time's half-sandy clasp.
"Birds of paradise in their jungle mung
Whistle fluent waltzes more queer than square.
When kisses come twitting between the stars,
Their ache is more than mausoleums are.
The softest-rose of live lips out-quips
Clown-corpse midgets and their brazen cars. The curds
Of life are sacred, but only as we sip."

So I sat in puzzlement complete.
Head-hanging, feet-dangling, I weeped.  I kicked
Spic hobnails against the grave's gouged walls.
I did not want to hum, or ham, the mournful measure
A mealy mouth had found.  Must I have more to say?
To do, to be?  Was wishing up to me?
Argent star and pentecostal ghost!  It was.
The prolog past was mere evaporate because.
I zipped upon the slipping ice, slouch-hatted,
As I myself alone, floe to floe.
Tenor was my made-up man, my solo ghost;
Of his fragile form, I was holy host.
Vital tailor!  Sledding immortality but slips
Us in our heart-stitched skins again.
Thus we see, beyond Death's batty beam,
Is is brighter than the vim of seems.

How, in all this claustric Ought, ought I
To utter and confess my consummate
"Ow to Joy"?  Life is pain, and fidgets
As it sings.  Dr. Formaldehyde in his lab-coat,
Peering in, thumbs an icy stethoscope to quiz
All coughs, all crimes.  What Rabelaisian
Parable am I in?  What sly reply does this
Inquisitive pin in my inflated thigh
Giggle to confide?  None, none.
All my splendid spillages funnel down to One:
"Paradise is simple as the simple dew.
Blond Life, raw, unadorned,
Is apple enough when we feel adored.
--Settle quick the pipping kettle, Kate,
And kiss the kittens twice.--Unintended
Heaven whistles wettest, when we forget


Gregg Glory

The Vim of Seems

When academy was a euphemism for ‘brothel,’ those who worked there were called academicians.~~Euphemania

I doubt indeed if the crude circumstance of the world, which seems to create all our emotions, does more than reflect, as in multiplying mirrors, the emotions that have come to solitary men in moments of poetical contemplation.~~W.B. Yeats

The title, “Dissembling Semblance,” begins with a pun on dis-assembling, taking apart into its component parts–a touch of an audial shadow of dismissing–and the regular meaning of dissemble (to disguise or conceal a feeling or intention). Such puns are the first of many disguises in this follow-on poem. This poem follows “For Tenor Semblance, Who’s Dead,” which is a poem full of evasions about identity; it even raises the doubt if the protagonist of the poem, the eponymous Tenor Semblance–to who’s wake the reader is summoned–is either alive or dead! Equally, the “Semblance” of the title both names the returning hero and denies that that is who we are talking about since this is a dissemblance, and not a likeness. The greasepaint on the putative corpse of the potentially dead-and-alive-at-once Schrodingnarian Tenor Semblance is thick–perhaps even an inch thick, my fellow vaudevillian thespians. You see, the poem is already assembling some the tropes of the theater, where one dissembles in order to better resemble the chosen, created character invoked by the playwright. But, in this scenario, who wields this mightier-than-death, swordier-than-a-sword pen? Who is the poet behind the curtain? Let’s investigate…. Follow the sleuth with his slouch hat and wacky magnifying glass which shows only his own enlarged and swimming eyeball!

Lie there, my art.–Prospero

This epigraph is from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, where the speaker, Prospero, is a magician-wizard who has been shipwrecked and is the sole master of a forlorn isle, whose only other human inhabitant is his daughter, Miranda. Prospero is talking with Miranda, and lays aside his mastery and his magic cloak to come clean with her.

                             'Tis time
I should inform thee farther. Lend thy hand
And pluck my magic garment from me.
             [Miranda helps Prospero remove his cloak.]
Lie there, my art.--Wipe thou thine eyes. Have comfort.

So, perhaps the author of “Tenor Semblance” is finally going to come clean with us and tell us the truth of his creation, his self-son, and we can wipe the webs of glamour from our story-woven eyes. Despite the terror and trauma of Death, there’s really no need to cry. Our powerful and trustworthy author is going to give us the straight dope at last. The hidden context of our lives will be lovingly revealed from on high; our past will be made sensible, and our present comforting. The author, like Prospero, is going to set aside his bag of tricks–Felix the Cat will become just a putty-tat in need of a lap once more. He must be tired of the footlights; he must need some simple, human ear to which to confess after his endless years of manic prestidigitations. Then again, in The Tempest, the scene where Prospero lays aside his cloak momentarily is Act 1, Scene 2, and a shipwreck full of sailors from his hometown have just crash-landed into his hand-crafted Fantasy Island.

The number one. Om, er, or perhaps “um” in this case. The stanzas are numbered, like scenes or acts, creating an extra level of proscenium-like distance between the vignettes enacted, or the tableaux vivants tidily presented.


What is the point of poetry anyway? Does this multiform monster have a singular purpose? And, given that its form is relentlessly verbal, can mere verbiage give expression to that purpose? Can an eye examine its own process of sight? Can an ear hear its essence? Is there a divergence between essence and purpose? Is purpose imposed, while essence has more of the character of helpless self-expression, a fountain mooting through its range of motion without a chance for meaningful choice? Are poets born or made? “Ho-ho!” Welcome to the funhouse of life, death, and everything. Evidently the comedy club that had been built in Tenor’s grave is still in operation in this first verbal volley–less of a word and more of an essential upwelling, an expression without syntactical content. A something… surprising.

                 From out his party grave, up-popped
The skeletal self that Tenor'd tamed.

We have the “party grave” of the first poem’s epigram incorporated here into the first line of the follow-up poem: the “dirty jokes” include the rude humor of the weedy burial place as well. There can be no doubt that we are at the same graveside, discussing the same Tenor Semblance as before. This time, Tenor isn’t content to lie within his “four occasion walls” (the four dimensions of x, y, z, and time). The “skeletal self,” the dead man, the ghost, of Tenor pops up, perhaps like one of those toy coin boxes with the glowing bone hand that snatches coins into the coffin-like bank vault from which it emerges. Is this poem turning into B-movie zombie-flick fare? Never fear, Tenor’s here! Indeed, this is no ordinary skeleton, but the one that “Tenor’d tamed.” Even the tough double-T, double-D sounds, which may indicate how tough the taming struggle had been, also show the completeness of the mastery over death. Like the phrase “locked tight,” there can be little doubt of eternal containment here, can there?

Although dead, and indeed no more than a skeleton now, the imagery suggests an on-going tie with life. “Dewy longings,” “musty wines,” all cling to the “dry fact” of Tenor’s skeleton. Although dead, “desire sniffs.” The boundary, the barrier between life and death is muddy at the edge of this man-made portal-hole to the beyond. The connection between living desire and the constructive impulse toward civilization is alluded to in the description of the dew-drops on Tenor’s bones tracing a “ziggurat” shape–one of the oldest kinds of monumental architecture ever constructed; many mausoleums, holy sites, temples, and other buildings are ziggurats–the fore-runner of the Egyptian pyramid.

Nothing of the lover, of the brother
Lingers here.  I stick four mournful fingers
Through his clackers for a tongue, wagging
Idiot digits in mime Shakespearean.

The poet, visiting Tenor’s grave, plays with the skeleton as Hamlet did with Yorick’s skull. In the case of Tenor Semblance and his “dirty jokes,” turn-about seems fair play. Robert Frost claimed poetry was a kind of “fooling with words,” and here we see just such a jest-fest going on. The poet makes Tenor talk by waggling his fingers where Tenor’s tongue used to be. No affectionate kissing as Hamlet did with Yorick, no childhood sentimentality–just jokes and the hard facts of demise. The “idiot digits” of the poet’s fingers write no love sonnets, give no voice to any supposed creation of Tenor or the poet; at best, the poet can only “mime” a lame imitation of Shakespeare. “O O O, that Shakespearean rag,” as T.S. Eliot might say. This poet is kind of an inept schlep. Do we trust him, as Dante trusted Virgil, to guide us into the mysteries beyond the grave?

This would all be gallows humor, but our fellow Tenor is beyond the gallows now. The superstitious caution to “speak no ill of the dead” is blithely ignored. The poet is juggling torches in a matchstick factory. Will there be a price to pay for his flippancy?

No Yossarian voice, Horatio, ensued.
No Ophelian sonnets rained in daisy-chains.
Lipless ivories inferred infernal grins.

Evidently not. Horatio is conjured to hear the poet’s Horation oration, but Tenor himself remains mute. Not so much as the jokey voice of that modern Yorick from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 pipes up. In Catch-22, you had to be crazy to get dismissed from the Army; but applying for dismissal on grounds of insanity showed that you were sane; this was the catch-22 of the title. Doubtless some of this circular logic applies to poet and Semblance in this graveyard comedy. The main character in the novel, Yossarian, is basically a coward who scrambles with paranoid frenzy to stay alive in wartime. This same cowardice is often assigned to Hamlet, and there’s a nice talk that Robert Frost gave wherein he distinguishes between “escape” and “pursuit” in terms of discerning motivations and their, as I’d put it, inherent nobility or lack thereof. For my money, Hamlet transitions from escape (from reality, responsibility and death) through most of the play until he embraces his tragic chance and begins to actively pursue death–finally winning through to the fatal showdown that immortalizes him as an exemplar of his timeless human dilemma. Frost says, in justifying his preference for pursuit over escape, that “I’ve got to have something that’s a little aggressive, and that’s so with a poem, too.” I’ve always thought the gravedigger scene in Hamlet more aggressive than hilarious: the humor digs at the characters and won’t let them look away from life’s fatal outcome. It hones Hamlet’s conscience. That’s the use of the unrelenting humor in “Dissembling Semblance” too, I’d say; it’s aggressive, pushy. Certainly, the high drama and romance of Ophelia’s burial scene where Hamlet out-does Laertes’ love for his own sister is out of the question. Instead, all we get is the answerless “grin” of Tenor’s skull.

The very basic question left unanswered in “For Tenor Semblance, Who’s Dead” is answered in an all-caps affirmative in “Dissembling Semblance.” Tenor is, like the Wicked Witch of the East, not only “merely dead… but really most sincerely DEAD,” although no Munchkin coroner is on hand to issue an ornate death certificate. Indeed, there’s no Horatio, no Ophelia, no battling Laertes, not even a goofy grave-digger to witness the unnamed poet’s exploration of death and identity–his contemplation of his deceased “mirror-me.”

I am no Poet-Frankenstein, evoking souls
From wounded earth.

The poet disclaims his powers of creation, even the morose, mangled powers of a Halloweenesque Dr. Frankenstein. He’s no stitcher of zombies, no fanatic trying to dissolve the border between life and death. Indeed, such human hubris would “wound earth.” I’d take that claim with a grain of salt, though, as the poet plays on Tenor’s “bony xylophone” of a skeleton. If not a Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps he is at least some sort of dusty archeologist seeking to imaginatively recreate the creature he had so elaborately eulogized. But, the poet claims to be interested in life and love, the “living teats” of being vibrantly alive.

Still, I loiter here half-longingly and toe
Pale parabolas of a pelvis furred with mold.

The poet then questions his own pro-life claims. He finds himself fascinated by the borderlands and loiters at the graveside “half-longingly.” This echoes Keats’ “half in love with easeful death” from his “Ode to a Nightingale.” The poet is winking at Mr. Weeks’ criticism. The pelvis, locus of the generative organs procreation, are “furred with mold” rather than the short-and-curlies live lovers commingle.

Even while examining the bones of Semblance, the poet doubts which reality is the more supreme–the bald, dread facts of “tallied Tenor,” reduced to death and thus “pure loss,” or Tenor’s fading story told in “For Tenor Semblance, Who’s Dead,” through which we were first introduced to Tenor. This current poem, after all, is an act of human speech as well, and is dissipating its vaporous cry. Tenor’s story seems to be not much more than an evaporating “condensate in Gobi air”–a temporary puff of syllables that cannot last. Every thing that is becomes a was, another exemplar of “pure loss” and “less.”

What last farewell, or goodbye cry, can I
Cachinnate for such luckless kin?

What eulogy can be said over the bones of a story? Do we weep for those who have gone, for their actual departure, or do we cry because the memories of them still remain with us? Is grief really a selfish self-memorial? Tenor seems dead in reality and in story, and our memories are not to be trusted as objective because they are self-involved. We cannot say goodbye, for there is nothing of the actual Tenor left to address–nothing, that is, but our own memories. Indeed, such utter annihilation seems a “luckless” lot.

Feral fate!  The day, the hour, is late.

As with Shakespeare, although there is death and shaped language aplenty, there is a definite lack of religion, of appeal to outer (or upper) authority to untangle the buried umbilical that had led to Tenor’s once-upon-a-time putative birth. Surely his death, his skeleton, is poof enough that he was once alive. The poet, in his decided lack of religious reference, wants to take on the eternal troubles the bible blabs about for himself, on his own, with only his own ugly imaginings for revelation and guide. There will be no angels to wrestle with in this grudge-match to discern ultimate meaning. To hide or not to hide, that is the question. And an altar, let alone an outsized Oz-God, would be too tempting a curtain to quiver behind for the slender identity of the poet to resist. Thus, for all the graveyard stage-props of this poem, it remains a mostly pagan meditation. (It is interesting to note in this connection, however, that the poet, Gregg Glory, had read aloud the third stanza of “For Tenor Semblance, Who’s Dead” at his mother’s memorial service. Even then, a pagan pastor.)


The numeral three (3). Sacred in many traditions, a magic number that encompasses the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. Is there an implication that a third member of the grave “party” will make an appearance? We have two members already: the poet and Tenor’s skeleton (the memory of Tenor living, if he was ever more than imaginary–although if “imponderably” imaginary, that’s as good as any reality). Who shall be the third that walks behind?

Even though Tenor Semblance is no more than a dead body and a (perhaps fictive) memory, still he has a hold on the poet, and indeed so parlously has plumbed the poet’s depths of identity that Tenor has “unmade” the poet, changed and perhaps even dismembered how the poet understands himself as a self. An “iffy gift” indeed. Still, the poet holds onto the sensations of life, and states his intention to not live that life staring eternally into a grave. This poet doesn’t want to lie atop Tenor’s make-believe tomb chanting “Annabelle Lee” to the full moon until his social security checks start to kick in. He does not want to share in Hamlet’s dim guilt at being alive whilest his father moulders, living his “lithest days” in “sackcloth” like a penitent sinner.

My vampire mirror blings, bingeing on blanks.
I miss the mischievous elf I myself had minted,
Wry coinage of a brain love-benumbed.

The idea of the speaker of the poem being the poet in persona propere is played with here. Having been critiqued as being too-much the Joycean composer trimming his fingernails from a cloudbank as he looks down on his characters strolling and unrolling their lines, the speaker-poet checks for his existence in a mirror (recall that Tenor Semblance is his “mirror-me”) and finds that–like the mythical vampire–he has no reflection. Perhaps the poet doesn’t exist here in his created world! He needs to interact with his character Tenor in order to see himself. It is this creative exploration of reality, identity and harassing character that lets us see who we are–not only in interior intention, but in imaginative fact. Tenor, the “mischievous elf,” is described as the creation of a loving and lonely brain–perhaps a reference to the disordered romanticism of Keats’ dreamland.

The speaker as poet is an “impresario of puppets” in that he creates characters and voices for his poems. “Impresario” is a claim to be a master at such creation, and this lavish claim is followed up by an extravagant example of the kind of outrageous metaphors in which the poet deals. Like “piccolo fish” that blend in with the seagrass, the poet’s creations seem very real; this reality is then metamorphosed further into a “wig” (perhaps a British judge’s wig). No transformation is too zany for the impresario’s imagination to encompass or create.

The poet then goes on to invoke the “resurrection” of Tenor, his “scarecrow scalawag.” This is described as a Disneyfied act of “imagineering,” which is some Hollywood-style mix of engineering and imagination. Perhaps there’s more of Dr. Frankenstein in our poet than he understands, or is willing to admit. To be resurrected, one must have lived before and indeed have been truly dead, as the first stanza of the poem established. Of course, resurrection is famously a matter of faith rather than science, so, as in “For Tenor Semblance, Who’s Dead,” we can’t be one hundred percent certain that any Tenor who can be resurrected was duly and truly dead. There is an ambiguity introduced that only our own inner exploration of our own identities via our own hand-made “voodoo” dolls can resolve to our personal satisfaction. Knowing the author rather well, I would hazard to guess that he might even think of this as an on-going process inaccessible to any final resolution. There’s always another layer of the onion to peel away, more mist to fan to clarity in the fens of self, more mazes to zigzag through, more past to uncover tomorrow than we can remember today.

In the fourth stanza, the poet directly addresses the dead man–with a tinge of fear, much as Hamlet upon the battlements of Elsinore, where both the guard Marcellus and his school pal Horatio refer to the ghostly king (as the poet here calls his reanimated dead one) as an “apparition.” In this case, the “ghost” is referred to sarcastically as an “irksome apparition”–which includes a premonition of all the “icks” in the line “Pink is less pricked than pinky.”[1] The poet makes his argument for the relatedness of death and the imagination; how the ultimate character of death “out-crows” the more limited living “canaries” like the poet (a singer himself, like the canaries). Death spices and raises-up the limited reach of imagination’s “tropes.” Imagination proposes, and Death disposes. Death is the final arbiter of the meaning the imagination creates: “no quip out-kids a skeleton’s ghastly grin.” The language is still that of the aggressive gallows humor that has saturated the poem thus far.

By this stanza, Tenor’s resurrection has been effected, at least in part. Is he as “rotted” as his burial tux? Or has he been fully restored like the leprosy-lousy Lazarus? The boundary of death has been breached; Tenor is emphatically not the poet as they hold this somewhat contentious wit-battle.

"Birds of paradise in their jungle mung
Whistle fluent waltzes more queer than square.
When kisses come twitting between the stars,
Their ache is more than mausoleums are.
The softest-rose of live lips out-quips
Clown-corpse midgets and their brazen cars. The curds
Of life are sacred, but only as we sip."

Here we have Tenor Semblance, the artificial spokesman for the eternal twin realities of Death and the Imagination piping up for the partial, obscure, incomplete “jungle mung” of life. Tenor, a rogue representative from beyond the bounds of martality stands up and insists that life, “more queer than square,” is “more than mausoleums are.” Life requires no imaginative or abstract justification. It is itself, and it is enough, whether we accept that truth or not. Tenor is significantly different from Hamlet’s father’s ghost, who returns demanding revenge and more death for his wrongful poisoning. Tenor demands that the poet give up his “brazen cars,”–an image out of Yeats’ “Who Goes with Fergus?” that has the main character spend his life looking for Faeryland. Life, made of Wallace Stevens’ fragile “concupiscent curds,” only maintains its sanctity while we actively engage in it, taste it to its fullest, sip by sip.


So I sat in puzzlement complete.
Head-hanging, feet-dangling, I weeped.  I kicked
Spic hobnails against the grave's gouged walls.

Confused beyond endurance, the poet has been dismantled by his “mirror-me.” Undoubtedly, this is an unexpected result. Wasn’t this graveside visit supposed to settle Tenor’s hash? And yet, it is the poet who is recreated by Tenor’s resurrection. Perhaps there’s more of give-and-take between ourselves and our creations than is commonly supposed. This is a paradigm of ‘constant surprises’ that any parent would be familiar with from dealing with their kids!

            Must I have more to say?
To do, to be?  Was wishing up to me?

Tenor’s words seem to have struck home with the poet, who now reconsiders his entire take on what makes meaning meaningful.

Argent star and pentecostal ghost!  It was.
The prolog past was mere evaporate because.

The poet embraces his ultimate responsibility to create his own future (and thus, from his past, his present). The ghost of Hamlet’s father has lost none of his potency to motivate and help create the living man’s understanding of his life and what he must do within that life.

The “sledding immortality” recalls Tenor’s “slalom breast” from “For Tenor Semblance, Who’s Dead.” The whole movement of “slipping us” back into “our … skins again” recalls Yeats’ famous lines about “gravedigger’s toil… but thrusts their buried men/ Back into the human mind again.” Here, the mind is not the foundation of reality it is in Yeats–here it is the more tender, temporary, living “skin” that contains our meaning. Like God, the Mind (with Platonic indifference to the body) has been exiled from this poet’s contemplations. He is either more modest or more hopeless than most spiritual writers. In this case, I’d say that the more the poet claims to have created Tenor (his “solo ghost”), the more the poet is created by his creation, made real, manifesting in life as an imaginative creator. The poet is Tenor’s heaven (“holy host”), and Tenor is the poet’s manifestation in imagination and in death. They complement each other’s incompleteness, as Jesus completed the project of God’s instantiation.

Thus we see, beyond Death's batty beam,
Is is brighter than the vim of seems.

Again, a reminder from the first poem (“beyond Death’s cut division or misty ending”), and an affirmation that life (“is”) is the supreme place of meaning, above “the vim of seems.” This parley-playing poet has some skin in the game now!

How, in all this claustric Ought, ought I
To utter and confess my consummate
"Ow to Joy"?  Life is pain, and fidgets
As it sings.

The “claustric Ought” recalls the confinement of the coffin, where Tenor in the first poem made his confession and shared “dirty jokes” only with himself. This time, he has had the poet as an active audience. Has Tenor made an impact on his hearer? The poet appears to be determined now to celebrate life, while fearing the pain of that life. Instead of Beethoven’s hymnotic, rapturous “Ode to Joy” about the brotherhood of all mankind, the best that this ironic, modern, diminished, self- and death-obsessed poet can manage is a wincing “Ow to Joy.”

The poet is not Dr. Frankenstein, but there is an authority figure who desires to make his way into the poem–and it’s not God. “Dr. Formaldehyde in his lab-coat” is more like one of the kooky characters that populate Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. Dr. Formaldehyde is equipped with Dr. Berhens’ “icy stethoscope” from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, where inner illness and morbid fascination with death from rotten lungs is transformed into a “talent.” The good doctor will leave nothing beyond the scope of his inquirey, and is determined to “quiz/All coughs, all crimes.” With echoes of the Last Judgment, the real crime, it seems to me, is to be hanging around a graveyard when you should be living life sans sackcloth.

The poet sees that the tables have turned. Now it is he, the poet, who has been consigned to the status of a storybook figure–he has been swallowed up into a “Rabelesian parable.” If he is all story now, to what degree is he still a part of life? The “inquisitive pin” of his procreational organ is still giggling! But, the poet can’t figure out what that means; its “reply” is a null “none, none,” reminiscent of Hemingway’s “nada” at the end of his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

"Paradise is simple as the simple dew.
Blond Life, raw, unadorned,
Is apple enough when we feel adored."

The “splendid spillages,” coming so soon after the thigh-pin, take on the suggestion of seminal fluid. So many ghostly lovers crowd this memorial chat with the poet’s shadowy self buried here! It seems that determining identity may be less imperative twenty years on from the first Tenor Semblance poem; who we are is what we do. It is the doing, and the being done to, after all, that grants its additive beauty to our mortal circumstance. When we are alive and connected, when we “feel adored,” that’s all we need to know, even about such grand subjects as Good and Evil (as the presence of the apple implies). So, if the penultimate activity of life is to kiss and be kissed (before the ultimate act if dying and frying, or dying and flying) — as discussed at the gnarly graveside in stanza numeral four–where is the girl? Enter Kate, stage left….

--Settle quick the pipping kettle, Kate,
And kiss the kittens twice.

The poet is fully distracted from his death meditations and is jolted back into action and into considerations of mundane life. He is taken almost completely out of the poem proper, and we get to overhear him in his real life, in his proper person. All the acts, all the curtains, all the images, are dropped; the show is over. And with the tea kettle and the kittens, could it get any more cozy?

Heaven whistles wettest, when we forget


“Whistles wettest” is a nice echo of the tea kettle. What we attempt and intend to do is secondary to manifest experience itself. Experience is what happens while we pursue our intended heaven: the goal, the pursuit we desire. Life is a place for our exploration, and gives us all we can get, and more than we can understand. Whoever we are, or think we are, or pretend to be, while all of that life is going on around us matters less than the fact that life is going on. This death-obsessed poem ends on an affirmative, if inconclusive, note.

Like Hamlet, the soliloquist in “Dissembling Semblance” has been undergoing a longish regime of “reality therapy.” He is gradually reconciling his life of imagination and desire (symbolized by the non-spiritual–but still non-living–stand-in character Tenor Semblance) with the mundane entrapments of negotiating the limitedness of a human life. But what, you ask, what could ever induce the plangent, punning poet’s inner-Prospero to lay aside his magnificent cloak and be content to live within the precincts of life’s “four occasional walls”? In the crib, the most fascinating object for a puling babe is not some spinning and glittering mobile of stylized stars, but a leaning-down human face–greasy nose and all. Prospero has his love of Miranda to help him “drown his book” and diminish into his humanity. The verbally profuse Hamlet is eventually reconciled to a reality where “the rest is silence,” and takes his exit from the stage in peace. But what incentive to life and littleness does our poet her possess? Ah, yes, his peeping Kate and her “pipping kettle” (a kettle at once piping hot and growing with life-possibilities like a “chicken when it’s pippin’/that has no bones” as the folk song sings). Not to mention those kissable kittens….

The name Kate calls to mind the Katherine of Taming of the Shrew–so we can rest assured that the poet’s reality will not be a bland one after the sign-off of the final stanza. And another Kate is there too, the cutie Frenchie at the end of Henry V, whom the king informs that she and he will be “the makers of custom”–and so imagination, we can feel assured, will not be completely exiled from the poet’s onward life. Indeed, the entire arc of the two poems–an extended reality vs. imagination world-wide wrestling smackdown–could be encapsulated by Yeats’ formulation:

                        The abstract joy,
The half-real wisdom of daemonic images
Suffice the aging man as once the growing boy.

The one difference of emphasis I’d point out here, though, is the decisive wish for less abstraction and more common reality that our poet settles on. The device that serves the poet best in this pursuit is his “forgetting” of himself–either as a man or as a boy. Indeed, there’s a sense in which his adopted “mirror-me” persona of Tenor Semblance is itself a form of this forgetting-therapy. The more the poet pursued himself into his creation Tenor–the less himself he was–the more of himself he could actually manage to manifest.

Well, well, is this mere paradox–or, perhaps, magic?


These notes are on the order of an author’s bare-knuckled canoodling with the muse–or his fidgety graffiti on the hind paw of the Sphinx. Here are no graven words brought down the mountain by a lighting-limbed Moses, or the knowing code-nodes that might unlock one of Thomas Pynchon’s illuminati modules. No nodal knowledge here. So, as any bartender might recommend after last call: “Take care. Beware.” Do drive your brain safely–or as safely as you can manage at dead midnight in an overloaded produce truck stuck in second as it creaks across the cracks of a lonely, frozen lake (in whose depths skeletal sailors toss their tittering bones in unspoken prophecy).

Unlike Mr. Weeks’ essay “Paddling Toward Byzantium” that followed the first of this battling pair of brotherly poems (and which of this Castor and Pollux spars more divinely, who can say?), these notes retain an air of utter incompleteness (Notes Toward a Supreme Friction, mayhaps) and deserve to be spanked–er, I mean, to be superseded— by a less authoritative, but more monarchically benign, interpretation of their intentions and achievements. Mr. Weeks, I believe, is in the next-at-bat position for this devilish task. So, Mr. Weeks, step up to the plate, the batter’s box awaits. Knock those cleats clean and aim for the bleachers, kid!

January, 2012

[1] “Pink is less pricked than pinky.” This line has several layers of puns. Here’s a sampling: “Pink,” as a color, is an embodied abstraction. Tailors also use “pinking shears” to trim loosely woven cloth (like the tapestry of our reality) and minimize fraying. As an abstraction, pink will feel the painful pricks of life less than a pinky finger will feel it. But, as an abstraction, “pink” also has a less lusty engagement with life (less “pricked” in love-making) than I have in my little pinky, as the taunt goes. In context, we see that the poet at this point in the poem, contra Tenor, feels that this “pinkness beyond the pinkness of things” is a virtue–at least of sorts. The poet may cry out, like Hamlet: “Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt.”

Jan 142013

Pilgrim footsteps tracing the arc from Coleridge’s home in Nether Stowey to Wordsworth’s Alfoxden House

My brother, Geoff, was in a barb coma back in the states, the prick of the barbiturate drip flowing evenly into his easily opened veins. In a week, I was scheduled to be bouncing along the Quantock Hills on a long-planned journey my heart had been scheming to execute, and for which serendipity had provided the lucky chance. Daily visits to my brother’s sickbed alongside his stoic mate, Holly, only made the prospect of escape more shamefully real. England and Coleridge were calling me to their bosom. Clearly, I wanted to run away; run far away from the pain of viewing Geoff’s slack face again, the autonomic twitching of his unconscious fingers. What stately pleasure domes did he see floating by behind his bruised eyelids, as he lay laced and velcroed into his metal cot? No amber graph or green line on all the monitors plugged into his dreams could tell the tale. The doctor reassured me twice that Geoff was stable, and my conscience acquitted itself in a few midnight sessions of introspection….

My poet-companion, Dan Weeks, and I had just ascended to the highpoint above Nether Stowey, reaching the unexpected apex of our several days’ wonder-wander in the footsteps of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Dan stood jauntily, arms akimbo, atop a loose highpoint marker-pile of rocks; rocks as grey and damp as the locks of Father Time. After a quick snapshot, he scrambled down the stacked pile, and we took a breather in the overcast humidity.

The Coombs, or woodsy hills, surrounded the small mountain we had climbed in a jade series of rippled, close-set waves that resembled nothing so much as the rich velvet folds of brain coral. In every direction the virile greenness of an ageless verdure unrolled–scarce a square foot of ground was visible among the rounded hills, the gentle valley clefts–the trees were so full, so untouched by time. Green thoughts came unbidden in such a place. It was fitting that here, where some of England’s most exalted thoughts had been thunk, we should stand in a gigantic physical embodiment of Coleridge’s mighty mind–himself perhaps the deepest and densest of all the philosophical accretors in the history of England’s “green and pleasant land.”

At one farther edge of the high slope, we could see the Atlantic Ocean–a sheet of leaden foil glinting through the dull haze. Dan took a folded paperback copy of Coleridge’s poems out of his back pocket and turned to a description of these very hills that Coleridge had written some two centuries ago.

Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest:–and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze!

Up here, at the unobstructed top, there was a small depression in the skull of the slow-slope mountain–a dimpled dell that, by the slight lifting of its living walls, silenced the wind that blew by on all sides of the mount. Looking up, one could see how this dell held the silver sky gently in its hollow, as if cradled in a giant’s cupped palms. Taking a deep breath, I thought briefly of my brother Geoff’s skull, cracked by his heavy electrician’s toolbox flying forward from the back of his work van when a pharmaceutically blitzed woman’s Suburban hopped the Jersey barriers one sunny afternoon in Belmar as she nodded out on some madcap mix of pills and blow.

Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o’er precipices browse

And there, in the blue humid stillness, focused and compressed as if thumbed beneath a stadium-sized contact lens, there was total silence. The dell held off both traffic sounds and the bantering breeze. There was only sky, and, far below, the Bristol Channel moving noiselessly as a crenelated postcard. And in that silence, to my mind, there was God. All of this was perfectly apparent to Dan as well as we read Coleridge’s description of this very spot aloud, and then grew quiet at the profundity and odd perfection of this most observant of men who, we felt sure, had envisioned us standing there with him centuries past his expiration.

Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot!

“Let’s hustle off to the pub.”

“Amen,” I agreed. “If I stand here any longer my lazy legs will begin to stiffen like after-breakfast butter shoved into the freezer.”

Earlier in the day, at the belated start of our ten miles’ stroll, we had danced over field and stile to the end of town to arrive at Butcher’s Lane, the thin edge of the incline that becomes these hills. Butcher’s Lane is enclosed in a hoop of briers and flowers weaving a colored dark even at midday beneath the sedate swaying of ancient trees; one trots blindly upward under a flickering canopy. From this fragrant birth canal we emerged onto the higher starting-block of our day’s race, our faces already sweating with our own age and the summery humidity. Butcher’s Lane goes round to the back of Castle Hill, an old goat-stomp of a rotten rockpile–a medieval remainder of motte-and-bailey castle construction. Beyond the backs of rickety goats (but not beyond the noisome scope of their dead-egg smell, I swear), we could see something of the scale of the happy tramp we had planned for the day. The village of Nether Stowey was laid out below us like a Christmas diorama from steeple to mill. In many places, pleasant walls leaned together prayerfully as folded hands beneath thatched rooflines.

Farther along the trail, the high Coombs made themselves known by their mellow might–steep hills that crept greenly higher, never quite showing their rocky teeth (nor betraying their exhausting bite). Beyond those layered hills we knew that the sea kept her own counsel, and we could sense her presence more by the lack of land rolling onward than by hearing the repeating bang of her breakers. Somewhere on the far, shadow side of the Coombs rested Wordsworth’s Alfoxden House–the goal of our stroll, and the residence where Coleridge and Wordsworth reinvented English poesy with their Lyrical Ballads. How many hundreds of times had Coleridge made this same pilgrimage, his pockets bursting with scribbled scraps his imagination has made immortal?

We slid down the far side of the mountain on rucksacks and rears, the stony dust dimming our eyes and settling on glass-lenses and in nostrils annoyingly. It was quick work, but tricky, for suburbanite knees. We had earned a lobster lunch at least, and made our way directly for the even smaller village on the far side of the Coombs. Buttered bread and beer sounded sumptuous, and maybe a place to hang our sweaty socks over the back rungs of an empty chair for an airing.

But before we reached the nearby pub (The Plough and the Stars, I believe) there appeared around a shrubbery-shrouded corner of the road a humble kirk, its short steeple straight and its red door ajar. At the sight, my heart contracted with a stab of remorse–I had forgotten about my brother! We paused, and I entered in through the creaky gate, pushing the red door open just enough to pass through the portal guiltily. I was apprehensive that I would disturb some rector or other official at their task, or blunder into a worshipper who might read the sin in my face as plain as a blush. Luckily, no one was there, and I could look around the small chamber undisturbed.

Richard Holmes, the famed Coleridge biographer, tells the tale of Coleridge as a young runaway crawling into a sandy riverbank cave–and he reported on his biographer’s intuition that STC had left his written mark there in the dark. Holmes himself, on the trail of Coleridge, found out a likely cave on the banks of the Otter and crawled into its mouth in pursuit of his intuition, exploring on hands and knees with a series of matchsticks quaveringly alight. At the very back of the sandy hole, with the stream itself no longer even a glimmer behind him, Holmes swears he saw the initials STC graven on that last wall–initials which, when he touched too near, crumbled down, leaving only the moist gravelike smell of sand and blackness.

This is the midnight I found myself in as I stepped into the dark kirk, only a few narrow strides beyond the blade of light that angled in from the empty lane.

There was a round stained glass window of modest circumference at one end of the nave–a man with a shepherd’s crook and a sleepy sheep at his feet. Down the dark pews, a gloomy shine emanated from the polished wood. I put a foreign coin or two in the charity box and sat in the front pew a moment and composed myself to prayer.

Thinking about my brother when I had last seen him–one leg strapped in suspension, elevated but not yet set, his ribs bandaged lightly so that his lungs might heal enough to bear the trauma of the planned operation that would reconstruct his shattered hip if he was ever to walk again–a portion of some verse of Coleridge’s came to mind where a walker in the night notices the bare stem of a plucked flower and thinks that he would not have taken off its blossom had he been the one to pass by. Something about the delicacy of Coleridge’s feeling, and the heedless damage to the tiny flower must have prompted it to my consciousness:

Ah! melancholy emblem! had I seen
Thy modest beauties dew’d with Evening’s gem,
I had not rudely cropp’d thy parent stem,
But left thee, blushing

Long the way and light the heart. We got back to the B&B far after sunset, our backs twisted and our thighs crying out for merciful oblivion. We each chucked a pound coin in the honor box on the portable fridge in the foyer hall and grabbed a hand-brewed beer created by the inn’s owners, Rory and Marge. I forget my choice–something named after a farmyard animal most likely–and Dan procured his inn-favorite, a dusky brew that was flavored partly with finely crushed oyster shells. We turned into the common room where a coal fire was kept banked against the damp and began to compare our aches and ecstasies from the day’s troublesome tramp. I particularly relished nearly breaking into Alfoxden House (now a private residence), Dan making both some more general remarks and commenting very particularly about the honorable bumbling of the many bees in the bushes along the high path toward the crown of the Coomb.

Soon enough, a few more travelers made their entrance. Two elderly couples in their hearty eighties sat kitty-corner from us in the inn’s common room, their large comfortable-looking hiking boots placed at at-ease stance distance and their sturdy walking sticks loitering athwart their corduroy-covered thighs. We were retailing the tale of our toilsome treading acrosst Coleridge’s cerebrum, our ankles aching as we spoke.

“Oh, aye,” pipes up one senior, an easeful smile upon her face. “That’s a good warm-up.”

“Let’s start with that one tomorrow on the way to breakfast,” chimes in another, taking a small sip from his orange, home-brewed ale. There’s a general nod at this notion. Dan and I couldn’t help but chuckle at our own sorry imperfections. There must be something in Nether Stowey that makes even very old feet nimble enough to match Coleridge’s rambling mind.

On the plane to England, Dan and I had been bursting with chatter of STC’s unfailing brilliance–and more than brilliance. Coleridge was not only a source of sparks, of light shed from the flint of his percipience, he was also generative of light in others; around him bloomed the sympathetic glow of canny cogitation, as when seventh-graders ferry phosphorescent bulbs within range of some overwhelming magnetic source of potenial electricity in science class–and the darkened room blooms, almost torchlit with the hopeful bulbs waving in their small hands.

Nether Stowey had been our chosen destination, but where we wound up was more a matter of interior miles than flattened maps and stark coordinates.

January, 2013

Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, May 1795

With many a pause and oft reverted eye
I climb the Coomb's ascent: sweet songsters near
Warble in shade their wild-wood melody:
Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o'er precipices browse:
From the deep fissures of the naked rock
The Yew-tree bursts! Beneath its dark green boughs
('Mid which the May-thorn blends its blossoms white)
Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest:--and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.

Ungrateful he, who pluck'd thee from thy stalk,
Poor faded flow'ret! on his careless way;
Inhal'd awhile thy odours on his walk,
Then onward pass'd and left thee to decay.
Ah! melancholy emblem! had I seen
Thy modest beauties dew'd with Evening's gem,
I had not rudely cropp'd thy parent stem,
But left thee, blushing, 'mid the enliven'd green.
And now I bend me o'er thy wither'd bloom,
And drop the tear--as Fancy, at my side,
Deep-sighing, points the fair frail Abra's tomb--
"Like thine, sad Flower, was that poor wanderer's pride!
Oh! lost to Love and Truth, whose selfish joy
Tasted her vernal sweets, but tasted to destroy!"
Dec 312012

A foot-race to the palace at Knossos.


Having grown long words in fieldgrass daylong, I stepped into a wooded brook to dip Ink-worded hands into the snickering quips Offered up by the silverquick stream; I wondered just what the water had meant to mean, Whose loose stones insist the water into song. Many times I lost what footing I had felt, Suddenly cried out, or laughed in despair, By hard wet things beneath thrown over, Raw agony raised to the eloquence of a welt; And, with water in my mouth, I'd often remarked The sincerer operations of the lark, Spilling a slippery noise above taciturn rocks That break bones and never forget.

Dateline: Late May-August, 2001, Ocean Township, NJ. This was one of the loveliest (though loveless) summers of my life. I wrestled one hundred poems from heaven to the ground—and then rhymed them between the covers of a book (i.e., The Timid Leaper). One hundred poems is a cornucopia of creativity, a roar-voiced river of vividities. Timed word-for-word, this hectic spate of poetic speech approximated fours lines of polished verse per hour of wakeful attention.

Each day, I would bring my folding chair down the short staircase of the apartment I shared with my roommate, Mole, and chuck it in the backseat of my battered Ford Escort. Down a short road to a woody landscape, turning onto the pebbled pathway of what I called Sycamore Lane. There I’d park, unpack the folding chair (suitable for lawn concerts) and begin the half mile saunter through a double row of flaking sycamore trees to my “spot.”

Taking this loping stroll under the changing light of leaves stoked my mental lobes toward composition. My body’s rhythms became more musical as I shushed through the hairy grass that spattered the dusty path. When finally arranged in my splay chair, with my ball-cap tilted above my brows, I looked out at the slowly turning world with bedizened eyes half-awake to the tuneful movement of the small stream beyond a bump in the slope, and found myself entwined in the shapely pattern of the shadows cast by the innumerable leaves of the sweetly green sycamore trees.

My state was a meditative one, root and stem, and composition began with my tongue tapping time on the roof of my mouth. Time transmogrified into a type of concentrated joy, a sunbeam in a crucible lens that lit up the page pinned to my father’s clipboard. There the words, in a mixed mask of shadow and light, danced to discover their own purpose; there they coalesced and eventually pulled together in a single direction–here and there a noun or verb from the mass pounded louder and became the time-keeper of the others–a cantor arising from the mumbling congregation, eventually getting insistent as a slave-galley hortator tomping on his resounding tom-tom.

There is a smallness, a closeness to writing. The pen held pinchingly, lines and phrases whispered under one’s breath, the scribbled page adored and then, too full of its own dark mutterings, discarded–set aside for the editor’s cold eye, the mischievous insistences of his rouge inks.

But here in the sunshine air, the nocturnal owl gone to silent roost and the romantic moon nowhere to be seen, one’s mind takes on the cool invisible infinity of smooth-worn stone. Whatever is writing–like whatever is being written about–has always existed. Their interplay is tangled, sly as evolution. One is ready to listen, and to keep listening. The whispered breath is the tree’s speech, or some errant bird’s exclaiming. My focus was total, but my self was absent.

It was not until hours later, under the phony moon of a bedside lamp, that I thrilled to what had occurred under the sycamore’s tutelage. Wryly, I chuckled at my water-quick wit; stonily admired my stony stolidity. Who’s voice was this really? Somehow, while wandering away from home, this briery scribble had proceeded from my papermate pen, alien in its green inks. And yet, as I read, a connection to that earlier, meditative state persisted. The flash of a squirrel’s tail both followed and foretold the flash of my thoughts.

As I said, this was a single lovely summer, flushing to fullness after a heart-catastrophe had left me a brittle cripple in so many ways. I don’t know if I long to “get back to where I started from,” to have another extravagantly productive “summer of a hundred,” but I feel it is worthwhile to acknowledge when a mystery visits your existence. I still can’t quite puzzle it out, but whenever I look back into the still pool of memories from that warm time, I confront an essential reflection of my being that has neither changed nor aged. The way nature held me then, she holds me still. As Yeats reflects in “Among School Children,”

          O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
          Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

Eventually the stars were winking me to sleep–until the next day when my emergence from dream to the shaving mirror became my disappearance in my captain’s chair beneath my favorite sycamore all over again. Three months of days passed in this fashion during that lovely summer–with each day leaving behind its solemn sonnet or triple-rhyme trinket.

“Live according to your poetry,” is the instruction of every church, its vision falling like a veil over the tickle of reality. This veil often adds a beauty to prosaic existence, and lets bland consumers of myth participate in–if not the myth’s making–at least in its embodiment. During this busy summer of writing, I experienced instead a stripping away of the palimpsest of art by the ingenious innovation of the removal of the viewer. I.e., myself. My pen that summer was a purloined willow-wand, my words a shimmer fished from the stream. I hesitate to say the days were mystical, or the nights gnostic; but, something stirred then that since has slept.

I wound up designating that summer my “summer of a hundred” to myself and my friends, I was so exceedingly pleased with the knotty whatnots I was able to craft under the spell of those sycamores at that nearly abandoned park where none trespassed on the solitude of stone and wind and water and growing grass that made me so happy after the previous three years’ harrowings.

December, 2012

Dec 042012
          How philosophy dovetails with the swerves of verse

          Commandeering Shelley's skiff among the Euganean Hills

Awake, awake!
For all the dear bay's glistening
In uneven light still listening
For whatever of utterance
Soul's chrysolm beauty may glance
Into willing water's dark,
My sweet meaning the whole of my bark.
Set sail, set sail, my soul, set sail
Let no hindrance, no halt, avail:
For we are the sweet of the tree,
Blossom and bole, shoot and root we three,
Myself, my soul, and me.
Nor does the shaping heart forego
To lend its beat to our argot,
My spirit a crystalline keel,
Inspiration a motion wind feels
Lifting in blessing ascent
All some deeper sleep had blent
With nightmare chimeras now forgot
By all within my steady boat.

Somehow, now, still lingering
Out of the sullen east the sun
Has given my soul a tongue.
Soul may speak what mind began:
Light's meditation is an ardor,
Of my soul the keeper-warden
Which never must be abandoned
For so simple delight is saddened
And everything of remembered worth
Thrown seedless to the earth
Whence never another vine will reach
From dusky plain unto the sun
Bearing with ripeness as a spillage
Grape or fruit of many an age
Longing time may bring to blossom
Out of darkness' drowsy bosom.

Gentle Charity, no farther
Must you bear this as a father
Childish swearing does forebear. 
Those who see not propounding noon
Liquified in soul's triumphant swoon
As swan lifts trumpeting his song
All the purple light along
At tender vespers, languid and long,
Or blinking matins, awake and strong,
For themselves must conquer hatred
Through loving hearts, many-gated,
Until dim and churlish slaughter
Lies self-becalmed as these waters.

Go out, go out, my broken-hearted--
With untroubled look depart them,
Cast back no final, futile glance
For all in a single chance
Is your future concentrated.
Let not one chafing countenance,
Deaf to this beneficence,
Shake from their sordid hearts a sigh;
Live in my smiles, or die!
From here commences, in my sight,
An headlong, eternal light
That every living form bedights,
With dews of immortality
Awakening soul's sweet rarity
Floods the loosening dawn
With: ocean, field, and lawn,
(Building light from evening's jet
By apperception the mind begets)
From the gentle fount of grass
To the living wave like glass
No such light may overpass
But must ignite in simpleness
Love's million multiple beams!
Every morning wayfarer
Whose light boat cannot tarry
But pushes on out of darkness
With whatever of best and best
In tangles of light impressed
In bossing golds on waves' breast
Plies resistless to the crest!
Such silver as the eglantine
To the dew-fraught morn resigns
And heaven on every still thing deigns
Rewarding quiet prayers
With this mercurial layer--
Such silver I say is savior
When soul its own good blossom knows
Nor will be shaken by the cold
Into something hard and cold
But that a sheath of clear protecting
Such firm flowers thus selecting
That deep winter's dire infecting
Shall not break them by its cold,
In such clear light protecting.

All that night my heart had lain
Upon this boat and silver stream
Until all memory became
Like the memory of a dream;
And there true life began
Beneath night's stars swirled to one--
Past the extinguishment of suns
When realer dream draws us on
To dream of all we may have been
And in heart's solace draws us on
In dreaming dream to dream again!
O how cold the moon's a mirror
For all the heats within her!
I my own bright soul create
Nor did this fascination make
To slave it to a universe
I, living, gaze on as a hearse.
My silver hand in dawn's lake
Dips, its own soul to take;
From this sweet enlivening
Come my symbols unquestioning:
Crown upon my crown rests cherishing,
The sword in my hand unperishing.

Do not dispraise the light
That, singing whatever's brightest,
Undoes the theft of night--
In soul-enchanting soliloquies
Enmansioning aerial ways
That we might thrive there all our days
In realms of spendless purity
Absent nations' perfidy
Heart to heart for sole surety;
This our pledge, this our guarantee
That all's well with humanity
Once these bleak constants, fear and dread,
Lay to light exposed, and dead,
The human plant may only mend,
Think to create, and speak to praise,
Throughout the endless paradise of days
--Touch to caress, or move to love,
As this thoughtless rhyme does prove.

Ai! Ai!  High radiancy,
Round eve's ever-changing sea
Like universes' bright periphery,
Back to sun-like man's centrality
I and all mortality
Welcome both thy light, and thee.

And if all the world condemn
What all the heart commends
What matter, so that heart sail on
In self-discovery without bourne
Through mystic waters, blue and calm?
What does pleasure's grieving echo give
But light to dark-hearted lives?
O when the trembling hand may shiver
And some momentary joy deliver
To thought-locked face and brow
What passes from that hand to bless
In an unending tenderness
As paradise were with us even now?
Memory makes no bounty of the scorn
Dementia attempts to ripen on
In sold human hearts since we're born;
Whatever slender wing endeavors
Be communicant with the treasure
One heart may hold forever
Will find such wind in chambers there
Beyond conjoining woe or care
That they may sail infinity
In the air of that one heart's ease.
Pleasure alone may live within
The human bound of life given
As light within these waters:
Ungrieving, crystalline, faultless.

And now my soul is voyaging on
In mystic waters blue and calm.
For whatever true hope had wrought 
In time-defying, true love-knot 
How could Love forget?

A life of tender articulation has its costs and comeuppances; its burden to bear and its killing cross to exalt. To dare to tell the truth of one heart leaves that heart open to the public view; it is a cry for connection in its raw availability. And, since we are all incorrect in our insistences as well as in our submissions to received opinion, this nakedness can leave us vulnerable to the darts of condemnation and correction. To be always seeking the most inclusive truth, however, can lay a straightness in the keel of our individual skiffs and turn our rudders more toward our goal of knowing (rather than merely guessing). To be always truing up our jibs is the best we can ask of ourselves and others. Such is the intent behind this wandering poem.

This eminent insouciance, obviously based on Shelley’s lovely Lines Written Among the Eugean Hills, contains a mix of philosophy and scenic detail that is anathema to the post-modern poetic project, and runs counter to all the little lectures on “how to write poetry” going on across the country at this very moment. Executed with a tone of expansiveness reminiscent of an opium daydream, Ascent begins with a call to action to the speaker’s own soul to “Awake! Awake!” But we are most certainly not awaking into the durable toils of daily life; we are awaking to the philosophical imperatives of one’s own inner symbolical dream life–the life that defines the self to the self. As Coleridge so famously invoked it in Kubla Khan, it is “a vision within a dream.”

What is the relationship between orphic statement and accountability–Yeats’ “responsibilities [that] begin in dreams”? This is the field of exploration, promise, and eventually of willful assertion that Ascent takes place within. In the innermost image of ourselves, whipped up by unresolved subconscious materials, we confront the raw reality of our constituent inner-experiences. We discover what hot messes we are before we take hammer and tongs to the mirrory self-image we will hold before our dreaming eyes in either aspiration or frustration.

Art has no inherent limits, but makes a playful pretense of limits for the dramatic purpose of wrenching them asunder, or, equally dramatically, failing and fainting under their impermeable permanence. For a narrative voice or character to flutter and fail in a work of fiction secures the reader’s sympathetic allegiance to the failer–and this is simply a passive-aggressive victory for the artist and his conjured hero. The self-imposed limitations of a work of art (often expressed as an adherence to inherited or nonce conventions) do their best to push the craftsman to greater flights of inventiveness to defy, deflate, or deify those adopted limits. The gamesmanship of a grid on which to plot our battleships is thus at least as liberating as it is limiting. In Ascent there is octosyllabic meter and a recurrent tendency toward triple rhymes that the poet gets to row against. To me, these rhymes (coming as they do before the full finality of a more stately pentameter gait) feel like the suggestive repetitions of hypnotic ripples–both gentling the impact of rhyme’s self-conscious effect and allowing the mind to float out a bit farther into each implication of the thought or image presented. Lulling but not sleeping on the vague edge of pillow and dream….

The power of general applicability is perhaps obvious to the sensitive and self-aware, but even Descartes felt compelled to plainly declare: “cogito ergo sum.” And so shall I. The power of philosophically reflective language and its larger framework allows for the examination of illustrative detail without the need to commit to the supremacy of those details–the detached hovering of a dragonfly skimming surfaces can suffice to feed the illustrative lust of the imagination without making the dreamer/reader a slave to every trough and crest. Our boat, powered by this capability to be both sympathetically near-at-hand and distantly observant at the same time, can shuttle at will across waters that swamped Odysseus’ more mortal craft.

The poet chanting in Ascent seems determined not just to echo Shelley’s language (“crystalline”, “waves”, “glimmering/glistening”) but to remove the entirety of the poem from the context of the modern world in which it was written. This is no motorized Boston Whaler; no zipping jet-skis blur by, breaking the sailor’s chain of long thoughts. Instead of the ragged free verse of the late 20th century, we have not simply rhymed poetry, but quick-rhymed and even triple-rhymed ballad meters employed, as if the whole elegant construct would be set to the lyric interludes of a court lutanist. But this retreat from the modern is not a retreat from sophistication–just as the wet, rural setting of the poem is no renunciation of civilized attitudes. Rather, it is a retreat into aesthetic isolation for the purpose of meditation on the value of the individual and his community–a meditation undertaken in vibrantly philosophical and sophisticated language that is more at home among the eloquent heights of English poetic achievement then shuttled into the dirty subway of today’s easy victimhood and the brainless Manichaeism of rapping sloganeers who haunt a million aptly named “loser slams.”

Ascent could in some ways be considered a response-poem to Shelley’s Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills. It is a poem of encouragement for Shelley’s sad sailor stuck in the “deep wide seas of Misery.” Imagine a second paddler, an oarsmen or rudder-handler hopping into Shelley’s lonely craft and letting the wandering Englishman know that he need not wait to land on one of the “many green isles” in order to become a happier sailor. Shelley famously, for all his ecstatic affirmations and visitations from the capitalized “spirit of Intellectual Beauty,” was quite demon-haunted as well–afflicted by a depressive sense of his abandonment by that same Intellectual Beauty that had so recently inspired his soul to its heights.

In contrast to Shelley’s quietly languishing “sea of Misery,” Ascent begins with a reveille trumpet call to seize the day:

     Awake, awake!
     For all the dear bay's glistening

Instead of a wide empty alien ocean, we have a familiarly known and beloved “dear bay” that glistens with the promise of a new day, and like Shelley’s therapist-companion, is “listening.” In Ascent the world is just waiting to reflect the wayfaring individual’s inherent worth–from which he is temporarily alienated. Ascent is in this way a sort of literary version of one of Marianne Williamson’s “affirmations,” a popular self-help subgenre. The whole first stanza pushes the reader-sailor to be “self-actualized” and not to give into the power of loneliness, loss, and devastation. “Let no hindrance, no halt, prevail.” The only miseries that actually do appear here are illusory ones that have already been dealt with (or at least have already been summarily dismissed): the “nightmare chimeras now forgot/ By all within my steady boat.” We are in a terror-free zone, a “safe space” as my yoga teacher says, as we set out on our voyage of self-exploration.

So far, the poem has some of the juvenile happy-talk that permeates so many of Whitman’s paeans, or Emerson’s backslapping meditations. Perhaps we are “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” or have managed to “hitch our wagons to a star.” Are we stuck in a tub with Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, singing “rub-a-dub-dub” no matter what catastrophe occurs? Is “cheer up, look on the bright side of life” the only tripe our overpaid therapist-paddler has to offer? Buck up!? That’s it!? Is this a philosophical inspection of life or a comedy routine?

The loneliness and sensual seriousness of the lines mitigates against the sense that we are merely being “taken for a ride” by the poet. Let’s trust him at least for the duration of our voyage and see where we wind up. And remember, our poet is talking to one ready to leap over the gunnels and end it all; this may at least explain, if not excuse, his sumptuous solicitousness.

In America, of course, Emerson is the Old Testament, and Whitman the New. I know that some would have Hawthorne or a select handful of our Pilgrim scribes be the Old Testament, but when the creation of our civic religion had such midwives as the wild “world citizen” Thomas Paine, we must confront the fact that we are still shiny with the afterbirth of big ideas and the communitarian impulse that drives even such movements as today’s Tea Party. A poem such as “Ascent” works in this tradition of single, almost libertarian, inspiration conjoining the the ideal of an articulate mass of humanity; the courage of a single voice can indeed shape the roaring outcry of all. The fragile rind of repression requires only a single tear, and the rich inner orange may then be revealed, the uneaten rind lying unscrewed in a single twirl to one side. In analysis of totalitarian systems, there is a name for this effect; it is called groupthink, a forced manufacture of consent. One’s neighbors live in a self-imposed silence, borne down by worry, but having the same reservations as each other but thinking it is themselves alone who have the reservation.

Here, too, we have the same tripartite self who appears in Whitman’s “song of myself.” To whit “myself, my soul, and me.” I doubt that the parallels to the Catholic conception of God are merited, other than to note in passing that Freud to discovered people to be three distinct selves– the ego the superego and the id. Harold Bloom has made a wonderful exploration of Whitman’s divisions of self – and, of course, Freud was one of the great self explainers of the modern age. In Ascent, these cells are compared to a tree’s “shoot, root, and bole” and evokes further comparisons to Yeats’s “great-rooted blossomer” of whom Yeats asks the question “are you the dancer or the dance” in his poem “among school children”. The bole is an interesting substitution for blossoms here, and its uniqueness encourages us to examine the comparison further.

But first let us dispose of the other parts of the self. Using a direct parallelism, “myself” is the “shoot” – the growing branch on which blossoms or new leaves appear. The “soul” is logically seen as the “root” or base of the tree that can next to a broader, universal spiritual reality in which all conscious beings participate. The “me,” the “bole,” has a quality of unreflective self identification. It is the slowly increasing trunk of the tree and has a quality of embedding the history of the self’s growth and its rings. It is neither the invisible soil soul, unchanging source, nor the eager, exploratory shoots that expand precipitously each spring. The mass, the bolus of what we are is simply the history of our becoming what we are. We are, in part the time it is taken to get to here.

But what is a tree doing in a boat anyway, however steady that boat may be? Small boats are often made of wood, and the mention of a tree, even in this abstract comparison, may be a way of embodying something of Shelley’s “green isles” in this contemporary poem. To travel somewhere else you have to first be somewhere (and someone) to begin with–and a tree is a concrete living exemplar of both being and place.

Another connection is, I believe, the purely metaphysical one of the role of the sun–both in vegetable maturation and as a visible promise made to the voyageurs that, essentially, “life is good.” Like a speaking tree, “somehow… the sun/ Has given my soul a tongue.” More likely, it is the human agency of consciousness and ensoulment that is speaking anthropomorphically on the sun’s behalf–but let us accept the poet’s premise as given for a moment.

For the singer in the poem, light is “an ardor” and a “warden”–a guardian of the hopeful expression of the soul. If this expressive function of the soul is “abandoned” then life itself will cease its endless cycle. Like an oak whose acorns are “thrown seedless to the earth,” never to bear “ripeness as a spillage” from the fructifying process of life.

This conflates several of the image streams already pouring forth in the poem: the self/tree and the light/water/(and now seamen) groupings. Positing the sun as the guardian of expressive life also highlights the importance of the Guardian/warden role, which this navigator is playing to both his readers and putatively to P. B. Shelley adrift in his miserable Mediterranean.
The third stanza affirms the progress achieved thus far that emphasizes the legitimacy of the mission undertaken–to help a friend and to be awake oneself to all of life’s ecstatic chances. Arguments to the contrary are blissfully dismissed as “childish swearing.”

The fourth stanza which begins imploring the sailor to “go out, go out” in their self exploration takes a Neitzchean stance against the naysayers of their mission. As Nietzsche instructed “let the half sick care for the sick” rather than impede the progress of the uberman. In the same way Ascent advises its sailors to “with untroubled look depart them,” i.e., the naysayers. There is one proviso and that is that the efficacy of the individuals self ignition must be accepted without further question so that the quest may proceed to new lands, new insights rather than be sucked back down the drain of the “sea of misery.”

     Live in my smiles, or die!
     From here or commences, in my site
     An headlong, eternal light
     . . . .
     No such light may overpass
     But must ignite in simpleness
     Loves million multiple beams!

The poem does undertake a few more exhortation’s against self-defeating “retrograde thinking,” but, one hopes, without too totalitarian a re-educational insistence. Of course, this joy in the face of despair, this quick grip of life despite any grimness or grimaces of circumstance echoes in its individualistic insistence the very ethos of punk rock as practised by one of its fun founders, Johnny Rotten. Indeed, the line “Live in my smiles, or die!” echoes Rotten’s imploring scrap of book-flap blurb on his multi-authored autobiography No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, which insists that readers of his life story have but two choices before them: “Enjoy or die.”

All who “pushed on out of darkness” on this voyage will be protected; if the dew of morning prayers freezes around with the knight who has kept his nightlong vigil on his knees–then that very frozen dew will be transformed into a “sheet of clear protecting.” No coldness, no loneliness such as Shelley’s, will stop these wayfarers. Indeed, of such frozen due the poet proclaims: “such silver I say is savior.” This reinforces the efficacy of soul-speech, the creative power of one’s own upheld point of view.

But where does this point if you come from? What is at the root of the individual selves reality that he can then explore and eventually come to sing? You’ve heard me quoted here before folks; it is that old Yeatsean saw: “in dreams begin responsibilities.” We are brought almost a cinematically backwards from the point of dawn into the night before when the speaker was keeping his vigil. We are drawn a picture of the poet lying on his back in the boat looking up the sky. The gentle rocking of the boat the swelling of the gentle day the darkness overhead the stars and the memory of these things become a point in time that is clearly meditative, and in the nadir of this meditation is where “true life began.”

     Night's stars swirled to one
     Past the extinguishment of suns

becomes the rock or root of his experience of self. In this self is the self of a dreamer indeed it is the self of a dreamer remembering himself dreaming. When he looks out again from the streaming interior space and to the world of the night and the moon he exclaims “oh how cold the moons a mirror for all the heats within her.” It is not outer reality that sets the pace that creates the measure becomes the foundation for action. It is rather our understanding of our interior reality which allows us to take action in the outer world. And indeed we do not even take this action in the outer world for the sake of results or efficaciousness in the outer world. We take our actions in the outer world the sake of the moral imperatives of our inner world as we understand them.

     I my own bright soul create
     Nor did this fascination make
     To slave it to a universe
     I, living, gaze on as a hearse

If we are alive to the imperatives of this inner moral world and the world outside of us becomes irradiated by our own efficacy and enlightenment. Our life becomes sweetly enlivened. Now once again the speaker takes a moment to caution us from questioning this radical redistribution of reality.

Reality has moved from the outer world to our inner moral world where we dream only to dream again and thus create what is true.

     Do not dispraise the light
     That singing whatever's brightest
     Undoes the theft of night--

It is here in our moral realm that we can reach out to the moral realm of another and this is the steady boat which both the speaker and the listener share. Once the “fear and dread” of being subject to the contingency of reality’s mistakes and accidents drops away we can relate to each other from a position of deep humanity. I acknowledge the dreamer in you and you acknowledge the dreamer in me and all we can say about living in each other’s dreams is that it is “the endless paradise of days.”

Now comes the moment of ecstatic uplift when the poet welcomes back the sun into his already fully lit universe:

     I and all mortality
     Welcome both thy light and thee

This is indeed of the nature of a religious revelation where the locus of meaning is removed from reality and brought into what we might call a subjective spiritual realm except that in this spiritual realm as posited by the poet meaning is shared between the poet and the listener who in this case is another poet and indeed the entire bay is glistening and the sun itself partakes in the shared reality of this created context.

The second to last stanza of the poem gives a brief recapitulation of the journey already taken in the poem beginning with discarding the naysayers moving on to answering the summarily a few of the questions that might be raised doubts fears that might occur along the way and ending with the affirmation that “pleasure alone may live within/ the human bound of life given.” (This is no scary Hamlet-Daddy, or vengeful Mozartian Giovanni pere, risen writhingly from purgatory to rend our souls with guilt!) Thus the living poet reaffirms Shelley’s highest hopes and dreams for humanity, dismisses his quibbling misery, and re-centers reality on human consciousness:

     Ai! Ai!
October, 2012
Oct 262012


The comet of my divine intent has come to earth. Only this undistorted wish is sacred. It is sacred in you too. “I am well; the world is ill.” Fuck-the-world and For-the-world are equivalent statements.

I will never accept your self-imposed limitations. That kills the individual that I shall always be. It is an imposed distortion that must and will always fail.
Tyrants from time immemorial have always gone about asserting irrelevantly the inability of liberty to manage itself. Today it is the tyrant of the superego or a perversely construed conscience.

I will have none of it! So fuck you.

Humanity only encompasses the greatness that I can make out of myself. What else is there? Only the worn-out sickness of a will too timid, too afraid to trust to its already manifested effectiveness, as per Plotinus.

“Re-invent all the n-o-o-o-o [new] ways.”~~Richard Hell
When I create myself, I enlarge the world. I discover what only I may uniquely possess and then release.


I want a million Shakespeares.
I'm part of a divine revolt 
Our world is new
Our vision is true
I'm part of a divine revolt: 
I revolt from you!

It must be ennobling. Negative images and thoughts may be included as part of a poem or poems, or as essential draft matter in one’s life-work, but these negative images are not the ultimate goal or purpose of poetry. Baudelaire is a perfect example of this principle in action. Only the greatest disappointment, in life and art, with his contemporaries and with himself, could let so religious an imagination blaspheme with such a gloried ease of voice. His “disappointment” is ultimately the result of having such a monstrously high opinion of mankind’s potential; a potential which he, like Nietzsche after him, saw everyone all around him so sickly disregarding. Today one might speak, new-agey-wise, of a responsibility to live in your power. It was his noble hope that empowered his verse, made his racket into a rocket, even in its most negative moments. Without love of such magnitude, without vision of such vicious width, the loss of love is itself belittled.

Is it Heaven or Hell, dear Beauty, which drives you here?
Such eyes--infernal and divine!--
Spill martini evils, olive magnificence.
I come to gulp both vine and wine.
You walk with the dead shooting scornful glances, 
With careless hand stew Joys and Horrors, candies and spankies!
Moth-souled transients, short of breath, still sigh,
Whirl at your flame, and die--spack!--"Ah! Orgasmic Death! Bye!"
Stark Heaven or velvet Abyss, iwis? Dear Infinite! 
From Satan or from God? Holy or Vile!
O soft-eyed Queen, my sprite, my Kate,
O rhythm, perfume, light--who cares?--so that you beguile!
Cheat lazy Time awake, spin old World from Hate!
          ~~Charles Baudelaire 

Both the poet and the reader must come to the poem with the whole of their consciousness and experience.

The artist creates the world in his own image—his supreme vision of his own humanity as it exists, indivisible from the universe. The poet never sees the universe as separate or “other.” It is always with him and in him, as a whole, because of his conquering imagination, which lets no jot of experience escape his grasp. The universe is just barely large enough to contain the imagination of a single individual; it is his proper playpen, as it is in Emerson’s essays.

Thus to him, to this school-boy under the bending dome of day, is suggested, that he proceed from one root; one is leaf and one is flower; relation, sympathy, stirring in every vein. And what is that Root? Is not that the soul of his soul?—a Thought too bold–a dream too wild. Yet when this spiritual light shall have revealed the law of more earthly natures,—when he has learned to worship the soul, and to see the natural philosophy that now is, is only the first gropings of its gigantic hand, he shall look forward to an ever-expanding knowledge as to becoming CREATOR. He shall see that nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part. One is seal, and one is print. ITS BEAUTY IS THE BEAUTY OF HIS OWN MIND. Nature then becomes for him the measure of his attainments. So much of nature as he is ignorant of, so much of his own mind does he not yet posses. And, in fine, the ancient precept “Know Thyself,” and the modern precept, “Study Nature,” become at last one maxim.
~~Ralph Waldo Emerson

The poet has a moral duty because what he truly imagines will become the new reality. Reality and the individual imaginer of reality are never separate. Any poet who knows this knows that when he imagines the universe again from the crowning heights of his mind, he creates that universe in the truest way that any single consciousness can. Since no man, poet, or audience, can escape his consciousness and still be human, the consciousness-reality of the poet has a very real conduit into the world as a whole through the minds of his readers. Once a beautiful thought has pinned itself in your brains, you can never escape its loveliness.

For example, when Shelley sent off his little balloon from the dead fields of Ireland with a poem in tow announcing his savior-consciousness to the world, alone and in the mist, how else did he know that it would land in these very pages, floating still in our minds?

Sonnet: To A Balloon Laden With Knowledge
Bright ball of flame that through the gloom of even
Silently takest thine aethereal way,
And with surpassing glory dimm'st each ray 
Twinkling amid the dark blue depths of Heaven,
--Unlike the fire thou bearest, soon shalt thou
Fade like a meteor in surrounding gloom,
Whilst that, unquenchable, is doomed to glow
A watch-light by the patriot's lonely tomb;
A ray of courage to the oppressed and poor;
A spark, though gleaming on the hovel's hearth, 
Which through the tyrant's gilded domes shall roar; 
A beacon in the darkness of the Earth;
A sun which, o'er the renovated scene,
Shall dart like Truth where Falsehood yet has been.
          ~~Percy Bysshe Shelley

A poet must reach his center without resentment. Each poet’s center is both his lodestone and his steering star. What one essentially is is what one desires to become–or such on-going becoming is what one is–if one does not fib or filter the flip-book time-cursed consciousness presents to itself. A key to avoiding this fibbery is to act without resentment. This can mean having a “clear conscience” in terms of one’s relationship to imposed reality. If outer, objective reality and one’s own inner creative reality form a consonant pair rather than an engine of argument, one can dance the figments of his dreams into the kitchen at midnight rather than dash the self to shredded syllables against the unforgiving rock of given reality. Either way, what one imagines into existence does come to be, but only when resentment is kept in check does the reality your dreams wake into welcome them to the cotillion. As Yeats famously declared “in dreams begin responsibilities.” And if one responsibly creates the reality one participates in, of what use is resentment? It is merely the blindfold we tie around our eyes to refuse the truth of our oncoming execution. Embrace your death, embrace your life.

Will you, won't you
Will you, won't you
Won't you join the dance?