Henry Gould co-edits the literary journal Nedge. He lives in Providence and is a founding member of the Poetry Mission, an RI-based arts association. He recently co-edited and published an anthology in honor of poet/translator Edwin Honig entitled A Glass of Green Tea - With Honig (distributed by Fordham Univ. Press); his poems, essays and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in: alea, apex of the M, Electronic Poetry Review, Famous Reporter, Free Cuisenart, House Organ, LVNG, Misc. Proj., Negations, Poetry New York, Situation, Talisman, and Witz. Chapbooks of his early poems were published by Hellcoal Press (Where the Skies are Not Cloudy All Day, 1972) and Copper Beech Press (Stone, 1979). His Island Road was all of Mudlark No. 6 (1997); he welcomes questions and comments about his work in Mudlark via email: Henry_Gould@brown.edu.
Millennial Grain Elevator (I)
1. [A Curmudgeon's New Year Grouse]
The approach of the fabled Millennium provides a stage set not only for apocalyptic fervor and dreams, but for comprehensive reconsiderations: clearing the table for the new era shortly to arrive. In poetry in English, in this country (the U.S.), such considerations and reconsiderations go on endlessly in the various poetic tribes and sub-tribes; the frenetic activity is inseparable from a sense of atmospheric glut, a futility, sterile and meaningless. Individual and mass overproduction cancels out its own value; both poems themselves and critical thought about poetry seem flattened by this pressure into a monotonous sameness.
One of the motivating elements of this atmosphere of futility is the pervasive acceptance of various "art for art's sake" assumptions. Whether on the level of craft in the MFA industry, or in the form of ideology in the various avant-garde projects, the sense is that to attain legitimacy the would-be poet must make his or her way through the authorizing networks of artistic autonomy. Even the populist and engagé movements of spoken word/performance poetry depend on a process of bohemian-tribal group acceptance by way of spectacle and verbal exaggeration (the "new," so decisively co-opted by mass commercial interests). This is the autonomy of style, rather than substance. It may be that the imperative of artistic autonomy is a kind of magic antidote, a mantra employed to ward off or sublimate the powerful poison of literary aspirations. Poetry is a sickness for the young, as Osip Mandelstam diagnosed long ago in a very different cultural atmosphere with some similar poetic symptoms [see his essay "An Army of Poets"]. It serves as a substitute for experience, before the differences between art and experience--as well as their connections--are absorbed. For the strong talent, this is a lucky fall; for the majority, not so lucky.
Poets need not choose between poetry and all the rest. They can build on vocational knowledge, as part of general experience, to enrich their work. But we in this country lack the keys to such syntheses, it seems. Ironically, the homegrown philosophical tradition of pragmatism, in Peirce, James and Dewey, provided a ground for the synthesis of knowledge and experience; the two in fact cannot be separated; but our literature departments and creative writing programs are not sufficiently synthetic in their own right to encompass broad national intellectual traditions. (Words like synthesis and tradition are considered irrelevant, suspect or malign, in a culture framed at its core on generative political and cultural divisions.) Pragmatism overthrew the subject/object and matter/mind dualisms inherited by British empiricism from Descartes: the Americans simply showed these dualisms to be irrelevant. Experience is a cognitive and active whole; Peirce early on turned Descartes on his head by pointing out that "there is no intuitive certainty that what is immediately apprehended is wholly internal to the consciousness of the one who apprehends it." * In other words, experience is not a Humean subjective strata, but an active synthesis of cognition and action, of self and community.
Unfortunately, the intellectual siftings-down to writing programs and projects diverge in two directions away from such syntheses. On the one hand, in what used to be called the "mainstream," poetry ignores philosophy and criticism, as antithetical to the creative mind and the romantic spirit of poetry. On the other hand, post-structuralist Theory raises its head; experimentalists neglect their own intellectual heritage for the sake of post-Cartesian dialectics, which deny the value, and sometimes the very existence, of trans-linguistic "prose" reality.
One could immediately object to our line of argument as follows: that by assuming a correlation of subject/object and thought/action one would be merely substituting ideology for critical distance, and power games for necessary uncertainty. This is indeed a serious objection, considering the environment--the sea of information-sameness and inter-verbal power/impotence referred to at the outset of this essay. And Peirce, from the beginning, distanced himself from pragmatism (coining a different term, pragmaticism) as it was developing in the thought of William James, for a similar reason--the often dangerous alliance of thought and will-to-action. Yet poetry, as Plato warned and Aristotle analyzed long ago, is not philosophy, but that suspect double thing--language enacting, embodying, and miming action. Both Peirce and his diverging followers worked out an essentially provisional resolution of the binary antinomies of reality--and not as ideology, but as understanding. Poetry too has its teleology, its "blessed labor," as Mandelstam called it. Precisely because a poem is a complete thought-in-action--a still mirror of the moving world, like Eliot's Chinese vase in Four Quartets--its work is fulfilled in the sphere of interpretation. (This is the unique and substantial autonomy of the poem, which justifies itself, as no apprenticeship in any of the poetic subcultures ultimately can. There is no diploma for poetry.) The action of the poem is to spur understanding--to solve the riddle of the poem, and to see the world, suddenly, as a riddle (or a nursery-rhyme); remembering that the puzzles that absorb us most are those drawn from the deepest springs of experience. There is no boundary line between the riddle of a poem (the prose shell of mimesis and the kernel of meanings) and the translinguistic source of human culture: religious awe, and its expression in augury and divination. Following Vico, one could say that the cosmopolitanism of literary translation is the ricorso, on a new plane, of the primordial unity of the human race--founded on the first, "common" sense of human limits in the face of cosmic order.
2. [Here Comes Atlantis]
Just DO it. But do it--with what? What is language, after all? Millennial summings-up will have to confront this question. We in these States (as Whitman used to say) are entering the pre-millennial year of 1998: the 100th anniversary of the beginning of U.S. world hegemony (the Spanish-American War), as well as the definitive end of the conquest of the internal continent. The Rome of the 20th century is now 100 years old. Hegemony, in the old sense, is over. Fourth of July this year and next might be a contemplative occasion: we are done with conquering the present--now we might reflect on the past, look toward the future.
Contemplation is a requirement for poetry, because language is a process involving a non-linear time dimension. Language--each individual word--is a process; a poem is a correlation of these processes. A word might be likened to a circle or knot in a woven pattern. As the reader or listener approaches, enters the circle of the word, all the cognitive and affective and trans-historical (etymological) meanings come into play. These meanings gather strength and force as the reader draws closer, engages the word; the word becomes enflamed, literally on fire, with these meanings and the image or images set off like sparks from them; and then the reader closes the circle where it began, where the word links onto its syntactical allies and forebears in the airborne architecture of the sentence. All the labor of human consciousness is instilled into the word--and all this is drawn into play by the reader. The poet delves back to a rhythmic-philological source. Ferdinand Saussure, in his unpublished researches and musings on the phonological-anagrammatic underpinnings--rhythmic frameworks--of ancient Latin poetry, or Hart Crane, in his search for the single mystic Word out of which the poem flows--were thematizing in parallel fashion that inner microstructure, Mandelstam's "frightening density"--the poetic enactment--presentation--pleroma of language.
Thus poetry--the distillation and liberation of language into a free, dramatized architecture--uplifts a persistent, ambiguous mirror to the historical drama played out--acted out--under the aegis of that same language. The horizontal contiguity of "prose" reality is crossed with the vertical pivot of symbolic meaning; this is the weaver's knot for each maze-tapestry. And the word is not only clothed with meaning but blooded with history: our history, our language. The fact that it is ours does not sanction its isolation from the other languages; in fact, the reverse is true. The history of a word is the history of translation, grafting, and cross-fertilization. The multiplicity of tongues is not only the curse of Babel; it is also the advent of a Pentecost. Etymological cross-fertilization is the seedbed of mutual understanding; and mutual understanding is eternal life. Eternal life--humane values and soul journey, undergirding the prose metonymy of politics, economics, nationality, history. This, in fact, characterizes the ontology of poetry and the true calling of the poet: to journey through the time-sense of the word to the human world-hearth--that universal civil society which, according to Giambattista Vico, was intuited (via mankind's "common sense" of justice) from the very beginning, as a manifestation of "divine providence" (cf. Vico, Scienza Nuova). The essence of the poetic process imitates the work of the interpretive intelligence (intelligence: from the Greek root "to gather, collect"). The riddle of ordinary four-dimensional actuality is mirrored in poetry's implicit parable-language. Our very American byzantine iconoclasts, the Language Poets, have struck ore in their discovery of untapped creative depths hidden in the etymologies of isolated words; but etymology is sterile without the correlation of prose image and poetic meaning. Another path is possible: to swim into the parabolic, time-silvered Black Sea of the word--where the eternal "gold coins of humanism" [Mandlestam] ring out, where icons of the "human form divine" [Blake] still radiate, and where the poet's heroic exploit--to redeem the time--still beckons: like Hart Crane's Atlantis.
I once defined poetry briefly as: a harmony of thought, brought to equivalent expression in language. The harmony of "Atlantis" is always mysteriously "at hand"--in the anonymous, derelict sprawl of your own backyard; in your lonesome, eyes-open walk through the neighborhood (through the phantom circlings, the ambulatory mergings of nature and artifice); in the handmade, homemade theater space erected briefly on a desolate stretch of abandoned summer fairground. There is no substitute for experience: our faulty, yearning words are born there and return there.
* John E. Smith, America's Philosophical Vision. University of Chicago Press, 1992, page 19.
Millennial Grain Elevator (II) : An Essay with Illustrations
Millennium. Portentous Latin word, rolling around on its grave double M. The clock draws toward midnight. The tragic performance steps toward its dénouement. Everything grows simplified, clarified, coordinated...is this The End? Will the Messiah appear? Will Ulysses return to his native hearth, aswarm with heedless suitors? Is this Judgement Day? Apocalypse? The Advent of a Golden Age--that fabled "M"--that 1000-year Reign?
One thing we know for certain: mankind's shared counting of the days--our span of years, our mutual history--set ticking back in the mist of the Dark Ages by the ancient Church from the birthday of the Son of God--is drawing toward a major round number. If there is an invisible, angelic realm, then the angels must be sharing the portent of this hour with their fleshbound kin. Earthly and heavenly glide toward a point of conjunction. Or will this be another peripeteia in some divine comedy? Is God laughing in the clouds? According to certain sub-sub-librarians, Apocalypse might just hinge on a very earthbound form of numbering: our computer systems, which now manage the entire spectrum of public records, from the Defense Department to Social Security to the Internal Revenue Service, are not programmed to deal with the approaching switch from 1999 to 2000, from 1 to 2. Our multidimensional virtual Babel may collapse of its own binary weight.
The looming millennium is an enigma. For the faithful, the question is: how shall we be changed? For the curious, the same question in an inverse mirror: how will this great round number change the myths themselves? We could expend whole volumes of thought on these profundities and their ramifications. But we shall let the Millennium float there, on high, in our thoughts, like a black sun, while we move on to other matters.
At the roots of Western culture, at the roots of our millennial counting system, lies a great Analogy. "And God made Man, in his own image and likeness." God looks in his mirror, and sees Man. Man is the mirror of God, set gleaming in the midst of the round whole of the rest of the divine work. The capstone of the creation is the silvery water of the jealous God's divine vanity...and pride, and power, and glory, and abasement. Man is the mirror of God. The supreme icons gazing down from the domes in Byzantium and Ravenna and Kiev are only the elegant demonstratio of this ur-equation at the heart of our culture. And how does Man complete the demonstration, capping the capstone itself? He imitates God in action: he makes a mirror. Art is the mirror of a mirror, harmonizing the One and the Many; in one pleasing, proportionate verisimilitude, glorifying the unity-in-variety of the universe.
But a mirror within a mirror...we know what results. Already the wing of madness, vertigo, raises the hair on our necks. Look, there's vain Narcissus, stunned over his pool. The mirror of a mirror of a mirror...infinity become a vortex, smaller and smaller toward the vanishing point, toward endlessness, extinction, self-destruction. Self-consciousness, gazing in the mirror, is its own alien. Thus we begin to recognize curved space; to understand how, within a mirror, a thing might not be equal to itself. Our imago Dei is no longer a simple equation. In fact, it begins to resemble the theogony of Philo the Alexandrian: the Logos, the Word, the mirror of God's Wisdom, is like a discontinuous, incommensurate, two-edged sword, at the center of reality but divided from it and dividing it--the very discontinuity and paradoxicality of the Logos being the property which maintains the Heraclitean antinomies of creation (night, day; heaven, earth; good, evil)--upholding the cosmos by means of division (dividing, sharing).
The icon itself is a double thing, a paradox. On the one hand, a divine window, leading the worshipper to the inward realms of God. On the other, an idol--a dead end, a wilted flower, a despotic Symbol, a tyrannous Authority, planted there on high to bring the ant-like congregation to its collective knee. The wars of iconophilia and iconoclasm were generated by this inherent doubleness. Moreover, even doubleness is doubled. For within the negative connotations of the icon lies another dimension. That very deadness represents Christ's own askesis, the willing sacrificial death, the descent into abjectivity, the fate of the Cross: to become a thing.
This paradoxical doubleness is part of the fascination, charisma, and authority of the work of art. Needless to say, poetry--the art of the Word--has absorbed these currents and re-directed them. Dante's "sacred poem," the Divina Commedia, "with roots in both heaven and earth", has been the prime Western example. American poets--from Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson to Eliot, Crane and Plath--have inherited, in varying degrees of light and dark, that ethos: the poem as sacrificial bread, as the Flesh made Word; the poet as the Word's suffering servant. But the most powerful stream of this tradition flowed directly from Byzantium into the Eastern Orthodox Church, and thence into confrontation with its evil twin and antithesis, the mirrored spiderweb of Stalin. Russian poets, Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Brodsky in particular, have made the iconic sacrifice and the sacred freedom of the Word-as-such a conscious theme in their work. Poetry is the cosmic bread of life, the flowering of the Logos. And yet...just as the philosophy of the icon is not reducible to a simple equation, neither is this Russian logo-poetics a simple expression of pietism or hagiography. The monochrome reduction of these analogies has been the work, not of the poets, but of their commentators, of scholars pursuing summaries rather than complexity.
One of Mandelstam's sources in the development of his poetics was the brilliant semiotic theory of the Ukrainian philologist Aleksandr Potebnia. Potebnia differentiated his view of poetic language both from the 19th century and from the later work of the Russian Formalist school, with his insistence on a tripartite structure: the material or vocal aspect of the word, the particular referent or references to which it attaches itself, and (most important) the "inner form" or "inner image" of the word. This inner form was virtually equated with the etymological aspect of the word, in which resides the verbal potential for expression. For Potebnia, this potential always exceeds any specific referent. It is this aspect of dynamic, unrestricted possibility which gives poetry its peculiar vitality.*
Mandelstam's own vision of the poetic word is always double, or multifaceted. He builds on Potebnia's concept of the "inner form"--the word is "Psyche," unlimited by denotative necessity; yet in his great essay Conversation About Dante, the emphasis is not on the word-as-such but the impulse beneath (or before) the word, the poetic impulse. The word is a kind of free instrumentation, almost arbitrary, yet filled with a dynamic metamorphic capacity; poetic, inasmuch as it is capable of transformation into something else. But this transformation is guided by the "baton" of the impulse--the dominant motive force, the telos of the work. The word-as-such is not an object of blind worship or a dead-end idol; its essence is, of course, that of a sign--pointing elsewhere; the word is a servant of larger structures of coherence. Thus Mandelstam defined poetry, not as a thing, but an ethos, an impulse: "poetry is--the poet's sense of inner rightness." Here Mandelstam collaborates once again with his forerunner. At the conclusion of the Divina Commedia, two parallel lines--the poet-servant and the servant-word--intersect in Dante's image of Man facing the ultimate mystery of God: in the babbling of an infant.
The Millennium, a Western version of shared time-measurement, has occasioned these meditations on a particular path back to the cultural roots of Western art. God, Man, and Art are facets in a curved funhouse mirror, stretching to infinity's horizon-line or vanishing point. Three facets, one mirror. If language is the man-made mirror of the cosmos, and poetry is the inner music of language, and music is the universal language of mankind...if all these mighty "ifs" are real, then we have joined hands in a global circle. A human circle (or is it just a hall of mirrors?). And if the word provides the instruments, and the amalgamating artistic spirit provides the impulse, then translation is the catalyst for a world of poetry. We are implying, then, a sort of Pentecost: when tongues of fire descended on the heads of the apostles, and suddenly they all understood each other's languages. I don't know about you (dear, patient reader)...but I think that's millennial enough for me.
* For an excellent summary of Potebnia's linguistic approach, see: John Fizer, Alexander A. Potebnja's Psycholinguistic Theory of Literature : A Metacritical Inquiry. Harvard Ukrainian Institute (distributed by Harvard University Press), 1986.
Drydock, BilbaoThe Guggenheim Bilbao has tightened security after the E.T.A. action this week, when three militants dressed as gardeners tried to install 12 remote-controlled rocket-propelled grenades in a large flower-covered sculpture called "Puppy" by Jeff Koons. When the policeman on guard spotted false plates on the delivery van...
--NY Times, 10.19.97
In the morning, in Bilbao, doves, pigeons.
Alight below dockyard streets--a manifesto,
agile, winged--and heaven suddenly burgeons
with torn birchbark--a hidden canoe flotilla
crashes onshore--one lucky Titanic
notches the underbark in two by St. Nick
or some other divisive and Jesuitic
Clickety-clack goes the remote control.
José Maria dies, on an empty stomach.
Twelve grenades in Granada for one soul,
twelve sisters in Bilbao, one heartache,
twelve precincts in Bilbao draw their crowds,
and twelve are the patriarchs who serenade
José Maria in a fishnet shroud. Toward
continuous heaven, from a clever esplanade.
Quietly, tender doves darken the evening.
Anguish and acumen, the school of art.
And in the Iron Age, they were sharpening
golden arrowheads to bombard the fort
while we waited for the coming Viking ships,
and the priest (hefting a sceptered talisman)
warded off every bloody kin-stained ellipse, the
gaudy shoreline basking under a black sun.
Melchizedek skims out of his little town
like an alien, his nets full of bread and wine.
His cargo of Salem shells bivalves each frown,
each smile--and these slippery octaves of mine
will never stand still for the steady current
or finger-count mothballed longboats for the burial.
José Maria's lips are silent, pregnant, while
geese honk into lines--a TV aerial-serial.
Noon circles again XXXXXXXXXX XXXXX
like a bird from heaven or fish out of water.
Throw Pushkin the cat that aluminum toy,
will you? (Or the newspaper--it doesn't matter.)
Fashion a dive bomber from a garbage scow,
or deus ex machina from pseudo-Chinaman;
Charlie Chaplin's gonna win somehow--the
grand finale--a rainbow trout in the can.
Anonymous one between Joseph and Mary,
Old Lightnin's gypsy knucklebone castaway,
Jaybird's T-bird microcosmic mercy seat
(afloat between Spanish dawn, Byzantine twilight)
or brooding clay calendar lifted to the bare height
of scalding stars. And scent of grey sabbath lakefry
swirls, a silver steam...is gone. So long, goodby!
Beginning, the eleventh hour, out of hell.
Tall Titans cast their nets toward Babylon
and the race is on, the top spinning in a skull
of grinning fishbones scribbling clay-colored
serpents burnished with molten iron rods.
Ting, tong, the pianos ripple down the railroad
toward your dove-haunted Paradise of dirtclods,
sun-dog memories, the taste of solitude;
and Melchizedek runs in your direction
without turning, his eyes dribbling anew,
his triplets a whirlpool of Salem salami-
salmon--a narrowing prism (red-green-blue)
swims now, out of the double riverbed of time,
a sheer, supreme plow, silvered with lightning
and the V-neck sweat of Cain, his crime a T-
stained, moistened paperback, with X-ray binding.
A rounded silver lozenge toward the end. A
newborn Janus buckle, magic amulet
to teach odd willows even how to bend or
spill crafty fractal hinges into the air. Forget
what you have learned. This earth, forged
in eightfold bands of tintinnabulation.
Whisper it back to me, tide, surging
beneath a moon's dispassionate reflection.
Toward me...José, slipping on the iron walkway.
Vast spaces, an ark, a looming silhouette
shadowing neighborhood shadows, following, sly--
you, me--conspirators in a tacking pivot-rivet.
Colors leach the daylight, night carries them off,
and we move toward the bowl of bedtime stories
in our pajamas. The tub's in the wharf, a
fishfly birdbath full of smiling images.
A name in the grandstands turns you inside out,
a word can shift a wavering step homeward,
praise follows women, gods, rainbow trout,
everything; now I shall pour my fragrant nard
across the brow of a certain security guard.
The ship sets sail, the millennium's unplanned,
before daylight, the shipyard swivels toward
the East. And suddenly her wings expand.
Halloweeni.m. Alexander KazhdanEarlier icons and frescoes were more realistic, Mrs. Trivella said, but gradually and deliberately they were made flatter and the figures became disembodied. The lack of perspective is not a matter of naivete, but to make the image go outward to the viewer.
--NY Times, 10.27.97Her mother was the victim of a strangely unsolved murder. Erbanov was purged, and therefore his image was deleted from subsequent versions of a photograph showing a little girl hugging the murderer of her father.
--NY Times, 10.27.97
If, when Halloween arrives, and the yellow
leaves drift like pawns in an iron chessgame
from the black trunks; when spooky Salem
dolls up New England hollowness for show, and
you lose your way, down seven-gabled streets
under lead-gray clouds of useful amnesia;
if you walk along with me, losing your way
in a maelstrom or cup of frozen frost--
maybe then you'll recognize yourself in
those leaden figurines for casting fortunes
lifted from a box on the bottom shelf
labelled "genealogy" (moldy cartons
scribbled with indecipherable directions)--the
leaves falling down like last year's masks,
slowly, marking time for Everyman
on earth, not heaven. The earth asks
for nothing but this--your face.
And when you showed me the ornamental
iron college gate, I saw through the interstices
we were betrothed there (beyond the pale);
you showed me Providence, like a corsage or
cortege of purged and airbrushed Old Believers
or Athos icon of Old Bolsheviks--coached
in a petrified noose of saturnine verse.
While windowframe holds pussy willow
a little earlier, and ruddy light lingers
strangely, after midnight sun goes below;
and there is a whispering of whispers
and mounting of mountains in Salonika;
there is a floating image of an image floated
tied-up (poking through the stolen camera-
shot of a carved-up stool-pigeon, devoted
to his mother, up there, in the dome)...and
there is a clutter of mundane confusions
you'll never sort out. Killer and victim
sewn into parallel haunted eleisons
on high. Ruler-fooler and ruler-fooled
squared in a ferrous material (some
incredible crimson conundrum doubled
upside-down deep Kremlin-red--very humble).
And hungry Time will eat his own children
and the Sultan marry the daughter of the Czar
and Viking ships drift out into forbidden
precincts on the spines of slave-carpenters
--thus it is written, in the Book of Iron.
Until the anonymous winnower climbs into his car
and the palace becomes a pumpkin once more
and the griffin marries the androgynous one
and the mellow apple tree sheds its fruit at last
and the ring is polished on the tooth of a scribe
and the splinter is dragged out of the palace
granary (infant scion of a long-sought tribe).
Until then, I will walk the autumn puddingstone
where maple and oak leaves make their final
moves. Where love still augurs my saturnine
planet with grave rings of light, centripetal.
The icon is a little wooden ship, an Egyptian bark of the Dead, an Ark of the Covenant, bodying forth the divine by analogy and proportion. The poem is a verbal icon. The notes to the poem, on the other hand, are a castaway splinter, a driftwood chip off the old block. But in the midst of these obscure immensities and dense vortices, a stray spar is perhaps not to be disregarded by those who hope to set foot on dry land once more.
This poem is a sort of Pindaric ode in praise of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by architect Frank Gehry. The astonishing form of the building, its erection in a relatively obscure Basque industrial seaport, and Mr. Gehry's sustained obsession with fish, all contributed to the epiphanic tone of this work, in which I sought to combine different, contrasting elements or thematic levels by means of a voice which is "hard to place."
Stanza 1, line 1: "...doves, pigeons." See Genesis 15: 8 And [Abram] said, Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it? 9 And he said unto him, Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. 10 And he took unto him all of these, and he divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against the other: but the birds divided he not.
St. 1, l. 4: "--a hidden canoe flotilla." If you tear a section of birchbark from the trunk of the tree, you will discover the underbark displays entire fleets of tiny canoe-like indentations. (But don't try this yourself - you'll only hurt the tree.)
St. 2, l. 2: José Maria is the name of the police officer killed while apprehending a group of extremists who were planting grenades at the entrance of the museum with the aim of disrupting the official opening ceremony.
St. 4, l. 1: Melchizedek, "King of Salem," mysterious figure who appears out of nowhere in the Book of Genesis to welcome Abram and his tribe into the land of Canaan.
St. 4, l. 8: Dante sometimes characterized inferior poets as "geese."
St. 5, l. 3: "that aluminum toy." The Titans lured the child-god Dionysius to his sacrificial death by means of his favorite toys.
St. 6, l. 6: "sabbath lakefry." In the Gospel of John, after his Resurrection, Jesus offers his disciples some fried fish.
dedication: Alexander Kazhdan, a native of Moscow, emigrated to the West under persecution. He became one of the world's leading scholars of Byzantine history, and edited the Oxford Encyclopedia of Byzantium. He died last year (1997) on May 29th--very appropriately (if any death can be appropriate), since on that date, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, and the 1000-year Byzantine Empire came to an end.
St. 2, l. 2: "those leaden figurines." See Eugenio Montale's great poem, "Carnevale di Gerti". Such figurines were associated with the New Year; it was adolescent divination of this kind which precipitated the village crisis culminating in the Salem witch trials. Lead is the metal of Saturn, the god of both melancholy and the promise of a reborn golden age.
St. 2, l. 4: "genealogy." I happened to be in Salem one Halloween, doing (non-genealogical) research at the Essex Institute there, and discovered to my intense surprise (and chagrin) that my own family had been deeply involved in the Salem witchcraft upheavals of the 1690's.
St. 3, l. 5: "you showed me Providence." The Muscovite poet Marina Tsvetaeva "presented" Moscow to the Petersburg poet Osip Mandelstam as a kind of love-offering and token of professional respect.
St. 4, l. 5: "mounting of mountains in Salonika." An unprecedented collection of rare Byzantine artwork from the Mt. Athos monasteries is presently on display in a unique exhibit in Salonika, which replicates the mountain itself.
St. 4, l. 8: "carved-up stool-pigeon." This section conflates the two major victims of a crime and cover-up which took place in Salonika in the late 40's, at the onset of the Cold War. A local journalist named Staktopoulis was allegedly framed for the murder of George Polk, a famous American radio journalist, in a murky plot which involved corrupt politicians and the intelligence services of England and the U.S.
St. 7, l. 3-4: "and the splinter is dragged out of the palace / granary." The aim of this poem is to evoke the wheel of Time. In his essay "Flight from Byzantium," Joseph Brodsky contrasts the hellenistic (and Mandelstamian) sense of cyclic-mythic time (and domestic, earthly joy), with the Judeo-Roman-Christian emphasis on time's linearity -- the single-minded drive for progress which paradoxically leads to tyranny and decay. Yet I wonder, if the ages were measured with a longer yardstick, whether this opposition of linear and cyclical, Hellenism and Christianity, would continue to stand. The Hebrew prophets refer to the Messianic hope as "new shoots flowering from an old stump"; and when I stretch my surmise to the uttermost, I can barely make out another wheel--like the wheel of Ezekiel--far off in time's abyss. I see the People of the Book have become a splinter from time's depths, and the message they carry so far is a manifestation from the future. The splinter from the stump is the scion of the long-sought tribe that is Mankind; the voice of the Lord is shrouded in the whirlwind of a mighty feedback loop.
© Mudlark 1998
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