Monthly Archives: December 2011
Seen objectively, by a man at the window
We do not seem to look like much;
A woman and a man on a red leather couch,
Coke bottles everywhere and a filthy throw,
Also red, already unraveling, wound round
Our legs, binding us like threads of blood.
You are short, fair, very stocky, with a face
Which swerves between nobility and petulance.
I am long and dark with matted hair,
Long, braided, my head culminating in nose,
With an expression of thought, easily mistaken,
Because of my gender, for the more banal sort of worry.
This is what the observer, not
Objective, and lacking eyes,
Could not comprehend. As I fritter
The hours on keyboarded words
And you run one thick hand
Down the length of my thigh, accompanied
By blaring television, we are in the throes
Of deep creation; a task in which two
Are occupied though only one acts.
You hold the rope as I delve down,
Leaving the rooms of our close flat,
A cord round my waist,
A taut crimson thread; I plunge
To that river where the water is strong
Enough to stop my bodies breathing,
The taste so sweet it halts my heart.
You brace me, an anchor, who bolts
Me to this visible earth, while I shunt
To the places that foxes know of, where bodies
Stiffen, and the dead shades rise
To take their fill from Hecate’s ewer,
Avoiding the face of the goddess who smiles,
Trying not to identify the taste, the rich salt
Flavors mingled there in her brimming bowl.
You enable me to go so much deeper
Than I would otherwise dare travel, and your form
Highlights your function, your incredible force.
And when I have the gift,
The vivid, longed for treasure, held firm
In my hands, I nod my head in thanks
To the goddess, tugging at the binding flax,
And it is the strength of both our arms
Which helps me rise to garish surface.
And no, you are not purpose,
No, you are not cause, without you,
I would still plunge. I must;
I did it before I met you, and I shall do
When you have gone. Though once you’ve made that passing,
You shall not go alone. I shall be your psychopomp,
Twining out my golden thread, tied firmly
To the door jamb.
Now, when I rise up, gasping beside you,
Your hands in my hair, holding me up
By the back of my throat, know my love,
That we are mythic; the bride of Orpheus,
The musician himself, sitting on a dead
Cow sofa with their genders reversed.
Feed on that knowledge, when the world
Leaves you hungry, consume it in your valorous heart.
It is the unseen splendor of our love.
Still Life, With Mirror
(After Joel-Peter Witkin)
I saw something awful today:
a severed foot,
with five steel nails,
positioned in front
of a silvered piece of glass.
I could not see the blood,
it was a corpse-piece,
there was nothing to flow,
but I could watch the ragged muscle
end, the place where the bone emerged,
white-grey, from the flaccid base,
and I was disturbed. It was, at first,
almost like looking at an
arrangement of flowers,
odd, hard blossoms
from an earth-going vase.
I could tell that it was human,
past tense. And was
it the transformation
that cut off my breath?
The sudden shift from
appendage to ornament?
Or was it the knowledge
that this is something death
could be: no chorus, no reunion
of voices, but simply, through the act
of dissolution, becoming something,
to suck away
the sacred breath.
‘Did you know, Mina, that The Red Lion is the only pub in the Empire built within one of our Neolithic circles of stone? No coincidence then that the spiritualists believe it to be the most haunted.’
Mina smiles at her father, taking a foamy, sharp-flavored sip from her chilled glass of cider. ‘I had better set Elly to watch tonight in our room. Though I do believe we shall have more difficulty with rats than apparitions of the past.’
The glass is not too clean but the beverage is good, crisp, just a hint of sour and over-ripe sweetness. Just right for June, it soothes her throat. The carriage court behind her is a flurry of bustle. Her father’s men from Oxford are directing the servants, mostly locals, squat men with bull faces and the braces of farmers. Denim trousers rolled above thick oiled boots, hands horn hard from working, father to father, back in a line that leads, like the sea, to the stones. In all this rush, Mina knows that she and Elly are the only female non-locals, and Elly is upstairs civilizing their rooms.
Mina knows that her father is worried about the equipment, the picks and the brushes, sifters and trays. His roll top writing desk that he dragged to India and back on the spines of his coolies. The three arc sodium lamps for night digs, the same kind that draws crowds at the end of season in Bristol, though they have eight. They are set to ignite the fields with sunlight at midnight, expensive and easily broken and the petroleum generator is, at best, chancy. Sir Winston has a right to be worried. Mina knows enough to let him talk.
‘Rats in the rafters,’ Her father says, ‘at home in the thatch. Across the street a village church with windows from the time of the conqueror, and all around us countless precious archeological sites, standing stones set guard by people we emerged from but do not yet understand, being torn down by farmers to line their pig biers.’ his moustache droops above his mouth, ‘it makes me bitter.’
Mina reaches across the rough courtyard table, taking the old loose fleshed hand. ‘We shall work fast, to preserve and know them. The treasures of our ancestors shall not vanish entirely into the past.’
Winston is not listening. His sun brown face is looking across the road at the church, small, cut in such a way that it looks grown, an elk tooth rising from a healthy gum. It has never been disused, the constant infusion of prayers has kept it young. His thumb traces out the taut white knuckles of his daughter, its path unhampered by the presence of rings. He is glad to have her with him. He does not like to share.
‘No, not from the time of the conquest. It is a little later. But were I a man who took to chancing, I would lay down my sovereigns that the place where it stands has always held a church. As long as there were men.’ he swigs his large ale, golden and flecked, it forfeits the tongue and moves down the throat. ‘The men who stood these stones, the men we seek, probably welcomed in the solstice there.’
Musing now, his voice drops, he is not speaking to her. ‘We do not give up our holy places, though we change the names.’ his eyes brighten, blue glass, glistening, ‘But no, I should not blaspheme. Excuse me, darling, but I must see to the men. If they shatter a bulb I shall take payment in hide. And not from the horses.’
Mina watches him departing with a look of amusement not usually seen on the face of old spinster women. It is the mischief loving puck-smirk of a little wayward girl. Her father, brash of speech, is as gentle as always. He looks the man whose arm he holds in the eye, makes a small joke to remind him that this is delicate equipment he is unloading and not feed for the horse. The Wiltshire man laughs loudly, nods, tugs on his cap. The horse beside him fagged out and blowing from the long trek from Swindon station. The local gently pets its long neck.
Sir Winston returns, looking sprightly and boyish, as some men do over seventy. He groans and takes his seat on the bench. ‘Well that’s that, dearest, the last of the baggage. Have you your notebooks?’
‘Elly is unloading them. I’ve plenty of leads for my pencil.’
‘Excellent, truly excellent. Let’s get some supper, some rest if we can. I expect I shall not. Tomorrow we dig.’
He swallows, without tasting, the dregs of his cask ale. The barmen had labored on the recipe that made it for the last thirty years, blending the taste so that it hovered gently between vanilla and honey, and was anxious that it pleased the palate of the Lord. He took the gentleman’s vapid nod-and-smile as well worth it praise. Mina has finished her small ladies cider while her father gruffly talks to the people he calls his English Coolies. He tells her, ‘They’re the same all over, dearest; you miss nothing by remaining home.’
He takes her hand, helps her to rise. She would never admit it, but Mina is looking forward immensely to forfeiting her corsets tomorrow. It would be walking skirts from here on out, and thank the Lord Most High.
The inn is tall, two storied, lime painted so white that it’s blinding. The door is wide and low, the rooms organ-like, wood paneled, dark. If the pub is a lion, this is its throat. As they cross over the threshold, minding the dark silk of her traveling skirt, keeping the hated tatty lace free from catching on the lintel, Mina thinks, if there was always a church here, or something like it, an indoor place to mimic the cause of the stones, you can bet there was also a pub. Maybe it was here, where we stand now at the brass of the bar. Some prehistoric gathering place where the other side of the spirit was watered. That is what I would know. There are so many unmapped rooms in this world that I would love to explore.
And with that thought, as though summoned, the slat-sided barmaid leads them to their seat by the fire grate, cold this time of year. Father and daughter are seated at a table that had stood there from the time of Elizabeth. They bow their heads in a prayer both brief and heartfelt, and afterwards the two visiting relations set to their soup, excitedly waiting for their work on the morrow.
Cold marble beneath bare feet,
The yew carved bow is fit to my hand,
And the moon, myself, bares its crescent
At my forehead. At my heels run my dogs,
Though you mortals would not so call them.
Reynard the red trails her brush at calf level,
My trickster vixen. Nix, her large sister,
Bares her teeth at my thigh, dark pelt of the timber wolf
Shedding on the floor. All of us are out
Of our element; the only prey here was hewn from the stone.
There in the corner, behind a mock Doric column,
A roman copy of Greek original; the man
Who would have been my lover, the luckless one,
Meaning the fated, who saw me naked at my bathing,
Bound in the skin of a hind. He is, at this moment,
Perpetually devoured by his own hounds,
Whose noses I dazzled, disguising his scent.
It is not a good copy, the perspective is off,
And the man who carved it failed to sheath
The marks of his chisel. He did not bother
To pigment the stone. I remember that boy,
The intruder, he was young, with lovely deep eyes.
Had he not worshiped Priapus beneath his jerkin
He would have lived.
Reynard noses at a hole in the Baseboard,
Elegantly carved, scenting the fear stench
Of tired mouse. She digs with her black forepaws
Scratching the paint. Nix struggles to maintain the dignity
Befitting a guardian of dreams while scrabbling on tile.
It is well the next room is floored over with wood.
I am more myself here, touching a surface
That lived, once, even as long ago as this pine
That has been so abused. I am scenting
Something, deep, earthy, the rich tang of blood
Like the birth of a new blade on altar of stone.
I grip my bow, my quivering arrows, Reynard
Wears my knife on a thong round her neck,
Nix wears my sword, which cuts from both ends.
Old gods hang from all the corners, forgotten
And disrobed. Ishtar mounted frieze bound,
Halted at her dancing, a weaving of Ixtab
Covers a window. Her square headed body,
Curled fetal, breasts leaking, hangs by the noose
Of her own weaving, undying, the skill of her rope.
The shadows are everywhere, lovely, forgotten,
My eyeshift catches the body of a milk faced woman,
Shielding a child. Her toenails are claws beneath a blue robe.
But that scent draws me on, tantalizing, ever further
Through this long room, dark as a cave.
In the end I find her, wedged in her niche,
The earliest pattern of our hunting set,
The Neolithic goddess whose body is a cave.
She was the first mortal intimation, immortality
Roughly carved. The head is round, unfeatured,
It looks as though it were wound round
With flax rope. The breasts are large, deeply swollen,
Though these dugs never let spill a drop.
Though the slit belly of the infant spills blood at her feet.
This is a goddess of eating, a glance at her belly
Is enough to know that she is the consummation,
Not the giver of gifts. Her hands are hints,
Rudimentary fingers. She must be fed.
And she has been. I can see the source at last.
She-wolf and vixen cower at heel, pressing
Dank bodies against my white feet, the red and the black.
Reynard lets spill a little hot urine, the final
Expulsion of one newly dead, inadequate
For a creature still breathing.
This goddess is darkness,
And I am the light.
I look at the blood that pools round her hooves,
My nostrils flaring with hunger which she would know, though
Our appetites are similar, we are far from the same.
She was the first, I am not last,
I feel the temptation of all things half-living
For the food of the dead.
Destroy her or join her, these are my options,
Or so she dares tell me from her nest of rope.
I can sense a smile, hidden, invisible, sharp toothed,
She watches my hands. I draw an arrow, raise my bow,
With trembling arms, draw tight the strand.
Knowing I could slay her, knowing her weakness,
I let the untried arrow drop.
I too am a god of ages, a later step made
On the truth leading path. It does not do
To erase our antecedents. They are our roots.
We are the boughs which lead to our crown.
In the end there will be blossoms.
Spring come at last, when Persephone rises,
Fruiting for winter. It is the time for new gods,
Or redressing the old ones.
Unwedging them, or leaving them, niche bound
To walk this latest earth, whatever fields
And forest man leaves remain in this brutal, this reasoning age.
I can take my food from other sources,
Blood is not the only stream.
My wolf and my vixen rise when I call them,
Coming to heel, their faces in grins. I shall feed
Them fRom the forest, hare and hind at my command,
I give my back to the goddess, the unnamed kernel
I eat from my root. Let her have her place
In darkness. Let me have mine.
Oh mortals, do well and remember, gods rise
And decline. We never relent. Hold this
To your heart; you shall need us again,
We are your root and the source of your fruiting.
Without us there is only death.
Nathaniel Hawthorne saw himself as a type of priest, I think, as all people of our calling do. I think I’ve figured out why. He was a writer of the cusp time, the time when the novel was moving from literary freak (and a badly regarded, highly criticized genre, much like horror is now, though it serves a purgative purpose, like the goat-songs of the Greeks) into a ‘Respectable’ form that might be regarded as what it was becoming, which was Art.
Funny thing about the letter ‘A’, eh? As hawthorn pointed out himself, the symbol stands for many things, and Artists are creatures of the same shadows that religion dwells under for the ‘rational’ mind. A little on the edge, dangerous. Rather like Adultery in puritan times, no matter the cause. And both Hester and Dimmesdale become Artists, of a kind.
The woman through embroidery which hawthorn points out was the ‘singular outlet for her great passion’ and in the sermons of the man, which we never hear within the text, though we see the effects of his suffering on the parishioners, the painful refinement and clarification of his soul. And then there is Pearl, who only becomes fully herself, and fully human, when the dark truth is brought out into the light.
I loved the way he let the reader watch how God moves beneath the visible surface of the world, using all the emotions which we think foul, including the hatred of the appropriately named Chillsworth, to beautify the world. Even though that beauty came at great cost to the characters themselves.
But even after this analysis, something was bothering me. Hawthorne wanted to be an imagist/symbolist writer, but because he was writing when he did, when novels were considered a little above pornography and even Dickens was thought of with a bit of a grudge (though he tore down that veil a bit) Hawthorne made himself over-focus on cool, ‘rational’ discourse within the text. Those long, sardonic passages about the morals of the time, those justifications which we do not need since the puritans he was describing were not the ‘real’ things but symbols, more real than any of the men who lived. They were the puritans inhabiting not the so-called ‘real world’ but the enclosed and darkened forest of his mind.
In order to be published he had to make his story conform to the morality of the time, which likes our own, is not God’s morality, or the morality of Art, but the comfortable, easy yoke of convention; easily offended, difficult to satisfy, unreal in any art confirming way but terrible (to the artist) when crossed. But this bowing to convention fades in those scenes where he let the symbols stand as things themselves, which is what they always are if we follow Plato and Lewis, hell even Paracelsus, and Christ in his parables; the scenes in the forest, that wonderful night time firestorm prolepsis when the family is united on the scaffolding at night foreshadowing the end, then the writing blazes and is awesome in its depth.
And in the end those are the things from the text which survive. The beating heart, the real blood, the pain which, once transcended, transforms itself to art.