The Poetry of Alchemy, Distillation, Transmutation and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33

I do love my booze, but even beyond the literal satisfaction of imbibing spirits, distillation offers a wonderful metaphor. You take a thing that you really really like, put it into an apparatus, subject it to fire, force its volatility, and are rewarded with a high concentration of the thing you liked about the thing you like. In other words, you make the thing you like more like the thing you liked about that thing. Get it? No? Ok, I’ll try again, but first let’s drink to our health…

Ah, that’s better.

It’s like this: writers who are worth their salt know that the writing itself is fine and/or painful, but it’s the edit–the distillation –into high proof prose or poetry that knocks socks off.

Writing–the putting words on paper or device–is like dropping berries in a bucket–fermentation will happen and you will get something mildly alcoholic. You can thank the yeast fairies for that. Likewise, you can thank the human brain for the stories and images that drop into the buckets of our imagination. But it is the work of the writer to distill the fermented mash into a strong-ass spirit.

In Proof, a delightfully geek-inducing book on the science of booze, Adam Rogers writes, “Distillation tells us that having less of something can make it more potent. It is concentration. It is focus.”

While fermentation is natural and will happen with or without us, distillation is a human invention, a technology. As Rogers puts it, “Distillation takes intelligence and will. To distill, literally or metaphorically, requires the hubris to believe you can change the world.”

And who better to turn to for advice about the hubris of changing your world than the very lunatics who, if they did not ever hit upon the philosopher’s stone, did invent and perfect distillation–the alchemists.

Though alcohol was not the first thing to come out of their alembics, we must thank the long and secretive contemplation of transmutation for the eventual revelation of distillation. The alchemists figured out how to turn wine–ironically perhaps?–into water, specifically aqua vitae from which developed such delightful “waters of life” as eau de vie (French), akvavit (Scandinavian) and whisky (from Gaelic uisce beatha).

But before fermentations of grains and fruits went into the still, strange things like Sulphur and antimony went in; the ultimate goal being the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would turn base metals to gold.

For many centuries and many alchemists chrysopoeia was the name of the game. Chrysopoeia means the making of gold–chryso is the gold part and poeia is the making part. And if that poeia part looks familiar, it’s because the Ancient Greek word “to make–poiein” has come down to us as poetry.

At its most basic level writing poetry means to make or create, and to take it one-step further, the transmutation of base metals into gold is not unlike a poet turning the mundane and painful stuff of life into something sublime.

As we turn to Shakespeare’s Sonnet, I think it’s helpful to understand that our modern tendency to want to find in poetry straightforward one to one analogies and symbols was not shared with our Renaissance counterparts. As Lawrence Principe puts it in The Secrets of Alchemy, “premoderns tended to conceive of and visualize the world in multivalent terms, where each individual thing was connected to many others by webs of analogy and metaphor. This view stands in contrast to the modern tendency to compartmentalize and isolate things and ideas into separate disciplines.” So as we turn to the highly distilled Shakespeare sonnet, we ought not to forget that multiple and even contradictory readings are possible. In Sonnet 33, I would argue that Shakespeare indulges in the contradictions inherent in the human heart, and intentionally leaves us unsure.

 

Full many a glorious morning have I seen

Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,

Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride

With ugly rack on his celestial face,

And from the forlorn world his visage hide

Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace;

Even so my sun one early morn did shine,

With all triumphant splendor on my brow;

But out alack, he was but one hour mine,

The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no wit disdaineth;

Suns of the world may stain, if heaven’s sun staineth.

 

In the first quatrain, we have a lovely picture of morning, more specifically the morning sun, flattering the lowly mountains (a reversal of the usual flattery of the lowly towards his superior), and in the next two lines the sun becomes the artist–both like a painter who kisses with gold light to create a brighter green, and an alchemical artist who would cover the natural world with gold.

Suddenly in the second quatrain everything changes. Anon, meaning shortly, the effect is reversed. Now it’s the base things, associated with the world, that darken and disgrace the face, i.e. the “ugly rack” of clouds are permitted to ride the sun and darken the forlorn world.

The third quatrain superimposes a new and personal element to the poem. Now the poet is involved, so that the first two quatrains are compressed into a single quatrain divided into two couplets, signified by the dividing semicolon. The first couplet refers, for the first time in the poem, explicitly to a sun, specifically “my sun,” indicating possession, albeit brief, by the poet.

If we read this through the lens of the first quatrain, we might see how the poet enjoyed a brightening and gilding not unlike that experienced by the lowly mountains and streams. And, as in the opening octave, very quickly the poet experiences a reversal and the “region cloud”–perhaps another lover? Has come between the poet and his sun, leaving him to see only a masked, or covered-over splendor.

In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler demonstrates how the brevity of what we might call the personal third quatrain narrative may be filled out with the vocabulary of the seemingly impersonal description of a morning sun being obscured by clouds:

 

“Even so my sun (glorious, golden, sovereign) one early morn did shine (flattering, kissing, alchemizing) with all-triumphant splendor on my (pale) brow; but out alack, he was but one hour mine, the (basest) region cloud (permitted by him to ride with ugly rack on his celestial face) hath masked him (hiding his visage) from (forlorn) me now (as he steals in disgrace away).”

 

In the final couplet, a kind of parable enters the poem and offers a rather dull platitude: if the heavenly sun may be so easily stained by ugly dark clouds, then of course the suns (a pun on sons) cannot be blamed (disdained) for taking on a stain, or blemish.

Besides the direct reference to alchemy in the first quatrain, and the transformative powers it infers, the sonnet as a whole displays the transmutation of the prosaic into poetry in a stunning reversal: first we have the metaphor and, until the “even so” that opens the third quatrain and its shift to the literal event (the disgrace or perhaps betrayal of the friend or lover), we do not really know that this description of morning is meant to symbolize anything in particular. A more typical construction would present the loss of lover first and then set about describing how it makes the poet feel. In the case of Sonnet 33, the metaphor, or philosopher’s stone of the poem reverses the project and turns a golden morning into a base and rather relentless couplet of blemishes–the word stain may even strike us as crass and overused.

By the end of the fourteen lines, it is not clear whether or not forgiveness is felt as deeply as had been the joy and the suffering. Knowing that all earthly creatures are susceptible to corruption is not the same as feeling compensated by this knowledge.

Likewise the dwindling away of poetic space–from the octave metaphor, to the quartet narrative, to the couplet platitude–suggests a kind of lessoning of interest or importance. Though the final couplet may assert an unarguable fact of human nature, it cannot compare to the magic of poetry that may transform clouds passing over the sun into the sufferings of a disappointed lover.

 

To finish an inherently unfinishable investigation, I will clumsily return to our opening metaphor of distillation and remind my dear reader that 2016 marks four hundred years since the death of Shakespeare. Hence we might be wont to spend time with the bard, perhaps even his sonnets which, though they be difficult, beckon us in this auspicious year. If so, I offer this disclaimer, or WARNING label if you will: Do not guzzle! Sip as you would your favorite 180 proof spirit and keep your interpretive lens away from the flames of modernity and the scientific method, for the power of the philosopher’s stone lies in what you discover en route to what you thought you wanted!

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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A Flame’s Progress, Greek Easter 1981

We arrived late as always, so that there was no place to sit, though there’s not a whole lot of sitting in Greek Orthodox churches. Standing in our coats, clutching our unlit candles, we crowded in with the others who, like us, came to church but once or twice a year. I was between my mom and my Thea Yvonne and on the other side of her was my Uncle Art–there’s a strange convention in our family to call our Aunts by the Greek thea but our uncles by the American uncle. I don’t know why, but it pretty much sums up the willy-nilly Greek/American distribution of traditions on my mother’s side of the family. And if there ever was a perfect blend of these two strains of holidaymaking, it was for me Easter, when I got the best of both worlds.

 

I waited impatiently for the music that heralded the candle lighting, and when it happened, the church erupted in song. “Christos Anesti!” (“Christ has risen!”) was sung over and over again. Wikipedia tells me that this is called the Paschal troparion, originally written in Koine (common) Greek, the original language of the New Testament, but translated into countless languages and sung in Eastern Orthodox Churches all over the world, as witnessed by this YouTube video.

 

The gold ceiling caught fire as the candlelight passed from the priest to the ancient and impossibly shriveled old ladies who sat at the front of the church swaddled in black, like ornery newborns. I could not see them, but knew they were there because they were always there, coming early for the good seats and staying late against their doom.

 

The stone church glowed like an oven when the first candle of my relatives was lit. My mother nudged me to hold my candle with its protective cup to catch dripping wax, straight. This I did with great anticipation, mouthing the words of Greek I wished fervently I knew, a desire, which would be forgotten by morning when American Easter baskets of chocolate bunnies and sugar flowers would drown out the yearning for the culture in which I feebly swam. But for now, it was the dark ritual that sparked passion in my young heart, and it was coming to its wonderful climax.

 

Being in the back meant that although we were among the last to arrive and receive the flame, we were the first to leave. Once all candles were lit, and a final round of Christos Anesti sung inside the church, the doors were flung open and we took our fire and our song and our ancient ritual with its pagan roots outside.

 

We circled the Ascension Cathedral thrice and, so embedded is the celebration of light in the human imagination, that even my profoundly secular heart (which loves all dark and mysterious things without attributing the magic of life to any great being) find this ritual memory moving to the point of tears. Who can deny the beauty inspired by belief? There is horror inspired by belief also, but this essay is a celebration of the beautiful.

 

Atop the Oakland hill, the streetlights twinkled below. Our flames’ progress was not the only light in the darkness, as our forefathers may easily have imagined on some Hellenic hill in centuries past, but still, as my eyes were just beginning to show signs of the degenerative disease that would eventually mar distinctions between day and night, I easily imagined ours to be the only light in that dark bosom of midnight. What ten year old could fail to appreciate the delicious transgression of wakefulness? Or to relish the solemn joy that was the reenactment of the ultimate Christian paradox: in order to live, one must die.

 

Perhaps some of the congregation reentered the church to finish out the service, and there is some part of me now that yearns to return with them into that quiet place, filled with the recent echoes and rustles of some hundred souls. But that was not then my yearning. In the back seat of my uncle’s Cadillac, I stared at my candle and chattered about how beautiful it all was while already my mind was turning to dinner with its own set of light-hearted rituals.

 

The table spread out like an Easter parade with silver candelabras waiting to embrace our still-lit candles set next to baskets with glittery grass and shining colored eggs. We did not then do the red eggs as is traditional in Eastern Orthodoxy, though, in recent years, my mother has placed the incongruous blood-red eggs (with all their gruesome metaphorics) into American Easter baskets. But when I was little, she wanted me to enjoy the sweetness of the American dyes as if to preserve my innocence, although, even then, the veil had begun to fray.

A mysterious dystrophy was happening in my retinas and I’d already been to one or two ophthalmologists that year. It was precisely those doctors who, confronting their own ignorance and inability to explain why their lenses could not correct my vision, opened a great and never-to-be-closed chasm in my child’s psyche: I was made suddenly and irrevocably aware of the limits of human understanding. It was in 1981 that I learned how the smell of ignorance permeates all–never mind the bright white robes of clean and apparent knowledge.

 

 

It is also in my memory that at that year’s Easter dinner I had my first taste of watered wine and felt very grown up. I was the youngest and only girl at the table. The only other kids there were two of Thea Yvonne’s three sons, who were quite a bit older than I. Thea Yvonne had yearned for a girl child that she might pamper with all the sweet things her own childhood in the Greek mountain town before and during World War II had not offered her and her sisters, and I was happy to step in. Her beautiful house offered me eyefuls of objects to gawk at and love, as well as a storehouse of visual memories to treasure, now that I can no longer see:

 

A collection of Madame Alexander dolls dressed in costumes from around the world, and Art Deco prints with elongated women in peacock dresses whose skirts are attached to gloved hands. Pristine and plush white rugs led out to a dark pool–one made of stone that puts aqua fakery to shame. And, beyond the pool, Thea Yvonne’s rose garden taught me to love outrageous blooms with august names like Queen Elizabeth and Sterling Silver that resembled not at all the upright uniformity found in shops. One blossom presents itself to my mind’s eye in a cinematic close-up: a pale rose with a dark center, its ivory petals rimmed with wine.

 

I am suddenly tempted to Google “Easter egg fight,” to know if it is American or Greek, though I suspect the latter for two reasons: First, Greeks tend to be a competitive lot, and second, because the tabletop tournament requires some Greek be spoken. But I will not. I prefer to remain blissfully ignorant and pretend my family invented the game.

 

I believe my mother conducted the Easter egg fight that year, but that could be because she was my first combatant, sitting next to me as she was. “Pick your eggs!” Everyone reached into the baskets and chose, very carefully, the egg they believed would beat the rest. I chose a purple one. It felt strong and solid as a stone.

“Ok, pointy end to pointy end,” said my mother. “You want to hit first?” “Uh-huh,” I said and poised my egg above hers.

“Christos anesti,” I said and my mother responded, “Alithos anesti.”

“Oh!” we both cried. I was victorious.

“Turn your egg around.” This time she hit me, but again I prevailed.

 

I took my winner egg to my cousin, whom I may have had a little crush on, as I did most boys since I didn’t have many of the male persuasion in my life after my parents divorced and I started at an all-girl school. But I beat him too, on this my favorite and most special Easter ever. And on it went “Christos anesti–Christ has risen!” Alithos anesti–Indeed he has!” BONK Smash CRACK I went around the table to the eggs that remained uncrushed and crushed them all!

I was so proud. My champion was placed back into the basket with great solemnity.

 

Then I selected another egg to be sacrificed to my dinner–sliced and generously sprinkled with salt and pepper and eaten on top of buttered pita bread–what we called the sweet Easter bread that required much love and warming blankets to encourage its multiple risings. I was not much of a meat eater back then, so I can’t tell you about the leg of lamb, but my current, wiser self knows it was delicious and regrets her youthful folly!

 

Eventually my eyes grew droopy. There was no more postponing the inevitable. I was tucked into bed. First to sleep, first to rise, I woke up to a new house–one transformed into an Easter Bunny’s playground, and enjoyed an Easter egg hunt made for one, traipsing around the house finding little nests of candies with clues to the next treasure written on cards decorated with baby chicks.

 

Because my eye disease stole my central vision first, it would not be long before I could not read such cards, but on Greek Easter 1981, the year I was ten and balancing on the cusp between seeing the world through a bright child’s lens and darkly through that of an adult, I was filled with excitement at finding what had been created just for me. I ran upstairs to show my mother each piece of candy and trinket I found, as if she had never seen it before, as if we’d never either of us seen anything like it before. Or would ever again.

 

*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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Hendrick’s Cucumber: Story of a Drink

I’ve been obsessed with gin on the one hand and hydrosols on the other for a little while now, and mixing them together seemed only natural, though they may strike the uninitiated as strange bedfellows. Hydrosols and alcohols (as well as essential oils) are all distilled. So what is distillation?

Simply put–which is about all I can manage since I’m no scientist, distillation is the heating of a liquid to create steam in order to separate out substances. Different substances have different boiling points. The two vapors are run through condenser tubing and cooled which results in two new liquids–alcohol and water, for example. In the case of distilling for alcoholic spirits each distillation results in a higher ratio of alcohol by volume to water and other chemical compounds–in other words the proof of wine is miraculously transmuted into brandy beer into whiskey, fermented potatoes into vodka… and the angels sing hallelujah!

In the case of hydrosols and essential oils, steam passes through aromatic plant material–rose or orange blossoms, for example, and the volatile oils separate out from the waters. In this case, both the substances have their uses as the resulting essential oil is very potent and lipophilic while the hydrosol (AKA hydrolat) is water-soluble and much milder. This is why essential oils should be diluted, while the corresponding hydrosols have historically been used in cooking and can be used undiluted. A quick Google search offers up thousands of recipes using both essential oils and hydrosols (including cucumber) in homemade beauty products and home remedies, but since this article is about drinking I will just get to our booze of the day.

The word gin derives from jenever, which is the Dutch word for juniper. As Italy has grappa, Poland vodka, Ireland whiskey, the Netherlands offers jenever as its national treasure. It travelled to England and was transformed into London dry gin, and the great destroyer in the eighteenth century as illustrated by the degenerates in Hogarth’s “Gin Lane“.

Gin differs from most other spirits because, at some later distillation–after one has been left with a fairly neutral spirit–the alcohol is run through a still that has some place to hang a basket of botanicals. This makes its production even more similar to that of hydrosols and essential oils. The alcoholic vapors pass through the plant material and pick up its volatile oils–its aromatic chemical compounds–and is flavored. In order to be labeled gin, the botanicals must include juniper, but as for the rest, it’s a free-for-all. Because so many of the botanicals in gin are the same used to produce hydrosols, the possible pairings to highlight this botanical or that is limitless.

Hendrick’s gin launched in 1999, but its history is long and peculiar as described on its website. Though a rather new label in the gin world, where brands like Tanqueray have been around since the early nineteenth century, it is quite established when compared to the many wonderful micro-distilleries that are popping up everywhere–even in my Astoria!–and all of which I plan to get friendly with until my liver gives out…

Besides its unique blend of botanicals, Hendrick’s infuses its gin with cucumber and rose, Rosa damascena for those aromatherapy geeks out there. Because we’ve been having a fickle end of winter here in NYC, I decided to make my first hydro cocktail spring forward by highlighting the green brightness of the cucumber, but if you like the floral, which I do, the following simple recipe can also be done using rose hydrosol.

The Cucumis genus of viney fruiting plants includes our Cucumis sativus as well as melons, and this particular cucumber hydrosol that I purchased at Stillpoint Aromatics, has a distinctly melon-like aroma.

Having lured some friends over with a bottle of Hendrick’s I proceeded to pour out a shot for everyone so that we could appreciate the happy floral and green goodness of this award-winning gin, and while they were sipping and cooing with delight, I poured out an ounce of seltzer water from a liter bottle and replaced it with one ounce of cucumber hydrosol, put the lid back on and gently tipped the bottle upside down once or twice. Do not shake unless you are looking to have a cucumber shower–which by the way would be wonderful for your skin, but probably put a damper on your night!

Because we were buds from way back, I didn’t worry about getting fancy pants–just poured some Hendrick’s into vessels, tossed in an ice cube and topped with the instant cucumber seltzer, et voila–yum!

If we were high-class with actual furniture instead of folding chairs and tall glasses instead of mason jars, we’d have garnished with cucumber wheels or perhaps a citrus zest, but we’re simple people. Upon his first sip of this sparkling elixir, my boyfriend said, “I want to have this every morning!” In other words, it’s very refreshing.

Cucumber hydrosol is great for digestion. It is even said to have some appetite suppressant benefits if taken before a meal. Speaking of dieting, how about a delicious and refreshing cocktail with no added sugar? It’s amazing how hydrosols strong aromas trick the brain into perceiving sweetness, without the need for the high fructose corn syrup of commercial tonic water.

Finally, because I’ve got some cucumber hydrosol left in the fridge and no gin, I will leave you with this warning: if you are not up to finishing a bottle of Hendrick’s in a couple hours, you should probably not make Hendrick’s Cucumbers, for the night was young when the gin ran out, which was the only sad part of this hydro-booze experiment.

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Apostrophe, an anti-suicide suicide song for accordion

To sleep perchance to dream

I hope.

Can I will myself to survive

I wish.

Last wish.

Last dying wish to live.

 

I took the anti-step

Just now

Nothing to live for so long

You see.

And nothing to die for either

I fear.

On this long

Long long

Way down.

 

When I hit the bottom

My body will break

If a miracle happens

And I’m mended some day

Do I have to believe?

Will I lose my edge?

 

I’m not like those others

Who went before ME

No sentimentality here

You see

With my back to my city

I’ve got nothing

To wave to

On this long

Long long

Way down.

 

My heart yearns for those worries

Of that world I left behind

My lungs fill with regret

On this journey

So long

So long

So long.

 

And, here’s a live performance at Sidewalk Café with my scrappy Avant accordion brain smash!:

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FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE, for accordion and volcano

[“Fire Fire Fire Fire” was first published at Quail Bell Magazine]

Met you yesterday, but it doesn’t matter

That the world looks flat from a bird’s eye view

Cause I felt the climb, and I feel the height,

Even though I’m surrounded by a thousand plateaus.

 

Met you yesterday, but it doesn’t matter

We fell for each other out of space

If this morning it finds us in our place beneath the skies

Tomorrow sets us down on our separate sides, it’s ok.

 

FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE

 

Met you yesterday when the world was young

My heart was ablaze with constructive fire.

Now look at those rivers, they retreat from my desire

For fear my heat will suck them dry!

 

Watch those oceans smolder in all my lust

Waters vaporize into clouds of dust.

See the earth she crackles under salty dunes

Tears of fire streaming down her face.

 

FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE

 

Met you yesterday when the world went out,

My soul felt as brittle as a shell

Chaos ruled then with Eternal Night

And Sin and Death embraced me, yeah!

 

Met you yesterday when the world went out

When Light hid away in her cave

But I felt her then, I still feel her now

Even though I’m surrounded by a thousand sad souls.

 

 

Inspired by Thomas Campion’s 1601 “Fire! Fire!”:

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A Pain Named Dog, a poem inspired by Nietzsche’s Gay Science

[“A Pain Named Dog” was first published at The Kitchen Poet and reprinted at Eunoia Review]

 

 

 

I have given a name to my pain

And call it Dog.

I can tell it to sit, lay down,

Roll over, play dead.

I scold it and shame it

And pretend it’s my bitch

And though it worries my carcass

And growls and shits,

It gives me a leg up. On profundity.

 

I have given a name to my beauty

And call it Snake.

I observe it wind my hand

Delicate as flowers ferocious as fangs

I tell it, PULSE DANGER.

            SWALLOW BLIND MICE.

And though its little murders do not ripple

The still-water universe

It’s all about ego. Feeling groovy.

 

I have given a name to my anger

And call it Cockroach

I fatten it with booze and candy

It waxes petty and cruel

I chase it to squash it

Curse its very existence

But because it incites war

In the bowels of men

It does me some good. Keeps them in check.

 

I have given a name to my disease

And call it Devil

Sad Devil. Mean-spirited

Jealous and cruel.

I know the Fiend called Devil

Is the Blindness called Life

Still I shout HUZZAH

With the rest.

It appeases. Why not?

 

I have given a name to my sadness

And call it God

I tell it YOU ARE DEAD.

Long live you?

I command SIT STAY ROLL OVER

            At least fucking PLAY DEAD

And though it is just as obtrusive and entertaining

Shameless as any other god,

There are others. I pray.

 

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