To Stravinsky, a poem in memory of my guide dog Igor

November 13 is the birthday of Igor, my last guide dog. It is a day to celebrate his short life as well as the diligent and loving lives of guide dogs everywhere. Please consider a donation to the fund I set up at the Animal Medical Center in honor of him and my first guide dog, Millennium.

This week Stravinsky, Igor's plant spirit, found himself front and center in the Godin's World Fair, amongst colored lights and origami braille cranes.

To Stravinsky

I write to you, Stravinsky,

Because he, for whom you are named,

Is nowhere to be found.

You sit on my desk next to keepsakes

From his short life

And are easy to take care of,

Therefore easy to love.

 

Let me tell you how you came to occupy

This tiny exalted place…

 

Three days after I lost him

I cleaned mindlessly,

Brought out the vacuum and went to work.

Being blind helps forgetfulness:

Out of sight out of

 

BAM CLATTER

 

I hit the aluminum dog bowls

And probably shrieked.

I picked up the two bowls

As if they might bite or squirm

And dropped them into recycling.

Then I went and cried in human arms.

 

In those arms,

Deep within my sobs,

I conceived a ritual from nowhere,

A rite of spring.

 

I want to go buy a plant tonight,

I will name it Stravinsky,

Spirit of Igor.

 

I picked out and washed the water bowl,

Set it on my desk,

Another empty vessel.

 

At the florist I asked for a plant

That was easy to take care of.

The woman named one

And I asked if it was viney.

She said No,

That one stood straight up like a tree,

A popular plant,

Recommended by some celebrity doctor

For its air purification properties.

 

I was not interested in pure air.

I wanted prehistoric leafy tendrils

Of encroaching flourishing

With minimal fuss.

 

Like all dark relationships,

Ours, Stravinsky, is complicated.

 

I might have hated plant life

Since green grass tempted him

And led him to swallow the neon vine

 

That stuck in his stomach

That led to the surgery

That sliced the tiny incision

That led to the microscopic sepsis

That led to the systemic failure

That led to the pneumonia

That gave final cause for his

Being nowhere to be found.

 

But I do not believe in fate

Or in the culpability of nature

Any more than I believe you to be

A fit substitute receptacle

For my I love yous.

 

Even so,

I love you Stravinsky.

In his bowl I keep you

Healthy and happy.

It is easy to water

You every ten days,

Gratifying to have your reachy growth

On this simple expanse of desk.

Still, if you do not outlive me,

I doubt I will cry at all.

*This poem was first published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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INWARD VISIONS: Helen Keller Defends her Sense of Beauty

[These thoughts on aesthetics, understanding, poetry, beauty and the senses come from Keller’s 1908 book The World I Live In. “Inward Visions” is Chapter 9. You can read Chapter 6 on Smell HERE. The text has been hyperlinked, gently edited for apparent scanning errors and the odd British spellings Americanized.]

Publicity still from the 1919 film Deliverance about Keller's childhood. The fictional Helen is at far left of the group and her three playmates are gathered behind her. They look on as Helen holds a kitten; several other kittens can be seen amid a pile of straw at left.

ACCORDING to all art, all nature, all coherent human thought, we know that order, proportion, form, are essential elements of beauty. Now order, proportion, and form, are palpable to the touch. But beauty and rhythm are deeper than sense. They are like love and faith. They spring out of a spiritual process only slightly dependent upon sensations. Order, proportion, form, cannot generate in the mind the abstract idea of beauty, unless there is already a soul intelligence to breathe life into the elements. Many persons, having perfect eyes, are blind in their perceptions. Many persons, having perfect ears, are emotionally deaf. Yet these are the very ones who dare to set limits to the vision of those who, lacking a sense or two, have will, soul, passion, imagination. Faith is a mockery if it teaches us not that we may construct a world unspeakably more complete and beautiful than the material world. And I, too, may construct my better world, for I am a child of God, an inheritor of a fragment of the Mind that created all worlds.

 

There is a consonance of all things, a blending of all that we know about the material world and the spiritual. It consists for me of all the impressions, vibrations, heat, cold, taste, smell, and the sensations which these convey to the mind, infinitely combined, interwoven with associated ideas and acquired knowledge. No thoughtful person will believe that what I said about the meaning of footsteps is strictly true of mere jolts and jars. It is an array of the spiritual in certain natural elements, tactual beats, and an acquired knowledge of physical habits and moral traits of highly organized human beings. What would odors signify if they were not associated with the time of the year, the place I live in, and the people I know?

 

The result of such a blending is sometimes a discordant trying of strings far removed from a melody, very far from a symphony. (For the benefit of those who must be reassured, I will say that I have felt a musician tuning his violin, that I have read about a symphony, and so have a fair intellectual perception of my metaphor.) But with training and experience the faculties gather up the stray notes and combine them into a full, harmonious whole. If the person who accomplishes this task is peculiarly gifted, we call him a poet. The blind and the deaf are not great poets, it is true. Yet now and again you find one deaf and blind who has attained to his royal kingdom of beauty.

 

I have a little volume of poems by a deaf-blind lady, Madame Bertha Galeron. Her poetry has versatility of thought. Now it is tender and sweet, now full of tragic passion and the sternness of destiny. Victor Hugo called her “La Grande Voyante.” She has written several plays, two of which have been acted in Paris. The French Academy has crowned her work. The infinite wonders of the universe are revealed to us in exact measure as we are capable of receiving them. The keenness of our vision depends not on how much we can see, but on how much we feel. Nor yet does mere knowledge create beauty. Nature sings her most exquisite songs to those who love her. She does not unfold her secrets to those who come only to gratify their desire of analysis, to gather facts, but to those who see in her manifold phenomena suggestions of lofty, delicate sentiments.

 

 

 

Am I to be denied the use of such adjectives as “freshness” and “sparkle,” “dark” and “gloomy”? I have walked in the fields at early morning. I have felt a rose-bush laden with dew and fragrance. I have felt the curves and graces of my kitten at play. I have known the sweet, shy ways of little children. I have known the sad opposites of all these, a ghastly touch picture. Remember, I have sometimes travelled over a dusty road as far as my feet could go. At a sudden turn I have stepped upon starved, ignoble weeds, and reaching out my hands, I have touched a fair tree out of which a parasite had taken the life like a vampire. I have touched a pretty bird whose soft wings hung limp, whose little heart beat no more. I have wept over the feebleness and deformity of a child, lame, or born blind, or, worse still, mindless. If I had the genius of Thomson, I, too, could depict a “City of Dreadful Night” from mere touch sensations. From contrasts so irreconcilable can we fail to form an idea of beauty and know surely when we meet with loveliness?

 

Here is a sonnet eloquent of a blind man’s power of vision:

 

 

THE MOUNTAIN TO THE PINE

 

Thou tall, majestic monarch of the wood,

That standest where no wild vines dare to creep,

Men call thee old, and say that thou hast stood

A century upon my rugged steep;

Yet unto me thy life is but a day,

When I recall the things that I have seen,–

The forest monarchs that have passed away

Upon the spot where first I saw thy green;

For I am older than the age of man,

Or all the living things that crawl or creep,

Or birds of air, or creatures of the deep;

I was the first dim outline of God’s plan:

Only the waters of the restless sea

And the infinite stars in heaven are old to me.

 

I am glad my friend Mr. Stedman knew that poem while he was making his Anthology, for knowing it, so fine a poet and critic could not fail to give it a place in his treasure-house of American poetry. The poet, Mr. Clarence Hawkes, has been blind since childhood; yet he finds in nature hints of combinations for his mental pictures. Out of the knowledge and impressions that come to him he constructs a masterpiece which hangs upon the walls of his thought. And into the poet’s house come all the true spirits of the world.

 

It was a rare poet who thought of the mountain as “the first dim outline of God’s plan.” That is the real wonder of the poem, and not that a blind man should speak so confidently of sky and sea. Our ideas of the sky are an accumulation of touch-glimpses, literary allusions, and the observations of others, with an emotional blending of all. My face feels only a tiny portion of the atmosphere; but I go through continuous space and feel the air at every point, every instant. I have been told about the distances from our earth to the sun, to the other planets, and to the fixed stars. I multiply a thousand times the utmost height and width that my touch compasses, and thus I gain a deep sense of the sky’s immensity.

 

Move me along constantly over water, water, nothing but water, and you give me the solitude, the vastness of ocean which fills the eye. I have been in a little sail-boat on the sea, when the rising tide swept it toward the shore. May I not understand the poet’s figure: “The green of spring overflows the earth like a tide”? I have felt the flame of a candle blow and flutter in the breeze. May I not, then, say: “Myriads of fireflies flit hither and thither in the dew-wet grass like little fluttering tapers”?

 

Combine the endless space of air, the sun’s warmth, the clouds that are described to my understanding spirit, the frequent breaking through the soil of a brook or the expanse of the wind-ruffled lake, the tactual undulation of the hills, which I recall when I am far away from them, the towering trees upon trees as I walk by them, the bearings that I try to keep while others tell me the directions of the various points of the scenery, and you will begin to feel surer of my mental landscape. The utmost bound to which my thought will go with clearness is the horizon of my mind. From this horizon I imagine the one which the eye marks.

 

Touch cannot bridge distance,–it is fit only for the contact of surfaces,–but thought leaps the chasm. For this reason I am able to use words descriptive of objects distant from my senses. I have felt the rondure of the infant’s tender form. I can apply this perception to the landscape and to the far-off hills.

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Resonating With the Visible, genesis of a Poem

I was sewing–I hand-sew, as you can read about in Sewing Blind–and listening to the series of interviews Bill Moyers had with Joseph Campbell in the last year of his life (1987), collectively called The Power of Myth, when I heard Moyers preface his next question with this:

“We talked about the effect of the hunting plain on mythology, this space clearly bounded by a circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above. But what about the people who lived in the dense foliage of the jungle? There’s no dome of the sky, no horizon, no sense of perspective–just trees, trees, trees.”

I paused the interview and continued stitching. Occasionally sewing becomes a kind of active meditation for me. I thought about that phrase “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above.” It resonated. I allowed the associations to ripple gently on the lake of consciousness. I’m not sure how long before the rings of “circular horizon with the great dome of heaven above” met those of a visual memory of a desert sunrise , but when they did the opening lines of “Never Be Sorry” emerged.

The memory began in the predawn desert of Joshua Tree National Park. My UC Santa Cruz roommates and I had driven down the day before and arrived at night to the campground. I awoke before dawn to a cold so cold that I still compare all colds to that one. Surely it was not actually as cold as some recent winters in NYC, but sleeping on the ground in a flimsy down sleeping bag my feet and hands were painfully frozen, almost burning so that tears started to my eyes. My companions were somehow still sleeping while I stared at the millions of sharp cold stars. Perhaps I could have forgotten my pain if I had been able to pick out constellations, but having lost my central vision when I was in high school, I had never been able to make them out–I could see the stars just as I could see inked letters on a printed page, but without the detail rendered by the fovea, the words and pictures refused me their intelligibility.

So I stared at those frozen chips of light and thought they might enter my heart and freeze my soul, like what happened to the little boy in The Snow Queen. The sleep breathing of my companions assured me I was not alone, but sometimes that is not enough–one yearns in this lonely universe for conscious companions to witness the pain and creeping fear.

The hours or only minutes passed. Perhaps I closed my eyes for a moment. When they reopened, I found a new scene, one that so took my breath away that the cold seemed almost to disappear.

Rolling my eyes around that great expanse of sky–that exalted dome–I saw a pale silver lightening rising up from the horizon, silhouetting the sharp rocks, which appeared heaped into crazy formations as if by an abstract-expressionist deity.

And finally, just above the silver ring of impending sunrise, hung a sliver-moon risen, it seemed, just to complicate the transition from night to day, and create the illusion of a metamorphosis arrested, the dome of night suspended forever in the bowl of rising day.

My poem of sight and blindness would be about the beauty and more than beauty–sublimity–of the visible world. I wanted to celebrate the visible, celebrate my participation in the appreciation of that world from a perspective of one who no longer participates physically in that appreciation, but who, in her mind’s eye via memory and art, still attempts to participate in the glorious materiality of sight.

The poem would resonate with the visible, with ambiguous regret–how can I regret having seen such beauty? How can I not regret, when the having-seen causes a painful desire for more?

The fleeting quality of the visible world had no better analogy than a sight once seen of butterflies falling from the skies in coupling torrents, falling into our hands and into our hair and all around, a frenzy of mating butterflies in an improbable grove of eucalyptus trees. It had been a memory ripe for art picking for many years.

According to the Natural Bridges State Beach website, ” From late fall into winter, the Monarchs form a ‘city in the trees.’ The area’s mild seaside climate and eucalyptus grove provide a safe place for monarchs to roost until spring.”

In my time at UC Santa Cruz, I often brought visiting friends and family to see the monarchs, but never had I seen it like that. Most times I went the weather was not warm enough for them to fly much and they clustered in the trees, wings folded, so that I, with my poor vision, would never have recognized them as butterflies if they’d not been pointed out to me.

The day the butterflies fell from the sky in copulating pairs is so crystalline a memory that I sometimes fear it was a dream. A dream of nature that, as a child, I often experienced as an extension of my waking life–a dream set in a specific and quotidian event or outing–a field trip that really did take place in a verifiable way–but so improbable as to force the memory into the taxonomical mental space of a dream, but nonetheless differing not at all from the memories of autobiographical reality.

As I am writing, I grow more fearful that my mating butterflies memory is not real. For the first time I am trying to situate it in a day, trying to give context–who was I with, for example? We, laughing and stunned, opened our hands to catch them as they fell, but the other hasn’t an identity , just a presence, a guy but not a lover. Sounds rather fishily like a dream, no? And yet I’m positive it happened. And yet I’m disturbed.

I wonder, for the first time, if essaying the story of a poem can destroy its reality? Can a poem even be destroyed in such a way?

Unsure of my answers to the above, I rush on to present my real point: I loved seeing and yet I think being in love with seeing is a danger all seeing mortals face. That to see constantly without a lens, aesthetic or philosophical, or from the perspective of impending blindness, or recovered sight, or religious ecstasy, or even scientific curiosity, is to see without anything but one’s eyes, and thus to render oneself a mere gawker or dumb tourist.

As Campbell puts it in the opening lines of The Power of Myth:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive .”

And so with this idea of resonance in mind, I will not be disturbed by the possible unreality of the mating butterflies falling from the sky. If it is but a dream vision, its purity as memory speaks to the power of imagination to endow sad inert brown clusters of cold insects hanging from eucalyptus trees in a Santa Cruz grove, with the flight and life-frenzy of mating monarchs in all their sun dappled orange and black magic.

If I held one of these coupling double-creatures in my hand only in my dreams, is it not enough?

Never Be Sorry

 

 

I Will Never Be Sorry

To have seen that jagged desert,

Encircled by horizon,

Topped with that great dome

Of exalted blue heavens above,

Or that lovely cool sliver of a moon.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have seen that ragged face

(that great last love

That blazed so quick)

Or to have loved it

With spit and fire.

 

And I will never be sorry

To have Seen these fucking butterflies–

Literally, fucking butterflies–

Falling from the sky

(It’s hard to fly   when you’re fucking)

So they drop

Into the hand of one

Who will never be sorry she sees them

Drop dancing into the palm of her

And dance till they rocket apart.

 

Up and away

Into that close slab of sky,

Chipped away by these eucalyptuses–

These Eucalypti?

Whatever they are called,

THEY DO NOT BELONG HERE:

Australian trees on a Santa Cruz

Draw the monarchs from

God only knows where.

 

This is an impossible grove

With its accessible walks

And its stupid visitors hut–

Winds might yet blow it all away.

 

And on that ocean

Sit those natural bridges,

Carved out by a thousand years of pounding,

Had I like them

Energy enough   and time

I would never, never,

Never be sorry.

 

*This revised version of “Never Be Sorry” was published at Quail Bell Magazine. Here also is the original version, with photographic visionscape by Todd Jackson…

 

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Nietzsche and His Pain Named Dog, #52essays2017

I have given a name to my pain and call it “dog.” It is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog–and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives. –Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

I first heard this Nietzsche quote while I was sewing–yes, I like to sew and listen to philosophy books as well as novels! It was a quote that caused me to stop my electronic reader and sew quietly for a while. Then I read it and reread it with more and more attention and finally, a poem popped out! Although it needed another month or two of embellishments and revisions, it felt complete, like it was destined to be a thing, from the very beginning.

The poem “A Pain Named Dog” is one of the few I’ve written that I keep coming back to and it seems to keep resonating. I usually tell people that I stole the central conceit from Nietzsche, and I hope that sometimes It gets people to read The Gay Science, but who knows? It’s just a book of aphorisms, so spending time with one of the aphorisms is perhaps as good as flipping through them all.

I presented it last summer at the School for Poetic Computation as a part of my lecture I called “Nietzsche in a nutshell,” and it resonated with the students who were reading works on writing disability, including Nussbaum’s great book Frontiers of Justice, which I write about more in Exploding Stigma.

In The Gay Science, written after a period of illness, Nietzsche illustrates what Nussbaum has to say about the generality of humans entering into and out of disability/dependence throughout their lives. Nietzsche makes embodiedness a central tenet of his philosophy, and pain a necessary component of that embodiedness. His relationship to pain, namely treating his pain as if it were a dog to be trained and disciplined, turns pain from a thing that he submits to into a thing that submits to him.

Perhaps then it makes sense that “A Pain Named Dog” turned out to be the first poem I read out loud in public since I’d lost the ability to read normal print around the age of twelve. For decades I was ashamed of my inability to read with my eyes, and embarrassed that I could no longer read out loud. I was really good when I was a kid.

Finally I hit upon using my little electronic reader’s earbud as a Cyrano, whispering my own words into my ear. That tiny fix made it possible for me to enter fully into a writerly life, and it was not new technology but a kind of paradigm shift in my mind about what reading was. Though I’d been listening to electronic books for decades, I somehow did not make the leap of understanding it to make possible my own presentation of words.

 

A Pain Named Dog

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.

*First published at The Kitchen Poet and reprinted at Eunoia Review*

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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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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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