Saturday, January 29, 2011

Reflections: Too Little Seen As Too Much

Some weeks back, in the course of a discussion about my favorite modern religious philosopher, Simone Weil, Pentimento suggested to me that since I liked Weil, I would probably also appreciate the writings of Caryll Houselander. I seldom ignore book recommendations from persons for whom I have great respect, so I put the name of Houselander at the top of my “to read” list.

This past week I was able to have Houselander’s Marian contemplation, The Reed of God, delivered from the Annex facility of the library in which I work to the main campus, so that I could bring it home and read it. I began to do that this morning. Here, from the Houselander’s Introduction, is an excerpt that immediately caught my attention:

How dear to us St. Catherine of Sienna is, because she loved her garden, because she made up little verses and gilded tiny oranges to humor a difficult Pope. How close she comes to us in her friendships: in the motley company of poets, politicians, soldiers, priests, and brigands; men who idolized her; and not only men, for St. Catherine was not only the most dynamic woman in history but also the best friend to other women that ever lived. Such things almost make us forget that she was fiercely ascetic, that for years she was fed only on the Blessed Sacrament, and that she was an ecstatic: her agony for the world’s sin is hidden under the beautiful cloak of her love for sinners.

“…she was fiercely ascetic…” yet she befriended all kinds of worldly men. Fiercely ascetic, yet she functioned in the world with her sacrifices “hidden under [a] beautiful cloak of love… ” This is a mode of existence for which I have boundless respect.

After a youth and early maturity of hedonistic excess, I have found a certain amount of comfort in the practice of a kind of mild asceticism. I no longer eat for pleasure or entertainment, for instance, but only for nutrition. And I find that in eating a minimal amount of very plain but nutritious food I enjoy my meals much more than I did when what I was consuming was smothered in rich sauces and dripping with fat in its over-abundance. I rise at 4 AM on most days, in order to have quiet time to read and write, or just to think, or pray. I will not provide an extensive catalog of such behaviors here. I cite these few examples only because I have found that people seem to resent such behavior if I happen to mention it. It seems to anger them, as though the way I choose to live is somehow a condemnation of their own lifestyle choices.

It may be that St. Catherine of Sienna had good reasons, other than just not blowing her own horn, to play her ascesis close to the vest.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Readings: This Caught My Fancy

In the course of indexing a file, I came across this poem in typescript draft at work this morning and liked it:


Our father owned a star,
and by its light
we lived in father’s house
and slept at night.

The tragedies of life,
like death and war,
were faces looking in
at our front door.

But finally all came in,
from near and far:
you can’t believe in locks
and own a star.
XXXXX~ William Stafford, from “All About Light”

UPDATE: Interestingly, when I came to the proof sheets in the back of the same folder, just now, after having already published this post, I found that whoever set the poem in type for publication had read the penultimate line as "you can't believe in looks," rather than "you can't believe in locks," as I had read it. I thought I was going to have to delete the post, since the word "locks" was what made it work for me. I then discovered, to my immense pleasure and gratification, that Stafford had corrected that "looks" when he read the proofs; "locks" was the correct reading after all.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rodak's Writings: Meeting the Challenge

The challenge, posed by Stephanie Rogers at my writers' group on Facebook, was to look at the picture below and write a piece on what it was saying to you. I composed the poem below when I got home from work yesterday evening:



Eddie saw
and his horn choked
and died
The mouthpiece slipped
from his lips’ skilled caress
his eyelids drooping
like the worn felt brim
of his porkpie hat
A hundred ashtrays
and blue haze eddying up
in the rising heat
of ten dozen candles
and a thousand tender lies
Eddie had seen
a red dress rise
and turn toward the door
guided by a pale hand
Bare arms
dark legs invisible
in the blue black gloom
of the falling room
Eddie blinked
as the zircon glitter
of the fancy comb
whose provenance
he had questioned in vain
wagged away
on the coif of a head
that was so goddamned wrong
The rest of the boys
all felt that horn’s last sob
in darkest depths
of their ancient souls
And Benny gave his bass
a twirl and slapped out a riff
to fill the gap
He nodded at Joe
behind his kit
and Joe tapped
out the down beat
Charlie sighed and bent
a blue note from a steel string
This was the jazz life
They could do ‘Blue Skies’
as a blues
Eddie could bring
his horn back up
and blow like he meant it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Readings: A Tough Pill to Swallow

This morning I finished reading Leonard Cohen's poetry collection, The Energy of Slaves. Most of the poems were written in the late 1960s. The collection was published early in the 1970s. There are 116 poems in the book. Most of them are very short. Most of them have no title other than a number, although a handful do have titles.

It seems to me to be an angry, bitter book. The short poem I share here, number 114, seems to me to typify the world-view that Cohen creates with these works:


Every time my wife has a baby
she goes crazy
she sees the world clearly
and she goes crazy
We have to put her away
so we can get back to the war
Men and women are killed
right in front of the baby

To see the world clearly is to go crazy. I have to admit that it often seems that way.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Readings: Art as Life & Vice Versa

This morning I’ve been reading again in The ABCs of Robert Lax. Below is a rather long excerpt from a piece written by Alexander Eliot, a man who had maintained a decades-long relationship with Lax, beginning when they worked together at Time magazine in the 1940’s. He visited Lax in Greece, on Patmos, in the 1980s and his piece recalls that visit. I post excerpts from it here because it seems to me that what Eliot says about Lax and his art, is relevant to the poems I’ve written recently, especially the one (or two, actually) shared in my previous post:

The older he gets the more Bob comes to resemble a Byzantine saint, in looks & demeanor alike. That’s obvious to all, but I see something there which is more ancient still: a person standing in an open space, alone, well apart from the clustered parasols of piety. To me, Bob resembles a Siberian shaman, cradling his sacred drum, crackling with shock-power, vibrant with silent song.

Bob had fallen recently, & broken a tooth. ‘Jesus!’ he’d yelled as he fell. ‘The neighbors took that for a prayer,’ he told me, ‘which of course it was.’ The dentist who repaired him said, ‘I don’t want your money, I just want to be your friend.’ It’s fortunate so many people feel that way, since money is one thing Bob hasn’t got.

Bob has reached the conclusion that everyone really wants to be perfect. That goes way beyond Socrates’ notion that everyone desires the good. Is there even a path to perfection? If there were, Bob would probably be climbing it; in fact he’s doing something quite different, and far more productive. He’s tending his word-garden, tapping his sacred drum.

One day Bob remarked that e.e. cummings, Henry Miller & James Joyce had profoundly influenced his youth. ‘Mine too,’ I said, ‘but looking back they seem pretty contrived today.’ Bob disagreed. He argued that their intense concern with words on paper paralleled the modern painters’ obsession with paint on canvas.

The medium is not the message, exactly, but the message doesn’t matter all that much. Instead of exploiting words for illustrative or expository purposes (like me), the modern masters perform in an erudite & yet paradoxically childlike manner with words per se. This tradition, Bob told me, dates back to the Kaballah. It’s his own field of play, clearly.

I’m not certain that Eliot completely gets it. As the penultimate paragraph above indicates, Lax was not sure that he did, either. Nonetheless, Eliot’s observations illuminate some of the things I admire about what Lax was doing with his art—and with his life.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Readings and Writings: The Only Way Is Up

This morning I was reading again in The ABCs of Robert Lax, a collection of critical and anecdotal essays concerning the literary theory and poetic works of Robert Lax. The essay by Nicholas Zurbrugg with which I began my reading today kicked off with a Lax quote which I had already encountered in several of the other essays in the collection:

Starting at the top and moving down, sometimes even syllable by syllable…it’s a little like movie film. ~ Robert Lax

Zurbrugg enlarges upon this quote thusly:

xxAs Robert Lax suggests in the lines above…his poetry frequently evinces a peculiarly vertical, cinematic quality, in the sense that it flows downwards, word after word – ‘even syllable by syllable’ – somewhat like the successive frames of a film.
xxConsidered in terms of this trait, the poetry of Robert Lax – and most particularly, those works that he entitles ‘Movies’ – seems to invite partial definition as one of a number of examples of verbal creativity elaborating a distinctively vertical aesthetic, as opposed both to the horizontal discourse of conventional poetry, and the multi-directional, predominately geometrical constellations of concrete poetry.

I decided to continue the series of experiments I have been making based on my appreciation of Lax’s work by composing a ‘cinematic’ poem, employing only one word per line. Many of Lax’s poems in this mode are like time-lapse nature films where one sees 20 seconds of spring unfolding in all its busy perfusion, followed by 40 seconds of quivering summer, followed by 20 seconds of brightly desiccating and molting autumn, followed by 30 seconds of successive sheets of brilliant snow. My concept of a good film, however, is one that narrates a story. So the vertically oriented, ‘cinematic’ poem which I wrote does just that:

artist > shaman > theologian


Having worded this piece to my satisfaction, I began considering that a celluloid film does not, as a physical object, actually move on a straight vertical track; it winds its way over the spools, off the reel, and behind the light and lenses of a projector. How to depict this, using the same words? I hit upon the device of arranging the words in four columns, using a boustrophedonic (‘as the ox ploughs’) orientation. But, in keeping with the cinematic concept, the poem would be arranged in vertical columns, rather than in horizontal lines. I constructed the poem using the ‘columns’ page set-up of Microsoft Word. Since this would not transfer to any of the online templates available at the various sites on which I wanted to share these pieces, I scanned the boustrophedonic version, after marking it up to demonstrate the directions in which the columns should be read:

I personally find this latter version to be more satisfying, in that the words of right-hand column climb upwards to the final word: transcendence, rather than descending to it, as they do in the strictly vertical format. This upward thrust to the word ‘transcendence’ seems most appropriate.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Readings & Writings: Shocked and Saddened

Coming like an echo of a poem I wrote and posted just the other day, are the following paragraphs from the futuristic novel, Mockingbird, by Walter Tevis. The context is that, Paul Bentley, one of a dwindling and degraded population of human beings, in a world now populated primarily by robots, has taught himself to read; a skill that has been lost by the rest of the human race. As a result of his rare skill, he is assigned the task by his robot boss, in what is apparently the archives of the New York University Library, of viewing ancient silent films and making voice recordings of the words from the films’ frames of text. Bentley is also given the equipment necessary to keep a verbal journal of his activities. Below is the entry from Day Twenty-Two of that journal:

XXOne compelling thing that keeps appearing in the films is a collection of people called a “family.” It seems to have been a very common arrangement in ancient times. A “family” is a group of people that are often together, that even appear to live all together. There are always a man and a woman—unless one of them is dead; and even then that one is often spoken of, and images of the dead one (“photographs”) are to be found near the living, on the walls and the like. And then there are the younger ones, children of different ages. And the surprising thing, the thing that seems characteristic of these “families,” is that the man and woman are always the mother and the father of all of the children! And there are older people sometimes too, and always they seem to be the mothers and fathers of either the man or the woman! I hardly know what to make of it. Everyone seems to be related.
XXAnd further, much of the sense of feelingfulness that these films have seems profoundly connected with this being related. And it seem to be presented in the films as good.
XXI know, of course, not to try being a moral judge of anyone. And certainly not of people from another time. I know the life in the films is contrary to the dictum “Alone is best”; but that is not what bothers me. After all, I have spent days at a time with other people—have even seen the same students every day for weeks. It is not the Mistake of Proximity that bothers me about those “families.” I think it may be a kind of shock that the people take such risks. They seem to feel so much for one another.
XXI am shocked and saddened by it.

Here is the poem that I mentioned above:


in old times
they stayed at home
until they married
or even after

XXXXadding to
XXXXrather than subtracting from

now the glue is gone
all is aimed at separation

are we reptiles? fish?
this is wicked


a cup of filthy twigs
some molted fluff

a random feather

self is a number

XXXXit is not the number one
XXXXself is legion

covered in bright scales

When I compare my poem to the excerpt from Mockingbird, well… I am shocked and saddened by it.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

R.I.P. - Janine Pommy Vega

Janine: Another Poet Down

I did not know the name. I had not read the poems. But the obituary portrait spoke to me. You know me, it said. I do not know you. I do not remember the name. I have not read the poems. You know me, she said. Find me. You are five years my senior. You arrived there a decade and more before me…You know, you know…the City already yours when I first arrived in Washington Square. You are tasked. You must find me, her portrait insisted. I found other portraits. I located one of your books in the stacks. Guided by the text, I track you. I told you, she whispered. I know what I know. Your poems of the seventies. Decade of delerious desire, debacle. Were you there when I sat with Leah? In St. Mark’s on the floor? Listening to Lowell? While your buddy Corso heckled his legend? I told you that I know you, her picture replied. July 1976, with your lover in Lima. I am in France on that Bicentennial Fourth. I stay in Europe. You fly on to Panama. To California. August in NY. You write of Hell’s Angels. In Russell Square, London, I am taking a fall. I know you. You know me. 1979, near the Bard Owl’s end. You write of the temple in the museum’s new wing. My Isis danced at Dendur’s dedication. Were you next to me there? Did I know you then? Hush, she said. Live. You are knowing me now.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Quote du Jour: A Poet's Confession

I was just sitting here, reading Charles Bukowski’s introduction to Notes of a Dirty Old Man, the 1969 collection of his pieces for the Los Angeles underground newspaper, Open City. Bukowski was waxing enthusiastic about the freedom given him to write and publish absolutely anything he wanted to as a columnist for Open City. During the course of this he writes something that brought to mind a slightly controversial exchange I had with members of my online writers group. In that exchange I had voiced my reasons for being content to share my poems only on my blog, or on Facebook, where I have pretty much total control over them. I explained that the effort necessary to be successful in “getting published” was not worth the frustrations involved. Nor was the payoff for that success great enough to change one’s life.

It therefore amused to me to read Bukowski saying the following about writing his column for Open City:

For action, it has poetry beat all to hell. Get a poem accepted and chances are it will come out 2 to 5 years later, and a 50-50 shot it will never appear, or exact lines of it will later appear, word for word, in some famous poet’s work, and then you know the world ain’t much. Of course, this isn’t the fault of poetry; it is only that so many shits attempt to print and write it.

Btw, this introduction also contains the following paragraph:

It’s all very strange. Just think, if they hadn’t airbrushed the cock and balls off the Christ child, you wouldn’t be reading this. So, be happy.

Dig it. What Charles said.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Readings & Writings: Seasonal Verse

Here is a short, appropriately seasonal, poem by Linda Gregg, from her collection Chosen by the Lion:

Winter Love

I would like to decorate this silence,
but my house grows only cleaner
and more plain. The glass chimes I hung
over the register ring a little
when the heat goes on.
I waited too long to drink my tea.
It was not hot. It was only warm.


Linda Gregg, a new discovery for me—via Czeslaw Milosz’s wonderful anthology A Book of Luminous Things—is a fine poet, imo. Her poems tend to work at uncovering the essential connections between the spiritual and the material, as revealed by everyday acts and things. Thus, her themes touch on the eternal universal.

Here also is a seasonal poem of mine. I have posted it before, somewhere. But this being its month, I post it again:

Ancestral January

blue cold
xxxxxcold white
xxxxxxxxxxfull moon
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxfalse light

stark, hibernal oaks
which scream at the wind
with the rage of old Lear
that all nature has sinned

cold witch in her hut
which white magic can’t warm
nor the storm’s force be tamed
by the pentagram’s form

clouds freeze to the mountain
which north winds strain to stir
frozen spikes of swift crystal
tear the forest’s stiff fur

starved wolf
xxxxxwhite hare
xxxxxxxxxxred snow
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxiron air

icy blade of the lake
bleeds the stone of the shore
fetch rags, my love, quickly
to chink fast the door

what footprints are these
what Eskimo this
who trudges toward spring
with purpling lips

woman, play on your harp
thaw the flames with your song
we’ll wrap us in skins
and drink mead until dawn


Stay warm, my friends, if you can’t make it hot.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Reflections: Solitude and Wisdom


As I sit poised to launch into the first work-week of the new year, I am thankful for the acquisition, at the tag end of 2010, of a new literary / spiritual / philosophical mentor – Robert Lax.

I admire Søren Kierkegaard. I am fascinated and at least partially convinced by Carl Jung and some of his disciples (e.g. Hermann Hesse). I enjoy reading the critical theory of Harold Bloom and share some of his interests (e.g. Gnosticism). And there are literally dozens, if not hundreds, of other creative writers and thinkers whose oeuvres I admire and have studied in their entirety. But, until my recent discovery of Robert Lax, Simone Weil inhabited a category in my regard of which she was the sole member.

Weil and Lax were very different. One was male; one female. One was primarily a poet; the other primarily a philosopher. They were alike in each having been a solitary. But very different types of solitary they were. Lax was gregarious in his solitude – living alone, but enjoying the company of friends and strangers alike. Weil was largely a true loner. Her primary association with other people was in the role of teacher.

So much do I admire each of these human paragons, that I most value in myself those things in which I detect their faint echoes. So much do I learn from studying their very different lives and modes of solitude, that I’ve come to an understanding that I probably went wrong in my life by not seeking solitude for myself.

Here, from a work of Lax’s entitled A Greek Journal, are two entries with which I strongly identify and which I admired greatly when I read them yesterday morning:

sometimes, i have conversations with an imaginary guru, naturally one who lives inside me. he used to be a psychiatrist: at least in the old days a lot of my conversations were started with, & a lot of my problems heard out or resolved by, an imaginary Viennese who listened carefully, often accusingly, & showed me with a few apt technical phrases how far i had erred in my thinking, or behavior. the Viennese fellow has disappeared; comes back if ever for very short visits; but has been replaced by chuang tzu (sometimes merton, or sometimes chuang tzu in merton translation) who tells me other wisdoms: usually the wisdoms of abstinence & avoidance; of retreat, prayer & preparation, of non-attachment, of “sitting quietly doing nothing,” of seeking smallness, not greatness, or of seeking nothing at all.
what he promotes is wisdom, what he promises is grace. zen wisdom, perhaps; zen grace, but certainly wisdom & grace.



Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reflections: Folk Song


Oh, you bring the sturm
I’ll bring the drang, honey
You bring the sturm
Und I’ll bring the drang, babe

You bring the sturm
I’ll bring the drang
We’ll go down to Götterdämmerung

Oh, honey,
Oh, baby, mine.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Quote du Jour: Poetry

from “On Poetry and Language” – Robert Lax


(language is a

poetry a phoenix

from its



(let the language
fall to ashes

& poetry
will arise)

let the language
fall to ashes

& new language
will arise


Poetry may express
the poet


It may serve as discourse
from man to man

More truly it moves
between man & God


The psalmist David
sang for the Lord,

& the spirit of the
Lord replied