Orientation

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After a map by Isidore of Seville, c. 622 CE

1.

A loaded word, but just a

word. In simpler times and terms, more about which direction
one faced. Facing correctly,
specifically, eastward—or

oriented—the east, or the Orient. Reoriented

from our contemporary perspective: neither right nor

left, our east or west, but upward or northward on the mappae mundi.
Orientem, oriens—the rising sun, the part of

the sky also where the sun rises every morning. Up, as if to imply
over our heads, and slips behind us in the evening time.
How literal and silly cartographers were

back then. Silly as toddlers. As a toddler boy who asks

a simple question: “When my eyes get bigger and bigger, will

I see the whole. World.”

And his mother and father not knowing what he means,
supposing: See it

as it is. As topsy-turvy, turned upon its head, like those old maps

perhaps, which look remarkably as though they’d been drawn
by toddlers’ hands: Their dependence on such thick lines.

2.

Thick black lines, but no longitude or latitude. Though we give them
a lot of latitude for being so simple-minded, such old men,

to think that the world was flat or carried once on a turtle’s back—

our houses being houdahs, our Oriental carpets spun of
magic flax—or a cosmogonic egg,

cracked, poached, over easy or sunny-side up. Made to order. “Order up.”

Silly as Quetzalcoatl or Pangu—moving heaven and earth for you

while walking on eggshells—calculating
Hubble’s constant, constantly counting it out on

fingers and toes and expanding the poles of this
spheroid cosmos, according to one
ancient Chinese legend, like the ends of a breaking

egg separating—as a Big Bang, and as arcane.

3.

Or just plain arcane. Ancient,
archaic. Archaeo-, meaning olden or

from the beginning, like a rising up, oriri, to rise, or *ergh,

similarly, raise or set in motion or stir.
Stirring, too, a beginning: And styrian,*sturjanan, storan
to scatter or destroy—as much an

end as it is a beginning. As a storm is

also its own refreshment. Or the snake’s consumption of

self is at the same moment a regurgitation of itself:
The Ouroboros, an ancient symbol. Or how the latest found fact of archeology

is simultaneously eschatology:
the last writing being also
the first writing
, as in Alpha and Omega. Which is

why the aboriginal—ab origine, from the beginning,
originalis, origo—ever faced
the east, in the first place. In the first

place, which in the last place is why we find ourselves so disoriented. Turning

bigger and bigger telescopes: And so many suns in the sky.


First published in issue 41.1, Fall/Winter 2014, of Black Warrior Review. This poem received a 2014 Pushcart Prize nomination.

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Sunstars and Sunfish

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The other day, while riding in the car, the boys started arguing about a species of cannibalistic starfish. They didn’t argue over its existence. Nor over its nature. But over its name. One saying it was a sunfish. The other a sunstar. It nearly came to blows as each convinced of themselves expressed their certainty through raised voices and insistent language—both wishing to rescue each other from bad thinking. Only my intervention prevented violence from erupting.

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Salt

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You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
—Jesus, from the sermon “Salt and Light” (Matthew 5:13-16)

 

From PIE *sal-, where we get the word for ‘soldier’—sal dare, ‘to give salt to’, or
earn one’s salt, which is how they were paid in those days—if
Pliny the Elder is to be believed.

And they are plentiful, now, and everywhere. And they salt the earth
with their boot-soles—soldiers sent to the four corners. As if a common
misinterpretation of Jesus’ words occurred—chieftains and
heads of state taking seriously a godly burden to season everything

sufficiently. And the soldiers, before ever they will be
beaten into ploughshares eons from now, dig their swords in and turn
them—sowing fields with their salinity. Singing:

We are the salt and the light and we do not salt lightly. Salty as
sailors we are, we are the salt sent away to give
the sea its brine. We are pillars of salt on sortie assailing what is not Kosher with
teaspoons. We draw lines. We hold them.
We have many followers. We are turned loose afield and no field is left fallow

of us. Which is the hal- of it. Salt, or sea-salt. Or the ceaselessness of
sea. As in the sea will always have its own way—its way
being halcyon. Of the sea—or of itself—even if tempestuous. And a cruel mistress.
The surf—the incessant
lapping of its salt-lick against the sand. The sand—a thin
line of peeling scab tended by seaweed salves and hermit crabs

and beach goers. Gawking with beach towels. And beach chairs and
trowels and beach umbrellas. Resting on beached
asses. Their crucifixes buried
in chest hairs. Deep as beach grasses. And maybe they’re languishing

with picnic baskets, copper mules of sweet tea, and a dash
of salt in their chocolate chip cookies. Like the gentrified gathered on the lawn
in their Sunday’s best
to watch the First Battle of Bull Run. Or that stretch
of sand might be Thermopylae. All that stands between. The Devil and the deep blue sea.


First published in the Spring 2018 issue of Relief.

The Sojourning Soul

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My son this morning came up the stairs in tears. He was distraught over some pain he was feeling. Afraid that it was something calamitous. That might require medical attention and all the discomfort of it. Perhaps it will. Time will tell. But what he needed in the moment was to be heard. Not comforted but heard. His fears acknowledged. His pain too. Not written off or given to some sentimentally spiritual aphorism. Or that phrase which is just impoverished optimism, “It’ll be OK”. He needed to know that I identified with him in his fear and pain.

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Collapse Back to Joy

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In Rilke’s masterpiece, Sonnets to Orpheus, he writes:

…take your heaviness
and give it back to the earth’s own weight;
the mountains are heavy, the oceans are heavy.

Even the trees you planted as children
have long grown too heavy; you could not bear them.

Which is reminiscent of Paul: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth…Not only so, but we ourselves…groan inwardly…” (Romans 8:22 & 23) On the way back home from our last farewell with Granddad I was heavy. Heavy with him weakened and dying, heavy already feeling the loss. What a loss not to be able to hear him one last time. Upon arriving home another loss: a simple conversation. One easily, up until then, taken for granted. Spoken liturgically between us: “We’re safe, Granddad. Yeah, we made record time. Yep, we got 34 mpg.”

Rilke goes on a few short sonnets later: Continue reading

Tree

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Old English treotreow, from Proto-Germanic *treuwaz-, from PIE *deru-

Being ‘firm’ and ‘solid’. And ‘steadfast’. Being also
bigger than life. And ageless, like a god,
whose shoulders are exceedingly broad
and good for heaving. Or stands defiant on a mountain top,
upholding, some say the world, or
the heavens, lugged like luggage upon its back.
Moreover, good for ornamental purposes, as in a garden.
Or The Garden: good for knowledge
of all kinds, but specifically of good and evil.
Or tucked away in the middle silence of a wood, writing in
concentric circles of rings ringing rings around
the first day of its stillness—the perfect silent
center of its singularity, which in time
will encompass the forest, stretch forever beyond
the reach of the woodsman’s axe.

§

Spreading its tendrils. Its roots like
*deru-, the deepest root, which brings us
treu, ‘truth’. The Bodhi tree.
The Dryads. Or Daphne disappearing.
No one remembers.
The ancient, hardwood forests
harvested of their
old-growth gods. Or the signs
of their autumn. Yellow leaves,
ochre with golden edges for flames.
Or any signs at all. Or the scrawl
of words into sidewalks,
or onto stone tablets. Or carved by
naked druidesses into the trunks of trees.
We need the lumber. We’re told. We need
the room—this stand
of trees stands in the way.
Imagine the empty glade
uncluttered without its
tyrannical choking canopies.
And the allotted
tall fescue plots. We must
level and grade,
irrigate, seed and over-seed, pluck
the dandelions out,
mow and bag the clippings.

§

Seedlings upon seedlings of trees that mock
the mower, mock the lawn care expert—march ever onward
like the march of forager ants
carrying more seeds on their backs—seeking to put down
roots. Seeking a grain of
truth to swallow. Once the ancient Mayan cities were
swallowed up because someone stopped
mowing the lawn—stopped listening
to Kukulkan. Who was fond of saying:
Rev up those mowers, boys. Kick up the din. There’s always
another forest on the way. Saplings to be kept at bay.

Teeming, true as: *treuwaz-. Can’t see the forest for—the Silence.


First published in issue No. 18, Spring 2017, of Waccamaw.

Tragic

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From Gk. tragos, “goat” + oide, “song”

Like melodious goats: or Leporello listing off a cavalcade
of conquests, or masquerading as
Don Giovanni. Donning goatskins—like Brünnhilde—
breastplates, and Viking caps—
sipping from wineskins, singing in highest keys
of kinfolk, of forefathers, lesser gods, and our own glorious
deeds abroad.
And the all-caps and shift-keys for
runes of warning. And the emojis for Venetian masks.
And the straw-fields for straw-men avatars. And also, for erection
of straw houses meant to ward off big-bad things.

And we have no regrets—forgetful
as we are of our fears—eating our sandwiches over keyboards like
‘Earls of Card Games’—of Rivers, of Flops. We grow
extra-long mutton chops.
We wear monocles and other affectations. We huff and puff and
no one calls our bluff.

Like school girls or boys we sing: who’s afraid of
who’s afraid of—And no one will say:
they are
afraid. Of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Or a faun. Or say a satyr with a golden fleece on. But the gold
is a satire and the Minotaur is
daddy issues. No one wants to give up

the goat. And how we get each other’s
goats. Say: I love you—but. Oy vey,
oide. Meaning: ‘what the hell, you goat’. And the Azazel being
the devil’s goat. A neckline—something to tie our loose nooses from,
smack squarely on the ass and watch run away as fast as

falsetto sirens.
The Sirens aren’t goats, after all, but like goats they’ll devour
what’s put in front of them. A steamer ship full of butterscotch candies or
a full grown man. I heard of a goat once who could wolf down
tin cans—adding a bit of
tintinnabulation and synesthesia to the tincture of its
bleating songs—the color, now, of Semillon—sweet, and rotted with botrytis.


First published in issue No. 18, Spring 2017, of Waccamaw.

Redoubtable

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Yet our hope lies
in the unknown,
in our unknowing.

—Denise Levertov, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus

From the Old French redoutable, from redouter
(to dread), from re- (again), douter (to doubt, fear). An
acknowledgment, a coming to terms with,

what’s unknown is terrible.

St. Thomas, no doubt, terrible for his doubts,
called Didymus, called Doubting Thomas, the terrible
Didymus, with sight and blind with sight. What is he to you, now—
you, who grope your way about this wounded
world. Your doubt is not exceptional—your doubt is commonplace.
Such is terror,

our terror, each day’s terror, almost a form of boredom, like a dog

licking its wounds, with its tongue rasping
the gape and gouge—the world, whole world, a wound—the wound
with saliva and lysozyme, with spittle and thrombospondin. With spittle,
starting with the eyes, with mud and spittle in the eye and a man saying, “Go

and wash yourself. And see.” Or stick your finger inside and work

it around a bit. Or hesitate, dubitare, waver
between two things, two premises like a dilemma—we live in terror of
what we know, we live in terror of what we do not know.
Duo-, duwo-, tweon,
twin—

and Thomas meaning twin and Didymus, too,

be of two minds in the matter. Two, yes, dubious
minds and one in disbelief. While the others wag
a finger and say, “Keep your hands to yourself, why don’t you, Thomas, and if
you do not mind.” Wiggle not thy finger in, and do, or do not, believe in.

Blessed is he who believes. Blessed is he who is able

to nibble fish. To bear the thrust of our hands, and the repeated
thrust of our unbelief. Or a finger in the fissure. Or the plunge of an arm
to its elbow, in and out. Who is able
to be doubted, himself, redoubtable, then, as now, again and again.


First published in issue 8.2, Spring 2016, of Relief.

Tradition

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A handing down. To us

from Latin trans-, over (or across or beyond), and dare, to give.
Also, to surrender

through traditus, traditio and traditionem. Down, say the Via Appia, or
the Appian Way, over the Alps and later by way of
French townships. Whose townspeople would say:

tradicion. Which becomes a word of interest out of its antiquity,
its lengthy history as a
doppelganger for treason, a handing over.

Which is handed down and

over the same Latin way—road, route, or Latin roots—except

via an unexpected twist taken by the French: traison.
The French being so persnickety and peculiar that way. Being

Gauls and ghoulish and having the gall, being also somewhat foolish,
to distinguish between up and down, or over and under, or over and

down in this way, as if down the road there isn’t also over the hill. Isn’t also

our own doubts? And how many we aren’t yet over. As if
it is always one or the other and not first
handed over before it is handed down to us

to doubt. Remember

Rahab. Who for her part is always called the harlot.
Letting down those spies from her

Jericho high rise. Down a length of rope,
never mind the length (the length being irrelevant):

and each one hand over hand.

Too, letting down her townsfolk. Handing them over
to the Israelites. Even those
who had admired and kissed her thighs. Or
Judas, called Iscariot, whose betrayal was a kiss.
Whose betrayal was long foretold. Some say decreed,
a handing down through time.

But woe to that man who betrays: for he is often found at the end

of his rope. And betray being betrairbe-, thoroughly, completely,
or surrounded on all sides and given over and over and from hand to hand
across all time. Which is
just down the road, being itself the end of the road.

And so many of us on this road without

so much as a rope: trair, traitor, tradere. And trado, traditio, and so
not so far beyond

“to surrender to.” A handing over of self
to another self, whom himself is handed down and

handed over.


First published July 21, 2016 The Curator.

Stump

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The country will look like pine and oak forest with every tree cut down—every tree a stump, a huge field of stumps. But there’s a holy seed in those stumps.
— Isaiah 6:13

1. Middle English stumpe; Old German stumph

There’s something to the fact it traces its lineage back
through Saxon and not Norman
dialect. As if there’s only room for stump in a
conquered tongue. Such a hard stop
to it. Like—earh, arwe—an arrow, its sharp point,
through an eye. Or something cut off. Dramatic
like an ear. Or hand. Or tongue.
They say it was the country poor,
the curt, who preserved
such stunted words, as these—words as ‘body,’ bewd, and
‘blood,’ bloud. But also ‘trampled’ on. Presumably
to name and sing their oppression. See stamp.

2. Old English stempan; Old German stampfen

To extinguish a fire by stomping on it—call it stamping:
impressing an unfamiliar countenance on your
countenance—who stammers—stammr,
stamaron—to remember
itself ever more timorously as the axe hammer falls.
Where nothing stands except those standing on
stumps stamping to stop the murmurs. Or embers.
Do you remember. Once you burned inside—
stood erect in a thicket of light, immeasurable as
mirrors turned on mirrors. See step.

3. PIE *stebh-

In grammar school there was a boy named Rex—
a poor soul who stuttered every second syllable.
All of his efforts to talk like a line of tall trees cut down,
dotting his horizon. Even so, he struggled to
step over them. And we struggled to let him—some of us
took pity, helped him finish
his sentences. We told ourselves it was to end his
bouts of misery. To end our own, we laughed—
and laughed—hysterically when he would trip
over a word. Day after day, he took those same hard
stops—imperturbably
(imagine him saying that word)—
now as then, stepping into his agony, never once biting his tongue.


First published in issue 8.2, Spring 2016, of Relief.

Tenuous

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It’s a bit like a teeter, son, with no
totter, but more of what we are talking about here, a stretching
between two sides. Ridiculous,

I’m sure, but let’s pretend, as in prætendere, to stretch forth, or præ- as in before the stretch, which, in
our case, could be with a stick around a spent fire pit, or on a short
walk around the block, just the two of us—

teneo, tenere, tenui, tentus, the same root which brings to us
soft/tender, as well as to hold/to take. And
what’s more appropriate to father and son than to take
you in my arms to hold you, to take your tender
frame, tendere, to stretch it?

We might call this growing up, kid, but you’ll probably come to know it better
through its Proto-Indo-European as reig- where comes riag and
rack—a form of torture, admittedly of a kind which involves
stretching—a reach. Or a stretch.

For now, let’s say it’s only your eyes that need

lengthening. “Look at the sky.” Lift up your eyes at what’s passing
by—bye and bye—in a pressurized
cabin and reckon, ræcan. Lift your eyes like airfoils.

It’s as good as metaphysics to you,

as the distinction between Dasein and ousia

and all that matters. The dozen acorns you stuff your pockets
with, or a collection of cicada skins. The branches piled and sorted in a
red, rusted wagon. Squirrels, and the sprint of
squirrels. Toadstools, earthworms, unearthed ants.

And if ants, a chance to squat and watch them throng
their eggs, marveling at the ones with wings so far underground.

Why won’t you reach

or, at least, rake the remnant ashes of last night’s fire into
mountain peaks—tightrope the ridge of their spine, then traverse the thinning atmosphere all the way to the pocked cheek of the moon? Instead,

when you settle—making mounds, tents,

hovels—pronounce rather insistently, “It’s for the meerkats.” Or
groundhogs. Or some other animal
which burrows. Odd,

I know, how you always totter down, never stretching your wings—unaware of
wings. Ridiculous

how I reminisce, teetering again on this
seesaw, see-saw—on this ci-ça—thinly veiled,

as this, or that.


First published in issue 10, Winter, of Sundog Lit.