earthweal weekly challenge: THE PERILOUS CHAPEL


Our literature roots in fables and myths as old as hominid consciousness. We’ve been telling this story for a long time. Modernity has erased most of our conscious connection to this long history but we yet cannot free ourselves from it. We dream, we wild, we write strange poems, still feeling the chill of awe as if we had stepped through darkness into a vast torchlit cavern painted with horses and boars.

In the last challenge, we looked at the hero’s journey, asking if those old steps might be the next work of modernity. We do so because the King is wounded or dead. There is a fish-sized wound in the groin. Healing is called for, but what collective physic might there be.

Let’s turn the next challenge toward something more personal and individual. Let’s talk poetry. We have wandered into a s wood seeking the truest nature of our hearts. (Why else write poems?) Along the way there have been many encounters and trials. We write about our origins, our families, our nights of abandon and education in the old texts We write about love and work, about music and landscape and death.

Eventually we come to this place in the middle of the woods not on any mortal map:  An eerie ruined chapel surrounded by overgrowth. Or it’s a graveyard where ghosts lament unconsecrated ground. Hackles immediately raise on our flesh as there is the foreboding of immense mortal (perhaps immortal) peril.

Jesse Weston gives us this scene in From Ritual to Romance, a literate and mythical analysis of Grail legends from a century ago:

Such an adventure befalls Gawain on his way to the Grail Castle. He is overtaken by a terrible storm, and coming to a Chapel, standing at a crossways in the middle of a forest, enters for shelter. The altar is here, with no cloth or covering, nothing but a great golden candlestick with a tall taper burning within it. Behind the altar is a window, and as Gawain looks a Hand, black and hideous, comes through the window, and extinguishes the taper, while a voice makes lamentation loud and dire, beneath which the very building rocks. Gawain’s horse shies in terror, and the knight, making the sign of the Cross, rides out of the Chapel to find the storm abated, and the great wind was calm and clear.

Weston tells us “special stress is laid on this adventure, as being part of ‘the secret of the Grail,’ of which no man or woman may speak without grave danger. She went on to suggest that the tale was probably the survival of an ancient ritual in temple located somewhere in North Britain. (Some have pointed to Glastonbury, where the Perilous Throne is located; a black stone from Iona was placed under it, and it was said that it would cry out when only a true king sat down.)

Treasures hardest to attain are hidden in deep vaults, buried in the Earth, resting at the bottom of oceans or atop unsurpassable mountains: and the gates of wonder are guarded by penultimate peril, the seventh labor which no mere mortal has ever mastered. How deep the loam of bones of past heroes, former attempts to wrest crown from sleeping dragon. (It was written that a hundred knights had failed the Perilous Chapel before Gawain.)

And what a cry (or sigh) issues when our fumbling hands strike gold …

Getting through the perilous chapel is an essential harrow prior to wonder: there is not avoiding it or getting around it. We are told the Secret of the Grail is intimate with that chamber. The finished poem—the real one which parts the gates of wonder—must survive all its drafts.

For Joseph Campbell, the Grail romances marked a transition from medieval to modern consciousness, from the authority of the church to imperatives of the capitalist ego. Desire got us there. “Of all the modes of experience by which the individual might be carried away from the safety of well-trodden grounds to the danger of the unknown,” he writes in Creative Mythology, the mode of feeling, the erotic, was the first to awaken Gothic man from his childhood slumber in authority.”

Weston (and many other) consider the sources of the Grail romances to be pre-Christian, survivals of religions dating back to the Neolithic. They were certainly heretic; that they survived at all speaks much for the daring of these late medieval poets. That they were so embraced by the late Middle Ages says people were yearning for something more than the ossified practices of the Church.

We are at a moment when what sprang from that Grail Castle—a worldly, modern capitalist world—has become as old and sterile as the Church it once quested a way around. Remember, the Fisher King is wounded or dead and only acting as if mortally wounded; he was said to have been as old as Christ and lingered only for the physic of the one true Knight’s healing. (Gawain, the one perfect knight to attain the Grail, was a medicine man as well, the most learned in the ways of herb and physic.) Will this moment of pandemic – an enchantment as weird as what animates the Perilous Chapel—allow an old extractionist and gold-grabbing impulse to die and be properly buried?

Last week’s challenge looked at the hero’s quest out from modernity. If such a quest is still possible, then is there still a Perilous Chapel we must harrow through to get to the treasure?

This week’s challenge is about finding that Chapel and a way through it. Where have you found it, what perils did you endure, how is it linked to the Grail you seek?  What is that poetry? And what initiation is required to transform modernity into Earthdom?

I can think of many ways into this challenge:

  • What of peril and its boon? Was there a darkest episode in your story which was also most defining of renewed life?
  • Are we in a perilous chapel of 21st Century flame burning ever further out of control?
  • What happened to the men’s and women’s mysteries? Have they truly been lost, or is their grail just beneath the surface of our learned manias?
  • If Trumpism is a Saturnalia—a feast of monied fools—then what is the festival which marks the vigor and promise of purged New Year? Is it a pandemic’s witchy stillness and brute transformations?
  • Where are the crossroads of awe and awfulness in your work?

Anything else suggestive of that chapel and/or harrowing is welcome, too.

Some of you might know that my blog Oran’s Well takes its name from one such perilous chapel. That story:

Back in 563 AD when Saint Columba sailed from Ireland to the island of Iona (off the southwest coast of Scotland) to found his abbey of mission and learning, work on the abbey footers was disturbed each night by a vicious storm which tore down the days work. Columba decides to vigil by the site, and after midnight a half-woman, half fish comes up out of the sea and tells him that a primal being had been disturbed by the cutting of Iona’s sward. To appease this energy, a man must be buried alive and standing up in the chapel footers. St. Oran volunteers, steps down into a gaping hole and covered over. That night no storm arrives, and work on the abbey continues. Three days later, Columba wishes to look upon the face of his dead friend and brother and has his monks disinter Oran’s face.

Suddenly Oran’s eyes pop open and the mouth speaks terribly: Everything you say of heaven and earth and God and man is WRONG: In fact, the way you think it is isn’t the way it is at all!” Horrified, Columba bids his monks cover Oran posthaste, crying “Mud! Mud back over Oran’s mouth lest he blab no more!” The living dead monk was silenced and Iona abbey went on to become one of the jewels of the dark ages, copying manuscripts and carrying the message of the Church brought to pagan Scotland.

Perhaps oddly—and perhaps in recognition of the dire transit to truth—Columba made Oran the tutelary saint of the abbey’s graveyard, saying that no man could access the angels of Iona but through him.

Maybe that’s a lot to ponder, but all I write quests in the mantle of those words—for better or verse. Somehow it feels that work—a voyage to many themes and islands—is still earnestly in search of the secret to everlasting life.

I grow to suspect that magic island is the poem done well enough. I hate to keep going back to Rilke, but his poetry suffices a century after he died.  He was old and failing, living in a patron’s house, Castel Muzot in Switzerland, struggling to finish his Elegies when he was swept up by “a hurricane of the spirit” and found more than enough words for the ache which overarched all his work. The Sonnets to Orpheus came at him so fast he said they were not so much written as transcribed.

I’ve always loved Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the 13th Sonnet from the Second Book:

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.

Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.

Shall we quest then, and harrow the many faces and places of this Perilous Chapel?


Inside the restored St. Oran chapel which welcomed the beginning of this post. The chapel sits in the center of the Iona abbey cemetery.

earthweal open link weekend #19

Welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #19.

Link a poem that best suits your own theme or mood, be it new or one of your greatest hits. Include your location in your link so we get a feel for the breadth of global reportage. And be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link weekend ends at midnight EST Sunday night to make room for Monday’s weekly challenge.

Everybody gather round!


A person, watched by his cat, notes with chalk the days spent in confinement in his home, near Lyon on the 50th day of a strict lockdown in France to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Getty Images)

There’s a lot of exhaustion in the news—the dreary toll of deepening economic malaise around the world, unemployment lines stretching out of sight, meat growing scarce, toilet paper ever-absent from grocery shelves, the drone of unrelentingness hovering in the air. We don’t stay long with the PBS News Hour before switching to more entertaining realities—documentaries, say, nightcapped by reruns of The King of Queens.

But old truths seem shallow; a two-part American Experience doc on George Bush served us the grim drumbeat of all we already knew. Has 21st Century time become so thin that it can offer no vantage on the past?

And that King of Queens: How many times are we gonna watch the same reruns of a show that ended fifteen years ago? We can recite the scripts almost verbatim and laugh like Pavlov doggies along with the studio audience. Why do we find it so hard to wander off into the vast forest of available programming, dissatisfied and untrusting of it all?

Tack it up to the rough grain of pandemic, rubbing 21st Century dailiness raw. There’s no way around it, the wounds are real and ever-worsening and climate change looms just behind it, bringing if not new catastrophe this year then the ever-increasing volume of its approach.

We poets are the namers: It’s left to us to be the imagination’s first responders, discovering the contours and resonance of the crashing world we have awakened in. It’s not a job for poesies or dilettantes; without perceptive hearts our poems are just part of the debris field of the modern swath—blown litter. Maybe there is no way for poetry to assuage this, having been fatally disrupted one or two decades ago.

Yet maybe there’s a heroic element in all of us which has waited this long to awaken, tasking us to dig deeper, try harder; to burnish our sentences and pray to the brass angel that our foundations are correct and crafted stones are correct. Again and again and again, because now it feels like survival. The road of trials is truly long, but there is a treasure still to attain.

What I love about Jack Gilbert was his tenacity in this; settling for was a specie of dying, and he was too much in love with life (or enlivened by love) to reside in suburb of easy poems. It is never enough to merely subsist in poetry; one has to dig deeper, burnish harder, revise again and again. You never know which next word might fulcrum unexpected worlds.

This poem is from Gilbert’s 1995 collection The Great Fires:


We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of racoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.

Fierce stuff. I surely and sorely take heart from this insistence, be it in writing poems or loving others or this world. I have to keep reaching for the soul inside the spirit’s gliding line.

OK, ‘nuff said for now. It’s been great to see so many folks coming out for the weekly challenges and open link weekend; hope we keep seeing you around.

Keep the faith—and keep working!


Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour broadcasts from home.

earthweal weekly challenge: MODERNITY’S HERO QUEST

Empty streets into downtown, late April 2020


Beautiful weather here in Central Florida as cool fronts still make it down this way this late in what we here call spring. They bring rain and then clear days so crisp you can make out the angel’s smile up there in the cathedral. Temps in the low 80s, breezy with the skies so blue they savor an almost amniotic grace—so fine, so fine.

Of course this will pass into the primal season of summer, and with oceans getting so hot the forecast is for one of the busiest hurricane seasons ever—22 storms: Vicious summer stuff for these parts. That’s coming, as surely as more wreckage and division as American humanity struggles with pandemic, depression and Donald Trump. But for now, how sweet and fair the days, a lolling stroll in Paradise, akin to the summer of 1938, before the long guns of August began tolling …

Sweet indeed. My wife and worked all day Saturday planting blue daze ground cover plants in an island by our kitchen window. Projects like that have been the sane backbone of our stay-in-place out-of-work sequestering; we’ve painted and organized and planted our way to this moment where Florida begins its premature reopening and hurried fantasies of returned normalcy. You should have seen the garden center of our home improvement box store yesterday, busier than the week before Christmas, social distancing, masks and care for essential home improvement workers be damned.

It’s not really apparent here that the curve has flattened—spikes were always elsewhere, in nearby Orlando or South Florida—but the herd has decided so here in such surly, commercially-afflicted moods, everything shouting We’re Baaaaaaack.

Indeed. What do you do with a truth no one lives according to? In so many ways this pandemic behaves just like the impending climate disaster upon the world’s most conscious and reckless citizens—not a collective problem each individual is responsible for. Someone gave us permission to believe whatever we want to believe—blame the Internet, FOX News and Facebook—and now the avatar of our cultural We is Alfred E. Neumann, lost between asshole and hole in the ground.

Ed Yong of The Atlantic Monthly has been brilliant writing about the pandemic; in his latest, “Why The Pandemic Is So Confusing,” he takes a step back to look at science in real time and the difficulties it imposes on a world become everything and nothing at once. Solutions aren’t pulled out of a hat, and the distance between this moment and the one in which a vaccine is available to all is neither straight nor short. (The average wait time for vaccines is around 13 years.) We’re dealing with a tricky virus with a host of strange properties and complications; it carries well into the crowd because so many of the infected don’t show symptoms, but those who sicken quickly imperil a health system never meant to sustain waves so high.

Indeed, there is so much about our modernity which makes pandemic its perfect foil, Gawain and the Green Knight. Yong writes,

… The desire to name an antagonist, be it the Chinese Communist Party or Donald Trump, disregards the many aspects of 21st-century life that made the pandemic possible: humanity’s relentless expansion into wild spaces; soaring levels of air travel; chronic underfunding of public health; a just-in-time economy that runs on fragile supply chains; health-care systems that yoke medical care to employment; social networks that rapidly spread misinformation; the devaluation of expertise; the marginalization of the elderly; and centuries of structural racism that impoverished the health of minorities and indigenous groups. It may be easier to believe that the coronavirus was deliberately unleashed than to accept the harsher truth that we built a world that was prone to it, but not ready for it.

Prone to it but not ready for it: That’s the space where pandemic and climate change come at us in exactly the same way, of course for their imminent danger but moreso our inability to response to those threats, looking for other things to blame, complaining about the economic costs, ignoring victims on distant shores.

Perhaps the perfect example of this is my wife and I working hard Saturday in the full sun of the front yard, pulling weeds, laying landscape fabric, planting blue daze from 1-gallon pots, laying mulch and watering: A full day’s effort in upper-80s heat and blazing sun, kneeling, digging, lifting, moving, raking and watering; bitching too, and laughing and sweating with play-by-play meows from Domino, the stray male tuxedo cate who has adopted us with a passion and who sat mostly in shade watching us fools work in the sun.

What did we learn there, I wonder. What did we earn. We sure were exhausted at day’s end, and I have sore muscles today in calves and back and shoulders and neck. Moving slow. It feels good though to have done some hard work for the sake of the house my wife and I call home. Common ground and purpose in the face of unrelenting chaos is good. It’s also an suburban indulgence that turns separation intos something too sweet for torches and pitchforks and campaigns for change.

Maybe that’s why these earthweal challenges and open link weekends are spluttering out after four months: Of that real earth and its dire need for change there is just not that much to say, especially not now when difficulty and despair feels close, comes in the daily mail and weighs so heavily on dreams. Who wouldn’t work in the garden and sing of blue daze? Is that making the best of difficulty or whistling in a growing dark?

Yong, again:

In the classic hero’s journey—the archetypal plot structure of myths and movies—the protagonist reluctantly departs from normal life, enters the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home, having been transformed. If such a character exists in the coronavirus story, it is not an individual, but the entire modern world. The end of its journey and the nature of its final transformation will arise from our collective imagination and action. And they, like so much else about this moment, are still uncertain.

Hmm, how about that for a weekly challenge.  If you could speak for that global persona—modernity as hero—what would his/her task be in this changed new world, the travel and trials, the treasure and its rewards? Have pandemic and climate change turned the kingdom into a wasteland, if so, what is it that can heal the aging king/queen and restore the land to vitality?

A starting point could be to illustrate the change. Is pandemic the Fisher King’s wound or its cure? Frank Bruni had a great column in yesterday’s New York Times, speaking with Laurie Garrett, a journalist who had predicted both the HIV crisis as well as this pandemic. What she sees ahead, Bruni writes, is bleak if you’re all for small government and protect-the-rich tax policy. (Progressives, gimme a high-five.)

Bruni asked Garrett how much of the world had changed before our eyes:

I asked, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

“This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We securitized the United States. We turned into an antiterror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

Not the metal detectors, but a seismic shift in what we expect, in what we endure, in how we adapt.

Maybe in political engagement, too, Garrett said.

If America enters the next wave of coronavirus infections “with the wealthy having gotten somehow wealthier off this pandemic by hedging, by shorting, by doing all the nasty things that they do, and we come out of our rabbit holes and realize, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not just that everyone I love is unemployed or underemployed and can’t make their maintenance or their mortgage payments or their rent payments, but now all of a sudden those jerks that were flying around in private helicopters are now flying on private personal jets and they own an island that they go to and they don’t care whether or not our streets are safe,’ then I think we could have massive political disruption.”

“Just as we come out of our holes and see what 25 percent unemployment looks like,” she said, “we may also see what collective rage looks like.”

Imagine this moment as the beginning of a quest for humanity. A curtain lowered and then raised to a very different world. Has our world become a wasteland of former occupations and expectations? What is it that humanity needs so for its great wound—a vaccine or a Green New Deal? Guaranteed income or global health policy? A resurgent economy or a slowly rebuilt one? What’s the prize beyond measure, the treasure hard to attain? Be mythic or hard boiled. And what map takes us there?

Today is my brother Timm’s birthday. He would be 58 had he not died twelve years ago. If there was a letter I could write to him in oblivion, I wonder how much differently the world today I would describe to him—in the midst of this pandemic and peeling at the edges from a heating climate— would look from the day he departed on April 18, 2008. What do I tell him about his beloved Obama, who was then running for president? How could I describe the apotheosis of social media and the tyranny of Donald Trump, the rising tides and engulfing wildfires, the whirling maleficence of storm? Or the witchy stillness of this global pandemic …

Questions for oblivion. But what of the living? While we were slugging away planting a legion of blue daze on Saturday afternoon, my wife and I were distracted by the sound of car horns getting louder from some blocks away. Were protestors headed for City Hall in their gas-guzzling cars, assault rifles poking out of windows, drivers pointing a belligerent middle finger to quaintness and doing the right thing and being so muckety-muck mindful? (Another parallel between pandemic and climate change: Both outrage the libertarian sensibilities of the incorrect.)

But the horns veered off the main drag and headed up our street, and soon we discovered their source: A line of sensible Toyotas and Hyundais and Fords decked out with school colors and soaped windows proclaiming the Super Senior Class of ’20! and the like, fifteen or twenty cars with kids at the wheel pumping the horns and hollering with sprung joy. This is our new normal, and here were the carriers of the hero’s journey into the world.

We leaned on hoe and rake and wearily tried to wave at each car, giving these kids something while schools remained closed. The procession came and then went, headed, we could hear, from the locked high school toward downtown. So far so good, I thought; but then we are only in the early innings of a long game with this virus. A few more plantings, then black mulch to pour out from five large bags, then watering and cleanup and we could finally head back inside to salve our victorious wounds.

Domino the stray cat lay in the shade, fretting at fleas and sniffing the soft wind. Waiting of course for dinner but for something else also to come—love, a fresh pact, something.

My dreams have been tortures of late—lost in huge buildings late a night trying to find a class or a job seminar

Maybe we have a world—or a We—awakening to something greater than spring.

And maybe humanity is the wound and pandemic the knight errant who saves the world.

What’s your take? Challenge open till 4 PM Friday when we open the doors for weekend open links.


earthweal open link weekend #18

Welcome to earthweal open link weekend #18.

Share a new poem or something classic from your vault, include your location in your link and be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Open link weekend ends at midnight EST Sunday night to make room for Monday’s weekly challenge.

Interesting times!