19th century Chukchi Sealskin Map of the Bering Strait
One of the projects on my retirement bucket list is to write a biography of my father. It was a dying wish of his that I do it, he even willed me some money for travel to work on the book. I haven’t lent myself to book-length projects before, but I’m finding that retirement is widening such horizons. (Right now I’m collecting past poetry for several collections which I’ll self-publish.)
Actually, my concept is to do a spiritual history of my father’s time at Columcille, the so called megalithic park in eastern Pennsylvania he founded in 1975.
Several attempts a wider biography of him have failed to get off the ground; his story is a confusing mess of ambitions as Presbyterian minister, errant father, closeted gay, confessor of industries, attendant to geopolitics and founder of a New Age-style spiritual center. A muddy history. A simpler — and perhaps purer— task for me would be to narrow the focus on the last four decades of his life, when he left New York City and all that big world music to stake himself to a 20-acre plot of forest and field and slowly entwine his spirit with the land’s until his death in 2018, at age 91. At first there was just a lot of hard work, year after year of expanding the house, building a chapel in the woods, bell tower in the field and raising large and larger stones in a circle in the field, a massive dolmen atop a glen and throughout the woods with names like Brigit and Manannan, Sirius and Moonstone.
There is the tale of how those things came to being – a history – yet there is also their inner story, what they were connected to as my father brooded and dreamt and traveled to Iona, encountering beings of magnitude he called Guardians, who once said to him your work is our work and our work is yours — an apt way to describe a loving relationship with the land.
There is the story of how the legend of St. Oran came back to Columcille, taking root in the St. Columba Chapel and St. Oran bell tower; his vision on Dun I which translated into the 30’ stone Manannan atop the hill at the back of the property; the voice of the god of the North wind triangulating into Thor’s Gate, the massive dolmen atop the Glen of the Angels, where passage through veil of time is thin.
A map of the grounds was created about 20 years ago for visitors. In it, all the stones are indicated, as well as groves, trails through the woods and sacred sites for men and women. Fancifully, beyond you can see the hills of New Jersey and, way in the distance, the island of Iona. I can look at it and recall the projects over the years – how the Garden of Life became a pond in 1978, chapel was built in 1979, the St. Oran Bell tower raising level by level for decades, the festivals of midsummer and Samhuin and Beltane staged throughout the land. Legends and myth inform all of those, some strictly Celtic, others generally pagan and Christian, most fanciful.
To me, that’s the more compelling story, bringing into focus a geography where history and its mysteries named a sacred landscape. As the Columcille community forges on, the mythic history is what will have the greater value for generations.
Beltane festival at Columcille, 2012
While the example of my father is rather plain to see (and making the writing of it quite attainable, even for a son), we all have in our life-tales a unique landscape of history and its mysteries.
Poetry was absent from much of my history. The vocation of it came to me sketchily and fitfully at first — a few paltry things here and there — it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that it slowly took root as a daily practice and grown and flourished from there. It has been through the lens of poetry that I’ve learned to read events from the inside, so to speak, where deeper, older, stranger, more beautiful currents of mystery connect them. The dots of my history have found deeper connections. (The next book of poetry I’m working on will be titled Bios.)
Learning to read one’s environment requires that history and mystery intersect. Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams saw how sacred and profane geographies merged in the Eskimo mind. He writes,
The aspiration of aboriginal people throughout the world has been to achieve a congruent relationship with the land, to fit well in it. The dream of this transcendent congruency included the evolution of a hunting and gathering relationship with the earth, in which a mutual regard was understood to prevail; but it also meant a conservation of the stories that bind the people to the land.
… The place-fixing stories that grew out of the land were of two kinds. The first kind, which was from the myth time and which occurred against the backdrop of a mythical landscape, was usually meticulously conserved. …
The second kind of story included stories about traveling and what had happened to everyone in the years that could be recalled. It was at this place that my daughter was born; or this is where my brother-in-law killed two caribou the winter a bear killed all my dogs; or this, Titiralik, is the place where my family has camped since before I was born.
The undisturbed landscape verifies both sorts of story, and it is the constant recapitulation in sacred and profane contexts of all these stories that keeps the people alive and the land alive in the people. Language, the stories, holds the vision together. (297-8)
Sadly for our time, history is scattered and the mystery of it largely lost as our language whittles to a whimper. It makes for flat, disoriented, rageful and vacuous spaces. No one home.
Still, I wonder about the things which conjoin in the life-stories we tell and the mysterious poems we make of them. There still is history and mystery. And it’s why I think the whole-making we undertake here at earthweal is precious and vital. Celebrating the intersections of sacred and profane in the heightened language of poetry, songlines still can nurture a profound sense of awe for our world to hand down to generations to come. It’s difficult work, but what else are we gonna do?
For this week’s challenge, provide a map of history’s mysteries. Sketch a landscape — it can be your personal history, or a place you inhabit now or did once, or is a place experiencing great change (like the polar regions Sherry bid us visit last week, or regions vastly dry, like the Southwest United States, or wet, like Pakistan) or even a mythic one) — and point out its sacred and profane landmarks. A birth occurred there, a rebirth there. Long years of bad drinking shadowed that town in a cold mist, a great garden fed multitudes with the body of a buried mother. A Weird Sister appeared at a crossroads, a dark wood sang all night with the voices of the drowned. It might be your own body in the mirror, it could be a family tree or a lake or seashore. Maybe it is the land of the eagle or the one where you learned to write poems or love well. You can also write about such maps being lost. How does history and mystery intersect in these places, what have you learned?
Lead the way!
I lay my head sideways on the desk,
My fingers interlocked under my cheekbones,
My eyes closed. It was a three-room schoolhouse,
White, with a small bell tower, an oak tree.
From where I sat, on still days, I’d watch
The oak, the prisoner of that sky, or read
The desk carved with adults’ names: Marietta
Martin, Truman Finnell, Marjorie Elm;
The wood hacked or lovingly hollowed, the flies
Settling on the obsolete & built-in inkwells.
I remember, tonight, only details, how
Mrs. Avery, now gone, was standing then
In her beige dress, its quiet, gazelle print
Still dark with lines of perspiration from
The day before; how Gracie Chin had just
Shown me how to draw, with chalk, a Chinese
Ideogram. Where did she go, white thigh
With one still freckle, lost in silk?
No one would say for sure, so that I’d know,
So that all shapes, for days after, seemed
Brushstrokes in Chinese: countries on maps
That shifted, changed colors, or disappeared:
Lithuania, Prussia, Bessarabia;
The numbers four & seven; the question mark.
That year, I ate almost nothing.
I thought my parents weren’t my real parents,
I thought there’d been some terrible mistake.
At recess I would sit alone, seeing
In the print of each leaf shadow, an ideogram—
Still, indecipherable, beneath the green sound
The bell still made, even after it had faded,
When the dust-covered leaves of the oak tree
Quivered, slightly, if I looked up in time.
And my father, so distant in those days,
Where did he go, that autumn, when he chose
The chaste, faint ideogram of ash, & I had
To leave him there, white bones in a puzzle
By a plum tree, the sun rising over
The Sierras? It is not Chinese, but English—
When the past tense, when you first learn to use it
As a child, throws all the verbs in the language
Into the long, flat shade of houses you
Ride past, & into town. Your father’s driving.
On winter evenings, the lights would come on earlier.
People would be shopping for Christmas. Each hand,
With the one whorl of its fingerprints, with twenty
Delicate bones inside it, reaching up
To touch some bolt of cloth, or choose a gift,
A little different from any other hand.
You know how the past tense turns a sentence dark,
But leaves names, lovers, places showing through:
Gracie Chin, my father, Lithuania;
A beige dress where dark gazelles hold still?
Outside, it’s snowing, cold, & a New Year.
The trees & streets are turning white.
I always thought he would come back like this.
I always thought he wouldn’t dare be seen.
— from Winter Stars (1985)
Vincent Van Gogh, Landscape at St. Rémy (1889)
BRIEFLY IT ENTERS, AND BRIEFLY SPEAKS
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years. . . .
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper. . . . .
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me. . . .
I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden. . . .
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge. . . .
I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .
the longest hair, white
before the rest. . . .
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow. . . .
I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name.
— from Collected Poems (2005).
I returned to a long strand,
the hammered curve of a bay,
and found only the secular
powers of the Atlantic thundering.
I faced the unmagical
invitations of Iceland,
the pathetic colonies
of Greenland, and suddenly
those fabulous raiders,
those lying in Orkney and Dublin
their long swords rusting,
those in the solid
belly of stone ships,
those hacked and glinting
in the gravel of thawed streams
were ocean-deafened voices
warning me, lifted again
in violence and epiphany.
The longship’s swimming tongue
was buoyant with hindsight—
it said Thor’s hammer swung
to geography and trade,
thick-witted couplings and revenges,
the hatreds and behind-backs
of the althing, lies and women,
exhaustions nominated peace,
memory incubating the spilled blood.
It said, ‘Lie down
in the word-hoard, burrow
the coil and gleam
of your furrowed brain.
Compose in darkness.
Expect aurora borealis
in the long foray
but no cascade of light.
Keep your eye clear
as the bleb of the icicle,
trust the feel of what nubbed treasure
your hands have known.’
— from North (1975)
WHEN YOU SELECT THE DAUGHTER CARD
as part of a reimagined Tarot deck
The Daughter imparts her bravery to those
who are willing to collect urchin
and pearl. She is sometimes mistaken
for mermaid, but she can also walk quiet
on the shore, symbolizing a harmony
between earth and the dazzle of the sea.
this car is often associated with blue,
blood-true, but sometimes chilled
from the watery mysteries of too many
narwhal spins. This card carries a suggestion
of permanent ink. The power flowing
through the Daughter is oceanic, the rupture
of pillow lava on the seafloor. The card’s lower half
features a fountain pen, which symbolizes
history and future-history. By seeking
to understand and accept the more salty aspects
of yourself, you might grow another arm or leg,
pointing at your truest love. If you fear that you
have not fully accepted all the many hard
and wondrous ways you are loved, don’t siphon
away your frustration. The Daughter symbolizes
a knowledge of the mysteries of family found
inside of a mollusk but does not restrict you
to dozens of scallop-eyes spying on you.
The Daughter reminds you to look
for moon-glow on every leaf and sea grape.
Such wonderment and safety are in store for you.
—from Oceanic (2018)
What is the division between good intention
and best behavior? Or rather, let’s say it’s
a fence, a ditch, some sort of barrier since
many times we stand on one side looking over
at the creature we should be but aren’t. And this,
it seems, is where we are often most human,
lost in the country between Want To and Can’t.
A man is hitchhiking. The devil picks him up.
Where to? says the devil, who is in disguise
and looks like an old lady in a blue straw hat
who just happens to be driving a Ferrari.
My father is sick, I must see him, says
the man who’s never been in a Ferrari before.
This one is red and very fast. The man has to
hang onto his baseball cap. The world flies by.
Apparently by accident, they zoom past
the father’s house. The man doesn’t speak.
After a few more blocks, the devil makes
a U-turn and drives him back. That was
a real treat, says the man. Inside, he finds
that two weeks have gone by. His father
is dead and buried. Everyone is disappointed.
Even the police have been out looking. What
can I say, says the man, I guess I let you down.
The phone rings. It’s his wife who tells him,
Come home right away. The man hitchhikes home.
The devil picks him up in his bright red Ferrari.
By now the man is suspicious but yet when they
whiz by his house he doesn’t make a peep.
He leans back and feels the sun on his brow.
When the devil gets him home two more weeks
have disappeared. His wife has moved out lock,
stock and barrel; the house is empty except
for the telephone, which begins to ring. Now
it’s his mother who’s sick. I’ll be right over,
says the man. The Ferrari is waiting at the curb.
The man doesn’t hesitate. He leaps inside.
He leans back. Once more the wind is in his hair.
He wallows in soft leather as in a warm bath.
But this time he knows the score, knows the driver
isn’t a little old lady, knows they will zoom
past his mother’s house, that he won’t protest.
He knows his mother will die, that he’ll miss
the funeral. He searches his soul for just
a whisper of guilt but if it’s there, it’s been
drowned out by the purr of the big motor.
Am I really so weak? the man asks himself.
And he peers across that metaphorical ditch
to the sort of person he would like to be,
but he can’t make the jump, bridge the gap.
Why can’t I fight off temptation? he asks.
He sees his future is as clear as a map
with all the bad times circled in red.
He knows that as crisis is piled on crisis
he will find the Ferrari waiting at the curb
and that no matter how hard he tries to resist
he will succumb at last to the wish to feel
the wind riffle his hair, the touch of leather,
to be lulled by the gentle vibration of the motor
as life slips by in a succession of short rides.
— from Cemetery Nights (1987)
THE CLIMAX WOOD
Every thought is a walk by culture in nature,
conversing with trees and stones with the mind,
at once deepening and rarifying the encounter
toward climax. The ghost of my father walks
next to me, smoking his pipe, churning a thought
he speaks in the wind-waving light, Ionian,
from a pure, late-Pleistocene, old-fatherly height.
In his ghost the forest grows sensible & close,
its green contours rubbed to vatic sheen:
I am old in this forever-young course
from a thing beheld to its grokked corsetting
in otter divings toward far fish discourse,
master of deep readings, student of all,
each stanza sacred to the circuit which
takes us to the far part of the woods
to pause while my father relights his pipe
and we check the stream for scripture leaves
floating by just then to enlighten our dream.
Glaciers shoved our thought to this bourne;
awe’s in the humility to which climax belongs.
“I love the mystery,” my dead father says
and I nod my head, his visioning reborn.
Our converse between living and dead done
we turn to take the ambling course home
which completes the thought in a winding-down
way, brushing the sumac blossom for effect
and denoting the arch polar blue of spring skies.
By such congress I lysis the poem,
father and son coming back from a walk
though a forest gone wild with sainted owls,
the meandering trails that climax vowels.
— Oran’s Well, 2021
TO KNOW THE INVISIBLE
The Americans tried and tried to see
the invisible Indians in the deeper jungle
of Brazil. Finally they put things in the clearing
and waited. They waited for months,
maybe for years. Until a knife and a pot
disappeared. They put out other things
and some of those vanished. Then one morning
there was a jungle offering sitting on the ground.
Gradually they began to know the invisible
by the jungle’s choices. Even when nothing
replaced the gifts, it was a kind of seeing.
Like the woman you camp outside of, at the five portals.
Attending the conduits that tunnel from the apparatus
down to the capital of her. Through the body
and its weather, to the mind and heart, to the spirit
beyond. To the mystery. And gradually to the ghosts
coming and leaving. To the difference between
the nightingale and the Japanese nightingale
which is not a nightingale. Getting lost in the treachery
of language, waylaid by the rain dancing its pavanne
in the bruised light of winter afternoons.
By the flesh, luminous and transparent in the silent
clearing of her. Love as two spirits flickering
at the edge of meeting. An apartment on the third
floor without an elevator, white walls and almost
no furniture. Water seen through pine trees.
Love like the smell of basil. Richness beyond
anyone’s ability to cope with. The way love is after fifty.
— from The Dance Most of All (2009)
Beyond sunrise, there is a song we follow
Beyond clouds traveling with rain humped
On their backs, lightning in their fists
Beyond the blue horizon where our ancestors
Appear bearing gifts, wrapped in blankets woven
With sun and strands of scarlet time
Beyond the footpaths we walk every day
From sunrise to kitchen, to work, to garden, to play
To sunset, to dark, and back
Beyond where the baby sleeps, her breath
A light mist of happiness making
A fine rainbow of becoming knowledgeable around us
Beyond the children learning alphabets
And numbers, bent over their sticks and dolls
As they play war and family, grow human paths
Beyond the grandmothers and grandfathers
Their mothers and fathers, and in the marrow of their bones
To when that song was first sung we traveled on
Toward sunset, can you hear it?
The shaking of shells, the drumming of feet, the singers
Singing, all of us, at once?
In the song of beyond, how deep we are —
— from American Sunset (2019)