Book VI, VII
Across the lake
they are burning holes in the sky –
twist upward into night.
Learning to look at shadows
detached from whatever they might once
into the carelessness of beauty.
In the pure open
a great steady fire caresses each being
with its slowly diminishing touch
from layer to layer
gradually out to the white stars that speak back
The circle of closed windows
draws a sleeping child.
Here there is no glass:
they live always
with the sky brushing their elbows.
The small bare table
where the bread has not yet been laid
speaks as a lover makes love:
In Byzantium their goal:
to enter the space that painting seemed to project:
the sacred held by a wall
as if to pre-empt
the immense evidence that existed
before anyone held a brush.
In the slight warmed fire tilted
into unlimited darkness
words hug the furthest precipice into being.
The fish have been passed through a net –
sifting their jagged loneliness
into a paste of bone.
Art, like love,
permits us to fall into it
to discover our own falling.
(Irene Philologos, from A poetic journal of ten years in Boeotia)
Book IV, XII
Poetry could be a type of imaginary furniture-
a sofa setting for a feast in the villa we have long abandoned.
Or it might be an extension of being,
the wing of an imaginary house
dominating the bay where two oceans meet.
It could be a lightening up in the weather
where the unexpected shines from a stagnant pond.
Its path crosses the mountain range and deviates along the shoulder
of an ocean where the dead come closest to speaking to us.
Waiting for poetry to catch up with us,
it is easy to believe poetry must always be the same,
as if the habit of what had become easy
was the right way to live.
Poetry can appear to belong to words
yet it always ends up coming out at a different angle
into this thing called life.
The true poetry of an age may leave words altogether,
seeking refuge in the silent hostility of those who resist the conquerors’ blandishments.
In poetry the nostalgia for beauty must learn to accommodate horror.
The pure line of a poem must learn to bend according to the confused
perplexity of our efforts to be at least in part honest.
Not knowing who we are, we go to poetry as to an oracular surgeon of the soul who does not interpret our dreams but only leads us to dream more deeply.
In poetry as in parenthood we have to be stronger than we really are - we have to pretend to a strength which often miraculously appears, so that the line between well-intentioned fakery and sincere ineptitude blurs and endlessly remakes itself.
Poetry carries a small sampler of blessings. They cannot halt the tragedies. But like walking with the steadier eyes of someone who has taken up residence inside us, poetry helps us to keep our balance.
It is no good asking for a poem to be this or this. Life deals only what it deals.
Poetry started off its career as metered eloquence, the grinding millstone of religious piety. It progresses across the millennia to be the story with no story and the regularity that destroys all patterns.
In poetry the quest to be beautiful and the quest to be truthful sabotage each other, merge into each other, remake each other.
Poetry seeks to make sense of life through the gift of indirection.
(Leonidas the self-exiled, sole remaining fragments of his book, On Aesthetics)
Book II, XVI
In the settlements along the Chersonese straits they have a scarcity of all medicinal herbs, the soil being poor as much of its power is drained by enormous trees. Instead they rely on jumblewords (wordjumble) to cure all manner of illness. Far from being an idle superstition the practice is both highly efficacious and based on the soundest principles. When language continues along its smooth well-worn path we remain in the same state, whether for good or ill, the body accumulating those destructive habits and contaminated airs that soon manifest themselves as stomach cramps, painful bones, the blight that eats into the eye or other forms of illness. By breaking up that well-worn path, by putting kinks and twists to spoken words, the mouth learning babble frees the spirit within a person. For words, the ancients say, are the backbone of the mind. Cracking words open, reassembling them in new combinations, the mind gains rest and so cures itself and the body. The practice strongly resembles what happens spontaneously on the edges and furthest shores of sleep. Hippocrates himself discusses the efficacious nature of such wordsplicing and wordfusion within half-dreaming states in the third volume of his dissertation on the alternatives to surgery. He records the example of one Menandron of Corinth who, suffering from a painful swelling of the forehead, had requested the removal of his brain to alleviate the torment. From inquiries among neighbours Hippocrates learned the illness had set in shortly after the death of his son, killed through the violence of a playmate. Suspecting the means to cure the illness lay within the power of language, could it only be induced to shatter itself, to remake itself at the precise point when waking gives way to sleep and the soul slides most easily between its several lives, Hippocrates placed Menandron in a dream-like state. There words broke effortlessly from his lips in a babble of drowning sounds. Menandron found himself swimming among reeds, drawn onwards by a yellow flower of the brightest radiance. Reaching inside the flower a word came to him "allodendronhamratia spreuge". With difficulty he seized the word bearing it with him back into his conscious life. On waking he pronounced the word once, then left the doctor’s residence as one intent on a mission, firmly believing he must complete his task before the death which he assumed was imminent. He began organising a petition to ban all gladiatorial games throughout his city - for the common practice of bringing small children to watch the games had led to the corruption of the other boy's mind and so to the death of his own son. (Frequently parents so lusted to watch the blood sports they considered leaving their children elsewhere too troublesome to arrange.) In his enthusiasm to ban the vile Roman, or as they assert Etruscan, practise, Menandron forgot his own condition and within a month the swelling had disappeared. Although the popular clamour for the game proved undefeatable, Menandron did succeed in having the ban on the presence of young children enforced.
According to a tradition preserved among the Carian women, the name "poetry" (poesis, poemata) derives from this practise of deliberately making curative words. The rhythmic nature of these fractured or recombined words gave rise to the notion of the poetic line. A person who made such wordjumbles became known as a "poeta" as opposed to a "rhetor" or "aidos", both of which words highlight the sung nature of extended lyrics. In poetry the curative power was held to lie in the word itself, rather than the melody to which the words might or might not be sung. The respect given to poets, then, was in its origins an extension of the respect given to doctors and healers.
(from Theophrastus, “Compendium of poetic practices”)
THE SEVERED HEAD
In primal innocence
alone before what-is-not
a head singing.
The head sees the world. Its speaking overwhelms it.
Two heads, severed, stand alone before God. They do not want biography to cloud the issue.
Lamenting is ancient, like the lover whose eyes were burnt out. Lamenting when the ground you stand on is stripped away: being a voice with no body.
A little winding path to two shoes and a rock. The head, not yet severed, is walking it. The naming of the dark has not started yet. Words, stored like small beads, are placed in the back of the forehead. Later, when only the singing is left, they initiate a constellation.
Witnessing without dabbling in private details means witnessing to what might be anyone.
Orpheus lost the wife who was his soul. He regained her through his singing only to lose her again. Carelessness, or a sign that poetically to speak is always to be the one who has lost rights. Even to himself. Even to the smallest portion of happiness.
To speak out of a fate. To transcend that fate.
For all the frenzy of the maenads Orpheus’ head bears no resemblance to a 20th Century head. No part of the brain has been cut away and there is no evidence of any surgical procedure.
In the river the floating head
the part cut away, the part still singing.
The head summons. The head is a wound. How does a wound summon? To dwell in a wound, to speak from a wound is to live without defenses like a lover.
Wounds we have no name for require singing.
The lover knows how a face in its tenderness goes back beyond many lives. The wound we have no name for, the wound in the palm of the hand that goes back beyond many lives, links us to a terrifying heaven we have yet to invent.
Two worn heads in a cupboard singing in unison or chiming slightly off key like damaged gongs, two worn heads singing in a bleakly damaged landscape of the 21st century. Why do they both speak of the peculiar guilt of existing at all, of their presence on earth being perhaps only to rob another of his cup of coffee? What it means to be innocent with both eyes open. And still to sing.
Travelling into distant lands, the head may seem exotica, a weirdness-speaker. Yet it remains here, persistently among us. How familiar its babble, what might be ourselves peeled back, the landscape without the lie of the land.
Severed, a head talks for the headless. When it sings it seeks the right pitch to rebuild the world.
In response to a critic’s call for tighter editing
A poet should be able to write outside of the human in all sorts of directions. The moon is one of them. Water that has just bubbled out of the earth is another. Of course they are distant cousins as intimately related as the wind and a sandgrain.
If I was the moon I couldn’t practise what I would say. I would have to be empty and desolate. Everything would happen by instinct like tides responding to my slow ballet. I would be ignorant as a worn shoe condemned to dance forever over subterranean waters. My cratered eyes would guide me through space and my children would say, Look, he comes from forever, he’s on his way to forever. He’s the one blind man whose walking stick is the glide of small fish over sand, the waterfall that flows simultaneously in both directions.
from Museum of Space, 2004
Great poems are often extraordinarily simple.
They carry their openness
with both hands.
If there is a metaphor lounging in a doorway
they step briskly past.
The boom of generals
and presidents with their rhetoric manuals
will go on sowing the wind.
The great poems are distrustful of speech.
like someone very old
who has only a few hours left of human time,
they gaze into the faces around them –
one by one
they kiss love into our mouths.
from Museum of Space, 2004)