Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Michelangelo: Last Judgment: angels waking up the dead

What is that unforgettable line?
~ Samuel Beckett

This brought to my mind a different sense of “line” -- one that continues, but is now never as long as it used to be. Here is an evocative photo of the line to see Lenin’s mummy, 1959. People were willing to wait for hours. (Also, talk about a “stone baby” that any ideology or religion is doomed to become.)

photo: Dmitry Balternants


“Lithopedions [calcified fetuses] are extremely rare; less than 300 cases have been recorded. The most recent case was that of a 92-year-old Chinese woman who was found to be carrying a 60-year-old stone baby in 2009.”

This may serve as a poem prompt: are you carrying a stone baby? An earlier self that’s still harboring a horrific grudge, or any other way you might want to imagine it?



I remember a Jungian lecture on the meaning of the Catholic mass, which is based on the rite of animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Placating god with mere animal sacrifice was over; now the priest offered god “the perfect sacrifice,” his son, in the form of the host -- from Latin “hostia,” meaning VICTIM, and wine = the blood of that victim, blood being the synonym of life.

My revulsion as I heard let me know that my remnant nostalgia for childhood liturgy was over. I always hated the heavy smell of incense; now I realized it was originally used to cover up the stench of blood. “Without shed blood there is no freeing from sin” (Hebrews 9:22). This was the “bloody ransom” that we needed to enter paradise.

(In New International Version: “In fact the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” KJV uses the term “remission” -- “without shedding of blood there is no remission” -- the term for canceling a debt, bringing to mind a sort of economic exchange.)

I was also extremely disappointed to read the translation of the four eucharistic prayers the priest can choose from to perform the the miracle of transubstantiation. I’d expected something sublime, not these pedestrian words around the archaic concept of a sacrificial “victim.”


It’s interesting that the rite of the “scape goat” was omitted. No more transfer of the sins of the community onto a goat, the animal then driven out of the city. So convenient, and yet so entirely abandoned, that custom of simply loading the collective transgression onto an innocent animal, like cargo on a ship, and away! Imagine if Christians still sang hymns about “the goat that takes aways the sins of the world.”

But the Yom Kippur ritual of offering a perfect lamb remained, now elevated to a symbolic human sacrifice.

As for the objection that to kill an innocent man is a crime greater than the Original Sin, and that one crime doesn’t wipe out another, all we can say is that once we are trapped in a circular argument of unreality, we can’t possibly expect a rational solution. Why did Jesus die on the cross? To pay for our entrance ticket to paradise? Pay it to whom? This was a subject of many medieval theological debates. A popular answer was that the devil had to be paid; later this majority opinion was labeled a heresy. Imagining any kind of economic exchange only plunges are deeper into absurdity, so we must cease trying to understand. Who are we to question god’s master plan?

The whole thing has become a stone baby, and must go. No one can “save” us by being executed in our place. But -- and this is where the liberation by truth comes in -- we don’t need to be saved. We are not born in sin and wicked by nature. On the contrary, it’s high time to acknowledge that most people are good, and we are wired for empathy and even altruism.

Or, as George Eliot remarked about one of her characters in Middlemarch, “Celia didn’t need salvation anymore than a squirrel.”

No religious symbol is as revolting as the crucifix. This would be obvious if we “modernized” it to be an electric chair. Imagine an electric chair at the center of every altar.

Crucifixion was more cruel than electrocution, causing a drawn-out agony, but that makes the crucifix all the more revolting. Interestingly, the crucifix does not appear until the Middle Ages. In early Christian iconography, the preferred image was that of a triumphant risen Christ. How did that radiant image of hope come to be eclipsed by the image of death by torture? Scholars have their answers: yes, history dictated a cult of suffering. How different the emotional tone of Christianity might have become without the compulsory crucifixes . . . 


I have come across an eye-opening book by Gary Wills, Why Priests? Wills quotes another author, René Girard, who argues against St. Anselm’s interpretation of the Passion as a substitute for animal sacrifice. 

St. Anselm based based his argument on the dubious Letter to the Hebrews, which scholars established to be the work of an anonymous author passing himself off as St. Paul. “There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest the death of Jesus is a sacrifice, whatever definition (expiation, substitution) we may give for that sacrifice.”

The Letter to the Hebrews, Wills and Gerard argue, gives undue centrality to animal sacrifice as the way of worship. But if Jesus is trying to present a new concept of god as a god of non-violence, then the Roman soldiers who carried out the execution, or the high priest, or anyone else, could not be interpreted as offering a blood sacrifice to a god who rejects blood sacrifice.

Wills comments:

Girard’s claim was all the more striking since he thought most other societies and religions were based on violence, on coalescence around a “founding murder,” and that
Christianity . . . is the only body of belief to escape the need for violence.

As a lesser point, animal sacrifice had to be carried out in the Temple of Jerusalem, while the execution of Jesus was carried out outside the walls of Jerusalem, and obviously not in the  Temple. (Once we get involved in arguing about archaic rituals like animal sacrifice at the Jerusalem Temple, that’s the unfortunate literal and legalistic path we follow.)

As for medieval theologians like Anselm, “they read the Old Testament in the light of the New, in a regression to sacrificial concepts debunked by Jesus.”


So it’s possible to view the death of Jesus as simply the execution of a religious leader thought to be a danger to the Roman Empire, and not a “bloody ransom” for the Original Sin, or all sins. But is it possible to escape the view of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher who thought the end of the world was imminent?

My heart sank when I saw the medieval image of the Twelve Thrones and the apocalyptic explanation of it:

I tell you solemnly in the New World, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of splendor, you who have been with me will be seated on twelve thrones, to judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Mt (19:28)

(In KJV:

And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.)

In Luke 22:30, modern version:

so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

But back to Matthew:

And everyone who has left houses or brother or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. Mt 19:29

Everyone who has left . . . children? (By the way, wives are curiously missing from this list. Why? Not important?)

What are we to do with such apocalyptic nonsense? It sends Jehovah's Witnesses door to door, and makes the lunatic fringe keep hoping for Rapture, no matter if constantly delayed for almost two thousand years. Sells books!

The apocalyptic perception of Jesus, which I have to admit has a high explanatory power, distresses me. Call me sentimental, but I was trying to cling to an admiration for Jesus. But the view of him as an apocalyptic preacher -- "let the dead bury the dead" finally makes sense, and a lot else besides -- and the view of the first Christians as end-of-the-world loonies -- one just can't argue with that.

Michelangelo: Last Judgment, St. Peter holding the key to heaven


BUT WAIT! There is a way that non-believers can translate “end of the world” so as to make it meaningful. It’s the “end of my life” perspective, a gift that those who believe in the afterlife are bereft of.  Given that my personal world will indeed come to an end, there is absolutely no point carrying any “stone baby” of regret and resentment. When I decided that it was too late in life to be depressed, it also became too late to waste time complaining or accumulating useless things or delaying something for a “special occasion.”

There’s a man who stole a hefty sum from me by not delivering the goods. People advised me to sue him in small-claims court, but why should I go through that stress? I’d win, but collecting is another matter. It’s not worth it for me. Life is too precious for that, so I just let it go -- as close to “loving my enemy” as I can come. I know his life is a serious mess, and hope some resolution comes, some clarity so he can be an honest person again. It’s the same when I think of others who’ve hurt me -- what does it matter now? I feel mainly compassion for them. It’s too late in life for resentment.

So even if the wildly radical teachings of Jesus make sense only in the context of his expectation that the current world would soon be destroyed (“Take no thought for the morrow”) and New Jerusalem would follow, at least some of those teachings can still be applied in the context of our mortality.



Since this is officially a poetry blog, let me offer a poem related to the theme of a stone baby.


At first glance, there on the bench
where he’d agreed to meet, it didn’t seem to be
him -- but then the face of grim
friendliness was my former husband’s,
like the face of a creature looking out
from inside its Knox. No fault, no knock,
clever nut of the hearing aid
hidden in the ear I do not feel I
love anymore, small bandage on the cheek
peopled with tiny lichen from a land I don’t
know. We walk. I had not remembered
how deep he held himself inside
himself -- for fun, for thirty-two years,
to lure him out. I still kind of want to,
as if I see him as a being with a baby-paw
caught. His voice is the same -- low,
still pushed around the level-bubble
in his throat. We talk of the kids, and it’s
as if that will never be taken from us.
But it feels as if he’s not here --
though he’s here, it feels as if, for me
there’s no one there -- as when he was with me
it seemed there was no one there for any other
woman. For the first thirty years. Now I see
I’ve been hoping, each time we meet, that he would praise me
for how well I took it, but it’s not to be.
Are you as happy as you thought you’d be,
I ask. Yes. And his smile is touchingly
pleased. I thought you’d look happier,
I say, but after all, when I am
looking at you, you’re with me! We smile.
His eyes warm, a moment, with the accustomed
shift, as if he’s turning into
the species he was for those thirty years.
And turning back. I glance toward his torso
once, his legs -- he’s like a stick figure ,
now, the way, when I was with him, other
men seemed like Ken dolls, all clothes. Even
the gleam of his fresh wedding ring is no
blade to my rib -- this is Married Ken. As I
walk him toward the street I joke, and for an instant
he’s alive toward me, a gem of sea of
pond in his eye. Then the retreat into himself,
which always moved me, as if there were
a sideways gravity, in him, toward some
vanishing point. And no, he does not
want to meet me again, in a year -- when we
part, it’s with a dry bow
and Good-bye. And then there is the spring park,
damp as if freshly peeled, sweet
greenhouse, green cemetery with no
dead in it -- except in some shaded
woods, under some years of leaves and
rotted cones, the body of a warbler
like a whole note fallen from the sky -- my old
love for him, like a songbird’s rib cage picked clean.

~ Sharon Olds, Stag’s Leap, 2012

How many times have we seen this: a woman degrading herself, pursuing a man who no longer cares about her. Begging -- I can imagine her asking the husband who left her for another woman to meet again only as begging -- and no, he’s not interested, though courteous enough to go through it with a “grim friendliness.” We sense he didn’t really want to see her -- that he doesn’t want to see her ever again, and why should he? He’s married to someone else, and that’s his real life, not memories of how it was with the ex-wife. He feels awkward sitting on the bench next to the woman with whom he no longer feels any live connection.

I think here we also get a bit of a glimpse of the speaker as someone who’s been through a lot of therapy (this is revealed in other poems) and assumes that it’s good for everyone to psychobabble about every detail of their inner and outer lives, and that which you manage to verbalize is the true story rather than one of the many fictions and perspectives. In my observation, most men are utterly uninterested in that kind of analysis. Strange to say, I find myself joining the minority of women who likewise simply have other interests. Music! Literature! New developments in science! There is an exciting world out there, and a larger family. Waiting for the ex-husband to change his mind (or open up) is like waiting for Prince Charming, or -- for the Rapture.


When I can a cat, Georgia Dziordziusińska-Dziordziuśkiewicz, I learned that you need to let a cat be a cat. This widened to the view that you need to let each person be themselves, and you actually grow to enjoy them when they are relaxed and natural (who knew so many people were naturally charming when they don’t feel judged?), without feeling any demands put on them. Most people are good human beings, and like to be treated as such. They don’t care to be “lured out” to talk about the relationship with their father or whatever is assumed to be their “core issue.” Is that really so important? Can’t we respect the fact that perhaps they’d rather read the newspaper or go to the movies? Personally I enjoy the “strong silent” type. I have enough heavy stuff of my own and don’t want the burden of someone else’s complicated psyche piled on me. Not for free, in any case.

(By the way, I’m still not sure about cats versus dogs, now that pets have become an option. I love watching a cat be a cat and a dog a dog, sniffing around in ecstasy of exploration. I identify with that. And I know that neither species will ask me about some childhood trauma or some other “stone baby” I might be carrying, but without feeling burdened; no need to reactivate those old neural circuits; the most important and beautiful part of memory is forgetting.)


The clouds were so beautiful on the way to Coronado Library, again I thought that if I could no longer read or write, or contribute in any way, just looking at the clouds would make life worthwhile. But that’s assuming a brain functional enough to experience beauty, in which case it would probably be functional enough to read and write. Best not to fly in the no-think zones of potential dementia. But if someone asked me, when I'm past 80, what I loved most in life, it’s possible that I’d reply “clouds.” 

photo: Jeffrey Levine

I can’t image Sharon Olds replying in this manner, and I don’t blame her: she’s herself, fixated on the body and family relationships, and I am myself, a lover of clouds (and more, but the list would be too long). She had to meditate on and on about the end of her marriage, even if to some of us that implies a sad waste of time. Her ex-husband certainly seems to want to move on without revisiting the old marriage, and who sees no more reason to see the ex-wife a year from now, or (I think this is implied) ever again.

At this moment I remembered one of my favorite scenes in the movie “A Serious Man.” The protagonist tells his “temptress” type of neighbor that he’s separated from his wife. She asks, “And have you been taking advantage of your new freedom?”

This is a wonderful point of view. Are you taking advantage of the opportunities of the moment, or are you incubating your stone baby? I speak as one who was guilty of that in my younger years, when I had spent way too much time talking in my head to my great love who married another woman. Luckily, I also developed as a writer, and creative work took over, along with teaching and journalism. And in my mental cemetery I found not the picked-clean skeleton of my once-great love, but the lilacs of gratitude: how wonderful that the cruel narcissist didn’t marry me! How magnificent that there were limits to his desire to destroy me . . .

Even so, I found the poem an interesting study of this unequal meeting of ex-spouses in which the ex-wife is still showing signs of clinging, even though she ends by implying through an image that it’s over, it really is over. But first she had to torture both of them by going through this unnecessary meeting, in the course of which she realizes that if he doesn’t look radiantly happy, that’s likely because of her presence. Her very presence is oppressive to him, is a form of silent nagging, some implied criticism of him as not open enough, or no longer husbandly.

Well, it happens: sometimes our very presence is oppressive to someone. If we recognize it, the only decent thing is to move on.


Mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw the cigarettes away: that’s when you get shooting stars.
~ Vladimir Nabokov

This is clever as everything that Nabokov ever wrote, but I saw a shooting star last night, after a long period of not seeing any, and it was a lovely recognition. As usual, by the time I thought of making a wish, it was too late.

But what’s wish-making next to the great spectacle we are offered every night . . .  One-tenth would have been enough to make me rejoice (typed “rejoyce”) in being here to see. Did I really, REALLY,  go through three years of thinking about suicide every single day? I who say that one sunset can hold me, that I’ll never get tired of clouds . . .  We change; life changes; and I am infinitely grateful to have experienced the moment -- later many moments -- when I understood that just to be alive is sublime.

But back then I was carrying a stone baby -- my rejected great love for a man whose greatest gift to me was marrying someone else.

Then I discovered that dropping idealization -- this took years -- dissolved the stone baby. I was finally free of that false pregnancy.

And I can still enjoy Michelangelo’s muscular (look at that biceps!) Jesus in the Last Judgment scene. For me this is actually a Mr. Universe contest, and Jesus wins the trophy. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013


The Feather Against Which My Heart Will Be Weighed

The crow feather I found was not an idea.

The crow feather was a black slash on the green lawn.

It was a way of counting. One. One. 

The crow feather seemed to be waiting for me.

It rested, abided, as though placed just so

for the one time I would walk to its threshold. 

I believe the crow feather when it is in my hand.

I know that it is a feather in my hand,

black quill, inkless, for writing out the gospel.

~ Michael Chitwood, from Poor Mouth Jubilee



I saved a drowning dragonfly,
with a canopy pole I hoisted him up

from the pool. Without pausing to dry
the stained glass of bronze-veined wings,

he took to the air, a weightless shimmer
zigzagging across the dazzled backyard.

Perhaps this buoyant brilliance
will save me on Judgment Day –

on one scale, my heart
filled with darkness;

on the other, like the Egyptian
Feather of Truth,

a translucent dragonfly wing.
~ Oriana Ivy © 2013

In both poems, I’m astonished by the human ability to see far-reaching pattern and meaning in almost anything. Of course we have thousands of years of culture to draw on, including various mythologies. There are patterns and symbols that those mythologies have in common. Black birds like crows are typically messengers of death. The souls are weighed against something that is practically weightless: a feather or one tear from the eye of the goddess of mercy (if we are dealing with a benevolent mythology).

After a friend read my “Judgment Day,” she asked with dismay, “But what if there is no Judgment Day?” “It doesn’t matter,” I replied. Of course there won’t be any literal Judgment Day or the Second Coming any more than my heart will ever be weighed against any feather or an insect wing. “Judgment Day” is every day, if we stop to think about our actions and whether or not we are helping or hurting living things. Then why this persistent use of worn-out mythologies in literature and in the arts in general? 

The earliest manuscript of the Gospel of Mark (“Mark” was a name made-up later; the early texts of the gospels were anonymous)

Generation after generation of writers, why this constant revisionist return to the old mythologies? My answer is that we can’t help it: we are wired to seek meaning and modulate that meaning to serve us now. Finding a meaning is uplifting. It brings us comfort to think (without literally believing) that a crow feather we found is a quill for writing the gospel, or that a weightless dragonfly wing can tip the scales in favor of paradise. Now, you may object, Michael Chitwood’s crow feather is “inkless,” so perhaps the only gospel he could write would be blank -- a fit image of modernity, it could be argued. But this is outweighed by the very fact that the speaker sees a purpose in finding the crow feather, and feels himself chosen for a special task precisely because he found that feather. It was “waiting” for him.

Does he literally believe that the feather was waiting for him? Do I literally believe that the wing of a dragonfly I rescued will open for the me the gates of paradise? Of course not. If we did, we’d probably be on a mental ward, zombified with drugs that are supposed to suppress delusions. Only a schizophrenic would believe that everything is a secret message, an omen, a crow feather a sign that one is chosen to write a new gospel.

But a writer can get away with saying the wildest things because some more general meaning is intended, along with the universal human yearning to be needed, to have a purpose.

And there is beauty in the fact that feathers were once used as quills for writing.

We know that myths often stem from cognitive illusions, e.g. the illusion that everything must have a purpose, or that good actions will be rewarded . . . . And yet, and yet . . .  There is a beauty to mythic stories, and it’s a joy to play with possible symbolism. As long as we are not willing to kill or die for the “truth”and as long as we are thinking symbolically for private joy but don’t try for force others to see what we see (though of course, like Whitman, we invite the reader to believe what we believe), there is no harm. If the poem of this sort is well-written, it gives intellectual and esthetic pleasure of the sort that makes life worth living.

And ultimately, perhaps, it’s the memory value of stories and images. Myths give us both. Daphne changing into laurel is so transformed by beauty that we don’t think of in terms of “sexual harassment” -- though this rescue from unwanted closeness also teaches a subtle lesson that any choice comes with a price. Aphrodite arising from sea-foam is likewise a transfiguration by beauty of the gruesome violence that precedes it. Thanks to this beauty we can rest a bit from the incessant crucifixions and last judgments of religious art, the naked bodies of the damned falling headlong into the flames.

Mythologies can also be non-supportive and anti-life -- at least in some interpretations. Here are five indelible lines from “Blue Stones” by Larry Levis:

My father thought dying
Was like standing trial for crimes
You could not remember.
Then somebody really does throw
The first stone.

This is the result of toxic theology that derives its power from threats of punishment. The message of compassion is lost, and punishment is coming -- even though we can’t even remember our sins. Imagine a mother of six on trial for losing her temper. This is the absurdity we get with anti-human, anti-life religion. 

For historical reasons, on the Hebraic side, ours is a mythology of exile and punishment -- the alternative was to admit that Yahweh was powerless to protect his people, or simply did not care. Better to see each disaster as divine punishment rather than accept impotence or indifference. Better a cruel god than empty air.

Fortunately that’s not the only mythology out there. I like what Joseph Campbell says: “A myth is the dynamic of life. You may or may not know it, and the myth you may be respectfully worshiping on Sunday may not be the one that’s really working in your heart.” Campbell goes on to say that we need to “filter out of the inheritance of traditions those aspects that support you in your own inward life.” 

Some say no, we have to accept the whole package, the cruel and the nasty together with the compassionate and supportive. Those people tend to believe that the whole package  somehow dropped from heaven rather than got created by culturally evolving humans over many centuries. Once we know the human origin of this amazing compilation, once we already ARE being selective -- the bible tends to be quoted VERY selectively -- I say let’s be even more selective. Let’s take only the best and most supportive from each tradition -- that which helps us live. Life should be a joy: not a ledger of sins and failures to live up to impossible standards, but an iridescent beauty like a dragonfly.


By the way, biblical scholars -- who study the manuscripts of the gospels in the original Greek -- have discovered that the story of the woman taken in adultery, the origin of the expression “to cast the first stone” -- does not exists in the earliest versions. It was added in the margin by a scribe copying a manuscript, and incorporated into the body of text by a later scribe.

 This indicates that there were stories floating around in the oral tradition, and this one in particular found itself added to the text held to be inerrant and unchangeable. Some would call it a forgery. One of the most revered gospel stories, foundational, of utmost importance to the ethical teachings of Christianity -- a forgery?

Everyone loves this story. Removing it would cause an uproar. Considering the lesson it teaches, does it matter if it’s invented -- a myth, a legend that just happens to fit the teachings better than anything else?



There are many dark passages in Larry Levis. This one speaks to me in a very personal way:

Each day at noon
I used to close my eyes,
And lie alone in the dark, listening.
And you never spoke,
Never uttered the thin prayer that was me.

In the poem Levis is addressing his own “spirit.” There is a poetic tradition of addressing one’s own soul. Now that many don’t believe in having a soul (unless as a synonym for the ever-shifting mental life), such addressing of the soul is almost bound to come up empty. The soul will not speak to us. It doesn’t care about us at all. No surprise.

But I react to this passage for a different reason. Once a year or so, I decide to “give god yet another chance.” I lie down and send a humble supplication into the air: please give me a sign that you exist. I don’t expect a voice from the whirlwind. I don’t expect the clouds to open to reveal the “eye in the sky.” Any subtle sign will do. The shadow of a twig moving across a corner of the wall. Some faint music. A rustle or a barely audible whisper.

I turn into total attention. And the result is, at best, only the steady hum of the refrigerator. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

I realize that a theist would object to this exercise. Never mind my attentiveness: the divine reveals itself only at its own choosing. So far it has not chosen to. I may not be a worthy vessel: an intellectual and not a simple housewife, the kind who tends to get abducted by aliens.

There is a sadness about this silence of the missing god, but also a challenge to name something else that helps me live. What’s interesting is that this “something” also responds only when it’s ready. I mean that which is sometimes called the “cognitive and creative unconscious.” I have a private name for it, but it shall not be revealed. In public, I also call it “the other self.” This too is a bit awkward, since it’s a process, not a static entity: the mysterious processing of information that the brain does “on the back burner.” I pose a question; the answer will come when it’s ready. 

You could say I trust my brain. I trust that in time it will find that one-in-a-million missing pieces of information -- as long as at some forgotten time I put it there. I trust my brain not because it’s infallible, but because on the whole it’s reliable and performs amazing (to me at least) feats.

I’ve come to trust my brain, meaning I trust myself. I am not a fallen creature bent on evil except if I go to confession and cleanse my dirty soul (car wash images intrude here). I trust myself to be kind to others, relying on the empathy I was born with and developed later without any conscious effort. I trust that my intricate brain can grasp complex ideas and enjoy metaphors. I trust myself, and not the “prophet” who stands in the busiest corner of downtown with a sign that the world will end before the year is over. I very much enjoy the description of the Whore of Babylon and the Catholic Encyclopedia’s attempt to refute the argument that the Vatican is the Whore of Babylon. I enjoy it all, but for the perception of reality, I trust myself. What a concept. 

(A shameless digression: Even when I believed in god, I didn’t trust him. He was not to be trusted. “Where were you when I needed you?” is for me a religious anthem. God does not protect children from abuse and misfortune, as Ivan Karamazov brilliantly points out before stating, If my entry to paradise is bought with one tear of a tortured child, I return the ticket.

One of the first things a child learns about god from experience rather than from catechism is that god doesn’t answer prayers in any reliable fashion, and he permits dreadful things to go on. So what use is he? He keeps you scared. He is the ultimate judge and executioner. It was said that if not for the fear of god, people would lead a life of sin, and even crime. What I saw was that criminals went to prison, so apparently that fear of divine justice didn’t work too well: we needed human justice after all. Later I learned that people were good or bad apparently in proportion to the amount of empathy they felt for others; social and economic factors also played a role. Empathy, universal in all social species of mammals, is another reason I am so impressed by the brain.)

(Another shameless digression. A reader asked me, in what I imagined a shocked tone of voice: “But Oriana, what if after you die you wake up and discover you are fully conscious and accountable for your life?” I replied that I hold myself accountable for my life right here, on earth. But if I found myself fully conscious after dying, what a wonderful surprise! And knowing that I haven’t done anything that would merit eternal damnation, what is there to fear? But if god tosses into eternal fire all those who because of an accident of birth did not hold the correct belief -- millions of Hindus, for example -- then he is worse by far than Hitler.)

But I know I will not “wake up” after death. Only a living brain produces consciousness. I’m amazed by both the conscious and the unconscious processes. I love the way the brain can make some use of whatever comes its way: accidental discovery of some old notes, for instance, or passages in books opened at random. Sometimes this could be called inspiration, and it can be fairly complex. Sometimes it’s simply recall of something long-forgotten: what is the name of that California tree that’s like a poplar, but with a thicker trunk, and grows near streams, in the ravines? Paper tree, my consciousness instantly suggests, but I know that’s wrong. I think my answer may be in a poem by Larry Levis. I get out of bed (it’s past my bedtime), find the book, and start reading Larry Levis. The word is stubbornly missing. I drop the book and turn off the light. And instantly I know: cottonwood. I get out of bed to scribble “cottonwood” on a slip of paper, but know it’s not really necessary: I’ll remember it when I wake up.

And I do. I also decide to use some of Larry Levis for the blog post you are now reading.

And here is his Daphne -- the ending of the poem “The Two Trees,” in which he is so starved for connection that his only friends are two trees on campus. In springtime, one of the trees, not the sturdy oak but the one that seemed more feminine, “sleepier, more slender”

that seemed frail, but was really

Oblivious to everything. Simply oblivious to it,

With the pale leaves climbing one side of it,

An obscure sheen in them,

And the other side, for some reason, black bare,

The same, almost irresistible, carved indifference

In the shape of its limbs
As if someone's cries for help

Had been muffled by them once, concealed there,

Her white flesh just underneath the slowly peeling bark

—while the joggers swerved around me and I stared—
Still tempting me to step in, find her,

                           And possess her completely.  


Now, just for the joy of it, some interesting facts about dragonflies:

The dragonfly can move at an amazing 45 miles an hour, hover like a helicopter fly backwards like a hummingbird, fly straight up, down and on either side. What is mind blowing is the fact that it can do this while flapping its wings a mere 30 times a minute while mosquitoes and houseflies need to flap their wings 600 and 1000 times a minute respectively. The dragonfly accomplishes its objectives with utmost simplicity, effectiveness and well, if you look at proportions, with 20 times as much power in each of its wing strokes when compared to the other insects. The best part is that the dragonfly does it with elegance and grace that can be compared to a ballet dancer.

The dragonfly has a 360-degree vision.

The dragonfly exhibits iridescence both on its wings as well as on its body. Iridescence is the property of an object to show itself in different colors depending on the angle and polarization of light falling on it.

Dragonflies have inhabited our planet for almost 300 million years.

The dragonfly is such an intricate and gorgeous little being that it’s easy to understand our bedazzlement when one appears while we are thinking about justice, perhaps, and how there are two kinds: justice meant as punishment, vengeance; and justice as fairness, as in equal pay for equal work. Anne Carson’s suggests that a dragonfly is much more interesting than ideas.

God’s Justice

In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.

On the day He was to create justice

God got involved in making a dragonfly

and lost track of time.

It was about two inches long

with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.

God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows

as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.

The eye globes mounted on the case

rotated this way and that

as it polished every angle.

Inside the case

which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank

God could see the machinery humming

and He watched the hum

travel all the way down turquoise dots to the end of the tail

and breathe off as light.

Its black wings vibrated in and out.

~ Anne Carson, Glass, Irony and God


Your dragonfly poem reminds me of the haiku about the dragonfly (“a dry stick: put on wings: a dragonfly”). They are both uplifting at the end.

So much wisdom in Judgment Day being every day. I love that.
You blog and your poems "give intellectual and esthetic pleasure of the sort that makes life worth living."

..."people were good or bad apparently in proportion to the amount of empathy they felt for others": Yes!

Love the information on dragonflies and the final poem by Anne Carson.


I know others too have said that every day is Judgment Day. We have to be accountable at a moment’s notice: here is the good I’ve done; here’s what I regret having done -- without dwelling too much on either.

Saturday, November 16, 2013



                         Let us then begin
                         to walk toward infinity.

                         ~ Chuang-Tzu, The True Book of the Southern Flower

I slipped into my body’s warmth
as into a snug glove,
closed my eyes,
tucked in the blanket’s soft dark.

Suddenly a blackness
blacker than the night,
blackness like black lightning,
the edge of a scream:

my death.

I sat up, mouth open –
poured out of my throat.

Then far away I saw
a light brighter than any star.
Stepping on nothing
I began to walk
toward it until I fell sleep.

It was not a white fire
on the other shore,
pointing to something else.
There was nothing else.
I didn’t believe in God.

But a question had been asked.
My answer was blackness,
and that light
seemed another answer.

A friend once asked
why I didn’t commit suicide.

There was no need to.
In death I’d seen my life:
a pathless way across darkness
and the calm, inexhaustible light.

~ Oriana © 2013

The event described here took place when I was 25. I didn’t write the poem until I some ten years later. And even then I didn’t have the complete clarity I have now: this vision was produced by my brain in order to soothe me. It was effective at that moment. Later I thought a lot about it -- unforgettable!  But I never equated it with external reality.

Years later I read Jung on salvation being a journey toward the star within. I wouldn’t  use the word “salvation,” but I did experience something of this journey. Knowing which way to go meant everything.

If someone wants to call my “cosmic vision” a hallucination, I have no problem with that. Extreme emotions can cause hallucinations, often very interesting ones. The human brain has its amazing ways. 


Yesterday I entered a cloud bank enveloping the Coronado Bridge. The fog was thick enough to require headlights. And the city of Coronado was in fog too. With events of my life making me think of limbo, I thought, “I’ve entered the cloud of unknowing.”

Twenty minutes later, Coronado basked in the beautiful November sunlight, warm, almost coppery. You can’t be completely unhappy in light like that.


Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial. ~ Nietzsche

It still takes Nietzsche to say something as politically incorrect as this, and as exhilarating. Do we need “mystical” explanations of the universe? I think we can enjoy the mysterious without multiplying useless metaphysics.

I am thrilled that it's finally OK to reject mysticism and not provoke a storm by saying there is no soul nor the "beyond." When someone dies, he remains in the memory of others -- and that to me is an awe-inspiring neurobiological mystery. The underworld of our dreams is stranger and more fascinating than any idea of the afterlife. 


I remember a TV interview with Ayn Rand, a public atheist. I’m not a fan of most of Rand’s ideas, but I admit I was impressed with her intelligence and her courage not to hide in agnosticism. “Now that you’ve become a widow,” the host began, “now that you’ve lost your husband, do you understand why people believe in god?” I admit I don’t remember Rand’s exact reply, and realize that I’m using her striking statement because that’s the one that engraved itself in my memory: “I define god as that which is the highest, and you don’t lose that.”

“That which is the highest” will of course differ from person to person. I’m also reminded of Ezra Pound’s

That which thou lovest best
that which thou lovest best
shall not be reft from thee.

~ After becoming disabled in an accident I did wish there was a consciousness -- or whatever you want to call a god -- to bargain with. That was a stressful, life altering event, but it did not change my beliefs that stem from logical reasoning and education.

I am an atheist in a fox hole.

~ I'm sorry to hear of your accident and subsequent disability. I was diagnosed with stage III/IV cancer two weeks ago (I'm 47 years old, the cancer will be better staged tomorrow when I have major surgery) -- and as an atheist I also didn't have even the teensiest tiniest little bit of epiphany or conversion or repentance or whatever it is that these people think I was supposed to have. I'm not in a foxhole although I am facing my own mortality in a very real way. I definitely have fears (mostly about how my death would affect my wife's life), but I'm still rational. To your good health (and mine too) -- cheers.

~ I live marginally above the poverty level on disability income due to an organ transplant. I have a number of health problems resulting from the illness that caused me to need a transplant including brittle bones which have resulted in my spine slowly collapsing upon itself leading to chronic pain. I have to take very expensive medications and that leads to anxiety over losing medical benefits through budget cuts, bureaucratic whim, or other things. I have problems with hernias from the transplant operation that need to be surgically corrected every few years. My partner does not have health insurance and is a cancer survivor. That leads to a lot of anxiety because we can't afford to pay out of pocket for the yearly screenings he needs to be sure his cancer is not returning.
So, I'd say my life isn't very "comfortable." I have a lot of stress both physical and mental to deal with and yet, I do not run to a god praying. I rely on my own wits, the help of family and friends when necessary. I'll leave the begging and pleading to imaginary friends up to charlatans like [name omitted]

~ I don't know about anyone else but when I'm under severe amounts of stress, religion and God are the last things that I think about. Then people use the phrase with you that “God never gives a person more than they can handle.” To which I always replied “God's pushing their luck then.” To appease them. The whole time thinking that God's not the one giving me all this stress. My boss is giving me these piles and emails. Bills are taking all my money. Time is breaking down my home so it needs repairs. It’s not God. It’s people, weather, and time. Medicine and science makes me better, not God. Praying for God to help me doesn't do anything. Asking my family and friends to help me does. I believe in karma not God. I believe in being a good person & helping others less fortunate. That will make me stronger, not praying for strength. I have a hard time understanding, sympathizing, or empathizing with my family of religious driven people.

~ readers’ comments following an article rebutting the idea that under severe stress non-believers rush to religion (the old “No atheists in foxholes” argument)

an abandoned church (St. Boniface in Chicago)

Is suffering a test of atheism? Yes, this is a deliberate play on the old phrase that suffering is a test of faith (cf the story of Job). Studies indicate that the more suffering (poverty, illness, job insecurity), the more religiosity, and the more contentment in one’s life, the less interest in the supernatural. Atheism has been called the ultimate white privilege and a luxury stemming from a comfortable, secure life. The idea of “no atheists in foxholes” has been questioned; not so the finding that, aside from the rich districts of Johannesburg, there are virtually no atheists in sub-Saharan Africa.

Study after study has found religiosity correlated with hardship. Among the comfortable no one seems to miss the missing god. Who needs god when you are happy? You’re too busy being happy to think about metaphysics. If you have a strong need to express gratitude, you can always thank the universe and the people you love.

Happiness makes god as unnecessary as Stephen Hawking says he is. No new lovers wish to put Jesus at the center of their relationship (Jesus, let’s not forget, advised people to leave their spouses and children and follow him, since the end of the world was about to begin). But the argument as old as that of Satan in the Book of Job insists: just something take away your happiness and security, and we’ll see what happens to your faith (or atheism).

In the case of Job, however, Satan’s logic was the opposite of modern thinking: the Adversary (introduced as one of the sons of god) pointed out to Yahweh as the latter boasted of his faithful servant Job, that Job had every reason to be pious: he’d been blessed in every way. But take away his blessings, and he’ll CURSE god to his face. Not beg for mercy, but CURSE.

But Job’s response turned out to be quite complex. He continued to protest his innocence, which, his friends warned him, was to accuse god of injustice. Eventually he cursed the day he was born -- a milder form of cursing god, who presumably willed it that Job be born. And then, receiving no rational answer about the true cause of his suffering but only a narcissistic rant boasting particularly of the leviathan the behemoth as supreme marvels of creation, Job realized that he’s dealing with a dangerous lunatic who needs to be appeased with praise.

In a milder, modern version of Job, popularized by Rabbi Kushner, when bad things happen to good people, those good people who have enough remnant belief can turn to a new concept of god for comfort. Not for physical help -- this god will not break the laws of nature -- but for emotional solace of knowing that god cares and suffers with you (the idea of a happy, serene god is Eastern, not Western -- not counting the old pagan gods enjoying themselves to the hilt).

Making god suffer with me is the last thing I’d want. So I turn to music instead. In fact, my brain does it automatically, playing its own selections. Recently I was hit with major stress. I was startled to hear the International in my head, in Polish. I always loved the tune. Then I heard the Ode to Joy. And the Marseillaise. A Chopin impromptu. And on and on, until only Happy Birthday to You was left, which I quickly dismissed in favor of more Ode to Joy, all the time marveling at my brain’s attempts to soothe me. I don’t feel alone: I have myself. 


My own experience of suffering has had a convoluted history. It’s not even been entirely about suffering versus contentment, but about ideas versus ideas.

I suffered most during my twenties. I cried a lot (daily) and thought about suicide a lot (daily). Still, I never prayed. It simply didn’t occur to me. I don’t remember ever thinking of god during those years. There is some possibility that maybe I did, but later forgot. If so, I probably asked, “Why have you abandoned me?” (But I don’t remember asking that; I had real abandonments to come to terms with.)

The theist temptation emerged later, when I was in my thirties and my suffering lessened from acute to chronic. Thinking about religion was a luxury stemming from easier life. In my late twenties, I was too busy suffering to think about religion. Only later, when I was less desperate, I had enough leisure and material security to indulge in a “spiritual quest.”

Equally important, or possibly most important, the New Age movement was exploding. We were deluged with books on astrology, Tarot, synchronicity, intuitive healing, visualization as a tool for accomplishing “anything you want in life,” chanting for prosperity, and the “course in miracles.” You want a miracle? Scores of authors presented their recipes for “manifesting” a miracle.

How seductive those ideas were! Relax: life should be effortless and magical. “How to Live a Magical Life” was an actual book title, typical of the mentality of those years. It's enough to think about something and you'll “attract it” into your life. Suddenly I heard and read the opposite of what I had in childhood: not condemnation for being sinful, but "You are wonderful! You are magnificent! You have unlimited potential! You can be anything you want to be!” And of course the enormously seductive idea that what we are REALLY afraid of is our greatness.

And those books and magazines, even though I was browsing in them “just for fun,” smuggled in a new concept of god (sometimes called the Source or the Universe, which made it a lot more palatable): a totally benevolent deity (or universe) that wants you to be happy. Not the vengeful archaic deity, not the angry god. This was a friendly, happy, serene god, vaguely having something to do with quantum physics (or whose existence could allegedly be proved if only we understood quantum physics). The door of theist doubt was creaking open. Possibly the “real god” was somehow inherent in the universe, a friendly “ground of being” -- all you needed to know was the “laws of life” such as the Law of Attraction.

The priests and nuns of my childhood never suggested that god wants us to be happy. On the contrary, “God sends suffering to those he loves.” Suffering was holy; it was good for you. If Jesus suffered, then you should be glad you are suffering also. And the more you suffer in this life, the less time in Purgatory, since you have already “pre-suffered.” When I left the church, I thought this embrace of suffering went by the wayside, along with seeing myself as a wretched sinner and the rest of the masochistic nonsense.

But did it? True, I never saw suffering as redemptive. I knew it too well to think of it as ennobling. Did a bad knee ever make anyone a better person? Or a headache raise anyone’s thoughts to a higher plane? Or chronic depression lead to altruism?


Hangs by a thread --
Whatever it is. Stripped naked.
Shivering. Human. Mortal.
On a thread thinner than starlight.

By a power of a feeling
Hangs, impossible, unthinkable,
Between the earth and the sky.
I, it says. I. I.

And how it boasts
That everything that is to be known
About the wind
Is being revealed to is as it hangs.

~ Charles Simic, section I of “Two Riddles”

Yes, that boasting about how suffering imparts insight and knowledge. As if insight and knowledge never came from positive experiences.


Yet how come I had no interest in happiness, and in fact despised it? Why was the image of a fasting nun a lot more attractive than the image of a foodie enjoying dessert? The ascetic/heroic ideal always had more appeal. When a friend said, “My number one goal is to enjoy life,” I quickly turned away to hide my bottomless contempt.

And yet, strange to say, the same friend, who happened to have asthma, said she didn’t want to see a cure for asthma. Science should not try to find cures for diseases, she said. “Suffering is good for us. It makes us more spiritual.” Otherwise, I guess, we’d just enjoy life, which was supposedly her greatest desire. Of course all of us are bundles of contradictions, but in some that condition is more blatant.

I think there are two opposite currents in the modern culture, though they have less and less to do with religion.


Whatever the hidden influences, the short answer to the question of whether my atheism was tested by suffering is no. Intense suffering did not “lead me to god.” Would even more intense suffering had done so? No, it would have simply killed me. Instead of walking out of the hospital, I would have been rolled into the morgue.

(And there is no “mystery of death.” When a pet dies, no matter how beloved -- no matter how much we acknowledge the animal’s consciousness, feelings, and unique personality -- do we ever speak of the mystery of a dog’s death?)

New Age concepts had much more impact, I blush to confess. Ah, the joy of seeing of signs and wonders everywhere, the sweet feeling of being “guided by the universe”! Who wants to let go of that? And how sweet it was to hear that I was not a worthless sinner, but a magnificent being! Again, it wasn’t a matter of what I wanted. As before, with time new ideas entered my psyche, and the wishful thinking of my borderline New Age phase fell to pieces. 

Spiritual no more! The surprise was that hard-core atheism was not a bleak desert. An increased appreciation of life has followed my second “de-conversion.” A mellowing, yes, in the sense of greater affection for myself and loving my quiet life -- all this after decades of thinking that my life went wrong, that I made a fatal wrong turn into nowhere instead of the rich life I so much desired and had the intelligence and education to lead. Me, loving my life and interested in enjoying that quiet? Not desiring the noise of fame? It still shocks me to realize that I have reached a Yes on that.


It's amazing how much follows from accepting that this life is it: it's now or never. For Dante and for Dostoyevsky, heresy did not mean saying there is no god; the real heresy was saying that there is NO AFTERLIFE. Once you accept this "heresy," you don't want to waste time! Or opportunities for rich, memorable experiences. I had to reinvent myself once I truly accepted that "this is it."

Gustave Doré: The Circle of the Heretics: Farinata in a flaming tomb. Farinata did not believe that the soul was immortal. 


Another important thing that follows from the insight that this life is all there is is what could be called "the culture of empathy." It's not just our earthly life that becomes infinitely precious to us. Others also become more dear. We are in this together, so the only thing is to help one another and be as affectionate as possible. War makes no sense. Not building flood protection makes no sense, and a lot of other things that now imply we don't fully value human life.

I’ve lost the attractive promises of Catholicism, and the even more attractive lies of New Age. But “that which is the highest” has remained.


All of us at a long school desk.
We’re told to tilt back our heads 

and slowly say, “Ouch, mother.”

A capsule is dropped down our throats

sometime during the vowels.

I fade out. Yet soon I walk, I love
the ash trees silver after rain.
The downtown hovers, half-cloud,
the bridge across the bay
spun with beams of light.

This is my world, my pearl,
my kingdom within and without.
And dying in the night, what is it
but a new self being born
to help us carry the questions.

I wake up refreshed 

in the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Since childhood I have climbed
mountains; my sinews and bones
know that going downhill is the killer,

not the drunkenness of heights.
I have died more than once,
and look: I walk, I dream.
Siehe, ich lebe, “See, I live,”
I repeat after Rilke,

in the exquisite, horrifying tongue

of those who were executioners.
How close leben sounds to
lieben, the long liquid notes
of the same song:

Siehe, ich liebe
See, I love: it’s the story
of my life, of many lives.

~ Oriana © 2013


Wittgenstein: Don’t think. Look!

Thursday, October 24, 2013


It was near midnight. The late-risen moon,
like a brass bucket polished bright as fire,
thinned out the lesser stars, which seemed to drown.

~ Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 18; tr. John Ciardi

This is the most delightful tercet in a rather forgettable canto that deals with the “slothful” -- those who, while alive, have not shown sufficient zeal for their tasks. These are not the “sullen,” or the deeply depressed souls who end up in a muddy bog in hell. These are the slackers, the unmotivated, those at the portal of depression because they see no meaning and no reward in their work; sometimes they literally don’t know what to do and how to do it. When meaning arises, as during a flood or another emergency, the supposed slackers gain a sense of purpose as quickly as others.

In Purgatory, the purpose arises in the form of wanting to get to heaven. The former “slothful” now keep running to show their zeal.

“Faster! Faster! To be slow in love
is to lose time,” cried those who came behind;
“Strive on that grace may bloom again above.”

“To be slow in love is to lose time” -- nice and aphoristic, but not what we seek in poetry. And even the arrow-minded Abbot of San Zeno who, without stopping, barks back his reply to Virgil and Dante, can’t quite break away from the preachiness that mars the Purgatorio and especially Paradiso. Perhaps we need to be slow in love -- slow and silent and without the go-go-go spirit.

In Canto 18, the only  tercet that rises to true poetry is the one about the moon. That one obeys Wittgenstein’s commandment: “Don’t think. Look.” Or, as Larry Levis taught his students, “Gaze at the world.” A poet is a “gazer at the world.”

Here is the moon tercet again:

It was near midnight. The late-risen moon,
like a brass bucket polished bright as fire,
thinned out the lesser stars, which seemed to drown.

Lyricism starts already with “It was near midnight.” I am astonished that such a simple statement  touches us in a special way. It’s “gazing at the world.” Suddenly we are connected with the hushed beauty of a moonlit night. We can forget ourselves in it as those “lesser stars, which seemed to drown.” There is no sadness to this drowning, only dissolving into light.

And note the image of fire rather than water, which we’d expect to go with “bucket.” Yet the image water forces itself in, with the word “drown.” But the drowning is into light, a more unusual proposition. That’s of course how the stars “drown” -- they are invisible if one central light is too bright. As for the connotations of light, it would take many pages. It’s often associated with the divine. I don’t see why the soothing nature of darkness would be excluded as a manifestation of a benign deity, a soft-good night blanket -- but the cultural evolution of images has strongly privileged light.

Consider, for instance, the description of sunrise in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante finds himself in una selva oscura, the dark woods of error:

I raised my head and saw the hilltop shawled
in morning rays of light sent from the planet
that leads men straight ahead on every road.

        ~ tr. Mark Musa

Planet? I checked Ciardi’s translation: it’s planet. In Ptolemaic astronomy the sun was regarded as a planet. Yet elsewhere Dante speaks of the sun as a star, as confirmed by the famous last line of the Commedia: “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.” It’s just the first smudge of dawn of the modern worldview here, but that smudge will eventually become a supernova destroying the scholastic certainties. Dante was already a heretic. His savior was Beatrice, and he knew that the sun is a star.

But back to Purgatory and Canto 18. Another taste of lyricism is not granted to us until the next canto, where we meet the Angel of Zeal, “with swanlike wings outspread.” But that’s straining at it. It’s not the same lyrical splendor, which needs to seem effortless like sleep. As Milosz says, “Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.” Cognitive processing is unconscious, and forcing a system on one’s imaginings deprives us of deeper thinking, which tends to be both unpredictable and metaphoric. Let the images come could be a poet’s sole prayer. 

Gustave Doré Geryon

Of course there are many imagistic passages in the Inferno, in my eyes the best part of the Comedy.  When Virgil and Dante climb onto the back of Geryon, Monster of Fraud, the winged creature that will fly them from Circle Seven to Circle Eight, we get this beauty in Canto 16 (“he” is Virgil):

Then he called out: “Now, Geryon, we are ready:

bear well in mind that his is living weight

and make your circles wide and your flight steady.”

As a small ship slides from a beaching or its pier,
backward, backward — so that monster slipped

back from the rim. And when he had drawn clear

he swung about, and stretching out his tail

he worked it like an eel, and with his paws

he gathered in the air, while I turned pale.

Dali’s Geryon is a must here:

But Geryon is my shameless digression in this post. Let’s consider more light. In Canto 28 of Paradiso, Dante reaches the Ninth Heaven, the Primum Mobile, “the first mover,” the outermost concentric sphere in Dante’s earth-centered model of the universe. This sphere imparts movement to all the inner spheres surrounding the motionless earth.

Here Allen Mandelbaum’s translation is the most inspired:

I saw a point that sent forth so acute
a light, that anyone who faced the force
with which it blazed would have to shut his eyes,

and any star that, seen from the earth, would seem
to be the smallest, set beside that point,
as star conjoined with star, would seem a moon.

Around that point a ring of fire wheeled,
a ring perhaps as far from that point as
a halo from the star that colors it

when mist that forms the halo is most thick.
It wheeled so quickly that it would outstrip
the motion that most swiftly girds the world.

But let’s also look at Ciardi’s rendition of that ring of fire:

so close around the Point, a ring of fire
spun faster than the fastest of the spheres
circles creation in its endless gyre.

Rhyme can be wonderful. But I also love the image of the earth “girded” by the multiple layers of motion. 

Dante the Pilgrim proceeds to the Empyrean, pure light (literally: “fire”) which is arranged like an immense white rose, often called Dante’s “mystic rose.” The souls of the saved are seated on the “petals,” immersed in bliss. 

 We know that our perception of bliss depends on change, and we’d soon grow bored doing nothing but staring at a point of light. Yet obviously boredom could not exist in heaven, since that would detract from bliss. One solution that has been suggested is that the souls gazing at god have no memory, and thus are immersed in the eternal Now.    

Dante, however, retains his memory. As the climax of his journey, he is granted the sight of the Trinity as three overlapping circles of colored light. Here Mark Musa’s translation is regarded by critics as the most sublime:

Within its depthless clarity of substance
I saw the Great Light shine into three circles
in three clear colors bound in one same space.
. . .

O Light Eternal fixed in Self alone,
known only to Yourself, and knowing Self,
You love and glow, knowing and being known!

That circling which, as I conceived it, shone
in You as Your own first reflected light
when I had looked deep into It a while,

seemed in Itself and Its own Self-color
to be depicted with man’s very image.
My eyes were totally absorbed in It.

Frustrated Reader of the Sublime, if you expected a clear description of the Trinity with fewer capital letters, you obviously had not been warned enough in childhood that the mystery of the Trinity is beyond human grasp.

But on the page I have a helpful note affixed in a stranger’s hand: “Perfect self-sufficient ecstasy.” This is powerful, since Christianity has presented us with a suffering god. Dante imagines a happy god.

Trinity is a Greek rather than a Hebrew concept. In fact in Judaism it amounts to the highest blasphemy. But let’s not worry about the jealous god of vengeance. Neither jealous nor vengeful nor suffering, god is three happy circles of light. Three happy circles of gaily colored light! How could those circles have memory, or anything to do with human suffering? 

But wait, the light emits love as it glows. There are those who claim to have experienced divine love.  Is there a hint here of Einstein’s “friendly universe”? Not that Einstein ever claimed the universe was friendly; he only suggested that it’s an important question facing humanity. But perhaps all that matters if whether humanity is progressing toward being more friendly. 

Still, I admire Dante having come up with this geometry rather than presenting the painters’ cliché: a double throne in the clouds, two bearded men, one of them older, the dove hovering above, added for the sake of the number three.

The dove was the best part. I miss the dove. But enough unreality. Since la luce etterna is beyond human grasp, let’s walk out into the night and look at the moon. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Davos, Switzerland, the site of Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain"


I don’t remember exactly when Budberg died, it was either two years  
      ago or three.  
The same with Chen. Whether last year or the one before.  
Soon after our arrival, Budberg, gently pensive,  
Said that in the beginning it is hard to get accustomed,  
For here there is no spring or summer, no winter or fall.  

“I kept dreaming of snow and birch forests.  
Where so little changes you hardly notice how time goes by.  
This is, you will see, a magic mountain.”  

Budberg: a familiar name in my childhood.  
They were prominent in our region,  
This Russian family, descendants of German Balts.  
I read none of his works, too specialized.  
And Chen, I have heard, was an exquisite poet,  
Which I must take on faith, for he wrote in Chinese.

Sultry Octobers, cool Julys, trees blossom in February.  
Here the nuptial flight of hummingbirds does not forecast spring.  
Only the faithful maple sheds its leaves every year.  
For no reason, its ancestors simply learned it that way.  

I sensed Budberg was right and I rebelled.  
So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?  
Fame will pass me by,
no crown, no tiara?  
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,  
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,  
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.  
Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.  
One murky island with its barking seals  
Or a parched desert is enough  
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”  
Endurance comes only from enduring.  
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,  
And climbed it and it held me.  

What a procession! Quelles délices!
What caps and hooded gowns!
Most respected Professor Budberg,  
Most distinguished Professor Chen,  
Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz  
Who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue.  
Who will count them anyway. And here sunlight.  
So that the flames of their tall candles fade.  
And how many generations of hummingbirds keep them company  
As they walk on. Across the magic mountain.  
And cold fog creeps in from the ocean, for once more it is July.  

Berkeley, 1975

      ~ Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

This is one of my favorite poems by Milosz. Remember that he lived in Berkeley, where it can be quite cool in summer -- yes, that cold fog blowing in from the Pacific, the heavy cloud-banks obliterating the beautiful bridges. The title refers to Thomas Mann's masterpiece set in a TB sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, where it can be suddenly freezing during summer, and relatively warm on a sunny, cloudless day in winter.

Of course the introductory theme here is not the confused seasons, but the whole feeling of unreality that can be part of living in exile. In another poem written in that period, “To Raja Rao,” Milosz writes,

For years I could not accept
the place I was in.
I felt I should be somewhere else.

A city, trees, human voices
lacked the quality of presence.
. . .
There was, somewhere else, a real city,
with real trees and voices and friendship and love.


But exile is not the main theme there -- unless we extend the meaning of “exile” to “being a poet without an audience” -- and, to make it even worse, one who writes “in some unheard-of tongue.” It’s a confession that youth’s heroic ego project has been shattered, and “I the Unique” surrenders to the common fate of remaining unknown.

Things were to change dramatically for Milosz, but for many years he seemed to be one of the thousands of poets who dream of an audience, and they dream in vain. The poem was written five years before Milosz won the Nobel Prize. There is a story that one year before the Nobel, Milosz and C.K. Williams gave a reading at UC Berkeley, and only ten people showed up -- all of them to hear the American poet.

“A Magic Mountain” is Milosz as Ecclesiastes, announcing that all is vanity. First we have two Berkeley professors, Budberg and Chen, the latter apparently an exquisite poet in Chinese, dying without having won recognition, the year of their disappearance now even certain in memory. Jorie Graham says, “We must be unforgettable or not at all” -- a cruel piece of advice for 99.9 percent of humanity.

Budberg, a specialist in a field Milosz deliberately leaves blank to make him even more anonymous, does leave a trace in the speaker’s consciousness. He is the one who tells Milosz that Berkeley is a “magic mountain” without clear seasons of the year:

“I kept dreaming of snow and birch forests.  
Where so little changes you hardly notice how time goes by.  
This is, you will see, a magic mountain.”  
. . .
Sultry Octobers, cool Julys, trees blossom in February.  
Here the nuptial flight of hummingbirds does not forecast spring.  
Only the faithful maple sheds its leaves every year.  
For no reason, its ancestors simply learned it that way.  

The faithful maple still sheds its leaves even though frost doesn’t come. Afterwards the new leaf buds in what was to be the golden-green festival of spring are hardly noticed, outdone by hummingbirds diving into the deep throats of tropical hibiscus, or the shallow chalices of flowers displaced from their climate.

At first the speaker rebels against the idea of being “stuck” on this academic Magic Mountain. This is the heart of the poem, and it beats close to despair, never mind the tone of casual self-mockery:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?  
Fame will pass me by,
no crown, no tiara?  
Did I then train myself, myself the Unique,  
To compose stanzas for gulls and sea haze,  
To listen to the foghorns blaring down below?

Until it passed. What passed? Life.

Life is now practically over, and the future has been stolen away. Milosz exaggerates to drive the point:

So I won’t have power, won’t save the world?  
Fame will pass me by, no tiara, no crown? 

To complete this self-mockery we get an academic procession, as if to say: “Here come the clowns”:

What a procession! Quelles délices!
What caps and hooded gowns!
Most respected Professor Budberg,  
Most distinguished Professor Chen,  
Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz  
Who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue. 

Every poet yearns for fame. This is true of all creative fields, of course. Picasso said about painters, “They all want to be Rembrandt.” It’s not a question of having an oversize ego. True, that’s a part of it: creative people need more than average narcissism to be able to isolate themselves from others to whatever extent it takes to develop their talent and master the craft. Otherwise they risk becoming “service persons” who live to serve the immediate needs of others, and never become the larger self that can then provide great gifts to many.

Let me amend the previous statement: poets, like all artists, dream of greatness and fame. True, if presented with a choice, the serious ones would choose greatness over fame, which they pretend to scorn, at least as an outward show of artistic purity -- but no matter what they say, every artist yearns for fame because fame means having an audience. No, it’s not about having a wonderful opinion about yourself -- I’ve met people who thought very highly of themselves without having any accomplishment to justify it, much less fame. Fame -- or at least recognition -- reinforces one’s sense of purpose. It provides the opportunity to give to others a unique gift rather than writing in a vacuum, “for gulls and sea haze.”

How can a poet survive being unknown? Milosz supplies a melancholy answer:

Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.  
One murky island with its barking seals  
Or a parched desert is enough  
To make us say: yes, oui, si.
“Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world.”  
Endurance comes only from enduring.  
With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,  
And climbed it and it held me.

Remember, in this poem Milosz is five years away from the Nobel Prize, for which he has no hope. He has no hope even for minor prizes. He prides himself on having adapted to obscurity: “Now I am not ashamed of my defeat.” He says the landscape is enough, the generations of hummingbirds that accompany the procession of the unrecognized across their magic mountain. He also reminds the reader that we contribute to the world in ways unknown to us: “Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world” -- a motto reminiscent of Milton’s “They also serve who only stand and wait.” 

(A shameless and self-serving digression: One of my poems ends “They also serve / who perish in the desert” -- ah, the consolations of the desperate. I was once introduced as “the best least-known poet in America.”)

But after the passive consolation -- we are the children of the universe, we contribute something to the world simply by existing -- Milosz says something more interesting:

With a flick of the wrist I fashioned an invisible rope,  
And climbed it and it held me.

The rope that made him endure the lonely years of obscurity was his ability to recognize that his work had value, even in the absence of acclaim. “Had I not granted recognition to myself, I could not have survived so long without the recognition of my fellow men, besides a chosen few.” (Unattainable Earth, p. 39)

But “self-recognition” is a thin, creaky rope. It holds, but underneath it lies the abyss of despair. When one’s audience consists mainly of a handful of friends (“a chosen few”), falling into the abyss of depression, that dark side of ambition, is a constant danger. Only immigrant bitterness seems to me greater than the bitterness of poets who’ve been entering manuscript contests for twenty-thirty years. When they add up the entry fees -- if they dare perform this frightful exercise -- they see they could have traveled instead, or bought a mountain cabin. And worse, all those years, life was passing. What can they say to the spouses and children they neglected, the mournful voices of things that went undone?

Nevertheless, “self-recognition” is in fact an important factor. When I began to see with more and more clarity that I was a stronger poet than many of the contest judges, journal editors, and workshop instructors, I could no longer ignore the role of sheer luck when it comes to external success. When I began to hear this summary of poetry conferences:  “The participants were as good as, or better than, the presenters,” I realized that others had a similar perception. My peers told me over and over: “Talent is not enough. Hard work is not enough. It’s about luck and having the right connections. It’s about who you know.”

Those are pitiful consolations. The dark side of ambition is depression. Though the Middle Ages conflated depression and “sloth,” many of those who suffer from depression began as anything but slothful. On the contrary: they (I mean a specific subgroup, not all cases) started out ambitious and energetic, driven by a vision of high-achieving future. Once the vision is shattered and replaced by the perception of “you can’t win no matter what,” depression arrives, beating its dark wings.

Dark wings? Let me amend that. The wings of depression are blank. 


And yet the Middle Ages did know something important about depression. What’s the opposite of sloth? The answer is found in Ecclesiastes: “Whatever thy hand finds to do, do it with all thy might.”

My cousin Franek, who did a lot of hiking in his youth, taught me the first rule of survival in the wild: “If lost, follow a river.” A river always leads to a bigger river -- and thus to a bridge, road sign, highway. But first: follow a river.

Work too always leads somewhere. As Sister Corita Kent said, “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something.” Not necessarily to fame, but maybe to a different and more fulfilling field or venue. Again: “The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something.”

That’s why, in certain fields, the heretically un-American advice -- DON’T DREAM -- makes supreme good sense. Nor should we encourage children to "dream big." Are you kidding? We should take another look at “great expectations.” They can be deadly. What works on a daily basis is micro-ambition -- concentrating on the project at hand. That can still be done at the level of excellence, and bring the delight of intellectual stimulation and esthetic beauty to others. And that is enough.


Milosz has another poem, a tender one, that ends by praising “diminished expectations.” It’s one of his best-loved poems. 

Archangel Gabriel, Gerard David, early 1500s.


All was taken away from you: white dresses,

wings, even existence.

Yet I believe in you,


There, where the world is turned inside out,

a heavy fabric embroidered with stars and animals,

you stroll, inspecting the trustworthy seams.

Short is your stay here:

now and then at a matinal hour, if the sky is clear,

in a melody repeated by a bird,

or in the smell of apples at close of day

when the light makes the orchards magical.

They say someone has invented you

but to me this does not sound convincing

for the humans invented themselves as well.

The voice — no doubt it is a valid proof,

as it can belong only to radiant creatures,

weightless and winged (and why not?),

girdled with lightning.

I have heard that voice many a time when asleep

and, what is strange, I understood more or less

an order or an appeal in an unearthly tongue:

day draws near

another day

do what you can.

Berkeley 1969


Note that this poem too was written long before fame, in loneliness and obscurity. Yet it’s certainly not a poem of despair (“Magic Mountain” comes much closer, for all its assurances of endurance). Milosz’s “angels” are what he calls “eternal moments”: birdsong at dawn, the smell of apples and the magical light in the orchards toward evening.

In another poem, “I Should Now Be Wiser,” he says:

The shames I closed inside myself, but the amazements,

at a sun-streak on a wall, at the trill of an oriole, a face,

an iris, a volume of poems, a person, endure and return in brightness.

Such moments lifted me above my lameness.

Thus, beauty was one element of his salvation from despair. The other one was work. In “On Angels,” we see the importance of both beauty and work. Aside from the witty aphorism that human beings also invented themselves, it’s the last line that presents the main message: DO WHAT YOU CAN.

This message is not “think big.” It’s not “follow your dream.” It’s definitely not “Never settle for less than your dream.” It’s simply “Do what you can.” Work without asking about where you are going. Work will lead to something. Usually. Whatever else we may say about Milosz, he was certainly a workaholic.

And he had the last laugh. After giving up hope, but not work, he won the highest literary prize. He was sixty-nine. Suddenly he was reading to packed auditoriums. Strong American poets stepped in to help with translations. He became not just a famous Polish poet, but a world poet. (“You have to be translatable,” he slyly remarked.)

And the old but vigorous poet made the best of his old age. He produced an enormous amount of work in the last twenty-plus years of his life, never apologizing for the contradictions of having “two souls” -- one of them leaning to asceticism and rejection of the world, the other one Dionysian, “glorifying things.” That too is part of The Magic Mountain -- I mean now Thomas Mann’s great novel. But more on that in the blogpost to follow. 

 Davos Bobsled team, 1910. "Adler" means "eagle." The TB sanatoria described by Mann were located at such high altitude that the bodies of those patients who died during winter had to be transported down by bobsled. Why the thin mountain air, deficient in oxygen, was believed to be good for TB was a mystery.

In our Salon archives I found this interchange pertaining to the first part of Milosz’s “Magic Mountain” -- the unreality of California for someone who grew up in Lithuania.


I just loved that moody Berkeley poem and M reciting to the gulls. Made me think of Po Chu-i's "Madly Singing in the Mountain" reciting to the monkeys and birds. I'm so happy M found that living is the real prize. [Kate is referring to “The Poet at Seventy”; the poem ends on “the pleasure of being alive”]. It's so interesting that he felt that Berkeley to him wasn't a real city with real trees or kindred spirits when for young people like me it became the real city, the city of poetry because of him and the others who were there.


Here is Po-Chu-I’s poem:


There is no one among men that has not a special failing;
And my failing consists in writing verses.
I have broken away from the thousand ties of life;
But this infirmity still remains behind.

Each time that I look at a fine landscape,
Each time that I meet a loved friend,
I raise my voice and recite a stanza of poetry.
And marvel as though a God had crossed my path.

Ever since the day I was banished to Hsun-yang
Half my time I have lived among the hills.
And often, when I have finished a new poem
Alone I climb the road to the Eastern Rock.

I lean my body on the banks of white stone,
I pull down with my hands a green cassia branch.
My mad singing startles the valleys and hills;
Monkeys and birds all come to peep.

Fearing to become a laughing-stock to the world,
I choose a place unfrequented by men.

~ PO CHU-I. c.AD 816
translated by Arthur Waley


For the Chinese poet, nature, religion, and poetry all unite as his spiritual sustenance. Milosz had a much more difficult time, having been raised in old-time Catholicism, and then, out of desperation, trying to forge his own neo-Catholic faith, dipping into Swedenborg and the Gnostics, never quite free of doubt.

Maybe you are wondering: why is PCI so lyrical and Milosz so conceptual? Milosz too felt close to nature, but it was the meadows and lakes and forests of Lithuania, and later the French countryside; he had trouble feeling at home in California’s landscape, so different from the lush green of the rain-rich north. 

I did not choose California. It was given to me.
What would a man of the north
have to do with parched emptiness?
Grayish clay, dry streambeds,
hills the color of straw and clumps of boulders
like prehistoric reptiles – that’s for me
the soul of these regions.
And fog creeping out of the ocean,
begetting greenness in the ravines.
And spiny oak and thistles.

Where was it said that we would possess
the earth like a beloved,
and plunge into her deep, clear rivers,
and flow on fertile currents?


But then he had his beloved cat, and the deer that came to his yard, treating it as their salad bar. One time a doe gave birth to twin fawns on his lawn, and decided to stay there for a while. As for “parched,” he didn’t have it so bad there on Grizzly Peak. Worse by far was the near-complete lack of recognition (until 1980 and the Nobel Prize) and the loneliness he felt among the leftist academics in Berkley (though he knew from experience that France was even worse).

And there were his metaphysical wrestlings, now reading Swedenborg, now Simone Weil, now trying to feel at home again in the Catholic church (if my own experience is any guide, once you leave, you can’t quite return; once you have had a certain perception with the force of insight, there is no going back. On the other hand, as priests love to claim, that you can never fully leave: the emotional imprint of a Catholic childhood cannot be deleted). PCI at least had the serenity of his spiritual practice, though he too hints at loneliness, at guests who were invited, but did not come.

About the feeling of unreality: this is part of what goes with exile, with living in a place that’s very unlike your country of origin. The first landscape also establishes neural circuits that dictate what reality is supposed to be like. The differentness of another place creates a pleasant feeling of novelty as long as it’s a vacation and you have a home to go back to. Once that home is lost, the loss of familiarity is traumatic: the limbic system, based on attachment, goes into a shock of grief.

Even minor things come back as bits of grief, such as my literally gut-level thinking, during the first weeks, “This is not real milk”; “This is not real food”; “Why does the meat have no taste?” etc; and later, in California, much as I appreciate both palm trees and eucalypts, “These are not real trees.” Even Catholic churches were not real churches but shabby substitutes. I fell in love with Los Angeles, but fully knowing that this was not a real city. Let me share a short poem from long ago:


I miss real trees. The eucalypts
are not enough, not even their incense
after rain. I’m outraged the bark
peels off in raggedy patches.

A right-wing homunculus sits
in the middle of my brain, screaming
that everything looks wrong:
the houses look wrong, the lawns,

the schools, the children, the stores.
The libraries look like libraries,
but that’s not enough. The streets
look wrong, their lunar emptiness.

I try to appease the homunculus
with roses; yawning
with contempt he'll ask,
“But where is the scent?

These are not real roses.
And if your heart flips over that
scentless fabrication of false petals,
that’s not your real heart.” 

~ Oriana


I hasten to say that the local pine trees, with their magnificent long needles, did win my false heart, as did bougainvilleas (in spite of not being real flowers). The sense of unreality would come and go, and finally come over me less and less often.  

But I perfectly understand why Milosz settled in Krakow for the last years of his life. He went to Krakow to die because that city most reminded him of Vilnius (always Wilno for him). The general rule is that we love the familiar: a little trickle of a waterfall in the local mountains and not Niagara Falls (do I need to point out that that’s not real water?)

Frozen Niagara Falls, 1911


Milosz's style is surprisingly like your poetry style. At first I thought that you wrote the poem.

Must have been devastating for him to be a reader and not one person showed up for him. Doesn't say a lot about his ability to make friends. You would expect at least one person to show up if you are a featured reader.

Love the concept of the larger self as opposed to a person serving others.

I think Milosz has a mild sense of humor in his poetry. I can see how Milosz is an inspiration to you.

I love how you steer the blog to Ecclesiastes.

Love Archangel Gabriel’s blue outfit.

Best of all I love Milosz’s (and your) wisdom at the end, DO WHAT YOU CAN.


Hmm . . .  The similarity in poetic styles may derived simply from the fact that many modern poets tend to sound alike: relaxed, colloquial almost, but with nature imagery to impart lyricism.

Ecclesiastes just happens to deliver the philosophy of life that’s become my own: drop expectations (“vanity of vanities”), work hard with all your heart, and enjoy life as best you can.

In early paintings, angels tend to be colorful -- both their wings and robes. Archangel Gabriel is particularly color co-ordinated.