Devonian Corals

petoskey collection

A friend recommended the poetry of Robert Hass to me, which is why I spent half of a weekend this summer in the library reading his Time and Materials cover to cover. This might not be the best method for poetic appreciation – rather like a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole for later digestion – but it proves more effective than returning the book unread.

One poem in particular, “State of the Planet,” arrested me mid-read. Composed for a conference of the same name, it meditates on Earth’s history and considers man’s place within it.  The principle focus is certain environmental problems: polluted, overfished, carrying on nonetheless. Hass imagines a Californian schoolgirl, both as an allusion to future generations of stewards, and to ruminate on how one learns about the world. There are friendly textbooks and voices of authority instructing her about the cosmos, as well as the informative delights of experience: raindrops pelting her crimson backpack, copper-colored Japanese plums, leaning into the face of the wind, the possibility of Petoskeys.

That last was what made me pause, the fifth section in:

If she lived in Michigan or the Ukraine,
She’d find, washed up on the beach in a storm like this
Limestone fossils of Devonian coral. She could study
The faint white markings: she might have to lick the stone
To see them if the wind was drying the pale surface
Even as she held it, to bring back the picture of what life
Looked like forty millions years ago: a honeycomb with mouths.

It grabbed me, but oddly: no one ever bothers calling a Petoskey stone a fossil of Devonian coral. Possibly it was his way of including Charlevoix stones, or whatever folks in the Ukraine call their particular coral fossils; theirs wouldn’t be named for Chief Petosogay like ours are.

More than the mention of Michigan, I was caught by she might lick the stone, which squares up so neatly with reality.

Dry petoskeys Wet Petoskeys

However lovely it is to walk a Michigan beach – or swim, or read, or watch a sunset – the rocks are my greatest lure. Peering at them, poring over them, eyes peeled for that particular array of hexagons, those faint lines made distinct by the wash of a wave.

As Hass notes, it’s more difficult when the stones are dry. Licking the stone is the quickest test if you’ve stepped away from the shore.

I love this about them: that they hide, even as you look at them, especially when you take them further from the water. That mute honeycomb cries out, long after the coral has died, to be returned to the sea.

Petoskey stones

Yogh and Ash and Thorn

Last week Back in May, I shared Peter Bellamy’s setting of Rudyard Kipling, noting that I’d stumbled over it thanks to the glory and munificence of the internet.

More specifically, I was contemplating Anglo-Saxon words that start with an ash or a thorn, and came across this parody by Catherine Faber:

Yogh and Ash and Thorn

Some time between the year fourteen-ought-five and -fifty-one
There was a strange and radical change in spoken English done.
These letters all but past recall should not be held in scorn;
The rose in May must go the way of yogh and ash and thorn.

Yogh and ash and thorn good sirs, mouldering vellum adorn;
Here do we see mortality in yogh and ash and thorn.

Yogh to me resembles a three a little bit flattened above
And sound denotes so low in the throat as only the Dutch could love
Yet now is found both letter and sound discarded and forlorn;
Remember you are mortal too, like yogh and ash and thorn.

A “b” with a tail, thorn didn’t prevail, but though it lost the race
It takes a pair of letters to wear the shoes to take its place,
And a and e an ash will be when back to back they are bourne;
Into dark the passing mark of yogh and ash and thorn.

“Vowel shift” said somebody miffed, “It’s more like a hey or a bransle
“Letter and sound keep swapping around and ‘hands about go all!'”
Some were stored and some ignored and some were mangled and torn,
Caught up in the rout as vowels fell out with yogh and ash and thorn.

Time must be an enemy that ever ending brings–
Even word-fame cannot be heard when words are mortal things.
Some clever cuss in studying us some distant future morn
Will find us surely strange to her as yogh and ash and thorn.

Rich and strangely words will change in warpage under use
But why in past it happened so fast Gude Godde only knoos.**
We work the sum of what we become from where and how we are born.
And hold these three in memory: yogh and ash and thorn!

A Tree Song

Through the glorious bounty of the internet, I stumbled upon this poem by Rudyard Kipling today.  It’s not yet midsummer, but it seems appropriate anyway when the weather is so lovely and I am longing to go back to England.

Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak and Ash and Thorn.
Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn, good Sirs
(All of a Midsummer’s morn)!
Surely we sing of no little thing,
In Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Oak of the Clay lived many a day,
Or ever Aeneas began;
Ash of the Loam was a lady at home,
When Brut was an outlaw man;
Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town
(From which was London born);
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Yew that is old in churchyard mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow;
Alder for shoes do wise men choose,
And beech for cups also.
But when ye have killed, and your bowl is spilled,
Your shoes are clean outworn,
Back ye must speed for all that ye need,
To Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Ellum she hateth mankind, and waiteth
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That anyway trusts her shade:
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with ale from the horn,
He’ll take no wrong when he lieth along
‘Neath Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But—we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth—
Good news for cattle and corn—
Now is the Sun come up from the South,
With Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn, good Sirs
(All of a Midsummer’s morn)!
England shall bide till Judgement Tide,
By Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Law Like Love

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I’ve told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.

Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don’t know where or why,
Like love we can’t compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

– Auden

Random Research: Raphael and Rilke

Every once in a while, I stop and consider how utterly reliant I am on the internet in general, and Google in particular.  O, benevolent online overlords!  Thou art the repository of so much of human thought, the cache of my own ideas, and my lady Mnemosyne.  Nor dost thou scorn to stoop and serve me, so long as my ISP does not fail me and I can limit my query to 128 characters.

But sometimes even Google, mighty Google, cannot come to my aid.

Two instances of late come to mind.

Back in April, I went to Rome with a friend.  Among the sights I appreciated most was the library of Pope Julius II, the Stanza della Segnatura, which Raphael decorated on all sides with frescoes.  The School of Athens is there (cue flashbacks to college days), as well as La Disputa del Sacramento – The Disputation of the Sacrament.


I was struck with curiosity over the scribe girl sitting next to St. Augustine (the fellow with a miter to the right of the altar, who is gesturing toward her).  Presumably she’s taking notes on the discussion of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist.
La Disputa scribe

I love her.  My practice is the same: to write down what people are saying in conversation, whether it’s in a booklet or whatever scraps of paper I have to hand, whether it’s clever or funny or erudite or just plain ridiculous.  Whoever she is, she is my representative where this picture is concerned.

Sadly, I have no idea who she is.  She might not be anyone at all; she might be a figure representing all scribes in all times and in all places, or the preservation of the doctrine of the church throughout history.  She might be the anthropomorphization of some concept: purity, truth, reason.

After scrolling through site after site in vain, I became convinced that all the Googling in the world could not illuminate this figure for me.  I headed to the library and got out every book on Raphael they’ve got, which gave me background on the putative chronology of the frescoes, and the background for how Raphael was chosen to paint them, but not much insight on the iconography he used, beyond the fact that it was ground-breaking in its animation. Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny, bless them, shared an endnote in their 1983 Raphael that Heinrich Pfeiffer explored the question in his dissertation, Zur Ikonographie von Raffaels Disputa.

It is a testament to my curiosity that I submitted a WorldCat request to get it from Montreal, despite the fact that I will need to translate the lot to get any answers from it.  Provoking!

But not, perhaps, as provoking as that other problem that plagues the internet, namely: people crediting an individual as the author of a quotation or idea or aphorism, without citing where they found it.  Then other people share it, be it truth or falsehood.  The thing becomes ubiquitous, a weed with no way to trace its forebears.

In this case, I found a poem credited to Rilke called “Blank Joy,” which of course appealed to me very greatly.  Given that he composed in German and French but not, to my knowledge, in English, I was interested in finding and translating the original.  So I checked Amazon for his titles, and took a look at their respective tables of contents.  I consulted my library’s catalog, and Wikipedia, and poetic fan sites: all the usual places.

The original German…does not appear to exist.  Or, rather, I’ve found it on three sites, but no one indicates what volume of his it was published in (was it published?  Did someone share a poem once written in a letter?).  Is it actually his?  How can we know?

So far the only solution I’ve come up with…is to request Sämtliche Werke in 12 Bänden – his complete works in twelve volumes – from the library.

I’m not sure what to take from this.  Maybe I should rely on Google less; perhaps I should consult the library and librarians therein first; possibly (probably) I should develop more vigorous and enterprising methods of research.

Or perhaps the real lesson is that I should learn German.

A Long-Unexpected Illustration

I’m hoping it won’t be stepping over any bounds to say that Thalia and her Vati have spent the past several months working on some storybooks (if so, expect redactions in the morning, I suppose).  They tell of The Noble Adventures of Georges and Jean-Luc, and are (so far as I have seen and read) charming.

The thing about them is, Thalia writes the stories and G. R. T. does the illustration.  This is, I am assured, a wise division of labor.

But.  Thalia HAS done some illustration in the past, and whilst going through some older pictures on my laptop this week, I came across proof of the fact.

There was a day, nigh-on two and a half years ago now, when the two of us declared that we would Draw Pictures of Poetic Merit for the Baby Loon (now a much older Loon!  We shall have to call her something else) and mail them to her.

The pictures were duly drawn, but were never sent.

Our apologies, dear Baby Loon.  Here they are now, better late (we hope?) than never.

IMG_3282 IMG_3284

After she had drawn Methuselah with ice cream, a camel, and a tent, and I had drawn a peacock, a pelican, a phoenix, and an albatross around a cross, we were in a sort of groove.  So we kept drawing.

IMG_3278 IMG_3279 IMG_3308

The latter pictures weren’t necessarily meant to go together, but I find it amusing that the Jameson family crest (shown here according to the whiskey brand variation; typically there are 3 ships and a bugle) and the tale of the Nancy Bell are both rather maritimey in nature.   I suppose one could indeed say that James of the Nancy Bell is indeed Sine Metu: Without Fear!  Without any Dutch courage involved, even.

“Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
And the mate of the Nancy brig,
And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
And the crew of the captain’s gig!”

Ich bete wieder, du Erlauchter

Here is another Rilke poem.  I read it first in Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, as translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.  Then I read through the German, mostly to appreciate the original words (Erlauchter, rauschender, bedrängte, jetzt), the interplay of e and i vowels, the consonance, the seeming levity that comes from rhyme.

Then, in an attempt to better understand the original, I went back and forth between a dictionary, Google Translate, and the Barrows-Macy translation.  This is the result.

(If that seems like a lot of slipshod work for little profit: it is enough for me to learn that Barrows-Macy rendered “ich war,” which is literally “I was,” as “I am” – removing the contrast between most of the poem and the last verse.  The rest of it may be a passel of mistakes; nothing like lazy translations to emphasize that language is 80% pronouns and prepositions.)

Ich bete wieder, du Erlauchter,                    I pray again, you Illustrious One;
du hörst mich wieder durch den Wind,       do you hear me again through the wind
weil meine Tiefen nie gebrauchter               because from my unused depths
rauschender Worte mächtig sind.                mighty words are rushing.

Ich war zerstreut; an Widersacher                I was dispersed; to the adversary
in Stücken war verteilt mein Ich.                  my self was given in pieces.
O Gott, mich lachten alle Lacher,                 O God, I laughed all laughter,
und alle Trinker tranken mich.                      and all drunkards drank me.

Glass shards

In Höfen hab ich mich gesammelt                In courtyards I have gathered myself,
aus Abfall und aus altem Glas,                      from waste and from old glass,
mit halbem Mund dich angestammelt,          stammering to you with my half-mouth,
dich, ewiger aus Ebenmaß.                          to you, eternal in symmetry.
Wie hob ich meine halben Hände                  As I raised my half-hands
zu dir in namenlosem Flehn,                        to you in nameless entreaties,
dass ich die Augen wiederfände,                  that I might find the eyes
mit denen ich dich angesehn.                       with which I once beheld you.

Ich war ein Haus nach einem Brand,            I was a House after a Fire,
darin nur Mörder manchmal schlafen,          where only murderers sometimes sleep,
eh ihre hungerigen Strafen                           and their hungry punishments
sie weiterjagen in das Land;                         pursue them through the land;
ich war wie eine Stadt am Meer,                 I was like a city on the sea,
wenn eine Seuche sie bedrängte,                 pressed by a plague,
die sich wie eine Leiche schwer                  which like a heavy corpse
den Kindern in die Hände hängte.              hung the children in the hands.

Ich war mir fremd wie irgendwer            I was a stranger to myself as one
und wusste nur von ihm, dass er               of whom I knew only that he
einst meine junge Mutter kränkte,             once offended my young mother
als sie mich trug,                                     as she carried me
und dass ihr Herz, das eingeengte,            and that her heart, thus constricted,
sehr schmerzhaft an mein Keimen schlug.   throbbed achingly about my sprouting self.

Jetzt bin ich wieder aufgebaut                      Now I am rebuilt
aus allen Stücken meiner Schande                from all the pieces of my shame
und sehne mich nach einem Bande,            and yearn for a bond,
nach einem einigen Verstande,                     for a unified understanding,
der mich wie ein Ding überschaut,              which regards me as one thing
nach deines Herzens großen Händen           – as I yearn for the big hands of your Heart [to hold me]
(o kämen sie doch auf mich zu)                    (oh, let them draw near me)
ich zähle mich, mein Gott, und du,                I count myself, my God, and you,
du hast das Recht, mich zu verschwenden.     You have the right, to waste me.

P Stands for Paddy, I Suppose

It is St. Patrick’s Day!

So it’s the official day of reading, praying, or singing The Lorica of St. Patrick.

It is, somewhat less officially, the day of wearing the green, pledging with the claddaugh, listening to uilleann pipes, watching step dancers, drinking beer, sipping whiskey, eating potatoes and corned beef, etc., etc.

Reveling in some W. B. Yeats is a delicious part of this balanced breakfast celebration of Eire.  Here are a few poems of his:

The Wheel

Through winter-time we call on spring,
And through the spring on summer call,
And when abounding hedges ring
Declare that winter’s best of all;
And after that there s nothing good
Because the spring-time has not come –
Nor know that what disturbs our blood
Is but its longing for the tomb.

Into the Twilight

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.