One hundred years ago the war known as the First World War, began.

An archive picture shows a statue of Christ on the cross on a tree at Fricourt on the Somme front in France

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
(from The Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot, 1922)

Lest we forget, great public cheers went up in nearly every belligerent country at the the declaration of war. Germany cheered. France cheered. Italy cheered. England cheered.

WW1v2
England is ecstatic at the declaration of war.

“Though they know God’s decree that those who do such things deserve to die, they not only do them but approve those who practice them.” – Saint Paul

“You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war.” – Saint James

Books I have not read
Is a thought squatting
At the back of my brain
Looking a lot like a
Laughing bedside table
Overflowing with falling
And jumbled and stacked
And continually shuffled
But never finished
Books

I have not read many books
In fact almost none
If we’re talking statistics
I mean think of all the books
There are in the world
Even only the good ones
And all the words upon words
Their pages contain

I’m a slow reader

But what are numbers really
I mean compare the soul
To a graph or an equation
Or just a number
My soul is a four
Your’s is a six
What could that possibly mean?

I try not to think about it

We sent astronauts
To the moon
They were test pilots
Technical men
Men of action
Men of numbers
But don’t you wish
They had been poets?

But poets don’t always return
And neither do test pilots
And the list of books
That I have not read
Continues to grow
Like the expanding Universe
Booming and crackling
Into something even a poet
Might hesitate to say
She adequately or even
Apophatically described

And to think all this
And by “all this” I include
The books I have not read
Began only a few billion years ago
With a Word

In the darkness
In the darkness of the day
My lips seek to move
To call down the gods
Tell the stories
The ancient longing
Roiling visions and fables
Truths in wondrous poetry
To call forth sweet desires
And raging passions
To call to yell to sing out
The purity of the deepest pain
The comfort of eternal joy
Beauty breathing glories
The clarion the myth the wonder
The legend’s promise
The true answer

I seek the true answer

The heart of man is in the stars
And so my lips move
They labor in the darkness
Silent circumference of grace
Forming the call
Embodying a logos
A weak voice whispering
Of the the word become body
Of the the myth become history
Becoming history
Become his story
And every knee shall bow
To the God become man
To man’s longing flung to the heavens
Returning like lightning
Splitting ether
Turning the world
And every tongue confess
The end of myth’s fulfillment
Imagination’s fullness
The telos of desire
Made flesh

And it dwelt among us

In this darkness
My lips move
An ordinary prayer
The physical liturgy
The body embodying
The movement again and again
And again
Repeating in my body
The motions of supplication
The memory of limbs
The sinews of soulish prostration
Far from the glory
But so close so close
In the darkness of the day

I seek a glory incarnate

Mourning seeking morning
An hourly liturgy
The liturgy of a whisper
And so my lips move
And speak of the wonder
And the glory taking flesh
When all the myths were answered
Were finally answered
Made flesh among us
Making me flesh
And my lips move
In the darkness of the day
They move
My lips move
In the darkness

dawn
darkness
dark lines

morning seeping over the black jagged cutout horizon
the air like porcelain faintly tinted glistening slowly above

where am I?
this vapor
this mountain

thin gossamer fence
crisp stark stretches
endless

islands of personal history

I have been here before

moments tender now, yellowed even, I suppose

…and this
striding beside the canal
quiet canvas, leather
collars up mysterious light
hats down supplications

leaves fall slower since then, I seem to remember

…and distances between us
marked heel to toe

eyes like ambient night

…and water glowing the muted richness of the sky
glass ribbons around us
dry grass
a vast soul
beauty

silence like leaves

…and walking together
we have before us the lake with mirrored silhouettes
flying above the ground of memory
gently arrayed in undulating chevrons
tumbling from cold steel heavens…

and these archipelagos I seek the finer things
gleam like the cartridges in our pockets I describe eternity
a jumbled assortment I reach for the stars
from the air of remembering I dig the earth
a thin strand of vapor I hold you
a burning mountain I let you go

this dawn
this darkness
these dark lines

a sky of birds
falling to the ground

(November 1999)

it seems we’ve been

memorializing the dead for months

transcending the world of blood

like birds above the sea

some ascended in the illness of age

some in the pagan flames

of grief and treachery

and we spoke softly

weeping

our palms held flat

predicting nothing

presenting nothing

holding the vanity of our existence

like candles waiting to be lit

at the banquet feast



it seems we’ve been

crossing the river for years

like flung stones skipping

believing in stopping

just above the surface

shadows forever below

topsides forever dry

forgetting the far bank

(that beckons like doves returning with branches)

mere stones gleaming like diamonds

our eyes turned inward

our thoughts

fortresses



it seems we’ve been saying

these things since the beginning

like statues on Pacific islands

like Indus valley ruins

like snakes winding on garden trees

“Erect for yourself monuments,

for there is nobility in darkness!”

and so we cover ourselves in silk

fearing love is an enemy

singing songs to the walls

of Jericho

(April 1999)

by Robert Frost, 1932

Why Tityrus! But you’ve forgotten me.
I’m Meliboeus the potato man,
The one you had the talk with, you remember,
Here on this very campus years ago.
Hard times have struck me and I’m on the move.
I’ve had to give my interval farm up
For interest, and I’ve bought a mountain farm
For nothing down, all-out-doors of a place,
All woods and pasture only fit for sheep.
But sheep is what I’m going into next.
I’m done forever with potato crops
At thirty cents a bushel. Give me sheep.
I know wool’s down to seven cents a pound.
But I don’t calculate to sell my wool.
I didn’t my potatoes. I consumed them.
I’ll dress up in sheep’s clothing and eat sheep.
The Muse takes care of you. You live by writing
Your poems on a farm and call that farming.
Oh I don’t blame you. I say take life easy.
I should myself, only I don’t know how.
But have some pity on us who have to work.
Why don’t you use your talents as a writer
To advertise our farms to city buyers,
Or else write something to improve food prices.
Get in a poem toward the next election.
Oh Meliboeus, I have half a mind
To take a writing hand in politics.
Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
I may be wrong, but Tityrus to me
The times seem revolutionary bad.

The question is whether they’ve reached a depth
Of desperation that would warrant poetry’s
Leaving love’s alternations, joy and grief,
The weather’s alternations, summer and winter,
Our age-long theme, for the uncertainty
Of judging who is a contemporary liar
Who in particular, when all alike
Get called as much in clashes of ambition.
Life may be tragically bad, and I
Make bold to sing it so, but do I dare
Name names and tell you who by name is wicked?
Whittier’s luck with Skipper Ireson awes me.
Many men’s luck with Greatest Washington
(Who sat for Stuart’s portrait, but who sat
Equally for the nation’s Constitution).
I prefer to sing safely in the realm
Of types, composite and imagined people:
To affirm there is such a thing as evil
Personified, but ask to be excused
From saying on a jury here’s the guilty.
I doubt it you’re convinced the times are bad.
I keep my eye on Congress, Meliboeus.
They’re in the best position of us all
To know if anything is very wrong.
1 mean they could be trusted to give the alarm
If earth were thought about to change its axis,
Or a star coming to dilate the sun.
As long as lightly all their live-long sessions,
Like a yard full of school boys out at recess
Before their plays and games were organized,
They yelling mix tag, hide-and-seek, hop-scotch,
And leap frog in each other’s way, all’s well.
Let newspapers profess to fear the worst!
Nothing’s portentous, I am reassured.

Is socialism needed, do you think?

We have it now. For socialism is
An element in any government.
There’s no such thing as socialism pure
Except as an abstraction of the mind.
There’s only democratic socialism
Monarchic socialism oligarchic,
The last being what they seem to have in Russia.
You often get it most in monarchy,
Least in democracy. In practice, pure,
I don’t know what it would be. No one knows.
I have no doubt like all the loves when
Philosophized together into one-
One sickness of the body and the soul.
Thank God our practice holds the loves apart
Beyond embarrassing self-consciousness
Where natural friends are met, where dogs are kept,
Where women pray with priests. There is no love.
There’s only love of men and women, love
Of children, love of friends, of men, of God,
Divine love, human love, parental love,
Roughly discriminated for the rough.

Poetry, itself once more, is back in love.

Pardon the analogy, my Meliboeus,
For sweeping me away. Let’s see, where was I?
But don’t you think more should be socialized
Than is?
What should you mean by socialized?

Made good for everyone things like inventions-
Made so we all should get the good of them
All, not just great exploiting businesses.

We sometimes only get the bad of them.
In your sense of the word ambition has
Been socialized the first propensity
To be attempted. Greed may well come next.
But the worst one of all to leave uncurbed,
Unsocialized, is ingenuity:
Which for no sordid self-aggrandizement,
For nothing but its own blind satisfaction
(In this it is as much like hate as love)
Works in the dark as much against as for us.
Even while we talk some chemist at Columbia
Is stealthily contriving wool from jute
That when let loose upon the grazing world
Will put ten thousand farmers out of sheep.
Everyone asks for freedom for himself,
The man free love, the business man free trade,
The writer and talker free speech and free press.
Political ambition has been taught,
By being punished back, it is not free:
It must at some point gracefully refrain.
Greed has been taught a little abnegation
And shall be more before we’re done with it.
It is just fool enough to think itself
Self-taught. But our brute snarling and lashing taught it.
None shall be as ambitious as he can.
None should be as ingenious as he could,
Not if I had my say. Bounds should be set
To ingenuity for being so cruel
In bringing change unheralded on the unready,

I elect you to put the curb on it.

Were I dictator, I’ll tell you what I’d do.

What should you do?
I’d let things take their course
And then I’d claim the credit for the outcome.

You’d make a sort of safety-first dictator.

Don’t let the things I say against myself
Betray you into taking sides against me,
Or it might get you into trouble with me.
I’m not afraid to prophesy the future,
And be judged by the outcome, Meliboeus.
Listen and I will take my dearest risk.
We’re always too much out or too much in.
At present from a cosmical dilation
We’re so much out that the odds are against
Our ever getting inside in again.
But inside in is where we’ve got to get.
My friends all know I’m interpersonal.
But long before I’m interpersonal
Away ‘way down inside I’m personal.
Just so before we’re international
We’re national and act as nationals.
The colors are kept unmixed on the palette,
Or better on dish plates all around the room,

So the effect when they are mixed on canvas
May seem almost exclusively designed.
Some minds are so confounded intermental
They remind me of pictures on a palette:
‘Look at what happened. Surely some God pinxit.
Come look at my significant mud pie.’
It’s hard to tell which is the worse abhorrence
Whether it’s persons pied or nations pied.

Don’t let me seem to say the exchange, the encounter,
May not be the important thing at last.
It well may be. We meet I don’t say when
But must bring to the meeting the maturest,
The longest-saved-up, raciest, localest
We have strength of reserve in us to bring.

Tityrus, sometimes I’m perplexed myself
To find the good of commerce. Why should I
Have to sell you my apples and buy yours?
It can’t be just to give the robber a chance
To catch them and take toll of them in transit.
Too mean a thought to get much comfort out of.
I figure that like any bandying
Of words or toys, it ministers to health.
It very likely quickens and refines us.

To market ’tis our destiny to go.
But much as in the end we bring for sale there
There is still more we never bring or should bring;
More that should be kept back the soil for instance
In my opinion, though we both know poets
Who fall all over each other to bring soil
And even subsoil and hardpan to market.
To sell the hay off, let alone the soil,
Is an unpardonable sin in farming.
The moral is, make a late start to market.
Let me preach to you, will you Meliboeus?
Preach on. I thought you were already preaching.
But preach and see if I can tell the difference.
Needless to say to you, my argument
Is not to lure the city to the country.
Let those possess the land and only those,
Who love it with a love so strong and stupid
That they may be abused and taken advantage of
And made fun of by business, law and art;
They still hang on. That so much of the earth’s
Unoccupied need not make us uneasy.
We don’t pretend to complete occupancy.
The world’s one globe, human society
Another softer globe that slightly flattened
Rests on the world, and clinging slowly rolls.
We have our own round shape to keep unbroken.
The world’s size has no more to do with us
Than has the universe’s. We are balls,
We are round from the same source of roundness.
We are both round because the mind is round,
Because all reasoning is in a circle.
At least that’s why the universe is round.

If what you’re preaching is a line of conduct,
Just what am I supposed to do about it?
Reason in circles?

No, refuse to be
Seduced back to the land by any claim
The land may seem to have on man to use it.
Let none assume to till the land but farmers.
I only speak to you as one of them.
You shall go to your run-out mountain farm,
Poor cast-away of commerce, and so live
That none shall ever see you come to market-
Not for a long long time. Plant, breed, produce,
But what you raise or grow, why feed it out,
Eat it or plow it under where it stands
To build the soil. For what is more accursed
Than an impoverished soil pale and metallic?
What cries more to our kind for sympathy?
I’ll make a compact with you, Meliboeus,
To match you deed for deed and plan for plan.
Friends crowd around me with their five year plans
That Soviet Russia has made fashionable.
You come to me and I’ll unfold to you
A five year plan I call so, not because
It takes ten years or so to carry out,
Rather because it took five years at least
To think it out. Come close, let us conspire-
In self-restraint, if in restraint of trade.
You will go to your run-out mountain farm
And do what I command you, I take care
To command only what you meant to do
Anyway. That is my style of dictator.
Build soil. Turn the farm in upon itself
Until it can contain itself no more,
But sweating-full, drips wine and oil a little.
I will go to my run-out social mind
And be as unsocial with it as I can.
The thought I have, and my first impulse is
To take to market— I will turn it under.
The thought from that thought—I will turn it under
And so on to the limit of my nature.
We are too much out, and if we won’t draw in
We shall be driven in. I was brought up
A state-rights free-trade Democrat. What’s that ?
An inconsistency. The state shall be
Laws to itself, it seems, and yet have no
Control of what it sells or what it buys.
Suppose someone comes near me who in rate
Of speech and thinking is so much my better
I am imposed on, silenced and discouraged.
Do I submit to being supplied by him
As the more economical producer,
More wonderful, more beautiful producer?
No. I unostentatiously move off
Far enough for my thought-flow to resume.
Thought product and food product are to me
Nothing compared to the producing of them
I sent you once a song with the refrain:

Let me be the one
To do what is done

My share at least lest I be empty-idle.
Keep off each other and keep each other off.
You see the beauty of my proposal is
It needn’t wait on general revolution.
I bid you to a one-man revolution
The only revolution that is coming.
We’re too unseparate out among each other
With goods to sell and notions to impart.

A youngster comes to me with half a quatrain
To ask me if I think it worth the pains
Of working out the rest, the other half.
I am brought guaranteed young prattle poems
Made publicly in school, above suspicion
Of plagiarism and help of cheating parents.
We congregate embracing from distrust
As much as love, and too close in to strike
And be so very striking. Steal away
The song says. Steal away and stay away.
Don’t join too many gangs. Join few if any.
Join the United States and join the family
But not much in between unless a college.
Is it a bargain, Shepherd Meliboeus?

Probably but you’re far too fast and strong
For my mind to keep working in your presence.
I can tell better after I get home,
Better a month from now when cutting posts
Or mending fence it all comes back to me
What I was thinking when you interrupted
My life-train logic. I agree with you
We’re too unseparate. And going home
From company means coming to our senses.

A poem by Christina Rossetti, written circa 1872, later made into a Christmas carol.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air,
But only His mother1
In her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart.

[Andrei Tarkovsky was a Russian filmmaker who, after making only seven films (mostly under a dissaproving Soviet system), died of cancer in 1986.  His mother was a painter and his father was a notable Russian poet.  Tarkovsky, little known by the American public, is considered to be among the most important artists of the twentieth century.]

a shadow shaking lightning bolts

I forget myself

the animated corpse looks like my reflection

guts smeared across the paper

in neatly printed rows

I think of you

the cover of your book ripped off

stripped away, digested

the body laid bare

resting in my hands

trembling with you

your complaints

your ruminations

your vocation

(a curse upon your house)

your painful open eyes

and the banality of turning pages

there is an image amongst the relics:

living beneath the surface

slender blades undulating

(such lovely serpents)

an abstracted shaman

of true things

(or talisman of desire)

is this image you?

veritas

verisimilitude

a framed soul breathing

fleeting

heart beating singular

and universal

(connotations thick as ashes)

you must have ached

hands and feet cut off

the collective soil waiting

darkness watching every move

you must have burned

in love and anger

(before the stamp of ignorance)

smoke and mist

indistinguishable

filling the screen

with supplications

pagan streams baptizing

the fears of the righteous

witches and soldiers giving utterance

and where were you?

writing with light

(the master praying for salvation)

and I see you clearly now

writing with light

a world of ghosts

(February 1999)

remember
we ate apples with knives
and rope swings
and green gray dewy fields
and hay lofts
and gravel roads
and horsebacks
sullen in low skies
and we were boys together

remember
tangled woods
hot evaporating
and dark pools
inviting us
stripping us
to nothing
like there was
nothing else
and swimming
like primitives
i imagine
and the only direction
was east
and we
didn’t care

remember
our favorite trails
dividing among trees
without regrets
and our boots
stained from
the red clay
grew heavier with the day
and how we slept
like innocents

remember
the smell of kerosene
and campfires
and rifles
fresh with oil
and how we loved
this day
as if there were
no others
and wished
we lived
a hundred
years ago

remember
a boy’s dreams
like airplane wings
and waterfalls
and autumn forests
callings us to
cool mornings
and imaginations
with no limits
and how we
never
saw
tomorrow

(September 1998)

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death

for the nails that hold the house together

for the separation of the waters and dry land

for the smallness of our understanding

for corporations and their mystical bodies

for the ancient sea bed creeping across the road

for hearts willing to see the divine

for the offspring of inherited arguments

for the Protestants in their tent cities

for sweating it out with difficult ideas

for old words, may they not be lost

for the love that overwhelms iconoclasts

for the ever-present and the future

for the steadfastness of truth

for the trees bending in the wind

for outdoing each other in love

for taking up our cross at each threshold

for brokenness

and for wholeness

for wounds

and for peace

for friends

and for enemies

for trespasses

and forgiveness

Pray for the seed that must fall to the earth and die

Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth

Snow in the East already
Sopping the overcast streets,
But here rain as usual
Between crisp, leafy days.
And we slouch towards solstice
And holidays
And the traditions
Of our nineteenth century
Postcards.

Tires on the wet pavement lisp
And slur and hiss
As evening drops
And fevers lie in bed
And angels might be near
But we’ve been told no
Except in our stories
And Mary remains silent
Until the darkest day.

The calendar turns again
With all souls and saints,
And the days begin
To line up, readying themselves
For the adventure.
But I am back
In Protestant days
—Four bare walls—
And a longing for angels.

(All Hallows’ Evening, 2011)

Here is one of my oldest and dearest poems. I used to think it was quite good, now I no longer know. But it keeps coming back to me. If it succeeds at all I believe it is in evoking the mystery of death within life, life becoming memory, and of what I was thinking about at that time in my life.

1

Along the shiny edge of a scar
There are no nerve endings.
Along the desert road
There is only the desert and the road.

I rose to standing in the still air;
Blue sky, circling hawk,
The smell of pine trees and gasoline,
The dust slowly settling.
Silence.

Watersheds come like the molting of birds
And snake skins,
Like pulling teeth and peeling scabs.
Sometimes they come slowly
Like the blue ice of a glacier.
Sometimes they come quickly
Like flames leaping to touch a hand.

Later we calculated the distance.
Thirty paces in the air,
Then another ten.
How fast had I been going?
The impact still hides in shadows,
Memories concealed like a hilltop in fog.

But there,
Eighty feet from the half buried stone
I stood,
Traces of a struggle before me,
A vivid recollection without images,
A dream in darkness.

There is no moment
Like the moment you can’t remember,
Like the mind waking from
The anesthetic, alone, with
Only white sheets and stitches.

I leaned over,
Lifted the motorcycle
To its proper position.
Blood coming through my shirt sleeve,
Adrenaline rushing away in waves,
My broken foot
Secretly swelling inside my boot,
Still days from home and hospital.

2

The severed tails of lizards grow back
And shoots sprout from old roots
And some things never return.

The clouds finally cleared,
Emerald valley pulsing with music and incense,
Trampled grass, the smell of oils,
Burnt shoulders gyrating by the stage,
Honey colored sun reflecting
On drums.

I balanced carefully,
Blue bike handlebars,
Left tennis shoe, aluminum crutch,
Evening light in the trees,
A landscape lush with life,
And the two of us
Pedaling to the campus festival.

How far from here to the desert road,
Now glowing in moonlight,
To the place where it curves right, then left,
Under a sky now filling with stars?
How far back to the hilltop in fog,
Through the shadows of fragility and anguish
And mortality?

Recklessly I danced on one foot
the other turning black, purple, yellow,
Mottled image across tight skin,
The misshapen appendage
Now a symbol of transition,
Suspended above the earth.

Leaves turn in the wind
Like faces turn from suffering,
Like water turning into wine,
Like a young man, turning in the rhythm
Faces the sky’s constant rotation
And a childhood turning into memory
Like dust settling on a desert road.

(June 1998)

tell me of the fear
for I know it too
I know the darkness intimately
and the open doors
and the thresholds
and the infinite expanse
though I know only so much

remind me of the trembling
but I know that too
the shaking in my boots
the falling on my face
hoping against hope
wanting, wanting, wanting
I so know that call
for it embraces me

this is where I do theology
I begin with both weeping
and self satisfaction
I end with inheritances
and more weeping

that is how I know
the heart is a place
(could be at dusk or dawn)
where I saw
the branches bending
in the wind
but I could not see the wind

tell me, friend,
of the darkness
at midday
(for I believe that too)
when the graves opened
and the dead walked in Jerusalem
when the earth shook
and the holy of holies opened
to the world

tell me all that again
for here I am
walking in streams
standing on shoulders
crawling in corners
wavering in doorways
wandering back roads
and all I have left
is knowing that maybe I too
saw the sky go dark
and felt the earth move

(April 2009)

This post is a (re)working of another.

Let’s begin here with this video:

Arvo Pärt struggles to put into words what is so natural to him in music. At the end he says, “I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.” It is that searching that points to a kind of depth not found in much artwork. Pärt is one of the greatest living composers. His music is the result of struggle and faith. His music also points to something beyond, something transcendent, something objective yet unknowable. However, this is not a post on Arvo Pärt per se, rather it is a post on mystery.

I am drawn to mystery.


Gerhard Richter
Two Candles 1982 Oil on canvas
55 1/8″ x 55 1/8″ (140 x 140 cm)
Private collection


What is mystery? More than mere confusion or lack of clarity, mystery is the intimation of a reality beyond the physical or psychological. In its ultimate sense, mystery is the nature of the truly transcendent as it either interfaces with our contingent reality, or as we perceive, at some level that may not yet (or ever) be describable, the truly transcendent. In short, it is when and where we encounter the eternal.

I have often wondered what it is about certain artworks that I love so much, and what it is that draws me towards these kinds of art and, in particular, these kinds of films. I believe that the kinds of artworks and the kinds of films one seeks out and enjoys is directly related to why one views such art or watches films in the first place. Consider watching films: for some, watching films has everything to do with lighthearted, end-of-the-day escapism. For others it may be a kind of testosterone drug fix. And for others it might be some kind of romantic battery re-charging or escapism. Of course, for most of us it is a combination of many reasons. But I have to say that over and over I find myself seeking certain kinds of films and certain kinds of film experiences. Much of the time these experiences, at least the ones that stay with me long after the immediate viewing is over, are what I might call transcendent, or sublime. Another way of saying it might be that the more one digs into the realities of life, death, love, and suffering, the more one keeps coming up against mystery. This mystery is not a Gnostic sort of knowledge for only a select few, for only those with the “secret knowledge,” rather the mystery is there for everyone to experience and contemplate; it is fundamentally human.

Some might say this mystery is the experience of getting a kind of semi-translucent glimpse of the hand of God creating everything, including us, moment by moment. Others might say it is the place where the limits of reason and emotion converge at a kind of metaphysical precipice. Or it could be the place where one merely has the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality only to discover rationality is a bigger thing than one previously imagined. And maybe, finally, the goal is about arriving where one started and knowing that place as though for the first time.

What fascinates me is the ability of artforms and, in particular cinema for me, but also poetry, photography, music, etc., to evoke mystery. Some examples might include the painting by Gerhard Richter at the beginning of this post and the photograph below by Minor White. But there really are countless examples. Why is it that certain images can bring about deep, almost indescribable emotions from within my soul?

Minor White
Pacific, Devil’s Slide
California 1947


In my opinion a great example of a film that does this for/to me is Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969). There are so many powerful images from that film, and so many moments that produce powerful feelings that I am drawn to re-watching the film repeatedly. This post is not a review of Rublyev; my point is to say that art works can evoke strong feelings of mystery that seem to point to more important aspects of human existence, but do so via a kind of internal mystery, a mystery inherent within art itself. Again, that mysteriousness one finds in certain films is one of the powerful cinematic draws for me.

But what do, or can, we mean by this term mystery?

I am troubled, I must say, at trying to explain the sense of mystery in art. I have come to believe, however, that maybe it arise from the tension between life and death, and the reality that life comes from death. In art we often refer to beauty. But what is beauty and does it have a place anymore in art? As a kind of doorway to an answer, I like this quote from an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky about his, as then yet to be made, film Andrei Rublev:

I am not going to say anything directly about the bond between art and people, this is obvious in general and, I hope, it’s obvious in the screenplay. I would only like to examine the nature of beauty, make the viewer aware that beauty grows from tragedy, misfortune, like from a seed. My film certainly will not be a story about the beautiful and somewhat patriarchal Rus, my wish is to show how it was possible that the bright, astonishing art appeared as a “continuation” of the nightmares of slavery, ignorance, illiteracy. I’d like to find these mutual dependencies, to follow birth of this art and only under those circumstances I’d consider the film a success. (from Nostalghia.com)

Maybe it is only through suffering that true mystery in art appears. I don’t know.

If I could point to an artwork that offers for me one of the best examples of the mystery of art, the feeling of mystery in the receiver of that art work, and also describes the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality or coming into contact with some kind of cosmic mystery, it would be from a tiny section from William Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, The first time I read this section I was floored. I continue to be floored each time I read it, but I also recognize that my response is a personal one. And so will be yours.

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

The Prelude
William Wordsworth
first published in 1850

I can think of no better way to express why it is I am drawn towards some kinds of films more than others, why it is I love the mystery of art, and why it is I come away from some films with the film still burning in my soul. There is a sensibility in that poem that perfectly describes that feeling of being overcome with awe, fear, and joy all mixed together. This mystery, this feeling, is often referred to as the sublime.

But then I wonder. For I am convinced that the source of mystery is not merely a feeling, even if that feeling is objectively located in the work of art causing the work to function as a kind of talisman of sorts. Mystery must, I am certain, have its roots in God, pointing to, then through, the energies of God towards the essence of God, which is the ultimate mystery. Therefore we have a choice: do we seek mystery as a feeling, attempting to conjure it in our choice of artworks, and using it as a kind of replacement for a more ultimate mystery, or do we seek the ultimate mystery and, therefore, more carefully chose works of art that might point to that mystery, the true mystery?

Historically we have inherited a stream of thought, a modern shift, that has reduced God to nothing and, therefore, reduced the nature of being, of what was once called the true glory of man, to mere narratives of the sublime. The sublime, then, becomes a way of describing the absence of God. Rather than be in awe of true mystery, we rejoice in the ever liminal, psycho-emotional stories of personal and anti-personal contingency. We rejoice in différence and violence, taking them for both something greater than us and something ultimately insignificant. I worry that I would love the sublime only to find that I have been merely playing with mystery and avoiding God. Pointing to that shift, David Bentley Hart says this:

The event of modernity within philosophy (which arrived, at least visibly, in the age of nominalism) consisted in the dissolution of being: the disintegration of that radiant unity wherein the good, the true, and the beautiful coincided as infinite simplicity and fecundity, communicating themselves to a world whose only reality was its variable participation in their gratuity; and the divorce between this thought of being, as the supereminent fullness of all perfection, and the thought of God (who could then no longer be conceived as being and the wellspring of all being, revealing his glory in the depth of splendor in which created things are shaped and sustained). This vision was so thoroughly and quickly forgotten (long before Heidegger would diagnose it, ineptly, as just another mode of the “forgetfulness of being”) that being itself could now be conceived only in absolute opposite terms: as a veil or an absence, thought or un-thought, but in either case impenetrable—the veil that veils even itself, the empty name that adds nothing to the essence of beings, sheer uniform existence. And God’s transcendence, so long as nostalgia preserved philosophy’s attachment to “that hypothesis,” could be understood now only as God’s absence, through perhaps, but only as an alienum or an explanatory cause. Being, no longer resplendent with truth, appearing in and elevating all things, could be figured then only as the sublime. (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 44)

I am convinced Tarkovsky points beyond the sublime to the transcendence of God, and thus the transcendence of being. I am not fully convinced Wordsworth does that consciously, though I think he may do sounitentionally. Richter, I believe, may be merely exploring narratives of the sublime. And yet, I love the artworks of all three. What is one to do?

If we seek mystery, if we seek works of art that take us to a metaphysical precipice, or create the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality, or drop us in the deep-end of the sublime as it were, then it only makes sense that we ought to stake our experiences to the infinite and permanent things lest we be swept away into the prison of false transcendence. Another way of putting this is that we should seek something other than a life of amusements, even so-called serious ecstasies, and prepare ourselves for for both death and the life that can come only by death. I wrote about this previously here, but I would add that as we might seek mystery, let us seek God first, seek to imitate one who is inimitable, and let us know that we are, as yet, only shadows of our future selves. It is there, and only there, that we find the true mystery that does not disappoint.



Finally, there are many artists exploring the boundaries of mystery and transcendence. Below is a short documentary hosted by Björk that looks at several minimalist musicians/composers. What I find most fascinating is to consider how each of these artists may or may not exemplify a search for true mystery. Some, I fear, are only playing with a false mystery for the sake of the merely sublime, while others may go further. And, or course, Arvo Pärt comes last, and that’s the real reason to watch.

Northeast Oregon sunrise, summer 2011

What life is this?
What hope and what death
and what desire?
What of any of it can I know?

It is human nature
to take the unspeakable
and speak of it,
to take the unnameable
and name it.
Reduction is a game we play,
a line drawn,
a list made,
a story told.

We are reductionists.

And what is love?
Is love a reduction
or something other?
And what lives within love,
what event shimmers there?

I have heard many things.

I have heard chaos
is a butterfly,
and war is a success of death.
But you don’t need war
for death to succeed.

What do I know anyway?
I do not know butterflies,
not really,
but I do know death,
I do know that.

I also know love.

And I know this too: When we have love
we have more than knowledge can ever reveal.

So I live by the grace of God
in the place between,
where the earth and heavens meet,
where I can say the words
“I love you”
but I cannot name the event
that is love
for it remains, as always
unnameable

(April 2009)

Monet painted many lilies,
vibrant under a summer light
more so than even life,
but life in winter
with its bare trees in the park
and its buried bulbs
has another vibrance
that Monet also knew I’m sure.
Think of the beauty of a starry night
above the high desert where
city lights are forgotten;
those lights speckling the darkness
are really just stars in an
immenseness so much more
than all the stars put together,
and yet we fall down before
all that beauty
like toppling statuaries.
But we have not really acquiesced,
like when we drove out before dawn
through thick stubbles of sheared hay
under and moonless sky as we opened
stretched barbed wire gates and
following barely visible tracks
toward the canal
then checked our pockets for cartridges
and our packs for lunches.
We beheld the sky
once blanketed with stars
lit up with pale blue and the
dotted lines of high flying geese.
We waited motionless
for the low flying ducks.
We hid like children
playing adults playing soldiers
fighting the force of nature.
There was really no acquiescence
except the fading stars before
the sun, then the sun,
then the stunning beauty
of the fragile beasts
dead in our hands, gutted,
and their dead eyes still staring,
perhaps pleading,
as though God’s eyes might
be looking for an answer
to a question He will ask
at an undisclosed time.
And the line is drawn
to the killing of all things
and the spilling of blood
overspilling the altars.
From tabernacles everywhere,
those sacred places we call home
and elsewhere,
the ground cries out
like it did to heaven when
Cain shrugged and really
did not think it such
a big deal,
though he must have thought
it would be nice for lambs
and lions to get along at least.
But today soldiers walk the streets
where they say the garden
must have been,
and where the angel with
the flaming sword left
his post eventually of boredom.
Other angels came later
carrying messages. They always
seem to start with “Be not afraid”
but I think they were joking,
a little fun you know,
because angels do not normally
get out much I would think.
I also think Monet saw the stars,
and the dead eyes questioning,
and the horrors war.
Yet I doubt he saw an angel
whether with message
or with sword.
But he did paint water lilies
as though he was teaching God
something about His creation
something that God already knew
but was waiting
for Monet.

(November 2009)

Go push aside the fangled claims
That clutter up your Thoughts
With modern fashions, modern aims,
And trade what is for oughts;

For it’s in Loving what is Right,
And Seeking what is True,
That binds us to a Finer Light
Illumined with Virtue.

Yet can we make ourselves decamp
That world which holds us tight,
A world postmodern, fragmented,
A world where man’s a blight?

Creation’s Compass is our guide
—a rose constant and Real—
Aligned to Heaven’s cardinals:
The Word’s grace-full appeal.

And thus we know the Soul’s Delight
Must surely take the day,
Yet still my friend keep on in Hope,
Hold fast to Love, and Pray.

This life we live is but a day
Against a Future Grand,
And yet Eternity is found
Right here, right now, at hand.

So aim your compass to that Mark
You know will stand the Test,
The test that shows us what we are
Because it seeks what’s Best—

Not with a declination false,
Nor with the points askew;
But compass made with Wisdom’s Goal,
Born from a lodestone True.

Then with that compass in your Heart
Which points to things Above,
Take up your student’s tender Souls
And guide them to that Love.

The Greeks they knew
a thing or two
of togas and fine wine,
but more than this
they found their bliss
debating all the time.

For Socrates
he could not sneeze
and not make headline news,
and dialogues
with pedagogues
no Greek could dare refuse.

But do we see
their legacy
is with us still today?
Though faint and quaint
please say it ‘aint
about to fade away.

Because, you see,
“it’s Greek to me”
can be something to crave,
for rhetoric’s
a finer pick,
and virtue for the brave.

So then can we,
with eyes to see,
traverse the centuries,
and turn to face
with full embrace
norms and nobility?

What do we need
our souls to feed
to nourish and to thrive?
To love what’s true,
and stories too,
where heroes come alive.

And even more,
from virtue’s store,
we must not hesitate
to seek the good
as servants should
no matter what our fate.

For it’s the heart
we set apart
as education’s end;
a heart that beats
and is complete
and makes us truly men.

I know that you have suffered. Suffering is endemic to human life. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow suffered. He was one of the preeminent poets of his age. He was a good man and loving husband. He was a family man. He was a handsome man. When we think of Longfellow we often see the old, bearded, white-haired man, stately in his profile and serious in his gaze. But the journey he traveled from the clean-shaven, good looking, youngish man we see in this photo below to the elder Longfellow of popular image is a journey of profound and heart-breaking tragedy.

In brief, Longfellow was married twice. His first wife was Mary Storer Potter. She was eighteen when they were married and they were married four years. At age 22, and when six months into her pregnancy, she miscarried and never recovered. She died a few weeks later. A young Longfellow lost his young wife whom he loved and child they hoped to bring into the world. He wrote, “One thought occupies me night and day… She is dead—She is dead! All day I am weary and sad.” Longfellow pours himself into his work and years go by. He then marries Frances “Fanny” Appleton after a long courtship. They had six children. Longfellow was deeply in love with Fanny. They had been married eighteen years when tragedy struck. Fanny was apparently using some hot sealing wax to seal locks of her children’s hair in envelopes when her dress caught fire. Awoken from his nap by his wife’s screams Longfellow rushed to his wife to find her engulfed in flames. He grabbed a small rug and tried to put out the flames, but the rug was too small and he then used his body to smother the flames. He carried his wife to the bed and called the doctor. Fanny, however, was so severely burned that she died the next day. Longfellow was so severely burned that he could not attend Fanny’s funeral. His face was so scared that he stopped shaving so as to cover the scars. That bearded, aged Longfellow that we know was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.

Eighteen years after Fanny’s death Longfellow wrote the poem The Cross of Snow in memory of his beloved wife.

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
  A gentle face–the face of one long dead–
  Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
  The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
  Never through martyrdom of fire was led
  To its repose; nor can in books be read
  The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
  That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
  Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
  These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
  And seasons, changeless since the day she died. 

Longfellow in 1868 by Julia Margaret Cameron

Always remember, suffering is hallowed ground. This is true of your suffering and of other’s.

You can find an audio discussion of Longfellow here, from the Mars Hill Audio Journal series free CD bonus tracks.

Middle Class Blues
by Hans Magnus Enzensberger*

We can’t complain.
We’re not out of work.
We don’t go hungry.
We eat.

The grass grows,
the social product,
the fingernail,
the past.

The streets are empty.
The deals are closed.
The sirens are silent.
All that will pass.

The dead have made their wills.
The rain’s become a drizzle.
The war’s not yet been declared.
There’s no hurry for that.

We eat the grass.
We eat the social product.
We eat the fingernails.
We eat the past.

We have nothing to conceal.
We have nothing to miss.
We have nothing to say.
We have.

The watch has been wound up.
The bills have been paid.
The washing-up has been done.
The last bus is passing by.

It is empty.

We can’t complain.

What are we waiting for?

* from Selected Poems, trans. H. M. Enzensberger, Michael Hamburger, Rita Dove, and Fred Viebahn. The Sheep Meadow Press, 1994.