Purifying Elements

Between a hill of shade and forceful stream,
I’ll rest to watch the season turn its phrase:
The shadows fondle the frothing seam
To clarify some part of other days.
Yet here now too—these paths of persistence
Have offered time a renewed resistance.

There’s no particular passage to cite.
These paragraphs of threading turbulence
Enjoy their syntax, black on scrawling white—
And, sun-sounded, contour-staggered, things sense
The water heave through its rocky grammar
And push back to purify its stammer. 

So sun plaits its forest with bullion plats—
And stakes these claims of momentary gold
With infiltrating nimbuses of gnats.
These clouds of being magnify, enfold
The lesson of dark and light: So, flow on…

I too am tired enough now to go on


For Elizabeth, on her birthday

God plays your life like cards upon the green;
His mother cuts the jokers from the pack —
And who could follow suit with such a queen?

Worldly diamond kings court an exit scene
When a better bid shows how, Ace to Jack,
God plays your life. Like cards upon the green

He flips your years, push by stay, to convene
Today’s array of sequenced red and black —
And who could follow suit? With such a queen

As Mary banked within your heart, no mean
Or clever gambler stakes in blood the stack
God plays. Your life, like cards upon the green,

Is counted, ranked, a paper mise-en-scène
Of diamonds (flick!), clubs (click!), hearts and spades (smack!).
And who could follow suit with such? A queen

Of openings, you fold your hands. Your chips — all in —
Declare the trump that heads the devil’s trick:
You play your life like cards upon the green —
Oh, who could follow suit with such a queen?

September 11, 2001

On a bad day you can’t see anything
Beyond the Hudson and Jersey side of things:
The grey arroyos of steel, concrete, and glass
Seem brittle as paper houses in Japan.
On a good day you can see the outline
Of rebar emerging, rib-like, in sunlight,
A tensile flex of tendons steeled against
The streets below. These, dissected neat and square,
(The Big Apple as a Euclidean sheet cake)
Feed into the grid’s one blemish, a green
Mistake, an ink blotch of oaks and paths
That spill peace into hidden picnic spots
In Central Park — not nearly far enough
From the baffled wash of the Atlantic
Caressing this fragile fortress island,
Its towered tips serving sentry duty
Over the sleepy waves sloshing at piers
And abandoned pilings where garbage and foam
Congregate like idle prayers to Neptune.
Ignoring news of the day, tidal currents
Comb through a stranded forest of pilings —
A salt bath that soothes an old lady’s sore legs
As she does commerce with the eternal sea.

Today, the skyline was especially free
And majestic (perhaps some noticed this).
Today, the air had a clean crisp in-betweenness
(Perhaps no one would forget at least just this),
A September day, like the bubble
In a level, waiting to nudge either way,
To become an incomparable day — for good
Or bad.
               One might oversleep only to wake,
Like an angel an hour late for Creation,
To the explosion of mid-morning traffic.
Or one might crawl to a stop, and sniff the air
On the drive to work, hesitate a minute,
And cock one’s head, unaware, as sirens
Encompass the passage of roaring shadows,
Like knowing beasts with instinct’s machinery…

Today, the gods of war sang with jet-black hair;
One flew east, one flew west, one fell down and
One slammed into our national interests,
Extracting suum cuique’s random plan
From a populous which, until now,
(Friends and enemies both say) escaped history,
Unable to nail itself to a moment.

So, today was a good day, and yet,
The Manhattan rising in everyone’s mind
Is all that remains.
                               Pelée, Krakatoa,
Vesuvius, all momentous.
Nineveh, Jerusalem, all righteous.
                                                      And now,
Lower Manhattan, lower and lower still,
Like ash that adds itself to endless ash —
Zero’s strict calculus of dust to dust —
Forever falling, stretching, touching ground.



Looks like The Washington Post spilled the beans…

Here’s hoping no one reads it.

Peter Handke’s Homage to Percy?

In 2019, Peter Handke won the Nobel Prize. I think we reported this already, maybe not — but he’s been kovered by the Kollekitv before at any rate, so let me quickly et to the good part.

Apparently, as already noted, Handke had translated The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman into German. As Mr. Barker noted to me once, “Percy must have been tickled pink to receive such careful attention from a Teutonic existentialist, what with his not-so-sneaking admiration for the German temperament.”

Well, I went ahead and read Handke’s parabolic Absence (2000) and was struck by its patina of lucidity and simplicity overlaying a complex web of symbiotic intricacies. Here, clearly, is a writer concerned about the meaning and state of language in the 20th/21st century…

I was so taken by the novel that I decided to begin at the beginning, and work my way through his other novels. The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972) is the first of his novels to be translated into English. It came in the mail yesterday; I finished it this morning. It tells the tale of Joseph Bloch, a goalie-turned-construction-worker-turned-murderer who attempts to — well, what? Throughout the novel he is trying to assemble some sort of meaning out of the slippage of words with things and things with ideas and ideas with words and ideas, trying to address and perhaps even korrekt the postmodern hash of things… You know, “Like Percy do!”

Much of what Bloch does in The Goalie, not surprisingly, is couched in the tropes of football — for example, his habit of mind is to see telos (i.e. “goal”) without knowing the causes which have led up to the things that happen — including the apparently senseless murder he commits — or even how these causes can be derived from language which has slipped from things which have slipped from ideas which have slipped from… ad infinitum.

And then, look at this! In the midst of the novel, we find a sideways homage to Percy, or at least it sounds like one:

“When [Bloch] stopped and then walked on, the pictures seemed to dim from the edges: finally they had turned completely black except for a circle in the middle. ‘Like when somebody in a movie looks through a telescope,‘ he thought.” [emphasis added]

Is that Handke channeling the ghosts of Binx Bolling and Will Barrett?

As the Jstor abstract notes, Handke didn’t get around to translating Percy until the 1980s, but who’s to say he didn’t have Percy banging around in his imagination even as early as 1972?

Handke is a controversial writer, to say the least, and when he won the Nobel Prize, it was seen by many among the literati as a let down by the Academy. (We all may have our views on this point — but apparently what’s good for the Rushdie goose is not necessarily good for the Handke gander…. Or maybe I should be using metaphors about gored oxen and sacred cows…) But I think Handke rewards study – at the very least as someone carrying the torch for language as the most human of (pre)occupations…

“…Aut Pluvius Describitur Arcus”

-For Cecilia

And this makes me remember an invention for making signs appear in the sky,
which would cause great wonder in those who were ignorant of the causes. —Descartes

…or the rainbow is described. —Horace

I (Air)
Remonstratively warbling, robin feels all out
Of sorts as orioles quick-shot repeat her themes,
Yammered by mid-air finch in cinch-winged turnabout—
(Giving as well, caged cockatoos their jungle dreams).
Because of this, the gnatcatcher’s potsherd nest still seems
Inevitable, like the bunting’s bumbling song.
“Verily!” the martins cry. “Spring, be long! Belong!”

II (Earth)
Restless to be wintered out of ash, the fey rose
Obliges poppy fields to keep their ground en masse;
Yes, and grazing dandelions scatter to impose
Gossamer parachutes across vanity’s grass.
Bountiful chicory, meanwhile, disheveled, crass,
Inveigles prodigiously with the rattleweed.
“Verily!” the crocus cries — thus discrete — so decreed.

III (Water)
Resurgent wing and stem aside, the blood and will
Of men, in urgent altitudes of liquid sunlight,
Yearn (as perhaps Noah for chardonnay) to fill
Gangly veins with chlorophyll — chartreuse-bright.
But first to dare the waters, bird and branch alone might
In Saxon dyes anoint and indelibly remark,
“Verily, creation’s arc empurples creation’s ark!”

IV (Fire)
Resplendent as Stravinsky’s shrieking-red firebird,
Ocular as God’s own gold-smoldering vine,
Yawning a blaze of aural variety, the word
Gains a verdant glow: pluvius arcus. The line
By Horace sparkles a certain cerulean shine —
Iridescent bolt from the cobalt to bestow,
Verily, a premise, a promise — the rainbow.

V (Quintessence)
Recurring to causes, his eyes flame-tipped with red
Of dying day, Descartes juices a bitter orange,
Yawning at yellow-bricked truth — the one only road.
Green is time, though. Clearing the air, winds rearrange
Blue thoughts to arc along electric lines. These strange
Integrations involve midnight’s lonely indigo
Verily with lowly violet’s inviolate vertigo.

Burn and Break: An Insomniac’s Anti-Aubade

The three pre-dinner martinis
Compete with the two strong coffees
That brought a cheesecake to its knees;

Eating away at emotion,
My Dead Sea, a bitter ocean,
Nauseates at the mere notion

Or romantic coincidence
(Discount the eclipsed resplendence
Of shared bed space as indolence

And our dawn walks in Radio Park,
Dead signals in a channeled dark —
Like a coronary infarct.)

Now the heart’s a hopped up toad;
The blood flows, arteries corrode,
And the night’s black caffeine cathode

Twitches the clock and tricks the brain
To confess the blunted edge of pain
That bleeds through dark a darker stain.

This vigil’s tortured entropy
Breaks the stars’ monopoly
And burns a private astrology

Of headlights that loom, flash, and crawl
Slow tracers down the bedroom wall
To speed the car of Ezekiel.

In fading hiss of passing wheels,
The Doppler hum of engines feels
Like time reversed in movie reels.

These hours are hounds that found and treed
That possum called sleep — and the need
To meet her fangs becomes a creed

In a molten heat each bitch moans —
And this magma liturgy groans
Tenets my inner ear intones.

Too easily, antacid quit
And its pink liquid conduit
Chalks my tongue on a turning spit:

So are Cupid’s barbs chemical?
Is Venus a blocked ventricle?
(Maybe Mars is too clinical.)

But the bedroom’s uneasy poise
Snags my conscience — just so much noise
Light may know but the dark enjoys.

My fingers range across the quilt
That you had stitched against my guilt —
The flowered pattern in constant wilt.

Then monotony blinks an eye:
The lampstand yanks alive to try
Fabricating my alibi.

With ceiling’s conclusions foregone,
I lie and write this poem on
My heart as upon volcanic stone

Tied with pups in a sack and cast
In a sullen lake, deep and vast
Enough to digest the shotgun blast

Square in the chest which, burning, breaks
With too much love, too many cakes,
And whatever in hell it takes

To leave me waked by dawn. Forget
Reasoned search for scorched regret —
I’ve made my bed. I’ll sleep in debt.

The Piano Student

The scroll of shadows gentles the flat shape
++Of wallpapered surfaces while sunlight,
++++Elliptic and crimped through drawn slatted shades,
++++Understates its own grace notes in grades
++Of gold that no one would die for, or fight
To distraction’s pure gain — so drop the drape
+++++And return to counterpoint’s metronome.
Measured impositions wait to resume.

One moment kills the next in crude cascades
++Of dark on light on final dark. Though night
++++Recites its nocturnes to beautifully ape
++++Conservatory postures, scraps of crape
++Conceal blisters on cherry veneer slight
As settled dust. So Grecian colonnades,
+++++Redundant with gods, once held heaven’s dome.
The measured dispositions must resume.

Practical inspiration finds escape
++In imperfect struggling sounds that, weighed
++++To balance, make a sacrifice of delight.
++++So bully the muse if you must — incite
++The bristled scales on a dragon’s back, trade
On spider webs, hammer the sour grape —
+++++But time with both its hands will push you home
To measured compositions.
+++++++++++++++++++++++Now. Resume.


Many a Christmas holly leaf ago, Mr. Barker gave me a wonderful collection of interviews with Robert Penn Warren, whose All the King’s Men easily makes the short list of candidates for The Great American Novel. Having just finished this book of interviews, I can’t recommend it enough for all Korrektiv Kollekitivites.  (Talking with Robert Penn Warren has driven me back to the works of RPW – his poems and criticism in particular. I’ve read ATKM twice and probably will again before I’m done – but not this time – the poems are a VOLUME!)

There are many moments in the interviews which reaffirm why we all got into the writing racket in the first place. Here’s just one:

Farrell: While we’re on the subject of writing a successful collection of poems, what would you say is the profession of poet [which RPW means in the expansive sense of “maker” with words – both verse and fiction] means to you?

Warren: Well, there’s something I can say about it. I would say poetry is a way of life, ultimately – not a kind of performance, not something you do on Saturday or Easter morning or Christmas morning or something like that. It’s a way of being open to the world, a way of being open to experience. I would say, open to your experience, insofar as you can see it or at least feel it as a unit with all its contradictions and confusions…

Farrell: Can it be summed up in your phrase, one that goes something like “[It’s] a way to love God”?

Warren: Well, yes, I think so. It’s a way to accept, to deal with the world. A way to love God? – yes, I think it is. If you want to put it that way. The only way some people can live is by assuming that life is worth being interested in. It’s worth giving yourself to, and giving the best you can. I would say that poetry is not like a profession, but a way of life. These are two quite different things. 

Talking with Robert Penn Warrenis also full of insightful anecdotes about everyone from Herman Melville and Malcolm X to RPW’s fellow Fugitives*. Also, a little tidbit that would go mostly unnoticed by any reader but Catholics: RPW took art classes when he was 12 years old from one of the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of St. Cecilia in Nashville (aka “The Nashville Dominicans”). You have to buy the book to get the full story, but it’s almost worth the price of admission. 

Now, onto the buried lede…

Fisher: When you, Mr. [Cleanth] Brooks and Mr. [Charles] Pipkin founded The Southern Review [funded, as Wikipedia points out, by Huey Long (cf. ATKM) in his attempt to improve LSU’s visibility outside the Bayou State], you published some very fine writers. How did these writers come to your attention, since most of them had yet to make the reputation they later achieved? 

Warren: Let me say one general thing first. In the thirties there were a lot of good writers around who had a hard time getting published. Two things were in our favor. First, there was no money around – and though we didn’t pay much, we paid something – and second, we didn’t have to try to please a mass market. We only had to please ourselves.

Then something else: in that period and the decades earlier, the period of the little magazine, the distinction between the little magazine and the slicks was important. The big slick magazines, things like The Saturday Evening Post, were totally different form literary magazines, which were out for ART. Commercial magazines and little magazines were very distinct. That’s no longer true today.

Esquire, among the pants ads, would publish (they invented this thing, you know, about mixing things up) [F. Scott] Fitzgerald and a few big names of literary value and mix them with pants ads, men’s styles, and a few pinup girls. Now this hash is all over the whole country. Playboy… the editor  [Robie Macauley] of Kenyon Review [founded by RPW’s fellow Fugitive, John Crowe Ransom] became fiction editor of Playboy. That’s how far it has gone. 


*If we’re playing “Six Degrees of Interpersonal Relationships with Walker Percy” here, one of the Fugitives, Allan Tate was married (twice!) to Caroline Gordon who, inter alia, mentored Mr. Percy in his first (and as of yet unpublished) novel. My understanding is that Percy also found Mr. Tate’s input invaluable, although I have no citation ready at hand to establish this as fact…

Meleager’s Curse

The logs I put on this shameful fire are wet
Although I have nothing to base this on
But the fact that they were once collected
Like lost children in the earliest part
Of past spring, encased in a thousand snows,
And sopped through to the pith by rains that March
And April let loose through the haggard woods
Where they first came to life, then were hewn down,
Then split apart by flex of axe and maul.

The logs I put on this shameful fire are wet
And will only sputter now like old men
Faced with an impossible choice between drink
And a winking spark of pert nonchalance
Offered by a pretty slattern’s visit
To the bar, platinum-haired, dolled up and grim
With smiles. The logs now tumble, smoke and hiss—
Dismissing fate, soggy with lassitude,
Indifferent to what burns them at last.

The logs I put on this shameful fire are wet
And daylight tapers outside my window
Into porcelain blue, brittle and fazed
With February weather. I poke the logs;
They answer briefly before returning
To their witless sleep. Or do they dream
They are vaunting like masts amid their days
Of swaying June? Or in their senescence
Are they still flagrant with dreams about fire?

Livy At Washington

Nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus…

If history is one big abortion,
Then we’ve been done in by the specialists,
Whose confidence dims imagination.
The kids are good; the folks are not at home:
Orgasms vie with evolutionists—
And both will consume the same gay freedom
Whereby cool electrons slake the frisson
Of immanent democracy. So make
Mine a concrete, balloted passion—
The kind you get with a penny gumball,
What you might taste in a five-star beefsteak.
But form matters little to the hungry soul
When microphones crackle, truth to tell,
What prompts a heaven in humanity’s hell.

A Book Was Written

And there is a Walker Percy connection, believe it or not

In Memoriam: Paul Zimmer

Paul Zimmer: 1934-2019

I. The Visit

For Paul and Suzanne Zimmer and Cele Wolf

With sunlight pouring through the windows, March
Retreats and winter’s windy shadows shake
The shadows’ fruit from changing light. The lurch
And sway of barren limbs (no leaves to speak
Within the secret ear of spring) now cast
Their shadows through the room. We visit there
And lunch on whiskey’s fire – a sip, a taste,
Enough to warm remembrance with desire.

That afternoon your visit was a gift —
To know that spring came early and put
The bloom of meaning to books and birds.
Our host, the town’s librarian, had laughed
To think that here the dance of drink and thought
Had found a way with words — a way to words.

(For a sampling of Mr. Zimmer’s work, go here.)

A Babbsian Commentary on the Gospel of Aristotle

Today’s world offers an abundance of conveniences for daily life. We are able to order food at the touch of button, have clothing and any other necessity shipped right to our door, and with a simple tap on your screen you can “friend” someone.

This noun, conveying a positive relationship between two people, is now used as a verb — perhaps denoting a shift in the meaning of the word from being an absolute good — something necessary for human happiness — to becoming a contingent good — something useful designed to help us achieve some further goal. After all, the practice of “friending” and “unfriending” seems to carry no more weight these days than balancing one’s bank account or processing an insurance claim….

The Beer Option

Without the benefit of modern central heating, 13th century Norwegians probably had no trouble keeping their beer cold—and their water as well. Perhaps for this reason, Norway’s clergy had a hard time baptizing souls. “Look, Father Olaf!—the font’s frozen solid again!”

But whatever the reason, as R. Jared Staudt relates in his book The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday and Today, back in the day, Norway’s chilblained clergy had opted to baptize with beer instead of water. It was apparently just something one did in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

That is, at least until warmer heads in Rome prevailed—and Pope Gregory IX put the pontifical kibosh on the whole suds-as-salvific idea. Quoting from Gregory’s official buzz-killing letter regarding the Norwegian innovation, Staudt writes: “‘Since according to the Gospel teaching, a man must be born again of water and the Holy Ghost,’ Gregory writes those are not to be considered validly baptized who have been baptized with beer.”

Acknowledging the dangers of this and other more earthly instances of beery excess, Staudt has written a sober book-length case for restoring to its proper Catholic context the frothy brew that made Milwaukee—and many a monastery—famous.

Make and Model

The strict manners that make a spider’s Tuesday
Computes the butterfly on spring’s flywheel—

It spins with stark confabulations, say,
Of deeper truths than those left to unreel

The darkest places, full of silences,
Which make of flesh a creeping thought, abstract

And let of blood. Lost as alliances
Among the vehicles of man’s exact

Discourse with mystery, the earth will preach
Of stars’ infinitude, soliloquies

That pulse the veins and carry (more than reach)
Shivering spasms of an April breeze.

The one possible prayer is day to night—
A web ensnared in dew, tattered by light.

Quo magis mutatur, eo magis statur…

I notice that a breed of people is emerging which my soul deeply abhors. I do not see anybody becoming better, but everybody worse, at least those I know. And so I am deeply grieved at having preached freedom of the spirit in my earlier writings. I did so in good faith, without any suspicion that such a breed would result. I was hoping for a decrease in human ceremonies with a consequent increase in genuine piety. Now the ceremonies are discarded, but the result is not freedom of spirit but unbridled license of the flesh.  Some cities in Germany are filled with vagabonds – monks who have fled the monastery, married priests, most of them starving and naked. All they do is dance, eat, drink, and go whoring. They do not teach and do not learn. There is no moderation, no genuine goodness. Wherever such men exist, good learning and piety are in a state of collapse. I would write at greater length on this subject, if it were safe to commit it to writing…

– (emphasis added) Erasmus, from “Letter to a Monk,” Basel, Germany, October 15, 1527 (which sought to refute a popular saying at the time about the Protestant Revolt: “Erasmus laid the egg; Luther hatched it.”).

Carthage Nights

Nunc medea Aenean secum per moenia ducit
Sidoniassque ostentat opes urbemque paratam,
incipit effari mediaque in voce resistit…
– IV.74-76

This sword of honor leaves you unimpressed
And beds were made for peaceful war because,
My Dido, beauty bares a naked breast

Against the hilted scabbard’s fitness test,
These Carthage nights. But love at last withdraws —
Its sword of honor leaves you unimpressed.

You watch me, crucified by lust, but blessed
Enough to know. I grasp for words like straws:
“My Dido’s beauty bares a naked breast,”

I say as we, two stars the dark undressed,
Are drifting, driven, set apart by laws
My sword of honor leaves. You, unimpressed,

Sought to sound the distance with bitter jest:
“Carthage hides from light yet shines its flaws
In Dido. Beauty bares its naked breast

But Dido spreads her legs for any guest
Who promises to lie before he draws
His sword for beauty. Leave me. Unimpressed,
So did — o honor — bare its naked breast.”

Aeneas mistook her little black dress
For armor. Queen of cocktails, so precise,
This princess, green-eyed, was a hot mess
Amid the hors d’oeuvers and the cracked ice.
A royal battle ensued – he overdrank
Her lethal concoction of ruby lips
And slender arms until he failed to rank
His forces and dribbled out easy quips
About the night that glows like amethyst,
The whole city lit like a shaking torch –
Then let slip Carthago delenda est
Between kissing sips on her painted porch.
His word of honor left her unimpressed —
So Dido’s beauty bared a naked breast.