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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

I
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.”

II
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.

Serial Dreams

Look at the parameters of this mirror… – St. Clare of Assisi

I
The first, Italian Baroque, with its warmth
The kind you find in California hills
At midday – and in it, St. Francis speaks
Not as the Hallmark saint that loves the birds,
A daffy hippy with a crazy gaze,
But verging tears, wickedly specific
About my sins. A shadow falls across
His joy — like algae blooms in a fountain:
“I cannot serve you, king, who have no being,
For sorrow’s bread is full of murdered yeast.”

II
The second, like the first, but more measured —
With columns and clean form, as classical
As the staff lines of hemp stretching to catch
The taut tendrils a busy vine-dresser
Attends to, bidding fruit with sharpened shears
And grafting twine. In it, St. Thomas laughs
At me, part Falstaff and part Friar Tuck,
And more jolly than the dour word Summa
Might connote: “Ha! but to sell your body
At power’s price!” He lifts a cup and drinks.

III
Third and final, back to early music,
Choired voices chanting like a fresh pack
Of cards — no saints and no holy counsel,
Only a mirror from which Dante peers,
But not at me. The human hum of song
Mortars his meaning, cosmic as all flesh –
So modern souls may follow suit — now, today,
Hodie: “Gentlemen, time’s fine spirit
Winnows the parse of being from nothing
Doing.” I look again to see myself.

Lake

for Ann Althouse

What makes the lake a body of its own
Is blue and cold, acceptable as prose,
Unexpected as poetry that’s grown
Beyond its words – a liturgy that grows

And glitters, glacier-like, while weighing down
With weathered time the slowly massing floes
That squeeze a lake’s existence out of stone.
So passing passion into patience slows

The blood but speeds the wave to the tideline
In a land of lakes and stars; both repose
In the other’s eye — fire and water shine
Together secrets each the other knows.

Mira Elizabeth L.

April 15, 2019

This is a desert place, and the hour is now past:
send away the multitudes…

– Matthew 14:15

Miracles are hard to come by these days;
Ides will thus warn us: wonders that profess
Resplendence ache to sing our debt to praise —
And yet we only envy happiness.
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!”
Laments our world, fast in its barren tracts.
In Sisyphus we find no Calvary:
Zygote and embryo and fetus – facts.
Accounted human, though, such accidents
Belie necessity’s phantom commands —
Each birth, though fixed as stars or blowing sands,
Translates as one of nature’s sacraments.
Here, then, is life – given frame in its breaching;
Less taken, the more gifted in its reaching.

“Quel Giorno Più Non Vi Leggemmo Avante.”

                          —Inferno V.138

We lean above the book and fateful page
    And lean into its words. You speak. I hear
    The husked seeds split, and they bleed down the page:
You tuck a strand of hair behind your ear
    And strings that knit the constellations twinge
    Like mandolins beneath the earth —so near
Commingled shade and soil to unhinge
    The grave; yet far as moonlight in a pond
    That blinks with nightjars rippled on the wing.
Though grassy spring now shimmers green with frond
    And shoot within your eyes, your beauty stares
    From violet shadow, Cimmerian, beyond
The swallowed source of bowered light that flares
    Within your eyes. They tear my heart away
    With a single glance. Eurydice wears
Your smile — anticipating hope, yet fey
    As autumn apples dropping from their limbs
    Will roll, gather into gullies, and lay
In wait: a sudden winter rain floods and brims
    The world in multiples of fallen time,
    The same that fuel in sullen throb the hymns
Of Orpheus, hemorrhaging grief in rhyme.
    But different tunes ignite our desire’s root –
    Their trace, emerging vines that merge and climb
The walls within the halls of Hades. Mute
    And vanished as night, yet here you remain
    A muse that breathes her fire upon a flute:
The pomegranate and its crimson stain
    Upon your lips, at dawn, upon my lips —
    Yet I am sure of nothing but the train
Of Venus, gown of ebony which strips
    This morning’s meaning, held out as a gift.
    My tongue takes these words as one, but trips
Upon your name. I hear each quench and sift
    It murmurs, blown upon the wind, and us
    With it, now bound by cords, now set adrift,
Regret our only landfall, tremulous
    Desire our only compass – this final page,
    The desperate map that charts us in our loss.
You arch your back and lean into the page
    Again, again I dare to lean as near —
    And further — but no farther than this page,
The compass needle driving through the air.