26 June 2011


The era: sometime before A.D. 1200, when Saxo Grammaticus first wrote down the story of Prince Hamlet.  It's summer in Elsinore, during the white nights, and the Danes are busy night and day forging weapons and building ships of war.  At just before one in the morning, the ghost of King Hamlet appears to the watch on the castle battlements; a few minutes later, as in the ballad of Usher's Well, "the cock doth crow, the day doth show, the channerin worm doth chide," and the ghost returns to Purgatory until nightfall.  An interesting paradox that a ghost, restricted to darkness, should first appear when the nights are short.  By contrast,

                    Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
                    Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
                    This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
                    And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad...

To underline the paradox: around Christmastime and the winter solstice, during the longest nights of the year, ghosts keep to their own haunts.

Like Sophocles in Oedipus the King, Shakespeare often rhymed derangements in the political order--breaks in the lawful succession of kingship--with unnatural episodes in Nature.  On the morning of the day after Macbeth murders Duncan, somewhere else in hag-ridden (haggis-ridden?) Scotland, Macduff's cousin Ross mentions in passing that "a falcon towering in her pride of place/ Was by a mousing owl hawk'd at and kill'd."  In Hamlet, Horatio, who waits with the watchmen to see the Ghost on the third night of its appearance, refers to harbingers of Caesar's assassination, including "stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,/ Disasters in the sun;*" and lunar eclipses, alluding to similar recent events in Danish skies.  Shakespeare intensifies this trope with a stark opposition between truth and appearance: "Meet it is I set it down/ That one may smile and smile and be a villain."

So, at one a.m. on Elsinore's battlements, how bright was it, and what night was it?   In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain tells how Aunt Polly nails Tom for having gone swimming against orders because he had sewn his collar back on afterwards with black thread rather than white; the point was that it was just dark enough not to be able to distinguish between them.  Perhaps Shakespeare's contemporaries had some similar criterion for degrees of darkness; in any case, that Horatio could see at one a.m. that the Ghost's beard was "a sable silvered"--black hairs with white ones among them--shows that it must have been near the brightest night of the year.

In Copenhagen, twenty miles south of Helsingor, between early June and early July, "nautical twilight"--the time during which bright stars are still visible and the horizon is just distinguishable from the sky--never gives way to true night.  "Civil twilight" in Copenhagen--during which objects on the ground can be clearly distinguished from one another by the sky's ambient light--was expected to begin at 3:24 a.m. Daylight Savings Time (that is, 2:24 a.m.) between 16 and 26 June 2011.  Given poetic license, at one o'clock it might have been almost bright enough to read. 

I suggest that the Ghost makes its first appearance on the summer solstice, 21 June; that Act I, Scene i of Hamlet takes place two nights later, very early on 23 June; and that Prince Hamlet first sees his father's spirit in the early morning of 24 June, exactly halfway around the year from "that season...wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated."  I first thought of writing this on the summer solstice 2011, last Tuesday.  In Cape May Point, New Jersey, at three this morning (26 June 2011) the mockingbirds--the local birds of dawning--began their song.
*Presumably, "disasters in the sun" refers to celestial events (like comets and supernovae) visible in broad daylight; the Crab Nebula, for example, is the remnant of such a supernova, which dominated the daylight sky for some time during the year A.D. 1054.  "Disaster" means "bad (unfavorable) star."

25 June 2011


Lipograms are novels, poems, paragraphs--any zoo or salad of words assembled for pleasure--whose inscribing is bound by rules decided in advance.  Reading works of such lexical perversion can produce a sense of subliminal unease, as if minuscule changes in Planck values (imaginably arising from random local variance in ylem before a Big Bang) had produced a universe which we only gradually recognize as indefinably diverging from our own.

Georges Perec, founding member of Oulipo--a French gang of serious-wordplay-fashioners--famously published a long novel called Disappearance which, while looking easy, lacked all E's.  E, you'll remember, is of primary frequency in English and French.  In a succeeding novella, Perec re-balanced his keyboard by using no vowels besides E--no simpler an exercise, even if E's are so common.

You've been reading an hommage à Georges Perec, a lipogram from which a phoneme, majusculed as a Greek cross--whose frequency in English is precisely below E's--was banned.  Beyond such exclusion, however, all possible phonemic marks in English were encyclopædically included: quick brown foxes jumping high over lazy dogs.  A genuine Œdipal challenge, dancing on such a leash.  Such praxis resembles Zugzwang in chess: an approaching cul-de-sac seen from afar, a [horrifyingly] rigid narrowing of successive choices.

As you see, lipograms, schooled in such a hard-Scrabble discipline, regularly display excessive use of commas, colons, semicolons, and dashes; obscure and bizarre words; and fanciful expressive arcs resembling eddies and whirlpools (or even, perhaps, in places, a congealed lacy foam overlying such fluid phenomena): display, indeed, a near-palindromic sinuous oddness overall.  Well, anyway, mine does.  Some fun, eh? 

Did I really say "an hommage?"  Sorry.  Merely minding my p's and q's; crossing a t.
Added 13 July (OK, OK, my final word, I promise...maybe):

As my use of "phoneme" above is obviously in error (see below), "grapheme"--given my self-imposed maze--seems a usable moniker for vocally derived marks found in inscribed or graven discourse.  Accordingly, please replace "phoneme" by "grapheme" passim.  And consider, if a second reason for such an exchange is needed: nunnish young Grapheme, academy-born, smelling so preciously of lamp-wicks, by-blow of the palaver of rude para-mechanicals, clearly longs for ravishing embrace by Oulipoid Gypsies--in such rococo frolics and ludicurlicues as would gladden any Perec-ocious Calvinophile's cockles, and perhaps even yank a minuscule half-unwilling chuckle from James Joyce, our (alas!) no longer Waking friend--whereas her noisy older sib Phoneme has carried major speaking roles and innumerable beaux over many long years now.  Hurrah for Grapheme!  Queneau dig it?

16 June 2011


Fruitfully ambiguous, William Blake's lyric poems seem made to carry many meanings.  "The Sick Rose," though, seems especially apt as a description of that first gnawing anguish which, if not unhooked from the heart, gathers into despair:

                    O Rose, thou art sick!
                    The invisible worm
                    That flies in the night, 
                    In the howling storm,

                    Has found out thy bed
                    Of crimson joy:
                    And his dark secret love
                    Does thy life destroy.

If that channering worm is named Desolation, he is also named Chronos, Nidhogg (the wyrm who gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil), Chaos, Terminus, Shiva (the Destroyer), and Thanatos (sometimes represented by his helpmeet Eros)-- the ninety-nine names of Entropy, which conducts us, Roses and Blakes all, to that hot black smog at the end of time.

08 June 2011


In Greek tragedy, the hero's acts constrain his freedom of action bit by bit, until at the endgame he has no choices left.  The same is true in the Icelandic sagas, but the Norse heroes had fewer non-violent moves available to them.  The also had more weapons of name and reputation, and more mead.  Here is Grendel's testimony about the world of the sagas (from John Gardner's superb Grendel):

     In the beginning there were... ragged little bands... [of] crafty-witted killers... As the bands grew larger, they would seize and clear a hill... and set up shacks, and on the crown of the hill a large shaggy house... where they'd all go at night for protection from other bands of men... At dusk... the men went inside and drank mead... getting louder and braver, talking about what they were going to do to the bands on the other hills...
     ...Now and then some trivial argument would break out, and one of them would kill another one, and all the others would detach themselves from the killer as neatly as blood clotting, and they'd consider the case and they'd either excuse him, for some reason, or else send him out to the forest to live by stealing from their outlying pens like a wounded fox...
     ...[Once] I came to a hall in ruins... The fallen hall was a square of flames and acrid smoke, and the people inside... were burned black, small, like dwarfs turned dark and crisp...
     Then the wars began, and the war songs, and the weapon making... Two bands of men would charge.  Twenty feet apart they would slide to a stop and stand screaming at each other with raised swords.  The leaders... held their javelins high in both hands and shook them, howling... things about their fathers and their fathers' fathers, things about justice and honor and lawful revenge... With luck, I might see, on a soft summer night, as many as three halls burning down at once...

"Justice and honor and lawful revenge:" locking the doors from the inside, in a house on fire.  What the anthropologist Grendel doesn't see is that the alliances so vital to survival in this world of mead-drunk warriors and berserkers can also lock doors.  What does or doesn't make for durable alliances, and what such alliances sign one up for, are matters of life and death in a society as violent as this one.

This is what being locked inside a burning longhouse looks like-- as history rather than fiction-- in the claustral Iceland of Gisli's Saga (this is not, by the way, The Saga of Burnt Njal, in which the house actually burns).  Because the tale is so heavily laden with incident, I have tried to extract and lay out the relevant moves as if for a game of chess, rather than attempting a narrative summary.  This true story of "a little more than kin and less than kind " took place among the northwestern fjords of Iceland, by the river Haukadal, around A. D. 950.

1.  In Norway, the brothers Gisli and Thorkell survive an attempt to burn them in their house.  After settling that blood-feud in the usual way, they move to Iceland, and share a homestead, Holl.

2.  Their sister Thordis marries Thorgrim; the two of them live near Holl.

3.  Gisli is married to Aud, and is friendly with Aud's brother Vestein, who lives two fjords away.

4.  Thorkell is married to Asgerd.

5.  Because the Norwegian immigrants are "bold talkers," their neighbors are bristly and envious.  Learning this, Gisli suggests that he, Thorkell, Thorgrim, and Vestein should swear blood-brotherhood, for mutual protection.

6.  At the blood-brotherhood ceremony, Thorgrim (Gisli's sister's husband) refuses to swear brotherhood with Vestein (Gisli's wife's brother).  Offended, Gisli refuses to affirm brotherhood with Thorgrim. 

7.  Like many other landowners, Thorkell and Thorgrim become trading partners between sowing and harvest, as do Gisli and Vestein.  Thorkell, Thorgrim, and Gisli return for the harvest, while Vestein goes to England on business.

8.  One day, Thorkell overhears a conversation between his wife Asgerd and Gisli's wife Aud.  He learns that while Aud once liked Thorgrim, she has been faithful to Gisli since their marriage.  On the other hand, Asgerd seems to have slept with Vestein since she married Thorkell.

9.  Thorkell tells Asgerd to leave his bed: "we both know now what the reason is, though it was kept from me for a long while."  She tells him that she will divorce him and take back her dowry, unless he takes her back.  He seems to be mollified after a while.  Meanwhile, Aud tells Gisli what has happened.  The year goes on.

10. Next spring, Thorkell tells Gisli he wants to split up their joint homestead, and move in with Thorkell.  Unhappily, Gisli agrees.

11. Vestein returns to Iceland from a sojourn in England; although Gisli tries to forestall him from visiting, he misses Gisli's messages and comes nevertheless.  Gisli feels a sense of foreboding.

12. Vestein has brought ceremonial presents for the two brothers, but Thorkell refuses to accept his.  Again, Gisli feels a sense of fate closing in.

13. Three nights later, while he is sleeping in Gisli's house, Vestein is killed.

14. Gisli suspects Thorkell but doesn't accuse him.  

15. Recognizing this, Thorkell says, "I would like us to begin sports and be on as good terms as we ever have been before."  

16. Gisli agrees, "on this condition, that if something happens to you in your lifetime that seems as much to you as this seems to me, then you will promise to carry on with the same understanding as you are now asking of me."

17. During the 'sports,' Gisli's and Thorgrim's rivalry heats up.  Thorgrim makes an insulting verse about Vestein; in return, Gisli makes an insulting verse in the same cadence about Thorgrim, while beating him in the ball game.  Thorkell quickly ends the games before violence can ensue.

18. Much later, Thorgrim throws a feast at his house, where Thorkell now lives, and invites his brother Bork and his cousin Eyjolf.  He forces Geirmund (Thorkell's foster-son) to take a message to Gisli, [insultingly] asking for the loan of the ceremonial banner which Thorkell had refused to accept as a gift from Vestein.  Although Thorkell tries to dissuade Thorgrim, he doesn't oppose him forcefully.  

19. Gisli is also throwing a feast, and is putting up the banner in his own house when Geirmund arrives.  Although insulted by Thorgrim's presumption, he agrees to send the banner, presumably out of loyalty to Thorkell.  However, he asks the disaffected Geirmund (who is also the brother of Gisli's foster-daughter) to leave Thorgrim's doors unbarred.

20. That night, Gisli enters Thorgrim's house and kills him in his bed, while he lies next to Thordis, Gisli's sister.  He escapes unseen.

21. Suspecting Gisli, Eyjolf and Thorkell visit him, but Thorkell hides Gisli's incriminating shoes.

22. Later, at another ball game, Gisli plays against Bork, Thordis's new husband.  In Thordis's hearing, Gisli taunts Bork, in a verse implying that he killed Bork's brother (and Thordis's dead husband) Thorgrim.

23. Thordis works out the import of this verse, and tells Bork that Gisli killed Thorgrim.  Bork brings a case against Gisli.

24. Gisli is declared an outlaw.  Thorkell warns Gisli of this, and gives him money, but refuses to hide him or do anything which might jeopardize his own legal standing.  Gisli reminds him of his promise, from when Vestein was killed, but Thorkell is not moved.

25. Gisli flees, and is pursued for many years by Bork and especially by Eyjolf.

26. Some time later, Thorkell is killed by two strangers, who turn out to be Vestein's sons.

27. Vestein's sons try to take refuge with Aud, Vestein's sister, but she sends them away so that Gisli will not be honor-bound to fight them for killing his brother Thorkell.

28. Seven years after Gisli is outlawed, Eyjolf and his men catch up to him.  After a great battle with sword, axe, and spear, Gisli is finally bested by Eyjolf and dies a hero's death.

29. Enraged and grieved by the death of her brother Gisli, Thordis divorces Bork.

30. Later still, Thorkell and Gisli's brother Ari kills Vestein's son.

And so on, and so on, and so on, in sæculo sæculorum.  Gisli is distinguished by having survived longer as a "wounded fox" than anyone else in Icelandic history besides Grettir the Strong.  Nevertheless, by the end of the vendetta, the four main protagonists are dead, along with at least a dozen others.  Nearly a millennium later, in 1914, when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Europe lay in the midst of the same snakes' nest of alliances, secret hatreds and rivalries, and conflicts of loyalty; those very same chimeras of "justice and honor and lawful revenge" took awful flight.  Yeats's bitterness at the return of barbarism came out of Ireland not Flanders, but that battle was also born in the Great War:

               Now days are dragon-ridden, 
               The nightmare rides upon sleep...
               The night can sweat with terror, as before
               We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
               And sought to bring the world under a rule,
               Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

01 June 2011


The California poet Robinson Jeffers had a breathtaking reach of vision, a capacity to remain himself and yet see through many eyes beyond his own.  While many might think such vision integral to poetry, it's actually quite rare.  Here, in its entirety, is the lyric "Vulture," written when Jeffers was seventy-six years old.

I had walked since dawn and lay down to rest on a bare hillside
Above the ocean.  I saw through half-shut eyelids a vulture wheeling high up in heaven,
And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing.  I 
                understood then
That I was under inspection.  I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring.  I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you."  But how beautiful he 
                looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light over 
                the precipice.  I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him.  To be eaten by that beak and 
                become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment, what a life after death.

Enskyment: how beautiful and right that word is, sky burial as sublimation.  Read the line without it, and the poem recedes, becomes almost trivial: the alien beauty of the word suddenly makes manifest the transcendent arc of the poem, so that we see the vulture suspended in the vastness of the sky and we see the vast world through the vulture's eyes.  To paraphrase Meister Eckhart, the eye with which the man sees the vulture is the same eye with which the vulture sees the man, and is the same eye within which the sky contains them both.  It is the daring of 'enskyment' which makes Jeffers not just a poet but a great poet.