Y so long in the crossroads? Y this hesitation? Y can you see and see but never quite the right way say? Y is it thus, always just out of reach?
& then again, Y not?
& yes, I’ve struggled to begin this last saying. What stone is left unturned? What would sum up the final pieces of the puzzle? At these final steps of the journey, what is left to say?
Months go by. A year. And still some monkey wrench is rattling in the gears of my mind. I draft this essay again and again, changing style, trying things. Nothing quite works.
Yin & Yang—my beautiful little guppies—die. I bury each at the head of the path into the house. A black grave. A white grave. Both covered in gray stones. I imagine their small bones becoming earth.
And eventually I realize that the monkey wrench isn’t going away—that the rattle is perhaps a permanent feature of this existence. That maybe it’s the dissonant chords of the unknowable. And maybe noticing the rattle is (for me, at least) related directly to art—as if the monkey wrench, once seen, could never be un-seen. In a book on drawing, I find a quote: I don’t think I’ve ever really seen something until I’ve drawn it. I think about what Merrill said about Tolkien; that art consumes its maker. I think about a line from Heaney: The end of art is peace.
I wonder what it means.
* * * * *
[The spider] launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself…—Walt Whitman, from “A Noiseless Patient Spider”
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
& Yes. It was inevitable: it couldn’t start in any other way, than with this too-long-thinking, this too-long-in-the-dark. Finally something opens, & it begins. Or ends: And yes I said yes I will Yes.
You could spend a lifetime studying how lines cross, or don’t: the feeling evoked by each angle and tangent. You & Me— the Trinity: that mobius infinity between the two poles of Subject & Object, Yin & Yang, Beloved & Lover. The Venn diagram two lovers make. Even music is no more than crossed lines of a kind—each note a moment of sound held in a vast matrix of sound and time, each chord dependent on its predecessor and its follower, each line—rhythm, melody, harmony—moving in relation to its partners. I listen to Sufi music and think I could worship a god made of a thousand birds. I remember good days on a lazy river, watching the traceries of white birds high against the cirrus sky, singing an old sea-song. And again Merrill is there, a wan smile on his face: In time, all things grow musical…
I think the emblem of the crossed line is the ampersand. &. It contains duality, & unification. It is the confluence, the mirror that separates object and image. & it is also a kind of moving-on, a passage into something else. Tomorrow, & tomorrow, & tomorrow.
Ampersand began its life as a letter of the alphabet: the last letter, standing for and. When reciting the alphabet, certain letters were followed by the phrase per se to indicate that they were both words and letters. If you were reciting the alphabet and got to ‘i,’ for instance, you would say “per se i.” So anyway you go along reciting and get to the end of the alphabet, and you have “and” after Z. …W, X, Y, Z, and per se And. And-per-se-and. Ampersand.
Even beyond the neat categorical boxes of our letters, their little sigils, there lurks that inextricable unity. Beginning & end. Nothing & everything.
& time keeps on moving. It’s remarkable. It never stops. —So everything is growing musical. It’s accruing more crossed lines. The more things are added to the conversation, to the “great play,” as Whitman would have it, the more the many lines cross. The more the ampersand’s vines twine everything in their grasp.
Q: What does it really mean, to keep time?
& what kind of music are you making?
* * * * *
* * * * *
&1: The Gods of Gate, Mirror and Mask
I know I hung on that windy tree,—The speech of Odin upon Yggdrasil, from the Poetic Edda
Swung there for nine long nights…..
Myself an offering to myself:
Bound to the tree
That no man knows
Whither the roots of it run…..
From a word to a word
I was led to a word,
From a deed to another deed.
I have been thinking about deities—and about art. About how those two lines cross. So down to the crossroads we go, to the place of confluence.
Here is my crossroad thesis, before we go into this tangle: Merrill takes on aspects of the Trickster god-figure in his art; and, by this very process, he himself becomes a particular kind of god, in a process that itself resembles art.
—Many others have trod this path, tracing how art and the divine are intermixed. Two ghosts in particular come with me to this crossroads: Lewis Hyde, who wrote about tricksters; and Maya Deren, a friend of Merrill, who went to Haiti intending to make art-films, and instead was ridden by the ancestor-gods of Haitian Voudoun: the loa.
& then there is Merrill, of course—and Ephraim, Michael, Eunice, Auden, Maria, Mirabell. The host of his mind, or of some other realm of the in-between: a pantheon encased in a baroque house of memory.
& Tolkien, too—the high gods of the Valar, the low gods of the Elves: the names creating characters & landscapes almost of their own volition: the sounds of them: Fëanor, Túrin, Sauron, Thangorodrim…
& my own kingdom, nestled inside Tolkien’s, which itself nestled inside Norse myth; those kingdoms I still see in dreams, & which emerges somewhat at my bidding from the blank page and the thin scratchings of a late night: White Fox, Black Wolf, imaginary and complete.
& all caged in these thin black lines, this script, this language, this tongue—perhaps the greatest structure humankind has ever built, a beautiful invisible technology that shifts in every place and every mouth. A palace of ideas, a city, built in the vales between the letter’s lines.
& so yes: there are many ghosts in the crossroads.
* * * * *
Following the wild traceries of the heart-line, I go south. I make a home in the desert where once I laid beneath the stars & found the Andromeda galaxy hung like an unreal jewel from Perseus’ heart. Following a girl JM guided me towards, a girl he introduced me to, like a wingman or patron from some other world. Sometimes I picture him there watching, wan smile about his lips. A ghost I never knew.
So why does it feel so familiar?
I get a job in the city. A sandwich shop. Bread, meat, bread. Dressing. Easy enough. So easy it’s tedious. Precious little art to it. Only rhythm.
One day I’m washing dishes, and my co-worker Lupe comes with a fresh pan to clean. Her broken English:
—Thees water es muy caliente, Kee-gan. Cuidado! Here?
—Yes, Lupe, aquí está bien.
My broken Spanish. She pours it into the sink. It floods the bowls and hisses steam among the six-pans, and I watch the rest flow away in a long inward spiral. It curls and seethes inward, drawn into the black hole of the drain. Slithers down to darkness. She turns to leave.
—No accidents, Kee-gan! No accidents.
—Yes, Lupe. Yes.
* * * * *
The crossroads are where the Trickster appears, where choices can be made, where paths diverge. In mythic systems all across the world, crossroads carry a special magic; and similarly, throughout the world the crossroads are associated with transgressive traveller-gods. The magic of crossroads is that of mixing energies—divine & earthly, east & west, left & right, north & south, lover & beloved, living & dead: the crossroads holds all these, and thus the figures who represent the crossroads—the Tricksters—also contain all these dualities and their associated boundaries. No accident that Tricksters are frequently the psychopomps of their respective cults.
The crossroads is a world of thresholds: even the simplest crossroad contains four paths within it, each leading to a different place. Thresholds can be imagined as doors—or, rather, doors are a type of threshold: one that generally leads into a house.
Merrill’s structure of choice, the frame of his memory palace, is the house. With the “structure” encapsulated by the baroque architecture of Sandover, you can walk within some localized version of Merrill’s world. And to enter a house, one must needs use the door.
What this means, from a mystical-artistic perspective, is that every time you enter Merrill’s house—the structure of his art, that is—you are crossing a threshold, and thereby interacting with a Trickster. In the same way that Merrill is the “god” of his little art-memory-house (despite the fact that God is in fact a resident), he is the “god” of the door leading into it. The fluidity of his poetry—the interchange of poet and reader that I described in “The Kimono,” so long ago—is evidence of a kind of boundary-crossing magic. And, should a reader choose to swan-dive into the immensity of The Changing Light at Sandover, they are indeed transported to another realm; but, crucially, that realm is intermingled with the “real” world, too.
Trickster, as a creature of thresholds is specifically responsible for crossing thresholds. One of Trickster’s mythic “tasks” is to bring the sacred mysteries down to an earthy level. When the infant Hermes, for instance, steals the sacred cattle of Apollo in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, he crosses first the boundary of his incredible youth—he is a day old when he pulls the heist—and then transgresses the taboo-boundary of the sacred: the cows themselves. He then proceeds to make a secret sacrifice to himself, and sings a song of the Olympic pantheon, including himself in the ranks. When Apollo finally sees through Hermes’ various tricks and catches up with him, intending to kill the thief, Hermes charms the angry god, giving him the newly-invented lyre as a gift. The lyre, a chimera of earthly materials (shell, gut, wood) becomes a divine instrument through Hermes’ trickery—and the Olympians add another to their ranks.
So Trickster permeates barriers. Other tricksters, like Prometheus and the Raven who steals the Sun, also cross the boundaries of the divine, and bring the divine spark down to the earthly realm. Still others, like Loki and Odin, blur the distinctions of gender and shape.
All of these tasks are similar to that of the poet—who, inspired by some vision, divine or profane, encapsulates it in imagery, through the in-between, ephemeral medium of language. They rewrite a little corner of the world. Language is real because it has communicative power—speech, and the written word, are both “in the world.” But it is also unreal: a system of agreed-upon signs with no real relation to what they describe, meaningful only when initiated into it. It’s a clever kind of lie, a huge and beautiful fiction.
Language—especially lying—is another feature of Trickster myths. A clever Trickster can wriggle their way out of tight spots by carefully crafted speech, essentially rewriting reality through words. When Apollo confronts the infant Hermes, Hermes plays innocent: how could a day-old baby accomplish such a feat? Hyde calls Trickster the inventor of lying—and, in lying, he becomes the first true user of imagination, which can conceive a reality other than the primary realm of experience. Hyde says:
Trickster isn’t a run-of-the-mill liar and thief. When he lies and steals, it isn’t so much to get away with something or get rich as to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds…He is the character in myth who threatens to take the myth apart.
Picasso said, Art is a lie that tells the truth. The lie is that the artist can never truly capture anything. Every art style is a fragment of the fullness of experience, real or imagined. Writing, perhaps, comes closest to representing the totality of experience; but it achieves this by hopelessly abstracting its content, rendering it in a symbol-language particular to certain times, places, and peoples. Poetry in particular is a strange art, because it is the music of those arbitrary signs, or at least of the sounds that the signs represent. It is a music that relies on the aesthetic qualities of words, woven into a kind of tapestry of sound. This tapestry is all the more remarkable because it isn’t only sound, either; poetry is also created by the meanings—the content—behind and inside the music of the signs. And the aesthetic frame also creates a kind of meaning all its own—rhymes and wordplay themselves take on significance, like Merrill’s puns: senseless violence & scentless violets. The seemingly arbitrary decisions ripple out, from form to content & back again.
The reader, innocently coming into the writing, is drawn into a particular vision of the world. This world is described, physical, in that it is composed of objects: trees, mountains, people, houses. I think of it as a dreamscape. It is a world defined by the author and their limitations. In some works, like Tolkien and Merrill, the dreamscape is a very large presence, so much so that it becomes a kind of personality itself. Middle Earth and Sandover have landscapes in a “physical” manifestation, complete with flora and fauna. (In other works, this dreamscape is more a “landscape of ideas.”) Walking into this shadowy in-between world, which is suspended somewhere between reality and fantasy, one sees that the writing—the very thing that makes the magic possible—also limits the transference of the vision by its ambiguous, shapeshifting nature.
Sometimes I think I’m going mad, seeing things this way. Look for Tricksters and you’ll find them. The world starts to shimmer at its edges, as if some light lingered behind it. The borders of things draw you in—and those borders are written over everything. You see the door in every object, every person, even yourself; you see how many doors there are still yet to pass.
* * * * *
* * * * *
&2: Trickster’s Tongue
If fate is the law, then is fate also subject to that law? At some point we cannot avoid naming responsibility. It’s in our nature. Sometimes I think we are all like that myopic coiner at his press, taking the blind slugs one by one from the tray, all of us bent so jealously at our work, determined that not even chaos be outside of our own making.—Cormac McCarthy, from All the Pretty Horses
I wander Salt Lake like a fugitive, smoking, crossing the street away from passersby, zigzagging to avoid the major streets. The smoke follows me: my little demons’ dragon-breath as they chitter on my shoulder. I tell the angel on the other side that it’s a good way of coping.
The grids of the Mormons. So many cross-roads here. The houses big and squared-off, spacious. Each unique in this neighborhood. In some yards a little garden—here one bed brimming with strawberries—others austere desert rock. A few crowded with cheap concrete fairies, plastic flamingos.
On the local level, it’s beautiful. Each house is a little kingdom, where others’ lives go on. Each tree is unique. One night I startle a little flock of bobwhite quail.
But when you drive into the city at night, it’s all out there in front of you, a whole valley-worth of city, it seems, bristling with light. The valley is huge, you realize, later—that this sprawl hasn’t yet swallowed it. That huge magnificence of the West still rises on the borders.
You can’t see it, wandering in the city. Down here, it’s trees—sycamore, sumac, big flaking maples, eucalyptus, pine—and those little glimpses into others’ lives. Political signs out front. The used look of some yards; a scattering of toys among rough bluegrass. An open window where a thin music comes through.
So I walk back to the house and study trees, study each private fenced-off world. I think about the capital-w World that enmeshes each small, localized world. And I think how beautiful each one must be. How full of sadness, too.
* * * * *
In Merrill’s poetic context, all of this Trickster-business—slipping traps, crossing thresholds, stealing the idols, etc.—takes shape in a number of ways. For instance: “The Minotaur,” from 1994.
A young one who’d have thought
dreaming in late light
before a portico
pinker than nougat
His father’s terrible head
laid aside uncovers
an ink sketch by Cocteau
The earlobe’s cunning nugget
Colors of Crete Sun washing
black locks blood-red
—The poem begins, it seems, with the redemption of the Minotaur—not a gruesome beast, but a youth who can almost shapeshift. Beneath the mask, he’s unexpectedly charming. The “earlobe’s cunning nugget” is a very human detail, as is the fact that the Minotaur’s terrible visage is not his own, but inherited from his father.
Importantly, though, those “human” details are rendered in ink: Merrill suggests that beneath the terrible mask lives not flesh, but art. It is important that the Minotaur story takes place on Crete. To the Homeric Greeks, Crete was associated with lying. Odysseus, when he is disguised as a beggar, tells a series of elaborate fibs known as the Cretan Lie to his shepherd Eumaeus: My home is the wide seaboard of Crete… The “colors of Crete” that wash the Minotaur’s “black locks blood-red” are a transformation of color—a coat of paint, a kind of lie—and they also paint the Minotaur in a new light.
The shapeshifting Minotaur is the first indication of a Trickster-act. His unexpected charm—beauty, even—is a kind of transgression of the myth itself on Merrill’s part. Accordingly, the charming Minotaur disarms the reader’s conception of the myth: we are clued in to the fact that this is a revision of the original story. In a sense, Merrill is thieving Apollo’s cattle, and bringing the sacred down to an earthy level, complete with sexual urges.
Cocteau’s Minotaur sketches are simple-seeming; rough, almost, in their execution—but only at first glance. Look longer, and you notice the precision of the lines, their uncanny ends and beginnings. The inhuman vertical pupil.
The strangest thing about Merrill’s Minotaur, though, is that it’s seductive:
To see not quite a threat
to touch not quite a joke
A vital rivulet
pulsing along his throat
he looks up Shafts of blue
fatally attract us
Drawn two by two
after him through the maze
we’ve come as tribute
Halfway through the second stanza, the lens widens from Beast to Onlooker—or, more precisely, from Beast to Sacrifice. The descriptions of the Minotaur are replaced by the perspective of the spell-woven tributes. Merrill’s use of “we” makes both him and us into sacrifices: Shafts of blue / fatally attract us. We too have come to the center of the maze.
This is another Trickster act—in some sense, Merrill has transported us to our own demise in the jaws of the Minotaur. Trickster, who guards doors, is also typically the psychopomp who guides souls through the gates of the afterlife. By bringing us to this symbolic death, Merrill forces us to confront the death that awaits all of us, after all the byzantine turnings of life:
This youngster is expected
to feed on what we are
or were Mind’s meat heart’s blood
all that we’ve seen and known
treasured up rejected
will now become his body
Devour my life each prays
The young devouring the old—sons eclipsing fathers—is another common archetype in myth, and indeed in human history. Paradoxically, though, the old sacrifices have come “after him through the maze.” The old are following the young. Or, perhaps, Merrill is suggesting that within the maze of feelings which we call maturity, there lurks a hungry youth. Desires ungratified persist from one life to the next. The portico, “pinker than nougat,” which frames the Minotaur seems out of place in the darkness of the Labyrinth—its pinkness suggests flesh and life. It’s almost as if the portico were a beating heart within the dark maze. (It is NO ACCIDENT that the Minotaur—symbol of death—stands before a doorway, either.)
Amazement Golden beeline
for greenest dark Strong fusion
of grape and cardamom
As for the “sacrifice”
one lightning-fleet contusion
sparklers of ice
farewell’s euphoric hail
It must have been benign
if we lived through it Did we
Depends who tells the tale
If Trickster is, as Hyde puts it, “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence,” then the end of the sacrifices must bear Trickster’s stamp. The psychopomp who guides the dead away is also the one who guides Orpheus through Tartarus. And “Depends who tells the tale” can be read many ways. One way is that remembrance creates the afterlife; another is that each tale-teller has a different version of events, and will describe a different end for the hero. Either way, Merrill is pointing to the ambiguity inherent in any story, as well as a fundamental ambiguity of the human condition: no one really knows how it ends. In fact, no one really knows how it begins, either. As anyone who’s spent time with toddlers knows, there is no end to the question Why?
The structure of the poem—so different from the ornate, mellifluous wordplay of other works—also reveals a certain shiftiness in the speaker. Merrill, like the Minotaur in the poem, is changing his skin. One of a trickster’s primary characteristics is polytropism and shapechanging.
The short, unpunctuated, broken lines of the poem are unusual for Merrill. Each line both connects and stands away from its neighbors—which is to say, as you read the poem, the picture fills out almost like ticker tape, or an incantation building up the world Word by Word. The rhyme scheme, too, is irregular. Maddening. The first stanza is roughly A-BACABA-C, with (-) standing in for a rhyme I can’t unlock. The second is AB-CBCBDAD. Or something like that. It definitely rhymes. The rhymes themselves, though, seem almost playful: nougat/nugget/have thought, for instance, or portico/Cocteau, cactus/attract us, maze/prays.
Merrill himself is offering up a kind of labyrinth. I spent a good hour trying to figure out what he was up to, looking for some key that would unlock the pattern. Nothing. The labyrinth remained silent. So who’s devouring who?
I found an interesting fact, lurking around the labyrinthine corridors of Wikipedia: the Etruscans, who, unlike the Athenians, didn’t worship Theseus the Minotaur Killer, offer a different Minotaur story, preserved on a single painted wine-cup from the 4th century BCE. Pasiphaë; a baby Minotaur bouncing upon her knee. Depends who tells the tale indeed.
* * * * *
* * * * *
&3: The Image Maker
A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.—Jorge Luis Borges, from the Afterword of The Maker
Long months have stretched themselves about me, decorated with the tableaus of life: walks in darkening woods, a movement, the grim fluorescence of the grocery store, a stillness, the brilliant flash of art. Trying for sanity, I recycle old tales in my mind, muttering them to myself in dull moments: This is water. This flax weighs three pounds. You must live a dying kind of life.
The ampersand has taken hold of my life. Here in my desert home there is another, whom I have come to love. It is a strange experience. I spent so much of my life bent over my own works, that to open the rusty gates of the soul (whatever that means) seems impossible. And yet open they do, and not by my own will. As if I was caught up in something greater than myself.
Union is not easy. And so I put her into bed, and go back out to the kitchen, and deep into the night I write the histories of imaginary lands, the patterns of bloodline & honor, life & art. I trace the lineaments of queens and warriors, idols of ancient gods, the spiralled text of a language only I can speak. I learn to draw Celtic knots, and in their methodical weaving—over, under; over, under—I find a strange kind of peace, one in which my mind no longer asks questions.
So many questions. The more I ask, the more I realize there are no true answers, save one:
Art is a strange religion. Stranger, even, than its makers.
* * * * *
I’m not suggesting that James Merrill himself is a Trickster God. Far from it—as his own “self-described” position of Scribe suggests, he never viewed himself as wholly in control of his art, least of all with Sandover. In a way, the historical Merrill who sat down to the Ouija board was possessed by a Trickster-figure, or a succession of Trickster figures.
This impression is reinforced by the constantly deepening, constantly changing story of Sandover. At the finish of the Book of Ephraim, one could be forgiven for assuming that they had a handle on the structure of things—this impression, though, is blown to smithereens by the tangled web of Mirabell and Scripts. Ephraim himself (and Auden and Maria with him) is implicated as a kind of artistic liar, who paints a beautiful picture but crucially omits key details. When Mirabell and the Sons of Cain appear, the reader once again thinks they have a grasp on the situation—but at every turn, the story gets stranger and stranger, more and more campy. JM & DJ frequently express astonishment at the things related by the spirits. By the middle of Mirabell, the reader knows that JM & DJ are definitely not holding the reins on this stagecoach.
So in some ways Merrill is a passive agent in the story of Sandover—but in other ways, he is participating in the Trickster-work of bringing the sacred down to the level of the profane. The campy edge that defines so much of Sandover’s flavor is an example of this “dirt-work,” as Lewis Hyde calls it. Trickster, who crosses boundaries, must necessarily bridge the gap of heaven & earth—and, in so doing, he makes the earthly divine, and the divine earthly. But there is that nagging detail, too: Merrill didn’t write the content of the poems. He is responsible only for the frame.
So if Merrill isn’t the Trickster God, and also kinda is, where does that leave us?
Merrill’s own native lens was that of “high European” art—opera, the French, the rococo, the Greek, the baroque. There was also, of course, a powerful admixture of Americanism into the recipe, and, yes, there are also a host of references to classical myth, especially in the zanier passages of Sandover—but at the heart of it, Merrill’s primary lens is that of a relatively late European style. For example, he never mentions Norse or Germanic myth explicitly, but he does mention Tolkien and Wagner. He refracts the older myth through later art. And opera, of course, is perhaps his single largest source of reference. In a certain way, then, he is the ultimate fusion artist, enamored of pan-European art forms, and along the way melding that with his own native culture.
But he is also a globalist, a cosmopolitan—and his art reflects that catholic tendency. Maya Deren, his filmmaker-&-dancer friend, is a prime example. Her “interest” in Haitian spirituality is not mentioned much in Sandover, but her presence is nonetheless important. In a few passages, she makes an appearance; but her true mark on Merrill is likely a deep, hidden one: the touch & influence of a friend.
Deren travelled to Haiti in 1947, intending to make art films showcasing traditional Haitian dances. While there, though, she interacted extensively with the native Voudun religion. (Which we in the US would call “voodoo.”) As she describes in her ethnographic account, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, Voudun praxis is centered on the idea of possession. And she found, to her surprise, that despite her skepticism she too was susceptible to this possession.
She describes it thus:
[Possession] is the point towards which one travels by the most visible, the most physical means, yet, for the traveler, it is itself invisible. One might speak of it as the area of a circle whose circumference can be accurately described; yet this circumference is not, itself, the circle which it defines. To know this area, one must, finally, enter.
Caribbean religious systems are, in general, a rather syncretic form of faith. Syncretism (in religious terms) is the melding of two faiths into one new belief system—a prime example would be the gradual but significant differences between Irish Catholicism and Roman Catholicism. Far from Roman culture, the Catholicism of the British Isles melded heavily with native Celtic belief, and the resulting (syncretic) faith seemed strange and frankly rather pagan to the Catholics of Rome. (These differences were so pronounced that, in 664, the Synod of Whitby was held to determine exactly which of the British Isles traditions were acceptable to the Pope in Rome.) To this day, Irish Catholics regard holy wells, offering trees, and standing stones with a reverence that far surpasses mere cultural habit.
Similarly, Caribbean religions have formed as a mixture of faiths—Native traditions melded with the African religions of runaway slaves, all with a healthy dose of missionary Christianity tossed in. The result was a group of faiths that drew heavily from all of their predecessors, and yet were entirely unique. This melding took a variety of forms. Within Haitian Voudoun (which is also practiced, for example, in New Orleans), there are two major “branches,” Petro and Rada. Within these “schools,” which practice different sets of ritual, there is also local divergence. No one family or town practices the same system as its neighbors. More broadly, similar religious systems emerged in Cuba as santería, and in other parts of South America as a complex of uncanonized local “saints” complete with idols and unique ritual traditions. (In some instances, idols are dressed and “fed” cigarettes, demonstrating how distant these traditions are from their ostensibly Catholic frameworks.)
All of this is to say that Voudun is unique, as all mixtures are. One of the most unique features is possession—Voudun practitioners are “ridden” by their gods, who are ancestral spirits called loa. When the loa ride a worshipper, the worshipper in some senses ceases to exist: they take on the archetypal behavior of that loa. Deren herself, who was mounted by the loa called Erzulie, recounts having no memory of her possession, save for its terrifying, paralyzing onset. To be ridden by these gods is no joke. But, fascinating as the loa’s “ridings” may be, the real reason I want to discuss the loa is their birth process.
Deren describes a ritual called “The Reclaiming of the Waters.” In this ceremony—which is performed at least a year and a day after the death of the person in question—the soul of the dead person is recalled from the waters of the abyss to dwell in a clay jar called a govi. Once ensconced in the govi, which is displayed in the household, the dead person’s soul can undergo a certain process of remembrance—the ultimate result of which is the creation of a new loa.
Deren describes this process of memory as “purifying the ego.” For example: let’s say your grandfather was a great warrior, and was remembered as such. Once Gramps was ensconced in the govi, a ceremony of remembrance would be held each year. As time went on—as your children, and your children’s children, took up the ceremony—Grandpa would be remembered less and less as an individual (“Grandpa-who-hated-broccoli,” “Grandpa-who-snored”), and more and more as an essential characteristic: an idea: that of warrior. Eventually, Gramps would become synonymous with warrior. At this point, he was cleansed entirely of “Gramps” and became simply “Warrior”—and at this point, he became a loa. Deren:
Only that variant endures which can remain as significant to a distant descendant as it first appeared to the immediate family. In the course of the evolution into loa there emerges, from the singular person, the general principle which characterized him.
Despite riding people in possession trances, and despite in many ways resembling “separate” gods, the loa were also called “masters of the head”—they were said to inhabit a person’s mind, and were inherited through family lines: in a sense, they were blood-borne. And, as Deren emphasizes, the door goes both ways: “The loa, then, partake of the head that bears it. The principle is modified by person.” And: “The loa contains both subject and object, both the seer and the thing seen. In Voudun neither man nor matter is divine. A loa is an intelligence, a relationship of man to matter.”
(To bring Robert Pirsig back into the conversation: the loa is the particular Quality of something, the Quality which arises from the perception of the object by the viewer—and the loa is also the viewer, a principle refracted through the lens of a person—and the loa is also the object itself, refracted through the lens of the viewer.)
What does this have to do with Merrill? Well, for one thing, Deren’s possession shows up in Sandover, in section “M”: Maya in the city has a dream… Merrill describes a dream of Deren’s, in which she appeared as a photo-negative of a bride. Querying Ephraim about it, JM & DJ get a description of a system of possession that occurs within the “theology” of Sandover. As Ephraim describes it:
At least a century goes by before
One night comes when the soul, revisiting
Its deathplace here below, locates and enters
On the spot a sleeping form its own
Age and sex…
Masked in that sleeping person, then, the soul
For a few outwardly uneventful hours—
Position shiftings, pillowcrease, a night
Of faint sounds, gleams, moonset, mosquito bite—
Severs what LAST THREADS bind it to the world.
And later in the same section, Merrill gives a summation of Deren’s possession by the loa Erzulie:
Worth mentioning as well may be that “white
Darkness”—her own phrase—which Maya felt
Steal up through her leg from the dirt floor
During the ceremony in whose course
Erzulie would ride her like a horse.
Aside from this, though, there is only one work that centrally involves Caribbean religions—”The Image Maker,” from The Inner Room: a one-act verse play set in “a Caribbean village.”
The play concerns a santero named Manuel. Santeros were the carvers who made idols of the saints (called santos) in Santería tradition. Manuel—whose name not-so-accidentally resembles “Merrill,” and also not-so-accidentally could be a stand-in for “Every-Man”—takes his work seriously, and lives his poor existence with a jovial optimism. He describes choosing wood, ageing it, and then:
At last the figure is begun.
And never mind how well
I know my saint, I’m in for a surprise
Or two before I’m done…
It’s never easy!
In the introduction, we catch a glimpse into Manuel’s life—his devoted pursuit of his holy art, his care for his ageing mother, and his love of his pet dove, Pepe.
But then things go awry. First, Manuel’s niece Juanita comes to visit, along with their household saint, Barbara. Things have been going badly in Juanita’s house, and her grandmother blames the saint. Manuel agrees to fix her up, and the santero and his niece go out together.
While they are gone, the carven images come to life. Barbara stirs up trouble, questioning the very existence of God. The other santos (Francisco and Miguel) join in:
BARBARA This god with faces—has he powers like ours?
MIGUEL He made the Man.
BARBARA The man says so.
He also says in tones
“God’s will be done.”
MIGUEL The man made us.
BARBARA You see now? Without further fuss
Let’s have some fun—
Let’s do man’s will!
The santos are here treated as a kind of demi-god, caught halfway between divine agency (a talking statue!) and very human agendas (making mischief, essentially). Merrill humorously (and cuttingly) describes them as a kind of humanity themselves, “doing man’s will”—energetic, full of agency, even thoughtful; and dangerous, too, with some kind of dark pride and selfishness. They rebel against Manuel partially because he is their creator. As Miguel says in the play:
No man shapes me
From a block of wood,
Paints my face with white clay,
Dresses my mind in dimity.
I am the generator.
By reason’s lamp or fever’s flickering ray
I make the Image Maker.
The santos proceed to plague Manuel with a bad dream—when he rushes out into the street, believing the dream to be real, the santos kill Pepe the dove and set a fire. The fire, however, consumes the calendar, and they cry out in distress: “There go our holy days/Up in a flash!…What was to come, ablaze!” The images’ rebellion turns to consternation as the fire threatens to consume them.
Incidentally, it is Francisco, the patron of animals, who kills Pepe; it is Barbara, a protector from thunderstorms and fires, who instigates the plot of fire; and it is Miguel, normally a protective angel, who sets the calendar on fire. In other words, the normal roles are exchanged for an inverted portrait of the world.
Manuel returns, and puts out the fire. He discovers Pepe dead, and then proceeds to perform an exorcism of a kind. It is here that we discover the presence of a fourth spirit—the fire and lightning-spirit Changó.
Changó is the same variety of spirit as a loa, but a native of Cuban santería rather than Haitian Voudoun. The most powerful loa were ancestral spirits from Africa: they were the oldest, and the “greatest” of the riders. Changó is one such god, a survival of Yoruba worship in the new world and the new syncretic religion of the Caribbean. Discovering the foreign presence, Manuel sets to work: He chants:
Don’t tempt them [the santos] to distress—
As man does Earth and Air and Sea—
The houses they were made to bless,
Or, when they’ve drawn like poultices
A thousand lifelike fears and fantasies,
To act like gods.
Manuel finishes his exorcism as the sun is rising. He tidies up and prepares to fix up Barbara’s coat of paint as he utters a prayer:
Forgive me, Lord, if I presume
To show You how to do Your work.
From Your high, starry room
You overlook the murk—
—The murk that clogs the mind
And eats away its godlike face.
Take us in hand, as I do these.
Lord, change mankind!—
—Take us in hand, as I do these.
Repair, freshen, efface,
So that unswerving grace
Flows throught Your images.—
—And, Lord, make us unlearn
The skills that wound us, blind and burn.
Take us in hand.
The prayer feels heartfelt—and, in slippery Merrill fashion, it includes us in its invocation: Take us in hand… (Amen, James, Manuel.) As he recites it, he talks in familiar tones to the santos. He layers them over in paint, refreshing their cloth garments. At dawn, his mother calls from the inner room for her breakfast. She asks after Pepe, but Manuel hasn’t the heart to tell her what has happened. Juanita returns, overjoyed at having found a folk-recipe for true love, given to her by her grandmother. Manuel hands her Santa Barbara, now freshly reworked. Juanita exclaims:
Oh, Uncle! Look, she’s changed her dress!
She’s beautiful—like an actress.
Aren’t her eyes bigger? That’s not her old smile.
Will she be good now?
To which Manuel replies,
Well, for a while.
The play concludes as Miguel selects a new wooden canvas, sighing:
What next? What next?
* * * * *
As the santo Miguel notes, Manuel the Image Maker is himself a kind of “small god.” In the beginning of the play, Manuel says that the santos “maybe say a word on high/To the old Image Maker in the sky.” We never actually see that God, though, and the concept seems foreign to the santos. Manuel is thus cast in the role of the absent God—it is left to him to create divinity on a very local level. The incredible power of the santos is a result of Manuel’s own creative powers, imbued with external agency. In other words, his creations’ power in some ways outstrips his own. The source of this power is nebulous—it’s not clear how Miguel sets things on fire—but it seems, at least in part, divinely driven.
Where that divinity comes from is a mystery, though. The most that we can say is that, absent of God’s presence, or his intercession with the santos, Manuel is the closest thing we have to the Creator. Being a mortal, though, he is also subject to error. So, in many ways, Manuel becomes a kind of Gnostic demiurge: a flawed creator doing his best to imitate the Great Unseen God, but necessarily failing. But, unlike the Gnostics’ Yaldabaoth or Sakla or Sammael, Manuel treats his role with humility and humor—he is perfectly aware of his failings. His function is necessary, his work divine, but he knows his limitations.
So: the mortal artist creates a divine image. The divine image then has agency all its own. The resultant image is itself a kind of trickster-god, a figure of the threshold between creation & destruction, and between artifice & reality. The artwork itself becomes a doorway. In a literary sense, this is perhaps what Barthes describes as the death of author—that is, the work wriggles out from under the thumb of its creator and goes about the world on its own. The reader is the one the work speaks to, and it does so on terms that are private between reader & text.
Of course, the Image Maker’s stamp is all over it, too. When I write fiction derived from Tolkien, I participate in a Tolkienic mind; when I write about Merrill, I go into a kind of mystic Merrillian mind. The art itself has a kind of seductive intricacy—like pages of lore you can delve into, finding through-lines from the distant past into the present; or a catalogue of beautiful images, all of which are connected in the networks of meaning particular to its creator. The art itself, not the Maker, inhabits you; possesses you.
In this way, art itself is a threshold, complete with Tricksterish qualities. The image is immortal in a way that the artist is not; and it has agency in a way the artist does not. It can transcend time and place and language, though it changes with each new iteration. Manuel’s touch—his fresh layering of paint, his cooling of colors—only serves to control the image for a certain time. In his farewell to Juanita, he reveals the future lurking beyond: a lifetime of painting and repainting the rebellious images, trying to keep them pacified. Sacrifices—like poor Pepe—will be made.
“The Image Maker” is also a commentary on the possessive nature of art—how it devours its maker. The future rebellions of the images will take over Manuel’s life; the pursuit of poetic transcendence consumed Merrill; and until the end of his days Tolkien sharpened the traceries of his imaginary kingdom. And yet, for all that careful work, the slippery works themselves pass out of the hands of the artist. Tolkien’s private world was bared by his descendants, his secret language described and analyzed, his half-finished drafts and letters published; I’ve been reading Merrill’s letters, published just last year. His private lovelorn correspondence. It’s a strange glimpse into another’s life. As the art travels on and on, so the artist themself is dragged along behind, willing or no.
But of course, even that immortality is double-edged; some artist’s lives are picked over, dredged for bad behavior and examples of what-not-to-do. The sheer celebrity of artistic creation devours some. For others, given enough time, they simply drift from memory like so many people have over the long years. These are the anonymous artists: the Irish monk who wrote of Pangur Bán, his cat; the nameless author of the Poetic Edda; and all the lost works and lives of history.
And yet the art lives on and on, passed on in different hands, stripped of the ego that made it—like a loa, a human spirit made into ritual idea, manifesting in real-life experience.
So, in addition to being a door, the Image is also a presence—and, as such, it requires a vessel for that presence. This could be a santo. It could be a word, or a fragment of language. For Tolkien, the Image of one word, Earendel—an untranslatable fragment, an Anglo-Saxon name for an unknown star—led into a landscape. That single word opened out into Middle Earth.
For Merrill, the Image leads into a house. “The Image Maker” is a closet drama, taking place in one room. I think it’s important that Santa Barbara doesn’t rebel fully while at Juanita’s home—it’s in Manuel’s house that she truly lets loose. Perhaps the artist’s house, as the site of creation, is full of a kind of creative power. In a way it is a numinous place, despite being a poor shack in a backwater island village. In this space, Barbara’s power is increased by Miguel and Francisco—and the way the creations egg each other on, it seems that they are drawing on some kind of energy.
That energy, we discover, comes in part from death. Before Francisco kills Pepe, Barabara asks:
This god—is he a master
Black or white?
MIGUEL He made the bat, the rooster,
The black she-goat.
BARBARA He made the priest.
MIGUEL The priest tells wrong from right.
BARBARA Or only sees by full-moon light
He draws the blade across the throat—
A floor of blood!
MIGUEL Our sawdust vitals drink their fill.
BARBARA Why shouldn’t God?
Brother, do his will!
Pepe’s death is thus framed as a sacrifice to God, in a very Old Testament kind of vein. However, it is worth noting that the santos never actually speak to God; rather, they arrive at the sacrifice with a cold logic. Is this the influence of Changó? Or is it a native feature of the images themselves?
YES & NO, probably. Manuel, as he repaints the images, mutters:
Look at this bad scar,
See how the color cracks and chips.
No wonder fumes eclipse
The morning star.
This seems to imply that Manuel’s own careless creation—or, rather, Manuel’s creation worn by time—becomes something other than what it was in the beginning. Manuel dolls up Barbara, and Juanita sees her as a new image, which is true, to an extent; but we and Manuel know that this is only the first of many new images the santo will become, as the paint fades to a new tone, and flakes away to show old color. Change is the result of both time’s actions, and a Trickster’s creative actions—so, in a sense, a Trickster-power also involves the manipulation of time. The artist’s immortality is one such example of a time-trick.
Another example would be that seductive power of art. Good art draws you back again and again—and each time you engage with it, you are a different person than you were before. In a sense, then, despite ostensibly staying static, the artwork changes as you change. The ideas that you hold in conversation with the artwork also morph and shift, and take on new forms in your new eyes.
But this is also true for the artist. And this might be the core of how art devours a life—in the quest to sharpen down experience, again and again, more questions replace the next detail. Lineages and histories expand; the poet moves upwards into heaven, to more complexities.
Just for fun, I will point out here that Tolkien thought Earendel—that unknown star-name— described the same morning star Manuel invokes. Others agree with Tolkien, but nobody is sure. What we do know is that the unknown star goes by many names, and has many faces. In Norse myth, the same star was called Aurvandils-tá, ‘Aurvandil’s Toe’: the frostbitten appendage of a hero cast into heaven by Thor. The Saxons described Earendel as a semi-mythic personification of the dawn, and also as a star; both they and others also thought of it as a symbol of Christ. A whole constellation of meanings comes from that one shadowy word—but still the mysteries remain there at the borders.
In a similar way, the magic pull of that single starry word—Earendel—led Tolkien into an entirely new world, complete with its own morning star: a white ship sailing in the outer darkness, carrying a jewel that held the ancient light of the world: the hero Ëarendil, in his white ship Vingilot.
The art writhes beneath its coat of paint. It is not static. It whispers, changes and evolves, until its maker must revisit it again, to see a little farther into it, try to contain it once again.
* * * * *
* * * * *
&4: The Last Life
Everything is as it seems:—James Merrill, from “From the Broken Home”
Imperceptibly grown small.
It is the house of dreams.
One last place to go, among this sprawling house of dreams, now that we near the end: A Scattering of Salts, Merrill’s last published book. The second poem: “Nine Lives.” This takes us back to a familiar house. Where the black dog lifted its leg. Where the spirits spoke of other days. Where was revelation: the house in Athens.
JM & DJ returned to the house in Athens for a visit, older now. The age-worn house “does it” for JM: “Thrilling to find oneself again on stage, / In character, at this untender age.” And the play begins.
They enter the old, familiar world to find it changed. Aged. Unlike 20 years ago, they are now renting the entire house, and they discover that their new downstairs world is full of strange denizens:
[A sullen, peeling door
Wrenches open onto glare that weighs
So heavily on things, these August days,
—And cats! The nursing mother stares appalled,
While one black kitten actually topples
Over in consternation before streaking
With three of four white siblings out of sight.]
The presence of these strange new beings—the cats of old Miss Pesmazóglou, who “seem to have made do without her”—keeps JM enthralled, and present in this downstairs space. (“You take the upstairs. These / Half-buried rooms, so glimmeringly tiled— / The kittens also—keep me here, beguiled.”) By this contact with these fascinating strangers, JM experiences the familiar world in a new way:
That old shed houses them. The lilac shrub
Patient as a camel on its knees
Shades them. We used to water it—remember—
Magnanimously, with a warm, pulsing hose
From three flights up.
JM is again cast in the role of the “small god,” who from on high sustained the world below. But this time around, he is down in the world of the cats, as if he was a god come down among the lowly mortals on the ground.
But he and DJ are also trapped by the long-buried habits engendered by the house—old friends and lovers come to call, and they marvel at the changes time has wrought. And finally:
There comes an afternoon when, bored,
We sit down to a makeshift Ouija board.
A courtesy call merely. No big deal.
A way of letting our familiars share
In these old haunts. Instead: U MUST PREPARE
The call of the supernatural. Again. Ephraim, seeming almost breathless, explains that Maria Mitsotáki’s reincarnation—a certain Indian boy named Shantihprashad Chatterjee—will be arriving in Athens in one week. DJ & JM are to meet him in Kolonáki Square at the Bon Goût, their old haunt with Maria; they will know the boy by a “straw hat with a long black ribbon.” The hat will blow off in a gust of wind; the boy will speak a cryptic line to them (“WE WILL MEET AGAIN IN MY HOME CITY”); Ephraim provides details down to the dress of the mother and father.
JM & DJ are understandably hesitant. They question what will happen if they wait to no avail. Ephraim’s answer is less than comforting: “THE WIND WILL DIE.” There is nothing to do but wait out the agonizing week.
Meanwhile, JM pursues another project: the Taming of the Cats. DJ & JM have involved themselves deeply with the cat family—David calls them their “latest Holy Family,” and the two set out scraps and observe the cats coming and going. One sunrise, Merrill has an “interaction” with the cat parents—an old white tom, who “devoutly” meets Merrill’s eyes, and the mother, who Merrill imagines saying, “Take him, my blackest and my wiliest, / Teach him the table manners of the West.”
Encouraged by these “signs,” JM goes on a quest to catch the black kitten, to little avail. He says:
Hasn’t someone proven
That just to stroke a kitten, make it purr,
Lowers the blood pressure, both yours and its?
These kittens maddeningly don’t concur:
The sight of me still throws them into fits.
He tries to chase the black kitten down, but pandemonium ensues, and the black kitten takes refuge under an oil drum “complex and solid as the Trojan Horse.” And, “Meanwhile, for his—for everybody’s sins / A frantic mewing back and forth begins.”
Two nights later, JM tries again. He flushes the kitten out from under the oil drum with a hose, and nearly catches the kitten—but it flees into a hidden hole, and the mother cat chastises Merrill with her mewing. The kitten remains in the drainpipe.
And Merrill, for the first time, sees what he has done with this little game of “cat-god”:
Such communicable pain!
From being human we grow inhumane.
We have, it seems, methodically wrecked
Our tidbits teach the kittens how to shit,
And day by day we put our foot in it.
How does Merrill come out then, as gods go? He rules with love, certainly—but that love becomes twisted into a kind of violence. His jealous greed—his desire to possess the kitten—undoes the postive aspects of his “creation.” So, in many ways, he seems like a Gnostic demiurge: a flawed creator, limited to his own creation, who imitates divinity but can never quite grasp it. At best, his mistakes create a momentary beauty.
Later, they learn the black kitten lives on, no worse for wear—but stuck now in the courtyard below theirs, some three feet down. They prop a “rough hypotenuse of board / Between the pit to which his fall consigned / Our prodigal and the haven left behind.” All ends well in the world of the cats, as they are reunited in the evening light.
Not so with the promised boy. JM & DJ go to the square. They get coffee. They watch, and wait.
As they do, they see the old ghosts rise—the living friends, the absent faces. Tony appears: “Paidiá! In public? In the square? / Mais c’est la fin du monde!” (Must be the end of the world!) They drink more coffee. They note the dead who no longer walk here. They wait. Nothing appears. “For the wind has died.”
Ephraim apologizes later—MES CHERS WE OVERESTIMATED OURSELVES—and tells a fantastical story of how the embassy warned Mr. Chatterjee against traveling to the quiet Kolonáki Square. DJ & JM aren’t buying it—JM bursts out that they never sought proof, never sought this “word made flesh”—but Ephraim changes the subject. Shantih, they are told, is being transported BACK TO HIS WASTE LAND; JM replies, “back, if you prefer, / To our subconscious, this much being sure: / That black hole is three-quarters literature.”
The poem finishes as Merrill says,
We’ve dropped our masks, renewed our vows
To letters, to the lives that letters house,
Houses they shutter, streets they shade. Already
Empty and dark, this street is. Dusty boughs
Sleep in a pool of vigilance so bright
An old tom skirts it. The world’s his tonight.
* * * * *
* * * * *
Coda: The End of Art
this world of dew—Issa, trans. Sam Hamill
is only a world of dew
Here: the end of things. The final words, from grave or new world’s pink womb-door. The pilgrim’s final steps.
Once on my own pilgrim’s path, I came upon the holy isle I sought—but all the boats were full, and time was growing short; and so I walked along the cliffs and studied how the light landed on what I couldn’t know.
And by the works of hands, that place was made holy—hardworking hands out there beyond Land’s End, toiling among the rocky soil, the roaring sea. And by the works of hands it was woven into stories, and folk whispered tales of how the Ancient King slept on that isle, and waited to arise and lead his people out of dark into a new world.
And all just there within my mind; just there beyond my reach.
* * * * *
If Merrill participates in the Trickster-act, then he also implies that the Trickster-act participates in him. He and DJ, after all, devoted more than 20 years to “poems of science,” despite admitting quite early on that it all could well be a folie à deux. The road of creation goes both ways—the creator must give up some part of themself in order to accomplish it. By creating the Trickster-figure that arises from the Image, the Image Maker themself is eclipsed. Their lives are devoured by the Images.
And, if Merrill’s art participates in the Trickster-act, particularly with his trademark fluidity, then the Trickster-Art also participates in us. We readers stride off bravely into his wilderness, seeking his Truth—but Merrill himself lurks always just beyond us, a hidden demiurge among the thin forest of letters. Who is it that emerges from the page?
Something else comes from that tangled wood of words to meet us—a spirit with a shifting face, one whose presence we recognize and treasure, and who speaks to us. But it is not Merrill himself, who died before my birth. Stripped of his personal touch, we are left with the laved spirit of the Image Maker, who has himself become an image: a loa of mind and hand and tongue. And, like the loa, this impersonal spirit has power. It can mess with your head.
From the blank field of the page emerges a pattern, itself created upon a pattern, self-repeating and yet unique. The pattern can be large or small, grandly cosmic or shockingly intimate. Yet the distinction between large and small quickly becomes blurred, because the pattern—not only the writing itself but the content of the writing—cannot exist within a vacuum. It depends on prior patterns, which extend beyond the boundaries of the work itself. In its own containment and self-identity, its disobedience to its own native rules, an artistic work transcends the boundaries of its parent structure, even while remaining firmly entrenched in it. In this escape we may see the stamp of the Trickster, that old breaker of bonds.
The word pattern is a Modern English variant of the Old French patron, which carried both its modern meaning—“patron, protector, provider”—and the meaning which eventually attached to pattern itself: “pattern, model, plan, design.” In some ways, then, the word contains both the Maker and the Made. Within the Word there is a multitude; within the multitude there is the Word. And where the crossed lines of all these concepts meet, Trickster is waiting for you to arrive, lounging in the gaps of things.
The whole thing is a Russian nesting doll, a Mandelbrot zoom. Ripples upon ripples. The ballroom at Sandover, which nestles within Merrill’s skull; the printed Sandover that nestles in my bookshelf & my skull, in my teacher’s skull, my lover’s skull; the way those fit together, so precise their edges meld like the days of your life; and the ghosts, all of them, glinting from within their mirror-afterlife, hemmed in and resurrected by the black bars of the text.
This metaphysical rabbit-hole goes deep: endless, in fact. Perhaps it’s not a hole, but a warren. Wonderland.
& as the sun rises and sets again, I wake beside this new intricate knot, her dark hair spilling like ink on the white page of the sheets, like clouds over fields in May. I think of JM smiling, of his “chronicles of love and loss,” of all the time gone by. I think of the Gnostics thinking deep in faraway deserts. I think of jazz on quiet streets, of the years I spent studying. I think of what Heaney might mean: The end of art is peace. I trace the lineaments of one more knotwork dragon, snarling up from the polar landscape of the page, writhing over itself. I read “Nine Lives” again:
Like Wise Men we’d been primed to kneel in awe
At journey’s end before that child whose nature
Proved Earth at one with Heaven, and past with future.
Instead, the perfect fools we still are saw
A manger full of emptiness, dust, straw…
& Ephraim chimes in:
AND LIGHT! Well, yes. Light also. We weren’t blind,
The sun was out. THE PLAY OF HEAVEN’S MIND