Asher Blake’s The Last Day

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       The Last Day

I repent for going on the march
when you held their heads
in your lap, put soaking cloth
in their mouths, when you laid
your tears upon their closed
eyes, and closed their mouths.
It was finally a kiss
they longed to escape,
to give behind the back
the hidden palm held up,
the firm elbow behind them:
the secret heil Hitler.
All the twirling at the joint,
swastika of the body,
the concentration of a body
of angry refusal like swift
propellers they go.
I repent for going on the march
when you were the nurse
the last day my enemies lived;
that last day they planned for me.
All of them fought each other.
When will the news confirm two friends?

(image by Robert Frank)

 

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Books Unfit to Read (part 1)

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To be honest, I tend to kill my heroes in poetry. Works of brilliance, powerful imagination, deft music, and genuine revelation strike the first blow – lay me flat, or throw me. In fact, some works are so powerful to me that I can only take a thimblefull. Why then is it that I fight against these giants, and cut them down to my size, or smaller?

Examples of assaulted dolls include, Sir Philip Sidney, Shakespeare, William Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Walt Whitman, Rimbaud, Marianne Moore, Jean Toomer, Eliot, Pound, Roethke, Bishop, Adrienne Rich, Ginsberg, the majority of revered poets I’ve read.

And yet it seems a sin once having truly heard a touch of the real music or musician, to toss out their works, their body, and their testimony. Does it matter if the poet is a beautiful rhapsodist, like Ezra Pound? Or should every hack be treated like a treasure? Should we read an evil or injurious testimony, as Chinua Achebe argued that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is? (Click here for Chinua Achebe’s essay on racist literature.) When does a wretched private sin weaken the case for reading an artist? For example, should John Berryman’s adultery and drunken violence against a woman on one occasion, mean that we should be less eager to read his work? Finally, cases could be imagined where someone explicitly writes out of wicked convictions.

An example for clemency, King David wrote some of his greatest poetry after his betrayal of Uriah and adultery with Bathsheba, a sin which caused his son’s death, and was the root of civil war. His wracked penance is in fact an important part of the biblical canon. It was in response to Nathan’s confrontation of his sin that David wrote Psalm 51, which includes the famous principle: “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart – these, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)

We rarely find penance in poetry anymore, but on the other hand, is this really something the poet owes the reader? I may repent in my life, but have only one poem that really names my sins. Still, if a poet is filthy why should someone seeking godliness read them? Whitman for instance calls himself a god, carried away by those long lines.

But John Berryman is the case in point with me. If human life has value, how could he personally have given more? From his own horrific pain, which was maudlin, terrifying, and continually dragging him into private abysses, he was able to sketch the most ingenious forms; turning himself into a beloved spectacle, redeeming ruin with his magnetism, humor, insight, and stunning verbal performances. Becoming a poet of the highest rank was his own great cross; it made him hateful, jealous, incredibly industrious, and made him his own great tormentor. It also elevated all that was loving and glorious in him.

Now I know I have a tendency to unduly write off these heavyweights on aesthetic grounds, but when you love people you love them regardless of their mistakes, and shouldn’t that be called holy? Even the Bible quotes a pagan poet.

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;  for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said,`For we are also His offspring.'”
(Acts 17:26-28)

Now considering Berryman’s first two wives divorced him what is the breaking point? This came to a head when I was reading Berryman’s Sonnets. The book went from holding me in the palm of its hand to getting thrown in the trash almost in one page. That was because of a vile sonnet that equated what is holy to God with mere flesh in a lewd way I won’t detail.

Now some will say Berryman did try to repent, while others read these late religious interests more cynically. I suppose I believe that a great artist making great work has given the testimony of his life and testimony to larger issues relating to the human experience. If the work is not harmful, (and some works doubtless are and should be considered separately), we should feel free to explore this vital expression of human life.

But doesn’t it matter that the world’s known cultural output is completely dominated by the godless, by people opposed to Christ, whether openly or secretly? It does matter of course. Christian poetry has the Bible and Gerard Manley Hopkins and what else? Don’t tell me Milton. There must be other major Christian poets, but I don’t know who they are. The world is under the sway of the evil one, and its institutions are also. The books made available represent a kind of warfare on our souls. How much moral edification comes from the academic disciplines all told since the Renaissance? It seems almost held to a minimum.

Therefore, Christian artists and intellectuals should seek to advance a renaissance in the pursuit of the knowledge of the glory of God; the expression of our charismatic giftings in works of art which restore the proper relationship of man to God. We should learn for God; to worship Him; to serve Him; walking in the Cross becoming ever more Christlike by the righteous embodying of our full humanity. This points far beyond ideology. But what renaissance can Christians expect when we so often do not even lead our own churches?

While God tells us directly in Luke 16:8 that the children of this world are more shrewd or “wise” than the children of light in their own way, it is a tragedy that our own (potential) cultural contribution is suppressed. However great the literary contribution of a poet who rejects Christ, it will always be the work of someone who was not “light”; who did not know agape love; did not cross the bridge to remain in the secret places; does not have the mind of Christ; whose mind was not renewed by the Holy Spirit. Thus the true joy of a poetry which exalts not only the Lordship of God, and His beauty, (as the Psalms and elsewhere in the Old Testament do), but the Life and work of the Messiah, can only be celebrated in full by the redeemed. The love songs of God have been a spiritual wind that blew in the main without recording or being read by subsequent generations. But it is time to stand in the reverence, awe, dread, and loving worship of the One who fulfills His promises and is returning soon.

The poetry of this world will never be as great as poetry that fills the lips of the one who gazes upon the form of the Holy God, because He is higher than all things, and it is only fitting that a pure heart made to sing by this Lord of Song will be given instrumental power to raise the skill above this grave and wanton world.

—————

Is there an innate justifiable value to the work of great writers? We often say this or that person is a genius. Certainly the work of a genius has inherent value and they should pursue that work despite poverty or hardship. Then there can be no evil genius. But no intelligence has such a nature. The product of intelligence will reflect the character of the man or woman and will be either good or bad. Because it is impossible to be so intelligent that one can be assured they will have good or valuable ideas, there is no such thing as genius.

A holy fool has more “genius” than the most shrewd crook. Life, praise God, manifests through us, telling us its own story, and accomplishing its good by its own power, to the glory of God. But in this context, the wicked too, are holy fools. Their personalities are consecrated; they have inherited the image of God; they will be judged with a perfect eternal judgment, because they are worthy of that weight. They are worthy too of intervention. Their personalities are both consecrated, and sacred.

And in that spirit, art is our own special universe. And John Berryman is like some pagan, suffering god; and I don’t at all mean that in a polytheistic way, but figuratively. I broke down and decided I have got to read him, and I will think much harder before tossing out books, especially by those loaded brows, those honey-tongued witnesses of life.

Click on these links to read companion articles, Books Unfit To Read Part 2 and Part 3.

 

Shakespearean Schemes, Japanese Surrender

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I’ve lately been reading Rexroth’s translations of Japanese poetry, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and this little essay is an attempt to reflect on the contrasting use of reason and subjectivity in the two poetries. Some of the info on Japanese poetry I believe I also got from translator David Hinton. Click here to read 2 pages comparing Eastern and Western poetry.

Blake’s Let Them Hold You

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Let Them Hold You
by Asher Blake

Suddenly the warbler stops his singing;
taken like a message under a seal,
her milky thigh inked with a bird,
silent upon the white cliff faces
of her alabster thigh; off somewhere,
like a bird she is gone.
From some perch in the brambles
of the jealous gut
our songbird has flown.
In a swarm of parting,
my hand is nested in barbed wire.

The california highways wind
against the hills which themselves
sift through the sieve of fortune.
They are an armada of gauze
advancing without noise;
that bear silver horns to sound out victory.
They are a world that birds trash in death
but levitate in morning’s glory,
those blue hill bathers
cloaked in shadows, moving
like oars in a shallow sea.
Fullness of knowledge in a seed
so they may sing the entirety
as a cosmos in a seraph wing.

With fury I stamp my bed,
its bull backed hours,
and cast her bra for shelter
over the clockface.
And I tear the package of slavish
heraldry with my teeth,
open my root,
bite at my young manhood
and spill myself like fish eggs on a hook.
In three years I will go homeless
like deer through the city.

Come now you horned night,
black coffee sitting
like a delirious bull in the heat,
full highways will pass back this way
and the melons will be sold again;
and women worn down by sweet desire
make their rugged men drown,
stroking the sea,
freeform in passage;
and my sister
migrating in the West
will appear on the vine,
her grapes wrapped in bitter thorns.

The hills hold her in their lap
a world so flighty and blue
like another sinking navy.
I take my brush of turpentine
and revise the roads that lead away,
erase until my shepherd dog
begins to twitch in sleep,
and I, like Mars on a war field,
throne appeased,
reddened with the wealth of the country,
turn and color everything back in.

Blake’s The Night Drops Carbon

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The Night Drops Carbon
by Asher Blake

The bath of night is a shining pig,
the wicked drive into its teats full of hooch.

There is music forgotten by the musicians;
pagan orchestras
but they are heavy with milk from the sky.

The night drops on its children
like a weary blessing.

The night falls
like a rubber spider somewhere to force a laugh.

The night is a genie
for an ignoramus.
As the robber dons his dark
clothes quickly so we put the night upon us.

The night only falls
continually before us like a moth
as we speak.

The bath of night bedevils me,
drains between my legs.

She is pockmarked and porcine;
But I have smashed my evening tea set
for the music.

I swell with her like child.
I assume what we all assume, the night
before our births,
exhaling the holy cistern like a stream back into
my mother, or back into thine.

With all the locks of wisdom shaken
loose – hold my hand
or I will plunge into the black sleep
for dreaming.

Save me from the night it poses for a mug shot.
Save me from the future already black and white.

I am afraid I’ve read the black book
of night, for now she is naked
and I know her easy lies.

Still I marvel at the salon of women lovers;
how they labor with risen dead girls on their backs.
They swim on and on, as sudden as a flame
or school of fish.

The honeymoon does vex the spinster,
and the spinster intrudes upon their sex.
And the girls who dream
only seem to have good taste,
but tease their long hair
with wavy permanents.

Alpha and Omega, with stars in His punctured hands;
the Lord of sky and soil knotted His bandanna up
to disguise His feathered headdress,
blue and red and white with glory.
Sky is a holy mountain, the Sinai only He can climb,
black spangled in your paisley sigh,
your sunset’s exclamation!
My God has mountains
like darkened domes instead of shoulders!

Have you ever seen the reaping of the foil hat?
Have you ever seen the weakling lower
his head and plow into the Devil?
The Lord in His peaked helmet of night,
bends and plows into us now. Praise Him!