Meanderings & mawqifs of poetry, poetics, translations y mas. Travelogue too.

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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (10)

September 19th, 2014 · Uncategorized


To my delight, the chauffeur was a girl, a tall young lesbian soft-skinned under her green silky mannish uniform. I thought of the softness of her calves inside the boots, & went so far as to insert a finger. She smiled in a business-like way, but made me sit in the back. I could watch her through the glass partition. She would not talk, but did answer specific questions I asked over the intercom. At first I was able to relax, but the drive was a long one & I soon grew nervous. I examined with the minute attention of boredom all the accessories & conveniences installed in the car. This entailed fiddling with the short wave radio, watching the six-inch television screen until the news telecast terrified me, raiding the ice-box for cheese & crackers & a little bottle of champagne, pressing the taps for hot water & washing my hands, fr ice water & drinking some, putting a tape on the machine & listening to Charles Ives, then to A Winter’s Tale. I found the cigars, but I do not like cigars. Fishing in the sapodilla wood cabinets in front of me, I detected on a bookshelf a tantric text I didnt know. When I tried to pull it forward the whole bookcase section swung out, & there before me were the buttocks & hips of the driver. I reached in & felt them repeatedly, they were warm & almost damp from contact with the leather seat. She gave no indication that she felt me. The aperture through which I was feeling her up was so small that I couldnt reach around to her thighs or lap. I couldnt let go of what I held; hungrily I pressed & squeezed & stroked & pinched, though the flesh was not even soft now, the muscles compressed by her position. For a long time I fidgeted at her, but she gave no sign of notice. Finally I stopped & closed the cabinet, settled back in my seat, lit a cigarette, my fingers trembling with shame & frustration & boredom & worse than these. I smoked constantly, could not look up at her green eyes that occasionally, in reflection, passed through me in her rear view mirror. Couldn’t even look long at the nape of her neck, the smooth blonde hair beneath the cap. I dozed, woke to see the cigarette burning my fingers. The car was still moving. I grabbed the intercom & shouted I’m sorry please forgive me I’m only a man I’m too strong, I need, I want, I dont know what I want, I’m sorry, forgive me, please forgive me. What have you done that merits forgiveness? She asked.

Vear surdan words at nighd. All the drees mound around her. Bangoom Leber Asylum I saw the words. The gade of wroughd irom, spikes on to po vit, runed hands & davaged faces phases reatching through the bars ad me. They all said the word I veared, lep ro sy they said, say it wiv us lep ro sy, let rose see the garden, leap roses, thorns tear, thorns dare, lap us we are le pers, le pards walk in the gar den, leo is a lion, our faces are lion masks, we have no phases, when you ged like us you’re stuck, roses stuck, lep rush roses, say it wiv us lep ro sy, you fin dus every wear, our names are in all your books,you cand flee us in books or in trees or in gardens or in caves of even in the sea the lep ro sea.

Childhood dreams, the dead black leopard become a leper, heuristic terror of like sounds. Alchemy is the science of having silent dreams, having no dreams. Only syntax can tell you apart, you menacing words-of-power, only syntax can heal the wound, right the warp you leave in the child’s mind.

We stopped at the gate so she could tell the sentry. This is Kelly, he’s coming to pay his debts. The sentry scowled at me but handed me a flower. A rose, upon examination. We drove up a long curving gravel drive, pines at our left & a vast meadow on the right, a pond in it far off, movement as if of ducks on its surface, geese rising or coming down. She made me get out at a new cinder-block cubical building. Debriefing it said over the door. A man came out & led me in, sat me down in a chair, gave me a glass of water, & took my syntax away.

Days or hours later I woke up still howling with pain. One came to me & bound my noises, forced a bitter thing between my teeth, & left me to sleep.

Most things can be done without machines. Enough suitably intricate vacant circuitry is available inside us to obviate external mechanisms. The adjusters of these circuits are called angels, the program tapes fed in are called reality, or time. Whoever the programmer may be, he or they or she are anxiously awaiting the outcome of each run. Alchemy is the science of becoming aware of the whole project in which we are being engaged. Alchemy is the science of being used. Alchemy is the science of use. Its name probably means the art of the black, & alludes in all likelihood not to the black soil of Egypt but to the black blankness of the unknown brain, the silent areas’ in which the Operator, bent night & day over his fire, eventually kindles a Voice, one that guides him in the science of penetration, science of final separations.

Everyone who has gone there knows there is an utter darkness in the back of the brain where the Images go to die. This is called the Elephants’ Graveyard. Follow the dying animal, learn the valley where all things perish but ivory, gather the ivory. Transformation is peeling away the irrelevant. A matter of time, as they say. (But Elephants, to speak only of elephants, live a long time, have excellent memories, & mate in secrecy. Christ, the power & beauty of elephants!

Of women, my angels. At very least I will say this of them: they are distractions from distraction. What this means is: Glory. Glory a woman in her womb. A man’s heart is an imperfect womb, but glory a man in his heart).

When came to again was no pain. They brought me a rough white robe, led me out into the bright, a cool wind from the shadows, led me up a long rising lawn towards three maples. Under the trees white chairs & wicker tables. Women moved there & soon moved among them. They had left only one word in my head, Glory, it kept saying Glory over & over. The women looked at me, some with desire & some with aversion & some with no trace of movement on their faces. One woman came to me smiling broadly, & speared white & blue feathers into my hair & beard & robe, then took me further up the lawn, up to where a great house stood on the knoll. Kept looking back at the women left behind, kept saying Glory. Her hand was soft & held me tight, she bumped against me as we walked. Glory. Saw our shadows in front of us, & followed them. She led me right up onto the terrace. The door of the house opened & another woman came out, older than the first but not less beautiful. Between them brought me into the cool hallway, led to a small table with a green cup on it. The woman handed me the cup. Drank it all. It was warm & deep & sweet. Becognized the smell & tried to find its name. They led me between them up the stairs. Its name was Glory.

— End of An Alchemical Journal —


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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (9)

September 18th, 2014 · Uncategorized


It was in front of the cathedral that the lepers gathered, the same in every city. They were the imperfections of the system, hopefully consigned outside it, segregated, wished to death. They showed themselves to men while men were on the steps of the place they went to show themselves to God. Heal me cries the burnt tree. Heal me, the new-born lamb.

The phone rings twice eight times. Party line. They’re getting the car ready. Four Queens. Four Kings. Four Princesses. Four piebald serving men. Four times four. 4! 2=3.

Scholars of the Collegium Spiritus Sancti are born under an extreme elongation of Mercury from the Sun, or when Mercury is in the Heart of the Sun. Melville is an example of the first, Egypt of the second. But when Aquarius ascended at nightfall Nile flowed us his waters. Yeats watched his cold moon rising. There are Arabic terms for all of these things. Ibn al-Arabi for instance said the most accurate vision of God was in of & as woman. If you add enough prepositions, they approach that totality wherein the relations they designate cease to exist. This is called coming home.

Four fields? There was a fifth. Let her right side from upraised shoulder to waist be called Connaught, her right side from buttock to toe Muns-ter, her left leg increasing to hip & flank Leicester, her left breast & chest & heart & head Ulster. Where all four fields come together, womb=well, sheath of all forms, was the fifth of the four, where even becomes odd & the world is saved: Meath, the mid-ground, the High King’s own.

Summoned from the access of sleep by repeated instruction, I rose & looked out that window indicated by the voice. Across a continuity of dark there grew one lighted space & into it what seemed a young woman came & took all cloth away & joined her hands beneath tender small fresh breasts. Some say I saw the moon, but I say I saw a different thing.

It would end if I heard the horn, if I looked out & saw her in the backseat, waiting quietly. They go for me, my emissaries to an unrelenting world immediately above my own. Below. They are the bondsmen, bailiffs, dunners, process-servers, revenuers; they pay all debts; they say they work for the Queen. I say the Queen wears a red Dress & her neck is white above it as ermine & there is a crown of my desires round her head. Some leaf-shaped, some masoned square, some like the tips of lances.

“All these old letters of my Book are aright; but Tzaddi is not the Star.” Tzaddi is the woman, kneeling under the star, reaching ‘down’ through the worlds for starlight, stirring the waters of our lake (Dante’s lago), the pages of our secret books. Tzaddi is fish-hook, hamus hermeticus, to angle in the genetic pool, catch the fish of justice, Maat the feathered fish, eat in one great blaze of hunger the consequences of all our acts. The quotation is from the Book of the Law given to Frater Perdurabo in 1904. It took Aleister Crowley a full forty years to articulate his misunderstanding of the instruction. This is a very important contribution to the praxis of the tarot. As a beautiful old musician once said, when told his fly was unzipped: The cage may be open, but the bird is dead.

To stick to the work like a fish to water.

“I saw myself & some of my company riding by the shores of the sea, & lo! the sea had folk living in it, each mating with other, yet nothing conceived or brought to birth; trees they planted, but none bare fruit; seed they set down that did not grow.”

There is a city on or under the sea where men sleep with men & children do not come. Its king was a fish, or a fisherman. We were driving one summer &, came to it; I sized that town up pretty quick: no women in the streets, women they needed. At considerable personal expense I performed with my company certain acts of sexual polarity on the beach, in the waves, on the rocks, full privily in the heart of their houses in word & thought & deed. They do not love me in that City, because they rightly associate me with the changes that begin, though little do they comprehend them as yet. “Strange things are happening in this City,” one of its folk told me. Praegnating winds, the moon declining, new faces in town, an energy. At winter solstice a child will be born. “O our sterility dies away, as a live ocean sucks at the sterile sand,” they say. But I was ignorant too, & knew only the Queen & how much stronger than the king. God is our mother. Alchemy is the science of associating yourself with the ‘movements’ of time.

The arrogant magician imperils his own seed. Some people think that sex lies behind magic, that all magic is sex magic. That would be true if we truly knew sex, the dynamic behind the metaphor of intercourse, impregnation, love. If men love their wives the City is fruitful & masters Ocean. Love your wives.

[... to be continued]

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Remembering Memory: Literary Sabras and Shatilas

September 17th, 2014 · Palestine

via Arab Literature (in English):

It’s now been thirty-two years since the Sabra and Shatila massacres in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps. Like other events that bend human capacity to understand our species, they continue to show up in literature, re-examined: 

Dia al-Azzawi's "Sabra and Shatila Massacre"

The massacre happened in 1982, between September 16 and 18, and is a moment that continues to stand out among the horrors we humans have enacted on one another. It is represented not just as a lived experience, but as a moment that changes individual and collec-tive memory.

Jean Genet’s “Quatre heures à Chatila” (“Four Hours in Shatila”). Genet was among the first outsiders to witness the immediate aftermath of the massacres, and he wrote about this experience. 1983.

Jean Said Makdisi’s Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. The events refracted through Makdisi’s personal memories. 1991.

Bahaa Taher’s Love in Exile. A novel about living in exile, including how one processes news while in exile. 1995.

“I ran to turn on the television. The soap opera Dallas was on. I left the television on and turned on the radio. I turned the dial to the different stations, but there were no newscasts. There were music and songs everywhere. But while I was turning the dial quickly and incessantly, the soap opera on television was interrupted. A female announcer with an expressionless face came on: ‘We’ve just received a special report from Beirut. We advise sensitive and seriously ill people not to watch this report.'” (Trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab.)

Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun. Khoury, here as elsewhere, is obsessed with the intersection of memory and violence. Dunya, a mutilated girl who survived the Sabra and Shatila quicklime pits, recites her memory of the events to “serve” the Palestinian cause as a “fund-raising tool.” Her memory is stripped of any real meaning, either for her or for others, as she moves from meetings to TV shows to repeat what she saw — or now remembers that she saw — during those two days. 1998.

Radwa Ashour’s Spectres. This is also a memory of the memory — Ashour’s co-protagonist, herself, remembers how she was not following the news about Sabra and Shatila as events unfolded, as she was in transit between Budapest and Cairo. In one of the narrative’s more emotional moments, she tells of her frustration at not having been attentive to the news, despite her acknowledgement that this attention would not have changed the outcome. 1998.

“Yet attention means that you are involved in the event, that the person who has been killed is yours and that you belong to him. Then again, no—not altogether. … Perhaps it is similar to what my mother-in-law felt every time she thought of her son Mounif… She tries to remember what it was she was doing at 11 o’clock on Monday night. Was she asleep? How could she have been asleep? The idea nearly drives her mad, sleep becomes a guilty act, and the fact that she doesn’t know doesn’t mitigate, but rather intensifies the guilt. “(Trans. Barbara Romaine.)

Adania Shibli’s Touch. In this disorienting novella, told through the lens of an eight-year-old girl, the narrator must come to grips with these strange words: “Sabra” and “Shatila.” Shibli herself was eight when the massacres happened. 2003.

“The girl tried to understand the meaning of the words Sabra and Shatila. Maybe they were one word. The word Palestine was unclear, expect that it was forbidden. The color of the green board resembled that color of cactus.” (Trans. Paula Haydar)

Mahmoud Darwish’s In the Presence of Absence. The massacres still haunted Darwish’s writing, as he remembered them through the lens of Genet’s writing. 2006.

“You will know from radio stations that the night of Sabra and Shatila was all lit up so that the killers could peer into the eyes of their victims and not miss a moment of ecstasy on the slaughtering table. You will read what Jean Genet wrote:

What partying, what feasting went on there as death seemed to take part in the pranks of soldiers drunk on wine, on hatred, and probably drunk on the joy of entertaining the Israeli army, which was listening, looking, giving encouragement, egging them on. I did not see the Israeli army listening and watching. I saw what it did. Killers had carried out the operation, but numerous torture squads were probably the ones who split skulls, slashed thighs, cut off arms, hands and fingers, and dragged the dying and disabled by ropes, men and women who were still alive. A barbaric party had taken place there: rage, drunkenness, dancing, singing, curses, laments, moans, in honor of the voyeurs who were laughing as they sat on the top floor of the Akka hospital.

You cannot cross the threshold of pain nor reach the source of the nightmare to bear witness to your body being chopped up nor peer into the eyes of your killer, whom you know very well. You cannot speak to anyone, because the world is empty of the living and filled with the dead who bid farewell yesterday to their brothers and protectors who sailed on Greek-built ships of Trojan symbolism. The victims did not finish any of their tasks: they did not finish their dinner, prayers, or nightmares. “(Trans. Sinan Antoon)

Also, Darwish’s much earlier poem, “Sabra and Shatila.”

Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game. Here, Hage explores the mind of George, one of the Sabra and Shatila killers. Hany Ali Abdelfattah writes about “National Trauma and the ‘Uncanny’ in Hage’s Novel De Niro’s Game”  2006.

“…it was all like a movie. All like a movie. Dead people everywhere. Do you still want to hear? Do you want to hear more? More? He shouted at me, here, drink! He cranked his gun and put it in my face.”

Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir. A Hebrew-language engagement with Sabra and Shatila that Palestinian-British author Mischa Hiller, who wrote a novel about the massacre, says “left too much unsaid.” 2008.

Mischa Hiller’s Sabra Zoo (read an extract). Palestinian-British novelist Mischa Hiller told an interviewerthat he was living in Beirut when the massacre happened and he carried it with him until he wrote the book. 2010.

Najwan Darwish’s “The Nightmares Bus to Sabra and Shatila.” From a version translated by Marilyn Hacker and Antoine Jockey:

I slept in my parents’ house and I was dreaming about her house. When I awoke
I saw my brothers
From the roof of the Church of the Resurrection
Out of compassion, the Lord said: this is my own suffering.
I mustered up the hanged men’s pride and said: in my opinion, it’s ours.

Pain illuminates everything and I love it more than my nightmares.

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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (8)

September 13th, 2014 · Uncategorized


I’m me, that’s the point of it. I am at your disposal.

She was at the door, I know it, wrote her letter to me, sealed it in the wood of the door with a kiss, has gone away. We are at the disposal of everybody.

The books give different numbers for the phases of the Work. The books appear to contradict themselves. In such a welter, what can the Operator do but rise in the morning & survey the streets and fields. If his eyes are unusually clear, he may see a different number today. Tomorrow.

At times I wonder where our instructions begin. She did not wait long at my door. Time will have its own way with these matters.

And there are affectations we are not permitted. What a mouth full. The doghouse deteriorates in the dog’s absence. Some mornings I didnt even bother to look. Mortal Sin. She said I was very scary sometimes. Faster, faster this month full of moons.

Americans capitulate into matter. There is a different possibility: Al & Carola, their difficulties with cars & clocks & highways. If they speed, they will have an accident. When the wise men wished to portray longevity, they drew a carp, since that fish goes on living until someone kills it. One swims today in a monastery pond in Germany, I believe, & in its tail a dated metal tag was placed two hundred years ago. An old fish, but the greatness here is a species greatness. So the wisemen didn’t speak of Noah or Methuselah because those were gifted individuals; they drew a carp because carp after carp can do this, go on living. They direct our attention to the species possibilities of man. Which are thus specific possibilities.

Though each man does his own work, there are no individuals in the work. Or only one individual.

What do I know about it? Off in the trees, a horse’s full tail is waving & tossing, in & out of the sunlight.

So finally they were there all alone together on the boat. I think it was Long Island Sound. People seek identity in the strangest places, but these two were wiser, & sought only the wind on the water, the way the banks came down gently to eat. So much of life is lateral movement, she may have thought.

An eagle who has carried off a dog learns to know better. In the bones of his children, revenge replaces marrow. The generations of the work try to subdue us. Yet they are the Work. They must subdue us. Yet we struggle, successfully, not to be subdued. The old man goes on living without marrow or blood. This was called human sacrifice, or the slaughter of the holy know-nothings.

Homeopathy begins in lechery; (II faut chasser une passion par une autre) love-sickness cures itself in love. This morning a great inch-long insect, strong grasshopper legs, strong forearms doing work. From the tip of his face soared back two huge feeler plumes almost the length of his body, delicately curved, antelope horns, masks of Set, the typhonian animal no animal. The god ofyoga, torture, lechery & death was the first insect we see in the morning, hard at work. Sublime success. No blame.

The whole horse trots out of the woods, sun on his back. No blame.

“Diamond Crystal Kosher (Grobe) Zalts. Kosher le Pesach. 3funt net vag. Sprinkle… covering meat like a light blanket of snow. Inside, too, with poultry.” The snow. Inside. The fire next time. No blame.

A long time ago I made a list of persons & properties essential to the work. I found upon examination that it contained nothing but the names of women. Yet there is darker still. I write now &, ever from angelic informations. Angels who are informers. But the girls’ names ride like swans on the paper.

No sense of decorum, none at all. Of all things needful to the work, the Dwarf packed his bag of needments. Easements. K’un, woman upon woman, abide. I hear the organ, a follower of Sweelinck. When? When? Citius citius currite noctis equi. The true lover says. In all faces I have found dawn nowhere else.

From the dark of your distance, dark of your place inside me, I hear you tell there is no need to address you, you will hear the words, you will be curator of specific meaning.

From a magical manuscript: “The brethren (nor shall this term exclude women) or lovers of this order will wear gowns of unbleached muslin, fuller’s earth will have cleansed them enough, let them be wet, let the sun dry them. Upon the left breast let O mega be applied in red silk thread. Seldom will they wear their hoods, the hoods will rest on the nape to conceal the small cross, likewise in red silk, sewn over the nape nerve. In their cuffs let nothing be hidden except the book of the order & one simple cloth to wipe the brow of the dead with & so restore to life. Let no man see the staff.”

Omega express. Take the A train. Uptown, where the proasteioi do not come, but rule through untrustworthy angels, & benefic confusions arise.

Beaver in front of me, in metal replica, & I remember being told beavers need nothing to construct a lodge (we see it as a dam) but the materials & a suitable neck of water. The blueprint is the beaver himself, in a mystery we resolve without solving: the beaver does it by instinct. We say. What, if anything, do we make by instinct?

Faster faster run ye horses of the night into the availability of dawn, the form of the work perceived again. Seen. A heavy rain brought the temperature from 100° to 86° in a few minutes; it mattered. This is the hottest weather I’ve known in this place. The words are always the same.

First learning that books were, I found a book’s name, A lion is in the streets. This promising title concealed nonsense about some syphilitic French author. No lion. The child’s disillusionment is still with me, & reveals a perilous fact about the nature of literature, of metaphor. Bother with no writer who will not stand by his words, to death if necessary. Trust only the literalist. Take the words of Our Lord literally. Any Lord. This is a narrative in which the man with red beard appears, seems to foil his own work, stands in sight of the end. This is Mt. Nebo, mountain of prophecy. The ‘hill of dreams.’

Life is preparation for taking leave of the work.

Or her body, naked in moonlight, ready to receive.

It is at some point, not first or last, the healing of metals, curing the leprosy, of matter, restoring the elements to splendor. Syntax lends its magic (=substance). The things that are said that cannot (Aristotle) be thought. It is commonly the ‘words’ that are blamed, or ‘language.’ Yet language is the only system in which he truth is stated. Logos, or understanding what’s happening, or making things up.

Our brains are imperfectly filled, imperfectly ordered. Yet language (not ‘words’) is the plenum.

I fear only certain words. At night.

[... to be continued]


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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (7)

September 12th, 2014 · Uncategorized


I hold this one’s breasts & this one’s thighs & press myself on this one’s mouth & ask each one in turn: What is it that happened between us at the Pinner in Wakefield, three hundred years ago, September? We learned the secret, & it cost us our deaths. Back, far down in my blood, an orchestra tunes up. My dearest wife, I will hear you forever & sometimes heed you. I sign this letter in perfect ignorance of the date.

All this was the right time. Can I hear what I’m trying to say? At this very minute She is waiting for me to come to a door miles away & open to her. Do I hear me, do I hear me?

She is at the door, her hair is yellow, her looks are free, her skin is white as. Liberty? As. As.

Just as the rocket burst over the tangled carnival throng I saw the Queen of Cups whirl & send her raving servants in among the crowd. Before the glare had faded she was down the water steps & away in the Chris-Craft. The night came back over the rages & howls & agonies &. love-cries of the victims. He turned to me with a strange smile & said, We have put her living in the tomb.

She is at the door. How surprised she’ll be when I call her Mommy. Long an only child, I first learned of the disease during my mother’s second confinement. When she came home I peered into the deep pores of her face, terrified that the skin might show ravages of the imagined ailment. But now there is my true love at the door. Her hair is yellow. She is not free. Her skin is white as

all the while it is her wildness I love. It is time I speak in praise of. Wild wet. The sea is all colors. I am afraid of my strength, I mean that strength in me. I fear only certain woods at night. Only certain serpents, brown ones, ones of no color. Only certain dogs, who come along in the darkness & mess around in the lab &. tear the throat out of the Work. I do not fear the sea. I do not fear the wind. I do not fear even the sea wind squirming in the cattails, even her sand scouring my stone. Every year must have a beginning. We have the assurance of water, time can do nothing to us.

I confess the exaltation of this instant. What matters is that it is. Was. This comes terribly close to a false simplicity, the cost of which would be an easy mistake. Of all things the sun shines on, there is none more worth to be cherished than that the sun shines upon all things with the same light & each thing is different. There is a race of beings who make things new; they are Children of the Sun. It is they who in the language of Beulah are shown in the Nineteenth Trump, hand in hand in the heat of their primary. In science they are called planets, in religion they are called The Gods, in history they are called Men. I know them by a different name.

Let me be clear about this: my Desire is the only vessel strong enough to contain you.

I & you, back to that again, of “I” it is able to speak. Who will learn the language of mountains? Studs, seducers, folk on the make, how simple they are: Viva la Liberta, cries Don Giovanni, as if it meant something. She believes at times in an actual Hell, where Giovanni’s lust is cauterized, his skin blemished with consequence. They fry you there. Now this is important to me: there are some cookies, a friend once told, such that all of a sudden you eat the fatal one, the one that instantly turns the stomach & makes the joy of all that came before into a queasy, not quite dead weight.

In the burgeoning optimism of unlimited desire, I reach out for universal intimacy: I will go to hell, where hell is false repetition, to have lusted for meaning & to have passed, in the ferocity of my desire, right through the thing Meant, right out back into the boondocks, the Qlipoth, the provinces of diminished reality.

I’ll say this for IBM: from them we may one day relearn that there is no number but One, no repose but Zero.

So at the proper time the Vessel is opened & the house is filled with a simply wonderful aroma. We are told that in the Book. Man’s fire is poured out on Hamburg, London, Nagasaki, Hanoi. After she had made me into Love there was silence in Heaven in the space of half an hour. So also was there one who in a shirt of silver stood before the people &, received their worship. Him ate the worms. There is said to be a moral in this story. In this Syntax. Morality of syntax, pause to recover.

The anguish of the Work is the discovery of the correspondences. Once they proclaim themselves, they never let the Philosopher rest. The Correspondences. No man is allowed to die until he has met every god & every goddess & has had his chance with each one of them to revere or to reject. This is the assurance of Love (the Furnace, the Human Body, the World).

As on another night we sat up late at the motel trying to figure out who Minerva was. My lungs holding the opium down, I went outside & stood by the sea, wanted to cast her my seed, got no answers. Waste of the drug, of the potion? Sea a potion?

Boil It Down.

It took us an hour to get through Hartford, city of lovers. A gold dome on what I was told was the Temple of Venus Percasta. Love assures. As I write down these lies, a little grey moth walks on the page, avoids the wet ink, or is it my words?

I love her exactly because she looked everywhere for signs & read them out loud, kept their meanings. Am I godlike because I love exactly? There is no lust like the lust for meaning.








Fill in the identities. Die.

Plainly those 365 bardic metres were no metres. They were each day’s measure of itself, each day’s song of itself into the specific ear of the poet. Free verse, if you can call it free—is the child newborn on Christmas free of Capricornus, is the dying old man free of the Moon? But those priest-poets sang each day; their training was directed to making them perfect instrumentalities of music & emergent meaning. Obviously I am making this up. Obviously I am writing in the middle of a wood, at night, when the moon rises she will be seen to be nearing her full, maybe she has risen already, all round me are the scribes & scholars of the College of the Holy Spirit, resting from their carnival appearances or conning the sermons they will whisper, o holy poison, in the ears of sleeping dominies.

These are men who live for nothing but truth & love. Which is true of everyone in the world, but these men know it.

They are going off to sail up a river. They have no idea who will be the boat. Or down a river. Or have they? Suppose I said the river you can sail on is not the real river. Would you believe me?


I set up this stone to aid the Sun our Lord in his interminable Battle.

I knew it was she because of my frequent dreams. From the other side of the paper a wind was blowing. When I was young I was a tamarack was what it said. On the other hand, when I appear in her dreams it is as one who drives a car. What if Heurtebise were Mistress Death herself himself? What if the Chauffeur were the car? The man who makes things hot. They listen to me because I have more fun than anybody. A double-bodied treat. And glory?

And Mr Cory, who said his name where he comes from rhymes with sorry, told me of Roosevelt’s death, fdr sat at a card table signing his outgoing mail. Laura Delano was in the kitchen arranging flowers. Soon they were going to have lunch. Far away from Roosevelt the Russian lady painter worked. Miss Suckley looked up from her own work & saw Roosevelt’s head down on the table, his arm towards the floor. She thought he had dropped his cigarettes & hurried over saying Have you dropped your cigarettes? But he touched the back of his head & said I have a terrific headache. Later he died. On four sheets of yellow lined legal pad paper, the President had written in pencil, under date 26 December 1937, his instructions for the disposition of his body should he die in office. Among other things he wanted to be buried almost immediately, plainly, without being embalmed. By & large his wishes were not obeyed, since Mrs Roosevelt did not want to open the sealed envelope, containing the memorandum, addressed to James Roosevelt, then in the Philippines.

[... to be continued]

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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (6)

September 11th, 2014 · Uncategorized


A lifetime supply of goose-quills. Ocean of ink. First lessons in chancery cursive. Have an erection. Keep it. There’s your college of the spirit sank, she said, keep talking big boy.

It has been my intention to banish all learning from these pages. Only what I have stood under will serve our purposes, gentlemen. Say the blessing &, we will begin. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one being to sever the biological bonds that have held it to life & amber waves of grain. The purple mountain’s majesty (Yesod) above the fruited plain (Malkuth). Learn the colors. Defer invention. Isnt it just like a burnt-out painter to invent the telegraph. What hath man wrought indeed. I know so little of history I can almost breathe. Remember that old crap about George Washington Carver getting stoned on cotton gin & inventing the peanut whistle? Remember? Remember? God be gracious to my soul, forgive me my inconstant seductions, my imperfect adulteries. The Oracle spake it: Now beating the drum, now blowing the flute, by fits & starts he weeps & sings in turn. God, I’m beautiful! Forgive me my constancy.

The sun sets irrevocably. That’s what it means.

The beautiful thing about time there is no mistaking it. No mistake in it.

Discipline of the heart. Hsin rapturous devours. A sentence without commas, leading to the end of the world.

I asked the angel why he had been sent. He took off his robe & said: I will become one just man, there are yellow flowers in a jug, pink peonies in the olive jar, tiny white flowers floating in a blue bowl. There is a way. Let it find you. Be glad.

It may be that every man is set upon the earth to find one new method of divination. That is, to write one sentence whose syntax is total. Because (this idea is familiar) syntax is the heart of divination, to locate the function of a thing in the structure of process. We must remember that. Who are we?

They bleed every month to renew the earth. Every woman is under the obligation, from at least Pleistocene times, to let some of her blood fall on & feed the earth. And if a woman do no more than this, even no more than throw her kotex into a wood or river or ravine, she shall be blessed & fertile & glad in white water. Conscious of my own temerity, I proclaim that the purpose of most human religions is to hide or deny the secret efficacy of menstrual blood. In all parts of the work. Work is the Earth.

What does the Martian astrologer make of Earth? Through his zodiac he must delineate the positions & influences of Sun, Phobos, Deimos, Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Asteroids, Jupiter, Saturn, & perhaps the remoter planets. I read in a Martian treatise on genethliacs:

[Earth]-native name: Tlas, Tellus;
color:     blue;     god:     Poteidaan
[Poseidon?]. A lesser malefic, of
the nature of Venus and Saturn.
The Earth is above all the planet of
work, of making things. If Earth be
at   mid-heaven,   the   native  will
prosper in all arts and crafts. Our
traditions tell us the inhabitants
of Earth  are   called poietai,  or
makers.   Metal:   antinomy.
Precious stone: Jade. Earth rules the
sign Virgo and some attribute to it
the   sign   Scorpio   as  well.  It  is
exalted in Capricorn and dignified
in Aries. Begin no process or task
when Earth is rising, or it will
never end. To attract its influences,
wear  a  talisman  made   of
antinomy, copper, & lead in equal
measure, and on it inscribe, when
Earth is at mid-heaven or conjunct
Saturn    or    Venus,    the
inverted pentagram   4-    with a
bronze stylus, and around it these


It may be that too much of the writer’s energy is spent on satisfying curiosity. Herman Melville. Peonies in white water. It is four o’clock.

It was almost time for me to be reborn. Him to be reborn. The colors.

They waited at the tree where they would give us wine. Water if we wanted it. I watched her there & tasted the lines of her body. Limes. Lemons. Tomorrow, she sang. I washed in the stream & rubbed lemons against my chest. I waited for tomorrow. Her body tight as taut as   tart as a   lemon.

Lying down into her arms this said itself in my mind: Testimonium perhibere de Lumine. I have come into this world to bear true witness to the Light. Of the light.

So having been born in the right year all things continue to happen at the right time. So here I am in my true love’s house, & watch this Sunday evening go to grass greyly outside. As I write I am aware that not many miles from here my true love sits in her house & waits for me. And further, while I sit here, we sit here, we sit everywhere, that that other one, my true love, radiant in all other colors, knocks at the door of my house, finds me not at home, leaves a cryptic love note jammed between door & frame, goes away.

It is time for me to speak praise of pale women: there are houses where their almost plumed skin gleams beyond any dark that dying day or nature can impose. Through shadows she walks, the house is cold, there is a triumph in her easy quality. But this is the wildness of first fire when the tongues of tenuous flame run up the branch, this is first fire. Our fire, the philosophers say of it, fire to the wise. From this fire (which is all we know of Light) all things are moved to assume their forms (rupa; form’s motion) & utter themselves (nama; word’s emotion). This is a praise of blonde women. First fire pale along the branch. Now this living tree will be consumed, & from its blackened fingers Jean Dominique Ingres will sketch in charcoal the perfected outline of a serene blonde highwaisted enigma, her face turned away, her flesh the first implication of clarity in the physical world. This is the first fire, fire of Aries that begins all years, all possible years, all possible processes. Paleness of blonde women the ground of language, arupa, the unformed formative syntax of the world.

The rhetor crosses his legs, relaxed all zeugmata, untied chiasmus. She waited for him all night while he parsed two highways & conjugated a deponent girl. And at full dawn she told him, when I call you silly I mean you are holy too.

There are no years, there are no processes. Eve’s apple was the knowledge of subject & predicate as different from each other, different from their’ verb. Adam shared.

She blows smoke towards me, goes away thinking I’m so engrossed I don’t notice. Tomatoes in the sun. Getting dark under the trees. The first flicker of boredom quenched in the specific. Sweet coffee. The presence of them, o god the womanly presence!

Grind it twice, until it is powder. In our secret instructions, “twice” means to do it right the first time. Grind it twice & cast it on the surface. Long afterwards, when all the process is done, you’ll find that the macerated powder has accepted half the volume of the water. But now, when the powder is cast upon the seething, let the heating be stopped, then seal the vessel, & let it remain sealed during the saying of the psalm Confitemini domino. Open the vessel, & pour out the infusion. Strain it through sand or sable, muslin or organdy, June or September. Let the grounds or faeces remain in the sieve. Bring to the black water what is white, & to the bitter water what is sweet.

The Divine Thighs straddle the Hudson, the Divine Calves along the banks of the river. God kneels. Allah means: The One Who Grieves.

And I have come to bear what kind of testimony to the Light? What do I know of the Light? She believes at times in an actual hell, where people are fried for being bad; for doing those things we must do? But it all begins with light. Cardinal Mercier, whoever he is, spoke the truth of Christianity for the first time in 2000 years. Sanctity, he said, is taking literally the words of Our Lord. A parable is hard to understand because we are not used to being literal. I am the light of the world.

[... to be continued]


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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (5)

September 8th, 2014 · Uncategorized

The third time, she tells me, is the Charm. I try again: Hoping to learn by a sign how the Work prospers, I look out into the morning & see a black hen, her white chick.

What does she do now she is naked? Is this anti-climax? What did I do when the el train rolled on? What was that kingdom of my Consequence? Climax & anti-climax. The ladder & what the ladder leads to, a sloping roof, ridgepole high. You can straddle the crest, or stand for a time on the declivity, then fall.

hsinWhat I have to do now is to lecture on 

hsin, the heart. There is an intensity of energy where energy, en.ergon is the work-within, the force from which all things are outered.

Now forcesince energy (force, virtu, te) is a process (not a thing) it cannot be conceived of as in a place, only as a place. This is the inside, or inside the geometric point; the inscape of the point is the heart of God—primum  mobile.

(She  held  her arms  out before her, then snapped them back to her sides, elbows down, clenched fists hitting the shoulder. That was sin, she said.)

Woman I love you for the force within you that sometimes joyously outers, is not exhausted, draws me to it as to center. When we were married she said: I will be abundant.

But hsin, the heart, is not the romantic heart; it is the well-primed & steady pump that runs the organism of our intellect. Draw me a picture of intelletto, draw me a wolf stealing meat from a boiling pot, using a long-handled spoon. Fork. We pace the heart that paces us. The heart pumps blood to the brain from which Hermes the Pacemaker descends to pace the heart. Feed me, feed me, cries the human intellect. Overswarming the deserts of the Pleistocene, man reasons about the weather, becomes man, grasps & eats.

Somewhere we are all naked under our clothes. Nakedness & hunger, the sovereign gestures of the intellect, concealing & revealing, are the heart’s work, heart’s en-ergy—our strength.

The body. Robe of concealment. Robe of revelation. End of the lecture on hsin, the heart. But the audience does not leave, does not end. They repose in their seats, notebooks on the writing-arms of their chairs: “Before you send us away, you must tell us what place this is in which we are.” I answer them: you are in the college of the Jesuits, in the Society of Jesus. The picture on the wall is the emblem of the Order: under the guise of two wolves, the Body & the Intellect steal the energy of the Heart. Yeheshuah hangs before you on a Roman cross. Crucify the heart.

I wake up past noon. I come home in a box.

Even then the treatise was not over. Rabbi Dobh Baer (=Bear Bear) had a word or two to say. “Why did they call my Commentary on Enstasy a tractate on Ecstasy? Wont they ever learn?” Jesus is taken down from the cross by a party of rabbis, who grieve over the dead man. Miles away, Simon of Cyrene stumbles under the burden of no cross.
Dobh Baer cries,
“they criss-
crossed us;
no enstasy?
crossed out our hearts.”

To answer my earliest question: it would have been enough to see the sun rise.

They misunderstand Chance. Dont you see (dont I see) that once you reckon Chance in the system, all other possibilities are annulled? Chance is total if it is at all. By chance, internally coherent systems may arise. Once Chance is reckoned with, the presence of order is no evidence of design. As Chaucer knew; any man who has the Miller follow the Knight is some bloody kind of atheist, a Christian atheist perhaps, or godly bolshevik. Outside his book, Crisseyed gets leprosy from screwing around. Lives in a box. Contaminates the sea. Whose ass do I kiss? Exactly twenty years ago I heard them saying Hubba Hubba. Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas.

O my first love forgive me that I can call you first.

It was unrealistic. There were the four of us, myself & the three women. I brought them to my secret home & showed them my colleagues & fathers & priests & pupils under the maples, grey-haired old men warming benches, young men studying the veins of trees, astronomy of tree bark, the 365 poetic meters & the famous lost fractional meter thatcompletes the year—was that Silence, or the quarter-rest, the time the sun takes out to turn? Jesus Christ how old I am! I who remembered when this maple had been an Indian/icus, & before that a frond-tree of Shamballa, I who had been Naciketas before the world was changed now turned to the blonde young man & said Naciketas, I am bright death inside your skin, hearken to me & learn all. Then I fell silent. He held out the horoscope I had invented for him; I saw Lincoln on the Tenth house & Antinous rising. Dante sang in the hell of the Eighth. On the cusp of the house of marriage was the Thirteenth sign, unknown in Judeo-Christian times. Saturn slept. I reached in & twisted the Neck of the Serpent till his venom dropped down & woke Loki. I burn, I burn, he said. This is unrealistic, the women said. Who is the naked picture of the young man on your wall? He is a great American actress, my ladies, & you have seen, albeit unworthily, one of the few revelations of the Secret College of the Holy Spirit. A bunch of pederasts if you ask me, one of them guessed. I resumed my smoking cap, held my peace & led them away.

There! That was Major Hoople talking, Roma 1942, Annandale 1966.1 would honor specifically here Gilbert Sorrentino, who got there before me. Furthermore, practically anybody can beat me at pool.

When I got back t the motel I tried to explain to her what the Collegium Spiritus Sancti was, how from Pleistocene times at least the angels who watch over men have seen to the continuity of certain spirits who incessantly re-dwell in our midst, &. how I had long, long been one of these beings. She doubted my powers; I changed myself into a phallus & futtered her into silence, o holy swastika. She sleeps now while I write. Outside, a busy highway connects New York City with the moon.

A flute is playing. Shakuhachi. If it is played long enough, there is an end to fictions. After her dance: kill this woman!

He read, then wrote, about Sandalphon, angel of Earth. Angels in jeans, blue & white & otherwise. Pun.

[... to be continued]

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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (4)

September 5th, 2014 · Uncategorized

15mutusliberDET □

In 1955 I & some school-fellows attempted a revival of Batman as an object of inquiry. It does not feel good to have been in the avant-garde of kitsch. Yet my fingers smell of her authenticity, She Who Is To Be Obeyed, She who is wet.

These are the books: The works of Gerhard Dorn
                 Michael Maier
Jakob Böhme
Robert Fludd
Thomas Vaughan

Not one of them but wrote with a goose-quill. Over the hen-yard, the scream of the chicken-hawk. Over the stream (Hortonville 1939), the blue scream of a kingfisher. Men who like to read books & watch birds. Presidents of the United States. Men who blow fine glass flasks with wild birds inside. Cegeste (F*lc*n*ll*’s name in the special bars of Toulon) worked it out just fine: L’oiseau chante avec ses doigts. Which means, when it comes to the Vessel of the work: the ouzel chants a wake six dights. Six nays. And on the seventh, breasts. Or casts a storm spell on the Wash. The Wish. They come to life again. L’auzel. L’aura amara. We picked the right road & the wrong goal. For a long time the kingfisher sat on the branch.

Peonies in the olive jar, white water. Wise men read the labels. Water salt & acid added. But they are peonies, her holy flower, how the rain stinks of them. I love her. Wise men need no labels.

There is something about new morning, dew on the sun & the people out on the loose again, that moves the bowels.

After all this crap, time to understand. Yes, that was it; the Daring. The Irrevocable. Death as game. You will notice I do not speak of Death. I do not like that game. If you go on playing it I will take my life & go home. The Gnostic says. When I was a child I heard several sermons each summer (though once in a life would have been enough) about the boy who wilfully missed Mass on Sunday to go to the beach, & came back in a box. That’s the way they always said it: in a box—& there was no doubt what that meant. It is only now, in my thirty-first year, that I begin to doubt the relevance of the priest’s report. Yet each sin measures me & limits my work. When I have sinned I write in a box.

We made love by the waterfall. Later we saw a snake. It was eating, ugly. I had no compassion for its hunger. Forgive me.

As a strong man, I love to receive the commands of beautiful women.

The course of love-making follows the phases of the moon. An ignorant girl wrote: ‘My dog flowed me to school.’ Dont everybody laff at once.

What did she mean coming into my office & seeing the big picture of the fish &, asking me if I were the Fisher King? Yet she was beautiful. I clapped a hand to my thigh & worshiped —for the length of that casual, meant-to-be-humorous gesture—the woman secretly inside it. O unborn twin sister of mine, o death in my body come to life. I was black & blue from the injections, etc.

So many birds of morning. Elephant on the desk. To each unit of the biological world belongs its proper gesture. We call it lucus, ‘grove,’ a non lucendo, from the fact that it is not bright inside it. Dark birds. The traveller asked for an empty glass. One tusk is longer than the other. In a poem of Rene Char’s we read of deujc pointes semblables, sun shining on two like tips, of the horn of the bull, of the sword that kills him. I have kept him all these years at the door, waiting for one to become empty.


Its earliest glyph was the Ka, the upraised hands  KaGlyph

When we leave our house, only the wisest of us throws up his hands.

The most remarkable event of the week was a mock crucifixion wherein a young man was lashed to a yellow cross propped up before the people. After saying of pretending to say certain words, he pretended to die. If one pronoun had slipped out of place, I honestly declare I would have lost my mind.

But I didnt say what it was, of which the Ka, the upraised hands, was symbol. Call it in the simple jargon of our time, my time, a process. Fresh & light-footed Dante called Guinicelli’s love poems.

All things are finally brought into the Furnace of Love. We have that assurance. The temperature.

Mosquito bite on my thigh, a gentle enough punishment for all the thighs I’ve bitten. I mean all the times I’ve bitten thighs.

In a play of Joel Oppenheimer’s, the classical historical western desperadoes look down from cowboy heaven on the struggles of the characters of the play. At times they speak. When I saw the play performed, the desperadoes were enacted by poets. The fertility of a contrivance is out of all proportion to its meaning. Or a sentence.

Hoping to learn by a sign how the Work prospers, I look out the window, first moving the curtain on which the terra cotta  
 Mirror of Ashtaroth reflects no image.

I’ll try again to say it straight. Hoping to learn by a sign how the Work prospers, I move the curtain & look out, morning

The language has roots in me, by it I am grown, leaf & hand & tongue. Who is this language? Who is this King of Glory? I have sharpened my pen. I have opened the gates of the Temple.

[ be continued]

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Robert Kelly: An Alchemical Journal (3)

September 3rd, 2014 · Uncategorized

MayererAlchemy AtalantaA man of 85 in Northern Dutchess Hospital with aplastic anemia. Given a transfusion, congestive heart failure followed from surfeit of liquid. Given a transfusion of centrifuged blood solids without much plasma, congestive heart failure followed again. Digitalis & mercuric diuretic administered intravenously. “Perhaps the marrow of his bones wore out, as another man might lose his hair.”

How much can a man lose? If blood is lost in the tree, what of the fruit? I had asked the second question of the afternoon. It was not enough.

Wolfram has Parzival finally ask, “Uncle, what’s the matter with you?” And that, no more than token, recognition of the reality of the other is enough. After all the struggles, romantic & terrible & all, through the deserts of the self, at last, after years, a Good Friday spell & spell broken,
         after the spellbound repentences,
to be able at last to see the tokens perish, & seeing instead an other person, even an uncle
 (a right-angled relative, a perpendicular to the self), & make an utterance to him which is also of him: Oeheim, waz wirret dir?

What is the matter? we say in English. But Parzival, in Middle High German has to ask, What troubles you, what’s ailing you, why are you perplexed? We want to know the answer to our own question, what is the matter?

        (Which is not: Why is James James’ mother never heard of since she went down to the end of town? Where did his mother go? To The Mothers?)

       But is: what is the matter?

Everything that we know makes free.

    Genealogy, accepted or chosen or invented, always limits. Ancestor rites. Joss sticks in brass bowls. Dust on the calendar.

But to be in the world means come on harder. Talk with a hard on. Showing them the pictures. Because I want. Words extract themselves from the air as bears eat honey. We’d been at her place for two hours before it struck. What alphabet was it?

He reads the blotter’s backwards forward in a mirror and becomes a sage.

Being in this city under the sea was submitting himself almost to Ordeal, a testing of a Self (which did not perhaps need to be tested) in the midst of the irrelevant, the unnecessary, the irritant, the abominable. It was a sorrow to be here, to turn from what was his, the terrene airy life he lived in the heart of, to put himself in this fix, the half-day journey down, the being-there in the hopeless knowledge of having to ungo the whole way to get back where he had been, no further, except the furtherness of self-betrayal; yes, that was it he thought (his pen blurring in the hydrosphere), in the destructive element immerse (he quoted), yes, that was it, his joy had been to taste of self-betrayal, see darkingly how far he could go in without destroying the self, as he had as a child sometimes, breathing fast & prick erect, daringly stayed seated in the car when the el train came to his stop & the doors opened & he sat there knowing they would close & all his body trembled with the lust of his confusion, delay, desire, self-torture & still he sat & then the doors would close & he would be trapped in the kingdom of his own consequence, bedded down with the sheer whore voluptuous effect (who was also Love & goddess & wife of his manhood) of his action. Or as he would, long afterwards even, fantasize a girl in a public place taking off her clothes in a daring, trembling, smile-faced deadly flirtation with the irrevocable, how she would strip off shoes & stockings & coat & blouse & skirt & slip (& thus still be clad, though wildly more sexually, as chastely as herself in a bathing suit) & then with the same smile & the saliva drying on her full wet lips & with a shiver of total wild self-abandoning glory loosing the straps of her bra & pulling it off & letting her breasts swing free in the fierce wind of actual crime, then wriggling her panties down, rubbing her hands into her fur as she writhes her naked ass out at the world, at policemen & god & teachers & nuns & soldiers all running to beat at her with savage reprisals — she has dared & gone beyond, she has committed irrevocable nakedness.

Yes, that was it he thought, the Daring the Irrevocable; he understood the secret meaning of what Apollo’s torso seemed to say in Rilke: Du musst dein Leben andern, you must change your life, strip to the nakedness of a statue, strip yourself of arms & legs & be a torso, gouge out the flesh, murder flesh & blood, burn the earth in the ferocity of changing.

The course & sense of narrative: he becomes I; in a different way (‘in a mystery,’ as old Arthur would have said), I becomes he. Overwhelmed in the embarrassments of revelation, “I” take “refuge” in “rhetoric.”

[ be continued]

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Remembering a Pigeon

September 1st, 2014 · Man-made Disaster, Obituaries

via Retort & Iain Boal:

To: Retort

From: GS

[Geoffrey Sea sends us this dispatch from Ohio on the centenary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Martha was reputedly the 'endling', the last of her species, as most certainly Benjamin was the relict Tasmanian tiger, dying in Hobart Zoo on September 7th, 1936. John James Audubon, in 1813, describes his encounter with a flock of passenger pigeons, whose roosts were staggering in scale, often covering hundreds of square miles: “As I traveled on, the air was literally filled with pigeons. The light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses. Before sunset I reached Louisville, Kentucky. The pigeons passed in undiminished number, and continued to do so for three days in succession. The people were all in arms. The banks of the Ohio were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims, which flew lower as they passed over the river.  Multitudes were thus destroyed.” The notion that this of all birds in North America might be exterminated was hard to conceive; its passing prompted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and - together with the writings of the philologist George Perkins Marsh on the effects of deforestation - helped to usher in modern ecological consciousness and the idea of profound anthropogenic impact. IB]

A Passenger Pigeon Centennial Meditation

Geoffrey Sea

1 ix 14


Today, September 1, 2014, marks one hundred years since Martha died. Martha is said to have been the last passenger pigeon on earth, but the truth is a bit more complicated, because “Martha”, in symbol and substance, continues to be naught but a projection of ourselves. This was especially evident at “Martinis for Martha”, part of a passenger pigeon commemorative weekend I have just attended at the Cincinnati Zoo, where Martha expired.

This was a coming full circle for me personally, because it’s been thirty-one years since I first saw “the Sargents Pigeon” mounted in a glass case at the Cincinnati Zoo. That bird, long said to be the last passenger pigeon seen in the wild, was vandalized and grotesquely battered soon after I saw it. So she has been transferred to the Ohio Historical Center in Columbus, where she has become known by the cutesy name “Buttons” – the name that her assassin gave the specimen, which had been outfitted with black shoe-buttons in place of the living pigeon’s brilliant red eyes.

Much of this drama occurred in the house that I now own and occupy in Sargents Station, Pike County, Ohio, a place to which I was led by sleuthing out the story of the Sargents Pigeon. It was in this house that Blanche Barnes, a twenty-three year old then six months pregnant, stuffed and mounted the bird and sewed shoe-buttons into the eyes. Both Blanche and her son, Isaac Newton Barnes II, died soon after childbirth, probably from arsenic poisoning, since arsenic was then the common taxidermist’s tool.

Joel Greenberg, who organized and spoke at the commemoration, has dethroned the Sargents Pigeon as the “last wild specimen” – or thinks he has – by finding two other members of the species that seem to have also been shot in the Ohio Valley at slightly later dates, one in Indiana and one in Illinois. And Joel calls me a “purist” in his new book, A Feathered River In the Sky, for insisting that the Sargents Pigeon be called by its rightful name.

But the real truth is that none of these “facts” has meaning outside of the human tendency to project our own anxieties and neuroses upon the Passenger Pigeon – especially evident as complicated national alliances veer toward world war in southeastern Europe, exactly as they did just one hundred years ago. And that may be the real reason that “Martha” was dubbed “the last one” – that is, the inauspicious date on which she passed.

Sorry to get technical, but Martha was probably not a full-blooded passenger pigeon. As authorities have pointed out, she lacked the prominent cranium of the super-smart female passenger pigeon, so she likely was a half-breed result of last-ditch efforts to save the species by cross-breeding with other pigeon species that did not require gargantuan flocks to reproduce.

The actual date of extinction is better placed around the turn of the century, when the last survivors in the wild were exterminated with lead shot, or even more than a decade earlier, when the last breeding colonies were recorded in the wild.

My intent is not to defrock Martha as “the last”, rather it is to emphasize that the importance of Martha and the Sargents Pigeon does not lie in technical details, but in the symbolic roles that both birds have played for conservation efforts and for grappling with the whole issue of anthropogenic extinction. Both birds have become characters in a whole genre of ecology books for children, and the Sargents Pigeon was featured as the speaking host in probably the first-ever ecological radio program, broadcast out of Columbus in the 1940s.

And both these specimens, which now reside in Columbus and Washington DC, represent pride of place. The Cincinnati Zoo lies near the confluence of the two Miami Rivers with the Ohio, “Miami” being the name, in the indigenous Miami language, for the Passenger Pigeon. The Sargents Pigeon was shot by a boy less than a mile from the Barnes Works earthwork complex of Sargents Station, a complex that was, according to our best understanding, built to guide the pigeons in migration as the carriers of human souls.  When the Bureau of Ethnology surveyed these earthworks in the 1880s, their chief informant was Isaac Newton Barnes, the grandfather and namesake of the baby who died as a result of the stuffing and mounting of the Sargents Pigeon.

There was a time when religious folk would refer to such pigeon happenings as “signs”.

The last event on the schedule of the Martha commemorative weekend was a talk given at the Fernald Preserve, on the banks of the Great Miami River. Fernald is the remnant of the former federal nuclear fuels facility that became infamous for spewing uranium dust all over southwestern Ohio.

Now dominating the site, taking up a large segment of the horizon outside the presentation venue, is a 70-acre rectangular mound containing the radioactive remnants of the uranium factory. Jason Krupar of the University of Cincinnati has likened this mound to the area’s ancient Indian earthworks, and hypothesizes that, as part of our legacy, archaeologists of the future may dig into one of these mounds expecting to find Adena artifacts, but uncovering radwaste instead. As fate would have it, the US government would now like to build a second similar waste mound, this one even larger, outside the massive former uranium enrichment complex that was built on part of the former Barnes estate in Sargents Station.

Much was said at the Passenger Pigeon commemoration about learning the lesson of that extinction. I dare to suggest that the unlearned lesson is staring us Ohioans in the face.

And so I remain a “purist” about the name of the Sargents Pigeon, and suggest this appropriate brief meditation on this centennial day:  Go to a quiet place outdoors, where you can see the clear-blue pigeonless sky, hear the sound of running water, and feel the late summer breeze on your skin. Then focus your thoughts for one full hour on this single question:  Do you want to be known for all eternity by the cute nickname bestowed on you by the boy who blows out your brains?


10620640_10202763153264686_5651488854277840200_nMartha at the Cincinnati Zoo

10354826_10202763155904752_2326616095529915213_nFull-blood passenger pigeon female

[Note the distinct difference in the shape of the cranium, first pointed out to me by Stephanie Canzanella. GS]

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