Of Wind, Trees, Mirrors and Stars

With a title lifted vaguely from David Frieberg and Robert Hunter (“Harp Tree Lament”) off a personal-favorite Paul Kantner Jefferson Starship album (in those halcyon days before that name became an actual band), hereʼs a girlfriend-lost poem from those early years teaching (poorly) in Ft. Madison. I left JA (and JS) behind me for a long time once I moved to Maquoketa, even though Kantnerʼs roaring, lyrical (sci-fic) marches have polished an eternal spot in my soul (and amidst the constant, cicadic, scratchy ringing in my ears, which that same music  — played utterly too loud in my youth and loudly nowadays, too, to overcome the tinnitus  — probably caused, at least in part). However, I acquired my first Walkman shortly before Janet and I went to Fiji in 1986, and I got reinterested in my old albums by making tapes from the vinyl originals for the portable player and for our cassette deck. Two ninety-minute mixes were a carefully programmed sequence of Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship Kantner/Slick music, heavily falling on those first three non-JA albums  — Blows Against the Empire, Sunfighter and Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. We returned from the cannibal islands to Los Angeles for a two-night stay before flying home (and a necessary recovery after the twenty-hour flight it was). I listened on the headphones to those tapes flying home and in a wholly exhausted state (and jokingly-possibly yangona-hungover  — more on that adventure one day) falling asleep in the dire hotel where Janet had placed us. (I really should recreate the sequence of those tapes as an iPod playlist; I wonder what hearing all those songs in the appropriate order might do to my head these days.)

I donʼt think I appreciated or recognized much Jefferson Airplane before the Woodstock album (my copy of which came from an abortive Spanglish haggling session in Mexico City while on a Presbyterian Youth Fellowship mission trip and which we played to arouse the troops for “morning maniac madness”  — yes, an inext quotation, and deliberately so — by playing “Volunteers” on a creaky church phonograph in an Oklahoma City church basement; later that day I purchased my first Osibisa album — and theirs, too  — because of the Roger Dean cover art, such is the cleverness of record-industry marketing). Kantner cemented his place in my musical mind with the Blows album the year I graduated from high school  — all those songs (thank you, Jerry Garcia on pedal steel) still rouse me in a strange (but now faded) manner.

And I only bring up all this personal musical-history summary to admit that if one were fully versed in all the music I listened in those high-creative years of the mid-Seventies (lots of Yes and Who and Rolling Stones in that unconscious mental mix, too), you could probably spot my interpretations of the song rhythms that I was hearing as I wrote (and my interpretation of rhythm is an amusingly personal and idiosyncratic thing, indeed  — just ask Janet). So it is strange that once I had a rhythm (undoubtedly stolen because I really donʼt think I am all that inventive or creative), I could usually create a poem, like the sonnet below.

Aeolian Harp Song

What you get when you search for “wind moon”

White air disturbs trees, dancing the leaves.

The wind passes, dark air wet with wonder, a spirit,

fraught with eyes, telling lies: here the wind weaves

a fabric of oaks, vines and reeds. You can hear it

whistling the sundown, surfing the sea while it heaves

up the moon (a many-faced lady). You must fear it

when moonlight rips holes in the air — then the wind deceives

mortals and hushes the trees. Do not come near it

then, when birds sought the south, safety and sun:

silence too dreadful to touch, when the white moon breathes

blackness and stars burn without twinkling. You must shun

forests then, seeking mirrors. Moonlight sickles reeds

in that season as women make blood. Remained then and you

will see wonders unwritten in trees but the hawthorn, elder and yew.

evidently after losing the lady and reading The White Goddess

23 April 1976

I must have found incredible solace or inspiration (or steal-able imagery anyway) in The White Goddess because it pushes to the front in nearly everything I wrote for about two years, including of course this poem. The list of trees at the end (and the earlier trio inline 4) is directly referring to Graves (and reading the book would help understanding why those trees in those trios, too), and I think his goddess is behind the menstrual image, as well. The sickle is also lunar and therefore Gravesian, I guess, and therefore the moon has to be “white” in line 10). On the other hand, the mirror is more personal (check back on earlier poem-posts  — hereʼs just one example, and another — for some of my other uses of that imagery) and does tie in my mind with knives, so therefore the moonlight ripping “holes in the air.” As for stars, well, theyʼre hiding over, under, around and within the currently posting story.

I like the tight rhyme scheme, more Italianate than English  — abababab (only two sounds for the octet!) cdcdee. I donʼt think I have any meaning in that pattern, however. It just sounded cool to me (more or less still does).

Although I have already taken note of what I decided to record in my own note to myself (the green line above the composition date), I kept it in because I havenʼt remarked that those lines are on the original typescripts as notes to myself (to help me remember what I probably should recall anyway, right?). Although I am sure I remember which girlfriend, I appreciate my own delicacy in the maladroit (and so Seventies-Romantic) wording of the notation. I also just noticed that I wrote the poem on Shakespeareʼs birthday.

And, yes, now I remember: I do owe apologies to Samuel R. Delany (and Vonda McIntyre) for ripping off your title styles (I was thinking of McIntyreʼs “Of Mist, Sand andGrass” when I devised this postʼs title, but it may really owe more to Delanyʼs little essays that adhere to his later science fiction novels)

(I really do have a good time using old poems to hocus up a post…)

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.


a third villanelle

the new iMac (with the unbelievably huge screen showing this very document)

I have been going through my poetry files, both physical and on the computer. Here on the new iMac that’s an issue because transferring here meant my arrival at System X (Leopard for me, 10.5.8), and jumping up from system 9 in a hurry caused me to transfer a whole lot of document files without extension suffixes, leaving the poor computer perceiving them as Unix files, executable as code in Terminal, not as WordPerfect, Word or AppleWorks text files (.wpd, .doc or .cwk). So I must either run between the old computer now in our basement and this one with a list of file types copied from the old one or just guess while sitting up here what suffix to add (which does interestingly often work). I had word-processed more of my poems than I had remembered (perhaps much to your dismay, faithful readers).

What do you know? I had forgotten I wrote as a villanelle this poem—arising from a one-night stand (would that be the right word? We didn’t think of such things then, back in the Seventies) with a young woman who rescued me one other collegiate (winter) night, when my aforementioned first big romance had in fact ended for certain and with finality. I found overnight shelter in the lounge (I wonder how illegal that was) of another girl’s dorm. The next day, she and a visiting high school friend of hers let me drive them to the Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines, where I first found and bought Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. Later this blackhaired Irish beauty accompanied me to a community theater cast party in the woods down by the Skunk River (how romantic is that?) in the summertime…

I guess this is what comes of youth, broken dreams of some kind, romance and The White Goddess while one is living entirely on his own for the first time in Ft. Madison, Iowa, attempting somewhat unwillingly to become a teacher. I don’t think I wrote anything else quite as slavishly devoted to Graves’s ideas in the book—so much so that many of the references may make no sense at all to the uninitiated. Sorry about that (you could try clicking on the first White Goddess link above and checking out the Wikipedia content—which I just may have to edit, knowing more than whoever wrote it). However, I still think the poem sounds so darn cool.

Poe thought poems should be about ninety percent sound and ten percent meaning, which is why so many of his seem so simplistic in content (some, not all). Sound over sense can go too far in the other direction, though; probably I have.

Interestingly, in the last stanza, because I wanted the appearance (also an important poetic feature for me) of all those “c”s in the poem, I chose to spell Kabbalah in the weirdest (old-fashioned) way I would never do since. Also, reading it, I can see that this biographical introduction, which may truly impart too much information, might not be necessary. There’s more than one girl in my mind (or heart) in there…

So here is a surprising third villanelle.

Irish Honey, Ninety Proof

Kiss-cleft and raven-tressed: elder mare’s blood moon
joked conception sanctified, lit the stars that are your eyes,
wanton soft and silklike steel, Cretan cold, a celtic rune.

Solstice birth: twelve reeds before your naked feet were strewn
for you to trample, dexterous-sinister patterned ancient lies,
kiss-cleft and raven-tressed. Elder mare’s blood moon,

a horny halo, frames your hair, goddess of too soon―
crimson painted lancet nails, lips which need no dyes,
wanton soft and silklike steel, Cretan cold, a celtic rune.

Molten laughter, liquid love, freezes, severs every boon
and slips, an onyx knife, into breasts you touch with ice,
kiss-cleft, raven-tressed elder mare’s blood moon.

Tonguetip tastes tidbits by conversation’s scalpels hewn;
scythes of hawthorn are your words, wicked, witching wise,
wanton soft and silklike steel, Cretan cold, a celtic rune.

White one, hear this reedy sealike cabbalistic tune,
accept my sacrificial haploid blood, and rise,
kiss-cleft, raven-tressed elder mare’s blood moon,
wanton soft and silklike steel, Cretan cold, a celtic rune.

12, 23 April 1976

I really do just leap right over any immediate sense in this one (for not the only time in my poetry). I hope the sound does carry a reader through.  I could easily fill a year with old poems, so I hope the introductory and concluding remarks (rather randomly Dantesque—in the manner of La Vita Nuova—now that I get self-conscious about it) add to the interest and make reading these posts worthwhile.

The White Goddess in its old cover (the version that I bought back in 1975)

Hmmm, thinking to emulate Dante, I have already given a vague biographical background (really vague, but I didn’t want the title of this post to actually be valid). Maybe I should make some analytical remarks. I already hashed out what a villanelle is (and Wikipedia tells you much more). I’ll refer back to sound effects.

The vowels are meant to kind of flow, and the liquid consonants (“r” and “l” and “w” mainly in this poem, also “s” and soft “c”  and the nasals—“m” and “n”—and “v”) keep the riverlike flood of sound going, along with “h” . The plosives (hard “c” or “k,” “t”) work like rocks, creating rapids, with “d” and “b”—both plosives—intermediate for me.  As for the situation/story of the poem, the goddess is first dancing (or more realistically walking), then laughing and talking. The verse is fleshed out (ha!) with some description of her eyes, hair and finger(nails). She laughs cuttingly and her remarks discomfit the speaker, who would like to become her lover. She is also, if it needs demonstration, the poetic Muse, à la Graves.The last stanza gets indelicate in its intent. Too much information?

For more depth in meaning, try reading the Graves book all the way through (and I prefer the older cover that I scanned and reproduce here).

Looking at the photo I just shot for the introduction, that is my actual work area visible (you can examine the clutter and mess in detail by clicking on the photo). You can see the copy of the book I reviewed yesterday (although I haven’t written that review yet: creating this post to save for future use was easier). And that’s a poem on the reading stand that will appear (and is strangely connected with the unwritten book review, too). My mixer board (which I bought for myself at the same time as the one for the school’s Andrew Comment program) helps me digitize old LPs and cassette tapes for the iPod (although I haven’t done that for months now).

You can see Janet in two really old photos (is that Eighties hair visible?) that used to sit on my desk at school; she’s right there behind the gargoyle at the top. The little skeleton guy used to sit on some of the computers at school, too; he’s a memento from a fall play, Boo! Thirteen Tales of Halloween. Above the computer (and I remain amazed how Apple gets a complete computer inside a screen, no matter how big) on the right you can see the physical folder of poems. Since I mentioned the kabbalah, that’s a laminated diagram of the Sefirot rising from the yellow, overstuffed pencil holder on the left of the iMac. And having mentioned it in an earlier post last fall, the big stapler is sitting next to Janet and the gargoyle up on top.

There’s a lot more, but I think I am overindulging myself now. Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.