20 May 2017

Friendly: My Life and Remaining Questions

Editor's note: Friendly completed a revision of his previous nine-part autobiography. This manuscript came to us only recently, and we publish it here. He attached this note to readers.

Dear Reader,
In this year of my sixteenth birthday, by human reckoning, and in recognition of the long association of our species, dating back to ancient Egypt, I submit this memoir in hopes it will further understanding of the feline way of life, despite the misconceptions portrayed in comic strips, YouTube videos, and Facebook memes.

I fear in some ways
I've followed the human pattern in tell-all memoirs, directing my acerbic wit at everyone else and confessing things I'm actually proud of, such as possessing an acerbic wit.

But I hope this one-part edition will provide a mirror in which humans can reflect on their society...and that this reflection will lead both our species to greater peace and harmony.


My earliest memories are of my mother, my four litter mates...and the doghouse in which I was born, which smelled like it's recent occupant, a middle-aged canine named Duke.

My mother, Smoki, was tall, athletic, and one year old. She loved everyone and lived a carefree life, which accounted for our multicultural birthplace. 

My litter mates and I were not particularly close. They would stay piled in the corner while I explored our house. And by the time our eyes opened, I didn't spend much time in the house at all. 

My siblings, Tabitha and Stubby, so called for their color pattern and shorter legs, were free spirits like our mother. They moved away to pursue other fascinations. “Fascinations” being the word rational felines use to explain their career choices to relatives, much as humans currently use the pursuit of their “passions.” 

Sparkle was solid gray with white paws. The dash of white on her nose resembled the brush stroke of an impressionist painter. Flash looked like Sparkle, except she dipped her whole nose in the paint.

In feline society, familial ties—as humans and even some herding animals know them—do not exist after a litter of kittens has come of age. This arrangement allows each to seek his or her own fortune. So feline society functions well in extensive environments and scales to whatever population size. You might say cats are the one species that has actually succeeded with libertarianism.

When two individuals want the same spot on a rug or want a drink at the same time, there is no reason to write angry letters to small town newspapers or accuse one's enemies of being the antichrist. It's only rational those with greater physical endowments receive the best nutrition and high quality rest. If a disagreement breaks out, the winner is always right.

Thus, feline justice works on shame and ostracism.

My cousin Patches was orphaned when her mother's haystack was struck by lightning. She escaped being burned, and my partner humans fed her condensed bovine milk. Uncle Tigger blamed kittenhood trauma for Patches' unkempt appearance, but being gray with yellow tabby and white spots didn't do her any favors. 

Worst of all, she didn't know felines are supposed to bury their...droppings. Only the very high status or uncouth lack discipline in this respect, which invites criticism—of the way one chews one's food, the grade of mice one catches or whether one really should try some organic almond milk.

We had a lot of cousins, many of them shaped by close proximity to one another. Their days were punctuated by a mad rush to the feed pan every morning, and their conversation lost the edge common in high class feline society.

Feline society is supposed to be rigorous and scientific. In feline language—a phenomena we call Felinese—there is nothing but fact.

Our chief virtuecuriositythe ability to see in the dark, smell trouble, swivel one's ears in the direction of the slightest sound, and detect how wide an opening is by measuring it with one's whiskers...involves dealing in real things.

There is no lying or political incorrectness. Felines have no need to use “downsized” rather than “unemployed.” And it never made sense to think an inanimate object would have a gender.

The difficulty when partner humans talk to feline companions is not that felines don't understand but that human speech is so cluttered with persons and concepts not relevant to the situation, concepts such as honor or destiny or history, things other than biological imperative and the physical environment.

Also… Curiosity. Never. Killed. Anyone.

I am secretly thrilled that my current subject affords this opportunity to disregard conventional English punctuation and thereby emphasize the point.

Distemper kills felines. Automobiles kill felines. Curiosity is what keeps them alive. But I digress.

For nearly a year, my mother's humans assumed I'd been eaten by a coyote, which is a common assumption among human communities. Humans have always invented or played up the shadowy threats beyond the firelight. 

I suspect that explanation deprives distemper...and boredom...of due recognition.

But I also suspect the human tendency to imagine things beyond the firelight springs from their desire for relationship.

The concord between feline civilization and human civilization works out in everyday kindness between particular humans and particular felines. We commonly prefer the company of certain humans. That is something like the love some humans profess for one another.

We tolerate the idea of being “pets” out of respect for our superior rationality, but we prefer the terms “partner cat” and “partner human.” The word “pet” lumps us together with various prey species. And even more egregious, “pet” assumes that we are dependent on particular humans.

Some humans imagine their partner cats are something like human children. A lot of partner humans think the birds or mice we discard are “offerings.” It can become a little embarrassing.

Most cats do not believe any particular cat needs any particular human in any particular way. Many felines do not have more than one partner human relationship at a time. Some choose to have none. Some choose to have several. 

I heard of one smooth operator who spent days in one human's apartment and nights in another human's apartment. The humans assumed he was out "hunting."

Then one of his humans visited the other's place while campaigning for a political cause. And the game was up.

Incidentally, I can't imagine an exercise more fruitless than politics. But humans seem fated to try getting others to agree with them, perhaps also a function of their desire for connection.

Anyway, about one year of age, I revisited my first home and found most of my cousins gone. So I held court on the porch and my partner humans opened doors for me as I came and went.

My partner humans lived across the lawn from their grandparents.

The grandfather always came out to feed the cats around 6 o'clock. I would wait on his back deck, watching the sun climb up over the eastern horizon and enjoying the fresh, unspoiled feeling of morning.

He would pour some milk into a tin can he used for the purpose. Then he would sit down on the step stool by the back door and pull on his shoes.

You would hear the thump as he finished tying each shoe and set his foot down. Then he would pick up the can of milk, straighten up, turn the doorknob, and step outside. He walked down the steps to the cellar one step at a time. He was a little stiff before he got “limbered up” in the morning.

Once he got a can of Wiskas out of the cellar, he would call us, “Here kitty-kitty-kitty. Kitty-kit! Here kitty-kitty.” Then we all walked across the garden to “the cat house.”

I say walked. When he walked, he would lift his knees slightly higher than other humans, which gave his walk a hint of marching. Come to think of it, that might also have been because various ones would be milling around his feet, claiming his shoes and pant lets as our own.

I don't know whether the “cat house”—so named because it once was a chicken house—had ever been acquainted with paint, but I never remember it being anything other than the grey-brown of weathered wood. It smelled of cat food...and of the litter box in the corner...and of the neighborhood raccoons that visited during the night.

In feline terms, this morning routine is merely a string of events—facts and smells and actions set in chronological order. The same things happen to us all, except perhaps for those who die younger and thus have fewer experiences. So an individual's experience differs from another individual's experience only in the order and combination of facts.

In this understanding, one individual is almost interchangeable with any other individual of similar background and experience. Each morning is much like every other morning, even if one has to go back thousands of years to find another Tuesday, October 15, when the sun rose at exactly the same instant it rose this morning.

Anyway, once inside “the cat house,” the grandfather would pour the milk into a bowl and give me my own plate of Wiskas. Then he would serve the others.

I occasionally had to remind them of the respect they owed me, it being only rational the strong and beautiful deserve a certain deference. But I don't think the grandfather understood.

Sometimes he called me “unfriendly Friendly,” which I took to be an example of that human foible, humor, which is the tendency to use strange combinations of words to break the tension between the way things are and the way humans think they should be.

As far as I can tell, humor and poetry and art are closely related in human brain function.

Many humans have made advances toward the feline perspective, buying “Bach for Babies” recordings in apparent recognition that making one's infant smarter justifies Bach's work as a composer. This incidentally, is exactly the reason why cats play with prey species...or play in general...to sharpen the wits.

These are often the same humans who work hardest to “learn” from their life experiences so that they can feel better about the mistakes they're making.

I cannot say I'm certain of their success. A scholarly dynasty of felines once set out to catalogue the contradictions of human behavior and unearth its underlying rationality. The data they collected most humans know as William Shakespeare's plays, and the last of that line died off before they reached any conclusions.

My own investigations have not yielded any further insight. Indeed, though some humans talk about keeping felines around as “mousers”—a term by which they equate our whole race with a sort of rodenticidal mania...like calling humans “strawberriers”—it is my observation that the irrational human desire for connection has ironically been largely responsible for the long cooperation between our species…and the comfort in which many of us live with our chosen partner humans.

Canines too possess a bias toward social connections, which explains why canines organize themselves into hierarchies and mix so easily with other societies. It also explains why you will never meet a canine that is particularly rational or dignified.

Duke, the canine in whose house I was born, possessed this monarchist turn of mind, which explains why some are so vicious—think "Game of Thrones" from human television—and why most are so...what humans call “loyal.” 

His sensitivity to human sensibilities made him adept at enforcing human attitudes toward prey species—startling my cousins so small birds could escape but leaving us alone when we captured a mouse.

He once returned from a nearby swamp carrying a duckling in his mouth—unmolested except for being slobbered on. But on another occasion, when a muskrat snapped at him, he grabbed it by its spine, shook it once, and dropped it dead on the ground.

Despite the admiration his qualities earned him among our partner humans, Duke still called them masters. And yet, he was never anything but himself.

I don't know why the idea of memory sometimes includes such a sense of missing, not just noticing the absence, of something or someone when they're gone.

Though he never saw the brilliance of feline rationality, and I could not explain him entirely in feline terms, Duke and I enjoyed each other's company, if I can use such vague language. 

My one regret is that I did not have more time to study and perhaps explain him...and the grandfather.

05 May 2017

Stevens Pass

Towns, houses, barns
Shed pools of light by silver roads;

The smell of trees
And memories seep through the snow;

Cascading peaks
Faces obscure in vales of mist;

Moonlight falling
Slivers itself on mountain creeks;

Bare river trees
And orchard rows slip past half known.

Wenatchee River, Leavenworth, Wash.

28 April 2017

Phillis Wheatley

Frontispiece “Poems on Various Subjects,” London, 1773 (Public Domain).
“She was purchased by Mr. John Wheatley, a respectable citizen of Boston. This gentleman, at the time of the purchase, was already the owner of several slaves; but the females in his possession were getting something beyond the active periods of life, and Mrs. Wheatley wished to obtain a young negress, with the view of training her up under her own eye, that she might, by gentle usage, secure to herself a faithful domestic in her old age. She visited the slave-market, that she might make a personal selection from the group of unfortunates offered for sale. There she found several robust, healthy females, exhibited at the same time with Phillis, who was of a slender frame, and evidently suffering from change of climate. She was, however, the choice of the lady, who acknowledged herself influenced to this decision by the humble and modest demeanor and the interesting features of the little stranger.”
With these wordsharrowing for their politenessMargaretta Matilda Odell's memoir of Phillis Wheatley begins.

It brings to mind Paul Giamatti's portrayal of slave trader Theophilus Freeman in the 2013 movie12 Years a Slave,brutal and mundane.

When the Wheatleys realized her aptitude, they taught Phillis to read and write. They sheltered her from the harshest realities of slavery and from the poverty suffered by free blacks, but she remained a slave.

As her literary reputation grew, Phillis would be invited to visit the Wheatley's social connections. Odell wrote, “...upon the occasion of one of these visits, the weather changed during the absence of Phillis; and her anxious mistress, fearful of the effects of cold and damp upon her already delicate health, ordered Prince (also an African and a slave) to take the chaise, and bring home her protegee. When the chaise returned, the good lady drew near the window, as it approached the house, and exclaimed—'Do but look at the saucy varlet—if he hasn't the impudence to sit upon the same seat with my Phillis!' And poor Prince received a severe reprimand for forgetting the dignity thus kindly, though perhaps to him unaccountably, attached to the sable person of 'my Phillis.'”

Suspended between worlds, or as June Jordan writes, made "this valuable/this hated thing," Phillis Wheatley carved out an identity and a poetic voice. 

Odell continues, “In 1770, at the age of sixteen, Phillis was received as a member of the church worshipping in the Old South Meeting house, then under the pastoral charge of the Rev. Dr. Sewall....”

Phillis Wheatley wrote:

'T was mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God—that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye--
'Their color is a diabolic dye.'
Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain
May be refined, and join the angelic train.

Christian faith provided not mere spirituality or gratitude but a critique of the institution by which she came to America and eventually to her faith itself.

Her 1770 elegy “On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitfield” earned her wider recognition, and when appeals to publish her work failed in America, she eventually secured the help of Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, to whom her first volume of poetry, "Poems on Various Subjects," was dedicated.

Phillis Wheatley eventually married John Peters, a free black man, and they suffered in the harsh economic conditions during and after the Revolutionary War. A second volume of poetry was lost when once again no American publishers took it up. 

I've started marking passages...as I read...to come back and reread or memorize. “Thoughts on the Works of Providencewas one I marked in Applewood Books' “Poems of Phillis Wheatley: A Native African and a Slave.”

Arise, my soul, on wings enraptur’d, rise   
To praise the monarch of the earth and skies,   
Whose goodness and beneficence appear   
As round its centre moves the rolling year,   
Or when the morning glows with rosy charms,
Or the sun slumbers in the ocean’s arms:   
Of light divine be a rich portion lent   
To guide my soul, and favour my intent.   
Celestial muse, my arduous flight sustain,   
And raise my mind to a seraphic strain!

  Ador’d for ever be the God unseen,   
Which round the sun revolves this vast machine,   
Though to his eye its mass a point appears:   
Ador’d the God that whirls surrounding spheres,   
Which first ordain’d that mighty Sol should reign
The peerless monarch of th’ ethereal train:   
Of miles twice forty millions is his height,   
And yet his radiance dazzles mortal sight   
So far beneath—from him th’ extended earth   
Vigour derives, and ev’ry flow’ry birth:
Vast through her orb she moves with easy grace   
Around her Phœbus in unbounded space;   
True to her course th’ impetuous storm derides,   
Triumphant o’er the winds, and surging tides.   

  Almighty, in these wond’rous works of thine,
What Pow’r, what Wisdom, and what Goodness shine?   
And are thy wonders, Lord, by men explor’d,   
And yet creating glory unador’d!   

  Creation smiles in various beauty gay,   
While day to night, and night succeeds to day:
That Wisdom, which attends Jehovah’s ways,   
Shines most conspicuous in the solar rays:   
Without them, destitute of heat and light,   
This world would be the reign of endless night:   
In their excess how would our race complain,
Abhorring life! how hate its length’ned chain!   
From air adust what num’rous ills would rise?   
What dire contagion taint the burning skies?   
What pestilential vapours, fraught with death,   
Would rise, and overspread the lands beneath?

  Hail, smiling morn, that from the orient main   
Ascending dost adorn the heav’nly plain!   
So rich, so various are thy beauteous dies,   
That spread through all the circuit of the skies,   
That, full of thee, my soul in rapture soars,
And thy great God, the cause of all adores.   

  O’er beings infinite his love extends,   
His Wisdom rules them, and his Pow’r defends.   
When tasks diurnal tire the human frame,   
The spirits faint, and dim the vital flame,
Then too that ever active bounty shines,   
Which not infinity of space confines.   
The sable veil, that Night in silence draws,   
Conceals effects, but shews th’ Almighty Cause;   
Night seals in sleep the wide creation fair,
And all is peaceful but the brow of care.   
Again, gay Phœbus, as the day before,   
Wakes ev’ry eye, but what shall wake no more;   
Again the face of nature is renew’d,   
Which still appears harmonious, fair, and good.
May grateful strains salute the smiling morn,   
Before its beams the eastern hills adorn!   

  Shall day to day and night to night conspire   
To show the goodness of the Almighty Sire?   
This mental voice shall man regardless hear,
And never, never raise the filial pray’r?   
To-day, O hearken, nor your folly mourn   
For time mispent, that never will return.   

  But see the sons of vegetation rise,   
And spread their leafy banners to the skies.
All-wise Almighty Providence we trace   
In trees, and plants, and all the flow’ry race;   
As clear as in the nobler frame of man,   
All lovely copies of the Maker’s plan.   
The pow’r the same that forms a ray of light,
That call’d creation from eternal night.   
“Let there be light,” he said: from his profound   
Old Chaos heard, and trembled at the sound:   
Swift as the word, inspir’d by pow’r divine,   
Behold the light around its maker shine,
The first fair product of th’ omnific God,   
And now through all his works diffus’d abroad.   

  As reason’s pow’rs by day our God disclose,   
So we may trace him in the night’s repose:   
Say what is sleep? and dreams how passing strange!
When action ceases, and ideas range   
Licentious and unbounded o’er the plains,   
Where Fancy’s queen in giddy triumph reigns.   
Hear in soft strains the dreaming lover sigh   
To a kind fair, or rave in jealousy;
On pleasure now, and now on vengeance bent,   
The lab’ring passions struggle for a vent.   
What pow’r, O man! thy reason then restores,   
So long suspended in nocturnal hours?   
What secret hand returns the mental train,
And gives improv’d thine active pow’rs again?   
From thee, O man, what gratitude should rise!   
And, when from balmy sleep thou op’st thine eyes,   
Let thy first thoughts be praises to the skies.   
How merciful our God who thus imparts
O’erflowing tides of joy to human hearts,   
When wants and woes might be our righteous lot,   
Our God forgetting, by our God forgot!   

  Among the mental pow’rs a question rose,   
“What most the image of th’ Eternal shows?”
When thus to Reason (so let Fancy rove)   
Her great companion spoke immortal Love.   

  “Say, mighty pow’r, how long shall strife prevail,   
And with its murmurs load the whisp’ring gale?   
Refer the cause to Recollection’s shrine,
Who loud proclaims my origin divine,   
The cause whence heav’n and earth began to be,   
And is not man immortaliz’d by me?   
Reason let this most causeless strife subside.”   
Thus Love pronounc’d, and Reason thus reply’d.

  “Thy birth, celestial queen! ’tis mine to own,   
In thee resplendent is the Godhead shown;   
Thy words persuade, my soul enraptur’d feels   
Resistless beauty which thy smile reveals.”   
Ardent she spoke, and, kindling at her charms,
She clasp’d the blooming goddess in her arms.   

  Infinite Love where’er we turn our eyes   
Appears: this ev’ry creature’s wants supplies;   
This most is heard in Nature’s constant voice,   
This makes the morn, and this the eve rejoice;
This bids the fost’ring rains and dews descend   
To nourish all, to serve one gen’ral end,   
The good of man: yet man ungrateful pays   
But little homage, and but little praise.   
To him, whose works array’d with mercy shine,
What songs should rise, how constant, how divine!

This second selection demonstrates Phillis Wheatley's conversance with Latin.

“The Destruction of Niobe's Children,”
by Richard Wilson, 1760 (Public Domain).
"Niobe in Distress for her Children slain by Apollo:
from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI. and from a view of the Painting of Mr. Richard Wilson"

Apollo's wrath to man the dreadful spring
Of ills innum’rous, tuneful goddess, sing!
Thou who did’st first th’ ideal pencil give,
And taught’st the painter in his works to live,
Inspire with glowing energy of thought,
What Wilson painted, and what Ovid wrote.
Muse! lend thy aid, nor let me sue in vain,
Tho’ last and meanest of the rhyming train!
O guide my pen in lofty strains to show
The Phrygian queen, all beautiful in woe.

  ’Twas where Mæonia spreads her wide domain
Niobe dwelt, and held her potent reign:
See in her hand the regal sceptre shine,
The wealthy heir of Tantalus divine,
He most distinguish’d by Dodonean Jove,
To approach the tables of the gods above:
Her grandsire Atlas, who with mighty pains
Th’ ethereal axis on his neck sustains:
Her other gran sire on the throne on high
Rolls the loud-pealing thunder thro’ the sky.

  Her spouse, Amphion, who from Jove too springs,
Divinely taught to sweep the sounding strings.

  Seven sprightly sons the royal bed adorn,
Seven daughters beauteous as the op’ning morn,
As when Aurora fills the ravish’d sight,
And decks the orient realms with rosy light
From their bright eyes the living splendors play,
Nor can beholders bear the flashing ray.

  Wherever, Niobe, thou turn’st thine eyes,
New beauties kindle, and new joys arise!
But thou had’st far the happier mother prov’d,
If this fair offspring had been less belov’d:
What if their charms exceed Aurora’s teint,
No words could tell them, and no pencil paint,
Thy love too vehement hastens to destroy
Each blooming maid, and each celestial boy.

  Now Manto comes, endu’d with mighty skill,
The past to explore, the future to reveal.
Thro’ Thebes’ wide streets Tiresia’s daughter came,
Divine Latona’s mandate to proclaim:
The Theban maids to hear the orders ran,
When thus Mæonia’s prophetess began:

  “Go, Thebans! great Latona’s will obey,
And pious tribute at her altars pay:
With rights divine, the goddess be implor’d,
Nor be her sacred offspring unador’d.”
Thus Manto spoke. The Theban maids obey,
And pious tribute to the goddess pay.
The rich perfumes ascend in waving spires,
And altars blaze with consecrated fires;
The fair assembly moves with graceful air,
And leaves of laurel bind the flowing hair.

  Niobe comes with all her royal race,
With charms unnumber’d, and superior grace:
Her Phrygian garments of delightful hue,
Inwove with gold, refulgent to the view,
Beyond description beautiful she moves
Like heav’nly Venus, ’midst her smiles and loves:
She views around the supplicating train,
And shakes her graceful head with stern disdain,
Proudly she turns around her lofty eyes,
And thus reviles celestial deities:

  “What madness drives the Theban ladies fair
To give their incense to surrounding air?
Say why this new sprung deity preferr’d?
Why vainly fancy your petitions heard?
Or say why Cœus’ offspring is obey’d,
While to my goddesship no tribute’s paid?
For me no altars blaze with living fires,
No bullock bleeds, no frankincense transpires,
Tho’ Cadmus’ palace, not unknown to fame,
And Phrygian nations all revere my name.
Where’er I turn my eyes vast wealth I find.
Lo! here an empress with a goddess join’d.
What, shall a Titaness be deify’d,
To whom the spacious earth a couch deny’d?
Nor heav’n, nor earth, nor sea receiv’d your queen,
’Till pitying Delos took the wand’rer in.
Round me what a large progeny is spread!
No frowns of fortune has my soul to dread.
What if indignant she decrease my train
More than Latona’s number will remain?
Then hence, ye Theban dames, hence haste away,
Nor longer off’rings to Latona pay?
Regard the orders of Amphion’s spouse,
And take the leaves of laurel from your brows.”

  Niobe spoke. The Theban maids obey’d,
Their brows unbound, and left the rights unpaid.

  The angry goddess heard, then silence broke
On Cynthus’ summit, and indignant spoke;
“Phœbus! behold, thy mother in disgrace,
Who to no goddess yields the prior place
Except to Juno’s self, who reigns above,
The spouse and sister of the thund’ring Jove.
Niobe sprung from Tantalus inspires
Each Theban bosom with rebellious fires;
No reason her imperious temper quells,
But all her father in her tongue rebels;
Wrap her own sons for her blaspheming breath,
Apollo! wrap them in the shades of death.”

  Latona ceas’d, and ardent thus replies,
The God, whose glory decks th’ expanded skies.

  “Cease thy complaints, mine be the task assign’d
To punish pride, and scourge the rebel mind.”

  This Phœbe join’d.—They wing their instant flight;
Thebes trembled as th’ immortal pow’rs alight.

  With clouds incompass’d glorious Phœbus stands;
The feather’d vengeance quiv’ring in his hands.

  Near Cadmus’ walls a plain extended lay,
Where Thebes’ young princes pass’d in sport the day:
There the bold coursers bounded o’er the plains,
While their great masters held the golden reins.
Ismenus first the racing pastime led,
And rul’d the fury of his flying steed.
“Ah me,” he sudden cries, with shrieking breath,
While in his breast he feels the shaft of death;
He drops the bridle on his courser’s mane,
Before his eyes in shadows swims the plain,
He, the first-born of great Amphion’s bed,
Was struck the first, first mingled with the dead.

  Then didst thou, Sipylus, the language hear
Of fate portentous whistling in the air:
As when th’ impending storm the sailor sees
He spreads his canvas to the fav’ring breeze,
So to thine horse thou gav’st the golden reins,
Gav’st him to rush impetuous o’er the plains:
But ah! a fatal shaft from Phœbus’ hand
Smites through thy neck, and sinks thee on the sand.

  Two other brothers were at wrestling found,
And in their pastime claspt each other round:
A shaft that instant from Apollo’s hand
Transfixt them both, and stretcht them on the sand:
Together they their cruel fate bemoan’d,
Together languish’d, and together groan’d:
Together too th’ unbodied spirits fled,
And sought the gloomy mansions of the dead.

  Alphenor saw, and trembling at the view,
Beat his torn breast, that chang’d its snowy hue.
He flies to raise them in a kind embrace;
A brother’s fondness triumphs in his face:
Alphenor fails in this fraternal deed,
A dart dispatch’d him (so the fates decreed:)
Soon as the arrow left the deadly wound,
His issuing entrails smoak’d upon the ground.

  What woes on blooming Damasichon wait!
His sighs portend his near impending fate.
Just where the well-made leg begins to be,
And the soft sinews form the supple knee,
The youth sore wounded by the Delian god
Attempts t’ extract the crime-avenging rod,
But, whilst he strives the will of fate t’ avert,
Divine Apollo sends a second dart;
Swift thro’ his throat the feather’d mischief flies,
Bereft of sense, he drops his head, and dies.

  Young Ilioneus, the last, directs his pray’r,
And cries, “My life, ye gods celestial! spare.”
Apollo heard, and pity touch’d his heart,
But ah! too late, for he had sent the dart:
Thou too, O Ilioneus, art doom’d to fall,
The fates refuse that arrow to recal.

  On the swift wings of ever-flying Fame
To Cadmus’ palace soon the tidings came:
Niobe heard, and with indignant eyes
She thus express’d her anger and surprize:
“Why is such privilege to them allow’d?
Why thus insulted by the Delian god?
Dwells there such mischief in the pow’rs above?
Why sleeps the vengeance of immortal Jove?”
For now Amphion too, with grief oppress’d,
Had plung’d the deadly dagger in his breast.
Niobe now, less haughty than before,
With lofty head directs her steps no more.
She, who late told her pedigree divine,
And drove the Thebans from Latona’s shrine,
How strangely chang’d!——yet beautiful in woe,
She weeps, nor weeps unpity’d by the foe.
On each pale corse the wretched mother spread
Lay overwhelm’d with grief, and kiss’d her dead,
Then rais’d her arms, and thus, in accents slow,
“Be sated cruel Goddess! with my woe;
If I’ve offended, let these streaming eyes,
And let this sev’nfold funeral suffice:
Ah! take this wretched life you deign’d to save,
With them I too am carried to the grave.
Rejoice triumphant, my victorious foe,
But show the cause from whence your triumphs flow?
Tho’ I unhappy mourn these children slain,
Yet greater numbers to my lot remain.”
She ceas’d, the bow-string twang’d with awful sound,
Which struck with terror all th’ assembly round,
Except the queen, who stood unmov’d alone,
By her distresses more presumptuous grown.
Near the pale corses stood their sisters fair
In sable vestures and dishevell’d hair;
One, while she draws the fatal shaft away,
Faints, falls, and sickens at the light of day.
To sooth her mother, lo! another flies,
And blames the fury of inclement skies,
And, while her words a filial pity show,
Struck dumb——indignant seeks the shades below.
Now from the fatal place another flies,
Falls in her flight, and languishes, and dies.
Another on her sister drops in death;
A fifth in trembling terrors yields her breath;
While the sixth seeks some gloomy cave in vain,
Struck with the rest, and mingled with the slain.

  One only daughter lives, and she the least;
The queen close clasp’d the daughter to her breast:
“Ye heav’nly pow’rs, ah spare me one,” she cry’d,
“Ah! spare me one,” the vocal hills reply’d:
In vain she begs, the Fates her suit deny,
In her embrace she sees her daughter die.

21 April 2017

Uncle Bob

It would be easy to feel Robert Whitlow, “Uncle Bob” to me, lived in a different world—or in a social strata where certain things are possible that don't seem possible for me.

He and his twin brother had pilots licenses and owned an airplane. He attended Eugene Bible College, was an ordained minister, became a supervisor in the trust department and a trust auditor at a Seattle bank. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Seattle Pacific University and a Master of Arts in English Literature at the University of Leeds in England. He held a number of jobs in education, eventually serving as president of Eugene Bible College. He and my aunt Beulah restored the Colonel Crockett Farm, which became a popular Bed and Breakfast and event location on Whidbey Island.

He was also a poet. On the back of the memorial service program were these last lines from his 2008 poem, "Whatever":

His breath of love steals softly to us;
His arms are near to hold it all together,
But in the final hour His way is just
and we cry out, "He is ours forever!"

But his achievements by themselves don't do him justice.

Mom remembers he and Aunt Beulah brought a baby basket to carry my parents' first child from the hospital to the funeral home. And they transported her from Seattle to the funeral home in Ephrata, Wash.

I remember the evening he spent convincing me to get a college education...a voice I still hear mostly for what he saw as possible. He had that certain look in his eyes when he'd ask a question...and listen to the answer.

And they drove all the way to Oklahoma City for my sister's law school graduation.

At the memorial service, the Saturday before Palm Sunday, I sat beside three folks from the county treasurer's office where they volunteered. He was eulogized by a Canadian former member of parliament and a pastor who was born in Mexico and served time in California.

His world seemed profoundly open to the rest of us, not because he could not see our obstacles but because he could see us.

26 March 2017

September: The Poem and the Moment

Helen Hunt Jackson, 1830-1885
Grandpa was driving his blue late-60s Chevrolet C10 pickup with the white top. I was riding shotgun.

We were on the way from Coulee City to Basin View Orchards between Ephrata and Soap Lake, Wash.

Every year the proprietors set out bins of fresh-picked apples, and people show up, weigh and mark their boxes, fill them with apples, and pay the prices marked on each bin.

The goldenrod and rabbitbrush were blooming, and Grandpa started saying:

“The golden-rod is blooming;
The corn is turning brown;
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down....”

I don't remember if he quoted the whole thing then, but I in my mind I hear his voice reciting most of the remaining lines.

“The gentian’s bluest fringes
Are curling in the sun;
In dusty pods the milkweed
Its hidden silk has spun.
The sedges flaunt their harvest,
In every meadow nook;
And asters by the brook-side
Make asters in the brook.
From dewy lanes at morning
the grapes’ sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies.
By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer’s best of weather,
And autumn’s best of cheer.
But none of all this beauty
Which floods the earth and air
Is unto me the secret
Which makes September fair.
‘T is a thing which I remember;
To name it thrills me yet:
One day of one September
I never can forget.”

Helen Hunt Jackson carried on a public correspondence, pointing out the wrongs done to native peoples, including the Sand Creek Massacre. She wrote nonfiction “A Century of Dishonor,” chronicling the broken treaties between federal and state governments and native American tribes, and her novel “Ramona,” recounts the struggles of native Americans in California.
I wonder who the teacher was that assigned Grandpa that poem to memorize...before he left school after the eighth grade. 

It is perhaps unlikely teachers will still assign this poem in 300 years. But for those of us who know what it is to feel the seasons change, who know the economic urgency of harvest, for whom goldenrod and milkweed are daily companions, these lines perform a re-enchantment of things we might barely notice otherwise. 
I don't know why Grandpa remembered this poem at that moment, but goldenrod and apple trees will always remind me of him and his pickup truck and that September day.

19 March 2017

First Poem

"Yankee Doodle," later renamed "Spirit of 1776"
by Archibald Willard,
Abbot Hall, Marblehead, Mass
I remember Dad's voice reading:

...One, if by land, and two, if by sea; And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm….”

Building to a crescendo:

“...The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat....”

“Paul Revere's Ride” appeared in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “Tales of a Wayside Inn,” Longfellow's nod to Chaucer, each story told by a different character.

My sister memorized the whole poem. We had a recording—a vinyl record with Longfellow contemporary Archibald Willard's “Yankee Doodle/Spirit of 1776” on the jacket.

Sometimes we'd recite it in the car, alternately surprised by lines Dad or my sister remembered and by those I didn't know I'd memorized.

Longfellow's subject matter and poetic form made him accessible to us. His was my first poetic language. So when I found Longfellow's “The Courtship of Miles Standish” on our bookshelf one Sunday afternoon, I pulled down, finishing it in the pew before the evening service.

“Tales of a Wayside Inn” also included “Torquemada,” the gothic tale of a father who turned his daughters over to the Spanish inquisition. These final lines demonstrate Longfellow's poetic range.

“The church-bells tolled, the chant of monks drew near,
Loud trumpets stammered forth their notes of fear,

A line of torches smoked along the street,

There was a stir, a rush, a tramp of feet,
And, with its banners floating in the air,
Slowly the long procession crossed the square,
And, to the statues of the Prophets bound,
The victims stood, with fagots piled around.
Then all the air a blast of trumpets shook,
And louder sang the monks with bell and book,
And the Hidalgo, lofty, stern, and proud,
Lifted his torch, and, bursting through the crowd,
Lighted in haste the fagots, and then fled,
Lest those imploring eyes should strike him dead! 

“O pitiless skies! why did your clouds retain
For peasants' fields their floods of hoarded rain?
O pitiless earth! why open no abyss
To bury in its chasm a crime like this?

“That night a mingled column of fire and smoke
From the dark thickets of the forest broke,
And, glaring o'er the landscape leagues away,
Made all the fields and hamlets bright as day.
Wrapped in a sheet of flame the castle blazed,
And as the villagers in terror gazed,
They saw the figure of that cruel knight
Lean from a window in the turret's height,
His ghastly face illumined with the glare,
His hands upraised above his head in prayer,
Till the floor sank beneath him, and he fell
Down the black hollow of that burning well.

“Three centuries and more above his bones
Have piled the oblivious years like funeral stones;
His name has perished with him, and no trace
Remains on earth of his afflicted race;
But Torquemada's name, with clouds o'ercast,
Looms in the distant landscape of the Past,
Like a burnt tower upon a blackened heath,
Lit by the fires of burning woods beneath!”

He became the most commercially successful poet of his generation but seems not to have measured up to his own expectations. At age thirty-five, Longfellow wrote “Mezzo Cammin,” which begins:

“Half of my life is gone, and I have let
The years slip from me and have not fulfilled
The aspiration of my youth, to build
Some tower of song with lofty parapet....”

The following year, he published "Evangeline," and three years after that he wrote what might be my favorite Longfellow poem, “The Fire of Drift-Wood”:

We sat within the farm-house old,
   Whose windows, looking o’er the bay,
Gave to the sea-breeze damp and cold,
   An easy entrance, night and day.

Not far away we saw the port,
   The strange, old-fashioned, silent town,
The lighthouse, the dismantled fort,
   The wooden houses, quaint and brown.

We sat and talked until the night,
   Descending, filled the little room;
Our faces faded from the sight,
   Our voices only broke the gloom.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
   Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
   And who was changed, and who was dead;

And all that fills the hearts of friends,
   When first they feel, with secret pain,
Their lives thenceforth have separate ends,
   And never can be one again;

The first slight swerving of the heart,
   That words are powerless to express,
And leave it still unsaid in part,
   Or say it in too great excess.

The very tones in which we spake
   Had something strange, I could but mark;
The leaves of memory seemed to make
   A mournful rustling in the dark.

Oft died the words upon our lips,
   As suddenly, from out the fire
Built of the wreck of stranded ships,
   The flames would leap and then expire.

And, as their splendor flashed and failed,
   We thought of wrecks upon the main,
Of ships dismasted, that were hailed
   And sent no answer back again.

The windows, rattling in their frames,
   The ocean, roaring up the beach,
The gusty blast, the bickering flames,
   All mingled vaguely in our speech;

Until they made themselves a part
   Of fancies floating through the brain,
The long-lost ventures of the heart,
   That send no answers back again.

O flames that glowed! O hearts that yearned!
   They were indeed too much akin,
The drift-wood fire without that burned,
   The thoughts that burned and glowed within.

Twice a widower, Longfellow waited eighteen years to write about his second wife's death. Her gown caught fire in a freak accident. “The Cross of Snow” was published after his death.

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
   A gentle face — the face of one long dead —
   Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
   The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
   Never through martyrdom of fire was led
   To its repose; nor can in books be read
   The legend of a life more benedight.

There is a mountain in the distant West
   That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
   Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
   These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
   And seasons, changeless since the day she died.

In 1875, he delivered “Morituri Salutamus” at the Bowdoin College commencement, his fiftieth reunion, about which much could be written, exploring how Longfellow saw himself and the meaning he drew from his work.

05 March 2017

Tradition: On Individualism and Lent

"The Crucifixion," by Enrico Manfrini,
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption,
San Francisco, Calif.

My friend and I were driving into San Francisco when the topic turned to baptism.

Several years before this same friend lent me an exposition of Mennonite doctrine that made sprinkling a plausible mode of baptism. I knew the Presbyterian defense of infant baptism as a sign and seal of the covenant.

Though I found those arguments persuasive, it also seems everyone's case for baptism involves interpretation. The Bible does not spell out baptism quite as clearly as the ten commandments, for example.

My friend observed what we're left with, then, is tradition.

Though this was the first time tradition crystalized in my mind, I'd encountered it before.

Growing up Pentecostal, we defended the idea certain spiritual gifts continued to the present day, which led me to also wrestle with how the Bible came to be in the first place and to ponder a few clues that seem to emerge from the text itself.

Beginning in Genesis, we see God progressively revealing himself to his people. And we see successive generations of God's people living in and becoming part of a tradition, a tradition into which and through which God continues to reveal himself.

And in this context, the scriptures provide criteria for credibility. Moses instructs the Israelites, “...And if thou say in thine heart, 'How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?' When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15-22, KJV)

The Apostle Paul similarly wrote to the Galatians, repeating himself for emphasis, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9, KJV)
The gospel of Luke records Jesus' parents attended the passover in Jerusalem every year.

The prophets and apostles through their writings are eyewitnesses to us who stand at this distance in time. 

But there's another question that brought tradition to my mind again. 

"The Visitation," by Enrico Manfrini,
Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption,
San Francisco, Calif.
I sat in a large church one Sunday—the video clips were original work, the worship band was good, Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll shared rack space in the foyer. It seems the folks love Jesus, that God is doing things, and that most of them didn't grow up in a church like this one. It made me wonder
what this generation's preoccupations will leave behind...and what will be obsolete by the time these children reach their parents' present age.

I see this tendency in myself...even in my thoughts about tradition. So much revolves around individual experience and choice...around doing this or that...around sociology and preferences. 

But tradition is a community across time that grows roots beyond the individual...and sometimes requires doing things that don't feel natural...a renewable source of culture shock. 

In some sense, perhaps, that unfamiliarity...that counterintuition...makes tradition credible...less subject to the vagaries of generational preoccupation, personality, and sociology. Evidence that doesn't fit is, after all, what points to new insights.

So this Lent...as I attempt daily readings from the Book of Common Prayer...I shall also pray for the grace to enter in with others who trigger me...who are the antidote to my own brand of heresy.

25 February 2017


I love whom you are,
Who you are becoming too,
Not just what you do;
When I say I'm proud of you,
I'm proud because I love you.

19 February 2017


In all our happily ever afters
lives this irony.
Love—unconditioned knowing
and valuing another—will involve
all kinds of sacrifice;
Expectations will be shattered,
perspectives reframed,
proclivities restrained;
Love's survival will depend on promises
kept through circumstances
There is a givenness to life;
A giftedness we share
rooted in more than either
self-discovery or denial.
But there is brokenness
in myself and the world,
what Saint Paul called groaning
in creation, a disordering
of my affections, hardness of heart,
tension between things' givenness
and my tendency to seize them.
There is beauty all mixed up
with the daily inconvenience of decorum,
that gets broken down
to ego and mechanics.
There is a dignity and grace
in friendship and unrequited love
that gets lost when all I know
is “putting myself out there”
or “feeling like a fool.”
There is a time beyond control
when even what is best in us
is not enough.
Love is the humanizing cost
to which we do not measure up
but come to find
Riverfront Park, Leavenworth, Wash.

12 February 2017

A Yodeler, a Painter, and Two Poets

The song went out to anyone who's ever fallen in love in “a cowboy kind of way.”

That's how Wylie Gustafson introduced “To Her,” a song based on the Badger Clark poem, when he and his band, The Wild West, performed at Spokane's Chateau Rive last January. 

To reach the venue, you enter The Flour Mill at street level, just across from the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. You wind your way to the elevator or the stairs where the historic grain bin construction, 2x4s laid flat one on top of the other, can still be seen. Down nearer Spokane River level, you enter the venue...with its thick brick walls and pieces of the old mill's power train still attached to the ceiling.

If Gustafson's performance is one thing or another, it's cowboy music. He returns throughout the show to the influence of his father singing and playing guitar in the living room and his mother taking the family to church. He sees himself in a tradition defined as much by the western ranching lifestyle he describes in “200 Ton” as by the music in the self-deprecating “Yodeling Fool.”

The band's website describes guitarist Clayton Parsons as a “third generation guitarist” and drummer Tim Lashley as “born and raised in the Black Hills, Home of Western American Poet, Charles Badger Clark.”

Clark was born in 1883, the same year his family moved to South Dakota. The Black Hills Gold Rush had just subsided. He spent four years on a cattle ranch in Arizona near the Mexican border, and published his first book of poetry, “Sun and Saddle Leather,” in 1915. He became South Dakota's first poet laureate, and the cabin where he lived his last 30 years remains a historic landmark.

"Loops and Swift Horses Are Surer Than Lead," C.M. Russell, 1916, Public Domain.

In “The Glory Road” a cowboy ropes a cougar and passes into myth. The Outlaw” draws an analogy between a wild horse and an untamed temper. Clark describes a searing grief in “The Lost Pardner,” and mourns those lost in war in “Smoke Blue Plains” and “Jeff Hart.

...Jeff Hart has drifted for good and all,
     To the ghostly bugles blown,
But the far French valley that saw him fall
     Blood kin to the gulch is grown;
And his foreign folks are ours by right—
     The friends that he died to win.
Jeff Hart rode out of the gulch one night;
     Next morning the world came in.

Though he writes of love, or at least infatuation, Clark, who never married, reasserts his individualism in these final stanzas of “Bachin'.”

...We like to breathe unbranded air,
     Be free of foot and mind,
And go or stay, or sing or swear,
     Whichever we're inclined.
An appetite, a conscience clear,
     A pipe that's rich and old
Are loves that always bless and cheer
     And never cry or scold,
          They don't.
     They never cry or scold.

Old Adam bached some ages back
     And smoked his pipe so free,
A-loafin' in a palm-leaf shack
     Beneath a mango tree.
He'd best have stuck to bachin' ways,
     And scripture proves the same,
For Adam's only happy days
     Was 'fore the woman came,
          They was,
     All 'fore the woman came.

It's an individualism unpacked further in these stanzas from “The Westerner.”

...I dream no dreams of a nurse-maid state
    That will spoon me out my food.
A stout heart sings in the fray with fate
    And the shock and sweat are good.
From noon to noon all the earthly boon
    That I ask my God to spare
Is a little daily bread in store,
With the room to fight the strong for more,
    And the weak shall get their share.

The sunrise plains are a tender haze
    And the sunset seas are gray,
But I stand here, where the bright skies blaze
    Over me and the big today.
What good to me is a vague "maybe"
    Or a mournful "might have been,"
For the sun wheels swift from morn to morn
And the world began when I was born
    And the world is mine to win.

The dichotomy of city and wilderness, old country and new haunts Clark, in poems like “The Old Cow Man” and here in “The Free Wind.”

I went and worked in a drippin' mine
     'Mong the rock and the oozin' wood,
For the dark it seemed lit with a dollar sign
     And they told me money's good.
So I jumped and sweat for a flat-foot boss
     Till my pocket bulged with pay,
But my heart it fought like a led bronc hawse
     Till I flung my drill away....

I went and walked in the city way
     Down a glitterin' canyon street,
For the thousand lights looked good and gay
     And they said life there was sweet.
So the wimmin laughed while night reeled by
     And the wine ran red and gold,
But their laugh was the starved wolf's huntin' cry
     And their eyes were hard and old....

This dichotomy persists in the opening lines of “From Town”:

We're the children of the open and we hate the haunts o' men,
   But we had to come to town to get the mail.
And we're ridin' home at daybreak—'cause the air is cooler then—
   All 'cept one of us that stopped behind in jail....

In contrast to Gustafson, Clark does not seem to see himself within a tradition. And here in the last stanza of “The Plainsmen,” Clark seems to know he occupies a moment that will not last forever.

...When the last free trail is a prime, fenced land
     And our graves grow weeds through forgetful Mays,
Richer and statelier then you'll reign,
     Mother of men whom the world will praise.
And your sons will love you and sigh for you,
Labor and battle and die for you,
     But never the fondest will understand
     The way we have loved you, young, young land.

Though the son of a Methodist minister, Clark's idea of God seems essentially material, voiced here by the elements in the final stanza of “The Camp Fire's Song”:

...Poor little primal thing am I,
   Great stranger, yet I mock your lore;
Your thickest volumes often lie
   And these still stars could tell you more,
The wind that sighs across the sand
Or I, but could you understand?
  So wise! so wise!
A puzzled child within your eyes.

"When the Land Belonged to God," C.M. Russell, 1914, Public Domain.

Clark wrote during the same period artist C.M. Russell lived and worked in Montana. Though one does not get from Russell the same threatened individualism one gets from Clark, Russell's “When the Land Belonged to God” reflects themes similar to these last lines from Clark's “God's Reserves.”

...There the world's the same as the day 'twas new,
    With the land as clean as the smokeless sky
And never a noise as the years have flew,
    But the sound of the warm wind driftin' by'
And there, alone, with the man's world far,
There's a chance to think who you really are.
And over the reach of the desert bare,
    When the sun drops low and day wind stills,
Sometimes you kin almost see Him there,
    As He sits alone on the blue-gray hills,
A-thinkin' of things that's beyond our ken
And restin' Himself from the noise of men.

Russell's painting inspired a song of the same title by Jack Gladstone, citizen of the Blackfeet Nation and University of Washington alumni hall of fame inductee:

...The purest gift is not of gold,
but in art that awakens the soul.
As we choose our trail up the Great Divide
to an unknown stage on the other side
We might realign with the scenes of the Big Sky’s unbroken sod...
Where the Land Belongs to God.

04 February 2017

An Uncourtship Story

This post first appeared on The VOICE Conference Blog. This edition is reprinted here with permission from The VOICE Conference.

I searched the Bible for character qualities my future wife should have...and some I should have.

I made commitments to “courtship” when I was 12. I had crushes, accompanied by prayer and journaling. I read blog posts about “being the right one” rather than “finding the right one.” I looked for more character qualities I should have.

If I did what was right, I wouldn't hurt others or be hurt myself, right?

Then I tried to “court” someone.

That's when I discovered well-intentioned people treat one another shabbily, even when—maybe especially when—they're trying to do everything right.

Along the way, I heard lots of advice. There were admonitions to be “serious” about relationships. But being “serious” didn't guarantee I wasn't also selfish.

There were admonitions to “pursue” relationship, that relationships take work. This idea pointed out where I focus on myself. But my initiative and effort did not guarantee relationship success.

The shame became the hardest part.

While my friends were getting married and then having kids, I wondered why my relationships would last a while...and not work.

In the two and a half years before I met my wife, Tina, summer 2013, two 8-month relationships came and went—one mostly on Skype that couldn't survive meeting in person, one relationship I ended for reasons I still struggle to articulate.

Even my good desires were all mixed up with something else. I'd think myself in the right...and realize how self-righteous that thought meant I was. I'd decide my life direction didn't match someone else's...and then realize my real reasons had more to do with fear.

So when I met Tina, I didn't experience it as answered prayer. I hadn't thought to pray.

I didn't “love Jesus more,” or receive a “rhema,” or get myself to a place where I had “no will of my own,” though those sound like good things.

Knowing Tina has been more like a sudden rain than turning on a faucet, more like being forgiven than asking for forgiveness, more like grace than anything else.

Now that we're married we need each other's forgiveness even more. And the other's forgiveness makes God's promised forgiveness feel more real.

Maybe that's the point.

Maybe grace is the work we discover God was doing all along. Maybe what we're meant to know isn't “how to live the Christian life” but to behold our Savior.

Photo courtesy of Anita Paulsson

28 January 2017

The Raven: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of Story

In his memoir, "On Writing," Stephen King describes being nearly killed by a motoristalmost a character from his books.
In "The Raven," something like that happens to Edgar Allan Poe.  

Nobody knows just where Poe was before he turned up October 3, 1849, and friends took him to Baltimore's Washington College Hospital. The makers of the movie seem to say he was tracking a serial killer. But as the bodies pile up, so do clues something else is going on.

What surprised me, after I woke up one night and on impulse caught a midnight showing, is how well the movie bears re-watching and how it opened a door to Poe's work that hadn't been there before. 

The movie achieves that effect not because it translates Poe onto screen. There is no biography to translate. And though the movie interweaves with Poe's works, the movie does not explain them.

Instead the filmmakers confront the viewer with the mystery of the story as well as the mystery in the story. It makes one wonder what more one needs to know in order to unlock the meaning of those layers. 

Some will notice Rufus W. Griswold makes the movie victim list, though history records he wrote the biography in the first collected edition of Poe's works...after Poe died. 

Some notice the significance of the movie's use of Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream."

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

Poe saw the world as a rational place and the pursuit of art as a rational process. In the "The Purloined Letter" and "Murders in the Rue Morgue," he saw detective work as a deductive process. And it was keen observation and deduction that saved the narrator in "A Descent into the Maelstrom." 

In his essay “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe breaks down the process he used to write his poem, “The Raven.”

"It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

This is not to say he did not believe in emotion or empathy, which we commonly contrast with rationality today. He saw them as the goal to be achieved through the rational process.

He writes, "Keeping originality always in view...I say to myself, in the first place, 'Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?'"

Everything then—from the length of the poem to the vowel sounds he wanted in the refrain and the use of a raven rather than a parrot—served the effect he sought to create.

Perhaps Poe's poetic belief in beauty—the elevation of the soul—which he took to be the central principle of poetry, gives Poe's idea of death its searing quality…as in these last lines of "Anabelle Lee."

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee: —
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea —
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.  

Or, to take a poem not referenced in the film, "Ulalume":

The skies they were ashen and sober;
   The leaves they were crisped and sere —
   The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
   Of my most immemorial year;
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
   In the misty mid region of Weir —
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
   In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
   Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
   Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
   As the scoriac rivers that roll —
   As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
   In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
   In the realms of the boreal pole.

Our talk had been serious and sober,
   But our thoughts they were palsied and sere —
   Our memories were treacherous and sere —
For we knew not the month was October,
   And we marked not the night of the year —
   (Ah, night of all nights in the year!)
We noted not the dim lake of Auber —
   (Though once we had journeyed down here) —
Remembered not the dank tarn of Auber,
   Nor the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

And now, as the night was senescent
   And star-dials pointed to morn —
   As the star-dials hinted of morn —
At the end of our path a liquescent
   And nebulous lustre was born,

Out of which a miraculous crescent
   Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
   Distinct with its duplicate horn.

And I said — “She is warmer than Dian:
   She rolls through an ether of sighs —
   She revels in a region of sighs:
She has seen that the tears are not dry on
   These cheeks, where the worm never dies,
And has come past the stars of the Lion
   To point us the path to the skies —
   To the Lethean peace of the skies —
Come up, in despite of the Lion,
   To shine on us with her bright eyes —
Come up through the lair of the Lion,
   With love in her luminous eyes.”

But Psyche, uplifting her finger,
   Said — “Sadly this star I mistrust —
   Her pallor I strangely mistrust: —
Oh, hasten! — oh, let us not linger!
   Oh, fly! — let us fly! — for we must.”
In terror she spoke, letting sink her
   Wings until they trailed in the dust —
In agony sobbed, letting sink her
   Plumes till they trailed in the dust —
   Till they sorrowfully trailed in the dust.

I replied — “This is nothing but dreaming
   Let us on by this tremulous light!
   Let us bathe in this crystalline light!
Its Sybilic splendor is beaming
   With Hope and in Beauty to-night: —
   See! — it flickers up the sky through the night!
Ah, we safely may trust to its gleaming,
   And be sure it will lead us aright —
We safely may trust to a gleaming
   That cannot but guide us aright,
   Since it flickers up to Heaven through the night.”

Thus I pacified Psyche and kissed her,
   And tempted her out of her gloom —

   And conquered her scruples and gloom;
And we passed to the end of the vista,
   But were stopped by the door of a tomb —
   By the door of a legended tomb;
And I said — “What is written, sweet sister,
   On the door of this legended tomb?”
   She replied — “Ulalume — Ulalume —
   ‘Tis the vault of thy lost Ulalume!”

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
   As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
   As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
   On this very night of last year
   That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
   That I brought a dread burden down here —
   On this night of all nights in the year,
   Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
   This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,

   This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir."

Whatever effect director James McTeigue and writers Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston were going for, they created a place where Poe—his life, death, and works—come swirling together with their attending questions and meanings.