Optical Nerve

Some photos say more than poems can.  & vice versa.

Whose ocarina?  Who is the "hand-behind-the-arras artist"?  Who's at home in Shakespeare's Head today (aside from Nabokov)?  Anyone remember the Blind King (on Federal Hill)?

The way up-down is the way down-up.

from Shakespeare's Head


There's life in the clay, moving like wind, 
back and forth, an epic of beginnings. 
Through the flute lip mouth, uncurling 
that turtleshell of an ocarina, found

almost crushed in snow and puddingstone. 
New England Providence.  My Providence. 
And there's confusion and there's nonsense 
in the hamlet geometry of Shakespeare's son:

the hand-behind-the-arras artist 
feathered like raven, or robin gone blind, 
double-feathered, double-colored, crowned, 
a Venetian Blind King, coursing west.

On the optical nerve a wooden stage is set. 
The leaves whisper, clay ruffles,
wind sings, filters and rifles (while
I gulp down a measure of diminished fifth).

More news from Providence

Epic poems measure themselves.  They have to, it's part of nature.  Like tree-rings, exactement.  This is squawk #2 from the prelude, the prologue, the opening gambit, the 1st pitch.

from Shakespeare's Head 


A snail inches through earth become clay –
twelve miles by twelve around in a circle. 
And Shakespeare's Head (anonymous oracle)
still stands (on the East Side) to this day.

Blind newsboy tin of happiness!
Measured phrases squaring off those domes 
boxed-in and feuding until kingdom come.
I'll hide my own head in your field grass.

Time waves the robins across the prairie.
Settle down, Eurydice, Persephone –
he won't be long.  Trumped-up harmony 
will bear him (bleary-eyed) from the library.

Garden behind Shakespeare's Head

Hope High

Hey, I'm starting to learn, after my first fulsome day on the epic-illustration job, that there are phases of litwatchure, psychic implications, imponderables, sub-rosa subtics, which do not carry over so simply into glossy 3x5s (or whatever you call them now).  There be layers of irony and unintentional irony in Stubborn Grew, stretches of lost blab, unplaceables(?).

Welcome to Providence!  Every location is infinitely deep.  But the soul is even deeper - who can plumb its diversions?

You can, by golly!  That's why we have blogs!

Here be another proto-squawk from 1st chapt of Stubborn Grew.  God does not play dice with Eurydice.  Perhaps they rehearse violin duets?  Look there, through the chain-link fence - find the golden ring!

All's in play on the playing fields.

from Shakespeare's Head :


We were standing in the middle of the baseball field. 
Hope High School field.  A plateau, blue panels
of Providence afloat under the sundrenched wells
of sky.  I called your name – you turned again.  Smiled.

Black hair veiled your face.  Black sweater, black 
pants, black sunglasses over your eyes.
You bent your head sideways
and waved me off – a wavering stick

of blindness – dancing on your toes a moment 
in the middle of the field – of all
that brilliant sunshine.  Well
of the sky.  Wells up the fountain.  Surging, bent

over.  And over.  I can't go on, 
or write any more.

Athletic fields behind Hope High School

Eurydice, Eurydice

Following up on the various Orphic threads spooled out in previous post... here's another passage from the opening chapter.  You see how the local Rhody statuary & memorabilia are bumping up against another dimension, "vaguely realizing westward"...


Shakespeare's Head is the headwaters now
of the Providence Preservation Society. 
Here lawyers, newsmen, literati
swirled, 200 years ago.

A century before and two steps down the hill
old Williams called them out beside the riverbank
and there they convenanted – what to think
and what to speak not to be enforced by rule.

Up the slope and facing the art school
under the constant spray of a water slide 
stone Hermes, Orpheus, Eurydice, all stand 
motionless beneath the fountain's endless fall.


The land, the land stretched out toward sundown.
At the end of the forests without end, the sun gleamed.
Magnitudes undreamt
by Greeks, the dry flute flown

into moist green, light fern-green 
ghosts in the trees.
I'm driving the empty roads
in early May, at dawn.

Someone cries out Eurydice, Eurydice 
into ramshackle and forlorn wastelands. 
Blind joyful grief behind the railroad lines. 
All gone to seed.  Oh say can you see.

Orpheus Ascending, by Gilbert Franklin, 1963

Shakespeare's Head

As mentioned in previous post, Shakespeare's Head is the name of a colonial-era building in Providence.  Here's the epigraph with which Stubborn Grew opens :

“At the sign of Shakespeare’s Head” must have been a fascinating spot in the politically exciting days before and during the War for Independence.  One can picture the culturally-minded folks leisurely fingering the leather-bound volumes of the classics that lined the shelves in the northwest corner of the lower floor, while the revolutionary-minded compatriots voraciously flipped the pages of the legal, historical and philosophical tomes, eagerly searching for ammunition…
– “Old Stone Bank” History of RI

Shakespeare's Head

There was a garden behind Shakespeare's Head. 
A long time ago, before you were born.
Before you were born, before you were born,
a garden there was, behind Shakespeare's Head.


So this morning I made an expedition to gather more photos.  Headed over to Prospect Terrace, where Stubborn Grew begins.  Here's the first stanza again :

Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay.
A spring breeze flows through the branches on the terrace. 
The city below flutters and flaps, roars
and drones like a resurrected bumblebee. 

And what did I find at the Terrace?  A flowering tree right next to the Roger Williams monument, swarming with bumblebees.

Time flowers

Writers will recognize the symptom I'm talking about when I say the approach of a new poem or piece of work is a bit ominous as well as exciting.  You know you are about to assume a new burden, new vow, new love.  Hunches start to integrate & synthesize, merge - & in the process gain mass & velocity.  You are going to have to dedicate some of your life to this.  You are going to die into it a little (the "little death" of creativity, you might say).

I had a sense as Stubborn Grew was approaching that it would be somehow "Orphic".  Orpheus is a sort of touchstone for poets, obviously.  He stands in the background of all those epic "descents" into the Underworld - Homer, Virgil, Dante, Joyce... & Jesus too (who spent "three days in the depths of the earth").  He dies singing, in order to come back again.

This was not my first long poem.  I'd written 3-4 previously.  I knew some of my own patterns.  There was the psychic obsession with my cousin Juliet, who committed suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971.  I wanted to bring her back from the dead.  There was the sense, too, that to create poetry is a healing process for the poet - through descending/ascending I would be renewing my own life too, as I was, bumbling through the library into middle age, dealing with great personal mistakes.  & there was the idea that "redeeming" American poets from this specific violence - suicide - was part of my job too.  To counter the death-urge, the inexorable tide-pull for Berryman, Hart Crane, Weldon Kees...  Finally there was the notion that all these personal motifs might feed into a larger "resurrection" plot - the silly idea that poetry has some role to play in setting the whole nation on a slightly different, maybe better path...

Then, too, in that regard, I was learning about Bluejay, one of the figures in Northwest Coast Native American stories... he had his own orphic journeys to relate.

But I wanted Stubborn Grew to bind together these different planes - ordinary & wonderful, reality & "dream song", plain old Hen and Berryman's "Henry", Divine Providence & funky "Prov-town".  These contrasts were always going to clash & struggle in the poem.  "Henry" the Orphic maestro, dream-rescuer of Juliet, was also Henry the Providence guy - the one who's marriage came apart (a marriage to a poet's daughter).  These contrasts needed to be in the poem.

Anyway, I saw these things coming.  There is the Dream & there is the tragicomic aspect (more on Aristotle's Poetics later).  Here's how the poem begins.  You can hear a little echo of Olson's Maximus - signaling the ambition & the focus ahead.  So... "- I'll show you the dusty photo, torn anew."


Time flowers on the lips of whispered clay.
A spring breeze flows through the branches on the terrace. 
The city below flutters and flaps, roars
and drones like a resurrected bumblebee.

Recorded organ music at noon from the cathedral 
drifts over the motors.  From the ornamental spine
of the ridge, domineering the town, I'm marking time –
soon have to head back to my monkey stall.

A detached head floats down the Hebrus River
like those Carrier robins, skimming out of electricity. 
Out of moving mud, out of sliding riverside.  See 
the kingfisher flicker now – dive like an arrow –

rise again, lips, out of, oh, out of the occasional, view! 
Clay, ribs, mud, marble, puddingstone.
My park bench careens down the local Rhine
– I'll show you the dusty photo, torn anew.

Henry, Juliet, & Cara, circa 1968

Epic by Bluejay

I'm going to pre-amble my way into this project, coming at it sideways, the way the poem began in the first place.  Preliminary squawks.

Bluejays hang around our street & the backyard.  They make the first raucous sounds every morning.  Once, though, as I was sitting out under the little dogwood tree, a bluejay a few feet over my head began doing something I'd never heard before - yodeling quietly, improvising, like a hopped-up mockingbird.  The poem which became Stubborn Grew was greatly influenced in its development by that particular bird.  I knew, if I was going to make an "epic", I had to open up.  To let go - be direct, be loud.  I had to squawk.  & change it up.  This may sound obvious : but it wasn't easy for me.  The bluejay led the way.

from Once in Providence

I sat in the backyard, in the May sunlight, 
in a whiskey haze, reading Ariosto;
there was a bluejay in a nearby pussy willow 
singing sotto voce scat with a pure delight.

I've never heard a bluejay sing like that –
like a manic soloing mockingbird
but softly, practicing – almost unheard, 
just overheard – hilarious arpeggios (b-flat).

That bluejay was a sort of humanist,
sowing his wild notes when he gets away
from neighborhood policing – jay, jay, jay!
and nay, nay, nay! all day (an airborne pugilist).

Maybe that bluejay – with the thick black 
creases around his eyes – etched by reading 
Time, and worrying about the times – seeing 
too much, too little – maybe he was that oblique

son of Ferrara himself, come to take charge 
of his only reader in Providence this year! 
and burble along with his blessed disio
dear bambino-talk. . . bird-humanist, at large. . .

Before he submerges (signed, untraced)
back into the ghost-world – into the maelstrom, 
like those robins, back where he came from. 
It's right that this clear crowing be effaced –

it's just.  Dark summer thunderclouds draw near. 
Epics of mockery will mimic their surrender;
Orpheus, another daunting barrator, goes under, 
breaking the code (with his broken-hearted mirror).