Thursday, August 20, 2009

L'Antica Rete

The painters had made it seem

as though Beauty was soft,

So, I suffered a modern affliction--

Passed to me (father to son to father and so on)--

That caused me to look at such jaundiced images

As if they were not really upside down.

And, like my father, I quickly mistook fear for awe

In that presence the first time I met it.

So, casting about (my own little net)I reached (as perhaps our Geoffrey had reached)

For such a tale as would tell me my place

And found (what my father had overlooked)

Vogli, Breatrice, volgi gli occhi santi

That I too was caught in l'antica rete:

As in her eyes, Beauty is hard

Like diamonds.

(image: Dante's Dream at the Death of Beatrice by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1871) English Pre-Raphaelite, oil on canvas, Walker Gallery, Liverpool)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Eve's Second Sorrow

There are no images of Eve's second sorrow.

On the death of her son
From forseeable betrayal
There are contemplations of beauty.

Her sorrow then cannot be but precursor

To a Promethean blind hope

That Death might itself

Necessitate a salvation that only a medieval might understand.

But Adam surely died.
Did she cradle him in her arms?
I prefer to think she did--and Michealangelo captured something
Of the paradox in the Pieta:
A Mother mourning the death of the First Son, even
As an Eve shed tears for the passing of the second.

(image: (c) "The First Mourning." William Adolph Bourguereau

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Tobias Says Goodbye to his Father

I remember I had read something from Tobit,
But the last line was missing from the text.
I had not realized it until, staring down,
I knew the script was missing something important.

So I read it with a cadence that would make it seem complete.

It seemed at the moment quite like life.

Here I was, an honored man, asked to read a bit of Old Testament
Scripture during a wedding in Atlanta.
And, lo, a line was missing.

I thought for a moment that I might make something up.

But what could a jester add to the comedy of Tobit?

So, I read the last line and emphasized the wrong words,
Paused, said something about the Word of the Lord
And exited the stage--just shy of Fortinbras' entrance
Demanding the disaster be covered o'er with a pomp and circumstance
My rented tuxedo belied..

Being with child, and wanting my wife, for once, to enjoy
The joy that attends a wedding,
I took my youngest, restless, curious, and full of life,

There, at the bottom of the steps I witnessed something singular:

Looking up to street-level I saw a man, in a long coat I something envied
Deposited from a fat yellow cab upon a rain-slicked walk.
He wore also a hat and scarf, the colors of which were dark and tasteful--
I could tell even from where I was below.

He paid the driver, had some talk, turned, and, straightening his hat,
Walked to the grand doors of the Cathedral.

I thought then that Coleridge's Mariner might accost him, but no-one appeared.
He paused, and then opened gently the door--and light spilled from within,
Illuminating briefly an infinite triangle (in all dimensions a kind of diamond) of grey
Speckled with rain and fluffy cotton-balls of snow.

Before he entered I noted he removed his hat
And the expiration of his breath reminded me briefly of mortality.

His hair was a silver-white in that seeming late-night light
And I thought: How I hope to be so distinguished someday.
Perhaps I will wear eye-glasses like that too.

Perhaps I shall live so long.

And then he disappeared.

Presumably, he went to join the wedding feast.
The Bride and Bride-Groom rosy in the rush of nuptial ceremony
Would later lead us to a reception where they did not fail to offer
The best wine first, second, and last.

I asked someone who had also seen him,
This distinguished man,
Entering stealthily into a marriage-vow
Just before the seal was sealed, and I discovered

I knew him:

His name was Peter, and he came because he knew them--

The Bride and Groom.

This Fisherman, lover, husband, founder--his orphans spread far and wide--
It was rumored, would never miss a wedding:

But had never seen a birth.

(Image: Tobias Saying Good-Bye to his Father. Painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

And Martha Must Wait

Euryclea clap't her hands
But refrained from remarking upon the scar.
And Homer, honoring the goodly nursemaid's restraint,
Tells instead of boar and spear:
A boy's being blooded to become a man.

Who would blindly chase his fate and lose his way
For ten long years, return, a beggar's foot
Fallen into a basin, even as his beloved Telemachus
Was soothed by the fiat of a redeemed Helen of Troy?

How could she then, who'd suckled the boy,
Stay her very own lips and not shout for joy
That the man now Master had returned?

A prodigal without a brother, a son-father who was also a God?

But return he did and silent she remained.

He threaded the bow
Ascended the stair,
His labors complete,
And there then found that for which he'd been made:

And Martha wonders how this
Could be the better portion.

But faithful Euryclea cleansed the foot only of a pre-cursor
Of truth
And was content.

And Martha must wait.

(image: "Ulysses Recognized by Euryclea," Eustave Boulanger, 1849. Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris

Friday, April 10, 2009

Falling In Love (I) Thanks to Kate

And in a sudden he saw her standing there, turning gracefully toward him and he could not speak. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he could not think of anything to say--this man of words was stunned, momentarily, to a profound silence as he looked upon the image of his heart's desire, one of which he had dreamed, knew he'd know, but never hoped to find since such dreams never really come true. And in that image he saw the hints of his future life, the graceful features of the hands of a daughter he would come to know, the deep-set, sad eyes of a son who would grow to be a man, the dark brown eyes of a grandchild who would love a funny man with a white beard called "Grampa."

In the coming weeks and days of their courtship, he continued to be haunted by the feeling that he simply did not know what to say. They conversed, he was funny, she laughed and fell in love. But still, he could not articulate what was in his heart--and then, on the day of their wedding he realized what it was that he wanted to say:

I do.

(image of Dante & Beatrice in Paradise by Amalia Ciardi Dupre, subject to copyright)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

This is What it Looks Like to Fall in Love

Some many years after Dante, as a nine year old, had seen Beatrice, he saw her again as an adult. There was no hope they could ever be together. He loved her anyway.


This is the image of a gift you've been granted. Embrace it. Live up to it. Be husbands. Be fathers. Recognize the beauty that has been offered to your humility.

If you are so gifted to have a Sophia, or a Sheila--or an Elizabeth or a Grace or an Eamon or Liam. Come to know them for the gifts to you that they are. The faces they show you are facets that otherwise you would not know.

Know them and come to know yourself.

And then abandon that part of you that thinks that they show you something about you. They don't. They show you something you need to know that you wouldn't know without them.

(image: © 2008 Jonamac Productions, "Dante and Beatrice", 1883, by Henry Holiday. Antonio Corsi posed as Dante. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


So, I'm going to California. I'm twenty. Why am I going? Because I'm young and I can.

That's not a very good reason, as it turns out, but I'm going anyway.

But before I go, I'm going home for a visit. My family life is pretty straightforward at this point. I'm the first to leave home and go away to college and stay there. So, I'm something of a golden boy for certain younger siblings. My younger sister Emily, who is also my god-child, always referred to my absence from her life a result of my being at "far-far-away-school." Which was true. After graduating high school, I left. I went as far as I could. To the University of Missouri-Columbia, thinking I wanted to be a journalist. I'd change my mind within a couple of months--but the fact remained that I left and didn't come back. Except for short visits.

It wasn't because I wanted necessarily to be away. I wanted to, well, be. And my little sister Emily figured into my thinking and feeling about this a great deal, as it turned out. But everything's hindsight, so it's hard to tell how forward thinking I was then versus how backward thinking I am now.

In any event, I resolved to accept an invitation to work in Los Angeles one summer. As I said, I was 20 at the time. But I couldn't just leave from Dallas and go. I wanted to visit home first.

I met and fell in love with a girl later who would receive a picture of me and my little sisters outside a laundry-mat during this visit home. I remember I wrote to her on the back of that picture--me and my sisters Emily, Linda and Kate, with my Mom's laundry stacked rather neatly inside the window on a table behind us, as we stood outside this South Texas laundry-mat--"Remember me" Huh. I gave her a picture of a much older brother cradling his adorable sisters in the hope that she would see that he could love innocence. But I really didn't know then what that meant at all. I do now--so the picture only imaged a kind of hope.

She married me anyway.

But, as I say, I traveled home before moving to Pasadena, California, and spent some time with the family. I loved all of them dearly. Still do. Differently. Time passes. He's a gentleman and a bastard at the same time. Stuff happens and still he marches. Sometimes steps on stuff.

But, I was home and was trying to steel myself for my very first adventure. Sure, I had left home to go make my way in the world at college--but, really, that's just one cocoon to another, you know? And I cried the first three weeks then--huddled in a phone booth in the basement of my dorm and trying to stifle my shame on the phone with my Mom or Dad during those days, so homesick I could taste the vitriol in my mouth when I hung up the phone. My rebellion had been replaced by a huge wave of sentiment, the taste of which I loathed and savored at the same time. Life is paradox--even when we have no sophistication.

But now I was embarking on a trip that would take me, by car, from deep South Texas to Los Angeles , California. When we got to El Paso, we were half-way there. Wow. For the first time I began to understand distance. Not because it is tedious but because it is, in itself, as Einstein came to realize, miraculous. Some gang-banger got shot to death in El Paso as I was passing through. That's a kind of miracle. They make movies about such happenstance in Hollywood--and that's where I was heading.

But before I left I searched for some pictures. I wanted to take some with me. And, as I said, I was planning on falling in love with a girl, so I needed a history. I didn't really think I'd meet her in L.A., but I knew I'd meet her someday. I wanted to give her something. Somehow.

So, I looked through a shoe-box.

There were all kinds of pictures there. There were pictures of me and my siblings from days in the '70's. With our buck teeth and pure innocence. Before braces but not before stupid clothes and bell-bottomed pants. Knit shirts and shag hair-cuts. In one picture my sister Laura stares out with her hands crossed upon her breast. Like what she will look like in her coffin. Strange and beautiful and scary. My youngest brother Rob too fat for his "one-zee." He's a contented Buddha with his whole life before him. He has no idea that he will be a fireman. But he will be a hero--and yet in the picture he's just a fat boy with everything in front of him.

So, I'm rooting through and I find a picture of my little sister Linda. It's one I took before leaving for college. She was perhaps 6 or 7 at the time. She's posing (for me) with some dog we had. I have no name for this dog. He's shaggy and dirty--like an unkempt Benji. One of the unnumbered strays we took care of in those days. She's not really smiling. But she's not sad either. She's just her. She's just--well, authentically Linda. I can't explain it well, but I love the picture and I want to take it to California. I don't know what awaits me there--there are dangers. I fear Pinocchio's 'Island of Lost Boys' there. I want her picture to ground me. I remove it from the box.

Then I find another picture. It's of my mother. It's black and white. She's cradling a dog too--it's a Boxer. She's on a beach. I know it must be the Cape. I wonder if the Boxer is the same as one in a picture of me from Indiana I saw once. I figure it can't be. I set this picture next to the one of Linda.

I've never considered Linda to resemble my mother--and yet they are clearly of the same stock. There's no denying it, despite the difference in hair and skin color and tone. My mother, in my imagination, has no freckles. Linda is scored with with them. But there's something in the expression of each that teaches me, inarticulately, a certain something about what it means to be person.

There they are, next to each other. The one in color, taken in the '80's, of my little sister. The other, in black-and-white, of my mother, taken by someone to whom I must be related but whose name I do not know. She looks fourteen--but there's no way to tell. Back in the 1950's, perhaps, dressed in a way that made them seem more mature. A white cotton blouse and clam-diggers, in the sand without shoes.

My mother looks out at the world--a young girl. All of her life ahead of her. The life that has now unfolded--married at 19. A first child at 20. And then nine children later and an oldest son ready to make his way West.

More importantly, they were people in their own right. I could see it in their eyes. Each with an entire life ahead of them, Demeter and Persephone before I'd even met them.

Mother and daughter and, with the pictures side by side, for the first time, I recognized that they looked alike. How strange. I saw in that moment the anguish of the Mother whose daughter will someday become a woman, of whom Zeus himself would brood upon, as Hesiod wrote.

What a miracle. What a miracle they each were. Separate and yet the same.

And had I ever been an Orpheus to rescue either from the Pomegranate seed? Could I ever be?

I cannot quite articulate the miracle of another individual except to say that it gives me hope. That there is such beauty in the world. That there is such beauty in the world.

It makes you understand not Achilles--but perhaps Odysseus or Aeneas. Perhaps. Definitely, Dante. Yes. Dante. Every man hopes for a Beatrice. We are all introduced to them. Few of us recognize them when we see them.

I love Dante.

(image: (c) H. Blairman & Sons, bas-relief by Ellen Mary Rope, 1899)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Three Worlds

Within the rain-slick'd pavement's
Oil-fractalled water
A bird flying up-side-down.

(image M.C. Escher's "Sky and Water")