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Juneteenth 2020: Thoughts on “We Saw Beyond Our Seeming” by Maya Angelou

President Obama presenting Maya with the Presidential Medal of Freedom (Source: Wikipedia)

Juneteenth is also known as Freedom Day, and is “an American holiday celebrated annually on June 19. It commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Although the Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed them almost two and a half years earlier, and the American Civil War had largely ended with the defeat of the Confederate States in April, Texas was the most remote of the slave states, with a low presence of Union troops, so enforcement of the proclamation had been slow and inconsistent.” (Source: Wikipedia) To honor black artists and to show support for the continued struggle for human rights in this country, I feel it is appropriate to share my thoughts on this powerful poem by the late Maya Angelou.

We saw beyond our seeming
These days of bloodied screaming

Of children dying bloated
Out where the lilies floated

Of men all noosed and dangling
Within the temples strangling

Our guilt grey fungus growing
We knew and lied our knowing

Deafened and unwilling
We aided in the killing

And now our souls lie broken
Dry tablets without token.

As a white man in America, this poem hits me on a visceral level. It is not enough to sit back and silently feel sorry for our fellow humans who are being systematically assaulted, humiliated, oppressed, and killed because of the color of their skin. We have a responsibility to speak out against injustice and to show courage in the face of hatred. Doing nothing makes us all complicit in the subjugation of an entire group of people. And as Ms. Angelou succinctly states in the final couplet, when we turn away and ignore the suffering of others, we incur scars on our own souls.

I hope this poem inspired you as much as it inspires me, and that you will draw on its strength to take a stand against racism. For those of you who are interested, here is a short YouTube video of someone reciting this poem. Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “The Ideal” by Charles Baudelaire

Night by Michelangelo

Never those beauties in old prints vignetted,
Those shopworn products of an worthless age,
With slippered feet and fingers castanetted,
The thirst of hearts like my heart can assuage.

To Gavarni, the poet of chloroses,
I leave his troupe of beauties sick and wan;
I cannot find among those pale, pale roses
The red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.

Lady Macbeth, a soul strong in crime,
Aeschylus’ dream born in a northern clime—
Ah, you could quench my dark heart’s deep desiring;

Or you, Michelangelo’s daughter, Night,
In a strange posture dreamily admiring
Your beauty fashioned for a giant’s delight!

(translation: F.P. Sturm)

This poem is Baudelaire’s critique of the artistic ideal of beauty. He asserts that beauty expressed through art is unrealistic, and the result is a “dark heart’s deep desiring” for something that does not exist.

In the second stanza, he contrasts “pale, pale roses” with the “red ideal mine eyes would gaze upon.” The roses here symbolize women, the red rose being an artistic representation of the idealized female form, and the pale rose being a real woman.

Baudelaire’s argument is still valid today. We still have an ideal of what beauty should be, and this ideal is something that no amount of plastic surgery can bestow upon a person. We all have flaws and imperfections, and I think what Baudelaire is asserting here is that it is our imperfections that convey our true beauty, those unique qualities that are specific to an individual.

As long as we lust after the ideal of beauty, we will always be disillusioned, unhappy, and burdened with the longing for something we will never attain.

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Thoughts on “Balzac” by Aleister Crowley

Rodin’s Balzac

I’ve been slowly working my way through The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, which is quite a long book, so I’ve been interspersing it with other books and poems. So far, Crowley spends a lot of time emphasizing his brilliance as a poet, going so far as to view himself as superior to Yeats (a fine example of hubris, in my humble opinion). But he did include a sonnet which he said was inspired by Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of Honoré de Balzac, the French writer (see image above). I felt the poem was worth talking about. Here is the text for reference:

Giant, with iron secrecies ennighted,
Cloaked, Balzac stands and sees. Immense disdain,
Egyptian silence, mastery of pain,
Gargantuan laughter, shake or still the ignited
Statue of the Master, vivid. Far, affrighted,
The stunned air shudders on the skin. In vain
The Master of La Comédie Humaine
Shadows the deep-set eyes, genius lighted.

Epithalamia, birth songs, epitaphs,
Are written in the mystery of his lips.
Sad wisdom, scornful shame, grand agony
In the coffin folds of the cloak, scarred mountains, lie,
And pity hides i’ th’ heart. Grim knowledge grips
The essential manhood. Balzac stands, and laughs.

Crowley explains that he wrote the poem in support of Rodin, who was being harshly criticized regarding the sculpture.

The sculpture was not received well by the critics; Rodin took the negativity as a personal attack. Many disliked the grotesque stature of the figure while others criticized the work to be very similar to that of the Italian impressionist Medardo Rosso. As well, reports surfaced before the unveiling of the sculpture regarding anticipated dismay over the final outcome of the artwork. The Société des Gens de Lettres decided to disregard the commission to Rodin and not accept the sculpture.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Personally, I love when artists find inspiration from artistic works of different mediums. So here we have a poem, written about a sculpture, which was inspired by the works of a novelist. To me, this exemplifies how all artistic forms are connected, that they all seek to elevate the human consciousness to loftier planes.

As I look at Rodin’s sculpture and consider Crowley’s words, I get the sense that Crowley’s admiration of this work stems from the cloak of mystery that seems to enshroud Balzac. From what I gather about Crowley, he would likely have related to the feeling of being cloaked, particularly from the ritualistic occult perspective. And even artistically. As I read more of his writings, I get the sense that he was attempting to create this myth about himself, wrapping himself in a woven tale to give him a mystique as a prophet and occultist.

While I don’t think that Crowley is as great of a poet as he claims he was, it is interesting to read his poems nonetheless, because if nothing else, poems provide a window into the writer’s psyche.

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“Sonnet 38: How can my Muse want subject to invent” by William Shakespeare

How can my Muse want subject to invent,
While thou dost breathe, that pour’st into my verse
Thine own sweet argument, too excellent
For every vulgar paper to rehearse?
O, give thyself the thanks, if aught in me
Worthy perusal stand against thy sight;
For who’s so dumb that cannot write to thee,
When thou thyself dost give invention light?
Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth
Than those old nine which rhymers invocate;
And he that calls on thee, let him bring forth
Eternal numbers to outlive long date.
If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise.

This is another of the Fair Youth sonnets, expressing love toward a young man. It is pretty straight-forward. The speaker in the poem is identifying the fair youth as the source of his poetic inspiration, assigning him status among the traditional nine Greek muses to whom poets and artists have offered supplication.

There is really not much else to be said about this poem. Its beauty lies in its simplicity.

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Occult Symbolism in “The Song of Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats

Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

There is a lot of mystical symbolism woven into this poem, so it seems that the best way to approach it is to start by looking at the overarching symbolism, and then narrow down and focus on each of the three stanzas.

One must assume that the structure of the poem is symbolic. Three is a mystical number and correlates to the Trinity; mind-body-spirit; Triple Goddess; birth-life-death; just to point out a few. Yeats would certainly have been aware of the importance of the number three when he was composing this poem. Now, something else that we need to keep in mind is that the poem also makes references to the four magical elements: earth, air, fire, and water. So because the poem is structured in three parts and incorporates the four elements, we can assume that Yeats’ intention was that the poem work as a magical invocation of sorts.

Let us examine each stanza more closely.

At the beginning of the first stanza, the wanderer describes himself entering a hazel wood. Hazel is considered to be “the tree of wisdom and learning” for Celts and Druids, and “adds its strength to the bright fire burning.” It was considered ideal for enlisting the aid of fairies; gaining knowledge, wisdom, and poetic inspiration; and for “for making all purpose magickal wands.” (Source) So the fire in his head is either a burning for knowledge, poetic inspiration, or communication with the fairy realm (or possibly all three). He then creates a wand from a piece of hazel wood. It is important to note that Yeats chooses the word “wand” as opposed to “rod.” Based on the rhyme scheme, he could have used either word, so it is clear he wanted to emphasize the fact that a wand is a mystical tool.

The next thing to point out in the first stanza is the imagery of the moth. The moth is a symbol of transformation, and foreshadows an upcoming transformation within the poem.

At the end of the first stanza, the wanderer recounts drawing a silver trout from the stream. The stream represents the subconscious mind of the speaker, so he has used the wand, thread, and berry to draw something from the deeper recesses of the psyche.

The second stanza is one of transformation, hinted at by the moth in the previous stanza. The fish, which is associated with water (element 1) is placed onto the earth (element 2) as fire is stoked (element 3) and then transforms into a fairy who disappears into the air (element 4). There is almost a sense of alchemy here, transformative magick initiated through the use of elements. What is important to note is that the trout does not transform on its own. It is pulled from the water, into the air, placed on the earth, beside a flame. The wanderer appears to have had intent to initiate this metamorphosis.

In the final stanza, we hear from the wanderer in his present state. The first two stanzas were memories. Here he is old and seems to be nearing the end of his journey. What is key to this stanza are the last two lines. The goal of the wanderer is to reconnect with the fairy and then take of two apples: a silver apple associated with the Moon and a golden apple associated with the Sun. Yeats seems to be drawing on Judeo-Christian symbolism, of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and also from the Tree of Life, respectively. But also, there is Celtic and alchemical symbolism associated with the image of the apples.

In Celtic legends apples appear as the fruit of the Otherworld. More specifically, they are associated with the mythical Avalon, the ‘Island of Apples’. The otherworldly apple tree was also said to have been the source of the Silver Bough. In Norse tradition the tree bearing the golden apples of immortality was protected by the goddess Idun, whence they were stolen by Loki. The gods began to age, but they recovered the apples just before they were overcome by senility and death. In alchemy, when the alchemist is represented eating an apple at the end of the Great Work, he enjoys the fruit of immortality.

(Source)

So the ancient wanderer in Yeats’ poem is one who is seeking knowledge and immortality, through the aid of otherworldly entities, represented by the “glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair.” And he is drawing on all the occult knowledge and tools available to him in order to attain his goal.

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Thoughts on “Beauty” by Charles Baudelaire

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,
And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself
Is made to inspire in the poet a love
As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,
I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;
I hate movement for it displaces lines,
And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,
Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,
Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,
Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:
My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

(Translation by William Aggeler)

In this poem, Baudelaire explores the ideal of physical beauty manifest in the female form. The opening stanza conjures an image of sculpted beauty, which I suspect may be an allusion to the Venus di Milo. The beauty of the ideal physical form is an inspiration to other artists, and in Baudelaire’s case, poets in particular. But as the poem progresses through the next three stanzas, a darker image emerges.

As a society, we tend to place physical beauty upon a pedestal, on “a throne in the sky.” The problem is that this ideal is really not attainable, and those who appear to attain that level of physical perfection do so at a great cost. They essentially become statues, hardened on the inside and unable to express human emotion, never weeping and never laughing because that might affect the outward appearance.

While most of the poem seems to be a warning to individuals seeking to attain physical perfection, the last stanza also issues a warning to those who worship physical beauty. The woman whose eyes are as mirrors is letting the enchanted lover of beauty know that his soul is a reflection of her stark, cold inner self. By seeking inspiration from the external, the poet and artist end up compromising their deeper artistic wellspring, hence drying up their true emotions and becoming like stone.

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Thoughts on “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse” by Charlie Mackesy

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday. Mine was busy, but nice.

I had a couple draft blog posts on stuff I read toward the end of 2019, but I wanted to hold off on those and instead write about a book that I read which was so positive and uplifting. I’m thinking we need to start go into 2020 focusing on the things that are beautiful and inspiring.

While doing some holiday shopping, I saw this book on display. I had read online that Barnes and Noble awarded it their favorite book of 2019, so I had to pick it up for myself, and I am so glad I did. The book is simple and heart-warming, filled with inspirational messages that are down-to-earth and clear enough for anyone to grasp. It is a graphic novel wonderfully illustrated with humble sketches that add to the book’s overall charm. I was able to read it in about 15 minutes (my daughter read it in 5), but the imagery and emotions lasted with me for days.

I highly recommend that you read this book, even if you are not a fan of graphic novels. It’s a special book that transcends the genre, and I’m sure you will feel happier and uplifted after you set the book down.

To entice you a little more, I figured I would include a couple short quotes, so you have a sense of what you are in for. Thanks for stopping by, and have an inspired and blessed 2020!

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Kind” said the boy.

“Often the hardest person to forgive is yourself.”

“What is the bravest thing you ever said?” asked the boy.
“Help,” said the horse.

“When the big things feel out of control… focus on what you love right under your nose.”

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“American Gods: The Moment of the Storm” by Neil Gaiman: Issue #07

People believe. It’s what people do. They conjure things, and then do not trust the conjurations. They populate the darkness with ghosts, with gods, with electrons. People imagine and people believe. And it is that belief that makes things happen.

There is a lot of truth here. Our thoughts play a tremendous part in the manifestation of our realities. When we step back and consider the fear, mistrust, anger, and cynicism of the past couple decades, should it be all that surprising that we find ourselves in the current socio-political climate?

But I for one am seeing things that give me hope and inspiration, and I am making a conscious effort to believe in the better possibilities. Because let’s face it—all possibilities exist. But the possibilities which receive the most energy are the ones most likely to actualize.

Thanks for believing.

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Thoughts on “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

My daughter gave me this book as a gift, and I have to say, I loved it. She obviously knows me well.

Kimmerer is Native American and a Professor of Environmental Biology. So this book is essentially a weaving of environmental science writing and spiritually based storytelling. Science and spirituality used to inhabit opposite ends of the spectrum, but not anymore. The people who are at the forefront of each discipline are exploring the relationships between the two, and Kimmerer’s skill as a wordsmith makes this book a joy to read, even when she addresses painful issues, which are unavoidable when writing about environmental topics.

I have Bruce King’s portrait of Skywoman, Moment in Flight, hanging in my lab. Floating to earth with her handful of seeds and flowers, she looks down on my microscopes and data loggers. It might seem an odd juxtaposition, but to me she belongs there. As a writer, a scientist, and a carrier of Skywoman’s story, I sit at the feet of my elder teachers listening for their songs.

(pp. 5 – 6)

We live in a society that is detached from the sources of that which we consume. As a result, we do not have to think about where everything comes from, and the true cost to our world in the mass production of commodities that are destined for landfills. But as Kimmerer points out, almost everything that we use, every item that finds its way into our homes, is made at the expense of another living entity.

Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the “waste stream” in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from the mailbox to the waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see it in the trees it once had been?

(p. 148)

There is a long section later in the book that is worth quoting. Kimmerer uses the myth of the Windigo as a metaphor for our current state of mindless consumption.

No matter what they call it, Johnston and many other scholars point to the current epidemic of self-destructive practices—addiction to alcohol, gambling, technology, and more—as a sign that Windigo is alive and well. In Ojibwe ethics, Pitt says, “any overindulgent habit is self-destructive, and self-destruction is Windigo.” And just as Windigo’s bite is infectious, we all know too well that self-destruction drags along many more victims—in our human families as well as in the more-than-human world.

The native habitat of the Windigo is the north woods, but the range has expanded in the last few centuries. As Johnston suggests, multinational corporations have spawned a new breed of Windigo that insatiably devours the earth’s resources “not for need but for greed.” The footprints are all around us, once you know what to look for.

(p. 306)

We all have important decisions to make, and every choice, regardless of how insignificant it may seem, will have lasting consequences. We are indeed at a crossroads, and we no longer have the luxury of complacency. Every one of us has a responsibility, to begin the healing process and start undoing the damage that we have done as a collective species.

We do indeed stand at the crossroads. Scientific evidence tells us we are close to the tipping point of climate change, the end of fossil fuels, the beginning of resource depletion. Ecologists estimate we would need seven planets to sustain the lifeways we have created. And yet those lifeways, lacking balance, justice, and peace, have not brought us contentment. They have brought us the loss of our relatives in a great wave of extinction. Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a choice ahead, a crossroads.

(p. 368)

I strongly encourage you to read this book. It will inspire, outrage, and motivate you. Remember, everything that you do matters. Act accordingly.

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“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft: An Exploration of Art and Horror

Art has the ability to express that which standard forms of communication are unable to convey. This is particularly true when it come to the expression of the deeper regions of the subconscious. Often, these recesses contain our darkest thoughts, the fodder from which our nightmares take shape. It is this realm that the artist in this tale by Lovecraft delves into for inspiration.

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.

Artists who explore these darker regions of the psyche are skirting the fringes of insanity. But often, an artist must temporarily let go of sanity in order to glimpse the internal landscapes which provide inspiration for truly powerful creations.

He shewed me all the paintings and drawings he had about; including some pen-and-ink sketches that would, I verily believe, have got him kicked out of the club if many of the members had seen them. Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum.

Lovecraft uses tunnels and wells as symbols for the entry and exploration of the buried realms of the subconscious. When the characters enter the cellar and uncover the well, leading down into the tunnels below Boston, they are symbolically letting go of their fragile sanity and opening themselves to the darker mysteries of the psyche.

My host was now leading the way down cellar to his actual studio, and I braced myself for some hellish effects among the unfinished canvases. As we reached the bottom of the damp stairs he turned his flashlight to a corner of the large open space at hand, revealing the circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor. We walked nearer, and I saw that it must be five feet across, with walls a good foot thick and some six inches above the ground level—solid work of the seventeenth century, or I was much mistaken. That, Pickman said, was the kind of thing he had been talking about—an aperture of the network of tunnels that used to undermine the hill. I noticed idly that it did not seem to be bricked up, and that a heavy disc of wood formed the apparent cover. Thinking of the things this well must have been connected with if Pickman’s wild hints had not been mere rhetoric, I shivered slightly; then turned to follow him up a step and through a narrow door into a room of fair size, provided with a wooden floor and furnished as a studio. An acetylene gas outfit gave the light necessary for work.

The danger that artists face when exploring the subconscious is that they may ultimately plummet into insanity, losing all touch with the world of light and getting lost forever in the realm of shadows.

Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known—and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot—old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt.

Creative people should never shy away from looking into the depths of the soul for inspiration. But they should do so with care. It’s important to stay grounded when unlocking the forbidden gates of the mind.

Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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