The Oldest Monstrosity // 1.21.18

Later this week I am off to a monastery, and I find myself anxious. I am looking forward to the time, to turn off my phone for a few days, to sit, to meditate, to pray, and perhaps to read and perhaps to write. I worry, though, for lack of schedule or agenda, as I would like some mystical experience, and if this does not occur, I would like some scapegoat. How do I compel God to find me?

I wonder what books to bring, Jane English's Tao Te Ching? Or Legge's or Mitchell's even? My David Bentley Hart New Testament? A Book of Common Prayer? Whatever I happen to be reading at that moment? Perhaps Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses. Maybe I will need The Valley of Vision. Or I could reread The Practice of the Presence of God. Or no books at all?

The question of books is one of my great objections to monastic life, communal living, asceticism—will I be forced to give up my library? Or worse, to share? Perhaps this would not be so bad (but perhaps it very much would be).

(My separation anxiety is such that I always pack far too many books. This may be optimism, or is likely more the worry that I may be struck dead while travelling, and so in addition to my mother's admonition that I never be caught, say, in an ambulance after having been struck by a bus, in dirty underwear, I should never be caught with only one book. Even in my walking-around, my backpack always carries three books, one remains the same and the other two change, circulate from my library. )

My greatest flaw (perhaps) is that instinct to box up God, conform him to my itenerary. Even in these days and weeks leading up, I have vacillated between great overcompensation: praying and meditating solely to achieve some running start; or total slack: alrighty, God, I will see you on the 23rd, and not a moment sooner, thank you very much.

Robert Farrar Capon writes in The Supper of the Lamb, "If man's attention is repaid so handsomely, his inattention costs him dearly. Every time he diagrams something instead of looking at it, every time he regards not what a thing is but what it can be made to mean to him—every time he substitutes a conceit for a fact— [...] reality slips away from him; and he is left with nothing but the oldest monstrosity in the world: an idol."

Alas, I am guilty (chief of sinners, in fact). It would perhaps be impish to presume that God will pull through, will meet me there, will continue to take care of me as he always has. And I pray he will.

"Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there."

One Poem // 1.15.18

Full, Enough

If I could paint well
Well, I couldn't paint that
the cold—the new old paint:
something-green; the stairs;
and red tin roofs (nothing-red /
port-pink) The train's come through
fluorescent-blue—ice-white I think
Walking down, the track
My jacket, coat,
My breath, I couldn't paint.

A poem I wrote yesterday; the line "the new old paint" comes from Susie Timmon's book of poetry titled the same. I sent along the poem to Timmons on Facebook; she has not responded, but sent me a friend request, which I am deciding is a good sign.

Forbidden Writing // 1.10.18

I fool myself into believing in some magic in Forbidden Writing. And perhaps it is true.

I started writing Dead Girlfriend Songs after a break-up, but the break-up cannot be blamed entirely. I don't know, can give no account for the book, and how it came to be, and even now it is strange, there's a copy in my backpack, and I couldn't say how it got there, except it was written, and now it is there, in my backpack. This copy is either for a friend who helped me edit it, whenever I may see her, or another girl, who I am smitten with, who gave me a copy of her chapbook, whoever I see first, I will hand it to.

Even now I wonder if I should be saying all this.

A friend of mine, an established poet, a kind man, he read the lot of them, all the poems from which DGS originated, exactly 100 at the time (ugh, sentiment), far before their present state, and told me what was good, and what was bad, and which I could change or should cut, a kindness I'm not sure I could repay. But the first thing he said, when he read the 100 poems, he first asked me if I should perhaps seek professional help.

I told him, I laughed even, that I was okay, but thank you for your concern. The truth, I was unwell, when I wrote the poems, and the poems are the physical excrement of that pain. Any more, no, I don't deal with it. I left them in the book.

But still, he persuaded me to cut some poems, mean poems, not nice at all, one poem I loved in particular, the meanest poem of the hundred, I was persuaded to cut from the book. In other ways I remained self-destructive, leaving names unchanged, leaving a record of my pathetic attempts to make sense of past relationships, to try, and perhaps it would serve as some remedy, to make another person cry for us, as I was no longer able.

Compare, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets 196 says: “Clearly I am not a private person, and quite possibly I am a fool. ‘Oh, how often have I cursed those foolish pages of mine which made my youthful sufferings public property!’ Goethe wrote years after the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther. Sei Shōnagon felt similarly: ‘Whatever people may think of my book,’ she wrote after her pillow book gained fame and notoriety, ‘I still regret that it ever came to light.’ ”

Roger Shattuck, the great American critic of French literature, spent much of his life obsessed with forbidden knowledge; there is the one book, The Forbidden Experiment, about the Wild Boy of Aveyron, a boy pulled from savage solitude and coerced into living among people. The boy represented that Forbidden Experiment, something like the Truman Show, science that could be done, were we all just a bit more evil. Alas, the Enlightenment gave us both the science to do and the morals to not. Later, Shattuck wrote Forbidden Knowledge, and I haven't read it yet, but I believe it continues on the theme.

I have this idea of Forbidden Writing, what could be said if only I allowed myself, if I cared less for the feelings of others. Perhaps I am enthralled with the idea because it releases me, allows me to blame my lack on that which I am unable to write, I disallow myself from writing, and so cast myself both as brilliant and kind, without writing a word.

Perhaps that's all, perhaps I am enthralled.

The Patissiere // 1.4.18

Yesterday was my day off. As is my wont, I got a coffee and a bacon-egg-and-cheese croissant from Dunkin Donuts and went to Unnameable Books, perhaps the best bookstore in New York. Looking through their poetry I found a copy of James Tate’s Selected, and Paul Auster’s Collected. I’ve never read any Paul Auster, but my pal Niall Power loves the man, so I thought I might buy him the copy. Flipping open the book, I found on the book’s first page a purple Post-it (pictured), addressed to some person named Mark and signed, “Paul A.” I also saw a sheet of paper folded in half tucked into the middle of the book, which I didn’t pay much attention to. The note reads:

After reading your piece on “nothing,” I thought this might say something to you.
I am entrusting Jessica to pass it on + hope you are well.
Paul A.

I thought the Post-it a nifty souvenir, likely from Paul A. himself, so I bought the book for Niall. Looking at the book again a few hours later, I realized the folded paper was a poem:

The Patissiere
(Homage to Mark Strand-after The Guardian)

The scone is tempting. My mouth’s desire
The lost art, the lost rite.
Why do I love the flavor?

You who ate, who were eating,
What baked gems do you ingest?
Patissiere of my taste,

perfect my appetite. I am hungry.

The brunt of my discovery did not hit me until after another few hours. This book I held must have been Mark Strand’s copy; Strand did indeed write a piece on nothing. And Paul Auster does have at least some fond relationship with patisseries. Which leads me to believe—and I guess the proof is not definitive, but it is compelling—I perhaps have discovered an unpublished Paul Auster poem.

If anyone has a line on Auster (Strand, sadly, has passed), and would check with him for me, I’d love that, though if he wants to retrieve the book and accompanying notes, he’ll have to get in touch with Niall. And for all interested, Niall’s first book, Fall Risk, a collection of short stories and poetry, is being published this month by Michelkin Publishing, and will be available very shortly. It’s very good, and I recommend you all go buy it, and read it, but especially buy it.

Airline Food // 12.19.17

As I began to write this blog post last night, I was on my second flight of the day, from Charlotte to La Guardia, after a long weekend with family in Florida. I had spent my first flight listening to podcasts (which I will hereafter refer to as "my stories"), attempting the inflight magazine's crossword puzzle, and generally feeling like a king—the seat next to me was empty.

I hustled to make my connection in Charlotte and, hearing the gate agent's pleas, voluntarily checked my carry-on. I did this, probably, to feel like a good Christian, or more likely, because I knew my next seat assignment was in a middle seat, and so thought this last-minute gesture might buy me some good fortune, or at least ease my burden.

I came to my row to find a kind-seeming old white woman sitting against the window, and the seat on the aisle unoccupied. I sat and pulled out my book. Soon a young, short guy, I'm guessing from the Indian subcontinent, came and let the old lady know she was in his seat, and then we all got up and shuffled around, until he was in his coveted window seat and she was where she'd been assigned, on the aisle.

At this point the guy started acting strangely. He pulled out his laptop, opened it, closed it again, put it away, then repeated this cycle perhaps four times more before he settled with the computer open and on. I continued to read my book. The cabin lights dimmed. The old lady reached up and turned on my reading light and smiled at me like she were some saint come to inform the world about their personal reading lights on airplanes. I said thank you. I noticed the guy finally getting down to business on his laptop. He'd opened a screenshot of his mobile boarding pass in Microsoft Paint, and was frantically trying to photo-edit the pass to look like he was flying from Orlando instead of Charlotte.

I will admit here that yes, I was snooping. But if I learned anything from The Good Wife, it was the phrase, "no reasonable expectation of privacy." And besides, I composed all of this post so far while sitting next to the guy, and (quite easily) hid this from him.

Anyway, I suspected perhaps he was some sort of lame Frank Abagnale character who tried to edit boarding passes to dupe gate agents and fly for free. If that were the case though, I wondered, why hadn't he at least pirated some old version of Photoshop with which to perform his crime?

It was at this point near impossible to focus on my book. I turned off my reading light and turned on my stories and continued to snoop surreptitiously.

When he had to his satisfaction changed "Charlotte" to "Orlando" and "CLT" to "MCO" on the pass he started taking photos of the laptop screen and trying to filter the photos so that they appeared...real? At this point his behavior was almost completely inexplicable.

I eventually gathered that the ultimate intention for this doctored photo was to send via Snapchat to his girlfriend, who he was in some misunderstanding with—someone had made someone mad, I don't know—to inform her of his soon arrival to the city.

Here I can opine on his motives, perhaps he wanted her to think he had been in Orlando and not Charlotte. Perhaps he wanted her to believe he would be arriving far later than he actually was, craving a few free hours before he returned to her loving arms. But no matter the case, it is apparent that this man is an idiot, because he made no attempt to edit or obscure the flight number, which I imagine any loving girlfriend would Google at least for flight updates, letting alone the possibility she might want to meet him at the airport.

So anyway, if on some long shot you're dating a short, dumb guy named Manil, and you somehow haven't yet noticed that he is lying to you, here's a heads-up, and I recommend you dump his broke ass. But I would be so grateful if you would, for my sake, first explain to him this one thing he so painfully fails to understand:

Airplane etiquette clearly prescribes both armrests to the passenger in the middle seat, as they have neither the luxury of a window to look out from nor a wall to lay against, and they are not afforded the freedom of an aisle seat, to move at their leisure and also to, when appropriate, set one leg slightly out into the aisle. Because of this gross lack of even the possibility of comfort, it is only right that the middle-seated be given priority when it comes to armrests, not just for their convenience but also to admit them some semblance of agency, agency which was so violently stolen from them when their seat assignment was first given.

That's all.

Toutes Choses // 12.14.17

One of my favorite readings so far from the Auden syllabus has been Pascal's Pensées, his notes for a book never finished (he died at 39) which, while intended as a defense for Christianity, I would never recommend to a non-Christian with the hope of converting them, though I would recommend to most anyone; it is splendid.

Reading Honor Levi's translation, I came across this aphorism that I believe only she translates in verse:

If he praises himself, I belittle him.
If he belittles himself, I praise him
And continue to contradict him
Until he understands
That he is an unfathomable monster.

Like some occult charm against solipsism, like learning a word you've needed but haven't known, such has been my experience of reading Pascal.

Around that time, or soon after, I was recommended Ezra Pound's advice to W. S. Merwin, to write seventy (I think) lines a day, and, because this is impossible, to make up for one's creative lack by translating others' works. I decided to translate Pascal, a ridiculous task, complicated further by my not understanding a lick of French. Inspired by Levi, I decided I would translate the entirety of the Pensées in verse.

—An aside, a line of Guy Davenport, from his introduction to 7 Greeks: "My translation therefore is without any authority except the dubious one of sentiment."

After a little while of translating, coming to understand the actual size of the project, I took one of my copies of the Pensées and instead started highlighting the bits I'd like to translate, as one page of Pascal takes up weeks of free time, life is short, and I am impatient. 

And I am easily distracted: One frustrating line—Toutes choses changent et se succèdent—I could only decipher as, "All things change, and succeed each other." I go
ogled variations on the phrase, and came across a quote from Chuang Tzu, "The myriad things are all from seeds, and they succeed each other because of their different forms." This not a statement I'd imagine Pascal likely to make, nor one that illuminates his thought in the least, but just in case, I started reading Chuang Tzu.

In one passage, Chuang Tzu (described somewhere, I forget where, as to Taoism what Saint Paul was to Christianity) writes, "Your life has a limit but knowledge has none. If you use what is limited to pursue what has no limit, you will be in danger."

He may be right, but alas, the Way seems no less daunting a task.

A Tract for Universalism // 12.8.17

I was raised in a church just straddling the fence that separates cults from your run-of-the-mill southern evangelicals. I say straddling the fence because the word “cult” connotes secret rituals, weird sex stuff, or violence, none of which describe my experience. But the dictionary definition holds true, and unfortunately, synonyms for “cult” swing to the other end, too gentle, the most condemning available would be perhaps “faction.” But, we don’t need this settled right now, it’s not my point.

A central feature of my religious education was the cultivation of a consuming fear of hell, fear that compelled one to dress correctly, speak correctly, think correctly—even once I was advised that I might be held liable for the content of my dreams—lest death or rapture take me at any moment, and I be lost to an eternal torment with no recourse nor appeal. I was taught that those in our sect were the only people on the planet with any hope for heaven, and even many of our own would number among the damned.

Such was my fear that many of my childhood days found me in our church’s prayer room, pleading with God for one thing: clemency for my father, who I had been told was a backslider, was living in sin, highwayed to hell. I’d lay on my face and whisper over and over, “God, please don’t let my dad go to hell,” promising anything, and if the prayer room was full of people shouting their prayers, as was wont to happen, or if I was assured of privacy, being the only one there, my whispers would increase to shouts and yelps, begging and bargaining with God for the soul of my father.

When I was 17 and headed off soon to a Christian college, I decided I must study up on my church’s doctrine, as I knew it would be challenged by scores of Christians doomed to hell for one sin or another, perhaps attending a movie theater or wearing tank-tops or believing in the Trinity. I started reading the Bible.

What I found there was a story of love and hope and grace, and soon I was able to ask these Christians if they would share with me this story I’d never heard before. I was enthralled. I listened to Francis Chan’s GRACE sermon series over and over. I still do. I read John Eldredge’s Beautiful Outlaw. I pored through the stories of others who had left the church I’d been born into, particularly Josh Spiers’s I came to know the love of God through my peers in ways I had not previously known.

I was baptized later into the Anglican communion. The man who baptized me taught me to respond to those who I’d grown up around, who were truly confused by the idea that the work was done, that Christ came into the world to save sinners, to redeem the world to himself. My pastor explained the obvious, that when a person is loved, their response is not some apathetic thanks, but an enthusiastic compulsion to return that love, to introduce others to that love, to learn to love in that way.

Writing is the same way. I came to experience beauty through poetry, so I started to love poets, then to introduce others to those poets, and finally to try to learn to love in that same way, and that is why I wrote a book of poetry.

If you will know them by their fruit, then I am assured of my faith: where once was fear is now gratitude.

I started this blog post with the intention of writing about my universalism, my hope for universal reconciliation, once a faint dream, now a dear belief. Instead I have unloaded about my past and not mentioned my personal heresy once, so here instead I will point to a few of those who have helped me, a little or a lot, along the way.

This lecture by David Bentley Hart on the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, hell, and eventually universalism, is near impenetrable, thirty-eight minutes long, and beautiful. I listen to it often, and recommend it constantly. It is worth the time and energy it asks.

Lewis Carroll, a devout Anglican, more devout than I, wrote in a letter to his sister, “if I were forced to believe that the God of Christians was capable of inflicting ‘eternal punishment’ ... I should give up Christianity.”

Voltaire, on hell, in his Dictionnaire philosophique portatif, tells a story of a minister who had recently renounced the doctrine of hell to his congregation and was pulled aside by his peers and chastened, “My friend, I don’t believe in eternal damnation any more than you do, but it’s better if your maidservant, your tailor and even your procurator do believe in it.”

And here’s a bit from a poem of Guy Davenport, Beyond Punt and Cush. These few lines I’ve already posted to Twitter and Instagram, but like so much I am once again excerpting:

And when an apostle came to Ethiopia
Showing the pages of gospels in praise
Of whatever things be true and honest,
Be just and pure and lovely,

We are already of the tribe, the people said.
We implore Mariamne Queen of the Stars.
We walk with God under the acacias,
We and our leopards, in steadfast praise.