Bolder Slopes. But Lighter Marches.1
By Tom Lowenstein.
IT IS MIDDAY in June and Mercury has entered Gemini. Out from the House of Mutability, the equinox achieves its culmination and from that altitude, the planet reigns in cordial and astringent sovereignty.
The air here bites shrewdly. It is very clear and windy. High on Rigi Mountain, seeking fire of the empyrean and ice from an infernal region, I have stood prospecting from a parapet of granite and pyrites (fire-stone!) and gazed down the rock toward some frozen branches of a cataract so deep-ribbed it gripes the eye and renders freezing any thought that lies behind it.
O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
cried bold, perhaps essentially unfeeling, Bolingbroke, as though he’d been bound there with Prometheus for some immortalising expiation. Thus glacière and zenith, whose signals are heraldic, blazon separate, incompatible extremities.
THE MOUNTAIN’S INELUCTABILITY. How restless it makes us to rush against it. But before we scale its flank, we bow in its direction.
There will, however, be fools who continue travelling in this posture: a pietistic hypertrophy of reverence which is self-serving. Nor do such people comprehend similitude. For what stands in concretion and the image this projects must co-exist in a harmonious adjacency of tension which conduces to a wholesome, but medicinal uncertainty.
Similarly, it would be to misunderstand the practice of bowing: which is to acknowledge the telluric pull of earth while observing the majesty of what transcends where we have planted ourselves. The Buddhists bend to images (or idols) of their leader in this spirit of respect for exaltation: which is the idea of a perfect, dead man now insensate as this rock that stands aloof, repels and draws me to it. But I may also choose not to bow. The Alp leaves me this freedom.
As though dropped from the heaven of some other mineral planet, the flatness of the water renders the horripilating foothills and serrated upper peaks yet more imposing.
I stand looking from a range which rears behind me. Which is more elevated: to be on those heights opposite, or to gaze across the lake and up towards them? ‘Answer me,’ I cried, ‘Echo!’
But you, poor Elf, live only in some other’s Self.
I am that too.
And therefore answer for both Ich and Du.
ONE MAY WITNESS a great deal in the course of a walking tour of only seven days – but it would take the same number of years to understand what one has seen and yet again longer to interpret it. These are three different processes. And it is only when one arrives at the last that one may take up one’s pen and make sense of the experience.
And yet is there not something wonderful to an enthusiastic out-rush? For without the faculty of inexperience and a juvenile, hubristic rashness, no one would get anything said, still less versified.
You tell me what I should do now!’ Echo maintains silence.
‘What? You mean extemporise?’
‘If you have life force – then you will be noticed.’
THE BOUNDING GROWTH of Rousseau’s prose, which sends out sentences with branching, exuberant and leafy flourishes that swing free in the breezes of his speech as he reduces them to paper. This in contrast to the medicine of Voltaire’s syntax, whose ironies ring forth with an astringency beyond the inference his punctuation brackets.
Here I am in Rousseau’s country, to which, while France condemned the inspiration of Emile, he escaped (to no better reception), but where I now stride, a free man who rejoices in the good fortune of an unquestionable liberty. Rousseau’s is a walking along writing. He’s got Emile up in Sherwood Forest green. And like Montaigne, he contrives a conformable, elastic language from where to extend the companionship of one who can express himself without an antecedent doctrine, prelatical pontification or the self-defended posturing of a syllogism-driven academician.
What, by contrast, do my poetic ruminations achieve? At best they’re inoffensive. And no one, least of all our bad dead Khan, will send me into exile for an iambic indiscretion. But what the Lumieres provide us (though they also wrote it) is a harder thing than poetry. It takes a different genius to accomplish those progressions. And if I attempted them, I might end up ranting without reason in a labyrinth of lunatic and self-perpetuating alexandrines!
THE BIRD IN mountain ash with this repeated message: ‘I sing to you these few bright shillings!’
Each note shuffles on the other, as though threepences and sixpences – small, light pieces – had slipped into the roulade of a heavier currency.
The cowbells, by contrast, have a watery and hollow music, as though this issues from a container which is in the continuous movement of being emptied and moves in synchrony with the little torrents that rush from crevices in the hillside.
The lower bell notes meanwhile sound the walking ground bass of a passacaglia which is decorated from beyond by the cheerful falsetto of birds that sing continually in freedoms about which they rejoice, at this high altitude, with justified pride and patriotic élan.
IN THE CRYPT of an Abbey, a small inner room through whose darkness I am greeted by the coarse-grained features of a corbel. It is sneering. Near this, traces of another where all that remains is an expression of disdain which searches the shadows for an object of interrogation.
A madman might imagine that these heads had thrust themselves from the granite to make a judgement on him: and that such witness might be carried to a chthonic power whose memoranda were stored in some library of infernal incunabula which, table by stone table, grew from the foundations, until the entire building was displaced by records of the pilgrims who had sojourned here without recovering from their delusion.
I knew of one, elsewhere, who believed that could he cut deep into a slab of marble he would find his name engraved there. Another, whose projected thought, he reckoned, could raise death’s heads, roses, shields and panegyrics dedicated to him. There seems, I contend, an aristocracy of the ambitious, the imagination of whose immodesty it would be an impertinence to scorn. God bless such delusions. But defend me from them.
WHILE I STRUGGLE with inaction, both inertia and my fight against its strangle become the activity of a non-action. Which engagement generates asphyxiation.
Now seated this July beneath a cherry tree which is in the full-flame of fruition, I’m in serene enough condition. These are a small, sour cherry which some, with a digestive virtuosity, can gobble raw, but which most of us eat cooked and broken in a pound of sugar or reduced to jam and put away against the winter.
It was light until ten, and then about that time, I betook myself to acts that now have their product. While the blackbirds made off with fruit from higher branches, I stood among the lower twigs, and dazzled by light that still glanced around each unripe cherry and which darkened the red ones, I gathered, simply by reaching up and slightly pulling, a good half basket.
Now I have, during the season, passed under this same tree innumerable times and on each occasion it reveals a different complexion. But it’s this, in the tree’s guise as a food store, that provokes observation:
A blackbird clutching a low branch, grips a cherry in her beak, drops it, pecks uncertainly another – and this falls too. A third, finally, she grasps. It stands packed at the base of her bill, distending the stare of that wary, inexpressive eye, and then she flies off from the orchard, half-choked with her guerdon. Were I tempted to moralise over this sequence of attempts, I would, I hope, resist. But how she might comment on my relations, idle and then predatory, with this very successful tree… Well, that must remain her most blackbirdy of secrets.
THIS DREAM I woke from. Christ nailed with pegs that had been whittled from the Tree of Knowledge to the trunk of that same Tree, which itself, by turns, is the Serpent and the Body of an Angelic Host shouting praises to a Natural Order of which the Crucifixion has become an outraged Negation.
And in one man’s fate, katharsis of all human history? I suspect not. Christ was murdered because he represented an irritant to Roman hegemony. The two men who flanked him and who were, like all human beings, the progeny of Nature, suffered torments that were equivalent but non-political, and so history passed them over…
IT HAPPENED ONE June evening I was reading in the orchard which was lit no longer with mixed apple blossom, as last month it had been. And while Juliet (Act III) protested that she heard the nightingale and her (very recent!) husband claimed the lark was up and he must with it: there close at hand, but shrouded by green unripe fruit and foliage, a nightingale broke into singing and pierced the sweet strife of the lovers’ antiphon, as though this noisy little bird, aloft, fugitive and hidden, had tuned its throat to relatively early Shakespeare.
It sang – or he, I thought, did. And after some pages, the bird got his answer with reciprocal opinion: shrilling with a high-flown gossip, which (self, breasting self, in a mutual division) shattered the young apple shadow.
I’d hoped, as they flitted between tree tops Juliet would silence them. But no. Importuning one another with their marriage canon they proceeded and I fled that music.2
WHERE, HAVING STOPPED before, at daybreak, had the singer started? All one can conjecture is, the place that bird elected to begin was – the beginning or some portion of the middle. And from that moment, we embark on attribution (or interpretation) and join what we project upon it with the currents that we’ve bathed in since, as children, we were led out through, in June, the darkling coppice, by our proper Nurses. (When we were small, they loved us for our little spirits. And we loved them for their precise simplicity.)
REVERTING TO THAT bard, a bird. It’s immortality in what is mortal we imagine. And the more insistent this proclaims proximity, the higher we’re inclined to elevate it from us.
What would gratify me, merrilie, would be to follow, notate, fix in a description what these spouses chime to one another, uxoriously public, as though the world they fill with song’s their bridal chamber, and – like those krauncha birds’ unlucky hymeneal – chant from the outset or even before it: which is anywhere there’s love that’s founded on a reciprocity.
The nightingale, of course, is what we, most of us, aspire to. But who then does the hunting, sleeks the nest and edifies the babies? Do these kings of the laryngo, with imperial enchantment,subjugate the lark, the corbie and the sparrow to their service?
Be that their business, I stand clipped in by what arrives from these abruptly disjunct stanzas: within each of whose hiatus hangs a statement, in suspension, till the next pre-meditated fragment enters. Those silences, themselves, are thinkers. And within these, since, I believe, they’re pieced to one another’s margin, there, along with wheezes, whines and squealing, lies an interrogative: half-swallowed by chatter which suggests a modesty, a hesitation or a reticence – for sometimes even Mon Sieur Nightingale is at a loss for an idea or inspiration!
But that don’t stop it. No. Each pause reintroduces an intensified and whinneying perseverance: cheeps, cheezing, whees, whirr, then a jug-jug-jug (or chook) and twee-twee-twee, succeeded by roulades of piu- (familiar liquefaction, flatters water) and whose cadence ascends in a percussive fluting, within which crescendo – residues of previous qualm absconded – was its statement and thematic iteration.
Now the intervals, I’d judge uncertainly, between each utterance (and each of these, distinct, unsettled, inexplicable in difference) are uniform. Each silence, equal, also, itself, music. While into those pauses arrive rumours of surrounding foliage, impertinent interpolations from jawdaws, chaffinches and blackbirds (startled too often, for no good reason).
There are also insects – and these, as though the nightingale had, in full spate of compulsive inhalation, swallowed some, and these became incorporated in its tuc or wheeting: which accelerate and then, as though some fly’s wing had stuck, edge-up in the wind-pipe, the aria grows tense and condescends around its intromission as the melody engulfs and finally digests it.
Thus it is, at intervals between each stanza. For the swiftness of this bird’s consecutive ideas disrupts or at the least disturbs too frequent a self-reference. It’s extreme, that invention, whose sweetness (is a rush) creates a drama of the tree-tops – peaceful otherwise: till they, as well, are caught up in that dormitory lucubration!
(I maun let this go anon. Float off, and two nightingales too many – Shakespeare nesciently interrupted – sleep now. That’s, if Mistress Juliet allows it. )
CAN FORM TAKE leave of the colour of which it is constituted? Or colour subsist in separation from the place and time through which it was manifested?
I stood on the cliff-edge for an hour or so, absorbed with changes in a sunset whose glamour became magnified by each shift in cloud the sun lit from behind, and which offered a fluid and a sailing blue, each of whose modulations offered the appearance of a consummation, but which in truth was a stage in a sequence of unequally composed, dissolving tableaux.
This constitutes no certain answer to my question. I rejoice merely in what comes into being. And equally admire its dissolution: form disappearing with the dissipation and the death of colour, while offering the promise of a repetition of its transpositions.
SHE DWELLS IN a moral and aesthetic purity which I can not emulate. This is because I love my faults and it is my very incompleteness that maintains my ambition. If, as she is, I were good and beautiful already, where would I adventure? The imaginative life rejoices in its imperfections: and were I to feel complete, there would be nothing left to make.
One must beware likewise of attempting to create too perfect a refinement. In certain imperfections lie the rude beauties in Shakespeare – for which we love the difficulties of Coriolanus with its inexorable grammar, and those passages in Measure for Measure that repel interpretation. Against this, Augustan polish gives us so little to grip that we are in peril of sliding away from it over the same surface from which it seems to have been fashioned. (Lovely it remains, however. And we would go mad if we did not have Pope and Johnson to warn us against too gross a disproportion in our writing – and indeed in our self-being! )
Let us all therefore strive, both for that balance in our loves and couplets, and for so tremendous an idiosyncrasy as to assassinate too great a moderation. And thus caparisoned with dialects of motley, caper with the Bard’s fantasticks into a dotage of imperfections!
AGAINST THE ABOVE. Two marks of a great writer are: Amplitude, in fraternity with a simple loftiness of utterance. And compassion for the world and all the beings in it as expressed in an apprehension of lacrimae rerum. Transcending any fault, which is an allowance of genius, Shakespeare does both these in exemplary abundance.
Milton was the magnificent and disdainful exception. Because, for him, perhaps, Christianity was warfare.
I DREAMED ON the vulpine hostess of my Alpine lodging and she presented a very image of horror. I was, as happened yesterday, seated at an inn table, when she entered enveloped in a blue and red cape as though Lady Macbeth were homologised in this figure with the Virgin Madonna. On a tray that she carried before her stood plates of steaming viands surrounded by bowls of what I took to be a thick red wine which had been heated for some ceremonial occasion.
She stopped, as she entered, at the threshold and cast a violent gaze around the table. When her terrible brown eyes came sweeping towards me and settled on where I was sitting, she rose to a height which seemed far in excess of the figure that she naturally presented and with her hair scattered among the ceiling beams, she hurled the tray in my direction. As this travelled – an age seemed to pass before it came upon me – I heard her scream, as though in revenge for acts, she implied, that emanate from men in generality: ‘There! That’s for your inconstancy!’
And at once I was awash with blood that spurted from the flying basins, while the hot meats bounded, beating in a wild rhythm of human hearts and a miscellany of other palpitating organs, onto the tables, the floor, my legs, my groin – and flapping even over my face and chest.
As these danced in a ragged formation around the table, our hostess, whose face had been lately transfigured into the most grotesque deformations, burst suddenly into light-hearted singing which she interspersed with a sequence of musical and childlike chuckles. My cowherd companions, who seemed not in the least alarmed by their hostess’ action, continued uninterrupted to talk among themselves, supping from their crusted mugs and mending the pipes that they passed to one another.
‘Either these gentlemen entertain no fear of this witch in whose house they are taking their leisure, or (is it possible?) they remain unaware of what I have suffered.
Perhaps – I reflected as I left that murky tavern – this is what happens in all daily intercourse. And when it is their turn to be assaulted, I will be the one who is incapable of bearing witness?
I PASS GROUPS of cow with whom the herders of last night’s meeting (or its dream) are intimates. Each swings a bell with its identifying tintinnabulation. They all eat grass and, promiscuously, the wild flowers that grow here in a profusion of blue and yellow. And while I am preoccupied with rudimentary floral taxonomy, they ruminate on them for their sap, while the cowherders’ minds are filled with the next season’s cheeses.
While cows innocuously graze, I too experience security along this higher path I’ve taken up the mountain, where I’ll enjoy a prospect, alp on endless alp, which I’m exempt from climbing.
Jonson’s great lines accompany my footsteps:
xxxxxBut sing high and aloofe,
Safe from the wolves black jaw, and the dull
As the cattle digest flowers, and their milk will turn into delicious cheeses, so the Wanderer consumes impressions and their accumulation builds towards his wholeness. The ambitious will turn images that they’ve absorbed to products of imagination. And while the purity of experience may be violated by the effort of conversion, ambition has this virtue, in that it keeps a person lively.
But too often, youth’s attended by the self-absorbed regard of a Narcissus. Shakespeare’s mirror (like Narcissus’ pond stood upright) must be held to Nature. But this implies its unreflecting surface faces inward. Montaigne’s the great exception. Impossible to weary of that ruminant and scrupulous, self-chewing-over.
THERE ARE, ON this mountain, small herds of goat which are enclosed now and again in the vicinity of a cottage or a small shed. These skinny and dishevelled creatures, which unlike the cows, appear in need of a thorough hair-dressing, also carry their distinctive bell collars. As they move, grazing up and down their pasture, so they chime. And because they have each carried their bell since before they can remember, they seem not at all disturbed that these pendulations from their dewlaps clatter.
I am tempted to imagine that these useful creatures assume both bell and necklace to be a part of their body – and not hung there purely in the interests of their mercenary superintendants who are breeding them for meat and cheeses. And just as they can detect the beating of their hearts and the inhalations of their breath when they are at rest, so they apprehend their bell to be an organ which is associated with motion and with the nodding movement of feeding.
There are, among the cows, so many bells that the cacophony of these presents persistent commentary on their movements. Thus also in our thoughts. I will wander toward a higher elevation, beyond the rabble of these cattle, in pursuit of freedom from the clattering that hangs on my own intellection. On the far side of the mountain, high, beyond the bell and gentian, between snow and aether, lies visionary freedom from all thought and feeling! I have yet to arrive there.
I HAVE COME to a woodsman’s hut with its axes, long- and short-toothed saws and its rough, notched benches which are themselves in danger of being sawn into firewood. This place of rugged labour is situated next to a little chapel where a priest no doubt toils for the salvation of these semi-heathen people. And because of this, I have become preoccupied with the adjacency.
At which, I ask, should I throw myself in submission? I have a tendency towards worship, which lies in disharmony with the pessimism of my unbelief and allied to a skeptical disregard for particularities of religion. If we are to live in a metaphysical dimension – which, whether or not we want to, we may – this is an abstract and diffuse medium which defies calculation. And I would be more at home measuring the length of a pine plank than in speculating on divine immanence.
Given the choice, as suggested by these chapels, between the profession of priest or woodsman, I would unhesitatingly choose the latter. And then jig from peak to peak all evening with the hamadryads I have liberated.
IT IS HARD to believe that this immense chain of mountains spread before me, to the extent that, seated as I am in a flowery meadow, I must turn my head all the way to the left and then right and even a little over my shoulder in order to take in the entire prospect – it is difficult to believe that this is not simply a painting or the long stretch of some theatre scenery. And why do I believe? In part because I am here with all the mixed feelings of pleasure and pain that inform each moment of existence –
And a horse fly which had settled on my ankle to sup on my life’s blood by donating its sting, has flown away having successfully achieved what it came for. Ruddy, aching sunset heats my ankle. How climactically this itches! So I turn back to the mountains, and the distant grey, blue, ice-white of their half-truth cools me.
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THESE FAINTING AND yet virile numbers are composed as if by my Doppelgänger. And just as the Judaic Heine’s apostasy in some sense rendered the Hebrew of his sensibility still more alien to the Christianity and perhaps the Teutonism he both deprecated and embraced, so the Great Khan made himself a modern person, and his self-adoption into China intensified his apprehension that steppeland grasses still palpably adhered to his buskins.
It would take some volumes to explore this lyric episode. And yet briefly as follows: the quatrain faints in that the mixed sibilation of the opening two words articulate a knowing sigh (Ich weiss ) which is sunk or annulled by nicht – a syllable which repeats the hiss of Ich and thereby topples that away from its initial verticality (as noted before in a Shakespeare Sonnet).
By the time we have arrived at two further little sibillations (was es) that perch on either side of the caesura, the poet’s confession of unknowing has drawn us in concern towards the sofa where a dream has disturbed him. Given that we are in the realm of an expostulative subjectivity, the verb (soll bedeuten, ‘must mean’) that lies on the eastern side of the caesura arrives most welcome: for what those last three words suggest is that some haunting, unidentified, weighs down on the Ich which renders it thus the object of oppression.
So far, the simple music of this line, so wonderingly disingenuous and candid in its vulnerability, is composed of finely tessellated verbal parts which have been placed together with the delicacy of a goldsmith: the finicking intaglio of its detail accumulating into a long exhalation which the brevity of its nine painful syllables both belies and then artfully enjambs with the forthright confession of its sadness in line 2, thus giving the whole sentence the sweep of a statement which has led from consciousness of a bewilderment to an incapacitating melancholy.
By line 3, however, the poet has travelled some distance, and into a mysterious new country. There is further estrangement. For while lines 1 and 2 are set firmly in the present, this moment of reflection is invaded by the presence of an Ur time, whose character is inflected by a suggestion of the Medieval, whose Maerchen and ballads were the literary vehicles of what came from yet more ancient folk traditions. How justified, then, this poet’s disturbance: for despite his present and reasonable awareness, inscrutable loomings have entered his condition, lie heavy, and won’t leave it.
We scarcely need to be told the story that follows: the Siren or the Lorelei, whose beauty and whose song draw fishermen to doom, has already, by the first stanza, enacted her work on the poet. Little wonder then that a story of magical temptation in the face of cruel beauty should have exerted the weight he apprehends in that distracted initial whisper: where, as helpless self-witness to his own susceptibility, he identifies the matter, and in the course of a quasi- Odyssean voyage, that he has, at least psychologically, undertaken, he succumbs to glamour, along with all the common little fools – those brawny mariners! – who smash their boats and break their hearts on rocks where the Siren disarmingly continues to ply her combing.
Now whereas Goethe in his Erlkonig creates of his verses a horseback journey, with Heine, the experience of the ballad, while masculine in its orientation to what is Weiblich, is feebler. Heine’s verse is sleek. It issues from the salon. And yet, by means of an intelligence that reaches beyond the urbane slipper, his stanzas retain the beauty of what he longs to touch, how dangerous soever this is to him.3
Note, finally, the rush of his lyric solution, so perfectly tuned to both parlour and the ballad quatrain: at once genteel and Medieval, suave in diagnosis of malaise, and chanted as if by a simpleton, a knave in a wanderer’s adventure ballad. O Doppelganger! du bleicher Geselle! (‘Thou pallid companion!‘ ) as Heine, older, might have written of the faery, and the cunning of a younger man’s intoxication. Such lines incorporating hauntings from our long inheritance, speak with an unsettling familiarity. As perhaps to all who have thrashed in and been strangulated by those other-worldly meshes.
But this story from uralten Zeiten – how that ur sings to us with its smack of the Euphrates! – is not just for Rhymers. No. That old day is a universal presence: and grows to be a worry – a dream that has been shared by every mind since Eve gave birth to bifurcating tribes of gardeners and hunting people – because now it’s overlaid by conversation, behind whose chatter, interlarded with authoritative lectures, it hangs, transformative, but filled with peril, with its looms and needles, supernatural combs, spears, traps and every kind of hunting tackle. It’s in the old Garden, and carries an infected germen, which, too boisterously watered, will overwhelm the orchard and grow poisonous apples.
THOSE WERE SOME thoughts as I looked down on the Lake and heard the cows behind me ruminating on wild flowers and grasses. What, I ruminated with them, if some witch on the Rigi sent a spirit in her service paint my eyelid with a buttercup elixir – and like some Pasiphae in pantaloons, in the character of Bottom, I were lacerated with a passion for a Switzer cheese cow, and she appeared before me as some Lorelei whose mooing’ld lure me to perdition – and I died here for her apathetic udder?
IN MY LITTLE hut: malaise, lethargy and thoughts of dissolution. Outside in the meadow, a cure among flowers, mountain waters that sustain them, and so uncomplicated an air that it simplifies, with every breath, both flesh and spirit. And these thus become, while the weather holds, united. The Lorelei may sing. But I am havened by the Rigi – in despite its mountaineering witches!
A STREAM IN a ditch which is cooled by pine shade. Overhanging this, a thick, dirty dome of last year’s snow is moulded to a scallop and ridged into a fan of barnacle-like encrustations. There it will lie all summer until it is covered in fresh snow which will outlast next season. And so on till the everlasting bonfire.
IF THERE IS one haunting to whose possession I have submitted, it’s that exercised by Alpine meadow gentians: and this is a condition by which I am happy to be enthralled. It is the sheer beauty of this mountain blossom, whose horn rises in distinct, dark blue from long and grassy leaves, that is, in form and in complexion, perfect.
This is a flower that I associate with Proserpine. Imagine that young woman, where she gathers in Aegean twilight, flowers that match in dark hues with their slender petals, grace that shines from her, as she runs through a meadow and then, in her demise, is dragged to Dis’s melancholy, sombre kingdom. Down, down she descends – still clutching, in her worry, for their shining, long stemmed blossoms that she’d gathered for her own dark hair or the evening table.
Enthroned eventally as Dis’s consort, she radiates, still, a soft, deep light, which glows blue as gentians in an Alpine meadow. This sustains her dismal winters of infernal residence. And I, too, keep my spirit buoyant, through her presence, in these little blossoms.
GENTIAN, BUTTERCUP, ANEMONE. Promiscuously, soon, to be cut for hay. How the animals will bloom with eating these delicious grasses, hemmed in by lime-stone henges through the winter.
In prospect of this, I stopped at a meadow and kept vigil by a mower who walked behind his scythe – as though stately old Time, in hemispheric rhythm, swept back the hay he lined behind him, as he did the season – before this jolly month had even reached its climacteric.
THE MIXED MAGNIFICENCE of hill and mountains with their rocky flanks and glassy crescendos that reach toward heaven. In the evening, sunlight veiled with a blue mist that rises from, and now falls towards the shifting turquoise of the lake beneath us. The scale of this small portion fells me. But one must stand up to what is tremendous – with the companionable respect of one who participates in what is great without aspiring to its dimension.
AT A ROCKFALL in a clearing some men stack hay beside a wooden shelter. As they load what they have gathered on a wagon, their conversation turns to some eventuality connected with this place, and once they are done, they settle on a pine trunk and refresh themselves with dried meat and with water from a bottle. I refrain from questions: for I’ve identified a melancholy presence in the rocks that fringe the meadow.
As I sit with these men and they follow my gaze to a fissure in the cliff face whence these rocks have fallen, I note their cognizance of my intrusive curiosity, and so with them I eschew the warm, flat boulders where we might have stretched our bodies.
If I’d wished to plumb a ghostly story, I might have been unnerved by this. I glean, as it is, the bare bones – words are insufficient – of a local tragedy. Thus we hold vigil in a shared solemnity. And then walk home to the village.
THIS MOUNTAIN SOLITUDE – at once charmed and desolate. The high peaks draw the footstep upward. A sharp cough drags me downward, while at heart’s bottom lies the well of melancholy that feeds imagination its dispiriting confabulation.
Take this lesson from the marguerite which lifts twenty outstretched petals and its pad of powdery, vermiculated yellow – all reaching skyward to a sun which only variably responds with the benediction of an answer.
THERE ARE NO longer the ‘old days’. And transformation lies in the seeds of the present that we grasp darkly, but may not comprehend. There is however an inherent machinery, latent in our age, which breaks through with a persistent and surreptitious violence from its dormancy and which will change our world for ever. That, I fear, will evolve into an age of the inauthentic. But we, by then, will have been so long gone that our apprehensions will be of no consequence.
THE PRIVILEGES OF this temporary mountain existence: first in that it lifts us to a sphere that belongs otherwise to the imagination. And second in that it offers a down-view onto the life we lead normaleweise. It is both the height and the simplification which adverts us to the lower and more complex divisions of our activity.
Thus gazing down onto the labyrinth of interconnected paths – some already followed, most still untried – I grow breathless with amazement that any human can survive the perturbations, false starts, disappointments and infatuations he meets daily. It is, in this lofty regard, a wonder that all mankind is not reduced to a despairing madness.
I have stopped where a long scarlet beetle is making an assault on a stem of light pink clover. It thrusts its head and feelers between the petals, backs its abdomen to where it came from, stands waving its feet into the complexity of the flower head, tramples quickly backward in a ripple of its six co-ordinated insect legs, opens its wings with a crepitation of enamel and flies off to new pasture.
Another, in the meantime, basks idly enjoying the sunlight on the open face of a yellow blossom but then finally attempts to burrow to its meagre depths, emerging with little but a dusting of pollen on its wing cases. So these coleoptera have their passions, blunderings and divagations. The honey bees, too, are oscillating knowledgeably around the meadow. Everything but flowers
That rise, blow and die
Before the gazer’s mortal eye
exists in a concert of restless and dizzy milling. And yet I suspect these little fellows, the natural poetry of whose ambition lies in pollen grains and pin-drops of honey, know very well what they want, and go about their affairs single-mindedly and with a instinct that we might learn from. (But see supra on a bee that staggered, with a stupifying optimism, around in hollyhock blossom.)
AS I WALK up on the Rigi, the weather alters by the moment. Streams of cold air are replaced abruptly with a smotheringly damp sunshine that envelops the face as though in heated flannels that are charged with hot, thick honey.
The wind blows between these layerings as though through bars of sunset, paying out its thin grey cloud-stripes on a primrose-yellow horizon before dissolving into a darker, swallow-breasted twilight.
The doubleness of everything is thereby multiplied. And the multiplication we observe, only in miniature, is a part of a grand and inconceivable number which both changes and remains constant in its variation. We see only a little at any one moment. Thus encouraging a confidence in everything and nothing.
SHE IS INSIDE, sober this time, with an almanac on the table and her long nose searching out, within it, planetary motions, permutations and disturbances. I order a grog and sit outside the tavern on a bench near which a woodsman labours. Presently, comes out last evening’s witch and nods, smiling to me, then approaching her wood cutter, stands in conversation until a laughter between them is ignited, as though by the friction of one timber on another, and she retreats into the tavern.
Twice, as I sit here, a veil of thin blue cloud is blown across the peak that rises nearest above us, now concentrating itself into a sheet and now balling up its vapour so it drops into the lower slopes and is dissipated among the pine branches. Chattering in her merry dialect, she stands behind me again now, in animated conversation with a taciturn young man who sits with his mug and answers her with caution.
As this talk proceeds, the words ‘fault’, ‘punishment’, ‘forgiveness’ – as if these bobbed on a stream amid the current of her dialect – are thrown up inconsequentially. Invisibly to me, as I can measure from the movement of her clogs, she goes in and out – as though she is the door, itself, on hinges which heavily push her from the darkness of the interior into the damp, uncomfortable, warm noonday sunshine – while in this connection, I anticipate, too, from the heavy door’s swing between these positions, a blow from her on the neck – or equally from her interlocutor – though it would be she, I think, who would strike him first, with his own tankard.
And still all at my back I hear are fragments of a minatory dialogue – as though witchcraft were insinuated, by a species of diffusion, towards any party who might fall within the web of their exchanges. ‘But it is he who is the witch,’ I overhear my speculation. (But then doth not ‘speculate’ imply, like ‘maculate’, the distribution of infected particles that will stick to an otherwise clear membrane?)
This, however, was no Lorelei, exalted in a naked separation. Ah no, this one’s swarming and appropriative eye would, had I turned in her direction, have made a soup of my whole person, boots and body, and forsooth a meaty one, for supper. Nor would she sing I think, unless to sit up on a midnight branch and screech a portent for her sisterhood, reciprocally, to halloo back to her! (If Hecate rode by with her lion, I would claim by now to have seen two, at the least, of her three faces!)
A SMALL GREY-and-purple butterfly on the path which, without argy-bargy of an introspection, knows itself. Had I trodden on that specimen, the universe would have been depleted – as Catullus wrote of his puella’s sparrow: qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum.
These little creatures do not fear death and we may take heart from their single-mindedness. Prescience is a condition with which we humans incontinently allow ourselves to suffer. Let us continue at least half-blind to our own destinies and profit from what time we enjoy in the present! (Long live such commonplaces that justifiably survive our nurses – who lived better lives than we do.)
A MIGHTY PRESENCE to which every blade of grass and flower contributes. Rocks, precipices, waterfalls and black canopies of forest represent the supporting architecture which is constructed of the same matter and which contains eternal, self-perpetuating energy.
It is difficult to know whether one belongs to all this, for to apprehend it expresses a degree of separation. And yet when I turn to the surface of this pine trunk, with its lichenous growths and ragged, barky islands, I see my own nature mirrored from these patterns – clinging as they do in living, obscure interlockings.
And suddenly now, I observe myself reflected, to extreme reduction, in a ball of sap that stretches from the loose edge of a bark fragment: on the point, for longer than I can wait for it to drop, of a precipitous decision, but incapable of moving forward.
Thus I am repeated in that picture of Narcissus I have derogated. Let me better vanish, and in more than my reflection, with this drop of resin.
FIVE MEN HAVE walked by without greeting or acknowledgement. Am I finally invisible? Delightful condition.
Could I only turn the process on myself and live like a plant whose being lies in its up- stretch as it reproduces without self-reflection.
NOW HERE WAS a spectacle I had not witnessed previously. On a wet log in the forest, the grain of it coming away in yellow rotten lumps, two stag beetles advance, and with antlers levering and tossing, fight, while a female, waiting to be mated, observes until the victor has dislodged his rival and he turns, with elephantine triumph, and covers this consort for whom he has done battle in a blind and horny grasping.
This prompts in me some boyish thoughts of many colours. But most, I think of Nero, screaming at the games, in his arousal, as one fighter fells a rival, and at Nero’s signal, intercepts his victim’s heartbeat with his sword or trident.
This was not my feeling. But I heard, at that moment, all Rome in uproar and the Colosseum shaking. Caesar retreats then to a side room and outrages his catamite, who bellows with the surprise. And then, like an infant, guzzles on Poppea’s nipple. She is with child and quite soon he will kill her.
Reverting to the beetles. To fight, presumably, is in every species’ ancestry. Nor is it simply imperial to do it in the service of a woman. Even butterflies attack and eat each other. I have seen the Small Blue which seems otherwise a snapped-off edge of heaven, sup in clusters of a dozen on a dead one of their number – and leave nothing but a patch of damp for ants that followed.
As noted below, this is an excerpt from From Culbone Wood – in Xanadu which will be published by Shearsman Books in February 2013. Passages about Thomas the Rhymer and Doppelgänger occur in previous sections of the text. An earlier excerpt, ‘The Case of Edmund Rack’, appeared here.
Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His publications on Point Hope include The Things That Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).
- This is an extract from a sequence of Notebooks and Fantasias in the voice of a late eighteenth-century poet who had just completed the composition of Kubla Khan. Although the identity of S.T. Coleridge obviously is implied, the work makes no attempt at biography or literary criticism. In the following passages, pseudo-Coleridge, either in person or in imagination, is walking in the Swiss mountains.
The book contains many anachronisms. In the present section, these are as follows:
While Coleridge had some knowledge of early translations from Sanskrit, he encountered neither Buddhism nor the Ramayana. The amorous krauncha birds figure at the beginning of the latter. Coleridge was a Christian, but the authorial voice is agnostic – sometimes hostile to Christianity. While Coleridge read Goethe, he is unlikely to have known the Heine poems to which the narrator refers. The entire work is a fiction and is best read as a loosely connected sequence of prose poems.
The completed text, titled From Culbone Wood – in Xanadu, will be published in February by Shearsman Books.
O Nachtigal…‘O Nightingale… I just want to read Shakespeare.’
Sleeks the nest…from The Twa Corbies (The Two Crows/Ravens)
lacrimae rerumxxxthe tears or grief in things/experience; quoted from The Aeneid
alp on endless alpxxxdeformed from Pope, Essay on Criticism, l.232
hamadryadsxxxwood nymphs; Ariel alluded to, though he was a different spirit.
qui nunc itxxx‘who now walks the shady path (of death)’. Catullus: Poem 3 on the death of Lesbia’s sparrow. ↩
- O Nachtigal, I, rueful, la-ed back, Ruhe! Ruhe bitte! Ich möchte unser’n Shakespeare lesen – obfuscated in this salad of a hypallage and vegetation. And vacillating between kind, confused Friar Lawrence’ garden and that single-minded murder student, the Apothecary! ↩
- Heine steps into the rough world of the folk in his Buch der Lieder. But he wants to walk off on the beach with fisher girls and dally with them in imagination when they should be packing tubs with herring. ↩