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A Treat for Both Sides of the Mind

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MoH&H_titleWilliam Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is a work to delight both the poet and the freethinker.  It is a short book that combines language and art, serious ideas and comedy.

Most of us know Blake, if at all, for his short poems, like “The Tiger”:

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night

or “The New Jerusalem”

Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

The latter is an introduction to a long work titled “Milton” though the Milton who appears in this tale is not the actual writer.  “Milton” is forty five pages of tiny script and complex images, telling an equally complex story.

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is shorter, easier to follow, and fascinating for both the ideas and the language.  Blake constructed these books by etching copper plates, printing and then hand coloring each page.  “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” consists of 27 such pages.  There are nine copies in existence; fortunately reproductions can be found in quite a variety of editions, some very inexpensive.  These editions usually print out the text as well, for those spots where Blake’s script is difficult to interpret.

Blake was a Nonconformist, which means that he was not a member of the Church of England.  He did not fully align with the other nonconformist traditions either.  His little book is partly a tirade against priests, of all times and places, and partly a celebration of creative energies.

What might be called Blake’s thesis statement is found on page 3:

Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason.  Evil is the active springing from Energy.  Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell.

It will follow that in this dichotomy, hell is the more interesting place to be.  A few pages later, Blake comments:

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

Three pages are given over to “Proverbs of Hell,” a wide range of short statements.  Here are just a few:

In seed time learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

These proverbs, which send the mind going in many different ways are followed by three sections entitled “A Memorable Fancy” in which angels and devils and giants all appear and further commentary against such errors are trying to separate body and soul, or make peace between two classes of humans he calls the Prolific and the Devouring.  By the first he means the creators.  The second are those who only consume because they cannot create.

I have only picked out samples from the book.  To get the sense of the whole, you will need to go read it yourself.  After reading a copy from the library, I bought my own copy from Powell’s for $5.00.

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Sin Fronteras Journal Accepting Submissions for Issue #18

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Sin Fronteras/Writers Without Borders Journal now has its own website.  The Journal is now accepting submissions for next spring’s issue, #18.  The details can be found at: http://sinfronterasjournal.com/submissions/

Sin Fronteras Journal is published in Las Cruces, New Mexico, forty miles from the border and very much within a border mentality.  While we are interested in featuring border writers and writing about the border, we are not limited to that concept.  Send some of your best work according to the instructions at the site listed above.

Yes, we are still asking for snail mail submissions.  With seventeen years of tradition behind us we are moving into the twenty-first century one step at a time.

 

Recommendation: David Chorlton’s “The Porous Desert”

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When I learned that David Chorlton had written a book of poems called “The Porous Desert” I knew that was a book I wanted to read, because I have been fascinated by and writing about the desert since moving to Las Cruces eight years ago.  The book did not disappoint.

The book is not just about the desert but about the desert in drought, our current condition.  His desert is not quite like the one here because they have significant winter rains, which we do not.  A number of his poems are named by dates in February, a month when those in Arizona expect some rain.  Here is one of the more complex poems, titled “February 9th”:

We’re logging on to tomorrow, divining
our way through hours
as they drip from a rusty faucet.
We type in the address: http://www.water.com

but it comes up dry; so we try a search
for rain.  The first result
is a tease: On February 6, 1896, 3.86
inches of rain fell in Philadelphia,
setting a maximum daily record.
Tonight

there will be a meeting to discuss
the heat island in our urban region
which spreads further and digs
deeper by the day, down to the ruins
of a past civilization: clay pots

still bearing the potter’s fingerprints,
and the tracks her sandals
left behind when she looked into the future,
saw us, and walked the other way.

The book contains 49 poems on 54 pages; I don’t know whether to call it a long chapbook or a short book.  One that is less specifically about the drought, though it is clearly about a dry place, is “Condor”:

The condor stares down into time;
the work of years
with a knife edge, of seasons
that sand away and polish
surfaces then grind them into wizened planes
stacked one above another
until the clifs hang on a talon.
The daily passage of shadows

from rim to canyon rim
and the final drop
of light disappearing from the highest rock
are nothing but sighs
to a bird suspended from the sun

while the minutes drip
from its wings, evaporating
before they can reach the river

moving at the pace of history,
water burning deep
into pages of stone.

Particularly felicitous phrasing or strong images turn up almost unexpectedly.  “Highway Religion” for example begins:

The desert keeps its good looks
for a while west of Phoenix
then it turns honest.

Here’s the beginning of “December”:

An empty nest floats through winter
in the fingers of a tree
scratched against a mountain
at rest.

Here’s one of “Three Lies About Moths”

In previous lives
moths were books that stood unread
on library shelves.  When the lights went out
they eased themselves free of confinement
and nobody knew in the morning
what mysterious force
opened exactly the pages
whose text described the moon.

It fits Chorlton’s overall matter-of-fact approach to call these “Lies” rather than “Myths.”

Two poems specifically refer to the work of writers.  One, called “Proofreading” begins:
This is the detail work
of flossing between the letters.

The second, called “Writing in the Desert” I give in its entirety:

Once you have entered the desert
a lock behind you clicks.  A new vocabulary
floods your tongue and leaves you struggling
to pronounce the words.  After the first year
you learn that silence is the official language
here.  The longer you stay
the shorter the book you came to write becomes
until the manuscript fits on the wings
of a moth.  Each dusk, a lifetime’s work
draws closer to the flame.

I feel that way sometimes too.  It’s a good thing this is not literally true; if it were this book, “The Porous Desert” would not have been published.  I recommend it.

Marks of Spring

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Two signs that we are really into spring have appeared in my yard this week. primrose.1

One is the Mexican Primrose.  I planted this early in my gardening efforts and thought it had died, so I planted a chamisa bush in the “empty” space.  The Primrose evidently appreciated the cover and came back to life.  It blooms in spring and then is covered over by the chamisa.  In late summer or fall, thin tendrils push through the bush to produce a few more of the lovely pink flowers.  I don’t dare transplant it.  It likes its present location.

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The second sign of spring is the leafing out of the mesquite tree.  I planted this tree as a wee thing out of a seven inch pot about six years ago.  I worried for two years whether it would ever tree; all it took was patience.  I have been told by more experienced gardeners that the mesquite is the best marker of spring.  Unlike the decorative fruit trees and some others, when the mesquite begins to leaf, one can be confident that the danger of serious frost is past.

What have these signs of spring to do with either freethought or metaphor?  Both freethinkers and poets are aware, though in different ways, that humans are connected to the rest of nature.  The wisdom of these plants appeals to both sides of my mind.

Visit to Portland

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I had three things in mind for my visit to Portland, Oregon, last weekend.  All came out well.

The first was a visit with my mother’s cousin Del, whom I had not seen in over ten years.  She is living with her grandsons Dan and David, who, like so many in their thirties and even their forties these days, could not afford to buy a house without her help.  We had great conversation and good food together.

The second thing and the main excuse for making the trip was a meeting of the American Society of Church History.  Years ago, as a graduate student, I was giving papers at meetings like this one.  Now I listened to current students as well as older scholars.  The varied topics included the warlike language of new churches during the second world war, and the changes in sacred spaces at various times in religious history.  Just what makes a space sacred is always a good topic for debate.

My third activity was sightseeing, which meant a visit to the one place I know is an important tourist destination in Portland: Powell’s Book Store.  It did not disappoint:  a huge establishment with a nice café, it was quite busy on Friday morning.  They have two long sets of shelves of poetry books, much more than any other bookstore I’ve been in, and were selling them at 15% off in honor of Poetry Month.  I came home with four more books to add to the pile of books I had ordered from them online back in January.  Having the books in one’s hand makes it harder to resist.  And, yes, I bought the tee-shirt.

Powells Logo

Powells Logo

Outside it was spring; the rain was washing down blossoms from the tree.  Coming from the desert I enjoyed the damp air and took several walks.  I’m not sure how long I would appreciate the gray skies, but for a weekend it was wonderful.

Hike to Dripping Springs

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The “blogosphere” is a strange world of unlikely connections.  One blogger who found my website is Russel Ray.  I enjoy his photos of San Diego so much that I’ve added him to my blogroll, the links in the right hand column of this page.  You might like his work as well, especially if you have any connection to San Diego.

I’m not as accomplished a photographer, but I’ve been practicing, so here are a few from a hike I took in the mountains last week.  It has been too dry to produce many wildflowers this spring, but there are other things to see.  I hiked up to Dripping Springs in the Organ Mountains, a three mile round trip to several old ruins.  Halfway up are a stunning pair of alligator juniper trees.juniprs

One of the ruins is Nathan Boyd’s sanatorium, built in 1917 for patients with tuberculosis.  That disease brought many “anglos” to New Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.Boyd's sanatarium

A more substantial ruin is Van Patten’s Mountain Camp, actually a rather nice hotel resort in its prime, built in the 1870’s.  It once had stairs up to a nice entrance.Van Patten front

On the way back down the mountain one can see, though it doesn’t photograph very well, the town of Las Cruces in the Rio Grande River valley.view of Las Cruces

It had been about six years since I made this hike.  The ruins are not much changed in that time.  Two other hikes at Dripping Springs can take you to a cave which once housed a hermit, before Van Patten’s time, or to a waterfall – when there is water in it.  I left those for another day.

Trust?

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Alamogordo, New Mexico, has gotten itself in the news by putting the motto, “In God We Trust” on its city hall.  The mayor has been shown on television saying, “It was affirmed as a national motto by Congress in 2011,” as if that standing was the only reason the city leaders chose to use it.

The atheists are offended, as of course they should be.  The posting of this motto in a public place implies that if you don’t trust in God (some God, any God) you are not one of the “we”―the “we” who are running the town, the “we” who “belong” in it.

Christians should also be offended.  Posting this motto in a City Hall (in spite of its traditional use in American society) cheapens the idea of trust in God.  Those who actually put their trust in God are likely to be found on the fringes: to be poor, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, or to be busy feeding the poor or working for environmental justice.  Or perhaps they are taking a big risk for some hope for themselves or their community.

People who are trusting in God are not trusting in politics, or a bank account.  Most people who succeed in those terms are like the rich young man in the Gospels: it is very hard to let go of dependence on what one has and turn one’s trust to God.  I know my strongest lessons in trust (call it God, or spirit, karma or the universe) have come when other things weren’t working out.  And then, somehow, they did, though often not as I expected.