ξενία

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There is an old story
about a guy on his way home from war, lost sailing with all his buddies.  You see, back then sailing was rather difficult: rough seas, poor technology, a million tiny islands with their various sandbars, no google maps, and the meddling of the gods.  These have a way of shipwrecking one more often than not.  Well this story tackles a number of bizarre themes, but at the heart it is about a very serious and simple idea: hospitality.  The collection of songs that preceded it in the other major saga were about honour, rights, and that special kind of props (fame) to be gotten from being the absolute best.  They didn’t have video games so this was a little more intense than a Call of Duty leaderboard.  Of course, the fame of war takes the cake in these songs, as it does in a digital way for millions of young eyes today.

But here in this tale, a thousand miles from those sandy beaches, the song turns to a minor key, and the singing takes on a strange twist.  How do we treat strangers?  How do we treat interlopers, wining and dining us with our own food: not merely for a couple of nights, but years and years on end, running up a tab larger than the groom’s family at an open bar reception.  This is the story about many many strangers.  Everyone is a stranger.  The hero and his buddies keep stumbling into awkward moments where complete strangers take them in.  At home his wife fights a war of attrition, and probably wears her fingers to the bone deploying her best weapon (knitting, it turns out).  In both cases the central problem for those listening to the song – the moral that beat on their minds like the drummer keeping rhythm for the chanter in those cloistered pavilions – was how they would treat each moment of hospitality?

There is this Ogre (a softy according to some, but I have to interject that there can be nothing sane about a wild shepherd singing at the sea, likely scaring away all the fish, as soothing as it was for his own heart; I’m sure he would have appreciated Aristotle dropping by to give him the basics on purifying those emotions, but I suppose he did the best with what he had…) who is a touch backwards, but essentially minding his own business when our Hero lands on his little island, invades his cave, and stabs him in the eye.  That’s one reading.  Of course we have spent a great number of years telling it the other way around – that this one-eyed idiot was a really really bad host.  And indeed, perhaps those first listeners settling in on a cool night by the olive orchards also came away laughing at the stupidity of this poor creature, reminding themselves “that “’tis always best to offer food and rest rather than to eat one’s guest.”

He loses all his war pals slowly – a subtle stripping away of all those elements from the older story, reminding us that there are other borders than the walls of cities: there are borders of the heart and mind, just as receptive or unyielding.  Some get eaten, some get polymorphed, some drown in a nasty whirlpool, some get hit by rocks: it’s a mess.  But the audience nods along: they know those idiots deserved it, because they were disobeying the sacred laws of hospitality just as much as the hosts.  He is, at one point, utterly alone.  That is the key.  How does one become a good guest when one has nothing?  Literally naked at one point, our Hero turns to his wits – which are sharper than the average bear – and in this new mode we find something interesting.  Manipulation, yes – the story is straight with us – but also compromise, friendship, love, purpose.

“Wait a minute” (I can hear you dear reader), you might interject.  The goons at the house are clearly not applying for citizenship through the right channels.  They just invaded and took all the jobs, kicked out the son, slept with all the women.  It’s a disaster!  Yes, true in part.  But notice, they are actually following the customs.  This is where it gets rather bizarre.  It’s the faithful wife clinging to hope (remember, buddy has been gone some 10 years) that becomes this shining example and shocking profligation.  But she is not really whoring herself, but hospitality.  She lets on that things will, “any moment boys”, finally go back to normal in the sleepy town, and the government will be sorted out and a new leader will be selected.  She is about to rubber stamp the winner of the election, but for some reason the ink is too dry, or the stamp is missing, or (O look!) it’s breakfast again, or the cows need to be milked.

I think she is rather heroic, but let’s not pretend that (as nasty as they are) the guys hanging out trying to steal the show have skipped a rule, or forgot to dot the “i” in their forms.  They are all following the last administration’s prescription.  And that is the trouble.  As the singer starts to hit high-C (when Dopey gets home and starts chewing through the loafers like a runaway meat-grinder), we are left with a sense of awkward justice.  ICE has finally arrived, but it is as a tornado out of a clear sky.  We have gone from 0 to 100 faster than the Rolls-Royce in Indiana Jones.  And the awkward justice is quickly subsumed by the awkward ending (maybe the first singer who started this tale was extra tired or had too many marshmallows around the campfire and wanted to go to bed), where our Hero, finally resolving the years-long absence and restoring hospitality to its rightful balance (through copious amounts of bloodshed btw), has to go plant a plank in some foreign country (hmm, wait a minute, his punishment is to seek out the hospitality of those who know nothing about him or his culture…)

The story shows us one other thing: the younger generation gets it.  You see, it is the son who gets to hang out with the good god and show proper hospitality along the way (though he doesn’t quite realize it).  Entertaining angels and all that.  This young chap sees the situation for what it is: his mom and dad are like two sides of a politically-defunct nation.  Half the time they are fine, and they love each other deep down; they even use similar wily tactics, which is probably why they got together in the first place.  Indeed they broke off from the larger pack across the pond to establish themselves and make dreams of free air and quiet piety a reality.  But things are jaded now: war, an absentee dad, and the economy is crashing (even though everyone says the island’s stock market is soaring).  The kid gets it – you see, he comes from good stock, but he doesn’t want to do things the way mom and dad did it (I mean clearly dad is nutty, grabbing mom’s iphone to see who she has been texting the moment he walks through the door).  Dad barely sticks around after solving the problem on the home front, but rushes off to Russia or some other place with only one oar.  Idiot.

There is a cost for sustaining this fabric of society – which these ancient folk seemed to prize highly enough to sing about for generations – and that is exposure.  It is not quite like the exposure to shame which the first song warns of: the fabric of personal honour woven into every bedtime story on every island to ever girl and boy is worth telling even if many are in danger of tearing the fabric and shaming the family.  It is worth holding onto the idea of shame; and it is equally worth holding onto the idea of strangers.  But not so that we can avoid them like the plague, but so we know that we cannot know when we might be inviting the gods, or angels, to dinner.

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The Human – Mind

A piece I wrote contemplating those tender, grasping moments when we find ourselves torn and drawn to another; yet, at the same time we cannot know ourselves, and can’t express it clearly – when we, wandering on the heath of the mind, go a little mad.  What news, what trial or horror pushes us into these bifurcated spaces – the unresting awake-in-the-dark, the gloaming moors, the confusion of the self as a whole, as a unity or parts.

It is designed to be read in whatever direction grabs your fancy: across, down one side, then down the other, criss-crossing, bottom-up; one of the effects is that it is hard to stay consistent – the mind is erratic and wants to know what it is missing on the other side of the page; let it wander, or stick on a word.

 

The Human Mind

Angled Eye Facebook Page

For those interested in following along as I work through my PhD examination prep (reading 83+ items throughout the summer before an Oct/Nov test), or for those who want to see more video/stream content from me about literature, including interviews, discussions with friends, and readings, please see the below introductory video, or visit the Facebook page:

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Winter Wind

red brick wind snow

The hunching, hurled over

larger than life wind wailing

back busked on red brick

nose running faucets full open

But the wail of the credentials

unbelievable shock of air

roiling up slow like unfurled mast

lee side massing black anger

all in a huddle; then punch down

the tower wrapping brick

in a zone of elemental guile

Scarf tightening hat gone sailing clear

out into the expanse of frozen vortex

that black wind bent the light

I swear it bent my soul

when it passed through the body

The tree in the courtyard moaned

some horrible greasy blood-boiling

moan swung its arms out and died

blasted in one swift dark pass

What Lemonade Stands Mean

From time to time, my children (and many like them across the world) get the hankering to bake cookies, mix lemonade, and sell the results at the end of our driveway.  Of course, this rarely takes their fancy on a chilly January afternoon in Ontario.  Nevertheless, there is something significant about the process and effect of their impulse that may warm our hearts a little in these frigid months.

Essentially, lemonade stands are a means of exchange.  Of course, if I were to cart out the box, chair, register and goodies and sit by the side of the road, it is unlikely to be successful.  To the degree that an adult engages in this activity, it is also an exchange, but a binary, economic one: you give me cash, I give you (awkwardly because I am sitting on a child’s plastic chair and my knees are nearly touching my chin) some fairly bad baking (to be authentic, I had to do it myself, which is borderline poisonous).  However, something happens to the nature of the exchange when children are involved.  It turns almost magical.  It is transmuted.  Suddenly, instead of a simple exchange of goods quantifiable almost entirely on an economic spectrum, we have the exchange of a different sort transubstantiated alongside it: mood, spirit, communion, joy.

To be clear, the child is unaware of this type of exchange. Children up to a certain age have no mechanism for discerning the difference between their economic and (if we borrow from Bourdieu) their symbolic exchanges in social relations.  This is in part because they don’t know the value of money, but it is (I think) also because they don’t realize the value of the soul.  In this they have much in common with many adults, who find the valuation of “soul” to be such a fraught endeavour – full of knotty problems of identity, appropriation, correctness, and guilt/shame dynamics – that committing oneself to an examination of these kinds of exchanges amounts to an evaluation of one’s functional intellectual apparatus.  Put more simply, people don’t always want to look at their soul and see if it is sorted out; better to put the mild squealing of the serpentine belt on the “checklist” alongside an oil change.

Note however, that kids – though unaware of the classification of exchange – are fully cognizant of the effects of their efforts.  Lemonade stands reveal this.  They are attuned to the chortles, smiles, laughter, and engagement brought on by the most unlikely of operations.  And they efficiently transmute the cultural input of money + admiration/affection into cookies/lemonade + role.  They are amazing method actors.  We could get a very diluted experience that mirrors this pure incantation by driving through Tim Hortons, and hoping the individual on window is perky, sassy, or amiable.  It is precisely this symbolic exchange in the social sphere that compels us.  We will put up with hundreds of bad engagements of this sort, but (like golfing) the one time where a glint of golden mood streams through the window, the impulse is revivified.

At the lemonade stand, children offer a premium cut of this glorious dish.  I am certain others have anecdotes to relay what amounts to a supreme oddity in our internet age: people stopping their daily commute, job, responsibilities; people driving home to grab cash; police officers pulling over to say hello; delivery people halting their UPS trucks; all kinds of individuals determined to buy what?  Cookies and lemonade?  Yes, but something more I think.  They are determined to partake in an experience in which a simple economic transaction is elevated (if only for a moment) to a different sphere of experience.  It is odd because we have digital tools to invite this exchange at no cost.  Facebook, Instagram and other mediums of communication allow us to exchange endless moments rich with this kind of symbolic energy.  But for some reason it does not satisfy our hearts the way a simple lemonade stand might.  Why is this?

In part, it is because such enterprises are divorced from the lived experience – the interplay of transaction between the children and the buyer; I am not decrying the internet or our impulse to share such situations; rather, I am simply pointing out that such endeavors to share with others some moment of symbolic exchange of soul are more akin to a museum or graveyard; there is no way to maintain the vital power experienced in the original when it is set alongside a hundred other examples of the same impulse.  Yes, yes, some of it squeaks through.  But it is a memorializing impulse that causes us to try and “capture” such moments for others.  The lemonade stand is an unfiltered animation of the process of exchange whereby real – not feigned – economic activity (for the children are often very earnest and business-like in their efforts to make, set up, and sell such merchandise) becomes simultaneously a moral activity: it hits us in the heart at the same time as it hits us in the wallet.

it is

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It Is

Hard to hide our being

In its becoming

Hard to hold back the left hand

From the right’s embrace

Hard to hear the tone of ink

Spilled on a digital page in a rage

Hard to touch

The glass eye unflinching

Hard to inhabit

A house of clear-blown sand

 

Hard to bear our being

In its becoming

Hard to harness

Wind from the cavernous lung

Hard to swim unscathed

In a hotspring of tears

Hard to beg

At a beggar’s door

Hard to bend a broken will

Into a broken frame

 

Hard to feel our being

In its becoming

Hard to smell truth

In a dish of lies

Hard to bask

At a funeral

Hard to grant

An unseen smile

Hard to turn a phrase

In two parts

Is It?

 

 

 

Upon the Frozen Yard

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Upon the Frozen Yard

Grace wheeled round the frozen yard

Sticks, marl, buttressed bile

Stuck in the middle in a pile

But on and on wheeled that Bard

Free from me and you

Free to give or simply free to ride

The unicycle of the globe

On and on as the light grows dim

Every salient ray of vim

Leaks out of the eye of the world.

 

We were looking for redemption

Watching the mad jester on his wheel

Circling around and around

We were waiting for our chance

To stick a spoke in that wheel

And stop the mad whirling of the world

We were waiting for a lifetime

Until the children of our children

One day waddled, glossy-eyed

Up to the pile of bile

(Still oozing out primordial wrongs)

And waded in – got sucked right in

To the center of the frozen muck

In the middle of that damn yard.

 

We wailed and rushed onward

Helpless but clawing great heaps:

Mud slaking our tired arms

(our stained fingers felt

no child, nor hand, nor golden hair)

Weighed down by grief, until,

Suddenly with jaw-chalking blast

The pile, that luster of rust,

Exploded in a shower of fire

 

Blinded by dust, we could hear

The dull wail of the Demon

His tangy smile was gone;

Wheel shattered in a thousand pieces.

As the gray dross cleared,

We saw, as if for the first time,

The glowing health of our future:

Breathing, smiling, dancing upon a rock

Wine-dark and shaped like a skull.

Medusa’s Bedtime Chit-Chat

Back in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the poets were doing a mischievous thing.  Donne, flirting in his youth with a stunner of a young lady (underage and certain to draw the ire of the internet mobs – judge, jury, and executioner – on charges of harassment) wrote a dazzling party trick called The Flea.  The point?  Use this sucker at a bar, and you will instantly petrify the dudes and snag the ladies.  Yes its something of a gross idea, but that is the brilliance.  Here we finally have an age when the Jesters and Geeks might take their turn: the turn of the tongue, tying in knots any arguments standing between the poet and consent.  But of course, more is going on in that particular poem.

For my purposes, I want to comment briefly upon one of the effects of this style of poetry, which offers a unique  instance of dramatic monologue (Sappho might be one of the absolute earliest in the Western tradition to do this).  The key feature – which I am attempting to use in the following poem – is the representation of action or dramatic movement between the stanzas.  The reader fills in the gaps with their own imagination – picturing what must have happened to cause the speaker to say what they do.  In The Flea, Donne artfully conjures an image of the young lady he is speaking to: first noticing a flea on her body, then snatching it with her fingers, and finally crushing it, splattering blood everywhere.

Below I explore a conversation between Medusa and her sisters in a cave late on that fateful night when Perseus came to kill the Gorgon.  What ensues is something of a cat-fight, but as an audience we only hear Medusa’s side of the conversation.  Notice how your own mind fills in some of the gaps?  What do they say to Medusa?

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Medusa’s Bedtime Chit-Chat

But we Gorgons must comb our hair too,

And dangle the shimmering

Bright baubles from our scaly scalps.

Or do you suppose your gaze

Alone, dear sister, has softened men?

Move over!  I tire and must prepare

Before sweet sleep drags down my lashes.

Share the mirror – move I say!

What use to those ill-groomed?

Better for you to cast your glances

Upon this cave’s fair skin,

Save yourself and our dear mirror

From a hideous fright!

 

Hush! who’s that breathing heavily at the door?

Stheno, is this one of your lovers

Slipping in at the midnight hour?

 

Nevermind.  It must be hollow-eyed

Wind slithering in the saline crevices.

Where have you secreted the golden comb,

Euryale?

 

Don’t give me that dreadful look,

Mother would not approve – nor your

Forked tongue flicking out just now.

Face it, love, you are hideous.

 

No, forget it, I don’t want to tussle

Tonight, I’m off to bed.  Fairer

Faces await me and I’ll not delay

Lest I be forced to walk blind

And backward to my bower.

Chocolate

 

Chocolate

Merely to hold a complete thought

In the center of the mind

(As a woman holds up

To the crackling firelight

Of a winter hearth

A dark orb of chocolate

Which, though tender to the touch,

Melts not between her fingers,

Nor cloaks itself

With a white and shimmering

Coat when forgotten in the freezer,

Nor cracks and falls to pieces

Lingering at the back

Of a dusty cupboard,

Nor disappears into thin air

When looked for in earnest

On a sad and pensive night,

But hangs suspended in its perfection:

Whole, full of expectation, calling

To the tongue with a saccharine song)

Is sweet enough for me.

 

The Man

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The Man

There was a man half starved

Who sat upon a rock

Outside the city walls

He turned over a bronze coin

Endlessly in his right hand

And with his left he stroked

The ground until his nails

Grew long on the right

But not on the left hand

Every morning he muttered

Each evening he sang

Slowly as the wind sings

In a cave when the walls weep

Upon one side of the coin

Was a city surrounded by

Pomegranates and spears

Inside the city was

A light that came down

As it reached up into the sky

So that it seemed suspended

Between the city

And the gold-crested clouds

On the other side of the coin

Was a funnel coiling down to the earth

Whose twisting mouth was large

And ate up all the trees

Devoured every creature whole

But whose tail was in the heavens

Small and fierce, casting off

Lighting in its fulminating torsion

Every day at noon a maiden

Came and lay at the man’s feet

And scraped the calluses on his knees

Which grew because his legs

Were ever bent but never bending

And she gave him milk to drink

Mixed with wine which when

He tasted half drank and half

Spewed out of his mouth

Before she left him she combed

Flat his hair on half his head

Combed his beard

But let the hair girding his neck

Like a phalanx of spears

Grow wild in the charge of life

And every evening a crow came from

The wilderness with a goat horn

And a dove from the city

With a gilded flute

And the crow ate the dove so

It could not carry the flute to the man

But he learned to sing from

The eerie noise the wind made

As it played the flute in the dove’s

Clutches; the crow never put down

The horn of the goat but flew back

To the wilderness after his meal

Each morning a snake came

Up from beneath the earth

Curling up as a sinewy worm

Through the tunnels of time

And at day break whispered

Into the man’s ear a riddle

Then the snake convulsed

And curling around the rock

Died and turned to rotten ash

From this the man learned to mutter

And to whisper to himself

And he tried to scratch the words

Which hung low in his memory

Heavy as a fruit tree bent

By the weight of its produce

But in the deep of the night

When the sky blushed diamonds

Of every shape and hue

The man looked up

Forgot his woe

And wondered