Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"One is a breath, two voice"

One rat across the floor and quick to floor's a breeze,
But two a whisper of a human tongue.
One is a breath, two voice;
And one a dream, but more are dreamed too long.

From "Lucifer Alone" by Josephine Miles. The complete poem is here.

Lucifer, Franz von Stuck, c.1890

Monday, March 29, 2010

"Contented with perfume"

A black cat among roses,
Phlox, lilac-misted under a first-quarter moon,
The sweet smells of heliotrope and night-scented stock.
The garden is very still,
It is dazed with moonlight,
Contented with perfume,
Dreaming the opium dreams of its folded poppies.

From "The Garden by Moonlight" by Amy Lowell. Read the complete poem here.

Free cat on an autumn day, Jeong Seon (1676-1759)

Sunday, March 28, 2010


I frightened a duck this morning. She was tucked up in the weeds at the edge of the lake and I never saw her before she let out a squawk and scuttered out onto the water, wings spread, feet slapping the surface...more

Friday, March 26, 2010

"I make you his, in making you my own"

Oh raise, fair nymph, your beauteous face above
The waves; nor scorn my presents, and my love.
Come, Galatea, come, and view my face;
I late beheld it, in the watry glass;
And found it lovelier, than I fear'd it was.
Survey my towring stature, and my size:
Not Jove, the Jove you dream, that rules the skies,
Bears such a bulk, or is so largely spread:
My locks (the plenteous harvest of my head)
Hang o'er my manly face; and dangling down,
As with a shady grove, my shoulders crown.
Nor think, because my limbs and body bear
A thick-set underwood of bristling hair,
My shape deform'd; what fouler sight can be,
Than the bald branches of a leafless tree?
Foul is the steed without a flowing mane:
And birds, without their feathers, and their train.
Wool decks the sheep; and Man receives a grace
From bushy limbs, and from a bearded face.
My forehead with a single eye is fill'd,
Round, as a ball, and ample, as a shield.
The glorious lamp of Heav'n, the radiant sun,
Is Nature's eye; and she's content with one.
Add, that my father sways your seas, and I,
Like you, am of the watry family.
I make you his, in making you my own;
You I adore; and kneel to you alone:
Jove, with his fabled thunder, I despise,
And only fear the lightning of your eyes.

From Metamorphoses (Garth translation), Book 13.

Pompeiian fresco with Polyphemus and Galatea, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

The story of Polyphemus and Galatea. (Spoiler alert--things don't work out so well for Polyphemus.)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Martone, Bell, etc.

As usual, there's plenty of food for thought in the latest edition of Chapter 16--like this, for instance:

"I think our ability to represent reality has become so good that we are on the edge of replacing reality with representations of reality. I also believe that some of us, those of us who are older, may mourn that passing. But it needs to be seen, the passing 'reality,' for what it was—a synthetic construction composed by a less complex media."

That's Michael Martone talking about how technology is literally reorienting us. Click here to read the rest of my interview with him. If rewired civilization doesn't appeal to you, read about a woman who escaped it in Margaret Renkl's review of Claiming Ground, a memoir by Laura Bell about her life in rural Wyoming. And be sure to check out all the rest of the new stuff here.

The Young Cicero Reading, Vincenzo Foppa, 1464.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kalmakoff's goddess

I bet a lot of you know this painting--The Spring, or Egyptian Bathed in Vegetation by Nicholas Kalmakoff (1911). I've seen it pop up in various neopagan contexts, for obvious reasons. My initial reaction to it was mild repulsion. Although it is undeniably beautiful and brilliantly executed, I couldn't get past the idea that it fetishizes a black woman's body. It seemed generally rank with racism and sexism in a classic "noble savage" vein.

And yet...the more I look at it the more I like it.The soft detachment in the woman's pose, the rivulets of the spring (so suggestive of other fluids), the sense of dynamism from the foliage that curves above her head--it's all very moving somehow. I can't help wondering if my reaction to it is shaped by knowing something of the artist. If I believed the painter was a woman, perhaps I'd have seen it differently from the beginning. Maybe my own sexism is at work here.

What do you think of Kalmakoff's goddess?

Image from A World History of Art. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"...this enormous night"

And because I can’t lift the enormous weight
Of this enormous night from my shoulders
I need help from the six pallbearers of sleep
Who rise out of the slow, vacant shadows
To hoist the body into an empty coffin.
I need their help to fly out of myself.

From "I Need Help" by Edward Hirsch.

Atlas and the Hesperides,  Nicholas Kalmakoff, 1911

Monday, March 22, 2010

One Sentence Perfume Review: Bluebell, Penhaligon's

Fresh, sweet, natural...and yet there's something very shrewd about her.

Notes from Penhaligon's: Citrus, Hyacinth, Lily of the Valley, Cyclamen, Jasmine, Rose, Galbanum, Clove and Cinnamon

Caïssa, Domenico Maria Fratto, c.1700

Sunday, March 21, 2010

"...they are always making and unmaking humanity"

"...and the more a man lives in imagination and in a refined understanding, the more gods does he meet with and talk with, and the more does he come under the power of Roland, who sounded in the Valley of Roncesvalles the last trumpet of the body's will and pleasure; and of Hamlet, who saw them perishing away, and sighed; and of Faust, who looked for them up and down the world and could not find them; and under the power of all those countless divinities who have taken upon themselves spiritual bodies in the minds of the modern poets and romance writers, and under the power of the old divinities, who since the Renaissance have won everything of their ancient worship except the sacrifice of birds and fishes, the fragrance of garlands and the smoke of incense. The many think humanity made these divinities, and that it can unmake them again; but we who have seen them pass in rattling harness, and in soft robes, and heard them speak with articulate voices while we lay in deathlike trance, know that they are always making and unmaking humanity, which is indeed but the trembling of their lips."

From Rosa alchemica by W.B. Yeats, 1914

Illustration from Aurora consurgens, via The Alchemy Website.

Friday, March 19, 2010

O, follow, leaping blood, the season's lure!

Yes, it's that time. Cue Alfred.

Illustration by Gerda Wegener, from A World History of Art.

Spring brings many delightful things...

...and this year it brings us lovely Chaya, with a review of something new from Illuminated Perfume. Enjoy her--and your equinox, whether vernal or autumnal.

Tethys, The White Lady, and GreenWitch

Tethys (also referred to as “ The White Lady “) was wed to her brother Oceanus; her parents were Uranus and Gaia.
A Titaness of great import, she gave rise to the noble rivers, including the Nile- and approximately 3,000 daughters named the Oceanids.
During the War of the Titans, Tethys raised Hera as her godchild.

It feels very natural to synthesize the alliance of earth and water maternal configurations when reflecting on The Eternal Return.

Roxana’s inspiration comes from many sources, but Susan Cooper’s book clearly stimulated her imagination and desire to create an homage…..

Green Witch Essence :
Roxana went about the process of alchemizing a celebratory scent to herald the Vernal Equinox. Exacting, complex, unfolding itself like the petals of the lotus, Green Witch reveals several facets of what it means to be Green…

Her encyclopedic list of materials was listed previously-
So I’d like to focus on the effect, instead, and its significance.

For me, the marriage of Earth and Ocean is evident in the first breath.

Uncork the vial, and receive the kelp, the seaweed, mingling with parsley, galbanum, hints of pine, celery seed, geranium.
An ephemeral, lilting citrus accord weaves in and out, like a happy drunken sailor.

On my skin, however, the experience alters considerably; Fern is everywhere.

Lavender, spikenard, violet leaf meet the dryness of elemi , the dusty mineral quality of orris .
Cool fronds of vetiver, softly rounded patchouli and bitter oakmoss, are smoothed by fine sandalwood, tonka, beeswax, Peru balsam.
Although choya and stone tincture are present, they blend seamlessly.

Gentle florals insinuate their presence; musk is a murmur .

In the drydown, my impression is that of a gladdened, light heart-
Bearing the memory that one cannot appreciate light without having experienced

Posted by Chayaruchama

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"A drunken poignant two lines of song"

by Carl Sandburg

The flutter of blue pigeon’s wings
Under a river bridge
Hunting a clean dry arch,
A corner for a sleep—
This flutters here in a woman’s hand.

A singing sleep cry,
A drunken poignant two lines of song,
Somebody looking clean into yesterday
And remembering, or looking clean into
To-morrow, and reading,—
This sings here as a woman’s sleep cry sings.

Pigeon friend of mine,
Fly on, sing on.

From Smoke and Steel, 1921.

The pigeon on the peach, Song Dynasty, c. 12th century

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"The streets are my body"

The streets are my body
or rather the wish
of the skin to put on
the grass in a gold rain

From "For Gustave Moreau" by Robin Blaser. The rest of the poem is here.

The Song of Songs, Gustave Moreau, 1893.
(The "blue-winged griffins" are here.)

Monday, March 15, 2010

What's for dinner?

On Saturday I read Avery Gilbert’s latest “I Smell Dead People” post, and on Sunday I read this interesting little article about Judith Jamison’s favorite scents, which mentions several foods. Some alchemy between the two has got me thinking about the smell of meat. (Squeamish persons and zealous vegetarians might want to stop reading now.) I grew up in a family that ate lots of meat, and I was always aware of the various smells associated with flesh foods. Every kind of meat has a unique odor, even when raw. Beef has a different smell than lamb or venison, chicken has a different smell than duck. My father and brothers used to go dove hunting, and I can clearly recollect the distinctive smell of the birds being cooked, even though I haven’t had dove for dinner in forty years.

When I was around 8 or 9 years old my mother worked for a while in the meat department of a grocery store, grinding hamburger and slicing steaks. I went to work with her a few times, which I’m sure violated any number of health and workplace safety laws, but I loved watching her do her job. I remember the smell of the place as incredibly rich, and not at all unpleasant. The metallic smell of fresh blood mixed with the slightly sharp scent of sawed bone. The wrap that covered the packages of meat was cut with a hot wire, so there was a very faint hint of burnt plastic in the air. And of course there was the scent of rot. The shop was (reasonably) clean and well run, but where there is raw meat, there is always a whiff of decomposition. As long as it’s below a certain threshold, it’s just part of the aroma profile of the food. It’s not only tolerable, it’s part of meat’s olfactory appeal, like the stink of turnip greens or the sweet/sour reek of ripe cantaloupe.

I suppose my happy carnivorous memories are the reason I never lost my tolerance for the smell of meat during my years as a vegetarian. Even when I was a vegan, shunning all animal foods, I would wander through carnicerias in Chicago and be completely untroubled by the rank smell of the meat and the piles of salt cod. Cooked meat smelled good to me, even though I didn’t have any desire at all to eat it. All my positive associations with meat overwhelmed my conscious rejection of it, and I loved the smell in a nostalgic way—the way you might be pleased by the smell of your grandmother’s perfume, even though you wouldn’t dream of wearing it yourself.

I’ve been a born-again omnivore for quite a few years, so my kitchen is often filled now with the aromas of flesh foods. I’m very aware of the sensual pleasure I take in those smells, how completely natural that pleasure is, and how disturbing.

Die Köchin mit Geflügel, Joachim Beuckelaer (1534-1574)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"His fur smells of lightning and clouds"

Is that dog, working his way miraculously
Across the road, a living dog?
His fur smells of lightning and clouds,
But through the drifting atmosphere
His eyes still look innocent
And I doubt if the boulevard
Is wider at all than the space between Betelgeuse and the
Agh! If I press my ear hard against the immobile road
I can hear the horrible gallop of the stars, the rumbling of
their vertigo.
Through a crack in the pavement
I see how it is that a star
By its own violence clings
To the empty elusive air
Flying away in all directions.

From "47 Boulevard Lannes" by Jules Supervielle, translated by Geoffrey Gardner. Read the complete poem at the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Boulevard Montmartre at Night, Camille Pissarro, 1897

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"It flys, and attracts"

It is a Mass of Dust, a despicable Thing;
A Fire, an Aquosity; a most amiable Fountain;
It is neither a Stout Captain, nor invincible;
When it is not drawn out of its Cradle.
It is an old Man; it is an Infant; the Lord of all;
It is the red Servant, contrary to the King;
It is the green Lyon; something more sublime
Than the King, or Subjects; but fugitive.
It flys, and attracts...

From A Warning to the False Chymists or the Philosophical Alphabet by Thomas Rawlin, 1611. Text from The Alchemy Website.

Illustration from Splendor Solis, 1532-35. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sophia's cat

I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about the magic of writing, about the godlike power of creating reality through symbols. I write the word cat and a cat appears in the minds of the people who read that word, accompanied by all their stored sense memories and associations. They hear the purring and feel the soft fur. If they know they’re allergic to cat dander, their throats tighten a little and they imagine that their eyes are beginning to itch. Lo, I have made cat, and it’s not entirely good.

Even writing our own names is an act of immense power, something we all know but acknowledge only occasionally. A will, a consent form, a confession—we sign on the dotted line and those scratches of ink on paper go out into the world, carrying our identity and authority with them. It’s a kind of spirit travel. We’re all shamans.

I think this extraordinary power is what gives writing its allure. It’s the reason some of us are driven to do it, and the reason others long to do it but hesitate. Words on a page can be fearful things. You never know what you might be unleashing. We tell ourselves that writing is a rarefied act, an expression of our capacity for abstraction and reason, but it’s also a direct conduit to our primal selves, to the child within who knows herself to be the possibility of all things.

Illustration of Sophia figure from the Aurora consurgens, 15th century

Monday, March 8, 2010

"Let there be lightbulbs & liquefaction"

The Goddess who created this passing world
Said Let there be lightbulbs & liquefaction
Life spilled out onto the street, colors whirled
Cars & the variously shod feet were born
And the past & future & I born too

From "The Goddess Who Created This Passing World" by Alice Notley. The complete poem is here.

Minerva Dressing, Lavinia Fontana (1552-1614)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pinney, the Devil, and the Three Sisters

Monday is International Women's Day, and though I remain a little dubious about the whole idea, it's a useful theme for a blog post or two. I've always been aware that the painters presented at BGN are overwhelmingly male. There's a good reason for that. I try to use only images that are in the public domain, which generally confines me to material before 1920. There are a lot of contemporary women artists whose work I'd love to display, but it's under copyright and I have found that it's a big ol' waste of time to chase down permission to post something. People usually won't even answer a request. As for notable women painters before 1920, there really aren't that many of them, and just like the men, most of what they produced was dull and unimpressive. This makes for a very scanty selection of paintings by women that are worth posting.

That said, there are some beautiful works done by women back in the bad old days, and Three Women Standing by a Funerary Monument by Eunice Pinney (1770-1849) is among them. Pinney was a self-trained artist who seems to have had a powerful fascination with death and cemeteries. One of her paintings depicts her own future grave, surrounded by mourners. I love the vibrant color in her work, and there's something very compelling about her flat figures. Three Women caught my eye because I was looking for an image to illustrate a folk tale, "How the Devil Married Three Sisters." This is essentially a variation on the Bluebeard story, but in this version the women are their own rescuers:

Once upon a time the devil was seized with a desire to marry. He therefore left hell, took the form of a handsome young man, and built a fine large house. When it was completed and furnished in the most fashionable style he introduced himself to a family where there were three pretty daughters, and paid his addresses to the eldest of them. The handsome man pleased the maiden, her parents were glad to see a daughter so well provided for, and it was not long before the wedding was celebrated.

When he had taken his bride home, he presented her with a very tastefully arranged bouquet, led her through all the rooms of the house, and finally to a closed door. "The whole house is at your disposal," said he, "only I must request one thing of you; that is, that you do not on any account open this door."

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Word

Does anyone do iPod divination anymore? It was a popular blog meme a few years ago, but it seems to have had its moment. I always thought it was more fun than the traditional method with the Bible or Shakespeare, thanks to the bizarre collection of tracks I’ve got loaded on the gizmo. I’ve never given any thought to organizing what’s on my iPod, so it has evolved into a catchall for anything that briefly strikes my fancy. For example,  Philip Glass and the Alabama Sheiks currently share digital space with the Peterson field guide to North American bird songs and a podcast of John Pilger speaking at the University of Texas. Thus I can find myself seeking cosmic advice from coots and gallinules, or from "Funeral of Amenhotep III"—a process that is usually diverting, if not always enlightening.

I am of the magic triad school of Nanomancy—i.e., I dial back to the menu, hit “shuffle,” and take the first three tracks as my revelation. Here’s what I got today:

Bell & Cooper, “Horses Run Fast” from Forty Words for Fear (You can hear a demo version of this track here.)

I lock all the doors
I pull down the shades
I try to relax
But horses run fast

Horses run faster
Than I’ll ever go
Horses might die
If they try to go slow

Song number two: “Ya Rayah” (“Oh, Emigrant”) by Rachid Taha. The clip below is an extended live version that actually has a lot more user hits than the song’s official video. You’ll find a full translation of the lyrics here.

How many overpopulated countries and empty lands have you seen?
How much time have you wasted?
How much have you yet to lose?
Oh emigrant in the country of others
Do you even know what's going on?
Destiny and time follow their course but you ignore it

Track three was Ron Horton’s “Ruminations” from Subtextures. It’s an instrumental (and a brilliant one, by the way), which you can sample here. The ruminations are rather troubled, judging from Ron’s fraught trumpet work.

The Word: You are thinking too much and getting nowhere fast—thus, I believe, sayeth the iPod gods. No doubt they’re right.

The Fortune Teller, Jacob van Velsen, 1631

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rumi meets Tammy Wynette

Okay, not really--though I like the idea of them running into each other as they travel the astral plane. Here on earth they just happen to be sharing this week's issue of Chapter 16. Click here to read Paul McCoy's interview with Wynette biographer Jimmy McDonough. I put a few questions to poet Coleman Barks about his 30+ years of interpreting Rumi for Westerners, and you'll find his responses here.

A Smile and A Gentleness

There is a smile and a gentleness
inside. When I learned the name

and address of that, I went to where
you sell perfume. I begged you not

to trouble me so with longing. Come
out and play! Flirt more naturally.

Teach me how to kiss. On the ground
a spread blanket, flame that's caught

and burning well, cumin seeds browning,
I am inside all of this with my soul.

Jalaluddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks. Text from Rumi Love and Ecstasy Poems.

Depiction of Adam and Eve from Manafi al-Hayawan, c.1295

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Olfactory derangement, red dragons, etc.

I’ve been hosting the flu virus for almost a week now, and I am really ready for it to move along. So are the dogs, who can’t understand why I’m so crabby and so slow to get the food dished out every afternoon. I tell them stories about loyal pets who comfort their ailing owners with quiet affection, but I can tell they’re not buying it. They just narrow their eyes and turn their heads meaningfully toward to kibble bin. Yeah, yeah, yeah—we all got our problems. When’s dinner?

The flu has, of course, put a crimp in my plans to do more perfume reviews this week. Unlike a cold, which usually just blunts my sense of smell, the flu results in a kind of olfactory derangement. There’s a sour undercurrent to every taste and aroma, as if the whole world were slightly past its sell by date. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that this effect lingers long after the other flu symptoms have faded, so I don’t know when I’ll be getting back to the Madinis and the lovely Afteliers. Soon, I hope.

Meanwhile, I just realized this morning that I missed observing St. David's Day on Monday. Better late than never--click here for a little tale of magic and human sacrifice from Wales.

Sick girl, Gabriel Mestu, 1658-59

Monday, March 1, 2010

What's that I hear?

The peepers are singing! Spring is on its way at last...

"Remote and thorny like the heart's dark floor"

To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart's dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.

From "Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher" by Nissim Ezekiel. The complete poem is at Old Poetry. The Guardian's lengthy obit for Ezekiel is here.

Shakuntala and her friends, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)