icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


Rodin and Apsara

Cambodian dancer, with study of joined hands. Plate 308 from Auguste Rodin, Drawings and Watercolors by Antoinette Le Normand-Romain and Christina Buley-Uribe


I've been reluctant to publish a placeholder, but work on this post has proceeded slowly. Since learning that Auguste Rodin had witnessed Cambodian dancers perform at Marseilles on the occasion of the Colonial Exposition of 1906 in that city, I'd decided to look into it and pick out some threads to follow. I hadn't known that Rodin had been exposed to this deeply ritualistic art form, though prior to that serendipitous encounter at Marseilles he ostensibly had no knowledge of it. Deeply moved and inspired, the great artist made a number of pencil sketches of the dancers in situ, applying color afterward. I gather that Rodin made more than 30 drawings of the dancers, along with one or two depicting Sisowath: members of the troupe were part of an extensive entourage accompanying the Cambodian king on his official visit to France that year.


Cambodian dance is deeply implicated in the mythology of the Khmer people, as attested by the sculptural friezes adorning the ancient temple walls at Angkor, and on temple sites and artifacts that pre-date the Angkor era. It's been argued that Khmer dancers are associated with fertility rites, perhaps especially in the earlier period (prior to the 6th century of the Common Era). But there is an interesting association as well with the widespread mythic phenomenon of dragon killing (in Khmer culture the dragon is represented by the naga).  

According to Paul Kravath, a scholar of Cambodian dance drama,


At the bottom of the sea a great naga serpent stretches the entire forty-nine yards of this mythical ocean... Above this, the naga appears a second time -- a convention suggesting a later action -- supported by two groups of figures. On the left are ninety-two yakkha (ogres) pulling on the head; on the right are eight-eight deva (gods) pulling on the tail. The naga, the most frequently used oldest Khmer symbol of the earth's forces, is wound around the stone, mountainlike seat of a four-armed deity. The effect of the resultant churning is seen along the top of the carving: thousands of flying dancers emerge from the ocean's foam.


Calvert Watkins has traced a fundamentally significant world myth in his book, How to Kill a Dragon, and I wonder whether the Khmer version, with the celestial dancers (apsara) and the naga serpent at its core, may correlate with the general framework of the dragon myth, though it seems that Kravath spins the story differently. But my purpose is not to explicate Khmer myth in any detail, but rather tease out some possible implications of Rodin's encounter with Khmer dancers at Marseilles. This will likely entail some further consideration of Khmer dance, alongside a glancing look at Japanese No theater. The influence of Asian art on Western culture during Rodin's lifetime is large, the subject vast. Not to say that it's beyond my reach in any case.


A word about my personal involvement with Cambodian dance and dancers. I began working with members of the Khmer community sometime around the year 2000, when I was hired by an arts agency in the Washington, D.C. area to help make meaningful contacts within the diverse cultural communities there. At some point, I wandered into a Cambodian dance practice at one of the local community centers, chatted with the parents in attendance that day (the classes were partly intended to introduce young American-born Khmer to essential elements of Khmer culture), and after many more visits I'd established strong relationships with community members, and with the dance instructors – all of the latter widely known within the Khmer diaspora, some whose original training was with the Royal Cambodian Ballet in Phnom Penh, a prestigious company and training center associated with the royal palace. Several of these dancers had defected some years ago during a performance tour of the USA. I subsequently studied Khmer language at Madison, Wisconsin over two consecutive summers, and have continued to establish and maintain relationships with members of the Khmer community since that time.


I'm not a scholar of Cambodian dance traditions, so my comments here will be mainly subjective, based on personal experience. That said, here goes...


Cambodian dance is ritualized and patterned, whose gestures, postures, and movements have been established and formalized through the centuries. Dancers convey meaning and emotion and narrative elements as well, through facial expression, and through highly stylized gestures and movements of their bodies, especially their hands and feet. In classical Cambodian dance, the narrative component of the dances is drawn from the Reamker, which is regarded by some as the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. While there are broad similarities and points of correspondence between the two, the Khmer version is distinctively Khmer – much as the dance itself is distinctive and independent from classical Indian dance, despite broad similarities and early scholarship arguing for the derivative nature of the Khmer tradition.


My feeling is that anyone who initially encounters Cambodian traditional dance will be overtaken by the beauty, the precision, and the skill of the dancers, and will readily appreciate the challenges they face in entering into the spirit of the characters they portray. The dancers are assisted in this by wearing traditional costumes, which serve as guideposts to the characters, and perhaps especially by wearing intricate and beautifully crafted crowns and masks, which in this case are made by one of the master dance instructors (who then was a prominent and influential member of that particular dance company).


When considering which direction to take for this post, I was initially seeking to understand why Khmer dance may have mattered so much to Rodin at that point in his career (which had been languishing). I don't know that I can provide that understanding here except in a rather perfunctory way. But the Rodin material was suggestive, and I found myself thinking of other cultural traditions, such as Cambodian shadow theater, Japanese No theater, and even traditional Hawaiian concepts of cultural knowledge and transmission. I may choose to explore these here, searching for connections. Meanwhile, I'd suggest that Khmer dance is indeed very much akin to Cambodian shadow theater – the dancers wear elaborate, highly stylized costumes and crowns (and sometimes, masks too); they move with precision but always according to an established or routinized system; they enact traditional narratives, in many if not all cases based on the Reamker. Perhaps especially, they affect to achieve an almost otherworldly, suprahuman effect. And the puppeteers must dance as they contrive to make their shadow puppets appear to dance, all action taking place behind the white screen. Both traditions date to the pre-Angkor era; both traditions are sacred to the Khmer people. Both dance and shadow theater are accompanied by the classical pin peat orchestra, consisting of a number of traditional Cambodian instruments. And both are very popular with tourists! According to puppet historian Kenneth Gross, the shadow animator translates their own "thought, will, gesture, and voice" to the puppets, and these are "made visible the more strongly for his invisibility, showing us gods, demons, ghosts, giants, and warring clans and nobles." Strong magic indeed!


How then does dance differ from shadow theater? There appear to be many points of convergence, but what are the differences between the two traditions? There are historical explanations for the rise of shadow theater, linked to the fate of the living female dancers at Angkor -- with shadow theater created to offer important ritual reenactments in their absence. In any case, women have played important and varied roles in collection to the Cambodian king. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese merchant who visited Cambodia in 1295 C.E., observed the royal dancers , reporting in his Record of Cambodia that,


In the eighth month there is an "ailan", a dance that selected female dancers perform daily in the palace. There are boar fights and elephant fights as well, and again the king invites foreign envoys as spectators. Things go on like this for ten days.


Women might also function as musicians, or as part of the royal guard:


I stayed for a year of so, and saw him [the king] come out four or five times. Each time he came out all his soldiers were gathered in front of him, with people bearing banners, musicians, and drummers following behind him. One contingent was made up of three to five hundred women of the palace. They wore clothes with a floral design and flowers in their coiled-up hair, and carried huge candles, alight even though it was daylight. There were also women of the palace carrying gold and silver utensils from the palace and finely decorated instruments made in exotic and unusual styles, for what purpose I do not know. Palace women carrying lances and shields made up another contingent as the palace guard. Then there were carts drawn by goats, deer, and horses, all of them decorated with gold.


This other aspect of women's roles, where they participate in the protection of the king, was attested centuries later, at the time that Rodin observed the Cambodian dancers at Marseilles. During his rolay visit, King Sisowath was attended by Xavier Paoli, who served as a sort of interlocutor for the king. Paoli interestingly calls attention to a sort of gender ambiguity of the dancers:


Sisowath's dancing girls are not exactly pretty, judged by our own standard of feminine beauty. With their hard and close-cropped hair, their figures like those of striplings, their thin, muscular legs like those of young boys, their arms and hands like those of little girls, they seem to belong to no definite sex. They have something of the child about them, something of the young warrior of antiquity and something of the woman. Their usual dress, which is half feminine and half masculine, consisting of the famous sampot worn in creases between their knees and their hips and of a silk shawl confining their shoulders, crossed over the bust and knotted at the loins, tends to heighten this curious impression. But, in the absence of beauty, they possess grace, a supple, captivating, royal grace, which is present in their every attitude and gesture.


In fact, to my knowledge these dances were traditionally performed only by females, who played either male or female roles within a given dance. Over the course of centuries and likely due to historical contingencies, however, male dancers were gradually integrated into the performances -- though even today women dancers may play either male or female roles (sometimes depending on availability of male dancers).


I continue to stray back into a discussion of Cambodian dance, but before closing this post I want to gather in other materials of interest to the subject.



However, the answer to this question lies beyond the scope of this one post, and there are other avenues of interest to explore briefly here.



More soon...




Be the first to comment

The possibility of writing

Printer's tray, Cuneiform Press postcard


Still struggling to form and finish the next post (following on from the post dated 2 September) I'm once again resorting to interpolating a poem here, complementary to the poem I published last month (23 September). In fact I see both poems, each a poem in progress, as two parts of a single, longer poem, or as two closely interrelated poems. As with the previous poem, I'll continue to work on this one here, in the more or less public space of this blog. In the spirit of the relationship between the two I've altered the title of the previous poem -- or provided a title: the September poem is now, "The possibility of memory", with the current poem titled "The possibility of writing".  I'll see where that goes. Meanwhile, I think that both poems are grappling with the writing process; with crafting, rather than with inspiration, since neither is inspired in the usual sense of that word.


The possibility of writing


Where does memory live?

A clutch of elk

A forest door

Light tilting against

A thickening sky  

The gloaming

Tentative then


Touching nose flank tail

Elk growling at low thrum

"Indefiniteness is an element

Of the true music"

         says Spicer

The poet




Bareback through the forest

I taste the trail in my mouth

And I think to write this down      


Walking the streets

Shadows stippling the sun

I'm a cotton weevil

Caught in a loose cotton weave

Unbuttoning one ear

I listen for the mustering elk


Chiseled from the glowing rod         

         heated shavings  


Coalescing into letters


         just enough

To form one sentence



The press goes


Crowding my dream

Planetesimals whirr the dark

Seventeen billion

         incipient spheres

Formed from heated metal

Seventeen billion


In a red-shifting forest

Our names carved

         into just this
One tree






[clutch of elk

rim of light

forest lane

printing press





Be the first to comment

The possibility of memory

William Blake, I want, I want



It's been some time since my last post, due mainly to distractions precipitating from the steep learning curve of pollinator gardening. Not having anything else in hand at the moment, I'll resort to publishing a poem I've been working on (and which I'll continue working on here). I realize that this stratagem may disappoint an imagined reader, but as they say, there's nothing for it just now.


I don't know where this poem of mine came from, or where it may be going. But the proximate impulse to make this post arose from reading a book of poems by Marilyn Hacker. Her poem is titled Ghazal — no subtitle, though other poems in the book employ that term. Which book, by the way, is A Stranger's Mirror (W.W.Norton & Company, 2015). Here are the first two stanzas of Hacker's poem:
She took what wasn't hers to take: desire
For all that's not her, for what might awake desire.
With it, the day's a quest, a question, answered where-
Ever eye, mind lights. Desire seeks, but one can't seek desire.

These closing thoughts on desire echo the closing thoughts of my poem, which I think is about memory, or about time. I hadn't seen Hacker's poem till now, had been working on my poem, off and on, for months, with those closing lines there from the first roughed-out draft; from the epiphanic moment, as it were.
Hacker's use of enjambment in Ghazal is seamless, unlike my own trials with that literary device. I'd suggest however that there's otherwise little connection between the two poems, apart from twinning the ego as both subject and object -- without knowing what that might mean, in my case. Anyway, here's my poem:


The possibility of memory


Sitting on the red sofa
I'm way out in time
Years ahead of now
Spooling a nostalgia thread


     Arrives a shifting awareness

     Sifting a foreshadowing dread


Riffling the signatures
of a revenant tome
Gingko weaving sunlight

Through the chain lines

Seed pod and leaf blade
mottle my raveling hands


Picking up the phone, your voice

A shaft of audible dust
Traces a Ley-line through 

Lanes of enigmatical stars


Did I miss the launch
That carried you and the others away?
Did I drift through yet another apocalypse?


Living long with Gingko
You may choose memory
But will memory
Choose you?

Be the first to comment


"The Tree" by James Reaney, Poetry Magazine December 1969


As with all of my posts, this one has been difficult to pin down, though the underlying subject of this post is pastiche and related matters. Looking over previous entries on this blog I see that much of what I publish is an assemblage of fragments, loosely strung together, with connections strengthened by a gradually emerging narrative arc. And as with all posts on this blog, the underlying factor, the urgrund, is very broadly the search for a subject within a given post, that would link with other posts to ultimately form an interrelated whole.


In this case, the originary spark was provided by my reading of a small portfolio of "emblem poems" published several decades ago. According to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, emblem poems were popular in the early modern, or Renaissance period, though my exposure to them was much more recent, courtesy of Poetry Magazine, who published a selection by a Canadian poet called James Reaney. These poems are interesting because they combine writing with drawing, and in a general sense they correlate with a previous post that focused on poetry and collage.


One of Reaney's emblem poems is reproduced above, and is one of four such poems published in the December 1969 issue of Poetry Magazine. I especially like this poem for it's incorporation of singular or separate signs into a meaningful whole, and for its cosmic reference point. Interestingly, and perhaps appropriately given the subject matter of "The Tree", Reaney is described as a "mythopoet" in a recent issue of PN Review (#219, 2014) by the Canadian poet Amanda Jernigan, who writes:


There are critics for whom mythopoetry is, if anything, a was: a short-lived literary movement that grew up here in Canada under the influence of the mythopoetic criticism of Northrop Frye, and died out when its chief practitioners – Macpherson and James Reaney (1926–2008) are the two most often cited – went on to other things. In the May/June 2013 issue of PN Review, Evan Jones called me, only half-jokingly, the last of the mythopoets: 'the only heir to a tradition that was once central and has now died out'.


My feeling is that mythopoetry remains relevant, often appearing when poets seek greater depths of meaning. In fact, we needn't reach all the way back to Robert Duncan, or further back to Yeats, Eliot, or Auden, to locate this persistent relevance. As Susan Howe observed in a recent collection of essays (The Quarry, 2015):


Poetry is an incessant amorous search under the sign of love for a remembered time at the pitch-dark fringes of evening when we gathered together to bless and believe.


What does Howe suggest poetry is? Myth? Storytelling? I'll leave that question aside for now. But moving on I'd say that in my practice I tend to blur the categories. For example, to my mind the emblem poems may be akin in a very general way to the broadside ballads that emerged within the early print tradition in Europe. They tended to incorporate images or drawings of various kinds onto a broad sheet covered with printed text. For their part the emblem poem may pose difficulties for the anthologist; broadsides are simpler to reproduce and thus may appear more frequently in compilations of the period. The broadsides valorized text over image, whereas the opposite may be the case with the emblem poems (though Reaney does good work in giving equal status to each). Thinking further with the assistance of Reaney's poems, I realize that the extended word definitions culled from etymologies, such as by W.W. Skeat, might function in these blog posts as emblems — blocks of print assembled originally to form a definition, but capable of producing an image when displayed on the page in other contexts. See for example Skeat's definition of the word "emblem":


EMBLEM, a device. (F.,-L.,-Gk.) In Shak. All's Well, ii.
i . 44. O. F. embleme,' an embleme ;' Cot. Lat. emblema, a kind of
ornament. Gk. ξμβλημα, a kind of moveable ornament, a thing put
on. Gk. έμβαλλειν, to put in, lay on. - Gk. έμ = εν, in; and βάλλειν,
to cast, throw, put. See Belemnite. Der. emblemat-ic, from Gk.
stem έμβληυατ- ; emblemat-ic-al.


It's difficult to think of this entry as constituting just a text; it's a multilingual assemblage of abbreviations, punctuation marks, and signs that collectively compose an image, rather than a text per se. Compare this with Brewer's entry for this word in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which is more precisely textual:


Emblem. A symbolical figure; a picture with
a hidden meaning which is "cast into" (Gr. em,
in, ballein, to cast) the visible device. Thus, a
balance is an emblem of justice, white of purity,
a sceptre of sovereignty.
Some of the most common and simple
emblems of the Christian Church are:
A chalice. The eucharist.
The circle inscribed in an equilateral triangle,
or the triangle in a circle. To denote the coequality
and co-eternity of the Trinity.
A cross. The Christian's life and conflict;
the death of Christ for man's redemption.
A crown. The reward of the perseverance of
the saints.
A dove. The Holy Ghost.
A handfrom the clouds. To denote God the
A lamb, fish, pelican, etc. The Lord Jesus
A phoenix. The resurrection.


Having raised the issue of pastiche and imported a Renaissance era literary form into this discussion, I want to reach a little further for additional, possibly provocative parallels. In a recent book titled Inky Fingers, Anthony Grafton argues that early printing (15th-16th centuries) involved a hands-on interplay between scribes, printers, and scholars. In fact, he suggests that the postmodern sensibility and practices of contemporary scholarship may have been foreshadowed by close interactions between scholars and printers during the Renaissance. A reviewer of his book (Erin Maglaque, New Review of Books July 2021) notes that,


He had begun it by citing Macrobius: 'In this Book all is mine, & Nothing is mine. Omne meum, nihil meum.' Pastorius meant that by assembling bits of the old, he had created something new. It took considerable intellectual discernment – and long, cramped hours of reading and notetaking – to create a masterpiece that was at once his own and a compilation of others' writings. The Bee Hive exemplifies what is so puzzlingly postmodern about early modern textuality: it was both individual and collective, unique and pastiched.


"Pastiched" is the key word here, but I want to move on, for now. Erin Maglaque very conveniently (for my purposes) mentions Pastorius. "Pastorius" is Daniel Francis Pastorius, leader of the Germantown community, which was formed in the late 17th century just outside of Philadelphia. (I've written about this community in previous posts, focusing on Johannes Kelpius (the Latinized form of the person otherwise known as Johann Kelp), founder with other Pietists in 1694 of a small utopian community on the banks of Wissahickon Creek, in close proximity to Germantown). Thinking about the Wissahickon Creek area I'd add that the first paper mill in North America was established close by to the Kelpius site (a little further south on the Wissahickon) by the Rittenhouse family, who also were emigrés from Germany, and who settled near Philadelphia during this period. Kelpius was spiritual leader of his small group; he composed as number of hymns which are among the first written in North America. (Note that the issue of "firsts" is very much of dubious value, and is notoriously difficult to establish and pin down.)


I'll wrap this up with a puzzling quote from Bee-Hive (Pastorius hyphenated the title), which I believe remains a little-known classic of early American literature. (Parts of the book are excerpted in The Multilingual Anthology of American Literature, edited by Marc Shell and Werner Sollors). In their selection, Pastorius provides the following description of his work, situating that work, by the way, within the overarching domain of pastiche:


Whereas many prefer meer Rick-shaws beyond Solid meats, I had rather choose to set before them the dainties of other men, than the coarse food of mine own.


Bee-Hive has been dated to around 1696, so this brief description is fascinating; it's firstly a neat summary of Pastorius's intention in compiling his "Common-place" book, which was done principally for the edification and moral instruction of his sons. But note that Pastorius, writing at the close of the 17th century, uses the word "Rick-shaw"  — whereas the OED provides no examples for this word in English prior to the 19th century! The OED explains that the word is an abbreviated form of an earlier word, "Jinrickishaw", which means much the same thing — a conveyance on two wheels pulled by a person. The OED provides an etymology by way of translation: "Jin man + ricki strength, power + sha vehicle." The OED further notes that the word was "First used in Japan c. 1870 but now common in other parts of the world." It may be worthwhile exploring Pastorius's curious usage at some other time. Note, however, that he wrote in multiple languages -- German, Latin, English, and more. Was the word in use among German speakers much earlier than it was used by English speakers? (The word does not appear in my copy of the Langenscheidt Compact German Dictionary.) Was the rickshaw, as we understand the term, in use in Japan or elsewhere in Asia prior to the 19th century? Note that the OED associates the word Jinrichshaw with Japan, whence it spread elsewhere. What are the origins of the word "rickshaw?" What did this word mean to Pastorius? His usage appears to vary from the meaning we nowadays assign to that word.


One more thing — how is it possible that I've brought this post around to yet another discussion of word definitions and word origins?


More later…

Be the first to comment


Coin from Aigina with image of tortoise, c. 400 B.C., from Ancient Greek Coins by G.K. Jenkins


Continuing a thread from the previous blog post, I want to continue to explore the concept of travel, if only briefly though I hope suggestively, along with related concepts and words. A partial listing… traveler, wanderer, pilgrim, stranger…


The Oxford English Dictionary conflates or interrelates two or more of these terms, indicating that the word "pilgrim" denotes "one that comes from foreign parts; a stranger", and later, "One who travels from place to place. A person on a journey; a wayfarer, a traveler; a wanderer, a sojourner" but then steers the definition more specifically towards, "One who journeys (usually a long distance) to some sacred place, as an act of religious devotion." Within this cluster of words, it appears that "stranger" may be the encompassing term. Interestingly, there is no separate entry for the word "stranger" in the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, compiled by Calvin Watkins. But in his book on English etymology C.T. Onions forms "stranger" from the word "strange", and suggests a possible association with the word "extraneous". For some reason I like that connection; it says quite a bit about the social position of the pilgrim, the traveler, the wanderer, etc. — whether en route, or having arrived in whatever faraway or strange land. Interestingly, nor is the word "stranger" given a separate entry in An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter W. Skeat (a classic source on the subject)  — though he does provide an entry for "host":


HOST (i), one who entertains guests. (F..-L.) M.E. host, haste, Chaucer, C. T. 749, 753, &c.- O.F. haste, 'an hoste, inn-keeper;' Cot. Cf. Port, hospede, a host, a guest. Lat. hospitem, ace. of hospes, (i) a host, entertainer of guests, (2) a guest. p. The base hospit- is commonly taken to be short for hosti-pit- ; where hosti- is the crude form of tostis, a guest, an enemy; see Host (2). Again, the suffix -pit- is supposed to be from Lat. potis, powerful, the old sense of the word being 'a lord ;' cf. Skt. pali, a master, governor, lord ; see Possible. y- Thus hospes = hosti-pets = guest-master, guestlord, a master of a house who receives guests. Cf. Russ. gospode, the Lord, gospodare, governor, prince ; from goste, a guest, and -pode = Skt. pali, a lord. Der. host-ess, from O.F. hostesse, 'an hostesse, Cot. ; also host-el, q. v., host-ler, q. v., hotel, q. v. ; and from the same
source, hospital, q. v., hospice, q. v., hospitable, q.v.


Note, however, how this word morphs etymologically into a set of quite different connotations, where the sense of "guest" and "enemy" share meanings, and where the word "stranger" is at last introduced:


HOST (2), an army. (F., L.) The orig. sense is 'enemy' or foreigner.' M.E. host, Chaucer, C. T. 1028; frequently spelt ost, Will, of Palerne, 1127, 1197, 3767. O. F. host,' an host, or army, a troop ;' Cot. Lat. hostem, ace. of hoslis, a stranger, an enemy ;
hence, a hostile army, host. + Russ. goste, a guest, visitor, stranger, alien. + A. S. gecst ; see Guest. Der. host-He, Cor. iii. 3. 97, from F. hostile, which from Lat. hostilis ; host-ile-ly ; host-il-i-ly, K. John, iv. 2. 247, from F. hostilite, which from Lat. ace. hostilitatem. Doublet, guest. ^f Further remarks are made in Wedgwood.


This meaning is more explicit in the entry for "guest":


GUEST, a stranger who is entertained. (E.) The u is inserted to preserve the g as hard. M. E. gest, Hampole, Pricke of Conscience, 1 374 ; alsto ght, Ancren Riwle, p. 68. A. S. gast, gest, gast ; also gist, fiest; Grein, i. 373. + Icel. gestr. + Dan. giest. + Swed. gdst. + Du. gast. + Goth, gasts. + G. gast. + Lat. hostis, a stranger, guest, enemy. p. The orig. sense appears to be that of 'enemy, whence the senses of 'stranger' and 'guest' arose. The lit. sense is 'striker.'- VGHAS, GHANS, to strike ; an extension of^GHAN, to strike. Cf. Skt. Aims, to strike, injure, desiderative of Han, to strike, wound. Der. guest-chamber, Mark, xiv. 14. From the same root, gore, verb, garlic, goad, hostile.


Returning to the OED, there is an interesting tension in the various definitions offered there, even though in the end they indicate that a "pilgrim" is one who undertakes a "pilgrimage," in the sense that we understand that term nowadays. After retailing this cluster of meanings, whether related or disparate, the OED allows that the journey undertaken by the pilgrim to a sacred place is "the prevailing sense." My feeling, however, is that there is an embedded meaning in this word and among these definitions: the wanderer who sets forth on a long journey would be seeking something, irrespective of any religious or sacred duty. Or perhaps they are seeking poetry. If so, it follows that the two broader meanings as set forth by Cid Corman ('It was to be more a pilgrimage — and in the garb of pilgrims they went — than a case of wandering scholarship…') may come together to form a single reference — the wandering scholar is as much a seeker as the pilgrim.


The OED indicates that "wander" describes the activity of one who moves about with no fixed purpose; in one definition the word is applied to the movement of a river or a stream. This is interesting as well, since rivers, while subject to change or alteration, do regularly follow relatively fixed courses toward a given destination: the ocean, a sea, a lake, or a larger river — which then subsumes and perpetuates the journey begun by the tributary stream.


I'll note that "planet", which is to say the Greek word from which the English word "planet" derives, is defined by the OED as "wanderer": "A heavenly body distinguished from the fixed stars by having an apparent motion of its own among them." — the OED glosses this as deriving from "old astron." — in reference to the pre-Copernican, or Ptolemaic, system of the universe. This is food for thought. Within that older system as channeled or filtered through Christian ideology, humans occupy the center of an ordered universe — they look up at a set of celestial spheres which have been set in motion by God, onto which the planets, the moon, the sun and the stars are affixed. Humans are assigned their own, central position on Earth (under the direct gaze of God), while the planets "wander" in the sense that they're moving around earth, as seen from below, within a geocentric system, fastened to their own respective orbs or spheres. All of this in accord with the divine plan, set in motion by the Christian God. The world-shaking revolution, and subsequent theological upheaval initiated by Copernicus and later demonstrated by Galileo and his telescope, turned this orderly and divinely regulated world system upside down. That story is well known.


My interest just now however is to persist a little longer in exploring, if only briefly and superficially (and perhaps tendentiously), this word cluster— pilgrim, traveler, wanderer, stranger — and their interrelated meanings. John Clare has a poem called 'The Tramp' which captures the randomness of movement by the social outlier:


The Tramp


He talks to none but wends his silent way,
And finds a hovel at the close of day,
Or under any hedge his house is made.
He has no calling and he owns no trade.
An old smoaked blanket arches oer his head,
A whisp of straw or stubble makes his bed.
He knows a lawless law that claims no kin
But meet and plunder on and feel no sin—
No matter where they go or where they dwell
They dally with the winds and laugh at hell."
(Excerpt From: John Clare. "Poems Chiefly from Manuscript." Apple Books)


And another poem by Clare, portraying the respectable local who stays put:


The Cottager


True as the church clock hand the hour pursues
He plods about his toils and reads the news,
And at the blacksmith's shop his hour will stand
To talk of "Lunun" as a foreign land.
For from his cottage door in peace or strife
He neer went fifty miles in all his life.
His knowledge with old notions still combined
Is twenty years behind the march of mind.
He views new knowledge with suspicious eyes
And thinks it blasphemy to be so wise.
(Excerpt From: John Clare. "Poems Chiefly from Manuscript." Apple Books)


"Dally with the winds and laugh at hell," or "plods about his toils and reads the news." Pick your poison. There is a poem in VEII And Other Poems (Carcanet, 2021) the most recent book by the English poet Robert Wells, which I think captures the complementary tension between making toward a goal, or being at swim in the universal flux. The poem is called 'Loggerhead':


Type of a courage to which the heart, intent
On its own journey, answers:
                                          the sea-turtle,
Unwieldy, solitary, tilted aslant,
Ferrying itself along through the green swell.


Wells explains in a note that,


I was thinking of seventeenth-century emblem poems. But the turtle is a real one, seen off the island of Melos some forty years ago. A turtle also figures on the coins of Aegina, the earliest to be minted in Europe.


The heart 'intent on its own journey' may be purposeful, or may be obeying a primitive, migratory instinct. Or both. But the turtle is a wonderful emblem of travel, on account of its slowness and deliberateness, and in the poem, the turtle is the embodiment of contraries -- experiencing a purposeful enthrallment. William Blake: "without contraries, there is no progression." And so the loggerhead ferries itself along. I love the connection Wells makes to coins — which portend travel undertaken by merchants, and subsequent trading activity among strangers. So too with fieldwork — I understood that my position as outsider, someone who would soon move on, never returning, facilitated a more robust exchange of information, and disclosures.


With this I feel I'm moving toward concluding this one post, but not completion of the larger subject, however. During the years I was actively doing fieldwork, my intention in every case was to fulfill the contractual obligations I'd been party to. But I also sought ways to dissociate myself from any overt purpose with that travel; to give myself over to travel per se. Around that time I read an essay by Gary Snyder in a book I'd found, browsing the shelves of the Carnegie Library in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. Snyder wrote about a Japanese poet who practiced a traditional form of poetry that involved walking, rather than writing. I right away understood that. In his introduction to For All My Walking, a book of translations of haiku and diary excerpts of Taneda Santōka, Burton Watson suggests that for Santōka,


The two activities of walking and composing haiku seemed to complement each other, and his many journeys, lonely and wearisome as they were, gave him a sense of fulfillment that he could gain in no other way.


The seamlessness between the two activities was well expressed by Santōka in a haiku:


I go on walking
higan lilies
Go on blooming


As a longtime walker, traveler, and sometime wanderer, this struck home. Rhythm, open sky, epiphany — pathways to poetry; words on the page superfluous? Loggerhead; with a shake of Blake.

Be the first to comment