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



Kelpius Postscript: Newton's Principia

Newton by William Blake, 1795-1805, Tate Museum, London


Seeking to replace the image I'd used for the following post, I inadvertently deleted the post itself! I'm republishing that earlier post here, with the updated image. The "thread" mentioned in the first sentence refers to an earlier sequence of posts focusing on Johannes Kelpius and Christopher Witt. Jim Green has since retired from the Library Company. I've slightly amended the text of the original post.


I feel that this thread of posts has run its course for now, though I may decide to return to the subject in future posts. Frankly, I'd not intended to take the story this far, and in as great a detail as I've done here despite the fact that there's quite a bit more to write about Kelpius and the other distinguished members of his group, as well as the contemporary Kelpius Society as well.


That said, I would add one more thing here. I met about two years ago with Jim Green, head archivist at the Library Company in Philadelphia (an organization founded by Ben Franklin and associates, by the way). At that meeting, which was devoted to a discussion of Kelpius, Jim took a very old volume down from  a bookshelf in his office. That book turned out to be a copy of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. Jim explained that the Library Company had recently obtained a batch of books, and this volume was among them. And it appears that this particular book may have been the very first copy of the Principia to have been brought to North America.
But how did the book come to Philadelphia? Jim explained that Anthony Grafton, preeminent Renaissance historian and historian of ideas, had become interested in the book. Grafton's faculty profile on the Princeton University website notes that his, "special interests lie in the cultural history of Renaissance Europe, the history of books and readers, the history of scholarship and education in the West from Antiquity to the 19th century, and the history of science from Antiquity to the Renaissance." According to Jim Green, Grafton has been investigating marginalia – the notes written in the margins of books by their owners – and along with that, has been doing close and careful analyses of that handwriting. Having examined quite a bit of material from the 17th century, he's often able to identify who might have owned a given book, and who might have written the margin notes. To the point -- According to Jim, Grafton believes that the marginalia in the Library Company's copy of the Principia were written by none other than Johann Jakob Zimmerman! This was likely Zimmerman's copy of the Principia!
Recall that Zimmerman was the erstwhile leader of the Kelpius group, but had died at London just prior to the scheduled departure for America. Tracing the provenance of the book, Grafton surmises that it was likely brought here along with a small collection of other books by Zimmerman's widow, who stayed on and sailed with Kelpius following the death of her husband. The Library Company has acquired those books.
Recall too that Zimmerman was a highly educated man, as was everyone in his group, but Zimmerman had a special expertise in comets, and in astronomy more generally. In his work, he combined careful observation within a framework of science, but translated his observations into religious or astrological terms. This wasn't unusual during Zimmerman's lifetime, which was a transitional moment in the development of modern science. In fact, looked at from the other side, Newton himself maintained an interest in alchemy, and is the author, alongside the Principia, of a number of alchemical writings and notes -- some of which, by the way, are held in the collections of the Chemical Heritage Society at Philadelphia.  
I've reconstructed my conversation with Jim Green from memory, and believe I've rendered it accurately. I should add that at this point I don't know whether Anthony Grafton has been able to definitively verify that Zimmerman was the owner of the book discussed here.




Be the first to comment


People, Guy Pène du Bois; oil on canvas (1927), collection of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts


Eupalinos (3rd Part)


In moving on I'll look back here and there to Parts 1st and 2nd of this extended post, to reintroduce relevant categories of content into the emerging or evolving context, hoping to offer a greater breadth of material; buttressing the argument while moving, if haltingly, toward a resolution of sorts.


As previously noted, there's a sort of hierarchy of found artifacts. For example, some people routinely scour the shorelines, in search of a fabulous (or not so fabulous) find. There are numerous, often interesting examples, ranging from the quotidian to grand. In his profile of Edinburgh author Alice Tarbuck in a recent issue of PN Review, Vahni Capildeo notes that,


Litter picking, like foraging is a mild form of greater housework that we undertake as inhabitants of (or passengers through) a place. Gathering is something else again. Edinburgh writer Alice Tarbuck in A Spell in the Wild…writes about gathering. 'Most people grow out of it: I haven't. My pockets are always full. Leaves and twigs and little bright stones, berries and chips of sea glass.'"


This version of collecting or foraging is even more modest than that practiced by Lara Maiklem, as described in her book, Mudlark (see Eupalinos 2nd Part). But there's more. In an interview with Filippo Menozzi in the February 2022 issue of World Literature Today, South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes mentions finding a leopard trap on the veld:


That particular leopard trap was one I stumbled across while hiking in the Cederberg mountains, north of Cape Town. The kind of material history one can find lying about in the veld in South Africa, fragile, undocumented, often crumbling away, its context lost — as opposed to the often highly tended and curated history of Europe. It was a particularly potent object, with its suggestions of great violence, now stilled; of a creature of great vitality, now absent.


Menozzi asks about the importance of being elusive and invisible; Rose-Innes suggests that,


Part of it stems from living in a country where there is a lot of suppressed and hidden history, just beneath the surface of landscapes that otherwise present an idyllic face — like stone tools of genocided peoples just beneath the surface of the ground, if you dig a little; the Calvinist culture of the apartheid regime, where much was repressed or brutally erased. I grew up in this atmosphere, where the true lion was always just about to step out of the long grass.


The ancient artifacts left by nonwhite, indigenous peoples may lie unnoticed and undisturbed, absent a serendipitous discovery or encounter of this kind. A more purposeful response to such discoveries, as at Lascaux – in stark contrast to the experience of Rose-Innes, but apropos, perhaps, of the "tended and curated history of Europe" -- may be seen in a review by Tom Shippey in London Review of Books:


In September 2014 a group of detectorists were searching a field in Balmaghie, Kirkcudbrightshire, in south-west Scotland, when one of them got a signal. This wasn't entirely unexpected. There had been some small finds close by: a coin, some scattered silver. But when Derek McLennan dug down, he pulled out something more substantial, a silver arm-ring. The story goes that he immediately shouted 'Viking!' Buried alongside it were a decorated silver pendant cross on a chain of very finely coiled silver wire (which turned out to be Anglo-Saxon, but could still be Viking loot) and a layer of silver bullion – arm-rings, 'hacksilver' and ingots made from melted down silver coins and scrap.


The next step taken by the "detectorists" is indicative, taking advantage of the knowledgeable, seasoned professionals:


McLennan reported the find to Dumfries and Galloway Council, and an archaeologist arrived that afternoon to oversee the excavation. They had finished by the end of the day, but the detector kept recording a signal. The cross and the bullion had been laid on a four-inch bed of gravel, so the team dug up the gravel, revealing a much larger deposit: twice as much silver as the top layer, wrapped in leather; a cluster of four elaborately decorated arm-rings bound together, enclosing a wooden box containing a gold ring, a gold ingot and a gold bird pin; and a lidded silver-gilt pot. The pot was carefully wrapped and packed with beads, a pendant, a brooch, three filigree mounts, another gold ingot and a twisted rod, as well as some truly mysterious items: two 'dirt balls' and an object called a 'rattlestone', also carefully wrapped. In their catalogue to accompany an exhibition of the hoard (at Kirkcudbright Galleries until 10 July), Martin Goldberg and Mary Davis suggest that the top layer was a 'decoy'. If someone tried to make off with the hoard, or a piece was turned up by ploughing, the discoverers would find the cross and the silver and be so pleased that they didn't look any further. (In which case, the plan nearly worked.)


By way of contrast, there's my own experience with the "stone figure" -- as described in previous installments of this post. I let the object go, returned it to the sea, as did Paul Valéry's fictional Socrates. I don't seem to have the collector's instinct, perhaps not the archivist's instinct either, though I have great appreciation for both, and have spent significant time in one or the other, now and again. Which begs the question: which of my characters was present and engaged on the beach at Barnegat Light that day? I'll try to draw this question out just a little here.


In the novel, Pereira Declares, Antonio Balducchi's eponymous protagonist visits a health spa for treatment, where the attending physician assigned to him poses a fundamental question:


I have a question for you, said Dr Cardoso, and that is, are you acquainted with the médecins-philosophes? No I'm not, admitted Pereira, who are they? The leaders of this school of thought are Théodule Ribot and Pierre Janet, said Dr Cardoso, it means that to believe in a "self" as a distinct entity, quite distinct from the infinite variety of all the other "selves" that we have within us, is a fallacy, the naïve illusion of the single unique soul we inherit from Christian tradition, whereas Dr Ribot and Dr Janet see the personality as a confederation of souls, because within us we each have numerous souls, don't you think, a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego…so in the case of another ego arising, one stronger and more powerful, this ego overflows the first ruling ego, takes its place and acquires the chieftainship of the cohort of souls, or rather the confederation, and remains in power until it is in turn overthrown by yet another ruling ego.


Interestingly, there's something strikingly like this in Valéry's Eupalinos dialog. Socrates is speaking:


I told you that I was born several and that I died one. The child when it appears is a countless crowd, which life reduces soon enough to a single individual, the one who manifests himself and who dies. A multitude of Socrateses were born with me, from whom little by little the Socrates stood out who was destined for the magistrates and the hemlock. 


Phaedrus, his interlocutor, asks what became of the others? Socrates responds:


Ideas. They have remained in the condition of ideas. They came, asking to be, and they were refused. I kept them within myself, as my doubts and contradictions… Sometimes these germs of nature are favored by circumstance, and then we are on the verge of changing our natures.


Socrates goes on to declare what may in fact constitute the crux of this series of posts:


One day, one of my more glorious days, dear Phaedrus, I experienced a strange hesitation between my souls. Chance placed in my hands the most ambiguous object imaginable. And the infinite reflections that it caused me to make were eqally capable of leading me to that philosopher that I became, and to the artist that I have never been…


Which version of Socrates was manifest on Paul Valéry's imaginal beach? Which version of myself was present on the beach at Barnegat Light? Surely not the archivist or the collector! But how about the "ethnographer-fieldworker"? This question has deep resonance, and I think is rooted more generally in the emergent and developing psyche. When does the ensouling process begin? How does it ramify, and whence does it lead? Hwanān...hwā...


In her recent novel, The Books of Jacob, Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk provides a usable image, in connection with the pregnancy of one the characters who appears early in the book:


But Yente can see that a separate soul has taken up residence in Sheyndel's belly, a soul still indistinct, hard to describe because many; these free souls are everywhere, just waiting for the opportunity to grab some unclaimed bit of matter. And now they lick this little lump, which looks a bit like a tadpole, inspecting it, though there is still nothing concrete in it, just shreds, shadows. They probe it, testing. The souls consist of streaks: of images, and recollections, memories of acts, fragments of sentences, letters. Never before has Yente seen this so clearly. Truth be told, Sheyndel, too, gets uncomfortable sometimes, for she, too, can feel their presence--as if dozens of strangers' hands were pressing on her, as if she were being touched by hundreds of fingers. She doesn't want to confide in her husband about it--and any way, she wouldn't be able to find the words.


I'll conclude Eupalinos (3rd Part) here, despite any lingering discontinuity.


More later…

Be the first to comment

Sea King

Remains of the Sea King at Barnegat Light


Eupalinos (2nd Part)


Given the 'found object' motif intercalated within Paul Valery's imaginal Socratic dialog, I've been alert for any related materials coming to hand, in keeping with my more or less unsystematic approach to this or any other subject (and to these blog posts more generally). Somehow the relevant material keeps surfacing, thankfully, much as the stone figure surfaced through the waves (or emerged out of the sand) at Barnegat Light that many years ago. Before proceeding I want to mention that a striking feature of the beach on that part of the coast are the remains of a trawler, the "Sea King", that foundered offshore in a storm several decades ago (within living memory), and with subsequent beach building activity of the surf, has been almost entirely buried many yards inland from the current shoreline, its main mast a solitary figure, jabbing up from the dunes.     


Of course, the serendipitous discovery of what lies beneath the planetary surface can be of immense significance to the self-understanding of humans. I'm thinking here of the discovery, in the middle of the last century, of the cave at Lascaux. I especially like Clayton Eshleman's description of this find, which positions that discovery in the imaginal realm:


Wicks made of quarter-inch juniper branches were used in many of the 130 hand lamps found in Lascaux.

Over the cave, a tall juniper had fallen, lifting up with its roots a large mass of earth and creating a pit, soon entangled with brambles. On September 8, 1940, Marcel Ravidat (a young garage hand from nearby Montignac) was drawn to the pit by his barking dog, caught in the undergrowth. While cutting the dog out, he discovered a dead donkey and under it, a vertical shaft. On September 12, with his friend Jacques Marsal, Ravidat returned. Working with his knife, head first, he dug down some twenty feet, at which point he tumbled into the cave.

Juniper as the wick of the cave!


This conjunction of juniper wick and juniper tree, forming a conduit between what lies beneath and what lies above, is profoundly significant. Eshleman was an influential poet and publisher, whose early exposure to Lascaux formed a bedrock of his life's work, exploring the depths of the human imagination. (Eshelman's book is Juniper Fuse, Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld). And of course, there are countless examples of similar finds, many ultimately consigned to the realm of the professional archaeologist. My stone figure is likely unavailable to that realm, at least to my knowledge (although someone else may have picked it up and turned it in); it's unclear, however, whether my discovery at the Jersey shore would fall within the scope of any putative archaeological interest.


I note this because it's not clear in all cases what value provenance may contribute. Gustaf Sobin (a poet who occasionally published in Eshleman's landmark literary journal, Sulfur), may have had a similar experience, pondering an inscrutable object from the Paleolithic. Sobin expounds:


Might we even begin constituting, indeed, a collection, an entire library of questions? A whole, inexhaustible archive devoted exclusively to wonder, to query, to the unlimited breadth of human speculation? For the curtain that has fallen between the known and the unknown, between the magnitude of our questions and the paucity of our answers, affects not only archaeology but every other field of human endeavor as well. As a result, we've grown estranged from origins, deprived of even the vaguest glimpse of those first, founding landscapes. Today, nothing can be acknowledged that hasn't first been processed, electronically channeled, compiled. (from his essay, "The skull with the seashell ear", in Luminous Debris, Reflections on Vestige in Provence)


I've wanted to avoid any disjuncture between Sobin's eloquent avowal, and my own retelling of the stone figure episode, moving hopefully toward a universe in which ostensibly ancient objects inhabit their ontological origins, existing alongside though not necessarily within the range of human understanding.


But there nevertheless exists the urge to collect – to collect objects or, as Sobin has it, questions. I suppose I've tended to opt for the latter – and now, questions are all that's left of the stone figure. But what about collecting? I seem to recall reading somewhere that collecting is a distinctive part of ego development, forming a usable component of self-identity (perhaps especially for middle class individuals?). But collecting may simply offer access to the past, to that which otherwise would be lost or forgotten. I'm thinking here of scavenging, a purposeful but otherwise unstructured discovery process. Which same appears to motivate the people who scour the shoreline of the Thames, a tidal river, as described in Mudlark, In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames by Lara Maiklem; who distinguishes between serendipitous, unassisted scavenging and outright digging assisted by metal detectors:


Our knowledge of the city and the lives of its inhabitants over millennia has undoubtedly been increased by the objects society members have dug up over the years, but I think the time has come to ban digging completely. There is no need to keep disturbing an already fragile and fast-eroding foreshore for more and better objects. They are better left where they are for the future, rather than putting them at the mercy of an indiscriminate spade or fork… They [diggers] hack through centuries in an afternoon, and in their rush to beat the incoming tide, they smash delicate objects and miss the small and non-metallic pieces that don't register on the sweep of their metal detectors…and the objects they overlook are left to the mercy of the tides. I have made some of my best finds where the diggers have been at work and I hate to think how much more the river has claimed.


Maiklem is inadvertently exposing the synergy between diggers and scavengers, the latter following along in the diggers' wake to gather items they may have missed, or disregarded. Contra Sobin, this author's interwoven discussion of the historical value and narrative potential of found objects proceeds from research rather than from an absorbed and undistracted contemplation of her found materials. And there is an irony embedded in this passage, the author suggesting that found objects should be left as they lie. Needless to say, this attitude may have informed my thinking as I tossed the stone figure back into the sea that day.    


In a tribute to fellow poet Anthony Thwaite, Peter Scupham recalls visiting the cottage where his longtime friend lived with his wife Ann:


…moving into the long low living room lit with a chequered light from the riverside windows, is to move into a room which is a metaphor for lives lived as travellers in space and time. A Roman bust shares its gaze with the staring eyes and flowing beards of Bellarmines, those stoneware drinking jugs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries…Books, of course, are everywhere, shelved and nid-nodding to each other, heaped in piles; drawers open to reveal fragments of pottery…This is a world of suggestions, shadows of lost knowledge…We came from a collecting generation of schoolboys: mine were seashells, military badges, wildflowers… Ever since, as a boy, Anthony was given a silver denarius, he had been a looker and finder, alert for the secret signs which lie buried all around us. ("Chimes at Midnight", PN Review 260)


Scupham begins his piece with a quote from Brian Aldiss, an underappreciated writer, in my view:


Mr Gudgeon, the elderly bookshop assistant in Brian Aldiss's first novel, The Brightfount Diaries, is given to sardonic aphorisms: 'A miscellaneous collection of objects is man's only defence against time,' is one I particularly like.


There is a passage in Pierre Michon's Winter Mythologies, in the section titled "Simon", which turns on the idea of returning a found object to the earth, while searching for another of potentially appropriate significance. In Michon's sketch, the Abbot Dalmatius has tasked Brother Simon, a monk in an ancient monastery in process of revival, to "establish the legitimacy of the monastery in the mother tongue"…


Simon ponders. He has the earth dug up beneath the choir of the old chapel, which has long since been ruined. Three skeletons, each holding a sword, are discovered, which he immediately has covered up again. Another is found, overlaid by the shreds of what was once a dalmatic and a stole. Simon ruminates at length over this one, and then after three days regretfully has it buried for a second time. A slighter skeleton is found whose dark black plaited hair has been well preserved and has gleams of life in it. It looks like a woman. "Yes," says Simon. He carefully cleans the hair and, one by one, the bones. He places them in a small wooden chest. He kisses the chest. He asks the carpenter brother to depict Our Lord on the Cross on one side of it and on the other a female saint.


Simon next asks Brother Palladius to establish the identity of the imaginal saint, who as he explains, appeared to him "in the form of plaited hair beneath the earth, and that she will appear to Brother Palladius in the form of a name in a monastery archive." Palladius ventures forth, returning three years later having established that the remains are those of Saint Enimia ca. 1610…


Brother Simon writes the Vita sancta Enimia...




Be the first to comment


Musicians on Horseback, Maker Unknown; China Mid-7th Century (Tang Dynasty); Philadelphia Museum of Art


Eupalinos (1st Part)


Returning to this blog after a long hiatus, I'm providing scattered notes and reflections which I'll try to bring into focus later, in subsequent posts. Even the most casual reader will know that my posts can be grab bags of sorts, gathering in various materials that lie close to hand – on the shelves of my library, or gleanings from current reading in various publications. That said, I've been working on this blog post for quite a while, raking in ideas and associations that would invent, expose, or ideally, clarif the underlying theme of this post. That process remains incomplete, but given the long hiatus, I'm eager to put something up, if only as placeholder (hence the "1st Part" of my title here).


I'd first begun this post on reading a review of the collected essays of Hans Blumenberg, a name I've known for many years (he's written among other things on the Copernican Revolution, a subject of long and abiding interest for me). Toward the end of the piece, the reviewer quoted briefly from one of the essays in the book which immediately piqued my interest. Here's that quote:


Rejecting eternal truths and definitive certainties, Blumenberg was fascinated by those precious interruptions and "disturbances" of the lifeworld that "resist being converted back into authenticity and "logicality", those stumbling blocks that help "dismantle the obvious" and prompt us to think anew. Nachträglichkeit, "pensiveness", was a crucial term for him, conveying the meandering of "real" everyday thinking in its circuitousness, pauses and delays. For Blumenberg, man was first and foremost a "creature who hesitates", and he made repeated reference to Paul Valéry's dialogue Eupalinos, in which an imagined young Socrates encounters an "ambiguous object" on the seashore that eludes identification and classification. Confounded, Socrates throws it back into the sea, only to regret his action moments later. By exposing to view the liminal spaces between the lifeworld and theoretical enquiry, pensiveness "let the indeterminacy stand" and offered the aesthetic potential of returning a completely determined realty to its state of pure possibility". For Blumenberg, only by "break[ing] open the immunization of consciousness ... by means of paradox, contradiction, and the absurd" could something be shown to be truly possible.


I've reproduced more of this quote than absolutely necessary, but context is always helpful, and who knows? I may want to refer later to what may at first seem extraneous. But for the moment, I'll isolate a few ideas from this mix and focus on them briefly. The first is those "precious interruptions and 'disturbances' of the lifeworld", so important to Blumenberg; without which, by the way, there would likely be no art, no poetry, no science. In fact artists, poets, and scientists make a regular practice of "meandering" in order to engage with the motivating forces of "paradox, contradiction, and the absurd". And this experience of "disturbances" is testified it seems everywhere these days. In a recent issue of the Brooklyn Rail, for example, artist Ahmed Alsoudani credits his inspiration -- and ongoing motivation – to his reading of contemporary poets: "Their work puts me in an uncomfortable, unstable situation. I'm sometimes pushed to the edge and, in order not to fall, I go to my canvas to do something with it." (February 2022, interview with Ann C. Collins)


Okay. Back to Blumenberg. So far I've left out what for me is the salient part of the Blumenberg quote: the reference to Paul Valéry's imaginary "Socratic" dialog, "Eupalinos". This connection may be unclear at first, but I'll get to that, "by a commodius vicus of recirculation", as James Joyce would have it. Meanwhile, here's something on Eupalinos, with more to come later:


Eupalinos was a Greek engineer who in the 6th century BCE designed a tunnel, or viaduct, to supply water to the principle town of Samos, an island in the Aegean Sea (birthplace of Pythagoras, by the way; Blumenberg touches on the twinned themes of music and architecture, and makes reference to Pythagoras only briefly, in a footnote). Long considered a notable or even remarkable feat of ancient engineering, the aqueduct functioned reliably for centuries, until finally abandoned during the Byzantine era, in the 7th century CE. As Blumenberg suggests, Valéry's dialog was a profound consideration of the Platonic theory of forms, of permanence, and of beauty. But here I confess that this has little to do with my immediate interest in Valéry's imaginary dialog. Instead, my interest is likely more superficial – arising from Blumenberg's reference to Valéry's "objet ambigu" (Blumenberg's essay is titled "Socrates and the objet ambigu").


In his imaginary dialog Valéry has Socrates describe an incident involving a mysterious object he found while walking along the beach. He picks it up, hefts it, puzzles over it, then recommits it to the sea. Valéry's Socrates recalls that,


I found one of those things cast up by the sea; a white thing of the most pure whiteness; polished and hard and smooth and light. It shone in the sun on the licked sand, that is somber and spark-bestrewn. I took it up; I blew upon it; I rubbed it against my cloak, and its singular shape suspended all my other thoughts. Who made thee? I pondered. Thou resemblest nothing, and yet thou art not shapeless. Art thou a sport of nature, O nameless thing, that art come to me by the will of the gods, in the midst of the refuse that the sea this night has flung from her?


Sport of nature? Nameless thing shaped by the tossing and turning of the waves? Or the will of the gods? Something offered on purpose, but what purpose might that be?  


I stood still for some little time, examining it on all sides. I questioned it without stopping at an answer…I could not determine whether this singular object were the work of life, or of art, or rather of time – and so a freak of nature…Then suddenly I flung it back into the sea.


And later:


Intrigued by this object the nature of which I could not get to know, and which was equally claimed and rejected by all the categories, I sought to escape from the perplexing image of my find. 


There's more, but that's enough for now. But I'll note that Blumenberg's essay is subtitled, "Paul Valéry's Discussion of the Ontology of the Aesthetic Object and its Tradition". This explains quite a bit, but in closing this first part of my post, I'll briefly tell my own experience with encountering an unfamiliar object, as was the case wth the imaginal Socrates. I've looked through my notebooks from that time, but there's no specific mention of this experience. So let me first tell it more or less plainly:


Whenever I visit the ocean I go out early to walk along the beach, watch the shorebirds feeding at the surf's moving edge, look for sand crabs, note whatever flotsam has been tossed up by the waves, relish the varying light. There are few people on the beach at those hours, which inspires a certain mood, of introspection and of quietude, joining in contrapuntal harmony with the rising and falling waves. Walking, looking out over the sea, gazing across the sand, catching the myriad shapes there, the temporary tracks of shorebirds, the gliden tracings of the sand crabs, the waves leaving a temporary shading of the sand. Any stray object lying there, fully exposed or partly buried, will affect the regular flow of the tide.


So then, walking along one morning in August 2008, at Barnegat Light, Long Beach Island, off the New Jersey Coast, I discovered an unfamiliar object lying face up, half buried in the sand. I picked it up, and right away was impressed — and a little haunted — by its strangeness, alongside its seeming familiarity. As I held it in my hands and looked down at the stone figure, I could only speculate. I wondered whether it was an ancient fishing weight, carved as a human figurine. The features were worn, as though it might have been used quite a lot — had spent time in the water for years, or centuries. So did I speculate, as my imagination took hold. Might the stone figure have been a ritual object, invested with a magical potency? Had it been deposited on the beach overnight? Or had it been buried there long ago, surfacing just that morning?


I walked back and forth along the beach, hefting the object, considering whether to keep it or put it down. I was troubled, unsettled. I walked north along the beach, distractedly hefting the object, weighing my options as I approached a stone jetty where I would turn west and walk alongside the jetty and into the adjacent neighborhood lying faintly past the dunes. Instead I walked out onto the jetty, and suddenly flipped the object back into the surf, watched as it spun lengthwise on its axis, pounding into the water with a deeply resonant splash, then sinking below the waves. At that moment it seemed to be a sensible creature, projecting agency of some kind. I'd been deeply ambivalent about keeping it, and equally ambivalent about returning it to the sea. As it hit the water I wondered whether I'd somehow betrayed it! At the same time, especially in the context of its possessing agency, imagined or otherwise, I felt a strong aversion to "collecting" the stone figure, or "possessing" it myself.


Nevertheless this anthropomorphic figure had projected an aura passing strange. I walked on, back toward the house where I was staying that weekend, thinking to write my impressions down. I didn't! The only note I could find in any way relating to my experience that day made no mention of the object but did reflect briefly on the experience of beachcombing, as I knew it at that time. I make no specific mention in that entry of the stone figure — perhaps I'd discovered it the following day? — but reading those notes it seemed that the frame had been established, the real world defamiliarized, so to speak, setting me up for that strange discovery! As I noted in that notebook entry:


I understood — walking along the tide every morning here last month [that] I saw a radically different world on each successive day: I was out there more or less at the same hour each morning but that world was strange and new — or only vaguely familiar. It was as if time itself had shifted, it was that radical a transformation: the space itself was utterly the same.


Looking through other notebooks from that time period, I found the following note I'd written down in March 2004, on reading something by Octavio Paz from his Monkey Grammarian. Paz writes, "I did not know that each of those stones was a prodigious cluster of symbols."


Shifting gears I'll note here that, later in the same notebook, on 24 July 2004 I jotted the following note:


Paz writes about whistling figures. Or am I misremembering? He says that those figures are from an age prior to the development of the great Mesoamerican religions. Do I have that right? Whistle, Smile. Whistle and smile…


In another notebook, p. 76, dated 23 January 2006, I made a drawing that I labeled "Whistler"!


That's all for this part. 2nd Part coming soon.

Be the first to comment


Egret/or Heron


Yesterday as I walked alongside Lake Champlain, I came upon a Great Blue Heron, fishing in a tidal pool near the shoreline. I stopped and watched for a while, and then walked on. Walking on, I thought to compose a simple haiku-type poem to memorialize the incident -- dwelling inland now, I sometimes long for Salt-meadow; Ocean. The heron took me back. This is what I came up with at first:


Great Blue Heron in a tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?


That's 17 syllables, as in traditional Japanese haiku, though my poem does not reflect the pattern of 5-7-5-syllable lines. But my first thought, walking along, was to strengthen "in a tidal pool", and quickly came up with "stalking a tidal pool". I'm not sure I finally like that substitution, but it works for the moment:


Great Blue Heron stalking tidal pool
Hunter or fisher
Which are you?


All the while as I walked, I was counting syllables on my fingers, to make the traditional 17 syllables of the Japanese haiku. And as I counted syllables, it occurred to me that the Japanese pattern doesn't always translate very well into English. Even so, I decided to try shaping my poem to the traditional Japanese form, thinking that might impart a measure of clarity via line or word breaks that my original poem was lacking. One version based on the 5-7-5 pattern might then be:


Great Blue Heron stalk
-ing tidal pool hunter
or fisher which are you?


I liked this version a little better. Heading back to my office along Pine Street, I walked by a print shop, Queen City Printers Inc., and I thought - there's a good title for my haiku, but changing "inc" to the homophone "ink" I came up with, Queen City Printers Ink! With that, I thought of a book I have on my shelf called Ink on Paper, a set of lovely poems by John Wilson, college instructor, and member of the creative writing faculty at UC Santa Barbara. It occurred to me that there might be a "heron" poem in Wilson's book, so when I got back to my office I pulled the book off the shelf. And indeed there was such a poem. Here is the relevant verse, though Wilson's bird is an egret (a bird very much alike to a heron):


directness, vigilance —

An egret
Cocked in the reeds

Absorbed in its own stillness,
A straight line of soaring geese.


In fact, Wilson is reacting to a drawing of a heron by the Chinese artist Tan-an, which is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. I couldn't locate that particular image online, so I've provided an alternate image above which closely resembles the one that's reproduced in Wilson's book.

I like Wilson's poem better than I do mine, but mine is just a note taken while walking, in order to capture the Great Blue Heron experience; Wilson's is a well-crafted poem that conveys something of the manner and spirit of the bird. It is not haiku.


But there's more, of course, on this subject of syllables in Japanese haiku, versus syllables in American or English-language haiku. David F. Schultz characterized this difference in a blog post several years ago. Here's an excerpt from that post, which can be found at https://davidfshultz.com/2017/12/17/5-7-5-haiku-form-strengths-and-weaknesses:


After discussing the differences in Japanese and English sound systems and the rhythm of haiku, Higginson makes a compelling case that the best phonetic English equivalent of the haiku form is successive lines of 2, 3, and 2 accented syllables, for a total of 7 accented syllables (and roughly 12 syllables overall, including the unaccented syllables). This would "approximate the duration of Japanese haiku", establish similar rhythmical proportions, and yield a similar "sense of rhythmical incompleteness" that is characteristic of Japanese haiku. (This latter point recognizes that the English poetic tradition, with deep roots in iambic verse, and in particular iambic pentameter, creates a sensation that the poem should continue after the final line in a 2/3/2 accented pattern, leading to a feeling of openness.) ["Higginson" refers to William J. Higginson, The Haiku Handbook]

Schultz glosses Higginson by noting that traditionalists among English language composers of haiku may nevertheless cling to the 5-7-5 form, producing perfectly fine haiku. But Higginson offers another approach to my poem, so that the question arises, how would I shape my poem to fit the English-language format of haiku, according to Higginson's criteria? — keeping in mind that Higginson's formula pertains to stressed rather than unstressed syllables. Schultz provides an example of a basic 2-3-2 form, all stressed syllables:


bus stop

cold dark night



So how would I re-do my heron poem according to Higginson's formula? Here's one possibility:


Blue Heron
Hunter or fisher
One or two


I like this version too!


Note that the second syllable of "heron" in line one is unstressed so that what is ostensibly a three-syllable line doesn't offend the 2-3-2 stressed-syllable format; the second syllable in "hunter" and "fisher" is also unstressed, adding up to three stressed syllables for line 2 (but is "or" stressed or unstressed?). All of which is to say by way of conclusion that the formula is a guide, not a rule!


One more thing, by way of memory. Way back in the late 1980s I had a gig teaching public speaking and writing to MBA students enrolled in the Communication Program at the Wharton School. In one class I had a number of students from Japan, some of whom were reluctant to speak in front of the class. Thinking to make it easier for them I asked them to read haiku from a book of Japanese haiku, with the poems transliterated, then translated into English. Here's an example of what I mean, taken from Bashō's Ghost by Sam Hamill:


Ki no moto ni

shiru mo namasu mo

sakura kana


As it happens this poem was written by Bashō himself. Notice that the syllables of the transliterated Japanese conform to the 5-7-5 pattern. (Note too that the English translation given below does not.) In case of interest, here's the translation of Bashō's poem as rendered by Hamill:


From all these trees--

in salads, soups,


cherry blossooms fall


The students proved themselves good sports; they all got through the exercise, some of them even coming up with their own English translation of the assigned poem. And their audience was enthusiastic and supportive. It was only later that I realized I'd posed a daunting challenge — the transliterations were confusing, and weren't much easier for them than just reading the English version! With benefit of hindsight, I understood that I might have offered the poems in the original kanji!


Be the first to comment