Saturday, February 18, 2017


Earlier this week I saw the first crocuses of the year:  white and purple (three white inner petals; three pale purple outer petals) set within deep green leaves.  Daffodil stalks have begun to emerge from the earth, and the furred buds on the tips of the magnolia branches are growing larger.

All of this activity takes place within the low-angled golden sunlight of late February and early March, the counterpart of the slanting sunlight of late August and early September.  The light of Paradise.  A World aglow, in which all colors take on deeper and richer hues.  This is particularly true of the meadows and the lawns, which are heartbreakingly and wistfully green.

For now, I am here,
but can one trust the future?
No, not in a world
     that teaches us its ways
          with the morning glory.

Izumi Shikibu (c. 970 - c. 1030) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 120.

Ian MacInnes (1922-2003), "Harvest, Innertoon" (1959)

The joy of arrival and the sadness of departure.  At all times, and in every season, this is what the World teaches us.  It is the story of our life, isn't it?

Each spring, I am delighted to come upon the first crocuses.  Implicit in this delight (but unstated) is the knowledge that this arrival betokens an eventual departure.  But seeing the crocuses is never an occasion for sinking into a melancholy meditation on mortality.  Quite the opposite.

And so it goes with each of the beautiful particulars of the World.

Betty Corrigall lived on the island of Hoy in Orkney in the 18th century. When she was in her late twenties, she was abandoned by her lover after becoming pregnant.  She committed suicide.  Given the circumstances of her death, a kirkyard burial was not permitted.  She was buried in an unmarked grave out on the moor.  In the early 1930s, her coffin was discovered by peat diggers.  In 1949, a visiting American minister performed a burial service for her.  A white marker was placed on her grave in 1976.  It reads:  "Here Lies Betty Corrigall."

George Mackay Brown wrote a short story about her, an imaginative rendering of the final months of her life.  The story begins with an introductory paragraph:

"In the moorland of the island of Hoy in Orkney, right on the boundary that separates the two parishes of Voes (Walls) and North Hoy, a gravestone and fence have recently been erected by some islanders.  Underneath lay, peat-preserved for well over a century, the body of a young woman who had obviously committed suicide.  Only her name survives:  Betty Corrigall."

George Mackay Brown, "Betty Corrigall", in Northern Lights: A Poet's Sources (edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray) (John Murray 1999), page 225.

Brown also wrote a poem about her.

          Betty Corrigall

The girl buried in the moor

     in the blue scarf of wind
          begin to dance

     in the yellow coat of sun
          ripeness is here

     in the gray sheet of water
          steep your griefs

     lie robed from looms of earth

George Mackay Brown, Ibid, page 231.

It is said that Betty Corrigall's body, having been interred in peat, was well-preserved when it was discovered.  "And while that generation of islanders withered slowly into death, one after another, and after death rotted more urgently until they achieved the cleanness of skeletons, the deep peat moss kept the body of Betty Corrigall uncorrupted; though stained and darkened with the essences that had preserved it."  George Mackay Brown, "Betty Corrigall," Ibid, page 230.  Persephone in Orkney:  queen of the underworld and goddess of spring.

Stanley Cursiter (1887-1976), "Orkney Landscape" (1952)

Yesterday afternoon I stood at the entrance to an avenue of trees.  The two rows of trees are bare, but beautiful, at this time of year:  an endlessly complex network of branches, not a twig out of place, set against the sky. For a moment, I brought to mind how the avenue looks in each of the seasons, and I imagined that I could see an entire year of branches and leaves pass in sequence before my eyes.

We are time-bound, but it is possible to experience timelessness and eternity.  "They will endure beyond our vanishing;/And they will never know that we have gone."  (Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Stephen Kessler), "Things.")  I find comfort in that thought.

The Ring of Brodgar is a stone circle located on the Mainland of Orkney. George Mackay Brown wrote a sequence titled "Brodgar Poems," which consists of 28 short poems, each bearing the number of one of the standing stones in the circle.  The sequence begins with a prose introduction:

"The poem sees the work on this Neolithic stone circle as lasting two or three generations at least.  'She who threw marigolds over you . . . is a crone now with cindery breath . . .'

"It may have been a meeting-place, a temple, a hymn to the sun and the stars.

"Even as a civilisation is being established, its history is beginning to crumble.  Strange boats from time to time sailed along the horizon, going north and west, threatening the precarious settlements.

"But a circle has no beginning or end.  The symbol holds.  People in AD 2000 are essentially the same as the stone-breakers and horizon-breakers of 3000 BC."

George Mackay Brown, from "Brodgar Poems" (1992), in Archie Bevan and Brian Murray (editors), The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray 2005).

"A circle has no beginning or end."  We can be acutely -- and heartbreakingly -- aware of the arrival and departure of the World's beautiful particulars, yet still feel a sense of constancy and continuity.  Is it possible that nothing ever truly vanishes?

               The Eleventh Stone

They say, never such loveliness between the lochs
As that girl.
In the pause between two stones
She became a swan.
She flew from us into sunset and stars.

George Mackay Brown, Ibid.

"The Eleventh Stone" brings this to mind:

The beauty of Xi Shi's countenance -- where is it now?
In the tips of the wild grasses, swaying in spring wind.

Yüan Chen (779-831) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 127.

Ian MacInnes, "Yesnaby" (1979)

Are these ruminations about arrivals and departures, timelessness and eternity, nothing but wishful thinking?  Whistling past the graveyard? Perhaps.  Yet why eliminate any possibilities?

I harbor no illusions: we live in a crocus and morning glory world.  Silence awaits.  But is silence the end?


Suddenly a stone chirped
Bella's goodness,
The numbers
Of Bella's beginning and end.
It sang like a harp, the stone!

James-William of Ness
Put a shilling
In the dusty palm of the carver,
Fifty years since.

Wind, snow, sun grainings.

The stone's a whisper now.
The stone will be silence.

George Mackay Brown, from "Seal Island Anthology, 1875," in Voyages (Chatto & Windus 1983).

Stanley Cursiter, "A Farm in Orkney" (1952)

Wednesday, February 8, 2017


A certain segment of the American population has worked itself into quite a tizzy over our new political state of affairs.  How can I tell?  The old standby clichés are being paraded on a daily basis.  "Hitler"!  "Nazi"!  "Fascism"! And we mustn't forget:  "Nineteen Eighty-Four"!   "Orwellian"!  (Because this is high volume outrage, exclamation marks are mandatory.)

Words such as these empty our culture of all reason and reasonableness.     I am tempted to embark upon a rant at this point, but I have no desire to add to the clamor.  Instead, the words of Marcus Aurelius come to mind:

"Say thus to thyself every morning:  today I may have to do with some intermeddler in other men's affairs, with an ungrateful man; an insolent, or a crafty, or an envious, or an unsociable selfish man.  These bad qualities have befallen them through their ignorance of what things are truly good or evil.  But I have fully comprehended the nature of good, as only what is beautiful and honourable; and of evil, that it is always deformed and shameful; and the nature of those persons too who mistake their aim; that they are my kinsmen, by partaking, not of the same blood or seed, but of the same intelligent divine part; and that I cannot be hurt by any of them, since none of them can involve me in anything dishonourable or deformed.

"I cannot be angry at my kinsmen, or hate them.  We were formed by nature for mutual assistance, as the two feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth.  Opposition to each other is contrary to nature:  All anger and aversion is an opposition."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 1, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), pages 62-63.

Our time here is short.  Were we placed here to repeat meaningless clichés?

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (early 8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 51.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Please do not read any political partisanship into these thoughts, dear reader.  As I mentioned in my post of November 11, I did not vote in the presidential election.  Moreover, as I have stated here on more than one occasion, this is not a political blog.  But I have often commented on the destruction of the human by the politicization of people's lives.  Hence:  the shouting of contentless clichés in the streets and through the electronic air.

A thought by Epictetus:

"That which gives men disquiet, and makes their lives miserable, is not the nature of things as they really are, but the notions and opinions which they form to themselves concerning them."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section 5, in  George Stanhope (translator), Epictetus, His Morals, with Simplicius, His Comment (Fifth Edition, 1741), page 60.

The politicization of culture and of human beings involves the creation of competing fictitious versions of reality.  This contrived way of viewing the world persuades the politicized that their lives are defined, even validated, by the political beliefs they espouse.  In a politicized world of empty words, where does the individual human soul fit in?  It doesn't.

One cannot be sure of living
     even until the evening.

In the dim dawn light
     I watch the waves in the wake
          of a departing boat.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 291.

Anthony Eyton, "A Kitchen Range" (1984)

As I have noted here in the past, I am quite content to live my life in accordance with certain truisms.  Why?  Because they are true.  Here is a truism by which I try to live (failing every day):  The best way to effect change is through individual acts of kindness and decency.

"Spend your time no longer in discoursing on what are the qualities of the good man, but in actually being such."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X, Section 16, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, page 243.

Most of us know these things.  Human beings have known them for millennia.  But we are diverted by trifles.  The identity of the President of the United States is a trifle, as is the identity of the Prime Minister of X, the Premier of Y, and the Emperor of Z.  Another truism:  Life is too short for trifles of this sort.

Over waves now at peace --
a boat seen rowing away.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 318.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"