"Gog" by Ted Hughes

I woke to a shout: 'I am Alpha and Omega!'
Rocks and a few trees trembled
Deep in their own country.
I ran and an absence bounded beside me.

The dog's god is a scrap dropped from the table,
The mouse's savior is a ripe wheat grain—
Hearing the messiah cry
My mouth widens in adoration.

How far are the mosses!
They cushion themselves on the silence.
The dust, too, is replete.
The air wants for nothing.

What was my error? My skull has sealed it out.
My great bones are massed in me.
They beat on the earth, my song excites them.
I do not look at the rocks and trees, I am frightened of what they see.

I listen to the song jarring my mouth
Where the skull-rooted teeth are in possession.
I am massive on earth. My feetbones beat on the earth
Over the sound of motherly weeping....

Afterwards, I drink at a pool quietly,
The horizons bear the rocks and trees away into twilight.
I lie down, I become darkness—
Darkness that all night sings and circles stamping.

—"Gog" by Ted Hughes, from Wodwo

I was looking at my old essay "Slender Mitochondrial Strand," written on the occasion of the death of Nicholas Hughes, son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.  I saw that I'd promised to find and post "Gog," one of my favorite poems, which I'd memorized as a teenager.  Of course I found it in my favorite volume of poetry, John Wain's Anthology of Modern Poetry (Hutchinson, 1963).  I used to have copies of Wodwo and Lupercal, my favorite Hughes volumes, but I can't find them now, so I just added them to my Amazon shopping cart.  Just for completeness I'll post Wain's comment on the poem:

"Gog" refers to the biblical prophecy (Ezekiel, chapter xxviii) of a hostile power that will arise in the world immediately before the Last Judgment, and inflict untold destruction.

Now that I've mentioned a Bible verse on Sunday my relatives might be quietly satisfied that I might still be "saved," though they'll probably reconsider if they read "Fire Next Time," a poem I just wrote today for NaPoWriMo.  

Then again the Bible is the last thing I really think of when I read "Gog."  To me it's all about Hughes's aggressive Paganism.  And it really brings me home to my chosen home of Colorado, where I still feel the rule of the "rocks and trees" (though sadly the bark beetle is making a large dent in the latter).  I think of Lewis and Clark mounting the continental divide and seeing an infinite expense of wooded and icy mountains.  "I am Alpha and Omega!" And weren't they forced to believe it!  And then, closer about them, below the tree-line, the fauna and flora on the verge of losing its indifference to people, replicated in that infinite expanse that pushed their field of vision and imagination.  Man and his power that derives from Nature, and yet holds it within to destroy so much of Nature's creation.  That is the paradox that I see written into "Gog."

By the way, if you're as interested in Hughes's poetry as I am, don't miss my discussion of his recently uncovered poem "Last Letter."  I focus on the poetry, because everyone else seems so much more interested in the drama.

Aged aged man, old old school

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes -

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
and the new president proves that he's a dummy.
from "The Change" by Tony Hoagland

Came upon this poem like a doctor's dropsy poster.
In the streets the hot pants glittered
and on the corner pimps color-flagged that ass parade.

Sometimes I dress inane in the outrageous.

Those young girls call in robbers on their dummies
and when I need a rhyme I turn to mummy.
from "Shitstrum" by Uche Ogbuji

I'll mention that my "Quotīdiē" quotes generally derive from admiration, but now and then I pick them for more negative reasons, such as: "How does such a god-awful poem even draw enough attention to be controversial?  I'm never quite au fait on the poetry scene, but even I heard of the commotion Hoagland's poem made at a recent AWP conference.  A "shitstorm" my friend Wendy termed it.  I read the poem and wondered whether it was a prank by an idle sophomore.  I understand the trend towards plainspoken poetry, though I disagree with it.  I think the language of poetry should be special, almost by definition (the language of Williams and Sandburg is much more special than many of their would-be imitators seem to think.)  But there is plain speaking and there is random collage of the inane.  Hoagland's poem sounds like a found poem from scraps overheard at a grocery store.  I myself am not much for plain speaking, whether in poetry or in everyday conversation.  I revel in words perhaps too much for my own good, so I couldn't do much justice to that aspect of "The Change" in my parody.

After the extraordinary productivity I enjoyed participating in Heather Fowler's poem-a-day project last June, I decided to pay attention to National Poetry Month this year, to the extent of joining the National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) tradition.  I considered following prompts, but I couldn't find a prompter of Heather's quality, so I decided to just keep it old school.  Read a lot of poems every day and thus shore up inspiration to write.  The kick-off, of course, is April Fool's Day, so I re-read a few favorite comic poems and parodies, including Lewis Carroll's "The White Knight's Song" (or "Haddock's Eyes" or "The Aged Aged Man" or "Ways and Means" or "A-Sitting On A Gate").

He said "I look for butterflies 
That sleep among the wheat; 
I make them into mutton-pies, 
And sell them in the street. 
I sell them unto men," he said, 
"Who sail on stormy seas; 
And that's the way I get my bread -- 
A trifle, if you please." 

But I was thinking of a plan 
To dye one's whiskers green, 
And always use so large a fan 
That it could not be seen. 
So, having no reply to give 
To what the old man said, 
I cried, "Come, tell me how you live!" 
And thumped him on the head. 

This delight is a spoof of a Wordsworth poem, and decided me to write my own spoof; "The Change" came to my mind as a poem ripe for the treatment.

and because that cracker
had a fucking Les Paul and a bottle of Jack,
not giving a damn

strumming those wires like he was Andrew Jackson
putting the Sioux crew on the trail of tears
all like "this land is MY land, bitch!"

Now and then manifest destiny
asks you to lean in and check whether
it's got something on its teeth
and you could just stretch a bit
and box its epiglottis

and I know squat about chess
but that day felt like "Uno, pardners!"
from "Shitstrum"
Really Hoagland's poem is more of an offense to my literary sense than for its supposed race-baiting.  I think it's entirely fair game for a white person to express some ambivalence at how Serena and Venus Williams, the all-but-certain players to whom Hoagland alludes, a pair of girls straight outta Compton like N.W.A., come on to the country club scene of tennis to ruthlessly batter their competition.  I find Serena's "to-hell-with-everybody stare" a wonder of sport, but I can see how some would take it as a blunt challenge to their cherished idols.  And why should a poet not frankly express such ambivalence?  That's why my spoof does not only parody the Hoagland poem, but it also jabs at the responses to the poem.  The very first comment on the Weblog where I found the poem posted is as follows:

This is the most offensive poem I have ever read. With respect, TS Eliot's anti-semitism has nothing on the bigotry expressed in this poem.

You would think he'd laced his work with racist terms and judgments, but I think that would be overstating the case.  I'd say the closest he came was the contemptuous generalization of "Zulu bangles on her arms" but again why should a poet not be free to express the sorts of deep, tortured thoughts that real people do?  If anything, I think he held back.  I decided to do somewhat less of that.  If folks want something to shock their publicly good-mannered faces, why not do it with some gusto?  At first I made the underdog banjo player a black guy, but I figured maybe it was a bit too easy for me as a black guy to take chances with that sort of taboo language.  I thought there was more bite to making him Native American, especially as it plays with contrasts of which "tribes" are the underdogs, and what changes when one such tribe finds a champion, looking back not just to the end of the 20th century, but also the end of the 19th, and the pain and injustice that attended that change in the fortunes of the original population.
Writing "Shitstrum" was a ton of fun, and gave me my first NaPoWriMo entry rather painlessly, for which I'm grateful, but I expect that for the rest of the month I'll address my pen towards the glories of poetry, rather than its silly asides.  I'd consider myself blessed beyond belief if I can write as Serena plays.

Ecstasy and measure

From Keter unto Malkhut.
    The seventh day of rest.
The naming of Creation.
    No, this is not a test.

The rustling wind in forests.
    The stars just out of reach.
Crude scribbles in a cavern.
    The rudiments of speech.

The Sephirot of Kabbalah drapes all creation with the intersected lineaments of the creator's will, from the utter abstract divinity of Keter to the mortal appendage of Malkhut.  The latter manifested such hazard to geometric universal order as Elohim created the genera of species mounting to humanity that he required rest on the seventh day.  Gnostics of almost all religions including Kabbalists conceive the journey from common flesh to immanent numen as the very communication of these divine lineaments within the human mind, a reversal of the journey from godhead firmament to man to fallen man in the primitive allegory of Genesis.  From a modern perspective we see a similar progress in our scientifically attested, aeons-long development from cavemen braving their everyday dangers to fix on their glimpse at the infinite in the stars.  This inspired the myths and scribblings about myths that evolved into culture and religions and, some would claim, enlightenment.  Lehr's poem is a series of collages that wave into this theme.


Among the many celebrations of Richard Wilbur's 90th birthday earlier this month I caught his poem "Teresa" in The Atlantic blog.

After the sun’s eclipse
The brighter angel and the spear which drew
A bridal outcry from her open lips,
She could not prove it true,
Nor think at first of any means to test
By what she had been wedded or possessed.

Not all cries were the same;
There was an island in mythology
Called by the very vowels of her name
Where vagrants of the sea,
Changed by a word, were made to squeal and cry
As heavy captives in a witch’s sty.

The proof came soon and plain:
Visions were true which quickened her to run
God’s barefoot errands in the rocks of Spain
Beneath its beating sun,
And lock the O of ecstasy within
The tempered consonants of discipline.

The paradox of St. Theresa lies in how ecstatic manifestations in her flesh were revered as signs of divinity.  Even in religions that encourage monasticism the lure of the orgasm is an irresistible magnetism, so what a great windfall for them to have found a lady in whom they could package both parOxysm and temperance.  What a great lesson for the church to seize upon in its quest to put the Malkhut genie back into the Keter bottle, though doctrine, through dogma, through the rod of discipline.  Wilbur expresses the ambivalence of St. Theresa by connecting it to Eëa, Circe's island, throwing in a Kabbalistic touch of his own by seizing on the vowels (which represent the very nature of mystery) distilled from "Theresa" into "Eëa".  Odysseus famously lingered a full year on the island where he, as Ezra Pound put it:

Observed the elegance of Circe's hair
Rather than the mottoes on sun-dials.

Those mottoes of course connecting back to our scribblings in quest for divinity—the lexical power of Alpha and Omega.  But Odysseus was drawn from discipline by the immediate tangling of man and woman, the elegance of Circe's hair.


The cosmology of the Igbo has a much less schizophrenic attitude towards divinity and the realized elements of nature, including flesh.  In the Weblog Odinani: The Sacred Science of the Igbo People, you can find many explorations of such characteristics of Igbo cosmology, set in contrast to Western systems of thought.  Among the Igbo, life itself blends ecstasy and measure in utter braid, and discipline is decreed by connectedness to nature, rather than by institutions seeking removal from nature.  To quote Odinani, "We once understood the oneness of the Source/Creator (Chineke) with Creation and our relationship with Nature (Ani)."


One of my own missions in poetry is to work with the traditions that better reflect this continuum, seeking excitement in the tensions between my Igbo traditions and the foreign philosophies that have colored so much of my life.  I'm wrestling right now with a poem, "Nchefu Road," that I first wrote as a teenager and seem to return to and refine every decade or so as knowledge and experience within my own life expand its bounds.  To quote a key passage:

So how fitting that here in Port harcourt
Where the river shunts to infinity,
I found the bald temerity to pose
Questions of the cosmos, to shun humility
Decreed by Lao-tze; whose "Chi"
Spelled cosmos as mine spells my soul,
So I should need less Brahmin casuistry
To venerate my slice of godly role.
But the river knows that Gao law
Sparks market riots in Igbo land
And that deadly poison in Bamako
Is sweetmeat in the Samarkand.
So Nchefu Road will lead me clear
From splendent-robed enlightenment
To wisdom of its opposite science
To naked bath in firmament.
To a Niger poet's rock of
Hippopotamus contentment.

Strangely I'm only today realizing that for the most part I'm following the four-beats accentual pattern of Pound's Mauberley.  No surprise, of course, as Pound is a long-standing influence of mine.  I suppose I'm always looking for that discipline of measure to express rather than to suppress the constant ecstasy of my own complex mind and experience.

Hear it in the deep heart's core

Glory be to hooch for painted things—
For bleach-blonde strippers, collagen-plumped lips;
For pink acrylic nails and spike-heeled shoes;
Bright thong bikinis; belly-button rings;
Wet T-shirts; tan lines; liposuctioned hips;
Mascara; lip gloss; butterfly tattoos

—from "Dyed Beauty" by James Wilk in Shoulders, Fibs, and Lies (Pudding House Press, 2007) 

So I finally made the trip to Innisfree on the Hill, a new Boulder bookstore stocking only poetry.  I pretty much just went the first night their community events coincided with my spare time, but it turned out to be good timing, as they were featuring the work of Dr. James Wilk.  I arrived just before the reading and the small (but well appointed) space was rather full.  I enjoyed the reading and the craft and humor of the poet's work, including the poem from which I quote above.  It's another "Pied Beauty' parody, of course; earlier on Copia I mentioned "Carnal Beauty," Kate Bernadette Benedict's own play on the poem that came out in The Flea in January.  That was back when I first discovered that great journal, and since then I'm proud to say they've accepted a couple of my poems for publication later this year.


Speaking of my own poems, I should mention my own poem, "Dream Residue", which appeared in The Nervous Breakdown today (I am an editor and regular contributor there, so that's less of a feat).

Can't believe I stayed asleep to give 
Honey slope après ski GPS, 
Real life need-to-piss bringing the cock-block; 
Her black greek letter accent fading fast 
With harem eyes under bright bluebird skies 
To duller daybreak wink of bluing chalk… 
Damn! I planned to smash that like Thor's hammer. 
The ferry over cream slides cruel to dock.

But back to the Wilk reading.  I made a few neat discoveries on the night as well.  Wilk mentioned Eaven Boland's poem Anorexic, which apparently is rather a phenomenon in the circles, though it was new to me, the rather elliptical.

Flesh is heretic.
My body is a witch.
I am burning it.

Yes I am torching
her curves and paps and wiles.
They scorch in my self denials.

How she meshed my head
in the half-truths
of her fevers

till I renounced
milk and honey
and the taste of lunch.

I vomited
her hungers.
Now the bitch is burning.
—from Anorexic by Eaven Boland

Rather packs a punch, doesn't it?  Wilk also mentioned Turner Cassity, and in particular "Meaner than a Junkyard Dog." Both are poems to which he had responded with his own.

I'll surely be back to Innisfree for more poetry and company.  Who can resist that quiet cabin on the lake, especially when the lake is constantly whispering what is best received in the heart's core.


Impertinent verse striding past love's hearse

First wonder if the love you celebrate
will prove sustainable.  Will it endure,
renewed, a life-time guaranteed amour,
or does it have an expiration date?

I'm a sucker for the unromantic, a sucker for the impertinent, and of course the two often go hand in hand.  Kotzin's sonnet is some shelter from the endless mist of moony swoony one finds in so much of today's poetry.  Yesterday I mentioned my moderated opinion of Houellebecq's provocations.  Every age needs its attempted addenda to L'Œuvre du marquis de Sade:


Not that I'm saying there is anything of sadism in Kotzin's poem, of course.  Degrees in everything, which are informed at the extremes.  Our minds are all infected by devils, but most of us fall short of the assassin's Shogun.  (Yeah, the quote from that really should be: "He cut off the heads of 131 lovers for the Shogun," which even adds a hint at kink with its odd number, but I digress).  The infection is just as ripe in Villon, and hardly less even in, say, the Andrew Marvell of "To his Coy Mistress", but it takes a different sort of expression.

In the Kotzin poetry serves as buffer state, and I've often imagined Auden's "O What Is That Sound" as a metaphor for poetry in its sometimes vengeful function.

O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
Down in the valley drumming, drumming?
Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
The soldiers coming.

The scarlet soldiers.  The purple of poetry.  The sound that so thrills the ear.  The beat.  The baton.  The lovers say:

O where are you going? Stay with me here!
Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?
No, I promised to love you, dear,
But I must be leaving.

I've had occasion in my life to witness poetry forcing love to expiration date, and striding along as it outlives its victim.  How very, very refreshingly unromantic.

There's no more left at the deep of our smiles

Aujourd'hui aura lieu. La surface invisible
Délimitant dans l'air nos êtres de souffrance
Se forme et se durcit à une vitesse terrible ;
Le corps, le corps pourtant, est une appartenance.

—from "Le jour monte et grandit, retombe sur la ville" by Michel Houellebecq in Unsplendid 3.2

Translation of the above poem from the volume "Le sens du combat" ("The art of combat") is also featured in Unsplendid, written by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, a team that's put forth translation of several Houellebecq poems lately, in at least Unsplendid and Salt that I've noticed.

Today will happen. Invisible surfaces
Separate our suffering selves in the air
Then form and harden at a terrible pace;
But the body, still our pact with the body.


I'm glad to see they had the courage to tackle Houellebecq.  He is of course subject of almost constant controversy.  I've always felt that his methods convey mischief rather than malice.  He's more a clever provocateur than a vulgar, racist chauvanist, in my impression, though I'll admit I've never really studied him closely.  I'm not sure I'd actually read any poems from "Le sens du combat," and the Grass & Mathews selections in Unsplendid ("Quand elle m'apercevait, elle tendait son bassin" and "So Long") are just lovely little poems.  I can't say I'm completely enamored of the translation, which strips away much lyrical power from the original.  Just to grab one example from what I've already quoted: "But the body, still our pact with the body" doesn't do justice to "Le corps, le corps pourtant, est une appartenance."  Here is a case where the most literal is much better.  Something more like "The body, yet the body, is but a member," or: "The body, the body yet, is but a member."  Or maybe use "an accessory" in place of "a member."

There are other places where I'd have made much different choices.  But the translators did accomplish their most important work, which is to bring broader attention to fine poems.  I'm now very interested in reading more from that volume myself, and probably offering some of my own translations.  In the title of this post you'll find my own translation of "Il n'y a plus grand-chose au fond de nos sourires".  For now, though, a bit more from Unsplendid:

Il y a toujours une ville, des traces de poètes
Qui ont croisé leur destinée entre ses murs
L’eau coule un peu partout, la mémoire murmure
Des noms de villes, des noms de gens, trous dans la tête.

Grass & Mathews translation:

There’s always a city, and traces of poets
Who have met their destiny within its walls,
Water is leaking, and memory whispers
Names of cities, people, holes in your head.


(Picture credit: "Without a Face, a portrait of the Soul" by Sergeant Pablo Piedra)

Jedna dva tři čtyři / fancy-flung fremdsprachen sie

One two three four
Is OK, but you need more:

Un deux trois quat’
If you want a welcome mat

En to tre fire
With the krone getting dearer,

Bir iki uç dirt
Selling off your jeans or shirt

—from "Roughing It in Europe" by Robin Helweg-Larsen in Unsplendid 3.2

A delightful song, especially for a language geek.  I'm brushing up on Czech for a trip to Prague later this month, so I did think to myself "boo! where's the "Česky?"—I'm guessing the "Jeden dwa trzy cztery" line is Polish.  A glance at Mr. Helweg-Larsen's bio complements the spirit of his poem.  In his words: "My flag is the blue-and-white of the UN, all other flags are historically interesting at best, despicable at worst."  Amen! Amen! Amen!


We need some lines for Nigeria, though.

Otu abuo ato ano
Eat your fill of sweet paw-paw

Ení èjí ẹta ẹrin
Serious go-slow for Mushin

Daya biyu uku hudu
Let's go dude ranching at Obudu

Mother's burning breast

This is the bark which used to be
A functioning face. You see the stream?
A nymphet breathing. Things who seem
Alive are, mostly, differently.
What if your hand were once a rock,
Your friends narcissi, your heart a clock?

Thus Epstein launches what starts off seeming like a neat philosophical exercise, the personal and impersonal randomly intertransformed, and then winds through a sudden volta to a contemplation of the death of a loved one, as I hint in the title of this note.  It's a good specimen of what I look for most keenly in poetry.  Skill in the service of emotion.  Epstein's craft drew forth my interest, taking me to the acrid yet ambiguous conclusion.


What pleases me almost as much as the technique is that Richard Epstein appears to be a near-neighbor of mine.  I discovered another fellow Coloradan poet with rare craft just this week as well, Wendy Videlock.  Here is a fragment from a poem of hers.

Big Jack and his walking stick
live on the ridge. Navajo
orphan kids dance for him,
bobcat urine’s in the weeds,
the shotgun barrel's up his sleeve,   
a Persian coin is on the wind.

Trochaic tetrameter, mostly, tending towards anacrusis with the last couple of lines.  Not far off from Epstein's iambic tetrameter (mostly).  Wendy's poem is of a very different tone, and features a different sort of volta, but what a pleasure to discover two neighbor poets with such gifts on offer.

By the way, I've dropped the "Quotīdiē" tag from the title of this piece, and will probably do so for future posts, but I'll keep it in the metadata.

Shell to hell to spinning wheel

He cleaved unto his “Hera,” she her “Zeus.”
No mortal couple ever loved as well.
The real Zeus took offense and rained abuse.
Shore birds now, they scrounge from shell to shell.

—from "On the Mercy of the Gods" by Kate Bernadette Benedict in The Flea #13

Lovely little sonnet, and a neat enigma. The voice is claimed for Ixion, but the poem is a para-universe where Ixion's Tartarus, his hell, is turned rough seaside with bleakness set "from shell to shell."  And yet later we do catch a glimpse of him on that orthodox burning wheel, from where Ixion relates, in Benedict's gorgeous phrasing,

I look down on that godforbearing bluff
and watch the pale eggs hatch.

I can't help being reminded, though, given the "Zeus"/"abuse" line that I'm a bit of an alien these days with my own pronunciation using the proper Greek diphthong (i.e. Zay-oos, but much shorter).  Now I'll just have to write a bagatelle exploring my own style of rhymes.

Quotīdiē ❧ Whose Country? Is it Each One's?

walking by the waters,
down where an honest river
shakes hands with the sea,
a woman passed round me
in a slow, watchful circle,
as if I were a superstition;

—from "In My Country" by Jackie Kay

Poetry is as much a mirror that reflects the reader as a window to the writer.  It's very interesting to read a poem that captures so well some facet of my own existence, but then reflects a reaction thereto that's a complete opposite of mine.  I've always reveled in my otherness, whether I was in the US, the UK or in Nigeria at the time.  I'm hardly above little venal flourishes, an over-emphasized accent here and there; and my favorite technique for getting to know others is to focus on serious questions of their own heritage and identities.  But Jackie Kay does take me to the riverside in her poem, and opens into my own sense the cold tap of her own feelings as she finds herself probed by a stranger.
I have no idea why (it's certainly not toward from immediate logic) Kay's poem should bring me so to mind of a bit of Hopkins's "Carrion Comfort".

...whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one?...

What great force of hap flings us, dashed like broken china, to half-borrow a trope from John Pepper Clark's "Ibadan," among the continents, those seven great hills rearing out of the oceans?  And what gathers assorted locals around, fascinated by the shattered pieces of our identities?  By the way, as heavily anthologized as it is, Clark's iconic poem is always worth another look.

Running splash of rust
and gold-flung and scattered
among seven hills like broken
china in the sun. 
—"Ibadan" by John Pepper Clark

I'm a sucker for a volume of poetry that features a glossary of Scots and another of Igbo, especially when there might be but one in the species, Kay's Fiere, a lyric counterpart to her memoir, "Red Dust Road."  She wrote these books throwing a light upon her quest to understand her Scottish birth mother and Igbo birth father.

Many poems in Fiere (Scots for friend, mate, companion) grow out of the experience Jackie Kay had tracing her birth-parents, as chronicled in her memoir Red Dust Road. But this collection of 44 poems has a stronger focus, one which draws on Kay's unusual personal story but grows into a celebration of what it means to be close to someone.

I've just ordered the book, so I can't comment in-depth, and Kay is new to me just today, but already she gives me an impression of a poet I'm likely to appreciate through shared understanding, like an Okigbo or even Catherine Tufariello, rather than for its distant brilliance, like say the work of Eliot.

In Nigeria, she sees a road "stretching/ perhaps into infinity/ to a foreseeable future/ and back to/ lost time".

Which reminds me of a work of my own, "Nchefu Road," which has loomed large in my notebook for 2 decades, but which has struggled to work its way to a finish.  Igbo, journeyings and the inchoate.  With such common threads clear upon the fringe, I look forward to pulling at the warp of Kay's work.