Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Four Rivers of Speech

         Cover design for Instead of Eyes (1979)
                                             Poems on biblical themes

In his book,  The Fruit of Lips, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy declares that “We are not studying the history either of the Church or of the world. We are laying foundations for a history of the human spirit.”

Jesus Christ unifies this history, and The Fruit of Lips is an essay that explores the four different forms of speech current in the ancient world—the four forms which Jesus, as it were, exploded into light and made into a new era. “He halted the mere flow of talkative, news-mongering, mystical or practical humanity… He saw that, in separation, they were evil and poisonous even though in themselves they were highly elaborate and efficient. Jesus did not say that poetry or magic or ritual or prophecy were not excellent. He knew that they were and how well he knew, he proved by his creative inventiveness of new ritual, his poetical genius of the parable, his effortless superiority to obsessions and demons, his prophetic insight into the future of the world’s history. But with all these four rivers of speech filled to the brim, he emptied himself of all of them. He, the harvest of all times, decided to change into the seed of a future completely protected against mere time…” (p. 117, Pickwick Publications,  2008)

In the spirit—that is, of the Holy Ghost—“The very meaning of the term Holy Ghost is lost if we forget that the Holy Ghost opens the spirits of the different times to each other” (p. 31) –I would like to revisit the  mythical image of the land before time, the garden of Eden that was surrounded by four rivers.  In my poem, “Four Rivers in Eden,” the rivers appropriately take on the characteristics of language, of speech. I say, “appropriately,” yet  I had never heard of Rosenstock-Huessy when, back in 1978-79, I wrote this poem, the first in self-published collection of poems on Biblical themes, Instead of Eyes. But I am surprised now, some 35 years later, to see how this poem is infused with the Rosenstockian spirit.

The motto of this poetry collections comes from Numbers 10:31—“Leave us not, I pray thee: forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou mayest be to us instead of eyes.”


                        FOUR RIVERS IN EDEN

                        Eden was a desert,
                        a desert far and wide --
                        it made a ghostly sea
                        and a ghostly tide.

To the east thereof a garden,
bounded by rivers four.
Pison struck its head of gold;
Gihon’s mouth was black;
away from Hiddekel ran the sun
to bathe his eye at Euphrates’ back.

Over the sands the rolls of death
beat heavily and subsided:
holding a day against the world
that had no eyes, where nothing was.
The four rivers arched and splashed,
and made unto a door:
hand to foot, and foot to thigh,
it was green and blue and mother-of-pearl;
and the Lord God stood before.

Clouds rumbled and the rain;
and in the milk there swam
the seed of woman and of man.
The Lord God put it in the earth
and blew the clouds to let him pass.
Without, the desert trembled.
Cascades of sunshine spilled through glass.

Two trees opened from a single trunk,
two trees, of knowledge and of life.
Their shadows danced, and the boughs,
where golden birds beamed about and sang,
and rained singing unto the golden grass.
Swayed them whole, elders than the sea
whose wrinkled sleeves whorled the shells
and made them murmur dreams; aye, they grew,
waking and sleeping, and aged no more than dew,
while ever music breathed, and bells;
the milk of stars dripped upon the night,
and by day angels glanced among the bees.
The fruits ripened in the springing leaves,
and the Lord God stood and watched,
for he was pleased.

            The two trees stood together
            but from a single heart;
            one breathed in, the other out;
            one made seed, the other fruit
            that loosed itself from the crown
            and fell with a tiny plashing sound,
            like a little rain finely misted.

One evening at the twilight
The serpent coiled himself upon the roots.
Rings of fire glittered round his navel,
from his eyes gleamed decay of light.
For a long while he wrapped himself around,
and gazed, and meditated.
The night passed before;
his mind divided;
and still he gazed with eyes unclosed,
staring at the tree-bole, whose leaves
beneath his gaze twittered like birds
and at last grew still.
Tighter and tighter he wound around
the roots, until the stars
began dropping off the world
into a silver plate. “Ye are as gods!”
he hissed: the lightning broke;
the crack shuddered through the trunk;
the limbs dismayed flailed at the air
but grasped at only moonlight: for white
and manacled rose the moon,
for she carried with her the soul of day,
but hid the body, as in a cave.
The man and woman were afraid.
A cool breeze was blowing in from Eden,
and they felt themselves and felt of cold.
In a sweat of haste unto their skin
green covers made them from the figs.
For night had broken, and now dawn
burst wide the heavens, and overflowed;
blood and earth were they, and earth and blood,
and the rivers burst, and in the flood
the Lord God came in.

Crouched the two with shining eyes,
and like an after-rain the worlds wept
upon the ruined trees. The Lord God
showed them what silence was,
for he broke the world into a word
and silently gave them bread,
a crust of the work he had made.
That day the garden was all a-flame
when fell the hosts of Cherubim
like a great speech of birds.
But the man could not remember
their scorching words, and the woman
hid herself from them.
It was the Last Day,
the first of many days.

The Lord God led them silently without;
they saw the desert stretching every way.
The man covered up his eyes and quaked,
and the woman, glancing back,
saw a little ripple in the sand.
She then looked upon her husband’s face
and woke unto herself from the dream;
and he, seeing the countenance of Eve,
beheld the trees with Cherubim.

            And in that seeing of each other
            the Lord God closed a little way their wounds;
            and when they spoke they did remember
            four rivers, and breached them into syllables,
            in every word they tasted on their tongues.

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