Month: November 2011

Poems: The Children’s Hour, Scene with Catbird, Vow of Silence

Some poems from my grad school archives:

The Children's Hour
Your mind
is a cartoon
cotton-candy paints
mixed in Tokyo
a million frames
for every motion

oversize rabbits
and talking shoes
you defy
the laws of technology
and pain

small birds twitter
and circle your headaches
a flying machine
only toddlers would giggle

a safe on my head
you think trapdoors are funny
I fire your animators
and read a good book.

Scene with catbird
Toes in the clover
dragonfly armored
with green mirrors
and cross-winged

Heels drum
the chest-dancer
and the lungs' breathy rattle

Slate gray bird
colored a thunderhead
singing in  tongue
not its species

Trees purr back
the bees bristle
a rabbit limps
in the rose bush

Vow of Silence
You cannot catch the beautiful.
Caterpillar, it wriggles
leaving only exoskeleton
and cracked plate glass.

Words net only the ugly
the gnats, the ghosts
the growling angst of a ship
rotting shoreline.

If I caught
a night speckled firefly
on the tip of my tongue
in the hollow of my tooth
would you taste it
would you know
what I meant?


Meandering review of “The Ecstatic Experience”

This morning, I finished Belinda Gore’s “The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys.” The premise, drawing on the work of Gore’s mentor, the late Felicitas Goodman, is that assuming particular postures can facilitate the experience of shamanic trance.

Gore uses the term “ecstasy” to denote trance states, but I’m not sure I agree with that. Ecstasy is that which takes you outside yourself, but it needn’t involve journeys to the Otherworld or technicolor visionary experiences. But we’ll lay aside that quibble for now, since there are so many other quibbles I want to get to!

I have long experience with Otherworld journeying, so there’s no argument from me on that basis. My problem is, well, with the nature of the claims — not on the effectiveness of the postures, but on their purpose and derivation. The idea that ancient people must have stood or sat in these postures for trance-journeys is, well, a bit odd and not at all supported in historical record. Body-positions can have a whole host of connotations in art: religious/metaphoric, artistic, even practical in the sense of accommodating the medium (i.e., “I don’t have enough rock to carve a standing woman, but I can do a sitting one — as long as she’s the right shape!”)

I don’t have enough knowledge regarding the Mayan and Olmec cultures Gore focuses on, but I do know about Cernunnos, whose posture is included in the text as facilitating “metamorphosis.” How does she know the “All-Mother Anu” gave birth to him and that “his role was to sing the souls of the dead to the Summerland”? I’m all for unverified personal gnosis, but this was presented as some sort of historical fact. The fact is that the Gundestrop cauldron was likely made in Thrace and that Cernunnos is not mentioned in any Celtic myth. The title — “horned one” — likely referred to a deity with a proper name. (I honor him as Bel/Bile, but that deity is not reflected in myth or literature either; I acknowledge this openly, which isn’t the same as claiming it’s ancient truth or somesuch.)

Frankly, I don’t think these postures were used historically for trance purposes. Cernunnos sits cross-legged — in what yoga calls the “easy pose” — because people sit cross-legged on the ground all the time. His torc and snake are symbolic. If you assume the posture and have a trance experience, more power to you — just don’t claim the ancients did it.

As far as whether they work in shamanic trance…. I have no plans to try. I have my own means for entering trance states, although I’m always eager to learn new practices, whether or not I use them. In my opinion, holding one of these postures for 15 minutes will likely cause great physical pain, which is counterproductive when it comes to trance.And for the record, I’m in very good shape and do yoga quite a bit. In my younger days, I used to do figure modeling and am well-versed in the agony that results from holding virtually any position for even 10 minutes.

It’s interesting, though, particularly when people were recounting their visions in the text. If the method presented here works for you, go for it. I’d love to hear about it.

Predation and spiritual discomfort

Tomorrow, the sharp percussion of bullets will wake the woods at dawn’s redness. Hunting season: an annual ritual, no less than sowing seeds in the spring.

I’m the daughter of a hunter and grew up eating venison and quail, seeing birds plucked and bucks gutted in our suburban garage. To quite a few people, this may seem macabre, even obscene. And certainly, hunting season tends to upset quite a few people; deer are beautiful, a part of nature and shouldn’t be slain, goes the sentiment.

But some of these same folks won’t make the argument about a cow or a pig, something which I find striking. Of course, for most people, that slab of beef isn’t the curious black-eyed creature from the farm around the block; there’s no nearby slaughterhouse to drive the reality home. Meat is something preserved in crisp, clean packages in the refrigerator section, not the flesh of a once-living creature.

We even scrub the words free from their earthy taint: meat, not flesh. Beef, not cow. Poultry, not chicken. Pork, not pig. In the paragraph above, I almost wrote “abattoir” but decided against it; the dulcet tones of a foreign language scrub the slaughter from the word.

French aside, the cow or chicken or pig you’re eating is no different from the deer the hunter took — and they’ve probably had worse lives. A deer, after all, gets to live as a deer until it meets the bullet or the arrow — or the coyote’s tooth, the bare ribs of starvation, the scourge of blue tongue and other diseases. Nature doesn’t have a retirement program for deer; before the arrival of mankind, they were taken by wolves and mountain lions, the niche now filled by the coyote.

It’s a system forged in the very beginnings of the animated carbon chain: life feeds upon life. It has its own logic and, yes, its own fierce beauty.

But predation disturbs people. The image of the Kingdom of Heaven in Christian thought is the lion laying down with the lamb — not to eat it, but to eat grass alongside it. In other words, there is no place for lions in heaven. The vision of nature there is “perfected,” scrubbed of its unclean associations of flesh. In New Age thought, humans will eventually become beings who live only on light — in other words, plants.

But plants, too, are fierce. They live on each other: Spanish moss, vines, the holy mistletoe. They compete and drive each other from the light, albeit in slow motion. They strive and struggle, no less than animals. And when you pull a carrot from the ground to feast upon it, it’s no less dead than the quail plucked from the field.

People are aghast at the prospect of eating deer because they’re “beautiful.” But if we cannot see the beauty in a pig — an animal of keen intelligence — is that the fault of the pig? We do not eat cats, dogs or horses in our culture because they’re seen as pets, beautiful or “cute,” and possessing other uses. But cows were trained in the old days to pull carts and plows, to come when they are called, to provide milk, and are no less intelligent than horses for the most part. Cats kill mice, but so do snakes — who were kept for that purpose in places such as Lithuania in ancient times.

I’m not suggesting that we turn our cats into sandwiches, or that we should gnaw on the bones of any creature that takes our fancy. However, we should recognize all creatures’ beauty, value and being, whether or not it’s useful to us. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hunt, slaughter and eat them — we are as much a part of the carbon-based predation-chain as they are, as any hungry tiger could tell you — but rather, we should do so in a respectful way.

A deer is not more worthy, spiritual and noble than a pig. A carrot is not less worthy of life than a rabbit, or even the germs that riddle the body. There is no simple good and no simple evil, but a shining net of complexity where life feeds on life, death feeds the soil and the soil creates life anew.

The Art and Practice of Geomancy

I’ve recently finished John Michael Greer’s The Art and Practice of Geomancy, which concerns a Renaissance-era divination technique that comes by way of Arabia, and eventually Africa. In short, geomancy involves a binary code — registered as one dot or two — assembled into four-line figures. It reminds me strongly of I Ching hexagrams, although coins aren’t used to come up with the code. (There’s no reason you couldn’t use coins, however, I suppose.)

You come up with four figures, which are then combined to come up with all the others; they’re all placed in either a shield-chart or, more commonly, the 12-house astrological chart. Interpretation not only takes into account the figures themselves, but their relations to the houses, whether the same figures appear in more than one house, and “astrological” relations such as conjunctions, oppositions, sextile, etc. Reading according to the house technique is immensely complicated; the object sought and the significator vary according to the question and the parties involved.

All in all, I’ve joked that it would be a great divination method for folks with OCD (or CDO, where the letters are in order, as they should be). The book, which is well-written and well-researched, is a stepping stone to a lifetime study. You can conceivably attain very, very clear answers with geomancy — clearer and more precise in terms of time, direction of lost objects, initials of persons — when compared with methods such as ogham, tarot or runes. Such accuracy, however, would take a lifetime of practice — not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.

Geomancy also lends itself to Western-style discursive meditation and techniques of ceremonial magic which, like the divination system, were largely products of that period. I’ve rarely read up on ceremonial magic, since I don’t have a personal calling, but found it rather fascinating. The Renaissance magical principles of the corpus mundi, anima mundi and spiritus mundi provide a compelling explanation as to why divination — of any sort — works at all: spawned by influences from the soul of the world, events are then expressed in the world’s vital energy (spiritus) before manifesting in the material realm.

Overall, it was an excellent book on a system I previously knew little about. I tried my hand on one chart, but geomancy isn’t a system that sings to me. I have more of an intuitive/oracular mind when it comes to divination; a more discerning, rational mind would be privileged here. Geomancy, by way of its origins and the system of philosophy that surrounds it, also would appeal more to someone interested in either Judeo-Christian practices or, at a stretch, Roman religion, albeit not classical Roman. The Renaissance was influence strongly by the re-emergence of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, and that’s reflected in the system.

Still, I think it’s worth learning about other divinatory techniques, in the same spirit I dabbled with the I Ching several years ago. There’s a technique out there for everybody. (I think geomancy might appeal to engineers!)