Thursday, November 12, 2020

Lesser Angels

[spoilers below for The Translator!]

In John Crowley's novel The Translator, during the early 1960s the exiled Russian poet Innokenti Isayevich Falin has come to teach at a Midwestern university.  His student Kit finds that peculiar circumstances surround him, inexplicably and persistently.  And then one night she happens to see him walking across campus, and follows him, but:

...she slowed uncertainly; she could see down all the lighted paths, he couldn't have gone far. 

He was gone, gone entirely, vanished.

She walked on toward the library, feeling an Alice feeling of having been put in the wrong by a being who didn't follow the laws of physics.  Then she found she was walking right toward him: he stood before the library, and he was talking to a slim dark woman, or rather listening to her talk, she seemed distraught or upset somehow, she talked and shook her head and almost seemed to tremble: and then as Kit came close, almost too close, unable not to, the woman pressed her cheek against his coat. 

Only one paragraph, and this woman never reappears in the story.   But Crowley is not one to be sloppy about leaving threads dangling in his narrative.

Who is she?

The twisting shadow of the Cold War moves over the life of this little college campus.  At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis Falin... vanishes.  The manuscripts of his poems are mysteriously lost.  But the world edges back away from war, and life persists.

Many years later Kit speaks to her father of it:

"I think that back then, when he came to this country, there was a struggle going on between the angels of the nations, his and ours; and that in their anger and their fear, those angels came to destroy the world... 

"But no, of course it didn't happen," Kit said, and she rose up and went to the window, as though to release her thought or her soul that way.  "It didn't, it should have but it didn't.  Because the lesser angel of one nation interceded.  On our behalf.  He made an offer; he offered himself."

"The lesser angel," George said.  "The lesser angel."...

"The lesser angel," she said.  "Every nation has one: an angel who is all that the greater angel isn't.  Who can weep if the nation's angel can't; or laugh if it never does; who is small and weak and powerless, like us.  Except this once.  Because the lesser angel could say: Take this as a sop to your anger.  And it worked...

"It didn't have to be much.  It wasn't much.  It was only the thing most precious to him.  What would destroy him to lose.  His soul."

"They have souls?"

"His self.  His life."  A sheaf of papers, yellow American copy paper, the rough uneven lines of Russian words typed on the Undervud.  "They couldn't refuse that."

"They couldn't."

"They couldn't.  They can't.  It's how they are." 

 And if Soviet Russia had a lesser angel, the animating spirit of what was not the gray empire of the Politburo and the KGB and the gulags; I take it that America had one as well.

And that she remains.

Thanks to Ibram Kendi for his article this week in The Atlantic, A Battle between the Two Souls of America, which brought this back to my mind.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Glove

Before his lion-cages,

Expecting battle-rages,

King Francis sat.

Great noblemen gathered around him

And on the terrace crowded

The women in garlands bright.

His finger he crooked in a gesture

And open wide gaped the cage-door.

Emerging with deliberate tread

A lion stepped,

Without a sound

Looked round.

And idly yawning

He shook out his mane, and

His limbs stretched outward,

Reclined in comfort.

And the king again signaled,

And swiftly gaped unbarred

A second gate.

Charging forth

There fiercely sprang out

A tiger irate.

He spied the lion proud,

Roared out loud,

Lashed round his tail

In a terrible swirl,

Extended his tongue out,

Made a cautious turn

Bypassing the lion,

Crossly purring,

Sidled over by, and grumbling,

Beside him settled.

And the king again signaled.

Twin cage-doors opened - out with a pounce

A pair of leopards surged all at once.

They plunged with a valiant thirst to fight

Versus tiger's might.

He lashed out his raging paws for the battle.

And the lion gave a snarl

Toward them all; they fell still,

And circling up neat,

In bloodlust's heat,

All of the dreadful cats settled.

A beautiful hand let fall

A glove from the balcony tall

To land among them, right between

Tiger and lion.

With sarcastical tone, to Sir Delorges

Swiveled the Lady Kunigund

Sir knight, since your love's, so fierce in its urge,

Hourly pledged to me yet again,

Well then, bring me the glove back up!”

And the knight with a lively step

Downward climbed to the awful arena

With movements steady.

And out of the midst of the beasts he

Plucked out the glove with a jaunty finger.

The noblewomen and the knights had

Looked on astonished and full of fright, but

Nonchalantly returning he brought back the glove.

And every voice rose up to praise him;

Tender she cast him a glance of love.

With her promise of joy to give

Would Lady Kunigund embrace him.

But he flung back the glove into her face -

My lady, you can keep your thanks.”

And he made an immediate exit.

Friedrich Schiller (1797)

English translation by Grant Canterbury

Monday, October 12, 2020


For three days toward the end of September,

Crack open your window sometime at night, and

Then listen if you can remember.

Flocks hidden by cloud in the starless skies.

Only the clamor of high yelping cries

Reveals the swift whitefronts in far-coursing flight, and

If you miss them, the next week they’re gone.

From Gulf Coast marshes white flocks now ascend with

Black wingtips in motion.  Loud vees assemble,

Surge northward across thawing land, with

Their way bending left at the Arctic coast,

Drawn by the memories, bright in their host, 

Of nests and soft grasses, the island of Wrangel.

Chanting one to the other, course on.

Monday, July 20, 2020

On Behalf of Athena

All of a sudden, bang! bang! bang! goes three or four guns - the men had slipped around through the woods and come in from behind without their horses! The boys jumped for the river - both of them hurt - and as they swum down the current the men run along the bank shooting at them and singing out, "Kill them, kill them!" It made me so sick I most fell out of the tree. I ain't a-going to tell all that happened - it would make me sick again if I was to do that. I wished I hadn't ever come ashore that night to see such things. I ain't ever going to get shut of them - lots of times I dream about them...

When I got down out of the tree I crept along down the river bank a piece, and found the two bodies laying in the edge of the water, and tugged at them till I got them ashore; then I covered up their faces, and got away as quick as I could.  I cried a little when I was covering up Buck's face, for he was mighty good to me.*

This spring I spent a lot of time with Schiller's ballad The Cranes of Ibycus (best ever [and possibly only!] German Romantic/Ancient Greek murder mystery in verse).  In the pivotal scene, a rowdy Greek audience crowds into an open theater to watch a performance.  On the stage, singing their song of vengeance, is the chorus of Furies, torch-bearing, gaunt, their heads crowned like Medusa's with writhing serpents.  By the illusion of the theater they seem to stand at a scale larger than human, and the audience half-forgets that they are actors as they channel their divine role.  And under that spell the relentless pursuit of vengeance to which the Furies dedicate their song suddenly has unexpected consequences in reality.   

The play being performed here is, presumably, Aeschylus' The Eumenides, climax of the Oresteia trilogy.  Right now the whole story's worth a closer look.

As the Greeks assemble their fleet to embark for the siege of Troy, the goddess Artemis sends unfavorable winds and prevents them from sailing.  A seer reveals to their war-leader, Agamemnon, that the only way to appease Artemis is for him to sacrifice the life of his eldest daughter, Iphigenia.  At length he agrees, and does so.  This act is to mire the fate of his entire family in a recurring cycle of revenge for many years to come.  But the winds shift, and the Greek fleet sets sail. 

Ten years later, when Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War, his wife Clytemnestra stabs him to death in his bath in revenge for their daughter's killing.  Years later again, Orestes and Electra, the surviving brother and sister of Iphigenia, agree that by Apollo's order Clytemnestra must also die for murdering their father.  Orestes kills his mother, and her ghost incites the Furies to hunt him down and wreak their vengeance. 

The Furies, the old goddesses of retribution and vengeance, track down Orestes and demand that Athena and Apollo give him over to them.  Instead, Athena yields the judgment to the people of Athens, instituting the first-ever trial by jury.  The Furies and Apollo each make their cases to the jury for prosecution and defense.  The jury votes: tied at six to six, so Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes.

So Orestes goes free.  The Furies have not won their victory.  But Athena tells them that they have not lost, either.  By putting their drive for vengeance in subordination to the process of law, they gain a permanent place of honor in the city, and the right to dispense blessings to its people.  The Erinyes, the Furies, have become the Eumenides, the Gracious Ones; and the city of Athens becomes the stronger for it. 
Anger is natural.  Anger at someone who has hurt you; has hurt your friends; your family.  So it's easy to fall into a cycle of retribution.  Nobody is immune to that risk.  Not in Greece, not in America.  When Huckleberry Finn stayed at the house of the Grangerfords they were hospitable, kind hosts to him -  well-mannered, keeping a lovely home, loyal to family, generous to strangers, raising quirky and likable kids.  None of that meant they wouldn't let their feud with the Shepherdsons drop them right into the same fate as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

And vengeance propagates itself over generations, like an ivy-vine grasping out for one tendril-hold after another - Iphigenia, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, some Grangerford who killed some Shepherdson.  Or maybe it was the other way about, who knows by now?  Young Buck and Joe.  A big stem of ivy choking off a maple can easily get as thick as your arm.  Looking at the process analytically, you'd have to say it's got what it needs to keep itself going for a good long time.  That's what the Oresteia is all about - using the new idea of impartial law to break the cycle and give a new generation a chance to live fresh lives without the weight of the past dragging them down.

Of course, this all depends on the rule of law staying... lawful.  Due process.  Equal protection under the law.  Right to a fair trial.  As Athena says, the agreement's a two-way street, and those who enforce the law have particular obligations that had better be met.  Otherwise you're liable to end up back with the Furies.  And in the end that doesn't work out well for anyone.

Now for the first time, people of Attica,
Judge a murder-case, and hear my words.
For ever from this time for Aegeus' children
This court will sit for justice to be heard,
On Ares' hill, this Areopagus...
So in this place will reverence for the law
And kindred fear of doing injustices
Restrain the people of Athens, day and night
Provided they themselves do not pollute
With evil influence their justice code.
Would you quench your thirst in Justice's healing stream?
Then do not foul it - keep it flowing clean.**


Athena put a lot of work into this project.  Let’s not mess it up.

*Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.  Chapter 18
**The Eumenides, by Aeschylus.  Translation by Timothy Chappell

Παλλας Άθηνα
παρθένος γλαυκῶπις

Pallas Athena, 
Gray-eyed maiden.



Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Dispatch from the Viewing Blind

First of all, I can assure you that we are at very little risk here within.  Although the dinosaurs move freely about the exterior of the blind, I am confident that its rugged construction is entirely adequate to keep them at bay.  The viewing portals are composed of a sturdy thickness of glass, fully transparent and yet strong enough to repel any conceivable theropod assault.  Furthermore, the walls are even stronger by far, entirely proof against any dinosaurian attempt to enter.  And so is the roof, in case any of the creatures find their way up to the top.  (Occasionally they do, of course; there isn't any practical way to prevent it.)  Once in a great while we will hear one hammering with sharp blows against the upper wall, or observe an impact as an over-active smaller theropod accidentally caroms against one of the glassy portals.  But the truth is that they largely ignore us, being intent upon their own business, and have never made any determined effort to gain access to the interior.  For our part, we are perfectly comfortable here inside, and can readily look out in all four directions to view the activities of the local denizens.

I can report that the dinosaur lineages that survived the unfortunate incident with the asteroid some millions of years ago are once again diverse and thriving.

The blind is surrounded by a low sward of graminoid monocotyledons, upon which the saurians prance and stride and make their displays.  On one side grow a couple of Betula trees and other large woody dicots, their drooping and feathery foliage sometimes rustling and swaying in the balmy breezes of this era.  On the other side there is a small pool surrounded by flat stones and bearing a luxuriant growth of aquatic plants - Azolla, Typha, and Eichhornia.  The last has begun to bloom - flowering plants are indeed abundant in the landscape of this age - and its pale violet blossoms present a weird and hypnotic aspect against the pool's murky depths.  In the heat of the day we will often see the dinosaurs dart in, peer cautiously about, and stoop to drink from its waters.

From a jutting limb of one of the dicot trees I have suspended a cylindrical container, pierced at several points on its circumference, and filled it up with the dry blackish fruiting bodies of a variety of Helianthus.  Many of the dinosaurs find these delectable, and this station has served to attract them to a place where we can easily observe their posturing and quarrels.  Just now I have been watching a pair of Haemorhous that have placed themselves on either side of the feeding station, monopolizing it, and are slowly and deliberately shucking and consuming the fruits.  No other dinosaurs seem inclined to try to displace them before they have eaten their fill.  The scientific name Haemorhous comes from the Greek, meaning "bloody-rumped"  - and one might be forgiven for conjuring up images of horrific battles and lacerations, sanguinary in victory or defeat.  And no doubt they would be capable of rage if sufficiently provoked.  But the reality is that the name refers to their natural coloration, the male being handsomely streaked with red upon the rump and the breast.  His mate, calmly feeding beside him, is brownish and nondescript.  At last they depart, leaving a scattering of brittle husks upon the ground.

As if they have been watching and waiting for their opportunity, more theropods dash in one by one, quickly seize a fruit in their mandibles, and make their getaway to some sheltered patch of foliage where they can make their meal in safety.  In rapid succession I see the smaller Sitta and two species of Poecile, here and gone again in a moment. Then new arrivals appear on the scene, dwarfing them all.  Striding across the greensward, oblivious to the littler dinosaurs, comes a dark squadron of half a dozen Sturnus.  These saurians ignore the Helianthus fruits, but scan and peer downward into the graminoid turf as they walk, periodically stabbing to seize some hefty invertebrate larva at their feet.  Blocky in stature, glossy black with bright spangles, single-minded, they quarrelsomely call out to each other with grating cries as they bowl along through the vegetation.  

Through the opposite portal I hear the raucous call of a Streptopelia, and another giving its low, rhythmic, hooting cry in response.  A pair of them are walking toward the pool - smooth-featured, strangely serene in bearing, their bodies subtly tinted in pale-brown and dove-gray shades of pastel.  One stands watch as the other balances on a stone and bends down to drink.  Unlike most other saurians, the Streptopelia need not pause to tip its head back after every mouthful of water and swallow - it dips its curious muzzle into the pool and drinks continuously until it has slaked its thirst.

In this timeless age it is easy to think that the natural world is unchanging, but of course it exists in its own place in history and one can see transient changes if one looks.  Twenty years prior the Streptopelia was unknown in this region.  Formerly they (like the Sturnus) had been native to an entirely different continent, placed by chance of plate tectonics on the opposite side of the planet, until some strange accident brought a few of them to the far edge of this one.  But they found their new home well to their liking, prospered, bred, and swiftly multiplied; now their call is a common sound along the ridge where we have placed this blind.  When they arrived here I wondered with some concern whether their smaller cousins the Zenaida might soon find themselves outcompeted and pushed out.  But so far I admit that they seem to be managing a successful coexistence.

There is a harsh cry and a blurred blue form barrels toward the pond.  Startled from their drink, the Streptopelia leap up and are routed into sudden flight.  The winner of the confrontation takes a victory lap and comes back to stand triumphantly atop the poolside rocks, looking irascibly about for other challengers.  This is an Aphelocoma, who has apparently claimed personal ownership of this pool and rarely allows an intruder to linger for very long before swooping in to drive it off.  Noisy, curious, watchful, and intelligent, he and his boisterous family are never far away.

Smallest of the dinosaurs, but more pugnacious yet, are the trochilids - Calypte and in certain seasons a few Selasphorus.  Near one of the blind's portals I have placed a glass bulb filled with sugary liquid, and nearby they hover, thirsty for its sweetness but ever-watchful for intrusion by others of their kind.  Their movements invisibly quick, bright scarlet iridescence flashing from their throats in the sunshine, they chitter, dart, leap in an instant to joyful battle.  Faster than the eye can follow, they dodge, parry, calculate and recalculate their tactics of aggression and defense with blazing speed in a splintered second; and then mysteriously and bilaterally declare a sudden truce to rest and drink side by side.  

The dinosaurs squawk and squabble, but rarely seem to bring one another to much actual harm.  Yet once in a while I hear angry cries from a family of Sturnus or Tachycineta, and look out to see them mobbing a true predator until it gives up the hunt - yesterday it was an accipitrid speeding off amid the trees, perhaps Accipiter striatus.  They cry out the alarm to give their young the warning.  And it gives me a reminder that there are matters of life and death at play, here as well.
In recent months I have been confined within this blind more than I had expected, to tell the truth.  But I am glad to have the opportunity to observe at close range the strange and wonderful creatures that inhabit this age of the world.  

I am more and more tempted to venture out and mingle among them.  

It is just hard to know whether it is safe.

Monday, March 30, 2020


Cawing on the wind.
Far across the wide lawn,
A hurrying walker.
Not much closer,
At an acute angle,
A triple where
A young family clusters
In the shallow vale
Where the grass
Reaches the pond.
The little girl
Dabbles with a hand-net
Near the cattails.
Pursuing some tadpole
Or a backswimmer bug?
Too far to resolve
The flowers in the pattern
Of her bright pink sun dress.

The crow flock flies,
Tracing shifting black shapes
On the white sky.
Warped quadrangles,
Geometric clusters,
An outlying straggler.

Some clear night,
Peering into a scope's
Objective lens,
I scan the stars,
White pinpricks in the blackness,
Trying to recognize
Their configuration,
Their angles made, and spy
Some remote asteroid,
Or fill the circle with
The blue-white gnat-swarm
Of the Pleiades.

Patterns are native to the mind.
Stories spin out from shapes.
Over the millennia
Even constellations shift.

The world has grown wider.

In the distance the parents
Open the doors of their car.
The girl climbs in back.
Homeward bound.

Keep well.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Cranes of Ibycus

Photo: Shay Golan

by Friedrich Schiller (1797)

Upon the fair Corinthian isthmus
The Grecian tribes had all assembled
To strive in chariot-race and song,
So god-touched Ibycus had come.
And with his slender staff he'd wandered
From Rhegium, with god suffused,
To give his gift of verses chanted,
Songs sweetened by Apollo's voice.

Now Acrocorinth's rocky ridges
Stood beckoning to the traveler's vision,
And trembling with each step he moved
Into Poseidon's sacred grove.
And in the stillness all about him,
The flocks of cranes in company came
Drawn from the distant balmy southland
In grayish squadrons well arrayed.

“You friendly multitudes, I hail you!
Well met, my ocean-way companions,
Presenting me a fortunate sign.
They run in step, your fate and mine.
From far away we come imploring
The shelter of some kind relief
Where hospitality and sharing
Might ward the stranger from his grief.”

So cheerfully he spurred his paces
Into the lonely wooded places.
But found his narrow way was blocked.
Two bandits trapped him, and attacked!
Without a choice, he braced for combat,
But soon his faltering hands sank low.
They'd stroked the soft strings of the lyre, but
Had never stretched the martial bow.

His cry for help rang out unheeded.
No man nor god had heard and aided.
For all his desperate voice beseeched,
No living soul was in its reach.
“So this is where I'm doomed to perish,
Unmourned upon this foreign ground,
Cut down by villains, soon to vanish,
With no avenger to be found.”

A brutal blow struck home and felled him,
While crane wings beat the air above him.
Though blinded, yet he still could hear
Their eerie voices piping near.
“O hear me, cranes, as you pass over,
And if no other voice should speak,
Raise up your witness to my murder.”
He cried out, and his eyes went dark.

His naked corpse was soon discovered,
And though by awful wounds disfigured,
His host in Corinth could behold
The features of his friend of old.
“Is this the way you've been recovered?
I should have seen you rightly crowned,
And for your glorious singing honored,
A spruce-wreath round your temples wound.”

The guests at Neptune's celebration
Heard rising cries of lamentation.
The agony of loss had seized
The heart of every one in Greece.
To the Prytanis, wild and raging,
Now streamed the roaring maddened crowd -
“His murdered shade demands avenging
Till sated with the killer's blood!”

But how to trail him, from among the
Vast hordes of people in their throngs that
The glorious games have hither drawn,
And recognize the wicked one -
Some craven robber that has slain him?
Or find his jealous hidden foes?
There's none could say but he who shines on
All earthly things, bright Helios.

Perhaps right now, he strolls with brazen
Footsteps amid the Greeks that chase him,
And savors evil deeds' rewards
While vengeance seeks him, all forlorn.
And on the threshold of their temple
Perhaps he now defies the gods,
So boldly mixing with the rabble
That toward the theater jostling crowds.

They cram the seats, all pressing shoulders,
The platforms creak beneath their burdens.
Still flocking in from far and near
The Grecian folk assemble here.
They murmur like the surging ocean
And teeming, crowd the building through.
Their curving ranks in jostling motion
Mount up toward the heavens blue.

Who calls the names and counts the numbers
Of those that gathered here like neighbors?
From Aulis coast, from Theseus' town,
From Phocis and the Spartans' home,
From Asian shores and distant countries,
From every island, here they came.
They hearken from the crowded balconies
To hear the chorus' grim refrain.

With measured steps, by ancient custom,
Now pacing onward stern and solemn,
Transforming the theater wide,
From shadowed space they loom and stride.
So moves no woman earthly born, and
No mortal house could yield their frames,
Immense beyond a human form, that
Surmount the setting of the scene.

Against their flanks sway shadowed mantles,
And fleshless hands raise up and brandish
The torches guttering red and bleak
That flare upon their bloodless cheeks.
And where the wind's touch gently flutters
The hair above a human brow,
There rear the heads of snakes and adders
That venom-bloated bellies show.

And terribly they turn now, spinning,
Their chanted hymn in song beginning,
That rends the depths of every heart.
The rudest rabble hear, and start
To hearken rapt each verse that harrows.
So echoes now the Furies' song
That burns along the listeners' marrows
And suffers not the lyre's sweet tone.

“Be blessed he who's guileless, whole, and
Preserves a pure and childlike soul. On
His course our vengeance can't beset.
Upon life's way he's free to tread.
But doubled woe to him who skulking
Performs his fell and murderous act
Upon his fleeing heels we're latching,
The dreadful lineage of night!

“And if he thinks he's near escaping,
By wing we course, and cast out wrapping
With coiling lash his feet around,
And fell him tangled to the ground.
So still we hunt him down, unwearied,
By no repentance reconciled,
Into the shadows. Onward harried,
He finds no respite in their veil.”

So with their song they wheel their dances.
And over all the house, profound
Hangs mortal stillness and silence as
If a godhead gathers round.
They gravely then, by ancient custom,
Proceeding round the theater wide,
Still pacing onward stern and solemn,
Into the shadowed space recede.

Between truth and illusion wavers
Still every breast that doubtful quavers
And homage pays to fearful power,
The watcher in the hidden bower,
The crux unfathomed, never charted,
That weaves in destiny's dark skeins
And manifests to inmost heart, yet
In sunlight's brightness melts and fades.

From where the topmost tiers rise vaulting,
A startled voice resounds now calling,
“Look up! Look up, Timotheus,
They come, the cranes of Ibycus!”
Then all at once the sky grows somber
As overhead in dusky swarms
That shade the theater, passing over,
The cranes by legions surge in storm.

“Of Ibycus!” That dear name stirring
In every breast new pangs of mourning,
And like the ocean, wave on wave,
The word from mouth to mouth cascades -
“Of Ibycus, the one we grieve for,
Extinguished by a murderer's hands.
What's this about? What can he mean, that
Concerns this coursing of the cranes?”

So ever louder rise the questions.
Like lightning flashes swift suspicion
Across each heart - take holy care!
Eumenid power weights the air;
Its scent the poet's shade appeasing.
“The murderer's revealed himself!
The one who spoke, arrest and seize him!
The one that he addressed, as well!”

And hardly have his words slipped out than
He gladly would have locked them down, but
In vain! His terror-whitened face
Has shown to all his guilt expressed.
Now roughly dragged away for trial;
The stage becomes a judgment hall.
The villains both confess their evil,
 And feel the bolt of justice fall.

English translation by Grant Canterbury