Newsletter #147 November 2023

Newsletter #147 November 2023
November 6, 2023 Christina Mullin

Barn, Lake George (1936),  Alfred Stieglitz. Original from The Art Institute of Chicago.

November, 2023

Welcome to Plume#147!

November, and a “twofer” newsletter this month, as I pack for little trip to catch a bit of the fall season unavailable to us here in (sun-drenched, God-forsaken) Florida. We’re heading to Louisville, Kentucky—friends, what little remains of family—but first on our itinerary is a visit to the Trappist monastery in Bardstown, half an hour’s drive from my old house. I tell you this as preface to the reprint below of a much earlier — and more personal — essay which, oddly, a  number of readers recall and have asked to see again. It is set, initially, in this month, before moving on to the title event in July.


November again: and to one of a certain age the inevitable query: Where were you? I was in third grade, Sister Emmett striding among us that afternoon, laying a hand unpracticed in such gestures of compassion on a heaving shoulder or stroking the drooping locks of one of her thirty charges in an almost maternal fashion that both puzzled and terrified us. As one, we gazed up at the grey intercom box beneath the crucifix, through whose speaker like a round mouth agape in perpetual shock the principal had informed us of the mortal wounding of the Great Catholic President. A somber interlude, indeed. (Though vivified by a moment of levity, too, provided as usual by Dana Mudd who had been asleep for the better part of the afternoon due to another in an endless series of migraines, suddenly awakening with a fine line of spittle depending from her braced left incisor; raising her equine head to reveal a downy cheek crosshatched by the cabled sleeve of her uniform sweater and complaining, “My hair hurts.”)

At home, we stared at the television for three days, eating whatever we ate on card tables bearing the identical images of a squirrel sitting on a log and nibbling on his own meal of a rather too large nut, staring at us as he did so. Such are my only memories of this transformational event. Though soon enough I would receive other opportunities to test my powers of recall all these years later, as the horrors of that decade unraveled in the sequential deaths of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luthor King, Jr.  Of the former, I see myself in front of the Rexall hawking an unprecedented “special edition” of the Louisville Courier Journal dedicated to the Senator’s passing – which occasioned the undisguised satisfaction of more than a few passersby, expressed sotto voce or telegraphed with a mirthless chuckle, arousing in me an instinctive if uninformed disdain. As to the latter: almost nothing remains. I insert here the iconic photographs of the balcony at the Lorraine Motel and the haunted countenance of James Earl Ray in lieu of any real memory, which no doubt speaks to the almost complete isolation of the races in my hometown. (I don’t think I met a Black man or woman, boy or girl, until I reached my junior year in high school.)

And yet: at the last hour, as it were – July 20, 1969 –suddenly: something like euphoria, a kind of “Feast Crowd”  glee, to use Canetti’s taxonomy, swept across the gymnasium cum dance floor  at Trinity High School, where the usual pack of semi-conscious freshman comprising those for all intents and purposes  unmolested by those tumultuous times (Weejuns, sports coats) as  well as here and there newly provisioned hippies in green and orange striped bell-bottoms  and fringed moccasins, paused in our awkward free-form scufflings and rotated in unison toward a television that a chaperone had set up among the platters of potato chips and pimento cheese sandwiches: to gaze for a few moments at the soundless image of Neil Armstrong’s inflated mukluks throwing up a talcum-y mist of lunar soil. A girl I did not know climbed atop my shoulders and scissored her knee-socked legs wildly, and clutched at my hair; Walter Cronkite’s spectacles rose and fell and he, too, like his previous avatar, stared back at us, seeming to chew on some invisible nut.

Which brings me in the most roundabout fashion to the Abbey of Gethsemane: spiritual and physical bastion of the Trappist monks, an order dedicated to ora et labora, the first a daily liturgical nonet beginning at 3:45 a.m. and ending at 7:30 in the evening, the second mostly grueling farm work; and where a rigorous silence reigned supreme such that its adherents relied on only the most rudimentary hand signals to communicate with one another.

Situated some thirty miles outside Louisville, the monastery was home to Brother Billy, a monk of thirty-five years’ residence, and the uncle of my best friend, M.  Each month or two, in those days, we  would visit him, obtaining first, as was the case in every conceivable matter of the life of the community, the permission of the Abbot, a thin man of impeccable piety and an erstwhile composer of sternly didactic novels, who would give us free rein to walk and camp overnight in  the sizable parcel of woodlands owned by the order, on the conditions that we (fifteen years old) furnish him clandestinely with a six-pack of Falls City beer and a pint of Old Forester, and listen appreciatively to an hour or two of sputtering,  jealous disparagement of his more-famous colleague and nemesis, Thomas Merton.

And so it was there that day, previous to the evening’s aforementioned dance at the high school, that M. and I had spent the afternoon surveying the landscape from the vantage point of one of the primitive hermitages that dotted the monastery’s property, nearly hallucinating on some ferocious weed we’d got our hands on, and found ourselves watching with some curiosity as a pick-up truck wound its way over the hill from Bardstown, ferrying in its bed of all things a television set. Around which, as you no doubt suspect and we would later learn in so many words from the Abbot, the monks – many of whom had not uttered a word in half a century, driven a car,  eaten in a restaurant, or used a telephone, indeed not set foot off the abbey grounds – gathered in the communal kitchen to watch the serviceman from whom the set had been requisitioned plug in the cord and adjust the rabbit ears (activities they no doubt found as fascinating and incomprehensible as what would follow).

And as the silver, alien light enveloped them—one cannot dispel the image of the disciples agog at the sight of the risen Christ – they must have seen as we saw, too, a man materialize out of that light into another kind of light, becoming a kind of light himself, and clamber down a ladder as they had clambered down ladders to pick peaches and repair gutters, and hop as they had hopped over puddles and cow pies, and place  his foot on the moon that for most of their lives had accompanied their nightly perambulations around the courtyard to Vigil and shined familiarly outside their cell windows . The first and last televised image they cast an eye upon: in the morning the serviceman arrived to reclaim his inventory, never to return.

Imagine it: that room, those men. And, if you like, turn with me now to the above-mentioned Merton – who died in Bangkok in December of the year before – and what he would have made of that scene:  he who was already a figure on the world stage, a man given to his own peccadillos in excursions to the jazz clubs of Louisville taken on some pretext or another, who had fallen in love and many say was on the brink of departing the life – though never the faith — that had sustained him for so many years. Would he have dismissed it as an archaism, a bit of cruel marginalia in the text of those sequestered lives? Or would he have longed to be there as they were, once more innocent and ignorant of the world into which he had long since moved, with its contradictions and complexities, its never-ending Vietnam War and infernal politics? For answers – or more questions – I recommend his famous memoir The Seven Storey Mountain, or one of the hundreds of essays and poems online, e.g., Disturbing the Silence, from Aeon.

All right, then.

And now on to the main attraction: Joseph Campana’s penetrating piece on Dean Rader’s “Meditation on Absolution” from Before the Borderless: Dialogues with Cy Twombly.

What would you do to be excused, to be forgiven. The blots, the stains, the daily sedimentation of regret and infraction? Absolution—such a formal word for such a basic desire, although it has a deeper feeling of completion or perhaps finality. One part of my mind thinks of ceremonies and rituals, to be sure, but the other turns to Dean Rader’s marvelous “Meditation on Absolution” from Before the Borderless: Dialogues with Cy Twombly. A rare poem in a rare book: how often are ekphrastic poems sitting next to the paintings they address? Copper Canyon spared little expense or trouble, it seems, in published something large (for a poetry book!) and more like a slender exhibition catalogue. Nothing to absolve there.

It’s the “meditation” on absolution that I find especially intriguing. It’s like thinking towards. What if I were to think towards being absolved or absolving someone else: of blame, of a crime, of some particular infraction perhaps too intense to share. Or maybe the content of the crime doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s just the organ of absolution, in this case the “heart: / green / as a lake / but not / as smooth.” Nothing’s smooth about absolution. It’s not like clearing a debt with money you already have and won’t miss. Which is why Twombly’s signature cursive swoops (these painted, not drawn or chalked) suggest “White noose / after white / noose.” Nothing simple, nothing easy, noting fun about absolution. Will it break you, being forgiven? And if so, who does the breaking? There’s something stunning but also chilling about the choices this noose leaves us: to swing or to sing. Yes, to “sing the / words of  / my note  / to the  / depths?”

What would you say to be forgiven? What would you write? How many endless swoops of white would you paint on a canvas to get to a place called absolution? The poem ends telling us: perhaps any number. Perhaps an infinite number. Perhaps that’s why this is a meditation (though there are many others in the book) because absolution suggests finality but is perhaps interminable. And perhaps that creates a feeling of desperation (think noose) or maybe just a truth-revealing honesty: “What will / I not say? To / whom will / I not kneel?” In this world of so much blame and complicity, the urge to meditate, to absolve, to kneel in prayer or for forgiveness might overtake anyone. And maybe that’s why poems and paintings never need to be explicitly religious to have a feeling of the sacred.

Meditation on Absolution

My heart:

as a lake
but not

as smooth.
White noose,

after white

will I swing
or will I

sing the
words of

my note
to the

What will

I not
say? To

whom will
I not kneel?

Yes, that’s better.

Oh – many thanks to Olga Maslova, who “stumbled across” this, from Book Riot – Plume’s listing among the 20 OF THE BEST POETRY MAGAZINES YOU NEED TO READ.

Now, with no other pressing information to pass along, I’ll leave you in peace, with just a nod to a few of our gifted contributors, who have books recently published or forthcoming:

Sydney Lea                       What Shines
Erin Hoover                     No Spare People
Safiya Sinclair                  How to Say Babylon
Peter Cole                         Draw Me After: Poems
Franca Mancinelli           All the Eyes That I Have Opened translated by John Taylor
Derek JG Williams          Poetry is a Disease

That’s it for now — I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume