More Winter Light!

15 January 2016   –   a pome a day…

Osip’s 125th birthday…


This is what I most want
unpursued, alone
to reach beyond the light
that I am furthest from.

And for you to shine there—
no other happiness—
and learn, from starlight,
what its fire might suggest.

A star burns as a star,
light becomes light,
because our murmuring
strengthens us, and warms the night.

And I want to say to you
my little one, whispering,
I can only lift you towards the light
by means of this babbling.

—Osip Emilevich Mandelstam
(January 15, 1891 Warsaw—December 27, 1938 Siberian gulag)

Image result for osip mandelstam

My Hovel
The world before my eyes is wan and wasted, just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.

—Ikkyu (1394-1481)
Ikkyu Sōjun, eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen master and poet

Untitled poem by an anonymous Irish monk, 9th century

Is acher in gaíth in-nocht
Fu-fúasna fairggæ findfholt
Ní ágor réimm mora minn
Dond láechraid lainn ua Lothlind

It is bitter, the wind, tonight.
Tossing the ocean’s hair white.
I fear not the coursing of the sea
But fierce warriors from Lothlind

—in the margins of the St. Gall Grammar by Priscian, c845
tr.Victoria Lord

[Lothlind: Lochlann, Norway, “land of fjords”]


Family ancestral saints feast day:

St. Ceolwulf of Northumbria (c695-764), generation 43 uncle
King of Northumbria, England, and patron of St. Bede. He resigned in 738 and became a monk at Lindisfame. St. Bede dedicated his Ecclesiastical History to “the most gracious King Ceolwulf.”

St. Emebert (-710) generation 45 uncle
bishop of Cambrai, Flanders. Son of Duke Witger of Lotharingia and Saint Amalberga of Maubeuge. His sisters include Saints Ermelinde, Gudula, Pharaildis and the martyred hermit nun St Reineldis, beheaded during an invasion by Huns.


Three poems. One martyred poet. Two ancestral saints. One unknown scholar-monk. One rasty Zen poet-monk.

The Old Irish (Gaelic) quatrain above was penned c845 by an anonymous Irish monk in the margins of a classical grammar textbook. Norse Viking raiders were ravishing the often isolated island and coastal communities of monks and nuns in Ireland, Scotland, England, the north coast of France, and elsewhere in the Christianized parts of northern Europe. In the Viking attacks, many of the contemplatives would be slaughtered, most survivors, male and female, were raped, shackled, and carted off to be sold as slaves. The fiercer the storm, the more tossed the sea, the less likely an attack by Vikings from Norway, that particular night….A common prayer: “Lord, save us from the Norsemen!”

Today, among other such-like atrocities, it is the patients and staff of hospitals operated by Doctors without Borders that are being attacked and destroyed by US drone-missile strikes, from drones remotely operated by young game-fan recruits sitting at video console screens in desert facilities in California.

And it is the residents of Paris, and the staff and residents of community developmental disability service facilities in California, that are being attacked by marauding bands of insane terrorists. And it is so many other people today in so many other places and situations being killed by military, police, terrorists, and criminals. The increasingly frequent and violent storms and other horrible weather disasters brought on by human greed and our insane devastation of the climate and the planet also are killing many hundreds of people this winter of 2015-2016.

On this stormy winter night, relatively safe and relatively dry and warm here in my urban desert hovel, I watch and listen to the world news reports on my computer, and also “re-discover” a 1,200 year old four-line graffito poem/book-margin note. An Old Irish  quatrain for this cold new year… (And by “re-discover” I mean only to myself—I had first come upon the poem, long well-known to scholars, many years ago.)

My ancestral uncle Ceolwulf, as a young king was once kidnapped by usurpers and imprisoned in a monastery while rival kinsmen took over his throne. After he escaped and his kingdom was restored, he arrested and exiled the nation’s bishop for complicity in the coup. Years later, Ceolwulf abdicated his throne and retired for the last quarter century of his life to the island monastery of Lindisfarne which he had extensively endowed during his reign. There he lived and died peacefully, but less than thirty years later the monastery was ravaged by Vikings.

One of my ancestral uncle St Emebert’s sisters, a nun, was martyred when a band of invading Huns attacked her convent; she was decapitated.

Osip Mandelstam and his wife were harassed, imprisoned and exiled by Stalin’s regime, and in the end the poet was imprisoned again and died at a gulag transit camp. A few days before his death he had managed to get a note out to his wife asking for warm clothes.

Ikkyu, was the illegitimate son of the Japanese emperor and one of his court-servants. Orphaned and sent to a monastery as a young child, he eventually became a zen master and abbot noted for his poetry, painting and calligraphy, his harsh criticism of political and religious institutions and all forms of hypocrisy, violence, and injustice. He was also notorious for his open frequenting of brothels, and his public poetic and musical celebration of sex and romance as valid and effective paths to enlightenment. Late in life he became the abbot of the nation’s most important Zen training monastery and also met a young blind musician with whom he lived openly in a passionately romantic partnership. Their love, and her beauty and kindness, became the subject of many of his later poems.


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