Might want to edit your OP to reflect that.
just did so, good point
After reading this several times and digesting it, I’ll say that the stream-of-consciousness feel to the poem is certainly deliberate. Those strange, seemingly unconnected images are also seemingly at odds with their own adjectives, as if an AI strung words together. But the volcanic theme is absolutely there: burning, explosions, discharge, vitrescence, fire, eruption, etc, and that hallucinatory feel is very carefully worded.
The narrator is talking throughout of his aura, that “ghost” that surrounds us (I know some people believe in literal auras, but I don’t think Alexander is using the word that way). In real ghost volcanos, the volcano itself is the ghost, the thing that you can’t see. The hole that was once at the center of the volcano is what’s still there, turned solid by hardened lava. So there’s an inversion of the the whole idea of the aura-- what we think of as the solid body of a volcano turns out to be the ephemeral part, and the empty space becomes what is solid and real:
unicorns from Çatal Hüyük
cease to condense as forms of the earth
but take on the body of enigma as transparence
Yet unicorns never existed as forms of the Earth. So much here that blurs the real, the mythological, ancient and newer forms, and the transformative processes of time. Googling Çatalhöyük was also instructive-- ancient, near volcanos, a splendid archaeological site.
The ending is strange. I don’t have any ideas about those “hushed exhibits” right now. Anyone?
Back to the volcano poem:
I had to mentally digest the poem several days. (Or so it seems. Maybe it was only one day.)
My first impression was that of a magical spell like someone else said.
The poem mixes irreal (mythical) with real. For example “unicorns” and that Turkish neolithic settlement (Çatal Hüyük). Another un-mythical thing are oxygen and hydrgen. He seems to describe a somehow legendary past leading to a mundane present. On closer look it seems that the day is legendary/mythical and the night is mundane. Or vice versa, I have problems to understand his mentionings of the sun.
Edit: @piearty Could you please make the sentence about one per week bold?
Edit2: “cease to condense as forms of the earth
but take on the body of enigma as transparence
as blackened meteor in abstraction” means probably clouds (from the volcano?) at day-time and meteors at night-time.
I just made a quick recording so I can listen and muse on it while I work: thought I’d share. inside-the-ghost-volcano.mp3 - Google Drive
There’s a lot of references and strange turns of phrase in this poem so I figured I’d put them in a little post by itself.
- Bartering gramme: (presumably) Grams of metal to barter with.
- Lyncean: Like a lynx, sharpsighted – perhaps more pertinently, a reference to Lunkeos, a sharp-sighted sailor from the Argonauts – themselves a crew of heroic sailors from Greek myth.
- Minoan: The inhabitants of the Greek island of Crete. The Minoan civilization (according to wikipedia) “represents the first advanced civilization in Europe”. The term references the Greek mythological King Minos, (the one with the minotaur).
- Game dog: Gameness is a quality of fighting dogs that develop traits of eagerness despite the threat of injury, a dog that “will fight with two broken legs” among other behaviors.
- Çatal Hüyük: (as Amanda said) A consecutive series of proto-city Neolithic settlements in Turkey layered on top of each other (geographic feature known as a tell). It is close to the volcano, Mount Hasan.
As well, here’s some definitions for some of the more unusual words (maybe not a problem for the people with the big vocabularies here, but I think could be useful with the many unusual ways they’re used)
- Ambles: An easy stroll or unhurried walk (especially that of a horse).
- Morass: An area of low-lying ground (geographic) or something that hinders, engulfs, or overwhelms.
- Transmogrify: To transform thoroughly, especially in a grotesque or bizarre way.
- Vitrescence: Resembling glass, the quality of becoming vitreous (glassy or glass) – vitreous body/humor can also relate to the watery gel between the lens and retina of the eyeball.
- Calendrical: Relating to or used in a calendar, relating to calendars as a measurement of time.
- Balletic - characteristic of or resembling ballet (the dance form).
- Differential - diversity or distinctive – perhaps more pertinently, the infintesimal increment in a variable in calculus, and the geometry of smooth shapes and spaces in differential geometry.
- Ocular: Of, or relating to, the eye and sense of sight.
Things I noticed while reading this closely:
- There’s a lot of references to ghostliness and non-existence (spectral, aura, mirage, vitrescence, unicorns, transparence, apparitions, etc)
- Several turns of phrase transform nouns into verbs, but ambiguously (discharge pontoons, lyncean sails, the game dogs, the unicorn mirrors). This makes the poem difficult to grasp along with its strange combinations of words, which adds to the hallucinatory effect.
The things you notice when you loop a two-minute recording of your own voice a dozen-plus times…
- Voice quality: not warmed up, haven’t been vocalizing daily, yeah.
- Breath management, ugh, that was all over the place: what a mess. I bet I mostly managed to hide it but I know my voice well enough I can definitely hear the tension.
- I think I missed one line-break entirely and I didn’t do a great job of interpreting the tension between the grammatical structure and line/stanza breaks.
- Enunciation was a little bad in places, particularly I pronounced eruption almost more like irruption and wasn’t clear about the unusual “then” at the end (you’d expect it to be “than”, so it should have been clearer). Also “wakeless”/weightless.
Still, not too bad for an amateur with just a quick skim for pronunciation and then a single take.
“Gameness is a quality of fighting dogs” – I saw that page, but I’m skeptical. I think it’s more likely game dogs as in hunting dogs (dogs for hunting game). Pretty sure that’s a much more common usage. And I have a vague impression that there are classical references to hunting dogs in Crete? I did wonder briefly if “dogs” could be interpreted as andirons, or slugs of metal, “game dogs” as pieces for a board game? But that doesn’t make much sense since they’re paired with the unicorns.
I also thought that maybe “grammes” could be messages (telegrams, etc.)?
And possibly that lynx-like might have been a color reference at some point in history? Though it looks like Will Alexander is a present-day poet… Edit: or another prominent feature of lynxes is their triangular face and pointy tufted ears: maybe he’s just saying “triangular sails” here?
Two structural things stick out to me. One is the repetition of the first word: by, by, by, by; of, of; debating, debating. And then after the repetition it switches directions. The other is the lack of punctuation and the playing with stanzas and grammatical connections: which lines are talking about which subject? When it says:
by the sun in its primordial morass
summoned from a spectral lotus feast
Is that set off in a stanza by itself from the other “by” lines to link these two clauses into a unit: is this a guide for how to interpret the grammar? Or does “summoned from a spectral locust feast” refer to “my aura” and the stanza breaks are deliberately confusing to match the tone of the piece?
So it feels to me like the puzzle here is which clauses to attach to which subjects. I’m leaning towards reading the following lines as a backbone…
my aura burns
summoned from a spectral locust feast
through electric bartering grammes
the sun no longer quantified
because the unicorn mirrors the game dogs
spun as a wakeless ocular thirst
then the eyes always focused
as pleas for hushed exhibits
I don’t get hushed exhibits either: for me “exhibits” invokes museums, so maybe the expectations of quiet that you get in some libraries and museums? Hmm. If “grammes” is “messages that summoned my aura” then maybe the narrator is some sort of spirit or deity and “pleas for hushed exhibits” is something like “let me rest, stop calling me with your offerings”? Dunno.
Hmm. And is “wakeless” like the wake of a boat, or the opposite of sleepless?
OK. I don’t do poetry much, but that’s my two cents.
This seems to mean the dawn in the morning. Locust is the never-saturated insect that can come in hordes, right? So it means an excess of spectral colours I guess.
I think the poem describes an observer standing in a ghost volcano during dawn and sees ghosts (natural phenomena) transforming into shadows (less substance, but nontheless dark and threatening).
That or something completely different. XD
Edit: Josh made good points, for example about playing with grammatical double-meaning (for example does “mirrors” mean a verb or a noun?) and about many uses of some words. The word “as” is used VERY often.
To me it seems similar to the Romantic art. Seeing threats in the nature.
I was looking up Will Alexander last night and it seems like he has an unconventional relationship with meaning, so perhaps we’re barking up the wrong tree in trying to make an exact interpretation… I suspect it’s as much about the rhythm and texture and flavor as anything…
But it was interesting watching this video of him reading several short poems. Also, wow, Wikipedia says his first book of poems was published in 1987. He’s been refining this style for a long time.
So he might sit somewhere in the corner and laugh at our attempts?
We’re aren’t doing an exact interpretation here, I think. But I think the sense is there somewhere in this poem, no matter if it is also about rythm or such.
This is a great observation, Josh, something I didn’t really notice the first time around. Reading through other folks’ excellent glosses, I’m seeing navigation as one of the central actions of this poem. This is not necessarily a geographic navigation, though the sailing/marine references suggest that the speaker is perhaps sailing past some volcanic site, but almost like a spiritual/mystical positioning. Through this incantation, the speaker is plotting themselves in relation to various layers of mythical power or resonance that have built up over a site over time.
I also didn’t know that ghost volcanoes were a real thing! I assumed it was a nifty poetical turn of phrase that Alexander had coined. But this does provide a key for reading the poem as an act of spiritual positioning, as an obscured, obsidian remnant for feature of the landscape that once held such great power.
Nah, I suspect he’d think it’s valid for people to take from it whatever they find? But I doubt it comes as near to having anything like a canonical interpretation as I’d personally wish for… I like my puzzles to have actual solutions
I don’t think I’ve seen anyone mention this one yet, but you could probably take “the sun no longer quantified // by strange calendrical posses” as a reference to the zodiac…
No Wallace Stevens for you.
There we have terms about:
- sun, moon, day, night
- ghosts, animals and mythical beings
- modern chemistry and physics
- history, mythology and perhaps geography
The first two line perhaps help understanding the whole thing:
Is it the author’s body or the aura’s body? I guess the author’s but I am not sure.
He has a body like a hanging doll. Which could mean weak, without body tension, perhaps literally hanging. And it is morbid.
Huh! I actually like a bunch of the Wallace Stevens that I turned up. Anecdote of the Jar in particular is a lot of fun.
Off the top of my head, maybe it’s the difference in language and syntax? Stevens feels approachable, playful, it fits in my head in the same place as children’s nonsense songs, which I love. Whereas Alexander feels like he’s trying to be deliberately difficult, unusual, offbeat, and sets off my “what a pretentious blowhard” and “you keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means” responses?
Dunno. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks!
Yes, I get that impression, too. And we have only one day left (A new poem will come tomorrow.) and haven’t cracked that nut.
Stevens to me feels like a maze with many passages to wander through. There may not be one path out; it IS like an IF puzzle. Maybe that’s what you find appealing about him?
I do think Alexander is trying to be deliberately offbeat; he’s going for cadence and sound and surprising word combinations that challenge the reader. In that way, he’s a little like my all-time favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (although no one ever reaches those heights-- Hopkins is the heavyweight champion). He’s reaching for syntax-smithery and I can see why it bugs you. Like I said earlier, it occasionally reads like an AI trying to be creative. Yet all that does not obscure the volcanic theme running through it. It’s kaleidoscopic, to be sure, but I rather like the effect. I do think it feels strained, though.
If you want a real puzzle poem by Stevens that has famously resisted generations of student readers, try The Emperor of Ice Cream.
I’ve been thinking about the “hushed exhibit,” which does make sense, like the quiet expected in museums or ruins, places of appreciation for something wonderful. I’m not sure whether the “like” at the beginning of the last stanza is referring to “clarified activity” or “conjured distance,” but the image it puts me in mind of is a librarian or a museum guard looking at you to hush you if you’re not showing the proper reverence for the location: “the eyes always focused/as pleas for hushed exhibits.”
Hrm. That seems… ok, there are things I’m missing, but… Someone’s making ice cream in the kitchen: boys are bringing in flowers for decoration, there’s a woman in the other room, presumably dead from the “let be be the finale of seem” and the mention of covering her face and “how cold she is, and dumb.” So it’s a story about a wake, right? For a woman who lived in or near poverty. Maybe intentionally, in a miserly way? I feel like he’s hinting that perhaps she had a lot of money but refused to spend it.
So I’m sure there’s any amount of stuff I’m missing, but there’s a very obvious surface picture here. I don’t get that sense with Alexander, in fact I feel like he’s intending there to be multiple threads, perhaps a sort of tapestry of meaning.
soooo is this our next poem?