The Time of the Poetic Spirit’s Splitting

a double sestina by Thomas Davis

The wind was blowing shards of shining ice
That crystallized from fog steamed off the ground
Into air bright with sun, but biting cold,
A day so weird it had the monk think twice
Before he left his cottage by the sound
To walk toward the rendezvous—more bold
Than he had ever felt inside his heart.
The forest seemed alive in ways not real,
The trees alive to Taliesin’s song
As if the Lord had let His truths depart
The earth and leave to bards His rightful zeal,
Their ballads making land and men all wrong.

Inside a meadow’s snow-dressed cold, the wrong
The monk saw made the gathered bards, as ice
And mist caked beards with frost, chant out a song
Rejoicing in the Goddess: Earth-weird zeal
Alive in thrumming songs said twice, then twice
To kindle memories the monk’s hard heart
Would bury in the dead earth’s frozen ground
And freeze into a death so harsh and real
That women’s wombs, and fields, would grow so cold
The Mother’s moon would lose its glow, depart
Into a past alive with songs still bold
Enough for poems and chants and sacred sound.

Bernard was joined by other monks, the sound
They made while walking soft. They faced the wrong
Inside the day composed, their courage bold
Enough to face the coming conflict twice
If that would save a single human heart.
Beneath their feet the shards of mist-born ice
Kept rising as they marched downhill, the ground
As treacherous as trees that bristled cold
And tried to force their courage to depart
And let them shun the bards and ancient song
Conceived to drain their spirits of their zeal.
Inside the mist they felt half-made, not real.

The head bard, Gwion, knelt and felt how real
The marching monks were, reached for sacred sound
With strength enough to move the winter’s heart
And let the Goddess stir the tree sap with her bold,
Sure hands and cause the mist and trees to twice
Take steps toward the monks so hearts so wrong
Revering Him, their God, would turn, depart
Back to their foreign lands, and let the ground
The Goddess blessed blow past the winter’s cold
And let the blood of women stir the zeal
Of men so that the grip of monk-born ice
Would melt in passion’s fertile, earth-bed song.

Bernard, beneath his breath, sang hymns, his song
A bulwark thrown at mist that seemed too real
To be just mist, the trees too vital, bold,
To be just trees. The forest sang, “Depart,
Depart!” But, spirit-deep, he fought the ice
That seemed to grip the world and held his ground
And marched, the light inside his hymn-filled heart
So strong he could have faced the chief bard twice
And fought against the weirding of the cold
Toward God’s victory against all wrong
So that the earth could revel in the sound
Of angels singing songs of faithful zeal.

As Gwion felt the rising tide of zeal
Inside the monks, his voice grew deep, his song
Rang out as poetry, as wildly bold
As epics sung to make bad times depart.
The bards behind him sang words softly twice,
A harmony as varied as the ground
That rises into hills and mountains, heart-
Horizons of the Mother, sun and ice
And men and women’s flesh all glory—wrong
The business of the monks whose sense of real
Was twisted by the holy words whose sound
Fell like a hammer on men’s hearts made cold.

Above the bards the brown-cowled monks walked cold
And stronger than they should have been as zeal
Flowed from the bards to monks then back as heart
Contested with another’s heart, the real
Of two realities contesting wrong
That trembled like two great, blue cliffs of ice
About to crash and cascade over ground
Into an eon where men’s souls depart
Into a purgatory void of sound,
Of poetry or hymns, where spirits bold
Enough to sing lost knowledge blessed by song
Have lost their love and spirit, losing twice.

“Begone! Begone!” the great bard said. “It’s twice
I tell you that this land has naught but cold
And grief for those without the Mother’s song.
Her people have, with spirits long made bold
By trees and runes and moon and sacred sound,
The will to tell you that you must depart
Before the triple breasted Goddess swirls the ice
Into great warriors fearless in their heart.”
Bernard heard base apostasy and wrong
And walked toward the bards, his eye’s bright zeal
A lightning bolt so fierce and burning-real
He thought the bards would fall, dead, to the ground.

The bards stopped chanting; Gwion rose from ground
And motioned, gravely shook his gray head twice.
The youngest bard stepped forward, made a sound
So pure his words sparked bright as sun-struck ice.
A shimmering of air danced with the cold
And, in a moment, real no longer real,
The trees reached deep into each monk’s stout heart
And changed to sensual women: Songs depart
Lithe bodies from tree’s bark, and other song
Strikes longing deep into the monks’ strong zeal
And challenges their sense of right and wrong.
The nymphs are beautiful and bold.

Bernard began to pray, his heart once bold
With courage drawn from years on holy ground
Now shaken by the bard’s nymphonic song.
He felt the stirring spring defeat the cold
And soothe his feet and hands and felt the real
Of living life as simple man shed ice
Off earth and thunder in his beating heart.
He swooned toward the poet’s silver sound
And felt his fervor from his soul depart
As if the cock had crowed his song just twice
And summer’s warmth had snatched away the zeal
That let him know seduction as a wrong—

But deep inside Bernard he felt the wrong
And grasped, with spirit strong, eternal, bold,
Sweet Christ hung sorely on the cross, the real
Of God come down to earth, a blessing twice
As strong as bardic songs. He forced the cold
Of winter down into his bones, forced sound
Of holy hymns into his voice, and roared his song
So loud it made the bard’s sweet voice depart
Into the glistening of sun on ground.
Around him, shining with the light in ice,
He felt triumphant, rising waves of zeal,
And felt his faith flood back into his heart.

The Chief Bard felt a sinking in his deepest heart.
The day was lost; the world had turned all wrong.
The monks were stronger, speaking words so bold
They stunned the Goddess with their fiery cold
And leached the magic from poetic song.
His spirit burdened, fiery in his zeal,
Unbroken by the day, the Goddess near him real,
A saddened Gwion walked a circle twice,
Then walked away from ice and cold, hard ground.
He did not see the chastened monks depart
Or see the Goddess walk in white on ice.

And so our spirits in this distant day depart
From wars long lost from any sense of real,
And in our songs the Goddess spring-time song
Runs silver through our days of youthful heart.
Bernard’s strong voice still prays, his spirit twice
As strong as weakness that he feels—the ground
Of warriors facing visions in the ice
Still clothed with fiery words of human zeal.
I sing of poets cloaked in spring-time’s sound,
Of glory, hope, and not of human wrong.

Note: When John Stevens and Nick Moore inspired me to write a sestina, a form I believed up to that point too difficult to attempt, I ran across the double sestina developed by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909), The Complaint of Lisa. Ethel asked me why I would attempt a form close to impossible, if it was like the idea of climbing Mount Everest, but I had no answer. The narrative itself is based on the time when Christianity first came to Celtic lands and owes part of its content to Robert Graves (1895–1985) and his dense book, The White Goddess. For those interested, the meter is iambic pentameter, but line endings, which end with the same words and are rhymed in different patterns, are too complex to map out here.

18 Comments

Filed under Poetry, Thomas Davis

18 responses to “The Time of the Poetic Spirit’s Splitting

  1. I must print this out to read and savor later. Reading just the first strophe (so far) it looks to be an inviting story. (There’s something about iambic pentameter that gives words so much elegance!)

  2. Let me know if it has any value, Betty. It was impossible to write. I am trying to explore the mysteries of poetic expression right now, and I suspect this would not appeal to many bloggers, but I’ll be interested in seeing your reaction.

    • Oh my, oh my, oh my!!!! I just finished reading it, Thomas. First of all, it stirred my Celtic blood (methinks you have identified the time/era of the Mayberrie’ poems!) First I gleaned out the story from this complex poetic form – and marveled at the MEANING of the lines:

      “The business of the monks whose sense of real
      Was twisted by the holy words whose sound
      Fell like a hammer on men’s hearts made cold.”

      That hit ME like a hammer of “remembering” – the inner and outer conflict between the new religion (Christianity) and the beauty of the Celtics’ gods and goddesses which were now all “wrong”. (Not!)

      The fact that you wrote such a wonder-full story in this complicated form is astounding. As you’ve noted, the pattern of rhyme and word repetitions must have indeed been like climbing Mt. Everest – and finding your way through an Amazon jungle at the same time, perhaps? Whew!! But it appears you did so beautifully, and I enjoyed the story a lot. I’ll be reading this poem a few more times, no doubt – and seeing things I missed on the first and second reads.

      Thanks for the experience!!!

      • Thanks so much for reading this, Betty. I know it’s long, and I was wondering if I had made an enormous effort without creating a poem that was worth reading. I’m glad you and the others believe it flows well in spite of the form. The biggest challenge was getting the tenses to work. I had to use punctuation to help handle the tenses. I have to admit that I feel like I am a better traditional poet than modern poet, but I really needed some confirmation that this work was okay.

  3. A most gallant first outing into the land of sestinas! These are the lines that will haunt me:
    “And so our spirits in this distant day depart
    From wars long lost from any sense of real”… our burden and our hope in 2012.

  4. P.S.–Betty had already said so well how I feel in my own Welsh heart about the head-on encounter between the ancient nature goddess beliefs and the “new” Christianity so many centuries ago in the British Isles. The God of us all made it all and indwells in all things forever and ever, amen!

  5. Absolutely astonishing! To write a successful sestina is impressive enough, but to give it such a captivating and moving ambiance to boot seems almost superhuman. I didn’t even realize that it was a sestina until I read the note at the end of it – which to me just goes to show how seamlessly the poem flows. Reading this gave me great pleasure; thank you.

  6. quite epic in it’s narrative and fluent language, quite humbling in its execution. this is a work to be proud of. oh, to have it on paper!

  7. WOW. Impressive undertaking! Well done!

  8. Well that’s one skyscraper of a poem, I’ve read it once but I’m going to have to come back to it. Needless to say, well done.

  9. Now follow that – what an extraordinary achievement. Even to attempt such a thing shows immense courage: to complete it takes superhuman stamina and dedication. And then to produce something of such grand vision, narrative power and enchantment is nothing short of miraculous. Many, many congratulations, my friend.

  10. oh wow…this is awesome story telling in your double sestina…i never tried my hand on a sestina so far…did villanelles, rondels, sonnets – but always found the sestina a “monster” to approach… maybe i’ll try one day.. yours is awesome…lots of lines to fall in love with like..passion’s fertile, earth-bed song…

  11. extrasimile

    Hi Thomas—
    Let me toss a little Martin Heidegger at you. ‘Poetizing is not building in the sense of raising and fitting buildings. Rather, poetizing, as the most proper appraisal of the dimension of dwelling, is inceptual building. Before anything else, poetizing admits the dwelling of human beings into its essence.’
    I’m reading ‘The Time of the Poetic Spirit’s Splitting.’ (My, what a title.) I’m thinking, I’m thinking. There will be more to come.
    Jim

  12. More than Everest – you’ve climbed the whole Himalayas with this one!
    More important is the theme you have chosen to elaborate, that time of transition in the mind of a whole society, the struggle between loss and gain. I think it resonates with us in our own age – unfortunately, because it must be so much easier living in times of certainty. So it’s a very modern, relevant theme, in an atmospheric, historic setting.
    And, as Jim says, “My, what a title”!

  13. extrasimile

    Thomas, I’m beginning to feel like Tristram Shandy when he realized he had spent more than a year writing about the first year of his life. The simple math of the situation leads him to conclude that he was never going to catch up to the present. I do, however, begin to see where our poetic sympathies lie. I will venture to climb a little higher on Everest…
    The first stanza could be a little nutshell for the whole poem. Let’s look at it a little…well, first the title: the poetic spirit. Do you mean to tell me that along with muses and gods, (not to mention duende) there is also a spirit just for poetry? And it got split? From what? Or did it just split into two pieces. I have to preliminarily conclude that this poem is set at a time when the poetic spirit split from the earth and the children of the earth and that this is a bad thing. (Though, I once had the Hindu cosmology explained to me as if it was like god had pretended to not to know himself and then the play of the physical world—Maya—was god coming to know himself. In this case, the spirit’s split might be a good thing. Einstein had a similar view of science: it was the world coming to know itself.)
    Ahem.
    Anyway, things seem disturbed. A landscape cold and mystical—even murderous—but marvelous too, shards of ice whipping around. A monk with a rendezvous to keep.
    Then things get complicated.
    As if the Lord had let His truths depart
    The earth and leave to bards His rightful zeal,
    Their ballads making land and men all wrong.
    ‘As if…’ One of my favorite tropes. Did the Lord do this or not? Presumably he did not, but something he did made it seem as if he did, or he did something that was a metaphysical equivalent. Let’s see: he let His truth’s depart the earth while his zeal is still there—the Lord’s grammar is a little confusing here—but a split seems indicated: His truths are off somewhere while his zeal is sticking around.
    Too much zeal, not enough truth? The falcon cannot hear the falconer?
    This does seem bad. The Lord may be entitled to his own zeal, but can he really have his own truth. Surely the advantage of truth is that it’s not private. It’s not something you can own. What has happened here? I’d say something once known has been forgotten. I’m going to jump right to the end for a minute: ‘I sing of poets cloaked in spring-time’s sound, of glory, hope, and not of human wrong.’

    Poets cloaked in spring-time’s sound. Indeed, sir. A winter poem cloaked in spring-time’s sounds. It’s really a rather prickly cloak. The constant repeating and recycling of the words may account for that. But—
    Bernard, beneath his breath, sang hymns, his song
    A bulwark thrown at mist that seemed too real
    To be just mist, the trees too vital, bold,
    To be just trees.
    —is just excellent writing, especially within the constraints you’ve put on yourself. It has a little of the rhythm of Thelonious Monk at the keyboard. I’m reminded of Norman O Brown’s closing to a book he wrote years ago, Love’s Body: ‘Everything is a metaphor; there is only poetry’. The spirit may be knitting together; the universe may be remembering who it is.
    Even the bawds of euphony
    Would cry out sharply.

    • Jim, if I ever become as learned as you are I shall stop mixing metaphors, but does spring follow winter? Or is there only winter? I’ve forgotten. It is a rather prickly cloak all poets wear, though, is it not? Thanks for this. Bernard’s idea of God’s truth, however, may not agree with. . . I love that you spent the time to make this comment.

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