The Sea Mark: A Poem

I published a book about John Smith several years ago entitled The Sea Mark. Smith himself wrote a poem of that name. Inspired by Smith, here is my version of the Seamark.

Seamark
I have searched, the pages of history
To answer a problem, a personal mystery
A haunting call, ghosts of the past
Echoes of the soul, internal ballast.

Something within, keeps me afloat
No matter the seas, that rock my boat
Mast stays firm, bends but won’t break
Mariner’s dream, riding eternity’s great lake.

What is this anchor, that hold me fast
This thing that joins, to what will ever last
that sews my self, onto life’s tapestry
That merges my being, with what will ever be?

It draws me in, after a wave its wake
Can’t resist it, my strength I foresake
Into the sea, its cold water coat
Envelopes me, a castle its moat.

Into the fog, blanketing the harbor
The cool wet mist, wets the skin and more
It penetrates, inside to the mind
Fog on the brain, a pervasive bind.

Knits together, thinking and feeling
Sailor’s seamark, spiritual sealing
Lighthouse gleaming, in the fog a sign
Crossing the sea, the sweet smell of pine.

I sail the sea, but what do I find?
An unknown deep, my mind the same kind
Explore myself? Search whatever for?
Unless within, there exists a core.

Must scape away, barnacles of mind
Sail through the shoals, navigate a line
Compass settings, sky’s starry ceiling
Starbeam pathway, internal healing.

I’ve found the door, I know the key
Escape the wind, and find the lee
Peaceful harbor, anchor to cast
Retire sails, undress the mast
And beach the boat, my line to tote
Haul it to shore, beach it encoat
The hull in sand, the anchor take
Bury it well, landlubber’s sake.

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Bucephalus

One of my heroes of the past is Alexander the Great. This is due in part to Plutarch, whose portrait of Alexander, in his Parallel Lives, is arguably one of the reasons I became a historian. Plutarch’s story of the taming of Bucephalus is a classic, and I have, if you will indulge me, put it into verse:

Ox-Head

Bucephalus—unlikely name,
unlikely horse.
Of flashing mane, the powerful one,
the source
Of pride for the man of the north,
a king,
Macedonian warrior of whom
bards sing.
Philip, bred of horse-flesh.

The day arrived, not any day, a
trading day;
Impatient traders waited on the king
whose say
Was law in the mountain kingdom.
“Thirteen talents?” the king roared, a
king’s roar;
“The horse is worth but a drachma–
no more.”
For none of his grooms could mount him.

An ox-head watched an ox-head, the
stubborn one;
Young in years, not knowledge, Philip’s
kingly son.
Taunting the king and his men.
“Questioning your elders? Why do
you annoy?”
Asked the king to the boy, not
a boy.
When it came to horses.

The boy made challenge
to mount
The horse, if he did he
could count
Bucephalus as his own.
They boy knew something—he showed
no fear;
He had a secret no one
could hear;
Save the giant horse.

He turned the horse to
the sun,
A blind steed, impatient
to run,
For Alexander.

Who gently called the horse
by name,
And onto his back clutching
the mane,
He vaulted.

They raced away the two ox-heads,
now one,
Alexander the king and Bucephalus, the horse he
had won.

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Grunter’s Plea: The Ancient Philosophy of Vegetarianism

One of the more fascinating tales of Homer in the Odyssey is that of the bewitching of Odysseus’s men by the witch Circe. Odysseus and his men have arrived at an unknown wooded island. Odysseus sends a detachment of men to find food on the island. Soon one of his men comes running in haste, terrified, lamenting the sad fate of the others. When Odysseus goes in search and arrives at Circe’s cottage, he discovers that she has transformed his men into swine. In the world of Odysseus, swine are the most disgusting of creatures fit only to be slaughtered and eaten. One can hardly sink lower than a pig in a pig-pen eating swill!

A thousand years after Homer penned the Odyssey, the philosopher and essayist Plutarch provided an unexpected and humorous twist to Homer’s story. In the essay, On the Use of Reason by ‘Irrational’ Animals, Plutarch imagines that Odysseus is rhetorically challenged by one of his men-turned-swine, whom Plutarch calls Grunter. In response to Odysseus’s goal to force Circe to free his men from their pig-pens and return them to human form, Grunter tells Odysseus that he would prefer to stay as a pig. The reason for this astonishing request is that Grunter has found that he has never felt so content than during his brief stint as a pig. Indeed, he engages the most wise and witty man of his time, Odysseus, in a philosophical argument in which he proves to Odysseus that the fate of humans is discontent and despair. Swine, on the other hand, are happy.

Grunter’s argument is that swine possess a natural, instinctual intelligence unencumbered by human societal norms. Humans, Grunter argues from experience, are constantly worried in every moment by what the next moment will bring. Anticipating the future, humans fear time and its consequences: old age, ugliness, poverty, humiliation. Swine, lacking the niceties of human civilization, live content in the moment, unafraid of what the future will bring. Pigs anticipate only one future occurrence, death, which is the lot of all living things. And since each moment in a pig’s life is the same, unconcerned with wealth, status, and power, they live happily, day by day.

Plutarch was a philosopher influenced by Plato and his forebears, such as Pythagoras. Although Plutarch was unwilling to accept the Pythagorean philosophy of the transmigration of souls, he did agree with Pythagoras that the vegetarian lifestyle is best. Pythagoras feared that in killing and eating an animal he might be ingesting a former acquaintance. Plutarch’s reasons for vegetarianism were more common-sensical.

For one, Plutarch argued that meat is difficult to digest, and by filling the stomach slows down the mind. He believed, as many do today, that meat is not part of a healthy lifestyle. He was clearly disgusted by the idea of taking a living creature and in the wink of an eye, bashing its brains out, skinning, it, cooking it, and gorging oneself over something that just a short while before was enjoying life just like any other creature.

There is no good reason to eat meat, Plutarch argued. Nature is so plentiful with all sorts of vegetables and fruits, which are better tasting, more healthy, and less apt to dull the mind. If humans are starving, and there is nothing else to eat, then meat might be the only choice. But in Plutarch’s time of first century Rome, just like in our time, he believed that meat-eating was little more that sheer gluttony.

Plutarch also argued for the sanctity of all life. To take a living creature, inherently equal to all other living beings, and to kill it only to satisfy a carnal appetite, is to disrespect the Author of all Life.

Grunter’s ultimate argument, that pigs are intelligent, happy creatures, who deserve to live, found Odysseus at a loss for words–as might be the case for many of us today.

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Icons

We live in a world of icons: cloth, stone, digital, metal, paper: money, electronic devices, flags, statues, scriptures, media stars, and so on. Icons have been the stuff of human worship for centuries: the Hebrews worshiped the golden calf, early Christians worshiped fragments of the true cross, modern Christians adore Christ’s body and the crucifix, people all over the world will die to defend their particular country’s flag, the media produces household names and images that everyone knows.
​The following is a versification of the power of icons:

Icons

Statue straight, statue tall
Ever ready for when I fall,
Props me up when I am down
Gives me peace without a sound,
Mirror image of my dreams,
Gives me hope when all else seems
Empty, lonely, full of hate,
Mind and body, a terrible state.

Beautiful icon, destroy my fear,
Through clouds and darkness make it clear
What is true, what is fact,
How I ought to be and act,
You tell me what to perceive
Revealed in you, what to believe,
How do I know if what I see
Is an accurate reflection of what’s in me?

Tell me, Icon, that you are real
Tell me that the confusion I feel,
Deep inside, within my being
Is false, since not the same as seeing
The matchless beauty of human art,
Marble complement to the human heart.

No need for God, no need for Scripture,
All I need is a secular mixture,
Of stone from the soil,
And the sculptor’s toil–
To produce a heavenly deity,
Wrought from earthly fealty.

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Sibyl’s Leaves

One of my favorite authors is Michel de Montaigne, author of Essays. In Montaigne’s final essay, “Of Experience,” he traces his experience with the disease of kidney stones. He wrote about his anxiety and fears, his expectation of death, which became monsters, chimeras, in his mind. The fear was often overwhelming. Then he would turn to his notes and essays written previously, in which he discussed the symptoms of the disease, the fear, and how he dealt with it. Often he would feel better after consulting these “Sibyl’s Leaves” (the words of the prophetess).

I like Montaigne have often experienced crushing fear. And I sometimes turn to my own “Sibyl’s Leaves.” Indeed, I once wrote a poem about them, which follows:

Sibyl’s Leaves

Sibyls’ leaves,
tattered, scattered,
upon the shelves
of old ideas;
Dusty, musty,
mine alone,
chronicle of anguish.

Ancient prophecy,
History, personal mystery,
Events, long ago
through them I know,
What will be–
What’s in me.

Prophetess speaks,
Hidden oracle
veiled in words–
and thought—but not
the truth,
so silently out of reach.

Monsters approach,
The darkness
of my mind,
there to find
my error–
Cause of terror.

Utter fear,
The parchment’s near
for me to consult,
The answer’s there
(if not, somewhere),
Amid the riddles
​Of Sibyl’s leaves.

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The Shawl

The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick, is a small book combining a brief short story and a short novella that are connected together by the central characters, an event in the past, and a shawl.

This book has many themes combined together into the two stories. The essence of the two stories is that a young mother, Rosa, her niece Stella, and Rosa’s infant daughter Magda are Poles at the beginning of World War II who have been captured by the invading Nazis and brought to a concentration camp. The author provides no details in terms of dates, places, and events. The three females are starving, and Magda is close to death. Rosa hides her by embracing her under a shawl. Magda sucks on the shawl and stays quiet. Stella, jealous of Magda, takes the shawl from her, which causes Magda to run out into the ground of the concentration camp, where she is killed.

The brief story is of good v. evil, of moral choice, of the contrast of nature and humans, of the rudiments of life and death, of the contrast of body and mind.

Put in a situation of evil, of impending death, a person might choose self-preservation or altruism toward another. Stella chose self-preservation. Rosa chose altruism until the moment when Magda died, then she chose self-preservation.

We read about life and death hovering on the edge of time: one totters on the edge, then eventually goes over the edge. Stella, Rosa, and Magda are on the edge; Magda goes over.

Their bodies were disintegrating but their minds were alive: Magda was wide-eyed; Rosa heard the voices in the fence. “She felt light, not like someone walking but like someone in a faint, in trance, arrested in a fit, someone who is already a floating angel, alert and seeing everything, but in the air.” Like the realm of being, between soul and body.

The second, longer part of the book takes place thirty years later in America, specifically Miami. Rosa has lived in New York but abruptly destroyed her business and fled to Miami, where she lived in squalor and despair. She is haunted by the events of the past, and the loss of Magda.

It is a lost past and an empty present: a golden memory competing with a dismal present; as one ages a futile attempt to recapture youth, the body, the beauty, the potential of youth.

The story evokes images of the Madonna and Child: Magda the blessed babe, Rosa the Madonna; the child was sacrificed, died, but lives again, resurrected in Rosa’s crazed mind as a great university philosopher.

Rosa cannot escape from the evil that happened to Magda, and the greater evil that affected Poles in 1939 of their catastrophic destruction at the hands of the Nazis and Soviets. Rosa was from the Polish upper class of Warsaw. Her family were Poles before they were Jews. When they lost their Polishness they became like everyone else, like other Jews.

Overall, this book is about time. It is about one moment in time, when, where, why is never described, but it burns itself into Rosa’s memory (“a blazing flying current, a terrible beak of light bleeding out a kind of cuneiform on the underside of her brain”), and she spends the rest of her life recalling it. This moment of time haunts her, from it she conjures up ghosts, memories that seem as real as the present, indeed are more significant than the present, for the past is more real to her, especially the one grand moment, not of her daughter’s death, but her daughter’s birth. In that moment it was like the Madonna and Christ child. It was an incarnation of a person, an idea, that became life. Magda’s death has seared her life, and her birth, upon Rosa’s brain as the most important event, the most significant event, that she knows of.

When this birth happened, life was good, she was betrothed, her Polish family living lives of harmony, sophistication, culture—all of which were subsequently rubbed out, or stolen, by the criminal invaders of Poland.

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When is a Historian Judge and Jury?

Over a century ago, the world became intrigued by the theories of Sigmund Freud and his interpretation of humans as irrational, rather than rational, creatures. People wondered about the significance and consequences of irrationality in courts of law, legislatures, schools, and houses of worship: if the judge, legislator, teacher, and priest are irrational, then how can we trust their decisions, laws, teachings, message?

Freud’s theory must have had a subtle impact on me at some point in the past, when it comes to thinking about and writing history. Most historians, in college classes, textbooks, monographs, etc., determine whether the person or people written about were morally culpable or not. What is the point, they argue, for being able to see what has happened in the past if we cannot pass judgment on historical persons so that we can learn from their wickedness, immorality, and overall mistakes? This was the exact point that the great historian Livy made when he argued that history is didactic, a teaching tool of morality. But what if the historian writing in the present has no greater wisdom, is no more rational, than the person living a century or more in the past? I constantly consider this when I write. I can hardly be a qualified judge and jury to pass judgment on someone like Captain John Smith, or Christopher Columbus, or George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln. Rather, my view of writing history is to try to recover from the past the exact feelings and mentality that the historical person was feeling and thinking. I try to resurrect the past, to empathize with past people, to look at them not from the benefit of my or my society’s values, rather to look at them from the perspective of their own time. I am not a judge and jury of the past. Rather, I want to give listeners and readers as much as possible an unbiased portrait of a past time so that the reader can make their own silent judgment.

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