Occam’s Razor volume 8

Yesterday the journal I advise, Occam’s Razor, had the release party for its eighth volume. I was sad to be kept from attending by a wandering kidney stone. Here’s what I’d thought to say as the event got underway.


I’m delighted to welcome you to the release party for the eighth volume of Occam’s Razor, Western’s cross-disciplinary journal for undergraduate scholarship. Written by students, edited by students, also, you should know this, funded by students. Be sure to take one. You own it.

Eight years ago two undergrads were sad that all the work they put into a seminar paper or a research project went to getting an A and then – nowhere. Done, gone, forgotten. So they started this journal, to publish the work of their peers and those who came after, so they wouldn’t be sad in the same way.

At first it was held together with string and chewing gum. No office, no equipment, no budget except what they could beg each year. Year by year, things steadied out, and now, thanks to the good folks at the Student Publications Committee, we have a budget we can count on, and thanks to the kind hospitality of the Jeopardy staff, we have some office space we can use. And thanks to you, the students and faculty of Western, we’re getting more and better submissions every year.

I’ve only just got my hands on this year’s issue, but what I can tell you is, it has the highbrow ambition to take on Deleuze and Guattari, the bravado to look at law enforcement reform in the age of Trump. It ventures into the wilderness of ecocriticism and some bewildering press coverage of #metoo. It examines links between international adoption and trauma, and maps out styles of white racial socialization.

Some hard topics. It’s not an accident the cover is a rockface. Ezra Pound liked to say that beauty is difficult. This cover, and the contents too, argue that difficulty is beautiful.

I’ll let those who speak next introduce the authors to you. But please join me now in congratulating the Editor-in-Chief, Paola Merrill, and her Associate Editors, Cassie Bartlett, Chris Horton, and Grace Dunbar-Miller. And also please help me welcome Grace into the role of next year’s Editor-in-Chief.

Vagrant introduction, first para

First paragraph of the intro to Unlikeness Is Us, a draft of it, what I been driving at these past days. Also doubles as a diversity statement. To my heterodox way of thinking anyway.


Ungelīc is ūs. Enigmatic, in the Old English, but it means something like “it’s different for us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To say rather “unlikeness is us” is to go after something uncanny in it—and in the poem it comes from and in all these poems—rather than the surface sense. By “uncanny” I mean something both familiar and strange, near and far, about these poems, that makes them, not scary, unsettling. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike,” and he meant something intimately known, then by choice forgotten, and now it’s come back to be known again, and there’s an inner shiver. Something true of you you’ve become absent or alien to and here it is at the door. It’s how these poems meet me anyway. They’ve always been with us but have we known how to read them? Unlikeness has always been us but do we how to be it? I sit writing in a whitish corner of America, 2017, summer, no clouds and no sun either. Corner of Canada adjacent, where I grew up, is burning. America is burning too, literally,[1] allegorically,[2] morally,[3] anagogically.[4]


[1]. Reading according to the letter. Record-breaking heat this summer, again, and a terrible wildfire season, again.

[2]. Reading for the “truth hidden under a beautiful fiction” (Dante, Il Convivio).

[3]. Reading for the teaching or instruction implied.

[4]. Reading oriented toward the future, eschatology, end times. Note the vanishing of the sun without clouds or night or an eclipse to explain it. Apocalyptic.


I have ADHD. Confirmed last week. Don’t know whether to cry or be glad. Lot of things fall into place. Including why this leap and not knowing whether it’s an overshare, how to tell.[5] I guess, if you can’t spill too much on a blog, where can you.

To everyone I’ve ever talked over, interrupted, I’m sorry. God but I am.


[5]. Good example of unlikeness though whatever else it is.


Image atop is from this article here, about adoption as dissimilitude, and the love of humans and God. Have only scanned it but looks intelligent, and moving, and pertinent to the next paragraph of my intro, which isn’t ready to post yet.

But here’s the bit from Augustine:

When I first knew you, you took me up, so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet one able to see it. You beat back my feeble sight, sending down your beams most powerfully upon me, and I trembled with love and awe. I found myself to be far from you in a region of unlikeness, as though I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men. Grow, and you shall feed upon me….” I said, “Is truth nothing, because it is diffused neither through finite nor through infinite space?” From afar you cried to me, “I am who am.” I heard, as one hears in his heart; there was no further place for doubt.”

I hate his theology, as it seems to have come out to be as a whole, but love his writing, as I find it in its concrete instants. And yes I’m playing around w/ ADHD as a form, have been a good long while, apparently, it’s one of the upsides. Thanks for reading.

On “The Seafarer”

My commentary on “The Seafarer” for Unlikeness. Kinda long cause I went to Pound. Here’s his “Seafarer” for you. At the bottom of the post, there’s a special mp3 treat.


For literary translators of OE – for scholars not so much – Ezra Pound’s version of this poem is a watershed moment. His “Seafarer” in fact is a bearing point for any poet who translates into English; along with the Zukofskys’ Catullus and a couple of other seminal modern works of translation, Pound’s version, first published in Ripostes in 1912, makes later adventurous aberrant projects like Jerome Rothenberg’s “total translations” of Frank Mitchell and David Melnick’s Men in Aida conceivable. This book is nothing like those, but a brief look at Pound’s venture seems fitting, for any translation that comes after must contend with his garrulous and maddening astonishingly rightly-wrong one.

Pound spoke of three ways to freight words with poetic meaning: melopoeia, handling sounds; phanopoeia, throwing an image to the mind’s eye; and logopoeia, setting a word in a special relation to its usage.[1] Three worksites, ear, eye, mind. The trick with Pound’s “Seafarer” is that he translates faithfully for sound, opportunistically for image, and licentiously with thought. In setting these at the time somewhat scandalous priorities, Pound composed a translation of “The Seafarer” more objectivist than any heretofore, or probably since, though there have been sorry mimicries many.

As a patterned arrangement of sounds, Pound’s “Seafarer” is fidelity itself:

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 8.31.21 PM(x = primary stress)

He does far more than catch the feel of the AS cadence – often he keeps the rhythmic form specific to the verse. Where a verse in the source front-loads its stresses, as in bitre brēostceare, Pound’s verse does too, “Bitter breast-cares.” When the source spreads the stresses evenly across the verse, as in gecunnad in cēole, Pound does likewise, “Known on my keel.” When the OE verse reserves the stresses for the end, as in atol ȳþa gewealc, Pound’s verse does that too, “And dire sea-surge.” In this way he captures distinctive effects of the original, as in how the run of lightly stressed syllables before clifum mimes the rush of water towards the cliff. With alliteration, again, not only is the pattern preserved; in most lines the specific sound in the OE poem is kept. Pound translates the internal structure, what Hugh Kenner calls the “patterned integrity” (145), of the AS line, and does so because in a given pattern, a specific intelligence is to be found, by which articulations of value not otherwise possible, are. Later he’ll speak of the rose magnetic forces shape in steel dust. That insight’s outside our purview, except that the AS poet, his line and his Seafarer’s exile, were clerestory to it.

Phanopoeia – an image thrown to the mind’s eye – means immediacy. In its speed of arrival is its power. In “The Seafarer” Pound saw an accretive syntax that threw one image then another with minimal interruption:

Stormas þǣr stænclifu bēotan,          þǣr him stearn oncwæð,
īsigfeþera;          ful oft þæt earn bigeal
ūrigfeþra. (23–25)

Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.

An image is cast on the mind’s eye, another succeeds it, and in their likeness contrast and interpenetration, a new perception arises. Storms beat on the stone cliffs – they fall on the stern – as the former image is seen dimly through the latter, the force brought to bear on a whole cliff-face is momentarily concen­trated on the fragile hull of the boat. Then “In icy feathers” lays over the brute impersonal force of the storm the sense of something animate, almost delicate; and then the feathers of spray, overlaid by the cry of the eagle, become for a moment the eagle’s own; the sequence ends by casting (icy-feathered) spray on the eagle’s wing, giving a sense of completion (storm-wing meets eagle-wing) as the sequence comes to rest.

He’s doing Vorticism, a short-lived movement in which he readied himself for The Cantos, in part by conceiving his ideogrammic method, which assayed in words the sort of montage Sergei Eisenstein accomplished in pictures. Both were incited by Ernest Fenollosa’s misapprehensions of the Chinese written character, but like Kenner I think Pound got some of his first stirrings from the Seafarer poet. Either way, it’s a gorgeous montage, one of many in his version, and it arrived as a new possibility for poetry in English. It came though at the cost of turning a bird (stearn “tern”) into the butt of a ship (“stern”).

Later, again using the AS poet’s accretive syntax to cast images in quick succession, Pound shrinks byrig “cities” into berries.

Bearwas blōstmum nimað,          byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað,          woruld ōnetteð (48-49)

Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker

Faithful as a pup to sound, brilliant opportunist with image, Pound looks kind of slobby with what the words “actually mean.” And though in the abstract we may agree a poem’s meaning lies mostly outside its words’ denotations, still we’re like to cry foul when dictionary sense is just forgot.

“reckon” (1) from wrecan, “recite”
“on loan” (66) from læne, “fleeting”
“shelter” (61) for scēatas, “surfaces” or “corners”
“twain” (69) for twēon, “doubt”
“English” (78) for englum, “angels”

One or two are felicitous; more look like gaffes; did he really just write in the ModE word the OE word reminded him of? We can maybe find justification for any given departure. This one was made to preserve the rhythmic or the alliterative fabric; that one refuses the connec­tive tissue that would set images in logical or causal arrangements; angels are demoted for the same reason the devil is erased later, to draw the poem back to what Pound thought were its pre-Christian origins. But the glary errors, taken together, suggest Pound didn’t care very all that much for the semantic values of the poem’s words – not as he cared for the sound matrix they were in, or for the image cascades they composed.

He sacrificed sense to hold a sonic form, or to sharpen an image sequence. He valued those most so he translated them foremost. Or, is it that word, image, sense were on an equal footing, another unwobbling stool, but loss of sense stands out most to us because we’re prone to lean into a symbolist reading? We may be as eager for a semantic meaning as the Seafarer is for a transcendent one, as ready to travel off in mōd from our embodiment, ear’s wonder, eye’s honey, to an abstract immaterial construction elsewhere. That was the temptation Pound spent his long cracked terrible beauty of a poetic life arguing tangibly against.[2]

The poem calls its abstract immaterial construction “Heaven.” As it happens, the moment the poem commits to it fully, it also turns a page. And Pound stops here. Cuts the last 23 lines of the poem. He was sure they were the work of some later pious other. He wasn’t alone in that, or in wanting to save an ostensibly pagan original from a later Christian overlay. And he had some cause: Right where folio 82v ends, the sentence ends too, also the larger thought. Start of the next folio, hypermetric lines set in; pious commonplaces start to pile up; arguably, poetic invention falls off. More than Pound only have concluded “The Seafarer” is cut off by the loss of one or more folios, and what picks up on what’s now 83r is the middle some other, less interesting poem.

But the sudden shift to an earnestly Christian homiletic register would not have jarred an AS audience the way it does a modern reader. A lot of the impetus to break the poem in two came in the late 19th C. from scholars who wanted to recover a heroic pagan Germanic literature in a “pure” condition. While that drive has long since and thankfully died, the case that the poem is interrupted, a chimera, has not yet quite. Pope and Fulk:

[T]he shift at this place from the specifics of a retainer’s sad condition – the approach of decrepitude, the loss of a lord, the futility of burying gold with the dead – to a passage of mostly devotional generalities, in conjunction with a sudden change to hypermetric form, raises the possibility that The Seafarer is not one poem but fragments of two. It is not necessary to read the text this way … but unity of design is by no means assured. (102)

They like the question for displaying a sort of indeterminacy special, they say, to OE studies, with its single copies of poems handwritten by error-prone scribes in frangible manuscripts. And I’m not one not to cheer twice for indeterminacy. Still, I see a single poem, a single author. The hypermetric lines are not the first in the poem; the shift to them doesn’t last long; six-stress lines come and go in a number of the Exeter poems. The switch to a homiletic register fits the dramatic, emotional, and spiritual arcs of the poem, and is consonant with other poems of its ilk. And the closing lines do have poetic force, something in places quite majestic. Yes, the last few lines are sententious, but other OE poems of the first order have like passages; and as I note below, the scribe does quietly set them a bit apart. I see nothing out of fit here, just ordinary variousness.

The seam at the end of the folio (l. 103) is just one of the aporiae that have thrown the poem’s unity into doubt. Another is that its sea voyage seems literal at the outset, full of material details that resist the calculus of allegory mind—an ice-clotted beard, a mew gull’s cries; and yet misfires in the Seafarer’s discourse around the voyage start to invite figurative reading and to load the journey with allegorical freight; and yet, as one ventures into allegory, the voyage itself disappears from view, not to be seen again. How to reconcile these signals and keep the poem one poem? Whitelock has argued (Pope and Fulk 100) that the journey is literal from start to end; religious self-exile and pilgrimage were actual AS cultural practices, and this is a composite account of such a journey. Conversely, for Marsden, the journey stands from the start for the Augustinian pilgrim’s passage from the earthly to the heavenly city; the Seafarer’s exile is not from the towns of men, but from Heaven, whence he also is bound (221). I take a middle position, feeling the poem morphs from literal to allegorical: the journey begins as an actual journey, full of resistant earthly textures, and gradually, thanks in no small part to the misfires around forþon crying there’s more here than meets the eye, metamorphoses into journey as allegory. The journey journeys. It’s subtle, there being no one point where we can say the journey has changed its nature, from literal to figurative. The transformation is as mysterious, imperceptible, and I think maybe undeniable as the metamorphosis the pilgrim aspires to.

A third aporia is the speaker’s ambivalence towards sea voyaging. He hates it, loves it, loves to hate it. At sea he longs for the delights of human company. Among men and women he thirsts for his cold hard life at sea. His ambivalence, and especially the pressure he puts on the word forþon “therefore” – which seems sometimes to mean just that, and sometimes about the opposite, “even so” or “just the same” – have led some to treat the poem as a dialogue, though that reading has fallen out of favour. Frankly, as a poet who makes his living off mixed feelings, I have trouble seeing the problem. Keats, Negative Capability, solved. More interesting is that it’s been an interpretive problem in the first place. Belonging to print and internet cultures, we’re attuned to certain ways of rendering mixed feelings – synchronic ways, mostly, particularly irony, where one attitude is layered over another, with gaps for the underlayer to show through. Think George Eliot, Jordan Abel, a well-crafted tweet. In “The Seafarer” oral storytelling conventions persist, and oral traditions don’t, to my knowledge, use irony to create interiority. Some, though, convey mixed feelings diachronically. In The Odyssey, the consummate seafaring story as it happens, when Telemachus expresses two conflicting feelings adjacently, it’s not a contradiction or a change of heart, but a two-step account of an inner conflict: the poet describes one feeling, then the other, and his audience knows they cohabit in the young man’s mind. Some of what seems like self-contradiction in “The Seafarer” may be the work of unfamiliar narrative conventions. And some of it is the AS poet’s use of logopoeia in putting forþon in a torqued relation to its ordinary usage.

There are two capital letters in the MS, both near the end of the poem, and I’ve broken the OE transcription into verse paragraphs accordingly. I don’t posit a new speaker for the final lines, let alone for the closing “Amen,” but rather the same speaker putting on the new voice he has aspired to the whole poem.


Phew. Thanks for hanging in there. Just the first lines of mine …

THE SEAFARER

I can from myself call forth the song,
speak truth of travels, of how, toiling
in hardship, hauling a freight of care,
I have found at sea a hold of trouble
awful rolling waves have, too often,
through long anxious nightwatches
at the prow, thrown me to the cliffs.
My feet, ice-shackled, cold-fettered,
froze, even as cares swirled hot about
my heart and inner hungers tore at
my sea-weary spirit. You can’t know
to whom on land all comes with ease
how I, sorrow-wracked on an icy sea
wandered all winter the way of exile,
far from kinsmen, my hair and beard
hung with ice, as hail fell in showers.
I heard nothing there but sea-surge
and icy surf, swan song sometimes,
took the gannet’s cry and the voices
of curlews for human laughter, made
the call of a mew gull my honeymead;
storms beat at stone cliffs, icy-feathered
the tern answers, a dew-winged eagle
screeches; no sheltering kinsman here
who might console a desolate spirit.

And, special treat! Ezra Pound reading his translation (with drums).


[1]. You can still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, phanopoeia, melopoiea, logopoeia. You use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this. Thirdly, you take the greater risk of using the word in some special relation to “usage,” that is, to the kind of context in which the reader expects, or is accustomed, to find it. – ABC of Reading (37)

[2]. I have tried to write Paradise // Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise. – The Cantos (822)

A clutter of starlings

’Nother riddle for yehs. Birds? Or maybe it’s unsolvable & that’s the solution.


CLUTTER OF STARLINGS

Nightair carries little creatures over
the hillside, they are black, very black,
their coats are dark. Singing profusely
they spread out in bands, call out loudly –
treading wooded headlands, sometimes
in halls of men they name themselves.


CLUTTER OF STARLINGS

Đeos° lyft byreð          lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa,          þā sind blace° swīþe,
swearte, salopāde.          Sanges rōpe,°
hēapum fēraþ,          hlūde cirmað. ⬩°
Tredað bearonæssas,°          hwīlum burgsalo
niþþa bearna          nemnað hȳ sylfe.° :⁊


COMMENTARY

Though the birds are full of articulate noise, and cross at the end the verge of human dwelling, the poem is not in their voice, but that of a human riddler. The description of their flight habits suggests to me starlings, which travel in great clouds, following the contour of the countryside, sometimes at twilight. Muir goes with swallows, which have dark backs, pale underparts. And if we read blace (l. 2) with a long vowel, blāce, we get not “black” but “bright,” and a nice description of swallow looks and activity:

Little creatures ride the air over
the hillside, they are brightly black,
their coats are dark. Singing profusely
they go in flocks

Swallows too are more likely than most birds to swoop into a human dwelling. But, no way swallows can be said to tread the earth, while starlings are conspicuous walkers.

Niles (129) says the crow’s the bird most like to name itself, to have an onomatopoeic call. They gather in flocks, and by twilight (taking that trace of dark in Ðeos), and they tread the earth; but they’re about as songful as starlings – not at all – and not so little, neither.

Other solutions proposed, in Muir (623): swifts, jackdaws, house martins, bees, hailstones, raindrops, storm clouds, musical notes, damned souls, demons. Some bird seems most plausible to me, though the thought of musical notes tromping the countryside in black coats is awfully lovely.

It’s one of the Exeter riddles most resistant of solution. Warren’s discussion on The Riddle Ages of its undecidability, and how that connects to the inbetweenness of birds, is very good. Bartholomew the Englishman, he notes, discerned something in the substance of birds þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour 596). All the Exeter birds are metamorphic, Warren says, tending to elude naming; this riddle’s refusal of answer may be its answer. The crux is that final half line, which through the wonders of OE case endings can be read as an imperative, “name them yourselves,” also as a declarative, “they name themselves.” In the MS or on the voice, it’s not one or the other, it’s both.

Warren notes that the birds are liminal in the way this verse is. We must

inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands.” … [The riddle] manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.

That’s Isidore of Seville, his Etymologies, who writes of birds: “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney 264). That sentence should put to rest the notion that wordplay of the sort seen in Zukofsky’s A or Perec’s La Disparition or Alan Davies’s a an av es is a modern phenomenon. We’ve been switching letters to make new meanings for as long as we’ve been swapping nucleotides in codons under our rubric as sapiens, the languaged.*


NOTES

  1. Ðeos. The demonstrative pronoun, but calls to mind þeostre, “darkness.” A suggestion then of dark air, twilight?
  1. blace. Usually read as “black,” so that the sequence blace swiþe, / swearte, salopāde translates as “very black, black, dark-coated.” A point heavily made. The word may alternatively be taken as blāce, “bright.”
  1. Sanges rōpe. “Bountiful of song.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “starlings” or “crows” (and doesn’t especially point towards “swallows”).
  1. The interpunct puts the poem’s turn here. The effect is to make the birds – whatever birds they are – into visitants in the last two lines, come out of the woods to the door of the hall. In the last line of my translation, “in” should maybe be “at” or “to.”
  1. Tredað bearonæssas. “Tread wooded headlands.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “swallows” (and points towards “starlings” or “crows”).
  1. nemnað hȳ sylfe. This phrase does double duty as an imperative, “name them yourselves,” and a declarative, “they name themselves.” Traditionally editors have preferred the former, as a frequent conclusion to riddles in the Exeter Book. But see commentary.

P.S. After checking out images of starling clouds. Maybe their song is synaesthetic – goes to eye not ear – astonishing chord of their synchronic flight.

starling cloud


* Sapiens goes not to language, straightway, but to its door the mouth. Latin sapere, “to taste, have taste, be wise,” from PIE root *sep- “to taste, perceive.” To taste and be awake and to be wise. Adam, take that. No really take it.

A Bookworm

The final poem of Unlikeness Is Us. Undereating the whole thing.


A BOOKWORM

A moth ate words. Which seems
splendid to me. Think of the wonder
that worm consumed, riddles we wrote,
a thief in darkness of our deep musings;
the stiff parchment too – and the thief not
a whit wiser for the words it swallowed.


A BOOKWORM

Moððe word frǣt.°          Mē þæt þūhte
wrǣtlicu wyrd,          þā ic þæt wundor° gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm° forswealg          wera gied° sumes,
þēof in þȳstro          þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol.          Stælgiest ne wæs                         (5)
wihte þȳ glēawra          þe hē þām wordum swealg. ⬩


COMMENTARY

This one starts from an ænigma by Symphosius:

Littera me pauit, nec quid sit littera noui.
In libris uixi, nec sum studiosior inde.
Exedi Musas, nec adhuc tamen ipsa profeci.
                    (Glorie, vol. 133a, p. 637)

Letters fed me, but I do not know what letters are.
I lived in books, but am no more studious for that.
I devoured the Muses, but still have not myself progressed.
                    (Megan Cavell, trans.)

It’s not a translation but a transmutation of a Latin precursor. It has digested a prior poem, one by Symphosius, to arise as it-and-not-it, remade in a new language, a new rendering. The poem about a bookworm is a bookworm, also the flighted form.

Intertextuality. Modern word but an old preoccupation, as old as written text, or older really – old as stories themselves are, which change as they change hands and minds, recombining each time they’re told. Intertextual is the natural state of stories in an oral wild. It becomes “a thing” when speech and writing meet and the one sets the other down, seems to still it. An OE reader, for whom oral transmission was recent in memory, maybe still also ongoing all round, might have found the figure of a bookworm, a living moving form, lowly but wingéd, digesting writing uncomprehendingly and speaking of that – indeed gaining from the act the nourishment to speak of it – entertaining and provocative. [ADDENDUM. Made a dumb error here, not sure how. This riddle’s in the third person, so it’s not the bookworm speaking.]

These thoughts cued by The Riddle Ages, a smart unstuffy website digesting recent scholarship on the riddle poems. The OE reader of this poem would have had to settle what kind of word (l. 1) it was being eaten, written or voiced. If gied (l. 3) means “song,” that points toward an oral word. Two lines later, strangan staþol, “strong foundation,” directs one toward the read thing, parchment, binding. How to reconcile one gesture toward voice and one to written form and frame? John D. Niles suggests we have our cake, eat it too, with a written song – specifically the canonical psalms of King David. The Song of Solomon with its secret visits in the night also comes to mind.

Niles answers the riddle complexly enough – “maggot and psalter” – to imply another question: where do the sorts of thinking these texts meant to ask of a contemporary reader end, and the sorts of thinking they ask of a later scholar or literary translator begin? In other words, when is reading not riddling?

The usual answer to the riddle, once it’s settled it’s a written text, is “bookworm.” But just as that word is a metaphor for a certain sort of reader, some readers of that sort, namely scholars, have wanted to worm into the worm for a meaning more hidden. Drawing here again from The Riddle Ages and its meditation on the Latin ruminatio, which apparently worked dually just as our “rumination” does: it’s how a cow chews and chews, also how one mulls an idea, taking it in, thoughtfully. With this in mind, some say the riddle points to a monk or a student, especially since it’s the larval form of the creature that chews on the words, but now, having gone off, witless but winged, it’s gained some sort of mastery. A professor.

The worm’s become a moth, made matter energy, crawl flutter, parchment flight. It’s not a whit wiser nor the same neither. Who’s won this battle of wits, human inquisitor or indefatigable maggot?


NOTES

  1. Moððe word frǣt. Williamson: “the initial half-line contains a double disguise: moððe for wyrm and word for bec.” The worm presents as its future as a moth, the book as the words it contains. Projective, metonymic. (Complexer still if we think with Niles that the word might be sung.)
  1. wundor. It’s actually the fact of consumption that’s a marvel. A more literal translation would at least move the comma over, maybe more. “Think of the wonder, / that worm consumed a song someone made.”
  1. wyrm. Note the play among near-homophones, word, wyrd, wyrm. Word, fate, and worm bound together in orþoncbendum, skillful contrivance. | gied. Usually “song,” but can also mean “riddle.” The word is in the singular, and wera gied sumes might literally be translated “a certain man’s song” (Niles).

The image atop is the front panel of the Franks Casket – riddled with holes, graven with a runic alphabet whose import as a whole’s up for grabs. Consider the opening paragraph of the online article that accompanies the image

One of the more vexing problems facing scholars of Anglo-Saxon art is the simple fact that we often do not know precisely what it is that we are dealing with. I am speaking not so much of the questions of dating and localization that hamper the study of medieval art. Rather, it is that we cannot even say for certain what many of our most famous objects even are, or were intended to be. The Franks Casket, for example, has been identified as a treasure chest or a book shrine, and was used in the later Middle Ages as a reliquary, but all we can say with any certainty is that it is a box that likely originally had a latch.

Riddle me this. This here worm, had he the time, would read it all. But bed.

The Swan

Another one from Unlikeness Is Us. With a few thoughts on riddles, lucidity, and how can the more-than-human speak in our all-too-human poems.


THE SWAN

My dress silent when I walk on land,
or house myself, or stir up the water.
Sometimes my clothing and the air
lift me above the human dwellings,
and for that all the powers of cloud
bear me on – my white vestments
sound loudly and resound sweetly,
sing clearly, when I rest on neither
earth nor water, wandering spirit.


THE SWAN

Hrægl mīn swīgað°          þonne ic hrūsan trede,
oþþe þā wīc būge,          oþþe wado drēfe.
Hwīlum mec āhebbað          ofer hæleþa byht
hyrste mīne          ond þēos hēa lyft,
ond mec þonne wīde          wolcna strengu°                         (5)
ofer folc byreð.          Frætwe° mīne
swōgað hlūde          ond swinsiað,
torhte singað,          þonne ic getenge ne bēom ⬩°
flōde ond foldan,          fērende gǣst°. ⬩   :⁊


COMMENTARY

There are ninety-five riddle poems in the Exeter Book, give or take. In many the subject, a creature or a made thing, speaks for itself; in others a bemused observer tells us about it. Often the poem ends with an invitation to name the subject. Some of them have never been solved to satisfaction; to others the answers are clear early on – they’re less riddles than playful praise songs to that they describe.

In many speech is given to – assumed of – a creature, a tool or artefact, a weatherform. Here a swan; later a cuckoo; elsewhere in the codex, mead, a tree, a mail coat, a reed pen, many and much else. Prosopopoeia is the ground trope, mind’s first move; what we make of that depends on how deep we look. At one level, it turns the poem to happy activity, a game of make-believe. “Pretend a swan or reed or mail coat could speak . . .” And it’s good to note a ludic aspect, a spirit of play, in a body of poetry often thought wholly gloomy in its celebration of heroes done in by wyrd. On this level we find a lineage, a post-Classical Latin debt, dating back at least to Symphosius (ca. 4th–5th C.), whose three-line, apparently extempore Ænigmata inspired translations and imitations by Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (639–709), Tatwine, Archbishop of Canterbury (ca. 670–734), and others – all writing in Latin. But while the influence of these precursors can be felt in the Exeter riddles, the latter aren’t translations or imitations; they’re generally longer, more detailed, and more playful stylistically than their forebears.

Look deeper and the ludic becomes lucid, deep recall. The notion that speech is a human prerogative is a recent twist in our thought. For most of our time here we’ve been animists, granting sentience and speech to air and water, sun and moon, trees and stones and our own food and tools. We don’t know much about pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religious practice, or Celtic for that matter, but British culture is littered with the husks of their spent animist forms: fairies, elves, standing stones. The nonhuman world was known as sentient and heard to speak. And it’s been the same the world over. Symphosius – a pseudonym that means something like “Party Boy” – composed his impromptu ænigmata for Saturnalia, parties for a grain god who in his young days would have been the grain. Robert Bringhurst writes of an Archaic Greek cup on which the words are inscribed, “I am Raven’s wine cup”:

 The only thing the Lindos cup asserts, apart from its owner’s name, is its own articulate vitality: “I am.” This is an animate, vocal drinking vessel, likely to cry for help if you should put it in your pocket and walk off.
                                 (“Raven’s Wine Cup”)

Though Bringhurst says our animist heritage, tens of millennia old, has had a hard time surviving the advent of writing, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, fully literate, a couple centuries after the Exeter Book was compiled, Eihei Dōgen was turning his monks’ ears to rocks and trees:

Wondrous! Marvelous!
The teachings of the insentient are inconceivable.
If you listen with the ears, you won’t understand.
When you hear with the eyes, then you will know.
                                 (300 Koan Shobogenzo, Loori and Tanahashi, trans.)

It’s our nearly universal consensus that the world is, in each part and taken whole, intelligent, articulate. We moderns are the outliers. Oppen wrote of this

So spoke of the existence of things,
An unimaginable pantheon

Absolute, but they say
Arid.
                               (“Of Being Numerous”)

So did Niedecker

“We have a lovely
          finite parentage
                    mineral

vegetable
          animal”
                    Nearby dark wood –
                               (“Wintergreen Ridge”)

And we’re still animists if you scratch our surface. Most of our tropes rely on animism or something akin to it: metaphor is a category error we began refining in the Chauvet caves and on the Wulanchabu grasslands; a smiley-face emoticon gives you a dopamine hit because it seems someone’s there and they like you. Right now out the window, wind and a red osier dogwood are in converse, I can see and hear and nearly taste it, I don’t know what the matter is, something to do with trade relations, movement of air and light, tree-food.

These riddle poems, the games they play, aerate us with that mind.

And yet – when the swan speaks, it speaks with a human tongue.

It has not feathers but hrægl, garments, which are later re-seen as frætwe, ornaments – as if a bird had clothes and vanity and the social energy for all that. As it rises from the world we know, earth and water, flood and field, it calls itself fērende gǣst, a wandering spirit, or else fērende gæst, a wayfaring guest – terms that connote the soul, a guest on earth, fleeting in flesh before it ascends (the hope is) to heaven. This is an appropriation: the swan, living creature, is made to do a job in a Christian sign-system. It’s made a tool. (I’ve emphasized this feature of the poem by translating frætwe as “vestments” – not accurate to the word itself, but to a sacral aspect of the poem as a whole.)

At the same time, the swan’s swanness clings to it. Even as it is put in human terms, it is marked by how far it is from human realms: not on land, not on water, far above human dwellings. The sky it flies across may call to mind heaven but it stays a material sky. And the swan is only crossing it, not headed upward, as the soul we might want it to stand for would be. As it leaves our sight and the poem, if we feel the affirmation of a Christian construct, we feel at least as much a visit from outside our realm, our human dwellings.

The poem sits on a threshold, where the human realm appropriates nonhuman modes of being to tool-use, and the nonhuman brushes us with meanings other than ours. The threshold is why the poem seems to tremble. Rilke’s panther comes to mind – the poem that describing the cage is its anti-cage.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly – . An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
                               (Stephen Mitchell. trans.)


(I wanted to go somewhere with unclosedness: that language, even if inescapably human, in its indeterminacy leaves gaps the non-human comes streaming in – thinking especially of that gǣst/gæst play at the end, how it multiplies meanings and leaves something unresolved, uncompletable. Because rhizome. But it’ll have to wait for another day. Got a heap of other poems to comment on and a tight deadline.)


NOTES

  1. swīgað. Marsden notes a play between this word, “be silent,” and swōgað (l. 7) “make sound.”
  1. wolcna strengu. “Power of clouds (or skies).” A kenning for wind.
  1. Frætwe. Literally, “ornaments.” In other contexts, fields that cover the earth and armour that covers a warrior’s body are described as frætwe. Here the word refers to the bird’s plumage.
  1. The interpunct appears mid-sentence, maybe to emphasize the speaker’s absence ne bēom, or maybe, with the interpunct that follows, to set off and emphasize the final line.
  1. gǣst. Vowel length is unmarked in the manuscript, so this word may be read as gǣst, “soul” or “spirit”; as gæst, “guest”; or as both. See commentary.