art ~ spirit ~ transformation

e*lix*ir   #3
summer 2016



  • Rumi, Race, and Religion

  • Poetry

  • Celestial Navigations
    by Sandra Lynn Hutchison
  • On Writing Poetry Inspired by the Bahá’í Writings

  • Fiction

  • Rumi’s Lost Diary
    by Shahin Mowzoon
  • Nine O-Clock Blue
    by Teresa Henkle Langness

  • The Writing Life

  • Translating Rumi
    by Anthony Lee

  • Essays

  • Margaret Danner, the Black Arts Movement, and the Bahá’í Faith
    by Richard Hollinger

  • Voices of Iran

  • Reading Anne Frank in Isfahan
    by Sahba

  • Looking Back on Books

  • Love is My Savior
    by Anthony Lee
  • Swallowing the Sun
    by Franklin D. Lewis
  • Tahirih: A Portrait in Poetry
    by Amin Banani, Jascha Kessler, and Anthony A. Lee

  • Art

  • Calligraphy
    by Burhan Zahra’i

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    1. The Syntax of Peace

    Across from Nautilus Island,
    where the dowager heiress lives on
    (May her light increase),
    Dyce Head Light beams out sharp codes,
    warning some ghostly frigate
    foundering off course to the taut acre
    where the forgotten war dead lie,
    engraving the air with the bony
    breath of their stories.
    They once moored here,
    near the barn where the lonely ghost
    of the wrecked Robert Lowell still broods,
    his shivering madness mapping the town
    from School Street to the Academy
    as nightly a Persian youth plays the cello.
    On this curving reach of rock the Puritan fathers set down,
    their manic quest for sin
    searing the land, burning off
    the old lexicon until new words burst
    from the unsuspecting faucets of the neat town
    and the village sign read Pax.

    Beyond the tide pools’ reach,
    a holy trinity of dead she’s,
    the three Marys, set out to sea
    as contrary winds sweep the meadows,
    scattering the torn bodies of dandelions,
    weightless across the waters.

    2. The Weight of Water

    How did she die?
    By her own hand.
    What of the celestial bodies?
    Witnesses all,
    as circumnavigating the bay,
    she broke upon the shoals.

    What plant life is there to feed her?
    She fills up on sea air.
    A cantankerous wind
    raging in her belly,
    she dances on the shore,
    where rocks plunge darkly.

    What failed her that night,
    The keeper or the light?
    The ding-an-sich
    rang out the hours.

    And the other Mary,
    bludgeoned to death
    on a northern shore,
    its obelisks ungendered by ice?

    The flying doctor came,
    so the Inuit tell it,
    in a high, silver boat,
    left as a bird would, on wings.

    Where is the scalpel?
    Where the blade?
    The sharp instruments
    of salvation abandoned,

    she faded into the whiteness
    of tundra, sky
    as the bleak mists of winter
    veiled the rising stars,

    the deep fog of summer
    obscured the pulsing lights,
    beating like blood in the northern sky.
    Another breath lost to the arctic air.

    One more Mary drowned
    sailing the Persian Gulf
    in search of her Majnun
    called up to war.

    She circled twice,
    set her course for shore
    before her marked craft
    entered enemy waters, exploded.

    3. Celestial Navigations

    Trace the arc of a great circle to chart your course,
    The long way ‘round is the quickest way home.
    The clipper ship navigates the Cape of Good Hope,
    crosses the Indian Ocean, sails the Straits of Sunda
    to the Middle Kingdom, laden with silk, tea, rice,
    slips miles off the voyage, sails the Horn for home.

    In high latitudes, winds whip the mast, wrestle it seaward.
    It bends in prayer, currents confound, rain unnerves.
    Still, it’s worth it for a course five hundred miles or more,
    from Castine to the West Indies with shooks, shingles, spars,
    back home swathed in sweetness, scent. Sugar, coffee, molasses.

    But for the salt cod run up to Baie des Chaleurs,
    determine the true celestial azimuth. Plot your line
    of position, then give yourself to the rain.
    The ocean calls, waves of utterance surge,
    the moon unhinges the tides. There is no place
    to flee to save the eyes of the stars.

    Look how the celestial bodies chart their own selfless course,
    the firmament unveils a new geometry of light.
    See how the stars explode, each beaming its brightness
    on earth’s blank face until the rocks, urged to speech
    by the sight, give voice to the night.

    4. And What of the Line?

    The nautical line, poetic line, fishing line, Cat’s Cradle,
    the game of Hangman played by the daughters of the town?
    In garden design, the master gardener explains, the line
    is boring. Use a rectangle, even a circle, to unify
    the pattern, round out the idea so the mantra chosen
    circumambulates the place of adoration.

    There are no rules, she said, just good judgement.
    The line makes it move, the line makes it stop.
    Circles unfold. Nineteen concentric ones resound.
    Once laid out, you can plant, transplant,
    but watch for invasives.

    Avoid pruning sins, such as loping off the branch
    below the collar. That’s asking for infection.
    An old standby, crab-apples may be best.
    Who knows what birds they’ll bring?
    Ordinary but reliable, there’s a whole book of lilacs,
    Japanese, Chinese, Common. Only ten days you have them,
    then they’re gone, the memory blooming on the threshold of your
    summer house by the sea. Yes, by the sea a simple garden is best.
    Consider foliage. And flowers. How each living thing, being equally
    holy, is bound to evolve, dissolve, consumed by wind and water.

    5. The Twins

    Putting into harbour south, in Nantucket,
    to feast on lobster then purge. Hungry
    to study stars already extinct. Setting out
    next morning for the wake, a distant harbour.

    Behold the far stars, sweet constellations of our youth,
    the Bull, the Twins setting over Ireland’s distant shore,
    where you longed to steer the burdened craft of your days.
    Yeats, Synge, Joyce, all swallowed whole by the leviathan,
    spewed out, pearls on the mistaken strand. Your Finnegan
    kept vigil until night shunned the melody of his flute. Morning
    came and you swam with him, silkie-like, far out to sea.
    They heard you singing, called to you but you didn’t listen
    as the bells rang out the warning. Next morning, you floated
    on the last wave in, belly up, hair netted with fishes.

    6. She Wishes on a Falling Star

    Season of the Pleiades, spring comes.
    Obscure cluster at the edge of the horizon,

    Look how its lights intermingle with the whole
    glorious structure. A constellation of wishes
    fires the firmament.

    Who does she wait for, this Mary?
    Whose hand does she grasp as she counts
    the hours, no daily bread to steady her,

    just bulimic frenzy. Feast, famine, glut,
    privation, measuring her portion
    to the rhythm of the tides.

    She weighs, parcels out each mouthful,
    eating right down to the bones the way fish feed,
    piranhas, sharks, on the bloated flesh of the drowned.

    Those stars, she begins to think, will all come
    tumbling down.

    7. North Star

    If not for the older poet, her light reigns over the town,
    her white clapboard house all New England, the wood stove,
    the barn, the ancient tools of extraction
    (the red pen, the blue pen, the pencil).

    She knows the harbour at Castine, all its ghosts.
    She presses the page hard, metaphors spin out into space,
    light the March sky, become the polar star, constant.

    If not for her, who would celebrate the moon as it rises,
    solid, corporeal, on the town’s far horizon, over the golf-links,
    where the deer graze at dusk?

    Who would teach the dying art
    of celestial navigation?

    8. Corpus Christi

    Bodiless, the passion of Christ eludes us.
    His sacrifice, parsed and pieced together by priests,
    stains the sky over Penobscot Bay. Is He not God?
    Can He not call the waters to peace, if not walk on them?
    But no sign is given. In the keeper’s yard, stretching
    down to the sea, tourists stream, all curiosity, only to find
    the land cut short along the abrupt coast,

    the rocks, barren but for tide pools,
    their trove of shells cast off by snails and clams,
    sea algae ferning every which way, gone wild
    with the hubris of its own fecundity.
    Yes, there is the driftwood, if you can catch
    a stray piece heaved up by sea onto the smooth
    rock’s face.

    And the dead roots, wind-burnished,
    ossified into something rich and strange?
    Pull as pull can, such wood will not be moved,
    rooted firmly in the daily eroding rock, gesturing
    defiance. But even the wood of the holy rood
    must die into dust and be reborn.

    Rising now, metamorphosed not just changed,
    the Star of the Magi migrates
    to a middle country circled by mountains
    of light, where each page, a corpus,
    illuminates a footpath upward
    into the rarefaction
    of air.

    9. Catalogue Elliptical

    Listen to how Thomas Campion’s cherries ripened on the tree out back,
    overshadowing the grape-vine our grandfather planted and pruned
    incognito in his beekeeper’s dress, next to her acre-wide garden,
    vegetables fringed by long rows of sensible flowers, zinnias,
    black-eyed susans, daisies, perennials all, none demanding toil
    or appreciation. Incorrigibly abundant, mildly aesthetic.
    The beauty, profusion. The secret, bees.

    At ten years old, I venture up into the cherry tree. Alone,
    without a ladder. Just limbs to hoist me up the foremast.
    Bing cherries not yet ripened by the sun, the bitter taste of
    yellow flesh stings. I eat and eat, glutted with bitterness.
    Cherry ripe, the flesh calls to me, unripe, unready,
    not knowing its time.

    Wrapped in a cloud of unknowing, I could not see the sea,
    hear its lonely testimony, judge the stellar distances.
    It was you who measured the parsec, set the course
    windward, defied the eddying waters.
    Now your covenant with the rock-bound coast
    brings us here, where we wait for the incoming tide,
    scuttling for a share of the ocean’s bounty.

    10. The Labour of Breath: A Kaddish for the Drowned

    Breathing. A given. But not for some.
    How precise the well-patterned rhythm
    of slight interruptions, heart-defying stops.
    The wave breaks, the meditation resumes.
    Who can claim the air? What lungs filled with holy water,
    baptism of the threshold, can suck what a squirrel does
    from the spring sky as it tests the branches, wings and leaps
    in quest of nuts, with reckless agility, its ragged body beginning
    to moult a little?

    Summer will come and what joy there will be in the plenty.
    Still it forages on, a tittering, social creature,
    no thought of the labour of breath, while some
    in this seaside village live mourning, rely
    on nothing, not even air, for lungs betray.
    The heart — let’s not speak of it — wavers,
    pumped daily by fresh strategies for survival,
    it takes nothing for granted, plunges deep
    into forbidding waters, strikes out to meet
    the keeper of light.

    11. Summer Solstice

    The Christ child is about six months old when we navigate
    the longest day of the year. The most light shed on this coast
    for months now, everyone says, no longer grumbling.
    As if the curse of winter might not come again,
    as if we will not suffer the long season of cold,
    the aching in the bones, knowing it will all
    unravel, despite budding crocuses and daffodils,
    those gay, prescient flowers, the promise given,
    long ago in the darkness, by the lover, of forever.

    Look, someone approaches on a cloud. The sky ruptures,
    eyes amaze to see how out of the corrupt body slips
    not a son who bloodied his nose in a passion, but a girl,
    eyes clouded with questions about the timing of this advent,
    but ready to receive her name — Joy.

    This is a time of celebration. Though the waves dash
    the bodies of the missing against black rocks,
    though they are lost at sea and always will be,
    the summer solstice comes in perfect quietude.
    The bell does not ring and the buoys marking
    the dangerous shoals stop bobbing. It is Sunday,
    the keeper’s day off, a time to be with the family,
    up in the house, its windows no longer boarded up
    against winter.

    Who will keep the light this night?
    Suffice it to say, there is an arrangement.
    The returning loons, the seals,
    even the jabbering seagulls
    do not speak of it.
    Only the sea knows.

    12. Confession, Not Benison

    She cannot get over it, this Mary, how the age-old ritual
    does seem to absolve sin. She offers full documentation,
    utters the prayer, and, presto, it’s gone. It’s a daily requirement,
    but she can find time. There’s not a lot to do anyway.
    A few stray boats to salvage, a life to save, the keening.
    It gets on her nerves sometimes, she’ll tell you. A few little
    routines, no matter how humble, get her through the day.
    She hopes her prayer, like a paper-thin cocoon, spins a life,
    will open up with the warmth of her breath. She prays
    the iron-clad words clanging in her head will rise up
    with the moon one night, descend next morning, all manna.
    Then she might eat and eat, not some stale crust passed
    to her by the priest, but the bounty she catches each day
    from the sea, the small glimmering fish of words silvering
    her world as she keeps vigil by the shore.

    13. The Pequod Squandered

    Now the wake is over and the body buried, there is nothing left to do.
    Even the maimed Ahab couldn’t resist its siren calling. The sea repeating
    its plea, Come, come, come to me . . .

    You lie squandered on these shoals, strapped to the broad belly
    of the shore where the sea gasps and spits, expelling first the bones,
    then the members, then the eyes, soul’s food, while inland on a river-bank
    rocks the lisping canoe, all birch bark delicacy, waiting to ferry you silently,
    only the dipping paddle to mar your meditation, back north along the routes
    of the courier de bois, to a simple land, Elysium of meadow and forest,
    where loon and the egret ponder the silence of a rock-bound lake,
    the uncertain miracle of a garden.

    14. Consider the Lote Tree

    In its perpetual severance from earth’s dark root, the tree somehow flourishes.
    Millennia ago, the Buddha sat under this bodhi tree now flaming before us.
    From where we coast far off shore, skimming the surface of uneasy waves,
    this Sadratu’l-Muntahá appears much diminished. Comical almost, the size
    of a bonzai, a quaint diminutive of the real thing, a reminder of how
    too much cultivation contracts the soul until its compass embraces no
    more than its solitary self. Now we approach ordinary time. The fasting
    and feasting over, we nourish ourselves on a steady diet of sea kelp,
    doused with tears. The mystery vanishes, the noble Pleiades retires
    to another horizon. Some say the days of awe have ended. An accidental
    jibe, we change course. Look how the light-unfolding days, tinged with
    amazement, dawn, heralded by the sharp aroma of the lilac and the rose.

    Listen how the strains of His cello inscribe the waves with light,
    O My Friends! — the forgotten notes call you to the garden,
    Remember? You lived here once in inconspicuous ecstasy,
    Sowing, reaping, sowing, reaping.

    15. Come Forward, Holy Mariner

    Come forward, Holy Mariner. Do not delay.
    Look how death’s shadow darkens the slippery deck.
    How we sink down, down to the bottom of it all,
    hold fast to the helm with what is left.
    This is no time to trace the arc of transcendent hours.
    All the world’s a metaphor, dimly obscure.
    Through the glass of hours we see darkly.
    Our eyes search shore.
    So many lives, so many lessons,
    when will we see You
    face to face?

    You say, My creatures are even as the fish of the deep.
    Their life dependeth upon the water, and yet they remain
    unaware of that which sustaineth their very existence.
    Unmindful of water and its properties, blissfully swimming
    through the portholes of the old wreck, a brotherhood of eel
    presides over the harbour, cruising the ocean floor,
    instinct-driven, alert to the turnings of dawn and dusk
    and the prey tucked between them, gifts of the edible hours.

    She says,
    Though summer is come,
    the heart’s eternal winter holds sway.
    If I am to be undone by wind and water,
    first let me count the forty waves and
    plant them in my bower.

    He says,
    O Holy Mariner! Bid thine ark of eternity appear . . .
    Launch it upon the ancient sea . . . Unmoor it, then,
    that it may sail upon the ocean of glory . . .
    Having reached the sacred strand, the shore of the crimson seas . . .
    May know the mysteries hidden in the Seas of light . . .

    16. Nekrolog: Interlude with Cello and Harpies

    Easy sailing is what she wishes for,
    to swim like a fish but to soar on wings.
    The cello strains of the sea serenade the moon,
    draw its gravity earthward to the pulsing foam.
    Allegro, crescendo crash on the shore. She hears
    the descending notes, knows the terror of bird-bodied,
    winged women. Witness their sudden whirlwinds, storms,
    the agony of the blind, how the food of the sightless
    is snatched from hands as waves beat out the refrain,
    Aello, Ocypete; Aello, Ocypete . . .

    Tonight who will escape the eddying waters off Nautilus Island?
    The winged women, vultures all, descend. The ethereal body trapped
    in Darwin’s soulless primates, hardy survivors, ears stopped by reason.
    Who is left to hear the cello’s cry? Who will befriend the Persian Youth
    standing alone on the shore?

    Between the astrolabe and the Qiblih,
    wrapped in the cloths of winter,
    the rustic cake, baked haphazard
    in the darkness of exile,
    tasted not of sweetness but of salt,
    the salt of tears, of the seas between home
    and the place of landing,
    where the ship, stilled at last,
    spewed them ashore, all Jonah’d,
    cloaked in mystery.

    A chaste ringing, Tintinnabuli.
    Cello calls them to the Sea Gate,
    a gate so foul, six million birds fleeing
    certain death, winged their way in haste
    beyond the fading azure.

    17. She Cries Out to the Rock of Ages

    Night and a rock, its light beaming out
    from shore, calling her to the sweet salvation
    of the strand. A sand bar reaches out slender
    fingers to bank her, but the mooring does not hold.
    Sand shifts with the tide. Nothing can save her now.
    Nothing calls her as she cries out to rock and wave.

    The rock gives no reply. The blood of the risen Jesus
    stains the rising tide, vanishes, subsumed by waves.

    18. The Mariner’s Sleight of Hand

    There is no place for anyone to flee to save My face.
    And to the game of Hangman played nightly by the dowager
    and her middle-aged son, bachelor-buttoned, chin shaven,
    hands raw from rope burns, pulling the flaccid noose up,
    still up until the razor’s edge of life is keenly felt,
    pricking the skin like the burr-entangled fleece of sheep
    grazing on top of the hill where the farm looks out over
    the encroaching sea. She thinks Nautilus Island erodes,
    sinks daily under the weight of water. She thinks the Mariner
    has willed it so. The sea explodes, spews riddles like burning
    magma on the shore. We are left fanning the cold-blooded
    flame of a question: Who has dominion over the fishes
    of the deep? Who holds sway over the sea?

    19. Hejira

    One Mary climbs the Mount of Olives wrapped in a scarf
    glittering like the golden calves of Israel. She hears
    the call to prayer echo in the mosque’s empty courtyard.
    She sees the bodhi tree shrivel, entangled by old growth.
    The dance of Shiva contracts, hammered into trinkets.
    She looks westward, to Highgate, where Marx lies,
    discarded master of an unravelling age, haunted by
    the rise and fall of dreams, then northward, past the
    soot-blackened stone, to where a gilded eagle soars.
    In its talons, a priceless pearl gleams, harvested
    from ocean’s floor, born of twin surging seas.
    Jasmine lingers in the air, and attar of rose,
    as if all Persia stood waiting for some Madonna
    to unseal ruby lips and step forth from stone,
    A black-eyed Damsel.

    In the Great Northern Cemetery, a border needs tending.
    She takes up her spade and begins to dig.

    20. In a Persian Garden

    Twilight settles over the garden of good and evil.
    Rising out of the mist at dawn, the richness of loam,
    a clean slate waiting to be inscribed with the poetry of trees,
    flowers. Even the lowly shrub cries out. To be appointed
    to the design is all it asks, beneath the lordly cypress.
    No sins of omission here. Each unfolding leaf and bud
    spans the arc of grace, enters into peace, secure. Sea turns
    to sky, sky to earth, the firmament eclipsed by acres of
    shrubbed stars, in concentric circles. A single olive tree,
    some distant cousin of Gethsemane, gnarled and bent,
    punctuates the path to the Qiblih with the knots and whorls
    of holy utterance, the gems of wisdom engraved in the stoic
    bark, betrayals unspoken. How the tree seems to look
    on with the eye of God, nothing what is left undone
    and filling the interstices with bird song.

    the ship of fancy standeth still . . .

    Sandra Lynn Hutchison

    Bio:   Sandra Lynn Hutchison is the author of two books: Chinese Brushstrokes (Turnstone Press, 1996), a collection of stories about China in the prelude to and aftermath of the Tiananmen Uprising, and The Art of Nesting (GR Books, 2008), a book of poetry.

    Her stories have been anthologized in a variety of publications, including Chinese Ink, Western Pen: The Oxford Anthology of Stories About China (Oxford U. Press, 2000). She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in English literature and has been the recipient of various academic and literary awards, including a Killam Postdoctoral Fellowship, an Emily Dickinson Poetry Prize from Universities West Press and a Jane Kenyon Poetry Scholarship from Bennington College, where she did work towards an MFA in Poetry.

    She lives and teaches in Orono, Maine, where she is working on a memoir and a novel.