The Publick Universal Friend, Mary Tammer: sources of The Mornith War

 

Across the entire breadth of New York State, undeviating, a hilly strip scarcely twenty-five miles wide invites the world’s wonder. It is a broad psychic highway, a thoroughfare of the occult whose great stations number the mystic seven. For where, in its rolling course from east of Albany to west of Buffalo, it has reached one of seven isolated and lonely heights, voices out of other worlds have spoken with spiritual authority to men and women, and the invisible mantles of the prophets have been laid on consecrated shoulders.                                                             

                                                                             —Carl Carmer, Listen for a Lonesome Drum

In my mid-twenties a wise friend, recognizing the tenor of my love for my home state, suggested I read Carl Carmer’s 1936 book, Listen for a Lonesome Drum: A York State Chronicle. There, in the chapter “The Woman Who Died Twice,” I first learned of Jemima Wilkinson, also known as the Universal Friend, a spiritual leader in late-18th and early-19th century Western New York. 

A Rhode Islander who claimed to have died of plague in 1776 and to have been reborn as God’s messenger, Jemima Wilkinson acquired a large and prosperous following while still a young woman. Some of her preaching diverged enough from that of the established churches for conflict to arise, and so she and her followers left civilization for the frontier. Buying land in the area around the northern ends of Keuka and Seneca lakes, the Universal Friend spent the rest of her life there, trying to realize and maintain her vision of a new Jerusalem. (A 1964 biography, Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, The Publick Universal Friend, by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr., was recently reprinted by Cornell.)

Because I grew up in places not very far to the east and west of where she built her community, and because I identify that part of the world as home, Jemima Wilkinson’s amazing, strange story has a special fascination for me. Early on in my infatuation, I began a long poem on the Universal Friend—having in mind something like Kenneth Irby’s “Jed Smith and the Way” or those parts of Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems that deal at length with figures from Gloucester’s past—but decided not to continue work beyond the research and notes stage.

Until fifteen years later, when I was writing The Mornith War. The Universal Friend had stayed with me all that time, and I found myself translating the person I had imagined through a historical perspective into a character of fantasy, and the figure around which the story revolves: Mary Tammer, the Prophet of Free Farm.

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The serpent on the beach: sources of The Mornith War

As I was at work on The Mornith War, something mysterious happened in Gloucester, Massachusetts, the city where I live.

For decades, a painting of a serpentine creature endured on a big rock on Cressy’s Beach, a beautiful place on the western side of Gloucester Harbor. Here’s a picture I took in 1991, visiting the creature with poets Ken Irby (on the left) and Gerrit Lansing.

No one I ever spoke to knew who was responsible for the original painting, or who touched it up from time to time, keeping it from being rubbed away by the elements. Years gave the serpent a sense of permanence, so that it seemed to me it would last a long, long time.

Then, one night in October 2009, someone took a roller and white paint to the beach and covered the serpent.

This brought on a series of Gloucester Times stories [First Gloucester Times story, second Gloucester Times story, third Gloucester Times story, fourth Gloucester Times story,], uncovering who (a well-known Gloucester painter named Robert Stephenson), what (he had painted Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent deity of Mesoamerican myth), and when (a beach party in 1954, when Stephenson was 19 … making the outdoor painting fifty five years old at the time it was defaced). What the articles never did uncover, though, was who blotted out the painting, and why.

The question of why really got to me—and does still. It was not done by someone who wanted to restore the rock to its natural state: the huge blotch of white looked more unnatural than the painting it covered. Why would someone go to the trouble of covering the serpent, but apparently not care what they put in its place? It occured to me one explanation might be religious belief, since people of certain faiths regard even pictures of mythical creatures as demonic. It was my guess that someone living in sight of the serpent believed it signified evil, and with that guess the serpent on the beach gave birth to the mourgel in The Mornith War

 

 

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Mourning doves, Lorine Niedecker: sources of The Mornith War

The Mornith War is full of things that got my attention at the time I was writing. Events in my neighborhood, my world … books I was reading … my nightly dreams and nightmares … whatever parts of my experience overlapped with the story I was telling. Here begins a series of short posts about these sources, each revealing something from outside the story that found its way in.

A common bird around my house (I can see one perching on the peak of a neighbor’s roof as I write this), mourning doves have a small but important part in The Mornith War. I grew up hearing and loving their call, and (no surprise) the chapter 3 description of Elwood’s boyhood experience with mourning doves is a lot like my own. (Here are some sound samples.) But the call has special significance for Elwood, the bird’s voice—sounding like the question, Who?—reminding him of his divided self, his lost other. 

Writing that chapter 3 passage about Elwood’s past, and my hearing of the mourning dove’s call in particular, I remembered a short Lorine Niedecker poem. Looking it up again I found that she wrote, “the You/ah you/of mourning doves” (Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, pg 181, University of California Press, 2002). The poem too hears the bird’s call as though it were English, and in it a lost someone is also mourned. 

I read this as a sign I was on the right path, with the birdcall at least, and carried the mourning dove clear to the book’s final page.

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June blooms, Fernwood Lake

The last post—about wanting to crawl into flowers like a bug—focused on some of the flowers that were then in bloom on the big rock beside my house. I had planned to follow that with another June flower post, this time dealing with Fernwood, a small lake in the woods to the north.

So, to bridge the gap between the last post and the next: Here are some of the pictures that would have gone with the piece I was planning to write, back before the neglect set in.

On the land bridge that crosses a corner of Fernwood Lake, I found what I think was sheep laurel. This spot isn’t far from the part of the woods where mountain laurel grows, the subject of an earlier post.

Also there were stands of pickerelweed. Along with the water lilies, they made the lake’s edge feel swampy. (Once, years ago, I came upon a big snapping turtle crossing my path at this end of the lake. I was totally surprised, and almost failed to call my dog back before he put his poor nose in striking distance of the turtle’s beak.)

There, a smidgen of last summer’s glory. Onward.

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Blooms of June at Blackberry Rock

Drawn to flowers, I imagine what it would be like if I were able, in terms of scale, to switch with them. I am thinking of a flower so much larger than myself that its colors, textures, and smell encompass my senses; a flower big enough to make my immediate surroundings, like a room or a hillside; a flower that’s a place where my whole body can go.

Near the beginning of Ogin, when Elwood tastes the food of Ehm for the first time, his spirit leaves his body. In “a desert of white rock” he finds

a giant flower of fiery red growing up out of the floor of the waste. The stem was so bowed by the flower’s weight that the ends of two long curving petals touched the dust of the ground. Like stairs, he climbed the petals into the flower’s heart.

Now, judging by its outside, the giant red flower’s inside is not what you might expect. The flower is a portal, a passage to somewhere else—which is different from what I have been dreaming about this past Spring and early Summer, paying more attention than usual to what blooms around me. A fair-sized granite heap occupies much of the view out my second-floor study’s east window. By Cape Ann standards it is not very big; still, the portion above ground could be compared to two or three bungalows pushed together. Wickedly thorned blackberry vines proliferate on and around this mass of granite and would completely overrun it if I did not keep them in check. For that reason—and because I like the sound—I call it Blackberry Rock.

Little masonry walls built a hundred years ago remain, pieces of Blackberry Rock itself that past inhabitants had cut off, shaped, and built back into the land. Dead matter has turned to earth and filled the hollows, making places for tall grasses and staghorn sumac to grow. Mice hide there, cats hunt there. Innumerable minibeasts crawl the Rock’s surface; mockingbirds land and flash their wings. It is a whole world, or a world of many worlds (“Worlds on top of worlds,” as Elwood says); home of many and part of my own home. It is always changing with the light, with the life.

Blackberries are just one of the flowering plants that grow on and around the Rock: I might also call it Lavender Rock, or Bindweed Rock, or one of many others. For example, on a shelf on the side closest to the house, the comely chive blooms every year:

But not for long. This beauty comes and goes in just a few weeks.

Down on the morning side of Blackberry Rock, a little patch of lavender is flourishing.

Maybe my favorite flower-smell after lilac.

A few feet from the lavender grows a small colony of red carpet stonecrop.

At least, I think it’s red carpet. There are so many in the sedum genus, it’s hard for me to be sure.

Maybe even more prolific on Blackberry Rock than blackberries: mossy stonecrop.

Mossy stonecrop (again, it’s hard to be sure it’s that succulent in particular) covers sections of our place like carpet. I would like to encourage it to cover more.Bindweed, field bindweed, field morning glory, creeping jenny… this is also very prolific, especially around the Rock’s human-made walls.According to my Golden Guide to Weeds, bindweed “is one of the most difficult of all weeds to eradicate,” due to a root system “sometimes penetrating to a depth of 10 feet.”

I love the shape of the leaves, and the flowers are beautiful, furled and unfurled.

For a long time I mistook bittersweet nightshade for deadly nightshade. Because bittersweet grows everywhere around Blackberry Rock, I was constantly ripping it up. The berries are green now, but they ripen a beautiful, tomato-like orange, then red.They are not good for you either, but I gather they are nowhere near as toxic as Atropa belladonna.

And then there are the blackberries:

They also are far from ripe. I love the many white alfalfa sprout-like threads of this stage.

Finally—since I cannot mention everything, even in passing—three different shades of roses grow in the vicinity of Blackberry Rock.

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More on war

Trouble discussed briefly in a recent post on the The Mornith War has me thinking about an unfinished poem of mine from around 2004. I looked at it again this morning for the first time in years, wondered why I never thought of it while writing Mornith, and decided to share some (maybe a quarter of it) with you. Except for one section (the last one included here), none of it was published. (“The passages of the day” appeared in Underutilized Species, a 2005 mini-anthology out of Gloucester edited by James Cook). There is a conceit here that begins with the title, “Bomb”, and continues through a series of metaphorical shell fragments.

 

from Bomb   

Improvements on the bazooka have been made     they don’t call it bazooka     now.
Take my money     I don’t care     where the word is from
it lights on your shoulder like a long
bird.

Listen, no one’s talking to you
there is neither talk nor music
sweet or not

as music fails     talking to you
and love and power division appearing
Probably bazooka was the name of some inventor and music lover.

Probably the word came forth robed in glory
out of ocean or moon     to the sound of strings.
Dividing.
But I’ve had it with bazooka,

I don’t want to know.

**********************************************************************

A soldier bends
retching over
ruined flesh on
pavement showered

another comes
and pausing rests
a hand on his
stricken shoulder

****

eternally
and on tv
the corpse garden
tenderly tend

***********************************************************************

Bombs

summer 1968,
summer 2004

****

               always more
responsibility to live,
strength in death’s pull

***********************************************************************

Life is borne in the blood
And how can I be right
continuing to live
but never bear the sight

***********************************************************************

The passages of the day
are dim with the same inner light
as me and the zombies of May;
too stiff to climb to the pink

brightness of brain, lobes of phlox
in the brow of Blackberry Rock,
blossoms with the sun conspiring
freely in a natural life

and death. Leaves are unlucky:
all over town, children of the worm
riddling ruin the green young cups
from which the trees sip the light

that sustains. The way summer
ascends, in spite of its wounds, one
does not want sarcasm, prickery.
Anything broken. Desperately

obeyed law: every breath taken
a fragment of a life
broken. But when you breathe out,
that is life reuniting with the whole.

The whole, which is death?
Do the guests misidentify the host?
Beware the one who claims to know.
But how can we be guests in that,

our new home. When the dimple in the rock
west of Blackberry dries up.
If the tan young toads that snuggle
occult in the long grass

escape the blade when it mows, the wheels
when they roll. Questions; compasses.
Strangers stopping to rest and ask
the policeman in the sky for directions.

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Leather Made Shoes

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Midsummer mountain laurel

 

 

… he followed the bear’s trail to … a dense stand of mountain laurel.                       

The mountain laurel is blooming in the woods, putting out scads of white and pale pink flowers.

In Ogin, a ritual hunt ends at a place where the mountain laurel is tall and wide enough for a bear to hide in. None of the mountain laurel bushes I have seen in Ravenswood are anything like that big, but during this time of flower-clusters there is a lot more to them.

The open flower like a candy umbrella or cosmic bug;

the yet-to-open flower like a squeeze from the cake decorator’s gun.

But no simile is a match for the thing itself.

Coincidentally, I’m reading another fantasy involving a bear-based ritual: Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels. The writing truly amazes me; even what is ugly is made beautiful (and there is a lot that is ugly). I’m also intent on the way it deals with borders between worlds—serious in the best sense of the word.

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This record is magic

It has been an especially fine Spring. The return of the green life, being with the ones I love, having a new book out—I have probably never enjoyed and appreciated all of these more than I have this Spring.

And though the older I get the more rarely this happens, a particular piece of music has come along and become the sound of this era. Of my life, anyway. For the last three weeks or so I have listened to Marissa Nadler’s new album more than all other music put together. (Its release is tomorrow, but I preordered mine and got it really early.) Songwriting, performances, arrangements, production—the whole record is inspired and masterful. It is a triumph, a classic, a souvenir from heaven.  

For I don’t know how long, NPR is streaming the whole album.

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The Mornith War

The Bookstore of Gloucester is very kindly throwing a release party for the new book today. After the cover image, one or two notes on The Mornith War

Some thoughts about having the word “war” in the title of my book. “War” is not a word I want to use without care. I never want to gain from maiming, killing, and misery; I never want to exploit anyone’s fancy to see others suffer and die—even in a story. (Yet I have read of the brutal fights in the tunnels in Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the Long Sun with pleasure, and have been entertained as starfighters exploded over the Death Star.) Still, the story led me to a war, and I chose to keep following even after I saw where it was going. I have tried to be sure that the war over the Mornith is not, as Ursula K. Le Guin puts it, “a mere excuse for violence” (in her talk “Some Assumptions About Fantasy”, collected in Cheek by Jowl, Aqueduct Press 2009). Whether I succeeded or not, war is the primary event in this part of Elwood’s story, and so the word is there in the title.

I also believe that, for someone like me who has never seen war firsthand, even writing about it is questionable. But all of this pertains to a deep trouble that could and should be dealt with much more fully than I am prepared to do here in this post. (In a way The Mornith War itself, at least in part, attempts it. And so do other things I have written, and so do other things I will write. I will never be done with that trouble.)  

Mistakes! I want to note two mistakes in the book, both entirely my fault and both regarding the compass: on page 209, Elwood should scan the woods to the southeast, not the southwest, and on page 216 Granashon, Elwood, and company should reach the pasture’s southwestern edge, not its northwestern. These are the only two mistakes of consequence I have noticed, but there may be more. Hopefully not.

Mistakes aside, I am delighted with Mornith as an object. August Hall’s cover reproduced beautifully, it feels good in the hands, and it has that lovely new book scent. Mm.

And having such kind words on the back cover from both Christine Brodien-Jones and Frederic S. Durbin! The whole thing is a daydream come true.     

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