"Hence callest thyself unbegotten"

Moby Dick - 1956

Listened to a reading of Moby-Dick by Frank Muller. A lone authority to his voice, at first, perfectly capturing Ishmael's narration, the Job-like weariness of "and I only am escaped alone to tell thee," then entirely embodying Ahab in every passing remark and maddened soliloquy. Quiet echoes of Gregory Peck but more. After years of re-readings, it was a revelation to hear Melville's language sing again in Moby-Dick. 

Turning then to Sena Jeter Nasland's Ahab's Wife. Wondering at the world spun out of a few tantalizing mentions in Melville's text. How the burden of being Ahab's wife is called to audit. Who is figured in Starbuck's "human eye".
Gilbert Wilson, Ahab

Ahab has his humanities!

"Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab’s above the common; Ahab’s been in colleges, as well as ’mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales…. Aye, aye, I know that he was never very jolly; and I know that on the passage home, he was a little out of his mind for a spell; but it was the sharp shooting pains in his bleeding stump that brought that about, as any one might see. I know, too, that ever since he lost his leg last voyage by that accursed whale, he’s been a kind of moody— desperate moody, and savage sometimes; but that will all pass off. And once for all, let me tell thee and assure thee, young man, it’s better to sail with a moody good captain than a laughing bad one…. Besides, my boy, he has a wife— not three voyages wedded— a sweet, resigned girl. Think of that; by that sweet girl that old man had a child: hold ye then there can be any utter, hopeless harm in Ahab? No, no, my lad; stricken, blasted, if he be, Ahab has his humanities!”
—Captain Peleg to Ishmael, “The Ship."
Gilbert Wilson, Ahab

Of cannibal old me

[Starbuck, First Mate of the Pequod:] “Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish!…— this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket.”  

[Ahab:] “They have, they have. I have seen them— some summer days in the morning. About this time— yes, it is his noon nap now— the boy vivaciously wakes; sits up in bed; and his mother tells him of me, of cannibal old me; how I am abroad upon the deep, but will yet come back to dance him again.”  

[Starbuck:] “… my Mary… promised that my boy, every morning, should be carried to the hill to catch the first glimpse of his father’s sail!… Come, my Captain, study out the course, and let us away! See, see! the boy’s face from the window! the boy’s hand on the hill!” But Ahab’s glance was averted….  

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it: what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time…? By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike…. But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay.” 

- Starbuck and Ahab, “The Symphony.”
Gilbert Wilson, Ahab

And then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood

Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise

Better than to gaze upon God.

I have fed upon dry salted fare— fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!— when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts— away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow— wife? wife?— rather a widow with her husband alive! Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey— more a demon than a man!— aye, aye!… Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes!… I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!— crack my heart!— stave my brain!— mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs… Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearth-stone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. 

- Ahab, “The Symphony.”

“And I! I have the picture that draws me on. A hump like a snow-hill! Moby Dick! I shall add my stature to his height! Ahab, not Una, let me picture there. Though legs fail, my hands, like mitts of flintstone, will pull me to the summit! Leviathan! My hands are harder than thy flesh! Leviathan! I shall make thee bleed, even as my own manly blood poured from my leg as from a funnel-spout! Moby Dick! When I top thee, THEN, let my punishment begin, for I embody the great Lie: Hate, revenge, my wounds— they are greater than Love. Together let us, like a mountain— higher with Ahab’s added height than you ever reared before— be brought low. “Brought low, we’ll storm the shadow valley, we’ll harrow the depths… these depths… whose mere surface lies before me now and all about me. What depths lie below— layer after watery layer of increasing cold. And the floor reached, into what valley do water… whale… Ahab… fall then? And who will exalt the crevasse that on the ocean floor opens itself to step yet again toward unthinkable depths? And who will exalt that valley?

According to Wikipedia, Sena Jeter Naslund "lives in Louisville, Kentucky, at St. James Court, in the former home of Kentucky poet Madison Cawein." The mystery of place. Hallowings. Echoes of a poet whispering for over 100 years. 

Note the unfortunate sequence for Cawein: 1912 loses home, 1913 Waste Land, 1914 death. 

Or forms of the mind, an old despair,   
That there into semblance grew   
Out of the grief I knew? 

 I imagine the ghosts of Vachel Lindsay and Langston Hughes getting drunk on Vergil's blood in some metaphysical limbo swearing a violent end to all who forget forgotten poets. Madison emerging fearfully from the shade.

Madison Cawein (1865-1914)

Madison Cawein was a poet from Lousiville. Again, Wikipedia: His output was thirty-six books and 1,500 poems. His writing presented Kentucky scenes in a language echoing Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats. He soon earned the nickname the "Keats of Kentucky". He was popular enough that, by 1900, he told the Louisville Courier-Journal that his income from publishing poetry in magazines amounted to about $100 a month.  

In 1912 Cawein was forced to sell his Old Louisville home, St James Court (a  2 1⁄2-story brick house built in 1901, which he had purchased in 1907), as well as some of his library, after losing money in the 1912 stock market crash. 

In 1914 the Authors Club of New York City placed him on their relief list. He died on December 8 later that year and was buried in Cave Hill Cemetery. 

In 1913, a year before his death, Cawein published a poem called "Waste Land" in a Chicago magazine which included Ezra Pound as an editor. Scholars have identified this poem as an inspiration to T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land, published in 1922 and considered the birth of modernism in poetry.

Cawein was as distant from Eliot, in poetic terms, as it was possible to be. He was a Kentucky blues man and a barroom versifier. However, like Eliot, he was fascinated by the Celtic twilight and the search for the Grail. And his verses, with their haunting title, did appear in the January 1913 edition of Poetry magazine. Since that very issue also contained an essay by Ezra Pound on the new poets writing in London, it seems more rather than less likely that Eliot would have read it.

Waste Land 


Madison Cawein

Briar and fennel and chincapin,
  And rue and ragweed everywhere;
The field seemed sick as a soul with sin,
  Or dead of an old despair,
  Born of an ancient care.
The cricket’s cry and the locust’s whirr,
  And the note of a bird’s distress,
With the rasping sound of the grasshopper,
  Clung to the loneliness
  Like burrs to a trailing dress.
So sad the field, so waste the ground,
  So curst with an old despair,
A woodchuck’s burrow, a blind mole’s mound,
  And a chipmunk’s stony lair,
  Seemed more than it could bear.  
So lonely, too, so more than sad,
  So droning-lone with bees—
I wondered what more could Nature add
  To the sum of its miseries …
  And then—I saw the trees.  
Skeletons gaunt that gnarled the place,
  Twisted and torn they rose—
The tortured bones of a perished race
  Of monsters no mortal knows,
  They startled the mind’s repose.
And a man stood there, as still as moss,
  A lichen form that stared;
With an old blind hound that, at a loss,
  Forever around him fared
  With a snarling fang half bared.  
I looked at the man; I saw him plain;
  Like a dead weed, gray and wan,
Or a breath of dust. I looked again—
  And man and dog were gone,
  Like wisps of the graying dawn….
Were they a part of the grim death there—
  Ragweed, fennel, and rue?
Or forms of the mind, an old despair,
  That there into semblance grew
  Out of the grief I knew?


Say what you will, the notes are all there. Diapason. Cricket's cry, locust's whirr and the trailing dress ringing the liminal territories of Eliot's aesthetic. But Cawein's 1913 Waste Land creation cannot get around the enormous cultural dustbin of THE Waste Land in 1922. Likewise, the Jake Holmes' of the world own no coin in their dazed and confused corners. Ezra Pound sweeping, always sweeping, up the broken fragments. 

Now to see Sena Jeter Naslund sitting quietly in a dark closet of St. James court with a bottle of wine conversing freely with Madison Cawein, who stands in a a pool of blood. There's poetry to it. I care nothing for the screams of all the small creatures who were unseamed under the sygil of the Golden Bough. It's about the truth of language. Words like ashes bitter on the tongue.

Later in the night, I turn to the sad and desolate tale of The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. [cf: ]. Simultaneously fascinated and irritated by the telling of a story told against the will of another. But then there is this: 

During the Middle Ages, after the Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt died out, a new form of Christian solitary emerged, this time in Europe. They were called anchorites— the name is derived from an ancient Greek word for “withdrawal”— and they lived alone in tiny dark cells, usually attached to the outer wall of a church. The ceremony initiating a new anchorite often included the last rites, and the cell’s doorway was sometimes bricked over. Anchorites were expected to remain in their cells for the rest of their lives; in some cases, they did so for over forty years. This existence, they believed, would offer an intimate connection with God, and salvation. Servants delivered food and emptied chamber pots through a small opening.  

Virtually every large town across France, Italy, Spain, Germany, England, and Greece had an anchorite. In many areas, there were more females than males. A woman’s life in the Middle Ages was severely bound, and to become an anchorite, unburdened by social strictures or domestic toil, may have felt paradoxically emancipating. Scholars have called anchorites the progenitors of modern feminism. 

Leading me, naturally, to the anchoress Julian of Norwich and her Revelations of Divine Love, which in a not entirely unexpected manner, offers slight ballast to the sickening yaw of Ahab's God-haunted madness. 

Skeletons gaunt that gnarled the place,   
Twisted and torn they rose— 
The tortured bones of a perished race   
Of monsters no mortal knows,   
They startled the mind’s repose.

And furthermore I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, 

with the hair and the blood, was all raised and loosed about from the bone.

For this word was shewed for the bodily thirst: the which I understood was caused by failing of moisture. For the blessed flesh and bones was left all alone without blood and moisture. The blessed body dried alone long time with wringing of the nails and weight of the body. For I understood that for tenderness of the sweet hands and of the sweet feet, by the greatness, hardness, and grievousness of the nails the wounds waxed wide and the body sagged, for weight by long time hanging. And [therewith was] piercing and pressing of the head, and binding of the Crown all baked with dry blood, with the sweet hair clinging, and the dry flesh, to the thorns, and the thorns to the flesh drying; and in the beginning while the flesh was fresh and bleeding, the continual sitting of the thorns made the wounds wide. And furthermore I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised and loosed about from the bone, with the thorns wherethrough it were rent in many pieces, as a cloth that were sagging, as if it would hastily have fallen off, for heaviness and looseness, while it had natural moisture. And that was great sorrow and dread to me: for methought I would not for my life have seen it fall. How it was done I saw not; but understood it was with the sharp thorns and the violent and grievous setting on of the Garland of Thorns, unsparingly and without pity. This continued awhile, and soon it began to change, and I beheld and marvelled how it might be. And then I saw it was because it began to dry, and stint a part of the weight, and set about the Garland. And thus it encircled all about, as it were garland upon garland. The Garland of the Thorns was dyed with the blood, and that other garland [of Blood] and the head, all was one colour, as clotted blood when it is dry. The skin of the flesh that shewed (of the face and of the body), was small-rimpled with a tanned colour, like a dry board when it is aged; and the face more brown than the body. - Chapter 17

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well. 

And for the tender love that our good Lord hath to all that shall be saved, He comforteth readily and sweetly, signifying thus: It is sooth that sin is cause of all this pain; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner [of] thing shall be well.  

These words were said full tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any that shall be saved. Then were it a great unkindness to blame or wonder on God for my sin, since He blameth not me for sin.  

And in these words I saw a marvellous high mystery hid in God, which mystery He shall openly make known to us in Heaven: in which knowing we shall verily see the cause why He suffered sin to come. In which sight we shall endlessly joy in our Lord God. - Chapter 27 

And back again to Eliot from Little Gidding, Four Quartets

Sin is Behovely, but 
All shall be well, and 
All manner of thing shall be well. 
If I think, again, of this place, 
And of people, not wholly commendable, 
Of not immediate kin or kindness, 
But of some peculiar genius, 
All touched by a common genius, 
United in the strife which divided them; 
If I think of a king at nightfall, 
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold 
And a few who died forgotten 
In other places, here and abroad, 
And of one who died blind and quiet, 
Why should we celebrate 
These dead men more than the dying? 
It is not to ring the bell backward 
Nor is it an incantation 
To summon the spectre of a Rose. 
We cannot revive old factions 
We cannot restore old policies 
Or follow an antique drum. 
These men, and those who opposed them 
And those whom they opposed 
Accept the constitution of silence 
And are folded in a single party. 
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate 
We have taken from the defeated 
What they had to leave us - a symbol: 
A symbol perfected in death. 
And all shall be well and 
All manner of thing shall be well 
By the purification of the motive 
In the ground of our beseeching.

 I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! 

“I own thy speechless, placeless power; said I not so? Nor was it wrung from me; nor do I now drop these links. Thou canst blind; but I can then grope. Thou canst consume; but I can then be ashes. Take the homage of these poor eyes, and shutter-hands. I would not take it. The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eyeballs ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling in some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold, yet will I talk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee! The javelins cease; open eyes; see, or not? There burn the flames! Oh, thou magnanimous! now I do glory in my genealogy. But thou art but my fiery father; my sweet mother, I know not. Oh, cruel! what hast thou done with her? There lies my puzzle; but thine is greater. Thou knowest not how came ye, hence callest thyself unbegotten; certainly knowest not thy beginning, hence callest thyself unbegun. I know that of me, which thou knowest not of thyself, oh, thou omnipotent. There is some unsuffusing thing beyond thee, thou clear spirit, to whom all thy eternity is but time, all thy creativeness mechanical. Through thee, thy flaming self, my scorched eyes do dimly see it. Oh, thou foundling fire, thou hermit immemorial, thou too hast thy incommunicable riddle, thy unparticipated grief. Here again with haughty agony, I read my sire. Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”

- Ahab, "The Candles."

Below the cross on Calvary, Golgotha, the threshold of pain, Adam's skull crumbling beneath, repository for his son's hot blood. Under the hill, the cross, the Serpent's cave. The Delphyne Python licking herself back to life with the red tears dripping down the white lightning roots. Awaiting Typhon. The Fall of Man begins Him back again. 

I looked at the man; I saw him plain;   
Like a dead weed, gray and wan, 
Or a breath of dust. I looked again—