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NEW FLAME FOR NEW WORLDS:
An Analysis of Linguistic Sacred Space in Tatyana Apraksina's "Psalm 1," from the Poem Cycle California Psalms
James Manteith (translator, California Psalms)
From Image and Concept in Cultural Studies and Scholarly Ontology, St. Petersburg: Eidos, 2011.
Papers from the 3rd Russian Congress of Cultural Research, St. Petersburg, October 2010.
"Psalm 1: Sonnet 9," the opening of Tatyana Apraksina's poem cycle California Psalms, serves as an incantation-like discourse, expressing an attitude toward a personified "New World" claimed as sacred space.
While a first mention of the New World — "To the New World, enough new flame" — occurs toward the psalm's end, allusions throughout have already escalated the work's movement toward an explicit naming of its subject on a historical plane.
It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of Europe's discovery of the New World, on a variety of levels — economic, social, religious, and so on. Broadly, however, for Europe, the realization of the existence of two new continents in the Western Hemisphere opened new spheres of both idealism and opportunism, opposing impulses that have always functioned in the dynamo of the New World's psychological and cultural development. "Psalm 1" represents an expression of idealism with respect to the literal New World and to its figurative significance for humanity as a whole.
With California Psalms structurally resembling an integrated musical score, phrases resonate throughout the work as a whole, evoking parallels and gradations. Tracing the overarching philosophies and cultural values embodied in the work reveals a complex aesthetic fabric of such threads as music, literature, art, science and liturgical ritual. "Psalm 1" foreshadows the work in microcosm, with dynamics that can be roughly divided into negative diagnosis and positive prescription.
1 Tuning for the key — in halfway.
2 The infant-continent sounded his first cry.
3 Like a hero born strapping, pampered tender, sleeping thirty years
snug-hearthed in a log cabin, he takes his feet without much ceremony.
4 Have him look around!
5 Come to himself.
6 Have him
scour wide his eyes!
7 Radiant sleep still burns on childlike skin, and hazy dream-passages
mask the clash of battle.
8 But the golden shade of blessed Fujiyama, and mountains singing under stars,
and godfathers and mothers stand true to him.
9 No one yet knows his massive strength.
10 First there was the word.
11 And the word was God.
12 Subconscious grains still hide debris of drowsing sweetly,
the body remembers a craving for sleep, for prenatal idyllic unknowing,
unawareness, feelings engendered by physiology, and the mind
still has no skill to bridle the blind reflexes forcefully.
13 Before obeying the hand of the parent,
before vocalization in pentatonic intervals, before the fine technologies
of initiation, by tens of dozens he must pass the lesser and great rivers,
and new speeds to celebrate the septuplet.
14 For a bear creeping from a lair, a carnival arena presses small.
15 An arena solely playschool for his registry in fate.
16 History has not had its beginning.
17 A first stride stepped, a first rock set.
18 It receives the name of Peter and is clasped in the temple footing, unit
showing soundness, as a hallmark, as pure ore of elementary pioneer steel.
19 Saplings of seeded day!
20 Why rage that a leaf is drab, that apples sting?
21 It hurts nothing to wait for shoots of flowers from the loam.
22 Somehow I will intake oxygen — I need something to breathe
23 To know myself alive.
24 An infant at your breast, I only gain from your abundance —
the root with fatter black earth underneath gives sweeter grain.
25 From a weak-blooded bubble of manufactured feed, you, too,
I will reinstate in living soil, like a brittle rosebush.
26 I am doors — you guard my key.
27 You, as Peter, open gates for blessedness.
28 The rock is faithful.
29 To the New World, enough new flame.
30 Over the West Coast's body, over the sounding keyboard,
over raspy fur of a grizzly I will range my hand, trace the curls,
to leave fingers remembering the warmth of massive withers,
the totem of the male who falls to water.
(trans. James Manteith)
* * *
Symbols related to youth, recurring throughout "Psalm 1," appear with the greatest concentration in the second and longest of the psalm's four sections. Idealized attributes of youth — innocence, freshness, potential, and so on — have historically been projected on the New World and have shown their limitations. Literary genres exalting the figure of the New World's noble savage and lamenting its fading frontier, for instance, provide only a codification of a positive youth and a negative aging, with few convincing models for the successful alternative maturation of a consciousness accounting for the heritage of both the Old and New Worlds.
Whether seen in historical-geographic or in personal terms, youth itself is not celebrated in "Psalm 1." The psalm's "infant-continent" has already delayed, for a figurative "thirty years," taking a "look around." Whether or not anything of its physical youth remains, the onetime infant must vigorously assess a course for the future, "must pass lesser and great rivers…" Discipline must shake off the vestiges of adolescent sloth. Youth is less a time of innocence than of innocence of consequences. A note of reprehension is sounded toward the psalm's subject, although it is noted that the New World has been "pampered tender," enslaved to comfort, in circumstances of limited support for maturity. As the psalm progresses, the fairytale imagery of youth involving the "hero" gives way to Freudian "craving for sleep, for prenatal idyllic unknowing…" With the womb state asssociated with blindness and unreality, the hero has become un-heroically out of proportion with his surroundings. His body may have grown, but his "mind still has no skill to bridle the blind reflexes forcefully," remaining dormant.
As with other concepts in "Psalm 1," its poetic imagery of youth parallels classical sources, such as the "hero" or "Fujiyama," with patently modern terminology, such as the "subconscious" and "physiology." Parallels of the more timeless with the temporal underscore implications of a narrowly modern shallowness in the New World's consciousness, obscured by "hazy dream passages," akin to the "weak-blooded bubble of manufactured feed" in the psalm's third section, suggesting a context of superficiality, commercialism, artificiality, for which youth is also a time not of innocence but of heightened susceptibility to indoctrination. The New World is not meant to hear the "clash of battle" but to exist in a biologically inscribed, vegetative state. Like the "brittle rosebush," however, this state will not allow it to thrive, to realize its essence. Contact with this New World — collectively or individually — might serve as grounds for the poet to "rage that a leaf is drab, that apples sting…" However, the psalm finds the New World's nature capable of renewal: "It hurts nothing to wait for shoots of flowers from the loam."
Its criticisms of its hero aside, "Psalm 1" notes that "godfathers and mothers hold true to him," and the psalm itself takes this attitude of patient loyalty, linked to faith in the New World's imminent maturation. The prenatal, biological world implies unhealthy stasis, but the spiritual sponsor and advisor, bound by affinity and election, looks ahead: "History has not had its beginning."
The view of the New World as capable of maturation further illuminates the psalm's repeated allusions to the apostle Peter. The Gospels' Peter is told by Christ, "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…" (Matt. 16:18a) Curiously, whereas the Gospel's Peter is a man, Simon, who receives "Peter" (the Greek "Cephas" or "Rock") as an honorific title, the psalm's rock, called Peter, becomes man-like and apostle-like: "the first rock…receives the name Peter and is clasped in the temple footing, unit showing soundness." Figuratively, a sterile, unresponsive entity retains its virtue of solidity, but becomes humanly fruitful in an honorable service.
Although as old or older than Christ when called, the apostles themselves moved spiritually from youth to maturation as they began to follow Christ — with Christ himself, even in his thirty years at Nazareth, exemplifying growth along lines of "obeying the hand of the parent," albeit eluding his nominal biological parents in order to remain in his "Father's house" (Luke 2:49), the temple.
A majority of the apostles, however, are traditionally seen as having abandoned lives dominated by concerns more on the order of "prenatal idyllic unknowing" — by comparison, at least, with what followed, in their lives as "fishers of men" (Mark 1:17). The psalm's "No one yet knows his massive strength" could easily apply to apostolic pre-history. Nonetheless, scripture and exegesis treats the apostles' early, more primitive existence as perhaps providing better ground for reception of true faith than the world of the educated temple elite. "I praise you, Father," says Christ, "because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to infants." (Matt. 11:25) The apostles' "massive strength," always present, remained rewardingly malleable in its unrefined state.
Accepting this parallel as applied to the New World, America might be described as a "holy land" — a land apparently open to the embodiment of holy ideals — with the caveat that in any holy land, the scriptural trope of alternating faithfulness and blasphemy has generally held true. The New World has been contrastingly invested with Messianic hopes and Babylonian epithets, while the comparison with Peter implies a more modulated attitude.
A too-malleable openness may lead to spiritual hunger as well as gullibility and fanaticism with respect to various ideological creeds. Maturation involves discernment, rejecting the false authority in favor of the true. The New World may be compared to the Gospels' Peter as a subject of ambivalence, recommended more by flashes of insight and ultimate perseverance than by perfect consistency. Christ, aware of Peter's weaknesses, still accepts him as the appropriate figure not only on whom the church may be built, but to whom he may give "the keys of the kingdom of heaven…" (Matt. 16:19a) Similarly, "Psalm 1" tells its formative Peter, "I am doors — you guard my key." Accurate insights without perfect stability are preferable to rigid stability without insights, as in the case of the falsely durable temple in Christ's Jerusalem. The New World, in "Psalm 1," is seen as redeemable for a role in supporting a new temple, possibly construed as a universal "temple" of humankind, judging from the scale of reference implied by the symbols.
In "Psalm 1," a line like "For a bear creeping from a lair, a carnival arena presses small" also comes laden with implications.
Negative associations may include the Roman circus, for example — a symbol of decadence and indiscriminate destruction — and perhaps also the mock-circus atmosphere of the Crucifixion. Additionally, a modern "carnival" of humanity engages in purposeless competition and consumption. This circus may extend traits of the "prenatal idyll" throughout an entire human life, with the "blind reflexes" confounded by false information. This circus might be found in athletic stadiums, on stock-market floors, in the mass media.
While the circus may hold its greatest interest for still-undeveloped minds, it also appeals to minds in transition, as in the storied aspiration to "run away with the circus," with the circus not necessarily an end in itself, but a possible median on the way to imaginative self-discovery. Such a transition may be implied in "An arena solely playschool for his registry in fate." Here, "playschool" may be beneficial, legitimizing the circus — albeit conditionally, not as a full education. The child is nudged toward consciousness of a wider world, albeit in microcosm, extending the possibility of interaction with other inhabitants of this same microcosm before it in turn is outgrown. Metaphorically placing a bear in playschool is absurd but hopeful, particularly after graduation into "fate."
In symbolic terms, the psalm's "bear" mirrors its "hero," as well as, in the logic of a long poetic equation, its "Peter," with the "bear" layer further emphasizing the counterparts' roughness. The hero and Peter are both prescribed to provincial territories — the hero in his "log cabin," Peter evidently in Galilee. The bear's "registry in fate" corresponds to the summoning act of waking the hero — a common trope in Slavic folktales — as well as to the calling of the apostles.
The psalm's closing section continues the equation. The "rock" acquires the symbolic attributes of Peter. The grizzly, corresponding to the bear earlier in the psalm, is in the glory of a habitat more boundless than the shed carnival arena. The California grizzly remains a symbol of that state and so of the New World's West Coast, with a presence in the shaman culture of native inhabitants. Some kinship may be glimpsed with the totemic bear of traditional Slavic cultures — including a capacity for metamorphosis into human forms. A sublime mingling occurs here as the human learns from nature and the wild accepts the human touch, with a literal or figurative baptism implied in the closing "falls to water," possibly tied to presumed conditions for rebirth in a new life. The "fall" to pray or make confession, the cleansing of the spirit in holy waters would imply a new sort of heroism, beyond "massive strength" as literally understood by primitive cultures, and toward a heroism more akin to modes of service and self-sacrifice.
Musical-numerological allusions run through "Psalm 1," which reaches some of its first pinnacles in its cascading references to "vocalization in pentatonic intervals" and "new speeds to celebrate the septuplet." It is known that a variety of foundational schools of thought — from primordial and classical traditions to modern science — view the cosmos as possessing a musical or sonic foundation, associating this with both creation and ongoing existence. Developed expressions of such beliefs may be found in the mantras of various Eastern religions, as well as in the Orphic rites and Pythagorean mysteries, intertwined with mathematics. The pentatonic fifth, linked by the Pythagoreans with the golden mean, is key in the formation of all harmonic intervals; the septuplet seventh would span the complete note cycle. Similar symbolism can be sought in the psalm's specific title, "Sonnet 9," with the ninth occurring one step beyond the octave, thus representing a phase shift, among many possible interpretations. In relatively recent history, many writers, Apraksina included, have noted musicians' ongoing capacity to engage in the same cosmic processes observed in ancient mysticism. Scholarly talks by Apraksina have referenced contemporary thinkers such as Herman Hesse and Thomas Mann, who may represent philosophical forbears for her own orientation. Any reference to music may possess significance for implying both physical and ethereal realities, codes of material and spiritual practices.
"Psalm 1"'s beginning "Tuning for the key — in halfway" may be understood within framework of music as perceived on multiple planes. The startling opening seemingly lacks direct development in subsequent lines — although, upon closer examination, the "first cry" of the infant in the second line might be seen as raw sound, predicate to bringing this sound into relation to a "key." In a conceivable void before the psalm's beginning, sound was produced out of key, in discord, as in the Bible's "the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep," with the act of tuning, of approaching union with a key, akin to the moment in the Creation when "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." (Gen. 1:2) In personal terms, this tuning stage in the "sounding" of creation could be a soul's emergence from a chaos of unawareness of its need for reformation. Here, then, is an implicit call for developed, refined music, with musical forms associated with the New World perhaps inscribed within the raw "first cry." Realistically, the formation of such music, as well as the skill to perform it, involves gradual, disciplined development, as acknowledged by the psalm's reference to "vocalization in pentatonic intervals," "fine technologies of initiation," and "new speeds to celebrate the septuplet," as required for virtuosic performance. In keeping with the work's overall theme of the good of maturation, the psalm would seem to argue that the metaphorical music from the "sounding keyboard" of the tuned "grizzly" would possess new, compelling virtues, with no contradiction between the resulting refinement and its foundation in primal truth.
Equally — and reasonably, for "psalms" as a fusion of speech and song, as chant — along with the idea of discipline in music (by extension, in any branch of human activity) as a form of achieving a new union with a fundamental impulse, this primal energy is approached in "Psalm 1" as "word": "First there was the word./And the word was God."
The two short, unequivocally clear lines cause an almost total stop in the verse's movement, emphasizing their importance for understanding other aspects of the psalm's purpose. One clue may be the lines' near-exact repetition of the opening of the fourth Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)
Comparing Gospel to psalm, two distinctions can be noted: rather than "In the beginning," the psalm uses a single word, "First"; and the central "and the Word was with God" statement is omitted. "First" may be more general than "In the beginning" — the mystic word, or "logos," may still have been present before an absolute genesis, but is present before all relative beginnings as well, at the root of each instance of individual birth and rebirth. Moreover, John's contrasting "the Word was with God, and the Word was God" arguably establishes the paradox of the divine word as simultaneously separate from and equivalent to the one omnipresent God. While the Evangelist may balance superficially paradoxical statements in order to suggest a deeper reality reconciling apparent paradox, "Psalm 1" here bypasses such dualism; its word appears simply equivalent to creation, however creation is approached.
Fundamentally, however, the psalm shares a sense of "the Word…made flesh" (John 1:14) — awareness of the divine word's incarnation for communion with humanity in all of creation. Such a unified consciousness may support the integration of the work's symbolic juxtapositions. The psalm itself communicates creation's "verbosity," and the "temple" it posits may be one of acknowledging and celebrating creation's word, with such an activity as integral to human purification and ongoing formation as musical communion, or even inseparable from this impulse, if the true weight of music is to be intelligible.
The psalm seems to suggest that the New World, the "infant-continent" still does not possess the necessary experience, figuratively, for the formation or comprehension of sensible speech. While the infant-continent itself represents an embodiment of the mystic word, its human part remains insensible to the word, and accordingly to itself. For an immature, clouded consciousness, even divine word may possess little distinction from nursery tales, "hazy dreams." The New World must hear and understand the word, must interpret and appreciate the mysticism of creation. The "fine technologies of initiation," a flood of acceptance and voicing of words — proper naming and truth-telling — belong the calling of prophets, apostles and their kind.
"Psalm 1" also contains lines dedicated solely to its psalmist. These begin in the work's third section with "Somehow I will intake oxygen — I need something to breathe." This section radically differs from those flanking it — like a sonata's slow movement, a soliloquy in the action of a play, a lyric embedded within an epic. The proportions might be likened to certain Biblical psalms in which the psalmist may shift from praise of sublime creation or ceremony to a confession of personal vulnerability — reminding the creator and himself that the stable continuity of a consecrated, spiritually directed people depends on personal well-being along with ritually engaged existence. Moreover, the psalmist, who possesses privileged knowledge and has a mission to instruct and inspire with "new flame," retains human needs, with an ability to nourish that depends on her own nourishment. "An infant at your breast, I only gain from your abundance," says the psalmist. A temple and its servants stand to gain in direct proportion to the spiritual reformation of the people they serve. If the New World succeeds in following its higher calling, like Peter, it may "open gates for blessedness"; if fallow and perverted, compromising its special qualities, it will not support life in the sense that the poem qualifies it: "to know myself alive." The somewhat ironic reference to the ordinarily unsung element of "oxygen" as a valued mechanism for establishing aliveness points to the austerity of the psalmist's circumstances, but also to elemental priorities, similar to the appreciation of "black earth" in this same section.
Much as for the word of creation, it is one of the privileges of the human word — in literature, in spiritual and philosophical discourse — to speak from its own position, addressing whom it wishes. The word may personalize the abstract. It may treat the singular as multiple or universal. The word enjoys greater privileges if true. Words true in one place may conceivably be true in others. What one group of listeners apprehends as true, others may also. This consciousness is essential for a writer, a teacher, an evangelist, and we know it as a valid consciousness by the words resonating through the ages. A Biblical prophet could address exhortations to his people and other peoples, neighboring or remote, while in the hearing, perhaps, of only one of his own scribes. Both spiritual and secular writers have worked in this vein, toward which verse is particularly accommodating.
Similarly, Christ speaking to his apostles could speak to all human beings. He makes clear that he reserves direct statements about sacred subjects for elect, intimate hearers, such as the apostles or others with the necessary preparedness to receive his word — those near to or potentially longing for the "kingdom of heaven," essential truth. Society and public life may impede the communication of truth. Faced with crowds, Christ often prefers to "speak in parables" (Matt. 13:13), although he himself does not exist on the level of parables in essence. Parables are a form of translation — of translating spiritual motives into a context of material interactions (watchtowers to build, fields to sow and harvest, dress codes to enforce) — although not of compromise, given that the proper ordering of outer life would imply reciprocal benefits for the inner life, and vice versa, with an ultimate aim of a cognitive leap overcoming perceptions of any inner and outer worlds at all. Parables are gates to inner truths, to greater commandments overruling material dependencies.
A significant aspect of integrity in inner life, however, involves opportunities to pray alone or withdraw along with those ready to be fed by the word, "not by bread alone" (Matt. 4:4). Any human being may feel the need for this model of retreat, reaffirming core principles of being. In a retreat, raw worldly experience may be analyzed, sublimated, translated into ideal terms of personal knowledge, reinforced by expression while still outside of the world (as in the Sermon on the Mount). The inner circle thus serves as a necessary forum for the universal, the heavenly. Freshly distilled universal knowledge may then be reintroduced to the world in mediums retaining heavenly traces, resisting conclusive assimilation into the material, as through churches, monasteries, sacred books, moral codes, or dynamically enlightened souls, for whom the inner circle is often reduced to one.
More or less, a single model functions for secular as for sacred discourse. Even communication mediated by aesthetics hardly guarantees consistent acceptance, particularly if the message is scandalous to conventional assumptions. The invocation of aesthetic energies may threaten materialistic sensibilities, given aesthetics' link with a subversively empowered form of private speech, human-made and requiring humanly attenuated keys, not entering the contests of the primitive, clannish "arena." Thus "the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head" (Matt. 8:20), "one's enemies will be those of his household" (Matt. 10:36) and "A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and in his own house" (Matt. 13:57). Countless creative figures have survived as such only through claiming control over their natural isolation. Stability in true expression tends to require at least periodic withdrawal from non-supporters, who may assume other allegiances.
If this is true, one purpose of higher forms of culture is to acknowledge and remedy the shortcomings in the relation of the creative act to society. A poem may be a "place" to rest a head, to refresh an intelligence, remaining inviolate, a cross-section of parable puzzles showing inner and outer anatomies. A poem coordinates complex harmonies and disharmonies for the perpetuation of knowledge. The Old Testament Commandments ultimately dictated the construction of an Ark, which in turn led to the construction of a house for the ark in the temple, opening and enlarging the inner circle.
Each person, awakened to the idea of a spiritual home, may long to move beyond the parables for the crowd and into the inner circle of the apostles, even into the prayers of Christ. The forging of an authentic poem, let alone of a gospel, may respond to this longing. In the great outpouring from the intimate sacred space, the imprint of circumstances necessary to honesty may now be approached from any point, with whatever understanding is available or wished. The ideal voicing of language may be apprehended as sound, as music, or as predicate to a sense-infused, aesthetically informed program for a temple of personal civilization. This is the cultural landscape embodied in "Psalm 1," accommodating both public and private signification, with its prayer on the unredeemed margins as essential to the spreading of Word as the classical edifices already sown through the past undulations of inner and outer lives.
The errand of a work such as California Psalms might be likened to a long journey that never abandons the sureties of personal knowledge, personal civilization. For this voyage to the New World, initially at the stages of Word, the work effects a double withdrawal — first, it commences its existence halfway around the planet from its author's and language's country of origin; and second, it invents its own permanent lodgings in extreme isolation within this country, without serious stand-ins for a native culture. The idealist's goal in the New World is to go beyond others' cultures to one's own culture, which always, by definition, may emerge as the most divine, in the embrace of one's own fate. It has been said that pursuing a policy of isolation is dangerous for a writer. Travel may broaden perspectives, but too deep an isolation in foreign parts has been seen as a kind of living death — not least because of the absence of the writer's own "native irritants," the shifts, both natural and artificial, which in sum constitute the writer's "national life," presumably also prerequisite for the writer's ongoing relevance in his country of origin. However, the opposite could be argued, with exile or voluntary migration for any period, dedicated to the cause of spirit, as act of supreme dedication, precisely because of its risk. A need for risk, for instance, drew D.H. Lawrence from Britain to the New World. Native writers such as Melville sought to preserve the spirit of hazardous voyages by breaking through the calcification of the accumulated material culture in the New World of their day. The earlier philosopher Emerson, venturing that "the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American scholar," also cautioned, "Public and private avarice makes the air we breathe thick and fat."
Journeys to the New World, necessarily perpetual, must also be internal, and culture itself mediates outer realities to allow internal migration. The "Odyssey" and the Exodus, the classic epics, serve in part to demonstrate the ubiquitous undertaking of such voyages, pilgrimages, wanderings, isolation, in imagination and fact. In the language of "Psalm 1" (evocative, here, of the I Ching), each life "must pass the lesser and great rivers," must contemplate with both lyric and epic vitality.
With its confluence of creation in and idealistic illumination of being in the "New World," the opening of Tatyana Apraksina's California Psalms declares and distills the idea of newness in itself, as well as the need to shelter this newness, "like a brittle rosebush," while it grows. Ultimately, contact with the psalm proves emblematic of the possibility of both newness and growth, youth and maturity, in purified terms. Read in the "New World," in their original Russian, the poetic cycle produces a renewing effect — established beyond the dominant language of power and commerce, and seemingly closer to the "word" of the natural world's living testament. For the New World itself, the language of the psalm has no purpose other than poetry — providing a fresh sounding of the intersection between the natural and human, an artistic aid, should the "infant-continent" wish to seek fresh reserves of its "pioneer steel." In Russia, "Psalm 1" also communicates a quality of otherworldly or primal newness — consonant with the spirit of its creation, sowing a "grain" both foreign and native.
© 2010 James Manteith.