Sunday, May 10, 2009

Trippy Tropes (part one)

Poets in the Benthic Zone



benthic : relating to the bottom of a lake


Somewhere – if my memory can be trusted – Robert Duncan wrote about how he and his partner Jess loved to trace how a certain image had been used by artists and writers through the centuries.

I like doing that too, or at least cataloging the appearance of certain images, metaphors or settings in poems that particularly strike my fancy. Among these is the image – or setting – “the bottom of the lake,” which has a long and interesting history of turning up in poems over the centuries. I’ll write a bit here today about this most trippy trope, and finish up, if you please, further on down the road.

The bottom of the lake, in eco-biology and limnology, is known as the benthic zone, or benthos. This zone is a rich, necessary, but very difficult place:
The benthos or benthic zone of lakes and ponds lies at the bottom where decomposition occurs. Although biological activity flourishes in the darkness, it is an extremely oxygen deficient environment . . . .
The benthic zone is also a potent poetic image. By its very nature, the bottom of the lake is a place of deep, unseen mysteries. It also can be seen – or at least I see it – as an image of the pre-conscious mind, that which exists far below the surface of the mind’s activity. It’s where imagination is nourished, the habitat of the powerful ur-imagination.

Given this potent symbology, of which I’ll write more about in just about – and just because it’s just a far-out place to stage a scene – it should come as no surprise that the first great (Old) English epic poem, Beowulf, sets a key piece of action – Beowulf’s encounter and fight with, and his killing of, the demon Grendel’s mother and he decapitation of Grendel himself – at the bottom of a lake, which is where the monster’s lair is located.

In the epic, Beowulf is told about the bottom of the lake by the King whose world is under attack from the demon-monsters. Beowulf is told that “the mere” – that’s the synonym for lake used in many translations, including that of Frederick Rebsamen (which I generally prefer because it preserves the spaced half-lines of the Anglo-Saxon original) – is hidden not far away. He’s also told that at night there’s fire on the water (a “strange wonder-sight”), and that there are “surging waves” that “swirl[] to the clouds when whistling winds come whirling in anger.” And he’s further told:
                                            No wiseman lives
who knows the bottom        of that black monster-home.
The King then challenges Beowulf:
                                                     Find it if you dare!
And Beowulf does. He treks (great poetic images here, you gotta tip your hat to the Anglo-Saxons imagineers):
                                       . . . through wilderness
steep stone passes         solitary trails
narrow-dark gorges         unknown trackways
slippery rockbluffs         secret demon-dens
before getting to the lake’s “dreary and wind-driven” shore. There, Beowulf sees the head of the King’s trusted counselor at the water’s edge, while the water itself is “bloodstained, and “hell-murky” with “many a snake-creature” and “curious water-worms” swimming in its gore. It’s quite a place.

Wearing armor, Beowulf takes the plunge, stroking to the bottom through the “shivering water” that “swallowed him away.” It is a difficult journey. As the narrator of the epic states:
                                             It was wondrously long
before handstrokes bore him         To the bottom of that mere.
At the bottom of the lake, Beowulf is grabbed by Grendel’s mother, a demon, who tugs him to her cavern-den while
                                       . . . wondrous creatures
pressed around him        reached for his life
crunched with nail-teeth        gnashed at his breast-coat
greedy for his blood.
At the bottom of the lake, in the demon’s rock-chamber protected from the waters
firelight shimmered there . . .
Restless flame-shadows         flickered on the wall.
It too is quite a place.

A fight then ensues, a fight worthy of any cable TV pay-per-view fee. It includes a gold sword with a jeweled handle, the killing of the Grendel’s mother by Beowulf, “rushing radiant Light,” the decapitation of Grendel, an abundance of treasures, much “welling of blood,” and “waves of death-gore.”

In this monstrous yet wondrous habitat, Beowulf triumphs. As he swims to the lake’s surface, the previously roiling and dark waters become “peaceful . . . purged of evil” and “opened to sunlight.” Beowulf takes with him Grendel’s severed head – the shocking proof of his successful efforts – and a jewel-encrusted sword-handle. He is proud of these prizes – “the great hell-mysteries” – that he has “haled from the depths.”

Now this is a rollicking, irresistible story. Hollywood a few years back did not need the digitized naked form of Angelina Jolie (as Grendel’s mother) in the movie version of Beowulf in order for this scene to sizzle or kick-start the heart (though I did not complain too much, I must confess).

Beowulf’s trip to, challenges in, and return from the bottom of the lake is a classic – even archetypal – action-paced universal adventure. It’s a story that perfectly embodies the phases of “the rite of passage: separation – initiation – return” that Joseph Campbell sixty years ago rightly termed “the nuclear unit of the monomyth”:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), at page 30.

And this rite of passage, for whatever other roles it may have in human life, and for all else it may signify (and Campbell and others teach that there is much of both), it also serves as a metaphor for the creative act, the creative work of all great poets or artists.

These poets and artists, those with great dedication and skills, regularly journey from the diurnal and quotidian world. As Beowulf did, they travel deep and long into another realm – let me call it the bottom of the lake of their minds – and encounter there, generally with great difficulty, supernatural wonders and fabulous forces that could themselves prove destructive.

This is a well recognized process, at least by some. Consider this astute observation by Kay Redfield Jamison in her classic Touched with Fire (New York: The Free Press, 1993):
From virtually all perspectives – early Greek philosopher to twentieth-century specialist – there is agreement that artistic creativity and inspiration involve, indeed require, a dipping into pre-rational or irrational sources while maintaining ongoing contact with reality and “life at the surface.” The degree to which individuals can, or desire to, “summon up the depths” is among the more fascinating individual differences. Many highly creative and accomplished writers, composers, and artists function essentially within the rational world, without losing access to their psychic “underground.” Others . . . are likewise privy to their unconscious streams of thought, but they must contend with unusually tumultuous and unpredictable emotions as well. The integration of these deeper, truly irrational sources with more logical processes can be a tortuous task, but, if successful, the resulting work often bears a unique stamp, a “touch of fire,” for what it has been through.
And so those poets and artists who are really good, or by a simple twist of fate can grab the gold ring on the journey, bring back prizes, as did Beowulf. Maybe a great poem or work of art, staggering and shocking to the rest of us as Grendel’s severed head was to the King and those on shore. Maybe poem or work of art as otherworldly fascinating and gorgeous as the jeweled handle of a golden sword. Maybe all this and more, hauled up by the poets and artists from the deep, from the . . . bottom of the lake.

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Is it any wonder that since Beowulf, the “bottom of the lake” has recurred so often in poetry?

The trope, as either an image or setting, shows up in Boiardo’s “Orlando Innamorato,” Aloysius Bertrand’s “Ondine,” William Wordsworth’s “The Prelude,” Arthur Rimbaud’s “Alchemy of the Word II” and “Historic Evening,” Philip Lamantia’s “Hermetic Bird,” Aime Cesaire’s “The Wheel,” Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America,” Lyn Hejinian’s “My Life,” Barret Watten’s “Negative,” James Tate’s “September,” Garrett Caples’ “Synth,” and John Olson’s “Immigrant Immersion” and “Souls of Wind” (a poetic-novel).

That’s quite a collection of bottom-of-the-lakes, eh? I’d love to write about each one of them, and sooner or later probably will. For now, here from Olson’s “Souls of Wind” is a quotation that neatly encapsulates the lure, to me, of this most trippy image:
There is a longing in some of us . . . an appetite for the marvelous. For roads in the sky, and parlors at the bottom of the lakes. For monsters and mysteries. For the light of foreign cities, for the fabulous operas of the brain, for monstrous loves and fantastic universes.
And with that, dear readers of this glade-blog, and in particular to you poets and artists out there (if I may be so lucky to have any such readers), I hereby wish you the best on your next trip to the bottom the lake. May you adventure well, and return with (if I may speak metaphorically) many heads of Grendel, jeweled hilts of a golden swords, and - to be as direct as I can be - much else that staggers, shocks, and fascinates.

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1 comment:

The Rollerman A.W. said...

I've been re/reading Williams so the first thing that came to mind is "These" which obliquely references the bottom of the lake: "the heart plunges lower than night" where it encounters what may be "the source of poetry" where "the sound of lakewater / splashing" is heard (from above?).

Great post.