≡ Menu


I am not a secular poet, have never been a secular poet, and my work is a journey through both the imagery of my working class Irish Catholic background and my sense of the the incarnate word as Shema Mitzvah–the oneness of God within the act of love toward neighbor. First Shema:

Hear O Israel, the lord, the lord is one.
And you shall love the lord
with all your mind and with all your heart
and with all your strength

and the Mitzvah is

And the second commandment is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.

All other commandments are contained within these two, the whole of the law, the spirit of the law. They are the ontology of my poems, and to truly enter my work, you must understand it in the context of Shema Mitzvah. I do not believe in the separation of faith and works, but, like James, believe faith without works is dead, and works without faith is merely materialism as a form of the dole. Given a choice of which I’d prefer, I’d take works without faith which makes me a radical, but I would not take it happily since I think bread without spirit, and material comfort without conscience is barely worth the bother.

Jesus Christ incarnates into the broken life and impurity of the world. God descends downward, infusing all people, landscapes, and things with the presence of divinity. At the same time, God, having taken on the manner and appearance, and real flesh and needs of the world, is infused with the world which is broken, impure, profane, often ugly, and far from pious. It is also in this world of the broken that Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, waits to be recognized. Christ is not to be found so readily in the “purified” realms, but in the midst of the broken, those who are fucked up, strange, unable to live either fully in the world (highest level of Arete–prowess) or fully in God (highest level of Xenia–care for the other)–my poems seek to witness to those who are imperfect and less than fully human but given full humanity by the incarnate word, also to those who are imperfect and less than fully divine, given divine resonance by God come to dwell amongst us: the motley, the dark, sometimes grotesque comic force of the demi-god, the half-God, Half Monster, neither fully man nor fully divine–us, the half assed. The moment in which Christ (fully man and fully God ) is seen in the “least”, is the moment that the unity of Shema Mitzvah is fully realized–the ground zero of being, which, for me, is Eucharistic reality. To put it simply: I seek in my poetics the moment when the divine is seen in the other, and the divine is not Jerusalem, the expected place, but Bethlehem, the lowly place, the place unsought, but stumbled upon, the “slip of the pen”–that is a moment of Eucharistic reality–grace. Grace appears under the following signs in my poems:

1. The Visible Signs beneath which the Shema Mitzvah lies concealed and revealed: failure, imperfection, exile, ostracism, the ugly, the lost, the comic and inept, the unrequited, the kindly, the motley and in the Falstaff-like bluster of certain of my poetic voices. There are also choices of lineation, and language by which I seek this out: mixed registers of speech, hyperbolic utterances punctured by deadpan understatements, comic or ferocious rants, ungainly one word lines, lines that wobble between long and short– all of this is towards my thematic core:the presence of the divine afflatus where it seems least likely to belong.

I use characters, dialogue, and narrative in an almost novelistic way. I believe poetry has abdicated its perfection as a vehicle for getting straight to the heart of a story to prose which, by its very nature as a conveyor of information, must be far more expository. Prose informs and expounds. Poetry incites and enacts a more immediate ceremony. Most poems, especially free verse poems, are a combination of poetic and prosaic elements, on a spectrum between poetry and prose–demi- gods. I will use an undulating line, an ungainly line because I am not after symmetry. I am after some order within sprawl–the great sprawl of the living and the dead.

2. Personified I, Vatic I, Personal I, and the mutt of all three: Many of the I-voices in my poetry are personifications. In a few poems (“Morning at the Elizabeth Arch”, for example) the I voice is Vatic– the sound of one speaking with authority and almost impersonal gravitas, the I invoking (look! Shemah–listen up!). Sometimes I will employ the personal I as in a memoir (Fists (for my father), or “Elegy of Sue Rapeezi”), but this personal I is likely to blur with the personified I. The mutt I make of all three may confuse a reader who wants the voice to be a genuine contemporary personal voice, or the voice of a character, or that sort of “Wise white man” voice you get with Stephen Dunn. There is also the intentionally stupid, or know-nothing voice of the speculative post-modernist, influenced both by the surreal, comic shtick, and dadaism. I am prone to using all these I’s and mixing them up. It’s important to know that in order to understand my emphasis on the motley. I am doing my own: I contain multitudes. My version also entertains the the darker possibility of “I am legion” (possessed by many demons and conflicted).

I write this not as an apologetic for my poetry, but as an aid to entering it with a greater awareness of its intentions. Of course, each reader misreads differently, and each brings to a body of work his or her own sense of the author’s intentions,successes and failures. To a more secular mind, all I might be doing is writing about losers. To a more sociological type, I may be showing my preference for the underdog. To those who like their lines symmetrical, and their words in a consistent register, many of my tunes may seem full of wrong notes. To those who judge the lyrical merely by the absence of the narrative, I may fail to be lyrical enough. So be it. This is my essay on my intentions. Poem by poem, those intentions wait to be realized or unrealized. On that I rest my case.

There is no Western tradition. What we call the western tradition is actually the Mediterranean merge tradition–a precarious marriage of eastern and western influences which became the so called “western” tradition by way of the scholastics and, later, the scholars of the enlightenment. So I will be calling western thought “warrior thought.” The truth is that warrior cultures sprang up all over the earth–in Native American and steppe cultures, in just about all places where the horse or the wagon or superior roads allowed mobility. This includes the Christian cultures.The eternal equilibrium of warrior cultures can be distilled down to two terms: Arete (excellence, prowess, bravery, status) and Xenia (hopsitality, honesty in trade, alliances between strangers). Each of these two concepts can be further divided into three categories, two of which are of human agency, and the last of divine.

In terms of Arete:
Lowest form: mere brute strength and force of arms; often categorized by boasting and contests, but bereft of stealth, wisdom, or strategic and tactical ability
Middle form: strength augmented by bravery, gallantry, wisdom, but above all, stealth and craftiness in tactics as well as strategy
Highest form: war glory, the moment when the warrior is Mushin, pure power, beyond all strategy or bravery–the beserker, the actual physical transformations of battle fury into divine power, the appearance and strength of divinity; it is a species of grace, cannot be predicted or earned, and is tied to the possession by a god or the favor and divine afflatus of a God. Atheists might call it mystery or spirit. Jocks refer to it as being “in the zone.” By this form Diomedes routes immortals in the Iliad, even as far as wounding the god of war, Ares, in battle. Odysseus seldom has this version of Arete visited upon him, for he exemplifies the second, middle form, but it is definitely upon him when he slaughters the suitors.

Versions of all three types of Arete are in the Bible:
Lowest form: Saul, many of the judges, Goliath
Middle form: David, most especially Abram and Jacob (who is so much like Odysseus, a giver and taker in pain that he and Odysseus might be based on some proto-Middle Eastern hero of stealth).
Highest form: usually displayed by the Isrealites in communal form such as when they defeat an enemy against overwhelming odds, but also present when Elijah slaughters the prophets of Baal or when Samson brings down the pillars of the temple upon the Philistines.

Only this last form of Arete might be likened to grace. The one on whom it is bestowed stands in for the godhead, the divine. It is God as awe, and might, and fear. It is not as gender bound as the other two and has depicted women in the throes of it as well as men. It is a form of gratis–without needing to be earned, without payment.

Now let’s parse out the three species of Xenia:
Lowest form: social nicety, mere protocol, politeness, may even be feigned to do harm to the visitor or stranger. It is the origin of “all that glitters is not gold.”
Middle form: true hospitality, considered the highest virtue of warrior socieites worldwide–even more important that bravey or prowess. To greet the stranger and show hopsitality, to show the ability to make alliances and avoid unnecessary bloodshed is considered the first sign of civilization. It is the trait Homer attributes to Admetus and to many of his Greek heroes, most especially Odysseus. It is the spiting or mocking of this value that leads to the war, for Alexandros mocks the good hopsitality of Mileneus by stealing his wife, Helen (and his best furniture).
Highest form: to recognize God in the lowly and to serve the king in the beggar, to see what can not be seen with mortal eyes except that the gods or God allows it. For example, when Abraham greets the three strangers at Mamre, when the prophet Hannah proclaims the Christ child, when the dog in the Illiad recognized his master in the beggar, when Admetus is kind to Apollo in the lowliest of forms, when the good thief recognizes Christ on the cross, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, when even the stones praise.

The higher the forms of both Arete and Xenia the less they are determined by gender, or species. The one in the highest state of either is incarnate divine–in the grace of the Holy Spirit.

So let us apply this to recent events.

The fate of cultures that prize and emphasize only low rate Arete at the expence of Xenia
Although it is true that in their highest forms Arete and Xenia are not separate, in their lower forms they most certainly are, and Xenia is considered superior. It is better to be civilized and to know how to treat guests, visitors, and the stranger, exchange gifts and welcome than it is to fight well because this gift of Xenia–even in its middling forms–saves the many, costs less lives, and, in the long run, makes strong alliances. As far as Xenia in its middle forms, it is the proof of every great civilization. Without it, the people are looked upon as mere canibals and barbarians–inhuman monsters.

A culture based on Arete (brute force alone) invariably meets with total destruction (Troy had earlier mistreated the god Apollo when he came as a mortal stranger). It is the culture of monsters. So on this first note alone, our brute force is not our strength. Our strength lies in maintaining some form of middle range Arete coupled with middle range Xenia. In so far as 1 percent of the people control all the rest and show no responsibility of mercy toward the 99 percent, we have reached a point in our society where we are monstrous, uncivilized, and prime for destruction. In the animal kingdom, when the alpha is too dominant and brutal, the pack rises up and kills both him and all his progeny. True strength lies not in Arete alone (mere prowess and excellence) but in Xenia.

In the affective brain, caring and play, as well as certain forms of seeking involving caring and play and healthy grieving would fall under the category of Xenia–the cognitive structuring of the affective drives. Seeking as hunting or adventure, rage as in protecting, and lust as in procreating or desire would fall under the category of Arete. The healthy expression of both through the use of wisdom is or should be the desire of any people. When a people are rising, they almost always have middle tier Arete and Xenia. Mere plunderers have only one: brute force. And mere merchants have but the social nicieies of trade and bribery (think of the overly nice Simon Legree from Dickens).

We have reached this point in our civilization, and we will be destoryed if we do not find and maintain a balance between Arete and Xenia. We are, right now, inhabiting the lowest forms of both, and toward the weakest members of our society, we are showing no Xenia at all. Contrary to the Ayn Rand idiots, this is unwise.

The fate of cultures that practice only low rate Xenia
Political correctness, the social niceties and phony tolerance of the choice culture, the elbaborate parties, conspicuous displays of wealth, the vanity and decadence of fops and rich kids, the self conscious fashion obcession with semiotics peculiar to hipster culture…all this is a sign that we are living on the lowest level of Xenia. Correct or appropriate behavior is never a fit subsitute for genuine kindness towards the other.

While we pay lip service to being nice, we are bristling with weapons, enforce our lovely suburbs and gentrified cities with an increasingly brutal police force, jail the poor, persecute the strangers in our midst, and practice every form of politically correct intolerance. We project the shadow of our violence on to the poor and the underglass. We think our good manners, fashionable clothes, and yoga will save us, but it is phatic, and no wonder the world thinks us spoiled and decadent.

Remember: low level Arete is always in bed with low level Xenia. They are one with each other. In the most brutal regimes you will see eleborate shows of “hospitality,” but go beneath the surface and out comes the brute force of military and the law and every kind of bias.

Middle ground Arete and Xenia
At high points in every culture, middle ground Arete (strength coupled with wisdom, shrewdness and strategy) and Xenia (hospitality that is genuine but without too great a show of ostentation, and able to make strong alliances with strangers) are the hallmarks of that culture’s rising fortunes. Often, each culture developes a myth of the highest Arete and Xenia. Even here, Arete, in this highest form serves the highest form of Xenia. Even among the supposedly brutish mythos of Nordic peoples, Balder, the god of hospitality and peace, was eventually to be raised above Odin. Xenia, not Arete, wins Abraham the birth right. Highest Arete is one with highest level Xenia. This is exemplified in such stories as Heracles going down into Hades to retireve the wife of that most hospitable of Greeks, Ademetus. Heracles serves his friend.

The strength, might, and power of God are not separate from his profligate hospitality and mercy to those who are strangers, who are lost, who are pwerless. The one who would see Jesus Christ in the lowest form of men and women is the true Christian for he or she has staked themselves not to earthly or worldly vision but to the divine which insists that the last shall be first, that the stone rejected will become the corner stone. In every respect, the very culture Ayn Rand claimed to be a follower of (she claimed to be a disciple of Aristotle) would reject her love of the “powerful” and the “self-interested” as completely lacking in the grace of middle and high form Xenia. She would be looked upon as a monster.

Nothing in recent blue state or red state behavior, nothing in the heartless dismissal of good works among the Christian corporate right, or the blindness of the elitist left to how much of their “peacefulness” and “smarts” floats on the brute force of armed men shows me my nation is headed in a good direction. We have forgotten that warrior means not war and violence, but the valor, wisdom, and, yes, the great charity of the fully awakened consciousness. We have destroyed the kingdom of the Holy Spirit within us.

This Spirit is given to all sentient life by the Creator, and sometimes even given to non-sentient being (for even the stones may praise). Grace decides. Grace acts. But first we must show we want grace with all our hearts by being both strong and fearless and ferociously kind. We must protect the poor, the old, the weak. We must look after the veteran. We must respect the mentally ill for sometimes speaking, in their pain, the truth of God. A people who can bow to the poor shall rise to the heavens, but a people who kill the poor have killed the Holy Spirit. They will not be forgiven, and when the so called “weak” come to take down the greedy alpha, they will show no mercy. Mercy comes only to those willing to give it. We must pray for our country. We must do penance for how we have treated those who were broken and we must be sober and strong of heart. Every warrior culture carries Arete and Xenia at its core. To lose contact with either and to seek no balance is the way of self destruction.