Images Haunt


Inside the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, Vezeley, France

Language is not something you learn in school, it is a world you're born into. It is part of the wildness of mind. You master your home tongue without conscious effort by age five. Language with its sinuous syntax is not unlike the thermal dynamics of weather systems, or energy exchanges in the food chain - completely natural and vital, part of what and who we are. Poetry is the leap off of - or into that.

- Gary Snyder Beneath A Single Moon, pg. 4



The most ancient European languages - those that have longest avoided infiltration by other languages - are the most complicated in their grammar and syntax. The age of a language can be roughly guessed at by a count of its declensions, conjugations, moods, tenses, voices, cases, genders and numbers. Latin is clearly less ancient than Greek, since it has no 'middle voice', no 'duel number' and no optative mood'- thus in Latin at least seven words are needed to express the sentence 'If only you two thieves had drowned yourselves', but in Greek only four. French is clearly less ancient than Latin, since it has no separate neuter gender and does not decline its nouns; also its conjugations are far simpler. English is clearly less ancient than French: except for its pronouns, it is free of gender differentiation.

Grammatical simplicity is the mark of the vernacular... English is a vernacular of the vernaculars... A proof of this is that no writer of English would be credited with a perfect literary style merely because he had exactly modeled himself on some literary paragon - say, Addison in England, or Emerson in the United States - as Italians, Spaniards and Frenchmen might after modeling themselves, respectively, on Boccaccio, Cervantes and Bossuet. To write English well, it is generally agreed, is not to imitate, but to evolve a style peculiarly suited to one's own temperament, environment and purposes. English has never been jealously watched over by a learned Academy, as French has been since the seventeenth century; nor protected against innovations either by literary or professionalism, as with Italian, or, as with Spanish, by the natural decorum of the greater part of those who use it. It is, indeed, an immense, formless aggregate not merely of foreign assimilation and local dialects but of occupational and household dialects and personal eccentricities.

- Robert Graves



Many misconceptions surround the simple experience of writing. One is that writing is the result of what we normally call thinking. In the almost universally accepted fiction, the story goes that first we think (logically, rationally, even 'imaginatively') and then we write. The teacher says, "Think before you write. Organize in advance. Do an outlive." We use textbooks based on the false assumption (as Moffett tells us in Teaching the Universe of Discourse) that the "output of writing must be preceded and accompanied by pedagogical input. All... is predicated on the notion that the writer's conscious thoughts cause writing to occur. I would like to advance here that writing is writing; it is not a transcription of thoughts already held in the mind. Writing is not the result or effect of what we normally call thinking. What we all know and are reluctant to admit is writing as an experience is a mystery and that structures of logic and rationality pass time in the class but do not illuminate the mystery.

from Losing One's Mind: Learning to Write and Edit by Barrett J. Mandel



When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. There used to be an illustration in every elementary psychology book showing a cat drawn by a patient in varying stages of schizophrenia. This cat had a shimmer around it. You could see the molecular structure breaking down at the very edges of the cat. everything interacting, exchanging ions. People on hallucinogens describe the same perceptions of objects. I'm not a schizophrenic, nor do I take hallucinogens, but certain objects do shimmer for me. Look hard enough and you can't miss the shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet. You don't talk to many people and you keep your nervous system from shorting out and you try to locate the cat in the shimmer, the grammar in the picture...

The picture that did, the picture that shimmered and made these other images coalesce, was the Panama airport at 6 a.m. I was in this airport only once, on a plane to Bogota that stopped for an hour to refuel, but the way it looked that morning remained superimposed on everything I say until the day I finished A Book of Common Prayer. I lived in that airport for several years. I can still feel the hot air when I step off the plane, can see the heat already rising off the tarmac at 6:00 a.m. I can feel my skirt damp and wrinkled on my legs. I can feel the asphalt stick to my sandals. I remember the big tail of a Pan American plane floating motionless down at the end of the tarmac. I remember the sound of a slot machine in the waiting room. I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport, an American woman, a norteamericana, a thin norteamericana about forty who wore a big square emerald in lieu of a wedding ring, but there was no such woman there.

Joan Didion, Why I Write


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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. My senior-year high school art class had a good collection of monographs, including a book on Byzantine art. The mosaics of the Eastern Orthodox church were extremely moving to me; they conveyed the energy of early Christianity, the Christianity I wanted to have, or that I once had, the one I felt to be true. A Christianity not of politics and dogmas but of inquiry; a religion of somber beauty, grottoes and caves lit by a candle where contemplatives gathered alone or in a group, but always silently. I had taken my LSD trips but had not yet encountered Buddhism; I was a Jonah not yet swallowed by the whale. I knew my future was not one of being a Christian, yet beauty in some ways trumps all.

The Byzantine art monograph I studied when I was seventeen had several photographs of Hagia Sophia and I've never forgotten them and Constantinople-Istanbul became a longed-for destination inside me. Just over thirty-years later something made me include Istanbul in my travel plans, the year I turned fifty.

Hagia Sophia is a conqueror's palace, stark and even brutal evidence of what the Roman Empire could accomplish; Constantine's vendetta if looked at from a slave's point of view. In spite of this, in spite of the cameras, the crowds and the overwhelming imperial vastness of a building that remained the world's largest for five-hundred years, Hagia Sophia also carries in its varied and triumphant beauty the improbable atmosphere of the fire-lit cave; the somber, reflective and deeply innocence-seeking gaze of Christianity's founder, the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.

Bill Scheffel
Istanbul, Turkey