A Keeper of the Reliquary arrived in the mail for the New Year. Like other privately printed pamphlets of Christopher Middleton's which I have received over the years, the nut-brown pamphlet was impeccably produced in an edition of fifty copies, and contained, as it announced on the title page, a poem in six parts. Several months earlier - sharing an interest in all things related to Asia Minor and the Near East - Middleton had sent me as a gift a handsome, illustrated first edition of Henry Baker Tristram's The Land of Moab, published in 1873. Tristram, in fine Victorian fashion, was a naturalist, Biblical scholar, traveler, and clergyman. And Middleton knew of my own fascination with the man after whom is named Tristram's Grackle of scarlet-tipped wings frequenting the desolate ravines and sandstone cliffs around Jericho. I had been delighted by the rare gift and by the thought of Middleton chancing upon such a book in, of all places, Austin, Texas.
In effect I can gaze at the land, or rather highlands, of Moab by stepping out of my home in Jerusalem and strolling over to the recently refurbished old Turkish train station from where, on a clear day, the "blue hills rising with clear outline beyond the thin haze which overhangs," in Tristram's words, "the deep hidden lake of salt" loom into view from behind the eastern side of the Dead Sea in modern-day Jordan. Trekking out into these hills in the 1870s was undoubtedly a treacherous journey. Tristram had been stirred to explore the region as much by his love for the natural world as for his zest for retracing ancient biblical sites, and by the time A Keeper of the Reliquary arrived by post I had had ample opportunity to follow in the pages of Tristram's book his adventures in what he called a practically "sealed region", at least for the western traveler.
This would include a long ramble down into the Arnon dry riverbed (Wadi Mujib) in chapter VII, where Tristram describes the remains of an old Roman road, his mind continuously carried back to this or that biblical incident even as his eyes are alert to sand grouse, plover and "the graceful black-winged stilt, allured by the shallow pools left here and there by the rains." Imagine my surprise, then, in reading the fifth section, titled The Lammergeyer, of Middleton's pamphlet:
And did he best exist
forgetting that he existed,
for while the gravity of it spooked him,
there it was, the scarlet anemone -
what can it be reminding him of
but, remote as anything,
the ravine of Arnon in the depths of Moab.
Middleton has been in our own times the arch poet of the masked voice, slipping in and out of sundry identities - literary, historical, animate and inanimate. (In the fourth section of Keeper of the Reliquary, the haunting speaker appears to be a token or rolled paper amulet: "slide me from the tube,/unfold the roll of me,/my letters spell no noise".) One has only to think of "Edward Lear in February," "What Would You Have Made of it, Kavafis," "Mandelstam to Gumilev, 1920," "Shih-Ch'u's Magic Letter," "The Monk of Montaudon," "A Report from the Euphrates," and, in Middleton's most recent collection, Just Look At The Dancers, the magnificent "John Clare to his Muse" - all figures of errant endurance and, though a step removed from society by temperament, keenly aware-at times preternaturally so-of their surroundings.
So too in "The Lammergeyer" it is the forlorn, precipitous setting as well as Tristram's attention to the local vegetation-to geology, fauna, and antique, Roman relics-that trigger Middleton's sympathetic imagination; and it is, I imagine, Tristram's passing observation of "gorgeous scarlet anemones pushing out among the stones" that sparks (spooks?) the poem into being as the floral image sets off a series of private, even painful associations. Endowed with Middleton's copy of The Land of Moab, I felt as if I were privy, as it were, to Middleton's lyric reconfiguration of three passages in Tristram's travel book. Perilously called into being by the scarlet anemone in the first stanza, the poem proceeds to provisionally lose its way in the second:
We lost the path;
Stepping among basalt boulders in the dark
We took in our hands the horses' tails.
The hoof knows nothing of figments;
They would find the way up and out.
The full prose narrative reads as follows: "Nearer the top, the path, though free from the basalt boulders which encumber the south side, was perilous enough in the dusk. We could not make way as we had calculated. Dismounting, and leaving our horses to find the path, while we held on to their tails, we debouched on the bleak plain, a few hundred yards west of Ara'ar, the desolate heap which marks the Biblical Aroer." Dichten = Condensare. And in Middleton's own terms, "The braiding of narrative and lyrical codes." Where the fourth line drives the point home: "the hoof knows nothing of figments." Nothing of the contrived. The calculated. The imaginary.
Neither does it know of the poem's pronominal shifts, from third person singular to first person plural and, in the third stanza, back to the third before slipping into the second person. This is, I believe, part of the poem's lyric code. It is the grammatical, but also the synergetic manifestation of our hidden, constantly shifting "errant selves" on which the modern lyric structures itself:
The hard ground said it: errant selves exist,
and some, who knows, must move on unappeased.
Best hidden, driven by self-doubt,
he feared the scarlet anemone, it sucked him in,
his nightmare. And here it flowered,
in fellowship it flowered
from a crevice in the Roman bridge.
You look around - an expedition,
a peaceful expedition has plans of its own.
The scarlet anemone-otherwise known as the windflower-decking the Judean hills and the highlands of Jordan after the winter rains, lures and disconcerts. For Tristram the naturalist it is a sign of beauty bespeaking "a different climate from that we had left, where scarce a symptom of spring could as yet be seen" while in the mind of the poet the flower cannot escape its iconic status as a figment, sprung from the blood of Adonis. "Soft echoes of the wind-'anemone'-/are in the flower's name"-so Ovid-"yet at one touch,/the fading petals scatter-all too soon." Though I suspect that Middleton's anemone may be closer in kind to the chthonic gravity of Lawrence's "Purple Anemones": "Caverns,/little hells of colour, caves of darkness …"
Traveling south into the Negev with friends visiting from the States last spring-Tristram would have identified the region as the biblical Wilderness of Zin-we'd hiked down into a steep canyon just north of the Nabatean ruins of Avdat. Perched on a ledge high above us a Lappet-Faced vulture, rarest of raptors, would every so often spread its huge wings, launch out, and leisurely circle over the yawning canyon before gliding back to its eyrie. Craning our necks and passing a pair of binoculars around, we could see its bare, red skin on head and gullet. The Lammergeyer, or Bearded Vulture, spotted by Tristram before descending into the Arnon ravine, similarly nests on high, remote, rocky ledges, though it is larger than the Lappet-Faced vulture and generally more attractive with its rufous underparts and a black band running through its eyes. Tristram's dilation at the sight of the bird of prey is worth quoting in full:
The griffons circled and soared from their eyries, lower down, till lost to sight in the sky; the buzzards lazily flapped their heavy wings as they crossed and recrossed; but, grandest ornithological sight of all, a pair of lammergeyers (Gypaetus barbatus), the largest on the wing of our raptorial birds, kept sailing up and down, backward and forward, quartering the valley, and keeping always close to the brow, the sinuosities of which they followed without a perceptible movement of their wings; only their long tails gently steering them in and out, as each time they passed us, easily within gunshot, on a level with our eyes. They were perfectly fearless, as though they knew the sportsmen had only No. 7 in their barrels; and in the morning sunlight their brown tails and wings gleamed with a rich copper hue, and their ruddy breasts shone brightly golden.
And here is Middleton's final stanza to "The Lammergeyer," its taut, stately cadences matching word for word the gliding movements of the bird. Personal pronouns dissolving in the particulars of seeing-or rather re-visioning-at eye-level ("And did he best exist/forgetting that he existed"): a rare specimen in itself-as Zukofsky demanded of the poem-of "rested totality":
In such a ravaged narrative must figure
a great bird gliding, huge wings motionless,
close to the ridge where the horsemen halted;
it was afloat on a breeze, at eye-level,
plumage deep copper in the morning sunlight,
long copper tail perfect for a rudder.