I recently discovered, after years of fruitlessly searching the repository of the medieval Abbey of Incommensurable Consummation at Aches-and-Pains, a cache of manuscripts that changed the course of history yet have lain forgotten for centuries. The folios consist of books of the Bible transcribed in a fluent yet indeterminate script. No illustrations, no marginalia. Yet they are illuminating as few manuscripts are: these are the transcriptions of a now-obscure cleric, Johan Ashberius.
Before discussing the revolutionary nature of these documents, perhaps I should acquaint the reader with the barest of biographical outlines of this scribe's hidden life; indeed, much associated with the man is veiled in darkness. What we do know comes to this: Arriving in Paris as a young man of obscure origin, he immediately fell afoul of the law by cursing while playing tennis. His term of incarceration was abbreviated when he recounted a dream revealing the location of a vital part of the anatomy of Peter Abelard. Finding this a confirmation of the Platonic notion that all knowledge is a form of remembering, the authorities released Johan, admonishing him of the dangers of explicit speech. It was a lesson he took to heart.
Ashberius set sail for England, hoping to find employ in the livery
of Wallace of Hartford. However, he first visited an oculist in London,
one Charles the Old Son, so named because he was born at the age of
45. Charles supplied Johan with a pair of glasses whose lenses
were convex mirrors, thus ruining Johan's self-image and doing irreparable
damage to his eyesight. Many scholars feel that it is from this
incident that arose the unique genius of Johan Ashberius. (Other
scholars declined comment or were unintelligible.)
Wandering mistakenly into a nunnery, he was pitied by the Mother Superior, Helen, nee Vendelirious, purina Domini canes, the auxiliary of the Dominicans, who spent most afternoons waiting for the Shakespearian sonnet to be invented. Always samgwynn as to the wisdom of her judgments, she decided to employ the young savant in the refectory. However, after failing miserably as both the fish friar and the chip monk, Ashberius was assigned to the scriptorium. It was one of those casual decisions that redefine civilization.
Helen discovered that the Ashberian transcriptions varied in significant ways from the original: unexpected tense triangulations, a sudden change of pronouns, violent shifts of scene, an ostentatious combination of the vernacular with the aesthetic, an exploding of chiches--all thrilled her in a way she had not felt since taking Holy Unders. Shakespeare could wait. Keats, schmeats! This was the explicator's dream; now all was changed, changed utterly.
And so it was. Martin Luther, reading a tract of Ashberius's in the privy, felt a sudden movement. Ecstatic, he nailed his ninety-five feces to the church door at Wittenburg as if they were from a papal bull. This, of course, started the Deformation, an age of great cathedral deconstruction. But we need to return for a close examination of one of Johan Ashberius's revolutionary transcriptions.
Probably one of the prime examples is his rendering, in more than one sense of the word, of the 23rd Psalm. I recount the original in full.
But it's an ordinary day. Out shopping for souls
He forgot his coupon. Damn, but a dollar lost
Is one saved another time. I was telling Ruth--
Was her name Ruth? For God's sake, if you have the key
Point the way home. I have no home. It is dark
Here between the hills. Or are they buildings? At any rate
It's dark here on the plain. I'm always scared to fly
But if you came with me it would all come out OK.
And bring the crew. "Thy rod comforts me" she said
Over dinner between the first course and the third mistake.
I think she was drunk; besides she hated the bastard
And spilled her drink on the tablecloth.
Its stain made the outline of a canary. Or a lie.
But you told me this yourself. I got a call from Alice.
He said he wanted to move in with me forever
Or maybe until Thursday. The peacock in the corner
Is screaming again. It would be a mercy to kill him,
Or so Ralph said. But that was before he caught religion.
Notice the change from Lord to dog; this is one of the more obvious transformations in the work, but brilliant nonetheless. Dog is Dyslexic (an obscure dialect from Selaw, a coal-mining district in the west of England immortalized in the work of Thomas Dylan) for God, but it also is suggested by the shepherd (Ashberius's name is of German origin) and well as the fact that the Dominicans referred to themselves as the dogs of Christ. The measure is suggested both by the lead that follows as well as the fact that this is a poem. So far this is fairly obvious.
What follows, though, are some brilliant pronoun transformations. The "we" clearly indicates the speaker is not alone, but does the "you" in the second line combine with the "my" to equal the "we"? We are getting in deep theological waters here. Then a sudden scene change: the mysterious "It might be [notice the conditionality] fields" and the fields are "heavy with pomegranate / And cellophane." Two objects are surreally combined, hinting at the bounty of existence. (Interestingly, the OED cites this as the first recorded use of the word cellophane.)
Then Ashberius daringly invokes two cliches, both of which he then subverts: "you can lead a horse / But still waters run." Certainly nothing makes one take a fresher look at experience than the failed cliche. The scribe's use of two of these morphing into a possible unity is almost too much. Perhaps sensing this, he pulls back, stressing the limitations of language: "When can be now / That the verbs have left?" Here we witness the poet regaining full control of his craft. But then he reaffirms indeterminacy: "Has she been here before?" Who is the she? And where are we? Profound questions.
Stanza two starts off by reaffirming the mysteriousness of the quotidian. The "shopping for souls" sounds almost satanic but is relieved by the humor of forgetting the coupon. What follows ("Damn, but a dollar lost / Is one saved another time") is not a cliche, but it should be. Then he mentions Ruth. Aha! perhaps this is the "she" of the previous stanza? But we're cast back into the dark night of the soul immediately by his doubting her name after all. He becomes hopelessly lost (the "For God's sake" and the plea for the key has to be among the most heart-rending passages in literature) and wanders into the valley. But how much more effective is the uncertainty of the Ashberian landscape than the generality of the valley of the shadow of death! Here we're not even sure whether what we're entering is natural or unnatural. Or both. Or neither. With a casual "At any rate" he breaks into the next stanza, where we may be on a plain. Next comes something that is disconcerting for the modern reader; Ashberius seems to be talking about a modern airplane that was suggested by his use of "plain." Lest we find something Nostradamusical about all of this, we have to remember that the scribe regularly wrote from flights of fancy, so this is probably what this passage refers to. And it was common at this time for souls to be thought of as birds because they could fly to heaven; they also often flew in flocks (the "crew"), so we shouldn't become troubled by the possibility of a psychic anachronism here.
Then comes what is for me the pinnacle of the piece: the dinner scene. Here we have a far more graphic encounter than merely a "table in the presence of mine enemies." We have a suggestion of sexual malfeasance, perhaps of a sadistic nature, mingled with intimations of the Last Supper with the spilling of the drink. This is an extraordinary, even blindingly visionary, sequence, prefiguring the rite of communion. Such a conjunction is not incompatible with the sexual overtones when one considers that the communion is often referred to as the Love Feast.
The tone seems to be lightened by the comparison of the stain to the shape of the canary until one remembers what the death of a canary means to miners--this is the sort of deep image that Robert Bly would try to take credit for centuries later. We see again the pioneering work done in seclusion years ago by Johan Ashberius. Any suggestion of levity is further vanquished by the seeming afterthought "Or a lie." What could the lie be here but the recognition that art is, after all, artifice? In our compost-modern age this is a truth abundantly clear to us, but Ashberius was writing in an Age of Faith, whoever she was.
Next the "you" reenters the poem followed by the introduction of someone
named Alice. We must remember what "got a call" would have meant
to Ashberius: a divine calling, perhaps the call of Ashberius to his craft.
But in one of his most daring pronoun shifts Alice seems to be referred
to as "He." The He could be capitalized to refer to divinity, or perhaps because it starts a sentence. Now the conflation
of "forever" and "Thursday" could indicate the fickle finger of fate or
the transient nature of inspiration. We also must remember that past
ages had a much more compressed sense of time than do we post-post moderns.
Also, Abbey records indicate that Thursday was
Finally, we progress to the archetypal image of the peacock. The peacock is not only a sexual symbol (sound its syllables slowly) but it is also the favorite bird of the Persian god Aleph, as well as being the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet--the source. It is obvious that Ralph is a Westernization of Aleph and symbolizes the European intolerance of other cultures. But note the ending: "But that was before he caught religion." If the "he" refers to the peacock, Ashberius is predicting the conversion of the heathen. But if the more likely referent of "he" is Ralph what we witness here is a plea for tolerance, a truly Christian acceptance of otherness. And we need to remember that there are many significant others spending quality time interfacing through feedback of positive reinforcement throughout the poem. This is, like, true art.
Johan Ashberius wrote in a magical time. Sharon of York invented the Oldsmobile, a vehicle powered by bodily fluids. Helen Vendelirious herself invented a precursor to the telegram, its only difficulty being that messages arrived hopelessly garbled. This device was called the joreygram. The poet lariat was invented which could bring any winged horse to the ground. The French created the derry-da, a dance without any steps which delayed the birth of Bach for two hundred ears. And Diane Wakoski invented America. But by far the most significant of all these spiritual explorers was that obscure monk, that visionary with vision problems, Johan Ashberius, who showed that though we may see as through a glass darkly we can still see the dark glassily. For else whom could we much as say?
Dr. Robert Darling
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