Donald Wellman

I was told to go down to the shore and construct a barque for my Master’s rite, an altar on which rum and candles might be lit, floating wick on oil in clamshells for keeping vigil until the hand of God rose from the water and drove the ferry into the maw of night. The God of the sea is Agwe. He is the eel from the biomass pond. I have chocolate saints’ figurines. And so, I undertook the work of the prophet and became adept at untwisting words. I sweated and tossed in bed, hardly slept. Since returning from Caribbean waters I could no longer find warmth, even lying naked on sun-warm slabs by the sea. A sailor, speaking the local idiom, said to derive from the English of the Early Modern Period, instructed me to sail from the Gulf of Maine to the Bay of Biscay and celebrate the marriage of cod and wine. On the walls of the cave at El Castillo are images of the same Mi’kmaq double-ended ocean-going canoes that had been used for whaling during my youth in Red Bay. My tribe is the eel or water snake that lives under the falls of the Penobscot.

The titanium cladding of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum shimmered in the sun. In its bowels the boy in me admired the oxidized iron sheets of Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. The boy began to understand the folded forms that had informed his life. The immense weight of Serra’s construction dragged time down to a geological pace of extreme delay. The work of god. The boy found a cranny in a broom closet where he could sleep. Looking up at the naked girders that supported the skin of the museum where it floated above him, he saw in the intersection of the beams, a sacred space not unlike the interior of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. He closed his ears to the whispering wind from the HVAC system, hugged himself in his thin shirt and slept.

“Get up! Get out of Here!” the apoplectic face of the toothless security guard shouted. The guard dog on its chain. “Rys radly, and rayke forth euen!” He remonstrated, “Nym þe way to Nynyue wyth-outen oþer speche.” The guard was a ventriloquist sent by the Lord. Uncomprehending, refusing to comprehend, I washed my face in the Nervión. I sat on the embankment. My shirt stank of night terrors. After it had dried in the sun, I went to have coffee with the grandniece of the loneliest gay poet ever to have inhabited planet earth. She approved of my project, translating his Jardín cerrado into English. Ethereal melancholy. I felt the birth of true purpose, not nightmare dicta from Old Testament times. My course now lay through mountains, along a narrow-gage railroad track constructed for removing iron ore from the mines, I followed the torturous path to Léon where I was to meet the poet who was the grandfather of my recovery. In dallying, I denied the commands of my Lord, resolute as he was in harrying me on.

The path narrowed. Mountains on each side grew closer, the angle of ascent steeper. From a cleft in the rock fell a bridal veil of sacred water. It chanted a lesson in the old language, “Goddes glam to hym glod þat hym unglad made.” Counting prayer beads as they slipped through wrinkled hands established a lulling sonority, “And in þat cete my saγes soghe alle aboute, þat in þat place, at þe point, I put in þi hert.” A poetics of spontaneous speech was implicated. A vatic assonance. “Without premeditation say only the words I put in your heart.” Was this the art of prophesy that enables poetry? Was drumming required for voyage? I continued down the valleys, past spas and soap factories to the chapel where apocalyptic beasts materialized themselves in passages from the Book of Revelations, 1063, San Isidro. My host commanded that we eat before we speak. The proposed journey unsettled him. Old Marxist that he is, he discounted the magical appeal of Visigothic legend. He knew that there had once been a religion that hewed more closely to the cycles of the seasons. I remembered the lesson of The Matter of Time. The gears grind ever more slowly. The landscape around us lay in waste. To redeem Nineveh required the prophet to sew a field with dragon teeth. I feared to condemn the evil ways of the sinful citizens, even though I cited the livid anger of a wrathful God. I feared my prophecies would bring about my death at the hands of unhappy mobs. No indemnification for goodwill. The mission promised destruction. Nothing good, I argued with myself, could come from words so disseminated. Like Thebes, Nineveh would rise and fall in a day or so I assumed. My intention was to continue to defy my Lord, wriggling like a worm. My way lay along mountain tops to the Pyrenees. Allowing sufficient time Nineveh would fall in the Syrian Wars before I arrived. After all it’s only a suburb of Mosul! Why bother? My rebellion nevertheless caused cold sweats. Nineveh has endured, I reminded myself, since the beginning of time. Its streets crowded with lost souls.

The four-story tower of San Climent rose above the treetops. I traced the path of the Cathars from Carcassonne down to Gosol in the valley where Picasso had discovered cubism among the gray tones of the cliff walls. Art redeems nature, I thought. I measured the fall of sunlight through a single aperture in a blazing white room. My skin was burnt by long exposure. A Polish youth stopped to observe the operation. His tale of the number of mountains he had traversed since sunrise awakened my affections. He was not Gabriel and I was no longer young. My breathing was raspy. As I reached the climax, spending myself, the doors of perception opened. The face of god appeared among the scudding clouds above Pedraforca.

A forester from Andorra offered me a ride. He had a fast van. With his help I reached Vik and from there it was a short rail voyage by train to Barcelona. I noticed an Arabian girl with multi-color sneakers. She had beaten her brother and left a bruise on his forehead. She had one eye. Was she my alter ego, born in the throes of resurgent time? In the port I booked a berth in a fishing vessel bound for the Isles of the Blest. They sought white fish, merluza and lobina. They would land their catch on the very shores where I first observed the titanium whale, its scales gleaming in the morning sun like iridescent leaves. Atlantic cyclones marched from the east to the west. We made no headway as we approached Tenerife. The captain sought the safety of Ultima Thule off the Newfoundland coast, returning me to my childhood. God wants me dead was all my thought, “not wanting to suffer sores, his soul is at hazard.” Desperate to save their ship and its cargo, I was identified as the bearer of a curse, much as Cain and Grendel had carried a curse in my other lives. “Now is Jonah þe jwe jugged to drowne; Of þat schended schyp men schowued hym sone.” Not scraped by a tooth, Leviathan swallowed me whole. Not mine the fate of Ahab or Ahab’s leg, though this monster was a cousin white whale. In far flung gyres time like sludge smears all in its path. In the bowels of the beast, I found a cranny above the sloshing of the putrid mire. A tidal surge in the Tigris vomited me forth and spewed my body onto the shore at Nineveh. Broken man. God chided me for my vain and selfish flight.

Imagine the progress upriver. In 2007 two humpback whales passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and navigated 120 miles upstream on the Sacramento. Legend proclaims that the citizens were terrified by Jonah’s prophesies. They feared the wrath of a god who was not theirs, a war god from a different cosmos, The King removed his robe and dived into the ash pit. Yet on the morning after victory, I complained because the lord had incinerated the shelter that had protected me under the leaves of a gourd-vine, the bower that had meant salvation. The sun that glimmered through the bare branches became an unbearable desert fire, scorching aching limbs and ragged torso. “Be not so gryndel good man,” remonstrated the Lord. “Gryndel” / Grendel – a weird word pair. A lesson in patience motivated the work of the earlier Pearl Poet who constructed his word machine with intricate weavings of rhythms and figures for container and things contained in which rattle the wheels of time, a titanium clad whale, a nook in the belly of the living Leviathan. Transformations of the one and the count-as-one as decreed by Alain Badiou.Could a prophet have prevented the destruction of Mosul? It was in the Great Mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the beginning of ISIL’s “caliphate” which was to span Iraq and Syria. Mosul’s original population of 2.5 million perished during three years of occupation by ISIL. The liberation displaced an additional one million people. Refugees were victims of bombing by missiles and mortars. Children, their grandparents, even the newly wed perished, their homes obliterated in a fog of radioactive dust. For the editors of Aljazeera, the destruction of Mosul was déjà vu. It had happened so often with similarly dire consequences. Could a poet with a special dispensation from god make sense of what he saw looking down from the Sinjar mountains? He saw no god in Nineveh province. The poet understood Jonah’s impatience with his warrior god. He buried himself under the weight of his fears. The city had once been extremely diverse, with ethnic minorities including Armenians, Yazidis, Assyrian, Turkmen, and Shabak people. What was the stake that would allow an isolated, individual poet to proclaim a moral vision when he himself had none?