Song of Amergin
I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
I am a spear: that roars for blood,
I am a salmon: in a pool,
I am a lure: from paradise,
I am a hill: where poets walk,
I am a boar: ruthless and red,
I am a breaker: threatening doom,
I am a tide: that drags to death,
I am an infant: who but I
Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch? [uncarved stone arch]
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze: on every hill,
I am the queen: of every hive,
I am the shield: for every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope.
“Song of Amergin” translated by Robert Graves, from The White Goddess
EVERYTHING ALL OF THE TIME
Someone made a mess… No, wait a minute. Someone spilled dry cereal on the kitchen floor. And then three other little someones must have seen it there but trampled through it anyway, grinding it into powder… Unsurprised, as a father I instinctively grabbed the vacuum cleaner. The handle was smeared with butter. My first thought was “How did this get here?” But my second thought was “You idiot, how could you have been so stupid? Of course there’s butter on the vacuum handle – where else would it be? Why should anything not be anywhere, ever?” Why should this toy car not have yogurt painted into its driver seat? Why should plastic Spider-Man not be floating face-down in the toilet? (“The toilet is not a toy.” Yeah, right, try explaining that to a toddler).
The remote control is inside a shoe that was thrown behind the couch. That’s what the kids and I find out after a half-hour of tearing the living-room apart. It’s the first place we should have looked. Where’s the remote control? Are there any shoes stuffed into any furniture? Check there first, then you won’t feel so stupid about all the time you spent digging through toy-boxes and seat-cushions and the kitchen (how does the remote control get into the kitchen? Elves, I think, pokey little elves who must imagine it’ll make music come out of the microwave). I need the remote control, so I can turn on the closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. I know that’s politically correct but I don’t like being called “hearing impaired,” I think it should say “closed captioned for the parents who can’t figure out what’s going on even though the movie’s in English.” When I was young all the cool, hip teens watched movies with subtitles. Now I’m the hippest of all because I watch everything with subtitles.
Sometimes in the dark I put one foot in front of another. It seems intelligent enough, but always reminds me how ignorant and presumptuous I am. Step on a lego, slip in yogurt, trip over a Bat-cave playset, twist my ankle in a pair of shorts lying in the middle of the stairs. In winter, the shorts are there – nobody’s worn them in six months, they’re out-grown, how did they get here now? But of course they’re there – where else would they be? I slipped on a banana-peel. Honest-to-goodness banana peel. Which is funny in cartoons but in real life it also leaves a streak of banana-slime on the floor that, once it hardens, you can’t scrape it off with a chainsaw.
My house. It’s a jungle in there. This winter we had two feet of snow – the West Side of Buffalo looked clean and fresh, in a white gown of bridal purity. And then I’d walk into my house, dark and teeming, strange sounds and smells. I don’t want to get too graphic about this because then Child Protective Services would show up…and find that Elizabeth had murdered me for saying this in public (people blame her when our house is messy, never-mind that she’s a full-time medical doctor and I’m a part-time professor). As a matter of fact, forget I said that, and a jungle is a bad metaphor for my house anyway – jungle makes me think of lions, and a “king” (although a lion strikes me as a bad king, a predator with a big mouth and that tacky orange hairdo and never releasing his tax returns). My home is more like a hive, there’s a queen bee and we all buzz around her and sometimes the kitchen floor is sticky with honey.
Every-thing is everywhere, all the time. Laws of temporal dynamics, laws of physics, displacement of matter – my house laughs at those so-called laws. And Einstein’s theory of so-called relativity too. Where’s the relative to this mitten, Einstein? Where’s the other shoe? Elizabeth’s keys? Phone? Don’t waste your time digging for it, just close your eyes and meditate, or pray. Or dance. And maybe it’ll just appear in your hand. Or on your head or anywhere. You never know what to expect. Unless you expect everything all of the time.
I was talking to someone, the radio was on, a commercial. And a bunch of childrens’ voices said “Yay!” and I jumped. “Where? Where are they? How did they get in here?” I’m shellshocked by parenthood, like I’ve been living in the trenches for a thirty years (my first was born 12 years ago, but you add the ages together to determine how long you’ve been parenting. Thirty years). Elizabeth and I need a vacation. So I’m gonna take her to Beirut. Because how could we sleep without explosions and screams all night long? The sunny Beirut vacation, they should call it the family value pack. And you can bring the kids, and they’ll wear themselves out with a sixteen-hour shift of knitting souvenir scarves. Maybe the kids could embroider me a special scarf that says: “It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village idiot to raise four of them.”
A CHILD OF THE JUNGLE
What keeps me alive in the jungle? Nature made me a shape-shifter. Compartmentalize – I am all this, and then a moment later I am all that. I can read critical scholarship while two kids are playing, one has music on, and another one is shouting about something. I think more clearly in chaos than I do in silence. Then I’ll grab a toddler’s foot and start chewing on their heel, I turn into an animal and pretend to eat them, they laugh. Nature knows that sometimes a Dad is going to come home from the hunt or the war, spattered in blood, and the kids need to still trust him. Children develop their ideas about the world starting with their parents at home – to them we’re super-human, divine, and that’s frightening. But they also see us as animals. The parent is all-divine and all-animal, all at once. Stormy like a thunder-being and smelly like a dog.
As a human being I’m a child of the jungle – all of humanity comes from the jungles of Africa, that was our cradle. Twigs snapping in the night, subtle changes of scent in the day, color-shifts with seasons, stories written in animal tracks. Senses – smell, sight, sound, touch, taste – information flooding through our brains. Plus other senses, the ones we can’t quantify yet (the ones only pseudo-scientists and Unitarians get to talk about) like magnetism and telekinesis, all those signals flashing in the brain, lighting it up like Tokyo in a rush-hour thunderstorm. We have that kind of power inside of us, because that’s what it took for our fragile species to compete and survive.
Think a moment about humanity’s cradle, rock-a-bying baby humanity on the tree-tops – people used to sleep in trees! Imagine that, scratch an itch in the night, you roll over and next thing you’re grasping for vines while plummeting toward the jungle floor. And the big cats evolved, causing a massive wave of extinctions, but not us. Somehow we adapted, survived and multiplied. And now we, human beings… I was going to say that we keep pet cats now as prisoners of war, trophies of our victory but cat owners tell me really that’s not true – the cats won the war and domesticated us to make us their servants.
But we not only survived the cats and the hawks and the snakes and the scarabs, we learned from them too. We learned from the bugs how to store food for winter, we learned stealth from the snakes and tools from the apes and teamwork from the cats and eventually from the birds we learned to fly. And our teachers live in us – we are the snakes and bugs and cats and birds. “I am a stag: of seven tines… I am a hawk: above the cliff… I am a salmon: in a pool… I am a boar: ruthless and red… I am the queen: of every hive.”
THE SONG OF AMERGIN
“The Song of Amergin” comes from an ancient legend about the Celts approaching Ireland. Three native kings enchanted the sea to sink the invading force, and aboard a sinking ship, a druid bard named Amergin (or Amorgen) sings a song invoking his connection with the land, waters and creatures of the island. By the power of this song he is able to part the storm, their ship landed. The natives were defeated and went into hiding, becoming the Sidh – faeries and leprechauns of Irish folklore. The song, attached to this and other legends of Ireland and Whales, was restored by poet/scholar Robert Graves for his book The White Goddess, in which he says this lyric should be the beginning of any exploration of English-language poetry. The stories attached to the song might be mythological, but the song itself feels like an authentic encapsulation of old European animism – the belief that everything in nature has anima (spirit), that everything is interconnected, and that the human (individual and collective) is entwined in this twisted Celtic knot.
This is not a song about someone who likes “nature,” it identifies the singer with all of these phenomena. The singer is the environment: “I am a flood: across a plain, I am a wind: on a deep lake, I am a tear: the Sun lets fall… I am a hill: where poets walk.” The singer is the animals: “I am a stag… I am a hawk… I am a salmon… I am a boar… I am the queen: of every hive.” The singer is also human, a hunter/warrior who uses tools, and the singer is the tools also: “I am a spear: that roars for blood… I am a lure: from paradise… I am the shield: for every head.” The singer is the hunter and prey also. The singer is a tomb and a womb – male and female, a birth-giver and killer, at all stages of life from the helpless infant to the wizened wizard. This is a song of someone who can reach beyond all boundaries of gender and age, life and death. The singer, whether individual or collective, is everything all of the time.
I first encountered this song when I was a stay-at-home dad, and it all made so much sense. “I am a wizard… I am an infant.” The child is the alchemist-magician who can transform food into feces, clothing into laundry, transform the poet into a zookeeper, perhaps even transform the spouse into a coworker (in which case the home becomes an office and the marriage becomes an awkward office-romance. “The boss fell asleep – meet me in the bathroom”). As a stay-at-home dad I would playfully list my job as “waste management,” yes, I work for “The Family.” But I didn’t want to end up in a turf-war.
When I envision the sharing of this song, I imagine a gathering at one of Britain’s mysterious circles, like Stonehenge. When the singer says, “I am an infant: who but I / Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch?” They’re speaking of an arch of uncarved stone (or wood), from which ritual participants look outward at the surrounding land. Stonehenge is mysterious, and I’m not going to go on and on about it, but one thing I can say for certain about it – when we compare it with other ancient megaliths, the Ziggurat of Ur in Babylon, the great Pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, we can see that other ancient cultures were seeking divinity upward – pyramids draw the eye toward the skies. Britain’s stone circles draw the eye inward and outward, horizontally, orienting ritual toward divinities here, around us.
And below us. The other great monuments and religious expressions of old Europe and Britain were underground – decorated burial mounds filled with carvings and paintings, and caves. Hunters descended into the bowels of the earth for solitary rituals, inscribing animals in the womb of the land, in the hope that the ground would give birth to them.
One of the most famous cave paintings is in France, a creature that combines elements of the human, the owl and the buck, with seven points on his antlers. Unlike other cave paintings, which are almost always of animals in profile, this painting looks directly at the viewer, as if challenging us to consider how the hunter and the prey are really one – the animal has been the hunter’s teacher, and will also be his dinner, and its life-force will live on in him until in death he returns it to the earth, where it will feed another generation of plants and animals. It’s hard to put this image into words, but really what he seems to be saying is “I am the stag of seven tines.”
The human species spent millions of years adapting itself to survive. Competition with lions and owls pushed us to use our wits and hands and tools and communication skills to become some of the most powerful pack hunters on the planet. Ugly hairy men who wanted attention from beautiful hairy women had to invent a sense of humor. What other species of animal could come up with that?
But then, starting ten thousand years ago, some group of people stopped adapting themselves to fit their environment, and started adapting their environment to suit themselves. This might seem like the most simple, self-evident thing there is – of course we change our environment to suit ourselves, we wouldn’t last ten minutes in the jungle! But we as a species survived three million years in the jungle – the jungle made us strong and lean and confident and beautiful (not as beautiful as the panthers, but still pretty handsome). It kept our reflexes quick and our cholesterol low. Nobody needed a gym membership or a tanning booth,
But ever since we as a species began adapting our environment to make our lives easier, we’ve been devolving. Civilization has made us soft – our life of ease has left us flaccid. And worse, we’ve lost the self confidence that kept our species alive in the jungle. We’re taught to fear the challenges of nature, the daily tests of survival skills that once kept us sharp. And our fear of sadness and our fear of pain has got us trying to perfect ourselves with chemistry experiments in our own blood and brains. And our natural longing for interconnection has created a new jungle, a digital jungle filled with digital souls, where everything is animated (radiates with anima), we dress up in glamorous avatars and seek kindred spirits, but often find mischievous digital trolls and people pretending to be programs and programs disguised as friends. The internet is not a paradise where angels meet, it’s a jungle where we swing on treacherous vines, and predators stalk in the shadows. We survived millions of years in the old jungle, but will we survive one hundred years in this new jungle? I don’t know. And shutting out our primitive relatives, the salamanders and toadstools and saplings and sprites and seagulls – it’s not so good for us. I’m not saying we should move back in with those relatives, but we should probably visit more often.
When we unplug, log off, whatever, a brief walk outside can remind us that we are related to all objects and life-forms in so many ways, that the whole realm of existence can be seen as a tangled, chaotic web, a Celtic knot. The more we look at the interconnections between all things, the more we can appreciate how an individual life can be without boundaries, and without limits. Everything, all of the time – a messy house, a chaotic mind, it can be scary and overwhelming. But chaos is our natural habitat, and immersion in it brings us closer to our fullest human potential. Where’s the remote control? It’s in a shoe behind the couch. Once we accept this we can move on to the even deeper philosophical question: is the shoe also filled with peanut butter?