Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Jim Lenfestey's Phantom Quiz - An update of Walt Whitman’s 'By Blue Ontario’s Shore'

Jim Lenfestey recently gave me a copy of his outstanding new book of poems, Earth in Anger: Twenty-five Poems of Love and Despair for Planet Earth.   We were both reading at an Open Book event which had been arranged by our mutual friend, John Caddy.  The event was supposed to have happened on Earth Day, but it got snowed out and was re-scheduled for a week later.  Jim hadn't been scheduled for the original Earth Day event because the launch of his new book was happening that evening.   Earth arranged for Jim to read his poems two weeks in a row.  I guess some of the people who drove through the blizzard to get to the original reading were a little miffed that it was cancelled.  I hope they pick up Jim's book and divert that energy as he recommends with his poems.

Jim read By Azure Huron's Shore as his last offering that evening and it's the final entry in the book, but I think it should be read first.  This Phaantom's quiz places the poems in an context of urgency that allows the supple rhythms of the poems more space to undulate.

NOTE: In 1848 journalist Walt Whitman and his brother Jeff traveled to New Orleans to help establish the newspaper the Crescent.  After three months, according to his own hand-drawn map now in the Library of Congress, they returned up the Mississippi and through the Great Lakes, passing through the Straits of Mackinac into Lake Huron, then Erie, then Ontario.  In the 1867 edition of “Leaves of Grass” he included “As I Sat Alone By Blue Ontario’s Shores,” in which he encounters a “Phantom” who quizzes him on the qualities necessary to undertake the American project of creating and healing a nation.  Inspired by Whitman’s interrogation, I wondered what “many and stern” questions the Phantom would put to poets and citizens today to undertake our necessary project, healing and reclaiming our broken, reeling planet.  In the Invocation, I changed but one word of Whitman’s, substituting “earth” for “nation.”  The rest of the Phantom’s interrogation came fresh through me in one burst as I sat alone by azure Huron’s shore.  Originally published as a broadside, it may be reproduced free forever.


(An update of Walt Whitman’s By Blue Ontario’s Shore, section 12)


Are you he who would assume a place to teach or be a poet here on this earth?

The place is august, the terms obdurate.

Who would assume to teach here may well prepare himself body and mind,

He may well survey, ponder, arm, fortify, harden, make lithe himself.

He shall surely be questioned beforehand by me with many and stern questions.

Who are you indeed who would talk and sing of the earth?



Do you know the depth of the waters, and the height of the sky, and their composition?

Have you befriended the trees where you live, know their roots, their crowns?

Have you studied the rocks beneath them, to the fifth epoch?

And the birds above, their songs and what they eat, and where they nest?

And the people who lived there before you, and your ancestors, to the second millennium?

And the rivers and lakes, their subtle watersheds and hidden springs?

And do you swim in the chill and warm waters of your seas and lakes indiscriminately? And with relish? And know the sources of pollutants threatening your waters? And fight against the dark rain with armies of petitions and voters’ guides and drives and meetings?

Are the glaciers and the jungles your friends, the serpents and beasts and birds your guides, the pigs of the sty your helpmates, the microbes and fungi your intimates?

Do you shun or reform all religions that deny the primacy of the earth and its processes? That believe mankind unable to destroy everything good? Or save everything good?

Do you accept with joy the findings of science?

Are your taxes paid to the federal, state and municipal authorities without complaint, as the recognized price of civil living?  Do you wish to pay more?

Do you believe in the Holy Trinity: the water, the grass, the air?  And do you worship them every day with acts of kindness and political clout?

Are you sickened unto death that the biodiversity of the earth is plummeting? The Arctic sea ice melting?  The oceans acidifying?

Have you read the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?

Or at least the Executive Summary?

And know that its finding of warming for the most part due to the burning of fossil fuels has been everywhere affirmed, including by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, even the George W. Bush Administration?

And are you hot with anger at the lies about the cause of changing climate spouted by those with fingers black with oil, breath black from smoking mines?

And will you slay with dark thoughts the miscreants at Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Rush Windbag and others who perpetuate those lies?

Will you fight back with evidence and heat and love for the atmosphere which is the life blanket of our planet?

Do you firmly believe there is no such thing as evil, but only abundant ignorance, stupidity, shortsightedness, self-dealing, self-loathing and fundamentalist self-righteousness?

Do you “fear a lie as others fear fire,” as Chekhov said, and know that “inside you is an inexhaustible fountain of ideas,” as Brenda Ueland said?

Do you believe in families and communities green and cheerful with good schools and happy parents and joy shouted from the schoolyards?

Have your studied Emerson’s essays The Poet and Nature, foundation stones of the spiritual democracy of our nation and all nations, who saw the divine in every person and particular of nature, including these Great Lakes?  He who begat Thoreau and Whitman and Dickinson and Bogan?  Jim Bogan?

When you gaze at the person you love, and the multitudes you love, do tears of gratitude spring to your eyes?   Do your hands fall open in gratitude to the waters, the grass, the air?  And for people who fight for the waters, the grass, the air?

By azure Huron’s shore,

do you stand at the water’s edge, tasting the delicious energies of the grass, inhaling the delicious energies of the air, and fearlessly plunge into the dark waters, for the sake of your soul, and the soul of the earth?

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