Monthly Archives for: October 2011

2011 October

NOº 2952

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: Five Sacred Texts Brought to You By the One-and-Only Don Gilliland

Sacred texts;

or, “Knocking at Scripture’s Door”

Encounters with the holy are what keep me alive.

This is the first time I’ve thought in any close way about my canon of sacred texts. Thus, some introductory remarks: I’m not able, nor do I feel a need, to try to explain what I think constitutes the “sacred.” However, I can and want to try to show you. These are some places where I’ve met with sacredness. It’s perhaps not mere coincidence that they all relate in some way to time and mortality.

J.S. Bach, Chaconne in D Minor for solo violin.

It’s the final section of the Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, for solo violin. The term “chaconne,” if you’re not familiar it, refers to a musical form in which variations are composed over a repeated chord progression. Since I’m not a violinist, my experience of the music is as a listener. And since I’ve never heard it performed live, my experience has been further mediated by recording technology.

The partita is one of a set that’s believed to have been written shortly after the death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, in 1720. A rather remarkable 2001 recording on ECM titled “Morimur,” with Christoph Poppen (violin) and The Hilliard Ensemble, explores the piece as an “epitaph” to Maria Barbara, as posited by a project of meticulous musicology. The recording interweaves movements of the partita, with particular attention to the chaconne, with Bach’s settings of several chorales associated with death and resurrection, most prominently the Easter hymn “Christ lag in Todesbanden,” the text of which is on Christ’s overcoming of death and the new life of the resurrection.

My copy of the CD was a gift from my older daughter Clara. The Latin “morimur” can be translated as “we are dying.”

Two other links that may be of interest:

  • A live performance by consummate Bach player Viktoria Mullova (unfortunately split into two parts): Part 1 and Part 2.
  • A public domain edition of the score (scroll down to page 26). I can’t vouch for its editorial authoritativeness, but it’s basically accurate so far as I can tell.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial.

It’s located at the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. I’ve only seen pictures of it; someday I want to see the thing itself.

Henry Adams commissioned it as a memorial for his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams. She’d committed suicide in 1885, grieving over the death of her father to whom she was very close. Deeply affected by her death, Adams conspicuously omits discussion of any of this in his Education of Henry Adams.

The sculpture, cast from bronze, was completed in 1891, and, I suppose, installed soon after. This beautiful photograph is from a 1914 book titled Artist and Public, by artist, critic, and friend of Saint‑Gaudens, Kenyon Cox.

George Harrison, “Long, Long, Long”

it’s been a long, long, long, time
how could I ever have lost you
when I loved you?

A few nights ago I listened to The Beatles’ “White Album” for the first time in perhaps thirty years. This song in particular — its air of airy longing; its long, long semantic and melodic arcs; its gorgeously bold breaths of spirit — continues to resound in my heart and mind.

Yes, it’s an ecstatic, contemplative prayer upon a restored connection with the divine. But for me, in this present now, the song is also about a personal and interior connection — with this song, this album, other music, other people—with a certain time of longing in my own long-ago past.

I listened to the album among exquisitely epicurean company, well after midnight. One of the many good things about that evening was my finding out that Harrison said that the chords for this song derived from Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”

“It’s been a long, long, long time…”

But it’s not so simple as all that. The song’s end is a scary apocalypse.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse).” Oil on canvas, 27¾ by 35 3/8 inches, c.1896-1908.

Death rides counter-clockwise; a viper slithers nearby. It is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that appeared to John in the vision which he recounts in the book of Revelation (6.1-8). After the fourth of seven seals is broken, the fourth horse appears, of a “deathly pale” color, and “its rider was called Death, and Hades followed at its heels.” The color, so hauntingly rendered by Ryder, is much like the white that Melville describes Moby-Dick’s “Whiteness of the Whale” chapter. You may recall Death’s re-emergence in the person of Clint Eastwood in the film Pale Rider (1985).

The painting is held by the Cleveland Museum of Art. As with the Saint-Gaudens sculpture, I have yet to see the painting itself.

The experience that I here attempt to narrate, wherein I deem the past to be as good a place as any to begin.

I like the now-obsolete sense of the verb “to realize” as “to make real to the mind” (OED). It well describes what happens when I gain an insight into what had before been only a vague, unformed idea.

Of late, one thing I’ve come to realize (in that older sense) is that people don’t go away when they die. Certainly in the current understanding of the physical world, their bodies remain in the universe as material stuff and energy, as do material things associated with them. But the dead also live in the world of human minds and experience. I submit that this is true not only of those who have loved ones who remember them but also for those who die unknown and unremembered. I think the Italian writer Roberto Calasso means something like this when he says that “events live on, have their meaning and do their work on their own, even when not immediately noticed.” People’s lives, too, even if unnoticed, continue to have meaning and “do their work” in the world even after their deaths.

We often speak of the past as dead: dead time, Proust’s “temps perdu,” something that’s “passed away” or “passed us by,” that’s unrecoverable.

But what I’ve come to realize is that the past is possessed of a “reality” that’s just as real as anything else that’s real, whatever one’s ontological outlook. As Faulkner famously put it, “the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” The past is a thing in itself.

My daughter Clara, who has died, wrote the words in the image above on the floor of our garage. They’re invisible in ordinary light. She died in 2006. I didn’t know of their existence — their reality — until around three years later, when I happened to take a photo of something else with a flash. It might have been a picture of an empty flower vase; I don’t remember. But when I saw the photo, I discovered that something had been written, unmistakably by Clara.

The moment felt like archaeology.

The text is sacred.

Don Gilliland
22 October 2011


Thanks to my other daughter, Charlotte, for being my daughter too.

“Knocking at Scripture’s Door” is the title of chapter 1 of Book 12 of Augustine’s Confessions in Gerry Wills’ 2006 translation. In case you hadn’t noticed or didn’t know, it’s also an anticipatory allusion to a song by Bob Dylan, of which, by the way, the best cover is by Antony & The Johnsons, in my opinion.

I quote from the New Jerusalem edition of the Bible.

Thanks to Jason Slatton for hosting the night of the White Album and to David Dorn for telling me about the Harrison/Dylan connection.

Thanks to my brilliant mathematician brother-in-law, Eric Conrad, for his Latin expertise.

The words in the Clara photo are preceded by another word, “Spider,” but I can’t get a good picture of the entire thing.

The Calasso quote is from Literature and the Gods, trans. Tim Parks (Knopf (2001). This book and his earlier The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1994) and Ka (1999) are amazing and I highly recommend them.

Thanks to Sophia Kartsonis for reminding me about the Faulkner quote. While I don’t know where it appears in Faulkner’s corpus, I have every confidence it’s there somewhere. Besides, it would be there even if he didn’t come right out and say it.

NOº 3018

Wait, wait: Who Does This “Don Gilliland” Think He Is?

Don Gilliland is a writer, flutist, and teacher who lives in Birmingham, Alabama.

My Two Cents

After formatting Don’s Sacred Texts for posting, maybe I now know a little bit about how monks must have felt, ages ago, copying scripture by hand. Like they were in the presence of something very delicate but also much larger and more significant than their (so-called) “individual selves.” Something that required them to be faithful, to pay very close attention. And I bet they felt humbled by it. In the very best way.


  • This is the latest installment of the Self-Portrait project. Click here to learn more about it.
NOº 2937

Postcards from a Parallel Universe: #3 [White House, Washington, DC.]

“Have not seen F.D.R. as yet — still waiting for him to call me at Hotel.”

NOº 2934

30 Things I Love Right Now: [10.28.11]

1. Installment No. 1 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
2. The one-and-only John Barret
3. Installment No. 2 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
4. The one-and-only Havi Brooks
5. Installment No. 3 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
6. The one-and-only Laura Didyk
7. Installment No. 4 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
8. The one-and-only Matt Maki
9. Installment No. 5 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
10. The one-and-only Jason Slatton
11. Installment No. 6 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
12. The one-and-only Angela Jane Fountas
13. Installment No. 7 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
14. The one-and-only Mike Hamilton
15. Installment No. 8 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
16. The one-and-only John Malatino
17. Installment No. 9 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
18. The one-and-only (Name Redacted by Negotiated Settlement)…
19. Installment No. 10 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
20. The one-and-only Jesse Castaldi Keen
21. Installment No. 11 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
22. The one-and-only Jennifer Horne
23. Installment No. 12 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
24. The one-and-only Amber Holloway
25. Installment No. 13 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
26. The one-and-only Emma Bolden
27.  Installment No. 14 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
28. The one-and-only Finley Bullard Evans
Installment No. 15 of the Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror project, brought to you by…
30. The one-and-only Clay Greene.

NOº 2886

Soundtrack of My Mind: [10.27.11]

Without a noise.
Without my pride.

(I’m Kyong’s mother.)
(I’m Kyong’s mother!)


That last part is an inside joke that literally one other person in the world would get (btw, I’m not even counting Kyong who might not get it even if he knew about it, and I feel certain he doesn’t and won’t know about it because I have no idea where he is and I can’t even say for sure if he’s still alive — plus it’s unlikely that the one other person who would get the joke will even be aware that I made it) but, um, that’s fine, right?

NOº 2835

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: “30 Things I Love Right Now” Brought to You By the One-and-Only Clay Greene

1. Dark Souls — never were a game both so hated and loved in my household…
2. Chaucer’s House of Fame — somewhere between Virgil and the Pearl, very personal in the ‘dream narrative’ way, though not without long incantations to Dido…
3. Drive — and all of Nicolas Refn’s films; that man has an appreciation for artful violence, not to mention British techno pop…
4. Pink Floyd — this one may occupy successive numbers to come…
5. Geography — especially when friends are crossing it for a fun and fruitful night of reunions…
6. The Book of Matthew — the original ‘original’ story, the foremost source of textual authority for long and long…
7. The Ticket that Exploded — the human animals…
8. The Dark Eye — for Burroughs’ strange appearance in it. The first Literary Legend to lend his voice to a video game? Perhaps…
9. Extended essay due dates…
10. Kathy Acker’s appreciation for Neuromancer…and Kathy Acker generally — and Don Quixote especially…
11. Ole Miss fans — they have a certain arrogance in their eyes that makes their chastening a joy rather than a duty…
12. Feminist criticism of the Marquis de Sade…
13. Homemade bread…
14. Lord Byron as toilet reading…
15. translatio studia et imperii…
16. With Fire and Sword and the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth — is a native familiarity with something you’ve never seen before indicative of reincarnation? In another life, maybe I rode alongside the hussars, or walked more likely, carrying on the end of a long stick all my lord’s bedding and meals…
17. “Comfortably Numb”…
18. The soundtrack of Drive — the aforementioned techno pop amalgamation…
19. “Runnin,” Tupac…
20. Rupert Everitt as any and all male English cultural figures. Between him and Firth, they have all British history covered…
21. Desire’s “Under Your Spell” — sort of Madonna-like, but synthesizer-heavy and vaguely entrancing…
22. “A Real Hero” — absolutely entrancing, a song to live in for days…
23. Sleep…
24. The dreamy state before or after sleep. I would want to write a book on sleep; if I knew more about it, I would. Certain portions would be written in that twilight, as soon as I woke in the morning or as my eyelids lilted downward of night…
25. Steve Wozniak…
26. Nolan Bushnell, the Allfather…
27. High school memories, seemingly already old…
28. Simple promises that might hold or not…
29. A view of trees, some hills, a graveyard if possible. Some kind of reminder of ancient things…
30. Finding something so easy after seeing your instructor doing it for years. It’s easy to hitch your horse up to a wagon but it’s harder to invent the wagon. Here’s to inventors and hitchhikers alike.

NOº 2842

Wait, wait: Who Does This “Clay Greene” Think He Is?

From Steve Earle’s “New York City”:

I knew I was just jealous
if I didn’t wish him well
I slipped the kid a twenty
Said “Billy, give ’em hell”

What Clay Greene (May or May Not Have) Said About Saying Something About Clay Greene:

“Regarding the bio line, I got nothing for you. Talking about myself — so directly, I mean — it’s hard. And I’d rather not do it. I trust you will describe me as little as possible.”

My Two Cents

So as not to betray Clay Greene’s trust, I will only say that he is a fellow laborer. I wish him well.

NOº 2831

Soundtrack of My Mind: [10.25.11]

Sooner. Later.

One of us…

Hat Tip

(Mister Briney.)

NOº 2785

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror: “30 Things I Love Right Now” Brought to You By the One-and-Only Finley Bullard Evans

1. The Poetry for Young People series of books: When I was a child, my favorite book was A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by the wonderful Alice and Martin Provenson. I found this book again recently and the delicious illustrations reminded me how much a book becomes part of your soul as a kid, and shapes who you are. The Poetry for Young People series gives me the same feeling now, and the illustrations and text together are so beautiful I wonder where these books have been all my life. What better way to have your first taste of Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, William Carlos Williams, and MANY others…than this? The fact that I get to lay them around the house for my boys to pick up and plunder through with wonder and delight is just gravy...
2. Bethanne Bethard Hill’s Goats
; but really any of her paintings. All of them. Her goats are wonderful because they possess an awesome personality of austerity and ostentation together. Her work has always made me happy. Always. For my boys, who love to draw and sketch as much as they love to wrestle in the dirt, her paintings let them see the glimmer of beginnings in them—sometimes some pencil sketching hidden under the scales of a fish, or snake’s tongue, or a dog’s tooth. They love that…
3. A margherita pizza.
The most comforting and satisfying thing I like to make…crust and all...
4. Van Gogh’s Letters.
I found this book one day and was so excited to have it, I read the whole thing that night. It was everything I thought it would be. Words and paintings together aren’t always great. But these are positively luminous together. And reading the letter that his brother found on him, after he had shot himself in the chest in a wheat field…
5. The last scene in the movie Big Night.
Secondo (Stanley Tucci), the younger brother, is making breakfast for himself, and his helper, Christiano (played by Marc Anthony, who is soooo young and so adorable). This scene follows immediately on the heels of Secondo and Primo’s definitive “Last Supper” for none other than Louis Prima — said “big night” which not only exhausted them physically, but also exhausted their finances, their restaurant, aptly named Paradise, and maybe even their relationship as brothers. In this entire scene there are three words. Secondo asks Christiano, “Are you hungry?” Christiano nods. And with the above, four ingredients Secondo makes the most beautiful, perfect omelet I have ever seen. His pace is steady: the gentle, quick crack of each egg, the slow beating and pouring into the stainless steel skillet, the sizzle of the oil against the cool eggs. The entire forty-or-so second scene is so comforting you wish you were sitting on the counter with Christiano, watching him flip the eggs without flinching. The eggs are cooked, he turns off the eye, and the two sit down and tear into a loaf of day old crusty bread (which you can practically smell through the screen), and eat. At last, Primo comes in, stands awkwardly in the kitchen, saying nothing. But there is a third of the omelet left. Secondo gets him a plate, and the brothers begin to eat side by side. They each put an arm around the other, keep eating. And you feel it: All is forgiven. Love is palpable. This scene? Is why I really love to cook for my family. Not the only reason…but one of the main ones. I am no Secondo…but I make damn fine meatballs and spaghetti…
6. Pumpkin chocolate chip cookies…
7. Tim Gunn.
The man has humility, grace, class, manners, and the best goddamn posture of anyone I have ever seen...
8. Elvis Costello’s “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes”…

…since their wings have got rusted,
you know, the angels wanna wear my red shoes.
But when they told me ’bout their side of the bargain,
that’s when I knew that I could not refuse.
And I won’t get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes.

I don’t know how the man thought of these lyrics but they make me happy. And they also completely rationalize buying that pair of red patent leather pumps I want…
9. Polaroid pictures
are definitely a thing of the past, which is why I like them. My grandfather used to have his polaroid camera with him at every family event, every holiday, every time my brother and I visited them. Flipping through a stack of these is so tactile, familiar, familial, and evokes all kinds of memories that digital pictures don’t...
10. The Gulf of Mexico.
After the oil spill I was depressed, and scared….not just because of the death and destruction, but because I really thought I’d never be able to see it again. And since I can see it again now, it makes me love it more. But I’m also in awe of it. I like watching it. The power of the survival of nature, despite what we do to it over and over, is terrifying and humbling. There is no place like it…
11. Van Gogh’s Poet’s Garden.
When I saw this painting at the museum in Chicago, I stood in front of it so long I think I annoyed people…
12. Max and Harry’s (my two sons) superheroes
are new to their repertoire of drawing, and are named, respectively, “Woods Boy” and “Maxoman.” They have adventures. They shoot bad guys. They make effing history...
“Twentieth Century Man” by the Kinks. This song is so timely…and reminds me of the many reasons why I feel weird every time I log onto facebook….technology and I just have a difficult time understanding each other. I love it love it love it…
Lena Horne’s voice. Singing Anything, but specifically, I’m Glad There Is You. Find it, play it. You’ll see…
15. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ranchos Church
16. The Mark Cross overnight case which belongs to Grace Kelly’s character, Ms. Lisa Carol Fremont, from Rear Window.
I have looked for one of these…and haven’t found one…yet…
Japanese koi fish. My mother has a pond which she built herself, and these fish have lived in it twenty years. They are like a bunch of ornery, hungry, codgery, old men..yes, I’ll say it…A Koiwanis Club…
Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, singing anything. My favorites: “April in Paris” and anything from Porgy and Bess…
Frank Sinatra’s “If You Are But a Dream.” The note he hits in the last phrase breaks me in two, or more…
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Train at Night In the Desert (1916)
21. Chattanooga, TN.
I grew up in this city, and whenever I go back, I am more proud of it. They do everything that Atlanta doesn’t, which makes me happy. Once they figured out the Tennessee River actually was close to downtown, there was no stopping them. I love you, Noog…
22. The Chesapeake Bay.
My mother grew up on the Bay, and now her sister’s family lives there. It isn’t like the Gulf, and it isn’t beachy. It’s just very old, mysterious, and beautiful…
A blank piece of paper. My second favorite thing…
Letters from people. Which go through the USPS. Which have stamps. Which leads me to…
Handmade letter press stationery…
Missionary Mary Proctor’s artwork…
27. Anna Karenina.
Yeah, that one. Still my favorite book ever read. When I finally fell in love, I understood Levin…
My son Harry’s paintings of flowers…
29. My son Max’s drawings. The latest one was a picture of his brother Harry dressed up in his alien costume for Halloween, putting a candle in a jack-o-lantern, surrounded by ghosts, skeletons…and with himself nearby waiting for Harry to go trick-or-treating…
30. My very favorite thing: A letter which my husband wrote to me on our anniversary, when our sons were 6 months old. He left it on the mantel for me when I got back from visiting my parents in ‘Nooga. I carry it with me everywhere. Yep. I do.

NOº 2795

Wait, wait: Who Does This “Finley Bullard Evans” Think She Is?

Finley Bullard Evans was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She holds an MFA from the University of Alabama, and a BA from Birmingham-Southern College. Her first book, Third Girl, was released from Plan B Press in November 2010. She’s recently published a memoir, Two of ‘Em in There: A Southern Writer’s Journey To and Through the First Year of Twin Motherhood. Her second book of poetry, Caravaggio’s Bones, will be released in 2012. Her poetry most recently appears in Louisville Review and The New Renaissance. She lives in Birmingham with eight-year old twin boys, Max and Harry, her husband, Neal, and an old beagle named Fife.

My Two Cents

Finley — successful poet, memoirist, and mom who, PS, has impeccable taste in art and music — is married to a guy who was a physics-philosophy double major and who also looks kind of like a movie star. They both went to Birmingham-Southern College. I mention that only because Finley was the first person I ever met who graduated from Birmingham-Southern, but it turns out all the other B-SC alums I’ve met in the last fifteen years seem to fit that same bill: smart, attractive folks who have good taste and are damn well-adjusted to life. If that’s not the B-SC admissions slogan, I’m pretty sure it should be.

Also: that picture up there is the Van Gogh picture Finley references in her 30 Things. I’m pretty sure I now won’t be able to see that picture without thinking of Finley and Neal, hand-in-hand in the poet’s garden. That’s fine by me because I’ll also think about this poem from Finley’s Third Girl, which was one of those poetry collections that arrived at the right time for me — which is to say: the time when I needed a poetry collection to remind me that I’m a poet (dammit), not to mention that I went to grad school to learn how to be a poet with some damn fine other poets.


What beautiful lips, yours.
And now this, the top one, split wide
propped against an uncle’s
cheekbone in the cold aftermath
of turkey and other expected foods
when football seemed like a good idea.
Your lip, blood falling onto your cupping
hand, falling between blades of grass.
Relatives, all nervous birds surrounding you.
Me, with ice swaddled in a tea towel,
under the dogwood tree I used to hang from.
Watching you from there is me, also,
From ten or eight even, upside down and
Saying, is that who I’ll marry?
The one bleeding? Whose lip popped like a cork?
God, yes. I answer.
Yes and yes. And yes and I will.
And the swinging, upside-down myself
Climbs back up into the tree and waits
until we go inside to climb back down.
You and I sit together.
What beauty here at your mouth.
The flesh opening itself up to me
in a wide split of red.
And thank you for it.
Thank you. Thank you.

That poem (which first appeared in Mid-American Review) reacquainted me with the poet in me at a time when I really needed that to happen. It reminded me, too, that poetry and passion go together (as do poetry and physics and philosophy, for that matter). Also a very necessary reminder.

All of which was — and still is — worth at least three emphatic thank-yous.