Follow by Email

Exchange of Values

Exchange of Values
acrylic on board 48'X96'

"Structure of Color Perception"

"Structure of Color Perception"
48'X96' acrylic on board

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Against Hope

Modestly she turns from the doctor
While buttoning her blouse again
The rain has paused but the long walk
To the bus will still be a cold one

“Do I need to sign anything?”
She asks the receptionist on the way out
“No,” she smiles, “we have all your information
You’re good to go”

She pauses at the doors
The street is gray and wet
So indifferent to the lost color
Gone now for many months

She must have moved forward because 
The doors sprung open automatically
She worried the receptionist saw her start
She looked back but the desk was empty

Head down into the stinging wind
She merged into the busy sidewalk traffic
No one was expecting her anywhere
Cold tears defended her eyes

As the temperature dropped
Slush formed in the gutters
Her feet slapped at the mire
Everyone’s did

At the corner she felt lost
One way the same as another
Other walkers brushed past her
Disturbing the strident babbling flow

Signals ordered her body about
Signs commanded her movements
Channeling and quelling natural instincts
False rituals promising modes of survival

Snow fell in every form it needed to
Clouds took their turn in the sky
She only faced the east because
East is the vantage to the infinite sea


(photo taken at double bluff beach here on whidbey island)

Friday, January 25, 2013


To Let the Poem Be the Saying of Itself

"Fashion has two purposes: comfort and love. Beauty comes when fashion succeeds.  Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity."  Coco Chanel.

My poem of the week below was written while sitting alone and having lunch at the grocery store pictured above.  First I was just eating and reading but then I started watching the other folks around me as they were watching/scrutinizing all the people coming into the store.  I started writing something about this when I turned and saw that one of the watchers was watching me watch the other watchers watching.  It was all kind of creepy really.  These old watchers would often make comments about the appearance of the people that walked by, usually critical comments.  And really they were not unlike professional cultural critics writing in scholastic journals about cultural anthropology and critical theory, except that they don’t get paid and they are easier to understand. 

"Fashion was never anything other than the parody of the motley cadaver, provocation of death through the woman, and bitter colloquy with decay whispered between shrill bursts of mechanical laughter. That is fashion. And that is why she changes so quickly; she titillates death and is already something different, something new, as he casts about to crush her." (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, pg 63).

It is common place for critical/cultural theorists and others to draw attention to mundane and banal cultural artifacts, fads, and habits.  But surely Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” is among the first and most comprehensive examples of this. I mostly read Walter Benjamin’s  Arcades like a daily devotion, and I know several others who do as well.  The devotional reading that I do most ever morning has changed slowly and very little over the years, it’s the one time that I like to stick to the familiar and just keep re-reading.  For more than 30 years that has included folks like Carlo Caretto, Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Emmanuel Levinas, Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, Dorothy Day, the usual ones y’all would expect (along with some well known poets etc.).  I moved Benjamin into the rotation back in 1999 when the Arcades Project was first translated into English.  

Now please understand that that quote above about fashion by Benjamin is not taken out of context, not in the way we usually think of context.  And one of the things that Benjamin was challenging is our very idea of context.  The whole project is a compilation of quotes, aphorisms, snippets of newspapers, short commentaries, poetry, etc.,  I reckon lots of younger folks might think that this all seems quite run of the mill.  Among our facebook and blogging habits is to come across some interesting quote or picture online and then re-post it, usually with no commentary or explanation, and maybe (or not) get some sort of a conversation going in the comments.  But I find that after awhile these corpse-less quotes on FB are quite unsatisfying and are actually getting a bit annoying.  But I think that WB would have been interested in this kind of facebooking practice and I wish I knew what he might have written about FB and twitter, etc..  Indeed, my facebook wall is very much like some of the pages in Benjamin’s Arcade Project, but without the cats.  Here’s an actual tiny sample of FB posts on my wall today:

1.  A bible verse from the F.L.A. (Franciscan Lay Apostolate) and a picture of a praying nun.
2.  A photo and a link to an essay by Paul Krugman.
3.  Photos and a note from friends visiting Peru.
5.  Photo and jokes by George Carlin
6.  A groupon offer and photos of “Chinese Sky Lanterns with Fuel Patches from Sky.”
7.  A FB friend informs us that he is going to “"Ghost Stories" Release Party” tonight.
8.  Mark Zuckerberg himself informs me that he is going to host a fundraiser for New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
9.  Two friends post pictures of dogs with witty inscriptions (no cats so far today).
10. Several tirades in support of/against assault rifles.
11. Several friends post music videos of their own or others.
12. Another friend posts his photos from Serbia
13. My own post of a photo and poem about catching the midnight ferry home to the island.

This kind of disjunctive flow of information that Benjamin thought might just help shock us into recognizing some sort of dormant revolutionary potential, mostly functions now as a way for late-modern capitalists to better track and manage our commodity fetishism.  Consider this really insightful piece of dialogue from the movie “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Miranda Priestly:  [Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy sniggers because she thinks they look exactly the same] Something funny? 

Andy Sachs: No. No, no. Nothing's... You know, it's just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. You know, I'm still learning about all this stuff and, uh... 

Miranda Priestly: 'This... stuff'? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select... I don't know... that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent... wasn't it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff. 

And what if this selection process (rather than ‘choice’) isn’t just about sweaters, sneakers, and snicker bars but also about selecting life partners, having children, going to war, or asking Jesus © into our hearts?  Perhaps this is part of the reason why WB spent so much time thinking and writing about “fashion?”  Let me offer three more quotes about fashion scattered about the Arcades:

N2a,3: “It’s not that the past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.”
N1a,8: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show [zeigen]. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse — these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” (Zeigen: to show, to exhibit, to indicate, to say by pointing, to silently name.)
N1,10: “This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage.”
N1,1: “In the fields with which we are concerned, knowledge comes only in lightning flashes. The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.” 

Fashion, WB argues, is one place where we can see the old and new encounter one another and form what he calls elsewhere a “dialectical image.”  These images often come to us as just “flashes,” but these flashes may have messianic potential in as much as they combine to form for us new apocalyptic constellations of meaning.  This reordering of cultural constellations has liberating potential according to WB, but this same dialectical tension also flashes on the possibilities of life and death inherent in every encounter; that is, fashion can be understood as a parody of life that reveals us to ourselves that we are little more than walking corpses entombed within the manifestations of our varieties of appearing.  It is these relationships among Being and appearing to be, and commodity fetishism clashing with or mimicking our repressed utopian desires, that suggested to WB that fashion was one of the more obvious places that we witness this dynamic among inexhaustible signifiers and where we may confront and challenge all the ideologies of progress.  (As a side note let me just say that this is part of the reason I started painting Icons more than 25 years ago and why I don’t sell them.  I wanted to have one aspect of my own creative potential disengaged--as much as possible, and that ain’t much--from the totalizing meta-narrative of ‘market values.’  When I started painting icons I didn’t know any one else who was painting them.  I assumed that I was the only one and I painted them just to look at enjoy my self and maybe my friends and family.  But about 10 years later I started finding others who were painting icons too, and then there were people offering classes and ‘how to books.‘  Now copying these old ‘outmoded‘ works of art is flourishing racket in this age of light-speed reproduction, and so I reckon it’s time for me to quit painting icons and try marketing poetry?).

Pictured above is a 20 year old painting of mine that was inspired by reading Benjamin’s “A short history of Photography,” the book I’m quoting from in the painting (if you think that I am pedantic now let me point out that this painting has footnotes on the bottom to faint for you to see in this photo LoL).  This is what is printed in the page in the painting:

“The most precise technology can give its products a magical value such as a painted picture can never again have for us.  No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has (so to speak) seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it. For it is another nature which speaks to the camera rather than to the eye: “other” above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.”  

I hope you appreciate this poem and thank you for bearing with me.  And may this poem be the saying of itself. 
A Working Class guy eating Lunch at Payless Grocery Store Writing a Poem That Might Be Called, “The Tree Of Life,” or “The Dialectics of Perception” (or something better or simpler, I’m open to suggestions).  
She has two little blonde kids, blonde like her
But really they could be anybody’s
She stops to disinfect her self and 
The one kid makes a break for it
She threatens him with home
That’s enough to coerce both kids back into a
Monstrous shopping cart molded in the shape of a limousine 
Why not the shape of a freight train or container ship?
Something big enough to hold everything?

She consults her list and heads off towards the deli
List people have a different relationship to the world than
Those who risk it with their memories and impulses
(interestingly, most serial-killers are list makers)
But I wouldn’t judge without all the facts
Objects in this universe are strategically placed to
Ambush, maximize exposure, ensnare, seduce
Nothing is left to chance
Everything is faced right to the edge

She often holds herself responsible
Her eyes are tired, her whole body sags
Only someone old would still call her young
One kid grabs for the box of “mini donuts” 
She slaps his hands and they fall and break open on the floor
The more food that we miniaturize the
Fatter we seem to get
Somebody will have to clean this whole mess up someday

Around me sits the same group of old people who
Meet up here to visit, drink cheap drip and snack on free samples
Abandoned, lonely, fixed income, marginal consumers
It just now occurs to me that they assume that I’m one of them
We silently scrutinize everyone that comes and goes
Powerless to make the least bit of difference
Yet each shopper must pass before our gaze

Look, I see the songwriter T.H. checking out, he doesn’t see me
He’s a poet of sorts too, but it’s me writing this poem
Me with the power to make him into anything at all
I could miniaturize him and who’s to stop me?
I could write any damn thing I want 

Later I hear a bottle crash, “courtesy” is called on the loudspeaker
I’m guessing it’s the grabby kid again?
But I shouldn’t judge without all the facts
I get up for another free sample
They have put out “mini muffins”
This will be my third one and the pastry checker gives me a look

I see the kids have been crying when mom returns with a full cart
Shopping traumatizes children who have already grasped
The vital connections between desire, things, and happiness
Yet have no understanding of Capital, currency, or exchange value
The invisible connections really binding us all together

She double checks her list then tosses it in the trash in front of me
Of course I had to look, had to know for sure
I unwad the pink crumpled letter of herself
This tally of everyone’s needs, cravings, addictions
Just as I suspected every word was struck through, crossed off 

Oh, now I notice that she has one sparkling zircon pin in her right nostril
The kids are really acting out now, so she switches from threats to bribes  
“Be good and take my hand and you’ll get a treat in the car”
Once she had said yes to a bargain just like that one
She left after midnight for Portland with a guy she hardly knew
She got stoned, danced all night, got knocked up, had her nose pierced
And none of that was on any list


Monday, January 14, 2013


Philosopher Avital Ronell says In the book and movie, The Examined Life, “In regard to film I would say, very provisionally, that what interests me is the medium as something that sustains an ‘interruption of presence’ as it produces the illusion of immediacy and presence.  What speaks to me is how film is on the haunted sign of things and the way it participates in a kind of mourning disorder, a failure to mourn, to let go, and is at the same time only ever in mourning over its objects (29).

My question is this:  In what way could Ronell’s insight apply to making (writing) icons?  In what way is my painting a dis-ordered mourning or an idolatrous, sinful attempt to fill a void (as Simone Weil says, “All sins are attempts to fill voids”).  Am I creating illusions of an impossible immediacy springing from a failure to mourn, treating the death of god like an unsolved “cold case” that I refuse to close the book on?  I commented on facebook today about Tarkovsky’s movie “Rublev.”  I said that I don’t want to be a part of that crude, myopic mob we see trying to keep the balloon on the ground in the opening scenes of the movie,  If it comes to it I’d rather be Yefim precariously riding beneath the uncontrollable balloon.  But he’s not really ‘riding’ is he, he’s more entangled, bound up in the ropes, almost a prisoner.  For sure Yefim sees farther than those on the ground (Tarkovsky really lays the symbolism on thick sometimes) but then he must either go where the wind takes him or else fall and die.  Does leaping from the spire represent a (Kantian/Nietzschean?) forsaking of the illusions of the church? of religion?  Sure throwing ourselves to the care of the wind (spirit?) is dangerous and frightening, but isn’t the quality of the revelation from heaven’s perspective worth risking one’s life for?  Is that what’s going on in this part of the movie?  But what about those that leaped from the church and were not caught by the wind?  What about those that are thrown? 

Later Ronell writes:  “Where there's the pretense or claim for ultimate meaning and transparency.... When no one needs to do the anxious guesswork of how to behave or what to do - that's when you are not called upon to be strenuously responsible, because the grammar of being, or the axiom of taking care of the Other, is spelled out for you. According to several registers of traditional ethics, things are pre-scripted, they're prescribed. You know everything that you are supposed to do; it's all more or less mapped out for you. What becomes difficult and terrifying, and what requires infinite translation of a situation or of the distress of the world, is when you don't have those sure markers. You don't have the guarantee of ultimate meaning or the final reward or the last judgement and must enter into unsolvable calculations, searing doubts. Anyone who's sure of themselves, of their morals and intentions, is not truly ethical, is not struggling heroically with the mandate of genuine responsibility. It is impossible ever to be fully responsible enough - you've never given or offered or done enough for those suffering, for the poor, for the hungry. That's a law shared by Dostoyevsky, Levinas, and Derrida: one never meets one's responsible quota, which is set at an infinite bar (hence the invention of the figure of Christ, our infinite creator)” (41).

But are icons of Christ (including the ones on the page, on the tongue, or in the mind) a way of inventing or establishing ‘sure markers’ for a fabricated faith born from the fear of facing our responsibility to Being which is only rewarded with an infinity of deconstructible non-being?  Or can icons be understood as provisional markers to remind us of that very responsibility to the Other that Ronell speaks of, remind us of not only “the law” shared by Dostoyevsky, Levinas, and Derrida, but also the word, spirit, and grace shared among Abraham, Moses, and Jesus? 
Can icons be a part of the traditional ‘grammar of being,’ but not one that claims to have ‘everything spelled out for us,’ as Ronell rightly warns, but a dynamic relationship among the syntax’s of our broken, half-hearted, failing attempts to live our love for the Other into this world?

The sequence of pictures above is of an icon I destroyed.  I painted it some years ago and since then my dissatisfaction has accumulated until a few days ago I found myself unable to abide it’s appearance.  I painted it on plaster on weathered board so I had to take a scraper and a hammer and chisel the image off.  As I was writing this I realized that unconsciously I destroyed the eyes of Jesus last.  And that reminded me of something I wrote on ‘The Meaning of Meaning‘ for another blog a long while ago.  I wrote:     

“I am an Icon painter myself, and let me remind you that painters are deceivers by trade. And though I have painted the face of Christ many times, I am not always comfortable looking into the eyes of Jesus as I paint.  I may work on an Icon for months, even years, and through the whole process the eyes of Jesus seem to continually question me, judge me, call me to examine myself; not condemning me but searching out my vanity, hypocrisy, pride, selfishness.  I am sure that some of this experience is caught up in some abnormal psychology resulting form the absent, critical, angry, and abusive father and step-fathers I had growing up. Still, It is often a disturbing and painful experience.  Painting an Icon should be a spiritual journey for the artist and when one finishes an Icon the artist should be able to reflect back on what was learned about oneself. It took me some years but eventually I learned to always paint the eyes of Jesus last.”

I will be repainting this icon, I hope.  And when I do I will post a photo of it here.  In the meantime this seems to be a good season for Russians.  The wisdom of Mother Maria Skobtsova, Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky, Kallistos Ware on ‘The Jesus Prayer,’ the poetry of Pasternak, Akhmatova, and Tsvetaeva and the movies Doctor Zhivago, Rublev, and The Island, for the Umpteenth times.  So my ‘poem of the week’ is from Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.  She was a close friend of both Pasternak and Rilke (I am reading a remarkable  book of their letters to one another titled “Letters 1926” and I recommend it to anyone interested in any of those writers).  The extraordinary artist Anita Berber wrote just before she died young at 29 that, "a life in the service of poetry is a life not wasted."  Maybe that’s true, but a life not wasted does not preclude a great deal of suffering and tragic deaths for both Berber and Tsvetaeva.

In a letter to Rilke just before he died Tsvetaeva wrote to him:  “So, dear one, don't be afraid, simply answer yes to every "Give" - a beggar's comfort, innocent, without consequences. Most of the time my begging hand drops away - along with the gift - into the sand. What do I want from you?  What I want from all of poetry and from each line of a poem: the truth of this moment. That's as far as truth goes. Never turns to wood - always to ashes. The word, which for me already is the thing, is all I want. Actions? Consequences? I know you, Rainer, as I know myself. The farther from me - the further into me. I live not in myself, but outside myself. I do not live in my lips, and he who kisses me misses me.  Marina.”

Tsvetaeva was in Moscow when the Germans assaulted the city.  She fled east, but after the arrests and death of most of her friends and some of her family, and her own suffering from sickness, hunger, homelessness, and isolation, she hung herself in 1941.  To be a homeless beggar who still answers yes to every ‘give;’ to desire only word and thing and the truth even as your world turns to ashes, couldn’t that also be counted as “a life not wasted?”  

The “Ars Amandi” (art of love) the speaker tells us in the poem, “is all the earth.”  Can the icon, like the poem, be a “truth of this moment” a truth all of this earth, and at the same time be a truth we may best encounter when we leap from the spires of our illusions and fears even if we lack the faith that the ropes will hold us and the wind will take us?   

From “Poem of the End”  By Marina Tsvetaeva

The fatal volume
Holds no temptation for
A woman: For a woman
Ars Amandi is all the earth

The heart is the most faithful
Of all loves potions
From her cradle, a women
Is someone’s deadly sin

Ah, the sky is too distant
Lips are closer in the dark
Do not judge, God! You
Were never a woman on earth.


Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλόν.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

When Jesus Came the Corn Mother’s Went Away 
(a post-new-historicist prose-poem by Daniel Imburgia)

"Something has not yet arrived, neither at Christianity nor by means of Christianity. What has not yet arrived at or happened to Christianity is Christianity. Christianity has not yet come to Christianity."  (Jaques Derrida, "The Gift of Death." pg.29)

The original Madonna of the Wheat fields, the one I used as a model for my painting, “Madonna of the Corn Fields” above, is a fusioned depiction of The Virgin Mary created in Northern Europe by an unknown artist in the 15th century that I saw and remembered on one of my travels.  Her long flaxen hair, gold blouse, and white skin were set against, but also had much correspondence with the background of a harvest yellow wheat field and treeless horizon.  She is probably an amalgam of the Germanic goddess Fulla or maybe Hariasa and the Virgin Mary.  Such amalgamations are routinely condemned but I think these spiritual miscegenations and the power relations among colonizers and indigenous are often more complex than many more simplistic narratives account for.
One notices though that she is not called  the ‘Maddona of the Sacred Forest,’ or ‘The virgin of the Holy Tree’ perhaps because the wounds of the bloody struggle of Christianity against the Norse pagans and their demonic rituals at ‘sacred groves,’ and their idolatrous ‘tree worshipping’ were still too raw.  In any event, a compromise allowing the adornment of yule trees into the home once a year coupled up with the birth of the God-man Jesus was worked out and since World War II the Norse pagans, for the time being, seem to be peacefully accepting this arrangement.

Perhaps the greatest account of these recurring myth’s about sacred trees is the one about Yggdrasil.  She was an enormous tree located in what they of course called the ‘center of the world,’ she was really thought of as a “World Tree,” as it was sometimes referred to in their worship.  One can read about this extraordinary tree in a long prophetic poem called the “Poetic Edda.”  Here is just a sampling:

Hearing I ask, from the holy races,
From Heimdall's sons, both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, that well relate
Old tales remember, of men long ago.

I remember yet, the giants of yore,
Who gave me bread, in the days gone by;
Nine worlds I knew, the nine in the tree
With mighty roots, beneath the mold...

An ash I know, Yggdrasil its name,
With water white, is the great tree wet;
Thence come the dews, that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth's well, does it ever grow.

On all sides saw I, Valkyries assemble,
Ready to ride, to the ranks of the gods;
Skuld bore the shield, | and Skogul rode next,
Guth, Hild, Gondul, and Geirskogul.
Of Herjan's maidens, the list have ye heard,
Valkyries ready, to ride o'er the earth.

I saw for Baldr, the bleeding god,
The son of Othin, his destiny set:
Hard is it on earth, | with mighty whoredom;
Axe-time, sword-time, shields are sundered,
Wind-time, wolf-time, ere the world falls;
Nor ever shall men, each other spare.

Fast move the sons, of Mim, and fate
Is heard in the note, of the Gjallarhorn;
Loud blows Heimdall, the horn is aloft,
In fear quake all, who on Hel-roads are.

Yggdrasil shakes, | and shiver on high
The ancient limbs, | and the giant is loose;
To the head of Mim, does Othin give heed,
But the kinsman of Surt, shall slay him soon.

And on it goes for 150 pages or so.  Let me give you the short version as I understand it from the Voluspo in the Codex Regius:  Top god Othin to avoid the destruction of the world calls Volva the wise woman from the grave who recounts the creation of the world and all the various peoples, dwarves, wanes, the first man and women, etc., and she also cleverly reveals how much smarter and wiser she is than Othin by reading his thoughts and then revealing a prophecy about the final battle and destruction of the gods and the world itself in flood and fire.  Pretty standard mythological stuff all in all.  Then it recounts how all nine of the gods meet under the great tree “Yggdrasil,” the “World Tree” this mediator between earth and heaven to work out how to save the cosmos.   Skipping ahead we meet the Valkyries who bring heroically slain warriors back to Othin to continue to wage the battle.  But Othin is killed just the same and so is the bleeding boy-god Baldr and yadda yadda eventually a new and beautiful world rises on the ruins of the old.  Anyone who has watched the movies Avatar, Gladiator, Lord of the Rings and seen Wagner’s Goterdammerung (or at least Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) will understand the gist of Norse myth, and some of Christian myth-making as well.   

Of course what was missing in the movie Avatar was the on-board chaplain and the blessing of the gun-ships etc..  Although, in 2153 as today, the Chaplin would probably not be a Franciscan friar but an Evangelical/falangist/NRA lieutenant hired by the RDA corporation to provide spiritual guidance to the soldiers and the ship’s crew and assure them that their real mission on Pandora was to save the souls of the tree worshipping Na’vi for Jesus.  And if a bit of unobtainium or low sulphur crude oil finds it’s way back to the mother country, well, where’s the harm in that?

Coincidentally, the Poetic Edda leaves off just about the time Saint Boniface, the “Apostle to the Germans” shows up in Germania with his axe and his bible!  Boniface made many evangelizing trips to Germania but what he is most remembered for is when he laid his axe to the base of the great oak called “Jove’s Tree” or (Jupiter’s or Donar’s Tree) and with one stroke and some divine intervention the greatest and most sacred tree in Europe came crashing down in the year 754.  The pagan witnesses who had been counting on their war-god who sometimes dwelled in the tree to help them kill and drive away the Christian invaders lost all heart and hope and mostly converted en masse to Christianity.  The wood was not altogether wasted however, it was sawed up and used to construct a church to commemorate the victory of Jesus over Jupiter!  Oh for sure there were a few enraged holdouts against this ‘blasphemy,’ just like there are still some Lakota who are still angry about their most sacred mountain defiled and desecrated by having the gigantic faces of four american president’s of the united states carved into it, and who unblinkingly glare down and remind the natives of their subjugation and oppression.   But for the most part the Germans fell into line and started killing in the name of Jesus instead of Thor or Odin or Jupiter, and the borders of civilization and the light of christianity advanced a few more leagues into the dark forests of sin and ignorance (*note, a few of those disgruntled pagans caught up with Boniface some years later and like at the battle of the Little Big Horn at Custer’s last stand, Boniface and 52 monks were killed, that is, “martyred in retaliation for murdering Yggdrasil ).

Now I confess to my devotion to the Mother of God, Virgin Mary, the “Theotokos” or “God-bearer,” and as a Christian I pray to her often.  I know this mystifies many of my protestant brothers and sisters (and some family members too LoL).  I suspect some of them see me no differently than some tree worshiping Norse pagan and would gleefully take an apocalyptic axe to the root of all my Popish superstitions.  I used to discuss this with my wife Lynda’s adopted grandmother Lydia Haas on the Pine Ridge indian reservation when we would visit (she died a year ago at 96 years of age!).  She was very understanding because she too had creatively blended her Catholicism, the wisdom of her Lakota religious traditions, and even a bit of protestant evangelicalism into her religious cosmology.  It was not unusual for us to be attending a powwow and Grandma Lydia would be praying the rosary to the beat of the drum circle and slapping time on her King James bible annotated by Jimmy Swaggert!  In her long life filled with a lot of heartache and suffering she said that she would often call on Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Sister Teresa, as well as the spirit of Crazy Horse to get her through her tribulations.  She had attended a severe Catholic school as a child but had also asked Jesus into her heart as her personal savior while listening to the radio around 1956, and she had later also taken a trip to Rome in 1967 with a group of 18 other Roman Catholic Lakota women and Pope Paul VI had given them all a brief private audience and blessing!

So it was in the truly ecumenical spirit of a wise Lakota Grandmother that when I decided to paint my version of the ‘Madonna of the Wheat Fields‘ I gave myself license to make some alterations.  As you can see she is dressed more in the style of a Mexican or Central american woman, her hair, skin, and eyes are dark, and the baby Jesus looks less like a bastard of  George Armstrong Custer and more like a child of an illegal alien being deported back to Guatemala.  This painting was inspired in part after I had read the book “When Jesus Came the Corn Mother’s Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846.” By Ramon A. Guitierrez.  The book recounts the subjugation, oppression, murder, and conversion of the Pueblo Indians.  But it also speaks to their ability to resist and fight back, to force accommodations, and to both subversively and overtly inject and blend some of their profound cosmology into the kind of Imperial Catholicism they encountered.  And this struggle still isn’t over, not with the Pueblos or for many other tribes in north american and around the world.  The stories and wisdom of colonized peoples are still being told and retold as is the story of the catastrophe of their encounter with “civilization.”  There are lots of stories about the Corn Mothers and in many other tribes besides the Pueblo.  Here is one history recounted by Guitierrez: 

“After the Corn Mothers, Iatiku and Nautsiti, had lived on the earth together for a while they began to quarrel because Nautsiti was selfish and hoarded the things in her basket.  Because the sisters constantly argued, Nautsiti decided to leave her sister, taking with her the child she loved and her basket which contained sheep and cattle, wheat and vegetable seeds many metal things and something written.  Nautsiti offered to share these things with her sister but Iatiku refused to accept them saying that she “did not want her children to have them.”  So Nautsiti departed to the east and promised Iatiku that “in a long time to come we shall meet again and you will be wearing clothes.”  A women bearing a likeness to Nautsiti returned to the Puelbos in 1692, just as she said she would  Her name was Nuestra Semora del Rosari, La Conquistadora, (Mary Our Lady of the Rosary, Virgin of the Conquest).  In one arm she carried her infant son, Jesus Christ, and in the other she carried a rosary.  Around her were the things she had brought: Cattle, sheep, vegetables, metal tools, armaments, and writings.  Our Lady of Conquest returned to New Mexico on August 21,1692 carried by 60 Spanish soldiers led by Don Diego de Vargas, the reconquerer of New Mexicoas.” (pg 143)

Grandma Lydia had many paintings and statues of the Holy Mother in her apartment, more of her than of Jesus if one were tabulating up that sort of thing, and all of them were as white-skinned and blue eyed (and some were even as blond as) any of the Norse goddesses!  Which bugged the crap out of me with all that post-colonial and sub-altern theory under my belt but it didn’t seem to bother her in the least.  It was under the supervision of these Nordic Virgin's, and several of Lydia's neighbor women friends who were even older than Lydia, that she cut and sewed by hand for my wife Lynda a complete set of Lakota women’s regalia.  It is made from smoked deer hide, glass beads and porcupine quills, etc..  It was a long process and it took them all more than a year.  The bead work and sewing would be accompanied by prayers to Jesus and the Virgin Mother as well as to the White Buffalo Calf Woman and God only knows who else!  It is probably the most sacred and valuable thing that we own.  The picture above was taken 2 years ago by brother Christian Amondson at a powwow in Oregon.  It is of my wife Lynda dressed in that regalia.  But the only keep-sake I have left frm pine Ridge is a T-shirt from “Big Bats,” the one and only fast food restaurant at Pine Ridge, which seems to be doing it’s best to kill off as many Indians as possible by afflicting them with diabetes.  Oh, and I guess that I also have this poem I started back in 2004 at our last visit to see grandmother Lydia.  And shortly afterwords Jesus came to take her home and Grandmother Lydia was waiting for him with faith and joy in her heart.  But all too often in history a very different Jesus has invaded the lives of indigenous cultures and peoples, and it is that Jesus that Gutierrez records a Pueblo woman lamenting, “when Jesus came the Corn Mothers went away,” and it is that Jesus that this poem is about.      

In the Ending Was the Word

When Jesus came the Corn Mothers went away
When Jesus came the people learned to flee in terror
When Jesus came many people were captured and made slaves
When Jesus came Grandmothers were insulted and abused 
When Jesus came all the women were forced to wear strange clothes
When Jesus came local women healers were executed as witches
When Jesus came his followers stole all the skins from all the animals
When Jesus came our hunters were made to dig in the barren ground
When Jesus came they burned our village to build an oil pipeline through it
When Jesus came our children were taken and sent away to schools
When Jesus came his ministers and soldiers raped our children 
When Jesus came the sacred dwelling places of our Gods were torn down
When Jesus came his soldiers made us worship him at gunpoint
When Jesus came we were forced into prisons, camps, and reservations
When Jesus came we were made sick with diseases that we could not cure
When Jesus came they damned up the rivers and flooded our homes
When Jesus came the waters were polluted and made undrinkable
When Jesus came they would dig away our sacred mountains to find gold
When Jesus came we could not see the stars at night anymore
When Jesus came Earth became void and darkness again covered the deep

The coming of this un-named horror was sometimes spoken of as
The great and awful apocalyptic hurricane of history 
All the peoples of the world are caught up in it’s fiery vortex
All their monuments, temples and holy gathering places
Every fruit vine and seed bearing plant that is good and 
Even the oldest of the grand-father trees are
Uprooted and flung up into the dark funnel 
The rivers are stopped up, swallowed up, and run dry
The great waters are despoiled of life and made unlivable
Brother and sister creatures are swooped up and slaughtered
The great fishes of the sea, the swarms of flying birds
Even the dead are violently snatched from the earth and
Caught up into this desecrating storm
The words and sacred songs of the people become unspeakable
Unheard among the thunderous crushing winds
Exchanged for screeching gutterations of metals and money
No one people can stand alone against the power of this storm
All peoples are taken up and later cast down in strange places
Among unfamiliar lands without homes or sense of direction
And when those lost and struck down people gather together
They ask each other from where did this death-storm come?
And they asked each other what we should name this death-storm?
For none of the peoples had a word for such an alien destructive power
So they were forced to find a word among the language of the destroyers
And the word that they discovered was: