Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies;
Abaddon in the hangnail cracked from Adam,
And, from his fork, a dog among the fairies,
The atlas-eater with a jaw for news,
Bit out the mandrake with to-morrows scream.
Furies: unrestrained or violent anger, rage, passion, or vehemence; also figures from Greek Mythology, the female spirits of vengeance and justice. Also known as the Erinyes or the Infernal Goddesses.
Abaddon: Biblical, a Hebrew word for the place of destruction. In the Book of Revelations Abaddon is also the Angel of Death. In Greek, the word means ‘destroyer’.
Mandrake: A root that has hallucinogenic and narcotic properties. Was used in ancient times anaesthetic for surgery. The mandrake is said to scream when it is pulled from the ground.
Then, penny-eyed, that gentlemen of wounds,
Old cock from nowheres and the heaven’s egg,
With bones unbuttoned to the half-way winds,
Hatched from the windy salvage on one leg,
Scraped at my cradle in a walking word
That night of time under the Christward shelter:
I am the long world’s gentlemen, he said,
And share my bed with Capricorn and Cancer.
Capricorn: A constellation between Sagittarius and Aquarius. The word Capricorn comes from the Latin words caper meaning ‘goat’ and cornu meaning ‘horn’.
In Astrology Capricorn is represented by the goat. Capricorn is a Cardinal Earth sign, ruled by the planet Saturn and is the 10th Sign of the Zodiac. Capricorn rules the time after Winter Solstice from December 22nd to January 19th.
Tropic of Capricorn or Southern Tropic refers to the Southern latitude line that marks the northernmost point of the Southern Hemisphere and is the southernmost latitude where the Sun can be directly overhead.
Cancer: A constellation between Gemini and Leo. Also defined as “a practice or phenomenon perceived to be evil or destructive and hard to contain or eradicate.”
In Astrology Cancer is represented by the crab. Cancer is a Cardinal Water sign, ruled by the Moon and is the 4th sign of the Zodiac. Cancer rules the time after the Summer Solstice from June 22nd to July 22nd.
Tropic of Cancer is the Northern equivalent to the Tropic of Capricorn. A Latitudinal dividing line.
Death is all metaphors, shape in one history;
The child that sucketh long is shooting up,
The planet-ducted pelican of circles
Weans on an artery the genders strip;
Child of the short spark in a shapeless country
Soon sets alight a long stick from the cradle;
The horizontal cross-bones of Abaddon,
You by the cavern over the black stairs,
Rung bone and blade, the verticals of Adam,
And, manned by midnight, Jacob to the stars.
Pelican of Circles: A pelican is a traditional symbol of Christ and represents self-sacrifice. The Resurrection is the cycle of Christ from life, death, and rebirth. Pelican of circles refers to a Messiah of life cycles.
Adam: The Biblical Adam was the first man created from adamah (earth) who becomes estranged from the earth when he disobeys God. But the name Adam can also refer to “mankind” or “a human”.
Jacob: From the Hebrew word for “heel” and possibly a shortened version of Yaaqob-el meaning “God may protect.” In the Bible, Jacob is given the name Isreal after wrestling all night with an Angel. He is considered the father of the Israelites, and his twelve sons represent the twelve tribes of Isreal. The name Israel comes from the Hebrew words lisrot meaning to ‘wrestle’ and El meaning ‘God’.
Hairs of your head, then said the hollow agent,
Are but the roots of nettles and feathers
Over the groundworks thrusting through a pavement
And hemlock-headed in the wood of weathers.
Nettle Root: The root of the nettle plant is commonly associated with the medicinal properties of the plant versus the leaves or the stem. Nettle roots are from the Stinging Nettle plant, also known as Urtica dioica. Urtica from Latin meaning ‘sting’ and dioica from Greek meaning ‘of two houses’.
The plant is associated with fertility and protection and is well known for its nourishment as well as its sting. Because of this paradoxical nature, in folklore, it is thought to mark the gateway between life and death, a threshold guardian, and grows from the buried dead.
Hemlock: a poisonous plant. Hemlock derives from a Hebrew word meaning “to curse,” the effects of Hemlock can be vertigo, panic, hallucinations, and in extreme cases, death. Hemlock was famously chosen by Socrates as his method of execution.
First there was the lamb on knocking knees
And three dead seasons on a climbing grave
That Adam’s wether in the flock of horns,
Butt of the tree-tailed worm that mounted Eve,
Horned down with skullfoot and the skull of toes
On thunderous pavements in the garden of time;
Tree- tailed worm: Traditionally the word worm is interchangeable with names for serpents, snakes, and even dragons. Tree-tailed refers to Milton’s depiction in Paradise Lost, of the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose tail was wrapped around the tree, enabling him to reach eve and mount her.” The Image of a snake coiled is a very common symbol in many ancient spiritual traditions.
Eve: In Hebrew, the name Eve means ‘life’.
The English word ‘eve’, dating back to Middle English, refers to the close of day, the time when day gives way to the night; in other words, the transition from light to dark.
We are all familiar with Eve and the story of the Garden of Eden: she is tempted by the serpent and tempts Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The fruit represents knowledge meant only for the gods. This Biblical story marks a transition from innocence to experience.
Skullfoot: walking death or skull of toes suggesting an unnatural or inverted nature with the toes or feet reaching to the sky rather than the ground as they are usually meant.
Rip of the vaults, I took my marrow-ladle
Out of the wrinkled undertaker’s van,
And, Rip Van Winkle from a timeless cradle,
Dipped me breast-deep in the descending bone;
The black ram, shuffling of the year, old winter,
Alone alive among his mutton fold,
We rung our weathering changes on the ladder,
Said the antipodes, and twice spring chimed.
Rip Van Winkle: Washington Irving’s short story published in 1819 about a man who falls asleep and finds the world is different when he wakes up. Based on the Christian story of “The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus” where a group of Christians hide in a cave to escape Roman persecution and fall into a 200-year sleep. The figure of Rip signifies a man out of time and exposes the aspects of our lives that are rooted in the temporal conditions and historical contingencies of a culture at a given time.
Antipodes: In geographical terms, Antipodes are the diametrically opposed points of any other given point. Meaning that every geographical local has an opposite point on the globe that is its antipode.
The conclusion is a succession of questions and riddles, developing oppositions akin to the Christ/Satan, light/dark, innocence/experience, day/night themes within the poem. The first asks where is the poetic measure in the dictionary? A challenge for discovery.
The second asks how we can measure the size and classification of creation.
What is the metre of the dictionary?
The size of genesis? the short spark’s gender?
Shade without shape? the shape of the Pharaohs echo?
(My shape of age nagging the wounded whisper.)
Which sixth of wind blew out the burning gentry?
(Questions are hunchbacks to the poker marrow.)
What of a bamboo man among your acres?
Corset the boneyards for a crooked boy?
Button your bodice on a hump of splinters,
My camel’s eyes will needle through the shroud.
Loves reflection of the mushroom features,
Still snapped by night in the bread-sided field,
Once close-up smiling in the wall of pictures,
Arc-lamped thrown back upon the cutting flood
Poem by Dylan Thomas
Enjoy this poem if you do and I know I will return to this poem whenever I find my thoughts growing stale.