Mutus Liber

I was doing so well with not being crazy busy in my off-time this week, and then it was just one thing after another… people visiting New York, yoga busy-ness, dropping by a writer’s group, et cetera et cetera. It’s all been socially marvelous, but I definitely haven’t had as much time as I wanted for writing (and submitting, eek! falling behind!). I’m designating Friday night and Saturday morning as my catch-up time, as usual. Have several submissions to send in, a couple poetry things to write, and possibly a surprise. (And also drafting some ideas/outlines for NaNoWriMo, because, that.)

We Write Poems asks for a list of why you write. I wasn’t feeling the list poem idea, and instead wanted to couch my answer within a story I’ve been meaning to turn into a poem. (My friend I was driving with when this happened a month ago was the one who came up on Tuesday night.) You know how people write about writer’s block when they have it; consider this my writing about not knowing how to explore a snapshot image when I have one. It’s a pretty structured poem, lots of three-part things and parallelisms happening throughout, which I hope will make it digestible. Fun fact: I think I used every letter in here.

The title is the name of an alchemical treatise from 17th century France that gave wordless diagrams about how to create the philosopher’s stone. (Transformative!) It means “Silent Book” in Latin, which is pretty cool. And when it comes to Ars Poetica, I’m a disciple of Archibald MacLeish’s poem, which we read on the first day of my creative writing class in high school, and has stuck with me since. (I used to have a blog subtitled “an empty doorway and a maple leaf”, somewhere.) Billy Collins has a somewhat more wry treatment that I enjoy too, and I’m a huge fan of Jack Spicer’s “A Book of Music“, just for its ending: Yes, / Poetry ends like a rope. I don’t think there’s anything more to say than that.

Mutus Liber

The other night, as we drove over the bridge from Philly,
nine deer came galloping along the toll plaza’s verge.
Antlers broke in the sodium light:
young buck deer. We slowed down
and waved.

Between the lines of the smallest stories live other,
quieter stories. And we, the only species blessed with
knowledge of how much we don’t know,
must figure them out.
Salt rises in the blood and lightning begins:
what were they running from? where are they going?
What has become of all of their deer wives?

Their tails flashed in the envious dark as they
disappeared into a stand of maples. Our curiosity
chased after them,
this old god we all carry,
taking the shape of desired translation.
We want to learn that pitch just outside our hearing;
we want to tell the stories that come before the stories,
and after the stories; we want to speak
deer-memory and deer-beauty.

We, the only species cursed with language,
must find other ways to pin out the wings of seen
and unseen. Each word bubbles up like

a scarlet thorn that turns those deer to champions,
a drop of water that dissolves night for us to drink,
a white-hot nail that coaxes through the tongue.

9 thoughts on “Mutus Liber

  1. Love this!! Such cool phrases: “deer-memory and deer-beauty”, and a “white-hot nail that coaxes through the tongue” — Amazing! Such a great poem about deciphering image into the language of image…

  2. I enjoyed this poem very much—-a great image. “Our curiosity chased after them” and so many other nice phrases. I am used to cursing deer for eating all of the roses and any other nice things in my garden here in a small clearing surrounded by woods. They are nearly constant companions. It is jarring to think of them in the context of your poem.

    I have just started a webpage I am definitely not in your league when it comes to writing. But I’d love for you to visit. I have an alliterative prompt up right now. Oh—also a babe in the woods on the technicalities of posting so I have some glitches to work out…..

  3. tashtoo says:

    Always enjoy your writing, and love how you share so much of yourself with us. This piece is no exception…the word play is fantastic!

  4. Joseph, this is exceptional good. I enjoyed the poem.

  5. Sara V says:

    Joseph, another brilliant piece–I want just a sip from that well of words where you drink –“our curiosity chased after them,” “only species cursed with language” “pin out the wings of seen and unseen” (as a biology major who spent a month catching and mounting an insect collection, this one struck me as particularly amazing) “a drop of water that dissolves night for us to drink” Brilliant. Thank you :-)

  6. vivinfrance says:

    Your poem is the most poetic of all the Why-I-Write list poems. A lovely collection of thoughts and words.

  7. There are so many great lines and images it is hard to pick a favorite. I would say if I had to, it is “a drop of water that dissolves night for us to drink”.

    Your poem is careful thought and introspection into ourselves, why we write, why we try to express, and how we can feel and sense perhaps what is ineffable or beyond words and our deep need to still try to contain them, paint pictures of them with our words. Language can limitation, but it is also the mother of invention giving birth to ars poetica. And once again, you have shown us beauty.

    – Nicole

  8. whimsygizmo says:

    Gorgeous, Joseph.
    I especially love:
    “Between the lines of the smallest stories live other,
    quieter stories.”
    and this:
    “a white-hot nail that coaxes through the tongue”


  9. 1sojournal says:

    The urge, the need to express, beautifully fulfilled.


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