Lighting Out For The Territory
Originally published in brief #28 (Spring 2003)
Poetry is always written within a cosmogony. But the meaning of the universe and where it stops and starts are still matters of conjecture.
Alan Brunton’s book-length poem Moonshine (Bumper Books, 1998) is a hermetic text, which does not mean it is inscrutable, only that you have to follow certain paths of knowledge to understanding. It can be read as writing floating in a dark pool of unknowing which it serves to bring into the light. So densely referential is it that any cybertext would be almost entirely blue; annotated it will make a book twice as long as its 82 pages. Unlike much of the hermetica, however, it is not backward looking, it does not attempt elucidation of the lost wisdom of the past. What it proposes instead is a tracing of the ways in which the transformative power coded in the hermetica was misused, and what the consequences of this are. Alan Brunton was a poet of large ambition – those quoted or evoked in the three introductory verses alone include Plato (in Dr. Dee’s translation), Horace, Chaucer, Spenser, Milton and Baudelaire – and this is his epic: a cosmic love story ending in apocalypse.
The narrative of the poem begins in the age of amphibians and ends with the slow HaHa of charming quarks: life on earth. Its three major parts are a history in eight numbered sections, a dramatic monologue which is also a biography of Ernest Rutherford, and a post-apocalyptic vision written in free verse. These are preceded by a Dedication, a Preface and an Invocation, and followed by four short, almost mute, pieces framed decisively in our misused present; the work concludes with Notes and Omitted Verses.
The armature of genuine scholarship which informs Moonshine is astonishing, more so the speculative power of its imagining of past, present and future. As an account of how the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, with its ability to transform matter and confer immortality, was fulfilled in the disastrous experiments of late 19th and 20th century scientists, it proposes an alternative canon – philosophic, artistic, scientific – which amounts to a major revision of the thought of the West. If, as quantum physicist J. A. Wheeler believes, most of the universe consists of huge clouds of uncertainty that have not yet interacted with a conscious observer … a vast arena containing realms where the past is not yet fixed … such revision is not simply of interest but crucial for our future.
The first indication of a biographical impulse in Alan Brunton’s published work is the short poem For Petrus van der Velden in The Young New Zealand Poets (1973). A collage of factual information and direct quotation, it encapsulates a whole life and its artistic legacy in seven short stanzas, which end:
Van der Velden’s trajectory was from 19th century Europe to the antipodes, his illumination came at the end of his life at the end of the world; Ernest Rutherford moved in precisely the opposite direction, from the obscurity of Brightwater, south of Nelson, to Trinity College in Cambridge and world fame as the man who split the atom. His life, however, in this telling, like van der Velden’s, is the life of an artist.
An epic intent in Alan Brunton’s work manifested in the 1978 Red Mole production Ghost Rite, an intensely theatrical, almost wordless universal history which began with creation out of the primordial waters and ended in a song of longing as a group of cargo cultists implored themselves off planet. As the pageant moved from prehistoric times through Egypt, the Dark Ages, plague infested medieval Europe, the early Renaissance to a surreal modern age afflicted by demagoguery and war, two figures recurred: the Fool and the Magus, sometimes paired as in the sequence where an evil Svengali manipulated the oracular utterances of an innocent called Hans Bones. These presentiments – there are no fences on the sun … why should I pay for light? – so excited the crowd they set upon the Svengali, tearing him to pieces before chairing Fool from the stage. The scryer thus defeated his magus but then the wheel turned again, literally – an aluminium wheel was built for Ghost Rite and, with an actor spread-eagled star-shaped within, passed across the stage to mark the transitions between periods.
A third, and immediate, precursor to Moonshine was a Red Mole show mounted in New York in 1982. The Excursion took its dramatic structure from the progress of the Boat of a Million Years on its nightly journey through the Egyptian Land of the Dead. John Davies, who lit it, writes: There were the long grey coats with mud smeared on them and round masks that opened to reveal other masks … berimbau music on the soundtrack. Backdrops up close to the audience which would be pulled aside to reveal set ups behind. There were suitcases (these re-occurring motifs). There was a tree of people and the scattering of corn. Just the three actors and something was burnt in flame.
Alan Brunton wrote about The Excursion in a poem published in his 1991 collection Slow Passes. Their Diet Consists of Carrion answers New York drama critic Eileen Blumenthal’s rhetorical question as to why Flaubert was in the play in the first place by way of a simultaneously hilarious and chilling account of a mugging on the Lower East side of Manhattan. This during the writing of:
It is from these perspectives, then, that Moonshine would be written: the documentary and the quotation, vatic speech and its contrarieties, the nightly progress through the land of the dead. Masks would open to reveal other masks, screens would slide back to reveal other scenes. Moonshine’s writing takes us from a prophetic fragment inscribed on a piece of clay in ancient Iraq, via the Egyptian mysteries of Hermes Trismegistus, to the site of Trinity in New Mexico where the prophecy was fulfilled.
Moonshine proposes that history was directed, not in any Hegelian sense, from the first fish to get up onto the Silurian beach towards the birth of Rutherford, in Brightwater.
Hermetic philosophy began in Alexandria under the Ptolemys as a fusion of Greek and Egyptian thought with each other and with the wisdom of the east – the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Sunda and China – along with what those traditions retained of humanity’s single pan-belief-system, shamanism. The Hermetics practised breathing techniques, meditation, and sexual magic in which the lovers joined the continuum of the earth and the stars: as above, so below. The union of lover and beloved enabled them to perfect themselves, transcend ordinary reality and enter into bliss, which means both to see and be part of the universal web of connectedness; this ecstasy is (still) available to us all.
The Hermetics believed there were nodal points in the web where force was concentrated which could be used to make change. These nodes were sometimes expressed as symbols (words, hieroglyphs) but were also in the actual sounds of speech, which are thus storage cells charged with power the way a battery is charged with electricity:
At the most basic level, Moonshine proposes A and O as the primordial sounds, the Alpha being, perhaps, the Ah! of understanding, the Omega the Oh! of wonder: that is, an indrawn breath and an expelled breath, in turn related to the systole/diastole, the contraction and expansion of the heart. O incarnates as a woman through the ages and sometimes takes on the attributes of A. When she does, paradise is on earth; when not, we are in hell. A’s primary manifestation is Whoosh, the HaHa Man, who, in the mysterious crime which initiates the (black) comedy, violates O in the Idalian Grove, where Persephone was raped by Pluto. She flees, and thereafter his crew of alchemists and proto-scientists, philosophers and prelates, chase her down the centuries of the last two millennia.
The account of this pursuit is the matter of the first part of the poem. We meet Ovid, Zosimus, St. Bernard (founder of the Knights Templars), Cola de Rienzi, the washerwoman’s son who rose against the Pope in 14th century Italy, the early Portuguese navigators to Africa, Pico Mirandole and his patron, Lorenzo de Medici, before going with Columbus to America and Magellan round the world. From Elizabethan England, with its magus-poets and holy fools, comes a brief Life of Sir Philip Sidney, then we speed up past the wooden O at Bankside, Galileo’s heresy, Newton at Trinity College, Omai’s visit to London, Coleridge’s agony in the Greyhound, until we arrive (breathless) in New Zealand:
O returns, reversing the roles: it’s the hell of the alchemists and she’s coming for the man who wronged her. Whoosh is now a scientist, Joe Wurtz, stuck in some dread limbo with other damned immortals, and O an avenging angel cum interplanetary cardsharp cum bar girl. With a pack of cards bearing the 66 names of god, she wins the game hands down – they are playing baccarat – and claims her prize. In a delirious consummation framed by the Angelology of Aquinas, early modernism (Mallarme, Ravel, Duchamp, Joyce), the A and B of molecular ascent and decay as defined by Einstein, and the poet’s own initials, the product of their union is Ernest Rutherford.
This picaresque chronicle is written, with great brio, mostly in a meter that derives ultimately from Francois Villon. I is a classic text, something transcribed off a stone, full of ellipses, illegibilities, reconstructions; II, in Chaucerian Ynglish, initiates the 3 accent, 7 syllable line into which most of the rest is cast. Along the way, a marvelous ear for language puts the canon through its paces. When Whoosh disguises himself as the Kalif of Rum (Sufi poet Rumi):
In the esoteric tradition of alchemy, the manipulation of physical elements is a metaphor for the chemical wedding of the lovers. Renaissance alchemists thought of themselves as botanists as much as chemists, nurturing metals as love is nurtured, and making them grow. But a parallel tradition Moonshine also charts is more problematic: the earliest surviving alchemical text from Alexandria contains recipes for imitating the gold and jewels encrusting sarcophagi of the Egyptian great dead, and for fabricating the purple dyes used in the pharaohs’ grave cloth. The intrinsic, intimate relationship between alchemy, forgery, and the issuance of currency, as strange in its way as the mania for gold itself, and the related obsession with measurement, are shown to be behind the drive to weigh the elements and thus the splitting of the atom: by dealing exclusively with reality considered only as material facts, we not only lost the ecstatic potential in alchemy, but also, calamitously, started unpicking the fabric of the web itself. Insofar as this first section is a history of ideas, it is also a history of misunderstanding, cupidity, foolishness and misapprehension. False gold is always being taken for true, currency is not value, Isaac Newton, physicist, alchemist, ends up Master of the Mint.
The universe we live in is a work of art. The authentic poet knows this. Science is the way we imagine today, but that changes every day. For a while everything looks like Jurassic Park, then it’s something else.
In the second section of the poem, Waves, the life of Ernest Rutherford (ER) is told, with many asides, by an unnamed immortal in conversation with a mysterious interlocutor called Memm. They are in some kind of dread limbo, two ancient Egyptians, perhaps Hermes Trismegistus in congress with his Other, his Soul, who, because of the atomisation of the structure of reality, are at the end of their ability to reincarnate. Memm could also be an avatar of the Roman poet Gaius Memmius, the contemporary of Lucretius and Catullus, and an acronym for Maximum Entropy Markov Model, a powerful algorithm for processing the large amounts of text on the World Wide Web: these superannuated reincarnates may be stranded somewhere out on the Net. Markov was a Russian mathematician and poet whose work, in 1923, was taken up by Norbert Weiner. The Markov assumption states that the next state depends only on the current state:
The unnamed narrator is grumpy, world-weary, incredulous, outraged and ultimately resigned: one of Alan Brunton’s funniest incarnations. His narration of the life of Rutherford is at once intellectual biography, mock-heroic colonial saga, portrait of the artist and hallucinatory account of that essential step towards the fission technology which so haunts us today, the splitting of the atom – actually the transformation of nitrogen into isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen by bombarding it with nuclei of helium.
Floddy, Geiger, Giesel, J. J. Thompson, Wien, Wittgenstein – radium for the epochal experiments at Cambridge was surreptitiously obtained from one of Wittgenstein’s father’s Austrian mines – make appearances, but the heroine of Waves is Marie Curie, nee Sklodowska, Polish wife of Pierre and divine bride of the unique ER. She is the inheritor of that other alchemical tradition, the female line which goes back to Cleopatra of Alexandria and Maria the Prophetess, who made many of the early technical and instrumental innovations in alchemy and also stand at the head of traditions in healing, aromatherapy, perfumery and cosmetics. Marie is Rutherford’s Other, his rebel soul:
Together, after the strange death of her husband (sideswiped by a cart/in Rue Dauphine …16 pits in his head …) they embark on a motoring trip into the south of France, Troubadour country, to consummate their mission: the collection of radioactive matter with which to unlock creation. Their chemical wedding takes place to the sound of the 144,000 virgins out of Revelations singing new songs. Whether there is an historic basis for this adventure is not the point: they are lover and beloved incarnate, legendary in this recension of time, our own.
Despite the auguries which gather at his birth:
Rutherford himself emerges as something of a buffoon: full of brag and bluster, a hearty boomer from the sticks of Nelson who makes his mark initially through tremendous feats of counting scintillations on a screen. He is a man unconscious of everything except his destiny, a recognisable colonial-antipodean type who excels primarily by effort and doesn’t question what it is he is doing. The commentary by the eternity weary Egyptian magus on the doings of this calamitous fool is exquisitely wry and ultimately intensely moving:
The heart of the poem, Waves is a fine piece of biographical writing as well as a cogent summary of some difficult science expressed in such a way that you can still read it for the information even when you don’t get the detail: we will have to await the annotated edition for that and even then it will likely prove to be a chapter in an infinite book, spinning off into places no library or search engine will take you. As an account of the genesis of one of the major insights of our time, Waves is poised between authentic wonder at the beauty and strangeness of the sub-atomic world thereby revealed and a deep, unassuageable disquiet at the consequences of the discovery.
The last section is a myth-version of three month’s travel with Sally and Ruby in south France and Spain in 1988.
Sleepwalker, the third part of the narrative, is a future in which the wanderings of atomised and profoundly uprooted tribes is narrated by another nameless being, this time a woman, a shadow version of O. She is much changed:
She recounts encounters with the Milk-drinkers, the Gossipers, the Manahunes, the Sames, the Sandramblers, the Cow Riders, the Stilt People and more. Although there are early appearances of a mysterious figure, perhaps the contemporary geneticist, Fontdevila, who steals the tribe’s yafeen (children? dope?), and of Italian socialist Vacca (aka the great bell), this section of the poem is less densely referential or rather, its references are to myth and folk tale as remote fragments of the ungathered memory of the entire race after catastrophe.
Alan Brunton wrote many accounts of journeys of nameless people through landscapes blasted by unexplained calamity; the eerie quality of these projections is, that amongst their genuine strangeness, there are sudden glimpses of the quotidian:
The tone of these dystopic narratives is often that of explorer’s journals, say, Marco Polo and Rustichello of Pisa’s A Description of the World or the Ethiopian Itineraries of 15th century Italian monks. Frequently they lack a conclusion, simply ending in an unexplained silence or passing via a narrative voice which does not miss a beat into some other part of the territory; but Sleepwalker differs in that, like Fuyukama’s history, it does come to an end. At a place called Lake Ti the people divide, the dissidents following Commander Zero into the hills while the rest await the arrival ashore of a respectable person … masculine and feminine/undivided.
This time-lapsed Tiresias, as diminished in his way as O, is carried, Gulliver-like, to a stadium with hundreds and thousands of us attached/to him by strings and there interrogated by a representative of the people. His cross examination proceeds while Zero’s armies haul ashore artillery for the final battle, but he seems terminally confused in the face of the anguished tribal search for meaning and quite unable to answer, or even understand, the questions put to him: Is the origin of life significant? brings the reply: Yes yes, what will we know when we know that?
It is the arraignment by Humanity of Science in the person of the ‘perfected’ Rutherford, held under the gun, with the old man’s speech cut through by equal parts extravagant foolishness and elegiac disenchantment:
Meanwhile, armed destruction proceeds, there is no longer any communication possible between those directing this plot of doom and those doomed by it. The perfected man is executed and interred in a culvert while for the rest:
The four short pieces following Sleepwalker – What Shape Now, Common Thing, Principle Undertaking and Ci Falt La Geste – are deeply disconcerting in their bleak assumption that what began as a chemical reaction in the primordial soup will end in a chemical dump so toxic it threatens our genetic integrity and that of every other living thing on the planet. In the light of these bitter koan, the Notes and Omitted Verses which finish the book are an absurdist joke returning us gracefully to the present. While the Omitted Verses suggest a multitude of paths that could have been, or were, taken up, the Notes do not so much illuminate as obfuscate: the last informs us Pharos was the name of a bookshop on Highway 1 but apropos of what else in the poem is not immediately apparent.
In science, it would be called a groove, or a vibration. At the centre of the book, there are atomic ‘scintillations’ – the Logos comes and it is ‘PSSSSSSSSSSST’, white lightning ...
In 1933, four years before his death, Ernest Rutherford said that people who thought his discoveries would lead to nuclear power were talking moonshine. Subsequently, when Alan Brunton found a still in the museum at Brightwater, his intuition that the gimcrackery and naivety of colonial New Zealanders had played their part on the world stage was confirmed. For moonshine is also alcohol: those Benedictine monks who distilled the liqueur that bears their name were practicing alchemists, as were Renaissance herbalists and, latterly, the chemist Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD. And, of course, Alan Brunton himself, transforming the dross of history into a made work at the same time as he codes the letters of his own name throughout the poem.
Yet Moonshine was received almost in silence. There was a single review which, while enthusiastic, failed to articulate its author’s excitement in the poem; and that was it. Brunton commented: My epic-construction Moonshine is probably better known on Alpha Centauri than it is here, one big medicine ball I threw into the air that never came back. It is a remark of the magus as fool, and anticipates a different fate for the poem at some time yet to come. In fact, the first edition of Moonshine sold out and the book is presently unavailable.
Just as he could be both magus and fool, Alan Brunton united in himself goliard and troubadour. If the trobar clu, the hermetic style, was something to which he was strongly attracted, at the same time he did literally, like the goliards, go from town to town chanting verses against the venality of the powerful. Early drafts of Moonshine invoke the troubadour Marcabru in the introductory verses, although this invocation later sank back into the unconscious of the poem. But Marcabru’s distinction between true and false love holds, not just in Moonshine but in all of Brunton’s work: true love is joyful, intense, in harmony with itself and the welfare of a community; false love is bitter, dissolute, self regarding and destructive. One thing every reader of Moonshine has to decide is the status of the love affair which is at its centre.
If much of the entertainment in the poem comes from its mock heroics and satiric grotesqueries, on a deeper level it is the story of a man and a woman playing out a mythic comedy in which they pursue each other down the ages. The lovers are Alpha and Omega, earth and sky, oxygen and hydrogen: chemical elements dropped by passing comets to transmute under sunlight in shallow seas. O as oxygen and Whoosh, the HaHa man, as a double of hydrogen, together make H2O, the water of life. It is this limpid simplicity which our scientific heritage threatens.
What’s water but the generated soul? wrote W. B. Yeats. We might as well ask what fire is: just as water has a memory, so there is a mathematics of fire; these elemental actualities are the ground zero of Moonshine. Alan Brunton shared with Isaac Newton a belief that words inscribed on clay in ancient Sumer were a kind of prophecy. Newton never divulged the secret, but Brunton did offer a translation of the ur-text: An Bar, sky on fire. At the end of Moonshine O, who is beloved as world and, literally, the atmosphere, ignites: the welkin burns. Leaving behind the question: is this really our fate?
While we meditate upon this possibility, there is plenty to divert us. One of Moonshine’s fascinations is that it takes you, in the same way the scientists went inside the atom, inside the language. The U apostrophised at the beginning is simultaneously Urania, the universe, the urafangs and you. The letters which stand for elements in the periodic table are conjured in the manner the Hermetics conjured with sounds:
The poem plays with the alphabet as it does with sound, finding meaning in the plainness of signs: ER, in conjunction with Os various incarnations, makes EROS. This play with language as sign and/or sound, intertwined with an intricate, arcane numerology, incalculable here, and supported by enigmatic illustrations drawn from the arcana of early 20th century experimental physics laboratories, renders Moonshine inexhaustible.
And it retains its mysteries: the vein of moth and butterfly imagery running through it, culminating in Rutherford on his deathbed stretched/out, salient and strange/like a kind of cinnabar – not simply the alchemical staple mercuric sulphide but also a red-winged moth – renders the Big Man suddenly Egyptian as Thoth. Then there is the enigma of the full page quote (the third of three; the others are from Revelations and Alfred Jarry) that ends Waves and initiates Sleepwalker: ‘I have stolen the golden secret of the EGYPTIANS and will now divulge my sacred fury,’ was something he said, which turns out to be Kepler rewritten by Edgar Allan Poe rewritten by Alan Brunton; but what is the secret and who is ‘he’?
The greatest of mysteries is how mind arises out of matter. The hermetic solution, which, if we take it to be a survival of shamanic tradition, is the original answer, imagines a descent of spirit into matter at birth and its ascent after death. Adepts attempt to comprehend the fullness of this process in their own consciousness, and to hand on the secret of how to do it. Rutherford’s descent into matter went further than anyone had ever gone before, and the account of it in the poem is appropriately estranged:
That hyperbola of Emptiness, inhabited by another mutating binary pair, would be the territory of Alan Brunton’s next investigation, Fq, begun in the year of Moonshine’s publication. It is where we all live now, amidst a cacophony of signs which mostly go undeciphered. In a world such as this, anyone who can manage to occupy some of that emptiness with meaning, to enter that vast arena … where the past is not yet fixed, gives a great gift to the rest of us. Moonshine discovers in the fell history of our science an order which, if it does not provide us with a prophylactic against its fallout, at least tells us the way it came to be, what is likely happening as a result, and how, perhaps, to live with it: like a great dark jewel, it refracts the black light to multitudinous facets of illumination.
All section heading quotes are from Alan Brunton Gets Jaamed; originally published in JAAM 16 (October 2001), this interview is also available at: http//www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/authors/brunton/