Follow Harriet on Twitter
Stars, Poetry—Part II: Cancer, Leo, and Virgo
This is my second meditation on a personal wheel of poetic influence, grouped by modalities. (See here for my first one).
What Are the Modalities of the Zodiac? Here’s a Review:
Cardinal signs initiate action. The Sun’s entry into these signs coincides with the equinoxes and solstices. Cardinal signs are direct, assertive, forceful, and enterprising.
Fixed signs stabilize and secure the energy begun by the Cardinal signs. Fixed signs represent determination, power, striving after set goals, pride, and reliability.
Mutable signs adapt and disperse the element. Mutable signs are suggestible, resourceful, flexible, drawn to variety, and move with change.
Ruled by the Moon
June 22 – July 21
Tarot: The Chariot
What do writers Walter Benjamin, Marcel Proust, June Jordan, and Pablo Neruda share in common? They were all born under the sun sign of Cancer. Cancer born people are moody, protective, empathetic, nostalgic, loving, cautious, and imaginative. They tend to form a protective layer for retreat and renewal (in addition to the Crab, other animal symbols for Cancer include the Turtle)—sometimes I think that the Cancer writer uses language as an apparatus in which to retreat, renew, and spin a pearl around an irritant.
The Cancer poet’s “shell” also seems symbolic of the self-containment of this sign, one that signifies “home”—they tend to create and carry their home with them wherever they go, inside the text. Naturally, the tarot trump card the Chariot also speaks of movement, especially toward “home.”
In the summer of 1994, I was a graduate student on scholarship to Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program; one of the weeks, I attended a workshop lead by Harryette Mullen (July 1). It was a class that focused on OULIPO writing strategies. She generously spoke of her writing process to the poems that would appear in her book Muse & Drudge. In response to her direction, we made “restricted word pools” (a name I made up for this strategy, later) where we were asked to redact the letters that make up a word, to restrict our vocabulary so that those letters did not appear in generating the descriptive or associative words. As I relate this now, I find it rather funny to recall that I chose the word STAR in order to write about the notion of “stars” in response to this challenge. Mullen’s poems, methods, and teaching remain with and inspire me decades later.
In a 1996 letter-exchange interview with poet Barbara Henning, Mullen writes:
It would be fair to say that lines like “divine sunrises/Osiris’s irises/his splendid mistress/is his sis Isis” strike the reader as something close to pure word-and-sound-play, but this verse also alludes to the project of Afro-centrism. Even a relentlessly language-centered quatrain like “mutter patter simper blubber/…/mumbo-jumbo palaver gibber blunder” is intended to comment on the loss of indigenous languages of enslaved Africans, while its recurring sound patterns also suggest homophones of kinship terms mother father sister brother, thus setting up an analogy between loss of language and loss of kinship. Similarly, the admittedly nonsensical lines “marry at a hotel, annul em/nary hep male rose sullen/let alley roam, yell melon/dull normal fellow hammers omelette” play on my own name, Harryette Romell Mullen, by echoing and scrambling the phonemes sounded in the name.
Loss of original language and the textual return by way of language reformation: In her poems, Mullen shows us how to expose a fracture and enact a re-assemblage of retrieval. From Mullen I learned a kind of “coming back home” in language: how to put Osiris’s pieces back together.
Ruled by the Sun
July 22 – August 22
Percy Bysshe Shelley (August 4) and John Ashbery (July 28) do their poetry roaring as Leos. My 10 year old son Waylon likes to quote Herman Melville (August 1)’s roaring as Moby Dick’s Ahab “..from hell’s heart I stab at thee!..”
In terms of anatomy, the sign of Leo corresponds to the heart. They are known as big hearted (lion-hearted, if you will) as well as generous, hospitable, caring, warm, authoritative, active, and open.
When you meet Diane di Prima (August 6), you feel her Leo power. She is warm and she is fierce. I remember Dale Smith and I first meeting Diane di Prima in Japan Town for lunch twenty years ago. She told us of her correspondence with Ezra Pound and how she visited him when he was incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s. She shared her experience with starting a poet’s theater in New York. We asked her questions about the magazine she founded with Amiri Baraka, The Floating Bear, how they managed that enterprise, and the influence and reach of the journal (Floating Bear later became the model for own imprint and journal Skanky Possum). Her life as an artist and mother inspired me and allayed my fear that it was impossible to be both simultaneously. A masterful teacher, she taught hermetic traditions for poetry at New College of California in the 80s and over lunch (often sushi) she would suggest book titles to us such as Gertrude Rachel Levy’s The Gate of Horn: A Study of the Religious Concepts of the Stone Age, and Their Influence upon European Thought. Meeting with her meant receiving a transmission of poetry lineage; it always felt “important.”
On the Rider Waite deck, the Strength card is shown as a regal woman gently but masterfully opening a lion’s mouth; it symbolizes peaceful strength and powerful self-discipline. A card of transformation, it suggests the capacities of dealing with difficulty “head on.”
I think of the queen of the Strength card when di Prima writes “i am a woman and my poems/are woman’s …”
Ruled by Mercury (like Gemini)
August 23 – September 23
Tarot: The Hermit
I asked my Virgo friend the painter Philip Trussell how I might I visualize Virgos, the Virgins, as mutable earth? He said to think of molten lava: earth dispersed, earth in motion, earth that can make new islands.
Virgos see the whole picture and they see the small things. They are the critics of the zodiac; they are tireless workers and make good editors and proofreaders. If the Virgos in my life were to read this, they would calmly tell me that I didn’t mention the many Virgos that I could have mentioned in my wheel of personal influence, such as Lorenzo Thomas (August 31), Barbara Guest (September 6), Bill Berkson (August 30), and Douglas Oliver (September 14). Sadly, I cannot catalogue them all, as I’m not as perfectly indefatigable as you, Dear Virgo.
Virgos observe patience toward efforts—they can plant the seed and nourish it to fruit (unless they go volcano in their mutable way). I think it’s funny that they don’t have their own planet of influence—it is as though they are self-contained and mostly unknowable.
I think of William Carlos Williams ability to work as an obstetrician, poet, and critical prose writer as very Virgo. Looking at his earthy attention to asphodel (“that greeny flower”) as way to speak of love and its complications with organized mimetic tercets, I notice certain Virgo themes:
I had a good collection.
I bring you,
a memory of those flowers.
They were sweet
when I pressed them
something of their sweetness
a long time.
It is a curious odor,
a moral odor,
that brings me
near to you.
The patient precision of collecting and pressing a certain type of flower—ones that go from sweet to a “moral odor”—echoes the Virgin/Virgo meticulousness. One wouldn’t be inclined to call the poem “romantic”—and yet there’s an aching vulnerability of a speaker who is trying to let their Beloved see them at last, truly.
Parts I, II, III, and IV can be found here.
Tags: Amiri Baraka, Barbara Guest, Barbara Henning, Bill Berkson, Dale Smith, Diane Di Prima, Douglas Oliver, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Rachel Levy, Harryette Mullen, June Jordan, Lorenzo Thomas, Marcel Proust, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Philip Trussell, Star Report, Walter Benjamin, William Carlos Williams
Posted in Featured Blogger on Thursday, May 22nd, 2014 by Hoa Nguyen.