John Scotus Eriugena at Laon

Translated by Richard Sieburth
 
1

An Ireland, as of chalk, the sky
standing in for the sea, the beach
a reach of blue, the vineyards’
green scooped out in cirque,

in cove, a subtlety of air laps
the eyes, abob like barques
come from afar, and the viator
standing there, poised to dis-

embark, the undercurrent of air
escaping him, tossed to & fro,

gaze wrenched from its angle
of purchase upon the world,
capsized, head now careened
against the suddenness

of rock, eyes whiplashed into new
prospects, he drowns in fire,
enflamed, fine silk aquiver
at the singe of brazier, he

burns: would Hell be as blue,
or the sun the obverse of God?

 
2

Now at Laon, the Lugdunum
of the North, deposited on this citadel
of chalk, white arx, former
temple of Lug, the light-

god of the Gauls, & he,
this Celt from Hibernia, setting
foot on this podium, this puy,
this platform afloat

at cloud & wind height,
blown in from the septentrion,

breathes in the quintessence
of rains, alevel the briar’s
pinks, zone where water,
at first cold snap, turns to snow.

Fallen from fire. Autumn’s pure light
whitens the mount, the tufa
reverberating the radiance
of a Cyclades isle, here mis-

placed, high above these plains,
by some error in translation.

 
3

At Lindisfarne, let us suppose —
even if Alcuin’s letters to the island’s
monks exhorting them to combat
the Viking may be evidence

to the contrary — that he studied
Greek, that Charles the Bald,
offshoot of the Pippinids,
summoned him here to Laon

to translate Dionysus. Between
the king’s vineyards & the blue sky,

a whisper of the North Sea
in the channel of Île Sainte when
the seals bark at ebb tide,
Johannes the Hibernian cocks an ear

despite finding his coracle of Latin
too frail a craft to explore the peninsulas
of Greek, & carries with him
the long-lapping waves of Scotland

& seaweed’s tang where kingfisher
nests beside nugget of amber.

 
4

That which lies out of reach taking
the shape of this white & shadowy
rock on which he is now beached
& whose slope he now climbs, blind

beneath the sun, fallen from the same height
he ascends, would Satan be extending him
his welcome with the same dark
radiance of stone between his eyes

& the same fine peppering of pinks
that spice his senses on either side

of the stairs, against this, what whiteness,
what candor? The sky’s rarified air,
there to calculate the distances between
the things he climbs or descends,

the divisions of the world now
extended, now illuminated between the lines,
the borders of the intangible now flaring up
with darkness, the granular opacities

now brightening, the sun biting into
the margins of the real, the image dying.

 
5

Denys, foundation of all cathedrals
to come, mentor of naves, stained glass
rosettes, of all the gossamer shadow
spiderwebbing the light from the East

as it rises, Lord of Ionia, oriental
Ionas, Denys, Dionysos,
your Greek sailing the great hill
of Lugdunum, your darkness raining down

its alphas, its Alphei, the dawn
uncorking the fizz of its dations.

John Scotus comments, his violet ink
relighting, igniting the world according
to Plato, filtering the grit of the flower
through the sieve of the eye,

the bran, the curds of light,
sifting out the clots of theology,
in this shadowy cave, the locals
burning every log in sight, hoc lignum,

a bonfire of stones
held in common, lapis iste.

 
6

And if some hick might ask
Quomodo omnia, quae sunt,
lumina sunt? the master
picks up a stone, a rock

from the Laon vineyard, applies
his know-how to the refractory
matter at hand, crumbles it, cake
of honey humming with the blue

of the ambient sky, the clarity,
the tang, the silky feel of the stone

giving rise to the precise & exact
idea whose line cuts against another
idea, steps hewn, crossing over
into each other, pebble giving rise

to temple, tensile, acts of attention
& hierarchy of effects, blueprints
polished to perfection, prayer
welcomed into its breast by the increase

of the volume of silence springing
from ribbed ogives, from angles.

 
7

He holds Ireland in his hand
like Carolus Magnus the Apple
of Empire surmounted by the Cross.
To distance oneself from idolatry

means, first & foremost, to gather
together the Earth in godly fashion,
to harden its pit, its core, its blindness
to the sun, its heart of darkness

according to Denys, then to hurl
this handful of earth skywards, so

that it take flight & light like a ball
of sun, cormorant, black oriflamme,
that it crackle chalky winey in the blue
veins of Ouranos, welcomed into

the sack of the crystal vault like a ripe
cherry fallen from its tree in June
among the rungs of the ladder,
if hurled from this great a distance

Earth is no more than a fruit’s seed
in the scrumptious season of God.

 
8

In the treading vats of Laon, the light
squirts out from underfoot, the Greek
hill bleeds a wine lighter & clearer
than the juice of Santorini,

the vat tips over, the blue gushes out,
the sheer flood of the world saves it
from being swallowed up, God
has created things as numerous as

his glory, hilaritas! Night overtakes
joy on the hill, the winter of all things

recedes into God, from whom they
so luminously proceed, & we philosophers
who make our way by foot, following
the path of photodosia, we reach

the degrees of the world inasmuch
as we take pleasure in its ascent,
Earth in one hand, knees in Earth,
pilgrimage of humility,

voyage of hilarity to the Mount
of Laon, Mountain of Time.
 
Translated from the French