Dec. 10 / The Poetry of Random

When I was in college, I had this poet friend who introduced me to a concept called bibliomancy.   The origins of bibliomancy can be traced back a thousand years, apparently, and most of the sources I found online summed up the definition like this:

Bibliomancy(n) divination by means of a book, especially the Bible, opened at random to some verse or passage, which is then interpreted.

This is the Random House entry, but most of the other sources online have some variation of this.  All of them seem to focus on the use of the word indicating a form of divination, or quite simply, fortune telling.

But for us it was a kind of game, my friend and I, and it had very little to do with trying to predict the future.  We would randomly pull a book off the shelf and open it to a random page and read whatever was written there.  And rather than telling our fortune, that passage would act as a kind of totem, or sign, ostensibly speaking to the meaning of the moment, the communication of energy between the participants in the game.  Much like drawing a tarot card at random out of a spread deck, or casting coins for a reading of the I Ching (which is itself, according to some sources, a form of bibliomancy) the expectation of the application need not provide for hocus-pocus.  It’s what makes tarot cards and astrology and other esoteric means of interpretation lack in credibility among many people, and rightfully so. These methods have been peddled, in the general social vernacular, as parlor tricks.  But when we played at bibliomancy our way, it wasn’t for prognostication or even deep meaning.  We certainly were not using a Bible or religious texts (at least as a rule.)  Nevertheless, there was a certain level of faith in operation between the reader and the receiver, or at least an absence of skepticism.  The way we saw it, you needed that to free yourself from the expectation that the talisman is revelatory, or even important.

It isn’t important.  The symbol is not the thing.  It’s the recognition, between the participants, that the value of the symbol is between them exclusively; they design it and define it and process it, and the symbol is transitory.  The point is the communication, between the reader and hearer and the universe, and that is presuming that the universe has a big say in the logic of arbitrary things.

I planted my flag on that concept in those heady days of artistic and spiritual exploration, and in many ways, it is still a foundation for me.  Now, don’t understand me to say that my worldview is that the universe is random.  I believe, in fact, that everything is random, inasmuch as it is interpreted by a human need for explanation.  What I believe is that the universe is offering itself to us, at all times, and that we may use it simply by asking what this thing means, right now, between us, in this time, and in this place.  And it will answer with something familiar from our subconscious, which is not our subconscious, really, but the universe.  Yes, because we contain it, and it contains us, and it just seems that we never have the words to describe it.  So, we draw a card, or read a tea leaf, or walk over to the book shelf and pick something out, and it gives us a momentary grip on the unspeakable.

That friend and I followed our paths, which went in separate directions, and though we are still slightly in touch (it’s hard to lose anyone from your history completely in the tentacular age of social media), I haven’t seen him in years.  I also haven’t played this game for a long time, and never like this.  This morning, I’m using bibliomancy to give me an idea what my photographic target is for the day, and in honor of that old friend, I’m going to use one of his favorite books:  Turtle Island is a volume of poetry by the Beat poet Gary Snyder, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975.

Opened to a random page and this is the verse I got:

The Uses of Light

It warms my bones
say the stones

I take it into me and grow
Say the trees
Leaves above
Roots below

A vast vague white
Draws me out of the night
Says the moth in his flight—

Some things I smell
Some things I hear
And I see things move
Says the deer—

A high tower
on a wide plain.
If you climb up
One floor
You’ll see a thousand miles more.

And this is the thing I shot:

holy cross

“Riverside View, Holy Cross” New Orleans, 12/10/2014. Format: digital via DSLR.

—For Michael.



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