Welcome to my new book, and it’s amazing, unexpected story. The book is Two Minds, a collection of ghazals, an ancient Persian poetic form steeped in mystic sufic tradition and pop song. There’s a story about the ghazal form, which is beautiful to tell, but first, surprise. I feel carried in the palm of God’s mind. I know, not a literary thing to say, but let me tell the story, and then you can decide. To get started, here’s the cover:
That, I told my publisher, is the Green Man of the Schönfeld Dream Palace, a kind of pre-modern theme park north of Dresden, in Saxony. I was there in 2010, and took this snap. The Green is ancient, a human figure with leaves growing from his tongue, sometimes, and from his hair, eyebrows, moustache and beard, always. The original human, in the Middle European forests, an ancient god that the Celts brought with them as they migrated from ancient Persia, a symbol of aristocratic right, peasant groundedness and, in the 19th century, German national aspirations. You’ll find him on coats of arms, public buildings, cathedrals and furniture from Wales to Poland, and down into Hungary and, no doubt further. Here he is in the German city of Görlitz, on the Polish border:
This is a new green man, for a city proud of a renewed German identity after the communist years. In Schönfeld, though, he’s a lot older. Pleasure palaces like Schönfeld (which means “Beautiful Field” were installations erected by the aristocracy of the Baroque period, where they could escape their stinking cities for the weekend and conduct business by flirting, playing games, including steeplechase, leapfrog, croquet and badminton, plus gambling, tea-drinking, flirting, and lots more. The palace at Schönfeld survived the communist period roughly. Time stopped.
The buildings are in terrible disrepair, the botanical garden has gone wild,
and picnic tables replaced any attempt at class.
Even so, weekends are weekends, lovers came for decades, and left signs of their love in the Green Man’s trees. A little crossing out and then re-gouging, perhaps, but love can be like that.
And the Green Man is still there. Look at him below, wearing his jester’s bells. Traditionally, those would be acorns, but the Baroque Age was full of wit.
He’s not alone, either. He has a friend. Here he is:
Look at him! Goatish horns, a goatish beard, like the hull of an acorn, and those drunken eyes, eh! This is Pan himself, god of wine, dalliance and pleasure palaces everywhere. He’s also a splendid Green Man, with full oakish hair and moustache, and no acorns because he’s one himself. Well, I read from my book, Two Minds, and talked about my experiences on the Camino, not the one in Spain but the northern one, that goes from Saarbrücken on the French border to Görlitz on the Polish one, and how I got lost, and found myself through a series of epiphanies, with the sense that I was meeting figures out of spiritual mythology on the road, and they were acting as guides, to show me the story that I couldn’t write because it was already there. Here’s Artemis, for example, pointing my way.
It was profound and life-altering, and when I came home (if I ever really did) I wrote my ghazals. They were joyous things. I laughed a lot those days, in the delight of making them, or, really, being present at the moment they came to light and revealed themselves. Here I am with Goethe on the road.
Goethe brought Islam into modern German culture, way back, two hundred years ago. I should have noticed that. I should have realized that the road to the Northern Orient was going to make me in its own image, just as it had made Goethe and Germany and European culture. Islamic scholars, diplomats, philosophers and holy men walked it regularly a thousand years ago, and there I was in Edmonton, and a listener at my reading gave me a note. “You should read this,” he said. Early in the morning, I did. The floor fell out from underneath me. I was still on the road. What he had given me was the heart of my book, which I had carried for seven years without a name, and now it had one: Khezr, the Hidden Prophet, Trickster Cook of Alexander. Khezr is one of the afrad, the Unique Ones who recieve illumination directly from God without human mediation; they can initiate seekers who belong to no Order or have no human guide; they rescue lost wanderers and desperate lovers in the hour of need. Well, that was me in the East. Here he is:
Riding that fish, he could be Merlin. There’s a good chance that he is. He’s always a bit of a spy. One of his functions is to convince skeptics of the marvelous, to rescue those who are lost in deserts of doubt and dryness. Do read the whole essay. It’s marvellous. Click. And how do I know it’s Khezr I found on the Camino? Easy. Take a look at the dragon wings he has instead of oak leaves for hair. With claws, and everything. And my wonky shot taken by reflex as I was coming back up from the river.
That’s because in Sufic tradition, there is no separation between St. George and his dragon: they are one. This one-ness between wildness and civility, that is Khezr. It is mediated by Wisdom, or the illuminating power of God. The dragon doesn’t have to be killed. There is no dichotomy between viewer and viewed, humans and the earth, people and God. Khezr gets you there just like that. What you need is wisdom, not your own, but the light of intelligence itself, and that’s where the ghazal comes in. It’s a form that is built out of witty couplets of loosely connected ideas, which click together to form an image, a moment of beauty, of wit, of intellectual insight, or of spiritual truth. It then dissolves, and makes room for another couplet, and for at least three more, all differing from each other, seemingly with no connection at all, like a chain of droplets of light falling from the sun, until they settle in a pool at the bottom of the poem, and come together, miraculously, into unexpected union and insight, revealing the unity behind their difference, and then that, too, dissolves, leaving way for another another incarnation of light. That’s the way of the ghazal. It’s also the way of the pilgrim who lets himself get so lost that Khedr picks him up and carries him home — except that home is not where he started out. That’s my story. That’s my book. You can find it here, at Frontenac House: Two Minds. I can send you a copy. Just send me a note and we’ll work out the details.Your favourite bookstore will order it, of course.