Graham Hartill: Cosmology

Cosmology 1

It is deepening Autumn now in the valley of Grwynefechan. I am walking the top road, looking down, remembering the prisoners I worked with and all their insatiable cravings: “The thing is Gray, you do it once, then you spend the rest of your life trying to get that high again. And you never make it.” High again. And it’s not only drugs, of course; you do it once, then after that you’re sunk: “13 seconds, that’s all it took, then ever since then I was waiting for that knock to come on the door. It was like a relief when it came. Of course, now I’ll always be one of them. I’m branded forever.” And their victims won’t be the same again either, affected forever.

The path is full of briars that have spread all summer long, stretched limp across the tarmac. The road itself is falling away because, I fume to myself, because of the heavy trucks from the building work at the farm at the top, that shouldn’t be trying this road in the first place. The other night I heard an anguished owl, disturbed, across the wood, and I was reminded that this is all the body, its stink, the sharpness of its claws, the softness of its organs. Whew.

The little human body can not perceive it all without the aid of secret things: the mushroom’s chemicals accelerate the eyes! You cannot comprehend it, you have to have taken the drug; even, some say, you have to have been addicted, you have to have felt it, you have to have been a captive. One guy said, “I saw actual thoughts take shape, and move across the room from one head into another! Things aren’t the same, Gray, after that, I tell you.” Another, “I did heroin, aged 8. My mother gave it to me.” Yes, it’s true, you have to have been there.

I see sawn-off trunks that have fallen and crushed a fence, and old stiles allowed to collapse; it’s an obvious analogy, but there they are in this late October. Like Dante, I’m walking the top road, looking down and thanking God my addictions, I suppose, it’s only coffee and poetry. Poetry, I like to tell myself. Like Dante, I’ve met them, stuck like corpses in trees. They’d spit at this of course, or agree for the sake of what their agreeing might bring them, some smile in a Mars Bar, or even a clap on the shoulder: “You’re alright, Gray!” – gratifying. So then, I’m alright. And then there are those who are so far gone that all of this can hardly be like hell for them at all. They’re petrified, stuck in the rock of non-existent feeling. At least, that’s how it can seem, patrolling my ledge, with some idea of poetry, some Virgil, walking beside me. What do I know?

This universe I make tonight is the lane, the breaking trees, the soft wet grass, the owl’s harsh singing and the stars’ periphery. It is my wounded breathing, my old friend’s cancer, the sight of a beautiful Beatrice. In this heaven, none are stuck in time or trees, or stuck in their body. Ah so easy to say this, I think to myself; you know you have your needs, your conditions and your fears, all too well, like anybody else.

This hell, this heaven, in which the star burns up, the yellow apple falls to the ground and rots: Paul got  Weill’s disease from well-fed rats; the stream is rocking with turbulence and nobody’s house is secure. Looking from the safety of my ledge, hand in hand, (I’m smiling at my pretension) with the ancient poets: Virgil, Arnaut Daniel, Dante, Eliot – ah the great male lineage! knowing all and nothing. What do we know, I think, of each other’s secrets and fixations, what do we know of our own? So little. Ignorance may be bliss, but is no defence in court.


Cosmology 2

O’odham cosmology is based on an intersection between multiple vertical layers and a horizontal plane. The vertical layers are, from bottom to top, the fire below (mehi weco), the staying earth (jewed ka:cim) and up-above-laying (da:am ka:cim). The vertical axis of hell, the earth, and heaven was strongly influenced by Christianity. The horizontal axis is native and includes the very important beyond-the eastern-horizon (si’alig weco), the afterlife location of, at least ideally, all deceased O’odham. Moving westward is the horizontal plane’s intersection with the vertical and the staying earth. The staying earth is where all humans, animals and the natural world exist. Farther west on this journey, which by the way replicates the path of the sun and moon, is the sunset place (hudunig). Here is the ocean (Gulf of California), an important site for prospective shamans as well as a salt-gathering location. Scattered over the horizontal plane are sacred mountains, caves, and shrines, where spirits and humans may interact.

The spirit of a deceased person can return from the si’alig weco to visit their descendants in the form of an owl (cukud). Such owl visitations are also a way for spirits to teach humans in the shamanic and curative arts. But deceased humans can also become spirits called devils (jejawul). An O’odham devil was a cowboy in life. Upon death the devil establishes residence in one or another of the devil mountains that dot the desert. Here the afterlife location is also idyllic in that the devil continues to do what he did in life – the cowboy job of riding horses, rounding up cattle, and so on. A third, and tragic type of human spirit is the devil-owl (jiawul-cukud). This person was a cowboy in life but one who died in some violent manner. Perhaps most common of these spirits are those who died in automobile accidents.


                                                                         From: David Kozak & David Lopez: Devil Songs and Devil                                                                     Sickness: Tohono O’odham poetics


Perhaps all culture is cosmology.

‘Of the devil’s party…’ (as Blake said of Milton): no doubt the Inferno is the most ‘gripping’ and the most popular of the books, being to do with fantasy, revenge and cruelty. We love that. This is Dante’s cause, his heroism, to walk and look down on those he has judged and punished in poetry. We all have our causa sui, our self-cause, born of our need to assert ourselves in the world in contradiction to others, and such is a function, when all’s said and done, of any of imagination’s worlds.


Even in hell, or especially so, it’s not actual death; in Christian and maybe all other cosmologies, death is imagined full of life! And idealised love is a corollary of this, of course: transcendent of the un-imagined actuality.

A friend of mine says she found solace looking down into Inferno in the wake of her brother’s suicide. There is recognition there, solace, and not just the solace of schadenfreude, but of finding ourselves down there and that we are far from alone.

In Dante there are those who speak, and those who can’t.


So it’s late October in the valley and the stream is turbulent and leaves are all over the car; there are red wet leaves all over the lanes. I’ve been reading Dante’s fantasies: Virgil; Arnaut Daniel, il miglior fabbro, ‘the greater maker’ (as Eliot, quoting, said of Ezra Pound); Dante; T.S.Eliot and we’re back to The Waste Land again. It’s been a hundred years since he wrote it and it’s possible we may not get another really livable century on this earth. I read of Dante’s complex and crazy cosmology: funnels, terraces, spheres. I say to Lyn: I thought Christ came to bring His mercy to all, not condemnation. Aren’t they all saved, at some point? And Lyn says, Well, that’s just the way it is. I’m still trying to figure that out: I thought, according to that myth, that it was Christ, our own recognition of his suffering and ours, that brings about Mercy, as in the Bodhisattva Vow that says I will not save myself from suffering until all beings are saved; that it’s not just the memory of some beautiful young woman that will lead us, no, lead him, the singular man, the great artist, maker, up, up, to transcendence? But there you are, that’s cosmology for you.

It’s been said that people hate poetry because it seems not only too self-centred (let alone too much effort to read) but worse, that its subjectivity pretends to be common, let alone to be universal; it demands we think it speaks for us. Does Dante want us to marvel at his intellectual genius, masquerading as transcendence, blinding us from the thought at which circle of his fantasy, his great poetic edifice, he might have pitchforked us?


Louis Theroux, in one of his documentaries, visits a licensed brothel in Nevada. One of the girls doesn’t really play ball with the set up and keeps threatening to, then actually does, take her top off on camera. “Oh come on,” says Louis, “why are you doing this?” She says things like you need to sleep with me Louis, as if to say you’re a hypocrite, voyeur, not man enough. What she’s actually doing is turning around the set-up; she’s not content with being the film-maker’s hapless subject, however empathically handled. Louis asks the ‘madame’ who says all the girls are damaged in some way by what they do. In a nice reversal of the old cliché, by turning the weapon of her personality against Louis’s camera, the young prostitute is claiming her soul again, taking control of her body. As Otto Rank puts it: ‘a person no longer wants to be used as another’s soul, even with its attendant compensations….’ (Psychology of the Soul)


It’s strange the way Beatrice is sometimes depicted with this huge towering body and a little head! She’s enraptured in such versions but she’s not the thinker. It’s more than just to make her monolithic, other worldly, surely? Dante’s literary architecture can’t be seen, quite, as mythic, because it is a singular construction; more a work of art of course, or artifice. Yet it stands as a ‘sustaining illusion’. We all need these in the face of life-and-death. So there she is, the guide, the muse, the endlessly yearned for: Beatrice. Looking at what we know of the actual woman, it looks to me that, as far as we know, she didn’t give a damn; or perhaps she didn’t know who it was, the great poet, she was turning a blind eye to.


And what is beauty anyway? Witness the extraordinary cleverness and skills of the bower bird, constructing that incredible nest, singing those songs that can imitate human children playing in the distance of the forest, laying perspective pathways of gathered blue berries and feathers and bits of glass and rifle shells to impress a discerning mate. Or that goddess on the TV dance show, larger than life with that beautiful, powerful face and hairdo, her dress, those eyebrows! It seems we’ve inherited beauty from nature’s excess. The Beautiful says: Take a look! I stand out! I’m prominent and still survive. I’m astonishing and colourful and gorgeously sculpted; I am superior, I am immune. Your genes are safe with me, and look, I’ve gone to all this trouble – for you!

The Comedy itself reminds me of this – as well as being an extraordinary work of art, it’s a kind of cultural jewellery. “Look,” says Dante, “I have been singled out. Beatrice, the Beautiful, look! I’ve built all this for you!”


The Sybil leaves her prophecies on leaves by the door of her cave – if they get blown away, that’s just too bad, she will not repeat them. She offers her Prophetic Books to the King; He refuses. Too bad, she says and destroys three of them. Now do you want them? No, go away, stop bothering me. She destroys three more and at last he relents. Now what have we lost?

Maria Sabina, the Mazatec curer, said she could no longer work once her gifts had been ‘discovered’, brought out into the open by the West; once the celebrities had been and gone. The power will not work outside the cave.

The Sybil is its guardian; she lives in one and knows its hundred entrances into the Underworld. It’s easy to go down, she says, but not so easy, no, far from it, to return.

Virgil says she is a priestess, possessed by the God. But is that it? Is she not rather possessed by sexless, chthonic powers of voice? Compare Maria Sabina: when she becomes Christ and takes on all other male roles like those of judgment, bureaucracy, law, she is not in obeisance to them: she takes them on, she becomes them, she takes back her Self.

Thus, do not chase after fame, poet, the legend says; such ambitions will just blow away like leaves in the wind! Like the wind in a horse’s ears. If you don’t want the books, it will be your loss and danger, it won’t be hers.


Priestess = poet.

She knows the way to the underworld, ie. the unconscious; she knows the secrets of death. She gives Virgil the Golden Bough that permits him entrance. And she knows how to get back out. This is what men fear most as we know, and what the great City is built on, of course, what Culture is built on. Culture is Empire; all its great glories are built on a hollow cave.

Who will find the Sybil’s leaves? What stray passers-by may find and pick them up? I’m reminded of hunting after old cassettes on the streets of Hull (a disappointing experience in the end because of course no one left personal messages on them as I would have liked) and the way that metamorphosed for me into picking up people’s stories. And of casting a poem in a bottle from a Scottish rock: who knows where the tide will take your secret words! The most unpredictable finder will perhaps be your most intimate audience! And, unless you include your address in the message, you’ll never know it.

And our consolation is always: well you never know who might read it somewhere, sometime, and be affected by it; like you never know what you might have said, or taught, that might affect somebody’s life. You never know.

And similarly, how a poem might occur, and keep popping up, like The Waste Land now, again, with new significance and importance, deepened understanding. There is no fixed state to the poem in terms of how it is heard, by horses or not, or found, blown down a drab city street, or a country road.


In Dante there are those who speak, and those who can’t, who are frozen or burning in silence. Judgment and justice is all about what is said, or not, by the criminal, the victim (if they are alive to speak, or free to speak, or are heard) and by the judges and by the reporters. And the judged can speak or not, or speak half-truths and lies and fictions, which is most common.


The Journey to the Underworld! The Hero’s Journey – today (23rd October and subsequent days) I enter the zone of creative connections, I enter the labyrinth! Of course, the Sybil of Cumae; The Golden Bough (which was Sybil’s); T.S Eliot’s personal Waste Land; his crises, especially in his marriage, certainly sexual, maybe to do with his actual sexuality, maybe to do with medical ignorance of Viv’s menstrual cycle and its psychological effects on her. Ah men, who put her away, like Sybil was put away by Apollo, in a jar because she wouldn’t have sex with him (let’s call a spade a spade) and he, like men do, turns the table: “This is what you wanted isn’t it – a life as long as a handful of sandgrains? Have it then! Wither away in a prison, the prison of your untouched body.” Is it any wonder that Eliot quotes Petronius in his epigram to the entirety of The Waste Land? Sybil, taunted by boys: “What do you want?” “I want to die.” Did Viv say this to Eliot? It isn’t hard to imagine.


Of course you have to climb over Satan to get out of hell – you have to climb over war, rape, horror – and, according to the Christian myth, over death itself, which mankind created by coming to consciousness.


I’m amazed at this: that Mary Shelley claims, in the preface to her novel, The Last Man, that she found her story in the leaves of the Sybil. And that they told of the end of the world by – the end of the 20thC.


Dante’s wood – the European Forest – the turning of life towards thoughts of mortality: looking life-and-death in the face, its shadows and tunnels.


Joseph Campbell writes of us living in a ‘terminal moraine’ of myths and mythic symbols.

Our bodies are drawn together by the gravitational pull of stories, and those stories are comprehensible and unfathomable (!) = poetic, in equal measure because of this mythos which is buried, largely unrecognised and unnoticed, in the language, the tropes or dramas, the metaphors, and the conventions of the stories.

This the secret magic of the cave: all discourse in the public arena carries great hidden freights; and, at its depths, lies mortality denial, birthing and conditioning all culture.


Cosmology 3


What she knows as the wind

she will leave at the gate of earth,

earth’s breath


what words, invisible, as brief

as breath, she has left at the opening of earth

until we come


we will be too late

and come again

and again


in sleep sometimes

not knowing where or why,

to find them picked up somewhere else by anyone


who doesn’t know what is it they pick up –

if you come in a storm it will hardly be seconds

or on a bright summer’s day to blow against rock


they will be rained upon, these images

little as breath,

they may be rained on, become illegible, sodden


be blown and gone

in their millions,

at this time of year, of life


be blown, to end up in another field, or country,

another future,

catching a corner of somebody’s eye, flicked carelessly out from a shoulder


stowing away his dogs or picking up her bag as a bus comes

or enters a building or

turns on a lathe


she said she will bring you, King that you are,

she told me to pass this on, she said

you are Queen or are King of yourself and therefore what is what


she brings nine books you will take them now?

because in a minute there will be three

and then, like leaves, they will be everywhere gone


like bones, with pictures of life upon them,

she said she will bring you whatever you are

but you have to be quick, as quick, in fact, as a breeze


as a thought come to leaf or paper

I think she is the mouthpiece of the tree

whose cleavage is the harbour of the boat of life and death


what else, else, can I say

she scatters roots in the abyss

and branches in heaven


she blows the words that come to you, are given,

catch them only to find them beautiful, translucent

only to find them


once there were forests, forests, all over Europe,

and people who never got to the end of the forest,

the mind was all forest, there


were trees all over this island,

cut down for empire, empire’s wars,

a resource of the mind, not endless


the Self is the centre that holds against fire and flooding

the billions of it, walking the lanes in high October,

seas of it, seas of orange, yellow-brown tides of it


now she says, there’s three books left, three only,

a woman sits by Boots the Chemist, come from Syria,

there is a man from Poland


the edge of my mind’s weak forest, wrapped are his shoulders in cloth,

there are 3 books left, 3 only,

do you want them, leaders of men?


is it just fear

and should she just bequeath these last surviving books to the world’s great library or data-base

to wait its burning?


but our gathering up, your picking them up, I will believe in,

your bringing it home,

this fame, these rumours of making sense, that nothing she says will be unchangeable, un-reusable,


Ginsberg said, to be a prophet you have to be clear,

hold nothing, secrets, back,

be as little fake-self as you can manage, day after day, at the openings


the mouth, mouth, mouths of the cave,

there are thousands of them, a worldful,

it’s easy she says, to go down, it’s coming back up


to come back up from the busiest place of rhythmic voices,

voices of all who’ve been, its laughable,

wind is beautiful, white or grey or blue


it’s delicious, the river

and language it’s friend,

she says this is the voice of the god, I think she means this is the voice of all that is beyond us

all that we are within, you call it God if you like

but we’ve all had enough of that,

it is the voice, it is very many


it’s storm-riddled autumn today,

in lemon light the sun comes in my window

old yellow leaves on the pear tree


she is outside, come in,

I hear the river, 

fingers trip the keyboard, what is this?


haha your blowing leaves, leaves stitched together, given a spine, is a book,

or a body, look do you want this,

it will be tossed on the fire or else, this rhapsody, this stitch-work


do not ask a favour of a mighty god, he won’t forget it,

he’ll strike a deal, the debt will be your body, she

imprisoned in a jar because he wanted that


she wanted to die in regret of a life like a handful of sand,

do not ask immortality of any God


the trees grow,

only the wind determines it,

do not give up your mind to any god


the leaves get blown away, and are replenished, this is what breath is



October 2021




Graham Hartill was born in the English Midlands in 1952. After a studying in the US he moved back to Wales and became a mainstay of the burgeoning poetry scene in Cardiff and with Open World Poetics in Glasgow. He moved to the Black Mountains in 1992. Of his latest collection, Rhapsodies, Chris Torrance wrote: “raw excitement, koans, quotes…marshalling a wide-ranging questioning. A terrific book.” Graham teaches post-graduate students Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes for the Metanoia Institute in London and recently finished a 15 years stint as writer-in-residence at HMP Parc, Bridgend. He has published widely, both poetry, papers on facilitation and co-translations with Wu Fusheng (of the University of Utah) from classical Chinese.

Recent publications include:

Rhapsodies: (poems) Aquifer Books, Llangattock, 2021; The Selected Poems of Meng Haoran (with Wu Fusheng) The Commercial Press, Beijing, 2021; Selected Poems of the Seven Masters of the Jian’an Era (with Wu Fusheng) The Commercial Press, Beijing, 2018; Slipping the Leash (with Chris Torrance & Phil Maillard) Aquifer Books, Llangattock 2015.


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