Having unexpectedly wandered this week into a conversation on lenses and mirrors, I did my inquisitive thing, and followed up on that exchange by zooming down a rabbit hole on scrying. Brooke Bunce describes scrying, which in the ancient (and later) world was practiced anywhere from Egypt to China to Persia, to parts of Europe and the Americas, as the “act of gazing into a reflective or translucent surface to glean prophetic insight”—and, yes, the use of crystal balls is an example of this activity. One of the more celebrated historical scryers was John Dee, general polymath and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I; his obsidian mirror is currently in the possession of the British Library.
What were or are people looking for, or hoping to see, by staring at obsidian or glass, water, oil, fire, smoke, or even wax?1 Depending on who’s doing it or who’s requesting a scryer’s services, there’s always, of course, the attempt to see the future. But some of those seekers staring into the flames might just be looking for insight, engaging in what sounds like a meditative practice to get to the heart of a question or problem. In short, a method of seeing something more clearly, maybe simply by taking a different-than-usual approach to looking at or thinking about it. Lauren Spencer King compares the practice to dream interpretation.
Fred Hyland, illustration, Vol. 6 ofThe Yellow Book (1895). Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
I couldn’t help looking at my recent tendency to pull poems from news articles as my own version of scrying via the “surface” of words: looking long and hard at paragraphs of reportage to find some kernel or slim thread running through the facts, much like a scryer might puzzle over the meaning of a shape seen in clouds. This week, I was at the process of erasure once more, after being brought up short by an article on the endangered regent honeyeater. The Australian songbird is in dire peril, not only because its habitat keeps getting destroyed—but also and as a result, because there are no elders around to teach the young their species-specific songs. And because successful mating is dependent on those melodies, pairing up and reproducing just isn’t happening. The males learn other birds’ calls—at least it’s something, some attempt they’re trying to make at communication—but those tunes only sound like a lot of gibberish to the females, and these poor bachelors go on singing and singing, left alone in spite of their best and most earnest efforts, or their most fervent hopes.
It was a heartrending article to read, and all I could do was stare at it; no author or mythologist could have come up with such simple, drawn-out devastation, with characters crushed for no fault of their own. And here was nature doing what it so often does, and so well: holding up a terrifying mirror to the humans who’ve created this mess. I don’t know whether the following erasure poem signals anything more than my own attempt to deal with the story itself—but here’s one for the birds all the same, in the hopes they’ll get their song back, and sing it loud and far.
Critically Endangered Tunes
they need the song, the feeling
mimicking unfamiliar melodies,
all their day singing,
looking for a lead,
learning to sing
a terrible story of the new,
inferences that describe
what extinction sounds like:
a whimper in a forest
they sing only to lose
battles with a century of noise
to learn instead a whistle
could be too sparse
to sustain, to speak
Erasure poem after Mike Ives, “How Does That Song Go? This Bird Couldn’t Say.” New York Times, 17 March 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/17/science/bird-honeyeater-australia.html
Whether or not any visible surface, as in one’s own navel, will work, is a question that remains—although my guess is, the material needs to be free from all distractions, as opposed to those glowing screens that turn people into zombies these days. Among other things, I’d like to figure out how many hands serve the dual purpose of holding smartphones and catching all the drool that oozes out of users’ mouths.