Sometime in the tail end of the last century—so long ago that I can only approximate the date by the house we hadn’t bought yet and the kids we hadn’t had—I picked up a translation of the rune poem, and I lost my mind.
The rune poem is a list of the letters, or runes, in the runic alphabet, each accompanied by a three-line verse about the specific rune. The runes are each also words—common nouns, mostly, in the way that A was once aleph was once ox. On one level, the rune poem is not much more than A-is-for-apple, B-is-for-bear abecedarian. On another, it is astonishing how much is revealed even by such a list.
And the rune poem is more than that. See:
Ken, the torch:
by its flame the living know the torch
its brightness illuminating
life inside, where we rest.
Joy comes not to the soft,
to the untouched, complacent
with the plenty of town.
Beorc, the birch
No flowers, no fruit,
yet the birch is beautiful,
its clustering leaves near the sky.
There were several runic alphabets, and likewise several rune poems. The book I had stumbled across featured the variant of the rune poem which originated in what is now England. It had been translated and annotated by Jim Paul, then done up as a beautiful little hardcover volume with a gold and red cover and a square trim: The Rune Poem: Wisdom’s Fulfillment, Prophecy’s Reach, from Chronicle books. The rune verses above are excerpts, used with permission.
In his forward, Paul recounts the convoluted route that this poem took on its way to his manuscript: an ancient oral tradition, an unknown 8th-century poet, a 10th-century copyist monk, a medieval manuscript, a 18th-century antiquarian, a catastrophic fire. That seemed about right to me: By chance the rune poem came forward. By chance it was spared. It came to my hands likewise by chance, in that dim time early in my marriage when I had emigrated to Canada but did not yet have status to work. It was around 1998. I knew no one and didn’t have much money. I was deeply in love but desperately unhappy. I picked up odd things from the bargain cart a local used bookstore, and it was from there, probably, that I picked up Paul’s The Rune Poem.
The universal and the particular. The deliberate and the arbitrary. 600 times a second, lightning strikes. That book struck me like lightning.
I am trained as a scientist—a physicist, specifically. The rune poem struck me as a kind of science: it encodes deep knowledge in compact form. And science, too, is a kind of rune poem: it encodes assumptions, histories, peculiar and particular moments, far more than some of its high-minded practitioners would like to admit. They are both systems of knowledge.
I began to read about the rune-using cultures. The world’s oldest confirmed script, cuneiform, developed as an extension of accounting: nouns like “sheep” and “oil jar,” then numbers, and then verbs like “pay,” then, and slowly, written language. The runes were not like that: they seem to have developed as an extension of the impulse that put aurochs on the deep walls of caves: not to record, but to channel. Runes were used individually, not as parts of words or sentences. The rune-using peoples inscribed them on boundary stones, on sword hilts, on brooches. Only much later were runes chained together, letter-like, to make new meanings. One of the things we know they were used for was to turn a branch into a magic wand.
Words as science. Words as knowledge. Words as power. Thinking about the rune poem, I remembered that “spell” (as in, to spell a word) and “spell” (as in, to cast a spell) have identical roots. They are each a working, a careful ordering, of signs, each used to grab and perhaps control a part of the world.
Around the same time I found Paul’s The Rune Poem I fell for another book, The Names of Things: Life, Language, and Beginnings in the Egyptian Desert, by Susan Brind Morrow. Half etymological swoon, half travel diary, it opens:
You could begin with the crab that scratches in the sand. The name of the animal is the action or the sound it makes, or its color. The name parents other meanings belonging to other things, leaving the animal behind: grapho (Greek, to scratch, and so, to write), gramma (the scratches), graph, grammar, grab.
Graph, grammar, grab, said my mind, trained in science, steeped in poetry, enspelled by the rune poem. What parts of this can I chart, what order can I make of them, what parts can I hold on to? Could I make something like a modern rune poem? That was, of course, an impossible task, as ridiculous as creating a modern Bible. Despite—or perhaps because—of that impossibility, I wanted to try it.
deep in our history
a bowl of milk
became the moon
I did not know what form a response to the rune poem should take, but I scribbled without knowing. An ABC poem? A is for apple, B is for bird, C is for the speed of light? I tried it, and produced 26 “rune” verses. I liked some of them (“M,” above, is my favorite) but in general, I couldn’t get the juxtaposition that I wanted. The cumulative effect was twee.
I tried framing my new rune verses in instructional poems that would tell the reader how to cast them. I wrote about divination traditions from around the world. Cut down an apple tree, I wrote. Hold in a tortious shell the quick language of fire. These pieces were more interesting but tended toward the dry and didactic. A single exception leaped out, the poem that introduced that early sequence:
What is our ancient knowledge?
To track by broken grass, tell the future in the moon’s fogged mirror.
To cast runes from the hand— that bowl of bone and leather. Their fall, their scritch and jumble. The hawk’s shift
across a branch of shadow.
It was—is not—a brilliant poem, but had something. The instructional tone struck sparks against the subject matter, the old nouns: grass, moon, bowl, hawk. The second-person narrator, certain in her universal “our,” appealed to me. Like many young poets (I was 28 in the year 2000), I had written mostly in first-person confessional, and though I’d just finished a manuscript in a different voice, this narrator was unlike anyone I’d written as before.
And then there was the short form: in its original form, the piece had seven lines, like the first stanza of a sonnet, or like a rune verse roughly doubled. Because I had been thinking about the cumulative power of small pieces that made the rune poem, the idea of accumulating many pieces like this appealed to me. I set out to find more such pieces, digging down from the first artifact. Seven lines, I thought. Nouns, I thought. Questions in the title. The connection between science, language, and magic: any modern system of knowledge would need to treat all three.
The first few of these seven-line pieces were stiff under the weight of all those rules, but there were bits that I liked. There was something oracular about them. Something ancient.
Once I had found the form, this project became an accretive poem, one I worked on for years, nearly for decades. I loosened the rules. I added pieces, subtracted pieces, rearranged. I drove my writers’ group crazy. The problem with projects like this is where to stop them. I have found that long poems slowly settle until much of their history is lost and their structure seems inevitable. That is what has happened here.
I do not know if this poem is a success; if it is complete or fragmentary or just abandoned. But one way or another I am overjoyed to share it.
Cover photo by Kalle Gustafsson