Dear Helen,

Some say the Gospel of Mark was modeled on Homeric epics (Odysseus|Christ), much as Augustine later modeled his Confessions on Virgil’s Aeneid. (And Augustine held that Virgil’s fourth eclogue prefigures the second coming of Christ in the character Achilles.) I know you don’t care about Christ or old books, but I can’t help but start a letter to a Helen with something about Homer – and lo! your husband is called Mark.

Names again.

Thank you for the poem that you sent. I don’t think that I’ll be able to publish it because of its length. Seventy pages! What can I do with a poem that long? I haven’t the courage as an editor that you have as a writer. Bless you, curse me. What is the point of any of this if I don’t publish it? I haven’t published anything in years. It’s simply too long.

I wonder about the final stanza. Everything changes in that stanza – the length of the lines, the syntax, the clustered consonance. The poem gathers itself at the end and points towards the infinite, but the infinite is moving away from us. The heavens are darker by the hour. What do you mean by “shallow apotheosis”? Are we all so doomed?

I am a coward, but now I have faith. Poetry is still possible. Everything depends on your pen. Perhaps I will find courage. Until then…

vale bene,


Dear Eloise,

Your name is one letter from the love of Abelard. Eloise, name of the nearly beloved. Pray that Plautus was wrong about the nomen atque omen business.

The name of this journal, Letters, never made much sense to me. Does the name refer to epistles or to אs and בs? Or something else? I accept the mystery and now take the name as a directive. Thus my letters to you.

Do letters and words run afoul of the idea that the actual precedes the potential? It’s not a question that would occur to Aristotle or his predecessors because they didn’t write words. Look at the old Greek and Latin carvings: they wrote in blocks of text without spaces between the groups of letters. Only later did Byzantine editors put in the spaces and accents to create words as we know them now. What they did when they read and wrote is not what we do. I think this leads to a lot of misunderstanding (e.g., philology). When we open Liddell & Scott, it’s good to remember there were no Greek lexicons before the time of Alexander and nothing approximating a dictionary as we know it for a long time after that.

We make do with what we have.

You once told me the dictionary is the most beautiful type of book and if you had to pick only one book to read for the rest of your life, you would choose Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary. I don’t think you’ll be happy with this letter.

As for my one and only book? I would pick something small and minor, like Aira’s Varamo, lest I lose my mind in obsession. Better not to read than to become a monk.

Forgive me, Eloise!

vale pancratice,


Dear Eloise,

It occurred to me yesterday that the old Occupy X slogan about the 99% and the 1% is an inversion of Christ’s parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Matthew (the shepherd leaves the herd of 99 to save the 1 lost sheep).

Back when the occupiers were occupying, I wrote a short article that argued Occupy X expressed a sort of unconscious anti-Semitism. I put it this way:

The problem of anti-semitism is not the fault of the protesters, any more than the economy is the fault of employees of banks: the logic of externalisation that appears here as anti-semitism may be an essential component of any revolt, including, paradoxically, revolt against anti-semitism. The structure of revolt is a fight against external authority, and those participating in a revolt will ultimately pose the question who are we revolting against? This question appears as the limit or barrier of revolt. The forms revolt uses to overcome this barrier – mass violence, internal purges, dissolution, etc – bring back the old cliché about becoming what you were fighting against. To go a step further, those fighting were never anything else.

My concern was less Occupy X or anti-Semitism than the structure of revolt itself: that revolt seems always to be revolt against someone. The structure of revolt defeats the principles of those revolting. The structure is not altered when the named enemies are class enemies rather than national, racial, or religious enemies. (Is Christ’s admonition to love one’s enemy a different path? Does it relieve us of the category ‘enemy’ and lead us away from war?)

When the People occupy the square, walk in the park. When the People occupy the park, walk in the square.

Man cannot think without taking walks outside.

vale bene,