Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Monday, February 01, 2016

You Asked, no. 8: Kin to the Fool

Watch out, Fool!
Bullington-Youmans interview party, continued. In response to a request to interview some of my painter friends, I have been interviewing Mary Boxley Bullington. As she, in turn, insisted on interviewing me, a part of the You Asked series will be composed of our questions to each other.

  --from At Length 
  (more Red King poems there)

What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to reel about the world
Like stars made out of icicles,
Dangerous and breakable?

What does it mean to be a fool?

Is it to make the things no one
Can recognize or put to use?
For the beautiful, for hurt joy?

He spins around, wanting to learn.

The Fool is dreaming that he lies
With truth—across a grave like glass
He lies, the shaft shoaling with leaves.

What can he do with schooling dark?

Each minnowed leaf says leave-taking.
He shakes his rattle at the dark
And fills his antic hat with leaves.

In response to my question about the place of myth in your work, you wrote of the book of poems you first sent me in 2010 and that you're finishing now, The Book of the Red King: "Why do I feel so kindred to the Fool?" This struck me like a hammer. A fellow artist once brought me an astrology chart image of myself, based on the time, year, and date of my birth. It was the tarot image of the Fool looking back at the little dog playing at his heels as he steps off a cliff into thin air. I thought this was hilarious—and very true of me! But I didn't see the Fool as an image of the creative until I read your Red King poems. So, tell me, why do you "feel so kindred to the Fool"?

First, I will not lie, exactly, in answering this question, but I will not answer it as fully as I could do, if I wanted to do so. But I don't. Fair warning!

Second, all Fools are tricksters, wielders of stories and parables. I may have lied already, while wearing the mask of the Fool.

Third, I feel that the poems themselves say all I could possibly say about why the Fool and the writer (or any artist who has a calling) are the same. The reading of the book-to-be will be the experience of why the two things are the same--and it will be more, a good deal more, I hope.

The Fool in The Book of the Red King manuscript has a great struggle growing up. There's early death in the family, there's difficulty. He runs to the forest and becomes a sort of young woodwose: "When I ran off to the forest, I was / Looking for a favorable message, / I was looking for a sign or omen, / I was searching for some news of dreamtime." Eventually he lies down in darkness and has a kind of death himself. Even his bones are scattered, until "The little animals and the big came / Trotting with my teeth-grooved bones in their mouths." A "Lazarus breath" enters his mouth and he awakens, "braced to live before I died again."

The story's all about metamorphosis, transformation, reaching for a union of opposites, and climbing the alchemical ladder toward a kind of burning gold. It's about finding more and larger life, reaching for wholeness, mixing the profane and the sacred--"A wordless word, a sluice of fiery rain, / A sweetness that is hurt, made flowering"--into one great unity. The holy Fool is an ancient figure, and this Fool is a torrent of opposites, seeking more life and love of all sorts (including the love of his pearly girlfriend, the lovely Precious Wentletrap), often finding confusion, desiring to make, to be bigger than he can possibly be. It's a question early on, whether he will be destroyed by his own impulses and situation or instead will answer the call to aspiration and journey. Even when he finds a stopping place, darkness and memory still visit him--it's still a challenge to not tumble back into that former world. After all, he appears doomed from birth: "The Fool crashed out, howling into the world-- / A bruiser, slimed and slick and shock-haired, plopped / On his fontanelle, his catch less body / Like something tumbled from a guillotine."

from the Major Arcana
But when he reaches the city of the Red King, it's clear that he has found his real home, in part because he becomes immediately fruitful. All the anguish and hardship of his long journey flowers into something else: "He stood as pivot of the wheeling square, / And language was a gold chrysanthemum / That burst with fountain-like abandonings / Of stories, fragments, anecdotes, and jokes--." His excessive flood of words calls out to the world, and one person answers: "At dusk when the Fool shone, his petals fire / Against the cobalt air, the city lay / Hip-deep in golden words and visible / To naked eyes as far as the new moon, / The Red King left his tower under stars / And followed gold to make the Fool his Fool."

All I will say is such a weird pilgrim's progress feels like the story of my own life. And that is despite the fact that I never ran away, or that my parents were not wild as I "crashed out" (though I was, indeed, a shock-haired Marly.)

All this business about metamorphosis is, of course, tied in with the Tarot you mention. In esoteric meanings, the Fool is a story's protagonist. The Tarot Fool goes on, passing through the various mysteries of life and meeting archetypal figures along the way--that is, he goes on a fool's journey through the emblematic places and archetypal figures of the Major Arcana. While the Rosy Cross and such esoteric brotherhoods made use of the Tarot as an initiatory pattern, I didn't study or make a lot of use of that material, though the Fool does meet "the Tarot witch"and her daughter, and there's a poem that is based closely on the Fool card: "...The fortunetellers sketched / This card, the Fool with feathers in his hair, / As if those ancients knew that he would come to pass / And stand between all things, the ground and air, / Wildwood and the castle, Red King and Corvid King." The Tarot connection does, however, reinforce the idea of transformation and archetypes that come from alchemy.

In some ways, we are all the Fool because we go on a wandering path through the life and are changed by it--we begin as children (i.e. innocents or fools), going on insufficient knowledge, and learning as we are knocked about by events.  An odd thing about the Tarot and this book-to-be is that it seems quite possible to talk about the sequence in detail based on the Major Arcana and the Fool's Journey, even though I didn't have that in mind. Jung would have something to say about that mix of Tarot and archetypes. Don't we set off heedlessly into the big world with its Magician and Hierophant and Lovers, little realizing that we are about to step over precipice after precipice?


  1. "The story's all about metamorphosis, transformation, reaching for a union of opposites..."
    This struck me early on when reading some of the Red King poems, but I had not formulated the words - so thank you Marly.
    And thank you Mary for this very deep interview. A joy to read.

    1. Glad you are liking it! And she did ask a good question, didn't she?

      I need to finish scrubbing that manuscript and get it out in the world....

  2. I enjoy reading your interviews/postings. Allow me a detour/digression: Fools (almost) always trump power, intellect, complacency, and the status quo. So, the question is begged: Who are the fools in our own complacent world?

    1. I expect you used "trump" on purpose, but I don't know quite what to think about that possibility!

      Confessed to being one myself, but I care not a fig for most of those things--I do admire intellect well used.

      You tell me.

    2. Fools are absent in current power struggles in politics. Fools are often savior so in the world. Hmmmm.

    3. Correction. Saviors not savior so. Damned autocorrect!

    4. Yes, well, we do need a savior to rise up amid the coarse, the liars, the proposers of the unworkable, etc.


    1/28/2016 6:11 PM:
    Have read your answer to my "fool" question (!), and pondered it and napped upon it, and will be busy this half hour Googling things like Major Arcana and Hierophant (surely some sort of cousin to the Ele-phant), but thought I'd send you this link to a Wiki images of the Tarot Fool in the meantime. 'Twas some such scrolled image with a pre-fab horoscope my friend brought me for my birthday many years ago.

    The "weird pilgrim's progress" you described shed a ray of light on the story of my life, as well as yours. The flicker of chrysanthemum-fire (love this!!!) was this clause: "it is clear that he has found his real home in part because he becomes immediately fruitful." (When one becomes fruitful, one has discovered one's true home--or maybe one is, finally, home free.)What a clarifying statement! I shall bask a while in its curled torch-light.

    PS The best site I've found so far explaining the 78-card Tarot deck is this:

    1. Hierophant on an elephant!

      Borges said that home is the place you go where they have to let you in.

  4. Hate growing old. Had to delete my comment because Iit omitted a key word, but by the time I put the comment back, I'd forgotten what and where the key word was! Je suis Fool encore!

    1. I expect that I could have managed such forgetfulness early on....

  5. Fascinating discussion that I look forward to reconsidering with the book in hand, one day soon, when you release it.

    1. Hah. Paul said he'd like it all in one place...

  6. I like that you say we are all Fools. I think most of us are too often unaware of our ability to amuse ourselves and others, and of our comic stumblings through life. Well, you say a lot more than that about Fools; I make it sound commonplace in my hurry.

    Let me add my voice to the chorus of folks who want the whole book!

    1. World as precipice, man as tarot fool...

      I need to work on the poems some more, but it'll be out eventually. My main issue at the moment is getting them in the right order.

      And then Paul wants this back-and-forth in one place. So...

      I guess that I had better get back to work. (Right now I am working on some poems from another ms., though. Need longer days.)

  7. I wouldn't mind being regarded as a fool (What am I saying? Many have branded me as such!) if I got to sing "Oh Mistress Mine." as Feste did. Not only is it the best transfer of Shakespeare's words to music (they're often too complex to make good songs) but the best setting isn't the most popular; Google OMM and you'd think Quilter led by a country mile. In my view, and that of Janet Baker, Parry is greatly superior. As a fledgling baritone I gargle it in all parts of the house - Yes, even there! Revelling in

    What is love? 'Tis not hereafter,
    Present mirth hath present laughter;

    Is that fool's talk?

    Frequently we assume being a fool is a permanent state. But all of us do foolish things temporarily; briefly we take on the mantle of Fool. Then shed it, we're only human.

    Wish I'd written: "the shaft shoaling with leaves".

    1. "Wish I'd written" is sweet. Thank you.

      And now perhaps you need to record "Oh Mistress Mine" for us! In the meantime, here is Sir Hubert himself:

    2. Take out the top of that silly semi-colon! Typos, my sworn foe.

  8. Something strange happened in and around the time you created the Parry link for me; not only did that become unavailable but so did every other Parry/Oh Mistress Mine citation on the Internet. As if the forces of Quilter had banded together to suppress poor old Hubert. I trawled and trawled for an hour or so and all I got was the same infuriating emoticon.

    One exception: a version by Adam Webb (tenor) which would be acceptable if it hadn't been recorded in a large oil-drum with a consequential acoustic.

    So it's back to the score and the hard work. Why? I have a memory problem with this (and many other things of course). In the brief passage "Trip no further pretty sweeting." an accidental sharp followed by a flat of the same ilk, plus a two-note quaver combine to give a delicious minor-ish effect which is, alas, a long way from being intuitive for a beginner like me. Do-re-mi tendencies pull me towards a destination I oughtn't to go; I grasp the sequence then I lose it. Yes I can reproduce the sequence on my keyboard but not with that newer most fallible instrument my voice.

    But no one said any of this would be easy.

    No need to respond to this (You're so unbelievably conscientious). But I felt I had to explain my gratitude for your link gesture.

    1. In a large oil-drum!

      Hope I was not bad luck, linking. Maybe they saw me and said, "Well, if she's linking, we must protect poor Hubert!) My father was a Hubert, so maybe they thought I had had enough Hubert in my life?

      No one has ever called me "unbelievably conscientious." Probably no one ever will again.

    2. p. s. Best of luck with finagling those notes...

  9. I will call you unbelievably conscientious, if I may. There, I did it.

    1. Oh. It is starting to sound like a bad diagnosis! Thanks?

    2. But very funny that you said so, after what I said!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.