Eyvind Earle, A Touch of Magic, late 20th century (fair use)
Here we are, almost within sight of the end of our month-long journey in verse. What a strange road it has been! Along the way we've seen boats, sprouts, physics, children, signs, sketches, Twitterings, villains, rain, passageways, paintings, crows, bogeymen, outsiders and shoes: If months could sing journeys, April in the Garden has been operatic.
Today we are presented with this penultimate daily challenge.
Myths tell us that the next-to-last station of a journey is often its richest, pregnant with meanings which often don't reveal themselves until we have turned some corner—given up on a quest, let go a loved one, endured through, made it home.
The penultimate is as far as we can get to perfection on this earth. As Joseph Campbell writes in The Power of Myth, "It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
In the 12th century Dutch version of the Voyage of Saint Brendan—the survival of a tale stretching back centuries to Ireland—St. Brendan burns a book of wonders of the world, saying such things could never be true. Immediately an angel appears and tells Brendan he must pay for his offence against God. For penance he is bid to set sail for seven years to see all the things he had denied, thus to prove the veracity of the ancient manuscript.
Brendan gathers his monks and sails off into the unknown, and his discoveries are legion. There is a heathen giant; a dragon; a fish the size of an island; a magnetic sea; a hermit who has lived in the middle of the sea for centuries; Hell; a siren; Judas; burning soul-birds; a magnificent citadel atop a high mountain; and strange creatures with the head of a pig, legs of a dog and neck like a crane, dressed in silk and who say they witnessed God in heaven before Lucifer’s fall. On each isle a wonder either heavenly or monstrous, hallowed or harrowing.
But Brendan doesn’t know that the point of the tale is that he must return home and write it down—in essence, fill once again the book of wonders he had burned as untrue. In the penultimate chapter of the tale, Brendan encounters a tiny man sailing by on a leaf whose errand it is to measure the sea with a drop-sized spoon. He's been at it for a long, long time, and Brendan wonders if his errand, too, might be endless.
The saint’s ship is then becalmed in a vast misty sea, the boat’s anchor gripped by invisible people singing below. As no Christians can find Paradise on this earth, so too this is as close as mortals get to finding the Otherworld. The penultimate reveals the foolhardiness of the quest, and yet by doing so magnifies the endeavor. It whispers in one ear, you're done now, while at the same time exclaiming in the other: But what a journey it was ...
Brendan has seen enough; it's time to write that book. He is boat is set free and sails back to Ireland, setting up shop at a copyist's desk. When the book is finished Brendan dies, finding passage at last to Paradise.
If our month of poetry has been a journey, what do we find in this penultimate challenge? What is it that allows us to turn our boats finally toward home?
Write a poem that describes the penultimate in some fashion. Describe the door (or island) which opened to (or shored) a final realization. Stay with the turning of things before your vision cleared, the dream before you woke. Do you remember the next to the last kiss? What was in the foreground of that climatic event or turning point which shaped the way you see things now? And looking back, has that moment grown more fraught with meaning somehow? (OK, of course it has, you’re writing a poem.)
With home barely out of sight on the horizon ahead, help us discover what journeys as this are really all about.