The hidden fifth

Hello readers new and old. This letter arrives beneath the second full moon of the new year. Together they mark the beginning of a new cycle of Polylith — the fifth. Welcome! I’m so glad you’re reading along. This year brings some promising turns in my work, which I’ll discuss here at the outset.

In August, my first book of poems, Drift Gestures, will be published by The Lune, an independent press in Fort Collins, Colorado. Joe and Indigo there have been wonderful to work with, and I feel profoundly fortunate to have found a press whose work and way of working are so consonant with my own. To say I’m excited is an understatement.

To mark the arrival of the book, I’ll be planning a series of readings in August and beyond. I hope to share some poems at the libraries and bookshops around where I live, but I’m curious to find other possible venues — even some further afield. Do you have one to recommend? A favorite bookshop or art space, a cozy living room or garden? I’m open to sharing the poems anywhere people want to hear them, and will start to put all that together this winter. Feel free to reach out with ideas.

While we’re here on the topic of publishing, I’ll mention that I have another piece of ambient music nearly finished, a companion to last spring’s Music for Settled Work. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it’ll be ready sometime late this winter. I think you’ll dig the mix of glassy tones and buzzy summer field recordings — stay tuned if that’s of interest.

The painting, reproduced here in black and white, is titled 'Italian Garden'. The garden is half in shadow against the limewashed wall of the house, half in bright sun. Three cypress trees reach like black flames up toward the white sky, and a path disappears between two of them. Shall we see where it leads?

Italian Garden by Friedrich August von Kaulbach, 1894

But what about this fifth cycle of letters we are beginning?

Five is an interesting one. It’s the number of the microcosm, an image of the cosmos in miniature, the whole in the parts. There are five fingers, for example, and as such we can see five as an unfolding of one.

So, this year we take as our guiding sign the quincunx, that geometric pattern of five points — four arranged in a square framing the fifth at the center. If we take the corners to represent the four classical elements, say, then at the center we find a hidden fifth, the quintessence, as the medieval alchemists called it. Over the course of this year of letters we will walk the sides of the square, attempting even to circle it, as an initiate might the labyrinth or an adept the mandala. We’ll consider in turn the elements fire, air, water and earth, and in circling aim to elucidate the fifth.

The elements are of course not only concepts, but first and foremost material presences. We will be sure to meet them with the senses as well as the imagination. Empedocles reminds us:

For it is with earth that we see Earth, and Water with water; by air we see bright Air, by fire destroying Fire.1

And it is with fire that the year begins. Here on the peninsula it has been cold, and around Imbolc we’ve been loading the stove with wood as fast as it will burn. I’ll leave you this month with a few lines of a poem from Drift Gestures, a sort of oblique hymn to the goddess Brigid, who is said to visit the hearth this time of year. Her arrival is preceded by a few telltale signs:

White shoulder of deep snow turning,
something rising steadily in the veils of flame,
black water through thick ice.

There we are. Thanks for reading along with this second full moon installment of Polylith. I’m excited about the writings planned this year, and I’m keen to find a few new readers along the way. If someone comes to mind who would appreciate these elemental musings, I’d love it if you shared a letter with them. And as always, I welcome conversation — you know where to find me.

Until the next full moon, my friends, stay warm.


  1. Fragment 109, translated by John Burnet