Spinoza sur la Mer

[This is the poem version. For the prose version click here.]


James David Cohn


The stretch of beach was his, the ocean, too.

The sky and sea were calm eternity.

In place of waves there was a murmured lapping

But only at the shoreline, nowhere else.

The rhythm of the day announced itself.


The water’s smooth, it’s smooth as glass, he thought,

But through this thought he drew a line of red.

Not only a cliché, but also backwards.

The sea can’t be like glass, the sea came first.

It’s glass whose smoothness recapitulates the sea’s.


The notion was a source of satisfaction.


The curving surface of the earth was clear here,

And not from east to west but north to south,

The line of the horizon straight before him,

Now dipping on the left, now on the right.

He had a sense of ancient secret wisdom:

The sailors knew before they ever knew.


“We feel and know ourselves to be eternal.”

Five centuries ago Spinoza said it,

This man of reason who in spite of reason

Selected “feel” and only after, “know.”

We feel eternity before we know it.


Rhythm, rhythm everywhere, and many drops to drink.

Eternal rhythms hammer out their message.

Hello there little boy, and welcome home.


He stood and straightened, walked along the shore.

The shells were few and mostly uniform.

The dawn was breaking, sunrise on the way.

He stopped and bent and focused his attention.

A bit of rose-red glass peeked out at him.

He picked it up and ran his thumb across it.

Uneven contours, polished smooth by tides.


Sand and glass, and glass and sand, and water.


“Eternity’s a bitch,” he once had said.

There was a course he’d taught about Spinoza,

The man who ground glass lenses for a living.

Spinoza knew the nexus, sand and glass,

And water too, these tools of his design.

He polished them into eternity.

He felt and knew the simple truth of things.

He was a sympathetic character.


Spinoza died before his time, they said,

And it seemed funny, saying this of him.

He died at forty-four and right on time.

Eternity’s not infinite duration.

Eternity is always right on time.


He put the glass into his fanny pack,

That vestige and revival of his youth.

He zipped it shut and then resumed his path.


His path was curved, he knew, though it seemed straight.

Curved on this sphere that time and space curved, too,

Into a curvature of curving curves.

All things curved round into themselves,

Spinoza waiting round the curve to greet him.


Spinoza was no beach bum but he knew things,

The things revealed by stabs of intuition.

He ground the glass whose dust would one day kill him,

Inhaled into his lungs with every breath.

He wrote in Latin as did those before him,

In Euclid’s style to make his meaning clear.

He knew exactly what he meant, God bless him,

The blessed Benedictus called Baruch.


He walked and walked, and as he walked he thought,

I’ll walk the continent along the beachline.

I’ll walk it ‘til I circle back to here.

The universe curves back upon itself,

This was the thrust of Einstein’s contribution.

As I curve back upon myself, he thought.


The sea is not eternal, nor the sand,

Nor me here least of all, as Joni sang.

Eternity will claim us all one day.

This day, perhaps, for one can never know.


Spinoza understood, that’s why he said it.

“We feel and know ourselves to be eternal.”

One never knows a thing, one only feels it.

© 2018 James David Cohn