May 2004

The light, they said, the light. Don’t laugh! Someone one must bear witness to the play of things we have no words for: the way the memory flutters her figure. It has gone to my head, the flattery of aspen leaves.

In a dream we steered a car gingerly though a cobblestoned labyrinth in the transplanted medieval heart of a Middle American hometown. I was eluding our sinister pursuers, I was teaching silence to the night birds and the Lord’s Prayer to the crickets, who played everything backwards with their feet. It was nice to be able to hear where we’d been, not as if in a soundtrack to a near-death showing of the movie of our lives, but as an ascent to some snow-lined cirque in the French Pyrenees. They had a sign advising all park visitors to turn off their radios and “listen to the music of the mountains”–a sentiment we heartily endorsed, primarily because the rental car’s stereo didn’t work. We hiked for a while through the alpine meadows and watched through binoculars as the chamois clambered on the cliffs.

This was a long time ago, a one-day diversion from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and Cabo Finisterre, the Cape of the End of the Earth, which was covered with blooming wildflowers when we finally got there one day in May. Franco had only recently passed; the streets of every Spanish town still belonged to the Guardia Civil in their sinister black capes. We chanced on a saint’s day celebration in one small town where the men were put in charge of peeling and chopping onions, piles and piles of large, sweet onions with the dirt still clinging to their roots. This was a task well suited for a family of pilgrims, they thought, handing my father a knife. Come weep with us, even if we share no more than fourteen words in common. Weep and be glad, since no one can ever recall anything by its proper name.

Ah, father onion! We strip off all your masks–for what? To give the stew its fundamental tone. And in my dream the car shrank and shrank until it was small enough to fold up and stick in a back pocket. We came out onto the square and strolled nonchalantly in a counterclockwise direction so we could look directly into the damp faces of all the town’s inhabitants one by one. (Remember, there was nothing on TV in those days.) “The eye doesn’t shine,” says Levinas. “It speaks.”

But I prefer the mysterious pronouncement of Vladamir Khlebnikov, who said, “Words are the living eyes of secrecy.” Sometimes even my own words strike me that way. Like right now, for instance. What am I trying to hide? Behind all masks of the onion, what remains? Nothing but the good soil it grew in–and the rain, and the medieval sun that still drops off the end of the earth and swims back each night through the labyrinths where hell used to be. Nowadays, with Franco long gone, who needs all those subterranean prisons, those sadistic inquisitors?

And Cabo Finisterre? The land has almost reached its limit, yes–and the Spanish, at least, seem well aware of the fact. They have said no to the sorcery of the backwards prayer and the blind mask, to words with their eyes put out. Last year an oil spill blackened Finisterre and much of the rest of Galicia’s verdant shoreline. This year the blood of soldiers and their victims seeps into the uranium-enriched soil of a battlefield that used to be a country. We will visit cemeteries on hills in our own country where the groundskeepers permit no real flowers, only plastic, and where the older coffins leak poisons into the groundwater. Death like an old whore must be covered in thick makeup. I will remember those who died young in the service of their country, like my friend Ben, who was born on July 4th, 1976, believe it or not, and died 20 years later from an overdose of artificial stimulation, having found nothing else worth dying for. And the teenaged alcoholic who used to pass out on my bed and piss all over the sheets–such a sweet girl, really, too much in love with life. She died looking for a bathroom, fell down a steep set of stairs in a strange house and broke her neck.

Today we will be overcome with nothing more than shouts and laughter, the high-strung preparations for a potluck supper and the giddy feeling that comes from dipping into and out of two many different conversations in too short a space. There will be no alcohol and no wallowing in maudlin sentimentality, beyond a simple mealtime invocation that we may or may not remember to have somebody say. I don’t know if we’ll visit the cemetery or not, but if we do, I am thinking that on my grandfather’s grave I’ll leave a subversive peony or two. It’s funny the things we do for the departed, the way we honor our imaginations–“s/he would have liked that,” we say, not even thinking about the literal realities of possible afterlife destinations. It’s important somehow, for a moment at least, to turn off our radios and TVs and just listen to the music that the hills are supposed to be alive with, and then to look–really look–into each others’ damp faces. Those dark tunnels, those valleys of the shadow, and the stage lights that beckon from beyond.

I’ll be gone until at least Monday. Happy Decoration Day, y’all.

*

I watched an indigo bunting on
the topmost branch silhouetted
against the sky: blue
& still more blue. If I told you
all I could see was the yellow of
his bill, would you believe me?

*

In the bare crown of the elm tree
where a porcupine gnawed all winter,
a hummingbird perches with his back
to an indigo bunting. How odd to see him
sit so still so long, I think, though
his head pivots back & forth the whole
time. The bunting calls & calls.
Could this battered tree with
its foliage like a crazy woman’s skirt
hide two nests? A crow flies sideways,
silent, against the wind.

*

Putting the chili to simmer, I walked into the dining room and found a bat – some myotis, probably little brown – hanging between the storm windows. The sun shone full on its scrunched up face. I left a note on the table and went for a walk, chased down the unfamiliar whine of 17-year cicadas in the corner of the field, looped into the woods. A hen turkey took off from her nest among the ferns. Looking for the eggs, I found instead a nest in a barberry bush with three naked purple nestlings. A towhee scolded from the next bush. Jesus, I thought, what next? Then cutting back across the meadow I almost stepped on the head of a newborn fawn.

Two hours later when my eight year-old niece returns from town I lead her to the spot, tramping behind me through the thistles in her sandaled feet, too impatient to put shoes on. The fawn’s still there, curled up like a question mark. Its dark eyes blink. We are its first two humans, I tell Eva, this is the first afternoon of its life. Eva explains all about hunters, miming the crouch, the bang, her voice getting louder & louder, pointing an imaginary rifle at its heaving ribs. The wet black nostrils flare & quiver with the strangeness of our scent.

What is wrong with me, that I don’t agonize about the purpose of my blogging as so many other bloggers do? A few days ago, my brother Steve asked me what I wanted to achieve with Via Negativa. I had to give it a little thought. My first reaction was, “beauty is its own excuse for being,” but that seemed awfully conceited, so instead I stressed its importance to me as a daily goad. I’m as lazy as the day is long, so, unlike more highly motivated writers for whom blogs are at best a compliment to their daily efforts and at worst a time-eating distraction from more serious stuff, for me, blogging is at the center of my writing practice right now.

Another, closely related purpose is to explore a number of concepts that interest me. Blogging forces me to do more research than I otherwise might, as well as to arrange my thoughts in at least a semi-coherent fashion – which may or may not be desirable, from a poetic point-of-view. I told Steve I like to imagine Via Negativa as a kind of garden (employing the age-old image from Arabic literature), while remaining fully conscious of the difference between the world of Nature and the world of the text – or the Internet. I also mentioned the importance of establishing connections with other writers and readers through comments, responses in other blogs, and e-mail. The sense of kinship this creates must be a bit like how it feels to live in an artists’ colony. Finally, I said something about the ephemerality of all artistic expression. I simply don’t believe there is such a thing as literary universality or immortality, and even if there were, I don’t see how it could possibly be good for the soul to pursue it.

This morning another thought occurred to me. Once a blog achieves a certain, probably fairly minimal threshold in readership, the chances become pretty good for multiple preservation of its best moments. Occasionally one receives hints that this is happening, as over-enthusiastic readers may let slip that they habitually save and/or print their favorite entries – and of course it’s rarely the entries one would have thought. So there’s a triple level of uncertainty, which I find delicious to contemplate:

1) I don’t know how many people will read any given post;

2) I don’t know how people will read a post, in terms of the level of attention or unique life experiences they may bring to it;

3) I don’t know whether or in what form (paper, hard drive, through linking or quoting elsewhere, etc.) a given post may be preserved.

Only at this third level of uncertainty does blogging differ substantially from non-electronic forms of publishing. But isn’t it really just a subset of a much larger mystery that ought to concern everyone who believes in the capacity of individuals to leave a mark and/or change the world? That is,

4) I don’t know to what extent a word or action of mine may be passed on, magnified (“the ripple effect”) or perhaps slowly transmogrified beyond all recognition (a la “whisper down the lane”). A word uttered half in jest may land who knows where and change some unknown heart – like an insect unwittingly carrying pollen between widely separated plants, facilitating an act of creation which is, if anything, more marvelous for the complete absence of any conscious intent, any knowing agents.

Have you ever looked closely at the handiwork of papermaking hornets? Someone collected a small yellow jacket nest and left it on the verandah of my parents’ house, where I noticed it a couple days ago. Lacking reading material at the time, I was bored enough to pick up the golf ball-sized nest and rotate it slowly on my finger. Not only was it shaped like a potter’s creation – a narrow-mouthed water jar with a missing bottom, perhaps – but I noticed that it had clearly been constructed following the coil method. There was a subtle modulation in shades of gray between one millimeter-wide strip and another, presumably reflecting differences in the source material.

Later, I looked in vain through my mother’s nature library for detailed descriptions of vespid papermaking techniques; all I found was the information that the founding queen abandons all building duties after the first generation of workers emerge from their final molts, and that inside layers were continually ripped away as the nest expands. Even the miniature example I had in hand contained three, tightly nested layers. I think this style of architecture has insulating and cooling effects. I vaguely remember reading something somewhere about air circulation and heat exchange in hornets’ nests.

But lacking any designer save so-called blind instinct and random chance, can one still consider this “architecture”? I am fascinated by all the beautiful and symmetrical objects so made – bird’s nests and eggs, seashells, beaver lodges – although I realize that the distinction between making and growing is fairly arbitrary. As the world’s most fully self-conscious creators, I often wonder, don’t we humans have an obligation to celebrate such manifold and wondrous creations – to intuit Creation, maybe even a Creator? Can it be that wonder and awe play some obscure yet necessary role in the moment-to-moment preservation of the universe?

Without our joyful participation, beauty would have little excuse for being, I sometimes think – then immediately chide myself for excessive anthropocentrism. We humans are no less blind than hornets. I think especially of us bloggers, walking upside-down and backwards in a circle to make our elaborate castles in the air, regurgitating half-digested matter gathered from wherever it pleases us to alight . . .

HORRORS POETICA

Another batch of bad poems consigned
To the bottom drawer
After a last quick look to ensure
There’s no rare find:
No gleam that isn’t pyrite,
No notion I could inflate in-
To an idea, no image that might straighten
Up and fly right
Off the page. And yet
These stillborn ones so outnumber
The survivors, I can’t forget
Them. May they forever slumber
In my mind, all out of season,
Each irreproducible in its unreason.

“It’s all so tightly regulated, so professional and commercial now,” he sighs, remembering his wild days of wrestling lions and grappling with live boa constrictors in the depths of the Guatemalan jungle.
–interview with former Tarzan actor Herman Brix in The Christian Science Monitor

Liana, liana. Lovely on the tongue & in the mind’s jungle. Reaching obliquely for the yellow flowers & the crown, dark slash between lines of verse transcribed as prose, dropping fat figs to lure the parrots & howler monkeys, in whose bowels will gestate the insidious seeds that want to hover up there like UFOs & send their landing gear down in the form of lianas.

Wait, bear with me! Soon enough I’ll completely hedge the host tree in: a real live tree fort. And having given such generous support the tree dies as conveniently as Jack’s beanstalked giant. Because as the free marketeers proclaim, in the jungle it’s grow or die. The slime molds & fungal mycelia colonize the heartwood, soon followed by hordes of miners–whole companies of ants, grubstaking beetles & bees. And after the bottom falls out there’s room for a menagerie of snakes & bats & spiders in this hollow column shot through with light from the chinks in the lattice-work of what once had been such pliant vines–yet even then had been strong enough for a New World figleafed Tarzan & a clinging Jane to swing from, so lithe, so blithely unaware of how (for example) the black jaguar got its spot, or where the guerrillas learned how to lord it over the ranks of high society. And this, for the curious, is the story of the strangler fig, which is also delicious.