January 2005

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Antiphony: Daodejing

Credible words are not eloquent,
Eloquent words are not credible.

– Daodejing Chapter 81 (Ames and Hall, tr.)

*

One line a day, he thinks, just like Dylan Thomas. But his project differs radically from the old drunk wordsmith’s, who hammered out each word in the forge of whatever. He has no use for such self-conscious perfection – in fact, he’s not sure he wants to write anything particularly memorable at all. He aspires instead to the perfection of the found object, whose charm would consist solely in being removed from its originating context and placed in another. Each line like a grain of sand struck from some granite headland, rolled in the waves until smooth, and deposited on a beach. Perhaps it is true that a visionary might see the universe in a grain of sand. But most people just want to walk along the edge of the ocean in their bare feet, letting the waves curl around their ankles. And certain ankles are worth dying for, he thinks – far more so than any art. Just ask Proust.

There’s no first line. How can there be? He starts at random and works in both directions, and after a while he sees that new lines can be inserted at various points in the growing text. Not that they’re interchangeable, of course. His poor memory works for him as often as it works against him, because he finds himself returning often to the same or similar themes – just as an elderly person will retell the same story over and over. But it’s not the same story, if you listen. And poetry is nothing if not a supreme effort at listening, on the part of author and audience alike. Repetition in a poem is one of several tried-and-true methods for seducing the ear.

Seduction: that’s the goal. To charm, to re-enchant. Without some kind of poetry in our lives, is true love even possible? Without persuasion, the lonely soul can only connect with others through brutality, through hatred. Get that down, he says to himself. Child soldiers in a guerrilla army he’s read about, who chop the hands off other children for no reason. Someday, perhaps, a look or touch of wholly undeserved compassion (is there any other kind?) will shatter them. Put that in.

Time is on his side, because that’s where he likes it – close enough to keep an eye on. His theme, to the extent that he can be said to have one, is simply: things happen. Not shit, never. Sometimes he does feel that way, but those lines never see daylight. Line by line he comes to feel – not merely to understand, but to know in his bones – how much of a role time plays in everything. It’s the ultimate context, from which no escape is possible or even desirable. What makes the ordinary seem extraordinary is just this consciousness of the extreme unlikelihood of its ever coming to be. One line at a time.

Then one day, out of the blue, he hears a whisper in his ear and feels a warm breath on the back of his neck. Thank you for writing my poem, the voice says. In a flash, he sees that every single line he thought he had written had in fact been borrowed, and that now it’s time to return them to their rightful owner. He turns slowly around. I thought you’d never find me, he says.

This entry is part 25 of 119 in the series Cibola

Marcos (1) (cont’d)

The friar’s memories are already
an old man’s memories, farsighted,
graceful in flight for all their ugliness,
returning on weather-tested pinions
to circle some distant spot,
the same carrion

that back in the dripping
forest of the Nicarao would’ve
melted from the bones inside
a week. Here in the parched North
he feels closer

to the high tablelands of Peru, where
a carcass could lie out
for years–the sun coming
day after day to curl around it–
& lose nothing but the coins on its eyes
to some marauding packrat.

Despoblados,
he’ll write in his official account,
but this morning the so-called desert
seems too full for words. He knows
he has only to shut his eyes for more
than six seconds (he counts down

like a professional dreamer descending
the rungs of sleep) to see
again the blood-soaked bodies
stacked like kindling, hear
the hair-raising wails, the laughter
of all those so-called Christians–
Gil Gonzalez’s men–lacking
only pitchforks to make them
spitting images of the devils
in some carnival troupe,
such glee they took
tossing babies onto bayonets,
with such nonchalance
slicing off a hand, a nose, a nursing
breast–milk
& blood conjoined in
a single fountain–

just to test the temper of the blade, they said,

& waxing indignant if the friar persisted
with his mild reproachful queries.
They’d kill us all, these curséd devils,
if we didn’t put the fear of God in them.

__________

back in the dripping forest of the Nicarao: Most of what I’ve written here about the friar’s early career is speculation; there is disagreement about whether his first sojourn in the Americas was in what is now Nicaragua, or Guatemala. It is known that he traveled from the latter location to Peru, where he described some of the horrors of the conquest, in similar terms to what I’ve written here, in a letter published by Las Casas in his Short History of the Destruction of the Indies. Marcos’s broad experience as a traveler in the New World was one of the main factors cited by the Minister Provincial in his selection for a scouting expedition to the Seven Cities (see Reader (3)).

Despoblados: “Unpopulated areas,” i.e. deserts (desiertos).

Gil Gonzalez: The conquistator D’Avila.

I wrote this yesterday afternoon.

Above and below the Road to the Far Field, the wreckage of a woods. Big sugar maples, black cherries, red maples, shagbark hickories – all ripped down by the ice. But the view! On this clear, cold day, Sinking Valley is a glaze of white between ridges that mix brown and blue: the brown of tree trunks, the blue of their shadows against the snow.

The giant chestnut oak at the bend of the trail casts a peculiar shadow, though. Its stumpy limbs bristle with last year’s sprouts, and fresh tracks in the snow show that again this winter the ridgetop porcupine has returned for more pollarding of her favorite tree. There are thousands of chestnut oaks on the mountain, but for some reason it’s the very oldest ones that seem to draw the porcupines. The sweetness of age, perhaps? Or is it simply that, being old, they are less efficient at producing tannins in response to overbrowsing? An absence of bitterness in itself can seem plenty sweet, I know.

Now here’s another misshapen shadow: a cherry the ice storm didn’t touch. Most of its branches have been truncated by the fungal infection that foresters call black knot. I wonder if this thorough amputation of twigs and smaller branches isn’t what saved it, preventing the ice from reaching critical mass? In such extreme conditions, a handicap can turn into an advantageous trait. The chronically ill sometimes are the fittest, the ones who survive the longest, bear the most young. Pain is their legacy, and it is the most precious gift imaginable. Without it, imagine how brittle we’d be – how terribly unequal to the task of love.

This entry is part 24 of 119 in the series Cibola

Marcos (1)

At midday, looking down from the hills,
you’d barely be able to spot a solitary
figure walking the desert road,
especially one with a robe the color
of mud. But at sunrise, his shadow
marks him like a gnomon. It stretches
far to the west, ripples through clumps
of ironwood & tree cacti, spans
canyons. Someone with keen vision
might even be able to read, in its slight
hesitations and headlong plunges,
something of the cast
of this stranger’s mind.
                                       Or so
Marcos thinks, suddenly self-conscious.

But this new routine works better
than he would’ve thought. His request
to be left alone after breaking camp
for a kind of walking prayer–
balancing matins with the need
to make progress before the heat
forces a halt–has increased
his stature among the Indians
still further. Not a bad shield
against whatever perils might lie
ahead, he muses.
Though in the long run
I’m in far greater danger
from the loss of humility: how
to imitate St. Francis when
the simple villagers crowd in
to finger my habit, eyes shining
with something akin to faith–except
for their perfect ignorance of Christ?

(to be continued)

The Stone Coats? They’re us. They’re our boys and girls in Afghanistan, in Iraq, sheathed in body armor, driving armored personal carriers, tanks, flying A-10 Warthogs, firing shells made of depleted uranium that can penetrate almost anything. Sure, they get attacked, they get blown up. They sustain major damage to what are called the extremities. Many are shipped home in a vegetative state – one of those extremities being, of course, the head. Compared with that, the loss of a few fingers or toes, even an arm or a leg, seems like mere collateral damage.

One day a Seneca, who was out hunting in the woods, saw that a Stone Coat was following him; he was frightened and began to run. When he saw that the Stone Coat was gaining on him, he climbed a tree that had fallen part way and lodged on another tree.

Stone Coat came to the tree and stopped but he couldn’t see the man for he couldn’t look up. Taking a finger from his pocket he placed it on the palm of his hand. The finger raised up and pointed at the man. The man was a swift runner. He slipped down from the tree, snatched the finger and ran off with it.

(Jeremiah Curtin, Seneca Indian Myths)

Whose finger was it originally? The story doesn’t say. The man throws it back, and he and the Stone Coats make peace. In another, similar story, the man keeps the finger – this time liberated from a female Stone Coat – and employs it in hunting, with great success. It has the unerring ability to locate warm bodies. I guess it makes sense that the Stone Coats, the bringers of deadly frost, would each need to carry a heat-seeking device.

*

It was on a cold night at the end of January eight years ago that my friend Ben died. I remember the last time I saw him, two weeks before his death. He and my friend Chris had stopped out for a visit. I was shocked by Ben’s appearance and behavior. The old ear-splitting grin was still there, but six months of heroin addiction had taken a toll. When he rolled up a sleeve to show me his latest tattoos, his skin was very pale and cold to the touch. I had the uncanny feeling that I was seeing and touching something that should never be exposed, some power object or juju.

Shaking his hand was a weird experience, because he never took off his gloves. They were those fingerless gloves that bikers wear, black leather. Though there was still strength in his grip, the gesture felt curiously passive, like shaking hands with a well-trained dog.

Aside from showing off his latest tats and piercings, I don’t recall that Ben contributed much if anything to the conversation, which was odd, because he always used to enjoy the kind of rude banter that Chris and I specialized in. After a half hour or so, he asked if there were somewhere he could take a nap, and I told him to make himself at home. He disappeared upstairs and didn’t emerge for six hours.

His death from an overdose two weeks later filled me with anger at his pusher, an erstwhile friend of mine. But it was never clear that Ben didn’t intend simply to commit suicide. Heroin dosages are notoriously difficult for users to regulate, especially in the first year of their addiction. The woman who was with him at the time – his other pusher, in a sense – did indicate that Ben’s last words to her seemed, well, like last words: “I just want you to know, S., I love you to death.”

There was no casket at the funeral; Ben had already been cremated and the ashes scattered around his favorite haunts, as requested. Instead, his parents substituted his electric guitar, which was covered with the decals of bands he idolized: Slayer, Anthrax, Sepultura. There were a number of thoughtful eulogies from friends and relatives, some dwelling on the abundant promise he had shown from his birth onward, and how on how much he had always valued his personal freedom. If this were fiction, you’d be justified in considering this detail an unforgivable bit of bathos, but the fact is that Ben was born on the Bicentennial Day – July 4, 1976.

His parents requested that, in lieu of flowers, donations in Ben’s name should go to some foundation for slow learners. That really bothered me. Ben a slow learner? He might have been a high school dropout, but he had always held his own with some of the keenest wits in town. Hell, if he had been a slow learner, he might still be with us. As with their decision a couple years previously to have Ben committed to a mental hospital for a few weeks, his parents showed plenty of concern but little real empathy.

But this is what we do, isn’t it? We look for answers. We assign blame. I have never completely gotten over the feeling that I failed him, that though I registered my strong disapproval of his heroin use, I never gave him the kind of stern, big brotherly lecture that he perhaps wanted. That August, when he first confessed his addiction, he had said something along the lines of, “Go ahead and tell me off. I know I have it coming,” and added, “I just don’t feel I have anything to live for, you know?”

“It sounds like you’re already your own harshest critic,” I had replied. But when he visited in January, why hadn’t I insisted we go for a walk – or at least confronted him about what he was doing upstairs all that time? Chris and I together might have been able to break through his formidable body armor. Who knows.

*

LIVING WILL
in the voice of B. D. M.
before his death from heroin at the age of twenty

Let them sting, whichever
words alight–let them bite.
Let their needles inoculate
against further venom. Go ahead,
tell me what I know
I need to hear, even
if it means piercing my ears
or plugging my tongue with shrapnel.
Spell it out: I’m a slow learner,
I don’t know my place.

Let the ink burrow in beneath the scabs.
Let each scar tell its own story–
I can fortify myself.
Let my flesh be a record of my passage.
Why save it for a marble comforter
& the rain’s devouring?
I can mortify myself.
Why restrict prognostication
to the crossroads of the palm?
I make myself my own mojo,
my funhouse mirrors.

Skin is more than a map, it’s
the very country. I wear
my landmarks. May
their power be mine,
spiderweb, serpent, skull,
may they rise from the graves
your clinical words unearth
& tell the world
its buried fortune:
sweet ferment of carrion flies,
spirochetes seething in the farthest
tributaries of the heart.

This entry is part 23 of 119 in the series Cibola

Reader (3)

Yo envié á Fra. Márcos de Niza, sacerdote, fraile, presbí­tero y religioso y en
toda virtud y religion tal, que . . . fué aprobado y habido por idoneo y suficiente
para hacer esta jornada y descubrimiento, así­ por la suficiencia arriba dicha de
su persona, como por ser doctor, no solamente en la teologí­a, pero aun en la
cosmografí­a, en el arte de la mar . . .

( I sent Brother Mark of Nice, priest, friar, elder and avowed religious, and
in all virtues and religion [being] such, that . . . he was approved and judged
competent and capable to undertake this journey and [mission of] discovery,
both for the aforesaid sufficiency of his person, as well as for being learned, not
only in theology, but also in cosmography, in the art of the sea . . . )

FRA. ANTONIO DE CIUDAD-RODRIGO, Minister Provincial for New Spain of the Order of St. Francis (Certification attached to Marcos de Niza’s
Relación)

*

I council, admonish, and beg my brothers that, when they travel about the
world, they should not be quarrelsome, dispute with others, or criticize others,
but rather should be gentle, peaceful and unassuming, courteous and humble,
speaking respectfully to all as is fitting. They must not ride on horseback unless
forced to do so by obvious necessity or illness. Whatever house they enter, they
are first to say, “Peace to this house.” According to the holy gospel they can eat
whatever food is set before them.

ST. FRANCIS
Rule of 1223 (translation by David Burr)

*

Hay que andar los caminos
por lí­neas de poder
pues cuentan los destinos
que el mundo es una red

(We must walk the roads
by lines of power
for destinations reveal
that the world is a net)

ALBERTO BLANCO
“Eclipse Mexicano” (translation by John Oliver Simon)