Ergonaut

I dream a ghost-body, heavy on top of mine. At first I am aroused, then frightened. It sits on my chest the way my big brother used to sometimes when we were kids, though it doesn’t taunt, doesn’t speak a word. I snort loudly to wake myself, find only my own arm sprawled across my ribs. I drift back to sleep and into a new dream, in which a psychopath smiles ingratiatingly and explains that he really couldn’t help murdering over 200 members of a small, isolated community in the mountains. I try to talk the others into locking him up, but we’re not able to reach consensus. The only suitable jail is the old springhouse, damp and cold, where I once imprisoned my little brother for several hours. I find myself joining the others to plead for his human rights. When the cops come, it is not to apprehend him but to interrogate us. “Have you seen a suit like this?” one of them asks each of us in turn, displaying a child’s plastic model of a gangster, furred in what someone informs me is meant to represent a zoot suit. I realize there is no right way to answer. I look at the handcuffs that I found in the basement and decide they really belong around my own wrists. “If they take me to jail, I’ll be safe from the murderer,” I think.

*

It’s only at the end of their all-day hike, as they begin to pitch camp beside the wilderness trout stream, that they realize they forgot to pack the bag that contained half their fishing gear. Time to improvise, says the engineer, while his friend the poet rummages around for the dime-bag of pot. A half an hour later they’re good and stoned. The engineer begins shaving willow wands for the basket trap he sees as clearly as a lure flashing in a sunlit pool. The poet rolls up his pants and wades out into the stream. He feels the hair rustling all over his body, follicles suddenly standing at attention.

*

I finally succumb to curiosity and install a free site meter from statcounter.com. I realize that it won’t be terribly accurate, since many regular readers use an aggregator such as Bloglines. I’m primarily interested in the search strings people use to get here, but the visit length data is fascinating, too. In two days, 83% of all visitors alighted here for less than five seconds. On the other hand, four people spent more than an hour with their browser open to Via Negativa. What sort of masochists are these? Here’s someone who’s been back five times already, and visited thirteen separate pages! And good grief, he lives in the same town and uses the same server as I do. Same browser, same operating system, everything. Unbelievable.

*

But what were they looking for, those less-than-five-second visitors? Two searched for the via negativa, poor souls. All the other Google searches were unique, and included the following (Via Negativa’s order in each search result is given in parentheses):


“bird calls” birdy birdy (5)
“origin of words” “spelunker” (3)
ADDIS ABABA FOAM &A PLASTIC FACTORY (3)
tribesman “man essence” (1 [!])
william stafford methow valley poems (4)
“The Recorded Sayings of Ch’an Master Lin-chi Hui-chao of Chen Prefecture” (4)
coon dong (2)
raccoons sex (4)
bestseller “baghdad burning” (3 [?!])
The word Hammock originates from a Haitian word (7)
THEODORE ROETHKE,DOLOR,analysis or explanation (2 – a Yahoo search)
lion fucked (2 [!])
Zuni vulture (5)

*

“But how many people actually remember seeing Barney Google in a comic strip?” asks Toonopedia. Indeed. While the search engine that bears his name seems omnipresent, he of the goo-goo-googly eyes and his once-famous steed Sparky have been mysteriously absent for half a century. There was no celluloid finish, no riding off into a sunset. One pictures instead some repudiation or return to sanity, as with Don Quixote. Except that Sancho – or Snuffy Smith – doesn’t buy it. It’s all too real to him, this epic snipe hunt, this been-down-so-long-it-looks-like-up-to-me. “What’s so funny?” he wants to know. He’s still out there in his lonesome hollow, hunched over a keypad, typing outlandish search strings in the gathering dusk.

*

Late afternoon isn’t always the best time to read poetry, I find. The book is Katha Pollitt’s Antarctic Traveller, her first. After a while, I decide to jot down some of my accidental misreadings:


…sphincters [splinters] of glass and pottery…

…the world [word] that widens
until it becomes the word [world].

…the orchid,
which signifies the virtues of the noble man:
reticence, calm, clarity of wind [mind].

…now you’ve travelled half the world and seen
the ergo [ego] glinting at the heart of things…

Pollitt’s poems are wonderfully luminous; this is one of the best first books I’ve ever read. Its language is strange the way all truthful language should be. If my slips seem even stranger, perhaps that’s simply a measure of the mind’s difficulty in assimilating unfamiliar truths. We hear what we want to hear, reverse-engineer the worlds that come out of our mouths and call the results logic: the ergo glinting at the heart of things, just so much wind from a glass sphincter.

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