My verse resembles the bread of Egypt –
Night passes over it & you can’t eat it any more.

Devour it the moment it is fresh,
Before the dust settles upon it.

Its place is the warm climate of the heart;
In this world it dies of cold.

Even if you see it imagining it is fresh,
You’ll need to conjure up many images.

What you drink is really your own imagination;
That’s no fable, my friend.

Jalal al-Din Rumi, translated by A.J. Arberry (with a few slight changes)

(“Bread of Egypt”: I.e., manna. See Exodus 16, but also Numbers 11:5-7, which tells how the monotony of the substance led to a rebellion)

Last year right about this time, as I was sitting out on my front porch before bed one evening, I opened my mouth to yawn and a firefly flew in. I tried to spit it out but it was too late. It dove down my windpipe as fast as a spark struck from an anvil and lodged somewhere in my left lung. Naturally, I felt nothing after that: the firefly’s lamp has the unique ability to produce light in the absence of heat. I would’ve forgotten about the incident altogether, except that when I went to the bathroom at 4:30 in the morning, I caught a flash in the mirror.

Now, granted, I used to have what’s known as a hollow chest. But in the last few years, thanks to a slowing, middle-aged metabolism, I’ve filled out quite a bit – and not all of it in the lower abdominal region. So I was more than a little peeved by the fact that this errant firefly’s signal remained visible, at least in the moonless dark of my bathroom mirror. I put my hand over the spot. Good lord – I could actually feel each pulse of its light!

It was with some relief that I realized I was merely feeling my heartbeat. I pulled my hand away. Yep, no doubt about it: the goddamned insect was pulsing in time with my ticker!

You’re probably thinking I’m ungrateful, I should’ve been filled with awe and wonder and gratitude at this gift, this mystery of nature, blah blah blah. Bullshit! I was pissed. That’s my heart, buddy! I’m gonna catch pneumonia and die, like my poor grandfather whose lungs filled up with fluid because of a protrusion on his spinal cord that kept growing into his throat until he could barely swallow. I went back to bed and pulled a thick blanket over myself, despite the heat. My dreams, when I finally slipped back into sleep, are better left undescribed.

The next time I woke up, the sun was shining. I went about my morning rituals and didn’t even remember about the firefly until halfway through my shower, which is when I usually find myself going over whatever I can recall of my dreams. I started chuckling to myself. That one sure had been realistic! But I admit, the whole time I was shaving, my glance kept straying down across the left side of my chest.

That evening, I again sat out on the porch to unwind before going to bed. This was the time of year when the screech owls start trilling pretty regularly; I think that means that their young are just about ready to leave the nest. Only two crickets were calling – nothing like the throbbing chorus we’ll be hearing a month from now. But the number of fireflies seemed to be at an all-time peak.

Listening dreamily to the sounds of the night, mesmerized by the random patterns of flashing yellow lights, I was startled by a sudden flash mere inches from my face. I shooed the firefly away with both hands, but in less than half a minute it was back – just like a damn mosquito! Get away! I yelled, standing up and turning all about, arms waving like blades on a windmill. Then I glimpsed my reflection in the window and stopped short. There was a fuzzy yellow spot in my chest, visible through my t-shirt.

So it hadn’t been a dream! The firefly was still in there, still somehow alive – and blinking out its goddamn Morse code!

I felt like a circus freak: Come See the Human Lighthouse! I went inside and got on the Internet, searching for any reports of similar experiences. I came across several fascinating papers on bioluminescence and the courtship behavior of fireflies. It turns out that we have probably half a dozen different species here, each with its own distinct signal pattern. What I had assumed were individual variations actually reflected distinct genetic differences.

But evidently some considerable range of individual variation must exist, because the evolution of firefly signal patterns appears to be unusually rapid. Females learn to mimic the signals of other species so they can lure in horny, unsuspecting males to ambush and eat while they wait for a proper suitor from their own species. To compete, the females of the other species have to alter their signals in turn. Then members of a third species begin to mimic the new pattern, and are mimicked in turn by another – it was all very complex.

Since it was broadcasting from a stationary position, the firefly in my chest might be a female, I thought. Was it trying to signal for a mate – or a meal?

I combed the medical literature for reports of accidental firefly inhalation, but nothing turned up. I did read plenty of scary articles about the consequences of getting large, particulate matter in the lungs, however. But what could I do? Surgical extraction seemed the only recourse, but I didn’t have any health insurance and didn’t feel like going $20,000 into debt for a stupid firefly. There had to be a better way!

Maybe I could starve it out, I thought. It might fly out on its own. But what if it died in there? If I had something actually decomposing in my lungs, that could be really bad news.

With these kinds of worries flitting around in my head, I spent a mostly sleepless night hatching one plan after another. I finally dozed off an hour or two before dawn and slept in until close to noon, missing an important job interview I had scheduled weeks before.

That evening, as the sun sank low, I found I couldn’t face the thought of another night alone with the goddamn lightning bugs. Besides, I really needed a drink. But I’d have to bundle up if I were going out, and that might look funny if I went to any of my regular haunts – sweltering dives where anything heavier than a t-shirt would attract attention. I needed something air-conditioned, where no one would know me. I looked in the phone book and found a place with a suitably snooty name: Whispers Lounge at the Clareton Hotel. Given proper shoes and slacks, I figured my black turtleneck wouldn’t look too out of place. The fashionable bohemian look. Who knows, I might even get lucky.

So it was that an hour later I found myself with not one, but two women, sitting in a little upholstered booth across from the bar, which we had recently vacated when it began to fill up. My companions, June and Michelle, were here attending an academic conference at the adjacent university: “Ethics, Psychologies and Epistemologies of Possession,” a three-day, multi-disciplinary event with the usual mishmash of the sublime and the ridiculous. This is actually a topic about which I’ve done some reading and thinking on my own, much to the surprise of my companions, who seemed to regard their own attendance and presentations as necessary evils. When I admitted reluctantly that I was an unemployed writer, they insisted on paying for my drinks – “It’s all paid for anyway,” said June, the older and better looking of the two.

After the fourth round of margaritas (not my choice, but whatever), we were all feeling pretty good. June’s casual contacts – touching my hand to emphasize a point, grabbing my arm when I said something funny – became more frequent and lingering, and I noticed her friend flashing her Significant Looks from across the table. I was just beginning to calculate how much longer I would have to act dumb when the power went out.

Oddly enough, everyone remained quite calm. After a couple seconds of surprised silence, we heard the bartender’s voice: “Please just remained seated, folks. I’ve got one flashlight here, and I’ll send the doorman out to look for more. The hotel does have a generator, so we should have the lights back on in half a jiffy!”

Half a jiffy, I thought – what an idiotic phrase. But June wasn’t wasting any time. Her involuntary grip when the lights went out evolved quickly into full side-to-side contact, her right hand rubbing my chest, etc. “You made this happen, didn’t you?” she whispered teasingly in my ear – or perhaps it was me whispering in her ear, I forget.

Suffice it to say that by the time she withdrew her lips and sat up I was feeling pleasantly numb and tingly, like a stunned beef cow. Then I saw it. In the upper right side of her torso, which was now dimly visible in outline. A yellow light glimmering on, glowing brightly for a second, and winking off.

I must’ve stiffened. She fell back against me heavily, wrapped both arms around me perhaps a little more tightly than necessary. “Why won’t the lights come on? I’m getting worried!” “Shhh,” I murmured, “Listen, I have a penlight in my wallet. You have a room here? Let’s go.”

The lights came on before we were halfway there. I’ll spare you the sordid details. June insisted on keeping the bedside lamp burning the whole time – “You have the most dreamy eyes,” she said, but I knew what the problem was. Some time later she pulled away, gasping. “My god, let me breathe! I never met anyone whose kisses were quite so . . . prolonged.”

Hours later I stumbled into the bathroom, pulled the door shut and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Nothing! I stood there for ten minutes, my bare chest a foot away from the mirror, waiting, but still nothing. The firefly was gone!

I eased the door open, crept back into the room and switched off the light. As gently as I could I pulled back the quilt and bent down low over June’s chest.

I must’ve woken her; I heard her breath catch. “Dave – look!” At the far side of the room, just below the ceiling, two pulsing yellow lights bobbed and danced, intricate arabesques forming and dissolving in the darkness.

Surveys show that the most often remodeled part of the modern American dwelling is the bathroom. Clearly, we love our bathrooms. So shouldn’t we be celebrating them in verse?

Here’s a poem I wrote several years ago (included in my manuscript Spoil), followed by thirteen shorter pieces I came up with just now. The whole collection might be entitled . . .

THRONE ROOM DIVAN

Deconstruction Site

To think they were back there
all that time
someone said

meaning the half-dozen snakes
of three different species
our bathroom remodeling project displaced

but my own thoughts kept dwelling
on that huge nest of razor blades
in the wall where the mirror had been

*

We propped up the roof and ripped
the bathroom walls out
keeping the fixtures intact
so that the shower stall
stood fully exposed
to the breeze and blowing rain
for half that summer

Ah
whatever else might happen
in this lifetime I’ll never have
a better bathroom

***

A small turd floats
in the otherwise clean toilet bowl
like a persistent doubt.

***

My new low-flush toilet
is less than commodious.
Every morning I register
a fresh complaint.

***

Her brand-new bathroom’s
feng shui is perfect:
the floor-to-ceiling mirror
fogs up immediately.

***

Not to sound callous, but
what I remember most is
how large & soft her guest
towels were.

***

The old guy in the rest stop’s
ultra-modern men’s room takes
a long time zipping up,
stands there looking all over
for something to push.

***

The graffito might just
as well have read,
“Everybody Meditates.”

***

I sat on the crapper eating a sandwich.
Hey, it happens.

***

In the men’s room at the public library
someone reeking of body odor
moaned & howled with abandon
in the only stall.
I pissed as quietly as I could.

***

Why would anyone name a kid “John”?
He’ll get shat on, his girlfriend will write
to tell him she’s found someone else,
he’ll end up paying
for anonymous sex.

***

Across from the toilet
in a spider web near the floor
a trapped millipede coils, uncoils.

***

Three million households in New York City
and every one has an intermittent stream
flowing through it.

***

At the back-to-nature jamboree
hundreds of kids independently decided
to go squat in the creek
when they had to potty.

***

If I ever install a composting toilet,
I’ll have to get one of those
New Age desktop fountains with
the little pebbles in it.

***

The old privy.
A turd falls in.
No sound of water.

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur concludes his exhaustive (and exhausting) study of metaphor (translated as The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning, University of Toronto Press, 1977), as follows:

What is described here is the very dialectic between the modes of discourse in their proximity and their difference.

On the one hand, poetry, in itself and by itself, sketches a ‘tensional’ conception of truth for thought. Here are summed up all the forms of ‘tensions’ brought to light by semantics: tension between subject and predicate, between literal interpretation and metaphorical interpretation, between identity and difference. Then these are gathered together in the theory of split reference. They come to completion finally in the paradox of the copula [e.g., “is”], where being-as signifies being and non-being. By this turn of expression, poetry, in combination with other modes of discourse, articulates and preserves the experience of belonging that places man in discourse and discourse in being.

Speculative thought, on the other hand, bases its work upon the dynamism of metaphorical utterance, which it construes according to its own sphere of meaning. Speculative discourse can respond in this way only because the distanciation, which constitutes the critical moment, is contemporaneous with the experience of belonging that is opened or recovered by poetic discourse, and because poetic discourse, as text and as work, prefigures the distanciation that speculative thought carries to its highest point of reflection. . . .

What is given to thought in this way by the ‘tensional’ truth of poetry is the most primordial, most hidden dialectic – the dialectic that reigns between the experience of belonging as a whole and the power of distanciation that opens up the space of speculative thought.

I suppose most readers can intuitively grasp what Ricoeur means by “distanciation”: in less precise language, we can see that speculation and analysis presumes a distance between the thinker and the object of his/her thought.

In my notes on this passage, I expanded upon Heidegger’s metaphor for metaphor as a blossoming (which Ricoeur earlier had cited favorably). “The ‘flowers’ of our words – Worte, wie Blumen – utter existence in its blossoming forth.”

Probably neither philosopher was aware that this metaphor for the poetic word has an ancient pedigree in the New World, especially in Uto-Aztecan languages. However, in these mostly oral traditions, the reigning dialectic was between song and narrative, not poetic and speculative thinking. And the sung world was imagined to exist in tension with the no less “real” or sacred world of the stories. The world of songs is the blossoming landscape, an essentially static utopia, whereas the world of stories is glimpsed as a series of unfolding paths, “the inventory of useful landscape items that lie along the way traveled by beings of the creation time, and landforms on which they left their mark,” as anthropologist Jane H. Hill puts it (“The Flower-world of Old Uto-Aztecan,” Journal of Anthropological Research,” vol. 48, 1992, 117-144). Such beings, however, sing their thoughts in an eternal present of dream and vision. As in many ancient traditions, songs make the long ago blossom forth in the present. The explicit association of flower and song is very strong in Nahuatl, Huichol, Yaqui and Piman languages.

I wonder if we can propose the analogy that poetic thinking is to speculative thinking as flower is to fruit or seed. Poetic thinking, Ricoeur suggests, means “seeing things as actions . . . seeing them as naturally blossoming . . . Signifying things in act would be seeing things as not prevented from becoming, seeing them as blossoming forth. But then would not signifying things in act also be signifying potency, in the inclusive sense that stands for every production of motion or of rest?” Deciding in the affirmative, Ricoeur proclaims that “the task of speculative discourse is to seek after the place where appearing means ‘generating what grows.'” Pollination, fertilization, sex: it seems there is no escape from these primordial metaphors for poetic creation, even if the pre-modern analogy between sperm and seed was inaccurate.

Whatever the validity of Heidegger’s claim to have gone beyond Western metaphysics (which Ricoeur strongly disputes), his use of ancient metaphors (light, ground, home, way/path) does seem to license comparisons with non-Western and pre-modern speculative traditions. Here’s Hill again:

Among groups which exhibit the full development of the Flower World complex, the spiritual aspect of anything that has vital force or spiritual importance can be captured by referring to it as a flower or flowery. The Flower World is the realm of heroes in their creative aspect, and the spirit ways along which they travel are “flowery roads.” . . . In Huichol, the Flower World is the Wirikuta of the peyote hunt, the land of ultimate beauty, where the spirits of deer and corn are imminent and which is entered by human beings through a peyote journey. This pilgrimage involves a language of ‘reversals,’ in which the moon becomes the cold sun, dusk becomes dawn, sleep becomes waking, and the sacred peyote is called ‘flower.’

Here we might glimpse what Borges was getting at with his contention that “Life is a dream” transcended mere metaphor. But this also points toward the realm of the sacred clown and of euphemism in general. My final reaction to Ricoeur’s study is to lament his complete neglect of comic inversion and euphemism as a psycholinguistic basis for metaphor. If the vitalistic conception of reality, which Aristotle evoked with the term phusis, no longer seems tenable, we ought at least to be able to draw upon the insights of anthropologists and evolutionary biologists. Language and metaphor are the tools of a gathering-hunting species. In the hunt, in the conversion of other into self, we can see “the tension between identity and difference” at its most radical. The ancient covenant between human being and other being requires both inversion and conversion. In the Uto-Aztecan analysis, the mortal wound is seen as a kind of blossoming. The songs sung by hunters to their prospective quarry and by shamans to their spirit familiars are intended, first and foremost, to enchant, to beguile. Metaphor appears first as a disguise, a sacred mask. A systematic poetics should begin with this insight.

Ricoeur does attempt to link “the properly sensual aspect of the image to a semantic theory of the metaphor” in a very interesting section called “Icon and Image.” “Like the icon of the Byzantine cult, the verbal icon consists in this fusion of sense and the sensible. It is also that hard object, similar to a sculpture, that language becomes once it is stripped of its referential function and reduced to its opaque appearance. Lastly, it presents an experience that is completely immanent to it.” This description fits equally well the functioning of a mask or fetish.

Ricoeur concludes his meditation on icon and image with a consideration of “a phenomenolgy of imagination.” He cites Gaston Bachelard’s theory of image, not as “a residue of impression, but an aura surrounding speech.” Imagination can reach beyond metaphor – behind the mask –

because it follows the path of ‘reverberation’ of the poetic image into the depths of existence. The poetic image becomes ‘a source of psychic activity.’ What was ‘a new being in language’ becomes an ‘increment to consciousness’ or better ‘a growth of being.’ Even in ‘psychological poetics,’ even in ‘reveries on reveries,’ psychism continues to be directed by the poetic verb. And so, one must attest: ‘Yes, words really do dream.’ [Quoting from Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie]

__________

For more on aura, icon and image, see The art of living. For more on sacred clowns, see Houston, we have a problem… This post continues an examination of metaphor begun in Learning language, learning poetry and continued in last Friday’s post, Chasing shadows. See also The world of the riddle.

You know the expression, “I wouldn’t do x if you were the last man/woman on earth”? Well, for some time now I have been haunted by the image of that last woman. The lighting is abundant, and not particularly flattering. Minicams in every corner of the apartment record her as she dictates her thoughts into her audio blog, takes snapshots for her photo blog, writes about her feelings for her poetry blog. Everything is on the record. The only sad part is that nobody’s watching but me; everybody else is too busy doing the same thing.

Her name, I think, is Morn, though she goes by Dust Angel. Her trademark costume is a rather plain, sleeveless red shift. She believes fervently that the unexamined life is not worth living, though she admits that over-analysis makes her uncomfortable. Her favorite color is green. She is a Libra.

What else? Well, she appears to have a lover, a hulking tech support guy without any speaking parts. You might spot him occasionally looming over the mousepad or fiddling with the minicams for better angles – or for poorer in the event of sex, which is somewhat downplayed. Nudity is definitely part of the routine, though it verges on mere nakedness, an attribute of such existential acts as changing clothes, exercising or sunbathing on the floor. Morn does this every afternoon, curling up like a cat on a broadloom rug encircled by snaky electric cables and watched over by an odd assortment of mannequins and dressmaker’s dummies, vintage apparel draped on timeless hip.

The future has arrived, and it is boring. Where now is the vibrating ether so cherished by pre-war pulp science fiction authors? Ancient cover girls in skin-tight space suits now crumble at the touch, tragic victims of an acid overdose. Those child-women must’ve foreseen some such fate: their lips spelled unvarying o‘s of horror regardless of the threat, even from aliens as unlikely as the two pug dogs that live with Dust Angel. The poor things can’t even bark, are too dumb to hump a leg. They were bred to evoke the quintessentially feminine Japanese squeal ka-wa-eeee, which connotes approximately equal measures of lovability and infantility.

And which, in a way, describes the appeal of this particular eventuality, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, here we have all loose ends of the ballyhooed future at last tied up – or rather, cross-stitched. One veil for bride and widow alike, one screen for all media, like Alice’s looking-glass. It’s not like that movie the Truman Show where the guy is an unwitting star of the soap opera of his life, because in the first place there’s no drama per se, and in the second, the “star” is fully aware and in control of everything. She is like a god, really, a child who has the run of the nursery and will never grow up.

The ether alone knows how such harmony plays out among the spheres, whether it can even reach the ever-receding, ever-more-isolated celestial bodies that once made us grasp for something like an outer space, a red planet. At the speed of light, thinking becomes impossible. Time is a terrible gift to do without.