Solving for w

A “doomsday” that is billions of years away has little or no meaning for members of a species less than a million years old. (We’ll be lucky to survive the next hundred years!) So my initial reaction to a story on current cosmological hypotheses entitled “From Space, a New View of Doomsday,” is a snort of derision. Apart from the framing, however, this story (by Dennis Overbye in today’s New York Times) is full of interest, as the following excerpts demonstrate:

“That number, known as w, is the ratio between the pressure and density of dark energy. Knowing this number and how it changes with time – if it does – might help scientists pick through different explanations of dark energy and thus the future of the universe . . .

“One possible explanation for dark energy, perhaps the sentimental favorite among astronomers, is a force known as the cosmological constant, caused by the energy residing in empty space. It was first postulated back by Einstein in 1917. A universe under its influence would accelerate forever.

“While the density of energy in space would remain the same over the eons, as the universe grows there would be more space and thus more repulsion. Within a few billion years, most galaxies would be moving away from our own faster than the speed of light and so would disappear from the sky; the edge of the observable universe would shrink around our descendants like a black hole. . . .

“Another possibility comes from string theory, the putative theory of everything, which allows that space could be laced with other energy fields, associated with particles or forces as yet undiscovered. Those fields, collectively called quintessence, could have an antigravity effect. Quintessence could change with time – for example, getting weaker and eventually disappearing as the universe expanded and diluted the field – or could even change from a repulsive force to an attractive one, which could set off a big crunch. . . .

“But the strangest notion is what Dr. [Robert] Caldwell has called phantom energy, the dark energy that could lead to the Big Rip. . . .

“While the density of the energy in Einstein’s cosmological constant stays the same as the universe expands, the density of phantom energy would go up and up, eventually becoming infinite. Such would be the case if the parameter w turned out to be less than minus 1, say physicists, who admit they are stunned by the possibility and until recently simply refused to consider it.

“‘It crosses a boundary of good taste,’ Dr. Caldwell said, calling phantom energy ‘bad news stuff.’ Phantom energy violates physicists’ intuitions about how the universe should behave. A chunk of it could be used to prop open wormholes in space and time – and thus create time machines, for example.

“‘It could lead to such bizarre effects as negative kinetic energy,’ Dr. [Lawrence M.] Krauss said. As a result, objects like atoms would be able to lose energy by speeding up. . . .

“Dr. [Robert] Kirshner said phantom energy had been dismissed as ‘too strange’ when his group was doing calculations of dark energy back in 1998. In retrospect, he said, that was not the right thing to do.

“‘It sounds wacky,’ he said, referring to phantom energy, ‘but I think we’re in a situation where we’re going to need a really new idea. We’re in trouble; the way out is going to be new imaginative things. It might be our ideas are not wild enough, they don’t question fundamentals enough.'”

Taking stock

O indigence at the heart of our lives,
how poor is the language of happiness!

– Osip Mandelstam (Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin, trans.)

Via Negativa is two months old today. Calloo, callay!

I started out expecting to write mostly short entries, but they’ve gotten longer and longer. I set myself the goal of going nowhere, proving nothing and avoiding relevancy at all costs, but I think I may have slipped up once or twice. I have written probably more about religion than is healthy, less about science and nature than I’d like and as much about philosophy as I can get away with without betraying my abysmal ignorance. Via Negativa has at least six regular readers and perhaps another dozen who check in from time to time. I continue to discover new blogs worth adding to my list of favorites. The writing is still its own reward. I hope to continue for at least another ten months.

UPDATE: Now we are green – for no better reason than that Change is Good. We have an Atom RSS feed . . . and no, I don’t have the slightest idea why that matters. There’s a new a la carte list of high points in the sidebar, ’cause I always like it when other bloggers do that. Please e-mail me if you think I overlooked something that should be on the list – or if I listed something that doesn’t belong there.

Good morning, blues

Yesterday Kurt at The Coffee Sutras posted three translations by Izumi Shikibu, the 11th-century Japanese poet I quoted Czeslaw Milosz about last month. These are perfect translations, from a book I wasn’t aware of called The Ink Dark Moon (I haven’t really been keeping up with East Asian translations in the last 15 years).

Here’s one more by Lady Izumi, my own version. This was written for a screen painting of three people on horseback gazing at wildflowers:

We hold the flowers
in our mind
after we pass,
entrusting ourselves completely
to the oblivious horses.


I was also delighted to find a link to an exhibition of Huichol yarn paintings over at Mysterium last night. If you don’t have time to click though all the images at the museum’s site, Mysterium reproduces the most elaborate image, with appropriate text, here. Few pictures really are worth a thousand words, but this one might be. I love that visionary blue! For anyone wanting to read more about Huichol shamanism, Barbara Myerhoff’s Peyote Hunt (Cornell, 1974) is excellent.


On Valentine’s Day, the inimitable Blaugustine celebrated a new find: the site of a cancer patient who is determined to die laughing (if at all). The site is called Cancergiggles, and it breaks the blogging mold by having the introduction on the home page, with more recent entries a click away. The author bills it as “an idiot’s guide to accepting, living with, laughing at and dying from cancer.” This is philosophy at its most essential, folks:

“I have heard many people protest that if they had cancer, they wouldn’t want to know. This is really, really dumb. Have you ever had a nightmare about something real? For almost everybody, the answer is NO. It is the unknown, the shadowy stuff, that normally causes fear. Human beings are actually pretty good at handling real situations and you will probably surprise yourself.”

“Ok so you can handle what is happening to your body. It ain’t doing what it should and it’s not looking like a picnic from hereon in. So you feel sorry for your situation, you regret your wasted life and you sink into a depression. Don’t you dare, you selfish bastard! The only people who deserve any pity are those poor souls who will take care of you and watch helplessly as you eventually begin to slide. There’s no need to think that you should just accept it all and give up hope. On the other hand, accepting that this could be Gods way of telling you that you’re not his favourite bunny can actually be quite positive. Odds are that like me, you may get a pleasant, if possibly only temporary surprise.”


The diva wanted everything white. Threw fits if a single dark lipstick case interrupted the absence of color – or was it the presence of all colors? That abstract white that vanished the second she stained a finger with the anywhere surface of the world. Perhaps a votive white, paraffin candlestick burning with almost no scent? I envision her guarding with a cupped hand her fifteen minutes of flame. Beset by a swarm of moths. Or the white sand beach of the silver screen, that mirror of the vanities, that tablecloth for a powdery pick-me-up? I can be whomever I want, she thought every time she went backstage.

Winter has locked us down under armored plate. Yes, all the messy stuff is gone. Logs and stumps and scrubby bushes are covered up; the ground is smooth and gently contoured as any glamorous nude. But it’s slick, you can’t get a purchase on it. The deer lose their footing, slide hundreds of feet downslope. The trees in their tight white collars bleed silently in the sun.

The diva’s handlers are forecasting a winter storm. But the language is arcane, as usual. No one understands the difference between a warning and a watch, a watch and an advisory. She tunes her headset to an open frequency to listen to the surf: white noise. When it’s on the screen: snow. And some call it pleasure when it’s in the mind, but its real name is power. Or powder, she thinks, applying each nostril in turn to the line on her mirror.

Myth defying circumstances

How to account for the continuing popularity of Jung’s crackpot theories? The “collective unconscious” is mysticism lite, and has a strong whiff of racialism about it. And no one ever prayed to an archetype.

The myth-mongers perpetuate a number of questionable assumptions, in my opinion: 1) that the main purpose of religion is to answer ultimate questions; 2) that the role of the individual storyteller in shaping religious narratives is minimal; 3) that sacred stories point inward, rather than outward; and 4) that our experience of inwardness is universal, or at least the norm.

On the contrary: 1) In actual practice, where universalizing ideologies intermingle with local traditions and everyday concerns, religion can play many different roles for many different people. Generally speaking, I think, very few people ever concern themselves with so-called ultimate questions on a regular basis. Those who do may be revered as saints and holy (wo)men, their tombs may become sites of pilgrimage, but few seek to follow their example. Instead, the great mass of believers want from saints the same sorts of things they want from their gods and ceremonies: good luck; affirmation and security; therapy; miracle cures; guidance through life crises; a sense of belonging; better stuff; inspiration; social status; etc. To posit a higher plane where the Big Questions only are permitted simply recapitulates the elitist views of the promulgators of official, institutionalized religion.

The other three generalizations I’ve identified are also colored by ethnocentric and elitist biases unsupported by ethnography. 2) Some peoples do indeed view sacred stories as received wisdom that the storyteller alters at his/her peril. But others expect and celebrate improvisation in the retelling or reenactment of divine escapades. (See examples below.) 3) The ego/environment split is no older than the Industrial Revolution. Reactions included not only the Romantic revolt but also the so-called Great Awakening, where for the first time the fate of the individual soul trumped any concern about community. Before this time, I think it is fair to say that accounting for customs, preserving a community’s sense of identity and inculcating social norms were chief among the purposes served by sacred narratives. 4) A division between inner and outer is fairly meaningless in societies where individualism is not highly stressed, and/or where what we conceive of as the environment is seen as a kind of divine rebus. The World Religions all stress inwardness, but this strikes me as less an innovation than an attempt to compensate for the loss of richness that attended the cancerous spread of hierarchical and warlike societies across the globe. For example, according to one theory, monasticism played a pivotal role in the growth of armies: a conscious attempt to rein in the bands of marauders and brigands that had always posed such a threat to the established order. The shaved head of both the soldier and the monk testify to their submission to collective order and unity.

As commerce and empires spread their monocultures of the mind (in Vandana Shiva’s evocative phrase), cultural diversity suffers. Where once the body might have been thought to harbor three or more souls, now it houses only one. Where once one’s afterlife destination(s) might have been viewed as a consequence of the circumstances of one’s death – to the extent that it was thought about at all – now it is seen as reward or punishment for the conduct of one’s life. (This points in two directions: toward the breakdown in social taboos associated with the growth of polities to a point where anonymity is possible, and toward the projection of the apparatus of the state upon the cosmos.) Local gods are abandoned or subsumed by an ever-more-remote godhead, and tricksters vanish or turn sinister. Divine possession and other forms of ecstasy are demonized or pushed to the social margins. Ritual performance becomes the monopoly of an elite few. Religious behavior becomes monotonal, a matter of high seriousness. With the growth and spread of literacy, the stories can be effectively frozen in time. The sacred text becomes a new idol. The world of nature becomes increasingly stereotyped, its revelations dismissed as illusory or worse. Eventually, even reading out loud is abandoned for the quintessentially inward experience of silent reading and study.


Myths of the origin of humans vary widely in the Chaco, not only from tribe to tribe but from teller to teller. . . . In a Lengua account the Creator is said to have been an enormous beetle, who first caused evil spirits to come out from under the ground, then produced a man and a woman from the grains of soil he had thrown away.
John Bierhorst, The Mythology of South America (William Morrow, 1998)


Weep Wizard, 1979:
One of the Power-People had a dream. Some say it was the first Power-Man, some say it was the Ultimo and some say Maria Castellana: one of them had a dream. They would find what they wanted in a place struck by lightning, said the dream. Well, let’s say it was Diego Poklaj: he walked along the ridge of Volcano-Volcano and on down to Volcano-Her-Children [= local toponyms]. There he was caught by a strong south whirlwind rain until he took refuge under a tree. He got soaked. A big lightning struck there and he knew it was a sign, but a sign of what he didn’t know.

In the afternoon, the sun came up and nearby where Diego Poklaj, Diego dust, had taken shelter and had his dream, there was this old, beaten up tree: a tz’ajtel tree, an old one, really cut to pieces and hacked about. Diego Poklaj looked at it and said to himself, ‘Christ! They couldn’t mean this thing, it’s a mess, it’s far too soft, it sucks!’ And he passed it by. So he heard a whistle behind him. He went back to the tree and asked, ‘What’s the big idea?’ the tree just grunted back. ‘Are you the chosen one?’ said Poklaj. The tree just grunted. So Poklaj took out his stone hatchet and chopped.

Nathaniel Tarn with Martin Prechtel, Scandals in the House of Birds: Shamans and Priests on Lake Atitilan (Marsilio, 1997)


Abstractions do not provoke loyalty in [the Vodou priestess] Alourdes. She continues . . . to locate those individuals who can be called her people because she knows them and because they have earned the title.

But these days she casts her net more widely, and the group she includes in it is more diverse. Alourdes has always shown courage and creativity in taking on the new and the foreign. Through her, at my marriage ceremony, Danbala moved her whole community to a broader response to the question, Who are my people? This may be the way of the future for Vodou in the immigrant communities. But such a path leads to both gains and losses. Vodou can share its wisdom and its healing techniques with a larger and more varied group; but as the group of potential devotees expands, the spirits will also become more universalizable, the faces of the spirits less transparent to those of the ancestors, and the stories that carry the wisdom of the religion more abstract.

Karen McCarthy Brown, Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn (University of California Press, 1991)

See also That old-time religion, Cat’s cradle and It’s art, dammit!

Holding forth

Nature may appear as an external object with a history; indeed, for true aesthetic appreciation to take place, nature must be captured, recontextualized, preserved as a discrete moment or series of moments: mental snapshots at the very least. One does a kind of double take, both focusing and also – more critically – framing, editing out. I am always coming across places in the woods that strike me as garden-like (usually a rock garden or moss garden, since I live on a dry mountaintop). I find myself squinting, circling the imaginary garden, perhaps stepping into it gingerly to remove a fallen branch, or nudging a mossy stone into a slightly more pleasing position. Then the mental shutter clicks and I can move on.

I almost never attempt to write poems based on these experiences; the few I’ve ventured have been lifeless failures. It is as if my minimal arranging and circling satisfies the compulsion to capture or collect. I do not need to return in my imagination as I otherwise would, because ordinarily an experience only becomes fully aesthetic for me in retrospect. The same applies for an auditory as for a visual experience, and I imagine those who have honed their taste buds or olfactory nerves could expand the scope of this observation even further: too much immediacy obviates the need for re-creation, which is what artistic creation largely consists of. Or it may be that I just haven’t found the adequate language yet for such poems. It would take a very light touch, the most circumspect kind of conjuring – closer to romance than to necromancy.

I once was friendly in a coffee-shop kind of way with an artist whose primary material was natural, and whose main artifact was the notebook in which she recorded her impressions. She had a PhD in Art Education – this was serious stuff. As she explained it to me, the process consisted of going out into the woods (or wherever), finding something that interested her, observing it, changing it in some way, observing some more, then writing it all down. This was apparently part of a movement called ecological art, which differed from landscape art mainly in being far less obtrusive and disruptive. I remained unclear on how much didactic content these “works” would typically possess – she indicated that a fair degree of ecological awareness was required to create and appreciate ecological art. How then does ecological art differ from creative writing? I wish I could remember her answer exactly. As I recall, she felt that the writer tends to be more removed from her material, less willing to go outside herself – or, we might say, to assume an active role within Nature and regard that (im)positioning as primary and the writing as secondary. How does this differ from drama, from dance? “You could make a serious case for ecological art being a form of theatre,” she told me.

Writers could do worse than adopt this kind of path. “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together,” said Miguel Hernandez. This is not a prescription for any one style or subject matter. But cultivating a heightened awareness of our relationship with wild Nature through a willingness to participate in its own creation ought to point the way toward more authentic forms of re-membering. All of us, whether artists, scientists or mystics, should be constantly striving to improve the quality of our attention.

Looked at in one way, immersion in the object of attention leads to self-transcendence. But what is actually being transcended? It seems more accurate to talk about emergence: the self merging with the Self, an I-It relation giving way to mutual co-creation. Because, as artist John Fowles points out (The Tree, Norton, 1983), wild Nature is more than external object. It is “creating in the present, as we experience it. As we watch, it is so to speak rewriting, reformulating, repainting, rephotographing itself.” When we step “outside,” when our mental shutters click, we are charming, no? We are being game, we are acting innocent in order to attract and entrance the quarry. (But there is no such thing as just a game!)

One can catch glimmers of this perspective in the Bible, remnants probably of an animist heritage. The 18th century hasidic Rabbi Simha Bunam of Pzhysha stressed the literal translation of Genesis I:1, “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and earth.” “For even now the world is still in a state of creation,” Rabbi Bunham said. “When a craftsman makes a tool and is finished, it does not require him any longer. Not so with the world! Day after day, instant after instant, the world requires the renewal of the powers of the primordial word through which it was created, and if the power of those powers were withdrawn from it for a single moment, it would lapse into tohu bohu [‘chaos’].” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, Schocken, 1948.)

The theistic hypothesis will no doubt strike many readers as a needless distraction here. The most important thing, I believe, is to see other beings as self-completing and beautiful with or without the aid of a creator, human or divine. God is a superfluity, I agree. But for me, life exceeds itself at every turn. The fundamental religious gestures of awe, hospitality and respect all derive from a willingness to see things as being somehow more and better than they appear to the eye (I) of calculation and discrimination. This self-regarding eye forms a positive feedback loop with the idol or object of lust (“fetish” in the Freudian sense). But the self-exceeding eye is at home in the alterity (otherness + changeability) of the world:

Wilderness was never accepted as our home, but now it has to be. Uncompromising but protective, it holds to the principles of renewal and diversity in all the facets of its nature. It keeps the law, for which we have no substitute. As original creation, it reconciles extremes in a way that is impossible for mankind to imitate. We know this . . . in our unfinished selves, where stability and instability keep company with the eternal weather.
John Hay, The Immortal Wilderness (Norton, 1987).

The truth about conjoined twins

The comedian grabs his mike, leans forward like a preacher or a cheerleader. “Repeat after me: ‘I am unique.'”

“I am unique!”

“‘I am an individual.'”

“I AM AN INDIVIDUAL!” roars the audience.

“‘I do not repeat phrases just because someone tells me to.'”

“I DO NOT REPEAT phrases just because . . . ” (Confusion. Laughter. Shame-faced applause.)

This routine forever endeared me to Steve Martin – my second-favorite living American philosopher (right after Yogi Berra, who gets top billing because he is only inadvertently wise). Face it, our naive mythos of rugged individualism just makes us all the more susceptible to group-think. The genius of the American system is that we conspire in our own hoodwinking. We are at once the most faithful and the least God-fearing of nations: we want to believe, but not to be confined by the dictates of the conscience.

But for all that, I love our culture of extreme individualism . . .


Spurred by my attempt to conjure up a two-headed woman, a couple readers searched the online database ProQuest and came up with an article from Life magazine, July 1996: “Together Forever,” by Kenneth Miller. My father remembers an earlier article, also from Life, describing the English conjoined twins of whom I was thinking the other day. (That article appeared too long ago for Proquest to pick up.)

The Miller article, which The Sylph was kind enough to forward, is touching and thought-provoking. The “Hensen” twins are somewhat more separated: their extra-wide torso contains two hearts, two stomachs, three lungs, and two spinal cords as far as the waist. At the time of the article they were in Kindergarten, and appeared happy, healthy, had loving parents and a supportive community (a small town somewhere in the Midwest). I’d love to reproduce the entire article, but I’ll content myself with a few paragraphs.

Each controls the limbs and trunk, and feels sensations, on her own side exclusively: If you tickle the ribs on the right, only Abby giggles. Yet the girls manage–no one knows exactly how–to move as one being. The paradoxes of the twins’ lives are metaphysical as well as medical. They raise far-reaching questions about human nature: What is individuality? How sharp are the boundaries of the self? How essential is privacy to happiness? Is there such a thing as mental telepathy? Bound to each other but defiantly independent, these little girls are a living textbook on camaraderie and compromise, on dignity and flexibility, on the subtler varieties of freedom. . . .

Abby and Britty are lucky to live in such a [rural] setting, and they’re lucky to have a set of parents intrepid enough to help them navigate a difficult path. If the Hensel adults ever feel overwhelmed, they don’t show it. “I don’t think we’ve ever said, ‘Why us?'” says Mike. Instead, they seem to relish the challenges posed by their two eldest daughters. They have taught Abby and Britty to swim, to ride a bike and to explain that they came from a single egg–and are therefore special–when other kids ask questions. They buy the twins snazzy outfits, then have a seamstress modify the upper portions. “It’s important to create two separate necklines,” says Patty. “Otherwise it would make them look like they’re one person.” They encourage the girls to express their individual tastes in everything from leggings (Abby likes blue; Britty prefers pink) to hobbies (Britty is into animals; Abby loves to draw). While the Hensels are not particularly religious–“We go to church, but we don’t sit in the front pew,” says Mike–they draw on reserves of strength that can only be called spiritual. They also draw on a circle of helpers: Patty’s sister, Mike’s parents, the family doctor, the day-care provider who helped the twins learn to walk. . . .

When Abby and Britty go among strangers, the stir is not entirely the product of ignorance or insensitivity. As Freud noted, any event evoking ancient images of the supernatural makes us shiver–and gods and sorcerers have long been adept at generating doubles of themselves. Twins have symbolized good or evil in many cultures. The Yoruba worshiped them; the Algonquin killed them at birth. No wonder conjoined twins, who throw our definitions of doubleness and singleness into disarray, elicit such awe.

One uncanny phenomenon regularly associated with identical twins, conjoined or not, is paranormal communication: the man who dreams of a plane cash just as his twin’s F-14 is going down in flames; the woman who dreams of a litter of puppies the moment her twin, thousands of miles away, gives birth. Scientists have failed to find a higher incidence of telepathy between twins, but as Eileen Pearlman, a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in twins, puts it, “Is that because it doesn’t exist or because there isn’t a way to test it? The jury is still out.” It is certainly tempting to chalk up some of Abby and Britty’s behavior to mind-reading. Like many twins, they often speak and act in unison. Playing cards with their day-care pals, they shuffle the deck without even looking down. When Britty coughs, Abby’s hand–the right–shoots up reflexively to cover her sister’s mouth. “The other day,” says Mike “they were sitting watching TV. Abby says to Britty; ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ Britty says, ‘Yup.’ And without another word, off they went to the bedroom. They both wanted to read the same book!”

Pearlman, who says she often senses when her own twin is about to call, believes identical twins may simply know each other so well, and have sufficiently similar brain wiring, that they can anticipate each other’s actions. Dr. Carson of Johns Hopkins speculates that something else may be at work with Abby and Britty: “Given the fact that they have shared organs, it’s almost impossible for there not to be some overlapping in their autonomic nervous systems.” . . .

The Hensel girls are stars here. Today the kindergarten teacher, Connie Stahlke, is having her 11 charges cut out paper snowmen. As always, she gives the twins an option: Create two separate projects or team up. Although they often work independently and never copy each other’s answers on tests, they decide to collaborate this time. Since it is impossible to use scissors without a spare hand to hold the paper, it would take them twice as long to finish if each made her own cutout. In the end, the twins’ snowman is the most elaborate of all.

Teamwork is a concept Abby and Britty have grasped more quickly than their peers. Once, after several students got into an argument, the twins led a class discussion on how to get along. “They’ve definitely had to do that their entire lives,” says Stahlke. . . .

It can’t have been easy. Their different temperaments have been apparent since infancy. Abby has a voracious appetite; Britty finds food boring. Abby tends to be the leader (“She wants more things and is more diplomatic in getting them,” says Mike’s mother, Dorothy); Britty is more reflective and academically quicker. Sometimes they argue. Once, Britty hit Abby in the head with a rock. But they have obvious inceptives to arrive at a consensus. When they can’t agree on where to go–a rare occurrence–they literally cannot move. When one misbehaves, both are sent to their room. “They watch out for each other like you wouldn’t believe,” says their father.

To J. David Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina who has written on conjoined-twin psychology, the individualism of siblings born of a semidivided egg sheds light on the nature-nurture debate–the question of whether we are shaped mainly by heredity or environment. Unconjoined twins have identical genes (nature) and grow up only inches apart (nurture), what can explain their dissimilarities? Some scientists theorize that the position of each fetus in the womb affects development. Some suspect one twin is dominated by the right brain hemisphere, the other by the left. Smith’s answer is less mechanistic: “It isn’t just genes or the environment. People are acutely involved in creating their personalities. They make different choices, choose different directions.” The development of conjoined twins, he says, “is a compelling study in human freedom.” . . .

In the hallway, the girls are putting on their sneakers. Abby consults her sister: “I think I should make a double knot, don’t you?” Britty nods and lends a hand. [Their mother] Patty, watching from the kitchen, gives one of her enormous smiles. “If they had to be put together,” she says, “I think they were put together perfectly.”

This makes me want to weep and cheer at the same time. I left out the central episode of the story, where they go to visit the Mall of America with their parents and siblings and are treated with an amazing mixture of respect and friendly curiosity. A few people stare, then apologize. Folks are friendly and welcoming as only Midwesterners can be. Sometimes I hate this country, but then I read something like this and it makes me realize I really wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Reassembling Simic

And now for something relatively different: an appreciation of the well-known Serbian-American surrealist poet, Charles Simic.

Over the years I’ve collected nine of Simic’s books almost without trying – the better part of his oeuvre. I have to say I like the earlier books better – they have more of the breath of authentic discovery in them. In the later ones he seems a bit tame, a parlor magician still given to occasional flashes of wizardry among all the prestidigitation. But the two most recent books of his that I have, Walking the Black Cat and Jackstraws, contain almost as many startling images as the first three.

Even at his best Simic has always been the master of the inspired couplet or stanza; individual poems are sometimes a little less than the sum of their parts. Perhaps this is an Eastern European thing, but the world his poems inhabit does appear irredeemably fragmented. The shards, however, suggest figured urns that would’ve blown Keats’ mind. Sometimes the antiquarian’s labored reconstruction is successful, and sometimes there simply isn’t enough that’s salvageable.

But as Milosz says, over-analysis of poetry is reprehensible! All this is simply by way of excusing what I am about to do here this morning: liberate a bunch of Simician fragments from their original matrices and reassemble them into a short sequence of linked verses. Pretend that it’s 2500 years in the future and we’re puzzling over the only leavings of another Sappho.

Actually, there is already something of that lost quality in Simic’s work, with its inescapable mid-20th century milieu. Men wear hats, gypsies tell fortunes, and the corpses of abstract truths still seem relatively fresh. Could anyone else get away with such rank idealism? But in the mouth of a non-native speaker like Simic a language can sometimes ring more true, freed from the worst excrescencies of literary precedent and quotidian use.

Sources: FOREST (Dismantling the Silence, 1971), HUNGER (Ibid), FOR THE VICTIMS (Ibid.), THE CURE (Charon’s Cosmology, 1977), AN EVENING WITH THE MASTER (Austerities, 1982), EARLY EVENING ALGEBRA (Unending Blues, 1986), THE FLY (Ibid ), untitled (complete poem, The World Doesn’t End, 1989), THE VARIANT (Charon’s Cosmology), CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE (The Book of Gods and Devils, 1990), INSOMNIAC’S DEBATING SOCIETY (Jackstraws, 1999), DARK TV SCREEN (A Wedding in Hell, 1994), WINTER EVENING (Walking the Black Cat, 1996), BED MUSIC (Ibid.), THE WIND (complete poem, from Dismantling the Silence), MYSTIC LIFE (Jackstraws).

A cluster of roots
Pulling in every direction.
. . . .

Take it as medicine,
A teaspoon at a time, and remember:
You are a saint turned over on a spit,
You are a roach caught by the convicts.
. . . .

Then, at last, we’ll get a true taste of ourselves.
The ear will crawl back into the eye
Like Jonah into his whale.
. . . .

Mating season
Of the hand and the glass,
Respectful homage
Of the wine to the light,
That I talk to, that I quarrel with . . .
. . . .

A soul with a falcon’s hood
Bent over a nursery school slate
Which screeches and bleeds darkly
As it lets itself be written
. . . .

The chalk must have been given her by a child.
One kept looking for him in the crowd . . .
. . . .

He was writing the History of Optimism
In Time of Madness. It was raining.
. . . .

“Tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul,” writes Nietzsche. I always felt that too, Friedrich! The Amazon jungle with its brightly colored birds squawking, squawking, but its depths dark and hushed. The beautiful lost girl is giving suck to a monkey. The lizards in attendance wear ecclesiastical robes and speak French to her: “La Reine des Reines,” they intone. Not the least charm of this tableau is that it can be so easily dismissed as preposterous.
. . . .

The proverbial dry blades
Sticking in the throat.
. . . .

All of a sudden, a clear sense of a memorable occasion . . .
The joy of it, the delicious melancholy . . .
This very strange man bent over the piano shaking his head, humming . . .


Then it was all over, thank you!
Chairs being stacked up on tables, their legs up.
. . . .

The cueball Buddhist
Among us
Pooh-poohing all foregoing,
It’s just our imagination.
Imagine that?
. . . .

O Cordelia, my name is Lear. My name is
Primo Levi. I sit naked between
The open window and the dark TV screen,
My hands and sex bathed in the fire of evening.
. . . .

My love’s window was on fire
With the sunset.
Her hair was red.
The pillow she carried in her arms
Was like a baby.

Quiet as a bread crumb,
I stood and watched.
. . . .

Our love was new,
But your bedsprings were old.
. . . .

Touching me, you touch
the country that has exiled you.
. . . .

It takes a tiny nibble
From time to time.

Don’t you believe it.

It sends a shiver down our spines
In response.

Like hell it does.

There’s a door you’ve never noticed before
Left ajar in your room.

Don’t kid yourself.

The narrators discuss their task

–What is my name?
–You are Melissa. I am Absynthia.
–We are two?
–No. You are one, I am one. Together we are still one. We cannot be divided.
–What do they call us, then?
–They call us the Twin. But our real name is Errata.

Two heads, two halves of the body. Two necks, two shoulders, two arms, two legs, two lungs. Four eyes, four ears, two brains, a single heart. Two tongues, two hands, two breasts, a single sex. Two mouths to feed one stomach.

–How did this happen?
–It could have been anything. We should have been anything but this.
–What could be better? It’s every wit’s first thought about two heads . . .
–But on second thought . . .
–Yes . . .
–One of us had a second body and lost it to the first. We were like Jacob and Esau, struggling in the womb.
–It might have been better for history had those two been like us.
–History? One scroll out of many. We could give birth to something else, I feel it in our bones.
–Before we rejoined we were little more than clusters of potential.
–Little Gordian knots. Little clumps of this and that, bundled with yarn, fastened with a charm, stuck in a little skin sack.
–We dwelt in possibility?
–Are dwelling there still. They could have refused us at birth . . .

On a bicycle flying through the intersections, the lights turning green at their approach. One looks right, one left. Peddling, braking, shifting gears without a thought.

–It was a last-minute decision.
–The angels were asleep at the switch.
–Or God?
–Not if we know what’s good for us. God puts an end to questioning.
–What is the end of questioning, then?
–You laugh and I’ll weep. We’ll both menstruate. That way we’ll cover all the bases.
–Before we had words, could we hear each other’s thoughts?
–The pattern was there, unrecognized. We knew, but we didn’t know that we knew.
–Nothing’s really changed then, except now
–we are one step farther from the back door
–we came in by. But
–the sun’s gonna shine. The wind’s
–gonna rise.

To him or her of adequate desire

Everyone knows the first line; here’s the whole poem. This is #466 in R.W. Franklin (The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, Harvard/Belknap Press, 1999).

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

1862 was a banner year for St. Emily. She wrote the magnificent “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” and immediately afterwards a poem whose last couple of lines deserve equal renown (#373):

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

#413 is probably too abstract and explicit to rise to the level of these others, but is valuable precisely because it lays bare one of her central themes:

Heaven is so far of the mind
That were the Mind dissolved –
The Site – of it – by Architect
Could not again be proved –

‘Tis Vast – as our Capacity –
As fair – as our idea –
To Him of adequate desire
No further ’tis, than Here –

Cross-reference: Poem # 910