October 2004

This piece by the unofficial Palestinian poet laureate seems especially topical right now – though I’m sure Mr. Darwish would protest that he, for one, would be quite happy if his poems did NOT so precisely satisfy the hoary definition of poetry as “news that stays news”!

WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO LOVE AUTUMN
by Mahmoud Darwish

And we, too, have the right to love the last days of autumn and ask:
Is there room in the field for a new autumn, so we may lie down like coals?
An autumn that blights its leaves with gold.
If only we were leaves on a fig tree, or even neglected meadow plants
that we may observe the seasons change!
If only we never said goodbye to the fundamentals
and questioned our fathers when they fled at knife point. May poetry and God’s name have mercy on us!
We have the right to warm the nights of beautiful women, and talk about
what might shorten the night of two strangers waiting for the North to reach the compass.
It’s autumn. We have the right to smell autumn’s fragrances and ask the night for a dream.
Does the dream, like the dreamers themselves, sicken? Autumn. Autumn.
Can a people be born on a guillotine?
We have the right to die any way we wish.
May the earth hide itself away in an ear of wheat!

translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forché in Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (University of California Press, 2003). Arabic version originally appeared in Darwish’s Fewer Roses, 1986

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception

6.

We only consult the ear because the heart is wanting. (Pascal)

But we are all fish
out of water,
giddy with oxygen.
Who can tell
the smell of ozone –
electric & wet – from
the taste of
their own fear
when the storm comes?

     the commercial fisherman:

     we entered the sound on a rough sea
     in pea-soup fog
     cut the motor & listened
     for the buoy clang

     the captain swears he can feel
     the change in the swells
     but that too could be
     a kind of listening

     men don’t talk about
     their instincts much
     we’re supposed to be impervious
     to gauge to ogle

     but looking makes everything
     smaller than it is
     the world
     recedes

     & if something can kill you
     you need to find it
     magnify it
     keep it close

     every pore in my body listened
     for that buoy its dull echo
     sweeter than a church bell
     over the hiss of the waves

Who has ears to hear, let him hear.
I crave immersion in the medium of grace.

I think of whale song more alluring
than any Lorelei, seals & walruses

whose ancestors heard the surf
pounding in their temples. Otters,

already so much more playful than
their bloodthirsty cousins on dry land.

I think perhaps our destiny is not
to be sucked out among the stars – vacuum

without sound – but back in the water,
sonorous & shining. Like Jesus

inscribed in the cursive alpha:
shoal. Implausible feast.

The storm approaches.
As pressure drops,
the ears fill
& pop & the heart
works harder.
Just like
when kisses land
lightly as
a fisherman’s fly
on the skin – creek
or lover –
& the trout in
the bloodstream
rises,
takes the hook.

7.

The least movement affects all nature; the entire sea changes because of a rock. . . . Impenetrability is a quality of bodies. (Pascal)

Yesterday morning, from the trees
up on the ridge, a cacophony of rusty hinges.
Startled by something, it stills, turns
into an immense rustle of wings.
A thousand blackbirds lift, pivot,
drift high across the field like
a cloud of smoke.

This morning, walking through the fog
on top of the same ridge, I am stopped
by a yellow sugar maple leaf
dangling from an invisible strand of silk
six feet off the ground.
The slight breeze is enough to make it
flip, flop, fly. The forest drips.

These are not metaphors for anything.
Science says, a body at rest,
a body in motion.
But only
such abstract bodies really make sense.
Ah, unreal body, home to an unreal sense!
Move one finger and the universe shifts: try it.
Let the small hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

Some of the bloggists I read regularly have been writing about color in pretty striking ways. In a post last Friday – complete with a full-color sketch – Blaugustine described a man and his sons who boarded her car on the London subway:

To say that they were black says nothing. Their skin was African midnight blueblack, the colour of a starry desert sky and polished as the stones in a clear stream. There was not a hair on their heads or brows. Their smooth hairlessness and the extraordinary intensity and innocence of their eyes made them seem like beings from another planet. The man was dressed in a light-coloured tracksuit but the boys, under their black casual jackets, wore formal white shirts and white trousers. My sketch from memory does not do them justice. If I had brought my camera I would have asked permission to photograph them. Sometimes life generously offers you a brief encounter with absolute beauty to remind you that all is not lost and ugliness can never entirely take over the world.

On Tuesday, Fragments from Floyd reported on an encounter with unexpected, otherworldly beauty even closer to home:

A rounded mound that the rake could not clear away proved to be a flat rock under the leaves, thrown beside the shed for no good reason. I harrumphed as I bent over carefully to prize it up on end to lift and toss it to some other pointless place out of the way. And out of that mundane chore of autumn, in this world of orange and ochre, in that cool, safe space under the flat roof of rock where it would have spent its anonymous days fattening on spiders before winter, a newly-hatched Smooth Green Snake lay coiled in an emerald knot.

This time, there is a photo. The green snake against the autumn leaves looks every bit as stunning as Fred says it was.

At Vernacular Body yesterday, I was charmed by

the sight of a pile of yellow leaves on the sidewalk. They are suddenly carried on a gust: it is a precise and unified motion, exactly like that of a school of fish.

And at Ditch the Raft, Andi is in northern India, on the first leg of a Buddhist pilgrimage with her father. Along with vivid descriptions of the people, the temples, the filth and squalor of the cities and the experience of being stared at everywhere she goes – and of learning to return that stare – she writes:

I’ve never seen such colors. The Rajasthani women wear lime greens, pine greens, saffron and tangerine oranges, lemon yellows and tumeric yellows, pomegranate and blood reds–and these colors mixed in with the incredible array of saris makes my eyes swim. I feel drunk on the color: it’s edible, tangible, colors I could walk on. If the colors in Malaysia were like wings, this is like flocks, waves, oceans of color.

In her latest post, she describes a visit to the cloth market at Udaipur:

Sometimes mirrors are sewn in, sometimes sequins, giving the cloth an extra glitter. On the really fine stuff, gold and silver thread is worked in. But what catches me again and again is the unmitigated sensuality of the cloth and the clothing. Colors to make poets die–they cannot be written–and live again–hope springs eternal. Colors to make women want to be beautiful or to feel beautiful, or at least this woman. You start imagining your home decked out in these colors. A room for reds, a room for blues, a room for greens, and a room for whites. Who knew white came in a rainbow of shades, hues, subtleties? A creamy white cotton relaxes next to the sharp shiny silk white; a matte hand-woven white envelopes where a filmy woolen white pulls one along like a breeze.

This is travel blogging at its best. Who needs photos?

*

Reading blogs before bed may or may not be a good idea. In my last dream before waking, I had been invited to a costume party at Elck’s flat in New York City, which he jokingly refers to as Long Hall. It was enormous. We sat awkwardly across from each other on overstuffed, Victorian chairs, Elck and I, and realized we had absolutely nothing to say to one another, having long ago exhausted our eloquence in our blogs. Then other people began flowing in. They were all wearing gorgeous saris and matching headscarves, even the men.

Suddenly, I realized I was similarly outfitted, Lord knows how. The six meters of cloth were striking, Andi, but they were suffocating! I stripped back down to my usual jeans and quilted plaid shirt.

Before I knew it, however, I was wrapped in a sari again! How was this happening? Clearly, someone must be slipping something into my drink – or else those two wily magicians Elck wrote about the other day were hiding somewhere about and using me for an impromptu demonstration of their powers. For the second time, I divested myself of the exotic cloth, folded it and placed it on the chair. My usual cocktail party paranoia set in. Why was nobody talking to me? Were they really all snickering at me, or was it just my imagination?

Well, you know how these kinds of insecurity dreams go: once you get into an imaginative rut, it’s hard to change course. The third time, I found myself outfitted in a heavy, gray monk’s habit. In addition, they had strapped one of those backpacks for carrying small children on my back. What did this mean? I had no idea. But I knew this much: they weren’t going to get away with it!

I tore off the backpack and the habit and carried them into an empty storeroom. There was only one thing to do, I realized as I stood there listening to the clinking of wineglasses, high-pitched laughter and fragments of witty repartee. I would take off all my clothes! That’ll teach ’em to make fun of the hillbilly!

I remembered the last time I had been naked at a party, a late-night affair with a backyard hot tub on a quiet back street in Tyrone. Everyone else was naked, so I figured it was cool. Only months later did someone leak the truth: they’d all been staring at me! No one had seen that much body hair on a human being before, my friend Chris informed me. “We weren’t making fun of you!” he assured me. “We were just, you know, amazed! I mean, you even have hair on your butt!

So fifteen people – including one fairly attractive, hetero female and a couple bisexuals – had been staring at my naked butt. Great.

But that was years ago – long before I discovered blogging. Now, after ten months on the Via Negativa, I said to myself, being naked at a costume party seems pretty much par for the course. I can do this!

Unfortunately for the sake of this retelling, that’s when I woke up. So I guess you’ll have to supply your own endings. And I’m afraid that, since I have put the image of my hairy, naked body unbidden into your heads, your dreams too may take a disturbing turn, like a pile of yellow leaves on the sidewalk. They are suddenly carried on a gust . . .

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception

Our senses perceive no extreme. Too much sound deafens us; too much light dazzles us; too great distance or proximity hinders our view. . . . We feel neither extreme heat nor extreme cold. Excessive qualities are prejudicial to us and not perceptible by the senses; we do not feel but suffer them. . . . Extreme youth and extreme age hinder the mind, as also too much and too little education. In short, extremes are for us as though they were not, and we are not within their notice. They escape us, and we them. (Pascal)

In his late eighties, my grandfather’s neck bone sprouted a spur that pressed against his throat.

Imagine it, to be slowly choked to death by your own spine!

It got to where he could barely swallow & all his meals had to be pureed – “like baby food,” he groused.

He had already lost almost all sense of taste; only very sweet and very salty foods had any appeal.

Eating now became onerous, with only the promise of mealtime sociability with the other residents of the old folks’ home to hold his interest.

He grew light as a bird.

Even so, a portion of every mouthful – a drop or two, perhaps – blocked by the bony growth, trickled down his windpipe.

And as Pascal observed, “a drop of water suffices to kill a man.”

He contracted pneumonia.

Starved for oxygen, his brain fed him lies.

Fear found expression in hatred.

The coma was a mercy.

Children and grandchildren filled the small hospital room to overflowing.

He lay with eyes shut & mouth agape below the beak of a nose, one tube in his left arm & another in his urethra, his skeletal frame naked under the bed sheet.

As the night wore on, the gaps between the slight movements of his chest grew longer and longer.

Finally, when several minutes had elapsed, someone felt for a pulse: no hint of motion.

Then a great sigh that caught in a dozen throats, a gasping sob.

As vision blurred we embraced & embraced, baffled to find each other so unfamiliar, ourselves so strange.

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Anatomy of Perception

Barometric pressure was a novel idea in 1647 when the 24-year-old Blaise Pascal published his Nouvelles expériences sur le vide. Toricelli had invented the barometer only four years earlier. Pascal described how he climbed first a tower in Paris and then a mountain in the Auvergne carrying this new instrument, and watched as the column of quicksilver slowly dropped. He deduced that a vacuum must exist above the atmosphere – and thus, in a sense, became the discoverer of outer space.

Pascal recognized – and struggled against – the inadequacy of knowledge to ever encompass the universe. Though the logic of infinity could not be denied, he thought, its existence depressed him. This more than anything testifies to his greatness as a thinker: he was brave enough admit the existence of truths that caused him profound discomfort. While, on the one hand, “It is the heart that perceives God and not the reason,” reason still exerts a critical check on human pride: “Man is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness from which he emerges and the infinity in which he is engulfed.”

Late in life, battling illness, Pascal made a study of the cycloid, a curve traced by a point on the circumference of a hoop traveling along a straight line. Using the “method of indivisibles” pioneered by Cavalieri, Pascal managed to solve a series of problems that had defeated Galileo and Descartes. In the process, he came within a hair’s breadth of discovering the infinitesimal calculus, decades before Leibnitz and Newton. Unable to sleep for pain, he stared up into the darkness and saw the solutions unfold.

Blaise Pascal was a slight man with a booming voice, and people found him pugnacious, even overbearing. Ill health and crushing headaches were his constant companions since childhood. He died of a malignant growth in his stomach that spread to his other organs. A post-mortem examination also revealed an ugly lesion on the brain – the source of his migraines. Apparently, as an infant his fontanelle had failed to close properly, and the bones in his skull had slipped and ground against each other like the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the earth. He died in great agony and convulsions on August 19, 1662, at the age of 39.

The clouds came in just as the earth’s shadow began its slow crawl across the moon. It was, I think, what they call a mackerel sky: high cumulo-nimbus clouds arranged like the scales on the belly of a fish. Every few minutes the moon would reappear in a crack between the clouds, and each time more of it would be gone.

More and more of the sky became occluded by clouds. By 10:20, when the eclipse reached totality, very few cracks still showed. Rather than abandon hope, though, I left my front porch, where I had been watching the show through the newly bare leaves of an elm, and went up in the field for an unobstructed view. The air was cold, but the ground retained some of the heat of the day; the longer I lay in the grass, the warmer it seemed. I watched as the cracks between the clouds grew larger and larger. Mackerel skies move with excruciating slowness. Above and to the west, the bands of stars grew larger.

At last, around eleven o’clock, the clouds thinned out enough to allow an unobstructed view of the eclipsed moon. Blood moon, some call it, and indeed, one does get the impression that one is seeing somehow inside it, as if with the x-ray vision of an ultrasound machine. What might this view of celestial entrails tell us? I thought of all the people around the hemisphere who must have been watching along with me, the myriad interpretations they would bring to this sight. How many otherwise ordinary life events would gain in significance merely by their conjunction with such an event?

For Red Sox fans, the symbolism of a baseball-white moon approximating their team colors on the very night they stormed to an historic World Series victory couldn’t be clearer. For them, the supposed maleficent aspect of the blood moon would seem like a blessing, for it always takes something like a curse to counter a curse. More political minded folks might prefer not to dwell on portents, and just enjoy the show. Who needs another baleful Mars!

Thinking about team colors, though, reminded me of the trite and obnoxious bumper sticker one often sees around Pennsylvania: “If God isn’t a Penn State fan, why is the sky blue and white?” It’s doubly obnoxious, I thought, because look at what Penn State has done to the dark night skies of my childhood! Due in part to the university’s strong, consistent support for I-99 – a highway designed to funnel traffic more quickly to Penn State football games – the sky to the northwest and southeast is ablaze with reflected light from several nearby freeway exits. The northeast portion of the sky harbors a dome of yellow light from the limestone quarry two miles away. This quarry now runs day and night to supply rock for the final sections of I-99, under construction north of here in a series of monstrous gashes along the crest of this same, poor ridge. Now these gashes have begun to bleed acid discharge into two watersheds, poisoning wells and killing wild trout. And last night, as on most other nights, the incessant beeping of quarry trucks marred what would otherwise be an otherworldly stillness. Fuck you, Penn State.

By 11:00, though, the din died down – only to resume again at 5:00 this morning. I sat out on the porch with my coffee a little past six, bathing in the light of the now-recovered moon – so bright it almost hurt to look. My last sight of the lunar eclipse before I went off to bed at 11:11 prompted this memo in my pocket notebook: “It makes me hungry!” I don’t believe I was consciously thinking salmon, peach, just feeling an unfocused but powerful longing to reach up and pull this strange circle down to my mouth. Now, as I write, I’m imagining it cold but sweet, and as prone to melt as ice cream in a cone. It’s not a bad thing for the pure and the aloof once in a while to take on an earthly stain.

Yesterday morning I found a female marbled orbweaver (Araneus marmoreus) spider dangling in the middle of the old, moss-covered woods road near the top of the field. Unlike many in her species who tend more toward yellow, hers was an abdomen that glowed a fervid orange. She had just completed the first, trail-spanning support strands preparatory to the real spinning, which would take place later in the day, if this source on the World Wide Web is to be believed:

[Marbled orbweaver] spiders build their web at dusk and either wait in the web or in a retreat near the web at night for prey to strike the web. Then the spider runs out and wraps the prey in silk. After the prey is immobilized, the prey is bitten and eventually eaten. Some individuals stay in their webs during the day, but this is not common. They typically rebuild their web each day, or at least the sticky spiral orb part.

Unfortunately, she had picked one of our most well traveled walking trails, used particularly heavily this time of year as the pace of the deer hunt picks up. I thought it would be a good idea to try and move her off the trail – discourage her now, if that were possible, rather than later. I broke the silk and swung her off to the side of the trail. She rappelled to the ground and crouched motionless, head and thorax tucked out of side beneath her huge abdomen. From a couple feet away, the spider looked like some kind of large, exotic seed lying among the equally bright fallen leaves. I crouched down to admire the filigreed pattern, which resembled nothing so much as a five-storied pagoda.

Normally I keep a respectful distance from spiders, but I couldn’t resist running one pinky gently over the surface of the abdomen. It felt deliciously smooth, even – what else? – silky.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: Dave, you need a woman! But would you say that if I were a Red Sox fan, kneeling in the middle of a street in Boston with tears streaming down my face, thanksgiving on my lips? Satisfaction can take countless forms. Me, all I really want now is a bite of moon. Just one nibble! Then I’ll be happy, and the forces of evil can go ahead and swallow the rest of my sky.

Another blogger to respond to Susan’s question about the senses – “Which do you think is the most important?” – was Siona, of Nomen est Numen. She opted for touch. In a subsequent post, she expanded on the theme.

I should make it clear that these poems in the “expected voices” of others are entirely acts of my own imagination. If you want to know what Siona – or Dale, or Susan – really think, read their blogs (all highly recommended, by the way). I hope it’s obvious that what I am trying to do here is extract details from various narratives that advance my own argument (such as it is). This very process of selection means that the “I” of these poems is really more me than anyone else.

Once again, the epigraph is from Pascal. (Tomorrow’s section should make it clear why I am using his writing in this context.)

3.

We think we are playing on ordinary organs when playing upon man. Men are organs, it is true, but odd, changeable, variable, with pipes not arranged in proper order. Those who know how to play on ordinary organs will not produce harmonies on these.

I am
all mem-
brane
it’s true

the brain itself
is an open
wound
folded
into a fist

skinny? but
skin’s at
a minimum on
someone
as thin
as me

bony, yes –
except this
skeleton has been
so brutal
bruising
my starved
flesh

back when I was
my own
demon lover
when I wanted
to feel
nothing-
ness

but recovery has
turned me out-
side in
a Möbius strip

I can shut
my eyes
& read the
world’s Braille
from within
the world

run your fingers
down along
my spine

do you feel how
my whole
body
blinks?