Longing (5): the narrow road

Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances.

Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”


Cue up Baaba Maal and Mansour Seck, “Djam Leeli” (“The Wayfarers”)

I want to begin this last installment with a salute to all casual or first-time readers: you who have just alighted briefly in the course of a Google search for something else entirely and are wondering, “What the hell’s all this, then?”, or you wanderers who have been whiling away a few hours in a maze of links. “Longing? You gotta be kidding! How can anyone blog longing? What’s to say?

“On the other hand, what’s not to say?”

This extended meditation/collation of texts was sparked by the close conjunction in my mind of two very dissimilar things. One was the Robert Hass quote with which I have been heading each installment. The other was a chilling series of graphic photos and journal entries purportedly from an S&M slave that I stumbled across online, just as some of you have now stumbled here. I don’t normally get too worked up thinking about what consenting adults might choose to do to each other in the privacy of their own homes. It’s a free country, right? What disturbed me about this site was the lucidity with which the self-described slave extolled her torture, humiliation, and loss of will.

One page contained a critique of desire that could almost have been written by an adherent of some more extreme world-denying religious sect – a modern-day Manichaean. Like most people, she said, I grew up in a soulless American suburb convinced that the key to happiness was to acquire more and more stuff and to indulge myself in every way possible. But I found that the more I fed my desires, the more insatiable they grew, and the unhappier I became. But since I found my master, I have become a completely new person. The person I used to be no longer exists, vanished along with all consideration of “happiness” or “fulfillment.” I no longer have any will or desires of my own apart from his. I am his whore, a possession for him to dispose of as he wishes. If he took me to the edge of a cliff and told me to jump, I would do so without a moment’s hesitation.

I’m paraphrasing because I can’t quite bring myself to go back there (the torture photos were kind of harsh). In the past I have encountered some equally disturbing blogs that explore these issues from both master and slave perspectives; they shouldn’t be hard to find if you’re curious.

The point is, a little while later when I read that poem by Hass, I had a bit of a “Eureka” moment and decided to launch what would be in effect a brief for unquenchable desire. I wanted to avoid moralizing as much as possible, concentrating instead on presenting a comprehensive epidemiology, if that’s the right word. Deciding which among untold thousands of applicable cases to include has been daunting. Many of the blogs I read (mole, Lekshe’s Mistake, The Coffee Sutras, the vernacular body and Nomen est Numen, among others) deal with themes of desire, suffering and impermanence on a regular basis, so I knew I could avoid the more obvious sources.

It’s not exactly an original subject. And as the 20th-century Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz maintained, it may be every poet’s most essential theme: “The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved,” he maintained. (English translations of his selected poems by Naomi Lazard have been published by Princeton University Press under the title The True Subject [1988].)

I guess if I had to articulate my own position, I would say that for societies or individuals to achieve health and harmony, they must seek a balance point between longing and satiety, transcendent and immanent forms of the divine. There must be a middle way, whether or not one follows the Buddha’s eightfold path. In this last installment, I want to celebrate the journey itself.


Cue up Bessie Smith, “Long Old Road”

Blues lyrics so often look flat and disappointing on the page. If you can’t actually hear Bessie Smith’s world-weary contralto balanced by Louis Armstrong’s horn, the drummer’s snare interpolated between the Empress’s phrases – call and response, I and Thou – then the words she happened to sing on that long-ago day at the beginning of the Great Depression might seem a little lacking. It would be like trying to intuit a tapestry merely from the warp on the loom.

The frank despair of “Long Old Road,” while it might conform to popular stereotypes about the blues by people unfamiliar with the music, is something rarely found in an art form that was intended, first and foremost, as catharsis – medicine, as so many blues performers have testified in recorded interviews. Blues music in the early and middle decades of the 20th century functioned as a kind of secular alternative to organized religion for African Americans struggling to escape the daily indignities of Jim Crow in the South and discrimination in the north. It was unusual for a singer to declare on record, as Smith did in one of the last recording sessions before her tragic and untimely death,

You can’t trust nobody, you might as well
be alone.
Found my long-lost friend, and I might as well
stayed at home.

It has always struck blues fans as darkly symbolic that Bessie Smith died in the heart of that vast, deltoid-shaped piece of floodplain known as the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, origin of what would become the most famous style of guitar blues. Actually, the Delta included several distinct musical traditions, but the one that people most identify with the region was invented in the environs of Clarksdale – the very place where Bessie Smith’s road reached its untimely end.

In the years following Bessie Smith’s death there were conflicting accounts of how she actually died. What is known is that after a late night performance somewhere in Mississippi, probably Natchez, Bessie headed for Memphis in a car driven by her boyfriend, Richard Morgan. In 1937 there were no expressways and Route 61 was a typical poorly lit, winding two-lane road. Near the outskirts of Clarksdale, in the early morning hours of that September day, their car, being driven at a high rate of speed, crashed into the back of a truck stopped on the side of the road.

A visit to this area two years ago finally gave me the images I needed to complete a poem I had been trying to write (and had even gotten published once, in an earlier version) for fifteen years.

Bessie Smith, September 1937

From here to home an empty stretch
of Mississippi mud. Step on it,
Ten years after the great flood
& everything still smells musty.
Could be
the Delta’s always like that–
overbearing sun fathering
cotton clear to the horizon,
rich black soil deeper than memory
& never a stone to throw.
The moody river & its serpent brood of bayous.

But I stay too long in any one place
& it heats up until I can hardly think
without boiling over, the fat
hits the fire & the whole
joint catches hell.

I need two bodies–the other
a refuge of Arctic relief for this
weary one, this jinxed & ginned
smoked glass-translucent skin
they spend a week’s wages to see
in the glare of gas lamps.
And the voice they skip revival for–
sure it’s mine. But the way
it takes hold of me sometimes
like a dog with a piece of old rag,
shakes me from head to foot,
I don’t know. That’s when I give
the word, hire a car
or hitch up with the next train out.

Keep moving. In all this flatness
I stand out like a bug.
But the moment I close my eyes
I’m stepping up to my house
back in Tennessee. With a sweet
soft absence of sound
I ease into the dark parlor,
my furs & silks whisper to the floor,
there’s the briefest of rattles as I slide
the deadbolt home.


Cue up Johnny Shines, “I Don’t Know”

Highway 61 was, even more than Route 66, a road to (relative) freedom. The northward migration of African Americans in the last century, flooding into the cities as economic refugees, was in many ways comparable to the earlier immigrations of peasants from Europe and China. U.S. Route 61 was the main north-south corridor between Mississippi and Chicago, and people, money, and music flowed in both directions. But even as some African American men were able finally to achieve a measure of security with a job from Henry Ford, their economic conditions remained still too marginal for many to provide for their wives or girlfriends, and those who had work as servants or cleaning ladies in the south were all too often unwilling to take their chances in a cold and alien north. In a country where employment was an essential accoutrement of manhood, the price for increased dignity and freedom was further instability in family relationships that had been fragile since slavery times.

This was the backdrop for Johnny Shines’ masterpiece, “I Don’t Know.” Again, while the lyrics in themselves are suggestive, one needs to hear Shines’ plaintive-yet-booming tenor, his understated slide guitar behind it. It is an ostensibly hopeful, even joyful, song with just a hint of melancholy about it – the opposite of “Long Old Road.”

Well I’m goin’ on the high road,
Gonna cross over on the eastern side. (2 x)
I’m gonna flag every passerby
Til someone give me a ride.

Well I’m goin’ to Chicago,
that’s what I’m gonna do. (2x)
Make a couple of paydays,
send back here after you.

When I’m gone, if you get lonesome
and you want to have some fun, (2x)
Just go on over to West Memphis, baby,
that’s where they barrelhouse all night long.

Shines grew up just south of Memphis in the northern tip of the Delta, and traveled all over the country playing music on street corners in the company of Robert Johnson. A moderately religious man, he never had much time for people who considered blues “the Devil’s music,” as he told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1992:

You want me to tell you where that all came from? It ain’t nothing but bullshit. That was told to us as a way of scaring us into never leaving the farm. Them overseers tried to prey on our religion, whenever they might see us playing guitar or mouth harp or drums or singing, they saw it as us trying to liberate ourselves, and they didn’t like it. Especially anyone who was running to another plantation to play a gig. We was freeing ourselves, and they couldn’t stand for that. So they told us that if we sang anything else but gospel music, we would die and go to hell and burn by fire and brimstone forever and all that mess. They even got our own colored preachers believing that stuff, so they preached it to us, too. Now, if a man had spent his life on earth in hell, he sure don’t wanna die and go to hell, so he changes his ways. A lot of black people got so scared to sing the blues, they would find an example within the town who was, say a bluesman, and they’d make him an outcast, call him the devil’s tool. And they invented folklore about blues musicians going to the crossroads at midnight and letting the devil himself come up and tune their guitar (laughing), and selling their soul to play the blues. It’s all a lie, just a plain lie. And when Robert made that song about ‘I went to the Crossroads and fell down on my knees/ asked the lord above have mercy/ save poor Bob if you please’ – well, that was proof to them that he done sold his soul! Boy, they really gave Robert hell in those church towns. They told him he would burn.

Then, everybody wants to know what exactly he was singin’ about in that song? It was just some old crossroads in Mississippi – I think it’s probably where the Southern crosses the Yazoo Dog [Railroad], up there in Moorehead. He was mocking the myth, more than he was fearing it.

Shines eventually got a factory job in Chicago. Despite a great voice and virtuoso command of the acoustic and electric guitar, he was unwilling to accept what he considered the humiliating demands of the recording industry. Only with his “rediscovery” by white blues fans in the late 60s did he finally enjoy a second career as a full-time musician, but he remained very much his own man. Like Bessie Smith, Shines put a premium on originality, refusing to adapt his style to conform to anyone’s stereotype, no matter how flattering. Greil Marcus described the effect of his music in a review in Rolling Stone: “Shines steps outside himself, considers his place in the world, draws you into his body, and then, still standing a few steps off, tells you where you are: where, for the moment you live . . . ”

homage to Johnny Shines

blue ribbon of tar runs by
my baby’s door where
I am bound

make a couple
of paydays
play it tight

write: here’s luck
you can bell the cat & clip
the eagle’s wing

sing: everybody
talkin bout heaven
aint goin there

prayer: in this city lord
there’s no horizon
where can I rest my eye

cry: baby
on You


Cue up the Sabri Brothers, “Kali Kamaliya Wale”

I’ve never been very good at separating the physical from the spiritual. The distinction strikes me as a little phony, despite a few, millennia-long traditions that assert an unbridgeable distance between the two. I’m not even sure that the great comparative religionist Mircea Eliade’s distinction between the sacred and the profane represents a universal truth. (Haven’t we had enough of universalizing ideologies by now?)

Nevertheless, to me, heaven remains a very potent word, more signpost than destination, pointing beyond the objectives born of shallow cravings. A strong flavor of heaven attaches to the holy aspiration itself:

Shaykh Nizam al-Din said that in Kaithal there was a saint whom they call Sufi Badhni. He was so completely ascetical that he went about totally naked. Shayk Nizam al-Din comments that according to Islamic law, any person who abstains from the minimal amount of food and water required to keep the body functioning, or who does not wear at least enough clothing to cover the body parts . . . is commiting a punishable offense, but Sufi Badhni was a saint of such high character that he was exempt from these restrictions. . . .

Sufi Badhni loved the life of prayer. He sat in the mosque in front of the mihrab and had no other occupation but offering prayers day and night. One day some ‘ulama’ came to see him, as many people used to. The shaykh queried the ‘ulama’: “Will there be prayer in paradise?” They answered: “Paradise is the abode of reward, where no desire will go unsatisfied, no need unfulfilled. Devotions are only necessary in this world.” When Sufi Badhni heard that there would be no prayer in paradise, he exclaimed: “I’ll have nothing to do with a heaven where there is no prayer,” and then he added something in Hindi not fit to repeat.

“The Life of Sufi Badhni,” Bruce B. Lawrence, in John Renard, ed., Windows on the House of Islam (University of California Press, 1998)

The poems of the 16th-century Vishnavite saint Mirabai – a Rajput princess who renounced her title and privileges to live as a wandering beggar – remind us that the attempt to locate God or heaven is in some sense a game; we might as well enjoy it.

I’m like
the cloth
that someone dyed.

I’ll go now,
play at hide
and seek to please

my lord,
wearing five
teasing colours.

When found,
I will become
one-hued with light.

With lovers
away, girls write
line upon line.

My love,
he is here

He does not leave,
he doesn’t
need to arrive.

Says Meera, I gaze
at the path day and night.

(Shama Futehally, tr., In the Dark of the Heart: Songs of Meera, HarperCollins, 1994)


Cue up Toshiro Mayuzumi, “Mandala Symphony”

What about pilgrimage, then? What is being enacted when, after many hardships and reversals, the pilgrims finally arrive at the threshold of the very image of heaven – right on earth?

The peyoteros assembled in a line, in their proper order, facing the ever-brightening eastern sky while Ramón chanted, prayed, and gestured with his plumes, until he directed them to set down their bundles. Ramón, at the head of the line, then beckond forward the first pilgrim, Carlos. Ramón squatted beside the largest water hole and taking up some in his gourd bowl removed Carlos’ hat and poured water into it. He then touched both of Carlos’ eyes with his plumes, sprinkled water on his hed, and had him drink that remaining in the bowl. The ritual varied somewhat for the primeros [first-time pilgrims]. Ramón took more time and care with them, praying over them longer. After they had drunk the Sacred Water instead of sending them immediately back to their places in line he removed their blindfolds and urged them to gaze up and behold the sacred place to which they had returned as gods. He pointed out the important features of the landscape, the places the gods had stopped and rested, eaten, sung, or talked with the animals while traveling back to their homeland. Especially affecting were Ramón’s ministrations to [his wife] Lupe at this time. He carefully led her from her place to the water and she remained motionless for a moment after he had removed her blindfold. He bade her to lift her eyes, to behold the place of the Ancient Ones, where it all began, and she did so slowly, almost reluctantly. The sun struck her face fully. She seemed transfixed and tears spread evenly down the wrinkles of her rapturous face. Seeing her thus no one could help but know that she found the Sacred Land as beautiful as she had been told all her life. . . .

Offerings were then spread out by each pilgrim, lined up, and displayed . . . With great care, each peyotero laid out or held heavenward his treasures, displaying them to the ascending sun. Impassioned prayers by Ramón told the gods that these were the offerings being brought for the hikuri. Ramón drew from his bags tortillas which he blended in his gourd bowl with some of the Sacred Water, stirring the mixture with the end of his candle, and then placed some of the resultant mixture in each pilgrim’s mouth. This was the sacred food of the First People. All prayed aloud but independently with great emotion, weeping and shouting, waving plumes and feathers and candles to the sky and in the four directions, pointing out the beauty of their gifts to the gods. Even the shyest and youngest among them, Victoria and Pablo, were outspoken and animated, imploring the deities to give them success in their quest.

The mood changed after the consumption of the sacred food. Laughter and shouts of joy replaced the weeping and praying, this because the “deities” had glimpsed their homeland and had been promised a successful return and peyote hunt. There was now much capering and cavorting. Francisco leaped about the springs like a rabbit, dazzling everyone with his agility. He had the gift of surprising people usually by looking one moment like a wizened fragile old man who would break if he moved, then suddenly and without warning leaping straight up in the air or dancing a little jig without reason. The bottles and gourds were brought out and everyone moved among the springs to gather the Sacred Water . . .

(Barbara G. Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, Cornell University Press, 1974)


Cue up Bela Bartok, “String Quartet No. 5, Movement IV (Andante)”

The months and days are wayfarers in eternity – wrote the aging poet-priest, echoing a long-ago preface to a poem by Li Bo – and as another year comes around it, too, turns vagabond. Those who float away their lives on boats or arrive on the threshold of old age leading a horse by the bit – traveling is a constant for them; they are at home wherever they end up. Many are the worthies who, in centuries past, met their deaths on the road, and for my part, it’s been years now since I first found myself unable to watch a solitary cloud drifting on the wind without succumbing to an aimless longing. Last year I wandered down along the coast, and in autumn when I returned to my hut along the river and swept out the cobwebs, I found the year already drawing rapidly to a close.

With the new year came skies filled with springtime haze, and I thought about crossing the Shirakawa Barrier into the far north. I became so possessed by wanderlust, it was as if the god of travelers himself had taken hold of me, and I couldn’t keep my mind on a single task.

So I patched up my tattered underwear, strung new cords on my bamboo rain hat, and had three moxa treatments on my legs. I couldn’t get the thought of the moon at Matsushima out of my head. I sold my patch of land and moved into temporary quarters at Sampu’s villa. When I left, I hung a poem on a post in my hut. It began,

Kusa no to mo sumikawara yo zo hina no ie.

Even a thatched hut with one turn of the wheel can become a house for dolls.

– Matsuo Basho, Oku no Hosomichi, “Narrow Road to the Far North” (1690)

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