February 2005

The working class couple at their first symphonic concert did not realize that they were paying to see a man dressed like a penguin dance with the upper half of his body. The woman likes it; the man isn’t so sure. “The music is always a half-second too slow,” he will complain during the intermission. What neither of them needs to say is that dancing is a thing for couples. During the slow movements, he puts an arm around her shoulders. When the tempo picks up, he folds his arms across his chest.

No talking or even whispering is allowed, and who the hell can tell when you’re supposed to clap? This is like being in an art museum – you don’t know how to act and everyone can tell that you don’t belong. If it’s not about feeling good and having fun, what’s the point, then? This whole thing is obviously enormously complex and requires something beyond a 12th-grade education to understand, he thinks. But the woman is impressed by the sense of something handed down essentially intact from the days when men dressed up for an ordinary night out on the town and women piled their hair on top of their heads and wore fancy gowns and all theaters looked just like this – dark green walls and gold leaf gleaming like an endless summer. She likes the quiet parts, the silences where no one claps, the lack of amplification. She is used to listening for what’s down deep, rather than simply paying attention to the ripples on the surface.

It’s like the way church used to be when she was a kid. She understands that the conductor is not performing for them; he is a servant to the music, which he merely shapes and draws out of the orchestra, out of the score in front of him the same way the priest used to pull meaning out of the Bible when it was all still in Latin. Every movement of his hand means something different. Watching him, she feels as if she can see a little ways into the future – a timeless place where nothing happens until we arrive, which we never quite manage to do this side of the grave. Something holy and even magical is taking place, like with the wine and the wafers.

When the on-stage lights go out three minutes into the third movement of the first piece on the program, no one seems especially upset. The conductor lowers his arms and the music stops almost immediately. He bows his head. The audience is absolutely silent with the surprise of it, staring into the darkness where the black-suited musicians have virtually disappeared. The light from the exits catches the polished wood of violins and violas dropping from chins to laps, like fish glimpsed at the bottom of a pond moments after you realize that something has taken the bait cleanly off the hook.

This entry is part 45 of 119 in the series Cibola

Marcos 2

Rising from his midday rest, the friar
rinses his face, tilts back the onetime
wineskin for a drink
of tepid water. A hint of sulphur.

Ye shall drink
from the cup I drink from
he murmurs in Latin, & passes
it back.

Again that dream from the wilderness
of the Old Testament:
the brass serpent God ordered Moses
to affix to a desert snag
as prophylactic for a plague of snakes–
Gaze upon it & live. This time

the tree’s a green giant, stout
buttresses armored with spines like
a church turned into an engine of war,
branches like arms bent at the elbows,
upraised–the by-now familiar gesture
signing Welcome:
we are unarmed (true),
we have nothing worth taking
(a diplomat’s strategic lie).

Just below the top there’s a hole,
a gaping hollow, where
a pair of gold coins shimmers
& blinks. The little owl
shall also nest there
he thinks,
recalling the prophet’s sketch of desolation
with a smile. Further evidence
Scripture anticipated these lands
unknown to Aristotle or Seneca.

(To be continued.)

the brass serpent: see Numbers 21:9

The little owl shall also nest there: Isaiah 34:14

For a long time no one moved across the compound. I watched the translucent fingers of the pedandas spraying pinches of incense on the blue flames of the torches.

Suddenly I heard an outcry above; I glared at the night and saw that on the mats one of the men was suffering some kind of seizure. He stood stiff on sprung legs, his arms flailing. Strong young men jumped up, caught hold of his arms and held him. A pedanda stood before him, held a handful of smoldering leaves under his face forcing him to draw in the heavily incensed smoke. He fell limp and began to sob, then leapt up with rasping shouts. Abruptly a second man sprang up twisted and shaking. Young men were at once at his sides and took hold of him forcibly but then one after another each of a dozen men on the mats were overcome by convulsions, springing up or falling forward, flogged with invisible blows. The metallic cadence of the gamelan raced between the moans and cries…..

I tried to jolt my legs into movement to escape through the gate, then fell back: a few feet in front of me a young man had pulled his twisted kris dagger from its scabbard and held it before his chest. With a cry he drove it toward his ribs; the bone seemed to stop it. He now held it upright between his thighs and screaming drove it upwards into his abdomen. Again the point of the dagger seemed stopped by the contorted flesh and did not break through. Now several other men were brandishing daggers; two of them rushed through the gate.

Alphonso Lingis, “Pura Dalem,” Abuses (University of California Press, 1994)


[Samuel to the young Saul:] And it shall come to pass, when thou art come thither to the city, that thou shalt meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a tabret, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they shall prophesy. And thou shalt prophesy with them, and be turned into another man….

And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart: and all these signs came to pass that day. And when they came thither to the hil, behold, a company of prophets met him; and the spirit of God came upon him, and he prophesied among them.

1 Samuel 10:5-6, 9-10

And Saul eyed David from that day and forward.

And it came to pass on the morrow, that an evil spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied in the midst of his house: and David played with his hand, as at other times: and there was a javelin in Saul’s hand. And Saul cast the javelin; for he said, I will smite David even to the wall with it.

1 Samuel 18:9-11


I don’t have time for a real post this morning, but here’s an old poem of mine. This is based on a story from my sister-in-law about a roommate she had back in college who used to suffer from frequent seizures, in the course of which she was sometimes visited by evil spirits. So while the voice here is my invention, the incident is real, so to speak.


he was handsome in his double-breasted suit
tall & anything but dark he made me weak-kneed
he appeared in our midst with eyes
only for me
all colors had gone out of the room

he was strong full of promises money
couldn’t buy Only say you love me
better than you love yourself
he was old

where were the colors when the room started turning
slow as the hour hand on a grandfather clock
turning like a sunflower toward his face

then i saw his suit too was alive
braided snakes basking on a white rock
my tongue stuck fast on the first syllable of Jesus

he was saying Your brothers are evil
their church is an abomination
he was saying
not to let them put their hands on my head

or pin my arms back where
my two new wings will sprout & spread
& i’ll go like a pale moth to the light
like the Prophet to New Jerusalem

until i heard very faint & far
my mother’s voice
& it was You
your uncomplicated concern was worth
an eternity of sweets

i secreted his business card in a pocket of my purse
the other cards rustled together
like beech leaves in winter
still clinging to their tall pale tree

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

In what respect are the small hours small, I wonder? You can lie half-asleep and listen to the wall clock clucking its tongue, the refrigerator humming, the furnace shaking itself awake under the floor. It’s only when you get up and switch on the light that things retreat into themselves, the ordinary smallness that carries us through the day.

Last night, though, the small hours were measured in falling flakes. Just before I went to bed, I switched on the spotlight above the porch so I could take a picture of the snow falling out of a black sky. Even after all these years out of school, this sight, with its promise of a temporary reprieve, still turns me on.

The day before yesterday I mentioned Hank Green’s essay at Wild Thoughts, where he talks about the typical friendly greeting given by a gray wolf: it licks you on the teeth. Yesterday, Hoarded Ordinaries posted a photo of Yours Truly initiating friendly contact in a similar manner. But that’s far from the only reason to read that post. The theme of meta-photography and self-reflexivity is of great interest to me, and I was struck by the very real possibility that, by not carrying a camera, I missed an entire dimension of the Central Park milieu last Saturday.

I have been reading blogs with photos for as long as I’ve been reading blogs, but I guess I never realized how compatible the two activities are – instant photography and instant publishing. With the expense and hassle of developing film out of the way, even a lazy schmuck like me can enjoy trying to capture a bit of what I see. But will the camera lead me to see differently? If so, is that a bad thing? Will it hurt my writing?

Snow was on the ground and in the air when I went out yesterday afternoon. I left the trail and right away things got interesting. The bole of a hundred-year-old oak sprouted barbed wire, and I shuffled back and forth with the camera trying to get a good shot. The batteries were low. When I turned back around, something flew up from the laurel bush right beside me and landed on a tree branch a hundred feet away: a gray-phase screech owl. I barely had time to i.d. it before it flew back in my direction and dove into a hole fifty feet up a half-dead tree. I walked over and knocked on the bark, having read once that this can sometimes make an owl poke its head out. It didn’t. I stepped back to take a picture of the tree, which stands a few feet over the line onto our neighbor’s clearcut property, but the camera refused to take one more shot. I didn’t really mind, though. It occurred to me that if I hadn’t been in search of photos, I probably never would have gone off-trail.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us At sunrise this morning I’m out again, camera in pocket. Snow is still gently falling, though the sky is half clear. In total, I think this storm has given us a good eight inches of fresh powder, just wet enough to cling to the smaller branches. The hours after a fresh snowfall, before wind and sun conspire to wipe the branches clean, are precious to me. It’s the only time between late October and early May when the woods resemble the ideal forest of my imagination, a labyrinth of lights and shadows, as teeming a profusion for the unaided eye as it would always present for the hand lens or the microscope.

I’m in search of tree beings for a Flickr album I’m planning, probably to be titled “Anthropology of Trees.” But I’m not averse to a few scenic vistas. Just as I reach the good view spot on Laurel Ridge Trail, a deer runs off, a pileated woodpecker flies from a nearby tree, and a hen turkey starts calling a few hundred yards away. Sometimes even the megafauna teems.

For the first half-hour this morning, my fingers freeze up every time I take my gloves off to snap a picture, and I have to walk as quickly as possible to keep my toes warm. Fingers and toes: that’s the mental image I get when I hear the word digital. The extremities – or most of them, anyway. I like the Mayan concept of humans as vigesimal beings – that our digits give birth to numbers that didn’t exist before we did. Anything to avoid the abyss of abstraction, I think. Can we include the other extremities in this accounting? The round head – shaved or otherwise – could stand for zero, then, and the male sex for infinity – or at least billyuns and billyuns. Little head, big head, a.k.a. forever and a day: this is that day, son, or it might as well be. It’s all in your head, as my friend Crazy Dave likes to say, but that’s where it counts.

That’s where we count, at any rate. Our necromancers have converted both sound and image into digital format, swapping homunculus for DNA, so to speak – analog for code. There’s even serious discussion now of making hand-held meters for retail taxonomy, like check-out scanners, identifying unknown life forms by reading some portion of their DNA. “Would you like paper or plastic? Thank you for shopping at Earth-Mart!” Excuse me while I go blaugg . . .

How many digits does a tree have? The sky’s the limit. Trees have a way of reminding us who we are – even if the fuckers never hug back. Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful, says the actress in the most-hated commercial ever. But for lusty braggadocio, I think I prefer goofy pop songs. Because, you know, sometimes I am too sexy for my clothes. Let’s get digital, baby, I said as I put my finger over the shutter. I’m plenty warm now. Small wonder!

This entry is part 44 of 119 in the series Cibola

Reader (6)

For a sixteenth-century European audience avid for adventure stories in exotic
places, the wanderings through oceans, rivers, deserts, and jungles were not just
traces on the face of the earth . . . but . . . events with a transcendental
significance. Indeed, explorers and conquerors wrote and designed their
narratives anticipating that allegorical meanings would be drawn from the
events. The conquistadors knew that their feats would be read as if they were in
themselves inscriptions in golden letters on the pages of history.
“Allegory and Ethnography in Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios and

Those whom God begins to lead into these desert solitudes are like the children
of Israel, when God began giving them the heavenly food which contained in
itself all savors and, as is there mentioned, changed to whichever taste each one
hungered after . . .
The Dark Night

Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new?” It has been already, in the
ages before us.
Eccl. 1:10 (RSV)

“When are you going to show us what your goddamned head looks like?” I said, and he doffed his black knit cap. Underneath it was just as I suspected: freshly shaved that morning. An odd thing to do in the middle of the winter, he admitted. But the bumps and ridges of his skull didn’t stand out as they would have on a white person; this was no bleak winter landscape. When we went out, he pulled a second cap over the first.

I thought of the phrenologists of a hundred years ago, their lying science one of the pillars of racism and eugenics. So sure were they of the superior cranial capacity of Europeans, Stephen Jay Gould tells us, they unconsciously packed the little measuring pebbles more tightly into any skull known to have belonged to someone with darker skin. The trouble is, there never was any demonstrable link between cranial capacity and intelligence. The largest skull ever measured belonged to a severely retarded man.

Last night the almost-full moon glowing through a thin cloud cover enticed me into taking a long walk down along Laurel Ridge and back up the hollow. It was very quiet, apart from the crunch of my boots in the thawed-and-refrozen snow. I couldn’t take my eyes off the yellow moon, more perfect perhaps for the veil that hid its mountains and craters. No wonder bald monastics revere the moon as a symbol of attainment – especially those whose skin is as pale as the skull beneath it. But an African monk might get the last laugh, I’m thinking, whenever the earth’s shadow blocks the sun and reveals the moon’s true face. I remember how it looked last October, that sepulchral orange.

There was no perceptible immigration of clouds from the west. It was a snow sky, thickening hour by hour like a Béchamel sauce on the lowest possible heat. When I went out again at 9:30 to empty the garbage, the moon had grown as blurry as a flashlight in the fog. By first light this morning, over an inch of fine snow had already fallen.

It’s bread day. I find myself paying attention to what my hands do as I knead, taking a generous pinch of the white flour I use to keep the dough from sticking to the board and swirling it always in a counter-clockwise direction with my right hand, then rolling the brown ball back with my left, pushing in with the heels of both hands, folding it over, giving it a half turn to the right, push, fold, turn. In less than ten repetitions the last trace of white has vanished and it’s beginning to stick again. I slide the scraper across the board and give the dough a few more kneads, but now it won’t let go of my fingers; it coats my skin.

More dusting, more kneading, until the dough reaches just the right level of resilience. Then back in the bowl it goes to rise, doubling and tripling in size within the course of an hour. Wooden spoon, wooden board, steel scraper, ceramic bowl, worn dishtowel: the bread draws charisma from plain and earthy tools.

By tonight, judging from the weather forecasts, a thick new layer of snow will erase the ground’s imperfections, burying odors, muffling all sounds. For those who live far from the woods, this storm will be just another dreary nuisance – the proverbial wet blanket. For true enchantment you need somewhere for the eye to rest: dark trunks. A scandal of limbs. In a world of pure white, they say, the Inuit hunter hallucinates moving shadows, slinking, stalking, swallowing the light.

This entry is part 43 of 119 in the series Cibola

Esteban (2) (conclusion)

An hour later he runs into his guides.
The locals say they know
the best road north. They only ask
you stay at least two nights:
it’s planting time, not everyone
can make it for tonight’s session.
You’ll need the intervening day
to sleep; the leading men clamor
for the privilege of putting you up.

Another town of brown mud houses
clustered above the floodplain–
from this distance nearly invisible
against the hills–where
his ambassador the medicine
gourd awaits. From each patient
it will take the flutter of a wrist,
the throb in a neck or flicker
of a guilty eyelid. Esteban has only
to hear & diagnose.
Less heart than liver, he muses.
A blotter pad for all bad blood.

The saint, the cross,
the paper in his pocket–these
are small voices, rarely
an audible chorus. Like his own
ears & eyes they sometimes fail.
But the gourd is as good as
the hand that holds it: & these
hands of his can talk, can read,
can draw forth the body’s secrets,
the hidden hurt.