Future Blues

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

with apologies to Willie Brown

The cicada rasps an elegy to metal: the future was never supposed to be anything like this. Light spilled from every surface, not merely from the heart of some minor star. Robots made calluses obsolete. Space was a growth industry in an expanding universe.

Do you remember how we used to hold each other in our tinfoil suits, swaying to the hum & throb of rockets? There were no sagging porches in the rain, then, no clawhammer banjo or bumblebees wallowing through bergamot. Food grew in a grime-free solution, unsullied by the scandal of earth.

There were trees, yes – somehow we could never imagine a stage set without a green backdrop & props of wood. But the fate of the planet no longer hinged on whether any given ant could make it back to the nest, staggering under the weight of the corpse of a fly.

Close

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

After one day with low humidity (Wednesday), it’s back to being almost unbearably close & sticky. Even thinking seems too great an effort. Frustrated, I lean back in my chair & turn my head upside-down, gazing at the ceiling until floor & ceiling trade places. How clean & uncluttered the house suddenly appears!

Outside in my garden, a monarch glides in & lands on the butterfly weed, orange rhyming with orange. After a few minutes it lifts off & lands on the budleia’s purple torch. Stained glass wings sail rather than flutter. Thanks to its larval nursing on milkweed poisons, the monarch is able to save for transcontinental journeys the energy it would otherwise have to expend on chaos – the typical butterfly strategy for evading capture.

Up at my parents’ house, a red-spotted purple clings to the kitchen screen door handle, dusting the knob for thumbprints. Its wings are tattered & faded, with three large holes torn out of the bottom edges. I picture the phoebe diving for the dark abdomen & coming up with a beak full of dry leaves. Close, but no cigar.

I’m peeling my first ripe peach of the season. The stem gone, I can see into the center where the halves of the pit have pulled apart. I hold it up to the light. It glows like the sun’s own chapel, golden yellow. But as I cut the flesh away, a mound of mold appears in each hemisphere of the pit, in size & color identical to the clumps of dust that gather in the backs of closets & under the bed.

As I walk back down to the other house, I think: closeness is something that alternately attracts and repels. Here the cockleburs, there the tear-thumb; here beggar ticks, there raspberry canes. I duck my head to dodge a wasp, swipe ineffectually at a mosquito.

Back at my writing table, I stare at the ceiling some more. This is like doing the back stroke – the only style of swimming I enjoy. Once or twice each summer it’s fun to go to some little lake in the mountains & bare my fishbelly-pale skin to the too-close sun, ears under the waterline, kicking & sculling just enough to stay afloat. It’s so quiet under the water. And the sky looks more & more like another, fully inhabitable world, so clean & uncluttered.

The peach was delicious.

New blooms

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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Sharon Brogan (Watermark) is on a roll. Her latest poem blows me away, but the two that preceded it were pretty impressive, as well. However, they are each too succinct, too all-of-a-piece for me to be able to quote less than the full poem, so please just go there and read them for yourselves.

I was also moved by two essays “writing the erotic middle-aged body”: Brenda Clews’ Portrait of the Sexuality of a Middle-Aged Woman and, in response, Dale of mole’s Shameless Flowering Temples. Parental discretion is advised: both essays contain adult themes not suitable for anyone under the age of 35.

The Great Without

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Ninety degrees in the sun. “My legs are just covered in prickly heat,” my mother complains. “In what?” “Prickly heat. These little red spots on the skin.” “Shouldn’t you call them ‘heat prickles’?” “I don’t know, that’s what my mother always said.” It’s from her, too, that my mom got her intolerance for heat. Nanna couldn’t sweat.

*

My mother had an interesting conversation with one of the Amish women where she buys vegetables. They were talking about strategies to survive the heat without air conditioning, and the Amish woman – middle-aged and unmarried, as so many in her society choose to remain – said, “Do you still get hot flashes? Not me! I got a hysterectomy.” She strode confidently back and forth across the gravel driveway in her bare feet, helping my mom carry her groceries to the car. “How can you walk so quickly on those sharp stones?” “Oh, I’m used to it. The gravel feels so cool!”

*

We were driving over to my uncle’s house yesterday afternoon for a family gathering. The conversation turned to turtles: how so many species in Southeast Asia are being decimated by hunting for the international black market. As quickly as new species are documented by scientists, it seems, they’re winking out of existence. “What’s the demand?” “Oh, Chinese medicine, as usual,” Mom said. “You know, Chinese men and their, you know.” We knew. “Sometimes it seems like everything in the world is an aphrodisiac as far as Chinese men are concerned!”

I thought about protesting the unfairness of this generalization – in fact, endangered animal products are put to a variety of uses in traditional Chinese medicine. While turtle eggs are prized as an aphrodisiac, turtle shells are thought to “nourish yin and subdue yang, and to soften hardness and disperse nodules.” And as anyone with an email account must recognize, an obsession with penis size and performance is hardly limited to the Chinese. But I was fascinated by the philosophical implications of world-as-aphrodisiac.

*

A couple hours later, I was thumbing through the latest issue of National Geographic at my uncle’s house. There’s a feature article on Zheng He, the Ming dynasty imperial eunuch who led a fleet on several voyages around the Indian Ocean and down the coast of East Africa. I had been aware of this since taking a Chinese history course in college, but I hadn’t realized just how massive the fleet had been: 300 ships carrying 30,000 men. All the ships sailed by Columbus and Vasco da Gama in their initial voyages 80 years later could have been lined up side by side on the deck of a single one of Zheng He’s ships – the largest wooden vessels ever built.

I realized as I read the article that one reason for my prior lack of interest in Zheng He’s exploits stemmed from sexist prejudice. The simple fact that he lacked a penis made me unconsciously discount the claims of his greatness. But it was sexism – the desire to safeguard the “purity” of the harem and guarantee the paternity of all royal sons – that perpetuated the tradition of royal eunuchs in the first place, and it was sexism that led Chinese emperors to continually discount the possibility that court eunuchs might have ambitions of their own.

Zheng He was a Central Asian from what is now Xinjiang Province, captured in battle at the age of 11 and castrated at 13. He rose to prominence as the military strategist for a prince who eventually usurped the throne to become the third Ming emperor, Yongle, in 1402. The principal purpose of Yongle’s grand maritime expeditions was to display the superior cultural and military prowess of China in general and his reign in particular. He ended up bankrupting the government. As the Wikipedia puts it,

[U]nlike the later naval expeditions conducted by European nations, the Chinese treasure ships appear to have been doomed in the long run (at least in the eyes of economic determinists) because the voyages lacked any economic motive. They were primarily conducted to increase the prestige of the emperor and the costs of the expeditions and of the return gifts provided to foreign royalty and ambassadors more than offset the benefit of any tribute collected. Thus when China’s governmental finances came under pressure… funding for the naval expeditions melted away. In contrast, by the 16th century, most European missions of exploration made enough profit from the resulting trade and seizure of native land/resources to become self-financing, allowing them to continue regardless of the condition of the state’s finances.

Emperor Yongle died young, and the immense monolith he had intended to erect over his tomb remains where it was abandoned, next to the parent rock – too large to move. Zheng He, his achievements downplayed by the official chronicles, assumed a position of great prominence in Chinese folk cosmology. Said to be seven feet tall in life, he was deified after death and has temples dedicated to his worship in China and all over Southeast Asia. Not bad for a religious Muslim who made the pilgrimage to Mecca during one of his voyages.

*

The National Geographic website includes a brief article about imperial eunuchs by Elizabeth Snodgrass that is worth quoting in full.

Zheng He was only one among hundreds of eunuchs in powerful positions at the Ming court. Since at least the Zhou dynasty (circa 1045-256 B.C.), official records document eunuchs in the service of the Chinese emperor. By the fall of the Ming dynasty in A.D. 1644 there were more than 100,000 eunuchs living in Beijing, reports Dorothy Perkins in the Encyclopedia of China.Why so many? At first eunuchs were in large supply because captured enemies–boys and men–were often castrated, probably to ensure the end of their bloodline. The procedure was high-risk, involving excision of both penis and testicles. Many died from the operation or complications afterward, but those who lived often became workers in the imperial harem or the harems of high officials. Later, castration was used specifically as a way to gain employment at the palace, and courtiers were even required to furnish the Manchu palace with sons to be castrated. For this elective surgery, more care was taken with the health of the patient–it is claimed that only about two in a hundred cases were fatal.

Since the eunuchs were often the only males in close daily contact with the emperor and top government officials, they gained vast political power and were able to sway the policies of the day. The Confucian bureaucrats who ran the government were in constant struggle with the eunuchs for supremacy. Over time, the eunuchs took part in imperial power plays at the highest levels, sometimes even effecting a change of emperor or running the show from behind the throne. Their power waxed and waned throughout the different dynasties, running strong in the Tang, weaker in the Song, and again quite strong in the Yuan (Mongol) and Ming dynasties.

The last eunuch to serve a Chinese emperor was Sun Yaoting, who served Henry Puyi, the last emperor. Sun Yaoting passed away in 1996.

A longer online essay, Hidden Power: The Palace Eunuchs of Imperial China, by Mary M. Anderson, explores the political and cultural underpinnings at greater length.

Down through the centuries of China’s dynastic rule, officials repeatedly memorialized the Dragon Throne, pleading that eunuch interference in state affairs be curbed. However, almost none recommended that the ancient eunuch system be abolished. This is but one indication of how deeply ingrained in Chinese thinking was the custom that allowed only sexless males to serve the Imperial Presence, the ladies of his royal family, and his thousands of concubines, all amassed together in the “Great Within” behind forbidden palace doors.It should be pointed out that Chinese dynastic histories were all written by mandarins, the educated elite who, as a class, despised the palace eunuchs. Mandarins alone were eligible to hold office in the bureaucracy, the “Great Without.” …

Much speculation exists as to why most monarchs of China so trusted their eunuchs – one emperor praised them as “creatures docile and loyal as gelded animals” – when bodily mutilation was universally abhorred in orthodox Chinese culture. Loss of limb or castration rendered a man unfit to worship before the carved wooden spirit tablets to which the ancestral souls descended during memorial services. More deplorable still, a eunuch, since he was incapable of siring sons, had no one to perform the obligatory sacrificial rites for his own soul after death. Thus, one who suffered this most shameful of deformities was deemed outside the pale of Chinese society.

The belief was prevalent that a castrato, since he would always be childless, would not covet political power and position to pass it to sons, according to the Chinese tradition. Similarly, he would have no need to accumulate riches by selling inside palace information or stealing the treasure and tribute that flowed to the imperial coffers. Yet history repeatedly proved this faith in eunuch passivity and loyalty unfounded. (Corrected for scanning errors.)

The largest junks in Zheng He’s fleet were called the Treasure Ships. Treasure (bao) was also the euphemism most commonly used for the eunuch’s severed genitalia. Anderson’s article unfortunately translates bao as “precious,” which immediately makes me think of Tolkein’s Gollum:

The severed parts, euphemistically called the pao, meaning the “precious,” were preserved in a hermetically sealed vessel, and were highly valued by the eunuch. They were always placed on a high shelf to symbolize that the owner should rise to high rank. The eunuch also treasured his “precious” because, to be promoted to a higher grade, he was obliged to first display his emasculated parts and be reexamined by the chief eunuch. If his “Precious” should be lost or stolen, at promotion time he had to buy one from the eunuch clinic, or he could borrow or rent one from another eunuch. It was also vital that the eunuch’s organs be placed in his coffin at his death in the hope of hoodwinking the gods of the underworld into believing that he was a complete man: otherwise he was doomed to appear in the next world as a she-mule.

*

Incomplete, they say of a man without a penis or a woman without a man. But to a hermaphrodite, we’re all missing something.

Source of seed, they say, but the seed forms only in the womb.

Source of power, they say. Tell it to the mules.

Thoroughly pure, they said of eunuchs in imperial China who had been castrated before the age of ten. But no man can win a pissing contest with a nine-year-old.

Recover your manhood, the ads promise, but we will never again have such erections as we did when we were boys and it didn’t matter.

Oyster, tiger penis, rhinocerous horn. But only for the pre-pubescent can the whole world become an aphrodisiac, shimmering, complete.

I ain’t superstitious

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

When my brothers and I were kids, we always used to holler “Geronimo!” in the midst of some daring leap into the hay or swing on a grapevine. I have no idea why, or what we thought would happen if we didn’t.

From comic books we learned about seeing stars after any sudden blow to the head. Since we horsed around a lot, we had plenty of opportunities. I always assumed that real rather than figurative stars were meant: if one’s natural eyesight were jarred a bit, I figured, a kind of tunnel vision would set in, allowing one to see beyond the atmosphere just as someone at the bottom of a deep canyon – so I’d heard – could see stars at noon. “Seeing stars” was the stage just before “getting your lights knocked out.” Vision must be something like a searchlight, as I envisioned it.

“Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…” I wished upon stars for years. I attributed its lack of success either to my having wished mistakenly upon a planet, satellite, jet, firefly, etc., or to my insufficient sincerity. I practiced being as sincere as possible.

Kids tend to think of the world in very concrete ways. This is often referred to as literalism, but that seems like a misnomer since the practice dissipates with growing literacy. Writing enables abstraction. Children, like people in oral societies, lack the habit of objectifying words and subjectifying things and beings. Metaphors delight them; dishonesty – breaking the intimate relationship between word and world – outrages them. And the very young conspire with the old to perpetuate ritual and tradition. Since the world is essentially arbitrary and mysterious, things should always be done as close as possible to the way they were done before.

Arbitrary and mysterious were the things we did to avoid bad luck and seek fortune. “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back!” Hear that once as a small child and, unless you despise your mother, you will avoid stepping on sidewalk cracks for years – no questions asked. As a kid, I wallowed in tragedy, convinced that this was the best way to stave off real misfortune. Perhaps someone had once used the phrase “taking your medicine” in conjunction with a well-deserved spanking; wherever the superstition came from, I was convinced that self-inflicted misery possessed a kind of homeopathic power to stave off the very real terrors that seemed to haunt every other family but ours: the house burning down, the sudden death of one or both parents.

To some extent I’m still this way. While a lot of people feel that anticipating negative outcomes is very dangerous, and are very superstitious about discussing possible misfortunes, I’m just the opposite. The Fates hate to be predictable, so anticipating ill fortune is the best way to keep them at bay. Readers of this blog should be well acquainted with my chief superstition: that things seldom happen the way anyone expects, because the world is too complex for human minds to encompass. That adds up to a belief that if we think it, it must not be true.

For the same reason, unguarded predictions of good fortune are dangerous: they tempt fate. We were always knockers on wood in my family. At a certain point, I turned it into a joke and began rapping on my own skull, but the fact remains I do still do it – or at least say it – as automatically as any Muslim says “Inshallah.” Another way to play with fortune is to manipulate one’s own desires, one’s very notion of what constitutes good and bad luck. “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” as the old saw has it. Gallows humor is still the surest way I know of triumphing over death. To think this way is to rise above our own desires, to some extent – to see ourselves as fairly inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. And isn’t that very near the core of what it means to be religious?

I’m not sure I observe any real taboos. I walk under ladders, spill salt, and ride the elevator to the 13th floor without a qualm. Black cats are, if anything, good luck as far as I’m concerned. If you want a good mouser, why pick one that’s easy to see in the dark? I have learned the hard way, though, that sharing an idea for a book or other writing project before it is fully fleshed out and at least partially completed is almost guaranteed to kill the inspiration. In talking to writer friends, I’ve found that they take similar precautions. Since inspiration is ultimately mysterious, it stands to reason that writers and artists would become as superstitious about it as baseball fans and players about the outcome of a game. Once I find a certain combination of behaviors that seem to lead to decent writing first thing in the morning, I am reluctant to change a single thing about my morning rituals.

I have never been much of a believer in signs and portents, though part of me feels as if I should be. On the one hand, it’s a way of discovering significance in seemingly ordinary or inconsequential things – not too different from what I strive to do as a poet. On the other hand, though, there’s a kind of egotism about it that repels me. I once briefly dated a woman who saw omens everywhere, in every bird call and strangely bent blade of grass. This was fascinating for a little while, but it gradually dawned on me that she was using her omen reading as a license for bizarre and erratic behavior. The world revolved around her, but she was, in her own mind, something of a marionette. Powerful, invisible forces battled for control of the strings. At least she didn’t listen to voices, as far as I know. But it’s worth wondering to what extent her belief system really differed from that of a more conventionally religious person.

“Superstition” is a funny word. When used to describe the contents of other people’s deeply held beliefs, it is offensive in the extreme, but when applied to certain, fairly trivial beliefs and behaviors of our own, it easily becomes an appropriate topic for cocktail-party conversation – or online bull sessions.

The idea of superstitions as inconsequential, personal tics is a peculiarity of modern, industrialized societies, I’m sure. To me, one of the main attributes of modernity is the virtual monopoly of the habitual. Whereas pre-modern peoples tend to view the world of the humdrum familiar as a kind of veil or illusion, for us, the awesomely complex machines and organizations that regulate and permeate our lives offer the truest measure of reality. Enchantment is a thing for Walt Disney movies and children’s books. While only one percent of U.S. residents typically describe themselves as atheists, the largest percentage of the remainder enforce strict separation between different realms of belief. Consciously held convictions about the spirit world or life after death are essentially private; everything that can’t be touched, seen or demonstrated enjoys a kind of shadow existence in the head or in some, as-yet-undiscovered alternate universe or parallel dimension.

This leaves a vast array of less consciously held beliefs and behaviors, including not only what we call superstitions, but political myths and prejudices as well. Given the uniquely pluralistic nature of religious belief in the U.S., the latter assume perhaps a greater prominence that they otherwise might. The myths that bind us together as a people include such unfounded prejudices as: We have been a uniquely virtuous nation in our good intentions toward other nations; We are a uniquely generous people, without whom the rest of the world would be even worse off than it is already; In America, anyone who really wants to can get ahead; The fondest dream of every brown-skinned foreigner is to become an American citizen.

In saying that superstitions are less consciously held, I don’t mean to suggest that they are completely unthinking. Quite the opposite, in fact: one of their defining characteristics is that, in contrast to the sort of myths just listed, superstitions are beliefs that the believer him/herself considers somewhat questionable. This is where the disenchantment I spoke of comes in. But the peculiarly modern disavowal of the mysterious is not without benefits: an ironic detachment from irrational or supra-rational beliefs may be a necessary precondition for overcoming racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry. My father always felt that his father was somewhat ashamed of his own bigoted views about black people, and tried hard not to air them in front his children.

In this vein also are curses: believed in just strongly enough to give them a kind of compulsory quality. Few people who shout “Goddamn it to hell!” believe in a literal hell, much less in the possibility of damnation – Americans believe in heaven, by and large, but not, with the exception of fundamentalists, in hell. And just as the ideology of progress has enabled the widespread discrediting of bigotry, among people who no longer inhabit a demon-haunted world, profanity spills out of its once narrow banks to form a vast but shallow sea. Cursing represents the ultimate in reductionism: you are nothing more than the sum of your urges, a cunt, an asshole, an unbeing. But cursing curses itself, because in an utterly profane universe, words are drained of meaning and curses become hoist by their own reductionist petard. Pervasive as cursing currently seems, it’s easy to believe in a dystopian future where everybody is fucked but nobody really fucks.

By contrast, when we say “Bless you!” to someone who has just sneezed, we may actually feel that such effusions of good feeling have the power to confer blessing. This qualifies as superstition because: A) it is virtually automatic; B) the underlying reason for it (belief in soul-loss) has been long forgotten, but C) we nonetheless believe it possesses some kind of efficacy, despite the fact that most people who say it would probably admit it’s “just words.” I think most if not all of what are commonly described as superstitions should meet these three requirements. As the realm of the religious slowly succumbs to privatization, such that no once-dark corner of what used to be called the soul remains off limits to analysis and exploitation, curses and superstitions constitute almost the last vestiges of authentic, vernacular religious behavior.

Nest:

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Never empty. Empty.

Chalice, ringworm, birthmark, mole.

Halo, mandorla. The oriole’s aureole.

Home made by instinct, reproducing the architecture of desire.

Mandala. Prayer wheel.

Round because the egg is round.

Round because the breast is round.

Round because the tree is round.

Round because the horizon is round.

Coiled basket. The snake’s embrace.

Gape, gullet, belly.

A big fat zero.

The kind of thing I write when I don’t know what else to write, gazing at the hairy nest of my navel.

“People say snails carry their homes around with them. But I think because they secrete their whorled calcium carbonate shells out of their own bodies and cannot be detached from them (in life) we should say snails are their own homes.

“They can close the front door with the operculum at the end of their stomach-foot.”
– ever so humble

“How alert and vigilant the birds are, even when absorbed in building their nests!”
– John Burroughs, Wake-Robin