Under the leaves, a chorus
like strings: Don’t flinch.
Don’t join in. …something
that I know so thoroughly I can’t
imagine or describe it, though it fills
my eyes. And the birds with those long
white necks? Lust— like love lost—
was the catalyst: exquisitely expedient,
unchanged. Then heat. Then rain—
*A Cento is a poem made up of parts from other works; late Latin, from Latin, patchwork garment; perhaps akin to Sanskrit kanthā, patched garment; first known use: 1605 (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
Source texts of lines in this cento: Deborah Paredez, “Wife’s Disaster Manual;” John Koethe, “Book X;” Billy Collins, “Report from the Subtropics” (Poetry, September 2012)
Yeah, so “Love after 40” got upgraded by a decade and envideoed. The 1912 vaudeville clip is in the public domain, and comes courtesy of the Prelinger Archive of ephemeral film. The music by Mick Kelley (A.K.A. Ecklecticmick) is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence. It’s a revamped “electroswing” version of an Ella Fitzgerald tune, “When I Get Low I Get High.” Rachel Rawlins kindly agreed to do the reading. It must be said that neither she nor I have yet to dress and act quite like the characters in the film, though I suspect that that’s kind of what some young people see when they catch sight of our graying hair and deeply uncool mannerisms.
Lightning roots deep into the sand,
donning an instant sheath of glass:
a seemingly pointless exercise in self-glove.
Clap of thunder.
Could it be, though, that radiance tires of itself?
Nowhere in the alleged blackness of space
is there any relief from the ticking,
pulsing, clusterfucks of stars
except on cold planets.
Who can blame lightning
for burrowing in like a tick?
Even we humans, full of darkness as we are,
go on pilgrimage to the ocean,
dream of girls with gills,
get buried up to our necks in sand
or swim with porpoises, whose
capacity for joy we suspect
of exceeding our own.
We go back to the sea like adopted children
paying a visit to our birth mother,
hoping that she’ll show some sign
she regrets giving us up:
some whelk, some dead star.
We tell prospective partners how
we love long walks on the beach
because it’s the deepest thing
we can think to say.
But only someone who knows the shore
well enough to recognize what she doesn’t know
will stop to pick up an odd
sandstone lump, & find
that it hides black glass.
She’ll sight through the short smooth tube,
hold it up to the sun like a sextant.
Zero buyers till now, for our old home in the middle of the city—
You wrote, too, how in the last monsoon, there was hardly a dry spot:
xerox copies of leaks in every room, even inside the closets.
When we first moved there in ’63, you said there was a frame of
varnished mahogany hanging in the foyer; a portrait,
unexpected— the former president of the Commonwealth,
tints brightening on dull canvas after dusting and
scrubbing lightly with a cloth. Where is it now? In those days,
rain also fell for months on end. The neighborhood below Rock
Quarry always flooded every year. Lining up for relief goods,
people shivered in queue at the barangay health center:
oil, rice, sardines, powdered or evaporated milk for babies.
No one knows when the area first came to be known as The Lagoon.
Mostly “squatters” there— meaning, people setting up homes on
land they did not own; they reasoned, who else would build there,
knowing how flood-prone and inhospitable it was each season?
Just think of that kind of transience, living in a danger zone.
I remember how we used to pull our mattresses into the living room,
huddle in the dark of power outages. Sans batteries, candles threw
garish shapes on walls as our hands put on puppet plays—
fanned-out butterfly wings, a bird, a dog’s barking head.
Evening stretched into the long uncertainty of night.
Do you remember how every sound was magnified?
Candle wax pooled on the floor and hardened.
Bright sweeps of sudden light from trucks on the road;
arcs of memory on a more interior windshield.
Ten books and three forthcoming books later—poetry, novels, and several fantasies for children—I can say that I do not regret my decision. I lost a good deal of security and salary, and I fell from the academic realm of writers, but I gained freedom to do exactly as I liked in words. No book I wrote would be needed for promotion or merit pay. I could strive as I liked, and could spend months in a way that might seem wasteful to others but was the path forward for me. I had no need to throw myself into print. As a young poet, and later as a poet and writer of stories and novels, I had no need to think better of my work than it deserved at the time.
This morning I decided it was time to remove Netscape from my PC. I hadn’t used it since 2006, but it was still patiently sitting there in my hard drive, all 29 megabytes of it, like a faithful hound that’s grown much too old to hunt. When I clicked “remove” on the Windows XP Add or Remove Programs utility, it generated its own sad screen, with “Netscape Browser Uninstall” in generic serif italics in the upper left corner, white on blue, as if it were trying to remind me of the good old days of WordPerfect 5.0, acoustic couplers and AOL. “Don’t you want to go for one more run around the field?” Sorry, old boy. It’s time for you to go to sleep and hunt rabbits in the blue screens of heaven.
Truth to tell, I never used Netscape very much, because I didn’t spend much time online before 1997, by which time Internet Explorer already seemed like a better option. But it mediated my first introduction to the World Wide Web: on a monitor in my brother’s basement office at Cornell back in 1995 or 96. As we waited for the page to load, the little animated icon of comets passing a rapidly spinning planet caught my eye, as it was meant to — something to stare at while data slowly crawled in over the telephone line, with the not-so-subtle message that this is the future, we’ve arrived. From Mountain View, California to the outermost reaches of the atmosphere, it was nothing but blue-black skies from now on.
The architects of the first mass-market web browser were very conscious of metaphor. The Wikipedia quotes an article from Macworld, May 1995:
Netscape Communications wants you to forget all the highway metaphors you’ve ever heard about the Internet. Instead, think about an encyclopedia — one with unlimited, graphically rich pages, connections to E-mail and files, and access to Internet newsgroups and online shopping.
But who would write those pages? Who would build that wondrous new netscape? Microsoft won the first browser war (as geeks sententiously call it) by giving their product away, a foretaste of much to come. What they couldn’t have known was that users would not be content to merely explore the internet, and that profits would not be the main motivator of those who would go on to create not only most of the best and most useful content on the web, but also the open-source code that now runs a great deal of it: Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, WordPress, and of course Firefox, which is my main browser these days. That much neither Microsoft nor Netscape could have foreseen. But every time I upload files to Dropbox, Vimeo, Flickr or Google Docs, I am in a way indebted to Netscape’s starry-eyed vision:
Netscape advertised that “the web is for everyone” and stated one of its goals was to “level the playing field” among operating systems by providing a consistent web browsing experience across them. The Netscape web browser interface was identical on any computer. Netscape later experimented with prototypes of a web-based system which would enable users to access and edit their files anywhere across a network, no matter what computer or operating system they happened to be using.
These days we have a new metaphor for that. We call it the cloud.
Love after 50 doesn’t make the pop charts.
It’s too absurd.
Absurd as ice cubes settling in a glass
when one pours hot coffee over them,
shedding their sharp edges.
Absurd as the day-time ghost
of one’s breath on a cold morning.
Absurd as the smell of soil after a rain—
why should mere dirt outdo all other odors?
Absurd as grinding steel on
a wobbly bench grinder with a corroding belt,
that hair of sparks,
the pleasant way they prickle against the skin.
25 August 2012: Changed title from “Love After 40,” “50” seeming more resonant.
to take heart, invigorate, freshen, turn (a sail) by means of a brace:: to make stronger, reinforce, fasten tightly, bind against the wind; to fathom— against the nervous trees and their supply of questions— the lifting fog, the grace of a few thistles by the road. What is the length of a day? Two arms can measure only so much. But obey:: lift your head against the haze of cool blue clouds. Here’s the scope of what might be achieved:: perhaps not so much to bend ends back to their beginnings, as to stroke repeatedly until the needle points back to steady.