Bathroom poems

Surveys show that the most often remodeled part of the modern American dwelling is the bathroom. Clearly, we love our bathrooms. So shouldn’t we be celebrating them in verse?

Here’s a poem I wrote several years ago (included in my manuscript Spoil), followed by thirteen shorter pieces I came up with just now. The whole collection might be entitled . . .

THRONE ROOM DIVAN

Deconstruction Site

To think they were back there
all that time
someone said

meaning the half-dozen snakes
of three different species
our bathroom remodeling project displaced

but my own thoughts kept dwelling
on that huge nest of razor blades
in the wall where the mirror had been

*

We propped up the roof and ripped
the bathroom walls out
keeping the fixtures intact
so that the shower stall
stood fully exposed
to the breeze and blowing rain
for half that summer

Ah
whatever else might happen
in this lifetime I’ll never have
a better bathroom

***

A small turd floats
in the otherwise clean toilet bowl
like a persistent doubt.

***

My new low-flush toilet
is less than commodious.
Every morning I register
a fresh complaint.

***

Her brand-new bathroom’s
feng shui is perfect:
the floor-to-ceiling mirror
fogs up immediately.

***

Not to sound callous, but
what I remember most is
how large & soft her guest
towels were.

***

The old guy in the rest stop’s
ultra-modern men’s room takes
a long time zipping up,
stands there looking all over
for something to push.

***

The graffito might just
as well have read,
“Everybody Meditates.”

***

I sat on the crapper eating a sandwich.
Hey, it happens.

***

In the men’s room at the public library
someone reeking of body odor
moaned & howled with abandon
in the only stall.
I pissed as quietly as I could.

***

Why would anyone name a kid “John”?
He’ll get shat on, his girlfriend will write
to tell him she’s found someone else,
he’ll end up paying
for anonymous sex.

***

Across from the toilet
in a spider web near the floor
a trapped millipede coils, uncoils.

***

Three million households in New York City
and every one has an intermittent stream
flowing through it.

***

At the back-to-nature jamboree
hundreds of kids independently decided
to go squat in the creek
when they had to potty.

***

If I ever install a composting toilet,
I’ll have to get one of those
New Age desktop fountains with
the little pebbles in it.

***

The old privy.
A turd falls in.
No sound of water.

The blossoming world

The philosopher Paul Ricoeur concludes his exhaustive (and exhausting) study of metaphor (translated as The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning, University of Toronto Press, 1977), as follows:

What is described here is the very dialectic between the modes of discourse in their proximity and their difference.

On the one hand, poetry, in itself and by itself, sketches a ‘tensional’ conception of truth for thought. Here are summed up all the forms of ‘tensions’ brought to light by semantics: tension between subject and predicate, between literal interpretation and metaphorical interpretation, between identity and difference. Then these are gathered together in the theory of split reference. They come to completion finally in the paradox of the copula [e.g., “is”], where being-as signifies being and non-being. By this turn of expression, poetry, in combination with other modes of discourse, articulates and preserves the experience of belonging that places man in discourse and discourse in being.

Speculative thought, on the other hand, bases its work upon the dynamism of metaphorical utterance, which it construes according to its own sphere of meaning. Speculative discourse can respond in this way only because the distanciation, which constitutes the critical moment, is contemporaneous with the experience of belonging that is opened or recovered by poetic discourse, and because poetic discourse, as text and as work, prefigures the distanciation that speculative thought carries to its highest point of reflection. . . .

What is given to thought in this way by the ‘tensional’ truth of poetry is the most primordial, most hidden dialectic – the dialectic that reigns between the experience of belonging as a whole and the power of distanciation that opens up the space of speculative thought.

I suppose most readers can intuitively grasp what Ricoeur means by “distanciation”: in less precise language, we can see that speculation and analysis presumes a distance between the thinker and the object of his/her thought.

In my notes on this passage, I expanded upon Heidegger’s metaphor for metaphor as a blossoming (which Ricoeur earlier had cited favorably). “The ‘flowers’ of our words – Worte, wie Blumen – utter existence in its blossoming forth.”

Probably neither philosopher was aware that this metaphor for the poetic word has an ancient pedigree in the New World, especially in Uto-Aztecan languages. However, in these mostly oral traditions, the reigning dialectic was between song and narrative, not poetic and speculative thinking. And the sung world was imagined to exist in tension with the no less “real” or sacred world of the stories. The world of songs is the blossoming landscape, an essentially static utopia, whereas the world of stories is glimpsed as a series of unfolding paths, “the inventory of useful landscape items that lie along the way traveled by beings of the creation time, and landforms on which they left their mark,” as anthropologist Jane H. Hill puts it (“The Flower-world of Old Uto-Aztecan,” Journal of Anthropological Research,” vol. 48, 1992, 117-144). Such beings, however, sing their thoughts in an eternal present of dream and vision. As in many ancient traditions, songs make the long ago blossom forth in the present. The explicit association of flower and song is very strong in Nahuatl, Huichol, Yaqui and Piman languages.

I wonder if we can propose the analogy that poetic thinking is to speculative thinking as flower is to fruit or seed. Poetic thinking, Ricoeur suggests, means “seeing things as actions . . . seeing them as naturally blossoming . . . Signifying things in act would be seeing things as not prevented from becoming, seeing them as blossoming forth. But then would not signifying things in act also be signifying potency, in the inclusive sense that stands for every production of motion or of rest?” Deciding in the affirmative, Ricoeur proclaims that “the task of speculative discourse is to seek after the place where appearing means ‘generating what grows.'” Pollination, fertilization, sex: it seems there is no escape from these primordial metaphors for poetic creation, even if the pre-modern analogy between sperm and seed was inaccurate.

Whatever the validity of Heidegger’s claim to have gone beyond Western metaphysics (which Ricoeur strongly disputes), his use of ancient metaphors (light, ground, home, way/path) does seem to license comparisons with non-Western and pre-modern speculative traditions. Here’s Hill again:

Among groups which exhibit the full development of the Flower World complex, the spiritual aspect of anything that has vital force or spiritual importance can be captured by referring to it as a flower or flowery. The Flower World is the realm of heroes in their creative aspect, and the spirit ways along which they travel are “flowery roads.” . . . In Huichol, the Flower World is the Wirikuta of the peyote hunt, the land of ultimate beauty, where the spirits of deer and corn are imminent and which is entered by human beings through a peyote journey. This pilgrimage involves a language of ‘reversals,’ in which the moon becomes the cold sun, dusk becomes dawn, sleep becomes waking, and the sacred peyote is called ‘flower.’

Here we might glimpse what Borges was getting at with his contention that “Life is a dream” transcended mere metaphor. But this also points toward the realm of the sacred clown and of euphemism in general. My final reaction to Ricoeur’s study is to lament his complete neglect of comic inversion and euphemism as a psycholinguistic basis for metaphor. If the vitalistic conception of reality, which Aristotle evoked with the term phusis, no longer seems tenable, we ought at least to be able to draw upon the insights of anthropologists and evolutionary biologists. Language and metaphor are the tools of a gathering-hunting species. In the hunt, in the conversion of other into self, we can see “the tension between identity and difference” at its most radical. The ancient covenant between human being and other being requires both inversion and conversion. In the Uto-Aztecan analysis, the mortal wound is seen as a kind of blossoming. The songs sung by hunters to their prospective quarry and by shamans to their spirit familiars are intended, first and foremost, to enchant, to beguile. Metaphor appears first as a disguise, a sacred mask. A systematic poetics should begin with this insight.

Ricoeur does attempt to link “the properly sensual aspect of the image to a semantic theory of the metaphor” in a very interesting section called “Icon and Image.” “Like the icon of the Byzantine cult, the verbal icon consists in this fusion of sense and the sensible. It is also that hard object, similar to a sculpture, that language becomes once it is stripped of its referential function and reduced to its opaque appearance. Lastly, it presents an experience that is completely immanent to it.” This description fits equally well the functioning of a mask or fetish.

Ricoeur concludes his meditation on icon and image with a consideration of “a phenomenolgy of imagination.” He cites Gaston Bachelard’s theory of image, not as “a residue of impression, but an aura surrounding speech.” Imagination can reach beyond metaphor – behind the mask –

because it follows the path of ‘reverberation’ of the poetic image into the depths of existence. The poetic image becomes ‘a source of psychic activity.’ What was ‘a new being in language’ becomes an ‘increment to consciousness’ or better ‘a growth of being.’ Even in ‘psychological poetics,’ even in ‘reveries on reveries,’ psychism continues to be directed by the poetic verb. And so, one must attest: ‘Yes, words really do dream.’ [Quoting from Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie]

__________

For more on aura, icon and image, see The art of living. For more on sacred clowns, see Houston, we have a problem… This post continues an examination of metaphor begun in Learning language, learning poetry and continued in last Friday’s post, Chasing shadows. See also The world of the riddle.

Red shift

You know the expression, “I wouldn’t do x if you were the last man/woman on earth”? Well, for some time now I have been haunted by the image of that last woman. The lighting is abundant, and not particularly flattering. Minicams in every corner of the apartment record her as she dictates her thoughts into her audio blog, takes snapshots for her photo blog, writes about her feelings for her poetry blog. Everything is on the record. The only sad part is that nobody’s watching but me; everybody else is too busy doing the same thing.

Her name, I think, is Morn, though she goes by Dust Angel. Her trademark costume is a rather plain, sleeveless red shift. She believes fervently that the unexamined life is not worth living, though she admits that over-analysis makes her uncomfortable. Her favorite color is green. She is a Libra.

What else? Well, she appears to have a lover, a hulking tech support guy without any speaking parts. You might spot him occasionally looming over the mousepad or fiddling with the minicams for better angles – or for poorer in the event of sex, which is somewhat downplayed. Nudity is definitely part of the routine, though it verges on mere nakedness, an attribute of such existential acts as changing clothes, exercising or sunbathing on the floor. Morn does this every afternoon, curling up like a cat on a broadloom rug encircled by snaky electric cables and watched over by an odd assortment of mannequins and dressmaker’s dummies, vintage apparel draped on timeless hip.

The future has arrived, and it is boring. Where now is the vibrating ether so cherished by pre-war pulp science fiction authors? Ancient cover girls in skin-tight space suits now crumble at the touch, tragic victims of an acid overdose. Those child-women must’ve foreseen some such fate: their lips spelled unvarying o‘s of horror regardless of the threat, even from aliens as unlikely as the two pug dogs that live with Dust Angel. The poor things can’t even bark, are too dumb to hump a leg. They were bred to evoke the quintessentially feminine Japanese squeal ka-wa-eeee, which connotes approximately equal measures of lovability and infantility.

And which, in a way, describes the appeal of this particular eventuality, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, here we have all loose ends of the ballyhooed future at last tied up – or rather, cross-stitched. One veil for bride and widow alike, one screen for all media, like Alice’s looking-glass. It’s not like that movie the Truman Show where the guy is an unwitting star of the soap opera of his life, because in the first place there’s no drama per se, and in the second, the “star” is fully aware and in control of everything. She is like a god, really, a child who has the run of the nursery and will never grow up.

The ether alone knows how such harmony plays out among the spheres, whether it can even reach the ever-receding, ever-more-isolated celestial bodies that once made us grasp for something like an outer space, a red planet. At the speed of light, thinking becomes impossible. Time is a terrible gift to do without.

Heart’s Content

My second maxim was to follow resolutely even doubtful opinions when sure opinions were not available, just as the traveller, lost in some forest, had better walk straight forward, though in a chance direction; for thus he will arrive, if not precisely where he desires to be, at least at a better place than the middle of a forest.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

The buzzy songs of half a dozen species of wood warblers accompany my surfacing from the shallow waters of an uneasy night’s sleep. What in the world could possess an otherwise fairly sane human being to spend ten dollars a night for the privilege of sleeping on the ground? It’s 5:30 on an overcast Sunday morning in the Heart’s Content campground of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, “Land of Many Uses.”

I fire up my backpacker’s stove, boil water and, with the help of a cloth filter, turn myself into a percolator machine: drip, drip, drip at about the same speed the coffee will exit my body an hour later. The trees still drip from yesterday afternoon’s soaking rain.

The mostly full campground is quiet. I can’t get over being amazed at how many people, some of them not even active outdoor recreationists, will go to such trouble to get out in the woods on a rainy weekend. I admit that this is a pretty nice spot, as campgrounds go. Though bordered on three sides by a 45-year-old red pine plantation, the campsites themselves are tucked into a maturing deciduous forest, each with just enough vegetation around it to lend an impression of privacy and intimacy. I think about how most of the time that people spend in public lands is devoted to doing fairly simple things: eating, sleeping, tending campfires, walking or driving around, looking at stuff.

By contrast, the official management philosophy of national forests stresses Multiple Use, with a strong bias toward economically productive activities. In the Allegheny, this includes primarily logging (especially of black cherry, a fast growing, first-succession species prized by the furniture industry) and oil and natural gas drilling. The Forest Service also favors high-impact, industrial recreation, especially on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles. Yet statewide surveys show that most outdoors-oriented people can’t stand the noise and (in the case of ATVs) the destruction caused by these machines, which represent exactly the sorts of things that the average forest “user” goes to the woods to try and escape. Surveys also show most people are against commercial timbering on public lands, even though its cessation is currently outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.

I wonder, as I drink my coffee, whether it would be possible to start a movement to counter Multiple Use that would advocate “no use, just appreciation”? I guess the way to sell people on an alternative philosophy like that would be to emphasize the extent to which wild places should be above and beyond all considerations of utility and profit. Then I remember the unofficial slogan of the Rainbow Tribe, which a few years ago held its annual gathering just about a mile from this spot: “Welcome home,” they say. Imagine if that were written at the bottom of every National Forest sign, in lieu of “Land of Many Uses”!

But the forest is a very different kind of place for humans to come home to. When we try and impose our own aesthetic values, the results can be frightening. Leaving the campground for an early morning walk, I cut through the pine plantation and am able to walk in a perfectly straight line between rows of virtually identical trunks to reach the parking lot on the other side of the road. There is almost no ground cover, only a scattering of star flowers and a couple small patches of hayscented fern. From one patch a fawn leaps to its feet and clatters awkwardly away, visible for many hundreds of feet in this unnaturally uniform, Cartesian space.

I’m surprised to see a total of eight vehicles in the parking lot, which also serves a trailhead for the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area, the only area so designated in this national forest (except for a few, tiny islands in the Allegheny River). It’s a fairly unexceptional stretch of forest; the fact that so many people are backpacking through it on a rainy weekend testifies to the magic of the word “wilderness,” with its implicit promise of ultimate escape.

For me, however, the allure was the 120-acre old-growth remnant at Heart’s Content – and the more than 4,000 acres of old growth contained in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, where we planned to spend the rest of the day. We had botanized happily in Heart’s Content for several hours the previous afternoon; now I simply wanted to discover whether it’s possible to get lost in such a small tract of old growth. It is!

When I return to camp an hour later, refreshed by the rich sights, smells and sounds of a natural forest, I’ll be surprised to find I’ve been sapped of enthusiasm for theorizing about forest values – or much else. In fact, I’ll be uncharacteristically taciturn for much of the rest of the day. I realize I may be a little more impressionable than most people, but once disoriented, I find it difficult to re-orient, even after many hours of hiking and successful pathfinding in the Tionesta. A day later, back on my own front porch, things will still seem a little “off” to me; I’ll be struck by the oddness of the straight line of the driveway against the edge of the woods, for example.

I’ll still be puzzling over how, when I left the loop trail in Heart’s Content determined to “walk straight forward . . . in a chance direction,” I could’ve ended up back on the same section of trail I left – still inescapably “in the middle of a forest.”

But unlike Descartes, I am perfectly happy to be here. “Trees, trees, murmuring trees!” sings the black-throated green warbler. The long and endlessly supple call of the winter wren is a rare treat, and I could listen to the piping of the hermit thrush all day. So whence this nameless clutching in my chest, whence this hollow thudding, this clatter of hoofs?

It’s not over ’til . . .

Today, a truncated post; tomorrow, nothing. I may make a pattern of this. It turns out that reading this blog may be hazardous to your health. Specifically, “‘Toxic dust’ found on computer processors and monitors contains chemicals linked to reproductive and neurological disorders, according to a new study by several environmental groups.” There’s no known preventative action you can take – other than to minimize the time you spend in front of a computer monitor. Clearly, blog-reading, like all addictions, has harmful and possibly deadly side effects.

A couple days ago, Dale over at Vajrayana Practice wrote about another environmental consequence of the computer age – the loss of natural habitat and “open space” in places like the Seattle suburbs where he works. His post about about how it feels to go for a lunchtime walk in this strange, half-built exurban landscape reads like a chapter out of The Martian Chronicles.

I remember an article from a couple years ago on Santa Clara Valley, a.k.a. Silicon Valley – I think it might have been one of Ted Williams’ “Incite” columns in Audubon. It seems that this valley was once famous throughout California for its orchards and truck farms – a paradisiacal wonder, with some of the most fertile soil in the world. Now, it boasts the densest concentration of superfund sites in the United States. I’m reminded of the prophetic words of the mid-century California poet Robinson Jeffers: “Man would shit on the morning star if he could reach it.”

****

A memorable fancy: the solemn procession of Ivy League graduates in their caps and gowns, led by the scarlet-robed PhD candidates and followed by the black-gowned undergraduates and Masters. Phalanx after phalanx marches onto the field as the emcee announces the name of each program and college. Cheers, balloons. Finally, an almost-hush falls over the crowd as the president of the university introduces a special guest. Straight off the plane from Papua New Guinea, the commencement speaker makes his way between the columns of students like a general reviewing the troops, eyeing with an anthropologist’s detachment the bizarre accessories with which some students have chosen to decorate their mortarboards, the bird-of-paradise plumage in which the soon-to-be-doctors are bedecked. Naked save for his body paint and the penis gourd fastened circumspectly to the string around his waist, he mounts the stairs, rests his stone-tipped spear against the podium, waits for the emcee to adjust the microphone and then, in a low, deliberate voice, begins to sing.