Inside the ruins of the machine

I’ve been reading The Lost Heart of Asia, by the British travel writer (and novelist) Colin Thubron (HarperPerennial, 1994). He describes a circuit of the former Soviet Central Asian republics – the ‘Stans, minus Afghanistan – just six months after the collapse of Soviet rule.

The Uzbekistan portion seems especially poignant, considering what that country has since turned into: a dictatorship more brutal and possibly even more corrupt than it had been when the Russians called the shots. Uzbekistan now also hosts a garrison of the American empire, a major anchor for a string of bases and “forward command posts” strung throughout the region. Under the just-announced restructuring of American forces abroad, Central Asia is slated to become even more central to U.S. global hegemony. One can’t help but feel grim fascination at this complete repositioning of what had been, only a few years before, a region on the geographical periphery of Western interests.

Thubron’s “Lost Heart of Asia” has indeed been rediscovered, albeit in a manner far different from the expectations of its inhabitants when he interviewed them in 1992. The most common dream then, he found, was for a pan-Turkic empire with its capital in Burkhara or Samarkand. Pan-Islam seemed a remote and distasteful possibility, even to Muslims. Some yearned for the return of Soviet stability; others with longer memories hearkened back to the benign neglect under the czars, before forced collectivization and Stalin’s purges turned everything upside down. Environmental catastrophes present and imminent contributed to a general sense of “lostness” and malaise.

This is a part of the world where world-conquerors have come and gone with depressing regularity. Samarkand, the capital of Uzbekistan, was once the center of a vast empire founded by Tamerlane the Great. As Thubron points out, its very name has evoked the quintessence of the exotic in the Western European imagination for several hundred years. Samarkand was “the fantasy of Goethe and Handel, Marlowe and Keats, yet its reality was out of reach.” For Thubron, its ruins even now seem inaccessible, “as if a whole secret city had died within the modern one.”

The 20th-century philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari derived their crucial concept of a war machine in part from Central Asian historical models. Through war machines, the self-organizing and emergent powers in non-organic matter can be concentrated and turned upon the centralized hierarchies of states and empires; the latter attempt in turn to capture and transform war machines into armies. Tamerlane, as a Mongol and a Muslim, built an enduring war machine similar to what the Spanish conquistadors later employed against the Aztec and Inca empires: one part military, one part universalizing religion. Six centuries later, the landscape still bears witness to the monstrous imposition of his rule. Thubron writes,

I went out into the ruins of Bibi Khanum, feeling an obscure self-reproach. Even in desolation the mosque seemed to tower out of an era more fortunate than my own (but this was an illusion). Tamerlane had built it as the greatest temple in Islam. Thousands of captured artisans from Persia, Iraq and Azerbaijan had labored to carve its marble floors, glaze its acres of tiles, erect its monster towers and the four hundred cupolas bubbling over its galleries. The emperor flailed its building forward. He considered too small the gateway completed in his absence, pulled it down wholesale, hanged its architects and began again. But the mountainous vaults and minarets which he envisioned crushed the foundations, and the walls started to fracture almost before completion. People began to be afraid to pray there. It towered above me in megalomaniac reverie, raining the sky with blistered arches and severed domes. Cracks pitched and zigzagged down the walls. Tiles flaked off like skin. The gateway loomed so high that the spring of its vanished arch began eighty feet above me, and completed itself phantasmally in empty air. Gaping breaches had split the prayer-hall top to bottom, and the squinches were shedding whole bricks.

Everything – the thunderous minarets, the thirty-foot doors, the outsize ablutions basin – shrunk the visitor to a Lilliputian intruder, and peopled the mosque with giants. In the court’s centre a megalithic lectern of grey Mongollian marble had once cradled a gargantuan Koran, but its indestructibility, and perhaps its isolation from the mosque’s wrecked heart, had touched it with pagan mana now, and it had become the haunt of barren women, who crouched beneath it as a charm for fertility.

As I sat nearby, three young worldlings, urban and confident in high heels, went giggling and nudging towards it. Their shrieks rang in the ruins. Then, separately, they dropped on all fours and crawled in and out between the lectern’s nine marble legs. At first they ridiculed one another at this place where fun and superstition merged. But once unseen by their companions, creeping through the marble labyrinth, an unease descended. Covertly they touched their palms to the stone. One of them kissed it. Then they emerged, straightening their stockings, and tripped away.

Perhaps this is the best that we can wish for: that the imperial state will be crushed under the weight of its own, vast machinery. Eight centuries from now, will the ruins of oil refineries be converted to some more benign use?

See also In the twilight of empire (August 18). I cribbed the stuff on D&G’s war machine from Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary, by Mark Bonta and John Protevi (Edinburgh University Press, 2004), which you should all immediately go buy. For more on the book, see Forest time, forest space (May 25).

Barley wine poems

Yesterday afternoon and early evening I permitted myself to get a little deep into my cups for the first time since July 2, and just as I did then, I took a notebook out on the porch with me. This time I was drinking a spiced barley wine that I bottled way back in December 2002, after a year and a half in the cask (actually a glass carboy). I hadn’t been too impressed with it on previous tastings, but perhaps it just hadn’t aged enough.

I found myself jotting down short poems, or the notes for poems, with the kind of fury I can otherwise only manage first thing in the morning. Some of them don’t seem too bad. With some, I’m not sure now exactly what I had in mind. But maybe that’s all right.

UPDATE: Still revising as of Friday morning. It IS all in the editing!

A gnat falls into my wine.
I sip around him.
After a while the pin-
prick flotsam washes
against the side
& sticks fast.
Crawls all
the way up to
the rim. Inspired,
I down the rest of the wine
in two big gulps.

That gnat must not have been
a poet, to survive such
a baptism in wine. I raise
the glass it escaped from
in solemn tribute,
resolve to keep drinking
until the moon comes up.

Cicada drone. A flicker’s
namesake call. Carolina
wren’s insistent zipper.
Crickets, crickets, crickets.
The first desultory katydid.

It’s not just in my head,
this hum,
this buzz.

Drinking on the porch with
my feet propped up,
I forget myself.
What beautiful arches
you have,
I murmur.
And the toes – what fine
fat targets.
bleary half-moons
glimmer back.

Six o’clock, but
no chipmunks chipping
as they almost always do
this time of year, standing at
the mouths of their burrows.
I wonder what’s
in the news?

A breeze: red
maple leaves turn
their backs.
Aspen goes wild.
White pine whistles
through its teeth.

The bull thistle’s clock
has three faces:
stubbled green; florid
purple; white hair
falling out in clumps.
At the peak of flowering, half
of every bush is already dead.
My eye follows
a spicebush swallowtail
making its unrepeatable way
into the treetops.

In the end, the light
goes mute, retreats
one cricket at a time.
Deep in the grass, the faint
spots where glowworms
fade in, fade out.

What am I missing
by writing? What
would escape me if
I didn’t write? Wait
until it’s too dark
to write anything,
listen as the katydids
start up: first this side
then the other, night
after night.

Another glass of wine,
another drowned gnat.
God or evolution,
it’s all in the editing.

This whole
made world
is nothing but a conspiracy
between a rock and
a hard place, says
the all-night rain.

A reminder to the willful, to be the quest you seek

It wasn’t a treasure hunt we were on, you said after reading my account.

It seems the apparent quarry was incidental, a trick of my imagination – and of my poor memory for dialogue.

What were we looking for then? I asked.

Whatever happened to be there, you said.

And anyway, what we found, those flowers – I already knew they were there.

But. Now I’m no longer positive about my identification. I just don’t know whether they fall within the acceptable bounds of variation for the species.

So, no hunt!

Myotis lucifugus

The portico light had been left on, and after a while I noticed that bats had begun swooping in to catch the insects that swarmed around it. Eva and I went to the door to watch. Just as we got there, a bat flew in above us and didn’t go back out. I opened the door and looked up. He had climbed into the crack between the end of the roof and the side of the house, and had begun grooming himself. With the aid of a flashlight, this turned into quite an engrossing spectacle.

The bat – a little brown myotis, presumably a solitary male – kept his face turned mostly away from us, so that what we saw most often looked like a big-eared mouse chewing on a tiny umbrella. Only when he worked on the surface of an open wing did we get a look at his face, dimly visible through the thin membrane of skin.

The contrast between the smooth wing and the deeply wrinkled, pushed-in face seemed to suggest some elemental truth about the night, and about the sort of consciousness one must evolve to fully inhabit it. I mean, one can easily follow custom and read into a bat’s face the stamp of evil, or an eldritch wisdom. But nothing of that sort came to mind; only now, in retrospect, do judgements like these suggest themselves. We felt, I think, only a simple awe.

We watched so long, Eva started to complain of neck cramps, and both my arms got tired from holding the flashlight in turn. He spent most of his time on the wings, with only a few nibbles at his abdomen. Is this something that bats have to do every few hours to remain flight-worthy? Bat Conservation International’s website says only that

In addition to day roosts in tree cavities and crevices, little brown myotis seem quite dependent upon roosts which provide safe havens from predators that are close to foraging grounds.

So possibly the screech owl that we heard calling intermittently had been too close for comfort.

When the bat finished grooming, he turned his listening face full on me for a few seconds, then, rather than flying out the way he came, scuttled up feet first through a crack in the tiles and disappeared. It was only then that I thought to wonder if the flashlight had hurt his eyes.

The world doesn’t end

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap.

Charles Simic, The World Doesn’t End

The Queen of Noisy Things says she misses the quiet. Everyone clamors agreement. Well, almost everyone.

The president of a small company whose one plant is far from the action says, We can only compete by focusing on quality. That’s the burden this isolated location has visited on us. In return, our workers get quality of life, close to the land. The plant sits a few miles from the exact center of the country. What could be more convenient? If you stand facing north, the sound of the ocean is just about the same in either ear.

The queen muses. It can crush you, that quiet. Hanging from a rope inside a crevasse in a glacier, out of the howling wind, hearing a sudden creak from deep in the ice: an extra shiver. Or in the silence after love, with the pounding of the blood slowly diminishing in the ears. So much tenderness, a single word could ruin everything.

The plant burned to the ground. The next day, everyone showed up as usual. The president, himself a line-worker then, remembers how the workers had to first draw up their own templates. In the temporary absence of everything but faith, without the clamor of machines to come between them, they pulled together. Production resumed within a month. The fire lived on in the workers’ bellies.