Solitude . . . bears us away
Into its icy comforting, our pain and our happiness.
– Charles Wright, “Half February”
I have been cold. All day yesterday & the day before my hands stayed warm to the touch – or so I would imagine – but inside, behind the knuckles & at the base of the thumbs, a spreading numbness. My enormous kneecaps have begun to ache, poor things, even under long johns. When I climb the stairs they make audible clicking noises. They feel as if they might come unattached, somehow.
Equinox. Who’s there? In last night’s dream, a random remark prompted the poetry teacher to assign the making of masks – right now, drop everything! Some were carved & painted, some forged, some molded in clay or – like mine – built up with flour paste and strips of yesterday’s news. They were glorious.
I find myself longing for another cigarette – it was just this time of year I stopped smoking back in 2000. The cloudless mid-September sky seeps in through every pore. I sit in the woods & listen to the oak trees tapping everywhere with their acorn mallets.
The best tones come from things that are the most hollow: logs, of course, but also certain flat rocks with ant or termite galleries underneath them. Sometimes an acorn strikes another acorn on a lower branch & one hears a rapid tick-tock as both hit the ground.
I watch a mourning cloak butterfly glide from one patch of sunlight to another, dark brown/magenta fringed in white lace. This one will over-winter, I know, will find a suitable piece of bark to crawl behind & let itself freeze solid, the glycerol in its blood keeping ice crystals from growing in the narrow cave of its heart. I’ll see it again on the first warm day in March, wings duller, flight path more erratic.
A chipmunk clucks from six feet away, standing erect like the world’s smallest grizzly. It stares right through me until I begin to question my own presence. A doe and its almost-grown fawn drift in and out of sight among the laurel, chewing loudly. Archery season begins in little over a week.
I decide to stay put until the oaks can incorporate me into their on-going composition. My body’s own distracted percussionist slows to match the chipmunk’s insistent metronome. My scalp begins to tingle, anticipating its Chicken Little moment. With what tact, I wonder, will an acorn strike – a sound I hope to hear inside & out? Or maybe it will merely test for a reflex, a one-two tap on these knees I hug to my chest . . .
Another clear, cold morning. The leaves of the red maples across the driveway are beginning to turn, and up in the woods the black gum understory glows yellow and orange, a foretaste of glory soon to come. The water in the stream has finally returned to normal after last Friday’s thirty-year flood, revealing newly carved, raw banks, sand and gravel bars, and even some new waterfalls.
This morning I am afflicted with a kind of restlessness I rarely feel at other times of year, a sort of map hunger. It is not specifically a travel bug, though certainly hopping in a car – if I had one – and following back roads all day would be one way to assuage it. Exploring more intimate landscapes – if I had a significant other – would be another way. Instead, I shall attempt to distract myself with the usual mixture of busyness and woolgathering.
It has always struck me as a bit sad that the coloring of the understory doesn’t play a bigger part in most peoples’ autumnal narratives. In another couple of weeks, those who can spare the time will drive north, perhaps to Pine Creek Gorge (a.k.a. the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania), to goggle at maples and birches in their fall plumage. But in my view, the obvious colors of those young forests can’t hold a candle to the range and subtlety of black gum, found widely as a sub-canopy tree here in the oak forests of central Pennsylvania. Whether or not the oaks themselves will color up properly is always impossible to predict; when they do, the deep, earth-toned reds and oranges provide a pleasing contrast with the incandescent sugar maple and dependably yellow tulip trees and elms. But by then the black gums will have shed their leaves, opening up the understory just in time for the witch hazel to show off their pale yellow blossoms against the year-round green of mountain laurel.
For many of the forest’s most charismatic inhabitants, of course, “the story is the understory,” as the title of a local conference for forest landowners put it a few years ago. Though foresters shudder at the thought of a future forest dominated by commercially useless species like black gum, the fact is that their many lateral branches, abundant fruit and (eventually) generous hollows provide numerous benefits to many species of songbirds and mammals. The dominance of black gum is of course unnatural – like virtually every aspect of present forest composition. Or, to put it differently, it represents a natural response to highly unnatural conditions, especially the regeneration of an even-age forest following the virtually complete clearcutting of the state a hundred years ago, and the absence of top predators and other keystone species and processes (especially wildfire and the passenger pigeon). Severe overbrowsing by white-tailed deer has created unnaturally open, park-like woods throughout much of Pennsylvania; ridgetop oak-heath forests are among the few communities where some sort of understory and even limited regeneration of canopy species has continued, thanks largely to the protection that mountain laurel thickets afford to tree seedlings.
I have dwelt on these themes here only once before that I can remember. That’s one of the most prominent ways in which Via Negativa does not fairly represent my day-to-day thinking, which is haunted by specters of environmental degradation on a daily if not hourly basis. An amusing – and, I thought, highly flattering – comment yesterday prompted the realization that, yes, this blog functions as a refuge of sorts for my most handicapped, maladapted and ill-begotten musings. An asylum, you might say. In response to yesterday’s brain fart about calla lilies, Leslee wrote, “You are completely insane, ya know. And the weird thing is, after reading your blog I sometimes start to think in a similarly warped way. But just for a few minutes. I don’t know if this is good or bad. Probably both.”
But I’m not like this in real life, honest! Or am I?
I wrote up our September 11 “Poets for Peace” reading for a local, alternative newspaper yesterday at the urging a friend, who is helping them get through a difficult transition period between editors. It would have been a little awkward, I felt, for the moderator to try and write a piece of objective journalism, so I cast it instead as an editorial. I had planned to try and quote a few lines from almost everyone who read, but that didn’t work out. The first few paragraphs described the rationale and modus operandi, which will be familiar to readers of my original blog post about it. I went on to quote from a couple of the readers whose work I thought would most resonate with a general audience. But for y’all, let me just quote from the conclusion:
Two different readers opened with poems by Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great 13th century Afghani-Persian poet and mystic. But possibly the most haunting of the afternoon’s poems were those of Lee Peterson, the “Emerging Poet-in-Residence” at Penn State’s Altoona College, from her just-published Rooms and Fields: Dramatic Monologues from the War in Bosnia (Kent State University Press, 2004). Reading in a quiet voice, barely above a whisper, Peterson channeled voices like that of Sabiha, in “The National Library”:
I had decided to study history at university
the day the library started burning.
I was loaded down with books on my way to my parents’ home.
People darted. They jerked like fish
caught on a huge, dry stone. . . .
As this, the lead poem in Peterson’s book, reminds us, written words are among the first casualties of war. Even in the United States, it is becoming increasingly easy to imagine a future in which certain forms of expression are banned; under the so-called Patriot Act, libraries and librarians have already witnessed government-sanctioned assaults on our constitutional rights. I don’t think any of us who organized the “Poets for Peace” reading expected that it would be controversial, and we sent out press releases in good faith. Thus, for me, one of the biggest surprises of the afternoon – aside from the high quality of the readings – was the complete lack of coverage by the local press. That evening, I perused the September 11 edition of the Centre Daily Times. It contained a special feature on “What the Flag Means to Me.”
I worry that the meaning of September 11 will be increasingly confined to themes of patriotic martyrdom and wounded pride. In the future, will American schoolchildren remember the World Trade Center attacks the way Serbian schoolchildren remember the disastrous Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century? As poets, I feel we have a special responsibility to honor all points off view and give voice to all perspectives in order to forestall the tyranny of a single, acceptable interpretation. Lee Peterson’s “Kosovo Polje: The Field of Blackbirds,” imagines what such a reduction has meant for this archetypal battlefield, the ground zero of Serbian epic poetry:
. . . even the worms found new homes.
Now only crows play in the weeds
or watch from the swinging heads of pines
while men root the dust
for the one thing they claim
will take them back and back and back.
And let me finish up here by saying what I didn’t have space for in the editorial: Serbian epic poetry, for all its focus on violence and nationalism, is great stuff! Check out the translation of The Battle of Kosovo by John Matthias and Vladeta Vuckovic (Ohio University Press, 1987). The complete text, which includes a preface by Charles Simic, is available on-line.
Simic describes what a performance of the oral epic was like:
One day in school, in what must have been my fifth or sixth grade, they announced that a guslar would perform for us. This was unexpected. Most city people in those days had never heard a gusle being played, and as for us kids, brought up as we were on American popular music, the prospect meant next to nothing. In any case, at the appointed time we were herded into the gym where an old peasant, sitting stiffly in a chair and holding a one-stringed instrument, awaited us. When we had quieted down, he started to play the gusle.
I still remember my astonishment at what I heard. I suppose I expected the old instrument to sound beautiful, the singing to be inspiring as our history books told us was the case. Gusle, however, can hardly be heard in a large room. The sound of that one string is faint, rasping, screechy, tentative. The chanting that goes with it is toneless, monotonous, and unrelieved by vocal flourishes of any kind. The singer simply doesn’t show off. There’s nothing to do but pay close attention to the words which the guslar enunciates with great emphasis and clarity. We heard The Death of the Mother of the Jugovici that day and a couple of others. After a while, the poem and the archaic, other-worldly-sounding instrument began to get to me and everybody else. Our anonymous ancestor poet knew what he was doing. This stubborn drone combined with the sublime lyricism of the poem touched the rawest spot in our psyche. The old wounds were reopened.
The early modernist Serbian poet and critic, Stanislav Vinaver, says that the sound of gusle is the sound of defeat. That, of course, is what the poems in the Kosovo Cycle are all about. Serbs are possibly unique among peoples in that in their national epic poetry they celebrate defeat. Other people sing of the triumphs of their conquering heroes while the Serbs sing of the tragic sense of life. In the eyes of the universe, the poems tell us, the most cherished tribal ambitions are nothing. Even the idea of statehood is tragic. Poor Turks, the poet is suggesting, look what’s in store for them.
Yes, and from Jerusalem, O from that holy place,
A great gray bird, a taloned falcon flew!
And in his beak he held a gentle swallow.
But wait! it’s not a falcon, this gray bird,
It is a saint, Holy Saint Eliyah:
And he bears with him no gentle swallow
But a letter from the Blessed Mother.
He brings it to the Tsar at Kosovo
And places it upon his trembling knees.
And thus the letter itself speaks to the Tsar:
“Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”
What would Shakespeare have called a television news anchor? I’m guessing something like a “pribbling motley-minded mumble-news.” Dick Cheney? Perhaps a “surly fen-sucked malt-worm.” George II? A “qualling idle-headed flap-dragon.” Check out the Shakesperean Insult Generator (via wordful). Almost as much fun as the PoMo English Paper Title Generator, but not quite.
Crossed swords! mutters the undertaker as he brushes an invisible crumb from the front of his suit. For crying out loud! And why would anyone want to view their Departed with a monocle?
Or two monocles, actually: one for them, one for the corpse. Like peering into a telescope at a collapsed star and waiting for it to wink. A childhood memory of the circus: the tightrope bicyclist pausing to eat a ham sandwich, his legs crossed on the seat, smiling down at the thousand open mouths. They must’ve looked – well, hungry. Fall, you bastard! But the bastard was thinking, Mais non! Get your own sandwiches!
Crossed swords above the mantle, just waiting for a pirate’s skull to come and levitate between them. The half-finished heraldry of those for whom violence is its own excuse for being. Curs, all of them. Too old for re-training. He licks his thin lips, briefly imaging the heiress in a humiliating position. The taste of these people! Why had they even wanted an undertaker? Every one of his suggestions had been ignored.
The bouquets were all the same: white calla lilies. He heard – this couldn’t be true! – that they had actually registered with the florist’s. The Departed had grown up in Rhodesia, they said, where calla lilies grew wild – whole fields of them. He remembers the movie “Stage Door”: Katharine Hepburn as a spoiled heiress with the flimsiest grip on reality exclaiming, “The calla lilies are in bloom again!” One could laugh at the rich then, even in the Depression – they were so useless, really, and their willful ignorance of the world they had unmade appeared almost innocent. How can people hate us so much, when we only ever wished the best for everybody? And they used to talk about good breeding, regarding each other in the same light as collies, or thoroughbred horses.
Now, after the Paris Hilton video, no one would ever think about the rich that way again. Breeding, indeed! A shameless hussy, his mother would’ve called her. And now he hears she has a book out, purported to tell the lumpen proletariats “how to discover your inner heiress”!
“Such a strange flower,” mused Hepburn. “Suitable for any occasion!” A potent symbol of – what? – flowerness, perhaps. Foreign enough not to carry any more specific connotations than that. Hadn’t Georgia O’Keefe painted calla lilies? Soft folds of white against a pink background? He feels a trickle of sweat start down between his shoulder blades.
And what are they thinking about all this? Nothing, he mutters to himself. They’ve all lost their heads! But perhaps that, too, was part of the appeal. They’re as perfect as store-window mannequins: willow-waisted, outrageously caped, and the long, yellow, Hepburnesque necks ending in nothing.
A older couple enters the viewing area, she clutching her stout husband’s arm, wearing an antique hat complete with mourner’s veil. “Oh Henry,” she whispers. “How horrible! A deliberate insult!” The undertaker, standing at attention, tries to hide any reaction behind his professional mask. (That’s what they pay me for, he thinks.) But perhaps his left eyelash had fluttered just a little. The matron turns to him, says hoarsely, “Those calla lilies. He always hated them, you know!”
My friend Andy calls me a hermit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, I live out in the mountains by myself (though I eat two out of three meals with my parents) and and can get by quite happily without the company of other human beings. But a hermit’s vocation is a hard one; I’m too lazy by half. Not to mention that I failed Asceticism 101 . . .
The blogger Paula, on the other hand – she of the House of Toast – harbors the soul of a true hermit. Her devotion to weeds, as documented in Anita Rust, seems worthy of any anchorite. And now she has a third blog, Affiction. In the inaugural entry – September 11 – she wrote:
My prevailing metaphor has become the hermitage. I have found no place among the congregations, the sanghas. Orthodoxies, lineages, spiritual curricula — they fill me with a Sartrean nausea.
“Words, words, words,” said Hamlet.
“Voids, voids, voids,” I reply, sharing his pain.
The self is a fiction, an affliction. An affiction. To be a hermit is to go solo. So low.
A week later, she declares: “I’ve finally found my hermitage, my church. I’ve been here all along.” I’ll let you find out for yourself what she’s talking about. Let me just say – at risk of being accused of heresy – that I have never much cared for Annie Dillard, because she has always struck me as being basically a bullshitter – like me. (I know the symptoms.) Paula, on the other hand, is what Dillard dreams of becoming when she grows up.
But there’s nothing out there! The complaint of the shopping mall developer, of the landfill operator. Behold the majestic playa, utterly flat tan soil stretching away to the vanishing point, distances paradoxically both magnified and obscured by the Perfect Euclidean Geometry of it all. Do you wander out alone, mesmerized by the shimmering horizon, the immensity and the dust devils kicking up shades of old Winnemucca’s people? Do you seek solace in the wind, the sun, the solitude? Or do you, bored, find the scene lacking? Do you long for blue glowsticks and a hundred boom boxes blaring inane techno and a thousand pretentious performance artists bleating about their alienation?
Maybe someone should set up a cart at next year’s Burning Man and give away little copper bracelets incribed with the letters WWTD (What Would Thoreau Do?).
I’ll give the last word not to Thoreau, however, but to the guy who generously inputs Thoreau’s blog every day – Greg Perry, of grapez blog. He spent his Sunday hiking in Acadia National Park, at one point walking along the edge of a 200-foot precipice.
It was then I realized each step I took literally meant survival. I chanted my hiking mantra, one step at a time. But I annotated it with the following: one firm well-placed foot at a time, keeping balance on my rear boot until I was sure of the front, and by the way don’t look down, not just because the depths will suck at your every depression dragging you into its pit of hell but just because there’s no time to look anywhere but there in front.
Survival. It’s the yin to the yang of wonder. Survival. Wonder. But more than that, each also resides within the other. Just as there’s wonder in survival, the marvels of our families or the fascination with our work, there’s survival in our wonder. Without it, we live in that material world where every question has an answer and every reason has its why. And slowly we become dead of soul and alive only for the next purchase, drink, or cheap promotion. So I carefully grabbed a metal rung and I firmly placed my boot on that slight foothold and I pulled my weight closer to the mystery of elevation. Amen.
It’s always a dilemma when presenting a poem: how much to explain in advance, how much to assume the audience already knows? For the following piece, it’s kind of important to know what a drumming ruffed grouse sounds like. Ruffed grouse are common here, thriving in the mountain laurel cover on the northwest-facing slopes as much in the the wild grape tangles on the southeast-facing ravines. But one rarely sees a grouse until that heart-stopping moment when it explodes from cover a few feet away. As for gray foxes, it may help to know that they are quite secretive, crepuscular and arboreal (they can climb trees like cats, and some even nest in hollow trees up to thirty feet off the ground). Gray foxes are always in residence on the mountain – due in part to the abundance of prey species such as ruffed grouse – but seeing one is a rare treat. They appear and disappear with noiseless stealth, and when seen display a calm fearlessness that leads one to believe almost that they have revealed themselves for some obscure purpose.
Blink once & the gray fox
standing on a stonepile at
the edge of the woods
Blink again & the trees disappear
the soil & everything in it
leaving the briefest
Whatever’s left of the world
gets swept up in the wings
of a drumming grouse
that cellar hole of sound
As if some massive &
resilient thing were
suddenly let go from a great height
rebounding each time
a little less until
what sounds like
(nothing but the onrush of inertia)