Shooting the water

A small procession on a red dusty road, and everyone’s dressed in red, red. The pace is not fast, the song is not slow, the pines aren’t stirring in the breeze. As they grow nearer you can see the black coffin, and it’s only three feet long, my dear, it’s only three feet long.


Well, yesterday morning I was making breakfast, and believe me when I tell you that there was nothing different about that. I always make the very same thing, because who wants a surprise first thing in the morning – or second, or third? A glass of orange juice from concentrate and two eggs fried sunny-side up in butter, sprinkled with dried tarragon. I sat down with the newspaper while I waited for the eggs to fry, my plate heating on a separate burner. Well, just as I got up and started across the kitchen toward the stove, I had the strangest feeling. It was a little like that feeling of weightlessness or disassociation one gets during orgasm, except there was no sensation involved, no question of pleasure or release – simply an absence. It lasted for less time than it takes to tell you about it, because to become conscious of a thing like that is to banish it almost immediately. Indeed, what I call a feeling was probably not the experience itself but its impression, like the afterimage that forms on the inside of your eyelids if you open your eyes for a split second and close them again.


What are they singing, these people, and why don’t they all look sad? The road is straight and hot and the heat waves make their legs appear to wobble from side to side. I climb the bank and rest in the shade of the scrubby pines, waiting, my camera at the ready. As they get closer, I notice something odd: the coffin has no lid.


Warning: objects in dreams are farther away than they appear. Whenever I happen to wake, right away I begin thinking about blogging. A dream that might otherwise seem unremarkable gains in significance simply from the prospect of being recounted. But I’m always wary of “recounting fraud,” you know? I ask myself, were things really so logical? Were they even as sequential as narrative conventions imply? And what was so frightening, why did familiar landmarks seem so huge, so full of shadows? The letter killeth; but the spirit giveth life. I turn over onto my left side, knowing that I can only fall asleep on my right. Just before I drift off, I’ll roll back into place.


Like a log, my dear. I always sleep like a log. Like a log hitching a ride in a coffin. I peer through the telephoto lens in disbelief. They’ve dressed it in baby clothes, but it’s clearly no infant. If they’d debarked it, I might not have recognized it, but I can see the reddish-brown plates: it’s a mate to the trunks I’m standing among. The people shuffle past in weary cadence, clapping softly the way you clap when the cemetery’s a mile or two from town.


It’s rare that I’m terrified of something in a dream, but it’s just as rare that I don’t feel at least a little fearful. Face it, I’m a slow moving, medium-sized mammal with a number of potential predators to worry about. Sometimes I’m smaller and more rodent-like, but I’ve never yet dug my own burrows, always taking over the abandoned homes of other creatures instead. That’s human enough, isn’t it? At one point last night, for example, I was exploring a couple of woodchuck burrows near the top of the field that seemed to open up into some kind of cavern. I decided to test the echo, stuck my head into one of the holes and gave a roar. A couple of huge shadows detached themselves from the side of the pit and growled back, a low rumble. I felt a blast of hot, stinking air like a week-old corpse.


Whose log-body can this be, dressed so fine for its own funeral? I follow at a distance, already picturing how this will look on the glossy pages of National Geographic. The scene at the cemetery merits a three-page pull-out, at least. In place of gravestones, large, curved animal horns jut from the earth. Some are painted white; others have been wound about with colored yarn. Little bells dangle from the point of every horn. The wind is a welcome visitor, it seems.


Have you ever felt a wind inside your skull? Talk about mute, abject terror! A nightmare you’ll remember years later, looking through a magazine at the dentist’s office with the whine of the drill dimly audible above the Muzak. You find you can’t concentrate on much besides pictures, and fortunately this magazine has quite a few. In fact, it’s difficult to find the articles, apart from the captions and a few paragraphs following the titles – or are they headlines? The Misunderstood Manta. Ancient Nubia: Birthplace of the Pharoahs? A Funeral for the Whooping Cough. And here’s a nice piece on the Venus de Milo, which seems so emblematic of something or other. (Yes, of course she’s a which, never a who.)


Listen. Here it comes now through the pines, hissing. A gourd rattle gives it legs. Someone starts swinging a bullroarer and all the hair stands up on the back of my neck. The shutter clicks away, seemingly of its own accord: the sound made by the claws of rats on an empty granary floor. Not that they’d ever print that sort of thing. By the time the editors get done with my prose, baby, I barely recognize myself among all the cliches. I might as well be shooting so much water under a bridge, back in goddamn Iowa.

What grows

I remember as a child being especially fond of songs with accretionary verses. You know, like the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” or “Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.” A collection of Pennsylvania German songs in the book Pennsylvania Songs and Legends (edited by George Korson, Johns Hopkins Press, 1949), which I picked up at the same used book sale where I found Gerard’s Herball last month, includes some charming examples. Here’s one I especially liked.

I have, perhaps foolishly, mucked with the rather stilted translation a bit, despite my complete ignorance of the source language. According to the modern German-English dictionary I consulted, the verb wachs-en (wachst) means grow, sprout, come up, extend, increase, thrive. This verb is dropped in the middle verses (in favor of is), then reappears in the last two. Though in the latter case I have elected to go with “lies (with),” the choice of the original (and possibly prudish) translators, I think the shared meaning-element of growth and extension is a key to the whole song. Complimenting this verb, the noun Hecke also occupies a pivotal position, and seems to mean copse, thicket, hedge, underbrush, and also branch or twig by synecdoche, as with the English wood (a cognate of wild) coming to mean lumber. This simple song speaks volumes about the pre-modern European way of seeing the forest. I’ll give the German for the first and last verses and for each new noun as it crops up.

Was wachst in diesem Wald? (What Grows in This Wood?)

Sung by Emma Diehl at Freiburg, Snyder County, Pennsylvania, 1938. Recorded by Thomas R. Brendle and William S. Troxell.

Was wachst in diesem Wald?
En wunderscheener Bí¢m.
Bí¢m in di Hecke,
Zwishich Lí¢b un Schtecke.
Was wachst in diesem Wald?
Hecke schtandee,
Das wachst im grienen Waldee.

What grows in this wood?
A very beautiful tree.
Tree in the thicket,
Among sticks and leaves.
What grows in this wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

What grows on this tree?
A very beautiful limb (Nascht).
Limb on the tree, tree in the thicket,
Among sticks and leaves.
What grows in this wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

What grows on this limb?
A very beautiful branch (Heck).
Branch on the limb, limb on the tree . . .

What grows on this branch?
Very beautiful leaves (Lí¢b).
Leaves on the branch, branch on the limb . . .

What is in these leaves?
A very beautiful nest (Nescht).
Nest in the leaves, leaves on the branch . . .

What is in this nest?
A very beautiful egg (Oi).
Egg in the nest, nest in the leaves . . .

What is in this egg?
A very beautiful bird (Vojjel).
Bird in the egg, egg in the nest . . .

What is on this bird?
A very beautiful feather (Fedder).
Feather on the bird, bird in the egg . . .

What is in this feather?
A very beautiful bed (Bett).
Bed in the feather, feather on the bird . . .

What lies in this bed?
A very beautiful woman (Dí¢m).
Woman in the bed, bed in the feather . . .

Was wachst in diesem Dí¢m?
En wunderscheener Schatz.
Schatz im Dí¢m, Dí¢m im Bett,
Bett im Fedder, Fedder am Vojjel,
Vojjel im Oi, Oi im Nescht,
Nescht im Lí¢b, Lí¢b am Hecke,
Hecke am Nascht, Nascht am Bí¢m,
Bí¢m in di Hecke, zwischich Lí¢b un Schtecke.
Was wachst in diesem Wald?
Hecke schtandee,
Das wachst im grienen Waldee.

Who lies with this woman?
A very beautiful lover.
Lover in the woman, woman in the bed,
Bed in the feather, feather on the bird,
Bird in the egg, egg in the nest,
Nest in the leaves, leaves on the branch,
Branch on the limb, limb on the tree,
Tree in the thicket, among sticks and leaves.
What grows in the wood? A dense thicket.
That’s what grows in the greenwood.

Death takes a whiz

There was nowhere to go. We had stopped at some sandwich cart with a few rickety tables on the sidewalk. I like to linger over lunch, but that day my co-worker had an errand to run, so I was left with an extra half a beer to drink in addition to my cup of tea. That’s where my problems started.

Every time I thought I had found a good place, someone would happen along, laughing and pointing at my evident discomfort. A pair of young women walked by speaking what I took to be a South Asian language, judging from their appearance, and one of them actually reached out and pinched my arm, as if testing for spoilage. I was momentarily distracted from my quest by the flash of white teeth in a dark face. Perhaps they had mistaken the urgency in my body language for something else?

But no – they had come looking for me. New trainees, told to find the skinny American. Or so I gathered from their replies, which were delivered amid much nervous giggling. We walked back together.

Our factory may not look like much from the outside, but it’s full of the most advanced instruments ever assembled in one place. Over here, for example, is a cross between a radial arm saw and an electron microscope: watch. The women had donned facemasks and gloves and, regrettably, pulled borrowed lab coats around their form-fitting jeans. Part of the reason for the uniform, I knew, was to discourage human contact between workers on the job. They needed total concentration for the delicate piecework involved in the engineering of new life.

I showed them the series of permutations necessary to turn stem cells into plant or animal tissue. One of them drew my attention to an odd pattern of molecules on the screen: Is that the logo? she asked in her lilting English. I stared at it. Believe it or not, I’d never noticed it before. I guess that’s why we like to hire women for this sort of work. Look, it’s on everything!

I walked over to a terminal, typed in molecular logo and pulled up a dozen papers on the subject. I skimmed through the abstracts, reading the good parts out loud. Somehow, the company had stumbled on a virus-like, self-replicating compound that had the power to persist outside its host indefinitely, even after the last bit of tissue had decayed. It could survive in the vacuum of space, at temperatures a fraction of a degree above absolute zero. In the fullness of time, it would be omnipresent. The God logo, they dubbed it.

At last, the women had stopped their nervous giggling. The taller one shivered, and they did that sideways-embrace thing that marked them as sisters. Excuse me, I said, and ducked into the only modern bathroom for miles around.

Feast your eyes on this

Today is St. Lucy’s Day, one in a series of December celebrations of light.

Lucy is a Sicilian saint, the patroness of Syracuse where she was martyred in the reign of Diocletian. One story says that when a suitor admired her beautiful eyes she cut them out and sent them to him, asking to be left in peace thereafter (like most early Christian virgin martyrs, she refused marriage). Now she is the patron of eye diseases and the blind and is often depicted carrying her eyeballs on a plate….

Apparently untroubled by the gruesome imagery, Italians eat St. Lucy’s eyes, cakes or biscotti shaped like eyeballs….The celebration of St Lucy spread over all of Europe. But the place where she is most beloved is Scandinavia, where light is especially welcome in the long hours of winter darkness. On her day, the eldest (or youngest) daughter rises before dawn and fixes a breakfast of special pastries and coffee for her family. She appears in their bedrooms, dressed in a white dress belted with a red sash, and wearing a wreath of greens and four (or seven or nine) lighted candles. Sometimes the wreath is made of green rue and decorated with red ribbons. She serves traditional pastries called lussekatter (or Lucy cats), x-shaped pastries, sometimes flavored with saffron. Other traditional foods served in her honor include saffron buns, ginger biscuits and glogg, a hot spiced wine with aquavit.

Here in central Pennsylvania, the weather gods are celebrating St. Lucy’s Day with our first real snow of the season. And why not? A blanket of snow is the only real way to diminish the darkness this time of year.

UPDATE: Check out the great poem, and additional links, at Watermark.

Janus poem

Mirror, mirror

Hello, silk: a girdled witch hazel switch, curdled-milk yellow.
The stark noose of bare wood bears no tooth mark.
Light snow fogs the view, logs glow white
as egrets, Victoria’s secrets, as
hope against hope.

Blog picks of the week

1. Marin Outings, the brand-new blog by Maria of alembic, looks promising. It features photos matched with finely-wrought poems or prose poems. Start at the beginning.

2. Suzanne’s Sapphodes are not so much spacey as they are holey – maybe even via negativistic.

3. From the guys this week, metaphysical wrestling with the Big Questions. (You know how much we guys obsess about the size of our questions!) First, Chris Clarke wondered about Worship:

In an old edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, someone once responded to the Spaceship Earth metaphor as like being out in the New Mexico night, looking at the stars, and gasping “it’s just like the planetarium!” Church is like going to the Oakland Museum, looking at the wonderful diorama of Joshua tree, Tegeticula moth, loggerhead shrike, and Mojave green rattlesnake, all artfully preserved and decorously posed.

Reality? Reality bites.

Then Grace and other curses came in for some sharp questioning at the vernacular body:

Fortunately, grace doesn’t require belief of me. In this, it is like many of the wonders of our world. No belief required. A thing is what it is, regardless of what I might choose to impose on it. My believing or disbelieving is immaterial.

This at least is my explanation for what happens in that precisely callibrated moment (precisely callibrated: look at me talking like a believer!) when I encounter the work, or when the work encounters me.

Finally, Kevin of Big Hominid entered the ring (three-way matches are allowed in metaphysical wrestling, right?), guest-blogging at Ditch the Raft on Zen and Postmodernism.

As Korean Zen master Seung Sahn says, if you want to “attain watermelon,” you have to cut a piece and eat it. “BOOM! Your experience!” Seung Sahn cackles. You and the watermelon are not-two, of course. In a deep sense, you don’t really “attain” watermelon any more than you “know the taste of” watermelon. Nothing to attain; nothing to taste; no you. Think of the watermelon as your dharma talk, a sermon about the nature of all things….

4. But my favorite single line of the week appeared in a diatribe by Natalie at Blaugustine last Sunday:

But, like many people, I go to hell sometimes because you can find bargains there.

Sad but true.


I’m still accepting nominations for the “Reader’s Picks” addendum to Tuesday’s post, Loose canon: 20th century poetry in English. The only requirements are that it be a book- or chapbook-length collection of poems in English (no translations, though I fudged a little on Pound’s Cathay) published between 1901 and 2000 – and that, most importantly, it be a strong personal favorite of yours.