You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
BIG I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.
And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?
Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?
I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.
What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?
This is the end of the time when we rhyme. But wait! Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road.
A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?
LITTLE Remember how we used to play the guessing game?
Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.
From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!
At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.
Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!
BIG Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?” Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.
Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me: Laugh!
Consider this breath, the sound
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note.
If a scream erupts in a forest, and no one hears it —or if none of the hearers can connect the substance of the scream to the face of the wounded, whether because these hearers are out of sight or otherwise unable to perceive how a body nearby could be capable of keening like that, or because the hearers are not in the habit of connecting the nuanced arrangement of particular human features to the nuanced arrangement of particular human sounds, when considering a particular cry of distress after shutting eyes tight against any witness— did it happen?
Same question may be posed with other variants. If the cry was piercing and potentially recognizable but muffled by the presence of a sudden hand against an open mouth, does it count? If the moment of the cry coincides with the collapse of the known world and the known world in question was once synonymous with the depths of the forest, did a cry even happen, if the place that it would have poured into was suddenly gone?
Now consider other variables. If access is granted, but no one is told, does the person at the gates no one was trying to approach after years of denial get to shrug, raised eyebrows, and claim innocence––based on, well, I didn’t say they couldn’t. . .
Get to: what does this even mean? A body gets to do what it will do until acted upon by an opposing force. Except in the case of survival. Except in the case of protection of children. A body will persist until it can’t, and in persisting, adapt to certain givens for the sake of survival. As in, this door is locked, this knob will burn your hand, this exit will get you shot. If someone on the other side unlocks the door quietly in the middle of the night, hides the key and leaves it closed, is it to be considered open?
Define: cry. Which sounds are included? Define: pains. Which count? Define: life. Which forms are we talking about here, who is screaming––and who has stopped?
Where do these faces go when they leave us? Here’s a better question: why do we keep insisting that they are ours?
If someone shuts their eyes against some never-ending light, can they be considered a witness? If someone builds a dam across a river of time, can it be stopped, and what is the name for the resulting body? And if someone removes a dam and the river moves again, now altered in shape, is the dam still real, or has it been erased?
If eyes trained on sky notice wild promises in stars, do these vows have any bearing once obscured by the light pollution of the empire’s cities?
If breath denied fails to void the depth of inhalation, what do you call the sound that follows? The rising, leaning, lilting unsparing hallelujahs of nobody knows, the forever-present notes that no hand grants and no thief can steal, reaching back to some original promise, in the first splitting of atoms, when it was discovered that the matter they contained was mostly open spaces for the vibration of shimmering notes, haunting the seeming solids behind the spectral gates; what is this?
Consider moving. Listen. Consider this breath, the sound behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note. Sing.
About the artist: Alma Woodsey Thomas, now a renowned figure of African-American art history, had her debut showing at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five year career of teaching art to D.C. junior high school students.
You pessimistic-fantastical visionary of hopes and fears! Jerome of the forest, you left no letters or diaries: what now?
TO: Hieronymous Bosch
CC: Anyone else who might be wondering
SUBJECT: That Garden You Painted
also: The way your work is frequently invoked
as an experiential reference point.
As in, This year is feeling very Hieronymous Bosch.
Your name as an adjective–– as with Kafka, or Dali.
How one might want to inquire as to your thoughts.
You: pessimistic-fantastical visionary of hopes and fears, Jerome of the forest, you left no letters or diaries: what now?
We look on, knowing nothing, about what you “probably meant.” And yet: You likely lived six decades or more in the house your grandfather built.
You watched, at thirteen, the burning fire of four-thousand homes in your town. You didn’t always favor Flemish style; the transparent glaze concealed.
You wanted revelation, went impasto; rough, to point to your hand. As if to reject the presumption that it was God painting the forms.
You even signed some; most were lost. The God of your garden was youthful. How big the fruit! What a menagerie, waiting to explode back home.
It welcomes a memory, of taking great care with a painting of marker on white. I filled the page with detail; this was first grade, we were asked to draw the garden I could not wait to be seen, for I knew. What a marvel. I could not wait, to share in its delight! Butterflies cocooned in my center of knowing; I would explode out, soon.
I filled the page with detail in first grade; we drew the garden. Nobody asked me for a unicorn; I knew it was perfect like I knew drawing breath Butterflies cocooned in the center, like promises, I would reveal myself soon. Teacher made the rounds and paused at my desk; I drew in breath, feeling her moved.
Nobody asked me for a unicorn. There were none in the garden, she told me. Those are pagan, she said. This was confusion. I thought garden was everything good, and unicorns the best of all time.
She was moved to remind me that everything I ever wanted was exactly the reason for the fall. I was a mute, infant Eve, holding my half-eaten fruit. It soured quickly. I did not draw for her again.
Dear Jerome, your work here raises questions about ambiguity. Others see total alignment with orthodoxies of your time. Still, isn’t it ironic, at least somewhat, how much heaven in your hell?
Heavens from earth, the third day, enter this paradise lost. Come in, now! Rabbits dance behind Eve, suggestive of mating; cautionary tale? Or just good loving? And what about the dragon tree: eternal life?
Here giraffe, here elephant, here a lion eating prey. Pray, what’s that?! The cat has the lizard! And who is that cloaked figure reading, right there? Is that a duck, behind a fish? Without shame? Only curious now.
Hey teens, don’t eat cherries with great lords; they’ll throw the pits in your face. Truth! Women carry fruit on heads; acrobats ride camels and unicorns. Ladies strut with peacock pluck. Dance, dance, dance! Who waits for their entrance, here?
See winged fish, strawberry! Come inside this shell, land on constant youth! No child or aged person in sight; they fly in tandem on eagle lions.
They fly trees of life. See bird of death perched on branches. The gallant knight wears a dolphin tail, scratching the back of his head; as above, so below.
Then comes damnation, or does it? The dark and cold are over the top, Waters frozen, fire waits: a bestiary for feasting on bodies.
City’s burning, river’s blood; crucified on instruments, the choir sings. Rotting trunks for tree-man’s arms, his body a broken shell; his gut pierced.
Beasts have at it; wolves eat the last knight; the dragon has run out again. But Jerome, does it get annoying; everyone speculating about what you
meant; does it get old, everyone asking about the rules of the game, and all the fine print, forgetting that the point was to play?
Sketching rocks bathed in light since the sun rose, try to remember dawn.
Open fist against graffitied bricks, he watches crows, remembers death. Painted peacock lady smiles over traffic lights; checks the mirror, pouts.
Back-to-back on the park bench, a pair wonders if they are dating yet. Babies bearing swords beat against trees and stones while sandboxes still wait.
Queens rock hi-tops, heads leaning toward hips, and braided babes run. Mob men in trench coats talk business and horses while sirens wail upstairs.
Holiday blue notes shine cool on midnight sidewalks; her walking pace slows. By park fountains he reminded her, What’s the point? ––Meaning, of her rage.
Baby boy finds mama’s stash. She won’t know what he eats, until later. He fell in love: first God, then the ancients, then woman; then he was done.
Don’t tell me what to do, she says, leg crossed over knee. He listens, nods. Bullet clears rib cage to stop against spine; now there is no need for shoes.
If you sit beneath trees long enough with snacks out, squirrels come to eat. Makers cross the street. Meeting halfway, they embrace. Cars honk and they laugh.
Joining foreheads, seated lovers bow, form a heart by the fountain mist. The bracelet was there to remind him to count each memory, but her.
Sketching rocks bathed in light since the sun rose, try to remember dawn.
Notes: The title comes from the painting by Robert Delaunay (1912, oil on canvas; Tate London). The poem came from an exercise done on the seventeenth of the month. In honor of Alan Ginsberg’s American Sentences (A haiku without line breaks, seventeen syllables), I aimed to write seventeen of them. Then I took some liberties with arrangement and punctuation. Sometimes breaking from the sentence (into two or three), I kept lines of seventeen syllables, each aimed toward a particular scene, during a particular twenty-four-hour period, on a particular street, in an imagined city, present day.
The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard.
The dreams are gone again. Memory is full of holes. Mind the gap!
Do you know whose memory is the least contaminated? A baby’s?
Maybe, but not what I was thinking. ?
A patient with amnesia. ?
They can’t contaminate by remembering. It just comes. And goes.
Right, a free flow. Did you hear about the artist with face blindness?
To lose one face is enough. Imagine losing them all. She made interesting self-portraits. She did them in the dark, feeling her face, adding paint to canvas; feeling again. Art as an act of looking, free of the presumption of sight.
Do goldfish really have only eight seconds of it? Memory?
Yes, or is this just a myth told to children who would otherwise be very sad about the creature in the bowl, in the plastic bag from the fair, doomed to this constant back and forth? Borges called it a pile of broken mirrors.
The fishbowl? Memory.
He died on this day, in 1986. That was the year I forgot how to fly in my dreams.
How? The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard. My arms, because that’s all I had, no wings or feathers.
Yeah, but how did you forget? Whoever knows, but that year my dreams or something started taking me too hard and fast, I could not remember until it was too late.
Borges said there are no images at the end, only words. Remember 1986?
There were bombs everywhere in the news. I didn’t see them up close, but I worried. They were waiting under parked cars, in office buildings, churches, synagogues, planes.
It was my first Communion year. I remember waiting to be suffused in light. The Challenger exploded. I remember the plumes of flame and smoke on the screen. My second-grade teacher had wheeled the television into the classroom so we could see it live, the techno-miracle of space travel.
Chernobyl, too. After that, radioactive deposits were found in every country in the northern hemisphere.
There was a human chain that year, five million links long from New York to Long Beach. As a reminder, right?
Yes, of hunger. Homelessness. Easily forgotten by the housed and fed. They were flooding the streets.
This was Reagan’s America. It was popular to cite an epidemic of laziness, compounded by drugs, as the reason. Just say No, but the hands did something else.
Said yes? No, they answered another question. A better one. The question of the body before you.
Answer like an open hand. Right. Like, “Here.”
Do you remember Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings? He observed that there are dragons in every part of the world.
Yeah, he said we don’t know what they mean, only that they are always there. What memories do they hold; what future projections?
I love his face, Borges. How it would light up when he smiled. He must have been something in person.
Like a baby. Or a person who has forgotten everything and sees only–– Light?
The play of light and shadow. An uninterrupted flow.
I love watching babies before their vision develops. Their faces, do you mean?
Yeah, how they light up and start laughing at something in the ceiling. And you watch them, and you wonder what are they seeing?
* A story about artist known as Carlotta appears in the BBC News, and the documentary about her journey, “Lost in Face” appeared in a BBC News article by Vibeke Venema, “Prosopagnosia: The Artist in Search of Her Face,” published August 16, 2020. BBC World Service.
Considering various mediums, and the interfaces between seen and unseen.
Every medium has its own personality. Paper is delicate so everything gets a dreamy fluid quality, light dissolving over the landscape. On paper you can see the smudge of erasure, the changes, the trial and error. Consider the difference between this and something like film, or film-less photos, those bodies of pixellated light in captivity.
With photographs everything looks like something that a crazed nostalgic is trying to freeze outside of time. Oil on canvas: longings laid bare, to hold what will not be held. The time spent anyway, squinting.
A bedside book in childhood: Lives of the Saints, dog-eared at Joan of Arc, because of the way she didn’t flinch, that insistently, cross-dressing soul. I think her gift was less that she heard a voice all day long telling her what to do, but that she listened.
Now it’s art books, too heavy to lift with one hand, propped open across a chest and half-waking dreams of Blake’s Jacob’s Ladder, all the near-transparent souls climbing doggedly into blinding light, none looking as though they have any idea what it may be, but there it is waiting, anyway, pouring over and through their bodies and their steps in a luminous column and you get the sense that they’re climbing forever like a white-knuckled novena, World Without End.
Joan was burned at the stake for three reasons: one, she wore pants; two, she wore them into battle; three, what she said about the voice she heard, even after it was clear what would happen if she didn’t retract. There was a line between what you could see and may not see. She crossed.
Before he painted Jacob’s Ladder, William Blake was getting regularly arrested for bar fights, and after he painted his opus, he died, as the legend goes, amid visions of angels. What did he see in them, I wonder, and how was it different from the eternities he saw in hours, the heavens in his wildflowers, or the worlds he found in grains of sand?
A want to hold it all in an instant, the forever dream against countless suggestions that seeing something is almost always very different than seeing everything, and the end of the world something different than the end of every known part.
Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.
Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky.
Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.
Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light, and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste?
They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”
A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back.
There is a night, long after my bedtime in 1983, when the three kings take the stage. Soul is leading. For a moment, he is front and center, green jumpsuit and perfect hair, wanting company. The numbers dead from the Ethiopian drought have reached four million, and protestors are gathering at Greenham Common Air Force Base as Reagan’s army deploys missiles. It’s almost time to invade Grenada. It’s civil war in Zimbabwe, earthquake in New York, the birth of Mario Bros and Microsoft Word, some say the birth of the internet, and a new land speed record in the Black Rock Desert. I don’t understand what is happening.
The King of Soul calls on the rising King of Pop, younger and still darker than we knew him later, who leans in to be embraced by Mr. Dynamite, kissing his ear, his first words into the mic, I love you; I love you, then spin, shimmy, what is this? A Moonwalk revelation, ending in an embrace, the wide white smile of The Godfather of Soul shining back. It’s the Embassy Bombing in Beirut, the highest U.S. unemployment rate since 1941, the assassination of Aquino in the Philippines. Here comes Run DMC, Depeche Mode, Iron Maiden; the age of the international superstar. Let’s dance, karma chameleon, I want to party like it’s 1999. It’s time to fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen; buckle up, it’s the law.
Next comes the King of Funk; Prince, where are you? Pointer finger extends a royal summons to the back of the room, stage left. The Artist arrives straddling the waist of the white-bearded muscle man who bears him on his back, whose image calls to mind Hell’s Angels; up goes His Royal Badness in a futuristic jumpsuit, gold lame details, heels. This king on the guitar, a prolonged erotic moment. Oh no, it’s not a jumpsuit, now the top half is coming off, now it’s the shirtless High Priest of Pop making love to the Mic stand, to the audience, thrusting himself into the space between the music and their rising cheers, then falling like a spent lover into the crowd. They are filling the prisons, building new warehouses for storage of the fathers and brothers and sons. There are bullet holes in the ceilings. The new warehouses are stacked five stories high; they can’t build them fast enough. The vans arrive in a constant stream; the machine needs bodies. The bodies are the fathers and the brothers, the uncles and the sons. Where are they now? They are Away.
This is the year I enter school – line up! Bells, the bells, the stone buildings, the weight of this ominous word, terrorist, its point to point to some being not quite human, grounds for extermination, but now, we were told was the age when the wars were done; now, the adults said, was a time of hard-earned peace. Of progress, the dawn of a new age! News of another car bomb punctuated news of mass extinctions, and even with the bombs erupting everywhere, even with the mass extinctions, and the adults looked ill with symptoms of battle fatigue that no one was allowed to discuss.
It is the year of the West Bank fainting epidemic, and epidemics of fainting elsewhere, especially at concerts; it was the heyday of new religion, and our stadiums became our new meccas; and Sally Ride is the first woman in Space, Ride, Sally, Ride! and Guion Bluford is the first black man in space, Say it Loud! Vanessa Williams the first black Miss America, and the King holiday is signed into law. The Zapatistas are rising; Thriller is released.
I am too young to be at the concert; too young to even know the names of the kings who take the stage. I find the footage later, among the artifacts of the hyperspace that was being assembled around us. I pour through the artifacts, looking for clues in the aftermath; it’s the same question in any aftermath, isn’t it? What happened? And what was there before? And, was there any sign, before it hit, what was happening?
I can’t help it, the way I keep returning to the moment when the second of the kings takes the stage, the way he says I love you like he’s someone just arriving, and I love you like he’s someone already getting ready to leave. I can’t help but think that if I had seen him then, I would have been moved with recognition. Even then, before I knew anything about anything except the speed of the way it feels to spin with your arms out wild, knowing you’re about to fall flat when the spinning gets too much; that’s what we did then, holding hands until we released them, falling flat and breathless on our backs, laughing in terror at the still-spinning sky.