When the pigeons come near the bench, a white-haired lady tossing crumbs from her lap begins to laugh when a lone mallard approaches. You too? she says. Okay, okay. Then come three or four other ducks. Sure, sure, she tells the first, bring your friends. There is enough.
Down the path, a toddler turns from his red rubber ball, and now he is coming too, the others behind him. In the distance, a train sound. Uh-oh, says the boy, and then turns back to the birds. Hands open, arms out. The woman laughs again.
Sometimes, when it was hiding in our homeland, we would feel its aftermaths in succession, running our fingers along the seams of cracked earth. Means for making meaning, ever mutating, make new forms where the formers are buried. We move soil to make room for our dead. Seedlings, too––even then.
We could not call it war until we survived it. In the meantime, it was living. It was diapers and babies, earaches and crackers and someone still had to milk the cows, walk the dogs, and soak the beans overnight.
What did you do? They will ask us later. Possibly we will forget by then, how we folded laundry and clipped toenails. How sometimes, even then, someone would show up with a cake, and someone else would find plates. We would pass slices one at a time, among the living.
An (expanded) video version of this post is available here.
Grey whale sounds in the bell
of its gaze a wide doorway
to ancient lines of unknowns
too abundant to hold and
immune to abstraction.
the witness, its abstraction
a handle to grip. This is
Seen at a distance, near the shore.
Not yet. Sea from sky
wrinkles grey. They
neared the wave,
paused, the sky
cleared bars of
white flaming red.
rippling until the dark.
Now the light, one
bird, a pause. Chirp,
by the bedroom window,
this blind, blank melody.
Virginia Woolf died on this day in 1941. Her writing is celebrated for the layers evoked in her stream-of-consciousness narratives. Her work left a lasting impression on me, and I am eternally indebted to her for illuminating possibilities within language. The above is a found poem gleaned from the opening section of Woolf’s novel The Waves.
Let’s go to the mute world of things, beyond the reach of the tyrannical hordes and the hordes of tyrants-in-training with their drums set to the old standard, Idea! Idea! Idea! always keeping the beat of self-proclaimed righteousness.
I’d rather listen to the drum before it’s conscripted into the service of some march or another. After that, I’ll go visit with the soap, whose songs are vivid with suds, its cheeky humor always slipping through the grasp.
I speak for no one and would never presume to ventriloquize one of these––or anyone else, for that matter. But I am drawn to their ripe quietude, each like a waiting page, like the open hand of a familiar stranger, inviting the next dance. I am, after all, a creature of language, bound by fate to remake each daily scene one day at a time, and my humble purpose is for noticing what happens at the interface between these winking syllables and these never-ending odds and ends, waiting to be new again.
This morning I learned that it was the birthday of French writer Francis Ponge (1899-1988), an essayist and poet associated with the surrealist movement, who famously reimagined the inner lives of ordinary things in his work. I admire the gentle playfulness and generosity of his spirit.
Early theories about Birds of Paradise.
Perhaps they were fallen angels, these wingless birds. Their plumes were like haloes. Perhaps they moved as comets across the sky, in perpetual motion and only occasionally visible. They might be immortals in the flesh, or they might be the Phoenix. Whatever the case, it seemed impossible that they could land, given that they had no feet.
Theories sprouted. That the female must lay eggs in an internal chamber of her body where she incubates them until they are ready to begin lifetimes of continual flight. Or that they might rest after all, from time to time, using their featherless extensions like strings from which to suspend themselves from the branches of the highest trees. Perhaps they would twine these together while mating. Here is an image of one. See how it drinks the rain.
Some hypothesized that the birds would never submit to close study, so averse are they to the prospect of being sullied by this world. As context for these speculations, it can be helpful to consider the earliest arrival of these birds on the continent. They had arrived, after all, as the precious cargo of a colonial ship, far from their songs, their homeland, and their days of flight, with legs and wings removed.
Inspiration for this post: This morning I learned that today is the birthday of Conrad Gessner (1516-1565), the renowned swiss zoologist who published the Historia Animalium (History of the Animals), which was the most widely read natural history in Europe during the renaissance. It was summarily banned by the Catholic church as heretical. Having once been harshly scolded as a first grader in Catholic school, for depicting a unicorn at the center of my elaborate marker drawing of the Garden of Eden, I felt my sympathies drawn toward Gessner’s work. In my unsuccessful efforts to find a readable digital copy of this extensive work, I came across this article about early theories of birds of paradise. To his credit, Gessner was among the first to speculate that the birds must not subsist entirely on air, rain, and vast internal fat stores, but must eat actual food, somehow.
Interrogations at terminal velocity.
First, a threshold. Questions about the roots of things tend to call common sense from the jury box to the witness stand. Being may be what knowing apprehends, but answer: can you point to an essence outside knowing? Yes or no.
No further questions, Your Honor.
Recess. Outside, cellophane angels drop into boxes. Here are the signs. We’ll attach them like armor, with the same duct tape used to silence those objecting to being objects of study.
Bells again, wait. We were at a threshold, trying to begin––what, though? And were we calling it? I’ve lost––the engine’s speed has thrown me back again, and as for the thread I meant to follow, before the angels and the tape, where now?
What are you looking for?
Time, I was going to reference an old story––
That’s gone out of print. There’s no catching it now,
but get this. A ventriloquist and a bullfighter walk
into a bar and learn that it isn’t one. The place is
a bank now. “I disagree!” remarked one or the other,
you can never tell with ventriloquists. They walked
out dazed, looking for a sign they could read.
A howling. Hunger
or grief? Dog or man? Unclear
now, which morning sounds.
There is the familiar arrangement of well-known symmetrical forms, the sort that draws comments of Cute, and Beautiful, exclamation mark. These are not that. Slick like raw meat, covered with film over knotty, bulbous appendages, they were dubbed the useless class of botanists. Perhaps it is the fate of things deemed useless, to be collected by fringe enthusiasts, who pressed them between paper, offered collections as gifts. They would sell them during the first world war, to raise money for wounded soldiers, and this is one of those things I can’t stop thinking: how when a continent was immersed in mechanized violence on a scale unprecedented in human history, some responded by collecting delicate specimens of fragile ocean life, to press between pages.
Inspired by Sasha Archibald’s Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album in the Public Domain Review.