Phobias

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.

One of the books I keep on my nightstand, within easy reach of my morning-coffee perch, is The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. There’s a prompt for every day of the year. Four out of five times I may read the prompt and go, “Huh. That’s cool,” and move on, and I keep checking. While not all prompts will resonate at a given time, all are technically doable, and there’s a wonderful variety. It is from this book that I developed the habit of checking to see what happened on this day in history when I’m looking for a practice exercise, and also of checking Craigslist for ideas. It’s a gem with a beautifully simple format. Today’s prompt is to consider the theme “phobias,” which is something Aimee Nezhukumatathil does so interestingly in her poem, “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.” That sounded like something I could do today, so here it is.

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.
Not the car exactly but riding in one.
Those figures that look human, but
aren’t. Thunder, of course, and lightning.
My grandfather, anticipating this fear, would
announce, when a storm came, Angels! They
were bowling, he told us. 

Some fear books; others, amphibians.
I sometimes have nightmares about steep
slopes. Time itself, the mirror, ridicule. I
can’t help but think these go together. The
confined space. Knees, even. Whole groups
of others: men, women, beautiful women,
teenagers, children, clowns. The ill, and
doctors. Touch itself, the color white, the
color black; small and large things. Death
and dead things; the figure 8. Weight gain,
paper. School seems like an obvious choice;
I hadn’t considered the color purple. Sleep,
holes, speed.

I read the list, impressed with the specificity
of options. Admiring, even, but I wonder,
what is the word for this ever-present knot,
this constant quaking from the inside out,
easier to hide than to still? When small, I
was not afraid of most grownups, only of 
having to become one, because while it
was clear that there would be expectations,
it was not so clear what they were. A common
concern was driving, how it was that my mother
could remember every turn, mostly, to all the 
endless places we went, and still get back home.
It saddened me to know that when my turn came
behind the wheel, I would probably disappear.

Unless! I brought breadcrumbs to leave a trail,
but consider Hansel and Gretel. They were careful,
but the birds ate their intentions home. The fire
of the oven, waiting in the dark woods, this is
what kept me in knots, the way I could stumble
and be cooked alive. But it wasn’t on the list, 
so maybe I dreamed it, as with other things,
Just butterflies, the growns would say, as though what
was happening was the flutter of iridescent wings
of a colony of new-transformed lives, ready to 
fly from this body’s own dark.

Learning by Imitation

Imitation is a wonderful teacher. One learns this especially by failing at it.

Today’s post arises in part, from a quick-write exercise I did with students some time ago, about how we learn by imitation, inspired by a TED talk by the artist Hetain Patel, “Who Are You? Think Again.” When possible, I do these free writing exercises with them, and whenever I do, I vow to do it more. Invariably, some interruption will void this intention. Still, it’s always worth repeating. I am thinking about the subject of learning by imitation today. The other part is that I needed to find this post for my offering today, because of time constraints.

I drafted this one awhile back, but never posted it. I wasn’t blogging daily then. More like 3-15 times per year. Now it’s daily and after forty days, I added a time constraint. Doing this takes away the luxury of being too choosy. I can’t hem and haw over what goes up; all I can do is offer the best I have within a given hour. Today, as I was preparing to enter the 15-minute “think of an idea” phase, I got distracted by another question: What other poets/literary writers are keeping blogs and what can I learn from them?  There went my hour. The good news is, I can learn a lot. I’ve already learned that I am going to have to migrate to WordPress in order to be able to have some of the functions and features I will want long-term, so now I am adding “learn how to migrate website to WordPress” to my to-do list. It may take a little while, but I can learn. 

 “Sample Book” by scrappy annie on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

So now, it makes sense to share this other thing. One, because it’s what I have right now. Two, because it just happens to be precisely relevant to today’s thoughts. It’s funny how unexpected diversions and interruptions can lead to new discoveries. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what I mean to be showing and doing here. It was fun to find this one again. It was about a ten-minute exercise, I think. I was most likely interrupted by a hall pass after about five. But I had forgotten these things, and finding them today made me chuckle:

I used to covet the friendship bracelets of my older cousin, Kelly. Even at thirteen, I knew that what separated me from Kelly was more than the two years she had ahead of me, and more than her fashion sense. We were different types. I felt this with a sort of ominous dread. Kelly always had a boyfriend, and it was hard to imagine her ever suffering through the malaise of generalized heartbreak that was my consistent companion.

I remember wanting to have some sort of word that I said differently than everyone else, that could be “my word.” My first friend, Tara, had “beltseat” and “brefkast”, my grandmother stacked my grandfather’s t-shirts in the “armoire,” my dad could say “fuggettabbouttit” believably and my mom said “draw” instead of “drawer.” My third grade teacher, Mrs. Reynolds said “idear” and “umbreller.” I tried out different ways of saying orange — or ah-range, and I could never decide which fit best. Eventually, I forgot the whole endeavor.

Then, one day when I was fourteen or so — maybe younger, there was this girl. I can’t remember her name anymore. She was a varsity swimmer — confident, self-assured, and never without something to say that people seemed inclined to listen to. She was the sort of girl who seemed to operate on an ingrained assumption that the things that went through her head would naturally be of interest to others. In short, she had certain qualities I sorely lacked, and I watched her with some puzzlement, wondering how one would go about attaining them.

There was one thing tangible I could discern. Whenever the subject of bagels came up, she said “bahgel” and she never hesitated to get extra cream cheese on hers. It was a horrifying amount of cream cheese, a giant slab that appeared about as thick as one of the bagel halves it came between, an amount I could never imagine consuming with any degree of ease, especially not in public. She could, though, and did, and as I watched her eat with relish in the team van, without any sense of shame,  I understood that there was something greater than age or pronunciation quirks separating us. I gave up trying to say the word as she did, because it felt like a great pretension. I didn’t mind a pretension; in fact it felt like I really could use one or two, but “bahgel” felt obnoxiously contrived and false. So I went back to saying it the regular way, “Just plain, thank you,” no butter and no cream cheese, and peeled mine slowly from the outside in, trying to make it last, fighting against the urge to tear it in half with my teeth like a crazed wolf.

Imitation is a wonderful teacher. One learns this especially by failing at it. As Patel observes in his talk, “. . . contrary to what we might usually assume, imitating somebody can reveal something unique. So every time I fail to become more like my father, I become more like myself. Every time I fail to become Bruce Lee, I become more authentically me.”

I’ve been looking at poet/writer blogs all morning, and I don’t see a single one I can imitate seamlessly. I see many I can learn from. I take a lot of hope in this: the idea that imitating means I don’t have to start from scratch, and failing at it means I am being real about who I am, what I do, and how I see. In a world that often praises an empty and misunderstood “authenticity” I want something lasting, something that is honest, and something that surprises and renews my perspective by never being exactly what I planned. So here’s to learning by imitation.

Under All the Stars I Cannot Name

What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals?

On this day in 1923, poet Wislawa Szymborska was born. A winner of the Nobel Prize who once observed “perhaps” two in a thousand people like poetry (“Some Like Poetry”), she is celebrated for the way she explores the layered mysteries inherent in everyday experiences. 

Sometimes, a great poem can work as a blueprint for a much-needed ritual. In “Under a Certain Little Star” Szymborska explores the ritual of apology in new ways. What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals? It would have problems of its own, of course, but I can’t help but think that it must be a terrific improvement over a world where false certainty is celebrated as strength, apology maligned as weakness, and people are expected to be walking billboards for ideas and ideals, instead of as fallible and ever-changing creatures of flesh, blood, and dreams.

So today, I’ll be using Szymborska’s poem as a blueprint for enacting this ritual of apology, in celebration of the tremendous fallibility and impossible mystery of being human here. 

My apologies to tenderness for vowing I could do without,
and to fasting in general for my terrible performance.
May joy not be annoyed with my stalker’s watch.
May those disappeared dreams forgive me 
for pretending not to notice when they were 
kidnapped.

My apologies to space for not taking what was offered 
and appearing unintentionally ungrateful,
and to gratitude for so often making it look like a grocery list and not a flood.

Forgive me, misery, for still caring about the smell and chew of a fresh loaf of bread.
Forgive me, tender skin, for all of these oven burns, now scars.
My apologies to some great concertos I’ve never listened to, 
and to those that moved me deeply, for not sitting still.

My apologies to the cold woman on the hard bench, 
for savoring these blankets in the morning, 
for returning to them with coffee, and lingering as long as I am allowed.
Pardon my reckless heart its sudden leaking breaks.
Forgive me, solemnity, for laughing in the house of death,
forgive me, composure, for my melting face.

And to all the birds whose names I never managed to learn–– trees, too,
all those branched beings I claimed to love but did not plant, to the plants
I claimed to want but did not water, or watered too much, or kept in the wrong pots,
choking.

To domesticity, forgive these blood-soaked fangs. Faith, please notice
when I lose you, how I am always losing you; please come looking when I do. 
You can find me by my gait, like someone trying not to limp on a broken bone.
Bone, forgive my insistence on walking through your break.
Pride, forgive me when I can’t control the limp. 
Endure, hunger, that I may continue to move, just to feed you. 
Patience, don’t blame me for pretending we were sisters even when I didn’t return your calls.
My apologies to all those hopes I inadvertently inspired, which I could not answer.

And to love, for everything. 
And to honesty, for the way my eyes so often grow heavy when you speak. 
I am beyond excuses, sinking in the pit of my own making. Don’t hold it against me, words,
 for crying so much about wishing I had more to give, and then, 
when you give all you have, for guarding you in silence 
like a dragon over captive virgins he may not know.

Ways of Looking

Deep attention is precious because it is so rare, and it speaks to what is endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.

I recently finished reading a beautiful, difficult-to-categorize novel that was almost not published. It’s Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, (the title a reference to the Kurosawa film, which features heavily throughout the story), and it was deemed by most of those who could have published it to be too difficult. People wouldn’t get it. I had never heard of it, and then I heard it mentioned twice, with earnest praise, by serious poets I was following, whose work had been sustaining me in profound ways. Serious poets are one group who tends to know especially well the loneliness of creating what no one is asking for. I had to read the book that they found so sustaining, and now I am so grateful I did.  

I won’t even try to summarize any of it here. It won’t work, because what happens in this book is not going to lend itself to any sort of succinct overview. Suffice to say, there are parallel plots: a boy looking for his father, and his mother looking for some relief from predictable banality. Her artistic sensibilities are extremely heightened, and she is the sort to be in the handful of about five people left in an audience after a renowned composer tries difficult work, exploring really new territory. The composer, too, suffers from a crisis of faith, no longer wanting to perform or create CDs when there are only about five people who would want to listen to the type of music that he finds interesting now. Each of these characters is wearied by the commodification of the familiar. None have material wealth, and all feel the limitations of not having money, in real ways. And yet. The mother, who had tried to kill herself long ago, before the son was born, is someone for whom the presence of deeply honest art may be a life-saving force.

I won’t get into further details here, except to note something profound that DeWitt writes in the afterword.  She is describing the irony of living in a world where “humanities are increasingly dismissed as impractical and whatever counts as STEM is a good thing because practical. But we don’t live in a society where every schoolchild has Korner’s The Pleasures of Counting, or Steiner’s The Chemistry Maths Book, . . . Lang’s Astrophysical Formulae. . .” She goes on to observe that “perhaps we should really be more interested in the unknown capabilities of the reader.” She reflects on the way that her manuscript was summarily dismissed for years, and also on the intensity of the response of those readers who have connected with it. She writes, “It’s not hard to imagine a world where the effect of the book on what has been a coterie of readers is multiplied to the point where general assumptions about what is possible are changed.” Perhaps alluding to the strict ethical code observed by the samurai who feature so prominently in her book, DeWitt observes, of this possible new world, that while it is “by no means unflawed, . . .it looks better than what we have. We should fight for it when and where we can.” I am so deeply grateful to this writer for persisting in her vision when all signs (as they are typically read) pointed to giving up and abandoning her vision for something “more practical.”

“The Last Samurai” by Óscar Velázquez on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license.

These thoughts happened to coincide with some vague awareness I’ve been coming to lately, about connections between honesty, risk, and gratitude. It came to me while I was observing someone who was being celebrated, who seemed rather bored by their own following, even as they had come to depend in certain ways on the attention. When there’s so much of it, the attention itself becomes excessive, perhaps even cheapened. With some people in public places doing things publicly, an offering of appreciation seems to get absorbed into an echo chamber, validating whatever sense of greatness was already felt before the performance began, looping back the grand stature like the canned soundtrack of some preordained manifest destiny, as if someone has taken a carefully prepared, handmade gift and tossed it without looking on the overflowing table behind them.

But with others, when someone approaches with gratitude, reflecting their light back to its source, they cannot help but wonder: who is this here, seeing; really seeing? How is it that some kindred soul in this moment of abject, naked vulnerability, will manage to stop and look? These others return the gaze, inviting the pilgrim to meet them; to rediscover, in the wild, the sort of contact once thought extinct. The attention is precious because it is so rare, and it is meaningful because it speaks to what is rare and endangered within us. This is worth fighting for.

Remembering Forward and Back

A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that.

There are moments when you are inside something, noticing what you will remember when it’s done. Or there are exploding moments and you can’t help but notice the blast of certain solid-seeming ideas. It’s a protected site: caution tape, guards. You can’t go around taking things from it, so you look, gathering images for later when you’re no longer at the site, for when the site itself no longer exists except perhaps as a memorial, for when you are considering, in memorial, what remains.

A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that, eating any memory of what happened before or after. You try to recover, but can do no better than metaphor.

It was like being inside a Dali painting, melted face propped on a stick. It was like being stuck on top of the monkey bars or like one of those dreams where you are trying to scream and the words won’t come out. The problem with trying to tell some stories is that the origin point was consumed by other origin points, cannibal moments.

It was like another dream, also: driving a car up a ramp. The ramp is so steep that it’s practically vertical. The road is narrow and it is over a bridge and the bridge is over sky and space and water and whatever you might be about to fall into is on both sides, close, and there is no way to reverse, but you see that the road ahead of you will very soon drop off into sky. You head up anyway, accepting a certain lack of choice. Or choosing to accept that the original decision was already made when you got into the car and started driving. That moment never shows up in the dream, not once.

Or it was like being underwater, in the quiet susurration of it, trying to resist the temptation to surface for air.

Or it was like flight/not flight, as in jumping up, bouncing off, or being thrown, that moment in midair when the breath catches.

And while you’re catching your breath you know that it was indeed like all of these things, but none exactly, and for the time being you are all out of words. Sometimes all you want to do is hang on to some scrap of fallen silence at your feet and close your eyes, as if doing so could make it possible to return to some moment just before.

The Large Bathers

I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

A person much better schooled than I am in the subject of art history recently observed that Cezanne was obviously frightened of women. I thought of his large nudes and my first impulse was disbelief based on the forms he painted; based on The Large Bathers alone, but then I looked again and saw what might have been immediately apparent, had I been less than thoroughly schooled in the superiority of binary notions. As in, an idea that the beautiful and the terrifying live in opposite poles; an idea that an artist’s preoccupation is the familiar and never the unknown; the idea that knowing well somehow cancels the haunting aspect of mystery. 

Schooling in the superiority of one thing over another is a very different thing from being schooled properly in the anatomy of a body of interconnected parts, in which even the poles of a supposed binary are reliant on one another for existence. For example, it is possible (and even likely) to be raised Catholic and read very little of the Bible beyond the red words. But then you look more closely, and you see how he was with the women and with the sick and the dead and you learn much later – by this time, you are actively looking, following a hunch and the wisdom of scholars who have managed not to sever their minds from their hearts–– that the most concise truth in Biblical letters is: Jesus wept. This at the death of Lazarus, when he knew he would raise him–– or perhaps he came to know this in weeping for his friend. You look at this liberator, his patience with the lepers and the new-dead sons, the accused whores left for dead and the tax collectors, and the Roman soldiers, and even Pilate himself who had little choice, and you think, here is a capital-M man, in an actual body, bound to be hunted for execution by the forces feeding on obedience of the same lowercase men holding a jagged rib like a shiv at Eve’s naked throat, and the fact that this was obscured so thoroughly hits with all of the imagined weight and pressure of the first nail.

Paul Cezanne’s The Large Bathers,  Philadelphia Museum of Art. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, posted by jpellgen on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic license. 

Then I look at the nudes again, and I see it, the way that naked truth becomes the terror in the night, how most of the time someone claiming to want it is just dropping coins by mouth into a coffer at an expected time, a fee more commonly known as lip service, which might be more aptly described as the words spoken in the name of an embodied mystery which has been bound and gagged prior to the press conference. I celebrate the way that this artist found the courage to keep looking when he could more easily have turned away.

On the Liquidity of Solid-Seeming Cats

What else is a writer, but always moving in and out of places that are supposed to be off limits?

One learns early (children, cats) that there is a certain way to comport oneself in public, especially around men. Like most authentic educational experiences, transmission is done more through example than direct instruction. 

Reasons didn’t matter to me early on, only how to be. I wouldn’t consider questions of why until later. Men in public places might be easily confused, threatened, or alarmed, any of which might bring out the worst. A body adapts around certain givens in nature, or at least tries to. 

Early in adolescence, I just wanted to get the moves right and remember my lines, but I had no natural aptitude for the role. I watched other girls pull it off in a manner that seemed no different than their natural selves. They were graceful and coquettish; pliant and mysterious all at once. But I felt like a semi-sedated lion at a zoo exhibit, all my wild drugged out of me until all that there was left to do was look out through my wild eyes and hope they didn’t give me away. 

Those eyes. an old woman once said, like a cat!

“Shhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!” I wanted to whisper-shout back at her. This was early on in my experiment.  Over time, I learned, and decades later (which happened to be a few years before I could fully recognize certain problems manifest in this area of study and practice – I knew that I had emerged with top marks, as evidenced by regular complements as to my smile, “easygoing nature” which I read as familiarity with certain grooming practices and mannerisms aligned with the male gaze).

It’s tempting to regret learning this, but probably futile. Knowing how to be invisible in public, how to wear veils, how and when to find the mute button on my unwieldy self, certainly afforded me certain measures of protection that I’d love to imagine myself innately resilient enough to go without, but which were probably needed. The cost of these preoccupies me lately, but it’s not like I anyone can return old lessons for a refund. As a writer, I can only turn it around, look for other angles, find some useful rationale. 

In this vein, I’ve been observing how learning to be inconspicuous is a necessary part of any sort of undercover work. What else is a writer, but always moving in and out of places that are supposed to be off limits? I grew up in the age when to “be real” seemed to be linked with a no-holds-barred sort of no-filter mystique. I watched this lauded with a sense of dread and despair, recognizing that I was constitutionally incapable of this state. 

A body learns, over time, to let go of its binary notions: authentic/invented, delicate/fierce, domesticated/wild, tender/hard. If these binaries serve any purpose, it is in creating a tension that is interesting to work with. A dancer learns to compose, with the instrument of their body, a vivid display of movement that suggests that they have managed to remove the filter between emotional states and bodily expression. In fact, they have learned to explore, lean into, and play with the body’s own limits and abilities, to achieve something that lets an audience imagine limitlessness. To achieve this, a dancer contorts into all manner of difficult and often painful postures.

In their excellent book, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People, acclaimed object-oriented philosopher Timothy Morton makes an interesting observation about cats. Morton observes how cats occupy the liminal space “between” humankind and the so-called “Natural world.” This is to highlight another false binary, namely human/nature. 

Photo by Kirsten Bu00fchne on Pexels.com

This week I have been watching my cat with heightened interest. My interest is selfish, another funny word, implying a binary between selfish/unselfish which is problematic and likely impossible for any being whose survival depends on connection with an intricate network of human and non-human beings. I am on the lookout for clues about walking in two worlds. Considering writing, loving, and any creative work, the idea of an extended retreat is infinitely appealing, and for most of us, just as unlikely, as far as life options go. In most cases, creating anything requires a fluidity of movement between worlds.

I notice that my cat may go from sleeping in my purse to leaping over the back gate in less than five seconds. Her shapeshifting powers are a wonder to behold, but perhaps she is not shapeshifting at all even though she appears at certain times to be in one state or another (resting/leaping, domestic/wild, waiting/hunting) ––only endlessly fluid. I’m fairly certain she’ll return in the evening, contort herself into various impossible-looking nap positions, wander around, stare at me with that look that cats get, like the old sage waiting for the neophyte to move beyond lesson one.

But Why Bother? In Defense of Nobody’s Heroes

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody.

There is a lot to value about artistic recognition, but this is a cheer for the value of being solidly nobody. Considering the Zen idea of “beginner’s mind, best mind” helps to highlight how the point is to keep beginning. The people I find most interesting (both well-recognized and completely unknown) are those who are more interested in what is confusing or new to them than anything they have already done. Life rarely fits any limited ideas of what it should look like, and this is the deep appeal of the misfit creative beings who go on doing their thing, pursuing deep interests and questions: not because anyone is asking, but because there is some life there, and sometimes because no one else is looking for or after it. 

To share from the point of strangeness and isolation, a person may create openings in the walls of strangeness and isolation that prevent us from knowing each other. It is interesting and deeply human, and a deeply loving act of service: the project of creating homes and supportive ecosystems that work with and for ourselves and the lives around us, regardless of who is or isn’t asking, noticing, picking up, or recognizing. 

Frank McCourt was sixty-six when he published Angela’s Ashes. He had spent a career as a teacher. Alma Woodsey Thomas had her first show at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five-year career teaching art in DC public schools. Mary Delany was seventy-two when she invented her own art form, mixed media collage. 

I am currently reading Helen DeWitt’s brilliant novel, The Last Samurai, which she published at the age of forty-three. This may seem relatively young, until you realize how early and earnestly she began. We live in a culture that loves to celebrate the young phenom, the wild breakout success, but I take heart in knowing that DeWitt’s brilliant “debut” was her 50th manuscript.  In each of the preceding forty-nine, she had labored diligently and faithfully toward her art, in hopes that it would be read and recognized. She was right, but she may have been “proven wrong” if she stopped after the first forty-nine “failures.” I doubt these were artistic failures, now that I have read DeWitt’s work, but her singular brilliance and truly groundbreaking aesthetic no doubt made unfamiliar demands on her readers, so it was likely passed over, in favor of more easily accessible and familiar styles.

These heroes are the passionate, sensitive artists who managed to maintain artistic vision and practice while working in other roles. Recognizing and celebrating the life-giving courage of their radical acts can be a healthy antidote to the common tendency to see perceived limitations as impediments to artistic development. I could do my work if only –– fill in the blanks, depending on the mood and obstacles of the moment. But if the goal is protection and preservation of life, then obstacles and moods, while deeply relevant to our being in the world, have no relevance (generally, in professional life) on whether the work gets done or not.

“Pygmy Tarsiers” by Rodney Campbell on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License. *

I am consistently honored, thrilled, and humbled by the power of artists who demonstrate this level of artistic professionalism even as they play working roles as plumbers and dishwashers, house cleaners and repair people; chefs and diaper changers and all-around creative inspirations for managing the way the flow of the substance of any given day can feel like trying to take a sip through a fire hose while trying not to perish from drowning or thirst. 

It’s like that. Not sometimes, not exceptionally; but most of the time, and consistently. I’d rather learn to work with these conditions than cross my fingers and hope for better ones someday. 

*The pygmy tarsier, a nocturnal primate native to Indonesia, was widely believed to have gone extinct in the early 20th century, but then it was accidentally captured (and sadly killed) in a rat trap in the year 2000. Fortunately, since then, several other members of the species have made appearances, and their movements are now being tracked and monitored with great hope, interest, and appreciation for their fragility. One of my favorite species of internet research is searching up newly discovered and rediscovered species. 

Big and Little: a Reunion

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!


LITTLE
[laughing]

Again!

“Baby elephant” by Georg Sander on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

You pessimistic-fantastical visionary of hopes and fears! Jerome of the forest, you left no letters or diaries: what now?

TO:           Hieronymous Bosch

FROM:           Curious 

CC:           Anyone else who might be wondering

DATE:           Now

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.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, oil on oak panels, 205.5 cm × 384.9 cm (81 in × 152 in), Museo del Prado, Madrid

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?