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?

Remembering, Borges, Flights

The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard.

Morning.
Morning!

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?

And why can’t I?
We probably used to.

But I can’t remember.


“Dragon” by Aqva on flickr under an Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license.



*The idea of a patient with amnesia as having the least contaminated memory comes from Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, as described beautifully in Maria Popova’s Brainpickings article: “Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of Aliveness.” 


* 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.

Forms

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. 

“Jacob’s Ladder” by José María Pérez Nuñez on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic License.