Descent

Into the ocean world.

Mondays tend to offer numerous reminders of the need for an underwater excursion. With this in mind, today’s found poem is an assembly of phrases found in Jacques Cousteau’s introduction to The Ocean World, a stunning volume that featured prominently in my childhood imagination. 

The act of life,

an eye permanently open––

immense, teeming; plankton like haze,

barely visible, monotonous. Now what?

The diving years reveal a thin layer

of sea, fragile––at our mercy, somehow,

this organized crystal of three-dimensional 

nothingness: ocean intelligence buried

under waste. Consider the precariousness

of this third infinity, in the grabbing hands 

of someone unable to think beyond what he

might take: salvation, discovery, the next ride.

Even the next image, and yet, listen at

the edges: what third infinity continues

in constant chorus, inaudible to those

above, still held by laws of degradation

before the threshold of this ancient beyond?

Secondary Questions on the Nature of First Aid

One has reason to wonder about the validity of the preeminence of aid associated with certain hierarchical naming conventions.

There are books you can acquire, on fundamentals of for survival. The idea being, that if you know enough, you can respond effectively in any crisis. The idea being, that this is the point, like a raised sword into battle, a popular image among anyone primed to think of themselves as the hero about to happen.

In a typical lifesaving manual, you can find sections on dressing for survival; on hyperthermia and muscle cramping; heatstroke, hypothermia, frostbite. 

Then comes the chapter on tending wounds: what to do before and after. How to stop the bleeding, assess the damage, clean the wound, decide on treatment, close it up. 

––Burns, too: first steps, the signs in order of degree: first, second, third, a hierarchy of singed flesh. And notes on life-threatening complications, as if to reassure the reader that such matters––the complications, that is–– were secondary.

Next come the mammal bites, rabies, snakes; foreign objects in the skin; bark scorpions, fleas, chiggers, gunshot wounds; stinging nettles, poisonous plants. 

Rib injuries, lacerations at the neck, collapsed lungs, flail chest, broken feet; what to do when someone collapses. For these things there are specific treatments because what led to the breaking of bones and vessels for bleeding are matters of an entirely different order, as with the fire of the gun, the long exposure to cold, the vulnerability of certain skins to certain forms of abrasions and lacerations, the moments preceding collapse.

The matter of saving a life goes beyond the moment of crisis, but here is the proverbial tough pill, too wide even for many a gallant knight’s earnest and proclamatory throat. To the dismay of many a less-attractive object of need than the damsel-in-distress or child at the edge of a hot cauldron, the crisis is always more glamorous than the slow attention it takes to watch someone and understand precisely which cries are consistently muted, and to recognize that the capacity for burning cannot be measured any better by degrees than its aftermath can be easily sorted into a neat ranking of first, second, third.

There’s a silence to watching honestly, and it’s repellent to the seekers of valor. There is nothing glamorous about slow attention, no reason to raise a white horse on its hind legs in show of strength. There is only patience, and watching, the slow action of growth below ground, and everywhere above it, the attention it takes to count the lines in a knuckle, the veins in a hand, the rhythm and meter of rising and falling ribs before they are broken.

I would die for this, the would-be hero wants to always proclaim, of the death he imagines as clean as the light gleaming from a sword before it’s tested. The living is such a mess. How uncomfortable it is, to recognize the courage of surviving the contamination and doing so consistently, in the name of nothing more glamorous than the next waiting moment. 

Here is the birth of the courage that few are willing to look at directly. It hurts like looking at the sun: to see what it takes to survive––not the crisis, but the slow and patient tending to what may yet grow––and then again, maybe not. The waiting can kill you, and here’s the rub: when it does, it will sound like absolutely nothing.

Here’s what I think of the valor of the knights I was raised to revere. I think showing up in a crisis is an easy victory, fruit plucked heavy from a tree limb by a sword not so different in intention from that which would give pause to the waiting lady. It’s as easy as being celebrated with hearty open hands of congratulations, against the solid-seeming back, the only one visible when the back on which it leans is buried underground, tending to the merciless details required of everything with a fraction of a chance to live, and unable to give up for the length of time it would take to stand and shake off something that someone with the privilege of pretensions to ideals like Truth and Belief would never imagine had any weight at all.  

Second Looks

The trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

Huh.

What?

There are faces.

I don’t see any. 

Look here. You can’t see them as a collective. Go one at a time. 

All I see is wallpaper.

Step back. There is a face.

I’m not––

It’s in the shadows.

The face is?

The shadows make the features. It only works at a distance.

Like memory?

Exactly.

I read something about mosaics recently, just like that. By someone who was learning the art. How the trick is to learn how to look from a distance while close to the pieces, and to account for the movement of light.

There’s a little winged man in the garden sometimes. 

––The art of broken parts, she said.

In the clouds, a giraffe. The lights in the sky, like a bird in flight.

There’s a green haired man in the rocks.

Madonna in a gourd, toast Jesus, the grilled cheese miracle.

There’s a rabbit on the moon. Or a man.

A man, you think?

Well, a face anyway. Like this. Step back a little more. Right here. Relax your eyes, like a cat.

I ––oh. Wow.

Yes.

It’s there.

Right there.

I almost missed it.

Keep looking.

Notes:

This piece is inspired by an article about artist Lee Wagstaff’s recent work, in which “hidden faces” emerge from canvases of repeating geometric patterns, and also by an article about the human tendency to see patterns.

Margherita Cole’s September 29th article in My Modern Met: “Hypnotic Portrait Paintings are Based on AI Generated Faces.” 

Larry Sessions’s Earthsky article, “Seeing Things That Aren’t There? It’s Called Pareidolia,” (November 2020)

The reference to mosaics is inspired by Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World

Faith and Apple Seeds

John planted apples in nurseries. He headed west barefoot. He listened through lies and went on loving, gently.

Until this morning I considered Johnny Appleseed to be one of those figures I associated with made-up stories like George and the cherry tree or Casey at the bat, which are told to distract children from larger questions about what is really going on here. I remember a cartoon image: goofy-looking barefoot guy in a straw hat, Scandinavian features, strolling barefoot over hills, munching on an apple he held in his left hand while he tossed apple seeds from a satchel with his right. A folksy song played in the background, the lyrics no doubt including something along the lines of, Here comes Johnny Appleseed. . .  Something, something apple trees!  But this morning I learned that he had another name, and it was John Chapman, and that he was born on this day in 1774. In 1840, someone took a photograph of him (or was it a daguerreotype then? I don’t know). He has the face of a man who is kind and serious, who has seen through the ways of men and will not be easily fooled. How different he looks, from the cartoon fool they made him into.

He was eighteen when he left home. He took his half-brother Nate with him. Nate was eleven. They went West, as one does. For thirteen years they lived as nomads. John’s mother had died when he was two, while his father was away, fighting redcoats, so he was used to it. 

He wasn’t tossing seeds or even planting orchards. It was nurseries he planned and built, tended, and left in the care of someone he hired, with promise to return. 

He almost died in a tree while picking hops. He fell and his neck was caught in the fork. It was his eight-year-old help that cut the tree down to save him. 

Near the end, he was moved by a sermon, although not in the manner intended. The preacher went on and on, eager to make a point, asking again and again, where is the primitive Christian, barefoot in coarse raiment? ––Alluding, it seemed, to the original disciples, and some perceived spiritual distance between then and now.

The point had something to do with indulgences. Calico was one; tea was another.

Chapman grew weary of the obvious play for power by guilt and so he approached the podium, which at that moment was a tree stump. He put his bare foot on it, said Here is your primitive. Now what? The congregation was dismissed.

Later, he preached to anyone listening, not of a vengeful God, but of the one who came after. Killed for his simplicity, John suspected. His blessings on the merciful, the poor, the grieving, the hungry, the persecuted. After all of that, who would be left to save, but the rich, who wanted no salvation unless it came on their own gilded terms?

His leader was the one who washed the feet of his brothers, who was gentle with women; who saved harsh words for the moneylenders and thieves in the temple, and for the robed men who used religion like a sword. 

Where is it, anyway, someone asked John, with regards to the kingdom of God.

Right here, John told them. Right here, only look.

And they sat barefoot among the trees, and the wind moved them, and they knew.