The Long Return

Reading bones.

The bone-readers tell a story: how the ancestor of all four-limbed creatures took its first steps on dry land. Here’s another: one day, one of the descendants of those long dwelling on land decided it was time to return. What followed were those familiar-looking progeny: whales, dolphins, porpoises, who seem to hold a certain invitation in their gaze, their play near boats and shores, and we can’t help our awe when we see them, calling Look!

Looking long, some of the bone readers speculate that the swelling in our chests, our voices, our eyes at these encounters is perhaps the product of one part primal memory and another of a longing to believe––that it is possible for someone long adapted to those acres beyond the spectral surfaces that once meant certain death, who has somehow adjusted the senses to account for the cacophony of what batted and chirped, rustled and warbled; rattled in the grasses and the winds––to still hear the call of a migrating pod thousands of miles away and think: home.

***

Inspired by the opening passage in Amber Dance’s article “The Evolution of Whales from Land to Sea.” The italicized phrase above is from this passage.

What Dreams

Journey on the river.

Imagine a world of your dreams, people will say, as if to conjure some vision of attainment, as if this is not the world that stops you in the night to hold you in its grasp, its hot breath in your ear, a ceaseless whisper.

There goes Death again, walking into the sea. Meanwhile the clock tower burns, the sleeper exits through the window, the hermit takes a first step. At an altar, lovers wait. Now comes a covered chair above the river, bodies pulling it in opposite directions. The cloaked rider holds a small flame straight ahead.

It’s a wonder the rider continues. Wouldn’t it be easier to walk than to reconcile these opposites, using nothing but posture, mind, and force of will? But this is how it happens in the world of dreams.

***

Inspired by an encounter with the surrealist photography of Nicolas Bruno, particularly his Somnia Tarot.

After Dark

The first night of the world.

Something new was happening in the land of light. Suddenly, the world began to grow dark. The birds knew, but people had to learn, this is where you pause what you are doing; this is how you put down mats; this is when you lie down.

Be still, said one who knew.

And do what? Someone asked.

Sleep. But they didn’t know the word, not yet. So, the one who knew said, just wait, and people waited. Eventually, they knew sleep.

Then came a new light, but softer, and the birds sang to meet it. The sleepers opened their eyes and finally, after all this time, they were waking to meet the first day.

***

Inspired by “Finding Night,” Virginia Hamilton’s retelling of the story of Quat, the solar god of the Banks Islands, north of the New Hebrides in Melanesia. From In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World.

Oy, the World

Chance encounters.

The world was naked except for the appearance of a sudden shock of cloth, flown in from the direction she was walking––toward tomorrow, we assumed. She had batons as for marching or magic, and a circular wreath. She was ending and beginning. Four figures around her kept watch: lion, bull, angel, eagle.

“Hello, everyone!” we said to the world and her creatures, “You’ve come back! We thought you took off on us eons ago.”

“We were just laying low,” said the angel. “Poachers.” The eagle nodded, the bull gave a snort, and the lion stretched his mouth in a tremendous yawn.

“Well, it’s a good thing you’re here,” we said to the world.

Suddenly, she was gone.

“What’s happened to the world?” we cried out.

The angel, looking bored, moved his chin in the direction where she had been standing. “It’s your oyster now.”

We looked, and there it was.

The eagle, who had been preening, was suddenly alert.

What happened next happened very quickly. Later, we would replay it again and again, stunned that we had not moved more quickly. But that’s how these things go.

As we watched the eagle fly off, no doubt digesting the world he had eaten, the angel cupped his hand to light a cigarette. Then he said, “Yeah. He loves those things.”

That was yesterday. The eagle has not yet returned and the other three are asleep in a large pile of soft snores, the angel’s head on the lion’s torso, the lion leaning into the bull’s flank, the bull’s ear’s twitching.

They look cute like that, like one of those images someone might post, of a box of new cats. It’s funny to be here still noticing things like this, even after the world is all gone.

***

Inspired by a chance encounter with The World as depicted in a tarot deck.

Lascaux

The art of original sin.

After the age of the reindeer, people took to caves to paint the animals they’d learned to ambush in migration. Horse, deer, bull: each a flash of wild light to spark the chase. So here is where we find the first stories. Once upon a time there was a horse.

The arrow became the first hero. It won against the flesh. From the start, original sin and original notions of power were wedded. The horse, having no tools, ate only the garden. The paintings made the first history a sacred bond between hunter and hunted. To die, the creature had to consent to its killing.

Long after the age of the cave paintings, came a poet. He looked, wondering: to what do we owe the charm of this vivid bestiary? He admitted an answer: only insatiable, murderous, love. It weighted his heart ever after. No, he thought. This would not do. How could he accept this mythology as his birthright?

He went on, looking and writing. What was he making, some new myth? No, it was nothing so defined as the outline of those figures on the cave walls. He was only trying to return, again and again, to the flash of wild light before the chase began.

***

Inspired by Zbigniew Herbert’s essay on the Lascaux cave paintings, from Barbarian in the Garden. Italicized phrases above are his, as translated by Michael March.

Mother Wisdom

Reflections of the unseen.

To revise knowing itself, inverting worlds without end, you passed your liquid form easily between solid and mythic, seen and unseen, sacred and profane, in constant devotion.

First there was the Word, and you transformed what they took as given into what was not yet understood, with such deft agility that you were forbidden to teach. You continued invisibly to your invisible audience, understanding that your censors didn’t know how to look.

You saw no Eve, only Ave, and in her humility, no mortification, only the merit of a queen reigning over wisdom, co-creator with creation, who became a bird when needed for the purpose of the miracle.

You watched her fool the imagists, passing their censorious eyes by assuming the appearance of a vessel, passive and waiting for another will to be done, and you put a pen in her hand, beheld wisdom running from the fonts at her feet, made her dean of the house of intellect, reigning over the archangels, the non-humans, the insignificant wonders everywhere.

***

Inspired by the life and work of Juana Inés de la Cruz whose legacy defies categorization, except as representative of one of the most brilliant visionaries in recorded history. 

Dead Teachers

First lessons in deep time.

Look at you, powerful danger, witness to our end and our continuance. Cipher of memory, speak into the borders of this condition.

The first body––of nature, will vanish soon. But the second goes slowly. A creature of culture does not exit so quickly from its binding web. There are decisions to make about the coming journey, and in these we find fiber enough to weave the net. 

We ease them gently from us and continue to invite them back. We live with them, and they know us. Gone is too easy a word; if it were complete, wouldn’t the loss have less weight? 

This is something else, a presence without assurance, a radical rupture, reminding what the soil takes back. No, we have never been clean.

But if not gone, then where? Here is the beginning of hope, thirteen ways of looking at a moldering body. What else could it be, these first lessons in seeing the invisible?

***

I was considering the presence of deep time in the work of artist Alfredo Arreguin when I came across a Social Research article by Thomas W. Laqueur called “The Deep Time of The Dead,” which inspired this post.

Playing at the Cemetery

Stories in light and shadow.

Tell us again the story of this long walk. Narrate the separation, trace the lines of these forever journeys on our faces out and our bodies away, and draw them on our hands and back together in a net wide enough to hold the slippery forms of recent memory, the laughter of ancestors, and the mischief of our dead. Bring the children close, closer; bind them to us––close enough to keep them in the weave and weave us tight, between the living and the dead and back again.

Tell it in light, with the accent that reveals your time in the shadow lands. Wrap our losses in embalming cloth and hold them still. Let us visit. Then unwrap them, invite them on stage. We want to see them again, how they show us ourselves: the sad, the child, the ashamed, the elegant, the diva. 

In a state of partial decay, the smile widens to something between a laugh and a scream, and we find a face we recognize. Mirror, mirror, return us to ourselves, to one another. Come back.

***

Inspired by the photographs of Lorry Salcedo Mitrani. The title of this post is from a 1992 photograph that led me to the artist’s body of work.

The Dreamers

On myth and memory.

Unless the sky falls to the earth, unless the forest up and moves, unless the seas should empty themselves of all depths, would you clip the lawless wings of imagination’s first flight, to sacrifice its range and its wild for the sake of having its reliable presence near the dinner table and along these streets?

We loved mystery before beauty and the unseen lurkers terrified us to ecstasies with their tickling whispers. 

It’s hard not to miss the irresponsible charm of the old gods, who in their airy innocence seemed only to care about getting what they wanted, whose flaming passions lit the sunset skies, who would rear a starling from scratch and teach her to speak, so that she might announce our secreted dreams back to us, exposing our still-feral hopes, the directionless expanse of their vicious hunger, creeping where we could not dare to look.

Bird Women

Subtle bodies in flight.

An old fantasy: the flying man. Faust would die for it. The better to study stars, he said. After all, he reasoned, weren’t the heavens more suitable for study by the dead than the living? If a bird may, why not a man? They kept trying. 

For some of the women, long trained in the art of dying, flight was one of those things you simply didn’t discuss, like the daily deaths or predawn dreams. Who was asking? 

I think my grandmother knew how, as the grandmothers before her also did. It was one of those things that came with death. In certain situations, learning how to die was just another one of those things that one did, for the living.