Dancing with Poets, Among Reindeer

On Shel Silverstein’s birthday, I happen to reading news of the petroglyphs, and also of the magic mushroom people hunting whales.

Yesterday’s post on the potential revival of ice age creatures unearthed from the tundra’s melting permafrost is what made me aware of The Siberian Times, which seemed like an excellent addition to my small collection of regularly visited sites. It was here that I learned of the mushroom people, which happened to be very shortly after I learned it was Shel Silverstein’s birthday, and found myself reminiscing about laughing with my daughter over pages in Where the Sidewalk Ends and other volumes, his brilliant sense of delight in wonder and dark humor, the electric hilarity of morbid details delivered in singsong (“I’m being eaten by a Boa Constrictor/ And I don’t like it one bit…  Oh gee, it’s up to my knee. . . Oh heck, it’s up to my neck . . .”).  So, when I read the article about the mushroom people, it is only natural that I heard it as follows:

The reindeer are crossing the river, and dogs are out chasing a bear.

We drew them above the cold sea, with the wind and the salt in our hair.

Who were these artists, these dreamers up there––

so far away from any known where? 

Bearded men rubbing away at their their faces, 

with bald-faced ones wishing they’d sooner found traces

of places where no beards were looking,

and no one was daring to tread.

We dance in these paintings, large mushrooms on heads. 

The music is gone now, and we are all dead. 

We had stems for our legs, and mushrooms for hair, 

but as for our music, they heard it nowhere. 

And that was our joke, how nobody knew 

anything of us or what we could do. 

When you cross over, the music invites you to dance, 

with winds on the tundra, in leaves of those plants. 

And no one is there, recording a show;

few stories on record, and little to know. 

This is bad for museums, but what was it to them? 

For the living, the point is to dance to the end.

On the Night Train, with P.D.

A “Real Talk With Dead Folks” installment featuring French painter Paul Delvaux, who would have been ninety-eight today.

Today is one of those days for Real Talk with Dead Folks, an occasional Breadcrumbs feature. I knew it this morning when I learned it was the birthday of French painter Paul Delvaux, and I spent my coffee silence with his work.

Joyeux anniversaire, Paul Delvaux. You would have been ninety-eight today.

You are known for your nude women, your long shadows, your anxious isolation.

I like your Break of Day, the topless figures gathered in what is either a palace courtyard or its ruins. At first I think they are women, then I see what appear initially to be the finned tails of mermaids. 

But that is mossy bark, not scales, and those are roots, not tails. And then I look closer: the faces, the pose of their hands, their stiff necks. These are not women, exactly, but statues of flesh and trunk. 

I consider the roots, how tight they look, not quite spread and not quite rooted, and so close to one another. It seems impossible for them to make it very long like that, in such arid land. Behind them, a clothed woman is running, the desert floor behind her. 

Mountains congregate in the distance, under sky. 

Elsewhere, Gestapo were making arrests, Stalin was enforcing his Great Purge––mere preludes to the next world war. Your skeletons were often more animated than your fleshy counterparts. 

The home of your childhood was burned during the war years. What became of your beloved trains? Desire and horror met on your platforms. You studied music in the museum room, while skeletons in a glass cabinet appeared to watch.

You knew the anxious city, haunted with skeletons. You called it the climate of silent streets, with shadows of people who can’t be seen.

Mirrors, moon, candles, books: these were your favored elements. Around the nudes and the flute players, your skeletons danced.  Always in your paintings, this sense of waiting: of separation, this terrifying emptiness; this ongoing cycle of arrivals and departures.

It’s the little girl in the dress I am wondering about, the one with her back to the viewer. She is watching the trains by moonlight. What else does she see?

Always in your paintings, there she is: the beautiful but inaccessible muse. You painted her anyway, unable to keep from looking. 

It is for this that I bow to you. The way you saw death everywhere, and still looked for something else. The way you seemed to know your salvation to be just out of reach, while you reached anyway–– seeming to accept, by your actions, some unspoken contract. We all sign it to live here, but most are afraid to read the fine print.  It’s enough sometimes, to live for the unseen, the untouched. I like to think that this is what makes your skeletons move the way they do.

More about Paul Delvaux’s work:

Metropolitan Museum of Art

More Real Talk with Dead Folks

Real Talk With Galileo

Curious Sends Memo to Dead Artist of Living Work

Here’s to W.G., absurdist O.G.

Lens on the Littles

How do you discover something new? By looking where no one else is looking, with a new and better lens.

Huh.

What?

It’s Antonie Phillips van Leeuwenhoek’s birthday today.

Wait. Does this mean you’re inviting people over? I’m not up for it tonight. I have––

It’s not like I know him, know him. Besides, he died in 1723. It’s just, you know.

I don’t. Who is this guy?

He’s the father of microbiology. Dutch guy. He lived in the same town as Vermeer. Funny, he didn’t even think of himself as a scientist. He was a draper. He wanted to get a better look at the thread, so he worked on making better magnifying lenses. 

Is he that guy in Vermeer’s Astronomer?

Some say, even though the resemblance is questionable. What’s funny is he didn’t tell anybody about the lenses. Competition was fierce. But then he had a look at pond water, and he saw all these moving creatures.

Wonder of wonders. 

That’s exactly what he said!  So, he tells his friend, who is a scientist, and eventually word gets out and he captures the attention of The Royal Society of London. 

He published his findings?

Eventually, in letters. He had to be talked into this. He was like, I’m not a scientist, I’m a businessman! They’ll laugh at me! I don’t even know the terminology!  But his friend assured him that biologists used mostly made-up words, especially where discoveries were concerned.

Studying biology is like learning a new language.

Okay, he said. I’ll call these little guys animalcules!

That’s the spirit, his friend said.  The term is out of fashion now, but it encompassed lots of little creatures: unicellular algae, small protozoa, tiny invertebrates.

All in the pondwater?

At first. Later he turned his lenses on other findings. He found bacteria living in the human mouth and he the guts of animals. Spermatozoa, too, and the banded pattern of muscle fibers. 

Well, that’s something. 

Isn’t it?! That’s the point! Where everyone else saw nothing, he saw something. His followers called him the first with the power to see.

Well, here’s to you, APL.  I’m still not cooking, but I’ll raise a glass.

Something small, maybe?

Hah! Better get your microscope. With the right lens, it’ll be a feast.

Arts of the Mind

Magic: the art of reframing what appears to be happening.

For the past two months, the pace of things and the hectic, noisy nature of a given day has been, to put it mildly, strenuous. Or, to put it more forcefully, profoundly difficult.  It’s what has me longing for silence, considering life underwater, and imagining journeys to cat island. This and staring at walls and their respective shelves, which is what I was doing this morning while I sipped coffee through bleary eyes, trying to prepare for the day. It was because of this stare that I noticed a gem of a strange book that I had bought along with some other magic books year ago. I had a minor character who was into magic, and although I was able to develop much of what I needed without needing to get bogged down in research, I keep the books on my shelf and turn to them from time to time. Doing so never fails to enlighten me in some unexpected way––which is, after all, what one wants when dealing with anything magical.  The book I noticed this morning is 13 Steps to Mentalism, by the English mentalist Tony Corinda (1930-2010), who is widely considered to be an expert in the field. 

My first question, when opening this volume was, “What is mentalism, exactly?” I had placed it in the family of magic, but I realized that I couldn’t exactly define the term. I quickly learned that Mr. Corinda wasn’t a fan of offering explanations to outsiders, as the book came with no preface, no introductory overview, and a table of contents that a newcomer may find inscrutable. For example, the opening page dives right into techniques for using an apparatus known as the “Swami Gimmick Writer” without any explanation as to what one of these devices actually is, or why someone who practices mentalism would want to know how to use them––or, needless to say, what it is that a mentalist is actually supposed to doing. 

Perhaps the point was to get me to develop my capacity for conjuring hidden meanings. With this challenge in mind, I was inspired to interpret that the device in question, which has some lead in a point like a pencil tip, attached in a subtle manner by a tiny device that fits on the tip of an index finger, is used––I think–– to make surreptitious markings on paper. This can be useful, I imagine, in the event that a participant has just revealed that the number they were thinking was six and you mean to show that the number you anticipated they would be thinking when you pretended to write one earlier was actually also––“Tah-dah! Six!”

So, with slight help from ability to use context clues, and much greater help from Wikipedia, I now understand that mentalism is a performing art in which its practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly developed mental or intuitive abilities. Performances may include hypnosis, telepathy, clairvoyance, divination, precognition, psychokinesis, mediumship, mind control, memory feats, deduction, and rapid mathematics.

And who couldn’t use more of this? So, in case you are wondering, I thought I would harvest a few pearls of wisdom regarding these various and related arts, because it is hard to imagine that such a wide range of skills would not be almost universally applicable to anyone in any field. 

This proved harder than I thought, because in Corinda’s own words, “I am not a fan of teaching anything to anybody at any time, except if they are one of us.” Given that teaching is my stated profession, I was moved to appreciate the bald-faced, albeit somewhat pessimistic nature of his honesty. By around page 275 of the volume, in the Chapter “Mediumistic Stunts,” I found a few clues that I am choosing, by exercise of will, to deem immensely useful. Who couldn’t benefit from some mediumistic stunts?  I read on eagerly, thinking as I considered the day ahead: Sign me up, Tony. Sign me up.

Here are some preliminary findings. First, the most important part is the dramatic delivery of speech. The element of surprise is always our friend, and some may be surprised to know what one can get away with in a setting like a séance. Note the importance of word choice. Instead of mind-reading, say Telepathy, or ESP. Rather than sight, refer to Clairvoyance. Instead of hearing, refer to your Clairaudience, and regarding matters of feeling, Clairsentience evokes the ineffable je ne sais quoi that any performer of mental–– um, Events (never, ever call these tricks) ––depends upon.  

These people are not the audience, but The Gathering! Not Ladies and Gentlemen, but Sitters and Friends! Not tools or thingies, but Psychic Appliances with specific names: auragoggles, spirit trumpet, gazing crystal.  Not Ghost, but Spirit; not Assistant, but Guide. The living are On the Earthplane, and the others are Beyond the Veil

To vanish is to Dematerialize, and Apportation is when something is apparently brought into the room my supernatural means.

There’s more to be explained––much more, but after hunting so long for something I could understand, I am going to rest on my laurels here. On days like this, in times like this, when I’m acutely aware of the need for some magic or divine assistance with the details of the day, I am refreshed by the reminder that sometimes what is needed most is the opportunity to reframe a situation through language.

It is not overwhelming, but sensorily and spiritually fertile; not soul-crushing, but soul-strengthening as with an athlete’s weight routine; not desperate, but ready to transform.

Badger in the Window Well

There is a badger in the window well. He appears to be stuck. What do you do?

Look here. There’s a badger.

They’re nocturnal.

No, in the window well.

Is that an omen?

No, that’s the wolverine, but some of the details of the old stories got mixed up in translation. 

What’s the badger, then?

He’s in the window well. Can you call––? I think he needs help.

Sure, but I mean, what does it mean?

That he followed something and got trapped, I guess.

No, I mean in the stories.

Hardworking, protective. They’re generous providers. The Lakota have a story.

Hello? Yeah, we have a badger in the window. He’s stuck. Can you–– okay. Hello?

Are they coming?

I think so. I think that guy was in the middle of something involving a large snake.

Well, hopefully not in the middle. Anyway, in the Lakota story, Badger hunts with arrows and he’s so successful that his lady is in the kitchen all day making the next feast for the den of chubby babies. Then one day a mangy, hungry bear shows up, eyeing the racks of meat drying in the yard.

And then what?

What do you think? Badger says he doesn’t look so hot, offers bear a meal. Bear eats his fill, goes away happy, comes back the next day. The badgers welcome him. Lady of the house even sets a rug out each night for the bear, so he has his own place.

Awwww.

Yeah, but the bear is greedy. The whole time he’s eating at the badger family table, he’s eyeing the bags of arrows, the stores of dried meat, the home.  One day he says to badger: You have what I want, and throws the whole family out, tossing them like feathers with his fat paw. 

Then what?

They howl, they cry. Badger begs for mercy. For the children, he says, but Bear won’t hear it. The Badgers build a new shelter, but they have no arrows, no stores of dried meat. The babies are starving. Badger goes back to bear, begging. He gets tossed away. Bear laughs and mocks.

But on the way out, Badger finds a bit of buffalo blood in the grass. He takes it back to the shelter, offers a sacrifice, begging divine intercession. And who do you think shows up?

I can’t imagine.

A human brother with arrows and means. They head back to the old home, which the bear family has been ransacking and getting fat on, and the bear doesn’t even need an explanation for their arrival. He knows what this is. He had it coming. He sees the magic arrow. He shouts to his family, Let’s go! and they flee. 

Did the human stay with them?

The avenger left the badger family then, to do other work. The badgers resumed their lives, and the bear never bothered them again. 

So, what’s this then, the badger in the window?

Is help coming?

I think so.

Well. Just a reminder, then. I hope.

Of what?

To help who you can whenever you can. To resist the impulse, I guess.

The impulse to what?

To focus on whatever you think you need.

Okay, well they should be here soon, to help. I’m gonna make a sandwich.

What did you say?

I said–––

?

I’m going to wait right here, until they come. 

This morning I came across the headline, “Wildlife Officials Rescue Badger Trapped in Colorado Window Well,”  which inspired this post.  And, in case anyone finds themselves wondering, as I was, about the exact nature of a window well, here is an explanation: “A window well is a U-shaped, ribbed metal or plastic product available in most home hardware stores. It’s designed to fit around basement windows, providing a space between the window and the surrounding earth to allow light into sub-grade structures” (squarone.ca).

Pilgrims

Considering a voyage to cat island.

What are you doing?

Studying up. I’ll be traveling soon.

To?

Cat Island. 

Bahamas?

They have one, I think. But this is Japan, which has a few. 

How’d that happen? Have you been reading Murakami again?

Burroughs, actually. But the island, it used to be a hub for the sardine trade. There was a rodent problem on the boats, so the fishermen started taking in strays. The cats were treated well by the villagers. After all, they were essential workers. 

Are they still? 

Well-treated, yes. They outnumber villagers ten to one. But the sardine trade dried up. People left, except for the old timers. Cats stayed. Someone thought it would be a good idea to spay and neuter them awhile back, but a significant group escaped the knife. They’re somewhat of a sensation now. 

Ever read Timothy Morton, the philosopher?

Oh, right. Who loves how cats blur the false boundary between Nature and Us.

Did you know that next to birds, cats have the widest range of vocalizations of any domestic pet?

The meowing would be just for kittens, but it persists into adulthood among domesticated species, as a cry for something from a caretaker.

Loneliness can do it, too. And hunger. By the longer, throatier Meeeoooooow can mean concern, or existential annoyance.

Oh, C’mon.

Yes, I think that’s actually what it means.

Well. Then, purring is contentment, obviously.

Sure, but it can mean worry, too. Like how humans will whistle when nervous, as distraction.

Chirping is my favorite.

Mothers will do that to tell the kittens to pay attention and follow along.

What about those little chirrups at the window? 

Means they are excited, sometimes about a bird. 

Yowling?

That’s for longing. It can be for a mate, or they could miss their old home.

They’re nostalgic, then?

We are the cats inside, Burroughs wrote. Talk about a man who loved cats.

Who cannot walk alone, and for us there is only one place.

Where?

Notes: For a beautiful photo essay of Japan’s largest cat island, Aoshima, you can click here.

An excellent article about philosopher Timothy Morton can be found here.

The Burroughs quote is from his novella, The Cat Inside.

Mirror, mirror

Imagining thirteen ways of being looked at by a blackbird.

They’re back.

What?

These blackbirds, see? They are looking at me. I just wanted to see these mountains. Out in the––

Snow?

Right. I’ve been––

Wallace Stevens again?

Well, sure. There were only three at first.

And where did you think you were going to find snow? Have you seen the––

Now this one. Listen. There is some innuendo in his tone.

His?

C’mon, you can tell. Now they’re at my feet.

Now they’re flying out of sight.

They’ll be back. All afternoon, it’s been night coming, and you can feel weather brewing, too.

Not snow, though. Fire, maybe. Or rain.

It’s a murder, right, when they come in a group like that? 

No, that’s crows. Blackbirds are a choir. Except, I hate to tell you this.

What?

Look when they come back. Those are crows. You can tell by the beaks. Tails, too. Besides, have you been listening?

Caw, caw! 

Exactly. Did you know that they hold funerals, crows do?

What?

One dies, they all come silent and look. They stand around. Then fly away again, quiet as they came.

Huh. I thought they were mostly mischief. 

It’s the blackbirds that go from nest to nest. Crows mate for life. They don’t even kick the young out. They can stay in the nest ‘til they’re mating age, and even then, they’ll keep coming back.

The river’s moving again.

There they go.

Tell me you didn’t feel it, though. 

Feel what?

They were looking at us.

That’s why they have a reputation.

For mischief?

For being messengers.

What’s this message, then?

How should I know? I don’t speak crow. Maybe they just wanted to mess with you.

For?

Getting enamored with that voice.

What voice?

That human one you love so much. Like from the Stevens poem. Where it’s always you––

Looking?

Right.

*This morning, I woke up with Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” in my mind, alongside a sense of mischief. I couldn’t help imagining the birds flipping the script.

News of the World

Today’s briefing is culled from assorted anonymous postings.

Messages regarding the state of the world tend to vary widely depending on the source, and since variety is what I was looking for this morning, I decided to get today’s early briefing from craigslist. Among top stories, a man known only as “shameless robber” has abducted wax apples from the garden of an ailing old woman. He claims he was just drinking water, but this reporter isn’t buying it. Which is nothing compared to the tall guy who had a custom sectional made and delivered before he wiggled his way (comfortably, we assume; it seems like he’s done this before) out of paying for it.

Who says that nothing good comes free? There are free pallets in Alisa Viejo, free notary services for active military, a yard sale this Saturday, and money being raised right now to cover medical bills. There is new music, a new bike shop, personal body sculpting (who can resist?) and, above all, this urgent reminder, all caps: HANG ON. KEEP CALM.

In other news, a woman without transportation would appreciate very much if someone would bring over a case of beer. IPA preferred, and rest assured: payment will be rendered upon payday next week.

There is no need to feel alone in this city. A mobile detailing car service can come over at any hour with amazing prices and reliable service, and there is a group meeting tonight in East County for individuals seeking an avant-garde interpretation of the Bible. If you’d like to spice up your daily commute with fresh company, there is no shortage of people ready to join you.

There is a new litter on Elm Street, an avid stargazer seeking company, a cornhole fall league, and a Dungeons and Dragons campaign looking for adventurers. Also, free dental hygiene services available from students, for anyone willing to wait.

You may not be aware of this, but you are leaving money on the table the longer you wait to join this quadrillion-dollar industry. Fortunately, there is a number you can call. Act now.

We can: build a yoga community, a film noir appreciation club, a craps club, these support groups, adult baseball, a sparring group, or just meet for a beer on Spring Street. So, what are you waiting for?

There are angels and no need to stay stuck. There is a nerdy outlet, a coffee shop friend, a focus group, and a well-muscled man available for private modeling gigs. Do you play drums, have too much stuff, need to get in shape? Do you need a washer/dryer, a group of paranormal enthusiasts, some fishing equipment? You can find it. It is here. Join us. 

I continue to appreciate the depth, breadth, and scope of coverage provided by the collective reporting of anonymous individuals and will return regularly for updates and breaking news. 

***

Also inspired by craigslist:

Magic for Monday

No tricks, no misdirection, no spectators. This is magic.

Mondays are when I need magic. Fortunately, there are books for this, and I have a few. I buy these on the pretense of character research and then use them as I see fit. Today, I’ll be scanning magician Joshua Jay’s Complete Course in the spirit of looking for clues as to how to manage this day. 

First, consider the classic pose of magician, a long-revered symbol of beginnings. Consider one arm to the heavens, the other to earth, a channel from energy to matter. Then consider this: you’re holding a book of secrets. You want to learn the art. Look around the room. Tell me: Where is the elephant now?

No tricks, no misdirection, no spectators. This is magic. Here is direction. These are participants.

Old dogs, new tricks: you can breathe new life into old props.

Now practice. Make a wave with your fingers. Call this a warmup. Repeat. 

Now hold this coin at the base of your fingers. Relax, turn your hand over.

Keep it invisible. Now go about your normal routine. 

Make the Phoenix disappear, then see the vanished match reborn! The hand is quicker, look. 

Make a prediction. Volunteer. A tube of lipstick, a small bill, a shoe. Any object will do, but force the lipstick. Wait. You can’t rush a miracle.

Hands down, where’s the card? Take this bread.

They call conjuring the poetry of magic. 

Shuffle, shuffle, pinch, peel. 

Remember: you are not a magician, but an actor, playing the part.

Inspired by:  Jay, Joshua. Magic: The Complete Course. Workman Publishing, 2008.

Bury My Ash and Plant a Tree

What if we gave it up, this whole habit of protecting these temporary husks?

I have an idea.

About what?

How to die.

Please. I’m trying to just––

No, it’s about that too, hear me out. Let’s not put these bodies in boxes when we’re done with them.

Ah, the boxes. What size, what wood, what level of cushioning? Where to put the box, and what shoes?

Let’s give it up, that whole thing.

You mean––?

The whole habit of protection, when it comes to these temporary husks.

From?

The inevitable ends we want to rage against. The humiliation of decay.

Not to mention of a bare face, unpainted.

Exactly. What were we doing with all of that, anyway?

What were we hoping to keep?

Look at the fate of cut flowers, gathered with the same impulse. I mean––

Any vase, however flimsy, will outlast its contents, destined in most cases to wind up broken.

Or on a Goodwill shelf with a sticker.

Let’s try something else. What if we burned as we lived, saving none?

Fuel for the living. What if––

we used the container we keep––

––for growing, instead?

With all the dirt, filth, worms––

Husks of fruit––

Let the falling seeds have at it.

If I’m going anyway, let me spend what I have on the living.

Here it is, take it. This hand.

Not to chain, but to comfort.

Yes, and this face. Not to photograph,

To hold a gaze. These eyes, even.

Don’t cover them with coins. 

Eat this vision, I am giving it up.

Don’t strike me down.

Don’t box and bury me. 

Let the fire eat my excess.

Let me prefer this and the way it reduces

––my body from its confines, to magnify

––Its purpose?

Infinitely. Then put me at the base of a tree.

Let me be dust. I am going now. Hold none of me.

In the spring, I will bloom for you, reminding you back.

To what?

To an original question: what is beauty without death?

To make it something we ache to be, hold; being held inside it, holding.

Wait. It comes for you also, but also coming is this impossible bloom. 

A thousand bursts. Like cotton balls when you squint, in baby-blanket pink.

Rest against this trunk.

Of my shade. There will be nothing to hold

but there you will be, cool inside it.

Cool from burning?

Yes, you will be cooling from the burning

there, in the shade of my ash, for a little while.

And you will welcome me there?

Yes.

For how long?

How long will you stay? Don’t answer.

Why not?

Because when the time comes, you will burn it all up again. 

But––

Still, I will be at the end of the burn and the beginning of this tree––this cooling shade, waiting.

Wait.

This post is inspired by an article I read this morning in My Modern Met (one of my go-to haunts for inspiration), about new environmentally friendly developments in burial rituals: vertical gravesites, human compost, and the option of burying ashes at the base of a new-planted tree.