In Our Absences

Fractal fragments.

True, you can drift on a euphoria of loss.

Hello, memory.

Say goodbye by sampling tracks of former selves and gather the once-sacred objects, stale talismans now, to us.

Realities may come and go like weather systems. How much harder to lose a fantasy.

Here is a presence so full of absences. What now?

Hesitate, mourn.

The pieces are withdrawing now, withdrawn.

But they leave these ghost traces everywhere, for breathing in.

When you exhale, there they will be again, blended with bits of you.

Stay, friend. Pull up a chair, a stool, an instrument. We can sing about the endless disappearing.

Stones

Questions of architecture.

Millions of tons of stone to house the faithful.

For some, this was enough of a reason to join.

Over three centuries of construction, here’s enough stone to make a mountain range.

Each could contain an entire town, plus pilgrims.

There was much to be purchased at church, from precious stones to hens.

You don’t complete construction unless the money flows, and most didn’t.

The purchase of pardons was lucrative, but only if the townspeople had purchased the right to grant indulgences. 

Where to find materials? You can start with the bodies of ancient towns.

The builders are cloaked in an aura of mystery, each part magician, part alchemist.

The poet, considering, asks, what is an architect?

One who makes plans.

Which raises the question, which ones go missing and when does this matter?

Which has more secrets––alchemy, or chemistry? 

Neither approaches the culinary arts. Consider the kitchen secrets of these builders.

How one stone differs from another, which mortar to make where. And when, and why.

Perhaps the builders had a secret code, perhaps they followed the intuitive logic of honeycombs.

See a Holy Land in any direction, each an adventure. Choose.

The poet considers, how can the sculptor of an angel’s smile use the same hand to shape cannonballs?

Some questions remain even after the plans are long gone.

***

Inspired while reading Zbigniew Herbert’s essay, “A Stone from the Cathedral” from Barbarian in the Garden(trans. Michael March). The above uses ideas and phrases from Herbert’s essay with no claim of translating original intent.

Last Landscape

A choreography of separation and rebirth.

In exile, a body becomes the means for making truth, denied.

The artist’s body a surrogate, the absent and the dead shine through.

In this container of memory, the present is only fleeting:

bird, river, house. Drip, wind, birdsong.

Gather now, impossible communion.

Human form becomes arid field, then a river

running. Witness, can you remember 

the homes of your lives

and your deaths?

The body is the song,

the message, 

the map,

the only home

and the last stranger on earth.

***

Inspired by Last Landscape, choreographed by Josef Nadj, with music by Vladimir Tarasov. 

Scaling the Hours

Experiments in measurement.

An experiment in time, the idea for breaking it at the hours. You can, if you are willing, do what most children won’t. You can carve them as one would with an animal at the harvest, follow the joints––or lumber, into pieces to be assembled again, one segment at a time, the collected tasks the bearings for the dizzy hand, some terms that a body less willing to invite the dizzy spins can hold. Only by these cuts can we arrive at the conclusion, so often remarked by the aging, about how short it is. A child knows that a while a moment may be short, a glide, a song––Again, again!     

    ––it may also be made of so much forever that it becomes impossible to tell a body’s beginning from its end.

Descent

Moonlight on the water.

What is it, to come down from the highlands of his mother’s lullabies where the first blessings held him by the light of a single candle in the bedroom, where the sun was his father, the moon his mother, and for little sisters, he had the stars––to the sea that fed him, clothed him, to live in communion with the gulls peering into its vast and unfamiliar depths, to hold a single hope by the light of the shore? Teach me, he whispers, learning time by the tides.

***

Inspired by lingering images from Lorry Salcedo Mitrani’s short film, “Guzman and the Sea.”

First Flights

Tracing the texture of a dream.

Here is a book of time, someone told us, to translate a voice in the heart of the sky. It reminded us forward to the hour of the story inside the essence of the dream through which we flew to the beginning of the word on a current of makers.

Sighing creation, we ran, particles of ourselves in waves at the shore, piling sand into a world we could live in, and we admired the work of our hands until the tide took it back. 

We borrowed the insights of distant lightning to hold back the night, and with wet hands we peeled the dawn to eat it raw, dew dripping from our laughing chins.

From Ashes

We all fall. Together, we rise.

I’m not much for stories about myself, because they are just not as interesting to me as other observations. I come from people who prefer song and talk of the unseen world. We’re not into airing, as the saying goes, the dirty laundry

But here’s one. I left school on a stretcher this Tuesday. I’ve been a teacher for almost two decades, but this was my first time as an ER patient. The fainting thing is somewhat familiar, but it has only happened one other time on campus, and that was ten years ago, in a different time, and Nurse Nancy reluctantly let me walk away against her well-meaning protests, after I drank some juice and spent thirty minutes flat on the cot in her office. I am used to the black spots in my field of vision but still bristle at the embarrassment of being so publicly vulnerable. It happens from time to time since I was a child, sometimes after some upset, and sometimes not. This week’s event would have been in the category of “not.”

Except that spending time in prone reflection while being too dizzy to do anything else allows time to wish for better answers to some of the questions asked earlier. 

Like, when did this start?

Um, as far back as I can remember––but not often.

When did it start getting worse?

Oh, December, maybe? Could be 2016, hard to say. There was a lot going on.

I made appointments, eventually. I think maybe there’s a thing going on. . .with my heart? I wrote in the online field, feeling determined at the time––but later, foolish. Each time, as the date approached, I cancelled. Because Omicron, because there were no subs, because maybe it was just age. Because who did I know that wasn’t hurting? 

The young people I meet daily are refugees of war, survivors of generational poverty, internment camps, and institutional abuse––and they are brilliant, glorious, showing up daily with radiant displays of quiet courage. I learned yesterday morning that one these students, a recent arrival from Ukraine, has just made the cheer team. I want to tell you about the glow of her face when she shared this, but lack the words. I got the news after she finished writing about the time when she saved a tiny kitten from a tree. 

We are all this kitten sometimes, I think now. Near paralyzed with terror and in need of rescue.

I cannot think of anyone I see regularly who isn’t working daily against a state of near collapse. Okay, I can think of a few, but we are constitutionally so different that they are hardly valid comparison points. They would not have fainted when they learned about certain horrors of human history, past or present, and they are infinitely cooler than I will ever be. They would not be seen shaking, sweating, or crying in public. Then again, what do I know? I always think I’m alone until I fall apart after trying not to for an extended period of time. Each time I have publicly collapsed under some private grief, so many generous others have shared similar stories that the abundance of company often left me stunned with wide-eyed gratitude.

My people are practically made for liquefying, which might explain the low sodium levels and chronically low blood pressure. We cry with our whole bodies, nonstop. The Irish ancestors called it keening. The women would carry the laments in their bodies and pass them to the next generation. When they keened, they were like birds, like chimpanzees, like horses reared on hind legs, shrieking. They were forbidden to own horses of a certain value as they were forbidden to read, and the keening was known to incite such passions in the hearers that it was outlawed. To be clear, we laugh this way, too, and love. And celebrate the babies.

After my release, my siblings and I had a few laughs trading stories about who among us had passed out when and where and how dramatically, and who had emphatically halted the calling of an ambulance for lack of health insurance at critical moments. My daughter made me a bracelet to wear as a reminder: Mom, you gotta tell people sometimes. When this is happening. So, I am practicing. 

It’s so much, isn’t it? — being human now. I can barely keep up, except by knowing I am not alone in this overwhelm. The moments just before I am lying on the floor feel barely distinguishable from this year’s daily version of dizzying overwhelm and heart-crushing grief. 

Why bother sharing this, except for Mom, you gotta––? Except to note that sometimes all that is needed, to regain consciousness, is a moment of rest and oxygen? Except to underscore that sometimes I wish that instead of a moment of silence we might have a moment of wild shrieking, arm-waving, wing-flapping lament, drenching our clothes until we are all on the floor in solidarity with our dead, before we rise again, into something we’re not able to become until we stop what is happening right now. Except to honor the loving reassurance of those who came to my aid, who helped me when I could not see, and to remind myself and anyone who may need to hear this now, how during any given life, moments like this make all the difference.

Thank you for being this difference. It is truly a matter of life over death, love over hate and despair, and sight over the moment when everything goes dark all at once. 

Love and light, onward.

Imagined Invitations

From the congregation of stones.

Against the disposable, away from the technofix, certain questions emerge. They are about relearning our being in the world. I heard these from a scientist poet, although she didn’t call herself this. Asked to describe her work, she said listening. She said delight. She called it the work of waiting.

For what, I wondered. She said, consider the reverence of the speechless stone. What would they ask of us, she wondered back, that would allow our admission into their holy communion, and how would we hear them? Perhaps by these skeletons, our marrow singing like well-tuned bowls. 

Nothing is single here, she said, and nothing goes one way. I want to wait with her, to learn the reverence of these silent-seeming stones, until their language hymns my bones.

***

Inspired by, and with borrowed phrases and images from Ursula K. Leguin’s Keynote address, “Deep in Admiration,” from Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, from the Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz, a gem curated by David Naimon in the beautiful ecosystem he’s created around his Between the Covers podcast.

More than an Elegy

New life in the ruins.

You can try not to believe the dizzy river or trembling mountain as a matter of pride, or maybe fealty to the fact of this ruin. This street where I work takes its name from a water body I’ve never seen. I’m afraid to ask. The mountains above the freeway, behind the strip mall by the Arco, seem often to sit in silent judgement, accepting the cell phone towers at their crowns like parents too tired to argue.  Here, in this concrete landscape of grey-beige buildings with garish trim and iron rails, where the center that once had shade trees now calls to mind a prison yard, I am so often in mourning that even the occasional peal of real laughter sounds like the fall of the last pane of glass in a war-ravaged former home, and all I can see are the abandoned tricycles tipped over in the soot of the wreck.

But yesterday morning, in the dingy shade of a narrow steel awning, above the concrete walk, against the industrial stucco, on top of a steel grey electrical box, there was a nest of baby birds my love had rescued when he saw it beginning to slip. I was afraid to touch them, he said, but–– we had learned, as children in the wake our parents’ wars, that even our hands could mean death to whatever still managed to hatch. The freeway roared behind us, and the leaf blowers in the parking lot, and we stood there, beholding. Soon we were a small circle of celebrants, calling Oh! and Oh, look! One shared how she had watched the slow build over time, afraid to believe her ears when she heard them finally, the day before.

The babies called back to us, lifting their fuzzy heads, opening new beaks wide, something that sounded like See us! See! See! –– as if to echo our nearly muted hopes, amplified to drown all other noise; as if to answer those questions we feared to ask, about the possibility of life, even now. Hi birds! I called back, open palm over heart.  Hi! Hi! Look at you, I repeated, again and again, gaping, a fool helpless in witness.