At the Threshold

Studies in meticulous meditation.

So much depends on the scent in the air, the texture of ions, the nuance of birdsong. Add to this detailed considerations of ambient temperature, the auditory interference of nearby machines, and the possibility of mice. A lizard will do, perhaps. But perhaps not.

Where the dog will bound headfirst with nothing but blind enthusiasm for all that may be moving, anywhere and at any time, and the resident human might emerge easily, absent of mind before recalling some vague purpose, this one waits, a portrait of pure intention, poised.

The perennial questions of her forbears course through her consciousness, distilled in this moment, to a single one. In, or out?

She waits, leaning. Everything hangs in the balance. Suddenly, some inscrutable truth revealed, she pulls away. No, she decides. It is not time. Not yet.

Much remains to be seen. We wait here together.

***

Inspired by Buzz, the resident cat of many moods, who is begrudgingly teaching me the ancient ways––as long as I concede to a daily tithe of salmon feast for gravy lovers.

For the Living and the Dead

Against the machine.

When the horror of a moment renders a body speechless, the acts of pen to page, brush to canvas, fingers to keys––become negotiations with death. Yours, mine: what are they and how do they relate? To account for whole cities of dead, a vast underground rendered invisible through banality. What is it to write a voice, paint a vision––while standing on ground in full recognition of the brothers beneath it, and the invisible sisters with their children and parents in mass graves? Welcome to the necropolis, says one, where screens herald the battalion.

What are the stakes at this scale? Life. Lives. Forget numbers, abstractions. Try instead: One.  

One. 

One. 

One.

Each a brother, sister, mother, daughter, each with a scent of their own, a particular laugh and secret hopes––erased.

What is at stake? The human condition in the age of the war machine.

How to resist? The first act is naming.

***

Inspired by the work of Juan RufloChristina Rivera Garza, and Achille Mbembe.

The Form is Not

Urgently seeking answers.

Are you there? I need to know what happened.

Sure. It started with a long walk and a begging bowl. Then it was time to sit.

I have some questions.

Who doesn’t? For answers, consider impermanence, inevitable extinction.

Yes, got it! To everything there is a season. A time to––

But don’t hold onto the idea, or any other. No more T-shirts or bumper stickers, okay?

Right. I’ll try to focus on action. How do I give?

Without counting.

What about appearances?

What about them?

Never mind. Let’s get to the real teaching. I’m ready.

What you learn isn’t supposed to be a trophy, but a raft.

Okay. Let’s talk fortune.

Give it away. What did I just tell you?

Right, right. Okay, what about this stream? How do I enter?

What stream?

Um, like the path––you know, the levels?

Forget about those.

You say that a lot. What should I remember?

Only teach.

But I don’t know anything!

There you go.

But seriously. I can’t even control my mind yet.

Hah! Which one? The past, the present, or the future? None of them are made for holding.

[sigh] 

Can you just give me some answer?

Fine. But I’m about to lose service here. The reception in these mountains is terrible.  Ready?

Yes!

It’s–––

Hello? Hello?

***

This morning, I learned that on this day in the year 868, a copy of the Diamond Sutra was printed in China, making it the oldest known printed book. Prior to this, the teachings had long been conveyed orally. Naturally, I got to imagining an attempt to convey urgent teachings orally via cellphone. I have spotty service at home and pretty good service in most other places, so many of my conversations have at least a few moments where one or the other party is saying, “Are you there?” or “Wait a minute, I’m walking outside. I might lose you.” I consulted Burton Watson’s translation here.

Hunting Days

Aging writers recollect.

Remember the silence of our thoughts where we would wait, crouched in corners with pens poised to catch them, spectral geometry flickering in the shadows as they flew across our line of sight? They appeared and disappeared like bats, to and from nowhere––and us beckoning, show yourself! Our own thoughts, retreating. The nerve. We would tame them. 

We were young and eager to tie them down, to possess the authority of others who had managed to do so, somehow. Only by evading our pens could they find any haven.

Even a small one would be good, we thought––squirrel-sized, perhaps––anything from beyond the veil. If we could just catch one, we could prove ourselves successful hunters of what moved in the wilds of that other place. We could remove the skin, eat the meat, accumulate proud trophies. Others would envy what we had. But it was no good.

Rabid as we were, we didn’t see ourselves this way; we thought we were gentle. But they must have heard us, our pens poised like arrows to fly at them when they dared to run. No wonder they fled. We were starved for what we feared we would forget, but they knew it was worse than that. They knew they had already left us, and they recognized that we were in the stage of those still unwilling to accept the loss, who are willing to do anything to pretend that it is not what it is. 

They would wait until the visions of trophies had left us and we were bald and frail with grief. Then they would come and sit at our feet, on our laps. We would let them build nests where our hair used to be. Okay, we’d tell them, have it your way.

Obsolete

The art of preservation.

What do you do?

I preserve the obsolete. Take this instrument, for example. Plucked keys, no mallets, every note the same volume––rigid, raw, it sounds almost modern.

Why the harpsichord?

Because we always think of music as living. But I am always thinking in terms of loss.

How do you select your materials?

I look for what is unfashionable. I look for what people have turned from. I want to make them think about it again.

Why?

I am constantly stressed about what is disappearing. It’s a kind of chaos swirling around.

Can you describe your process?

I am the last to know the relationships between these materials.

What is your ideal workspace?

I like the idea of a studio that looks like one of those outmoded cubicle offices, where everyone is together but separated by partitions, and everyone is working on their art, but you wouldn’t even know it. 

What do you do?

Usually, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out something that has no purpose. 

When I was a child, I used to mix liquids in containers. I called them potions.

Exactly, that’s what I mean! Ask anyone to consider some of the things they most loved doing as children. Then have them try to find the point.

So, you’re preserving childhood?

That sounds too lofty. Childhood’s an ideal, anyway. I’m not sure what to make of it. Maybe I’m just interested in preserving a kind of sensibility, a space where a kid can just––be, you know? I don’t want this to disappear, this space.

***

I saw a video with the artist Cory Arcangel, whose primary obsession is working with near-obsolete technologies. I encountered him in a video from the Met’s (now discontinued) Artist Project Series.  He was speaking about the harpsichord.  I felt a strong affinity to some of his impulses. The above is an imagined conversation that borrows some of Arcangel’s ideas, but should not be taken as an accurate rendering of his vision, which I have heavily distorted with my own useless play. . 

The Third of May

The logic of brutality.

Careful now. The sleep of reason breeds monsters. Look, they have arrived.

Early morning, a firing squad. Captives at gunpoint.

The sleep of reason breeds monsters armed with a multitude of manufactured reasons. The cool efficiency of mechanistic executions. The gunmen are symmetrical. Stand, aim, hold, repeat. Stand, aim, hold, repeat––a relentless column. 

Their target: crumbling, irregular men. One falls, one bleeds, one holds his head. Several hold one another. One prays. One, in the yellowed white shirt of a laborer, holds hands up, his palms already pierced by the nails of the erased cross.

In the center, a lantern. You can see what is coming next, how the soldiers will use its light to perfect their aim. The end will be quick. The march will continue.

See the bodies, finished. One bleeds into the next. The marching column, still bloodless, will move on. Where the order of the machine is the order of the moment, they will be celebrated.

In the background, a crowd with torches, looking on. Someone whispers, monsters.

Careful, don’t look. Here, take this. It will help you sleep.

***

Inspired by Francisco Goya’s iconic painting, The Third of May, which was groundbreaking in its depiction of brutality without catharsis. Goya’s handling of paint as well as his subversion of traditional symbols inspired a new generation of artists, including Manet and Picasso. On the disasters of war, Goya observed, “El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason produces monsters).” 

Third of May, 1808 by Francisco de Goya

Time Out of Mind

A quilted retrospective.

After the sand of the hour had spilled from the mantle, I kept watch beside myself in low tide mirrors, the sea at my ankles returning us to the corners of childhood libraries. With bare feet resting in tulip beds, I borrowed confidence from open pages and read to them. Their still-unopened faces swayed in blind brilliance and we held there, unknowing.  

Seasons passed and we were separated until I was alone at the edge of a wasteland. I had a threaded needle and no pattern in sight. I spent a long time dreaming. Once in the warehouse, time’s gears were in pieces on the floor. I held a face in my hands, and it whispered reminders. I would need to fold the fields behind me first, then set to stitching. 

I wore fire against the rain and cut a new dress from the remnants of the last harvest. Gorged on ripe losses, my scalp sang anemones. Hold, I whispered to the new blooms, that they might stay until the hour returned. 

***

Inspired by images in this article about the work of Ukranian artist Oleg Oprisco, known for creating surreal settings from everyday elements.

Cornered

From a tight space.

Call it a threat––back against two walls, but some dream best from spaces like this. If I wanted to hide, I could walk in the open, but only from here can I bear witness to being, the intricate choreography of shadows, swinging between the arms of a branching angle. Turning from one wall into to the next, I find the other half of this shell, enough to negate the noise of a universe with its effusive unknowns, and hear, between breaths, the song of a single house finch. 

***

Inspired by, and using borrowed phrases from, the chapter “Corner” in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

Explain This

Investigating a given scene.

Why fingerprints?

Contemporary conditioning shouts, Identity! and they are pressed like badges, considered essential means of outlining, separating one body from the next. As in, mine and mine alone.

And what for?

The first purpose was holding, and the next was touch. These are the grooves that allow a body to feel in stereo. Following certain lines of perception, one can easily lose the sense of having an end.

Then what?

If these lines begat questions, perhaps they also prompted language, to answer with a beginning, once upon a time. We needed a past to explain ourselves, and some shelter from this wild so readily felt when we stretched our hands over any given scene. One story begat the next, but certain questions were never settled, such as: was the wild coming from or into these fingertips? Either answer begs a question–––

?

–––wait, I’ve strayed again. I only meant to wonder over the discovery that koala prints, being easily mistaken for those of humans, will contaminate a crime scene, which raises certain questions I can’t go into now and for which I lack the language to decipher, about what stories these creatures have had to invent to explain this everywhere, here.

***

Inspired by an overheard discussion about koala fingerprints, with details elaborated in an article I found when I got home. 

Mechanical Issues

Looking for a few good ideas.

I was having some mechanical difficulties, so I decided to do some research. A body with issues of an uncertain nature may sometimes find relief by revisiting certain fundamental tenets of the physical world.

To be sure, greater minds than this one have long considered these questions––which may concern, among other things, the action and reaction of bodies at rest and in motion––not to mention acoustics and optics. Also, heat, friction; details related to magnetism, electricity. Astronomical matters may seem remote, but these, too, are not to be discounted, considering how profoundly any number of factors may govern aspects of the visible and invisible world. 

In conclusion, it’s complicated. 

There are a number of implications for these findings. For example, while I am still entirely unsure about the origins of that squeaky grinding noise that sometimes but not always happens when I make a right turn, it is reasonable to conclude that while the stereo system remains functional, it should be possible to avoid hearing it until a more appropriate time. 

As for this other thing I am trying to write, I am no more certain of my approach than I was before this brief foray into certain essential principles of structure, but at least I’ve found myself in good company when it comes to my ongoing bafflement regarding the proportional significance of any number of factors in a given system.

***

Inspired by a chance encounter with Mortimer J. Adler’s chapter on “Mechanics” from The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought. And some other things.