Altar

At the crossroads.

On the day of the dead, among this cloud of witnesses, someone here whispers, help me find it again, that joy I once had in looking. Instead of an answer, this space, and the hum of a motor nearby. 

We love the old trees of our myths for the spaces they hold inside themselves, but also for the way they know to keep it around them, this cushion of shade made soft by the absence of another tree.

In the eruption of any given birth, a core could easily splinter, and yet here we are, faces dappled by the light and noise of becoming, learning to make room for what would breathe.

Sound Painting

Holding beyond reach.

Near the end, you explained that something strange was happening. You had grown accustomed to a powerful presence. One day, without explanation, it left. What followed had more force but no face. You called it sound.

Later, people wondered if you were letting go or just beginning something new. But even when a body means to hold, so much of what happens slips through. 

Before you left, you painted reminders. You pulled us into its rough color. You said, listen.

***

Inspired by the sound paintings of Anne Truitt.

What Lives

A still, small voice.

My grandmother used to say something about the darkness of hope. How it bears fruit in the light of wisdom. By watching her when she was living and listening after her death, I knew Grace. This was her name.

Revolt against death, she would say, by remembering the dead; the next breath a reminder that it was their breath before a final exhalation. Knowing this, breathe full and long. To forget is to die a little.

There were pages and pages behind these reminders. I read them as survival manuals for creatures of flesh. They said, be poor. Go down. Be despised, love anyway. Serve instead of demanding service. 

There were maps too, but no territories. They said only: Look––in hunger and thirst, through long nights and vast deserts. There you will find company with the soul of all souls. You will hear the heartbeat and what follows will be the first song of the world. 

You will know it, child. Go down.

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.

Arrival, Departure

The visitor.

There is a visitor in the doorway, both inside and out, with no movement except turning the whole world, reminding anyone who cares to look, just how close it is––the possible entrance, the potential to end.

Who are you? Someone asks the visitor, and the visitor replies, I’ve been here the whole time.

Bardo

Death and the high notes.

A matter if tuning: the singer to the frequency of glass, the virus to its host, death as the explosion of a vase. Contents of the vase move inside out, and no distinction remains. 

Before the glass shatters, it shudders. If you watch in slow motion, you’ll see it. To be moved deeply by what is well-tuned is to be on the verge of breaking into pieces until there is no longer a body to break.

***

Notes while reading Timothy Morton’s Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality

Music to Wake the Dead

Orpheus to Eurydice, overheard.

You were tired of tired imitation, wanted something real. Only the unreasonable would do. Okay, I said, and tuned the strings at the joint in the forked paths, from which one would lead home and the other to a forever road. Let me play you a burning thornbush. Your mother floats halfway between the bed and the ceiling in your sleep. We love a riddle, and the ones we can’t solve tend to linger, like the notes of the last dance, like the earth ringing now in my ears.

***

Inspired by a comment that director Andrey Tarkovsky makes in Sculpting in Time. Paraphrasing Paul Valéry, he notes how “the real is expressed most immanently through the absurd.” The last line is adapted from images in Arseny Tarkovsky’s poem “Eurydice.”

The Practice

A dying art.

To whom it may concern.

A cover letter.

I know you haven’t listed this skill under “mandatory,” but I want you to know that I am excellent at dying.

Sure, we all will be one day, say the jaded. Agreed, but not everyone practices.  

It’s much more in vogue to practice the opposite–– building, amassing: wealth, armor, safety nets. You get the sense, looking at some photo collections––or rather, at how intricately they are framed––that life is a sort of museum you build against death. I get the museum idea, but I prefer a collaborative approach, where Death and I are partners.

Okay, not exactly partners. Death is the director, curator, and chair of all departments. I make copies. Still, in my last formal review, Death applauded my knack for being “pretty good” and “sometimes accurate” as well as having “a clever knack for misinterpretation.” 

Beaming, I say, “I’ve been practicing!” At the sight of my lips moving, Death promptly exits the room, leaving me to my own devices again––which, as I’ve said, involve practicing. 

You read stories? Once upon a time, as the saying goes, I picked up a pen. “Mightier than the sword!” I announced, imagining myself the noble knight. The costume was terrific. Then I read the job description.

“Dragon slayer?!” Oh, no.

This was one of my first misinterpretations. Sure, I found the dragon, but then I took him home with me, foul breath and all. I understand the logic of basements now––or, as the armory-builders love to call them, “wine cellars”–– but, as you might imagine, I don’t have one. When I started this quest, I didn’t even have a home. Still don’t, but I did what I could with these stones. 

At first there was only a tarp above us to keep out the rain, but gradually we made an A-shaped roof. I meant to find branches, but these were scarce, so I had to use PVC pipe and old tent poles, and let me tell you, I do not relish any journey to the hardware store. My main issue with these places is the abundance of people who seem to know precisely what they are doing. Even with my guard up to a level of maximum defense, I must be giving off a look to invite one after another liege to ask me what I am looking for. When I manage some answer, they will invariably tell me what I really need. 

Of course, I don’t mention the dragon. I just say something like “shed” or “addition” so as not to alarm anybody. I have pretty much accepted that I won’t be getting the security deposit back after this project is done. Point being, every time someone explains to me what I really ought to be doing, I die a little. 

But here’s where the practice comes in! I’m right back to business, back to the dragon lair, where I die a little more every time he breathes, because I have no idea what sort of oral hygiene protocol goes with the proper care and feeding of dragons. The cat, who has made off no shortage of lizard tails, doesn’t know what to make of him, and the feeling seems mutual. They keep what distance can be kept in our small space. It isn’t much.

The cat comes and goes whenever she feels like it, so here I am with this fabled beast, and he’s eaten all my pens. I am writing this in invisible ink. The only thing to do when I get to the end of one of these pages is––what do you think?

Turn, turn, turn. And each time I do, it’s blank. Tell me: how is a knight to meet this challenge except by dying again? Then when I finish the back of the page, it’s rip and toss, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the feeding of dragons is that they are very picky and won’t settle for anything but your last accomplishment, however meager it may seem. He lifts his head, gobbles it up, and goes back to sleep, for a little while. 

I’d love to give you references but given the dragon’s flair for consuming whatever I amass, these may be better procured on a word-of-mouth basis.

In the event that an interview is forthcoming, please disclose your policy regarding emotional support animals. Any limitations when it comes to size? You don’t get this good at dying without a lot of support.  

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.