I am flying over you now. They warned me of your belts, threatening radiation, how you will blind me with them if I stay
On this day in 2016, NASA launched the Juno space probe, a twenty-month survey of the mysterious fifth planet in our solar system. The name was appropriately chosen in honor of the Roman goddess, Juno, wife of Jupiter and mother of Mars, the god of war. She is associated with may roles, including protection, pulling back the veil, and childbirth.
To mark this day, an imagined conversation.
JUNO to JUPITER What formed you, anyway? All these years, you’ve never mentioned it. Do you even have a solid center, or are you all atmosphere and wind, gravity and radiation? You’ve drawn these clouds around you, hiding, but I see you, Jove.
They know you for your sky, your thunder, your place on the throne, but I’m not here for any of that. I want to know what you’ve got hiding under those blankets of clouds, and about your waters. Can they be breathed, and what moves you?
It’s taken me years to reach you. Eons before I left, I would wonder, watching, hearing tales of your thundering greatness. But I have to say, from a distance, you looked so small.
I am flying over you now. They warned me of your belts, threatening radiation, how you will blind me with them if I stay. That great red spot of yours, now like an eye, then a mouth. How easy to mistake that for a center, when it’s just your most dramatic atmospheric spectacle, nothing but a war of opposing winds,
a stage play for the battles that so impressed our son. I have to tell you, he has really gotten carried away. It’s all he can do, even when he calls it by another name––peace, containment, deterrence. Can you do something? Show him, it’s only a distraction, a relatively recent storm, a blemish on your surface and not the polestar of your magnitude.
Again with the thunder? Well, don’t say I didn’t tell you. Besides, they say it’s shrinking.
I’ve got to go soon. Before I do, I will take in your atmosphere, your magnetic field. You will cover me in dust again, answering as you always do, with nothing but weather and wind.
One of the best things about being a writer is getting to hang out in a space of researching these questions.
One of the interesting challenges of keeping this daily practice of posting here, is noticing how often I face a sense of having nothing to share. Earlier this week, I began some early notes for what I think are two distinct coming long-term projects, and I also revised a poetry manuscript. Those are unwieldy and not appropriate for publication here. I thought of sharing something I found this morning, but I had written it years ago and part of my intention in showing up here is with new pieces, ready or not. I want to practice what I am trying to teach myself, which is, among other things: that even when you feel like you don’t have enough, or feel unworthy, there is always something new to share. Just because. It’s hard to learn this because the world is so much. Mostly, I want to avoid walking out there, especially with some creative infant child in my arms.
So, baby steps. I am coming up on forty days into this practice (Hah! I think as I write this, The length of a Biblical desert fast! What’s next, visions?! Hang on!) and after an enthusiastic day one, I have been having plenty of good practice in noticing that every day there’s a block, and every day, something new. By this point, I have learned to expect that the next time I get writer’s block (either in five minutes, one hour or tomorrow morning), I’ll just keep writing through it. Sort of like breathing through the thing that starts to feel like despair or laughing while crying.
I feel mostly as though I never have anything to say (if saying means, “All must hear this!”), but I can’t know what I think (and sometimes feel) without writing. As a result, I have lots of backup techniques with which to treat such paralysis. My writing self, I have learned, must be treated like a terrified, sickly child in need of a lot of extra support. I keep books of prompts handy, and bookmark weird news sites and craigslist ads, also photography sites and art books. Many days, I look up “This Day in History” to see if anything kindles there. If I still come up short, it can be fruitful to try an erasure or a found poem of another text. The worst that can happen from that is that I will spend some time reading a text I might otherwise not read. It can teach me something new.
Thinking about what to post here today, I checked my usual places and seemed to be coming up with nothing. But then I learned that it was on this day in 1937 that American philosopher Thomas Nagel was born. I’ve been obsessed about questions of understanding and what can’t be understood, thinking and what can’t be thought through, and (always) with the question of how to be––here, in this impossible world. I jumped at the chance to return to his “What it’s Like to Be a Bat.” The only problem with using this text for found poetry is that I loved so many whole phrases and complete sentences, that I had to leave them intact. I thought about italicizing these sections, as though to give credit to the author, who might very well be appalled at the gross modifications and reductions of this excellent text, the focus of which is largely a question of certain inherent problems in reductionist tendencies. But then, I just italicized the whole thing. It’s an exercise. Consider the words stolen, the arrangement sometimes mine.
But, as I say to the child writer whom I’m trying to coax into writing today’s piece, “Oh, well! It was a good time, wasn’t it?! And no one got hurt!” I highly recommend the process, which if you cut out the time hemming and hawing over what to do, is entirely intuitive and basically involves trying not to think while you pluck out words and phrases of interest. Generally, something like this may be done in 1-15 minutes, which makes it great for a practice exercise. In this case, I made some attempt to honor the spirit of the work, but I took liberties with delivery and nuance.
Caveat: I still don’t know what it’s like to be a bat. But at least I got to hang out in a space of researching the question, which is one of the best things about being a writer.
Consciousness, the mind body problem, is intractable. Current discussions get it obviously wrong.
Reductionist euphoria is designed to explain, but problems are ignored. Philosophers share a human weakness for what is familiar, hence familiar reductions.
Without consciousness, it seems hopeless. Perhaps a new form can be, in the distant future.
Extremists deny this. It is impossible to exclude experience. Ever spent time in an enclosed space, with an excited bat?
Now there is an alien form of life! Consider echolocation, how they whisper with their shrieks, how different from any sense we possess. What is it like to be a bat?
We cannotform more than a schematic conception. If there is conscious life elsewhere in the universe, it is likely that some of it will not be describable. It would be foolish to doubt that there are facts
which humans will never possess, just as it would to be convinced that the bats’ experience, once thoroughly observed, may be known.
What would be left if you removed the viewpoint of the bat? Here is a general difficulty.There is an effort to substitute the concept of mind for the real thing, to have nothing left over which cannot be reduced. What next?What it is, remains a mystery.
The apparent clarity of the word “is,” is deceptive. Suppose a caterpillar, locked in a safe, by someone unfamiliar with metamorphosis. Weeks later, a butterfly! One might think a tiny, winged parasite devoured the original, and grew.
Does it make sense to ask what my experiences are really like, beyond how they appear? Proposal: it may be possible to approach from another direction, separate from empathy or imagination. It would not capture; it’s goal would be to describe.
One might try to develop concepts that could be used to explain to a person blind from birth what it was like to see, and vice versa. One would reach a blank wall, eventually, but still. Possible. Red is not quite the sound of a trumpet. I am indebted to many people for their comments.
If one understood how subjective experience could have an objective nature, one would understand the existence of subjects other than oneself.
Note to artist-child-self: now go look at bats. If none are available, because daytime, birds will do. Watch. Then later, remember to write again. Do this impossible, necessary exercise of making something even if it isn’t sense, of what you may not know.
A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that.
There are moments when you are inside something, noticing what you will remember when it’s done. Or there are exploding moments and you can’t help but notice the blast of certain solid-seeming ideas. It’s a protected site: caution tape, guards. You can’t go around taking things from it, so you look, gathering images for later when you’re no longer at the site, for when the site itself no longer exists except perhaps as a memorial, for when you are considering, in memorial, what remains.
A cannibal galaxy has such gravity that it may eat other galaxies. Some moments in time are like that, eating any memory of what happened before or after. You try to recover, but can do no better than metaphor.
It was like being inside a Dali painting, melted face propped on a stick. It was like being stuck on top of the monkey bars or like one of those dreams where you are trying to scream and the words won’t come out. The problem with trying to tell some stories is that the origin point was consumed by other origin points, cannibal moments.
It was like another dream, also: driving a car up a ramp. The ramp is so steep that it’s practically vertical. The road is narrow and it is over a bridge and the bridge is over sky and space and water and whatever you might be about to fall into is on both sides, close, and there is no way to reverse, but you see that the road ahead of you will very soon drop off into sky. You head up anyway, accepting a certain lack of choice. Or choosing to accept that the original decision was already made when you got into the car and started driving. That moment never shows up in the dream, not once.
Or it was like being underwater, in the quiet susurration of it, trying to resist the temptation to surface for air.
Or it was like flight/not flight, as in jumping up, bouncing off, or being thrown, that moment in midair when the breath catches.
And while you’re catching your breath you know that it was indeed like all of these things, but none exactly, and for the time being you are all out of words. Sometimes all you want to do is hang on to some scrap of fallen silence at your feet and close your eyes, as if doing so could make it possible to return to some moment just before.
In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed.
In any rite of passage, there is a state where the pilgrim leaves the known world and prepares to enter the place where she is transformed. This is called the threshold, or liminal state.
The first version of this word I ever heard was called limbo, and according to the nuns this was where you got stuck if you skipped confession. Apparently, doing this was about as damning as failing to wear clean underwear, because you could get in a terrible accident at any time.
What’s it like? We all wanted to know. They said it wasn’t exactly eternal fire but it wasn’t clouds and angels, either. It was just forever. And who wants that when you are so close to a final release? They were not forthcoming with other details, so the rest was left to the imagination.
I turned the word over. Limbo. It called to mind the image of a doll version of a person floating in a watercolor atmosphere with limbs outstretched.
I thought about people running and then swimming toward higher ground when the floods came. And about the dream monsters chasing, the jolt in the stomach, shouting So close! I thought about my grandparents, how they would stand behind me in church before I was even old enough for Communion, the pillars of their bodies like trees, and me in the shade. I wanted to stay in that place forever, but I felt it coming, the shadowy force coming closer with every passing year — so close! –– and I dreaded arriving in the space of being severed from their shade and the quiet of being nowhere and no one, with no one asking, What now?
Then, years passed, and I felt far removed from this moment, but close enough that when I thought of it again, something flickered at the corners of my lips, in recognition of how there had been a time when it was possible to think of such an endless in-between as a threat for something that might happen, and not as what already was.
Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible.
One day it occurred to me that I could not remember the last time I had wanted to talk to anyone.
I had been talking plenty, whenever the situation called for it. I had mostly enjoyed these exchanges, even when I dreaded them in advance. My pause came from realizing that I could not remember ever once being in a silent state of restful solitude and thinking that it would be better if I were talking. Sure, I wondered how various people were doing; I wanted them to know that I thought of them, but these feelings have to do with love and connection and not the desire to utter any actual words. I had to really ransack my mind looking for an example of a time when talk was the thing I desired. Still, I couldn’t find any. I am an introvert who fears being something else, namely an alien ill-suited for life here. This seemed like an ominous sign.
Never? I wondered. What an inauspicious thing to observe in oneself. I immediately red-flagged this newfound awareness as the sort of thing I should probably never say out loud to another human being (The irony!). To be introverted is one thing, but surely this new awareness indicated some sort of solitary leanings in the extreme, possibly pathological. Perhaps some dark secret had been hidden and missed all along.
But then I realized something else. It was also true that I could not think of a single time when I was in a resting solitary state and I suddenly thought that I would like to write. (Not once? I wondered, checked. Nope, not once––not since childhood, anyway).
I love writing like the desperate love anything––as in, it feels like misery but I would not want to live without it. I could think of plenty of times where I had to write, or decided to do so in order to fulfill some obligation, and other times when an impulse came knocking and I answered the door. I had often looked forward to long periods of imaginary uninterrupted interludes during which I would be writing, even though I had never actually thought, while resting, anything like: This moment would be greatly enhanced if I were moving a pen along a page.
And yet, I could think of no examples where I had ever regretted writing (but a few where I regretted hitting “send”). Considering conversation, similar themes emerged. It was never the talking I regretted (except when it took me from writing for too long), only what I did and did not manage to say.
Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible. I did not dislike any available forms of communication: not speech, not writing, not dance, and not song. All were needs, and I had been prone to dreading each of them in particular ways.
Words are so hard to deal with, and the dealing is always such a burden. Like hearts, like loves, like babies and bodies, and water; and bodies of water; and loving hearts; and the burden of carrying each one around, holding its beating insistence, its incessant demands; its relentless flooding of life into limbs and everywhere else it goes, in all the ways that are always so impossible to explain.
Words are such a chore. I might put them off forever. All I ever want are those quiet, fluid, indefinable spaces housing the soft rise and fall of one beloved’s breath beside me; the weight of an open palm on my knee, and possibilities only tasted and never adequately described, by lips pressing into a sleeping head under my arm. All I ever miss is never words, but the sound of quiet breathing in the same room, its implied command a simple one, and as easy to follow as my own next breath. Like, Shhhhh. Like, Wait. Hold. Don’t Move. Here.
These words, these words, give me some. Let me give them back to you. Even though we both, by now, should recognize them for what they are: crude and heavy, the burdensome hot-mess cousins to the queens and kings and holy babies we are trying to sing about. Still, you work with what you have, and sometimes these are the only available tools after the quiet-by-your-side-breaths stop, and the weight of a hand has vanished, and a body fails to contain the parts that are relentlessly flying away.
Naked feet on bare floors, elbows on the sill, hands cup the lines of a jaw, mirror
connecting the stars above the babbling towers whose shadows cloaked our daylight, beyond the reach of
hands cupping the lines of missing faces. Eyes reach anyway, holy useless as first songs and the first games in the garden, out and out with the tops of our artifices but not always the endless lines of bodies in skies where the children of gardens still hide in the dark folds where invisible stars become
— and a new one, here — in the quiet depths behind these sigh songs,
the lines of ourselves slipping, and no names yet for the unborn when we never named the dead
— in the depths behind these breaths, reaching lines toward letters, ever into some beginning, say the word.
You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
BIG I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce.
When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.
And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?
Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?
I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.
What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?
This is the end of the time when we rhyme. But wait! Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road.
A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?
LITTLE Remember how we used to play the guessing game?
Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.
From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!
At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.
Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!
BIG Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?” Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.
Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me: Laugh!
The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard.
The dreams are gone again. Memory is full of holes. Mind the gap!
Do you know whose memory is the least contaminated? A baby’s?
Maybe, but not what I was thinking. ?
A patient with amnesia. ?
They can’t contaminate by remembering. It just comes. And goes.
Right, a free flow. Did you hear about the artist with face blindness?
To lose one face is enough. Imagine losing them all. She made interesting self-portraits. She did them in the dark, feeling her face, adding paint to canvas; feeling again. Art as an act of looking, free of the presumption of sight.
Do goldfish really have only eight seconds of it? Memory?
Yes, or is this just a myth told to children who would otherwise be very sad about the creature in the bowl, in the plastic bag from the fair, doomed to this constant back and forth? Borges called it a pile of broken mirrors.
The fishbowl? Memory.
He died on this day, in 1986. That was the year I forgot how to fly in my dreams.
How? The trick was to remember the state of dreaming. Then I had to flap really hard. My arms, because that’s all I had, no wings or feathers.
Yeah, but how did you forget? Whoever knows, but that year my dreams or something started taking me too hard and fast, I could not remember until it was too late.
Borges said there are no images at the end, only words. Remember 1986?
There were bombs everywhere in the news. I didn’t see them up close, but I worried. They were waiting under parked cars, in office buildings, churches, synagogues, planes.
It was my first Communion year. I remember waiting to be suffused in light. The Challenger exploded. I remember the plumes of flame and smoke on the screen. My second-grade teacher had wheeled the television into the classroom so we could see it live, the techno-miracle of space travel.
Chernobyl, too. After that, radioactive deposits were found in every country in the northern hemisphere.
There was a human chain that year, five million links long from New York to Long Beach. As a reminder, right?
Yes, of hunger. Homelessness. Easily forgotten by the housed and fed. They were flooding the streets.
This was Reagan’s America. It was popular to cite an epidemic of laziness, compounded by drugs, as the reason. Just say No, but the hands did something else.
Said yes? No, they answered another question. A better one. The question of the body before you.
Answer like an open hand. Right. Like, “Here.”
Do you remember Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings? He observed that there are dragons in every part of the world.
Yeah, he said we don’t know what they mean, only that they are always there. What memories do they hold; what future projections?
I love his face, Borges. How it would light up when he smiled. He must have been something in person.
Like a baby. Or a person who has forgotten everything and sees only–– Light?
The play of light and shadow. An uninterrupted flow.
I love watching babies before their vision develops. Their faces, do you mean?
Yeah, how they light up and start laughing at something in the ceiling. And you watch them, and you wonder what are they seeing?
* A story about artist known as Carlotta appears in the BBC News, and the documentary about her journey, “Lost in Face” appeared in a BBC News article by Vibeke Venema, “Prosopagnosia: The Artist in Search of Her Face,” published August 16, 2020. BBC World Service.
Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.
Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky.
Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.
Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light, and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste?
They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”
She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left.
Let it be a song, then, and us inside its shattering wings — and you, when did I first know by your hand the letting of the blood of ancient wounds, unscheduled tears? If it began in this moment, where would you find me, if at all? In the space where we last slept, dream me dreaming you.
My arms, so long beseeching some anchor, now find you, and the smooth plateau of your hungering back erupts in tremors above me; the aftershock a head before this altar, a whispered Amen. It is easy to learn new aches. New peace is something else, when the night undoes the day.
Let me be the simple task that is the most difficult to do; sketch filigreed complications on the stretched skin between these ribs, only bless and be blessed. “Shh,” someone says, don’t hurry, but I am faithful as the dog that holds on, because the desire to pray is a prayer.
If you will not heal my doubt, let me bear the unbelieving, about face, face this enemy facing consequence your face in my hands, I heard you calling, let me see.
In the beginning, the word; it was a god of open mouths, all breath and a promise. Take it, I say, here. I had only this imitation to give, and immortality. Blessed be this sin, teach me your new shame; to die is only difficult for the proud. If this kingdom we are holding is the only one, leave mine pillaged and let me know its glory only by what remains.
Let me give what I may not hold, dream an answer to the question I dare not speak aloud and pass it back, folded, in your hands. Do you fear the dead? I want to meet them in the olive grove before we find opposite sides of an invisible highway from which to sing our goodbyes. Let me know a patience to cook blood, freeze the earth against my cheek.
Give us this day, taste.
What is this mortal body? I want to study how it shudders around a heart. From this quiver pull a single arrow. Aim another card close to my chest; teach me new deliverance, then give me rest.
You had a secret and lost it. It was the expanse of your life. Look, I will open another to you. Call it forever. Come here. Let us be suddenly young and always, our monuments etched in Crayola hues, each touch conferring the ancient blessings of the rainbow that followed the flood.
What else did we ever do with our bodies, but offer them on altars, before the sun and the moon against drought and flood, against all the ways there were to die slowly we found new ways to sing, take me now and make it swift, so many candle flames roaring against the darkened hills?
Give me a sermon and I’ll sing you a psalm. Raise a hand, raise a glass, raise the dead. Take this body from this tomb where they left me in rags after the last breath I took alone. Brother, take my hand and do not move for it may pass. Hurry, it may get away. Are you tired? I am tired too, of waiting on this island, but how else do you take the measure of a beating heart?
*In Homer’s Odyssey, the goddess Calypso is a nymph on the island of Ogygia, where she detained the hero Odysseus for seven years, as he tried to get home. By the time he washed up on her shores, he had lost all his men and most of his hope. He found comfort and pleasure on the island, and was well cared for by the goddess, who was a match for his wit and a lover of music. His departure was an essential moment in his journey home, when she freed him reluctantly after receiving an order from Zeus, via Hermes, the messenger. She had offered the hero immortality if he stayed; he refused. She generally gets painted as the jilted, short-sighted lover, but I could never read her without thinking that she must have genuinely loved him to make such an offer, and it must have truly broken her heart when he left. As the story goes, there was no one like him. As I do with women of antiquity (including goddesses, nymphs, and gorgons), I sometimes wonder about what parts of her have been erased in order to fit the perspectives of the men who wrote her history for her.