Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Withering of Patience

The withering of patience seems to be the theme of this year. I go back to pounding on one flat stone with a dusty fist. This, here, first. I will knock till I get an answer.

Eventually the stone's outline darkens, and the stone is lifted from below by surly, sinewy hands: they cast the flag away, and wide, red-rimmed eyes glare at me. "Come down then! And don't bother with the door, it closes itself."

A dirty stair leading down to darkness: a smell of damp earth and radishes.

"What about light?" I ask

"What about it?" he spits, and without another glance, he drops away.

So I blow on my hands till a little glow appears, tickling my palms as it gathers itself, and then pulls away to drift over my head. It's enough light to follow down the steps.

"Saint Francis, is it?" he says, and begins a hacking, rhythmic cough which I eventually take to be a laugh. "That won't last long."

I can't stand upright on the stairs. The roof is too low. So I back down them. Twenty steps, thirty. The daylight vanishes. At the bottom, the doorkeeper has vanished too. Here I can stand, and I see three ways, all sloping down: left, right, and forwards.

Wait: there is carving on the lintels, stone figures: cup, star, mountain. The star is straight ahead. So go that way, though the irony is not lost on me. This way to stars? Hardly.


A long weary way, always down and darker. The tunnel was quested blindly like a worm, as though its makers had followed the softer earth wherever they had found it, whichever way it went. What fool starts a journey like this, without water, food, fuel or lamp? This kind, I supposed. But who ever started any other way?

I knew I couldn't hold the light forever. So I rested on a shelf of gravel, and let it go. The dark settled in against me, and the silence brought with it sounds, which I might have been imagining, and might not: the sound of flowing water, which made me thirsty; a tinkling as of the highest piano keys tried by a child; and a wavering tone like a mosquito by the ear. I lay a while, and might have slept. I don't know.

I was wakened by a soft caress, and cool damp dab against my wrist. My eyelids fluttered, but of course the dark stayed the same. I might have held still, or I might have been still in the grip of sleep: anyway, I didn't move. Fur stroked against me; the inquiring cool nose again; a quick inquisitive lick. My hand lifted and gently stroked back. It was a little thing, not full cat-size, and it quickly ducked a whiskery cheek against me and began a high-pitched, buzzing purr.

"Well, this is a happy meeting!" I murmured. "And where did you come from?"

"Oh, I make my rounds," it said.

I shifted uneasily in the dark. A knob of rock was under my hip, and my leg had gone to sleep.

"Human beings and dogs," it said. "They never take the time to make themselves comfortable. They think it's a virtue, but it's not: it's just busy carelessness. Their friends and neighbors end up paying for it."

"Still," it added, "you have good hands, and you could learn. You could learn."

"Tell me," I said. "Am I going the right way?"

It's not true that cats don't laugh, though maybe you need to be in the dark to hear it. "Well, my good sir, tell me, then, first: where are you going?"

"I don't know."

"Then yes, absolutely yes: this is the high way and the quick way."

"You're making fun of me."

It thrust its head against my side and curled up there, and we both fell asleep.


I awoke to a blue light wavering, on the roof and on the walls. My new friend was gone. My face was dusty: I rubbed it clean as best I could, tasting dust, and sat up.

The light was coming from a kinked side passage. I rose and went to the opening, and turned the corner cautiously. There was water beyond, a pool of restless water illuminated either from beneath or beyond. There had to be a current. I tasted it, and it was good. I drank a little from my cupped hands.

There was nothing beyond. Just a low vaulted chamber, barely high enough to stand upright. I had not much yen for more of the dark, but I was not sure about trusting myself to water running swiftly underground. I crouched there and thought a little. There were little golden fish in the water, glinting and gone. And the light had to come from somewhere.

The water was not too cold. I stripped off my shoes and shirt and jeans and tied them into bundle, with a sleeve hanging free, which I tied to my wrist. I didn't much like the idea of arriving -- wherever -- naked, but I didn't want to try to swim in an unknown place encumbered, either. If I got in trouble I could pull the bundle off my wrist and let it go.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016


I don't know what you do, when even the plateau feels too confined. What wilderness remains, where a person could lose himself forever?

I am impatient with my stupidity, my torpor. The armies of my soul have been observing a Christmas truce for decades, playing half-hearted soccer from time to time in no man's land. We have held the magic at arm's length while we grow old. But magic will not be held that way. You have to take it or leave it.

These ponds on the clifftops, bordered by reeds that have died down papery white banners -- black water rimmed by bone white -- they reproach me. I pretend not to take the little path down to them because it's conservancy land and I'm uncertain whether the paths are legitimate. But really, if I did walk right down to the muddy shore, and crouched there, what boat might come? What wounded king might be sleeping, with his head on what lap? And would I ever stand again, with my middle-aged knees, if I stopped to wonder as long as a messenger should?

Let's not even play with words about missing the boat, love.

If I don't go down to the lake, no one is going to put sword or talisman into my hand. And a messenger without a message, what is that?

It turns out that there is a lifetime of unraveling to do. I'm cross-gartered, laced up to the thigh with  quick-growing, tick-infested weeds. If you're not standing where you're supposed to stand, you will be standing somewhere else. I wasn't paying attention when that particular announcement was read out. But now, I try to step and can't even lift my foot.

A sordid boon, indeed: but it's not clear how I should have avoided it. But let all that go. It's not important now.

Breathe deep. Close your sore eyes a moment, and bow your head. You see? It's not as complicated as all that. And for all your cleverness, you don't really know what's at the water's edge. Stop believing you do.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Conditions of the Lease

A deep breath. My ribs lift: I know that the muscles of my neck and back are hauling them upwards, but I've seldom been able to make that real in my mind. In my imagination it's the air itself rushing in, making room for itself, straining against the limits of mere biology. It's the spirit opening up, the soul of the world finding its way to mine. When I meditate, I follow the breath, and stop holding on so tight to this raft. I don't need to worry: I'm not going anywhere. I am sewn into this body. The stitching and overstitching is a clotted scribble of thread, so dense that it obscures the fabric.

Or you could reverse it, and imagine new limbs opening, wings spreading from the scapulae, a second set of long slender arms anchored at the lumbar vertebrae, with quick sure fingers blossoming from the wrists: fingers for feeling one's way, not for grasping. And meantime antlers growing from the acromia in sharp, graceful curves. My feet, freed by my wings from their pedestrian duties, recover their grasp, the toes growing out and over, the big toes becoming thumbs again and swiveling beneath, the nails becoming long razor claws. I could sidle up the wall, or perch on the back of a chair, with my needle toes sinking easily in the flesh of the upholstery. One claw plenty to stand on: the other ready to strike, or to seize.

This business of being an animal: we're in danger of forgetting how strange it is, used as we are to our standard equipment, lulled by the deceptions of clothing and cameras. If our noses were to burst into stars of extraordinarily sensitive feelers, if our thighs and shoulders developed pits for seeing infrared, if we could coil in on ourselves and bury our heads in the loops of our breathing flesh, we might remember, for a little bit, how odd the conditions of this lease really are.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Farewell to Winter and Misanthropy

The morning light across her face almost chiaroscuro. I steal glances at her eating bacon: the muscles of her jaw change the contours of her face -- splashes of light roll up and back from her temple, and below her ear. She's splendid, a Dutch-sized woman with strongly marked features; and she eats with some ferocity. Her breakfast companion is slight: heavily bearded but otherwise rather anemic and wan. Perhaps she'll finish her meal by eating him up.

Spring washing in: old maple flower tracked into the house and the car; new green on the trees. I'm reading César Aira's Ema, La Cautiva, and puzzling over it. After a vision of desolation and brutishness, crossing the pampas with horrible soldiers, we arrive at remote Pringles and find a wavering, fragile-feeling paradise. Aira clearly loves the country he grew up in. But disaster and the threat of violence hangs over everything. And the perpetually pregnant Ema, after all, is essentially a slave: she is susceptible to paradise only because she accepts everything so readily. So it's a disturbing book: one of those books that you take up reluctantly, when you're halfway through, because you don't think it's going to end well. I wish my Spanish was better: some of Aira's philosophical flights just leave me puzzled. And, sure as I am that South America holds wonders, am I really supposed to believe in a hundred-pound duck? Perplexities.

I get stronger, more solitary, more morose. It's a bit of a theme now, I guess. But I'm glad that Spring is here. I'm ready to shake off Winter and misanthropy. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Little Blaze Playing Like A Fish

But I remind myself that I've always had a knack for fire, for blowing gently on a hatchling flame, patiently feeding it the scraps of leaf or twig or bark suited to its young digestion. Eventually it grows into a vigorous creature that you have to curb. Eventually. But meanwhile you tend, protect, and wait. 


There is nothing that I need, at this point. I'm walking in open country under a night sky that grows as I walk: more stars, more hidden countries. My feet are strong: they hold and handle the earth easily. I outdistanced my rivals a long time ago, and even the sound of them has vanished. 


Why should I even want to mark the way? No one is coming after me.


Either this is enough, or nothing is. And the lesson is the same in either case: wait. Tend the fire. Watch the sky.


As the old afflictions fall away, and they do, I become sometimes insubstantial: I can feel the night wind blowing through me, ruffling the net of nerve and blood vessel just as it used to ruffle my hair: and if it's blowing the right way I can lift my feet and let it carry me. How many others have passed me by, just this way, floating on the wind, when I was too heavy to detect them? There's a whole new company to be found, maybe, when I dissolve to the wind completely.


Across the Gorge, palisades rise from the river, laced with waterfalls. I was not expecting a dawn like this: pale gray and colder than the night. Noises come from the current: a curious sleek black head breaks the surface, examines me carefully, and ducks away. Birds begin to call to each other, sharp barks that diminish quickly as they repeat, until the calls can't be sorted from their own echoes.


Exhalations of mist, and a lightness behind the hills to the east. I may have walked all the way to the sunrise, a sunrise I never expected, and which puts me out of all reckoning. 


And that brings me to the fire: I have matches, with much of the stuff rubbed away, but still enough to kindle, if handled cleverly. I'll handle them cleverly. By the time the sun comes up, behind the mountains, I'll have a little blaze playing like a fish.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Daylight Saving Time

A poem for Kristi Wallace Knight

Numbered days stub hard enough
against the breathing soul,
and when they take an hour away
we stumble even more:
is it for this we left the trees
and stood up on the shore?

What say we wallow in the weeds
and crawl back to the wood:
damn fields and sharpened throwing sticks
and cookfires and the Good,
and calendared years that clot up death
in all we understood.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

What Does Not Happen

Sometimes they fall asleep, their head
cradled in the crook of your arm. Your hand
flat on the sternum feels it rise and fall:
the little catches of snores, like 
the sudden shift of weight in a canoe.

You go on working, of course,
sorting through the muscles of the neck
with your other hand, for all the world
as if you were on solid ground.
But you are launched

on the wide water of sleep, and the ripples
wander wider, lapped behind but running ahead
in circles that need not ever end.
You do not rest your head on their breast:
you do not travel with them,

You do not lay your own troubles down
and fall asleep; you do not wake together
after a sweet ten hours' sleep 
to find yourselves each with four sweet paws
stretching your new cat bodies,

catching with your new cat noses, lifted to morning,
scents dull human snouts have never known.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Roar of the Sun

Ragged chevrons of geese, breaking apart and rejoining, this morning, flying just south of east, as if they meant to fly straight to Mt Hood and the sunrise. The crows were aware of them, but pretended not to be. I don't understand why crows and geese are so civil to each other: neither are good tempered birds. But they seem to observe some long-established, ancestral truce. The geese were flying low, just over the tops of the firs, but the crows never objected. They ducked their heads and fidgeted in the lower branches.

I don't know where the geese are headed. Maybe they turn east here so as to follow the Columbia into the interior. I imagine them headed for vast Canadian lakes way up on the Canadian shield: but for all I know they pass the summer by Camas Lake, just across the river here, eating Cheetos and grasshoppers.
"If, hypothetically, there were air filling the universe, then suddenly things would get very loud. Forget the terrifying concept of the sound of a supernova—just the dumb sun sitting there hanging out would ring in at an astounding 290 dB. According to one solar physicist, we’d hear that on Earth as a 100 dB sound—the volume of a motorcycle—all the time, every day, everywhere. Be happy that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum."
So wrote Tim Urban over on Wait But Why. And ever since I've been imagining the roar of the Sun, that vast bubbling furnace, and how differently we'd think of it if we could hear it. Perhaps less of the Kindly Eye of Day and more of the Vengeful Deity. It is going to eat up the Earth eventually, after all.

Meanwhile, all the fruit trees are in blossom here below, and my eyes are heavy, and my throat a little sore. I wake before first light, do my back exercises, lift some weights, go for my walk and my "run" -- all of 250 feet, the width of five short lots, in this suburban eddy -- and wish vainly for a little more sleep. This time of year the light gains on me: I seem to hear it even in my sleep, trickling into the house, and frightening my dreams away. Then I lie there, walking in complex passages, some of them leading sleepwards and some towards waking. But I never know which is which, and eventually I'm woken up by trying to tell.

Full of love for friends making hard decisions, this morning. You are much on my mind. And all you travelers abroad in the wide world, with a heart for beauty and kindness: take good care of yourselves!

Thursday, March 10, 2016


So it's March, one of my traditional Good Months (the other is September.) Next week I will be 58 years old. Now, 58 is a bit of a snag number. It's not quite 60. It's not quite prime. (Next year I'll get a prime, yay!) On the other hand, it isn't one of those numbers you handle all the time, like 56 (which factors out to 2*2*2*7) or 60. No, 58 factors out to 2*29. That should make you shift in your chair a bit. It doesn't really obviously mean anything.

Last year I saw that 57, being 3*19, was inviting me to break my life into three epochs, which I duly did, and thought about. It was interesting. But 2*29 is quite different. Break it into two epochs, and what do you get?

Maybe you get two narratives: one of disaster, and one of recovery?

Or that's how I see it now. At age 29, though, did I understand that I was at the low point of my life? I don't think I did. I had not yet given up on the things that were making me miserable. I was "having trouble writing my dissertation," if writing a total of some fifty pages in two years can be described that way. Actually my good sense was telling me that an academic life would be emotional death for me, but I couldn't bring myself to quit, because I didn't really believe there was anything else out there for me to do. My community was dissolving. I was drinking too much. I was overwhelmed by parenthood.

So to fling the obvious question up, and let it spin, glittering, in the air for a bit: is this actually the second low point of my life?

Well -- no. In some ways obviously no. I like both my jobs: I do good work and I'm well rewarded, in the coin that matters to me. I have plenty of time at my disposal, and I don't persecute myself as I used to.

But there are similarities. At both times, language-learning expanded to take up a huge amount of my disposable time. I love learning languages, for its own sake, but it's an endless repetitive task with an indefinite reward glimmering somewhere beyond the horizon. For someone who likes to get his prep work all done properly before he does the next thing, it can be fatal, because the prep work is never done. "Fluency" even in one language, let alone many, is a will o' the wisp that you could chase for lifetimes. And I don't have lifetimes. With good luck, I have a third of a lifetime.

I've thought my way to this point before. And I concluded, some time last year, that what I was actually going to undertake was making a go of publishing my poems. I had a project all mapped out, which I followed for a little bit, but I didn't pursue it long. And now I recognize that petering-out as the same thing that happened with the dissertation. It's actually the revolt of my good sense. It's not what I ought to be doing. Not, at least, that way. But I should be making, and I should be making with words.

So: leave that for now. Let it steep in the pot for a bit.