Saturday, July 25, 2009
During my nine years at Wesson, Arkansas, I was involved in several romantic experiences, including those with Helen Johnson when I was in the first grade and later with Melfa Telford at the age of ten. I was so in love with Helen that I got into a fight over her during recess on my first day in school. It was with "Stinky" Davis, a third grader, and he proceeded to knock me down a few times and, in the process, knocked my glasses off. When school was out that afternoon, I followed his little brother, who was my age and size, home from school and attacked him in the middle of the road in front of his house. This time I was victorious, and his mother had to pull me off of him.
When we moved from Wesson to Urbana, Arkansas in 1932, I was quite saddened because I was leaving my girl friend Melfa Telford. After we had completed our move, I received a letter from Melfa with a piece of double-bubble gum inside. So, I knew that she was really missing me.
My daddy was a very special person. He had a sense of empathy with black people and always treated them with respect. I can remember walking on the sidewalks in El Dorado and seeing Daddy step off the sidewalk to greet and shake hands with black people, whom were not allowed on the sidewalks. Shaking hands with a black person was unheard of back then. I also remember many times that he gave black people money, when I knew we were barely getting by. This was during the days of segregated schools and churches, and Daddy spoke many times at black high school graduations and spoke quite often at black churches. When he became Sheriff of Union County in the early fifties, he hired a black deputy which made him very unpopular and was probably the reason that he only served one term as Sheriff. I was quite touched during his funeral service at Second Baptist Church, to see many black people in attendance. This fact alone tells you a lot about my daddy's character, because black people did not attend white people's funerals back then.
In recalling my early teenage years at El Dorado, I remember my association with Lefty Frizzell, who in the '50s became a superstar country singer and song writer. I was about 15 years of age when Lefty and his family moved to El Dorado, renting a shack near where Dale Gray [Dad's best friend – Tim] lived on South Jackson Street. Lefty was quite young then, perhaps 10 or 11, and accompanied by his many younger brothers and sisters, he followed Dale and me everywhere we went on the South side of El Dorado. Their daddy worked in the oilfields but apparently made little money because the children were dressed very poorly. The South side of El Dorado was a tough area to grow up in, and fighting was the main pastime. Lefty seemed to love fighting, particularly when he and his siblings were made fun of. He was also very good at it and used his left like a windmill. As I recall, Dale and I named him Lefty, and this nickname stuck with him the rest of his life. He later fought in the ring as a professional.
Lefty loved country music – especially Jimmie Rodger's songs – during the time that Dale and I knew him. He talked his mother into trading their milk cow to Dale's mother for an old wind up record played and several Jimmie Rodgers records. This was the beginning of Lefty's music career as he spent many hours playing Jimmie's records and trying to emulate him.
After about two years of living in El Dorado, Lefty's family moved to the Texas oilfields, and he later started singing in night clubs in Texas and boxing. I lost touch with him until after I came back to El Dorado after college and heard some of his music and songs on the radio. I still love his songs and play them often. My son Mike wrote a song titled "Daddy Knew Lefty" in April 1992 and recorded it on cassette tape. I am very proud of this tape, and it tells the true story of my time with Lefty.
Up yonder to my right...up in the sky...a sparrow was chasing a full-fledged HAWK! It was trailing the raptor about 15 yards behind. It looked like an ME-109 fighter closing in for the kill on a B-17 bomber.
But this is what it really looked like to me:
the Little Guy finally about to give some holy hell to the Political-Military-Industrial-Media Quadplex...an avian St. George on a sword of air coming to slay the four-headed Dragon.
When I got home, I sat down on my haunches in the gravel driveway, sipping coffee from my plastic travel cup and polishing off a smoke. My nutty dog ran fast, absurd circles round and round me. As if weaving an invisible web of agreement that omens are not always bad.
Thursday, July 23, 2009
[The following essay was written by my daughter Sarah four years ago, as a college sophomore. It was a book review assignment in her Asian Philosophy & Religion class. I thought she did a good job, and I found the topic to be interesting. Maybe you will, too.]
The arrow of experience–a fluid succession of “nows”–should be notched on the bow of discipline and aimed at the target of one’s own heart and mind. Such is a distillation of the themes expressed in Kenneth Kushner’s book One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment. Kushner, holding a PhD in clinical psychology, is a member of the educational staff of the Institute of Zen Studies in Honolulu. His book describes various experiences he had in Hawaii and in Japan while studying kyundo–the art of Zen archery. In addition to merely educating the reader about technical aspects of oriental archery that differ from the Western form, Kushner’s project is to impart the profound spiritual value that lies at the heart of this practice that might affect our daily lives.
My first reaction to the early chapters was a slightly negative one: there seemed to be something almost neurotic about this psychologist’s obsession with martial arts in general and kyundo in particular. That is until I reached page 40, which contained a photo of master Suhara Koun Osho drawing his bow. Master Osho’s poised image communicates something visceral yet calm, overriding my tendency to search for cosmic meaning. It seems that any activity done with deep seriousness will layer in a new, positive dimension to how we experience reality. Having finished reading Kushner’s book, the tables have decisively turned: his search for Zen truth in archery no longer seems neurotic, and my own interest in television and movies now appears to be darkened by the shadow of something more solid and real.
One Arrow, One Life, part biography and part explication, deals mainly with Kushner’s time spent at the kyundo training center Chozen-Ji (Hawaii). His encounters with the resident master, Tanouye Roshi, enriches his dry description of training principles with personal anecdote. As readers, we accompany the author while he learns to mesh the technical aspects of archery with the subtler spiritual aspects of Zen. The early chapters expose us to the ritual (“sharei”) of shooting an arrow, as well as how the individual mechanical steps are infused with psychological and physiological energies. Special emphasis on proper breathing, posture, and thoughtless concentration (this triad is referred to as “mushin”) combine to differentiate kyundo from ordinary Western archery. The middle chapters move from an explicit focus on archery to the more general aspects of Zen spirituality, such as breathing control and maintaining awareness against delusions, and how they might inform day-to-day existence. Finally, the book delves into finding and maintaining oneself in the universal “creases” of nature, entering the flow of deep energy that puts us into harmony with all of life.
“One arrow, one life” is a phrase the author chose to emphasize that each action in life should be done as if that active moment encompasses the extent of one’s life. “The saying conjures the image of the last act of a dying man” (42). This approach of seriousness carries over into the art of Zen archery and is embodied in the formalized procedure called “hassetsu,” the ritual eight steps of kyundo. Here, various postures and bow manipulations come together with breathing control to allow for the released arrow to follow its Zen trajectory. The most difficult part of the process has to do with the art of the release. Having properly channeled one’s breathing from the “hara” center below the navel, as well as completed the body-cross of opposing left and right arms, the moment of proper Zen release occurs on its own when breath and tension reach their peak. The arrow releases itself, rather than the hand letting go.
The author struggled to achieve such a state or ability, and it appears that this involves tapping into the hidden energies and “will” of being. To me, this idea conjures up the idea and importance of intuition and gut instinct–calming the mind and body in order to become receptive to the universal “now.” Another interesting kyundo principle is “zanshin,” which “means that the state of mind and body used in executing an action is not dissipated by it, but is carried over into the next activity” (73). This notion of combined equipoise and carryover allows one to accept an outcome and move ahead into the next opportunity. It also is a principle of concentration, wherein one is enabled, whether in archery or in conversation with another person, remain awake and focused with seriousness from one flowing moment to another.
A striking aspect of this book is the cultural dislocation the author experiences when confronting the Japanese psyche, as manifested by various Zen instructors. It’s like an alien encounter, an otherworldly contact with beings whose mental fibers are rooted to apparently deeper and richer spiritual soil. In Chapter 5–“The Naturally Correct Way”–Kushner describes the day he and others were at work on the grounds at Chozen-Ji clearing boulders to make space for future construction. The author struggled to relocate some large boulders by rolling them until Tanouye Roshi explained to him, “You have to learn to push the rock where it wants to go” (62). One must follow the natural grain or crease in any endeavor. By discovering the natural planes on a boulder’s surface, one might roll the rock in agreement with them. In archery, one learns to align the grain of one’s being with the universal orientation of nature. One must conform the “ji”–technique–with the “ri”–underlying universal principles. “Ri is formless and unchanging. Ri is ineffable” (15).
As the reader moves into and through these interesting anecdotes and information, there is also a downside: Kushner’s prose is, for the most part, stiff and dry. A certain monotony sets in, with too little variation in sentence structure. A bit more eloquence would have made for a richer reading experience and been more fitting for the exotic subject matter (a better editing job to catch typos would also have benefitted the book). Despite this drawback and whether or not one might be interested in kyundo, this book has its strong points. As mentioned earlier, the photo of Suhara Koun Osho drawing his bow (reproduced below) provides a visual confrontation with spiritual depth.
For the most part, we Westerners stumble through our psychic lives, jostled by one association after another. Rarely in daily living do our physical or mental movements glide according to the deep rhythms of nature. Master Osho’s serene, celestial countenance, on the other hand, suggests there might be another “do.” As Kushner remarks, “Do is an important word in Zen. It is the Japanese translation of the Chinese word, ‘Tao.’ ‘Do’ is usually translated as ‘Way’” (5). One begins to wonder if an absorption with television shows and movies might be the wrong kind of “do”.
One Arrow, One Life not only introduces the kyundo aspirant to basic methods and principles, it offers the general reader an alternative lens through which to view reality. Even if one chooses not to become a Zen archer, one takes away from the book a subconscious enrichment: when caught up in life’s stresses, there will now be the sense that a saner version of living is possible. Coming to this book with no interest in archery, I was prepared to be a bit bored and unaffected. Now having realized certain undercurrents moving below the overt theme, I acknowledge their importance and recommend this book to other Westerners needing a breath of fresh Zen air.
One Arrow, One Life: Zen, Archery, Enlightenment
Kenneth Kushner, Tuttle Publishing, 2000, North Clarendon, Vt.
The child's question is everything. We gather around us a lifetime of buffering nonsense to keep her question from touching us in the deep places. It is too disconcerting to really address it and think into it. Or we've become so mature, that such a query is met with condescension.
Well, Meister Eckhardt drove his mind all the way into it. And came up with an “answer” that some would find the raving of an imbecile. God requires a foundational Godhead...then the Godhead requires something beyond even it...something finally ineffable.
The question is everything. It is a serious matter. The child is waiting.
I used to be, and still sometimes am, over-stimulated when reading or hearing about the death of a child or young person. Someone cut off, cheated out of years and experience. There's a scene in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp overhears the tragic wailing and rebellion of a tubercular girl on the eve of death. That really stuck to me.
I used to think that old people dying was not such a tragedy. They've lived a long life. They had their share of experience. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm beginning to think that a life spent wrapped up with religion or some mysticism...or as an above-it-all atheist...or in some other “mature” kind of buffer zone...well, I suspect that the Reaper's close breath just might be more horrible on their faces than on the cheated child.
Here's why: the child or young person is closer to the vacuum of non-being; the elder is much farther removed. If there is a God – something that explains Being – then the child has more lately flown from that mysterious Weaver; the awesome, sublime dew of life's morning still beads on her fair soul. The old are too far flung in time, thus tragically forgetful...grown too solid to be bothered with such ephemeral questions as “Who made God?”
On the deathbeds of ancients, I suspect the trauma is tenfold that of the young. Now...Now...Now...the question looms as agony instead of curiosity. But what does it matter you might ask, if there is no answer? Well, I further suspect that a life, short or long, spent in conscious awareness of, in constant tension about the question of who made God would be a life that is less anguished over pending extinction. Less shocked and surprised to discover that there actually is a Mystery.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
I was driving between Little Rock and El Dorado, Arkansas, with my first wife. Somewhere near Fordyce, I spotted a food joint way off the road on the right -- out in the middle of nowhere. It was kind of like a forlorn Dairy Queen. We were hungry, so I took the sloping gravel path. And down to where the little building was surrounded by trees and picnic tables. As I got out of the car and walked up to the order window, my first wife conveniently disappeared.
I gave my order for hot dogs (hot dogs were all they offered). I felt a large presence standing behind me. It was a large presence: a man wearing black-rimmed glasses and with a crew-cut above his 400 pounds. He ordered his own hot dogs. While we stood there waiting, we began to casually chat. Moments later, two overweight black ladies sashayed past us. I'd say they each weighed about 271 or 273...in that spectrum. My new friend lowered his head toward me, gently elbowing me in the ribs, and whispered in a mocking tone, "Get a load of them."
We got our hot dogs and walked together toward one of the picnic tables. The only one close that was available still had some trash and uneaten portions on it from previous guests. And actual dogs. With hind legs on the benches and front legs on the table top, two mangy dogs were scruffling down the leftovers. They were fairly large, like a cross between German shepherds and coyotes. This pissed me off.
I rushed to the table and "shoo'd" them as persuasively as I could...with uncharacteristic authority and determination. This pissed them off. One especially. As I came up to him (I assume), he glanced up at me side-wise, snarling, and baring his teeth, which were still buried in hot dog remnants. I "shoo'd" him again, louder. He continued eying me with contempt and from the periphery. Then -- and I kid you not -- he said in low, broken tones: "You. Son. Of. A. Bitch."
For a few moments, things were in state of high uncertainty. Then, he and his mangy buddy reluctantly withdrew from the table, heading off to god knows where. After that bit of excitement, things got vague. Probably a thousand other events transpired, but I can't remember.
I speak, therefore I am, even when my words echo silently in the cavern of consciousness. But when you speak, do I grant you the equal measure of existence? Our relations to one another are necessarily strung on the filament of language. I wonder: do we realize how fragile this thread of communal existence is? How a lack of conscious maintenance causes that cord to continually fray? This essay is about our speaking and about our listening. It is about the art of conversation.
There are various ways of defining conversation. For my purpose, I will approach it from five directions: idle talk, casual speech, verbal tyranny, data exchange, genuine dialogue.
Idle talk functions to fill up the vacuum-pockets of boredom, and in this respect, it usually flows freely, undisciplined by conscious rules of engagement. Actually, "flows" is an inaccurate term to describe this movement of words; "ricochets" is better. The initial utterance of an idle topic is like a bullet sent thoughtlessly toward a vague target, sparking random associations among the speakers until momentum fails and the topic falls impotently to a ground of indifference. Such banal "conversations" preclude a meeting of minds. We become babblers, with no one really listening to anyone else. Although the din of speech may swell to a cacophony of reportage, we are left unenriched by the experience. Worse, gossip is prone to occur in this dead-zone of unbridled chitchat. If it is only human to extemporize on the foolishness or misfortune of others, it is still a human failing that should be struggled against. Idle talk is a waste of consciousness and a waste of time. It makes of life something shallow and trivial, instead of deep and significant. It is not real conversation. It is, rather, the withering of the flower of humanness, which is language.
Casual speech is a less offensive sibling of idle talk; therefore, we may be more lenient in our appraisal. It bears the family resemblance of informality but differs from idle talk in one important respect: it is not the venting of stale fumes from unreflecting minds; rather, it represents an act of surreptitious appreciation. The themes of casual speech may, like idle talk, remain on a trivial, even coarse, plane, but these themes are substantially irrelevant to the nonverbal reason for the conversation — the oblique probing of another psyche. Indeed, this casual give-and-take is a process of valuation. Ezra Pound's "Tame Cat"1 is illustrative of this:
"It rests me to be among beautiful women.
Why should one always lie about such matters?
It rests me to converse with beautiful women
Even though we talk nothing but nonsense,
The purring of the invisible antennae
Is both stimulating and delightful."
Verbal tyranny is a pronounced form of anti-conversation. Here, genuine dialogue is not simply the victim of entropy and deflation, effected passively by idle chatter. No, here the ramparts are stormed in a zealous crusading for a singular point of view and a consequent seizure of available time for the righteous campaign. A definite topic will be brought up, but it will not be brokered in the idea market of free and equal discourse. It is here to make a point: that the topic holder must be heard and heard exhaustively. This person is not interested in hearing another point of view. His is the only worthy one. And this is verbal tyranny. Verbal oppression. The rules of respectful engagement have been dispensed with in a fury of monomaniacal theme-staking and point-making. Verbal tyranny is most on exhibit when the discussion is about religion, politics, or some topic equally incendiary. As the tyrant conquers more and more conversational territory, the other, far from being persuaded, is likely to formulate a plan of escape from the insatiable Torquemada or intransigent Stalin. It is incumbent on those with strong convictions (not a sin, in itself) to restrain a militant certitude so that understanding becomes possible. If you are overwhelmed with enthusiasm for your belief or opinion, take a moment to reflect on how psychologically suspect and statistically capricious it is that you, and not the other, are privileged with unshakable truth.
Interruption is a particularly noxious gas in the arsenal of verbal tyranny. How many times have you attempted to proffer a topic of supposed interest, only to have it asphyxiated as soon as it begins to leave your lips? You've certainly had no time to complete your thought, and you stand there dumbfounded and helpless as your subject expires in the ego-charged air.
Data exchange is a necessary but unremarkable type of conversation. It's a neutral category, consisting in the mere relay of information. The routines of the workplace function through its operation, and this exchange of messages is about getting things done, not about conversing. There is little to praise or vilify about data exchange, other than to lament its use as a substitute when there is opportunity for more meaningful conversation. Its incursion into home life may become habitual and unconscious to the point that the family milieu comes to resemble the operation of a computer. Merely processing "bits," a computer does not reflect on their quality. Yes, there is practical messaging to be done and news to share, but like idle talk, data exchange can lead to a dulling of the ear, where no datum has more significance than another. We are then liable to pass one another by on this word-stream of colloquial mediocrity. Vigilance is required for maintaining — through heightened and deepened speech acts — the realness, the rooted-in-presentness of each family member.
Genuine dialogue is a living, moving complex of matter and energy. Words are the cells that build the tissue of our talking, while awareness is the catalytic spark. As in a potent alchemy, our conversations should be crucibles for making something. They should be conspiratorial efforts to make time real — to mutually re-cognize (bring afresh to mind) the uncanniness of existence. Thus, it is crucial that our syntax be supple, our vocabulary conditioned for acts of creation. How wearisome and irksome it is listening to opinions expressed without flair or wit (a sign of awareness). Presence of mind amid the clamor of external stimuli is how I would describe awareness, but achieving and maintaining it are not easy assignments. We lack the mystical talent and control of an Indian rishi, so we must look for a shortcut. I submit a counterintuitive course: humility. Turning away from self and toward the other, the humble person might paradoxically become a vessel for a special type of awareness in which a real conversation may catalyze.
John Keats spoke of "negative capability" — an imaginative sympathy — and it gave him a profound insight into the nature of his subject. With the semantic tension quivering between the two poles, "negative" and "capability," I will borrow Keats's phrase and blend it into my suggestion for dialogical humility. The concept can then be understood as a becoming aware of oneself through verbal transaction with another. Through the "force" of humility, attention will be directed outward and focused on the one who is speaking. Such a focus will empower an identification, therefore a mirroring back onto self-consciousness. With awareness comes a "deceleration" of time, allowing unusual moments of shared presence.
A viable colloquy grows out of respectfulness and fair play, two elements in the practice of humility. To converse in this manner means that you acknowledge in principle your interlocutor as being on an equal ideational footing. If you cannot abstractly submit to this condition, and at least play along, then you should not join the conversation. Otherwise, your contribution will actually be usurpation, which is the manner of a tyrant.
If our purpose is to consider conversations as artworks, it would be proper to have a working definition of art. Broadly construed, it is the organized expression of inspired thoughts and feelings. The art of conversation, therefore, involves an organum for structuring an aroused theme. What would be the main precept of such an organum? To paraphrase Samuel Taylor Coleridge, our words should encompass and retrieve the whole of our thought, instead of proceeding verbatim from their spontaneous, haphazard mental occurrence (but this whole-of-our-thought must reach an appropriate terminus: Coleridge was prolix in his own conversing, apparently something of a verbal tyrant). Our sentences should be holistic, not pointillistic, and with practice, a talent for this kind of speaking will emerge, resulting in natural expressions endowed with composure. Of course, the creation of such verbal art will require the devotion of more than one to the project. In genuine discourse, reciprocal dynamics generate a feedback loop of existential grounding and edification. This collaborative effort, like an improvised performance of music, moves rhythmically toward a coda and then fades into the province of memory.
Some other principles of engagement that go into the making of a good conversationalist are as follows:
1. Be relatively certain that the topic you wish to broach is one that the other person would be interested in.
2. Listen closely, calmly, and thoughtfully to what the other person has to say before responding. You might consider briefly restating the other person's idea in your own words to show that you have really understood what was said before attacking or embellishing.
3. Be alert to the fair-play requirement that the discussion time must be equally divided. Flooding the sound-space with an excess of one's own opinions and interests is to be crass and boorish.
4. Keep the original topic in mind. This suggestion is important for respecting the person who began the conversation, but it is a flexible one. After all, a stimulating conversation is one in which a leavening takes place — a lifting into higher levels of consideration, an infusion of vivifying subthemes.
5. Avoid the stultifying effect of clichés. They rob your speech of vigor and authenticity. Let these threadbare hand-me-downs decompose completely from your closet of phrases. The best method for invigorating one's vocabulary and broadening one's conversational range is to read books (preferably, well-written, provocative ones).
6. If you are unable to abide by principles 1 through 5, then please resist the urge to speak. Use this new quiet time to try and understand why you are so conversationally challenged and uncharitable.
Although these principles are important, they are not intended as rigid procedures. Imagine the folly of trying to converse while constantly accessing a mental list of rules. Speech would be a halting, disjointed affair. Rather, these criteria are offered as candles to glow softly in the back of the mind.
With the foregoing in place, the question may then occur: what is the substance of an edifying conversation? What should we talk about? I have dealt harshly with idle talk, equivocally with casual speech, proscriptively with verbal tyranny, and indifferently with data exchange. Is the subject matter that arises from these usual categories necessarily inferior? Must all real conversations be about deep things like art, literature, philosophy, and science? I don't think so. Whether the topic is sports, shopping, entertainment, or even the weather, the manner of conversing will, I propose, "consecrate" the subject of a dialogue, leading to the possibility of communion and a heightening of a sense of actuality.
In conclusion, the art of conversation is the art of being human. It is the art of valuing and verbally embracing another. Language is haunted with a fragrance of transcendence. We can speak (therefore think) the infinite and the eternal. Our words are acts of spirituality that sprinkle a residue of mystery on a seemingly mundane earth. Converse with genuineness in the attempt to uncover something sacred not only in your correspondent but in yourself.
1. Ezra Pound, Selected Poems of Ezra Pound, A New Directions Paperbook (New York, 1957), p. 37.
having arisen from black dreams of the fatherland,
dreams too dark for spirits.
They dance in the dawn fog as
great trees hover like providence,
watchful, rooted, spreading.
They dance a wild waltz of morning as
dew drips like wanton tears
from the grave grass.
They dance to a rhythm sprung
fresh in springtime, turning, spinning,
gliding in cool sunlight,
cold concrete walls and hard faces
near a sepulchral door, where
the shocked air chills as they pass;
soon the gas in the horror in the black
makes of them a floor of corpses,
a soft spread of death...
but now they are dancing
in the purgatory of a painting
that I might, in cosmic grief,
tear my garments
and cover my head with ashes
and gnash my teeth
for these, my lost nymphs.
reeling below the hunting owl...
after last night under helicopters'
The round moon fixed me as a point
of eye-glint on the war field, where
red lights blinked overhead.
Then heavy missiles came,
came tilting like heads of archangels,
came silent through the doomed night,
came hard by the round moon.
But morning came sooner,
bringing with it a deeper dread: sunlight,
"I awake, but my soul is in dreams." -- William Blake
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Process. Invention. Politics. Theory. Blathering.
Mirrors. Egos. Grudges. Beliefs. Projects.
Grow some vegetables in a patch or on a porch.
Walk in the woods.
Write a poem.
Contemplate the moon.
Don't do a god-damned thing, otherwise.
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Had a dog years back that broke my nose. Had a cat that was schizophrenic. Got a dog now that thinks I'm a dangerous lunatic. And I'm pretty sure my current cat is my reincarnated grandmother.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Drawn with graphite pencils, color and text added in Photoshop
Sarah (Buck, not Connor) is 24.75 years old, and she likes to draw stuff when the mood hits her. Rest of the time?
By day, her cover is a pharmacy tech. By night, she stoically and intuitively performs her clandestine duties as an international agent of W.I.E.R.D. -- World Investigation of Enigmatic Ruptures and Deviations. I'm not at liberty to go into this at much depth or length.
Suffice it to say: if not for her and her comrades' efforts, Naughty Glowing Bubble Men and Giant Clowns from Beyond would have taken over this planet by now.
[Hey...I misspelled "weird." That's weird.]
and I imagine all the flowers
of that land are blooming
a dark Novalis blue.
She lives in Serbia,
and I can't reach her.
But she is the only one
who knows me.
In one of her pictures,
she is open and curious,
amused, at least I think.
It's hard to tell with Buddhas.
The next picture's cool.
She looks like a bandit
about to rob a bank
that hordes too many dreams.
And then she is a goddess.
That look would disarm armies.
By turns, she looks seductive,
yet also self-effacing.
Finally, the rebel.
I've never been so free.
I've never been so giving.
She could teach me worlds.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Having read and reread Chronicles: Volume 1, I found it to be engrossing, elliptical, groovy, and kaleidoscopic. It seems that three volumes are planned, and I'm eager to devour the next one. But I haven't been able to find out any info on when it'll be published. I Googled a number of pages to no avail, and even the publisher Simon & Schuster had no news that I could discover.
Has anyone heard a rumor or something more solid about when the next book will be released?
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Please...I'm warning you. Don't read my 2005 novel – Séance in B Minor. I wrote it, for the most part, in something like a hypnagogic trance, and I might very well have crossed the line into questionable spiritual territory. Shelling out $16 could turn out to be a Faustian bargain for you, causing irreparable psychological harm.
One chapter contains a dissertation, of all things! Who in their right mind would subject themselves to such a thing? Especially as conjured up by someone – me – who never even went to college? And especially given by a character who, during the presentation, hears voices? Who soldiers ahead, even in the face of an academic panel's arrogant, preening incomprehension?
Who would sit still for my ex machina device: a piece of non-existent technology for blending the brain-waves of two sleeping dreamers? Surely such a thing and its description would be too facile for a proper suspension of disbelief.
And of all things! Several times in the book, I try to turn pieces of music into words. Music is music; prose is prose. Attempts at transmuting them must, of course, be an unholy alchemy. Here, see for yourself why it's best that you DON'T READ MY BOOK:
Allison unlocked her hotel room, entering its quiet ambience. She slipped off her shoes and sat down at the table, propping her feet on the bed. Remembering the unlistened-to-CD of Chopin's Preludes, she inserted the disc and adjusted her headphones.
These short pieces were preluding, foreshadowing no larger musical structure. Each one led nowhere, except to the next prelude. They were self-contained reflections by an inward-looking artist. But Allison discerned a continuum as each piece added its own texture to a poetic whole. This whole was an augury, an anticipation of death.
Some of these pieces were the casual renderings of evanescent moods. Others exuded happiness. But even those melodic paths were strewn with the withering blooms of melancholy – an understated sadness spoiling human joy. Still others plunged into darker places and expressed, with reined-in hysteria, that taboo thing of the psyche: Death. It is where everyone is headed, and Chopin was giving Allison a guided tour of the terrain. Every word, every action, every human breath is laden with the autumn chill of our ending. This music, this sometimes acquiescent, sometimes feverish music was acknowledging death's paradoxical enhancement of life. Before the horizon of mortality, every moment adds a new layer of poignant meaning.
Eventually, she emerged from that world of aural poetry. A conversion had occurred. She had crossed the threshold from one state of consciousness into another. This new dimension contained a fulgent, yet disturbing art.
Oh...one more thing. My novel was rejected by major and minor publishers. I had to put it out myself. That must mean it's not any good. Right?
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
The implication is that all culture and all spirituality came from India. And this dove-tailed beautifully with what I had been reading at the time: the dialog between Devi and Shiva in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Something in the tone of revelation and in the "personality" of Shiva struck a chord in me. It seemed to be the Fact of the Matter about deep reality. And those verses are said to pre-date the Veda itself, thus the Harappan -- Indus Valley -- civilization of the north.
I had also been reading The Upanishads, which my Indian friend Chittaranjan Naik had sent me as a gift. Here also was a rumor, an evocation, a fragrance of something very old and very deep...something from the core of Being.
Strange threads of connection began to twine in my musing head. I could picture a river valley civilization with glorious cities, which had begun to rise not too many tens of thousands of years after the dawn of human self-consciousness. And these tree-shaded environs...with lotus blossoms on crystal pools...had as their foundational god none other than Krishna.
Myths about an ancient northern river -- Saraswari -- have been confirmed as fact by recent satellite imagery and some excavations. This river and its tributaries were said to be dotted with several large cities. One of these sites, on the Arabian Sea coast, is the present city of Dwarka, with its Dwarkanath Temple in honor of Krishna. Five other cities were built on the general site but were washed out to sea over thousands of years.
Here's a video I just found about a sunken city off the coast of Dwarka, but as far as I can tell, it's distinct from the Gulf of Cambay discovery:
Now, I've heard nothing recently about the astounding discovery of that sunken city in the Gulf of Cambay. Was it a hoax? I certainly hope not. If I remember correctly from reading a number of articles at the time, the India Oceanography Society was going to do more extensive underwater exploration and excavation. I also remember that the area in question was very murky, roiled with strong currents and brackish water, making camera reconnaissance almost impossible. The video above shows divers in not-too murky water, thus confirming these are two different areas and separate incidents.
Here's the original article:
BBC article on sunken city
And here's a link to a breathtaking Krishna statue. There appeared to be some licensing mumbo-jumbo, so I didn't feel comfortable putting the image here outright. Sure wish I could have, though.
gorgeous statue of Krishna!
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Monday, July 13, 2009
One evening at the dinner table, we were chowing down on my mother's delicious pancakes, drenched with warmed-up Log Cabin syrup. This was our Thursday night ritual: pancakes engulfed in the nick of time, so we didn't miss the beginning of Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker on our brand-new TV in amazing Living Color!
My father was sitting at the head of the table with, as usual, a thoughtful, pleasant expression on his face. Then it happened. And that expression took on a never-before-seen shading. See...aliens were attacking. And why they had chosen an obscure, south Arkansas town to do so most likely enhanced the uncanniness and perplexity of the occasion.
Up until that time, police sirens topping the hill to our west would wail forlornly, like a banshee having her hair slowly pulled. Rather pathetic sounding. You know the sound...remember those stupid warbling sirens from clunky squad cars, delivering the impassive Broderick Crawford to a crime scene on Highway Patrol?
Well...unbeknownst to us pancake lovers was the fact that new technology had landed smack dab on top of the El Dorado Police Department. New-fangled sirens had been installed. I suppose the idea was to paralyze bounding-away perpetrators into a stupefaction of fear and confusion.
This siren sound was from another galaxy...or from hell. Unique...no way to fold one's associative aural memories into it...just wouldn't fit. Someone must have discovered the formula for this high-pitched, quivering, oscillating horror in the dusty archives of Nikola Tesla.
So that evening, our nice little family was assaulted by a sound that screamed: “We are not of earth, and we are coming to eat you with Log Cabin syrup on top.”
The fork was at my father's lips, and it froze there for a moment or two. Then, it slowly descended to settle on his plate. He looked at each of us, and it was a look of astonishment, souped-up with...what the hell? I'd never seen that expression on his face before, never saw it again. And that look was unmistakable: We Are Being Space Invaded. You can imagine the discombobulation that such a notion would effect in a civil engineer, someone whose mind was more attuned to blueprints than seven-toed footprints.
As I recall, we all dashed to the window...in time to see a plain-jane patrol car blasting down the highway in front of our house. The collective sense of relief was palpable. Invasion postponed.
And maybe I've got a mean streak or maybe I just wanted Dad to know what it was like living inside my crazy head for a few minutes...but I sort of enjoyed that moment when he was opened up by some alien stress.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
I passed a female clerk sitting out front on a bench. I'd say about 37 years old. Longish, dirty-blond hair. 18 1/2 years ago, I imagine she was quite the looker. Looked okay now to me. She was smoking. She was smoking existentially.
I gazed at her as I passed, intending to speak some uncharacteristic bon mot. You know...fulfilling social expectation. No, that's not quite right. This particular occasion, I really felt drawn to her. Maybe it was the way she dragged like Sartre's mistress on that cigarette. It wasn't to kill time or to find pleasure. It was to ward off emotional demons...like a smoke bomb against mosquitoes.
She glanced up at me in a flash. Then down again. Well...I'm REAL good at hallucinating stuff, so I probably misread that space between glancing up and down. But I'm pretty sure I caught the look of a sigh in her eyes. That she kind of liked what she saw strolling past, but she was just too damn metaphysically wore out to even think about it.
Went inside. Made my purchase. Went back outside. Still sitting there, and this time I didn't feel quite right looking at her or trying to pry a conventional, even nonverbal response. Just strolled past her. Either owing to the results of peripheral vision or telepathic ingestion, I picked up a stronger vibe of yearning. Pretty sure she didn't even look up at all. But I read her heart in that moment as I walked past.
Got in my car. Fired up my own damn cigarette. Backed out of the space and then swung past her as I made my exit. She was staring full-on at me as I drove past.
A glimmer of sadness was in those eyes. I wasn't hallucinating. She wanted someone.
I grew up fairly uncultured. The performances of ladies singing arias on the Ed Sullivan Show were occasions of hilarity for us kids fresh in from a backyard football game. Sensitive, aesthetic tears never dampened our grimy cheeks. Even as I grew into a deep appreciation for Beethoven and Schubert, among others, opera just never appealed to me.
Well two years ago, I read a CD review of an opera by the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928 - ). It's titled The House of the Sun, and something in that review attracted me. That peculiar attraction had echoes in it: Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovich…Keats, De Quincey, Poe, Emily Dickinson, Bruno Schulz…some others. The kindredness I perceive among all these is characterized best with the word "melancholy."
Most people flee downpours of melancholy. Those folks above – and me – didn't make it under the defensive awnings. We're drenched. Having heard Rautavaara's The House of the Sun, I'd say he ain't too dry himself.
The CD booklet introduction, written by the composer, is titled "The House of the Sun and the mystery of time." Based on actual events, this opera is about a pair of Russian sisters, who lived in the same house in Finland from 1917 to 1987. The Russian Revolution had displaced the family, and after their father's, brother's, and sister's suicides, as well as their mother's natural death, the twin sisters secluded themselves in Solgårten (House of the Sun). Sustained by mutual childhood memories more real than the impossible reality of their situation, they luxuriate in wafts of Russian melancholy penetrating the house's walls...hanging, then forming into subtle visions for that wounded pair.
The libretto recounts attempts at more grounded visitation by hopeful suitors and others. All to no avail. The sisters could not be released from the magnetic grip of a utopian past, either through an act of their own wills or by the influence of outsiders. I found the performances riveting and the music beautifully sad.
The denouement especially haunts me and will be with me for the rest of my life. The ghosts of two old suitors appear and, together, prepare the sisters for their approaching apotheosis:
"When it is time, when the time comes,
Understand this: in your most important moment
A bird stops and looks at you, at the moment when you understand
The pond reflects the entire world,
And the brook says: now it is time, here, now and always
A red leaf floats on the stream,
Carried by the water into oblivion."
At the very end, reality is thoroughly overtaken by dream and fantasy…by the promptings of familiar ghosts, who lead the twins, finally, outside the House of the Sun:
One after another, they dance
through the open garden door into the moonlight.
Among current philosophical theories of consciousness, an odd one has been offered. It hopes to resolve the "hard problem" (how to account for experiences of qualia, given a material brain substrate) by envisioning our sense of self as something partly external. The strong sense of an "I" is a kind of illusion. According to this line, the "I" is actually one half of a binary "self." Thus, consciousness sort of hangs out there beyond our bodies and is composed equally of the brain's emanations and the world's field. Invisible strings of diffuse meat and spatial event are woven together to construct the web of self-consciousness.
This scenario reminds me, counterintuitively, of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Of his ideas about alterity – radical Otherness. Although I think he would have agreed that the external field of experience is a strong shaping force, he would ascribe to it no actual intermeshing toward the realization of an "I." For him, I believe, the "I" is distinct. What is "out there" is something else. But it also presses on our selves with a tremendous moral weight. Otherness is infinite. Its claim on us is inexhaustible. (A simplistic extrusion on my part: selfishness is a violation of reality). Levinas thought that the truest implication of Otherness is its requirement for a God to contain and be expressive of the radical magnitude.
All of the above is prologue to my own stab at a bit of (suspect) philosophizing. That theory above about consciousness being a complex is attractive to me. Yet I also think Levinas makes some sense, with his conception of being as points of discrete obligation to what lies outside. Seems like we're in a paradox. Maybe from a higher crow's-eye view, the tension of the paradox is relaxed somewhat: perhaps there's an answer, but it's not really available on this plane of existence.
What I've in mind seems related to the idea above that selfhood inheres, ultimately, as a complex, not in some radical Cartesian I-am-ness. But instead of a strict binary "I," I'd call that complex a milieu. Then, I'd push into that word a little deeper and re-characterize it as "fields." A personal note: all my life, I've been forced to live inside alien fields, the overpowering fields of others; those force-fields make a claim on me that I wish, for the most part, I could avoid; I want others (or another) to spend some time inside my own field – the world I've built up from my idiosyncratic point of view, the frequency on which my soul buzzes.
All right. Now to gather up all the above and try to cram it into a point. This post is labeled "Eros," not philosophy, so I wish my point -- my reason for writing this thing -- to be about love relations. Fields of love.
"The region in which a certain condition prevails." Rumor has it that there are soul mates out there for us. Broadly considering that, I would say people are divided into two pools: those of action and those of introspection. Who knows what causes a person to become one or the other? Maybe the shadow of something mystical dapples this question, something from the foundations of the world.
Do opposites attract? Of course they do. But they can't be soul mates. They aren't made of the same "stuff," and they don't resonate or vibrate inside the same field. It is one of life's tragedies when a person must keep their field switched off. It is one of life's blessings when two similar fields collide, brush past or tenuously intermingle with one another, exchanging subtle particles of sensibility.
Lord, the air smells good today, straight from the mysteries
within the inner courts of God.
A grace like new clothes thrown
across the garden, free medicine for everybody.
The trees in their prayer, the birds in praise,
the first blue violets kneeling.
Whatever came from Being is caught up in being, drunkenly
forgetting the way back.
One man turns and sees his birth
pulling separate from the others.
He fills with light, and colors change here.
He drinks it in, and everyone is wonderfully
drunk, shining with his beauty.
I can't really say that I feel the pain of others,
when the whole world seems so sweet.
Face to face with a lion, I grow leonine.
Walking out of the Treasury Building, I feel generous.
Anyone still sober in this weather must be afraid
of people, afraid what they'll say.
Enough talking. If we eat too much greenery,
we're going to smell like vegetables.
from Open Secret: Versions of Rumi
by John Moyne and Coleman Barks
Threshold Books, Putman, Vermont, 1984
Saturday, July 11, 2009
What I'm a-gettin' 'round to discussing has to do with some old woods in my head. And these woods are teeming with gothic spirits. But the "emotions recollected" are the vicarious feelings I project on those spirits, are the emotional product of my imagination (Wordsworth and Coleridge put an emphasis on the spiritual power of Imagination, by the way).
All right! Here goes. A while back, I came across some genealogy research my cousin had done. 'Bout folks on my mother's side of the equation. Who would've thunk it? Southeast of El Dorado, Arkansas, out the old Strong Hwy., then off a side road windin' back into the nethers, there lies the scattered bones and tissues of the old family homestead. And that's about it. Amid the overgrowth, very little remains to mark off a previous human dwelling place. This is odd, because as I hear told, those forebears of mine were a hardy, successful tribe down in them parts -- 'round Hillsboro Town, which has also gone the way of dust and ghosts.
'Bout the only stark reminder is the old cemetery, with its worn tombstones. Dagnabbit, as if death weren't enough obliteration, old man Wind and old woman Rain ain't a-gonna be satisfied until they've erased even inscriptive memory. But try as they may, those two hoary forces are powerless against the strange traces slinking through those woods at night. Traces I'll call "ghosts" for simplicity and some melodrama.
Yep. Some hauntin' goin' on 'round that dessicated, near-Hillsboro homestead. Hear tell it, some of my ancestors had come from Georgia via the scenic N'Orleans route – then up north agin to Union County, Arkansas. And those determined folks had brung some slaves with 'em. Wish I could take the way-back machine long enough to try and slap some sense into those misguided or just downright wicked relations. Hmm..."misguided" won't really do. Just like I despise every mob ever congregated, I detest any human being, dead or alive, who would misuse another. Mister John Brown had it right – anyone deeming it their god-given right to own a human being deserves nothing short of mini-ball ventilation. I'm against capital punishment, but with slavery...yore pushin' it.
When I wuz a sprout, my folks took me into those ruined backwoods. All I recall now is that we wandered deep off a forest path and found a clearing scattered with pieces of petrified wood. Didn't then and still don't know much about that rock-wood. Just remember at the time being pleasantly startled by the uncanny workings of Nature.
"Uncanny." That's a good, allusive word to describe what my imagination tells me about those haunted woods. I mean, come on! You can't just erase a teeming hub of cultural and economic activity, which was the general Hillsboro area. Got to be traces vibrating in the peculiar air. The m-w.com dictionary defines little-g "gothic" as having to do with "desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents. " I'll go with that first part -- "desolate or remote." But...since I'm also blatherin' 'bout haints, I'll toss in a dash of "macabre" for good measure.
I ain't over-saturated with religion, but I do have intimations that hit me, time to time. Call 'em spiritual hunches. And the prime setting for such events is when I'm either thinking about or am actually at those quiet, whispering locales. When there in mind or body, it's as if the very air is charged with significance, an uncertain meaning that lies beyond the meanings to be gleaned from mere facts.
Seems like there's a world interwoven with this prosaic one. And that nether-world contains all our dead, all our unrequited loves, and all of our weeping angels and vague gods. One small zone of that otherworld lies southeast of El Dorado, down Hillsboro way.
Well, you can take this haunted-woods business of mine metaphorically, if you like. But in my dubious psyche, I tend to think there's some misty traces, occasionally forming into human shapes, drifting through the woods right now in broad daylight. Their "eyes" are focused on familial or social concerns. Their "limbs" rock in rhythm doing chores or walkin' the now-blasted path, headed for Hillsboro on a Saturday afternoon's convivial outing. Their "souls", unawares of having been zapped by sprung mortal coils, still sigh or whisper between that lonesome pair of old magnolias. Those dark-green demigods, with their poignant blossom-scent, once shaded the fumbling advances and shy evasions of carnal beings.
All right, that's enough word ramblin' and gothic rumination.
And I was among them at the oar benches
in springtime after the Feast of Melqart –
many score on nine merchant galleys,
Hiram's own, laden with longwood:
cypress and Lebanon cedar bound to Egypt
in shrewd trade for papyrus and strong rope,
rare spices and the skins of leopards,
gold, carbuncles, and chalcedony.
Sea lust urged us to the stroke beat
on that calm morning of departure.
How can I describe such a sunrise?...
that broad palm of white-gold light
saluting our steady pull southward.
Asherah! Mother of heaven…
We have portioned the heady wine
for the sake of Asherah.
And burned this dolphin flesh
to honor the Consort of El!
linger in the bedchamber of El.
Turn away the eye of the Storm-Lord.
Beguile to slumber his wrathful surge
of black seas and bold thunder.
Mistress of El – hear our petition!
be near in the vulnerable hours
of slack sail in strange waters.
Hold high the guardian sword
should one head of Leviathan appear.
The bracing wind after oar sweat!
The lift of prow over sea swell!
The sight of purple unfurling!
The bronze laugh of our captain!
I have seen the doves of Byblus
daring the drafts over Nahr Ibrahim…
but we are brothers of the eagle
whose flight is beyond all others!
We soar with a straining square sail,
with two men at the bucking stern.
Their torsos twist, working the longblades
to keep the rocks a mile to port.
Jether and Zophah have limbs like sycamores.
Who else knows of these things?
Who else would throw their cares to the wind?
Do lovers of land think they will live forever?
No words are worthy to tell them of hull splash,
Salt spray, and the pure joy of speed!
One must live through the experience.
Running, there is only the moment,
and that moment is our meaning.
Our galley creaks in the gentle night
as I drift into memory's dream.
Spring buds appearing…
and I among hundreds at Sidon gate,
assembled at sunset, awaiting the torch;
we'll climb the ancient limestone path
that runs amid the sacred oaks.
Soon the veined white temple
by the bleeding brook where a boar slew Baal.
We walk in file, some with lambs –
firstborn gifts for the embered pyre.
Others clutch leather pouches
of harvest seed to mix with blood
to fling into the altared night
to bribe the favored gods.
of zither songs round spitted beeves,
of lithe dancers, giddy with mandrake,
of echoing vows to the lusty gods.
That priestess!...fragrant as narcissus!
We are face to face by lamplight
in the temple of Astarte's beds.
She is naked, and I am speechless.
And there are diamonds in her raven hair.
Shell horns call from galley to galley
As herald colors of dawn light appear.
I sit on the lion-headed prow,
watching albatrosses in the breaker mist.
Soon, each crow's nest will hold a yawning man.
Soon, we will hunt the horses of the sea.
Soon, we will feel the breath of Asherah –
sails full-blown by warm wind toward Egypt.
Friday, July 10, 2009
You might have, as a pensive child long ago, looked for your lover. You thought you found her many times in the charming faces of all those girls. Even before enzymes and secretions gave you biological permission, you would languish in erotic dreams, awake or asleep. Tirelessly, you sought that princess from whom the Mystery saw fit to separate you. No, she wasn't any of those giddy girls, pretty as they were. Even as a pensive child long ago, you discerned her out there somewhere else, beyond the frosty chill of a
That night parking in the backwoods and fumbling toward carnal release, you had forgotten your mystic lover. Those hot strikes of lightning as you sweated with another ran through you and melted you, blending you into the mundane earth. Years fly, and carnality wanes. Until you are drunk that night, puking and alone, leaning miserably against someone's back tire. Inside, the others are dancing and laughing. A darling appears, like a sad angel, to join you on the reeking ground. She doesn't know you, but she puts an arm around you. Is she, at long last, that lover you'd nearly forgotten? If not, you do now have a friend, a sister of mercy, to walk you farther into life and into calmer being.
That night parking in the backwoods and fumbling toward carnal release, you had forgotten your mystic lover. Those hot strikes of lightning as you sweated with another ran through you and melted you, blending you into the mundane earth. Years fly, and carnality wanes. Until you are drunk that night, puking and alone, leaning miserably against someone's back tire. Inside, the others are dancing and laughing. A darling appears, like a sad angel, to join you on the reeking ground. She doesn't know you, but she puts an arm around you. Is she, at long last, that lover you'd nearly forgotten? If not, you do now have a friend, a sister of mercy, to walk you farther into life and into calmer being.
In middle-age, you will get occasional hints, strange intuitions. You try to shrug them off, and if you can't, you push them into your songs. Or you follow them into the words of a poem or other piece written to quell your subtle, eccentric fever. One day, something happens. You catch an improbable glimpse of a face. And it takes you some time to recognize it. When you do, your breath leaves you; your pulse quickens; you feel a warm flush moving from your head into your arms and down into your legs. It is her! How can you be certain? Life is full of illusions, and you've spent most of your life moving in and out of dreams. Then you read her words and fall into a delirium of holy desire. That she is beautiful is only a clue. A body holds, besides the carnal graces, a secret code within the lines. Which can only be read through the newly opened eyes of a pensive child.
But there is a tension, a paradox in Being, on this side of living. Yes, you're persuaded she is real. That it is her. And that she approached this close because it had to be. But the mystic hint of her so long ago – the intuition pointing beyond the frosty mist of an October morning -- has no power in matter. As spirits congeal into atoms, ancient remembrance flows out, and the opium of forgetfulness flows in. She will live according to what human time brings, according to the meanings that appear and give weight to experience. Before the congealing, you must have been near to her when souls were sliced from the Emanation. Knowing that, or at least wanting it to be true, shall have to be enough. You will smile fondly at your old friend, even as you both move on further into the long sigh. Wish her more happiness than you could even desire for yourself.
Get a load of that face. That's my favorite pianist, Alfred Brendel. That face says it all. I'm gonna practice trying to look like that. Mr. Brendel is big on Dada. It's kind of the mental mirror with which he reflects himself back to the world. And he's right. Life is inexplicable, downright absurd. Yep, that look of poised irony on his face says it all for me.
I have six CDs of his Beethoven piano sonatas. One of them contains a breathtaking performance of the "Waldstein." On another disc, his "Diabelli Variations" is monumental, perfect. I also treasure a CD of the Schubert piano "Impromtus," as well as one containing Franz's last three -- and great -- piano sonatas. For the curious, here's a link to Mr. Brendel's website: Alfred Brendel -- Home
Maybe kids are unusual everywhere, but back then, our friends and acquaintances certainly seemed so. Not anything overt; just an extra, inscrutable sheen. The strangest thing about them -- and adults -- was the fact that they felt entitled to exist. No qualms whatsoever about being real. They obviously never gave it a second thought. When I think back on my very-young to medium-young days, I see that kid who was in almost constant perplexity. Sitting in the monstrous, tank-like Olds 98, while my mother drove through various sections of town, I was saturated with so many fantastical impressions. Every street, every neighborhood glowed with a kind of mystical weirdness. Especially that half-hidden black part of town. Like it was somehow organically disconnected from the rest of El Dorado. Like it was built up on ground imported from another dimension. I think the word is "incommensurable." Just didn't physically or metaphysically compute in the algorithm of our town's normality. Later, I realized that was attributable to the shameful apartheid so prevalent in the South. But for a while back then...when I was a child soaking up all forms of weirdness...the emphatic difference of the black neighborhood seemed almost enchanting, magical. Sort of like turning down a supposedly familiar street and coming face-to-face with a Medieval village. The dilapidation and make-shiftness of those poor homes appeared charming to my little brain...a colorful, crazy-quilt architecture.
Hernando De Soto came through what was later to be Union County (very south Arkansas). Those Spainiards were a grim, determined lot. What in the world were they doing, traipsing through our godforsaken neck of the woods? Ticks, chiggers, snakes, disease, nonplussed, suspicious natives. Guess it was just something to do back then. Europe must have been awfully boring or just too banal. Popes being courted like blushing, wrinkled maidens by one royal nest of rats after another.
In the early 19th century, a trapper stopped in these environs and set up a trading post. From that beginning, a village sprouted and later the town of El Dorado. Toward the end of that century, the town had become a sort of chic cultural center, at least more chic than Smackover and other outliers. It's hard for me to imagine my town as having been such. It always struck me as uncouth and, well, unimaginative. Then in the early new century, a wild shoot-out -- an undignified duel -- took place in front of the court house in the center of town. Must have been quite a dust-up and something to talk about for a long time.
In the early '20s Busey's well came in, and El Do became an overnight oil boom town. Speculators poured in, as well as hordes of workers for the burgeoning oil fields. Here tell, the town was like a latter-day Dodge City. Wild and woolly. Those days must have doused El Dorado's vaunted cultural fire. As the decades tumbled by, oil refineries were built, and my father was a plant manager at Amoco. Before they built the separate managers' building up on the hill, Mother and I would pick him up in the late afternoon down at the main refinery entrance gate. I still remember being dazzled and frightened by the roaring flames and clouds of steam. And, especially, the psychologically disturbing maze of pipes twisting and running off into unknowable dimensions. Looking back, the whole place was like a vast greedy god -- as if the black blood of unseen sacrificial victims was running through those pipes and being refined into unspeakable elixirs.
Growing up in the early '60s was sort of neat. All the clothing stores and banks surrounding the town square seemed more than houses of commerce. They seemed like environs ripped from my young night dreams and plopped down, helter-skelter, in front of the sidewalks. Charming brass spittoons were everywhere, and cigar smoke saturated every establishment. The merchants had an unusual air about them. It was like existence itself was equatable with their occupations. Not as if working was something to be endured to survive; rather, it was their entire reason for being. One couldn't imagine any of them actually having a separate home life. Surely, they lived every moment of their lives in their houses of business. Yes, strange. Even as a child, I felt alienated from this attitude of allowing one's soul, consciousness, or identity to disappear into any activity.
Howard's Newsstand! For my brother and me, it was a house of dreams. And the proprietor, Howard, was our grizzled, morose priest, granting us access to visions of heaven on earth: that full back wall of comic books (or "funnybooks," as we called them). Every Saturday, we'd be driven with our quarters to Howard's. We would stare, stunned each time before that wall of mesmerizing color and beckoning adventure. I'm serious: it always took us a few moments to come to senses whip-lashed by amazement. Then came the delicious agony of trying to choose from among the hundreds of titles. You could only afford five or six, when twenty or thirty were screaming and pleading at you. You know...actually buying and reading them was probably just an after thought. The main thing about funnybook day was just standing there in adolescent bewilderment and awe.
Junior high was traumatic. If you were from the rich side of town, you went to one school. Not so rich, like us, you attended hell on earth: Roger's Junior High School. The main building was three or four stories and had been built waaay back in history. Besides looking haunted and ferocious, it seemed as if it would come falling down like a House of Usher on us young teens. All the toughs went there. Bloody, vicious fist-fights were daily distractions. The teachers were weird. It was less a school than a survival course. In fact, could it be reconstructed, I would recommend it for a Green Beret training facility. The cafeteria food alone was an existential challenge. I bet those kids across town were being served French cuisine on silver platters.
Memories! Oh, my gosh. Please fly from me! 8th-grade science class...I sat a few seats behind Linda Harris. She was no ordinary 14-year-old lass. She looked like and had the aloof, mature, suave grace of Sophia Loren. So how does a pimply idiot-child like me get the attention of a goddess? Well, you aim your No. 2 pencil at her head, eraser first, and send it flying in a flirtatious gesture. But in transit, the thing reverses orientation, and the point-end hits her smack upside the head...and painfully. That look she gave me. No words were needed. Henceforth, I was a metaphorical leper to her. When all I wanted to do was somehow inform her of my love-sickness! Oh, well.
OK. I'm probably making more of my hometown than I should. Most likely everyone's town is strange in certain ways. But if you ever pass through El Dorado, I caution you against driving down East Main Highway. You just might enter an invisible portal, teeming with ghosts and weirdness. You might never be heard from again.
Though having a form, Thou art formless. Without beginning, multiform by the power of Maya, Thou art the Beginning and the Destruction of all.
[paraphrasing D. Kinsley]
Many faces has the beautiful Kali.
Many faces has the terrible Kali.
With four arms reaching out to pluck
the lotus flower of my heart,
you breathe upon the blossom's fading,
breath restoring life and fragrance.
Many faces has the beautiful Kali…
Charming, willing, cute, seductive,
fiery, coy, aloof, laughing,
enigmatic, wistful, tragic,
facets shifting, all erotic.
With four arms reaching out to strangle
me who fell into Maya,
you confound one who covets
even one glance of regard.
Many faces has the terrible Kali…
Black, elusive, willful, changing,
awful, knowing, fangéd muse,
fiery, coy, aloof, laughing,
facets shifting, all despotic.
[Here's another dispatch from dreamland. It all actually happened just like I describe it...well, "actually" is problematic. This was a dream, see?]
A sort of stout fellow is driving the old, dark-blue Toyota pick-up truck, which keeps changing to bright white as we surge through the city streets. The truck, as per usual, barely runs – just staggers, sputtering smoke from the tailpipe. We move in long hiccups, more than roll along smoothly like the other vehicles on the dream streets.
It's three of us. Guy driving, me somehow straddling the stick shift (Freud, anyone?), and an anonymous friend in the passenger seat – skinny guy.
We are hungry.
Steve – the driver – swings into the driveway of a swank restaurant/bar. He spots what he thinks is a free parking space right up front. Wheels into it (truck creaking and wheezing) to discover another vehicle is already parked there – a white “compact” car, about four feet long and four feet wide. Without getting pissed off (or being abashed in the least by a pigmy sedan), Steve backs out. He finds another spot. (Time is odd here: it was bright afternoon when he tried the first parking place; it changed to twilight when we de-trucked.)
As we get out, the topic is food. Steve always has money. Skinny guy is on the skids. I look in my billfold and see that I'm also broke. I dig a little deeper and find a hidden compartment. There's a tightly folded bill in there. I get it out, unfold it, and see that it's a $10 note. In dreamland, such a denomination has 10 times the purchasing power that it does in real life. So I announce proudly, “I'm buying.”
We stroll through the front door of the swanky joint. The open dining space is vast.
Waitresses are pretty and all have their hair up in swell beehives. A pretty (well, of course) hostess saunters up and then leads us through the crowded joint (who are all these extras?) to a large round plate-glass table of our own. We place our orders. I gawk at all the extras, wondering how come they all seem so happy to be here (in waking life, I'd rather take a running dive through a rusty barb wire fence than be in a swanky joint full of such cool, knowing hipsters).
Silver-haired guy with his back to us is sitting at the next table. Anonymous skinny friend thinks he recognizes him and shouts over the collective conversational din: “Hey, is that you, Bob?”
Guy swivels to face his accuser, and yes, indeed, it is Bob. It's a 30-year-old, silver-haired Bob Barker. [He hosted The Price Is Right, for all you foreigners or others with better things to do than watch TV game shows.] Anon and Bob stretch across to hug one another tightly. The embrace lasts quite a long time. Finally, I lean over to them and tap my friend's back (just beneath Bob's bear-hugging arm). I ask aloud and with uncanny empirical elan: “I guess you two know each other?”
After the hug, our food and drinks arrive. We chow and slurp down. Seems like the collective conversational din is getting gradually louder. Or maybe it surges like the Toyota.
Anon gets up and leaves (I suppose to go to the restroom). I don't have a clue what Steve has been up to all this time. I think he's there at the table with us. He just seems really diffuse, for all his stoutness. While Anon's away, Bob, who has remained swiveled in our direction, looks at me. His expression changes from innate confidence to troubled near-grimace. My returning look must have subtly signaled: “Well, what is it?”
“It's about God. I don't know what to make of any of it. Do you?”
Anon shows right back up and answers proudly: “He sure does.”
“He does? Really?”
“Tim, here, knows everything there is to know about comparative religion.”
As he says this, the fact that he's correct hits me pleasantly. I'd completely forgotten that I knew everything there was to know about each culture's understanding of things divine. And there seemed to be some implicit mental incense floating above my head: seemed to also remember that I had a super-subtle insight into the actual nature of God himself.
Then began a long, soulful discussion between Bob and me. His eyebrows arched and his eyes widened occasionally, as he learned things from me that few souls on “earth” had ever been privy to. I was not smug at all. I simply and sanely bestowed on him things that would astonish the angels.
As the transmission ended, Bob's mood lightened considerably. Apparently, he could now surge through the remainder of his silver-haired days unhindered by any further theological or existential worries. And in perfect soulful pitch, the entire restaurant quietens down as I utter my last thoughts to Bob Barker. (Please be attentive to the underlying schizoid irony: only in dreams am I taken seriously.)
I turn to Anon and ask: “Isn't this food good?” Immediately, the surge of crowd noise resumes. Almost as in a gesture of embarrassment that I have “returned” from profound depths of thought and now am part of their shallow world. I mean, it's loud. I can hardly hear myself asking Anon if he's actually seen Steve since we all sat down.
I wake up.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Dated 1901, Hofmannsthal's Ein Brief, better known as the "Lord Chandos Letter," has lost nothing of its finality. The eponymous hero, a brilliantly endowed young Elizabethan aristocrat, writes to Francis Bacon. He has already, at nineteen, composed mythological poetry. Much is expected of him, for both world and word have been prodigal. But now "the capacity to think or to say anything coherent has deserted me." At first, this loss bore on those abstractions which normal human beings mouth so readily. Lord Chandos found himself unable to utter such words as "spirit," "soul," or "body." Articulate pronouncements and judgements became literally unutterable. On Chandos's lips they turned to rotten fungi. Even to hear fluent propositions babbled by others became intolerable. "Words swam around me: they turned to eyes staring at me, and into which I had, in turn to stare. Words whirl and it makes me dizzy to look into their incessant spinning, beyond which one enters on emptiness."
Chandos can no longer relate to simple objects and artifacts. A watering can, a dog lazing in the sun, a modest rural cottage on his estate can become "a vessel of revelation" (Gefäß einer Offenbarung) so charged, so brimful with existentiality, as to make impossible any adequate response. Even an assemblage of trivia confronts Chandos with the terrifying presence and unfathomable proximity of the abyss. All that is itself mute overwhelms his bewildered psyche bringing at once terror and benediction. When the moment of epiphany has passed, Lord Chandos is thrust back into the void. During anguished nights, there arises the phantom of a supreme desideratum: of a mode of human thought and perception "in a medium more immediate, more fluid, more glowing than is the word. This medium too is made up of whirlwinds and turning spirals; but unlike language these do not lead into the bottomless, but somehow into myself and into the deepest lap of peace." Chandos dreams of a tongue in which the mute presence of the world can address him truthfully and in which he may, after death, make himself answerable to an unknown judge. This will, in any event, be his last letter to his eminent friend.
from Grammars of Creation
George Steiner, Yale University Press, 2001, New Haven and London