make it new!

When the past is lost, the roots that bound you to the soil of your childhood dug out by your own hand, or withered in a drought of affection and interest and smothered in a surfeit of capital, what else is there for you? They are so far away, in their boardroom fortresses of Higher Education, Solid Investments, lawyers and luncheons and lawns that still glow green and cropped when weeds have long choked the empty lots across the tracks and crept up to surround the strip malls. Their pools still filled with water, as if it weren’t disappearing forever from the other cities Elsewhere, seen from above like eyes of turquoise set in bright green girded by the curving concrete bands of cul-de-sacs. I could never breathe there, and as the decades passed i realized they weren’t anxious to have me back anyway.

Make it new! ordered Ezra Pound, the old fascist.

So i did; with mild and distracted amity i cobbled another family of cast-offs: vivid, self-absorbed, not-quite-artists, aging divas, failed revolutionaries, people who were or would have been big but it was the pictures that got small. We lived together on the edge of nothing, carving a center for ourselves out of sheer talk, minutely attentive to the movers and shakers among us, subjecting them in our endless conversations to intelligent and detailed appraisals which would have meant precisely nothing to them, while we ourselves made nothing move or shake. We recollected heroic pasts, our proximity to history, those times in our youths when we were caught ever so fleetingly in its glaring searchlight and then passed over. Equally brief and inconclusive encounters with the sublime. And then the ongoing gripe with fate; lost jobs, lost loves, lost chances. It all came out around the table, over bottles of cheap wine and yesterday’s bread.

Around us all now (including the movers and shakers, who keep on basking in the world’s gaze even when the real story is clearly elsewhere) everything is burning or washing away; towers rise and fall and rise and will go on rising and rising until they all fall. The ocean creeps toward the dunes. The animals retreat, buffeted by too much hunger, too many deaths, blind suffering. The living world around the once-unbounded globe shrinks to backdrop, playground, or staging area. I have no footing in the unbuilt world, and yet i still feel it falling away. Generations back, i must have belonged to it, just as i must have had a family somewhere in time.

So in the clatter of ecosystems crashing, all i can do is try (and try) to make it new! My little space of breath, molecules moving together before they dissipate at last. My attention to the wild that survives, the birds that still find their way, the people in the shadows of all the great things that will still die. Some little place that thrives, home in its intimate layered depth of existence, not backdrop. The clockwork overhead, that won’t miss a beat if this blue ball goes brown and black. Unless that’s not true

Among the greatest dying in the story of this species, make the smallest, humblest, most contingent new!

This is that: to make nothing but words that vanish almost as soon as they are uttered.

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what were the last good days like?

I.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and stood at the back door in the eastern light. Birdsong peppered the flowering shrubs. There was no sound of cars in the street.

In a beach chair in the yard, at noon, i dozed under the whispering cabbage palm papering the ground with dead leaves, and two sparrows fluttered down to sit at my feet.

In the afternoon i walked to the top of the hill and watched clouds of fog drift in from the sea.

In the evening we ate roast potatoes with spinach and drank from our last bottle of red wine.

At night, with Alice Coltrane on the last jazz station, i lay on the sofa in the lamplight and read my grandmother’s copy of Conrad’s Youth. “Pearlescent prose,” she had written in pencil, in a perfect hand, in the back of the book, 1922.

II.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and listened to Cal Tjader on the last jazz station.

At noon, i went out to the beach, sat in the dunes, and looked out at the shining sea. They weren’t any ships. Wind-tossed seagulls careened above my head.

In the afternoon, i went to the last café and had an Italian soda, peach. I read the poems of Rilke.

In the evening, i had a long talk with an old friend who was far away. Things were still okay there. They’re okay here too, i said. See you again soon, she said. There was something that sounded like a crash in the distance as she hung up.

We had a salad with bits of fresh orange and walnuts, and finished the last bottle of red wine.

There wasn’t any news.

At night, the moon hung in the window like a gigantic pearl.

III.

In the morning i drank coffee, black from a blue mug, and stood at the back door. Smoke from the fires was blowing the other way; the air was clear and fresh.

In the beach chair at noon, i dozed in the yard till sirens woke me.

In the afternoon, i got the last loaf of bread from the last market. Then it closed.

In the evening, i read old letters from dead family and thought about burning them.

We ate the bread and a rind of good cheese. A few friends came over with a bottle of wine and we sang some old songs.

At night, there were faint stars in the smoky sky. I read a book of Auden’s poems by lantern light …that must have seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky…

The radio went dead at midnight.

 

 

sanctuary

In the garden are eloquent primary and secondary colors now, punctuating the green background like signal to noise, attracting others to instruct us: a hummingbird, a dragonfly, a fat gray spider. Waltzing moths, honey bee, jay. If one day they didn’t come?

It’s the eve of that day.

Once i placed planks over a clump of grass to kill it. I lifted them up days later to find a cluster of dead newts, suffocated by that incomprehensibly total and sudden roof. One was alive; with utterly articulated glacial purpose it moved away over the rough ground now open to it solely, somewhere or nowhere. Pathetic fallacy suggested a tragic reserve, but it was just following the physical imperative of doing all that it could do. Another life visibilized only in aftermath to the dull giant by another earthquake of blindness.

There was so much life once, you could kill and kill and still it flooded back. Like trying to kill the waves of the ocean, they said.

Inside the house are the last bohemians. We have failed at everything: jobs, family, love, art, but we cluster in the shrinking air space of the disrupted old house as the weight of the age presses down. We eat a dinner of scraps on a ragged cloth and laugh warmly or bitterly depending on the words that come to our lips. We assess it all acutely, raucously, but add or subtract nothing, change none of it. We’ll disappear without a trace. Occasionally I descend

to pick mint and strawberries for our table. We drink our wine with tears as the sun leaves the garden in shadow, still breathing.

It’s the eve of that day when the sanctuary falls. Hummingbird, jay whistle or sing, not waiting.

happy 4th

I went out looking for nothing but couldn’t find it.

At one edge of the hilltop park is a sunny cove of grass,

Sheltered, somewhat, from the wind.

I’m sitting there this afternoon, because of the way the sky promenades

Cerulean over that place

Like a solid block of glacier bisected by the roof and walls of the

Old peoples’ home, with its shadowed portals like exhausted eyes.

From time to time,

A great crow settles on the roof corner.

 

People and dogs pass and don’t look up or speak, except to one another.

I look skyward, trying to capture sunlight and turn it into

A brighter sensibility. I fail.

Every so often a bomb goes off in the distance. The war is always louder on this day.

The air is clear, the breeze is cold. Nothing to look forward to now.

I balanced all, brought all to mind…

 

One man passing turns to me with a smile,

Happy 4th, he says, pleasantly, as if I were a friend met by chance, and I

Thank him. Or maybe it was you. I don’t know you, but…

I watch him go and then I leave in the opposite direction. The sound of sirens rises and falls in the invisible streets far below.

Here the streets are empty, lush with bright silence. I surprise a woman coming out of her home. She says:

There usually isn’t anyone walking here!

Far below, the sirens rise and fade away.

The wind rises with them and keeps on rising.

three utopias

The Island

Trying to escape one time from The Most Beautiful City, where we lived like some 21st century equivalent of lotus-eaters, we traveled around until we thought we’d found another place. We drove up a slow straight gravel road from the little seaside town, past open fields and fences and ranks of tall dark firs that all said, “Welcome Home.” The sunlight danced on hedgerows of berry bramble and plots of tassled corn. The sea had the sheen of tarnished silver under a big gray sky swept with darker clouds. On all sides the sea glinted through the trees, two lines of snowcapped peaks towered across the narrow straits, east and west. Our home was an island. We had never been there before.

When we arrived, the people said, “Welcome!” Then we discovered there were many others coming in before and behind us, all following the same road: fields, firs, mountains, water, sky. Yet it was a different road for each. And the place they arrived at was different for each. When they started to speak of it, we looked around: we did not see what they saw, hear what they heard, feel what they felt.

Some began chanting, “Home, my home!” The chant grew louder and louder, till the word was nothing but a moan, a kind of anguish – home was dying in their grasp as they clutched it more tightly, pieces of it crumbling through their fingers – toppling the groves, covering the denuded earth with hardscape. They began to tear what was left out of one another’s hands. The people who had lived there for generations stood quietly looking on, or turned away in despair.

The Cornucopia

Traveling on and away back south in the Northwestern spring, we drove through torrents of rain and slashing winds to find a place to spend the night. Someone told us you could camp for free at the Indian Casino. When we got there, we found it was true: there was a special parking lot where you were allowed to stay in your vehicle overnight, no charge. On the oily cement under the arc lights, with the enormous neon-lit palace looming over us and the air heavy with mist that made its brilliant, pulsing colors soft and dreamlike, we camped.

We went up to the casino to eat. Inside the glazed doors, we were absorbed into a total environment that stormed the senses. Dark caverns filled with noise and three hundred scintillating shrines, each with a single acolyte. A seamless, mazelike Temple of Luck and Pleasure. No defined edges: all the corridors sinuous and circular, leading you back to the omphalos: the slots, the gaming tables, the Keno screens.

There was nothing living visible in there but people. There were some representations of wild animals – along with superheroes, sea monsters, zombies and other totemic beings. Over the bar, there was a fiber optic display that looked like a waterfall.

It was Saturday. It was very crowded. It was hard not to remember Hunter S. Thompson saying that Las Vegas was how the whole country would spend Saturday night, if the Nazis had won the war. The perhaps uniquely post-modern aspect was the atmosphere of Family-Friendly Vice: big tables in the restaurants loaded with kids, who, forbidden from gambling, drinking or smoking, can still eat, play video games, and buy.

The Native owners were not in evidence. White working class people served the drinks, and white working class people bought them. The eyes of each were equally masked with fatigue.

Yet what we had entered was actually another utopia, of personal desire infinitely unleashed. The Cornucopia: The Promise of Something for Everyone.

Outside, the imperfect mountains rose behind, clutching the mist. The shredded wild still clung to them in some distant place, but we could not see or touch it.

The Utopia of Oil

A song from the 1970s is on the car stereo, with extended guitar solos, a melody that appears and disappears in wild, driving riffs, the musicians locked into their instruments, dueling with one another to take the song to a farther, deeper, wilder place, and we are driving south along the California coast now with the blue sea a brilliant promise and it builds and builds as the sunshine explodes till everything is sunshine and we are back in the days when we first heard the song and in our adolescent imaginations roads opened up, endless roads, and we were whirled along them and there was joy in the feel of the wind and the scenery sweeping by like a banner unfurling and the possibility that the journey was endless the moment was endless and the song rises up and up until everything is perfectly balanced, flowing – guitars, hills, road, wheels, wind, sky – and as long as it keeps on rising and building toward some ultimate ecstasy, we can almost forget what we’ve learned in all the downward-drifting decades since: that all roads eventually end or circle back on themselves and our journey had no destination anyway so really we were going nowhere at all.

absence and presence

Writing is always about absence. To practice it you must absent yourself from immediate experience, and what you write is always a memory or a prediction of the experiences from which you are absent, otherwise you would have nothing to say but “I sit here typing…” The practice of most other arts is its own kind of present experience, but writing is uniquely mental, solitary and abstract.

And imagination may be a wonderful thing, but it is not as wonderful as the Real World Out There, the one we have to abandon and despise in order to live inside our own minds.

As another irreplaceable day, unique in all of endless time, with its unrepeatable configuration of birds, clouds and winds, its dense totality of living entities in this incomparably life-filled sphere, whose  collective actions will never again take the exact shape or have the exact same participants they had today – passes away, and i have shut myself inside again where so little changes, and so little is alive by comparison, i mourn a life i’ve never known, the impossible life of a self-conscious being who could move in that plenitude as an ecstatic participant, in any locality – not even for a whole life, just, possibly, for one whole day. Who could naturally feel (without chants or hallucinogens, without coercion of any kind) in relationship with that totality of the living non-human, absorbed in it, almost utterly meaningless to it, and yet safe: neither predator nor prey, just praise-animal. A tiny part of the dance in that place, that time only – but fully part.

Why does human life seem instead like a pin-hole of light in the grim shutter of a dark-lantern? We made those shutters, no one else. We turned it all inside out, by coming to tortured consciousness only of the temporal vastness of “I am not,” and fearing and hating that understanding, instead of realizing the baroque and inexhaustible variety (age doth not wither nor custom stale etc.) of the time we are, and learning to immerse ourselves in it, even with so few turns round the sun in order to do so. Collectively, we go on trying to de-complexify everything until it is either boring or dreadful, now in our shoddy automaton world that doesn’t even work well for most, that never gives even the  privileged more than a momentary illusion of control – when all around us, and inside us too, was a breathing, palpitating, circulating body of such inexhaustible abundance of forms.

Yes, from before the beginning of our self-consciousness, we had to kill and eat living things, and kill or flee anything we feared would eat us. Was there nothing more we could do with that primal understanding than to become what we have become? I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if a photosynthesizing creature had developed self-awareness.

I suppose when we give up on presence, and disappear into the imagination, we can at least fill the world with interesting phantoms.

 

the door

This is the story arc of our species: we have traveled, although with many meanderings, a single traceable path from wild to domesticated to mechanized beings. We still carry our past with us – sometimes it is expressed, sometimes only potential, but it is not entirely (never, thus far, entirely) lost; it is embodied in us. So there are still groups of human beings who have more wilderness in them, many more who are fully domesticated but not (yet) mechanized, and some – in fact, considered the most privileged in contemporary civilization – who are being positioned for, and now, like good domesticated creatures, actually trotting faithfully towards, machine-life. Clutching essential contrivances to which they have outsourced their memory, sociability, wealth, intellect, and imagination. The next step on this path is to further incorporate (embody) our machines: first to wear them, then to implant them, and finally to become them.

Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks made me realize children are the throwbacks. Domesticated children held the wild in them, released when they went outside to play; machine children will probably still hold the domestic, creating farms and households and schools on their virtual reality playgrounds. All children have held the body, the physical, preeminent – a physicality in constant motion, irreducible because it is alive at all levels, seen and unseen. What adults abstract to a separate and imaginary realm, the metaphysical, is merely a single reality that is alive throughout. This is the world of children.

It was the children who perceived, as Macfarlane says, doors everywhere in the landscape, the children who could slip between worlds without difficulty, just as they can speak in different languages without interposing translation, or express paradoxical ideas without a sense of contradiction.

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