I had always wanted to be nothing. To have been an anaerobic bacterium in a water-butt. No light, no oxygen. To have left no mark, no trace. John Keats who, fearing his erasure from time, believed it would be none. Mine had been the complete opposite of that. To have undone every instance recorded of my existence, the grand impossibility of that had been my life’s quest, my yearning, my unicorn hemmed in and trapped and extinguished in my castle’s tapestry keeping out the cold. There had been a leaf frozen near the surface of the pond, a brown lily which when Spring came would decay and sink and become just mud again. Traces even of light had continued already 12.5 or 13.5 billion years. But just to have been! To have been the consummate inactivist, like a witness pulling the fan’s rope in the courtroom no one cares about or sees pulling the rope in the corner keeping the spectators and the lawyers and the accused and the defendants and the judge cool. Not even forgotten. Just never remembered.
I had only wanted to fuck, split wood, and talk. I hadn’t been interested or concerned with new restaurants, cake recipes, and donating clothes and broken unwanted watches to the local chapter of Good Will. Adding chromium to iron to have made it withstand becoming rusty, or the southward or northward ice floes on the estuary besides which I had lived—matters at hand such as these, or the pathetic death of Christopher Marlowe; or the adding of the dropping of the letter “e” in Joseph Conrad’s short tale Youth when spelling “Marlow,” and how this alone signified all writing, and signified all speaking, these were the clouds of things that drifted and hung forever in my brow and stayed there. And women whose unclothed bodies were strong, who had over the calenderic years that in the end will take us all down before our brains’ wild magic has given away its own mystery to nothingness, I had been like a tumbling jester reveling in the freedom only he is permitted—so outrageously—in the presence of the Royal Court and all its retinue, ever happy beside theirs clutching my tawny and muscular nakedness. Between each swinging throw of my axe, there had been a thousand thoughts arisen, and when the blade fell against the sawn length of timber, another adventure’s telling had been with the wood’s cracking into pieces gladly destroyed. My mind’s simplification, like a map whose borders can be drawn distinguishing all territories from another with any three chosen colors, had been reaching the frontiers of its own natural limits. It had been nearly as perfect as it could become, the way a single floating seed aloft is carried elsewhere by the present and unseen wind is also perfect in another way.
I had waded in a standstill stream. Below the water’s surface my hand had reached for smooth, curved rocks. Each of these had resembled planet Earth afar, from outer space. And each one I placed inside my apron’s front pocket. I wandered on some time, never thinking to look again at all the stone planets collected in my dress. Some time ago, I stood ashore; the oar I held was pointed downstream, pointing towards where my little boat was next to float again. I had to paddle past the boulders and their violence. If not, the boat was sure to break. If not, what then? Time ago, I woke upon my back in the middle of the night. On waking on my back full of nothing, I watched the moon above my eyes. It had been blurred by clouds. I thought of nothing of where I had wandered. I thought of nothing of where I had once waded. I thought of all the stock-still chances I had forsaken and forgotten by the water where by myself I had been walking long ago.
Half my life had been spent in the plus-que-parfait. Half in the subjunctive. Nor would I have argued that the two must be mutually exclusive. In one I had groused food, pills, and women. Always at loose ends. Somewhere beside the train tracks in Tornio or Haparanda I’d be smoking. Interviewed, interrogated, chased. It was very tough and very fun. The flip side were to have been more awakened. The one who rose long before dawn, who looked out and saw the blackness of night, and greeted each morning with a line of poetry remembered in the eye. At any rate, if what I were to have had had been an iota different, I can’t imagine ever having made my little cottage this my home. Nothing was parallel. Everything seemed to have been at odds, on a crash course with each other. But who will watch the squirrels building high nests in the empty trees with long threads of blue tarpaulin? And the bean seeds by miracle itself in their dirt garden rows first sprouting then growing to plants in the spring, bearing themselves for us to eat by summer? And the littlest of children who just on their own as high as my knees just out of their minds beginning to talk just on their own? That all these things had been normal, it had made me take a seat back the many days I had spent alone when I had wished I were with a wife, a friend, or a lover. Then, toward the end, when I had stepped into my hot air balloon to sail away, I had known at once as I was peeling towards the thin bluish heavens that anybody who looked up could see I was becoming smaller and smaller and smaller.
All the beauties of the lake had passed me by. The mothers with their children. The strong men with their lovers. I had had an incandescent longing once, but that had been time ago. Time ago it was, and it was not, my laces, too, had been tight. The thickest ice where skaters skate belied the little fire that I had built along the shore. And from my little hut where I would retreat, once the sun had vanished, I could still watch my dwindling fire burning out there. From the high Indian village of Mt. Hope, you could see the leftover trash in the Canada woods: the old, blue frayed tarps, the unneeded shoes, even discarded diapers. To me it had been a mess; to them it had been no longer needed. There had been no nostalgia for that, and no heartfelt feeling for any place except where our fingertips had once ago been raised to the middle of the chest. No place else, anywhere but here, would be ever called home. That word itself had become in me, like kindling, sail boat, or float, some kind of shibboleth, some kind of awkward curse. To know, besides the flotsam of these, that there is no yesterday pinching up against tomorrow, nothing really language can do anymore, is a sudden and calm thing. What I had ever known was fine, and what I had not akin to another season of falling leaves that had seemed even yellower than another. It may not have been true, but my recurrence of memory had made it that way. All the recurring beauties of time had passed me now, and I was glad enough not to frighten anybody anymore with my questions. Nobody went near the dirty and straw-filled mounds where beavers had built up their dwellings for fear of falling in water, where indeed winter’s ice had been thin. Had somebody ever had the temerity, or the pluck, to have come over and sat beside my warmed boots, I would have discussed the Old Flemish master. ‘Like skaters have been painted,’ I would have said, ‘upon a frozen ocean.’
Everything that I had done they said was bunched to the middle. When I played softball, it was bunched to the middle. When I gardened turnips, flowers, and cucumbers, it was bunched to the middle. I was never too much to the left or was too much to the right. If you wanted an opinion, people would go to the middle to see, and I’d give the word on that. In between a carnival and a circus what was the answer? For me it was never so hard. Anybody could see the differences between things, between war and peace, and between love and hate, but where did that get anything? If I’d have had a stopover flight into LAX, I’d go to the beach for an hour just to watch the trick kites diving and swerving down to the sand, close to the water. If there was a better charm, or a better bracelet to be had, it was nothing to mind to me. There were just as many of both worse. Of course I had my own opinions of things, but these got lost along the way like so many acorns by squirrels just get forgotten in the ground where they probably belong. What came out of me wasn’t necessarily that wise, and it just wasn’t so smart, no more so than I was, or could claim to be either. It was just less. I just wasn’t like two radio sportscasters filling up time on the airwaves, which is a sort of genius that they have pitch after pitch, strike after strike, foul after foul, hit after hit, game after game. What got left to say was about the cluster over dry milkweed stalks the butterflies going to Mexico must have missed by the roadside. Or if you had the Indianapolis 500 that that meant going around the track at 250 mph for two hours without accidents. Or only people watching them turn clownfish into something that’s funny. It’s actually the middle 2/3 of the pile of sand that makes the mountain. And all the crazies and tough lucks are like the grains brushed away the farther you go to the ends. I know that some people had considered me an Atlas, and some people just behind my back would have called me a donkey. There might have been a cart, a load of apples, and an apple vendor. He’d cry out all day, “Apples! Apples for sale!” And he’d sell enough to live. Some would get swiped by hooligans. And some would fall away while he rolled it down the cobblestones. And some were just rotten. Most of them that got sold will be good enough, and eaten by all the people who bought them.
I had traveled long ago to lose myself. I went from land to land and scattered my days like ashes for the dead. I spent my years in one regime and another. I had wanted to disappear and with texts in Attic Greek, I read myself into the hinterland of near oblivion and ruin. None of my compatriots had meant a thing to me. And I spoke my mother tongue afar as though it were a foreign language. Conversation became a rough draft; I spent years and years revising that. “My bones and everything was expanded,” I had heard her say behind my booth in a diner back in New York. I had come home, and knew that this is where my oar was pitched to stay. Masters in Tibet wake up when they are home there. And some in monasteries, too. The farther flung, the less likely, the more impossible. The deep sleep of voyaging had once been mine. But that is not home. That is why sailors are restless. The seafaring life is a life between solid ground below your feet and the ever-shifting foam of the ocean. It is never quite one and it is never quite the other. After twenty years in one spot, it occurred to me that only when one’s home is no longer foreground and is no longer background, only when I had seen myself in my own passing painting, or my own film unrecorded, of my own so-called life, putting the dark blue bear-torn plastic lid on the light blue garbage can filled with pine cones from the woods to help me start a fire, could I even begin to have the chance to see. Only then does the ordinary become extra-ordinary, and then even that goes away: the difference between ‘ordinary’ and ‘extra-ordinary,’ like a place holder, a visible bookmark in an invisible book; only then, when that had become what it had been while it was, was anything possible. And after a while, for a while, I watched myself doing my most ordinary daily chores between my tool shed and my house, just after the twinkling of dawn, just when the grass had been frozen still with the night’s white iciness on every blade of it beneath my boots, just then for a little while, when I had disappeared entirely while my eyes like two bright sister stars were completely open, as though I had been God’s true monk sitting atop the world’s tallest mountain.
My mittens were gone. My books were gone. My memories kept once in a thimble by my bedstead, also gone. All the world was gray, below and above. And everything so gray was luminous. There were hands here and there, arms reaching out, and they were moving game pieces, chess players, making half-knight moves just above the board. They neither had faces nor destinies. I had shaved and nicked myself, and in the mirror was an opposite man who made the same wince with the same wrinkles who had the same tiny red line of blood running down his jaw line who did not feel a thing. He only watched. A man like that had known where fell the mittens in the snow, where went the pages fluttered somewhere, where all that knowledge was spent. He had known the contents of my life now dumped and swirling in time’s ocean perhaps where even I knew everything was shining. Though the paper bag full of paper tickets I had won and which had sat a lifetime upon a shelf was useless at the arcade when I went to the arcade to redeem them for my prize, the paper bag of tickets in this faraway mind had been itself also so perfect.
The last ship for Parnassus had departed. It had left. Isn’t that a landlocked place? Isn’t it a fabled place? The passengers had ignored me. Some wore scarlet scarves. Some not even sandals. It was all a confusion. A small man touched my shoulder and said, “The best things Man ever did were done before dawn,” and left, carrying straw baskets holding nothing. Half-flirting, I asked a woman holding two children, one under each arm, when there was the departure, the next. “Even though,” she said, “I can see that you’re not looking after my children, there is no other.” I could not understand, besides her admonition, what she had meant. The gangplank was full of people, and I was one of them. It had seemed they were all boarding. There was so much chaos it was almost festive. A man who looked just like the picture in my mind of what a vicar would be, repeated to no one that the times were dreaded, that these were the dreaded times. The bustle of people, the nonstopping commotion, the stink of animals, and the rubbing of clothes, this was all so ordinary. I had wanted to yell, I had wanted to shout that: that it was indeed so plain and so gloriously common. These seething shambles of humanity were indeed quite a place to live among. Inescapable, really. All of us, we all, were being knocked down, pushed, and bent over. Language, and words, and quips fell from our mouths like pieces and bits of straw to the ground would. Nobody minded, and everybody cared. By Zeus, by the nail of Thoth, I thought to myself: I am no one! The relief I had felt for the crushing moment of my life then had been exquisite and I knew that if I should take one more step with the crowd toward the mountain the rough magic spent would become everlasting.
The small time apprehensions I had had were never sated. If there had been the falling of a bough from a thunderous tree, I would look only to the open sky. And when a stream had over-flooded, my eye fell on the brightened pebble, once the mud had cleared days, or weeks later on. In another age I might have been deemed ‘delicate’ and in another ‘tender-hearted’ and even in a third perhaps a bit ‘melancholic.’ In this one, I am afraid, no just appellation fits, and there just isn’t a glass slipper, even if in the bottom of a lake, frozen over by a star-cracked sheet of crystal ice, there had drowned there indeed a noble and youthful prince. There are only whispers ever had, and other whisperings which have come before even that. When looking afar across mountains, from one mountainside to another, beyond the valley that lies between the two, you can see the banded snow clouds about to drift from the south to the north, and you know the needles of trees high up near the summit will next soon be covered with the white dust of winter. But, and this is the important thing, I had never—but once or twice in my life—been within that distant forest. I may not have lived inside the snow. Still, there had been in my life a spell of enchantment. I carried it with me everywhere. It was like a calendar without numbers or dates but many pages, all blank, to turn. Or like a faceless watch to be worn on my wrist—without either figures or hands marking its empty surface, yet housing within itself a beautiful jeweled mechanism, bound finely with little rubies and other precious stones from Switzerland allowing it to run always perfectly. For these reasons, when I had been upon the Mediterranean I threw handfuls of sand back into the sea. And when I was in the Alps, soft mittensful of snow into the clear icy air. And at other times, I reached into my raincoat and tossed away all the sunshine and raindrops, too, still hiding plentifully in my pockets.