Suburban Diving Bell

sledgehammer and wedges

I had been looking in an old book of Rilke’s writings which I’d read first in my earliest twenties—which is the perfect time to first read Rilke—for a line about how in an adultery the third person is insignificant, which struck me as very odd and very important back then. But I couldn’t find it, and came across another passage that seems much more important to me today:

Now the position of the lover is this, that he feels himself unexpectedly placed in the centre of the circle, that is to say, at the point where the known and incomprehensible, coming forcibly together at one single point, become complete and simply a possession, losing thereby, it is true, all individual character. This position would not serve the poet, for individual variety must be constantly present for him, he is compelled to use the sense sectors to their full extent, as it must also be his aim to extend each of them as far as possible, so that his lively delight, girt for attempt, may be able to pass through the five gardens in one leap.

Not to decry the comfort and the stability of a person whose life is situated at dead center, who has, in a strange way, given up identity for the sake of things surrounding him or her by which that person thereby becomes identified and known, I could feel how exactly such a life, and such a living, is not for me. It is anathema to my core. It was rather, the life of the poet which Rilke sketches out, which is not to be located at the immutable center point of the ordinary lover’s being (as I understand it in ways that suit my own purposes), with its de-centralized being, a life of constant variety, and constant reaching out that allows the poet or the artist to create true miracles or the magic of being able to “pass through the five gardens in one leap.” This, for the lover, is not even a desire, not even a concept. The lover wishes everything to come to him or her, as though the lover were the very center of existence and the very point of it.

It is hard here not to think about Keats’ thoughts on Negative Capability, and how being able to be, in essence, a restive being, or a creature, or a wandered something that is not your own, it allows you access—because you are not merely standing in your own shoes—to myriad poetical conceits, to be able to evoke and invoke creative worlds of the Imagination versus the mere ordinary world of Fancy, as Coleridge would divide the two.

At any rate, the artist is the one who may, indeed, be the being who leaps in a bound inside many, many circles, hundreds of them, where creative work, and creative worlds are built and where, for some time, the poet or the artist may reside. But just as quickly, the poet leaps, or passes—as is this specular creature’s nature to do and to be, giving no heed whatsoever to the dull, uxorious world in which so many live out rather comfortably their lives and for their mortal existence find themselves even thriving if not trapped there—elsewhere.

For me, it is, as Rilke writes on, a life that lies “in the awareness of the abysses…” and this is, while such a life is the life capable of creating so many glorious things, it is also one that hovers dangerously and constantly right up on so many brinks over which I have all my life continued to exist and overlooking these, peered. It is like believing oneself to be a droll little shepherd among the hills to graze, and strolling there day after day, where in the midst of living one is at times suddenly fraught with the looming oppression that there are no hills and there are no sheep, and instead of a shepherd, one is just a little man resting alone at night with nothing to count on before he goes to sleep.

The other life is all about some invention of selfhood in everyday life, and the gathering up of all things surrounding that invention, the whole collecting of stuff that amounts to a decent enough life of clickety-clackety familial domesticity in the end, all centered around, if all goes well enough, a brick chimney; it is not, I suppose, by any means a bad existence at all per se, but one that for an artist-poet is a dead and deadening one because the center-stabilized centering point does not permit ipso facto the venture to go very far. The “lover’s life,” then, as a sort of human summum bonum is really the end of all human experience. It has its solidity, it has stability, and its virtue is its capacity of self-defined limits. The poet’s life, on the contrary, is a perilous but wonderfully alive life of no securities, or few of any kind, like a man who leaps into a river and wonders to himself if he has gone crazy, or, as in John Cheever’s great story “The Swimmer,” the life of a man who crashes through one suburban hedgerow into the next and “swims” from one neighbor’s swimming pool to another, from one end of each pool to the next, passing from yard to yard throughout the neighborhood, a man gazed upon by poolside people who are caught between being amused, indifferent, and annoyed, because he has.

Mad-Hatter Rummaging

wittgenstein's three blobs of ink

Time ago it was that he would refuse to admit that in the world as a whole there were three things. Take three blobs of ink, his friend and elder had said, and he shook his pen three times on a sheet of white paper. Young Ludwig with his mad blue eyes would not admit these things to be in the world at all. And that is somewhat the distinction, but not quite, that the open-collared Cambridge philosopher would make between fact and fiction, though I must admit that that is not what he meant at all, and which I am merely borrowing torn from the bastardized template of lost time, du temps perdu, to serve myself if not a nameless master of my own. What might be said about ‘finite assertions’ and infinite abstractions is not so much my interest. Mine is in things like hats, straw hats, if you will. That there were indeed three clowns wearing them in my little clownish world of words and green grass I would like to assert as having been once true. And that these three gentlemen digging up my garden on a summertime whim and dare, when I saw them, they ran off like bolts of lightning through the trees and forever disappeared. Now, another would assert that all I have done is mimicked the difference between ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’—the former being of a merely mechanized function of memory and the like, and the latter being the supreme creative force of human perception.

three straw hats

Time ago it was not as well, and in that world there were always these three glorious things, ink blots on a folded linen napkin gone to waste, forced upon the young man by an ample yet, alas, second-rate mind. And later on, in this same world, the one that never was, there were always, too, three empty summer hats made of hand-braided straw which never had never been pitched atop a living human head, nor had been ever doffed from three, two, or one. Now before I take my leave, I must do so suggesting only this single proposition: that what I have said here every child who’s known sand to be slipping through its fingers already knows, and that only later on can this a worry ever become, that only then are these same once-children beset with, “Was it true?” or “Was it not?” And of those two last questions, dividing the world itself as such, which have and has never meant that much to me, I must finally end this little sally by having us think upon such things as ‘luminous grey’ or ‘a half-knight’s move” —whether you can imagine them to be or not at all.

One, Two Buckled, My Shoe

two white metal chairs

He had had one hundred thoughts in one hundred and one days. That meant that there were one hundred thoughts less, or properly speaking ‘fewer’ to have. Those days and those thoughts were gone. With regard to such counting, whether forwards or backwards, brave and young Stephen Dedalus claimed that he was lucky to stumble upon a good thought once in a fortnight, or every two weeks. Likewise, in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, there’s no six piece thin affair but a gigantic orchestral hullabaloo about every fortnight, too. Again, then, with regard to the former, that doesn’t seem to be a whole lot, in truth, especially in the age of adolescence, that newfangled notion that is time’s comfortable muskeg people get stuck in between childhood and being grown up today—ever since the average human lifespan became rather ridiculously long, attenuated to the slow decline of sloping downward into a near horizontal buzz along the manmade asymptote of near nothingness for decades of palliative discomfort and some peculiar kind of peering out somewhere. As to the latter, having a festive lawn party under a tent with a couple hundred uninvited guest who come in from nowhere, that seems to be obscene in its frequency, as was the intent of Fitzgerald to display and Mr. Gatsby to purposefully have, to drag in the diamond dregs so as to perchance collect his lost pearl Daisy, if not purloin her. As for the ticket-taker whose story begins this lacklustre note, he had taken to mind once as a child that numbers themselves worked like this: you start with 1; you double that and get 2; and after that (3) you’ve got many. And, while he also, with his little handheld penlight ushered others into the movie theater velvet quietly to their seats when they arrived a bit late for the show, and was very helpful to them, he kept, like a bushy-haired, gray-tailed autumnal squirrel losing more than half its acorns due to luck, fortuity, and nature’s misfortune, his remaining day’s comments mostly to himself.

“Tempus Fugit” (29 BCE)

christ under construction

It had been millennia, some said, since there was a blessing worth a shaker of salt. So much had gone by already, what news of yesterday were it not to have been repeated again today in some other, newer vessel. Having watched by the while upon the outposts of the swamp, I kept my steadfast sights on a future that I knew. Where St. Petersburg would once be built. Where the Uffizi would one day be. Where phalanxes of soldiers would march. Where Cato proclaimed again and again his injunction against poor Carthage. I had heard it every time. Where Dresden would be bombed, around 135,000 dead or so (and a half a page in moldered history books). Where Little Boy and Fat Man were and had been. What were Nevada and what were The Housatonic. I watched John Rolfe take his sacred vows and once Pocahontas she, too, was then dispatched, he was soon taken up with a third wife. All this and more, the villainies of Cabeza de Vaca, and many more just like him, all this I have watched go by like fallen sands blown upon the desert. Ave Maria. Urbi et Orbi. Requiescat in Pace. Shantih. Shantih. Shantih.

Tyger Tyger Burning Bright

I know Blake meant some other thing, made by some other special hand. But every morning, just past dawn when the stray coyotes have left the cool night alone, and the black bears are huddled somewhere far away enough, my little black cat and I go walking alone in the woods. And I will venture just ahead, and she will scratch a tree, a trunk just outside the perimeter of the yard to mark it as hers, and to sharpen a bit more her already deadly claws. Then, walking ahead, I will turn around like Orpheus to see . . . but my little predatory Eurydice doesn’t flee, doesn’t vanish into the Underworld of Forever. She follows ever slowly, ever at her own steady pace. And so I, in turn, do not have to, like that poor defeated poet, grieve. Whither shall we go, I watch her emerald eyes pointing the way, a subtle inclination, up the embankment, or along the flatland. And we do. Me first, then her. And when we are far within the lovely wood, where another poet had claimed ‘twas dark and deep, she will find a large heap of rock some old dead farmer a hundred fifty years ago had piled up with slabs of useless bluestone to clear his land for once-grazing sheep (long before these forests grew) and sit and gaze. And I may wait, resting on another nearby stone or a stump some twenty minutes or so, until my little guru sidles back over to me. It is from her that I have learned patience. And it is from her to quietly breathe. I have learned to sit before the dawn’s first rays of light and wakeful birds and all the forest sounds everyday abounding in the trees, to sense and be myself the quiet rising from years of fallen leaves. She can be a little show off, darting straight fifteen meters up the side of an uprooted tree suspended at a forty-five angle degree in mere seconds. In the end, no matter where we go, and as we return home, there are two things I also keep in my regard: that I am her dearest protector and she, my little soft panther, has, out of her grace placed a day’s trust in me.

Dangerous People In A Land Of Unquenchable Beauty

four trees before mountains

It was sort of interesting how the old boy kept coming up in our discussions over time. He was like the reverse of a Hans Castop, an average man around whom the world’s most important novel was written and built. But our boy was an average man around whom nothing would be built and all would eventually fall into irrevocable ruin. He was the archetypal Untermensch who, lacking any ability to imagine the man or the hero he wishes to be, unable to realize himself that way, can only ‘become’ himself through the ready-made scaffolding and rules that are designed for the ascension of all such petty and petty-minded bureaucrats and technocrats lacking human imagination. He was unable, for example, as my friend once said to me about himself, “to just play the hand I was dealt until I can bluff myself into a better one.” To do that is the dream itself, with all its constituent (and congruent) elements and exigencies ready at the mark. But these others who wander about society, they are quite dangerous in their mediocrity and essential nameless identities. And in government, school systems, all sorts of public and quasi-public institutions, they stand a-plenty as knee-jerk enforcers that can deliver harmful impact upon their true betters, unless such persons (maybe like us) drew lines in the sand and refused to comply with their silliness, or simply walked away from the malarky altogether. It’s that shifty, Cassius-like very lack of human identity, personhood, or any heartfelt ideals that make such men and women potentially powerful and potentially fearsome.

Doing Nothing At All

nyc skyline

…and from what I know and what I’ve seen so far, much of the time it’s just fumble. Some, an argument went, would not know the difference between a pine cone and a grenade. Such folk might roll them, either one, back and forth against their knee. Others just fail to see the difference between the blossom and the bole. And so it seemed to him that getting too stuck to the belief of a cause often leads to some kind of ruin. It is akin to the way small children will destroy a busy anthill, except that children are forgiven their childish attachments to careless play. They leave behind a sandy heap their mother sweeps away. Which is strange, because it means that to be that man standing at the bar, nobody can tell him, and nobody knows, whether standing there, coming or departing, he is somehow better off. He prevaricates so. And to do that, doing almost nothing, nothing at all, is the way to be, the way to go. Just fumble. Well, Christ! I would not be Schrödinger’s Cat for a million bucks, living and dying shut up with a radioactive isotope, all my days (or all my nights). But neither would I be the one to pull the bomb’s pin, nor the one to have all that sticky sap now stuck to his sappy palms the rest of the afternoon. Can any more thinking make the dilemma of poor chatty Prince Hamlet more comprehensible, if not more complete, who cannot find a clearer way to free himself from what he’s been and all he sees, than a kind of clumsy, pointless death…

‘Blame It On A Simple Twist Of Fate’

He knew she did not want a scholar. He knew she didn’t want one who could quote Thucydides and Marx. He knew, too, that even though his conversations were aptly (and ironically) peppered with this and that funny reference to George’s declension in Albee’s great Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she didn’t want that either. He knew that what he was for many women might not be enough, that as a pianist, he was a hack. Not good enough there, oh well. Then off she went (some other) with another who held concerts at Lincoln Center. He spent so much time with his fingers in the dirt, plucking tomatoes he had tied up with strips of old bedsheets, that he did not have hours enough to understand her growing pains. He could not abide her learning curve (which admittedly was very long, and very steep.) Like J. Alfred’s hair parted behind, his patience was as thin as his time became brief. His mind’s harvest became all-consuming, and his heart’s willingness unforgiving. He became the inverse of the man he once had been. And as I looked at the lengths of heavy timber dropped off at the backside of my yard, I could feel the aching in my wrists to come, the splitting season about to begin. Above all else, I had to do this—chop wood—lest I be cold and also alone throughout the many lonely months of the days soon approaching winter.

The Silenced Tomb Of Romantic History

green chalkboard

In the middle of two poems, on two separate lines, W.B. Yeats writes in one, “For peace comes dropping slow,” and in another “With beauty like a tightened bow.” And for years, I have repeated aloud the former to explain to others—and muttered to myself—not quite the arrival, but the coming to the arrival of a foreseeable calm. And as for the latter, I have known the tense, unforgettable shiver away from such things I cannot keep either my mind or my memory away. But they are both seen here, heard here, united in a silly sounding rhyme, as plain as the buoy ding-donging from afar throughout the day as well as throughout the night when all the sleepers are sleeping.

And somewhere I had thought the great Susan Sontag wrote long ago that when we take a picture we have no memory, though I can’t find this anywhere today. But just as Plato through his Socratic mouthpiece argues that the written word is a silent tomb, she made her pact with time that photographs, all of them, were memento mori. This is pretty well known. But, I would argue: not quite! For these pictures, and stars, and all of the world’s mislabeled books no longer need us. Sadly or not, that great, once-lasting Romantic notion of being rang itself out in the clanging and wrangling that took place as the world’s now fallen empires—blowing themselves to smithereens—fought and fell apart during the first half of the twentieth century.

After The Gold Rush

misty sea

In the most gorgeous places I have been, there are pictures of near nothingness. Everything that is normally seen—the rocks, the boats, the seaweed, the early morning fishing crew a-sea—is wiped out, wiped away. None of these is either dead or really gone of course. The mist just pulls herself, if I can get away with saying that, across the declaring light of day. And the mind, too, will have then another mist pulled across itself. These moments of retreat are not everlasting, anymore than a nod between one fellow passing another fellow along a sidewalk can be. And rather than the usual connotations of blurred understanding and mixed up comprehension that might seem to go along with this ‘mistiness’ or ‘fogginess’, there is an immaculate clarity, a surrounding calmness everywhere, greater than the eye can see. If there is indeed somewhere the sea and sky be visibly welded together without a joint, this earthly peacefulness extends itself far beyond that.

But as for confusion and fearsome uncertainty, that is why Alfred Hitchcock hired Salvador Dalí to design the dream sequences of his films. Terror and the menace of violence has a pellucid, and exacting quality to it commonly known to every human nightmare, which is precisely why a champion maker of those surrealistic visions of heinous genius was employed, rather than filming a set filled with puffs of smoke or steam, or going for the once fashionable hazy, dreamy, soft look of lenses with a gob of grease or gel spread by an index finger around the perimeter of the glass. Creating the ubiquity of peace, restfulness, and safety is altogether another thing. Had Hamlet perhaps perched himself along the Danish shoreline and looked outwards towards the sea’s offing, rather than bearing his princely gaze inland looking so inwardly, he might have seen something akin to the luminous gray horizon surrounding us all and him, rather than a smoky weasel up in the spare clouds or some other rodent or grass-land creature he had caught scrambling there, and had to catch, in his trap of antic fancy.