Isiah Smith


Nobody had asked me what my opinion had been. Nobody had been around to. Though I had snuggled up beside the nearest sandpile, and was reading a note left there by another stranger, before last summer it seemed, I couldn’t imagine ever talking. My boots had become unlaced, too, and filled with several tiny stones apiece, bits of blue I had stumbled upon four miles or so north of the Mexican border, ninety miles south of Tucson. Even there, when I had dined with people, I had been put to their side, served alone outside the purview of ties, dresses, and light but good morning laughter over sausages, eggs, and steaming muffins. Any words, like table crumbs, had been smoothed away and I was forgotten. Now that my heart had been emptied of blood, and my mind had become a near vacuum of human desire, I was as ready as the Rose of Sharon to bloom in Jehovah’s own desert somewhere in a land I had never seen, beside a boulder near the foot of mountain where nothing before had taken root.

Mercedes de Salvo

rocks low tide

The sunlight had glistened on the tops of trees. And it was the tops of the trees that had glistened. So, it meant that the sunlight had shone there. And each morning that I had risen from bed, from my sleep, I had looked forward to this. I had looked forward to cold winters, winters during which the snow had never come. And I had looked forward to summers whose rains were just as hot as sweat. Autumns whose colors were like brightened memories. All that had come back again and again, like a sweetness I could almost touch, almost taste, almost see. Everything had hinged on the “almost.” Had I lived in perpetual sunshine, perpetual warmth, the human comfort of love, I could not have been more than a day. It had become like a gaze in whose stark absences longing made me a sort or sorceress, dreaming up tubers of recollection, prophecies of others’ pasts, and soft unguents tending to the morrow. My rake and shovel had kept me company most of the time. I dug more trenches with my hoe, planted more seeds, grew more to eat. I had counted on nothing. I dropped a stone at my feet and was amused by the ever oppressive force of gravity. It alone had never changed. Its certainty could be depended on, relied on, predicted. Even the day’s next coming had seemed a contiguous moment in space and in time. And even death, like a common penny left outside an envelope containing a hand-drawn letter posted to the beloved, was not possessed, was not known, was not held or cradled or kept.

Roger Fernblatt

bar bottles

The cart I had had as a boy was more than enough. And the string of Rolls-Royces I had had as a man was more than enough. If, when I was a boy, there had been Rolls-Royces, the same would also have been true. And if, as a man, all I had known were carts, the same also would be true. Perhaps I needed to have known having had Rolls-Royces to start with and then, over the course of my life, to have lost them all. This is common enough and would be a common enough story of the loss of material wealth, which this is not the story of, if it is a story at all, at all. This is only to say by pointing out how obvious it is that whatever we have or whatever we don’t have is plenty enough already. And it does not matter if that star in one’s pocket is shiny when it is taken out and held before the sun or not. It is just a star in one’s pocket, so leave it at that. But I am really not talking about that at all even. For how odd that I have said all of these things as though my having “had had” were as normal as anything else in this world, as if there were actual road posts which I could hammer into the roadway; or like cards in a deck of cards, placed an individual card with my fingers in the upper or lower half of that deck somewhere in it. But after all, these are just games that people play with language when there is not of course any such ‘roadway’ or ‘deck of cards.’ This is just a great and grand game with reality, nothing more. For really I cannot declare if such events as I have just told them to be are at all. Thus, what is ‘anterior’ or what is ‘posterior’ is just ridiculous to me. What is ‘pocket,’ where is ‘star,’ when is ‘shiny’? When I put things like this, it is only then that I am able to stand back and now realize how foolish I have been.

Western Tree Of Divine Inspiration

A man of infinite strength is not a man of infinite will. He knows when to cower when he’s afraid. He knows to quail when he’s ashamed. A man of infinite courage is not a man of infinite boldness. He knows when to retreat when he is overpowered. He knows to run when he is scared. A man of infinite power is not a man of infinite might. He knows to hold out his open hand when he is poor and destitute. He knows when to submit when one greater than he appears. A man of infinite right is not even a man of infinite justice. He knows when to give in to grace itself. He knows that even the Law itself is only partial and partially flawed. A man of infinite wisdom, even this man is not a man of infinite knowledge. He knows to listen more carefully to voices besides his own. He knows the habits of his mind, however well-trained, are little more than familiar ways already leading home. A man of infinite love, this man, even he, is still not complete. For a man so long as he is attached to the most glorious visions of life itself cannot be. Once dead, he will have known an empty world of silence, as though it was a land of timeless peace. As for the idea itself of the infinite man, such an infinite man walks so closely with God, or Allah, or Yahweh Himself that all the many multitudes might too live in divinity.

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Songs Of The Sea & The Earth

Everything I had known, and everything I had held dear had deserted me. And, unlike Yeats’ circus animals whom he claimed had deserted him, what remained for me was an incandescent flame, a vivid, hand-held torch with which I had always and will always hold aloft. And it is by this light of God that I will see the paintings on the wall where for fifty thousand years people haven’t since traveled before. By this I will even view the perfect moment John Wilkes Booth saw like a red maple leaf fluttering down while shooting and killing Lincoln in his theater box. The crimes and sacred moments of humanity, life, and sometimes glimmers of my own death, I have caught these like melting snowflakes falling into my autumn fingers.

To me, I have felt the sorrow of being the common cook whose food had accidentally poisoned the great Buddha. But I have also felt the rope breaking the neck of a bewildered Saddam Hussein. That I have no friends to turn to, nor scarcely any possessions, even an empty dresser drawer to slide in and out, I don’t even have that simple enough human pride of such wooden ownership to stand beside and claim as “mine.” My destiny had become to be a shipwrecked sailor to be cast upon another sea, to drift without craft, and to all my life wander from land to land in search of a numberless people who do not exist, whereupon, like the curse of Odysseus, giver and receiver of pain, my oath was to plant my alien oar.

Little House Mouse Chewing

ripening blackberries

There’s a mouse in the wall and it’s chewing at the wood. The mouse doesn’t mind if I bang there, get up out of bed, and pound around its whereabouts. It pauses between my banging sometimes then starts again, chewing. Other times, throughout my own noises, it keeps chewing on the wood. I’m not even sure if it’s joists or rafters it’s after, but after all, to a mouse I suppose it’s all the same. I want to kill this mouse and can’t so I get up; it’s long before five in the morning, long before even my dreams having finished dreaming for the night. They must have been somewhere between fretful and fitful to have been awakened so easily. I can’t even imagine why the mouse is chewing there. It’s only wood. And what good is that, even to a mouse? There are no seeds, no food, anywhere. I buried the sack of sunflower far away from even my house where neither bluebirds singing nor black bears sifting through the brown forest leaves will ever find them. I put them there despite my fondness for both. I had thought: maybe this once, maybe this one time out of an entire sack of seed a single stalk with a giant yellow bloom in summertime will grow, before the cut-worm gnaws the seedlings down in the dirt. I’d like to think it possible but rather doubt it. Still, this little creature working its little mind away for no apparent and no particular purpose, it would seem, has stirred a little poetic vice in me that I have known. And I’d prefer, though I am sleepy yet, to be knocked away by some interrupting stranger, a little beast of any kind will do, or a sheriff’s hand at worst, to be alone before all this gleaming blackness, than slipping off one day into the night.

Empty Morning Pilgrimage

daybreak over trees and umbrella

She never came to the page unless she had a thought or an idea or had had a note. In that way, she never faced a blank page. In other words, it was a page already written upon, if only a little bit. And that little bit became when she did more to the page a little bit more. That’s it. So she never had to face it: the page. But “page,” anyway, is such a funny little thing. Here, in the United States of America, it is measured 8 ½ inches wide by 11 inches long, or tall. Not so in France. Not so in Hungary. The measurements of this page were different. And a pad of paper elsewhere won’t fit into your usual notebook, won’t fit into your usual binder. You’ll have to buy a new one to fit the new page’s new measurements. Anyway, the whole idea of “a page” was sort of silly. For almost no one in his or her right mind uses them anymore: paper pages. Paper pages of any kind of any measurement, long or short, wide or narrow aren’t used much for writing today. So, the idea of having to “face” one is a little bit amusing. The page itself is a sort of skeuomorphic reminder, the way little blue pixilated images of fake blue manila folders on my computer’s “desktop” are other sorts of reminders, too, of that other world, lost and bygone. Most of that world doesn’t feel forlorn to me at all, not anymore than my listening to a gramophone repeating the sounds of a human voice would be shocking.

I rather in my own life had sought a way, a methodology to be able to get exactly what it was I was hearing in my head down. Dante was apparently lucky to have had a scribe before him (I had once heard) before whom he could pronounce his golden words and they were taken down. In a similar fashion there is the lore of blind Milton having had his obedient daughters do the same. But I could never do that, could never face the rough circumstances of having to hear my own human voice making those sounds. The sounds themselves would barge in and push me off. There never had been anything to face at all. The blackness of dawn begins to change a little bit to light, just a little bit barely gray and the crickets of the night continue their wailful singing for a while. Soon enough the birds will come and cry among the limbs from tree to tree. An occasional car or trudging school bus or labored garbage truck will truck up the hill. This is just how it goes. Just as it is the nature of the black morning sky to soon enough open to become blue or gray or filled with thunderous clouds, that has been my own for as long as I recall. The truth is I had never had a thing in mind before my two hands were magically at work, like the shoemaker’s elves making a pair of boots, doing what they do out of joy and their own holy duty to serve for as long as they remained undiscovered by the poor & honest shoemaker and his poor & honest wife.

Jiminy Cricket Is Always Singing

houses over water

I had been having an online conversation with a guy about a very well-established writer. And prior to this I had sworn to myself to never say a critical word about another writer. It’s just not good grace. It’s just not good politics. I know it is not in anybody’s good interest to utter a bad word about a fellow writer, or another human being for that matter, that aims downward. It can only come back to bite me, too. I know all that. But I must take aim. I must enter the henhouse. And I must play the fox. Now, I’m a half-way educated man, and I can say in French Pascal’s very precious, “When you read too fast or too softly you hear nothing.” And for me, as a writer, the same holds true. Every syllable I’ve ever written, I’ve heard in my own ear. And that’s the way I do it; there’s no other secret. I may be all geared up in bright green shoes and little lightweight shorts to go for a four mile run, and I’ll hear, bouncing out the door, a whole line in my head. And the point is that I’ll go for my run, down the washed-out gravel of my driveway and up the hill, and down the road, and back. I never worry about that line. I hold it there lightly in my head, never hard, never fearing that I’ll lose it, never in a hurry. And while I’m out there, I’ll hear a few more perhaps. Maybe a second. Maybe a third. Other phrases I hear I know they may get lost and that’s no matter at all. You go to the store for milk, chips, and four ears of corn; the rest can be forgotten. And if it comes back to you, it does. It’s no great matter. It’s what really makes me a reader.

A real writer is actually a reader. Everything is heard, just as if you are actually reading it. That’s all. And my job is to get what I’m reading down, to be able to keep it there a little while for another person perhaps to read, too. That’s all. But so many people who make novels, and there are so many of them, they don’t seem to me to hear a word at all. In fact, there’s nothing in their writing to be heard there. They are not even the shells of cicadas that ever buzzed, nor the brown crusty ones of locusts that burred away the summer’s night. There’s just no sound to them at all. They’re just truly writing, and they are just truly writers, when that means that the words themselves put down on paper or on a computer screen are themselves the bearers of ‘meaning’ connected to some lobe of understanding in the human brain. Something like that, although it’s hard for me to articulate.

If you pick up a copy of the The Pale King by the sadly late David Foster Wallace, you will hear immediately what I mean. In it are the ghosts of Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe (the Look Homeward, Angel one), Gatsby’s Fitzgerald, Salinger’s Catcher, and all those true writers who really are engaged in reading the world because they are listening to what they hear. The rest, I have no time for them, for their gross, and self-satisfied, and maladroit, and pompous, and smug-multitudinous and often fancy (to show all this to be true) superimpositions of unheard worlds that never were, never are, and never will be, however well-schooled and intelligent these prove themselves they are to us as they come across my drowsy eyes in their arduous making and vast laborious undertaking.

Goat Song Below The Mountains

tucson sunset

There’s a rainstorm over the mountaintop faraway. The dark gray sky shows the shower pouring down. Were I there, I would be soaking, for sure. Perhaps, if I stood here forever, or a long long time, it would reach me. Of even that I’m unsure of. I can’t tell which way it’s moving; I can’t even feel the wind blowing any direction. Still, I carry on as I have without dread or warning over anything at all, mostly. At times, I must confess, I do wonder and worry some. These anxious moments pass as I watch the orange spots glowing on the sunny morning ground here, or hear the evening insects chanting songs whose names I’ll never know, and look over my own solitary heart right where I am. If anything really terrifies me, it would be the warm rain showers down atop me, and I to be above a mountain now looking down. Until that time may one day come, I roam still among the foothills, half-claiming to myself to be barely a goat-herder with goat songs to sing but not so many goats.

Empty Poet’s Bed

empty bed edit

I knew a man once who looked at a painted wall and said, “I see the Peloponnesian War in the cracks.” I knew a man once who looking through a handheld telescope held reversed saw the world of the Ancient Greeks. I knew a woman once who told me, “Modern punctuation is a scourge.” I was told once by a shop clerk in France that the jacket she had slipped over my shoulders was “tres chouette.” And I had heard the old ladies in a beauty parlor long ago gabbing that my hair was so thick. My kindergarten teacher had sent me a note in the mail one time, in perfect light blue script, years after she had cracked up, to “. . .remember me to your family.” And a gay barista in Amsterdam had told me that I wasn’t a beauty but I had something. My mother’s friend, half conked out on vodka, said I was the apple of my mother’s eye. And also, I was told by someone I can’t remember that the Chinese can do subtraction and addition faster on an abacus than on a calculator and watched it happen once in New York, how fast it was, when I was small. This tiny list of memories are almost like dreams now slipping away moments after waking from my sleep. At nighttime’s break, when all the voices who have pronounced these things are gone, I wonder someday in my absence where the violets I once grew will slumber on.