To us there is a difference between the fallen and the brave. We may sort out the backs of the dead. We may separate the coats, gray from blue. Time and borders and affiliations sift about and spill over as they do and must. This is all seen in red and white, too. I had, picking strawberries, hunted about the overgrowing vetch which had blown over from afar, from another farmer’s field last season, for something succulent and sweet to eat. So it seems. So it was. So it had been. And even down the low narrow line in the forest, I had witnessed the doe in the mist, her head lowered while the world itself was framed by constant death. The butternut tree had fallen, and the beetles had undone to rough yellow the bark of the standing ash. While for some, all human records of these are deemed memento mori, I had not been able to agree. Not from my standpoint, not from the toss of space where I had landed. For me, all had been some visions of life. Chaff and wheat. Fool and sage. Villain and hero. And so on. The usual dualities never applied. Never were. Never had been. There were just gradual mixtures of dusts in the heavens, in earth, and somewhere in the seas, too.
Things had lost their luster, kept their glow. An old quarter kept in the pocket, just the pocket of memory, nothing else. Years, dances, people. An old man had roared up to my house on his motorcycle and was gone. The melting snow, too, had melted and was gone forever. An infinitesimal comet paired up elliptically with a smaller orbit will return someday. And we had not. Oh, well. The cubic yards of dirt I had dug day after day will still probably remain for some good time. Not of any further use at some point. Once we had gone, there wasn’t the same use. That’s all. It hadn’t been that important. The gravel. The driveway. The automobiles. All of us had once been so busy, so occupied. We forgot ourselves in our own peerless lives. Once I had looked inside the mica window of an old rusted oven on top of a Canadian island and had been amazed at the blackened reflected eternity. It needed nothing, I suppose, besides a boy’s eye to have seen it once. Had the Italian seen it, I am almost sure he would have been just as happy, no less proud peering at that than the dwindling chambers of a nautilus’ shell’s cross-section, all dwindled in mathematical perfection, no less so than Archimedes once shouting in the first person singular perfect indicative active tense we had later borrowed as the English exclamation for all discovery, “Eureka!” And behind all this the spectral illumination of the moon had continued, like the halo of an evening’s haze outshining itself with nothing to ever bear it any witness besides the comfortable peasants who had once dozed upon the sloping hillsides of Mother Earth, sunken and old and gone away forever.
One hour I had worked in the dirt. And one hour I had worked in the sun. One more in the rain. And the hour that I had liked most was filled with filth and mud. In that were stones, roots, and glass bottles tossed by careless men meandering down drunkenly the backside of the sinuous mountain road away from the police and human desires. And each of these bottles, smashed and whole, I tossed gently into a glass heap. For decades since, the rain had washed the dirt, and the bottles’ broken colors had shone. Now that I had become old, about to die, I had recalled my venal life, uncorrupted by most things most were corrupted by. For me, it was never women, and it was never gold. But the glint of glass, old roadside bottles broken to pieces, all these jewels, all this rubbish had become my Aqaba, my final shipwreck, my Pyrrhic victory against fortune and time.
The paper wasps’ home was shredded. And my love affair with life had ended, crumpled up in tiny spheres on the ledge of my piano. I did not know where I had put last month’s bills that had not been paid whose fines I had weaseled out of again. Dissolute and empty-bottled, I knew that Spring would greet the morning soon enough. Though cameras strapped in the trees had watched my antics and peccadilloes, I had been innocent as any pauper accused of public hoarding. Rooting through my neighbors’ bins, I had found the twine-bundled news retelling the stories of last century’s politics that really, in the end of days, meant a straw to the passing wind and me. I continued to decline the several invitations I had had—and continued to receive—to play my mandolin, which joy I had once known, and time ago had been well-known for, locally and elsewhere abroad. Who could now subscribe to such vanity? As for my relentless, unrelenting sweet tooth, such a habit I kept almost like a practiced virtue unto myself exclusively, and had chosen not to share the faintest fingertip of my thinking—or any other thought—which I might have had with another living anywhere. My pulse, my blood, it was—it had become—like a private magic that I was holding within, that I could not explain, like a walk I had had to take to the end of my snow-bedusted driveway, having risen from my warmed bed sleeping, just to go there in the middle of the late blackened night, emptied of the heavens’ own eyeless stars.
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.
I hadn’t been prevented to perform my sacred duties. The cotton candy I spun. The jet craft’s nose screen I polished. Children were happy. Bomber pilots saw clearly. When winning prizes, I tore up tickets. When in the pillory, I grinned the fool. In the middle of the woods, I peeled the bark off fallen birches. And when the fires had close to burnt out overnight, with these snow-white curlings, I began them again. My hut remained warm but lonely. I read almost nothing. A chess clock, a small hour glass with blue sand, and a pair of walkie-talkies from the ‘70s I put by the roadside for others passing by to take. I had remembered, too, passing by Dwarestaat and being by Pieter invited in. He had a thousand antiques for sale which are a thousand times more precious now. And I am sure he is dead. I still had loved the carnivals as much as ever. And I don’t mind working, when I have, performing dangerous feats for the purposes of deadliest destruction. Somewhere in my collection of everything I have lost, I indeed have had, a childhood bag of marbles, a small suede sack with at least half the Indian beads sewn on falling off. To lose even the memory of this was promised when before daylight I had faced the east for hours, and at nighttime when I lay down again, my head had slumbered toward the west.
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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.
These stones had been here for almost two hundred years, maybe more. Cleared by a farmer’s hand, he laid them atop another much larger one he could never move, to clear his pasture land for grazing Ancon sheep. These short-legged, wooly animals were a genetic aftermath of some Massachusetts mistake permitting low stone walls and shallow fences around the countryside to be built. These stones I had found here and there about these woods were leftover afterthoughts of some greater task. No Giza in the desert. No Chichen Itza. No Stonehenge. Just a practical doing away with a bit of solitary labor. For me their anonymity was a great relief. Unless some reckless body troops through these woods again long after I am gone, they were there. Unless a Wrecker of Mead Halls, some outlandish, wanton arm of purposeful carelessness comes by, these rocks must remain lovely and pointless as the backside of the illumined moon, dust upon some forgotten shelf of being, a pair of wings fallen off a nameless angel. Long after we ourselves had been allowed to fade away like nothing, like that hard-working farmer’s breed of sheep, all our sunken thoughts were still awaiting some rising of the great Ocean’s long forgotten seas.
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.
The preservation of most private moments is lost. These could be decades ago or they could be tomorrow. Gone is the fingered picking through a crate of manila folders, the little creases they get from being pulled out and pushed back in. Gone is the eye standing above, looking below. The quiet blue Mediterranean blue sea was there. And so was that other self deciding ‘whether or not’—whether to take a picture or not, whether to let the shutter fall or not, whether to set the aperture’s opening even smaller, and to take the light in there—or not. The abolishment of this, when “1” now equals “0”—mere placemarkers, not just photography is abolished but it abolishes time itself. Synchronic memory is gone. When a small sector of the world is scanned, forgotten now is the stillness in time, and one’s very place in it—in that—is altogether completely gone. Though one can pick up, pick through, pull out a true photograph from those former times when one was truly alive, and remember the once living self that almost innocently decided to trespass upon daily quietness and take that picture, a remnant of another age, now gone, now held, now remembered itself as ‘artifact’, as fossil, as archeology, as one’s own passing anthropology, and so long as hands can hold it, a 3”X 5” or 4”X6”, a very old picture is so beautiful to behold.