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.

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.

Pot Maker’s Grace

henna hand 2

Every day I make a pot. I put the pot on the shelf. The next day I make another pot. And I put another pot on the shelf. I make pots every day. I do not stop making pots. I don’t see anybody who takes a pot, not one of mine. Maybe another’s. It is no matter, at least not a great one. I make pots for everybody. Some see them, some do not. I am certain that if somebody saw a pot and bought my pot, perhaps somebody would like it. But I cannot be sure of who, even the one who bought it might not. I just keep making them day after day. At night, when I am exhausted, I do not even think that tomorrow I will make another pot. I do not know beforehand if I can. I just do. I may even doubt it, doubt that I have the hands in me to make another pot the next day, tomorrow. Somehow, by the grace of God, I can, I do. I can hope only in this way, that tomorrow, inshallah, may I make another. And that when my hands are through altogether, though I cannot say how many there will be, that my shelves will be full and empty of all the pots I will have made.

Leaves, Games & Other Treasure

fall leaves

As a kid, she had played a board game called Careers. It was a fun game to play. Arrows were spun, dice were tossed, paths were taken. Players became things. They became lawyers, or doctors, or engineers. They became businessmen. It was an old-fashioned game. And it was great fun to go down the different colored pathways and to turn up cards or hit spaces on the board that set you back. The whole thing was meaningless, and even the name of the game itself had no meaning at all. She grew up with a sense none of the things she had played when she was little had ever mattered at all. It was just fun. That’s all.

When she was older and leaving college all the kids leaving school were shouting at each other as they were leaving the bright grassy green campus for good, “Get a job!” That was funny. For who’d want to learn for four years and then just forget all that and go to get a job? She had heard her classmates joking that way and it was pretty funny for sure. Even the President of the United States of America, he said that people believed around the country today that if you worked hard you should get ahead. And he believed that this was a common creed across the land. What Alice had by this time discovered is that her particular world was ever slow and ever slowing. In this way when a leaf fell, she saw it. In this way when a bus pulled out, she had smelled the diesel fumes. In this way, when the equinox came in September, she felt the chilling cool inside her body’s bones. In this way, when she opened her mind she could hear own thinking. And this had happened more and more in life since her joyful days when she had had fun playing games on the floor that didn’t matter.

For so many others it had appeared to her, too, that from top to bottom, what she was experiencing as her own life might not be exactly happening to them. Instead, it was as if everything in their lives had been already mapped out, as if they had been appearing as performers in a theatrical performance of a scene of themselves. It was a game that everybody knew. A game where the dice were loaded. The war was over. The good guys lost. And that wasn’t a very fun game for anybody to play. Even for the rich winners it wasn’t very fun. That was no more fun than reaching blindly into a treasure chest and every time you put in your hand you pulled out pearls and gold. No, she knew that the whole point of a real treasure chest is that you don’t pull out pearls and gold every time you reach in your hand. That’s just the same thing every time. A known certainty that after a while isn’t very fun to do anymore. No, it was the doubt, and uncertainty, and the misgivings, too, which of course had to come along with uncomfortable doubt and uncertainty from time to time, that had made her life so far very fun and very playful.