Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mystical Horizons

There is a Stonehenge in North Dakota. It wasn’t built by Druids. Or Mandans or Ojibway. It originated with my father.

My father spent his final years living in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota. He and his wife Georgia bought a modest, two-bedroom house overlooking a small woodland lake whose serene waters were only occasionally broken by a landing mallard, the churning webbed feet of a red-necked grebe or blue-winged teal, a northern pike or largemouth bass dimpling the surface as they fed on various insects, or a beaver moving a piece of birch or cottonwood to a nearby den. Two wild turkeys lived next door, sometimes gobbling on his rooftop, upsetting the TV antenna. He erected a sign at the entrance of the little dirt road that led to the house that identified this little Eden as Tranquility Base. This was a tongue-in-cheek allusion to his job as an aerospace engineer at Boeing, in Seattle.

My wife and I visited them in 1997. I remember, on one of our trips down to the prairie for a sightseeing tour, my dad mentioning something about a site for a Stonehenge he had envisioned. This was not unusual, coming from my father. He loved space, animals, and innovation. He was curious about everything. He painted, photographed, and sculpted. He was always busy doing something. Especially making designs. Inventions. Schemes. Sketches and drafts. His brain was constantly churning up ideas, tools to make life easier, designs for implements that he felt were awkward or just plain ugly, vehicles for exploring space, doodads for the kitchen.

He did not like the occult. He loved science. Facts. Data. Observable, quantifiable phenomena. Most of all, he liked being busy. He hated being idle. His last months were torture. The cancer that finally killed him laid waste to his body and made it impossible to remain active.

I forgot about his Stonehenge. I had only heard him mention it as he casually pointed to the site where he had planned to put it. Then, one evening, it popped into my head. I wondered if anything had come of it. I fished around on the Internet, and found some images of it. I was eager to find more information. How had it come to fruition? It even had a name: Mystical Horizons.

It surprised me to see the word ‘mystical.’ It was not a word normally a part of my dad’s vocabulary, and if he did use this word, it was more apt to be in a disparaging tone. This bluff overlooking the prairie where he had chosen to imagine a modern-day Stonehenge had, it would seem, ignited a reverence for the mystical, a significance that exceeded the bounds of the quantifiable and pragmatic that were so closely identified with the man. I found this highly intriguing, since his appreciations of our universe were always so sober and scientific and had so rarely acquired the more elusive hues of the celestial and otherworldly. Nine years after his death, I was still discovering things about him. In Mystical Horizons, my father had managed to combine science with the sublime, the explicable with the inexplicable.

Mystical Horizons is located 9 miles north and 4 miles west of Bottineau, North Dakota, along the Scenic Byway, or Highway 43. It is on a bluff, overlooking the vast prairie extending to the west as far as the eye can see. You can see the curvature of the earth. Buildings are rare. With the aid of a pair of binoculars, you might make out a grain silo, copse of trees, barn, dust from a harvester or steeple of a white, clapboard Lutheran church.

I called the Bottineau Chamber of Commerce and waited for the usual menu of options. Press one if you’d like to make a payment. Press two if you’d like to speak to the mayor’s office. Press three if you’d like to speak to a representative of human resources. Instead, within one ring, I was speaking to a human being. A woman. Who remembered my father. And was delighted to hear I was his son. I asked her about Mystical Horizons and she gave me the number of Brad Robertson of Wold Engineering, P.C., who had been the engineer in charge of bringing my father’s design into reality.

Brad Robertson was a friendly man who was quite enthusiastic about my father’s project and offered to send me a Power Point display of its evolution from sketch to stone. The CD arrived a week or so later. I slid it into the tray on our computer and pressed the enter key to go from slide to slide, taking in information about the difficulty in finding true north, calculating where to put the stone slabs so that their position would frame the setting sun during the winter and summer solstice and autumn and vernal equinox, and positioning a tube for viewing the north star.

My dad’s “Rough Layout” Sketches of October, 2000, do not look rough at all. They’re full of precision, meticulous calculations and arrows and angles and mathematically precise sites for the structures designed to register the sun’s movements in stone and shadow. At the very bottom of one of the sketches, in parenthesis, is the phrase “sculptural ideas welcome,” which implies my dad’s intent to talk about his project (not surprising, considering my dad’s natural garrulity), and says something also about the creative process. A monument this size implies community. Each time a faucet is turned and water flows out a statement is made about the level of organized effort to create and maintain such a luxury. It is the same with a modern day Stonehenge. Vision thrives on affiliation.

When Brad Robertson began the project, my father had passed away. I don’t know the particulars of how my father’s sketches managed to find their way to Brad’s office at Wold Engineering, but the sketches must have passed through a number of hands before wonder, curiosity, and enthusiasm acquired the kind of momentum that garners sponsorship from state coffers. This in itself must have been an interesting story, and one that suggests how strongly knit a rural community can be. I wonder how much longer communities such as this will endure in the face of global corporatization and agribusiness.

The first task was to find true north.

There is more than one north. There are four: Magnetic North, Grid North, Polaris North and Geodetic North.

Magnetic North is a point on the North Pole at which the Earth’s magnetic filed points vertically downwards. The points are not very accurate because their location and intensities vary with altitude.

Grid North is a navigational term referring to the direction northwards along the grid lines of the map projection. Polaris North is the star that the earth’s axis points toward in the northern sky. All other stars seem to revolve around the north star. Hence, its efficacy as an aid to navigation and to chart navigational maps.

Geodetic (True) North is the direction for an observer’s position to the geographic North Pole, or the north direction of any geographic meridian. Determining Geodetic (True) North is the key to properly placing the structures to view the sky’s wonders. What the Druids used to determine true north is a mystery. Brad used a GPS. An experiment was conducted on Wednesday, May 5th, 2004, to confirm Geodetic North using the sun’s shadow at Solar Noon and the calculated north direction.

Solar Noon (the time when the sun reaches its highest apparent point in the sky and is equal to true or due geographic south) was calculated to be at 1:38:44 p.m. central daylight savings time.

High Noon is a movie starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly and may be viewed at any time of day and in whatever geographical location, be it Ireland, Ethiopia, or the swirling gases of Neptune. It is worth noting since it was one of my dad's favorite movies. That, and Bad Day At Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy. Dad didn't go for antiheros. He liked heros with a clear sense of purpose. Nothing ambiguous. Nothing murky. Nothing ironic or detached. Pole stars.

Another experiment was set up to confirm the position and time of the sunset for the summer solstice. This experiment was performed on June 21st, 2005. Sunset was calculated to be at 9:50:03 p.m. central daylight savings time.

Sunset on the North Dakota prairie is a phenomenon of astonishing beauty. The sense of open space is acute on the plains. There is a majesty to the slow dissolution of the sun on the earth’s edge that is charged not just with solemn beauty but the cosmos itself. One can feel the earth move beneath one’s feet. Not literally, but in a deep, transcendental sense. It is not arcane. It is a signature of universal proportion available to anyone who is paying attention. It is written in the rocks, the grass, the wind, the stars, the graceful shimmer of the northern lights. It is an awareness that anyone willing to open their eyes can fully grasp as evidence of immutable laws in a universe of vast, inscrutable phenomena. To witness such an event as the sun’s light narrows through columns of stone or concrete, is to see proof of events put into motion long before you - before human beings - began to rise up and take notice of such things.

The next step in Brad’s exploration of the site was to complete a comprehensive topographical survey of the area. A 3-D Surface Model Design was created to help shape the bluff overlooking the prairie (the property on which the site is located was donated by the North Dakota Forest Service) and to create plans sheets for construction.

My dad’s plans included a center viewing pad and a wall on which the sunlight would be slashed into a ribbon of light as the sun set during the vernal and autumnal equinox. Stone slabs with gaps for viewing the sun during the winter and summer solstice were inserted at each side of the center equinoctial slabs, flanking them at precisely calibrated angles. Plans also included a Polaris Sighting Tube, a telescopic looking device set at the exact latitude of its geographical position to view the north star. The base was set at 6 feet high so it can be viewed by tourists of all sizes and ages.

There would also be a sundial. The sundial was set for Central Standard Time, and the angle of the gnomon had to be set at the exact latitude of its location.

The druids had included a sacrificial slab at Stonehenge, but my father no doubt saw the practice of human sacrifice as inappropriate to his overall designs. He just wasn’t into that sort of thing. He preferred the gentler art of kinship and conversation. If sacrifice were needed, it would be more apt to be an unforeseen expense put on his credit card than a human being.

Brad had hoped to use stones from the foundations of the local barns to construct the slabs for my dad’s Stonehenge. These stones had been very neatly chipped and sculpted to fit together in a manner not unlike the polygonal stones of the Incan towns and palaces, such as Machu Picchu or Ollantaytambo on the Urubamba River. There were worries, however, that these structures would not prove stable enough, and someone might get hurt. They decided instead to use concrete and make a mold to create a shape that resembled stone.

Pictures included in Brad’s Power Point display included shots of a bulldozer blazing a trail, men in a trench with shovels, men laying concrete stones like bricklayers. An immense amount of work went into the project. Bottineau County being a farm community, generous amounts of time, sweat, machinery, and skill were provided by the local citizenry, many of whom, no doubt, had known my father.

A dedicatory medallion reading "Mystical Horizons, Century 21, Stonehenge, October 14, 2005" was installed upon completion.

Another dedicatory plaque reads: Mystical Horizons, Dedicated to Jack Olson’s Vision of a Century 21 Stonehenge, built in partnership by North Dakota Forest Service, North Dakota Department of Transportation, North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department, Bottineau County, Wold Engineering, P.C., Federal Highway Administration and Turtle Mountain Tourism Association, October, 2005.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Advice To A Young Poet

Bend the jaws of January chip its granite walls get loaded on ambiguity. Sand a plank of wood. Hunger for presence. Jingle syllables, but answer nothing with a definition.

Touch these words with your mind. They will create an elephant with an unidentifiable itch.

Power is a seductive force. Give in to it. Power is good. Provided you do not use it to hurt people.

Shop around until you find the right scarf. Scarves are important. They give you a look of panache, and refinement.

Throw yourself into pleasure whenever pleasure offers itself to you. Probe the meanings of the human face. Fables of war and beauty.

And the faces of cats and lions.

Eyes, in particular.

Watch how the hawks hover and dive.

Steal money. Button your coat if it’s cold outside.

Plunge into yourself. Tease your intentions. Plan on one thing and then surprise yourself by doing something altogether different.

Beat the wind with your fists. Jiggle the toilet handle if it doesn’t flush right. Use strange foreign accents to stab the air with the sound of the stratosphere. Crawl across a ballroom floor creating puddles of indecorous meaning. Behave as an animal deep in the wilderness.

Change is essential. Burst into music if you have to. Fold yourself into an airplane.

Smell things touch things describe things.


Attack the monolithic insults of capitalism.

Stir oddities of food. Bloom into yourself like a pretty thought. Scream at the morning. Aim at the truth with a big fat lie. Hop on a fresh perspective and sail away. If you meet a metaphor press its meat. Mutate into a creature with fins.

Treasure any perspective that changes your mind.

Cut the air into ribbons of light. Battle webs of sticky vanity. Walk across a prairie pulsing like a distant star.

Lounge in eiderdown. Cry like an electric guitar. Sink into the glow of the morning. Lie in bed and dream. Banish worry with a cockatoo and a long red stick. Pump images from the unconscious. Sizzle with intensity. Spit fire. Roll around in propositions. Appear to be well-adjusted. Murmur the meaning of gold. Explode into space.

Fight the asphyxiation of conformity.

Write a story about pirates.

Listen to the stethoscope of the imagination pressed against the ribs of the night.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ontology 101 Part Four

Is existence a genus or general class that is simply divided up by specific differences?

The answer, according to George Berkeley (1685-1753), is no.

Berkeley’s argument offers phenomenological evidence (onions, French, mermaids), for the conclusion that an abstract general object is inherently predicationally incomplete. Thus, in A Treatise on the Principles of Human Knowledge, (1710), Berkeley states:

If any man has the faculty of framing in his mind such an idea of a triangle as is here described, it is in vain to pretend to dispute him out of it, nor would I go about it. All I desire is, that the reader would fully and certainly inform himself whether he has such an idea or no. And this, methinks, can be no hard task for any one to perform. What more easy than for any one to look a little into his own thoughts, and there try whether he has, or can attain to have, an idea that shall correspond with the description that is here given of the general idea of a triangle, which is, neither oblique, nor rectangle, equilateral, equicrural, nor scalenon, but all and none of these at once?

In other words, “esse est percipi,” “to be is to be perceived.”

Which means biology is everywhere and enthusiasm is holy.

Un coup de ton doigt sur le tambour décharge tous les sons et commence la nouvelle harmonie.

A communion of sand and salt water. Movement in silhouettes around a raging bonfire. This is where the story of each person on the freeway comes to reminisce and find themselves among specific steps in the mud.

The depth of water in a marsh. The acceptance of cloth, and what it means to wear clothes, and enjoy a sense of skin against silk, or water, or the warmth of another body.

Carve a face in a piece of wood: you will come to believe in the ardor of motion. Motion is sublime. Emissions of light sweeten the day, glance from the blade of the chisel. There are men who personify the sun and women who personify the moon.

The moon as its light strikes a wall of ice in Iceland. Fading of stars as daylight breaks. Compressions of night geyser into composition. Mud bubbles. Fumaroles vent. Fafnir stirs.

Puffins bob on emerald water. There is a shoulder of stone rising into a churning sky.

The diving of grebes. Raucous parliament of auks. Scree scree scree of glaucous gulls.

Language warms the air. We see it in steam. A meditation on the density and meaning of dreams. Bouillon in a black bowl of Zen pottery. Explorations of sound on a violin by a musician haunted by a life not yet lived but only dreamed.

Reflection of a mountain on a pond on a mountain.

Reflection of a mind in thought. In a hammerhead of green glass.

William Burroughs in Kansas. Plywood shot with a pattern of holes.

Predicaments awaken the mind. Umbilical pink. Naked and blue. Paint it whatever color you choose.

Or use words.

Use words to describe what cannot be described.

Use words to describe a thought bouncing around the room.

Like an Earl.

In amber and pearl.

Tubes of light in the solemn Kansas night.

Vacancy! Vacancy! Vacancy!

Spots of light, stains of abstraction. Sympathetic greens, noble reds. The loneliness of blue. Ginsberg’s hydrogen jukebox in a bar in Abilene.

Record flops down, begins to spin: little scratchy sounds. Then hello cowgirl in the sand. Is this place at your command? Can I stay here for a while?

Name your tune.

Existence needs choice. Decision. Everyone is urged to confess their woes. Pressed against a rock. Apparitions of ourselves in a different history. In a song we didn’t write. But sung. As if it were our song. Which in some way it is. And in some way it is not. But a song nevertheless. A sweet, ineffable tune. A sound consisting of silence. And later and never and soon.

Butter sliding down a mound of mashed potato. Blue flame from a canister of propane on a winter night. Bodies shadowed on the snow. Where the wind moves. You can see it in swirls. Spirals of white whirly snow. A trickle of icy wind down the back. Which feels like a kiss from the moon.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Napoleon's Penis

This morning I checked to see if there had been any newspaper coverage of yesterday’s protest of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in front of the White House. Democracy Now carried a story, including a quote from Mike Prysner, Iraq war veteran and anti-war activist:

Mike Prysner: They’re not going to end the wars. And they’re not going to do it, because it’s not our government. It’s their government. It’s the government of the rich. It’s the government of Wall Street, of the oil giants, of the defense contractors. It’s their government. And the only language that they understand is shutting down business as usual. And that’s what we’re doing here today, and we’re going to continue to do until these wars are over. We’re going to fight until there’s not one more bomb dropped, not one more bullet fired, not one more soldier coming home in a wheelchair, not one more family slaughtered, not one more day of U.S. imperialism.

135 people were arrested, including Daniel Ellsberg, Chris Hedges, Ray McGovern, and FBI whistleblower Colleen Rowley. This occurred at the same time that Obama was touting progress in the war in Afghanistan at a press conference yesterday, flanked by Defense Secretary Gates and a very solemn and bitchy looking Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton.

Are these people douche bags? Lying, manipulative, power-mongering, psychopathic monsters of deformed humanity? Well, yes. But that should be obvious to anyone with their humanity still intact.

The real heroes, as always, were arrested and hauled off to jail.

George W. Bush was easy to hate. He was loathsome. He mangled the language, he joked about the lying and chicanery he used to defraud the American public and start not just one but two wars which led to the deaths of millions of innocent people, he created a culture of torture, he implemented policies that favored the obscenely rich and made life for the average citizen harder than it’s been since at least the Great Depression, and he made a mockery of our nation's environmental laws and values. He gutted our public school system, engorged our debt to astronomical proportions, spurned science, turned a deaf ear to Cyndy Sheehan's questions about the death of her son, "teared up" like a country western star when he visited grieving parents, and so on. No need to belabor it. That nightmare is over.

But then another began. This one was different. More subtle, more divisive, more lethal.

Obama's campaign presented an image that was virtually Bush’s opposite. Here was a man who was eloquent, poised, charismatic, and noble-minded; a man who was not only impassioned about redressing the abuses of the Bush administration, but eager to go into the world and demonstrate what truly good people we Americans are, and can be. Yet almost immediately, with the choice of his cabinet, and his total reluctance to investigate anyone in the Bush administration for criminality, it became increasingly evident that Obama was not on the side of the American people, but on the side of capitalism and corporate pillage. Here again were the same policies, the same psychopathic greed and deceit, the same chicanery to defraud the public -- progressives especially. The same egregious favoritism displayed for the rich; it is now, thanks to Obama, that the Republicans are realizing their long awaited wet dream of drilling into social security. I still find it hard to dislike Obama. That's how successful his whole image manufacturing campaign has been. It is all fizz and evanescence. Chris Hedges got it right: Obama is nothing more than a brand. If Bush was Mountain Dew, Obama is Dr. Pepper.

And that's what got me thinking about Napoleon’s penis. Yesterday our Lapham Quarterly arrived in the mail. Each quarterly is devoted to a specific theme: this season’s theme is Celebrity. I was flipping its pages when I happened to come to a section called “A Piece Of The Action,” in which certain personal items that once belonged to celebrities are now for sale: Presley’s peacock jumpsuit for $300,000, William Shatner’s kidney stone for $25,000, John Lennon's toilet for $14, 500, Andy Warhol's silver wig for $10,800, and so on. In 1977, Napoleon’s penis sold at a Paris auction for $2,900.

$2,900 for a penis? Hey, if anyone is interested, I have a sweaty running shirt I'm willing to let go for $189.00, this week only. It's my Christmas Special.

Of course, I'm forgetting a key element with this entrepreneurial flourish, namely, I am not a "name." I am not famous. I am neither a general or a rock star. I am not a captain of industry. I have never been in a Hollywood movie. I am a poet. And poets inhabit an obscure asteroid at the outer fringes of our solar system called Solitude.

What is it with these personal items belonging to the mega-famous? Religions preserve the bones of their saints. New Guinea highlanders eat the brains of their enemies. Clearly, there is something totemic about these items. They have power. Magical power. Perhaps, if I owned John Lennon's toilet, shat on John Lennon's toilet, something of John Lennon's spirit would communicate with me. Fill me with song. Imagine.

But Napoleon's penis? What do you do with an emperor's withered old penis? Put it on display in a glazed hutch in the living room? Hang it, like a mobile, from the ceiling? Travel the country and charge people admittance to see it? A little extra, maybe, to touch it? And touch what, exactly?

I’m sure you’ve already formed an image. What I pictured was a normal penis, a little pink implement with the foreskin still on it. But then, just as soon as that image came to my mind, another image formed, a 181 year-old penis. And what would that look like? A wrinkled, desiccated little stem tinted a deep Van Dyke brown; something a bit leathery, perhaps, and like an ancient bean pod? Was it in a jar? A little pink tube preserved in formaldehyde?

I don’t want to belabor the subject too much since so much has already been written about it. An Englishman named Tony Perrottet managed to track it down and discover it in a closet in Inglewood, New Jersey. He has written a book about it, titled Napoleon’s Privates. And yes, the item is in surprisingly good shape considering its age.

The discovery of this penis on the same day as Obama touting what was once Bush’s war, and which is now unquestionably Obama's war, are linked. Both are symbols of power. Both are symbols of impotence. Napoleon lost his empire, and Obama is fast losing the American empire, flushing it down the toilet of imperialism. Everything: infrastructure, public education, Medicare, Social Security, jobs, pensions, homes, everything. Down the toilet.

When Napoleon died, he was living on the island of St. Helena, way, way out in the South Atlantic. This is a tiny island, all by itself, not part of a chain. We are talking total isolation. It is said that Napoleon took up gardening in his twilight years on the island. It is piquant to think that this general’s last days were spent marshaling troops of lily and marigold. Brandishing a trowel instead of a scepter.

As for Obama, I really do not know how much actual power he possesses, or, for that matter, that any president possesses. I was shocked at the scene in Michael Moore’s movie Capitalism: A Love Story, when Donald Regan, then Secretary of the Treasury, leaned forward and told Ronald Reagan to hurry up with his speech. That revealed a great deal. Now we know who’s boss: Moloch. “Moloch the loveless,” as Ginsberg chanted at the end of Howl, “Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

Moloch whose penis is a microphone in Limbaugh’s mouth.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ontology 101 Part Three

Is existence a property?

If the existence of a thing is its sheer ontological presence, its thatness, then to ask what the properties of a thing are in order for it to exist is to ask about the whatness of this thatness. The thatness must have a whatness.

We are in the realm of whatness.

Existence exists by virtue of existence. The idea of existence comes into existence tangled and weird, like roots deep in a German forest. Flaming eyes in a fairy tale. It is partly imagined, partly constructed. Made of words, rags of dream. You break an egg and a hand comes out holding a giant atmosphere. Chaotic gases and lightning. The clash of titans. A conception of space and time boiling in the mind. Existence exists because pathos is piercing and there is an ox bearing a load of wood.

Can there be a pure existence stripped of all properties? Can there be a section of cheese without the things that make cheese, cheese? Cheese without smell, or shape, or density, or color? Without flavor? Without history? Without fatalism, or February?

Existence is a property because property itself has an existence. It is a presence felt as a vibration, or peculiarity.

Butterflies smell of words dipped in metaphor.

It is therefore marvelous to have access to drinkable water and electricity.

And cardboard.

Cardboard is wonderful. But what is rattan?

A pretty abstraction, a prickly enigma. Rattan is rattan. A tautology of sticks. An object you can feel with your fingers. And the weight of your body. And the idea of existence. Which is sometimes a circus, sometimes an elegy.

As soon as a conception obtains purchase on a canvas, we begin to see war, and how it is magically ugly, and cold and brutal.

Language is language. Orange is orange.

This is why we are always busy embracing one another. The mystery of pain remains veiled. It is a form of fruit, a digestible meditation. Later analysis reveals how clumsy toys are. And sometimes I feel like drawing rattlesnake. Who knows why? I love diversions. Maybe that’s it. There is a glittering presence in drops of rain. A palette larded with vibrant colors and a seminal snake tied to the Big Dipper. The sky, curiously alive, swallows itself. The pencil moves and a sphere appears. A skull. With two black sockets where a pair of eyes once moved, and blinked, and viewed the pageantry of existence.

There is always a fire burning somewhere.

Describe fire.

To an extraterrestrial.

Who has never seen fire.

And now you begin to see the problem of language. And existence.

This is a word, and it is on fire. Draw the flames naked and alone on a beach. A nearby sculpture begins to talk. A woman on a horse gallops by. There are paths leading nowhere and a fish that is orthogonal and wise. Like the Louvre at midnight. Or a passage through time.

Time is an existence. But what are its properties? An hour is round like a wheel but a minute is sharp like a knife. It is the same as a chisel. An instrument gouging shapes out of space. But by who? Who is it that gouges shapes out of space? What existence? What presence? Or is it all simply an accident of creation? Arbitrary as a bathing suit. An impairment, or hospital. May you enjoy this hat. I am giving it to you. It is shaped like a head full of eyes. Hundreds of eyes vulgar and round and misunderstood.

Consciousness splashes around in the head. A drug is a frequency, waves of energy. Most of the time I just look out of the window. Or slither across the floor bending time. Or float monstrosities in my mind, huge leviathans with diamond wings and blazing eyes.

Movement has existence, but does it have a property? And what about grace? Movement can exist as a mathematical modality. It can be measured, quantified. But grace is a quality. This raises another question. The question of quality. These are slippery rocks. The river is moving and it is graceful. Gracefully moving. Its grace alone has an existence but it is the river that brings the grace into meaning.

We are soothed by its water. We are carried by its being.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Ontology 101 Part Two

What is existence, i.e. what does it mean for a being to be?

Existence is a feeling. It is to be gallant as a whale, a dream hatching out of a paragraph, the incisions of surgery left in the skin as a mark of unction.

The hospitals are full of people injured in the coarse of existence. Existence isn’t easy. It invites eloquence. It is a matter of fencing ghosts. Illusions. Folds of air.

Need begins us. Need is a staircase huddled against the wall, steps creaking as someone rises to tend the dying, or the agonies of birth.

Steel rails guide the locomotive. Attraction guides the heart. Attractions draw the escalator upward.

And downward.

Alpaca feels parenthetical against the skin.

History is the denim of consciousness. Mosquitoes plague the neck and arms. Incense swirls when the door opens. These are the rhythms of existence. These are the rhythms of being.

Imagine yourself as an extraterrestrial, deep in the quiet of reflection. You would look good in court in such manner, in a costume of wizardry, encrusted with jewels, as outside a rocket ship lands, bringing a wealth of information as you climb into yourself, and prepare to explain the paraphernalia of peacocks to a room of beings in a hive of honeyed thought.

Action is where we find the animal within. The brightness of Brighton, rocks and butter, the pigments of dawn breaking over the crest of a mountain. Waves slapping against riprap. The slop of elements. Images created by brush. A bowl of chowder blushing with butter.

Experience yourself as a living entity of bone and blood, muscle and skin. Propellers churn the water as lightning illumines the waves. The world is a ripe, resplendent logic of illogical buds and bubbles. Fire is a paradox. Quarks are quirks.

For example, birds.

Most things begin with an abstraction. An idea held in the hand like an eyeball. A late, midnight lyric squirting horses in pink anticipation of a light traveling through the nerves, an impulse dripping words of one’s existence. Each word is a fist of thunder. If anything, for the sake of teasing gravity, which is the same as sweating as a feeling rises upward through the spine. For the mind is for thinking, and the throat is for sounding diversion.

Slow words lead to fast thoughts. Fast thoughts lead to slow words.

Opposites, expansive as a barn, generate the play of embryonic colors. Apparitions in the straw. Horns, powerfully kinetic and smooth. A philodendron on a neck of green. Elegance and sweat.

The horses gallop in panic as a form develops in the sky. The sky lowers and walks on the hills, singing. Its image excites the nerves. An old man plays an old guitar. Gravy flows over a mound of mashed potatoes. Mosquitoes brocade the air. The horses slow to a stop, and begin to graze. The sky combs through space leaving trails of orange and pink and gold.

Bolt this dream to the door in blots of damp thought.

The grapefruit merits attention. And the desk has a skull on it. The skull of a human, which now grins, its sockets hollow and dark.

Admire fingers. Admire thumbs. Admire everything that grows into maturity and labors and dies. Admire the cartilage in a spine as a body rolls into a somersault.

Syllables puddle into images. A pyramid under the stars. A destiny predestined in a tattoo. A cap on a bottle. The peristalsis of intestines. Cézanne working a texture into granite.

The mysteries of existence are opened by spirit.

Death is an insult.

And a balm.

The incongruity of it all tastes of peach and dough and rolling pin.

Wrinkles and cuts on an old man’s face. A woman dancing on the wings of a biplane. The feeling of silk against the skin.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Interesting Times

Present Tense, poetry by Anna Rabinowitz
Omnidawn Publishing, 2010

We live in interesting times. Economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, climate change, endless war, and here in the U.S. an attack on the middle class by a cabal of psychopathic plutocrats. People are destitute, starved for something other than shopping malls and slick choreography. People know, in their guts, that the manner in which we inhabit this world is not working. Poetry, which is now so marginalized in the U.S. that it barely functions as a whisper in the ears of the fat cats in power, clutches at what remains of spirit and subversive instinct.

Present Tense, the title of Anna Rabinowitz’s new collection of poetry, presents a present tense of heaving geometries and “pellets of time.” Time is, as it were, of essence. It is the laceration behind the light of her language, the friction from which she derives her heat. We are out of time, in time, on time, claimed by time, wrestling with time, dreading time, shredding time, shedding time, sparing and spearing and spending time.

Time is the condition of our mortality. It is an obsession. We are either racing against it, or wasting it. Caged in it or pickled in it. Our one and only real escape from it is to focus on the present. Live in the present. The way robins and reptiles and leopards do. Moment to moment, and every moment an overture.

Present Tense is divided into acts rather than chapters. The poetry is presented as theater, à la Anne Marie Albiach, or Stephan Mallarmé, in which the page is a stage and the words are parabolas of meaning, arcs and lines in a drama of acrobatic maneuver. To write is both to unveil, and propose, the world. It is a drama of predication and prestidigitation.

In the second part of “Present Tense I,” the lines are fragmented, fractured, in space, declaring the lack of a center, an unambiguous allusion to Yeat’s “The Second Coming,” in which it is stated that “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

“Present Tense I” embodies the madness of a militarized culture, the militarized culture that is now the United States, in which, for many young people, joining the military has become a viable and popular career choice. Yet the poem makes very clear the insanity of the situation: “So tell us what we’re fighting for / We want to know, deathless commander… “ And, on the adjacent page, “A grenade within you / From the center / Therefore the story has no center…”

In “Present Tense II,” the situation is even more grim, more burdened with soul-killing “harsh logic of the homeland” and its militarized barbarity. The “Dawns are groggy” and the “Nights are relentlessly cold.” “Leash Girl,” the nickname given to Lynndie England and the photograph in which she stands grinning as she holds an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, “still refuses to ponder barbaric glee.” The last line of the poem, “I have felt alien every day of my life,” is the poet herself remarking on what is a familiar feeling for most artists and writers in the new millennium. The fact that she has felt this way for her entire life suggests that the toxicity of a militarized culture has been with us for a long time.

Where does this impulse in American life come from? I, too, have felt alien most of my life. And yet I grew up in this country. I have assimilated its values. Which would indicate that there is more than one United States. There has to be. There is the United States of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Dickinson. But there is also the United States of William McKinley, J.P. Morgan, George W. Bush and Boss Tweed. A United States of progressives such as Mark Twain and Howard Zinn and Emma Goldman, and a United States of psychopathic, war-mongering barbarians and Wall Street banksters. Right now, it is obvious which side is winning.

In “Anna Speaks,” the author presents a poem dramatizing her own dark side. “Perhaps I should let you in / On the time I threw a knife / At my brother,” she confesses. And why? “Just that I was mad as hell, / The blade gleamed on the table, / And he was there.”

Rabinowtiz tends to gravitate toward dark themes. Her previous collections of poetry, Darkling and Wanton Sublime, dealt with themes of holocaust and early Christianity. She likes to delve into history’s darker, more troubled episodes, times of catastrophe and spiritual disruption. Yet her work is often filled with humor. In “William Siegfried Bitter Aspic,” she presents a questionnaire, the kind of forms we find in academies and bureaucracies, surveys asking questions in such a rigidly formatted way that no question can be truly answered.

Here is a question with its set of possible answers: “You will be pleased to know I have been cited for: 1. A tenacious urge to battle extremes of rodents. 2. A brash indifference to personal safety. 3. Intrepid skill when eating sand. 4. Failure to file my tax return.” The answers, as in all surveys, do not give us a means to fully divulge our nature. Which seems to be the point of all bureaucracies. The individual is squeezed into a Procrustean template of boredom, routine, and interminable spreadsheets.

“Gun Moose Snow” is an allusion to Sarah Palin. “’Pay dirt! I’ve hit pay dirt,’” she squeals with glee.” “So it goes: / blood-letting -- / unraveled chevrons of crimson / darn white snow, a toppled body / ringed by the broad, black wheel / Of eagleflight.”

The eagle is pertinent: symbol of American freedom. In this case, the symbol hovers a scene of infantile impulse and grotesque waste.

In “Present Tense III,” Rabinowitz states “We try to find the sublime but nightmares ambush our quest.” The quest to make a poetry of pure, unmediated experience is thwarted by the fact of its own fabrication and position in a historical framework. The conflict is intrinsic. The intent of the poem is to elevate awareness in the hope that something sublime will emerge from human consciousness and bring a healing energy to the world and external reality. The poem, therefore, is automatically in opposition to consumer culture, which is why it is the ultimate anti-commodity.

“Commerce. Production. Consumption. Who makes? Who Takes?” Rabinowitz elaborates further in “Present Tense IV.” “It’s useless to give up cashmere shawls, gold armatures, SUVs, furs and silks to achieve cross-cultural pollination or transcendence.” There is a big difference between the joy of making, and acquiring something that has already been made. And there is always, in a materialistic culture where philistinism is so pervasive that opposition to it is almost futile, a sense of the absurd at the heart of the poem. A weird giddiness that confounds representation with a lust for the immediate, a “Turkey on the chairlift,” a “view of the abyss / Over which the bridge now sways.”

Friday, December 3, 2010

Ontology 101 Part One

Using the human nervous system as a representational medium, are there parts of the universe that are innately unknowable to us?

Artists struggle to extend our perceptions through the library and out into the world where the wild things hurry and hurdle and hurl in turmoil and proposal.

Explain the ocean. Trumpet your perceptions in sonnet and paint. In squares and circles and heaving tongues of steel. Vibrating chords. Scurrying fictions.

There is a marbling in the mind, intermixtures of transcendence and bewilderment. Hold a rock in your hand. What does it say? Whatever it says will convulse in the mouth. Ooze life and garret, pavilion and dock.

Braque and his rocks.

Increase is decreased by the increase of decrease. Whereas decrease is increased by the decrease of increase. And increase is outdoors whereas decrease is apparent in concentration.

The world is remembered in copper and clapper. And the way the waves move and the tides come and go and a seagull is reflected on the sheen of the shore.

In your left pocket.

The universe we do not see is tangential to our blood. A radio squawking, hugged in vibration.

I love this chair and its framework. The neck is a structure. The head is an explosion. The voice emerges from the throat and its sounds are shaped by the lips and tongue. The bones bend, but the muscles describe. The fire burning in the words is an apparition, an amiable prodigality. The thunder feels like candy in the bones. It crackles and spits and sparks fly. It is luminous and jaunty. Congenial or indifferent. Unpredictable as a poem.

Granite speaks to us of duration. The sky struts across the water and coils around an idea. The idea of floating. The idea of wood. The idea of ballast and sail. The idea of eating. The idea of scale.

The world spins and the stars pulse explicit as time. There is always room for reflection. Volume employed to expand the music of mass.

A low murmur by the milk pail radiates purple haze. The intestines wobble by the wall. The universe is so big that we cannot see it. But it is there. It disturbs the surface of our coffee. Our faces. Our sugar. A buffalo stampede in 1850. Converging in a thought. The eye of a hawk.

Emphasis is the poet’s best friend. Roar, shout, cry against injustice. There at the headland where the sea crashes. Address the world as you would a lover.

Sensation creates emotion emotion creates linen.

And indispensability.

A feeling glows and burns and circulates. You can hear it. Diving into books. Entertaining words. Pouncing on illusions. Eating them. Digesting them. Coughing up diversion. Squeezed rawhide. Punches and cogs.

This is a drug. A composite of thoughts and oceans and spoons.

I am bringing an ocean into your head. I am carrying it with my mind. I am spilling it in words.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Big Kaboom

Is there any preparation for getting old? It's just like you wake up one day and you're a senior citizen -- Kaboom, just like that, totally exposed, totally in denial, thoroughly hammocked in disbelief, and then, what's next -- obliteration, ... how does one prepare for that? is the notion of "preparation" obsolete/trite/or misled in these contexts? can one maneuver these shifts gracefully? why would one want to ... this is not a Random House book or Hollywood Movie with Julia Roberts foraging the age sequences, this is about out and out Confrontation, the Do Not Go Gentle of Dylan, the fire to unload while we can, to maximize in the face of imminent annihilation, to boogie our arthritic knees onto the dance floor and say dithyramb or die ......

So wrote Heller Levinson in a recent email. He states the situation brilliantly. Life goes by at such a dizzying pace that it seems more like a carnival ride than a journey. You arrive at a mature age without preparation. Without warning. Without signage. Without course or bearing. Without a toolkit or proper clothing. You stand on the shore of a new country without a clue as to how to negotiate its geography, its flora, its fauna, its geysers and deviations, its rills and hills and chasms and cracks. You do not have a compass. You do not have a map. You’re just there. Stunned and dizzy.

One day in your twenties you go to bed. Your skin is smooth, your limbs are supple, your libido is strong, your muscles are firm, your gums are pink, your teeth are intact. The next day you wake up to find hair growing on your ears, your paunch hanging out, your joints creaking, your face sagging and craggy, your muscles aching, your hair (if you still have any) brittle and thin, and your former set of perfect teeth full of bridges, crowns, implants, amalgam, or possibly even dentures. You have far more past than future. Your tolerance for anything new is negligible, your irritations have exponentiated into towering agitations too legion to number, and your eyebrows have gone totally insane.

Your prostate has enlarged to the size of a truck tire, while your libido has shrunk to the size of a snow pea.

You once got erections so quickly it was embarrassing. Telephone poles were sexy. You had to restrain yourself from pumping on people’s legs. But now it takes a porn movie, generous amounts of Eurycoma Longifolia extract, yohimbe bark, muira puama, ginkgo biloba, and a potent vasodilator to even get interested.

This, surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) has become a plus. In your twenties, your life was not your own. You were, as Dustin Hoffman put it, chained to a maniac. Getting laid was your top priority. You would do anything to get laid. Crawl, beg, demean yourself in a thousand different ways to have sex with (ideally) a fellow mammal.

Now, older, much, much older, you have the luxury of neutrality. Which is not the same thing as being neutered. You are not neutered. Desire continues to flash like a distant pulsar. But its gravitational pull in no way threatens the stability of your voyage.

I can’t speak for women. But age is not kind to them. That much I know. The leverage of sexual appeal lessens with age. But where there are liabilities there are sometimes unanticipated assets. The loss of looks means no more unwanted attention from horny slobs. No more cajoling. No more coercion. No more begging or emotional extortion. And some women, such as Sophia Loren or Catherine Deneuve, become sexier with age.

One thing is certain for both sexes: with age comes metamorphosis.

I remember Robert Creeley remarking in an interview that when one enters old age the body becomes phenomenal. You are in a situation similar to that of adolescence, when the body goes through a number of dramatic changes. You no longer inhabit the same body. Adjustments are necessary. Resignation is highly recommended. You cannot fight mortality. The gods do not like it. They will kick your ass.

And then there is the big D. Dying. Death in your twenties is an abstraction, a chewy, bittersweet philosophical candy. Unless you’ve signed up with the military and gone off to fight in some war, the prospect of dying is pretty distant. You have a lot of life ahead of you. But as soon as you get into your fifties, and friends and relatives begin disappearing, and you no longer recognize any of the celebrities in Parade magazine, or the tabloids at the grocery market, dying becomes a reality.

It is very similar to floating down a river. You are on a raft. The raft cannot be stopped, and you cannot get off of the raft. This is life. You know there is a waterfall awaiting you at the end of this journey. A huge waterfall which you will not survive. When you are in your twenties, you do not hear the waterfall. The water is serene. Then turbulent. Then serene again. And so on. Rivers are like this. They meander and change. But all this while you do not think about the waterfall. It may enter your mind occasionally, but it is not an imminent threat. Then, in your late forties, you begin to hear something. A continuous susurrus. This, you recognize, is the sound of the waterfall. And as your raft continues downstream, the sound of that waterfall gets louder and louder. It becomes a roar. And the current is growing stronger. Faster. And faster. And there is nothing you can do.

Animals are lucky. They don’t suspect a thing. Don’t know they are going to die. Maybe cows at the stockyard sense something of a bloodbath going on. But until that moment they live in the present. Life is simply a matter of chewing grass, giving milk, and sleeping.

You would think that knowing that death is a certainty, that one day you will die, would make the frictions of the workplace much smoother. Why worry about satisfying a boss, a supervisor, who is most likely to be a total asshole, when you’re going to die? When life is a quick little carnival ride? Why take anything seriously?

I can answer this: health care. If you’re old, you’re going to need health care. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Europe, you’ve got it made. Your health care is taken care of. But if you happen to live in a third world country like the United States, you had better get rich, or do what you can to please your employers, however disgusting they may be. Because you will be needing as much financial help as possible to take care of your arthritis, diabetes, stroke, cancer, or any of the other thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.

The United States has never really been known for its enlightened social policies or kindness or inclination toward peace. Quite the contrary. But the generation of people that survived the Great Depression and fought in World War II were honorable and moral. Materialistic, yes, and oftentimes maddeningly, fatuously parochial, but they assumed accountability for their actions, understood completely what is required to make a democracy work, and could be trusted. My generation fucked all this up. Our carpe diem philosophies and dope-smoking and party hearty attitudes culminated in a generation of slackers. TV viewers. Video game players. Knuckleheads. Glenn Beck. Sarah Palin. Britney Spears. Fast food, big cars, disposable relationships and wallets crammed with credit cards. The Me Generation.

Many of the same people I marched with in the 60s against the war in Vietnam went ditzy over mirror balls, mood rings, hot tubs, cocaine, prestigious careers and upward mobility and voted for Ronald Reagan. I’ll bet they’re sorry now.

Which brings me to another aspect of age, and one of its more frustrating sides. When you arrive at a certain age, your social criticisms lack credibility. If you’re a man, you get labeled a curmudgeon. If you’re a woman, you get labeled menopausal.

Take rap, for instance. Rap sucks, no two ways about it. It is obnoxious, boring, and void of originality. In 1991 the comic Sam Kinison was dismayed that rap hadn’t been more like disco and gone away like a bad fart. I can go through a litany of things pointing out the total inanity of rap, compared to the beauty of soul and rock, and merely get called a curmudgeon. I cannot enlighten a fourteen or fifteen year old kid with the monumental joy of listening to James Brown or Otis Redding. Nothing I can say will carry any weight. Why? Because I am a curmudgeon. Arguing with a twenty-something about the vapidity of rap compared to the richness of the Beatles, or Smoky Robinson, or Sam and Dave or The Temptations, is as futile as arguing with a tea party imbecile about the true meaning of democratic socialism.

On the other hand, maybe they’re right. I am a curmudgeon. I have become my father. Who hated rock. I mean really hated it. He blamed it for the vulgarity, stupidity, shallowness, and ditziness of my generation. I swore I would never do the same thing. Make sweeping generalizations. Damn entire generations.

But hey, wait a minute. Did I say sweeping generalization? After 63 years on the surface of this planet, 63 years of experience eating, conversing, struggling, playing, reading books and meeting people, you do not make generalizations. You have a lifetime of experience to back you up. You have seen things. Tasted things. Touched and felt and breathed and held things. You do not make generalizations. Generalizations are for adolescents. Sophomoric twenty-somethings. By the time you’ve made it to your 50s, you have earned the right to make judgments. Criticisms. Observations. Authoritative statements. Because you have lived it. Done it. Seen it. Smelled it.

You do not make generalizations at 60. Or 70. Or 80.

You divulge.

You lay bare.

Disclose. Impart. Reveal.

It’s called wisdom, sonny.

So there.