The surface of my right hand is constellated with tiny specks and lacerations, the remnants of play with my cat. He likes to bite. I know it’s wrong to encourage a cat to bite, but my hand is his favorite toy and the both of us often get carried away in rough-housing. The wounds heal quickly. Cells reproduce and patch the cuts by making new skin. I have nothing to do with it. I have no idea how my cells accomplish this, even though they’re my cells. Which makes me wonder: to what extent might I think of those cells as my cells? Is my own body truly my own body? I don’t know how my stomach digests food, transforms it to energy and muscle, or channels the proper vitamins to the proper glands. When it comes to my body, I feel like someone along for the ride. And when the ride ends, I end. I am, after all, no more nor less than my body. I do not believe in a soul that is separate from the body, but if this proves to be the case, no one will be more surprised than me to find it floating around when my body is gone. My body and its actions are a mystery to me, a factory where I have a high level position, and bear some responsibility for the burden I inhabit, but haven’t the faintest idea what the engineers and supply managers in their respective offices are doing. I feel like a CEO looking out from the top of my head, enjoying the benefits of my body’s labors and ingenious devices, but clueless as to how anything is done on the ground level. So who am I? Who are you? Who is anyone? Are we ghosts haunting our own skin? What makes an identity? What are its components? Right now my cat is sleeping, and dreaming. His limbs twitch and he makes little whimpering sounds. Who is this little guy? He doesn’t know either. He just likes to bite my hand. And eat. And sleep. And stare out the window.
Yesterday morning the office of my oral surgeon called and told me there had been a cancellation, due to the snow, would I like to come in early, at 10:50 a.m. My first reaction was an emphatic “are you frigging kidding me?” But that’s not what I said. I asked the receptionist how she had arrived at work. She said she had driven. Really? I was astounded. She said she lived at the bottom of Queen Anne hill and that the main arterials were slippery, but negotiable. I asked if she’d seen any buses. Yes, she had. The teapot began whistling. I excused myself, removed the pot from the burner, and returned. Yeah, ok, I said, I’ll give it a shot.
I gulped my coffee and put the rest in a thermos. There would be no time for my usual breakfast of cherry pie and slices of orange. I grabbed my coat, wool scarf, black fedora, backpack and a pair of strap-on ice grips. I sat on the steps in the hallway and worked at getting the ice grips on. Their framework is rubber. I was required to use a suprising amount of strength to stretch the grip over the toe of my left shoe, then extend it back to the heel where, after a sufficient amount of grunting and straining, I managed to secure it. I repeated the process with the other grip, stood up, and walked gingerly on my heels to the entry door so as not to damage the carpet or shale tile with the metal cleats on the toe of the grips.
The walk to the bottom of the hill went fine. There was more powder than ice. I like that sound of boots crunching into snow. I rarely get to hear that in Seattle. It’s a sound I more commonly associate with North Dakota and Minnesota.
There was an old woman sitting at the bus stop. She looked European, German or Russian, a colorful scarf tied around her head, worn Levi jacket, raggedy dress and a huge grocery sack stuffed with personal belongings at her side, from which she fished a Styrofoam cup of soup. She had a short, squat body and a gruff but gregarious manner. She told me she was going to her doctor. Me, too, I said. She revealed that she had taken some spills lately and hit her head. Her arms were partially paralyzed due to myalgia and so when she fell her arms were useless to catch her and she fell directly on her head. That sounded awful. I asked if she had suffered a concussion. She didn’t know. That’s why she wanted to see a doctor. She was able to get an appointment, which hadn’t been easy, since the doctor was closing early, on account of the snow. The snow was no deterrent for her. She had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania near Lake Erie and was no stranger to snow. I tried to alleviate her anxiety over a possible head injury by telling her that she sounded lucid. That’s a stupid thing to say, she responded angrily. I told her that lucidity meant that she had not suffered a brain injury. If she had injured her brain, she would be slurring her words and feeling disoriented. This seemed to reassure her. I appeased her even further by going down and buying her a newspaper, an item she had complained of missing.
After a series of buses, several of which were heading back to the terminal, the 18 finally appeared. I got out my bus card, but the driver motioned me in, you pay as you leave. I found a seat and watched the world go by, white and crunchy and treacherous and cold. Everything had a sad, raw, refractory look of artless abandon. I was able to look up into the greenbelt on Queen Anne’s western slope, a greenbelt whose dense, summer foliage hides it from visual penetration, and looked for any paths that led to the top that I might be able to use in the future. I saw nothing. Just a tangle of black trunks and limbs, skeletal and foreboding.
A woman wearing an enormous fur hat got on the bus and reached to the coin deposit box to pay her fare. The driver told her, gruffly, that you pay when you leave. She moved gingerly down the aisle mouthing the words “I’m sorry.”
The bus turned left on Leary, which I had not expected. I got off at 20th NW and Leary and I swept my bus card through the slot on the coin box, but it made a funny electronic sound. The driver waved me off without further adieu, and I walked to the office, where I received a warm welcome. A pretty young woman in in gray hospital togs and hairnet ushered me into the room where my operation would take place, offered a place to hang up my coat and hat and backpack behind the door, then led me to the bathroom where she had me swish a blue, antibiotic mouthwash. I swished the minty liquid, spit it out, and returned to the room, where I was given a hair net, and invited to sit in the operating chair just as the doctor entered the room, an affable, athletic man in his 40s. The chair went way back and my head lowered to toward the floor. I gazed up the light fixtures, one of which had dimmed, a little ripple of light flickering in luminous play.
Then came the Novocaine, prick of a needle into my gum followed by immediate numbness. That’s when you know you have truly arrived at the office of a dentist, or oral surgeon. When your face goes numb, objects are inserted in your mouth, and speech is no longer possible, just grunts and squeaks and inarticulate murmurs.
When the words ‘nitrous oxide’ were uttered, my spirits lifted, and realized I had come to the right place at the right time. A rubber nasal breathing apparatus was fixed gently to my nose and I was asked to begin breathing deeply, a task which I performed with such unabashed eagerness, I was a little surprised that I didn’t suck the entire room into my lungs. In seconds, I began to feel tingly, light, and giddy. I liked this feeling. I craved hearing the Beatles. This was a perfect state in which to hear “Penny Lane” or “I Am The Walrus.” I felt like offering to pay not just for the day’s operation, but for the college education of anyone’s children. This, I felt sure, must be what Santa Claus feels. A giddiness of such unparalleled magnitude you want to fly a sleigh through the heavens with a team of reindeer bringing gifts to all of suffering humanity.
At first, there was some serious drilling. I felt like a block of wood on which someone was working into a birdhouse. My head vibrated. The vibrations conflicted with my giddiness, but no so much to put me out of it. This was followed by what the doctor warned me would be some tapping. I’d say it was more like unabashed hammering, but the task was performed swiftly, and with alacrity, and I did not feel any pain. Just minor irritation. I returned to studying the little flickering ribbon of light, which served as a delightful visual analogue to my lightheaded tingly silliness.
When the procedure ended, I heard the disappointing words “stop the nitrous.” It was like the end of an amusement park ride. The breathing apparatus was removed from my head and I arose from the dental chair back into the world of gravity, angst, Feodor Dostoevski, and uninsured medical bills. Our insurance does not cover this type of procedure, ostensibly because it is perceived as being cosmetic.
I paid my bill and exited the office. It seemed much colder, and it was still snowing. I walked to the corner of NW Market and 15th Street to find a bus stop, but it was merely for the 15, which was an express downtown. I trudged through slush and ice another half mile, until I found a bus stop for the 18, at the base of the Ballard Bridge. There was a couple, a man and a woman in late middle age, who seemed to be encamped under the bridge, and I had to wonder how they managed to endure such cold with no respite.
I enjoyed a conversation with a middle-aged man who had once worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and was now employed as a mechanical engineer at a local shipbuilding facility. We watched in bewildered fascination as trucks and leviathan four-by-fours gunned their engines and went planing up the ramp to Ballard Bridge, slush and ice squirting venomously out from the tread of their tires, all done, no doubt, in defiance of the weather gods, and hoped that this intense cold was an omen of an equally hot summer.
The 18 finally came and I swept my bus card through the slot on the coin box again. It made the same electronic bleeping. The driver said “I don’t know what that is” and invited me to go ahead and take a seat anyway. How could he not know what an Orca card is, I wondered. And then I realized. It wasn’t my Orca card. It was the Metro card from the Manhattan subway I had saved because it had a quote by Saint Augustine on it: Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Too late I loved you! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you.
My arms feel weak. I’ve just been shoveling snow. Shoveling snow is a novelty. It reminds me of growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But this is Seattle snow. Seattle snow differs from Minneapolis snow in the way that the Taj Mahal differs from the Space Needle, or Istanbul differs from Fargo, North Dakota.
The snow in Minnesota is dry and powdery, like the dandruff of angels. The snow in Seattle is wet, like cement. Like the dandruff of Godzilla.
And Seattle has hills. Steep hills. Upon which the snow melts a little during the day, as temperatures rarely drop below 32 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, but then plunge to the lower 20s during the night. So the slush turns to ice. Which is treacherous and invisible.
Driving after a snowfall in Seattle is not impossible, but it is difficult. It is not uncommon to see a Metro bus, an articulated leviathan, immobile and abandoned in a ditch, or jutting out over a retaining wall overlooking I-5.
Everything takes on that enchanted, Doctor Zhivago look. Omar Shariff and Julie Christie in a mansion full of ice crystals. Otherworldly, romantic, but doomed. Ominous, sinister, weirdly baroque.
Luxuries such as walking are suddenly awkward, effortful enterprises, like speech therapy after a stroke. Until enough cars and people mash the snow into a hardpack of ice and slush, running assumes the heroic dimensions of space walking, or competing in the Iditerod with a team of feral cats.
I begin checking the temperature obsessively about once every 30 minutes. A rise in temperature by one or two degrees means the snow will beginning dripping from the shrubbery and falling in chunks from eaves and gutters. Means that the main arterials will be free of ice and easy of traction and the side streets will still by dicey in places, but negotiable if one drives with caution. A drop in temperature means another day trapped in ice. Means broken arms, broken legs, people unable to make it to work, additional stress for the people who can make it to work, and car accidents and canceled medical appointments.
Roberta lost one of her ice grips on her way to work this morning. Her store is sold out. She will have to walk home with one ice grip. I went to look for it on Roy and 5th Avenue North but didn’t find it.
I have an appointment tomorrow of oral surgery, a bone graft, in preparation for a tooth implant. The office didn’t call to cancel, so the onus is on me to find a way to get there tomorrow. I tried shoveling as much snow as I could from our car, regretting not buying chains. Sometimes if I can get the right start on our easement I can make it to the bottom without crashing into any trees or people. If the snow doesn’t melt by tomorrow afternoon, I will have to board one of Seattle’s many petri dishes. Roberta tells me the number 18 and 28 go to Ballard.
It’s 3:25 p.m. KOMO News says it’s 30 degrees with 92% humidity. They’re predicting a low of 36 degrees tonight, a high of 46 degrees tomorrow. If they’re right, which I hope they are, the world will be released from its jail of snow and ice, I can skip a ride on the petri dish and drive to my surgery in style, listening to Bob Dylan croon “Beyond Here Lies Nothing.”
Doppelgänger, poetry by Brian Henry Talisman House, 2011
Doppelgänger would be a good book to read when one is down with the flu and running a high temperature and the body is under assault and has a foreign feeling to it. The intensity is weirdly delicious and the feeling inside is strange. It is a feeling of shadows, of things lurking in us that aren’t exactly human. Monstrosities of our interior subterranean life. An inner life that we know is a dimension of our own being, but is also foreign, uncanny, phantasmal and dark.
I know this feeling. I have felt it most keenly on those occasions of misery when my bones ached and I was stuffed with antihistamine and codeine. I hate being sick, but there is, admittedly, a side to it that resembles the dance of hallucinogens in the blood stream. There is a poetry to it. An alluring blur of hectic umbra.
Not that I’m suggesting that Doppelgänger is a book suited to illness, or that one should run a high temperature to gain entry into its imaginary realm. The writing is strong and will induce that sensation without a viral invasion and a runny nose.
Doppelgänger is a German word meaning “double walker,” and refers to a supernatural double typically representing evil or misfortune. The word is also used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, as if one were witnessing one’s own ghost, a portent of illness or danger or possibly even death arrayed in the ghostly raiment of dream.
The Doppelgänger is our shadow self and as such has connections with the underworld. In this circumstance, there is no afterlife. The “upper and lower worlds are the same,” observed James Hillman, “only the perspectives differ.” “There is only one and the same universe, coexistent and synchronous, but one brother’s view sees it from above and through the light, the other from below and into its darkness. Hades’ realm is contiguous with life, touching it at all points, just below it, its shadow brother (Doppelgänger) giving to life its depth and its psyche.”
Doppelgänger, at a glance, could be taken to be a series of poems, or one long poem. Which it is. But it has an evident narrative structure and unfolds like a fable of mortal longing.
The central character is an old man who appears to have had a history of cardiac problems. In the first poem, his discomfiture during the night panics his wife and she takes him to the emergency room where it is discovered that he is ok, “Though his heart bleeds and bleeds / Unless his shadow self has left / And crept to where it waits / For an other’s actions / to draw it back.”
Henry’s lines are short, studied fragments of information, searching, probing, and fraught with anguish, yet curiously neutral in tone, a sort of plainsong tinged with an undercurrent of worldweary resignation. A cantus firmus for self and shadow self and a host of apparitions, the kind of nightly presences that might haunt an old man’s memory, including the road not taken.
“What is it that dwells / On the surface of the eye,” asks a poem a few pages in,
And moves with the eye
When it moves
Not a windbrought speck
Not a discernible scratch
Not a hair calcified and stuck
Not sleep or matter or gunk
The eye carries some thing
With it when it opens
And cannot distill its self
From what its surface allows
To intrude on the surface
The conscious self glances
To one side and sees its shadows
Until the eye draws down
On the image affixed
And no there was no one there
The attentive reader will discover what is almost an unheard thwack, thwack, thwack of a shuttle making the warp and woof on a loom. Line by line a gestalt forms, hazy around the edges, informed by darkness the same way a room will come to life when a candle is burning. We form something soft and reflective to hold ourselves, but then a sudden shudder thrills through our being and we realize we are sitting in a void. There is no actual floor beneath us, no actual walls to separate us from the universe. We discover before we are dead that we have an existence in that other realm before we die.
We do not know precisely who this old man is, but religion appears to have failed him. It is suggested that his religion of choice is of a Protestant, southern Baptist ilk. Jimmy Swaggert makes an appearance:
The old man is so tired
He nods through every meal
Like a suckfist sermon
Jimmy Swaggert sweating
All over a woman’s bosom
The old man wants a holy man
To draw the shadow out
And hurl it into a pit
Of fire there to burn
But no man is holy
The old man learns
His search gone cold
Barren sermon dissolve
Outside of some Native American and New Age practices, there is no shamanistic tradition to help us die and guide our spirits into the next dimension. Happily assuming, of course, that there is a further dimension after we slough off our mortal coil. Christianity is all starch and no meat. The lifeblood has been sucked out of it by years of vain, pietistic ceremony and stultifying dogma. Christ would have to return to put the zip back into it. But the Christian fundamentalists would either ignore or crucify him again for conflicting with their get-rich-quick and magical thinking schemes. And the pope would no doubt vilify him for consorting with thieves and whores.
“The invisible swells inside” proclaims the first line of the adjacent poem. There is richness in this line. I feel what Henry means. I feel it more strongly with each passing year. As the body ages, the spirit grows. The air is charmed with numina.
The word ‘swell,’ however, evokes more than growth. It also suggests pain and inflammation. What Nietzsche, in The Birth Of Tragedy, calls the “wound of existence”:
It’s an eternal phenomenon: the voracious will always find a way to keep its creatures alive and force them on to further living by an illusion spread over things. One man is fascinated by the Socratic desire for knowledge and the delusion that with it he’ll be able to cure the eternal wound of existence. Another is caught up by the seductively beautiful veil of art fluttering before his eyes; yet another by the metaphysical consolation that underneath the hurly-burly of appearances eternal life flows on indestructibly, to say nothing of the more common and almost more powerful illusions which the will holds at all times. In general, these three stages of illusion are only for the nobly endowed natures, those who feel the weight and difficulty of existence with more profound reluctance and who need to be deceived out of this reluctance by these exquisite stimulants. Everything we call culture emerges from these stimulants: depending on the proportions of the mixture we have a predominantly Socratic or artistic or tragic culture - or if you’ll permit historical examples - there is either an Alexandrian or Hellenic or a Buddhist culture.
“Getting old,” Ted Enslin used to tell me, “is not for sissies.” The body becomes a burden. Health care, if it is affordable and available, is either a blessing or a curse. Doctors are intent on one thing and one thing only: keeping the patient alive. Death does not exist. There is no such thing as dying. Consequently, I have seen people suffer needlessly. As soon as modern western medicine recognizes death as a reality and a part of nature, and ceases prolonging a painful terminal illness with drugs and surgery, they can focus on ways to alleviate suffering when the inevitable time has come to let go of the body.
Henry has chosen a fascinating and compelling topic and approached it with a graceful simplicity. Even the space between the lines has a mute presence, the presence of absence, the song of the Doppelgänger, the shaman within. “Medicine fails words,” Henry proclaims. Illusions are fat with words. Belief, which some insist has the power to cure, ameliorates suffering for those who find in its words a more powerful medicine than what science offers. Practical medicine provides instruments and chemicals. Its words are throttled by frequent, accurate, controlled observation. Prayer and poetry, however cherished or scorned, extend beyond the pale of mortal life and overflow the lumpish ground of our heavy world with the shadows of elsewhere.
Put your popcorn down the concertina and beans a gargantuan emotion is about to become gasoline and explode into talk conversation is inherently panoramic a parable of the sky in a stellar library gurgling loafs of idea rain in a jar armed with a powerful grip. A sorcerer will restore the kangaroos as a light explores the room with an oboe and a hoe it will deepen our sense of cosmology and sparkle among these lines as if envy were a seminal condition for silk and turned into an airplane not softly like a wheel but emphatic like a decision sometimes a bath will feel personal and include some semen and deepen our sense of cosmology and sometimes a wink to the mink will punctuate speech. I don’t know what I’d do without Cézanne lift a chisel and carve a wave breaking on the sand maybe or create an attitude in tin read adult magazines and watch the swallows under the bridge the pulley squeaks as I bring the laundry in and Jack London sits at his desk blossoming into an incentive. There are properties employed in poetry such as donkeys and postulation surreys are used for contrast if we choose to navigate the solar system we must also employ a horoscope and our favorite irritation. A knife tumbling through the air is always unpredictable because a parody is almond and our elbows are on the table. The imagery of birth is grotesque the natural thing to do is run away as hard as you can and find a wad of money in the snow rub the calliope and the genie will tell you where to find the nutmeg it’s up there high on the topmost shelf. We should smell boycotts and brushwork by spring which a jaunty elf reproduces by exhalation further away in time and space is a tornado just as it is beginning to acquire real power let’s go scrounge for another parable something implicit in linen the ink is bubbly with umbrellas and I can make out a coast baroque with rocks and aerial splendor a dancing bear carved in ivory on a palette of rain and a sonnet assembled with glue and intuition. The light has a peculiar hue and there are roots descending into the earth socks tumbling in a dryer that grandeur we find in ourselves during times of catastrophe agrees with that ever present glow of hope the thin gaze in a milk of paradise hints of Alaska and a group of lost astronauts passing through a door. Morality is hirsute with bears on the road of excess earth bursting out of itself shouting has a vertical dimension in climbing a stepladder we feel our inner wounds swelling into language the larynx damp with vowels the process is like a staircase a symptom of terminal baseball the space is spherical and wild and drooling like a hill. There is sunshine below a pretty smile even the gantry has an odor it smells like a tiger hugged by its reflection in a pool of unearthly water surrounded by lush Indian greenery. Ocher is not a good color for vanity I would recommend the orange in a fire leaping around a Russian doll. And let’s face it genitalia male or female is Byzantine and curious like a dream of oysters. Meanwhile a new paradigm is being assembled from sandstone and the origins of life the cows are titanic long and sweet like the antiphons of plainsong. We discover our truer natures in plays while it is a serious duty to hoist our deeper wounds into view using metaphors of blood squirting during surgery in a palace of ice. There is a climate of sexual linoleum and a rack of rifles as the afternoon approaches outwardly pious but inwardly golden in its sense of seclusion it’s a start not a conclusion consciousness under a hat chowder in a chipped bowl words swimming in a book there is no yardstick to measure piety only buffalo grazing by the river the contraption is linguistic by that I mean writing writing is not a club anyone can join one word to another word and discover the residual language of a foreign perspective the proverbial brass ring the green stepladder luxuries such as feet and pineapple fingers the sky is a soft hazy intuitive blue it’s time now to contact the mud get down and dirty feel the inscrutably sweet milieu of fantasy and calculus such as Leibnitz originally intended it fluxions of magic the exaltation of walking this path leads to Buddhism heave forward rippling toward the shore push yourself into hunger perceptions of depth brushes dipped in red apples and eggnog anticipate the sublime pain is often linked to pleasure and revolt newly minted on a tongue of gold consciousness sparkling in a syringe soft and squishy as grease it is a milieu of folds and convolutions it is more spoon than fork more fork than knife highways of red ants and distant buttes elevators going up elevators going down sticky fingers murmuring of sexual dreams the smell of freshly baked bread.
Scared Text, poetry by Eric Baus The Center For Literary Publishing, Colorado State University, 2011
When Saussure developed his theory of the diacritical structure of language, that is to say the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, he might have imagined a linguistic universe such as that developed by Eric Baus in this collection of poetry. The word ‘fabulous’ comes to mind, not just as the enthusiastic adjective of praise and endorsement, but in its deeper sense as a sign of the inconceivable, the phenomenal, the marvelous, the mythic. A world of thought in which the face of the universe is a provocation of choice and exception, an immunity to the stultifying claims of the drably empirical.
Yet, what we have is not a sacred text, but a scared text. Which might also read ‘scarred.’
Scared, scarred, scoriated.
Nothing depends on a wheelbarrow.
The wheelbarrow is a sign, glazed with semanticism, beside the white chimeras.
In “Votive Scores,” for example, we have a vigorous play on dialectical offertories:
If eels lie vertically inside the statue or old bees coat its surface, a needle will point to the center of my hide. Owls murmured up a piece of green cloth. Hard ash topped me. The birds it entailed people the treetops, stripped me of my coos. Un-tuned doves flew elsewhere, worried their drones would shrink inside my ears. A second split occurred when its eyes bloomed red. Votive scores pushed open the view. Here, the street was both omen and throat. The swarming sky sparrowed until day withered, until the statue punched out of its skin. He was wearing his own arms. His house showed. Ants formed and he scorched their trails. Sing rendered. he trilled, Sing posed.
The central trope here, of course, is music. A score is music written down in such a way that the parts for different performers appear vertically above one another, i.e. “eels lie vertically inside the statue or old bees coat its surface” is a score embedded in the wax of the imagination. A votive offering is one or more objects deposited in a sacred place in order to gain favor with supernatural forces.
The sentence “Here, the street was both omen and throat” mingles the ideal with the real, the theoretical with the empirical. An omen is a phenomenon of the mind. A throat is a biological reality. A street leads to places. A throat, like a street, channels the air from our lungs to the larynx where it is vibrated into sound then led to the mouth where it is shaped into syllables.
Music is a perfect trope for this work because music is non-representative. It is what it is. It refers to nothing. The sound is all. The pattern is all. Harmony, rhythm, melody, and pitch. Conflict and resolution. Music is a sacred analogue of scared life.
The number of animals in this piece is interesting. Eels, bees, owls, birds, ants. Small animals. Two species, bees and ants, noted for their swarms. Owls for their nocturnal habits, wisdom, and omen of death. Eels are weird. Slippery. Though good eating. And sometimes charged with electricity. Taken as signs, these creatures recommend tonal analogues for sensory experience.
Sounds are much easier to produce, combine, perceive, and identify. This is why music appeals with such immediacy to our feelings and rock stars fill stadiums and even the most mediocre musicians are guaranteed an audience larger than that of our greatest poets. Words make us think. They might be signs with no actual connection to their referents, but they do engage the intellect, and most people would, quite naturally, not have to do with their intellect. Intellection is work.
Poets like Baus bring us to the frontier of language, that place where words as signs of arbitrary connection to the real are at their slipperiest. In “Owl Wool,” a short prose poem of three sentences, we find a density of assonance and alliteration burning in a conglomerate study of the relationship between words and music:
The sky fermented a cotton tarp. The baffled voiceover spread. Iris’s dove scored itself with scales while owl wool coated the cliffs.
I especially like the assonantal and semantic play on ‘scored’ and ‘scales.’ Scales can be appreciated both as musical signs for the melodic material of music and the thin, plate-like lamina on lizards and snakes. Also, the play on ‘owl’ and ‘wool’ followed by the alliteration of ‘coated’ and ‘cliffs.’
Baus likes brevity. There are few pieces of length in this collection. “A Delphi,” which begins “Minus tried to write his own bible It began, So what, saliva. So what, milk,” is one of the longer pieces, at six pages, and has a narrative tinge. It evokes, rather than tells, a story, switching back and forth from the third person to first person point of view. “I like lies,” it is tellingly stated, and “I like hills. They feel like hands.” The central character is Minus. One thinks of the Minos of Greek fable, and the numerical sign ‘minus,’ in which things are subtracted, taken away. There is an interesting parallel here, since Minos, the King of Crete who every year made King Aegeus pick seven men and seven women to enter Daedalus’s labyrinth to be eaten by the Minotaur, became a judge of the dead in Hades, and ‘minus’ as a numerical sign means to subtract, take away. Consequently, we have a Minus who begins a bible by mocking the very language used to write the bible, i.e. mocks the semantic gravity of saliva and milk.
The Delphi also bears significance within the above context since it was the most important oracle in the classical Greek world and a site for the worship of Apollo who took residence there after slaying the Python, the deity that previously inhabited that spot and protected the navel of the Earth.
I find it encouraging that this is a collection of prose poetry and won the Colorado prize for poetry. This strongly suggests the acceptance of the prose poem as a legitimate poetic form. Poetry, it would appear, is evolving into organisms with multiple limbs. It is allowed more breadth, it is less constricted by dusty Victorian ideas of metric structure. It is given the expansive breath of Olson’s projective verse and Whitman’s gymnastic reach. It is more profoundly physical. Its practitioners and architects have been eager to demonstrate the microcosmic possibilities of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. A place, like a house, in which strange furniture and the bricolage of experience pose fascinating problems to the agile mind.
Breath imparts being, words served in earth, like a yak. Words are the ghosts of things hives full of honey symptoms of string causing music to happen. Poetry is forged in the furnace of the heart. It rides up and down on cables in allegorical space. Press all the buttons to see what happens.
Rain happens. Sequoias happen. The world happens.
Horses are created by blowing into a trumpet. The radio comes alive and unfolds itself in shrubbery. Longing arrives in a harmonica. Morning arrives in a box of dishwasher soap congealed into lumps.
Heft is evident in seaweed. Divinity is evident in scripture. People stand in line waiting for a deity to arrive. I can feel a soup of vibrations emerge from a bell and move in my being like a womb of sound transforming into an idea.
There is difficulty getting the deity through customs. She transforms herself into a shawl and enters the country profligate and green.
To describe a circle is to describe a heaven under construction. Which later assumes the allure of a large pink hole.
It seems completely reasonable to go without a shirt while walking along the rails in the heat of a Mexican afternoon. The mind, accelerated by Dexedrine, follows the shimmer of heat above the splintered ties and crunch of gravel.
Monstrosity is a feature of poetry. Mutation is natural. Wave moves into wave. A gypsy woman squirts light from her eyes. It tastes of salt. I can feel myself turning into a flamingo. I grow wings and feel myself lifted by a light blue breath.
I study the air. I can see a filament of sound rubbing itself to get warm.
The distance is squeezed into a jar of time. I feel it sing in my veins like protein. I am a calliope I hang upside down in the water.
The coast is where whispers go to die.
The last time I was in San Francisco, thought John Lennon, I combined a noise with an image and a song emerged from my throat irritating the skin of my ears with its fuzzy vibrato as it translated three o’clock into a glittering stream of typewriter fire.
I can smell a mind when it is thinking. It smells like a cross between a Roman taxi and a root beer float.
All the door does is hang on its hinges clapping its hands.
Picasso sits down to immerse himself in pink. He drifts in reverie. He imagines himself swimming over the ribbed sand of Arizona with a mistletoe in his mouth and paints an eyeball lost in the cracks of suitcase as a woman falls through a bank statement and a piece of music is folded into a pond in the middle of a forest.
The air is quiet and cold. It begins to rain. There are peacocks in the parking lot and a man out walking his dog disappears around a corner. The hotel is reasonable. There is a chair and a desk and a curtain in the window. Cause and effect is a contingent feature. There may be cases where the effect precedes its cause, and an impenetrability of physical laws.
Sometimes it grows so quiet you can hear the smell of the mind as it floats on a mediation of gauze.
There is a time in the afternoon in deep winter when, if the sun is out, the moss on the surface of the balustrade of Queen Anne boulevard goes into high definition and turns iridescent. It is green beyond belief. It looks like a thick carpet, but with a lumpy, irregular surface and little whiskery shoots bristling among the prominences.
Moss is ubiquitous in the northwest. It covers everything. Roofs, walls, trees, gables, gallstones, gargoyles, garages. Moss loves moisture. And there is plenty of moisture in the northwest. The northwest is to moisture what mecca is to Islam. What ovals are to eggs. What monuments are to wars. What shadows are to light. If moss were a form of credit, it would be the International Exchange of the global credit default swap swamp.
But moss is insistently, consistently moss. That’s what makes moss, moss. To compare moss to something else is to lose the mossness of moss.
I am charmed by moss. It is original and massive. It spreads like a superstition throughout all the balustrades and coffeehouse bricks of the dripping northwest.
It feels like an animal. If you brush your hand over its surface very softly, it feels remarkably like fur.
If you get lost in the woods, look for moss on one side of the tree. That will be the north side of the tree. North, where the sunlight is blocked. Moss likes shade. It feeds on dark things, like the necropolis of the Etruscans.
The moss growing on the balustrade of 7th Avenue West seems anomalous in its obvious appreciation of sunlight. Is it a species apart from the usual moss that carpets the shady nooks and recesses of the Pacific Northwest?
Yesterday, I had to stop by the balustrade to tie my shoelace. I was doing my usual afternoon run and was moist beneath my running clothes. I felt the cold immediately. I raised my leg and positioned my foot in the hole of the balustrade. A sharp winter breeze blew through the hole. I looked to the west where the sun was already beginning to set. The light was sharp. The moss stood out in high relief, attracting my attention to the spot where I had rested my gloves, black wool against a patch of green iridescence. It felt like an elegy. A sweet rag of holy fuzz marking the end of a day in early January.
Human anatomy fascinates me. Fingers fascinate me. Hands fascinate me. Feet fascinate me. Intestines, heart, brain, blood vessels, muscle, nerves, bone, genitalia, membrane, phlegm, hormone, cartilage, shoulder, tongue, and skin fascinate me. Maybe I should have been a doctor. Except I don’t like touching other people. Unless, of course, I am in love with them.
Human anatomy is a marvel of ingenuity. Imagine you are an engineer in heaven and God comes up to you and says hey you know what I was thinking of making a creature that can walk and talk and make things, any ideas?
Legs and feet would not immediately come to mind. They do now, of course, because I already know what they are. I have them. I use them. I can’t figure out how two disproportionately small organs can support my entire body much less help move it about, but if I try to unimagine them, unthink them, imagine a situation before they ever existed, entered into time and history, I can’t do that. All I can do is marvel at the ingenuity of it all.
And hands. My god hands. Fingers. Thumbs. Grasping things. Feeling things. Picking things. Pinning things. Plucking guitar strings. Holding a pen and making words with it. Letters. Pulling doors open. Turning knobs. Fondling breasts. Cupping a book. Pounding nails. Tapping keys on a keyboard. Pinching and squeezing and manipulating things. Knots, buttons, dials. Coins, trapezes, talismans.
Arms are a lot like tree branches except they move with much more suppleness. And don’t have leaves growing out of them. They culminate in fingers. Fingers give arms a life beyond the pedestrian function of holding a spoon or filing a bank statement. Fingers enlighten the arms and mind with the texture of a grapefruit or the telling physiognomy of a rock. If I were to go blind, I could use my fingers as eyes, touching the texture of the text of a book in braille. The meanings of the words would enter my fingers as bumps and travel through my nerves to my brain where they would form an image and out of that image I would find emotion and meaning.
Legs are both supports for the framework of my body and a source of locomotion. Insects have more than two legs. Centipedes can have anywhere from 20 to 300. I do not find that particularly enviable. More than two legs would be confusing. I like the rhythm of two. Two legs in motion. Walking. Or running. First one leg, then the other. Propelling me forward. Carrying me where I want to go.
Everything is contained in skin. I am contained in a sack of skin. I am a letter of organs in an envelope of skin addressed to no one in particular. It is stretched around my bones. Otherwise, I would be a sack of skin with a pair of eyes looking up. We need bones. Bones to drive a car. Bones to open doors. Bones to get dressed and draw and ride escalators and interact in dramas and make speeches and hear it. Bones to ferret the mystery of death. Bones to rattle the storms of the spirit.
I love the way bubbles float and drift in a room catching the light and sparkling and popping never to exist again. The hands of the clock jerk forward dragging time across a landscape of glass and cats and rumbling dishwasher afternoons. There are hooks for our clothes and pegs for our capes and hats. Symmetry both fascinates and repels me. I look for redemption wherever I can find it. I get up in the morning and drink coffee and listen to news from France and scribble my way into sweet oblivion. Life is an enigma. Insoluble. Animals seem to have a better grasp of it. Yet nothing alters perception like altering one’s consciousness with philosophy or enthusiasm for books.
Doorknobs darken over time into that color they call verdigris. You can find the word in the dictionary, burning and oceanic. I don’t like dressing up in a gaudy manner especially if I am dragging a heavy load of garbage to the bin in back of our apartment building. Hinduism has a certain appeal though my feelings about religion are erratic and vague. I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a belief. I would rather leap from inquiry to inquiry in a novel from the late 19th century. A time when Cézanne would leave his cottage to go paint a mountain. His brush and eye and movements so powerfully focused on sensations of shape and space and color.
Beauty is so elusive but I’m bent on finding it and pushing and squeezing and wrestling it into words. That sounds pretentious I know but that’s art anyone who sets out to make art is making an assumption about their capacity to make something beautiful or so astoundingly ugly it becomes beautiful and that smells of pretense. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Most, if not all, enterprises involve pretense. Sea coasts are beautiful by default. There is so much complexity complexity of shape complexity of color complexity of organic and inorganic complexity of debris washed ashore complexity of birds complexity of mollusks complexity of shells complexity of fins and mouths and gills and sand and reflections on the sand when the waves move in and crash and slide over the sand and recede leaving that special shine. The puzzle of waves alone is fascinating. Hypnotic. The way they move what is a wave it is neither an object nor pure energy. It is momentum made visible. The energy of a wave moving is water moving the wave itself does not exist in the manner that a mirror or pillow or handsaw exists. Blood is real. I remember that scene in Castaway the one movie with Tom Hanks that I truly enjoy in which Hanks unsuccessfully puts himself to sea and capsizes and wades back and cuts himself on the coral. Ribbons of blood swirl out from his leg trailing behind him and I immediately thought: sharks. But he made it back and tended his wound and went on to construct another more workable raft, using the plastic siding of a porta-potty for a sail. Brilliant.
Construction is a mode of culmination. One begins with nails and wood and a spirit level and blueprint and bags of cement and a hose with access to water and one digs a hole and fills it with cement and birds fly overhead and there is sometimes a little friction a little confusion but one way or another the job gets done. Later some men enter a lobby and fall into conversation. Conversation is another form of construction. The nerves are alert to someone’s words and then one makes one’s own words and the emission creates another emission and sometimes there is deceit and sometimes there is honesty and most often there is a little of both. And someone always exclaims oh my god that’s true.
A mongrel barks at a shadow. The organic is made of the inorganic. Insults mean very little. Greed drives too much human behavior. We endeavor to be kind. We endeavor to further human understanding. We scrounge for food and shelter. We carve images of people and animals out of wood and stone and air. That which we carve out of air we call words. Nothing is impenetrable. Except, perhaps, the universe itself considered in its entirety.
I am, improbably, a collar stud. I hate anything vague. Sometimes there is a parable with a dachshund in it. Sometimes something thick like a word slaps my lip. It indicates alphabetical tinfoil, a collosal black quatrain beginning a mind of umbilical wax.
An expectation ignites the urge to write. But an expectation of what I cannot say. It is an enigma.
I vividly remember the jar full of thinner and paint brushes in my father’s studio in North Dakota, a bouquet of slender wooden handles and a fragrance of sharp acrid thinner. His brushes were always ready to paint. He’d pull one out, wipe the bristles with a rag, dip it in paint, and make a smear that he worked into a shape, an identity. It would happen so fast that I wondered if it didn’t have an existence before he gave it an existence.
Hair comes out of my head thread by thread but I can’t hear it as it does that. I smack my face with warm water in the bathroom sink. I would describe it as warm and wet. How else?
The bone at the center of my chest is a sternum. The center at the sternum of my chest is a bone. The chest at the sternum of my bone is a center. A center is always wide and steady. A center is always a bone.
One must garnish one’s spinning with the science of accentuation. There is a sheen on my shoes that jugs the strain of walking. A thought churns in my head until becomes many different thoughts. I am glossing nothing but the autonomy of shoes. I am Parisian. My shoes are insoluble and surly. My shoes are burnished structures in the dust of elopement. My shoes are violins. My legs are Apache. My feet are airplanes.
Will it rain today I don’t know. I live in a city where the flavor of mud is arranged by water rounded into sideboards and given virtuosity by the sheer magnitude of its prodigality. The heart is slippery with its attentions. Water generates so many shapes. So many shapes. So many shapes.
A tiger burns out of my mouth whenever I am in England and I lift my knife to get a pat of butter on it and bring it back and see that it is teeming with cod. Soft gentle meat of cod. All things in motion. All things straining to mean something. Meaning is the meat of the imagination. Meaning gives muscle to the brain. Meaning is hard to find. Meaning exists in multiple form. There is meaning in entertainment and meaning in rapiers and meaning out in the open. Out in the open. The world is a pumpernickel basketball. The sun burns down on it and erratic forms go into meaning in soft gentle abstraction. Dog rose in twilight gold.
I love being in motion. This is how we find precious metals. There are things in this world that elude our perception. One must adjust the seminal because it is effective and arrows thwack value to syntax as a form of sexual freight. Daub is just the weight of desire.
Parables help to discover that which is iridescent and beautiful. Mahogany and jellyfish. The monkeys of Madagascar. Nutmeg expands to include initiative and phantom trumpets of midnight jazz. Doctrines of silk encase the windows.
Hallucination acts as a mint to coin you. The sawdust has wings because the elevator insinuates desire. Bulbs demonstrate this with mania. Lucidity is the result of exzema and sticks. That the cocoon was baked in a pumpkin and hatched out of a face-lift means only that a doodle has fruit if the persuasion rouses flotsam and the creature in question is able to exist without the bias of preconceived ideas and feeds on the nectar of metaphor.
As for the farm, it was swallowed by a fish in the sky. All these words do is amble into morality. They do not bring the farm back. They can only allegorize the cathectic by filling in the cracks of each emotion with sand and lava. And this must occur when the number of heat particles hitting the sentence equal the number of heat particles leaving the sentence and are conducted into the brain by gleeful cells in teaberry reverie.
This is oblivion whispered in tin. My name is Percy Bysshe Shelley and I approve this message. The trapeze keeps swinging until it is pulled back by a man infatuated with gravity. This further induces the friction of interaction. For instance, there is an ocean talking to a cake on the other side of the casino which means that arms are whales of ancestral staircase.
Now roll the dice. This sexual sternum this consciousness washed with ideas of concord. This source of conifers. Conferences and shining. L’Estaque causes clarinets but it is not just trumpeted it is painted.
Think about that. Fierce feelings are there to join the paragraph in its infancy. This is how life becomes a secretion. Ink springs from the pen in a slide and generates Apollinaire. A flavor burning in the powder quickens the wrestlers into action.
Being balloons in dimes on the ceiling as a ball rolls into romance ravenous for virtue. This is its shadow widening into bleachers. Sometimes it is longer to stray from meaning than it is to embed some lines with gold. One way or another you hate to keep the tourists coming or the whole enterprise turns Mediterranean and oak. Plato plays badminton with Swinburne and convokes apparitions of flickering aggression that remind us all of the shuttlecock that is consequence and the fine solid particles of matter floating in interstellar space.
Chaos is expansive. Voices amplified by marble. Listening to one’s own emotions is everybody. Apples that voyage more iron than a spoon collect the pulse of the sun in boiling leaves. Cries of hirsute shorebird build into January or snicker into candy.
Peacocks explain the need for books behind the study. The pumpernickel falls into the sand and a sail spills wind into greyhounds. The lines around my eyes are protected by a copyright law, sings Mick Jagger. Should the map show fidelity to the ground yes certainly but it should also display grandeur. Time is nailed to space and there is a sea that describes this. Many devices start by hope or turmoil. There is meaning in this and gurgling and parables. There is more lip than throat when a muscle sparkles. We are accentuated by constraint and atmosphere. It makes everything pink.
The scream dribbles out of a muscle and strays into ecstasy. There is such dripping soulfulness in the sound that we stand at the frontier of music. Sam and Dave sweating heavily in black pants and white shirts. The journey of life begins with soap and ends with kisses. The algebra of garments hanging from a peg creates a long blood and a bouncing knife.
The bugs are anomalies of the tide. The search for meaning begins with a convocation and strains to seclude Euclid’s eyeball in a summer resort. The neck is shrewdly designed to include a passage for coffee. Nouns smell of tea and barrel staves. This is why poetry is slender and blue and hammers its way through books in jaguars and brooks.
John Olson is the author of numerous books of poetry and (chiefly) prose poetry,
including Dada Budapest, Larynx Galaxy, and Backscatter: New And Selected Poems. He is also the author of four novels, including In Advance of the Broken Justy, The Seeing Machine, The Nothing That Is, and Souls Of Wind.