Sunday, February 23, 2014


The poem ignites. Its pistons growl into words. It crashes into reality. We ride its clattering hulk all the way to Liberty Road. We seek sanction. We seek employment in factories of apparitional loom. We find heroic diversion in worlds of blue and green. The colors of nature. The colors of propagation. The colors of rumination. The colors of myth and idea. The colors of gas and thought and coincidence and water. The silk of wisdom and the crimson of expectation. The colors of calm when you are expecting rain and the colors of anticipation when the reflections grow black and diagnostic. When cocoons are scrupulously quicker than mosquitoes. And imitations of life chatter like a circus of doors.
The wrestlers merge into life. The dream they enact is enriched by parable.
I run and flip my collar studs. I see a junkyard pulse with African violets.
Is there anything missing? I see a phonograph that sees me. Disraeli Gears spins round and round. The black of its vinyl and the needle in its grooves bring Cream into life.
Life is not a collar stud. Life is more like popcorn. There are times when all you want to do is ramble. You don’t want to say anything important or rich or denotative. Nothing indicative. But something spitting and greasy and exquisitely accelerated, like hunger, or correlation.
I want to be luminous and malleable. I want to be a blade of light. I want to enlarge on the peculiarities of increase and the actions of the mouth. The mouth, the human mouth, is charming and oval. When it opens, worlds issue forth. This world. My world. The round fat blue and white world that spins in space and tilts and limps and hangs and rocks. The world of throats and boats and riddles and rides. The world which is wrinkled with mountains. Which is daily and daffodil and dalmation. Which is nerves. Which is metal. Which is tropical. Which is everyone’s world.  Grebe and moose and brier and invisible powers that withdraw into the shadows.
Trees drip with the lingering moisture of a large gray dawn, a sweetness in the air of impending thunder, eddies and pumpkin. The rain is the arbiter of secrets. Push-ups across the sidewalk that our eyes find natural and our trumpets blast into history, while breakfast continues, and romance and wheels. Our thoughts are perturbed by the highway, and letters to the editor of the local newspaper are vigorously composed by pen and calliope. Despair, if necessary.
It is a naked pain that glitters in the hand like science. There is a mutation whose aesthetic is a position that we steady with belief, proverbs that incubate in an interior affluence of jewels and ambiguity. It is this constant flux that permits the validity of hunger to hurry into agriculture. There are sounds available to insert this into language. The clatter of cutlery, the allegories of napkins. The spread of butter, the dilation of thirst. The poetry of thread, the call of the wild. Even the menus seem tonic. As if the table beneath them pushed upward, like an act of gusto.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Dangerous Glamour

There is a response to language that recognizes the dried blood of the vowel. There are consonants with affinities to plastic. Belt buckles, the monumental effulgence of indulgence, galaxies, Cepheids and giant stars in Andromeda, figured chorales and phantasies, bundles of myelinated dendrites and axons and neurons, poetry and heterotrophic bacteria. The Holy Bible. The Koran. The Upanishads. Steel and moccasin and the lethal innocence of a glamorous abyss.
My reflections are ensembles. There is an emphasis on the hand. On hands. Hands on hands. The imprint of a finger which is intimate and inexorable and part of the mess that is mud.
The real meaning of money is sexual and is absorbed by something inside itself that enlarges by a mysterious accuracy of accounting into speculations and derivatives and whispers of virtue that decay in an instant.
I prefer sticks, trowels, knives. I prefer the enigmatic calamity of a poem to the conceptions of real estate which are exclusive and private and exult in Arizona light. The poem is a blast of dynamite. It baffles the blood and rips the world apart. It usurps the tyranny of day. It needs to think. It needs to float like an abstraction beside the mind of an ant.
Here is the mind of an ant tied to a fencepost with rags. There is a cow nearby chewing grass. This is called rumination.
There are curious people and incurious people. The curious people are never satisfied. The incurious people go to sleep with their eyes wide open.
The sun shines over England. It operates by pulley and cord. At one end is a plant exceeding its divisions and at the other end is a bedspring arguing with the lucidity of a stained glass window. Along comes Sir Philip Sydney who says that there is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object.
By works of nature I believe he means frogs and oysters.
Or roses and breasts.
Or the square dance, which is rarely square, but in continuous movement, and fitted to spritely phrases of music.
I propel myself by proposition. There is a pattern, but it is totally hyperbolic, and chintz. In the end is the beginning. Consonants click like insects and walk around in them looking for ornamentaion, configurations pushing and squirming to be born, to crawl out of a paragraph and spring into meaning, to become a belief dwelling in the incandescent tensions of a begonia.
I sense the unseen presence of a nail in a declension of wood. A maelstrom of silver sweetening the bitterness of death. A reminiscence of blue assuming the shape of a teakettle in a Technicolor western starring Sir Philip Sydney and Louisa May Alcott.
A band of Action Painters led by the notorious Jackson Pollock and called the Pollock Gang ride into town and rob the paint store. They are tracked down by Sir Philip Sydney who arrests them and puts them in poetry jail where they stare out of their bars with fierce colors and angry looks. They break out of poetry jail and terrorize Wyoming with wild abstractions and exclamations of orange. Sir Philip Sydney devotes the rest of his life to a stream of consciousness where he fishes for metaphors and fries them up in a cast iron allegory over a blazing fire of delinquent hickory.
I could go to more personal lengths to get my point across but I forgot what the point is. Did I have a point? The point is this: Eyes in the Heart. Shimmering Substance. Be an outlaw. Be a celebration of mass. Life is not about maneuvering gases life is about joy and space and souvenirs of anguish. Life is ecstatic and irritable. Life is a magnificent vulgarity of wire and shells and little blind eyes pushed here and there. Life opens out into a colossal anthology whose works have Gothic aspirations and a grammar that writhes around like a boa constrictor. Each word goes beyond its meaning to culminate in glitter at the end of a sentence where an opinion assumes the physical reality of a sparkler in the hand of a twelve year old girl named Cassiopeia.
And then it becomes doctrinaire like the façade of a cathedral.
A wind-sculpted sand that turns existence into scripture.
This is true of touch and true of the residue of thought which is shiny and red and painted to look like dots. Art’s fondest dream is to push its interior meaning into lumps of morality, which writing does when it starts to tremble, and becomes a dangerous glamour, a flood of color and nebulous seething eddies of elliptical yearning.
Or olives and honey.
Or ecstasy and sails.
The nervous legibility of a windblown puddle by a sidewalk drain. Black fish and white drums. Welding, cutting, assembling. The silk of a lost aesthetic sewn to a morning pinched by rain.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Catching the Heat of an Inward Sun

I once had a job as a painter in a medical dental building in downtown San José, California, that had been built in the 1920s. This was a year or two before San José surrendered the last of her orchards and canneries and morphed into the electronic empire that is Silicon Valley.  The building was undergoing an intensive remodeling and I had arrived at a point in its evolution in which all the medical and dental apparatus had been removed and junked leaving behind suites of empty office space. My job was to paint the empty office space, a task I pursued with the measured strokes of a paint roller and studied daubs of a paintbrush when it came time to do the trimming. As jobs go, it wasn’t so bad. I got to listen to Judy Collins and Leonard Cohen on a tape player and work almost entirely alone. I was married at the time, but the marriage was in its last throes, a moribund state of chronic unease laced with slippery ambiguities, passionate arguments and spasmodic demonstrations of affection. It wasn’t fun. Not at all.
I wince whenever I think back to what a jerk I was. Had been. Hopefully will never be that arrogant, pretentious prick again.
It was a strange time. I was witness to a birth, but did not realize the magnitude of social change that I would later recognize as the dystopia we now occupy on this dying planet. I just painted. Office after office. All with their beautiful wood trim and ghosts and radiators.
The radiators were steam radiators, those marvelous old cast iron hot-water radiators that circulated the water through an accordion-like series of pipes. My job was to remove the radiator from the wall and take it down to the basement on the elevator where I spray-painted it silver and brought it back and reinstalled it. In one office I began a conversation with a man a few years my senior who would later become a very close friend. We shared strong interests in literature and art and particularly the art of conversation. We also both enjoyed wine. I began spending weekends at his cottage in the Santa Cruz Mountains surrounded by towering redwoods where he and his wife and three children all welcomed me. It was an especially nice place to be when my marriage did finally give up the ghost and I became a single man again. I was in my mid-twenties, it was 1974, and I had recently graduated from San José State with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature. A degree which people would advise I prudently leave off job applications. The degree was less than useless. In a highly competitive job market driven by semiconductors and algorithms an English degree was about as marketable as a pair of mismatched socks. You did not want a prospective employer to know you were the dreamy romantic type with a penchant for gazing out of office windows wishing you were elsewhere.
My job as a painter evolved into becoming a factotum of sorts, assistant to the building superintendent, a wiry, extremely high-strung man named Angelo. I installed lights, removed carpeting, patched holes, sanded a bar, and helped Angelo with more complicated plumbing problems, air filtration systems and the various general contractors hired to do carpeting and electrical work. The property management company I worked for bought another property, a large dormitory that was going to be used as an alcoholic recovery facility. I liked the man I worked for, an elderly gentlemen with white hair, tall, elegant, who drove a Cadillac. He himself was a recovering alcoholic. I showed up one morning to continue assembling beds and cleaning the kitchen and found nobody there. I waited a few minutes, then figured no one was coming, and went back home. I returned the next morning and the elderly gentleman was sitting at a table by the front door. As I entered he looked at me angrily and told me I was fired. I was shocked. What I had done? He was furious because I’d been the only one with a key, apparently, and left before the other work team arrived. They couldn’t do anything because they’d been locked out. So that was that. He was in no mood to argue.
I found another job as a teaching assistant to two women who taught a class to young adults, mostly Mexican Americans, who had been forced to drop out of high school for one reason or another. They were trying to get GED diplomas. It was my job to work on an individual basis with the students. I met with a great deal of hostility at first, these kids had a profound antagonism toward any form of authority, especially someone with blonde hair and a Scandinavian name, but after a while I managed to win their receptivity. I inspired them to write a short story or poem about a planet. They could invent a planet and do anything they wanted.
And thus I entered my Dylan Thomas phase. I liked taking my lunch breaks at a nearby branch of the San José public library. It was there that I discovered a volume of letters by Dylan Thomas. I loved his poetry, but his letters knocked me out. They were overflowing with wit and humor and a lively palpitation of words. I related to this guy. He loved to drink, carouse, and write and recite poetry. That was where I was at, totally. I was drinking a lot then, wine, whiskey, beer, you name it, cocaine occasionally if it was offered, and was absurdly poor. I didn’t cadge money, I did manage to maintain some semblance of self-support and was never seriously destitute, but my predictions about becoming an impecunious wordsmith had become resoundingly true. My ex-wife had gone the opposite direction, married an attorney, hosted a cable TV show, and began having kids while I tossed back shots of whiskey and wrecked a friend’s motorcycle. Leaving me wasn’t even a choice. It had been an inevitability.
Many of Dylan Thomas’s letters include a plea for money. These requests, put forward with waggish humility, helped boost my self-esteem. Life wasn’t about money. Life was about life. Living life to the fullest with or without money was life’s most perfect consummation. This may be more easily achieved with money than without money, but modesty of means has its perks, too. As long as the basic needs are met, food, shelter, clothing, etc., the rest is scratching words on the air as the fire catches and the blind fury of life jumps like tigers out of your eyes. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Higher Ground

It’s 11 :00 a.m., a Thursday. Toby has just jumped from the table to the floor for some food. He eats constantly. He has a love of eating that has become a little disquieting. He has become obese. He’s becoming a sphere, a basketball with legs and a tail. It’s a worry, and a frustration.
We’ve tried curtailing his food intake. We’ve tried limiting him to one 5.5 ounce can of turkey or or salmon or chicken formula per day. We devised a method by which to monitor his food intake. Each time we opened a can, we marked the date and time on a sheet of paper which we attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. It soon became evident that we were fighting a losing battle. As the days advanced, the time when we opened a new can became earlier and earlier. If we opened a can at noon one day, we would find ourselves opening a can at 10 :00 a.m. the next day, and 8 :00 a.m. the day after that. And so on, until we were opening a cans at three or four in the morning. We continually lost ground.
Our system was compromised not so much by a lack of will as by constant, relentless pestering. Toby employs a variety of strategies to bend us to his will. He will sit by his bowl and look utterly downcast and tragic until we break down and plop some food in it. If this ploy fails, he will become more aggressive, and exercise more tactile methods. He will tap us the arm while we are reading on the couch or sitting at the computer, which is a freakish sensation when you anticipate a human and see a cat gazing into your eyes.
Toby, like all cats, has fully mastered the art of staring. He will stare hot rivets of yearning into your soul. He will stare hunger and desolation into the deepest reaches of your being. Please feed me, his eyes eloquently plead. I need food. I need chicken. I need turkey. I need salmon. I need your cooperation. And I need it now. If I do not receive the aforementioned food and adoring cooperation I will continue to exhaust and beleaguer your patience until your measly human will is nothing but a murmur, a vain whispery thing blowing in the wind of my feline whim.
When I was a young child, among my favorite books was a series by Hugh Lofting about an English naturalist of the Victorian era named Doctor Doolittle who had the ability to converse with animals. I found this utterly charming at the time, but now I find I am desperate to find the key to unlock their minds. Toby’s mind in particular. Wittgenstein cautions that “if a lion could talk, we would not be able to understand him.” I’m not entirely sure what is meant by this, but it does not bode well when it comes to conversing with animals, much less an enigmatic feline.
But if I could direct words toward Toby, words that he could understand, and he had means available to indicate that he understood what I said, a nod of the head, a dilation of the eyes, a wagging of his tail, anything to compensate, however crudely, for the lack of vocal organs, then I would say “Toby my dear friend and companion, this constant eating cannot go on. You must modify your eating. You eat too much. If this continues, you will soon be a furry balloon with a tiny little tail and little pegs for legs. You will not be able to jump to the chair much less the table or kitchen counter. You will not be able to jump on my lap. You will have to suffer the indignity of being picked up each time you want to reach a destination higher than the floor. Is this what you want ? A life as a feline blimp ?"
I wonder how Toby would respond to this reasoning. Would he reply philosophically, and tell me that life is short, enjoy everything while you can as much as you can, even if it means abbreviating your existence by a few months or years. In the scheme of things, does it matter whether your life lingers a few years longer if you’re not truly enjoying it ?
Or would he agree ? Would he nod, and murmur a statement of accordance, and say yes, I eat too much, I am a slave to chicken liver and turkey. Please help me. I want to modify my eating habits which are clearly out of control...?
Of course, this will never happen. Wittgenstein and Doctor Doolittle aside, Toby does not have the organs necessary to produce meaningful consonants and vowels, nor any ability that I am aware of to send his thoughts outward into the world by some form of telepathy.
I do see some minor indications that argue against a state of total linguistic inability. If Toby is able to recognise his name, why can’t he recognise other words ? “Treat,” for instance. He goes nuts for his treats, little white chalk-like nuggets of dehydrated chicken. If I say “treat” there is no recognition. His language ability is limited to the one word. His name, Toby.
It does amaze me that he recognizes his name. At what point was he able to figure out that the sounds that make the vocalization of his name, was, in fact, his name ? That those syllables referred to him ? Does he have a sense of identity in the same way that I have a sense of identity ? Does he have a sense that his being has a history and a set of behaviors and a constellation of habits and mannerisms that all culminate in a phenomenality named Toby ? 
I have no idea what goes on in the mind of a cat, and concede this point to Wittgentsein. It is eminently possible that if Toby was suddenly and mysteriously gifted with the power of speech that I would not understand anything he said. I would not understand his point of view. I would not understand his references and metaphors. I would not understand his orientation in this world, his appreciation of our care and feeding, his queries and clarifications for his captivity in our apartment, his sensations and syntax, his appetites and philosophy.
I can see his thinking at times. His thinking is visible when he jumps suddenly to the table and succesfully navigates the clutter of pens and paper and Christmas cactus and earphones and calculator without disturbing a single object. I find that remarkable. He must be able to configure a relation of objects and space instantaneously, far more rapidly than I can. He has a higher intelligence than me in this regard.
He also has my wife and I figured out. He knows how to get us to do things for him. He reads our minds. He sees into our character. He knows our weaknesses. He knows how to work us like puppets. But when I go to the hallway storage closet to get a small stepladder or some other tool he panics and runs to hide under the bed. He cannot tolerate anything new. Unless it is a new toy. He is somehow able to diffferentiate a toy from a tool, a mouse stuffed with catnip from a masonry trowel, a ping pong ball from a swing bevel. He’s not stupid. He knows a hawk from a handsaw. And yet he is terrified of the vacuum cleaner.
My biggest frustration, however, is when we go on a trip. It must be terrible for him when we’re gone for a number of days. He has no idea why we’ve gone, or if we’ll ever be back. Does he think we’ve been eaten by another animal ? Does he think we’re lost and eventually we’ll be able to find our way home ?
He is clearly upset when we return from a trip. The longest we have been away is six days. He was extremely needy when we returned. He clearly suffered a lot of insecurity. I feel bad for this, and this sympathy adds pliancy to his demands.
It would be nice to tell him that we’re going to X for X number of days. This would bring me relief. Especially if we convinced him that the cat sitter, the woman who enters our apartment while we’re away and kindly deposits food in his dish and replenishes his water and tries to have an affectionate exchange is not an intruder who is there to eat or harm him. He does not need to growl at this person.
Does he not see the logic ? Why would someone put food in his dish if they were there to harm him ? He eats the food, and the food is good. The food does not harm him. There is no poison or anything noxious in it. Clearly, the person giving him this food is benign and caring and not there to do him injury. But he does not operate according to the perspectives provided by logic. He is driven by something else. Something like instinct, but larger than instinct. I don’t have a name for it. I don’t know what it is. It is something animals have. It is a deeper knowledge than human knowledge. Such as when the animals of Indonesia somehow sensed or knew that a tsunami was on its way, maybe not a phenomenon as specific as a tsunami, but something huge and horribly wrong and terrible was evident to their keener senses in the serene blue air, and they instinctively knew to find protection on higher ground.
What is it they sense ? Is it a smell ? Is it a vibration ? Is it a form of magnetism, a disturbance in the planet’s magnetic field which somehow alerts their nevous system, unsettles their inner equilibrium ? 
Whatever it is, it is not logic. Logic appears to be a human invention, a capacity that the primate family enjoy. Our cousins the gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees have all amply demonstrated the ability to reason, to see relations between things, to use analogies. What a remarkable ability. Where did we get it ? How did we arrive here ? Is reason the product of tree climbing, of using hands, of being social, of using tools?
One thing is clear : humans and primates all have a capacity for the endowments of reason, but not all humans exercise this ability. I have met a lot of people who either choose deliberately not to exercise their sense of reason, or some other more compelling force, superstition or religious belief, has dislodged it from their synapses.
Life is a paradox. Its complexities and contradictions often disrupt the clear patterns that reason and logic provide and lead us into wildernesses where intuition and instinct and a set of exquisitely vigilant senses are more effective guides for our behavior, our response to a world of other beings and snakes and strange variety shows.
This is what cats teach. Be alert. Enjoy eating. And sleep as much as you possibly can. For life is short, and real, and unpredictable. If all else fails, if destiny disappoints your charms and wiles, sit down and groom yourself. There is no philosophy like fur, and no surrogate for the protocol of claws.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014


The neck of a woman is a treasure for the eyes. I lean my elbows on the table and imagine a life as a fullback for the inexpugnable musical comedy that is foliage. Leaves and twigs. The necks of women which are foliums of delicacy, columns of space and bone in testimonies of smooth delightful skin.  I approach everything from at least five separate directions and enjoy flavors that heave with description while at the same time solving arithmetic problems in svelte alterations of evening light.
The theorem is a syringe of words. It asks: can you eat clouds? The answer is no. I prefer oranges which are the fruit of clouds. The architecture of indulgence flows like a feather while we cultivate our mushrooms in the basement and our wings make shadows on the ground. Death wears a mask of magisterial beauty and drives to California in a silver Bentley where I too go in search of a past whose candles are a continuing consecration to the sheen of an imaginary piano.
Today, I walk into medicine rattling like a grocery cart. What does it mean to wince? To withdraw? To go into seclusion? Space surrounds us like an egg of light. What can you find on the radio these days? Nothing but hockey and static. Fat bright stars ejecting tongues of light into cold black space. My inner tumult is also my initiation. I have crotchets and I am proud of them. Some of them are found swimming off the coast of Spain still glittering in their original scales and coughing up bits of Precambrian dingdong.
Do you have confidence in words? Do you have confidence in these words? I like my habits. Each habit is a conduit to coleslaw, fat and silent like a thumb. They are what drive me. Propel me. Derive meaning from unlikely sources. Wax, for instance. Wax is the invention of elves.
Which is why I enjoy reading Proust in bed. I grow prepositional. Prepositions are the protein synthesized to hold the sentence together like molecular chaperones until everything gels in a cohesion of intracellular transformation and gets up and walks on all fours, breathing fire and defiance, flapping bat-like leathery wings and rising into the midnight sky where it lays the eggs of oblivion that are the golden stars of the east. Oblivion draws everything toward the stars. Transcendence. The precarious drapery of water vapor, and light, and the sentences of Marcel Proust, visible as luminous patches of moony squiggle organized to resemble sugar.
Thumbs are the monks of the hand. They testify to a manner of grasping the objects of this world in a colluvium of kewpie claudication.
Meanwhile, I fertilize prepositions with the sperm of comprehension. There are places ideal for communion. I seek these out in a spirit of dreamy gumbo-limbo, compound leaves and small white flowers. Flexibility is everything. The world changes in unpredictable ways. The outlet is haunted by the plug and the plug is haunted by a current of electricity. The medium defines its context. Questions increase with age. The punctuation of love flutters in a grammar of color. I have an ambition, but I don’t know what it is. Our license plate is no help. Our license plate is a theater of ice. It smells of mint and limbo. The sky walks on the mountains. A constellation in the northern hemisphere flouts our gloom with heraldic pleats and colorful aquarium fish.
Prepositions are biological. We know this. But the world is in crisis anyway. The spirit begs for liberation. A trip to Mars at the very least.
What is the purpose of creating a concept? A poem? A steamboat? A player piano?
I have roots in North Dakota. I hold a clod of earth in my hand. It smells of nebulas and nettle and the muzzles of deer. The open vistas of the prairie bruise our eyes with the glee and gumption of the wind. The emptiness is charged with clouds of unknowing. May our endeavors always be intriguing and vertical. May the breath of angels support our wings. Poets especially.
Poetry has force because it is so purely non-commercial. It is a marvelous blend of words and hallucination. My hands are potatoes. My legs are carrots. I dangle a verisimilitude over a hypothetical pancake. My wild denim pants stand when I stand. My shirt cooperates with my arms, which are the limbs of promulgation. The language of color opens my fists. I feel a music, a bacchanalia of dissonance and infrared, like warmed-over bepop. I see dimes soaked in silver spitting images of government. I hear the goldfish groan. The geography of a large emotion brings thunder into the parody of a barn. Science pushes cows and woodpeckers through words into reality. A poem forms. A theory of seminal propulsion percolates through its structure. It becomes radical with diversion. It is struck by lightning. Its eyes open. It’s alive! Alive I tell you!
I am Frankenstein stitched with wind and night. Let me tell you about my habits. My creation. My walk along the shores of ancient rivers. Of subterranean worlds.
This is the pain that ate Pittsburgh. And this is the tug that swallowed a sea. This is a sequence of words and this is a predicate based on cellular structure. This is a call to arms. This is the smell of swans treading water and this is the spin of electrons. This is a nebula of gas and gauze and this is the dimension in which opposites mingle on a long green wire creating the arithmetic of elevation.
This is the number nine. It’s a button on a panel. I press it. The elevator rises, an iron lion roaring into eternity, and the doors slide open on the ninth floor of a five story building. The clouds are fat and orange and all the appointments are open. What is true of water is true of chocolate and what is true of desire is true of art. The brook must churn in its sleep and there is meaning in cartilage and meaning in bone. Meaning in granite and meaning in meat.


Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Death of Awesome

According to the OED, the word ‘awe’ originally meant fear, as in these two short lines from a Middle English romance penned by an anonymous author between 1250 and 1300 titled Arthour and Merlin: “Sum for gret ayghe and dout / To other Kinges flowen about.” The lines suggest a circumstance in which a terrified peasantry sought protection from kings. The emotion represented is strictly that of terror. There is no subtlety, no shades of meaning. Flaming arrows and Saxon swords made cultivating the intellect less of a priority than running for your life. 
As the English language evolved during the middle ages and grew more elastic and malleable in its play and compass, the word ‘awe’ began to appear in reference to the Divine Being and indicated a mood of “dread mingled with veneration, reverential or respectful fear; the attitude of mind subdued to profound reverence in the presence of supreme authority, moral greatness or sublimity, or mysterious sacredness.” In later years it acquired a further nuanced meaning, a “feeling of solemn and reverential wonder, tinged with latent fear, inspired by what is terribly sublime and majestic in nature, e.g. thunder, a storm at sea,” as in this passage from Modern Painters by John Ruskin: “It is possible to conceive of terribleness, without being in a position obnoxious to the danger of it, and so without fear, and the feeling arising from this contemplation of dreadfulness, ourselves being in safety, as of a stormy sea from the shore, is properly called awe.”
And in this passage from his magical Celtic Twilight, William Butler Yeats brings the word ‘awe’ into a context of great charm and glamour:
A little north of the town of Sligo, on the southern side of Ben Bulben, some hundreds of feet above the plain, is a small white square in the limestone. No mortal has ever touched it with his hand, no sheep or goat has ever browsed grass beside it. There is no more inaccessible place upon the earth, and few more encircled by awe to the deep considering. It is the door to faery-land.
As far as its use is a noun or verb is concerned, ‘awe’ has not lost its original meaning. If I say, “the waterfall filled me with awe,” or as a verb, “I am awed by the beauty of the dawn,” my meaning is clear. Anyone fairly competent in their use of the English language will know the emotion I am conveying. It is an adjective that ‘awe’ becomes the woefully banal modifier ‘awesome,’ meaning ‘cool,’ ‘excellent,’ or (at its best) ‘outstanding.’
There is something to this. I find it telling that the downgrade of a word that once held such potent meaning is now used in reference to the very ordinary. Something good, something fine, something pleasurable, but certainly nothing sublime, transcendent, or otherworldly. It is a world apart from Ruskin’s “contemplation of dreadfulness” from a safe distance, or Yeats’s “door to faery-land.” The meaning has been sucked out of it. It’s a hollow shell of syllables, a mere matter-of-fact way of saying you really like something. “Awesome, dude.”
I see individual words as barometers of our social climate, galvanometers of our inner currents, our capacity for the sacred. There are words that continue to have a charge, such as ‘God’ or ‘death’ or ‘eternity,’ but ‘awesome’ has degenerated into something less than a gift shop souvenir of a time in human history when people still carried a sense of reverential awe and were not embarrassed by its expression.
English is a living language and a vibrant one at that. It’s to be expected that its words and grammar will continue to mutate and evolve. Some words diminish in resonance and meaning, others grow.
The word ‘weird’ once made reference to fate and supernatural powers. The word ‘gay’ once meant happy and joyful and had nothing whatever to do with anyone’s sexual orientation. I don’t know how everyone arrived at ‘gay’ as shorthand for homosexual, but it sounds right. I can’t say why, but it does. ‘Gay’ weirdly sounds right.
It’s surprising what changes a word or phrase might undergo in the general flow of a living language. Words reflect values, but they can also indicate the health or decay of a language. I could make a long list of words that would garner confused looks if not outright hostility if used in conversation at, say, a casual social gathering. Who uses words like ‘floriferous’ or ‘idiolect’ or ‘rinforzando’ that isn’t a botanist, linguist, or musical composer?
Anti-intellectual trends in American culture have a chilling effect on one’s use of the English language. Use enough big words at your local bar or tavern and you’ll be lucky to make it home without getting punched in the face. I would not, for instance, expound on the ontogenesis of reference at somebody’s wedding, or the local barber shop. Sometimes you just want to sit quietly at your table and resort to the same banalities until it’s time to go home. People want to hear about cars and real estate and a little juicy gossip; they do not want to hear about the variables and referential opacity in the vivification of propositional attitudes.
Unfortunately, our case is much more serious now than it was thirty or forty years ago. Public education in America is in disarray, the children tested into submission to corporate mindsets. They are not taught critical thinking. Though I do wonder if Shakespeare’s plays are taught as they were when I was in high school. Reading Shakespeare was revelatory for me at age fifteen, as was Edgar Allan Poe and Whitman and Aldous Huxley’s essays on psychedelic mushrooms. I cannot comment with any real authority on what is and what is not being taught in American high schools and colleges. But I can relate what I see on a daily basis, and what I read and hear about in the media. And what I hear and read about in the media tells me that language is going the way of music and art. If books and composition haven’t already been dropped from the curriculum, they’re as rare and vulnerable to attenuated interpretation as the King James Bible to the impoverishing literality of fundamentalist doctrine.
I had heard quite recently that a production of Romeo and Juliet had been filmed that did not use Shakespeare’s language. That did not surprise me; I don’t doubt for an instant that the same crowd preoccupied with Twitter and other diversions on their digital toys are the same people who want a story of passion and violence without the distraction of language to get in the way. They want a video game, not a body of soaring metaphors. Metaphors they have lost the capacity to understand. Consequently, it isn’t surprising that one now hears the adjective ‘awesome’ on an almost continual basis. What language do these people use when they view the early morning sun crest a horizon of mountains or ocean waves? A breathtaking waterfall such as Angel Falls in Venezuela or the golden and bittersweet light veiling Venice in the evening? Awesome, dude.  

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lab Report

I work in a laboratory of language. Current experiments revolve around Ava Gardner, English hair styles of the 15th century, and Pythagorean eyeball adobe. Each time I get a glimpse of the sublime or hear a helicopter hovering over the Aurora Bridge my thoughts turn literal and harden into the semiotics of traffic. I must add tonic. There is nothing symbolic about mosquitos. I can feel the expansion of language press against my ears and move perceptions forward, counting on the paraffin of the mind to produce a flame of silent heat.  

My desk is a dark nineteenth century oak that is ideal for describing armchairs and romanticism and Shelley’s urge toward Swiss mountain climbing. I have a formula for slamming doors on the immediate bruise of eternity and access to the broom in the storage closet in case the neighbors get too noisy and I have to pound the ceiling with the handle.  

I only rarely employ turpentine. I find metaphors wherever I sense the presence of the oblique, something ineffable, something too fine for words but too fat for a normal sentence. Was it Auden who called this The Age of Anxiety? Are we still in that age? I still have anxiety. But also the weather of a doorknob placed carefully in a jar and a hydraulic lift I use for moving heavy ideas around the poem. This is an exciting planet. Many of its structures are geometric and require special handling. 
Sometimes I will strain behind a joke to socialize my fingers, or demonstrate the viability of protoplasm by bouncing a little red ball through a Rolling Stones song.  

I have a sack stirring with a thousand winds and a religion refrigerated in Russian ice. Whenever I’m feeling unfettered I skulk around the apartment describing the mind of a mountain with a few dishrags and a glass of milk. 

Charcoal presents a more subjective state, but I prefer it for its other more operational qualities, such as sketching rattlesnakes as they casually jump rope or the symbolic weight of a crab rendered in quiet abstraction. I will stare at a teabag as it slowly revolves dripping tea, until it has stopped dripping tea, and hangs, still moist, still a shade of light brown, reminding me of my first night in North Dakota in the middle of winter. But then it wasn’t tea it was whiskey and the actual month was June and the temperature was above 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Some of my experiments go a little awry. But what was it Francis Bacon said? “If we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties.” 

Perhaps this is why I always find morning a little more compelling than sunset. The sun is the very start of a scream, a silent scream, a nuclear furnace rising out of the void and casting shadows over the prairie, the dragonfly on the fire escape and the murmur of air in the wheat.  

The chemistry of writing is largely sexual. The hand glides over the paper in rain and thunder leaving a trail of grammar and elliptical debris. I cannot repair this imagery. But if you press hard enough on a proposition such as this, quarks will begin their little dance of mass and energy and Ava Gardner will sway to the chuff chuff chuff of a maraca’s beat. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The True Sound of the Clarinet

Today I’m serious as a clarinet. Is a clarinet serious? Yes. The clarinet is a serious instrument. It has eighteen or more side holes, necessitated by the need to provide semitones in the primary scale without recourse to fork-fingering, and also to link chromatically the top of the primary scale with the twelfth, where the basic fingering repeats. That’s serious.
Very serious stuff. The solution is green when I widen it into cotton. That is the true sound of the clarinet. Cotton. The behavior of a street is amplified by the alchemy of headlights. And then it becomes cotton. Our eyes widen to accommodate the sanguine simulacrum of sound investing its imagery with unprecedented walking. Walking intended to mimic the sound of the clarinet. Lonely walking. Slow walking. More of an amble, really. A stroll. A pump maneuvering a dream of water into valve and turbine. A country like England. Green hills and limestone. Sheep. Shakespeare. Admonitions in barns. The smell of cattle.
I have a tin goldfish with ten personalities, one of which is flickering a milieu of scales and luminous solitudes of water and coral. The naked grease of insistence captures the sound of a concerto and a needle makes a hole to salt the emotion. A bubble of ancestry unbinds a silent scream of hunger and allows it to moisten on paper.
I summon closure by rattling facts and jewelry. My neck sags with jellyfish. Innocence scurries beneath a saxophone. We medicate a chapter of open feeling which succeeds at jade. The wire sparkles in your drink.
If an animal radiates mass, then mass is an animal, and energy is a visible convulsion knocking the parlor furniture over. My paint feeds wrinkles until the port of entry earns its nipples. The garret is full of brushes. It is a form of sociability. A sign that the sound of the clarinet is welcome. A sign of fusion, the texturing of lips, the resistance of whispers slipping from a drawer.
When the bubble pulls I crackle. I fold my push-ups into a halibut. I tell a story of water whose points cohere into apples. The nails begin to rust. Thin feathers of a beautiful exile mingle there with existence and harden into a voice.
I waddle toward the initiation of a blister and elevate the hammer brain and bring it down to pound words into scales. I am building a dragon of music. It will sound like a clarinet. It will shove the ocean into boiling. It will seclude us from harm. It will punctuate the earth with fire. It will snack on green hillsides and move like a sidewalk steered by an angel of music. Move like an albatross over the solitudes of the southern oceans. Boil into clouds when there are totems on the shore, when there are waves smacking the sand into a wet scintillant sheen, and rocks are precisely what they mean.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Into the Mystic

Writing opens doors to perception. For example, the glockenspiel smells of gardenias, but the  catwalk is opening a can of Franklin stove. It emits fumes of fairyland and olive. And in the green and pleasant country of Scotland and England, vintage trains go chugging along winding rails. The phenomenon, said Sartre, is what manifests itself. Nothing is clearer than that now. Let us live on the moon and sail into the Mystic. Let us create anomalies of apple and moccasin. Let’s wear gloves and microphones and drive a garbage truck to Winnemucca. As a sign implies its meaning and dots create the drama that is Dagwood every Sunday, absence, too, discloses being. Since not to be there means still to be. I’m not kidding. The angel of languor has a pretty sternum. Kudzu and kelp litter the beach. A fire crackles among piles of driftwood. The object does not hide being, but neither does it reveal being. It is as it appears, and we waddle like ducks, making a spectacle of our muscles, which are myriad, and kind, like bones. Like science. There is a charming incongruity between fountains and pools and this is why, if my coordinates are correct, the interior of the rattlesnake is rash with blood, and the fog is first a chill and a tingle, then falls away into nothingness, which is everywhere, and prodigal as cabbage. Why not push the idea to the limit and bring a circus to town swarming with astronauts? I get a little carried away at times but it’s perfectly ok, I assume all responsibility for anything this paragraph does, or might do. All consciousness is consciousness of something, so give the beaver a hug, and let’s be on our way. The essence of up is down and the essence of down is up. So let’s go up and down until one of them becomes the kind of preposition we can live with. It’s all about circulation. Existence exists as consciousness of existing, which makes me dizzy, how about you? There is a totem on the beach, and a narrative running through it, which wants us to tickle it. We solve nothing by counterfeiting money in our dolman sleeves. What is this consciousness of consciousness? What is this color, and why is it eliciting trolleys on such a fine and lovely day? Did I leave my mouth open again? Did words come out? I’m sorry. They were meant for a book I was going to write. The book was going to launch evanescent screwdrivers into space and search for the meaning of salt, and then a herd of words stampeded a hole in the subconscious, and a universe escaped, slobbering stars and buffalo robes. You’d think, by now, I’d learn to control these things, but I get the oddest urges now and then, mainly to travel across Egypt in quest of meaning, as if meaning truly had meaning, and was meant to be plucked rather than bowed.