It’s a mystery to me where all this pollen comes from, but our Subaru - paprika red - was coated in a thick beige layer of the stuff. We decided to swing by the Brown Bear Car Wash at the bottom of Queen Anne Hill over on the west side, facing the Olympics and Puget Sound and the maze of railroad tracks at Interbay, on our way to the library to pick up some movies (The Silence of Mark Rothko and Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park). I also had a copy of Michael McClure’s Mephistos waiting for pick up. So after the sudsy slish slosh of those octopal fronds dancing over our windshield as Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” poured out of our speakers, we stopped at the library, got our movies and book and came home.
Mephistos: curious title. The word makes me think of firecrackers. And Goethe and Faust and Promethean rebellions of philosophy and science. Amorous flute-playing Pans with double sex and gently moving thighs.
Also, laundry. Did I mention folding clothes? I folded clothes. Then I laid back and opened Mephistos.
And within minutes I was in that wonderfully exquisite state of awareness induced by McClure's work, that keen sense of proprioception put forward so vigorously and insistently by Charles Olson, the body itself, its tendons, muscles, joints, its elbows and wrists, its pulse and eyebrows and bones and containment in skin, this walking talking constellation of mitochondria “in which the organs are slung,” “the body of us as object which spontaneously or of its own order produces experience,” “SENSIBILITY WITHIN THE ORGANISM / BY MOVEMENT OF ITS OWN TISSUES.”
You get the idea. And believe me, at my age, the body matters. Did it ever stop mattering? Sure, back in the day when I routinely binged on alcohol and launched myself into Dionysian odysseys that ended at Denny’s at five in the morning. I had youth, the sweet luxury of youth. As one comic recently expressed it, when I was in my twenties I could stab myself with a knife twenty-seven times and then stand in the mirror and watch it all heal. Yes, I can dig it. I can see that happening. They body is so forgiving in your twenties. So supple, so resilient. It would be a stretch to say that it didn’t matter, of course it mattered, I wasn’t that cavalier. Let’s just say I was on the road of excess and had a long way to go before I reached the palace of wisdom.
I recovered easily from the ecstasies and abuses of my Bacchanalian romps all the way into my mid-30s, but increasingly, with age, that ceased to be the case. Nursing monster hangovers while trying to focus on stupid musicals like Hello Dolly eventually shifted my mind toward a greater appreciation of all things corporeal. My body in particular, this garment of skin and bone I walk around in. It’s not a toy. It’s not a machine. It’s a galaxy of cells, a fragile community of eukaryotes and organelles. You (whoever ‘you’ turns out to be) are in the wheelhouse, watching out for shoals and rubber tires. Don’t sink, don’t break, don’t get dead. That’s your job.
These days, old and sober and a whole lot wiser, whenever I stand for minutes on end staring at Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase waiting for a flow of urine, I become acutely aware of my body’s infirmities and strengths. Age gets your attention. It insists you pay attention. Things break easily. Other things toughen. It’s an amazing process.
When it comes to biology, there is no greater poet than Michael McClure. He IS biology. His poems get up and walk around and flop to the ground with their arms splayed out. He is the slippery cold of beach wrack in the hand, the tentacles of a squid spreading out like the rays of a chrysanthemum as he jets toward a school of krill in the Sea of Cortez. It's amazing how alive his poetry can make me feel. And he's a really old guy now. Eighty fucking five.
Do you like paradox? I do. Here’s a great paradox: as you get older you get younger. You do. How does that happen, you might wonder. It happens naturally, instinctively, viscerally. You grow out of experience. Experience gets refined, distilled, concentrated. And as experience deepens, it becomes powerfully generative. The end result is élan. Élan vital is Henri Bergson’s term for the spontaneous morphogenesis of an emergent system in an increasingly complex manner. Morphogenesis means, literally, “beginning of the shape.” As we age, our shape increasingly assumes the imago of our spirit. The fuller reality of our being comes through more urgently, more emphatically, inspired by griefs and losses and occasional joys, the ephemera of our pilgrimage on this plane. It wants out. It hungers for elsewhere. And that makes it dangerous. A little touch of Mephisto in the night.
It takes a lifetime to reach the genius and purity of childhood.
“Emily Dickinson writes that Mephistopheles would be the best friend if he had fidelity,” McClure comments in his forward. “If so, he would then be thoroughly divine.”
McClure also reveals in his forward that the thirty-seven strophes of Mephistos “resemble a medicine bundle. American Indians gathered spirit objects to make medicine bundles that they carried along, whether in the heart or in a pouch. One bundle I have seen is wrapped in a green-dyed otter skin.”
A medicine bundle can contain anything of significance for the person who puts it together, seeds, feathers, rocks, horse hair, pine cones, animal teeth, bones or particles of bone. The traditional material of the bag itself is “brain tanned buckskin.” Brain-tanned refers to the use of animal brain and water to create an emulsified solution. Brain matter contains lecithin, which is a natural tanning agent.
I like the spin Spinoza put on matters relating to the divine, particularly the notion that there is one existing substance, God, but infinitely many modes. That’s helpful. Because when a tornado blasts across the countryside tearing up people’s homes and hurling cars at telephone poles, you’ve got to wonder what the divine spirit had up his sleeve that particular day.
War is man-made, that evil is easy to explain. There are a lot of assholes out there. You’re not going to find much divinity on Wall Street or in the boardrooms of the oil companies. The divine might be all-pervasive, but why isn’t it pervading those guys? Maybe it is, but they’re not feeling it. Not honoring it. The behavior of these people is anathema to me, an enigma, but who am I to make these kinds of judgements?
Shit I don’t know. I’m getting lost here.
It’s a thorny subject. How do you make a case for the divine in a world facing mass extinction? In which people crossing a bridge or standing in line at an airport are suddenly run over by a truck or stabbed or blown to bits? In which thousands of men and women die in the Mediterranean each year migrating to Europe because of the violence and despair in their home countries? In which the elderly and maimed and handicapped cannot afford healthcare in the richest country in the world? How has life on this planet become so tormented and oppressed? What is evil? Does evil exist in nature, or is it strictly a product of humankind? Does it coexist with the divine? Is there truly a Divine Being or Energy holding this universe together that is so much vaster and sublime than anything I can imagine that what appears to be evil is fundamentally insignificant because it is we who are self-aware that give meaning to these things? I don’t know, I truly don’t. But I know it’s there. The sublime, the divine, the sacred. I can feel it. When I read poets like Michael McClure my eyes and ears open. Ironic, that in this instance he invokes a trickster-deity like Mephistopheles.
Mephistopheles, McClure attests elsewhere in his instructive forward, “is an angel who helps God in constructing the universe and in the creation of orcas and giant sea mammals.”
In the Judeo-Christian religions God is a supreme authority. Society invokes God to enforce civility and good behavior. Ergo, the dark side provides an avenue of rebellion. The dark side prevents the social order from becoming overly oppressive. It recognizes impulses that do not seem consistent with the edicts of the Supreme Being. The dark side recognizes the impulses of raw, undomesticated Being, however wild or savage this energy happens to express itself. William Blake argued that it was religion and the enforcement of laws contrary to the natural impulses of Being that are the ultimate evil.
“Without contraries is no progression,” declaims Blake in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In a passage titled “The Voice of the Devil,” he has this to say:
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.
1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
2. That Energy, calld Evil, is alone from the Body. & that reason, calld Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies. But the following Contraries to these are True
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
As for the Divine, there are as many conceptions of it as there are people. Some people find it in religion, others in a shot of bourbon. Some people find it in psilocybin or peyote, others in a hard oak pew in a Lutheran or Presbyterian church. Some people kneel and face east at a certain time of day and say prayers to it. Others attempt to reach the Divine by spinning in circles. Some chant, some sing. Some climb to the peaks of mountains. Some sit and dissolve into nothingness.
Here’s what I think it is: a force. A numen. A divine presence. The combined dynamism (according to Cicero) of a divine mind (divina mens) and a divine power (vim divinam) “which pervades the lives of men.” McClure’s word for it is “meatspirit.” It is “the odor of the fat pink rose / pressed to the face / before / the burial / of ashes.” It is remarkably evident in the life of a calico cat staring “…upward into morning / Every moment and whisker / is startled / into / totality of her being / EVERYWHERE.”
McClure's observations and most importantly his feelings about the universe are uncannily explicit, palpable in their expression. A reading of one or two poems brings you deeper into a sense of being, an exquisite immediacy to everything in you and above you and around you that is so sudden in its effect it's almost startling. I mean, I don't know, maybe it's just me, but something is going on in this work that borders the supernatural. And by supernatural I don't mean witches and ghosts and flying monkeys, I mean that Promethean sense of boundless perception Shelley hinted at in his great poem "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty." An unseen power given tangible specifics in wet black rocks and Kenyan cow shit, the ding an sich of blackberries.
AND THAT’S THE TOP LAYER
of the interweaving of matters
BURIED IN CONSCIOUSNESS
way down in the star banks
that hang like mud at the edge of a puddle
for the lengthening red and brown
earthworm under the forest of gold-sided ferns
Like that. That is it.