Friday, July 7, 2017

My Palmyra Moments

I am the interval between what I am and what I am not, between the rhythm of my blood and the baritone of my bones, between the weight of my body and the weightlessness of being. I’m aware that I exist and conscious that I do not exist. I see myself in the activity of birds and I see myself as a shovel leaning against the wall in a garage. I’m the knot that comes undone in sleep and swirls of incense rising from a stick of sandalwood. I’m free when I’m restrained and restrained when I’m free.
It’s a fine balance. Some things may be assumed and cultivated in rumination but ultimately the real truth is sandwiched in moments of epiphany and shadow, the chiaroscuro of our daily life.
There’s that moment shortly following dinner when I have to rise to do the dishes. I agree with Louis CK: there is no better luxury than sitting. Sitting feels great. So when it’s time to stand I have a fresh new challenge on my hands.
Or I should say my feet. And legs. That strain on the anterior and posterior thigh muscles. That tension on the Sartorius, which sounds like a Roman emperor, and the Vastus Lateralus, which sounds like a place on the moon.
If all goes well and there are no cramps or dizziness I am standing. I have a range of view. I can collect my thoughts. I can formulate strategies of movement.
Standing is a reminder of a number of things: age, weight, gravity, the dull iron prod of doing what is practical and necessary because that is what characterizes most of existence, and for which we must stand, and trudge forward, carrying babies and lumber, bricks and books and barrels and crates.
Sitting, taking a load off, is a sweet surrender to the cushions and springs that occasionally offer themselves to our tired adult bodies. The chair is an easy appeasement. But a couch is wonder itself, a place not only to sit, but to lie, to spread oneself into a mass of abdication, into a quiescent state of letting go, of letting oneself drop into the soothing listlessness of oblivion.
The couch is where we eat dinner, read books, and watch movies. The evening tends to go very quickly, as does time itself, whatever time is, it does tend to move forward, dragging me with it, dragging me to some edge where I will inevitably one day fall. Or rise. Who know what it will be. But I’m on my way, as are we all, even the youngest, the freshly born, welcome to Planet Earth, it once had elephants, and now they’re almost gone.
At night, in bed, I link our radio to a tablet via Bluetooth and listen to podcasts, Marc Maron, Greg Proops, Jen Kirkman, though lately we’ve been listening to a lot of Eckhart Tolle, lectures given at various venues. He’s a talker. He can talk.
Tolle has a gentle, soothing voice, a slight German accent, and a calm, measured pace. His ideas are clear. His explanations are lucid. He also has a wonderful sense of humor, often finding comedy in something he has just said.
Tolle’s main point is that all psychological pain emanates from a construction of the self that is illusionary. The self is a burden. All problems come from the self. To paraphrase a Zen anecdote, when a Zen master was asked “what is the essence of Zen,” the master answered “No self, no problem.”
If we are able to see the incidents in our lives that give us the most chronic pain clearly for what they are, as plain, uncomplicated events, as occurrences as simple as a ball rolling across a floor or water falling out of the sky in form of rain, as plain sequential actions without a sense of victimhood or describing them with highly charged words such as ‘betrayal’ and ‘treachery’ and ‘deceit,’ we can free ourselves from the burden of pain that attaches to them.
Sounds good, it all makes sense, I’m all for it, count me in. But man, it ain’t easy to do. Especially for a writer whose whole life has been spent telling stories.
Lately, I’ve been having what I call my Palmyra Moments. When I saw the ancient Roman ruins of Palmyra blown up by jihadists in Syria, it gave me a horrid feeling. I get that same feeling every time I am reminded that Donald Trump is president, or a college education is put out of the reach of the average citizens, or public schools are defunded and/or privatized. When people jokingly boast about not reading books.
These things hurt. How are they related to my sense of self? These are things much larger than me, the guy in the wheelhouse of my skull.
I value books. That’s me. That’s the identity I’ve cobbled together over the years. This is the narrative I’ve chosen to maintain on a day to day basis. The guy who loves books. Who loves to read. Who loves ideas. Who loves to talk about ideas. Who loves words. Ah, words. So many of them, so many things you can do with them. Invent worlds. Unlock philosophies. Expand awareness. Raise the dead.
But isn’t it language getting me into this trouble? William S. Burroughs called language a virus. Is he right? Is my love of poetry and words a form of disease? An influenza? A numinal pneumonia? Divine madness. That’s what Plato called it.
Ok, so if people don’t read, it hurts me because…why? What if I were an entomologist seeking a rare species of butterfly, a creature with a name people couldn’t pronounce much less know anything about. If I derived meaning from such a search the fact that the general public were in ignorance wouldn’t hurt. I wouldn’t expect them to know anything about it.
Isn’t poetry such a creature? A rare form of butterfly?
Let’s put a different spin on it. Let’s say the absence of this butterfly spells disaster for humanity in some way, that it indicates a world so out of ecological balance that doom is right around the corner. It would be important to find that butterfly. People might be cheering me on. It might get a segment on CNN.
But poetry isn’t the same kind of creature. It’s not really a creature at all. It likes being called a creature because poetry feeds on metaphors. The more the metaphors the fatter the poetry.
Poetry doesn’t serve any purpose. That’s the first thing you need to know about it. It does nothing. It doesn’t clean anything, lift anything, or convey anything. It doesn’t prevent wars, end wars, start wars, perpetuate wars, or nourish wars. Which isn’t to say war and poetry are contraries. Sometimes poetry emerges from war. But that’s an accident. I think.
Is it?
Poetry is violent at its core. Real poetry. Authentic poetry. The kind of poetry that will fly off the page and rip your brain to shreds. This phylum of poetry is not for everybody. It should be surrounded by flashing red signs warning people of rogue analogies and rampaging metaphors. If you go to poetry for moments of quiet reflection, gentle little epiphanies to brighten your day, sweet little nougats of lyrical candy for your mind to suck on, you won’t be disappointed, there’s lots of that kind of poetry around, a lot of it getting published all the time. But if you’re looking for the kind of poetry that coruscates up and down your spine like Queen Mab doing wheelies on a Harley Davidson, that kind of poetry is a little harder to find. It doesn’t ride, smart and cosmopolitan, on a glossy page in the New Yorker. It hisses and seethes like pahoehoe. It says what it wants with misanthropic glee. It mutates into B movie blobs of translucent goo. It mocks logic, apes nature, and unshrouds the anguish of punctuation. It parodies the slide of kitchen drawers. It embraces the darkness of caves and carries it in pools of animal fat to the surface of its illumined pleasures. It crystallizes the darkness of rumination into glittery human skulls and mails it all first class to Denmark. It sneaks into books and breeds crustaceans. It is insolent in its presumptions and foolish in its claims. No good can come of it but ramification and ice. It is meaning itself. It is the stone of stone and the leaf of the leaf. It is a face in the lake. And a crack in the mirror. 

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