2 ESSAYS & A FRAGMENT FROM SILENCE & SONG
They call out demanding back the blood that once ran through their veins, those heroes, our ancestors. Some who heard those laments would dig a hole and pour in the blood. Others made the simplest oaten cakes, no yeast by which they rose, and buried them for the dead to eat. I guess you die and keep wanting all you always wanted, but can get none of it for yourself, like a child in a crib calling out in the night to her parents, save it's the parent who are in the crib, and the crib is underground, and something more than water is wanted, and it's worse.
Poor Tantalus who deserved exactly what he got, bending down to drink from the river but the river goes away, reaching up to the fruit-heavy bough but the branch rises up past grasp. Only when Oedipus descends into the underworld playing his lyre and singing, searching for his lost wife just wed, can Tantalus eat for the fruit stays at hand, can drink for the water doesn't move, but so taken is he by the music played by a living hand, by the words sung out from a living mouth, that he doesn't realize that fate has for a brief moment been suspended, that he can put to an end the hunger and thirst that are his eternal torment—except that, after just a little while, when the music went away, he'd hunger and thirst again.
Maybe that's what time is: satisfying the appetites so that they return, a kind of measurement. And timelessness is desire that keeps reaching past its own bounds.
It worked out for Orpheus, but it didn't work out well, desire and song.
To pour blood in a hole in the ground or to put there a cake made from the gathered acorns were acts known as Sacrifices of Aversion.
Properly performed, then the dead for a while would leave us alone—until they want again what all they want. The world, for example. It is a silent call we cannot not hear, singing in our blood and not our ears, for our blood is their own, and they keep reminding us that we owe them the life they gave up to give us our own. They want to eat it.
According to Vico, quoted at length by Robert Pogue Harrison, the Latin word for law, lex, "first . . . meant a collection of acorns. Thence we believe is derived ilex, as it were illex, the [holm] oak (as certainly aquilex means collector of waters); for the oak produces acorns by which the swine are drawn together. Lex was next a collection of vegetables, from which the latter were called legumina. Later on, at a time when vulgar letters had not yet been invented for writing down the laws, lex by a necessity of civil nature must have meant a collection of citizens, or the public parliament; so that the presence of the people was the lex, or 'law' . . . Finally, collecting letters, and making, as it were, a sheaf of them for each word, was called legere, reading."
A book is but a gathering of acorns, and we fatten ourselves as do the swine, but reading is what sweetens the meat of the mind.
Eve takes a first bite from the same fruit she offers Adam, and by swallowing a mouthful of food they gain knowledge of their own nakedness, realize within a shame seen from without, they digest desire into knowledge, and what is wanted, once known, means the toil to come is in the dirt, far East of Eden, and paradise becomes just this empty lot. I guess they suddenly knew what they saw and the garden just withered away. In the off hours to come, they'd try to describe it themselves, what they lost.
I have tried to write Paradise
Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.
Let the Gods forgive what I
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.
Harrison goes back further to the Greek λόγος. He tries to begin at the beginning. Who doesn't? The word before the world. He says that certain linguists suggest that the word derives from the Indo-European root leg, "which meant 'to gather, to collect, to bind together" as one might gather a sheaf of grain or pages.
John Keats, during the refulgent months of spring to fall in 1819, writes the six Odes that made him immortal. I don't use the word lightly. He finishes "To Autumn" in September and then begins that other human business of dying. Digging your own grave inside your life is hard work, like working in an hourglass trying to dig a hole in the sand as it sifts away, and though a wiser person might remind you that the sand is falling down below and gathering there, you know you cannot believe it, for the bottom becomes so suddenly the top, and the unseen hand that governs all mocks the work he demands.
But maybe the hourglass is a granary, and the sand is grain. Keats' second stanza:
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
She runs her hand through her own hair, the goddess, though her hand is but the winnowing wind, letting the chaff fly away, letting the seeds drop so carelessly one might think, seeing her, that of abundance there is no end. Or the goddess falls asleep, caught by the poppy-scent of the flowers she harvests, dreaming deep in the half-reaped row. So easy to think that death comes because there is no more of life, but Keats knows it's not true. It's still all there to put in our mouths, the grain, the fruit, the honey in the comb, and how is it we disappear in the midst of world over-brimming, and become ourselves the little nothing in the center of the seed. The midges blown apart by the wind fly back together into their cloudy shape, and the swallows twitter their song of departure, their migration song, which some below can hear but cannot follow.
We forget how to gather what it is we want to eat, forget the laws we know, and we become ourselves poor Ruth amid the alien corn, gleaning behind the reapers.
Morning as homonym to mourning.
And I've sown these pages with words just to make silence more heard, but I don't know how to gather the gatherless grain, it it's even there, blank inside the blank, so much of whiteness, if it even exists, that silent grain.
In 1917 Marcel Duchamp chooses a urinal, turns it upside down, sign it R. Mutt, and turns it in to an Art exposition whose policy is to accept every work submitted. They reject his Fountain and he resigns from the board.
People think of Fountain as if it were a kind of joke, but I don't think so. I think it's a work of Law.
Sometimes the thing has to stare you in the face for you to know it's as concerned with knowing what you are as you are with knowing it. That's how I learned I'm the fountain, and so are you.
I drink a glass of water, some coffee, a beer, and sometime later, I'm a fountain.
I gather into myself the things that feed me; only some of them are food. I read book after book, poem after poem, and sometime later, I write a book, I write a poem. But it's never quite right, those books, those poems.
It's as if one glimpses a land of such abundance the bees themselves think summer will never cease and then you fall asleep while gathering the blossoms and leave the grain to winnow itself, which it will, as also it will winnow those who slumber through the harvest. You see that land as if through a window in the air and think: now I can describe it. But what comes to the page is but a vestige of that supernal vision, and what inspired has fed the imaginative vein pulsing in the head and heart, but hasn't found a way out through the hand, and so the work must begin again. I thought I had the essence to sing; but all I made was this receptacle turned upside down and signed R. Mutt called a poem.
The thing we want to make stays silent within us, like the mouthful of fruit becoming the end of paradise, and of what comes out we feel strange forms of shame in discussing.
Rimbaud: "La poesie c'est de la merde."
Keats, one of the last poems he wrote before dying on February 23rd, 1821 at the age of 25.
This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm'd—see here it is—
I hold it towards you.
Do you hear, as I hear, the demand to pay our debt?
His hand wants the blood that flows in our veins, and should we give it, then our debt would be cancelled, if only briefly. The cost of his immortality burdens our conscience. I have to find a way to dig a hole in this page and fill the pitkin with blood.
But all I have are the gathered acorns of these sentences.
And I'm not sure I've even dug a hole in the page. I can't quite see in the blankness if I've dug down in it far enough to pay my debt.
Tacita, hear my prayer: keep the meat in the shell, the word in the poem, the marrow in the bone. Bury this silence in the ground. The dead want to eat it.
I hear there is no here.
Forty years pass before the story is written down, this story of the empty tomb.
Maybe at first disciples only spoke the tale. Maybe it spread like a rumor.
Paul: faith is "the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen."
Emily Dickinson: "Hope is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul— / And sings the tune without the words—/ And never stops—at all—"
(Hana memorized that poem for her 5th grade class. She wandered around the house saying all its lines and so I memorized it, too. But when she recited it to her class, I wasn't there. I don't remember where I was. Just elsewhere.)
I like to think no one could write down the story for fear the emptiness it meant to reveal would be filled in by the tale, and awe become a matter of matter, and the word body would be body enough to fill the sepulcher and deny the miracle by testifying to it.
But maybe it took a long time to build the emptiness in.
Maybe empty tomb is also an empty tomb.
So sings the tomb without the words, making elsewhere the place that never stops—at all—
To think of the word as a monad. Leibniz writes: "The monad which we shall discuss is nothing other than a simple substance that enters into composites. Simple means without parts."
The line of the poem is a composite of many monads in a row. That we read in one direction is an accident of our nature and no fault of the poem. Through different eyes—say, the compound eyes of the butterfly—the poem could be read in every direction, each word could be the beginning of the poem, no matter where it occurred, as it's a part of the whole, and just like the head feels the pleasure when your lover caresses your most hidden skin, so the word measures in the fourth line of the poem on page 55 thrills through the whole song.
The monads look in every direction except within. They cannot see inside themselves. Everything there is dark. Each monad has a face that reflects all it sees, but its complexity is all within, there but unavailable.
Kind of like another monad I know.
The poem, like the world is a plenum. That's only to say it is filled, like the world, exactly with itself.
To read a poem in a worldly sense we would need to be able to see how words in vastly different realms of the poem influence each other. We would read not for meaning, but for the harmony that holds the poem together in the same way harmony holds the universe together.
Meaning likes to look in only one direction. It is as base and baseless to ask of a poem what does it mean as it to ask the same question of life.
Not what's the meaning, but where's the music?
But like the monad's complexity, the music is all within, hidden in the darkness, and the words show back to us on their mirrored surfaces an image we seem to know, of a face bending closer, and closer, to smell the flower or to read the poem.
Leibniz writes: "It is even necessary that every monad be different from every other. For there are never in nature two beings that are perfectly alike and in which it would not be possible to find difference that is internal or founded on an intrinsic denomination."
Leaves. Snowflakes. Petals. The pollen-combs on legs of bees. Hexagons of the hive.
Difference is spreading.
So it may be, according to Borges, that Pierre Menard—whose curious publishing history includes monographs on ideal words whose vocabulary only informs poetry, a monograph on Leibniz, and poetry most beautiful in its use of punctuation—write his most significant work. "This work, perhaps the most significant of our time, consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two." His effort wasn't to mimic Cervantes, nor merely to know 17th Spanish idiom so fluently as to write as if the other author himself. He wanted to write Don Quixote as Pierre Menard, and believed in the impossible vision that his own experience could lead him to the very same sentences. For example, Borges offers us a comparison from both books:
It is a revelation to compare Menard's Don Quixote with Cervantes'. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine): ". . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor." Written in the seventeenth century, written by the "lay genius" Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes: ". . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor."
But might it not be that the very same words fill the plenum of a life in a very different manner. The same words, in the same order, but comprising a different world. So it may be that day passes into day, and though I wake up and feel I am the same man, and see my family and feel they are the same people to whom I said good night but some eight hours ago, I also admit to suspecting each of us slightly different than we had been, and this day yet to come, that will be like all that have passed, will fill itself with words that only pretend to mean what they have always meant, and I'll believe them, for it's easier than seeking out the truer vocabulary, in which each same word speaks itself differently.
Then Pierre Menard can write the Quixote word for word as Cervantes himself did, and yet, for all the obvious similarity, they are different. May I go on to suggest that the two Quixotes are different only to the degree to which they can be read as exactly the same? Only then do we train our ears to hear within sameness the subtlest strains of difference that make of living a life.
Mostly they're all the same, lives. And to praise as worthy only those men and women written down in the old books as unique proves a violence somehow, like tearing out of a poem a single word and saying, see, this is the word, the only one needed, and those small words, the pronouns and the articles, the it and a and the that alone in their inability to name things but merely point at words that name things offer us who read them, and regard their small syllables with something like love, our most accurate human portrait.
Now I'll share with you a poem I've been working on for some time. I haven't yet finished it, nor do I know how it begins, but like the grass of the field, it grows quickest from the middle out:
heben til hrofe
eci dryctin . . .
||. . . aelda barnum
And so too of memory, which in trying to recall clearly days long past so quietly alters them that we hardly notice the difference. We speak it as if in calling to mind the past the experience is retrieved intact, sharable to others just as it is repeatable to ourselves. But I guess it's not the case at all. Each time we tell a memory we change it by the telling, and from whatever humic chamber in the mind it is stored, we alter it by the effort of digging it up, and what is meant to be a testament to the ongoingness of experience in human life becomes instead the helpless fact that nothing at all repeats.
Gertrude Stein says, "There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence." Mostly I agree. But when I remember the quote it ends, Only instances.
Heraclitus: "Change alone is unchanging."
But when will it be, that like those surveyors of arctic white seeking within sameness some sign of where the ice is weakest, or purveyors of blankness, or those peddlers on those silk roads who by the color of white of the grains of salt know from what sea it came, or those Chinese scholars riding horseback across their vast country writing a monograph on how different water tastes from different springs, wells, or ponds. For if Leibniz is right about words, perhaps the same insight applies everywhere, and between things of which we have no ability to sense alteration, profound differences exist: as of, say, the difference between the silence before a poem and after it, the white of the four margins, the emptiness in the center of the eye and the opened palm, the silence I keep and the silence I choke on, and all the other dizzying varieties of sameness, unspeakable as they are.
Simone Weil, and no doubt I'm misquoting, writes of an idea tied to poetry in Gravity & Grace—she speaks of the good that exists in work when it is attuned no to what it can say, but working towards what in it is inexpressible. In many ways, these essays, and all in the book from they come, are concerned with the ways in which that inexpressibility exists within all we say and see. Sir Thomas Browne—the author whose mind I'd most want to have as my own, so I've discovered—expresses something similar: "Light which makes some things visible, makes other things invisible." Those invisibilities of our inner life, from thought to digestion, those strange variances of presence within absence and absence within presence, are the mystifying if driving concerns of the essays.