When it Drops

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When it Drops

I.
A week before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, I was in Taos, staying at my favorite hotel, busy planning a summer of camps for the children, a trip to Italy, and a yoga retreat in the Catskills. Living, in other words, within the well appointed walls of progressive values, bohemian taste, and my own rather peculiar version of bipolar illness.

Late last year I read a moving, exhaustively researched piece of photojournalism in the New York Times about the growing shantytowns in Oakland, California. The vivid description and photographs of those living there, suffering and sick from almost endless causes, the total absence of hygiene, the lack of medical care and basic safety, both haunted and terrified me. The article appeared to me as an unanswerable distillation of the world’s rapidly multiplying disasters: mass inequality, hegemonic nationalism, and a mutilated, unpredictable climate. When I took the time to step out of my protected and lovely little world – a world contained enough I still did not understand how Donald Trump was President three years in – it was this tripartite of worries that most occupied me, and seemed to mark a shift away from the security with which I had been raised, and still took for granted.

Sometimes I wondered if I should have had children.

More and more often I wondered if I, too, might be homeless. A middle aged woman with imperfect health, a rather mountainous mind of unscalable cliffs and depthless valleys, three children and not much money. Yes, I realized. I’m not special. It could happen to me too.

And then the worry would fade, a peak of creativity or joy or sex would appear around the bend, and back I went, into my little room of everyday, priviledged concerns. Less than a month after reading that article, this country slowly woke up to the fact that China was experiencing some sort of rapidly moving illness. It was very far away, and like many U.S. citizens I tend to mistrust information from China. It is underreported. Over reported. Whatever the story, the issue, I’m aware that there is a filtering process the Chinese government lays over the lives of its citizens, like a camera with many complicated lenses.

II.
It came so suddently, didn’t it?

You were at work at the beginning of March. Yes, it was the beginning of March, unless you live in California, and then it was two weeks prior. Regardless. Work, home, gym, children, no children, school, dating, fucking, not-fucking, groceries, bills, writing, TV, Twitter, arguments, love: it all flatlined in an instant.

Stop-time. Toddlers held suspended above playgrounds bow-tied in yellow tape that looks like a murder investigation. Dementia ridden women, vaguely aware of a daily visitor, begin each day alone. End it the same way. Babysitting grandparents put the lie to countless “I’ll see you tomorrow my Love” to preschoolers with no sense of time. Cars stay in driveways. Planes fly empty or not at all. Traffic becomes a pointless changing of timed lights, green for no one, red for… one? Two?

The city seems to dim, and forgotten stars dance indifferentlly in the night sky.

You were at work. Or, forgive the grammar, at life. Whatever that means to you, to us, to your community and your heart. And then, life stopped. Not in that glorious still point sort of stopping most of the vaguely mystical or romantic dream of, but in a stunning, endlessly repeating car accident that infuses the marrow with memory and changes the structure of dreams.

Did you see the brilliant tweet? There are so many now: people are creative and incredibly sad, needing the illusion that the buried wires connect, connect, connect… The tweet said: “If you had told me in 2016 that the economy would be shit and the world would be ending in 2020 I would have been surprised NOT AT ALL.”

A madman is at the helm. Of this story, only Homer might approve. But who now has the time for the metaphoric, the grandiose? The stop-time brings the mind to heel as well: lethargy courts fatigue, and the madman’s words become mere fodder for an exhausted, beaten humor. No one will fight or dance or march in these streets.

In a matter of hours, the true extent of this country’s sickness and inequality was revealed. It has taken a sociopath and an illness that brought the world to its knees to do it, but here we are. I am at home. You are at home, with the office set up in a closet. We are the lucky ones. Protected and pale and soft, craving a concert in the park.

Tentatively, I go to an abandoned grocery store. It is fully staffed with friendly people, some of whom are older, some hugely overweight, which I know puts them at higher risk for illness. At one point I take a huge cart overflowing with treats and produce and fresh breads, impulsively plucked toys for my 6 year old, toward the automated check line. A lovely, too thin young woman flags me over, her mask on tight.

“Come to my station,” she said, as if relieved to have the company.
“I want you to stay safe,” I said, “so maybe it’s better if I use the auto?”

“I’m here to help you.” As she said these words, slightly muffled behind her handmade mask, I had to look away in shame. Tears came to my eyes. She was no more than twenty three. She had to be there. I chose to be.

Yesterday my daughter said to me about some forgettable object over which I was pining:

“Mama. You don’t need that. You want that.”

And so it is with our lives now:
How I want to go out. How I want to be less depressed. I want to travel and work and see friends.

And then the great, usually unseen engine of our society responds:
“What you want… is what we must do, day upon day, hour upon hour.”

III.
Yesterday I saw a video.
The video is of a large, white man, his stomach leering over a too-optimistic belt.
The large white man is rolling something dark and small on the ground, as if he were a baker working over some toughened dough.
The dough however is a child. A thin, black child with wonderfully wild hair and the frail body of a human half his age, which the gleeful newsman announces as 14.
The large white man is a police officer. He has, compared to the child, the physique of a retired wrestler burnt out on steroids.
His strength, the strength in his closed-fist hands, his body bent at the waist as he rolls, twists, punches the child, is the strength of a stupid rage.
This is not strength, of course.
But the child’s small, still hardening bones can not know this.

I did not watch the entire video. I saw the violation, I saw the trajectory:
the child’s life is a shooting star, visible to all of us for an instant no more. I do not need to watch the pornography of the white man’s rage, the extinguished innocence of the wild-haired boy.

This is what I thought:
“Oh. This cop didn’t care about ‘social distancing.’ Apparently we are returning to normal now.”

A virus. A fist.
A fucked up pharmaceutical laundry list.
You, too, will drop.
And that’s all, for now, I’ve got.

Dream for Ionah

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Dream for Ionah

On State Street a palm sized globe rests
on your hand. Or drifts above, trick
of magic and eye, you the wizard
in a small child’s chapter book.

Your fingers are long and fine as bone
of birdwing, and the round world
you hold aloft; it glows in spots –
and then is burning twine,

small embers, fire in falling knots.
The lake is black and singing,
and great towers stain the sky
with ten million rising roses.

An elevator slips open, spills fading
midnight laughter down the hall;
we are swallowed by a silence
thick and carpeted with sleep.

“Tomorrow I will ride a bicycle
made of blue ice and glass
and I’ll visit my son on the farm.”
Your face is a shadowless moon.

Before, before, before the globe
caught fire, and your son sat down
upon that final field; before before
before Love became a shut-in

trapped behind a wooden door,
there were girls in streams
clean and clear as winter snow,
turned naked toward the softest sun.

 

Small Night Song

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Small Night Song

Who among us is not afraid?

I am afraid.

Today I put my children in the shower.

It was

a Baptism – repeat repeat repeat the prayer
“You will not get sick.”

I screamed like a madwoman from a nightmare
in this nightmare –
And what is a nightmare
but a body with no power?

This wine that stains my lips
grows in soil now gone dark

I raise a glass to you,
to you,
six feet away or six feet under,

sleep now knowing
that daffodils, crocus, tulips
will bloom, careless, in the park.

~~ for all people tending to the sick and vulnerable, pandemic of 2020

The Wait

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The Wait

Hell has its own quietude
I do not know from the wait
to the well carved trail’s end –
No markers here, the forest
untouched, no knife-slashed tree
to guide one round the bend.
And now an endless interlude.

Spring winds come hard to the meadow,
and grasses flatten to soft earth,
each seed an obeisance to birth
and strength and forms without fear.
A violent joy sets alight the crow,
sparked obsidian a shadow
over cold and fading snow.

A warped window opens to the night,
slow tires hum past, spitting gravel
and dust behind a broken taillight.
The sound reminds you of a song,
some old acoustic lines of travel
and a lovely love in youth gone wrong –
Alone, quiet, a cruel moon slips from sight.

 

 

Early Storm

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Early Storm

The spring is outrageous. Or an outrage; it is usually one or the other.

How we must love the spring, alone in our old beds

at the base of the young wild peaks.

Today, the sky is a single bluet

born too bright

before the storm.

 

 

March 8

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March 8

And the too much of my speaking:
heaped up round the little
crystal dressed in the style of your silence.”
— 
Below, Paul Celan

Thus far along a new undertaking of multiple jobs, children, myriad priorities always somehow unsatisfied, intentions set and never attained, a singular lesson has by this writer been learned:

The capacity to write is not, as I had once both wished and believed, innate.

I have abandoned stillness and silence. I have walked away from discipline and language. I have allowed need and chaos to become my most steady companions. And these companions, though entertaining and filled with numberless distractions, eventually serve but one purpose, and that purpose is the destruction, the isolation of the creative impulse.

Verbosity, sexuality, work that drains as it fills, the Regime and its sad resistance, viruses, the claustrophobia of movement restricted and information reduced to primordial fire, uncontrolled and toxic, visible but murky – how does one explore the core of creation within such confines and conditions? More importantly, is the question itself an absurd indulgence?

Is the poet relevant during wartime? Is the impulse to create, whether the creation is a child, a painting, a revolution (the two can be, and at their best they are, the same), a book, a thin stream of words on a blog – is the drive itself a form of denial and deception? Children in warehouses under a hot Texas sun, ships filled with sickness, a planet heaving with heat and storm and silenced birdsong, the short & lovely dream of democracy waking to the nightmare of looming dictatorship… and every person has his say, his tweet, his post. But the math is all wrong. The cacophonous song adds up to a strange nothingness, as if every voice has grown, grown, grown, and then been multiplied by zero.

Although my books by Paul Celan remain usually safe and untouched behind glass, not a day goes by I don’t think of him, sometimes often, and especially now. For all the aggressive genius of those who continued, like Whitman, to grant to Life, in all its brutal Forms, an assent and acceptance, the pain of Celan’s silence lives with me as both truth and minder.

Sometimes genius is not enough. For the rest of us, sometimes discipline is not enough, nor dedication nor, terribly, even love. As witness and participant, Celan’s voice was stripped from him like the shedding of burned skin.

During these days of slaughters unremarked, screaming and myopic panic, and the isolation of living constantly among crowds increasing daily in nonsensical volume, I wonder at the nature of the poet’s final silence.

I find myself wishing for him, even in death, that there was a flash of the purest peace before the descent. These nights, I find myself wishing this for all of us. Somewhere, somewhere, the stillpoint might someday steady us.

Prayers grow dim in thickening noise.

 

 

Bend

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Bend

You are on a train. The train is slow, it is not the sort that makes the exterior blur and the interior strangely still.

The train is old enough that one is able to open the windows,  to breathe in the salted air, to smell the tall cypress, and to hear wheels lulling the senses to the necessary and the immediate. Some people describe this experience as hypnotic; I think of it more as release. Perhaps the two words point to the same message.

The ground is steady, but the tracks have been dug by miraculous engineering into the side of a cliff. It is interesting to pause your journey here, and to think of those curled muscular hands, burnt-brown forearms, and exhausted shoulders that built the track, two pieces of iron stitched to the earth, crosshatch of wood laid over them in a pattern without end. Do you wonder what time felt like, as the impenetrable cliff gave way, inch by inch, to strength and will?

The train curls tight round this hill that seems at moments to lean into empty space. To your right are the blinding bright crests of the restive tide, on your left the long thin cypress shaded by a late afternoon sun. Suddenly an awareness, like an arrow, makes you shift and grow taller in the cabin’s well worn seat. Across the aisle, your attention is caught by an old woman fast asleep, ill and tiny as a child. She wheezes in her slumber, her clothes are the worn black of a widow, and yet there lies around her an unsettled beauty, one you are sure has not been recognized for years, for decades. From seat to seat, you look: the child whose miniature feet do not yet reach the floor, his young mother dozing with a book. A middle-aged man, brows furrowed, leans over a glowing phone in secret dialogue. Next to him slouches a large woman with an old purse, continuously sighing some secret and ancient complaint.

Walk to the back of the car. Out of the window, what do you see? The sea, again, the cypress once more, darker this time, like the moody mud greens of Cezanne. The tracks create an inverted frame. The momentum of the train pierces what is ahead, but distance quickly swallows what is passed through and left behind. There is in you a mild but rising panic, a displacement that leads first to loneliness and then to a passing despair: what did you see, how did you see it, the landscape that was just a moment ago beside you, now gone?

Can you remember? If you remember, is the memory more of a wish, a picture, or a solid form that now sits, rather like a monument, to the experience of this day, now rapidly receding from view?

fall

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fall

Do not think
to buy your way out
to fuck your way out
to walk or talk or write
or dance or sit
or pray
your way out
drugs won’t do it
sobriety won’t do it
friends won’t do
enemies won’t do
Do not think
to twist your way out
to eat or starve
or cleanse your way out
you cannot cut it out
or feel it out
or think it out
Do not think
that over that hill
there is a god
or an answer
or hope
or anything
other than the swooning
dip and fall
Do not think
to prevent this fall
it’s all
in the landing.

One Hour

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One Hour

From birth, I told him, I knew.
Life, the totality of it,
is a burnt strata: experience
then memory.
Layers intermix,
and sometimes cover the skin
and the eyes, the body itself.
One can never be free
of such residue.

The invisible tide
of breath –
expand, contract, expand, contract –
the undulating waves
disrupted

from so much ash and debris.

And so, I told him, one must remain empty
the strata will not stain me
the striated lines
of age and need, of desire, of want
of Love
remain a picture
I might visit
as one does a museum
or an orchestra

and I will always be kin
to the creator of the canvas
the maker of harmony
or dissonance.

There is perfection, I told him.
Austerity is bliss
and I know the eroticism
of distance.

I will not rot
between the lines.

Deer

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Deer

On Sundays I am alone.
The thick grey cat, huge,
obscenely beautiful,
sits as a centerpiece
for an empty table.
Her eyes are lime
and define the landscape
of her wild body.
Wing-tips chartreuse, gold,
a parrot glows
before the rains.

Always mystery
is without description,
the description itself
a defilement,
and so is merciless
and cruel
as a God might be
on a winter Sunday morning.

I want to empty everything
to lie in emptiness
in a cold empty room –
Purity & cleanliness,
white ribs
beneath pale skin –
my veins are tendrils
unfurling to an empty heart.

A phone was silenced on my hip
but kept there just in case
a child fell and bruised her lip,
from Mother’s mouth to her face –

an airy kiss displaced.

Dishes, clothing, countertops
Jamilla on repeat,
the phone relays a message:
a photograph, somehow already
an old story of power and defeat:

a boy, his gun,
and his draining deer,
eyes undone
from the lock of life
by Daddy,
giving to his son
a scope to steady shaking fear,
love, now, the uncocked click
and its release.
Make it clean and neat,
ignore her stumbling feet.

I do not know this child
but the deer I do
I wish he were something wild
and death could find him too.

I did not erase
the photograph.
That sly smile
obliterates
that baby face.

A mixed up fucked up number
a child misdialed in glee:
“Look what I did friends,
track, listen, see..
finger on the trigger…”

No.
I do not know him.
Though on this Sunday
alone and clean and bare,
his kill
is my prayer.