Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Historiography: A Little Black Book

and the hall was well lit as i walked down it
and that's all i remember
and the rain was light and it felt soft on my face
and that's all i remember
and the car was quiet inside
and that's all i remember
and it was dark when the sunlight was coming
and that's all i remember
-"Historiography" The Mountain Goats

Historiography: The writing of history. Written history. History in specific language; as we remember it; bounded by our own particular consciousnesses. History in perspective; of perspective...

The reading room of New York's Morgan Library has a stainless steel sink where you have to wash your hands each time you enter. It has high ceilings, walls covered by bookshelves, and oak tables with individual lamps, book stands of varying sizes, and hushed little velvet weights to still the edges of increasingly fragile pages. It's very quiet, save for the librarians trying to locate a journal, or the few minutes in the afternoon when a young academic in blue felt sneakers who has spent the whole morning pouring over illuminated manuscripts accidentally turns her computer display sideways, and no one can figure out how to help her because all the controls are in her native German.

The manuscript of the first book of Paradise Lost is all that survies from its drafting, 27 pages, flimsy sheets in so many hands we can't parse them all out: falling apart like a flower someone pressed and then forgot about for far too many years. The first edition was published in 1667 and is only about as tall as my hand, from the heel of my palm to my fingertips. It's black and undistinguished with a little bit of a gold border, and nothing written on the cover or the spine. If you saw it in a used bookstore or an antique shop you wouldn't look twice. You'd think: maybe a hymnal, or a ledger someone kept of their dry goods, or a copy of the bible. It looks like some small thing has taken its mouth to the pages, and gummed away the edges, or ripped at them with tiny teeth: time. I am afraid to breathe too hard.

As a scholar and an artist I am devoted to language, ideas, metaphor, narrative, form: so much that is intangible, elusive, ineffable. In the past several years Milton's work has become a particularly important rendering of all these things for me. "Man's first disobedience." Eve falling in love with her own reflection, Adam alone in the fields as Eve strolls off, Satan peering down onto the garden; in love with beauty; breathing in Eve's ear, Raphael dangling knowledge and then pulling it away like a low hanging branch. Eve's last speech, a sonnet in an unrhyming poem. They are alone but not alone. We are alone but not alone.

And so to hold these things in my hands; fraying pages, a little black book, it was my life, my love my faith made maniefst. Tome, tomb, temple, first record of a first disobidence. One particular history my eyes are always turned toward, one particular memory of a self in the world. A blind man has a fallen woman on the insides of his eyelids, or a fallen angel, or a capital called pandemonium-- getting louder.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


sweet peas in the garden, all in full bloom
and i thought i heard the traces of an old song murmuring in the room
like a half-remembered conversation, i let it slip away
and then i could not rememeber
i honestly could not remember
  -- The Mountain Goats, "Nine Black Poppies"

Marvin Gaye in a red and white Adidas tracksuit 
standing in a chapel in Ostend, Belgium, singing the Lord's Prayer.
A Katrina collage of fish-heads, a sofa with split upholstery, 
a bare-chested man with spindly outstretched arms.
Melville's Ishmael amidst the circling sharks with padlocked mouths, 
eyeing the sheathed beaks of savage sea-hawks.
Young Werther: Don't children reach out for everything that catches their attention? 
A glass scabbard of Armenian liqueur 
and onions from my garden. 
Eyedrops for my dry eyes, for glaucoma.
The fields behind the house finally mowed, 
the brown grass scattered and spun but not yet baled.
The Orioles on a winning streak, 
a grand slam last night by Nick Markakis.
Kaki King singing John Darnielle's Black Pear Tree: 
I saw the future in a dream last night. 
There’s nothing in it.
Helen and Bruce in their new house 
in Greenwich, without electricity.
James Brown, the mighty pug, dragging out from Molly's room 
the corpses of baby mice, one by one by one.
I tilt my head, nudge the spines of books on the coffee table 
to try to make out their titles.
I can see better now, but my mind's not right.
Molly has arrived at her hotel in Soho; 
we'll be there by tomorrow night.

I am full of others' words, not mine:
Of man's first disobedience,
And beggars on the railway tracks wailing at us for alms.
We cannibals must help these Christians.
What kind of beings are they then,
who finally must be scared away by poison?
My sandal came undone. I paused for breath because
air hurt my lungs.
Etymology. Extracts. Loomings.
Someday I am going to walk out of here free.

Monday, June 6, 2011

It's All Here In...

and i was sure my heart would break
when the sun sank down into california
i felt your breath on my neck, it was hot and good and pure
and i wanted to warn you

and it's all coming apart again
it's all coming apart again
it's all coming apart again
it's all coming apart again

-"It's all here in Brownsville" The Mountain Goats

She'd lived in California most of her life, and driven out to the coast on evenings in every season. Winter, when the waves were vast and heather gray, and the tamped down brush on the shore was stripped of flowers, and the clouds were low. Spring, when the wind had flung around the sudden poppies, and the blue-backed Cliff Swallows were out on the rocks. Summer and early Fall, when the day wore the last light strangely and you could see the whole fist of the moon in the still bright sky before the sun went down. She knew how close you had to get to the ocean before you could dig in the sandy soil and feel the water welling up under your fingernails, and she knew to drive farther West when the day was warm but the fog refused to burn off near San Francisco. You could chase a clear sunset as easily as a storm.

This was the place she'd come on Friday nights to watch boys burning some small illegal fire down on the beach, building it up: a bier without a body, and loping around the light with bottles of micro-brewed beer. It was the place she'd come in college after her first tattoo, looking around the empty shore and unbuttoning her shirt so it left the left side of her breastbone-- and the flying loon she'd carved there-- bare. It was the place she'd come four years later when she'd gotten it removed, after a lover with a thing for birds told her the kind of loon she'd gotten couldn't fly at all, and only paddled in the water and hissed like a goose.

She'd finally moved away for graduate school, going to Boston because everybody said go to Boston, and the program was good there, and they'd given her a lot of money and let her write her dissertation on Edward Hopper. She'd aquired several beautiful scarves and a good coat, and her mother had died, and they'd scattered her ashes not on this beach, but on another one farther from the city, where they'd gone on vacation when she and her brother were young. She'd gone back east and bought a hedgehog on impulse even though all the literature said: "do not buy a hedgehog on impulse" in big letters on the very first page. She'd named it Josephine, after Edward Hopper's wife, because she felt a little guilty for not writing about the woman instead of her husband. She'd been a painter too, after all, although no one ever talked about her. A month later she'd accidentally poisoned Josephine by putting the wrong kind of cedar chips in the cage.

By her third year she'd discovered that she liked teaching, and was good it, which was a relief. And now she was back, with Jack and a mostly done dissertation, the old baby blue Honda parked up on the hill. He was tall, his steps were long, and he'd walked ahead of her far off down the beach, the distance and the dark whittling his body away, the fog on his back and shoulder blades and ankles. She could barely see the one hand he'd raised to put his fingers in his hair near the nape of his neck, and though she could hear the gulls above them she could not see them at all. At night, at home in her childhood bedroom, they would lie, someone's head on someone's chest, a heart sounding like water dropping heavy in an empty bucket. Everything takes everything apart. The light going, the fog on the water, the invisible birds wheeling in the air.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sonnet for Solo Voice

Sonnet for Solo Voice

...practicing my solitary scales 'til they rose like balloons
watching them go where they will go.
           -- The Mountain Goats, "Song for Lonely Giants"
Those who can sing will never understand The torture of missing, even after a million Tries, the right note, the resplendent flourish, The transcendent ache that crowns aria, Ballad, anthem, lullaby, and hymn. When I try to sing, my children groan In happy anguish, appalled that I would Willingly unleash upon the world So frayed and such sour notes. “Do not ever,” My daughter Molly pleads, “try that again.” I do, of course. I try again and again and again, Certain that one day I will sing so well My children, all of them, will weep with joy to hear me Instead of weeping, as they do now, to hear me.