Sunday, July 13, 2014

That's Not the Sun Up In The Sky

That's not the sun up in the sky, it's a human heart
-- The Mountain Goats, “Alpha Sun Hat”

That’s not the clock on the wall, it’s a broken knuckle
That’s not the evening turning gray, it’s a photograph
That’s not the warmth of your skin, it’s a…it’s a…
That’s not a child’s bicycle, it’s a stray ottoman
That’s not the dried amaryllis our neighbors gave us,
The one in the window in the spare bedroom
That’s not the hammer with the shaky head
I told you, I told you, there’s just not enough light
That’s not the monkey we saw at the Baltimore zoo
That’s not the stale saltwater taffy, it’s an effigy.

That’s not the proper order, it’s a welcoming
That’s not how you spend the evening, it’s criminal
That’s not the feature of your face I’m familiar with,
It’s neither this nor that, it’s a cameo, a bit part,
A burgeoning, the way the storm splits the gutters,
Rents the rooms upstairs, plaster and paint chips
Everywhere. Oh, everywhere. Not mathematics,
Not vestigial fingers, not scales, not historical novels
That’s not the morning turning warmer, it’s the blood
In our veins, coursing forward, coursing forward again.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Meaningless Pictures from Old Magazines

Of the Silence of William Archibald Spooner: A Ballad

I write reminders on my skin
Clip meaningless pictures from old magazines
I tape them to the walls
        -- The Mountain Goats, “All Up the Seething Coast”


After sixty years teaching Divinity, black-robed
W.A. Spooner began to accost the strangers
Who, uninvited, appeared in his classroom: “You
Haven't come for my lecture, you just want to
Hear one of those, well, things.” Then the students
Grew ever more restless with his



Once, after a particularly nasty quarrel, one
That included her slicing her finger, Spooner’s wife
Is purported to have said, You know, I was a fool
When I…
     but didn’t bother
     to finish.
Here’s what I want, Spooner replied:
I want to live in a world such that a chicken
Can meander across a road without its motives
Being questioned.


        Perhaps his wife simply
Wanted to improve herself, perhaps by learning
A new language, or perhaps the problem really
Boiled down to how best to use prepositions: of or
For or beneath, for example, a pith helmet (also known,
Let it be known, as safari tin, sun shade, or such).


But remember that we may not be able to make
Proper judgment without help. Perhaps this morning,
When you told me you had met him on a double date,
You already knew he used to be a detective. Did you
Know? Did you?
     And what of it?


Well, I’ll tell you
What of it: If you proceed, if you insist on proceeding,
You will likely fall into

    a pit.


William Archibald Spooner would
Surely answer, surly as ever: That’s clever,
That. Let’s give it a try then.


Oh, fuck it.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Talking to the Statues

Yesterday I put in a good five hours
talking to the statues,
Chased your memory all around the room,
didn't manage to catch you.
  -- The Mountain Goats, “Korean Bird Paintings”

I could write about consequence and reason or about the frayed ends of thatched reeds dangling beneath a chair’s seat or about the body’s own poisons. I’d rather recount the famous, dead and gone, whom I’d like to invite to dinner, Monk and Molina and Maravich, just to mention the M's. But what makes any of us think such geniuses would rise from their graves and straight away consent to share a meal and answer our questions? And what is it we should ask? What was the bright spirit by which you were possessed? or Now? Is there so much as a single shallow breath? In other words: What should we want to know and how much?

It is fruitless, of course, to aspire to genius, but that never stopped me. I wanted to be a child prodigy, though even then I suspected I didn’t have it in me, that I had something of the second-best coursing through my veins. Oh, what arrogance dwells in such a notion – that one will always triumph until the very end, until all but one other has fallen away, until the last shot in the final game spins its way out rather than in at the buzzer, death without dominion until, of course, its proper reign has well and surely begun.

The spirit isn’t bright but dark, and I should have said that, having known this for what feels like forever. It can’t have been forever, of course. There must have been a dozen or so years before it. But it can feel like forever, just as our lives can feel like forever: an endless sloping line, perhaps halved from time to time but those halves never amounting to – as halves of course cannot – nothing. Something must always remain.

Or maybe not. Wallace Stevens’ listener, nothing himself, attends to the nothing that is in the final line of “The Snow Man,” a poem worth recounting whole:

One must have a mind of winter 

To regard the frost and the boughs 

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time 

To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think 

Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land 

Full of the same wind 

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 

And, nothing himself, beholds 

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Perhaps it would be best to be brazen with such men, ask Stevens how he spent his final few Sunday mornings, ask Monk to relay a bit of what swirled through his head all those days at the Baroness’s estate, ask Jason Molina whether the beauty warbling in his throat as he sang tasted bitter or sweet, ask Pistol Pete if he knew somehow, or at least suspected, that he was born with only half a heart.

Recite these words: While the wolf had her fangs deep in my heart, who’s been writing them songs, who’s been singing and who’s been listening, blue eyes while you’ve been gone, that two dollar hat and them old black stockings, down on the bowery. Then listen to Jason Molina sing them, hear them from his lips and tongue and chest and breath. That is how genius elevates, how suffering ennobles, how beauty transforms. Or perhaps you find yourself unpersuaded. Then go lie down in the tall grass; let the black birds come for you at sunset. They’ll either carry you away or pluck out your eyes, claw at your heart, peck away to get at the sweet marrow of your bones. You decide -- we all decide -- how you wish to be taken.

I should tell the living what I think of them, let them hear my admiration, let them make of my words whatever they will. Those words are not, I know, worth nothing to them. It does not belittle me to speak. So much easier, though, to talk to statues, to imagine the dead resurrected, to pronounce one’s faith only after the miracle has been enacted.

To the ones I love, though, this. Only but always this.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Whole Wide World

The last of the repercussions
died off real slow.
The sky was still;
the cold sun sank down beneath the snow.
I hung by my hand
from the tree outside
 and I looked on
The whole wide world

    -- The Mountain Goats, "Whole Wide World"

What are those famous Susan Sontag lines about illness? Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Most of us, she writes, make our lives in the kingdom of the well, until and unless we are obliged, at least briefly, to call ourselves citizens of that other, darker place. 

But what about the border town? the nowhere-land between the two? the hazy, dilapidated strip between the now leaving... and welcome to... signs?  Mostly it's a place you pass through-- spend a night, or at most a few weeks, sweating it out in some low-slung pastel motel -- and then drive on into the proper provinces of illness or health, where, whatever the state of affairs, there's at least some sturdy government, and you'll  know the pattern of the flag and what currency they'll take.

But even the border town has a population. The ones who keep the motels, and the greasy-spoon, and the 24 hour Cash-for-Checks & Currency Exchange place  up and running. Who know the backroads and the menu of the one bar by heart. Who live whole swaths of their lives in the in-between. 

Illness is not a metaphor, Sontag says. And maybe she's right. But I was raised-up in the border town between illness and health, and I'm here to tell you -- it's where metaphors are born.

Thank the Lord, rarely in my life have I been truly sick. But I've damn sure never been well. Not from my earliest blue moments in the hospital incubator, failing to breathe, and then doing it badly. I'm not dying any faster than most of us. There's no foreign invader in my blood, no fatal flaw in my heartbeat. I can't claim  a visa into illness, really, and I shouldn't.  But every time I try to cross the border into wellness there's a reason they won't stamp my passport. Pick one: high muscle-tone, absence of motor control, chronic pain, lack of balance, graceless gate, scar-tissue, bruising, muscle weakness, general fatigue. Even beyond my body they claim brain damage, lack of spacial awareness, persistent depression, severe anxiety, lasting trauma.

I get sick of this list, and sick of the fact that I know it so well.  Everything grows banal if you repeat it too many times. Even pain becomes bureaucracy. 

No entry for the damaged, darling. 

So I make my life between hills of barbed-wire. I have a permanent room in one of those stucco motels, and I've taken the bad oil paintings of ships down off the walls and filled the room with typewritten letters written from hospitals and orchids somebody snuck in for me from the land of the well. I'm near the ice-machine and the one balcony where you can see the sky, and the boy down at the diner knows how to make my coffee just right and that I like crab cakes for dinner. 

But here's the thing about nowhere, in-between, border town: there isn't enough there to keep you alive.

This spring I become inexplicably convinced that I am, indeed, dying, and now. I can't breathe or keep my food down. My ankles swell and my heart is like a bottle-rocket in my chest. I shake in the sweat-soaked covers of my bed, I shut myself in the bathroom, light every candle in my place and pray. I bite my lips raw and bleeding. I beat on the gates of the kingdom of the sick: let me in, in, in. For three nights I sleep on a friend's couch and try to cry softly enough that I won't wake her children.

Oh Molly, stop it. My father begs on the telephone. You'll waste so much time feeling like this...

The most awful thing is that he's paced his own years in the border town, is pacing them now, maybe. I hear his echo alter: I've wasted so much time feeling like this...

From the kingdom of the sick, they send small pale pills in increasingly high dosages. From the land of wellness they send water and chocolate, and small pale pebbles the color of my thumb. From everywhere they advise breath.

In my room in the border town I have a desk. At my desk in the border town I write a poem to the mind I fear I'm losing. It is roadkill, a milk bottle, a lover, the water, my body, a disobedient boy. I write through a whole day, Godbless it. In the border town there isn't enough to keep you alive; Goddamn it, you have to conjure it up, out of muted-florescence, and gasoline, and faith. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Suppositions: An Interlude

If you keep quiet, it will stay like this forever.
If you just keep quiet, it will stay like this forever.
I feel certain of it now.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Noche del Guajolote

I suppose there is indeed a perfect text and the writer’s job is to struggle toward it, hoping that at best he will manage a kind of approximation of what he ought to have written, the way an umpire can call a strike on a pitch that’s in the neighborhood of the plate – an inch or two high or low, outside or in, of the strike zone – the batter’s knees buckling when he fears the curveball or slider will hit him but instead arcs back over the plate and the umpire contorts his limbs into an approximation of the martial artist’s deadly attack, while the fans groan or erupt, depending on whether their team’s player has thrown the strike or taken it.

And these the ingredients in the bitter recipe of tortured romantic ardor: mother, child, and angel; pulse, twist, and wretch; terror and longing, prayer and regret. Home, lost. Home, alas. Home, oh terrifying angel. Home, oh mother to the man become brother of the chosen, unchosen himself, the terrifying angel wrecked and torn. That’s all Rilke, I suppose, locked in the chains from which he cannot release himself.

I will say this about my eye troubles: I have come to understand the precise ways in which our vessels and nerves are nothing but vines wrapped around muscle and bone, shaped according to sinew and skeleton, how a sharp stitch in the eye can stab not simply at spine and scrotum and bowel but at the ball of a foot and the cord of a finger, at temple and ankle and crook of the arm, knee, or neck. Thus, I suppose, we see not merely with our eyes but our entire selves. How else would we detect the dull beast squatting on his matted, leathery haunches in the dark field behind our home?

I suppose there are certain things you can’t take a picture of, like the yellow orchid in the west-facing kitchen window at sunset. Oh Susanna, don’t you dare cry for me.

Fourteen years ago, in Spain, in a stone castle dangling above a magnificent cliff, and in Wales, among the gorgeous ruins of Tintern Abbey and on the rain-soaked hills, and at thirteen, seated for hours against an oak tree in Lake Vista, and on the Lake Pontchartrian seawall at seventeen, and at dawn, at my desk, more mornings these days than not, and seated driving in my car. There. There. There. I suppose there is indeed some perfect moment to be captured, but in what manner? At what expense?

I suppose I assumed that by my fiftieth year I would have a firm grasp of what appears to be going on with, you know, life, love, suffering – the whole lot of it. Not joy, though. I don’t believe I ever expected to attempt such a difficult calculation.

If I keep quiet, I suppose, it will stay like this forever. My good eye. My bad. The knot on the tendon of my right hand. The impossible beauty of the late afternoon sun in the west-facing window. Rise, rise, rise.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A New Year's Resolutions

One whole life recorded
In disappearing ink…
-- The Mountain Goats, “Lakeside View Apartment Suite”

A New Year’s Resolutions

To finally find the red ball that, half a century ago, sailed high over our heads into the thorny weeds of our neighbor’s backyard.

To walk each day the twilight fields beyond our house with such resolute humility the deer do not bother to scutter away but instead consent to demonstrate precisely how one slowly, slowly, bows one’s head in a solemnly orchestrated homage.

To speak plainly, without shenanigans or wordplay, without costume or cosmetics. To say dog for dog, love for love.

To welcome back not simply those we’ve sorely missed but those long ago and well forgotten, children wandering the halls of washed-away schools.

To be we again, not I, though we do not even know how to manage much more simple mathematical calculations: circumferences, square roots.

To find solace in forgiveness, even at the expense of a proper sentence, a dog set to barking only after the prowler has taken all he aims to steal.

To cease imagining certain inevitabilities: books never to be read, music never to be heard, beauty unregarded, unremarked.

To attend to the gentlest of rains, such slow and mournful songs, until the water overflows the garden’s cisterns, seeks gully, creek, and stream with a philospher’s resolve, a poet’s fervency.

To read and listen, to regard all beauty, with a scholar’s ardency, a penitent’s faith, even as each leaf slips from the branch: sentence and melody and shape become word and note and silhouette become form and sound and ash.

To wake Mr. Justice from his winter nap, ask his help in finding all we’ve lost: first, the red ball; afterward, the children wandering the washed-away halls; finally, the scrap upon which we scrawled this list.