In nature there is nothing melancholy. ~~S.T. Coleridge, The Nightingale Bear witness for me, whereso'er ye be, With what deep worship I have still adored The spirit of divinest Liberty. ~~ S.T. Coleridge, France: An Ode
...of lovers and friends I still can recall
Neuro-science and linguistics have found, more and more, that the portion of ourselves that we recognize as uniquely our own, that we carry with us as the turtle his horn-bone home borne upon his back, is the story of our life that we continually create and edit. It is this most portable portmanteau companion, this kitchen gadget of enlightenment and self-definition, this word in our own ear, that is us to us. In Shakespeare, the most vile Iago gets in-between the naive Othello and his perception of what his love is, what his love means; Iago takes the place of Othello’s own consciousness by his whispered innuendo. If Othello had been more mature in love, as he was in war, he would not have been so malleable to another’s voice, another’s vindictive agenda. He would have recognized Iago’s stratagem for what it was–Iago’s implanted concept of love was simply war by another means. And so we are all vulnerable to the virus of other voices, other selves. Indeed, we change ourselves through the same methods that Iago infects Othello, but usually with less ulteriority in our motives. (As an aside, a situation in which this is not the case, in which we self-consciously adopt a new posture towards our current reality, is when one voluntarily submits to the re-programming of a twelve-step, diet, or other self-help or self-improvement campaign.)
We live in a mist of continual whispers. And these whispers bring us news of the world, and arm us, Galileo-like, with telescopes to view our inner landscapes: our pasts, our nattering presents, our dreams and desires–all at once, or in a movie-montage series that takes on the serried wheels of the kaleidoscope for its deployment and re-deployment of pattern in the search for meaning. Childhood faces, lovers breathing intensely close, the lick of an insistent pet, all compete for their place in the panorama, their time in our arms at the square-dance of selfhood. What fiddler calls the tune? Will we always respond, stomping in time to the quibbling ifs that life presents? This is all process, the creation of context from which our daily self emerges: the hourly display of faces from which Shakespeare chose his masks, and where Dickens lived amid Pickwickian semi-visionary laughter.
Layer on layer of this-was and what-ifs bring us the twists of our private narratives–not the blatant debasement of power-narratives and privileged perspectives and voice that Derrida derived, but the rich exploration of ears of the self, the continual God-slog of “the examined life” that Socrates instilled into the DNA memes of the curious West.
The parable of the parable teller is simply this: that our attention, our focus changes, and the parable-teller, like Chaucer chuckling gently from on-high, remains aware that the change is occurring. Coleridge in “Frost at Midnight” demonstrates well the process of place and inner space. First he is alone in a frosty midnight; then, looking at the fire, he recalls other scenes, and in one of those recalled scenes, he remembers wishing for yet another presence, another context. In “The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” Coleridge imagines the walk his friends are taking and describes that walk. Similarly, Stanley Kunitz imagined the first moonwalk–and when hearing and seeing reports of that walk in actuality, Kunitz claimed he didn’t need to change a syllable of his poem since he had “already walked on the moon” in his imagination. In this same way, we invent the self we are and the details of our lives that stand out for us and become incorporated into the currently active self we are always oh-so-busy experiencing. In poems that follow here, there are usually at least two stories told side-by-side–a current context of speech in which the narrator is speaking or being caused to write, the context of the person being addressed as imagined by the narrator, and the remembered details of events experienced in the past by the narrator (often a past memory of being with the addressee). And all this symphony of whizzing whispering brings the speaker to new views of the self he could be, the creature he is creating in his lab of solitude.
One of the ablest spaces for this refreshing and re-experiencing of the self is in our nests, our tidy homes, with the latch shut and the world feeling far-off and safe. Here there is no imperiling snap and swap of swordplay, no train bearing down on our vulnerable colony of cells. Home means comfort, and ease, and feet up on the couch as we break out the stereoscope and review what wisdom is given to us as our portion of the greater mystery. There’s a warmth in the hearth, a harvest in the home, that no other domicile can quite capture or match, whatever its majesty may be. Niagara Falls or zip-line volcano tours will have to stand beside and wait in memory when the yellow light of a suburban home beckons the leg-tired jet-lagged traveler home. Home to zoning-out, home to the spatter of expected talk, home to regular rounds of coffee, the simple fellowship of your nearby hand, denizens of ease in winter’s sparkling twilight.
And so the parable perpetuates itself in an onslaught of ontologies, tabulations, diaries, vivid minuscule distinction upon distinction without end. Frame within frame, story within story, the multiple perspectives switching with an effortless turn of the tongue, the change of metaphor made flesh, the story made bone and standing up, a stacked skeleton that had been rummaging the veldt on all fours. Do we remember the perspective of the lungfish, the metaphor that had us leap to land, grow hand and hoof, still carrying the seas within us?
Go, little heart, into a song That flies away the while, Chirruping with the dashing catbird there Who flits through a country stile. My eye her errant ecstasy Follows along a dotted line.... Stretched to cotton majesties of cloud Where she disappears like Time. When my song comes singing back To me, from frosty Everest returned, note How my voice at highest pitch remains Till I'm ashes in an urn.
My Jenny, my jewel, the house echoes with your wintery tread, a diamond rolled loud on an overturned aluminum canoe; you walk about like one who is school-tired to the point of ill-temper, a scholar flopped among her hundred books. How often I recall my own school days in dry colloquy with old professors, ghosts of poetry who remain spirit-limber in my reminding mind--strong with witch-words that evoke in me heaven-pastures where angels nod don-like over tomes cloud-lovely and limned with golden words as if sunset were always nigh, yet never setting into that charlike dark beyond the page where thumb and gilding meet and part. And so I see you, conversing briskly with rows of unknowing pupils, tipping cups of milky knowledge into empty mugs.... Here beneath our roof of snow you move in moody silence, heavily, from chair to chair, arranging tests and essays like a stack of X-rays shimmering to heart and bone of your young charges now dimly abed and dreaming--while wild outside the February wind whistles wickedly, and I sit meditative in a half-daze of dream, remembering with the flickering wind just how young (how young!) I once was in poetry--knowing only that I didn't know the myriad ways of verse, but loved all that poetry somehow made me feel--as a child knows nothing, but knows that love is there in the downward glow of its mother's downy face. If I could contain so much of ignorance all at once, surely one day my knowledge could grow as great? The book has flattened on my lap that kept me wondering while you worked-- airy fancies that troubled old Coleridge: his fire's stranger-ash floating over flaming bars as he watched lost in thought in his humble Cot, all his guests asleep, his singing-self a stranger like the rest! Here, the wind-berated moon huddles low over apartment eves; each push and punch of night-wind tells--not of strangers beyond the sill, but how alone we are when we are ourselves! I see my ignorance with sleepy eyes and measure new ignorance by those stars ranged primly distant, too far to touch their fire--almost too far to see.... What passion keeps them steady in their skies, astral marks that tell us where we are? When it's all too much for me, too many confusions and cavilings railing in my brain, all I can think to think, or think to say as the Little Dipper sinks and darkness greys confusing eye and atmosphere, is that a flame grows narrow at its tip. Jenny, I look about me once again, rising itinerant until I find my final bed beyond these rooms we share and shape with life. Nearby, you bend to the stuttering stove, a companionable grace in increasing night, quiz-work kept neatly stacked at the long table, and strike a fresh match to the unprimed grate-- over-watching the tiny flame with as careful eye as God might over-watch the infant heat of Adam in early earth's so-cold bowl-- and soft! within the iron grate, with whisper sweet, bluely ignites the tender pilot light, set to burn as long as attendant gas serves as wick to what your human hands had clicked awake.
Little Michele, little friend, little missed miss, I'm readying a flapping knapsack to meet the changes time has made to friendship, and to hug what cannot change or pall until death entreats a final retirement to all. Little Michele, who first unveiled the graven paths of Yosemite to me, the deep crisp chiseled sky squared above mendicant hikers filing up the Great Falls' narrowing way! Falls whose mists surround me still, wooly polyester fluff of a winter coat near as hair, as white as my new beard now puffs in mirrors. Sleep keeps you in Sacramento, at rest from day-long hospice rounds where time lies blanketed in neat-tucked beds, while I wake in winter-gripped New Jersey where houses huddle together against slush, marooned amid mirrored sheets of old ice that sweat slick at noon only to find the moon skating re-hardened silvers nigh midnight when all the over-busy Garden State is silent. It is out of such silence that I write, my bamboo desk turned tundra by the racing moon that pulls at my recalcitrance like a leash. I resist these dim hours of witting speech when need and time conspire to eke forth words for one both dearly near and distantly absent-- Right now, I'd rather sit speechless with thee, brimful of meaning tears and politely quiet, there in the granite dell where age elides to age, our feet stuck out dry before the campfire, pines leaning in inquisitive with the burst faces of old men shouldering down for warmth, myself yearly learning their wrinkled ways.... A tin wind tat-tats at the window-frame as I adjust my terrycloth robe and note the snow aswirl with words against the blackened panes; how nature moves no matter how still we seem! Even in this dead of night, I think again what times we spent along the reeling shore-- bright trash wrestling the tideline, wrangled wrappers skidding in the static grip of sand, a benediction in the beating surf perhaps as we pointed out new futures for ourselves beneath the dome of stars--the varied constellations' lines growing real as we traced them, the faces of two strangers maturing into friends. Shall we walk and talk that way again when California flits beneath my jumbo's wings, after the soft halt and hiss of wheels on tarmac when your round mellow face emerges smiling from the airport parking lot? After our fellowship of decades, I'm coming out for your investiture as chaplain. Long you tramped the dismal ways of youth, pathless, a-thrist, seeking in granite lanes for a seed--your spirit at last made plain in hospice corridors: hands and long-tried lives held to their denouement, as when a low corner in close woods is turned and Half Dome rises revealed, a pale presence otherworldly as a planet, yet placed in the same precincts as us, sharing the same oft-shouldered air, in vestments streaked by spring rain that scents all afresh. So your chaplaincy seems to me, your old friend winter-gripped and griping lonesomely, getting to know again your slender grandeur-- the presence of a life made complete by purpose. A life brimmed, and, at the brim, over- filled till the light within quivers, quivers even when some infinitesimal breath overplays its tautened surface howsoever gently. So, too, are you full, little Michele, so stretched with love and life divine, a filled cup of teary dews scooped from roaring falls that navigate craggy canyon rocks with white work; filled, too, with dews salted by New Jersey's ocean where a child's barefoot steps stitched minuets many sunny days beside the prolonging surf-- a young woman's hand I held in the dew-light of the quick eternal moon as we walked companionably at peace before the dawn.
A snowy day brings us rarely close, in domestic confine caught, the sizzle-slip of small hail sliding from the eves in beaded curtains until beamed rainbows ring us round and the canceled day is filled with more than light. When hot coffee whistles in its pipping pot the day displayed seems open to us and closed to the humming hustle of all the outer world at once. We two consider our chance to read, catch up, make patterns of extended feet entwined with layabout mirth on ruffled covers confused as ski trails. We look outside and see, beyond the pane fogging at our faces, how hurrying snow comes, obscuring all but us, our inner vision's variableness-- the vast differentials of our too-human light that kindles immanent behind kind eyes that view their refuge of two complete, and with how steady, how stroking gaze swim eons in an hour, two who know eternity in a kiss where wedded lips consign and keep all aspects of their love. Wrapped in whiteness as within a cloud, rosy nose to nose and breath to breath we breathe, the wildered world beyond our known globe of filial affection left unseen, as if within the whitewashed castle walls of a lightbulb we two commenced in love, and in love continue-- blind to ugly outer circumstance, blares and scares, seeing only, touching only, our mutual hearts' intimate disturbances, whose orbit is our sum. Love doesn't come rowdy and crowding into our lives, but steals with silver stealth into living eyes and lips, and with softest brush writes its miracle in silent subtleties, limning argent inches of moonlight on the soft receptive pages of each heart's bound book. Love leaves its milky trailings like a sigh traced in innocence upon a cheek by a child's finger warbling blameless upon her parent's chest. Love is not made alone by Nature's doing, though it moves among Nature's byways and shades, lingers along Nature's lemon lanes at sunset, or, more gorgeously, more fully and less fitfully, strolls boldly below each midnight moon whose cheshire sliver catches in a maple branch. Quick as mischief, you slip the sash up, smiling wild as the shivering air invades, and laughing grab me back, and, simple, look upon the winter swirl outside. And so we hold hands at the now open window, letting large new snow touch and dissolve on our upturned faces, feeling our heat and the cool emptiness of other lives beyond our small life together. Here we clasp, here we feel each peck and speckle on our hands and hearts, two renegades who await each day with sly patience, nor rush to tomorrow when snow today stops the clock, and time is made all quiet as an owl asleep.
Once again the world is gifted white when wily April shoots should show tenderer green to eye and wanting heart.-- How brittle the perfect dryness of the air! Every inch of existence primly trimmed with just an airbrush dust of snow, flat as eyesight in a photograph; the perfection of new Nature, stilled. Life's ever-active riverflow of being contracts molasses-like to one chill pond, stopped in pre-sentiment of what pebble? The million-thronged trees' unbudded candelabra, the fine artifacts of grassblades glassed and frosted in a frozen breath, transform from windowsill to edgeless space in this final winter etching, this landscape postcard all in white and pencil-grey outline held in single view as I awake with daybreak. The house is silent as the dawn. Already Jenny's made her weary way to school, burdened with a bustling brood whose seasons reel through one long unrepeating era, young buds who will not sleep or freeze until their age is in its autumn-time. Before me is this image of life suspended, a moment held fresh as in a crystal ball stamped with a year and place, and handed over, with all its little glitters in a tempest. My eye inspects what whiteness is presented: what unexpected extra blank at the back of last year's calendar! What clock put wrong; what skipped day resurrected! At my eye's periphery brood "houseless woods" where I send my grieving soul to dwell. Coldly I brood on all my love has lost, what friendships stripped that'd been the shred that kept my poor humanity's modesty intact which had been stick-figure naked otherwise. And on lovers lost in unloving spite, I brood: lovers lost to other moons, other moods. Of those inevitable shrivings shorn by death: the loss of parents, the storm of mourning. My mind's a crowd of moaning ghosts; their razor keening strikes unanswered. I can imagine no one who will know me here, here in the heart of hurt, but you. And so I write to you, CPH, remembering days unnumbered of comfort and of calm, of sympathy dripped in intravenous balm; I sit in meditative state like a static dream until all that is is only seems. Like an anchoress rudely caught in her cell of thriving thought you come, a lady-maiden, to my reviving hive, honey-laden. A lady white in a sparkled gown across the frost, across the frozen ground, you glide unspeaking to my icy window, and I am left in speechless mists-- a traveller without a tale to tell, unwelcome come to the Magic Mountain, a little engineer enmeshed in the kicking cogs of my own circumstance! I reach for meaning in my winter world and recall your caution, often sung with a little cornered smile and saddened eye, "First there is a bridge, and then there is no bridge," for how our connections come and go, how what we mean today may seem meaningless tomorrow, how light may fade and dark may grow.... Long our converse might have been today! Many the complaints I've harbored home, many the restless thoughts that pester glum tongue and pain-spiked skull. Instead I find myself in ensorcelled silence, quiet as real around me as a deadened pulse, all the world without neither snow nor spring, time itself neither then, nor now, nor anything. And yet, having added my misery to thee in absentia, and thinking of such speeches past as my catastrophes have cast into your ears, and of such listening as you have often given, whole-hearted--whose only recompense was to weep in fulsome sympathy, I feel fresh, unburdened, although no secret has escaped my scraping pen.
Tonight I write you, Daniel, and cannot expect quick reply, or even any the logic-laden world would count as counter-speech! Many the years that have smoothed thy unsoothed grave, and given unsure rest to you and those you loved; stray waves of darkling violets shadow the stone that brackets your too-trim dates, that keeps a night-dim weight of white on death's uneasy guest. Tonight I drove toward shore, the moon untombed, and lean in summer damp debating words to bury here beside you, as each year I do. Melancholy mission! Yet, with one so missed, a comfort comes springing among the mists of hurt--and words that feed the tubers and the blooms that make the funeral dunes their only home, may dissolve in service where living words do fail.... Dammit, Daniel, forgiveness too eludes the language that I bring to pile beside a corpse too gross to contemplate. Long ago I ought to have been done with tears and tirades, gashes in a golden mask as fine, as final, as Tutankhamen's. A beetle crawls across my naked ankle until it tickles; a gust of laughter bursts within me, and the echo flattens against the small stucco church, rough as sea-rock. Who else is left to share the visions we had voiced, pirouettes of young spirits untiring as the playing spray? And so I come to you, you the older brother, appealing to you for wisdom--even from a stone gone mossy. Carved in memory, I see the beginning kiss that came to stand tall as your two kids, Troy and Pat, whose limber adolescence sails as swift as a catamaran's twin-hulled lullessness. I have their father in my memory kept packed bright and tight against the acid of childish questions. "Lord Dermond," I'd called you--how many times across the years-- laughing-serious at the rightness of the royal sound that crowned you above the cut of men peering out their dusty place to lie and die. Across the years we moved together, bound not to night but to noon as we loaded down the leaf-weight of our birch-bark canoe, throwing its long blade into the dirty light of old Bowie Place's muddy reservoir where many an ancient branch bent to stir reflectless shadowed waters, for us as for the chanting indians who paddled and left their slate arrowheads aslant a brook for us to find and finger, with still-stinging-sharp edges to blood an unwary thumb. Long the weightless hours drowned in that floating stillness! Long the lists of lines sent echoing into the dusk, hands alternately dragging, sweeping, piling high light-lines of freshest wet while poetry rolled boundless within us and boundless trumpeted into nature's leafy overhang. No hand, no stirring, now you rest forever who had sculled those waters--how many times? Our paddles lie rotted behind the house; and rotted out among the moss-backed oaks the very vessel that had sustained the high talk that made our friendship leap-- the reel of mutual thought unwound like fishing line to catch what pulled us heavenward and homeward. Our kicked-off Keds crossed clumsily in the uneven gully of the craft, running no more than an angel's sandals might, anchored crossed in passing clouds above. Paradise had fallen with the late shafts of butterfly afternoons; page upon page of distaff poems we let drift about the boat serene as swans in the brown current; flare of sunset, and then, soaked, they swirled black and unmoving on some low tarn of tar. Night's dark amplitude had found no fit answer to the sky's starred expanse. Now my own prow creeps to ground again on your death's bleak bank of bonded marble.... My beak of meaning gawps in agony, a cadaver cannibal attempting to eat at your sculpted David's sepulchred and whittled flesh. The dune grass that springs afresh about you whispers sweet of mere eternities unmet that I shall never meet--as I shall never see you again, good friend gone, befriending yet my orphan heart tonight, keeping one solitary flame aloft till greeny dawn. These passing shapes and shadows please, but cannot ease what mind of mine attends the salt-sharp night, these ragged knees kneeling in the hard sea-grass, in the wet that leaves your grave at sea, and me at sea, and makes the misty moon an albatross to shoot with what words I yet may aim at heaven. La! an old man's thoughts, an old friend lying before him, unadorned in dead earth-- I chew old bones of thought, while away in the crash and wash of the restless surf, cloud-hid, a gull's hungry cry pierces repeatedly.