John Muir’s queer and sundry quotations and exclamations shine through pane after pane of Yosemite Valley’s buildings. Less a ghost and more of a sacred mascot, his bearded visage seems to hang down from every shaggy tree and to impose itself in the crinkled cliff-shadows on every side of this immense religious fosse into which tourists pour as amply as blood or wine. “How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountain!” “I never saw a discontented tree.” “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”
Poetry is like a Dear John letter or your baby’s first word–more is being said than you can understand all at once. Thus it was on my early Spring vacation to a furiously, fragrantly blossoming California, and especially during my visit to famed Yosemite–I was beautifully confused. In Yosemite the strange experience of grandeur is evoked, perhaps for the first time, and this new territory takes some time to be mapped and civilized into the acknowledged borders of our being.
In Yosemite, you can see God’s thumbprint on His creation, the signature of an artist who has otherwise removed himself from his work. But in Yosemite, His grandeur is too manifest, too manly, too vividly veridically vibrant, to remain unacknowledged. And while I was on vacation, sipping beer in the shadow of God, as it were, I began to have a feeling for the identity behind the whorls of that triumphant thumbprint.
I walked from whorl to whorl while Spring broke from the earth in blossom after blossom.
New Jersey freezes or clings to you. Rare are the cool autumn days or the spring mornings when the leaf is new and the air a softness on the cheek comforting as a mother’s untroubled hug. Most common, cursed and recalled are the deadening August heats when the first glorious release from winter’s chilly wet has been long forgotten. Citizens are salamanders, at home in the BBQ pit, or they are locked in their ice boxes coddling shakers topped with triple martinis and clusters of olives swirling their frozen, envious eyes. Nights are twisted away in sweaty sheets crushing as canvas tarps, and dawn crawls through the window red-eyed with her hot cottony tongue flooding your mouth too insistently to resist. You spend long hazy days in a vaporous crucible and are poured back into bed by exhaustion.
Winter wears on you no better. Dump trucks of blizzard-snow back up to the drive the midnight before a harried commute; the highways are black with road rage and grit by noon, only to freeze into unnavigable slush by quitting time–which occurs, as had the morning commute, in slanderous darkness. When the creep and ache of winter finally set in your bones like knitting needles, you know you are in for six more months of God’s laughter.
Such ugly weathers have been the metronome of my existence. Yours too, if you are one of the Garden State’s millions of inmates. As the most crowded state in the union, we look out the window squinting for nature only to find the battered face of a neighbor staring blearily back. And when we can’t see each other, we hear each other. Or, even more morosely, smell each other, cooking odors drifting through the chemical miasma of polluted Elizabeth. Some medallioned goon revs his polished off-road monstrosity past your drive, a monster truck that will never see an unpaved mile of road before its warranty is out; just beyond the mailbox, a toddler squeals merrily at the God-awful screech of his plastic Big Wheel ripping down the sidewalk while his playmates rehearse an unending Wagnerian death scene.
Looking out the molded porthole, the double-paned punch-out in the jetliner, I see the San Francisco hills growing more and more hunched, crowded and real until the horizon is no longer all sky, high cirrus clouds bent in a hoop, and the deep Pacific inflated far below like a runaway beach ball. Now the world is blowing toward me, and I shall have to walk into it without my wings, taking only the delightful Heinekens the bustling steward poured for me along in my tummy, rolling out into my arteries in breakers of shushing foam. A small man wearing safety orange coveralls comes by in a tram as we brake, hops out, and chucks florescent blocks under the plane’s wheels, which have come down so lightly on the tarmac. The great stretch of getting here is over, and the time when the entire Earth seemed so available and focused, an eye-object I could toss between my hands, that is over too. I no longer have the perspective that lightness and speed had granted in the air. Now I must move among objects with my body, my private mind-world a stranger here, myself an unsober bear swaying weightily on clumsy black paws.
Little Michele has the face of a lion. A pure golden mane falls back from a square-featured face, hair straight as uncooked spaghetti. Her eyes are two chips of sky, Caribbean pools prone to storms, the intense bezel of an x-ray machine, exposing bones and breaks and the progress of mends deep within the delicate ghosts of muscle. Her nose seems small, almost hidden in plain sight, an odiferous tan mushroom tucked beside looming redwoods, shaded and guarded. Reddened by allergies, sneezes, or tears, it transforms into a ladybug button, an up elevator light making a quick retreat to the roof, the roof a broad perfect dome smuggled out of Constantinople intact, supporting the thousand lines of sunshine arrayed around the dome in a glory. When little Michele hugs me hello at the airport in SF Int’l’s muraled halls, her chin registers against my bent-down neck determined as a hockey stick. She knows now for sure in her lion way that someone else is climbing down into the swamped yellow raft of her life, a second set of feet to look at in the raft’s well as the rains whip the sea, the tide bruising, and ancient fins–a few at first, then more and more in the bloodied waters–glint dully in the whirlpool’s tightening fist.
Sparky, a Chou-Labrador mix, swart and swift as a wild boar launches herself into my crotch–a spicy island lover who never learned the decorum of airport parking lots. She is one who snaps at the moon in her waterdish, and who galumphs into bed when the big thunder bowls fear along the alleys of her dog-mind. Sparky and I wrestle for the shotgun seat in the car, and she settles for keeping two paws on my shoulders and her tongue in my ear, glad as the slapping water at the side of a refreshing pool. Little Michele glances over at me laughingly, snapping her teeth and shivering excitedly. “O,” she says, gunning the starter.
Later, at Martin’s cozy home in Marin, Martin–thin as a pair of trimming scissors–leans back easily in his easy chair, blithely high, and plays at playing Puff the Magic Dragon until our eyes shine.
My troubles travel with me in my old grey-green duffel bag, emblazoned with a bold logo for “The Hunger Site,” where money goes golden into the mouths of starving orphans as you click their web ad. In my bag, no poems. A spare razor that tracks my face to redness like a tornado grinding through moldy Oklahoma soils; what frail flower will wind upward in the destruction’s wake? Out-dated maps of San Francisco crowd against an unbroken three-pack of new underwear (almost enough for the plotted duration), the maps folded and worn at the folds from disuse as they travel stuffed in my tight pockets; will they pinpoint my experience on a grid? My ecstasy, my despair? A toothbrush is here, screwed into a silver tube, one that only sees action in foreign air, drying by sinks from London to Maine. My rose-colored camera’s here, which I had solemnly promised myself to use for photos of faces, not things, during this trip to the buttery-sunny lands of California. I look up to my own face in the sparse living room’s nude mirror as the camera slides to the roomy couch, my bed for the night. In the mirror, all the old confusions arise, painted by pain on an aging canvas. If only I had a bag to carry my head around in, unseen until I really needed it!
In the corridors of Mercy General a woman goes her rounds in heavy black shoes. She is one of the intercessors, the listeners. When a frog chirrups in the old wood, and the morning branches crowd with diminutive Pavarattis, who keeps their symphony? Who hears the mosquito’s thin singing above an unvisited mud puddle? Our civilization is all in our ears, in listening and sitting back and doing nothing. Hunger sharpens the ears of the woodland; the wolves whose ears stand up like scissors, or the frog’s black circles to the rear of his black eyes, alerting him when to snap or leap. Hunger whets the chipmunk’s nose in the wild dark under the rhododendrons. But here in the hospital corridors a small woman walks quietly, plain-nosed, a little itchy in her starched uniform, her blond hair efficiently bunned that had fallen free as sunshine over the Bhagavagita at the beach last weekend. And curled tightly, simply, under the wire curves of her eyeglasses, are her ears as strong as conch shells–cupping within them, as a cupped tongue laps water, the delicate mechanisms of the conch.
Down a steepening path of dust broad as a Viking’s oath we trod toward the “secret waterfall” in Auburn that my friend little Michele had been guided to by a previous explorer who would sling his canvas hammock in the cool mist above a dewy pool, and there meditate until darkness overwhelmed the scene. Several times as we wandered our way to Codfish Falls, Michele was moved to cry out “I love you, river!” to the marvelously green-going glassy water, a deep turquoise vein of living rock brushed by a wet cloth, the cleansing hand as imbued with caring as any docent’s. Our path was crested on the left by a grassy cliff descending to a rivulet that seemed no more than a blue-green thread of film thrown down among shadows. To our right almost the whole way of a good hour’s tromp lifted nearly vertical hillsides absolutely on fire with proud California poppies.
Have I told you about the California moon? Dawn comes on only resentfully, fully yellow, pushing the august moon offstage the way an old farmer shoos geese with his pitchfork. There are too many things to do, one cannot stop and look at the ice on the brown puddle, or listen to how the insects stir from their short hibernation in the patient grass. Dawn has huge fiery buckets to slop into the feed trough, a blazing motorcycle headlight pouring into the billion open eyes of chlorophyll nature covers her body with. We cover our bodies with a closetful of clothes, locking our senses away, letting our buttons and hands do all our feeling for us. Feet are like the moon, shoved absent-mindedly into socks, belted into shoes, away from distractions, and made to work like yoked oxen all day, their horns turned earthward, their steps undancing. All day the unnoticed moon pulls on us, palely flat in the blue, or rowing behind a cloud. Only at dusk, when the sun lifts from your neck like a burning chain unharnessed, the click and unclasp of an iron ring, do you lie down flat on the porch, letting a tendril of air under your collar–just a little, with your boots kicked off.
You wake up with a start. It is dark out, you think it is dark. Your back–having borne many burdens–creaks, or the planks creak, releasing the sour witch Sycorax from her prison pinned in a pine-knot among the floorboards. The moon, all day absent except for her gentle mother-tug, and who prefers rock darkness, has flown up over the hill and is white. White as a bridal gown held by its hanger as the bride runs away. But dawn remains on the moon’s back, laying his long chains of light, keeping his fiery eye on us, even in sleep. And the moon works to throw him off, to finalize the divorce, stop the beatings, and grows herself darker as the month passes, shaking her golden back like a retriever running to shore, the shot-gunned mallard in her gently cradling teeth, the water going everywhere as dreams.