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.
Shy to the point of disappearing in an unreconstructed squeak, little Michele is also, in the street parlance of our day, something “fierce.” Hair blonde as beer, a feisty blue-eyed five foot nothin’, little Michele, once you are within the circuit of her active care and attention, comes on as strong as a rap star. More than a few have suggested I start shoutin’ out “L’il Michele” and flashing a gang sign when I tell her tall tales. She has something of Paul Bunyan’s broad shoulders in her lack of compromise, her embittered bravery and willingness to out-face the rules of “Life, so-called.” And something in her, too, as whimsical and saddish as any Blue Ox quietly scraping an itch on the side of the Pecos. She’s the unquestioned queen of another realm, a place of endless wealth and sex, whose passport is stamped in feminine giggles and a toss of her hair. But woe unto the trespasser, the pusher of gates, the brash bandito who lays no homage at the queen’s pale feet! Then the countenance of a Sphinx looks down, carved by blood-sweat and seen in terror-dreams since the before-times, an unforgiving myth whose riddle may make Death your next meal. And no help from those high eyes lost in profound shadows of her own thoughts! No mercy, no mincing giggle or long-prepared appeal to a less-than-celestial court will avail. Those justices, those mysteries are her own book, written with exact clarity in a dainty executioner’s hand–the day-glo notebook doodled with daisies.
I’ve been here a long time already, asking what it means and not knowing. My friends turn up their faces in friendly expectation when I turn toward them, a bubble at my lips, words about to float off from their silent home in my belly, where I keep a small coal guarded that only one wizened Tibetan knows about. Only a mountain wind can flare the small coal alive, the whip end of a lank donkey-tail. I put my hand into the bowl of spicy peanuts instead of speaking, swallowing the bubble, its spices breaking on my tongue.
Michele is introducing me to her Sacramento cohort, fine folks with a range of faces. Stories get told, introductions and fabled embarrassments. Stories whose intricate inner emotional edge little Michele could recall in almost infinite detail, her hands sailing the topography of the conversational arena like Einstein mapping out the first square of timespace in his mind. Everyone is politely greedy to know how Michele and I first met, what windswept moor or blurred stage-set of the past first let us see friendship as our kismet. “At a bookstore where we both worked.” “He had a rock and roll poetry vibe.” “She was so shy, I just had to know her.” “The way her hands leapt and almost clapped when she said ‘poetry.'”
How does a crow grow a nest for its dark life? Day after day over the empty fields, here a glitter, there a glint of something draws the wings to its sides to plunge earthward. The black head cocks to one side, and a bit of foil shimmies into its beak. Somewhere in the crow an egg is waiting, to be laid, to be hatched. But day after day there are the empty fields, flying alone, resting on other people’s fences, as here and there in a hedge a stick cries out “pick me up.” And we have a life we do not understand but that is our own life, a speckled egg glowing down among the sticks our beaks have gripped.
Tonight is a simple time of rain. Rare on this California visit, which has been clear and cool every evening, a weatherman’s suicide note written in stars and slow-moving clouds. But tonight there are wet voices, small bodies smashing themselves on the roof to get in, to have a quiet talk. The drops, which disappear on my fingertips, when seen in their steady-state are sweet berrylike beings whittled at their tips, each one hand-carved for the occasion. If I let them in, what would they say to me? Would they wonder how the rainfall inside me stays caught, a bag of water smoking a pipe? I hear, above the muted violence of their splatter, how they are whistling as they come down, firemen down a firepole blowing high-pitched life through their nostrils. When morning arrives and our convocation has dissolved, I walk out a few miles into the clear cool morning. One block over a house has burned down in the night; it is all foundations now, soaked, empty as a blackboard before the teacher hangs up her coat and tucks her damp umbrella between the wastepaper basket and the old metal desk.
The sinuous pipe smoke rises beyond me, forgetting its warm origin in my mouth. Now it is becoming many different shapes as the indecisive breeze takes it. Eventually, it is a smear on the ceiling, or the tasty tail of a raincloud.
It is so difficult to maintain one’s dignity. No matter how much one tries to strut and swat water like a swan, white feathers impeccable, your beak held proudly as a conductor’s baton one second before the first momentous downstroke evoking symphonies, the ugly duckling is still there within us, quacking a sour note. My body is too puffy, and that crooked beak!
There’s this crummy pub at one end of some town in Marin, I forget the name of the town. Basically, it’s a crappy shack stuck between a holistic aromatherapy candle repository and a henna tattoo specialty shop. Called blandly “The Pub,” it has a large long crowded smoking porch out front that looks onto tan joggers and the strolling street life of a cute suburban square. In the way back, through a crooked corridor where the creaky bathroom door blasts open at unexpected intervals, there is another porch, small and dingy, with ashtrays piled like Cambodian killing fields, railed in with a high rail that interferes with an instructive view of the neighbor’s laundry.
This is a place where you can drink hard and stumble home, smoke your sins, and chuckle at the shaggy dog tales of the other anonymous patrons. The patrons remain anonymous, no matter how long you have made this backwater your stopping place, or how many scratch games of checkers or chess you have played with the cracked queen, her red crown missing a fang, because here beer is the sanctified libation, and your community with the other patrons extends only to the fact that you want to forget your life for a few smoke-filled hours while the sun drowns itself in the Pacific.
On the cash register that rang up my Dutch sourbeer earlier is scotch-taped Woodie Guthrie’s quip: “This machine kills fascists.” It was stuck there by a bored and attractive young employee who mocks all who she meets: consumer, client, co-employee, unwinding expert, or dissolute layabout.
On my way back through the crooked corridor, I notice tar leaking from my pipe; it lays a dark stain on my left index finger warmed by the ignited bowl. The ship’s hold of my lungs are leaking tar too, I know, into the cold ocean of death, the black outer water lapping. The small back porch is dark now, with a lone low light swinging from a wire. My rumpled ballcap waits in a swayback chair for me, my whistle whetted, the Red Hen British brew in my hand already half sucked down.
A wrong turn bounces the borrowed car onto a riverbed of Old West cobblestones. Buildings around my bubble of idling modernity exchange their sheets of non-committal waterfall glass for wooden faces straight out of a John Wayne movie. I am lost in an antique downtown scissored into a maze of one-way streets under the immense shadow of interstates overhead whose omnipresent ramps lay in wait to whisk the unwary explorer to unlabeled otherwheres in a wink. I have taken a wrong turn into the past, rolling into the Twilight Zone with a cracked windshield and a slipping transmission. This is a ghost-town, large as life and stuck like a sepia stamp onto this forgotten corner of downtown Sacramento. One lone cowpoke leans with leathery authority against a post outside the General Store. I can just see a pickle-barrel and bags of flour piled in the doorway’s shadows behind him. Next to the General Store there’s a blacksmith shop and livery stable, but no horses lounge at the hitching rail shooing flies. Perhaps the four-footed citizens of this past have been seduced onto the open road by the interstate’s hydra-headed entry ramps, just as I have been sluiced to the sidelines to find myself in this pond of the previous century-and-a-half–a pond so still its surface refuses to reflect the curious face bent close, for the tar-dark waters have been sprinkled with a fine, obscuring dust. I let the car decelerate the last mile-per-hour as if letting time out of the tires, dropping the reins until the old gal finds a spot to stop. I crane my neck and periscope around, disoriented and downtrodden. Worn saloon doors swing empty in the empty breeze. Time’s sandglass lies on its side, being without advancing. Perhaps there is something for me here; something in getting lost and in staying lost. Something in Old Sacramento where the wind plays with my untucked shirttail and my glasses slip on the sweat of my face. Something. I almost feel the false assurance of meaning patting my back. But then I realize, unstuck in time as I am, that I do not know where “here” is.
Out of the grass, Walt Whitman! You and I have much to say together. Finely and carefully let us comb our words. Let your beard grow mossy and uncut! I dance in these grasses as the moon dances. Each leaf unfurls individual as a middle finger: "Fuck you! I am that I am," as the Lord sayeth. To me each leaf is a clear word whispering. Together our tide is slowing rising, Lapping, lipping, leaping the grains of the shore. Almost it is sunset between us, as it was dawn Heretofore. Almost, Walt, you come To know my name. Almost, I have found where you are waiting.
The drive out happens in this flattening heat. Dust like a cropduster’s dust sprays out from behind the old Dodge Dart, the windshield cracked and unprotected by tape or attempts at repair. The dashboard is hard and shell-like, a dead wing flitting hotly along in the dirt. Waves of super-heated air present several horizons to the naive eye, all orange, dividing downness from the timid blue of the skies. Trees, anchored in some undetectable gush of water, watch us skip by like a flung stone. White lines on the highway, tell-tale twine slyly paid out by an Indian captive, suggest a direction. I roll up the string until my hands are mittened with it, cocooned in the silky substance, a white ball of light in my hands. Abandoned fruit stands, side-drifted lean-tos, stand up like unattended mailbox flags in front of the rusted field tractor, ticking unmoving in the pan-fry temperature. The fields sizzle with grain, matchsticks ready for sudden illumination. When the salt drops come to sting my eyes, I cannot wipe them away my hands are so full, my heart set on Half Dome, the crunch and shuffle of a good long hard hot walk, the stiff curtains of cliff after cliff, maybe the shifting curtains of Bridalveil Falls already lifting its cool tassels…. I crack a smile and stick my head out the roll-down window to dry off.
We drive through the forest hills, which had been burned out when last I came here, a Teutonic village laid waste by Romans. The landscape had had a look of dry charcoal, a cindery barbecue pit to roast whole constellations in. The bare curve of the hills was easily discernible, flourishing trees ground down to discarded pencils. Ash everywhere, a foot thick, clinging to the tear ducts, sticking like dog licks to your face, your eyelashes. When you brought your feet back into the car, you left footprints like a moonman unpacking his suitcase at Cape Canaveral.
Now, six years into death, everything seems bushy, a greedy green bursting out where the flames had flared. Only here and there in the newness a pilot mast of the old growth stands up, a black beacon pointing pastward: Medieval scholars cribbing a bastard Latin, or ripped bikers tattooing ornate roses on their chests under hairy beards. The smell was of dew with the window down; healthful, with no hint of the million cigarettes that had been inhaled to their filters in one suck.
Everything here is orderly, touristy. Herds of Subarus and VWs pull off together to take the first easy steps toward wetness in the park. Surrounded by a ground mounded with leaf mulch and pine cones the size of small mammal skeletons, the SUVs seem as one-off and out of place as kiddie-colored dinosaur sculptures. Even if they were picturesque junk from the Pleistocene, they would seem too new, too natty to belong in this sacred thimble of ancientness. A conviction of eternity weighs down your shoulders, attaches heavily to the car roof above you as you corkscrew slowly earthward from the crimped rim of the Valley. Your eyes seem to see only the changeless verities of grey rock and hurtling stream, motionless and motion married in a souvenir pewter frieze left out of the attic for ten thousand Christmases. Giant trees with the girth of elephants, of whales even, are no more than yesterday’s stubble on the living portrait–the greenish visible fringes of a force that pushes life out of every available surface. Dun toads look up you at you knowingly, returning your stare, addressing not the man you are but the ageless toad you came from undimmed eons ago. The occasional mule deer neither beg nor blink, you are so irrelevant to their woodland walks and ways. Coming back along the first, low path to the lichened boulders of a minor waterfall, you are hugged close against a latrine, its reek enormous, its fecal mound bursting, dotted with white flags, full almost to the lip of the hole that defines it. Old men and women, saggy-kneed, young children with large eyes and noses unwrinkled by the putrid scent, hold hands and wait patiently to access the hole. They will leave something behind here at the emetic gate, a ritual purification before going any further on into the valley vast as a million crashed cathedrals and unforgettable as a first caustic kiss from God.
Some experiences come only once, and some are repeated many times, and some of those that come only once stay repeated in the mind, a worrystone or rosary the soul comes to know as wholly holy. Here at Bridalveil Falls I step wearily from the car, a sere leaf fallen (and, almost, in last year’s love parade, marched to mulch). With careful deliberation, I shut out the sounds of the plain parkinglot, the cavorting kids and bees at my ears, the insistent glitter of sunshine telling eyes look look look. Out of the quiet and the dark, I am made aware of a coldness coming through, a cold of many winter nights compacted and pressed, a hundred years of igloo construction it seems, it is so cold, so starsharp, piercing. The tall trees surrounding the lot have stood in that cold the way commuters wait out a sudden shower: with newspapers raised over their heads, making ironic remarks to strangers. Through those patient trees a mist is springing. Like vodka blown off an endless icecube, the mist spritzes belligerently. Still, every face turns towards it, into the wet. After a quarter mile we are standing soaked among mossy boulders, the sound of the unknown river itself a kind of wetness filling every ear.