Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rare evenings indeed when I don’t run into Immanuel there, flickering in and out as if he were made entirely of radio waves, his voice just barely audible over the voices of all the other patrons who must think I am talking to myself. That I do talk to myself on a regular basis should make little difference in the overall judgment of others, but I know the world works according to two or three basic scripts and there is nothing you can do about it and we are, at present, halfway through the second. Immanuel spends a great deal of time studying the footnotes and the appendix and he claims to be working on a treatment of them that is set in the middle ages, a treatment in which the characters (mostly trolls and jesters and their various hangers-on) express themselves as both extension and thought. This makes little sense to me and I say so between bites of liverwurst but Immanuel will not listen to reason unless it is of a certain variety – meaning, it drives itself into a corner where it can not escape and where it morphs rather quickly into something that looks and behaves and even smells a little like an eel. Immanuel is partial to my recounting that part of the voyage when he was too far away to receive my messages, when the mail I sent by sealed bottle would float for seven or eight years before ever reaching shore and still it had half a continent to go. The house that seemed most likely to represent accurately where it is we live and why we live there was that crafted by the hunters of seals who took ice for granted and were enormously skilled at shaping it and bending it like pieces of rubber. They threw something together in less than twenty days. It had parlors and a working kitchen and each room turned into the next without your really being able to tell the difference. It just seemed as if you were surrounded at every moment by the distorting ice and the sun trapped gloriously in the ice and now and again the stars. I never could figure out how they kept the place so pristine given that their hands were forever bloodied from stripping the hide and the flesh and the blubber from those creatures they didn’t so much worship as speak to directly the way you might speak to an equal. To a cousin your age, say, whom you have known as long as you have known your own name. I tell Immanuel to identify his authentic vision and stick to it, not adopt that of others because he thinks it is the best way to earn a reputation, to make himself known among those who pay attention to things like who is writing books on the far shore and who is simply aping the motions. Moving the fingers absently over the image of a keyboard. It must be difficult, though, coming and going like that, being somewhere and then being somewhere else without ever really being anywhere at all. It reminds me of dreams I’ve had in which the ground swallowed me up and in my endeavors to dig myself back to the surface, to claw my way toward the sunlight, I found that I had no hands. Only loose flaps of skin where my hands used to be. They were useless and caused me severe pain whenever they came into contact with the soil. I was horrified, of course, but there was something unnervingly beautiful about them as well, something alien and familiar all at the same time, which made me happy eventually to abandon all sense of purpose and just sit there and stare at them, to congratulate myself, in fact, on having generated them through little more than the force of my own unconscious will.       

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Once separated from the others in my party, I purposefully followed the trail from which, it was rumored, no one had ever returned. People set out in the spring usually and by the end of June their loved ones had forgotten their names. A kind of amnesia settled over the community and to break it required extraordinary measures – whittling ceremonial poles from green hickory, tying scarves around them from top to bottom so that the resident crows might be tricked into saying the names out loud. It almost never worked. I like the hint of pistachio that lingers in the air when I finally work up the nerve to set foot outside and I stand on the porch and wait for the two gentlemen in black ties to arrive at the tavern across the street. I know that they are on a mission to civilize the rest of us according to a creed that is difficult to understand when you are first introduced to it but becomes easier the more frequently you immerse yourself in its teachings. From what I’ve heard, it promises an afterlife so similar to this one you don’t even realize anything has changed until someone important points it out to you, someone whose job it is to minimize misunderstandings and pass along the secret codes and the secret handshakes and the folk music of that place, which is counter-punctual in nature and is said to remind one of Debussy if one has not listened to Debussy very closely in the past. The giant at the end of the path was not a giant in the true sense of that word, over the trees in stature and drooling after human flesh, but he did have to duck his head whenever he entered or exited through the front door and his hands fit quite easily over mine when he was attempting to show me how to properly toss the discus. My patience was sorely tested by the terrain and when I lay down to sleep under the stars near the wood pile I feared I would never see my home again if only because the tendons in my neck had begun to ache and I was certain this was due not to the tendons at all but an aneurysm in the artery that took the blood upward to my brain. The giant reassured me using graphs and statistics and a speaking voice he modulated up or down in timbre and volume as the situation required. By the end of my stay I realized there was no need to try to steal any of his household items. I was free to come and go as I pleased and what alchemy, really, can one discover at the strings of a lyre when one has trained previously on nothing more complicated than the oboe?          

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Once ashore my priorities shift and I am standing at the window wondering how long it will be before I embark again, knowing full well, however, that those day are over. They have been discarded in favor of days that aren’t really days at all anymore if by days you mean the passage of a certain number of hours and the events and tribulations that fill up those hours, and of course the longing that is as palpable as another arm. Our memories are more than just coverings with which we keep off the cold and the dark and the insects that would otherwise feast on our flesh because it is unprotected and it gives off a beacon of some sort, an aura and trail of carbon dioxide the color of magenta in their compound eyes, I imagine. Glinting and bouncing up and down in mid-air as if hung from a string and manipulated by someone in the rafters. One island looked pretty much like the next, except for the one with a summit in the middle, a dormant volcano on which skilled artisans had carved the likeness of a horse’s skull sometime in the distant past. Their purpose was the same apparently as was ours when we ate without our knives and spoons, when we grunted a great deal while speaking and it often made me wonder why the clouds kept so aloof there and far away when it was obvious their assistance was desperately needed closer to the ground. The people spoke a dialect inaccessible to their neighbors not five miles away across the straight and when we attempted to pry its flesh apart, to get at the heart of it by assigning an alphabet, they pulled out one of their own which had been scribbled on the back of a stray piece of Styrofoam and locked away in the cellar where they kept other objects they considered of only passing interest. A couple bottles of their indigenous wine and some of their ancestors’ bones in faded burlap sacks that had once contained rice, I suppose, or millet.
A set of turrets speaks to me from across the skyline, beckons and pleads until I am all but determined to head in that direction. The only thing stopping me, of course, is the sense that I have been there before, that I have wandered all around the perimeter of that cathedral without being able to gain access and the men in the shadows plucking their guitars composed a dirge for me extemporaneously. It was in B flat and the sound of it sent the birds scurrying for the adjacent rooftops and brought the saliva to my lips where it settled and cooled and turned a pasty white guaranteed to turn my stomach should I get a glimpse of my reflection in a window as I passed. On the island of flying men we lost our way in the caverns underneath the main village, passages painted with complicated images of bulls and viola players and women with eyes the color of pomegranates. Certainly there was a system to it all and some of us wished to get to the bottom of it, spent days and weeks in contemplation, with our sketch pads at the ready and our fingers stained irrevocably by the charcoal we used to render what we’d seen. It turns out no one on the island of flying men could actually fly, but every now and then you’d see one of them hurl himself into the air from a nearby cliff and there was great deal of shouting and consequent merry-making among a population who believed they had yet again witnessed the miracle of someone’s escaping once and for all the unholy constraints of gravity. I spend my days now within reach of the radio, tuning to stations that specialize in the mandolin. It makes a sound like that you get when you rub your fingernails across the scales on the back of a lizard and reminds me of a childhood that didn’t actually belong to me, that I appropriated for myself at the precise moment when I realized the other one, the earlier and more accurate one, was going to dissolve minute by minute, was going to turn into a soup of little more than enzymes and innuendo, a milky white substance with nothing underneath. The process that causes this to happen is of great interest to those who it never happens to, but for the rest of us, the victims and the orphaned, the dead-eyed and somnolent, knowledge is no more beneficial in itself than is the shape of a carrot or the lesions that are said to break out on your skin when you are battling meningitis.
The telephone rings and I jump up from where I have been sitting but I can’t locate the device, I have trouble even remembering exactly what it looks like and pretty soon there is silence but for my breathing which is labored and shallow as if someone else were suddenly entrusted with doing it for me. Someone with no real credentials other than the fact that he has been born on this planet the same as you or I and has managed thus far to remain here through a certain ingenuity and know-how in the construction of miniature magnet-driven motors and the marketing of the same, if not the actual sales. I examine the wall closest to my head very closely, the divots and the patterns in the plaster like numbered thoroughfares passing through desert scrub-land when viewed from above, and begin the usual round of unanswerable questions – how can we be sure what appears to the senses, particularly of the auditory variety, originated in this room and not the one separated from it by a common wall? And how do we define objects like walls without first defining the substance of which the wall is but a mere attribute, a way of experiencing it? Before we could regroup and set sail yet again, there was the interlude on the other side of the island where a handful of engineers and seers and the like were busy competing with one another in the construction of mock-ups, of facsimile versions of the world at its most fundamental, as it appeared in the tales they told themselves when they could be bothered to tell tales rather than spending the day netting the fish in the harbor or cleaning them with rusty blades. I spent what seemed at the time like entire weeks wandering through the version made of ice, every room carved by hand from a block of ice blue as the deepest curve of the atmosphere and possessing a solidity such as I had heard rumors of in other places, in flimsy places that altered their appearances simply as a result of one’s looking directly at them, or stifling a cough.
My favorite recipe involved the grouse that scattered from the newly-tilled fields when you walked them, when you followed the elders to their altars at the edges of the fields and you listened to them speak a language that relied on brimstone, on the noxious properties of sulfur to get its message across. For days and weeks afterward, as we plied the waves, as I would lie awake at night on my hammock staring at the violently mobile heavens overhead, I would conjure the flavor of that flesh on my tongue and begin to weep until the others threatened to toss me overboard, a threat I took seriously because they had done it to at least one other of our party before.  The effect of the metronome, its sawing back and forth between two equidistant points and two ontological states as yet to be fully identified, explains a great deal in terms of who is likely to become enamored of electrical storms and who is likely to survive a coma and inform us of what exactly lies on the other side (before, of course, the informant can abjure all responsibility for what has been said to that point and pursue instead an exciting career in finance). Eulalie explains the physics of it, the mathematics wedded to everyday observation, in terms I can understand and so my debt to her is increased to the point where it is not really a debt any more in the strictest sense of the term. It is an obligation, a terror such as descends upon us at night when we are walking along a precipice, say, and we can’t see where we are placing our feet. But we have to place them somewhere because it is irresponsible to stand still. It gets you, among other things, a reputation for daydreaming that is almost impossible to shake. Eulalie knocks at the front window at all hours of the night trying, I suppose, to lure me outside where the crickets grow to the size of small dogs and where the rain beats on the pavement in a staccato that reminds one of piano lessons taken at a time when the hands were yet to fully develop, when they were as pliable as saplings. I know she wants nothing in particular, we both know whatever she wants she can secure for herself by opening the front door and presenting me with a bit of cactus in a miniature plastic pot, or a hand-drawn likeness of the Golden Gate bridge. But there are principles involved and some day I hope to master them, I hope to be able to recite them just as you might the words to the national anthem to a country you visited only once, and that in a dream. A place with boulevards as wide as man-made lakes and a representative dish composed almost entirely of raisins and beets.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

A hierarchy of forms establishes itself through no obvious conscious endeavor. It merely falls into place and then calls attention to itself immediately, raising the specter of antagonism and hashish, of the dispossessed maneuvering through the streets in packs that resemble abstract concepts or un-sheared sheep in their tendency to get snagged and slowed down momentarily on stray bits of iron fencing that stick out into and obstruct the sidewalks through poor planning or the ravages of weather. Immanuel’s entrance is always prefigured by a blast of trumpets to hear the others who have witnessed this tell it, but I can’t report so much as a single hair standing on end, and if I could I probably wouldn’t just because it seems counterproductive. The sort of thing designed to aim the attention away from that which deserves it. The wigs on the heads of the women standing at the front of the room and lecturing. The enormous plastic balls balancing on either end of a stick in a photograph hanging on the wall between other photographs also depicting various everyday objects (tin cans, stuffed armadillos) brought into unnatural alignment for no other reason than that a photograph was to be taken. Of course, I know from the beginning that it is Immanuel who will announce the time for departure, who will demonstrate through a certain unearthly humming that there is no place for me on shore any more and that the residents of this village are like the residents of any other village in that they chain their imaginations to solid rock; they taunt their imaginations and kick them and feed them a substance something like gruel and something like broken glass. A concoction from which no nutrition can be extracted but which sounds sufficient enough when it is merely theoretical, when you are not the one unfortunate enough to have to consume it. This is always the way with Immanuel, making his pronouncements from the shadows where he believes he is safe from scrutiny by all but the most sympathetic of observers and participants. Those who studied his manifesto closely when it appeared a few years after his death, who even dropped the forty dollars a hardcover copy set you back. The question on everyone’s lips then was similar to that which is on virtually no one’s now – is Immanuel correct in labeling all grasping at what the gauche refer to as “meaning” an unmistakable symptom of disease simply because it is obviously so among those who would connect every random occurrence and event into “signs”, into an overarching paranoid narrative with themselves at the center as arbiter, as simple instrument of reception? Or has he overstated the case in a cunning, yet ultimately misguided effort to make himself seem guilty of exactly the same thing? By way of answer we have, I suppose, the sudden change in air temperature inside the room when he makes his appearance. The nitrogen and oxygen (and whatever other trace elements happen to be present) entering and escaping your lungs when he does so in a frightening yet entirely predetermined and therefore predictable rhythm.        

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The latency period lasts only as long as it takes someone to identify it and work it into conversation so as to detract from the glaring inconsistencies and tautologies that might otherwise turn the listener off. Might force him to make a decision regarding the sherry and its inflated price, its tendency to make the head swim. I make the rounds one last time, sitting in on the banjo (an instrument I know next to nothing about but from which I can nevertheless extract something very like a tune in its tendency to begin and end in roughly the same location), examining the exposed skin of the fingers of men and women who have  spent all day in the sun because their livelihood demands it (think dredging up crustaceans from the briny deep, think the running of barbed wire fence), and finally wrestling with eleven or twelve loosely interrelated concepts hurled at me in rapid succession by the members of the chess club huddled in their usual corner of the delicatessen that has a picture of a rabid boar on the front of it because a likeness of a sperm whale was deemed too expensive by the proprietor and apt to cause confusion. We can’t be expected to fall for the same bit of deception as brought the Incas to their knees but the present difficulty has as much to do with geometry, with how we visualize space and the objects that take up that space, as it does with our genetic backgrounds and the convenient phrases handed down to us over generations by people who didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying or how they were saying it. They were too busy pulling the bits of dirt and the jagged pebbles from their flesh that had gotten there because the people at some point in their journey had fallen on them. Because they were never entirely convinced their flesh was actually made of flesh until such time as the jagged pebbles (and, of course, other things, like the sharp end of goose quills, say, or the metal shavings produced by industrial strength grinding machines) got so catastrophically stuck in it. By midnight, I think all I have to do is walk backwards for about a block and everything will be as it was before I opened the cellar door in the morning and heard the racket for myself – the plovers pitching a fit in the sand dunes because they are, apparently, sick and tired of sand. The thunder kicking up on the far range of hearing, rolling across the waves in an ever-strengthening crescendo and then spending itself against the cliffs just north of here where people jump sometimes to their death either because they have underestimated the height of the cliffs themselves or they have decided intentionally upon this fate instead of all the myriad others available to them. The living to a ripe, and most likely incontinent, old age. The bounding about on a pogo stick picked up at the flea market on a whim because that is what the latter stages of one’s life are for – acting on one’s every saccharine reminiscence. Clawing one’s way ferociously back toward what turns out finally to be not merely an unattainable past, but an unknowable one as well, a cipher with twenty two distinct characters in it, all shuffled about at random and reassembled later with the cognitive equivalent of bamboo pegs instead of glue because pegs help eliminate the mess.        

Monday, April 1, 2013

Eulalie belittles what she calls my many crises in cosmology, my never-ending search of the heavens or some sign of when we are to depart. Why not make the decision based on the criteria that led to the building of the raft in the first place? Namely a hunch, a whim like that which has us re-upholstering the chairs in the dining room or driving sixty miles to the closest town with a cattle auction in it and an enormous photo on a billboard of the auctioneer himself, a man with stern, marbled eyes magnified two or three dozen times their actual size by the process which puts his image up there on the billboard to begin with, and then by the lenses in his glasses and the extreme refraction of light waves in that part of the world due to an unusually dense atmosphere and pollutants emitted by the chemical plants on the river. His name escapes me but it is associated somehow with the second farthest planet in the solar system and makes grown men tremble when they hear it, especially if they have chronic trouble already with their nerve endings, a common enough complaint when you reach a certain age and you realize you will never again be able to speak with authority about subjects you know virtually nothing about. Those days have receded into the caves where bats in their millions emerge come late afternoon and there is a strange melancholy attached to the near silence that accompanies them. Certainly, you can make out the beating of that many wings and every now and then the barely detectable high-frequency squawks the animals make so as to determine where exactly in space they are at any given moment and whether or not they are in danger of colliding with their fellow travelers or with the concrete edifices we have put in their path. Not intentionally of course, but not without a certain subconscious malice at the heart of it either. The way we do everything. Eulalie grabs a piece of ruled paper and creates intricate and confusing tree graphs in hopes of making me see what I have to this point been missing – the sheer overwhelming number of possibilities at our fingertips if only we can stop staring at our fingertips long enough to recognize them. The sound the locomotive makes at this distance like someone talking in the next room about his love of the Viennese Waltz, his subsequent timid and therefore clumsy attempts at reproducing the footwork. The dreams in which we meet some earlier version of ourselves speaking in riddles we used to know the answer to but which we have since repudiated if only because we no longer find value in riddles, we no longer think of them as keys to unlocking and exposing the delicate, scented paper center of the human mind, but more as something children do to keep themselves occupied, to keep themselves from chasing frogs into the deepest parts of the neighborhood pond, say, and accidentally drowning.