Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Book Of Splendor

            I live in a world getting noisier and noisier by the decade. Electronics hum on my desk and the few remaining non-digital clocks in my house mark the passing seconds with tiny ticks. A refrigerator and dishwasher thrum in the kitchen and the oven timer chirrups when the perfect temperature is reached for the doughy loaves of honey wheat bread I am making. The air-conditioner kicks itself loudly into compliance with the thermostat I set last night; next season, the heater will do the same. Pots simmer on the stove this morning and the tea kettle screeches. Morning radio fills me in on the news of the day: a truce is broken between Israelis and Hamas and, elsewhere, Islamic militants surround a mountaintop where refugees huddle in terror. When I turn on the television, news arrives of a young man shot down in Missouri and the room erupts with that community's outrage and the violence in its streets.
            In the basement, a water heater chugs along and the sump pump rumbles. Outside the neighborhood, traffic rushes by on the highway that runs the length of this island, drivers adding their bit to the already-unbearable road noise with horns and music blaring.  On the outskirts of town, an amplified calliope brightly accompanies the merry-go-round for children and a hawker invites everyone on the fairgrounds to pay their small fee and enter the tent "where marvelous things will be revealed." 
            In the middle of it all, I sit on a pile of old concrete patio blocks under the trees, scribbling down what I almost cannot-hear for all the noise of the afternoon. The birds seem far away and the chittering squirrels. Likewise the dogs scruffing and playing about in the pine straw nearby.  It is a hot day and steamy in the way a day becomes steamy and miserable in the South when it has rained for many days in a row.  I am becoming a swamp – sweat-streaked and sticky – but I have to stay where I am just now: something is trying to be heard, trying to arrive, despite my personal misery or the ordinary day's loud ruckus.  I am forging again my relationship to language, to words.
            My friend Derick, who is a writer, carries around a hefty black sketchbook filled with perfect-bound, blank pages: a book of substantial weight.  At almost any time, you can happen upon him on campus and he will be nursing his cup of lukewarm coffee and writing things there in his large, cursive hand, or drawing fabulous pictures, loops and coils, in the pages' margins.
            My friend, Craig, who is a journalist, is always on the move. He too likes this kind of notebook – one which, as he says, ". . .will not come apart when sand gets into it."  A durable notebook. For durable words. Words that will last.  Words to be read.  Important words.  Words that can make things happen. 
            And then there is my notebook: a flimsy little book with maybe a month's worth of thin, blue-lined pages, bound together by string or staples or, sometimes, by glue because I have a deep affection for glue, for how hard it works to hold everything together.
            My kind of notebook is one that is forever coming apart at the seams.  Mine is a notebook almost wrecked by sand and dew, by rainwater and ferny matter, Now it also smells of wood-smoke after I laid it open in front of a beach fire one night to dry its damp pages.  Between the things I've written in these pages, I've tucked bright blooms – black-throated poppies or blue forget-me-nots – and the printed scraps from sweet fortune cookies they give me at the corner Chinese restaurant. On more than a few pages, the blooms I've tucked inside have stained the writing pages and, overlying my pages of writing, is the watercolor ghost of some flower that has already crumbled and fallen away. I like opening the little book of pages and seeing its apparitions or getting a fragrance of wood-smoke or rich loam, that up-rush of where I have lately been. 
            What I have begun to understand about my writings here, even in the moments in which something profound may surface in them, is how rightfully they belong on paper that tatters and frays and wears thin at the edges.  On something that falls apart.  Something that will not be preserved; something falling, under the stern hand of time, back to its most basic matter.
            All things, or so it is said, have lives and half-lives; all things are nuclear at their center, and I believe that too, don't I? So what harm or good does it do if I put all the words I cannot speak aloud into tattered little books like these? What harm to let them live out their lives and half-lives and then let them fall back again into the earth, into the dust and ash from which they came? 

            It is a noisy, noisy world. Let my gift to it be silence.

            There was a time, though, when I wanted nothing more than to finish a sentence – just one – before someone started talking over me.  It seemed such a small thing to ask – that I be allowed to speak my piece uninterrupted – and yet it seemed such a great imposition for those around me.
            Thus, in due time, I brought silence to the table, to the conversation, the conference, the meeting, the party.  Why wreck further a half-wrecked heart?  The sorrow could do me in.


            Early on, I created a country for myself, a homeland of silence in which I could pitch my little tent in peace.  I became that country's sea and its vessels, the rich cargo in every dark hold.  I became its mist-shrouded mountain and its gray valley of fog.  I became its meadow of children playing and its moon's littlest white fang, the prodigal and the return, the squandered inheritance and the fatted calf being readied for slaughter.
            Most mornings now, I sit on a sunny stoop.  What must passersby think of that quiet woman in her flour-dusted apron, eyes closed, taking in the sun?
            Assuming they even see her at all.
            I worry some days that living in a kingdom of silence, I might also have become invisible.  It's starting to seem that way.  Still, is it reasonable to be this startled when some stranger nods, Good morning, or a kind friend writes, "a sweet and cunning smile" as he listens to you and takes down the spill of your words?


            In this kingdom, there is a library and a kitchen, a garden and stone ruins, a school and a playground, a wise woman and a fool, but a fool like the Fool in the Tarot: a Querent, a Watcher, a One-Whose-Number-Is-Naught. When Fool shows up, it is always to be a silent provocateur, to be the question posed. And then to vanish again.
            So what is Fool's question today?  And to whom?


What tongue is spoken at the river's mouth?

On what muddy bank does the ferryman wait and how many coins for the passage?

Who holds the map to the lost world?

Who folded time and put it in its deep closet of stars?

In whose book is my name written?

From what book is it being erased?

Is silence a sin or a virtue? 

Who will hold God accountable for His silence?

            The Book of Life is God's book.  In it are written the names of those who belong to Him.  It is said God commanded the angels to write down their names before they were named, before they even were.  A name is either there or it isn't.  If your name is there, you enter glory.  If your name is absent, you are cast into a lake of fire, into Outer Darkness, into the place of weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

            The Book of the Dead is Man's book.  It is a book of spells which will carry the dead one into the afterlife. The first spells in the book are said by family or loved ones as funerary rites.  Spell 25 ensures that the dead man will remember his own name, for a name itself exerts power, even in the afterlife.  The Book of the Dead also equips its owner with the mystical names of the grotesque monsters he will encounter in his journey and it names their names.  To know their names is to have power over them. 
            Thus the dead man is entombed and he descends to the underworld where the body regains its powers of movement and speech, after which he must pass those gates guarded by those grotesque, dangerous spirits, spirits with names like Blood-Drinker-who-comes-from-the-Slaughterhouse and One-who-eats-the-excrement-of-his-hindquarters.
            Once the dead man has successfully passed the guardian spirits, he must endure a final ritual, the Weighing of the Heart, for the ancient Egyptians believed the heart was the part which represented the whole man, and it included both intelligence and memory.  Thus comes every man before Anubis and her feather, her feather which signifies truth and justice. Any heart heavier or lighter than that feather is rejected and that man is immediately eaten by The Devourer of Souls.


            Friend, today I am writing The Book of Splendor.  In it, we go on living, as we must, in splendor, for what is splendor if not the way we go on - you and I - trying to be, each moment, merciful and kind in the face of certain and inevitable annihilation? In this book, we are weighed only against love, that brief and fragile feather. 
            I have written my name in this book. You are also there in its brief pages.  The chapters and verses of you.  The body and blood.  The smallest hosannah of you.   

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Raft of Inspiration

Daniel was a boat-builder.  He made boats by hand using hand tools only, the way his Greek father and grandfather had built them on the island of Kefalonia.  When I met him first, he was making a boat for his brother who planned to come down to the shore when it was finished, then the two brothers would sail it home again.  I'd never seen anything built like that boat, from the first plank up, so I was curious despite the fact that I'd been wandering that cove looking for a quiet place to read.  Daniel was a man who generally kept to himself, a private man, even among others in that place who loved boats and sailing.  He was always cordial, but he rarely added anything to the conversation when someone happened by and noticed his boat. He seemed wholly unimpressed by the exuberant talk of fiberglass and speed and outboards that riddled the vernacular of other boaters who stopped by.

Why he spoke to me and invited me to "stop by anytime and watch" is still a bit of a mystery to me. Now, I think it probably had something to do with the book I was carrying around that day – Yehuda Amichai's slender book of poems, An Hour of Grace.  Daniel had noticed it and nodded at it.


He'd said the poet's name as if he were making a statement, not asking a question. As if the name were an acknowledgment of something.  Or an approval. As if he were recalling suddenly the name of a friend.

I was reading Amachai's work for the first time, a school assignment to read poets from other countries, and that I didn't really know his work well yet.

While he straightened his tools and rearranged a pile of dusty wood, he asked me to read him line or two,something I liked. I opened the book to a page and read a line I'd highlighted that morning, out of its context:

      Among the stars you may be right,
          but not here. . .

The man was very still at first, looking out over the water. He nodded and picked up his chisels.

     This is a good place to be alone, he said then. Almost no one comes by. Come here anytime to read your books. And maybe you will read to me again.

I didn't get the significance of that plural – books – at the time but, looking back now, I think he might have known, even in those first moments, that I spent a lot of time with books – more than with just that particular book I was carrying. Maybe he sensed it in the manner in which I'd read that line, which swelled with more than just the saying of the words.  It has always annoyed me how my voice quivers when I read something aloud, something that matters to me deeply.  It has always annoyed me deeply that what I most care for, I give voice to so poorly.


I stopped in many days that late spring and then on deep into the summer – to read for hours in the shade of that giant cypress tree, sitting myself down on the rough, alluvial ground at the water's edge, knowing when I got up again to go, I would be filthy with the grit and dampness of that ground.  For many days, I watched the man work: planing and sanding and bending the boards, nailing them into place, building the hull which I thought was beginning to look  elegant as a well-wrought piece of furniture.  I hadn't known teak could be so pliable, such an amenable medium, until I saw how he worked with it. He didn't master the wood into place so much as he convinced it to doing his bidding.  All day long as he worked, he hummed to himself or spoke softly, his mouth close to the wood as he planed and bent and nailed and sanded, sopping his brow with the back of his sleeves.


The man had names for things that appealed to the poet in me.  The wide, concave braces on which the hull was supported as he built the boat, he called the "angels."  They didn't look like any kind of wings to me, at least not like those feathery contraptions little girls strap on for Christmas pageants and Halloween, and they didn't resemble the angels I'd seen in paintings. But they held the boat up as he composed it, board by board, the way I'd heard, in childhood stories, that angels swaddled the infant world in dark space as God spoke the Everything into being.

Daniel said the angels had to be fiercely solid  as they held the keel – the most significant part of the boat to build precisely, and upon which every other board and bolt and hinge was dependent.  He said the angels were a "necessary evil" as it was important that the wood not rest on the ground: moisture could leach into the wood and rot it before it had a fair chance in water. Early mornings, first thing, he would lie on his back on the ground, edging his shoulders as close to the keel as possible, and he'd run his hands slowly along the keel, cupping its curve, making certain the wood was dry and intact.

     It is not yet time for water, he'd say, as much to the boat as to me.

 He pressed soft, bleached pieces of cheesecloth over the dew-moist keel, absorbing the water, discarding each square of cloth until finally one came up dry.  One morning as he was stretched out like that, daubing the keel with the white cloths, I told him I thought those braces did not seem anything like angels to me.  Even as it came out of my mouth, it sounded peevish.  The man under the boat went still.

Don't rely so wholly on your eyes, Daniel said. The eyes love symmetry and beauty and they will see it even when it isn't there and miss what is there in plain sight; the hands know a thing for how it feels against the bowl of the palm, its shape. The nose can detect first rot.  The skin, well, it has its purpose too and, today, mine is blistered by sun.

I understood what he meant, I think, that stern warning to not rely so wholly on my eyes. Working the graveyard shift, making my rounds in the dim-lit corridors of the pediatric ward years before, I'd relied more on my hands and fingertips to check the brow and pulse of a sleeping infant than I did on how the child appeared to be doing.  A boy's brow looks pacific in deep shadow, but place a cool hand on his forehead and you will know how fever-bright he burns.


Daniel did not speak of the boat's length; he spoke of its longitude – as if the vessel were a world unto itself – with latitudes and longitudes.  I suppose, for him – as it came into being on those long summer days – the boat had become a kind of planet that he was orbiting.  In the worst heat of the afternoons, I'd look up at him, working there, and I would see a heat-haze around the ribbed hull that made it seem to shift its solid wooden shape, to waver at its edges. It seemed not quite a thing of solid earth, as if it were already preparing itself to leave the realm of terra firma and enter a more fluid one.


That heat-hazed afternoon I had been studying selections from Yannis Ritsos' Selected Poems – or, rather, I had been reading English translations of his poems. Daniel loaned me the book each day when I came to the shore but I had to give it back each evening because the book belonged to his brother, Dimitri, whose name was scrawled inside the cover in a childish hand.

Because I only had access to the book there, because I could not carry it away, I had taken to bringing my notebook with me, copying out, by hand, passages that I wanted to remember.  I had written RITSOS in black Magic Marker on the cover of the spiral-bound, blue-lined notebook so I would remember, in years to come, whose lines they were.

But all that afternoon, the wavering of that boat in the heat distracted me and many times I had to make myself look away from it, had to force myself to go back to copying lines before the afternoon cooled and the coming twilight meant I would have to surrender the book again. I read Daniel a passage from the book that day, partly to distract myself from the eerie mirage and partly to rouse myself from the sleepy languor that was overtaking me in the late afternoon heat. I asked him to say what he made of the lines:

      Every house has its slain. Behind the windows
          stand those who are missing, and the pitcher with water they never drank.
         And this star that fell at the edge of night
         is like the amputated ear that does not hear the crickets,
         does not hear our excuses. . . .

He stopped sanding and looked at me and I did not understand his look.

     What troubles you about that passage? he asked me.

I stared down at my notebook again, at the lines I'd copied into it, reluctant to speak my mind and, in doing so, risk insulting the man who'd loaned me the book.

     It's that "amputated ear" part, I said.  Something isn't right about it.

He shrugged. I tried to explain.  

     Four syllables . . . too many . . . too distracting . . . draws attention from the dead at the windows, from the pitcher and its undrunk water, the solitary ear listening but not hearing the crickets and the excuses being made. . .

It was clumsy, that explanation, and I was embarrassed by it. Sweating. Irritated. I knew I was sounding quarrelsome. I gave up, said what I was really thinking.

     I'd have written " severed ear."

Daniel walked over and looked at the passage in the book.  He looked from the right hand page – the translation – to the left-hand page, the poem in Greek. A frown creased his brow.  Then he laughed, a great laugh, and the sound of merriment and delight in that laugh shocked me into silence.

     That is closer to what Ritsos wrote, he said and he went back to his oakum and chisels.  It was the first time I had been made to acknowledge the slight, important distinctions between the poem Ritsos had written and the translation of that poem into my own language.  It was an important lesson for a student of poetry.


All that summer, I was troubled by a recurring dream, a dream in which I was building a boat, a fine boat, a well-crafted boat, but each time I looked away from it, it became a pile of sticks.  I built it again and again. I sanded and turned the wood. I planed and nailed things into place.  I varnished the beautiful hull and dried the keel.  But each time I turned my back on it and then turned to it again, what I found was knotted rope and unfinished sticks held up by the rough angels.  Not a boat at all. In no way sea-worthy.  Not even a raft. 


That summer waxed and waned, like a moon filling and emptying and then, one day in August, the boat was complete.  I walked down to the cove to see it a final time, though I was done by then with my summer reading, with my books and notebook of lines.  I was a part of the thing then, that boat and its angels, though I hadn't built it and couldn't sail it and didn't yet even know its name. It had pulled me in somehow, though I hadn't yet even met the man for whom it was being built.  I only barely knew the man who'd built it right in front of me. But I felt connected to it all in some inexplicable way. I wanted to see it, to set it firmly in my memory as the fine craft it was.  I wanted to see it – whatever it was - all the way through to the end, or at least as far as I could.  I was, as my grandmother used to say, invested in the outcome.

That morning, I rounded the hill leading to the cove just in time to see Daniel standing with a bent man, a priest in white and gold vestments, who had his hand on the bow of the boat, speaking in a language I couldn't understand. I slipped quietly into the cove and stood at the fringe of water, near where the two men stood.

Every boat Daniel's family has built for generations – before it forsakes its angels,  as it surely must, and enters the water – is blessed. In this blessing, it is traditional for the priest to say the boat's name aloud for the first time.  It was the only word I understood in everything he was saying. Dimitri had named his boat:  Magdalena.  His mother's name.

Daniel went inside to pack his suitcase.  He'd already told me he would captain the boat, his brother as his sole passenger, and he'd sail it from this cove out into the wide estuary where the fresh water of the bay meets with the salt water of the sea.  From there, he would continue north, following the shoreline to his brother's home in Delaware.  He would take his brother to see the sea and then see his brother safely home again. That was the map he was following. And though he stopped at that, I imagined from there he would go back to wherever it is he goes when he is not building a boat by hand, back to whatever work he does there, in whatever far city he lives.  At summer's end, I would go back to my studies and my notebooks and poetry and, occasionally, I would look back at that summer spent reading under the cypress while a man I scarcely knew worked in the hot sun, building his brother a boat.  That is how my map looked.

But the two of us were, that morning, still tangled together in the last moments of that waning summer. The ten men he'd hired arrived at noon to lift the boat on their shoulders and to carry it into the water where it would be moored for the rest of the afternoon and evening and through the night, where it would complete its taking-up:  that final, critical stage where the oakum stuffed into the fine separations between the planks of the hull takes up water and expands and makes the boat sea-worthy and safe.  As the men eased out from under the weight of the boat, it rocked and seemed to float from their shoulders. Daniel tied it to the dock where it would remain until Dimitri arrived the following morning. I turned for home again but it troubled me that the exquisitely-made hull was submerged, out of sight.  So much time spent on it, such effort, and who would appreciate it now, who would see its fine beauty and solid craftsmanship?  It seemed a dreadful waste of time to me, all those hours he'd spent sanding the wood, rubbing it, oiling and finishing it until even its small imperfections shone warmly. Daniel's explanation to me seemed cryptic, insufficient:

      That no one knows it's there, its beauty submerged, is not the point.  That no one sees what I put into the making of it or what drove me to build it is not the point.  That it is rugged, that it is stable, that it will hold sway in a strong wind, that it will stay true to the course set – that is all good but also not the point.  There is more to a boat than what you can or cannot see. Remember: do not trust your eyes so much.


All night before his final departure, I turned in my bed, twisting the sheets, throwing them off of me, agitated, waiting for sleep, waiting for the sun, waiting to return early-morning to the shoreline where Dimitri's Magdalena was undergoing its taking-up. What if she took on water?  What if she had to return to shore, unfit to sail?  What if? What if?   Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – at least in my mind it did.  My crooked mind, my poet's-mind. 

I drifted into and out of fitful sleep. Cricket-song gave way to birdsong and I woke late, threw on my rumpled shirt and jeans, and headed to the cove.  By the time I got near I was winded and had to lean against a tree to catch my breath again. I was trying to steady myself for the rush downhill.  I looked down and I could see Daniel on the dock. He was lifting a slight man from a wheelchair, the man's legs wrapped in a soft gold blanket.  The man's head was angled back, up at the sky, the way a child's head tilts who has cerebral palsy.



Daniel must have wondered why I hadn't shown up to say goodbye, to see them off that final morning.  He'd hesitated once, looking back at the shore and at the cypress trees after he'd unmoored the boat, his brother propped next to him.  Maybe it hadn't been that he'd been looking for me so much as he'd been saying goodbye to the cove, that he had been committing it to memory the way someone does who knows he is leaving a place for good. It had been such a small hesitation. I wonder sometimes now if I hadn't just imagined it. Maybe I had imagined much of that summer's boat-building, caught up as I had been in books and distracted by that mirage of the wavering boat. 

I was standing then, beginning to breathe easily again, just inside the thick copse of junipers uphill, the palm of my left hand against the rough bark, my feet planted wide on the slope so I wouldn't lose my balance and topple down the gravelly hill. I'd caught sight of the two brothers there on the dock, Daniel, the younger, stronger brother, lifting his crippled brother carefully into his arms as if he'd done it for many years, stepping quickly onto the boat, steadying himself as the boat tipped in the water under the shifting weight of their bodies. I don't know now how long I stood like that – watching Daniel lower his fragile brother into place on board the boat, covering his legs again, pulling a windbreaker around his bony shoulders as Dimitri smiled up at him. Or at the sky.

I must have known just then that I both was and was not really part of that moment, that summer. What city of brotherly love or suffering can any outsider really enter, complex as the gates are, rusty as the locks seem?  That moment was theirs.  That beautifully-wrought, hidden hull and the love and sorrow that had built it belonged only to the two of them.

What I did, just then – as I braced myself against that hillside tree, breathing in, breathing out – was what I do best, despite that man's earnest counsel: I trusted my eyes. I took it in. All of it. I stood in my place, out of sight, and let it happen without me. I held to that tree and, as if my life depended upon it, I watched that man take his brother and the Magdalena out of the beautifully-lit cove, into dark water, heading for the estuary, and then out into the great sea.