Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Life on Earth

For Wendy

Eyes fastened to a lightning bug

dipping down, I saw this slug

sitting on a gray flagstone.

He looked depressed. He sat alone,

pointing antennae at the sky

like an astronomer. I

forgot my bug, distracted by

those turning aerials. One rose

slightly higher from his head

and stiffened strangely when I said,

“I wonder what you’re listening for?

God walking in the garden or

a killer asteroid? A mate?

A Frenchman carrying a plate?”

Always curious to see

how others look at you and me,

I quickly rattled off my list

of possibilities. But his

response was slow. I still can hear

that dreadful silence. Loud and clear.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


Now, if you can’t silence your neighbors—
the bang below, the screams above, the tongue
full of obscenities—remember: your
ears are sewers that empty into Lethe.
Why not go out for a walk? Ignore the clouds
of midges murmuring about the dead
dragonfly with iridescent wings
the rain beat down and washed to the grate.
Grieve for him privately, and sincerely,
in your own way. Celebrate his life
somehow: a hymn you hum when you’re alone;
not some expensive statue, like those bronze
divinities from Greece, standing around—
naked, shivering—frightened to find
themselves the stars of a Roman spectacle.
We do not need to visit the Arena—
avert our eyes or revel in the slaughter.
Find comfort in the uncomfortable fact
you can’t change History. Remember: all
those roads that lead to Rome also lead
away. If each direction's lined with graves,
walk on. Follow the road to Avernus—
the undiscovered country. It is still
in relatively good repair. Pack lunch.
Have a picnic in the shade. There,
you may meet an old friend, like I did:
a tipsy gentleman dressed in a toga,
taking a turn around his property,
surprised to see he has a visitor.
Horace is always glad to entertain.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Oyster

A touch of sadness decorates the sea,
my home: those cold beds where I nestle,
filtering through what washes over me
for nourishment. I am nothing special:

a simple bivalve, brainless, hardly more
intelligent than the surrounding rock
deposited by that volcano or
tsunami, some upheaval. I take stock

of what I am only when grains of sand
make my interior a living Hell.
I hold these tears to help me understand
why I am here: why you might feel compelled

to slip a knife into my little world,
and twist, until I pop, in search of pearl.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Case of N

My name is N. N stands for nothing. I stand for nothing. I say nothing. I have surrendered my identity to an attorney to plead my case.
I might be almost anyone. I might be you. Almost all the parts that make me who I am are interchangeable with yours, thanks to science: my skin, my hair, my eyes, my lungs, my heart, my pancreas, my liver.
Soon, you will have access to my memories. Make no mistake. I’m in all the databases of the State. And so are you. And, just in case, I carry a small card inside my wallet entitling the State to take everything away.
Except, perhaps, my soul—my client. My soul is something that I can’t supply, and nobody can take it away. Believe me, men have tried. My soul is mine until I die, I am afraid: since, strictly speaking, souls do not exist in science, or in law. Souls cannot be transplanted or imprisoned, can they? No. Although they can be put on trial, as my soul has been put on trial here. And some may linger on in literature for a few years—like love, or mercy—in a ghostly way.
I guess if any meaningful relationship exists between us now, outside of fiction, then, it must consist of dreams, mustn’t it? We are like the present and the past, forever missing one another as we pass into the night, the future, that land of dreams.
You have dreams. I have dreams. We all have dreams. And if you dream, you probably have nightmares, too. I hope your dreams out-number your nightmares. I really do. Mine run about fifty-fifty, if I dream at all. I seldom fall asleep so deeply that I genuinely dream.
Whatever the reason, usually exhaustion, now and then, my eyelids close and I suddenly find myself in situations so strange—so full of details, color and emotional intensity—they must be dreams. Or nightmares. They seem so different from the world I know.
Dream or nightmare? Where am I? I am definitely somewhere. I am here. Exactly where here is is hard to say with anything resembling the geographic certainty necessary to remove all doubt. A dream depends upon what sort of story you construct around the images you see. A cloud perpetually surrounds a dream. A dream expresses no reality, nightmarish or otherwise, until you wake. And then it is too late. The dream is dead.
The truth of dreams can only be verified by a disinterested third party—a witness who stands outside of time and space and never sleeps. And God is not about to swear to anything regarding dreamers, not on the Bible. Nor will he affirm anything. He won’t even cross His heart for us—even though we know that He was present at the scene on the night in question: we found His footprints. You have all seen them. They don’t mean anything. We find them everywhere. Look at these photographs: even on the Moon. God is just as bad as Man, you see; and Man is very sloppy.
Still, God cannot be summoned to appear in court for walking on the Moon, or littering, or murder, not like us. His whereabouts are presently unknown. He might be hiding; He might be attending a christening in Mexico; He might be on vacation in some other country. He might be dead. If so, I am sorry.
I am sorry that this crime has been assigned to me, and you have been selected for the jury. This is a court of law convened inside an unjust universe. Penalties are harsh and administered unfairly. That is the nature of Dream States. Only death absolves a citizen from responsibility to participate in trials. This is yours: you must set a precedent that will be used in judging others. Perhaps yourself. You must decide our fate.
So then, as far as dreams and nightmares go, here we are: there’s no escape. Though mine are hard to qualify. Let’s just say, they follow a general pattern: darkness shows up first; then, light; then, more darkness. Just as dreams do in waking life.
I probably should also mention that the light I see is dawn, so there is hope.
And that hope is the truth.
And the truth is gray.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Mysterious Mr. N

To Mr. James Boswell, Esq.
July 19th, 1776

Dear Sir,

Enclosed you will find the late Mr. N. I urge you to set aside your personal Distaste for the Man and read his Book.

I know that from Age to Age, from Page to Page (indeed, from Line to Line, Word to Word, even Letter to Letter), things change radically in his Universe: Prose bleeds into Poetry, Poetry into Prose, and, suddenly, the most sober and reflective Soliloquy may dissolve into a fit of hard-to-conceal Flatulence, the Curse of uncontrolled Mirth.

I understand your Disgust. In part, Sir, I even share it. He is not what I expected. With Mr. N, one begins to feel—very quickly—that those very same Laws of Reason which have governed our Lives since the Birth of Newton have been reshuffled and re-dealt to an Ever Hopeful Humanity from a pack of Playing Cards consisting entirely of identickal practickal Jokers.

One never quite knows what to expect with Mr. N. One might just as easily wander off a Cliff as trip over a Ruby when strolling through Chelsea. Indeed, more than once, I have been caught in Bed with him—quite Red-Handed—by my Landlady, Mrs. Prynne. Can you imagine me following Him—Jowl to Cheek, Face to Fundament—crawling toward a subterranean Lake at the End of a hot Lava Tube in Java?

And yet, Sir, there we were. And there was Mrs. Prynne. And there were Mrs. Prynne’s scandalized Eyebrows scampering backwards like a pair of frightened Spiders across her Scotch Bonnet and out of the Door! 

What else could I do, Sir, but lower my Gaze, lift my Octavo Fig Leaf, and blush? 

I have lost track of the Years I have idled away in Mr. N’s imaginative Company:  beside a small Lantern, wiggling my Toes in the cool Waters of his cavernous Immensity; regarding with wonder the Darkness above and waiting for a Stalactite to fall and crash through my gaping Mouth. All the while, he stands fishing in the Shadows: a bored Cork bobbing above a School of blind Guppies, his Hook baited with Nothing but a naked Barb.

Plato was wrong about the Shadows. Light a candle and look around you, Sir. Now, look inside. Deeper, Sir, deeper. Does not the interior World we occupy more closely resemble Mr. N’s volcanic Lagoon than She does the dusty Caves of Platonic Philosophy? The Shadows our Lanterns cast upon the sulph’rous Walls of our Crania bear no relation to any idealized Form; but even here, the thorniest Rose one may encounter is no less fragrant despite its vicious Stem.
So it is with Life, Sir. And with Art. In the scarlet Petals of a Rose, all of our Hopes and Fears finally flower. According to Mr. N, these Eruptions are simply the ordinary Properties of Existence, the sort of things Mr. Garrick’s theatrickal Troupe trafficks in: Sheets of Steel Thunder, mangled Shakespeare, a quiet Cassandra with itchy Privates.

At least from Her, if not from Him, we may infer an Intelligent Design to the Cosmos, even a benevolent Heaven; or, failing that, Damnation and Eternal Hell-Fire—the Clap.

I suspect that the Truth of the Matter lies buried in the Act of Creation: somewhere between a burning Desire and a painful Discharge.


Alas, Sir, alas. I should have done. Mrs. Prynne has arrived to badger me with Milk and Tea. 

“Patience, Madam. Madam, please. Madam, will you desist? Sit ye down with your Milk and your Tea! Have you no Eyes? Can you not see? I am busy in Bed; and, but for my Nightcap, completely undres’t! Please, Woman, allow me to add one further Paragraph to the Body of this Letter before I rise. I cannot leave my dearest Friend with one of those nettlesome Hangnails which AUTHORS do so often AFFECT: Afterwords, Epilogues, Epitaphs, and the forever-to-be-dreaded Post Script. I shall leave NOTHING unsaid.”
To speak plainly, James, in brief, with a furious Widow at my Elbow as Witness: after the Death of my dear Wife, without my Midnight Rambles with Mr. N—and the Milk, and the Tea, the relentless Ministrations of Mrs. Prynne each Morning—I am sure that I should have committed Suicide.

I hope you will consider this Book, as I now consider my Life, a Gift.

Your most Obed’t, Humble, Serv’t,
Sam Johnson

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Unknown Chaplin

This canister of film contains a clip
requiring restoration. We can see
the sequence opens in a studio;
a flapping muslin sky diffuses all
the ambient sunlight. Although the heat
looks terrible, we spot a withered palm
sighing and swaying inside a pot with each
gentle breeze blowing through the lot;
a lot still ringing from a bang somewhere
along the Western Front—a Ford back-
firing in the distance. After these
imagined noises fade, we find the world
returns to silence once again: black
and gray and white. A dented derby fans
Edna Purviance and her bouncing leg.
Windows are replaced and hinges greased.
Cops and crooks—wearing identical
false moustaches—whisper, exchanging their
own views about the news: the war, their wives,
sore bums, their pay. A puppy—on a leash
that’s growing shorter as he sniffs around
a fake hydrant—nearly strangles him-
self in search of some comic relief.
A titter passes through the company.
The dog breaks up the day’s monotony:
endless takes and retakes; wasted time;
the camera always turning, turning, like
the door to a hotel you can’t escape.

This is not a movie. This is life.

No longer the director, our hero
races from behind the camera
and acts. His face says everything. But
we only see a blur: a little man,
without a hat, running very quickly
toward a dog. The rest is lost. Perhaps.