Birth house, St. Albans, Queens. To the left, The Hassells, to the right, The Artadis. When I was a boy, the two patches of dirt on either side of the walkway were thought to be lawns, and stringing Christmas lights across the great expanse of the facade with my dad, Eddie, was a Herculean task made only for real men and their sturdy, admiring sons.
Now, as for all of us, that early place that gave us life and warmth and safety seems like a little cottage, the cavernous rooms, once places where our toys were brought to life by our insanely powerful imaginations (now mostly beaten down by the harsher realities of life) would seem like pantries. While I reflect on all of this I realize (you know, because of the harsher realities) that what was once the case for most of us at birth is barely altered by death for many souls around the world, and that my - our - kind of nostalgia is a luxury.
But it is what it is, and when I drive by the old block I feel the tug of the abyss from two ends; yet I recall the sun on my face and the squeals of delight when Ralph the ice-cream man finally showed up in the late afternoon, after the boyish toil of hours of bike rides and street skully and dirt bomb fights in the alley, 35 cents snatched from my father's hand, passed like a baton, as I raced to the truck for my frozen fudge on a stick.
THINGS CAN DAWN TOO LATE
I am told, again and again, "See, black folks have survived and still rise!" Nice to the ear, as is all quickening kitsch. I join the chorus myself. I must; speak it and it may become true. O, the regalia of colors at the teas, the sorority lunches, the confabs of Alphas, the fundraisers! But I've seen the numbers, the numbed faces, heard the two-dimensional dreams – enough to get over, the right emblem on the car, the right zip code, just making it to 30 – little more is sought, the humanity is truncated, stultified, the death rattle even in the greeting, the glance across the white room to catch the eye of another walking wounded. Look up “survive,” “rise.” Damn - Whose dictionary is this?
Visiting the Salish and Kootenai, making my way through the artifacts on display – The noble attempt to reclaim the language, the traditions, pretty blankets for sale, woven by citizens of the Flathead Reservation. O, but I erred just now: “Citizens of a reservation?” A painful, heartbreaking chuckle, almost through tears: No, “forced denizens making do.” Power unalloyed with decency and mercy can crush language into mush, make space enough to deny reality to oneself. Outside the visitors’ center is poster after poster of the faces and names of tribal women and girls gone missing, likely snatched by sex traffickers, among the demons of the Earth – among, as there are others.
Presume most dead.
What does pride and restoration avail without autonomy? I keep asking this question, but few listen; it’s much easier to “celebrate our culture.” All can be expert at that, at least. And that’s what this power wants, I thought -- to dance in the celebration of your misery as it visits and gawks at what it has wrought, and tell its stories about the nobility of your race once safely back in Elysium.
"The oceans can make a comeback," the Woods Hole journal declares. Well, that's good news! But do the gasping corals, the sea floor which experiences a daily D & C by a thousand bobbing abortionists so that we may have a moment of unneeded succulent flesh from the ocean womb, the rest, unwanted – dolphins, parrot fish, you name them – tossed dead from peaceful life into the human-fouled waters, once home, now tomb – what do these know of comebacks?
This mighty, sick, delusional nation, ejaculated into being by the race-hand of conquest, like Nineveh, calling down a terrible wrath upon itself, as it has from the beginning; Like Nineveh, filled with millions not knowing their right hand from left; Like Nineveh, forgetful of decency, truth – only smug, commercial self-certainty soaks the citizens’ brains – is sinking like a stone into its self-created abyss. It could have been so much more. It didn’t need to end this way. What can be done at this hour?
We have been warned again and again, told that the world is not our property, that the “sand niggers” and just plain ol’ “niggers” and the “dikes” and the “Chinks” and the “wops” are us, the flickers and the bears and the pangolins, too, that this is the “world house,” not a mansion of sealed-off rooms, not separate houses but one house, that the destruction will come back upon us.
Await a savior, a champion, an “Enkidu” for the hideous lumbering “Gilgamesh” fucking us out of existence while we, effete, enervated, watch our own rape on cable news, again and again?
Have we not been shown what is good? And what is required? I hear the old prophet’s voice from my boyhood Bible studies: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly upon Earth, not as lords, but as fellow sufferers, fellow aspirers, future humus all, knowers of nothing despite our boasts from laboratories to sanctuaries – to live a life of awe, holding each other up in the brief hour given.
There comes a time when a thing is too late absent complete repentance, a full turn – teshuvah as my Jewish friends say, metanoia, the Christians. Same thing. “But you don’t really care for repentance, do you?” – you proud of the “Global North.” (I hear Cohen’s voice singing this in what’s left of my mind, but not in "Hallelujah," but rather 'Êykhôh, Lamentations.)
And now this plague. It may be illicit, mawkish, ghoulish, but I shall fit it into this narrative anyway. For it is not that we die, it’s that so many needn’t, and needn’t have, now. We kill each other by our choices, our selections, our misapplication of resources, our wants, our endless need for shiny novelty, the pursuit of convenience, of more “goods” for the landfill.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
Nineveh, at least, repented.
ID, POST MORTEM
After the line of grievers, nods to the blackened family, After the director's team re-entered the rented room To close the lid on another life, came a bang, and Flying splinters peppering the faces and turned backs Of the celebrants; all eyes toward the source of the Sound and shrapnel:
Two bloodless fists through two holes held up by Two bloodless arms, the final act of refusal, Ready to box God in the cosmic, Jobian match In which each bell is another Why.
THE GREAT REPLACEMENT
My father told me, when I was a boy
trying to help him take care of the little square of grass
we had in St. Albans, never to pull a weed by the stem,
that you have to grasp it at the root if you would be rid of it or
else it will just reappear, and quickly.
Again and again I see the poor weeders of society
who have failed to take that lesson, and have left
the weeds to grow, as they, with great sophistication,
recommended new names for them, new implements
to prune their leaves, new devices to hem the plants in.
Whosoever would be a weeder must be a radical.
The tender of surfaces has his place, but not here.
Who is this "you" that is feared will replace "us?"
Who is this "us?"
Both questions can be
given lengthy answers, of course. The
sociologist has hers, the historian his, the philosophers theirs.
Dances on the surface thought sublime.
Below the surface, the surface of the lies that
tie together in bundles our superficialities,
as our eyes and ears fool,
Is a vast network of roots, untouched other than
in so many platitudes.
So these angry faces on the march, who think they
are "us," have, behind their contorted faces, illuminated
by their kitschy torches, ideas the roots of which
were never killed. Too inconvenient to bend so low,
too much effort to dig into the darkness.
Every time we let white, black, and brown pass and
call for greater harmony across a surface spectrum,
every time we call for greater understanding between them,
we grasp the weed by the stem.
So over the horizon, the weeds may, at last, choke
off every rose bush and corn stalk and sapling,
and a new Reich may soon rise up, and we
become Planet of the Weeds, where flowers
once bloomed, and all had, for at least a brief moment,
the chance to be "us," birthed together
by the stars, fated, at last, to go down together
to the world of the roots we now ignore.
Wrens, July 2015
They'll be gone before next year. But, for now, they are content to traverse the length and breadth of the yard, faithful to their many little errands, and enjoy this summer's moments, as am I.
What else should we do in this short season?
Truth is a boy's toy. It does not need much tending, takes care of itself ere long, even when hidden under fools' baskets - pushes up through the weaves like weeds between hard stones.
It is over the soft, bleeding body of Love that we must stand and worry. It is over brittle Hope that we must fret. It is away from Despair that our eyes must peer, as into a vista where salvation waits.
Before long, my friend, you may discover our Taproot was false; it was not Socrates that was needed so much as the mystics and the bards - the sage, the griot, big hearts not heads.
I tell you, now, Truth is a boy's toy - a shiny lure that litters and chokes the rivers that flow past the thrones of the gods, or, all too often, snatches souls, like hapless carp, from the very waters of the life they would know.
- On the second inauguration of President Barack H. Obama, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, January 21, 2013 -
This is, today, another first -- first time someone like him, The One, has been twice inaugurated to be head of state, first time such a thing has happened on this particular day.
But -- and I hope it's alright to tell you -- I tire of firsts, firsts that shouldn't be firsts because it is so damn silly that they are firsts in the first place -- ready to move on to, perhaps, fifths, and ninety-thirds, and two-hundred-and-seventeenths, and then, well, and then we'd stop counting I suppose, because it would be too absurd to count -- pointless.
One day, we will live our lives in higher numbers (I'll be gone then -- maybe you too) and then justice will roll down and righteousness will stream -- then we will be so far past firsts that no one will notice, because something better, in us, will reign.
But as it is, today, as good a thing as it is, we celebrate one more small step up from the muck of history; and on we go, must go.
He found my Being - set it up
Adjusted it to place. -- Emily Dickenson
Over the long months, perhaps years, I had begun to make out its outline, far off in the blue-grey sky - the swirling laces disturbing the careless sail of the cumulonimbus.
The first one had already struck and made a mess of things, but I muddled through, soldiered on; and now its mate was in view, and I could see the lateral, and then the tongue flapping in the air - at times the medial, the midsole, the insole, the outsole, and the heel, too - the thing, forged by Fate, hurtling toward my life to strike it squarely or, perhaps, as the first, to take out something or someone I loved, cherished.
But as I dug the post holes for the new fence, and then began to plant the new hydrangeas and hyacinths, along with some lilies and daffodils - some new grass by the pergola, it faded from consciousness as I became lost in my dreamy, human existence, lost in the moment of a single, fine, summer's day.
Without willing it so, or telling a therapist my fears, it now concerned me less than whether I had used enough mulch, or laid-out the leeching hose in the right pattern, or whether the robins would gorge themselves, greedily, on my newly laid seed; and at some point, in the late afternoon, the smell of burning rubber wafted by, and
I decided, playfully, that the smell was telling me that I had won the day by looking down instead of up, by tending the little garden of my life, hands covered with the soil and grit and color and wetness of the earth in my backyard and that the harbinger from beyond the clouds had been flung back toward the hot sun by a power greater than Fate, and that this day all would be well, and would likely be well the next day, too, just as the sun, setting over the trees seemed to promise it would be, even if I would not be here to see it.
Beyond These Things
I don’t care about the loan or the interest on the loan; I don’t care about the broken fence and the green fluid that flows through the veins of this false life.
I don’t care about the bite of taxes or about the sting of the bee, for
there is always the river, flowing by, with its soft “Shhh … Be Still – Listen,” and the sunshine like gloss on its sweet lips, and
there is always the raindrops falling from the sated leaves, and there is always the steam rising from pavement, like the spirits of the dead ascending to heaven.
There is always the sun upon my face and the little boy with the Tonka truck who knows no fear of life; and there is always the quiet wood and the pathway through it, and the dulcet tones of snapping twigs and robins, and blue-jays, and
the voices of the winds, in conversation, high up in the canopy of the ancient trees, saying “Shhh...Be Still – Listen.”
Beauty everywhere, every- where, beauty – everywhere, everywhere beauty – the pile of my sons’ old clothes (“They were happy kids,” she said, which made me wince) – everywhere – the old photos of christenings – the wedding vows on knees – the promises – the promises broken, forgiven – the tears of joy and the tears in the dark night – the smell of new Keds when I was seven – father and mother sitting on the sofa at Christmas watching me play with my new blocks, the fake plastic light in the real fireplace, spinning-out its faux blue, red and green ;
Dewey, Rorty, Baldwin, St. John of the Cross, John Irving’s novels, Updike’s American-stained gloss; Dr. King’s sweet soul, Merton’s “Fourth and Walnut” moment; Prettyman’s place on West 98th; Jesus in the garden; the two spirits within; the trinity; Luther before the inquisition; the first time I read If; Walden and theGospels; the Colorado Rockies, Crested Butte, the icy mountain lakes of summer – beauty, beauty;
Baiting Hollow, Long Island, two million miles from Queens, walking the shore – beauty – the tidal pools, the smell of sea – beauty, the glint of sun-splashes on the fenders of dad’s Mercury Monarch (his joy, the first new car he ever bought) – beauty – his Miller beer in his trucker’s hand, in my ill-fitting yellow robe as we sat in the cabin in the cool of morning – beautiful, too, the man making sure that his family will have a summer to remember, like the big boss and all the rest, even if just one.
The words “I forgive you” and “I love you” and “This will pass” – beauty; watching the little dog eat part of my jelly sandwich, or a handful of Cheerios—beauty; The Ides of March, Sergio’s Waters of March, the end of March – beauty; waiting for Spring, the burst of the dead grass back to life again; the backyard rimmed with tall trees – the birds that have made their home there – beauty.
And you ask me why I am so wistful? O My God! I have come to love it so! And I will have to let it go!
Faith (2) Faith is "It has to be so"-- Like two plus two must be four, like the roots grow into soil, and not sky. Simple, essential, axiomatic, air in the nostrils, sweet on the tongue. God is -- not a game of chance, the hypothesis of a mere dreamer, but the necessary, the indespensible, lest I lay myself down and die.
Wind On the beach, the wind in my ears. Yes, yes, I know the wind in my ears is not Allah or Jesus offering me a revelation; but neither is the wind in my ears just the wind in my ears.
At Home in the World Me, I have no fight left for things like this. I am content to let you have your Jesus, your Paul, your Eckhardt, your Darwin, while I have mine.
I understand, now. You get wiser as you get older – if you want to; you realize that your fatigue and nonchalance are not age, but nature’s way of doing for you what you would not do on your own – put away dissipation that you may drink-in the day you are given while there is still world enough and time – especially time.
So I will leave you to your six day world and love you anyway, just as I ask the skeptics to leave me to the fuzzied-up God of my fathers and of my mothers and, perhaps to love me, too – leave me to these and I will leave you to your myths of molecules that wish to transcend mere valence and go to the opera, and drag race, and dine, which is no different than what I have been saying all along anyway, with my fuzzy vocabulary of faith – you, with your manly experiments and equations.
You get wiser as you get older; it isn’t truth that matters so much, but that we feel at home in the world, for how awful when we don’t. So decorate as you please –
soft pillow of an idiosyncratic theology over here; purple drapes of pomp and ritual there; a field experiment on quarks over the hill; but a shared candelabra to keep the night at bay – set that here, please, between us, so that we can at least see each other’s needy eyes and faces and dying hands, and, together, pray -- or whatever it is you do -- that the sun will rise for both of us, so that we can go on disagreeing about the pointless things that keep us apart in the arrogant hours of day.
Same time tonight, then; I’ll bring the candles, you bring the light.
Here, as This It’s OK to be where we are; it’s OK. It’s OK to inhabit this trouble-ridden body, the body that breaks, that is diseased and riddled with pain more often than we would like, or can stand.
It’s OK to think that we are but a stage on life’s way, that we are not what the whole thing is about, that we are still leather-knuckled brutes, mixed with a little angel, here and there.
Whenever we claim some superlative station, we ought to know that disappointment lurks but a moment away – it always has, hasn’t it?
The earthworm knows better, and so does the seagull; they, at least, get it – they will never have books or libraries or Winchesters, but only the earth and the air.
In their own little earthworm and seagull language, I suppose them saying, “That will do; that’s enough for us; but what’s enough for you?”
Judging the Fat Man in the Airport Café, Louisville
I saw the big, fat man in the airport café. “Is he one of those hicks who sticks a Confederate flag on his pick-up truck?” Or is he, possibly, instead, a poet who writes sublime lines, in six languages, giving lectures and recitals across the land? Or better, is he just a son, like me?
One day, O Lord, may my eyes be clean enough to see.
ocking Chair (Abbey of Gethsemani, Spring, 2011)
In Kentucky, at Bethany Spring, I was asked what item outside best expresses where I am – now.
I did not hesitate, only pointed to the rocking chair on the porch, which suggests both rest and restlessness.
"I am at mid-life," I said – "sitting, thinking, rocking – waiting for the next circle to open for me
to enter; when at once I will be off, the rocking chair thrust backward, and for a minute, waving
good-bye as it rocks alone – a rocking chair, rocking without me, rocking to stillness as I go on to the rest
of this life to create a new corner of my world, where one day, if I am lucky, another rocking chair, perhaps being fashioned now, awaits me."
At the Abbey with Brother Paul (for my friends at Bethany Spring, New Haven, KY.)
“God Alone” loomed over the entry way at the Trappist monastery like a great eyeball; the same grave invitation that accosted the more famous monk who entered so many years before.
We opened the iron, brown gates; we entered under the gaze.
By the koi pond, near the Gingko tree, Brother Paul held forth on his recollections of the famous monk, but also about himself; to reflect with us about his own life, spent here since he was but a boy, really. Brother Paul read his own works,
as the fish splashed about in their delight, frolicking in the green water (Nina Simone's, "Feeling Good" echoing through my head, as I let New York fade away:
"Birds flying high you know how I feel Sun in the sky you know how I feel Breeze driftin' on by you know how I feel");
the birds dashing, loudly, overhead, as in an aviary; large insects lumbering and bumbling through the gathering, without manners, on their precise little missions, absorbed with a time that is not our own, absorbing the sun and kissing the sweet air they rode, high on life.
("Dragonfly out in the sun you know what I mean, don't you know; Butterflies all havin' fun you know what I mean; Sleep in peace when day is done, That's what I mean")
Of course, in a certain way of looking at it, the large eyeball sign is not really true; God is not alone here – She has many companions, diligently at their work, serving her tea, bathing her, feeding her, and
He is quite busy returning the favor. No, God is never alone here, not in this place, where the insects and the fish and the people all sing the same song, and pray the same prayer.
I reach out as if to grasp a piece of this to take with me on the plane, back to the rest of my life, where, I am sorry to say, I leave God, sitting in my waiting room, alone, far too often and so, far too often, sleep is not so peaceful.
What is That to Me?
I've heard that the Dutch are irreligious -- mostly; but what is that to me?
I can't really blame them -- mostly; and perhaps, in their own way, they'll come around one day.
But whether they do or no, what is that to me?
Forced to Look for Myself
I am not like you, moon; I am not like you, content to roll around in the sky, a slave to the pull of another, ever quiet - though much to be envied, if envy you could understand in your senseless, lovely glide.
I am not like you, lion: I am not content to eat and kill and live an endless cycle of the same, though powerful you may be you know not what you do, mute beast with the quickening, deadly eye.
I am not l ike you, mountain; I am not content to be heavy and dense, or rise high into the sky or, with others, rim the vale over which you stand as sentinals, protectors with no lives of your own.
A man am I, shaped just below the gods, forced by my very nature to crave and hope and dream and strive and die, never as complete as you, always looking for something that is the most elusive thing of all - forced to look for myself, not knowing what I shall do when I find him.
The Believer, Walking
As I walked through Greenwich Village a young man saw my lapel pin and intruded with, "You can't really believe that!" As though awaiting his words for a hundred years I replied: "Believe what, and why?"
"Clever," he said. "I've tried clever. It does no good," and then "I love you," I said, and bid him good-bye.
It is odd - isn't it? - how we so boldly make our plans when all around us are reminders of how frail we are --
a nail has pierced the tire, the big limb has fallen and swayed the back of the chainlink fence.
There is no window into what follows; no certainty that where we are headed is a place we would want to be; we are
not pulled into it, but pushed by something in us that knows all the risks, but insists we go on --
as though it needs to be born.
On Men at War
And they say that It is more important that we are right, and that your children’s blood and love mean little. There is nothing quite like the thrill of war, the better to feel life’s steady throb.
Men to arms, men to war, will meet to test on some curious, distant shore – will meet to slash each others’ baby breasts, to raze the heathen town, the churches, the mosques burn down, and watch each others’ faces licked by flames’ burning glory, the steely smell of blood in the air that blows from camp to camp, windswept traces of futures gone, like cattle at the bolts, like sheep at the saw – gone, gone, all now gone.
Then come the stories, for those who remain – the fine, fine stories, masculine refrains, of saved fellows in the holes, pinned with nowhere else to go, of medics who die in numbers unknown in their mad missions to patch the human targets as best they can, to send out again to face the missiles, the shrapnel, the flame that’s thrown on the beautiful cloth of skin, to make it hiss and blister and the soul scream, in hell within the burning shell.
Then come the lies, often proffered just as well as those told as the big men groped for casus belli, as the pols searched for the reason that is preference – “It is more important that we are right! It is more important that we fight!”
If the grass does cover all, does it cover men’s lies? Does it cover the lost dreams, a little one’s plan of life now carried away into the realm that no one can enter, that of what might have been? Does it cover the births that will not be, the birthdays that will never come, the grandchild and –mother that will never meet? Does it cover the cowardice of statesmen who looked to gain rather than avert the evil because, as they claim on our behalf, this is simply us, simply what we do? Does it cover the history that will not be made, now usurped by this? Does it heal the wounds that linger the generations, and that dash the hopes of dreamers who see the light fade to darkness as the years pass them by, filled with images of death?
Who is the coward, then? Is it the one who calls "To Arms!," or the one who shouts, “Have we not seen this before, and have we not learned? Or are we fated to drink the putrid brew again and again, forever more, for fear the caper berry will burst, and we not taste at all?”
If war quickens, let those who make it take to the face of the sheerest mount, one by one, and climb for dear life – for that will make a man just as easily, quicken just as well, and the lives lost on the sheer adventure, crashing on the crags and cliffs, will be the fools’ own, and not those of innocents whose only crime is love of home, and duty to that which gave all they’d ever known.
Much there is that’s wrong with the world, but the first of all is men at war, not the beggars in the streets, or the threat of conversion, not the tsunami’s flood or the rain pushed mud, but rather the moment when we take to madness, and riddle and maim and burn the bodies of God’s daughters and sons for the sake of evil itself. Let us rethink our causes, for devotion is beautiful indeed. The faster plane, for life's transport; the faster ship, for sport; the pinned up uniform for the love brigades, and the great, grand turrets for lore.
The Night's Song The night's song creeps, slithers into my head, and plays its bassy, tremulous out-of-tune; my eyes shut, absurdly, in the dark of the room -- shut, absurdly, in the dark of the room
as if to be sure that not a glimmer of light would shine into the places where I hid now, hid now from day, with all its light that is darkness,
the light of men at work, moving through the torrid streets, street walkers, as I myself am, moving, half asleep, through the city, forgetting, forgetting why as we buy the slaughtered from pushcarts to place between our buns, a dead thing to eat, to excrete; a dead thing sates, and as satyrs we wander home, another day done, another gone, to someplace.
From darkness to this darkness; lights out, a "Good Night," the lips touch "Good-Bye" just in case, just in case. And in the darkness God pulls up a chair and stares, Her breath falling on the idol that is myself, the idol that is myself, now melting, metling in the cool of night, rocked in Her arms, in the darkness of the dark, tomorrow one step closer to, somewhere, all being, everywhere being, vain but, somehow feeling that I'm on the way.
First, You Admit It Walking around the lake with little Babs in my backpack I felt something, something more than the dog moving about for a better perch to see my son walking far behind me, something more than the frigid air that rose up from the ice and that poured down the mountainside - though it was all of this that made the moment, too, each its part to do.
In an instant I was transported to the same spot, a million years ago and I realized that the snow crunching under my boots would have had the same grit and groan, the air would have been just as cold, the trees just as barren and ashy, and that it would be the same a million years hence, even if we ceased to be here -- and I loved this thought for the very first time.
The snow is the same snow, the ice the same ice, the wind, the same as yesterday, and tomorrow, and there was no need to fret, and I reached into the backpack to stroke the little time traveler who had shared this moment with me, and I prayed that there would always be little dogs like her, and cold winds, and mountains, and lakes, and crunching snow even if there were no human soles for it to groan and sing beneath.
First, you have to admit that you would go on as you are, that you thought the world was made just for you, even if you never put it quite that way, and then, somewhere along the way, if you are lucky, as you walk around a frozen lake, or dance with your baby boy, or run your fingers over the petals of a rose, you admit that you loved more than you knew or knew you had the power to, and that you no longer needed to be around to see it all -- that you love creation more than yourself, and all fears, all fears melt away, melt away, like the snow in the first warm days of Spring, and all at once the scales fall from your eyes, and you are, finally, finally, free.
Still Here? Thought by now you'd be gone, did you? Thought the bombs over there and the foreclosures over here; the swine flu and earthquakes, the cancer and the mad cow; the marriage rates and the sad fact that even runners have heart attacks were all facts pertinent to your sure and imminent demise, did you?
Well, maybe you are right. But here you are, reading this, now, breathing and hoping and planning as the rest, though with your usual trepidation. For God's sake! Let yourself be taken, and forget it. It really is the best you can do, other than know deep in your own soul that it isn't all for nothing. And, of course, it isn't. But that's up to you.
There is no star, no galaxy, no nation, no religion, no prophet, no prophesy, no fortune, no Peter, Paul or Lincoln more needed than you, or more consequential, or more loved. You are as large as all that - or, if you insist, as small as all that. Is a universe sealed inside your breast, or a hummock left by a brutal winter? The freedom to decide seems, I grant, too much. But there you are my friend.
There Are Places Like This In the Lik gallery I marveled at all the photographs – of caverns bathed in reddish light, of an elephant with head pressed, almost lovingly, against the trunk of a lone tree, and of the rows and rows of lavender, bursting with purple, under the white clouds. Too much to witness from this dark little room, like seeing God in a cardboard box.
Being there instead of this vicariousness; a dead eye as proxy for my own.
There are places like this in the world, and walking along West Broadway I am not there to witness them, as the summer of life winds down. Yet I am grateful for at least these images; they reassure me that beauty abides, whether or not beheld, and my heart bursts and swells knowing I live in the same world, and that maybe you and I, too, are beautiful.
Transition No point in fighting the pull – You’ve got to move on and there is no way back; and even if there were, would you really go? Who would be there waiting, a younger you? No, you’ve got to gently lean into the new gales, the rains, the blowing sand that now stings your eyes and rasps your skin, and know that there is something of you and in you that abides, always. There is no place to go to that is not already here – Vestigia nulla restrorsum.
The Ploys of Philosophy
There it is, there’s your “answer,” right there across the room; if you take it up it will heal you and your brow will lose its pleats, and you will feel your stiff muscles relax, and the spirit inside of you will dance, and you will meet the end of your days with a fond reflection.
But to walk across the room is hard for you, knowing that there are other rooms, and other answers, and you know so long as you care too much about that, well, there you are, suspended between faith and doubt.
Own this room, be a denizen of this place, and let others be at home in theirs, and that’s all there is to it. So clear, so simple, so impossible; as impossible as the impossibility of your suspension between heaven and hell.
Ripe Falls the Fruit
Ripe hangs the fruit, to be shaken or plucked or snipped from the branch or the vine.
Ripe falls the fruit, swelled and filled by rain and sun, and on the ground or grass wrinkles and bursts and pours its sweet into the happy maws of God's lesser denizens. We nourish by falling, too.
The cold came late this year and all at once the yellow-red leaves bid their branches good-bye and took their leave for the sweeper and the plastic sacks that would gather them up like a holocaust and abandon them, together, by the side of the road, where they will not even be free to feed the new life of all the trees to come.
Let us leave the bodies on the ground that they may do their work, and so next year I shall tell the gardener to pile high the colored bodies along the trunks in the woods near the back gate, for even rotting (if there is such) we do God’s work.
Dear Brother No, brother, it gives me no pleasure to see you suffer so, not now, not ever; it gives me no pleasure that I cannot scale the walls between us, that I might be with you on your last, long walk, but
The tragedy of life does not erase the facts of life, or stop the planets in their glide, or erase the scars and the wounds you gave to me and, worse, to others unable to anticipate one like you. I would be merciful now, for I have already forgiven you. But what does mercy look like now, in this? Would it be a smile? A ‘Get Well Soon’ card? A dinner by the lake? Which, when I have no smiles left, no inclination to pen your address, and nothing to say to you at a time reserved for the breaking of bread and banter? I cannot smile at you, send you well wishes, eat with you so near, and be at all sincere.
Ah, Dear Brother – you have left me in a quandary. If God has sent you as my test, it might be the very test I fail, and the one that makes all the difference, and in some way (so ingenious as to make me smile), your darkness overshadows me even across the miles, and makes me wonder if any virtue exists. God is a clever God indeed; What a perfect tribunal for thee, and me.
Cold winds blow winds blow cold; Cold, cold, cold, Like ice icy death it’s time to go, go to the Keys, Largo I’ll go, we’ll go winding down where our bodies glow.
Follow Your Road
“Follow your road, and maybe someday your road will take you far away,” so the Seawind song goes. But so too, it seems, will another’s. When we would go our own way the road we must follow is not planted in a yellow wood, nor even cleared of brush and trees and stones, but rather to be etched out of the earth of our own God-given dreams, foot by foot by foot, like the passing of life in days. Indeed, whether this way or the other, surely we will find ourselves far away, or if so fearful of even our shadows perhaps but an inch or two spans cradle and grave. There are those for whom the idea of meeting a mass of strangers at the end of our road makes us faint, sick, overcome by the thought of a life lived inside another’s dream and by another’s light, having buried our own under a lifetime of timid “Nos.” Easy it is to walk the wide road, with its geometric plain, filled with companions, whose voices make us forget our idolatry.
The trees on Maniece and Otsego were ablaze, torches of cool yellow flame crackling and dancing at the steely sky. How real, though, is yellow? Why this sacred mood over pretty leaves? Is yellow not just what rods and cones do, as some would say, in that quite-sure way? Or is yellow, like purple, God trying to get us to look up from our New York Times? Is not that crackling and dancing for you and I? “Yes,” I’d say, in a quite-sure way. “Yes, and these branches are the rafters of the canopy of heaven, though I am mad for saying so in this age of rods and cones.”
The Church by the Brook
I’ll have a church by the brook with the round window in the mezzanine, and the youth will come from all around and hear how they may yet care that life came here, and that the beauty they hoped for is just what we humans do, and so have faith, have faith in the beauty and in it and through it see God, That calls to you from the sunset, and the table, and the patch of dirt under your new Nike shoes.
Break this Western spell with whining string and magic drum, and take us away to Shakti so that by her power the spell of Walmart may be broken, that we may see the Ganges from New York, as sacred once more, rather than survey her for abuses called uses; and so then maybe, maybe then, the Mississippi, the Hudson and the Rio Grande, too.
I trouble myself sometimes to ascertain just who is sane – whether the cab driver or the bespectacled- briefcased rider, whether the decaying mother of three in the cleaners, or the artist starving in her loft in ecstasy, whether the penguiny waiter at the Atlantic Grill, or the owner who must prepare each day a slaughter for an army of metropolitans who already have too much, with no sense of irony, as people in the Delta or the hills of Rio pluck their last chickens and ground their last roots, whether the astronaut who would risk all to stroll a dusty ball, or the earthy carpenter who sings while swinging hammer against the background of the sky to finish the child’s room addition to the Jones’s summer home, though the Jones have already two others like it up by the mill, whether the man who flees to shelter in the rain, or the one who walks through the tempest and laughs as the drops drench him through, whether the believer that God cares, or the skeptic who claims to cling to nothing but ‘ethics’ as he distracts his mind with ‘the ten thousand things’ that delay the inevitable stare into the aimless weather that is, for him, all that is.
Faith is the irascible declarative, “It is so!” For if it is not then what is the point of even pleasure? Or shall we stay for at least that Epicurean bribe and remain in the service of some funky molecules that conspired in some occult way, in a tiny cellular huddle, to keep us around that they may go on going on with their game?
As for we religious, I know of our own bad accretions, our silly disputations, but odder it is still that it is we who yet believe who are called odd, when the molecule sects install isotopes and elements as gods with wills to pass themselves on, that use our progeny, our bodies and minds as pawns in a tiny conspiracy, hatched out of sight, before sight, or you or I.
I feel the shudder as the peach explodes on my wet palate; I do - yes, I do - taste all of the dinosaurs and the lava, and I receive visions of the gods whose hot hands shaped the world and time.
What are old friends if not true friends who want us only for us and the recollection of the paths that have crossed on the journey – if it is a journey – of life, and cross and cross again. Good jokes and laughter, bad “jokes” and tears, mark the memory of those who have touched each other’s hearts and took upon the shoulders each other’s fears, and delighted at mutual success down the passage of years.
Old friends may dwell so but never do they grow apart, for so long as the heart beats, there they reside.
From the moment that I entered her I knew I was doomed, for “I” had really not entered her, so much of me being so far away (in Key West, I think), that this appendage, this tuber of gristle and skin that cannot even move of its own, but inflates only by the caprice of millions of others, like a fantastic barn raising “Lift, Lift, Lift, and In!” Is it a cosmic joke that it is shaped like an “I” and that it sounds like “eye” when it is as blind as the cave it enters, like a mole, searching for something to eat, it devours more than it can ever know. How often are we there when hair meets hair?
Thanksgiving Thoughts (Redux)
Please pass the turkey and giblets, and the cornbread stuffing, too; and, Oh, the berry sauce, and I’ll take some rolls from the linen cloth – hot! hot! hot! – two for me and two for you.
And when we sit, I’ll look around for some cider to wash down the greens and the hen, and we’ll partake, with the others prostrate, in far flung huts, with sagging skins, near shallow graves of unlucky kin. Note to self: Next year, think these things again.
Sun shine, moon shine, but when the sky turns we’re loathe to say “cloud shine,” too. Do not the clouds ride with the sun on their backs and diffuse to the world, in unison, the linen light no less than the moon?
I rise in the morning like a warrior knowing he must don his wares and face the nameless, faceless god that is himself, a god who suffers no dally and no ruse that he might look to that spot of road under the feet only, rather than the one that winds on, and out of sight. The god drags him to the sun from where he would, but for a moment, lie.
I am of the sort who fill in landscapes. I apply my own oils and dredge our memory for scenes, as when I drive on a newly smoothed road with sweet taffy lines yet unblemished by sloughed rubber, and see the spirits rise from the loam beneath – the spirits of those whose lovely brown lives were rent by the balls of Gatling guns and iron spheres. I am of the sort who see the crushed skulls of Africans under the picnic tables at the family reunion, and who wonder how much of the dust on the bed post has traveled time and oceans from Bergen-Belsen or Babylon, and I conjure rivers of blood as I fish Swift Creek and Reynold’s Channel. I see, too, that the sun is fair and the sky the richest blue, and breathed over my head by God. And so, fellow human, do you? Do you see, too?
Song for Juliette (November 29, 2007)
The cells, they say, were spread like stars in the night, hot nodes in a dark and darkening sky, shining but fatal if too near. “We prefer to watch from here.”
God or Nature, whatever the name, holds the reasons for the same, for stars and cells that run amok and kick the pail and rend the rails that hold the dreams of life within. But the answer – faith only knows; Before stars and cells we puzzle, and strike the pensive pose.
As by and by the stars will die specks lead on to darkened eyes and no Beloved with leather sling could stand that Force three cubits high that comes to claim the stars and you and I.
They say that we are made of stars. Those little cells then, too. And if they're right once pall is drawn “Like the stuff of stars we will go on,” and that may be all the faith we need as we laugh and cry, naked, into our dusky sky, inside our lovely rails, and dream life’s dreams.
January comes and so one thinks of King, as I do now while reading a collection of papers from his life’s Spring; before the thieves came, and took away this rarest, God-cut jewel. And so, reading above the fold, and below, and within, I shake and tremble for us and think “What now?” Who now, if not me, now? Thoughts turn to my deeds, and I wonder if God approves, though my heart bursts with love and the Spirit floods heart and nerve and sinew, and the pains of a billion voices echo through my brain, like his. Who now, if not me, now? O, Martin, come and teach me how to enter the Way, to lift my Cross and hold the torch of God that maybe, in my own small way, I may speak truth to might, before the Big House gates, before I fade away. Who now, if not me, now? Who now, if not me?
Tension and Soft, Moving Air
I’m a hard nut, for they tell me “meditate” and I know, from my reading, that they are right, and so I contemplate instead; and they say breathe but it seems that I prefer to hold my journeyed air, like Linus his little blue, dirty blanket. There are those moments, though, when I remember to breathe, like when I’m sitting in traffic and notice the way that particular tree’s leaves shimmy in the soft, moving air, and I can feel the Sweet Breath move from the tree – into my car, through the open windows and, like the Holy Spirit itself, through my knotted chest, and I relax and permit the asshole in front of me to make his left turn from the lane to the right, and glimpse the rustling papers in his back window as he passes, illegitimately, as Holy Spirit visits there, too, like that specific tree, and me. I melt a little into my seat, and remember all the times when I turned left when I should have turned right, or not at all.
We fret or mark the half of things, and so fifty is a metaphor as much as years passed, and has twice the force of forty-five as we contemplate how long we last. But, too, we are not one hundred, so let us go picnic in the sun, and dance and run, and let us write another verse as we turn that page, and think like Zeno, for we are always only half done.
I recall being elated. I was a boy, under the covers with my new Hess truck, lights on, moving through the blizzards and valleys of my white sheets and pillows, the only toy that Dad would let me take from under the tree on Christmas Eve, and the only toy I would need.
I have grown tired of the bills, the mortgage and the driveway tar, and the words “I have to” which never seem to end, and never knowing what I think I know, which slips away like oil or sand into the horizons of memory. Why this? Why were we made to go, and never come to rest? I suppose, God’s love made it so, otherwise, how do we grow? Yet, I have grown - tired. Yet, I would rest.
After Nick’s cello lesson, after his basketball game, I was eager to drive home to his mother’s dinner and newly trimmed tree. But he said he had a headache and wanted something to eat, so I pulled over and gave him three bucks for a bag of chips and a soda, and felt my heart swell, filled with gladness that I had three bucks to hand him, and we both enjoyed the ride home, sated, and listening to Elton John sing the Circle of Life, and Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me, as I reached for a couple of chips.
And so, it would come as a surprise when, in but two days, I would slap his face for the first time, for cursing me as I counseled him to take care of his own affairs better than he had been, and though I hated to touch my own child’s face with any but a caressing hand, that smack was like the chips and drink, only no music played as his head lurched back and my guts twisted deep inside of me, and his deep inside of him, as the circle keeps turning to what must be.
Miami Beach, January 2008
I like to stroll the beach between the hotels up Collins down to Ocean Drive and meet there the noon hour where I can take my lunch along the strip and watch the glowing passers-by drawn from everywhere to a place only half real and less than half as real as the beach that leads me here, where I can imagine the masted sailing ships off the shore, years and years before.
On the beach was a young brown man facing the spray, prayer beads and cross in his hand, facing the ocean toward which he prayed that maybe Jesus would come to shore and meet him, and carry him away, and I nodded as I passed him by, and he nodded back a plaintive “Don’t you see, brother?” And his dangling cross, rather than bared breasts governed my thoughts and my day, as I came to lie down under the sky, and thank God for ocean, and sun, and for sending me a sign.
And so I turned to the ocean, and prayed, and saw Jesus swimming with Buddha on the horizon.
Soundings His fellows gathr'd round the stone, arms afold in solemn pose and talked of light not 'fore disclosed. And one remarked - "I asked him, not too long before, how we had not known. Said he:
'But none had queried me 'til this; I have been here ever since....' "
What beauties rot in timeless holes where fail we sound our fellows' souls and pass by players' masks that hide perhaps, luminescence, gold.
I used to say I am no part of this misuse of time on Saturday afternoons, this abuse of hard won income – splurges on nonsense trinkets that sit on the bureau, or in it, or under it, or in front of it, or wherever. I resist! I used to say that Veblen is right, of course, that this consumption is conspicuous with the dysfunction of shallow souls streaming like lemmings over the cliffs of credit thrown over the limit that their plastic cards impose. Stuff like that . . . I used to think I was better than the mall, better than any mere arcade that would steal me from my books and ‘better’ thoughts and my duties at home, and –
But then there are the faces. The living faces, the smiling faces, the ice cream from the Baskin Robbins counter faces, the beating hearts of children faces – people like me faces, browsers in bookstore faces, friends, lovers, colleagues, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and clerks behind the register faces, yes, vexed, idle, smiling, watching the clock run out on their day faces, Registers keeping them from joining us in the aisles, from buying the item that is placed in the pretty velum bag that will carry it home where it will make them feel better to be a part of a land where there are pretty velum bags and people who put things in them, and people who make those things, and who move those things, and who polish those things and who live next door or down the road or across the mountains; Feel better to be part of a kaleidoscope of color, shapes, sounds – yes, the business owners know the score, they peddle tiny drops of joy, not wares as I had supposed; they know the score just as we who browse and sniff, and touch, and wish, and buy and lay-a-way (if we must) for two weeks hence when the eagle lands again and we return to claim that little item that brings a smile with its feel – it is real, after all, and more real than homilies and ruminations in French cafes and the black-shirted snobs in clogs and grey soldiers of fact and thinkers who use phrases like ‘conspicuous consumption’ as though they have an answer better than our need to see faces, to touch things, to hold things, to give things, to bring solace to a plagued, beleaguered spirit when yoga and Church and Marx and Jesus won’t do. No, let there be malls – scores and scores of malls, places to stroll and wish and buy and meet and play and do and, yes, think – That, too.
The keepers win, but not nearly as much as I who consume the images, the songs, the color, the warmth of human throngs who sing and sing the same songs by the Sam Goody's and in the window, over there, there are clogs for sale, and black shirts, too.
Grace (No. 1)
Grace. Grace. Another year passes and I am right back to you. No test, no doubt, no fear, no earthly hope has been able to root you out. You have poured out your grace upon me and you have called me to you. Through the dark nights, the sunny days, the cold winters and the warm winds of Spring, my heart has kept its home in its longing for you. To touch you, to know that you walk with me through this life, to feel your Spirit like a portentous breeze that whispers your name in my ear, this is my longing. May you continue to call me back, even as I look away, walk away, from the very source of life and sanity. These reflections are themselves grace.
Thoughts About Bricks
Across Broadway, from my window I see the countless bricks of buildings, kilned and baked years before and filled with stories that will never be told, just as the passers-by on the street below. Countless stories - countless, countless - too many to tell, or hear, or bear.
God Has Run Rough With Me
Once again, God has run rough with me, and so I may not get there with you now. We all must heed this Captain’s call and not too far trod toward heaven’s glade, O No! For we must surely sigh, it seems, and wrest ourselves back to the treacherous, edifying sea.
But why so often on bitter water does this Captain set the sails that rip us from sun lit shores toward stormy gale, while we hang, scarred, in raspy ropes, with a mere promise of blessed shores and palms and peaceable sleep beneath the canopy of heaven, as we bleed and bang along the masts and gunnels and splintery deck? For a while, let me cleave with prickly Jonah and bid some earthly captain book me passage and even abandon me in this abyss where I would dare some mouthy fish come and feign my “rescue” and deposit me on toilsome shores toward which that other Captain’s sail had me set to plight troth to a mission for now foregone.
And so, Dear Captain, let all Nineveh expire and the world remain ablaze in fires started long before I came upon the stage. Why suffer as fool to minister the fools’ parade? Why suffer for naught but to ease a pain today that, by our nature, will come at dawn in different dress after this day’s sun has set? Leave the starfish on the shore, and let them perish, one and all.
Are we not fools to take God’s errand when our own faces may turn to peaceful sky with no brief to carry or orders to “heal and rectify”? And is the voice we hear a call and not an echo of a primal scream bounced from youth within our souls’ caves, when first we asked “Why?” and “Why?” again?
I am forked, though, and O would I get there with you! But God has run rough with me, and placed my face inside my sin and dressed me down for the dots I’ve missed, though my arrows in first circle fell – enough for any less than Covey, enough to spare the stripes of any, but Him, He who dwells in me.
So for a while, let me cleave with righteous Job, and dare a speech from whirlwinds (I am ready now, with that precedent) to talk back to God Almighty, to wrestle as did Jacob of the broken limb for that blessing that I, nay we, all deserve just for living in this petty state from day to day. I shall dare with a yawn his bass-toned speech on Leviathan, and His famous question, “Where were you when?” I will dare them one and all.
What’s this higher light of which we dream, and shall we have the courage to look upon it day by day, and at what cost? Family? Friend? Sanity? Soul? Or should we not, instead, repose?
So let me laugh a while, dear Captain – And that is no request – as I figure out the exits for those pains in head and chest, as I figure out why servants, like lovers, must suffer so and still be asked to ease alterity’s woes.
The minister deserves her rest, and push her not too far, for ministers break too, the ones of vision break too, the prophets break too, and first, who see the possibility of Your beloved dream on earth, yet who tire of tears, torments and splits, and so are tempted to enter that Nineveh, and live-out the time amongst them not as servant, but as hapless friend.
But by and by, You shall not break me, for that dream I own, and it is mine, and my work is for those kindred souls and not, at last, for You on high, in the seas or in the sky.
Reward me Yes or No, that work I do is not for You whose foggy speech and darkened clues have left me spent and black and blue; I work for my brothers’ and sisters’ souls, and by that toil I make my own. And since I love them can I really rest too long while bombs appear o’er a sweet child’s bed, and Satan claws the hearts of youth with bigotry and nationalist “truth” that rinses out the sweet within, and bids they turn God’s rifle on a friend from Palestine to old Berlin, on hapless souls, just like them?
And so in time I’ll rise, whether with vestments donned or bare flesh worn, I’ll stand against this Satan born of “I and Other” imaginings, and that my ministry shall be. So I will rest, and turn my face to brother sun and dare you, Captain, place a cloud that we may not gaze upon each other for a while. I have earned my time with him.
And you shall no doubt tell me hence that this was part of plans for me, and I that much the wiser am, one more lesson learned and lived. And I will smile a knowing smile, and turn and take my sister’s hand, and balm the wound on a brother’s heart, and know that to serve is always now, one by one, from the inside out, clad in vestments or in my nakedness.
Today in the food court I saw a young couple who had a pretty little girl in tow, and they called out to her by name, "Sienna," as she meandered to the kiosk selling plastic toys and little stuffed animals, things that dazzle little girls like Sienna.
One day, perhaps thirty-six years from now, Sienna will mount the podium at the convention of her party, and give an acceptance speech, and she will help determine the fate of millions. But, for now, she is preoccupied with the green and yellow teddy bears and oversized crayons made of plastic, but which look good enough to eat. And how like Sienna we are, each of us who thirty-six years, or months, or days, or hours from now, will mount some new platform in our lives, and help determine the fate of millions, if not of people, then perhaps of blades of grass, or flies, or grubs, or spores that will float on a summer breeze, that allow us to be consequential, even if today we are content to be dazzled by the wine in our glass, the new granite counter top, or the flatware from the Pottery Barn that we found on sale. The Shadow Lengthens Having lost track of the time, being caught up in the sunshine, the waves crashing upon the shore, I look down to find my answer. The warmth of sun, the squeals of children at play turned, for an instant, into a dark winter's chill. But it passes, and I bend to help a little boy build his castle, also soon to be washed away, but not yet.
I am the saint, feeding the poor, I am the dark man at the door. I will curse the Lazarus rich and kick my brother in the ditch. I can bite my tongue six days a week, and slice you, on the last, before my tea. I will rock you in my arms at night to ease you, and snap you in two by next day’s noon. All in all, I am good, and aspire for better; but push or pull too hard, and burst my holy fetters. I curse this split within my limbs, but think again, and start to grin.