Friday, January 29, 2010


"Monet's Rouen Cathedral. Whistler. Turner. Woozy light. The textured smear of dusk, fractured crepuscule. The world through a greased lens. A scratched negative. Blowing snow, perhaps, or driving rain. Or drizzle. Or fog. No clear lines, but, rather, indistinct waves, an almost fluid transition of color and light, light and darkness. Vibrations rolling out from a concussion. Consciousness as permanent mirage, a mirage in a constant state of flux and transmogrification. Wondrous, yet at the same time entirely untrustworthy. A world that requires vigilant attention. Things --everything-- ceaselessly receding. The polyphony of perception, if such a thing is possible. Paralysis, as the light and detail bleeds slowly from the day, dragging everything into the murk. And then, just as slowly, toward dawn, it all rises again to the surface, but never quite the surface...just below the surface of a pond or stream with a fragile skin of ice. The ice grows thicker as the day proceeds and night once again rolls in, until one can no longer be certain whether what one is looking at is a city under water or a funeral procession moving along a dark country road by the light of one feeble lantern...."

Such were the ruminations of Wuertz, prompted, he supposed, by the falling light outside the windows of the 18th century monastery where he was attending a three-day conference on "Scientific Conundrums and Biblical Scholarship."

He was somewhere in upstate New York. It had been snowing steadily since his arrival, and he was feeling increasingly claustrophobic, distracted, and bored. His notebooks were filling up with crude caricatures and notes not dissimilar to the above extracts.

At the moment he was sitting in a conference room listening to a panel discussion on the subject of "The Rational Challenges of the Jonah Story." Someone did a presentation on the impossibility of any man surviving 72 hours in the belly of a whale, given the documented potency of a whale's digestive enzymes. There were charts. Another man, an expert on Biblical languages and the book's history of translation, seemed to blame the historical misunderstanding on a lazy and convenient word choice on the part of an early translator.

"Clearly," the man said, "having closely consulted original sources, the creature in question was not, in fact, a whale --which did not exist in Palestinian waters-- but a sea serpent or a dragon."

There was some murmuring in the room, and another man interjected, "One of the problems we are always up against here is trying to rein these texts in from the gauzy worlds of pagan mythology and steer them into the clear, comprehensible word of God. The introduction of sea serpents and dragons does us no favors in the credulity department."

A marine biologist with a master's degree in archaeology then posited that the creature might possibly have been a white shark, which can grow to a prodigious size and has an unusual ability to store undigested food for a great many days.

On and on the discussion went, growing at times quite heated. Wuertz continued to doodle and daydream and stare out at the falling snow. His reveries were interrupted by an outburst by an elderly scholar who had risen to his feet near the front of the room. The man appeared to be trembling.

"Enough!" he shouted. "I have sat through these increasingly absurd discussions and arguments for more than forty years. We are talking about the Almighty, the creator of all things, as if He were an illusionist, and if we yammer on long enough we'll eventually get to the bottom of His tricks. As it has ever been, these things are not for us to know or understand, but merely to believe. I have grown beyond disgusted with this nonsense."

And with that the old man gathered up his things and left the room.

Wuertz turned his attention back to his notebook, and wrote: "A landscape from a Chekhov story, or a Gogol novel. Russian, at any rate, desolate. A loneliness so complete and impenetrable that it is no longer possible to recognize the feeling for what it truly is."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Nothing Is A Sinking Something

"Fear of being no good. Also fear of being overlooked. But above all, fear of being no good. Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing. Fear of the step that leaves no trace. Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints. Fear of dining alone and unnoticed. Fear of going unrecognized. Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself. But above all, fear of being no good."

--Roberto Bolano, 2666

Why force the day to its knees when it's perfectly willing to go down without any assistance?

I used to sit out on an old railroad trellis above the river in my old hometown, watching nuns walking in quiet circles in their convent garden, and waiting for darkness to fall and the fishermen to emerge like ghosts from the brush beneath me and begin their routines. They'd turn on their transistor radios and dial in the only local AM station, and from up and down the banks I'd hear the sounds of a baseball game, maybe, or Roger Miller, or Tony Orlando and Dawn, sometimes oddly staggered or not quite in sync, an almost imperceptible lag in each radio's signal so that the sound was like a skipping stone that slowly disappeared into the gloaming upriver.

I supposed you could take that river somewhere, and used to think ideas like that were grand.

It was already such a fast world, but I couldn't wait for it to go faster.

I always wondered what the first night as a nun must be like. Did they just stand there in the dark corridors of that imposing place built of stone, listening to the silence and wondering what they had gotten themselves into? Everything had been given, and perhaps they already had the sense of their old lives and identities receding, and thought of their families now embarked on the long drive back to some small town in Iowa or Wisconsin.

One night I encountered a young nun, in full habit, along that same river. It was a foggy night, and I heard her before I saw her. She was crying. The experience spooked me, this crying nun suddenly appearing out of the swirling fog. I remember she looked up briefly --I saw then that she was very young-- and then veered away from me and was once again swallowed up by the fog.

Almost every day I went to the library, and every trip to the library was another step out of town. Thirty years later and I am ninety miles away. I always thought I would be much, much farther. And further.

My father called me 'precious' right up until the day he died.

Now: the mind's Border Collie is a defeated dog.

I never in a million years thought it would get so late so early.

What can I tell you? I'll tell you what?

You want some hopeful line of American hooey? You want one of them big things to look at? Another goddamn gizmo to make you feel like you're connected to all the things you're disconnected from?

You want a soundtrack --happy, sad, mopey, broken, anxious, heart pounding-- so you know where you are in the story and what you're supposed to be feeling? You want a scene of dad and the kids washing the car in the driveway, complete with the obligatory shot of the lovable dog trying to shake itself dry and sending everybody laughing and squealing? You want a birthday party, honey? You want some balloons? A pony? Everybody you've ever known and loved popping out of the closets and from behind the furniture and shouting, "Surprise!"?

You want a big porch with comfy chairs and bright flowers and the intimations and insinuations and implications of a lazy summer day? You want a Ford truck kicking up dust on a country road, and some of that boot-stomping fake cowboy bullshit?

You want somebody to give you some memories to replace the ones you no longer have?

You just want to feel better? What ails you? Never mind; I can't help you with that, but you just sit tight and something will come along. Ask your doctor about that thing you saw on the TV.

It was better when guns were muskets and blunderbusses. Such better words, almost Seussian. Muskmelon and cantaloupe: as if either one of those names wasn't sufficiently inspired.

I've gotten away from the subject. I'm sorry; it's late. You want me to sell you something, but I'd just like to figure out if I have anything left to give you first.

You want something breathtaking? Something breathless? A story of breakdown and redemption and some love-conquers-all, TV-movie-of-the-week confection? You want intrigue? Some kind of escapist, sorry-state-of-the-world action-male shoot-em-up with car chases, jaw-dropping stunts and explosions, and stoic heroes and femme fatales and that sort of thing?

Or maybe you're in the mood for some quiet, bittersweet nostalgia (etymology: the pain of returning home), a coming-of-age yarn crammed with life lessons --lonely boy, dog, railroad tracks, wise old hermit, etc.? You want a dollhouse romance, complete with talking animals? Some twinkle-twinkle-blah-blah-blah? You want a new pair of shoes?

You want some comfort food, or something spicy? You want a big, stiff drink or a wee glass of sherry?

You want some of that tired old wise-beyond-her-years kid stuff?

You want a hurtin' thing, a big, messy jukebox epic that'll make you cry out your nose?

You want something real and plain spoken?

You want to know what next? What now? What then?

You want the truth?

I couldn't give you a single damn one of those things, honey.

All I could give you was this.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

An Altogether Unpleasant Discovery

"I can't say for certain," I said, "but, yes, that certainly does appear to be a toenail."

Additional examination led to certainty, and it was clear that what I was looking at was the entire nail from someone's big toe, with a good deal of skin or tissue still clinging to it.

My lady friend had found this curiosity on her kitchen floor upon returning from work. She lived alone and kept a very neat house.

For the time being, at least, this disturbing discovery had trumped a personal crisis of my own; I had recently --four days earlier-- been released from the secure psychiatric ward of a local hospital after attempting to kill myself. I had been home in bed, in a medicated stupor, when I received the call from my lady friend.

The thing was, she was now saying (this as we were both crouched over the toenail in the middle of her kitchen floor), was that the moment she walked in the door she had sensed something amiss. She had the distinct feeling that someone had been in her home. Nothing seemed immediately out of place, at least in the living room off the front entrance. As she surveyed the rest of the house, however, she found in the bathroom a paring knife, tweezers, a bottle of peroxide, and a wad of bloody tissues in the sink. She went through the house room by room but didn't notice anything else that seemed unusual or out of place. There was, she noted, a trail of blood from the bathroom to the kitchen.

"From the way the blood had dripped and splattered it appeared that whoever did this was hopping," she said.

"Well, yes, hopping," I said. "I suppose that would make sense."

"Where are we here?" she asked. "Is there any way this is a crime? I mean, a crime that would obligate me to call the police?"

I admitted that I could think of no precedent, unless someone had broken into her home or committed some sort of damage to the property.

The door, she said, had been locked and all the windows secured.

I noticed as she said these last words that she was studying my face with a clear mixture of suspicion and alarm. I had a key to her home. There was obviously plenty of reason to believe that I was not quite in my right mind. All the same, I was offended.

"Jesus," I said. "You can't be serious. I swear to you I've never set foot in your home when you haven't been present."

I was already somewhat maniacally untying my shoes. I removed my left shoe first, wrestled the sock free, and waggled my foot --with its wholly intact set of toenails-- in her direction. As I turned my attention to my right shoe she was pleading.

"Please, Robert, don't be ridiculous. Stop this right now."

I had finally succeeded in extricating my right foot, and angrily tossed the shoe across the kitchen floor. At this point I noticed that my lady friend was gaping with horror at my stockinged foot. I followed her eyes and was stunned to discover that the sock still covering my right foot was soaked through with a great deal of blood. At the same time I was suddenly aware of the terrible throbbing.

I very slowly rolled the sock down my ankle and peeled it from my foot. My lady friend had scrambled to her feet and was now standing with her back to the refrigerator, one hand pressed to her lips.

For a very long moment I could sense her studying my face as I stared at the gore at the end of my right foot.

"Well, I'll be damned," I finally said.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Letters To The Editor

You can perhaps imagine my surprise when I woke up and saw my wife's words --or at least words attributed to her-- right there on the front page of the Daily Banner: "God only knows what Richard was thinking. I'm as shocked as anyone and want to apologize to the entire community."

You do that, Veronica. Put on a black shawl and drag yourself up and down every block of this jerkwater shithole; hang your head on every doorstep and apologize for the fact that your husband of 19 years took a piss in his own fucking driveway. I'm sure that will bring a world of comfort to all those poor suffering folks who are at this very moment cowering behind their locked doors, terrified by the news that a man, a "respected optometrist," has taken a piss in his driveway, "in broad daylight, and in full view of the entire neighborhood."

I've no doubt that's something you'd love to believe, Ronnie, that the eyes of the "entire neighborhood" are riveted on our house 24-7, endlessly fascinated by our every movement. Problem is, we don't live in a "neighborhood"; we live in a fucking suburban development, and people who live in the suburbs should just expect that once in a while they're going to see a man taking a piss in his own driveway.

Just for the hell of it, I'll remind you, Ronnie, that it was 7:45 in the morning, and like every other Tuesday morning of my life you and the girls were camped out in the bathrooms, preparing yourselves for your daily appearance before the prying eyes of the "neighborhood." I bang and curse, but it does no good, and so when I finally stumbled out to the driveway for the morning paper I paused and took a piss. I was, I'll grant you, at least technically in the driveway, but I was wearing a bathrobe, slippers, and boxers, and I very deliberately turned my back and pissed into the bushes next to the porch.

If Pam Ryman called the police every time I took a piss on my own property then you'd really have something to cry about, Ronnie, because I've got news for you: I've pissed off the deck. I've pissed right off the front porch. I've pissed in the front and back yards. I've marked my goddamn territory and have experienced something approaching genuine pleasure on every occasion. If Duane Ryman can claim to his wife with a straight face that he's never pissed in his own yard he's not only the fop I imagine him to be but a stinking, pussy-whipped liar to boot.

Friday, January 22, 2010


The wind off the lake,
a gentle breeze of early summer,
is transporting fossils through air and time.

Bones stitched those
initials into the corner of that
quilt on the bed, old bones that are gone.

Bones built that broken
boat back there in the trees,
painted that broken boat blue and launched

it in June sunshine.
Other bones, bound then by blood
and memories, cheered the broken boat's

maiden voyage from
the dock. The laughter of bones
rang out across the still surface of the pond

as small, sun-creased
waves peeled away from the bone-
rowed oars and the boat disappeared from view.

Bones talked long into
the night around campfires, and retired
to their beds in the cabins as the darkness swelled

with night's unseen
chorus of frenetic watch-winders
and terse baritones and keening sopranos.

The old bones had dreams,
as all the bones before them and
since. Even the four-legged bones had dreams,

and lost in them
sighed and paddled and occasionally
cried and whimpered and woke to watch the dark.

The bones were cabinets
for hearts, the hearts cabinets for
dreams. The hearts were carried off, the dreams

dispersed, the bones
broken and scattered, scattered
wherever, buried or burned, but not without a trace.

You don't even
have to imagine: You can still
see them. You can still see them everywhere,

the waltzing bones,
still dreaming, the fossils that built
the boats in which we floated, beloved, not yet broken.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

September Song

Listen? Surely you recognize this.

It's Art Tatum, darling. Shame on you, after all these years. He was that blind, colored fellow we saw play at the Keegan's bash on our first trip to New York. I don't believe we've ever been to a bigger party, nor do I recall ever seeing you that tipsy again.

Do you remember what the occasion was? Not, of course, that Phil and Doris ever really needed an occasion, but that night was a celebration of something special or we wouldn't have made the trip. Is it possible they could have been celebrating their tenth anniversary?, I don't think so. It was much earlier than that.

I'm trying to think --what year would it have been? Phil and Doris were married in 1951 or early in '52, the year after Phil and I graduated from the University of Chicago, and they moved to New York a year later. This is exactly the sort of thing you always had such a memory for, and I know that somewhere in that old cedar chest at home you still have some mementos stashed away from that trip. Perhaps I'll go through it when I get home and bring a few things back for you tomorrow. You might like to have a handful of your keepsakes to look at.

Do you remember that trip, sweetheart? For Phil and Doris's big party? We left Jimmy and Susan with your parents and took the train into the city. We had a room at the Algonquin, and thought we could catch a cab outside Grand Central. But as soon as we got off the train we heard the news that Eisenhower had had a heart attack in Colorado, and everyone was in such a tizzy that it was impossible to tell what was going on.

I tried to find a phone to call Phil, but the lines were endless. I don't know...could we have carried our bags to the Algonquin from the train station? It was autumn, I do remember that, a lovely, surreal autumn day in New York. We were both so startled by the commotion of the city.

I'm still trying to place the year....wouldn't you at least try a bite of this dinner, dear? I'm afraid it's getting cold, and feel certain that's not going to make it any more palatable. You really must eat. I live in fear that one of these days I'm going to arrive and discover that you've been scattered by the I'm thinking it might have been Phil's 30th birthday that was the occasion for the party. That would be about right, but, lord, what year would that have been? You would certainly know this.

I seem to remember the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and were playing the Yankees in the World Series. I think Phil had tickets to one of the games but we'd already made arrangements to see "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof" at a theater near Times Square. It was just then all the rage, and you were dying to see it. I'll bet you still have the Playbill in your cedar chest. The next night it was raining to beat the band and we ducked into a movie theater near the hotel and watched "Davy Crockett." You felt guilty about seeing it without the kids, but we did buy Jimmy a coonskin cap. Remember how those hats seemed to be everywhere in New York that fall?

We also trekked to the Museum of Modern Art, which was another of your big dreams. You'd just started really painting again, and we were both then astonished and appalled by the paintings of de Kooning, Motherwell, and Pollock. I remember you saying to me, "If this is painting, then there must be a different name for what I'm trying to do." You came around on that, though, didn't you?

Perhaps we should get some new art on these walls. I can't imagine that you'd make much of these sentimental agrarian scenes. God knows, they should be wretchedly familiar. Jimmy, by the way, will be coming for a visit in two weeks. Shall I mark your calendar?

I remember the night of Phil and Doris's party you looked so ravishing --we'd just that afternoon bought you a new dress-- and we both felt like landlocked ducks. Herman Wouk was there, and Louise Bogan, and a couple colleagues of Phil's who were in the record business. And there was Art Tatum, sitting alone at the piano all night and playing one song after another.

You were utterly fascinated by him. Phil said he drank enough to get a big band blotto. A year or two later, I believe, he was dead. You teared up when you read the obituary in the Times, bless your heart.

As soon as we got home from New York we bought every one of his records we could get our hands on, and for so many years that music provided such a beautiful backdrop to our lives.

Listen: "My One and Only Love," almost exactly as he played it that night at Phil's party. I remember you requested "September Song," It was September, and you thought you were being clever, but Tatum just shook his head, smiled, and launched right into it. It was impossibly lovely, and as we stood there next to the piano it seemed as if we were the only people in the entire room who were paying the slightest attention.

And here he is now. I brought the little phonograph and a few of the old records.

Art Tatum, darling. Surely you remember Art Tatum?

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Bit of Obscure Canadian History

In Southern Ontario, about halfway between Sault Ste Marie and Ottawa, there were for more than 50 years two neighboring communities named Whither and Wither, the founding fathers of which were two estranged brothers. A third brother also founded a village in the area, Withee, which was located about 70 miles to the east, and which maintains a tenuous existence to this day.

The dual communities of Whither and Wither, the ruins of which you may explore if you're at all curious (you can still locate them on old maps), are located a dozen miles north of Route 17, and originated in a dispute between the two brothers, Phillipe and Augustine Gascat. Phillipe was a priest who had come to Canada from France to minister to the local Indians. This was, of course, a dying racket in the last years of the 19th century, and in time he persuaded his brother to join him in Ontario (Augustine had then only recently emigrated to Boston).

Augustine eventually agreed to do so, but was immediately disenchanted by a landscape he felt his older brother had so fraudulently depicted. Having, however, incurred considerable expense and effort to make the trek, Augustine accepted his fate, albeit with a great deal of bitterness. Early in his time in Ontario, Phillipe attempted to bolster his brother's spirits by proposing that they found a settlement together. A deal was struck with a local tribe for land, plans were drawn up, and Phillipe suggested the name Whither for the new enterprise. This Augustine readily agreed to, having as he did a poor command of the English language and thus a misguided notion of the meaning and spelling of the village's name. This misunderstanding was the result of a brief, confused consultation of a dictionary, where Augustine stumbled across the word 'wither,' grasped its meaning, and was both surprised and delighted by his brother's choice.

When, however, it eventually was made clear to him that Phillipe had something entirely different and more optimistic in mind, Augustine objected strenuously, but to no avail. An intense feud resulted in a complete estrangement --the brothers, it is said, never spoke again-- and Augustine pulled up stakes, moved eight miles west, and founded his own competing settlement, Wither.

Somewhat ironically, I suppose, Wither outlasted Whither, mainly, I'm sure, because Augustine outlived Phillipe by a dozen years. Neither village ever fared well, and failed to thrive in either the short or long term. The population of both communities topped out at around 200 in the mid-1940s.

After the death of the Gascat brothers, remaining residents attempted to consolidate what survived of the two towns and rename the single entity Withal, but nothing much came of it, and the community was almost wholly destroyed by a fire in 1959, at which point it was abandoned. Today it is merely a cluster of overgrown ruins at a lonely crossroads in the bush.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Far, and Farther

Of course I've read Agents of Contagion, Silvio DiGrippa's monumental novel. Twice, in fact. I don't suppose you can even get away with calling it a "lost novel" anymore, as it has made an appearance, however brief, on bestseller lists in both America and Great Britain. These days I guess the work qualifies as a rediscovery, and like most rediscoveries its growing cult of admirers can do nothing for the ego, future prospects, or financial situation of its dead creator (who, like most such rediscoveries, died penniless).

It's still odd to me how these things happen, and how they seem to keep happening every decade or so on some sort of regular timetable. A man writes a book forty years ago, a book that at the time of its publication met with nothing but popular and critical indifference (the few reviews it garnered were entirely dismissive and often bordering on hostile), after which the writer disappears entirely from the scene. And then somehow somebody, or some cabal of somebodies, rescues the book from oblivion and anoints it as a product of pure genius.

Karel Roda Herbert's long (too long, I thought) appreciation in the London Times circulated widely among my circle of acquaintances, and was discussed with such fervor that you'd feel a little bit foolish if somebody popped by the house and you didn't have a copy of Agents of Contagion conspicuously displayed on the coffee table.

I don't speak Italian, but friends of mine who do have quibbled with the translation and have been nearly unanimous in their insistence that the title is all wrong. One of my oldest colleagues and friends, a Renaissance studies professor at Brown, is stridently in this camp, and has relentlessly carped about the issue in the scholarly journals and on internet sites devoted to such bickering. He finds the translation (purportedly a rush job undertaken to be the first to introduce the unknown genius to an English-speaking audience) "entirely pedestrian" and feels that in future English editions the title should be changed to Far, and Farther, which is, I've been assured, as close to a literal translation as is possible without being prolix.

I'll admit that I did admire the novel a great deal, translation be damned. So have a great many other people, obviously. So much so that DiGrippa has become that rare and delightful thing, a dead failure resurrected as a celebrity. The next year, we've recently learned, will already bring translations of several other previously unpublished novels that were found in a trunk in the attic of DiGrippa's elderly sister's home in San Chirico (still, according to the most recent magazine profile, under seige by all manner of literary scavengers). There is also rumor of an uncompleted novel and a volume of jottings from the 300 journals and workbooks he left behind. I have to confess that I'm particularly looking forward to that last business, given that the mythology surrounding the man's reckless, tragic, and brief life (he was a promiscuous, syphilitic bisexual who was struck down by a motorcar driven by a prominent Italian political figure) has in large part fueled the broader reading public's interest in his resurgence.

At any rate, I have to confess that it always makes me happy as hell to think that there are still Silvio DiGrippas buried in the lonely Potter's fields of attics, libraries, and used bookstores out there in the world, just waiting to be exhumed and reanimated and thrown back into the land of the living.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Flying, Fleeting Things

I've been lucky --blessed, I suppose, if I can be honest with myself. For much of 2009 I rambled all over the country. I drove down the Mississippi, cut across the deep south on state highways and county roads, and spent some lovely time on the utterly abandoned Indian Pass in the Florida Panhandle.

I drove across the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, got happily lost (and crashed my car) in Ontario, poked around in the Adirondacks, and spent almost six months mostly alone with my dog in a one-room cabin without plumbing on a hill in Vermont, monkeying around with rocks, wandering in the woods, reading, and listening to nothing but Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Andrew Hill, and Art Tatum. I had at least a dozen discs by each of them, so I had plenty to listen to.

All told I spent more time somewhere else last year than I spent here in Minneapolis. I managed to not feel so crazy for a time.

Back in May, in Vermont, I saw the first firefly of the season. You don't see very many fireflies in a big city, but wherever I encounter the things I still experience an incredulity that swiftly cataracts into full-blown wonder. I am used to seeing fireflies flitting just above the ground, drifting across meadows or fields. There on the hill, though, even the highest trees were full of them, sparking out into the darkness from the branches of the towering pines. These were some seriously high altitude fireflies. They also weren't above congregating closer to the ground, often in ridiculous, awe-inspiring numbers (that's a photo of my dog, Wendell, above, and if you look closely you can make out the blizzard of fireflies he was admiring).

They're mostly just looking to get laid, I understand that much; their elaborate flash patterns are little more than pick-up lines, booty calls complete with bachelor pad mood lighting. But though I've heard all sorts of explanations for how they actually work over the years, nothing has stuck. I guess maybe I don't want to know.

I do know, however, that they are teases, inconstant dandies, and stingy with their magic. They make an appearance each year to defeat poetry and to mock art. They're damn near impossible to photograph. What in nature has their combination of gift, grace, and mystery?

You've heard, of course, that they fall in love with swallows, and are rebuffed time and again, something to do with some ancient tragedy, a romance that was punished by the gods. Once a year they gather in such huge numbers along a river in Canada that the glow from their revels can be seen from space. According to legend, cows regard them as divine, and find both comfort and omen in their presence. Scientists have determined that they have a huge shared neural library, which consists of almost nothing but stories --some of them thousands of years old-- of captivity. They are also, it is said, as prone to melancholy as Danes, and often die of heartbreak. In some cultures they are regarded as landlocked lighthouses, arrhythmic reminders of scriptural promise.

It's hard not to notice that though they have the gift of such dazzling light they spend the majority of their lives in darkness.

I try not to think about the actuarial tables for small things --fireflies, song birds, dogs-- but it's no use. They are always giving up, being ground down, disappearing forever. Fleeting is not a word that gives me much comfort.

For a good stretch of June it rained almost constantly in Vermont. So many nights it seemed like everything was drowning. A great many things (myself included) never learn to swim. It saddened me, though. On those nights of incessant rain I missed standing on the hill and watching the fireflies swarm in the trees and bushes. How much water, I wondered, could a firefly endure? How much rain before their fragile lights were permanently extinguished? I encountered a handful of fireflies grounded and struggling mightily in puddles and rivulets, still somehow capable of producing a feeble distress signal. A few of them managed to extricate themselves and flutter a few vertical feet, their light a spastic, panicked sputter --an instant of desperate, crazed calligraphy in the driving rain-- before crashing back down into a puddle, flying lanterns shot down in the darkness over waterlogged Vermont.

It's possible I was imagining things. It's always possible I'm imagining things --so small is my knowledge-- but I believed I was witnessing a tragedy of the most forlorn sort: the dying of a firefly, its suffering and panic exacerbated, surely, by the looming presence of a dark giant, helpless, drenched, and drowning himself, crouched in wonder and sorrow in the rain.

After the rains of June I never saw the fireflies again. But by then moths and beetles of a seemingly infinite variety emerged each night and began to attack the screens of the cabin, drilling in a ceaseless frenzy that could drown out Art Tatum. It almost seemed like they were trying to tear their way through to the light. Were they, I wondered, afraid of darkness? Or lonely for companionship? Or perhaps, I thought, they harbored the souls of reincarnated wrecks like myself, and spent their brief lives longing for a return to domesticity, a chair to perch on, a light to read by, a bed to sleep in for the night, someone to curl up next to. They were trying to break out of nature. Or darkness.

I almost envied them the fervor with which they sought light, and used to like to imagine that somewhere within me there was still a screen beyond which some pure light glowed, and that some small part of what was left of my winged soul was hurling itself up against it, time after time, in my dreams.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Night Falls, And Keeps On Falling

Somewhere in the darkness I hear the computer breathing.
It sounds like a man packed in ice in a dark hospital room,
each breath forced through the tubes of some machine
that draws and amplifies each rattling breath. All the
while the machine sits there in utterly objective silence,
waiting for the man to finally find something to say.
I listen until the computer sighs, and then stops breathing.

And now I suppose it's time to go looking for a hole
to park my own corner, or a corner to park my hole,
a shadow that doesn't require any light to grow,
a dream without a single recognizable face or place.
Because I'm tired of trying to say something lovely.
Go ahead, try to say something lovely --go right
ahead-- and see for yourself how damn hard it is.

Is it possible too much loveliness
has already been written and spoken?
It cannot be, because when there is nothing lovely
left to say one must inevitably resort to ugliness,
which should not have a place in a world of so much
loveliness, but boy does it ever. Ugliness, carelessness,
ruthlessness, naked ambition, covetousness, evil:

they flourish precisely because loveliness is so
fucking hard, even as it is everywhere, all around us,
thumbing its nose at the abject helplessness of words.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Some Extracts From Aristotle's "History of Animals"

"The wolf is at war with the ass, the bull, and the fox."

"The snake is at war with the weasel and the pig."

"The marlin is at war with the fox. The raven and the fox are good friends."

"The crow and the heron are friends, as also are the sedge-bird and lark."

"You will have a warmer bed in amongst the goats than among the sheep, because the goats will be quieter and will creep up towards you."

"Of all birds swans are the most prone to killing one another."

"All animals are sad after coitus."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

There Are Those Who What?

"There are those, apparently...there are those who...."

Her voice trailed off and she made a sort of lazy talking pantomime with her right hand. She was sitting at the dining room table, a cigarette, neglected, burning down to the filter in an ashtray. As was pretty much always the case she was surrounded by piles of envelopes and loose paper. The bulk of these piles, I knew, consisted of bills she'd been shuffling around for months, perhaps years, bills she had not paid, would not pay, and could not pay. The cumulative result of which was that she could no longer answer her phone for fear of being hectored by collection agents.

I had no idea how she managed to avoid having her phone disconnected.

"There are those who what?" I asked.

She gulped a big breath and blew it out. "It's unspeakable," she said. "That's exactly what it is, unspeakable, so I shan't even speak of it. I regret I ever raised you to believe there was a god somewhere who gave a rat's patoot about people and their problems. Life is an affront, and I apologize for bringing you aboard such a foundering rubbish scow."

Forty-five years and I still found her a mystery. A woman with no education to speak of, a woman I'd never seen with a book in her hands, a woman who wouldn't own a television yet used words like "shan't," "affront," and "scow." My mother. My mystery. My sadness.

This tableau, if you will ("tableau" being another of my mother's words), was now the still life in which I most often confronted the woman who brought me aboard this foundering rubbish scow. She wouldn't allow me to so much as touch any of the papers on the table, and any discussion of said papers was also off limits. I snooped a bit, of course, whenever she took one of her freakishly rare bathroom breaks or rolled the dice and dashed off to the kitchen to answer the phone on the off chance it was her sister calling from Arizona.

Besides the piles of bills there were also hundreds of pages filled with her microscopic chicken scratch. A good deal of this was obviously nothing more than obsessive and hopelessly escalating arithmetic. Other pages, though, were filled with text, and a great many of these, I noticed, began with the words, "Once upon a time."