Before I Die I Want To
Finish my PhD
Ix Arts, Charlottesville, Virginia
Fragments don’t make a Story
Purple wildflowers in ditch grass, my own bleeding thumbs, heat rise off an asphalt parking lot. Some days I spend collecting pieces of dream and memory as if they might fit. As if together they will create a whole. As if the story I have spent my life looking for might be constructed of a goat’s head seed, a raven, green glass shattered across an intersection. Lines memorized in sixth grade. A pictograph of rain. The crook of my right-hand ring finger where I broke it at five.
They surround me. Follow me to work. Ghost particles that take up no more room than a pin. Ten thousand per square inch. Jarring for space in the car as I speed along the highway. Rubbing against one another for warmth. Sun behind the Sangre de Cristo mountains, a child in a refugee camp in Greece, a dream of my father’s body blooming with multi-colored algae, a pregnant woman gunned down in Palestine, the first line of the Canterbury Tales, a strike in Paris, the smell of Swansea Bay at low tide.
So many details. So many fragments. And the shadows that hold them all together: The lost memory that sprouts from a thighbone; the vanished names; the forgotten year.
If I take the taste of lemons and place it next to the Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem, take the memory of a falling, smoking plane and place it near the quiet of a heavy snowfall; my father in a rocking chair reading a sci-fi paperback next to the first time I heard Kind of Blue …
This morning the cat
woke me from a dream
of the cave below my childhood home.
After Birdwatching: Stargazing in Central America
Some birds I first enumerated in Amazonia now orbit me independently again in Costa Rican cloud forests, in Panama rain forests like so many solar light collectors arrayed in outer space around a tropical star where I survive as human at the bright center of an avian Dyson sphere woven in wingèd light by circling yellow-rumped caciques, yellow-rumped caracaras, and greater and lesser kiskadees of glowing yellow breasts. Raucously the gilded illuminated icons welcome me home to our native galaxy, another rara avis of the Milky Way’s wet seasons.
In tonight’s déjà
vu, the Universe spins on
in appreciation of EarthSky News
for Michael G. Smith
I first read James Agee’s “Knoxville: Summer 1915” in high school, and was blown away. I don’t know why I was reading it–in an anthology or the prelude to a novel I had no intention of consuming beyond the Cliff Notes. But I was stunned. It was just…beautiful. I liked the topic–porches, childhood–but it was more the pace, the associative voice–that got me. This kind of thing happened to me off and on as a teenager. Unknowingly, I was reading as a writer–the writer I would become. Many “great” pieces of literature left me cold. What inspired me was idiosyncratic, and not fully knowable.
Agee’s piece seems now to me like a precursor to the Beats. It’s spontaneous, jazzy, beyond stream of consciousness, and it is American.
Here is a selection:
We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child. It was a little bit sort of block, fairly solidly lower middle class, with one or two juts apiece on either side of that. The houses corresponded: middlesized gracefully fretted wood houses built in the late nineties and early nineteen hundreds, with small front and side and more spacious back yards, and trees in the yards, and porches. These were softwooded trees, poplars, tulip trees, cottonwoods. There were fences around one or two of the houses, but mainly the yards ran into each other with only now and then a low hedge that wasn’t doing very well. There were few good friends among the grown people, and they were not enough for the other sort of intimate acquaintance, but everyone nodded and spoke, and even might talk short times, trivially, and at the two extremes of general or the particular, and ordinarily next door neighbors talked quiet when they happened to run into each other, and never paid calls.
Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories hang their ancient faces. The dry and exalted noise of the locusts from all the air at once enchants my eardrums. On the rough wet grass of the back yard my father and mother have spread quilts.
We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am. (c) 1938
It took the author 90 minutes to write it. Samuel Barber set it to music, which I plan to listen to.
In the same neighborhood today, there is a sweet pocket park for James Agee. I saw two girls with metallic blue hair admiring it.
There is no statue or inscription–just this lovely fence.
Presumably a house for spirit as well as flesh. (And looking like parts of the Mindfield). But unlike the friendly signage we were used to at such places, we found
And then, hilariously, four trespassers hurtling over the gate (looking like middle aged church goers instead of vandals).
We also stopped at Millennium Manor Castle, built as a fortress in the late 1930’s to survive Armageddon. Surprisingly, we found the current owners working on it, and were treated to a tour of the rather eerie underground spaces, now sporting a medieval theme.
The 14 room fortress has a two-car garage and a gazebo. And a throne for Jesus.
We also, later on the trip, saw Foam Henge, which is what it sounds like–and rather amusing. Back to the secular (Or Druidic) and friendly signage.