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.
Sunflowers, passed on …
It’s said that there are only 5 stories (in fact one writer I know of maintained that there really are only 2). These 5 (or 2) story lines go on and on getting re-written, re-cast, re-visioned throughout time in novels, stories, plays, and film. But is this the same for poetry and visual art? Are there only so many themes that a poet can write on? Are there only so many subjects or artistic questions that a painter can explore?
I tend to like that its all the same conversation, the same exploration, going on and on through time. Like the System’s Theory view of evolution as a creative act – different genetic permutations as creative experiments upon a central theme. I like to think that all of us poets, painters, novelists, screenwriters, are somehow in communication with each other though time.
Some more than others, perhaps. A young Allen Ginsberg heard the poet William Blake speaking to him in a vision and ended up committing himself to an insane asylum for a time. I tend to get my visits from Ginsberg in dreams. And once in a short admonition inscribed into a copy of his “Selected Poems” that I didn’t remember writing myself.
I thought I would share some homage art on the theme of Sunflowers – Blake’s famous poem, Ginsberg’s homage. Along with the famous Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh, and two homages, one by Diego Rivera, another by Paul Gauguin.
Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh
by William Blake
Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;
Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.
By Diego Rivera
by Allen Ginsberg
I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past—
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye—
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O my soul, I loved you then!
The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives,
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial—modern—all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown—
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos—all these
entangled in your mummied roots—and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,
—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.
By Paul Gauguin
So far, we’ve eaten (more than once, and in no particular order):
black eyed peas
Surprisingly, no grits yet. Or collard greens. Hope so soon. Decided against the fried pie.
On the serendipity front, came across the very sad looking memorial to Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark–one of my favorite explorers. He died by suicide, a depression untreatable in that century.
Not exactly unexpected, but a touching moment in downtown Memphis:
one golden sidewalk note
on Beale Street.
Robert Johnson, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil to play Blues guitar like that. It seems possible.
Mindfield has a homey pro-Gay rights sign hanging on its outskirts (Dan Savage would approve a heterosexual’s support):
And a bit of encouragement for us all.