Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Dreaming With Beauty

The first morning of the zero years began, for me, driving back to Dallas from San Antonio where I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 at the funky old Cibolo Creek Country Club listening to the music and some of the hopes of Terri Hendrix, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Lloyd Maines, and friends. A bagpiper in full regalia took the stage to summon the decade with his squalling, somehow still beautiful sound; the essence of high lonesome

On the morning of Jan. 1, 2000, I began driving home, slowly, in a fog so densely white that I couldn’t see 30 feet ahead on the highway. I didn’t hit or kill anybody, I supposed because everybody else had enough sense to stay off the streets until that fog dissipated.

I heard the piper again, and touched the knee of dark-eyed, emerging Beauty, who tried to sleep, warm under my coat, in the seat beside me.

I pulled the car to the side of the road. We got out and walked toward the music, finding ourselves on a path under a canopy of gnarled apricot trees, green, heart-shaped leaves slowly dripping moisture.

Eventually, almost but not quite timelessly, it seemed, the fog lifted, and we came to a clearing and saw the entrance to a traveling circus. The ticketmaster collected money from a lengthening line of people who slowly approached in ones and twos and small groups from the surrounding forest. He looked at Beauty for a moment, and waved us into the rhythmic sounds of mechanical rides, the murmurs of voices, and the shuffling of feet on hard ground.

Hand in hand, two damaged souls, we walked past the waking fun into the nightmare lane of sideshows and barkers.

We heard the voices of the people around us, the thoughts, we saw some of the images, felt some of the fears and hopes, like magnets, as we passed close in the growing crowd, almost touching the people’s faces covered with other people’s ashes. We heard bits and pieces of thoughts: . . . “two planes hitting buildings in New York” . . . “helplessness and hopelessness of Katrina” . . . “the world just changed forever” . . . “my mother passing away” . . . “an old and suffering horse named Is being shot in the forehead with a rifle outside of Oslo, collapsing with a thump to the ground, shit and piss flowing from its dead body for minutes afterward” . . . “cicadas buzzing and fireflies dancing” . . . “dear friends sharing the afterglow” . . . “losing my best friend” . . . “birth of my granddaughter” . . . “Steven Fromholz performing ‘Texas Trilogy’” . . . “listening to Brian Burns’ American Junkyard” . . . “a morning in East Texas, traveling with a new friend, seeing a big yellow junction sign saying ‘church’ before the rains came down so heavily the wipers couldn’t compete” . . . “a roadside café’s light glowing, and inside four people who looked like they’d been sitting in the exact same chairs for 30 years” . . . “the hope during Barack Obama’s inauguration” . . . “driving back to Minnesota from Nashville in a storm I later found out was a tornado, with all my earthly possessions, heading to a house I'd never seen but bought anyway” . . . “the first time I saw a bald eagle circling the river very low so I could see his markings” . . . “standing out in the middle of the blackest night gazing up at the Perseid Meteor showers” . . . “finding my husband laying on the floor unconscious in the kitchen with his head split open, laying in a large pool of blood” . . . “the ugliness of a used car lot that went on for acres, maybe miles” . . . “the sight of my son sitting a horse like he was born to the saddle” . . . “a U.S. soldier running while on fire in Iraq” . . . “the home movie of the birth of my twins” . . . “seeing my wife alive for the last time” . . . “the brightness of a full moon atop Enchanted Rock when I wasn’t supposed to be there” . . . “learning my own life is very finite and how to savor every moment” ...
Reality became conditional or quantum.

We heard the barkers in their shiny suits, urging us all to come through their curtains, to pay to hear their truths: . . . “don’t believe science; Earth is only 6,000 years old” . . . “the people in New Orleans got what they deserved for living in that sewer” . . . “hate in the name of god” . . .“mission accomplished” . . . “just stall and say no to everything” . . . “deny it long enough and loud enough” . . . “lie for the truth” . . . “death panels are real” . . .

Beauty and I stopped near the end of the nightmare lane and hugged one another, feeling the texture of consciousness.

Among the best of the humanity around us, we also felt the residue of too many lives led in a continually narrowing funnel rather than in the blossoming of flowers. In a society that’s too often more comfortable dealing with the trivial than what matters, we heard intellectual Luddites rail against artists, teachers, and intellectuals. We felt the pains of America coming to terms with its place in the world, not yet ready to shed its sense of privilege nor ready to reclaim its best ideals. We wondered, does dignity rest in peace? We wondered, are our lives written in neon, to be lived in a circus?

Winter becomes a cold time to survive, dreams polished by soft, warm blankets, the hours of darkness slowly warmed by the idea of sun’s heat in spring. I lay with Beauty; her warmth and her slow, steady breathing in sleep comfort me under the full blue moon as we dream of distant possibilities of the next 10 years.
Hudnall Planetarium, Tyler Texas
21 November 2009

I’ve been
to Venus
and to Mars

I know
several of the stars

I’ve been
east of Jupiter,
and I’ve seen Fate

on two fists,
I count the people I hate

the spoon feeds me
the moon touches me
the loon sings for me –
its song all night long
willing souls to the heavens

Reality intrudes. Venus is a small town south of Dallas. Mars was an even smaller town between Ben Wheeler and Murchison. Fate is a small town in Northeast Texas. Jupiter is a street in Dallas; just east of it is the Lone Star Café where I used to eat nachos and listen to music.

U.S. poet laureate – or just past – Charles Simic doesn’t separate the serious from the comic in his writing. Tonight, I won’t separate myth from fact from fantasy – in hopes of making them all more interesting.

Robert Coover refers to the notion of art as speech, as discourse with time. Philip Booth refers to time as the apple Adam ate.

miles beyond the crossroads,
spirit comes to the edge of time:
rubble of forgotten civilizations
shifts, beginning to slide over the edge,

endless falls of dirty water
begin to sparkle like faraway stars

exposed roots of old trees,
persistent wind pushing
sudden, brief calmness

verge of vastness twilit
into darkness disturbed

gravity begins to fail

you begin to feel levitation
like, perhaps, a balloon
on the verge of flight or fall,
its string a history of the years

wind swirls,
pushes and pulls

time collapses
in the gravity of a new planet
with huge skull-shaped moons

when the universe exploded,
time felt useless and lonely, and remained
like a sadness forever
expressed in the silence
between two clean, high piano notes
in a star-lit desert night

If we are truly human, we want to know the unknown. We simultaneously go inside to explore ourselves and reach out to explore the universe. Psychologist-educator Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ("chick-sent-me-high-ee") contends that the bigger the world we inhabit, the closer we come to truth. Substitute “universe” for “world.”

Novelist-poet Jim Harrison said “The dark side of the moon is merely dark and cold, and Jupiter and Saturn only distant flecks of brain hurled out before time was.”

Loren Eiseley wrote of the need for “the contemplative naturalist, a man who, in a less frenzied era, had time to observe, to speculate, and to dream.” As a child, Eiseley watched Halley’s Comet cross Earth’s sky, and began to appreciate the profound sense of time and space he wrote of in his essay collection “The Invisible Pyramid” – first published shortly after Americans landed on the moon. He explores inner and outer space and the so-called limits of what can be known. He said man would not be man if his dreams did not exceed his grasp. “If I dream by contrast of the eventual drift of the star voyagers through the dilated time of the universe, it is because I have seen thistledown off to new worlds and am at heart a voyager who, in this modern time, still yearns for the lost country of his birth.”

Eve stared at the yellow-orange light, reflected from the moon, looking many times larger than usual, through the nearly bare fall branches of tall sweet gum trees. Each time she swayed to the left or the right, the trees’ limbs made the light almost seem, with a little imagination, to move like a flame. It looked like a fireball on the horizon. She never saw anything like that before. It was beautiful and delicate and, in some way, frightening in its oddness.

Eve wondered.

A serpent glided across the soundless path of moonlight on the ground, paused beside a fallen tree turning soft under lichen and mushrooms. Nearby, a stream of green water waited as still and quiet as the serpent.

High above, gods gathered to watch through pinholes of stars. The sky was crowded with stars. The air was already cold.

the ghost of a sun
on an overcast day

we imagine a museum of light
far into the future, dark Earth
where pale creatures pay
the price of admission to seek
their own reflections

you come to me, timid for a moment,
so you may be worshipped
as you begin to learn your own power

something dead or dying is caught
in an invisible web;
(something moving,
or blown by the breeze)
the glisten is all
we see of the web in the ghost of a sun,
and something dead or dying caught

land at the end of time,
property at the pulse of eternity,

the man who never
touched his own future
wandered, wondered
in the never forest
on the shore of the once lake,
dry to its white, white bones

the man thirsts
for his own presence

On some nights in the city, the clouds are thick above, and lightning moves from horizon to horizon without rain. On such nights, the man usually stands at the window for hours, feeling as much as seeing and hearing the synapses.
The air almost lives. It feels fresh with potential and excitement.
Pendrift wonders how something – a moment or gesture, a trauma, or a joyous act – becomes mythology. He has distinct memories of several times, as a child, though he does not believe these memories, levitating into a clear, light blue sky from the ground of the first home he remembers. The sky was almost translucent, with a few small, white clouds as he willed himself a little higher, higher still until he could look down on the glitter in the roof’s shingles, as he willed himself even higher until he began to wonder whether, if he went too high, he would ever return.
Now, as the lightning moves in the sky, as he moves “backward over the cemetery of spent hours,” as Italo Calvino wrote, the man wonders about the quality of memory and mythology: creating and living with personal mythologies, embracing, letting go, something in between.
Blood, sweat, and years, he thinks to himself, smiling quietly at the wordplay, perhaps clichéd.
The classic mythological themes cross many cultures; our academics showed us that. The man moves away from the window to a table near his desk, searching cluttered stacks of paper until he finds the Sherrington quote: “The brain is an enchanted loom, weaving a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one, a shifting harmony of sub-patterns.”
Without memory, Pendrift thinks, can there be meaning? Are personal mythologies just memories that we believe? Is every personal mythology a mask?
Taste: a long, slow, full swallow of life.
Pendrift remembers walking in the ruins of ancient civilizations, and hearing the silence.
He remembers watching a lone Monarch butterfly on its ancestral flight to find warmth.
He remembers floating through a hotel lobby on the shoulders of jubilant friends.
He remembers the solitary lull of a desert’s heat.
He remembers wild horses, alert and free, along the Rio Grande.
He remembers watching a castle burn, and smelling gunpowder in the air.
He remembers pausing in old forests, and listening to trickles of shallow water over smooth stones.
He remembers losing himself, and coming back again, in the songs of some of the world’s best musicians.
He remembers perfect moments of timeless love.
He remembers that, from time to time, he inspired people to visit their own creative places.
He thinks briefly of peace with a long-gone woman, of her invitation to stay forever in her quiet apartment with gentle sunlight reflecting off dust in the air. He thinks of slumbering drunkenly with another woman. He thinks of the angel who once called him, talking but not making sense, then taking a deep breath and blurting to him, “I’m losing it. I don’t think I can fly anymore.”
Journey, not sitting still, at least for long, is one of the greatest of all personal myths. Whether we walk or fly, the trip we take is to be in harmony with the universe, or at least with ourselves. And passage; brief moments of death and resurrection rituals. Death, when we sit still for too long; resurrection when we begin to move again. These are rites of passage.
The thoughts of peace, of drunken slumber, of answering a call for help – these are part of Pendrift’s personal mythologies. (Myths are not true; mythologies are.) Each is intoxicating.
Long ago, quiet beauty, the taste of sweat and salt and “love,” walking away from the perfect invitation is a distant form of purity when it’s real and it’s gone.
Not so long ago, the several times he drank too much wine – or just enough – with the crazy woman he loved almost as much as any of the others, and they always fell asleep under the heavy blanket like twins in a womb, until one of them woke, startled by the other side of distance, a woman called Distance, the sense of distance, the feel of distance – vast, hollow, more grey than dark.
A timeless moment, still, of caring, of the angel (whatever that word means or doesn’t) who came to him for help when she needed it. The man thinks of creation as nurturing—what the taste of creation would be. He realizes that moments of creation are as close as we come to immortality.
Pendrift stands at the window. The lightning is gone. There is only a hint of the moon in the moving clouds. The moon is barren and distant; its pull is unmistakable.

The moon. It lures us beyond its reality.

Many years ago, English laborer Charles Hyde was acquitted on murder charges on the grounds that he was under the spell of the full moon.
The Greek king Lycaon was transformed into a wolf for playing an ill-conceived trick on Zeus. So, with many cultures’ legends and with Hollywood’s help, we get werewolves, appearing at the full moon.
The moon is, traditionally, the most visible symbol of feminine energy in our solar system.
Of the moon, Sylvia Plath wrote, “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.”


from sky, holding it
carefully so it won’t break,

puts moon into mouth;
moon tastes of expectations

silhouette of blackbird moves silently, unseen,
between man and place where moon was

light from long-gone stars
illuminates Earth
on harshest of February night:
snow on ice,
hardship and

the moon smiles

its mouth widens
into a surprised “oh”

as it watches us catch the thunder every night for a month and
put it in a jar of lightning bugs
to hear them gasp at the deep,
bone-jarring glory
of the boom

the moon,

at us all

the moon circles and slowly winks omens
that fall like hard rain
toward brittle Earth

while the bell
for the virgin who wanders

through fields of wishes
for all eternity

The yearning for “beyond” – for eternity – is another part of what makes us human. Myths supposedly help us understand ourselves. As many people have said, we can deny the actual science of myths and still appreciate their importance, their “power to free the human imagination, enabling us to envision new worlds, overcome old boundaries, and eventually move us all forward to a better understanding of ourselves and the universe around us.”
Most ancient cultures saw pictures in the stars. The lion, the bull, and the scorpion date back 6,000 years.
Homer referred to the Greek constellations in the Iliad in the 7th century B.C.: the creation of Achilleus’ shield by the craftsman god Hephaistos, showing the earth, and sky, sea, sun, and the moon waxing full, and all the constellations that “crown” the heavens.
By the 5th century B.C., most of the constellations came to be associated with myths of the gods who “serve” us, with no distinction between astronomy and mythology.
As everyone here knows, the planets have names from Roman mythology: Mercury, named for the speedy messenger god, revolves fastest around the sun; Venus, named for the goddess of love and beauty, shines most brightly; Mars, named for the god of war, appears blood-red; Jupiter, named for the single most important god, is the largest planet in our solar system. Even the names of the Galilean moons of Jupiter (the four largest, which may be seen with even a small telescope) are drawn from mythology. Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto were all desired – and taken by force – by Jupiter.

Galileo found a “new” planet in 1610 – Saturn with its beautiful and once-mysterious rings – Ringworld. Four hundred years later, not all of the mysteries have been solved.
Mythologically, Saturn has a bloody, gruesome past. Cronus was the ruling Titan who came to power by castrating his father, Uranus. To ensure his own safety Cronus ate each of his children as they were born – until his unhappy wife Rhea tricked him into swallowing a rock instead of his son Zeus. When he grew up, Zeus revolted against Cronus and the other Titans and banished them to the underworld. Cronus, though, escaped to Italy, where he ruled as Saturn. (The period of his rule was said to be a golden age on Earth, honored by the Saturnalia feast.)

Recently, NASA scientists discovered a nearly invisible ring around Saturn -- one so large that it would take one billion Earths to fill it. Its diameter is equivalent to 300 Saturns lined up side to side. The bulk of it starts about 3.7 million miles away from the planet and extends outward another 7.4 million miles. The ring is made up of ice and dust particles that are so far apart that if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn’t even know it.

Which, in this modern, twisted world, might make the literary mind think of Purgatory.

The underworld. Purgatory.

Slow-moving clouds
cover one tip of the thinnest rind of a moon,
a silver-orange expression of otherness
in dark sky. It is night,
after all, and the moon appears almost empty.
This is purgatory.

We approach a gate
made of damned souls who fall on us
like thin veils in a swirling wind through an open window
to caress our bodies in a room still lit by candles.

. . . the slow whir of a ceiling fan,
the persistent restfulness of dust,
slow, regular breathing of lovers asleep, in dreams . . .

from the flickering candles:
scents of jasmine and lemon

more conjurer than carpenter
more smoke than substance
more hope than honey

We live
in a strange world
of beauty and fear

a strange world of beauty and fear
a strange world of beauty and fear

where what’s real
where what’s real
where what’s real

is often lost to us all
is not often enough
is not enough
is too much

where what’s real belongs
more to the conjurer
than to the carpenter
more to the smoke
than to the substance

a strange world
of beauty and fear

We are all, perhaps, as Joni Mitchell put it in her song “Woodstock,” stardust, walking along a road trying to reach a festival of music, to join a rock ‘n’ roll band and free our souls:

“We are stardustWe are goldenAnd we’ve got to get ourselvesBack to the garden.”

Billion year old carbon.

. . . a lace of stars across a wide, dark sky, cold as frost, as the poet leaks out like red blood on a sticky honky-tonk floor, odor of the hunt: “only one AK47 per household” patience learning and teaching looking people in the eye shallow creeks speaking in deep forests the Alps the ocean Twain & Tolkien Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia” Tomlin/Wagner’s “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” Hillerman’s clean easy prose Straub’s ghost story Monty Python & Fawlty Towers Northern Exposure: the middle years Appalachian music done by people who understand it Townes Van Zandt’s “we all got holes to fill” Angela Carter’s “Nights at the Circus” compulsion sleepy sex before daylight still her presence hurts her absence more truth & surprise, occasional silliness unnatural blondes strong, huggable women slow gentle movement snow falling thank you. A woman dancing stops to watch her reflection in the mirror, but nothing is there.

The moon reflects, and is bitter above the wide desert borderland and the ribbon of a muddy river now guided by canyon walls. Light reflected by the moon echoes, becomes music. The desert cemetery in black and white: distant high clouds and low mountains . . . plastic flowers and rusty wire . . . chalky soil once stone . . . insects and snakes crawling in the heat . . . missing slats from picket fences . . . wooden crosses that would crumble at a touch . . . fading inscriptions and everything else that’s not there . . . the harmonies of wind, percussion of rare rain and footsteps, and beating of wings . . . the hollow taste of abstraction. Wind blows, dust rises; each mote a planet with entire histories of pagan civilization and gods, each moon a tiny shiver. He thinks to follow his passions through the rubble and the night, to lie down in bright moonlight on desert sand, to wait for the rattlesnake or the dawn

Walker Percy wrote that “small, disconnected facts, if you take note of them, have a way of becoming connected.”

The moment is what counts, not what leads up to it. Is that a lie? Yes. In a two-digit relational system, the zero – the unknown – is always implied in moonlight. We are strangers in the flight, in the lull of gravity, standing too close to reason and too far from instinct.