Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Consolation of Muscle Memory

"If it weren't for music, life would be a mistake."

False! I have you now, Friedrich Wilhelm, my friend. I have your myopia. Don't worry--it's the same as mine.

What you are saying is true only for a certain kind of cognitive mutant. I share your particular kind of mutation, though I daresay to a lesser extent.

If not for music, I would have practically no experience with manipulating the world. Here I mean doing music, not merely listening, no matter how intently. As someone who's getting more cerebral by the week, so quickly in fact that I can see it happening of its own accord, destroying my boundaries, music keeps me sane. Otherwise all I'd have to show for my life would be some markings in recording devices of carious kinds, and a particular arrangement of neurons in my cranium, which is a depressingly small chunk of the cosmos. Oh, and a few stories those I've known would tell about me. And a few people modified. But all that will have blown over in a century or two.

Music, as those who don't perform it are wont to say, is the language of the emotions. False! There is emotion to be sure, but the histrionic manipulation of heartbeats and frissons and galvanic skin response through auditory entrainment is secondary in performance. What counts is mastery! It is all you have in life, and all you need. Mastery. In it I feel big. I have surcease from the rest of my life, where I wonder what I'm doing and whether anyone will ever understand. And I can play out the facsimile of an engaged life.

Poetry doesn't do it, because it's just another outflow of the cognitive faculty. But muscle memory! Ah, there's something to ground you, to make you feel actual.

I highly recommend it.

Consider: "The role of art is to make a world which can be inhabited."

Saturday, January 08, 2011

3-Day Novel 2010 (Part 4)

On the coffee table: a samovar, paper piles, a yellow origami rose...

...which Ezra had made a few days ago. He is currently stretched on the couch, watching the news, his right leg bouncing up and down, his eyes glazed. The TV is saying something about the rise of militias in the Midwest, and is elaborating on the ideological composition of them, which isn’t worth going into, is rather suitably summarized by “primitivists”, and not of the vegan kind, either. This is followed up by another follow-up of the story from inauguration day: the secret trebuchet that someone had rigged up to lob tar and feather balls onto Obama’s parade route. Names and photographs of those arrested, their cold stares focusing about 300 meters behind the viewer...

“You hungry? I made lentils.”

Eric opens the lid of the pot. Just lentils and a bit of salt water. He ponders for a few seconds, then ladles the thin gruel into his bowl.

“There’s also tea.”

So they pour two cups from the samovar and sit there, watching the ten minutes of filler before the bottom of the hour on CNN, Ezra on the couch and Eric on the ottoman. During commercials they talk about how Ezra’s job search is going. Not well. He is casting his net all over the country. There are rumors on some message boards that an amusement park in Calgary is taking advantage and mass hiring entertainers from the east for some kind of fundie bible-land. Wouldn’t Ezra be averse to that kind of thing, being an atheist Jew and all? Not at all: Ezra has no aversion to taking their money. Also, pay’s a bit thin on the ground in our wonderful Socialist paradise. Commiseration all around. Eric talks about his reduced hours at work. They talk about friends, voicing concerns until the tea is drunk up. Eric gets Ezra another blanket, because tonight’s chill is supposed to be vicious, and they can both hear the whistling through the shitty aluminum siding of the basement entrance.


As the wind whistles, Eric undresses...

...slowly and methodically. He places the clothes into the laundry pile and, shivering, snuggles tight into the three layers of blanket. He reaches and turns off the light, which leaves a lingering afterimage. He checks, for the second time, his alarm. For with the pitch blackness in this windowless room, he could easily sleep fully through tomorrow’s shift. And then who would pay for the lentils in the pot?

And there, on his back, he waits to fall asleep. He focuses on the back of his eyelids, where aurora borealises play and swirl, and thinks of them as clouds, as milk in tea, as galaxies--thinks of Ezra and millions of people, the tons of food, the thickness of these walls, still trying to extricate himself from the repetitive tape loops of “Dust in the Wind”, uselessly, and then he flops over to his side, and his hand makes a gesture--not that gesture--any gesture but that one!--the gesture of greeting the emptiness of Anny’s side... he flips quickly, shimmies into the unoccupied space, rousing himself due to the cold, and focuses, focuses on anything but the churning in his stomach, focuses on the arrangement of his desk at work, everything in its place, focuses on recalling at will familiar faces of the clientele, focuses on the tension in his eye sockets, and the wave passes, and he is back to thinking the inking of the eyes is the blackness, the darkness, blackness oiliness, and he’s dissolving under the eyelids, the little death, the little tunnel rising, rising, gently curving, greeted by the smile of the...

...and he’s jolted awake by the mother of all myoclonic twitches--the feeling of falling--reverberating, feeling like someone took a paring knife and ran it all up and down my spine... this kind of sharp iciness like pins and needles, the feeling of static, fuzziness, like the neuron radio of the spine just got mad interference, just got struck by lightning...

...and I can’t stay in this bed. My restless legs find the floor of their own accord, and I am dressed, and outside, and it is snowing. And I look up and all around, and feel the wind on my neck, readjust the scarf, and marvel. The eddies and vortices are jumping cuneiform glyphs, if they could flow like drops of ink in thin layers of water, and they make the streetlights’ shabby orange halos move, make them travel against the prevailing wind, lamplights swaying in night, making the naked tree branches look a little like geodesic domes, or globes, with sparkles, sparklers.

I am out on an arterial. It is practically deserted, except for a few seemingly self-propelled overcoats. I walk and walk. Blocks telescope as I try to remember the way this one Bach prelude transitions into the “lots of notes” part (which I think is called a Cadenza), but cannot. I stop at an intersection crowded by towers on all sides. I have no idea where I am. Here in the night, I cannot see more than a few blocks in any direction. No people are around; no cars either. There is no sound of living machinery, except the hum of the sodium vapour lamps. I begin to grow agitated. I don’t even remember which way I came from, since I craned my neck to look at the towers and turned and turned.

So I pick the street to the right of me. A shop street, which gives way to low-lying buildings, every third one shuttered. Shuttered on prime real estate. Right downtown. The thought is difficult to bear, and slippery.

I am growing cold and tired, and I know I am nowhere close to home, not even walking in the direction. I want to see someone, anyone else on the street, but this does not happen. If anything, the air takes on a more rarefied quality, as if human beings hadn’t walked here with their pheromones, their flaking skin, their wishes.

And then, suddenly, from behind a tall building, around thirty or forty stories in the air, and airship emerges and blinds me with its searchlight.

An airship? A motherfucking zeppelin? As my eyes adjust, I confirm this. It seems like it is anchored to an apartment in that tall, fancy looking building, and as my eyes adjust more, and the steaming street-level vents blow away, and the snow thins out a bit, I see they have a catwalk rigged up, and burly men in arctic gear are carrying furniture out of the building. On the side of the zeppelin, it says “REPO”. I cannot confirm this, but from the main compartment, there seem to hang insectoid legs.

Its searchlight , which had been scanning the street, returns to me. The glare physically hurts, and my heart begins racing. I look around for an alley to duck into, but merely end up walking back. My thoughts begin racing: will they lasso me? Can they? Am I already surrounded? How many more of these behemoths are around? I look around, expecting to see them crawling out of hiding spaces in every tall building, inflating like mosquitoes gorged with blood.

I begin to run. I run and run and duck into the first tiny passageway I can. The inside of my coat is drenched with sweat, which begins to freeze at the collar. I had forgotten tonight was an extreme cold alert. Even the homeless had hidden. They had hidden to allow these monstrosities to loot the ruins and cart everything away to God knows where. Would all our precious shit be dumped into the rapidly acidifying ocean? Would it be deposited on a mountaintop, a hilarious hoax for archaeologists from 10,000 A.D.?

Stumbling down the alley, hitting my elbows on extruding Siamese pipe connectors, banging my knees and shins on mini-dumpsters and lock boxes, I at last see a light of something that looks like a storefront. The wind picks up and knocks me over, once, twice. But eventually, blow as it may, it is just air. It does not stop my progress, lurching as it is. I enlist the aid of a guttural growl. Reaching the door, I find it is open. I stumble in.

The old Chinese woman behind the counter looks surprised.

“We’re closed. Sorry.”

“I just need to warm up for a little.”


I am crestfallen. I hold out my arms in supplication. “Please?”

She stops for a moment with her activity and gives me an indecipherable look. She points at me, a gesture understood to mean “don’t move!” and goes in through the staff door. I stand there, without moving, without thinking, just watching the steam rise from the soup she had been eating. I wanted so very much to just be that steam...

The old lady returns with a second, even older lady. The second one motions for me to follow. I enter through the kitchen area, down a long hallway where my glasses fog up, the ice melts, and I stumble. She takes me down a flight of stairs, then another. In that hallway, stippled with steam pipes, electrical wires, and other things I can’t even interpret. She opens a door to a dark room with a reddish glow. Within is what I can only describe as a pig iron furnace from Maoist China, the kind they had people running in their backyards. That is what it looked like, and that was the quality of the light it shed. There were other figures in the room, but their features were impossible to make out, for the fire within this furnace had a putty-like texture, a kind of... reticence for illumination.

“We warm you up good.”

“Thank you. How long can I stay here?”

“As long as you need.”


My chill being considerable, I sat with the fire...

...for what seemed like hours. And thought returned, and I reflected on my terror, a kind of blind, grasping terror. What had I seen, really? What did it mean? What could it mean? And where was I right now? All the twists and turns of the hallway made it impossible to tell, just as the streets did. The blind alleys of speculating eventually came back to the fire. I stared at the gently undulating dance of orange, red, and sometimes-white on the coals, and it came to dominate more and more of my sight. I beheld landscapes: valleys of white washed out by yellow, washed into monotony by orange. I beheld geological time in the dance of the colours. I beheld the parting of the ways of whole peoples: the valley people and the hill people and the mountain people meeting and warring, intermarrying and carrying on commerce. I beheld all the wheels of the generations happening, the sibling rivalries, the parent-child conflicts, the family feuds, the ancient buried secrets, the dead children by the riverbank. I beheld the herds of the people’s cattle and the bounty of their earth. I beheld their harvest festivals, their dances, their speculations on earth and sky, on mothers and fathers, on self and other, on justice, on order, on creativity, on music. I beheld their disputations as well; their lackluster complacency, their tired hands, their hiding from the stupefying heat of summer, their domestic quarrels cooped up in the dead of winter. I beheld the pomp of their kings, the viciousness of plagues spreading. the play-dances of children, all within the seconds in which a white valley existed as the coals of the fire were stoked.

Soon the fire, and the warmth, came to dominate. And the speculations were no longer speculations. Beholdings were involuntary. The fire was more of a tunnel than a fire.

And that is when it happened. Upon my receptivity, my blank fluttering sheet, it spat, like an enraptured dot matrix printer, the page that follows, and two others like it, flanking it. You must imagine it as instantly scannable, as if it had sprung fully formed from my head. I recognized it immediately for what it was--the pages of a burning book, its ramifications reaching in all the directions of my brain. I tremble at this... want you to know, but I cannot belch it out at you in the same way. You must read it.

Consider: "I am an old scholar, better-looking now than when I was young. That's what sitting on your ass does to your face."

Monday, January 03, 2011

3-Day Novel 2010 (Part 3)

Eric Weisman, bearded, ruddy, rounds the corner, abstracted...

...considering the times through the darkness of the street. Of the eight street lamps lighting both sides of the block, three are burned out and one is flickering repetitively, while another flickers only intermittently. The whole effect makes the left side of the street appear to pop in and out of existence.

He kicks the thought, bounces it around a bit: these are the times. The times of collapse. The times of increasingly shuttered storefronts on once lively streets. The times when banks are closing branches in the most crowded intersections. The times when Western capitalism seems to be saying “fuck it” to everything, including itself, and is busy starving itself, eating itself up as though from an autoimmune disorder.

Or it seems that way from down here. The newspapers have been scrambling to supply appropriate metaphors for what was happening. Autoimmune disorder is his current favourite, though he likes the vividness of others too crude for print: intestinal blockage (as in constipation), intestinal hemorrhage, appendicitis, colorectal cancer of the world-spanning economic system. Shit going wrong with the shit-delivery system.

He turns the corner from the street of flickering lights onto a better-lit arterial road, populated during this evening hour mainly with younger people spilling out of the bars for smoke breaks. The sounds of their voices, muffled somewhat by the slush piled everywhere, are nevertheless defiant. One shrill, projective voice pierces the generalized din--“I could have fucked him, but no, I stayed wrote the goddamn thing myself...”--before falling back into sync with the seven or eight other conversations under that pinkish fluorescence escaping from the inside.

This particular nameless bar is also a concert venue, and the subcultures milling outside are different every weekday, although it had not escaped his attention that the subcultures were drawing closer to each other, almost imperceptibly, in styles of dress. In this, the subcultures that already emphasized cheap clothes seem to be winning, unsurprisingly.

As the block unrolls, he passes the other keystone species of this block, at this time: the old Chinese cart ladies, out for their endless-seeming evening collections of empties and recyclables. Their trade must be doing well these days, he wagers. Winter must provide a great seasonal windfall, since the cold is a disincentive to take the empties back, and the cramped quarters and general hopelessness are a positive incentive to drink more than ever, for the young and middle-aged population to party hearty, to drink up the wine and the beer and the liquor, for tomorrow we may die. He wonders about the old women’s sagacity, something he will never know because of the language barrier. Do they see things usually only reserved for friends’ or lovers’ eyes because of their unobtrusiveness? And how do they churn those observations in their minds? Do they share them? Where and with whom?

With the old lady out of sight, his thoughts and actions turn to preparatory motions for entering the streetcar: finding change, or a token, scanning the street for indicators as to how long he may expect to wait. He cannot see more than two blocks down the street because of the iciness on his glasses and the generally reduced visibility on account of the sewers spewing steam out over the boulevard, as if Tim Burton were standing on one of the rooftops shouting “Behold!”. So he doesn’t know how long since the last streetcar left the stop--or cluster of seven streetcars, like yesterday, which forced him, after half an hour, to slog through yesterday’s blizzard. But those are yesterday’s frustrations.

The presence of only three other people at the stop is not encouraging. So he slumps his back against the shelter glass and tries to turn up his collar to the wind. And he half-sits there, goring colder, trying every stratagem to leave his body. He ponders each stranger in turn, categorizing and rating them (6.5, 7, 6 out of 10, respectively), then replays the vacuum of the day, tries to hum some songs, but blows his load and gets to the chorus too quickly, counts the streetlights, counts his breaths, rubs his fingers together, thinks about what April will be like, with its wet, dark trees, thinks about the great depression, about Nazi iconography, about the pictures of smoke columns over Islamabad, about Anny, shifts to relieve the pressure in his solar plexus, thinks about how quickly the streetcar track is rusting, about the anachronistic use of sand as a braking mechanism, about how he knows that factoid, searches, remembers that it was a promotional poster some months ago, thinks about commercials and advertising more generally, tries to remember the name of a psychologist whose book he read a long time ago...Lotus?, Lottis?... remembers it was a woman, jump-cuts to the asymmetry of Anny’s collarbones, the result of a horseback riding accident, thinks about April mists at the horse farm, desperately squirms and looks straight ahead, evaluates the colour scheme of the sushi restaurant (red on brown with yellow Kanji characters) as unsatisfactory, gives some attention to the pulsing between his solar plexus and chest, thinks about intercostal muscles, about the opponent circuits in the medulla oblongata that control breathing rhythm, trying to recall the circuit diagram from, oh sweet Jesus, eight years ago, thinks about garbage and dust, floating in the wind, the chorus of “Dust in the Wind” helpfully inserting itself and running in the background for the rest of the trip, as he continues to picture abstract shapes of no earthly hue, thinks about H.P. Lovecraft, about the contrast of something-jumps-at-you horror and existential horror, the anxiety of meaninglessness, thinks about Paul Tilich the theologian that Rev. Denison mentioned the week before he died, which was, oh sweet Jesus, three years ago, thinks about aging, dust, flaking skin, about lights, about voids, abysses, the Marianas Trench, which sets of an annoying repetition of the phrase “Mohorovicic discontinuity” which crept into him when he took geology oh so many years ago...

...and finally, after so many iterations and others besides, the streetcar comes, and he climbs on, and pays, and stands, and shifts to accommodate more people packing on at other stops, and thirteen stops later gets off, and walks half a block left, then turns right, and then right at the funny-looking tree and goes down the alley and round back and unlocks the door and takes his boots and two layers of clothing off and enters the living room, all in a reverie, not having noticed any of these things, because of the tripartite “blessing” of his solar plexus flickering, “Dust in the Wind” dissolving him, and the Mohorovicic discontinuity giving him an odd feeling, like the shock before a poem kernel sprouts.

But he has not written poetry in something like seven years.

Consider: "[She] who looks on a true friend looks, as it were, upon a kind of image of [herself]: wherefore friends, though absent, are still present; though in poverty, they are rich; though weak, yet in the enjoyment of health; and, what is still more difficult to assert, though dead, they are alive."

Father of Four Daughters

(This is a sketch for something I'm trying to put in song form. Or maybe something else. Please excuse the ring of me writing about something I don't know. I aim to take this and compress it into a few lines...)

Everything here clings to everything else. The country house bought only decades ago is spent. Droplets of water cling to the wooden enclosure fence. Paint peels in the afternoon magic light on the porch. He sits there, paunchy, professorial in the autumn of his life, rising periodically to feed the parakeets, to fiddle with the various stringed instruments, to adjust the refractive crystals, to rearrange the bookshelves to reflect the new map of his wandering mind. Only wandering now. No more dialectics with Gaia. One of them will die first, they said. It was her. And now bearded Ouranos wanders the halls because the stars have been hidden by stratus expanses for weeks.

Afternoon sun and the yellowish dust motes floating in the beams of the living room. Tastefully out-of-date furniture, infused with smells he can no longer recognize, because they are the scent of him, with hints of the others, the women who grew here, who gave what they needed, and dispersed to their fates, whether domestic or peripatetic, whether ecstatic or sclerotic.

One went on to nurture her brood, but half-way across the continent. When she comes, on her sweat comes the acrid tone of obligation, and when the light arises in those features, when her mouth opens to reveal the gaps in her teeth and the wrinkles that encroach on the corners of her eyes it is good, but soon forgotten, fleeing into the corners of the room. The light is in her children's energy, rising in the house and making it creak. They can see its nooks and crannies as the conscious offerings they are: friendly obstacle courses; grandpa's labyrinth. For when she was born and grew, her arising in this world, and the approach was torturous. Insecure. Unfinished and unsupported for months. Here, as everywhere, there were things that we will never know. But in no other daughter was that horizon of space around her actions more accusing.

Another daughter comes for weeks on end, but never for holidays. The tenets of her purity preclude that. This is the woman he imprinted with what he was before he met his wife. She. Gaia, who disabused him of the impulse to walk for a week in the foothills just to see that perfect tree on the mountainside rising defiantly. She who almost died as a cougar paced behind her, confused by the motionlessness while she observed a flower opening in the woods. This one, who radiates his heart, who shares with him that emphasis on detail: the crystal bauble, the imperfection of the fence, the little uniquenesses of the crows. She, who has such frantic and desperate tales to tell. She who has a hairpin crack straight in the delicate porcelain of her heart. She, who left the other day, of whom the stratus clouds and the clinging droplets whisper.

The third is repetition. The third, penultimate child. She who was raised less haphazardly. She whose impulses, when they arose from those earthy, shadowy depths, found their outlet not in the march of generations, not in the odyssey of family photos stacked in chests until they break the boards with their heaviness; no, her outlet was a single man. A quality man. A man with ambition. A man who gave her the children she wanted, but who always took the biggest cake slice. Who insists on organizing gatherings, who raises fatherly hackles. This husband is repetition. Repetition of the pathway that loomed long, long ago. A pathway almost taken, that sapped so much. A path of desperate bluster. And this old lion knows a few things the young, limber usurper does not. But this is not about the men.

There are trees on the property for all the daughters, and he walks sometimes in the grove, and looks for portents in the branches, marvels at the long view, the wide view, on which they branched just as they were predestined, but then takes the micro-view, the view of accident, the view of freedom, of groping in the unknown air. Some of the branches have twisted around each other. Some have entangled others. He has had to prune some major ones. The tree for his second daughter, in particular, is missing a root node. It looks lopsided. Moss grows on the first daughter's tree. The third daughter's tree is favoured by the squirrels and birds.

Ah! The fourth daughter. She. She who will tell our stories in song and poems. She who has been prodigal, for otherwise, how would she tell anything? How else could she have risen from the cottonball hugs of the rest of us, she that was so much younger? She who seems to have a face full of shrapnel? She who reminds him of the accusing peeling-paint buildings of the parts of cities where artists gather? She who breathes that? She who has gone too far, even by her father's tough-mindedly open standards? She on whose breath comes the breath of self-consciousness, self-criticism maybe finally taken too far. She who will either be unknown, or she who will tell of our ways to posterity, long after the house and the fence and the bones and the flesh has gone. She who may blow the pollen of our longing into the winds.

Consider: "There's a big pile of innocent bones still holding up the garden wall / and it was always the broken hand we learned to lean on after all."