from RELUCTANT GRAVITIES
New Directions, 1999
PROLOGUE: TWO VOICES
Two voices on a page. Or is it one? Now turning in on themselves, back into fiber and leaf, now branching into sequence, consequence, public works projects or discord. Now touching, now trapped in frames without dialog box. Both tentative, as if poring over old inscriptions, when perhaps the wall is crumbling, circuits broken, pages blown off by a fall draft.
Even if voices wrestle on the page, their impact on the air is part of their definition. In a play, for instance, the sentences would be explained by their placement on stage. We would not ask an actress what anguish her lines add up to. She would not worry what her voice touches, would let it spill over the audience, aiming beyond the folds of the curtain, at the point in the distance called the meaning of the play.
The difference of our sex, says one voice, saves us from humiliation. It makes me shiver, says the other. Your voice drops stones into feelings to sound their depth. Then warmth is truncated to war. But I'd like to fall back into simplicity as into a featherbed.
Voices, planted on the page, do not ripen or bear fruit. Here placement does not explain, but cultivates the vacancy between them. The voices pause, start over. Gap gardening which, moved inward from the right margin, suspends time. The suspension sets, is set, in type, in columns that precipitate false memories of garden, vineyard, trellis. Trembling leaf, rules of black thumb and white, invisible angle of breath and solid state.
She tries to draw a strength she dimly feels out of the weaknesses she knows, as if predicting an element in the periodic table. He wants to make a flat pebble skim across the water inside her body. He wonders if, for lack of sky, it takes on the color of skin or other cells it touches. If it rusts the bones.
The pact between page and voice is different from the compact of voice and body. The voice opens the body. Air, the cold of the air, passes through and, with a single inflection, builds large castles. The page wants proof, but bonds. The body cannot keep the voice. It spills. Foliage over the palisade.
He has put a pebble under his tongue. While her lips explode in conjectures his lisp is a new scale to practice. He wants his words to lift, against the added odds, to a truth outside him. In exchange, his father walking down the road should diminish into a symbol of age.
The page lures the voice with a promise of wood blossoming. But there is no air. No breath lives in the mouth or clouds the mirror. On stage, the body would carry the surface we call mind. Here, surface marries surface, refusing deep waters. Still, the point of encounter is here, always. Screams rise. Tears fall. Impure white, legible.
ON THE HORIZONTAL
My mother, she says, always spread, irresistibly, across the entire room, flooding me with familiarity to breed content. I feared my spongy nature and, hoping for other forms of absorption, opened the window onto more water, eyes level with its surface. And lower, till the words "I am here" lost their point with the vanishing air. Just as it's only in use that a proposition grinds its lens.
Deciphering, he says, is not a horizontal motion. Though the way a sentence is meant can be expressed by an expansion that becomes part of it. As a smile may wide-open a door. Holding the tools in my mouth I struggle uphill, my body so perfectly suspended between my father's push and gravity's pull that no progress is made. As if consciousness had to stay embedded in carbon. Or copy. Between camp and bomb. But if you try to sound feelings with words, the stone drops into reaches beyond fathoms.
I am here, she says, I've learned that life consists in fitting my body to the earth's slow rotation. So that the way I lean on the parapet betrays dried blood and invisible burns. My shadow lies in the same direction as all the others, and I can't jump over it. My mother's waves ran high. She rode them down on me as on a valley, hoping to flush out the minerals. But I hid my bones under sentences expanding like the flesh in my years.
Language, he says, spells those who love it, sliding sidelong from word to whole cloth. The way fingers extend the body into adventure, print, lakes, and Dead-man's-hand. Wherever the pen pushes, in the teeth of fear and malediction, even to your signature absorbing you into sign. A discomfort with the feel of home before it grows into inflamed tissue and real illness. With symptoms of grammar, punctuation, subtraction of soul. And only death to get you out.
ON THE VERTICAL
We must decipher our lives, he says, forward and backward, down through cracks in the crystal to excrement, entrails, formation of cells. And up. The way the lark at the end of night trills vertically out of the grass gh and outside myself, though regularly consumed at high noon. So maybe I should grant the shoot-out: light may flood me too, completely. But it won't come walking in boots and spurs, or flowing robes, and take my hand or give me the finger with the assurance of a more rational being. And my body slopes toward yours no matter how level the ground.
If we can't call it God, he says, it still perches on the mind, minting strangeness. How could we recognize what we've never seen? A whale in through the window, frame scattered as far as non-standard candles. The sky faints along the giant outline, thar she blows under your skin, tense, a parable right through the body that remains so painfully flesh.
So pleasurably flesh, she says, and dwells among us, flesh offered to flesh, thick as thieves, beginning to see. Even the lark's soar breaks and is content to drop back into yesterday's gravity. Which wins out over dispersion, even doubt, and our thoughts turn dense like matter. The way the sky turns deep honey at noon. The way my sensations seem to belong to a me that has always already sided with the world.
That's why thought, he says, means fear. Sicklied o'er with the pale cast. And the feel of a woman. No boundary or edge. No foothold. Blast outspins gravity, breath to temples, gut to throat, propositions break into gasps. Then marriage. The projectile returns to the point of firing. Shaken, I try to take shelter in ratios of dots on a screen.
A narrow bed, she says. Easier to internalize combustion under a hood while rain falls in sheets, glazing a red wheelbarrow for the hell of it. I don't bait fabled beasts to rise to the surface of intonation. But I once watched a rooster mate, and he felt hard inside me, a clenched fist, an alien rock inside me, because there was no thinking to dissolve him. So to slide down, so unutterably, so indifferent.
I don't understand, he says, how manifest destiny blows west with the grass, how the word "soul" floats through the language the way pollen pervades tissue. Worry pivots in the gut, a screeching brake, so scant the difference between mistake and mental disturbance. Is language our cockadoodledoo? Is thinking a search for curves? Do I need arrowheads or dreadlocks to reach my rawest thoughts? A keyboard at their edge?
The longer I watched, she says, the more distinctly did I feel the snap of that shot flat inside me. So simple the economy of nature: space appears along with matter. So to slide down and stand there. Such self-gravity. So narrow the gap between mistake and morning sickness.
I sit in my own shadow, she says, the way my mother gave birth to it. In artificial light, blinds drawn against the darkness of power. I think of you as if you were that shadow, a natural enclosure, a world, not a slight, so I can wander through your darkness. Has our contract inverted time, made our universe contract, a cramped bed for two? And when I say your name, do I draw water, a portrait, curtain, bridge, or conclusion?
Place there is none, he quotes. Not even to hang up our archetypes. Let alone Star Spangled Banners. We go forward and backward, and there is no place. Therefore it is a name for God. My eye, steadfast on traffic lights, abolishes the larger part of the round world. I should look at my feet. Space sweeps through us, a hell of distances bathed in the feeble glow of emptiness. Outward mobility, unimpeded. Suddenly we're nobody home, without any need of inattention, imposture, or talent for deceit.
The wind whips my skin as if it were water, she says. My skin is water. For wind read wind, news, sky falling. Is it a mental disturbance or the higher math of love if I hear you talking under my breath and from the torn fragments assume the sun is far away and small, and a look can cause a burn? Superstition, too, is a kind of understanding, and to forego it may have consequences.
Clusters of possibilities whiz through our head, he says. Electric charges, clogged highway, screeching brakes, a house too full of guests. With grounds for disagreement and miscarriage. The light rushes in dry, screaming. But the opaque parts of the nerve oppose the noise and void the options. Then the project must be prolonged in terms of lack.
as in hypnosis
not easeful by half
a white jug with flowers
look how even of dreams
we try to make sense
MEDITATION ON FACT
"I know" is supposed to express a relation between me and a fact.
old arteries acquainted with
Where fact is taken into consciousness like your body into mine, and I'm all sponge and crevice, floating heat and sold but for the tiny point where I, instead, give birth to myself.
Or I stumble after, a beginning skater on thin ice. Or a hawk outlined against the sun brims my eye, the speed of steep descent its evidence.
This picture shows how the light falls, bright as advertising, not what stokes it at bottom. A desire comes legs apart, demanding the color red. While the hawk's plummet smears the gap visible, a scar to be deciphered as force of attraction. Or gravity.
even as far as the foot
So my relation to fact lies deep, deep below the roadbed of inquiry, below the sequence of step and foothold, vowel and consonant, diminishing with distance. Drowned under thin ice. The sun far away and small.
in the eyes
in your mouth
so to slide
and slice breath
Unreachable, she says, left of the left margin. A moment suspended. As if it didn't apply, didn't invite to bite the apple. Garden caught as in amber by an extra gravitational force. A sphere with the beauty of curved surfaces that seem flat and endless. Though it may crack. Sprung reason, hinge or nail.
Even a bold garden, he says, is already wistful. Like the bisons of the cave paintings, the phallic African gods, the frescos found in Pompeii. As if we could step into an image of what we have lost. Tight fit of pine and apple trees in turf studded with a fine fickleness of morning glories. We're not eagles soaring above, leaving every leaf as it is, but at least we don't fear flying with the sparrows. And multitudes of insects. The explicit sun, or maybe inherent wear, occults our act, and we fall back into the old tale.
Time, she says, on all sides. Without shore. We drown if we set foot in, though we're bound to. As incurably as proton and neutron are bound to the dim world of the nucleus. And once we learn to breathe in the crash of water desire rushes in, takes hold of our smallest gesture as of a sail. But at the edge of the picture we fall. And are born. In all directions.
A common nucleus, he says, but different numbers of double-binds. The earth soaks up semen without drawing conclusions. A gloved finger says touch and touch me not. But who could live among ornaments wrought by abstinence? Who could be so thorough?
Don't you think it a strange coincidence, he says, that every man whose skull's been opened had a brain? And as late as 1889, Charles Brown-Sequard, a famous French physiologist, at the age of 72, treated himself for waning vigor with extracts from the testicles of dogs.
What a way to bed hope, she says. With a cherished pedigree. What I think strange: every photo of the old house shows wide open shutters when I remember breathing gloom, the light a mere trickle from a child's pail. Of course I know which one to inhabit: memory loves hunting in the dark. The added light only exacerbates the vertigo of inner stairwells. I see you still on the first step, plucking the word "now" out of the dark thick with resistance, as if time too had forbidden chambers.
Bursts the skull, he says, the strong force coupling gluons and quarks. Flings you. And you all interval, all excess aspiring to annihilation, slip of wings, a dragonfly so transparent, so impatient to be kicked out of paradise. But the curve slackens. The crow doesn't fly as the crow flies. And it's no longer unthinkable to put on pants and trace scars on a page.
Do you think there just might be a physiological explanation? she asks. But what happens in the brain if we always relate an object to a certain difficulty? The riddle solved, the dust is supposed to settle. But if the motes keep in motion, the house under water, shadows swimming through like undeveloped photos or the inconsolable dead? A space can have this color even though light ought to be the same to all observers. The frame of memory both distinct and not distinct from looking at photographs in order to remember.
Opens to the touch, he says, you have to feel it, and remains as much a stranger. Fields of sesame split wide. You ride, ribcage abird, toward disappearance, toward a preorganic, duty-free state of body. As if consciousness curved into minerals, and thought, at its peak, were only a shiver.
We are afraid of each other, she says. That's why we find a makeshift mistress, a third to be excluded. Then we think we have cleared the screen, can sit crosslegged inside language and practice passion according to the Russian novel. But something, a thin fear of sun-drown, remains between us, measuring the distance as if it were the essence of being close.
Like a color we don't see, but know is contained in the light? he asks. The force that couples or, if weak, revises identity and sex? Measuring distances in the mind refracts emptiness. As if we could touch the infinite when all we do is study our fingerprints on the lens. And the pain, exacerbated toward the red end of the spectrum till we're left to howl on a cosmic scale.
It matters more how something touches us, she says, manner more than magnitude. Even your body could bulk foreign into mine. A clinical glitch. Or the light on a clump of cottonwoods might feel like the giddier light over the Moshassuck when you know it flows miles away, or that you could take a walk inside your mind and find me there. The explanations double-lock the strangeness.
We lie in the dunes, she says, drowned between sheets to the wind. Green capped white, the surf's disguise of beginnings, depending on the length of curve observed. If I must have a god I'll take the matter between noun and verb. The nothing that defines, shapes next-to into phrase or cleanliness. Then again, the nothing between the teeth of a comb parts nothing but the nothing between hairs. So maybe I'd rather have an old woman sprawled barefoot through fields and space foam, pushing her breasts at any weed in the world as if the only true way to see were by touch.
An intelligence that comprehends the sperm, he says. Tubes, valves transporting cells toward strange attractors, riot canals through the blood, one-way excess. Once you miss one rung of the ladder you can't stop falling. The hole takes over the argument, pigeons the sky, and the clouds, so calm a moment ago, blush and swim wild with reproduction, albeit asexual.
A space between boundary and blur, she says, a nakedness beyond male and female, edge of the sea. The tongue surrounds the mouth, so that you answer questions I failed to ask or pass sentence that has not been pronounced. The way radiation bathes the entire universe in a feeble glow and thought chases after the receding galaxies at such speed there is no question of a center and the squeeze of gravity becomes mere alibi.
But no ducts to the marrow of the mind, he says, most private part, opaque like a trauma, no fixed address. No fieldglasses on the firings, the real event, swerve of light. The germ of your thought swimming too deep. Endlessly in ambush, attention dissipates into longing. I listen to my thirst and know incurable's the rule.