Essays


 

What I Did On My Summer Vacation


 

 

 

Come back now to your sober senses; recall your true self; awake from slumber, and recognize that they were only dreams that troubled you; and as you looked on them, so look now on what meets your eyes.

                                                Marcus Aurelius

 

 

Awoke in June shocked at not only the absence of any longing for spring but of the spring itself. There was not even a taste in my mouth, my fingers could not remember the velvet on the hickory buds. Embers underfoot, the whole impending landscape was so overpowering in February and then gone. Like being impatient for the train that will hit you. Leaved and green, the world seemed dreamy and lush prematurely.

 

Dismantled some sanctuary. Not my favorite thing. Had to move once more and this required the packing away of books. Also involved a focused separation of all the books into 1) the piles that could safely go away for a year and 2) the books that could not leave my presence. Made me wonder how I would be able to travel long distances anymore? I stared long and hard at the bookshelves before bringing them down. What books could I seal into the boxes on the mountain? So unreachable but really only ten miles away. The Bellow and Exley, Gay and Delaney, the Delillo must stay close. “Where I’m Calling From” can’t just be shut deeply into darkness. Mister Carver all gone to cancer but still speaking in my head, he must not be muffled. It is the least I can do. Conroy and Matthiessen—I cannot have them where I cannot walk straight in to see them on the shelf. I need the occasional reassurance, the nose inside the open binding, the fingering, the flutter—certainly, this may be an illness. Presently, I cannot sleep without John Baker on the bedside table.

 

“Of course,” they told him in all honesty, “you will be a slave.”

“But you will be happy.”

                                                Delany

 

Found a hawk on my lawn. A Cooper’s Hawk bent and tearing at what its young skills had downed. Beneath my birdbath it stripped and let flutter out onto the grass the unwanted featherings, the flight husk so to speak. Pulling up in front of my house, I thought the hawk was a cat for a moment. Drove around the house trying to look inconspicuous in my giant vehicle. Ran hunkered down inside to bring my daughter to the window. Through the blinds I saw a shadow slip away. Misspent caution, I had no words to tell her about the dark shoulders and the horn-blood-tip, the watchful lean to its kill, the shake of the head, the resting power. Outside, on the brown bark, I touched at the shell of the dead sparrow. Sparks of violence flying around us, I thought, like shooting stars in daylight.

 

 

Shade trees, a small waterfront of green and pink pastels. Soft air of sunrise. Birdsong and a bicycle bell. Sweet rot, tin roofs, bougainvillaea.

 

Cock crow.

 

Three walking figures and a dog.

                                    Matthiessen

 

I kept staring down spiders. I liked all those eyes looking back. Made me think of John Carter’s dog on Mars. I kept wanting for a pet Jumping Spider that weighs fifty pounds. On my stepstool, I examined another spider on the sheltered edge of my roof. She kept building and rebuilding her web over our garbage cans. Orb Weaver, she would not stop. Each week I was forced to tear away this fabulous circlet that she required to stay alive. With this spare and filamentous thing, she made her living from the wind—a respectable crafting. With effort, I was able to sneak my garbage in under the lid without shredding her work during the week. But on each Wednesday I repeatedly destroyed her house. Then homeless, she’d run back up to the edge of the roofing. And I’d imagine her quaking there with anger. Damn weekly interloper, ripper and tearer, trembler and shadowmaker, disrespector of windwork—this is what I was. If she could just nip one of my fingers or a toe with a fang, surely I would stagger and drop—a meal for all the spiders, fallen like a lummox into their waiting teeth. The spider hero dream. On Wednesday evenings, after she’d remade the web once again, I would toss her a few soft moths in the moonlight.

 

Melville, Salinger, Rilke—I turned to see them. Again reassured. Off my right shoulder when I sit and type, Rilke can stun at random. A book to drop and turn back to. Open and read. (What is up Rainier?) Put your finger here:

 

“Then what we separate by our very presence can come together. And only then, the whole cycle of transformation will arise, out of our own life-seasons.”

                                                                                                Rilke

 

Sometimes wondered what the terrorists were doing. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it would come into mind. CNN looping in my subconscious, I guess. Does CNN loop in the minds of normal people? The making of bombs, the secret science, young men folding charges of light under dusty clothing, driving to the places where people gather. We all do something like it, working so hard for our own disintegration. But it is not the same. Not so explosively. And for a God? I deny a God pleased just so. Hurricanes, yes, we are all impressed. It is the politics of world attention. The politics of long vengefulness—death to anyone walking by. Thinking of bombers, bombers thinking, me thinking of bomber’s thinking—I watched the shadows move across my ceiling. Pondering such violences before the days began, I was fixated for whole weeks on shrapnel and tripwires. And then the beheadings came. Light flashing over me at two and three in the morning, I could see the complexities of the muscles of the neck, the charts of sinew and nerve from long ago lectures. There was no word back then on the force it takes to sever a neck like it was just so much meat and bone. Swords, yes, but even more horrendous, more in the head and the eye of morning (and mourning), were the saws—they sawed off several heads somewhere out there in the Iraqi deserts. My neck tingled. The lights shifted and churned until dawn.

 

I will not deduce the strange paradox that the Mason-bee, though capable of finding her nest from the verge of the horizon, is incapable of finding it at a yard’s distance.

                                                Henri Fabre

 

 

 

Walked among wasps. And found they know nothing but what they do. This is something to strive for. They’ve achieved it. Knowing nothing except their detailed work and, well, my shadow. They turned to me when I stood among them. Count the number of insects in your memory that gave you direct attention. I registered as loom, as eclipse on the retinas of wasps. Like I was the unwanted God of wasps, the stomping and clumsy nuisance that might have created them. They turned and stared amidst their businesses, even though I tried hard to move my shadow so it didn’t blot out their day. I am a bad triangulator. We cast our shadows too often with indiscretion. Some, I didn’t scare. One wasp attempted to bear its caterpillar burden straight up my leg in order to advance its cause—my knee was to be the launching point. I moved and it turned towards my toe repeatedly. I’d move again. I realized eventually that I was the towering it sought, I was the fifty story highrise of denim and cotton. But I could not hold. It was the brave one. It was comparable to me stumbling upon a seven hundred foot behemoth and immediately deciding to climb up and launch myself from its head.

 

But the raven’s an ambiguous bird.

He forebodes death, and yet he fed

Elijah in the wilderness

and doing so fed all of us.

He knows his way around a desert

and a corpse, and these are useful skills.

                                    Hudgins

 

I was lifted by crows. Crows lifted me. Along the river, the shoulders of my soul were slipping and the sound of Fish Crows did something unexpected. A strand of sand and heat, golden flowers—inside this I found a lone mouse trying to make its way across the barren open. I did not know the where’s or why’s. Perhaps astounded by the river the wee mouse lost himself there briefly (the great expanse, the sea lane that kept him from the other side of the world, from possible paradise.) I’m not sure the mouse knew what happened to strand him on that sand. I’m not sure how aware mice are of the larger world. Even kings and carpenters lose touch sometimes. But vulnerable on the white beach, the mouse trekked toward me. I watched him work. And going, he flushed aside the tiger beetles that were hop scotching on the shore. I followed along. With my hand I made a guiding shade. I kept the hawks away until the little guy was home in the interstices of the cockleburs where mice belong.

 

 

I mourned a piece of the sun. Odd, I know. The sun burns off more than I can know every day. It’s what makes the summer live. But it was the little piece of the sun we collected that crashed in the desert that I mourned. We almost had it. I was waiting for it. It was to be latched down safely by some pilot with a flying hook in the sky after its parachute braked and carried it home. Chutes and switches failed, something went wrong and it came in like speed itself, like the greatest of wild pitches low and inside. I felt a personal loss for our little ice cream scooplet of the sun. I personally believe the failure had to do with its name: Genesis. We should, of course, have named it Icarus, somehow ironically guaranteeing its success. NASA may have balked however. Fools weeping. We must be brash.

 

Zen says, wherever you are is a monastery.

The afternoon says, life’s a loose knot in a short rope.

The afternoon says,

            Show me your hands, show me your feet.

The lives of the saints become our lives.

                                    Wright

 

Carted a copperhead in a butterfly net. Found her inside my storage building coiled near the door. Looked in her eye. She was so calm. And copper, so copper indeed. Took her down the mountain to the rocky creekside and slipped her into the leaves. A week later she was back. Made me jump again and laugh. Drove her several miles in the same butterfly net and tried again. Found her a leafy hillside home. She never came back. I kept looking for her inside the door anyway. I watched for her everywhere in the building and she did not come.

 

 

 

Frightened two deer. (Well, two that I know of. I likely frightened far more.) But the first was a spotted fawn surely no more than a week old. Still somewhat gangly legged; she emerged from the woods to the flowers of the roadcut I was standing inside. I dropped to a squat. And she kept coming. I could feel her mother’s presence inside the trees urging her child to more caution, urging her fawn’s immediate return. It was like an urgent gravitational force of motherhood. But the youngster kept coming. It bounded in the flowers because, of course, this is what you should do in flowers. It is the response we all lose somewhere along the line. See flowers: weave and leap and jump for joy. (Keep saying that.) This deerchild still had it—the unfettered frolic, amazement at the multicolored earth. I was a lump downwind. She came and came until I could see the rows of her individual eyelashes. She blinked. Then she stared at me and just as suddenly turned away. She flashed her floppy tail and vanished. The second deer was another youngster. I walked out into a wide opening where deer were feeding and the watchful mother snorted that nasal bleat of warning to all of us. It carries like a horn blast. The predator-who-was-not-a-predator stopped and looked. And the young deer did what she was supposed to do. She ran. Unfortunately she ran all the way down the hillside to stand right next to me (the deathdealer, retired). She flashed her ears, she stared. Again I was just a kneeling lumpenstone. Her mother watched horrified from above, deepspooning us with those massive ears, making a mental note to go over some sort of new complex nasal code—one snort is east, two snorts is south, a snort and a stomp is one hundred yards north…

 

When coyotes hunt, they come as a clean silence

Comes to a text. They come from beyond myths

Out of the tree line along the creek and pick

A lamb, a tender and easy word. Spoken once,

It won’t be changed, and the ewe balls all day.

                                    Jones

 

Watched a fox grow in stutters. Kit then pup then floppy-eared fox—met him kinescopically with each visit to the mountain. He bounded into bent flowers the first time. Barely bigger than the feral cats that stalk the shade for bird plunder. Foxes do not need mother to teach them to be afraid. He tripped over his own long legs. Stared back at me from the creek. Later looked at me from the privet line, ears alert like they were cocked for satellite data. Then in the end he was in the field, out in the open sunshine looking for mice and rabbits. I don’t know. But he ran back into the dark wood when he saw me. Disappeared in a lope. The age of one whole summer just burnishing his gray fox color with some cinnamon in the flank. Lovely dogs.

 

Peered at a doubled rainbow. Leaned and gawked. I’m no rainbow virgin, no novice. I have seen full rainbows, what twenty times? Maybe thirty? We forget. Or I forget. You may not. (“How many full moons rising?” Asks Paul.) How many indeed. Anyway, this was a double—a full double. Two arches overlapping with only a small bite out of the north end of the second arc. I have seen only two complete double rainbows in a long and watchful life. The sunset burned in oranges and pale pinks over toward the river. The sunset cast my shadow toward this rainbow it made. It was not raining where I stood. But east, it was misting and cloudy, it was lensing the spectra of someone else’s rain into this double tunnel of light. People came out of their houses. We all faced east like the aliens had arrived. Children pointed. Their mothers came out of their kitchens. Cars stopped. I noted that the colors of the dusky light tinged the lesser colors of the rainbow so that the rainbow itself was burnished with extra pastels. The rainbow was infused with a second layer of light. I did not move until the sun put the light show out when it vanished into the western trees.

 

Moses spoke with a stutter.

 

If you will send for a doctor, I will see him now.

Said Emily Bronte, an hour before her death.

                        Markson

 

Then today, wind blowing, the world all skyline and sky and grasses below sky, pelicans wheeled towards private winter ocean places where they have been before—this winter and the last. Flash of black and white that vanishes and reappears—the magic trick of pelicans going away like tornadic flack—the distant sky somehow always the color of pelicans edge on. I felt grounded—the symptom of all watchers of great-winged birds leaving, a universal sorrow. Summer had been sucked into broomsedge blowing, into Sesbania leaning towards sparrow feet. Song Sparrows came up to question me. They always question me. We both have doubts.

 

Was it really some other person I was so anxious to discover, when I did all of that looking, or was it only my own solitude?

                        Markson

 

The treeline flashed smaller southbound birds, little golden and gray goings. Late caterpillars died violent, unexpected deaths for the sake of fuel. Phoebe’s plied the cypress lane. That is one bird that knows how to stay. A Sedge Wren whispered and chafed in the lane outside the oaks. Where to stand? Where to look? I could see my books leaning in their new places on my shelf at home. And then the geese called. They stretched and stared inside my head. They cast their Ws and Vs over me. When will they learn to make some vowels? Alien Arabic letterings, geese are not of summer. They speak the gray languages of rice stubble and slanting rain. They will call down a frost on the windows. Things are surrounding me. But I am not of summer. Never have been. Children of summer have steadier hands than I do. But I find my way through anyway.

 

Stumbling and wary, usually quite mystified, I find my way through none-the-less, and then bang out sublimely on the other side.

 

 

 

        HR

 

Some to not do without.

 

The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, Samuel R. Delany

The Mason Bees, Henri Fabre

Far Tortuga, Peter Matthiessen

Reader’s Block, David Markson

Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

After the Lost War, Andrew Hudgins

The Duino Elegies, Ranier Maria Rilke

Transparent Gestures, Rodney Jones

Black Zodiac, Charles Wright

 

And go, everyone, to the used bookstores on the web or wherever and buy all the copies of John Baker’s "The Peregrine." And then read them and pass them on.