Sung Muhheakunnuk

New York Journals 1982 – 2012

This is How We Dare to Sanctify 

5 March 2007. After a week with tem­per­a­tures in the balmy 20s and 30s, it looks like anoth­er cold snap is on the way. Or rather, that’s what I read. What I see look­ing direct­ly out my win­dow, past the weath­er­beat­en old porch extend­ing out over the water, is the unmov­ing white and gray skin of the Hud­son Riv­er, and the naked trees on the far shore sil­hou­et­ted against far­ther depths of for­est and the blue white of the west­ern sky: a view more or less iden­ti­cal to the one Her­man Melville would have seen in win­ter from the home a block south of me where he wrote Typee and Omoo. I have to look up and down the riv­er to see signs of lat­er cen­turies across the way, the late 20th to the south, in the uni­form lux­u­ry river­side apart­ment build­ings of Cohoes, the late 19th / ear­ly 20th to the north, in old run-down farm build­ings and a short pier of ranked logs or barrels.

Melville was a walk­er, so I can only imag­ine that in the sev­en years he lived in Lans­ing­burgh — years that fell imme­di­ate­ly before and imme­di­ate­ly after his years on the high seas — on his dai­ly con­sti­tu­tion­als along the banks of the Hud­son Riv­er he must have walked right through the space where I lay my head at night, right through the space where I sit dur­ing the day prepar­ing the text files of John Crowley’s Lit­tle, Big for pub­li­ca­tion, a thou­sand times or more. (The house where I live now and per­haps for a few sea­sons to come was built two or three decades after Melville left for the Berk­shire Hills.) Some­times I imag­ine I can hear his foot­steps on the path or in the grass below my head, or the brief excla­ma­tion punc­tu­at­ing his loss in thought, just as I’m falling asleep, just as I’m wak­ing up. It makes me smile, leaves me to dream and to act in a world a hair’s‑breadth rich­er than mere moments before.


From Out Dark Doors of Secret Earth 

28 April 2010. This after­noon in a used book­store in Troy I bought a copy of Philip K. Dick’s 1969 nov­el Galac­tic Pot-Heal­er and min­utes lat­er read its epi­graph for the first time in oh say 20 to 25 years.

Two hours lat­er, after I got home, skim­ming the home­stream on Face­book I read a post by Gre­go­ry Fee­ley in which he said he’d found “a great epi­graph for some novel”:

You call your­self a bone-set­ter — a nat­ur­al bone-set­ter, do ye? Go, bone-set the crooked world, and then come bone-set crooked me.

— Her­man Melville, The Con­fi­dence-Man

I live on the Hud­son Riv­er a block north of the house where Her­man Melville wrote his first two nov­els; for me that fact, tan­gen­tial as it may be, pro­vid­ed part of the frame for the day’s spare con­cate­na­tions, and may have tipped me to the train I soon fol­lowed. Feeley’s Melville quote (which was new to me) remind­ed me not only of Dick’s nov­el — “bone-set­ter” and “pot-heal­er” actu­al­ly ful­fill­ing sim­i­lar func­tions in their respec­tive con­texts — but of its epi­graph too.

And tru­ly I was afraid, I was most afraid,

But even so, hon­oured still more

That he should seek my hospitality

From out the dark door of the secret earth.

— D. H. Lawrence

Last year I dis­cov­ered that in the weeks before my moth­er was con­ceived in late March 1925, in Oax­a­ca her moth­er and father had devot­ed many hours over many days to nurs­ing D. H. Lawrence back to health; Lawrence’s bat­tle with malar­ia and tuber­cu­lo­sis had almost killed him. Giv­en the fact that sperm motil­i­ty is exceed­ing­ly del­i­cate and the slight­est vari­a­tion in antecedent events will inevitably lead to vari­ant path­ways at the crit­i­cal con­cep­tu­al moment, it is per­haps not unfair to say that one effect of my grand­par­ents’ encoun­ters with Lawrence was to alter both the tim­ing of the con­cep­tion and pre­cise genet­ic make-up of their next child. If Lawrence had not tak­en ill when and where he did, I wouldn’t be here writ­ing these words now: this is a liv­ing cer­tain­ty. Of course, if (to fur­ther ram­i­fy), years ear­li­er, the Red Baron had not shot down my grandfather’s Cana­di­an Air Force biplane behind ene­my lines dur­ing the Great War, again I wouldn’t be here to tell of it. And so on. Per­haps bone-set­ters and pot-heal­ers and dark doors in secret earth can some­times restore to us, how­ev­er briefly or whim­si­cal­ly, how­ev­er last­ing­ly and pro­found­ly, a sense of the utter­ly out­landish unlike­li­hood of our even being alive, let alone alive with heads hearts limbs con­tain­ing the pre­cise change­ful admix­ture of dream mem­o­ry inten­tion fab­u­la­tion sen­sa­tion impulse with which they just so hap­pen, in this of all pos­si­ble moments, now even very now, to be filled. Per­haps; just so.

The hours it took me to write this have car­ried me across midnight’s divide: Today is my par­ents’ 60th wed­ding anniver­sary. My moth­er has been bat­tling large cell lym­phoma since last fall; it wasn’t at all clear even three months ago that she’d live to see this day; but she has.


Dark­lit and Day 

14 March 2010. Steep moun­tain cov­ered in bar­ren trees, nar­row wind­ing road descend­ing pre­cip­i­tous­ly down sheer-walled ravine to sud­den lev­el­ing where an ancient Vic­to­ri­an dis­in­te­grates above scat­ters of shat­tered stone, steps and porch­es and base­ment win­dows half walled up as if those flee­ing tried first to keep what­ev­er was with­in peel­ing walls and warp­ing doors from get­ting out, and failed, or suc­ceed­ed only by absent­ing them­selves far, very far, and even now run and nev­er linger. Unhoused, I stand and con­sid­er, daylit and dark, search­ing eye­less upper windows.


Live Drag­ons

6 May 2004. I was sit­ting in a coach or cart or child’s wag­on, and either side and just for­ward of me two dog-sized drag­ons were pulling the cart. Oth­ers — peo­ple and ani­mals of var­i­ous sorts — loped and walked and ran along­side me. Birds flew behind and above and ahead, a winged nim­bus. I was both fas­ci­nat­ed and some­what repulsed by the drag­ons. I reached out my hand and felt the thick, horny scales of the drag­on on my left; it briefly turned its head and snort­ed hot breath before redi­rect­ing its gaze to the road ahead. The ride was fair­ly smooth for all that the drag­ons’ gait rocked side to side. An odor of must rose from their plates, more than of decay; the drag­ons were the col­or of desert sand. We arrived at my des­ti­na­tion, a many-roomed house with wings extend­ing hap­haz­ard­ly in many direc­tions, yet a house with­out out­er walls of any kind, a house whose out­er­most rooms sim­ply opened upon and fad­ed into the sur­round­ing jun­gle. My host was a burly man, a tall man — his fore­locks touched the sky — who greet­ed me and asked after my jour­ney. He had pro­vid­ed me with both my trans­porta­tion and my escort. I talked about the drag­ons, and asked some ques­tion about how much they eat or some­thing else about how they live, and my host threw his head back and laughed uproar­i­ous­ly. He explained that the drag­ons were quite dead and had been for some time, a time it would seem that extend­ed back into deep­est antiq­ui­ty. Only his sor­cery kept them locomoting.



Spring 1982. A fort­night hitch­hik­ing across Cana­da west to east brought me to New York State and thence to the City, where for a month I worked demo­li­tion for Kar­ma Con­struc­tion Com­pa­ny, the com­mer­cial arm of a Tibetan Bud­dhist orga­ni­za­tion to which I had been com­mend­ed by com­pos­er Pauline Oliv­eros. I was 22.

The folks at Kar­ma Con­struc­tion housed me free of charge in an emp­ty, as-yet-unrent­ed $2500 a month loft apart­ment in Tribeca, on Thomas Street. It filled the floor it was on (the fourth, I think), which I gath­ered was part of the def­i­n­i­tion of a “loft” apart­ment; it had beau­ti­ful hard­wood floors and 20-foot ceil­ings, the only fur­ni­ture a refrig­er­a­tor and a baby grand piano, and won­der­ful views of the Twin Tow­ers through the incred­i­bly tall liv­ing room win­dows: you could see them pok­ing up over the roofline across and down the street, only blocks away to the south­west, though I nev­er vis­it­ed them. The bed­room was like its own house inside the apart­ment, a walled, stained-glass-win­dowed island in the grand pre­vail­ing open­ness, with a low­er ceil­ing con­ducive to a more inti­mate space behind its ornate dou­ble doors. A lad­der at one end lead up to a loft space at the back of the bedroom’s roof, against the apartment’s long, unbro­ken wall, and that was where I was told to sleep, on a small mat­tress they loaned me, and to keep my stuff, so that dur­ing the day when I was at work they could show the apart­ment to prospec­tive renters with­out con­cern for overt signs of its occupancy.


A Bow­er in the Bowery 

June 1982. One day near the end of my month in the City my Bud­dhist over­seer pulled me off demo­li­tion. Pauline Oliv­eros was in town to join in prepa­ra­tions to receive the Kalu Rin­poche from Tibet; I was to join her on a dri­ve around Man­hat­tan run­ning errands, among them pick­ing up a spe­cial bed for the use of the 77-year-old lama dur­ing his visit.

As I walked around Pauline’s VW Bus to the pas­sen­ger side, I noticed, inscribed on the inner curv­ing rub­ber of each of her four Uniroy­al tires, the words “Om Mani Padme Hum.” Dri­ving through the City, the mantras spin round and round, like prayer wheels. Wait­ing for a light to change in the Bow­ery, an old drunk stag­gered up to the open driver’s side win­dow, demand­ing Pauline’s atten­tion. She was not the least bit shak­en. She talked to him as human being to human being, but as he became increas­ing­ly obnox­ious, shook him off, firm­ly but with­out con­tempt. He backed away, wag­ging a fin­ger at her. “I know who you are!” he called in a ruined voice. “You’re an Indi­an, aren’t you? An Indi­an! I know you!” And he stag­gered away. Pauline laughed, the light changed, and the bus rolled on, mantras spinning.


The Body of the World 

3 Decem­ber 2002. I walked south on Church Street with night com­ing on, in a freez­ing wind, and watched as Ground Zero drew near. Giant arc lights sur­round­ed the site, their unnat­ur­al bril­liance mak­ing the dark­ness above almost pal­pa­ble. Across the street, the last of the ven­dors sell­ing 911 memen­tos were pack­ing up their wares in front of the wrought iron fenc­ing around St. Paul’s Chapel, where thou­sands have placed their remem­brances and trib­utes, the flags and pic­tures and poems and flow­ers, the ban­ners of home­town teams and fire depart­ments and church groups, hun­dreds of thou­sands come from the Four Cor­ners to add archival lay­ers for the patient, dis­as­sem­bling hands of St. Paul’s holy curators.

Look­ing out over the World Trade Cen­ter site through the dia­mond-shaped cross-hatch­ing of the met­al view­ing wall along Church Street, I could not see the pit of Ground Zero for the con­struc­tion zone in the fore­ground. What took my eye were the three World Finan­cial Cen­ter tow­ers across West Street on the far side of Ground Zero: they were far away and yet seemed huge to me, though the tallest is only just over 50 sto­ries. But see­ing those tow­ers, I sud­den­ly could “see”, quite vivid­ly, not just the height that my Gar­den Steps would attain, but much more impor­tant­ly its hor­i­zon­tal and diag­o­nal immen­si­ty. I could see the Steps ris­ing from the edge of Lib­er­ty Street and climb­ing into the sky over Ground Zero, some­thing sol­id and huge and green­ly bril­liant with reflect­ed light. It was strange, but imag­in­ing the orig­i­nal tow­ers was much more dif­fi­cult, save their soar­ing. Yet the sense of a con­tin­u­ing pres­ence was unmis­tak­able. I remem­bered what my friend Lin­da Carter had said, who vis­it­ed Ground Zero for the first time in ear­ly Novem­ber: that she could feel a vast vibra­to­ry pres­ence fill­ing the sky, that she knew with calm cer­tain­ty that the peo­ple who had died were still there. Call­ing them ghosts wasn’t quite accu­rate, she said; it was more a col­lec­tive pres­ence fill­ing the upper air, silent­ly singing.


All Hori­zons Fast Approaching 

13 Jan­u­ary 2009. The blood flow­ing through our veins has flowed through ten thou­sand fore­moth­ers to reach us, and that riv­er stretch­es back beyond any mito­chon­dr­i­al Eve, pass­es beyond the species bar­ri­er and into the deep past and even­tu­al­ly wends its way to the very pri­mor­dial soup where the first sin­gle-celled crit­ters quiv­ered into being. So I love how send­ing a woman first to Mars turns the old Adam and Eve myth on its ear and reaf­firms the wom­an­ly con­duit of being, myth­i­cal­ly, rit­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly, biologically.


Never’s Yon

18 Feb­ru­ary 2011. A friend inter­rupt­ed my labors and took me off through city streets to a book­store: the entry­way was a glass-walled cubi­cle, into which one descend­ed by any of three nar­row, steep met­al stairs. As I descend­ed the cen­tral set (the oth­er two at right angles to it), just inside the store before me was a short woman or girl with a friend or guardian: the girl raised one hand in a ges­ture that lev­i­tat­ed a small object, which rose into the air and hov­ered there, a bauble or jew­el or sil­very device. I paused briefly before this qui­et spec­ta­cle, and then, along with my friend and oth­ers enter­ing, walked around her and her guardian and into the store beyond.

In one room a table full of books was framed on three sides by book­cas­es, an arrange­ment often seen in con­ven­tion deal­ers’ rooms, and I imme­di­ate­ly spied, on the top shelf of the far wing, a line of books by Samuel R. Delany. I point­ed them out to my friend, and was about to move on when I real­ized that one of the items was not what I had at first thought it to be. With grow­ing excite­ment I pulled the wide slip­case down from the shelf and dis­cov­ered that it housed a five-vol­ume crit­i­cal study of Delany’s four-vol­ume fan­ta­sy series Return to Nevèrÿon. The first, sec­ond, and fifth vol­umes were tall, wide hard­cov­ers cov­ered in vinyl instead of cloth or paper — rem­i­nis­cent of the Ency­clo­pe­dia Project’s sec­ond vol­ume, though not as wide. The third and fourth vol­umes were small trade paper­backs, about the trim size and thick­ness of an Oxford Very Short Intro­duc­tion. Exclaim­ing excit­ed­ly over these books, I removed the first vol­ume: the title was appro­pri­ate­ly con­vo­lute, and I not­ed with aston­ish­ment that the copy­right year giv­en inside was 1975 — four years before the pub­li­ca­tion of Tales of Nevèrÿon, the cycle’s first vol­ume. It seemed the study’s authors had com­menced the crit­i­cal project in advance of the exis­tence of the object of study, which seemed whol­ly appro­pri­ate to me. In the event, when I began flip­ping through that first book, I dis­cov­ered that it was a high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed ver­sion of a “flip art” book, with both pages of each spread cov­ered with minute­ly col­ored, fine­ly detailed art, so that track­ing all the rec­tos as you flipped through pro­duced one set of mov­ing images, and track­ing all the ver­sos pro­duced anoth­er. And indeed it worked equal­ly well in both direc­tions, regard­less of whether the book was upside down or right­side up — the art was sym­met­ric, or intel­li­gi­bly asym­met­ric, in all direc­tions. Com­plex land­scapes flo­resced and deflo­resced, meta­mor­phosed from desert into jun­gle into ocean and back again, cities grew and fell, the chaos of pure imagery rar­efied into the arid march of sym­bols and alpha­bets, texts slow­ly cohered from inco­her­ence and sub­sided back into it, and, from anoth­er angle, essayed the same progress in the inverse: here, not here, here again.


Last Night I Dreamt in Photographs 

4 Sep­tem­ber 2012. Last night I dreamt in pho­tographs. One of them was of the wide tall pic­ture win­dow in the liv­ing room, look­ing out over the Hud­son Riv­er: just inside, under the window’s upper frame, fac­ing one anoth­er in mid-air, wings ablur, sil­hou­et­ted against bright day beyond, two hum­ming­birds hov­ered, poised as if about to drink nec­tar each from the other’s nec­tar-seek­ing beak, as if from impos­si­bly long, del­i­cate, bifur­cat­ed flowers.


In Their Song Are Days to Come 

5 Novem­ber 2008. I am tem­porar­i­ly res­i­dent in the City that has vot­ed for Barack Oba­ma by a wider mar­gin than any oth­er city in Amer­i­ca — with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of Chica­go. Tonight it was a joy to wan­der among the grow­ing crowds in Times Square as the first results came in from CNN on giant screens there; to nego­ti­ate the well-dressed press at the New York State Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty bash at the Sher­a­ton on Sev­enth Avenue and 53rd Street. But when Oba­ma broke the 200-elec­toral-vote bar­ri­er, I knew it was time to head for Harlem.

On the ride over, those of us on the sub­way car head­ing for Harlem found one anoth­er and the vibe of com­mu­ni­ty just grew stronger as we got off and walked out and down the long avenues, our many rivulets join­ing into streams join­ing into rivers. In the plaza out­side the Adam Clay­ton Pow­ell State Office Build­ing where Bill Clin­ton minds his post-pres­i­den­cy, at 125th Street and Sev­enth Avenue (bet­ter known there as the cor­ner of Mar­tin Luther King and Adam Clay­ton Pow­ell Boule­vards), anoth­er two-sto­ry tele­vi­sion screen had been put up, and a stage, and the place was so jammed it was almost impos­si­ble to move, and the crowd’s grow­ing over­flow was run­ning ten deep along MLK’s far bank. The crowds were so packed that for the first few min­utes I thought I may have made a mis­take to leave Times Square, where the crowds though big­ger had more room to spread out and more screens and bet­ter view­ing angles — but that notion soon vanished.

As Barack’s count moved clos­er to the mag­ic num­ber the joy in the crowd just grew. Every race and eth­nic­i­ty under the sun could be found there, in good­ly num­bers and every shade and shape and phys, it was a rain­bow of human­i­ty and it felt like a rain­bow too, so many hap­py strangers new­ly mint­ed broth­ers and sis­ters — an awe­some feel­ing, an awe­some expe­ri­ence to see that fel­low feel­ing over­flow when the screen lit up and held on the words “Barack Oba­ma Elect­ed 44th Pres­i­dent.” There was a long beat before we react­ed, as if every­one had to read it twice, and then the cry went up, and from that moment it seemed all the rest of Harlem that hadn’t yet arrived at that inter­sec­tion began hoof­ing it there at that moment, all traf­fic was divert­ed as the peo­ple took joy­ful­ly to the streets, the cops were great, they went with it, they ced­ed the ground and facil­i­tat­ed the redi­rec­tion of traf­fic away, traf­fic honk­ing like crazy every­where. A brass band pressed through the peo­ple, trum­pets singing “O‑ba-ma,” lead­ing chants. Bands of drum­mers were every­where. CNN and MSNBC with their talk­ing heads and long views of the huge crowd at Chicago’s Grant Park await­ing Oba­ma alter­nat­ed with feeds from our own stage, as the great­est black politi­cians of New York’s recent past and present came out to talk to us, Charles Rangel and David Dink­ins and sev­er­al African-Amer­i­can mem­bers of the state assem­bly and sen­ate, rap stars and Bap­tist min­is­ters, a Moslem cler­ic and a rab­bi, and final­ly New York Gov­er­nor David Pater­son, who spoke elo­quent­ly about how African peo­ples that had first come to this con­ti­nent as chat­tel had now cen­turies lat­er pro­duced a man who had just been elect­ed pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States, that a long-lin­ger­ing wound was final­ly start­ing to heal; Pater­son said it was only a mat­ter of time before the first woman was elect­ed pres­i­dent, the first His­pan­ic, the first Asian-Amer­i­can. And just as he fin­ished, on the big screen Barack Oba­ma and his fam­i­ly came out, and the roar we let was of such delight and relief and col­lec­tive affir­ma­tion, affir­ma­tion of Oba­ma but even more of one anoth­er, that very sense was most pal­pa­ble of all, you could see it and hear it in every face — we had done this thing togeth­er, and that was the foun­da­tion of mean­ing that would inflect any­thing and every­thing that Oba­ma does from now on. Lis­ten­ing to Barack deliv­er a speech that bore no whiff of tri­umphal­ism or self-con­grat­u­la­tion but was hum­ble and thank­ful and calm­ly seri­ous and full of elo­quent reminders that the need for our col­lec­tive work had not end­ed but only begun — was to cry (for me and for oth­ers) and to shout and to lis­ten, with full hearts. The inspi­ra­tion is ours — every­thing cru­cial to what we can cre­ate togeth­er is ours, and Obama’s poten­tial as a leader lies whol­ly in his abil­i­ty to bring that out in us, some­thing already innate­ly in us, bring it out not for him but for us, for all of us, for the good we can make togeth­er, which is some­thing we have long and often lost sight of. Let us find it again, in the mak­ing, in our uncom­mon com­mon effort.

After­wards the huge crowd streamed down the mid­dle of Harlem’s Mar­tin Luther King Boule­vard, block after block of it, laugh­ing and hug­ging and high-fiv­ing and shout­ing and beam­ing, so many glo­ri­ous love­ly human smiles, upturned and lit. And down in the sub­ways, cheer­ing at the pass­ing trains, train con­duc­tors honk­ing with us, and slow­ly the great human riv­er breaks into streams which split into rivulets, and here now in the wee hours of a restored Amer­i­ca, in the soli­tary trib­u­tary of liv­ing blood puls­ing through me ten thou­sand fore­moth­ers sing, I hear them once again: ten thou­sand fore­moth­ers sing. And in their song are days to come, the myr­i­ad ways we mod­u­late with dawn, the myr­i­ad ways dawn mod­u­lates in us: belong, they sing: be long.

Ron Drummond’s trib­ute to Ursu­la K. Le Guin, “On the reach of her words”, is due out soon in The New York Review of Sci­ence Fic­tion. Recent pub­li­ca­tions include the entries on Men­stru­a­tion, Moth­er, Nevèrÿon, Pauline Oliv­eros, and Joan­na Russ in the mixed-genre fem­i­nist Ency­clo­pe­dia Vol­ume 3 L‑Z; a short sto­ry, “Planck’s Plero­ma”, in Eleven Eleven 19; CD book­let notes for two World Pre­miere record­ings of string quar­tets by the Czech com­pos­er Anton Reicha (1770−1836); and an extend­ed thought exper­i­ment about the future of our species, “The First Woman on Mars”, in White Fun­gus 13 (see him read from it on Vimeo). Drum­mond has edit­ed four­teen of Samuel R. Delany’s books, pub­lished two, and pack­aged one for Wes­leyan Uni­ver­si­ty Press; he has also edit­ed six of John Crowley’s books, pub­lished Antiq­ui­ties: Sev­en Sto­ries (1993), and is near­ing com­ple­tion of a new archival edi­tion of Lit­tle, Big.