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.
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 9⁄11 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.
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.