Saturday, March 22, 2014

Weasel's Ninth

19 March 2014

They say a cat has nine lives. Weasel, our Tonkinese, spent the last of hers today. Ill for a while and deteriorating rapidly and irreversibly, she visited the vet one final time; we put her down.
We brought her into our home some sixteen years ago along with her litter mate, a twin sister whom, for reasons still a mystery to me, we named Wombat. For fourteen of those years, the two were inseparable, eating daily side by side, their postures nearly identical, their every movement almost synchronous, almost in unison. At night they slept together on the couch, curled spine to spine into opposing commas, mirror images one of the other.
Close as they were, their personalities were yet distinct. Weasel was the very definition of a lap cat, a plump, contented organism conceived entirely as an insatiable purring receptacle for belly rubs and chin scratches in whatever evolutionary workshop bears responsibility for nature's smaller miracles. Convinced of her superior intelligence her sister Wombat was more independent, more aloof, more inquisitive, more adventurous.
We kept them as rigorously as possible as house cats, sequestered from the dangers of the world beyond the door. Still, we could not wholly keep from them the awareness that there was an "out there" prohibited them. They watched birds in the backyard through the kitchen window, the neighbors through the side window, the daily life of the street --- traffic, walkers, dogs, the mailman, other cats --- through the front. Her curiosity thus irresistibly piqued, Wombat would not be deterred; she positioned herself stealthily near the door whenever we approached it, poised for opportunity.
In the end we were forced to compromise. We allowed her out onto the back patio, free to explore within the confines of her own yard, always and only with at least one of us out there with her, attentive and supervisory. Any attempt on her part to broach the  boundaries set her merited swift and certain transport back into the house. Weasel, determined against any unjust distribution of privilege, insisted on participating as well in these monitored forays into the open air, but, in keeping with her mellowed temperament, contented  herself with napping in the sun on the back steps or on the warm patio stone, never more than a few feet from her minder.
I am uncertain how deeply and how fully one can enter the mind of a cat but on the evidence of observation only it is clear that one can doubt neither their memory nor their perseverance. One day Wombat's long and patient indoor vigils paid off. The circumstances of the escape are unknown: perhaps a door not fully latched blown open just enough by the wind, perhaps an unseen dash behind one's back while bringing in the mail. For just that second, the wider world, unmonitored, beckoned, and she rushed out into it.
And never returned.
We stuffed mailboxes with flyers, walked the street and neighboring blocks, searched garages and under porches, all to no avail. For the first few days, perhaps a week, we comforted ourselves over coffee in the morning with the thought --- the frail hope really --- that, lovely as she was, someone had taken her in, that she was the delight of some new household, warm and well fed and awaiting just one more open door before she would return home. In our hearts we knew otherwise, knew that there had been some unhappy accident --- a passing car, an aggressive dog, something --- and that she was gone for good. Certainly we grieved, but for us, in time, the memory of loss lessened, the grieving abated.
Not so for Weasel.
Her daily routine changed. She now began each morning sitting before the patio door, awaiting exit. In the good weather we would let her out and watch her through the kitchen window. She would position herself on the top step and mewl plaintively for a good many minutes, a sound we had never before heard from her, part inquiry, part moan: Rachel crying for her lost children. In inclement weather she would say this mournful matins inside on the rug in front of the door. Only when she had completed this melancholy ritual would she deign to eat her breakfast. She grieved ceaselessly in this manner for the next two years.
In the end I believe that it was this grief as much as her failing liver that did her in, that, unable to sustain any longer the weight of her loss, the inefficacy of her daily plea, she determined once and for all to find her sister by the last means yet available to her and that this determination and the mechanisms of her failing health were inextricably bound one to another, were in some sense the very same thing.
The worst of it took about eight days. We medicated her as prescribed, hopeful for some sign of a turnaround, some hint of returning appetite. There was none. Unable or unwilling to eat, she subsisted, barely, on the fat of her own liver. She weakened daily: her voice diminished, her eyes dulled, her gait faltered.
I stayed with her to the end. She deserved no less from me. In the privacy of the vet's examining room, she lay prone on the table, feeble, now distanced but loving yet, bonded yet. I scratched her chin for the final time, rested my hand on her side, felt her shallowing breath. And still she purred, faint but responsive as always to my touch. After the first sedating injection I felt for the few remaining moments her quieting heartbeat, her breathing sliding into sleep, almost restful, almost resigned, almost at last peaceful. Then the final, euthanizing injection and she was gone. I restrained the sobs somewhat. I could not contain the tears.
I am neither naive nor ignorant nor even unduly sentimental. My soul has been appropriately hardened by life and by my experience of it. I know that the world is full of pain. The loss of a child, the death of a spouse or a life partner, the hunger of the world's ignored, the despair of the world's poor: perhaps these and these alone merit the heart's true pain, and my conscience therefore, mindful of just proportion, prohibits the use of that word. But the soul is capable of other deep bonds. I have missed her sister. I will miss her. And my soul acknowledges and my conscience permits a profoundly deep and profoundly abiding sadness.
        It will be so for some time.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Random Thoughts III


Psychologically, being elected to govern in America is very much like being commissioned to teach a common language at the University of Babel. E Pluribus Unum. We've got the "Pluribus" part down pat (no one can say that Americans don't understand diversity); it's the "Unum" we seem to be having trouble with.
We would do well frequently to recall that the world is at best a hypothetical place.
I believe I understand at last the liberties that poetry takes with language, which is only somewhat less than the liberties that life takes with men.
As in all ages, it is not unusual for a modern man to think strange thoughts. I am not here speaking of disturbed thoughts, pathological thoughts, sick thoughts (common though these too may be) but simply of strange thoughts, thoughts without apparent motivation or direction, the endlessly ambling thoughts with which the mind amuses itself when it tires of maintaining the fiction of reality. The man who thinks strange thoughts has always existed. He is one of the archetypal characters and has moved across the world stage from the beginning, although to others he has generally revealed only his shadow selves, the madman and the eccentric, the genius and the fanatic. His peculiar difficulty lies in the fact that whereas God's thought is cohesive, unitary, harmonic, it exhibits these characteristics only in its totality, that is, only in the mind of God. We fragmentary creatures, unable to contain even a single syllogism of the divine reasoning, must content ourselves with spending our lives in some comfortable corner of that divine thought, living some simple, routine calculation, some minute syllable of the divine speculation. The man who thinks strange thoughts is not blessed with such a grace; swept up in a broader surge of divine intelligence, engulfed by the inconceivability of an entire divine sentence, he spends his life in an attempt to shake off the effects of this mental rush, to clear his reasoning. He is much like a man trapped inside a bell of infinite size and resonance that has just rung soundly...twice.

Work, like all the other curses of the flesh, has its origin with the unfortunate incident in Eden. Immediately subsequent to that primal indiscretion (the source of all our fears, all our poems) man first felt the full consequences of his corporeality, consequences up to that point hidden from his understanding by the same salutary myopia that kept him from any intuition of shame at his nakedness. "By the sweat of your brow." So ran the divine imprecation, and at that moment were born both labor and history.

Before I suffered from this flesh,
laboring these penitential muscles,
I strove in absent time,
convinced of grandeur as eagles are
or fish that break the bottom of
black waters with iridescent fire.

If we have descended into nightmare, slipped through the fine mesh of our better dreams into a wilderness of abstractions, lost touch with the concrete, declined belief in the possibility of the real outside the confines of our cranial cavity --- that witch's cauldron, archetype both of the miracle of creation and of the perils of sorcery --- then we have done so out of the suspect grace of an impassioned logic. Artist suffering from a scholastic vice, a lust to know the answer, we have conceded our original privilege, that of creating the facts. In consequence of which we have suffered the most subtle and multiple of deaths. Nor will it suffice to whimper and bemoan our fate. We have placed the judgment upon ourselves, we have abdicated reality to science of our own blind will, a stupidity that demands an equally bold prayer of penance: let us humbly petition, therefore, that we be allowed somehow to assist the great angel with the little book who, bridging the gap between the sea and the earth, will swear the oath that is the abolition of time. Having fumbled away Eden, let us aspire to a finer, a purer, apocalypse.

One of the devil's attributes that we often overlook is that he is as superb a mythologist as he is a metaphysician, equally adept at story or syllogism, that is, a master psychologist. Hence the peculiar quality of the age, its indistinct and nebulous quality, its uncertain psychological atmosphere, its dense, unsettled atmosphere. The new war is a psychological war, a war of nerves, low-keyed and alluring, a hypnotic war, a war of images, an imaginary war.

It is not sufficient to construct intricate paragraphs, models of precision and economy achieved by considered marshalling and deployment of subtle grammatical endowments. Somewhere one must accomplish a link between language and life, two concepts which, though inherently synonymous, are nonetheless so difficult to combine in practice. The thing is never what we say it is (it Kant be), yet we have no approach to it other than language of some sort.

Random Thoughts II


To write because you are convinced that you are correct is to be a polemicist; to write because you are convinced that you are alive is to be an artist. It is not always a matter of choice, but when it is the second is always the preferable of the two alternatives.

To be cut off from history is a damnation, a curse. "Those who do not read history are condemned to repeat it." In the individual or in the nation the attempt to radicalize existence at a single stroke, to make a clean break with the past, to distort history, to rewrite it or to dismiss it, is at once doomed and pathologic. It is a law of our mortality, as inexorable of our spirits as are the laws of physics of our flesh: severed from our antecedents, we are severed from ourselves. If we cannot reclaim our actual past how can we assert even the barest approximation of a certainty to which we might cling in the face of the violent doubts of our present? Action and uncertainty are at root antithetical. Having grown skeptical as an article of faith, cautious as an expression of imprudent skepticism, timorous as a consequence of too rigorous a caution, we condemn ourselves to eternal inaction, hell's passive aspect. We tangle our speech in our qualifications, create a chaos of conditionals. Thus, in our age every voice is a voice crying in the wilderness, every proposition a proposition hurled into the general din. We have deafened ourselves and in our deafness have created a true democracy of comment.

The ultimate function of education is  spiritual. It is the task, the duty, of education to dismay the temporal. The world, however, labors under the delusion that the function of education lies in extending our conquest of matter. A Promethean error.

"My intentions," she said, loosening the button at her throat, "should be perfectly ovulous."

If I could believe, really believe, in our mere physicality, I could survive this age. If I could believe, really believe, that these several certainties that hound me are prejudices merely, superstitions educated into me, it is possible that I could come to easy terms with myself.

To have a child raises the complexity of one's fate to the level of a quadratic equation, cubes the unknown factor in the subtle formulations that one's energies are directed toward balancing; it represents the shift from the Newtonian to the Einsteinian universe, projected, of course,  onto  the  prosaic  realities of looking for a house with a third bedroom, scouring the papers for a good buy on a used crib, sleeping with a once-flat-bellied woman now grown incomprehensibly round and in constant uncomplaining discomfort, looking in polite bewilderment at the shower gifts. Such things shake one. That particular morning arrives: one awakes as usual, except that this morning that last delicious fragment of the early morning dream which up to now had never --- repeat, never ---  dissolved  until  very  late  in the afternoon (and even then with still the slightest fragrant residue remaining to imperceptibly cloud the rest of the day's shocks and insanities until the precious moment when the day's end and the day's beginning come full circle) that last delicious fragment is on this morning immediately and completely gone and one recognizes one's position at the leading edge of the hurricane. It is an indication of God's infinite mercy that courage at such moments is no longer a matter of choice, that it becomes rather an instinctually guaranteed response.

The virtues peculiar to sleeplessness constitute a formidable repertory of counterclaims to the more common lacerations of the diurnal brain. Not discounting the value that accrues for thought from persistent application to the specters that surround us in our waking hours, we are compelled in all honesty to reserve a higher  value  for  the  phantasmagoria --- ghosts  of  a vanished metaphysics, spirits of an undreamable future --- that  belong in their  exclusive  solitariness  exclusively to sleeplessness: all lucidity is a form of insomnia.

I cannot name the exact date and time at which I began to seek the sources of my sanity, but I suppose that it was sometime after I reached my twenty-third birthday. Up to that point I had been too busy pursuing the female of the species to devote myself or my energies to larger issues. Somewhere in my unconscious, of course, lurked the suspicion that the world was mad (in my youth I had read Arnold and Eliot avidly) but that its madness would ever become a matter of great personal concern did not occur to me. I comfort myself by reflecting that in this I am not unique.

Less advanced cultures, by virtue of their burdensome retardation, are spared our particular problems. In a primitive society, life moves in a more natural round. Survival is the single law, and under its iron heel those lacerations of the soul that are the luxuries of civilization are ground out. Advanced civilizations are self-conscious civilizations. This is not to imply that the level of consciousness is generally any higher in such civilizations than in those less advanced, for in truth it often is not. For most beneficiaries of civilization, life retains its essentially dreamlike character; lucidity is not highly prized, and hence lucidity is rarely achieved. The vast majority of our pursuits, collective and individual, are vain, a chasing after wind. Who today will say that the purpose of his life, its driving force, is an irresistible desire to experience the beatific vision?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Few More Verses From An Earlier Life

     Fragment of a Vision

The world begins
its long awaited transcendental
Images break
the bounds of meditation and
form the present flesh,
bent on bending time.
(Ashes to ashes, slime to slime.)

The common Beast assumes
his new identity, resumes
his lust beneath the inconspicuous
majority and perjures faith.
Though the Spirit be offended,
to such calamities our futures are
appended, which gives us pause who
paused for little else, indentured
servants of a vulgar age.
(Anger to anger, rage to rage.)

Erotic Revelation

I have seen
the lightning of the candle
in the wineglass,
the lovers' storm,
one endless variation of
the One endless dance,
a dual flame doubly agitated
and the beatific anguish
in the lightning of the candle
in the wineglass:
God's secret and the
spine's ascendant arch.


In being the world
the world
(despite my protests) persists.
Confronted thus I'm moved to reconsider:
I grant it its enchantments...
demanding mine
the rest I will to time.


Those things which are most secret and most holy
are always hidden in plain sight,
since what's most obvious is nearest to invisible.
The truth is always hidden in the truth,
needing no cloak but the truth to shield it
from lascivious eyes.
The words of greatest power are always
spoken in the plainest tongue,
needing no leathered rubric to defend
them from unworthy ears:
a clear voice has few hearers
and all a pundit's vain expostulations
bring our sense no nearer to what our
Sense already knows.

   Advice to the Next Creators

Make the new world out of other stuff ---
some other material,
(almost anything might do):
out of what you would have done
if only you had known,
or else of youth turned inside out
(so the foolishness is hid).

For my part, though, I would say
forgetfulness is best, pliable and
light, responsive to the heart.
Yes, make it of forgetfulness,
and work it with your highest art,
until it seems again as it did then...
when there was nothing to forget.

          Psychological Reflection

In the midnight hours in the psychiatric ward
among the lesser madness searching out a phrase,
some petty exorcism to still the daylight demons
who will greet me in the morning
when I leave for home,
I often wonder at the cunning
of these incarcerated sick,
consider if they might have stumbled on
the trick that I have often sought but missed.
What have they lost but sentience of a world
the very sense of which is suspect,
this nightmare mercantile
balanced on a balance of ballistics
that grinds the loins of lovers
bones of poets
into columns of statistics
proud with economic growth?

I know of other souls judged whole
to monasteries fled on lesser intuitions,
supernal trappists rapt in cloistered thought,
cinctured with their sworn renunciations,
hooded in their secret brown devotions.

So I pause among my midnight doubts
to barb our common therapeutic notions:
before we cure these mad ones
and return them to the social fold
we ought to know if madness represents
their strangled version of a vow,
private, final, bold.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Lovesong


Roger is examining me as though I were one of his botanical rarities. He taps his pipe on the bench, committing a shower of sparks to the wind. He looks at me with deep professorial concern, turning over each of my oddly shaped leaves. "Just what are you looking for?" he says.
"Me? Oh, I don't know. A course in post-apocalyptic living maybe."
He laughs. "You mean you're expecting the apocalypse?"
I laugh. "You mean you missed it?"
My breath steams in the air, condenses into clouds, blows away, dissipates some yards distant, disappears with the cold and the wind and time and thin layers of memory, the flimsy remembrance of yesterday, steaming in the air, condensing into clouds, blowing away, dissipating.

Time parodies the parody of first romance.
I was in the library the first time that I saw her, gliding among the narrow stacks like a leaf on water. I was young and I was in love with her immediately, it was as simple as that. I had a copy of Marcel's Metaphysical Journal in my hand and I dropped it. She bent down to pick it up, bent like a sapling in the wind, and handed it back to me, smiling. "It's a pity you don't read French." she said. "It's really much lovelier in French." I was lost and I knew it. I inhaled her as she passed.
We walked in the cemetery at night. It was dark and quiet and from the hill you could see the lights of the city and it didn't seem at all like the dull midwestem place that it was. She sat on top of Ernst Petersen and I sat on top of Lulu Mae Silverman. I was grateful to them for being there. I was crazy and I knew it and I didn't care. I knew that it was a scene out of a movie or a book and that we were playing it, but playing it didn't make it any less real or wonderful, just bearable. I had forgotten everything else I had ever known and I realized that it was wrong and dangerous to do so and that it would not be bearable at all if not for the scene and the playing at it, so I did not let myself think of other things.

We were in the snack bar. I had a coffee, she a hot chocolate. It was winter and the ice carelessly frosted the big windows that look out on the tennis courts. "They look so sad without their nets," she said. I was wearing my best intellectual feathers, fanning precise and colorful sentences. I was talking about Albee and about the Renaissance and about Arnold and Eliot and history and cultural decline and cycles and Toynbee, and she was smiling and looking out the frosted windows across a vast space at the tennis courts which were without their nets.
She was a Sagittarius. That was one of the petty facts I liked to collect about her. She wanted to go to Africa and learn Afrikaans. She liked roses, tolerated carnations, loathed daisies. When I asked her what kind of animal she would be if she could choose any one she answered quickly, "A horse, a race horse." Then she added with a difficult smile, "A stallion." When I first met her, she wore her hair long; later she cut it. The first time we loved she pouted because of her small breasts; she cried and said she had disappointed me and would not be consoled.
She wanted to be a dancer. "I was going to be a teacher," she said. "My parents wanted me to be a teacher. I went through a year of it, but it was no good for me. I couldn't wear that kind of person." She danced marvelously. Sometimes we would walk in the park in the afternoon and she would break away from me and dance in the grass to her private music and the air would make way for her. It was wonderful and I did not believe that I could be so lucky. I told her that she should find a better school, one for dancers.
"No, that wouldn't do," she said, "that wouldn't do. It would mean leaving you, and we don't have that much time anyway, maybe this year at most. C'est triste, mon cher, triste, love in autumn. No, I won't leave yet. And I won't be a dancer either. Everyone wants to be an artist, you know, but we can't all be." She said it Albee for my sake and smiled at the small joke. Her eyes hinted rain and it worried me, but when I asked her what she meant, why she wouldn't be a dancer, she only repeated, "C'est triste, c'est triste, le bonheur."
She was tying my soul in knots and I knew it and was defenseless against it. "It's only to arm you," she said, "to arm you for what comes later." She was disappointed because I could not dance, but she said that we were even now for the first time that we loved and for my disappointment then. I wanted to protest that she had not at all disappointed me, but she would not listen, she waved my words away. "Maybe next time we meet I could teach you to dance," she said. "Maybe next time my breasts will be larger. Anything can happen you know."
It is not true that she was silly, flippant, childish, naive. I did not understand that then, I only knew that later. I thought I knew a great deal about women, but it was all from novels or movies and I treated her like a man, I expected her to think like a man and when she did not I thought it was all Cinderella fantasy or other nonsense. I did not know then what I know now, that when a woman is in love what is real in her is not in this world and what is in this world often looks and sounds silly to a man, who cannot leave this world until he is ready, whether he is in love or not. I did not know that then but I have lived with it and thought about it for a long time and now I think that it is some kind of law, some necessity of this world and the way people are in this world. Someday the psychiatrists and the psychologists will discover that law and they will pick it apart and find a way to say it precisely and scientifically and they will kill it without knowing it and those of us who discovered it earlier on our own will be quite lucky to have done so and some of us will come to believe in God and in divine providence because of it.

We were walking in the stream, our shoes off, our pants legs rolled up. The water was unhurried and warm, the stones in the stream bed smooth and slippery with moss. We walked out to the large flat rock in the middle of the stream and climbed up on it and lay back in the sun. We put our forearms over our eyes to shield them and lay there holding hands, and suddenly I knew that she was gone. I turned and looked at her and she looked at me and we both knew it. We lay back and slept for an hour and then slipped back into the stream and walked back to where I had left the car. We walked back in the warm unhurried water and did not say anything.

Sometimes she comes at night. I do not know if it is my imagination or some odd species of dream. She is light and gay and dances and says that she is happy to see me and to be away from the cooking and the dishes and her little boy and her little girl. She chides me for brooding so much and for not working on my book. She says that she is angry with me because it was on account of the book that she could not be a dancer and I say that I know, that I figured that out, and that is why I cannot yet write it. She thanks me for the letter that I wrote and did not mail and says that she received it anyway. She tells me that her husband is a good man and that she loves him and that he makes her happy and that the children are wonderful. She tells me that I think of her too much and that I do not pay enough attention to my own wife, which would seem very stupid to me if I truly knew what I was doing, and that my wife knows all about it, about everything, and that she also thinks I am stupid about it and sometimes laughs at me for it, which is only right. She tells me that I must on no account let my responsibilities toward my own son interfere with my writing because I have been stupid enough about such things already. Above all she says that I must not worry about anything because everything is going just as it ought to, just as she always knew it would, and she says that it is no longer 'triste' and she laughs because she knows I will worry anyway.