The knowledge of reality is always in some measure a secret knowledge. It is a kind of death.
-- Yeats, Autobiographies, p. 482
To all appearances, the artist acts like a mediumistic being who, from the labyrinth beyond time and space, seeks his way out to a clearing. If we give the attributes of a medium to the artist, we must then deny him the state of consciousness on the aesthetic plane about what he is doing or why he is doing it. All his decisions in the artistic execution of the work rest with pure intuition and cannot be translated into a self-analysis, spoken or written, or even thought out.
-- Marcel Duchamp
All in, my
Tattered hands hold out for hope
Like some scarecrow
Or just to stand on my own two feet
Or make a call
And speak two words
That mean something
And so stay alive, stay alive
Until next time, this time
This same time yesterday
When the birds came in the morning
And sang for me an evening song
As they do now, stay alive.
In regard to favorite Transtromer poems, I could be well satisfied with the first of his poems that I read—to be held as an image in my mind—without words.
Weary of all who come with words,
words but no language,
I make my way to the snow-covered
The untamed has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out on
I come upon the tracks of deer in
Language but no words.
You asked for Haiku. Here is one:
language without words—
ancient arrowheads new-found:
fossil thoughts – mind prints
Picking up arrowheads that had been revealed by plowing a field, Henry David Thoreau said that arrowheads were “humanity inscribed on the face of the earth” as “mindprints” or “fossil thoughts”.
Time will soon destroy the works of famous painters and sculptors, but the Indian arrowhead will balk his efforts and Eternity will have to come to his aid. They are not fossil bones, but, as it were, fossil thoughts, forever reminding me of the mind that shaped them. I would fain know that I am treading in the tracks of human game—that I am on the trail of mind—and these little reminders never fail to set me right. When I see these signs I know that the subtle spirits that made them are not far off, into whatever form transmuted. What if you do plow and hoe amid them, and swear that not one stone shall be left upon another? They are only the less like to break in that case. When you turn up one layer you bury another so much the more securely. They are at peace with rust. This arrow-headed character promises to outlast all others. The larger pestles and axes may, perchance, grow scarce and be broken, but the arrowhead shall, perhaps, never cease to wing its way through the ages to eternity. It was originally winged for but a short flight, but it still, to my mind’s eye, wings its way through the ages, bearing a message from the hand that shot it. Myriads of arrow-points lie sleeping in the skin of the revolving earth, while meteors revolve in space. The footprint, the mind-print of the oldest men.
March 28, 1859 (From Henry David Thoreau’s Journal)
It could fairly be said that we, too, are on a similar journey—"on the trail of mind."
Black stone white rain
Blue smoke soft pain.
Night comes. I do not sleep
Yet dream of birds climbing
The sky to find the sea.
I fall like fire and sing
to strange boys and girls
who close their eyes and turn
Toward the sea and hear
the birds singing like rain.
When they wake, they will dream.
This autumn rain comes
on me strange
as you and I lie
beneath the ledge
hold hands and kiss
and say goodbye
When shall I see you again
In Winter when I am dead
or Spring when you flower
or Summer when you rise
with the waves upon the beach
and make love
to every passing eye
No, it will be as today
the rain drop drops
like leaves like tears
that hold our love
and all that's lost
I shall come
as surely as winter
and die a thousand deaths
You too will come
and lie upon these
and give me up
You shall come
as you always do
dressed in pearls
and make it rain.
If the slave-boy had some inkling of Pythagorean doctrine, it may be that he could not only have learned to make a square double the area of an original square of 4, i.e. a square of 8, but he could also have glimpsed the Pythagorean theorem itself, for it turns out that the square built upon the diagonal of the original square of 4, i.e. the hypotenuse of the isosceles right triangles formed by that diagonal, is the side of the desired square that is twice the area of the original. The square of each of the other two sides of the isosceles triangle added together are 8, the same as the square built upon the hypotenuse, i.e. the diagonal. A more knowledgeable witness might have made a connection here between this unspoken reference to Pythagoras and the theory of the transmigration of souls and the theory of recollection that Socrates is supposedly demonstrating. That the length of the diagonal turns out to be 2 x square root of 2 suggests that Socrates is additionally hinting at an esoteric Pythagorean discovery, the existence of an irrational number, i.e. the square of 2, a real number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers. This perhaps relates by analogy to Meno's paradox and the difference between true opinion and actual knowledge that is discussed in the remainder of the Meno.
See related posts: Meno's Paradox and A Classroom Version of the Slave Boy Scene in Plato's A classroom version of the slave boy scene in Plato's Meno
One of the many things Naomi taught me is that my life is a poem. At first, this seemed to me just a nice thing to say, that my life was too fragmented and too often meaningless and ordinary to be a poem, but then one day I was just sitting there watching the wind move through the leaves and I knew that something like that wind was moving through me as well. I was a leaf in the wind.
You weigh on me, you whom I lost in death.
You’ve given me the silent charge to live for you;
So it is for me now to erase the debt of your extermination.
Until I know that with each ray of sun
You wish to warm me and to meet me;
Until I see that in each blossoming tree
There’s someone dead who wants to greet me;
Until I hear that every bird’s song is your voice
Sounding out to bless me and perhaps to say
That you forgive me that I live.
-- Viktor Frankl, 1946, from his autobiography Recollections
Ibidom. Is no thinking thing here but the peepinghouse round it goes is there nothing there from sea to rounda coda no knowing no browbeating to hoedown the adamses and damses looking roundaway the wailing goes awagginawaning about the off wall but there shebares all to what is not there the museymusik makes you trot and drop so rainruns and her lastofall. There!
I believe in the Road.
When I was a sophomore at Brown University, I returned home for spring break and asked my father to read some of my own poems and others by Rilke. My father, a pioneer in the study of the biochemical basis of mental illness, told me that my poems and those of Rilke revealed schizophrenia. I left home within the hour, on foot, never to truly return again. Before my father died, I had forgiven him and loved him as a father should be loved. Now, I am grateful to him. Grateful for endowing me with the same passion with which he lived his life, however imperfectly. My own life has been no less imperfect. That night, as I walked down a dark highway, singing to myself the Woody Guthrie song “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad,” I vowed never to allow another person’s assessment of me to determine how I felt about myself, my ideas or my poetry. I did not then return to Brown. When I did, I was married and a father.
That first long night on the road lead to two years of aimless but purposeful hitchhiking. There were others on that road. One bad man, the owner of an art gallery in Austin, Texas, lured me out to his ranch and tried to force me to have sex with him. I refused. Quietly but definitely. His hired man pulled out a knife. I said, “I will not.” Quietly but definitely. I was not afraid. He did not touch me. In that precarious moment, I knew myself. It was as if life had asked me a question and I had answered.
Since that time, I have found myself in other precarious situations, as I do even today. I will not chronicle these critical moments here except to say they put the integrity of my life in question. Each of these situations required of me an answer beyond any philosophy I had ever read. Philosophy does indeed ask essential questions, but it is only with our actual lives that we answer those questions. Such philosophical questions as Do we have free will? What is truth? Or Justice? are all too often illusions like the paradoxes propounded by Zeno. The illusion comes when we mistake the arena in which these questions are to be answered. What is truth? Observe how I live, not what I say. I necessarily live out my answers to what is true and good. I am my philosophy and all that I have suffered I own.
I am always on the road, aimless but purposeful, knowing that the road is where my true self is revealed. For me the literal and metaphorical road have become one. I know I have at least one great road trip still in me. We may pass by each other in the East Mountains or between here and there. Know all is well even if I look sad, ragged and tired. Pass on. All is well.
A poem without a woman
begets no sound
no wind born child
There is no overflow
no yes no now
A poem without a woman
closes on itself
night and day
and makes it real.
Let anyone who would know the secret of things first learn geometry. It is as if all things are generated from straight lines that bend and circles that yield to angles as lines and circles do in Picasso’s painting. Geometry pervades the canvas in small details, e.g. on the open hand of the fallen warrior, and in the large triangles that give a sense of order to the chaotic images. Against the angles and straight lines rounded images emerge, human faces, distorted as if yielding to a linear force. There is a brooding fatalism about the painting; the human figures seem the playthings of impersonal forces that are beyond human governance. The bull is the only figure that expresses no anguish; it presides over the scene with an idiotic look, as if to say– how has it all come to this, this terrible suffering? The bull, the horse, and the fallen warrior are potentially expressive of the corrida and the painting as whole displays the tragic meaning of that event – life in death and death in life, an event that plays itself out in war as it does in all things. We can imagine the bull as Picasso himself viewing from the safe distance of his Paris studio a torn and scattered world that is only a heartbeat away. He is the idiot, a man alone, as Aristotle says, not fully human, a beast or god. The black and white of the painting, blending into shades of gray, underscore the elemental, geometrical struggle that the painting represents. Tragedy is inherent in the nature of things. The artist triumphs over that tragedy by making it at once devastating and beautiful.
Where is the earth?
What do I stand on
If not the earth?
My earth, the earth
Of the dead poet
That should flower
When we see his moon
and sing his deep song,
and make it our own.
That earth is here
In the heart, where
We stand, nowhere
Bury me here.
Bury here all who love
Life and death,
the night's passion.
Fear only the shallow grave.
For a girl who pushes the boys off
The edge and watches them fall:
And yet when you look down
Is there not one who looks up
And laughs, “Well done, Señorita!”
And you call out, “You fool!
Kiss me and you will die.”
And he will say, “Too late.
I am already dead.”
Just then you fall, though
Some will say you jumped,
And now at last you cry,
Your body parts scattered
Over the rich, dark earth,
"Kiss me and let me die.”
So begins a lover’s life.
Overhead numerous gannets, frigate-birds, and terns, rest on the trees; and the wood, from the many nests and from the smell of the atmosphere, might be called a sea-rookery. The gannets, sitting on their rude nests, gaze at one with a stupid yet angry air. The noddies, as their name expresses, are silly little creatures. But there is one charming bird: it is a small, snow-white tern, which smoothly hovers at the distance of a few feet above one's head, its large black eye scanning, with quiet curiosity, your expression. Little imagination is required to fancy that so light and delicate a body must be tenanted by some wandering fairy spirit.
--The Voyage of the Beagle, Chapter XX
Update: See postscript for the school's lamentable decision to capitulate to the demonic pencil-pusher's insistence on the correct translation of the school's motto.
A TIMELY PROPOSAL
FOR THE ERADICATION OF
a little truth
THAT THREATENS THE REPOSE, GOOD FELLOWSHIP, REPUTATION
AND POTENTIALLY THE BOTTOM LINE OF OUR SCHOLARLY COMMUNITY
There is in our midst a sad figure of a man, immediately recognizable by his scraggy beard and stony gaze, well along in years, who appears to be bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders in addition to a tattered knapsack stuffed with books that no one else would ever want to read. (Let’s take a peek: Carmina Catulli, Pervigilium Veneris, De Partibus Animalium, Apologia Platonis et Fragmenta Socratica, De Patavinitate Sociorum Nostrorum, three volumes of Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia, and -- o sweet child of mine – here at the bottom of it all is the infamous Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. I can assure you a more incomprehensible and dangerous book has never been printed!) How shall we give relief to this man whose suffering is for all sensitive souls a pathetic sight to witness at a time when we have already enough troubles of our own to bear. We see him in the classrooms and on the walkways and in the dining hall at all hours and seasons monotonously droning on about the demise of Latin at our school and bemoaning at every opportunity that the official translation of our sacred school motto, Scientia ad faciendum, three otherwise harmless words, is completely and shamefully wrong. The school says the slogan means, “Knowledge by doing”; he, “Knowledge for doing”. This old man is to all appearances willing to spend his last, quibbling breath on the meaning of that mercifully short preposition ad. That’s all he’s got: ad. At least the school can say that by using ‘by’ to translate ad instead of ‘for’, it has the advantage of accurately reflecting the number of letters in the original Latin. To this disagreeable old pedant I am sure you would join me in giving him three short words of advice: Get A Life. Let him translate that! So painful must this man’s existence be to himself, not to mention the plague he has become to the young and vital souls of our community, that whoever should be able to remedy this problem would surely be congratulated by all and honored with a memorial plaque to be hung in that most sacred location: on that wall in Simms Library (Blessed be its eponymous benefactor!) where the plaques of those who have given more than thirty years of dogged service to our community are set, even if, as is my case, this benefactor may have served the school less than half that time.
As it happens, happily, I do have a solution to this sad case and have no doubt that it will be well received by all members of this community, whether they be students or faculty or administrators, and especially by parents who run the risk that this man may spread his nonsense and procrustean proclivities into the silly heads of their children.
To rid ourselves of this pest and the danger he poses, we MUST employ each of the following remedies in the order in which I will now prescribe them:
Firstly: Ease this man into retirement as swiftly as decorum allows, though a resolute administration would wait to sever its relationship with this man only until the earliest possible hiatus in the school calendar, perhaps during one of our many three day weekends that the administration has so wisely distributed throughout the school year.
Secondly: Banish Latin from the curriculum. “Latin is dead as dead as it can be, first it killed the Romans, now it’s killing me.” So school children have been singing for centuries, sometimes I am told even in Latin itself. We should once and for all put an end to the cruelty of Latin instruction at our school, along with its prescriptive grammar and ponderous pronunciation.
Finally, but only, I must insist, after the first two steps have already been taken: Replace the current Latin slogan of the school by some global language version whether it be Keltic, Kuru, Karawane, or Ketchup, whatever language will best allow us to make our slogan mean whatever we want without having to worry that some ‘scholar’ will tell us that what we say it means is not what it means at all. Who would know or care what the Karawane phrase Bugo Bugere Itchi Scratchum really means? It’s fun to say. Just give it a try. For the overly scrupulous, I assure you it means ‘Knowing by Doing’. If the first two steps have already been taken, this last remedy will be received if not with relief or pleasure, then at least with the customary indifference that has attended our school motto for decades. Perhaps it is best if no one really cares.
A single example of this troublesome man’s delusions will suffice to persuade those who may yet feel some small pang of conscience at such draconian measures and would rather simply wait for nature to take its course and allow the man to fade away and die in his own good time. They argue that with him gone no one will care anymore and since the administration has long ago not allowed students to complete their language requirement with Latin, there will be no need to hire another classicist. That would surely be for the best. Did you know Nietzsche was a classicist? Enough said.
But now to my example, which will persuade even these hesitant folk mentioned above that this imminent threat requires an immediate response: I give you the spectacle of the demented pencil-pusher. This man has taken it upon himself to flood the campus with pencils, dearly bought by funds from his meager salary (How could it be otherwise?), printed with our current and hopefully temporary school motto and with what he claims to be its correct translation, all in the red and black of our sacred school colors. Somehow this odd fellow doesn’t realize that nobody cares about the correct translation, and yet he persists in his delusory efforts to impose his little truth on all.
A respected colleague at another school has told me of a similar case at his once highly regarded institution. There, he told me, a teacher, believing himself to be of service to his students, solicited tips from these students. That’s right, TIPS! These students, who were already paying a hefty sum to attend this prestigious school, thought such gratuities were a small price to pay for a better grade and the prospect of a better transcript to present to colleges. Before this man fell into complete dementia, parents were demanding that other teachers should likewise solicit ‘tips’, thinking by instituting this seemingly harmless practice to reward good teaching and enhance their children’s chances of being admitted into an elite college. Suffice it to say, the school’s reputation, once so exalted, collapsed. We too must take care that the example of this one pedestrian pedagogue who seeks to impose his little bit of the truth on all does not result in the demand of parents that their children should be taught that words really do matter and that the meaning of words is not something we are free to assign as we wish. That prospect is unnerving.
But I have digressed too long. To those few teachers and even fewer students who have been duped into thinking that Latin is still relevant, let me list the reasons why it is not:
Let no one argue that because we are community of scholars young and old that we should value the correct translation of our sacred school motto, that such lack of scholarly concern sets a poor example for those whose education we are responsible, that we owe this old man a debt of gratitude for his insistence on his little truth, and certainly let no one argue that students should be allowed to study Latin to fulfill their language requirement, and finally let no one be so naïve and simple as to argue that the correct translation of the motto “Knowledge for doing” (which, according to him who will not shut up, means that we want our students to use what they have learned here for the purpose of making the world a better place) more accurately reflects our noble purpose than “Knowledge by doing”. I cannot support such arguments until one and all are ready to capitulate to the tyranny of a little truth pedaled by an old man often seen muttering to himself, barely knowing who he is or where he is going.
I am myself getting on years and all but a rigorous exercise regimen has kept me from sharing in my target’s physical and mental decline. Consequently, it cannot be said that I have anything against the old per se. True, I am a teacher of English, a subject more relatable to the actual daily lives of our students and one that requires little more notice of Latin than the mere mention that over half of our English vocabulary derives from this now defunct language. Nevertheless, with English losing ground to Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, and other global languages, it may be argued that English one day in some distant future may itself become a dead language. Consequently, I hope no one will suggest that I have been engaging in an egregious ad hominem argument for the sole purpose of driving this pathetic man to an expeditious exit from our community.
FOOTNOTE: Since I wrote this piece, the school has officially changed the translation of the school motto to "Knowledge through doing" in a well-intended but misguided attempt to cover their original error in translation by substituting the longer and more dignified preposition 'through' for the diminutive 'by'. Our pedant, of course, was not to be put off, claiming that the affront to scholarship to be even more egregious, since he himself was consulted on the correct translation and then ignored. And now, unfortunately, he is in possession of another little truth: that the change is really no change at all, muttering all the time about a king's misguided choice of attire. He continues, as always, to insist on his original little truth that the actual translation should be 'Knowledge for doing' and that we should embrace the noble purpose that the correct translation underscores: we want our students to apply the knowledge they acquire here to make the world a better place. I fear the official change has only served to delude him into believing that he has some God-given purpose on this earth, likening himself, I suppose, to one of those insufferable Old Testament prophets.
PS. I regret to say that after holding out for ten years against the little truth of the pencil-pusher the school has finally capitulated to this demonic man's insistence on the correct translation of the school's motto. Here's how it happened: one of the unauthorized pencils, inscribed with what my sophomoric colleague claimed to be the correct translation of the school's motto, found its way to the notice of a gullible young man who innocently used the translation on the pencil in composing the school's new alma mater. Somehow, through inattention or indifference or exhaustion or simpleminded recognition that a scholarly community such as ours cannot knowingly continue to mistranslate its own Latin motto, the new school song won the imprimatur of the school's administration. Perhaps it was because the 'correct' translation fit so nicely with the tune. Who knows? But it is done. What next? Is there to be a revival of Latin at our school? Are students to be allowed to take Latin to satisfy their language requirement? Are we to return to the Dark Ages? The man has won the day with his 'little truth', and his 'little victory' has given him renewed energy to pursue his other quixotic ideas. He is now pushing the subversive agenda of a website that preposterously proclaims, Classics for All: https://classicsforall.org.uk/about/why-classics/ Happily, my retirement is not far off. I am tired.
(to the Plowshares 8, with love)
Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.
Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“I’ve had it,” they cried,
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked –
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.
“Why do you stand?” they were asked, and
“Why do you walk?”
“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart, and
“Because of the bread,”
“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”
Walking through days
I have walked through
long ago, same
step and stride, same
heart wanting something
more; yet today
is the only day
I can’t remember you
Walking through the years
to find me standing
here alone, longing
for the moon,
Its light buried
in my heart of hearts:
Be with you soon.
When I came to school today, I did not come alone. There was a bear with me. No one seemed to notice except for one young girl whose eyes were filled with the glory of the morning and whose red hair played in the light air. She gave me a look, laughed, and asked who my friend was. "What do you mean?" I replied. She laughed again and said "you can't fool me" and flew up into a tree. Later, walking from one building to another, I heard a bird call, and there she was walking beside me. Cautious, I asked, "Who are you?" She seemed surprised I didn’t know. She said she was my student and had been with me from the beginning. This time when she flew away, I growled annoyance and padded on hand and foot to my next class.
So, I thought I was alone on that beach when a sudden gust of wind blew my old tattered hat away. It was like the hat had wings or was some sort of kite, diving and lifting over the sea, but having no string attached, it disappeared over the water and surely landed wherever it is that kites go once they are set free. But then there was this bird call. I turned around and there, where there had been not one solitary person for months, was a girl wearing my hat. She laughed at my surprise, handed me my hat, and flew happily off. I knew then I was not alone.
Who is this girl who loves old men
And sings to those whose song will end?
All that she says is strangely true;
To her belong all the mystic blues.
Tears in her eyes become the sun;
Her home is where all rivers run.
It's she who dances on your bed
Though others give you up for dead.
I am someone who proudly and humbly affirms that love is the mystery-of-mysteries, and that nothing measurable matters 'a very good God damn'; that 'an artist, a man, a failure' is no mere whenfully accreting mechanism, but a givingly eternal complexity-neither some soulless and heartless ultrapredatory infra-animal nor any understandingly knowing and believing and thinking automaton, but a naturally and miraculously whole human being-a feelingly illimitable individual; whose only happiness is to transcend himself, whose every agony is to grow.
From i: six nonlectures
I don’t know how you know you have to make a change. I just know you just do it and think about the whys and wherefores later. And in any case, I would only be making it up to sound like I wasn’t crazy or something, as though I actually had reasons for doing what I did. Maybe it was the rain. Who in his right mind would throw a few things in a backpack, leave his car and bank account behind, and just set off walking in the rain? That's exactly what I did. At nightfall I found a place along the side of the road to sleep, but I couldn’t stop shaking. It didn't stop raining until early the next morning when the sun came up as though for the first time.
I had started out in Rhode Island but hitched rides that left me the next night in Georgia and the next day I was in the panhandle of Florida, walking down some back country road that would take me wherever I was going. I really had no idea, but I was goin and I was gonna stay gone. I know that this all sounds crazy, but it didn’t feel that way then. It felt right and for the first time in a long time my head was clear. That’s all I can tell you.
When I had started out I had only a couple packs of cigarettes and about twenty dollars which paid for coffee and more cigarettes for awhile. The kindness of strangers supplied the rest. Folks who picked me up were curious about what I was doing and where I was going. What interested them most was that I didn’t know. They saw my sorry shoes, shook their heads, and gave me money for a meal at the end of the ride. One man said he had never picked up anyone before but now he thought he would the next time he saw some young person thumbing a ride. It had somehow been interesting. I told him that was a bad idea.
I went wherever a ride would take me and that’s how I found myself in a small West Virginia town, where an old preacher picked me up and took me home for a meal. He showed me with pride the wooden casket he had made with his own hands and how he was all set for eternity. He called it his boat. It was really no more than a crate, though its dimensions where about right for a coffin. I don't know about eternity. What I was really curious about, however, were the huge old books that were lying on the casket as if to keep the lid on. He said the truth was in those books and I could see for myself if I wanted. The first one I opened had the picture of a young woman, tied to a stake, her breasts exposed, looking up at the heavens ablaze with lightning. I swear her whole body looked like it was electrically charged as though she were having an orgasm or something. Beneath the picture were the words, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” I turned over the page and saw the words "I ad crucem!" scrawled over the English text. I knew what those words meant alright: "Go to the cross!" On another page was the picture of some wild man who was having a crimson X branded into his chest. After that I was in a hurry to go, but the old guy kept me there talking about how half the town was dying of cancer because everyone was marrying their own kin and goin’ to hell. I got the crazy idea that he was about to ask me to nail him and his books up in that crate and set him adrift. I told him I had to go. He wanted to know why I was in such a hurry. I told him someone was waiting for me in Winchester, which was just across the state line. He said he would drive me there, but I just walked toward the door and thanked him. I closed the door behind me and didn’t look back.
My next couple of rides landed me in New Orleans. I was beginning to realize that though everything was new to me, I was not quite a stranger to the folks I met. In New Orleans, I fell in with others about my age who looked just as lost as I did. They had liberated an abandoned house, worked at odd jobs and did drugs at night. When I didn’t partake, they became suspicious and shortly came to the conclusion that I was a narc. I had never heard that word before but its meaning soon became clear to me. They said my story about going wherever the road would take me just didn’t add up. That wasn’t the last time I was suspected of being a narc, but later it somehow didn’t matter. They could just think whatever they wanted. The first time, however, it was a shock. I had been glad to have a place to crash for a few days, but they told me I had better leave.
I ended up spending a month or so in New Orleans, making some money by working out of a day load outfit that sent out sober men like me on jobs that paid ten dollars a day. If you didn’t quit the job – loading, unloading, throwing bricks out of boxcars and digging holes – you got paid at the end of each day. In the late afternoon after I was paid, I felt like some goddam saint. Cripples, men with no legs, drunks and drifters like me were lined up along the sidewalk with their hands out. One fella, mounted on a board with rollers, had no arms or legs, just a cup. I had a simple rule. I would give away half of what I made and keep the rest. It was more than enough for my needs. They would call me father, though I was younger than they were. Maybe I looked older because like them I had grown so thin. A fellow worker had his own room where he let me sleep on the floor and he knew all the churches and other places where a person could find a free meal, though sometimes you had to pay by praying after you ate. I didn’t like that and said so. I ended up basically stealing the food before the praying started. The problem with that was that they were on the lookout for you the next time. At night, I wandered the French Quarter looking in the jazz joints and at the girls who looked right through me as if I weren't there at all. I can't say I blame them.
I forgot to tell you that before I left to nowhere in particular, I had been a desk clerk at an otherwise respectable hotel called the Pilgrim Inn that catered to a certain class of working girl. They were all somebody’s daughter and they sent the money they made back to their families. Some paid guys who protected them and would beat them up to keep them in line. I would take payment for rooms from the johns and take them up in the elevator first and then the girls. It became routine. I liked the girls, but they all thought I was queer because I hadn’t done anything with them even when they offered for free. They would laugh and ask me if I knew which hole to put it in. I didn't mind. Everything had been going along fine until one night I was arrested along with the girls in a police raid and spent the night in jail. The next day they just sent me home. The hotel's lawyers had worked something out. The girls had to pay a fine. After that, I felt like I almost belonged and everyone treated me as if I were one of them. Then one night a little later I got beat up really bad by a guy who demanded to know where a certain girl was and when I wouldn’t tell him, he came around the desk and let me have it. It all happened so fast I didn’t even have time to be afraid or even feel any pain. I was kind of numb or stunned I guess. After that, the girls treated me like a brother, which I guess I was.
After I had saved a little money in New Orleans, I set out again. I had heard from others about riding the rails. It was fast and straight but they also told tales of railroad bulls that discouraged me. I thought hitching was safer. My first ride, a long sleepy cruise through the night, took me to Texas, a little west of Austin. It had been a sweet ride; the stars out the open window seemed to pump their light right into my veins. My very next ride, however, changed everything, but I have written about that before. I don't really want to go into it again except to say I came out whole after a man tried to force me to have sex with him and maybe for the first time in my life I had been brave. That was then. What I really want to talk about is Richard whom I had met a year before all this craziness began, never saw again, and miss every day of my life. Before we parted he gave me a small carving, made from an odd piece of wood found on a West Texas beach. He had used only the sharp edge of a stone. It was like something out of the prehistory of man and had three faces on each side, one emerging out of another. It is the face of every man I meet. For forty-six years I have kept this carving with me. It really is Richard's story that needs telling, not mine, though maybe his is in some way mine as well. You see, he taught me the only true word I know and he taught me by example and it cost him dearly. He was the most honest person I have ever known and the bravest.
The old goat sighed, lifting first one hoof then another over the remains of the seasons. He had tried to invoke a world, embody his words.
And yes, spring summer fall winter took form, wheeled in cycles and everywhere the plants and little animals rejoiced, colors and music floated through the leaves, browns and greens became a medley of sound in the half light, became wind and in the midst of all stood a man and a woman, opening themselves like flowers to each other, and his words made mountains and streams, the whurling bark of trees traced vowels and consonants, roots plunged deep into pure sound.
Then a scream shattered the scene.
And what remained?
An old goat and his song.
The leaves of autumn littered the ground.
Even if you do not know French, the audiofile below of Aube by Paul A. Mankin will deepen your appreciation of the poem. There are no translations of his poem that convey its beauty.
AUBE from Illuminations (1875)
J'ai embrassé l'aube d'été.
Rien ne bougeait encore au front des palais. L'eau était mortre. Les camps d'ombres ne quittaient pas la route du bois. J'ai marché, réveillant les haleines vives et tièdes; et les pierries regardèrent, et les ailes se levèrent sans bruit.
La première enterprise fut, dans le sentier déjà empli de frais et blêmes éclats, une fleur qui me dit son nom.
Je ris au wasserfall blond qui s'échevela à travers les sapins: à la cime argentée je reconnus la déesse.
Alors je levai un à les voiles. Dans l'allée, en agitant les bras. Par la plaine, où je l'ai dénoncée au coq. A la grand'ville elle fuyait parmi les clochers et les dômes, et, courant comme un mendiant sur les quais de marbre, je la chassais.
En haut de la route, près d'un bois de lauriers. Je l'ai entourée avec ses voiles amassés, et j'ai senti un peu son immense corps. L'aube et l'enfant tombèrent au bas du bois.
Au réveil, il était midi.
DAWN from Illuminations (1875)
I embraced the summer dawn.
Nothing stirred on the face of the palaces. The water was still. Crowds of shadows lingered on the road to the woods. I walked, dreaming the warm, brisk winds, and precious stones looked on, and wings soared in silence.
The first venture, on the path already full of fresh and pale glitterings, was a flower who told me her name.
I laughed at the white waterfall dishevelled through the pine trees: at its silvery summit I recognized the goddess.
Then, one by one, I lifted her veils. In the pathway, waving my arms. In the open field, where I betrayed her to the cock. In the city she fled amid the steeples and the domes, and running like a beggar on the marble piers, I chased her.
At the top of the road, near a wood of laurels, I wrapped her in her mass of veils, and felt a little of her immense body. Dawn and the child fell at the edge of the woods.
When I awoke it was noon.
---Peter Y. Chou, WisdomPortal.com
— Above version based on the following translations:
— Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations
translated by Bertrand Mathieu
Boa Editions, Brockport, NY, 1979, pp. 32-33
— Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations
translated by Daniel Sloate
Guernica, Montreal, Canada, 1990, pp. 78-79
— Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell and Illuminations
translated by Mark Treharne
J.M. Dent, London, 1998 (no page #)
Despair is suffering without meaning. – Viktor Frankl
But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless—suffering least of all. – Oscar Wilde
In the midst of winter I at last discovered that there was within me an invincible summer.
– Albert Camus
Winter under cultivation is as arable as spring – Emily Dickinson
* * * * * *
Charles Adams Eaton – 2016-03-06
It is not that Suffering, Death, Grief, and all other conditions of deep human pain have meaning in themselves. They do not. Yet it is one of the wonders of human life that, by the stance we take toward events and conditions that we cannot change, we are able to bear the unbearable, to discover within our grief the deep Love that creates the sharpness of that pain, to recognize that it is by the darkness of Death that we see most clearly the shimmering light of Life, and to find meaning permeating our lives as in an invincible summer. If our lives were endless, if there were no death, if we were never shattered by the loss of those whom we love… But why consider what is not and cannot be our condition? We may, however, examine how best we can equip ourselves for what is our greatest challenge: the stance, posture, or attitude that we take toward Death.
I would not die terrified—with bones chilled to the marrow.
I would not die stoically—with clenched fists and gritted teeth.
I would not die bravely—with a vain passion in my heart to “conquer” Death.
I would not die raging against the dying of the light.
I would not die with depressed resignation—giving up Life with a last despairing gasp.
If it lies within me,
I would face Death with the composure of acceptance—and with a feeling
of gratitude and rejoicing for the gift of Life and its many wonders.