<= 2014.05.19

When one is in the presence of the Colosseum, an enormous cylinder with empty eye sockets, one has the sense of emptiness. Naturally, having the sense of emptiness, one cannot help but also have the dread of emptiness. Those things piled up, coming from every direction, so that not a bit of space is left, of free space, everything is filled, nothing is left, nothing freed. That dread of emptiness, one can feel it in Rome infinitely more than in any other place on earth, more even than in the desert. I believe that from the dread of emptiness issues, not the need of filling that space with it-matters-not-what-thing, but all the drama in the art of Michelangelo.

When I said that the Baroque provoked the sense of emptiness, that the aesthetic of the Roman Baroque had been initiated by the dread of emptiness, I mentioned the Colosseum. I’m afraid I haven’t been clear enough. The dread in the Baroque originated with the intolerable idea of a body without a soul. A skeleton evokes the dread of emptiness.

—Ungaretti, note on Sentimento del Tempo

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey

But the truth is that his love poetry is usually best when it is least about love. He takes every opportunity of bringing in external nature, or narrative, as if to take a holiday from the erotic treadmill.

—C.S. Lewis, English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century

In 1543 he was imprisoned again for riotous behavior in the streets of London (eating flesh in Lent and breaking windows).

—Emrys Jones, “Biographical and Textual Note”

Saturn rising. Saturn is very large and very cold compared to Earth, and we now know that the last ice age was caused by Saturn’s orbit taking it within a few hundred thousand kilometers of our world. It took up a third of the sky. Our ancestors quaked in its penumbra. When the rings came slicing above, everyone had to duck; trees were felled, mountains leveled, the mastodon got flat-top haircuts.

You see I been through the desert on anonymous horse
It felt good to get dry of course
In the desert ain’t no use naming your horse
Cause the boundless ground leaves you none for remorse

Joseph Addison, in Spectator number 420, man:

If after this we contemplate those wide fields of ether, that reach in height as far as from Saturn to the fixed stars, and run abroad almost to an infinitude, our imagination finds its capacity filled with so immense a prospect, and puts itself upon the stretch to comprehend it. But if we yet rise higher, and consider the fixed stars as so many vast oceans of flame, that are each of them attended with a different set of planets, and still discover new firmaments and new lights, that are sunk farther in those unfathomable depths of ether, so as not to be seen by the strongest of our telescopes, we are lost in such a labyrinth of suns and worlds, and confounded with the immensity and magnificence of Nature.

I knew a guy who, after huffing nitrous, would shut his eyes and claim to see rotating polyhedra while the rest of us giggled and tried out Darth Vader voices. Which is to say, I was never the kind of stoner who flew up to the fields of ether. More often than not, peak intoxication was nothing but a horrible compound-eye vantage on a hell of thirst, whose resident demons cackled all night at effects disjoined from their causes.

But the next day was beautiful. It was the only switch I ever found that would turn off Faust. Alcohol was an all-purpose dimmer, and other psychoactives were good for Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck, but grass and grass alone wove the magic blotter which for 36 hours would wipe clean all striving, all schemes, all placing of imaginary chessmen. What remained was aphasia, heliotropism, lazy appetites.

It was very bad for writing, to say nothing of economically worthwhile activity, so it couldn’t became a habit. No, it would take a most unlikely chain of events to render economics irrelevant, to lose all use for a soul and say at last to the passing moment: Verweile doch! du bist so schön….

But I have to do something, Dmitri Dmitriyevich, about this sense of being dead already. Ghosts can talk—that’s all they’ll do, if you go down to Dis, talk your ear off—but they can’t make decisions. They can’t pick things up. They are disqualified as action heroes. Narrative truncated and frozen: as they are now, they ever shall be. The moment you stop changing, and find yourself turned into a voice, you’ve taken the Avernus turnoff.

Do you want money or time?
Time, please.
Do you want money or time?
Time, if you would, please.
Do you want money or time?
Can I have time?
Do you want money or time?
I think there's something wrong with the submission system. I keep choosing "time," but it just takes me back he--
Do you want money or time?
What the hell? What happens if I choose "money"?
WARNING: Once you click SUBMIT, you will not be able to change your answer. Use the EDIT button to go back and make any needed revisions.
Don't you have any fucking competitors, you rent-seeking idiots?
WARNING: Your session is about to time out due to inactivity. To continue, please make a selection and click SUBMIT.

Shostakovich No. 15 again. It’s entirely too close to write about. But it demands writing anyway, because there won’t be another chance, not before death. Impervious trombones—that’s the Roman eagle marching in. The high, unstable woodwind chords are the buzz in the ears before the knees give out. The percussion is a scattering of shards.

Soul fills the gaps. Strings and flute dancing a few steps at a time, or a keening cello, soul as play, soul as noise. It takes the past tense. It filled the gaps—we can say that much. It wasn’t adequate to more, but nothing would have been adequate, it was all rigged. Somewhere down below is sleep, and if you quote Wagner then someone else can quote you, so write it down, limping soul, there’s no more time.

The ventures

When I think about things I want, I tend to hit on categories like “sleep” or “for the yard work to go away,” but sometimes J. helps me think of objects, and when it gets to that point the objects might as well come home. Guitars have been appearing in the bedroom, mostly Telecasters, necks all in a row like an ash forest grown up overnight and quietly waiting to find out what it was planted for. Now we have a basswood interloper (genus Tilia, Coleridge’s lime) in the shape of a Jazzmaster.

It was made in Japan in the mid-nineties, right when I was taking high school Japanese because everyone seemed to think that was how you would get a job in 2000. I should have known how the guitar was going to behave, given that I grew up with those Sonic Youth and Elvis Costello records, but it is not the animal you expect when you first plug it in. A Gibson is an oil painting and the Telecasters draw in pastel, but a Jazzmaster does its work in thin tempera washes; stroke broad or thin, the light always shows through. It is just remarkable once you get used to fiddling with all the extra metal bits which were upmarket features in the fifties and must have a hand in that transparency, but are perfect little devils to set up.

Marc Ribot’s impressive performances with offsets notwithstanding, I still understand the genre of a Jazzmaster to be “anything but jazz.” Yet it makes scales ring so clearly, and really makes me want to become a better lead player. I have a modes book somewhere in the basement, which I hardly ever looked at, because once you understand that a mode is just a change of context how do you keep it interesting? The moment I leaned over to fiddle with a pedal, the guitar started to feed back as advertised. You know what to do—divebomb that tremolo! “You should have seen your face,” said J.

Vertical Motion

Go see St. Peter’s, said Kant, go see the Great Pyramid; he didn’t know about General Sherman, and I wonder what he would have said about General Sherman in our age of ordered sets, where you can’t look at the tree without the superadded knowledge that it is, provably, the world’s largest. It looked to me like the center of the world. I could believe there were gods in the canopy and an underworld in the roots, never mind that sequoias don’t have taproots and this is why they fall over after a few thousand years. We even had a Ratatoskr scrambling up and down the striations of the trunk, red sandstone tipped onto its side. On a fallen branch went walking the largest raven I ever saw in my life; apparently they vary with the trees. ‟Huginn? Muninn? Fly on up to the hall, will you, and tell them I’m still busy down here.”

The paved path around the tree was busy with people not speaking English, nations of the world come to pay court to the world tree by pointing their smartphones at it. The tree defeated them. Trying to get it in frame they backed farther and farther away until they were out of its compass entirely, and surrendered. It took a bit of work to find the unpaved trails, but once I found them I discovered that my body, which I tend to think of as a decaying jelly, is still perfectly able to get me up a mountain, even at seven thousand feet. Most of my three days in the mountains involved no one but me and
• white-headed woodpeckers,
• red-breasted sapsuckers,
• western tanagers,
• Steller’s jays,
• brown creepers,
• juncos,
• towhees,
• nuthatches,
• warblers,
• goldfinches,
• flycatchers,
• quail,
• sparrows,
• ravens,
• deer,
• chipmunks,
• squirrels,
• lizards,
inter alia. All the verticality and solitude called up Chinese paintings, and before you ask, yes I did bring A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang in my pack; you take that book into the mountains so no one will laugh at you, as no one’s around to laugh at you hugging the trees. Graham’s preface is the best explanation I’ve seen of what one does in the course of ‟translating Chinese poetry,” and I recommend it to interested parties. A poem by Du Fu has no inflection and (compared to speech or prose) almost no particles, just parallel stacks of sense. Graham gives the sense character by character, alongside four different English versions doing as they can. What we really need for Tang poetry is something like the Quranic Arabic Corpus; it can’t be as hard a job with Arabic grammar out of the picture. A crib sheet, a few differing English versions—it would help one up the mountain.

At the top of the mountain is a fire lookout station. You can climb it and talk to the ranger with her binoculars and her radio. How’s the fire season look? Terrible, terrible, it’s been terrible the last three years. They say El Niño's brewing up this year in the Pacific, we just have to wait for it. Can you see Mount Whitney from here? No, it’s thirty-three miles that way as the crow flies. You can’t see it for the curve of the earth. Looking the other way you can barely see the coast range; the Central Valley is all haze. Up here the air is thin as a thought, a few cirrus clouds speed over your head, the ten thousand things are below and it turns out they’re all pines, you’ve gained all the altitude there is to gain, now what do you do with it?

Back in Tucson, two opposed philosophers at the desert animal park: one the ocelot in a rock den at the very back of its enclosure, making the pendulum rounds of an animal with nowhere to go, up and down; the other the blue heron that survived an eagle attack as a fledgling and could not be released, but was a naturally solitary creature, had no knowledge of life outside captivity, and was contentedly preening its shattered wing under the aviary netting.

Having this life, one is supposed to be able to choose the heron’s mind. A “precious human life,” say the Tibetans: not, for instance, the 4 non-human states with no chance for Dharma study: 1) life forms experiencing continual pain and fear, 2) life forms experiencing continual frustration and clinging, 3) animals, 4) celestial beings.

That’s more than fine; one just needs an enclosure large enough to stand up and turn around in. To that end, J. and R. are flying back to the Bay tomorrow, but I am taking a rental car, and while this car will ferry home my dad’s 1975 Guild dreadnought and a large plush elephant puppet, it will also take me into the Sierras for three nights to get some thinking done.

It’s very nice of them. I’m already opening up a bit. Remembering what it was like to shut my eyes and not tip straight over the waterfall, but to make out a sheet of black felt onto which conceits are waiting to be pinned. Apply yourself.

It’s blooming season in the desert and many of the symbolic agaves have thrown up their intricate, colossal, life-ending stalks: a last bash for beauty, boys, make it grand, and let the husk turn to paper. I dreamed that I had turned sixty. The cheerful moral was that I hadn’t yet wasted all my time.

<= 2014.05.19

What goes on