Water in a closed hand

Cascando (by Samuel Beckett)

     1
why not merely the despaired of
occasion of
wordshed

is it not better abort than be barren

the hours after you are gone are so leaden
they will always start dragging too soon
the grapples clawing blindly the bed of want
bringing up the bones the old loves
sockets filled once with eyes like yours
all always is it better too soon than never
the black want splashing their faces
saying again nine days never floated the loved
nor nine months
nor nine lives

     2
saying again
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words
terrified again
of not loving
of loving and not you
of being loved and not by you
of knowing not knowing pretending
pretending
I and all the others that will love you
if they love you

     3
unless they love you

Since the age of 22 I have found myself haunted by this poem, and now that so much of my writing deals with recurrence and the circularity of things, it seems hard to deny that this poem’s lines circumnavigate me like moons, firing their disruptive light into my writing. In fact, no matter how much I try to get rid of him, every time disruption occurs in my writing – either the disruption of body and mind, or that of human and time – Beckett pokes his nose out of a molehill, saying “Remember me?” Yes, you bastard, I do. 

Merleau-Ponty & le Corps

L’énigme tient en ceci que mon corps est à la fois voyant et visible. Lui qui regarde toutes choses, il peut aussi se regarder, et reconnaître dans ce qu’il voit alors l’« autre côté » de sa puissance voyante. Il se voit voyant, il se touche touchant, il est visible et sensible pour soi-même. C’est un soi, non par transparence, comme la pensée, qui ne pense quoi que ce soit qu’en l’assimilant, en le constituant, en le transformant en pensée – mais un soi par confusion, narcissisme, inhérence de celui qui voit à ce qu’il voit, de celui qui touche à ce qu’il touche, du sentant au senti – un soi donc qui est pris entre des choses, qui a une face et un dos, un passé et un avenir…

[…]

Visible et mobile, mon corps est au nombre des choses, il est l’une d’elles, il est pris dans le tissu du monde et sa cohésion est celle d’une chose. Mais, puisqu’il voit et se meut, il tient les choses en cercle autour de soi, elles sont une annexe ou un prolongement de lui-même, elles sont incrustées dans sa chair, elles font partie de sa définition pleine et le monde est fait de l’étoffe même du corps. Ces renversements, ces antinomies sont diverses manières de dire que la vision est prise ou se fait du milieu des choses, là où un visible se met à voir, devient visible pour soi et par la vision de toutes choses, là où persiste, comme l’eau mère dans le cristal, l’indivision du sentant et du senti.


Maurice Merleau-PontyL’œil et l’Esprit
Salvador Dalí, Sleeping Young Narcissus, 1980

Orpheus and Nietzsche ponder detachment

Sub specie aeterni. – A: “You are moving away faster and faster from the living; soon they will strike your name from their rolls.” – B: “That is the only way to participate in the privilege of the dead.” – A: “What privilege?” – B: “To die no more.”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book Three, 262

For a while, Orpheus surrounds himself with those who cling to repetition to the point of illness. The body is something to be held while it is there, and let go once it wants to leave. Ravel echoes inside his walls. Nietzsche’s sickly figure hovers around in Orpheus’s chamber, repeating again and again his definition of heroism as the simultaneous movement towards one’s greatest suffering and one’s greatest hope.

“Been there,” says Orpheus, “and I have tired of it.”

“The tiredness of exertion, or the tiredness of paralysis?” asks Nietzsche.

“The former has led to the latter.”

“That’s impossible,” says Nietzsche. “They are fundamentally separate.”

“I am an amalgam of contradictions, buddy,” says Orpheus, and turns to face the wall. The moonlight outside his window is so bright even closing his eyes doesn’t bring relief. Nietzsche continues his floating laps across the room, exhaling sharply at each turn, like a swimmer when he reaches the edge of the pool.

Orpheus knows that Nietzsche is all too familiar with the feeling of feebleness that comes from losing access to the object of love, the repository of so much hope and care. But Orpheus doesn’t feel like getting into this with him, because Nietzsche has made things about himself in the past, and Orpheus isn’t in the mood for displacing his concern.

Instead, he watches the moonlight bring out the cracks in his wall and thinks about something he heard about the expression of emotions in God’s City, the idea that, to Medieval Catholics, the motus animi (movement of the soul) is necessarily embodied. In Augustine, the Fall is what broke something inside Man, making him incapable of responding according to pure reason to his own turmoil. Man is broken up by cracks through which the affect flows, torn between those emotions which lead him to goodness, and those which drive what’s bad in him. It is his embodied form which makes him vulnerable to the full spectrum of human emotions.

In Heaven, members of the divine hierarchy can feel emotions, but don’t express them by physical means, and any expression of divine emotion seeming to resemble that of a human is a deliberate act of translation, the way an adult aims to make herself understood to a baby through soft gurgles. An angel cannot shed tears, and God’s sadness or wrath could never be understood by mortals because it transcends their emotional language.

When Jesus, God-made-flesh, comes to earth in a human body, he obtains the capacity for affect: during his carnal existence, he can cry for the first time, can scream, probably, can laugh, too, and this, Orpheus thinks, must be such a head-fuck after all that self-containment and divine detachment. How odd to descend from holy abstraction into a carnal vessel and feel it respond acutely, and with very little dignity, to things that were until that point vague and diffuse.

Orpheus thinks about Eurydice down there in Hades, where she, too, is free from affect, conveying no love, no yearning, no sadness, no joy, and he wonders if he should be glad for her, or if he should punch a wall in her name because she was separated from the ability to feel emotion, which Orpheus thinks of as the most worthwhile part of human experience.

In death, Eurydice can no longer want Orpheus, and he understands why that is. Where she dwells, a kind of arrogance sets in. The dead, so relieved to have finally gone through the process they spent their whole life dreading, feel superior to those who are alive, and therefore still mortal.

“We will never be mortal again,” the dead think to themselves, and begin to see their living lovers as lesser beings, to look down upon their living bodies even as they themselves sit in the pits of Hades. They look around at the other perished, immortal souls and think, “Finally, this is the sort of distance and abstraction I can be comfortable in. This is the detachment I need from another person in order to feel comfortable enough to allow intimacy to emerge.”

Of course, true intimacy belongs to the realm of the living, and is bound up in transience.

Head over heels for their own immateriality, the dead fall in love with the dead around them. They engage in disembodied orgies, flinging their souls’ useless particles at each other. There is no risk left. They are immortal, they cannot be hurt or weighed down, a disappointment to, or disappointed by, the living.

Love what is mortal no longer applies in the Underworld; there is no need to fear being disappointed by another person’s shortcomings, because what faces you in Hades is no longer a person, merely the most abstract form of what once was a human being. This is what the dead find easiest to love: someone who can never be close to you, place demands on you, someone who barely exists, just like you. Someone who can never be too much.

Orpheus gets a second skin

In his transitional state, Orpheus binds his limbs with the bark of silver birches. He crouches near a river and softens strips of bark in the chattering water before enveloping his skin. The striations overlap with parts of him that have felt too open for too long. Birdsong drips from the trees, and the sun is wet like the nose of a mole. Orpheus wraps each of his fingers with stripes of light and dark, which serve as a visual reminder that boundaries come with their own topology. He seeks protection but not encasement, and to this end he gives himself a home inside a second skin, a temporary softness to inhabit, and in which to sleep while the riverbank mud sucks on his body as if to get closer to the shimmering swirls pulsating within.

Sometimes

Sometimes, you have to understand, I read Tao Lin because it’s all I feel capable of reading, wondering what’s wrong with me that I don’t gravitate towards those who have written about the ache I feel in a more complicated way.

Sometimes all I am capable of hearing is an unnamable sadness followed by delicate swears. I feel more cradled that way. 

I think that when the plants around me die I am achieving some sort of communion with the realm I inhabit, no matter how small the rooms may feel; I have somehow transcended the limits of my mind’s flesh into a space that reflects my internal bullshit, like someone thrown up by a Brontë.

Sometimes just smelling coffee brings your face floating into the room like a goddamn hologram or a swarm of flies, and I very deliberately stick to drinking green and watery things so I can keep the colour of your eyes at bay. 

The immense sadness of losing you to yourself is like watching my brother detach and consume his own toe, knowing exactly where it will lead because it has led there before, knowing that the despair I feel at watching myself lose you from a distance, from the distance you carved between us with a toy shovel that says ‘this is for your own good’ when you press the right button, because pressing the right button causes your shovel to speak, which is not the case with you, and the despair I feel, like I said, is not because I love you, which I do, but because I am watching myself feel this and I see beyond it into the silence where there should be a pulse. 

Sometimes, no matter what bedtime stories I tell myself, I know that time is not circular and what is lost cannot return, because we all fall at different speeds and time is a cruel form of gravity. 

Sometimes the fire is not enough, and I see that when the rat climbs along the bars of its cage from wall to wall to wall it does so not because it is trying to break through but because in times of internal detonation dragging your belly along the reliable firmness of a limit feels good.

The other night I dreamt about your body in a dark room, sitting bare-skinned in an inflatable kiddie pool, your knees poking out of the purple plastic because you are not a child, and you were lighting candles, thousands of candles one after the other in this room that never got any brighter. I remember that the light flickered on your skin and for a moment I wasn’t sure where I was exactly, if I was seeing you through my eyes or through some kind of objectivity, because there wasn’t a single plant involved and there were no animal sounds in the air, and because as you sat there with your ass in the water surrounded by flames I felt an immeasurable affection toward you that is not like me at all. 

Never not the case

There is a marvelous story about Duchamp and an art school student in San Francisco many years ago. Duchamp goes to this art school and he sees this kind of tough, macho San Francisco painter and Duchamp looks at this picture he doesn’t know. He says to the fellow, “What are you doing?” And the painter says, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” Duchamp pats him on the back and says, “Keep up the good work!”

Morton Feldman, “The Future of Local Music” in: Give my Regards to Eighth Street. Collected Writings of Morton Feldman

Orpheus calls his mother, the muse Calliope, to talk about love

Orpheus sets the phone on the floor and bends over the screen, letting his face hang there as if over a pond. The shadows of imaginary carp weave below the black surface. Call your mother, Orpheus. 

He tries to remember Calliope’s face, hasn’t seen it in so long, not even its traces in the mirror, his mother’s features so different from his. Calliope only writes to him these days. Orpheus barely ever hears his mother’s voice, she hides in the motionless print. She is a hieroglyph, the only one who could speak to his father and make herself understood. But the mortal king has vanished, and Calliope has gone silent. 

Call your mother, Orpheus, see what she has to say. 

Orpheus looks at himself in the dark screen. He lays his fingerprints on the phone and begins to dial. He waits. Only love opens access to hell.

“Hello my bag of fleas,” says Calliope. Magpies are nesting in her hair.

Apollo and his mother taught Orpheus to be lovable, his entire childhood one big finishing school. But no-one taught him how to love. How do I love, mother, when the plants in my house all thrive and die at the same time? When one of them laughs at me relentlessly for being human? When I am so trapped that I can no longer be either Orpheus or Eurydice, but am caught in the filaments of their bond so resolutely that if they were to break apart I would dissolve into formless shimmers. Is there love beyond the sensation of Eurydice, she who is the opioid euphoria of affective widening, the poppy seed of thought? Eurydice, the muscle memory of being loved, a twitch in the nervous system as I open myself up.

“Your father never liked it when I kept birds in my hair,” says Calliope. “These days I fall asleep with their talons buried in my scalp.”

“They suit you,” says Orpheus.

“Why are you calling, sweetheart?” 

Calliope taught him poetry, Apollo gave him the lyre and taught him how to play. His hair is his mother’s, as is his skin, the colour of morning light flecked with poppy seed. You are perfect, Orpheus, a flawless specimen. It shouldn’t be so hard to love you. Your bones were never broken, your vital organs always took the blow. You’re goofy, you’re ridiculous, you laugh so much, you scare so easily. For years, you never entered a house through the door, windows only. For years, you spoke using no words, only sounds approximating those of a cat. Your eyes built their home close to the sea. But it doesn’t matter how clean your bones are, how efficient your kidneys. You are chaos, you know you are. To love Orpheus the way Orpheus wants to be loved transcends human capacity, and nothing is more selfish than a god.

“Mother, why didn’t you ever teach me how to be a muse?” 

“Oh, sweetheart,” says the muse. “You’re not looking for some kind of lineage here, are you? Family resemblance, all this quaint nonsense about belonging?”

“Never mind,” he says.

“I never taught you to be anyone’s muse, Orpheus, because you’re not muse-material. You’re impatient, you’re a maker of things, you’re the one who goes out there looking for fuel.”

The magpies chatter and screech, wagging their tails on Calliope’s head.

“I’m tired of art, mother,” says Orpheus. “I’m tired of making things that will never bring me stillness. The more I say, the more I need to say. It never ends. I want things to be steady for a while. I want to be quiet in someone else’s arms.”

“And the more you yearn for this Eurydice, the more your yearning makes you yearn, correct? So you found a muse in this girl, this part of you that ran away.”

“No,” says Orpheus, “I haven’t. Musing is a mutual pursuit, an agreement based on which the muse gives herself to the artist, and the artist gives his heart and mind to the muse. It’s not a one-way grasping.”

Calliope asks, “Do you like orchids, Orpheus?”

“Not particularly.” 

“That’s a lie, baby, I know you do. Anyway, do you like the troubadours?” 

“If you’re calling me a troubadour, mother, I’m hanging up.” 

“You’re too smutty for that, sweetie. I just want you to think: would any of their songs have been written if the love they sang about was anything other than impossible or unrequited?” 

“Poetry is meant to bring about the love that’s missing, not just whine about its absence.” 

“Don’t confuse poetry with alchemy. I’m afraid our talents don’t have any bearing on the composition of the material world. You never ask me about your father, Orpheus, why is that?”

“What could I possibly learn from him?”

“Before he found me your father couldn’t live without the love of many men and women simultaneously. Always fascinated by the surface of things, the superficial virtues of people, the gifts they had and gave, but without ever letting any of them truly close. Those who came close accidentally were shut out again. He was ravenous, insatiably seeking the affection of others to mend the growing wound within. The sort of wound you’ve seen in Eurydice, the kind that won’t allow itself to shut because it provides an aperture through which to see inside oneself. These people loved your father, but none of them gave him what felt like enough, because he never gave himself to any of them.”

“And what am I supposed to do with that information, mother?”

“Find something better, something reciprocal, the kind of bond that is based not on constant struggle but on mutual desire. It shouldn’t be so hard to love you, Orpheus. You’re a good kid, you’ve got nice eyes, you’re funny when you’re not busy moping about some girl. The myths are liars. Eurydice isn’t the only one you could ever love, no matter what you’ve seen the poets write. Eurydice is an empty hole, and nothing you throw into it will return to you. I know that more than anything you want to bring home this part of you that left, that escaped the organism you wanted to be. Don’t listen to the myths told in your name before you’ve even lived through them. Don’t let the words of others tell you who you are.”

Orpheus sighs. “My heart is tired, mother,” he says.

“Your heart is always tired,” she says. “When you were born you stank of valerian root, asleep even then. We had to breathe into your mouth four times before your lungs would open. If you’re weary, find something else to feel. There is more than one sensation in the world, just as there is more than one note on your lyre. Remember when Apollo first gave you that instrument, too heavy for you then, it licked your face with crazed delight, you fell backwards under its leaping weight. You took it everywhere. But in your adult life, I don’t think you’ve tried for a moment to live with a waking heart.”

“At least you’re not holding back,” says Orpheus. 

“So how are things going with that split self of yours, the part you lost? I take it the whole thing still feel like incurable heartbreak?”

“It’s bad, mother. I’ve been listening to Jeff Buckley.”

“Tell me, sweetheart, I forget, how old are you now?”

“Depends on who you ask, mother. Last I heard I was roughly twenty-four, but the other day I could’ve sworn I was thirty-six.”

“Let me tell you something about love, Orpheus, the way we love, you and I. You are much more like me than you’d like to be. What really upsets you about this whole thing is the idea that someone might have finally earned your heart, or perhaps not even earned it, but own it. When Eurydice came along you said to yourself, this is the person who will be enough. And you gave your love to this Eurydice who was too young, too self-absorbed to need it. The part you’ve lost is gone, but you are still here. Don’t get lost in a linear idea of time, return to the spiral and remember that whatever you let go will return in different forms. Your problem is that you believed the lie your myth is telling you: that who you are is Orpheus+Eurydice, but here you are, Orpheus alone, halved and yet complete. The tail you lost is gone but your lungs still work. And yet you follow the idea of Eurydice into the depths of Hades because you can’t believe that the person to whom you gave yourself so carelessly was careless with you in return. That’s all it is, Orpheus, my smelly baby. It’s all it is, believe me. This is how we are. You have lost yourself, and yet you’re still here. Isn’t it nice when things are simple?”

Orpheus shakes his head. He wants her to stop speaking, stop making sense. He hates sense. Sense is not what poetry is made from, surely; poetry is pain and love and loss, and he is sick of himself. He wants to scratch his skin and scream on mountain tops, he wants to build a hut from animal droppings and hide in it for weeks, but he’s tired, even the expression of sadness exhausts him now. 

When he was a child, he made the rocks on the mountain weep. He played, and Echo shut her mouth for once. He charmed so many features of the world, and still he strays like a wounded animal, falling in love with absence and abstraction. Every time he walks down into Hades and makes Eurydice appear like a bubble rising from the swamp, opalescent with petrol stains, she seems like everything he’s ever wanted. 

And when she leaves, he stands alone on the slope of Hades, amidst the crumbling stalagmites. His life on earth is not that of someone living. He has lost access to the parts of him that know how to receive; his mouth is heaped shut with earth, and he excretes his love in thick black ribbons into the sea.

Calliope sighs.

“The magpies are hungry, my darling, I have to go feed them. So I’ll let you go. But there is something you need to do now, Orpheus. promise me you will. You can’t leave things suspended. You have to do the work of untying the things that have become tangled in your mind. Undo the bonds between things that aren’t meant to be linked, never asked to be linked. You’ve ended up with this muddle because all you do is seek connections between things, seek to weave a tapestry, but sometimes the wool catches things that don’t belong. You trap yourself in the pattern, you stop allowing yourself to remain open to the things that wish you well, those that are alive. You have to return now to the aching beauty of the world, with its melted ice cream skies, its dark shapes that move and never leave, and its birds that sound like glass. Love that which is here, Orpheus. There is nowhere else to be.”