Clay; Mouse Fur; Either/Or
News finds me years after of the death of a friend I had in Mexico
once, a novelist from Kentucky,
whose first published stories were widely acclaimed but who ended
up talking his talent away
in a school he’d set up for the kids of retired American officers
and their families in Guadalajara.
I came to love Mexico when I lived there, the gentleness of its
people, its prodigious history and culture;
even now I keep on my desk a postcard of a pre-Columbian
sculpture: two figures in terra-cotta,
thirty centuries old; their text says, “Shaman and youth,” but I
fancy them bard and apprentice.
Apprentice was just what I’d been to my friend: years older than
me, he’d lived a hard life,
had read vastly and well, and wrote long, bracing letters of
encouragement and advice:
I’d really come all that distance to sit at his feet, but when I arrived,
He was struggling by then with the one book he’d publish, was
spending more hours than he had to
with his students than writing, and he began turning on me,
contradicting me, constantly, savagely,
belittling me to his pupils, and, worst, because I guessed he may
have been right, dismissing my work.
I suppose I understand now what drove him: all artists know that
abyss when the gates close,
or when what you do contrive is despoiled by impatience and haste,
and you wouldn’t mind,
as so many have, giving it up, walking away, but it must have been
cruel for him, growing up poor,
perhaps too vain of his not small successes and all too aware of
how much it meant to be in a world
where just doing your work made you more than yourself, to
sense the time near when he’d think,
“I can’t do this anymore,” and realize with I can’t imagine what
dread that he meant it, he couldn’t.
These tiny clay statues, absorbed in their lesson, bring back the
pain of that time, but they’re heartening, too.
The poet’s taller, with more heft; the neophyte smooth-muscled,
slim: eyebrows raised, arms waving,
he’s recounting a vision, a first draft, to keep the conceit, that
innocent, tumbling abundance . . .
His lips are closed, though, he’s being rebuked, not as my enemy-
friend would have done it, but gently:
the master’s hand’s on his shoulder, slowing him down, insisting
they have form, these passions.
At the same time his other hand gestures ahead: Go on, he’s saying,
don’t let anything get away.
He might be warning him too how hard it can be, that willed
hesitation, convincing yourself to stay
in the fire, and wait, not knowing if the waiting will end, if you
might waste what you have,
but staying there, being there, thinking, almost thinking, keeping
yourself from thinking, I can’t . . .
In memory of Zbigniew Herbert
. . . now to the chorus
is joined the backbone of Marsyas
in principle the same A
only deeper with the addition of rust
—Zbigniew Herbert, “Apollo and Marsyas”
A long time had to pass after that vile Polish poem recounting
the challenge and flaying
of the upstart poet-pretender satyr Marsyas revealed the colder,
cruder aspect of his divinity
before Apollo could bring himself to return to the sweat-pit of
flesh, of suffering and song,
and even then, when we found the packets of fur strewn under
the old bats’ nest in the eaves,
even then, we hardly dared believe that the Mouse-god had
concretized himself for us once more,
god of truth, of healing, of poetry foremost, though as the
poem also shows, of the poet-psyche’s
affliction which concludes it has to affirm, reaffirm, defend, its
status and stature . . . Such crap.
There they were though, rows of neat, baby-soft bundles of grey
looking at first like cocoons
but that came apart in your hand, revealing fragments of bone,
which meant there’d been death here,
not soon to be liver and lung, cunning adorable ears, gleaming
muscle and bone: death rather,
and this wasn’t the work of the bats, done in long ago by crop-
poison, it had to be Him,
devourer, regurgitator, sublimator of song . . . Crap again:
Herbert’s poem doesn’t mean poems,
those meager, measly, alliterative scrabblings mincing along on
it means world, it means conflict and violence and pain; politics,
arrogance, power; vile power.
But still, mightn’t those slaughters have been the work of an
owl: isn’t owl a symbol of wisdom?
Except what would a poem do with wisdom in our time? What
could a poem know of such things?
Our time is football, our time is TV, our time is driving, and
shopping, and cell phones, and cells
in faraway, unpronounceable countries where souls we’ve never
heard of and won’t are dissected . . .
No more of that now, the themes here were Apollo and song,
we were speaking also
of packets of fur from which meaningless beings nothing like us
are defabricated, extracted, digested . . .
Tassled, anxiety-ridden, nothing like us, they flee without
knowing they are into the hedge,
and cower there, only the warmth of their breath, their
petrified, songless breath, to give them away.
My dream after the dream of more war: that for every brain
there exists a devil, a particular devil, hairy, scaly or slimy,
but compact enough to slot between lobes, and evil, implacably evil,
slicing at us from within, causing us to yield to the part
of the soul that argues itself to pieces, then reconstitutes as a club.
When I looked closely, though, at my world, it seemed to me devils
were insufficient to account for such terror, confusion, and hatred:
evil must be other than one by one, one at a time, it has to be general,
a palpable something like carbon dioxide or ash that bleeds
over the hemispheres of the world as over the halves of the mind.
But could it really be that overarching? What of love, generosity,
pity? So I concluded there after all would have to be devils,
but mine, when I dug through the furrows to find him, seemed listless,
mostly he spent his time honing his horns—little pronged things
like babies’ erections, but sharp, sharp as the blade that guts the goat.
Just as in the brain are devils, in the world are bees: bees are angels,
angels bees. Each person has his or her bee, and his or her angel,
not “guardian angel,” not either one of those with “. . . drawn swords . . .”
who “. . . inflict chastisement . . .” but angels of presence, the presence
that flares in the conscience not as philosophers’ fire, but bees’.
Bee-fire is love, angel-fire is too: both angels and bees evolve
from seen to unseen; both as you know from your childhood
have glittering wings but regarded too closely are dragons. Both,
like trappers, have fur on their legs, sticky with lickings of pollen:
for angels the sweetness is maddening; for bees it’s part of the job.
Still, not in their wildest imaginings did the angel-bees reckon
to labor like mules, be trucked from meadow to mountain,
have their compasses fouled so they’d fall on their backs,
like old men, like me, dust to their diamond, dross to their ore,
but wondering as they do who in this cruel strew of matter will save us.