Friday, September 10, 2010

Emissary (V)

photo by T.R. Hummer


Within a few days the desert light has re-clarified itself, sloughing off storm fronts and their aftermath. What was once empty and had become full has emptied itself again. How many times in the course of a life can a consciousness rise out of its own ashes?


The emissary sits in the shade of a vast Chilean wine palm brought at unmentionable expense from a distant continent to grace the Emperor’s arboretum. He recognizes the tree from his studies, which were undertaken over decades to equip him for his journey to the Emperor, and consisted of all possible knowledge about the route to the Emperor’s palace, about the Emperor himself—insofar as knowledge about the Emperor is allowed—and about the Palace and its grounds, including the name and history of the tree in question. As he recognizes the tree, the knowledge leaves him. He has no further use for it.


Life increasingly becomes attenuated—as if the passage of time (whatever time is) through a human psyche had a caustic effect, scrubbing impurities away. Logically, the opposite would appear more likely—that one would begin life “clean” and accumulate clogs in the psychic plumbing. But the discipline of farewell enters here: the knowledge of one’s own fragmentary incompleteness presses toward the desire to live invisibly, humbly, quietly, on one’s knees in respect to the mystery that is about to swallow one up.


A man, a woman, in the middle of life, in the middle of a relationship mellowed or decayed by time, in the middle of a fissioning universe. Precision of the atom. The poisonous glow of the lyric.


Sometime in the mid-1980s, I heard the poet Stanley Kunitz begin a public reading with the phrase “I will now read a poem I wrote fifty years ago.” At the time I was in my mid-thirties, and was stunned by the presence of such longevity. It was not that Kunitz was so old, but that he had written poems consistently and devotedly for so long: it was the continuity that amazed me. At sixty, I am still not old enough to begin a public reading of my own work with that phrase, but I do have poems I cannot remember having written. I recognize them as old friends, but where they came from is beyond me. Literally.


The emissary examines with great care all the objects he carried with him to sustain him on his journey. He wraps them in a piece of yellow silk and takes them out into the garden, where a beggar sits beside the gate. Without a word he hands the bundle to the beggar. These objects—all he owns in the world—were for the journey here; where he next goes, they will be of no use to him. But to the emissary’s surprise, the beggar speaks. “Everyone strives after the law,” he says, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” For the first time in a very long time, the emissary smiles. “You’re from the tale by Kafka, are you not?” The beggar thinks a moment, and then nods. Bending down, the emissary kisses the beggar on the forehead. “Bless you, my opposite,” he says, “my brother.”


Everyone who contemplates the question of death is equalized in human ignorance. No one is privileged here, not even those who have had what we call “near death experiences,” since nothing objective can be established from such accounts. Though there are virtuoso practitioners of death, we have no geniuses in the epistemology or phenomenology, or—if it is not too paradoxical a category—the ontology of death. And so? The meditation devolves at once to the crucial forking of possibilities: 1. when we die we are gone; or, 2. when we die we go on going.


E.M. Cioran writes that “the only corpse from which we can gain some advantage is the one preparing itself within us.” My father, no student of Cioran, understood this. I conclude, in the absence of direct influence either way, that my father and Cioran had the same teacher.


When I go out to visit the mailbox, I notice, without surprise, that the palm fronds are gone. The bulk collection has left nothing but clean gravel where the bundles lay. They have passed from the circle of my perception without a trace. They were expressions of something, quite literally: of the tree, of nature, of the universe, call it what you like. They were expressions, in the strictest sense of the word, of Being, a pressing outward. As such, they were my siblings and, for a time, my teachers. I honor the space they once occupied. The spot on the bench where the emissary sat in the garden of the Emperor is empty also. Perhaps he has simply gone inside. Perhaps, while we looked the other way, the Emperor came to him and dismissed him. Either way, he is on his way. Going in or coming out, he meets himself and only himself. This is not solipsism. It is an admission that whatever it is of which he is an expression can express only itself.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Emissary (IV)

photo by T.R. Hummer


The emissary is breakfasting. A rasher of bacon and a boiled egg have been brought to him on nickel plates, along with a mug of steaming tea. He eats contemplatively, the food vanishing in a slow, steady rhythm. Thus he pays homage to the food he eats. It is a sign from the Emperor that he has not been entirely forgotten. Over his head hangs a painting of the Emperor. The Emperor and the emissary have the same face. So does the woman who walks by with a jug of water balanced on her head; so does the man who comes at last to clear away the dishes.


I listen to music: Lester Young and Billie Holliday. The music vanishes as soon as it enters me. I do not consume it, nor do I memorize it, though I can replay it in my mind’s ear perfectly. It cuts a vector through the center of my being. I can listen to it again at any time—and yet it vanishes. A lover of Lester Young’s tells how, at home, the great saxophonist would play just for her, “something pretty,” as he put it, and how then “I would tell him how important he was, and what a force he was in the world, it would never be forgotten, because I don’t believe anything’s ever lost. . . . I would tell him, ‘Your sound will be going round and round and round the world . . . for an eternity.’” Listening to the recorded music, I say farewell to it, and to the music Lester Young never recorded, the music he played for his lover’s ears alone. It goes round and round and round the world: the music, and the farewell that pursues it hopelessly.


Always the ancient danger of simply falling asleep in the middle of one’s life—falling asleep and never waking up: dreaming or not dreaming, but not living one’s own reality. That danger, accompanied by the suspicion that this is precisely what one is supposed to do.


Today the palm fronds—still in their bundles, the bundles in their piles—are obviously more desiccated, more attenuated, less present than yesterday. The desert sun burns the essences out of things. Even my limited powers of perception now can see that something is being leached away—water, yes, of course, but more than that: whatever the binding force of Form is. Their substance disappears but so does their structure. They have not moved but their journey is continuous, and multi-dimensional.


I stood beside my father’s bed while he was dying. Was I observing? Was I helping? I was not helping him die, nor was I helping him live. I was helping him get through a span of time. Did my presence comfort him? Was he even aware that I was there? For hours I sat near his head, giving him ice chips, which he seemed to want, and adjusting the oxygen mask. The moment of his dying was impossible to know. He stopped his stridorous breathing, started again, stopped again. Then in the silence that followed, I knew he was not yet dead, not yet, not yet. A moment came when, yes, he was. Impossible to know just when. Impossible to prove, but I suspect time is not at all what we experience it as being. A physicist might disagree, but the concept of Time’s Arrow makes me bristle with uncertainty. Why should we say my father was following an arrow’s course? Isn’t it equally likely that he found an alleyway to vanish down, and made a sharp right turn?


The world is the sum of its manifold resistances and our evanescent egos nothing more than the heat given off by its friction.


Farewell is an ethos. It demands patience and courtesy. To complain about the place one is leaving, or to despair of it, is simple rudeness, once one understands that one’s stay has a duration. It is not my place; I am a guest in it. A good guest knows how to behave even in the presence of a bad host. And a good guest knows when to leave.


I saw my father turn: turn away, turn to a corpse, turn to dust. He turned the corner at the end of the last street in the neighborhood of unconcealment. He ceased to linger. And he knew it was time to go. The doctors said he had six months; he lived four days. He said: “I’m ready to die, I just don’t know how to do it.” His last words were "I want to be a corpse." He had to find a door, like a man in a dark room groping for a handle. And he found it. Is like is the grammatical axis of simile; is is the grammatical axis both of metaphor and of Being. Metaphor is a trope; a trope is a turning. Consider the heliotrope. Consider my father, dying.


God stood looking at the Earth from his infinite-windowed mansion. He caught sight of the emissary sitting erect in the Emperor’s garden, waiting. “This emissary,” he said to a nearby archangel, “what kind of man is he?” “Is he still a man?” replied the archangel. God pondered this question. “He looks like one,” God said. “He looks like you,” said the angel.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Emissary (III)

photo by T.R. Hummer


When I leave the house, I register the not-unexpected fact that the pile of bundled palm fronds is still where we left it. Bulk garbage pickup arrives when it arrives, and will be no more hurried than the gods or the weather. The fronds appear unchanged, but that is a fiction arising from the limits of my powers of perception. Expressions of the landscape, they hold their piece of ground.


My river, when I was a boy, was called the Noxubee, a Choctaw word that means “stinking waters.” It was turgid and muddy, which may have been reason enough for its name, but the Choctaw called it that because the river had become the repository of the corpses of a rival tribe they eliminated. Our brick plant and Ford dealership grew up on the site of a genocide. Cars crowded the river bridge on holidays as people came to town to celebrate and to worship. Under the bridge, the dead flowed away, winding through fertile farmland to the Tombigbee River and the Gulf of Mexico.


I enter the flow of traffic on I-10. There is a spectacular display of clouds and morning sunlight in the broad vista of desert sky that is so often monotonously empty. The harmonious complexity of it is almost dangerously distracting. The light has the elegiac tone that follows storms. How many of us there are on the highway in this overpopulated place, each corpuscular automobile traveling too fast toward an uncertain destination.


From the religious perspective, life is inevitably binary; time, so-called, is the visible side of an axis that rotates through two hemispheres: this life and some other. In the phenomenological variant, the axis of Being rotates us toward Nonbeing. Nobody knows what these ideas actually represent. Increasingly I think and rethink such thoughts with something like nostalgia, the echo of matters already long told farewell.


The cat in my lap purrs and growls with a mellow passion. She is Siamese, and so she is vocal. Her tiny heart is a knot of absolute love where humans are concerned—unlike many cats, she makes it clear that she actually and literally worships people—though if I were a mouse, she would reveal other depths. She is what she is in the very purest sense. Whatever her consciousness consists of, it abides with her forever, as far as she is concerned. To her, there is killing, but there is no death. I might as well read Heidegger to her as say farewell; either way, in my lap she is content.


The emissary has spent an eternity waiting for the Emperor to remember he exists, though he only arrived at the palace this morning. Time for the emissary is a problem—is indeed the only problem. Infinite resignation takes a long time. Giving up all one’s worldly possessions is a major administrative feat.


I pick up a book and read: “In the fifth century BC, according to Herodotus, the nomad Scythians ‘put all the flesh into an animal’s paunch, mix water with it, and boil it like that over the bone-fire. The bones burn very well, and the paunch easily contains all the meat once it has been stripped off. In this way an ox, or any other sacrificial beast, is ingeniously made to boil itself’” (Rea Tannahill, Food in History). I say a special farewell to my brother the ox. I am acquainted with his situation.


Thinking too long about death as a problem will unhinge a human mind. There is no solution to the problem, either pragmatic (how to avoid it) or metaphysical (how to explain it). But the problem is not death: the problem is the problem. It is not necessary to make the leap of faith, or to leap off a cliff. Death is many things--a mysterium tremendum, a void in consciousness, the blind spot toward which we tend--but it is not a problem, any more than the palm tree in the back yard is a problem. Once this corner is turned, it is possible to live again. It is possible to say farewell.


Determined by fate. Determined by history. Determined by gods. Determined by the body. Determined by language. Determined by silence. Determined by gender. Determined by gravity. Determined by helplessness. Determined by mastery. Determined by angels. Determined by capital. Determined by belatedness. Determined by the spine. Determined by race. Determined by light. Determined by everything. Determined by nothing. Determined. Determined. Despair is obscene. Therefore, like all obscenity it must be encoded: otherwise it is pornography. Farewell to all that, eventually, though not quite yet. It is almost—almost—time to move on.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Emissary (II)

photo by T.R. Hummer


We dragged the bundled palm fronds, dusty and insubstantial, to the front of the house, for bulk garbage pickup. There was also a large, heavy old storm door, taller then I am by two feet and made of metal, that we had no use for. I took that out and put it on top of the fronds, as a sort of paperweight. Ten minutes later when I went back outside, the storm door was already gone, snagged by a junk scavenger. Travel light, Pilgrim. The heavy ones go first.


The emissary’s mission is complete, but he is not yet discharged. He awaits the pleasure of the Emperor, who has received the fatal ultimatum and made his reply, but has not yet dismissed the emissary. Without an assignment or any other purpose, the emissary sits in the courtyard; he watches the clouds blow past; he watches birds building a nest. He says farewell to them all, but he does not depart.


The attitude of farewell is reverent. It honors that which is passing, and is at the same time attentive to it. It is humble as long as it does not seek to name the hour of departing; it is a servant to the Mystery and a respectful fellow traveler of the rest. I am not a man of prayer; I am a man of farewells.


I say farewell to the oak that stood outside my bedroom window when I was a child; it blew down in a hurricane years ago, but remains within the aegis of my memory. I say farewell to the collie who attended me there: great heart, your bones are dust, but I carry you with me still, as you carried me then. I carry you still, but not forever: already you are smaller against the horizon of recollection, your bark less present, more redolent with echo. I say farewell to the cattle who were timeless against the landscape. Farewell to the shadow of the old farmhouse, farewell to the bees that stung me there, and the earthworms I grubbed for, and the fish I murdered, and the wind I squinted in, and the water.


I say farewell to my daughters; I will be with you for a long time yet by most reckonings, if we are lucky, but when I see you, when I speak with you, when I send you a note or sit with you in a chair, we are like trains traveling on parallel tracks at the same speed, but one is in advance of the others, so that its caboose is flanked by the engines of the other two. We speed together toward a common destination, but I want to get there first, to see whether what waits there is fit for you. I have no power to change anything about it, but at least I will know, or know that I cannot know.


The discipline of the emissary, once his ultimatum has been properly delivered, is to remain attentive in taking leave even though it takes forever for permission to be granted. This work is harder than threading through frozen passes and slipping behind enemy lines, evading snipers and land mines. He waits forgotten in the courtyard; dust gathers on his boots and pack; his beard grows to his waist, to his knees, and yet he must remain generous in his departure, he must regard whatever he meets—whether noblewoman, insect, or stone—with equal understanding. He is almost invisible in his unadorned hard chair. But the world passes through him, every moment, and is reconstituted in his vanishing.


I walk down the stone stairs to the library door; the ground is littered with pink petals from a flower which in my horizon of consciousness has no name; it grows on an old, well-tended vine in an arch above the walkway. I say farewell to the petals. Tomorrow, the next day, they will have said farewell to me. I walk down the concrete alley behind the church, where fat black super cans stand like dolmens, each crammed with refuse. They are stately in their being, and partake like standing stones in blood rituals beyond imagining. I say farewell to them. Their unconsciousness is ancient, and it feels to me vast and imperially neutral.


Heraclitus’s river flows past the grave of Heraclitus. It flows for miles beyond, through landscapes of orchards and vineyards, and then through wastelands, stones, and rapids, down to the Mediterranean, which is, as far as the river fish are concerned, a disastrous void, but to Heraclitus is the repository of all the rivers he dreamed of stepping into.


The cat who lives in the back yard killed a kangaroo mouse. S. went outside to pick up the decapitated corpse for last rites. When she hoisted it by the tail, all the mouse’s entrails spilled out onto the porch like candy from a sack.


The emissary dreams he is returning home, and meets himself on his way to deliver the necessary ultimatum. His other self does not recognize him, so intent is he on his mission, so weary with his journey, and so young. “What’s up ahead?” he asks this stranger. “Yourself,” the emissary replies. “Ah,” the younger man says. “Farewell then.” “Farewell.”

Emissary (I)

Photo by T.R. Hummer


S. and I were cutting dying fronds from the palm in the back yard. I felt a bolt of hot empathy for the trimmings.


I am saying goodbye to everything. It will be a long, lingering goodbye, most likely. But I am going. It’s not correct to say that my going is “beginning” now; it began before I was born: like everyone’s; like everything’s. It is rather a question of time, or of timing. One month ago, I passed my 60th birthday; I must now think of myself as an old man.


As old people go, I am only a beginner. But the learning curve promises to be steep, and graduation will come quickly.


Everything, therefore, becomes a gesture of farewell. This is not a morbid notion; it is quite simply a statement of fact. I will take leave of the world; I will take leave of myself.


Years ago—as long ago perhaps as fifteen years—I realized that the only question worth thinking about is the question of death, knowing all along that death cannot be thought about—or at least the question has no answer for us. Always firmly agnostic on this as on many subjects, I was convinced, and am convinced, that nobody knows anything about death. The system is rigged that way, so to speak. Nevertheless, I spent an enormous amount of time pushing my nose against that sheet of glass, bashing my forehead against that obdurate wall. It was an exercise in futility that recognized itself for what it was full well. It has not ended, nor will it until I end. It is not, at this point, a question of bowing to the inevitable; that has long been a fait accompli. Long, long ago I thought of death as an enemy; now I understand the futility and foolishness of that anthropomorphization.


Heidegger, that thoroughly compromised and yet in certain ways indispensable thinker, described the phenomenon of Being (from the perspective of archaic Greek) more or less this way: we come from concealment into the realm of the unconcealed and we linger awhile. There is concealment and I, like everything, will return there. My lingering approaches its conclusion.


How do we say goodbye to everything? I am leaving. But everything is leaving. And in another sense it is not “I” who is leaving, as I will leave myself behind along with everything else. If I am saying goodbye to everything, everything is also saying goodbye to me. In relativistic terms, it’s interesting to think that means nothing is going anywhere, since we’re all vanishing together. If we all arrive at more or less the same time back in concealment, is concealment still concealment? The idea is attractive, and impossible to disprove, but it smells of an optimistic sophism.


Heraclitus’s river cannot be stepped into twice. My river cannot be finally bid farewell.


What am I? An emissary I sent to myself with an ultimatum. Now, this much of my mission complete, the emissary readies himself to return with a reply.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Note To Scott Olsen, Editor of Ascent, on the Publication of the First All-Online Issue of That Magazine

Hi, Scott, hi Ascent, bon voyage old wine in new bottles, or maybe that’s old photons in new circuit boards:

I’m the last person who should be responding to your questions, or harmonizing with your meditations. I have spent an unconscionably large hunk of my professional life doing lit mag editing old school. At the same time, I’m the guy who weaned The Georgia Review off letterpress, and introduced computers into its hoary penetralia. (No that is NOT a veiled sexual reference.) People said: your readers will complain. I got one letter from an antiquarian who disliked the new format. One letter. ONE LETTER. If anyone else on earth even noticed, they kept it to themselves.

And now you’ve gone and digitized a whole magazine. All I did was retool production methods: you’ve done away with paper! You’ve KILLED PAPER! Err, but I suppose you’re saving trees. Funny how that works.

We don’t know what the future holds, of course, but presumably we have certain designs on the future. I would dislike a future without serious, committed readers of poems and literary — damn, I mean good — prose. Personally, I don’t care a whit, no sir not a fig do I care, WHERE they read such things. I don’t care if they hire a skywriter to inscribe haiku in the air above their houses; I don’t care if they have ANNA KARENINA tattooed on their butts. If they have contortionist tendencies and want to read it that way, fine. (I don’t recommend having I HEART ANNA KARENINA tattooed on one’s butt, though, surrounded by a valentine; the lady had a mixed track record in matters of love.)

Here is a scary statistic: a reader’s poll along about a decade ago, revealed that the median age of a reader of THE GEORGIA REVIEW (I don’t want to pick on that great magazine, I just know things about it; the same no doubt would apply to many other similarly positioned lit mags) was 58 years old. 58! And that was 10 years ago! I turned 59 a couple of months back, and I have no axe to grind about people that age, but come on: the MEDIAN AGE? How, we asked ourselves, do we get younger readers? We never were able to answer the question.

I would be willing to bet, Scott, that when the number of hits on your new site quadrupled your readership, that at the same time the median age of your readership was cut in half. At least. I can’t prove that, but it seems very likely. The young folks like the keyboards and screens, as David Letterman might say, if he weren’t, erm, preoccupied at the time. Older readers will have plenty to read; older readers will even find their way to online magazines and such. Nor do I want to pretend that digitizing literature is an instant panacea for drifting readership: it ain’t. Younger readers like older readers come in many flavors, and the majority of young people (like the majority of old people) wouldn’t read a haiku if it was printed on a beer can. They’d just switch to a dumber brand.

I have no problem reading texts onscreen, and the technology for such reading (ereaders, e-ink, etc.) is improving all the time. I have a pretty large library of free books from the 19th century, happily downloaded from Google Books (and elsewhere) hiding in my Macintosh, and I read them happily enough. I also like three dimensional, old style, books. I like what we are now prone to call “texts,” alas for the hideous terminology. My eyes are weak, but screens and paper are pretty much all one thing to me now. (Onscreen, I can easily make the font bigger, a good thing for dimsighted geezers such as myself.) Different people have different tolerances; your mileage may vary. But surely we have at least a marginally better chance of attracting younger, and maybe just different, readers to good writing without losing too many, if any, of the ones we already had.

Your production costs go down; your ease of production goes up; your distribution is instantaneous and ubiquitous; and your readership can respond immediately (as I am doing now) to what they read. I’m not anxious for paper to go away, and I don’t think it will; but I see nothing but upsides in the burgeoning digital literary culture.

Go for it, with my blessing.

That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? My blessing?

Go with Dog, my son. Your magazine is the loaves, fishes, and soup bones of literature.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Available Surfaces VII: In the Palm of the Poet's Hand

Ron and Ruth were talking about Thomas Aquinas. As soon as we walked through the door, after Ron introduced Ruth and me very briefly, Ron had said, “Ruth, there’s a question about Aquinas I’ve been wanting to ask; let me ask before I forget.” And then the two of them were off and running into a theological thicket where I could not follow and frankly did not want to.

Nothing against the Heavenly Doctor, mind you: I’ve read a pound or two of Aquinas in my time, though I’ve never found him terribly appealing (Augustine and Duns Scotus are more my speed, not that it’s a horse race). But Ron’s question was something very specific about a particular passage in the Summa Theologica. I was lost before the question was out of his mouth. Ruth, on the other hand, rode it like a surfer rides curl; she could quote chapter and verse, and pursued the problem Ron raised as adeptly as a trained theologian. As we sat down, the small room filled with the intensity of their talk. Ignored for the moment—for about twenty minutes in fact—I looked around.

Out the casement window several ragged-looking palm trees were visible. Beyond them there was a brightening of the air, a sort of aura, that indicated water that I could not see from here; we were not far from the shore. This description might indicate we were in a balmy sub-tropical region, but in fact it was Weymouth in the United Kingdom; the water just out of sight below the window frame was the English Channel. As Ron and I had driven into Weymouth, I had noted the presence of palm trees along the beach with surprise: this hardly seemed the place for them; and indeed they hardly seemed to be prospering. Yet there they were—and they were just one among many surprising things about this place, and this day.

We were in the living room of a modest flat, what in the UK is known as a “bedsit”: an apartment consisting of a living area/kitchen, a bedroom, and a bath. It was sparsely but comfortably furnished, and completely anonymous, except for the fact that the rectangular area in which we sat was completely lined with built-in bookshelves: cabinets below, and shelves to the ceiling, all filled with well-used books. I naturally began to scan titles. There was a heavy preponderance of theological books and related philosophical titles (one shelf sagged under thick Aquinas tomes). There was also an extensive and eclectic, but poetry heavy, collection of literary titles; Gerard Manley Hopkins was especially well represented.

As Ron and Ruth talked on—he in his quiet Oxbridge/Irish accent, she in her working class London one—I fell into a sort of fugue state. It had been a fascinating day. I was near the end of an eleven-month residency in Devon, where I’d been teaching at the University of Exeter; Ron Tamplin was my colleague there, a poet who taught literature. He was an erudite man of great personal sweetness and charm, and we’d become fast friends; today, as a farewell gesture, he was taking me on a tour of places he thought I ought not to miss.


We’d driven first from Exeter to East Coker, and paid a visit to T.S. Eliot where his ashes are interred in the austere St. Michael’s, commemorated by a plaque on the wall (“In my beginning is my end, in my end is my beginning”). From there we made our way to Stinsford to pay homage to some of the remains of Thomas Hardy. As is well known, only his heart is buried there, in his first wife Emma’s grave and in the soil of the Dorset he loved, while the rest of him is in Poet’s Corner in London. Emma lies under a dignified white monument, on the end of which the presence of Hardy’s heart is indicated by an inscription which begins “Here lies the heart of Thomas Hardy” and ends “His ashes rest in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.”
As this was the second churchyard we’d visited within an hour or so, neither Ron nor I was anxious to linger once we’re looked over the stone and the grounds a bit.

As we walked back toward his car, Ron said, “Local legend has it that Hardy’s heart is not buried there at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they say that, after Hardy’s heart was brought down from London, it was placed in a pan on the kitchen table at his home nearby, and a dog ate it.”

“You’re joking.”

“I’m not saying it’s true, but it’s what people say.”

“So, what did they do?”

“The legend says they killed a sheep and buried its heart there instead.”

I paused, considering this. Then I said, “You’ve just revealed a vital difference between Americans and the English, Ron.”

“How so?”

“An American would have killed the dog that ate the heart, and buried the dog; that way the heart would actually be there.”

Ron nodded solemnly. “You’re right. And an Englishman would never kill a dog. For any reason.”

Years later, I ran across this legend again, in somewhat different form. This time it was a cat that ate the heart, and a pig was killed to replace it. I reject this variant on aesthetic as well as pragmatic grounds, but the other story I fully embrace, even though it is probably altogether a fabrication.

After we left Hardy, Ron drove me to see Maiden’s Castle outside Dorchester. Maiden’s Castle is a bewilderingly huge and complex Iron Age earthwork fort, complete with a maze; the only way in and out of the fort is through the maze. The highest ramparts are over twenty feet high, and the fort is built on a hill; there would have been wooden walls on top of the ramparts, so that defenders within, high above the maze entrance, could have attacked enemies easily as they stalled in the twisty passages below. Overall, in its magnitude and complexity, the forbidding strategy of its construction, Maiden’s Castle was a perfect objective correlative for Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.


The library in the Weymouth bedsit was not enormous, as the room was not very large, but it was splendid in its way. It contained many titles I would not, myself, have collected, but every book there was clearly weighty of content, carefully selected; furthermore, there was not a book on any shelf that did not show signs, even from where I sat, from long and careful use. This was not a casual collection, nor was anything present for show: this was a workroom, and the books were respected tools, well maintained but nonetheless worn with the work they had done. It was, in short, my favorite kind of library, one in which function—and hence thought and knowledge, not to say actual wisdom—is the only principal.

Charles Spurgeon, Sören Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, T.F. Powys—Powys! I’d read a couple of his weird, occult novels, but here were his theological works—and D.H. Lawrence: lots of Lawrence. And yes, here was the local copy of the Summa Theologica: a leather-bound set in five volumes, running I suppose to over three thousand pages, the spine of each creased with repeated opening and closing, the gold leaf titles worn by the touch of hands. The effect was vastly more pleasing than the look of brand new unread volumes. Suddenly seized with an unnatural desire to read every word of Aquinas’s masterwork, I was on the verge of jumping up from my chair and making a beginning.

But just then Ruth exclaimed, in her broad London accent, “But oh my, Ron, how rude we’re being! There’s Terry sitting, bored to tears with us, and we’ve forgotten why he’s come!” She leapt to her feet, stepped over to me, and took my hand. “Terry, now it’s time you met Jack!”

She turned me a bit in my chair by the force of her energetic enthusiasm, and suddenly I became aware that, sitting in the corner was a tiny man. “Tiny” is perhaps an overstatement, but his posture was so imploded by—what? inanition, or just gravity?—that he seemed to take up no space at all, and I had completely failed to notice he was there. He was neatly dressed in corduroys and a brown cotton shirt; he wore a corduroy cap. His hands were folded in his lap, and his head was inclined toward them. For all the notice he gave anyone or anything in the room, he might have been asleep.

“Ron!” Ruth exclaimed. Her voice was loud, with a Cockney edge that made it hard to ignore, but the main in the chair did not move a muscle nor turn a hair. “Ron, will you say hello to Jack?”

“Oh, Ruth, no,” Ron said, “I couldn’t. I’m no good at it.”

That response struck me as odd, but before I had time to inquire, Ruth said to me, “What about you, Terry? Will you say hello?”

“Of course I will,” I said. “But how do you do it?"

“It’s simple,” she said. She stepped across to the man and took his right hand in hers, holding it palm up. He allowed this gesture, which might to some have seemed an abrupt indignity, without protest or even visible awareness of it; he might as well have been a mannequin. “You take his hand like this, and then you take your finger and write whatever you want to say to him in big block letters, like so.”
Holding his hand, she wrote in his palm, saying slowly and loudly, for our benefit, the words she was writing: “J-A-C-K,” she said. “R-O-N A-N-D T-E-R-R-Y A-R-E H-E-R-E.”

Jack inclined his head slightly. Ron said, “Ruth, please tell him I say hello.”

“R-O-N S-A-Y-S H-E-L-L-O,” Ruth wrote and intoned. Jack again inclined his head; he fluttered his right hand weakly toward the room in general, a wave to Ron.

Ruth looked at me. “That's it,” she said, “easy-peasy. Fancy a try?”

And so I took Jack Clemo’s hand.


Jack Clemo is virtually unknown in the USA; I can’t recall speaking to anyone who has known his name. In the UK, he is not exactly famous, but he has a devoted following among poets and poetry lovers, perhaps chief among them my friend Ron Tamplin, who idolized him and loved him. It was Ron who—having first gauged my interest in and passion for such poets as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Eliot--had introduced me to Jack Clemo’s work, and as I had warmed to it, he promised me a trip to meet the poet.

In Clemo’s poems I discovered a gnarly, spiritual, formal sensibility akin to Hopkins in some ways and alien to it in others. Clemo’s life in no way resembled Hopkins’s; indeed it in no way resembled the life of anyone I could think of. And while Clemo’s poems are not “confessional”—indeed he often wrote dramatic monologues from the points of view of saints and others—his life, like the life of any poet, is richly implicated in his work.

Born in 1916 to working class Cornish parents, Clemo lost his father early on; his parents’ marriage was not a happy one, and Clemo’s father enlisted in
1917, never to be seen again. Reared among tin miners and clay-kiln workers (his father had been one), Clemo lived in the shadow of his mother’s rage toward his vanished father, and of her religious zeal. She was a “dogmatic Nonconformist,” a designation that, in early twentiety-century Cornwall, basically meant a strict fundamentalist Protestant, a Puritan of sorts, refusing to conform to the aegis of the Church of England.

Clemo was a brilliant boy, but sickly. At some point in his childhood—the few biographical accounts are at variance in dating these matters—he became ill with a disease that the Cornish doctors found mysterious. He had, at this stage, bouts of blindness, of deafness, and of paralysis which came and went unpredictably and, evidently, untreatably. At the age of 13 he was taken out of the public schools, being deemed too sickly to remain; what became of his education beyond that point is hard to say, but my assumption is that he was from that point forward self educated; he never attended university. Somewhere along the way he read D.H. Lawrence, and found validation both in Lawrence’s genius and in his background. Like Lawrence, he set out to write both fiction and poetry; he published a novel, Wilding Graft, in 1948, and in 1949 a memoir, Confession of a Rebel.

In the meanwhile, when he was twenty, the deafness that had sporadically plagued his boyhood became permanent. Blindness continued to come and go, but in the mid-1950s it came and stayed, so that by the age of 40 Clemo was both deaf and blind. From then on, though he published more prose, his output was primarily poetry; his bibliography lists ten volumes.

For me, Clemo’s work is remarkable—beyond the fact that he was able to write it at all—for the incisiveness of its spiritual quest, for its closeness to the weird Cornish landscape and Cornwall’s working class, and for its formal beauty. Like many blind poets (think of Borges in his old age), Clemo gravitated to traditional versification and fixed forms, though likely even had he kept his sight he would have written that way: it suited him (copyright issues make it impossible to quote Clemo poems online; I refer the reader to his or her own resources to discover his powerful and fascinating corpus, but in the US it’s hard to find; my university library contains not a word of Clemo).


At 72, when I met him, Jack Clemo had small, even delicate hands that showed little sign of his working class background. I don’t know to what extent the young Clemo was able to engage in manual labor; if he’d been able to do it, he’s have done it, but his illness may have kept him from it. Photos of Clemo from various times in his life, paradoxically, show a robust, even elegant-looking man, but the Jack Clemo I met was neither. What the state of his health was then I don’t know, but he had only six more years to live, and seemed older and more frail than his age.

Ruth said to Jack: “T-E-R-R-Y W-A-N-T-S T-O S-A-Y H-E-L-L-O.” Clemo gave his small quick nod.

In the palm of his right hand, I wrote, more slowly and deliberately than Ruth had done, “Mr. Clemo: I admire your work very much, and I’m very glad to meet you.” Clemo closed his hand, took it from me, and placed it in his lap again; otherwise, he didn’t react.

I said to Ruth, “I’m not certain I did that right.”

“Let me see,” Ruth said. She was utterly cavalier about her handling of Clemo; she snatched his hand up again and said “T-E-R-R-Y S-A-Y-S H-E A-D-M-I . . . .”

Before she’d finished, Clemo snatched his hand away again. In a firm, resonant, somewhat too loud voice, he declared, “I know what Terry said!”

Of course, of course, of course: he could speak perfectly well. Up until that moment, he had simply chosen not to do so.


From that point until Ron and I departed a couple of hours later, the conversation became general, as they say in old novels, and animated. Clemo was a very eloquent man. Ruth pulled a chair beside him, held his hand in his, and translated at breakneck speed whatever any one of us said; likely she and Clemo had evolved a shorthand of some kind over the many decades of their marriage. Ron and I had a good many things to ask, and it was not long before I felt, as Ron so clearly had for a long time before, that I had met one of my Maestros.

I had questions about his process: how he wrote. He wrote on an old manual typewriter that he’d had for ages; he pointed to where it sat on a small typing table in the corner. He didn’t want a new one; he knew the touch of this one too well for that. Did he revise? Of course! Did Ruth read drafts of his poems back to him? No, he remembered them. “He remembers them all,” Ruth said. “He can go back six drafts and pick up a variation on a line.” Did Ruth proofread his work for him? Yes, but it was hardly necessary. “He never makes a mistake,” Ruth said.

His was a prodigious memory. Ron, being encyclopedically familiar with Clemo’s poems, at one point said, “Ruth, there’s a poem of Jack’s that I saw years ago in a magazine, but I don’t think it’s ever been in one of his books; I wonder if you have a copy,” and he told her the title. “I don’t know,” Ruth said, “but Jack will.” She wrote quickly in his palm, and he lit up. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “You remember that orphan, do you! I like that one as well. Yes, I have it. Just a second.”

For the first time, he rose from his chair. He walked directly across the room. Beneath the bookshelves on that side, there were four double-doored cabinets, eight doors in all. He opened the fifth door from the left. The whole cabinet was filled with boxes of the sort that reams of typing paper come in, all exactly alike. He knelt down and counted, feeling as he went: three rows over, five boxes down: this one! He opened the box, which was filled with what might have been a ream of typing paper, except every sheet had a poem on it. He pulled out the ream and quickly counted his way into it. Aha! There you are; this is the one you want.

“Yes,” Ron said, “that’s it.” It was like a magician’s card trick, except that for Clemo, it was just the way he was in the world. There ensued a lengthy conversation about the poem, which was about, yes, Thomas Aquinas.

Hearing that name again, I looked up again at the five volumes, the three thousand pages, of the Summa, and suddenly a lightning bolt hit me. How did Ruth Clemo know so much about Thomas Aquinas? Ron had told me that Ruth was just what she seemed: a working-class Cockney woman from inner-city London. Arguably the most intelligent person in the room, Ruth had no doubt been denied, like Clemo, access to higher education; she and Clemo had married in 1968, long after the doors of Clemo’s perception had shut down for good. I have no idea what the course of their reading was like, before that date or after it, but the evidence of that edition of the Summa seemed clear enough: someone’s hands had worn that gold leaf away; and the freshness of both Jack’s and Ruth’s acquaintance with the material made it clear that the last reading of it was not so very long ago.

If you write every word of every page of the three thousand pages of Aquinas’s Summa into the palm of someone’s hand, by the time you are done, you are an expert. Whether or not Jack Clemo would be able to leap up and leaf instantly to a given argument of Aquinas’s on page 2,356 of that work, I don’t know, but I’d bet my life that Ruth could.

Jack and Ruth Clemo had whole libraries, whole lives, written in their hands.

Here was the great lesson of this journey, the beautiful gift Ron Tamplin wanted me to take away. What Jack and Ruth held in their hands was what every poet ought to have: the world’s poetry, and—whatever you may mean by the word—God’s, written letter by letter in the skin: thus earned.


At a certain point, it became clear that Jack was restless. “Ah, it’s time for Jack’s walk,” Ruth said; “he has to have it every afternoon.”

And as it was getting late, Ron and I agreed we would walk the Clemo’s out, then return to the car for the drive home.

It was a beautiful late spring day, and the sun was low in the sky. We walked alongside the Clemos; Ruth was tucked snugly against Jack, protectively I thought, but it hardly seemed necessary; Jack clearly knew exactly where he was and where he was going. We were chatting about nothing as we walked; Jack alone was silent. Suddenly he shook himself loose from Ruth, turned at a smart right angle, and walked off the sidewalk out onto a lawn. He took four steps, paused, and then held out both hands, forming a circle with his thumbs and his middle fingers. It was for all the world as if he were about to put an invisible crown on the head of an invisible king who knelt before him.

I said, “What’s he doing, Ruth?”

“Ah,” she said. “There was a storm a couple of weeks ago. His favorite palm tree was right there where he’s standing. He’s saying farewell to it.”

Looking down, I could see the remnant of the tree, sawed off flush with the ground. The placement of his hands was exact: if the tree were still where it once stood, his hands would encircle it perfectly.

 Jack Clemo: photo by Tricia Porter

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Available Surfaces VI: Writ in Water

The place I spent my boyhood was landlocked; we were far from the ocean, and from any other kind of major body of water, whether significant lake or river. There were not even streams in that terrain: the water table was deep and did not break through the deep and fertile layers of soil laid down there millennia ago when our region was a shallow sea. Once those waters departed, there was nothing to replace them except what fell from the sky. The rich soil was not colonized by farmers until deep well technology made it possible to drill through thick layers of limestone to tap the aquifer there.

In the absence of natural standing water, our countryside was dotted with artificial ponds; these had started as watering places for livestock and fulfilled that function, but the landscape rapidly adopted them as part of the ecology. Unlike in drier and less arable regions, our little lakes did not sit uneasily or anomalously where they were constructed; they did not look like constructs at all, but quickly settled in and became necessary not only for cattle but also for a large array of flora and fauna that arrived with amazing speed from sources that were not immediately apparent. They were appropriated and integrated in such a way that one could hardly imagine the area without them. From the air, one could see that they speckled the landscape like scattered flecks of mica.

A quarter mile from our house, on the other side of a gradual upward slope (at the top of which my father had built his barn), there was one such pond. About five acres in extent, it was of medium size by the standards of that place, and well located, with an enormous oak tree just behind the dam providing both stability and, at the right time of day, shade. That was clearly by design, as the oak was older than the pond. Other, smaller trees—willows, mostly—had sprung up in the meanwhile, but not so many as to make any area impassable or inaccessible. The water was deepest by the dam; on the other side, there were extensive shallows where our cattle came to wade out, cool themselves, and drink. This they did on a very regular schedule, in the early morning and near sunset. They were often accompanied by their bird familiars, cattle egrets, which during the summer followed the herd continually, eating insects flushed out of the grass by the movements of the cattle; sometimes they rode on cows’ backs, picking bugs off the coats of the black angus my father favored and bred.
Other times of day the pond was less obviously populated, though always populous nonetheless. During a certain period of my life—when I was between nine and fifteen years old, more or less—I spent huge hunks of my summers at the pond. One didn’t swim there: the water was clear enough, but the pond produced huge crops of algae and other water plants, the bottom was the very sticky mud our Black Prairie soil became when wet, and there were certainly snakes, water moccasins in particular, to worry about. There were also enormous snapping turtles.

Ostensibly I went there to fish. I took my spinning rod and tackle box of artificial lures; I also took a short-handled net, which I had modified into a long-handled one. This I used not for fish but to catch baby turtles in the pond’s shallows, where they went to sun. I spent more time catching turtles than fishing, in fact. Fishing interested me vaguely, and I did catch a good many large-mouth bass, small-mouth trout, and bream from that pond over the years. Mostly, though, it was the pond itself that attracted me; as I collected its inhabitants, insofar as I did collect them, the pond collected me.

At this point, we might segue into recollections of a certain kind of bucolic childhood—boyhood in particular, as in that place and time the fishing rod was one of the archetypes of rural boyhood. Most of the time I left that item in the shade of the oak tree. I was after something larger even than the ten-pound bass my father had once pulled out of that water.

The movements of the surface of the water were for me a source of endless fascination. There was no room in that pond for large-scale turbulence. Had I grown up near an ocean, I would have absorbed a completely different dynamic. The surface of the pond was subtle. It was responsive to even the slightest movement of the air; but when the day was still, as it often enough was at noon in July, the water assumed a near-perfect pellucidity. There were rhythms of clarity and opacity, of reflection and refraction—of, you might say, opening and closing—that I never tired of observing. Those rhythms obeyed laws, obviously, but they were nevertheless thoroughly unpredictable, syncopated in ways that I understood deep in my body, but which defeated my mind’s ability to comprehend. Along the fixed margin of the dam, there was one kind of clarity; along the mutable ragged edge of the shallows there was another. I could glimpse the life beneath the water: turtle, crawfish, bream, snake; I could also witness the life of the sky, both through reflections and through the visitation of the sky’s representatives, particularly the tall herons I often surprised (as they surprised me) wading the shallows, hunting. Simultaneously a mirror and a lens, the water revealed its own world, and the world outside itself. It was infinitely various, but its scale was, for me, manageable. I fit there; I belonged.

I am convinced that every poet carries within him or herself a cluster of process models which govern the nature and rhythm of how poems are created and why. In myself, I can recognize three. One comes from the life of the farm where I spent my childhood: in that model, one prepares the soil, one scatters the seed, and then one waits, dependent on the vagaries of the weather to make things happen. The second is musical (and obvious): the improvisatory lessons learned from years of delving into performance within the flexible but endlessly instructive parameters of the cluster of American musical forms that have been a lifelong passion for me. The third model—and I have only recently recognized its much more subtle operation in my psyche and in my poetic practice—comes from the life of that small pond: its fixed margin, its flexible ragged right, its simultaneous revelation of a life within and a life without, its subtle alteration of the spectrum of the clear and the opaque, reflection and refraction, opening and closing.

Once I caught a smallish bream. I ran my stringer through its gill and tossed it back into the water, tethering it to the bank. Then I lost it: half forgot about it, and couldn’t locate where I’d affixed it to the ground. Distracted by my own meditations, I left it there. Six months later, in the height of winter, I found it again. It had died, of course, and so had the big snake that had swallowed it. When I pulled my stringer in from the water, I found the two skeletons attached, one inside the other, an elaborate sculpture, perfectly familiar and yet completely strange, a natural supernaturalism, or, as Stevens called it, the motive for metaphor,
the sharp flash,
The vital, arrogant, fatal, dominant X.