For the past few days, at the invitation of the editors of the online journal Linebreak, I've been a guest blogger; the work I did for that very welcome gig was inevitably connected with writing I've been doing for Mindbook for the past several months. Therefore, with the permission of Linebreak, I'm reproducing those entries. Be sure to visit Linebreak to see the excellent work they're publishing.
Begin with a human figure—a silhouette of a human figure, for the moment, backlit by sunset—a human figure walking down a road. The road is a dirt road, hard-packed reddish-beige earth. Down its center a pair of bare ruts run, where passing cars and trucks and tractors have flattened, hardened, and buffed it to a kind of ceramic sheen. The person in view, however, does not walk in the rutted center of the road, but in the gravel on its narrow shoulder. One’s first interpretation of this fact might be that he—for let us now deploy the masculine pronoun—walks as he does for safety’s sake; but any traffic in a place as remote as this would be obvious even from a great distance, and if he so chose, he could walk the center of the road without danger either to himself or to the animal he leads on a length of hemp rope. It is more likely that his position is a concession to the animal than to any merely human consideration. The old brown mule follows the man at a distance of about six feet, walking entirely off the road, from where it stops often to snatch a mouthful; when the mule stops, the man stops, in a sort of enforced symbiosis of which the mule most often appears the dominant component. Still, the rope is long enough that the man could, if he chose, walk the center, and let the mule still graze the shoulder. Surely it would be easier to walk along one of the ruts, flat and hard as a sidewalk, than in the gravel along the road’s edge; yet surely walking as he does is a choice—dictated perhaps by a deference that precludes his seizing the center.
Though more than fifty years have passed since the time of which I write, if you stood today in the place where I locate the lens of my memory, the scene would be remarkably similar. Both man and mule are decades dead, the road remains still unpaved and fundamentally unaltered though likely now it is in worse repair than it was then.
About the length of hemp rope, who knows?
There are questions about everything I have described here. About the road, for instance, it is worth wondering when it came to be here, and how, and especially why. It is a rural road maintained—however intermittently and poorly—by the county board of supervisors, and yet is serves, almost entirely, a single farm. The road is an ovoid loop appended to a slightly wider main road that runs several miles before terminating in a blacktop road that extends another fifteen miles to the nearest (tiny) town. The loop was a three-mile detour, so to speak, through the farm, and was used by almost no one other than those who lived there—all members of one extended family plus their employees. Is it usual for county governments to build and maintain roads for such constituencies and narrow purposes?
And the mule: how old is it? In my memory the mule is about as old, in mule years, as the man in human ones; but is that an accurate recollection or an embellishment? And, objectively, just what is the ratio of mule to human years? The mule could be a sort of litmus test of memory if it were possible, now, to retrieve any real information concerning this particular animal. What is the story of a mule’s life? Has it known the work of the plow? Can I see, through my well-placed lens, bare patches on its shoulders where years of a rubbing harness would have worn the hair away? Or is that one of memory’s appended footnotes, phrased in the subjunctive?
This particular animal, in truth, is generations dead. And what is done with a mule, on this particular farm, when it dies? Most likely it is left in the field where it falls—or if it collapses near a house, it is dragged to some more remote spot—and becomes client to the good undertaking of the earth and its assistants, the beetle and the buzzard. The pastures of this farm are littered with bones—bones of cattle, or horses, the delicate bones of cattle egrets, the once quick bones of rabbit, squirrel, fox. Bones from fresh deaths are found all together, waiting for a naturalist to wire them back together; older, dryer bones are scattered—rib here, skull there. Nobody bothers to bury animals here, not even the “noble” species. I once found, in a grove a mile behind a house, the skull of a dog with a clean bullet-hole in its skull, and understood that here lay our English pointer Daisy; she had grown old and infirm and was assisted to her end. Another day, walking a farther field, I found the body of a black Angus heifer, dead of unknown causes, swollen to half again her normal size. Approaching her from the back, I noticed armies of insects coming and going, those leaving burdened with imponderable bits of matter. I circled her at some distance and saw a gaping cavity in her belly, out of which stepped, as I stood there, one of the lords of the underworld at his leisure: a huge turkey vulture who had been entirely hidden inside her and came forth now to my view like the issue of a Caesarian birth: grand and otherworldly, as Elizabeth Bishop writes of her hierophant moose, one of the royal family of Otherness.
And the hemp rope? Long gone to dust, one might be tempted to think, thrown on some trash heap, dropped in a ditch, exposed to the action of water and light, the moral equivalent of vultures to a piece of rope. But in other circumstances—left in a barn, or even the ruin of an abandoned house—it might well endure, might still exist, unknown, unused, unrecognized, an Ariadne’s thread for memory if memory could only locate it.
But now the children are coming. From the west side of the road, invoked from pecan tree shade by the figure of the man and mule, two come; from the east side of the road, drawn from oak shade, two others, all of them running. The western two are blond, the eastern two dark-haired, and if one could trust to the evidence of narrative juxtaposition, one would conclude that the influence of pecan trees generates blondness, that of oak the opposite—a train of reasoning that does not trouble the man or the mule. The man sees them coming as he rounds the bend in the road, or more likely hears them coming—for all are shouting his name—and he stops for them.
The first child to reach him is the oldest of the four, the taller of the blond pair, a boy who is on this particular afternoon nine years old, a boy thin as bee-wire, almost painfully thin, each of his ribs clearly etched on his torso. He is not thin from any scarcity of food in his parents’ tiny house, which always smells overpoweringly of something cooking—it is from pure disposition. There is a tension in him, an energy apparent usually as some degree of anger, which propels his every step, every gesture, every expression. So driven, he reaches the man with the mule well in advance of the other three children. He stops, wordless and scowling. The others, still yards away and charging, are shouting the man’s name, but this boy stands silent, wearing nothing but a pair of dirty shorts, staring up with his clear blue eyes, his anger hovering like an aura, his very being a silent demand: an order.
And the man obeys. He stoops and scoops the boy up, his hands under the boy’s armpits; he swings him up and sets him squarely on the mule’s back. By the time the other three children arrive, this boy’s mule ride is already half over.
I wrote of the lens of memory, the lens of my memory, creating a simultaneous lapse and overlay of time. Placing the lens on its tripod of ganglia, I observe what it reveals and I record it, one might assume. It would be pretty to think so. So much is swept away in fifty years, not only from the world but from memory as well—and there is so little correspondence between what is swept away from the world on the one hand and from memory on the other—that the relationship between what I remember and anything we might call “fact” is profoundly problematic. The problem, of course, is both commonplace and insoluble, and I do not propose to solve it or even more than glancingly address it here. Better minds than mine have foundered on this issue, and I have nothing original or incisive to add to the account that has run at least from Augustine’s Confessions through Wordsworth, Freud, and Proust down to our own moment, whatever a moment may be. Memory is not my subject, but it is inevitably my medium. Just as a filmmaker cannot escape the fact that—do what he or she may to disguise it—the camera is always and forever a filmmaker’s point of view, so mine is the lens of memory. Each has its power, its virtue, its flaws, its fatal limit. The camera is relentlessly external; however much it may “desire” to penetrate a consciousness, it is by definition left outside. For memory, obviously, the situation is the opposite. Facts are no more the business of memory than they are the business of poetry. Memory, indeed, is the original poetry.
As to fact: there are certain sources that might verify or deny some aspects of the poem of the past I embody: research that could still be done, interviews that could be carried out. The “facts” I might discover thereby would in reality be nothing more than the contents of other peoples’ memories, compounding my own illusions with the illusion of corroboration or correction.
The shameful truth is that I am not interested in facts. What concerns me is the traces left in me at the remove of half a century of the world in which I then lived, a world which now—no matter how similar it may appear to a carefully framing, squinting observer seeking out the appearance of identity and just as carefully screening out difference—is completely and irrevocably vanished.
What to make of this disappearance—and not its causes but its effects—is my true subject. Czeslaw Milosz has written repeatedly of his native Lithuania, which, when he was born there in 1911, was still, he says, medieval, and which he saw destroyed several times over in the course of his lifetime by successive invasions, both military and ideological. For him, the destruction of this “native realm” was a disaster, or a series of disasters, and an irrevocable loss. There is a considerable portion of his vast canon given over to a passionate and thoroughly convincing nostalgia for that destroyed place, that inundated time. It is a nostalgia which is utterly unsentimental, charged with emotion though it may be. The condition is imperative, and it carries a vital duty. Milosz serves it encyclopedically. He is required, like a sort of anti-Adam, to name all the creatures of a vanished Eden—or, a better metaphor, he unpacks himself like the ark of Noah, disgorging everything that has survived the Flood by being inside him. It is a monumental exercise, dependent on an impervious being and an infallible faith in his own memory—for if memory is suspect here, then the exercise is useless. The vessel must be perfect, numinous, in a sense divine. However earthly, twisted, and corrupt the materials of which it is made—and Milosz takes a certain delight in recording this side of himself—the vessel as such must float, upheld by a transcendent spirit. Otherwise, when they come down off the ramp onto dry land—these landscapes, these villas, these rivers, these beautiful young women and eccentric brilliant men, these lapdogs, these peasants, these mountains, these victims—they will have been merely made up, not saved.
My situation is different from the one with which Milosz was fated to contend—is, in many respects, its polar opposite—and the nature of selfhood therein, and hence the nature and role of memory, while equally crucial, is likewise wholly other. I evoke a world whose disappearance I must not merely approve but celebrate: it is gone, it needed and deserved to go, good riddance to it, to every human shred of it good riddance. It was a world that was corrupted by its fundamental principles, and that corruption extended to all its creation, including its children: including the child I was. I am not the safe miraculous vehicle that rescues the things of that world; I am rather, in a sense more than metaphorical, their destroyer.
That man with a mule was a black man. He was a tenant farmer who had given his entire life to working for a family of white people, being rewarded for his labor with very little money and less respect. Or so I assume. The truth of the matter is that I know almost nothing about him. All I have at first hand is this memory of his apparently endless circuit of the farm, and his encounters with us children. Even his appearance is lost to me: when I try to see him, I see a blur, not really a face.
Even the day that I have evoked here is not really a singular memory but a composite: it must have been more or less so because it was more or less so many times in those years. How many times? I haven’t a clue. The man with the mule would walk past our house; we would run out expecting—indeed demanding, albeit little demanding was needed—to be given a ride. Each of us would be lifted up, would ride the mule perhaps ten yards, and be set down, replaced by another child until everyone had been given a turn. Then the man and the mule would walk on, disappearing around the next bend in the road; but by then we children would have forgotten them.
How often did I ride that mule? I have absolutely no idea. All such instances have been compressed in my recollection, by the sedimentary weight of 50 years, into a single fossil. I rode the mule once. That can’t be true: I must have ridden it many times. But I can reconstitute only one ride, undoubtedly a composite of—how many? Six, a dozen, twenty, a hundred? On the day I have invented, I was five years old, the youngest of the four boys who ran out. I was the smallest of the dark-haired, oak-stained ones. The oldest, the blond boy, was my cousin from across the road. He lived in a pecan tree. No, he lived in a tiny cinderblock house full of jealousies and angers which he internalized seemingly at birth, and continues to embody to this day. No, he died in Vietnam. No, he died of polio. No. No. No.
And who was I? What house did I live in? Did I go to a war? Was I ill? Did I live or die?
The mule is generations dead: mule generations certainly. The black man with whom he walked is dead; his bones no doubt lie in some graveyard, unlike those of the mule, though what graveyard I have no idea. Even his name is lost to me—his real name. I remember the name by which he was known: we called him Stump. Everyone did. Old Stump and his mule. Not Mr. Stump. Stump. We children came shouting, Stump, Stump! Our shouts were a presumption and a demand. Did we ever ask politely for a ride? Did we ever say thank you when he set us down? I don’t remember, but I doubt it. We were white children. We were the children of Mr. Glenn and Cap, one of the names by which my father was known: not cap as in hat, but cap as in Captain. Did we want a ride on the black man’s mule? The black man would give us a ride. My cousin was our leader; I did not have the courage or the presumption or the angers that drove him, but I followed. I followed in his demand, and I, as Whitman put it, assumed what he assumed. This is who you are: you are a white boy.
The man with the mule never hurried. He never seemed either out of sorts or happy; he never seemed either glad or angry to see us. Such, in any case, is the memory I make of him. Is that true? I don’t know. It is the trace of him that survives in me: patience, at least the appearance of a disinterested kindness, regularity. In fact, his life was obviously complicated, full of trouble and joy, pain and need and passion, everything. I knew, and know, nothing of that. He was Stump. He lived on our farm. He walked with a mule. Whose mule? Did he own the mule, or was he its caretaker or simply its companion? He did not own the fabled forty acres; did he at least own the mule? And what about the piece of rope: did he at least own that?
I do not know who he was. Not knowing who he was, I do not know myself. I am forever destabilized by that ignorance, which was willed. He was there to be used, not known. He was there to be a flat character in the narrative of the round characters. The world that used him that way no longer exists except in the memories of those of us who were there and who want to remember. For the most part, in my experience, the people who were there have no stomach for remembering it—or they are incapable of it. But then, who is capable? Certainly I am not. What remains most true for me from that time is the culpability I first inherited, and then the ideas I embraced, at least for awhile. We were the masters of a world other people built on our behalf. Our happiness was based on their sweat. We know that. Our knowledge of that has become one of the clichés of Southernness. But it is important not to let it sink entirely to the level of the cliché. What we did because of who we thought we were had real consequences, however difficult they may be to recover.
A piece of rope. It’s something: something concrete. Used properly, a piece of rope is a little length of power: it can control, it can possess, it can capture, torture, kill. Rope is the weapon of the lynch mob. In the Japanese art of rope bondage, kinbaru, rope is an aesthetic medium and a tool for ecstasy. Rope connects things. It holds things. It can sustain and it can destroy.
I am not an ark. I am a piece of hemp rope, one end tied to what I know of myself, the other end lost in a cloud of ignorance.
The piper plays; the rope uncoils and rises into the air; the piper climbs the rope and vanishes. That vanishing is my destiny.
Hence, my friends, poetry.