Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Wandering Doubtful Wilderness

~a field at dawn~

What have we here? It looks like
Old men, a field of old men,
So many of them lying

Here and there in the long grass,
Sleeping, clutching pale objects
To their chests. What are those? Sheaves

Of parchment and papyrus 
And strips of bamboo—paper,
Reams of paper pressing them.

They must be suffocating.
What are they all doing here,
Lying out in the sunrise

While the deer browse around them
And the mountains turn brilliant,
As if cliffs could be thinking

Hard about the rules of light. . . . 
How did all these men get here?
I wonder if they’ll wake up.

We’re tilting into the sun.
Shadows retreat from the grass.
One old man lifts up his head,

Still clutching his stack of sheets,
And croaks like a rusty crow.
Alright then, let’s talk to him.

~an old man’s vision~

Catching sight of a human
Figure approaching, he calls,
“I am lost! Completely lost!

But you have found me! Help me!”
On his knees, he extends thin,
Trembling arms piled with vellum.

Well, so much for asking him
Directions. “What do you want?”
Now he’s climbing to his feet,

Weighed down by his collection.
“You must read these! Please!” He squawks,
“Wisdom! Forgotten wisdom!”

His sagging eyes are rolling.
He may be naked, his skin
Grey as a paper wasp’s nest

Flaking in the morning sun.
Except for his leathery
Burden, he’s nothing but ash.

None of the other men stir.
“Wisdom? What sort of wisdom?
Here, let me take those. You’ll fall.”

He lurches and spills the heap,
Rasping out, “Wisdom! Vision!
My vision, lost to the world!

My vision, lost until now!”
The sheets, scattered in the grass,
Flap like wary butterflies.

“Don’t lose it!” he cries, swaying,
Staring at his manuscript
As if it were a fledgling 

Fallen from the nest, willing
His lost investment to fly.
When I stoop to gather it,

The vellum still feels like skin.
It is illuminated
With vines and naked humans 

And covered in a crawling, 
Cursive, inscrutable script.
“This is your vision? Are all

These sleeping men around us
Also holding their visions?”
He grows antic, frail enough

He might well disintegrate
In a breeze. “Never mind them!
I have the wisdom! Read me!”

Ah. I have reached the country
Of lost prophets. Wilderness,
Then, begins in those mountains.

“I’m afraid I can’t read this.”
I hand him the tidied lump,
Take my sturdy walking stick,

And head toward the mountains,
Ignoring the grass stirring
With long-lost heads around me.

“Take me with you then! You must
Take me with you!” I don’t turn,
But he follows. “My vision!”

~perfection and decay~

The grasses give way to scrub,
And the foothills look feral,
But there’s nothing much new here—

Wise oaks are a tired idea.
The birds trill familiar chirps.
Behind me, my companion

Hauls his encrypted vision,
So grey and ashen he’s now
Mostly a pillar of smoke

Trailing over my shoulder.
This trail grows monotonous.
What is there to find in this?

“I see it! I see it first!
My vision works!” The hoarse voice 
Of ashes rasps in my ear.

See what? And then, there it is—
A shining, perfect circle
Floating silver in the shade.

The moment I pause and stare,
An arrow hisses past me
And disappears into it.

From the scruffy forest, weak,
Creaking sounds erupt, a cross
Between groaning and applause.

On the trail, a small parade
Of neat, bipedal lizards,
Bronze-scaled and bespectacled,

Comes single file through the shade,
Chins tilted up, necks pulsing
With that creaking chirruping,

And they approach the circle
Where it hangs, a gleam in air.
“Nasty little decadents!”

Hiss the ashes in my ear.
“They’re nothing but scavengers!
They’re approximate beings!”

I turn to shush my half-ghost,
My shadow of old ideas,
But a commotion erupts

As the lizards reach the ring.
Shrieking, snowy balls of fluff
The size of fists, lacking limbs

(Or any appendages)
Now bounce from the underbrush
Like missiles of wadded fur

And dance under the circle,
Thwarting the lizards’ approach.
Animated bits of beard,

They’re screeching something that sounds
As if it could be numbers
Or words—is that algebra?

“Aaah, now the perfectionists!
These eternal nuisances!”
My grey ghost lisps through the din.

“STOP! You’re making my ears hurt!”
To my relief, they all quit,
Prophet and lizards and fur.

The lizards turn, neat as pins,
To regard me, and one says,
“But traveler, the arrow.”

His diction is calm and clipped,
Precise, and without affect.
One of the white hair balls shrills,

“Is always transposable!”
“Never!” snaps the lizard’s jaw,
Clenching as if on a bug.

I have stumbled on the war
Of Time and Eternity.
Real wilderness could be near.

I pretend diplomacy.
“Shall we just go have a look?”
The lizards all bow their heads.

“The arrow is always gone.
Everything disintegrates,”
They intone as if in prayer.

The rags of mop start hopping
Up and down again, shrilling
Something about x, n, y,

Or is that excellent pie?
Ash shadow is muttering
That his vision squares it all—

I need to wade in and see,
Before they’re back to chaos
In their little jamboree.

On the far side of the ring
Being held up by nothing,
There’s no sign of the arrow,

Not on the ground, not in trees—
There’s no arrow to be seen.
“You see?” A polite lizard,

Sheltering by my ankle
From the frizzy clumps of hair
Jumping at him and screeching,

Looks up at me mournfully.
“Don’t buy those sad eyes,” the wind
Of ash admonishes me.

“They come not to mourn but feast!”
And indeed, I notice then,
Lizards surround a small heap

Of what could be dust or sand
Glittering near the circle.
“They know the arrow means more

Digestible bits for them!”
The dust bunnies ignore this,
And if I saw any eyes

I might say they were gazing 
Rapturously at their ring.
“Our roof is sure wrecked,” they sigh,

Quietly now, or is it,
“Our”—all?—“proof is pluperfect”?
Wait. That’s not a heap of sand

That the lizards are crunching,
That’s what’s left of the arrow.
That’s Hau, himself, the unknown.

“Excuse me, please, I need him.”
I push the lizards aside.
Denied fresh bits, they’re vicious,

And my fingers are bloodied
By the time I’ve swept the heap,
Which does feel rather like dust,

Back into a tidy stack.
I scoop it into my hands,
Lizards nipping at my feet.

No sooner have I straightened,
Than another arrow cuts
A little nick in my ear

And zips into the circle.
A spray of powdered dust motes
Floats to the ground, along with

A stitch of my blood and skin,
And the lizards rush to it
While the hair balls wail again.

Cupping my hands carefully,
So as not to spill my prize,
My stick clamped in my elbow,

I head up the trail as fast 
As I can without stumbling.
The bleeding will stop itself.

“I could settle the battle!”
My ashen visionary
Complains. “Good! Stay with them then—

Read your unread book to them.
Amaze them with your vision.”
I have to keep my eyes front,

But, as the trail starts to thin
Into larger, closer trees,
I’m fairly sure I’ve shed him.

I feel a little badly. 
I don’t think he’ll placate them
With ashen mysticism.

Finally, a giant root
Offers me a place to sit.
It’s dead quiet in the woods,

Which can’t mean wilderness yet.
I peer at the little heap
Of identical dust flecks

Doing nothing in my hands—
“Speak to me, heap of sweepings.”
Proof depends on idiots.

~many unknowns~

Adjusting my position,
I accidentally shift
So that some of the specks slip

Through my fingers, and I find,
To my delight, they whisper
Whenever I let them go—

“We’re not really the arrow,
And we’re not just bits of dust.
We’re pyrite. We’re flammable.”

Nice to know, I suppose, but
I have more urgent questions.
“Are you Hau, the great unknown?”

I wait, and then remember 
I need to let more escape.
I tilt my votive fingers

And loose a minor cascade.
“Yes, and no. Hau is among
Our number and is many

And was just one way to show
Accumulation requires
Estimation, which requires

An assumption of sameness 
In the pieces of the whole
And precision in counting

The similar as the same.”
Silence. This is too gnomic.
Gently, I spill a bit more.

Sunlight dapples my shoulders,
Reminding me morning’s done.
I don’t know how far to go.

“There’s no such thing as distance
To the fairies of the real.”
Their voices sift, shiftily 

As a mouse in a silo.
“It’s best to doubt what you know;
Never to doubt that you don’t.”

This is annoying. They’re not
Giving away anything
I couldn’t have thought myself.

They’re worse than my lost prophet,
Who at least named what he saw.
I shake glitter from my hands

Like a dusty waterfall.
It drifts in a prolonged rush
Of riddles and abstractions.

”The problem with seeking out
The unknown is an unknown
Is never unitary

But ever uncountably 
Legion, each one differing.
An unknown that is constant

Is syncopated fiction,
A convenient assumption,
Helpful for calculations.

As we run through your fingers,
Regrettably, you can see,
Our unknowns are inconstant,

And even our differences
Vary unstably—Sunya,
Chaos, Zixu, Sigma, Nil—

We are not what will become 
Of us, of uncertainties.
We are only what is not. . . .”

When the whispers die away,
I realize all the fool’s gold
Has vanished through my fingers.

I pick up my walking stick—
Another guide gone for me,
Wilderness far beyond me.


Later in the afternoon,
Not following any trail
That I can see, just heading

Uphill into larger trees,
With no clearer intention
Than getting into the woods,

Going higher and deeper,
I do feel a twinge of dread.
The forest still seems too tame,

Alive only with small birds,
Squirrels, the occasional deer
Or startled hare—harvested

Stumps under the second growth.
I’m nowhere near first one here,
But the solitude’s enough

That I’m oddly pleased to hear
The sound of a distant axe.
Not a chainsaw, mind you—axe.

It’s nostalgic—takes me back
To the storybook forests
I wandered through in childhood. . . .

How’d I end here in the dirt?
My head. There’s blood in my eyes.
I need to keep calm and breathe. . . .

“Well yer an idjit, ain’t yeh?”
A shadow looms over me,
At least until I sit up

And realize we’re eye-level 
With each other, me sitting,
Him standing in thick workboots. 

Trees sway about like dancers
Do pretending to be trees.
“Easy there. Jes’ wrapped yer head,

An’ if you keep swinging it
Aroun’ yull undo th’ whole 
Shitaree.” He squints at me,

Or his eyebrows do, ledges
Over the caves of his eyes.
The rest of his face is beard.

“Who?” I manage, through thick lips.
“Y’kin call me Bonesetter.
Bonesetter ’n Woodcutter

‘N all aroun’ Tree Surgeon.
Do all the operations
‘Roun’ here, ‘n these woods need it.

Now whadja think yer doin,’
Wandrin’ up ‘n my canyon,
Crackin’ yer skull on my trees?”

“Doubtful” is all I manage
This time before he’s wheezing
Like an engine that won’t start.

I’m half afraid he’s dying,
But then I see he’s laughing
By the way he claps his knees.

“Yr not equipped,” he wheezes.
“Whadja got there, a big stick?”
He doubles over, wheezing.

“Kin’t do no operations 
With an idjit walkin’ stick.”
What am I to make of this?

My head feels clearer, the trees
Have returned to their senses.
Do I apologize? Bow?

“I’m not, I’m not, not meaning,”
I struggle with the sentence,
“To operate on your trees.”

As if I know what that means.
“C’rse not. Betche’ never done
Operations in yr life.”

“I’ve done a few,” I protest,
Still completely cluelessly.
“I only want to walk through.”

Now he’s jumping up and down,
And I see he’s grabbed his axe.
“Yeh kin’t know if yeh kin’t do!

Gotta do operations!
Otherwise, go th’hell back!”
My head starts to throb again.

“Maybe I can rest awhile
While you explain things to me?”
“Hopeless idjit. Foller me.”

~balancing forest~

Outside a sturdy cabin
Too small for me to enter,
I sip some kind of nut tea

That makes me feel pleasantly 
While I watch the Bonesetter 
Demonstrate balancing tricks,

Juggling whole trees on his axe.
He’s charmingly good at this,
Rearranging trees like props

Surrounding his cabin’s stage.
It dawns on me who he is,
Just as the day starts to fade. 

He’s the Practical Master,
The juggler of mysteries,
Equalizer of all things.

“Master!” I blurt out. “Master,
I didn’t know you lived here,
Hiding your art in the woods.”

He pauses, knitting his brows
Into a single, dark shelf.
“How kin yeh want wilderness

If yeh kin’t balance the trees?”
He’s genuinely perplexed.
“Alright. It’s dusk. Stay with me.

I’ll send yeh off when it’s light,
‘N if yer no smarter then,
At least yeh won’t leave so dumb.”

I thank him humbly and press
For further explanation.
He holds up his axe handle,

Grumbling, “I’ll show yeh one trick,”
His axe is doubly handled.
“Balance yr problems on these.”

Maybe his beard smiles a bit,
But the light is dimming fast
And he glances furtively

Around his rearranged glade
As if afraid of being
Overheard. “Le’s make yer bed.”

~family argument~

I sleep under bark blankets,
Mosses piled up for my head.
As I drift off, the rhythm 

Of snoring from the cabin
Seems odd until I notice
That every inhalation

Matches each exhalation
Exactly, the flawless sound
Of one long double-buck saw.

The next thing I know, it’s light,
And my head feels light as well,
My limbs, too, and I wriggle

And stretch in satisfaction,
Looking up into the trees,
The tallest of which seems new,

Come to mention it, and bent
At its lofty tip, as if
Looking back down into me.

I try to focus my eyes
On that treetop, but it seems
To vanish without ending,

And it seems to be watching,
Me or something beyond me,
Something the far side of me.

“Oh, dammit,” growls a low voice.
Bonesetter is beside me,
Two-handled axe on shoulder, 

Beard pointed up at the trees.
“That is one gigantic tree,”
I say, but he only snorts.

“Ain’t no tree. Ain’t gigantic.
She’s Redwood. She’s infinite.
An’ she’s a helluva pain.”

A shower of pine pollen
And a whispery singing
Drop like a green veil, “Father,

I am neither a redwood
Nor your personal challenge
Preventing your balancing.

If this pilgrim wants to reach
Doubtful wilderness, you know
He will need an acquaintance 

With subtle equivalence
And not just tricks with an axe.”
The little man hops and coughs,

Stamps his thick boots and sneezes.
“Unnerstan’ what equals what!
Balance yer operations!”

Then, as if to demonstrate,
He whacks down a dozen trunks,
Spins the whole trees easily,

Nearly taking my head off,
And thunders them straight again,
Either side of the meadow.

“There!” he roars. “Nice ‘n balanced.”
Another pollen shower
And the emerald whisper sings,

“Don’t mind Father. He’s lovely
In his way, charming to watch
At play, but he blocks your path.

These woods that he tidies up
Are no longer wilderness.
Wherever he goes, it’s gone.

You need to see all the paths
To walk any one of them.
Nothing equals anything.

Infinite categories 
Of equivalence tower
On forever and ever.

Understand equivalence
And you may begin to see
The wilderness you’re seeking.”

The woodcutter swings his axe
Through swirls of falling pollen,
Frustrated and hollering,

“Yeh kin’t see infinity!
Transcendence! Tha’s all yeh need.
Balance yer operations!

Keep cuttin’ away at ‘em.
Th’ wilderness lies that way,
Only way, whole shitaree!”

I step back. I want to laugh.
In a blizzard of pollen,
Uncountable, shimmering,

His axe is a whistling blur
As he shouts at me and her
Who nods so far above him,

“We must seem inscrutable
To him.” “‘N why would yeh ker 
Wha’this idjit thinks of us?

He’s an idjit! He’s a fool!
How kin a fool fin’ someth’n’
Isn’ what someone else knew?

He kin’t do nothin.’ Nothin’!
‘N if yeh kin’t do nothin,’
Then what’re yeh? Nothin’ much.”

He’s got a point. I don’t know
What either one of them knows
Or even how they know it.

I can’t do operations
Like a practical master
Or see through infinity.

I take up my walking stick.
I’ll have to find my own way
From these woods to wilderness.

~upon reflection~

What a brilliant day this is—
I’ve found a stream to follow,
And now the woods are changing,

Fewer ancient, mossy stumps,
Less ground-cover, spindly trunks.
Now what fresh nonsense is this?

Iridescent blue fish heads
Are watching me from the stream,
And although their mouths are closed,

I do believe they’re singing.
High, piping reedy voices 
A sound like the smell of mist

Drifting from the stream’s surface,
“Reflections are commonplace
And serious reflections are composed,

Neither comic nor tragic,
Of the utterly pointless,
Broken waves of commonplace,

Glittering, ridiculous
Wisdom always scattering
The beauties of the absurd.”

When I turn to face the stream,
The singing pauses, the fish
Heads disappear and return,

Once again eyeballing me,
Peeping their next misty verse,
“Might as well try not to find

Any wilderness you seek.
The quotidian magic 
Of your mind will not permit

Experience to expel
The dull from the most wondrous,
The wondrous from the most dull.”

I stoop to the water’s edge,
As if they could not hear well,
And ask, once they reappear,

“Before you start your singing
Again about whatever
I can or can’t discover,

Does your song have any verse
About the way I should take
To end in a wilderness,

Whatever I can or can’t 
Make of the experience?”
The fish all open their mouths

For a moment and are still.
Then a softer song begins,
One I hear behind my eyes

More than with my ears, the scent
Of resignation wafting
From the dreamers in the stream.

“We line the path to the spring.
Sunlight leads to the summit.
Follow the path in between.”

And they’re gone. “Wait a moment,”
I call, leaning far enough
Out so that the stream, except

My silhouette’s reflection,
Shows clear and empty of life.
“Should that path follow the trees?”

~the path between the paths~

No one and nothing answer.
I walk off at an angle,
To not parallel the stream

And avoid the brighter spots 
Of sun. Advice from fish heads
Seems strange, but it’s what I’ve got.

As I foolishly stumble 
Around trunks in the shadows,
Trying not to hit my head,

I notice a line of dirt,
Like a trail of gunpowder,
Winding up slope through the mulch.

Not a path, but I’ll take it.
Focusing’s enjoyable,
Just staying on that black line,

Nothing else to think about
But the narrow thread I’m on.
A meditative motion

That makes me forget the light
Is lessening around me.
More than I’m moving, I’m changed,

A making unmaking me
From what I had envisioned
To this mere experience

Of step after step on ground
That is uncertain and firm.
A foot, a step, the black line.

As for other, absent paths,
I sense them as faint guardrails
Hidden in the greenery,

Guiding me along this way
I’m using to get away
From all pathways generally. 

~doubtful wilderness maybe~

If I am here, I am here.
No one is advising me.
When I look down I can see

Feet no longer following
The long black fuse but forming
Fresh thread from their own motion.

Their motion could be forward
Or backward as easily.
Is this knowledge? Unlikely.

A sibilance emanates,
And a low sun probes the trees.
I’m climbing, but it’s easy.

I’m not learning, but I’m free.
I find myself light-handed,
Without even my old crutch,

Without instructions, without
A handle on equations,
Without new unknowns to sift,

Without time, eternity,
Or anything bleeding me,
Without cryptic prophecies

Or cryptographers, or me.
See? The woods are thinning now.
None of us has the slightest

Sense of where we really are,
Of an end to anything 
We find ourselves traversing,

Of what it possibly means.
Meaning was always our own
Local novelty, although

Surely, somewhere, something else
Among all phenomena 
Has also tried hard to mean.

This is bare. The light that’s left
Is seeping out from under
The featureless horizon.

What is the difference between
More or less difference between?
Within a given extent,

Whatever remains extant,
Still searching, only searches
For the road that’s dangerous.

There’s a figure in the dusk.
Watch how it walks. It’s talking—
What? At last. Actually, lost.

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