Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Fugitives of the Fall

The Ninth of October

All these thousands of days that I’ve lived, a prisoner in this space, knowing space never exists . . .

Just a couple of years before winning the Nobel Prize in literature, Glück wrote in a poem that “everything returns, but what returns is not what went away.” I’m still waiting to see if she returns that prize. It’s not what it once was, you know.

Look out the window at a cat in the shade. When I think of all the animals that have gone into making that cat, the warm birds and rodents, the cool fish from cans, the processed bits and ends, the odd insect plucked from the dust just to crunch--chomp--and then of all the living things that first went into them and into them and into them, it makes me want to request that my corpse be sealed in solid, airless lucite just so that these poor molecules can never escape, never have to return as something else hungry again.


Where did Chaunis Tematoan come from? A reference in one source leads to its own source and then to a dead end. Could it have been the personal invention of the man who invoked the name to encourage the greed of English colonists around the time of Roanoke and Jamestown? You really should try to find those wonderful mines of Chaunis Tematoan! (CROATOAN) Lures and lurid fantasies of mines and cities of gold and open passages to the South Seas and endless virgin wildernesses were all the rage in those pirate days. . . .

But I would like to imagine for myself this Chaunis Tematoan.

I’m too far inland. What did Li He mean when he wrote that the bearded barbarians of the North shot arrows “arrogant as rainbows”? Is that even a fair translation? It’s not a simile or association I’ve seen in any other poem, East or West. Maybe he just meant that the perfect arc of their accurate arrows, following gravity’s rainbow, seemed overconfident, no fault of real rainbows? But a thousand years almost before gravity could be blamed?

This poem has defeated all commentators, for it is either incomplete or else full of mistakes.” Consider both possible. Young Li He was one arrogant rainbow.

Promises, promises. Immortality. Pots of gold. Maybe rainbows grew arrogant once they knew how easy we are to fool. Always hiding their actual ends from our greedy guts. How we love to imagine rich resources for the taking anywhere we can’t ever reach. Pure wilderness. Chaunis Tematoan could itself have meant arrogant rainbow. You never know.


Again. Dawn. The persiflage of small birds in drought, sensing something coming from a few unusually plethoric clouds—or maybe just determined to whistle each other under, once again, and win the sun. Will it, ever, really, rain? Oh, one day it will. We’ll all see it coming, just like these birds, and we’ll all discuss it, just like these birds, and then it will be here at last—“the dark what?”

It’s both that the future never exists and that the future’s nonexistence causes the past, which is constantly changing. (Have you checked lately? Looks different now, doesn’t it?) We’re trapped in that. The dark what.

The dark what. The words overtake, or retake, each phrase in the end, and reimpose their own most current meanings, thus kicking the can down the road. The dark doodle, that’s what, the “bag filled with fresh fruit, a bar of soap, and a few tins.”

Dillon composed an essay on Mantel’s plethoric persiflage. Then he composed an essay on Carson’s ironic dark what. You browsed the essays and scritched a few marginal notes, thus kicking the can down the road. Now what? You looked up the phrase and found an anonymous essay on its own history as a game. The object of the game was not, as you had thought, to keep the can going in front of you while you kicked it, walking along behind it, and then kicked it again when you caught up. You’ve seen and done many instances of that game, someone scuffing something, trying to keep it front of them, walking forward at odd angles to catch up and give it another cuff.

No. The essay claimed that the game was more social, closer to hide-and-seek. One child had to be “It” while the others scattered and hid. “It” kicked the can along, while the hiders called from their blinds. If “It” managed to flush a kid and kick the can at that kid, then that kid was “It.” But if the hidden kid rushed out and kicked the can away, down the road as it were, then all the kids were freed and “It” had to play the kicker all over again. So, a desperately poor footballer’s hide-and-seek, it seems.

The essay then dragged out the particulars of how this became a political expression in the 1980s and ‘90s, among powerful old men in America, long after the game that dated back to their Depression-era childhoods had gone away and mostly fled the public consciousness. Conclusion: now the phrase means to delay, the continuous deferral of a tough decision, usually legislative, stalling, putting things off but with a pretense of making progress, just kicking the can down the road for another day. No one, the anonymous essayist wrote, really knows why it evolved quite that way.

And you thought, hey, I know why. Whenever the earlier use of a phrase is forgotten, people just parse the constituent words in ways that seem to, sort of, make sense to them. If the words make enough of such shadowy sense and the phrase still has a ring, the parts take over the sense for the whole and, often as not, a false etymology, no, a few, for the phrase itself get offered, back-constructed from its words. Dead as a door nail. The whole nine yards. Kicking the can down the road. Thus the words, still caged, reshape the confines of that cage.

And so you did. But don’t you wish you could have played the phrase here more like the improvised poverty game, could have set everyone free by rushing out to give it a good kick, leaving a dark author still “It”?


A woman as much older than I am as I am than the median is sitting in the shade of a giant pine by herself, except for a yappy lapdog, both staring out at far aspens like something large and dark might be about to burst out of them. “I had to get out of the city,” she says, startlingly loudly, by way of explanation, unasked. “I needed to see the colors, get some nature.” She articulates the word nature like she’s biting down on a chicken wing, with a wide, brayed Nay followed by the chomp of a softer, crunchier -tcher between her bright white incisors. Get some NAAY-tcher. Chomp. And then the dog barks wildly. Ah, wilderness, thinks an unseen, unknown poet hobbling past her, headed for a better view, one could only hope quieter.

There will be plenty of wilderness again, eventually, once our descendants are gone. It might not be what we’d recognize, but do you think the dinosaurs would have recognized a mammal’s Eden?

Wilderness is hard to survive on your own. Wilderness has no love for you. Wilderness is no audience, so why do we keep yapping at it? What was wrong with the times, so wrong, that the desert fathers would torture themselves to cry to the emptiness alone and half-starving for years in hopes of not just a vision, a djinn, an angel, or any old god, but The God, personal communion with only their One God Almighty? Something must have been bent. Visions and tempting demons, mostly, were what those hermits got sent.

Not everyone flees from an empire’s fall. For some, always for some, these end up being the good times, the very best times of all. Did the bearded northern barbarians yearn to return the lost glory and might of the Tang? Did the early Christians cry over the noseless marbles of the demon gods they’d smashed, the Goths weep to see Rome burn? 
Now it's winter.


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