tells—with all the terrible partiality he can countenance—what he sees, all he knows to be lost, too fast gone and unsung:
C.H.L., 145th, Pennsylvania, lies in bed six with jaundice and erysipelas; also wounded; stomach easily nauseated; bring him some oranges, also a little tart jelly... I go around from one case to another. I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying; but I cannot leave them.
And though he does record degenerate scene upon scene (“One of the officers had his feet pinn’d firmly to the ground by bayonets stuck through them . . .”), of the “real war,” he says, “Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutiae of deeds and passions, will never even be suggested.”
For pages and pages—and indeed the war takes up most of his unruly autobiography—Whitman offers objects touched and seen, the actual stamps, books, pens, coins, and sweets presented at the bedsides of the young soldiers he nursed and wrote letters for, and loved. He culls from his “blood-smutch’d little note-books” everything—wounds, letters, recipes, gestures, scents, finals words—to piece together “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed.” He writes of the entire precise and compulsive endeavor, “I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil’d and creas’d livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fastened with a pin.”
He means, I think, that he does what he can.
One night, at college (rural Ohio, attic room, wobbly desk, warm circle of light from a yellow tin lamp), Wordsworth cast forth into the unsayable in a way wholly recognizable to me. There, on acataract
, he might have called it, orpromontory
of recognition, I circled his definitions of those glowing lozenges of memory, those palpating areas (gone hazy at times with Romantic abstraction—virtue! imagination!) and next to his surprisingly plain phrase, “spots of time,” wrote my very own simple “yes”:
There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds—
Especially the imaginative power—
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood.
Spots of time:
how the words for it cleared a space for future field notes on the subject: Italy. Outskirts of Rome, en route to Minturno. I’m twenty. Friends and I are driving fast in a sports car and stop along a strip of beach to stretch, and so I can take my shoes off and touch the Mediterranean for the first time. I’d been, just moments ago, tasting a column of salty wind blowing in from the front window; opening and closing my eyes in the force of it, turning my head to catch the whistle first in one ear, then the other, pausing the sound by turning away, licking my lips to gather the salt. It is out of this private quietude that I step onto the sand and remove my shoes and walk until the big rock I see, no, the five rocks clustered, then eight come into focus, and closer, closer, they’re rounding and shading until they become—is this to be expected in Italy?—drowned and bloated pigs. Bleached and swelling in the sun, stink complicating the sweet, feathery heat of October.
The sky is blue and cloudless and the car seats hot when we return. We’re full of the scene and can’t stop talking. Our pockets are lined with it, filled with sun-edged coins to keep and trade and spend for years. “Remember the pigs?” we still say when we meet, now more than two decades later.
To mark an occasion with the available props—the word
But it’s this, or no marking at all takes place. With no words, the occasion is gone.
Yes, words are brief, partial, unlikely, stark.
Vienna. Japan. Sublime. Bower. Pigs
Reader, forgive them all.
“Poetry Is a Satisfying of the Desire for Resemblance” (Theme & Variations)
There was the eye socket, cranium, jaw, and at the jaw’s hinge, a darkened spot where muscles and tendons would gather in. There, where I stopped, were the bones of a mouth, base around which sensation assembled, arc and dip where joy would mass, interest tighten, a grin inscribe. It was a small animal’s head tilted up (in sun, early fall, the leaves translucing, drying and brightening) inclined toward the three-note call of a bird. Right there, regarding the call, head back and locating the mark, not in danger or hunger, let’s say
settled into the grass to find a sonorous point in the blue and unencumbered sky, leaves dipping into the picture and shirring, not orange/red/yellow (though they were), for the photoreceptors in a raccoon are differently keyed than ours, and
sky would gray out,
tree putty into a blunter thing from whence the call issued.
It’s not that I mean to animate the world according to my whims or a lordly perspective, or that I’m bent on assigning virtues, human ones, and sowing them widely among all beings, so I might feel at home everywhere, always. I don’t mean to collapse all that is between the raccoon and me, force kinship, Lia-fy any creature.
It’s just that here, today, with a quantum of sadness settling in (
, not grief with its solid occasions) and a quantum of something else buoyant and lithe, I looked down (perfect skull) and then up (blue sky with birdcall) and the loop of perception closed, countervailed any singular mood, and I was less alone.
Such a feeling comes on
I can say, since I grew up near the ocean knowing the excruciations of tides—not because it’s
to say “wave” for sadness and its workings. I wouldn’t do that, not here, not now; it’s more that I know very well, in a familiar way, the species of force that, without intention, draws one in, and pushes one out again, scoured and worn. Waves plunge, overpower, rash the shore, rake it. Waves sift, wrinkle and breathe.
, I learned later, for intense, white-foamed things (
The trampling steed, with gold and purple trapt / Chawing the foamy bit, there fiercely stood
) so yes, there are many angles to consider—sound, for instance, the tight squeeze of those
’s and the
’s invitation—when noting that waves work well on behalf of layered-up moments.
(And, I should add, when I first saw Rembrandt’s waves—it was
The Abduction of Europa,
in a book at home—new shades of sensation were affirmed; I could find, after that, in puffs of real sea foam at any local beach on Long Island, the bull who was Zeus, bearing Europa fast away, Europa seeming up for the ride, muscled and ready, balanced and whole, borne over waves on another’s will, the roiling, darkening sea inviting, the Europa in me RSVP-ing, all I was leaving, and all I’d be finding churning together, suggesting....)
I so loved the ocean as a child that I had to be dragged out when it was time to go home. If you’ve grown up with waves, you come to learn that they don’t knock you down as much as allow you various decisions about staying upright, show you’ve chosen to stay in their path, try your luck, pit your strength. And though we say “a wave knocked me down,” it’s not that waves care. They’re as rote as heartbeats.
though, draws the eye—because Dante’s geography promises you’ll find your very own species among the fallen.
because Lucifer, who once tended light, fell away from the light, and now lives below us. Because down is where we go for essentials, where we seek the authentic by way of the thoroughgoing need to come clean:
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down/Learn of the green world what can be thy place...
So let me confirm: when the bird call came, I was looking down. And there was the skull. Surrounding it was a sensation, and above, a sky very deeply blue. Then it happened: the picture got bigger: the skull was, I saw, not a skull at all, but a weathered mushroom, eaten back, or worn away. The whites and creams, the holes for cords, the holes like sockets and the slendering snout—all turned back to gills/stem/cap; there was the shift from bone to mushroom, a rising from solid and going to pith, rigidity softening into flesh.
In the space a mushroom now held, for full, long seconds, a skull had been.
pinned me to the afternoon.
To concentrate a skull up from a mushroom . . . but no, that’s not it. It went very fast. It was vaster than any conscious thought. To be of a moment that folds up distance,
no distance between mushroom and skull, allows
from the first—though there was a patch of new mushrooms right there, shining, fat, rampant, creamy, just-sprung. To be part of a mind that flies past the known (until finally, the cues come on hard: all those days of good, soaking rain, the fast greening of lawns, everything sprouting and shooting like crazy), to be part of
an order, a whole, a knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous:
at that tufty spot on my neighbor’s grass, with an airy/oceanic blue sky above, mushroom met skull, the resemblance bloomed and extended me. Right into the heart of the afternoon.
Such resemblances get made in other ways, too:
Once I spread my fingers and looked at the spot where thumb and wrist meet, and in that depression saw
(what my grandmother called any shallow bowl, and hers were cream-colored, low-fire clay ones, with flat rims of green—how suddenly that comes back to me! ) then
crux of a tree for holding rainwater; a hammock; a nest.
I saw the imprint of another thumb’s work—I’m not saying God’s (that’s nothing I’d say) just where an actual thumb would have worked, should I have been clay. I considered, too, how other thumbs
worked, right there in that spot, but for pleasure, roiling oceans, vastly, in me—
Once there was a wound I was tending.
How high that highest candle lights the dark
I spoke in my head, to steady it all, because the tending made me woozy. The wound was a taper that went far in and down. It involved the colors of a candle flame—what the body chooses for regeneration, chooses to light its dark passages with!—and this was a perilous passage. For a while the light moved like a tide, receding then overtaking the shore, the sweet, cool sand that was the good skin. The known world was there, beside the reds, fatty yellows, off-whites—colors by themselves not at all unpleasant, but on the small island that was the wound, threatening. A wound grows together from underneath first, the inner muscles knitting up, and the surface is the last to close. It all cinched slowly back together (with oxygen treatments, medicine, rest) regained the right pinkness, as the whole body did, regained, as we’d say, the
rosy blush of health
. And indeed, when it healed, it
a rose, was
a furled, tight bud of a scar, and one day, exactly that—
—was my first thought and not “wound.”
And once, very suddenly one afternoon last spring, I saw that the apple tree outside my window had grown into the only spot of sun available to it. And so, because there are pines around it, thick, tall ones, and the sunlight is meager and hard to come by, the apple tree is terribly bent, sway-backed and leaning.
A thing grows into the light available to it.
This is not just a metaphor.
And that a mushroom is also a skull, is not a trick of sight alone.
June. Cape May, NJ. Boardwalk.
Rain coming harder. People hurrying. People jumping boardwalk puddles with bright sand-centers. Avoiding the spume of passing cars. Ingraytensifying the soft dunes with neon rain gear, all the ponchos calm and isoscelate, then blown scalene in wind. Now it’s more to watch, the dodging and pitching. More, maybe, “fun.” Of interest. “Human interest,” because rain alters people in unexpected ways. And the unexpected makes people so human.
Out there on the boardwalk, they’re absolutely dedicated to being human, and though not one of them has a choice, many variations come forth. All the ways are recognizable, but some are more precise in cast and tensity, saturation and value, and take patience to see and to name.