I received a letter in the mail today from a Mr. WS. It seems he had heard of the predicament of Life I’d found myself in, and so sent me a Sonnet as consolation. Poetry often serves to calm what is a troubled soul of mine.
Though this Sonnet he’d sent did not calm my storm. No not a bit. Or so I’d at first felt. I’ll explain what I mean. First, you may read it if you’d like:
“Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o’ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
Or how shall sweet summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?
O fearful meditation; where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back,
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love might still shine bright.”
What was I to make of this truthful rag? This eloquent accusal? This harrowing surprise?
I immediately took it as a personal affront.
What else could I do? This to comfort me; to console; to soften a scorning life or caress the bruises left in blue? Brass statues corrode and crack. Stones moss like the old, are attention’s lost. An abundant earth withers. Boundless sea mounts my city.
This was an attack.
Gates are waved in and there the breach of Time harries what I’d held out. He more than sweeps, but the ravage there.
Oh troubling thought.
Oh burst of the fear fused. The treasure’s chest, o’ how unlike Pandora’s fate, never opens again but all boxing evil hounds me closed from rest. Overtakes. I hold my hand to cover my face. Feet are kicking. I forbid with breath feeble the fume on my face. The exhale of graves.
And yet there is an ease after a declame. Like the shock after a shout. I stop on that pause. And I say to myself what I’ve said, turning its sign, pasted on a board, left for the empty air to mind.
I passed it by on the way back. And catch a gleam again in my eye. How hath letter so black have might? There’s the miracle, that black ink might shine so bright.
Is this a memory or a Sight?
I say this, and Time runs on as words in a halt-less mind.
What a strange thing it is to be sent a poem from WS.
William, Shakespeare. The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. 2. New York: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008. Print.
I realized one day that it was very difficult for me to remain angry at anyone. Concerned by this, I immediately examined the cause of my agreeability, and arrived at several theories:
My memory is very poor, or my nature is very amenable, or conflict I disdain. Therefore a wrong I have suffered remains not long in my heart. Often the offender is startled to find my returning to them, in all good graces, as though the offense had not been, bringing happy greetings and gifts to boot.
Of course I was aghast at this amenable quality of my Self! I’d therefore resolved to alter it. I would be a grudge-bearer! But life, as often happens, has other plans. As an old knight once said to me:
‘It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.’
In this spirit I set out for the court of King Darius the Great. I’d heard from my friend, Michel de Montaigne, of a practice this King employed by which He held onto his grudges. I knew not the method. I was intent to find out.
Getting there was quite simple: Another friend of mine, Herodotus, was on intimate terms with one Durias, a cupbearer to the King. I was to be snuck into the court, under wine-jugs, in a wicker basket, which Durias offered to do if I gave him three aspirin, his job being, it would seem, prone to headaches.
Well of course that was no trouble to me, as I carry several with me at a time (for I often read political news). I arrived at the Court of the King of Kings that very night.
How strange and mystic was that Tacharan sight, where Zoroastrian chimeras bannered above the dais, and cherubim winged the royal faces and the court like stars on a cloudy night covered in silks and silver and lapis in shimmer.
Tall white hats, masted above pleated silks of many colors, sailed through the incensed hall, through stately door and glory gate, like perfume rivers to waterfall. Instruments – harps and drums and fluting sorna – like the seawinds – moved these barques all the Court afloat around crowned islands of Satraps and Dancers Sárapis and the bounteous table of the Old King.
For a time I could not measure I forgot me my mission, and was lost in the procession of lotus fevers of my mind awed by the court of the King of Kings.
Reader, pity me, for there I was aslumber when I should have been angry!
I floated to the table of the King. I took the first open seat. The King sat at the head of the table. I studied him closely. Seeing Him, I remembered myself.
For He looked like a very old King, and quite tired of it too. He dipped his food in wine to soften it. He talked to none but was talked to by everyone. Servants brought Him food and gifts and gossip and a head of an unheard enemy.
One servant whispered in His waxy grey ear a sentence repeated thrice. What did he say? After each, the King would slam His old ruling claw down on the table, scattering plate and prickett and morsels to the dogs at his feet. Next, He’d mutter and frown a dreary face. Lastly, into his goblet He’d hollowly sigh.
I inquired of the Satrap next to me the meaning of these Kingly gestures. From my incomplete understanding of Ariya, I understood the following:
The servant was tasked with stating to the King thrice each night: ‘King, O King, the Athenians, remember the Athenians…’
The Athenians. That rather learned group of Greeks had defeated the King at Marathon. Darius had sworn revenge but was yet to fulfill. To remember His anger, He had tasked the servant to restoke it, like a billows, long into the night, each night, until His anger might be consummated with a martial nuptial.
Here was the method I was seeking! Now, at last, I could hold a grudge!
I approached the servant and told him of my dilemma, how I could not remain angry with an offense, and asked him to work for me.
– Oh sir, no wise man would want such a burden as I must bring. Said the servant, in a Persian manner. I’d rather drink a poisoned cup of the King than deliver such deadly ire, to stoke and re-stoke such dry old fire!
– Why is this, servant?
– Look upon my burnt out King! Could age alone have withered His greatness? Nightly thrice I pass the bitter cup of memory unto Him. And like the greedy bark beetle in vulnerable pine, the venom gnaws and feeds upon the soft phloem of this stoutest Tree, Falling fruit and flaking bark, making Him the King all a husk. The Tree does not fall yet still it dies! Our Tree of Trees is Dead!
That rather articulate fellow then fled from me, fading back into the haze of the Court… I could not find him again. Nor, I suspect, could I afford him… Dejected, I left the palace of that sad and frowning and wrinkling old king.
And I went on forgiving everyone of everything.
Cheers to your Sunday morning…
~J Christian Lawrence
Herodotus Hist.. V, cv.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, ‘The Knight’s Tale’
– Art knows. He said, with emphasis, steadying his hand from spilling the black coffee. The effect is expressed as shock, as catharsis. From the very moment when Eve ate the apple from the tree of knowledge, mankind was doomed to strive endlessly after the truth.
He lay on the hospital bed. In the cramped, dirty hospital. A thin blue blanket covered his thin skin covered his jutting bones, like a thin-stretched tent. The cancer had him, and it did not have him. Andrei Tarkovsky. Russian filmmaker. In exile.
I’d travelled to Paris to see him – he’d told me he was dying.
He’d fled his home country long ago. They wouldn’t let him film there not in the way he really wanted to, needed to.
He dozed off. So I sat by him and thought about his films. I drank my own black coffee and thought.
His movies had been a mystery to me. They were almost silent, perfectly capable of image sustained alone. Stalker especially. What sounds he’d have were of mud and fire, and rain in wells, and bombs and an old organ and metal on metal clanking, steam and muttered Russian poetry. What was I to make of that? Was I too to doze of?
I recall a time I’d stolen into a third-rate theatre in Petersburg to watch Andre Rublev his great film the Sovs had marked ‘third-rate’ because of its perfect religion. The Communists had recoiled like a bull and stamped the movie into the dirt. And that meant the film got no money and could only play in the cheapest of theatres and I was in one to watch it with the frayed screen the unclean projector the dim light the burnt popcorn the stained carpet the gummy torn seats sticky with spat plugs of tobacco and the clung dirt and lung-matter of cigarettes.
Maybe three people were with me? I don’t remember.
But the fat muzhchina who’d slumped into the seat next to me (why the one next to me??) had fallen asleep right at the part with the boy making the brass Church bell (at risk of his own life), the best part of the picture.
I think he was poisoned by the Sov’s because he’d made films abroad and they couldn’t stamp that out – they hated that their best wasn’t them, not really. Not in the way that Totalitarianism wanted.
Totalitarianism wanted to finish once and for all the neutrality of cinema. All films for the Party. All for the Big Lie that everyone told.
But Andrei had made a movie called Nostalghia in Italy and in it a man walked a candle from one end of a ruined, Roman, waterless bath to the other and it was one take (one shot) and it took twelve minutes because the candle kept snuffing, and he had to keep starting over at the beginning but finally he got to the end. He got frustrated but he kept going. There was a spot of white in his black hair.
– With man’s help the Creator comes to know himself. Said Andrei, sipping his coffee which pained him. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death. To plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.
– Of course, Andrei, that’s very good. I said sadly, not really listening but thinking about the movies.
Ah the movies! The movies! Could our frenzied minds but still and sit! How much we might learn! Were we not so pushed to tap our fingers, flick our eyes, stamp our feet and distract, distract ourselves from our own pulse. What purchase there might be for us on our weary climbs.
The Sacrifice: The nuclear war is nigh. The family man makes a bargain to God; I will sacrifice, and You will delay the apocalypse. He burns his house down. The bombs do not fall.
Stalker: The three men steal into the forbidden Zone, a place where tanks rust mid-fire, and water flows everywhere, and a wrong step means…
Ivan’s Childhood: The Russian Boy goes behind the German lines, again, and again, and again – he remembers a well where his mother reflected.
The Mirror: The house burns a-flame under rain. The poet is dying of disease on the bed. He holds a sparrow in his hand, yet to release.
Andrei Rublev: The boy’s bell is cast. Its ring is loud and clear and true. Andrei embraces him. Andrei paints we see his paintings in bright color and harmony.
– The thought is brief. The image, absolute. Said Andrei Tarkovsky, as he dies on the hospital bed.
The World goes with him. I drank the rest of my coffee and rented The Mirror on the way home and I watched it with a friend and it kept us awake.
Friday morning, I received an invitation in the mail to join one of my friends for a leisurely stroll through hell. Of course, I would not have accepted this had it not come from Mr. Dante himself, whom I knew to be quite familiar with the region – its persons, its local customs, its tourist traps. Agreeing to join him, I set out for the nearest Walmart.
There are in fact many entrances to hell in America.
One need not clamor up mountains, or down doleful ravines, to stumble upon one. Almost every retail outlet in America has an entrance– usually somewhere near the employee timecard. In fact, on difficult days, entrances to hell pocket our ground like so many mole-holes. Some larger than others.
Curiously, I once found an entrance between a telephone and its app – about the size of a thimble – through which I could not fall but could certainly smell.
I also know for a fact that our Capitol building is not only an entrance but is an entire wing of the Infernal itself. Though I’m not sure whether the occupants there are the devils or the damned.
Anyways, I slipped my way into a crevice inside the Walmart (this was just between the denim jeans and the dollar books), crawled downwards into darkness for at least one hour, slid, fell, tumbled, tambored, and at last arrived.
Mr. Dante was there waiting for me – holding a raised blazing torch.
He told me:
– Through me the way is to the city dolent; through me the way is to eternal dole; through me the way among the people lost. Justice incited my sublime Creator; created me divine Omnipotence, the highest Wisdom and the primal Love. Before me there were no created things, only eterne, and I eternal last. All hope abandon, ye who enter in!
– Yes of course, of course. Said I, dusting myself off. You’ve explained that many times, Mr. Dante. Now what is it you wanted me to see?
Dramatically, he turned and led me forward with the torch. Through the hot air we went, and the sound of cursing tongues diverse, and hallowing shouts, and horrors I mention not.
We came to a field of small sepulchers and open tombs littering the ground, their slabs not yet shut, their falls open to us, where fires burned at bottom.
I looked down into one of these open graves – a thousand or more persons there writhed within.
– What’d they do? I asked simply, familiar with such sights as these.
– Heretics. Said Mr. Dante. This is my lesson to you. These, who believed the soul existed only with the body, now suffer the permanence of the soul. They be, and be, and be. Death not ends to be.
– All harm from a thought-of unthought. Said I, pitying, and (quite selfishly) prizing my stance above them. A round goes around, a wheel turns, nothing reels the rest, nausea spokes the best…
– An American! Shouted a voice.
We found a man had hauled himself, by his fingertips, to the lip of one of these flaming crowded cluttered graves. He hanged there as over a precipice and peered up at Mr. Dante and I. I thought then I knew him.
He seemed old, white yet burnt, in tattered suit yet dignified, burning yet positive.
– American! Said he, smiling. I want you to deal with your problems by becoming rich!
– A rich soul was this one once, though not rich in soul. Said Mr. Dante.
– Were you rich, oh poor soul? Asked I.
– I’m still rich! Said he, laughing as though unaware of his condition. My bank account looks like my phone number! Hanging by my knees is this year’s swimsuit model! What year is it anyway? Hello! Who’s there? Tell me something son, how much do you make a year? Right here right now tell me.
He seemed to drift in and out of a clear thought and place. At times he spoke it seemed a speech, at another, to cry out to some intimate friend a despair. He asked me again how much money I had. Embarrassed, I told him the figure.
– Listen to me, if money isn’t everything, then go work at McDonalds. You have to unlearn all the thoughts that were making you poor and replace them with new thoughts – rich thoughts. He said happily, shining bright teeth above the flames, with the flames.
– You seem to know not where you are, in what condition we find you… Said Mr. Dante.
– If the circumstances around me suck I change them. Said he earnestly, erratically. Or I change me. Said he, looking about himself, then becoming silent, as though he dare not risk more argument, and realize.
We left him hanging there. We wandered back earthwards, Mr. Dante talking aloud endlessly, myself lost in thought, leaving with more question than answer. I parted ways with Mr. Dante, thanking him for the trip, and returned again to Walmart.
As I passed the perfume aisle, I thought of myself as caught onto a turning burning wheel; perhaps it was a carousel.
Just last night, when unable to sleep or to dream, I left my home for the beach. An East-coast beach is quite cold, you know, and it’s bare, and like a barrier at night. And I walked barefoot along the sand – where the breakers crashed in a monic lull like a mind out of word.
I stopped suddenly; the clouds cleared; the Northern Lights leaped above.
I watched them for a time, until I saw a man in a grey suit, looking up at them also, and walking along the beach.
Relieved that a fellow traveler (on this weary road of life) could share in my experience, I caught up to him and said hello. He turned blankly on the sand and faced me. And we made quiet intros, and innocuous small talk, and small trades of our scrapped ideas.
We were both writers, it would seem.
As often happens in these circumstances, I challenged him to a Writer’s Duel. He accepted, we shook hands, separated by ten paces, turned around to face one another, looked up at the Auroras, drew our typewriters from their holsters, and readied. He made the earlier shot.
– ‘This is form gulping after formlessness, skin flashing to wished-for disappearances and the serpent body flashing without the skin.’ Said he.
– Chiaroscuro auroras, in clouds like moving grass, through ion and air, lights in frigid brilliance pass. Said I.
A good volley. But soon he readied again, and as he wrote, a form appeared on the beach, a sandcastle:
– ‘Farewell to an idea… A cabin stands, deserted, on a beach. It is white, as by a custom or according to an ancestral theme or as a consequence of an infinite course.’ Said he.
– And the door swept open and the sand surfed the floor and broke like water upon the wall and dried the couch and the bed, and the way out and the way in. Said I.
Another good exchange. But he was leading and I was following. Ergo he:
– (as he crafts further the sandhouse) ‘Upstairs the windows will be lighted, not the rooms. A wind will spread its windy grandeurs round and knock like a rifle-butt against the door.’
– And the wind will make its drifts, and its hills, and circling, circling eddies across the floor along the feet of the father who sits in
– (interrupting) ‘In space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard, as one that is strong in the bushes of his eyes. He says no to no and yes to yes.’
– And yes to no. And no to yes. And goodbye. Good morning and goodnight.
– ‘And in saying yes he says farewell.’
– He fetches shows from air, carnivals, and turnings of dance. Said I
– ‘Scenes of the theatre, vistas and blocks of woods and curtains like a naïve pretense of sleep. Said he. We stand in the tumult of a festival.’
– We turn in the fest of a tumult… playing in stage, strutting in plays. We frett for curtain falls, we fawn for sleepy applause. Said I. All is brief.
He sighed and turned away and began to walk again along the beach; I heard him say:
– ‘It is a theatre floating through the clouds, itself a cloud, although of misted rock and mountains running like water, wave on wave, through waves of light.’
The sandcastle began to crumble as I followed him a ways, saying nothing.
– ‘It is of cloud transformed to cloud transformed again, idly, the way a season changes color to no end.’ Said he, walking and minding me no longer.
He looked up again at the auroras, shimmering above the black water of shoal and surf. He stopped. And he was angry. He shouted in his anger:
– ‘This is nothing until in a single man contained! Nothing until this named thing nameless is and is destroyed! He opens the door of his house on flames. The scholar of one candle sees an Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame of everything he is. And he feels afraid.’
Perhaps satisfied with this outburst, he again plodded forward along the sand, his hands behind his back, saying nothing. I did not follow him. Following there would be then, and not now; our battle would be again, but not to win. I turned aside and went home.
And I slept well in my own bed and I finished my thoughts there.
Just the other day, a friend of mine asked me about one of my other dear friends, Mr. Franz Kafka. She had heard good report of him from me and was rather eager to make his acquaintance. Jealous of these affections, I immediately set out to dissuade her.
I booked passage on a steamer, SS Ahasver, which after a sea-sickening journey along the coast, brought me to her residence. She welcomed me in. I, bumbling with all Mr. Kafka’s letters, stories, and novels I’d brought with me, immediately set about demonstrating to her his errors:
– Well he only wrote in very rough and partially burnt German drafts, you know. So you’re never getting a polished or original text.
– His characters have no character! They seem forces of parable!
And most triumphantly:
– Many of his sentences are quite long.
Of course, all these efforts only succeeded in exciting her the more to meet him. Pressingly, she demanded I leave all these documentations with her to peruse at her leisure.
My point blunted, I left her to his letters, and set out to visit Mr. Kafka myself – and thereby, perhaps, to dissuade him from the fatal contact which would prove him the better writer.
Traveling to Prague was no easy journey. It took a few months to will my way through the maze of bureaucratic passage. Bribes, begs, and blunders stalled, stalled my way. At one time, I was required to confess my sins to a Czech priest – who was quite delighted to hear them. Another occasion, I was asked to paint a picture of ‘a picture’, a portrait that took much to unpuzzle.
Finally, after passing an exam on the interpretation of kabbala, I was at last permitted to visit him.
I arrived by plane this time. It was night. Mr. Kafka’s dwelling, a small and cramped apartment, was stuck between a Shochet’s Slaughterhouse and a Jewish Mercantile. I knocked on his door and was immediately let in, it seems, by the door itself – no one was inside.
I wandered through his one room apartment, peering under and behind stacks of books, where a few times I’d found him before – but all to no avail. I was at a loss. And I was lost. How was I ever to prevent my friend from finding him?
Then I saw a white light shining through the window – his balcony.
I went out onto it, but there the light was so great, emanating from a little table, that I could not see who was sitting in the little chair there. I attempted to gain a clearer view of who was there by the following methods:
I stood up on the tip of the balcony’s bannister; I kneeled down and tried to look from underneath the table; I walked around the table; I leaned as far as I would dare over the table, and explored with my hands, finding a great book open on the table – a magnifying glass lay upon it.
But I could not identify the occupant who surely sat there with this book and this light.
– Mr. Kafka? Is that you sitting there?
I heard no response at first; after a time though the light shifted, as though moved to better see me, and I heard the response:
– Good evening. Now, what can I do for you?
– Am I disturbing you? I asked.
– Yes. Yes. Said he, shifting his light again. Must you stand there? I’m studying.
– You’re studying?
– Yes. Yes.
– Well I don’t want to interrupt you; I’ll go back in. Said I, moving.
– So you’re still here? He asked me, before I could entirely leave.
– Well yes, but I’m going to be really going. If not now, then sooner or later. I wanted to look at you out here, while I was still here. It’s completely dark in the room, impossible to see, you see. Said I.
– Well who are you?
I explained to him my name and my business, that if he was Mr. Kafka, how we’ve met before. And I explained to him also my predicament. I was quite careful not to speak too highly of her, lest I incite him. I explained that under no circumstances must she be permitted to see him, lest she be spirited away.
He listened quite patiently (or perhaps he didn’t; the light too bright to tell) and said:
– If I had to choose between my studies and having acquaintance , I would naturally choose the acquaintance. But all my efforts are geared towards avoiding the necessity of having to make such a choice… Well I will get back to my studies. But do come over and visit us again sometime; I can set aside an hour for you every night if you’d like.
– So… you’d advise acquaintance?
– Absolutely. Said he, his voice strangely sounding like a boom like a multitude of voices in the deep.
I flew back to America that very hour. I relayed a message to my friend with Mr. Kafka’s address and his open invitation to call upon him for a teatime. This time, I did not slander him, except of course to say that his tea was often too cold, his cups too cracked, and his manners, too obscure.
An Essay on our Sole Possessions by J Christian Lawrence
This morning, I set out to walk along the road to the Globe. Suddenly I was accosted by the most rotund of burglars I’d ever seen. Fat Jack Falstaff. He bumbled out an alleyway like a swollen bowling ball slung into the street by a slow arm. Pinning himself on my feet, he leered over me and grinned and said:
– By my troth, thou bacon-fed knave! It seems ye hate my youth!
I was rather confused: I’d not eaten bacon for at least a month; and this moon-man rising before me was quite old indeed. I explained this to him quickly, being atop the point of his dagger.
– On, bacon, on! Said he. I was born with hair and beard white and belly paunched and legs patient as the memorable pachyderm. I’m younger than ye! I mean to rob ye, old one!
Now his sweat seemed to lard the earth and make a butter of it. I feared to slip me onto his point, and so I emptied the contents of my purse: naught but a few dry playbills and two true-pennies…
– Have you such little coin, old one? He asked me pityingly. Is it from the nursing home you’ve a-wandered to meet Fat Jack?
– Why yes, young man, from the nursing home, that’s right! (what a man will say upon a knife!). You see, escaping that neglectful place, I’ve spent all my monies on these shoes here, with which I’ve walked to you, sir.
– Then they’ve walked you to their new feet, old one!
At this time, he relieved me of my expensive shoes. Nike Dunk Highs. I stood barefoot in the muddy street as this fustilug squeezed his fat trotters into them – staining the white with mud; stretching the foam; smothering the swoosh; fraying the laces and turning a-back the tongue.
He got them on like a clown stuffing into a wee car.
– (posing) Old one, what think ye? Think ye these shiny shoons become me? What’s wrong, old one? Fat cat’s got yer tongue?
Angrily, I protested this injustice. And of how far I’d walked, and so now the difficulty before me – to walk barefoot back again so long.
– (taking my arm) I’ll walk you some of the way, old one. But be of good cheer! This is not thy dunnest day; that’s the last. And this is not that. Yes, I’ve removed yer shiny shoons. But consider this, the soles that stamp the earth makes familiar the soul its birth. Do we come into this world shoe’d, garbed in Guccis, or nicked in Nikes?
– No… I suppose not…
– And when ye wore them they worried ye. A spot of dirt here. A speck of scat there. Dirtying them would make a mud of day.
– Yes… that’s true…
– Nike’s expense expends the road of life. Possessions shape our paths a worrisome. Now would anyone think of robbing ye, being robbed?
– No, certainly not.
– Then being robbed, I’ve robbed ye of being robbed. Shoeless, ye nay worry the loss of shoes. Possession-less, ye need not pant to possess.
I left the fat knight and went home. I sat in my armchair and sipped my tea and thought on what he’d said.
Certainly, adventures await us outside our doors. If we dare depart our doors. Often what’s around the next corner is not what we’d expect. As I sit here, I’m reminded of that character of Tolkien’s who was swept out without his favorite walking stick. Hobbits don’t wear shoes. What need I for them?
I was Nike-less but somehow happier.
I later inquired after that fat burglar. Apparently, he had sold my shoes and used the proceeds for drinks with others of those robbed – thus does he impart wisdoms and witticisms to a Nike-nicked-world.