Friday, August 21, 2009

A Girl On Vacation

Nothing can mitigate the sheer ugliness of the gateway to the South Shore. Even Sister Mary Corita Kent's rainbow-draped tanks are, when you get right down to it, tanks, and the other eye-grabbing colors in the drab landscape are from Mad Ave's calculated and seductive palette.

But we were headed south, Capeward, toward what I once called in a poem "the Atlantic of my earliest reluctances," and my soul was as Novemberish as it was going to get in the August heat, so what were a few more irony-rich, spleen-inducing sights ?

I could bounce from Ultima Thule to A Mighty Fortress Is Our God within the space of a mile and still have energy left over to photograph a bored-looking pink-clad tart in a Hyannis window.

We signed on to the nearest we could find to a whaling ship, a Hyannis harbor cruise boat called the Prudence. I found it a good omen for our voyage that ma semblable, ma soeur was seated on the dock, a wind-whipped cloud of white over mild blue.

I assumed our ship was adequately provisioned for its 1 hour itinerary,

and, as we bobbed in the mild chop of the harbor, I gazed at our fellow vessels, and reflected on my heritage. There was seafaring and Melvillian blood in my veins: my mother's mother was a Starbuck, and, (so I am told) there is a Starbuck House on Nantucket commemorating a sea captain of the same name and lineage.

Our captain, it appeared, was of a more sanguine disposition than Ahab, so I alone would have to bear the existential burden of this voyage. I was more than prepared for that, I thought, as we pulled away from the dock.

But that, of course, is a presumptuous statement. The sea, whether wine-dark or snot-green -- and the harbor's was more the snot-green variety -- is a great provoker of thoughts existential, metaphysical and artistic. It is the all-purpose metaphor our womb and tomb, the cradling mother and the angry father, birth, life and death, time and eternity, love and hate. Little wonder, then, that Kenneth Koch ended "The Art of Poetry" with the warning

...At the end of a poem
One may be tempted to grow too universal, philosophical and vague
Or to bring in History or the Sea, but one should not do that
If one can possibly help it...

At sea, you understand the siren call of that as you bend like an undinal vast belly seaward not moonward, aw hell, seaward and moonward, crying thallassa ! with Sigmund Freud and James Joyce and Homer before them, and Homer Simpson after them who has, after all, spent many hours of his life-as-Everyman both on and under the sea.

Who am I kidding ? I am the world's biggest landlubber. Ankle deep at low tide on a sandbar in globally-warmed ocean-cum-bathwater, I worry about riptides. What was that you were supposed to do ? Swim perpendicular to them ? Parallel ? Steer intothe direction of the skid ?

I went to sea, once; the memory is dim. It was a small boat, wooden. It was small, but large enough to have a hold. It was an excursion with relatives, elder relatives; I am remembering babushkas, but they were likely ex-spouse's Irish and not my Lithuanian relatives. It was cold, windy, a autumnal gray day promising rain. The sea was likely snot-green, and it likely made a slopping sound against the side of the boat. It must have been a birthday, or some other occasion, because, most significantly, there was a cake. It was a big round cake, covered with smooth, thick, pure white frosting, cream frosting studded with big, red strawberries.

The cake glows like a lighthouse eye in my memory. The day was gray, drab and cold; the sea restless and menacing. But that cake ! It was domestic joy, safety, pleasure, more Mother than the sea could ever hope to be. I daydreamed it underwater and us with it. It protected us, eternal mother strong to save, and lit the way home with its brilliant white cream.

Even the world-class depressive, Weldon Kees, had to admit that the bathers had smiles, albeit smiles that faded as they left the water -- No death for you. he laments. You are involved.

That line follows me to the beach every year, like a small over-coiffed poodle, easily mistaken for a monkey. I wrote a beach poem 10 years ago, practically to the day, that dogs me, too. It was conceived at some other beach, near the antecubital fossa of the Cape's bent arm.

Shores Poetica

These perfect and private things...

“The Smiles Of The Bathers,” Weldon Kees

Glorious ! The voice carries onshore
without inflection or hesitation,
and the bather stands disclosed in his public
nimbus. A watery coterie has assembled.
He, waist deep in his Glorious ocean,
speaks for them. Yes, they murmur, yes.

The visible bay’s blue inscape stretches
from hazy Wellfleet to hazy Orleans.
If you set out for France from here, swimming
into an improbable sunset, you’ll hit
Boston, knickered below its prim horizon.
Better, then, take a pure, Euclidean tack,

and skim like a bright isosceles
the line that hinges sheer to sheen,
as pi informs its arcs, degree by degree,
plane to plane; or, better yet, stick
to the proximal, your back’s quartz-flecked
bouillebaise of sweat and sunblock,

and the flyleaf where you’ve scrawled
...the smiles of the bathers fade...Kees
Their dark heads blot the wind-scuffed, silver water
between ground line and the vanishing point
where a blue wall rises, immaculate, complete.
I wade through shallows. Stands of cordgrass sway

in the bottle-green, translucent swells.
Underfoot, the rippled seafloor downslopes.
A red hairband eels past. I’m seasick, almost.
Air and water strip to their colorless gesso --
I breathe and float. Above me, voices,
refined to cadence, circle and chorus

the triumphant return of Glorious !
Battened like a fugitive gull on landfill,
hungry for glaze, for oceanic gloze,
it swoops, a severed main de gloire
loosed from the gallows to nosedive booty
and root like a mandragore for the tidbit

occulted in this sandy littoral’s
kelp-strewn impasto. But the joke’s on it.
Salvage on, glorious Glorious. Salvage on.
The beach is clean as bone and twice a day
celestial influences strong arm the timid deep
to swamp whatever glory holes remain.

But those were my wordy days. Mandragore ! Main de gloire ! Tsk tsk, imagine that. I traffic in photons now; am a paparazzi who snaps the Kennedy Compound with a 300mm telephoto --

then turns to such conventional subjects as sailboats

and windsurfers -- no, no, who am I kidding ? -- who turns to such queer and solitary objects

as channel markers

red buoys

green buoys

beacon lights atop rocky shoals

and atop green buoys --

all the things that mark the sea lanes

(and here we landlubbers pause to drink in the strange magic of that phrase)

and, that, like so many strawberried cream cakes, lead the seasick, homesick voyager home.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Wilderness Trak

If you will follow me past the culvert and over the crest of this little hill you will see that we have arrived at our destination: the tracks. If you ask me whether we are on the wrong or the right side of the tracks I will tell you that I do not know. We are on the side where weeds and trash mingle and happily coexist, a species of paradise, but beyond that I cannot say.

The first thing that you will see is the confirmation of our arrival: FE, sign of the element upon which the trains run. If you feel a thrill at the notion of trains it is the resonance of the iron in your blood with the roaring past of the iron horse on its iron track.

But we are not trainspotters. We are here to observe the wilderness that uprushes crazily beside the tracks. If you crave solitude, this is where you will come, far from the pretty woods and dog park, far from the municipally tended lawns. Anyone you meet here will be a fellow solitary, and will likely veer wide with downcast eyes. Let us then, in honor of that, cast our eyes down.

And, look ! It is August, the buttery yellow heyday of that aptly named weed, Tansy. It dances from a tentative greeny disc, through flowery yellow, to stiff, black empty cups-on-a-stalk that last the winter long. A glorious trackside Totentanz, and we salute you !

It is a peculiarity of the trackside that you will often spot brushes, stiff with paint, lying amidst the humus and gravel; this one here is announcing its affinity with tansy, but it will lie yellow all winter under snow and emerge yellow in spring. We should feel a pang of sadness for it.

Not all weeds are as elegantly named as tansy, however: here we find delicate little mobcapped spirals that will soon bloat into the purple-black clusters of pokeweed. An ignominious name, to be sure, but a fruit of some erotic gravitas, albeit scorned

by the delicately named and delicately petaled evening primrose, whose translucent greeny yellow announces a colder disposition than tansy. Let us marvel at the transformation to come: this prim and delicate, by fall, will be a stiff wand of golden, woody, pods, mouths flared open to the cold and snow.

There are some creatures here in the trackside wilderness that surprise the most jaded sherpa. Has there ever been such a quiet and feathery pink in these parts, the mothy equivalent of virginal gingham ? What is gingham ? Never mind.

We must not tarry. There are creatures and environments that await us -- like this delicately brown seminiferous stalk, quaintly named poor man's pepper, stiff in a lashing gale of past-its prime brome.

And here is a more architectural sight -- not just one discarded drinks cup, but a nested stack of them. Regard their dull and washed out blue. Then contemplate, if you will, their origin and end. We will stop and observe a moment of silence now.

But just a moment, because before us, even in these late summer days, we find another weed of virginal delicacy, the bladder campion. And well might you gasp at the unfortunate and vulgar name. Pause, now, to reflect on the discordance of appearance and essence. Apply it, if you will, to your own existence.

You will note that modes of demise are crosscultural. Note the homology of the frayed stitiching of this moribund billed cap and the unraveling of certain weeds. This should instruct us in a type of sympathy.

And here we have, once again, the intimate collusion of poor man's pepper and brome. Take a moment to observe that what might seem at first to be an uninteresting beige, is actually a mixture of brown and pink and yellow !

Let us rest our eyes; close focus is tiring; gaze, if you will, at the wild cucumber scrolling out of and across the dark woods.

And when you have had your fill, look down at your feet -- a device that, chameleon like, mimics the thrust and tangle of trackside vines !

But we must press on. Weeds, like this foxtail, are emerging from the Great Neant (sometimes only French will do) to accompany us on our trek.

Others are ascending heavenward like denizens of an El Greco painting.

And, suddenly, a palimpsest: ONO on XO. Ponder it: a hug and a kiss overwritten by a negation ? Or ONOXO, a lost ruin from the land of Macchu Picchu ? Perhaps it is the name of this land, this trackside wilderness !

And perhaps this is its pink-and-cream demure Goddess, pondering our consignment to the depths of Chichan Itza !

Swim with me through the weedlight, my companions, past creatures we will not name,

past old friends,

and onto the gravely far shore of tiny glass sirens,


and monuments to the world's intrinsic fire of oxidation -- vide supra, friends, the train in your blood.

for the world and we are burning, burning, burning (cf. the Saint who is Patron of this hot month)

Our letters singe until we are oven -oasted

and must plunge into the cool, green sea of Dutch Rush as if it could quench the feverish, midsummer heat of our reckless, inexorable combustion !

(But, of course, it can't.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Spells & Potions

A few weeks ago a patient admired the purple shoelaces in my old & ugly, black & fissured Payless Shoe Source oxfords.

"Thank you," I replied. "They're penitential."

His eyes grew wide; his smile froze; I could see him wanting to back quietly toward the exam room door and flee.

I turned the topic quickly to the color of his nasal secretions, a much safer topic.

Stuff like that just slips out sometime. The persona cracks and the naked face emerges.

Many years ago a schizophrenic acquaintance of mine pointed to a security guard in a bus depot and said, "The only thing that's holding his personality together is his uniform." I think of that, sometimes, when I put on my lab coat and sling my stethoscope around my neck.

My purple shoelaces are a different sort of signifier than my lab coat. I may be giving out mixed messages.

Everything is a question of reading.

For example, in the woods lately, I am rereading the book of late summer; my teeth are chattering; frost weights my lashes; my nailbeds are blue; my companions are Byrd and Shackleton.

I see right through the warm, luscious flesh of the fruit to the cold and earthbound pit.

You must believe me when I tell you this has nothing to do with such manifesti as When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple.

For 2 days I have not clicked on a news teaser on the Comcast page, something about a live baby discovered in a coffin. I preferred to leave off at my baptismal association, the seed of which was planted by our priest's crosscultural anecdote -- somewhere, infants are carried to the font -- to their death & rebirth in Christ -- in a literal coffin.

Language is a species of magic. The only things that are holding her shoes on her feet are her purple shoelaces.

See ?

I'm in one of those Novembers of the soul that drove Ishmael seaward and that led Hamlet to cry "words, words, words." I turn weedward, woodward. Weeds are not wordless, though. They speak a different language, to be sure, a tongueless tongue, best appreciated with the eyes and nose.

Even if they could, they would not tell the scandalous tales of kings. They would agree, if they could, with Jules LaForgue's observation that the moon does not bear a grudge.

Their thorns, hooks and prickles do not signify peevishness, and their tenaciousness is neither vice nor virtue.

I am, I confess, sick of stories, sick of speech, sick of exhortation, sick of complaint, sick of argument both shrill and nuanced.

Departing for the desert, I travel light. I lay a few items out on the bed and contemplate them:

Thank you.

Forgive me.

Help me.


Or maybe just this, this one thing --


--handy as a bur, or a scythe.

Oh, I know, these splenetic moments always pass. The salt regains its savor, the wilted posie fattens in the rain.

But from each trip to that frigid, arid edge I return with bits abraded off, my cheap shoes more cracked, the ends of the purple laces muddy and frayed,

babbling about Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Monkshood and Bishop's weed.

It is unseemly.

It is unbecoming.

What, then, is it ?

What !