On meeting Robert Frost in a snowy wood

I never much considered Robert Frost, that ubiquitous poet of school English texts. The sort of thing people think of when they think of poetry — pastoral, conventional in rigid rhyme and meter. Easy. Old-fashioned.

Irrelevant.

I came across him again in Turco’s Book of Forms:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

— ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ by Robert Frost

And he thrilled something in me, old Robert Frost. Born in a time of war, coming of age in the Gilded Age, writing in the conventions of his time and place, oh this pretty picture of New England. A snowy wood on a winter evening. And yet.

And yet.

I’ve been in snow soaked woods in the dark of night, places where there is no ‘farmhouse near’ and they are not moments from Currier and Ives. They are dark, wild places where humanity is small and I feel the Fimbulwinter that awaits. Looking at the skeletal trees, the pines shrouded, and the world blanketed in white and silence, I imagine the end of the world and the heat death of the universe.

Robert Frost, with his little horse, thinking he’s crazy to stop here, in this lonesome place, this end of time place, this place of wolves and silence, he must have felt that too. The winter wood is not a pastoral place; it is not charming or idyllic. It is a savage place, a place that sleeps and dreams of death. And there is Robert Frost, longing to enter that wood, ‘lovely, dark and deep’.

Oh yes, that place of darkness in all its seductive power. And how easy it would be to ride his little horse into that dark. But he can’t. Not now. He has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.

Sometimes there is the right time for meeting someone. Meet them too early, and you don’t recognize them; you overlook them. When you meet them too late, the moment you could’ve fallen in love with them is already past. And I wonder, maybe, if I have met Robert Frost, again, at exactly the right time.

It’s been a while since I posted anything. I don’t know why. I have lots of things. Here’s one —

an erasure poem I created from a Wikipedia page (20 Feb 2015)

an erasure poem I created from a Wikipedia page (20 Feb 2015)

On reading Robert Frost

On reading Robert Frost I’m struck by how he returns to the wood. As a metaphor, as a place, as a symbol. This image, in so many forms, appears again and again, and his work is never so powerful as when it is in the wood.

Compare ‘Snowy Evening‘ with ‘Acquainted with the Night‘ — Robert Frost is not a creature of city streets and urban darkness; though he may have haunted the city in his time, he is alien there. It’s the darkness of the wood that lives in Robert Frost’s soul, the supple green of lithesome birches, the ache of the lonesome places ‘lovely dark and deep’ and the yellow regret of roads not taken and paths unwalked. He never writes himself so fully as when he is writing of the wood.

Someone, a friend of mine, said she had only one novel in her, that she kept writing the same story in different books. As though it was a bad thing. As though the same story cannot be told again and again in a hundred ways, and as if, in each telling, there are not new facets turned to the light.

There are writers I read, and read again, writers who tell the same stories. Irving. Oates, though I’ve conceived a dislike of Oates, not for her sameness, but because of a sense of ugliness which seeps into her work. How many stories do we have in us?

I think we fall prey to the worship of novelty, which is not the same as originality, and the idea that we must write a thing that has never been written, something new. Something novel. I say we, but I speak of myself. I find this idea in myself, and I think this idea–the idea that a thing may be done only once, that it must be done only once–is a sickness, a mechanism of self defeat.

To say, ‘What newness can I bring to this subject, what can I say that hasn’t been said?’ is the voice of the censor. To feel before I truly begin that I have already failed, that it is hubris to think I have anything to say that hasn’t been said, and said better, is to guarantee failure.

I wonder what my wood is.

What is the thing that’s lodged in me so deep that I’ve grown around it, scar, muscle, sinew, until it is no longer foreign, until it has become a part of me, impossible to excise. There are thoughts and ideas I return to, metaphors. Alienation and sex. The joining of flesh, the isolation of souls. Creation. Abnegation.

I don’t know if thinking about this helps me or hurts me. Writing. When I think too much about what I’m really saying, and what I feel I ought to say, it paralyzes me.

A realization that came only recently, but now when I look at the work that remains unfinished, I can’t not see the pattern. I wonder if I understand myself, finally, will I have anything left to say.

the state of poetry

I’ve been dressed and returned to a state of undress. I write email sitting cross legged on my kitchen table, like some kind of 21st century Buddha (the fat one, not the serene one) motionless but for my thumbs flitting over the tablet keyboard.

I was talking about poems and why I stopped writing them. I try not to be dramatic about these things. It’s not interesting and there’s nothing to be done about it but me getting over it. Or not. Which is a fine option also. There are plenty of things to write and poetry isn’t as important to the world as we sometimes pretend.

Nothing is.

I feel awkward talking about poems now. Not poems I pick up and read at random. I can tell you all about the poem I read last night–its structure and resonance, the ways it connected, where it left me cold. I can’t talk about the poem you’re writing.

I can see what I might do with it, if I wrote poems (which I don’t anymore). That doesn’t help you. I could tell you what I think it ought to be, the same thing I think all poems ought to be. But that doesn’t help you either, because what matters is what you think it ought to be, the way you would make it.

The poems which stick to me have a sensuality. It’s not only what they say, the ideas, but the way they rub up against me while they say it. Some words feel more than others.

How to explain the weight of words.

I can’t. They have their own density. Either you know them heavy and pressing and suddenly weightless, or you don’t. A poem ought to feel like a rollercoaster ride. It’s alright if it makes you throw up. 

Memorable poems are the ones where the poet is honest. People are hardly ever honest. They don’t always lie, but they hide themselves. That’s a dishonesty too. Obfuscation. Couching self in diplomatic terms because we fear…. So many things. Disapproval, giving offense, the fallout of truth. How often we lie to spare another discomfort. A forgivable sin in life, but not in art. 

I can’t write honestly now. 

I was listening to an interview with Billy Collins, and the question came up, whether he’s writing about himself, or a character in the first person. His answer was he writes about a more interesting version of himself. He could, as easily, have said a truer version of himself, with no meaning lost. My Hafiz and your Bukowski, they have more in common than you’d think; you’ll never catch either of them lying on the page. We’re all the same as we’ve always been. 

If I ever start writing poems again, they won’t be what they used to be.

on reading ‘Peanut Butter’ by Eileen Myles

I was in the salon before our trip, waiting to have my hair done–it’s a little different than last time. Similar. But not exactly the same because I never get exactly the same haircut. I don’t know if you’d be able to tell the difference if I hadn’t told you. It doesn’t matter.

I was reading poetry on my phone. As I do when I’m somewhere with no wifi, waiting.

It’s good to be places without wifi. And to wait sometimes for something you want.

I was reading ‘Peanut Butter‘ by Eileen Myles. I never heard of her, but that doesn’t mean anything. There are lots of people I never heard of that are worth knowing. And some people I know that aren’t. But anyway. I like her. We are sympathetic animals.

She begins,

I am always hungry
& wanting to have
sex.

Then she talks about peanut butter. I, too, like sex and peanut butter.

Not together.

I, too, know the way hunger makes you aware of your body. Everything is more intense when you’re hungry. The physical becomes acute. There are times I live for weeks in the edge state of hunger. If you cannot, or will not, feed one primal urge, satiate another.

We are not meant to be fat and bloated animals, drugged on food. Lazy, castrated housecats. Do you remember what it’s like to need?

We are meant to be lean and always moving. We are meant to be hungry.

She says:

Pleasure
as a means,
and then a
means again
with no ends
in sight.

Pleasure being an end unto itself. I have a joke for you. It begins, an ascetic and a hedonist walk into a bar…

I don’t know how it ends.

I do wonder how they got to be friends.

This part reminds me of you:

When the water
boils I get
a cup of tea.
Accidentally I
read all the
works of Proust.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read Proust, but I can imagine you having that kind of accident. This is a love poem, but the love parts don’t make me think of you.

Eileen Myles and I are sympathetic in love, also.

She says:

why shouldn’t
something
I have always
known be the
very best there
is.

It’s important to know what hunger feels like. If you don’t know the ache of it, you don’t know when it’s soothed.

I’ve known people with a black hole where their stomach ought to be. They’re so out of touch with their own hunger, they don’t know when to stop eating. They can’t ever feel full because they don’t understand the nature of the hunger.

Up late the other night playing with my new toy. Too late. I felt half hung over the next day. We’ll say it was the late night, not the bag of crisps and the bottle of knockoff champagne I put away while I was loading apps.

I installed the Poetry Foundation’s poetry spinner. When you open it, it randomly selects two different themes, like ‘anger’ & ‘spirituality’ or ‘frustration’ & ‘celebrations’, and gives you a list of the poems where they intersect. I already have it on my phone.

Those moments when there’s not enough time to do anything but too much time to do nothing–waiting in queue at the post counter, riding three stops on the bus, when the person I’m with has to make a call–I fill those moments with poems.

Past the end of the bottle, in the small hours, I was lying on the sofa, too tired to read, to lonesome to go to sleep, and spinning up poems. Letting the machine read to me. Not all of them have audio, but enough.

I found myself listening to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If—‘. I’ve never paid Kipling much attention. Not out of any particular dislike, but maybe because he’s often lauded as a Victorian poet and so I anticipate him as stodgy and socially moribund. I perhaps do Mr. Kipling a disservice. Some of ‘If—‘ seems as relevant to navigating the shark-infested waters of the internet & social media today as Victorian society of yesterday.

If you can keep your head when all about you  
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,  
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;  
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

The more old literature I read, the more I’m struck by how little we, as a species, have changed in the course of human history. We have shinier tools, but the characters of the animals wielding them are the same as we ever were.

How to clean your house in 20 minutes a day and still find time to read Harper Lee’s new Southern noir thriller.

Last night, I said to Em, ‘I want to try this…

He looked about as interested as you imagine, which I took to mean he wasn’t interested at all, and probably content blocked whatever I was going to say by imagining lolcat videos in his head once he realized I was talking about housekeeping and not weird sex.

I still thought it was a good idea. So I talked about it some more. He maintained an indulgent attitude, which meant he was still thinking about lolcats, or maybe sex. Pussy, in either case.

This morning I was reading more Apartment Therapy with my coffee, as one does, and I said to him, ‘Apartment Therapy says we should declutter by getting rid of some of our dishes to free up cupboard space.’

He raised an eyebrow and said, ‘And which dishes are you going to get rid of?’

I said, ‘I think what they meant by “get rid of” is box some of them up and put them in storage until we need them.’

‘Mmm-hmm,’ he said.

Once I considered the logistics, the wrapping and boxing and carrying up the stairs, not to mention rearranging our crammed storage to accommodate another box, and the fact I’d have to go out and find a suitable box since I decluttered all our empty boxes three weeks ago, the whole thing sounded a lot like work. I decided to forego ‘getting rid of’ our excess dishes.

People interested in a plan promising a clean house in 20 minutes a day are largely interested because it sounds like less work.

I said, ‘I think decluttering my desk is a higher priority. I really need to clean out the drawers.’

He said, ‘I thought you were supposed to surface clean the kitchen and living room today.’

Figures he was listening after all. He’s sneaky like that.

So now…

I have a surface clean kitchen (and living room) and it really did take only 20 minutes. I was kind of sceptical, but I figured I should at least give it a chance so I set the timer on my phone and hit it like a keg at a frat party.

I also did three loads of laundry and took out the garbage and the recycling and put away the dishes and rearranged my kitchen counter to create another usable food prep area. That was not included in the twenty minutes a day.

I know what you’re thinking:

But the point here is that now… now… I’m decluttering the fridge, so I have leftover wine and some cheddar nearing the expiration date and a freshly downloaded copy of Go Set a Watchman, which I’m fully prepared to enjoy the hell out of, no matter what the internet, or the critics, say.

Note that I may not be able to resist livetweeting it. You may wanna mute me until tomorrow.

Some things, once broken, aren’t worth the trouble of saving. Sweep them up. Dump them in the bin. Maybe there’s a pang if it was a favorite something. Maybe not even that. We live in the land of plenty where nothing is irreplaceable. In a day, a week, a month, we’ll have forgotten we ever had it, except in moments where a scent, a color, a song call the memory.

Few things are valuable enough, rare enough, to be worth saving. The painstaking work of collecting the pieces and fitting them back together, and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes a piece gets lost and the thing will never be whole again. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you don’t understand how they fit. Then there’s patience, waiting for the seal to set, the joint to harden, the bone to knit. The heart to mend.

For what. It’ll never be the same.

The message of our culture is disposable; it says, ‘Whatever you’ve broken, there’s another, a newer, shinier one, on the shelf, a later model on the showroom floor.’ Pristine.

One that doesn’t remind you of how it was broken.

That’s not what I meant to say about broken things. I meant to say sometimes they’re worth the saving. That they’ll never be the same again, but sometimes that doesn’t matter. That maybe something else is lost in the replacing. That the legend of breakage is history.

Got my bicycle out of storage today. Filled the tires, rode in the sun and the wind. Only to the shop. It was the kind of wind that whips the winter dust into a golden cloud, stinging your eyes to tears. The grit in my teeth tastes like the desert. Never confuse the beach with the desert; they’re two different things.

It took me a while to warm up to The Knick, to get past the House-but-set-in-the-early-1900s vibe. Ah, but I fell in love with the blue bicycle the moment it appeared.

There’s a scene where Nurse Elkins teaches Thackery to ride a bicycle. She tells him the first thing she did she did when she got to New York was buy the Rambler. She says, ‘I like riding in the city. It makes me feel like I’m a part of it.’

He says, ‘I saw you on it this morning. You didn’t look like you were part of anything. You looked free.’

I want to ride my bicycle.

Did I ever tell you my favorite jazz musician? I can’t remember.

Thelonious Monk.

Especially with John Coltrane.

Billie and Ella had wicked voices. And there’s Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington & Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Wes Montgomery & Miles Davis. Oh of course Miles. But Monk…

Monk lives perpetually in my playlist. He’s the first thing I load on a new device. When I run out of space, removing Monk is never an option, no matter how many versions of ‘Round Midnight I have.

I’m listening to A Love Supreme now and remembering I still have to rip my Coltrane CDs to mp3.

I’m walking to the store. It’s earlier than it is now, before darkness fell, before the snow began. I can’t think of anything I need, other than the walk itself. It’s the second day in a row I’ve been out in the fresh air, walking, trying to shed the psychic torpor that set in after Christmas.

On reflection, while I walk, I think there isn’t a true self. There’s only the self. A best self, maybe, a worst self, certainly. A happy self, an unhappy self, a complacent self, a satisfied self, a frustrated self, so many possible selves, as many selves as there are moments of choice. But not a true one. Not one you, or I, are meant to be.

And those holes, they aren’t damage in the perfect self; they’re the negative space. They give shape to the self.

The temperature on the thermometer isn’t so cold today, up to 0, but the damp Baltic air cuts right through me. I’ve been ill for some weeks–I think you knew that–not seriously, but still exhausting, and long enough I’ve sunk into sticky inertia. If I can’t think of something I need by the time I get to the shop, I’ll buy the ice cream I wished I’d gotten last night. The only thing I really need is the walk, but I needed the destination, the reason, to make the walk happen.

I am an existentialist, you know. Dyed in the wool. My own moral authority. What color would you paint an existentialist? The lunacy of Goya black, maybe. I still think we’re all of us existentialists, just some of us don’t realize it.

In our desire to set ourselves apart from (above) the rest of creation, we divorce our idea of ‘self’ from our physical being. I wonder how much our cultural indoctrination with the notion of some kind of an ‘immortal soul’ plays into this, even when we consciously reject the idea. We so often fail to differentiate the idea of soul from psyche. And we consider them both independent of the body, in the same way water is independent of the vessel that contains it, a substance to be poured, at will, from one chalice to another. As though a brain in a vat would contain the same self as a brain in a body. As though a brain in a healthy body could contain the same self as a brain in a sick or broken body.

I know the changes in my self that come with the changes in my body. Energy surging and ebbing with the rhythm of the biochemical sea. Moods rising and falling in gravitational thrall to peptides. I feel the weeks of lethargy and inactivity; I’m tired less in my body than in my mind. Tomorrow the forecast says sleet. I have a parcel to pick up from the post.

You call me strident like it’s a bad thing

My turquoise voice explodes
over you like the heartbreak cannonade
of centennial fireworks.

My chromed up hot-rod voice screams
down midnight highways howling
at the moon.

My darkling crow voice rises like a murder
at the gutshot crack of dawn.

My bourbon voice belts out the rusted
anthems of long lost revolutions.

My carnival voice barks its shins
on the sharp edges of the cast-off huckster
dreams littering my American psyche.

My sandpaper oracle voice tells me
that choice is a silent future where madness
and truth are both policed by sharks.

#jesuischarlie

Yesterday left me tired of the world in a way I haven’t been tired in a long time. I didn’t think I would say any more about it because what’s one more voice in a sea of voices. There are always more voices. But then sometimes there aren’t. And isn’t that what this is about, too. Silencing voices; forcing voices. Co-opting voices.

I have a fondness for provocateurs. People should be provoked. They should have their hypocrisies and prejudices and sacred cows spread out in the light. We all have them, and it does us good to see them as others see them. To be consciously and deliberately controversial–provocative–is to make us think.

There are legitimate criticisms of material Charlie Hebdo publishes; Charlie Hebdo knows this as well as anyone, and the same principles that protect the right of Charlie Hebdo to publish controversial, offensive, provocative material allow for the criticism of that material. Some of their cartoons are ugly. So is the world.

Some are true.

The 9 February 2006 cover of Charlie Hebdo depicting the prophet Muhammad weeping. The headline reads: ‘Mahomet débordé par les intégristes’ — in English: ‘Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists’

Their images make us flinch, they make us angry, they make us deeply uncomfortable. They make us laugh. And sometimes, sometimes they make us look more deeply, more clearly, at ourselves. This is the value of Charlie Hebdo.[1]11 January 2015 ETA:Olivier Tonneau explains the left-wing ethos of Charlie Hebdo and its context in French society: ‘On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to my British friends‘. And if you will not listen, will not engage, will not be provoked, you turn the page. You change the channel. You walk away.

There exists another kind of provocation, though. A self-serving, manipulative kind designed not to elicit examination, comment, and criticism, but hate and fear. The attack on Charlie Hebdo‘s offices, the murderer of cartoonists and journalists and policemen, was this kind of provocation. A calculated incitement to violence. Not against the people responsible, but violence against our own people: our friends and neighbors and coworkers, against immigrants and refugees who sought a home in our communities. This act is intended to drive a wedge between us, to divide us.

This is the difference: Charlie Hebdo speaks to provoke more speech. Extremists commit acts of hate and violence to provoke more hate and violence. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not a response to provocation. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is intended to provoke us into becoming them.[2]9 January 2015 ETA: The New Statesman has a thoughtful article on the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a deliberate act of polarization, a recruitment strategy for militant extremists. I strongly recommend reading ‘Is the Charlie Hebdo attack really a struggle over European values?

 

Additonal reading   [ + ]

1. 11 January 2015 ETA:Olivier Tonneau explains the left-wing ethos of Charlie Hebdo and its context in French society: ‘On Charlie Hebdo: A letter to my British friends‘.
2. 9 January 2015 ETA: The New Statesman has a thoughtful article on the attack on Charlie Hebdo as a deliberate act of polarization, a recruitment strategy for militant extremists. I strongly recommend reading ‘Is the Charlie Hebdo attack really a struggle over European values?

19 Dec 2014

Walking home from the party. The pedestrian roads, some of them, are still unplowed. Branches sag under the weight of the snowfall. Later we will see trees bent double, and walk beneath them, snow laden arches over the footway. Here the the wind is hindered by the forest. In the open places it drives thick white flakes in our faces and we lower our heads, hunch our shoulders against it. The pines create a saw-toothed outline against the uniform grey of the sky. The dark belly of the storm reflects back the light of the city.

 

Dec 20, 2014 @ 02:27

I was reading last night, the Qur’an. I like the part about Abraham, where he goes to find what God is.

6:75 So also did we show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, that he might (with understanding) have certitude.

6:76 When the night covered him over, he saw a star. He said, ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘I love not those that set.’

6:77 When he saw the moon rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when the moon set, he said: ‘Unless my Lord guide me, I shall surely be among those who go astray.’

6:78 When he saw the sun rising in splendour, he said: ‘This is my Lord; this is the greatest (of all).’ But when the sun set, he said: ‘Oh my people! I am indeed free from your (guilt) of giving partners to Allah.

6:79 ‘For me, I have set my face, firmly and truly, toward Him who created the the heavens and earth, and never shall I give partners to Allah.’

Have you ever stood in the desert and looked at the stars? Felt your own smallness, a tiny heartbeat creature on an insignificant planet hurtling through space and time. Have you ever looked toward infinity?

Abraham does. He goes out and he looks, really looks.

He finds his God.

The stars, the moon, the sun, they’re not gods. They’re celestial objects, but they’re still objects, subject to ‘the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth’.

This book, it talks a lot about the wrongness of ‘joining partners with Allah’. In the Abrahamic religions, I’ve always thought that prohibition was because theirs was a jealous god, an entity that didn’t want to share its worship, its believers. Now I think maybe I’ve misunderstood. What Allah is, you can’t join other things with it; that would require it to be discrete, but it’s not. Allah is all-encompassing, indivisible. It suffuses the fabric of reality. To join something with it, to say these things are like, equals, partners, is to not understand the nature of Allah.

When Abraham goes out into the desert, he comes back with a new god. Not like the gods of his people, the sun, the moon, the stars. This is something else. Abraham’s God is not made in the image of man, with mankind’s appetites and rivalries. And when he returns to his people, he understands. He sees the gods they worship, that he worshiped, for what they are: dumb things, idols created in the imaginations and psyches of men.

The Allah of the Qur’an is a different cat altogether.

If you try to think about it literally, as a being that makes men from clay and creates the sun in a day, you end up somewhere ridiculous. You end up on a road trip with a petulant god-toddler who has the power to create a universe and destroy planets, a fickle thing that can raze cities and part seas and be lied to and bartered with and coaxed via sacrifices and prayers to find lost car keys or yield up a winning scratch-off, that creates mankind as a toy. You end up with gris-gris and sin-eating and snake handling and blood sacrifice. You end up with a God built of pedestrian superstition.

It’s only in allegory the idea of Abraham’s God begins to make sense.

It is Allah who causeth the seed-grain and the date-stone to split and sprout. He causeth the living to issue from the dead and He is the one to cause the dead to issue from the living. That is Allah. (6:95)

He it is that cleaveth the day-break (from the dark): He makes the night for rest and tranquility, and the sun and moon for the reckoning of time. (6:96)

It is He who sendeth down rain from the skies: with it we produce vegetation of all kinds. (6:99)

To Him is due the primal origin of the heavens and the earth. (6:101)

This is nature, not the physical hand of a supernatural entity manually cracking seeds and pouring rain. Abraham comes home and he rejects the superstitions of his people, but how do you describe the idea that there is a law, something invisible, indivisible, inexorable, that governs us all, from the movement of planets and galaxies to the passage of time to the creation and cessation of life?

I think maybe these things, they aren’t supposed to be read as the actions of God. That it’s not attributive, but descriptive. That maybe these things are, in part, the definition of God.

There’s a place I spend too much time, no one is happy there. I almost went this morning, out of habit, or maybe duty, but I went to Twitter instead and ended up reading a poem by George Szirtes. Uncle Zoltán and the Exotic. I don’t know George Szirtes, not the way I know some of the people in my Twitter. We follow each other, but we don’t talk to each other. We’re like two friendly strangers that ride the same train.

I was going to tell you something this morning, but I’m avoiding my email because if I open it, I’ll just get sucked in, and I put my phone down somewhere and now I can’t find it and I can’t call it to locate it because I can’t find it.

It’s better this way, peaceful. The weight of unhappiness, other people’s, sometimes presses on me until the act of repelling it becomes its own garment. To spend a few quiet hours unarmored is regenesis. I think you’d like George Szirtes if you read him; he puts moments of beauty into the world. I think it’s better to read poems than it is to wear other people’s unhappiness.

It’s dark in my kitchen, lit only by the cool white LEDs of electric ljusstakar that look nothing like flames. I would stand up to turn on the light, but there’s a warm-footed cat asleep on my lap and I’m reading George Szirte’s blog, a diary of his visit in Malaysia, and remembering the Buddhist temples I visited in China, the smell of the incense, and understanding what he means when he says ‘I find it both comprehensible and incomprehensible: comprehensible in totality, incomprehensible in detail, or, if not incomprehensible, part of a cosmology that is located in another part of my personal psychic architecture.’

When the cat wakes up, I’m going to walk in the snow.

I’ve been reading The Qur’an as well as Moby Dick. I’ve been writing a lot about it also, though I haven’t posted anything. I thought I might, after I was finished with Moby Dick, but I’m not sure it’s entirely separable. Reading them in tandem, I think about them in tandem also.

It’s a complicated book to read as an atheist, The Qur’an, in part because I come it with preconceived cultural ideas about what a god is and what it does but no personal ones, and, I realize, I develop expectations, given those ideas and the parameters in the book (‘Allah hath power over all things’, ‘Allah hears and knows all things’), of what a god should be. I’m trying, really trying, to read this book and understand what it is that over a billion people on this planet believe, and not just what it is they believe, but how they believe it. One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the nature of God.

In the shower, standing in the steam letting the water run over me, I was thinking about God and whales, and I brushed my arm on the wall and left an impression, a moment of clarity in the condensation.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael describes artistic representations of the whale:

But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars. Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. And, not to speak of the highly presumable difference of contour between a young sucking whale and a full-grown Platonian Leviathan; yet, even in the case of one of those young sucking whales hoisted to a ship’s deck, such is then the outlandish, eel-like, limbered, varying shape of him, that his precise expression the devil himself could not catch.

I think God, the idea of God, may be like Ishmael’s whale. Too vast, and too much obscured to depict accurately, and if you did somehow manage to extract it from its element, to separate it as a discrete being, to say this is what God is, this is what God looks like, you have lost something of its nature, some essential quality.

And there’s another thought, too. That it’s not possible, not really, to say God doesn’t exist. God patently does exist–the effect of its passing is visible. Not as a discrete being, an entity that makes men from earth and raises the dead, but God exists in the way that justice and love and mercy exist. It’s not a thing that can be hauled from the sea and examined in its physical form, but only seen in its displacement, its wake, the impression it leaves on the world.

There’s a line in Moby Dick—the second mate sends the cook out to lecture the sharks because they’re too noisy while he’s eating, and the cook tells them:

‘Your voraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame you so much for; that is nature, and can’t be helped; but to govern that wicked nature, that is the point. You is sharks, certain; but if you govern the shark in you, why then you be an angel; for all angel is nothing more than the shark well governed.’

(Melville wrote it in heavy dialect, which I find moderately annoying to read, and more irritating to try and type out faithfully, so I didn’t.)

The idea that an angel is only a shark with self-control is in some way beautiful, and yet in another it makes me recoil: ‘wicked nature’, the moral judgment that a shark’s sharkness is inherently wicked and that a shark should, instead, bind his own nature, and seek to be an angel. That to be an angel is a better thing than to be a shark. And if being an angel meant that you must fetter your most essential self, then is being an angel a beautiful thing or a horrible one?

Someone told me how Fort Lauderdale made it illegal to feed homeless people in public. He talked about how his church meets in a park, and how they help the homeless there, and how they were forced to change parks, and this wasn’t in Florida, but in Missouri.

That church, the one that helps homeless people in the park, it sounds like a good church, you know? Good people. And I was thinking how some churches are like that, good. And others are base and petty and ugly. I can think of a couple of those, too. And how when they’re all Christian, it’s got nothing to do with God or Jesus, and they can’t say ‘it’s because my God is a loving God and yours is false and malicious’ because they all have the same god, the same book.

It’s the people, and how they come together, maybe like calls to like, and you have these loving churches because they’re made of loving people, and they focus on helping, on caring for others. They lift people up. Then you have these nasty little churches that focus on sin and laws and how wicked you are, because they’re made of small, nasty people,  and they’re constantly policing each other’s Christian-ness and judging each other, and it becomes a kind of debasement. If religion encourages us to be worse than we are, or allows us to be our worst selves, what’s the point?

There’s this argument I hear sometimes, how if you don’t believe in (and fear) God, nothing will stop you from being selfish and evil and wicked. Why be good if you won’t be punished for being otherwise?

I think about this a lot lately, how gods, the Christian God anyway, I don’t know enough about the others, Vishnu & Waheguru & the rest, to have an opinion on them, but the doctrine is used to debase and devalue humanity. It doesn’t tell you you’re beautiful, that you’re good; it says you’re fallen and unworthy. Your nature is wicked. It says God made you in his image and you fucked it up. You fucked it up so, so bad.

And maybe in some ways it’s right, because how terribly, terribly sad that when a man comes along, a humanitarian and a social reformer, and he tells people ‘be kind to each other’, that to be that revolutionary, to be allowed to be that sort of a person, to possess that nature, to be believed in, he had to be made into a god.

And what does that say about how we feel about ourselves, our own nature? That if we are beautiful and if we love, really love, other people, this comes not from our own humanity–that whatever is good in us, it is not our essential self.

I’ve been reading Moby Dick. I don’t know why I put it off so long, I guess the monolithic reputation, maybe,  and  it’s been dogged with the descriptor ‘boring’, probably the result of being featured in multiple high school English lit classes (never any of mine), though I’m not exactly sure how gay cannibal whalers on a quest for vengeance led by an insane captain against his nemesis, the monstrous white whale who ate his leg, is boring, even in high school. Maybe it’s the chapters about Ishmael’s proposed classification system for whales.

Anyway, somehow, it ended up on the shelf, unread for much too long, though I’ve always found Herman Melville delightful. (And he had magnificent whiskers. )

Herman Melville

Magnificent, amirite?

I expected it to be about whales, and whaling, and humanity and obsession. I didn’t expect it to be so profoundly concerned with religion: religion as an institution, personal belief, the effects of that belief. I don’t mean I expected it to be devoid of religious reference (unrealistic in 19th century literature, for a number of reasons) but I also didn’t expect overt championing of religious tolerance, and especially not tolerance extended beyond Protestant sects.

I guess it makes a sort of sense if you consider Melville as a product of his time in the context of the Second Great Awakening & the reform movements of the era (his occasional remarks about temperance crack me up), and I suppose it makes me a product of my time & culture that I’m surprised there wasn’t huge American controversy over it–if 21st century American religious groups can get hysterical enough over a fictional boy wizard to burn books, you’d expect homosexual idolaters to cause a moral panic in the 19th. Apparently not; as far as I can tell via some cursory googling, the British censored some of the text for sexual content and sacrilege (and insults to the monarchy lol), but I didn’t find anything similar regarding the US edition; it was largely ignored. Not to worry! It took 150 years, but America managed to ‘catch up’ to the point of banning it, in the form of a Texas school board, wouldn’t you know.

Anyway…

I love this passage (from the end of Chapter 10):

I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth—pagans and all included—can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship?—to do the will of God—that is worship. And what is the will of God?—to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me—that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.

What fascinates me is how Ishmael chooses, impeccably, to sin and thereby please his God. That what he does here is to put love for his fellow man above obedience to scripture, and thereby love both God and his fellow man. None of this ‘love the sinner but hate the sin’ crap, just love. And it begs the question, is a sin, according to the letter of the law, committed in service of the spirit of that law, still sin?

My surprise might also be colored by recent association with the Godly. I’ve been hanging around some internet Christians of late—not regular people who happen to believe in the Christian God and consider the Bible a good general guide for how to be a decent person, but some capital X Christians, the kind for whom Religion is their primary identity and things like idolatry and false gods are srs bsns. I have a hard time imagining someone with that kind of belief, even 150 years later, in a similar situation choosing love above technical obedience and joining Queequeg in his ritual, or even allowing Queequeg to worship his idol as he will, suspending judgment and without interfering and attempting to ‘save’ him.  (Just in case you were thinking I sit around by myself pondering idolatry. There’s context, people.)

On a side note, a concerned gentleman recently made me aware that I’m unclean, having been contaminated by sex, drugs and rock-and-roll and my flesh corrupted by fornication, and this renders me unfit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  (Also there was something about gay sex, but I stopped listening because I didn’t think that part applied to me.) I’m a little suspicious of the authenticity of his Bible; it’s been a while, and I could be wrong, but I don’t recall that particular book addressing ‘rock-and-roll’ at all, but I thought you should know anyway, in case I’m spiritually contagious.  I promise not to intentionally fornicate you with my impurities, but accidents happen.

Safety first.

I was looking at myself in the shower, and I realized I am always writing about my vagina. It gets all the attention, and that’s a shame, because I have some fucking pretty tits. I was thinking it’s a shame that we live in societies with all these fascist Puritan shirt rules, societies where tits are so taboo that pictures of breastfeeding mothers are banned from Facebook, because really, they are some nice looking tits and I should not be ashamed of them.

I really ought to write a poem about my tits. I could call it ‘Ode to My Tits.’