When one is in the presence of the Colosseum, an enormous cylinder with empty eye sockets, one has the sense of emptiness. Naturally, having the sense of emptiness, one cannot help but also have the dread of emptiness. Those things piled up, coming from every direction, so that not a bit of space is left, of free space, everything is filled, nothing is left, nothing freed. That dread of emptiness, one can feel it in Rome infinitely more than in any other place on earth, more even than in the desert. I believe that from the dread of emptiness issues, not the need of filling that space with it-matters-not-what-thing, but all the drama in the art of Michelangelo.
When I said that the Baroque provoked the sense of emptiness, that the aesthetic of the Roman Baroque had been initiated by the dread of emptiness, I mentioned the Colosseum. I’m afraid I haven’t been clear enough. The dread in the Baroque originated with the intolerable idea of a body without a soul. A skeleton evokes the dread of emptiness.
—Ungaretti, note on Sentimento del Tempo
Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey
But the truth is that his love poetry is usually best when it is least about love. He takes every opportunity of bringing in external nature, or narrative, as if to take a holiday from the erotic treadmill.
C.S. Lewis, English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century
In 1543 he was imprisoned again for riotous behavior in the streets of London (eating flesh in Lent and breaking windows).
Emrys Jones, “Biographical and Textual Note”
Saturn rising. Saturn is very large and very cold compared to Earth, and we now know that the last ice age was caused by Saturn’s orbit taking it within a few hundred thousand kilometers of our world. It took up a third of the sky. Our ancestors quaked in its penumbra. When the rings came slicing above, everyone had to duck; trees were felled, mountains leveled, the mastodon got flat-top haircuts.
You see I been through the desert on anonymous horse
It felt good to get dry of course
In the desert ain’t no use naming your horse
Cause the boundless ground leaves you none for remorse
Shostakovich No. 15 again. It’s entirely too close to write about. But it demands writing anyway, because there won’t be another chance, not before death. Impervious trombones—that’s the Roman eagle marching in. The high, unstable woodwind chords are the buzz in the ears before the knees give out. The percussion is a scattering of shards.
Soul fills the gaps. Strings and flute dancing a few steps at a time, or a keening cello, soul as play, soul as noise. It takes the past tense. It filled the gaps—we can say that much. It wasn’t adequate to more, but nothing would have been adequate, it was all rigged. Somewhere down below is sleep, and if you quote Wagner then someone else can quote you, so write it down, limping soul, there’s no more time.
When I think about things I want, I tend to hit on categories like “sleep” or “for the yard work to go away,” but sometimes J. helps me think of objects, and when it gets to that point the objects might as well come home. Guitars have been appearing in the bedroom, mostly Telecasters, necks all in a row like an ash forest grown up overnight and quietly waiting to find out what it was planted for. Now we have a basswood interloper (genus Tilia, Coleridge’s lime) in the shape of a Jazzmaster.
It was made in Japan in the mid-nineties, right when I was taking high school Japanese because everyone seemed to think that was how you would get a job in 2000. I should have known how the guitar was going to behave, given that I grew up with those Sonic Youth and Elvis Costello records, but it is not the animal you expect when you first plug it in. A Gibson is an oil painting and the Telecasters draw in pastel, but a Jazzmaster does its work in thin tempera washes; stroke broad or thin, the light always shows through. It is just remarkable once you get used to fiddling with all the extra metal bits which were upmarket features in the fifties and must have a hand in that transparency, but are perfect little devils to set up.
Marc Ribot’s impressive performances with offsets notwithstanding, I still understand the genre of a Jazzmaster to be “anything but jazz.” Yet it makes scales ring so clearly, and really makes me want to become a better lead player. I have a modes book somewhere in the basement, which I hardly ever looked at, because once you understand that a mode is just a change of context how do you keep it interesting? The moment I leaned over to fiddle with a pedal, the guitar started to feed back as advertised. You know what to do—divebomb that tremolo! “You should have seen your face,” said J.
Go see St. Peter’s, said Kant, go see the Great Pyramid; he didn’t know about General Sherman, and I wonder what he would have said about General Sherman in our age of ordered sets, where you can’t look at the tree without the superadded knowledge that it is, provably, the world’s largest. It looked to me like the center of the world. I could believe there were gods in the canopy and an underworld in the roots, never mind that sequoias don’t have taproots and this is why they fall over after a few thousand years. We even had a Ratatoskr scrambling up and down the striations of the trunk, red sandstone tipped onto its side. On a fallen branch went walking the largest raven I ever saw in my life; apparently they vary with the trees. ‟Huginn? Muninn? Fly on up to the hall, will you, and tell them I’m still busy down here.”
The paved path around the tree was busy with people not speaking English, nations of the world come to pay court to the world tree by pointing their smartphones at it. The tree defeated them. Trying to get it in frame they backed farther and farther away until they were out of its compass entirely, and surrendered. It took a bit of work to find the unpaved trails, but once I found them I discovered that my body, which I tend to think of as a decaying jelly, is still perfectly able to get me up a mountain, even at seven thousand feet. Most of my three days in the mountains involved no one but me and
• white-headed woodpeckers,
• red-breasted sapsuckers,
• western tanagers,
• Steller’s jays,
• brown creepers,
inter alia. All the verticality and solitude called up Chinese paintings, and before you ask, yes I did bring A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang in my pack; you take that book into the mountains so no one will laugh at you, as no one’s around to laugh at you hugging the trees. Graham’s preface is the best explanation I’ve seen of what one does in the course of ‟translating Chinese poetry,” and I recommend it to interested parties. A poem by Du Fu has no inflection and (compared to speech or prose) almost no particles, just parallel stacks of sense. Graham gives the sense character by character, alongside four different English versions doing as they can. What we really need for Tang poetry is something like the Quranic Arabic Corpus; it can’t be as hard a job with Arabic grammar out of the picture. A crib sheet, a few differing English versions—it would help one up the mountain.
At the top of the mountain is a fire lookout station. You can climb it and talk to the ranger with her binoculars and her radio. How’s the fire season look? Terrible, terrible, it’s been terrible the last three years. They say El Niño's brewing up this year in the Pacific, we just have to wait for it. Can you see Mount Whitney from here? No, it’s thirty-three miles that way as the crow flies. You can’t see it for the curve of the earth. Looking the other way you can barely see the coast range; the Central Valley is all haze. Up here the air is thin as a thought, a few cirrus clouds speed over your head, the ten thousand things are below and it turns out they’re all pines, you’ve gained all the altitude there is to gain, now what do you do with it?
Back in Tucson, two opposed philosophers at the desert animal park: one the ocelot in a rock den at the very back of its enclosure, making the pendulum rounds of an animal with nowhere to go, up and down; the other the blue heron that survived an eagle attack as a fledgling and could not be released, but was a naturally solitary creature, had no knowledge of life outside captivity, and was contentedly preening its shattered wing under the aviary netting.
Having this life, one is supposed to be able to choose the heron’s mind. A “precious human life,” say the Tibetans: not, for instance, the 4 non-human states with no chance for Dharma study: 1) life forms experiencing continual pain and fear, 2) life forms experiencing continual frustration and clinging, 3) animals, 4) celestial beings.
That’s more than fine; one just needs an enclosure large enough to stand up and turn around in. To that end, J. and R. are flying back to the Bay tomorrow, but I am taking a rental car, and while this car will ferry home my dad’s 1975 Guild dreadnought and a large plush elephant puppet, it will also take me into the Sierras for three nights to get some thinking done.
It’s very nice of them. I’m already opening up a bit. Remembering what it was like to shut my eyes and not tip straight over the waterfall, but to make out a sheet of black felt onto which conceits are waiting to be pinned. Apply yourself.
It’s blooming season in the desert and many of the symbolic agaves have thrown up their intricate, colossal, life-ending stalks: a last bash for beauty, boys, make it grand, and let the husk turn to paper. I dreamed that I had turned sixty. The cheerful moral was that I hadn’t yet wasted all my time.
Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts
But it was summer now. She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake. Forced to listen, she had stretched for her favourite reading—an Outline of History—and had spent the hours between three and five thinking of rhododendron forests in Piccadilly; when the entire continent, not then, she understood, divided by a channel, was all one; populated, she understood, by elephant-bodied, seal-necked, heaving, surging, and, she supposed, barking monsters; the iguanodon, the mammoth, and the mastodon; from whom presumably, she thought, jerking the window open, we descend.
Quandary, that suffering plots itself in time,
old rut where the eyes roll the sun.
Father of all, we can’t do without it,
the burning snarl that binds our gods,
live and gasping, to the loom.
And love is the heddle. Remember L.,
who heaped his unlived hours in glaciers
and slew his children lest the craving touch them;
forgive him though Dante and the sea cannot.