Attuned to the Frequencies of Things Other

'Tonometer (1876),' by Flickr user 'D_M_D'

[Image: “Tonometer (1876),” by Flickr user D_M_D (a/k/a sublimedutch). (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The Night House

Every day the body works in the fields of the world
mending a stone wall
or swinging a sickle through the tall grass—
the grass of civics, the grass of money—
and every night the body curls around itself
and listens for the soft bells of sleep.

But the heart is restless and rises
from the body in the middle of the night,
leaves the trapezoidal bedroom
with its thick, pictureless walls
to sit by herself at the kitchen table
and heat some milk in a pan.

And the mind gets up too, puts on a robe
and goes downstairs, lights a cigarette,
and opens a book on engineering.
Even the conscience awakens
and roams from room to room in the dark,
darting away from every mirror like a strange fish.

And the soul is up on the roof
in her nightdress, straddling the ridge,
singing a song about the wildness of the sea
until the first rip of pink appears in the sky.
Then, they all will return to the sleeping body
the way a flock of birds settles back into a tree,

resuming their daily colloquy,
talking to each other or themselves
even through the heat of the long afternoons.
Which is why the body—the house of voices—
sometimes puts down its metal tongs, its needle, or its pen
to stare into the distance,

to listen to all its names being called
before bending again to its labor.

(Billy Collins [source])

and (italicized portion):

I lie here, expanding into the blackness, letting my body rest, my mind open. Oceanically, I feel waves of emotion—fear, joy, sadness—wash through me, and I feel connected with every living being. Somewhere this very moment, babies are born, fathers are dying, mothers are grieving. Yet, pervading all is a groundless awareness, delicate and strong at the same time. Everything becomes we, a beating heart with a transparent, radiant smile. And we are awake.

(Judith Simmer-Brown [source])

and:

If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern… I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul…

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.

(David Foster Wallace [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

An Infinity of Reflexive Trajectories

one view of a triple torus

[Image (courtesy of Wikipedia): one of numerous graphic representations of a mathematical (and perhaps physical) space called a 3-torus (also three-torus, or triple torus). For more information, see below.]

From whiskey river:

We are such inward secret creatures, that inwardness is the most amazing thing about us, even more amazing than our reason. But we cannot just walk into the cavern and look around. Most of what we think we know about our minds is pseudo-knowledge. We are all such shocking poseurs, so good at inflating the importance of what we think we value.

(Iris Murdoch [source])

…and:

Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this “something” cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours.

(Robert Fulghum [source])

…and:

Poem to My Daughter

The sky has, is, one exit, one excuse,
and if I’m dead now that I’m saying this,
I can’t vouch for my transition from life
as having been rough or even evident.
Have I tried turning it off and then on again?
Have I tried throwing it against the wall?
Getting to know you, getting to know all
about you getting the mirror to mean
not only me, and thinking I must look
dumber than I look — dumber, then, than prose —
I walk through the laundry room regretting
getting the weekend done this way, as if
backstage, and say the name of your birthplace
as if I’d lost a hundred dollars there,
which I may have … Dear, when nowhere, don’t do
as those of us in nowhere do — just go.

(Graham Foust [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

A (Not So) Particular Place, a (Not Very) Particular Time

'The Crossing - Downpatrick Head'

[Image: “The Crossing: Downpatrick Head, County Mayo, Ireland,” by architect Travis Price, his students, and numerous local craftsmen. For more information, see this PDF and the Catholic University of America site.]

From whiskey river:

Between where you are now and where you’d like to be there’s a sort of barrier, or a chasm, and sometimes it’s a good idea to imagine that you’re already at the other side of that chasm, so that you can start on the unknown side.

(David Bohm [source])

and:

All Winter

In winter I remember
how the white snow
swallowed those who came before me.
They sing from the earth.
This is what happened to the voices.
They have gone underground.

I remember how the man named Fire
carried a gun. I saw him
burning.
His ancestors live in the woodstove
and cry at night and are broken.
This is what happens to fire.
It consumes itself.

In the coldest weather, I recall
that I am in every creature
and they are in me.
My bones feel their terrible ache
and want to fall open
in fields of vanished mice
and horseless hooves.

And I know how long it takes
to travel the sky,
for buffalo are still living
across the drifting face of the moon.

These nights the air is full of spirits.
They breathe on windows.
They are the ones that leave fingerprints
on glass when they point out
the things that happen,
the things we might forget.

(Linda Hogan [source])

and:

After an old Hasidic master died, his followers sat around, talking about his life. One person wondered aloud, “What was the most important thing in the world for the master?” They all thought about it. Another responded, after a time, “Whatever he happened to be doing at the time.”

(Susan Murphy [source])

and:

Sayings from the Northern Ice

It is people at the edge who say things
at the edge: winter is toward knowing.

Sled runners before they meet have long talk apart.
There is a pup in every litter the wolves will have.
A knife that falls points at an enemy.
Rocks in the wind know their place: down low.
Over your shoulder is God; the dying deer sees Him.

At the mouth of the long sack we fall in forever
storms brighten the spikes of the stars.

Wind that buried bear skulls north of here
and beats moth wings for help outside the door
is bringing bear skull wisdom, but do not ask the skull
too large a question until summer.
Something too dark was held in that strong bone.

Better to end with a lucky saying:

Sled runners cannot decide to join or to part.
When they decide, it is a bad day.

(William Stafford [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Paying Attention to the Story that Was

Space colony of O'Neill cylinders (NASA Ames Research Center, via Wikipedia)

[Image: a so-called “space colony” consisting of a pair of O’Neill cylinders, courtesy of the NASA Ames Research Center (via Wikipedia). This image has little to do with the story (or the spaceship(s)) discussed in the post, but it felt suitably “epic” (and at least vaguely relevant).]

For a good while now — maybe a year and a half — I’ve been working on a science-fiction novel (working title: 23kpc). The action takes place almost entirely aboard an interstellar space ship, the ISS Tascheter; the protagonists, Guy and Missy Landis, are something like a spacegoing Nick and Nora Charles (cf. Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man stories, especially the films — starring William Powell and Myrna Loy — made from them).

About six months before starting 23kpc, I’d actually written a short novella, or long short story, featuring Guy and Missy and the Tascheter. That story sprang from nowhere in particular; I just wanted to try my hand at SF (again), and was at the time too distracted — by real life and the marketing (still in progress) of Seems to Fit — to focus on anything major. In fact, when I began writing it, I didn’t even know it was SF: it took me several sentences to realize it.

In the course of writing “Open and Shut,” as the original story was called, I realized many other things. I realized how little consideration I’d ever given to the practicalities of space travel, particularly from one star system to another. What would the ship have to be like? If it weren’t capable of faster-than-light (FTL) speeds, how could individual humans ever hope to survive such a journey? (I sure as hell didn’t want Guy, Missy, et al. to die en route — requiring the invention of fresh characters over and over and over…) Perhaps humans were somehow different then — evolved with significantly longer lifespans. Or perhaps there were some ways of keeping them inert for long stretches of time, à la “suspended animation”… or… or… And what about where they were going — what could they even hope to know about their destination? Had at least one other generation of humans preceded them into space? How could a “crew” of, say, a few dozen individuals, even hundreds of them, possibly keep going during a trip which might take not just decades but centuries?

And so on.

Well, I took “Open and Shut” through to the story’s end. But all those practical concerns compelled me to tackle the general project correctly, in its own right. Hence, 23kpc. It no doubt comes with its own set of problems, as I’ll realize when I re-read the whole thing (when I’m done writing the whole thing). But it’s backed by much more (read: any) research, and I think I’ve gotten a lot more of it “right.”

Still, “Open and Shut” has its virtues, especially as a seat-of-the-pants exercise. It gave me Guy and Missy, and several of the other main characters who’d show up in the novel as well. It gave me the Tascheter — in vastly different form. It gave me some of the underlying themes I’d been thinking about (e.g., the evolution of culture and language). It’s told in the present tense, and the first person (from Guy’s point of view), which makes the action feel more “immediate” (to me, anyhow). Finally, it gave me a certain clipped, smart-alecky tone which seemed well-suited to the characters. And re-reading the first few pages reminded me of how much fun I’d had back then…

What follows: the first few hundred words of that story. Hope you enjoy it, too!


[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “I’ve Got Sixpence”

[Video: the credit line from the YouTube uploader says, “From the LP More Do-Re-Mi: The Songs Children Love to Sing, Kapp Records, 1963.”]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

The first statement I ever heard of the “Poverty can be fun!” theme came from a 33-1/3 RPM record album my parents bought when I was a kid. The album (first described here) was one of a set — probably twelve — designed to introduce children to music of various kinds; the disc in question, I think, was called “Songs of Work” or some such.

The version in the video above is not from the album I remember. I don’t remember kids’ voices singing this song, although it has supposedly been a traditional summer-camp favorite for decades. No, my version featured a men’s chorus, strong and hearty, and you could almost imagine them marching home from the mines as they sang. It sounded more like this truncated, one-verse version, from Mitch Miller and “The Gang” (as he styled them):

Either way, whether you listen to the full-length cover or the foreshortened, you get hit with the message right there in the first two lines:

I’ve got sixpence,
Jolly, jolly sixpence…

Even if we can’t think of a single item which now can be obtained for a mere six cents, we get the point: the guy carries a mere handful of change in his sweaty workingman’s palm… and is happy about it. How can this be? We look to the rest of the first verse:

…I’ve got tuppence to spend,
and tuppence to lend,
and tuppence to send up to my wife (poor wife).

So not only does he start out with mere pennies; he looks forward to divvying his fortune up even further. A third for pleasure! a third to share! and a third, presumably, for expenses (managed by a loving — albeit poor — wife)! And if we’re still skeptical, he continues:

No cares have I to grieve me,
No pretty little girls to deceive me.
I’m happy as a king — believe me —
As [I/we] go rolling home!

The one-verse version of the song misses the finely sharpened knifepoint of the entire song, though. For with each succeeding verse, the amount of cash on hand dwindles, and he must adjust his choices accordingly:

…I’ve got fourpence
To last me all my life.

I’ve a penny to spend
And a penny to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got tuppence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got no pence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And no pence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

To Be, Not to Be, or Barely to Be?

'unbeing dead isn't being alive,' by Nicole Pierce on Flickr

[Image: “unbeing dead isn’t being alive,” by Nicole Pierce on Flickr. (Used under a Creative Commons license.) The title of this image alludes, apparently, to a quotation by E.E. Cummings — it’s quoted everywhere on the Web — but no one ever says exactly what work it comes from. Maybe he muttered it in his sleep?]

From whiskey river:

Form is certainty. All nature knows this, and we have no greater adviser. Clouds have forms, porous and shape-shifting, bumptious, fleecy. They are what clouds need to be, to be clouds. See a flock of them come, on the sled of the wind, all kneeling above the blue sea. And in the blue water, see the dolphin built to leap, the sea mouse skittering, see the ropy kelp with its air-filled bladders tugging it upward; see the albatross floating day after day on its three-jointed wings. Each form sets a tone, enables a destiny, strikes a note in the universe unlike any other. How can we ever stop looking? How can we ever turn away?

(Mary Oliver)

and:

Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.

(Lewis Thomas)

and:

Late Hours

On summer nights the world
moves within earshot
on the interstate with its swish
and growl, and occasional siren
that sends chills through us.
Sometimes, on clear, still nights,
voices float into our bedroom,
lunar and fragmented,
as if the sky had let them go
long before our birth.

In winter we close the windows
and read Chekhov,
nearly weeping for his world.

What luxury, to be so happy
that we can grieve
over imaginary lives.

(Lisel Mueller)

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

What’s in a Song: “Goodnight, Irene” (2)

[Part 1 of this series is here.]

Lead Belly, Life Magazine (April 19, 1937)I’d heard The Weavers’ “sad, wistful” closing notes of “Goodnight, Irene.” I’d forgotten about the song for thirty-some years, but then decided (I did know of the song, after all) to make it the subject of a post here. A simple Midweek Music Break post, at that — not a full-blown What’s in a Song monster…

And finally, after researching it some, and researching it some more, I’d actually found and listened to a recording — the first — of Lead Belly singing it for John A. Lomax in 1933.

Here it is again, so you don’t have to go back to the earlier post just for it:

Irene (1933)

As I said at the end of Part 1, this confused the heck out of me. Far from the poignant I’ll see you in my dreams of The Weavers’ version, the narrator sounds as though he’s threatening to get her in his dreams. So much for the implied sigh, hmm?

Luckily for me, Lomax — who called the song simply “Irene” at the time, probably because Lead Belly did — transcribed the lyrics then. The complete song which Lead Belly eventually recorded went like this, per Lomax’s 1936 book, Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly:

Irene

[chorus]
Irene, goodnight, Irene, goodnight
Goodnight Irene, goodnight Irene,
I’ll kiss you in my dreams

Sometimes I live in the country,
sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I haves a great notion,
To jump in the river and drown.

Last Saturday night, I got married,
Me and my wife settled down
Now me and my wife have parted,
Gonna take me a stroll uptown

I loves Irene, God knows I do,
I loves her till the sea runs dry
And if Irene turns her back on me,
I’ll take morphine and die.

Quit your rambling, quit your gambling
Quit your staying out late at night,
Go home to your wife and your family
Sit down by the fireside bright.

I was wrong about that get, then: kiss, like The Weavers’ see, is all nice and sentimental. [But see the note, below.] So it was sad and dreamy after all—

But sheesh: chorus aside, the actual verses… We’ve got a guy who seems to have casually left his wife of less than a week, for what? for the life of a rambling man, maybe sometimes living with her and sometimes alone? But he still and presumably forever will carry a torch for her — to the extent of threatening suicide (by drowning, by morphine overdose) if he ever thinks she’s given up on him…

What the heck kind of song was this, anyway?

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

All the Directions of Time

Marc Chagall: 'Clock with Blue Wing' (1949, oil on canvas)

[Image: Clock with Blue Wing, by Marc Chagall (1949, oil on canvas). Translator Susanna Nied identifies this painting as the source or inspiration for Inger Christensen’s poem, below.]

From whiskey river:

A mysterious thing, this branching structure of life: one senses in every past instant a parting of ways, a “thus” and an “otherwise”, with innumerable dazzling zigzags bifurcating and trifurcating against the dark background of the past.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

and:

One advantage in keeping a diary is that you become aware with reassuring clarity of the changes which you constantly suffer and which in a general way are naturally believed, surmised, and admitted by you, but which you’ll unconsciously deny when it comes to the point of gaining hope or peace from such an admission. In the diary you find proof that in situations which today would seem unbearable, you lived, looked around and wrote down observations, that this right hand moved then as it does today, when we may be wiser because we are able to look back upon our former condition, and for that very reason have got to admit the courage of our earlier striving in which we persisted even in sheer ignorance.

(Franz Kafka [source])

and:

If I Stand

If I stand
alone in the snow
it is clear
that I am a clock

how else would eternity
find its way around

(Inger Christensen [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share

Small Things Big, Big Things Small

Image from 'Mountains and Molehills, or: Recollections of a Burnt Journal,' by Frank Marryat

[Image: illustration from Mountains and Molehills; or, Recollections of a Burnt Journal (1855), by one Frank Marryat. (Click image to enlarge.) For the complete book in various formats, see the Internet Archive. For more information about this image in particular, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river (italicized portion):

The Swan

Across the wide waters
something comes
floating—a slim
and delicate

ship, filled
with white flowers—
and it moves
on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist,
as though bringing such gifts
to the dry shore
was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
And now it turns its dark eyes,
it rearranges
the clouds of its wings,

it trails
an elaborate webbed foot,
the color of charcoal.
Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
when that poppy-colored beak
rests in my hand?
Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
he is so often
in paradise.
Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive
this world,

and the gestures
with which you honor it.
Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those white wings
touch the shore?

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

Time has no meaning, space and place have no meaning, on this journey. All times can be inhabited, all places visited. In a single day the mind can make a millpond of the oceans. Some people who have never crossed the land they were born on have traveled all over the world. The journey is not linear, it is always back and forth, denying the calendar, the wrinkles and lines of the body. The self is not contained in any moment or any place, but it is only in the intersection of moment and place that the self might, for a moment, be seen vanishing through a door, which disappears at once.

(Jeanette Winterson [source])

and:

Living

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

(Denise Levertov [source])

[Read more…]

Send to Kindle
Share