Forms, Aligning

Image: 'Symmetries: passage2011 - logfiles / GÆG: Thomas Huber & Wolfgang Aichner'

[Image: from the “passage2011” project of artists Thomas Huber and Wolfgang Aichner, undertaken for the Venice Biennale in 2011. (Found on Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license — thank you!) The two artists built a small wooden boat, “launched” it at Furtschaglboden in the Zillertal Alps — thence dragging it over the Alps to Venice, where they would make their way to the Canale Grande to launch the boat on the water there. The Flickr page’s description says: “After more than three weeks of tireless exertion, the artists reached Lago di Neves in South Tyrol, Italy. From there, they continued their journey via Bozen to Venice. A transport ship conveyed the red boat to the exhibition venue, the Luterana in the Scuola dell’ St. Angelo Custode. Following a christening ceremony, it was launched and proceeded to sink within a few minutes without ever reaching the Canal Grande.” The project’s home page is here; you can read more about it at the English-language Der Spiegel site.]

From whiskey river:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

(Virginia Woolf [source])

and:

Dear Friend
(excerpt)

Y.

I become each day more reckless,
too impatient for summer, the unbearable heat,
the calm that comes with it. There are no hills here,
not one, and I’m bored with the stillness

of the yellow field outside my window. And you,
who cannot keep still, who can never
look back, where will you go next?
How will I find you?

Can you feel the world pull
apart, the seams loosen?
What, tell me, will keep it whole,

if not you? if not me?
Send a postcard, picture, tell me
how you’ve been.

(Blas Falconer [source])

and (last four lines):

I once had a friend. He had been teaching a long time when I was just starting. He liked telling his students he’d seen them before. In another life, at another school, the same hairline, the same kid brother back home in eighth grade. In class, he gave them obituaries to read. And though we’re no longer close, here is consolation: I still believe in what he was up to: seeing if he could make them dizzy. Suggesting they write their way into or out of the disquieting facts he offered up. Offering the chance to find themselves breathless, to consider themselves a point on a circle falling and rising, falling/drawn up, as the wheel moved, moves, is moving relentlessly on. He wanted them to feel conveyor beneath their feet, when all along they’d assumed they were walking. To consider they might, somehow, for another, be a mark and a measure of vastness. A site.

As he was for me.

What do you see? What aligns? he’s still asking…

Of course, I could say I won’t write about my old friend. And, to be honest, I’d rather not, since I still feel regret and sadness about that loss. But things about him assert here as subject. The obituaries (you’ll see). The dizziness. His belief in the uneasy matter of chaos. It’s all here, important. All-of-a-piece. These lightest of strands, moments, memories unbury. Forms align in each others’ presence.

It’s the noticing that cracks us open, lets something in.
Shows we’re in use.
Uses us.
Right now. Right this minute.

(Lia Purpura [source])

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Freshly Unchanged

Arsia Mons, a Martian volcano last active around 50 million years ago

[Image: The Arsia Mons volcano on Mars; image courtesy of NASA, via Flickr. The original (very complete) page of information at the NASA site itself quotes a researcher, one Jacob Richardson, who says, “We estimate that the peak activity for the volcanic field at the summit of Arsia Mons probably occurred approximately 150 million years ago–the late Jurassic period on Earth–and then died out around the same time as Earth’s dinosaurs.” It built up slowly, very slowly: Richardson says, “Think of it like a slow, leaky faucet of magma… Arsia Mons was creating about one volcanic vent every 1 to 3 million years at the peak, compared to one every 10,000 years or so in similar regions on Earth.” The caldera is about 68 miles (110 kilometers) in diameter, and “deep enough to hold the entire volume of water in Lake Huron, and then some.” (For comparison, the surface area of Lake Huron, per Wikipedia, is about 23,000 miles; the Arsia Mons caldera’s surface area works out to less than 15,000 square miles — the caldera is much deeper than the Great Lake.)]

From whiskey river:

Theory of Memory

Long, long ago, before I was a tormented artist, afflicted with longing yet incapable of forming durable attachments, long before this, I was a glorious ruler uniting all of a divided country—so I was told by the fortune-teller who examined my palm. Great things, she said, are ahead of you, or perhaps behind you; it is difficult to be sure. And yet, she added, what is the difference? Right now you are a child holding hands with a fortune-teller. All the rest is hypothesis and dream.

(Louise Glück [source])

and:

The Ordinary Life

To rise early, reconsider, rise again later
to papers and the news. To smoke a few if time
permits and, second-guessing the weather,

dress. Another day of what we bring to it –
matters unfinished from days before,
regrets over matters we’ve finished poorly.

Just once you’d like to start out early,
free from memory and lighter for it.
Like Adam, on that first day: alone

but cheerful, no fear of the maker,
anything his for the naming; nothing
to shrink from, nothing to shirk,

no lot to carry that wasn’t by choice.
And at night, no voice to keep him awake,
no hurry to rise, no hurry not to.

(Tracy K. Smith [source])

and:

Buddhists say that thoughts are like drops of water on the brain; when you reinforce the same thought, it will etch a new stream into your consciousness, like water eroding the side of a mountain. Scientists confirm this bit of folk wisdom: our neurons break connections and form new pathways all the time.

(Caitlin Doughty [source])

and:

Theoretically there is no absolute proof that one’s awakening in the morning (the finding oneself again in the saddle of one’s personality) is not really a quite unprecedented event, a perfectly original birth.

(Vladimir Nabokov [source])

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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])

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When a Moment Is More Than a Moment

'Desert Watcher,' by Children of Darklight (athalfred) on Flickr

[Image: “Desert Watcher,” by Children of Darklight (user athalfred) on Flickr. (Used here under a Creative Commons license.) This is a composite image: the star trails comprise 76 separate photos, stacked atop one another in (presumably digital) layers; the figure at the lower left is a lightpainted portrait.]

From whiskey river:

Crossing the Swamp

Here is the endless
wet thick
cosmos, the center
of everything—the nugget
of dense sap, branching
vines, the dark burred
faintly belching
bogs. Here
is swamp, here
is struggle,
closure—
pathless, seamless,
peerless mud. My bones
knock together at the pale
joints, trying
for foothold, fingerhold,
mindhold over
such slick crossings, deep
hipholes, hummocks
that sink silently
into the black, slack
earthsoup. I feel
not wet so much as
painted and glittered
with the fat grassy
mires, the rich
and succulent marrows
of earth—a poor
dry stick given
one more chance by the whims
of swamp water—a bough
that still, after all these years,
could take root,
sprout, branch out, bud—
make of its life a breathing
palace of leaves.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Something Beyond

'beyond, the river,' by 'bunchadogs & susan' on Flickr

[Image: “beyond, the river,” by a photographer whose name displays simply as “susan” (her full account name, though, is “bunchadogs & susan”). I found it on Flickr, of course, and use it here under a Creative Commons license. The photo was taken by a pinhole camera.]

From whiskey river:

An Inventory of Moons

If you live to be very old, you may see twelve hundred full moons.
Some come in winter and you trudge out into the deep snow to
stand beneath their glow. Others come to you in the city and you
take an elevator up to the roof of the highest building and set out
a couple of folding chairs to watch it glide across the sky. Or the
moon finds you along a foreign shore and you paddle out in some
dingy and scoop its reflection from the waters and drink it down.
The moons of your old age are the most potent but seem few and
far between. They make their way into your marrow and teach it
how to hum. When your final moon arrives, it’s as if youth has
come back to you. Though instead of flaunting its yellow hat, now
it’s dressed in black.

(David Shumate [source])

and:

…many of us in this time have lost the inner substance of our lives and have forgotten to give praise and remember the sacredness of life. But in spite of this forgetting, there is still a part of us that is deep and intimate with the world. We remember it by feel. We experience it as a murmur in the night, a longing and restlessness that we can’t name, a yearning that tugs at us. Something in our human blood is still searching for it, still listening, still remembering. Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal wrote, “We have always wanted something beyond what we wanted.” I have loved those words, how they speak to the longing place inside us that seeks to be whole and connected to the earth.

(Linda Hogan [source])

and:

On the windless days, when the maples have put forth their deep canopies, and the sky is wearing its new blue immensities, and the wind has dusted itself not an hour ago in some spicy field and hardly touches us as it passes by, what is it we do? We lie down and rest upon the generous earth. Very likely we fall asleep.

(Mary Oliver [source])

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Deeper Roots than Reason

'Spirit of the Demon' (poster for 'Howl's Moving Castle'), by Edward J. Moran

[Image: “Spirit of the Demon,” poster by Edward J. Moran for the Studio Ghibli film Howl’s Moving Castle. (Found on DeviantArt.) The film — and other films from the mind of Hayao Miyazaki — rewards the viewer approximately in proportion to how little one thinks about what one is seeing.]

From whiskey river:

Such Silence

As deep as I ever went into the forest
I came upon an old stone bench, very, very old,
and around it a clearing, and beyond that
trees taller and older than I had ever seen.

Such silence!
It really wasn’t so far from a town, but it seemed
all the clocks in the world had stopped counting.
So it was hard to suppose the usual rules applied.

Sometimes there’s only a hint, a possibility.
What’s magical, sometimes, has deeper roots
than reason.
I hope everyone knows that.

I sat on the bench, waiting for something.
An angel, perhaps.
Or dancers with the legs of goats.

No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.

(Mary Oliver [source])

and:

A moral character is attached to autumnal scenes; the leaves falling like our years, the flowers fading like our hours, the clouds fleeting like our illusions, the light diminishing like our intelligence, the sun growing colder like our affections, the rivers becoming frozen like our lives — all bear secret relations to our destinies.

(François-René de Chateaubriand [source, in slightly different wording])

and:

’til soon

Even you, raw matter,
even you, lumber, mass and muscle,
vodka, liver and chuckle,
candlelight, paper, coal and cloud,
stone, avocado meat, falling rain,
nail, mountain, hot-press iron,
even you feel saudade,
first-degree burn,
a longing to return home?

Clay, sponge, marble, rubber,
cement, steel, glass, vapor, cloth and cartilage,
paint, ash, eggshell, grain of sand,
first day of autumn, the word spring,
number five, the slap in the face, a rich rhyme,
a new life, middle age, old strength,
even you, matter my dear,
remember when we were only a mere idea?

(Paulo Leminski, translated by Elisa Wouk Almino [source])

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

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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…

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Seeing (and Knowing It)

'I Know I See You, I Just Don't Know When,' by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

[Image: “I Know I See You, I Just Don’t Know When,” by Thomas Hawk; found on Flickr.com, used here under a Creative Commons license. The photograph shows one view of the Stata building at MIT, designed by Frank Gehry. The building houses various facilities in support of research into computers, information science, intelligence, robotics, and related topics. More in the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity—yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre) creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.

(Walt Whitman [source])

and:

It would be an endless battle if it were all up to ego
because it does not destroy and is not destroyed by itself
It is like a wave
it makes itself up; it rushes forward getting nowhere really
it crashes, withdraws and makes itself up again
pulls itself together with pride
towers with pride
rushes forward into imaginary conquest
crashes in frustration
withdraws with remorse and repentance
pulls itself together with new resolution.

(Agnes Martin [source])

and:

To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen.

(Linda Hogan [source])

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Real-Life Dialogue: Men Are from Illinois, Women Are from Manhattan Edition

[The setting: a Saturday morning at a suburban home in North Florida, USA. He has been experiencing back pain for a few days; she approaches him in the kitchen, question marks in her eyes.]

She: How’s your back?

He: Still not normal.

She: Where is it? What sort of pain is it?

[He has been expecting and preparing mentally for this line of questioning, but hasn’t quite nailed down his metaphors yet.]

He: I don’t know — it’s hard to describe…

She: Try anyway.

He: It feels, well, wobbly. It’s like when you take a… a dozen Lincoln Logs, say, and they’re stacked end-to-end in a, like, a tower, and you’re trying not to let ’em topple but—

[She holds up the palm of her hand, stopping him.]

She: Wait.

He: But—

She: Wait. You need to use terms I can understand.

He: Such as—?

She: Well, say my martini glass is too full, up to the brim, and you’re carrying it to me while holding the base of the stem…

[A momentary pause, giving him time to recognize his confusion as such.]

He: [rolling his eyes] Yes. It’s exactly like that.

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