Slant

Poppy and Recollection

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1490–1510, oil on oak panels, 81 in x 152".

“I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks AND blows.” —Bart Simpson

THE VIRUS BROUGHT STRANGE BEDFELLOWS, but then again so did the uprising. You didn’t love the smell of your own breath behind your mask. Neither did you love certain things about yourself that had formerly been easier to escape.

Confinement led to masses of people finally catching the thought: human beings should not be put in cages. Instagram became a pedagogical tool, rather than merely the matrix of DIY propaganda. Then it slid back. “For Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer.” So it says in the Book of Joel.

I had three lovers who didn’t love me, too much to teach and too much to write, and I needed to see my best friend. Crossing states to be with her felt like more than the breaking of a taboo. It exposed travel for what it is: a Bardo populated by zombies, hungry ghosts, opportunists like me, lost souls. We were all doing what we thought we had to do. But I really had to.

To paraphrase the astrologer Austin Coppock, at least we know what our problems are. Today’s new moon is opposite Saturn. Suppose that in the ocean of what you yearn for and long to cultivate, and in the comings and goings of your soul’s deepest and most superficial appetites, you understood that, fundamentally, your and our problems are structural.

If I write my torment you may mistake me for one tormented, and if I write my ecstasy I will appear oblivious to catastrophe, and if I write catastrophe I will add to the burden you are already carrying, and if I speak the truth it may disguise me as someone with uninterrupted access to it.

Lately I have found lucidity in the old depictions of saints killing demons, and succor in the patiently anatomized perversities of Hieronymus Bosch. It seems to me that to vanquish the thousand satans and beezlebubs that would sup on my brains and suck out my heartjuices through a straw, a certain simplicity, a certain clarity, are required. There have been and there will be days when the grief runs like cement through my veins. Days I can barely speak. Activists convert grief and horror into public fact—this alchemy alone is healing. The strange divagations of artists, I’ve lately been noticing, are grounded by a deep serenity—the “great relaxed curve of time” to borrow a phrase from the always-too-relaxed-for-my-taste (though I adored him) John Ashbery—the janky rope ladder of Kronos sustains and has ever sustained the outraged and impatient souls of poets, but why is it even I forget a hundred times a day that it’s poets who first figured out how to conquer time. It was we who discovered that even without statuary, without monuments, without cities, Death itself could be put to death. Epics, stories, songs, and tales came down to us through the bodies of their rememberers. I’m talking about what has been called “the oral tradition.”

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1490–1510, oil on oak panels, 81 in x 152".

Writing wasn’t much more than a bunch of accounting at the start—heads of cattle and bushels of grain and whatnot. Poetry lived in the mouth, in the throat, in the body, in the arms. It was swallowed with the brews that inspired it, it was borrowed from birds. We do not trust ourselves enough.

I say all this to say that the destruction of monuments is an ancient way to wage war. When statues of Gudea were carried hither and yon or the eyes of Pharaohs and their sacred names were gouged out, it meant then what it means now. We are, depending on your perspective, an old species or a young one. The next six months will be difficult for those of us crowned with the heavy privilege of being American. The war in the realm of the symbolic is not merely symbolic. It has to do, rather, with a kind of geomancy, and with the structural notions our nation’s founders had reckoned out of their own occult practices. For example, I can’t get out of my head the fact that on Breonna Taylor’s birthday, an eclipse, the Washington Monument was struck—twice—by lightning. An imitation Egyptian obelisk that is 555 feet high. I have not yet had the time to research these facts.

I was sleeping with a drug dealer, an FBI agent, and an unemployed veteran. None of them loved me, one of them claimed to, and I persisted in entertaining them because there was a peculiar and unignorable rhythm to their need for my attention. It was a syncopated rhythm, but a rhythm nonetheless, and it made me curious.

I knew I would not fall in love, but I wondered If I could learn something.

Behold me reader as I make meaning, as though my life depended on it, from the least important and the least pressing matter in my life, like some Cinderella crouching over the spilled lentils, like a child who still believes in fairy tales.

If I give up the idea that the merest of absurdities matter, it means relinquishing not just the contents of my skull but the uncountable emanations therefrom to a “master narrative” within which my existence seems little more than a catalytic enzyme, a small exception to the rule, or a minor exception that proves the rule.

Sometimes when you are traveling you fantasize about turning off the highway and living “forever,” living “for the rest of your life” in one of the little eddies of trees and buildings you notice elaborating the landscape subtly at the edge of what you can see, almost hidden among the hills.

When I was little I subjected myself continually to the fantasy of where, off the highway, I would put the refrigerator box in which I imagined my mother and I would one day soon need to live. I told myself that I had seen many lovely inlets on the shoulders of roads and between highway and stream, and I told myself that in a refrigerator box with her was better than in a mansion without her.

Now I am grown and I have given her two apartments she could not keep and she has been on the streets a long time. Now I am grown and she lives, thank god, in a very bad motel and she lives, thank god—but a long time ago she forgot the difference between living and survival. In fact I think a long time ago she found she could not bear the struggle to live but that she knew very well—ancestrally well—how to survive.

The moon in its newness—invisible—reflects a fullness of living we seldom trust or honor. In your natal chart your moon gives a clue to who you are when you are in your splendor: It therefore teaches what you need in order to feel “like a natural woman,” whatever you are. Our structures reflect the laws of the father and the epics that come down to us from Greece are generally about abandoners, committers of incest, and murderers and the sons and daughters who have to work all that out. I repeat, our problems are structural. I am not a Christian but I too have been taught that a mother is for mourning and a son is to be mourned and a father doesn’t exist and a daughter isn’t in the story at all. It doesn’t matter that we know these tales are dead, and we do know. What matters, below and above the struggle, is that those of us with the hunger find food and inspiration. The angles at which heavenly light falls upon us do shift. More and more of what we are is revealed. And more is coming.

Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1490–1510, oil on oak panels, 81 in x 152".

As always there is more to write than can be written. The lower lip of one, the upper lip of the other, the averted gaze of the third as he murmurs your name for the first time in his life, almost embarrassed, because to say the name of a lover aloud to their face for the first time feels almost like uttering an obscenity or a magic word protected by strong taboos. There are those of us who yet exist whom it harms to do things without love, but who are too fascinated to live to refrain from touching one another entirely. There are those of us so old-fashioned we actually need to pretend to love in order to accomplish the act. It may not be the best way to be, but it’s better than doing it the way zombies and robots do it, without either kindness or regret.

I remember when feeling alienated, miserable, and enraged didn’t feel like conformity. I remember (last week, last month, last year) when joy felt like something available to all and parading in plain view but taken only by a precious and strange few.

Consternation and dismay are sane, but as these move through the bodies of millions of people who have no practice facing their feelings and no discipline with accepting themselves, shit gets weird.

And what about you, the small expanse of your body, and its walls, and your need to love?

I’m thinking about the ones who “wrote” the Vedas, the illiterate shepherd fuckboy poets of old who were the darlings of the muses and the consorts of queens. I’m thinking about Shakespeare’s sonnets, in which he again and again opposes his own death-defying poetic genius to the only monument the object of his affection can possibly engender: a baby.

The word may not be a thing, but like a germ it can, with the right torque, live longer than anything set in stone.

I am not the first poet with a mixed-up love life and a father who does not love her and I won’t be the last. At least I know that I have a lineage. It is broad and deep. It is inclusive, hilarious, beguiling, and generous. It is a way of life, a path that strange saints and sages and not a few motherfuckers have trod. This is not the first time on planet earth an unjust regime and its symbols and gods had to be taken down. It struck me a few weeks ago, in a protest at the site where Crispus Attucks was killed, becoming the first person to give their life to the American Revolution, that what we are undergoing as a culture could be understood as a massive convulsion of memory after a long-opiated nausea, a coming-to after a long and uneasy coma. The zombie has received the precious grains of salt on her tongue. (We must not forget that the USA is a Cancer.) Every metaphor for sleep and waking, for oblivion and recollection, for dismemberment and repair, obtains.

We love each other like poppy and recollection, wrote Paul Celan in “Corona.” 

Isis is gathering up the pieces of her chopped-up husband. Satan still wants you lost in your phone, hating yourself, shrinking away from the good in yourself, repressing your love for others. He can totally survive on the sweat and cortisol you secrete when you’re miserable and freaked out. He will lick those right off you, and he’ll take your money too.

Ariana Reines is a poet. A Sand Book (2019) won the Kingsley Tufts Award and was released this month in the UK.

A sign from protests this month at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Demonstrators have demanded that the hall be renamed in honor of Crispus Attucks, a man of African and Native American descent considered the first to die in the American Revolution.

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