originally published by Laterthanever Press, 1994, San Diego CA
Copyright Al Zolynas
Other Books by Al Zolynas:
say in the flattest part of North Dakota on a starless moonless night no breath of wind a man could light a candle then walk away every now and then he could turn and see the candle burning seventeen miles later provided conditions remained ideal he could still see the flame somewhere between the seventeenth and eighteenth mile he would lose the light if he were walking backwards he would know the exact moment when he lost the flame he could step forward and find it again back and forth dark to light light to dark what's the place where the light disappears? where the light reappears? don't tell me about photons and eyeballs reflection and refraction don't tell me about one hundred and eighty-six thousand miles per second and the theory of relativity all I know is that place where the light appears and disappears that's the place where we live
In the traditional ballroom dances, maintaining a frame of right firmness is paramount. The man will be unable to lead and the woman unable to follow unless a firm frame of the upper body (including arms) is maintained. If the woman's frame is too loose the man will feel he is driving a car with a steering wheel fashioned out of cooked pasta; if too firm, he will feel he is in a contest of strength and will, and he may try to overpower the woman, thus ruining the dance. The woman, on her part, despite the progress of our uncertain age, must surrender to the man's lead by remaining firm and following him as always just before he leads.
The man steps straight forward on his heel just as in walking. He steps into the body of the woman as into a doorway as she steps straight back. For the man, this is not as easy as it sounds. He, in his consideration of the woman, may tend to step obliquely or, worse yet, slide his foot forward along the floor into the woman stubbing her toes thus causing the very effect he wishes to avoid. We cannot overstress the importance of stepping straight forward on the heel just as in walking: that first step into the space made by the woman's body leaving.
--for my students Afternoon. Across the garden, in Green Hall, someone begins playing the old piano-- a spontaneous piece, amateurish and alive, full of a simple, joyful melody. The music floats among us in the classroom. I stand in front of my students telling them about sentence fragments. I ask them to find the ten fragments in the twenty-one-sentence paragraph on page forty-five. They've come from all parts of the world--Iran, Micronesia, Africa, Japan, China, even Los Angeles--and they're still eager to please me. It's less than half way through the quarter. They bend over their books and begin. Hamid's lips move as he follows the tortuous labyrinth of English syntax. Yoshie sits erect, perfect in her pale make-up, legs crossed, quick pulse minutely jerking her right foot. Tony, from an island in the South Pacific, sprawls limp and relaxed in his desk. The melody floats around and through us in the room, broken here and there, fragmented, re-started. It feels Mideastern, but it could be jazz, or the blues--it could be anything from anywhere. I sit down on my desk to wait, and it hits me from nowhere--a sudden, sweet, almost painful love for my students. "Nevermind," I want to cry out. "It doesn't matter about fragments. Finding them or not. Everything's a fragment and everything's not a fragment. Listen to the music, how fragmented, how whole, how we can't separate the music from the sun falling on its knees on all the greenness, from this moment, how this moment contains all the fragments of yesterday and everything we'll ever know of tomorrow!" Instead, I keep a coward's silence. The music stops abruptly; they finish their work, and we go through the right answers, which is to say we separate the fragments from the whole.
I would sit in the dimness of my father's wooden toolshed waiting for the mice to come out and feed on the wheat we kept in a hundred-pound sack for the chickens. I kept silence, refusing even to swallow, hoping the thud of my heart wouldn't betray me. The only way to the sack was over my still body. Outside, it was Australia, Christmas, summer holidays-- the heat unbearable to all but reptiles and schoolboys, and the mice who lived their small, secret lives. When the first mouse nosed up the unfamiliar landscape of my body, motes of dust floating in the beams of light that streamed in from the cracks in the wall exploded minutely. After hours of sitting through the long summer, motionless, alert, though my limbs were asleep, the mice accepted me. I simply became the way to their food. Once, as many as a dozen were on me, each carrying a single, precious grain. Now, years later, I find myself still sitting in the dim light, legs locked in meditation, monkey-mind swinging between imagined past and imagined future, waiting for that most obvious of hiddens, the ungraspable present.
Under the lamp's glow everything seems edged with a benign fuzz or moss, as if something had grown on all objects: a green pen sprouting pale green fur; a row of soft books tilted to one side; manila folders, their velvety skin like a girl's back; from the familiar photos on the wall, a memory of friendly eyes gazing across the short space at me; a blue book of poems with a title I can't see clearly. With words, even at this distance, I'm like an illiterate, I can't read most of them. Everything I see looks like it wants to be touched.
in a loud ringing voice, a voice completely untouched by personality, a voice straight from the heart of the universe, a coyote lets out two cries through the pre-dawn mist. The neighborhood dogs respond with woofs, growls and howls, the familiar voices of disgruntled pets, almost human in their overlay of bravado, their undertone of fear.
After the war, my father's hobby was photography. New fathers often become photographers, it seems. But he took pictures of many things besides me, as if he suddenly felt it all slipping away and wanted to hold it forever. In one of the many shoe boxes full of photographs in my father's house, one photo sticks in my mind, a snapshot of a black hat in mid-air, the kind of hat fashionable in the forties, a fedora--something Bogie would wear. Someone has thrown it into the air-- my father himself or someone else in an exuberant moment at a rally or gathering. It's still there, hanging in the sky as ordinary and impossible as a painting by Magrite, and it's impossible how it wrenches my heart, somehow. At odd moments in my life, that hat appears to me for no discernible reason.
The idea of it is distasteful at best. Awkward box of wind, diminutive, misplaced piano on one side, raised Braille buttons on the other. The bellows, like some parody of breathing, like some medical apparatus from a Victorian sick-ward. A grotesque poem in three dimensions, a rococo thing-a-me-bob. I once strapped an accordion on my chest and right away I had to lean back on my heels, my chin in the air, my back arched like a bullfighter or flamenco dancer. I became an unheard of contradiction: a gypsy in graduate school. Ah, but for all that, we find evidence of the soul in the most unlikely places. Once in a Czech restaurant in Long Beach, an ancient accordionist came to our table and played the old favorites: "Lady of Spain," " The Saber Dance," "Dark Eyes," and through all the clichÈs his spirit sang clearly. It seemed like the accordion floated in air, and he swayed weightlessly behind it, eyes closed, back in Prague or some lost village of his childhood. For a moment we all floated--the whole restaurant: the patrons, the knives and forks, the wine, the sacrificed fish on plates. Everything was pure and eternal, fragiley suspended like a stained-glass window in the one remaining wall of a bombed out church.
Every morning we pair off randomly for thirty minutes of eye gazing, sit in front of a partner, knees touching, choose one eye and sustain eye contact for the duration, no attempt to dominate, no fierce staring, just gaze, blinking naturally, easily, just seeing what comes up, what simply happens. No big deal, right? After all, you're only looking into the eye of another human being. Wrong! Everything comes up, especially fear-- fear of being judged, fear of being discovered for the worthless turd you think you really are, to say nothing of the deeper fears, like disappearing or dying or losing yourself in the abysmal pupil of the dreaded "Other." Sometimes someone starts laughing and it spreads like contagion, the whole zendo--fifteen pairs of locked eyebrows-- thirty people sputtering, giggling, guffawing, no stopping the nervous energy until it plays itself out through rising and falling swells. Eros and the desire to merge also, and sometimes the restfulness and peace of some kind of contact with another, the calm of seeing compassion and acceptance in that other eye. Sometimes the hallucinations, the face changing form right in front of you, black hair turning gray, beards sprouting, eyes changing color, flickering electric auras, men's faces becoming women's, women's men's. Once, I swear, looking calmly back at me I saw my own face.
Stopped in early morning traffic, about to leave the City of Jewels, amidst the stirring market life, I see by the side of the road in the dirt a naked man lying on his back-- sadhu or beggar, or both--one knee up, one arm flung over his eyes, slowly waking, careless of the shoppers and workers moving past him. He is wearing nothing, has neither blanket nor pillow. He is naked in the street--and asleep!-- and pointing into the new day with a partial erection, counter-balanced by heavy testicles, totally unprotected in a world of moving objects. Is this madness, ultimate trust? There it is, my other life, that life without pockets, without appointments, without aerobics, that life that says simply, "I am what I am, and what I am is all of it." Still, sitting inside my clothes inside the bus I reassure myself: In a little while, he'll have to get up and start looking for food, or, at the very least, if he's fasting, water. Yes, he'll definitely have to start looking for water.
I feed Marcello a can of Liver and Chicken. He bolts it down too fast, as usual. Two minutes later he throws up on the back patio. The first fly shows up within seconds, ecstatic over life's bounty. Within minutes, the word's out somehow, the brothers and sisters coming in fast. The sun creeps along the cement floor. Pretty soon, half the cat puke is in light, the other in shadow, like sunrise on a volcanic island. At least thirty flies have gathered by now, walking around and eating what they're walking around on. I move in closer. Such organization and grace-- no fuss, no fighting. There's obviously always enough for everyone in the fly world. And plenty of time to get off a quickie with your neighbor. I'm now on my hands and knees, my face within inches of the calm feeding of at least fifty flies (give or take arrivals and departures). None seem to notice me, the sun glinting off their emerald thoraxes and through their purple wings.
Three men in three baseball caps are laboring in the back yard, re-doing the landscape: one scrapes off the weedy topsoil with heavy mattock, swinging it slowly like an elephant swinging its trunk; another plants new roses along the fence, tamping them in with his bare palms into the new loamy soil they've brought in large plastic bags; the third works on the sprinkler system, laying in the long white plastic piping so like sun-bleached bones exposed in shallow graves. I look on from behind glass, a man too busy, too unwilling to do this kind of work, instead reading students' essays at the dining-room table. On the TV screen, CNN "updates" "THE WAR IN THE GULF" with maps, disembodied voice-overs, epauletted field correspondents, neat anchor persons, grainy-gray videos shot from F-15s of pin-point missile hits, vague buildings, bridges instantly, sound- lessly disintegrating--no blood, no guts, no horror, a clean war. . . . Outside, the landscape is slowly being rearranged: what was a yard of weeds is now a yard of dry dirt and small rocks. To honor this and the work of the three men, I get up, make tea and take the pot, three cups, milk sugar, spoons outside on a tray, and invite them to drink. Van, the leader, the English speaking one, thanks me, and we exchange comments on how the work is going: "It looks good," I say. "Yes, not too hot today. Easy to work," he says. . . . Back inside, I labor through a few more essays, scribbling comments and letter grades at the end, my heart not in it. Outside, the three Vietnamese work. I want to go out and say, "Look, I think the tea was really meant to tell you that I opposed the war, even marched against it. . . ." For the first time I notice it: a small olive-drab metal ammunition box, stenciled clearly on the side: "200 Cartridges 7. 62 mm--M13," sitting there on my back patio as ordinary and real as the red and silver can of Coca Cola, the cut branches, a pile of leaves, the mechanical leaf-blower, three empty ceramic tea cups on a wooden tray.
I must solve a complex mathematical problem, an immense algebraic equation full of fractions, parentheses, the square roots of square roots, to say nothing of an ancient, cryptic hieroglyphics. The equation spreads across the board written by a teacher with miserable handwriting. Her chalk keeps breaking and falling to the floor where she tramples it underfoot and grinds it into a fine powder. I sit and stare at my test paper. I copy down a few fractions. For a moment I'm on the edge of finding a way out of the labyrinthine equation, but I've forgotten the manipulations, forgotten how to add and subtract, how to factor out, how to cancel out one thing with another. I look at the teacher and cry, "How do you divide the square root of seven with the ankh-fish-bird?! What is twelve times alpha-omega minus the four cardinal points of the compass?!" She casts an impatient, sad glance in my direction and continues the equation off the blackboard, onto the wall, out the window, drops the chalk--now a feather-- gestures and signs, using a system current twenty-five thousand years ago among shamans on the North American continent, and at last I understand: all systems begin and end in silence, nothing needs solving, nothing is a problem.... her face composed as a Madonna's, mysterious as a flight of birds.
Perhaps because my near vision is so good, I could take up painting miniatures and see how much of the world I could capture on the smallest canvas. Begin, say, by managing a midwestern cornfield with its farmhouse, barn and silo onto a postage stamp. Eventually get the scene from the north rim of the Grand Canyon down onto a polished grain of rice, or maybe render Notre Dame Cathedral with particular attention paid to the famous stained glass windows onto the secondary wing of a baby gnat. And thus could I trick my eyes into seeing great distances again, those distant stars I remember from childhood days, galaxies really, untold light years away. They could show up again as pulsing points of light, charming details in my vastly important life.
I support your walls with their stained, translucent windows, your filigreed ceilings with their busy chandeliers. I'm the bottom of the box you built for yourself to live in.
It all happens on me-- birth, love, death, sleeping and waking. Your passionate dreams, full of violence and hope, are nothing to me. Through all the changes I remain the same.
I'm made to be put upon, to be sat at. Round or square, my numbers are millions. I stand solidly on my many legs. Where you find me, you find the ungainly two-leggeds, moving, always on the verge of losing their balance, of falling down
I receive only to give away. My life is simple and full of surrender: I'm picked up, put down. In the end, I'm always made clean or broken.
I mock the hand that feeds with me, that made me in its own image. Handle and tines, wrist and fingers. I'm metal and will live almost forever.
What, after all, is cutting? One thing moving through another. What about pain, you say? What's pain?
I'm a bed of wind, a pendulum of quiet ecstasy, an ocean wave of bliss. Lie in me, forget your troubles, remember who you are.
You use me to call and warn each other, to remind yourselves of beginnings and endings. But it's just another of your wonderful games wrought out of metal. If you ever heard me once-- truly heard me-- the universe would be yours again.
I live in two realms: by daylight, the catatonia of stiff wax. Under the sun I can only sleep. At night, in dark emergencies, I go into an ecstasy of broadcasting my small light, everywhere blessing the shoulders of furniture. I burn! I melt! The more I'm awake, the more I disappear.
Clearly, I'm what's real. Don't be fooled by those twin ephemera, substance and light.
What hope do I have with so many hands to hold on with? At night, when the leaves blow, I feel a fluttering inside. I want to let go into the wind.
You could learn much from how I sit motionless on my lily pad, awake, and ready for everything.
eating the earth passing it through passing through
I'm what happens after what happens. And what's that, you say? What's that you say?