Monthly Archives: August 2009

This poem is one of the forms that my obsession with the threshold has taken over the years.  It began with a file of quotations on the idea of the threshold.  It then became a sort of experimental prose piece that was comprised more of these quotations than my own words.  Both of these pieces still exist, and I am still working on them, more or less, but neither will see a finished form any time soon.

I only began working on this current form of the project when my brother Andrew asked me to write a spoken word piece to be read over some music for a concept album that he is writing.  I have never written for music or for a specific time length before, and I have seldom tried to turn prose into poetry either.  I am still not entirely happy with the result, and I still have to reduce it by something like thirty seconds, so any suggestions would be welcomed.

Also, because of how it came to be, this particular poem borrows, even plagiarizes, from any number of authors.  It has gone through so many iterations that I am no longer even able to list them all with any certainty, but I know at least that I am drawing text from Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Hiedegger, Annie Dillard, Jacques Derrida, Leon Rooke, Emmanuel Levinas, Robert Graves, and Maurice Blanchot.  If there are others I have missed, they have my sincere apologies.

On the Scaffold

Where I have fallen, my eyes can feel the bruises in the door,
and the flecks of paint that have escaped the remover,
and the grain,
and the varnish,
and deeper too, to its cutting edge,
the edge that has cut me from myself like a guillotine cuts a head from a body.

I am waiting,
waiting for the blade to be hoisted again,
to fall again,
to cut me again,
through skin and muscle and vein and throat and bone,
to spill my blood again on the scaffold,
again on the threshold.

I am bleeding myself empty,
covering the floor,
the threshold,
all of it,
in my blood.

This door,
with the bruises and the flecks of paint,
my door,
its blow is true.
It bereaves me of myself.
There is no escaping it.
It is always a guillotine,
a mandaia,
a sharpened and a dividing blade.
It makes the threshold an altar stone.

I am there
on the altar, the scaffold,
before the blow I cannot escape,
seeing everything with extraordinary distinctness,
passing through the moments as if they were an infinite time,
a vast wealth of time,
an endless time left to live,
an infinity on the scaffold,
on the doorstep,
where every moment is an age,
where I feel the obligation of counting,
every minute,
as it passes,
of not missing

Surely this is the place of epiphany,
this infinite moment.
I wait,
and tremble,
and know,
stretched on the block,
and suddenly hear above me the clang of the iron,
the clang that I must hear,
that I am sure to hear,
the clang for which I will listen purposefully,
though it takes only the tenth part of a second.

I am face down,
tasting the earth,
eavesdropping on the blade and the whetstone whispering to one another.
This waiting,
this moment,
this minute,
is forever real,
as real as death and eternity,
a moment and a sound that no longer belong to their time.

It is this sound for which I listen continually,
again and again,
with the closing of each door behind me,
because it bears the consolation
of no longer having to live in the shadow of death,
in the infinite time that approaches death.

It consoles,
because my greatest fear is not that I will die,
but that I will live,
that I will be reprieved,
that I will endure the agony of a falling blade that will never fall,
that I will be condemned,
not to death,
but to life,
one infinite moment following another,
in the shadow of the death that never came,
the blade that never fell,
the door that never closed.

It is not death that is intolerable.
What is intolerable is that I might be robbed of death,
that I might not take it in my arms,
savour a last breath on its lips.

Yet, there is a greater fear,
that the blade will fall,
but that I will nevertheless survive it,
even if only for a moment,
to know that it has fallen,
to know,
for a second,
or for five seconds,
or for an eternity,
cut from life and from self,
but counting out the moments of eternity,
counting the beats,
the bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
and to know that living with the living is no longer enough,
that now it is also necessary to live with the dead,
to know that death that will not let me die,
but will leave me waiting always for a further death,
where drops of blood count the passing of time,
until I must die once more,
and again,
for the door always remains to be entered,
and the threshold always remains to be crossed,
and the death always remains to be suffered,
however often it is suffered.

I will always be among the poor dying that are going from threshold to threshold,
because nobody goes beyond the threshold,
except by madness.

I die continually.
I die always, and every time alone,
because no one can die this death with me,
because there will never be anyone who can bear my lonely death with me,
because my death is in every case mine.

Yet even so,
my own death is not only for myself,
but also for those who are witnesses to it.
It is for the crowd who will see it only as a carnival,
for those few who will see it for the first time in horror,
for those fewer who saw it once with horror,
then with indifference,
and now with curiosity.

My death is for these others.
I am responsible to them
and for the deaths that they will die,
though each of us dies alone,
and so I will endure the aloneness
of the scaffold and the falling blade,
of the threshold and the closing door,
because the spectacle of my death,
of the blow that I cannot escape,
do not wish to escape,
which I anticipate,
am always anticipating again,
this spectacle makes me responsible for those who witness it.

In this moment,
only in this moment,
death tears off the mask of life,
and the true face is revealed,
and the severed head is held above the gathered crowd,
still warm,
so that they may recognize themselves in it,
my see their death in mine,
bloody and severed,
held before them.

This is the only place where the fear of death becomes a salvation.

This place,
this threshold,
is always hard,
always stony,
because it bears the doorway,
because it sustains the middle in which the two,
the outside and the inside,
penetrate each other.
This threshold bears the between,
and pain has petrified it.
Pain has made the threshold stone,
and I must cross this place,
pass and surpass it,
the last instant of my own life,
a life that will have been,
in any case,
so short.

I wrote a post recently on the way that I read, but I have been reflecting since then that this description of my reading practise is grossly misrepresentative without a similar account of the way that I also misread.  If it is true, as my earlier post suggests, that reading well demands the discipline to read properly, it also true, to precisely the same degree, that reading well demands the desire to read improperly.  So, though I have already written about this desire in passing on earlier occasions, let me dwell on it now a little more fully.

To read according to desire is to read without regard for anything but the pleasure of the text.  It is to approach the text like a lover, to seek it out wherever it is and wherever it might be.  Those who read like this, who desire like this, who love like this, are always looking, through libraries and bookstores, through the bookshelves of friends, through the recommendations of others, through yardsales and thrift stores and fleamarkets.  When they find what they are seeking, they hunger and lust for it, seize and possess it.  They do not read it, but throw themselves into it, immerse themselves in it, like a madness or a desperation, and they find that they themselves have becomes seized and possessed.

This kind of reading does not remain distinct from the reader, does not leave the reader unaltered.  It permeates the reader’s being, marks it and changes it, leaves the signs of love on it, leaves the scratches and bites of a ferocious love.  The reader bears these scars with a wild and terrified joy, with a fearful pride, hoping and dreading that others will see the wounds and guess what has made them.

At night, lying in bed, the one who desires reading, the one who loves reading, wakes, haunted by the dream of the text, and rises and goes about the house, through the city, into the streets, and seeks, though it does not always find, and yet finds and embraces and does not let go and returns to the house and to the room and to the bed.  The reader who desires is always going and seeking and finding and returning.  The reader who loves is always loving again, and once more, and yet another time, but is never satisfied.  This is the desire without which any practise of reading, any discipline of reading, will be empty and void.

The pipe tobacco was stale and dry, quick to light, quick to burn, acrid on my tongue, and I could take no pleasure in it, though I filled my mouth with its burning until I could feel the nicotine at the base of my skull, and then I tamped the still glowing dottle onto the stone of the stairway, bright embers, like red and angry stars, and I tamped them out, one by one, with the bowl of the pipe, and I let the scotch cover the smoke’s bitterness, for a moment, and when I could taste it again, it was mixed with peat and oak and alcohol and something I could not name, like a face in a dream that has filled the whole of the night and left it resting on my tongue.

Mike Hoye wrote yesterday about four essays that have caused him to reconsider his writing practise.  These essays themselves are quite interesting, but I am more intrigued by the reaction that they caused in Mike.  He quotes each essay at length to show how they model a more purposeful approach to writing and being, and then he concludes by saying,

“The world needs changing and my work and my writing frankly suck, because good enough sucks. Adequate sucks. Merely competent sucks, and don’t think I’m willing to set the bar at contentedness with anything that isn’t the best I’ve got on offer anymore.”

I agree with Mike entirely, not that his work sucks, because I have been enjoying his writing very much, but that any work sucks, and any writing sucks, as soon as it has become good enough.  Writing that has become satisfied with itself, that sees itself as adequate, that no longer strives to be more than it is, can only ever be poor writing.  Good writing is always trying to be better writing, and it should therefore provoke better writing in its readers.

This returns me to the opening phrase of Mike’s post, where he compares the four essays he is discussing to a “swarm of intellectual candiru” that have “lodged themselves in his apparatus.”  This is a wonderful and appalling image.  It likens the reader to someone standing thigh high in the river of writing, in the place where the Amazon and the Rio Negro meet, pissing into the passing water, when these four essays, these four small, bloodsucking, parasitic catfish, jump from the river and into the reader’s urethra to gorge themselves on his blood.

The violence and the repugnance of this image describe, at least for me, what good writing needs to do.  It needs to violate the reader somehow, to pain and discomfit, to provoke.  It needs to get under the reader’s most sensitive skin and incite a different and better reading, a different and better writing, a dissatisfaction with what has so far been read and written.  This dissatisfaction, this refusal to be merely adequate, is what produces writing worth reading.

I planted three apple tree last summer: an Empire, a Red Courtland, and a Honeycrisp.  They all bloomed well this spring, but they were still too small to carry much weight, so I thinned the young fruit quite heavily until there was only a single apple per branch.  This means that I was always going to have a small crop anyway, but the squirrels soon reduced it even further, which was especially frustrating because they seemed to eat less of the apple than they left littered under the tree.  So efficient were the squirrels at harvesting that by midsummer there was only a single apple remaining, dangling from the end of the longest branch of the Red Courtland tree.

Then, yesterday, as I was sitting on the porch reading Roberto Bolano, I looked up to see a squirrel dragging an apple up the Maple tree in my front yard.  Without even checking, I knew that this was the Red Courtland’s last apple.  I watched as the squirrel dropped and retrieved it twice, then finally managed to hoist it onto a branch.  It was, I reflected, only one apple more or less, but I still would have liked to eat it myself, to have tasted it, that last apple.

I have not had the time to write about many of the films that I have been watching lately, and I will not try to write about each of them separately now, but a few do deserve mention for one reason or another, so I will just list them here and offer a paragraph or two about why they interested me.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye, directed by Benton Bailey
I was either too young or too sheltered to remember the scandal around Jim and Tammy Baker, so Tammy Faye had never been more than a caricature for me. Her name evoked only hair and mascara, and I never had any reason to wonder if she was anything more than her cosmetics.  Bailey’s film is concerned to address precisely this stereotype, so it is unabashedly sympathetic to her, but Tammy Faye herself is such an immense personality that the viewer, even one as cynical as I am, discovers some sympathy for her as well.  To this degree, at least, the documentary accomplishes its aim.

O Brother, Where Art Thou, directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
This film may seem at first to contradict my tendency to watch mostly documentary on the one hand or fantasy on the other, but I would in fact include this film in the category of the fantastical and recommend it as an admittedly flawed attempt at the sort of film that I think should be made more often.  I am constantly frustrated by our culture’s relation to its mythological and literary past.  We either regard it as being irrelevant and ignore it, or we regard it as being sacred and idolize it.  O Brother, Where Art Thou, however, does neither, choosing instead to take the themes of Homer’s Odyssey and to reinterpret them.  The result is a very good film in many respects, and one that provides a commentary on American culture on several levels, even if it is also one that too often falls prey to the cliches of Hollywood.

Sita Sings the Blues, directed by Nina Paley
This animated film does what O Brother, Where Art Thou could have done if it had not been limited by the need to sell theatre tickets . Sita Sings the Blues mixes South Asian mythology with a contemporary love story and with classic blues and jazz music to create a whimsical but moving story.  The music is used superbly.  The art is wonderful.  I can hardly recommend this film highly enough, and it has even been released free through a Creative Commons license, so you have no excuse not to watch it tonight.

Ballet Russes, directed by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine
I have seen only a single ballet in my life, and it was the ballet that everyone will have seen if they have seen only one: The Nutcracker.  I was young, and my only real memory of the performance is of my even younger brother asking my mother, “When are they were going to start talking in this movie.” Even so, I found Ballet Russes a very interesting documentary.  Though many of its interviews drag, and though the accounts of the interminable politics of the ballet become a little tedious, the story is remarkable, and it made the film well worth the evening I gave to it.

Outlander, directed by Howard McCain
I have an obsession with Beowulf. I confess it.  This means that I end up having to see every new adaptation of the story, even when it is horrible, and many of them are.  McCain’s version begins well, despite the obligatory Hollywoodisms, but the more that it tries to explain itself and the more that it tries to develop its characters, the worse it becomes.  The lengthy flashback sequence, which tries to explain and humanize the outlander, is a case in point.  It is mostly pointless and entirely tedious, and it destroys the pacing of the film besides.  The romantic element of the film is poorly acted and trite in the extreme.  The final action sequence is predictable and unconvincing.  In short, though it may not be the worst adaptation of Beowulf, I will stop well short of recommending it.

District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp
I was very pleasantly surprised by District 9.  When I heard that it was an alien film, my expectations were low.  When I heard that it was the director’s debut film, they sunk even lower.  When the reviews were mostly favourable, they sunk so low that I almost decided to see something else.  I was, however, as I said, very pleasantly surprised.  Now, make no mistake, it is a Hollywood action film produced by Peter Jackson, and it has all the violence and special effects that you would expect, but it also has a complexity of storyline and character that is entirely surprising in a film of this kind, particularly from a rookie writer and director.  It may even be worth your ten bucks to see it in the theatre.

A tweet is like a sonnet, or should be.  Follow my reasoning here.

A tweet, in order to be compatible with the length of a standard text message, is actually 160 characters long, but it reserves 20 characters for user information, which leaves only 140 characters for the body of the tweet.  This is common enough information, I know, but it also makes for one of the more interesting parallels in the history of literary form, because it just so happens that a sonnet standardly consists of 14 lines of 10 syllables each, for a grand total of 140 syllables.  A tweet – 140 characters / A sonnet – 140 syllables: could this really be mere coincidence?

Unfortunately, yes, it can be mere coincidence, but it is still, I would suggest, a meaningful coincidence, since it serves as a reminder of what can be done through literary forms that are tightly defined by their brevity and by their formal structure.  The sonnet, though limited formally, has been one of the enduring modes of poetic expression, from the 13th century until the present day.  This should refute the assumption that something as brief as a tweet cannot be capable of performing a literary as well as a communicational function.

It should also cause us to examine the extent to which most twitter is actually concerned with the question of literary value.  If it is possible to write literarily through the form, and I think it is, and I have heard of examples of this kind of writing, it is certainly the case that most twitter has very little concern at all to be literary.  Like much of our modern media, it has been dominated by a concern for communication at the expense of a concern for expression, though it contains the possibility for such expression, as the sonnet demonstrates.

So, I think that a tweet should be like a sonnet.  I think that its limited form should give rise to a greater rather than a lesser attention to its literary and asethetic expression.  I think twitter should be a poetry, not just for poets, but for all of us.