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…nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
—Randall Jarrell, “90 North”
She tells me it’s good that I can’t remember but I want to remember, I want to peer into the eyes of the beast that almost killed me though I, Lazarus, have tentatively returned—
I yearn to confront the evil head on, which in a way I did since it knocked me out cold, a sudden nothingness, ex nihilo, only to awaken flat on my back in an ambulance hurtling in straffing rain out of Hillsville to Galax then the Trauma Ward at Wake Forest Baptist. They cut off my clothes with a scissors and knife, another degradation I can’t recall. It’s good, she insists, because I saw it all and believe me you’re better off not seeing. I envy her. It’s a kind of gnosis, an on-the-spot revelation. And I love her more because she did gaze into those eyes, because she grasps what I can only suffer after the fact, ignorantly, stupor of stupors, the bog of forgetting or never knowing or blind submission.
BLOOD ON THE AIRBAG
The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.
When Justin brought her to the service garage in the mountains where they had towed the mangled Rogue, the first thing she spotted was my blood, splattered and encrusted, like rust, all over the airbag. She admits she went berserk, pranced hysterical, maybe shrieked as she rushed about, encircling the vehicle, gathering what had survived, seeking answers to which there were no questions. I lay doped up in Trauma an hour away half keeping an eye on the invasion of the Keys by another monster, Irma. I mourned the Rogue in my way by not mourning it at all. The nurse asked if I’d like some chicken noodle soup and apple sauce. Sure, and yogurt too. Cathy and Justin transferred whatever they could into his truck. Her glasses had lost their lenses. Someone had stolen the GPS. The new ice chest and its cargo, vegetable soup which she had made especially for the girls down in Winston-Salem, was crushed, that soup, like my blood, anointing the ruins. I think chicken noodle was the first thing I tasted after my resurrection. Good, it tasted so fucking good. I even tried a soda cracker, which I never eat. Cathy’s homemade vegetable was better but I could not drink it. No one would ever drink that bloodied batch.
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
—Yeats, “Song of the Wandering Aengus”
The entire month of September, including my Virgo birthday on the sixth, lost to catastrophe, mayhem, pain, opioids, confusion and forgetting. She tells me I was hooked, a cyborg, to constant beeping machines, including the usual heart rate and blood pressure devices; two IVs squirming out of each crook of the arms; a billion blood tests (all ok, except low on potassium once – so they wheeled in an aluminum scaffold from which hung a bolus of potassium solution); countless x-rays and scans – all in all twenty-four pages of medical test results faxed to my doctor in the Blue Ridge. Yet through it all I could eat – and indeed felt constantly hungry. She tells me I always ordered apple sauce, yogurt, French toast, sometimes a tuna sandwich, sometimes soup – drinks too, apple juice, orange juice, good ole H2O, ah, and coffee. I remember only the apple sauce, how perfect it seemed, that smooth texture, the slight tang, the easy slide down the throat, hints of cinnamon and clove. The perfect food for convalescence – hell, I’m still devouring it weeks later. So why am I recalling the Greek apple of discord; the Biblical apple Eve couldn’t resist; an apple of my eye somewhere buried in the deep past? The worm in that apple?
Love is the hastening gravitation of spirit towards spirit, and body towards body, in the joy of creation.
They’ve nestled me away in this swanky room distant from the other patients because, from what I’ve glimpsed while making the rounds with my physical therapist (a sweet girl who chats incessantly about how to roll into and out of a bed rather than plop down into or rise precipitously from) everyone else here is, believe it or not, worse off than I am. They lie debilitated in a series of rooms off to the side of the nursing station, one, a young man whose face is now a red, raw smear, the epidermis having been scraped off on asphalt; another lost a jaw – rods and wire now welding his skull together; and most alarming, someone glazed in a total body cast with only a black vacuole of a mouth puckering back and forth like a ravaged, mutant jellyfish. What’s a xylophone of broken ribs next to such defilement? How I feel for these fellow victims, how I long to assuage their ills with some hocus-pocusy flick of the wrist. How lucky I am to be holding your hand in this room as the evening darkens and transforms us into gentle shadows, your hand in mine.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance?
—Theodore Roethke, In a Dark Time
Each night as we lie together I clutch and stroke your fingers as if they pull me from a depth I detest more than fear. I prod you for more details, anything else about that week when I slid in and out of consciousness, three different narcotics seeping into my veins. I don’t know why I crave knowing exactly what happened, nor do you, but I ask ceaseless questions, mostly the same questions, and you supply mostly the same answers; the repetition soothes me, lulls me, and begins to acquire a reality I feel directly, if only vicariously, a kind of osmosis. You tell me that you dozed in the chair beside my bed every night, that the girls visited for long stretches every day, that Justin sat beside you holding my hand, that Eric raced down from the Blue Ridge to see me. I don’t remember any of it but yearn to, to remember the memories as my own. Because all I have are tiny bits and pieces, a blurred pastiche, confetti. And every now and then you recall a new delicious detail – when you came back from the bathroom and I, wide-eyed and startled, informed you that a reindeer had bitten my elbow. Then I lapsed once more into cloud-cuckoo land, a pleasant enough place for the not quite dead.
The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper
—W. B. Yeats
It was my daughter Claire who made sure I executed the deep-breathing sessions upon every commercial break during normal TV programming – as instructed by the doctors. She also brought for me a goofy rubber crab I had once found in a Myrtle Beach gift shop and which she keeps on her bedside table. I held that crab tight in my hands and instantly understood love. On our most recent visit to Winston-Salem I spotted it again on one of her shelves and asked if I could have it. She shook her head and smiled – “No, Da, you gave it to me.” This too I understood. How selfish of me to ask for any more magic than it had already bestowed.
Reach me a gentian, give me a torch
let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower
down the darker and darker stairs, where blue is darkened on blueness.
—Lawrence, “Bavarian Gentians”
Long as I can complain I ain’t dead, defunct or oblivionized. Don’t think I complained once while lying semi-comatose suffused with mind/body numbing drugs.
I’m not even complaining now, sort of. We were smashed by a massive 4X4 white Ram-like pickup truck. This I’m told because I don’t remember the collision at all, knocked me out cold. But since the telling that white truck haunts me – I dream about it; I envision it heading for us again and again. Ahab’s white whale. I am now Ahab, obsessed, no peg-leg but with wounded ribs and clavicle. No revenge to seek, no Pequod, only the desire to obliterate whiteness, that no-color containing all colors, that whirlpool dooming Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym. White. Give me black, penumbra, opacity, the black lantern of D. H. Lawrence’s Bavarian Gentians. White, too visible, merciless, non-descript – make mine dark, shadowy, noir, raw umber will do. My Rogue was charcoal. The white Ram consumed it, mangled it, sent it to the graveyard. No, in thunder. Don’t call me Ishmael.
An unknown sphere, more real than I dream’d, more direct,
darts awakening rays
about me—So long!
—Walt Whitman, “So Long”
They pump poison into your veins to lure away pain. When it abates they release you and supply the same poison in white pellets. You live for the pellets until they turn on you and induce their own new ache, a protest against being hated and abandoned. You find yourself stalking empty halls, fidgeting, itching, delusional, exhausted – and suspect you’re worse off than before though you don’t remember before because poison had anaesthetized you. Four days, you’re told, for it to flush out of your system, four days to return to humanity. And it’s only day one. You figure you can’t endure, that you’ll swallow the entire bottle of white pellets and be done with it. But you don’t, you endure and invent reasons to suffer – and maybe to rejoice.
WHEN YOU’RE NOT HERE
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be Our luxury!
When you’re not here Furies and demons swarm from every crevice, from the shadows and woodwork – even shafts of sunlight filtering from our curtains seem desolate and cold, when you’re not here I become a phantom in my own house, a ransacked ghost, when you’re not here my heart sprints in an empty arena, my corpuscles scream silently, when you’re not here nothing seems vibrant or even alive when you’re not here, I exist only residually by proxy, what’s left over, nothing, when you’re not here.
IT IS I
I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
It is I, I whisper to the walls that seem to recoil from touch as I pace and repace these familiar yet unfamiliar wooden floors, up and down the stairs, back and forth, sleepless, deranged, It is I, house, remember me, now revenant at these ungodly hours, the town asleep, the town silent, It is I, yes, undone but struggling back, muddled with drugs that blunt pain but create new pain of their own – it is I. Thought I wouldn’t be back, eh? Nor did I. There is a vast chemical industry coursing through my blood, into my heart and brain, and while it is certainly I (who else could it be) it is not I – just as you can’t go home again, though here you are, home again despite imperceptible differences you can’t discern – same old pastel walls, pine floor planks, humming appliances – but rather feel. And they feel you as well, welcome you back cautiously, you could be an imposter, yes, certainly a subterfuge, for Lazarus did not return as Lazarus after all; disguise, guise, decoy. I flick on a light switch and the room floods darkness into another darkness, the kind you can see, the bright kind, and, look, a mirror! and it’s you, I, gazing at strangers.
THAT FORMAL FEELING
AFTER GREAT PAIN
I thought I was in hell;
therefore I was in hell.
Emily nailed it on this one though I might add “during” as well as the inevitable “after” – that gasp of revelation, no benign Sunday school, little Golden Book, Rockwell versions (though Norman’s personal life was wretched) perhaps: the sense of ablution after your first Holy Communion; or the transfiguration you witness as you stand before the mirror in your rented tuxedo hours before the prom; what the Slavs call “litost,”catching sight of yourself in a storefront window and panting in disbelief at the wreckage – new territory, you the wagon master heading into a canyon, or, say, when someone drives a flare into your chest and you stand dazed, stunned, incredulous as you sink to your knees knowing all along that you expected it – the casual formalized.
The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crispéd and sere—
The leaves they were withering and sere…
—Edgar Allan Poe, “Ulalume”
I sat on my deck this morning prepared once again to bemoan my fate when a tiny Buddhist in the form of a curled, brown leaf from the silver maple cascaded down and adhered to my knee. To regret, said the Buddhist leaf, is to amplify. Just let go, flow, savor the moment. I admired the little sage but laughed: the opioid has already achieved as much; I have no choice but to float in the ephemeral, though I have always relied upon choice in matters of body and soul. A gust swept through and whisked away the bodhisattva. I watched him twist, curl and bob with the wind. I swear there was a pirouette or two in the diaspora, dancing as the swan sings.
I lay back my head and laughed and the Bo Tree blossomed.
Marie, Marie, hold on tight.
—Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Shortly after the damages inflicted by Katrina on my family down south and the psychic damages up here I paid Home Depot to erect a massive play and swing set in the back yard to sooth the girls. The playset has long deteriorated but the swings still work just fine. For twelve years I sat on the deck and watched as the girls, iPods attached, arced back and forth to the squeaking hinges that no oil would soften. The goose-like noise itself became a comfort, and I felt content hearing it, knowing my daughters safe. But control is a false thicket. The girls have moved away, the swings abandoned. So here I sit once again on the deck, this time with my own internal Katrina of broken ribs. I try to ignore the empty swings. In truth, the girls had outgrown them but out of habit, and their own comfort, they would mount and sway to their music. The yard is still, silent, strange – dead leaves spiral from the trees. From the corner of my eye I glean movement – and, look! the swings have suddenly started to sway of their own accord. There is no wind.
I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.
Maddie told me the other day that as she sat on the balcony of her second-story apartment a white hummingbird hovered in front of her eyes for a few seconds then zipped away. I want to see it too, that rare hue in hummingbirds, right before my eyes – for a long time, a long time. It left a single feather on one of the pine boughs. She could not reach it.
THUS CONSCIENCE DOES MAKE
COWARDS OF US ALL
When I allow myself to brood upon the collision I try but cannot remember I become either apocalyptically inert or envision confrontation by tanks in a terminal global conflict – smoky cordite fumes blind us, the discharge of pervasive artillery deafens us, and we scramble into trenches sodden with mustard gas.
Or I alchemize the horror into the feather of a rare white hummingbird shed upon a pine bough beside my daughters’ apartment, the feather I’ve finally reached over and hold between my fingers, a most sacred gift, the hummingbird, my mother tells me, an omen of choice of her and my father, decades ago, before I was born, before I had ever seen such a bird, before everything.
By “conscience” the Prince meant “consciousness” (which Dostoevsky or Freud or one of them described as a disease) that grave mistake of evolution, that serpent in the thicket, interloper and despoiler. Brush it away with a white feather.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
To clear the air of the Preacher and that dour wretch Baudelaire I turned to Looney Tunes and Dancing with the Stars. I might as well have been on Mars. Reality is no Key Lime pie though devour it we do. It does not pay to rue our days as if suffused in a daze of regret. What we get we get, the sweet madeleine cakes that transported Proust, the bitter herbs of Christ. They are the same in kind to those who aren’t blind.
Life is life and death, death, they say, as if devoid of common sense and breath. Look between the lines, beneath the bottom, above the top: something stupendous is going on. Why grieve what’s gone or to come? Focus on the eye blink of the sun. What is has not yet begun.
NEITHER DESIGN NOR INTENT
Now blotches rankling, colored gray and grim,
Now patches where some leanness of the soil’s
Broke into moss or substances like boils;
Then came some palsied oak…
—Browning, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”
Not by design nor intent but because it was on the way, fifty miles from home in avuncular blue hills, we revisited the site of the accident, neither by intent nor design, though I knew we would return in time having avoided it the last few trips – I feared my heart would race, I would panic in the visual grip of some stupendous, historic monument, Stonehenge, the Ziggurat of Ur, the Colossus of Rhodes, Easter Island, the Great Sphynx, some gargantuan new wonder of the world … but no, I glanced at an ordinary stop sign, a nondescript crossroads, a shriveled, arid patch of grass where I’m told the Rogue had set sail and landed across two lanes.
Nothing memorable, you wouldn’t look twice. But I felt the need to confront, took the advice of a trusted friend – scream or primal therapy. I didn’t scream, felt no primal yank. I merely noted a precisely unremarkable, mildly desolate, site where nothing remarkable had happened. My imagination had flared, made it sacred, made it spectacular. It was nothing – someone out there cutting the grass, a dog trotting on the shoulder, a homeless man who leaned against a pole.
WHAT YOU CAN ACCOMPLISH WHILE UNCONSCIOUS
The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above water.
We were sitting around, chilling, after another harrowing drive with not only trucks but sedans crawling onto our bumper, a blitzkrieg, at the speed of light – Richard Engel reporting on the Orange Tower in Panama, the host of international criminals and money launderers (though the volume was muted) – when it occurred to me to ask her how they got me out of the mangled Rogue. I had assumed they had somehow pulled me out of the shattered passenger window. No, she said, again feeding me slowly, bit by bit, the facts and crumbs of carnage. Two first responders came by almost instantly, she said, pried open the crushed door and you actually stepped out yourself…
I was unconscious
and you walked to the stretcher beside the ambulance and hoisted yourself onto it.
But I was unconscious, I said, out cold, I don’t remember a thing. But that’s what you did, she said in her soft, dove voice, that’s what you did…
I was unconscious
And Maddie, listening, added, You called me on your cell phone from the ambulance.
I did? I was unconscious. I asked if you knew who I was and you said yes but you didn’t know where you were or why or where you were going. You thought you had been born at Wake Forest, on campus in a classroom.
I was unconscious
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY
Alien they seemed to be;
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history…
—Thomas Hardy, “Convergence of the Twain”
…what if I told you that I had foreseen the crash long before it actually happened, decades ago, when I was a child? You would not believe. I have passed years as a watcher of omens and signs and portents – I’ve seen the shadows, the basilisks and dragons, those mystic informants. They hang in space, a deep basso throb before discerning ears evolved, until they piloted Attila to Rome, the Titanic to the iceberg, the Fuhrer to Berlin, and the white whale toward Ahab’s leg and my ribs, toward you too. We call this destiny. We call this Fate. Evil. Naming clarifies chaos, palliates mayhem. No distinctions before names. Feeble distinctions after names, names that enable us to proceed as if we’re behind the steering wheel. Wittgenstein: the bewitching of intelligence by language. Or the other way around.
…tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Yesterday came suddenly
Some days mope along, tortoises, but their reptilian cumulative effect is to break the sound barrier, a rent and crack in the ears of your heart, a blatant beast, this airy substance we call time, though not a substance but rather the purveyor of substance, a metaphysical medium of sorts, what we can’t buy at CVS or Walmart but would love to at any price because it’s fickle and peremptory as that girl I tried to woo back in high school, the one who always disappeared around a corner before I got a good look or could speak.
Mystics call it an illusion as well as some physicists who point out that it is reversible in quantum equations. What a lie! When I passed my last birthday flat on my back I might have believed, opioided … but it’s no illusion. Look into the mirror. Remember Nineveh and Carthage and the great empire of the Hittites. Whither? All tortoises in their day. Which day? Tomorrow. It came before yesterday, before your birthday, before itself, before time. Can’t make your peace, can’t … not with derangement. We are the illusions of history, the sleights-of hand and voo-doo will-o’-the wisps.
I like the way Nietzsche hooked the word “eternal” to it, but this is neither cosmic nor metaphysical – I’ll be going about my business, say, emptying the trash bags or sliding soup cans onto the pantry shelf or, just this morning – first spring-like day in a while, crocuses returning as I walked the river path – that crash aftermath image of awakening stuporously in an ambulance speeding toward I can’t remember where but it was raining hard, that image returns ex nihilo as if embedded in my brain for whatever “eternity” I’m due. Or in dreams. Not knowing where I am or why or what happened, osmosifying in and out of consciousness, benumbed, vaguely a phone call to my daughter (amazing, I still had the cell phone and it worked, survived – how to explain?), though I didn’t realize I was phoning her and rely now upon her recounting the details since they too have vanished into a miasma of forgetting. I would like to purge that image, assail it with a pitchfork and set it afire – of all things to remember! Almost a black and white photograph with me squirming inside, a grotesque mandala … but look! on the branch of that dead maple overhanging the water, two bluebirds and a chickadee, and a blue heron propped like a sentinel in the river’s middle. I think that one can indeed cross the river that is never the same twice; I think that it rises to meet our feet as it sacralizes the transient transiently. Because forgetting is a blessed angel of remembrance.