Writing is, literally, brain surgery.
If a lone feather fell from the sky,
like a paper plane wafting down
from a tree house where a quiet boy
has been known to hide,
you might think message or perhaps
mischief, not just some midair
molting of a bird.
But what if many feathers fell
from a place seemingly higher
than any boy could ever climb,
beyond the top of Savage Mountain
and obscured by clouds.
What might you think then?
A flock of birds smithereened
by hunters? By a jet?
And let’s say the feathers were large
and grayish, some of them bloody,
with signs of tendon and muscle
broken off, would you worry about
a resurgence of enormous raptors
only the air force knew about
and had decided to destroy?
For years now you’d heard rumors
of homeless gods in the vast emptiness.
And if they’d appear in your dreams,
as they sometimes did,
begging to believed in once again,
you’d feel this icy refusal hardening in you.
And when you woke you’d feel it, too.
Your better self wished to believe
the feathers signaled a parade, an occasion
of triumph, and what was falling
might be a new kind of confetti.
But what, really, was there to celebrate?
Was the world, as you knew it, simply over,
no more rain or snow? Would there always be
this strange detritus coming down,
covering what used to be the ground?
- Stephen Dunn
Thus the value of great fiction, we begin to suspect, is not just that it entertains us or distracts us from our troubles, not just that it broadens our knowledge of people and places, but also that it helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest in us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.
Maybe I’m inclined to what Nietzsche called “impure thought,” that is to say, a kind of thought where abstractions are so mixed with the facts of life that you can’t disentangle them. I feel thought in general, and in particular what is unfortunately called “philosophy,” should lead a sort of clandestine life for a while, just to renew itself. By clandestine I mean concealed in stories, in anecdotes, in numerous forms that are not the form of the treatise. Then thought can biologically renew itself, as it were.
In 1879, more dead than alive following a nervous attack, Swinburne was taken in a four-wheeler to Putney Hill in south-west London, and there, at number 2, The Pines, a modest suburban town house, the two bachelors lived henceforth, carefully avoiding the least excitement. Their days invariably followed a routine devised by Watts-Dunton. Swinburne, Watts-Dunton reportedly said with a certain pride in the tried and tested correctness of his system, always walks in the morning, writes in the afternoon and reads in the evening. And, what is more, at meal times he eats lie a caterpillar and at night he sleeps like a dormouse. Now and then a guest who wished to see the prodigious piety in his suburban exile was invited to lunch. The three would then sit at the table in the gloomy dining room, Watts-Dunton, who was hard of hearing, making conversation in booming tones while Swinburne, like a well-brought-up child, kept his head bowed over his plate, devouring an enormous helping of beef in silence. One of the visitors to Putney at the turn of the century wrote that the two old gentlemen put him in mind of strange insects in a Leiden jar. Time and again, looking at Swinburne, this visitor continued, he was reminded of the ashy grey silkworm, Bombyx mori, be it because of how he munched his way through food bit by bit or be it because, out of the snooze he had slipped into after lunch, he abruptly awoke to a new life, convulsed with electric energy, and, flapping his hands flitted about his library, like a startled moth, clambering up and down the stands and ladders to fetch the one or other treasure from the shelves. The enthusiasm which seized him as he was thus engaged found expression in rhapsodic declamations about his favorite poets Marlowe, Landor and Hugo, but also in not infrequent reminiscences of his childhood on the Isle of Wight and in Northumberland. In one such moment, in utter rapture, he apparently recalled sitting at his old Aunt Ashburnham’s feet as a boy, listening to her account of the first grand ball she went to as a girl, accompanied by her mother. After the ball they drove many miles homeward on a crop, cold, snow-bright winter night, when suddenly the carriage stopped by a group of dark figures who, it transpired, were burying a suicide at a crossroads. In writing down this memory that goes back a century and a half into the past, noted the visitor, himself long since deceased, he beheld perfectly clearly the dreadful Hogarthian nocturne as Swinburne painted it, and the little boy too, with his big head and fiery hair standing on end, wringing his hands and beseeching: Tell me more, Aunt Ashburnham, please tell me more.
(Bubbling and spuming
as if trying to talk under
water, I address you thus:)
Must I pretend not to love
you (in your present bloom,
your present perfection—soul
encased in fleshy relevance)
so you won’t believe me
just another seabed denizen
vying for your blessed attention?
Some of us (but not you)
are so loosely moored
to our bodies we can
barely walk a straight line,
remaining (most days) only
We stagger and shudder
as buckets of blood or sperm
or chocolate mousse or spittle
or lymph or sludge juice
continually through us…
I love the way you wear your
face, how you ride this life.
I delight in the sight of you,
your nervous, inquisitive eyes,
though I try to act otherwise.
Being stoned out of thy mind
only amps up thy fearsome
brain wattage. Pardon my
front offensive, dear chum.
Forgive my word-churn, my
drift, the ways this text message
has gotten all frothy. How was it
you became holy to me? Should
I resist, furiously? Is this your
true visage, shaken free, flashing
glimpses of what underlies
the world we can see? Do not forget me
murmurs something nibbled
by fish under the sea.
After dark you’re quick-silvery,
make me chase you, dragging
my heavy caresses, a pair of
awkward, serrated claws,
hither and yon. Give me a swig
of whatever you’re drinking,
to put me in tune with the cosmos’s
relentless melt, with the rhythms
of dish-washing, corn-shucking,
hard-fucking, bed-wetting, and
the folding of bones of other loves
into well-dug graves … may we
never become lost to the world.
- Amy Gerstler
Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.