Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beauty is Nothing but the Beginning of Terror

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’
hierarchies? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Duino Elegies

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror. I first read those lines twenty-odd years ago in a one room apartment in an empty Victorian slum house in Jacksonville, Florida. A raccoon and her babies lived in the empty apartment above; a white rat that was probably, once upon a time, someone’s pet, used to slither in through a hole above a curtain rod, slide down the curtain and eat all the crumbs off the floor; and one zillion roaches lived behind the walls, making the bathroom walls writhe and shimmer at night. When I first moved into the place I made the mistake of turning on the bathroom light in the middle of the night, naked to the horror of all those roaches scurrying, scuttling, and scattering over each other – on the ceiling, across the walls, into the bathtub, down the sink drain... I can still hear the sound they made – something like one thousand wet crow feathers thrashing against an aluminum grid.

Roaches in Florida can reach the size of an egg, the size of a fist. When they are crushed by car tires, they can easily be mistaken for large oil stains. Sometimes they fly. The roaches in that room ran across my face at night, laid eggs on my socks in my clothes drawer, and sometimes the tiny ones, the babies, would manage to slip into a pot of rice and beans cooking on the hot plate (there’s nothing like lifting a pot lid and looking down at rice spotted with a few tiny boiled roaches). For the first three or four months in that place I couldn’t shake a repetitive dream where my skin had transformed into a patchwork of roach parts – wings, thorax, abdomen, tined legs, antennae.

 One night, waking from that dream in a sweat, I saw a huge roach antenna waving from a crack in the wall, less than a foot from my face. I was close enough, and the roach was big enough, for me to make out the different segments of the antenna. These segments are an intricate part of how the roach feels and smells the world. Watching that tiny, slow-waving whip was hypnotic. It certainly knew I was there. Maybe, through the information it was receiving through those segments, it knew I knew. I have no idea how long I watched that antenna – with horror, with wonder - before it finally disappeared into the wall crack. 

Minutes. Hours.

A few nights later, a roach ran across my face while I was sleeping and – crazy and enraged – I leapt out of bed and stamped around the room, throwing shoes, screaming. When I finally stopped - there was that sound again, that constant sound, the hum beneath everything in that house – feathers against metal – coming from the bathroom, from behind the walls. What was I going to do? I remembered that antenna waving from the crack near the bed and thought – desperate, sleep-deprived – why not try and make a deal? Christ, that antenna was easily big enough to pick up on something I said. If not the actual words, then the intent. So I began to talk, telling them that I knew the house was theirs, that they had been there long before I had arrived, but I needed sleep, solid all-night-long sleep, and I couldn’t afford to move, so – 

“You can have this place at night,” I said into the dark, “but no more running on the bed, no more running across my face. The bed is my territory. You get the night in this place...but I get the fucking day. Understand? I don’t want to see any of you while I’m awake.”

No one ever believes this, but it worked. No more roaches ran across my face at night, and no more roaches scurried around in plain sight during the day.

It was around that time that a poet friend gave me his yellowing copy of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, and I started reading the Duino Elegies. I was pretty green at the time and had no idea who Rilke was, how those lines are – for poets, at least – as famous as the opening lines of Anna Karenina are for novelists (“All happy families are more or less like one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own particular way.”).  When I read that line – beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror – I instantly thought about my encounter with the roach antenna. And the crazy, sleep-deprived pleading with roaches in the dead of night. The goofy mystery of it. The mingling of repulsion and attraction. The naked encounter with something seemingly so very much ‘other’.

Several years later I was living in Des Moines, Iowa, where many of my aunts, uncles and cousins live. I spent that first Christmas Eve in Des Moines at my Aunt Marita’s house, and, in the family tradition, everyone was required to perform or recite something (we’re a family of storytellers, musicians and artists, so there you go…). My grandmother was sitting at the edge of the circle in a chair by the Christmas tree, eyes closed. She had always been a great storyteller, a writer of beautifully crafted letters, with a no-nonsense (and yet unjudgmental and, in my case, gentle) approach to things, but that year she had started to withdraw into herself. She was ninety-four. The stories she told me when I visited that year were all centred on her first four years of life.  

A cousin was about to read from the book of Luke (“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field…”), when he announced he wasn’t just reading from any bible, but from my grandmother’s grandmother’s bible. Suddenly my grandmother’s eyes popped open and she stood up. She had become very frail by this time, usually leaning on an offered arm to get around, so everyone was stunned when she stood up, unwavering, solid. No one moved. She stared into the distance with milky, half-blind eyes, and began describing a tornado swiftly approaching the farmhouse in Missouri where she’d lived for a few years as a child.

There was no one in the house but her grandmother and a younger brother. Instead of taking the children into the storm cellar, the old woman had grabbed her bible off the kitchen table and flung open the front door. Outside, the world was tearing itself apart. Everything was on the wing; the sound of the tornado a black howl. My grandmother and her brother didn’t know what to do, so they followed the old woman out onto the front porch, terrified, clutching tightly to her legs beneath billowing skirts. The front door banged on its hinges, branches and leaves skinned the house, wind shrieked into every crack, and the old woman raised her bible at the flying chaos and shouted, “My God is a beautiful God! My God is a terrible God! My God is a beautiful and terrible God!”
And there she was, my grandmother – hair slightly disheveled; arm aloft, holding onto an invisible bible; staring at a tornado at the other end of the century, at the other end of the room; her voice deep, commanding, ancient, as she repeated her grandmother’s words: My God is a beautiful God! My God is a terrible God! My God is a beautiful and terrible God!  For a few seconds time collapsed and my grandmother was my great-grandmother.

No one moved. No one spoke. Then she closed her eyes and settled back in her chair, silent for the rest of the evening.  

That line – beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror – will never leave me, has become part of my cell structure. It has served as a koan (of sorts) for twenty years – a question that cannot be answered with the rational mind, but only with an entire life.

The Beginning of Terror

Green mantis
on the silver water-heater
jacket. In
from the cold. Caught
in her gaze I
am the last day, you
are the first. She’ll be dead
by morning. What is


Pressing our foreheads 
to rough bark, roots beneath
curve, a ribcage
around earth. For a few minutes
is a sudden-cry, awake: Streetlight
shadow, grope
of dark limbs, roof
antennae touching
a smog-prismed star, silver car-bumper
(Jakob Boehme
 wrote twenty seven volumes
 after seeing light glance off
 a pewter dish). What is

Snow sails
horizontal. Open mouth
of a dead mouse
rises from snow-crust. Burnt
rubber smell of the
snow-caked bus. Driver
his brakes are hung up (Hallelujah,
we can’t get to work). Fist-cold,
down to bone. Wet wood,
newspaper, matches
so hard
when fingers are frozen. Finally
light the stove. Flame
against glass: Earth, air, fire, water,
exchanging form: Every-
thing eating, being
eaten. A flock of sparrows
through the neighbor’s chimney smoke, turning
like a school of fish. What is


At the gorge’s
black lip: A woman, man,
and future creature (in-
from green lichen. The ones
who watch over  
this shifting light, these
continually changing
in the strata’d
to the Rio Grande. What is


In the cave-dream
she mixes
white pigment, paints
deep-sea fish
no one has ever seen, says
those fish have some connection
to the content
of all dream. Answers
the terror-question beneath:
And when those fish die out? What is


So many slipping
off the edge: Prophets
giving birth
to dumpster-crows; changeling
rune-syllables no one can read
inside every fist; scythe-keys
that refuse to unlock
tumored, brittle
bone. Suddenly,
we are climbing
through window-beyond-window
the eyes of the old man
staring at the revolving blue and red cop-lights
in the car-jam at the bottom
of the 5th Street exit ramp. What is


over her body. Candle flames
all night. Shadows
of undersea
across the wall. What is


                         Sacramento, California; Rio Grande Gorge, New Mexico; Nederland, Colorado

A good book about the problems of translating Rilke's Duino Elegies came out about ten years ago by William Gass. 

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation

It's a good introduction to the themes moving through the long poem. At the end is Gass' own translation.
I will be reading at the Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, this coming Thursday, June 30th, at 7:30 pm.

Work from On the Side of the Crow, How the World was Made, Sixth Sense, some newer poems, and possibly a short section of the novel, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind.


(November, 2015):

Paintings above are by Hieronymous Bosch, the godfather of all surrealists that were to come. If you're interested in a song with fascinating lyrics about the paintings of this original proto-surrealist check out my series of blogs on the demo tapes of Zak Jourek (a forgotten singer-songwriter) here.
Or listen to the song (and his other songs) on Soundcloud here.

  He interweaves beauty and terror in an interesting way.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

You Accept What You Get When You're Eating With Death

Memory is an empty Greek restaurant on a Tuesday night. The cook and his brother, the lone waiter, are about to close when a group of five cousins walk through the door. The cousins haven’t seen each other in years. They are all in town for a family reunion. They live in huge cities that have so many Greek restaurants they never bother to eat Greek. Now they desperately want Greek food and this was the only place they could find in the phone book.
They all have fantastically loud staccato laughter. It makes the waiter wince. He wants to go home, talk to his wife. Five years in the Midwest and listening to English all day still exhausts him. The cousins don’t bother catching up on each other’s lives. They’ve heard the news through the grapevine. One’s recently divorced. The one who used to paint now works for an insurance company. One has a child graduating from high school. Some of them haven’t seen each other since high school. The one who used to be so serious – always writing about loneliness & Buddhist concepts of the void – her husband was killed by lightning last year. Now she has no time to be serious. One’s a raving alcoholic, though she thinks that part of her life has been kept a brilliant secret. Everyone else knows and doesn’t care. 
Instead, they tell jokes. They are telling death jokes. Which is appropriate because Death himself is sitting at the table with them, invisible as usual. It’s not as heavy as you might think. None of them are going to die in the near future. It’s just that Death loves Greek food. Especially dolmathes that have soaked in a tin of brine so long they taste like paint-thinner. He loves Greek food and good death jokes.

The cousins order saganaki because they want the waiter to come out and light the cheese, shouting “Oopah!” They want something as dramatic and absurd as telling death jokes while sitting next to Death himself. Death orders a whole bottle of retsina. He looks around the restaurant. Curling airline posters of Greece on the walls. 
Deep blue Aegean Sea, clear skies. Tiny roads winding up a rocky hillside, lined with brilliant white stucco houses. 
 Death laughs.  

It’s the Greece you remember if you’ve never been there: The Acropolis, ruins of Apollo’s gorgeous body, youths leaping over bull horns on the side of a vase. The cradle of a vacationing civilization.

 It takes a long time for the food to arrive. The cousins don’t notice the time. They’re with Death and he doesn’t wear a watch. After seven cigarettes by the back dumpster, the waiter comes out with the saganaki. They watch him fumble with his lighter, his fingers stained yellow from years of rolling a blend of Turkish tobacco. He smells of nicotine. He snaps the lighter four times before it ignites. He mutters a tired “oopah” as he lights the cheese. No emotion. A bored monotone. As if he was responding to his brother’s endless nagging about his smoking with his usual “whatever” – the only English word he finds useful. The flame dies before he puts the platter on the table. He shrugs, walks off. 

Dead silence from the cousins. They look at one another, raising eyebrows, tilting their heads, smiling, dumbfounded. Before the waiter even hits the kitchen door Death and the cousins burst out laughing. It was the best joke of the night! Everyone at the table is exhilarated. The waiter didn’t fake a thing! He didn’t even try! 
The cousins love the waiter. The waiter hates the cousins. Death drinks his retsina and looks around, content. He likes the place. It’s the kind of place that wants to go sit outside on the front steps, watch traffic at the end of the day. Like a grandmother who’s finished washing all the clean windows in her daughter’s house. When her granddaughter finds her on the stoop, she puts her small head in the old woman’s lap. The old woman strokes the girl’s hair. Time begins ticking for the girl. Time stops for the old woman. Her hand smells of washrags and pickles.


This flash-fiction-prose-poem-thing was written many, many years ago in Boulder, Colorado. I remember spending half an hour one Saturday morning calling all the Greek Restaurants in the area to find out "the name of that thing you light on fire and then shout 'oopah'?" I found one restaurant open. The woman on the other end of the line found the brief exchange hysterically funny. "Saganaki! That's it!" It was published several years later (2005) in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet , a wonderful speculative and/or fabulist fiction magazine from Small Beer Press

The Small Beer catalogue includes some of the best writers in the biz at the moment: Ted Chiang, Karen Joy Fowler, Kelly Link, Maureen McHugh, Geoff Ryman, on and on... They also have a Creative Commons on their website where you can download entire books from their catalogue FOR FREE (Of course, if you do this, and you like the book, you’re eventually going to buy one, right? I thought so.)

Now that three entertainment corporations control most of the large publishing houses, the small presses are pretty much the only ones publishing all the work that lies outside the tired-and-true marketing categories of “celebrity cookbook” or  “celebrity memoir”.

All hail the small presses! Support them when you can. 


Monday, June 13, 2011

A Question From The Hay Festival (or, The Quasimodo Moment)

Last week I gave a reading, along with two other novelists, at the Hay Festival. When it came time for questions from the audience, a girl of about nine or ten directed a question at all three of us: “What was it that inspired your books?” What I liked about the question was that it was not asking what inspired us in general, where we got our ideas, etc (Harlan Ellison, at the beginning of his career, when asked where he got his ideas, would say they arrived every month from a mysterious mail order outlet in Peoria, Illinois), but, as I interpreted the question, what was that thing, that moment, on which the rest of the story was built. What immediately came to mind was a moment ringing bells in an Episcopalian church in downtown Philadelphia. Which is odd, because the novel in question, A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind, takes place in a Belgian cement factory town. Stranger still, I’m not Episcopalian. Or even Christian. But there it is.

I once worked maintenance in a museum with an ex-Benedictine monk. He had left the monastery and the Catholic Church six years before, and in those intervening years had married, became a father of three, and joined the Episcopalian church (not necessarily in that order). He was quite a talker – whether it was because of the endless cups of coffee he drank all day or because he’d had to remain relatively silent throughout his twenties and thirties, I don’t know. During my time at the museum I heard stories about his childhood, his life in the monastery, but, for the most part, his main subject was religion. Maybe the talk always turned to religion because we were surrounded by it: Buddha’s from Cambodia, illuminated manuscripts and stained glass from Europe, Hindu gods from India, exquisitely carved ivory Kuan Yin’s (the bodhisattva of compassion) from China. The museum was the eclectic collection of a wealthy family. Probably most of the ‘pieces’ had been bought for a song right after World War II when the US dollar had no competition. And, as it is in most museums, it was just plain weird to see these things separated from the context in which they were created. 
When you see a stone Buddha from Cambodia sitting in the middle of a small room in a museum outside Philadelphia, what exactly is it?  The use for which it was sculpted has disappeared. So it becomes an object, floating alone in the universe, without a context (a bit like the photos that accompany this blog – where did they come from, what were they originally for?). Until someone comes along, slaps a display plaque on it. Then it’s an objet d’art. While I was working at the museum the collection was in the process of being divided into different display rooms: The Asian room, the African room, the Native American room...

Divide and conquer. 

(I sometimes used to slip into the museum library at lunch time, climb the shelf ladders, pull something interesting down,  and page through it while I ate. I once found an original print of Blake's illustrations of The Book of Job.

plate xx
 No, really. I spent the entire lunch hour paging through it, entranced. It was only at the end of that hour that I realized with horror that I’d been paging through BLAKE PRINTS - the first copies of William frickin’ Blake prints! - while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

There were no stains on the prints, thank god.
plate iii

  As to the stain on my soul...)

We waxed the floors around glass-encased displays of Native American pipes (and yes, someone in the museum sampled one of the pipes...not me...too many levels of bad karma involved...), painted the walls of rooms filled with stone Buddha’s, built and climbed scaffolding to adjust and dust off medieval tapestries. The usual. All the while the ex-monk talked. What was clear from all his talk was that his personal religion was deeply wrapped up in its presentation: Incense, chanting, stained glass, sculpture, church bells. He had a passion for church bells. And his passion included ringing those bells. I think he even belonged to a group that was involved in the maintenance and ringing of church bells all over the city. 

About once a month, in the middle of a conversation, he’d invite me to attend one of his church services. I always declined. I’m not Christian. On top of that, back in those days I was fiercely devoted to doing absolutely nothing on Sunday mornings. I felt it was less a privilege than an absolute right. Then, of course, there was the issue of not owning a suit. Or a tie (nothing I’m proud of – just the facts). I only started to think about attending his church when he started talking about bell ringing. I had visions of myself as Quasimodo madly pulling a rope below a cacophony of clanging bells. So I made a deal: I would attend the church service if I got to go up into the belfry and ring the bells with him. 

Did I get a good deal? Not sure. The church service was an interminable two hours long. But up in the belfry afterwards there were three bells and three ropes, and once I started pulling my rope like a mad hunchback the rest of the morning fell away. 

Swinging on a bell rope (or just swinging?)
So there I was, in my borrowed suit, tie flying around, pulling on the ropes, the clang of the bells resounding so loud above us I couldn’t hear myself think. There must have been some method to the madness but now I can’t remember what it was. I remember pulling and pulling and soon discovering that if I didn’t let go after pulling down, the swinging bell could easily pull me up into the air. 

I hung on with both hands, rode the rope about four feet off the ground, my laughter drowned out by the chaos of the bells above. When I landed back on the stone floor I saw that my tie had wrapped around the rope. A vision of my neck instantly snapping when the tie was jerked back into the air flashed through my mind. I quickly grabbed the rope with both hands above the entangled tie, hung on. When I came back down, the tie was still wrapped around the rope, so there I was riding up into the air again, hanging on for dear life. Up and down, up and down. How many times I rode the rope up, while swinging my head this way and that like a crazy man, trying to pull the tie away from the rope – while the other ringers were probably thinking I was having the time of my life – I have no idea. Eventually the tie fell away from the rope of its own accord, and I stumbled away, exhausted, my hands blistered, bleeding.

Quasimodo indeed.   

That moment when I almost had my neck snapped by a bell rope (would it have made the papers? Man Killed in Freak Accident with Bell Rope) was the initial image I had in mind when I started a short story called Poisson that eventually became the novel A Fish Trapped Inside the Wind. Initial images for stories are like stones dropped into water. Once the writing begins you ride the waves resonating out from the point of impact and suddenly you find yourself writing about a cement factory town in Belgium on the morning of the festival day for St. Woelfred. Then you realize there are dead fish scattered all over town. No one knows how or why. Keep riding the waves and you find out that an infamous environmental activist dance troupe named Contexture has scheduled a rally at the same time as the festival, to protest the cement factory’s decision to lease their empty quarries as toxic waste dumps.

 Six characters take shape: Guy Foulette, a magician who learned his trade from a transvestite Buddhist magician named Chiqui in Amsterdam; Leisl Grafft, a Canadian/American freelance writer covering the rally, currently in a relationship with Guy; Casimir Ducasse, an aging local Casanova in possession of several lost poems of the famous French poet Arthur Rimbaud, willing to sell them to the highest bidder on the black market in order to escape his life; Marie Ledoux, a clairvoyant able to see into the future or past of things she touches, also the wife of Poisson, the town drunk, and Casimir’s current lover; Father Leo, the town priest, who has given up his youthful radical beliefs, thinking that his former class-consciousness has blocked him from the ability to love everyone unconditionally; and Raoul E., a Rimbaud scholar.

Pieter Breughel, Kermesse
All six wind their way through each other’s lives, finding either chaos or illumination when festival and rally collide.

All from that moment when my tie entangled itself with a bell rope?

Near the end of the novel, the town drunk, Poisson, steals into the belfry and begins ringing the bells. The local priest arrives just in time to witness the drunk wrapping a descending rope around his neck. Just as the rope begins to sail up toward the bells again, Poisson stretches his arms out to either side. The priest lunges forward... 

One of six endings.

Six characters, six endings. (Hey, it's not my fault...I was just following the waves...)

Here’s the opening section of the novel.

                         I. And the fish is a fish of...

Philippe Souzain leaned over a dead cod, poked it with a stick. The still eye reflected columns of grey smoke from the cement factory behind him. He raised his head, made a count of all the dead fish lying scattered across Madame Foulette’s pasture, then looked into the face of Madame Foulette’s cow. The cow kept chewing.
‘Get away from my cow!’
Philippe turned toward Madame Foulette’s back door. The old woman stood in the mist-covered grass just outside her back door, waving a broom. She looked like a potato. The boy laughed and waved – ‘Bonjour, Grosse Patate!’ – picked the fish up by the tail and slid beneath the lowest wire of the pasture fence, dragging the carcass behind him. He dumped the cod into the handlebar basket of his bicycle and pedalled down a narrow road between the cement factory and a vast, rectangular quarry. Conveyor belts carrying limestone up out of the quarry lake creaked through a tunnel beneath the road, into the factory.
The boy stopped at the guardrail above the belts and felt his pockets for something to throw over the side, onto the shuddering piles of wet limestone. He did this every time he rode past. Marbles, rocks, empty cans, and once, the head of a doll he found alongside the canal. Short black hair, huge black eyes. The head had miraculously settled onto the limestone upright, staring back at him – fierce, defiant – as it took its last journey towards the mysterious grey-dusted interior of the factory.
Philippe thought of dropping the cod, but looked over the side and saw a magpie passing beneath him, sitting on the shaking belt, picking at the eye of a dead whiting. He scooped some pebbles from the road’s shoulder and flung them at the magpie. The gravel fell short. The bird paid no attention.
He crossed the road, leaned his forehead against the chain link fence, and looked down into the quarry. Leftover fog hung over the water. No matter how many times he looked down into it, the sight of such immense space always made him giddy, as if the lake was sending a current up through his thighs, into his chest, tugging him gently towards the edge.
The boy’s Uncle Casimir once told him you could fit fourteen towns the size of Villon into the quarry. Casimir had done the maths.
Philippe mounted his bike again, pedalled past the factory gate and coasted down a short hill, through the last remnants of an ancient stone wall that once encircled the town. Some said the wall was built by the Romans. Casimir said that was absurd, the wall was definitely from the Christian age. If it had been built by the Romans, he told the boy, it would still be standing. But the boy wasn’t interested in the history of walls.
He rolled past the alternating patterns of cracked plaster, stone, and brick of the terraced houses on rue d’Arcy – windows shuttered, everyone still asleep – into the Grand Place.
Four streets and three alleys emptied out into the cobbled circle at the centre of town, like spokes fitted into the hub of a wheel. Casimir once told the boy that all circles contained a certain amount of magic, leftover from pre-Christian times. But it was something you could only feel late at night. Philippe had slipped out of his house in the middle of the night several times over the past few months, wandered around the Place, waiting for something magical to happen. Nothing ever did. Once, pigeons scattered from the belfry of the church. Another time, Marie Ledoux – Poisson’s wife – appeared from the dark alley next to the brasserie, alone, with no coat, holding herself. She looked right through him, then disappeared up rue Demesne. It was strange, but not magic. The boy thought he should tell Casimir that if he was looking for real magic, all he had to do was go down to the east end of Foulette’s field on Saturday morning and watch Guy Foulette perform. That man could make anything disappear.
The sound of Philippe’s rusted wheels bounced over the cobbles, echoed between the wooden doors of the church and the aluminium shutter covering the large window of the brasserie. The boy steered the bike towards rue Lefebvre, dodging Poisson, who suddenly lurched into view, probably drunk.
Poisson screamed his wife’s name across the Place, but Philippe had already turned the corner down rue des Ecoles, and heard nothing but the sound of his own tyres.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Paris, Part II: ruminations on The Pantheon, the concept of "Great Men", The State, Arthur Rimbaud, The Paris Commune of 1871, and a Vision among the Bones (in the Catacombs)...

At the end of our first day in Paris, sandwiched between the Louvre in the morning and wandering down to the Champs de Mars in the evening (to hang out, watch the Eiffel tower lights slowly brighten as the sun set), we went to the Pantheon. I think our original reason for going was that we wanted to get a view of Paris from the upper dome. Or maybe we needed to pee. I can’t quite remember now. When we got there it was about forty-five minutes before closing time and the escorted trips up to the dome had ended for the day. 

The building of the Pantheon was initiated by King Louis XV in 1744, after a long illness where he vowed to God that if he was spared he would replace the ruined church of Abbey Geneviève with something truly fitting for the patron saint of Paris.  The original intent of the Pantheon was that it would house the relics of St. Geneviève. There were many delays and so it wasn’t finished until 1791 – just in time for the French Revolution.  During the revolution, the Catholic Church was a major target for street rage, since they, along with the greedy royals, possessed most of the wealth in France. The stone saints lining the portico doors of Notre Dame were all beheaded during this time (the current heads are replicas. The actual heads can be seen, disembodied on shelves, in the Museé national du Moyen Age in the Latin Quarter.). I can probably guarantee that had I been subjected to the same circumstances my entire life – extreme poverty, without hope, without opportunity – while at the same time being surrounded by the opulence of the royal court and church – I would have picked up a sledge hammer and whacked away at those heads, too. It must have been very satisfying work. So, during the revolution the National Constituent Assembly ordered the church dedicated to Ste. Geneviève to be changed into a secular mausoleum to intern the bones of “Great Frenchmen”. 

Inside The Pantheon, there are no rooms. It’s just one vast hall. The building was designed in the neoclassical style, in the shape of a Greek cross. The ground floor has a length of 352 feet, a breadth of 272 feet. There were long stretches of marble flooring, huge paintings on the walls depicting the battles and triumphs of France (Joan of Arc in all her glory, etc.), columns rising up to the high vaulted ceilings, and there in the middle of it all, at the centre of the cross, the vast dome, 272 feet above the floor. 

The human form is dwarfed in such a place. In this way it’s a bit like Notre Dame. But in the Pantheon, instead of the Church creating the illusion of being all powerful, it is the State. It reminded me of Washington DC. How the architecture and layout of buildings around the National Mall are meant to create the feeling of awe, of reverence, and maybe a little fear – holy fear – for the State. It’s not about reverence towards a particular government – governments come and go – but something much more elusive: that invisible, intangible thing that seems to bind a people together in order for them to label themselves “French” or “American” or “British”. Abstractions like freedom, equality, and brotherhood are given form; myths of origin (the American Revolution, the French Revolution) are portrayed pictorially in the same way that Bible stories are depicted in stained glass and sculpture in great cathedrals. 
 In the Pantheon there are massive sculptures of the anonymous men and women who rose up against the monarchy during the revolution. Opposite these anonymous martyrs are sculptures of the men who created the National Convention after the monarchy was overthrown. At the far end of the Pantheon, opposite the front entrance, is a sculpture called “The National Convention”.  Liberty stands on a platform in the middle, holding a sword. On her right stands a group of what look like the middle class men of the age, giving her a frighteningly Heil H-like salute. On her left, a group of soldiers with drums, guns, or riding horses, going to war in Liberty’s name. 

“The flag goes with the foul landscape, and our patois muffles the drum.
            “In all capitols, we feed the most cynical prostitution. We slaughter logical revolts.
            “To the spiced and fevered countries – in service to the most monstrous exploitations, industrial or military.
            “Goodbye to here, no matter where, Conscripts of goodwill, we’ll have the fierce philosophy; ignorant of science, wheels of comfort; the puncture in the rolling world. This is the true path. 
            “Forwaaard, march!”
 (Democracy, A. Rimbaud, my translation)

The entire building is about power. I’ve always been struck by how many courthouses in the United States, built in the late 19th century or early in the 20th, especially in the Midwest, were designed with the same idea in mind. You walk in and are confronted immediately by high vaulted ceilings and a dome of some kind – far, far up there – unattainable – forever out of reach. Sitting in a courtroom in one of those buildings you are meant to be struck, unconsciously, by how big the justice system is, what it can see, do, know. The great rooms and high ceilings are a warning: “ Don’t even mess with us...we are much bigger than you.” And they are. (Now US institutional buildings look more like prisons or office business parks. Smooth blocks of concrete or cheap, anonymous strip mall facades – but it’s a warning just the same: Be careful, or you might disappear into the system , become anonymous, merge with the facelessness of the building, never to be seen again.)

What I’m trying to get at is that our everyday selves – the one that eats and pees and shits and loves a few specific people and also can be seen leaning down to pick a writhing worm up off the pavement after a hard rain in order to drop it back onto the grass – that person is irrelevant inside a building like the Pantheon.You are meant to be irrelevant. You are meant to merge with the grandeur of the history of the state (whatever state you think you belong to...). 

(Though, in this goofy post-modern world we live in, the French have, in recent decades, used the space beneath the dome as a place for quite interesting art displays. What’s funny is that the art there, because it needs to fill such a vast space, must also be on a gargantuan scale. What would be really interesting and strange is putting in an installation that was on a human scale right beneath the dome – how odd it would look, insignificant – a figure, just birthed from stone, looking back at us with our own vulnerability, frailty - unable to compete with the surroundings...
                                                            but I digress.).

Marie Curie
 But there are always those who have been chosen to rise above that anonymous institutional facelessness. Behind the sculpture of the National Convention is the entrance to the Pantheon’s crypt. You descend a winding stair to a group of low-ceilinged corridors where the “great men” of France have been entombed. The inscription over the entrance to the crypt reads: “Aux Grandes Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante” (To the great men, the grateful homeland). The generals are there, of course, and the politicians, yes...but, amazingly enough, also a few writers! (this really doesn’t happen much in the states – it’s pretty much all about men bedecked with medals, astride muscular horses). There is one woman entombed there – Marie Skłodowska-Curie, researcher into radioactivity, discoverer of the element radium, winner of two Nobel Prizes.

(What’s fascinating about Mme. Curie’s tomb is how many objects and flowers are scattered around it. There’s nothing on that scale for any of the men. While we stood at the entrance to Madame Curie’s crypt, a young woman walked in, laid a long-stemmed rose on top of the tomb.  There were several other young women already standing inside the tiny room, taking photos...) 

O my Good! O my Beautiful! Appalling fanfare where I do not falter! rack of enchantments! Hurrah for the wonderful work and for the marvelous body, for the first time! It began in the midst of children's laughter, with their laughter will it end. This poison will remain in all our veins even when, the fanfare turning, we shall be given back to the old disharmony. O now may we, so worthy of these tortures! fervently take up the superhuman promise made to our created body and soul: that promise, that madness! Elegance, science, violence! They promised to bury in darkness the tree of good and evil, to deport tyrannic respectability so that we might bring hither our very pure love. It began with a certain disgust and it ends, - unable to grasp this eternity, - it ends in a riot of perfumes.

Laughter of children, discretion of slaves, austerity of virgins, loathing of faces and objects here, holy be all of you in memory of this vigil. It began with every sort of boorishness, behold it ends with angels of flame and ice.

Little drunken vigil, holy! if only because of the mask you have bestowed on us. We pronounce you, method! We shall not forget that yesterday you glorified each one of our ages. We have faith in the poison. We know how to give our whole life every day.

Now is the time of the Assassins.

(Morning of Drunkenness, A. Rimbaud, translated by Louise Varese)

Victor Hugo
Rousseau is entombed down in that crypt. Voltaire, also. Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas. The writers that are there are those that now – long after they’ve died – are meant to fit into the narrative of how the State wants to see itself: Victor Hugo created a narrative of the French Revolution (Les Miserables) and a compelling secular narrative of a hunchback living in Notre Dame Cathedral (along with many works of poetry and fiction that are still, for the most part, unavailable in English); we all know Dumas as the creator of the three musketeers (“All for one, one for all!”); and Rousseau was the intellectual father of the French Revolution. Whether these men were always acceptable to the state during their lifetimes, Time itself has made these men acceptable now. Like everything else, the State has been continually changing (although the fundamental function of the state – to maintain its own power – hasn’t really changed all that much over the centuries).

But there are some poets and writers who may never quite fit into that state narrative, no matter what that narrative is. I don’t think Arthur Rimbaud would ever make it into the crypt of The Pantheon (and if his bones ever did make it, there might be some severe, angry haunting as a result). Rimbaud wrote all of his poetry in the space of five years, between the ages of fifteen and twenty. Then, after writing some of the most brilliant poems of the 19th century, he gave it all up. He wandered quite a bit in his early twenties – Germany, Switzerland, Java, Norway – then went off to Africa to seek his fortune. He tried gun-running, and it’s rumoured that he may have even traded in slaves, but, for most of his time in Africa, he was a low-level merchant for a coffee company. What remained from his poetry days was his disgust and fear of what he saw as the boredom and horror of mundane, workaday life.  

Sketch of Rimbaud by Paul Verlaine
He was a temperamental, impudent, sneering boy who saw poetry as a means of arriving at a new way of seeing the world: the vehicle for the transformation of everyday life. Seeing the world differently, through visions and prophecy – induced by what he called “a complete derangement of the senses” (through alcohol, drugs, living in the filth and consequent starvation of extreme poverty, etc.) – would, in turn, create a new world. The young Rimbaud believed in imagination as the driving force of all things. What made him stand out as a poet in his own time (and even now) was that he would try anything – prose poetry, verse, a mixture of the two, his subject matter ranging from the classically beautiful to schoolboy scatology. What first attracted (and sometimes repelled) me about Rimbaud was that his poems were always written on the edge of delirium – ecstasy, agony, it was all the same to him. 

There has been an orgy of followers since his death at 37 in 1891 – the Symbolists, the Surrealists, including Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. Basically he can be seen – and has been, time and again – as the original punk rocker. Rimbaud’s story has been told and retold so many times that it’s safe to say there now exists a Rimbaud industry in the publishing world, all based on the trajectory/myth of genius, debauchery, and then a sudden and shocking silence. The 1995 film, Total Eclipse, with Leonardo DiCaprio (a crap film), was about the tortured and sometimes violent love relationship between Rimbaud and the poet Paul Verlaine. 

Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.
            One evening I took Beauty in my arms - and I thought her bitter - and I insulted her.
            I steeled myself against justice.
            I fled. O witches, O misery, O hate, my treasure was left in your care!
            I have withered within me all human hope. With the silent leap of a sullen beast, I have downed and strangled every joy.
            I have called for executioners; I want to perish chewing on their gun butts. I have called for plagues, to suffocate in sand and blood. Unhappiness has been my god. I have lain down in the mud, and dried myself off in the crime-infested air. I have played the fool to the point of madness.
            And springtime brought me the frightful laugh of an idiot.
            Now recently, when I found myself ready to croak! I thought to seek the key to the banquet of old, where I might find an appetite again.
            That key is Charity. - This idea proves I was dreaming!

 (beginning of A Season in Hell, A. Rimbaud, translated by Paul Schmidt)

Standing in a darkened corridor of the Pantheon’s crypt, I thought of Rimbaud’s arrival in Paris, as a boy of sixteen, during the brief revolution now known as “The Commune” in 1871. The Commune came about during the chaos that ensued after Prussian troops occupied Paris for a brief period at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. To put it very simply (maybe too simply), the workers rose up and took over the running of the city for three months (March-May, 1871), before being brutally massacred by the National Army. To me, what is most interesting about the time of The Commune is that, even though there was a freely elected central council (The council members were paid an average wage and could be instantly recalled by electors if they did not carry out mandates), Paris was basically run by workers councils that popped up in every district of the city. Political decision making was no longer secret, but open and accessible, resulting in a situation in which “citizens were no longer informed of their history after the fact but were actually occupying the moment of its realization.” (The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, Kristin Ross, pg. 42) Sadly, to their shame, they did not include women in the vote, despite the fact that it was a group of women who first challenged the National Guard and started the entire process. 

 Workplaces were reopened as co-operatives. The Engineers Union, voting at a meeting on the 23rd of April, 1871, echoing councils and unions all over the city, stated that the aim of the Commune should be “economic emancipation” and to “organise labour through associations in which there would be joint responsibility” in order "to suppress the exploitation of man by man.” (The Paris Commune 1871, Steward Edwards, pgs 263-4) What they were looking for was social equality: No more employers, no more proletarians, no more classes. The ultimate goal was to gain more control over their own lives, not be subjected to the whims of greedy employers who were pawns of the ever-changing, boom-and-bust winds of capital.

Hadn't I once a youth that was lovely, heroic, fabulous, something to write down on pages of gold? - I was too lucky! Through what crime, by what fault did I deserve my present weakness? You who imagine that animals sob with sorrow, that the sick despair, that the dead have bad dreams, try now to relate my fall and my sleep. I can explain myself no better than the beggar wth his endless Aves and Pater Nosters. I no longer know how to talk!
And yet, today, I think I have finished this account of my Hell. And it was Hell; the old one, whose gates were opened by the Son of Man.
From the same desert, toward the same dark sky, my tired eyes forever open on the silver star, forever; but the three wise men never stir, the Kings of life, the heart, the soul, the mind. When will we go, over mountains and shores, to hail the birth of new labor, new wisdom, the flight of tyrants and demons, the end of superstition, - to be the first to adore! - Christmas on earth!
The song of the heavens, the marching of nations! We are slaves, let us not curse life!

(‘Morning’ section from A Season in Hell, translated by Paul Schmidt)

It’s debatable whether Rimbaud engaged in any fighting during the battle for Paris between the Communards and the army, but it’s clear that The Commune heavily influenced his poetry. Not with a particular ideology, I don’t think, but by example: Imagining a new world is the first step to creating that new world. What the young Rimbaud learned from them was that the transformation of everyday life was possible. Within The Commune, there were challenges to the boundaries between work and leisure, producer and consumer, worker and bourgeois, worker and intellectual.

In my novel A Fish Trapped inside the Wind the townsfolk of a Belgian cement factory town wake to find dead fish scattered everywhere. The fish might have fallen from the sky. There is a point in the book where an altar boy appears at the local priest’s refectory door holding two huge dead cods an hour before Mass. He asks the priest, innocently, honestly: “Will there be Mass?” It’s a legitimate question, isn’t it? All the laws of nature the boy has been taught seem to have disappeared. Why continue the same routine as if nothing has happened? The boy feels he’s entered a new world. But the priest responds with a tired “Yes, of course there will be Mass.” This complacency in the face of something so completely astonishing is what Rimbaud’s poetry was struggling against.

  As soon as the idea of the Flood receded,
             A hare froze in the high grass and ringing flowers, and said his prayer to a rainbow through a spider’s web.
            Oh! The precious stones who hid, - the flowers who’d seen.
            On the dirty boulevard stalls emerged, boats were hauled into the sea, layered on the waves like a postcard.
            Blood flowed, at Blue Beard’s, - in slaughterhouses, - at the circus, where God’s seal drained the windows white.  Blood and milk flowed.
            Beavers built.  Samovars in cafés steamed.
            In an ancient house of glass panes, still dripping, children in mourning watched the marvelous scenes.
            A door slammed, and, in the town square, a child whirled his arms, in league with the weathervanes and belfry cocks everywhere, under a thunderous rain.
            Madame *** installed a piano in the Alps.  Mass and First Communion were celebrated at the hundred thousand altars of the cathedral.
            Caravans departed. And the Splendide-Hotel was built in a chaos of ice, in the polar night.
            Since then, the Moon has heard jackals snickering among deserts of thyme, - and the eclogues in wood shoes groaning in orchards. Then, in a forest budding violet, Eucharis told me it was spring.                      
            Rise, pond, - foam, roll over the bridge , into the woods; - black shrouds and organs, - flash and thunder, - rise and flow; - water and sadness, lifts and lets fly the flood.
            Since they’ve receded, - oh the jewels buried, and the open flowers! – it’s pure boredom! And the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire in an earthen vat, will never tell us what she knows, and what we don’t.        
(After The Flood, A. Rimbaud, my translation)

Communards in coffins
Within The Commune, there did not seem to be any desire to set up an alternative state-oriented bureaucracy. After The Commune was suppressed, Karl Marx complained that they had not taken full advantage of the situation, had not seized control over the means of power, specifically pointing out that they had never bothered to take over the national bank (which could possibly have bankrolled weapons and food to fight the army). Taking back the city of Paris from The Commune was relatively easy for the national army, who ended up massacring up to 50,000 people. There is a plaque on the wall of Pere Lachaise cemetery that commemorates the men, women and children who were lined up against the wall in the cemetery and shot.

 Two days after our visit to The Pantheon we were descending stairs into the catacombs of Paris.  The catacombs were created at the end of the 18th century when a cemetery near Saint-Eustace, used for nearly 10 centuries, was cited as the cause of contagion. On November 9, 1785, the State Council approved the removal and evacuation of the cemetery’s bones to old limestone quarries across the river. The catacombs were then used until 1814 to collect the bones from all the overflowing cemeteries of Paris. It’s said that the bones of six million people are buried down there.

 We wandered past enclave after enclave of stacked bones – femur, tibia, humerus, radius, ulna, vertebrae. Skulls. Other than the bones, there was an occasional plaque with a grim poem about mortality engraved on it, or an occasional sign that indicated which cemetery the bones were from. But there was no way not to see it – it was as heavy as a sledgehammer between the eyes: the shocking juxtaposition between the grand tombs in The Pantheon and all those anonymous bones stacked along dimly lit corridors beneath the city. It wasn’t a hard connection to make. The information is always right in front of us, on the street, in every city on earth. 

I thought about the time we spent hanging out on the Champ de Mars (the garden between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire) two nights before. There were men roaming those grounds with bags full of cheap bottles of wine, water, beer, and cigarettes, trying to sell some off to the tourists – buy cheap, sell a bit higher. They looked predominantly Southeast Asian. What the hell were their stories? Was it actually possible to pay rent doing something like that?  (There was a point where a Jack Russell terrier started barking viciously at one of the men hawking wine, stopping him in his tracks. Every time he tried to move around the dog, it would growl, then bark. A woman lying on a blanket nearby casually looked up, wearing shades at twilight, and called the dog’s name:  “Yoko…Yoko…”  She didn’t yell very loudly so the dog paid no attention. “Yoko…Yoko…” The dog only backed off when the woman’s boyfriend returned from peeing in the bushes and vigorously shouted at the dog to back off. What was her story? Who were all those people sitting out on the grass while the full moon rose behind the Ecole Militaire?)

 Down in the catacombs it occurred to me that all those people lazing on blankets, or standing in line to ride the elevator cars up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, or hawking wine, or skateboarding down the pavement, or picking someone’s pocket, or complaining about the light display (actual overheard conversation after the Tower’s flashing light display: “I mean that was cool and everything but they could definitely have gone over the top – like fireworks – like at Disneyland…”), those writhing inside the thumping discotheque bus rolling past the Tower, all of us, everyone on the Champs de Mars, everyone in the city at that moment, we were all destined for the catacombs.

And I thought how each bone down there could be a word, a word in a poem, a terrifying, labyrinthine poem that winds like a skeletal worm through the underbelly of Paris, winding its way across continents, under every city; billions of words, stripped of flesh, the word finally made bone, creating a poem that sounded like the slow-grinding together of tectonic plates beneath the sea, a prolonged muffled groan, leaving levels of dust miles deep. And I now suspect, in that moment, that if I had put my ear to one of those skulls I would have been able to hear it.

Am I comforted by the fact that, at some point in time, not really that long from now, even the names of the ‘grandes hommes’ will dissolve from stone? Maybe. Okay, yes. Then it will be the stone’s turn to dissolve away.

I don’t need to see the gates of
famous men
but I do try to see the kingdom every 
now and then

and if you ask me where it is it's on a
humble map
so when you enter in the doorway
show your handicap

and time is burning, burning, burning
til it burns away

(Tombstone, Suzanne Vega)

If you’re interested in reading more poetry by Rimbaud or more about Rimbaud, there is a good site that has quite a bit of up-to-date information and a list of translations online here .

My first encounter with the life of Rimbaud was Enid Starkie’s Rimbaud. The first translations I read, and they are still pretty good, were Louise Varese’s translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations.

There is also a wonderful book-length essay on Rimbaud by Henry Miller called In the Time of the Assassins. It’s mostly about Henry Miller, but what the hell, he’s almost as interesting as Rimbaud...

Less than a month ago, the poet John Ashbery released a new translation of The Illuminations. I figure it will probably be the new standard...


Wow, that was a long one...so, if you got this far...

I will be giving a reading at The Dylan Thomas Centre, Swansea, on June 30th, 2011 at 7:30 pm.  Poems from On the Side of the Crow, fiction from A Fish Trapped inside the Wind, and some new work...