Two years ago, Michaela and I went on a strange journey across the country, from Santa Fe, New Mexico to the Hudson Valley in New York to recover thirteen cardboard boxes and nine plastic bins that we'd had in and out of storage for almost ten years. The boxes were mostly full of books, papers, and our journals. The journals ranged back almost thirty years.
As anyone alive at the time remembers, this was the month before Trump was elected. Craziness, confusion. The horror had not become the new normal yet. In Oklahoma and Texas and Arkansas and in rural Pennsylvania and New York we saw billboard after billboard about "Crooked Hillary." And, as always, there were so many white crosses alongside the highway. But they'd become huge. Giant white crosses, the size of two, three story buildings. I remember thinking "There is a factory somewhere that makes crosses this size?" Am I saying the two things are related? They were related in my mind. The massive crosses symbolized for me a kind of zealotry, an "us versus them" theology. At this time, because of Trump's "Mexican rapists" rhetoric, there was a new wave of hate crimes. I remember posting a photo of a Black church that had been set on fire in Mississippi, spray-painted with "Vote Trump." All sanctioned by Trump-speak. Before we started the drive, we thought it'd be a close race, but he wouldn't be elected. But after seeing all those billboard signs…something was happening…
Into the Underworld
We spent a week in my sister and brother-in-law's garage, surrounded by our past, trying to figure out what to take, what to leave. We had only room for a few boxes in the car. The rest of the stuff we were going to pare down, then box up, and mail to ourselves. Though we couldn't mail much - we didn't have the funds.
A lot of decisions were made for us simply because mice hadgotten into many of the boxes and pissed and shit on quite a lot of the books, along with some of the journals, photos, and files. There were also strange insects that had lived ten thousand generations in the plastic bins and had been feeding off the glue in all the hardback books. What comes immediately to mind that was lost? Sophocles' Theban Cycle, translated by Robert Fagles; most of the hardbacks we had of Ursula LeGuin; a sixties edition of The Master & Margarita; The Collected Poems of Lew Welch; an early copy of William Carlos Williams' Kore in Hell; Disobedience by Alice Notley; Rimbaud's A Season in Hell…
Outside the garage was a hemlock and oak forest. The leaves on the oaks were orange, beginning to sail. The contrast between the brittle and piss stained carnage inside the boxes and the beauty of the falling leaves was extravagant. What to throw out, what to keep? The journals and books and photos were from various times in our lives. All the different people we'd ever been were whispering to us. And we had to decide - who will live, who will die?
Here, a copy of Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems I stole from Borders, full of rage at the backlash for starting a union. And here, letters from a poet who quit poetry, embraced a childhood god and burned his journals and manuscripts. Here, yellowing magazines: my first poems beside the poems of those long dead, forgotten. Names gone into the earth, returning someday as a leaf, a stone, a crow. And here, my hands, tossing letters, photos, notebooks, into the trash, executors of my own tiny estate - as if I'd already become a leaf stem, a crow's black beak.
During that week, the Trump and Republican hate-speech continued. Blaming everyone who was perceived as "other" as a scapegoat for all problems. But this time, violence was sanctioned. Trump told his followers that if they brutalized protesters, he'd pay for the legal costs. He gave a wink and a nod to possibly assassinating his opponent. All in good fun? A line had been crossed. A public - and popular - figure had started intimating that violence was okay as a solution…
I is Another
What I found in the journals were descriptions, endless descriptions. Desperate attempts to get it right, to get down an event, a scene, a face, an encounter, exactly as I'd experienced it. I think I believed that if I could "get it right" I'd be able to see into the nature of the thing - into the place where I and the thing described existed together. And as I read, I remembered the wonder that arose when I thought I'd come close - becoming aware of the stunning complexity of each moment, the beauty in that complexity. In a sense, all those descriptions were my first meditative practice.
At one point, I found a description of the whorl of flame that came at me when I'd gone up onto the porch as my family's house was burning down. I reached inside the front door to get the car keys, wanting to get at least one car out of the driveway before the front wall fell. A vortex of flame came roaring up the stairs from the den, turned towards me. I froze, stared into it's open mouth. The roar it made burned everything from me. I was pure silence, pure stillness, in the middle of an all engulfing holy noise. Just as the flame-mouth was about to reach me, envelop me, it turned up the stairs, following an air current to the second floor. At that moment, I came back to my senses, grabbed the keys (hot!), turned, and leapt out into the night.
I've tried to write about that moment for thirty years. I stared at one of my first attempts. Words twenty-five years gone, faded on the page. Who wrote this? After that there was a description of the moment I stood in the crowd that had gathered to watch the house burn, barefoot, in a t-shirt, on a cold New Year's Eve, and bummed a cigarette from some fellow gawker, watching as the flames reached around the full moon above the house. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.
I flipped through another journal - a description of thunder in a blizzard. Another journal - a description of a man calling out his girlfriend's name, over and over, waving a gun on his girlfriend's front porch. I flipped through some pages of that same journal - the description of the music of two police cars idling side by side in an abandoned factory lot. Another journal - the description of a grey cat on a couch next to a dumpster, eyes on a plastic bag, drifting in the wind… "Hey, that's a description of Issa, my old cat!" We were together, that cat and I, for thirteen years. She's now long gone.
The leaves flew, landed. A couple of mice skittered out of an overturned box, into the forest. They probably didn't last the night. A light rain began. Book lice crawled in an out of Bitter Fruit (the story of the American engineered right-wing coup in Guatemala in 1953). I went out into the twilight rain, looked up. Darkness. The trees are so close together in New York, I can never see the open sky. Sometimes, there's a comfort in it. But there's also quite a bit of claustrophobia.
When I threw out the mice-destroyed Season in Hell, I remembered Rimbaud's words from a letter he wrote to one of his teachers: I is another. Old books, old papers, old trees, all closing in. And old words from someone else called "I." I is another.
During that week, my nose in my past, I kept looking up from that mess of papers, and seeing Fergus the cat. He had died a couple years before. Fergus was an orange cat - the same color as the leaves - my sister and brother-in-law found on the streets of Philadelphia. He was the watch-cat of the place. He seemed to always know what was going on. Sometimes I'd follow him down the long driveway or along a forest path. At some point, he'd stop, sit, and stare into the distance. I'd sit beside him and stare in the same direction. When I was living in New York, it was a time of terrible anxiety and confusion - and Fergus had been a force of tremendous calm in my life. I knew that he was watching us pack those boxes. All that week, I was surrounded by so many ghosts riding the leaves through the thin seam between worlds, down to the creek outside, turning in slow circles. Their eyes mirrored and made the turning sky. What did they want me to keep? What did they want me to let go?
About halfway through the week I started getting into throwing things out. This goes, and this, and this, and this… There was a liberating urge, a reckless urge, to let it all go. We squatted among piles for giveaways, piles of things to toss - old drawings, mandalas drawn to reflect the mind back to itself, lyrics to songs, cryptic notes for a poem never finished, old tax forms - all soon to sink into a sea of junk, seep into the soil, wrap around a pebble, a worm, for warmth (like all the lost children inside us), or continue falling all the way through the earth, to rise, weightless, a shade, swinging around the moon.
I kept telling Michaela: "Oh you should keep that." And she kept saying the same thing to me. It was a kindness we didn't reserve for own stuff. We were in that house of letting-go together. But we had to make our own decisions. We were in that house of letting-go alone.
And the world of Trump, and the media that loved his particular brand of carnival crazy (The ratings! The ratings!), dismissing it at the same time as "sound and fury signifying nothing," and the people that loved the little dictator's tough business and law-and-order rhetoric, became a juggernaut, an open clown mouth that could not be silenced. A terrible roar. There was something that felt death oriented about it all. A desperate death drive, for "an end" of some kind, no matter what kind of end it would turn out to be. The drive of an empire that was in the late stages of collapse. I thought of 1934 in Germany - the cheers and smiles. The Nazis will save us! The Jews are the problem! Eleven years later, everything was rubble, millions murdered.
Paradoxically, I feel that the death drive comes, in part, from a denial of death. For me, death is an intricate part of life, inseparable from life. But in American culture, there is a stunning denial of death, a refusal to acknowledge that we grow old and eventually die. We live in a perpetual youth culture. The denial of death creates the death drive. But this instinct has nothing to do with true death, the cycle of birth and death…the kind of death where grief and praise arise simultaneously. Only by acknowledging and letting ourselves experience death are we able to be truly alive, truly feel life...
Tomorrow, Grief & Praise