Saturday, November 27, 2010

ghost limbs

Tonight I am thinking of Sudek and the war, his desperate searching for the limb that he lost in the war, furious at this war and that war and the wars we wage among ourselves, and the fear that war is as much who we are as love, and a part of me nods and knows that is true and I am not afraid but just resigned to the dark side of life that takes away what you most love when you least expect it, and you are looking for that thing the rest of your life, like some condemnation to hell, while others shop in malls or online and watch the fashionable TV shows, you reside in the black shadows of a pain so exquisite you would release yourself from it, but cannot because what you love might be out there, might be found.

The deep, necessary excavation begins. Last weekend or the week before I was listening to Selected Shorts on NPR, and transfixed by a story by T. Coraghessan Boyle about a man delivering a kidney for a transplant. He is, like all of us, caught in the immediacy of the everyday, of the things that we think of moment by moment of our urban lives as important. He is furious and frustrated as traffic impedes his delivery due to a mudslide at the nearby town of La Conchita.

A young woman frantically accosts him, begging for his help. Her child and husband are buried in the mud beneath the house while she had gone out only for a few minutes. Begrudgingly he abandons the everyday world of the traffic jam and follows her to the mess, where he hurls himself into digging, becoming the digging itself, excavating for he knows not what or why, but to uncover something that suddenly takes on more importance than even the awaiting recipient of the kidney still in the trunk of his car.

Maybe it is as much the abandoning as the digging. As we commit to the excavation, so maybe we abandon those things that no longer matter.

I had to search. Far outside the city, toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, I finally found the place. But my arm wasn’t there—only the poor peasant farmhouse was still standing in its place. They had brought me into it that day I was shot in the right arm. They could never put it together again…
--Josef Sudek


The seasons on the farm passed, and for Grace time was calculated only in quotidian measures: the sudden paroxysms of weather, the familiar appearances of certain transient species of birds, the planting of seeds, the ripening of things upon the vine, and the sweet hovering of bees. Time's more intimate units were marked by the uninterrupted arcs of the sun and moon, the cooking, the laundering, and the tireless search for the elusive thing that would offer up some bit of her mother, like a delectable drop of nectar drawn form a honeysuckle blossom.

At fourteen, Grace discovered that when she would stand outside her father's bedroom window with her hands pressed against the glass, letting her eyes drift off in a mist of vision, she could see Lizzie pressing her ear against her father’s chest as he slept, his hands folded over him like a corpse. Like a bird then Lizzie flutters off the mattress, picks her way across the floor barefoot between the newspapers and journals and papers scattered everywhere to the high bookshelves that lined the walls of the rooms.

The smooth pine boards of the floor had recorded hundreds of such passages of her bare feet between the bookshelf with its sacred languages and the bed, where the grounding touch of his hands on her skin freed fragments of poetry, fecund and unformulated, from every cell of her flesh, releasing unutterable syllables that flashed like sparks from her skin, where his mouth gathered them gently back into an utterance that flooded back into her, coherent and whole. As she rested in his arms, she would often see her own death flicker around her like a firefly. Seeing these flashes like lightning behind the lids of his eyes, he did not know that he also was witnessing her death, that he had already lost her.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


From the pieces of stories that she touched as a child, like scraps of cloth stitched together to keep her warm at night, she began to craft a memory of her mother. Each day she would seek out new evidence of her, digging through drawers, leafing through the hundreds of volumes of books that collected dust on the shelves, such was her hunger to know the truth about the woman in whose body hers had formed for nine months. Who had she been, where had she come from, and why had she abandoned her life even before Grace herself had taken her first breath in this world?

This all happened not far from the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, near old Salt Creek and the playa lakes where buffalo once migrated, at a time when the landscape was already sectioned off into a tidy grid of cash crops, each a different color, like swatches of fabric. The tracks of travois and lodge poles had long been turned under by sodbusters, but the stories still hung on the air, bits of history tossed about on the wind, catching on cotton stalks and the hems of girls’ church dresses.

It is almost impossible to look out over the expanse of land (where the only vertical interruptions on a completely horizontal plane are the wooden electrical poles that flip by like a deck of crucifixes at sixty miles an hour) without musing on what it must have felt like to encounter such unending monotony on horseback, or in a covered wagon.

In the year that Grace was torn from the belly of her mother, the town of Blessing was nothing more than a small oasis in a sea of dust and corn. The Victorian courthouse in the center of town with its clock tower and pitched roof had already burned to the ground twice after being struck by lightning. It had been replaced in the 1950s with an industrial-looking concrete structure with bare slab walls, whose sole decoration was a series of large black and white photographs of the Dustbowl--entire farms being consumed by a cloud of thick sand as high as a thunderhead. She would often stand for hours in the dimly-lit halls of the courthouse, staring in wonder at the images behind the glass. The new courthouse stood in the shadow of the tall grain elevators blocks away on the edge of town, and was flanked by the drugstore, the Post Office, and the T.G. & Y. The bank and grocery store were less than a block away. By fall of 1970, the population was just reaching two thousand.

The tidy German farmhouse that her father’s parents had built at the turn of the century was still much the same, but had long-since fallen into disrepair. The paint had been sandblasted for decades by strong, unceasing winds, and the undulating sea of prairie grasses had overtaken the once-productive vegetable garden. The interior consisted of two bedrooms, a cellar, a parlor, a dining room, and two kitchens—the summer kitchen, attached to the main kitchen, was sparsely furnished with an iron stove on its backmost wall for use during the hottest days of the summer. The tiny house was a museum, whose interior landscape was roamed daily by the eyes and fingers of young Grace. Antiquated relics still lay atop bureaus and the dusty piano. There was a faded velvet sofa that crunched when you sat carefully upon it so as not to be speared by the occasionally-protruding horse hairs, wicker chairs whose seats had long ago collapsed, and hundreds of dusty books on sagging shelves whose pages flaked away between her prying fingers. None among these objects had been more lovingly caressed than the cast iron stereoscopic viewer perched atop a collapsing box of Keystone Company Polaroids from around the world--scenes of Amsterdam and Paris, the Taj Mahal and Canterbury Cathedral. The effort required to achieve the fleeting suspension of the parallel images into one, unified, three-dimensional view was a metaphor for the way in which Grace apprehended the multiple voices of history, and the delicious moment of the marriage of disparate things--dual images, whispers and silence, light and shadow, longing and hope--was delirious respite from the one-dimensional plane of singular focus.

The well house was one of Grace's favorite places. It was a small stone structure, rounded like a dove côte, but framed and screened on the top with a pitched roof. Even in summer the clear water that bubbled within the stone shelves nested beneath the surface was freezing cold. Gazing into the glassy water, she could just see the heavy earthen crocks that had once held butter and cream and milk, covered with thick cheesecloth whose edges once dipped back down into the water long ago.

Grace's father was a walking ghost in the world of the living. Years ago, he had banished himself to the cellar to emerge only at odd hours of the night. She often listened for his phantom shufflings in the bowels of the house. Although his hinged assortment of bones clothed in flesh resided predominantly in the cellar, his soul was to be found on the overburdened walnut shelves within the dog-eared pages of books onto which his fingers had pressed the indelible imprimatur of his longings. She often sought in these same pages the person she might have loved, the man she imagined that existed before she was born. Reinscribing the burning arcs of his vision over the beloved words, and through the traces of perspiration and oil that his fingers had left upon the pages of the heavy tomes, she daily redeemed him.

He father, however, beheld his growing daughter through an impenetrable mist of alcohol and would never know of her unceasing search for him in the forgotten books nor about her peculiar gift. His eyes would never linger upon her delicate hands, freckled arms, and shoulders, her white skin, to see himself reflected in the brilliant organization of her cells--he was afraid that he would encounter her mother in those eyes, and that the demons of her death would call forth with unflinching cinematic honesty the shattered bone, the blood.

Monday, November 22, 2010


There is an hour when the sun hovers on the horizon and the light is filtered by the dusty atmosphere of dusk. Looking out over the expanse of fields that stretched unto eternity in every direction, the wind often whipped an anguished sound from a farmhouse miles away. Maybe a pig slaughter, though she couldn't be sure. Grace knew that cruelties were dealt out in equal measure with the vast spaces the way you cut cold butter into flour to make biscuits, that in the end one could not tease out the pain. Her body is poised tautly in listening. She can hear the whispering stories of wheat and grass, the story of a ghost of a girl standing at the edge of the Farm-to-Market road, where the cattle trucks fly past leaving a wake of hard, bitter wind. The rust colored seed-heads of prairie bluestem and the violet tips of aristidas and grama grasses shimmer, heavy laden with the weight of light and the memory of a young woman running across the road and into the fallow field that slept at the edge of the stripped-bare fields of cotton, a field that erupted in the sudden iridescence of grasshopper wings.

Grace has watched her countless times, young Lizzie, darting between the veils of time like a lithe deer through the grass. She seems half animal, each cell cocked to bolt away and disappear at the cracking of a twig. Lizzie approaches an old screen door hanging by a single hinge, the wind slapping it in spasms against the doorframe. This moment of apprehension is imprinted in the metal of the doorknob: catching her reflection in the warped glass of the kitchen door, Lizzie gasped. Her entire life was articulated in the clotting thunderheads rising out of the north, but Lizzie could not decipher the tragedies to come. How could she? She had never learned to read the future in the summer clouds. Had she been born in this desolate landscape, had she drunk since birth from wells dug deep down into the heart of the limestone channel where prehistoric water coursed beneath the surface of the prairie for millennia, she might have developed, among other things, a certain proclivity for reading the future in clouds, or for sensing tornadoes coming miles away. Hours before the sky turned greenish lavender and the birds ceased to sing, the local women would feel the hairs on their arms and necks keening toward the sky, and they would begin moving things down to the deep cool of the storm cellars.

Grace’s father is waiting for her there at the kitchen table bent over a tattered volume of Emerson’s sermons, his skin flushed and reddened by the wind and sun. He was unaware of the chaotic slapping of the screen door, or of the hour kept by a clock that once ticked over the mantel of the fireplace in another unthought-of room; he is unaware even of the irregular rhythm of his own heart. The click of the door stops time.

She stands there before him, nervously shifting from foot to foot on the musty kitchen linoleum beneath the naked bulb, shivering though it is still summer. The blood had abandoned her veins. Lizzie struck him as a bird that might suddenly start beating its wings against the ceiling and windows. When he pulls her close to him, enfolding her in his warmth, her heart hammers against his rib cage, and his heart reverberates in her throat. Before long the beating is synchronized through the miracle of the secret language of cells that recognize each other and are reorganized in this recognition across the vast distance of muscle and skin.

What followed always appears before her both as story and memory, seen from above, what the cobwebs would have seen, or what was reflected in the cut glass of the tiny, crystal shades on the light bulbs over her father's bed. She wonders if this is love, this luminous fluid circulating through their bodies. Lizzie was a squiggle of liquid light, her body trembling, like a moth emerging, unfolding, at seventeen, an image overexposed on a pale sheet, glistening in an angle of desire. Watching from the ceiling or the sky, Grace waited for the right moment to pour herself into them, hovering there so long, disembodied, not feeling or hearing or smelling, but yearning to experience the weight of flesh, the confinement of skin, the delirious sensation of taste and touch and sound. Lizzie’s eyes were pressed closed like the new petals of a rose, so peaceful, as they wrapped their pale wings around one another, unaware that their spirits bled in and out of one another’s bodies and the air like a vapor. Grace clearly remembers the moment when little pearls of her father were held inside her mother, and then she slipped like a gasp into the opalescent drops of fluid and it was done.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Penetrable Air

…alas, but that is what we are. Does the infinite space
we dissolve into, taste of us then?

--Rainer Maria Rilke, The Second Elegy

She had witnessed it all, what had happened long ago, the shot that reverberated in the air, hovering somewhere in the fragile space between light and air and the accumulating density of her unborn flesh. For a moment she had seeped through flesh into sky. She was suspended in some bodiless place from which she beheld the old chopping block in the kitchen, the porcelain sink, the curtains, the tiles. Her father was standing at the sink chopping greens, his mind carried deep into the veins of the leaves. The sudden sound of the shot stopped time, trapping the particles of light that traveled through the kitchen window, through the corpuscles of the green leaves and her father’s body. The shot arrested and imprinted the sparse tidiness of the kitchen indelibly on the objects in the room as if imprinted on a silver bromide plate.

Hearing the shot, her father ran out into the fading light,the old screen door slamming behind him. Crows erupted from the corn. He flung himself toward the collapsed figure in the field of yellow grass. At first he did not comprehend what fluid soaked the thick roots of bluestem in a bath of vivid hues: ochre and crimson in stark relief against the pale yellow of her dress, the whiteness of her legs. He fell to his knees beside her. His fingers fumbled for the delicate blue veins of her throat. There was an astonishing stillness. Her right hand still tightly gripped the gun. He wrenched it away, flinging it far across the field. He could not look at her face. At first he buried his head in his hands, but then suddenly looked up, ashen and emotionless. He ran back to the house, the screen door slamming again behind him, but it was only a moment before he emerged like a wild man running with the knife he had just been wielding at the chopping block. He again dropped to his knees, covered her face with a dishtowel, and reached toward her smooth belly. He knew what he had to do. He ripped open her thin dress and with an animal sound of anguish, he carefully carved away the flesh. The tiny form was bundled tightly there, wrinkled like new cabbage within the milky film of the caul.

It was perhaps because of the extraordinary circumstances of her birth that Grace was born with a peculiar gift. Her touch evoked eruptions of images and sounds and smells from whatever object her mother had once touched. She saw through them into the past the same way one might focus one’s vision on the sky reflected in a pool of water, or upon the depths beyond the surface membrane of a pond. In the fields beyond the farmhouse, the past was dispersed in the vast space and wind, just rippling over the tips of heavy seedheads. But inside the house, each object that Grace held in her hand would call her to its secret places.

She was six years old before she realized that what she saw was different from what others saw. There was a world of playgrounds and streets and storefronts, mutually agreed upon as far as she could tell; and there was another world—one than hovered between the cells of this one. There were certain places that she was particularly drawn to, but nowhere more than the place in the field that sang out with her mother's blood, the very spot on the earth where her mother had ended her life. In this place Grace inhaled the familiar smell of soil--the nitrogen, the faint, far-off scent of lightning, the acrid, metallic particulate of burned gunpowder that even now seemed to hover in the astonished air.

In this place she bowed beneath the burden of gravity that had pressed her mother down and the delicious unburdening she had experienced in one shocking flash. Lying on her belly in the tall grass in late summer, she often served as patient midwife to innumerable damp-winged cicadas emerging from their stiff brown shells, and she somehow understood the shotgun in such terms, as midwife to a birth witnessed by the tall grass metamorphosed from her blood.

Monday, November 8, 2010

you had me at 'good-bye'

"There is a pessimism about land," wrote John Graves, that "after it has been with you a while it becomes merely factual."

So we become addicted to that which cannot be with us for a long time. We tend to imagine ourselves as perpetual, as continuing through time, although we clearly are not. Yet the beauty of the ephemeral is daily masked in the facade of the perpetual.

Other things bear the weight forever of things lost, and thus are elevated to exceeding beauty. John Graves' traveling down the Brazos (those arms of God) lamenting the dam that would forever arrest a thing of ever-changing life and beauty, and those arrested moments of my life spun out like fine lacemaking on the dammed river that was my Possum Kingdom Lake. The haunting interruption of mortality--of life, always abbreviated.

I drove back through the lake area years ago in mid-summer. A freakish front rolled in and we could not stand outside a minute or two before shivering uncontrollably. It was like a veil of icy air kept me from accessing the past. So it will always be, some imagined moments in time that set the pace for happiness, and happiness will always be compared with a sunfish in a bucket awaiting release, and fueling up the Chriscraft at a gas station/hamburger joint on the water, and later the big band sound of Glen Miller will sweep across a linoleum floor where hours later it will be dark, and everyone will be sleeping the deep sleep of belonging, to one another, to the house precipitously cantilevered off a steep cliff, and to one another. My great-grand mother will be there with her wild red hair and we will all sleep the sleep of tightly nested families,knowing no good-byes and no Army Corps of Engineers come to change the world to something better and more hospitable--something that will erase, in its utter beauty of engineering, our perfect, transient, world.