The Paths Toward Song

Summer, 2012

Gene Berson

The Moment Before Everything Changes

I'm a man on a bench in the sun, before a lake, Jewel Lake, to be specific, that has been created by bulldozing out a depression in the earth and fed by a leisurely creek, dammed up by a CCC project during the thirties, runoff from Lake Anza in Tilden Park, Berkeley, North America, Earth, The Milky Way -- a pool of water, a tear, if you will, in hostile space -- Jewel Lake, an amniotic chamber, which at this time of year is a turgid green out of which turtles have been forced from their dreamy mud to line up on a branch sticking above the surface, not just for air, but for the morning sun, forced perhaps by some sensation akin to pain caused by the softening of their waterlogged shells during the night which, I believe, actually makes them vulnerable to algae growing on their carapace, that can eat into them. These ancient creatures must paddle slowly up through sprays of light, as if they were ascending toward the spaceship of superior beings, toward the illumined yet ghastly air, to emerge from their muddy refuges at the bottom and expose themselves in order to live, to get a breath of air, just as I have been forced to this bench in the sun not just to get out, which is a necessity, but for pleasure. Pleasure is a necessity also and, like pain, a motive to move.

If a species is like an individual, capable of learning things, perhaps even meant to learn something, it may be that the eons in which turtles have existed have taught them such a patience they can serve as antidotes to our own compulsive ADHD multi-tasking behavior, a malady that has by now moved from an individual problem to a cultural condition. The turtles appear stunned, stunned into a state of contemplation -- as if, exhausted by the effort of having achieved their existential plateau, they were considering the journey they had just made. One mud-flaked individual paws his way with pinpoint claws onto the branch, slipping back, never giving up. He climbs up the back onto another turtle, even pawing his eye closed, and the one below bears it patiently. That one seems dutifully serene in his service to the other, helping to elevate a member of his species a few inches closer to the sun. That they occupy a state of communal contemplation may in fact give us pause, for we seem to have reached a similar brink ourselves, where blind action will not serve as a bridge to the future. There they are, curved on the branch above the surface as if they were vertebrae on a very old spine indeed, each neck outstretched, offering a link. Although they have passed that point where some individuals remained turtles while others went on a path of development, these current turtles stand as a testament to how important they are to the whole. They comfort one. Darwin was not wrong, of course, but development is not the whole story; simultaneity, the whole, must surround the developing line. We know this now more bitterly than ever, bearing witness to so many species going extinct.

Aborigines say that all creatures were dreamt into being. This implies that those that have receded into extinction are still with us in some dimension, and can conceivably emerge again from that dreamworld. The body is indeed malleable to thought, as my wife says, and as contemporary discoveries of our changing brains reveal. While this may sound hopeful, we probably underestimate the degree to which the loss of these species, of which we're somehow aware beside reading about it, accounts for the growing feeling of lament that each of us feels underlying our daily lives. Lamentation binds us together now more than we know.

After eons of development turtles must have been brought, at some point, to weigh their strategy of hiding against that of exposure. Exposure meant they must become softer; and it's probably not the turtle thinking here, but the urge or inkling that inclines toward change, that adapts. That unsettling, revolutionary intelligence realizes that to become exposed it must become softer and, horror of horrors to a turtle, faster. Its relationship to time itself must change. After finding ourselves in a congenial conjunction between circumstance and desire, like these turtles on a branch in the sun, how often have we thought, if we could only stop right here everything would be perfect? There must have been ages wherein the turtle regarded change with a wary eye, unwilling to give up the comforting darkness that lies below the lake, versus the realm of air wherein creatures move with such speed that, as my grandmother would say of dragonflies,
"Watch out; they'll sew up your ears!" Turtles have never depended on speed to survive. They are like roots -- hidden, and they seem appealingly beyond anxiety. Yet to go on, the shell must go.

Once that is acknowledged, one might just as well go on with the process, begin to lose the shell, the armor, as another step toward -- what? -- Touch? Speech? Consider that: the awakening crack of the reptilian voice, like a great tree breaking and splashing through leaves that echoes its desire throughout the hush of primeval forest -- a voice never before heard, on a path toward song -- that awkward reptilian squawk (of love), as if its beak were an unused hinge cracked open to release its cry on a wild planet devoid of buildings. No buildings. Nowhere to hide. Who can condemn a species such as turtles, who were able to develop their refuge as part of their body, almost as if it were a collective agreement.

Certainly we have our human equivalents of shells and may even be jealous at times that we don't have literal shells; parenthetically, it may be observed that those of us who live lives too exposed to allow enough privacy for sanity, such as homeless people, or people who are so famous they are subjected to constant scrutiny by the media to the point that their family issues, with all the primal feelings such things involve, get paraded on magazines for anyone at the checkout stand to muse over, develop our own sorts of shells. In the case of a street person the smell of urine suffices to keep others at a safe distance, an olfactory shell, if you will; and those subjected to the rabid tabloids offer caricatures of themselves, personae that shift so quickly they can't possibly be anything except mirrors for their audiences who are hiding within vicarious emotions to the extent they have used the human mind as a sort of shell. From that point of view it seems the world is indeed a shell game, with hardly anyone sure where the pea really lies.

It's so easy to lose one's life in such a world of deception and strategies of disguise, even easy for whole peoples to lose themselves. I'm reminded of a question put to a Palestinian on the radio the other day, a man who was imprisoned at sixteen in an Israeli jail, spending four years there: "When do you think peace will come to the middle east?" When all the Jews are out of our land," he replied. He went on to say, as he was moved from jail to jail during his four years' incarceration, how inspired he was by the beauty of his country as he viewed it through prison bars for the first time in his life. To some extent we all view our world through such bars, the bars between us and the imagined world. And we are alternately terrified and tantalized by, if not the beauty, at least the reality of it. Because nations are now so interdependent, even obsolete in this age of world-wide corporations, our current brink of destruction, as well as our potential for survival, is easily inferred from that Palestinian's dilemma. Palestinian and Israeli identity has to breakdown and reform on a more fundamental level. The trouble with that is that everybody in each community has religiously dedicated his life force to Never changing -- to change would mean to betray one's family, one's people. The next step is always taken by the individual, the one who can discard his shell and leave it rocking behind him like a souvenir of what he was, exhilarated by his newly felt speed and possibilities. Of course his life may be short-lived. The forerunner frequently becomes the sacrifice. But what's important is that a new road be revealed.

And so we come back to these turtles, forced to climb out onto the branch to dry out their shells, to harden. Yet they are truly in the moment, that point where a life form, touching the unknown, can change. It may not change; it's simply in that aware present when it could change. It could do nothing, which itself is a kind of change, a letting something pass by, following the flow of inertia. But in that pause, the contemplative pause wherein consciousness dawns, turtles are awake. Just as we are awake. Forced into light, they stretch their always old-looking necks to absorb its warmth, to warm their reptilian blood, and I, carrying like an egg my heritage of a brain in a nest of vessels and bone, am brought to a similar condition, to feel however many nerves my mind, hidden within my skull, can send throughout my limbs and skin, feelers really, as water trickles here and there on its downward course over the aggregate and twinkling spillway, twisting and wiggling, swelling, blocked by a fallen branch, backing up, deepening -- to slip over with minimum force to convey what drives us both. When I slur the gravel beneath my shoe I am listening to a star.

I pick up a stick and snap it. What is the mystery? That a creature that has straddled a fence in life's development, that will not give up its watery world even after it has achieved the necessity of air, that will not give up its cold regions even though it needs the sun, a creature that lives in a hard shell, a shell that still can be eaten into by weeds, must expose itself? Dante placed the fence-straddler in the vestibule of hell. The injunction is that we have to change to go on and the mystery is that we somehow remain the same.

We have come to a man on a bench. While millions suffer. While impending doom is a daily promise. I offer my moments of repose for those who are shivering with dread in bombed out buildings, who are wailing over the bodies of their bleeding children, who are intoxicated by hate and fear and hubris as a protection against the soft silence of indifferent space. My human duty is to offer these moments of repose because life will not be denied. The green iridescence on the mallard's neck is my signal. We often want to be in the heart of the action, to cover the war, to be in the crucible of prison, to be on the edge of science, to be delirious with mission and purpose, in the heated huddle of a championship game, to be on the precipice of ourselves, and yet we want to withdraw into where we can nurture our dreams and feel closer to the heart of creation. What is the culmination of this seesaw? Is it the fulcrum? Maybe, among other things, it just leads to a man on a bench in the sun, waiting like the turtles on the branch, within the luxury of pondering. To ponder. What a great word. I wonder what its etymology is. It seems laced with the Old West, but is probably much older. Probably an old Anglo-Saxon word, a tribal word. I remember, in Beowulf and older examples of Anglo-Saxon literature, how fondly and frequently those travelers would come into an abandoned village in an overgrown part of the forest and dwell on who the former inhabitants were and how they lived. They would ponder that, almost savoring the experience.

Eons have passed since the turtles gave up their shells for skin. Forced out, we both stretch our necks in the sun. We both understand bombs, whether from kids throwing rocks or explosions in a subway to a road in Afghanistan. But we're here, man and turtle, occupying what we have: a moment of peace, an occasional wisp of mist moistening the moss that's hanging from the oaks as if it were the beards of sages. Man and turtle, both seemingly poised in thought, like living rocks, rocks with eyes, rocks with paddles, rocks with feet, some webbed, some with toes, some with nails, some with claws, some to dance with, some to paddle with -- dance and paddle, paddle and dance without recourse to the whole anymore than waves can conceive the whole ocean leaping with a million feet, a billion, eight billion feet dancing on the surface of the sea, jubilant and quiet at the same time, calm and ripping across the void in ecstatic stillness, a man on a bench, a turtle on a branch -- hanging on for dear life.

The Poet and the Wolverine

It's only fair to assume that at this point I am a success, a success in that I have achieved anonymity in my vocation as a poet, and that all of my losses, my griefs, in fact, are the consequence of my own odd personality. My brand of torture won't save me now, I must admit, and has little or no redeeming value as concerns society as a whole nor is even of much value, except perhaps as an irritant, to those intimately connected to me and to my fate.

I sweep my deck of the incessant pollen producing blossoms much as a man views the numbers appearing and disappearing on a digitized clock, caught up in chaos, plagued with an occasional view from above, about as intermittent as the perspective afforded those human beings on the verge of death who look down on themselves as they lie on an operating table or mangled in an auto wreck. The main solace here is that it doesn't hurt, which is our first question. Of course pain is a consequence of survival and will come later. So what are we to make of the horrors confronting us everyday? In a world where a simple glass of water or the lack thereof spells survival or death to so many, and is so casually wasted in our part of the world, is it any wonder that healthy circulation is such a vital need? My doctor, reciting fashionable advice, tells me at least a half hour of serious aerobic activity per day is required for health, which I and many others knew generations ago. I tried telling her that a little peyote tea would do wonders for weight loss programs, since under that influence it is well nigh impossible to eat anything harmful, such as bacon. She looked askance. I noticed her obedient shoes. After all, she may have thought, considering my impertinence, how could anybody be taken seriously who has so consistently sabotaged the social hierarchy and failed to set his career strategically? I considered telling her that were she a real doctor, instead of an HMO functionary, compulsively glancing at her monitor to make sure we hadn't exceeded our allotted time, she might succeed in separating her obligations to the bottom line from the individual needs of her patients. Caution restrained me, however: one consequence of my obscurity is an ever-threatening ecstatic bitterness that I am constantly forced to neutralize by putting myself in other peoples' shoes as best I can.

Nevertheless, in a world of billions of people on this earth who daily go about their business whether on a paved or dirt road, whether with free hands or carrying a backpack, (which in Harrod's in London I learned one must carry below the belt so as not to be deemed a threat), yes, I am one of billions who nevertheless is under a watchful eye as if he were the most dangerous man alive. And perhaps I am. Who is more dangerous than the anonymous? Unknown perhaps even to himself, the anonym, is the plague to be avoided. Everyone therefore seeks to become famous or at least recognized; it doesn't matter for what, in order to avoid it. Just the other day it came to light that about eight teenagers beat a girl nearly to death in the hope of getting on a reality show so they could stand out and avoid the condition of anonymity. But obscurity is something to treasure, I contend, and a sign of success. Everything else is a mockery; illusion has tipped the scales of reality, noise has destroyed silence and soon the organs of perception shall fade like the eyes of moles. We shall finger our very souls as if they were the braille below elevator buttons to track our ups and downs. We are cut off from the cosmos. The irony of this is that we instinctively know that it's our cliquish social nature, together with our penchant for inertia, that is condemning us to oblivion. In this we sense the wisdom of the hermit, even of the wolverine, a creature with such furious courage it will attack a bear.

I have personally looked into the eyes of a wolverine, which reflect the astonished shallowness of two buttons, astonished that anything else has gotten near enough to it to look into its eyes. One can see it lives forever on the razor's edge of running away immediately to deny the reality before it or launching a vicious attack. One can understand that its need for solitude, especially from its own kind, is the source of its legendary courage. The vast space it requires around itself is analogous to my cultivated obscurity, my uselessness, my finest accomplishment and victory: my anonymity. I move through life like a pair of ravenous eyes, seeing yet hardly seen. You can't imagine the sublime beings who console me with just a breeze tracing my face or the sun itself laying its hand on my back like a father saying, "Well done, son. You're finally completely unknown!"

the train whistle

I do not live here
this is where I stay
horns of trains
blare like old Buicks
wake you up along the bay:
our new century

the old century, the 20th
ushered in by the discovery of flight
radio, car, Egyptian motifs excised from history
decorating banks, movie theatres,
lines of the buckboard
that collection of sticks
swept into the curved fenders of a La Salle

the century
ushered in by sex appeal, speed, joy
the Galoix at the end of lingering fingers
organic nouveaux riche forms -- all the sleek
attendants of despair
the three
movements of Art
Deco, underlain perhaps by nostalgia for a lake
a lake in the Midlands
such as Lawrence described in The Rainbow where each of us

harbors his own nostalgia, maybe not
for such an historical moment as Lawrence's lake,
maybe just for a kind of street, a storefront, a leisure
but know this

all nostalgia is despair
and, socially registered, is a disease: so the train whistle

that lifted so many lives of so many isolated souls on the prairie into reverie,
lifted them out of themselves into the beyond where they could be
is now gone,
the subject of so many wistful songs, that whistle
has become a harsh horn
no tune will redeem,
it will just wake you up
like a light in your face
and several unseen interrogators' voices, insidiously intimate,
calling you Eugene

will probe you and not let you sleep, ever,
until you tell them
what they want you to tell them
and you will tell them anything they want to hear
if only you could figure out what they're after

the despicable, parasitic interrogators are asking you
for information
they are so stupid, so literally stupid, crude and cruel
you could hold out, as one did, in the 20th century, on a hook, flayed
without telling them anything
and they would still learn nothing

nothing, no matter what you told them
no matter what you didn't tell them

for they, my love, are not you
they are not you, they will never be you, they will never
be the yellow blush on the willow bud
in spring, near the catkin with its pistillate flames,
within the scent of water, the trickling, secret
nourishing stream that runs through us
as we spin like dervishes through space that listens only
for our song.