sadness of the animate

laika in a relaxed state

It’s as if there were a cumulus of sadness adrift through the floor plan, a cloud of melancholy filling the rooms and hallways, swirling around the appliances and inhabiting the corners and interior architectural niches like a….cloud. It’s not terribly literary. Maybe it’s just pity.

“for the human condition?”

I just got done telling you it’s not literary! It’s not a malaise, or whatever! It’s not that French guy on Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ dust jacket with his hand on his gut. All I can tell you is that the bad feeling, when it shows up, emanates from my daughter’s guinea pigs. It moves out through the house from there.

“your – “

yeah. Maybe it’s just pity. I said that. Anymore I’m beginning to think it’s simple pity, but the pity or sadness radiates out from their little cage on the floor at the back of the house. Their utter helplessness has real power; radiant power. It colors the whole house some days. Like the old animation of an atomic blast radius. I said it was like a cloud. Well, it’s really more like one of those old animated blossoming balls of colorful atomic death, it starts from ground zero with the illustrator’s naïve and almost playful little cartoon spark, because despite the horrid magic of what follows the viewer needs to understand the catalyst is just a bomb going off. The spark is followed by a red swelling ball, and it quickly swells outward from ground zero in a perfect circle, filling all the irregularities of the doomed city; the alleyways and schoolrooms and churches. I think this ‘swelling bubble’ atomic blast radius illustration was informed more by the technical limits of that day’s commercial art than by atomic science or the observed practice blasts they’d conducted in the field, but it makes the point with an unintended accuracy. And the guinea pig sadness is like that, or feels like that.

So sometimes (every time, actually) when I feed the guinea pigs I watch them eat and I feel a nearly debilitating sadness. It seems related to the sadness I felt one weekend afternoon as a teenager, watching a man lean over the glass at JC Penney, carefully poring over the wrist watches. The guinea pigs’ names are Chloe and Buffy, they’re two little girls. Their food is fancily packaged hay. The hay neatly fills an elaborately printed plastic bag, but is clearly just dead grass swept up from some field somewhere and jammed into these bags, bits of thoughtless meadow made whole by the process of being minutely subdivided and packaged for my daughter’s guinea pigs. I raise the hinged top of the cage and the hay is stiff and comes out of the bag in longitudinal clumps that have to be smashed down into the dumb little bowls, two bowls, one for each guinea pig. It’s a perfectly stupid human conceit, that food has to be eaten from bowls, so the meadow-bits get jammed down into the bowls and all the while the guinea pigs are making their whistling sound of joy or excitement and raising themselves up with their forepaws on the horizontal bars of their cage. Then they run in to the eating section of the cage, over a little ramp, as lithe as you please, and eat with their grateful but, honestly, expressionless little feminine faces, looking askance at me like I might take the food. Me, the giver. I’ve stood there for 15 minutes, 20 minutes. They’re completely blank and doomed. Pure id. Don’t they know they’re captured? What will they do after they gratefully eat? Why are there living things that can’t know they’re alive? What are they for? Why are there living things that don’t know they’re living things? I don’t get it.

“We’re at the top of the food chain.”

shut up. every little scrap of meaning isn’t defined or explained in terms of what eats who.

“Well. that’s at least why Chloe and Buffy are in the cage and we’re not.”

If they can’t know they are here what are they for? That’s my whole point. They should be incensed to have their daily lives circumscribed by the cage! It’s outrageous!

“What’s so great about knowing? You’re too artesian.”

cartesian, moron?

“They’re fine. They don’t know enough to be sad.”

They’re killing me. The guinea pigs are a pillow pressed over my face. Dead on their little feet and they don’t know it. Eat sleep eat eat sleep. Like the JC Penney guy. He wanted just the right watch.

“He probably got it, too.”

Koos z’n Bevrijdingsdag

Get Me to the Church on Time! Koos Leads the Way to Monster's Heart

As absolutely everyone around here knows, Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the undermanned Mexican army’s surprise drubbing of the invading French in the Battle of Puebla. As it happens, May 5 is also Liberation Day in Holland. Bevrijdingsdag, they call it, and I’m afraid it’s pronounced pretty much the way it’s spelled. Judie’s hometown is over there, a cozy village on the Dutch channel coast with the unlikely name of Monster (“Muenster”, I’m often corrected by know-it-all passerby. No. Monster.). From her mom’s house you used to be able to see a glimpse of the nearby windmill, whose name is de Vier Winden, but now the vanes are obscured by other houses. If you strike out in the direction of the beach, though, you’ll find the windmill two blocks away. Walk on past it if you want to hit the beach. If you want to head downtown, though, hang a left and you’ll continue on for an easy 20 minutes (weather permitting) through a long, leafy neighborhood of tidy brownstone row houses, their steeply canted roofs and ordered lawns conferring a certain highly organized tranquility.

When you reach the roundabout at Van Bemmellaan, (or Van Bemmell Lane, if that helps), you hang a right. There, adjacent to the Film Club videotheek you’ll find a bronze statue commemorating Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day), the day in 1945 the exhausted German occupiers left at the suggestion of the arriving First Canadian Army. The statue is a mildly expressionist woman cast in bronze. She faces the nearby beach and raises her right hand in welcome, signifying the massive sea landing further south that finally brought rescue. The Canadians swept into Holland almost exactly one month before the D-Day landings on the French coast.

The Germans had arrived with a bang in another May, 5 years before – the terrified Dutch and German soldiers fighting savagely at close quarters in the previously bucolic forest of Ockenburgh, a half mile or so from Judie’s childhood home. The German guys were trying to advance to the Hague and the Dutch guys were determined not to let that happen, all the uniformed young men clawing and shooting and weeping and falling where today there are swings and slides and climbing structures for the kids, and birdsong. On a clear day you can picnic among the trees. For some of us it’s difficult to transpose the one scene over the other. I’d been raised on the stirring and sanitized war of t.v and the movies; The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes. My G.I. Joe war doll came off the assembly line with a manufactured facial injury and a hint of fraternal smile. War was heck. The movies portrayed muddy, stylized battle, yes, and as a kid I spent a considerable amount of time wondering why they didn’t just throw the grenade as they would a baseball. What’s all this dumb stiff-arming about? The shadowy complications off the battlefield mesmerized me the most. There was covert intrigue and well-dressed men running along train platforms and James Garner in a turtleneck gently crashing his escape plane into a picturesque knoll, and always David Attenborough with his collar turned up. Attenborough’s pensive wartime baby face didn’t prepare me for Koos and Riek’s casually brutal stories of a childhood spent in the midst of a world war.

As kids in the middle of a monstrous and merciless war, Judie’s parents had seen into the abyss. How any kid of that generation who’d seen what they’d seen could survive and grow up and prosper and function – it’s beyond me. Judie’s mom, Riek (Hendrika), is an indomitable, humor-filled dynamo of energy and wisdom. She cleans like a cartoon tornado, is a three night-a-week card sharp, dispenses folksy Dutch wisdom with a raised forefinger and a smile and usually dines in her apron. Koos (pronounced like “cose”) was a particular softie, G*d rest him. A former cabaret performer, he had an artist’s sensibility, and he loved shared laughter. When he found something funny, his face would collapse into a crinkly smile and he would put his palm to his forehead in a silent gesture of hilarity, winking his eyes at you conspiratorially in his own inimitable signal of love and family. Koos was an emotional tinderbox, his heart a barely contained fire. When Judie and I had excitedly told him in the kitchen one evening that I had proposed to her, he surprised us both by bursting very suddenly into tears, roughly embracing me again and again, then turning to his baby and folding Judie into his arms. He was a lovely, gentle man, a bespectacled joker and much-beloved figure in the small seaside town on the North Sea where he’d grown up, which, like all real villages and towns, remains a world unto itself.

But he’d had it rough at the hands of the German occupiers. He was a pubescent everykid when they rolled in and he remembered aloud to me once the scene in Monster’s town square when advance word of the German approach was rushing through the cobbled streets like a toxic wind, uniformed teens in a local Youth Brigade of some kind rushing around in panic and yelling in terror at everyone to get their hands out of their pockets lest they be holding grenades. “Hands out of pockets, hands out of pockets!” he described the scouts screaming in their high kid voices. Once the Germans arrived, Koos and other boys his age were conscripted into killing factory work with little food to speak of, slave laborers assembling munitions. One day Koos walked by a room where several officers were dining. He hadn’t eaten in days. The officers asked if he was hungry and gestured him over, allowed him to eat his fill, laughed and smoked as he attacked the sumptuous foods spread out on the table. They knew the sudden feast would kill him, and it nearly did.

The 5 years between the German army’s arrival and the liberation of Holland were characterized by misery and privation, and many hearts were naturally hardened in that crucible. The stories are many from the winter of 1944 in particular, the Hunger Winter (Hongerwinter) when the occupiers responded punitively to a railway strike called in by Holland’s government in exile. In angry response to the strike, Germany ordered the blockade of food shipments in a disaster that unfolded so quickly the German commander in the area saw the scale of what would unfold and somewhat desperately tried to roll back the orders, but by then the inland waterways, Holland’s famous canal system, had frozen solid and nothing could get through. Tens of thousands starved in a famine so virulent there is evidence it bred epigenetic changes in the next line of Dutch children to be born to the famine’s survivors. My in-laws have told stories about families digging up and eating tulip bulbs for food and capturing birds in the denuded, otherwise useless greenhouses. Riek’s father would leave the family and travel the perilous countryside for days on his bicycle and return with a loaf of bread. Her mother, unable to bear the hungry families that passed by their home day and night, would share her own family’s meager rations, infuriating her husband on his return. “M’n moeder was een heel goed mens,” Riek says today. During the hardships and death of the occupation, an entire generation of Dutch people had their hearts impermeably tempered against Germany and Germans.

It once would’ve seemed impossible, but by the early 1980s a grudging and ragged rapprochement was in the air. German families had been coming to Monster’s beaches for some time (to the occasional shouts and growlings of certain of the Dutch citizenry there) and a field had long since been set aside for their trailers and tents, in the shadow of the enormous berm that separates the shore from the town. But the intermingling of the populations also gave rise to new animus. During the war, Dutch bikes had been confiscated in their tens of thousands by the occupiers, the primacy of the bicycle to the Dutch culture and identity an unknown quantity to the Germans. The nimble mobility of the Dutch, and particularly the Dutch Resistance (Ondergrondse), the largest WWII resistance movement in Western Europe, was an unclear but intolerable threat to the occupiers.

Given the broader horrors that had been visited on the Nederlanders, the taking of the bikes remained, in the post-war years, a curious sore point. At the seizing of 100,000 bikes in July, 1942, the Dutch outcry was such that a Wehrmacht officer’s memo noted that the confiscation was “…a particularly harmful action. One of the worst things that can happen to a Dutchman is that he loses his bike.” As the long thaw between the countries incrementally crawled along, the angry lament for the stolen bikes stubbornly took hold as a sanitized and invective-free rallying cry of post-war national anger against the Germans, singularly hurled at German campers, football supporters, and so on. It was an innocuous, even childish thing to shout, but it contained volumes.

“Geef me mijn fiets terug!” – “Give me my bike back!”

In the early 80s there began a timorous exchange program between a church choir from the tiny village of Mühleip in Germany, and Koos’ choir in Monster. Someone in Koos’ choir knew someone who knew someone, it seemed an idea whose time had come, and arrangements were made. One year the German choir would come by bus to Monster and be hosted and housed, the next year Koos’ choir would be received as guests and performers in Mühleip. The informal, seat-of-the-pants arrangement began with some trepidation on both sides and crept along in stutter-steps. The enmity ran very very deep. But slowly, the ice cracked, a little. The recency of the war made it a glacial thaw. While no actual friendships grew, the two choirs began to see each other not as ciphers or historical symbols, but as flesh and blood, or to put it less biblically, as singers in a couple of small town church choirs. Koos, though, couldn’t let it go (understandably, I think), and during one visit of the German guest chorale he burst out with a comment that may have set the whole enterprise back on its heels; “How about you guys bring back the bike you stole from me!” After some downcast faces and throat clearing the remark was allowed to drift away, like an awkward flume of smoke.

When Koos’ choir next made the trip to Germany to perform and be hosted by their counterparts there, a couple of the German singers pulled him aside.

“Koos, we must tell you something.”

He waited. “Ja? Wat is er?”

The Germans looked at each other.

“Koos, we found your bike.”

“….my bike?”

His smiling German hosts wheeled out a beautiful 10-speed racing bike amid clapping and laughter. They’d painted it Dutch royal orange. When the German group next visited Monster, Koos met the bus at the edge of town and led his pals, in a singular procession, down the winding streets to the church where they would sing together, Koos on his royal orange steed gesturing as grandly as a parade master. It would be the second momentous rolling into Monster of a loud German mob. This one cheering.

The human race has its moments. We’re not stamped by destiny. Happy Liberation Day. (Koosje, je bent altijd in onze gedachte..)

a time of large and small adventure

ya_be

what is this geologic crawl
but a time of large and small adventure
a time to “do” things.
Right?
something the dinosaurs couldn’t manage
in their 140 million-year “dominion”
why all that excited Cambrian hustle
an efflorescence so sudden and bizarre
it made Darwin a stammering dyspeptic
whence the animating spirit
flatter the fuck out of the trilobite
then walk away?
don’t mean to pry.
Brontosaurus. what’s that shit about.
treetop-eating bore
flintstone burger. oil company emblem.
huge tooth gouged out of the hillside by the interstate.
Trilobite’s like; seriously?

chair in a room, lights out
door closed, closed till it latches
we are all asleep
all around the house
behind the door
inanimate chair in the inanimate dark
something must disturb the air around the chair.
that’s the intuition.
not nothing. something.
if nothing, then there is your horror
we can’t intuit nothing
that’s been a longstanding problem
Dear Jesus take this from me
take away my jughead childhood reverie
a chair in a dark closed room
the door latched
dark air undisturbed
for as long as you care to imagine.

I reach across the coffee table
yeah yeah yeah
lever the pizza to my expectant face
yeah yeah yeah
take some care not to let the granular salt
roll off the surface of the pizza slice
that’s how much I salted;
grains are layered and unstable
they may roll off
it’s a lot of salt
I read a comic when I was 10
some ships discovered mid-ocean salt mountains
later a princess said
“this is the best meat I have ever tasted!”

there go the eons.
asteroid? come sailing in
our eager telemetry means you can’t surprise us
but we’ll still get the torn clouds and the sound
and that will surprise us.
a spielberg boy will pause mid-pitch
track your progress across the sky
his hand raised to shade his eyes
though he’ll be wearing a baseball cap.
stir the laundry on the laundry line
give us our Rockwell closure.
you shall be as a fragrant spring breeze
or the metal joy-smell of sprinkler water
on the hottest day of the year.

I was thinking about my last hour in the world

uplifted_sidewalk_omniverse

“If confirmed, the predictions would indeed be stunning. They would mean the universe is relatively small, something like 70 billion light years across.”
-New Scientist

I was thinking about my last hour in the world
because that is a real thing up ahead.
A chair. The sidewalk.
A bouncing rubber ball or a chain link fence. Plain.
Recent reports of the demure limits
of our Omniverse? Unhelpful.
Just another expanse
beyond the sunken living room.
Shag carpet as far as the mind can see.
And I’m all “There go my atoms.”
Not tomorrow but the usual Day After That.
I’ve always known it.

Sitting at this bus stop Tuesday,
my heart fluttered with the first hard-edged sadness
the Occasion has ever occasioned.
The incongruity of Sadness briefly trebled the sadness,
and I was scared to think,
but had to think of all the analog
particulate minutes
the bread crumbs in sunlit relief
on their maddeningly unswept kitchen counter
and tears for absent friends, arguments over movies
and concern for our kids,
the yelling at the kids to please help
keep the place clean,
and those uniquely awful hours
that I sometimes couldn’t hurry along
for the life of me.
We’re on our knees and shuffling
into the important-sounding Omniverse
with shoes on our knees so we look very short.
Our arms, as we leave the room,
are outstretched and aloft.
Pure vaudeville, but the tears are real, more or less

It was a quick sadness at the bus stop
but it was ordinary sadness.
Plain as a pillow.
It came and went;
Jungian mayonnaise sandwich. No meat.
Or it was a flashing cramp.
The inexplicable flashing cramps and stabs we feel in our guts
with no physiological cause
and finally no consequence.
“Oh those are growing pains.” wtf? Since when?
I thought “growing pains”
were allegorical,
the manageable torment of a first kiss
or the humiliation by the swingset after math.
The flash was like that. A growing pain. It shook me.

What do I make of it?
You’re not asking but I’ll tell you anyway.
The abstract is surfacing
and behemoth, ascending from pineal depth,
preceded by its shimmering curtain of air
the shimmering curtain beautiful
to see from this unlikely angle.
Then a glimpse of undersea flesh
rubberized and black
humping out of the water’s vastness
to briefly take and test the homely glint of sunlight.

There’ll be a room and I’ll be in it
and it’ll be my last time in any room
save the shag-carpeted room
of the previously infinite Omniverse
through which my component quanta
will soon waft like a cheap plume.
Again, the Thornton Wilder.
Not tomorrow but tomorrow.
I think of my last stand as an afternoon
but it doesn’t have to be an afternoon.
It could and will likely
happen at some idiot hour,
inconvenient and crushing,
lit by a crummy government-issue lamp.
Will I look into the air
and appear to my few visitors to be
seeing something?
They’ll follow my gaze, just in case,
but there’ll be, like, nothing.
In a billion years the dice
that drove Einstein to such distraction
may (MAY) reconstitute me as a flower,
but a space flower.
Aw. What’s the use?

changeling

dime is like a river
I’ve found my place in the cosmic order
marked it with a pen
content with my apprehension
of the eternal.
But in the all-too-temporal process of
peeling off my tight trousers
doing the helpless
suburban man-dance
in the previous quietude
of my room
a couple shiny dimes noisily fell
from a momentarily inverted pocket
and I shouted “oh screw you!”
The dimes rang accusingly
on the wood laminate floor.
Such small coins,
but commandeered
by mathematics and Gravity.
Mysterious and inexplicable Gravity;
unknowable energy field
into which the large bodies nestle
quantum thorn in the side
of the Grand Unified Theory.
We know this much –
the Mystery wants to see a dropped coin
perform an eviscerating hula,
each point of the milled edge
in its turn contacting the floor
in a round-robin rejection
of our race, our opposable thumbs,
our dreams of flight.
Thanks, Big Bang.
These goddamned coins!
They rang and rang and rang
and rang!
“Aaaaaahh! screw YOU!”
I had time to say it again
as the dimes whirled their lil’ dervish
for what seemed five full minutes.
I said it loud,
hissed it with meaning,
one aging chicken leg
yet ensconsed
in Tom Jones sale trousers.
Another scalding victory
of the inanimate.
I so want to live.

i saw your first wife on the bus

i saw your first wife on the busI saw your first wife on the bus.
she was wearing
an ill-advised mustard yellow
cardigan
the color of an organ
in a textbook.
And she looked forlorn.

Not only that.
When we were idling
in the university circle
she looked, as I saw it,
longingly out the bus window
as though she both
hoped for and feared your appearance,
your bounding down the steps
of that grand-looking building
where your department lives
and where you
take your good fortune
utterly for granted,
as you always have.

Oh and as we approached
our small town airport
I looked out and saw two parallel
contrails slanting up
from behind the mountains,
looking really postmodern
and painterly in the squishy setting sun.
One of the contrails was a little older
than the other
and had begun to blur.
I’ll add here that the cars
arriving and departing the airport parking acre
shouted ‘impermanence!’
despite the accompanying aggregation
of airplanes and air foil
technology there.

Well, I saw your first wife on the bus.
She was wearing
an ill-advised mustard yellow
cardigan
the color of an organ
in a textbook.
Of course she had those
goddamned ear wires hanging down,
and of course she looked forlorn.

Koninginnedag

juud wit finaal

I’ll put it this way;
two electric mothers have I known.
One I laughed and loved alongside,
on summery bandaged days, the hours a pulling, dimwit tide,
the other rushed in, also laughing, when I had fully grownAloha Gist MN circa wter paper

Now in a grassy eastern park
the one sleeps in a laughing mom’s well-earned repose.
I’ll dream her on a quiet night and laugh anew,
and remember her love of life and light, and you
who, as I hurriedly type, take coffee and croissant in a rumpled bed
absent your Sunday clothes.

Love is all around
as the crummy poets never fail to say,
but, look, it’s a fact: the sunshine falls in a radiant sheet,
a confectioner’s glaze to make a mom’s day circle unbearably complete,
and where the bright light drapes down, it clings like syrup today.