Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into an artifice of eternity.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Essential Elsewheres ~ An Aesthetics of Displacement

~ Always, J.H. ~


I sometimes dream about places I have left, places I came to know intimately. There have been many such spaces in my life, and all are interwoven now in an exotic, dream-like tapestry in my imagination. They enter dreams, well up from the subconscious, sometimes separately, sometimes inextricably intertwined, so that scenes and places and times all flow together and I do not know what age I am or where exactly I am when the mind is swept away by their currents and in whatever direction their whimsy decides.

At one time, I might be on a seashore, a child running out to sea, tasting salt water for the first time, or being stung by a jellyfish. This child is alone and crying on the smooth, wet stones. The scene shifts and suddenly a father with his two sons are running across black, igneous, sculpted rocks by the sea. The tide is returning. Water is exploding in the caves beneath their feet. There is a sense of panic, urgency, and gulls are wheeling and screeching overhead. The red sun is sinking and they find beetles, exotic black specimens with yellow mottled carapaces crawling across the sand. They pause in wonder.

Now, two are sitting on a ledge of rock above a raging sea. She suddenly becomes afraid and wants to leave. They begin walking away, but soon they’re running, fleeing, and she is screaming. An animal has coughed in the deepening gloaming and Uileann Pipes are droning a slow air into the wind. They can hear the long notes drawn out across the evening sky. Something feral enters the blood, the clouds grow iodine and gray, lights flicker in the distance and finally the sound of laughter pulls them into recognition of their senseless dread. How much life is lost when panic hitches itself to an irrational fear? Indeed, how much life is recovered in quixotic remembering?


I wonder about this recurrence of spatial motifs in the imagination – why do these seemingly obsessive-compulsive patterns recur and with such regularity? I once thought they might indicate a psychic debilitation or some psychological propensity that might be the harbinger perhaps to a more malign condition, a latent malaise of the motor skills or cognition, but now I view them as necessary props in an endless journey of self-creation. Just as certain sounds or songs or sensations act as mnemonics, so too these landmarks become milestones on the road to self-discovery. Place [or where] symbolizes the what, how, or when of self-arrival.

If this is so, then it's not always assured what is being signified, for nothing is immediately apparent: why find oneself imaginatively driving down once-familiar streets in a city one has left a decade or decades ago? Not only that, why recall with such precision every signpost, stoplight, bump on the road, and every sight and marker along the way, the trees lining the avenues, what color siding was on this building, what color bricks on that, what lay up ahead, what happened here, there, who was there, what was seen, what errand was being undertaken, what did the sunlight look and feel like, what time of the day or night was it … the mind becomes a GPS system and the map is played out with 3-D precision. The fidelity to detail is absolute. Nothing is omitted, all the sights and sounds return exactly as they were. And yet there was nothing extraordinary about any of it at the time ...

Even more than the sensory remembrance, more than all the remembered perceptions, is the psychic and emotional recall, the nostalgic spaces displaced by suddenly imagining oneself driving through them, and how all that affects the mood … Now artificial bluffs in the city zoo come into focus – an ibex is clattering up one. I distinctly remember the sense of futility. Picture the pale sun against the tonsured rocks, bored mothers pushing strollers, the sounds of elephants, seals, infants, the smell of the aviary. The Ape house is just up this hill, and far below in amongst the fake rainforest greenery, an alpha male is slumped against the glass partition chewing tree bark. Around the corner, and down the hill, tucked into a cleft of rock with a high mesh fence is big cat country. A black panther is pacing back and forth. A young boy is pointing. The cat’s indifference annoys him. He ups the ante, tries to get its attention, but there’s no chance. Ice cream and cotton candy enter the scene …

And then we are returned to that shelled out house where a bull is manacled to the walls. The boys pulled a rope through the nose ring and tied him up there. A bull in heat can rip a nose ring clean off. This one is old and tired though, his bulling days are done. His eyes weep mucus and steam rises off his muscular flanks. He chews mindlessly as we dare one another to climb on his back. No rodeo here. In another variation, the bull is wounded and dies in that old house. Here, the child first saw lovers copulating and in later years the mossy, ivied walls crumbled into matchbox insignificance. Everything diminishes over time.


My mansions of memory all lie in ruins, as though the war with time had ravaged them, and yet I return with unflagging fidelity, like the Volney of symbolic shards, the Schlegel of figurative fragments, and every ruin has its own Wordsworthian epitaph staring at its own sun. It is love, and not memory alone, that raises our ruins to the light, that materializes the emptiness and embodies each absence. Here are doorways where there were once only walls and the jagged remains of rooms. Was I imprisoned here too? Every space is known intimately, too intimately, and this is bothersome. Do we love our cell walls? Remember Simonides in the banquet hall at Thessaly and how he recalled everything; remember how Bede's bird flew in one lighted window whilst a feast was in progress, across the hall, and then out another, and this symbolizes the span of our earthly existence. We are that bird, dazzled by light and life, but soon restored to the dark, except now we dream our way back into old homes, and there we build our cuckoo nests.

Suddenly, an old civil war mansion in off the Gulf opens into the mind. It is late summer and the lazy afternoon is cooled by the slow, swaying tick-tick of massive fan blades. The house is empty except for echo’s ghosts. Every window is open, and the hardwood floors creak when the whistling wind circles above them. In the upper windows, white lace curtains billow outwards. The sky is darkening to green and a storm will soon sweep in off the Gulf. An armadillo is in the garden. The bayou is close by. Now alligators are slinking up from the swamps and making their way towards the house. They emit primitive reptilian sounds as they climb the porch and in through the low windows. One is mounting the grand staircase. We are in the master bedroom where the body of an old woman is laid out on the table. Grapefruit skins litter the floor. My friend is crying. He is calling his mother’s name. She died and the flesh of the fruit, he says, could not flush enough cancer cells.

The fear reminds me of the Tower Ballroom whose belfry I once climbed. You had to scale a ladder to each floor, then pull the ladder through after you until you reached the top where the bell and clock were. The whole place tolled daring-do commingled of desire and violence, the latter because drunken men always loiter in these dreams, violent drunken men with yellow teeth, mad eyes, sweat stains, and testosterone racing through their veins. One could store an entire Odyssey or Paradise Lost in this old mansion. I am under the floor, crawling through tunnels and listening to the maple boards springing, expanding, contracting, and absorbing the shocks of footfalls. It was here I first learned that ‘heaven’s generous impulse is contented with feeding praise to the good, and that the spirit of woman caresses the soul’, but it was also here that the ‘tragic light which men resent’ first shone its unmistakable beacon. You inhabit ruins, ruins inhabit you, and somewhere in between lies the lost self’s self.


I wrote a novel Essential Eslewheres to free the mind of the demonic grip of details, of memory itself, but all that was accomplished was a sort of Proustian kink for precision – one space begot another, one image its correspondence, and others their counters or companions, and soon enough all the mental mansions were narrating one's identity. It is the curse of the homeless who are perennially homesick, the crutch of the exile who is always hobbling homeward – the inescapable bonds of memory chaining the mind to its various prison walls. The associational pull may be congenital for my caste of mind, or maybe it is an Irish inheritance … and who is not sick and tired of the Irish keening for home?

Here are emblems, assembled or stuck to images, conveyed in words, and borne along in ellipses until a galvanizing principle is found and an aesthetic joins the lot: If each inchoate image is poetic enough then the nearness of its neighbor should suffice to define it; the whole is only comprehensible from the configuration of its parts, and in the end a space may be displaced where the sought-after identity might reside. I tried this in a number of iterations: vignettes like film stills articulating a motion only in consort with their companions; a series of poems whose images should articulate the perimeters of the theme they defined; a mutuality of parts without regard to any purpose, but one was outlined nonetheless, and then just holographic slivers shattered into splinters but still retaining the whole, or its ineluctable logic.

One lives in one’s elsewheres, goes from the one to the other shore as the tides of life carry one onwards, and one never knows whether a pattern is being laid down or whether the journey itself is individuating. In retrospect, the itinerary always has meaning and shape, all the streets somehow have a clarifying purpose, even the drains and margins define one: Recall the urban decay that hung over that far off drab and derelict place. Railway tracks crossed the main thoroughfare and always held up commerce and traffic, but that didn’t seem to matter in a place like that. If children were late for school because a 200-carriage freight train detained them, then nobody really caviled or interfered. The place was littered with all kinds of sordidness, it was a cesspit and a known gathering place for creeps and freaks, yet beyond it lay the most bucolic and idyllic stretch of fields and orchards, a wide open countryside whose highways were lined with corn fields. Just beyond the brothels and the parks, where it was reported bodies were regularly dumped, Eden’s gardens bloomed and blossomed.


That is the kind of ironic juxtaposition that girds the canvas of our lives. Yet, it all seems so random and senseless, so spontaneous and coincidental – an evil eye can set a tragic sequence in motion, an abrupt word can sink a flotilla of lives, one act can disrupt the entire order of things. It’s the Butterfly Effect – the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can be felt around the globe. But the pattern is not known until it’s already over, until it's too late to revise; the direction is only discernible when we look back over the landscapes we have traversed to get to our elsewheres, and then the adventure seems so full of intention and design. Order asserts itself regardless, and all that dreaming about recurring places takes on a pre-determined shape and meaning.

Naturally, all of this is useless and doesn’t even fall within the bounds of worthwhile knowledge. There is no utility in the shape of a life, yet that is what the poetic enterprise seems most eager to encapsulate. What Wilde and Kavanagh said of education is also very true of poetry, ‘it is quite useless in any ordinary sense’. It has no cause for any effect, and as means qua means it cannot be pressed into the service of any end. Even the disparate catalogue making up this essay lacks cohesion and connection: how do these spaces, places, and events belong together, and what can be learned from their casual concurrence?

The aesthetics of displacement may impose congruence and continuity where there is none, or it may find in the aimless a map to somewhere, even if it is essentially elsewhere. That’s fine. No gains lost and no losses gained by the endeavor. It is self-affirming purely on its own terms. One finds oneself in a house or on a street, in a field or by the sea, or one is driving just for the sake of driving, so that you can go there still, and arrive there still. Does that need to be adequate to some function? Has the place changed since you were last there? Could you explore it anew? Is there some answer hidden in every imaginative return? ‘To get to know even a small field is a lifetime’s exploration’. Experience displaces its answers wherever it finds them.

For the first time in all my wanderings however I have arrived at a crossroads. Here is a confluence of knowns and unknowns unlike anything that has preceded them. The East breeds new flavors, new sensations, and already a sense of the exotic to balance exile. You cannot but be displaced here – a lofty minaret overshadows a courtyard where children play, and in the crevasse of that structure, hidden from view, and high enough to find protection, is a family of young raptors. These exquisite creatures perform their complicated and graceful aeronautic displays at the same time every day, and one knows they are active by their distinctive cries. Not even Adhan can dislodge them otherwise. They emerge to hunt according to their own dictates and schedule.

How is any of this relevant? Hawks and falcons have always fascinated me. I have watched the Irish skies for years for a single glimpse of them, but they’ve always eluded me. There’s a highland waste where they’ve reintroduced white-tipped eagles. I have driven to see them, and failed. Remember Hopkins' ‘Windhover’, particularly the metaphor in that poem, but most especially the language, how I’ve loved, memorized, and often recited it, knowing it serves no purpose, yet the language is irresistible, the rhythms, the flow, the organic beauty of the thing, all of which have helped to define an identity. And now, here, in this remote, unfamiliar place, when I look again for the Divine Design, to the very spirit of the poetic soul, and search for answers to unspoken questions, right there, beside the loud-speakers, atop that tower with its crescent moon pointing towards the Qiblah, right there is a trinity of raptors, each morning's minions doing their manoeuvers and lighting up the brilliant sky. There is as much a meaningful connection in these birds as one should ever hope to find in anything or anywhere else, peregrinate as one may.

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