23 November 2010

tower wisdom

Empty window panes cut out identical square patches from the day's white beginning.  From this perspective, it's the only color there is.  Bullet holes burn in the roof like constellations in a steely sky.  The sun is arriving.  Glowing.  Growing.

I used to come to this fire tower when I needed that glow or when I needed to give it to someone else.  It has been the subject of geology papers and love poems.  It has appeared  at the beginnings of friendships and marked the end of others.  For me, the tower is a centering place.  Up here, you're everywhere, you're nowhere.  You're floating above the treetops, swaying with the wind, mediating between the pileateds and the blue jays, the sun and the treetops, the clouds and the plateau.  The color orange doesn't exist anywhere but here a few breaths after sunrise.

Flocks of passerines swoop and duck like schools of fish through the air, the deer steps cautiously in the leaves, and the blue jay persists.  The wind picks up and all of a sudden, you realize that you're 100 feet in the air, in a metal box peppered with bullet holes, abandoned long ago by any badge-wielding Ed Abbey imitation.

There is a line now above the crater of South Pittsburg where the sunlight has taken refuge and sequesters all the color from the rest of the sky.  The wind has weakened.  The blue jay now mimics a hawk, but betrays itself with a signature rasp.  The day swims on.

I come up here for silence, not of the world, but of myself.  I pause at the top not a thought in my head and watch.  (Meditation, western imperialist-style.  Find the tallest tower and climb it...)

Who gets to see so many miles otherwise, listen to the day begin, witness the orange glow and question the integrity of a creaking tower?  (The wind is back with some gusto.)  All of a sudden, I have a lot to think about, but none of it matters.  The day grows.  I watch and take note.

It is mid-November and the treetops wear hats of color but nothing else below.  The poplars are yellow, the chestnut oaks and hickories, a duller version and the beeches gave up long ago and turned brown, although all of their leaves remain.

Brighter.  The thin line above the horizon has spilled onto the other rim across the gap of the town.  Every time the wind picks up, the creaking commences and the tower swoons like an unwieldy toddler on stilts.  I watch.  There is no other option but to be a sponge.  A servant to sound, light, hunger.

The first time I climbed these steps, it was a September morning five years ago in the dark.  I sat in this same spot, in silence, for nearly three hours.  There were more railings then, less rickety boards.  Or perhaps I just imagine it that way.

There is nothing to do but to be patient.  Even as I try to stuff the silence with words, I realize the futility of the endeavor.  The day grows around me.

I will be absent from this place tomorrow morning, but the day will unfold nonetheless, whether I play witness to its color or not.  The tower may creak, but chances are no one hears it. 

I go to the fire tower to learn patience and the transience of light, of sound, of life.

21 November 2010

dawn from above

I have no face
I am two eyes, and the land rolls away beneath them.

The world has no history - some roads, odd trees and absent animals, the folding and eroding of rock in the distance, and the shoes I wear on dangling feet - but I am not
in Tennessee, off this so-named road or any amount of feet in the air
the wind is nameless and so am I.

 Memory is the the spine of a hollow cave I slept in last night, the bony disc of a full moon setting as I ascended stony steps this morning, and the vague familiarity of a sun rising from a hole in the forest.

Clouds swing on strings lightly like puppets, old voices are no voices, and we all lose our humanity to politeness when she demands it.

 The top floor slats, rotten boards, a penny in a crack on its back. E pluribus unum.  Who else?  I see no one.

 Silence arrives as a humble wave, indivisible, too scarce to remember how to embrace.  Even eyes have become rare enough for words.

 But eyes or no, the echo of the rock, the sway of the tower, the sound of dawn munching apricots and spitting its pits into the valley - the world spins
and dawn tears apart time and history and direction in an ancient ritual rise.

13 November 2010


returning words, Williams Island, late summer.

As wind withdraws in dying light,
we fold our wings post fledgling flight
and perched, gaze perspicaciously
at ruffled clouds here gathering.

The evening swells with silence cleft
by rheumy notes on insects' breath.
Our feathered burdens of the day,
let darkness fold and tuck away.

The stars adorn their skyward rim
like a burnished diadem
and as moth caught in a web
the moon flutters on a rippled bed.

Anon a pacifying rain
relieves the day's expectant strain.
While nightjars spin a cryptic song,
the river ambles humbly on.

Our antiquated island host -
a shape-shifting, alluvial ghost -
rests now elongate in her pose
between the banks, beneath the crows.

A year investigating sky
ended as the evening died
and hands recalloused in the toil
of an old, familiar soil.

Ferried to this watery loft
adrift with caddisflies and moths
I gently land the fugal glide
and slumber on the other side.

07 November 2010


 It hangs from heaven to earth.
There are trees in it, cities, rivers,
small pigs and moons.  In one corner
the snow falling over a charging cavalry,
in another women are planting rice.

You can also see:
a chicken carried off by a fox,
a naked couple on their wedding night,
a column of smoke,
an evil-eyed woman spitting into a pail of milk.

What is behind it?
--Space, plenty of empty space.
And who is talking now?
--A man asleep under his hat.

What happens when he wakes up?
--He'll go into the barbershop.
They'll shave his beard, nose, ears, and hair
To make him look like everyone else.

Charles Simic

I love the sequence of disparate scenes opening this poem.  It reminds me of the numerous worlds we enter everyday - the worlds in books, in the newspaper, on the internet, the radio, and then our own physical world, of our hands, the things we smell and eat, the space we create.  Modern technology and media seem to be pulling and twisting us into places that are often difficult to define, and sometimes it feels a bit like this poem, like we're flashing through disconnected spaces without stopping to consider the consequences of our participation.    In an introduction to a collection of Wendell Berry's essays, Norman Wirzba writes:

What the purveyors of conventional wisdom often fail to ask, however, is whether the social and economic transformations they facilitate lead to an improper or inauthentic sense of human identity and vocation.

Although Wirzba in this passage refers to the mass migration of farmers to urban centers, similar effects can be observed from the mass migration of human minds to social media outlets.  While there are obvious benefits to the ease of communication created by these outlets, the result he describes - the inauthentic sense of human identity - echoes with an eerie familiarity to a generation whose friends include scores of people they have never shared a meal with, much less even met in person. 

"What is behind it?" "Who is talking?"  Simic asks us.  In a society where we are encouraged to communicate with just about anyone anywhere at any time, these things might be worth asking.  Sure, it may be gratifying on some level to know that we can instantly connect from anywhere, but that connection seems awfully tenuous when placed beside a physical one.   There are trees in it, cities, rivers, small pigs and moons.  What does your tapestry look like?
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