Friday, November 30, 2012

David Levithan's _Every Day_ and the Contingency of Morality

NB: This post is redolent of spoilers for the book, in case anyone reading this ever intends to read it.  OTOH, if you don't intend to read it, I think I'm fairly clear in what I'm talking about for once?

Being the YA genre fangirl that I am, I have of course known about David Levithan (I keep on wanting to call him David Leviathan) for a while, as he is kind of a big deal.  That having been said, I never particularly wanted to read his books because they seemed to mostly fall into the sub-genre of YA realistic romance, which is not a sub-genre I like all that much.  I consider myself a YA genre fangirl because I love quite a lot of YA subgenres, including speculative fiction, stuff with no technically fantastic elements that nonetheless is far too trashy to portray a convincing sense of reality, and genuinely realistic novels that deal with teens in unpleasant situations and how they live through them.  But I've never really enjoyed the kind of books that focus on relatively normal kids in relatively realistically-portrayed romantic relationships; I tend to find them more alienating and offputting than anything else, so I don't really feel drawn to read them.

I read Every Day because of the recent controversy over this article on "YA Fiction and the End of Boys".  The article and controversy weren't actually all that interesting to me in-and-of-themselves, but the article included the following paragraph on Every Day:

"If books like these reward boys who give up men’s social power, more provocative still are books that imagine erasing men’s physical power. That’s the case in David Levithan’s just-released Every Day, which tells the story of A, a spirit who wakes every day in a different body: sometimes a boy, sometimes a girl, sometimes trans, sometimes this race or that. Levithan, known for his suggestive work about queer sexuality, uses his central conceit to artfully suggest the complexity of gender and embodiment. But even so, Every Day is haunted by a negative idea of manhood. When A falls in love with a girl, Rhiannon, he does so while inhabiting the body of Rhiannon’s crass, emotionally manipulative boyfriend. The novel’s antagonist, the character who offers A the ability to kill a host body’s spirit and thereby stay with Rhiannon forever, is coded male too. And what these experiences teach A is that being the kind of partner this beautiful, sensitive girl deserves means not being a man. At least, not being her man. It means finding a sweet, artsy, outsider for Rhiannon, and A heading off into a future perpetually separated from ownership of the body’s strength — the ultimate sacrifice of male power."

So what I got out of that was - book about bodiless spirit that possesses a different person each day!  Naturally I wanted to read that book.  It fits in perfectly with my well-documented obsession with fiction about fluid identities, not to mention my well-documented obsession with fiction about possessing spirits.

I did read Every Day, and, as usual, I'm not that interested in reviewing it.  What I can say briefly is that I found it entertaining enough.  It wasn't a boring book, and, what's more, it wasn't interesting simply because it was irritating (as, say, that damned movie Crash was).  It had good parts that were appealing.  But the day after I finished it, I keep on coming back to how irritating I found it, despite my general feeling that I was engaged in the book.  And that seems like something you might write about.  You can't write much about boring stories - it's very hard to say why something just doesn't grab you.  But when something actively pushes you away, that's interesting, and that's why I thought I should try to write about Every Day - because I can't stop thinking to myself, why did I find it that irritating?  

Well, there's a lot of reasons, some of which come down to subjective issues that are hard to break down again -  there's this character who appears on, like, three pages, named Amelia, who I felt had much more personality than any of the main characters in the entire book; I kept on thinking that it would have been a much better book if A had fallen in love with Amelia instead of with Rhiannon since Amelia seemed to actually have an identity, but I suppose this kind of reaction is very personal since different people have very different ideas about what makes for well-developed characterization - but I want to get into one issue I have in particular with the book that I think I can express more clearly.

I'm going to start by recounting the basic plot of Every Day, although, of course, I'm going to do that from the standpoint of what I'm interested in, so this may be limited or biased rather than a thorough, accurate summary.  This entity A possesses a new body every day and has been doing so for as long as they can remember (a sidenote: as annoyed as I was by the book, I am also annoyed by reviews that insist on referring to A as "he" even though it is explicitly stated in the text that "when it came to gender" A is "both and neither."  Insofar as I can tell, the main reason why reviewers are referring to A as male is because they spend most of the book in love with a girl and therefore "sounds male," which makes this even more annoying than it would be if they were just misgendering the character.  Of course, A doesn't tell us which pronouns they prefer, but I have to feel that "they" is more accurate than "he.").  They don't have any idea of why this happens or of anyone else in the world in the same position as them.  There are various rules behind this switch, including that they switch bodies at midnight every day whether awake or asleep, never possess the same body twice, have access to the body's memories (although it takes some effort) and are influenced by its hormones but cannot feel the possessed person's emotions, always possess bodies of a certain age (which they therefore think of as their own age - it is sixteen at the time of the book), can only geographically travel in the spirit between bodies within a limited radius (about four hours by car, it would seem), although if the body travels to Hawaii that day then A will be stuck in Hawaii in their next body, etc.  It's important to note that, on the whole, with only one exception in the entire book (and that one is under extenuating circumstances), those who are possessed don't really remember the possession as a possession, so A doesn't leave any particular trace in the minds of those they have possessed.   A thinks of themself as human, just a rather odd one.  A realized that other people were not like them at the age of five or six or so and was very upset about it at first, but eventually came to terms with it.  At the time of the book's start, as a sixteen-year-old, A realizes that other people have lots of benefits that they do not, all of the advantages of rootedness, connection, lasting relationships, and so on, but they also see the positive side of their own life - they are free of the pressure of relationships, are able to get a wide perspective on the world and thus be wiser than those of us blinded by our own perspectives, are a good observer, and know how to enjoy living in the moment.  A is a fundamentally moral person, as well, if still a sixteen-year-old kid, and has set up rules for themself so as to avoid damaging the lives of those they possess.  Although accessing memories, as stated above, seems to take a lot of effort, such that A avoids doing it more than necessary, and although in order to remain emotionally stable A feels the need to detach somewhat from the lives of the people they possess, A does enough accessing and uses their keen observational skills to try their best to make sure no one notices anything odd in the person's life and that they don't screw things up for the person too much.  A does this purely out of a basic sense of morality and the fact that they feel guilt when they do cause lasting problems for others, since, being untraceable, there are no real potential external consequences for them were they to do anything very terrible.  The same basic sense of morality, of course, means that they don't do anything drastically out-of-character even when it might theoretically help the person; when A winds up possessing the body of an extremely selfish girl, for instance, they muse about how it wouldn't do much good to sign her up to work at the soup kitchen because that's her decision to make, even if she would normally make the wrong decision, and she would just abandon the decision if A made it for her.

So A already has a relatively healthy attitude to what is obviously a fairly difficult situation at the start of the book - as aware as A is of the compensations of their state, it's hard for them to fully appreciate the benefits when the benefits of everyone else's lives are so visible, but A is managing.  The plot of the novel deals with A's steadily decreasing ability to cope after they fall in love (at first sight!  I found this pretty annoying too.) with Rhiannon while possessing Justin.  At first, A starts doing out-of-character things in the bodies they're possessing in order to sneak away and spend time with Rhiannon.  Later on, A actually confesses their true identity to Rhiannon; when she does not automatically reject them and shows some understanding of them (and, depending on what body they possess, some physical attraction, although A really fails to understand or show any sympathy for the fact that Rhiannon's attraction clearly depends on what body A is possessing), their behavior only becomes worse as they genuinely start to imagine that the two could find a way to make the relationship work.  A stops doing a very good job of being a guest in other people's lives and devotes more and more of their time to their own agenda, most significantly when they possess a boy who is supposed to be on a plane trip to Hawaii and actually completely blows off the trip and runs away in order to stay in the Maryland area because they can't stand the thought of not being near Rhiannon (and if they went to Hawaii they would be stuck there).  The subplot which winds up with A being introduced to the character who claims that A is not alone and that there would be a way for them to possess a body for a longer period of time (which A clearly thinks amounts to murder of the original identity) is meant to parallel this general decline in A's sense of responsibility; it's when A, possessing the "sweet, artsy outsider" (although I don't particularly see evidence of the character being an outsider) Alexander, is tempted to murder him to stay in the body forever, precisely because Alexander is such a genuinely kind and good person that his life, friends, and existence are all appealing, that they realize that their love for Rhiannon is getting them to break their own reasonably moral code of rules and that they decide they must get as far away from Rhiannon and the murderer as possible so as to avoid the temptation and go back to their life as an outsider.  And yes, this is obviously necessary in large part because Rhiannon cannot accept A as a disembodied, ever-changing spirit - if Rhiannon were willing to commit herself to A as they are A would probably not have ever come to the realization of their moral issues - but Rhiannon's problems with A are not just about the changing bodies but also with the seeming iffiness of A's behaviour - is what A does fair to the people whose bodies they are possessing?  She isn't sure.  So the arc of the book, oddly enough, is actually somewhat limiting of A's character development; they end up in more or less the same place they started out with in the beginning, only, I suppose, with a greater understanding of both the temptations of being a less virtuous person and also a greater awareness of the consequences of falling prey to such temptations (A starts out the book having no idea that such a murder would be possible).

The premise, then, is one that instinctively appeals to me, but I don't particularly feel that what Levithan found potentially interesting about the premise is the same as what I did.  I suppose one angle to come at this from is that of A as the basically good person - in the context of the book, it makes sense that A would see themself this way, of course.  A may not, in fact, be human, although A certainly thinks of themself as human, but A has never, until the confrontation with the antagonist, interacted with a sentient non-human before, and has been treated by a human by everyone they have ever met until the age of sixteen.  So it's not that surprising that A doesn't perceive themself as different on some elemental level from the species that makes up all of their interactive opportunities, and that they take on a fairly conventional morality from within that species (since, presumably, A has been socialized as much to that morality as anyone raised as human would have been).  This is a perfectly logical and reasonable choice, and it's what makes the central internal conflict possible - well, basically A's desire to be human, both in terms of the relationships with other humans that they can't have but want and in terms of the fundamental moral code that they can have, is what drives the whole possible.  To the degree that we see that level of responsibility to other people that A eventually decides to sacrifice their relationship with Rhiannon to as a measure of humanity, the plot affirms A's decision to consider themself as human; we too can see them as making a fundamentally human decision and to be admired in doing so.

On the other hand, there's another side to that story, as both A and the implied author behind A recognize that there are some distinctions between A and humanity.  A's inability to understand the embodiedness of Rhiannon's affections and their genuine fondness for the advantages of detachment speak to elements of A which are not commonly shared among humans.  The fact that the book ends with A making the decision to reject love and connection in the name of morality also shows that on some level A is rejecting quintessentially human traits; we do not normally expect of your average, ordinary human being that the ability to make lasting connections with other people would come into conflict with the possibility of living morally, and so A, in having to make this decision, is rejecting the chance to be human in that sense even if it is in the name of alignment with the human in another sense.  What is more, the hint of a larger plot in the antagonist being another of A's kind who does not adhere to A's human morality, and who contacts A via a boy A possessed who is convinced that A is the devil, demonstrates that whatever A's kind is, A does have a choice; A is not purely a human in very weird circumstances but is an entity who, for whatever reasons, has actively chosen to construct themself as human in a situation where other alternatives could be proposed with equal validity.

And, yes, I would be more interested in that story.  Although as a matter of credibility I find A's way of interpreting their existence to be believable, it makes for a story that engages with concerns I don't find particularly gripping.  The question of how to balance love and morality is of course a valid one, even one I care about quite deeply at times, but in this story it seems to be passing up so much potential to deal with the more fascinating to me concern of what it means to be human in contexts where that is ambiguous.  An A who had not aligned themselves quite so clearly with humanity and that character's struggles with morality and responsibility would be a more interesting character to me than a character who basically starts out with a very mainstream, uncomplicated view of morality and never goes beyond that intellectually even when they are emotionally tempted away from their beliefs.  I think that is where I come down to being annoyed by the story - because it promises some philosophical depth to me, but that is dragged away.  What the story ends up being about thematically is the importance of both the universal truths that we all share as humans and also the individual idiosyncrasies that make us all unique.  I think this is problematic on the whole because, as mentioned above, Levithan doesn't really do a very good job with the second part - I don't find his characters all that convincing as different people who are each internally unique even as he runs through a large number of external differences - but even if Levithan were a Diana Wynne Jones or Henry James of characterization, I think that this theme is just less interesting to me that one that really grapples with questions of morality and why we adhere to it.  It is never called into question that A owes the kindness of their respect for people's lives to these people simply because A is a good person who is equal to the humans whose lives they inhabit; when A challenges these restraints it is not because A has any philosophical justification whatsoever to do so but merely because love is great and you care less about morality when you're in love.  A's self-justifications as they fall into the abyss are minimal; the story does not engage with the philosophical issues but remains on the level of pointing out that love is sometimes selfish.  This isn't something that comes as revelatory to me, and for me, the more interesting themes would have dealt with what was selfish in the first place, whether a being whose life differs in fundamental ways from humans really does have to live in a way that is morally spotless for humans even at disadvantage to themselves, what alternative lives A could build that would be less infringed on by human norms (keep in mind that A, despite all of the body shifting, does not know how to speak Portuguese, play the clarinet, or do gymnastics, even if they body they're in does, which is fine for a sixteen year-old but is going to be a huge problem when they're 36), and what morality really involves.  So, while I think it's believable that some characters in A's position might react like A, on a personal level I think that's not what I find appealing about the premise, and that's one major reason why this turned out not to be the book I wanted it to be.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Definitive Proof

While procrastinating, I just took a personality test to find out what classical temperament I have (this is on a Catholic website, which suddenly makes it slightly less fun and slightly more alarming).  I got melancholic.  Some of it fit me well, some of it didn't.  Then I went back to the Wikpedia page on the temperaments and discovered that "Melancholics. . . can become preoccupied with the tragedy and cruelty in the world."  That's a link to "the problem of evil," guys.   If I have ever seen anything on a silly personality test that I was unable to argue with, that's it, right there.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Confuse Myself

I was so happy just now to find that Martin has finally shown up in the new novel version of Hitherby.

I really don't understand my reactions to Martin.  Consciously, I'm not at all aware of liking him.  In fact, I find him really frightening.  But I'm fascinated by him.  But not for reasons as obvious as to why I have similar feelings about Ben Linus.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Reading _Alice_'s Footnotes

Maybe it's just me, but I find this a hilarious footnote in the heavily annotated edition of Alice's Adventures  in Wonderland that I'm now reading: "The Liddell children had a particularly distinguished drawing-master at this time, John Ruskin. . . ."  What an incredibly bizarre way to describe Ruskin, "a particularly distinguished drawing-master?"  Seriously?  Later on, the footnote says, "He taught Alice drawing in the deanery, lending her paintings of Turner to copy. . .," and I found that hilarious too, but that really is probably just me.  The thing is, most of my exposure to Ruskin was in my summer course back in high school on Victorian literature, where our big joke was that Ruskin suffered from profound lust for Turner because he just would not shut up in any of his work about how great Turner was. . . I suppose by this principle I myself suffer with profound lust for Byron, Shelley, Henry James, DWJ, Jenna Moran, Bowie and Kevin Barnes?

I also seriously had no idea that the Liddell in Alice Liddell was the same as the Liddell in Liddell-Scott.

Obviously, these are the kinds of things I am going to blog about.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Mists and Mellow Fruitlessness

I grew up in a temperate climate and spent the vast majority of my life in regions whose annual cycles were shaped by the passage of the seasons.  Living as I do now in the tropics, I obviously don't experience that so much anymore.  Of course, there are still annual cycles in my life.  Especially because I work as a teacher, the passage of time remains cyclical even without the drastic changes in weather and lighting that accompany such cycles further to the north and south.  And yet, of course, there's some visceral element that has been lacking over the past two and a half years, something that is not quite the same when the change you experience is only in your mind and not in your bones.

Except maybe not?  For a few weeks, unusual in the rain forest climate of the city where I live now, there was no rain.  The weather was unbearably hot and stifling.  And then yesterday, as August got over its hump and amiably ambled towards its close, the skies finally released their pent-up tension.  Once I saw the clouds and the inevitability of rain, I was already overjoyed that it would finally cool down.  And it was so pleasant to be outside yesterday evening and this morning after the rain, comfortable at last - at last!

Even in this tropical climate, November, December, and January form more of a rainy season when the frequent downpours and cloud cover keep the temperatures down a little.  Even before that, in October, rain is somewhat reliable, and the pollution from the burning of rain forests drifts over the city - something I suppose I should complain about, given that it definitely makes it harder to breathe, but that I can't help but partially appreciate for the cooling effect.  I guess now that I will soon achieve my third autumn in this country, I'm beginning to get used to the seasonal cycles, because I suddenly find myself, with this outburst of rain, looking forward more than I ever expected possible in a very visceral way to the advent of autumn.  I can almost feel it coming, just as much as I ever would in the more temperate countries I've inhabited in the past.  Although I suppose summer was my favorite season as a child just because of the absence of school, as an adult in temperate countries autumn has been my favorite season, especially the earlier autumn, September and October.  I'm exited to find myself transferring some of that affection to the tropical autumn in November, glad that I'm able to find some physical relation to life even in a place where the seasons as I know them are void.

Monday, July 23, 2012

But on the Other Hand

I mean, when I write sonnets about writing sonnets, they do not actually make use of water imagery!

I Only Ever Feel Tempted to Write Sonnets about Writing Sonnets. . .

The pleasure of the chains lies in the sense
Of pride one feels when doing something well.
For even when surrounded by a fence,
One can slip through the links and go to hell.
But transgression does offer its own thrill –
A nice escape’s a pleasurable thing.
It feels like an exertion of the will –
Like one’s caprice is now the reigning king.
One therefore must always balance the scales,
Leave room for pride and yet room for caprice.
A lack of caution may well end one’s tales
Or too much structure cause the soul to cease.
I feel a tightrope tension in this quest;
That’s why avoidance usually seems best.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

_The Sacred Fount_

From the Wikipedia article on The Sacred Fount - "This strange, often baffling book concerns an unnamed narrator who attempts to discover the truth about the love lives of his fellow-guests at a weekend party in the English countryside. . . . many have expressed simple bewilderment over what, if anything, James was trying to accomplish in the novel. James himself said that the book was "calculated to minister to curiosity," but many have maintained that the novel does little or nothing to reward that curiosity. . . .  . Indeed in a letter dated March 15th 1901 to Mrs Humphry Ward James declared 'I say it in all sincerity – the book isn't worth discussing [...] I hatingly finished it; trying to make it – the one thing it could be – a consistent joke.'"

Honestly, it's a pretty amazing book - not that I would recommend it to you if you are not already a James fan.  But coming from my perspective it sort of corroborates everything I've ever believed about James.

Here's a quotation: "If I was free, that was what I had been only so short a time before, what I had been as I drove, in London, to the station. Was this now a foreknowledge that, on the morrow, in driving away, I should feel myself restored to that blankness? The state lost was the state of exemption from intense obsessions, and the state recovered would therefore logically match it. If the foreknowledge had thus, as by the stir of the air from my friend's whisk of her train, descended upon me, my liberation was in a manner what I was already tasting. Yet how I also felt, with it, something of the threat of a chill to my curiosity! The taste of its being all over, that really sublime success of the strained vision in which I had been living for crowded hours—was this a taste that I was sure I should particularly enjoy? Marked enough it was, doubtless, that even in the stress of perceiving myself broken with I ruefully reflected on all the more, on the ever so much, I still wanted to know!"  It's alarming the degree to which I can really empathize with the narrator as James describes him, even if one freely admits that my interests are rather different from his.  But frankly this book is the most accurate, persuasive description of what obsession/inspiration feels like for me that I have ever read.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Kalifriki of the Thread"

Roger Zelazny's short story in the Hidden Turnings collection, edited by Diana Wynne Jones. I took this out from the library once or twice as a preteen. Then for years it was still listed on the library catalogue as being owned by the library, but the anthology itself had entirely disappeared from the shelves.

I think it says something about the story that I must have last read it well over fifteen years ago, and I have no memory whatsoever of the plot, but I totally still remember the name. I even correctly remembered how to spell "Kalifriki." I should really try to read that story again someday. . . .

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Oh. My. God.

When I sign in to my blog these days, it automatically takes me to a page with a link to Google Analytics, which, naturally, I check. When I signed in this morning to post about Rachel and Napoleon, I checked my blog and found that someone had found it with a search on the topic "percy bysshe shelley jervis [sic] cocker quote." Intrigued, I did some research and discovered that this happened. Well, thank you for your help, random Slovakian! Sorry I did not know this before you did, though!

Nature V. Nurture

While everyone has heard of Sarah Bernhardt, and I understand her to be the major influence on the portrayal of Miriam Rooth in The Tragic Muse, Rachel Felix also gets mentioned several times throughout that novel.  I don't think Rachel is as well-known today (at least in the Anglosphere) as Sarah, but I at least had certainly heard to her thanks to Henry James.  Therefore, I am kind of flabbergasted to discover that there are a large number of living people who are descendent of both her and Napoleon.  Huh.  They at least have a fascinating genetic heritage, even if they aren't fascinating people themselves!

Saturday, June 9, 2012


1) From what I understand, there are poets out there who write poems not heavily reliant on water imagery.  How do they manage!?!?!

2)So after doing a bit of research for my poem, I find that I kind of want to actually hike all the way from the source of the Breg River in the Black Forest to the Danube Delta.  I think this would probably require a much longer vacation than I am likely to have at any point in the near future, though.

The Subject and Power

I. Morning

All things begin in darkness, such as
The day, because, no matter how you define it,
There is always that moment of darkness
When the sun peeks out; there is darkness,
For, in order for the light to prick holes through the sky,
There must be a dark veil to be pricked.
In order for the sun’s head to poke out,
It must first be underneath the blankets.
All things begin in darkness, such as
The river.  We are standing by the spring now,
Where the water leaps to greet the air,
But this is only the source we can get to.
Down beneath the grey stones is never-challenged darkness,
Crystalline caves echoing with the water dropping,
Pooling up, and creating pressure until
It bursts forth here where we are now.
All things begin in darkness, such as
Our journey.  Right now, as we stand on the shore
By the spring, mud and slime coating the rocks beneath us,
Only night-vision permits us to stay upright,
Without slipping, down the rocks or back into the source.
Only night-vision guides us as we set out,
Step by tentative step,
Only night-vision and the soft susurrus
Of the snaking route beside us in the darkness,
But darkness will not last forever,
Or at least darkness cannot persist everywhere,
Or else nothing could begin in darkness,
And so the dawn begins when the sky begins to brighten,
And the river begins when the streamlet trickles down to the meeting place,
And the journey has begun but continues as we pick our way
By the whispering streamlet
Over the primordial mud on the rocks
Into the indecipherable glow of the sky
Until the rushing friends begin to mingle,
Until the whisper turns to gurgling laughter,
Until the glowing light coalesces as sun,
Until it becomes easier to rush down like the stream beside us,
Until the stream beside us hits the gaps,
Halts, holds its breath, leaps – falls –
Until water falls!
Waterfalls!  Waterfalls – where the paints spilled by the sun
Pour down glittering over the white ridges,
Where the laughter becomes cacophony,
Where the simple becomes complex,
Where a sheer chaotic swirl bounces forth
Like a little explosion of Heaven bursting on the Earth,
A bomb of joy destroying mundanity,
The breath of love diffusing in our hearts –
I love the waterfalls reflecting the daylight,
Which is why I bless the light.
I adore being here at this point,
Which is why I bless the journey.
There is perfection in the glinting rainbows of waterfalls,
Except for the cold wind rising up behind us.
I hear the origins of wind lie in pressure differentiation.
I do not understand the wind, deeply,
But I wonder – does the wind arise in darkness?
Does the wind secretly sneak out of some metaphorical darkness,
Or is the wind birthed abominably within the light
To chase us cruelly down the mountain?
I could stay by waterfalls forever,
Except that we have made plans to go on a journey,
And except that there is a cold wind rising up behind us,
Sapping the comfort from the banks,
And except that the rainbows will be destroyed in darkness,
And so we continue to tumble down the mountain,
As the streams combine, edging parabolically towards river,
As the colors brighten, the world blooming into full day,
And as the wind is ever at our backs.
The force that pulls us forth is gravity, desire,
But violence is the force that pushes us on.

II. Afternoon

The nature of our location has long been plain.
Plains, it is clear, are flat and broad.
The ideal plain is covered with green –
Green grass, flowers, life shooting up to greet the sun.
In real life there are patches of brown,
But there are also fields of beauty –
Green dotted with occasional spots of colored flowers.
Sometimes plains mutate into forests,
Which are shady respite, restful nuance
To the sunbaked continuity of plains,
Darker browns and softer shade,
Crunchier leafy flooring beneath our feet.
When disparate instantiations are grouped together as a mental category,
There must be some generalization lurking behind it.
What lurk behind the plain and the forest are two things:
One – the flatness, so that, when the soft breeze rubs against our faces,
It would take ten thousand years until our gaze breaks
Against the blips, more like symbols now than mountains,
And, when we look where we intuitively know must be downwards,
There is no visible hint of slope,
And where we are could last forever;
And two – the river, a blue mirror of the green in the plains,
A level pause in the midst of the forest,
But always the river, the same concept in every context,
Eternally threading through the landscape mat like fate,
Gravity, desire, violence – omnipresent.
The category is the middle.
The category is a balance.
The category is the farthest point.
The category is the afternoon
Of our journey,
For, as we travel easily, lazily, over the river banks,
Bask in the sun, dawdle in the shade,
As the river rumbles in its broad, steady maturity,
As we point out silver and golden darting fish in the water,
As the buzz of insects suffuses the afternoon with calm,
As I think I smell a sweet background flower fragrance,
Although I cannot deny a certain aura of suspension,
A moment stretching, backward and forwards, some twenty thousand years,
We are journeying yet.
Our presence implies a progress.
We are journeying yet.
Our stagnation is uncorrelated with rest.
We are journeying yet,
Even if motion has blurred into stillness.
We are journeying yet,
Even if we are forgetting –
Are we forgetting?
This is the problem with setting,
Or maybe this is the problem with the human mind,
Or maybe this is the problem with time –
Yes, I think perhaps this is the problem with time.
I have not forgotten the mountains,
But I only experience them now as abstractions,
Symbolic, removed, remembered, but only remembered.
Life is and therefore must have been always
Easy and flat, step by unhesitant step.
The river is and therefore must have been always
Broad and calm, a rushing undercurrent beneath the insect buzzing,
But I have not forgotten the spring.
The banks are and therefore must have been always
Well-hollowed out of the Earth, evident and unquestioned,
But I have not forgotten the muddy rocks.
The sun is and therefore must have been always
Radiating light and heat out into the day,
But I have not forgotten the nighttime.
The landscape is and therefore must have been always
Conducive to an easy background flow,
But I have not forgotten the waterfalls.
I would not be shocked if, in my mind,
There is some kind of eternal waterfall.
If I have a soul, there are worse ways to conceptualize it
Than as that perpetual waterfall,
But I do not know if I have a soul,
And so you can see that although
I have not forgotten the waterfalls,
My journey has removed me from the waterfalls.
What is absent is not what is present.
What is present has the quality of eternity,
Even if it has not the property of eternity,
And even if we understand it has not the property of eternity.
I have not forgotten gravity, desire, violence,
But gravity is hidden in the vales,
And desire has devolved into a parody,
As desire always devolves into a parody –
One might define habit as a parody of desire.
A journey is a concept that implies desire –
Even if it is nothing more than the desire for the surcease of pain –
But I know journeying devolves into a habit –
When the motive force of each step after step
Stops being a vital power and retreats into a past self
Whose intentions are the spur behind each movement
So that one’s mind disconnects from one’s body,
And someone else seems to be in control.
Whatever thoughts, feelings, and desires
Flicker in the spirit, there is no connection
To the journey – or the connection is oblique, only,
And so one is alive and thinking and simultaneously
A ghost and a robot programmed by a ghost
In a repetitive loop of action.
Not that there is anything wrong with journeying.
Not that I fail to take pleasure in journeying,
And the day is warm, and the sounds are soft,
The light is lovely and the flowers fragrant,
The colors bright and the company engaging,
The weariness bearable and the routine comfortable,
But the desire is veiled and hidden.
As for violence – I have not forgotten the wind,
But the wind is and must have been always
A ghost itself, a hint only, and certainly pleasant.
Mountains have become symbols, but
I wonder why I ever chose the wind as a symbol
When it is not only material but also
Mundane and barely noticeable.
After ten thousand years, we become desensitized to violence.
The journey is and therefore must have been always,
But that is self-evident.

III. Evening

All things end in darkness, such as
The day, which is something that ends slowly.
As we walk on, there is a gradual dimming.
The sun is no light bulb to blink out in an instant,
But it is as though you look up, and the sky is blue –
Then – you think the sky is still blue but
You realize that the quality of light is different –
As though the sky has been folded back on itself –
It always was, you think, a blanket,
And now it is just doubled back to darken.
The sun has grown old throughout the day.
Now it is no child playing with bright blues and greens.
It has taken up a different sort of paint, and, behind us,
Spills of it like autumn leaves or berry stains
Begin to alter the plain pattern.
It is a commonplace that this is beautiful for a reason.
Imagine your own sunset.
I will not write a poem for those who cannot imagine sunset.
That is what changes the sky.
We might turn around because
We too like to imagine the sunset, darkening bit by bit into twilight.
All things end in darkness, such as
The river.  Out ahead of us, sky and sea become darkness.
At another time, perhaps a blue corner would demarcate the horizon,
But now we can hear the waves,
And maybe the sleepy sun still highlights a white crest or two,
But mostly the river is pouring out into darkness.
Limits are blurred, everything is blurred,
The sound of water beating back on the shore is a blurring sound.
The scent of salt in the air is a blurring of boundaries.
A bird or two is still framed in silhouette against the sky,
Calling out a cry or two to jolt through moments with sound,
But there is only one or two.
This sharpness is dying away,
All to be consumed by darkness.
Step by step over wet pebbles we are approaching
The darkness, and the river too is pouring, frothing
Out into this endless, endless darkness.
All things end in darkness, such as
Our journey.  Why are the gulls fleeing the sky?
Why is the corner’s edge wearing away?
Do not tell me it is only the blanket folding,
The sun sleeping, the paint all fading naturally to blackness,
When I can see the dark clouds gathering,
Smears of black and grey earth churning up,
Covering the leaves and berries.
I can hear the distant rumble of the thunder,
A sudden deeper growl cutting across the blurring sound of water,
And its swifter companion cutting through the sky,
Again and again, illuminating only to further highlight the darkness.
Sometimes when you sleep at night you are restless.
You kick up the sheets and blankets, move them about,
Until you wake up in the morning to odd piles all about you.
I think the sun must be restless.
Its blanket has moved and shifted, piled up in odd places in the sky,
Threatening and alarming.  Soon the rain will be coming.
Is the water I feel on my arm from the spray,
Or is it the harbinger of a further darkness?
Rain and spray, clouds and night,
Water and darkness blur into one,
And I say, all things end in darkness.
She says, all things begin in darkness.
She asks, do you remember the spring,
Bubbling and frothy, pouring forth
The water liberated from eons of caved darkness?
I say, I remember the spring,
But all things end in darkness.
She asks, do you remember the dawn,
And the first gleamings of light as the blanket became thinner?
I say, I remember the dawn,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember the mountains,
How hard it was to clamber down over the rocks,
Without slipping, the long distant view down
When our gaze followed gravity twenty thousand years into the distance?
I say, I remember the mountains,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember the waterfalls?
She does not even describe them.
I say, I remember the waterfalls,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember the wind
When it seemed to bring a hint of snow and chill,
As if to remind us that the mountains stretch up beyond
Even our imaginations, into the snow-capped peaks at the start of the world?
I say, I remember the wind,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember the plains,
Where we walked together and laughed,
And the river was wide and untroubled?
I say, I remember the plains,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember the forest,
Where there was shade, and dark green,
And it almost felt like something was hiding
Somewhere in the gaps between brown and black,
Watching us silently as we passed?
I say, I remember the forest,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember the insects,
Whose soft buzz was like the sound of summer,
Who remained, like the basic pulse of life,
Constant throughout the plains and forests,
Gifting texture and peace to the afternoon?
I say, I remember the insects,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember the flowers,
Whose fragrance was almost imperceptible,
A hint, only, but pervasive, stretching throughout the day,
And whose colors gave beauty to the light?
I say, I remember the flowers,
But all things end in darkness.
She says, do you remember our journey.
I say, I remember our journey.
She says, all things begin in darkness.
She looks out over the water,
Her pensive face illuminated in one second by distant lightning,
Then shadowed in another.
How distant is the lightning, really?
Is that spray or rain dusting my arms?
She says, all things begin in darkness,
So I want you to take my hand.
I am still.
She says, all things begin in darkness.
Of course, there is a general drift downwards into darkness,
But gravity is not the only force.
If it were, then gravity would already be forgotten,
As all things crunched together in an eternal compaction.
For gravity to start, there must be separation.
Gravity’s origins lie out there in the expanse of darkness
As the sun spills indifference to gravity out over the land and water,
And the water that has succumbed to gravity is stained by exhilaration,
Excited, jumps up, invisibly leaping out against the call of gravity,
Then darts, freed, through the air.
The water once imprisoned in caves away from the sun,
Has finally reached its fruition, its ultimate experience of freedom,
Until the enthusiasm dies away,
And habit can no longer conquer the absence of desire,
And freedom devolves first into formation,
Then precipitation, guided by gravity,
So eventually, whether it is an immediate response,
Or long delayed by eons hidden in pools below the earth,
Each particle will return to the streamlets,
And once again meet and join and flow down to the mouth,
Guided again by gravity,
And thus it is here, in the darkness and expanses,
That gravity is made possible,
Here, where gravity fails to reign tyrannically,
Only here can be the source of gravity,
For how could water fall,
If there were only the pools at the bottom,
So I want you to take my hand.
The spray beats endlessly against my face.
I am still.
She says, all things begin in darkness.
Here, where we stand, the storm will hit,
The waves will crash, water will eat away at land,
Eroding and devouring these tiny pebbles beneath our feet,
The tenacious remainder of a history of assault,
Eventually to be reclaimed and made again into darkness,
And so, yes, there is violence here,
But it pales next to the violence in the darkness,
Where in the midst of the storm there is no land to be assaulted,
Only water combatting water in a never-ending battle,
Sea rising up and lashing in pain against the sky,
Sky falling down in rivulets against the sea,
Water on water, surge against surge,
Sea and sky indistinguishable, both nothing more
Than whirlpools of insistent water clashing, crashing.
One endless stream of white water up and down in chaos,
A waterfall and waterrise turned from cacophony into something more intense,
All the noise and all the power in the world engulfed in water.
We live on the land,
And so of course the force of water,
Surging back against its children,
Raging to recover what has become separate,
Is the force that dismays us,
Destroys our shelter, shocks us,
And yet imagine the plight of boats out on the water,
Where the storm rocks them back and forth
And no succor remains, where there is no land to hang on to
Only water above and water below,
And the boat rises up all the way into the air,
Which is not an escape from water but a return to more water,
So that there is no escape from water,
And, pinned between water and water,
One is doomed to succumb and never return to land,
But instead by stretched out and taken up by water,
To be pressed by violence into its shape forever,
So I want you to take my hand.
I think the water is beginning to fall on water, as she says,
But I cannot see.  Out ahead of me is only darkness –
The water is darkness, and when I turn my head,
I think I see only twilight, interrupted so briefly by white bolts –
Behind me is intermittent darkness.
I say, so gravity begins in darkness, and violence,
But what then of desire?
She says, and what then of desire?
She says, desire; she pauses.
She says, I think, is a fiction.
I do not say, it feels real.
She says, I know it feels real,
But you alone can feel your desire,
And you cannot feel my desire,
If it is real, it remains inpalpable,
Not to be communicated straightforwadly,
And thus to speak of desire is always to speak in figurative language.
A simile, then -
Desire, I think, is like gravity,
Only more so.  It is only after something has defied gravity
That you can see the beginning of gravity.
Only, then, when something is empty of desire,
Can you see the beginnings of desire.
If desire begins in the darkness,
And if, as you insist, desire ends in the darkness,
Then there must be a moment, out there, in the darkness,
Empty of desire, a moment or an eternity of stillness,
Without even the ghost of desire.
Does desire build on desire?
Yes, I am sure a million hopes and dreams
Spark each other in the human mind,
As the rush of gravity would pull the stream
More and more quickly down towards the bottom,
But each candle once lit, though it may light another before the end,
Burns out inexorably.  Eventually the wax melts,
And all that is left are the stains of color dotting the tablecloth.
What fire rages forever?  Therefore, desire must also arise
In the absence of desire, an original fire,
A moment when you awake from stillness,
Take stock of yourself and think,
Oh, this feeling is desire.
You feel once again the pulling,
The yearning, which will be there
Until it dies again.  One does not desire
What one possesses; hence, there is a pattern –
Desire – act – obtain – but the interruption
Always changes the shape of the desire,
As the journey is not the source of the journey,
And so the mouth is different from both the source and the journey,
Even if both source and mouth lie in the darkness.
Out there, on our journey, you said,
You were a mind, and a ghost, and a robot programmed by a ghost.
What then of your desire?
You may think that water lies for a hundred thousand years in pelagic darkness
And never is a flame kindled in water,
But then the lightning hits a ship, the only tall point for miles,
And it goes crackling into flames,
Or maybe an oil spill is burnt off
And so the water all around sparks into fire.
All stability is cyclic.
Desire ends in so many ways.
It ends in the obtaining of all possible outlets for desire,
But when there is nothing to set outlets into relief, then there is darkness,
Or it ends in the burning out of the flame of desire,
Which metaphorically leads to darkness,
Or it ends when no mind remains to contain desire,
Snuffed out into nothing, where all there is is darkness,
But where there is nothing,
There is everything to be desired.
When you were a mind, and a ghost, and a robot programmed by a ghost,
How real was your desire?
If the darkness kills desire,
It is also where desire will be born again.
When you reach a goal, and the ghost dies,
Then only can untainted desire rise from the ashes,
So I want you to take my hand.
This cannot be only spray;
A steady thrum falling down on my head,
And I can barely see through the darkness.
Staring out at the darkness,
I already feel as though I am in darkness.
The dimmest of lights behind me,
The occasional bolt heading closer,
Are nothing in the bulk of darkness.
The sun has covered its paints with the blanket;
The birds are asleep; darkness is behind me
And in front of me, we are almost already
In the darkness and the water.
I can feel it all over me,
And I can breathe, so I am not in the sea,
But I am almost already in the sea.
The waves leap up on the shore,
The pebbles below me are soaked and wet,
The rain is streaming like ocean currents.
I can look up to get a face full of water
Or stare down to look the water in the face.
I can see the clouded over blanket above me
Or the failure of the horizon out in front of me.
With darkness and water surrounding me, above and below,
Left and right, before and behind,
I have no sense of direction,
But, without direction, I can have no sense of gravity.
There is no easiest path to take.
She says, I want you to take my hand.
Fat drops of rain blur together with ocean spray.
If I am without gravity, I may also be without desires.
A long time ago, someone in the past formulated a desire,
Somewhere distant, tens of thousands of years away,
And I have been fulfilling her desire.
Anything else that briefly sparked up from my feelings,
Thoughts, emotions, was quickly smothered
By the ghost in the machine.
One desire drawing me on for so long,
Long after it faded into habit,
And now I have lost all my desires.
If I knew what I wanted, I might do it,
But now it seems as though as sea and sky and land blend into one,
There are no distinctions,
And one path is as good as another,
If I am only waiting for a flame to light again,
And the lightning is right above me,
And she wants me to take her hand.
She says, I want you to take my hand.
Pebbles are sucked beneath my feet into the sea.
Violence is justified in self-defense, I hear,
But otherwise one is pushed by violence, not pulled by it.
Surely it is better to avoid violence.
Surely one universal desire is to escape violence.
Out there in the darkness, she told me, there is violence,
Endless violence; the sea will seem calm but, at its core, violence.
The sharks are eternally moving in the water, I hear,
The storms are rough and destructive.
The mermaids have sharp teeth.
They bite into you and your blood pours out into the ocean,
And I have always been terrified of jellyfish.
It does not seem right, somehow, to become violence
When one is not violence.
The thunder now is so loud, so close,
It sounds like the pebbles are exploding.
How can one make the choice to become violence,
And yet, I struggle to remember, even in our peaceful times there was violence,
The breeze that calmed the plains and ruffled the forest
The same wind that threatened snow in the mountains
And is sheeting a deluge against my face now.
If violence was the force that pushed us on, towards the darkness,
And if violence lives in the darkness,
And pushed us out of the darkness,
If the quake that splits the earth to lift up mountains is violence,
And the sea tears at the land in violence, fighting to take back
What once arose out of it, pushed by violence,
Then the whole world is formed in violence,
The moments of peace only the product of violence,
And doomed to once more fall back into violence,
As if violence were mass and the process gravity.
We may wish – I do wish – for the vales to last forever,
But the vales are a thin veneer between earthquakes and tsunamis.
We cannot stretch it thinner.
It has ripped apart, poked on one side by the mountains,
Drowned on the other by the sea.
If we are to make a new one, it is an act of violence against the darkness.
We may want to avoid violence,
But we ourselves were birthed in violence,
And only after destruction is their space left to create in.
When the world is a unity,
When sea is sky and darkness darkness,
Only by tearing things apart can we return to distinctions.
Maybe if we try a little harder, do a little better,
Peace can arise once more out of violence.
Maybe peace can conquer violence, next time.
If violence threatens to destroy peace,
Peace must know how to defend itself,
And thus if there is a time when violence is not the answer,
We have not reached it yet.
We need to make the space to create it in,
Make for thicker vales.
Here, in the present maelstrom of violence,
My hair is whipped around by the wind,
Already wet and dripping little streamlets of its own,
And I say, all things begin in darkness.
The wind is loud, the thunder fierce,
The sea fighting back with its own howls.
She needs to shout.
She shouts, from here on,
We will become the darkness.
We grab hands.
Holding hands, forming a line, we rush together
Out away from the majestic mountains,
Into the pools where the water begins to creep up our legs,
Out away from the plains,
Into the salt and the streams of water caused by sudden darting fish,
Out away from the darkness,
Into the darkness,
Sea and sky and land drop away,
Darkness is darkness is darkness.
We are rushing now, now that our journey
Has ended and begun, rushing forth
Out past the mouth into the sea,
Out past our fear into emptiness,
Holding hands, together, sweeping on
In the struggle to become the darkness.