Here's number two. When I open my computer and click on the icon for the internet, the home page is the Poetry Daily website and this morning's is a poem called "The human palimpsest's prayer" by Matt Mauch. I admit to often ignoring the daily poem, if the title feels too stuffy or full of itself, too precious, and probably, like my eyes leaving that mountain, I miss things. (The cloud in front of the mountain, for example, while I was writing, morphed into a double baguette, smoky blue gray, and it expanded, so no ridgeline is visible anymore, just a Civil-War-Union-uniform-blue plank of forested slope pressed between cloud-bank and bay. That mountain changes color and though I search my memory for the name of any one of its manifestations, mentally leaf through the catalogue of Crayola hues or paint chip names, I can never come up with it. It's usually a color hasn't been named. Another challenge. If I keep at it, maybe I'll get a PhD in My Mountain University). A few random things compelled me to actually read Matt Mauch's poem. For one, he looks a little like my friend Derrick, also a poet. And that word, "palimpsest." What did it mean? But the clincher was the title of the book the poem is reprinted from, Prayer Book, published by Lowbrow Press. I like lowbrow prayers the best, and Mauch's didn't disappoint, being a prayer that goes like this:
I want to stop being so human,
low to the ground, dragging this
bag of bones around, udder with nothing
left to give, no memory of grip pull twist squeeze,
how it lets the inside out. I want to stop
making my way through the day
like I'm a shim. Want to forget about the mallet
driving the shim, climb the highest tree in town,
settle on a branch that can barely hold me,
encouraging the slenderer branches
higher up: Prick the firmament,
bleed down a sample of beyond.
I want to leave the cellar I've packed full
behind me, squinting as I would to see someone
coming toward me from faraway, blurring
the orange and yellow leaves, the few trees still green,
softening the world, merging the seldom merged,
valley and city and river reclining
like paint-spackled nudes.
I want to channel the Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt always wanted to be,
to turn osprey, owl, or crow, marveling
at the surprising ease of flight, joints
cracking in places where I never imagined
I could bend.
I like a prayer with an udder, a shim, a bag of bones, an osprey, an owl, a crow. A prayer that wants to to fly, crack and bend. That wants to rise above itself. (I'm really not sure if it's completely okay to reprint the poem here, so I'll make up for any transgression by ordering this intriguing Prayer Book today. And I hope, if you like his poem, you'll do the same). So I looked up palimpsest. It's one of those words your ego's so sure you should know, that you never look it up. This is what my giant Webster's New Unabridged says: "a parchment, tablet, etc. that has been written upon or inscribed two or three times, the previous text or texts having been imperfectly erased and remaining, therefore, still visible." (And as if to illustrate, when I look out the window to see what my mountain's up to, it's erased by a wall of fog. Baguettes dissolved, all that remains is a vague dark gray shadow suggesting some kind of crease). The Wikipedia definition used slightly different verbs, which seemed important to me. It claims that that the Greek for psao (one of the roots of the word) means "I scrape," so the previous text on the parchment hasn't been merely rubbed or erased, but scraped off, a harsher act. Which of course reminds me of yesterday's post, and yesterday's reading from The Book of Awakening.
Today's reading from that book was about flight, about birds. Nepo writes, "We, like the birds, are meant to fly and sing -- that's all -- and all our plans and schemes are twigs of nest that, once outgrown, we leave." And then he writes that birds "do not understand concepts such as holding back or only investing if the return seems certain. In this, we are the only creatures that seek out guarantees, and in doing so, we snuff the spark that is discovery."
The birds that come to mind for me are crows. I walked to Bishop's Beach last night alone. I'd left Gris-Gris at home. I'd left my day's quests and schemes. Bishop's Beach is a long stretch of sandy-rocky shoreline at the base of town. If you're motivated and the tides are right, you can walk all the way to the next town, Anchor Point, on Bishop's Beach. And going there is one way to absorb Homer culture. It was my first beach walk since returning home. I walked down from Craig's office to Two Sister's Bakery and turned right. Ahead of me, a young man in baggy pants practiced a trick on his skateboard in the middle of the street. His head was down, watching his feet. He appeared to be attempting a kind of flight, like a young eagle unable to achieve lift-off, but trying and trying, only managing to hop. He built up speed on the board, then executed a foot-flip-thrust that lifted him a couple feet off and spun the board around, and he seemed to be trying to land back on it, but couldn't, quite, and the look on his face when I got close was a focused scowl of pure effort. He muttered disparagement to himself, then tried again. He wasn't a kid, but a young man, maybe 28, trying to become a bird. When I reached him he looked up and the scowl dissolved instantly and momentarily into an effortless smile. I walked on, leaving him to his Promethean task, and that's when I saw the crows. Black wedges leafing the bare trees against the gray sky of sunset. Like the mountain (which is now utterly disappeared, as is the water, as is the horizon, swallowed in a bank of fog), they define Homer for me, a subculture, always at the beach or its vicinity, like the teenagers who perpetually drive their souped up or rattle trap cars to the Bishop's Beach parking lot to check out the scene. The crows are a fringe element of town. One spring, I saw a crow with his top beak missing everywhere I went, the Sourdough Restaurant deck, the beach, the bike trail on the Homer Spit. He seemed to be doing fine.
The parking lot at Bishop's Beach is an over-ground, under-ground teen scene. The beach itself is another, more multi-generational. I counted 12 people out there, a trio doing some kind of dance at the water's edge, various dog-walkers, another trio, oddly enough, also playing/dancing further east, and a father watching his little girl dig in the sand. It was 30 degrees. It surprised me, that many people at 7 pm on a gray evening in late winter. But it was a good cloudy-day sunset, with the light of the hidden sun turning a patch of water into molten pewter. Climbing a muddy bluff back to the road, I found, not a crow feather, but a pheasant's, and I pocketed it. And then I went off to the final social encounter of a day packed with social encounters, "udder with nothing left to give." The palimpsest of my new self written over with an old familiar story. I put on my good face.
Bear with me. That's four threads I've now unraveled: the mountain (revealing itself again now, from the bottom up), the palimpsest poem, the reading about birds, the beach. The fifth is the mirror. Here's where I get personal. Yesterday I crammed in way too much, and it left me feeling depleted this morning, actually, more than depleted. I woke with old familiar phrases playing in my head, accompanied by old familiar feelings in my body that can be most simply translated as a kind of nausea. Phrases like "I don't fit into this world." And "I'm confused." Feelings like the old clench of heart, a prey animal panic. I threaded the film of yesterday back into the projector and replayed it by writing it all down in my journal:
Yesterday, after brushing my teeth, I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I looked into my own eyes, the slightly worried gaze staring back at me from that still-unfamiliar face. I forced myself not to look away and I said, out loud: "Your body is healed of cancer. You are healthy. You are healed." It seemed the only answer to fear.
The nausea of waking began began to erase itself as I wrote. That woman in the mirror has gone down the road without me. It's like I'm two people, one as unsure and mixed-up as ever, one strong enough to go through cancer treatment. One still popping Xanax before a plane flight, one actually walking onto airplanes, despite me. She opens her inner arm to IVs, despite me. Looking in the mirror, I saw something reflected that I saw in Helen's face the other day, a kind of strength and resolve I just don't feel day-in, day-out. It's the thing my friend Jo saw when she said I look different now. It's the bedrock. It's the part scraped raw.
There is a poem that flew into my head then. It landed on a branch in my ear like a bird, "I am Not I" by the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez. It goes like this:
I am not I.
I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
who remains calm and silent while I talk,
and forgives, gently, when I hate,
who walks where I am not,
who will remain standing when I die.
It seems that I, like the speaker in Matt Mauch's poem, am too a human palimpsest, each day written over, each night, or each session of writing, scraping off the old text to reveal the bedrock beneath. And guess what, the cloud has lifted so high I can see the tree-covered flank of the mountain, the white broken line that runs down its side to the water like a pencil scratch, only the top, the alpine, still hidden. I am not I, says the mountain, and neither are you.