11 November 2011

Gradual Descent

I keep returning to a notion about some comprehensive metaphor for what I'll call the repository of humanness – whether passing thoughts, or all the aggregated knowledge, or all of the DNA on earth – being a nighttime landscape dotted with campfires.

I don't know why it is nighttime, or why I envision a landscape, or why the landscape is dotted with fires, but I see this in my mind. My point of view is as if perched in a fire tower. From that perspective, I imagine I see the curvature of the earth, not unlike the sensation of flying on a clear night.

I suppose the metaphor is that we stoke the fires of humanness while we're here, and in return, the fires give us light and warmth.

It's not easy to reconcile this vision with the immediacy of day-to-day living except perhaps by nibbling at it with poetry.
Gradual Descent
Saint Paul, 11 November 2011
We see the curvature of the earth
a moonless midnight dotted with fire
not knowing the origin of warmth
or why the fires disappear at dawn
But we begin our gradual descent
with our tray tables locked
in the upright position

This notion about humanness might have been born from a dream. It has been with me so long, it's difficult to remember the origin.

05 November 2011

Understanding a River

A river is a handy metaphor for many things. Time and progress map succinctly to the rhythms of a river. I have lived by flowing water all my life.

As a boy I lived by a brook. The brook had eddies and pools and channels. It had exposed roots and small sand bars. The brook gave me the sneaker-soakers I needed to begin to understand life. It also provided an ever-changing living-stage for all the characters in my imaginary world.

Now I live a brisk walk from Big Muddy - The Mississippi River. Water is as constant as anything I have known. Flowing water connects me with the past. Brooks, streams, and western creeks have allowed me to dream the future like the current carries an autumn leaf out of view. I am a temporary observer, but I prefer it that way.

I used to run a Mississippi River loop crossing two bridges high above the water. One November night I jogged past a unclothed man perched on the top guardrail on the old Lake Street - Marshall Avenue bridge (right). The man's hands were joined as if to pray, but he was poised on the railing like a swimmer on a starting block.

My instinct was to ignore him --to ignore the unfolding tragedy. Who was I to interrupt an intensely personal decision? Sometimes death is the only answer that makes sense. The river is a dispassionate conveyance to another place.  

The man was incensed that I failed to notice him. He ran after me.

Sensing him closing in, I hurdled the short railing onto the pavement of the bridge deck as did he. He broke into a sprint, then jumped on my back. We hit the deck -- a strange slow-motion ballet. I reversed him, then pinned him to the pavement. He was frozen and naked, affixed to the white center-line curled like a fetus. I got up then back-peddled across the bridge. His mouth was stuck open like the horrified subject in Edvard Munch's The Scream.

A car slowed down and stopped by him. The driver picked the man up, and guided him into the back seat of the car, then drove forward, and rolled down the window to ask me if I was okay.

That the river is a dispassionate conveyance to another place comes as stark recognition in Bruce Springsteen's Matamoros Banks. In this tune, a dead man floats a border river after having tried to cross into a better life.

A river is a suitable metaphor for progress. There are processes steeped in potential energy that determine the course of a river. So it is for social justice.
Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
A river is an alluring metaphor for time. Looking at a river is like looking at time. I suspect time, like a river, would be better understood at a different scale. Perhaps if we could see the long-view of time, we would see its path wasn't constant. Perhaps time would carve great canyons.

We will never understand a river, but that won't stop me from writing a poem about it.
Understanding a River
Saint Paul, 6 November 2011 

It's no more possible to understand a river
than to comprehend the channels love will carve
or to predict what size sand grains will drop
from suspension on its leeward banks

If creeks are smaller than streams
and streams are smaller than rivers
why do we love so much like water?

Water taxis and gondolas full of autumn's leaves
drift from our attention like defiant indifference
Yet we implore the gondolier to paddle faster
on the off chance of reliving past infatuations

In this poem, a river becomes a little like love.

03 November 2011

Midnight in Harlem

We don't feel alive when we are not passionate about something. Sometimes passion is a firecracker. Other times it's something we carry with us for life. Sometimes it feels like it's a thin thread that holds fast our resolve. Whether it's a grand cause, or the self-centered resolve to be happy and to be loved. Whatever the end state is, the journey is rarely easy and it's rarely over.
The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep.
We may not get there in one year or even one term.

~ President-Elect Barack Obama, election eve speech 2008, Grant Park, Chicago.
I am buoyed by the notion that our future unfolds like the stylus picks up the phonograph of our lives. I know empirically that the flip-side of despair is hope.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band rendition of Midnight in Harlem is beautifully poetic. If not the character and strength of Susan's voice delivering hope from despair, it's Derek's plaintive licks on slide guitar.

I have been thinking about the lyrics in this tune. There is much to resonate to. As vocalist and lyricist Mike Mattison writes in the refrain:
Spend your whole life trying
Ride that train, free your heart
It's midnight up in Harlem
Midnight in Harlem
lyrics by Mike Mattison

Well, I came to the city
I was running from the past
My heart was bleeding
And it hurt my bones to laugh
Stayed in the city
No exception to the rule
He was born to love me
I was raised to be his fool

Walk that line, torn apart
Spend your whole life trying
Ride that train, free your heart
It's midnight up in Harlem

I went down to the river
And I took a look around
There were old man's shoes
There were needles on the ground
No more mysteries, baby
No more secrets, no more clues
The stars are out there
You can almost see the moon
The streets are windy
And the subway's closing down
Gonna carry this dream
To the other side of town
My daughter and I both love this tune. She is in Colorado studying for an exam to identify the pickled parts of cadavers.

If she was here, I would ask here what this song means to her. I would listen carefully. Then, if she wondered what I thought, I would tell her
The stars are out there. I can almost see the moon.
And I would tell her that I love her 8-sideways because 8-sideways is how we think of infinity.