An image surfaced as I journaled two days ago, neck-deep in the food- court. I was surprised that any peace of mind — that any piece of my mind — could be floating in the swamp at the bottom of the mall. I dove into the middle to prove I could, to make friends with the absurdity rather than pace endlessly outside until it was time to board the train again. As I suspected, the insanity of the mall would not subside, yet some current running through that loony place stirred me. I needed to be dredged.
It is not a poem yet. In fact, I did not have much luck wrestling with the images on lined paper last night. A tower keeps vigil over a treeless sea-coast. There is a bushy beard of mosses and algae clinging to the outcrops and the low-rumpled skies are the slightly purple gray of an expiring rainstorm in late afternoon. The storm has stripped the tower’s facade like old wrapping paper, leaving tatters stapled to the cross-beams around its waist: a ruined tutu. It may be in shambles but not from neglect: it’s not old enough for that. Though the very base is made of field-stone, most of its height is stitched together from long steel beams that stretch skyward, like a giant inverted and funnel-web, frozen brittle, pulling away from the luxurious coast toward an unseen heaven. When my vocabulary and my muse return to me, I want to stand on the highest ledge and swing a grappling hook at a passing comet… when my muse comes alive and I have the words with me, like arrows in a quiver…
—no, like a magazine clicking into the stock of a semi-automatic rifle and (maybe not that either)—
The metaphor, here, is that my desire for success is like that tower. The material is excellent but the structure is poorly wrought. Like the tower of Babel, this spire of success is actually reverse engineered from my failure to reach the heavens. The Bible tells the story precisely backward, as if God must have foiled our plans. Human Beings are arrogant and we needed a sound explanation for why we could not unite for a greater good but, instead, chose to stay fragmented once some of us left Africa. Likewise, I always envisioned myself as Cassopolis’s greatest progeny but after a few decades I was “just a guy at college” (my aunt’s words, taken out of context), just an unemployed graduate, and then just an ironic missionary who fought hard for good, with my bad attitude. Soon… a guy with a notebook. I need an explanation for why I never lassoed that comet, anything other than “comets cannot be lassoed”.
Music videos from the nineties played in the food-court: Pearl Jam, No Doubt, Smashing Pumpkins. Aromas crawl from under the tables of a nearby Starbucks, other scents whisper of greasy meats from a 1950’s themed diner beyond…
…but I smell damp air rising from behind the boulder that sits by the foundations of my tower. A fissure appeared where the steely buttresses of that failed edifice drive their stiff fingers into the stone like freshly kneaded bread. As the tower leans flaccidly to one side in the driving wind, the Earth beneath it is pried wide. The trickles of water snaking along the beams coalesce and tunnel there way into that opening. How long does it take to make a cavern from rain-water? How long did I hang far above, fussing with rivets and cursing the sky, while a passage grew organically beneath my gaze?
—how long have I been in the damn mall, again?—
I read that poets should write not as themselves but as if they are the person who knows them best: JD gets lower than he ever imagined, further from the stars and away from the rain. I finally see him entering the cave. His hands are rusty brown with the soggy grit of its opening maw. Protected from the wind, the atmosphere congeals; it swallows him one tentative foot-plant at a time until he is subdued by the cool, heavy aura wrapping around his chest. The shivering subsides and his eyes come to the verge of adjusting. No, he grows whiskers. This is magical realism so I want whiskers coming from my face, elbows, and knees like an otter plumbing along the bottom of a river.
You all can imagine: it’s a work of contrasts. Here I want the readers to feel the burgeoning closeness as I descend. They should feel the walls constricting like veins and hear the muffled churning of distant calderas beneath extinct or infant volcanoes (the difference is only in whether the eruptions are past or future). I wanted to write two contrapuntal litanies of oblivion. In the first, I could be swept away into the most exhilarating, yet final, act of my life as I make a desperate leap for a wispy, gambling miracle to consummate my career as writeractivistmusicianperson. I imagine JD swept into the wind yelling “I always Loved You!”, while I watch myself from the ground, asking “what!? Who in the world am I talking about?” In the second, I could be rendered functionally dead at any moment. A heavy stone might slide into the tunnel behind me and force me to write myself deeper and deeper into the cave — maybe into a submerged chamber. Maybe eat some mysterious fungus and grow gills— no! JD dies a boring death, whispering in vain “did you love me, [ ]? How about you, [ ]? Or you… or you… or me? I wish I’d brought an instrument to play…” In the cave, he resigns to obscurity. He can do anything he wants until decay sets in and concludes his eccentric metaphor for thwarted self-actualization.
An alternative ending is that my friend Cliff crawls in behind me and says, “Dude, what are you doing down here? We’re having a barbecue. There’s going to be kabobs and fruit-salad– probably some hard-boiled eggs—”
“—the fertilized duck-eggs you ate in the Philippines?”
“Sure. It’s pretend. You can even have a gorgeous wife, if you want.”
“I want to try one of those — I mean a duck-egg. I also… okay nevermind: let’s just go. I don’t care if you’re in Los Angeles & I’m hallucinating in a D.C. mall. Yulla & bye-bye, hole-in-the-ground…”
I didn’t come to this point — to tolerating the mall — via tower or tunnel. I came via barbecue: people have crawled in behind me and said “Uh… we like you; do you want some food? You obviously have places you would rather be…” This ties in closely with themes of acceptance I can explore another time — where success is a river and (no: another time… I promise we will get there).
I shut my notebook and opened my eyes: the entire mall was at my disposal.