I read this because as is my way of reading I had an instantaneous and wildfire need to read Birthday Letters and try as I might I couldn’t get Birthday Letters legally or illegally straight to my phone. I never intended to know as much about Sylvia Plath as I do. I don’t think well of her work, though my opinion, in maybe a Stockholm scenario, is becoming more ambivalent (really in significant part because I read her very good essay about her childhood). Obviously this is not really a book about her but a book about a book about Hughes, whose work I do think generally well of. But I was surprised to find my impressions of her confirmed by those who do respect her as a poet: Hughes says “Your heart, mid-Sahara, raged / In its emptiness. / Your dreams were empty.” This is what I’ve always thought and said. I can’t believe the emptiness of her brain. Intelligent, sensually perceptive, extreme-ly emotional and totally empty inside—it must have been like hell for her. Like a living hell!
I was also astounded to have my suspicions about her occult interests confirmed and surpassed. It’s pretty popular now as part of the super-reality story to say Hughes was moony and superstitious and Plath was cynically rational. People say that her ouija poem is about her skepticism of fey tyrannical Hughes’ beliefs. I don’t know how anybody could read her diaries or even have a passing familiarity with her poems and her way of putting things and come away thinking that.
Anyway, I hadn’t known the origin of the “Colossus” title and I am both cross with her for not using this experience more deftly and deeply—and I’m sure the reason is because she was such a middle-class prig, sensitive to poetry fashions of the time, which definitely looked down on the ooky spooky—and I’m also amazed at her foolishness, their foolishness.
I read Hughes’ Tempest commentary and I see the origins of the error—a terribly tragic mistake, probably life-deranging: in his read, Prospero is powerless without Ariel and so Ariel’s earth-magic is the driving power of the story and play. Imagine a world in which Will (the motive engine of the fairy world, at least in magicians’ view) with its stupid fireworks is more worthy than Absence, Renunciation, Inaction, which is Mercy. This world is the anti-Zen and frankly the attitude of hell. It’s the magical attitude which would have deranged Yeats if Yeats hadn’t been so sincere and sweet; it’s the attitude which arose from the willfully-deranged Aleister Crowley.
I share a lot of attitudes with Ted Hughes. I guess it is unavoidable given our shared interests and comparable cultures of origin, and of course given that he had a hand in shaping many of the things which shaped me (particularly the 70s-90s renaissance of British folklore and paganism). And we are not so far apart in time. The dozy stoned incantations of whatever higher science has made its way down to urban folklore which so marked people of a certain intelligence and inclination in the mid-century are as attractive to me as they were to him—I’m a Y2K child as he was a child of the two apocalyptic technology wars, so both of us like to dreamily move through the kinds of Physics lingo people invoke when they think the world is ending.
All of this is to say that I like him, rather, and certainly am predisposed to like the way he talks about things, and that the subject of poor Plath is one I am interested in only accidentally. This book is a good poetic commentary and a great insight into both people. The author makes an admirable stylistic choice in a book which is otherwise (and quite naturally) formulaic—she creates a subtle, nearly secret and always brief confusion sometimes about who wrote what: she’ll put off capping a quote with “as Hughes writes” etc for a few lines of thought. After a while it becomes gooeyer than you’d think—the sounds of Plath and Hughes blur more sometimes than I would have expected. I have to think this is a choice on Wagner’s part, given the otherwise seamless construction, and knowing nothing of her at this point I wonder if she’s a poet herself.
But this is what is most important. The final lines of the book are the most shocking volta I have ever read in nonfiction. The entire work becomes a terrible brilliant Goldberg machine for those final lines. Read it for those alone, and read them last.
Every day for all my life I encounter and dismiss the pose which runs “haha modern art is bad”. Every part of it is gibberish, from the personality which undergirds it, to the crazily misapplied language, to the fact that at the very latest this is an idea got from approximately the year 1954. You’ll find it all over the political spectrum, especially amongst Americans, because rather than having to do with preference or interest or beliefs it is the expression of a smug, half-drunk pride in worse things—down-home things, like-folks, nobody’s-better-than-anybody else.
It is an attitude which is frankly and literally Nazi, and there’s not much more to be said about that—the originals in the game, breathless over Campbell’s Soup Kids and derisive of Chagall and Picasso. There are facts about art, and one fact is that the pure and subtle line, athletically controlled, restrained, is better in all ways than the squishy and decorative. Picasso is superior in skill, attitude, aesthetic and choice to a Nazi-commissioned painting of a grinning family at haying time.
This is so clear a boundary that there’s almost no need to say it: if you find yourself agreeing with Nazis, you’ve got to reevaluate your sensible faculties. Here is a position which causes me more concern, because it is better at talking about itself—the political alliance with the Renaissance. A casting-back to a time of balance, sophistication and beauty. Make no mistake: it is the same mind which makes this comparison. The person who in his heart prefers the pink-faced Northern genre painting of the child spilling his breakfast beer is the same person making soft overtures toward the harmony and sanity of Renaissance art compared to the degeneracy of the present day.
When I tell you about this, I will tell you three important facts—
1. The Renaissance as an art period is representative of decadence rather than flourishing; it is the tail-end of a movement and not the great height
2. When Renaissance art is beautiful it is asymmetric, odd and fine, not gargantuan, pleased and hot-faced
3. The people who appeal to Renaissance art for political ends do not like Renaissance art, cannot correctly interpret it, and are substandard lookers in the first place (that is, worse at looking than their betters)
Altogether, I hate genre painting. I hate the homely and the affectedly folkish. At one time I dismissed the people who love it; today I regard them as my enemies. They are not only subliterate visually but an active danger to art in all its forms, and for all that their position is at this point literally antique, they are continuously reinvented. I will talk more about this soon.
Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán, c. 1635-1640. San Diego Museum of Art (California)
In honor of Easter Weekend, following is an excerpt from my long-delayed chapbook about animal-human transformations in art. If I can arrange for even modest distribution, I will print it this summer.
Hatch of feet, 2 back through 2 front. Shadow up neck, little hedge of shadow. Neck straightened along the table, jaw nearly flat to surface, smiling mouth tucked over, the long wilted slope of the nose—the flesh of the nose beneath the flesh of its bridge; the bridge extends further than the flesh of the nose.
Looking at the light on the forefoot I recognize the painterly shorthand of strokes—before then it had seemed to me, overall I mean and in impression, like a Dutch still life, like Dutch realism. Zurbarán has more to do with slimily wet clay, fine mud from a lake’s floor than he has to do with glassine realism, cold hard hyperreality, realistic—I am referring to Dutch realism—in sense that 80s Japanese airbrush art of fruit breaching out of water is realistic.
I am looking now at a St Francis in Meditation. The weird smokey haze around his hood, like burnt pan submerged in water, shapes softened by darkness, receeding into darkness: sea glass.
Back to lamb. Its archaic smile, pulled up by the architecture of its face, like a drawing in which the brows and bridge of nose make one line, picassoid. Neck out like a dinosaur along table, and as I have said before mouth goes over edge of table. Rolling on throat so that eyelid is a canopy to the surface of the table rather than leaned back along it.
Jaw and chin and throat immediately below head are turning on the table like an unsteady object leaning back and forth as it comes to rest. Never before fully appreciated how whole, of a piece, the shape of a sheep’s head. The eye turns down in its head because the bone of the brow slides from forehead to eye socket smooth as an O’Keeffe angle of sand.
On the whole, a heap of lamb like a slouchy BoHo bag swung onto this ambient desk. I have told you about this mouth which has so often affected me. A mouth at the end of a throat-shaped whole-body. You think of how his lip feels turning his head as he does. Now his jaw and throat are on the mysterious table: the tongue is made firm and packed in the mouth. When he turns his head his lips, wide and half-exterior like a cat’s will touch the table, whatever it’s built of.
What follows is a fairy tale about Southern California
Kelly walked out on a hot day. At the end of the road there was a house being rebuilt. Its driveway was turned up into corners of big gray stones. On the sidewalk out front lay two construction workers. Kelly crossed the street to give them space. One of the men lay in total sleep. He was stretched like a rabbit in a Dutch painting, with his feet long and his neck entirely extended. The other man was awake on his side, an arm triangulated for support, and he watched the screen of his phone, which was propped on its little snail-foot on the concrete. Kelly could see the blue pool through the house’s living room.
As Kelly rose slowly in the sun, past homes and their flowers, she heard a muted drumming. Down a street of houses, with horselike speed, there was a galloping animal. Its four feet curled off the road as it came. It was a coyote. Kelly paused. Its coat was Bowie-colored, burnished, clean and high. Its ears went straight up. Its mouth was open, like a human pressing its tongue to its side teeth. It swerved like a cyclist when it came near Kelly. Its head looked at her as it passed. She understood that it was afraid and that it was suffering.
The coyote moved up the hill which Kelly had meant to take. She did not want to make the coyote feel as if it was being pursued. She took the long way to the underpass.
The heat increased its pressure. Kelly stood at the light beside the offramp, waiting for the walk sign to show. The cars from the highway came down brightly. A boy’s voice called out, and when Kelly turned she saw that it was the coyote, approaching from the underpass. It looked at her like a runner with sweat in his eyes. “You were kind to me,” said the coyote. “I’m going to reward you because you were kind and didn’t chase me. If you’ll find something for me, I’ll give you a treasure.”
The coyote waited. Kelly thought, It looks exhausted. She had the sense that the coyote wanted to sound as if it were doing her a favor, but that it needed her help. It had gone up the hill, considered, and had come back for her.
“Let’s go,” said the coyote.
“You can’t cross yet,” said Kelly.
They waited for the walk sign to appear. They crossed the offramp together.
“A witch stole my face from me,” said the coyote. “I need you to get it back from her. She’s near here. Can you get it?”
“I don’t know,” said Kelly.
“You could just go in and get it. It wouldn’t be hard to find. God, it’s hot.”
“She lives nearby?” asked Kelly.
“Very close,” said the coyote. They walked along the busy street. “You’re going to get it for me, right?”
“I have no idea,” said Kelly.
“It’s my face,” said the coyote, but it was as if it was talking to itself. “I need it.”
They came to the end of the block and the coyote said they should go around the corner, behind the liquor store. On the back of the liquor store there was a big yellow banner: PSYCHIC HEALING. There was a set of stairs to a door on the second floor.
The psychic’s apartment was dim and gray and mostly empty. The psychic stood before Kelly like the blood in her body had not distributed itself yet. Her eyes were squinting. She told Kelly that she read fortunes and did energy healing and then she listed prices. There was a table and a couch and a tv on the wall. There was a galley kitchen and a blender and a microwave. There was a shut door with one sound of shifting behind it. There was a set of low shelves: a little pyramid in jelly rainbow layers, diminished by matter like dust; long smashed paper boxes of incense sticks; a Guadalupe candle; a closed drawer. The psychic saw Kelly looking at the shelves and she reached out and lifted a box of incense. “I also have things for sale,” she said.
“Do you have candles?” asked Kelly.
“Yeah,” said the psychic. She pointed at the Guadalupe candle.
“Do you have Lazarus?”
The psychic looked at the Guadalupe candle like maybe she had misread it. “Yeah,” said the psychic again, unsure.
Kelly asked if the psychic could check for a Lazarus candle. Okay, the psychic said. Also cash only, the psychic said. The psychic opened the closed door and Kelly saw a red plush blanket over the lump of a person, turning on a mattress. The psychic went into this room and closed the door and began to move things.
Kelly opened the drawer on the set of dark shelves. The handle of the drawer was soft with dust. The drawer was full. A great buttery smell of coconut. A postcard of a lucky Buddha. Kelly put her fingers into the pile of things to page through them: immediately beneath the postcard she touched hair like a horse’s neck, and although she felt horror she lifted the lucky Buddha and she saw the coyote’s face. It was small as a mask and its eyes were empty. White water line, black hard nose. It was flat.
The door opened. “What are you doing?” said the psychic.
“I’m sorry,” said Kelly. She pulled out the coyote’s face clumsily. “He needs it.”
“What?” The psychic was still holding the box of incense. She had a candle in the same hand as the doorknob. She looked confused from a great distance, like a dissatisfied person on a hill.
“I’m sorry,” said Kelly. “Sorry.”
Kelly left while the psychic said Hey. Kelly hurried down the steps, which made a lot of noise.
The coyote told Kelly where to drive. It sat on the passenger seat, so Kelly had to buckle the belt behind it to stop the safety bell. It held its face flat against the seat of the chair with its front foot. Kelly drove for a long time. The coyote explained how to get the treasure. “I’ll take you to a red cave. You’ll find a silver chain on the cave floor. Lay the chain on the table nearby and your treasure will appear.” The last town came to a gradual end.
It was late afternoon when they arrived. It was a nature preserve. There was a water bottle filling station beside the parking lot. Kelly put her head under the tap and got water on her nose as she drank.
“I can’t go the whole way with you,” said the coyote. It took its face in its mouth and walked some minutes with her into the nature preserve. The ground was wavy. There were very high stones, nubbled pillars in tall shallow alcoves. They seemed like sections of cave excerpted from the indoors and brought out for display. They arrived at a very short ridge, only the height of a step: an edge of land scalloped by water in the winter, and a wide white arroyo where the water had been.
The coyote put its face down. “Keep walking until the rocks change shape. Look for the cave in a red rock. It’s not really a cave. It doesn’t go back very far. You’ll see it. That’s where it is.”
“How long do I need to walk?” asked Kelly.
“Not long,” said the coyote. “The sun will still be out. You probably should have brought water.”
The coyote took up its face and left, a hill of animal hurrying away from Kelly. It went up a rise, into a thatch of creosote, the pebbles of its coat color rolling behind the creosote’s arms, and it swept behind a set of stones and was gone.
Kelly crossed the arroyo. The stones changed. They reached and leaned in eccentric boxes and elephant shapes. Kelly did not think she would find the cave or that it was real. High above, the pillars reappeared, grew massive, then diminished into shelves of mushroom-hatted stones. Down a slope, in a wall that was red like sauce on a chicken leg, Kelly saw the half-planet impression of a cave.
It was cool in the shadow of the cave, but it was not dark. This place was not wide, and it was clean. There was the silver chain. It was bright as if it had been polished. The walls of the cave were pocked with wind marks or snake holes. Kelly felt as if someone dear were there. There was also a cool terrible loss.
The silver chain had the look of a bracelet, fat flat links, but overbig. A link was the size of her palm. It was very nice to touch. Unwieldy, but not too heavy to lift. There was a red promontory in a shape like an ironing board. She laid the chain there. She tried to pour it down in a smooth and doubled line but it juddered, blocked in her hand and then falling in too quick a series. It hit the stone with a big soft jangle. It was like preparing the bed for a sick child. Kelly looked at the floor when she moved back because she was afraid she would stagger on a rock. Her heels along the ground made brushing noises.
The light did not change but it was as if on the ironing board a form became apparent out of some total darkness. It was a form where everything had seemed to be one shape. Then it was a form different from its table. Kelly experienced a grief in reverse, an amazing grief at the return of someone who had been lost. Its arrival was the completion of its having been away. The form became its own before the strange light which was a light in her mind distinguished its portions. At an imprecise moment, before the shoulders were articulated, before its knees or exactly its head, Kelly saw and understood the body of a man asleep.
This was my first time reading House of The Sleeping Beauties. I bought it sometime last year but the timing was poor, since I’d just had surgery and was reading it while insomniac and full of stitches, and eventually had to put it down halfway through. I’ve just read it through now. I think it is the most perfect book I’ve ever encountered.
There is a theme in Kawabata which I’ve never seen dealt with as accurately or as cuttingly elsewhere, of people with extremely heightened aesthetic and sensual abilities, hyper-able to appreciate and study beauty, who are also completely without morals, and who mistake their genius sensitivities for goodness. I guess you see Europeans taking about this, but since Europeans fundamentally dislike and distrust beauty you can’t take them too seriously. Kawabata loves and understands beauty and clearly detests the men who replace their morality with aestheticism.
I like Kawabata for many reasons. Principally I love his technique. I am like a Kawabata protagonist in many ways. By biological settings and by cultivation I am extremely, painfully sensitive to sight and touch and all the animal gifts by which we interact with our atmosphere. What I seek in fiction is creation and sustainment of atmosphere. It is what I admire. It is what I enjoy. For me, it is the absolute art, to which all other author’s-arts aim. Kawabata is the great master of developing and galvanizing an atmosphere. I have never seen anyone better. In this story Kawabata smacks the scene and it begins to spin, deep dark and lovely and evil, hovering above earth, and doesn’t stop spinning until the last few sentences, when it blows up and kills you.
Here’s an interesting thing, and it is the impetus for my writing this. When I’d finished the story and blown up, I wanted to read the intro. My understanding was that the intro was written by the translator, Edward G. Seidensticker, who I admire enormously and whose translation of Genji I have also read. But I was puzzled reading this intro. Very prettily written, very clear-minded, and yet, apparently, missing the mark completely. “Does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death forever at the same point?” it asks, and claims that reading this story one “knows with the greatest immediacy the terror of lust urged on by the approach of death”, and ultimately concludes that the story paints an unusually vivid image of life. This seems to me the opposite of Kawabata’s mind—a mind in which the main character is depraved beyond self-awareness, beyond life, beyond death, and at once supremely capable of sensual appreciation. He is not exemplary of the man near death (and in fact literally isn’t near death; it is important to the story that our main character is a man of early old age participating in a recreation designed for men of actual senility)—he is an example of a man who has died morally and lives ghoulishly on. His eroticism is half-human. Could Seidensticker have translated so beautifully and yet so direly misread the story?
Well! Come to the end of the intro and see the name signed: Yukio Mishima. Mishima! I say that so often. I say it like Jerry Seinfeld saying Newman! Mishima, my demon brother. Mishima is the man Kawabata writes about. No man has ever lived who has been more able to write about the body and its sweetnesses, and no man has ever been more morally barren. Mishima was a fantastic, phantastic presentation of a man who was able to walk and talk and write while already dead.
I have been thinking about science fiction. It is often forgotten, and bears conscious recall, that the parallel to the group-based whirlpools of fanfiction and related collectives to which a subset of Gen Zs and Milennials belong, is for Gen X and Boomers science fiction fandom. Underneath a surprising amount of mobius-shaped thought belonging to a certain element of the over-50 counterculture are the structures and cultures of science fiction fandom, the SCA, the old cultures of sci-fi conventions, early Dungeons and Dragons, sci-fi Usenet. There is a peculiar self-admiration and anti-humanism deep down in the veins of this stuff, essentially unrelated to science-fiction or fantasy and entirely related to fandom, its qualities and functions. I can’t prove this hypothesis—for so many reasons, not least that I am magnetically repelled by geek culture of any vintage.
I was thinking of this because I was made aware that “anti-body”, a term I often use to describe American society, has appeared in anti-Jewish paranoiac writing of technicolor insanity by people once members of the Deep Green Resistance. These writers believe, in part, that transgenderism was devised and funded by billionaires to lay the groundwork for AI-supplemented human bodies. I obviously don’t believe this, because I am not demented. It’s frustrating to see yet another term with serious thought behind it get picked up and disseminated by lunatics. The hatred of American culture for the human body is real. There is no reason for this true statement to get mixed up with people who think David Icke has something to say.
And so I have been thinking about the by-roads of big culture, and by-roads’ by-roads. An important impulse behind sci-fi fandom of the 70s and 80s seems to be the desire to head quietly and sociably onto the left-hand path. The aim seems to be to discover any by-road off the big one, and to do it as a group. I understand the impulse but don’t respect it. Whatever my appearance, I have always, my whole life, been in the wildwoods: I am fundamentally contemptuous of the taking of paths. I am especially scornful of people who think a weird road with company isn’t a road.
My way of life better accords to reality than the pathful way. And now let me tell you why, in terms a sci-fi fan might empathize with. These are my terms and this is one jargon of my native language, but the early-fandom desire to cut across main ways might recognize itself in my belief that any way is an obscenity against original reality.
We are, as a post-lapsarian people, living in the post-natural. Death is unnatural; but death, understood here as the failure of the body to sustain itself on earth, is an element of life under the circumstances of this earth. It isn’t necessary in the sense that other items of this earth require it—because that kind of necessity is non-real. All things exist and weirdly, wyrdly, we have thonged them together in an apparently codependent web.
There are many peoples who could have been. There are many ethics and means of thinking which might have been organized. That we have so badly limited ourselves to what-occurred-in-the-moment, that we are a people of entirely intuitive culture, from our language to our science and its techniques, is a cosmic disappointment.
We are living under a tediously structured state of reality. It did not have to be this way. We are living, as I said, in the post-natural, where our impulses and intuitions are so magnified by their being out of place that they have become the whole of our culture. Our little reaches beyond this state are stuck to an idea—an idea which hates humans—that our bodies either fit or don’t fit into a network which we’ve either got to conform to or leave.
I am as I said opposed, both by my nature and by the little ethics I’ve developed or come into third-hand, to paths and especially to group-walking down special paths. I am especially attuned to the sound of subcultures who want to get off-road. I think you should keep an ear cocked to the elements of our culture who were fostered specifically in 70s and 80s sci-fi fandom, whether as present participants or as inheritors. I think you will find that they play a far larger role in the contemporary counterculture than you’d expect.
Addendum: I can’t believe I have to add this, but because I am talking about the DGR people and their ideas about gender I’ve got to specify: when I talk about the anti-human and anti-body ideas of bodies in or leaving networks, I am not talking about gender theory. This is not my sideways means of describing gender or gender “discourse”. I am literally talking about the having of bodies.
My copy of Beacon Quarterly #14 arrived in the mail yesterday! It features my short story “The Dweller”, which is about the Health Museum and a lamassu.
It was so much fun creating art for Meat for Tea magazine‘s virtual issue release earlier this month. I also read my poem “The Fulfillment House”, originally published in MfT’s ’19 issue. I’ll always be grateful to MfT for picking up that poem, which I think is a very good one, and which I was having so much trouble placing that I was beginning to despair of seeing it in a magazine. It’s a new myth and also a Schubert lieder.
The fact is that damning sins are sad and silly. Paolo and Francesca wouldn’t be sliding birth-bagged around if they had really had a happy kiss. Real joy would have pushed its head up like a baby inside that kiss and they would have been saved.
There are other girls walking around like me. Miss Lana del Rey is hoping in the aquarium. It is true that I fear the pains of hell and the loss of heaven. I wouldn’t have slept with a one of those men if I were looking for someone to marry.
In the idiot hotel I slept with the man and then I went and bought holy cards. Look, look, you know what we are missing. Out of the chlorine comes the head with the Big Head eyes, two colored rings and an open mouth with water streaking between its teeth. The head is God and you know when it arrives.
King man in the black hotel. I’ve never met him. You know the way. The chill gets to be too much. Here’s what’s interesting. I am walking down the hill and it’s difficult because of the angle. My womb and ovaries bob and shake, red and white, salting blossoms. I am having surgery so that I can have babies and a lot of sex. I like the third-worst scene in Malena, where she is Mary in the race, shaking from the men’s shoulders, and crying.
I am disappointed in the bad news. The fact is that I am calling to the right man. I want the bad news in the black hotel on the prairie. Look at the line of traffic. I know that there are other women like me. I don’t ask for men like me. I only want them to be quiet enough for me to think.
I know how to love. It is one of the five things I can do. I am not talking about sex. I am saying love. I can love a man for forty years. All it takes is my deciding.
Who will bring me the bad news?
It turns out that men’s desires are mostly sorry. They are mostly memories from their childhoods. I could love this. When I decide to I will. But where is my big blue god, treading through the hotel’s roof like a granddad through a flooded basement?
Murder is boring, rape is boring, adultery and infidelity and drugs are boring. It is all habit. The movies are only reminding you of something. Here comes goblin-God, born in a peach.
Peach boy on the semen seas. Some god came in the water and the beautiful fruit developed. When it got near the shore it was big-toothed. Oh God. Oh God.
You know what I am longing for. The man in the long legs. Look at the long line of traffic from this hopeless distance.
Will you love me in the basement? Will you love me in the carpet? Will you come get me at the rest stop? Are you conscious of your sins?
Here is a second excerpt from the 2017 or 2018 story I excerpted in my previous post. Here, a painter named Absalom sits in a hotel room. Because this passage was originally split between two different chapters, I’ve added an ellipsis where its original break occurred.
As Palomar opened the window in Prague, Absalom asked for coffee on the phone in London. He thought himself shambly and stupid on the phone – in general and in this instance. He moved a finger over the batter-colored cord, bending and relaxing the joint at the knuckle with movements like a bird. He listened and thanked the kitchen and put the phone down.
In his mind Absalom moved over a hill. He moved through water. Absalom used his limbs to paddle through water. Absalom tried to use his arm like the spear of a canoe’s paddle, pushing with the flat of his hand and cutting the lake with the frankly mystifying physics of rowing. The sky was wan but pretty. There were some thin clouds. Instead, the sky was a brilliant stone blue and the clouds were distinct and spread as above the desert. A bee came down astoundingly, to the center of this lake from the sky, and hung before Absalom as he paused, treading. It was like a yellow spider on a web. The light caught it. The bee moved off sharply, without angles, to the right.
Absalom sat in the red chair and looked at the flowers. He thought about the apology to Pilgrim’s Progress but discarded it after only a moment. In his mind his hand moved over his books. He thought of Thomas Merton. He thought of John of the Cross and took his hand back before he was sure whether he had been in pain at the touch.
Brilliant roses the color of girls’ toys. Gigantic white roses. Red roses, ubiquitous. Big dinnerlike camellias. No one will ever see Absalom sitting here. Absalom moves like an animal entirely underground. Absalom and the stuffing, the ancient stuffing in the red chair. Absalom is the stuffing in the red chair. Absalom looked at himself as he habitually did, considering, placing and admiring or disgusted by himself. He seemed now to be a black stone, a black beryl bead or a miniature silhouette or one of Palomar’s scarabs set in an oyster-mauve slick bed, surrounded by a frame of bodyoid ivory, enclosed with a gilt lid and clasped at a woman’s throat. A blue silk bow at the end of a locket. A blue silk bow like a cat’s necklace, but very small, small as a mint.
Hundreds of flowers surrounded Absalom. The high-ceilinged room smelled of greenery but more pungently of preserved greenery and the ball-shaped food for plants. The flowers were beautiful. Absalom liked to sit with them stood out around him like this. He used to look at spools of thread in his mother’s mending box. This was like that.
Absalom thought of the camellias in the garden in Rome. Remarkably they fell still full, and lay in perfect spectrum-red blossoms, round and clean as dishes. These camellias here were blue. A good candy blue to which his eye returned and was happily surprised each return to be allowed to look, to have the time to look. The camellias beneath the trees in Rome, a remarkable fruit, so whole, so red. The blossoms on the trees bent their whiplike branches in pretty curves and the blossoms faced down. Bells. Mouths. The flowers in Stanhope’s silly love-and-the-maiden. Mostly the bounty beneath the tree, its impossible appeal, nothing of rot about it if comparable to some degree to mashed strawberries. On the whole: healthy and promising, suggestive of eternal life and movement from one stage to another in the same shape and beauty.
Absalom was enraged and the coffee arrived.
Absalom thought of Appalachia, which he had only encountered romantically, grotesquely in fiction. He’d no doubt that the real Appalachia was as various and moral as any place, and the photographs and films he’d seen of that country inspired feelings of reverence and joy in him, not the infected horror which green things seemed to suggest for others. Now he took himself through the horrible Appalachia, which compelled him.
His assumption of its real beauty – reliable enough, formed as it was by his own childhood in the North Country – and the pornographic romances of the gothics and his distinction, clarification of the hills’ real horror alongside other rural horrors he had known, all of this together provided for him a terrible, gorgeous allegory, real and unreal. He thought of inbreeding. He thought of an inbred boy. He thought with some wonderment of the possibility of genetic error. It conflicted with Absalom’s concept of the world, in which the unconscious things and the nonhuman things and the accidents of time generally harmonized on behalf of the active human. Absalom knew this was not the way of the world: this knowledge against his natural feelings were what amounted to his piety.
He reminded himself of the truth, that human misbehavior, sexual misbehavior, could result in the innocent and injured, maybe way down the line. Absalom imagined the inbred boy and dressed the scene. The boy, thin and weird-boned, jaw like a partially-melted cube of ice, sitting still as though in a state of uncommon attentiveness but eyes placid and warm like a drunk’s, mouth sad as teddy bears’ mouths suggest sadness. The boy sits shirtless, small shoulders near one another, muscular upper arms meaty as corpses, in the barn’s shady insides, face pointed that way, where you can be sure there is nothing. Sits on a crate. Without, in the sun, a rotted iron plow. The barn, the machine left to become useless, the cool silver-black of the shade, this high-romantic wretch in his symbolic idiocy spoke to Absalom. They spoke of carelessness and a lineage of wrong, unattended cruelties which did not naturally crumble. Absalom was interested to think of this evil which remains despite the changing of the seasons and the earth’s turning. Absalom placed himself in Appalachia and walked through rooms, imagining his own part in the evil of such a place.
Then said Pliable, Ah Neighbor Christian, where are you now?