I recently participated in a poetry reading here in our very creative community of Harrisonburg. Here is a link to a review of the event.
I am nothing more than an animated line. Place your hand at my head, run your fingers through my growing hair, past my right ear, across my shoulder and down my arm and side. Muscle and skin. Continue past my hip and follow the line to my foot and toes. Inner leg and groin. Another leg and foot, hip and side. Arm, fingers, neck. Left ear, and you’re back where you started, fingers in my hair. I am really nothing more than a continuous line, elegant and easy to trace, but my insides, however, are a different story. If you were to cut me open and expose and expose my insides, what you’d find would be disgusting: a jumble of guts and a tangle of veins and intestines, chunks of digested matter, brownish liquids. It is better to keep it hidden—right?—to leave the lights out.
Ask Lenore, a young writer friend of mine who has a fascination with headless crows. Her preoccupation with them frightens her, but what really terrifies her, she told me, was her realization that what lies within the birds is indistinguishable from that which lies within her, that we are not what we appear to be, that there is a horrific beauty to all our blood and guts no matter how put together we appear to be on the outside.
What is this urge to separate? My son likes his food separated, and that is why eggs scare him, particularly the yolks. For him an egg is two foods, a white and a yellow, so why should there be a big yellow blob mixed in with the white? When I fry an egg, he eats around the yolk then gives the sunny middle to his little sister. She relishes the yolk, soaking up the deep yellow-orange like a flower. It coats her lips, makes her eyes sparkle. She always asks for more, and he informs us that yolks are disgusting and “sort of like slugs.”
I tell him that there’s potential for chicken-hood in each one, but he has no desire to be a chicken.
The egg is like my body—smooth on the outside and messy on the inside. Why do I want to keep the messy hidden? I have noticed that do this when I clean. I present a clean exterior, but open any cabinet or drawer and you’ll find burrowing socks and copulating Tupperware. At death, however, my bluff will be called and my clean lines will dissolve and I will become like Roberto Bolaño’s character in By Night in Chile, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, a priest, poet, and literary critic. “I am dying now,” Urrutia says, “but I still have many things to say. I used to be at peace with myself. Quiet and at peace. But it all blew up unexpectedly. That wizened youth is to blame.” Typical human behavior to shift the blame. It’s in our prehistory: “She made me do it,” said Adam. “The serpent made me do it,” said Eve. And now we are cursed with our hard labors while our insides, like Urrutia’s, slowly rot.
Urrutia is dying but his voice is relentless, a one paragraph, hundred-thirty-page deathbed confession that worms its way into your ear and eats at your brain until you sit up and listen. Urrutia’s life has been one of regret and self-justification; after all, wouldn’t you have excused your actions if you were the personal tutor for Augusto Pinochet and involved with Opus Dei? “One has to be responsible, as I have always said,” Urrutia says apologetically. “One has a moral obligation to take responsibility for one’s actions, and that includes one’s words and silences, yes, one’s silences, because silences rise to heaven too, and God hears them. . . .” I find it interesting that silences are part and parcel of being human: while our external senses are busy doing their thing, our insides lie quietly in wait. Sometimes at night, after the kids are asleep and I’m in bed, I listen to the flow of my blood. I imagine it a stream, undulating against the shores of my veins, pooling here and there, creating wonderful vacation spots for bacterium and viruses. But it’s funny that it’s not through my ears that I hear my blood move; rather, my blood’s silence seems audible only through some internal apparatus, some fancy gadgetry that I rarely employ. Is this how God, too, hears silences? Or is God’s hearing just that much more acute?
Bolaño’s genius in creating a morally weak character like Urrutia lies in the fact that the reader hears the dying priest’s most intimate thoughts. The reader, then, becomes God and listens to the priest’s final confession. I wonder if Bolaño knew of Emerson’s sentiment about speaking the truth: “Speak the truth,” Emerson said, “and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.” Speak the truth and even the quietest, stillest grass root will move. Speak the truth and even the inside of the earth will hear. The earth, too, must have an inner apparatus for hearing, not to mention its own messy insides—think of the terribly beautiful volcano, its lava spewing then coagulating like blood.
Lenore’s discovery of the link between beauty and blood took her from a “pedestrian existence” (her words) to a realization that she couldn’t imagine living without the stimulus that blood brings her. But it wasn’t crow blood that animated her: it was her own blood. I suppose I should mention her affliction here, even at the risk of alienating some of my readers, because it is a necessary part of the story. Lenore had the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. Now I myself never saw it on her (we live far apart), but I have no reason to doubt her because she’s an earnest young women who swore that the very routine of changing her bandages became to her the seven canonical hours, a way of ordering her existence. I laughed when she told me this because she has always insisted that she has never been a believer, never mind that she was raised Lutheran; but she is young and impetuous, full of contrary ideas, and I have my doubts—the marks have changed her.
For Lenore, blood and beauty culminated in an object, a unique crucifix crafted from a headless shiny crow, sealed with shellac and splayed out on a cross with a foil halo where its head should have been. Lenore told me that she had been in conversation with an old woman, a certain Miss So-and-So who smelled like gin and wrote icons with the headless crows, and that it was she who had made this “crowcifix.” Lenore told me that she wanted to feel sorry for this old woman, but that she couldn’t quite do so because she realized that “beneath her crazy façade lies a bloody mess, just like mine, and none of us are righteous because something must die for something else to live.”
I wonder how hard I should be on Urrutia. After all, he was a priest, a man surely deserving some respect, but Bolaño’s narrator lives in a shadow world where light can never quite penetrate the fog of his rationalizations, and it is in this grayness we meet the “wizened youth.” It is a curious phrase that Urrutia uses, and there is irony in the combination of these two words, wizened used as an adjective for youth. Urrutia confesses that “the wizened youth has been quiet for a long time now. He has given up railing against me and writers generally. Is there a solution? That is how literature is made. . . . You better get used to it, I tell him. Or maybe it was history. An individual is no match for history. The wizened youth has always been alone, and I have always been on history’s side. . . . And then I ask myself: Where is the wizened youth? . . . And little by little the truth begins to rise like a dead body. . . . And then, in the half-light of my sickness, I see his fierce, his gentle face, and I ask myself: Am I the wizened youth?”
What Urrutia’s wizened youth came to recognize late in life was that what lay within him was the same that lay within both his friends and enemies. What he did not understand was that his insides were beautiful.
Drowned bodies float only after they’ve begun to decompose, after the insides have liquified and turned to gas. Truth rises like an air bubble. Did Lenore see this before she stabbed herself after the marks of Christ abandoned her? Did she experience some sort of revelation while her own thin blood dripped onto the wood floor? No matter how hard she scrubbed, she told me, the joints in the floorboards stayed red. She is a wizened youth, old beyond her young age and privy to secrets most of us spend a lifetime trying to figure out. “Those wise enough will receive,” she told me. But what about knowledge? Do we all know too much? Is that why we drown our senses with sex, drink, and media? So I am back where I started, nothing more than an animated line that is trying to retain the holy chaos inside while the wizened youth haunts me to let him out.
The splintered legs and the once-smooth table top take the brunt of what we’ve made.
A god-like fist comes down in a cloudburst of words and
the vacuum head breaks a bolt and twists a leg askew
while the python hose strangles another—all this from sweeping up the bits of last night’s
and a pencil sharp as an awl carves words onto paper and the tabletop is a carbon-copy
of spelling and algebra and comics.
Two writhing bodies, limbs versus limbs and mouth versus mouth,
heated holy relics of the beheaded St. Valentine, are held only by a thin armature of
and a shattered wine glass offers blood to anyone bold enough to receive.
And the grained wings, those lovely wings, rise up as if in flight
but the ceiling holds the table down and
keeps it here for us.
Here’s a new story, recently published by the Center for Mennonite Writing Journal.
Follow the link:
He waited, but we quietly dispersed and returned to our warm hearths.