Carolyn seeded her hair with corn and stumbled into a field full of crows, hoping death would come in a frenzied beating of black wings and a scourge of razor-sharp beaks. She would star as a dark-haired, dark-eyed Tippi Hedren in her own remake of Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
But the crows were wise to her, realizing their reputations were bad enough already. No use adding murder by murder to their already lengthy rap sheet. They cackled at her instead. Carolyn felt humiliated.
To make it worse, the corn took root in her scalp and flourished, nourished no doubt by the additives in her costly shampoos and conditioners. The lush stalks sprang up so quickly that she dressed as the state of Nebraska for Halloween.
By Thanksgiving the ears were ready for harvest, and everyone at her table remarked that it was the sweetest corn they had ever eaten. Yum!
She cut down the yellow stalks on Christmas Eve, bundling them together and burning them in place of a yule log. The baby Jesus in her annual creche was pleased with the orange glow.
By New Year’s Eve her hair had come back completely—thicker, shinier and more luxurious than ever, almost certainly due to crop rotation. Men followed its vaguely corny perfume around the party she attended. At midnight two potential suitors got into a fistfight over which of them would be first to kiss her as the clock struck twelve. While they were tussling, she awarded a non-combatant the privilege.
She awakened glowing on New Year’s Day. In a matter of months her life had completely turned around.
Carolyn was happy her suicide attempt had failed.
WHOA! Punk llama (well, alpaca) haircuts! (Or why I want a llama and want to name it Tina.)
It never rains in Onyx. Instead, the sky changes color. Mondays and Thursdays it’s azure. Tuesdays it’s royal blue. Wednesdays and Saturdays: cyan. Sunday’s sky is nearly white, with a touch of battleship gray. Fridays the sky can be anything from cornflower to wheat. Whatever citizens wish, that’s the color of Friday’s sky.
Sarah has been a citizen of Onyx since she was born five-and two-thirds years ago. That’s how she says it: five and two-thirds. She always votes for a scarlet sky because, in her box of sixty-four Crayola crayons, it is her favorite color. Scarlet. For a week in June she insisted her mother call her Scarlet. She had not heard of Gone with the Wind and she did not know about Scarlett O’Hara. She was simply expressing her independence and her love of the color. Some days she feels scarlet inside. Years from now, after seeing Breakfast at Tiffany’s, she will call her feeling the mean reds, but at five it is scarlet.
Today is Thursday and the sky is azure. Sarah lies in the floor of her mother’s office working with her box of Crayolas over a long sheet of newsprint dispensed from a roll near her mother’s desk. She wears a cotton jumper over a white blouse. Her legs are bent and the toes of her Mary Janes point toward the ceiling, one foot crossed over the other. The tip of her tongue peeks out from between her lips. Occasionally she brushes a wisp of fair hair—one of a couple that escaped the long plait braided down her back—out of her gray eyes.
She draws galaxies containing complicated worlds inhabited by a variety of creatures. Bacteria with an appetite for oil spills. Insects with ten legs instead of six. Frogs with sticky tongues that snatch marshmallow grub worms from trees. Pandas with pouches like kangaroos and kangaroos with rings around their eyes like pandas. Humans with four eyes: two in front and two behind.
Once she invents them, though, the living things begin evolving. In no time, absent her influence, they disintegrate from pleasant order into utter chaos. No matter how carefully and neatly she begins, her populations fall apart. They frustrate her. The rebellious humans, especially, make her angry. So she takes her least favorite color—the stub of a black crayon—and eliminates them. Then she starts again from scratch, further down the sheet of paper.
Sarah’s mother washes dishes in the adjoining kitchen. She stares out the window over the sink at the expanse of green lawn. All lawns in Onyx are green. At two in the afternoon mists spring up from the ground for exactly an hour to water the lawns. It is an order of things pleasing to the citizens of Onyx, Sarah’s mother included.
She might have used the electric dishwasher to clean the breakfast dishes, but she finds hand washing them therapeutic and calming. Something about playing in the sudsy water relaxes her. When the morning tableware is rinsed, dried and put away and the kitchen is tidied, Sarah’s mother hangs up her apron and takes the chair at her desk.
She is a sort of architect, a professional designer of galaxies in the Tau-9 Quadrant and winner of dozens of peer awards for her ingenuity and imagination. At her desk she works with drafting tools. Others have moved to CAD programs on computers, but Sarah’s mother disdains computers. Perhaps there is a streak of Luddite in her, but she can’t seem to get in touch with a universe unless she drafts it by hand—at least, that’s what she tells her colleagues. In reality she worries that a stray static charge from a faulty computer monitor or an accidental slip of a keystroke will do irreparable damage to a nascent galaxy. She wants no part of it.
She works at her desk with t-square, pencils, drafting pens, compasses and triangles. Sarah keeps her company. Today Sarah’s too-eager use of the black crayon disturbs her mother, and Rachel scolds the child:
“You must learn patience,” she insists. “Just because a developing life form doesn’t take the path you believe it should is no reason to destroy it. Half the joy of creating worlds is watching they ways they depart from your expectations.”
Sarah pouts: “Humans piss me off.”
“Then create a world without humans,” Rachel suggests.
“I did,” Sarah replies. “And monkeys became humans. They hate me.”
“You’ll have to learn patience,” Rachel tells her. “Or you’ll have to play a different game. I won’t let you destroy whole planets for the sake of your vanity. We do this to promote diversity in life, even life that disagrees with us. If you can’t tolerate it, then you should do something else.”
Drawing worlds is Sarah’s favorite thing, as dear to her as the color scarlet. “I’ll do better, mommy,” she insists. “I promise.”
“See that you do,” Rachel replies.
She turns to her work.
So the reformed Sarah creates a world she calls Maya, after the fat gray house cat preening on the sofa near her project. The cat has been her constant companion all her life, happily sharing Sarah’s bed and quietly tolerating her sometimes overzealous displays of affection with atypical feline good humor. Perhaps naming a planet for Maya will infect its inhabitants with her even temperament. And if that doesn’t work, Sarah thinks, I’ll make them tiny. Then they won’t be a threat even if they do run amok.
In a way the plan works. As the inhabitants of Maya evolve, they prove to be a sturdy, shrewd, logical and creative people. They have a knack for building things out of stone and their cities are models of efficiency. They invent a government that rewards honesty and bravery in both male and female citizens. They carefully manage the resources with which Sarah blessed them.
But, like cats, they are also predatory and warlike. They diverge into opposing tribes and take delight in fighting one another. They are skilled, avid hunters. And while they wisely use their prey—eating the flesh, tanning the skin, and sculpting the bones into tools, decorative items and utensils—they hunt as much for sport as out of necessity. They take great delight in killing. This behavior upsets Sarah, and her fingers itch for the stub of black crayon. Her mother’s nearness dictates prudence, though, and she huffs and puffs instead.
Rachel hears her and asks, “What’s wrong?”
“They’re pissing me off again,” Sarah tells her.
“Yes,” says Sarah.
Rachel swivels in her chair and stares down at her daughter’s little world. Yes, it is typical homo sapiens behavior. Sarah isn’t yet old enough to comprehend it, but the very structure of human DNA makes them prone to violent behavior. Unless allowed to evolve, they will never overcome their bloodlust.
But even Rachel has to admit the inhabitants of Maya are ruthless. For them killing is pragmatic: Violence is the simplest path to social order. That they are also brilliant logicians and strategists, learning stone masonry and mathematical skills that have eluded most of their extraterrestrial peers, provides little more than a veneer for their sanguine appetites. Rachel wonders what twenty thousand years of evolution will do for them. To find out, she must teach Sarah patience. It won’t be a simple task.
“Perhaps we should leave our work for the afternoon,” she proposes. “We can go for a walk—to the petting zoo if you like. Then, in the morning, if you still feel the need to destroy Maya, I’ll give you permission. But in the meantime you must think carefully about it.”
Sarah beams: “I like the petting zoo. Can we see the monkey that spits?”
“At a distance,” Rachel says. “Put away your crayons and we’ll go.”
Weather in Onyx is ideal, so they have no need of coats. They step into the radiant day and walk toward the zoo. Sarah is distracted and happy. She has forgotten all about the inhabitants of Maya.
They have not forgotten her. Their Grand Shaman has been tuned in to the conversations of the gods all day, and he realizes the whims of Ser-ai cannot be trusted, even if Ix Chel has delayed her wrath. There is only one way to avoid Ser-ai’s caprice. The people of Maya must escape their world and travel to another. He tells his chief they should build a ladder to the roof of the sky, open a portal off the map of the universe, quickly travel to another map, and lower themselves onto a new world—preferably one created by Ix Chel.
The men of the tribe spend all that afternoon constructing a great ladder of trees and raising it into the sky, while the women weave a long rope of vines for their descent to the new world. The men finish their task in the early evening, and after a hearty meal the tribe begins its ascent. At nearly midnight the first of them reaches the dome of the sky and pops its hatch. The last of the tribe emerges at three in the morning. Several thousand do not make it: They lose footing, plummet to Earth and die.
The trek from child’s newsprint to mother’s desk takes two hours. Along the way nearly half the remaining tribe is killed by the cat Maya, which mistakes them for fire ants and bats them around in a feline game of Prey as Toys. Escape lends an adrenalin boost to those climbing the corner of Rachel’s desk, and they make the ascent in little more than a half-hour. Crossing her map of the galaxy, they find a planet called Ear-ta. Their shaman mistakenly translates the name as “world of ears or listeners.” Listeners are reasonable creatures, he proclaims, and the tribe finds a hatch and drops down their vine rope. It dangles over a land they will come to call “Yucca-tan,” or “I don’t understand you,” because all the tongues spoken by animals and humans were unintelligible to them—unlike Maya, where everything spoke the same language. One of their first myths was quickly dispelled: Listening doesn’t matter if the hearer has no idea what the speaker is saying.
It is eight in the morning. Less than a quarter of the original tribe remains alive. They offer praise to the multicolored birds of Yucca-tan which aided their descent, and they invent a myth that says Mayans rode down to Ear-ta on the backs of macaws, delivered by the gods to their new land. Yucca-tan is theirs by Divine Right.
Once established, they immediately begin two tasks. First, they record the circular legend of Rachel’s map, containing the life spans of planets (including Ear-ta) and the rhythmic orbits of stars and moons, in stone and use it to track time. Future historians will call it a calendar, not realizing it was taken directly from the designer’s spec. Next they cut stones and construct the first of several stair-stepped pyramids. When the time comes for another escape, they will not be caught unaware. The pyramid ends just below the dome of the sky. A stepladder will take them away from Ear-ta in an emergency.
But first they hide for six weeks in a cenote, living in a shallow cave, eating vegetation surrounding the fresh water and the dried meat they carried with them, drawing water and gathering food only at night, when the gods have retired to their beds.
In six weeks Rachel has moved on to limn another planet, and she hardly notices activity on Earth—she certainly pays no mind to a tiny, specific tribe of diminutive people inhabiting what amounts to a pinpoint area on the much larger globe. Sarah forgot them ages ago, when she awakened on the morning after her walk to the petting zoo and found Maya void of humans. It was a plague, she thought. Or maybe dinosaurs ate them. Something to remember next time humans were unruly: Just draw a pod of Tyrannosaurus Rexes and turn them loose to graze. Problem solved.
She can keep her black crayon for drawing night skies and keep her alternative solution to the problem of humans to herself. It is good for everyone.
Life in Onyx resumes its happy cycle.
I nearly always have eight books on my desk. Three are whatever I’m currently reading (sometimes two, sometimes four: nearly always). The others are a King James version of the New Testament, The Little Zen Companion (compiled by David Schiller), a Penguin edition of the Upanishads, e.e. cummings’ Complete Poems: 1913-1962, and Rimbaud: Complete Poems, Selected Letters. The poetry of Arthur Rimbaud is like a sherbet served between courses at an expensive restaurant: When I find my brain fogged by the events of the day, it cleanses the mental palate.
His work is deceptively simple, full of surprises, and all the more astonishing when one learns he gave up creative writing before he was 20. He died in Marseille at the age of 37, a brief, hot light.
In my youth the translation I own was considered the best. This is no longer true; but over the years it has become so familiar I find it hard to surrender. The dogeared book is pock-marked with finger smudges and marginal notes, a dear companion. When I think of transitioning to electronic media, I wonder how future generations will become as fond of a book. How does one become attached to something s/he cannot touch?
It was difficult to choose a favorite poem. I settled on “The first evening (Première soirée)” because it was the first of his verses I read, standing in Oxford’s Books in Atlanta before its demise.
The poem rhymes in the original French, and I encourage you to seek it out if you understand the language. Deceptively simple. There’s no other way to describe it.
The first evening
She had very few clothes on
And big indiscreet trees
Threw their leaves against the panes
Slyly, very close, very close.
Sitting in my big chair,
Half-naked, she clasped her hands.
Her small feet so delicate, so delicate,
Trembled with pleasure on the floor.
—The color of wax, I watched
A small nervous ray of light
Flutter in her smile
And on her breast—a fly on the rose-bush.
—I kissed her delicate ankles.
Abruptly she laughed. It was soft
And it spread out in clear trills,
A lovely crystal laughter.
Her small feet under the petticoat
Escaped. “Please stop!”
—When the first boldness was permitted,
The laugh pretended to punish!
—Poor things trembling under my lips,
I softly kissed her eyes:
—She threw her sentimental head
Backward: “Oh! that’s too much! …
“Sir, I have something to say to you …”
—What was left I put on her breast
In a kiss, which made her laugh
With a kind laugh that was willing …
—She had very few clothes on
And big indiscreet trees
Threw their leaves against the panes
Slyly, very close, very close.
(The twelfth day of a month-long celebration of poetry.)
Pls note that all the negative reviews of "Girls" are coming from bros so far -
Not that I’m reading every single one or anything.
Also, the amount of self-hatred that has to be involved in a writer using the term “mumblecore” for derogatory purposes has to be so crushing and awful. “Every Friday night of my life is a shitty genre,” you know?
But I’m not making anyone watch every Friday night of my life.
Purely out of curiosity, since when has Mother Jones been an authority on culture? They’re no longer relevant even to the movement founded by the woman for which they were named. Piss on their opinion from a very great height.
On the eleventh day of a month-long celebration of poetry (April being poetry month) I wanted to share one of my favorite poems with you. Unfortunately, it is too long to commit to this space.
Octavio Paz’s “A Fable of Joan Miró (Fábula de Joan Miró)” is a strikingly original use of language from it’s opening verse to it’s closing line, all the more impressive because it loses little in translation from Spanish to English. Perhaps part of its power arises out of the writer’s desire to emulate with words Joan Miró’s singular genius with paint on canvas.
It works. I cannot read this poem without conjuring up vivid mental images. I “see” it more than “hear” it.
I am sharing the poem’s first verse here. Consider the image of the wind. I hope it will encourage you to seek out the entire work (your local library is a good place to start).
Excerpt from “A Fable of Joan Miró”
Blue was immobilized between red and black.
The wind came and went over the page of the plains,
lighting small fires, wallowing in the ashes,
went off with its face sooty, shouting on the corners,
the wind came and went, opening, closing windows and doors,
came and went through the twilit corridors of the skull,
the wind in a scrawl, with ink-stained hands
wrote and erased what it had written on the wall of the day.
The sun was no more than an omen of the color yellow,
a hint of feathers, a cock’s future crow.
The snow had gone astray, the sea had lost its speech
and was a wandering murmur, a few vowels in search of a word.
(As an aside, it interests me that Paz served in Mexico’s diplomatic corps. Perhaps the world would be a far better place if we let poets, not politicians, negotiate peace throughout the world.)
I first discovered the poetry of Federico García Lorca in the Robert Bly anthology The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. For days after reading “Little Infinite Poem” these lines haunted me:
“But two has never been a number;
it is anguish and its shadow,
the demonstration of another’s infinity,
the dead man’s ramparts
and the punishment of new and endless resurrection.
“Dead men hate the number two,
but that number lulls women to sleep,
and as woman fears light,
and light trembles before cockerels,
and cockerels can only fly above the snow,
we’ll have to graze for good on graveyard weeds.”
The idea of grazing on graveyard weeds stuck in my head like a needle in the groove of a scratched record (an image which will have little meaning for those raised on CDs — look it up). It was despair expressed as an ocean of mourners’ tears. Two is impossible. Humans are destined to be lonely forever.
Lorca articulated what I already knew: Love never runs easily. Sometimes it limps along. Sometimes it lies catatonic in a ditch. Yet we keep struggling to make the home stretch, to arrive at the finish line victorious.
Acknowledging despair is only one of a thousand things Lorca does well. His work is often exceptional and never less than thought-provoking, born out of a life that would make a brilliant biopic.
This is day ten in a month-long celebration of poetry:
Sonnet of the Sweet Complaint
Never let me lose the marvel
of your statue-like eyes, or the accent
the solitary rose of your breath
places on my cheek at night.
I am afraid of being, on this shore,
a branchless trunk, and what I most regret
is having no flower, pulp, or clay
for the worm of my despair.
If you are my hidden treasure,
if you are my cross, my dampened pain,
if I am a dog, and you alone my master,
never let me lose what I have gained,
and adorn the branches of your river
with leaves of my estranged Autumn.
—Federico García Lorca
Wikipedia says it best: “Percy Bysshe Shelley was one of the major English Romantic poets and is critically regarded as among the finest lyric poets in the English language.” It’s a shame I can’t reproduce one of his longer poems here — “The Revolt of Islam” might be enlightening. Fortunately much of his best work can be sampled on Bartleby.com. (If nothing else, read “To a Skylark.” Amazing.)
“Sonnet: England in 1819” got me through nearly every day of the Bush era, and it still seems applicable today. I keep waiting for a “glorious Phantom” to burst forth and rescue America. So far none is on the horizon.
(Ninth in a Poetry Month-long celebration of verse.)