Flow–Mary Cappello

When a friend of mine was dying, she told another friend who called to visit her that her call had come too late. She was “already in the flow,” our friend had said from the bardo of her deathbed, “she had already entered the flow,” so she couldn’t accept a visit. When I heard this story, I pictured a telephone with a coiled cord stretched between the two friends—no passing of cellphones for this exchange, but a cord attached to receivers that couldn’t possibly reach far enough. The cutting of a second cord already in progress and set to drift.

And I wondered about what my dying friend was telling us: if we enter the flow when we die, where is it that we live? On the shore; beneath the sky; at the table or the lathe; in interruption? Before the cup and saucer; at the casement window; ascending the hill? In the envelope of voice and mood, does writing anticipate the flow or work to staunch it? Run against its current or alongside it?

Pausing to interrupt the workshop vernacular of flow—as in “I like the way it flows”—I screech to breaking point: “Menstrual blood flows,” I say, and “milk is expressed. Let us dispense, therefore, with the application of these terms to discussions of writing.” You’d think I was averse to the female body what with my examples of its effluvium, glistening or matte. “The poet writes the history of his body,” Thoreau pronounced (or uddered) one liquid day before the invention of a sharpener for his pencil. Is it the Oscar parade of flowing gowns and ram-rod suits that makes me want to forget my body when I write, or at least get past it? Or past some hetero-norm of flows and sticks that break my bones and words that ever hurt me?

Where did this phrase come from—“it flows”? From music and the assumption that all writing be lyrical. From the idea of writing as a craft set to glide on still waters. From a romance with a several century’s old Coleridgean attitude of waft—Wordsworth’s poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of emotion.” From assembly line culture and factory output. From electricity and tears.

One kind of flow makes another sort of flow possible. Flow begets flow as when the stark O of my friend’s absence floods and drenches me. (“To set the eyes at flow”:  to cause to weep).

One night I dream that dying is a coming into and out of consciousness until you can’t find the energy to come in: the energy instead becomes you. It could have been a dream of how to stay asleep without dying, or an image repertoire for the stuttered breathing of my snoring. On a busy street, I might add, because the setting was a city thorough-fare, thick with noise and people, and I remember thinking in the dream, “Why am I trying not to die on such a busy street? Why did I choose such an impossible place to die?”

The day before I had run into a friend and colleague whom I hadn’t seen in some time. Just before noticing her, I had been fighting a sort of autism I occasionally experience in grocery stores, when, frozen by the sensory over-load of rows of stacks of aisles of pyramids of vegetables and fruits, labels and prices and colors and shapes, I temporarily freeze and forget what I have come for. Seeing D—in a periphery partly broke my trance, and I wandered toward her, brightening, “It’s so good to see you”!

D—  and I had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year, so whenever we saw one another there was always a degree of checking in to the land of our living. Though D— “looked great,” and seemed to be about her daily business, she said she wanted me to know that her cancer had metastasized. Pain flowed into her hands from her sternum, she explained: a sudden sign of cancer in her lungs and bones. She wanted me to hear this, she said; she wanted me just to know that cancer follows the flow of a pre-determined path we can never know.

There was no time to suggest we plan to get together, and at a certain point in the deepening of our conversation, I realized we were probably seeing each other for the last time. “I have really enjoyed knowing you all these years,” D— said, hugging me, while streams of shoppers flowed around us, bumping into us. This was clearly no place for such a conversation—“you’re in the way!” one woman blurted as, embracing, we blocked access to the tomatoes and the kumquats, the grapefruit and asparagus.

Strangely, we didn’t cry; we laughed a good deal. We were in the bardo of the dying, our thoughts and words even our bodies on a plain apart from the bustle and flow.

See how beautifully this paragraph misses the boat of its calling. Tune your intelligence to the drip drip drip of this novel’s leak. I won’t refuse the complement of a writing being compared to butter—also said of a second hand cashmere sweater by a store proprietor in Rhode Islandese, “It’s just like buttah!” Here’s to prose-like-butter better to pull the wool over the reader’s eyes, and breasts, and groins. We read to get lost in the flow.

We want the writing to flow because we want writing to complete or satiate us—complementi! We want it to flow because we want when we read to be met even though we know we will never be met, not ever fully, not really, that we will only be met halfway. I want writing to meet me as a cascade of swirls. I want writing to take me on board for fear that life is passing me by. I want writing’s surface to shimmer rather than reflect.

Writing isn’t flow: it is mood modulations, fine tunings, or coarse. Writing is not a flow but a vibration, not a pulse but a recombinant re-chording: the song we sing, orchestrate or divine, the duration of a here, and here, and here.

If it must flow, then why not praise it for its murmur, that low indistinct continuous sound as of a stream. No sullen discontent of a half-articulate voicing, why not say of writing, “it murmurs well,” “I like the way it murmurs.” I like the octave of its murmur, the hollow, hum, and buzz. I love its bumbled hovering between spoken-ness and flight. The way I have to strain to hear it, like the sounds we have to bend to hear beneath the surface of audible flow: on the thither side of complaint, a joyous murmuration.

*           *           *

Thanks to poet Talvi Ansel for introducing me to murmurations of starlings, and to this beautiful video by Sophia Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith; and, thanks to Robin Keller, a student in my Honors seminar in “Literary Acoustics” at the University of Rhode Island who, in writing about the difference between murmurs and mumbles helped me to hear what voices do, anew. I come to the idea of the “bardo of the dying” by way of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s meditations on Tibetan Buddhism in the posthumous collection, The Weather in Proust (Duke University Press). “A privileged instance, but not the only one,” Sedgwick writes, “dying is one among a group of states—also including meditation, sleep, and dreams—that are called bardos, gaps or periods in which the possibility of realization is particularly available. Bar in Tibetan means in between, and do means suspended or thrown” (210).

Tour–Margot Singer

 Bath to Bradford-on-Avon

Out the window of the 10:42 to Cardiff: feathered grasses, rolling hills and fields, wheels of hay, grazing sheep, a knot of cows. The river is a faint slip of blue beyond a screen of leaves. Here we are: blue plush seats, mid-morning travelers—mums with children, college students, older men and us, tourists—grasping for image, for the detail we’ll remember, for some authentic thing. We’re riders on a fairground carousel, stretching, straining, arms extended, out of balance, reaching for that brassy ring.

 

Bradford to Avoncliffe

In Bradford we rent bicycles, follow the dirt path down the hill behind the pub to the canal. It is like entering a verdant tunnel: shaggy grass and mossy water, overhung with willows, hawthorn, weeds. Narrow boats moored along the edge. We swing our legs over our bikes and ride.

A canal: the river nudged into a channel, routed over aqueducts, funneled into locks, a towpath rolled and staked. It is 1797. Stonecutters, masons, ironmongers, surveyors, mapmakers, cattle drivers, navvies—any man strong enough to wield a shovel or a pick can join the crew. Palms cut raw by ropes, backs bent beneath the rain and sun. Hacking through open rock and beds of clay. Hauling wooden wheelbarrows of dirt and stone. Twelve years, it will take, to engineer and dig the trench, to construct the aqueducts and locks. By the time it’s done, it will be nearly obsolete, trade and travel already given over to the train. The men dig and dig. A clay-caked boot stomps on a spade, a heave, a shove. The earth gives way. Far below, the river roils free. Tumbles over falls.

 

Avoncliffe to Limpley Stoke

The water is milky-green, opaque in sunlight, darker, dappled, in the shade. A moving, secret thing. The temptation of the water: its surface and its underneath.

I am thinking of Ophelia, hair streaming like pondweed snagged on a floating log, her drowned face bloated, greenish in the watery light.

The other day, on the Avon near the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, we watched a group of divers tipping backwards off a rubber launch. Tanks and snorkels, wetsuits, fins. A rope line to the bank. Were they practicing, we wondered? Or searching? If so, for what? And then we watched them haul it up, long and heavy, wrapped in a plastic sheet. Did they find it lodged in silt, weighted down by rocks, or caught along a mooring line—just there, beneath the place the tour boats dock, beyond the ducks?

 

Limpley Stoke to Dundas Aqueduct

On the flat rooftops of narrow boats: wooden stumps, a rusty bike, a garden gnome, a folding chair, a wheelbarrow, solar panels, pots of grass and marigolds, a coiled hose, a string of Buddhist prayer flags, a broom, a barge pole, a propane tank, an anchor, a fishing rod, a grinning gargoyle, a plastic jug, a pile of sticks, a stroller, a satellite dish, a life preserver, a rainbow pinwheel, a kettle grill, a stuffed brown bird, a child’s floppy doll.

 

Dundas to Avoncliffe

The noontime breeze is rising, nudging puffs of cumulus across the sky. Time runs faster, going back. Water runs downhill. There’s the gate, the pub, the sign, the lock. There’s the narrow boat we passed an hour or so ago, still chugging on its way. The pilot at the tiller waves. His wife, sitting in the bow, reading a book, does not look up.

We ride past the Medusa, the Firefly, Foxglove, Titanic, Serendipity, Lady Eleanor, Topsy Annie, l’Escargot, Serenity. Some people live on narrow boats. Some are just on holiday. Some are just adrift.

Smells of weeds and river water, honeysuckle, cowbane, rose. A whiff of diesel, the stink of a latrine. Drifting cigarette smoke, toast. A clump of horse shit. Smells of dust and mud and rain.

In a narrow boat, you can follow the canal for fifty-seven miles, from the Thames at Reading all the way to Bath. You’ll pass through twenty-seven locks, including sixteen in a row at Caen Hill, Devizes. On foot, you’d have to walk for days.


Avoncliffe to Bradford-on-Avon

And now we’re looking at our watches, pedaling harder, thinking about returning our bikes before the deadline, whether we’ll have time for lunch, whether we can make the 13:21 return to Bath. The railway clock—the now and future—the travelers’ impatient tick-tick-tick—have overtaken river time, swamped it, drowned it out. We are turning off the towpath, pumping up the hill. What will we remember? At the road, I turn around, look back, but there are only houses, buses, shop fronts, cars. It’s gone—the boats, the flowing water, the walkers, drifters, cyclists, the ancient aqueducts and locks— all vanished, like the midway at the fairgrounds after the carnival is gone, folded up and packed away and vanished, as if it was never there at all.

Ices–T Clutch Fleischmann

It is spring and I do not think there will be more ice this year.

In the late fall I developed the habit of leaving empty jars on my porch, having sat on my steps in the morning with coffee or tea, there for the sun. I am always distracted by myself, and often eight or nine empty jars would collect before I removed them weeks later. As winter came, rain would sometimes fill the jars during the day and, as the temperature dipped in the evening, the water would freeze, cracking the glass in its expansion. I’d come outside as the sun hit the porch in the morning, the ice melting and water leaking from another fractured vessel.

Jar after jar broken, I began to obsessively chronicle the images. The blue of the white, the sheens and the luster, the obfuscating, dewy clouds. I poured water into glasses in the evening and, waking with the sun, hurried outside to see if the frost had set hard enough. Ice breaks differently than glass breaks, and I realized it was the ice in which my interest resided.

In part, it is the potential to melt and the potential to shatter.

Months have passed, and I have other projects in the air– a long essay on Felix Gonzalez Torres, a cross-media collaboration with a dancer, freelance reviews. Instead, with my time I continue to describe the breaking ice. I have pages and pages of these descriptions, repetitive to the point of tedium when read, but alive, even surprising, as I write them. I try to venture away from the obsessive focus, but descriptions of still ice are eventually cracked, and when I look at water, crystal or glass, they demand a comparison backward. I visit a friend in another city who tells me unprompted of his own imagistic obsession with glass breaking, a disclosure that heightens my affection for him and my need to write of ice. For days, my writing routine has the slight glow of his presence.

The surface is a crisp thing. It is eidolon blue, a blue that is grey. I put my hand above the ice and hold it as close there as I can without touching. My hand aches both from holding the position and from the radiation of cold, somehow more than the cold dry air moving above the bed of the creek.

I wonder how I might get to the Arctic, what grants might allow this. Maybe Alaska would be easier. The pages continue to accumulate and I mention my infatuation to the dancer. She tells me that she crawls through the woods for hours, no project in mind but that movement. I think maybe that I could even show her or another friend the accruing paragraphs, but whenever I go backward and read again, I tire after only a few pages. Videos of crumbling glaciers are nice but insufficient.

It is not the ice as form or substance, the potential to shatter or the splintered moments after, but the precise instant of the break with its inaudibly high-pitched screech. How could the language hold this, and only this?

In winter, there are thin spirals of ice around the bases of some small plants. The whorls are birthed when the freezing temperature causes the stems of certain weeds to split, the water vapor inside released and then frozen into a white garland, which the plant itself might not survive. This is an instance of the ice breaking something else. As such, I am only interested in the whorls when I bend and pick a frostweed, when trying to transport the delicate icy petals into a jar inevitably causes them to craze over.

All the questions of my habits come to mind. I want to tease out my interiority, using the words to make myself of the world rather than a person further displaced from it. Why, then, this moment, so plain even while beautiful, so private in my devotion? I worry that as I long for the ice’s fracture, the drawn-out hours of writing only mark disassociation.

As always, the trilliums are one of the first blooms in Tennessee this spring. The folded and slender purple petals of the flower come when they always come, their two-greened leaves spreading in the last weeks of March. I think the whorls of frost would be beautiful if they split the trillium’s stem, but the flowers come just a moment too late, and I’m unsure if their biology is even prone to these ruptures. The sun hits my porch just as I step outside in the morning. I stretch, which is not something I typically do. The cedar decking I laid weeks ago still smells like a pungent, dry-mouthed cinnamon. Because I have not planed the wood it is possible to move my bare feet in such a way that a splinter enters them, but this does not happen without my intention. The water in the few jars is white with motes. I find myself hoping that someone will walk by and, seeing me in my concentration, decide not to say hello.

Newport Journal–Kazim Ali

Walking down the mossy steps to the beach.

Long green whips, the seaweed we saw at Point Reyes once, each with its green-ghost head, piles of them everywhere and sometimes one calligraphed across the sand.

Swift air, water always rushing three different ways.

Newport at the edge of the continent, ocean here not receding away into depth but dropping immediately.

In Seattle, the pines were so tall, with no low branches, my mind went quickly back to Jenpeg, to my cold cold childhood.

Like Madison, living in water, between lakes, water on three sides.

But Seattle, unlike Newport, protected from endless horizon by the islands. Here you only look and look.

Portland on the river, driving through at night, ablaze with lights.

I thought, turning off the highway to drive to the shore, I would be trapped in the rainy night forever.

Coming through the last stand of trees into town I was shocked to find it, big, dirty, grittier than Beacon, plainer than Shippensburg, a fishing town without fishing anymore.

Only last week, five different people told me on the same day, a couple had been swept from the jetty out to sea.

As I walked I thought: I love it, this, walking along the edge of the sea. The sea without end.

Everything without end. Duras gave it to me: other languages, a softer sense, other ways of knowing through the sea.

Language without knowing, without sound, without sense. Sans cesse.

Now sitting in a warm restaurant, drinking spicy coconut soup and reading poetry by Larry Eigner and Jean Valentine.

Lost always in loss.

I want to look at my hands. I want to say something in the language of the ocean, the language of the rain.

Tonight I go to the art gallery overlooking the ocean to read poems. I drink coffee and dream about transforming.

Hurrying back to the hotel I miss my chance to see the second lighthouse, the more famous one at the northern end of town.

At the reading the people are very friendly and excited and then leave one by one. My co-reader is going to have dinner with friends and I am left in the middle of the parking lot, cold and getting colder.

There is a café down the street that serves vegetarian food and hot drinks, I am told.

La mer sans cesse. I hurry down the road. I miss my father.

If I Lived–Brenda Miller

If I lived in France today, a child would slap a fish on my back. The Poisson d’Avril. April Fish. The mark of the fool.

If I lived in Switzerland, spaghetti would grow from the trees. The harvest might be especially abundant this year.

If I lived in the Indian Ocean, I could bike around the island of San Seriffe. I could live on a semi-colon. A perpetual pause.

If I lived in the rain forest, penguins would fall from the sky, stinking of Antarctica.

If I lived in Denmark, all dogs would be painted white.

If I turn off my computer today, the Internet will close for cleansing. Flotsam and jetsam of useless information purged.

If I go on a fool’s errand….

If I try to pick up a dime glued to the ground…

If I fall for it.

I always fall for it.

I eyed doorways, watched for the tricks, a dreaded day—this child already foolish, so gullible, and the hot shame that rises when you’ve been had.

Had. As if the trickster now owns you: they got you, got you good.

I tried to be good all the time, everywhere: at home, at school, at the grocery store. A constant vigilance that made my head ache. Trying so hard not to be the fool.

I always get the Fool card in the Tarot. The fool lost in his daydreams as he stumbles off a cliff. The dog, white, prancing by his side.

I’m a Pisces. Pisces are fish. Pisceans are often fools.

April Fish are invited to bogus parties. They come to the door with wine in hand. So eager.

They are sent on fool’s errands. The trick is successful only when the fish knows she’s been had.

Is all life a fool’s errand? Is it? If so, go ahead and laugh. Let the joke be on us.

On us. The fish swinging from the back of the fool. Wiggling in dry air. The Kick Me sign.

The fish of April wakes up from winter to the outlandish story of spring: yes, the perennials hunker underground and burst forth at some signal, as do the buds in the weeping cherry tree. Yeah, sure. Got it.

If I lived in Burger King, I could get a left-handed Whopper.

If I had a spaghetti tree, I would never go hungry.

The first spaghetti of spring. Tender and delicious. Next year the meatball shrub should bear fruit.

The fish of April always gets caught. Stuck in an eddy. Fooled by the current into believing her way upstream.