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“The Barn Partitas” and “In Memory”


In September 2013, I visited a village 30 minutes by car from Bayonne in southwest France. One day, declining an excursion to the coast, I stayed behind and began writing sonnets that I called, from the start, “The Barn Partitas,” both in homage to Bach’s clavier partitas, a favorite, and to acknowledge the shed in Berkeley, the “barn,” where I usually write. A poet friend of my daughter dismissed the sonnet form, saying that he and a colleague used to compete to see who could compose them faster. There’s that—anyone can write them, and I’ve written many that went nowhere. But the sonnet is a way to contain what’s on your mind, give it a specific form, and a sonnet series is way to gather these small harvests as something like a feast. The unstructured poems I’ve written are longer and, in unedited form, messier. Reading through them this weekend, I found one—“In Memory”—that felt in the spirit of “The Barn Partitas,” so I’ve included excerpts from it. Proust noted that life provides the raw material of literature, and Croce added that poetry reflects the poet, not simply her material. Memory, as Nabokov observed, suffers from the fact that the camera is dodgy and the filmmaker often distracted. According to Alexander Nehamas, Nietzsche believed that the world is text, so everything we write about it is an interpretation. This aligns with Hayden White’s assertion that history, since it’s conveyed in narrative, is inherently or inevitably interpretive. And I would say, with Heraclitus, that not only is the river new each time we step in it, but we who step in it are also new. I write from experience, but ultimately I write from the experience of being human, addressing others who are human, too. Along with correspondence, poetry is a medium that lends itself to personal discourse. Unlike correspondence, poetry involves what Nikos Kazantzakis noted as an almost alchemical process by which the personal is transmuted into art. Whether this is art others can judge. — Berkeley, 30 November 2014

THE BARN PARTITAS Much that could not be written: the look back, often in company—small wonder, then, her wariness. He scanned the long horizon: roads sinuous and tree-lined, shrines, chapels, terraces, rooms with views, cars and ferries— all the possible venues that figure when someone else is the journey’s purpose. Can one explain the road as lived? Reason has no answer. When questioned about it, the I Ching gave him “Splitting Apart,” apt and to him optimistic: things must break so something new can gather force, appear. “Things must”: how fate permeates the road! And each one sees it as it is for her. I. THE ROAD M em ory "And what would that look like?" she might have asked. The question looks ahead, if doubtfully, but his mind tends toward retrospect: what's formed has taken place, associative scenes stretching back to time’s bending point, where he regained consciousness of self and others. The scenes arrive like Swedenborg’s heaven: not a great distance when they first appear from where he is or was. The observer in these scenes is also present, a filmmaker’s eye, but more holistic in what he takes in on the journey through: green walls behind the mosquito netting; white cotton with its narrow line of wet. W ildflow ers "Abandon no one": his maxim, not that it was believed. Love and friendship mix badly between the sexes; they want one or the other. He learned this slowly, noting along the way that, unfolding, time opens life up, makes it possible to find the river again in that space. And while she may only put her toes in, there’s a glint of warmth in her eyes and voice. All because time has turned the ground over and those wildflowers that betrayal scorched emerge and flower in a new season. The gate is always there, the hedgerow sometimes a wall, else more of a curtain.

Any Predict he would take up another? It seems perverse. An umbrella rolled up is like a baby without a mother, he thinks. Or is it the other way? Pup or pop, dad or daddy: which is which? Bride on bride, groom on groom, the issue deferred, he imagines, arranged, left on the side until after the wedding, matters blurred. Who asks whom first? Groom on bride, bride on groom, all permutations are permissible, lawful in two senses. Crossing the room, she walks the way women walk: visible. How many crossings, then, before the slam, despite amour, despite the wham and bam? Canyon Less an old story than a new one: one tries to learn from experience, but then experience is new. It’s never done telling how it is, will be, once again. And so the room is new, and the terrace, also, the brightness here, the darkness there— their stories come around like a Ferris wheel, like houses on a cliff, truth or dare. In short, we may as well call any place OK for our purposes, and not wait for the tide to run out. There’s so much space between A, B, a canyon of this date and that, the emptiness I noted, such quiet, if quiet matters, matters much. II. ENCOUNTERS H ints Perhaps it’s true, these charges leveled. I could see it. My history precedes me: a life smooth to the touch and yet beveled, even knife-like, and sharpened to a T. Yes, it may be true. I feel like smoking or playing slow music in a dark room. There may be a blue lamp, someone soaking, barely vertical, diktat from the womb. You know how the chorus goes, the long moan, the short gasp. Yes, definitely like this. I’m sure I’m guilty as charged on the phone. (But one could also say, “An odd life, miss.”) Imagination plays a role, a touch of ambiguity, small hints and such.

H eft The word from eight (the hexagram): union. Life has its hubs or maybe its nodes. One finds one’s place, tries to avoid confusion. The whole is organic after all, fun while it lasted, you could say, a tear welling up, but then it orbits around— the brass ring you missed might just reappear, only golden this time, and what’s lost is found. The whole is dramatic after all; full of everything that leavens existence— black bees abuzz or the massive white bull that carried Europa north. “Resistance is futile,” she thought, tightening her hold; imagining its heft had made her bold. Chem istry Melancholic, I read: analytic and literal. Mix sanguine in and then you get what Hegel called dialectic. (It can seem bipolar, now and again.) Literal, yes, that rang a bell: a clue why metaphors sink like lead in quicksand. The glass, famously half empty: that’s due to some negative universe, a band most often playing in a minor key? Mix sanguine in and things look much brighter. It takes hold so quickly. The chemistry is such that everything soon seems lighter. When that glass fills up, claret or amber, the bow, taken up, regains its camber. Fork "Ask someone else," the woman said, turning back to whatever it was, blocked from my sight. In the cafés of life, I'm still learning to distinguish a wrong move from a right. We spoke of art as he drank his wine, art that sometimes lived in, the remove as slight as one remembered. Did he give a start? Time's distance is no match for the flight of memory. Like how I can hear you as they must have, too, your door ajar. "Sounds like thunder," they might have said. If they knew, geology terms could have made the rounds— seismic, perhaps, or volcanic—but then memories fork, don't they, now and again?

III. NOTES TO SELF W interreise Sometimes only boughs are visible, near as passersby on crowded city streets, close enough to touch, but we hold back, fear to touch the way we might if between the sheets. A different season—the hedges form a square, a distant bell sounding, the sea fog-edged: Held in the mind, these thoughts ward off despair, even as the boughs bend close, winter full-fledged. They say there are hot springs hereabouts, far or near, I know not. Heat intuited glimmers in consciousness like a faint star and yet proves faithful and deeply rooted. Somewhere in this Milky Way, steam rises. Make for that, a traveler surmises.

Doubled They each write out their provisos: how much emptiness exists between points A, B. He wonders why he now declines to touch. She asks him what, if not this, love could be? These are fair questions. Somewhere there’s a street that isn’t haunted by the past. Somewhere there’s a house, a garden, a bed, a sheet with no story. “In heaven, too—we share everything with a doubled eternal,” the Zen master told his listener. A spoon was the object doubled, not infernal, but ordinary as the waxing moon. In the middle of her night, he awoke to find it was that moon, not her, that spoke. K ronos A road, we call it, a path, but river, as Heraclitus suggested, feels right. How slowly It moves, often, a sliver of life at a time, fluid yet so slight that it falls beneath our notice, gone from consciousness. What carries us along, we ask ourselves. Is this a boat we’re on? Who steers it? The words of a sailor’s song mix with those of mermaids, sirens whose breasts are like the hills that skirt the river’s edge. Garlanded, they push and pull, plot their tests of bravado for the boys on the ledge. They’re up there, too, the girls, shedding a fin, then half-drowned—payment for their plunging in. Shadow A shady figure, some would argue. Won’t get no denial from me. This is Jung’s territory, so why deny it? Don’t think I’m gonna. “I like it when she comes,” now there’s a phrase to warm a liar’s heart. And God knows deception’s my middle name. Yeah, keeping a straight face, playing the part— the shady life’s not easy, a long game if you can keep it going, and I did, waiting by the telephone, cooling heels out on the road, staying low and well hid, reading the racing forms and copping feels. “It’s all too much! I am a slave!” No more. The pledge: “Nobody’s fool, nobody’s whore.”

Som ew here Inside the room, inside the head: one could write stories of such stasis: nothing goes right or wrong; there’s neither must do nor should. Around the desk, around the chair, life flows like a mysterious substance. Women come and go. The book lies upside-down, tent of paper and board, small markings like Zen, those koans, so hard to read, if they meant anything to anyone else: doubtful. Cats also come and go. A jay lands, screams. The mind wanders in its confining skull. Somewhere, it thinks, a woman dreams or creams. Wake! A cloud of sanguinity draws close. A black bee, meandering, snorts a dose.

Riven The moon appears and disappears, first round then a vessel, pregnant, soon round again. I watch and time passes. I miss the sound. I miss the heat. Why do I not stir then? The question was posed elsewhere: Would it shut? But no, it hangs open, adrift in my doubts about setting out for the coast. Abrupt thoughts crease the stillness. I hear distant shouts, but the sound missed isn’t heard, nor is heat tangibly beneath my hand. These are felt like the moon’s passage, like the ever-sweet taste I crave: eyes rolled back, a deep hue smelt. So I measure how long a road, driven and driven in my head, feelings riven.

IV. NOTES TO OTHERS Cleft In the midst of months, a day divides the time as pre- and post-, like a gate that’s opened and closed, before and after. A slow climb up a road to a boxwood park; we spend an hour there, then climb again where hawks drift in the wind. Stones, a fence, clear air, the sea distant, iron blue. We take walks. Cold in the morning, rising slow, your hair: one divides time up like salt, and after, cleft, the line’s inexact but fixed, bone dry, while you move. Between sadness there’s laughter. Divided and divided, yes, and why? Smote the sea and it opens, life confides; the corollary unsaid: time divides. Listening Sometimes I see the film the music makes. Would you be in it? There are no traces amid the scenery—poems aren’t outtakes— but I can picture it: our two faces (I’m looking up, your head is turned) close in, talking like we used to do. And outside is the changing view. On a map, a pin or pins, rather, would mark our high tide. Variations like those I’m hearing now would do well in this film we made, suited to its mood’s wobbling course. I wonder how the happy ending they want is mooted? “Define happy,” La Rochefoucauld might write, skeptic that he was, doubtful yet so right. M ateriality Odd how the body sings its final note. We aren’t supposed to watch. A crime, they say. We know the clip by heart, even by rote: the hood, the speech, defiance, one to pay the price of being in the wrong place, time, the wrong century, wrong era. “No dice! You worship at another altar, slime!” and other epithets that aren’t so nice, as if nice matters when they cut your throat. What is it you think in those last moments? Odd how the body sings its final note despite the droning man and his torments. English, they said, a recruit to the cause. As for the cause itself, I see some flaws.

Caught Poison, he told her, but she demurred. Pain ensued, although not before bliss. That, too. Dire, he repeated, but she demurred. Rain fell, metaphorically, but nothing’s true exactly, nothing’s as it’s depicted here. So the road in retrospect has its death, its depths of sadness, hearts ravaged, seared. At points, human beings run out of breath, caught in those small rooms of contradiction, airless, cut off from the rest of life. All grinds massively to a halt, no friction left to spark love. It’s the end of the ball. The door is always there, the saying has it, but the music can still be heard, can’t it? M end He wrote of borderlands transgressed, the bounds so readily passed through, despite knowing how unbending life can be. Making rounds, it came to seem, riding the range, sowing no wild oats, however much desired. A ring, not a badge, a vow, not much use, a waiting, waiting game. She grew tired, he thought, or was it him, cutting them loose in hopes that life would bring them somewhere new? He still rode the range, but slowly. Fences make good neighbors, he thought. “Rode it with you” in his head, despite distance, defenses. Mending fences is not the worst pastime. Builds character, they say. Must be sublime. V. THE SENSES O ceania “Memory,” the title read. Notice the cleft almost hidden amid the tropical points of reference? Nominally he was in his dotage, yet the flame still lingered: the oceanic concubine fingered in moonlight, her moaning against the buzz of whatever the lizards failed to cull. Wet the way women get, his fingers deft with practice, the one means he still had left. Thinking back, it seemed almost comical to be reduced to this trick, how it was in youth when some pliant schoolgirl lingered long enough to be felt up, her head cocked, feet apart—no lizards, but the memory.

Blue Did she notice him, his eyes fixed on her, line dancing along the periphery, gestures toward a sky that reminded him of the lapping Caribbean Sea, blue with bars and shoals, the pelicans skimming? He could picture her at home in that scene. Would she come closer, answering his wish? If the room emptied out, then just the two, alone in the semi-dark, the palm fronds swaying, imaginary though they were. Or would he come for her, carried along by the rising and falling of the song? Gravely she thanked him as he left; no kiss but only words, the kiss left unspoken. N eck Long legged with dark slippers, tatami cushioning the blow, hair clipped, wedding ring a bronze band, and a boy's face. Can't you see? Her neck is how a lover views it. Sing, oh muse, of how her back would arch, taken dog-wise, wet from earlobes caressed, parting lips somewhere along the way. Mistaken as we sometimes are, drifting, departing all too soon, those cries still echoing, walls marked, sheets torn by hands grasping. Holding still until taken, taken until spent, balls aching as they sometimes do, no ill will, mistaken as we sometimes are, depart too soon, drifting, humming, playing one's part. Denouem ent A surprise to find paradise out back, Straight-laced on the outside, like a Russian dacha within. French influenced, no lack of creature comforts. “Nothing Prussian,” he might have said. His friend’s wife outlived both, his real wives ailing and absent. “In France,” she told me. “Heart attack.” So first half a loaf and then none. And yet nothing seemed askance. This may be the territory old age brings us to, when transience really takes hold. The last scenes played out on this earthly stage need a few actors still standing, though old, French-style armchairs, shelves of books, leather-bound, blue walls, distant chatter the only sound.

VI. LOVE & DEATH M ay Whatever else he might have been, he thought, an opportunity wasn’t it. Still, he could see why the word came up. Squandered is how time can feel when expectations falter. The transformation shocks us. Love charts a path that rarely proves tenable, yet nothing’s lost, the I Ching added, soon after, but after what, exactly? Words like disaster came to mind. But was it? There they were, as close as ever, despite the distance on some levels. The frisson drops away, the venues change. “It may just be this,” she told him a while back. Yes, it may. Our reality, he’d say. Talk I want to write out love’s true story: talk accompanies love, does it not? Before and after is the rule, but sometimes we talk throughout, albeit in single words or more, short phrases or demands. Conversation comes in between, those moments of cooling after the long sprint, the respite of come, when our beings briefly reign, no fooling, as twin monarchs of all we survey: bed and linen, walls, a view. For some reason the mind is freed. Unwritten, what is said, yet remembered, some of it: the season, what you asked, how I felt; reality consisting then of us, we two, only. H earts I want to write out love’s true story: hearts melded into flesh, is that how it is? The truth of love—many scenes, many parts! Each folds back on the other—how it is. He takes her trembling self in hand, rocket that she is. He’s like a match, and as dumb, column-straight, ignition in his pocket, then bent down at the gate, mind switched to numb. How like a horse plowing, running blindly! Love is a field to him, love is a course. That another’s aflame, a rising sea behind those eyes, deep in the matted source— these facts pass like trees and houses, the road south, the beaten path, the curve of lips, her mouth.

Death I want to tell the truth about love. Death can come as a relief when it goes wrong. Breathless, they say, but then there’s no more breath, no space, no room, no road: end of a song you sang in harmony and counterpoint, in reality and in illusion. Love softens you up, puts you out of joint severely, a sure cure for delusion. You stand on the balcony and look down. Below are the dead, their quiet sleep, still as stones amid a field of green and brown. They make no comment. Jumping holds no thrill, they seem to say, as if the dead could talk. You could leap or wait. You could take a walk. H ere In one sense, visceral, then burned, scattered; in another, each and every, imbued— how quickly memory attaches, grips one's sideways glance of things, raises places from their background status. One picks them up; one picks up on them. Present here, one says, telling a story that overlays death with what lives on. I used to picture it slipping between time's folds, a shimmering into and out of material life. It's not quite the Noh play I imagined. Despite the flames and ashes, so much persists: not just what we trash or give away, nor what we think we see. Being here, he, too. Three Morphine clears a path; it was requested, he learned at the wake. The bigger friar of the two—perhaps he was a father— set his remarks on women and offspring: how life’s quickening registered as joy. (Invoking it seemed oddly apropos.) Three generations of the female line were noted. The eldest, recently dead, witnessed this mutely. His theory (self-awareness persists a bit) foundered on a body from which all signs of life had departed. “All used up” came to mind, admirable in its economy of means. No doubt that material life loses its spark.

Poppies The paper flowers, the father, granddad, the graves like Chinese cities, all the dead arrayed. What a war they had! Not so bad until it plowed them under. What was said went mostly unspoken. Silence, a sound often written, slices through time and space. The dead either hear us or not. It goes ‘round, the silence between us; face to face it would be different or else diffident, depending on your mood. How are you, then? I ask each time, less and less confident I know how you are, really. Well, amen. Mass is over and we’re both still alive. We could talk. I could see you, raise you five.

Notes “Neck” is for Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938)—a lot of work being that man. “Here” was written for Donald Cremers in memory of Frank Sclafani. The images are mine (or my collages) except for “Memory of Oceania” by Henri Matisse.

IN MEMORY He tore himself open like a star falling through heavens. 1. Neither death nor madness could contain you. We reason and we feel, and neither thing was enough for you. Yet once, secure in your long dress, you laughed and tossed a shuttlecock over the net. The clairvoyant said your journey now is separate. Your path and his divided years ago, although the same roof enclosed you. And still they carried you away, made you lie down among the old and sick, until you joined them. Neither madness nor death wall you in. Sometimes at night I hear you cry out for fame or release. Yet once, sheathed in your long dress, you stood and talked, a glass in hand, a cigarette between your fingers. 2. The world outside reduces us to tears. Its beauty startles us, catching us unawares. We drift from childhood and lose our sense. Beauty enflames us, but we are jaded. The world outside is filled with paths. I see my father’s tracks sometimes, like footsteps through the snow, my mother’s only rarely, her step cutting sideways over ice, then like a line drawn down across a wall, a thin line of daylight or the line the moon makes when it falls across your window. 3. I knew you didn’t really love me. What’s strange is how much I loved you. Love is blind, they say, or possibly is blinded by itself, by the power of its hold. What’s strange is how desire persists, even when you know what you know.

4. My father sits now in the void. He grew old without my noticing. He expected just to fade away, with some reason—a tired, gentle sleep. Not to drown like this in his own spit, his anxiety suppressed. How did Christ die? Suffocation, one reader wrote, his lungs no longer able to expel. We all knew that angels carried him away. Perhaps then his body sunk, and men were fooled. My father died without expectations— not for him the cello or his favorite theme. I still see him in his favorite chair, its arms of varnished wood— his drink, his book, his countenance, the house he built, the dogs he loved, the different worlds he occupied, now lost. We live in parallel, and our fears are the same. We live in parallel, and share a common hunger. 5. The Taoist immortals, there were seven, could count on one finger the women they had had. “There was just one,” they nodded. They agreed that she was perfect. One day, in an old house by the river, the first immortal fell in love with shadow, the second with substance, the third with no-name, the fourth with mind-as-mirror, the fifth with no-desire. The sixth and seventh immortals sat together in one corner, near a window that overlooked some rapids. Some hours passed, and one by one, their colleagues fell away. The first disappeared forever. The second crushed himself with stones. The third wandered mutely. The fourth staggered blindly. The fifth returned and joined them in the corner. Looking out, the sixth immortal gestured toward the river. “How beautiful when excited.” The seventh nodded. The fifth immortal shook his head. “How exquisite when possessed.” The sixth nodded. The fifth immortal shook his head. “This is just a river,” he said finally. They agreed that it was perfect.

COMMON PLACE No. 6 © 2014 by John Parman

Common Place No. 6  
Common Place No. 6