Sunlight and Arrows: Five Invocations for the Silent Muse

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1.

 

Yesterday he stood up. He announced to the judge he would represent himself during the trial. Then he sat back down.

Not long ago Dylann Roof walked into the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat quietly in a chair for an hour. Then he took out his gun and killed nine members of their prayer group. That the word of his last name is a token of safety and shelter. His middle name is Storm. He said he was “awakened” by typing into Google “black on White crime.” I don’t know what answer the oracle gave him or how he heard it. He wrote, “I have no choice.”

Wondering why my mind keeps turning back to ancient history when all I want to do is dwell here in my life. I guess I don’t know what my life is, don’t know where the horizon is that marks its limit. In every direction that border-line retreats with every step I take. But “step” isn’t a true word. I’m not moving at all. Just quiet in a chair. Thinking silently to myself. Is that life?

Life is what persists through time. It has a duration and to become an adult is to feel that duration as something both growing longer and diminishing, growing heavier and turning daily into almost nothing like a word in a sentence grown aware of itself, hearing the echo of utterance and perceiving that more words are to come, each syllable one single part of the meaning no single word can hold; today is made possible only by all the days I have already lived, and this day will drift away into those to come which would not exist without this one, and these moments that seem to be the ones in which we live abandon themselves before we realize we too have been left almost behind.

But I might say other things. Or life might speak better for itself.

That there is a storm underneath a roof. That others took in this storm to pray with them. That they opened their doors.

Don’t speak the unspeakable things.

Let us pray the prayer to Tacita who keeps the doors of violence closed. Please don’t open the doors. Keep the doors shut.

I can’t keep up–memory keeps looking backward while Love, fear, or is it hope keeps peering ahead. Or maybe I have it wrong, and love looks both ways at once, into the past and into the future; or maybe that’s wrong too, and love like the bashful youth looks down at her feet in the grass; or is it love looks you in the eye.

I don’t know.

Here follows reverence:

Awake in the early hours. Thought fills the chair I sit in. My daughter Iris in bed with my wife and both still sleeping. A blue jay sings its metal song outside the window and then the song stops. My daughter Hana is flying right now over the Pacific Ocean. There’s a house-finch quiet on the needles of the windless pine.

History invades silence.

Numa was the second king of Rome, born on the same day the city he would rule had been founded. They came into the world together. It is said he knew Pythagoras and so followed the inner laws of silence.

After his mortal wife passed away he wandered the fields and in the quiet grasses a goddess consorted with him. Some deny this is true. They don’t believe a deity would make love to a human being. But almost every day he wandered into the meadows. Maybe the calm was erotic. Maybe the grasses bending over in the wind.

He put at peace the warlike ways of the Romans. He instituted many religious observances.

Numa commended all to devote themselves to the Muses, giving to one especial honors, a tenth Muse seldom mentioned, Tacita, the Muse of silence or speechlessness. A temple in Rome kept open its doors as long as the country fought in war. During peace the doors were shut. Never had they been closed until Numa ruled. No step stepped into that temple for 43 years.

Then the shrine was silent, or silence was its prayer.

Tacita might be the Muse of such peace.

Before he died he had two stone coffins made. Into one his body was placed, and into the other, the books on which he’d written his laws. He didn’t want those words to go on speaking without him, and if anyone wanted to recall what he’s said, they’d have to remember, and speak it for themselves.

Books are also bodies to bury.

Like you could bury your breath after having finally breathed out all of it.

I want to learn to pay attention without paying any mind.

 


2.

 

“ototototoi” “feu feu” “ouai ouai” “ototototoi”

Such are some of the words used in Ancient Greek to express mourning. Mostly, we don’t know how to hear them. The awful music of their ululation. Most translate them as “Alas! Woe is me!”

*

In the summer of 2011 Anders Behring Breivik parked a van in front of the tower housing the Prime Minister of Norway’s office and blew it up. Two hours later, dressed as a police officer, he took a ferry to an island where students had gathered under the auspices of the ruling Labor Party to learn to be leaders themselves. Introducing himself as Martin Nilsen he took out ammunition, including hollow-point bullets, and his guns, and for an hour, killed every one he could. Those trying to swim from the island to mainland he shot in the water. Those trying to escape by pretending to be dead he returned to and shot. Only he got to pretend. No one else could. When the real police arrived, Nilsen surrendered. I mean, Breivik did. He killed 69 people on that island where youth went to imagine the future. His bomb killed 8 and injured over 200. One man was the deadliest day since World War II. He became his own war.

In 2013, Breivik applied to the University of Oslo to study Political Science. His application was accepted. Now in his jail cell he studies the history of government, the wars that tore apart ancient Greece, the wars by which Rome conquered the world. I imagine in that cave of his cell he writes essays on democracy; on philosopher kings; on the uses of cruelty.

I don’t think he’s taking a course on Ancient Greek. But I don’t know.

*

In his head there are words he cannot forget. Words he did not speak himself. Words no one says when grief-struck. No one says, “Alas! Woe is me!”

“ototototoi” “feu feu” “ouai ouai” “ototototoi”

 


3.

 

The old story says we watch shadows on the wall. Far behind us a fire burns like a minor sun. Before it, a walkway, across which puppets are carried, whose motions mimic all the motions of life, so that the shadows they cast mesmerize as does the world, and to those of us watching on the rock wall this life’s parade, we think the shadow-play we see is what is most real. It’s only when we feel the binding chain that doubt begins.

When I’m in the cave, I like to think a shadow walks by that seems to one of us different, filled with soul, and out of desire to touch it you might reach up your hand, to grasp and be grasped. Sometimes realizing you are shackled is the key that unlocks the fetter. Doubt is the key turning in that lock. Then you get up, and walk past the rut the puppets tread, past the fire somehow dim, and up to the mouth of the cave that is a mouth filled with light.

In the summer of 2012, James Eagan Holmes walked from the midnight alley through the propped open door of the movie theater into which he would throw gas canisters and, wearing a black assault vest, his hair dyed an acid orange, he followed, opening fire on the people gathered there to watch the newest Batman movie. Holmes killed twelve, and injured seventy. He put up little resistance upon his arrest; he seemed most interested in watching the aftermath of his own doing, of watching the horror play out. Victims describe Holmes entering the movie theater, the smoke billowing up in clouds, the echoing gun fire, the muzzle flash, as if it all were part of the movie itself, a special effect. It takes some time to know that what is happening is real, especially in the cave, where the shadows have learned to mimic every joy and every fear, even those we haven’t yet imagined, and to which we return to see only what is life-like, to escape for a little while life itself.

Mostly I want to weep. That’s the protest I’d like to organize. For an hour a day, I’d like everyone to walk outside and at an appointed time, for just a minute or two, to gather back from the air the sadness floating there in the clouds, and weep, all of us who can still weep, weep. Then we can go back to our business, whatever our business may be.

The business of Heracles was his labors. Mostly that meant killing. When he finished all twelve, returning from the underworld, after he’d killed Eurystheus, the ruler of the land where his wife and children lived and who had threatened them with exile, as he was preparing the ritual sacrifice to purify himself and his house, Hera sent Iris to convince Lyssa—snake-haired goddess of madness—to inflict the hero with insanity. It comes upon him suddenly. His children wonder at the change. “Here he stripped himself of his garments, wrestled without an opponent, had himself proclaimed victor with himself as herald, and called for silence from a nonexistent throng.” His children ran inside. Heracles pushed his father away when the old man tried to restrain him, “and prepared arrows and bow against his own children, believing that he was killing Eurystheus’ children. These in fear rushed in different directions, one to his poor mother’s skirts, another under the protection of an altar. Their mother cried out, ‘Ah, what are you doing? You are their father: will you kill the children?’ Old Amphitryon and the throng of servants shouted too. But he, circling a grim turn around the column, stood facing the boy and shot him through the heart. The boy fell on his back, and as he breathed out his life he drenched the stone pillars with his blood . .  . He aimed his bow at a second, who was cowering near the base of the altar, thinking he escaped notice. But before Heracles could shoot, the poor boy fell at his father’s knees and thrust his hands at his chin and his neck; ‘Dearest father,’ he said, ‘do not kill me. I am yours! It is your son, not Eurytheus’ child you are going to slay!’ Bur he merely turned his fierce Gorgon gaze upon him and, since the boy stood too close for the deadly bow shot, lifted his club above his head and—just like a smith forging iron—brought it down on the boy’s blond head and smashed his skull. Having killed his second son, he went off to sacrifice a third victim on top of the other two. But before the he could do so the boy’s mother snatched him up, took him inside the chamber, and barred the door. Heracles, just as if he were besieging Mycenae, dug under the door, pried it up, pulled out the doorposts, and with a single arrow felled both wife and child.”

He falls unconscious. Others drag him to bed and tie him to it. When he wakes his madness is gone.

He says, “Ah, what does this mean? I am alive, and I see what I ought to see, the bright air, the earth, and shafts of sunlight. But I am fallen as if into a wave and into dread confusion of mind, and my breath comes hot and in shallow panting, not steadily from my lungs.” Heraclitus says, or once said, or maybe I’ve made it up, that the string of the lyre and the string of the bow are the same string. Sunlight and arrows both come in shafts.

His father asks him if he knows what he’s done. “I have no memory . . .” Then his father tells him what he has done. Then: Heracles veils his head in his garments. He is trying to hide from the arrow that is the sun.

James Eagan Holmes pled innocence due to insanity. He’s schizophrenic. I don’t know if he heard voices. If Lyssa came to him and spoke.

I think a lot, but it’s not what I do. It does me, somehow, thinking. It does away with me—I think about James Holmes choosing a movie theater, choosing to seem himself like a character stepping out of the screen into the world, about the heart-breaking ferocity with which we want to return to the cave, or go deeper into it, and those maddened ones for whom the line between puppet and person is no line at all, and who uses our imaginations against us, who kill us where we go to escape.

The projector’s beam cuts through the dark like an arrow made of light.

Mostly we want to go back to the cave.

 


4.

 

Tacita, Muse of the Unspeakable, deafen this prayer, mute the wild wood dove, wrest away the wren’s song, let the thrush lose her lament or learn to lisp, and make the house finch fluent in forgetting . . .

Another name to add to the list: Chris Harper-Mercer.

*

In 1855 Walt Whitman publishes “Song of Myself” in Leaves of Grass for the first time. He’ll revise it throughout the rest of his life, publishing a last version in 1892.

What is the grass? the child asks, is one moment I always remember.

And something about the “atoms,” each belonging to me as good belongs to you.

“Good” here, I guess, means “also.”

How death is different than anyone supposed, “and luckier.”

When I was in high school my teacher told me what so many of us were told by our teachers in high school: Whitman wrote the poem of America. But I don’t read it much any more.

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman, after killing his mother and wife, went to the University of Texas where he studied Engineering, climbed up the clock tower of the Main Building, and for over an hour shot whomever he could shoot. He killed fourteen people on campus and wounded 32.

Studying poetry at the University of Iowa in 1999, I was in the habit of reading some poems after lunch, lying down on my couch, the radio faintly on to the news. Mostly I’d end up sleeping, dreaming my dreams. I remember reading John Berryman’s Dream Songs, one particular poem, realizing in my half-dozing state exactly what the poem was about:

 

I heard said ‘Cats that walk by their wild lone’
but Henry had need of friends. They disappeared
Shall I follow my dream?
Clothes disappeared in a backward sliding, zones
shot into view, pocked, exact & weird:
who is what he seem?

I will tell you now a story about Speck:
after other cuts, he put the knife in her eye,
one of the eight:
he was troubled, missionary: and Whitman
of the tower murdered his wife & mother
before (mercy-killings) he set out.

Not every shot went in. But most went in:
in just over an hour
with the tumor thudding in his brain
he killed 13, hit 33:
his empty father said he taught him to respect guns
(not persons).

Then I heard the radio speak. Someone reported gunfire at Columbine high school. Not much is known. Reports about the Chemistry teacher being shot. My sister-in-law was then a student at Columbine high school. Taking Chemistry.

My wife and I flew back to Colorado and went to the outdoor memorial. It was raining. Some speaker said that heaven was crying. But I know heaven doesn’t cry. That’s just rain falling down on the field to make it grow, falling down on the flowers, those real and those fake, falling on the bereaved, on the stuffed animals in piles, on the photos of faces.

Days later we flew “home.”

*

Then the mind has the wound called darkness, and darkness is called memory, and memory lives in a cave called mind, and a cave is a kind of shelter made out of a wound, and in this wound thinking happens, and it is not for tears: thinking.

Who is what he seem?

I don’t think Whitman was related to Whitman. I could find out. But I don’t want to look it up. I don’t really want to know.

I mean, I really don’t want to know.

But I guess he must be. For every atom belongs . . .

Whitman wrote the great American poem. Both Whitmans. It’s easier to hear this newest version, the one so many men keep rewriting, each in their own way, but each the same, this poem of America.

It doesn’t sound like much it is so loud.

Emily Dickinson knew something of it, too: “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—” But now it is no Master who does so—the gun carries itself away, the gun pulls its own trigger.

Boys and men keep rewriting that poem, too. Some of the children memorize every line.

*

Bang bang they play at school and fall over in the grass. Then the bell rings, and most all of them get up and go to class.

But some stay on the ground, looking through the fragrant blades at the green shards behind, breathing in the grass, seeing beneath the leaves their shadows, and finding—when they look close—the small life whirring there, the leaf-hoppers, beetles, and crickets, and some children stay in the grass, wondering about the hum there so near the earth your ear must be in the dirt to sing along.

Sometimes when I pick up Iris from kindergarten I don’t know why the children are running so fast or to where. I heard no beat not a drum fill the air. Nor did I hear the silence after, that wound in the grass, that wound in the field, stray bullets that mow the field blade by blade so it takes almost forever to annul the atoms.

O green scent of the broken grass blade, o perfume of the wounded field, kill this prayer in your mercy, o Tacita, break the clocks in the tower, break apart time, one leaf of grass at a time, leave some sunlight and some shadow, one spear standing tall and straight, just enough to know how long the day has left, not time, not time, but what light has left to endure.

A child said, What is the grass?, fetching it to me with full hands.

I don’t. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s in my hands.

 


5.

 

Christopher Harper-Mercer’s mom loved guns and said that her son had much knowledge of guns, of how they work and of their laws. She called him, “baby.” Neighbors recalled how he could talk with passion about his guns, but couldn’t talk about his own life. The guns have a life he could express. Schoolmates said he changed the subject when the subject was himself. “He didn’t say anything about himself,” one says. Another says he could say, “Hi.”

He shot ten students at a community college in Oregon.
He like a picture of himself so much he posted it online: Me, holding a rifle.
John Berryman, in another dream writes:

There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.

And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
thinking.
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.

“Ever” here, I guess, means “always.”

Sometimes I have to make myself make the mistake I need to make.

Does the poem describe the violence within it so that we remember, and should we forget, can find the reminder we need of our sorrow, or horror, or grief. Does the poem add luster to darkness and make it gleam. Does the poem warn us about ourselves. Who is what he seem. Does the poem bear in it the burden we cannot carry ourselves. Does the poem act out for us the violence within us so that we can be in the world at peace. Does the poem give courage where it should give fear. Does it make you imagine what should not exist so that it won’t exist. Or is it the opposite. Which one. Is it each one.

All these are questions. The answer keeps being blank. The blank between the letters and the blank after them. Blank of all the margins. Blank beneath the words.

Like a blank page not numbered in a book acting like it isn’t there even as you gaze down on its silence, nobody is always missing. It feels like a mistake, this being present by being absent, this existing by not existing, like some kind of footsteps that precede the feet, and all the grass is bent down before the bell has even rung, not a bell but a recording of a bell, and what the bell says is, “too late,” before the children from the school have yet run.

Nobody is missing. Nobody is obeying the laws.

His mother called him baby.

 

Dan Beachy-Quick is the author, most recently, of two books of poetry: gentlessness (Tupelo) and Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs (Omnidawn). These essays are adapted from a collection of essays, meditations, fragments, and poems titled A Quiet Book, due to be published by Milkweed Editions in October 2017. He directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Colorado State University, and his work has been supported by the Lannan and Guggenheim Foundations.

 

Photo: The gun for peace. Lee Nanjoo | Shuttetstock

 

Published on December 1, 2016.

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