On these hot May days, I often get caught in an eddy of thought. Each rhyming revolution, flow and counterflow, carries me closer and closer to … something. At the last moment, just before translation from this into that, I’m released. Let go into the iron grip of the river. Know what that feels like? Like powerful arms, ropy with muscle, wrapping themselves around you.
The whitewater guide shouts at the swimmer, “Flip onto your back! Get your face out of the water! Point your feet downstream!”
So there I am, you can imagine, my eyes filled with sky, listening to an adrenaline rush of blood in my ears. What to make of the fact that it sounds exactly like water pulsing and surging over boulders?
Now, if this should happen to you one day, remember my advice: don’t struggle. You’re midway between past and future. You’ve got just a few seconds to reach with your mind back upstream, attempting to recall what you glimpsed in that instant when the angular momentum of the widening gyre finally gave you up.
Maybe you saw some other, some earlier version of yourself? Could be. Or something you missed the first time. Looked at, that is, but did not see. On that trip to the desert, say, when lavender light seemed to drift down upon its escarpments and down-faulted basins. Which might have — but didn’t — remind you of your mother, that time you were so sick with aches and chills, and she put you into her bed, pulling her lavender bedspread up under your trembling chin.
In the film Arrival, a linguist manages to decode an extraterrestrial language. The alien visitors use circular logograms to express themselves in writing. That circularity, it turns out, is not just a matter of orthography. It’s how they think. It’s how they experience the cosmos.
It’s that gyre again. It’s that circling, round and round and round, until the character played by Amy Adams sees what was always there.
More and more these days, I confess, I feel like a traveler to Hypatia, one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities:
Of all the changes of language a traveler in distant lands must face, none equals that which awaits him in the city of Hypatia, because the change regards not words, but things. I entered Hypatia one morning, a magnolia garden was reflected in blue lagoons, I walked among the hedges, sure I would discover young and beautiful ladies bathing; but at the bottom of the water, crabs were biting the eyes of the suicides, stones tied around their necks, their hair green with seaweed.
I felt cheated and I decided to demand justice of the sultan. I climbed the porphyry steps of the palace with the highest domes, I crossed six tiled courtyards with fountains. The central hall was barred by iron gratings: convicts with black chains on their feet were hauling up basalt blocks from a quarry that opened underground.
I could only question the philosophers. I entered the great library, I became lost among shelves collapsing under the vellum bindings, I followed the alphabetical order of vanished alphabets, up and down 47 halls, stairs, bridges. In the most remote papyrus cabinet, in a cloud of smoke, the dazed eyes of an adolescent appeared to me, as he lay on a mat, his lips glued to an opium pipe.
“Where is the sage?”
The smoker pointed out of the window. It was a garden with children’s games: ninepins, a swing, a top. The philosopher was seated on the lawn. He said: “Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.”
I realized I had to free myself from the images which in the past had announced to me the things I sought: only then would I succeed in understanding the language of Hypatia.
I speak English, of course. And the people I see each day speak English, too. But are we speaking the same language? That’s the question. I’m not sure. Possibly not. Maybe the difference is not in words, but things?
Sleeping with Butler’s Lives of the Saints
by Eugene Gloria
After Octavio Paz
What’s most human must drive
an arrow to the heart.
Ghosts, too, must abide by this directive
& remain transparent,
going about their business in old houses.
Before I was an I, I longed to be ethereal.
Sprouting wings at will & gliding through
cul-de-sacs and malls around the valley.
My hands, too, would gradually disappear
followed by my arms, then neck & head
until my whole body was slight as allergen.
Before I was an I, I spoke an old language
that would return on drowsy afternoons.
Therefore I struggled to say
the simplest sentences. So much so
that the maligned semicolon
became an ardent ally, an island
of pause and the deep breath.
The comma, too, bless its tiny soul,
was the crumb which the god
of small favors multiplied
tenfold for my morning pie.
Before I was an I, knowledge
clung to me like burrs & hunger
guided my ship like the barefoot light
on the sleeping land & sea.
Before you were a you and I was an I, we shared a language suitable for drowsy afternoons. A languid language full of pauses, long and short. It took shape and grew over an inconceivably long period of time, as one of your great-greats and one of mine circled back (and back again) to the same stories, anecdotes, jokes, but every time polishing each uncut diamond until it began to shine.
The moment Gilgamesh first encountered Enkidu. The day Achilles battled the River Scamander, choking on corpses and anger, running red with blood. Or maybe the same old argument about the best treatment for a bunion. The funny one about Aunt Alice and the traveling salesman.
Those were times when knowledge clung to us like burrs, and hunger like barefoot light guided our ships, sailing side by side, toward sleeping lands and seas.
(“Sleeping with Butler’s Lives of the Saints” From Hoodlum Birds. Copyright © 2006 by Eugene Gloria.)