I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
In days of rock did once I learn the ways to breathwater … .
This was the winter when we had been contented so long, chatting to young men in gray trousers on lawns, the scientists, great guardians of the spirit. Tembleke was a village unchanged since prehistory; its ancients, ghosts, dead propped in chairs. At the full moon people appeared in masks. Its priests, its power and congregation. And at the first call they all put their hands up. There were the doors closing and ghosts three deep in the carriage windows—the ones at the top innocent and the ones in the middle terrified and the ones at the bottom guillotined. They were smiling, afraid of feeling again. The women clung, having to suffer to keep themselves from injury. Kisses taken on street corners where you might be killed, barrel-organs outside bars meretricious as ballets. You have them from the beginning: are forced out of the tunnel into the football stadium; know the moment before the doors open when you are in the dark; then the roar, with the goalpost and the lion. You lie on the hard bed with your legs in the air; watch for the mouths of nurses and lovers. And all the old generals and callboys coming dancing as the stage with feathers in their hair and their tight leather asses. There is the thing in the corner with the cigarette, the soft mouth. The bridge with the ice floes in the river. The inner division and the outer state of the world. Symbolic. The skyscrapers with their skirts falling. And in the front rows the exhausted scientists who have to defend themselves against this barrage of boots, spittle, blood, eyes and swaggersticks. Marrakech. Timbuktu. Powder River. Tembleke. Camels like skeletons.Turrets. Go into the darkness again. This sickness of the mind will die soon: the molecules, atoms, rubbing. Radioactivity. Breathwater; the lost direction.
In those days we had lived so much in our minds, like policemen … .
The university at Tembleke was conducive to all this; a very old place there for the young—scientists, buildings, ways, for something which has nothing to do with them, and which they can only deal with by defeating. Such is cowardice—or the liberal imagination. Adolescents in mud and gray barbed wire. In the ice and the just visible noses. A wave of water, pain, a picador’s horse; the two lines meeting in a sort of crotch, an ecstasy. There was a laboratory at Tembleke where a human brain was kept alive in breathwater. It was in a wooden cabinet like an old Frigidaire. I was taken by Provost Man to see it during those days and I wanted to ask questions about it—does it feel, think? Men in white coats worked around it with tubes and wire. Outside the earth: the air, violence coming down like parachutes. We walked across the carpet, Provost in striped trousers, thumbs in waistcoat, blind and brilliant. Balloons filled with water. Intestines of power. The unfledged eggs. I found I could not ask my questions. Out of respect. Or perhaps fear. Something to hold onto with my claws. Going back to foeti, centuries away from their knees. No one alive now. With their teeth and talons: the swordfish bill. But I remember that age with nostalgia because in fact it did not exist; I had known it before I was 17 but then from the inside, nothing true about it, but only afterward—in days of rock—when I was free making it a dream and thus desiring it: the dream of girls and men on mythical lawns and cars in sunlight. The brain in the Tembleke Frigidaire. Beyond the fence were the crowds who reproduced themselves by division, like primitive cells. The blossom and the grass and the traffic pressed tight around the campus in a circle of smoking vehicles like an army. There was no more space; the children like coal over green fields. Mist, rain, breathwater; darkness like phosphorous. For every good action there had to be this appalling war. You could not think of an answer to this—we understand now only workings and not meanings. The traffic is undermining the structure of the buildings and the buildings crumble. Against this background we—the students—spoke, moved with our profiles and lab coats flowing. We were looking at something else, in the distance. We were not seen by the ones outside much as persons any more; rather as guardians, priests in a jungle. We began to look like this: knowledgeable and deathly. What we guarded was true. But no one asked us what it was. The clearing in the jungle. If enough poison came down like weeds then there would be peace, tension. What else is there?
We know it all now: the tramp of armies down the dusty road, boys with their hands in the dust, girls with one foot raised to sell themselves … .
At the beginning of each term there was a starting-up of machinery; people moving along stone paths again in and out of shadows. On the grass there was the white animal tethered. The peg to which the animal was tethered moved from time to time, which made overlapping circles like ancient earthworks seen from a sky-plane. Something old in memory, a golden age with satyrs and nymphs and fauns. Down on the blue velvet with that touch, smell of childhood. Varnished wood and dust, stickiness. Men with mustaches. White net and parasols. Alchemists saw life in globes, crystals. The child turned to its mother’s lap … .
About our work, it is something that seems to me at a certain stage to take over and live a life of its own. At the beginning it is a matter of your managing it with difficulty; then it is just there, you don’t have to worry much any more. But by now it had become something that you need, your personality. You are in a group, with dependence upon the system. Sometimes a shudder or heartbeat seemed to go on around it, inside the air, the bubble, that breathed. Something wrinkled and hard at the center that wanted to die. You stop asking what relevance all this has to anything else. The old have their revenge upon the young. Lock them up in beautiful walls and crumbling buildings. Park said, “I see Hart spent three minutes in the sin bin.”
Akers said, “I thought bin referred to a lunatic asylum.”
I said, “That’s the laughing academy.”
I thought that thus I was keeping up with Park. Park was a fan of a certain Dr. Smart at the time, even when he was only known of in Gatun.
Akers said, “I read the other day that the latest form of psychiatric treatment makes provision for alleviating repression not by the remembering of the original scene in the mind but by reenacting it positively this time in the present. Before I admit my particular neurosis I want to make sure there are arrangements at Tembleke.”
Park said, “Overtime for mothers.” He often made his statements in the form of newspaper headlines. I thought—we are too old for this: God sits behind a two-way mirror. Our smiles have gone into skulls with pleasure: people like a good drama. Through the window of the committee room, the leaves of the trees waved; there were edges of buildings molded, carved against the sky. Get up and go back along those old gray stone passages, walk to freedom. Black stuff, clothes, dust; round the room these things I was so frightened of. Eyeholes, devils. Through them that by which we had all been possessed; the dark thing, fear. The devils sat outside the rabbit holes, gave us a stroke on the neck. Like quicksilver. A molecule of disease or energy. You know this—no word—the world opens.
Now was the hardest time: man with his pretenses, rationalizations gone: what is there to do, how is life possible.
Provost Man came to visit often in the room where the toys were, a grandfather clock, coffin, pendulum. Provost was a student of artificial energy, the inanimate world that could outwit, outlast us. Wood, iron, bricks, stone, breathwater. Man was a maker of machines, communications. What he was good at. Could never touch a person. Only build a memorial. I had talked with Provost in that room with the bright lawn. The corridor in the place with the plumes and wild horses. Planets fall, crash, the end of galaxies. Play with a skull. The camera from above, swinging a moonbeam. Provost said yourself was nothing; a pendulum; a future hung from your side. A mouth, a fish. Pyramid. But breathwater was a mutation taking place in the deep and wandering world. You push it and it grows—a tufted cowboy. Now drop your hands with the flags and banners. The mechanic has his spanner and oil. The body full of lights. The love of machine. Sometimes he told his students of the breathwater coup of the last century that had made him famous—the meetings in the upper room, the nissen huts near Gatun that were like a prison, the workmen carrying on their shoulders the sealed instructions to the beginning of the world. He had not had much to do with this himself beyond the initial chance discovery of the substance: he had been the brains, but others had done the dirty work. He had sat at the head of the table not saying much, just listening; dressed in his white suit and dark glasses and occasionally knocking off the ash from his cigar. And the ash settled on the fields and on the desert. They had told him of the creation of new worlds; the defense of freedom. They had put stockings over their faces to make themselves look like women. Man had twirled the cigar round and said—Gentlemen, I have a better idea. He had taken an envelope out of his pocket and thrown on the table some picture postcards of Tembleke. Looking back on it he could see that he had had some luck in finding his way to the university; you should not entrust the administration of details to subordinates. There had been 12 of them, students of the substance, from the college at Gatun. The man who had been supposed to betray them had slipped up, and they had almost been eradicated. Provost’s plan had been to find the finest possible brains to work with. Man had, after all, always worked in opposites. But there had to be some clues left to let one or two people know what was happening. This had been achieved: but only at cost. So now Man sat among the students in sharkskin uniforms and the scientists like commercialized Christmas and he took the children on his knee and gave them diamonds.There were oak pillars, fire, chair, bookcase. He was at rest now though unwittingly, a sort of violent rest like a Ping-Pong ball. What he was making himself into. Dreaming of a return to days of rock. Millstones and necklaces. We wrap our minds in it like old fish.
And it was only with the fresh invasion did we seek once again in the necessities of breathwater … .
The point of war is that it is so wonderful when you get out; you stop banging your head against the wall and the jailer brings you porridge. Leather chairs scratched round the edges with iron files. Provost knocked on the table and said, “We must look for a fresh supply of breathwater in the caves of the white desert by Glacier River.” We were about to enjoy this. At the time of the revolution we ticked off names to be guillotined. This was our routine. Money and power. Moving in single file down stone corridors. I thought—after I will go to some primitive country and work there with my hands. A white house with fruit trees. We were all on the edge of some universal catastrophe. Devils coming down with their horns. The committee would be endless. Park and Akers were talking. I thought we had been through all this. Hart shouted, “Let me speak!” His stammer had gotten very bad. He seemed to be having a fit. It was short-circuiting him like electricity. I poured out more wine.
Park said, “But we’re exorcised now, Provost, we don’t have love or ambition anymore. We’re free.”
Akers opened his mouth and tried to answer.
Hart said, “If a person feels anything now we know why, it’s his upbringing or digestion.”
Provost got a noise out like a hoot.
I said, “It’s like radioactivity, it kills. There’s death, form, order. I’m not saying breathwater’s better or worse, it’s just happening.”
Provost shouted, “We know nothing.”
Akers said, “Perhaps it’s better.”
In the morning we went down to the station and for the first time in years looked at the sky. Provost made inquiries about the next train to the white desert. All his luggage had arrived on the quay before him and was in packing cases like archaeological specimens. His face had been altered slightly back to its terrifying look around the eyes; his passport had the stamp on it with the old photograph neatly fitted. He wore his white suit and his broad-brimmed hat and his black-and-white shoes of America. We paused at the top of the gangplank and looked back at our safe world; the men with donkeys’ heads and the women insects’. We circled for a moment before disappearing into the ship; saw a gap in the clouds, took aim and flicked our cigarettes onto the tracks. We were out in the hill country north of Tembleke; the fields like quilts … .
Provost Man said, “This is the country where the children of Trench once lived. They were peaceable people who loved music and dancing. They thought women were superior to men because women’s knowledge was instinctive while men’s had to be learned. So students of Professor Hopes wiped them out, because they were not homosexual.”
The tracks ran over the hills like a roller coaster. The landscape was made of plywood. It was painted with flowers and dark green trees. I began talking of the world—an age of decadence, the divorce of love from power.
Provost Man said, “I was taken prisoner for a moment near here in the last war. We all wanted to be prisoners, so we would be in our wire cages and safe.”
Hart’s girlfriend, Alibi, said, “What happened?”
Man said, “I got away.”
In the night air there would be that long stretch over the hills away from Tembleke. Sitting in the car with the concrete and the dark earth rolling. The stars out. Galaxies. Shooting away from each other. I lay awake while the hills ran and the moon made shapes like children’s faces against the window … .
The wind blew through the walls and body. The fields flat, the footprints in winter. A man in the back streets killing. The buildings like skyscrapers falling round the knees. Above them the pale body of nothingness. In the dining car had been woodwork, stains, brass, glass. People talking with hands round their ears. The leopard and the hunter. I looked down the sights. I thought—the trick of memory: I have known it before. In the corner a young man lurked: a cuckold with his finger on the button. They had pigs’ eyes. Human anatomy is similar to pigs’. It is impossible anymore to fight against killing. I wondered if I might really meet a white desert girl in the south, if we would go through a doorway to an inner courtyard with fountains.
Provost Man said, “This is why men build empires and go out into the desert; to get away from their loved ones and comfortable homes and to sit on floors in caves with chiefs and watch prostitutes. There was once a Roman emperor whose neurosis was that he couldn’t get out of Rome, so he dressed up as a girl and had himself raped by his bodyguard.”
Alibi said, “Is this true?”
Man said, “Some of it.”
Alibi said, “Why are we going?”
Hart said, “He has a power complex. He compensates for his lack of love by making people feel guilty, like Christ and St. Francis.”
Man said, “This is a very strange time. I think I’ve got to stop studying breathwater soon. After this journey I may leave Tembleke for good. But what else? I think the boys want me to be a sort of father figure, but I can’t do this anymore, it’s a deception. People have to be on their own nowadays. I don’t know why, they just do. I can tell them things, but there’s nothing to put into words anymore. We don’t know. Except in work of course, but this doesn’t mean anything. Is this artificial energy, we wonder; is this human? Simple repetition. I sometimes feel that out of all this something is being born—born everywhere—something to do with us having the chance of being tougher now, not so haunted by the past. Everything has to be gone into round and round, with its opposite. We still rationalize, try to justify ourselves. How much am I now? But it’s a question of whether you trust, believe this; and then things go along with you; events, actions. Or whether you give in to a sort of death. The years and battles of the Trojan war or Saturn swallows his children; and the barbarous followers of Hopes recede to Olympus or make earthquakes in Thessaly, or throw Titans in Tartarus, and their acts partake of the terrible, the awesome sublime; breathwater a storm at sea or an avalanche in the Alps; and I wonder which one of us should be chosen to represent the quest for what’s not us that went too far, the one too many that brought the cost home to us like general conscription or a fresh rise in taxes: Park? Hart? Akers? Or you, Quicken? And I wonder again what other one it was that, as his body turned into a rope of smoke, took from us all sense of tragedy and disaster because that ‘bird’ should be commemorated too, inasmuch as the final solution and settlement of the breathwater question was a grandiose undertaking, an immense memorial to death, to human inhumanity, like one of the pyramids, and don’t we stand cameled in their shadow now, slaves erased by the sublimes of time, to tourist at their size? You become tethered to this, made a god of it. The age of religion.”
In the white desert the town of Wolf was made of dust … .
It slid through crevices no one could crawl through, sifting under doors to wedge them shut. On hatless heads dust settled so thickly that hair seemed a new grainless crop. The children of Wolf complained of their eyes, earwax was black, and the song went
don’t cross my path,
so my life last
a little longer.
each time you pass,
my sickness grows
A little stronger.
I love you so—
who would believe it?
But there’s no death
that I don’t breathe it.
Cattle died, sheep died, dogs, cats, horses, chickens, died; crops failed, gardens suffocated, tree leaves grew heavy, gray, and then died while still growing as the grass had; birds left the air to the dust, flopping through helpless circles in the road sometimes (but after all, where was the air when everything was rock?); butterflies became extinct, though beetles thrived; there were no flowers, no fruit on trees or grapes in arbors; hedges filled with dirt, thistles were prized and even cultivated; lakes contracted, sometimes disappearing altogether; certainly the ponds did, and where they’d lain the ground grinned mockingly, as if in days of rock it too had a human rictus. Stones bleached in dry rivers, the few fish vanished forever, carcasses of all kinds turned to dust just as we had been warned they would; and men moved away on those railroads to Clear and Gatun and the soft and lazily settling smoke of man. The pattern of pain with palms to the ground. The point of humanity. A finger, a thumb, stroking down mascara. Soot from gunshot. The cold cerebral eye. Distant, dispassionate. I do not want to remember.
Here was some justification of excellence: it recognized only an abstract hope … .
There was a good deal of preaching and praying in Wolf. People had extra sessions, special meetings. The wounded after battle are in long lines between archways. The general walks up and down: a nurse follows. Some sought symbolic places: shallow depressions which were particularly barren, or low mounds of dust would plume from them like fire from the pits at Gatun; and there they would stand in small lost groups for hours, forlorn, soon nearly mute, trying to call attention to themselves, deliberately facing the white wind that was slowly killing them. Love and death, a cup of tea, the brain again. At the corner of the main street in Wolf there were newspapers and the hot wind from the poles. Something trotted on the sand in front of the palm trees. The shrill cries of birds and hunters. In the white desert the balance of life lay between infinitesimal temperatures: I said, “Let’s go home.”
“We have not lived the right life,” the minister at Wolf said, and I agreed.
Now we were mourners at a funeral. Those old men with their teeth gone and their hair out, shaking. I looked this way and that past the dust-bins. A shadow against the wall, blown by that wind. Take enough trouble and you can destroy anything. My brain poisoned. That marvelous softness. Behind us there was a row of windows and a chimney smoking. The power house. We had discovered everything, youth, memories. We began to walk across the cold harsh landscape to our hotel. Bump: the look of the dog. The cow with its front legs like flippers. A turtle. Soon there would be the white light, cave. I saw the flightbird on the curtain rail. We were in our hotel. The bird’s bright eye was watching us. Provost Man. I was holding onto the body, the loved one, the child in pain. Achilles with his sword knelt over the body of his dead hero.The windows were high up in the long wall of the powerhouse. Platforms and rails and iron stairs. There is so much noise: on this bed a murder might be committed. A child in a blanket. Dirt coruscating. If I could cry, kick it; ride the earthquake. I am so pleased to be here again.
There was going to be a celebration, dance, beat-up, pas-de-deux in the caves near the white desert … .
Somewhere near the edge of the Glacier River of this particular party there was an artificial grotto where in the time of the previous war tired businessmen and scientists had done black magic; as if it were a club in Tembleke with cold buffet and the latest journals in the corner, but nowadays done up with waxwork devils which people paid money to see on Firstdays. For the night of the party this was lit with hellish cellophane to attract the guests; which it did not, there being too much of it outside with the smoke and the hideous wigs and harpies; except for Alibi and me, who wanted somewhere to sit down, even the bench in front of the stewing pot of Miss “Bird Life,” the witch from Wolf. I mean this literally. We were in a grotto where people had once done black magic, and which was now on view as a party attraction. It was as if a scientific experiment were being attempted in which a mass of people were put together and then bombarded with perception. This either did, or did not, create new patterns. We read on a printed notice in front of the tableau of Miss “Bird Life” that she had done things with pins and potions to people in the last century; until she had been caught, and split up the middle on an upturned axe. Such were the incidents in our journey from one form of consciousness to another. Perhaps they had really tried to be sophisticated in those days, sitting round the board room table and ringing up for callgirls. I was cold, my arm round the waist of Alibi, a big red-haired girl, cutting the corners a bit, helped by the general air of filth and loveliness. I thought—we have our moments. There were a few other waxworks round the grotto, a hangman, a draw-and-quarter or two, some victims with blood on their noses. Acolytes stood in the dust. They wore the masks of birds and animals.
I said to Alibi, “You are in love?”
She said, rattling off like a funicular, “I have heard this before.”
Funiculi. Funicula. You don’t do this because you like it, you do it because you have to. A moral position. I began embracing Alibi, a complex position like the beautiful American’s kiss. The walls of the grotto seemed to be made of razors. I got a further grip on her and we began to float, sad steamers hooting, the bar and the wine-dark waves. This was the usual thing of course; when we say we talked to them of their life and loves we do not mean we talked to them of their life and loves.
This is a universal disgust … .
I became aware of one waxwork in the grotto watching us as if it were alive. I must explain that Hart had never before shown much interest in all this; he had not known about it, perhaps, yet he must have done; in the way we all lived vicariously in those days being both young and passionate about science. Perhaps it was useful to him as a student of Man to maintain his own lovely pain and his cigarettes. How else would he have been able to walk across the world like a cowboy with his trousers? But the waxwork who seemed to be alive did in fact now turn out to be Hart, who had followed us and was emanating in the corner. His gaunt eyes stared at us. He was dressed as the executioner. I have forgotten to say this was a fancy dress party, on the theme of Evil down the Ages—a subject coming into the height of fashion. I was dressed as a Sultan of Mopple; Alibi was almost naked. Hart was appearing out of the shadows slowly; a medium’s beautiful American contact. Alibi and myself had just climbed inside the Sultan’s burnoose; we were now struggling wildly to get out. I found myself facing Miss “Bird Life,” the witch from Wolf, a neat person like a heroine of Mopple. I could hear Hart behind me. I put on that smile that went through, and through the corridors of aristocratic buildings—old men stepping past wives and mistresses, past wives’ lovers and mistresses of lovers, doddering and intent and dreaming. I thought—why should Hart mind? We all try for what we don’t want: we get it regularly. I suddenly got a blow on the back of my head. I thought Hart must have taken off his leg and hit me with it. I have forgotten to say that Hart had a wooden leg, having lost his proper one at Casino. I tripped over a bollard holding a rope and collapsed against Miss “Bird Life” whose dress came off leaving her naked. Hart was shouting at Alibi. He was carrying an axe, with which he seemed about to chop her. This particular Sultan of Mopple had been used to chop people’s hands off. Whenever they wore yellow. I got between Hart and Alibi and started talking to him. Perhaps it was all a joke: how terrible not to have a sense of humor. Hart had a black mask that stared at the ceiling. I looked up with it. He raised his axe as if to hit me again, so I pushed him, and he fell and this time his leg did come off: it wasn’t wooden, but a steel thing with a knob at the end. It felt as if we were breaking some limitations to being human: this was in order to stay human; there was no answer to this; only the ability, or not, to live with it. I noticed a broomstick in a glass case on the wall, for protection. Hart had gotten up on one leg but he lost his balance and he reeled around the corner into another alcove. There he crashed against a virgin of Wolf lying on her back on an altar with a loin cloth and one of her legs came off. I thought—this is absurd. Hart might push it up his trousers. We might both have a leg and fence with them. I was holding Hart’s leg out to him like a fishing rod. Hart was lying on his back on top of the virgin of Wolf. He seemed to be crying. Alibi was crying. Her mouth was bleeding. I had blood on the back of my burnoose. We all began to shake. I remember this. All shaking.
Next morning we left for the white desert in search of breathwater … .
Later in the year Man was awarded the medal for excellence.
—Quentin Rowan’s writing has appeared in the Paris Review, The Best American Poetry 1996,Witness, and other publications. He is 26 and lives in Brooklyn.
Originally published in
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.