The Extreme and the Elemental by Beth Bachmann & Nick Flynn

ExtremeandElemental

tender (c)age

ELEMENTAL

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A hungry hunter knows not to waste a deer. You can brag about a heart-shot, but puncturing the lungs kills just as quick and, then, you can eat the heart. 

During monarch migration season, our neighbors raised a chain-link fence to keep the deer out of their garden, forgetting that if a bunny can get its head through, it can get its pudgy bunny body through. A bunny will nibble the milkweed leaves even though they’re toxic. 

A baby can choke on any toy smaller than the hole of a toilet-paper tube. The CDC recommends breast-feeding an infant for at least the first six months. 

It’s easy to spot milkweed: it’s a ball of pink nipples that smells sweet and ripe with a hint of honey.

At the border, another child is pulled from its mother’s breast while nursing. The youngest reported child at a detention center is three months old. 

Honey can kill a baby; the CDC recommends no honey for the first year of life.

If a bunny can get its head through, it can get its body through, but some have been known to get stuck and starve.

Border Patrol says they are “very uncomfortable” with the use of the word “cages.” The chain-link fences are walls in the shape of a box with its lid closed.

What’s the difference between a birdhouse and a birdcage? I’ve seen a chain-link fence prettified with a row of bright wooden birdhouses, one climbing with clematis (leather flower), one with grape and many that say BEWARE OF DOG, but none that say CAGED BABIES. That makes people uncomfortable. A chain-link fence is better for birds than glass because it is not transparent. Still, you can see the children inside it and, as far as noise goes [children crying].

Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man solves the essential question of how to place a body in both a circle and a square. The circle long represents the cosmic and the corners of the square, the four material elements. To the alchemists, the one has a thousand names.

A chain-link fence suggests a boundary, but one penetrable by air, earth, water, and fire.

Vitruvius thought the body of man is perfect and should be a model for all temples. Cutting a body open, da Vinci used the structure of the muscles and joints as a template for complex machines. Conversely, cutting a body open left Michelangelo with a taste for nothing but bread and water.

In a late poem by Michelangelo, he writes, before returning to work on a sculpture for his own tomb, “finally I see/how wrong the fond illusion was/that made art my idol and my King…” A body can be made into a temple or a machine, but into art, what would God think of that?

The Earth mapped on the globe is a representation. The mind wants to make the world in its own image. The problem ultimately with art is it only represents the real and maybe that’s a waste of time. How many people think that’s true? Can I get a show of hands? 

According to Vitruvius, a palm is four fingers high and a man is twenty-four palms. A man is as long as a day divided into twelve hours of night, ten hours of day, plus two twilight hours. How many fingers am I holding up? 

A mother knows all the ways to kill a baby without leaving the house: no gaps between the mattress and the crib larger than two fingers, no blankets, no honey, slats spaced no more than 2 and 3/8 inches apart (the standard mesh of a chain-link fence) … 

The word cage comes from cave and looks like a wall of twisted diamonds.

Deer will jump a fence to eat the tender shoots. As you run water through the heart, the water, after time, will run clear.

Put your thumbs in the heart to butterfly it.


monument

ETHER

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In the Boston Public Garden, there is a monument to ether. 

In my twenties, when I lived in Boston, I would have passed it nearly every day, yet I never noticed it.

I didn’t take it in. 

This says something about the statue, and something about me.  

One might think it (the statue) would be somewhat ethereal—perhaps a large jar with steam rising from it continuously, or perhaps something made simply of light—but no. It consists of a man perched atop a pillared tower. He is seated, and draped across his lap is another man, nearly naked, who seems to be unconscious.  

The man holding the other man is, for some reason, wearing a fez. 

Quotes are etched into each side of the tower, including this one: Neither shall there be any more pain—this is from The Book of Revelation. Revelation is another word for apocalypse, the end of the world. The word apocalypse comes from the Latin “to uncover,” in the sense that it is revealing some deeper truth. 

The man in the fez is, I hear, meant to represent the disputed whomever who discovered that ether could be used as an anesthetic. The first successful demonstration of this was at Massachusetts General Hospital (where my brother was born), in a surgical theater that is now known as “the ether dome.”  

Anesthesia is from the Greek anaisthesia, lack of feeling. It is the negation of the root aesthete, from the Greek aisthetes, a (keen) perceiver. In my twenties I was clearly not a keen perceiver, though I did know someone (whom I considered a poser) who had business cards printed up with his name and the sole word esthete below it.

These Greek words all derive from aisthanomai, I perceive, akin to Latin audio, I hear.

In my twenties I considered myself a poet, yet (or so) I anesthetized myself daily, with basically whatever I could find, for most days it seemed I just felt too much. What I felt created a tension in my soul, for I could not transform it into words. I now believe tension is essential for all art, yet for me, at this time in my life, it was not a useful tension. Rather, I didn’t know how to use it.    

The word ether has been around much longer than when it was first applied to the chemical compound that we used for a hundred years or so for surgery.

The origin of the word ether is akin to the Greek aithein, which means to burn brightly, and to the Sanskrit idhryas, of or like the brilliance of a clear sky. 

Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) contains the first recorded use of ether in the poetic sense of “heavenly, celestial.”         

My dictionary of etymology cites the word as appearing before 1398, the year Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomew’s De Proprietatibus Rerum appeared. In that book ether is defined the “upper regions of space; constituent substance of stars and planets.” Ether was both the stuff the planets were floating in, and the stuff the planets were made of. It was what we now call “dark matter,” and now we admit that we know essentially nothing about it.

Essentially. That’s another word like ethereal. It comes from the word essence, which also came into use sometime before 1398 (around the years The Canterbury Tales were being written). 

(Seems like we were trying to nail a lot of shit down back in what we dismissively call the Dark Ages. In the six hundred years since, have we really emerged?) 

Essence comes from the Greek ousia, being or essence. 

The general sense of essence as the most important or basic element of anything is first recorded in 1656 in Hobbes’s translation of Elements of Philosophy. 

My etymological dictionary goes on: essence, see IS.

Is. 

Here’s a (perhaps unstable) proposition: I believe the most basic, essential sentence is and will always be It is.

Twenty years ago this year, my first book, Some Ether, came out. At the time a friend gave me a t-shirt of Curious George, passed out with an open and spilled bottle beside his head labeled ETHER. The little monkey had a familiar little smile on his face. The joke is that George, in his curiosity, had huffed some ether. Neither shall there be any more pain. This is one of the main reasons we take drugs, for the promise of the pain going away, though The Book of Revelation is speaking of the only place there truly is no pain (it is an apocalyptic prophesy, after all), which is (as far as we know) death. In this life you can either feel it or you can numb it. 

At the time I was working on my first book, I found it difficult to write about ether—its nature is numbness. I had to quit using in order to write that book, yet I found that to spend too long in that realm, wrestling with all you had hoped to numb yourself from feeling, meant very little else will matter.

Now I spend a lot of time on planes, in the brilliance of a clear sky, which brings me closer to the heavenly, the celestial sense of ether. Side note: I just read that no one really knows how planes stay aloft; that it is, in fact, a mystery. The math just doesn’t add up. At some point the Wright bbrothers just did it and it worked and here we are.

I knew it. I’ve always thought that if one day we all stopped believing in it then all the planes would simply fall out of the sky. Even so, I fly all the time. I simply tell myself it’s not how I’m going to go, but, of course, I can’t know that. But it makes it easier to ride out turbulence, to marvel every time the wheels touch down with that little skip-jump.  

I was asked recently to comment on Francis Bacon’s triptych “In Memory of George Dyer,” his lover who took his life on the evening of Bacon’s greatest success (to that point). Bacon was influenced by his reading of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, especially the line: “I have heard the key / Turn in the door. . . We think of the key, each in his prison,” which he represents in the central panel, which is a figure (Dyer) turning a key in a doorway. This then led me back to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table.” The invocation of ether signals that we have entered a dreamworld of altered perception—not altered in the sense of heightened perception, more in the sense of a deadening of perception. The great tension of the poem is that Prufrock perceives, yet cannot deeply feel.

Feeling no pain is what we used to answer, if asked how we were after a few beers. 

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells; / Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent,” is how Prufrock more eloquently invites us to follow him as he performs surgery on himself.

His final destination, as we all know, is the room where “the women come and go / Speaking of Michelangelo.” 

In the room the women come and go / Speaking of Michelangelo”: One says that cutting a body open left Michelangelo with a taste for nothing but bread and water.

Bread and water.

It is the essential meal.

no tomorrow

AIR

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The alchemists want gold, but if not gold, eternal life. What’s more extreme than immortality? Seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, no tomorrow. 

Dickinson begins a poem, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—.” Of the classical elements, Air, to me, seems most closely related to time.

I love 1) Landman’s translation of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus II: 1, “Breath, you invisible poem! … Do you recognize me, air, you so full of my former places?” I hate 2) enacted scenarios and trust exercises.

Is eternity one moment or all moments? Same question, but with heaven. Summertime…your mama and daddy standing by. O my love… I’ll be coming home; wait for me.

Dickinson had a lot to say about Immortality. If the brain is wider than the sky, conventionally speaking, it’s bigger than heaven. The same poem ends, “The Brain is just the weight of God— / For—Heft them— Pound for Pound— / And they will differ—if they do— / As Syllable from Sound.” If they do—if? Either the Brain and God are the same or they differ as Syllables do from Sound. 

A syllable is a unit of weight: heavy or light. It takes place in time. Accented and unaccented syllables create rhythm, a sequence in time repeated, sometimes symmetrically. A pattern in time can be repeated over several seconds or minutes or hours or days or years or at the most extreme (as in space) forever. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time… full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”

But, back to Dickinson, where the brain in the poem is a unit of measurement—of width and of weight and of breath, sound and silence dashed out over time. Sound, in human physiology, is the reception and perception of waves by the brain. So, for the poem, then, God exists only in the reception and perception of the brain that measures it in time.

Different animals have varying hearing ranges. A boa constrictor has no ears, so to speak, but can detect vibrations in the ground and through the air through its jawbones. I hear my beloved Rilke addressing the air again, “You, smooth bark that girds, / roundness and leaf of my words.” 

Of course, God could speak in other ways, but for the purpose of Dickinson’s poem, the terms are aural. Sound can also be felt as a wave of pressure. A vibration. Writing started in pictures, exists now in words, but, in between, syllabic writing predated letters by a few hundred years.

Rumpelstiltskin, known alchemist, spun straw into gold three nights in a row. He’s only giving back the baby if the mother speaks his name. He gives it up in a song about time: “tonight tonight, my plans I make, tomorrow tomorrow, the baby I take. The queen will never win the game, for Rumpelstiltskin is my name.”

I never spoke my father’s name until after I wrote it down the night an imp wrestled it out of me in a game of hangman. Rhythm happens in time but is heard in variation, such as silence. 

They say Miles Davis said, “the real music is in the silence. All the notes are only framing this silence.” Have you heard this one? The audience thinks the performance is over so they clap, but then, after a pause, the music starts up again. This happens four times and by the final silence, everyone’s just cracking up. You can listen to it happen in a string quartet by Haydn called, “The Joke.” 

I found Jim Jarmusch’s movie about vampires, Only Lovers Left Alive, a bit boring, but then again, immortality would be, too.

whirlpool

WATER

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Our counselor stands on the edge of the pool with his whistle, but he’s really not that much older than us kids, splashing in the water. Each time he blows his whistle we march faster. The Unnamable asks, Does rain have a father? Who has begotten the dew? Faster. Faster. This is the edge of the universe. Where the unburied are, he is. 

We now know, or think we know, that whirlpools mirror the shape of black holes. The center of a black hole is a one-dimensional point which contains a huge mass in an infinitely small space. Not unlike a hundred kids in a swimming pool. Each one of us is just a particle, a piece of a phenomenon. Listen to the roar we make—unnamable, not unlike that voice from the whirlwind. Not one of us can stop it, even if we tried. We both create it and we become it. It is our own black hole. We are the voice from the whirlwind.

That summer it becomes the only thing I want, the only thing any of us seem to want—to be caught, lost, in the black hole of the whirlpool. Soon, without anyone directing us, when we have free time, we all line up around the edges, we all turn in the same direction, and we start our slow march. I like how my body becomes just one of many bodies, I like how, after a while, I can’t even touch the bottom. I like losing control, how it picks up my feet, how it carries me along. It’s a small storm, it’s the eye of the hurricane, there’s no way to get out of it, once you’re inside it. The Unnamable says, Her little ones grow up, they leave and never return. Our quantum physicists say, It is humbling and stirring to imagine just how expansive reality can be, but it is sight itself that has blinded us to nearly the entire universe.

If I close my eyes I can still feel myself being carried along by—dissolved by—something I have both created and that is bigger than me. I close my eyes. I see the fence that separates the pool from the wilderness, I see myself pressing my face against it, my eyes pressed to the space between the boards, looking at the whatever that is happening beyond it … on the other side of it … in the place beyond the … in the place I cannot see. Maybe whatever is happening on the other side always happens at that same time every day, or maybe whatever is happening just keeps on happening. Maybe what is happening is beyond knowing, but then what moment isn’t always, essentially, beyond knowing.

dirt

EARTH

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New theory: the origin of life is not the sea, but land. The Earth itself is alive and broken.

Also, not surprisingly, I am a sucker for Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing pottery in a way that honors the imperfection. It practices three major types of joinery: the use of gold dust along the crack, replacement of a missing part by gold piece and replacement by a nonmatching fragment, but still seamed with gold.

In plate tectonics, there are three main types of boundaries: plates pulling apart, plates sliding past one another, and plates converging and consuming each other. So that, after a while, we’ve made a hot spring, a fault valley, a mountain we can’t get over, a sea, a chain of volcanoes, nowhere to go but up. So that the origin of life is movement: over or against, towards or away from pieces of itself.

The new theory says life begins not in the sea, but in the spring. Life originates from damage; the flaw is evidence of change over time so that life itself, like the golden joinery, illuminates the present, time in action as it is moving towards or away from right now. 

My mother used to say there are bodies buried in the backyard of her mother’s house. The thing about being estranged is you cannot go back and bulldoze the yard with, what, a team of crack archeologists, forensic scientists? Whose bodies anyway? The brother who hung himself in that house, the other brother they say was kidnapped, her murdered father?

It’s all knowable by excavation, but some things are best left unknown. The origin of burial is so that the body will not be consumed. 

You know when you go to the door and a dog comes out and sticks its face in your dirt? I hate that. You can’t just stand in the doorway and say, dogs trigger my PTSD. You’re not supposed to say the “D” anymore—less stigma—but it reminds me of how some people leave out the “o” in the middle of G_d. 

You probably saw this study, too, about bees understanding nothing, the concept of zero? In Shakespeare, the use of the “o” is called ecphonesis—to show extreme emotion when no other word could express it. Often, in Shakespeare, it’s “o me.” O me! You juggler! O me! What fray was here? O me, O me! My child, my only life …

The bees understood that zero was a number lower than one and part of a sequence of numbers.

It makes sense that “o” turns up so often in Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, and not just because Neruda was nineteen when it was published; “oh” appears eleven times alone in “The Song of Despair” and thirteen times in W.S. Merwin’s translation: oh deserted one! … Oh pit of debris … Oh flesh, my own flesh … Oh the bitten mouth, oh the kissed limbs, Oh the hungering teeth, oh the entwined bodies … Oh the mad coupling of hope and force…Oh pit of debris … Oh pit of debris … Oh farther than everything … Oh farther than everything … Oh abandoned one.

Merwin changes two “ah’s” to “oh’s.”

Even after we got out alive, we kept going back. 

the field

FIRE

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The camp bus drops me off at three, and then I head into the woods. I leave my grandma in her chair, watching one of her stories, or reading one of her murder romances. She might as well have been asleep. Come back in time for dinner, she says, the sauce simmering on the stove. I’m still building my treefort, making my way to Mr. Mann’s, to salvage a board or two. I’ve pilfered a box of matches, it’s in my pocket. Only it doesn’t stay in my pocket, it’s now in my hand. I don’t have a plan. There but for the field, surrounded by stones … I’m lighting the matches as I walk, one by one, and letting them drop, there but for the grass, dry now as straw, like a trail of breadcrumbs behind me. I flick the white tip with my fingernail—strike anywhere—I flick it on a rock, I flick it on my fly, I flick it on my teeth, like I’d seen in a movie. The flame at times starts inside my mouth, and the smell of sulphur fills me. It tastes of Satan, it sounds like wings behind me. There but for the path, no grass grew upon it. When I turn the field is on fire behind me—the flames are the wings.

Then and at once I’m in the middle of it. It moves that fast, it surrounds me. It flares up then dies, it jumps from tuft to tuft, thick with a language I don’t understand. I know one thing—that it will never stop, that the flames will jump the stones, that the woods will burn, that the houses will fall, unless I do something. There but for the voice, tiny inside, that whispers, don’t run, I wouldn’t have jumped into the flames, and with my sneakers stomped it out, every last spark.

Part of “The Extreme and the Elemental” appears in Nick Flynn’s This is The Night Our House Will Catch Fire (W.W. Norton) available for purchase here.

Beth Bachmann is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of three books from the Pitt Poetry Series: Temper, winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize and Kate Tufts Discovery Award, Do Not Rise, winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, and CEASE, winner of the VQR Emily Clark Balch Prize (Fall 2018). She lives in Nashville and New York City.

Nick Flynn is the author of This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire and three previous memoirs, including the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award-winning Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and four volumes of poetry. A professor on the creative writing faculty at the University of Houston, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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