The Fifth Season
Metaphysics is the science of being as being. The concept of being is
the simplest of all concepts, and it is irreducible to other more
ultimate concepts: being, therefore, cannot be defined. We can
conceive being distinctly by itself, for in its widest significance
it simply means that which includes no contradiction, that which is
not intrinsically impossible; but every other concept, every concept
of a distinct kind of being, includes the concept of being.
—Frederick Copleston on John Duns Scotus
1. I own almost nothing now that once belonged to my older brother— a few scratched records—Blind Faith, The Young Rascals, Blood on the Tracks—& seven paperbacks on the history of philosophy written by a Jesuit priest. Carefully inscribed inside each, in blue block letters, is my brother’s name. But tonight, because that set is on a shelf in another state, the closest I can get to him is to listen again to a hissy recording of a BBC debate, six decades old, between Copleston & Russell: their argument over an argument—one of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God. Simply because we can name a thing, Russell asserts—take the round square, for instance— does not mean that it exists. This is what I think as I say doyo— a word a friend has given me so that I might better understand my own dizzy head this first week of September. For doyo is not, as it is so often translated now, the dog-days of summer, but rather the fifth season, a season between seasons, those days, after the rains have passed, when, centuries ago on the other side of the world, everyone understood that it was necessary to carry everything—scrolls & linens, shoes, even the wooden stools— outside so they could be dried & cleansed by the light. Even the kimonos of the dead must be aired, Basho writes, so that every yard was restrung with grief. And though there are four fifth seasons, they, too, thought mostly of this one, its afternoons of ripeness & loss, the harvest upon us, or already past, the bushes becoming tinder—the chlorophyll in the alders & maples giving way to the yellows & reds of carotenoid & anthocyanin, so that soon, even as the engine of the sun goes on roaring, the shoulders of the paths begin to fill with bright leaves. I have worn my mother’s wedding ring since before she died, since the day her fingers first swelled, even as her arms & legs grew thinner. Still, I am uncertain whether or not, after so much time, it now feels as though it is my own. In a house I seal shut each autumn, there is a painting by my father. When I return, the abstracted images of the horses & riders, brushed directly onto plywood, are paler than I recall. 2. Do you know the story of Little Bear? His mother bundling him in a coat & hat to play in the snow, but these are not, in the end, as warm as his own fur coat. Soon I will take off even my skin. And each loved thing will be lovingly held by someone I have never met. This is, of course, the best-case scenario. If this is the time of which Issa wrote: the wind chimes are silent, but the clocks still tick, I would like to hold my contingent body against the contingent body of the world, squeeze the halved lemons with my thumbs, pare away the zest with the smallest knife in the drawer. Yesterday, without warning, lightning took down a tree directly across the road from where I was standing. The air was electric, but the sky was blue. And last winter, one of my students, riding home on his bike, was struck by a car driven by an 85-year-old man. The driver leapt out & seeing him unhurt, grabbed the sides of the boy’s head, one palm to each ear, & pulled him toward him & kissed his brow. I would like to open again to the spot in the text where my brother once underlined a proof for the existence of angels— or the place he noted the dictum not on the primacy of the intellect, but on the primacy of the will. Today, I sank into black dirt the roots of the chrysanthemums. I lifted the quilt from the dryer & spread it on the bed. Elsewhere neurologists worked on the science of consciousness. I find it easy to both believe & not believe that I think; therefore, I am. To imagine that this might be the one & only day—reality intricately folded, everything always still infinitely possible, even though we cannot yet grasp how. Are we moving nearer or, like the stars, farther apart? Let us stand forehead to forehead, for a long moment—being being as it is—as discrete & intimate as the pages of a book. I want to turn again to the passage in which it is explained how love is greater than knowledge.
Impasto for the Parietal
Alone in that vastness, lit by the feeble beam of our lamps,
we were seized by a strange feeling…time was abolished,
as if the tens of thousands of years that separated us
from the producers of these paintings no longer existed.
—Jean-Marie Chauvet, et al.
1. After the anthropology students discovered the cave in Ardéche, they told the interviewer that they had felt like intruders. They said they could feel the presence of the other souls around them. Everything was so beautiful, so fresh…. My mother used to say that it was too easy to forget the beauty of the place we lived. And so, lately, I have been trying to discover the sea by walking into the sea— in the evening, after work, after the lifeguards have all called it a day. I rarely go deeper than my waist or my chest, though when I was younger, I would push out past the breakers to float a long time on my back at dusk. And once, in the late fall, when my retriever bolted so far into the surf he seemed only another bobbing dot of foam, I pulled off my shoes & socks & swam out above my head to haul him back. I don’t know what I am doing there now alone these days. I stare into the immensity, half-thinking I am executing some moral obligation to stand on the Earth as consciously as I can for as long as I am able. Or I think of the horizons Hiroshi Sugimoto captured on film. The photographer says that every time he views the sea he feels as if he is visiting the home of his ancestors. No matter how cold the water is I make myself dive again & again. Today I overheard a young woman outside the library talking on her phone. When I told my grandmother that I hate him now, she said, oh, honey, you’re a fool ‘cause that’s just some other kind of love. Perhaps this is as close as most of us will ever come to the oracular. I have rarely known with any real depth or precision what it is I felt. 2. Sometimes, late at night, I read the hypotheses: the possible meanings of the Paleolithic art. Or I re-read the old essays of Loren Eiseley, who proposed all life might be a backward yearning toward the dark. There were the mammals, he writes,after all, who had given up the land and returned to the sea… fish that slept in mud,birds that no longer flew. His is an apologia,equal parts ode & elegy, praise for what we might call a fierce curiosity & a lamentation for his boyhood friend, The Rat, who used to guide their gang through the labyrinth of the city’s sewers— before he died, at ten, from an illness which today might easily be cured. Saussure thought every story was a story in which all the meanings lie between, yet Freud believed there were subterranean passages, a world of desires that always remains closed, even to ourselves. The question for scholars has never been why paint, but why paint in a place so hidden. Of course, this is no longer a riddle anyone who will ever live will ever solve, though, even across 35,000 years, it still seems to me incomprehensible that the secret has been lost. Didn’t someone always tell someone to always tell someone to pass it on? 3. In high school, I liked to walk along the shore & dream about the boy who sat in front of me in math class. How he wore his sun-bleached hair in a ponytail & how he could solve the most difficult calculus equations at the board without effort, even though he’d just been outside at lunch with his friends getting stoned. The only living things in sight were the little sandpipers & the black-headed laughing gulls, though the wrack line glittered with flotsam: waxy garlands we called sea snakes—whose pouches contained hundreds of tiny whelks— & the cracked armature of the prehistoric horseshoe crabs, barnacles fastened to their burnished backs & tails. Maybe it is because I wanted so much to be fathomed—-as far as it is possible for a teenager to be— that he would never come near. He grew up to be a sixth-grade teacher, & a co-worker found him dead on his kitchen floor one day in December after he failed to show up to his class. I try to tell myself none of this could have been any better than it was: the merely imagined, some uncontainable churn, always richer than the known. Or, to say it another way: longing, too, is three parts salt— 4. Sometimes I open a book of color plates & trace with my finger the curled bison sleeping on the ceiling at Altamira & the one delicately drawn deer nearby. Wrapped in silence, they only become even more of whatever it is they already are: urgent & archetypal, whether their images were meant to be a kind of magic or prayer or not. I have a friend who says she has sometimes felt time collapse— the diachronic & the synchronic— but this has never happened for me. The furthest-back thing I can recall is my grandmother’s shoe— sturdy, open-toed, with laces. She lived in the green & white trailer behind our house, & each morning, I sipped coffee with milk & sugar from her saucer before she buttoned my coat & walked us to church— our parish named for St. Anne, the mother of the mother of God. She folded her hands. I folded mine. Regarding the heart, I wanted to offer you a wilder, bolder being—but there is still only this mind in the cave, earth-bound & self-aware, though, even now, the late sun washes, as it always has, the waves with its red light. ~~
Self-Portrait with No Shadow
My birth was a cloudless morning. Everything
was blue. My body was as round & gleaming
as a plate. Our island was as narrow & cold
as a blade. The first fruit I tasted was the donut
peach: its pit, a hard heart beneath a shroud
of meat. For a time, I lived between two brothers—
one, with a door of iron; the other with no door
at all. For years their mouths were petals of silence
only I could understand. Their fingers, when they
put their hands in mine, were only so much
warm air. Our mother was a black Singer
sewing machine. Our father, a pair of red dice.
Our names, the dates of our births & deaths,
are snake eyes blown by the wind into the dunes
where rabbits burrowed. My great-grandfather,
standing under a low sky in a distant land,
might have mistaken the waves for gray furrows
as he petitioned the heavens for rain & sun
to turn the fields from ice to mud to green—
turnips & potatoes growing beneath the ground
like white & purple stones. As I child, I stole
my way into a maze of glass & mirrors. There
I bumped into myself at every turn; at every turn,
I tried to slip away. The hours were only a fun house,
invisible endings against which I banged my nose.
The truth is my shadow will go on living forever
on that island no one can find, the island I am
too sad to visit. Each day it puts on all of the coats
I left behind, one atop the other, turns the collars
up & waits for the kettle to sing. It watches
the wrens tear a hole in the screen of the kitchen
window, carry off bits of rusty wire in their beaks.
Death Dream in August
See! I give myself to you, Beloved!
Sometimes we cannot shake off so swiftly the visions of the night before: a doctor surgically removing my mouth, giving me two weeks to live—these will be the days, she says, without food or words. On the operating table, counting down, I tell myself that when I come to I will be over the shock & terror. I will merely be unfathomably sad. The office is a yellow carnival. Someone is taking a picture. The dog is wearing a set of Mickey Mouse ears. When they look at this picture, years from now, I think, someone will say, Oh, that was the day they took out her mouth, but I won’t be there. By noon, I can recite all the reasons I may have dreamed what I’ve dreamed: a friend who is gravely ill, a father-in-law who has become a stranger to himself. A too-spicy dinner. The existential facts. Kafka. But not the body trying to tell me something. Not the universe. Not a message of a god. They say that when they removed the spiked shackle & heavy links from the foot of an elephant chained to a tree in India for fifty years, the animal wept. When, in the wild, they finger with their trunks the clean bones in their graveyards, what do they think? Parked at the drive-through window, waiting for a kale salad with goat cheese & walnuts, I check my phone. And there is Amy Lowell again, giving me—in-the-poem-of-the-day—once more the generous gift of herself. A triple-digit sun glares on the empty turnpike. Dry leaves already litter the grass. Chickadees in the morning. At dusk, deer too young to be afraid. A friend promises to text the design of her new tattoo, a calla lily on her wrist. Momento mori, she writes. I punch out letters imperfectly with one finger. Language, Heidegger thought, is thought’s experience of itself. I woke at dawn hugging my body, as though it might be possible to keep myself warm.
Sometimes the sides of the fishing boats in the canal were red & the wheelhouses were white. Or the sides were white & the wheelhouses blue. There were nets & bails, winches. Smokestacks & pale wooden crates. I would load six books into my backpack: three I had read & would read again & three I had never read before. Can we call this risk? Heading out on my brother’s orange Schwinn—my feet barely touching the pedals— to sit on the dock going nowhere. To set sail is such a dangerous business. Last night, when a woman reminded us that we might yet be better together than we are apart, I felt as buoyant as I had a month ago when three Tarot cards revealed their unambiguous good news. If we are taking on water, it is, for now, only the metaphoric kind, meaning something else broken in the house we don’t have the money to fix. The compressor roars, but the temperature will not come down. Once I fell asleep on the bus to the city & woke to find the man seated beside me holding my hand. I was too young to know enough to be frightened. Later, he took a bag of pills from his pocket & offered me as many as I’d like. In the distance, there was already the profile of a bridge. Here, in the great heat of the day, a legless man rolls his wheelchair along the highway: a small gray dog, on a rope leash, trots along beside him. We call what contained the Minotaur a labyrinth, but it was a maze. A labyrinth is its own thread. The longest suspension bridge is in Kobe, Japan. The second longest is in China. I am winding away from who I was, looking far across at someone studying her painted toes & sandals, a self looking across at another self, singing low & off key, Baby, I wanna go home. There is only one way forward. Once upon a time, everyone had a different life. The pier cast down a deep lavender shadow, turned the water green in the narrow harbor.
As I type this, I am barreling toward a publishing deadline. The final revisions to a new manuscript of poems are due in roughly two weeks. The work is largely done, but it has been very slow going—a sometimes stalled churning that has taken years. In the time between the submission of this manuscript and the publication of the previous one (nearly a decade), many poets have published two or even three books. And as I type this, a hurricane is also barreling down on the Carolinas, and I am feeling lucky to find myself (purely by chance, if a dome of high pressure is a matter of chance) to be sitting in a quiet room that is now only on the very fringe of its path. To me, all of this feels disorienting and connected: part of the freaky humidity of our lives.
In the years between books, the world has seen a global economic crisis, a drug crisis, wars and attacks and violence of all kinds, mass migrations, catastrophic environmental changes that seem to be spurring more serious natural disasters, and profound and escalating political and cultural polarization. If we thought we had been moving steadily and uniformly forward on issues like civil rights and gender equality, we have been dissuaded of our illusions. I can hardly imagine what other large schisms, not to mention the many positive revolutionary breakthroughs, I have failed to include in that list. As I look from a text message on my cell phone to my laptop screen to a live stream of the storm’s satellite image rotating on a small muted TV, I do not know how to articulate all the ways that our very beings go on being shaped and altered by new media and the constant, superabundant information access it allows.
Only today: one click conjures a face transplant, court decisions on family separation and predatory student debt, the plight of journalists jailed in Myanmar, an epidemic of African swine fever, and a video of a plant awash in a flood of fluorescent light as it sends out a systemic calcium alarm in response to the loss of a single leaf. Elsewhere Jeff Bezos is proposing a $2 billion charity fund. I think I am trying to say that to be alive at the beginning of the 21st century seems to require that we find a way, almost moment to moment, to locate our awareness in the eye of some storm. Only in retrospect do I see these poems as the very imperfect attempt of one fairly solitary idiosyncratic person to do something like that, to capture how strange time and space—both personally and primordially— feel in our present age.
I don’t know how we hold all of the myriad contexts swirling around us into perspective or how we reckon with our bewilderments—our great despair and our small joys—against the backdrop of those bewilderments that have always been our human inhabitation. The new book feels like an assay, an essay, an attempt. It will take its title from one of Heraclitus’s fragment: You cannot step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and you are not the same person (a paraphrase). Poems have always been, as Frost famously declares, “momentary stays against confusion.” Maybe they are also a means of wading more deeply into the flood.
Kathleen Graber was raised in Wildwood, New Jersey. She received a BA from Hofstra University and an MFA from New York University. She is the author of Correspondence (Saturnalia Books, 2006) and The Eternal City: Poems (Princeton University Press, 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Graber is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, Princeton University, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation, among others. She teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University.