(A Prose Poem)
An Autobiographical Reflection in the Third Person
By Walter Rufus Eagles
Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on: not to the sensual ear,
But more endeared -- pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
- John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
The early morning flight was taking off, that would carry him to the funeral of his mother in the piney woods hills of northern Louisiana. He was numb with silent and invisible grief, and he desperately needed a mental diversion. But there wasn't a lot to do aboard an airliner during takeoff and the sharp climb to flight altitudes. So, strapped in a cramped seat with two hundred others similarly restrained, he reflected briefly, exhilarated and not really in a terrified manner, on the probability of group immolation, of instantaneous explosion en masse for no good reason. Visions filled one corner of his mind: not of Heaven that was hopefully to be, but of insurance policies, of loved ones and other debts that would be left far behind on an increasingly distant star. It did no good to try to read. After the first few tries, he allowed his mind to follow whatever paths it would.
Compulsive thoughts gnawed away at the living bodily parts within him: An ulcerated stomach, an arrhythmic heart, headaches, lower-intestinal rumblings, and other nervous problems.
Nor could he say that what was happening within him was a result of having become an older man, since he couldn't remember a time when his mental problems hadn't been there. There seemed to have been no substantial rot, as he would have imagined -- merely metamorphosis; or, if you would, lateral rather than vertical decay: Instead of a re-enactment of The Fall, a Displacement
One battle of understanding within him, which he had resolved long ago, had been that of the priority of the senses.
As a young philosophy student in a class of epistemology, gifted, if at all, only in the mathematical parts of the subject, he learned very little, a fact that was forever documented on his record at U.C.L.A. by a grade of "C." Nonetheless, one or two observations stayed with him. It is posited somewhere by a classical philosopher that two of the five senses, sight and hearing, are aristocrats: the rest are peasants. Which of the two is more elevated in rank depends on you. Musicians and painters would have obvious, and contrary, bias. And others would have preferences depending upon personal philosophy: "Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see" could only have been coined by a "visual" person. Such a person could, perhaps, have counted on nothing said by his parents (possibly they were accustomed to "thinking aloud" and expressing alternatives verbally between themselves before carrying out a decision; such a child would have had to depend on observance of what his parents finally did, not what they said.)
But to return to the airliner. An example of this matter of sense-priority came, as did so many of his concerns, out of the religious teachings of his youth. Pilate asked, "What is truth?" (And it does seem less a query than a rhetorical reflection that Sartre might have made, the verbiage boiled down to a conversational essence.) In the mental scenario he had seen from childhood, Christ has been brought before the Roman administrator on several charges stemming from the former's religious teachings. Pilate thought: Jesus seems to be a living, palpitating and vibrant being who occupies, not an eternal and transcendent existence, but an existential one, and that in an incredible richness, a "drenched" quality as if thoroughly wetted by the spiritual downpours of the otherwise perpetually drought-stricken Palestinian geography come to incarnate focus at this point in the peculiar Messianic history of these strange local people, these Jews. If only Rome knew the daily drain on the faculties caused by trying to understand the complexities of these Semitic tribes. Fool: Rome doesn't care, Caesar doesn't care. Do the job, advance the Empire, or at any rate hold, by whatever means, what the Legion has captured. Nothing to be learned from these people (Greeks another matter). Your fate and that of the Empire are identical, or at least symbiotic. And no complaints allowed. Avoid introspection (part of the pattern of disintegration of the thought processes.) Must hold steady. Truth, it seemed to him, did not so much lay on this page of charges brought by the Council, the Sanhedrin, as in the person of this ragamuffin come of age, this putative Messiah, threadbare and verging on the gaunt, bright of eyes and light of body as if he might just dance off and up, in a trans-celestial grande jete, into the heavens (whence he supposedly came) were it not for mankind's dense mass of collective guilt (and consequent longing for redemption) that the man had taken upon himself in an apparent identification with their mythic figure the Messiah, who was supposedly both prefigured and predicted by a scroll-long list of prophets before the young visionary.
In short, if for no other reason than to keep his own faculties tied together concerning the matter, Pilate knew he must hear the man, and not simply see him; because at bottom, only clerks bring charges on foolscap, and one must be careful of that sort of limited view: it makes for a society of lawyers, a clerical corps completely knowledgeable laterally, from a distance, of the minutiae of the society, and entirely ignorant of the inner view from above and the inner view from below: Every legionnaire, from the top to the bottom, knows that authority comes from above, from the Emperor; he also knows that power comes from below, from the foot-soldier. Power without authority is nihilistic chaos, and the common legionnaire intuitively knows and abides by the discipline of this knowledge; authority without power is fascist chaos, and every Roman general consciously knows and abides by the discipline of that knowledge. The result of either extreme is disaster, and this is intuitively known by the men at all levels of the Empire's military forces.
So Pilate tried to draw Jesus out, whether to reconcile on the one hand, the inscribed indictments depicting a venal criminal, with (on the other), this interesting, even intriguing and intense creature who stood before him now; or, alternatively, to throw out all written charges altogether and start afresh with his own evaluation and ultimate judgment of the man, despite the patently self-serving document of charges, brought by the Sanhedrin, that lay before him in Latin.
Thus did the airline passenger picture Pilate, and thus did he understand truth in his own case. He would hear the witness, thank you, in all the uniqueness of the latter's own dialect and dress. And it was the hearing, not the seeing, especially not the perusal of printed matter, that caused the decision, though the results had never been so crucial, and no heretical pun intended, in Pilate's case. Nor did the passenger apologize for this personal priority of the sense of hearing. In one Chinese ideogram in particular, two visual symbols are fused: Ear and gate. Thus, in his own unscientific etymology did he imagine a bucolic and prehistoric Oriental magistrate seated in an authoritatively ceremonial, elaborately carved and lacquered chair at the gate of some feudal village, hearing the complaints, one by one, of the peasants before him. And as to priority of senses, he noted that, in the ideogram, it was an ear, not an eye, that was at the gate.
How often, as a small boy, did he listen attentively, even desperately, to the rhetorical poetry of the ancient scrolls now bound into the single book that was, is, the King James Bible. The movie that played persistently if erratically and briefly in the theater of his mind cut from church to church across the eternal, the everlasting years of boyhood, a nomadic time spent being hauled about from one rent house to another within two counties ("parishes" in Louisiana) by a restless mother and her compliant husband; but always in the scene, his own body had been usurped by the camera of his vision, a sense that had become purified by loss of self-consciousness, of awareness of the physical body, the unseen but seeing eye fastened through the ectoplasm of his now inconsequential, invisible, even absent body, to his seat within a hardwood pew, panning in the sunlight that floods through the shutter-less, curtainless, drape-less six-foot windows of any rural church on a Sunday morning in the Old South, the north Louisiana hill country of pines, vines and oaks, of plowed and undulant sun-struck fields of corn, watermelon and peas, of unpainted houses made of logs and chinked with clay and Spanish moss, of graveled roads converging upon cemeteries (those quiet, be-flowered and motionless gatherings of the dead who had given us life) with their appended churches that, together, comprised the foci of the minuscule ellipses of life we called our communities.
In the pulpit stood, in various incarnations, and no matter the name on the birth certificate, Isaiah himself, proclaiming not the first but the second coming of the Messiah. The tone of each man's delivery was acoustic, ranging through the dynamic gamut of a Beethoven symphony, and of the very stuff of the hills that echoed back the preacher's occasional fortissimos upon the outrage of Sin, just as the simple wooden building itself, bare, as he said, of carpet, drapes or any cloth other than the plain overalls of the men and the minutely-patterned feed-sack dresses of the women of the congregation, throbbed as a peopled violoncello upon the finely-bowed and visceral jeremiads delivered by the preacher upon the Passion itself.
Heretical as it may sound, it almost didn't matter what the Book said, how it lay before the eyes within the historically death-echoing blackness of its binding. He studied it repeatedly in the solitude of firefly-studded and cricket-chirped summer nights by coal-oil lamp and candlelight.
Truth, Pilate's truth and his, always taunted him along an elegant, visually resplendent and entirely spiritual foreplay, did this sister to Wisdom, more to be desired than a thousand concubines, and then flew off into the darkness, bat-winged, elusive, leaving, cicada-like, the magnificent husk of Elizabethan poetry to shape and to style all his attempts to speak, to sing, to pray, to write, to think. It was difficult to question the presence in the pulpit. The boy had come to believe that each such preacher was a man possessed not principally, even if partially, by any interior psychological darkness, rather, or at least preponderantly, by the external Force that founded the universe, the Light that would shine out, that no bushel in the world could shroud. He was "a man of God" in all their eyes.
So he listened to these prophets, and sang the high poetry of the songs. Whenever he found himself in such a church, especially the smaller, the intimate and spare ones, the living diatribe swept him along, in springtime and in juvenile happiness across forests of the mind whose pine-needled floors invited all children to lay themselves down supine amid the heady odors of loblolly and of earth where, down beneath the carpet, unseen flora and miniature mushrooms, grew that needed no sunlight to thrive; through deserts of the spirit where the soul crawled dry, parched and bleeding through penitential sands to the one sure oasis where a man in ragged robes stood with arms outspread in welcome, a leather flask of living water slung across his inviting and patriarchal chest; to Heaven itself, with all his forebears waiting there, some of whom he had never known, others well-known and loved, his maternal grandfather chief among them all. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost waited at the center of the group, on the banks of a transfigured Jordan, beneath weeping willows no longer sad, with maternal limbs down-stretched to touch, briefly and light, these citizens of the New Jerusalem at long last come to paradise, a nirvana replete with the songbirds and the sunlight of his own perpetual, his never-to-end and never-to-be-transcended Southern boyhood.
But his expected arrival there, in that bright land, was only to happen provided he had been Saved; and so an anxietal problem was born in his soul: how to avoid the graphically well drawn vision of Hell, with its torments, its special alienation from the Father of us all by eternal separation from that august but loving bosom; and to do so even in his imagination, from what place sprang the origins of evil; and so fix his eyes, and all his soul's longing, on those weeping willows on the banks of the eternal Jordan, where he would meet the Father.
His grandfather on his mother's side (his other grandfather being long dead, having fallen from a scaffold while building his last house) was a plumber, but he had once been a railroad engineer, on the L R & N line ("Little Rock and New Orleans"), and this is how he always thought of him. In the boy's first memory of him, the man had long since retired from railroading to become our town's best plumber. Still, the family persisted in the vision of him as an engineer. He was tall, erect and big, and he carried his shoulders back as befitted a man with no clerk's occupation, but a physical one, like that of a lumberjack or a general: head high and chin up, wearing the overalls and bib, a cap and chambray shirt that was the uniform, when topped off with a gold watch and chain, of the legendary Casey Jones and his honorable fellow travelers on the rails.
He was a good man, with a solid lap for the boy, his first grandson. The boy would sit there on that lap, with the grandfather telling him railroad stories and proudly displaying his railroad watch, the instrument that kept good time because schedules and lives and the general avoidance of calamity had once depended on it and on him, on his judgment and his care. Indistinguishable from the textures of his overalls with their brass buttons, and his shirt and watch chain and cap, were the faint residual work odors of putty, sweat and molten lead, of the dry, primordial and mysterious dust from the darkness beneath the houses of our town where the pipes, known to him alone, carried away the waste of the world. His broad hand upon his shoulder ordered the universe, and young Solomon could not have felt more favored.
Then, one day, Casey took to bed. Inexplicably, unbelievably, his grandfather had become, and looked, vulnerable. Not frightened, not even apprehensive, but no longer the patriarch. The giant was gone, and in his place was a man with problems of his own.
One day, in the bedroom he shared with his wife, the older man beckoned to the boy to come sit on his bed. The man was propped up with pillows, and he leaned forward to hug his grandson. As his large arms held the boy to his chest, the boy felt again, briefly, the warmth of the sun, the awareness that he shared some promise of a future of goodness, mercy, and light. The effort, however, was apparently too sudden for his grandfather's steadily weakening heart, and a sudden spasm passed through his chest, his arms, and into the boy's own body, and then there was a stillness understood instantly by his mother and his grandmother, and by the boy as well. They helped ease him back down onto the pillows from which he would never rise. The boy knew then, at ten years of age, how easily and uneventfully, in a moment of quiet and serenity, life passes into death. A terror welled up within the boy's chest, along with the rising tones of his mother's and grandmother's desperate keening, a second after the stillness settled into his grandfather's body.
Night after night he dreamed nightmares on the subject of
what would become his eternal boyhood
loss. In one dream, he was standing by the casket, which had been opened to reveal an
incongruously, surreally, powdered and painted stranger. Suddenly, in the dream, his grandfather
reached his arms out toward him, clasping him to his bosom, taking him partially
into the coffin with him. And the death spasm was repeated again. The boy's heart pounded crazily even in the dream.
Years later the terror in his heart would be replaced by dread. Years after
that, and he could not say exactly when, the dread would be replaced by stoic acceptance and a pervasive sense of sadness.
Thus did he see the End approaching. He knew in his heart, because of the pain there, that he had reached what Southern Baptists called "the age of knowledge." Part of the new awareness was that his grandfather was now gone forever. It followed that they must, all of them, be living in the decadent days before the Return of the Lord. Evidence lay in his mother's wild grief, her very nearly sacrilegious railings against her Father in Heaven for his apparent complicity, or at least assent, in the departure (early at age fifty one) of her own earthly father. It was not lost on the boy that his mother took no solace in the continuing existence and physical presence, of her own husband. And to witness his mother's loss of faith, even if temporarily, in the Grand Design in which they all believed so devoutly, or at least desperately, was a certain corroboration to him that the horrors of the Third Reich (the actual end of which was not yet visible and audible on the Fox Movie-Tone news at the theaters) were the immediate precursors of a horde of locusts, of rains of blood, of all the predicted signs that were to be seen everywhere of the End Time, if one had eyes to see, with the book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine for reference. All that remained was to wait and to listen for the first trumpet blast from the heavens. When it came, it did not resound from the firmament of heaven, but from the East, from Hiroshima.
Thus, one summer after the Age of Knowledge (at age twelve, a year after the death of his grandfather) sex, its power, its madness, its delight and its potential for corruption, was revealed to him in the onslaught of puberty, and it was not welcome in his heart, but only another harbinger of the End. He remembered once walking through plowed fields to look for the locusts that were the well-known forerunners of the Last Days. He didn't know how to distinguish them from grasshoppers of the ordinary, the nuisance, variety, but when he found a hopping six-legged insect, he trapped it with his hat, then inspected the creature with dread and loathing on the one hand, and amazement at the sheer engineering genius displayed in the dry-twig lightness and tensile strength and athletic agility on the other, and if it weighed enough, he supposed it to be the dreaded creature of St. John the Divine. And he dropped the creature unharmed down onto the soil. Whatever would be would be, and killing this creature would not change an iota of what was written in the scroll.
He knew that the Day of the Locusts would occur midsummer, perhaps this year, that it would arrive amid the madness of the turbulent blood of the solstice, the lust rising from the loins to mingle in the heart and corrupt it of its finest moments for the sake of a few cheap thrills. Sin, in short, grew out of sex and violence. The large design of sin lay in the Third Reich; the small one lay, on the personal level, in thievery, in lying, and most certainly in fornication, adultery and murder, which it seemed to him were rampant in the Louisiana of his youth..
Love, though, also lay in wait, pure and unsullied, not like the predators of sin, but languid, chaste and sunlit, in no metaphor known, ineffable and unique. That same summer, it sprang from his heart, like some interior Blakeian tiger, straight for his throat, striking him dumb upon the spot twenty feet out into the dark night from the open door of a tiny church near his birth-town. A twelve-year-old girl with dark hair stood yet another twenty feet within the lighted interior of the church. She was directing the singing, an endearingly awkward four-beat conduction of the congregation's effort toward an honest harmonic version of "Shall We Gather at the River."
It did no good to think about it now, because the picture had become fixed in space and time, an icon beckoning not from the physical realm at all. Across the years, only the paleness of face and the clear blue eyes remained -- that and the Velasquez vision of the still shot itself, all brilliant light and velvety dark, and etched into the ganglia of his brain until the last synapse in the final twitch toward the darkness and the stillness to which we all must go.
On that night he walked a little closer, but not up to the door, and with no intention of entering the brightly lighted church. He didn't wish to be seen by her at all, because he had no hope that anything could come of her taking note of him. He only wanted to burn her image in, so that he could never, many years from then, forget that spiritual beauty was possible in the moment, the eternal now, in the flesh, in heard melody, in the harmony of the universe drawn down to sing in praise of God through these farm-folk cherubim and seraphim.
That night in his bed he lay on top of the sheets clad for the hot summer night only in his underwear. He wondered at the vastness and the sweetness of the universe outside his open window, the moonlit trees, the ubiquitous pines, their needle-sharp silhouettes now etched against the deep blue sky. In awe he watched the amazing stars, that shone on Bethlehem and on his own hometown, on Gethsemane and Buchenwald alike. His heart pounded within his chest, and his vision alternated between the scene outside and the icon glowing in the darkness of the ceiling over his head. To see her there again made the rhythms of his heart go off-scale and erratic. He felt like Moses, that he was a dead man, boy rather, because he had looked upon the face of God.
How many nights had he watched the shifting kaleidoscope of a radio drama come alive up in the measureless regions of his (at night) invisible ceiling, a stage coach entering from a distance and growing closer with the increasing monaural volume, rattling across the immediate landscape with bandits in hot pursuit, and off into the limitless mind desert of Radio Land West. (The family had only one radio, which he borrowed a night or two per week, carrying it into his room for these solitary nocturnal theatrical productions in the imagination.)
But how different this night was! The icon remained, if not static, then cyclical within the repeated four-beat measures of the old hymn. And always, for most of the rest of that long night, the dark-haired girl's pale countenance and blue eyes stayed, the serenity of her thin soprano leading the vibrato-less four-part harmony of the congregation through Eden fields of a pastoral landscape of wedded sight and sound, into alien bondage, down through the purifying despair of the Desert, and across the eternal, transfigured River Jordan to the milk and honey of the Promised Land on the banks of the other shore.
The voice on the plane's loudspeakers awoke the passenger to the present, the captain describing the Grand Canyon far down beneath. His heart was calm. He had been for a while with his mother, in the special place they had shared so long ago, a place of sadness and of loss. He was ready for his mother's funeral.
Sun Valley, California
Copyright 1989, 2003 Walter Rufus Eagles. All rights reserved.