- THE SIMURGH
- POST MODERN
- MY FATHER’S BUSINESS
- MOTHER’S DAY
- DEATH OF A SISTER
The Above↑ Follows Below↓
Before his death in Nishapur at the hands of Tolui, son of the Great Khan (this last being born as Temujin in Mongolia and Genghis in fame) the Sufi mystic, Farid al-Din Attar pens a book called Mantig al-Tayr which may be translated as the gathering, convergence or Conference of the Birds.
Borges mentions the bird in several essays–most notably when comparing it to a mystic vision of an eagle beheld and recorded by a Florentine poet of the preceding century. The chaos and vertigo of the birds are also prominent themes suggestive of the 20th Century films of a famously rotund Englishman.
The basic plot of the piece is more or less (perhaps the latter) assembled below.
As they await the dawn, the birds of central China are startled by a loud whoosh of flapping wings that precedes the sunlight now flooding across the sky. The evidence of a great being’s passage is a single golden feather floating majestically in the wind before it is lost in its descent to the serpentine flowing of the Yangtze.
At a conference of the birds, thirty sparrows who had seen the golden feather assert that it betokens a pilgrimage to the God of the birds, the golden Simurgh (a bird that is sometimes mistaken as the sun as it awakens in a granite cave to begin its trespass of the eastern sky). The chaos & cacophony of a million is subsumed in the purpose of a singular spiritual quest. With the thirty sparrows as its guide and beating heart, the birds of the earth aspire to the heavens in search of their golden beaked and feathered God.
The valleys and waterways that they must traverse seem as multitudinous as the birds attempting to traverse them. As they approach the mountain range called Vertigo millions fall from the sky in heart-breaking exhaustion. In the weeks that follow, millions upon millions more perish in monstrous typhoons that seem thrown up to impede every mile of their winged journey. At last the surviving birds arrive at the mountain called Annihilation–they are the original thirty who had witnessed that single falling feather. The thirty huddle together to preserve what is left of their strength and dwindling warmth. In the morning they will devotionally attempt the final ascent of the granite cliffs looming in splendor above them.
As they await the dawn they are awakened by loud whoosh of flapping wings. They are swept up into a torrent high above the moving mirror of the Yangtze. As the sun appears above the icy cliffs of Annihilation the thirty pilgrims gaze in wonder into the reflecting gold of the river beneath them. They discover that they are the body of the Simurgh and the Simurgh has always been they. As the magnificent bird crosses the sky a single golden feather is seen floating majestically in the wind before it is lost in its descent to the serpentine flowing of the Yangtze.
Before his death in Nishapur, by the decree of Tolui, Farid al-Din Attar had seen the wonder and passage of one hundred and ten golden years.
I saw him only once. With a remnant of a sandwich he fended off a pressing throng of importuning black birds. Behind him rose the improbable spires of Antoni Gaudi’s Cathedral of the Sacred Family. I am an old man, my hand unsteady, searching for a promise in words not certain I will find. I realize now that he was more improbable than the monument and swirling wings rising to the heavens lowering behind him. That was Barcelona in the spring of ‘67 – three years later the earth had swallowed him.
The votaries of Nikolai Iylovich Kaleninkov had skirted the Iron Curtain for a score of years before its dismantling. At the advent of the new millenium their conviction of his genius flourished and their adoration remains unencumbered by curtains – iron or otherwise. In Post-Modern design they assert his spirit is present and palpable. A diversity of architects from E.D. Stone to Frank Gehry are as unstinting in their praise as they are reluctant in attribution – but they acknowledge a debt, long withstanding.
He was born in the winter of ’37 when Moholynagy opened what was later to be called the Chicago Institute of Design. He succumbed to a burst appendix – April 1970. His father spent three months in Wiemar shortly before expulsion by the National Socialists. It is said that Mies van der Rohe admired the elder Kaleninkov’s portfolio. His mother was a promising member of the Kirov’s corp de ballet. Some months before securing tenure she shattered an ankle during a revival of Stravinksy’s Firebird. She was sent to her husband’s apartments for recovery. The dispirited Maria Pavlovena knew she would never return to the world of professional dance. Grigory Kaleninkov nursed his wife by day and tutored Nikolai each evening for the length of half a candle. He found his art of little worth in the daily rigor for cheese and bread. On the shores of the Caspian Sea he and his son would gather driftwood and salvage in the shadow of the Ural Mountains near the medieval enclave of Gurvev.
For the parents, artistic recognition would come only through the celebration of their son. They believed their most important work was in nurturing his prodigious talent. The Kaleninkov Institutes of Prague and Paris are testament to their vision. The Guggenheim Archives are further evidence of an esthetic still very much alive.. Nikolai’s father, Grigory Fyodor Kaleninkov was executed in September 1949 – one of millions in Mother Russia whose crimes were not contested or submitted to the sanctity of record.
Maria Pavlovena was spared to raise the vestige of her family. Nikolai was forced to watch Grigory’s grim march to the pillar and the ensuing moral lesson. The father declined the proffered blindfold. The child clinched his eyes as if in darkness he could convert the passing minutes to the oblivion of a dream – but he had made no provision for the witness of the ear. His early work was marred by the distillation of that nightmare. Only later he would find the love of what he’d lost was more sustaining than the hate which had come to clasp him. The slap of death then lost its sting and the rifle’s echoing report fell silent – the scourge of Stalin was dispelled.
The majesty of St. Basil and the strength of the Novodevichi spurred his interest in architecture. He was fourteen when he first talked of it to the masters at the University. It had been on his second trip to Moscow. His mother had feared him lost until she remembered their proximity to the galleries of the conservatory. Several drawings of Grigory Fyodor’s had been included in the collection. The doctors were delighted with the young aesthetician. More than one has recorded a haunting perplexity at the acuity and depth of the child’s knowledge. Nikolai had retained, as well, several of his father’s renderings. In them the critical eye discerns those subtleties of line with which the maturing youth would one day imbue stone with spirit and enflame the conscience of European design.
I am told he struggled fiercely for all but the last. Where there is much of life, death will not sup easily.
It is reported that the tremors of his body ceased in the final minutes before the dawn of evening. Perhaps a fleeting image of his last work was a source of respite. It was dedicated to his father – a memorial chapel in the shape of a Latin cross.
I record these words because soon there shall be no others. Barcelona was a prayer that only now I’ve come to utter.
MY FATHER’S BUSINESS
Finished—the monogram of a monomaniac—the damn thing was done! The Gnostics had long languished in the dust pail of the early Christian Fathers but their theological obscurities would at last secure the tenure for which I have sold my soul…
I gathered my papers, acknowledged a seminary student of my acquaintance and made my way to the south exit of the Library. Something was amiss. I slowed my pace. A note on Nietzsche slipped beyond the good and evil of my fingers and floated to the floor. I turned in retrieval and briefly surveyed those seated in the lounge. He was there, again. Too old to be a student and too disheveled to be of faculty unknown—this was the third evening I had spied him. He sat with neither book nor bluebook. The hair on my neck began to rise—he was staring straight at andthrough me…
I drove about the city for an undetermined time. Except for the University, sleepy Provo had retired to the ghost of Saturday night. I made my way home. I gathered my thoughts—first the fire, then the single malt. I didn’t know what had unnerved me. The library was dry. It wouldn’t be the first time a homeless man had sought its warmth and refuge—but why this homeless man? The third sighting—was it a dream or damnation, curse or charm? My hand began to tremble and the ice cubes cued were shaking. There was a knock at the door. At 11:59—the final second of the Post Meridian—it could only be he—curiosity trumped fear and I allowed him entry.
His moved from the doorway to the invitation of the hearth. He extended reaching fingers to the intensity of flame. His manner was solemn, befitting a past fraught with peril and perhaps a future that was no less grave. I gestured him to the sofa and comported myself to the uneasy comfort of the adjacent easy chair. We shared, for a time, an odd quietude, I thought he might speak but his forbearance chastened anticipation in a tenacity of silence. A log shifted in the fire. A blaze of crimson shot upward and was swallowed by the sky. Without preliminary or prelude he quickly turned from the agitation in the flames.
“The press has not been genial.”
I might have ventured a reply if his statement hadn’t left me in a want of speech. I covered the twitch in my right hand with the fingers of my left.
“Few among man’s millions have purported kind regard. Those that so profess are a scurvy lot as unseemly in their manners as they are suspect in their hygiene. I’ve yet to find man or woman with whom I’d willing break the burnt toast of eternity. You’ve allowed me entry and discerned I mean no harm. My reputation allowed you to bar the door. You rightly sense my diffidence.”
This last was, again, rhetorical–I acknowledged the assertion in silence.
“In the Book of Job, I’m malignantly accused of mischief against a fond old man. The suggested rascality extends to burning crops, slaughtering cows, and percolating boils on the crest of his brow. In point of fact, I’ve never met the man! Job might have reaped the whirlwind but it was not I who sowed it—but I’ve been damned no less persuasively. Damn damnation! If there were heat in Hell I would have no need of this worm-eaten apparel. Look at this coat. Have you ever seen a more threadbare attempt to keep the elements at bay?—would that I was that dignified dandy of yore—Prince of Darkness, indeed!”
He reached for the decanter that I had earlier set before him. He hesitated to confirm a permission that I granted assuredly, withal. He poured a sampling of my beloved Laphroaig and luxuriated in the smoky peat rising from its vapors. He roiled the Scotch in rueful contemplation and then abruptly swallowed. A quick combustion of air burned his throat and left him abashed and almost gagging. I marveled that he was not a more accomplished drinker.
“You’ve written quite a bit about my father. He’s not the Demiurge of whom your Gnostics complained. However, being God he’s maintains a high opinion of himself—he is, one might aver, recalcitrant and adamantine! I told him as much and he kicked me ass over teakettle into the great void.
At this juncture I wondered to what end his monologue was leading. Even before the Gnostics and the Scotch had deflated my pretense of being a Mormon, heaven had always seemed the most delusional of fancies—yet here sat the harbinger of Hell. He assayed, more successfully, another swallow of the single malt and then again filled the snifter to the point of overflowing. It was clear that sipping whiskey was a notion with which he was unfamiliar.
“Then there that Abraham-Isaac rumpus—tell me my lad and whisper your clue. Would you skewer a grandson of yours for proof of his father’s devotion to you? No, you’re quite right—Isaac had a brother—call him Ishmael—that camel-jockey was also Abraham’s seed—sired in the dusky loins of Hagar. Abraham is father to both the Arab and the Jew—now there was a grand idea for you—the world’s premiere siblings clashing over an empire the size of a walnut. Isaac was spared the knife so that he and his Semite brethren could blow themselves to paradise well into the twenty-first century.”
My heart sank as he experienced difficulty in resettling his glass. Fathers asking sons to take a bullet or a blade had put me in a melancholy funk. I noted that my hand had stilled. It was then that I understood his reliance on the rhetorical. There was no need of dialogue. He was conscious of my thoughts before I spoke them. And now, he’d run to a hidden corner of his own:
“I had a brother. Had, I say though my sensitivity of time allows no likelihood of closure. He could speak my thoughts before their formulation. He imbued each night with the sainted certainty of dawn. My brother was a sun. He warmed without encumbrance and cooled without deployment of the shade.
An ancient army nailed him to a tree…”
In an apocalypse of silence I heard the renting nails and saw Golgotha in his gaze. His eyes glistened but not from burnings consequent of beverage. The walls spun about us. When they stilled we had joined the desolation on what was called the Hill of skulls.
An execution was in progress. Three men were laid on lumber. Two were lashed with line and the third was splayed and stapled like a butterfly. The sky that noon had darkened as the scaffolding was raised and I wondered if light would again succeed in finding day.
The blood that stained the timbers was gathered in a bowl and would later course in currents flooding all the world. A lance concluded the condemnation so the Sabbath could begin. It was then that I heard a whisper more defiant than an end:
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sachthanei…”
My companion closed his eyes in anguish. In an instant we returned to the rooms from which we came and it was easy to perceive that he would now not long remain.
“To lose a twin is lose half one’s soul. That forfeiture is fruit once given in a garden. Good and evil are the twins that have been sundered. Man becomes the one or the other simply by the definitions he employs. On the meridian of time there is no A or PM. Man is abysmally alone—just as Father is alone—there is no kinship when each decides the nature of eternity—and no god or devil can make it otherwise.”
He stopped abruptly. The wind had stirred a snowy blanket from off the shoulder of a sleeping sycamore. He listened, rapt—as if to admonitions beyond mortal divination. He pretended surprise at the hour’s beckon and implied apologies of which he made no offer. The measure of our silence belied its brevity. It returns on mares of night whenever I imagine what the wind had whispered—whenever I envision the admonitions it detailed. He stood and walked briskly to the door. He hesitated at the threshold. He looked longingly toward the hearth and I saw a flame reflected in the icy blackness of his eye.
“I must be about my Father’s business.”
He opened the door. The wind lifted his hair in a caprice of twisting shadow.
He disappeared in winter.
It was a bright and blinding Sunday when I cased my first estate. Everything flamed as if the world was soon to be a cinder. I was hammered from a fifth not worthy of a chaser. Was any of this real or just the edge of a cliff where I was soon to take a swan dive? No, it was real, alright—that’s why they called it Real Estate. I swore that was the last bottle I’d lift from a rummy napping in the garbage. I was searching for a condo somewhere on the west side. I was near comatose and Centinela. The street signs said I was in Mar Vista—a back water “burb” nestled between L.A. and Culver City. I parked the Buick up the block so I could get a good feel for what the wordsmiths at the office termed “curb appeal.” It was being staged by a brokerage called “The Bizzy Blondes.” With a name like that I expected a dame or two to greet me with cocktails. No such luck.
The viewing was being hosted by a flat foot from Keller Williams. He said he was from “Killer” Williams, that’s right he placed the dark emphasis on the ‘ill’ in Kill and I was sorry I’d left my piece holstered at the flea bag where I was flopping for the weekend—what would the maid think? I was too tired to care but it was Mother’s Day and you had to care even though the post office was closed and you didn’t have the money for the roses you had promised—the stinking feds had raised first class a day or two before—she was your mother and she’d understand or at least you hoped she would if understanding was still a word you could con into a semblance of meaning—that’s right, nobody’s home—mom was sleeping the big one out at Oak Valley Cemetery. Sorry mom, sonny boy will make it up to you on your birthday—yea, I know I’m looking forward to it too. Maybe by then I’ll have solved this caper and be able to front you for flowers that will never know a garden, for a flat that will never know a breeze. I resolved to watch my back as I wandered through the “2 bedrooms and 2 bath townhouse with a bonus loft”—asking price, 574,900 crispy George Washingtons.
The bonus loft was a laugh. As I suspected, the sellers had thrown it up with a hope, a prayer and without a permit. I didn’t want to fall through the floor so I headed for the stairs to check out the first floor bed rooms. They were both there, as promised—but a little crimped for the king size beds pressing up against the drywall that was holding up the ceiling. The paint was fresh and I wondered what sins those walls would whisper through the low sheen Sherman Williams that a slacker had applied without a primer. This place was giving me a head ache or maybe it was that off-colored egg I’d swallowed whole at breakfast. Whatever the case I wasn’t up for any baloney from some dick from a real estate office—I approached the “killer” from Keller. He eyed me warily. I told him to: “stay seated and to keep those chubby digits where I can see ‘em.” He smiled, grimly and lit the remnant of a stained and shriveled Marlborough.
He said “Okay, Shamus, let’s cut to the chase, are you going to spring for the condo?”
I laughed and grabbed him by the wings of his badly slung bow tie: “Listen, fat boy—what kinda fool you take me for? A half a mil for this lousy shack? You should’ve carved a moon on the door handed me the Charmon. You’re as greedy as those bastards trying to float this bursting real estate balloon. Yea, sure—there’s plenty of rubes poised to a take a fall—but I ain’t one of ‘em! Now, no more shelly shalling—you sure as hell ain’t no Bizzy Blonde. I want the straight dope and I want it now!”
“Alright, alright—keep your shirt on. Like the card says, I’m with Keller Williams. I was just was sitting in for the bizziest of the blondes” You should see the gams on that gal—she’s a doll, alright, a real sweetheart. She can make the morning stand up and cheer before the first sip of your coffee. Say, you aren’t going hurt me mister, are you?”
The Marlborough man, some “killer” this cowboy, I thought. He folded like a nickel postcard too thin to sport a stamp. “Just tell it true, pal and you won’t even need a cheesy comb for the grease mop on your head.”
He looked relieved—then he spilled his guts about the payola at the front office. He’d worked for Keller Williams for three years running. The split was fifty/fifty until you brought the big boys 29,000 large during first year of operations. After that you slipped the office lackeys a couple of c-notes each month for your desk, phone and pencil sharpener, then you got to keep the big mullah for the rest of the year—that’s if you survived the rest of the year. The sweat dripped from his forehead like a rusty showerhead in a cheap motel. I handed him my handkerchief. He dabbed there and about his puffy face and started to hand it back.
I said “Keep it, kid,” and headed for the door.
“Don’t bump your head on the way out,” he whispered as he locked the door behind me.
I smiled and hit the pavement to check out a nautical number offered by the gentry in the Marina.
It was a three bedroom, three bath little rigging listed at $2,750,000 and anchored two blocks from the beach. Three mil is a lot of bread to butter just to wiggle your toes at the shallow edge of an ocean—the Pacific—all that water going on forever—what good was it? The garden swayed from the sea breath blowing down the cul de sac. A white petal wafted and landed on my shoulder. My eyes glistened from a hint of salt carried on the breeze. I turned as a door opened behind me from a tool shed. An ancient Mayan with furrows as deep as any he had plowed approached a sprawl of bougainvilleas. He stopped as he spied me near the rose bush. His suspicion softened. He was an old man and knew the wisdom of the earth from the soil held within his fingers. I asked him where the gringos were who were selling the overpriced cabaña?
He said, “Manana, senor—Este dia de las madres. Nobody home. It’s Mother’s Day.”
DEATH OF A SISTER
Yesterday we celebrated a niece’s birthday. Today our celebration is of the more somber bookend. I wanted to share three thoughts and few lines of verse—all of which I dedicate to our elder sister:
SUZANNE ELIZABETH GARDNER
We live our lives between the past and the future. Our thought is usually of the one or the other—such thought, along with everything else, takes place in the present. When the past and the future collide, there is nothing to ponder between them—the present has dissolved into what I call a God-moment—the place between birth and death where a life has been gathered in the mind of God.
The second thought is more pedestrian. From an early age we are made and become well aware of the calendar day that marks our birth—our birthday. Significantly Less thought is given to another calendar day, no less significant but rarely conjured in wakeful consciousness. Suzann Elizabeth—the lovely daughter of our memory discovered that fateful day three weeks ago, today. As her birthday will forever remain April 10, 1942–her death-day will forever remain March 3, 2014. So I submit that when we appraise the days of the year—when we note anyone of its familiar 365—that we remember that anyone one of them might be that day the when our past and futures collide—and if we find that any particular day is not that given day then it is given to us to rejoice in the day that it is and rejoice in the day that it’s not. Whitman is instructive:
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.
The third thought concerns the immortality of the written word. In finitude, immortality is, of course, an illusion—words and the books that they contain will one day perish along with all and any of the other products of time. But for the interim they give the impression of longevity—like the God-moment they are sandwiched between two covers—a present moment flowing down a page gathered between a beginning and an end.
At the end of a book I finished writing yesterday—I had a melancholy moment. I realized this was a book that Suzanne would never read—and I further reflected that until yesterday that I been too busy living my own life to think very often of hers— so I found myself adding something simple, something suggestive of that melancholy, to the book’s final page–so now that she is gone and the book to press– I think I am destined to contemplate her life more often than I would have otherwise supposed. But before the finitude of that conclusion—the promised lines of verse. They are, again, as you might imagine (in this place of endless lawns) from Walt Whitman—They are taken from the beginning and the end of Song of Myself—they bookend his take on life and death as he contemplates a single spear of summer grass:
I celebrate and sing myself
And what I shall assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
A child said what is the grass? Fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it must be the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt.
Bearing the owner’s name in the corner that we may see and remark, and say whose?
And now it seems the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
The scud of (this) day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds
I coaxes me to the vapor and dust.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift (away) in lacy jags,
I bequeath myself to the grass I love,
If you want me look for me under your boot-soles,
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you never the less,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Suzanne awaits me and any others at the end of the book I finished writing yesterday. It quotes Whitman yet once again:
I that was visible am now invisible.
And concludes opposite his line with the collision of a beginning and an end gathering a past and future forever fixed in the mind of God:
Susanne Elizabeth Gardner