John Estes brings us this new poem in response to Philemon 1:12-16.
Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything. — Abba Moses
Today I’m trying to conceive a world without the word insatiable—
what would become of that happy current, that urgent emptiness,
its pit-like pleasures, without a term to house it?
Look it up: the opposite and negation of sad, which shares a root
with sate, its math makes me wonder why we bend so hard
toward fixity and fullness. We lack a curriculum of lack, a course
of study in keeping the nothingness we need from devouring us.
Keep turning, she said, as we parted, as if it were the last piece
of advice I’d ever need, and maybe it was, or still is. She might as well
have said keep tuning, or simply keep, following the laws
of parsimony which describe the reduction of all utterances, in time,
to their simplest, as these acts too serve across domains, serve like ring
bolts which hold us fast to the anvils of what we’d choose to last
until there’s nothing left to save. Too much depends, just to crawl out of bed,
upon reckoning unreconcilable acts of conservation and expansion.
Never finished the article, the one I started at my bedroom desk, the one
I thought the paper would take, my eye-witness account
of the overturned hog trailer, right there on the highway, right
in front of the house, the road smeared with blood, offal, and pig shit,
swine corpses ballooning in the summer heat. The stench and traffic.
Never finished that list of words they should ban from poems—
who would brook a world without stars and hearts or clouds and shrouds?—
as if I, having jettisoned (or been jettisoned by) God one too many times already,
don’t know too well that the closer one draws to (or is drawn by)
sacral agitations, how bone-dry trust in the wordhoard runs, as if already
not figure, not form
not what has quality, quantity, or mass,
not in space,
not visible etc etc etc
or so says Dionysius the Areopagite, pseudo-Denys some call him,
but what’s in a name? What’s it to a life so long as we have the text
left behind? Here in front of me is 542 pages of Frank Stafford,
whose real name was Francis Gildart Smith, The Battlefield Where
the Moon Says I Love You, in the other room is a woman not speaking to me,
and I can’t stop thinking about him, caught between his wife
and lover, how he left the room where the three of them (fought, wept?)
and put three bullets in the center of his chest, right into
what that forger, the fake St. Dionysisus, might have called his
single all-complete and single cause of all, his cordis,
his roboris, his animus poeticus, and that was it, dead before 30,
extinguished but for the poems they’re still cleaning up,
this big fat genius mess on my desk, unreadable but read aloud anyway,
as all epic poems should be, a sport in Arkansas apparently
(if only Kansas would claim Ronald Johnson’s Ark as theirs):
I longed to be one of the monk saints so silent tending the fields
then I wanted to be one of the wandering students that had taken me under their
wind then I dreamed of a life on the sea a common sailer
I sing but I am not a singer
I write but I am not a writer
Like that, on and on, hour after hour. You can read Milton in 12
(which I last did in Kansas, with a table full of students
and a pot of chili), Stafford takes more like 15, but what’s time,
no more than another name, another word we give, to mark
an anomaly, Mark being the wrong name my psychoanalyst called me.
Who is Mark? This is the question Andrew asked me over breakfast
at Fred’s, hash and eggs for him, oatmeal with half biscuit
and gravy for me. I stressed the diner waitress by asking for fresh
fruit—wasn’t sure how the cooks would react to a request
like that—and she was quicker on the take than I had anticipated,
starting a glib repartee that bordered on flirtation;
I remembered my uncle, years ago, once people started worrying
about me or wondering, saying that you just never know where
you’ll meet her, maybe a waitress, he said, it will surprise you,
the one, he said, but the older I got, the more dislocated
my emotional (in)competencies became, and the one was the least
of my problems, but I looked a little closer at this one, unsure
why in diners they never bother to introduce themselves, so short order.
She poured more coffee, brought a steak knife with the strawberries,
told me to be happy, that was the best I was getting today,
and I looked again at Andrew, maybe the best looking guy I know,
glad that he felt comfortable enough around me to eat
a plate of food that a man with a Ph.D. should know better
than to ingest, and he’s going to clean it, just like I,
a vegetarian by declaration, don’t flinch at the dun sausage gravy.
We are Pisces, and like our secrets, that’s the point of it.
It equals the apophatic enrapture (or entrapment) inherent to holding
yourself in reserve, to living out of sight, to being unknowable,
impenetrable, more vapor than soul. A monk tried to convince
me once that the supreme value was, what he called, integrity—defined
as being as you appear, an exterior with matching interior—simple
to use the clinical term, though he had no idea I read Climacus
and so knew that a simple monk is like a dumb
but rational and obedient animal, that what it denotes is one
without evil thoughts or idle curiosity, a test
I would certainly fail, me, an enneagram 3 with a 4 wing (?),
much too engaged in the maintenance of my engramatic dissociation;
Luther Sloan from Deep Space Nine describes the theory: when
a person’s mind is sufficiently disciplined, he’[s]…capable
of compartmentalizing contradictory information, believing one thing
while doing another. We are of course, by nature, hypocrites,
simpletons even, full of inconsistency while deploring contradictions—
bats nesting in broad daylight, spiders forsaking the web,
bears loose on the prairie. The trend these days is to speak, as if
without shame, as if real, authentic, people, as if
nude pictures of ourselves on our phones made us more human.
And maybe they do; humility after all is beauty. Sure I’d prefer
the government not intercept or store them, but I condone that sort of intimacy,
the voluntary violation of one’s own privacy, better
than jealousy; forgiveness and mercy better than rage. The only law is grace,
with the only question being whether freedom comes from fusion or distinction.
We are just people here, whatever orgiastic cult you follow,
imprisoned by our cells (does the body hold or is it held?)
although it’s hard to say who’s more stuck, the living or the dead, the being
born or dying. Who are these people, who must be as acquainted as I am with nature,
with the fastness of our position, bonded even inside the cycles we pass through,
transmutations the givens within the constants,
like a runner in love with what the body can do, like a heroine enmeshed
in an endless quest chain, who insist we error on the side
of their ideas about angels, chaste perfections who pass through walls.
So when my student’s mother blackmails her adult poet son
in an effort to get what she wishes, namely (and solely) that he not
date the woman he loves, why is it not so plainly obvious
to everyone as it is to me what an abomination of heaven this is,
to speak figuratively? When St. Paul, from prison,
pleads for the life of Onesimus, maybe an escaped slave,
maybe an estranged brother (we need Origen’s lost fragment to settle
that dispute) he says to this prick Philemon:
“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”
And by heart he means his σπλάγχνον (splagchnon), his guts, his inward
parts and inwardness, the seat of his compassion. The KJV renders
it: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels.
Paul doesn’t, by this synecdoche (συνεκδοχή) demand his manumission
but you know that’s the strong arm he’s subtly applying.
Maybe it’s counterproductive to say I think that manipulative mothers
are going to hell (to speak literally), although I do,
which people will be surprised some day to discover is populated
only by terrorists, slavers, abusers, and terrible parents,
the only ones God at the apokatastasis will refuse
to absolve. I’m sorry to break it to you, saith the prophet,
but even St. Paul, himself prone to minor tyrannies
and tantrums, refuses to compel by force; he insists on individual
sovereignty, itself an aporetic knot, a throw of lots,
like the human being itself, that pure (or purely) symbolic thing,
so he takes his chance that Philemon might scourge the shit
(or worse) out of his repatriated property—in order that your goodness
be of your own free will—which seems like, I don’t know,
a sketchy bet, at best (even though American slaveowners cited the book
as God-given proof that runaways must be returned—let’s add fundamentalists
to that list). He even makes a joke or two at the kid’s expense,
punning on his name, Onesimus, which means useful in Greek,
who will one day be canonized as a Blesséd Onesimus,
who in his current suspended condition of vacated-subjectivity is,
like poetry, useless until put to use. Paul here invents
the Western inwit, the notion that conscience conveys reliable information
but the apostle, popularizer if not originator of the annoying trope
in Christ, invokes a good excuse to do or say about anything—
the figure of prosopopoeia, etymologically to make a face
(prosopon+poein), wearing the face, i.e., or putting on the mask
of the dead god, summonsing (or conjuring) his presence and performing
an alchemcial coniunctio (not unlike, oh, I don’t know, a platinum filament
catalyzing the combustion of oxygen and sulphur dioxide),
a virtual re-enacted resurrection and assumption of an absentee’s power
to effect, in effect, the epiphanic Voila! of a third thing,
a new self, a slave no longer enslaved, a master no longer a heartless
bastard, love manufactured from the mercury of lead. Who believes
this magic twaddlerot? And recall that Paul never once mentions
a miracle, or a parable, or exhorts the theotokos, his ever-virgin mother,
the first heart, because maybe those tales weren’t even written
much less extant; his Jesus, the Christ who lives, is straightedge,
a boring guy with a crazy plan that just might work. Who doesn’t believe
or want to at least in the possibility of getting better?
And so when we say the rest is history we mean
not only keep the moon, your hands, and your hydrangeas out of poems
but that the whole of it, what we kill each other over, is a pepper’s ghost
because if anything’s real it’s what’s off center somewhere
on the other side of the mirror, which is no less difficult a phantom
to fathom than the possibility of a new being. Maybe I will leave
this room and be the first to breach the silence, be like a telemarketer
trained to refuse to listen, to hear one word as another,
trained to press on and not to wait, because it’s not true
that the one to speak first loses, that there must be a loser, or losses,
that any of it zeroes out. It’s not like a model for monogamy
exists, like marriage is the only thing improved by fear, uncertainty,
and doubt. Maybe I’m really a 5 with a 6 and a 3 wing. Maybe
I’ve failed the one test I most sought to pass: don’t disappoint
the trace of Thoreau which finds no value in outward conformity consoled-
slash-tempered by the delusion of inward independence. He would hate
me for spending $200 on an 1865 first edition of his letters,
edited by Emerson, at an antiquarian bookshop in Sonoma. He would hate
Sonoma and curse me for liking to get drunk, and no not on the liquor
of esoteric doctrines. He would not appreciate the rigorous
contradiction at the heart of my economy, an insufficient wildness
compounded by a failed domestication. He would have an even greater disdain
for the digital scan now freely available of this collection,
or the fact that a market exists where it fetches a thousand dollars.
Let what’s gone stay gone, HDT would say, so long as those present stay perfect.
In a letter dated 1842 to Lucy Brown—the woman who introduced him
to RWE (her brother-in-law), a passionate attachment biographers call it (a cathexis
later transferred to Mrs. Emerson)—he says about his tetanic late brother:
I do not wish to see John again—I mean him who is dead—but that other,
whom only he would have wished to see, or to be,
or whom he was the imperfect representative. For we are not what
we are, nor do we treat or esteem each other for such,
but for what we are capable of being. But when I say that I’m capable
of anything I usually mean that which would land me in the clink or sink me.
But as it is I cosplay each day as a respectable person, not
letting on that I’d rather be looking at naked people on the Internet,
lost in a trance-like tryst with a beautiful stranger
with no concern for discerning between realms of the real and imagined.
But such dispassion, trenchant metaphysics notwithstanding, is a luxury,
a species of dissolution, unaffordable to or by my rioting brothers and sisters
who rise in protest, who burn their own neighborhoods, who go to jail,
who live and die in ways as beyond me as the essence of God is beyond us all.
What kind of creator sky deity admires much less preaches poverty?
One who’s never lived in squalor or want or gone to a shitty school or
hasn’t grown up under an omnipresent threat of violence.
One whose genealogy is not generations of the oppressed and ghettoed
who was not the subhuman other on whose backs the new money
that became the old money was made. If Jesus returns, and that’s a pretty
big if, the rapture will not disappear the virtuous but open up the prisons—
it says right here: the Lord looseth the prisoners—
for what else did a Christ say the gist of his project was but wholesale reversal:
to bring what’s dead to life, to sight the blind, to release the captives,
so by Latin raptus (to carry off or snatch away) he must mean
to return them. We must confront the possibility that things haven’t turned out
as intended; there is no end at which all things will be unfolded,
no arc or entelechy toward which the human history, despite what nature implies
by analogy, moves. Truly, I say unto you, only the addict
can know self denial and earthquakes happen because plate tectonics;
the crust floats atop the lithosphere asthenosphere boundary, a six-mile thick
slurry of sludgy rock, and when the plates shift we see
what we’re worth—no birds get harmed—and under the rubble of temples
we can’t protect we understand how limited the dithyramb of justice will prove.
On the day my father was born Jung gave a seminar on Zarathustra
in Zurich, where he examined and explicated the image of the serpent and eagle,
and asked what does it mean for chthonic snake to encircle the neck
of inspirited accipiter, the animal under the sun and the cleverest
animal under the sun—out on reconnaissance as Nietzsche says?
Something to do with inverting the age-old clash between Geist-slash-Grund:
If we forget that we also consist of a living body, and try to live
in an entirely spiritual medium, the body is going to suffer; and inasmuch
as the body suffers the mind is affected too. It’s a terrible strain on our minds
when we are not right with our bodies. So though he hopes
that his beasts will guide him, it is very questionable they will.
My father, a man’s man who lived to mow his lawn and keep his trees trimmed,
who if born to a decadent age, like his sons, would have manscaped—
such a lover, so wanting to please—like he landscaped,
with delight and care. He wore a bronze belt buckle with a flying eagle
icon in low relief, probably swag from some manager’s seminar
years before he failed to learn to keyboard or realized he didn’t give a shit to master
much less muddle through with modern business; mail and bills
to pay he kept in a hollowed out tortoise shell, and a taxidermied deer
head hung above his desk. What did it mean to find a book of bondage porn he owned?
What does it mean to be uncursed with knowledge of him drunk or naked?
He never went to church but read the Bible every day; I have no idea
what, besides Republican orthodoxy, he believed in,
no clue what—beyond Kentucky, maybe, his Southern sense of honor & duty,
or between history and family—mattered to him most.
Why was it tough to understand, when I asked him if he even loved
me, what it meant for him to say because you’re mine? I wonder what hamartias
bequeathed to me—let’s give a metaphor the benefit of doubt—
what inbred inadequacies, I’ve fated my sons
to bear without even trying: incarceration fears? feeble lungs? the stronghold
of lusts and arcane dispositions masked by convention?
a thralldom to pain and the body and blessed rot? Whatever, we perform it (invent
your antecedent) again and again. Noah’s curse of Canaan,
what church fathers called the creation of servitude, followed Ham’s discovery
of his uncovered father, drunk on the dirt of his tent—that plagued
soil—and laughed about it with his brothers.
What does any of this explain, this pericope that Byzantine as well as
antebellum bastards said sanctioned enslavement and segregation of the races?
Jesus said, according to Thomas: Woe to the flesh
which depends on the soul; woe to the soul which depends on the flesh.
One man’s theologoumena is another man’s dogma (G. dogma), which means opinion anyway.
We have failed to advance Paul’s Haustafel, the household code that reset the relations of all
things in accordance with the cosmic org chart.
Today we believe in extraterrestrials, that love consists in honoring what already exists.
Why was you father so angry, you ask, at anyone not like him?
Racism seemed the most natural thing imaginable.
You remember the scene—of course you don’t—at least it seems as if because
the story was told so many times—he’s in the kitchen of a morning,
standing at the window, drinking his weak Folgers, plus milk with 3 sugars,
and looks out onto the neighbor’s basketball court where a bunch
of n-word kids were playing, and he knew right then he had to get us out of there.
You are rendered so unsure of yourself, want so much to speak right,
to teach your children to navigate relating with blind ease, you are trying to describe
the little girl who expressed sadness that your son had missed school,
you hesitate to even call the girl black;
is she maybe just the one with pig tails? In Claudia Rankine’s Citizen:
For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you
as a person. |But| Our very being exposes us to the address of another; we suffer from
the condition of being addressable. You begin to understand yourself as rendered hyper-
visible in the fact of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to
exploit all the ways that you are present.
Maximal Presence: submit wholly to the pledge you made to submit wholly.
He who gives himself entirely to his fellow-men, Thoreau says,
appears to them useless and selfish; this falsehood one must simply learn to live with.
You have of course learned the limit of how far you’ll go, that virtue
in part is a kind of devouring. Simone Weil’s lays this bare in her Terrible Prayer.
Father, in the name of Christ, grant me this. That I might be beyond
any condition to make any movement of my body, obey any of my wishes, like a total paralytic.
That I might be unable to receive any sensation. That I might
be beyond any condition to put two thoughts together. That I might be insensible to any kind
of pain and joy, and incapable of any love for any being and for any thing.
Here is a book its author would prefer not exist, [I, Afterlife], an attempt
to account for the grief of a father’s suicide, a failure,
of course, which commits the insult of being beautiful, which breaks
down along the fault line of language, which made me
feel, as I read it in the tub on a Sunday morning, what a fuck-up I’d create
in the wake of helping myself to the other side, as I often wish to,
even if I ushered in some art. I asked a group of high school girls the other day
what was more important, that people are happy or that art
gets made, and they to a one chose the person over the work, but had no idea
that it’s the work of elegy to constitute and maintain an image of the person.
It posits: the elegiac tradition as it evolves is perhaps no longer concerned with articulating
the unspeakable :::::::::::::::::::::::: / ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
but rather with… / rather… / That sentence cannot be completed. / At least
not how it began. / To start again. /// Our eyes are not the only way
we see things. Is this what / I’m trying to say
Then I remembered the vision that kicked off this congregation of concerns,
A poem begging to be named “Grand Theft Auto Examination of Conscience”
that someone should write, for of course those games
are godless hellish anything-goes crime-pays landscapes—depraved (i.e.
warped, subverted, perverted, debauched, debased, degraded, defiled, sullied, polluted)
and wicked, deprived and wicked as if by capillary action of values
we (we good people) consider redeemed or redeeming or redeemable, able (i.e.)
to be bought back, returned, like a redemptioner, an indentured,
to an ordered status of legitimate, permissible, admissible, approved, paid up,
free and all clear. The point then as now as always is the pleasure
of roaming an open world, even a throwback car-jacktastic world we’d never live in,
a less linear life of diminished consequences and restraint,
where every action’s reaction—cop shoot-outs, wrecked cars, dead pedestrians,
gangstaland drug-runs, gangsterland hits, and motorcycle tricks—
metes out its effects by heart power and cash haul, lung capacity and ammo clips,
with the ultimate consolation, if a mission goes south, of new hope in the respawn,
the re-up, the glory of the unlimited life cheat code.
As with anything else, it’s impossible to know what must be known
without putting in the time. So much education just to turn up money without bloodshed
or jail time, finding hidden packages or picking up hookers
(to get your ride rocked you need a sports car and some cash,
good for a road-side plus-twenty-five hit points).
But what does it even mean, to call a thing, or a place, or person godless?
If one believes in a god at all, could a space, virtual or real, exist
or be opened where that god could flee from and not only into?
And there’s the question of what is meant by the whole heart—with all your kardia,
all your psyche and ischus and your dianoia, too—this specious
business of Kierkegaard’s that purity of heart is to will one thing when a man
can easily enough be double-, triple-, or four-hearted
like the hag fish, which feeds on the dead (i.e. tradition) like necromancers and poets.
And of course, of course, this place must exist beyond good and evil, as he says:
Whether it be hedonism, pessimism, utilitarianism, or eudaemonism,
all those modes of thinking which measure the worth of things according to PLEASURE
and PAIN are naivetes, which every one conscious of CREATIVE powers
and an artist’s conscience will look down upon with scorn, though not without sympathy.
No truth’s stopped anyone from trying to be true, and why should it
in the absence of ironclad thou-shalt-nots, in the absence of dire repercussions?
Where any thing and any one is a possible center of profit?
In the terms of St. Paul, any uncircumcision can be made to appear equal to
or better than every other uncircumcision. And maybe it is.
In GTA the negated deity may be that stuff-strutting, ditty-humming Huggy Bear-type,
a bedizened nobodaddy bedeviled by nothing but equally vulnerable to side-swipes.
But everywhere else, where the venerable laws of physics apply,
it’s one more word of unknown origin, a contested dereliction, striving alongside the rest
of us drudges to split the differences, into which the whole of it must be thrown.
Gertrude Stein learned this, the whole Room section of Tender Buttons says this.
Why is the name changed The name is changed because
in the little space there is a tree,
in some space there are no trees, in every space there is a hint of more,
all this causes the decision.
We live with the notional understanding that our every act is translated into data.
I live inside somebody’s metrical calculation
within tolerance, within spec, within the emerging delta of marriage.
Why is it so hard for people to see
that what they believe in changes nothing that is? In terms of what they call
owning the stack, we do not own our own stacks. Out of the foaming foment of finitude, spirit
rise up fragrantly, Hegel prayed. I would have said flagrantly.
The violence is inevitable, the clash of even what appears like tenderness,
when our duty is to another’s body, the negotiation of bodies,
and we realize at once and for all that we belong to much more than belongs to us.
For nobody knows himself, Novalis says, if he is only himself
and not also another at the same time. There are times we are tyrannized
by another’s thought, Henry Miller goes on, hapless victims, a possession that occurs
in periods of depersonalization, when the warring selves come unglued.
To ask the purpose of this game [of writing],
how it is related to life, is idle. The artist’s game is to move
over into reality. It has been so and will be so until man ceases to regard himself
as the mere seat of conflict. Until he takes up the task
of becoming the I of his I. Never will I want to write a poem about the 14 million
bees that spilled, spectacularly, onto a Washington highway,
when their grove-bound semi overturned, what with its built-in thematic peril,
its inescapable, overbrimming symbolism. Beekeepers convened
to recover them, but most were lost; everyone was stung; bee colonies are difficult
to save, once ruptured, because the entire hive must stay intact,
with its single queen, the worker bees and attendant bees.
But what good is so much theoria when there’s so much dog shit to clear each day?
No good will come, today, from so much stress over the objet petit a,
over formulas to unlock the promised paradoxes. The care with which the rain is wrong
and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care
with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. I close the book and go to her.
From the Artist:
While I can hope it stands on its own, this poem is part of a longer work in progress called Utopiary which, broadly speaking, explores questions of apocalypse and perfectibility, the human inclination toward not only these ends but any projected and aimed for end, idealisms of any kind which remove us from the real present and, more importantly, from real presences. This section is a response (and a reaction) to the book of Philemon, and in particular Philemon 1:12, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” which I found pleasingly ambiguous and pregnant with possibility beyond its context. Not that its context—Paul in prison, writing on behalf of a slave to his owner—isn’t suggestive enough. Christianity, like most religions, is grounded in a rigorous idealism, even as it attempts to deal with humanity in ruthlessly realistic terms, and the poem explores the question of human autonomy in its relation to images of bondage, and of life in relation to images of death, both central tropes of the Christian imaginary which inform history as well as the domestic quotidian in myriad, mostly disastrous, but occasionally beautiful, ways. As Hannah Arendt writes, “To raise the question, what is freedom? seems to be a hopeless enterprise.” Yet, still, we do.
John Estes directs the Creative Writing OProgram at Malone University in Canton, Ohio and is a visiting faculty member of Ashland University’s Low-Residency MFA. He is author two books, Kingdom Come (C&R Press, 2011) and Stop Motion Still Life (Wordfarm, forthcoming), and two chapbooks: Breakfast with Blake at the Laocoön (Finishing Line Press, 2007) and Swerve, which won a National Chapbook Fellowship from the Poetry Society of America.
See more at johnestes.org
This poem is copyrighted by the artist and used here by permission.
Curated by Kent Shaw.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™