May 2015 - Comments Off

Sylvia Madaras

Found: Berries

Only a little bit wrinkled, and promising some kind of danger. Still red. These are almost water, without a perceptible smell, but soft when pickled. I choose one. I pluck. It breaks. It is like a blood vessel on my palm. It releases its jelly. Jelly delivers the delicate smell of: dog shit. Roast turkey, cranberries, juniper and torn grass. Then it slips like viscera in miniature between my thumb and pointer fingers, becoming cold. A bloody, gelatinous perfume with no heartbeat and no hair, the vague scent of citrus, the memory of the temptation to eat the yew berries outside my grandmother’s house. Skin: translucent, even transparent, even window to the soul, even encasement of blood stew, which is coming undone on me, still smelling like the day after a death. Still red.

Winter at the Lake

Lines of broken black water scrawl across the dusty surface of the ice, where it has broken and reformed over night. Geese were here only days before, desperately paddling to keep small pockets of the lake from freezing. They are now nowhere to be seen. A car drives by, whipping the wind up to an unbearable chill. The old-growth conifers at the northern corner of the lake would offer more protection than the dead land of the deforested western bank.

(“What is the importance of vision in the work of John Clare? If Romantic poetry is defined by the desire to notice and describe the natural world, then vision is the primary tool of the poet. He is given the ability to see this interaction, apart from the direct interaction with nature, and so the poetic voice here transcends the natural in order to do the simple work of taking note.”)

The walk to the conifers reveals an unusual sight: at the corner of the lake there is a mysterious shape in the branches of an oak that fell into the lake years before. The trunk and a hemisphere of the oak’s sprawling, hollow breadth of branches reach out across the water, sore against the wind. The skeleton tree rattles against the ice that cuts a cold perimeter around the length of its half-submerged form, cutting out the negative spaces where the water meets its dark, damp bark. The other half of the tree must spread out like fingers in the dark beneath the solid surface of the lake. There, in the space hewn out between two weighty branches, something small is tucked and fluttering.

(“The haunted aspect of Clare’s work appears most powerfully in its subtlety. In November, haunting is both natural phenomenon and disturbance of nature, personified in the movements of the owlet, a creature of the landscape, who is acting outside of the natural order. Clare notices the ripples of this disturbance passing through the web of animals that surround her, finally arriving at the human, who is the first to invoke the word ‘ghost.’”)

The object in the ice, between the branches of the drowned oak tree, is covered in what can only be called plumage, although the actual texture of its surface would be impossible to determine at this distance. The realization that it is feathered is followed by the interminable wait. The hope is that it will move. It must move. It must be either animate or inanimate. If it is animate, then it will move, or it will not move. If it does not move, it might be dead. If it is dead, it might be inanimate. If it is inanimate, then either it is dead or never was alive. If it never was alive, then what is fluttering in the wind? Rocks, for example, do not flutter. If it was once alive, and is now dead, then it would not move when disturbed. I will wait for it to move.

(“Humans, like animals, are part and parcel of the landscape to which they belong. Syntactically leveling the field between human and animal has two primary effects in Clare’s work: the ennobling of the animal world and the reunion of human and natural surroundings.”)

A rock I throw from the bank breaks the ice only feet from the fluttering form. No reaction. I follow it up with a hail of desperate rocks that land one after the other and break the ice in small, controlled explosions until the once-smooth swath of grey ice is pock-marked with dark bruises where water is bubbling through and lapping in small black pools, flat under the weight of the arctic air. No movement. No sound but the howl of wind. There, on the tundra of the western bank of the lake, close to the shadow of conifers, I think I see – in a vision that falls into the murky category of sensation that is neither quite lived experience nor quite hallucination – the shadow of the object’s neck.

(“It is the human […] that is an aspect and symbol of nature. Clare is not interested in the use of pathetic fallacy in the same way his predecessors were. Instead, by placing the human in the context of our natural surroundings, by describing the movements of the human only in relationship to the pressures and whims of nature, Clare is inviting us to see ourselves as part of the landscape, and something very small. Mostly, our peers are songbirds. Clare’s refusal to indulge in metaphor subverts the androcentricity and andro-supremacy of the earlier part of the Romantic era.”)

A rock. Another rock. A hundred rocks do not convince the silent thing to move its silky neck. It must be a neck. When I step onto the ice, the shock of my weight sends an electric, popping rumble hurtling across the length of the lake and back again. I freeze. The small valley echoes for an instant, passing the dissipating sound of the ice back and forth across the hills until it is gone. The surface of the ice shifts, almost imperceptibly, to accommodate me. I look closer: I see the curve of an inky black neck that follows to tuck its head beneath a brown-grey wing on the body of a bird that has been frozen into the ice. It is dead.

(Everything dies.)

(Time dies. Fields are harvested and then they die. People die. And life, it appears, continues on without us. Death, through Clare’s remarkably objective lens, comes out looking as if it were part of the weather […] There is no final hallelujah; there is no wish for or promise of something more. It is his sheer simplicity that strips death bare of image, name and status as a noun. Instead, death is a verb. Death is something we all do, because it is a function of time. Time, which carries us forward, which ripens crops, which brings new storms, which chases weeks with more weeks and seasons with more seasons, time which dies and is reborn, is inescapable. In this way, Clare’s description of time is not linear but cyclical. A time that dies cannot be eternal; it must start and start again. Everything dies as a function of time, and so nothing can die eternally. In a nonlinear view, nothing falls off the surface of the infinite line of time to live in another reality, but instead comes around over and over again, as if each life were a thought that cannot escape the mind of God who is going crazy little by little and refuses to let us go. Time is reborn. The work, it appears, goes on.”)

I am breathing in air that stiffens my bronchial tubes just before it enters and opens my lungs, and I wonder if this is what it feels like to begin the process of freezing to death. I am watching a dead bird trapped in the surface of the ice. Its body must be very, very cold now. At home, there are piles of bio notes waiting to by memorized. I recall something vague about apoptosis, the self-destruction of cells. There are clothes that need folded. There is work, and time, that demand attention. So I, cyclical, and inescapable as I am, go home. And although I almost want it to, the ice does not give way.

Published by: in Issue 2: Spring 2015, Prose, Volume 71

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