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The philosopher selects his topic
For the day, a Muse meant for winter’s gloom,
To wrest from sleeting particulars
A form for a fable for more than a few.
Music, he’s heard, is the only solution
To the problem he poses: everyone
Listens to music. But, he challenges,
“This is merely to restate the problem
Since music, though articulate, is dumb.
“Where is,” he asks, observing the planet
Wreak havoc in white outside his window,
“The Piper who need not apologize?”
As if the earth itself retorted aggrieved
The very mountains mocked his query,
So it seemed to him, since he understood
Division is the engine of all that lives.
Furious gales scoured the mountains,
As he lowered his gaze, and he felt the cold,
Loveless, but pure all around him, and white.
He thought again, another log on the fire,
“What do we mean, then, when we say, unity?
“Is it pure, white lovelessness, coercion
Of trillions of crystals by cohorts of cold?
When did we ever unite two things
“Without coercion, violence and disregard?
The wonder” (he appropriates thaumazein)
“Is always the couple that continues,
“Aporia insoluble in ordinary
Interrogation of the world we have erected
To pretend we are creatures not subject to cold.”
As if to mock him with providential proof
The winds hammer his roof, walls, and windows
With force so savage (if clean) he recalls
The hour he first understood mortality,
That men destroy with far greater gaiety
Than they create with. No house is natural.
“This is how she dies, be it orgasm or torture,
Nature unnaturally mailed in the law,
Penuried to the part of pleasure and pain,
“Where deliver she must more dust to dust
Lest pleasure should lack the pain, and blood,
To entice the beast—homo lupus hominis—
“To lick at her wound and so fell the cities
Others have raised as if they were Other
Than the Animal enamored of Murder.”
The wind in his mind bites so bitterly,
He fears he has left some aperture unshut,
But he calms himself it is only a house.
The last woman to live there talked with him,
Her equal, and smiled at him when she died,
Mumbling incoherently of life and love—
Her lone child killed at her husband’s hand
Who killed himself with poison to die impure.
His Philosopher Queen, he’d smiled, already
The day they met and she ceased to weep.
She would have chastised him for digressing,
And he would have bit his lip in agreement.
“The Königsberg time-keeper, Kant by name,
Once thought for ten years without publishing a word.”
He strokes his cheek and returns to the construct,
The house, which quivers still with winter,
And which, he knows, was a place Kant rarely left,
For long, or far (itself a form for a fable).
So much happens within. He’d invented
In his youth a word that, he thought, told, in sound
And sight alike, the event he felt —inwordly.
(They had argued but finally agreed
Invention is the phont where th-ought is raised—
“But cave,” she would quip, “of Plato’s Error.”)
“Inwordly, he conceives,” he posed, “what can’t
Utter its destiny any other way
Since he is his information and it
“Can’t suffer severance from its him (or her)—
Inword, she requires not just translation
But her own Pied-Piper Philology.”
Easy to comprehend why Kant stayed home
In a construct he might pretend his own
Since who walks abroad a lexicon incarnate?
“Many now hail the Muse Digitalia!
Stay at home and surf the world! Careful,
Though, of your connection: all that connects
“Is not gold (though log’d-on for sure it is).
Now our Grail is the unending nexus,
To every cataclysm immune, a Pearl
“Of feeds directly to the brain, no matter
(Pia or otherwise) the price.” “Restrain yourself,”
She would have cautioned: “Irony consumes
Its consumer until all thought is afterthought.”
He pauses to remember her voice
And notes that “Memory can’t be replaced
“By electronic devices: movies
Of her inword, neither programs nor -ware,
Are like the snow random and beautiful
And fierce.” He lays down his irony for her.
Immediately a new facet forms
Of the problem he has chosen for the day.
“Suppose, for argument’s sake, a unitary
Brain of all the neurons at the planet’s
Disposal—would the Many then be One?
“Would humanity be finished? Plato,
Asleep at last? Aristotle, too? and Zen
Masters folded in night eternal?”
“Sed contra!” a scholastic might exclaim,
“From quantity to quality inference
Is fallible; otherwise, ants would be
“The highest form of life on earth—numbers
Guarantee their ecology.” And who knows
But that humans, just so, advance and serve ants?
“The problem,” he reminds himself yet again,
“Is not numeric, though science dream it were;
The problem is other, older than numbers,
“The problem is Otherness itself.
A man walks into a school and murders
The girls one by one. Counting is (in) vain.”
The tea kettle whistles. He takes the steam
Before he tastes the tea—very cold today.
“Tomorrow,” they say, “will be colder still.”
“How very accurate the instruments are!
Who can dispute that distance from Nature,
Prediction and control, are man’s crowning end!
“No house is natural and that is best.
Who wants to sleep on stone or lap the stale
If water is scarce and rain is missing?”
“Down with poets,” he’s heard the multitudes,
“Philosophers, too: Technology,”
They roar, “is Theology enough for us.”
And so he is surrounded by machines
Wizardry of yore could never imagine,
Much less tool to such pernicious precision.
He has heard them shout, “Tear out his tongue,
Chop off his hands—let Man the tool-maker
Have his revenge.” “Against such missiles
What missives might I send,” he muses?
“Even Orpheus” (no Orpheus, he) “succumbed—
And to rocks that begged forgiveness for harming him.
“What Piper for a world in which Robots
(Much cheaper than men) can run machines
Flawlessly and constantly—nay, endlessly—
“As long as electricity abounds?
Since there will always be electricity
(Greed requires it), the Pied Piper should sing
“For the children, the girls and the boys,
Who will never vanish inword the mountain,
Since the mountain vanishes inside the machines.”
He does not, as a rule, dine at mid-day,
But he’s hungry now—the cold, he reckons,
Hard to recall a day of late so cold.
Childless himself he had always known
Someone else’s imago he couldn’t be,
His own identity quicksilver enough.
Still he meditated on childhood a lot,
A universal transcending barriers
(Perhaps all of them, except division itself).
Characteristic of every child, all agree,
Is the will to believe, called, negatively,
Innocence (“not harming”); damningly,
Naïveté. He admitted, freely,
In him “A child still lives who sometimes crows,
As a small one will, when he topples his blocks,
“Thinking especially grand of himself,
Happy for ooh’s and aah’s coming his way—
Unknowing he plays for adulthood’s curse.”
The loss of innocence every culture
He consults from the dawn of its script
Grieves and laments: tragedy (or satire)
Crawls from the crack in the spirit’s crown
And forks identity with failure’s fangs—
“What! You thought a god was he who spoke to you?
“It was but an orifice of earth, my son,
And you heard yourself from your own gut groan
The end of your life awaits you there.”
Orestes had moved him as much as Oedipus.
The Greeks had taught him what we need to know:
“Our mothers doom us the moment they bear us,
Their love, though real, the face upon the monster’s void.
Let no one seek to know the origin,
Soon enough comes the panting in death’s embrace.”
She used to rejoin, “What must a woman do?”
They would argue for hours, at best to conclude,
“Allow not nature more than nature needs
Man and woman alike should fill the beasts.”
In their embraces, they strove for something more
Than the thrust of glands: they beheld one another—
As she gave him to him, he gave her to her,
That passion’s pathology might emerge
Passion that knows forth from both the fluency comes.
As always, to think of her was to think
With her, and in her, as in another language,
Not “foreign” but “neighboreign”—a fiction, yes,
But we do not live by bread alone.
“There must be some time a fantasy by which
We surprise the chemistry of carbon,
“Else why not indulge living narcosis?
Whether alcohol or cocaine, the drug,
So the argument runs, makes life bearable
“By mixing in death—the trick, we hear,
Is in the proportions.” He had waked up
In time to his own appetite for death.
He prepared more tea. When he was in school
Many of his friends had tried some “shit,”
Their name for it, and it grieved him to think,
“How right they were.” The afternoon sunlight,
As it will in winter, paled to thin yellow.
Time and he crossed in reverie revenant.
“There are,” he reckons, “many forms of narcosis,
Narcissism itself not the least of these,
Numbness needed against the pricks of life;
“But also the needles deep in the blood”—
The moments of youth when he needed sleep
Hardly at all but ate amounts of food
That appalled distinguished elders who deduced
Only a barbarian would consume
Like that (and yet he was always hungry).
As others learned what energy he burned,
They fled far away, but he told stories
Of needles in his blood interminable.
“Solitude is neither punishment nor crime,
But to sit still to concentrate with needles
In the blood is like Njál in his Saga,
‘Stritaðist hann við að sitja’: he struggles
To sit still (when he does he foresees the burners
Who will arrive to kill his sons and him).”
No one, not even she, had understood
How much it hurt to feel so much life
Injected into his veins—alone, he cried.
Cry he would still, in this decade, his seventh,
But no one saw, he was sure of that, for men
Flood with hate as they fill with years, and endless
Are the ways they tear each other apart
(“The smylere with the knyf under the cloke,”
As Chaucer had said)—he trusted no man
But loved all alike who could teach him
For the wisdom they gave, since he knew that time
Devours us all if our hate doesn’t first.
“What then would he be who could write a myth
To which men and women would freely assent
As the story for which they would spend their being?
“Any religion is too much religion,”
He swore to himself, as he lit a candle,
“‘Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum,’
“As Lucretius had said (‘So many evils
Can religion persuade men to commit’).
No, men and women need stories, not creeds;
“They need quests, not priests; imagination,
Not dogma; re-pairing, not des-pairing;
Figuration, not disfigurement.
“True, animals we are, one of the Apes.
But Power errs to presume that this is all—
In this animal evolved also spirit,
“And though some prove that they are bestial,
Many heed the spirit, answer humane:
These to the herd never surrender,
“For the narrative of humanity
Is resistance, heard through the ages,
And the title of tyranny is brief
“(Though the number of lives that are lost
Measures the horror and teaches the cause
Tyranny from the earth must be scourged).
“Let unity, then, be an ideal,
But not if by blinding and binding,
For then Power is ‘god,’ we are agreed,
“People are units for grinding Xchains
(Women on their knees, children in mine-shafts),
And the planet a sarcophagus,
“Eater of flesh copulating for corpses—
Either this or a discourse of liberty—
“Forged from the urge to rise from foaming seas
Of primordial zoa practicing unity
Until a form emerges of fiction
“Capable, in idioms of spirit fluent:
Freedom is freedom to choose my bond
If bound I must be in the time called history;
“In the time called story, she is a woman,
He is a man, who heed the spell of Yes
To bliss the body for the blessing of death.”
These words he chose this time—this particular
Ruin of white. As always, he recorded them,
For the next time, in the core of his heart,
For the cold is ever, and infinite is space,
And night is the day when the stars demand
An account: “I am human, the being who speaks.”
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About the Author
R Allen Shoaf
EROTIC RECKONINGS, my second volume of poetry, can now be purchased from New Plains Press or from Amazon. My third volume, PIED-PIPER PHILOL
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One of my regular exercises is to practice translation of an aria I sing. You can hear me sing both the original German and my translation under SHOW ALL MEDIA (in the right-hand column).