The Staporium

A fleeting refuge from the banal, superfluous, the ordained.

Reading Robert M. Novick’s ‘sixty-nine’ in 2014

I’m not going to lie to you and you need to believe that. This isn’t about truth, not at all. This is about poetry. About the cadences in a dragonfly’s cumdance, how we anthologize heroes only after the mytho-poeticization has been interred. How we remember certain months and Springs. Certain weeks or hours where we, and we alone and lonely, were the first to summit peaks where celestial wisdom lived. Back when life was something that can’t be reinvented, only forgotten. Like a fatal orgasm or the first time you read a book that changed you because it wasn’t just a book (it never is) like back when you saw a coronal mass ejection with stunned, lidless eyes meant to incinerate the chakras or hope, that first defeat, and life was left remainder; back when life mattered …

I’m here to talk to you about poetry. The last rubicon. The only dream. What sticks after, like crumbs. Or the hurt in a lung too full now, much too full of the decades of exuberance baked in a tar whose only point is destruction. Self-annihilation. What does a poet know better? What else can we say of those years and feelings that will never - will never - return? How doth a man reclaim soul when soul is spent in search of scratch and I ain’t talking cat-style-pussy-licking - I mean dinero, bread, cheddar, that most horrifying of all sundry poltergeists (and sure I’m digressing, this essay isn’t about money, symbols, the exchange revolution; this is about what you said about all those things Bob - and more! - so long ago, before folks understood the extent of Slick Willie’s betrayal, or ever thought Uncle Tom could save them from it …) … What I mean is, what I’m getting at, is there is a window. A one-shot. No extra lives. No do-overs. No second chances. We are only young once and they all say that’s the only reason it matters. I wonder though, about that … I mean, who’s ever tested the hypothesis? Who’s ever said, yes, sure, of course, I hear you, we all age and become frail, fragile, worthless and ugly, but perhaps we don’t have to? Let’s see what that’s like .?. Absurd of course, until you remember poetry. Yes friends, poets have the grace of the Eldar flowing through their heartblood. Their poetic guava matrices. They have the presence of utter zen, rest, what Miller called ‘just shutting the hell up and letting it happen’. And it is your poetry I want to address, Mr. Novick. Because I feel as if I just read the story of the 90’s in sixty-nine, and without this gift, this treasure, I don’t know if I could ever honestly say I knew what that meant.

Let’s start with some facts. Bob Novick is a white-hetero-male who spent a substantial number of his formative years in Middle Tennessee. He is, among other things I’m sure, a poet. He has been writing poetry at least since 1988. He is a father. He is an intelligent member of the human race, yet one deeply flawed; without these two factors though, you never get to art. Novick got to art. He made it. Sixty-nine is one of the finest pieces of poetry I’ve ever read (sorry Fasick, Novick owns face). Certainly authored by a contemporary soul. One of mine at least and I know Evan Karp and __________. Let’s say it shocked me, after my wayward and fantastical travels through this world, to come home again and find a voice so drinkable. So pure, clear, ready for consumption bacteria be damned. What Novick has achieved with sixty-nine is nothing less than a complete catharsis of the act of growing up. No, no, no; no children here. We are talking the growing up that only young adults must endure. The cleft of indifference and facing it, full swagger. The bravado of early 20-something’s has oft brought societies to their knees, or, more clearly stated, has opened up the subcutaneous aquifers of spirit to those whose well has run dry. Modern society, our capitalistic one, is fundamentally based on a pornographic yearning for the spirit of those days, whether we share them or not. Indeed, according to current demographic statistics the young are not the majority; not here, not in the USA. Perhaps this is the reason we idolize them? I guess. But I am not a hagiographer. Have no intention to place pedestals before you; let alone fill them. I want to talk about the legitimate response to this cruel time in all our lives. This blasted wonderland of desolation and fecundity. I want to talk about sixty-nine, because this poem talks about it so well.

Full disclosure: I never knew Bob Novick during the ostensible time-period this poetic codex transpired. I knew of him, I guess, through acquaintances near or far, but never personally; to wit: this isn’t a political or economic discourse. I am hear speaking only through my recent reading of the text (again; sixty-nine). I did not give a shit about poetry when Bob was writing these lines (Final Fantasy what!?!). Hell, it is altogether probable that while he was crafting these stanzas I’d yet devoured Plato. Much less Whitman or Rimbaud. The point here is simply that I did not approach my reading of this poem sequence with the sort of dewy-eyed fanaticism of contemporaneous brothers-in-blood that so often litters our literature on criticism (not being the place I shall refrain from marking examples, however, if you think about it, I suspect you can conjure one or two). I read the work one artist to another; soul to soul, so to speak. And speak to me it did. Whiskeybenders, lovetwisters, soulfarts and all …

When you’re young you don’t really think about time. A kid doesn’t I mean, children. I guess eventually you personalize death but that’s a much more pathological enterprise, not really entwined with considerations on the fundaments cosmic. As you age immortality creeps in, because you’ve got a little time behind you and know what that’s like, but also because you can not fathom it ending; any of it. The joy in a dawn transposed across an eternity of adventures you infallibly know await. You put time aside, so to speak, forget it’s importance or reality, and live the life of fiction, stories, legends for a few years. Well, those of us with dithyrambs in our blood and chaos in our cock do. The characters, emotions, perceptions, realizations, defeats, triumphs, small moments devoid of purpose that Novick handles in sixty-nine are based, it seems to this reader, on a somber meditation of just this season in our currently mortal human remains. A season of knowing oneself, as if through a kaleidoscope drunkly; or how you shamefully come to understand your father is just a man, like any other.

But then we’re all ‘other men’ to anyone else. True enough, though, in a way, a way we seem to never really get back, these early 20’s of ours are messy with otherness brought close to home. It’s not as clear as it could be (nor need it) but sixty-nine is as much about a feeling of placeness as it is an homage to those bright souls you share it with: haiku, pitchfork diablo, checkerboard, tardy bardo, flapjack tabasco, tocah perididdle. I know none of them personally, past the alter-egos or even historically, unless I’m mistaken: but I have such a sense of them, such an immediate bibliography fully consumed via Novick’s words that I guess you’d have to call it satori. Even if it appears capricious, fickle, hastily lured off on a dragonfly’s wing. But then there are now those who pine for the simplicity of 90’s living just because it has been taken from us on the wind, or, criminally, as they’d have it. Reading Novick one recalls (if one is of age, yes, and I am) that the 90’s contained errors and omissions as well: that they were not as simple as nostalgia might profess, were filled with the immense mysteries common to any age (mysteries which, sadly, are now being subsumed by our modern technophilia, but I’m a digressing curmudgeon who hasn’t ‘liked’ anything in years) and I have to say full-start - those are the exact mysteries Mr. Novick is moshing with here. Wearing sandalwood ballerina shoes and a bright orange cape.

An essay is a lousy way to talk about poetry though, right - I admit it! How about a story to close this out?

… Ganesha visits the pink house one day and leaves a smattering of forever stained in the carpet and a young man with wisdom in his magic jots down a note then magnetizes it to the fridge until other notes start appearing, covering it, pasting it over with other, lesser trite, and then one day, heading to the kitchen for OJ cuz the dose was kicking in the young man finds the note (perhaps totally by accident, of course) and remembers most of what it was that compelled him to jot it down and so begins a journey that leads to many places before there is closure of a sort, the sort of closure only artists feel (which is to say badly) and so the feeling remains and eventually we are left with an artifact detailing just how it was it came to be but by that time Ganesha has left (there are other houses after all) and the dose is done and there are no longer mornings just the dull glare of three o’clock in the afternoon on a cloudy November in a country without trees so you don’t even get the pleasure of watching the leaves flip about the ground like all the notes you never did write and even though there was one that got away, graduated, grew up with honors you can’t find it anymore in the rush of all the others and you sigh, you or the young man, because he is just a fiction now as well, another tale, one you’re sure was based on a true story until you remember you’re smart enough to know that how it matters, in whatever way it does, all stories are make-believe and no one really believes that true means anything anyway and if they do, if you ever meet someone who does, you resolve to strangle them with your own two hands until they’ve no longer breath to speak of such silly things or, provided you have an appointment to keep, simply ask to bum a cigarette then politely walk away …

Reading Robert M. Novick’s sixty-nine in 2014?

Four out of five stars.

__________
C. R. Stapor
Mt. Juliet
07/30/2014

The cowboy is shot. Struck through chest by errant bullet or one sinisterly meant to murder. The ground underfoot gives way, collapses, falls to nothingness. As does this rider of the range. Is his ghost watching this transpire? Or the killer, admiring his labor? It’s hard to say. What isn’t hard to say or admit is that such an analysis is short-sighted: can not help us here. Is the cowpoke shot at all? Hand on chest, arm out-stretched in abandon, he appears devoting himself to a life-long love. To be in the very act of casting off his indiscretions and frailties (which manifest in blue, to his right) in some romantic bliss-fest of all-in commitment. The ground gives  way? Bah, it is no ground beneath him but the clouds of fantasy he collected under open sky, in younger, more indiscriminate days. He’s discovered a new language as well, one wrought of shady blues and blocks of white. He sings to speak, in this cordial tongue of perfect value … it is always incongruent, is it not, attempting to assay the oils on the canvas? The colors in the story … paintings … such a thing, and still such a thing. We are not beyond them yet, this culture we inhabit isn’t - though close indeed are we to that day! You see, a painting asks you to participate. It does not dull your senses like some opiate administered to forget the best of you. It requires attention, alertness, a responsiveness built on some sense of self. It is a hard art (and here I do not speak of craft), one that requires more of you than music or film. This visual exercise, this act of preserving concepts eternally in the material sphere, possesses a timelessness as well; an eternity, we might say, lacking in all other fine arts. The dross of yesteryears captured in the frame remind us, no matter how we struggle, that there are consequences to our actions: that something is always left behind. Words are infinite and so literature is the most powerful and impotent of them all; sounds can be recorded on the wind, and leave as easily as they arrive; images strung together have become the new watchword for banality, for the obviousness of existence; but a painting? An artifact (which, by my own reckoning, a book, score, or movie can never become) of such uniqueness? A single, solitary act of a single, solitary person? A footprint in our mass-historical-species-consciousness. But such a thing, such an enterprise, requires maintenance like all the rest; and here we see a weakening of the spirit - a will to forget. For when was the last time you went to a museum? Spent an hour admiring a picture hanging on a wall? Perhaps I am wrong, and the art of painting and enjoying them isn’t as endangered (outside of the mega-urban hubs, naturally, where all manner of deviance may yet find purchase) as I fear. Perhaps this culture of ours, this hyper-modern world of information exchange, still has time to stop and smell the acrylic. The chances aren’t great, but if we don’t actively create a space and need for experiences that can’t be linked or liked we will wake up one day and find the West was won. That there are no more open ranges to explore; that the deer and the antelope no longer play. We’ll realize that the cowboy is dead, whether we like it or not. And that the murderer was us all along. 

The cowboy is shot. Struck through chest by errant bullet or one sinisterly meant to murder. The ground underfoot gives way, collapses, falls to nothingness. As does this rider of the range. Is his ghost watching this transpire? Or the killer, admiring his labor? It’s hard to say. What isn’t hard to say or admit is that such an analysis is short-sighted: can not help us here. Is the cowpoke shot at all? Hand on chest, arm out-stretched in abandon, he appears devoting himself to a life-long love. To be in the very act of casting off his indiscretions and frailties (which manifest in blue, to his right) in some romantic bliss-fest of all-in commitment. The ground gives  way? Bah, it is no ground beneath him but the clouds of fantasy he collected under open sky, in younger, more indiscriminate days. He’s discovered a new language as well, one wrought of shady blues and blocks of white. He sings to speak, in this cordial tongue of perfect value … it is always incongruent, is it not, attempting to assay the oils on the canvas? The colors in the story … paintings … such a thing, and still such a thing. We are not beyond them yet, this culture we inhabit isn’t - though close indeed are we to that day! You see, a painting asks you to participate. It does not dull your senses like some opiate administered to forget the best of you. It requires attention, alertness, a responsiveness built on some sense of self. It is a hard art (and here I do not speak of craft), one that requires more of you than music or film. This visual exercise, this act of preserving concepts eternally in the material sphere, possesses a timelessness as well; an eternity, we might say, lacking in all other fine arts. The dross of yesteryears captured in the frame remind us, no matter how we struggle, that there are consequences to our actions: that something is always left behind. Words are infinite and so literature is the most powerful and impotent of them all; sounds can be recorded on the wind, and leave as easily as they arrive; images strung together have become the new watchword for banality, for the obviousness of existence; but a painting? An artifact (which, by my own reckoning, a book, score, or movie can never become) of such uniqueness? A single, solitary act of a single, solitary person? A footprint in our mass-historical-species-consciousness. But such a thing, such an enterprise, requires maintenance like all the rest; and here we see a weakening of the spirit - a will to forget. For when was the last time you went to a museum? Spent an hour admiring a picture hanging on a wall? Perhaps I am wrong, and the art of painting and enjoying them isn’t as endangered (outside of the mega-urban hubs, naturally, where all manner of deviance may yet find purchase) as I fear. Perhaps this culture of ours, this hyper-modern world of information exchange, still has time to stop and smell the acrylic. The chances aren’t great, but if we don’t actively create a space and need for experiences that can’t be linked or liked we will wake up one day and find the West was won. That there are no more open ranges to explore; that the deer and the antelope no longer play. We’ll realize that the cowboy is dead, whether we like it or not. And that the murderer was us all along. 

So I’m writing a screenplay. A story about four strangers brought together - despite socio-economic hurdles - by their love of fantasy. Set in the mid 90’s, when RPGs were a whole lot more personal than they seem to be now, the idea is that these four represent the totality, writ small, of what it means, meant, to be a celebrant of such imaginary tales. Final Fantasy is the dominant archetype. But there is so much more … The tentative title of the film is ‘Forever Fantasy’. You are welcome.

So I’m writing a screenplay. A story about four strangers brought together - despite socio-economic hurdles - by their love of fantasy. Set in the mid 90’s, when RPGs were a whole lot more personal than they seem to be now, the idea is that these four represent the totality, writ small, of what it means, meant, to be a celebrant of such imaginary tales. Final Fantasy is the dominant archetype. But there is so much more … The tentative title of the film is ‘Forever Fantasy’. You are welcome.

The summer light breathing new pleasures into an afternoon already aglow with the cheer of crisp cerveza and internet videos streamed in tiny packets of laughs or questionable info, the farm extant beckons, calls to the hunters, the wanderers still hiding inside the minds and childish souls of the revelers plying Tennessee with the life given, with that spark of certitude and mystery human beings have always brought with them wherever they tread though of course, for all that, the cows still don’t care. The cows still don’t …

The summer light breathing new pleasures into an afternoon already aglow with the cheer of crisp cerveza and internet videos streamed in tiny packets of laughs or questionable info, the farm extant beckons, calls to the hunters, the wanderers still hiding inside the minds and childish souls of the revelers plying Tennessee with the life given, with that spark of certitude and mystery human beings have always brought with them wherever they tread though of course, for all that, the cows still don’t care. The cows still don’t …

Rambling in Patagonia

Waiting on father to finish breakfast I went outside to survey the morning light. A hike was the plan for the day, to the top of the Cerro Paine, to the three spires crowning their summit. The Torres del Paine rising 3,050 meters over the sea. Early still, the chill in the air did battle with the warmth from my coffee. Coffee I was in no hurry to consume. My thoughts drifting elsewhere. Likely fixed on the resplendent rainbow then glistening into view.

Like the rainbow - a smorgasbord of sensation born from water and light - I found my mind multiplied that day by the trail up the mountain and my desire to go there. At the moment I was sipping java while searching out the perfect angle for a photograph, which I found before dad returned from his meal. We watched the colorful arc for a moment saying nothing nor needing to. Of rainbows I feel this axiom can be freely asserted: never trust someone who can look on them with disdain.

We geared up, joined the hiking party, then departed. A distance of nine kilometers separated our camp from the mirador, during that length an elevation gain of some 751 meters. The weather, an ever shifting spirit in Patagonia, appeared calm, agreeable; though the guide warned that could change in an instant, like a flash of inspiration. By all accounts not a murderous trail it couldn’t be called a picnic either. I wondered how my father, whose body had not kept up with his mind’s sense of self, would endure. Starting off in the scrubby foothills I felt no need yet to chaperone. Laconically held back, taking a few more pictures, trying vainly to come to terms with the fact I’d made it. That I was actually in Patagonia.

Patagonia had been a dream of mine for some time. I was mesmerized by its vastness, its unflinching indifference to all life. Here was a land Man may claim to tame, but only to each other. The mountains know better. The glaciers. Yes, the inhospitableness of the place allured me. The bareness of existence those tough enough to try found as reward. There is of course a certain wonder to this Earth. An awe-inspiring response whenever genuinely considered. No where are such feelings more dominant than in lands humanity does not own. In Patagonia the Earth holds deed; no other. In Patagonia Gaia sees fit to wash away the veneer of human temporality, to uncover her true face. A face composed of eons so colossal few are the men who can look upon them with comprehension or sanity intact.

My father is such a man. A member of that group of explorers who first discovered the deep time of our globe. And it was the geologist in him that was getting excited as we began our trek into the Ascencio Valley. As the upward lift of the mountain, as millennia of glacial erosion, began contorting the land into a hall of rocks. By that time he’d, as he so often does, made acquaintances with some of the group. Explaining this or that geological principle as examples in the surrounding terrain arose. I’d taken my jacket off by then, the mid-morning sun overhead and exertion of the trail warming me such that the icy winds whipping through the valley were more blessing than nuisance. During this time father and I stopped briefly, allowed one of his new friends to take a picture of us that’s still one of my favorites. A narrow footpath, we skirted the valley’s western edge for an hour or so until it leveled out, about half way up the mountain.

While hiking that valley my thoughts turned to mountains, as invariably happens whilst among them. What is more perfect than a mountain? When it comes to geography I mean, or more generally if you prefer. What aspect of nature more readily symbolizes the dominance of our home over us, its inhabitants. The weather if you like but storms are transitory things, and via this impermanence remind one more of the time ahead than the stability of ground underfoot. Here on Earth a storm would be hard pressed to wipe out a generation, yet every mountain standing has allowed generations to attempt its summit. Well what of the sea then? That inky lower space of mystery where most men fear to tread. As far as the biologists are correct our ancestral home, it now signifies the ‘other’ far better than the stars overhead which we, to some extent, know so much more of. And since the prime avatar of ‘otherness’, the sea, can’t truly be said to symbolize our home. It’s true that more people live by the sea than mountains but that’s not so strange considering our psychic make-up; most people live with other people. Perhaps we consistently seek communion with the ‘other’ to distract us from the ‘abode of self’, the home we carry within. Socrates said know thyself and you can do this on a mountain. You have to. The mountain compels you. From Moses to Zarathustra to Musashi in his cave, the mountain has long been home to those trying to overcome themselves or others. There is a trueness in the crisp air that Kant would, a priori, understand. In the sloping grounds and rolling rocks a Newton could calculate all the math most would ever need. In the random encounter with a creature of the highlands who doesn’t fear Man it wouldn’t take a Muir to comprehend the significance, to see the great pulsing circle entombed in all life. Then there is the solitude of the higher places, the distilled essence of loneness you can only find thousands of feet above the sea. And it is this loneness we all carry inside, with us, wherever we go. The mountain knows this. The mountain sees us for what we are.

This evened out platform halfway up the valley was forested by gnarly trees. The group halted for lunch and I asked dad how he was doing. The hike so far had taken its toll but he smiled anyway, clearly enjoying himself. While eating our guide told us a story of horse thieves who were the first known inhabitants of the valley. Crazy enough to risk what we’d just climbed across without a proper trail, during foul weather or night as well, they’d made a natural corral of the flatness we’d thankfully reached. A few well placed riflemen sufficient guard against any lawman attempting to follow. No denying it was an easily defensible position the guide fell silent then, concentrating on her sandwich. After giving her a couple bites I asked, what happened to the outlaws?

> They got bored. There was no way to sell the horses so they gave up.

About a half hour after lunch we came to a large wooden bridge spanning a turbulent, rocky stream. On the other side of the bridge stood a tall cabin under repair. Workmen and hikers milling about.

You’ll never meet nicer people than those hiking the backcountry. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but it seems to me a certain ethos is required to leave civilization behind and rough it in the wild; an ethos more appreciative of the social contract than those who never leave a cities limits seem to understand. Most travel in the wild to reconnect with an earlier way of life, to challenge the elements on their terms; to test their mettle versus the world extant. All in all an admirable ambition. Those with experience in this endeavor learn quick enough sometimes that’s impossible. Sometimes you need help, and the best help is often the first on the scene. Outside of emergency scenarios a kind word, friendly smile, or shared story is welcome respite after a few days without seeing another face. Perhaps I see in people bold enough to spend their nights in a dark forest protected simply by ripstop nylon not only kindred souls, but old souls; artifacts of our ancestral psyche. It’s easy to see behind the eyes of the trail-forgers and back-packers of our planet’s less frequented paths a primal glee, almost animalistic in composition if spiritual in nature, that seems to scream - Yes! This is where I belong! (It didn’t escape the author, having these thoughts as he bounded over the bridge, that he was among those so possessed. To this he simply smiled) And there they were, a couple from Canada who’d been on the trail for three weeks; another from where-I-remember-not except that it must have been Europe, who were taking an extended holiday down the Andes. While not fresh in the hygienic sense of the word, these four, together, presented an image more immaculate, less filthy, than any room our modern technologists have yet devised for constructing their intricate baubles. And to find such grace in the thick of one of the prettiest mountain ranges in the world! If I had needed it (not at the moment) a second wind was surely blowing my way. 

The group stopped again for a short while. Conversing with the back-packers or each other. We then continued our trek, fortified by the break and the easy undulations that part of the trail provided. A wooded path, it was also the last flatish stretch before attaining the scree slopes, which marked the final, sharp ascent up the mountain. Autumn at the time the trees were flaring in crimson or vibrant oranges, hugging the earth like outsized bonsai. Branches and boughs planed along a severe horizontal axis one could easily imagine carved by the wind. I’d put my jacket back on and father was using his hiking poles with greater care. We walked side by side for a time, occasionally trading obvious observations. I remember thinking, here it is, the sweet spot. On any journey there is a moment, after you’ve gotten over exhaustion, crossed the mid-way point, though before you reach your goal, where it all coalesces. Gels. Becomes a totality of experience, expectation and will and this is the perfect moment of any trip. Hiking through those woods nestled in the Cerro Paine I had a perfect moment with my father, though I’m not sure I ever told him that till just now.

For me the closest analogy of a perfect moment is the nebulae, those stellar nurseries what forge creation solid and elemental. Over eons that’d put Gaia to shame they ceaselessly birth the babies of the cosmos who are parents to us all. Perfect moments have a similar affect. They not only collect and refine the detritus of previous experience, they transform that flotsam into precious kernels of perception the aware have often utilized in achieving their goals. A personal example will perhaps make this clear; hiking those Patagonian woods I perceived this perfect moment, and fair enough, but so too every other such moment I could recall with my dad. In no particular order I recalled our hiking trip to Mt. Whitney’s summit, or the first time he took me to Guadalupe National Park in west Texas which is still my favorite place in the 48 states. I remembered our first route up the Going-to-the-Sun highway in Glacier National Park and how I lost all fear of vertigo then and there. The first few summers at the cabin on Dale Hollow returned to me, how the forest or the lake smelled, then too that evening at 1401 Harley Dr. where I asked my father, a small child cuddling in his bed, what it was like to be someone else, if you are always just yourself or was yourself really yours anyway … field trips with Maggie, the only dog I’ve ever loved, father in his red fedora while I hopped from rock to rock or remained silent and sullen because nothing is more evil than a child … those other evenings when pops would let me stay up an hour past bedtime because Star Trek: The Next Generation was on and we watched it together and to this day I still can’t differentiate between my father and Picard … vaguely, so vaguely, I recalled that brief look we shared at his daughter’s, my sister’s, wedding, when she married a man who by all accounts loves her more than life, and we silently acknowledged that fact, we let her go … and finally, though nothing is ever as final as all that, I remembered then the nights I’d spent at 1401 out in those magical seven acres, staring at the stars, and even though dad was either asleep or far away, I knew the only reason I had the chance to spend my impressionable youth at the altar of the cosmos was due my father, who gave up a lucrative career in the petrochemical business because he loved his wife, because he wanted to raise his children honest and pure … and I thought, you did dad, you did … though I couldn’t find the words to tell him, not then, my head still full of Patagonia and the trail ahead, and even though I could reach out and touch him at that moment I couldn’t explain to him any of what I’ve just written … all those things none of us ever say, all those unwritten books, the great library of our species’ hidden thoughts, our silent ones, the mute, and all you ever have to do is just open up, just speak … maybe nothing’s perfect. Even a perfect moment ends in solipsism. If my own life is any indication. Or maybe it’s simpler than that too and I have a lot more to learn. Perhaps. With certainty I’ll assert what little I ‘have’ learned comes mostly from you, Francis Walter Stapor Jr., and for that you have my eternal gratitude and genuine admiration. 

Such reveries can not last, naturally, and mine were impeded by the rocks before us. Van sized boulders to pebbles you could lose in your pocket, the switch-backed final ascent to the mirador was covered in scree. After a brief hiatus to take it all in, snap a few photos, visually reconnoiter the path above, my first reaction was to bound toward the nearest boot-worthy boulder, climb it, then leap out into the air. I grew up rock-hopping you understand. Childish energy put to use on all those field trips I’d join father on. While sister and mom have dance, classical or modern, jazz or ballet, I have (apart from beer halls and honky tonks, but that’s another tale) not. What energies I have on that score long ago finding a proper outlet on mountain sides and riverbeds, hurling myself from one craggy ledge to another in fits of happy abandon. While I can sympathize with the sentiments of those who would find this sort of recreation fool-hardy at best, if not patently ridiculous at worst, I’ve never found it so myself. Somewhat of a natural at it, if you will. It could be the satyr in me, that minion of Bacchus. Or the genetic legacy of athletes in the old family tree. Maybe I’m just a fool. In any event I started rock hopping. The rest of the group grumbling up the trail. It was almost like I was the only one happy to be there, the work of the thin air and tall ground sapping any appreciation they could muster from that single space in time. Father and I got separated at this point, the distance between what we both were at the moment too difficult to overcome for the other. There was a lot of elevation yet to gain and I didn’t mind, not that I wanted to be first to the outlook, just that it was there and so was I. I was finally on the mountain. What else could matter? My last memory of father during this stretch he was taking a breather at the corner of a severe switch-back, leaning on his hiking poles, staring into the rocks.

The night before this hike I’d had my first chance to stare into the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. For those with the time or patience star-gazing is perhaps the most truly human activity one can pursue. Certainly one of the first. I wasn’t there, but I can’t help thinking that the first protohuman to conceive of death did so at night, looking into a cloudless sky dotted with the ghostpricks of those ageless balls of burning hydrogen. Before computers or central heating and air humanity’s life was defined by the rhythms of the cosmos, the stellar expanse acting as our first teacher in matters of soul and getting there. I’ve never been more at home than alone in the wild under a starry sky. Call me a dreamer, I won’t deny it. Say I’ve my head in the clouds? Bah! Push the clouds away! Give me the open air, an open sky. Nor, truth be told, am I alone. While not a common tendency many have shared it, and their names litter your history books. Not saying I belong accompanying, I did consider them that night looking at the star fields I, in my 30-odd years of finitude, had never seen before. I thought of Socrates, the tall-tale of him standing guard through most inclement weather with naught but a threadbare robe as defense, his mind thinking happily away in fairer climes. Or Nietzsche on his mountain, single-handedly undoing two millennia of papal drivel. Then too Cortez who if a bastard, and surely a bastard, must have possessed a courage unknown since Achilles. I thought of Franklin sunbathing in the nude, Sappho and her poets, Diogenes as Zen as any master from Japan. My mind wandered to a Paris I’ll never know, watching Mr. Miller do his thing while I, silently and unobserved, ordered another glass of bordeaux. From heroes then and inexplicably I considered the marauding Mongol hordes who conquered Eurasia in a fashion that still makes Russians blush, or the harmonious ways which, if not free of blood, the natives of America employed in their society. I thought of the peregrine falcon for good measure. Then mountain lions, polar bears, the great white which is the only creature I fear. A prayer for Tigger, my childhood cat, came to my lips and I sent it off into the wild Patagonian winds. Bitterly I thought of the promise of a United States which lasted a generation, at best. I then walked with Whitman down to the war, caring as much for a single blade of grass as any mutilated or made dead. I thought of places I’ve never been and likely will never see, though not for long. I thought, as I often do at such moments of fragility, of the few times I’ve felt mutual reciprocity in love with a woman I adore, and as I often do, lingered on that thought for a time. Then I recalled that night on a train from Rome to Paris when I, for the first time in my young life, actually knew what it was I was here to do; that I was a writer and always had been, and then, and painfully, the memory of the girl’s response beside me. My thoughts took me then to the humanism inherent in privation, hunger, lack or want and I communed with the world’s thirsty, the starving, the dead. I thought then that for each star within vision there corresponded a thought I could give it, or it I. I thought of my consciousness as a great enveloping field of thought pulsing outward and inward toward all the things I know and all those others I’ve yet to understand. I was then compelled to curse time and my own mortality, the ending which while far away is more certain than anything that lie between. Without it though, without that full-stop, what sense would any of this make, and I understood that - I understand that - but it doesn’t help … I asked the cosmos if understanding changes anything, really, in the end, and the great spread of reality told me no, not really, in the end. It then told me not to cry, if I still cried, for without me we aren’t complete, whole, you or anything else, so take comfort where you can, in the proof of you which in a way very true sense, in a very final sense, is the only proof of us. The cosmos was busy so it let me be, to meditate on its wisdom in solitude. And I did. I thought of the Earth, all we know of home. I then thought of light, which more than any other quality of existence most resembles our own. Carefully then I unspooled the light cone of my wisdom and watched the Earth shiver and crack, pushing its continental masses back toward a common cause, a singular point. Much like the physicists and their Big Bang I stopped when the parts were densest; I stopped at Pangea. There, upon the shores of Panthalassa, I comprehended the wisdom of the cosmos like a broken koan. Not only was I a part of the whole, but the whole was part of me. I was not a human being, a male, an American, a Texan (at the time), a writer and an iconoclast. No. I was, and am, a Pangean. We all are. It struck me then, like a serrated dagger to the scrotum, that part of my life work would entail convincing others of this truth. If a simple thought, and clearly, it isn’t well understood. Through the ages we’ve on record others who’ve asserted a similar refrain, now and again, before the herd or mob did them in. And I was forced to wonder what it would take to convince my brothers, my sisters, of this simple truth. For surely we are destroying the only Eden we will ever know through our industry and wars, our discrimination and exploitation of the singularly most wonderful object in the universe, Earth, our home. Until we all fully comprehend that we are not children of different tribes but children of our singular shared globe the species called human is headed for a fall. A defeat. A loss such as no story in your magical books have ever prepared you for; a reckoning unknown to the metaphysicists of yore. The fact is liberals can’t survive, conservatives can’t, christians or muslims or jews will die, capitalists and socialists and communists will burn, buddhists and pagans will wither and fade away, white or black or straight or queer - yes! All that exist now as specific tribes will fall. The only hope is Pangea. In understanding our heritage, that we are all, to a man, woman, or child, Pangeans. 

I was the first of our group to reach the mirador. The Torres del Paine cutting sky from land, their three fangs like an upturned jawbone from some ancient species what made the dinosaurs tremble. Turquoise tarn below gleaming with an ethereal opacity. Snowbanks stubbornly clinging to crevasses hiding from the cryptic winds. Cold as it was I took off my jacket, my scarf. Found a large ice-carved stone and settled into its sloping face. Watched mutely as one by one my hiking companions trickled in. Much as possible emptied my mind. Caressed the frigid rock that held me, communing with its ossified essence, and through that sleepy awareness the mountain about. By the time father made the top we’d reached what understanding we could, the Cerro Paine and I, so I broke reverie and went to greet him. A meeting of joy since, exhausted as he undoubtedly was, I’d rarely seen him happier. The geologist in him and the little boy. He took some pictures, then we posed for a couple group shots. Ten or twenty minutes spent just being there. Then it was time to depart. Truly, nothing proves the primacy of the journey opposed the destination like hiking a mountain. Truly.

While not the first to leave the mirador I was certainly the first to return to camp. Obnoxiously tired and fed up with the world, I got some cerveza and settled into a lawn chair. I was told later that they had to send a van to pick up the majority of our party, who weren’t able to make the return hike before nightfall. For my part I went down the mountain like a cheetah, or gazelle running from one. Gravity got me, I guess, or something stronger. I left my dad to fend for himself. Didn’t feel bad about it either. There are circles everywhere, and it does no good to deny them. A son must leave his father, now and again, and at a certain point forever. But I knew somehow that death and dad wouldn’t be doing that last dance on the Cerro Paine and took comfort where I could find it. Sipping my beer, resting my legs, knees and back, musing on the perfection one could find in a leaf or star but never within, I thought again of Pangea. How the world really didn’t care what became of us. How so many of us didn’t either. And I couldn’t suppress the smile that came to my lips. A smile born of knowing with the same certitude you’ll find in a theist, that Patagonia would be there regardless. That, provided we failed, humanity, in securing our future, there would be eyes yet who would glance upon that majestic countryside. That no matter what we frail, selfish little mammals did to it, Patagonia would endure. Or maybe I’m closer to the theist than I’d care to admit. Maybe I just wish it, and so find certainty in myself. Or maybe I’m just rambling now, and should leave you, dear reader, to find a Patagonia of your own …

C. R. Stapor

04/03/2014

Dale Hollow

SUPER
(C. R. Stapor, 2002: Ink on a piece of notepaper) 

Sometimes I feel like this. Completely worn down, beaten and bruised, set on fire, struggling under the weight of it all. Kal-El doesn’t normally have that problem, so I thought it a nice juxtaposition. Apart from being my favorite superhero, the Man of Steel is also a role model: a signal of, if nothing else, perseverance in the face of adversity. Hope, i guess. It’s a self-renewing commodity, one eternal as we humans perceive it. It’s a nice thought. Hope. 


C. R. Stapor
Parkridge
Knoxville, TN
03/09/2014

SUPER
(C. R. Stapor, 2002: Ink on a piece of notepaper)

Sometimes I feel like this. Completely worn down, beaten and bruised, set on fire, struggling under the weight of it all. Kal-El doesn’t normally have that problem, so I thought it a nice juxtaposition. Apart from being my favorite superhero, the Man of Steel is also a role model: a signal of, if nothing else, perseverance in the face of adversity. Hope, i guess. It’s a self-renewing commodity, one eternal as we humans perceive it. It’s a nice thought. Hope.


C. R. Stapor
Parkridge
Knoxville, TN
03/09/2014

Snow. Here, in Knoxville. More than I’ve seen in years. Sort that piles up through the night. That makes kids, children, school children ecstatic. An event to be sure and growing rarer they say, the climatologists, here in these southeastern climes (not trying to be political here folks, because there isn’t anything political about it: climate change is real and it will ruin you children’s, your grandchildren’s lives). Just saying it’s beautiful, the snow. Mother Nature raining a bit of old fashioned purity on us, everyone. Doesn’t matter how rich, poor, famous, or inconspicuous you are - the snow treats us all the same. This is a lesson written in beauty. We are doing horrible things to this Earth and they will affect us all. The snow is here to remind us of that, that there is some beauty to be gleamed, some joy, from this shared existence. Love it while you got it folks. Love it right now. 

Wood Elf War Porn

"The inside of outside no one has found." - Jeff Tweedy

Something has happened to us. To our characters specifically, and through them our culture as audience, since we are what we make believe. This change is keeping with a larger trend so it shouldn’t shock or amaze though it does shock and amaze if you let it. Let it. Here, with me.

Characters are the backbone of stories. We are a story based species. Something is happening to us.

As a boy I played role playing games. Dungeons & Dragons, Rifts, Vampire: The Masquerade. I’m here speaking of games one plays with pens and paper, dice and imagination, a community of like-minded enthusiasts. At the heart of these games, what more than anything defined them, was the character you chose to play. You could be a warrior if that suited you, an introspective priest, a cunning thief, a girl and her bow. Tons of options. Once the decision was made you assigned random values to different skills this character would possess that informed how you (the real you and the you of the game) could interact with the fictional game-world. The point here is that each character was unique, had different strengths and weaknesses. No one could do everything and in just about every situation you could lose it all on a shitty roll of the die. Somewhat like real life. And I was watching a movie recently, one very closely aligned with this world of make-believe I’ve just cursorily described, that gave the lie to all that. That robbed us of any chance of loss.

I’ve yet to meet someone who adores death, losing, the poverty of events that comes with failure; and our popular culture seems to agree, driven by characters who strive to defeat death or wish it away. A narrative thrust as old as Gilgamesh, if not language itself. I wonder if this is good for us though? If this isn’t the territory of religion-systems (Christianity, Islam, etc.) and if it is why our popular culture feels the need to encroach on that map; or put another way, perhaps our popular culture is vying to be a new religion-system (it’s happened before; Scientology what?) but if that’s so what fills the void left by what once was a popular culture?

Or are religions the original popular culture? The kernel of truth in them both distraction - pure and simple - from the hard truths of existence.

The film in question was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. In this film a character who wasn’t even mentioned in the source material conducts a series of acro-martial feats that boggle the mind; that can’t even be said to remind one of a video game because at least the developers of video games know that without loss, challenge, obstacles to overcome their players would dwindle: that finally remind one of pornography. Legolas, the wood elf warrior of the Fellowship, follows the barrel-bound dwarves down a quickly flowing stream all the while slaying every orc in his way with a grace any ballerina would covetously desire. In this frantic exchange, battling enemies intent on annihilation, he lands every assault and evades every blow. He is a god among mortals whose every whim manifests itself in a roll of 20, every time (the RPGs mentioned earlier utilize 20 sided die to determine the effectiveness of an attack; 1 being a total failure and 20 being a total success). After viewing this shameless spectacle one is forced to wonder why all the fuss over Sauron? Why didn’t the wise elders at Rivendell simply send Legolas to the Black Gate and have him obliterate everything in Mordor? 

It wasn’t just that the story was changed to accommodate this revision, but that the character was too. The Legolas of The Hobbit is not the Legolas of The Lord of the Rings. He has been sped up, extended, made a cipher against the phobias we all share - a dashing emblem of power and success with no possibility of defeat. And while a filmmaker is entitled to represent their vision, one wonders what the point of this vision is? What does an audience gain by knowing the hero can’t lose? Perhaps this is simply a fundamental of popular culture, a necessary piece of what makes such culture widely appealing. Perhaps it is no coincidence that while the real-world lives of the audience become grimmer and dirtier, harder and more uncertain (the Great Recession, chronic joblessness, income inequality, larger degrees of automation in the workplace, the thinning of the spoils that globalization has created, political systems that can not or chose not to represent their constituents) the lives of those we idolize or allow entertain us become more potent, certain, winning, deathless.

Recall the BBC’s Sherlock, where the super-sleuth outwits the Reichenbach Falls, returning from an apparent death in time to deliver a speech at John Watson’s wedding in a series that is truly more fan fiction than adaptation. Or boldly remember Star Trek Into Darkness where Kirk isn’t dead more than ten minutes before being brought back to life to eulogize those not as lucky (the original version of this particular escapade had the decency to leave Spock dead the duration it took them to make another film). Doctor Who has to die before he can keep adventuring and Obi Wan only grew stronger after Vader cut him down. Gilgamesh sought to conquer death but failed. We moderns, with our tales, are clearly more clever. And here we see that death has no meaning in our stories, or one we are wiping away through our popular culture. It is true that many of these stories are built upon narrative foundations with centuries of history and culturally significant parentage such as religious tales; so again, are we simply conflating two allegedly different systems? Or is our current popular culture our one true religion? 

Do we need mention comic books?

We do to discount them from this discourse, at least initially. Comic books are cyclical things (DC’s New 52, Marvel Now, etc.), reiterated with the generations to continually find purchase in the imaginations of the new young eager for their mythic exploits. A myth can not die and even a child, in some way, understands this. They are communal things, comic books, with different authors and artists bringing their characters to life. No matter how great a work Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns is (and it is a very great work indeed) it is not the definitive version of Batman in the way that The Hobbit (speaking here of Tolkien’s text) is the definitive word on Bilbo Baggins. Whether or not you prefer Curt Swanson’s barrel-chested Kal-El, Christopher Reeve’s charming Clark Kent or Frank Quietly’s monumental Man of Steel, they’re all Superman; neither erasing or taking anything away from the other. Oddly, in this day where being a geek is cool, and all things nerdy are trendy, it is almost as if the original source of this identity (comic books, for realz) aren’t even technically popular culture. Can a myth (a timeless aggregate of hopes and fears) truly be confined, or understood, in or as a popular culture the very nature of which is ever increasing change? Ever quicker access to information and content, ever shifting codes of what’s ‘in’ or ‘out’? 

Everything is speeding up. We are quite clearly now equipped to provide empirical evidence of the dromological pollution Paul Virilio wrote of in Open Sky. A pollution of overexposed duration, of time itself (don’t forget that Jackson is shooting his hobbit trilogy at an unprecedented 48 frames per second). Of how we perceive the material world and through perceiving are defined by it, by the shared process of perception. At the bar the other day someone was amazed I didn’t pull a smartphone out of my pocket whilst taking down their number, or, they thought that for one second before getting an email notification, a text message, a news update from The New York Times. Nor was this interruption of their consciousness considered rude by any of their friends. For my part I didn’t mention it, remembering that the root of dromological comes from the Greek; dromos meaning to race. We are all in a race, and as any runner will tell you, it isn’t the competition you watch but the road. 

There was a time when only the runner ran. Now the road is running right alongside us. 

So things are speeding up, everything, even our characters. For an allegedly immortal species the difference in ability of the Legolas of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is hard to map with that warrior’s prowess in The Fellowship of the Ring. He is a quicker creature. Nimbler. So much faster than he seemed before. Rushing past the normal consequences of morally infused heroics, the chance something might go wrong, into an idealized realm of perfect action closer to Plato than Patton. And he isn’t running alone. 

They say speed kills. They used to. It is clear now that we, as a culture, are using speed to devalue death or forget it. We’re damming the river Lethe to power our networks and gadgets. Because somehow we’ve come to the conclusion that if we go fast enough, if we throttle-up, we can outrace the finish line. We can rush through a forest of villains without fear of reprisal, without breaking a sweat. 

Which is clearly absurd. Who rolls 20s all the time? What has happened to us? What is a hero without odds to overcome? What meaning exists without skin in the game?

The ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a popular culture is not the same as the ‘in’ or ‘out’ of death. And yet we are seeing a blurring of that distinction, and not simply along narratological lines, but in our perception of time as well … we’re seeing a gambit, a hustle, an all-in bet that through our new technologies (and the newer, faster, shinier characters that symbolize them) we can find what generations before us strived vainly to acquire; the inside of outside: the cure for death. The immortality riddle might be the ultimate conundrum, one we’ve never been closer to solving. Or that’s the way it would appear to the techno-futurists and their fans. To the story tellers of the masses who need preach the good word with ever more bombastic productions. I’m not saying it’s Kool-Aid, not saying it isn’t tempting to consider, but what of the water still in the tap? What of the original wellspring of life so many seem happy to leave behind? 

If our popular culture is being polluted by a death-to-death drive (as, indeed, most all religions always’ve been) perhaps this pollution is mutating the medium as well. Perhaps we are no longer content to allow our heroes to have lives and all the messy consequences that come with. Perhaps we are simply trying to inject the wisdom of myth (cyclical, eternal) into our current stories. Are we seeing the comicification of all genres? Have the geeks finally won?

I don’t know. But if they have, we can be certain of one thing; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug won’t be the last bit of wood elf war porn to hit the cineplexes. Though it just might be the start of a new genre altogether. 

 

Goodbyes.