The underlying local context of much of my aesthetic has always been landscape. I grew up mostly in Napa, California, at the lower edge of a west-facing mountain. Living on the coastal verge, against a parallel north-south ridge of mountains has always had a metaphysical dimension for me, "facing West" towards the Pacific, the western extent so important to American consciousness, not just of growth and possibility, but of terminus and boundary. Though it's seldom meant as much to me in my work, psychologically I always had "relied" on it for a sense of stable settledness, of positioned-in-place. Charles Olson wrote an essay, Proprioception, conceived around this idea of knowing where one is, its history, its context, its composition (in all senses). I've always believed that a proper respect for and consciousness of the ground under your feet makes the best sense. If you have no attachment to earth, to your region, your place in the world, you're literally lost, set adrift in time and place, with no home. And home is where the heart is, where we choose to be, or long to return to. My parents, coming west during the war years, were literally exiles, part of a vast diaspora of displaced persons set adrift during the Depression years, many of whom found work in the busy war materiel factories of the West Coast, and stayed.
A panoramic photograph taken from a northern point overlooking the San Francisco Bay
How many times had I reprised this view, of sailboats and billowing cumulous plying within a barely contained plain of undulating surface? Thousands, no doubt. Reading, as Robert Duncan somewhere points out, is a "made place"--really for him a magical ensconcement defined by the lulling music of its syllables, weaving a delicate web of associations, apprehensions and shapes, a spell-binding process that leaves an indelible imprint in our boundless deep cognitive memory of experience. Again, my interest here was to make a sequence of language that was static, or barely moving. Reading implies a certain pace, a given clip. Reading is a narrational flow, but how to deny its relentless drive, its pointless getting from point to point. Time underlies everything we do, but it is also an illusion, a system by which we "measure" the separation of displacement, the dance of objects in the universal play of matter. Could writing posit a passivity that might reveal the isolation of stopped time?
But the narrative was also a kind of metaphysical protest against the writer's block that at every point seemed to deny my entry. If writing was a room, I needed to be in that room as much as possible, no matter how claustrophobic it might seem. But once inside it, I found it just the passage to an infinite series of other rooms. Consciousness, after all, is nothing more than the awareness of containment. We are what we're in, where we find ourselves. Birth is, as Plato said, a kind of waking up, but from what? The miracle of animation. If we're asleep before we wake, then what is sleep? If we wake from dream, or wake to dream?
Disembodiment means death, and the residue to a writer's life must contain all that it can, lest he leave but a shadow of his being behind. Each of us is a variation upon a genetic template, but with the felt presence of unique mortality; every individual feels his mortal limit, separated from a whole. Religion seeks to subsume us into a fantasized oneness that comforts us in our isolation; but we know it's a grand illusion. Our death will not release us into a gathered family of members. We bud off like flowers from the tree of life, never to return. We release our descendants into an unknown, with no assurance that anything we have passed on to them will survive. Plato believed that souls were immortal, that they passed from body to body, living successive lives through time, forgetting and relearning everything through repeated deaths and births. We know that his explanation of inheritance was wrong, because he knew nothing of DNA, or genetics, or the double helix. But there is a mysterious consciousness which coheres in the sense of being which each one of us perceives. Self-consciousness is that part of us which feels pain, and pleasure, and the inevitability of our own mortality. We know that we are. It's a terrible knowledge.
The piece below has always made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Sex is weird. Like most people, I was never able to understand how my parents mated. I could never put them into the romantic scenario in which people of the opposite sex desire each other, and complete that mutual attraction through sexual performance. It was as if one lived inside love's body, as a stranger, and lived through the feelings and intentions of another. By the same token, the notion of the possession of another through physical intimacy, or the submission to a passion whose strangeness and intensity exceeded one's rational investment in the idea of love--it was all off the chart. I never understood how people could approach sex interaction as either a recreation, or as some casual, momentary commitment. Because it seemed so much larger than that, in the imagination. Were people just animals, moved by temporary impulses?
George Orwell once lamented how demanding human sexuality was, and how much more sensible it would all be if humans, like dogs or birds or insects, might mount each other for a few agonistic moments, and then be done with the whole affair, free to pursue their separate priorities. The installation of the complicated business of romantic love, and the customs and duties which had been constructed around it, seemed telescoped into a crazy short-hand of the difficult dilemma of interaction between the sexes. Americans were free, but that freedom could be terrifying. One might chafe at the prospect of an arranged marriage, but how much more confusing the challenge of locating someone, anyone, out of the myriad plenty, with whom to establish the highest form of intimacy?
Poets rarely write about sex directly, which may be the courtly courtesy of official modesty, or because it's difficult to evoke in an interesting way through description. I suppose I imagined an image of carnival, or participants dancing anonymously from partner to partner, only to discover their true selves in the privacy of the boudoir. Seduction is both about disguise, and disclosure, deception, and nakedness, power and surrender.
As a child, I had been given a gift by a parent's friend, of an oriental box, the kind that opens only through a series of secret levers built seamlessly into the design. The sense of secrecy, of something hidden, preserved through time, inside a carefully constructed enclosure, was like a riddle. What might anyone think to hide for posterity? And why hide it in the first place? Historians and archeologists hunt for clues to the cultures of the past; the residue of a people's daily life, their deities, their diets, their habits, which lie hidden in the relics of deposition. These clues are like secrets to a code. Writings can have the same quality, of something withheld, either by intention or oversight. What we may think to conceal may not be the crucial element in our personal code. So writing a poem, or group of poems, can become an act of will, bequeathed to the future.
As I mentioned before, Wittgenstein's Door--the door--was a possible passage, symbolizing all the implications of an escape, or an entree, an access to a place, designed on purpose, as an emancipation from the husk on an earlier phase. But there was also a split, a separation from self that had always existed, between the belief in the possibility of an artistic enterprise, and the hidden self, plotting to conjure the pretext. Ghost-writing, oddly, had always seemed an attractive role, like the puppet-master behind the puppet, fashioning, from behind a projection, the public face. The man behind the green curtain, animating the Wizard of Oz with levers and buttons, artificial lightning and thunder, all bluster and bluff.
So I posited a connection between these two segments of my personality, one in which the journey, from fragmented selfhood to integrated whole-ness, might occur, though like Theseus in the labyrinth, fraught with dangers and challenges, the most baffling of which might be that the Minotaur would turn out to be myself--and the ensuing confrontation result not in a victorious transformation, but a complete effacement of self. As I've said before, matter can't hold or preserve the essence of our intention--everything passes away, dissolves, decays, decomposes, disappears. The sense of a meaningful existence is atomized. We are temporary projections with no ulterior attainment. The only purpose we may have is that which we give to--make for--ourselves, reflexive, circular, encoded.