And so the brain offers up a face from the tarot deck of childhood, the card blasted with the grit of too much to remember already, the color scrubbed away and with it all real feeling. I miss it—the flush of live flesh, the razor of relationship slicing always. I want the pain. I want the air, all moss and eucalyptus. I want the ridiculous neon of the bougainvillea pouring over the sun warm wall where I stood, arms open, as if waiting to catch the flowers gushing toward me. I miss my eyes that saw the scope of the ocean in everything. Longing is remembering. Now, those long hours of my early years are nothing but compressed monochrome, the life lived reduced from flux to line, the self forced into metaphor, a cartoon girl dancing under the blue push of memory. That boy whose hand she once held—who was he? He's disintegrating into threads of ink, an abstraction, a stranger, their touch nothing more now than ions pulsing through the brain.
You need to express your anger, he said.
What anger? I asked.
Your anger, he said.
I have none, I said, having already shoved myself as far into the hole as it was possible to go and return again identity intact. I found nothing there but milky sediment, the glass of grief ground to gray pulp. Beyond that—nothing.
It's there, he said, sure as ever, walking toward me with something hidden in his folded hands, something he will give, something he will release.
Trust pushes me back in again. I want to return with a trophy to show him, something bloody and squealing. I'm deep, farther than I've ever been, and there's nothing now but slippery folds of white and the leaden grid where something whole once stood. A home? A monument to the disaster? It's impossible to tell now.
There's no air here. There's nothing but white, and it's not pure. It's the white where a memory was once, where now nothing healthy will grow. I can just make out his face so far away, hovering at the surface, his hands spreading like a stain. Is he reaching? Is he waiting?
I don't know. I won't make it back this time, and so I send him a song, a prayer to what is not recoverable. White of absence. White of damage. White of bones being broken over and over again.
I awoke one morning to find everyone gone, the house turned to ice.
I lay in my long little bed listening to the walls tighten within themselves, sealing us in against the world outside, the mercury cracking the neck of glass.
You can’t live here, I said to myself, stunned by the size of the words I’d let into the empty room. With no one to listen but the self language becomes strange. The words work their way through the air and then drift off course, lost.
You can’t stay here, I said aloud again. You have to get out. There was no one to hear me but my body itself—and so the words looped back into the brain that made them in the first place and that was exactly how the riot began.
Below zero, the heart panics before the task of life.
The moon is pressing its belly against the roof of ice. I stare at the shadows of its treeless mountains, its riverless valleys. It lowers its pulleys and ropes—as if offering rescue—and I would reach—
I would reach—
but at thirty below, flesh begins its rupture, and with that the poems of things—avocado, stroke, lemon, bolt, artichoke, anvil, olive, nail, lime—tomato, knuckle, ruby, tick, rose, blood, almond, soil, moan—push, crush, dish, lava, cantaloupe, thumb, cry, dog, stone—
My voice pushes toward speech—but no words now, just snow.
At fifty below, the planet reconsiders its allegiances. It flirts with the darker stars, the ones conducting orbits beyond this galaxy.
And it was in just such forsaking the evidence of my having been there—of my having been a part of anything—completely disappeared.
How to assemble reality:
First the I must be found.
Each dimension resembles the next—so much so there are the imposter layers one must pass through before the real, which is exactly where things become variable, malleable, odd.
Ceci n’est pas une squirrel.
This paper squirrel says: kiss my faux squirrel ass you nut fucker!
The squirrel beyond the realm of these instructions for a squirrel may say something utterly different such as:
hesitation is the essence of squirrelness—hence this tire-proof suit designed by a subgod of the uber-squirrel, the almighty, chastising, buck-toothed acrobat.
The father survived the winter of his tenth year, he said, on little more than squirrel stew. They were fun to hunt, he said, because they never ever believed they were prey—not even when they were in the crosshairs, not even when they were blown apart, strung and slung and gutted and skinned. For the squirrel, being is a game, the creator—a player.
Ceci n’est pas une squirrel.
You’re right said the poet. This is nothing more than a squirrel cartoon. God is the animator of us all. There’s no animal. There’s no paper. There’s no ink. Only gesture, nothing more. A zen gesture the narrator pinned under the bullet of the word squirrel.
Why did the narrator see an animal and not the truth?
Narrator: OK, I’ll tell you the truth: This is not a squirrel. This is a grenade and in the ontogeny of its dismantling it is briefly recapitulating the phylogeny it has been designed to destroy. Now put that in your pipe and smoke it!
I: It’s such a lonely place, these outer dimensions of the real, these ice fields emptied of form and hue.
Poet: Surrender, narrator! Abandon idea. Surrender to a dream of body heat, to the clutch of a coat slick with grease, to musk and loam and claw, to the shit-thrust of being.
The stars failed in some way that could never be reasonably explained, loosing the self into inter-dimensional folds, launching a free fall through a blue some had claimed was now permanently broken. The space once called sky could no longer be trusted. Not for flying. Not for breathing. Not for anything.
There is a voice, warm and hopeful, curling around the agony, licking the questions over and over. How could this have happened? You claim what was once source is now the site of injury, the voice—male—says. How is that possible? His tongue is nudging the raw cells, his kiss prodding loose teeth from the battered mouth—a process, he explains, that is called helping.
Somewhere in the indigo infinity—other voices—fragments of testimony: something about feathers, something about claws, something about a web of knots in the gut, something about love—or was it fucking?—there’s no story there, no line to follow, no buttery God-light leading the way to what could pass for a home.
Tell, he says, tell me why—and suddenly there is only the audible hollow of his listening.
There was an earth once, I found myself saying, not quite believing my own words, my mind flying low over the memory, over a plain radiant with snow. There was an earth and there were two women running through the whiteness below. They staggered through the drifts—turning as they struggled to look over their shoulders—their fear shining back into me, my body a bright blur in their eyes as my shadow closed over them.
Those women, that earth—their faces were a blank page upon which the last thing written was my disintegrating image. In the moment of the ending there was just that: something like a bird etched in the living eye.
This work was published in the catalog for Memory [Memory], an art installation by Noah Saterstrom. Tama Baldwin composed the writings in response to each corresponding image. The imagery is derived from interviews about early childhood memories.
Tama Baldwin’s poems and essays have appeared recently in journals such as Gulf Coast, Poetry International, Best New Poets 2005, River Teeth, and Heliotrope. A chapbook of her poems, Garden, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2006.
Noah Saterstrom has recently exhibited paintings and drawings in New Orleans, Louisiana and Glasgow, Scotland. Memory[Memory], an installation of screenprinted aluminum panels, opened in 2006 at a homeless shelter in Glasgow. www.noahsaterstrom.com