The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2015

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JUL-AUG 2015 Issue

Chest Full Of Cantlets

Parzival talked to God every hour, the tone becoming less and less formal. Eventually, all prayers sound childish. He named an imaginary creature Baby Jesus to push around in a wheelbarrow half the day. He thought of this as a kind of worship as well as a little game. In fields he beat down thistles with a stick. He made armies of white and yellow flowers advance toward each other. Weary from deciding the fates of small plant specimens, he cut little figures out of paper and burned them in a random order, inventing appalling reasons for each one’s demise after the fact. He built model villages and watched them burn to ash. When the neighbors’ house caught fire one evening, he goaded the flames eagerly, wishing they would shoot up higher and higher into the night. Soon, the thought of his own destruction fascinated him. There were so many possible ways for it to happen. He saw his head cut off with an enemy’s sword or his internal organs run through with spears. After a few days of suicidal rapture, he realized that lingering deaths could occupy him for a much longer time, the details becoming more grotesque every time he went through a particular scenario. One day his grandfather told him death is already sitting on the tongue of a man about to die and so when his cousin died some weeks later, he rushed into the room and pried open the corpse’s jaws, looking into the mouth for a small black figure.

Hildegard speaks: I see between words the resplendent force that holds them together. It overwhelms me. The love I have sought is bound up in something more than specific memory. It goes back beyond the old books past the words men speak of the life that rushes through thoughts. Fragmented gossip of the high city is caught in the net my hand makes when it writes the words on parchments. The letters look like tiny fish. The chatter of a love that reaches from the outermost regions of human imagination to the innermost center of being touches me through all the centuries, through all the emptiness of the ether. And nothing can explain this penetration of my heart.

The forest is as wet as a crimson sponge. Things move the thicket. The bracken scratches. A black-shouldered kite perched high whistles the wails of wounded prey. Soft fungal patches grow furry on the teeth of an open mouth. Its unspoken words rot there in the damp and nourish the soil. So many caves are hidden in the long night, waiting for the daylight that will never reach them. Black water runs through them undisturbed. What grows in this cavernous netherworld no one knows. No material infiltrates from the external world. But it holds the shapes of memories: tiny worm-like entities that squirm in an opium of private moisture. The serious forest turns its greens to blacks. It can never forgive itself. It speaks only in sympathetic songs beyond the range of hearing. It speaks by imitating whatever comes through it, but when nothing comes through it, it imitates itself. Spiders scamper over skulls, coming out of eye holes and through the slats of the ribcage. Moss glistens. The urgent bleating of soldiers dribbles back out as a dank syrup through spaces where there once were ears. Such empty heads bleed the magic jelly. The trace outline of a white horse can be felt by those versed in lore, but no horse’s molecules were ever caught in this wet night of tangled liana. The residues of time are a compost men lack tools to measure. They are spread over stories that uncoil on asphalt and concrete. What is more deceptive than the body? If finally the forest does not win, we still lose.

A person filled with bright white houses. Tall and narrow. Unclouded. Animating the lifeless objects around him. The charms a Sunday has for a workman. A two-penny roll. Even the choirboys seemed to him beings from a higher plane. Marking the bread and butter with a cross. He dreamed of the old woman who had rented a room in the next house. After her mysterious death she appeared every night as he slept. When he woke in a sweat in the dead of night, he could see her sitting in the darkest corner of his room. He felt her staring at him. He felt more attached to the sign than the thing itself. In glowing terms. He found fault with the shape of his outspread fingers. Rabbit skins treated with nitric acid were hung on the walls. Cutting a hole in the ice each night caused his hands to crack open. He looked a long time at the smeared blood on the towels.

Hildegard speaks: I have never fallen pray to ecstasy—wide awake at midday—a light brighter than a cloud that carries the sun inside it—edges impossible to determine—my words carry its reflection on the glaze of a calm lake—attempts at grasping largeness—chafing against the idea of internal completeness—tiny characters jumbled in the belly of a dwarf with a purple mantle—indigestible—Volmar’s translations were said to have caused several premature births—one cannot follow step by step the letter of my meaning—the outward flourishes—to wallow in poverty and obscurity—an alien—an outsider—a fabricator of comical cold showers—inserting these extra pages here seem to most readers to be a prank—an abandoned character tries to express his moods and modes—my text therefore is strenuous—the possibility of a second world colliding with this one—I saw it as the cloud that sheds light—Volmar saw it as a collection of ruins that leaves the reader helpless—nightmares that fall like lacy curtains—he put his style on trial—but no one came—something lost—something gained—the dog often arrived too late—leaving his narrator with only time to kill—what emerges then is a network of failed connections—a labyrinth of digressions engulfing more digressions—the story is secondary, dear reader—it is the wandering, the meandering motion of our collaboration that matters—mirror within mirror, we smash through the boundaries of sentimental prose—I become the wax double, the killer of angels—I pull you back into the shudder of my abyss—I will not let you sleep—dream only in a too hard bed—each swish of the broom or swipe of the cloth disrupts the tale—Volmar’s footnotes correspond to nothing inside my text—my irenic menstruation recurs in the phases of an old wounded moon—why have we learned to find happiness in limitation—we pave the road to hell and heaven at the exact same time—only to find that both occupy the same space within us—and I, after all, have fallen from that very moon

Whenever she makes contact with the world, she is standing in the dark. This time with a biscuit in her hand. The screen needs to be replaced. No ocean waves or lovely nymphs in that courtyard. Parts of it are not as bright as they once were. Butter and honey drip from between two of her fingers. This intimate linkage pivots. These old women are always reading Alice in Wonderland. Repeated acts of grinning cats. The bottom of her nightgown always invisible below the bottom edge of the mirror. The “E” and the “K” keys are sticky. She doesn’t know any of these people. Friends are no longer people. How far away is Constantinople? Why must it be a particular book? The premise is always an imagined relationship. Anyway. There is another shore you know upon the other side. What is the standard length for a space bar? She wonders how to catch the sky in a net. Her computer seems to do this on a regular basis. But she just wants the blue. Crumbs obscure some of the bold brush strokes baked onto the dish. Always to build on what has come before, but only on what has been fully dismantled. The ghost of the biscuit. The stickiness. The thousands of friends that don’t make up for the loss of one. The focalizing agent is gone. She answers all of their questions with “tomorrow.” How dare she think only in their foreign language. This textual residue takes flight. The feather that floats on the currents of a river. Perhaps this scene could have taken place in a butcher shop. A site saturated with sausages and signifiers. This father’s land where the mothers whisper in their children’s ears every night. But no, she is still in the dark in front of her computer in some ways inside her computer. The absence of location provides her with the sense that national parameters don’t really exist, at least not as intensely when there are no borders. Only the blue.

Mold stunk in crevices that ran from floor to ceiling: walls scribbled on by time itself. Parzival would not be able to touch them. He felt relieved, sat at his desk and strove to ignore the pungent tang that thwarted his breathing. Long lost was his book of diagrams; stolen, he was certain, by the same fiend that had written in an ancient scarlet language over his contemporary grayish scrawl. The night the book vanished, he dreamed of a circus clown with both legs sawn off at the knee, hobbling about on his stumps across the fairgrounds, laughing and clutching the leather-bound tome to his chest, the last half-meter of his cape dragging behind him through mud puddles. Now, in this putrid palatial ruin, Parzival had set up his desk and chair in the grand ballroom, beneath rotten velvet draperies that hung in tatters over the speckled gray glass panes. But Parzival’s thoughts were concentrated on the shiny ticking object in front of him as he sat down, the magnificent timepiece he had purchased and repaired to working order. No longer would he tell time by observing the opening and closing of the elaborate blooms he could see through the window onto the garden. The clock, created by A. Nikolaus Rappelpoff in 1647, was procured through a network of antique collectors who, for the right price, could make unavailable objects of great value disappear from their rightful owners and reappear in the hands of secret collectors. It had taken Parzival months to understand and repair the clock. On top of a carved ebony stand rests an ornate brass cage with the clock face on one side, with hour and minute hands that pass over exquisite painted glyphs representing the twelve houses of the zodiac. Many hundred words Parzival cannot translate are etched on an inner circle close to the center of the face, spokes from an unknown alphabet radiating out from the central hub. There are no numerals inscribed anywhere. On the right side of the cage is a door that opens to reveal the power source that drives the escapement. Granite balls are released at regular intervals and spiral down an inclined ramp along a central brass column. The gravitational force produced causes the cage to rotate and provides the constant controlled movement of the wheels and pinions that turn the clock hands. On top of the cage above the clock face are three molded bronze figures. The central figure is nude, his head hanging forward, long hair covering his face, his hands bound behind him around a tree trunk with a spherical bell at the top surrounded by lush leafy branches, sagging down with the weight of enormous golden pears. His shield and armor lie at his feet. The tree is an extension of the column in the cage mechanism. At the hour, the bell chimes and the two smaller robed figures standing on either side of their captive raise cat-o-nine tails made of hair-like bronze strands and strike the exposed chest of the bound figure. The figure’s broad chest has been discolored by the hourly beatings. To keep the mechanism in motion, the granite balls must be returned to the top of the magazine once a day. Parzival sat in front of the clock for hours at a time, listening to the sound of the balls dropping and rolling, the teethed wheels clicking as they turned. Some of the balls he had fashioned himself with painstaking precision, since the clock did not arrive with enough to fill the magazine completely at the end of each day. And though he understood everything about the clock’s mechanism, in the late morning and in the hours before midnight, Parzival enjoyed brief moments during which he felt the clock was somehow alive, that the mechanical flagellation of the captive knight was not a mere reanimation, but a living reproduction of what was happening inside him.

A passing bird’s wing deflects sunlight into a dark room.

A spot on the wall is a point of departure for a battle scene, a landscape, a monster, or an apparition.

Maybe there is always less present than we realize.

Dancing on the edge of vacancy, one color is always striving to break through the others.

When a book starts to look like a bible, he tosses it into a ditch.

It is always difficult to discern the absurdity of life without turning against it.

He feels an earthquake so well-behaved it moves the furniture around intending to put things in order.

A shadow is a lighting device that enables the spectators to watch a murder without seeing it.

Having eliminated finally all objects from the canvas, he could begin.

Rain comes with unfathomable patterns.

Spin a cocoon and time will tell what comes out of it, a butterfly or a maggot.

To dream without a fishnet or a wish.

Songbirds nestle in the muzzles of dormant canons.

A sparrow flies toward collision with its identical twin in a gold-framed mirror. Frightened by the people in the room, it seeks escape, mistaking the mirror for the open window through which it has entered. Between the mirror and the open window is a circular painting of two toddler’s heads intertwined with stuffed birds, skeletons, and flying machines, the vibrant colors distorted by a careless coat of varnish over the paint. On the marble table top below the painting, pink, green, and blue sherbets melt in glasses on a lacquer tray. The fresh-cut roses from the garden wilt painfully in dainty Meissen vases. Women sit on chairs and sofas wearing elegant dresses and perfumes smuggled from Paris, Rome, and Madrid, their gloved hands swishing spread fans back and forth as if they cannot bear the triple beats of the waltzes playing in the next room, as if the only sound they hear is the very sound they are trying to mask with their finery.

In a rage, Parzival smashed his precious clock against the marble floor, the stone balls shooting off in every direction, coming to rest, finally, in the cracks between large tiles. He left the crushed hull and ruined metallic innards where they lay and went up the grand staircase to set up his easel in the second floor library. The books on the shelves, full of wormholes and darkened by molds and fungi, he did not touch. He did not peruse them, fondle them, tap their broken spines or sniff their spotted pages. He left them pressing their scarred covers against each other. One day they would return to dust: slipping in silence from unread to unreadable. Parzival began painting old coxcombs, gnarled men past their prime with youthful aims and no means of reaching them. He borrowed single features collected from the poorly executed copies of ancient paintings hanging around him between bookshelves. He created much expression in the eyebrows of his subjects, which induced him to pay more attention to the ambrosial locks of their hair. He made these fops into heroes that appeared as bright devouring flames against the prevailing gray melancholy, refusing to imitate this crying out under the teeth of vipers, the very whining and weeping with which a poet engages. While victim to the violence of time, must a god shriek when he unveils the future? As day broke, Parzival fell into fitful sleep before his completed canvas. He is again the young undefeated warrior enamored by the image of victory. He sees only his own glow lighting the black landscape. The moon is absent, the stars dimmed by his self-confidence. In the movement of nearby goats, he senses the machinations of his enemies. Blood seeps from a jagged gash in his chest. It coagulates to form a vibrant scarlet flower made of animal flesh covered with whorls of tiny white hairs. The goat heart he has impaled with his sword bleeds out from his wound. Parzival woke under the easel on the floor of the library, his hand opened flat in a flood of red paint. He bounded up, eyes ablaze. With his wet palm he smeared over the faces in his painting and stumbled out of the library, clenching and unclenching his fist, muttering, “A rose in which envy itself finds nothing to improve.”

The full moon became entangled in the branches of sharp trees. Lightning flitting blue slit the sky. The gashes bled livid nocturnes crayoned from dark green and silver. A dawn, the color of dirty water, crept slowly into the library. Birch logs still crackled and sputtered amid the dim odors of old leather bound books. His movements are frozen by the silent outburst of sunlight through the beveled window: only his silver hair warms his suspicious cheekbones, the marble of his taciturn face. He has the face of a woman. The face of his sister seems painted on his pinkish fat face. The harshness clenched between goose-fed fingers dissipates when he opens them and gently grazes the curved ridges of cut crystal and the backs of upholstered armchairs. Once he sits, he rubs his ears and his cheeks, suddenly aware that his hands are chattering, fidgeting digits bloated with history. He pats the faded carmine fabric on the armrests and runs his jagged fingernails along lavender-threaded seams, which produces a soft series of elongated satin farts. He puts one hand over the other in his lap, rubbing his fingers together first and then his palms. One set of fingers strokes the wiry hair on the back of the other set. He smoothes his pants against his thighs. The reflected sun shards from the mirror streak his eyes when he turns his head. They are cat’s eyes, they twinkle like glass marbles in a frosted bowl, distant stars through a soft haze. The slight smile at the corners of his mouth could be mocking or tranquil or not there at all. His sister-face reveals nothing of what he is. He pulls a scrap of paper out of his shirt pocket and unfolds it, a piece of paper currency. The denomination is unclear. He crumples it and smoothes it against his thigh. He rubs the dull edge of it and then folds it into an accordion, taking great care to make each segment of equal size and shape. Finally, he flattens it and crushes it into a tiny ball and puts it back into his pocket. Every object around him shows signs of age. Areas of the carpet are worn, the edges frayed, the rim of the ceramic vase on the table is chipped, the table scraped and scarred from years of disregard. Not once has anything here been replaced, restored, reconsidered. He knows that the brittle spine of a book taken from the shelves, would split as soon as it was opened, leaving him with unequal halves in each hand, his eyes moving from one half to the other half across the space between them, where the gap between an interrupted sentence or perhaps an interrupted hyphenated word has suddenly opened up: the space through which can be seen the flaking spines of many more old books aligned on oak shelves.

My heart is mine alone, a fine ambler not lacking in marks of beauty. Ink blacks indiscretions. A catchphrase has claws. It fastens around the neck proudly, an opal cameo on a talking doll. The sounds of these letters appear inseparable from each other. The average reader makes twelve different inferences per second, transporting what is on the page into thought. Only that which never ceases to hurt stays. The lamb was sure to go. Clinschor nicknamed the child Rickety who became a timid thoughtful girl capable of reciting many rhymes. She was said to have such a beautiful vocal organ that men came from distant lands to archive her sonorous verses in copper. She sang of briar and brake and blue butterflies aflutter, the smell of heather and the sunbeams that pierced the transparent canopy of beech tree leaves, the crunch of dried pine needles, the soft cluster of ericas. She wore an inventory of silver pins in her hair when she slept.

He was not sure where his legs were. Yes, he knew they were attached to his torso, but he could no longer feel them and in this darkness, did not know where his feet met the earth, in which country, in which province, in which city, on which street, in which house, in which room, in which corner. Well, that’s something. A CORNER. He knew it was a corner of a square room. Some SQUARE ROOM. The device attached to his head prevented him from seeing where he was. It brought him visions, great expanding visions of bright colors clashing and coalescing at all hours. He resisted at first. He concentrated on the words he had learned before he wore the device. But over time, they slipped away, they lost their order and seemed to him lifeless and dead, a mere repetition of habit. This didn’t make him lose interest in the words. No, it made him feels they were special, no, not special, more than special, powerful. As he forgot more and more of the words, the ones that remained became totemic, gargantuan, part of his will to continue to live. He was sometimes aware that when he remembered words, his fingers moved up and down to illuminate them in his mind, to make them more memorable. He thought this activity was called SPELLING but he wasn’t sure. Usually, a few words came to him and stayed for a while. The most recent word was HUNGER. The word vaguely brought to him the image of putting things in his mouth and chewing them, but that wasn’t quite it. He felt that hunger was more connected to his determination to retrieve the lost words and the original orderings of the words, as if this would provide him with a missing element, an element lost in the swelling and swirling of millions of interconnecting colors in his mind. He liked to think that when he moved his fingers and remade the word in his head, that he was sending the word out through the thick cloud of irresolvable color noise, sending it to a series of unfathomable, but secure nodes of reception, to other receivers who like him, wore the same apparatus on their heads and sent out their words. He hoped that he would remember more words because they were sending their words back out to him the same way he sent out the words that he made solid in his own mind. He had the thought that perhaps there were only a few words left and that the same few words were being recycled over and over again. Maybe all of this was a waste of time. Maybe the time for words had passed and he was merely extending the life of several dozen multi-colored shadow-ghosts. Still, it gave him pleasure to occupy himself with the collecting and polishing of the words. If only there were some way to archive the words, to build them up into a collection larger than he could remember on his own, to recall them easily at will. Maybe he was the only one who thought the colors were hideous in their relentless combinations and configurations. Maybe the colors would one day drive him mad. Maybe they already had and he hadn’t realized. He felt that the words had once been a part of the colors, that they gave the colors different feelings, different reasons for their constant chaotic interactions. Long ago, he had given up the idea of turning off the colors. They had seduced him so easily at first. Now though, he didn’t know if he had attached the device himself or if someone else had attached it. But that didn’t matter much since he was only aware of his fingers when he was spelling a word and he was fairly sure that he needed to use his fingers to remove the device, if it were even possible to remove it once it had been attached. And where were his legs? Did he even have legs now? Had he ever had them? And just what did the word LEGS mean to him right then, right at the moment before an explosion of colors he had never before known made the word vanish forever?

Parzival spends many evenings examining a bit of the skin from his little finger in a curved piece of glass. It resembles a huge field full of ridges and hollows with each strip of pink or beige like a gorge cut into the stony hill from one of his old paintings. This preoccupation is affecting his relationships with others. He can no longer respond to conversations with the simplicity of habit. Everything falls into fragments and those fragments fall further into other fragments. He loses the ability to hold anything inside a single concept. Little by little, this infection spreads like an insidious rust. He invents devices to distort space in a way that approximates concave and convex mirrors. He has the feeling that his body is made up of nothing but ciphers. Words swim in spirals around him, swirling up from the abyss in fluid whirlwinds. He favors the long letter chains that coalesce into discreet picture sequences, divided into ribboned bouquets that appear as complex flowers plucked from clean wooden walls. He thinks of warm frothy milk coaxed from the cow’s udders into a wooden bucket. While standing among crowds in the village, he sees only surfaces and systems of surfaces, collections of interacting elements lifting out of time and given to space. They have twisted torsos and misshapen limbs. Their faces are wavering trapezoids folding in on themselves.


Rob Stephenson

ROB STEPHENSON lives in Queens, NY. He has been creating texts, drawings, paintings, music, performance, video, films, and installations for over thirty-five years. He has a BA in Experimental and Interdisciplinary Art from San Francisco State University and an MFA in Electronic Media from The Center For Experimental Music at Mills College. He is the author of the novel Passes Through (FC2/University of Alabama Press).


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2015

All Issues