My house, this place and body
I have met with some mischance, wings withering, as Plato says obscurely, and across the breadth of Ohio, like heaven on a table, I’ve fallen as far as the poet, to the sixth sort of body, this house in B, in Indiana, with its blue and gray bewitching windows, holy magical insides. Great thick evergreens protect its entry. And I live in.
Lost in the corn rows, I remember feeling just another stalk, and thus this country takes me over in the way I occupy myself when I am well…completely–to the edge of both my house and body. No one notices, when they walk by, that I am brimming in the doorways. My house, this place and body, I’ve come in mourning to be born in. To anybody else it’s pretty silly: love. Why should I feel a loss? How am I bereft? She was never mine; she was a fiction, always a golden tomgirl, barefoot, with an adolescent’s slouch and boy’s taste for sports and fishing, a figure out of Twain, or worse, in Riley. Age cannot be kind.
There’s little hand-in-hand here…not in B. No one touches except in rage. Occasionally girls will twine their arms about each other and lurch along, school out, toward home and play. I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands.
My house, my cat, my company
I must organize myself. I must, as they say, pull myself together, dump this cat from my lap, stir–yes, resolve, move, do. But do what? My will is like the rosy dustlike light in this room: soft, diffuse, and gently comforting. It lets me do…anything…nothing. My ears hear what they happen to; I eat what’s put before me; my eyes see what blunders into them; my thoughts are not thoughts, they are dreams. I’m empty or I’m full…depending; and I cannot choose. I sink my claws into Tick’s fur and scratch the bones of his back until his rear rises amorously. Mr. Tick, I murmur, I must organize myself. I must pull myself together. And Mr. Tick rolls over on his belly, all ooze.
I spill Mr. Tick when I’ve rubbed his stomach. Shoo. He steps away slowly, his long tail rhyming with his paws. How beautifully he moves, I think; how beautifully, like you, he commands his loving, how beautifully he accepts. So I rise and wander from room to room, up and down, gazing through most of my forty-one windows. How well this house receives its loving too. Let out like Mr. Tick, my eyes sink in the shrubbery. I am not here; I’ve passed the glass, passed second-story spaces, flown by branches, brilliant berries, to the ground, grass high in seed and leafage every season; and it is the same as when I passed above you in my aged, ardent body; it’s, in short, a kind of love; and I am learning to restore myself, my house, my body, by paying court to gardens, cats, and running water, and with neighbors keeping company.
I would rather it were the weather. It drives us in upon ourselves–an unlucky fate. Of course there is enough to stir our wonder anywhere; there’s enough to love, anywhere if one is strong enough–whatever it takes; and surely it’s better to live in the country, to live on a prairie by a drawing of rivers, in Iowa or Illinois or Indiana, say than in any city, in any stinking fog of human beings, in any blooming orchard of machines. It ought to be. The cities are swollen and poisonous with people. It ought to be better. Man has never been a fit environment for man–for rats, maybe, rats do nicely, or for dogs or cats and the household beetle.
And how long is the street, nowadays. These endless walls are fallen to keep back the tides of earth. Brick could be beautiful but we have covered it gradually with gray industrial vomits. Age does not make concrete genial, and asphalt is always–like America–twenty-one, until it breaks up in crumbs like stale cake. The brick, the asphalt, the concrete, the dancing signs and garish posters, the feed and excrement of the automobile, the litter of its inhabitants: they compose, they decorate, they line our streets, and there is nowhere, nowadays, our streets can’t reach.
A man in the city has no natural thing by which to measure himself. His parks are potted plants. Nothing can live and remain free where he resides but the pigeon, starling, sparrow, spider, cockroach, mouse, moth, fly, and weed, and he laments the existence of even these and makes his plans to poison them. The zoo? There is the zoo. Through its bars the city man stares at the great cats and dully sicks his ice. Living, alas, among men and their marvels, the city man supposes that his happiness depends on establishing, somehow, a special kind of harmonious accord with others. The novelists of the city, of slums and crowds, they call it love–and break their pens.
Wordsworth feared the accumulation of men in cities. He foresaw their “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation,” and some of their hunger for love. Living in a city, among so many, dwelling in the heat and tumult of incessant movement, a man’s affairs are touch and go–that’s all. It’s not surprising that the novelists of the slums, the cities, and the crowds, should find that sex is but a scratch to ease a tickle, that we’re most human when we’re sitting on the john, and that the justest image of our life is in full passage through the plumbing.
That man, immur’d in cities, still retains
His inborn inextinguishable thirst
Of rural scenes, compensating his loss
By supplemental shifts, the best he may.
Come into the country, then. The air numbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses. Here, growling tractors tear the earth. Dust roils up behind them. Drivers sit jouncing under bright umbrellas. They wear refrigerated hats and steer by looking at the tracks they’ve cut behind them, their transistors blaring. Close to the land, are they? good companions to the soil? Tell me: do they live in harmony with the alternating seasons?
It’s a lie of old poetry. The modern husbandman uses chemicals from cylinders and sacks, spike-ball-and-claw machines, metal sheds, and cost accounting. Nature in the old sense does not matter. It does not exist. Our farmer’s only mystical attachment is to parity. And if he does not realize that cows are simply different kinds of chemical engine, he cannot expect to make a go of it.
It isn’t necessary to suppose our cows have feelings; our neighbor hasn’t as many as he used to have either; but think of it this way a moment, you can correct for the human imputations later: how would it feel to nurse those strange tentacled calves with their rubber, glass, and metal lips, their stainless eyes?