2016

 
A Sometime Erasure After Mrs. William Starr Dana’s “How to Know the Wild Flowers”.
 
 
Among him was a ledger. What is it about you, Z. The minor key tonality, the nodding wax-like flowers of this little plant. Among you is a list: Monotropa uniflora; colorless bracts in the place of leaves; terminal; nodding; these forest nuns in a prayerful mood. Suddenly one day we chance upon just such a boggy meadow as we have searched in vain a hundred times. Your square calves like spires erecting themselves in radiant beauty over whole acres of land. The tables! Do I miscalculate? We are impressed by the utilitarianism in vogue in this floral world. Z: what missives I wrote to you so vividly through the darkness as to advertise effectively their whereabouts. We arranged tumblers and nearly the tines of forks in dry places along the roadsides of Southern New York. If I miscalculate it is in line with how the desmodium, growing on some cliff-side, or the bidens on the edge of a pool. We grow nearer: spathe, involucre, perianth. A certain table had no linen, and your lead, the fortitude of steps—the disturbance caused by the sudden alighting of an insect on the blossom—this is not the laurel of the ancients. Z.
 
What can I calculate of the curving letter your shape made in arrangement? Who can tell how much the attractiveness of the wild carrot, the dandelion, or butter-and-eggs would be enhanced were they so discreet as to withdraw from the common haunts of men? Winters go by; here is a large meadow full of it, and yet very few in the town have ever seen. In certain low sandy New England meadows you left me off. Deed did not survive. Someone has suggested that the fuzzy little buds look as though they were still wearing their bristles as a protection. The burnished cutlery! Do I miscalculate. The flowers vary in color from a lovely blue to pink or white. They are found chiefly in the woods, but occasionally on the sunny hill-sides as well. From the aesthetic point of view these showy and beautiful whorls. Seeing you, Z, though you’ve gone, lends still another tint to the many-hued salt marshes and glowing inland meadows of the falling year.
 

 
 

Joseph Spece.

Stag

In the video named [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KP6ayYZ-17s], named Un cerf s’invite dans une église, named (translated) Deer in a church, more properly named (translated) A deer calls in a church, a stag is observed. He found the narthex full of allspice. A brazier was left lit by an acolyte rapt in her reading of Paul. Slowly, slowly, up through the nave. The pews resemble dry runnels.

 

∘∘∘

 

Someone found a film machine and a pillar in the north transept. Not simply to view was enough. For a while, simply to view was enough: slowly, slowly, up through the nave, past the pews, careful steps beside the censer swinging—how—swinging, the stag, an atmosphere of question. In her hand the machine: it saw itself anachronistic, a little Narcissus, and weighed in her wet hand like a squared-off stone. But without mineral power! Anachronistic. Belonging to a proxy time, time-adjacent, but not This, The Life of the Deer Calling in Church, which cowed it. It set a passcode.

 

∘∘∘

 

The lectern and the pulpit had ponds in them. They returned to being ponds; in watching film of the stag, it’s easy to mistake Sanctity Transforming—the direction, where its channel flows. Watch. It is not the chancel gives the stag sanctity, not the chancel that is rarefied, that holds stillness in it. What can hold stillness that hasn’t bent a joint oblique? It is not the apse, peering shyly over the altar, returning, as it would, to its hillock life. Of course the source of Sanctity Transforming flows, in slow fluid red-orange wakes, ranging, filling the pews and songbooks with rich wet color, of course the stag makes it; the lectern has now a whole plant inside, & prokaryotes. O WHAT FANCY—yes, what fancy to think chancel could master a stag! What fancy to think eyes make a Providence.

 

∘∘∘

 

Our viewer is full of feeling too; the stag’s still/virulent vitality causes her to hesitate, to hide; when the stag moves its stillness in the chancel she is cowed. She may have mastered the film machine, willed it give its tiny operating code; but she too senses the Sanctity Transforming. “Strange, a stag walks in a church, puts snout to sanctuary,”—she’s thinking this. But what’s strange is Sanctity Transforming making choice to breach the church. She frames a deer calling in a church. It calls; the film machine fails; a relic becomes salamander, scuttling off its shelf. Gelid smokes lift the vault.

 

∘∘∘

 

I saw what happened next. A man-size sextet, contretemps; when the stag goes by, belvederes. There’s no record of that.

 
 

Joseph Spece.

A Mouth’s Uses: Baboon Asserts

The Museum of Modern Art, New York City . . . it boasts more the mise en scène of a high-end shopping mall than a cultural treasury. The casual inattention! The open-mouth smart-phoning. Like the strollers, the art is seated with a mind more to branding than meaning—Picasso, you Macy’s, sachet your thoughtfulness due west, in high traffic! Mr. Twombly, you flashy boutique, you Claire’s. Compare the breezy situation of MoMA’s Rothkos, for example, the cross-legged passing wayfaring inconsequence of MoMA’s color-field Rothkos, with the gravity of Mark Rothko in D.C.’s Phillips Collection. There, the Rothkos may huddle tight as monks in a niche, making force in confluence. The single slit window barely summons a breath.

 

Baboon wonders at this development in New York. Francis Bacon’s Study of a Baboon, 1953—the Internet claims it is “not on view.” It ought not be, having terrified the Cézannes. It actually turned every tidy Renoir to ash half-way across the building—cruel bestial Zeus of a thing! But Renoir is no Semele, believe me; he’s mother to nothing that’s known the vine.

 

Since Baboon possesses the final mouth in all the history of art, it does not fret for being sheeted. Baboon’s discoverture is power—a kind of power. In a failed poetic attempt to study it, I wrote:

 

The jaw hedged, came unfit—it
ghosted free, bodying hooks to
cast from zero and tear
to zero, it rent
 
penumbra from shade
at minute one.

 

—ghosting, yes. The oil attains an eerily thin dilution—I can’t say why, but I’ve always wedded it to the rich sinuous treatment of that medium in Raphael’s La Donna Velata. For confrontation. For his veil, Baboon has a fence.

 

Baboon wonders at this development. The historians at MoMA say (breezily) that “tension can be felt in the placement of the fence, which is ambiguous; it appears to be simultaneously in front of and behind the tree in the foreground.” Mmhm. It is rather a joy to think of the fine distance a fence makes, the tree it divides thereby.

 

Has Baboon ever been “on view,” really? To see the urgency of its twisted paw, nails cut in white, the slashing prehensile tail, the dull purple points in its chest like a bruise looked at in time-lapse? Being a lover of Medusa, I see the snakes everywhere: tree limbs, grass, fence-wire. But nothing is struck stone here; the treatment of the oil is violent, motile; I see everywhere a fuse at perpetual six-ticks from detonation. Nor does it seek to petrify, though many are stone to its implication.

 

The moral vegan is votary to Baboon, and I lovingly project my vehemence on her, I fancy its mouth is mine, that my vehemence has teeth like his.

 

Her! Its! His!

 

Beneath his sheet, Baboon thinks of Thoreau: “Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep.”

 

How does a man begin to see he is sleeping? Mona Lisa, that dullard, smiles in sleep across the Atlantic. Before they were turned to ash, paintings of stupid stupid children in sun-hats by Renoir sleep-smiled dumbly. The people file by. Without the capacity to say to us, Why, or to say from its servitude, Help, the animal makes some sound nevertheless. Look at the cow and see a being weary for being kept. Like you. Look at the stallion pacing in his pen, and see. In stillness, sheeted, Baboon.

 

An historian comes across an impassive thing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It is not on view; it abides beneath view, though it is seen. What cry can stir this walking sleeping man, historian to his own living, walking marker of time in shoe-heel clicks, sensor simply of what his belly has always previously been?

 
 

Joseph Spece.

A Mouth’s Uses: Violence for Violence

Into what spaces epicurean voiding might catapult the mouth. Here’s where I’m headed: the violence of the (meat-)eating act, at once caparisoned with paints by would-be chefs and romanced by the hunter (and shopper), is intimately connected to violence et de ore—the diatribe, the rain of insults, the easy expletive, the dressing down. Shape the body of the other into a nugget or grind, consume it dumbly, and the mouth becomes a ready embrasure. Fire.

 

And were the eating act more mindful, I propose that pause blooms out.

 

Begin with direct correlations: a great deal of our parlance—our aphorism, really—trucks in the denuded animal. In-out pabulum. “Pig” frames the slovenly or overweight (a convenient kind of portmanteau), “fox” the clever or sexy, “dog” the blindly loyal or low, “insect” the pejoratively diminutive. Telling in our confused naming of the metaphorically animal (how, for example, does one understand “man’s best friend” as low?) is its simplification: for better or worse, the lion’s life, when named, is noble and brave (“heart of a lion,” “the lion’s share”) the snake’s dubious (“she’s a snake”). This reduction is fused to our refusing the animal a faceted otherness.¹ A refusal by imperative, since breakfast will be upset by reckoning with—not simply recognizing—the fact that bacon is a pig, and that pig is more intelligent, by numbers, than Fido underfoot or baby in a bassinet. That the canvas for all your loving interactions across a table has a dead body as its basis, a dead body likely harrowed in every moment of its living before death, a dead body well aware of its executioner’s motive as its haunches press the hallway.

 

That’s all. That’s the wager for your dinner encounter.

 

Are we surprised that much of the meat-eater’s life is a matter of call-and-response? She is led by a leash like any lamb: eats gristle at age four, aspires to slim thighs a few years later, on to work schedule to marital life-event to television preference to ire at poorly made lattés. Rationality has protracted the length of her hallway walk, but has not elevated it. She fails to see that the casual brutality of her (wickedly defended) right to “the tasty” is mirrored by the adorable programming that makes her bystander to every hour she owns.² Her obedience is adorable.

 

The act of meat-eating is prime in our violence-machine because it is happily, imperatively invisible: why, who would grease the material consumption gears were McDonald’s to be without customers? Feminists decry female treatment with cutlet in mouth. Gays and blacks moan with speciesist concern, prepping hamburger.

 

Do I honestly equate beating one’s husband to eating a McDouble? Violence for violence, yes. As progenitors of abuse go, the McDouble is your culprit—the factory farm is. Eat up.

 

Let’s go again: at the center of contemporary modern human socialization is the violence of animal consumption. That violence spills down every avenue—how does one not see a connection between the selective historical compassion that excludes the being of pig for bacon and that which excludes the female being for sex? It’s rather baffling, frankly. Our pedestrian maunderings through the byways of life are punctuated by snapping at our fellows, therefore, with unfocused appetite: mastication, coitus, right cross, lambasting. The act of reflection, beginning with reflecting on our most basic consumptive violence—that of eating—is, I postulate, one way out of appetite’s repetitive desperation.

 

The vegan is not a hero. As I’ve mentioned previously, the vegan in modern society is complicit in a circle of material ingestion that victimizes both animal and plant: shoes, cars, belts, gadgets—even electricity and housing. But a vegan lifestyle does bring one’s sustenance-source back to wakeful consciousness. In my experience, that reclamation—recognizing, without excuse, how blind and routine the eating act can become, how blindly routine each day can become, the suffering endured by a chicken to turn it into a parceled “nugget,” fuel for the thoughtless day before us—infects an afternoon. One sees the haggard steering legs of his friend for what they are. One sees the degraded telegraph of television “drama” for what it is. It becomes impossible to suffer advertisements. A kind word suddenly costs the heart much less.

 

For fear of my discussion’s insufficiency, I want to share a snippet of J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, wherein his protagonist, Elizabeth Costello, nears concluding a similar—but more rigorous—argument:

 

If I do not convince you, that is because my words, here, lack the power to bring home to you the wholeness, the unabstracted, unintellectual nature, of [. . .] animal being. That is why I urge you to read the poets who return the living, electric being to language; if the poets do not move you, I urge you to walk, flank to flank, beside the beast that is prodded down the chute to his executioner (65).

 

A friend once attempted to bait me on this topic³—spun a tale of a bird native to Portugal that, provided with limitless seed, will feed until it cannot move, and then is cooked alive and eaten as a delicacy. There welled in me an unmerciful heat. The ebon thing beneath my civility, my appetite for wrath, my disgust for programming—these things searched the room for a pike. Strange then, that, following his display, my voice asserted simply this: Don’t ever speak to me again.

 

After all, we share a mouth in common, he and I. Nothing more.

 
 


¹ One mustn’t imagine the lion or fox is done a service by our aphorism because that aphorism paints it pretty. The reduction to aphorism is always a reduction of dimensions of being, and thus a path to easier abuse.

 

² One becomes conscious of programming’s casual, indefatigable press in moments where one’s unique being is rejected by rote: at the DMV; in the clutches of a hungry car salesman; waiting for attendance on a telephone helpline. Man balks here because his ear is suddenly punched-through with a number—he becomes the farm cow. When his waiting pain is assuaged, he returns happily to the queue of less obviously offensive routines, offends those beings whom he can offend or dominate without fear of recourse.

 

³ The commonness of this mode—attempting to challenge a vegan or vegetarian by embracing the violence of meat-eating, reveling in it, making of it a jest—has always struck me as sadly revelatory: first, revelatory of how little honest compassion there is even between “friends”; next, revelatory of how a kind of Freudian “reaction formation” defense mechanism keeps one from honestly examining the fixity of meat-eating in our readable sociability—our childhood “inheritance.” I have not met a meat-eater who can defend her act on high ethical bases.

 
 

Joseph Spece.

A Mouth’s Uses: Loomings

Fifteen years past my first assuming the mantle DUNGEON MASTER, demanding perfect silence from a sideboard of boys who would be about pretzels, sacrosanct with every die roll and proficiency check, implacably studied (“A basilisk’s gaze can petrify through to the Ethereal, Frank—save or become that strange thing, Ethereal Stone”), I still won’t campaign past AD&D’s Second Edition. What’s past Ravenloft? The fictive world, it seems, has done little in the intervening years but aspire to its purlieus, its several incarnations of Strahd Von Zarovich and Harkon Lukas. I’ve perused the equivalent of the current fourth or fifth “editions” of D&D—found there tables of traits to build a character, when once she was dreamt. “That’s it, that’s it, I’ve made my gnome fighter: Morose; World-Bearing; Arachnophobic; Spritely; Moustache.”

 

Those of us with a whit of imagination leave that role-playing style to the J. Francophiles and the editors at W. W. Norton.

 

Few things are more fun about the Second Edition than the array of stand-alone book ephemera, “Rules Supplements.” These include guides on planar travel, a volume of magic called Unearthed Arcana, and about a dozen 150-page handbooks discussing each character class in careful detail. Of the latter handbooks, I am most well-acquainted with those on the psionicist, druid, and ranger classes; a recent re-reading on the chapter “Ranger Kits,” or specialized rangers, occasions this essay.

 

In AD&D terms, a ranger is a specialized fighter, a woodsman and a tracker:

 

He boasts the courage and strength of a warrior and the stealth and self-reliance of a thief. He combines the druid’s affinity for the outdoors with the devotion and magical aptitude of a priest. By temperament or by choice, he’s a loner, often preferring the company of animals to people. Without question, he’s one with nature, sworn to protect the inhabitants of the wilderness and preserve the integrity of the land.


 

Most “kits” in the various handbooks extrapolate essential character traits in a given direction. The Stalker Ranger, for example, has heightened thief-like abilities, and tends towards covert operations; the Feralan is unusually tuned to the wild, resulting in a reaction bonus with normal animals, penalties should she encounter members of high society.

 

The Complete Ranger’s Handbook calls one kit, the Greenwood Ranger, “the rarest and certainly the most unusual ranger.” It continues: “The Greenwood Ranger begins life as a normal human, but through resolute appeals to the gods, he gradually acquires plant-like qualities that enhance his relationship with the vegetable kingdom and endow him with remarkable powers.” I conceived of but one Greenwood Ranger in my player days (perhaps you can figure the sort of tax the fifteen-year-old me put on other DMs, both doctrinaire and quick to leap at what I thought “imaginative insufficiency”), and he never rose from the glorious ceremony that transmutes a “latent Greenwood Ranger” (a ranger with intent-towards-plant, but who has not achieved the fourth level) to Greenwood Ranger. The Complete Ranger’s Handbook describes this ceremony as, first, the completion of a task in service of the Plant; then “locating an isolated area of forest or jungle, lying on the ground, and covering himself with leaves and branches.” I insisted my DM produce a worthy narrative of the next 24 hours of “deep coma,” and when he refused, I retired the character.

 

Methinks Forsyth Sell’Zenda is sleeping still.

 

You wonder what this has to do with mouths, perhaps.

 

Among the benefits of the Greenwood Ranger is his ability to photosynthesize nutrients; she has no need to drink or eat. “So long as he is exposed to sunlight at least an hour per day, he stays healthy,” says the Handbook. Thus thinking of Forsyth makes me ponder into what spaces epicurean voiding might catapult the mouth.

 
 

Joseph Spece.

Near Departures

For an egotist, it is frightfully easy to say goodbye.

 

The bloods belonging to such a man roil with the gusto of just-cut freshets, surging and ever-renewed by itinerant headwaters—the ego is this itinerant source. Itineracy is ego’s proof to the rest of the body that its dominion is justified, else the naysayer gut and spleen call the ego “soft” in a single moment of stasis. Temerity, by the way, is the ego’s alluvial sediment.

 

Some of you may recall the moment in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird when Atticus Finch summarizes Tom Robinson’s predicament as “having the unmitigated temerity to ‘feel sorry’ for a white woman.” Though Finch’s tone is meant to be ironic (if driven), the phrase unmitigated temerity threw hooks into me. I wanted that life: one characterized by unmitigated temerity.

 

Figuring the difference between temerity and, for example, plain prickishness isn’t always easy. You’re invited to ask my two or three friends how I’m getting on.

 

I joined the staff at Noble / Gas Qtrly a few weeks before the first issue, 202.1, went live. As a poetry reader, I tried to be helpful, but was aware that the editorial staff would need to stamp the journal with their originary aesthetic. I was so won by the cheek of pre-202.1 posts at noblegas.org (“Quit holding hands on the escalator. You are not a human chain. This is no time for romantic solidarity. The line at Turkish Roast will be out the door.”) that questions of my own “contribution” didn’t much matter.

 

A strange moment of repose for the ego, surely.

 

The creatures riparian to those blood-lakes, in any case! And not one is accessory to a situated landscape, but source to that source: owl, mare, hornet, adder, violet fungus, sow, vegypygmy, protozoa, leech, tiger, foxglove, mole. Mole?

 

And there was the cover image for N.G.Q.’s 202.1, titled “Rictus.”

 

A telling reductivist moment for the photographer—the fullness of a mole’s life, the mystery of its death, too, in a mouth. For a “ruff vegan” (as I call myself), anger was the easy follow-up emotion. Anger masks both my searching anguish and a sense of guilt I cannot expiate—that I am wound in a world whose capital is creaturely blood and sap; that I am in it and of it, and cannot hope to avoid culpability. Being vegan isn’t enough; only a return to cave-dwelling could come close to removing me from the commercial circle of animal exploitation, and that move is one I cannot bring myself to make. This sense of abjection is heightened by the relative paucity of companions-in-sentiment—thinker Undine Sellbach calls it “experienc[ing] [one’s] own departure from shared social understanding as a form of animal vulnerability.” So, red, riled, I thought I’d just snuff the relation, leave N.G.Q. to my betters, head this attention elsewhere.

 

The ease with which the ego scrawls valedictions carries with it a cynical imperative. For many years, I took this cynicism to be part-and-parcel of the ego’s presidency; more recently, I’ve realized the cynical mode (in this case, “Shove off, here’s another ‘zine that imagines sensitivity can be given piecemeal”) tends to preclude more careful reckoning—and always precludes with an indignant voice. Cynicism is majorly protective, after all. With something like a winning imp and a waif cherub on either shoulder, I sat with the quandary. Considering the mole, ought I stay or go?

 

Consider the mole past its mouth. Consider it past the sonic resonance of “rictus” with “rigor mortis.” The wondrous utility of its biology: eyes and ears small enough to avoid cumbrance in a tunneling life; species-specific supernumerary digits; specialized hæmoglobin proteins for processing carbon dioxide; reduced hindlimbs and powerful forelimbs. Consider it with a jot of imagination: the owner of paralytic spit and planning enough to craft entire “larders” of frozen annelids; sensitivity to every movement in a twenty-foot tunnel. One needn’t romanticize the mole to ken the dimension of its living: a few facts are quite satisfactory for that.

 

Consider it with a bit more imagination to find the slick concert its velvet fur makes with digging speed. Perhaps it chanced to burst forth from the ground in a lily patch, upsetting a pair of garden shears—and there, seen by a stooped grandmother, the mole becomes a symbol of second loves. Little does it care, however, since now the mole has oxygen enough to head earthward again, nosing past a vein of bronze, hearing the curl of a pillbug with the clarity of a bass-boom.

 

Spece: stay, or go.

 

Nothing heroic made me stay at N.G.Q. The imp may have abated. I am sure of my egotism as ever, but also that mission’s end, so to speak, can’t be resignation. There’s no mole in that.

 

There was also the late-night bedside vision so often gifted us in the midst of such struggles—in my case, this passage from Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others:

 

The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value. “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be,” proclaimed André Breton. He called this aesthetic idea “surrealist,” but in a culture radically revamped by the ascendancy of mercantile values, to ask that images be jarring, clamorous, eye-opening seems like elementary realism as well as good business sense.

 

I was too tired that night to attempt a verification of Sontag’s hypothesis by psychoanalyzing the N.G.Q. contributor in question; I’m too savvy to try it now. It’s also foolish to imagine that someone putting photographs on offer at a burgeoning online glossy is part of the “photographic enterprise.” Still, the headwaters interrogate: Why is this mole’s corpse salable? Why is this being better fit for gawking than prayer?

 

In response to questions like these, nothing is as bloodless as goodbye.

 
 

Joseph Spece.