What If No One Invented the Essay?

One morning you’re taller than usual though the circumstance is a feature of sleep—the last seconds of a dream. When you step from bed your slippers don’t fit right.

**

I don’t think Montaigne invented the essay. There I’ve said it. No one invented the damned thing. It was old by the time of Plato.

**

Don’t you tell me. Don’t you tell me. What did you do with my spoon?

**

Protagoris, Pythagoris, the Goris Brothers Band….

**

Thunka thunka, twang, Wallace Stevens caught in a clothes line.

**

I envy Pentti Saarikoski his early education, reading all that Greek while outside snow fell in the impossible Helsinki darkness. It’s provincial culture and the adaptable intelligences I love.

**

My mother learned to shoot a Colt revolver when she was 8. My grandfather left her alone at the farm and told her, “shoot first, ask questions later.” I come from an elaborately fucked up family.

**

I still like Wallace Stevens caught in a clothesline.

**

I still like silently mouthing Greek while snow falls in the far north.

On Going Maskless and Disability

When I was a new guide dog traveler some thirty years ago a strange man grabbed me as I was crossing Fifth Avenue in New York. He yanked me forcibly until we reached the far sidewalk and then without a word he ran away. My dog looked up at me as if to say: “Man that was weird!” Now that we’re in the heart of a pandemic I’m wondering how it will be when I finally return to the streets. Can the blind count on people to keep their distance? Guide dogs are trained to navigate around people but they’re not trained to imagine six feet of social distance. At best they use our combined width as navigable space.

A friend who’s autistic tells me that maskless people are triggering his anxieties. I get it. And what about if you can’t see “the other?” Being disabled in public requires that you believe strangers are obeying the law, that they’ll stop for red lights, place fencing around a hole in the pavement, behave with concern. The maskless throngs I’m hearing about scare the heck out of me. I’ve had pneumonia four times and almost died from the so called “Hong Kong” flu in 1969. If I can’t see you coming and you don’t care about my health then being on the street, any street, is an impossibility.

My guide dog can keep me from falling down stairs, stepping into traffic, hitting my head on low hanging branches, can find an escalator or the nearest door. But she can’t save me from the projective cruelty of Fox News addicts who think masks are just a cheap gimmick in the culture wars.

The disabled, blind or not, neurodiverse or not, wheelchair users or not, deaf or not, we need you to take our very survival with the utmost seriousness. This is especially true when it comes to colleges and universities that are now imagining how to reopen. Don’t grab us. Don’t breathe in our faces.

I was horrified to read that Johnny Cash’s granddaughter was verbally assaulted yesterday by a non mask wearing bully. She has a history of pulmonary problems. She’s me. She’s millions of us. Young and old. Overtly disabled or living with things you can’t see. The anti mask movement is essentially saying, “life is cheap.” And also: “I’m so much better than you are, because I don’t believe in facts.”

Here’s a fact: the disabled are the largest minority in the US. Our health matters. The vulgar idea that some lives are easily sacrificed for the “economy” is just repackaged Nazi era eugenics. Hitler said the disabled were useless eaters. The right wing stampede to reopen business without safeguards touts the notion that some lives are less valuable than others. Going maskless is their flag.

Bald eagles! Bald eagles! Let us have wonders.

I was walking in my neighborhood when a woman called out, “there’s a bald eagle in my tree, there’s a bald eagle!” And I said: “wow!” Even the blind can say “wow!”

She was telling the truth. She didn’t know I was blind.

I thought what if no one in America knew the other’s identity? Wouldn’t this solve everything? I mean first appearances of course. I don’t want people to go back to the closet. And I’m not claiming there aren’t blind racists. But what if when first meeting someone you didn’t know where they came from? Maybe everyone should wear Oculus headsets that make strangers into angels. The headsets could double as coronavirus masks.

Bald eagles! Bald eagles! Let us have wonders.
**

“I’ll never forget the first time I saw him, standing up on a hill, his hair blowing in the breeze — and he too proud to run and get it.”

—Jean Carroll

Great old joke….

**

[Ed Ames throws a tomahawk, trying not to hit the chalk outline of a cowboy. He hits the cowboy right between his legs.] Carson: I didn’t even know you were Jewish.

Another great moment of wonder….

**

Please, for the love of God, go out today and cultivate wonder.

On Being Experiential, Literary (ahem) and Blind

A nonfiction writer of some repute once told me my writing was “experiential” with a moue of disdain. (The man in question had staked his claim on the personal essay so what this presumably meant was I’m too too personal, hence honest.) Disability lived in public is the bequeathment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Us cripples, we used to live in the asylums or in sheds behind the family farm. So yes, triumph, inclusion, connection, make for celebrations of experience. You bet I’m experiential.

If you’ve a disability inspired imagination you may be discerning about analogies. That is, blind, I distrust the likening faculty. The inestimable Jacques Barzun wrote: the book, like the bicycle, is a perfect form which may be true but Jacques was guilty of comma spicing as a book and a bicycle are both perfect forms and not reducible to analogy.

Bill Clinton said (infamously) “it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. We know what Clinton meant but we’re not as certain of Barzun. If a book, like a bicycle “is” a perfect form than we’re invited to be Platonic but vaguely so because Plato would not have acknowledged Barzun’s “is”. According to Plato common objects are inferior and mutable but each thing replicates perfect and immutable Forms. So there’s a book “form” in the hands of the Gods and a bicycle form but no analogy.

We are of course living in an age of analogy which is a beautiful thing. For poets it means sneaking back into the garden and eating a second apple and a third, even a fourth. Stuffed, they can write like Wallace Stevens in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”: “a man and a woman/are one./A man and a woman and a blackbird/are one.” Now we must ask is this sentiment beautiful because it is true or untrue? If it’s beautiful it’s because we can say it. When we’re reckless with analogy we make claims on eternity as Lord Byron tells us in Don Juan:

What is the end of Fame? ’tis but to fill
   A certain portion of uncertain paper:
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
   Whose summit, like all hills’, is lost in vapour;
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
   And bards burn what they call their ‘midnight taper,’
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.

Byron gets it right: after the 18th century analogy is the end of fame. Analogy “is” the striving.
Byron also gets it right: this is beautiful until it isn’t.

In his essay “Effects of Analogy” Wallace Stevens spilled the neo-Platonic beans:

Another mode of analogy is to be found in the per-
sonality of the poet. But this mode is no more limited to
the poet than the mode of metaphor is so limited. This
mode proposes for study the poet’s sense of the world
as the source of poetry. The corporeal world exists as
the common denominator of the incorporeal worlds of its
inhabitants. If there are people who live only in the
corporeal world, enjoying the wind and the weather and
supplying standards of normality, there are other people
who are not so sure of the wind and the weather and
who supply standards of abnormality. It is the poet’s
sense of the world that is the poet’s world The corporeal
world, the familiar world of the commonplace, in short,
our world, is one sense of the analogy that develops be-
tween our world and the world of the poet The poet’s
sense of the world is the other sense. It is the analogy
between these two senses that concerns us.

Analogy is a beautiful thing but it’s untrue as all men and women are untrue. It also requires bravery—the recognition there are no perfect forms. Everyone gets to invent his or her own incorporeality. This is what’s meant by the world of the poet.

For Stevens the corporeal world is Byron’s “uncertain paper”.

A book and a bicycle are one/gods ride them singularly or in teams…

Analogy is in the driver’s seat. This is a melancholy world.

Of experience we can say much but whatever we may say circles around the sorrows.

Donald Trump and Roy Cohn in the Conservatory with a Lead Pipe

“Of course there are people who have become so practiced in evasion, euphemism, circumlocution, and all the forms of lying that they would not know how to tell the truth if an occasion favoring truth-telling should arise.”

—Mary McCarthy

One admires Mary McCarthy’s use of “practiced” in the passage above since it turns lying, habitual daily lying into the kind of thing one does at Juilliard. “Raise your elbow, tuck that chin, press harder on the A string!” Technique first, then virtuosity. Moreover the great ones make it look easy.

Donald Trump practices evasion and he first engaged in evasion studies with a private tutor named Roy Cohn. If your mentor is Roy Cohn you learn in lesson one there is no truth. Here’s lesson one:

“My scare value is high. My arena is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset.” (Roy Cohn )

After lesson one Trump added conspiracy theory to controversy. Obama is a Kenyan terrorist. The “deep state” is preventing him from doing his best work.

Lesson Two: “I bring out the worst in my enemies and that’s how I get them to defeat themselves.” (Roy Cohn)

Think of Hillary Clinton who called Trump’s voters “deplorables” and you’ve got the picture. Trump studied with the master. I’ll argue that Hillary, by rising to the bait, lost Michigan. It turns out “when they go low we go high” is exactly the right approach when opposing Trump.

Lesson Three: “I don’t want to know what the law is, I want to know who the judge is.” (Roy Cohn)

No one works harder than Donald Trump to remove or sideline those who will likely find him guilty.

Trump’s critics think he willfully tells untruths but this isn’t the case. He simply has no truth, only the score bequeathed him by Maestro Cohn.

Ding Dong

Oh they’ll take the wind out of you eventually. “They” being the gods and/or the viruses. Wave your spoon. “Mama! The invisible ones are stealing my breeze of inspiration!”

Ding Dong.

“Who’s there?”

“The Baba Yaba!”

“What do you want?”

“I’m here to collect your breeze of inspiration.”

(Sound of chicken legs….)

As near as I can tell the meaning of life lies in protecting both figurative and literal inspiring.

Thoughts one has during a respiratory pandemic.

Lawrence’s Apples

The sense of adventure is strong on me as it is for all living things. Wasn’t it Auden who said the roses really want to grow?

Last night under the oaks I sensed it from the branches. The coming minutes are heady and unbounded. This is steepened by knowing no two people are alike, no two trees. As a boy I often lay face down in the grass. I didn’t have anyplace to go. Because of my blindness other children shunned me. But I got it: staying still was exploit.

Grasping this is luck. Keeping it alive is work throughout a life as the older poets know. I swear this luck-hoard successfully kept is why crows descend daily to the roof of Coleridge’s tomb.

Whatever you do, don’t be sentimental. The roses want to grow but even they have aphids. Nature knows how to stomp your adventure before you get started. You can be forgiven a dark joke. Why do orphans like playing tennis? Because it’s the only love they get. Basho: ah the pine tree, another thing that will never be my friend.

The decayed rowboat still seats laboring souls. Adventure stays if the poet discerns it.

What’s aspiration? Things are not what they seem. Lawrence’s apples are mystic. Eat one. I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.

Penny Lane

Last summer I rode up and down Penny Lane in Liverpool with a cab driver who sounded remarkably like Ringo. I got him laughing when I said the seagulls Merseyside were like hoodlums—tough and enormous. There’s a laughter in Liverpool, the kind I like, it emanates from the scoured provincial streets.

**

I exited the cab and was nearly hit by a cheese truck. A cheese lorrie. Blessed are the Cheese Makers.

**

My dear friend Bill Peace had just died. He was a scholar, a disability rights activist, a wheel chair user, a sportsman, a lover of life. I was in Liverpool walking by myself probing with a white cane, traveling without my guide dog—all that British paperwork who needs it, and I wept in the shadow of a maritime building beside the river.

**

Crossing streets is a Hemingway affair for the blind. One thinks of “death in the afternoon” for each engagement with traffic is dangerous, straightening, and to use a fancy term “architectonic”—there are multiple simultaneous narratives and aspirations in blind life at every street corner.

**

Walking old Liverpool, thinking of Bill, poking with my cane, stepping into unfamiliar roads, thinking of how precious and unpredictable every step is. Even thuggish seagulls had advantages over me. And walking past the John Lennon art museum with its hypertrophic twenty foot letters spelling “Imagine” I pointed my stick in the air and said, loudly enough to be heard, “imagine what, John? That there’s no heaven? Imagine that it’s easy? Try walking Penny Lane when you can’t see, you prat!’

**
As I said, I wept in the shadow of a maritime building beside the river. I thought about Auden who joked about the British idea of heaven which would look like a well ordered London but cleaner….

I wept and laughed alternately.

Thought: no one’s an atheist in a foxhole. Gave myself permission to think of heaven when crossing streets.

**

Penny Lane

O Lady of Zephyrium…

Poor poet, has to write, trees turning green
Leaves like yellow smoke
Nostalgia in the very eyes
Doesn’t matter, he or she poet
Wistful dizzy wants to wrap the old arms
Around a certain oak
My friend, I’ll be back…

**
I kid you not, I kid you not…

**

After reading Wallace Stevens
Its time for a palette cleanser…

**

The ardent period of life
Just now
Drinking water

**

Dear mother, if I could conjure you
I’d take you fishing again
Sink the rowboat again
Sit in the shallows with you again
Laughing as perch we’d caught
Swim away….

**

A game I play picturing business men
As birds—whippoorwills, grackles,
Magpies eating everything…
**

An old shell am I, O Lady of Zephyrium…