Light Amid Darkness

Frankie has been a consistent source of light amid this darkness. Upon waking from her nap yesterday, she asked to go to “Dada’s House,” with “house” sounding a bit like “horse.” Why have I been inattentive to her here in these trance-scripts? She likes Dada’s House. She requests that we go there, cries if we don’t. Cats; playgrounds. Beautiful tall houses ‘round a bend. What’s not to like? Perhaps tomorrow we can embark on a stroller ride ‘round town. Time to stop ruminating. “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy,” sing The Tams.

By nightfall, my sentiments align with a line from Chance the Rapper’s “Blessings”: “When the praises go up,” he sings, “the blessings come down.” Blessings make us feel, make us like as they land in our lap. Let us ready ourselves with praise.

Time to communicate lovingly, share the love out on the streets, hang with neighbors, chat with artists, bond through shared love of Buffalo Poetics and Black Mountain College. I feel like a lightning bug: if not a social butterfly, still a giver of gifts. 2022 will be a Lovers Year. Right now, though, I feel a bit crushed. Hurt. Heartbroken. Awaiting something beyond silence — some new adventure. For tonight I feel apart from the life I imagined. The narrative coordinates that have held are about to change, thinks the Time Traveler, scalp pricked and hands stigmata’d by impetigo. The hope is that love will prevail. And it does, it does, as soon as I listen to the record of the year: Moor Mother’s Black Encyclopedia of the Air.

Nights and Days

I am uncomfortable. Not yet fully moved, suspended in the liminal state of a pre-furnished dwelling, like flats I’ve rented over spans of weeks in London.

To compensate, I attend to small, daily acts of being. This is my new adventure.

Items to grab: rice-cooker, ladle, plants ASAP.

Sound system assembled, I make it work: I dwell by night.

Sitting cross-legged in the center of a room, I listen to Träd Gräs Och Stenar’s “Sanningens Silverflod—Djungelns Lag Version.” Outside, the sky darkens, day hastening toward night. Kool Keith and Ultramagnetic MCs give chase with “Ego Trippin’” as come evening I prepare my stew. Kate NV brightens the mood with “Kata,” and there we have it: the pride of another home-cooked meal. I plot others while listening to Kikagaku Moyo’s “Green Sugar.” Bakery and fish market each within walking distance. Do as Flo & Eddie sing: “Keep It Warm.”

“We’re all mad here,” says Cat to Alice. “I’m mad, you’re mad.” Otherwise we wouldn’t be here, under house arrest by karma police. “For a minute there, I lost myself,” sings the love-mad subject, swooning tear-stricken. And for that, we are punished. For each of us is that subject. Each of us punished, our demands unmet.

I stage an event of attention by watching How to Draw a Bunny, a documentary about artist Ray Johnson, featuring narration by Living Theater co-founder Judith Malina. Johnson arrived to Black Mountain for the college’s Summer Institute of 1945, and remained until autumn of 1948. After moving to New York, he began to produce mail art. Paper glued to cardboard. By these means, he accrued his fame.

I feel heartened by a recently arrived fortune of the fortune cookie sort: “You are imbued with extraordinary vitality.” And so I am, walking easy, energized like a bunny. Being out is such a relief. Time to dance, sharing air, getting close. It needn’t all be heartache and not-knowing.

West End’s rad: cool houses, some of them crunchy, many lit for the holidays. All things considered, I’m pleased with where I landed. The apartment rests along a hilltop, Hades and downtown short walks away. When I sample a bit of each, however, hoping by these acts to make the night generative, I want none of it.

I could replace curtains in this place, I could hang plants. I could attend to these and other tasks in the days ahead. Tonight I walk the streets of downtown. Tomorrow I paddleboard. Final papers arrive early next week.

Morning mist meets me, air lit by morning sun. Steam billows from a horse’s nostrils as I listen to Eddie Harris’s “Listen Here.” The moment passes, and then I’m there: a friend and I, out on a waterway in a nature-space of great beauty, maintained by a hydroelectric company downstream from a dam. We paddle around, water’s surface gleaming with wind-patterned lines of light. Baptized by the spray of a small waterfall, we ground our boards and hop among rocks.

Chopping carrots and green onions afterwards, I prepare a dinner.

***

Out on the street I marvel

gaze at houses lit

festive porches

flowers reaching over fences and walls in greeting

amid the stonework of a neighbor’s garden.

***

I store my memory palace in a place in the sky.

Welcome to the Dungeon Crawl

What will I do here alone / in a place that is not my own?

I feel cast off, exited west into the wonderland of the West End.

My father, kind and understanding, talks me through the separation, helps me imagine brightness in the months ahead. With a room of one’s own, he says, other hopes become imaginable.

Ready now to be thankful, I walk about the home admiring it, knowing it to be a place of flowers, books, and beauty. S. and F. erected a Christmas tree one evening without me. This is their home now. It remains my home, too, in a sense. But I spend nights in an apartment — and we’ll place the house on the market come spring.

Emo thanksgiving: What more can I say? I whiled away the morning singing along to Cap’n Jazz while cooking dinner for one. And in the afternoon, I walked. See me there beside piles of leaves, humming the words to “Bluegrassish.” Singer Tim Kinsella ends the song pining for Virginia.

North American Time Capsule 1967

More to my liking is John Cage.

Where the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis used probability, game theory, group theory, set theory, Boolean algebra, and computers to produce his scores, thus pioneering “stochastic music,” Cage composed “aleatoric music.” While stochastic and aleatoric forms of music both rely on chance procedures, aleatoric music eschews mathematics in favor of ancient divinatory devices like the I Ching.

Readied by Cage for further weirding, I tune in and listen to Alvin Lucier’s “North American Time Capsule 1967,” a 10-minute composition that neighbors a track by Cage on Side A of Extended Voices. The Lucier piece uses a vocoder designed by Sylvania Electronics Systems “to encode speech sounds into digital information bits for transmission over narrow band widths via telephone lines or radio channels.” Lucier says of the piece, “The performers are asked to prepare material using any sounds at all that would describe for beings far from our environment, either in space or in time, the physical, spiritual, social, scientific or any other situation in which we currently find ourselves.”

Thinking of 1967 as “situation,” I relate the song to the psychedelic consciousness of that year’s Summer of Love. Lucier worked at Brandeis, directing the University Chamber Chorus there from 1962 to 1970. While dwarfed in scale by hippie meccas like Berkeley, Brandeis was nonetheless an important independent nexus of sorts for 1960s consciousness. Abraham Maslow taught there during the 1950s and 1960s, as did Herbert Marcuse, who served as a faculty member at Brandeis from 1954 to 1965. Future Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman studied there, too, under both Maslow and Marcuse. Through Lucier’s time capsule, one becomes entangled again in that scene.

Stochastic Music

The university library here in town dumps a collection of LPs from its listening room. Out with the old, in with the new. I encounter them in the bins at Goodwill. To them by chance led. The ones I come away with are remarkable: compositions by the likes of John Cage, George Crumb, Alvin Lucier, Pauline Oliveros, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Krzysztof Penderecki. One pursues one’s education here or not at all, thinks the Narrator.

“To Xenakis—as, indeed, to most philosophers—” writes Bernard Jacobson in his liner notes to one of the Xenakis LPs, “chance itself is a scientific concept.”  The reference to “chance” catches my eye, given that “hap” (a Middle English word meaning chance) has been a preoccupation of mine of late.

“Central among the scientific laws [Xenakis] has applied to music,” continues Jacobson, “is Bernoulli’s Law of Large Numbers, which provides that as the number of repetitions of a given ‘chance’ trial (such as flipping a coin) increases, so the probability that the results will tend to a determinate end approaches certainty. Hence Xenakis’s use of the term ‘stochastic’ music, which means probabilistic in the sense of tending toward a certain goal.”

Xenakis’s approach intrigues me. Yet what interests me most about “stochastic music” and stochastic processes more generally is that, despite their probabilistic nature, their behavior and outcome is intrinsically non-deterministic.

Love Everyone

That is what happens. We time-travel to the present. Author catches up on publishing, begins live correspondence. Akron/Family balloon the belief. “See through strata,” they sing on their 2007 album Love Is Simple. “Go out and love, love, love, / everyone,” goes the chant — so we do. Love is simple with help from friends.

In so doing we find again things to say. Everything exists internally and externally. We are together nightly — in our beds, in dreams so real. And while sitting, meditating, concentrating on breathing: there, too, we meet. The fixated moment opens to flow and transformation. Old forms crumble. Old roles vanish. Mazeways give way to portals and pathways, ways and means.

Hey! Orpheus

Sometime afterwards I recall “Hey! Orpheus,” a song by Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up.

Vocalist Ian Svenonius’s Prince-like, Eros-stricken shrieks of pain — a signature of his performance ever since the days of his band Nation of Ulysses — are put to good use throughout amid a sound aligned with and inspired by organ-laden psychedelic pop groups of the late 1960s. Michelle slides her finger down the neck of her bass and sets the song in motion, with drummer Steve Gamboa and the rest of the band leaping forth to join her moments later.

The band adopts the guise of a collective subject — Earthlings, mortals, “We the Living” — singing through Ian to an Orpheus other than the Black Orpheus of midcentury France.

“Hey! White Orpheus,” he sings,

“Do you remember us?

We’re up in the sunlight.

You’re down in the furnace.

Hey! White Orpheus,

in the Earth’s crust,

open up all the doors,

come on and bury us.

Living there, down below,

gave your soul to Pluto,

all for your Eurydice.

I want to eat pomegranate seeds.

White Orpheus,

don’t be so jealous.

Up here it’s the age of elephant ears

laced with angel dust.

Hey! White Orpheus,

from dawn to dusk,

you’re oblivious

to anything other than

your sacrifice for love.

Living among stalagmite floors,

bellows pumping Devil’s calls.

To be like you, what must I do?

I wanna eat the pomegranate, too.”

Organist James Canty interrupts to deliver a punchy, powerful organ solo mid-song — perfect for a work that revels in speed and brevity. Contemplating the song now, though, I find myself wondering after the whiteness of its Orpheus. Why does the band recast the color of Orpheus from black to white?

Black Orpheus is a 1959 film made in Brazil by French filmmaker Marcel Camus. The film reimagines the myth of Orpheus set amid a favela in Rio de Janeiro, so it has its hero Orfeo descend into the underworld by attending a Macumba ritual to save his lover Eurydice on the night of Carnival.

The Make-Up, meanwhile, a band based in Washington, DC, preached a variant of liberation theology that they took to calling “Gospel Yeh-Yeh.” Might their recasting of the color of Orpheus teach us something about the tenets of the band’s theology?

My inquiry leads me to “Black or White Orpheus: Votive Transmutation Shrine,” a 34-minute jam by Portland-based artists Corum & Zurna.

Orpheus in Hades’ Lounge

There’s a parking, a journeying outward. Up and out we launch past West End Mill Works, off on tonight’s adventure, beginning with an evening stroll. Graffiti marks the spot. Stream to one side of us, water rushing over rocks. Spotify shifts from Steely Dan’s “King of the World” to Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know,” voices and cars in the distance. Looking both ways, we cross the street and rush down onto a shaded path through a nearby park, crickets singing in parallax with Neil Young’s “Computer Age.” We turn off the song and continue for a moment in silence. Upon arrival to a crossroads, we ask of each other (like Ginsberg to Whitman in Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”), “Which way now?” Looking up, we rise and step proudly toward pink clouds. Conversation turns toward Old & Used Books as we pass a graffiti-clad muffler shop. Bulldog with paintbrush arrives as comic relief — reality for a moment a goofy animal fable whodunit. We grab beers as day turns to night. Ginsberg’s “lights out” reverberates, hangs in the air after us having heard earlier in the day Let’s Active’s “Orpheus in Hades’ Lounge,” featuring hometown hero Mitch Easter.

Can Orpheus be told anew? We recall to each other the character’s many forms. Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), Marcel Camus’s Black Orpheus (1959). Also Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay of that name. And let us not forget Samuel R. Delany’s Lo Lobey, the Orphic protagonist at the heart of Delany’s 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection. Hoots is a Hades’ Lounge, is it not, with its red light hanging above its corner booth? So we think as we drink, glorying finally in each other’s presence. “What would happen if our Time Traveler were to stage the scene again?” wonders the Narrator, listening alone now, seated at the same booth many months hence. With “King of the World” still fresh in our ears, members of Steely Dan singing, “No marigolds in the promised land; there’s a hole in the ground where they used to grow,” we restate the refrain of Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know.” Amid Orpheus wailing away on his flute come the words, “You’re to know that I love you. You’re to know that I care.”

The Labyrinth of Stuck Desire

Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.

Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:

Prayer is the little implement

Through which Men reach

Where Presence — is denied them.

They fling their Speech

By means of it — in God’s ear—

If then He hear

This sums the Apparatus

Comprised in Prayer—

“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.

“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”

What Kind of Monster Are You?

Self-fashioned life. No more a monster than Lovable, Furry Old Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book.

“Why should I be scared of you?” asks DC punk guitarist and vocalist Christina Billotte near the end of her band Slant 6’s song “What Kind of Monster Are You?”

Several more of the group’s songs turn up on the eternal mixtape soon thereafter.

“Ladybug Superfly.” “Babydoll.” “Partner in Crime.” “Don’t You Ever.”

Am I a victim of my own desires?

The lyrics to a song of theirs called “G.F.S.” stand out to me today, causing me suddenly to hear the song anew, its references to “stars going retrograde” and “recollection starting to fade” far stranger now than I ever knew them to be before.

The perfect guitar solo on “Time Expired” leaves me mulling my past in the hours afterwards, the song’s words forming a hieroglyph, echoing if not quite rhyming slant with the words on your necklace.