Eds. note: over the next few days we are going to be featuring the prose of Phillip Grayson. These are the kind of stories that shrug off the vomit and detritus that can cling to 'experimental' writing, that scoff at distinctions between prose-poetry and poetic prose, that put in to effect the idea of play/jeu in literature that is often sorely lacking or badly sought. So be sure to log on tomorrow and Tuesday as well. Now, without further ado...
With a Monster’s Architecture
I. The Protoevangelium
The baby was massive, even at birth, the size of something like 300,000 pixies, 400,000 without the wings. But then again, the wings, as we’ll see later on, were essential.
His mother didn’t lay claim to virginity, exactly. She was a bit too earthy for all that, but he was her first child, so maybe that counts for something. In any event she screamed like a fucking Banshee.
All the delivery room nurses had their ears filled with pitch to protect them, but the doctor responsible, one Dr Responsible, decided for reasons known only to him that he needed all six of his senses to successfully bring this child into the world.
Like some people jump in, the baby came out feet first, with a veiled face to boot. It was nighttime outside, but just barely, twinkling little baby stars just visible there in the milky dark blue sky. For what it’s worth, because he came out feet first, the first thing he saw in this world was his own shadow, inky and cold on the clinical floor. Six weeks of winter for sure.
Then for a while after that not much of interest went down.
II. Three Forms of First Thought
Her voice was something that couldn’t really be remembered. Each time it came again, it was shocking again. Had the texture of a Chinese opera or something. It was especially strange because in his mind, when he thought of her talking, she sounded like him, as if she'd opened up her mouth and made an echo chamber there. When he thought of her, she said the things he wanted to hear. When she spoke for herself, not so much so.
But all the same they were playing one day up on the roof. Each one wanted to be King of the Hill or bring the mountain to Muhammad or else just stomp a hole down into the Hall of the Mountain King, below. Or at least that's what his mother thought, seeing by some strange synaesthesia the pots lining her floor next rainstorm like potholes in a road, like hands cupped to receive ablution, multiplying there visible with each resounding stomp and fall up above.
If they took the game too seriously it was only because they were both a little bit spooky, these kids, and got spooky little twinges that ran throughout their chests each time they looked up at the nighttime sky, the moon setting, seeming to thrust the stars forward, closer to Earth and into a different realm of whiteness. They both believed in premonitions but neither one in any kind of things called god.
X's mother came out to yell at them from time to time, and they could rest assured that it wasn't going to be anything pleasant once they were back on solid ground, but the woman was afraid of heights, and couldn't bring herself to climb up onto the roof. This was one reason X was up on the roof so much, sorta hiding out, which itself was one reason for those rumors of flight we're going to address sooner or later, perhaps.
So in the meantime they were up there safe and sound. Laughing and squealing, carrying on like all manner of swine, before pearls and elsewhere both. Young love, y'know.
Both sets of hands clasped together, gripping each other as tight as they could, full facing one another, staring back each one into comically furrowed brows, curled lips, little kid parodies of some grand fury.
And her little eyes pierced through the air above small grey folds, syrupy and sallow excesses of skin, hanging there like wisdom or sadness, if those are two different things. For his part he bared his teeth, which were coming in tiny and crooked, little undulations along the top like he constantly sewed several things at once, spinning and measuring and cutting all by his lonesome, it would seem, coursing strings over his teeth.
For just a moment there occurred a kiss. Nothing coarse enough to move through the dirty atmosphere or bob the heads of little children. She wanted to kiss him and likewise and that was enough, a perfection never to be sullied by the crude atoms of the real world. Heavenly, you could even say.
Not that their scowls even changed.
But X did happen to step back a little and find one of the dents that had been pounded into the roof. Combined with the rough shingle, it was enough to give him some footing. Soon enough she was on the ground, the real ground, down below the roof, so far away, a premonition herself of the rain that would fall down through that dent, in time.
X is shocked at first, and descends almost noncommittally, feet-first, surprisingly slowly, compared to others who've fallen from roofs in the past.
"Weren't me, Mama," he says, hands clutched behind his back, one foot flat on the ground, one foot lifted, toe turning little circles in the dirt there, head bowed, big brown eyes looking up past brows in a state of pure innocence.
III. Thunder: Perfect Mind
Naturally he had brought her back to life. Her lips never were the deathly green of spring.
And look: The sun comes up. That part seems always to happen, no matter what else. It floods Our fair city, west to east, showing off, talking about, “Look at me and my heavenly fucking chariot, can’t I just transcend these mountains so easily,” as if its course, too, were not fixed. The streets are mainly dirt, don’t react that much to it, but the windows, man, the windows. Main Street especially is made of windows. Every store, café, morgue, they all have these big gleaming glass fronts, glazed to keep out the heat while showcasing the goodies within. When the sun comes up there you would swear the town was made of gold. It’s extraordinary. Shards and slivers of golden light get right into your eye.
And that’s notable. These mountains, they used to be made of gold, of silver, but now they’re only hollow. Boom, and wealth, and Barnum and Bailey’s anointing, all these things flowed down from the gaping silver mines in the south, the yawning gold mines of the north, tumbling and spilling money everywhere, leaving it to cover the ground and sink into it, planted like seeds that grew up in healthy children and happy retirements, and then, like plants, these things withered and died, taking with them the gold, the silver, the boom and the wealth and the circi. Now the town lay sprawled out like an unpatronized whore, dirt-road legs spread out and wrapped in every direction desperately around these mountains, the ones that used to love, and to pay, and now are only hollow.
And the tra la la sun goes on about its merry way, pouring out a drought that was allowing the desert to overwhelm starving grasses, allowing its wind to really roar from time to time, midsummer. Even some mornings the white sand is drifted against the western side of the house like an ineffectual snow.
It’s a hateful illusion, to wake, and see out the window a glistening whiteness like the promise of no school today, and snowballs and hot chocolate by the fire today, sliding across the crystallized grass and sledding down the ice-coated dirt road down toward town today, and then to have it taken away, replaced with the grit and grime of nothing but a mild and grim sandstorm, already long gone.
IV. The Discourse of the Eighth and Ninth
There was a rodeo west of town, some newly built arena amidst the white sands, made from the white sand, piled up and hardened and carved into bleachers and chutes and fences, resting confident there that no rain would ever come to wash them away. No, you can’t accuse God of not having a sense of humor, what with that ancient decision not to drown the world peacefully, the way runt puppies are disposed of, or children, when their mother kills them without malice, to save them, compassionately. Nope, none of that for us. It’s the starving ancient desert and slow smoldering withering away for this generation of evil men.
And it hasn’t rained in five years here.
So X went out to watch the inaugural rodeo there, which was to be an event, proceeds going to charity, honoring the memory of little cowboy who fell ill and died within a week, out of the blue, at age 14, suddenly, as if being spared something.
He traveled with his poor ol’ mom, who, you can imagine, was getting to have a pretty unique perspective on life thanks to the ongoing shenanigans of her only child, with his proclivity for flight and the delight he took in doing things like turning his friends into goats and back again the way most kids put their friends’ hands in warm water while they sleep. But of course water was short around these parts, so that much she appreciated.
And truth be told, for fourteen he wasn’t such a bad kid. He loved her and told her so and always helped out around the house, his father being God only knows where.
It was a shortish drive, maybe fifty miles out into the nothing, undertaken in the evening as the smug sun fell slowly ahead of them. Once there, good ol’ mom took her seat in the southern bleachers and X went off capering with a few of his buddies, two of whom were in the midst of making a huge production about how much they needed a cigarette.
“Oooh, I know,” they probably said, as if just thinking of it, “let’s prance off into the juniper forest adjacent and smoke there, safe from the oppressive eyes of the old.”
So there they went into the woods, little pilgrims, setting out at sunset to light fuses and let them burn all the way down into the cores of themselves, to there silently explode, with just a puff of smoke to exhale in evidence. The heart, just above the incineration, was the obvious target, some childish attempt to get it to rise from the ashes and be new again, paused as it was right on the cusp of starting to be old.
X passed, watched as she drew a long breath, just a little flutter of the throat betraying a newness to the practice. Otherwise she was film noir. She smoked from the middle of her lips, which seemed odd to him somehow. Unduly suggestive.
Her eyes, too, burned, dark and unblinking, reflecting the ember of her cigarette, and as she drew it down toward her mouth the spark receded and descended inside her eyes, in pursuit of what, he didn’t know. But boy was he curious.
“Is it true,” she was asking a boy, more tan, more worldly than him, “that if you put salt on the tail of a bird it can’t fly?” And “Oh yes,” he answered, boldly, authoritatively, loudly enough to drown out any accidental ignorance on the subject, “I’ve done it all kinds of times.”
A helicopter thumped across the sky above and took his attention, and he watched it, feet maybe even microscopically off the ground, as if by sympathetic magic, until it released an awkwardly discontinuous gush of water onto a leg of smoke he hadn’t seen until just that moment. Then he descended, but she was looking at someone else. There was a boy there who was her boyfriend, after all.
But he noticed, all the while, that while her caprices chased phantoms of conversation in every direction, flirtatiously and avidly, as if dissatisfied with the amount of life that could be absorbed at any given moment, her hips stayed always angled at him. And when she looked at X, long languid draughts from the cigarette, by the trick of perception that Gypsies use to see the future, he could watch the red smolder in her eyes move as she inhaled, not inwardly this time, but towards him, a probing glowing finger. J’accuse, indeed.
It wasn’t until her hand was in his pocket that he understood it even a little. “It’s a woman’s prerogative to always change her mind.” He was not accustomed to being surveyed without malice. “J’adore,” she whispered, little globules and ellipses of light tracing rich three-dimensional lines up through the dust at angles from the hay on the floor to the holes formed by outed knots and the separations where two ancient warps in the plank walls diverged.
“Do you know what women taste like?” she asked him, jostling one hand inside his empty front pocket, vaguely downward. He looked at her, the blankness on his face perfectly honest. “I mean really,” she said, bringing the other hand to his lips. He closed his eyes as her forefinger parted his lips, and the middle finger his teeth, and the middle finger petted his tongue, which he wrapped around it, eyes closed, deep deep breaths through the nose. It was odd. Undeniable organic, and he opened his eyes to explain.
There on the hay, hair haloed out around her face in a nearly perfect circle, perfection thwarted only by flame-like spires of hair that radiated out in soft, tapering arcs, hay askew around them, she laid, eyes barely cracked open, mouth the same, with a spider, unnoticed, wending its way along her top lip.
The dusty road stretches out.
The sun sets along its shoulder,
fading light, vaguely yellow, vaguely
necrotic, and inside the few windows tvs glow and shudder,
watched or at least listened to,
but the streets are empty of people.
The wind is blowing only softly now,
and mostly silently, just barely
moseying up and down the road,
disinterested in the small tragedies unfolding everywhere.
And of course the bees
will die too now soon enough.
Their stingers detached,
of course they’ll suffer
their way down into death
and crowd the dusty road
with curling, already blackening corpses.
But first they will fight and rage and swarm,
attacking even with impotent abdomens,
unthinking, until they lose their strength,
the thin and matted hair of the small dog finally insufficient defense
against them. The puppy, wailing and choking,
bees filling its throat, its nose, its lungs,
bees dead in its coat,
caught and thrashing in its coat,
mercilessly stabbing into its ears,
its crotch, the soft skin where its legs meet its body,
until it succumbs.
V. The Mother of Books
His mother was looking for him. A cowboy had been thrown, then stomped, then killed by a bull, and it had alerted her instincts. Either it was that or the other cowboy who’d killed the bull, pistol straight between the eyes. That or else the bull.
She missed her boy and went calling for him, out into the woods. A reporter had died the day before, presumably. Never found after having chased firemen out into the woods and the fire. This, though, was only according to the kid who’d grounded so many pigeons with salt. “John the Baptist came first, and made the way,” the girl had said earlier. If We’re speaking of things that were said. “Maybe you can be like that for me, for the man that I’m meant to be with in the future,” she’d said, and X blinked a few times quickly, then walked out and into the woods, back toward the arena, he thought.
His mother was looking for him. The bull lay dead and barely bleeding on the ground of the arena, antagonistic to the commotion all around him, serene, seeming, even, almost Hindu, with a slowly leaking bindi. The cowboy was destroyed, faceless, already in passage toward Succor, the hospital there. The fires seemed far away.
Everything seemed far away, really.
There was a small grove of trees, maybe seven or eight trees nearby, where there used to be a series of beehives, and even from far away there was a buzz, a swell of sound, the sound maybe of the massive silver spheres that spin the world, and it was once said that the grove hid a hole, and inside were the hidden mechanics of everything, the secret logic of this crazy world. But now it's silent there. Every bee has disappeared.
Before, the mountains here were silver, but now they're only hollow, only filled, if they're ever filled, with the rainwater that floods the veins at night, and looks silver in the moonlight.
Though maybe the jaggedness is one of time, more than anything else, and only seems otherwise. If God is, like they say, the interface between the definite reality of each moment and the endlessly possible futures, and moves at the speed of light and is experienced as Light, and if the whole universe is a consciousness of His, defined by the scope and the nature of something you'd have to call a mind, if this is the mind of God and time is the wake of God as He rushes headlong constantly toward the infinite and the eternal, carving the definite from that, like the scientists say, each instant being the whole of creation, one after another, like all the textbooks say, then We can relate.
Because what if that is true, and we are the thoughts of God, now that he can't punish us for our sins quite properly. Now that we survive our syphilis and our AIDS, our cancers and car crashes. If we are composed of the suffering of God, and persist, what then? All the writers say that We are the agents of death, meant to have dominion of the world and keep it in check, keep it from overflowing with life. They say We're meant to kill the world and each other, and are surely right. Then We try to stay alive, though, too.
And if We are the thoughts of God, then We are not stopping when he wants Us to. We must seem, to him, like the voices that linger in a schizophrenic, mindless of his wishes. We trail along time too long, antagonistic to God, refusing to die, slowly, increasingly, becoming the madness of God.
And what must that feel like, that lingering, that ghostliness, continuing to persist into a time (into an entire reality) that you were never intended for?
X can feel in a way, at times, like he’s been still, and passed by. It’s one of his tricks.
When he was a boy, he would go down into the hollow mines, in a harnesses he made himself from violent ropes. He would drop down the shafts and listen in the dark for the sounds of ghosts, the ghosts of miners lost so long ago, or for the sounds of the silver spheres that must surely spin the world. He would hang in the darkness there, and as if to balance the speed of light, he could be perfectly still, and he would listen as long as he could, until the echo of his heartbeat rushing past his ear became too loud, even without echoing off the sides of the mine, or the bottom.
And in the woods on the mountains (these mountains used to be silver, but now are only hollow) there's a ghost town named Kelly. This is important, because those 'l's, those parallel lines, they're transformative in Kelly. They take the soft 'e' sound and make it hard. As they do with the 'o' sound in hollow. And this is important, because parallel lines can never meet. Except they can. It just depends on the plane, it just depends on a small transformation. Because if parallel lines can meet, anything is possible, and in the presence of the hollow mountains of Kelly, Jesus God, who knows.
And it was there that he was surrounded by a flame, even though the forest fires were miles away. And the flame burned blue, even though it was cool, and seemed impossibly thin, and impossibly singular, for fire, just a single undulating membrane, different shades of blue washing across it impossibly similar, for different colors. And the bees came up from the flame, in spiraling swarms, encircling but never touching him, except to settle on his lips and build honeycombs there as the flame watched, failing to be still in a million impossibly small ways.
VI. The Book of the Two Principles
There is a geometry that controls the world. It governs the shape, the size, of strings. It spins the silver spheres that spin the world. It pulses each time the night draws excitingly near, and swells sunsets the way capillaries swell, before each blush before a lover's first touch. The sunset burns, then turns to ashes, as faces turn ashen, when one's first lover turns away, and shrinks from every attempt to touch. And night comes like an apology, the way a former lover averts her eyes, and grants forgiving darkness. And night is when ghosts come.
And he must have look liked a ghost, in the dark, there, with her letter, with her apology for all his failures. "You're a sweet little kid," she wrote, and the words crawled across the paper and across his eyes like endless spiders, and X instinctively touched his own lips, the indeterminate mass there, the beeswax that lingered, just barely. "But I feel you only exist to prepare me for someone else," she wrote, and he must surely have looked like a ghost.
There is a geometry that controls the world. It's simply unknown. There is a geometry in which parallel lines never meet. And there is one in which they do. And there is a geometry that controls the world. And Icarus could fly, but he could only fly by artificial means. And there are birds.
X touched his lips where they sat, and knew words no man has ever known. Like, a single one can kill a man.
It takes a few to bring him back.
And when he said, “These other men, they hurt you because they want you to be something else, something you can’t be, but I just want to be around the thing you are,” she said: “The thing is, kiddo, you can’t be who I want you to be.”
And X, when he dreamed, he dreamed of spiders. They poured from the girls' mouths as they mouthed, "You can see it all for a small fee," and fingered the thin cotton of underwear never meant for public display. As though the other 99% of them was a lie, the pendulous breasts that swung sallow and heavy, the flesh gathered around a cesarean scar made purple in the sick light, and the only greatness anywhere was hidden there, below it all, behind threadbare synthetic cotton, behind a thumbnail.
Shards of light stabbed through where his curtains failed each morning, and illuminated each speck of dust that danced along the air there, above him. The alarm went off. It did the same thing every day. He washed his face and drew on the condensation on the mirror. Symbols he didn't know, elaborate things he couldn't help but draw.
And in this manner he very very slowly became an adult.
VII. The Vision of the Foreigner
There were those who believed him, but even they forced him to constantly prove himself. His life became a series of contests, when it should have been a simple priesthood. “Fly,” they would say to him, “Kill this man with a word,” they would say, “Bring him back with another.” “Prove yourself to Us.”
And so maybe he was a fool, but he did. Constantly and over and over. He could sympathize with Moses.
He would talk with the Pharisees and Pharaohs, the Apostles and Disciples, always on his toes, always looking out for traps, because it’s not reality, it’s words that really bind us, words like transubstantiation and flightlessness. But really for him it was always only actions. The magic words were just for show, just something for the crowds to carry around afterward, something to remember him by, like the scars left on your shoulder when you escape a ghost, or the note left on the pillow beside you.
And God failed Moses every time, X knew this. Sure He turned the staff to a snake, but so did Pharaoh's magicians, it was just a simple magic trick, the water to blood, the frogs from heaven, all impressive, but all incapable of moving the world. God was helpless to release Moses from slavery, and even when He desperately flails out and kills every child in sight, it still has no effect, no lasting effect. Until He peacefully drowns the Egyptians, and leaves His people to starve to death in the desert, equally denied the Promised Land.
But the people ask for constant magic, and so he flies, and walks a man back and forth over the line that divides the dead from the living. He says the magic words but he never listens to them. Having walked on water, what comes from standing on a hillside…?
And there are spaces between the clouds, that have names, collectively and all alone, that only one or two people know even though they’re spelled out in blue, and sometimes black, and often stars. And it was midday. The sun was paused overhead where it burnt the scattered broken pieces of a shattered massive cloud.
But he finds himself in the air. Even at just this height it’s different. A different texture, a different wind moves around you. There is a different quiet, even though some are shouting below. Most simply stare, some surprised. Many pray, most quietly, some silently, softly mumbling and kneeling and praying for him to fall to earth. It had happened before. He had accepted it. Some shout into the air, past him, up to various Gods somewhere in the air.
He closes his eyes, doesn’t listen, just feels the wind, colder at this height, as if broken into smaller, faster particles here that can get deeper into the ravines and crags of the microscopic skin, induce smaller sensations than groundbound life. The sun there on the eyelids, calling them up to the red you feel in your chest with that first irrefutable touch, the one that could always be played off if it had to be, the intentional one, the first signal of deep affection, the one that comes with bated breath, with a deep chest tightening the color, surely, of sunlight on the eyelids at this height. It contradicts the cold wind except in its scale.
Below, people are rocking back and forth, speaking languages they don’t know and languages that have never existed, that will never exist at all, colliding from time to time with one another at the shoulders, uncoordinated, arrhythmic. Others still shout comprehensible things.
He knows, too, better than they ever could, that he has to come down. That is, that’s always been, part of the deal. There’s ascent and there’s descent, parallel but always, crucially and cruelly, asymmetrical. There’s always that slow, footfirst descent, and he knows it, but against it he goes higher, maybe looking for silence, or even escape, or even, maybe, for both.
Knowing there is always, finally, descent.
They’re screaming below, and you do this to yourself, prove yourself to them, move up higher than any words can go, even as they seem to know this and scream louder, louder, at the top of their lungs, sounds no language could ever have, sounds only animals can make, the loudest sounds animals can make, as small as children from this height.
They simply scream, and you can close your eyes and tense your muscles then relax them, imagine a height too great to retreat from.
When he was young he could imagine simply flying away. Executing an escape. He could imagine that he had seen her, whenever he saw her, at her best, and could hold her there forever, considering that truly her, and that nothing she could ever do could ever dissuade him from that. He believed that he could escape the caprices of love, and truly really love forever, unmoved. He had thought he could build a house for her in his mind and hold her captive there forever, always the best thing he’d ever imagined. Even her capriciousness itself was his, a part of her that loved easily, and flitted along the wind, charmingly, childishly, an ease of love to worship with its opposite, the feelings for her that he sunk to the very bottom of the sea, to be, he had thought, an immovable anchor, a timeless thing, an allforgiving love like Divinity might be made of.
The air, the silence, even at just this height, can become a very small thing, insinuate into the flaws and gapings of the microscopic skin, push the surface deeper and deeper into a man as he flies. As he hovers, really, just gently, slowly rising, patiently rising against the knowledge of inevitable descent. Until physical sensation runs all the way through. She’s gone, and it is silent at this height.
By the time their prayers are answered they are as small as insects to him, that far below, and he falls haltingly, torqued and ripped, inverted once, flailing, falling more slowly than falling men fall, but falling, all the same, too fast, too drastically asymmetrical with the slow peaceful rise, turning and grabbing at the air, until he lands, and if no one else can hear his leg break, he can.
The crowd falls into a shocked silence. Some cheer for a moment, after a moment. Some clap haltingly, unsure how to proceed. Some shout praises to God in comprehensible tongues. Some take steps toward him, then turn away. He screams in pain at first, then swallows it down, and moans, gasps for air, cries into the dirt where he’s laying.
In time the crowd disperses, and alone he drags himself to the apartment, fitted half-sized, too short for a normal man to live comfortably. He lays in the corner there, and gradually succumbs to infection, to fever and delusions and lack of food, while men who will mourn him at his funeral eat, and drink, and hardly think of him at all, and won’t even wear little yellow women’s shoes to his funeral at all.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
7 months ago