Ah, the end of September, our last entry and we tie up the loose ends of The Joyous Cosmology. I hope you have enjoyed reading it.
We are also featuring a couple of discoveries that I made recently in African/World music, and some poetry from Patti Smith that I have never read before. We are featuring the art of Victor Moscoso, one of the greats of the San Francisco poster scene.
Here is to Autumn, and all its glory. Here is to the waning of the year.
On The Menu:
OUMOU SANGARÉ – Senkele te Sira
Joyous Cosmology Part 6 & Epilogue
Patti Smith: Poetry
Salif Keita – Yambo
Art: Victor Moscoso
OUMOU SANGARÉ – Senkele te Sira
Joyous Cosmology Part 6 & Epilogue
– Alan Watts
I go into the garden again. The hummingbirds are soaring up and falling in their mating dance, as if there were someone behind the bushes playing ball with them. Fruit and more wine have been put out on the table. Oranges—transformations of the sun into its own image, as if the tree were acknowledging gratitude for warmth. Leaves, green with the pale, yellow-fresh green that I remember from the springtimes of my childhood in Kentish spinneys, where breaking buds were spotted all over the hazel branches in a floating mist. Within them, trunks, boughs, and twigs moist black behind the sunlit green. Fuchsia bushes, tangled traceries of stalks, intermingled with thousands of magenta ballerinas with purple petticoats. And, behind all, towering into the near-twilight sky, the grove of giant eucalyptus trees with their waving clusters of distinctly individual, bamboo-like leaves. Everything here is the visual form of the lilting nonsense and abandoned vocal dexterity of those Hindu musicians.
I recall the words of an ancient Tantric scripture: “As waves come with water and flames with fire, so the universal waves with us.” Gestures of the gesture, waves of the wave—leaves flowing into caterpillars, grass into cows, milk into babies, bodies into worms, earth into flowers, seeds into birds, quanta of energy into the iridescent or reverberating labyrinths of the brain. Within and swept up into this endless, exulting, cosmological dance are the base and grinding undertones of the pain which transformation involves: chewed nerve endings, sudden electric-striking snakes in the meadow grass, swoop of the lazily circling hawks, sore muscles piling logs, sleepless nights trying to keep track of the unrelenting bookkeeping which civilized survival demands.
How unfamiliarly natural it is to see pain as no longer a problem. For problematic pain arises with the tendency of self-consciousness to short-circuit the brain and fill its passages with dithering echoes—revulsions to revulsions, fears of fear, cringing from cringing, guilt about guilt—twisting thought to trap itself in endless oscillations. In his ordinary consciousness man lives like someone trying to speak in an excessively sensitive echo-chamber; he can proceed only by doggedly ignoring the interminably gibbering reflections of his voice. For in the brain there are echoes and reflected images in every dimension of sense, thought, and feeling, chattering on and on in the tunnels of memory. The difficulty is that we confuse this storing of information with an intelligent commentary on what we are doing at the moment, mistaking for intelligence the raw materials of the data with which it works. Like too much alcohol, self-consciousness makes us see ourselves double, and we mistake the double image for two selves—mental and material, controlling and controlled, reflective and spontaneous. Thus instead of suffering we suffer about suffering, and suffer about suffering about suffering.
As has always been said, clarity comes with the giving up of self. But what this means is that we cease to attribute selfhood to these echoes and mirror images. Otherwise we stand in a hall of mirrors, dancing hesitantly and irresolutely because we are making the images take the lead. We move in circles because we are following what we have already done. We have lost touch with our original identity, which is not the system of images but the great self-moving gesture of this as yet unremembered moment. The gift of remembering and binding time creates the illusion that the past stands to the present as agent to act, mover to moved. Living thus from the past, with echoes taking the lead, we are not truly here, and are always a little late for the feast. Yet could anything be more obvious than that the past follows from the present like the wake of a ship, and that if we are to be alive at all, here is the place to be?
Evening at last closes a day that seemed to have been going on since the world began. At the high end of the garden, above a clearing, there stands against the mountain wall a semicircle of trees, immensely tall and dense with foliage, suggesting the entrance grove to some ancient temple. It is from here that the deep blue-green transparency of twilight comes down, silencing the birds and hushing our own conversation. We have been watching the sunset, sitting in a row upon the ridgepole of the great barn whose roof of redwood tiles, warped and cracked, sweeps clear to the ground. Below, to the west, lies an open sward where two white goats are munching the grass, and beyond this is Robert’s house where lights in the kitchen show that Beryl is preparing dinner. Time to go in, and leave the garden to the awakening stars.
Again music—harpsichords and a string orchestra, and Bach in his most exultant mood. I lie down to listen, and close my eyes. All day, in wave after wave and from all directions of the mind’s compass, there has repeatedly come upon me the sense of my original identity as one with the very fountain of the universe. I have seen, too, that the fountain is its own source and motive, and that its spirit is an unbounded playfulness which is the many-dimensioned dance of life. There is no problem left, but who will believe it? Will I believe it myself when I return to normal consciousness? Yet I can see at the moment that this does not matter. The play is hide-and-seek or lost-and-found, and it is all part of the play that one can get very lost indeed. How far, then, can one go in getting found?
As if in answer to my question there appears before my closed eyes a vision in symbolic form of what Eliot has called “the still point of the turning world.” I find myself looking down at the floor of a vast courtyard, as if from a window high upon the wall, and the floor and the walls are entirely surfaced with ceramic tiles displaying densely involved arabesques in gold, purple, and blue. The scene might be the inner court of some Persian palace, were it not of such immense proportions and its colors of such preternatural transparency. In the center of the floor there is a great sunken arena, shaped like a combination of star and rose, and bordered with a strip of tiles that suggest the finest inlay work in vermilion, gold, and obsidian.
Within this arena some kind of ritual is being performed in time with the music. At first its mood is stately and royal, as if there were officers and courtiers in rich armor and many-colored cloaks dancing before their king. As I watch, the mood changes. The courtiers become angels with wings of golden fire, and in the center of the arena there appears a pool of dazzling flame. Looking into the pool I see, just for a moment, a face which reminds me of the Christos Pantocrator of Byzantine mosaics, and I feel that the angels are drawing back with wings over their faces in a motion of reverent dread. But the face dissolves. The pool of flame grows brighter and brighter, and I notice that the winged beings are drawing back with a gesture, not of dread, but of tenderness—for the flame knows no anger. Its warmth and radiance—”tongues of flame infolded”—are an efflorescence of love so endearing that I feel I have seen the heart of all hearts.
* “Self-conscious man thinks he thinks. This has long been recognized to be an error, for the conscious subject who thinks he thinks is not the same as the organ which does the thinking. The conscious person is one component only, a series of transitory aspects, of the thinking person.” L. L. Whyte, The Unconscious Before Freud (Basic Books, New York, 1960), p. 59
This is, as I have said, a record not of one experiment with consciousness-changing drugs, but of several, compressed for reasons of poetic unity into a single day. At the same time I have more or less kept to the basic form which every individual experiment seems to take—a sort of cycle in which one’s personality is taken apart and then put together again, in what one hopes is a more intelligent fashion. For example, one’s true identity is first of all felt as something extremely ancient, familiarly distant—with overtones of the magical, mythological, and archaic. But in the end it revolves back to what one is in the immediate present, for the moment of the world’s creation is seen to lie, not in some unthinkably remote past, but in the eternal now. Similarly, the play of life is at first apprehended rather cynically as an extremely intricate contest in one-upmanship, expressing itself deviously even in the most altruistic of human endeavors. Later, one begins to feel a “good old rascal” attitude toward the system; humor gets the better of cynicism. But finally, rapacious and all-embracing cosmic selfishness turns out to be a disguise for the unmotivated play of love.
But I do not mean to generalize. I am speaking only of what I have experienced for myself, and I wish to repeat that drugs of this kind are in no sense bottled and predigested wisdom. I feel that had I no skill as a writer or philosopher, drugs which dissolve some of the barriers between ordinary, pedestrian consciousness and the multidimensional superconsciousness of the organism would bring little but delightful, or sometimes terrifying, confusion. I am not saying that only intellectuals can benefit from them, but that there must be sufficient discipline or insight to relate this expanded consciousness to our normal, everyday life.
Such aids to perception are medicines, not diets, and as the use of a medicine should lead on to a more healthful mode of living, so the experiences which I have described suggest measures we might take to maintain a sounder form of sanity. Of these, the most important is the practice of what I would like to call meditation—were it not that this word often connotes spiritual or mental gymnastics. But by meditation I do not mean a practice or exercise undertaken as a preparation for something, as a means to some future end, or as a discipline in which one is concerned with progress. A better word may be “contemplation” or even “centering,” for what I mean is a slowing down of time, of mental hurry, and an allowing of one’s attention to rest in the present—so coming to the unseeking observation, not of what should be, but of what is. It is quite possible, even easy, to do this without the aid of any drug, though these chemicals have the advantage of “doing it for you” in a peculiarly deep and prolonged fashion.
But those of us who live in this driven and over-purposeful civilization need, more than anyone else, to lay aside some span of clock time for ignoring time, and for allowing the contents of consciousness to happen without interference. Within such timeless spaces, perception has an opportunity to develop and deepen in much the same way that I have described. Because one stops forcing experience with the conscious will and looking at things as if one were confronting them, or standing aside from them to manage them, it is possible for one’s fundamental and unitive apprehension of the world to rise to the surface. But it is of no use to make this a goal or to try to work oneself into that way of seeing things. Every effort to change what is being felt or seen presupposes and confirms the illusion of the independent knower or ego, and to try to get rid of what isn’t there is only to prolong confusion. On the whole, it is better to try to be aware of one’s ego than to get rid of it. We can then discover that the “knower” is no different from the sensation of the “known,” whether the known be “external” objects or “internal” thoughts and memories.
In this way it begins to appear that instead of knowers and knowns there are simply knowings, and instead of doers and deeds simply doings. Divided matter and form becomes unified pattern-in-process. Thus when Buddhists say that reality is “void” they mean simply that life, the pattern-in-process, does not proceed from or fall upon some substantial basis. At first, this may seem rather disconcerting, but in principle the idea is no more difficult to abandon than that of the crystalline spheres which were once supposed to support and move the planets.
Eventually this unified and timeless mode of perception “caps” our ordinary way of thinking and acting in the practical world: it includes it without destroying it. But it also modifies it by making it clear that the function of practical action is to serve the abiding present rather than the ever-receding future, and the living organism rather than the mechanical system of the state or the social order.
In addition to this quiet and contemplative mode of meditation there seems to me to be an important place for another, somewhat akin to the spiritual exercises of the dervishes. No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time: he is like a steel bridge without flexibility, and the order of his life is rigid and brittle. The manners and mores of Western civilization force this perpetual sanity upon us to an extreme degree, for there is no accepted corner in our lives for the art of pure nonsense. Our play is never real play because it is almost invariably rationalized; we do it on the pretext that it is good for us, enabling us to go back to work refreshed. There is no protected situation in which we can really let ourselves go. Day in and day out we must tick obediently like clocks, and “strange thoughts” frighten us so much that we rush to the nearest head-doctor. Our difficulty is that we have perverted the Sabbath into a day for laying on rationality and listening to sermons instead of letting off steam.
If our sanity is to be strong and flexible, there must be occasional periods for the expression of completely spontaneous movement—for dancing, singing, howling, babbling, jumping, groaning, wailing—in short, for following any motion to which the organism as a whole seems to be inclined. It is by no means impossible to set up physical and moral boundaries within which this freedom of action is expressible—sensible contexts in which nonsense may have its way. Those who provide for this essential irrationality will never become stuffy or dull, and, what is far more important, they will be opening up the channels through which the formative and intelligent spontaneity of the organism can at last flow into consciousness. This is why free association is such a valuable technique in psychotherapy; its limitation is that it is purely verbal. The function of such intervals for nonsense is not merely to be an outlet for pent-up emotion or unused psychic energy, but to set in motion a mode of spontaneous action which, though at first appearing as nonsense, can eventually express itself in intelligible forms.
Disciplined action is generally mistaken for forced action, done in the dualistic spirit of compelling oneself, as if the will were quite other than the rest of the organism. But a unified and integrated concept of human nature requires a new concept of discipline—the control, not of forced action, but of spontaneous action. It is necessary to see discipline as a technique which the organism uses, as a carpenter uses tools, and not as a system to which the organism must be conformed. Otherwise the purely mechanical and organizational ends of the system assume greater importance than those of the organism. We find ourselves in the situation where man is made for the Sabbath, instead of the Sabbath for man. But before spontaneous action can be expressed in controlled patterns, its current must be set in motion. That is to say, we must acquire a far greater sensitivity to what the organism itself wants to do, and learn responsiveness to its inner motions.
Our language almost compels us to express this point in the wrong way—as if the “we” that must be sensitive to the organism and respond to it were something apart. Unfortunately our forms of speech follow the design of the social fiction which separates the conscious will from the rest of the organism, making it the independent agent which causes and regulates our actions. It is thus that we fail to recognize what the ego, the agent, or the conscious will is. We do not see that it is a social convention, like the intervals of clock time, as distinct from a biological or even psychological entity. For the conscious will, working against the grain of instinct, is the interiorization, the inner echo, of social demands upon the individual coupled with the picture of his role or identity which he acquires from parents, teachers, and early associates. It is an imaginary, socially fabricated self working against the organism, the self that is biologically grown. By means of this fiction the child is taught to control himself and conform himself to the requirements of social life.
At first sight this seems to be an ingenious and highly necessary device for maintaining an orderly society based upon individual responsibility. In fact it is a penny-wise, pound-foolish blunder which is creating many more problems than it solves. To the degree that society teaches the individual to identify himself with a controlling will separate from his total organism, it merely intensifies his feeling of separateness, from himself and from others. In the long run it aggravates the problem that it is designed to solve, because it creates a style of personality in which an acute sense of responsibility is coupled with an acute sense of alienation.
The mystical experience, whether induced by chemicals or other means, enables the individual to be so peculiarly open and sensitive to organic reality that the ego begins to be seen for the transparent abstraction that it is. In its place there arises (especially in the latter phases of the drug experience) a strong sensation of oneness with others, presumably akin to the sensitivity which enables a flock of birds to twist and turn as one body. A sensation of this kind would seem to provide a far better basis for social love and order than the fiction of the separate will.
The general effect of the drugs seems to be that they diminish defensive attitudes without blurring perception, as in the case of alcohol. We become aware of things against which we normally protect ourselves, and this accounts, I feel, for the high susceptibility to anxiety in the early phases of the experience. But when defenses are down we begin to see, not hallucinations, but customarily ignored aspects of reality—including a sense of social unity which civilized man has long since lost. To regain this sense we do not need to abandon culture and return to some precivilized level, for neither in the drug experience nor in more general forms of mystical experience does one lose the skills or the knowledge which civilization has produced.
I have suggested that in these experiences we acquire clues and insights which should be followed up through certain forms of meditation. Are there not also ways in which we can, even without using the drugs, come back to this sense of unity with other people? The cultured Westerner has a very healthy distaste for crowds and for the loss of personal identity in “herd-consciousness.” But there is an enormous difference between a formless crowd and an organic social group. The latter is a relatively small association in which every member is in communication with every other member. The former is a relatively large association in which the members are in communication only with a leader, and because of this crude structure a crowd is not really an organism. To think of people as “the masses” is to think of them by analogy with a subhuman style of order.
The corporate worship of churches might have been the natural answer to this need, were it not that church services follow the crowd pattern instead of the group pattern. Participants sit in rows looking at the backs of each other’s necks, and are in communication only with the leader—whether preacher, priest, or some symbol of an autocratic God. Many churches try to make up for this lack of communion by “socials” and dances outside the regular services. But these events have a secular connotation, and the type of communion involved is always somewhat distant and demure. There are, indeed, discussion groups in which the leader or “resource person” encourages every member to have his say, but, again, the communion so achieved is merely verbal and ideational.
The difficulty is that the defended defensiveness of the ego recoils from the very thing that would allay it—from associations with others based on physical gestures of affection, from rites, dances, or forms of play which clearly symbolize mutual love between the members of the group. Sometimes a play of this kind will occur naturally and unexpectedly between close friends, but how embarrassing it might be to be involved in the deliberate organization of such a relationship with total strangers ! Nevertheless, there are countless associations of people who, claiming to be firm friends, still lack the nerve to represent their affection for each other by physical and erotic contact which might raise friendship to the level of love. Our trouble is that we have ignored and thus feel insecure in the enormous spectrum of love which lies between rather formal friendship and genital sexuality, and thus are always afraid that once we overstep the bounds of formal friendship we must slide inevitably to the extreme of sexual promiscuity, or worse, to homosexuality.
This unoccupied gulf between spiritual or brotherly love and sexual love corresponds to the cleft between spirit and matter, mind and body, so divided that our affections or our activities are assigned either to one or to the other. There is no continuum between the two, and the lack of any connection, any intervening spectrum, makes spiritual love insipid and sexual love brutal. To overstep the limits of brotherly love cannot, therefore, be understood as anything but an immediate swing to its opposite pole. Thus the subtle and wonderful gradations that lie between the two are almost entirely lost. In other words, the greater part of love is a relationship that we hardly allow, for love experienced only in its extreme forms is like buying a loaf of bread and being given only the two heels.
I have no idea what can be done to correct this in a culture where personal identity seems to depend on being physically aloof, and where many people shrink
even from holding the hand of someone with whom they have no formally sexual or familial tie. To force or make propaganda for more affectionate contacts with others would bring little more than embarrassment. One can but hope that in the years to come our defenses will crack spontaneously, like eggshells when the birds are ready to hatch. This hope may gain some encouragement from all those trends in philosophy and psychology, religion and science, from which we are beginning to evolve a new image of man, not as a spirit imprisoned in incompatible flesh, but as an organism inseparable from his social and natural environment.
This is certainly the view of man disclosed by these remarkable medicines which temporarily dissolve our defenses and permit us to see what separative consciousness normally ignores—the world as an interrelated whole. This vision is assuredly far beyond any drug-induced hallucination or superstitious fantasy. It wears a striking resemblance to the unfamiliar universe that physicists and biologists are trying to describe here and now. For the clear direction of their thought is toward the revelation of a unified cosmology, no longer sundered by the ancient irreconcilables of mind and matter, substance and attribute, thing and event, agent and act, stuff and energy. And if this should come to be a universe in which man is neither thought nor felt to be a lonely subject confronted by alien and threatening objects, we shall have a cosmology not only unified but also joyous.
Patti Smith: Poetry
I am calling
your naked neck
I am with you
to thy great
I am yours
a useless death
[originally published as a small chapbook by the Gotham Book Mart, 1972]
I am on the scaffold. What excitement!
What glitter! What is going on?
I know so little of this country.
I suspect its the coronation of the queen.
NO. Oh god. I’m wrong.
Its the execution of the queen!
and I’m trapped.
there’s no way I can help.
there’s no way I can avoid watching.
perched on this scaffold.
I gotta bird’s eye view.
The king calls for action. like the
director of some blown out passion play.
He makes a weary gesture.
its clear he hasn’t slept in ages.
first come the ladies in waiting.
there they are. thirty of them.
dressed alike. high-waisted
green taffeta gowns.
moving alike. medieval majorettes.
that flemish air. nose in air.
thirty pairs of tiny hands folded
over protruding bellies.
why are condemned women affecting
a pregnant woman’s gesture?
and how comical it is. thirty sentenced
women swaying. some very pretty indeed.
many on the brink of collapse.
The king is muttering. what is he saying?
seems my hearing has become as acute as my view.
“god damn ladies-in-waiting. get rid
of them. how I’ve despised them. always
clutter up the castle. cluck cluck.”
He seems to object to them more than
the queen. but as the saying goes:
kill me ya kill my dogs. and vice versa.
its a package deal. its the rules of
the game. and a king sticks to them.
the ladies are in tears. tearing tissues.
they approach a sizeable block of land.
its roped off and seasoned with fresh
topsoil. 3l shovels are lined up face
The king decrees that they are to dig
their own grave. Jesus what a rucas.
The women lose what composure they
had in the procession. They sob openly.
they wring their hands and cling to
one another. several fall prostrate.
those more distraught tear their hair
and rip their gowns.
This is getting ridiculous. The prince
is embarrassed. I throw a quick glance
toward the castle. Backdrop. There
is the queen. No one has noticed her.
She moves as if a dream. listless.
weightless. she seems to have little
to do with the proceedings. does she
understand that death is near?
she seems completely unaware.
How I admire her! She is a true heroine.
Oblivious of her power. how power, love
and death revolve around her! as though
she had never stood before a mirror.
The king is exasperated. her lack of
recognition. does his word mean nothing?
The ladies-in-waiting make up for it.
they weep harder at the sight of their
gentle queen. they beat their breasts in
unison. a few onlookers swoon. The
cook has to be carried off.
The queen is handed a spade. Was that a
smile that crossed her face? its impossible
to tell now.
Suddenly she shivers and says, “I’m cold”.
Instantly I feel the intense cold.
everyone does. god, its below zero.
I’m confused. wasn’t it just spring?
everyone has on thin wraps.
Even the king has but a simple velvet cloak
and not his usual ermine.
The ladies’ teeth chatter. the only way
to keep warm is to move. they begin to
dig like the devil. thirty women working
hard in the soil creates great warmth.
if they stop to rest they’ll freeze
The queen can’t seem to get in the swing
of things. she helps a bit. loosens a
chunk of hard clay or helps excavate a
huge rock. occasionally a smooth stone
or a pretty piece of crystal will attract
her. she handles it. examines it. turns
it over. drops it in her train which she
has gathered up smiling.
her childish delight in serving herself.
Frost is making it harder to dig. yet
the women are working like madmen to
The king has lost interest. the queen is
wandering off. everyone is going home.
I lose my footing
fall off the scaffold
everything in slow motion.
crime without passion
for sam shepard
the murdered boy
the murdered boy
the murdered boy
Oh I was bad
didn’t do what I should
mama catch me with a lickin’
and tell me to be good
when I was bad twice times
she pushed me in a hole
and cut off all my fingers
and laid them in a finger bowl
My mother killed me
my father grieved for me
my little sister Alma Lee
wept under the almond tree
Oh I loved a car
and when I was feeling sad
I’d lay down on my daddies ford
and I’d start to feel good
but I got real bad
robbed hubcaps from the men
and sold them to the women
then stole them back again
and you know when I was grown
had hubcaps of my own
and a Hudson Hornet car
and rolled the pretty ladies
and often went too far
I went to Chicago
I went to Kalamazu
I slid down to Nashville
raced in Tolkume
I rode to Selenas
rode by the sea
but the people all scolded
and pointed to me
they said there’s a bad boy
I was so bad boy
that they gathered their daughters
I heard what they said
stay away from him honey
cause that boy is bad
and though he’s hung good
and flashes that loot
steer away from his highway
he rides a wrong route
cause he’s a bad boy
Yeah I was so bad boy
my mama killed me
my father grieved for me
my little sister Alma Lee
wept under the almond tree
She Wept For Me
And I wept on the stock car
I crashed through the trees
fenders hot as angels
blazed inside me
I captured the junkyards
I jack knifed the cars
and sped to the canyon
but never hid far
from the auto mechanics
den of thieves
I worshiped these men
but they hated me mom
They called me mamas boy
they screamed me to leave them
they threatened to me then
mom mom mom
Mom Mom Mom
Oh Monday at midnight
til Tuesday at two
drunk on tequila
I was thinking of you mom
I drove my car on mom
My stock car was blazing
wrecking cars was my art
I held a picture of you ma
close to my heart
I rode closed window
it was 90 degrees
the croud was screaming
screaming at me they hated me
they said I was nonsense
true diver chicken driver
But I couldn’t hear them
I couldn’t see
those fenders hot as angels
blazed inside me
I sped on lined with speed and heat
and mama I cracked up with the croud at my feet
I rolled in flames rolled in a pit
where you laid me out with a tire iron
and shot me with your shit
And I could’ve got up
bur the croud it screamed no
That boy is evil
too bad for parole
so bad his mama
rolled him in a hole
and cut off all his fingers
and laid them in a finger bowl
His mother killed him
His father grieved for him
His little sister Alma Lee
wept under the almond tree
[from Living with the Animals, edited by Gary Indiana, New York: Faber & Faber, 1995]
My Grandfather was the village potter. He was also the keeper of a famous stream. It was said to have curative powers, and people came from great distances to fill tiny bottles to wear around their necks. All about were trees. The willow curving above the tiled roof of my grandfather’s house. The cypress heading the garden at stream’s end and just beyond, past the workshed, the dense blossoming of his orchard. In summer the blossoms fell, carpeting the earth. In autumn the golden fruit followed, fragrant and sweet. The people, having filled their bottles, would buy the fruit and my grandfather’s wares. His bowls were especially prized. All of his love fused in their uncommon glaze. Each imperishable, unique.
On the eve of my fourteenth year, he sent a messenger with gifts and a letter requesting that I come and serve as his apprentice. I would learn all that he knew and one day inherit his land and continue his work. My father agreed, and the next morning, as my mother wept, I packed my sack, called my dogs, and said my farewells. It was a long way and the messenger and I returned on foot, in silence. My dogs ran on ahead in chase of a hare. As we approached the familiar stream I too broke into a run. The evening’s last light heightened the beauty of the woodland, the orchards and the surrounding hills, and I could not contain my joy. I arrived at my grandfather’s door flushed and road weary. He welcomed me with a bowl of warm milk and thick sour bread. I could not help thinking that soon I would be drinking from my own bowl turned by my own hand.
That night my dreams were invaded by the baying of my dogs. I dreamed of the forest, the stream and sky. I dreamed everywhere I ran the earth was my own. The next morning I began my studies. I worked hard. The days bled into seasons. I was happy there. My dogs ran free and I was experiencing new sensations, the most consuming being the power I felt when I threw at the wheel.
The seasons bled into years. My grandfather spent a lot of time in space. He would sit for hours in the garden and stare until something in his line of vision would disintegrate, break into a thousand tiny flashes and just disappear. I watched his progress from a small opening in the potters shed. A rock, a bush, and then, to my great horror, his favorite dog. After that he stayed in the garden all of the time–even at night.
One morning I sat before him and our eyes locked. Remembering the dog, I held on. His eyes were like violet flowers–centuries of love and death seemed to swirl in their purple depths. Mine were white–untested, pure. Our energies met full force, but I was younger and stronger and he collapsed. After that I avoided his eyes. I kept my dogs penned in a nearby field, and in a corner of the shed I nursed Mirza, an orphaned whelp, the only surviving trace of my grandfather’s favorite dog.
I loved my grandfather, but I loved my life more. I spent a lot of time in the hills with Mirza, searching the caves for new deposits of clay. Soon I would be a man, I would have my own kiln, be my own master. My grandfather remained in the garden, an almost discarnate fixture. I continued my work.
On the morning of my eighteenth year I extracted a special bowl from the kiln. I delighted as always in the birth process of my wares. A firebox provided the heat which passed up through the firebars into the pottery chamber, the chamber of clay dying with the solid birth of the object. Demolishing the temporary structure, I scraped away the dead clay and turned the bowl in my hands–a gift for Mirza. Destruction and creation commingling in a single piece. Something welled up inside me as I placed the bowl before Mirza, and her eyes, violet and wide, seemed to tell me it was good.
That same evening, my grandfather vanished. The people of the village gathered with their torches and searched the field and forest. They never found him. It was my opinion, though I told no one but Mirza, that he had turned his gaze inward and consumed himself. I formed an urn in his memory and applied a special glaze, an almost unholy shade of purple, to match my grandfather’s eyes. I set it in the garden where he once sat. I noticed visitors averted their eyes when passing it.
All that had been my grandfather’s came into my hands. And I reached beyond him, extending into sculpture. I formed cherubs, statues, monoliths. My fame grew; my wealth increased. Life was good. I was strong and healthy. I could have my pick of the village girls. Yet I dwelled on the outskirts of my own prosperity. I preferred to be alone with Mirza and my new dog, a wolf cub I found in a cave while searching for clay. In time he became my constant companion. Mirza would lie by the urn, regarding us with a mixture of sadness and reproach. But I was too restless to comfort her. I let her draw comfort from the peace of the garden while I went hunting with my wolf dog.
The village widows, bred on superstition, warned me against him. He was a wolf, an agent of evil. I only laughed. He was but myself–a loner with an unapologetic, lively nature. He reveled in his solitude, as did I. At day’s end, when the last of the light highlighted all the beauty that was now mine, I stood and surveyed it with greedy pleasure. I opened the store of wine; I drank with abandon. Within me was a burning. “I am my own kiln,” I cried. I conjured waves of light, arms, torsos that became infamous mold in my hands. I danced upon the low wood tables as my beast howled. It was our joy.
On brilliant nights we emerged from the shed to dance in the moonlight, only to find Mirza hovering over our joy like an old Greek nurse. She was like the women in the village and I took to treating her as I treated them, with contempt. Perhaps my wolf felt this from me, because he too was showing signs of hostility toward her.
Mirza, who I had rescued with such care from my grandfather’s gaze. Who I had fed from a bottle, brushed, and caressed. Who I had whispered all my youthful hopes and desires. But I was no longer a youth, but a man. And she no longer a pup, but a stinging grandmother. Every race is conquering. She was killed by my wolf dog. She already belonged to the past, sympathetic, beyond dignity. She was lying there under the cypress tree pouring syrup from her clock. The spring in the back of her neck was clear and sweet. I don’t know. I never drank from it. Nor did I pass long in those eyes, as necessary as the glasses for a 3-D movie. She was sympathetic. In the remote soil of her eyes were the ruins, the arcades, the archways of history.
The women beat my wolf. They demanded his skin but I could not kill him. He was more myself than dog. That idiot smile. He cowered when he saw me but bared his teeth. In a rage I cut them, humiliating him. I penned him up. I put him out to run with the old women. The women with rattles in their chests. I no longer went out to hunt. I longed to run with him, share his humiliation. Maybe I loved him more than before. I grew weak. The lore of fathers. I watched him, lying beneath the cypress tree. When the sky was heavy with almonds. When the sun beat down. When the fanwise invasion of wind whistles in the mouth. He lies there. His eyes, that were white and burning, now remote and sympathetic; resting directly on the future with the sticky sweetness of a clock.
Several nights after I had filed the teeth of my wolf I noticed the atmosphere shifting around me. I seemed to identify with everything. I was the foundation, the sticky coil of a vase. I was odorless stacks of fresh-fired plates, the cold stone of the kiln. It was impossible to work. Rolling the coils was the worst. They became alive in my hand. The lovely unrelenting statues would undulate in smoke. The freshly molded huntress waved her wrists, and I could discern her hips rotating sweetly beneath her girdle of soft wet clay. With a rope and pulley I laid her against the wall.
I was sweating and shivering and she was beckoning. I pressed my lips against her melting face, the coils of her hair squishing between my eager fingertips. I became addicted to a paste of almond meal and paregoric, of humping and shattering art. My trade suffered. Tourists and holy men sought vessels–souvenirs of the graced grounds where my dogs ran in packs. I suffered, passing for hours on a bed of dust, tormented with lust for objects, walls, and an intense craving for a sweet and sticky gas to blot me out. The dogs were wilder than ever. I couldn’t breathe. The women had a special tea sent to me.
Then a new shift. The sensation of invasion by a palpitating fist of warm light. The tea was sweet. At the bottom of the glass was a colorless grape. In a few hours it turned. I put it in the glazed bowl I had made for Mirza. It suddenly dominated the room. It was a breast with a sore and poking nipple, the oiled bottom of a slave. I lay on my stomach, my heart pounding against the stone floor–my sex obliterated by objects–the bowl grew still larger. The vibrating grape split and revealed a white snake. Someone had eaten a portion of it. Something was alive and wriggling inside of me. My belly swelled like the cheeks of a glass-blower. I couldn’t move. The pain increased into the sound of wailing curses. The women entered, circled, and shook their rattles. Montage of trees, bowl, and canine teeth. Who would feed my wolf… The sting of relief won out. I lay there conscious only of the motion of my head rising, of lips to a glass or a stream of powder entering my vein. When at last the fever subsided I rose with a start. I dressed in a simple suit of cloth stuff and inspected everything. The statues and vessels had been preserved with wet sheets.
Nothing lost. Everything was blooming, the air vibrant and sweet. I found my wolf dog lying in the garden. Perhaps he had shared my fever as he had once shared my joy. But no one had cared for him and he was hardly more than a shadow, a translucent coat of fur stretched beneath the cypress tree. I called for a boy to fetch a syphon and the bowl that had once belonged to Mirza. I remembered the spring and drew from it. I had never drunk from it but the waters were legendary. I dipped from them and poured between his filed teeth. I felt woozy. I laid my head upon the coat of my wolf dog and slept.
Idiot rule. The big tree fucks the small grass. Tomorrow I am a tadpole, an insignificant shell. But this afternoon I pass for a long time dreaming and feeling a thrill to the kill of Mirza. To a time when my young wolf dog was mad with the projection of the human personality.
Salif Keita – Yambo