About this essay
Written in 2015 and first published as a standalone blog, I refer affectionately to As Is as a “free-form essay” without quite knowing what the term means. The piece, divided into nine parts, or verses, is as much poem as it is essay, as much memoir as it is poem, and as much a celebration of life and language as all three. Its several references to Stephen, Mary, and my novel A Listening Thing were completely unplanned, as was the work itself. Indeed, looking back now, I can’t help thinking that As Is wrote me, rather than the other way around — not an unfamiliar feeling. Another thing I might add to further muddy the water is that I was immersed at the time in reading Emerson’s complete works, as preserved in the fourteen-volume Standard Library Edition published late in the nineteen century by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Chances are this won’t mean much in the current context. But I note it here because it might one day serve as a reminder of something I once understood or was trying to understand at the time.
No fiddle, no middle, no end
~ One ~
The hours are sweetened with study. The big dictionary is left open and is in daily use. Forgotten meanings are patiently restored, new ones acquired, pronunciations savored, roots explored. There is no particular end in view, no fiddle to play, no middle to bore. Mind is a cathedral, memory a stained glass window. Age is a teacher, health a schoolmate, pain a familiar path home. The head, gradually losing its hair, is a kind of revolving ornament, in one sense unnecessarily large for what it contains, in another not nearly large enough. It is hard, yet can as accurately be described as soft. The life force, as expressed in the generalities and peculiarities of its human manifestation, seems ordained to observe, and to observe itself in the act of observation, making it the observer observed ad infinitum. Whether this is the crux of its existence, or simply a result, is a question the manifestation is fond of asking itself, although it is not much concerned with finding an answer, or with knowing an answer exists. Despite these many signs, it is not even sure of its own existence. And so it is sufficient to say that it likes to know, or likes to think it knows, but is pleased with not knowing, if it knows that much. To a large degree, this condition, or outlook, or limitation, serves as a form of identity, a place to return to, so to speak, which may or may not be important, just as it may or may not be inspiring, poetic, tragical, comical, pathetic, interesting, or grand. In essence it is a human flag, meaningful or meaningless depending on where and how it is flown, always subject, like knowledge itself, to being honored, dishonored, or taken down. It is also a rainbow, gracing the poverty and wealth of its own pot of gold. It is an invitation and warning, a Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate, for those lost in a wood. Whatever it is, a child coming upon it smiles. And in this there is hope.
~ Two ~
The study is sweetened with hours. It is visited by light and by dark, and there is no time when both are not present. Each object casts its own shadow, each shadow its object. One shadow of a shadow’s shadow, a gentle spirit, also inhabits the study. It has been imagined, sensed, felt, heard. When seen, this genius loci is holding a book. It is clear by its attitude that the volume is meant as an offering. But at the very moment the book is about to pass from its hands into those of another, the spirit suddenly fades. When the intended recipient hesitates, the spirit’s image grows strong again. And so the book never does change hands. The spirit is like a cradle. Remove the child, the cradle dims. Return the child, or install another in its place, the cradle rocks and glows once more. There is something immensely sad in the spirit’s inability to give away its book. Or perhaps not sad, but profound. Yet why make any such judgment at all? The spirit’s tendency to fade may have nothing to do with this world, could be part of its natural condition. It is here, and it is not here. It is also possible that its appearance and manner depends on the various recipients, who are not regular inhabitants of the study, but curious visitors and lingering passersby. It could be their projection. Being the mysterious place it is, the study provides an ideal atmosphere for minds to play and run wild. The room, with its shelves lined with books, and its strange, inaccessible, unexplored regions, is ripe with suggestion. Its existence is assumed, wished for, perhaps, but not proved. Reality is like that, with its ideas, dreams, and mists, its impressions, longings, and regrets. Sweetened with this, the study is a study of hours, as a minute study of each shadow shows.
~ Three ~
The sweetness is a study of ours. It is Babel first spoken, Lazarus gone forth, Jesus unsure. It is an inspired crowd hungry for bread, the life force among us made manifest, choragus, chorus, and guest, the force with a face and a breath. It is the old family cat, shaken lifeless through the tail by death. It is the leaf of the birch on his grave in all yellowness, moss-bent, mold-scent, sun-crest, squirrel-script read through a raindrop. It is the bird’s eye of a hole in the fence, the crypt of a cliff that is cleft, the yes to confess without rush or recess language is like that. It is the honey of study, flower by flower the vein of a hymn, wing-wind, sun-thought, love-send, hum-taught, ever lighter the darker the age of the stem. And that is the whush of her hem. Akitsu knows where winter goes, that the light without is within, that the day within is without, that without within without is not if, but when. The presence of absence is like that, absent the notion of sin. She follows us in, lights on the lamplight as palm is to hand. Makes us make her her maker, makes her make us her friend. Akitsu knows we know where she is. We know she is kin of our ken. But where has she been? That is a study of flowers.
~ Four ~
Or is it that the genius loci imagines them? And who really fades? Who is here past the doubt of it? Who, thought gone, is away? Are the answers in his book, or only the questions such answers must bring? And why say we him? Why burden our lives with pale-dead concepts? Who male is not female, who female not male, who human not demon, who demon not angel, who spirit not marble not vapor not clay? Why not take the book? Is that not what the spirit most wishes? Why not read what it says? Is the habit of fear so precious? And if it is imagined, the he and the thee and the we and the they of it, why not rise and take wing? Why insist on the real when no one and nothing can say what it is? Heard not we Stephen, his listening thing?†‡
† A Listening Thing. A posthumous love letter, best thought of, perhaps, as being from Dante to Beatrice. A long poem in prose by a marginally fictional author about an intensely nonfictional hero and vice versa. Seen in this light, we might almost wonder whether the genius loci is Stephen himself. But if he is, what would that say about the author of this work, and of this work itself, if it really is a work and not the simple unvarnished truth? Sense being the illusively elusive thing it is, should we even pursue this line of inquiry? Or had we better feign wisdom and defer our judgment to the if-and-when of a time we are able to reason more clearly, hoping meanwhile the matter will resolve itself or be lost in the fray? And what of the robin in the birdbath being watched by its mate? What does that tell us, if anything? Everything, no? A flash, then a splash, and a leaf.
‡ Videte, Library of Congress.
~ Five ~
Aye, let us assume tracts not in evidence. Are they not written expressly for that purpose? Are we not born and do we not live in much the same way? Cherish the thought, for to be thus hastily unread, one must still be a book. The implications are grand. Any one of us, as everyone is, might be the spirit in the book in the gentle spirit’s hand. Take, therefore, and eat, this is my body, page of my page, flesh of my flesh, bone of my breath of my breast. Do this in remembrance of me, whether or not we exist.
~ Six ~
We speak of children. Perhaps we should describe them as they approach this sermon on the mount. They too are manifestations. Imagine manifestations meeting one another, each individual a multitude, a seed with an outer coating responsive to the touch, pleading for it, repelling it, desiring to understand and to be understood, and we see our sacred mount to the very feet of our observer observed covered with hungry blind poppies. Such is the fragrance of study. Such is the nature of thirst. Such is the surprise of our lord unrehearsed, that they jump when he jumps. And that is the source of their smile, the source of his hope. For to them there is no Stephen, no Mary,† and there are no circles of hell.
~ Seven ~
Let us also say, no Mary, no Stephen. For io Hymen, marry, ’t is so. Mary there is always, and always Mary shall be. Mary, the earth of good fortune, Mary, a galaxy. Stephen comes and he goes, a study of a study in shade. He is a hut a hermit has made, a fire gone out, a blackened hearth of stone, she the very vergissmeinnicht that calls him back home. He is her fancy, she the truth he has won. From desk to door runs her river, from window to wall bends her grain. There is art in between, primitive and plain, meant to express what confession disdains, a masque of his masks, patiently blind, needless of praise, dramatically, in no wise grammatically sane. In this she is pleased. Hear how she laughs and claps as her thunder is made. See how she reigns. Is this what she means by the weft of her dress, and the warp that is left to what seems? The masks are adance. More wait in the wings. A pantomime follows. Their Spanish is English, their Gaelic, when Latin, sounds French in its Greek. No ears and no feet, yet quite near heroic when seen from the street. Such is this canvas of ours, the sky begins at the floor, a sea of a moor, and we are heath-tossed, peat-lost, black as the night on his horse, cotton-bound, sheet-sound to the white of her course. And so he lives by her light, ever the better, never for worse.
~ Eight ~
Is Stephen, then, an eleemosynary? Merry, are not we all gracious, tenacious, herewith-our-handout obsolete nouns? Blessings upon us, our standalone bones, the mesh of our flesh, our fishes and loaves. Are we not the connection, the sand to the foam, the barque to its rolle, the wine on the deck to the vessel it fills? Mary, the guests are assembled. Mary, we do what you will. Such is the study of Stephen Monroe. Such is the life she makes of the plight and the rasp of the gasp of the last of the he and the we of the bliss of our loam.
~ Nine ~
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.† Yet pity not the grey-beard loon. Ear him, eye him, pledge him your schoon, the oak of his root, the dust of this room. Love him, leave him, and let yourselves be. For we are all wise enough, sublime in our calling by sighs enough, weathered of time and silvered with rime enough, to see.
† The Ancient Mariner, bless him.
Categories: Essays and Collections