June 12, 2014 Plume




After much wandering, I am back here, though I never really left. It is still as vivid as ever though now mostly in variations and gradations of gray. Even though the old farmhouse and out buildings are decaying, I still find things I’d missed before, old implements in a shed, a large barn with entire oak-trees for beams, a field filled with potatoes even in winter, still growing from thick white roots. I thought I’d closed the doors and windows but they were all open. Behind the house is still the mountain, the magic mountain I’ve known since childhood, full of wonders. I never know where I’m going so it’s always a challenge and always unpredictable in its woods and moods. I never see anyone since there is no one to see. The area is “undeveloped” and will remain so, I’m sure. My fields are overgrown and forests have crept back in. Sometimes, aurochs and bison move through the trees right up to the fences once meant to keep cattle in but which are now all down. Some mornings I sit on the loose stone wall near the spring and watch the strings of geometric images float across my eyes, “ocular migraines,” I think they’re called. I watch as they rise from deep in the visual cortex, patterns and structures, and as I follow their stories I get lost, I get lost, I lose the limits of being and body until I return by falling, dizzy, off the wall.

I’d prefer not to talk further about this, and think I’ll stop here, in part because I’m sure previous letters have not made it through. Certainly I’ve had no reply. (Of course, I may have the wrong address).  So not only have I wasted time writing them, but I’m not that happy sharing a place few people know about, or want to know about. It’s a remote, rather backward part of the world, like Wittgenstein’s Norway, and, to be honest (I hope this phrase doesn’t imply I’m usually dishonest), it’s never been a tourist spot though when I first came here aeons ago there were working farms where the farmers would occasionally put up visitors to help make ends meet. Now, though the farms are gone, I still come back because it is autonomous, autochthonous, a place that never fails to surprise in its silence and anonymity. Still, it is a good place to think, pull your life together before it’s too late, even if some days it is impossible to know if you exist or not. In its calm silence I feel like a ghost.  It would be hard to live here alone full time.  I’ve tried it. There isn’t, for example, anybody to summon for miles around to help you out with tasks, and there’s no electricity or mod cons. When the truck quit I just pushed it into the old stone quarry. Every winter, on my own I have to close the heavy oak shutters to keep the cold out. This also, of course, traps smoke and cuts out light so if you want to visit a doctor with chest and eye ailments, too bad. Also, you yourself have to grow, find, stock up food and monitor its consumption. When it’s gone there is no more. And there isn’t anyone to wake you on cold gray mornings when you want to sleep forever. But I’m not totally alone. From time to time I have visitors. For instance, my best friend came back as someone else. This time he smoked, when he had previously quit, carelessly dropping matches all over the place. And he ignored me. He looked the same but acted completely different. He was sullen when he had been happy. He kept coming in through the same door at the top of the stairs. He left a long time ago but it seemed like yesterday. Where had he been to return so different? He wouldn’t talk. Once he screamed. They say time passes, but I think it more likely that time stands still as a lamp and we pass in front of it, briefly illumined. We go back and forth, round about and back again, getting thinner, wearing out but never away. We just stay ourselves while becoming someone else.



Anyhow, be that as it may. That was all I was going to say, except for something curious that happened yesterday as I was sitting in the outhouse searching about for something to read and came across a few crumbling tattered sheets the mice had left. I sat with them on my lap. They were not in my handwriting and not in my style. They were typed, a mechanical method of recording experience which I abhor. (I am now writing fast, hoping this last pencil stub makes it to the end). From internal evidence, I thought these fragments might have belonged to a former owner, renter or squatter, someone who seemed to be a person of unsound mind, perhaps a writer (I include what seems to be a silly story of his, or hers, with a strange title), and something too of an academic who fancied himself or herself as a poet, an essayist, even an autobiographer, a genre I detest. Anyhow, as I said, with nothing better to do, I read them and decided to copy them out and include them in the envelope (if I can find one) for your amusement. Not that there was any point, of course, since there is no post office within reach, but it gives me something to do in the evenings, though I may, in fact, end up putting this paper to a more practical use.



can’t read fiction. I wish I could. I feel left out. I can read only poetry and non-fiction. I don’t go for Aristotle’s “imitation.” When I imitate I don’t imitate a solid center but what falls between, what balances on boundaries or lives on edges. If I am imitating, I am imitating how I’ve always lived my life and what I am, for better or worse. Moreover, I have “a special lack of national and local roots,” Elizabeth Hartwick on Sylvia P….

….try to abstract the range and scope of human experience, what we think we know, it diminishes and eventually cancels as it expands like facing mirrors’ infinite reflections. Put Montaigne’s positivistic “observe, observe perpetually”, in front of Descartes’ “there are no certain marks by which the state of waking can be distinguished from a dream of ordinary life.”  What is there to observe now? I am not a systematic thinker, so I don’t know.

…. no contact with the contemporary, the flimsy, graspable world of winners and losers. The world is way beyond imitating and grasping. It is fantastic, on a cosmic and a quantum scale, a world of layers of dimensions no one can grasp, a world of self-similarity, like the self-similarity of poems, or snowflakes. So I live in the hallucinatory and unreal which disguises itself as real until it is, and I try to listen while it speaks for itself, each word a concentrated plot pushing on, each sentence an energy that has a say in its own destiny. Any control I have is part of a continuum, a collaboration, so most of the time, if I’m lucky, in Stephen Daedalus’ words, “I am almosting it.” The result is not thought as we know it, but something more prehistoric, what the great paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan calls the thinking of prealphabetical antiquity, “a mode of thought based on multidimensional configurations,” and which I link to what Derrida calls “the joyous affirmation of the play of the world,” which affirms “the non-center otherwise than as a loss of center.” Now….

….we all know how a word and the object it refers to, the object for which it stands, are not the same. Therefore…

Those are the fragments. This is the story (if that’s what it is) in its entirety:

              FIAT MONEY

Everything begins when everything is like images thrown on the blank white wall by the fire’s flowering or when water in a glass jar reflects everything around it. I live here, or rather I don’t live. I watch myself living. I feel I can do this here, growing richer and wiser, sensing possibility since, as John Gray says, with currencies now not tied to physical assets, as they were in the times of the gold standard, there is no limit to the amount of money that can be created.



There. That’s it. All I could find or make out, not much, but every little helps as the monkey said as he peed into the ocean, or a little goes a long way, as the monkey said as he peed over the cliff. Well, not all. I had to utilize some of the paper for immediate purpose. I always thought literature should be practical. What’s more…

The pages in this file were copied from pencil longhand, and from some in print, and put into the computer machine by my niece, Miss Susan Smallridge, home for Christmas from college. They was found by me on a desk made from a chest of maplewood drawers with a sheet of grade C plywood lying on top. I conducted an investigation after two pipe-line surveyors reported hearing mysterious goings on at the old abandoned Lebed property. They said that when they had went there they heard strange laughter, groaning, crying and singing, even a scream or two, and so they high-tailed it out of there. My deputy Bill Kneed and me proceeded to proceed up there but found nothing out of the ordinary except for some footprints in the snow which they could have been ours as we investigated around, but upon hearing sounds upstairs upon further investigation we came across some papers on the dresser which we proceeded to bag in the hope that they might be useful sometime in solving the scene of a possible crime and which my niece, Miss Susan Smallridge, copied out which was just as well because soon after this the main house went up in flames which we will look into come spring.


Rev. Orville E. Corn, Jr., sheriff and proprietor of the Last Chance gas station and dry-goods store.






                                                   “…the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model…and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observation.” *


* All quotes are from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, “The (Elusive) Theory of Everything” @ Scientific American (October, 2010).



By the lumps of mud water bugs gather. The sun sets.
We are going to sleep standing on our hearts. Sometimes an image peers down a well, and another gazes back.
The pendulum awakens at night, and is breathed on.

Everything is larger than I thought, deeper and darker till it all ends in the cave of the mother, surrounded by models of her mountains and the old idols you reach on hands and knees, crawling along the dank tunnel. There are innumerable birds and fireflies, chips of live light, cold and calling like silk in a dimension of beauty you can’t measure, or even call beauty, so you crawl back out to the factory floor where you can meet whoever you want.  There’s Mr. Marx trying to feed the rabbits and eating his shoes. And there’s Mr. Spenser, but only his invisible hand so you’ll have to talk to that, and there’s the progressive Mr. Herder who has, unfortunately, given up on the Naturliche Billigkeit of those living close to nature and walking proudly through the machines of the artificial, the work of man’s laboring thought, though you can still hear Mr. Kant’s voice over the PA system expounding on the freedom of the will if you feel yours is still up to it. But perhaps you’d prefer to return to those lumps of mud which have become trees and those insects that are boys in the branches. They are also birds and those men below with bows and arrows are hunters, but not in our sense. It’s not as they see it. They are imitating something, but what they are imitating is already an imitation though they don’t know it. But clearly they must know they are not like they are or they couldn’t be what they are doing what they’re doing. They would have no purpose. They would have no meaning simply as themselves. A thing is a sign of another thing and this consists of memories which are desires and desire shapes things, which shape desire. We compare reality to a picture of it and find it wanting but what it’s wanting we can’t tell.




At the end of the transept you can see him dancing under a stained-glass tree from which another naked man hangs. From his fingertips birds spill, and from his head fawns and phalloi. At his feet milkweed sprays across the water. Behind all this a fish-line snakes off, and behind that scrolls of nets from boats heading across. This should have been part of a triptych but only this and another panel remain. The other is a rock-cut water-course with bathing-places in the woods beside painted tombs over which light scatters like insects. Just how these two panels are related, however, is unclear since the middle one is missing. In fact there may never have been a middle one. It is also possible that the present order is at best provisional or at worst incorrect. If so, permutations (increased, of course, if there were three not two), are possible.



The Sound in the Night

“…The way physics has been going, realism is becoming difficult to defend.”

We go through the possibilities. Nothing fits. Nothing we can count on. So why should it be anything? That would focus everyone’s attention. We’d all go quiet, listening, for the first time, each hearing whatever it is he or she hears, and we’d keep it to ourselves, where each can listen alone to the sound, deep cousin to silence, in its own way absolute, inviolate, inviolable, and unknown.




Three-Day Vacation

“…according to quantum physics the past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.”


The rooms in the boarding house are labeled alphabetically. We chose the M-T suite, eight small rooms, seven really since what should be AT@ is marked AM@ again, perhaps in the interest of economy, but since our two AM@ rooms are identical that may also be the reason, except all the other rooms are identical. It takes us three days to empty our two cardboard cases and arrange the contents in the rooms. We leave no surface uncovered: memorabilia, trinkets, cards and photographs, lots of photographs, framed, stretching way back. All are placed carefully. Every cupboard, every shelf and closet is filled and the two cases squeezed under the bed. A concrete plant-holder on the single tiny terrace gets stuffed with a leafy plant. Then, when everything’s unpacked, displayed or storied, before we have time to settle in we look around and realize: It all has to go back into the cases. We try. And try. But it won’t. There’s simply too much. And even if we could, there’s no time. No time at all.




String Theory

“… To discuss the universe we must employ different theories in different situations… None works well in all situations.”


Once more snakes vanish into their trails, mountains float and poppies go off. Sounds fall like silk. Everything you remember remembers you. Though the world is spirit it leaves a track and that’s the plot that starts following itself but soon splits, and splits again, losing and finding itself, changed in the process. It has its reasons. To keep safe from searchlights its voices are muffled so they bend and turn in their own unique ways with pulses like the wind, membranes blown about, a way of filling emptiness. How lovely to be there, staking oneself to no new beginnings yet always beginning, how good to be sufficient and useless. Lost shores are still shores, the unseen visible still, vivid and fake as holograms. As skies gleam and disappear deeper into themselves, sometimes they break free, tighten up, chase and become loose again, swarms of vibrating strings, humming different songs in different places at the same time only a few of which we hear, wave after wave.




The Rill

“In the framework of quantum physics, particles have neither definite positions nor definite velocities unless and until an observer measures those qualities.”


The mountain is a pattern that whirls, its brightness the absence of absence. Walking here is not easy. Once in there seems no end. It’s dark, but some light’s saved in melting snow along the stream where a water-ouzel runs and vanished. Underwater he looks like something burning in a high bright window. The wind weaves back to its source and out again, going past me, past the old growth of huge pine the clear-cut forgot, past patches of dark, past cracked and broken things and back into those things so they seem whole, cues and slews like thought itself of which this is the thought, the way the rill contains itself, overrunning slabs and rearing back, its clamor in the quiet an expression of that quiet, its clarity what it lives on and gives rise to, allowing itself to be anonymous whatever we call it, faster and faster, its freedom restraint, always ahead of itself in the forefront of falling and falling over, moving forward in place, measuring itself to extinction, and I follow its pulses that deny themselves the higher and deeper I trek, finally leaving me in the center of where there is none.




Albert and Not Albert

“… that diversity is acceptable and none of the versions can be said to be more real than any other.”


A white blossom on the white picnic table supports the clouds. The green meadow is filled with mad marguerites. A dog howls as if he’s flying, and suddenly morning brings snow, and Albert, who gets off his bike, panting and apologetic, and in half-a-dozen languages asks his way home. I point, all the time eyeing the steaming compost-heap topped with intact flower heads, and I think: If space is time and time space, don’t they cancel out? That would help account for Albert’s confusion, and my own sense that I am everywhere and nowhere, standing off to the side, watching myself slide through simultaneous seasons, becoming everyone and on one, alive and not alive, Albert and not Albert.




Hell and Heaven

“In some cases, individual objects do not even have an independent existence but rather exist only as an ensemble of many.”


You could be inside your self, salt in water, still to precipitate out. You could be in a missing persons bureau not knowing where to begin, or in snow with no trace to follow, just dints the wind made. Yet things burn here with a patient lazy glow, as in a furnished room with a coin-fed gas fire where you glimpse yourself from time to time in the flickering on the dusty furniture or cold oilcloth. There are many rooms to move through where disembodied body might brush body. God’s here too, concise as an almond, cool as the coils of hippocampus. His skin, chromium as an early 60s Buick, flashes and fades as he goes to work filling in the great hole for what could eventually be more sky. He quotes himself a lot, to varying effect. There is no moon, only a reasonable facsimile thereof, made opulent by silence which is made of something we have no name for. You know things here by feel, the body plenary as ellipses no paraphrase can close. But for now that can be ignored. What works is what works, as you try to get back out in front of yourself to become for a while what you were before, clamber out of your reflection to become literal again, though really, what’s the point here among all these shards and casques and caskabells, Tlaloc’s flayed skins, Gargantuan shadows and thread-like wings, blind rhyming things? It all holds together so you can count on yourself, all your incompletions, because while you can never be complete here where the world warps and the wrestler weeps and waves himself goodbye, where the economy is built on speculation and can go on forever, it need never crash, here where skies of satellites and stars talk to each other, to earthworms and coalseams, on what seems equal footing. There is no design, just patterns, the way we can’t help connecting things, dot to dot, note to note, as the night sky itself mirrors thoughts and afterthoughts and becomes stories, throwing back dark as a reflection as light had been a reflection of dark, so we think we might see.




Passing Time

“As measuring devices…we are crude instruments.”


Despite statements to the contrary, we haven’t yet discovered the other side so it can’t lead to the creation of the monumental time we call eternity. Here where inscriptions look original, all have a source. The real proof of our powers would be the destruction of the sundial’s shadow. Instead what we make is decoration, a way to pass time, an architecture employing time as one of its terms, space the other, and running them together, where each face is decorated with another which has gone before and left the contaminating trace we call proof. And so our experience of the dead is difficult to distinguish from a kind of cultivated pleasure, a dark costume of attributes where they can be lost and us with them, margin become center, border being, loss profit, an edifice of and to its own devised desires.




Brian Swann was born on Tyneside, at the place where Hadrian decided to stop building his wall across England: Wallsend. He was Foundation Scholar at Queens’ College, Cambridge (BA, MA) and Proctor Fellow at Princeton, where he taught and obtained his PhD with a dissertation on George Eliot. He became a US citizen in 1980. He has published many books of various kinds: short fictions, books for children, poetry in translation, poetry (his most recent collection is In Late Light, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), and Native American Studies (his next book, Sky Loom: Native American Myth, Story, Song, will be published in the fall of 2014 by the University of Nebraska Press, where he is also founding editor of the “Native Literatures of the Americas” series). He teaches at the Cooper Union in New York City. A lifelong jock, he rowed for Cambridge University Boat Club and was in event-winning Queens’ College crews at Henley Royal Regatta. He also played rugby for Sale RFC, albeit for their 3rd. XV, and briefly. At the time of writing, however, his athletic ambitions have been reduced to learning to walk again when, after a work-out at the Crunch gym, he was crossing Lafayette opposite the Public Theater and was hit by a truck going down the one-way street in reverse.