Lesser Gods and the Suns They Bear
These poems are, in another incarnation, one poem, a book-length sequence entitled Rise and Fall of the Lesser Sun Gods, forthcoming in 2018 from Elixir Press. What binds the whole is its exploration of the sun as central to imaginative life and the summons of the absolute. In the sun, we imagine both our cradle and our fate, the ultimate contingency by which we measure our lives. The genealogy of any pantheon begins with the sun, the lion of the heavens, and continues to evolve and inflect our more secular relations. In our daily exchanges, we seek out new suns or ways to see them. We live out an unsuspecting metaphysics, made of monotheistic and polytheistic desire, in pursuit of meaning and the threshold where all meaning ends. Monotheism and polytheism can thus be understood broadly as universal modes of being, key to how we negotiate otherness—each with its virtues, its hazards, its politics and art, its magnanimity and potential for cruelty and force.
The monotheist articulates a desire for peace, for a harmonizing of purposes and particulars via compassion, cooperation, or even a dissolution of the individual ego, but a singular absolute makes enigmatic, if not problematic, one’s particular relations. Given our instinctual predilection for projection and transference, our shared challenge remains: to see ourselves, our desires, mirrored in images of those we love, emulate, fear even, and yet to remain apart. We measure our lives in accordance with the sun. We look to it constantly, careful not to scorch our eyes. We dream of suns. They are parts of us, and still we wake un-damaged, unconsumed. The question is ever this: how does one radiate as an expression of a god without becoming one? What does it mean to be one with some divine body? Does worship breed self-inflation? What does supplication repress? Where is the sacrifice in the sacrament? Suns blind, we know, and issues of how absolutes are conceived, how they inform self-other relations, go to the heart of problems that afflict us globally and to challenges of a more personal nature. We cannot help it. The mind longs to understand collective identities by way categories that fail (they must) the nameless fullness of being.
That said, there is no avoiding the emotional if not practical necessity of using such categories to understand one’s self and world and likewise the breakdown of our language for each. Even the most earnest testament, the clearest case for a bettering of lives, is made of irresolvable tensions between particulars and broad categories of knowledge. I take inspiration from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who believes that the realm of thought is inherently metaphysical—that is, we cannot begin to speak without invoking universals, the experience of which is at best inferred. Moreover, these universals often take shape as imagined totalities that would stabilize the system of signs and make something akin to clear understanding possible. Totalities and universals however have the effect of effacing individuals. Those we see before us lose some measure of their complexity, some light in the spectrum of emotional need. What we see through the lens of words and knowledge, possessed, is, to some extent, ourselves.
I choose the sun god as a point of reference to explore absolutes not only because it often appears in cultures as their first god-image, but also because the sun’s rising and setting haunts our mythic images with the notion of their evolution and demise. When the fire goes out, what then becomes of the ghost face we saw in flames? What is a god without a story, a story without the particulars of a world that ends? The twilight of the god image is unnerving, in part because it reveals in us something of our idolatrous nature. It reminds us of a larger threat to meaning that no language can resolve. Time’s victims seek a totality of meaning, a god, a totality that makes the journey meaningful, just as gods seek the many particulars of time. But the searching never ends. The one can never be the many. Or the many, one. Not as we know them, as we speak. The only eternity we know is our eternal desire to know. I imagine a child as coming into the world with a fundamental, however unconscious, relationship with sunlight. Its power provides a language for whom and what we value: the loved, the lost, the fetishized, the misconceived. Out of the sun we are born. Into it, we pass. Like gods our shadows towering behind us.
If the head were the lord of the body,
it would never rest. But rise and fall,
as suns fall, only to crown the night
with want, loss, words that are the children of loss.
It would stare at suicide letters, heavy
in our hands, or close our eyes in prayer
to the dark of ink that brought us to it.
Death and I, we dreamed of being here
together, but our names broke down before us.
I apologize to those whose names I forget,
whose deaths are one death now. What did I
expect. And who. What lord of the lord
brain that longs to be a servant of mind.
Last night I left a dead man in a vault.
And then I woke. And he was nowhere.
The door to the vault untouched by hands.
The empty safe became my name for him.
Our shared frailty made me lighter, weaker.
I do not pretend I loved him enough
or love saves us from something other
than one such love. You and I were listening
to Leonard Bernstein once—to God is
the simplest of them all—and I saw
there a particle so small it was the stuff
of every other. Like desire at the root
of dread and sacrifice. Or an instinct
in the thinking core. Is it true: stars
lie down, with us, in the names of friends.
One and one are still one, if you believe
the music. The language that believes in nothing.
One and one are eleven, says the logic
of chisels. They cannot make them one mark.
The praise of simple things is a breath.
Go ask the uncut grasses of the common.
Must one god be our particle, our root.
Language beyond language longs to lie
in the common. To die in empathy
for death since we cannot understand it.
I never understood the friend who drank
himself blind. Easy to condemn.
Stars are cold. As nails in December.
But sky is neither simple. Nor equation.
If the head were the god of the body,
power would flow in one direction. Like light
over moons and stones and our talk
with stones, when we become the half that listens.
The memorial made of black rock,
of men’s names laid in a deeper shade,
recruits no child here. My language is
more a thing of stone each time I visit.
Eclipses have a history of people
going mad. Giant frogs devour them.
Villagers miscarry. Peasants bang
pots and spoons to scare the beast away.
A certain madness explains. Here lies
the one that will not, cannot. Everywhere,
the nothing that reveals. I know less
and less, when I stand before a monument.
The star-hard crest of a deeper burden.
Fifty-eight thousand names. You can read
them with your hands. Imagine that
and then a rock seventy times the size.
Numbers matter. I cannot tell you why,
not in the way numbers can. Imagine
the heavier monument, the absent cry
for a nation that gave our war its name.
Sun arcs the yard in one direction. It falls,
gods fall, and children, and our conflicts
in the childhood era. And the new child
works out his issues in violent avatars.
Tunes that beat the enemy unconscious.
A bored kid knows something about the power
of nothing. He has seen the black poppy
of a soldier’s eye. The book opened wide
for none to read. However large the flower.
Take this black mirror, the children looking in.
Take these names that would be one nation
under God. Among the stones of millions.
If you walk this way, just far enough,
alone, you see what our ancestors saw
in the twitching of reeds and sleepy limbs
of the vaguely remembered. Are you there,
says the literal tree that was a god once,
when the lords of bodies walked with us,
alone, and we felt connected as sleepers
are, who lie all night and speak to no one.
Are you there, says the hard evidence
of children, abandoned, intimately observed
by none. The dispossessed are echoes now
that left here long ago. Say a bird,
unseen, troubles a limb, a hidden space.
It leaves behind the shape we call bird,
hollow as the mouth that sings its name.
Walk with me into the open throat.
Hollow as mothers are who pulled us through
the lost angelic poverties of silence.
Then the goddess in the laurel says,
the world begins in trepidation and flight,
however rooted to the unseen ground.
We are going to need a better word
for life, more capable of mistakes.
More attuned to words, their swift departures,
rustling the evidence of leaves in flight.
The new laurels are dead and all machine:
smart phones that shudder from a space,
a pocket, and reason beyond reckoning
makes an autumn of our ancient music.
The other face of fall is science, dear science,
vaulted in life’s devices like a voice
made beautiful by what it has to learn.
Tell me, if what the goddess fears is rape,
does she escape into the laurel life
with her will to choose. You who walk
this way, alone, tell me, what is science
to a will like this. What is a laurel.
What to do with the question whose answers
are dilemmas. Long ago a goddess
became a tree because a man longed
to seize her, own her. She entered a season
more inexplicable because she saw
no other way. She escaped, alive
with leaves the season cast to the river.
A white ice fells the trees of November
made beautiful by what we have to learn.
We are going to need a better word
for a goddess we love and have no faith in.
The one we talk to still. And for the faith
whose repressed understandings emerge
in nightmares of poison water we give
to children. We have crossed that threshold
a child crosses into the science that makes
our pantheon a novelty. A toy.
Our gods displaced among the fetishes
of champions on club house walls, dream
boats, fast machines. When a tree-god dies,
it leaves behind a skeleton of attentions
in the pattern of trees that asks our science,
are you there. If I call, will you pick up.
Will you answer the cell of each live thing,
because it is lonely, specific, afraid.
Longing might be friendship to a child
who carves a loveless letter in a tree.
As if names were spirits, lives that ask,
will you cradle my phone-call in the wild
and say, hello, in the form of a question.
As doors do, or the mouth in agony
or song. When a sun dies, will you give
the news its voice. When the darkness opens.
Why Keats never found a way to end
his farewell to the gods, no one knew.
Our speaker, the dreamer, barely speaks.
But we do know this. As the poet wrote,
somewhere in a nearby room his brother
was dying. A tumbler tipped over and chimed.
The scent of blood had a metal in it.
No doubt a bit of insomniac confusion
explains some of the tedious weeping
of the poem’s shore and gorgeous depressives.
Gods of suns and planets die and still
skies move. Planets follow the laws of seasons.
Still an April sky floats across the ocean,
buckets overflowing with black milk.
All gods the gods of beauty now, carved
of wood and stone in these, our dying postures.
We remember Daphne not as this laurel
or that, but as a dream of one in all.
Not unlike a sick man whom we recall
in words that are a stranger to his sickness.
We say difference makes us memorial,
but as a god it eats us, its children. It forgets.
The way our common nature forgets the details,
or the details forget the way they felt.
The sun-god is swallowed in his own mane,
his fire roared like blood into a pillow.
What good are voices with no listener in them.
Sometimes the wind-borne anxieties—
the pillow startled red, the oblique signature
of clouds seen from the roof where a medic
smokes alone—they give themselves to one wind,
bound by a common emptiness, a cloud.
If those on stage take on the fire
of the footlights, their faces pinned as suns
to the unseen gazes of the crowd,
if they become memorial by character
difficulties under the stagecraft laurels,
they are not alone. Nor seen entirely.
They are just gods after all, and so
neither suns nor separate from all that fire.
I learned how to sleep from my father
who repeated the word one in his head.
The weight of it would slacken on its stem.
It dreamt, I trust. He did not remember.
His silence on defenseless matters spoke
to certain strengths. Sleep came easily,
then not at all. Finally speechless,
he kissed the son he kissed last as a child.
I carry my memory like a suitcase
I can’t unlatch for fear the smoke would take me.
Lust or dread or the kinder dispensations,
I carry them. To love a god is lonely.
Apprenticed to his chemistry set, a boy
does the trick that turns water into wine.
His holy spirit is one part vinegar
one the rebel science that loves to pretend.
And ammonia. All three ingredients.
Clear as water and the word that holds it.
His jars of toxins, salts, gas-blue cobalt,
the wounded russet of his ferrous metal,
they fit neatly in a box. Each a key
to open yet another box of keys
and boxes. I know that child, that stranger.
He taught me how to laugh. Being apart.
Me here, the illusion there, the gods
of rebel chemistry longing to be seen.
God without the cold beauty of logic
is no god. Method no method that lives
for merely the cold methodical reasons.
What the blood versus wine debate asks
is this: is there a god of stone that is
not stone, that is a boy with a stone in hand.
Science cannot fall in love with science.
Kids will tell you. It takes a scientist. A kid.
Show me the machine that powders winter
across the killing fields, and I will show you
a statue’s face beneath the fallen snow.
Still this choir loft of small glass jars,
specimens that, when separate, have names
I read, when fused, names inside of names.
I have a body that a child gave me.
And before that a missing child, a trick.
Is the one world so lonely for illusion
always, and so no sooner for a witness.
When a child goes missing, there is no god
to take her place. Snow melts. Eyes emerge.
Water turns to wine, and we look harder.
Wine into blood. And then, harder still.
If what we cannot explain we must pass
over in silence, tell me. Why. Explain.
Tell the mother who talks softly to her
self. Tell the no one there who answers.
The great observers look so hard sometimes,
they see their stars shatter into tears.
The killing fields into blossoms that say,
look, look hard, and no sooner, look away.
I love that. The unturned keys of flowers.
Question everything is a scripture
whose angel hovers over the testament.
What the blood versus wine debate asks
is this: when a child goes missing, what does
a mother pray for first: evidence or faith.
Bruce Bond is the author of fifteen books including, most recently, For the Lost Cathedral (LSU, 2015), The Other Sky(Etruscan, 2015), Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand (University of Michigan Press, 2015), and Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize, University of Tampa Press, 2016). Three of his books are forthcoming: Gold Bee (Crab Orchard Open Competition Award, Southern Illinois University Press), Sacrum (Four Way Books), and Blackout Starlight: New and Selected Poems (L. E. Phillabaum Award, LSU). Presently he is Regents Professor at University of North Texas.