Somewhere during my first or second year a tiger came into my life. It lived in bright paint on three more or less standard sized tiles. My mother mounted them in my room. This was in Singapore. The late 1960s. That was the life. We went to the botanical gardens. We swam in turquoise pools. It was always hot. We had a Doberman pinscher named Sinta. My parents went to and hosted cocktail parties. Somewhere out there the guns and bombs of the Vietnam war were booming. My father was doing business for an American bank. He spent six months in the daily amazements of Jakarta. He was on active reserve, expected to be called up, never was. So the story went. I spoke a local dialect of Chinese better than I spoke English. The war wound down. We moved. I developed a pronounced English accent in London. I skated on frozen Dutch canals. One of the tiles the tiger was painted on didn’t make it along on these adventures. My mother put the two remaining tiles in a box.
Years and years later she sent them to me. I unwrapped them at looked at them then hammered some nails into the wall and put them up next to my writing desk. They live in my house. Here they are.
In the Cluny museum in Paris, hanging on the wall in one of the first rooms, are fragments of silk cut and sewn into a fine gown in the late Middle Ages. The last time I visited the museum, the ghost of the rest of the dress hung on the wall around the fragments. A small woman was walking up behind me to take her dress down off the wall and put it on. One shivers at such times. When contemplating ghost dresses. When contemplating fragments with ghosts swarming the surround.
In the prologue to Junky, William S. Burroughs writes, “my earliest memories are colored by a fear of nightmares. I was afraid to be alone, and afraid of the dark, and afraid to go to sleep because of dreams where a supernatural horror seemed always on the point of taking shape. I was afraid some day the dream would still be there when I woke up.”
I woke up. It was Singapore, 1970. I looked out through the bars of my crib. There was a tile floor. Gauze covering the window. The tiger was in the room.
There are monsters that can do all sorts of things. Monsters that will drag you into the air or pull you deep underground. There are monsters that will prick your finger, others that will tear off your arm. Some monsters stand snarling before you. Others hide like Poe’s purloined letter in plain sight. Some monsters make it their business to swallow the world.
Let me describe this tiger as it is now. It is mouth without stomach. Face without eyes. Legs without heart. Tail without teeth. Teeth without claws.
Once my tiger had a stomach. Once it had a heart. My tiger is hungry without its stomach, always hungry, but it’s far from cowardly. I always hold its tiles by the edges. I imagine I do myself some good by keeping its two halves separated. I imagine a lot of things.
Burroughs once wrote a story called “The Tiger in the Valley.” The story is lost. No one quite knows how it went. The story is based on so-called actual events. A bar in Mexico kept a lion in a pit out back. A man got drunk and decided to show his friends how to pet the lion. The lion tore the man apart. Burroughs tore the story apart and turned the lion into a tiger and wrote it down. Then it got lost.
I had an anthropology professor in college who liked to illustrate his points with vivid images. One of his points was that people, not the rest of the animal kingdom, have the market cornered on the monstrous. His illustration involved a lion and a chick. This was in Africa in a lion sanctuary. A young man or a young woman was holding a baby chick and thought it was adorable. As one might well do. Say if one doesn’t work or hasn’t worked in a chicken processing plant. This young person got the idea that the lion must find the baby chick adorable as well. He or she therefore held the baby chick up to a lion in its enclosure. The lion looked at the chick, sniffed it then very matter of factly bit off its head.
I don’t believe that actual lions and tigers are monstrous: very, very good at what they do being more like it. But I do believe that my tile tiger, with its missing guts, which may or may not ever really have existed, which looks for all the world like it sprung straight out of the pages of Borges’ book of imaginary beings, or out of one the bubbling pools painted by Hieronymous Bosch, or out of one of William S. Burrough’s nightmares, is a monster. I’m very attached to it. I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to write its heart, uncoil its innards, pump oxygen into its vanished lungs, give it back its eyes.
Burroughs, with Brion Gysin, in The Third Mind:
Light across Long Island flickers through the Junk Antennae. Vulture wings husk in the swimming pool. A Cadillac will acrete The Ice. Typical Sights leak out…The Boys drift in from Work H Sling…
They are rebuilding The City Lee knows in Four Letter Words… Vibrating Air Hammers the Code Write.
The stars our for you…”You don’t get it if I don’t.”
…Architect…Unknown and probably hostile…Muttering leg in the night…On the tracks I told
We know what Blake had to say about Tygers.
“A tiger comes to mind,” Borges wrote.
Burroughs, at the start of Naked Lunch:
I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train.
Meanwhile: NASA’s Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) satellite has given astronomers their best glimpse yet at the ghostly cobweb of helium gas left over from the Big Bang, which underlies the universe’s structure. The helium is not found in galaxies or stars but spread thinly through the vastness of space. (from a Nasa press release)
Galaxies burst into being. So do great books.
If you are moved to you can watch – on YouTube – Burroughs near the end of his life make shotgun paintings. He is dressed in a gray suit and thin black tie and holds a long firearm. He points the firearm at cans of paint and the cans of paint explode onto the canvas. There are assistants present. Each shot produces a chorus of yes sirs and all rights. There was nothing on the canvases and then there are these explosions of color, fierce incursions of torque and trajectory, pigment and velocity, gunpowder and light.
“I can feel the heat closing in…”
It has occurred to me to wonder what will happen if I lose another tile. If all I have left are haunches and tail. If all I have left are jaws and teeth.
Of course one day I will lose them all. Or they will be lost to me.
On the back of each tile is a logo and a stamp that reads “Made in Japan”
Recently my mother told me that there were never three tiles. That she had seen the two tiles and had liked the look of them. A tiger without its middle.
Burroughs said history was fiction, history is fiction.
What happens when you flip that proposition around?