I want to talk about obsession.
I am really sorry said William Blake
to see my countrymen troubled
about politics, and in the context
you understand, heart broken is how he felt,
& dismayed. He saw the Surrey Hills glowing
like the clinkers in the furnace, the red glow bathing
the body of the iron mill iron worker red shining
hard shining intent on the work.
And yet the politics of the times, Napoleonic wars,
Europe as a few kings and statesmen, an emperor or two
and Wellington and Ney, a few regiments perhaps by name,
this was the Europe men could see in the fire in the Surrey hills
where Blake stood screaming at the gates of hell (as Pound
would have it) that unfortunate lunatic they said
and were probably not far wrong by then.
The way a man obsesses about a woman, say.
“What is it men in women do require?”
Blake asks this question and he answers
“The lineaments of gratified desire.
What is it women in men do require?”
There was a war on in those days.
She was 18 and pregnant. I was 18 and scared.
There was a war on then, and students (we
were students) snake danced up Massachusetts Avenue
and into Harvard Yard. Later, tanks appeared.
We dropped Acid. We played the black and white
movies in slo-mo, heads busted open with splattered blood,
police riot they called it, for sound track we
spliced in lazy guitar licks of Buffalo Springfield.
Looking back we seem like orphans in my memory.
The voice of William Blake
becomes my father’s voice. We read Yeats.
There were silver apples in the moon
and golden apples in the sun, we thought
we were the dancers, believed we were the dancers,
and we thought we knew the dance.
Blake again: can wisdom be put in a silver rod,
or love in a golden bowl?
I believed then that the highway would lead you away,
the Interstate highway could lead you out of the town
and into the great curve of experience
methylene blue and glowing red with the sunrise.
In Canada we would drive down Ioco road
past the refinery around the hill
and onto the bay shore. At night the clouds
caught fire from the burn off
and reflected an orange glow in the mist rising
from the waters near the beach.
At first we thought it an Indian name, Ioco,
and then found out it meant ‘Imperial
Oil Company’: we were a company town.
I was drinking too much and taking LSD
and smoking pot and dipping cigarettes in
dimethyl-triptomine and paregoric
and smoking opium and putting cocaine
and methedrine up my nose.
I was reading Blake and Jacob Boehme
and actually D.H. Lawrence the day I blew myself up
doing a kind of alchemy pulling down
methylene-dioxy-amphetimine out of industrial
cherry vanilla flavoring by means of a fractional
distillation in the basement of a house in Surrey
(British Columbia). It was the first few paragraphs
of The Rainbow that had me so hypnotized
I lost track of the reaction. I could see
what Lawrence was doing with the words he was using
but I couldn’t see how he was doing it, so I just kept
reading those same two paragraphs over and over.
By the time I saw the reaction had taken off
on its own I panicked and cut the power,
which of course cut the vacuum.
Here’s a tip: never cut the vacuum
on a vacuum-assisted fractional distillation.
For months after the explosion
the basement smelled like
cherry vanilla and where the plywood walls
were stained with my blood
they also glittered with crystal MDA.
I guess if we’d calculated
the depth to which the crystals
had embedded themselves in the wood
we could have come up with a rough measure
of the force of Lawrence’s prose.
But I want to talk about obsession.
“What is it men in women do require?”
What is it women in men do require?
There was a war on in those days
We were young, and maybe not as confident
as we should have been, but we had a son
and we were married to each other so there you go.
We didn’t actually hate each other yet.
I picked up Henry hitchhiking on Ioco Road.
He told me he deserted from the war. He told me
he was trained to sneak into a village hut at night,
kill two, leave three, sneak back, and I said cool.
the fire! the fire!
is falling, 0 citizen look up, the nations themselves
are hammered in this forge and this is what it means:
“Without contraries is no progression.”
This is what it means to see the ashes of Washington
and the ashes of Moscow in that molten slag,
and the ashes of Dachau in the lime and ash of the furnace,
the alchemical Work, the condition of the earth,
the human heart.
How does the woman transform to the other?
Ah what is the price of experience, do men
buy it for a song? I sat looking at the ocean with Henry
and handed him the hash pipe.
A panel truck pulled into the driveway. Look, I said,
the man has come to fix the heater. Henry cupped his hands,
held the match, inhaled until the pipe glowed red.
Tears came from his eyes. Smoke came from his ears.
‘Stoke that furnace baby!’ At that exact moment I knew Henry
would seduce my wife, would be the first, although I did not know
that Henry too would later die.
The coals glimmer and glow amongst the ashes left of our lives.
And the Surrey hills were glowing, you understand,
from the great iron foundries, steel mills turning cannon,
double shifts seven days a week, the sky was glowing
at night and the hills, the earth itself melted in the crucible
and hammered and beaten and hammered again making steel
which always stopped Blake cold
(after all the simplest definition of steel, after carbon content
and alloy and all is said and done, is that steel takes a temper
when cold quenched and iron does not)
the mill always grinding, the entire nation
at work making war, a continental war
rolling across Europe from burning Moscow
rolling then across the North Atlantic swell, rolling to Canada
and south to Washington and finally burning Washington
in 1814 before following Col. Jackson down the mighty Mississippi
and winding up on the pop charts
Blake’s London isn’t there anymore, most of it anyway,
bricks and buildings gone and replaced, open acreage
now closed with buildings and pavements.
I’d like to watch a time lapse movie like from a webcam
of the city rising and shrinking and growing and destructing
over the decades, and overlaid and through the stone and steel
that one constant pink ribbon, the human river, the continuous
living connection, unbroken, always moving and leading
one hundred forty years later to Jacob Bronowski sitting
in blacked out study watching the same hills glowing
reading Blake’s poem because in the first place London
hadn’t been black at night for over a century since gas lights
so no one had seen the Surrey hills glowing at night for
over a century but now 1941 the same mills working
seven days a week still turning out cannon for the European war,
the same damn war, Bronowski suddenly understood
the difference between symbol and vision, that William Blake
wrote down what he literally saw, the Surrey hills burning.
It was not metaphor. It was alchemy.
And there in the ruins of our lives we found embers glowing,
like stars in the night sky.
It’s getting hard to find a place to stand
under the night sky in darkness
to let yourself be carried into the stars. When I was a boy
my family had a house in the country in New York State, Hilltop,
you could stand under the Milky Way at night
and count the shooting stars. This is what Blake said:
“The nature of infinity is this: That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveler thro Eternity.
Has passed that Vortex, he perceives it roll backward behind
His path, into a globe itself infolding; like a sun:
Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty.
Later I discovered correspondence between Ezra Pound
and Gould, the doctor who constructed Hilltop in 1910,
correspondence about the eyesight of James Joyce.
The cell phone flickers in and out.
I talk to my son, who lives now
in a camp somewhere south of Austin.
It is his fifth or maybe seventh rehab,
I forget. There is a war on. He insists his childhood
really wasn’t all that different from mine,
he says he understood this even as a little boy. I ask him
Did you love your heroin more than I loved your mother?
He answers Heroin is an illusion, and every Space
smaller than a Globule of Mans blood.
opens Into Eternity of which this vegetable Earth
is but a shadow. The red Globule is the unwearied Sun
created To measure Time and Space
to mortal Men. every morning.
The point about Hilltop, and Pound, and Joyce, is that it all
keeps coming round, that we aren’t that many,
we are indeed connected like that ranch in Manchaca Texas
where working day labor putting in a fence one December –
that’s about where my son is now though I doubt if he remembers it –
I had him with me that day, maybe he was ten, digging fence posts,
I thought we were the first of our line in Texas that far south but no,
my brother told me later we had an uncle many greats removed,
a slaveholder with a ranch in Manchaca
whose only son was killed in the war.
He fought with Terry’s Texas Rangers, had
the exact same name as his Yankee first cousin,
his contrary, the one we knew about, who fought
for the Union, and was badly wounded repelling
Pickett’s charge on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg,
but survived, so we in turn could eventually be born.
And you understand the word clinkers refers to the bricks
fused but also the molten mass, slag and lime in the kiln
fused in the forge, and you understand that the forge
is the universe, meaning the human heart,
there is no separation, it is ourselves we kill, and there is only other,
we are alone, each in this world alone in silence,
silence, living like this, we are the broken pieces.
holds a BA degree from Harvard University. He has published poetry in The Texas Observer as well as a number of little magazines in North Texas. His fiction has appeared in Southwest Review. He lives in old East Dallas with his wife, Patty Turner.