Jake Berry


She sang the vanities-
every moaning drop of it
  The Romans rushed the villages
       took the head
     of every boy old enough to hold a rifle –
   and the Anglo-Brits
       took the women in backrooms.
     I number kin among the putrefied. 

      Civil War.
    It was a sweet time.
   The intimate cocktail conversation deals –
   the ragged dirty infidels
    standing in line ( in the heat and snow)
   for a bag of potatoes.
   And the cruel French wine,
  the unmarked crates under cover of night
     kept the ambassador’s table lit high
    to entertain the emissaries, the bankers,
     merchants and middlemen
    of that defunct idea - the nation-state. 

  There was pork on their plates, Beluga caviar
     and champagne & beyond the greenery and gates
   leave it to the Centurions and their mercenary legions
         to settle the fate of labor and planters,
        dirt farmers, slaves and corporate serfs
            left out in the wet and cold
       Where she sang The Vanities
         and bodies fell like leaves
        among the cheap TVs, the detritus of distraction,
       The opiates flowed
        and the faithful swore
         gathered en masse
      and kneeled for the host, a taste of the ghost,
        simulacrum of the stimulant “real”
         and industrial waste –
           an SUV tailpipe
        fed to each face. 

  So Sherman torched Atlanta
        and Babylonia too
     to get the job done quick,
  each day a human bomb
     and the dozens gone with him 

      She sang The Vanities
        every moaning drop 

    The siege of Vicksburg
 (they ate rats in the caves)
     Then Richmond fell by some strange grace.
       The museums were looted,
        the ancient documents left to the flames,
      the relics scattered by clandestine auction
        to ornament subterranean galleries
      beneath the estates of the aristocracy. 

    The President, the papers reported,
       was a gentle man,
    his face gaunt and rigid,
       his clothes
     and the soles of his shoes worn thin.
     And a single unknown horseman
attended him down to the plain of
      Ur in Chaldea.
     The battleground littered
        with tin cans and pornography
      swept clean of the bodies. And
        he studied the field, turned and said,
    “Bring it on boys. Drink it all up.
        Every image your cameras can hold.
    See what the Lord has done.”

     She sang The Vanities
         every moaning drop. 

         She sang the pendulous depths of joy
             in early flowers, in the shapeless sea, grass and sun.
         That sorrowful swinging weight
            is just the song brought ripe
             black before green dead into knowing,
           and what deep knowing brings:
             those cold serious stars up
            out of the ground again. 

Robert Simpson
String Quartet No. 9
(32 Variations and Fugue on a theme of Haydn)
Delmé Quartet  

     The soul is surely
         a bird of sorrow.
    The dove gone alone
        into the whole of it.
     Those round deep tones swinging
       wet outformed
        against your skin. 

And the garbage trucks making their Thursday rounds again.

The island is situated midstream, but its shape splits the river unevenly, creating, to the north, a narrow channel with a deep soft current, and the broader river south, wild in a tangle of massive boulders and scrub, crashing against the cliffs of the southern bank.

In flood season the river overwhelms the island. Nothing but the tops of the tallest trees remains above water, swept along in the turbulent brown current. Beneath, the world is inverted, big bass and catfish navigate the current, carried along in this thicker air, flying now above the high branches. I stood on the island and watched them swim above me – their calm eyes and strong bodies undisturbed by the chaos.

This, to me, was more real than day, on the streets, among people who are all community and chatter and business and live entirely in their heads. They do not seem to know the sensation of objects, or animals, or the skin that mingles in an embrace. ‘The world is too much with us,” Wordsworth said. And Eliot, “Unreal…” They have only the ideas of things. Ideas they learn by habit. They are never surprised by sensation – only disruptions in the constant train of ideas, the flickers and shudders of that internal screen. These ideas have body and meat has its taste and the days are hot or wet or cold, but they are a chastened experience – ideas clothed in practiced gestures and “how unfortunate about Mrs. X, and have you seen the tragic news of… and hasn’t the weather been awful?”

But beneath the flood, in the torn trees and fish overhead, all I had was sensation and real and it was impossible for me to drown.

“I once gave you a key,” my grandfather asked, “what have you done with it?” (I was watching a small ginger colored rabbit disappear into the hedges and noticed the diaper of the child I held on my hip had spilled thick brown up into his shirt.)

“I have used it,” I said, “to avoid drowning in a flood. I have seen old houses underwater and entered their rooms where a wood stove still burned and a shotgun and long two handled saw hung on the wall. Minnows nibbled at the lichen grown on a porcelain bowl. There was someone kneeling in the next room, crossing herself, looking up across the bed’s landscape – a deathwatch for the man lying there. Against a wall beneath the window, a chest of drawers, a basin and a vase of fresh lilies. It must have been midday, the window cast a bright yellow light into the room while all around the fish nibbled at the walls and swam unnoticed, even the snake coiled around the old woman’s ankle as she stirred pots on the stove.

“The confluence of dark matter and the visible world. Time is prolapse and confused darkness. Why should I care what the streets say anymore? Those men invented a concrete world for insect hard humans. We are porous and diaphanous. We thrive in a flood, but ordinary daylight tears us apart.”

“Yes. That was the key,” he said, “I was afraid you had forgotten it. And, by the way, you need to do something about that boy’s diaper before it multiplies and spreads among the general populace.” He squinted into the sun, pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from the brim of his hat.

                   The birds come frantic
                            to plates of seed and grain.
                        It’s chaos that drives them –
                           pure chaos, which is everything –
                   all the instinctual courage
                            required to wash your hands
                       with a pitcher and a basin  (those blue Chinese
                    houses, wind shaped trees, and birds with ornate
                        distorted wings).
                       Mother is gone to the hospital to have a baby.
                        I stand in front of the mirror and study the measles
                      on my face and shoulders.
                        It’s chaos that drives them –
                     the squirrels move in and
                           drive the doves and sparrows away,
                        but only for a moment, the birds return
                           with reinforcements and everyone gets
                          his fill. Chaos – it’s
                            old fingers on white porcelain
                          waiting for supper to begin.
                       I have no remorse. Still,
                          I am innervated knots
                          of my grandfather’s bruised scales
                         moving through the small rooms of
                           my wife’s house.
                        He explained as much as I could understand:
                          the inner workings of a steam plant, the maintenance
                        of turbines, energy conversion…
                           and the political navigation required just to
                          mend a broken pipe. Government work.

               Time, Time, Time and Time ––
                  Crude, careful scratches on a piece of bone.
                She was alone with the secret for a while,
                   she lied to keep it whole, though the moon
                  was naked for all to see.
                      But when the rush came,
                 like each month’s blood,
                   it was pure chaos entropied
                  into carefully delineated history –
                    mark after mark that no one could read –
                death in abstract,
                    so close in its perfected doubt –
                   closed in time.

             She sang the vanities
               and swallowed every thorn
              while the wars drug on until
                 the horn was empty
              and the populace was beaten for every cent. 

                   :If you must write curses,
                     write them with meticulous grace:
                   (and burn them in your pipe
                   before the doctors discover them)

 The Infernalities!
   It’s at
the heat again –
    It’s at
  swamp air
 hanging in the streets –
  (The devil at your sleeve
      begging you to breathe
    just one time deep
       and be done with it.)
   I shower by flashlight,
    the storm has taken the electricity
    What I see is not Real,
     so I name it you, there
       huddled in the
cloud shrouded moonlight, against the ground,
  smelling of sweat and the
       herbs wrapped around your neck.
   I name it you because
     I am afraid to look at myself
   cowering in this hole alone.

 “We’re descending now,” she said. “As you can see, it is late July in the southern swamps. Now it is August. The heat intensifies still further. Sirius rises in the southeastern sky. Where, in ancient Egypt, this indicated flood season along the Nile, in these swamps the moisture dispersed in the low air. We are left with foul clouds that drift in the hollows, above streams and among the dwellings. You will continue to feel the increasingly close heat. Your body will quickly be drenched in sweat. We are going down. The dead are very close here because the living are so near death themselves – they cannot breathe deeply and bacterial infection is endemic. There is a kinship with death in these regions that is unavoidable.

“This is what it means to descend. With each step down we are another century into the past. This is summer. This is Alabama in the lost land they called America. Notice the thick odor of dirty soap water. That is a mixture of phosphates, fluoride, chlorine and spent perfume used to cloak the chemical stench. Be careful not to step into the water here.  We will be unable to retrieve you if you fall. They used to call this season the Black Sun Days because the sun and humidity was so fierce it drove people mad, and once mad, they would cry out and grasp at the sun. In their eyes the sun – normally a deep blue sphere surrounded by a golden corona – had become entirely black and was reaching with charred tentacles to scorch and rewire their dendrites and synapses. There was no cure, only a change in the weather improved their condition and as the decades passed the weather changed less frequently so that these regions suffered an almost perpetual, suffocating summer, punctuated only by massive catastrophic storms. The general population, unable to move to a cooler climate, became increasingly agitated and resorted to a variety of delusional behaviors to explain their suffering. Some followed particularly violent religious leaders while others surrendered to the general dissipation of synthetic drugs that they believed offered comfort by altering their neuro-chemistry. We are going down, “she said. “This is what it means to descend. But do not be alarmed. Fire gives way to water. Soon we will reach the shores of the Cambrian sea.”

               Time, Time, Time and Time –
                 the sacrosanct enclosure,
                to drown in the imposture of myself –
             The casinos were full night and day.
                The offshore banks were thriving.
                The president was on vacation with
                    an oil prince and the CEOs of
               three multi-national corporations that
                 specialized in weaponry and
                mercenary covert operations. The press
              referred to this as an “energy conference.” 

                  In the makeshift hospitals
                 Walt spent his time
              writing letters home on behalf of the wounded –
              for those who were unable to speak,
                  whose faces had disappeared in a hail
                of metal and fire.
                   He sat and held their hands, waiting,
                often crying, numb, sleepless for days.
                   The president bent in his chair
                  and buried his face in his large hands
                 and moaned. Another migraine.
                   The contradictions written in blood.
                   He felt, it seemed to him, the weight
                of every bullet that found its mark
                    in the body of every boy that believed well enough
                  to stand upon command and face the assault.
                        She sang the Vanities,
                           every moaning drop of it.

             Having abandoned the Britons,
               the hierarchy disappeared and
            the infrastructure collapsed. Rome
         had exhausted its resources and
         closed ranks. The project, peace by oppression,
          had failed. The economics were impossible
             to maintain.   Cheap labor, outsourced to the
          colonies, produced goods that only
               the fading aristocracy could afford. Even
        the servants and sanitation crews
              revolted and walked off the job. 

                   Your phone call, the painful urgency in
                  your voice (mixed with dark amusement) –
                    your uncle’s vitriolic letter – full of curses –
                 opened a vein of pure poison. The night
                      vanished in white flashes. I paced for hours.
                   If we met them directly in the field
                        the result would be mutual annihilation.
                    No, we’d wait just at the edge of the forest
                          and see if heat and impatience
                       would compel them to advance, into the open.

          Michael Byron
          Awakening At The Inn of Birds

 Patty Waters, especially in live performance, would begin singing in a whisper so closely intoned to the double bass as to be almost indistinguishable. Then modulating into a second series of voices, she became atonal, dissonant, wailing, screeching – some borderline between agony and erotic fever – which in turn modulated into falsetto tones that became more harmonically sympathetic, like the overtones of a saxophone. Then she would fall silent, as if she had ascended through a tonal continuum and entered the sound of ontic absence – neither death or the preconceptual condition. She was still present, but nothing remained.

    Summer –
      a long fever, long agitations
   and collapse into hours of
        dreamless sleep – then layers of knotted cinema.
    Every afternoon
         deep humidity clotted the sky
          until violent thunderstorms erupted.
    What difference, the personal or the weather?
       Where am I possibly alone – an isolated one –
    how am I possibly distinct from nature, and nature as
   a field of harmonic and conflicting forces.
    Death solves nothing.
        It is merely returning to the natural condition
       before time owned the abstracted fiction of
     myself. I am provisional, fluid, unatoned
        except in the singing neurocircuitry,
        blood, bone and muscle
         at a fever pitch.
      The gut strung violin’s overtones
                            rising and falling in a plasma of white darkness. 

   See how carefully she
                     extracts he specimen
                   from its glycerin base.
         The elongated cranium, the extended sharp incisors in the foremouth,
            the molars in the secondary mouth
           which would have been situated in the lower
             esophagus just above the first of three stomachs,
           all an extension of the skull itself and only half its size.
         The legs seems to grow from the eye sockets
            extending outward and down only a few centimeters –
        just enough to keep the head above ground level while
           the small body hung behind – the entire creature
        no larger than the average human heart. 

            rising and falling plasma white darkness.
                  She sang the vanities.

            See how carefully she extracts the specimen
               and holds it aloft, dripping… 

         In the tradition
  the leader stands before the assembly
      displaying the artifacts of her research –
   The preacher delivers his homily –
     The singer begins, at first solo
   then is joined by the chorus, then,
      in swelling refrains, is joined
      by the entire assembly.

When the doctor arrived –
    where the self – where consciousness goes
   when it goes OUT! The light bulb cracked when it blew –
“This is not work for doctors,” he said, examining the
  president’s skull. “This is undertaker work.”
     Let the ceremony begin  (“He belongs to the ages.”) 

      So she sang:
        Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!
     And the chorus replied:
         Everything under the sun!
     She responded:
           The paths beneath the sea lead nowhere.
           We are the only animals that hide from ourselves.
           Everything under the sun! 

The typical herd animal
gravitates toward the center –
   surrounded, protected by all the others.
 But in a moment of panic the herd scatters
   and those in the center often die of fear.
             If we surrender to fear
              we discover the absence at its core.
                I am gone. I die already.
               I vanish blindly.
             The pendulous depths of joy
                in an early flower
              bent low by the dew
            is resigned –
              spine and circuitry snap
           and fallen wires swin in the storm's disaster
              - blown out.

            She sings the Vanities
    She sings:         
When the sun at last burns out.

    The chorus responds:
           The iridescent hummingbird comes to the feeder.
     She sings:  …and I have stood against a flowering bush
                        and felt the wind of the hummingbird’s wings
                        against my face.     The full assembly responds:
            When the sun at last burns out!
     She answers in a song beyond her singing:
             When the sun at last burns out,
             the absence shines.