Those Barren Leaves (Excerpts)

” ‘True,’ answered Mr. Cardan, ‘I like being amused. But I demand from my art the added luxury of being moved. And, somehow, one can’t feel emotion about anything so furiously and consciously emotional as these baroque things. It’s not by making wild and passionate gestures that an artist can awake emotion in the spectator. It isn’t done that way. These seventeenth-century Italians tried to express passion by making use of passionate gestures. They only succeeded in producing something that either leaves us cold—though it may, as you say, amuse us—or which actually makes us laugh. Art which is to move its contemplator must itself be still; it is almost an aesthetic law. Passion must never be allowed to dissipate itself in wild splashings and boilings over. It must be shut up, so to speak, and compressed and moulded by the intellect. Concentrated within a calm, untroubled form, its strength will irresistibly move. Styles that protest too much are not fit for serious, tragic use. They are by nature suited to comedy, whose essence is exaggeration. That is why good romantic art is so rare. Romanticism, of which the seventeenth-century baroque style is a queer sub-species, makes violent gestures; it relies on violent contrasts of light and shade, on stage effects; it is ambitious to present you with emotion in the raw and palpitating form. That is to say, the romantic style is in essence a comic style. And, except in the hands of a few colossal geniuses, romantic art is, in point of historical fact, almost always comic.’ ”

” Calamy allowed his hand to be kissed, and as soon as it was decently possible gently withdrew it. Invisibly, in the darkness, He made a little grimace of impatience. He was no longer interested in kisses, at the moment. ‘Yes,’ he said meditatively, ‘that’s one way of thinking of my hand, that’s one way in which it exists and is real. Certainly. And that was what I was thinking about—all the different ways in which these five fingers’—he held them up again, splayed out, against the window’s oblong of paler darkness—‘have reality and exist. All the different ways,’ he repeated slowly. ‘If you think of that, even for five minutes, you find yourself plunged up to the eyes in the most portentous mysteries.’ He was silent for a moment; then added in a very serious voice. ‘And I believe that if one could stand the strain of thinking really hard about one thing—this hand, for example—really hard for several days, or weeks, or months, one might be able to burrow one’s way right through the mystery and really get at something—some kind of truth, some explanation.’ He paused, frowning. Down and down, through the obscurity, he was thinking. Slowly, painfully, like Milton’s devil, pushing his way through chaos; in the end, one might emerge into the light, to see the universe, sphere, hanging from the floor of heaven. But it would be a slow laborious process; one would need time, one would need freedom. Above everything, freedom.

‘Why don’t you think about me?’ Mary Thriplow asked. She propped herself upon one elbow and leaned over him; with her other hand she ruffled his hair. ‘Don’t I bear thinking about?’ she asked. She had a fistful of his thick hair in her hand; softly she tugged at it, testingly, as though she were preparing for something worse, were assuring her grip for a more violent pull. She felt a desire to hurt him. Even in her arms, she was thinking, he escaped her, he simply wasn’t there. ‘Don’t I bear thinking about?’ she repeated, tugging a little harder at his hair.

Calamy said nothing. The truth was, he was reflecting, that she didn’t bear thinking about. Like a good many other things. All one’s daily life was a skating over thin ice, was a scampering of water-beetles across the invisible skin of depths. Stamp a little too hard, lean a shade too heavily and you were through, you were floundering in a dangerous and unfamiliar element. This love business, for example—it simply couldn’t be thought of; it could only support one on condition that one never stopped to think. But it was necessary to think, necessary to break through and sink into the depths. And yet, insanely and desperately, one still went skating on.

‘Do you love me?’ asked Mary.

‘Of course,’ he said; but the tone of his voice did not carry much conviction.

Menacingly she tugged at the tuft of hair she held twined round her fingers. It angered her that he should escape her, that he should not give himself up completely to her. And this resentful feeling that he did not love her enough produced in her a complementary conviction that she loved him too much. Her anger combined with her physical gratitude to make her feel, for the moment, peculiarly passionate. She found herself all at once playing the part of the grande amoureuse, the impassioned de Lespinasse, playing it spontaneously and without the least difficulty. ‘I could hate you,’ she said resentfully, ‘for making me love you so much.’

‘And what about me?’ said Calamy, thinking of his freedom. “Haven’t I a right to hate too?’

‘No. Because you don’t love so much.’

‘But that’s not the question,’ said Calamy, neglecting to record his protest against this damning impeachment. ‘One doesn’t resent love for its own sake, but for the sake of what it interferes with.’

‘Oh, I see,’ said Mary bitterly. She was too deeply wounded even to desire to pull his hair. She turned her back on him. ‘I’m sorry I should have got in the way of your important occupations,’ she said in her most sarcastic voice. ‘Such as thinking about your hand.’ ”

” ‘The fundamental question is this: Can you talk of the soul being at the mercy of the body, can you give any kind of an explanation of mind in terms of matter? When you reflect that it’s the human mind that has invented space, time and matter, picking them out of reality in a quite arbitrary fashion—can you attempt to explain a thing in terms of something it has invented itself? That’s the fundamental question.’ ”


-Aldous Huxley, excerpts from “Those Barren Leaves”

The One About a Lover

tender spaces inbetween sheets and the arms of a lover.
spaces where truth is spoken reluctantly, and lies told softly.

warm and safe, we curl together with half-closed eyes.
wearing soft expressions, our lips move slowly.
brushing against one another, we speak in low voices.

but it is hard to hide in these places, even in the dark.

The One After the Interview

“everyone is amazing at the interview.”
the words linger in my thoughts on the train back home.

plain and simply stated,
they implied nothing but what was meant
when they were spoken in the empty restaurant;

but as the distance between myself and their speaker grows,
the words themselves grow.
they take on a broader and vaguer meaning.

as i near my home and the solitude therein,
the phrase increases in scale and import.
it fills the available space left by those
42nd street crowds.

42nd street, brimming with rushed faces
and populated by the places where they need to be.

there is no time to see anything
but what is set in front of you.
no time for anything but simple and direct meaning.

but, on the other side of my front door,
quite apart from the sound and fury of the city;
i am free to populate the dim vacancy
with amiguities and secondary implications.

“everyone is amazing at the interview.”

this statement traverses areas of my life
that it has no business venturing into,
but to which it seems well applied.

i think of past lovers and friends:
how they seemed to shrink and wither with each new meeting.

the mystery of a new face
gives opportunity to build an ideal upon it.

then, day after day, the narrow beam of your perception
probes the aspects of this previously unknown character,
until you find that it is, in fact, wholly unimpressive.

“everyone is amazing at the interview.”

a thoughtless phrase uttered offhand and,
surely, almost immediately forgotten.

The One on the Sidewalk

buildings, like gnomon of huge sundials,
cast lengthening shadows across the city:
dim places in late december.

the wind is gentle but cools your exposed skin

hands in your pockets,
elbows pulled in against your hips,
you pass down a blue sidewalk.

the angled winter sun hits you
as you cross onto the next block.
your shoulders loosen and lower.

light glares off the glass faces of hotels and banks.

cool air moves in whorls around you
while the fabric of your clothing absorbs the heat;
warming your back as it penetrates the layers.

The One in the Flower Gardens

sitting at an overlook in the flower gardens
that surround the cloisters in upper manhattan,
the silence is only occasionally broken by scraping steps.

they climb the staircase ahead of me, at right.
they make a single circuit of the low, stone, perimeter wall –
giving me a wide berth – and descend the staircase once more.

often they pause once or twice,
taking a moment to photograph the land and water spread below them:
the land bordered at its every edge by sprawling tall city buildings.

a young couple ascends the staircase into the bright sunlight.
stepping onto the broad flagstone expanse,
the young woman tells a story to the young man.

as they make their circuit, she tells him of her dumb friend
who had been trying to relate a complicated concept to her:
a concept that she smirkingly implies her complete understanding of.

she explains the enjoyment she found
at hearing her friend’s clumsy explanation of the subject.
they titter together as they descend once more into darkness.

The One With the Bus Window

my head vibrates against the bus window so steadily
that my lips and cheeks go numb.
looking out at the cement and glass –
my eyes blur as the streetlights pass.

what a blinding and solid world we live in.
we chew and spit the earth onto itself,
and we call it trash.

The One on the Front Porch

you feel like a stranger in a familiar place.
it feels something like distance.

a stretching, yawning distance that you find
you can hang safely above and gaze down into.
a hollow spreads and rises in your abdomen.

everything is still in the sunset;
it’s quiet outside and the air stirs only a little.
shafts of soft light fall through the clouds
and onto the grass and sidewalk in front of your house.

looking at the front door across the street
the orange light slowly bleeds out of the day.

The One on the Fire Escape

standing on the fire escape,
worn and rustbolted to the old brick
outside our kitchen window:

i can hear someone beating a dog in the alley below me.
whimpers and sharp whines.

echoes between the sharp sound of slaps
and dull thuds of kicks.
the low grunt of a man’s voice.

i pull long, deep drags from my cigarette
and anxiously flick ashes in silence –
they flutter downward away from the light.