My Room in the Fog
On Monday, the fog rolled in.
On Tuesday, it liked its new home in my life
and decided to remain there, unburned.
So outside became inside. I could see
from my apartment the grey closeness
like a smoky bar. I watched wreaths of fog
caress the points of rooftop corners, dampening the cement.
In my mind, the park was closed—
the park must certainly be closed
when the fog has called it indoors.
The liveliest spot in town was the laundromat,
pumping and heaving like a hot six-cylinder engine.
With two sweaty quarters in my pocket,
I stepped out and into my big room in the fog.
The sidewalk smelled like pre-summer steam—
gravel and exhaust—but not yet
the humid, organic stench of rain
and squalid bodies.
Somewhere up high, my room is dressed lightly
in silks and jersey cotton.
Down here in the streets and bedrooms, we sing
at the walls by day, until our song turns
into a howl, then a low moan, and finally
a tuneless hum of days that burns
the ancient fog away.
I was thinking about an essay I wrote the other day. John Cage published something called “Roaratorio” a whole bunch of years ago. It’s hard to explain exactly what it was, but it does lead indirectly to what you see above.
For those of you who’ve read Finnegans Wake, there is some debate about whether James Joyce wrote the book, or whether you write the book as you interpret it. I always favored a combination. He somehow created such an ambiguous text that multiple valid readings were present, running in parallel to each other. And I don’t just mean different interpretations. I mean different plot, different characters, central themes, and so on. Not that plot and characters are exactly the issue on the table with Finnegans Wake, exactly. What’s more interesting is investigating different ways to read the book. Through what lens, through which theories, from which perspectives?
Cage created an algorithm for reading the Wake that relies on three principles:
1) The reading would be a mesostic poem. A mesostic is just like an acrostic, which you did in third grade with your name: D-aring, A-ggressive, V-icious, I-rritable, D-uplicitous. The difference is that the mesostic can use any letter as the access point of the word. For example: aDdled, prActical, curVacious, tImely, inDistinct.
2)Cage’s mesostic skeleton was “JAMES JOYCE.” Corny, but it wasn’t really supposed to matter anyway.
3) Passages from the Wake, chosen by random methods such as a coin flip or an I-Ching throw, would be integrated into the mesostic skeleton. Cage allowed himself some agency here–once he had the passage, he would be allowed to choose at what point it entered the mesostic. prActical vs. practicAl, for example.
The text he created, the “Roaratorio,” is a really fascinating 40-odd page poem. It’s fascinating to people who would find Finnegans Wake fascinating, I guess. But there is one aspect of it that really throws the whole project into the periphery: the Roaratorio and the Wake are almost exactly the same. They have the same major themes, textual devices, “characters” (a loose usage, since any configuration of the letters “HCE” and “ALP” are the main characters), Irish political concerns, Catholic guilt and estrangement. Even the same bawdy sense of humor.
That really struck me. What exactly does this correspondence reveal? Something about James Joyce? Something about the way he wrote–holographically, able to be broken into parts while remaining whole? Something about literature itself (is this possible with other books?) Maybe it reveals something about the nature of texts, and the way they are created. It might even be something about human nature, and the degree to which we operate according to, or as, algorithms.
So I went looking for this sort of algorithmic structure in some of my own poems. I selected them randomly from my hard drive, and then color-coded (haphazardly, mind you) certain grammatical units. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. The first one, “My Room in the Fog,” is mine. For extra Freudian content, I used a poem my father sent me the other day, called “My Ithaka,” which he based on C.P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka.”
I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for. But I suppose that is probably a characteristic of anybody who writes poetry. Anybody see anything in these colors?
I was drawn to the source,
in a shallow, slow-flowing stream
that merged into broad and sandy flats.
But I turned, from the beginning,
and swam upstream,
through grassy bends and tree-lined shores,
into the dark and tranquil river.
And then, back to the highlands,
where the current was strong.
And I leaped up towards the sun
Until the beginning came.