M: mid-point, center, middle of the line. Halfway through the alphabet. I can only think of something my dad once told me: Once you’re halfway into the forest, the quickest way out is forward.
Months have gone by, and for those months those lines sat on my desk, were typed up, were shuffled here and there and deposited behind things, were re-found, were re-lost. They were detritus in my proverbial memory palace, but they seem important. This seems important, this project and its many particular lines. I don’t know why. But the importance is obscured, the writing difficult and heavy, like slogging through foot-sucking mud looking for jewels. There may well be a pearl in there—but in all likelihood you’ll just get muddy.
Inertia raises its warty head and looks at me—or, rather, it doesn’t do anything aside from lay there, balefully and skeptically surveying the landscape, which happens to include me. I can see it there, in the space beside my door beneath my coat-rack, a big slab-like muddy grey dragon with jaundiced eyes.
Dragons: there are a number of them around this room. Orange silk dragons on my green robe; a red resin one clutching a pearl; a terra-cotta one twining in a ceramic ashtray; a blue one above the window. On my computer, my browser is open on a site called Flight Rising. It’s this Internet game in which you breed dragons. You’re like a fantastical Gregor Mendel, except your products are aren’t sweet peas but beautiful, personal, entirely artificial creatures. My dragons live in a clan in the Water kingdom, in a castle called Minas Limlughir. Minas Limlughir means “Tower of the Lordly Sea-Serpents” (minas—tower, limlugh, sea-snake, hir, lord) in Sindarin Elvish, a language invented by J.R.R. Tolkien for his fictional world of Middle Earth. Most of my dragons are named in Sindarin, too, or in the older Elvish language called Quenya. Naming dragons is my favorite part of this game. When I breed hatchlings, I take into account both their parents’ names and their personal attributes, and also the fact that I am a Water clan, and name them accordingly using Tolkien’s surviving lexicon of Elvish roots. When necessary, I invent.
It’s a strange and wonderful thing, my miniature kingdom: I spend too much time in there by half.
It’s late afternoon, and the sky is rainy grey. It’s cold again—and I remember those cold weeks with Misha earlier in this project. Or, rather, I remember them because I wrote about them. Ghosts in cold light—me and the cat. Today, I have work, later; my roommates move quietly in their rooms on either side of me. Thin tapping of the keys.
And let me explain, first that I love rabbit-holes as much as the next guy, maybe more; and second, that my dragons are named in Sindarin Elvish because Sindarin Elvish is a language which is important to me. As I went through high school, and became less concerned with “being normal,” I gradually embraced stereotypically “nerdy” things—being in band, for instance, was a social hurdle for me until I realized how amazingly seductive a saxophone is. The Lord of the Rings was a nerdy thing that I became intensely invested in. I hadn’t even read the books, was the ironic part—but based on the energy of the movies, I began to read encyclopedias of Tolkien, and delved into the wide world of his mythos; and found it nearly endless. I realized how much larger Middle Earth was than simply Gondor and its environs—and how much of it is vague and shadowy. It was a perfect place for imagination: a vast landscape, beautifully wrought, peopled with heroes and villains, and yet still wide open.
So I created a character, an alter ego named Inárion who lives in Middle Earth. With a novelist’s detached self-interest I cultivated him, like a plant; and as I’ve grown he’s changed. I began working on him, and his isolated homeland, in high school, and he was a sort of starry Aragorn, a perfect king who saves the world and gets the girl. Then I began to make mistakes—breakups, half-hearted bland trysts, excessive vices, depressive episodes, self-doubt and quarrelsome inner dialogues. And he grew darker. He was exiled from his home, a hidden northern kingdom. He was enslaved in the south. He didn’t get the girl. He returned to the north and ripped the treacherous usurpers from his rightful throne, and brought peace to his land. His name, like mine, means “fire.” (He was the revelation / (Or if we had created him, we were.)
At work, when my hands take over dull tasks—a paring knife of clean steel through broccoli florets, dividing them like tiny trees at a mill—my mind turns to Inárion. I imagine his travel-worn armor, his famous blade called Calasir; I imagine him on ships in the south, or galloping over high northern moors, mountains in the distant background; I imagine him in feast-halls. I imagine the feast-halls themselves.
And sometimes, too, in those dull moments my mind turns from Inárion to my dragons in Minas Limlughir. I just hatched a nest two days ago—my favorite was a little black-and-green Skydancer (that’s one of the breeds) with peacock-spotted wings. I named him Narénrhoval, “Fire-Eyed Wing.” With Narénrhoval it was straightforward—naur is fire, hen is eye, rhoval is pinion or wing. I didn’t even have to look it up.
And in these cases—virtual pets, I mean—you invariably invest them with personalities. Narénrhoval is proud, a little arrogant (his parents are very prestigious), and solitary. He is devoted to solitude, in fact—on clear evenings he flies for hours among the coastal peaks that tower over Minas Limlughir, weaving among their sheer, snowy sides, or over the sea when the stars first come into view, and skims low along the dim white-haired waves, watches the stars dance in reflection in the deep. In real life, in quiet moments—the living room hushed, a fire going, no one having anything to say—these worlds come up to me as if from underwater. I roll their names through my mouth like grapes: Gaerant, Caleanur, Morlanthir, Sirista, Aeglos. They sound like the names of distant gods, or Celtic heroes. I savor the thin paints upon my tongue…
Merrill has escaped me all these months, despite having half-begun this essay. In odd moments he would come to me—usually some disturbingly Human Comedy kind of moment, a surreal social experience, that kind of thing. His face, though, as always watched me from my bookcase. Those half-parted lips…had he just finished speaking? Or was it faint pleasure? I still can’t tell.
On my computer (aside from the dragons) is an article I stumbled across on some obscure corner of the Internet. It’s called “To Be a Poet.” It’s kind of a poem itself, but in a deliriously sun-soaked and aphoristic style: “To be a poet, you must taste the sweetness of living not once, but a thousand times before the words fall from your lips.” It’s full of this same method of delivery. It is forcefully optimistic. But for all its ridiculous strangeness, the article caught me a few times, with some romantic tidbit that lurks in my vision of the life artistic: “You capture words with your imaginary butterfly net while you wipe down tables, deliver the mail, typeset data, answer phones, shelve books, change diapers, bag groceries, edit copy, or design buildings.”
I don’t think I have an imaginary butterfly net. I’m disappointed to admit it. But I know what she means.
And before I notice it’s tomorrow and the rain has been replaced with snow. Cold light again, though, colder than it was before, and I am restless. Since college ended, I find myself in situations like this: wandering around my room, or the living room, looking at things. Outside, too, for that matter—what do I do besides wander around and look at things? There’s just not a great deal else to do. Or at least nothing immediate.
Perhaps, I think to myself, looking around my room, what the article means is that poetry is what you always hope you’ll get to, soon—the final, perfect, essential distillation. “That’s what I meant. That’s what it meant.”
I desperately want to get there. The article seems to take for granted, though, that I will. “The sweetness of living”—hmph. Maybe that’s what’s lacking. I wander again. And I find there’s a dragon for that: the blue one, above the window. I drew him in a fit of inspiration, a sinuous, pale blue lung dragon wearing a human mask and clutching a pearl. Around him float black lines of text, the opening of Basho’s Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel:
In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business.
[I’m intrigued, dragon. Continue—]
It must be admitted, however, that there were times when it sank into such dejection that it was almost ready to drop its pursuit, or again times when it was so puffed up with pride that it exulted in vain victories over the others. Indeed, ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another.
Fucking dragons. I go for a walk.
More days pass. I go to Utah. We leave Montana in snow, return to bare fall on the hills.
I go to work. I come home. In between are hours filled with country music, another smoke, the occasional game of cribbage. Play rehearsal in the evenings. Friends come and go from my front rooms, a time-lapsed blur of returnings and leavings. They say things. So do I. It all seems terribly important at the time. But already the experience of now begins to melt into the experience of then—the sharp edges are worn down, blunted, and the experience becomes another abstraction in my long roll of abstractions, the vaguely linear chronicle of me.
They say in winter rattlesnakes hibernate together—that in the hills you stumble into caverns filled with quiet serpents. Till you step inside, that is. Somehow I can’t imagine their inertia would save you then, in that den of long hollow fangs waking.
Oscar Wilde said life imitates art. I weigh my experience with this—well, I do often think, I must be in a movie right now. But no, there are other ways, too. We go skiing; I struggle with sickness and vomit twice. I think to myself, Would Inárion stop? And on I go.
But that was days ago, now—I haven’t been skiing since. The snow came and went and now has come with a skiff of ice. The weathermen say it will go again soon.
I pick up The Changing Light at Sandover—where do you begin, now that the beginning has passed you by? Of course: the middle. Or the beginning of the middle. M.
Maya in the city has a dream: a stranger, black garments, white garments, fire-clear eyes—a spring. Marriage rites. This dream, Ephraim says, is a low-budget / Remake—imagine—of the Paradiso.
Dante redone in dreams, and then redone in experimental cinema. Reflections within reflections. Tolkien redone in his own world, and then handed out piecemeal to dragons. I think of Theseus’ ship—when does a ship, endlessly rebuilt, cease to be the same ship? Would Tolkien be delighted that his language lives on in the beautiful sea-toned and dappled Caleanur, my Skydancer dragon whose name means “Light-in-the-Deep?”
Ephraim also explains that the reason for Dante’s being redone at all is that Maya’s spirit went on a night flight (much like Muhammed) while an old lady’s soul napped in her body. Why did the soul need to “sever the LAST THREADS?” And why by sleeping? What is it about this world—Position shifting, pillowcrease, a night / Of faint sounds, gleams, moonset, mosquito bite—that calls us back and back? Or if it so delights us, why do we feel the need to switch dreams?
Once I dreamed of a sea-coast, and a woman running barefoot before me—we climbed a fern-green cleft in the rock, to a pool in a wide oak wood. Beside the pool grew a lone flower, a delicate silver-white bell. I remember the moonlight on the sea, the white beach, her dark hair… Where did I drift that night? Who slept in my place?
How were they to be kept down on the farm, / Those bumpkin seers, now that they had seen / Paris—the Piraeus—Paradise? Or the Pinnath Brethil, where low downs of beech trees stretch to the sea along the length of River Sirelen, each shaking big leafy hands in the wind? Inárion walked there once, after he was crowned Arithil, 27th King of Dol Anoralas. There, in the leafy shade he saw Elién Lithornlanneth once again, his one-time lover from the South, walking among the beech trees. And he spoke not to her, but sang only then the Song of Parting, and went alone into the mountains. She looked a lot like a girl I saw once in a dream.
Where were we? On unsteady ground. Earth, Heaven;
Reality, Projection—half-stoned couples
Doing the Chicken-and-the-Egg till dawn.
Which came first?
Sometimes, when I’m exhausted, my brain goes into autopilot, and those little movies-in-your-head take center stage—film clips of Inárion in falling snow, a burning city all around him. Or wading into a cold pool, drawing water over his fall of dark hair, baptizing himself in the wintry river. I think of when I waded into a cold lake, the shock of it, the way you force yourself to keep breathing. There are moments when I am out walking and I see something, and I can nearly see him there, too—a tree red with autumn under fat snowflakes like feathers shaken loose somewhere above. He’s dressed in black travel-worn garments, Calasír’s hilt showing above his shoulder, and drawn around him is a dull grey cloak, mottled and worn. In it he almost vanishes into the snow, so that I have to squint. I am alone. I go back home and into my room and dream of sea cliffs pounded by surf.
Our senses hurt. So much was still undone.
So many questions would remain unuttered.
Undone, or unanswerable. What am I seeking, anyway? Why do I write these poems, pick up the world and really peer at it, like a bug under a microscope? And there’s nothing unexpected there; or sometimes there is. What is the question that I’m missing?
Nothing was for it but to rise and shine
Not in the fields, god knew, or in blue air
But through the spectacles put on to focus
That one surface to be truly scratched—
A new day’s quota of shortsighted prose.
Life goes on. The sky is bland grey now, a flat and vague brightness that dulls to smoky hues near the mountains. I think of rattlesnakes in huge knots in the hollow hills.
Maybe, I think, art is what finally resists us—not the final distillation, but the distilling pot itself. What that pot makes, too, is not the Answer; it is simply the world, reduced like wine to viscosity and full flavor. Sometimes, yes, it is sweet; but it can be bitter, or savory, or smack of salt as well.
Like slow, slim dragons, twin pillars of smoke curl up from the lit end of incense, or cigarettes—they rise and rise until they meet a hard current of air, where they curl over upon themselves like waves before rising into what had resisted them and being borne in big drifts around the room.
And perhaps, I think, I’ve been framing the question wrong. In yoga class this morning, the teacher said, “Everything is contraction and expansion; if you’re contracting now, you will expand soon.” How vague; yet how precise, how true. My soul has been bending inward, like the smoke on which I spend too much attention. What can I learn from them? What can I learn from Merrill? From Tolkien? From Ephraim? From Inárion?
I learned from Merrill that art makes worlds, inhabitable ones. He taught me how to dwell in them for the long term, if necessary. The lost novel, the ballroom at Sandover—perhaps Inárion could visit someday. Narénrhoval is grown up, too. I’m sure he and Eunice would get along.
And I learned from Merrill that those half-imagined worlds are not less significant, less purposeful, less full of joy and sorrow than our own—for we are their creators, and our dirty signatures are smeared upon them. But we are also their polishers, their Scribes, their reason for being—our fingerprints in this sense are not dirty, but smeared with anointing oil. With every line we move forward like terrifying, sympathetic gods.
Most importantly, I learned from Merrill that the poetry with which we capture the “real world” is itself an invented world, a home unto itself. The poet sits inside and gazes out at the world, and chooses what to bring in, what to exclude. There, dreams recur and die away and are reborn in new shapes on a daily basis.
Matter of fact, though, Merrill taught me the inverse, too—that the Real World is no more real than poetry, for it too requires decisions about what is significant. My perceptions make my reality, where spiders are scary and dragons don’t exist. But do my dreams, which have electrochemical weight in our very own space and time, mean less because they are not tangible, per se? If dragons live in there—even if it’s only a vague instinctive fear of snakes—then certainly they can be found in our world, too, just not in forms we recognize.
Tomorrow, I tell myself, the clouds will clear. This hazy dream will end. I will write a good poem, one I’ve been meaning to write. I will solve the puzzle of a day without nicotine, or drink.
And one final lesson, before the bell: Tolkien and Merrill both preach one great truth, and it is this: our visionary worlds bleed into this one in every way. They are real not only because they can be traced on EEGs, but because they remake us in their own image. We dream, and in the dreaming we are changed. Our Real Life undergoes a subtle metamorphosis. Creating darkness gives us light.
Inárion is not myself, exactly, anymore—he is my noble id, my wolfish side made manifest, all my dark parts condensed and made magnificent. Not admirable, per se, but purely what he is. Unapologetic. (No accident his symbol is the wolf.)
I walk out into the dark woods. My breath smokes like a sleeping drake in the cold air. In the aspen grove, owls are wheeling overhead, dark silent shapes that occasionally follow some insane hypotenuse down to the ground, where their strikes sound like breaking crystal in the brittle air. I suppose they are breaking crystal—what else is snow?
Sometimes real life is as strange as fiction. In the dark, suddenly, I see another character—a young man in a brown coat, scampering back and forth, delighted at the sight of big birds wheeling through the trees. He reminds me of a fox—his glinting eyes, his crooked grin. He is not Inárion. He is clever, not strong; gentle and good, not prone to violence. His way is solitude and stealth. I say his name into the dark woods; I don’t have to look it up: Ruscainim. “White Fox.”
White fox, black wolf—the twin poles of the self. Beneath those owl-haunted trees, saying his name felt like some ritual. He was something, now, where before there was nothing. Sometimes now where I once saw burning cities, flames of war, I see a sea-coast, ferns, hot springs, a harp played loosely in the dusk. A white fox dancing in a willow grove.
If all of this is simply a survival mechanism, then so be it. Perhaps art serves no other purpose than to keep artists from the madhouse. It gives them some way to pick up the world and examine it closely, turn it around a few times. These strange creations—maybe the act of creation, too—certainly keep me sane. That’s task enough, some days. I don’t work till 5—another cigarette, perhaps.
There’s a way in which good art settles into you, like hypnosis or a chemical taking hold. It ceases to matter if you’re paying attention to it—it’s part of the warp and weft of things. Merrill’s face floating up at me, dimly, reminds me that I exist within constellations of meaning, a network that is now inescapable. These worlds ask, “Why do you no longer come to me?” To which there’s no reply; for here we are.
The final dragon in my room is a printed piece of computer paper: a library copy of M.C. Escher’s “Dragon.” The dragon is a wyvern, with just two birdlike legs and a serpentine body, plus wings. It perches on a knobbly chunk of crystal; it bends its head backward, behind and then through its wings, through a strange and improbable window. On the other side, its head bites its own tail, flicks a long, forked tongue at the matte black surroundings.