If All Lights Closed
Little Wave relic,
how what we see
by its own re-
vision, a membrane
to report a crime.
If all lights closed,
& were I an animal
to thin to closure
before the ruins
where the will is
free, would you
heed the wreck-salt?
The pelt bells,
the rare swans
of the plaster
mating the other
of the cost in
—the starkest breathe,
stinging & stretching
seizes my spoken.
My bell, my swan
my pelt, my plaster
you of the fur-
ther night, is earth
but test? The frozen
center we enter singing?
The Origin of Inventions:
The Ombres Chinoises
During the golden age of the Han dynasty, the grieving of an emperor is said to have inadvertently caused the invention of the ombres chinoises, the Chinese Shadows. With balsa wood skeletons and translucent skins carved from winter melons, the lanterns cast subdued tales on night paths. Black iron figures rotate on a wheel encircling flame, mimicking ancestral heroics. The light-sculptures are said to secure and renew the bonds between heaven and earth. The lantern’s silhouettes, in floating dance, are the radiance of the dead. According to the legend of the ombres chinoises, Emperor Zhang’s prized concubine Liang, wandering often in the imperial gardens, would collect purple orchids, the white blossoms of the plum tree. Consort Liang had heard that beyond the Suihan Sanyou, the Three Friends of Winter, was the Lasting Spring and Moon Viewing Tower. Here, where the wind flutes through bamboo, Lanchi gong, the Lake of Orchids, reflected the universe. In the center of the lake was an island replica of the paradisiacal Mount Penglai. Crowned by turtle shell, the mountain’s peak was home to Emperor Zhang’s forbidden peach grove. Blessed, the peaches granted eternal life.
One night, Consort Liang stole past the pine, bamboo and plum trees. She waded across the Lasting Spring and, as Emperor Zhang’s guards passed, hid in the shadow of the Moon Viewing Tower. Reaching the edges of Lanchi gong, the Consort stripped herself of her vermillion hanfu and dove beneath the water. On the white sand of the replicated paradise, she rushed past the thick brush and willow trees. She soon came to a circle of bleached turtle shells. Four trees grew from black sand. As she stepped across the shells, each tree relinquished a fruit.
Emperor Zhang was awoken before the dawn. Shown the nude corpse of his beloved consort, he ordered the body wrapped in lucent silk. He consigned the heads of the night’s guard to a basket and ordered the Suihan Sanyou be cut to splinters. He walked to Lanchi gong, his court trailing behind. In an arrow array of bamboo boats they arrived on the shores of Mount Penglai. Ordering the fresh kindling spread through the sacred orchard, he commanded the trees burnt.
Standing on the heights of the Moon Viewing Tower, Court Engineer Ho witnessed the flame burn wild across Mount Penglai’s peak. He saw the iron shoulders of his Emperor blacken against the flame. Engineer Ho had pulled Consort Liang’s lifeless frame from the lake. On the white sand, wind had soothed her wet hair from the oval of her face. Before alerting the guards, Engineer Ho stole a kiss of her blue lips. He tasted peach. Now, there is no wind—only an outline of light.
A Gust Inside the God
Man, in his misunderstanding, makes the world
In lilting accent, Borges said, “There is a tribe in Brazil called the Bororo. They often say, ‘Pa e-do nabure.’”
Bright sea-green, ruby, and gold balloons in the form of toads, serpents, and skulls were bundled at various points around the cobblestone square. A chipped wooden chess set, where the men would gamble, sat in mid-game without players, the king near checkmate. Soundlessly, a yellow canary landed in a tree. The wind played through the leaves. Borges himself wore a crisp grey suit and black tie. He held a white cane with his left hand as he petted a sleeping panther with his right. Heavy muscles rippled its obsidian fur as the animal breathed. Borges’ wispy hair, gracefully combed back, revealed his famed blind eyes. The cane he held was topped with a silver miniature of Ptolemy’s cosmos; at its center, the bronze square of the sator-arepo.
Borges drank coffee, which, as he put the cup on the table, refilled itself. I glanced at the chess set on the cobblestone: the queen had moved, her broken diadem now checkmated the king.
“‘Pa e-do nabure, ’” he repeated. Brushing his lips with a black cotton napkin, he grew quiet. A red tailed hummingbird landed on the table, bumping the sugar. Holding his hand before him, the bird hopped to perch on his finger. He continued slowly, “In ceremony, the Bororo cover their bodies with arara feathers, their own blood holding the plumage in place. They attach arara wings to their arms. For one night at the solstice, they run inside a man-made nest, crying as they flap their now winged arms.”
The hummingbird flew away as he reached into his pocket to pull out a gold watch. “In death, corpses are laid with heads toward the dawn, arara wing and plumage attached to their appendages. Those Bororo souls who are honored will perch like great tailed araras on the rays of the setting sun.”
Borges slowly replaced the watch into his pocket, saying, “In contrast to the Bororo’s elemental rites, are the philosophers’ polemics. For example, the 17th century Arabic scholar Averroes speculated, unoriginally, that there was a word that, when spoken, encompassed all worlds; furthermore, and here is his genius, this word was a single letter. Like Descartes, Averroes held that the further removed from He of Infinite Consciousness, the less conscious creation becomes—from the self-awareness of man, who was made in God’s form, down to the dead of a stone. Averroes felt that even in a letter a trace of God-consciousness held; Averroes held that if he knew the letter, he would know the cast of all creation.”
“Averroes, who once translated Aristotle, scholar of the Talmud, lost himself in the cabbalistic study of the word. There was no one letter he sought, he believed all letters of all languages contained equal traces of infinite consciousness. A letter was all letters, in all combinations, and was none singly.”
“Averroes began to have a recurring dream of a garden in which a labyrinth was built. The labyrinth, he knew, was the letter containing all possible worlds. At night, he would dream this garden, of him standing moonlit before the entrance. Square pillars of marble towered on either side of the entrance, the visages of pagan Gods from all cultures inscribed on their sides—Jove, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and others. On the top of each pillar stood statuettes of faceless men. He knew in the labyrinth’s center, residing like a bloodied Minotaur, was God. One night, after a day of intense study and despair, he dreamt: he fell from the sky, softly landing before the pillars. This night, he entered the labyrinth. Path after path he took, the thorns of the walls tearing his clothes until only remnants remained stained with blood. Morning came. Then night. Still, He ran. Hours or days later, he rested against one of the labyrinths many fountains. He drank and despaired he would never find the center. He began to think the labyrinth, if it held God, was God—every path was the center he sought, the circumference of the labyrinth infinite and inaccessible; he ran blindly through the eternal name. He could not accept this confusion of pathways and fountains. Reason would not allow it.”
“As one more morning rose before him: a tenuous hope. He saw if the morning was rising, there was order: the rotation of the planets, the architecture of the labyrinth as a labyrinth amounted to a coherent structure and, thus, a center he could decipher. He leaned against a thorned wall, whispered to himself. At this moment, a flash blinded him and threw him to the ground.
“When he was able to stand, he found himself encircled by hummingbirds of all colors. They flew around him furiously. Through the wings of the speeding birds, he spied at distance another maelstrom of feathers and wings. Inside that, a shape the size of a man. Averroes joyed for he knew he had achieved the center of the labyrinth. He reached his arm through his cage of darting birds, ignoring the pain of the piercing beaks. As if trying to avoid hurting him, the hummingbirds fled in a thousand directions. Nursing his bloodied arm, he stumbled toward the further maelstrom of feather and wing. He collapsed from exhaustion. Gazing up at the other, a slow horror took him: within the tidal surge of songless birds, he spied a great black eye. A terrible screech arose. The birds furiously attempted containment. Battering itself against the flying bodies, a great black beak opened, and screeching, began to peck and eat. The hummingbirds flew harder, seemingly desperate to encircle the thing. As torn feathers became more numerous and bodies gathered on the ground, Averroes saw what the birds had been containing: a creature with the naked body of a man but with a head of a giant crow. The black eye, he saw, turned and centered on him. The thing thrashed back and forth with its beak, tearing into the flesh of the birds. It leaned its monstrous head back and screeched.”
“With terrible insight Averroes understood: the labyrinth was his choice of mystery to cultivate the eternal: like a primordial Adam naming the lion, the bull so they were one with their name, so did Averroes name his God and his God became it: a confusion that was all languages and was none, a letter that was everything and nothing. The thing, screeching and pecking at the ground, leaned its beak up. Tossing its bestial head back and forth, the god choked back the last of the certainties. It turned. It raised its hands toward Averroes.
Averroes raised his hands to his face. He felt feathers. A beak bloody with organs. Averroes screeched.”
“‘Pa e-do nabure,”’ Borges leaned forward, hand gripping the head of the cane.
Light broke through the clouds. A stream of sun on the chessboard: all the pieces now in their original location, queen beside her king, pawn to pawn.
“‘Pa e-do nabure,’” Borges repeated, “translate to ‘we are araras’ or ‘we are becoming araras.’ ”
The panther slapped his paw at something in his sleep. Lifting his cup, Borges said, “In this common phrase, the Bororo reconcile the qualitative difference between arara and man.”
As he petted the beast beside him, Borges said, “Unlike Averroes in his terrible labyrinth of the eternal name, the Bororo see life as indistinct from the God they ritual: they pierce their body bloody to embrace the wings that will one day carry them to the temple of the sun. For them, the divine letter is the organ of natural appearances: the cloud and the sky, the baying birth of a calf, the fields where the dying roan bays.”
Sipping his coffee, he said, “If there is any lesson in the tale of Averroes, sordid and pretentious as it would be, it is: where the walls fall strength steps forth, the black fowl out of whose eye stillness is opened; or, less poetically: each word acts as the gust inside your god.”
Borges leaned back in his chair and, blindly, the rain swallowed the light.
J. Michael Martinez received the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and he is a Ph.D. Candidate in Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His latest book, from the University of Arizona Press, is In the Garden of the Bridehouse. He is the Poetry Editor of NOEMI Press and his poetry has been anthologized in Ahsahta Press’ The Arcadia Project: North American Postmodern Pastoral, Rescue Press’ The New Census: 40 American Poets, and Counterpath Press’ Angels of the Americlypse: New Latin@ Writing.