Alice in the Wasteland
by Ann Lauterbach

Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end?
—Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get tired
sitting
with spring rain
on the bank
in forgetful snow. She thought,
It is too dark to see anything.
Then she began to wonder
about the meaning of anything
and the meaning of nothing
and in what ways any and no
were alike.
She said to herself, I cannot see anything
and then, I can see nothing
and thought they amounted to the same thing
and wondered
why two ways of saying the same thing
were needed.
If only, she began, and fell
asleep.

***

It is soiled, possibly bloody, the dark.
At night there are cries
of the suddenly dying: a rabbit, a hen.
The fox went out on a chilly night.
He prayed for the moon to give him light.

The tune leaked into the air like ink
into paper. In her dream, Alice
is falling downstairs
into a tub of words.

The thing is pushed
forward. It is cold, nonsymbolic.
So, nameless as, say, animals are.
Unless.
These stray unlessnesses
avert attention. They
give solace to it.
But it remains, a nameless thing
cordoned into consciousness
as if
being could withstand it.

The nomenclature of the
not living is
an it. It, said the soldier, torturing his captive,
it it it.
So let us have the White Rabbit.
Let us have this hurrying near.
Let us, among the
constancy
of living
and its
images
begin.

***

I am broke! says the White Rabbit, hurrying to the
bank.
The White Rabbit, in the red,
has no redress.
Naked as a jaybird, the White Rabbit lamented, soon to be a jailbird.

But what is the color of chaos? Alice suddenly asked.
Gray, the White Rabbit replied, looking up at the sky,
like a sock.
But there are always two socks, and only one chaos, Alice said.
Colors and numbers are not of the same kind, answered the Rabbit
somewhat impatiently, almost knowingly.
How did you find a gray sock in the sky? Alice continued.
The cloud’s contour, don’t you see?
No, Alice replied. I see only a gray cloud. I do not see a sock.
But then, she added, perhaps I live in a gray sock, perhaps this hole is a
sock into which I have fallen.
The White Rabbit disappeared as Alice was considering this possibility,
so she was left without a rejoinder, in the solitude of conjecture.

Alice thinks something about eliminating the desire for revenge.

Alice was caught in the radiance of the not yet knowable.
This, she thinks, drifting, must be
the feeling of being young.
She could not say
in the radiance of the not yet knowable
which seemed, now, a reason for youthful sorrow.

***

Why do shadows get longer? Alice asked no one in particular. It must
have to do with the angle of the light, she answered herself, but this answer
did not make her feel confident. The question lingered anyway and
was added to by another. Does everyone know how to tell the difference
between a shadow and a thing? The thin trunks of the trees had bent and
crossed over the path.
Could one climb a shadow? she wondered.
Some can, came the answer out of the evening.
Who are you?
Who or what? came the answer.
Don’t answer a question with another question, Alice said crossly.
Why not?
It isn’t right, she said, not knowing why not.
A right angle, commented the Voice.
A right angel? Alice couldn’t quite hear.
Yes, a right angel is something that can climb a shadow.
At that moment the shadows of the trees disappeared.
Alice continued down the path. She said the word path aloud.
She then wondered if a path was related to pathetic.
Pathos, she heard in the distance, somewhere above.
What is that? she asked.
A bear.
A what?
A bear, an emotional bear.
On that hill? That dark shape?
No, that is a shadow.
And that?
A bird.
What sort of bird?
An eagle.
I don’t think so, said Alice. I think it is
a bunch of brown leaves skimmed by light.
The leaves flew away, their wings clutching the failing day.

***

Alice had spent most of that day reading.
It had been raining, more or less.
The book she was reading was absorbing.
It absorbed her, so she did not think about the rain
but let it fall on and around and beyond and outside of her.
The pages of the book became wetter and darker until she could hardly turn them
without tearing off a soggy slice.
When she finished the book, she felt lonely.
Why can’t we see time, she wondered,
the way we can see space?
The book had carved another time into time.
That isn’t true, she thought inwardly,
one cannot carve time.
No, but
perhaps, came the insolent, instructing Voice, one can crave it.

Crave rhymes with grave, Alice said after some moments.
I know, the Voice answered.
Alice continued down the path; she did not think the Voice friendly,
partly because of what it said, and partly because
it was attached to invisibility.
Are you a ghost? she asked suddenly.
Maybe.
If you are, then whose?
No one you knew.
How did you die?
I don’t remember.
Alice was silent for a long time.
Are you in Heaven?
For response, a great rushing sound, and the tops of the trees
began to thrash back and forth as if violently weeping and there seemed
to be water pounding over itself like a huge crowd trying to escape
through a narrow hall.
Alice decided this demonstration was cheaply
cinematic and that she would not pay any
further attention, but would take refuge in
another book. She sat down under a tree and read:

April is the cruellest month . . .
She stopped and considered what an odd observation this was. Alice had thought a
lot about the idea that
some things happen seemingly free from anyone’s volition at all.
She continued to read, hoping to find out why April is cruel.
You don’t get it, the Voice said in a loud whisper into her left ear.
You are rude and abrupt, Alice snapped.
It isn’t intent, it is a comparison.
What is?
April’s cruelty.
A comparison to what?
To the other eleven months. It is like the unkindest cut.
You aren’t making sense.

For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar’s angel:
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him!
This was the most unkindest cut of all;
For when the noble Caesar saw him stab,
Ingratitude, more strong than traitors’ arms,
Quite vanquish’d him: then burst his mighty heart;
And, in his mantle muffling up his face,
Even at the base of Pompey’s statue,
Which all the while ran blood, great Caesar fell.

This speech sounded like a recording.
One cut out of many, one month out of many. The month, April,
is most cruel; the cut, Brutus of Caesar, the unkindest. Get it?
Alice picked up her book and continued to read. An orange
butterfly flew across the page, and Alice thought it resembled
an autumn leaf falling gently through the air’s currents.
That’s sentimental, commented the Voice, adding,
and sentiment is a failure of feeling, or pathos, as we were
speaking about earlier.
Alice decided to ignore this remark altogether.
The butterfly continued to skim the surface of the air. It seemed
a kind of breathing machine that made
silence visible. She read
. . . Breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Alice found this depressing and inaccurate. She loved lilacs,
especially when she walked to the corner and saw them first at
the local Korean market. Well, she didn’t so much see them as
smell them, and that changed the aspect of everything.
The land, she continued to herself, is never
“dead” but resting.
If you insist on this kind of truth logic, you will never be able to
read poems.
Alice shut the book. She found it distressing that the Voice could read her mind.
So the invisible gets to speak directly to the invisible; they are audible to each
other, and so the Voice is listening in, she thought, to my thoughts. She had
learned that it isn’t
nice to listen in on other people’s private conversations, and so the fact that the
Voice could
hear her talking to herself made her mad.
Don’t be so prissy and pious, said the Voice, it bodes unwell for your future.
You need to be flexible about rules. They change. Cell phones have changed the
nature of what it means to listen in. Now it is a mere commonplace.
Yes, but you hear only half of the conversation, said Alice.
Picky picky, the Voice responded in a high singsong.
Alice decided to change the subject.
Can you hear everyone’s mind, or just mine?
I tune in and out, depending.
On what?
On whether or not I am amused. Of course, there is often severe interference,
and your thoughts get mingled with others.
Really! This idea frightened Alice, although she could not have said why
exactly. How many others?
Dozens, hundreds, thousands, the Voice said with a weary sigh.
What does that sound like?
The noise of history.
Do you mean you can hear voices from the past?
All the chitchat of the world.
In every language?
All. Plus the animals.

But you can’t understand anything with that kind of racket, Alice said
sympathetically.
I try to tune out, but it isn’t possible. It’s surround sound.
You need a remote.
Indeed. I ordered one, but it never came. They sent it to the wrong
address, I think to Mars.
Mars? The planet?
No, the God of War. He always gets my stuff.
How annoying. Do you have a similar address?
Just then a siren went off, climbing slowly up and then slowly back down.
I can’t hear you, Alice called. I’ve lost you.

Alice began to read again, but the words came out
confused and intermittent. Her mind interfered.

with dried
without pictures or conversations take the laundry in
over the Starnbergersee
what is that?
shower of rain         for the hot day        the pleasure of making
water the roses
in the colonnade in the sunlight I have never seen a colonnade
of getting up        with pink
I hate pink
into the Hofgarten.

in that, in that
for an hour Hofgarten? Looking into the distance.

out of the way
on a sled
in the mountains
of the night
in the winter.

Roots, branches, rubbish.
At this time it all seems
unnatural
kiu

kiu
la la

If you insist on this kind of truth logic,
you will never be able to
read poems.

***

Alice gazed down at the ground, covered in wet multicolored leaves.
It had been raining leaves all day.
You probably should fill out a form.
Why?
Because by responding you will be disclosing to the merchant that you meet these
criteria.
What criteria?
For understanding that which makes no sense for you.
What are they?
They are, for example, what crosses the path at the
place of form.
Alice found this inscrutable. You mean if I walk along the path and come to another
path that crosses it, that is where form is?
Sort of.
Alice walked on some way until she came to a path that crossed the one she was on.
I do not see any form, she said.
You are too empirical.
But I have no empire, Alice replied truthfully.
That may be, but do you have permanent interests?
Alice had lost the argument; it seemed to progress without clear incentive, like
lightning.
What the thunder said, the Voice roared and then again roared from a farther place.
Wait, Alice protested, you are getting away from me. Can we back up?
Nothing can go in reverse, unless you are a machine, shouted the Voice.
I can retrace my steps, Alice said.
That is not the same as going back in time, which is nostalgia.
Nostalgia sounds like something for which you take a drug.
Nostalgia is a drug.
Jug jug jug jug, came a sound from the pond.
You need to study the difference between things as
they are and things as they might be.
But no one can predict the future.
Pick a card, any card.
Before her, the landscape changed into a huge deck of cards swaying and floating,
in radiant black, red, and gold.
Alice reached for a card and turned it over. It was the Ace of Spades.
As she did this, the other cards spun away, and she found herself standing with a
spade in her hand, like a farmer.
Just then a Cat came out of the brush.
Alice of Spades, it said, and smiled broadly.
Now you are the most powerful card in the deck.
NOT! Came a roar. I am! I am!
The Cat turned slowly toward the chorus; Alice nearly dropped her spade.
Suddenly, a procession of Ings and Eens and Acks came forward, marching.
The All spoke at once.
I All-Powerful! I Anointed! I the Decider!
Put down your arm or I
will arrest you!
Pay no attention, said the Cat, it is only an army of benighted believers who think if
it plays its cards right, it will win.
Off with your head! shouted the All.
Fine, said the Cat, I have many lives to spare, and disappeared.
Off with her head! shouted the All.
Alice started digging furiously with
her spade and jumped into the hole just as the
All charged at
her, calling: Ready or Not! Ready or Not! Here All comes!

But Alice was far out of reach.

***

One day, Alice is reading about another Alice.
What haunted her in this wasteland vision may have had to do with a sense of
deprivation, of there not being enough love in her own family to go around.

Does love have a quantity, like acres and dollars? How peculiar.
She imagined
a household with love moving outward
and not reaching the far corners.
This other Alice lay in the unloved space
like a discarded doll.
Why, she wondered, do people lose interest in some things and not in others?
They die, said the Voice dryly.
You again.
Have you lost interest in me?
I think so.
You think so? You think enough to know or not to know so.
Thinking and knowing are not the same, Alice said.
In fact, she added bravely, thinking is almost the opposite of knowing.
Don’t be pretentious.
I am not pretending, I am thinking aloud, and that is the way I come to know.
Then thinking, in your view, is a prelude to knowledge?
Prelude is a lovely word, Alice commented.
Is it?
Yes, it has a feeling to it, as if in the uncertainty of the things there were a
mysterious beauty, as if only one instrument were playing, only one bird singing.
Dawn?
Yes, the dawn’s early light.
No comment. Do you play with dolls?
Yes, I have many of them, and I make them do things and say things.
Did they always agree to this doing and saying?
Of course. They have no choice in the matter, since I am the one who is playing.
Do you play with soldiers too?
Girls don’t play with soldiers.
Why not?
A doll was on the floor, facedown.
There was a rip in her arm and another on her ankle.
Alice had wrapped blue bandages around both these wounds.
Because soldiers take orders to kill.
Just then a huge limb of a tree fell to the ground, making a terrible thud.
The Voice, now far off, called

And sport no more seen
On the darkening green.

***

What, Alice wondered, is the difference between
adventure and dementia? They
sound so much alike.
Not really, the Voice replied, at least not so as I can tell. It’s only that
middle syllable, the
men and the ven.
Bob Dylan makes those kinds of rhymes all the time.
Who?
He’s a singer.
Never heard of him.
You will, Alice said dryly.
I’d quote you some lines, but permissions are prohibitive. I suppose
I could sing to you
and then no one would know. She sang.
Bugs illumined in the setting sun, minute integers of life.

***

As she went along, Alice felt
the heavy gate of night close behind her. She
wondered if it were locked, and if
she would ever
find her way back through it to daylight. Ahead,
she could see very little.
She lay down on the damp ground and looked up.
Stars pulsed like tiny flares reflected in a sea, illuminating nothing.
Everything is suspended but hanging, she thought.
She pulled at a damp blade of grass.
Nowhere-never droned around her
and blew on her skin.
A spray
of notes, or motes, issued into the air.
A nervous watery breath
lifted stray hairs
and set them out on the grass.
Perhaps, she thought, I am dissolving.
She began to hum. The Moon appeared,
exhaling a trail of thin cloud.
I am glad to have your company, Alice said.
And I am glad to have yours, answered the Moon.
You are entire, Alice said with a trace of envy.
It was ever thus, answered the Moon glumly.
But you wax and wane.
Yes, wax and wane and wax and wane ad infinitum. Nothing changes.
But everything changes, depending on whether you are only a thin curl in the sky or
a great luminous ball.
Changes for you, maybe, but I remain the same, a monocle staring down while the
sun comes and goes.
But the sun doesn’t move, you do.
Whatever, said the Moon. You go around the sun and I follow along like a dog on

a leash. Without you and the sun, I am a paltry gray rock.
It is a terrible case of codependence.
You have very low self-esteem, Alice said. Everyone here thinks the world of you;
you are always mentioned in poems and songs.
I know. It makes me cringe with shame. Moon this moon that, lovers and
moonlight, nocturnes and sonnets. It’s a total cliché. Stick an r in and you get
moron.
Alice stood up, casting a long black shadow.
Look how tall I am!
I will never be tall, answered the Moon, and disappeared behind a heavy cloud,
erasing Alice’s shadow and sending her back into total dark.
An owl hoo hooed from a distant tree.
Alice felt afraid.

What’s it to you if I live in a pit?
What’s it to you if I cry?
What does it matter if I never get fatter?
What’s it to you if I die?

What’s it to you if I fall in a ditch?
What’s it to you if I’m sad?
What does it matter if I never get rich?
What do you care if I’m mad?

This ditty seemed to come out of nowhere.

What do you care if I’m far off or near?
What’s it to you if I’m weary?
Does it matter at all if I’m caught in a trap?
If I’m a lunar moth or a fairy?

Alice spun around and fell down.
I do care! She cried, I do!
Is that true? You do?
Yes, tell me where you are.
I am here in your ear.
In my ear?
She touched her left ear.
Ow! Ow!
Sorry, Alice said. What are you?

What do you care if I’m a flea or a gnat?
Or a very small, excellent spider?
I am not a mouse or a rat
and I don’t know what rhymes with spider.

That is called an exact rhyme, Alice said.
Is it now? How?
Because you used the same word twice: spider and spider.
Just then a bluish light, no bigger than a drop of water, flitted in front of her.
You’re a firefly! Alice exclaimed.

Firefly! Firefly! Burning bright
In the forests of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame my fearful symmetry.

You’re stealing from Blake

It’s not a mistake
I’m a terrible fake.

I’m jealous of his Tyger
always burning brighter.

All I do is come and go—
I’m an illusion, not much show.

You and the Moon seem to be equally dissatisfied. You should be glad to be such a
magical luminous creature. I have no natural light.

You have turbines, and ignitions galore,
I’m only an intermittent spark of allure.
I come on for an instant, neither bulb nor orb,
a mere flitting mite with a poor dim light.

As it sang, the firefly moved off into the distance.

Good-bye, I must fly!
Want to come?
Alice and I
make a fabulous twosome!

Alice wondered what the firefly might mean; was she meant to race after it? Already
it was only a blinking spot in the dark. But then, in a rush, she found herself beside
it, hovering.

O my, am I flying?

Flying thou art
in a fit and a start.

Come, come away
before the break of day.

Alice wondered if she was still Alice. No one will recognize me now, she thought.
I am one among many and we are all the same. Everywhere she turned, she saw
mirror images, pulsing in the dark just as the stars pulsed above. She realized she
knew nothing about the life cycle of a firefly and wished she had paid better
attention in biology. She had always wanted to fly, ever since Peter Pan, but this
somehow was different; she was stuck in another story the ending to which was not
knowable. I’d rather be reading than being a story, she thought.

Reading and being do not rhyme.
You’ll have to do better if we are to be on time.

Where are we going?
I hate not knowing.

Just follow after.
Let’s head for that rafter.

Directions are scarce,
our map is my trace.

Let’s wake up the swallow,
he can sing us a tune.

I’ll lead and you follow—
late and soon.

I’m breathless and scared
and your rhyming is forced.
Now it is Wordsworth’s
The world is too much with us.

Little we see in nature that is ours.
But now, you see, we are one with its prowess.

It’s powers, not prowess! What is your name?
My name is the same as the wishing game.

Make a wish double fast!
I wish I were Alice, cried Alice.

Alice rhymes with palace!
What fun!
Better a palace
than a barn!

Everything that happens is a word.
That’s absurd!
Not if you’re heard!

A Peacock appeared then with radiant plumage. It cried its terrible cry and Alice
remembered I remembered the cry of the peacock.

Why do you cry?
Because I am so beautiful.
I ravish sight with my azure eyes.
And we all weep together, a hoard of captives.
I am the palace and the prince.
I am the enchanted and the enchanter.
I am the end and the beginning of each day.

Then the sun came up then.

Alice was not sure if her wish had been granted, and if it had, by whom. She could
not see clearly in the early light whether she was still a winged bug or a girl. She felt
lonely and cold in the damp dew. Beside her, she saw a strange netlike thing
hovering in the grass. It looked, she thought, like a handkerchief dropped by an
angel, immaterial, yet visible. Well, she thought, I am still thinking, so I must still be
Alice. The sun began to make the world sparkle around her. The handkerchief
glistened. She reached for it, and as she did, it vanished.
That night, Alice dreamed of cheese, proper names, an elevator, a sad child, and
mistakes. She had lost her address and, since no one was expecting her, she felt a
kind of delirious freedom at the same time as she felt totally alone. She dreamed
that she saw a man she knew, and he stared at her blankly.
She dreamed she was in a tall building that swayed in the wind.

That night, Alice dreamed of cheese, proper names, an elevator, a sad child, and mistakes.

***

What are you reading?
A poem.
Does it rhyme?
No.
How can you tell it’s a poem if it doesn’t rhyme?
For someone who listens in to the world’s conversation, you are massively ignorant.
No need to be insulting. Enlighten me.
Alice was silent.
So?
I’m thinking.
I know that. So far your thoughts are inscrutable.
It’s like love.
What is?
You know a poem is a poem the way you know love is love.
But love is more likely than not an illusion.
The feeling of love is not an illusion.
This is not a good enough explanation.
Poems don’t need explanations, Alice said, and added in her sternest, most grown-up
voice,
and if I remember, you are the one who told me not to be empirical, and now you are
asking me to explain something that is not within the bounds of explanation. Poems
are examples of themselves.

As in, I know it when I see it? Without an objective criterion, you sink into mere
opinion.

It has to do with how words vibrate through more than one sense, more than one
moment. Alice wished the Voice would leave her be.

Read to me.
Alice read.

***

Do you have a name? Alice asked one day as she was walking toward the river.

Yes.

What is it?

I was christened Goggle, but most people call me Gog, I think because I seem to be
the same coming or going. I’m not really capable of making distinctions and I am
without a direction.

Then you aren’t human.

I thought I had made that clear. How many invisible humans do you know?
Many, but most of them are in books. Your name, for example, is in a book by Samuel Beckett.

He took it from an earlier source, the Book of Revelation. Here it is direct from my
favorite source, which, by the way, I invented:

In the biblical Book of Revelation, a power ruled by Satan will manifest itself
immediately before the end of the world. In the biblical passage and in other
apocalyptic literature, Gog is joined by a second hostile force, Magog; but in the
books of Genesis and Ezekiel, Magog is apparently the place of Gog’s origin.

Are you evil? Alice asked. The question itself made her heart race.

Evil is as evil does. It is an interpretation, not a condition. It isn’t innate.

But what exactly are you?

I got caught in the crosshairs of brain and technology. It was a crisis, or crux.
So I am neither one nor the other. That’s the reason I wouldn’t know a poem if I fell
on one. Just then, the Voice stubbed its tongue on something.
Damn! said the Voice, it’s the Weather!

The wind picked up, blowing a few last leaves across the ground.

***

Alice wondered if, when she is old, she will be wise.

Is wisdom something that comes naturally, along with gray hair and wrinkles? Is
that old woman sitting on her porch wise? Wise rhymes with eyes, so perhaps
wisdom is a way of seeing especially clearly, like a clairvoyant. Madame Sosostris is
known to be the wisest woman in Europe.
What a silly name for a wise person, Alice
thinks, not
like Athena, which sounds wise. Athens must be named for her, but a city cannot be
wise. Madame Sosostris is reading cards and she says:

I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.

This sends chills through Alice’s soul.

Who is the hanged man?

Alice saw in her mind’s eye a man, with dark eyes and hair, and another, in a mask,
placing a kind of scarf around the dark man’s neck. Then the masked man takes a
great thick rope and places it around the dark man’s neck. The rope turns into heavy
coils. The dark man looks complex: resigned, intelligent, amused, hidden, cruel.

***

The Moon was in eclipse. A shadow passed across its face. The Cat was looking out
on the snow seeing something Alice could not see, even if the Moon came out from
behind the shadow. Someone phoned and left a message. Alice thought about the
idea of an answering machine. It seemed an odd idea. A machine would always say
the same thing, no matter what question it was asked.

Are you there?
Are you there?
Are you there?

The you of the question was not the what of the machine.
The place of human action, Alice thought, has moved off and left behind only actors
wandering among broken, leftover sets. The Moon, in shadow, was part of a set.
The tracks in the snow, the greenish sky, the single star: sets. Someone
would come out before long to sing a song of longing. What, Alice wondered, is love
among machines?

Sappy, the Voice said, and dated. Get real.
There was a silence that filled with ambient sounds.
At last, Alice exclaimed,
I know what you are!
O?
Yes, you are a by-product.
A what?
By-product, a sort of leftover from other processes that left you, like ash after fire, or
slag after the copper has been removed.
I don’t think I like that idea, it sounds even less attractive than recycled.
It is. You have no further use. You’re an end in yourself.
Another silence.
Watch out, said the Voice, you are in danger of thinking us both out of existence.

***

When Alice woke up it was still snowing, a fine, salty snow that moved like a veil in
the wind. For some reason, she began to weep, and her tears turned first quickly to
icicles that then as quickly melted, leaving almost invisible tracks. It was impossible
to tell the time, since the light was almost uniformly a gauzy pale gray in which the
darker trunks and branches of trees seemed to be suspended. But for a cardinal that
tore a fresh wound through the air, and a few dark hairy hemlocks, color seemed
also to be almost gone. But none of these things had anything to do with Alice’s
tears, which seemed to have come from a far-off source, so remote and unknown that
they felt like those of a stranger. Perhaps these are not tears at all, she thought, but
only the melting snow. But her eyes kept flooding from within, and the tears kept
breaking over their lids like spill over a dam. She wondered if she were crying
because of something in a dream. She could not remember her dream.

In the smudged air something stirred.
What ails?
I cannot say. It is as if before.
Yes, as often. Mine, also.
Before?
Aye, another time, when there were violets.
There are violets now.
These sang among rocks.
Singing violets?
They belonged to the winged.
Winged violets that sang?
Spoke also as they lay down along the path.
The path to where?
It was not to anywhere, it was from everywhere.
O.
Aye, a sort of O, an ambit.
It is snowing.
Aye, the O is caught inside of the snow; it is in pain.
Am I crying because of that?
Perhaps.
It seems strange to cry for an O.
It isn’t for an O, but for an entrapment, for the fact that it is caught in snow.
Once, it was my mouth.
Your mouth was the path from everywhere to nowhere?

Aye, it was the news of awe. It was the scandal of Omission and the law of Oblivion.
It was the Overt sign that filled itself with nothing, leaving all else Out. It was an
Ocean whose spoon lifted the whale from its Origin and poured out its Oil into the
hot gold lights along the bridge where the lion roars.

I once saw that bridge.
But did you hear the lion roar?
No.
Do you hear the cricket?
Yes.
Can you describe the difference between the sound of a lion and the sound of a cricket?
I cannot. It is ineffable, outside of the linguistic index.
You cannot point at it, or to it.
No.
My mouth once could say the difference between the lion’s roar and the cricket’s song.
Mimicry?
No, by coming from many places and going nowhere.
Then your mouth was not entirely for sound?
My mouth was the route through which sounds pass.
So is mine.
Aye, but your sounds all know where they come from and to where they are going.
The snow is like fog.
The foggy foggy dew.
She wept, she cried, she pulled her hair.
Air trapped in hair, as the O is in snow.
The only only thing I did that was wrong.
That was then also.
With the winged speaking violets?
Aye.

Alice watched the birds in the snow. Some were dark gray with flashes of white you
could see only in flight, and others a tawny brown; some were tinged with a yellowy
green along their wings while still others wore small black caps. Many had
delicately woven stripes and stippled chests. She knew some of their names—
chickadee and nuthatch and finch and song sparrow and tufted titmouse. A pair of
mourning doves huddled on a bare branch of the hawthorn tree. Before the snow
came, robins had begun to appear, and she worried about them now, wondering
where they were and how they could eat with the earth snowed in. She wondered
how these names came into being: robin, titmouse, nuthatch, finch. They do not
know their names, she thought, and yet they seem to know each other. Knowing
their names and being able to describe them is insufficient and meager; these do not
bring me closer to them.

The tricky ordeal of words. They are elastic frets, bringing us closer to the same time
as they push us away; we think by naming things that we capture them but this is a
ruse, and you see how we are trapped by it, trapped in use. Ruse use us. Every word
contracts and exfoliates thus. Folded into each core, an ore.

Everything must come from somewhere.
Thing, where, every, some. Mine, alas, from the undone.
Your ore?
Yours also.
What is the undone?
Not a what, nor a where, nor a some. Yet still, a sum.
Many?
So many.
More than how many?

Whatever you count, more. The stars and the non-stars, plus: always, the sum plus
one. A call, indifferent and dangerous yet without even a trace image, horizonless,
unstacked. The faulty implosion and aftermath of sight which is why, here in snow, I
return briefly. I cannot be remembered, so do not be alarmed. I am merely the
eternally Open, as in the portrait of the monk’s mouth, into which and out of which
time pours.

What you say is impossible.

Aye, also contaminated. The numerical is a dungeon. The murderers are there,
counting and pondering tomes and licenses, always counting, counting, counting. They breed,
although they have been unsexed. They return as blame.

Alice sat in the snow, watching the March birds, the grackles and juncos and tits.

Only if I am invisible, she thought, will the birds stay. If I materialize, they will fly
off because they fear me, except it isn’t me, Alice, they fear, but the ways in which I
am not one of them, not a bird. There was no way to assure the birds that she had no
intention of hurting them, or of persuading them that it was she who had scattered
seed across the snowed ground.

Why don’t they connect these two facts? she wondered. What the birds knew was of
another conceptual order, one in which her intentions and her actions were forever
severed; she could not argue or protest; she could simply remain trapped in the
difference between what she was and what they were.

I am real but unknowable, which means I cannot be actual and the ways in which I
am real are confusing; perhaps, she thought, I am merely a memory or a dream.
What if the birds are actual and I am not?

The wind made a hollow whistling sound; the trees swayed.

I am insufficiently present, Alice moaned, and began again to weep. She was
beginning to suspect that she was not really alive. She was beginning to suspect that
she had no parents but that instead she was a kind of mutant guise or emanation
with a proper name, itself quite common, that had innumerable places of conception.
There was Alice James, sister to William and Henry, and there was Alice B. Toklas,
friend and lover of Gertrude Stein. There was, of course, the Alice who wandered
around in Wonderland, for whom she had been named, the creation of Lewis Carroll
who wasn’t really named Lewis Carroll, and he had named his Alice after a real
little girl named Alice. I am an effect, she thought. I am a mere motif at the mercy of
someone else’s pleasure, someone who thinks by pretending that I am alive she can
make the birds comprehend something beyond their existence, but she is wrong.

Even if you are not real, said the Voice, you can be true.
Alice started.
I don’t want to talk to you, she said sulkily.
You may have no choice.
Maybe your battery will give out.
Maybe, that will be only a temporary cessation, like a cup of tea or a trip to the bathroom to pee.
The snow is melting.
Don’t change the subject.
What is the subject?
Your truth as opposed to your reality.
O really, she said, and slipped into a nearby wood.
Following her, an incomprehensible jargon of something found in the jumble sale of Language.

As like is cadence-repetition exists
as living is contributing either
a literature its creates everything
a language internal chance enchains
a linguistic Idea concepts encounter
apprenticeship lost in close either
at libratory in confronted elements
and lives itself covering external

***

The next morning when Alice woke up, it was spring. She could tell not only
because the snow had melted away, but because there were alterations everywhere;
under the sodden leaves of fall, minute beginnings: dark reddish nubs and bright
green kernels just above the surface of the softening earth and, on the thorny rose
stalks, tiny furled nodes; the squirrels were chasing each other, performing
impossible acrobatic swirls in the tawny grass, and the mostly silent birds had
begun to sing.

It must be April, she thought.
Aye.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth

What language are you speaking? Alice asked.
English.
But I don’t understand most of the words.
Aye. Language changes. Words morph and disappear into the mire.
Mire is an example. What is a mire? It rhymes with some sad words, like liar and dire and ire.
The mire is the wet ground, swampy, like a bog. It came to mean to be in difficulties.
Like getting bogged down? Alice said.
Exactly.
Sometimes I think language is as beautiful and mysterious as nature, and no matter
how much we learn, it never gives up all its secrets and surprises.
To this sudden appraisal there was no response.
Hello? Hello?
Two boys rode by on bicycles, calling to each other in loud boy voices.

***

Alice was sitting in the grass. Around her there was a scattering of small
buttonlike yellow heads on slender stalks, nodding slightly above the grass.
Dandelions, said the Voice.
I know, Alice said.

How did they get this strange name?

Etymology can help you there; you can trace a word from its origins. It isn’t a dandy,
not like Fred Astaire, but the teeth of a lion, from the French dent
de lion,
and before that, from Latin.
Alice was silent for some minutes.
She was trying to make a connection between a lion’s tooth and the soft yellow heads
of the flowers.

She found no link at all.
It isn’t the head of the flower, Alice, but the shape of the leaf, which is serrated like
a tooth.
The Voice roared with self-congratulation.
Alice felt equally edified and annoyed and changed the subject to something the
Voice couldn’t look up with such alacrity.
Is a dandelion a fact?
No, it is an object.
Objects are not facts?
That there are objects called dandelions is a fact.
I see. And their color, yellow, is that a fact?

Yellow is a color, an attribute, not a fact; but that dandelions are yellow, at least
until they turn gray and lose all their hair, is a fact.
Alice took this in. It seems to have to do with sentences.
And things that happen, are they facts?

Not exactly. Events find their bearings by a kind of extrapolation; out of all the
possible relationships between and among the particulars of the perceptible world—
the dandelions—we construct events—they are hinges between the immediacy of the
present and what went before and what comes after.

But that isn’t quite accurate, Alice said, knowing that by contradicting the Voice she
was asking for trouble and, indeed, the wind began to pick up.

Events are in time. But the way you said it, it sounds as if we make events up,
whereas events happen that we have no control over. Earthquakes and storms and
terrible accidents on roads, for example.

As Alice made this observation, the crowd of dandelions nodded and swayed excitedly.

You are talking about stories, I think, Alice went on, getting up from the grass and
walking quite quickly up the hill. She thought a storm was in the offing. But an
event isn’t a story; stories add event to event, as if stitching them to each other, or
putting beads on a string.

Event horizons! the Voice shouted.

What?

Event horizons! The edge of space-time! The great maw of the universe!

There was thunder to accompany these bald statements.

I am not looking through anything, Alice said disconsolately, and
whatever I say is not seen, except in the mind’s eye, whatever that is.
So far, nothing is as it seems or seems as it is. Really, I would prefer to be a cat
and trot along with a bird in my mouth, its head hanging limp, feathers listless.

Being a cat is nice, said the nearby Cat.
I grant you that. Being a cat means you can go from violence to affection without any
discernible transition.
I kill, I purr, I eat, I sleep.
These are excellent variations on a theme of being alive, if not exactly sentient, and I
recommend them to you as a
cure for your humanness.
But I like being human, Alice said, and then added, sort of.
And besides, I haven’t any choice in the matter.
But of course I am not exactly human, she added, I am a fiction, which makes things
more
complicated on the one hand and a lot simpler on the other.
However, said the Cat, you are the emanation of a human, so that makes you more
human than not.
No, Alice said, once again feeling disconsolate, I am only words.
This is a bare fact and there is nothing to be done about it.
But Alice, said the Cat, are facts not also a matter of interpretation?
Perhaps you are not mere words.
Alice was silent for a long time, long enough for the Cat to clean its face by licking
its paws and then wiping them across, first one side, then the other.
O I don’t know what facts are, Alice said at last.
Once I thought a fact was a thing, substantial and irrefutable, like a table or a
penny, but now I am not so sure.
I know facts have something to do with evidence, she added,
since the Cat had said nothing in response to her outburst.
When people say what the facts are they seem to be saying something about reality.
The Cat wandered away into the shade of a rosebush. It had lost interest. The Cat
was not interested in either facts or reality.
Alice went back to her book. She wished there were someone wise and informed
enough to help her with facts and reality. If that person appeared, then, and only
then, she might be helped with the more awful problem of truth.

***

One day, Alice was leaving CityCity on a train.
As the train pulled away from under the tunnel of misgivings
it passed a message on a building:
IT IS NOTHING TO YOU, ALL WHO PASS BY
What a strange thing to say
to the passengers, Alice thought,
It is nothing to you.
What is nothing to me, to us?
On the way back into CityCity, she saw the sign again.
Is it nothing to you, all who pass by?

—to Willa

I am insufficiently present, Alice moaned . . . I am an effect . . . I am a mere motif at the mercy of someone else’s pleasure, someone who thinks by pretending that I am alive she can make the birds comprehend something beyond their existence, but she is wrong.


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