“The poem is not a stream of consciousness, but an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it. Only words come into it.”
The Sun, the Cave, the Letter Z
If thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in twenty-six letters all in order, then Mr. Ramsay’s splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q.
But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance. Z is only reached once by one man in a generation. Still, if he could reach R it would be something. Here at least was Q. He dug his heels in at Q. Q he was sure of. Q he could demonstrate. If Q then is Q . . . R . . .
Who made your alphabet?
Socrates: Imagine the condition of men in a cavernous chamber, underground, with an entrance opening, to light, and a length of passage leading in. And here they have been since childhood, chains about their legs and necks, able to face only the darkened wall. A fire burns behind them, and between them and the fire looms a wall, like a screen at the puppet show. And hidden puppet masters make shadow-plays on the dark wall of the darkened cave. Imagine one man, set free of his chains, who turns and walks toward the fire’s light, who turns and walks the passage to the scalding sun.
Imagine he called to mind his fellows in their dwelling place, their sad condition.
Glaucon: Yes, I see.
(Plato, in letters I cannot read)
Who dreams beneath your city?
Mr. Ramsay: Here, we see, is Q.
That we can demonstrate.
Glaucon: Yes, I see.
The sun glimmers red behind the skyline.
The city makes its giant shadow-play.
Imagine Mr. Ramsay in a cavernous chamber,
groping, down a passage, to the light.
Imagine the corridor is longer than he expected.
Imagine him groping there still.
Or imagine thought a keyboard, or an alphabet.
A man, not Mr. Ramsay, but someone greater
(Plato, say), speaks its letters with a grand enunciation.
A, B, C . . . He sees each, cast in fire, in his mind.
If Q then R. If R then S and T. If T, then, surely, U and V.
(Mr. Ramsay: Yes, I see).
He reaches Z, here, in our city.
The sun glimmers red behind the skyline.
Who sleeps beneath your city, now?
Homeless, broken, crazy,
down tunnels under Lake Shore Drive,
down in the subways, underpasses — yes, I see.
Yes, there: I can demonstrate.
Who made your alphabet?
There, scrawled on the El train.
Those spray paint letters we cannot read.
Imagine, one man reaching Z,
his grand enunciation, his sudden halt —
new letters that he cannot read
stretching, like a keyboard, on and on,
each cast in fire, in its alien shape.
He stands agape, and broken, crazy. He struggles
to mouth their unsaid names.
Nomad, God and City
London was but a foretaste of this nomadic civilization, which is altering human nature so profoundly, and throws upon personal relations a stress greater than any they have ever borne before. Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth.
Who dreams within this nomad city?
Whose city did this Forster dream?
It is with cities as it is with sex. We seek the physical city and find only an agglomeration of private cells. In the city as nowhere else we are reminded that we are individuals, units. Yet the idea of the city remains; it is the god of the city that we pursue, in vain.
Its heart must have lain somewhere. But the god of the city was elusive. The tram was filled with individuals, each man returning to his own cell.
(Naipaul, a nomad come to London)
What god do you pursue, in cities?
Who lives within the cell next door?
Tired Mr. Ramsay creaks
the tired stairs of his hotel,
he slips the key he’s slipped for weeks
in Room Q’s lock and leaves the hall.
Some curry cooks on someone’s stove
its someone he will never meet,
he hears a swish – a frayed bathrobe —
the hallway’s wandering, bearded Greek.
Who walks these hallways that wind like a tedious argument?
Who can guess the argument’s insidious intent?
Who doubles back in muttering retreats,
eyes odd and elsewhere, pacing where he’s paced?
He passes rooms he’s passed before,
a letter, painted black, on every door.
In the corridor, insomniac, alone, the Greek dreams of his fellows,
their warm dwelling place, and of our nomad city, where he lives.
He imagines the god of cities speaks in notes too deep for hearing.
He imagines the god of cities signs a name we cannot read.
He would mouth a prayer.
What god do you pursue in cities?
Do you see him, briefly, from inside a moving tram?
There – is that his name, those spray paint letters?
Is that him, broken, crazy, speaking tongues?
There, is that him? Can you demonstrate?
Can you mouth or call his unsaid name?
Who dreams, alone, within this nomad city?
Would each wake and know the others
by their names?
The Dream of Ruins
Imagine that the nations which make up what we call “the West” vanish tomorrow, wiped out by thermonuclear bombs. Only Eastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa remain inhabitable, and in these regions the reaction to the catastrophe is a ruthless campaign of de-Westernization – a fairly successful campaign to obliterate the memory of the last three hundred years. But imagine also that, in the midst of this de-Westernizing campaign, a few people, mostly in the universities, squirrel away as many souvenirs of the West as they can — as many books, magazines, small artifacts, reproductions of works of art, movie films, videotapes, and so on, as they can conceal.
Now imagine that around the year 2500 memory of the catastrophe fades, the sealed-off cellars are uncovered, and artists and scholars begin to tell stories about the West. They will tell many stories . . .
(Richard Rorty, squirreled with all his books, his university)
Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear . . .
(Percy Shelley, his grand enunciation)
Mr. Ramsay’s visage, shattered, broken, crazy,
his wrinkled lip, his sneer of cold command.
Imagine him in the ruins of our city,
groping down a passage to the light.
Imagine him in the ruins of our alphabet,
his sad condition.
He finds a sealed off-cellar that was buried.
Imagine he makes that cave his hermit’s cell.
His cave, beneath these trunkless legs of stone,
holds all he’s hoarded:
fragments and quotations,
the things he’s squirreled away.
He pulls one from the pile to show his young companion.
“Here, we see, is Q”
“Yes,” sighs Glaucon, “yes, I see”.
He builds a small fire in his nomad encampment,
watches shadows play there, on the shattered wall.
He would lay his hoarded fragments neatly,
like keys of a piano, side by side,
like letters of lost words he longs to read.
He would mouth these words,
he would mouth a prayer.
A man, not Mr. Ramsay, dreams a city, its ruined alphabets,
dreams his fellows all as nomads dwelling there.
Shadows drift across his sleeping visage,
the grand enunciation of the red and rising sun.
The Dream of Fair Flesh and Eden
The spirit of the new days, of our days, was to be delight in the life of the world; intense and overweening love of the very skin and surface of the earth on which man dwells, such as a lover has in the fair flesh of the woman he loves; this, I say, was to be the new spirit of the time. All other moods save this had been exhausted: the unceasing criticism, the boundless curiosity in the ways and thoughts of man, which was the mood of the ancient Greek, to whom these things were not so much a means, as an end, was gone past recovery.
(William Morris, his city cold and filled with slow and drifting shadows:
This, he says:
That we be delivered from our cells and caverns.
That we receive help from the earth.
Sitting, facing the sun, eyes closed
I can hear the sun.
I can hear the birdlife all around for miles . . .
Beyond the birds there are persons
carrying their names like great weights.
Just think, carrying X all your life
Or Y or Z . . .
Having to be A all the time or B or C.
Here you can be the sun, the pine, the bird.
You can be breathing.
I tell you, I think this may be Eden,
I think it is.
What place is gone past all recovery?
What place is lost in all our dreams?
If thought is like the keyboard of a piano,
or like an alphabet is arranged in twenty-six letters all in order . . .
Mr. Ramsey dreams the keys fly, one by one,
like seagulls disappearing, in the distance and the sun.
The Greek's still pacing where he's paced and paced before
when the letters drop from where they hang on every door.
Imagine that the cities which make up what we call "the West" vanish tomorrow, gone past recovery, and we are welcomed with intense and overweening love by the very skin and surface of the earth, as a lover welcomed to the fair flesh of the woman that he loves.
Imagine then our dwelling place — sun, pine, the sound of birds.
I would tell this story.
I would catch the words and letters left by others,
lay them, as this story, side by side.
I would dream, here, in my city, in its shadows.
I would be an author with no name.
And if our Mr. Ramsey dropped the weight that is his name?
Would it be him, there, broken, homeless, crazy,
down in the subways, down the tunnels underneath our Lake Shore Drive?
Would it be him, his author's signature
scrawled on the El train,
those spray paint letters we cannot read?
Would it be him, gone past all recovery?
Would it be him?
The name of the sleeping man rests on his chest,
it rises and falls with the slowness of his breathing.
The wind moves slowly in low branches, while he dreams.