Nostalgia of the Light, Desaparecidos

In the Atacama desert, astrologers search the heavens for answers to our intergalactic past, while 70 year old widows scavenge the same desert for the remains of their loved ones, murdered and buried by the Chilean dictator Pinochet.

Today is the day, she murmuers with her dented shovel in hand;

Mother earth, dry, dead, nevertheless “la esperanza dá muy fuerza.”

They begin at the first find and circle outward like vultures.

That desert wind, that howl that never ends, carries remains far.

The first find was his pointer finger, that spun curls in her mahogany hair.

A few meters away, a foot, still in his burgundy sock that she gave him for Navidad.

They found his teeth yesterday and placed four molars in plastic sacks.

She loved that smile, that face, those cheeks that she held and kissed at their last parting,

The excavation uncovers splintered bones and splintered memories. She sits down,

Its been a long day–25 years long. The mothers and widows of the desaparecidos are fewer now–

tired, or content with the idea that the remains were dumped offshore into the Pacific;

it seems the waters of Lethe could washaway their sorrows, but not hers.

Not the widow who camps under the desert stars and wonders,

Where these the summer consolations he saw that night? Was it this season?

On the ride from the concentration camp, did he have a moment

to wonder at the moon, and the stars after the solders threw him on the ground?

Where is he?, she asks the stars.

The stars wink, as if saying,  “I know something you don’t know.”

The light is too bright to sleep underneath the stars she decided.

No rest tonight. No peace for her, here in the Atacama desert.

Astrologers say there is a zoo in the sky, she thinks it’s a prison–

cold and silent, full of lions,  hydras, and men who claim to be gods.

She rubs her rosary beads. The southern cross dangles over head, over his head

forever and acts as his unmarked grave, she thinks. She hopes. She holds

the sun bleached photograph up to the light. In the photo he is winking.

Her lover disappeared that night after she kissed both cheeks, now fragments in plastic,

and whispered, te cuide mi amor,  be careful, my love

as he strode out in the night. No rest that night, waiting by the phone.

No rest tonight either–the constellations remind her to much of the dig site:

small white pieces of bone, scattered here and there; the stars

remind her of the mass graves they will probably find tomorrow or next week–
The stars dwindle at dawn but they are still there, hidden in the daytime,

still watching her dig, walk, cry, pray in this howling desert.

Silent eyes watching, silent constellations spinning,

silent telescopes scanning the cosmos, and the widow,

silently flipping through la Bíblia Santa–1 Juan 2:17.

The human heart shouting into the wind–I’ll find you.

Under Oceans

I.

My boy heard the ocean singing,
bubbling from the drowned sailors’
concert hall in the wooden shell
of the H.M.S. Thomas.

Quickly kicking up the white sand
of the beaches, then kicking at the white
foam, my boy skipped on the surface of the ocean
out to where the bubbles sang.

Every pearl of air that held its breath
to the end
exploded with a triumphant
note to the bright, unconstraining sky.

My boy cupped his hands
around his face
to look into the murky deep
at the sailors below
the farthest reaches of the sun.

II.

There they played,
in the rotting-wood amphitheater
on the sea floor, only outlines in the dark deep,
illuminated slightly by the scarce
muddled lights
of their drifting, aquatic audience,
their cloudy shadows swaying with the tide.

One sailor had harpooned a small, black whale,
branded Steinway & Sons in gilded gold.
Tapping the whale’s white teeth with his fingertips,
this sailor only played Ray Charles blues
because he too could not open his eyes in these salty seas.

Another sailor found his instrument
in the form of a seven-foot shark skeleton,
which he laced with seaweed strings.
He thrummed away a deep bass rhythm; easier felt
in the pulsating water than heard in the air above.

The last man,
who had held his breath since the sinking
of their ship, the H.M.S. Thomas,
had now grown tired and doubted
his puffed-up cheeks could keep him alive.
He grabbed a subtle sea snake,
like a clarinet, and soulfully wheezed out his last.
Dark globes crept from the sea snake’s
poison-slicked mouth.

III.

The rising elegy of the third sailor
was different from the light orbs before.
Now large and spacious, they grudgingly
slouched to the surface,
burdened with the extra weight
of being coated in the sea snake’s venom.

The bubbles popped at the surface with a bellow
followed by a long hiss,
which spattered as sharp as thorns
to pierce my boy’s palms, knees, feet.

Tears marched down my boy’s aurora eyes,
past his vinegar lips, to the cloudy sea
beneath him.
Those tears struck the surface like cave drips—
uneven yet distinct—
which sounded as piano keys,
adding to the muffled music beneath
the Sea of Galilee.

Born to Music 4/4

I.

To beget is a form of music, “bringing into being.”

I create because the muses met in melodies—

My saxophone father, conceived me while singing

with his fingers and lips, and a full bodied wheeze

vibrating love into the air. The jazz crescendos

high when his saxophone-swaying hips took seize

of my mother. The stage lights–all crimson–doze

and dim around the trumpet’s rubber mute;

sqwacking a rhythm for my eager tap-dancing toes

inside my muse’s bronze belly. Born in a birthday suit

backstage, I was born ready for New Orleans,

where jazz turns Latin nu, and where I knew the fruit

of my loins will bless all. The earth dances and beams

with notes strung into my sinews and my bones.

For us born in music, rhythm’s more like a blood stream,

after nine months floating in 4/4 measures and tones

I wiggled my way out the bell of the E-flat Tuba.

I shimmied out like a chimney sweep, without groans,

or ashy soot. When I was born—they say I was a Buddah

baby–bronze and bright as Jesus. Pure melodies

rang as my muse mother cooed me  with “oo-da-lah-lah”

lullabies and strung together eighty eight ivory keys

into a wind-chime. The black and white treasure

hammers my heart strings–and deep inside–it sings.

II.

The muses named me Robert Bailey, at your leisure

but Dean, and “ol’ blue eyes” just call me Bob.

Concerts or degrees are no measure of the pleasure

I get from playing with Nat “King” Cole. My job,

my life, is to give, beget, and never forget

that everybody loves somebody. Come on Bing Crosby

Nat will play left hand, and I’ll play right while you sing. I’ll bet

they’ve never seen the heart’s muscle memory,

can record and recall better than any cassette.

“Let it rip,” I shout and the band crescendoes

with easy smiles and applause. The music so free

firing off impromptu melodies, as you please.

My fingers staccato notes skip up the scales

as if tip-toeing up rain glistened steps. I’ve never seen

hollywood happier from my perch on the Dean Martin’s show

III.

I still wear black to stay classy but now I hunch,

and my hair matches the ivory. The lights have dimmed,

and my quartet is crescent-eyed, dozy.

The ghosts of the rat pack sit on the bench with me ’til

the show’s over and my 90 year old eyes watch roadies

Disassemble the black, 20 x 10 stage into a coffin cage.

Disassembling the instruments comes next. I shiver

as they uncork the clarinet; it feels as it they are

dismembering me, and slicing down my spine

as they store me in velvet. Close the dark case, latched

And locked, with dull brass hinges.

The tempo slows to a lullaby–sognando

dreamily, “Life is better set to music”

I tell my great-granddaughter

As I step on her sneakers to press the pedals—

Soft as summer petals. She was born to music too.

The show is just beginning for her but for me it’s time–

Time for that Millennial Mardi Gras in the sky that can’t be beat.

I kiss my pupil on her forehead below her dirty blond hair

And step into the casket carved by Steinway and his sons.

No need for words, I stretch out taught.

I can feel her sighs and cries, When my pupil

Hits the keys I  feel it in my muscles and the memoriess come back

then she hammers the heartstrings like my mother muse.

Instead of a lullaby she sings a psalm, with anima

IV.

Her eulogy.  She carves this memento

into my  grand piano coffin:

Bob Bailey

“Life is better set to music,”

Born to music 14 Dec 1921

Laid to rest

in measureless peace

What my pupil forgets (when teardrops smear the score)-

is that a rest is just a pause, it’s not the end of the song.

I am on the piano bench beside her. Those born

to music never die; it’s just a moment of silence–

a lacuna–before the music is born once more.

The Saw of Time

“The world passeth away, and the lust thereof.” (1 John 2:17)

“This will shred you,” Cody told me as he handed over the corded saw. I nodded and felt the bulky, green saw sink in my apprentice hands. I had never seen a grinder before. It was a handheld saw with silver-colored steel wires woven together to buff off rust from metal poles. The thick circular blade reminded me of the ends of metal ropes woven together. I thought to myself, Just one more saw. That summer I was getting to know lots of different saws: chop saws for quick cuts and saws’alls with straight blades that moved back and forth like a mini-version of those lumberjacks. This grinder was handheld like the saws’all but the grinder had a circular blade; and instead of a thin millimeter-wide blade, the grinder’s blade was half an inch thick.

“Respect this or it will eat you,” Cody reminded me through his orange Oakley shades. The crew had a busy morning preparing the house for the upcoming wedding: new banister, new blinds, new paint. By the afternoon I had done all of the edging prep for painting the siding. Shawn and Cody decided I should get a head start on prepping the rail for a fresh coat of black paint. The rusty, iron rails needed lots of ‘lovin.’ The entire banister was spotted with flakes of black paint bubbling off the metal, leaving rust rings in big circles like dried sap. Thanks to the miracle of modern powertools this will be relatively fast paced. Cody gave me the basic technique: rub up and down the pole back ’til it was smooth and flake free.

Cody was pressed for time. He cut his all-you’ll-ever-need-to-know-about-grinding tutorial down to a ten second lecture: “Respect this or it will shred you.” One thing Cody always had time to do was complain about his tools and the biggest bone he had to pick with the grinder was that it was old. The on/off switch took some ‘lovin’ and because the metal blade was so worn down, bits of the wire would fly off and stick into your jeans. I didn’t have to worry about that problem ‘cause I was wearing shorts-those scraps of metal would just stick into my shins. I was rubbing the railing down to its bones as clouds of red dust plumed whenever I pressed into the rust stains. Time eats away-nibbles, only nibbles. but hundreds of nibbles gnaws down to the bone.

Grinding is quiet work. You may think that’s counter intuitive because of the loud noise of power tools. A grinder shuts you up; you cannot carry on a conversation with anyone ‘cause of the noise. Grinding time is reflecting time. Time to remember why I was doing all of this summer construction work in the first place; I am an English major for crying out loud not a woodshop rat-but then again how else would I earn spending money for the Cambridge study abroad? There was no other job that would hire me for two months, get me trained, and then have to replace me when I leave to enjoy myself in Jolly Ole England.

That summer was a dream. Walking down King’s Parade, on the cobblestone streets, passing street musicians, Asian tourists, students, and the gondolier hawkers on the prowl for tourists willing to spend a few hours gliding down the river Cam. Apparently for ages there was a desk made out of bones: skulls with empty eyes sockets staring back at the passersby. It was a message to passersby and students alike—your time is limited—live! You never know when you will die. By the time I traveled to Cambridge the desk made of skulls was gone. In its place a new memento mori graces the corner of King’s Parade, a clock instead of a desk: The Corpus Cristi Clock. The eight-foot tall artwork was revealed in 2008 by Stephen Hawking. It is a curious clock. A clock without hands or numbers. It’s face is made of one large piece of 24-carat gold-gilded stainless steel. When I walked past I stared at its rippling center it hypnotized me. I was rounding the corner of Bene’t Street and King’s Parade, taking my time, hoping to kill a few hours on a slow Tuesday afternoon. I was planning to pay homage to my Bennett ancestry by taking a stroll down Bene’t street and visit the oldest surviving church in Cambridge, when I first say it. The church destination and the desire to discover my family dimmed when I first saw the clock encased in glass. I stared through my reflection and at the pendulum swaying beneath the clock. That first moment that I beheld the curious clock I thought of a saw. It reminded me of the grinder but with a five-foot diameter instead of a five-inch diameter. Like a saw the clock was round and had a high, metallic sheen bending the light into waves around the center. The edges are shaped like shark fins or teeth and were pushed along by a menacing, mechanical grasshopper creature on top of the clock. The locust-looking monster stepped forward and pushed along with each second. The beast has a name—Chronophage— The Time Eater.

Every minute its mouth gets larger ’til a minute is completed and its jaws snap shut. Constantly eating time and swallowing another minute that will never come again. While I stood hypnotized by this curious clock larger than myself (with a locust larger than my dog at home) the pendulum hiccupped backwards … and then continued as normal … I looked around. Did anyone else see that? The second hand… it stopped and even went back for a second. I must be jetlagged, I began to reason to myself, and then the pendulum went slow mo. I looked around, someone else had to have seen that too. A few Asian tourists pointed at the pendulum and gasped and rattled off in their native language. I pointed at it to and we all nodded at each other. Then the four of us inched closer to the glass, hunched over, held our breath and waited. We watched the massive gold pendulum pace back and forth as if watching a gold lion pace behind its cage.

It turns out that the clock’s inventor, John C. Taylor, had devised a way to show the unpredictability of time: the clock stops, hiccups, or reverses from time to time to create minutes that range from 40 seconds to 90 seconds long. The result is that you cannot trust the clock. You cannot trust time-most of the time that is. The clock (which functions without electronic gigots and gadgets) auto accelerates or decelerates thanks to the locust-like Chronophage on top of the curious clock so that every 5 min the clock is precisely on time. It might profit from a disclaimer above it: Use with caution.

The grinder saw could also use a similar caution sign, or at least a manual that mentioned how unpredictable it can be. How unpredictable can a handheld saw be? You might ask, it’s not like it reverses going counter clockwise as opposed to clockwise all of a sudden. Well maybe but if I pressed too hard on the left side of a pole the grinder would lurch forward (catching the edge on its clockwise spinning cycle) but if I pressed too hard on the right side of a rail than the grinder would catapult back towards me and spring off the rail like a diving board. Add on top of that, if I rotated the monster perpendicular the toque of the circular blade spinning clockwise will shift that torque into the body of the grinder. I felt like I was manhandling a caged lion that was clawing away at my innards…or at least nibbling my fingers since it would snag on my gloved fingers if I was not careful. Come on, I thought, I am an adult here; get it done.
The grinding went along smoothly while Cody and Shawn were finishing painting the other poles a Turkish coffee brown. I was kneeling down to grind off the rust on the lower parts of the banister. The corner pole was the hardest part because I would have to lean over the balcony to get the most rusted patches. I didn’t like the feeling of heaving my center of gravity over the rails and then having to use both hands to keep the grinder on target and not spinning over the ledge. I had worked out my forearms that morning–bad idea when I’d need my gripping power to keep the grinder inline, so I decided to leave it up to Cody to put in the finishing touches. Kneeling was my forte, so I went back to the lower railing, the only problem was that those little snippets and shards would fly off into my shins every few seconds. It got so bad I decided to get the back of the bars by putting the grinder through a gap in the rails and maneuvering the grinder’s blade to buff up the backs of the banister. It was a pretty good idea so that I wouldn’t have to dangle over the rail anymore, but I had no way of seeing if I blasted off all of the rust. I stood up, grinder still spinning, and leaned over the rail. I couldn’t see much so I wiped off my safety-glasses with my left hand for a better look. In that moment when I held the grinder alone in my right hand and overlooking the balcony, a gust of wind lifted my baggy blue shirt into the grinder’s teeth. The grinder wrapped my shirt in half a second. My left hand instinctively returned to the grinder handle to pull it away but I could feel it rotate deeper into my shirt and into me. My thumbs fumbled to turn it off but the old switch wasn’t cooperating. Shawn yelled in the background, I fumbled for the switch, Shawn tripped over the steps he was running toward me so fast, he sprained his ankle but still army crawled over to the outlet and ripped it out of the outlet.

I breathed in and exhaled deep. The grinder released its hold of my shirt. By then Cody ran from the front yard when he heard the grinder go from full speed to nothing. I didn’t say anything, not even a “thanks” or “that was a close on;” none of us did. I just remember the three of us standing close in the shade of that back porch, each of us breathing in, nodding our heads, and stare at different cracks in the cement. We stayed like that for a minute or two-just silent and still

The last part I need to tell you about the Corpus Christi clock, is also the part that haunts me the most: every hour on the hour it does not ring out bells like any other clock, instead, it rattles hidden chains within the clock itself and hammers wooden plank as if it is hammering in your coffin. Respect the saw of time, or “it will shred you.”

The part that scared me the most was not my near-evisceration by the grinder, but having to pick it up and get back to grinding. Before it ripped through my shirt I had only gone one-forth of the way down the porch banister. I was trembling. My forearms were sore for holding on so tight, holding on for life. I held on for dear life when I was born, my mother says whenever I was fed as a baby I would grab hold of her wrist and hold as tight as I could. Now that I was close to leaving this world I did the same thing that I did when I entered it: hold on and cry. I guess I am a baby to cry over having to pick up the grinder again and finish the job. There was no escaping the job ahead of me. There is no escaping the death ahead of me. Would I hurt myself again? Worse next time? Will I die? Get shredded up like Cody warned? I went back rubbing down the pole, I was crying, the type without tears—just that shaking, that heaving desperation. I am going to die, I thought. This thing is going to eat me, I whimpered each time I snagged a right edge too close and the beast lurched at my stomach. Catching the grinder in my shirt stopped time, yes stopped time, and maybe I was a baby, but part of me feels like I became a man that day. I became a man, there on my knees, picking up the saw of time, instrument of my death, and marching along towards my end.