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J A C K E T   #   E L E V E N   |    A P R I L   2 0 0 0  

 



Eliot Weinberger

Renga

 
 


      The forest

When in Angola, do not enter the forest of the Cokwe at night. For there Muhangi, an old man, once a great hunter, runs through the woods screaming. Kanyali, in the form of a girl, chases wanderers with a termite hill on his head. Kapwakala, a child who lives in the holes of trees, rustles an apron made of hide. There is Ciyeye, a bonfire that walks, and Kalulu, a small red child that whizzes buzzing through the air. Samutambieka, an unknown animal with one foot, one eye, one ear, and one tooth, carries a club red with the blood of humans. And worst of all is Nguza, a large eye that squats on a tree branch and stares.


      Blue eyes

I was in a village on the Amazon, waiting day after day for a boat to get me out. I slept in the one place that let rooms; switching on the light at night, the ceiling was covered with hundreds of transparent salamanders, motionless and upside-down. The one place to eat was a windowless shack with an unlit kitchen and two metal tables outside on the dirt road that was the only street. I sat. In one late afternoon of sitting, an elderly man came down the road and spoke to me. "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" He wore clean denim clothes faded to the color of clouds, and his face had long been in the sun. Disappointed at my ignorance, he switched to English for his monologue: "You probably think I am an Indian, but I am not an Indian. Look at my eyes, they are blue. Indians do not have blue eyes. I am not an Indian. Indians are like animals. In Germany we had the right idea. One little injection and poof! no more. Look at my eyes, they are blue . . . " And on and on into the dark.
      Most Germans believed that Hitler had blue eyes, but they were brown. The official portrait photographs of high Nazi officials were often retouched to give them blue eyes and that particular stare, pure and cold as a mountain lake, as a glacier, as a cloudless sky, as the fruit of an imaginary unmixed blood.
      Years later, I was in a car driving across a plain in India, hours from any town, in a monotony of mud-baked villages with a single tree, two men squatting in the shade of a wall smoking, three children scratching lines in the dirt, four vultures bickering over the carcass of a dog, a woman leading a single goat, two men on an ox cart, three crows pecking aimlessly, four flies resting on my leg. The car slowed, as was often, for a herd of cows that filled the road. Walking among them was a wandering mendicant, with the usual orange robe, wooden staff, and begging bowl, his shaven head painted with the lines of Shiva. But he was far taller than usual, and his skin was a burnt pink, not brown. As the car slowly rolled past him, he raised his bowl to the window, not speaking, and stared at me for a moment with celestial, incomprehensible, glacial blue eyes.


 
 

      Flies

A fly on a window cannot understand how there is a world he sees but cannot reach. A fly, as it has often been said, on a piece of shit is in paradise; a fly in honey is doomed. Vishnu's fly whisk, made of yak hair, signifies the dharma: they are and we are and we cannot help but flick them away. A fly knows a pleasure denied to mammals: mating in mid-air. Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. A man who saw like a fly - kaleidoscopically - would go mad; a fly who saw like a man would be depressed by linearity. Apollonius of Tyana rid Byzantium of flies by making a bronze fly and burying it under a pillar. A fly may be thinking of other things, or not thinking; it doesn't look where it's going, and crashes into a screen. Yoko Ono filmed a fly climbing a breast like the conquest of Everest. Russians girls used to carve turnips into coffins and bury flies. The fly on the man's open wound was merely being a fly, enjoying the fact that the man was merely human. Charles Reznikoff, given a job in Hollywood with nothing to do, wrote poems about silence and solitude to the flies on his desk.
      A child dreams of himself in the first version of the movie The Fly: the tiny human head on the fly's body, trapped in a web, squeaking "Help me." An adult dreams of himself in the second version of the movie The Fly: she still loves him no matter how monstrous he has become.


      Three sentences on the way to Belize

Sitting in the last row of the plane next to a Belizean woman of uncertain age. The choice for lunch was pasta, fish, or chicken, but by the time the meal cart reached us, there was only pasta or fish. My seatmate smiled sweetly at the stewardess and said, "Next time you'll have to kill more chickens."


      A paragraph there

Flung flying down the unpaved and cratered Hummingbird Highway, past the village of Hummingbird, ten houses on stilts. The Hummingbird River flows down from the Hummingbird Mountains, each one of which is called Mt. Hummingbird. It is said the people here have exceptionally small imaginations. They say a woman is as beautiful as a hummingbird, a boy is as quick as a hummingbird, a remark as sharp as a hummingbird's beak, the morning as hazy as hummingbirds' wings, a man as silent as a hummingbird, things are as small as or larger than hummingbirds, and the food is so good a hummingbird might hover over the plate. When a man dies, he is born again as a hummingbird. When a hummingbird dies, it goes to paradise. There it lives forever in the village of Hummingbird, by the Hummingbird River, under the Hummingbird Mountains. Everything is the same, except that there is no Hummingbird Highway, for there's no place else to go.


      The wings of angels

The soul is often represented as a bird and angels have wings because life occurs here and the afterlife is somewhere up there. But a corpse in most cultures is laid on its back, and gravity pulls the fluids down, giving the upper sections their waxy pallor. The lower sections darken as the blood settles, except in those places where the body is touching the surface on which it is laid. There, the pressure of the weight of the corpse pushes the blood from the tissue, forming areas that are much lighter than the rest. One of those areas is across the shoulder blades and upper back, and it takes the form of perfectly symmetrical wings.


      America: the dead

People die, but there are no dead in America. The dead are those who are exhumed a year after burial, their bones washed and placed in catacombs or in a special niche in the house, their skulls painted, with jewels set in the eye sockets, their skulls set on spikes around the yard. The dead are those buried in suits of jade to live forever, with the ornaments, weapons, cooking utensils, and food they'll need in the other world. The dead are buried sitting on a chair, facing east. The dead have a rooster carved on their gravestones, to announce the soul's awakening. The dead are the ones for whom incense, candles, paper money, paper cars, paper houses with paper dishwashers and VCR's are burnt. The dead are the ones whose memorial tablets and portraits occupy a prominent place in the living room or in the temple. The dead have graves that are visited with regularity and kept from weeds, or inspire melancholy at their abandonment. The dead have graves where the family picnics once a year and misbehaves. The dead inhabit a place where the living, through chants or trance or solitude or drugs, can talk to them. The dead are those who take possession of the living. The dead are those who come back.
      There are no dead in America because there are no corpses. Corpses are the invisible citizens of America, the secret no one tells, far rarer to observe by chance than copulation. We don't see them, we don't touch them, we don't dress them, we don't know what to do with them, we don't keep them in our bedrooms until they are interred, we don't watch their feet sticking out from the shroud as the flames consume them. So many people die on television in America because in our lives no one dies, they only vanish, and television is the great compensator for all we don't have or see.
      There are no dead in America because there is no place. The dead are dependent on generations that do not move. The dead have graves where the family knows where the graves are. In America the ancestors are left behind in a nation constructed, like no other, on the pursuit of happiness, a dream of the future where the dead have no place. There is no happiness to pursue among the dead. The country was settled (in its historical era) as an escape from the dead. Except for those who came in the early years to practice their religion - to maintain the old ways - its emigrants have come seeking freedom from the tyranny of the dead and, like released slaves, they must wander and invent themselves. The generations move on, new people, forever "making a new start," holding the ethical ideal of being "born again" in this life.
      In the dream of no history, small fears fester and infect. The standard American horror movie plot is the house, the school, the mall built over a forgotten cemetery, and the subsequent revenge of the desecrated: a story unimaginable anywhere else. Visiting the United States in 1944, the Chinese anthropologist Fei Tsao-t'ung reported that "people move about like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, to say nothing of other people . . .  . Naturally they seldom see ghosts."


      A report from Salcombe Regis, Devon

John Bastone, dairyman, baptized 30th March 1817, writes:

"About 120 years ago, the ghost of a Mr. Lyde appeared in the orchard on the east side of the road running along the foot of Salcombe Hill. (The orchard is numbered 561 in the Ordnance Survey map of the district.)

"Every year the ghost advanced a cock-stride nearer to Sid House, until, at last, it sat on a gate on the opposite side of the road. (The gate led into a field numbered 553 on the Ordnance Survey map.)

"Then, still at the incredibly slow pace of a cock-stride a year, he proceeded to an old oak tree almost in the centre of the field. This oak tree, although a bit battered by the storms of many years, is still to be seen standing in the meadow.

"After many more years, the determined spectre arrived in the cellar of Sid House. A maid-servant, on going to the cellar to fetch liquor, saw the ghost of Mr. Lyde sitting on a barrel, eating bread and cheese, with a quart of cider beside him.
"Eventually, to the horror and dismay of the people living in the house, the ghost, with a look of triumph, sat down to dinner with them one night.

"The family decided that to share the table during their evening meal with an apparition was more than they could bear, so one of them rode to Mr. George Cornish of Pascombe in the Harcombe Valley, to ask him if he would come and try to lay the obstinate ghost.

"Mr. Cornish arrived, carrying with him a small Bible, and with very little difficulty laid the spectre."


      The Hidden Span

The Taoist universe is an infinity of nested cycles of time, each revolving at a different pace, and those who are not mere mortals pertain to different cycles. Certain teachings take 400 years to transmit from sage to student; others, 4,000; others, 40,000. It is said that Lao-tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, spent 81 years in the womb.
      Taoist ritual begins with the construction of an altar that is a calendar and a map of this universe. At its perimeter, twenty-four pickets, the Twenty-Four Energy Nodes, each representing fifteen days, to form a year of 360 days. Within, a proliferation of markers for the Two Principles (yin and yang), the Three Energies, the Three Irrational Powers, the Five Elements, the Five Tones, the Six Rectors, the Eight Trigrams and Sixty-Four Hexagrams of the I Ching, the Nine Palaces and the Nine Halls, the Ten Stems, the Twelve Branches . . .  Each is a supernatural being, a gate, a direction, a part of the body, a measurement of time, a philosophical concept, an alchemical substance. As Lao-tzu said, "The Tao created one, one gave birth to two, two to three, and three to the ten thousand things."
      Typically of Taoism, this system has an inherent flaw: a hole in time, called the Irrational Opening. If, at a certain moment, which is always changing, one walks backward through the various gates in a certain order, one can escape time and enter the Hidden Span. In this other time beyond all the other times, one finds oneself in the holy mountains; there one can gather healing herbs, magic mushrooms, and elixirs that bring immortality.
      The technique was first taught to the Yellow Emperor by the six calendrical Jade Maidens, who in turn learned it from the Mysterious Woman of the Nine Heavens, also known as the Lady of the Ultimate Yin. Its most famous practitioner was a very real military strategist, Chu-ko Liang (181-234). To repel an invading army, he placed hidden markers on an enormous plain to secretly replicate a Taoist altar, and then tricked the troops into entering through a certain symbolic gate. Although the landscape appeared unremarkable, the army found itself trapped in a labyrinth of an alternate time from which it could not escape.


      Angola

When in Angola, do not enter the forest, or the fields, or walk by the side of the roads, or walk along the many roads that have been untraveled for years. There are fifteen million land mines buried there: East German PPM-2's that were once an invisible wall beyond the Wall; Chinese 72-A's, made largely of plastic so the metal detectors cannot find them, with anti-handling devices to prevent their removal; Romanian MAI-75's, a half of a grapefruit in size, with a thick slice of cyclonite, the mixture of TNT and RDX; American "spiders" that are dropped from planes and send out a web of trip wires when they land; green camouflaged plastic Soviet "butterflies" that flutter down from helicopters, or are fired from mortars, and cannot be disarmed. It takes a hundred men two days to clear a patch of land the size of a soccer field; in Angola, most of the arable land is unapproachable. There are villages that have been trapped in total isolation for more than a decade; their stories still unknown.

[1999]


 
 

Eliot Weinberger's latest book, Selected Non-Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges, won the 2000 National Book Critics Award. Two more books are due out in the Northern Fall of 2000: Karmic Traces" (essays) and a translation of Bei Dao, Unlock, both from New Directions.

 


 
J A C K E T  # 11 
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