Shostakovich No. 15 again. It’s entirely too close to write about. But it demands writing anyway, because there won’t be another chance, not before death. Impervious trombones—that’s the Roman eagle marching in. The high, unstable woodwind chords are the buzz in the ears before the knees give out. The percussion is a scattering of shards.
Soul fills the gaps. Strings and flute dancing a few steps at a time, or a keening cello, soul as play, soul as noise. It takes the past tense. It filled the gaps—we can say that much. It wasn’t adequate to more, but nothing would have been adequate, it was all rigged. Somewhere down below is sleep, and if you quote Wagner then someone else can quote you, so write it down, limping soul, there’s no more time.
When I think about things I want, I tend to hit on categories like “sleep” or “for the yard work to go away,” but sometimes J. helps me think of objects, and when it gets to that point the objects might as well come home. Guitars have been appearing in the bedroom, mostly Telecasters, necks all in a row like an ash forest grown up overnight and quietly waiting to find out what it was planted for. Now we have a basswood interloper (genus Tilia, Coleridge’s lime) in the shape of a Jazzmaster.
It was made in Japan in the mid-nineties, right when I was taking high school Japanese because everyone seemed to think that was how you would get a job in 2000. I should have known how the guitar was going to behave, given that I grew up with those Sonic Youth and Elvis Costello records, but it is not the animal you expect when you first plug it in. A Gibson is an oil painting and the Telecasters draw in pastel, but a Jazzmaster does its work in thin tempera washes; stroke broad or thin, the light always shows through. It is just remarkable once you get used to fiddling with all the extra metal bits which were upmarket features in the fifties and must have a hand in that transparency, but are perfect little devils to set up.
Marc Ribot’s impressive performances with offsets notwithstanding, I still understand the genre of a Jazzmaster to be “anything but jazz.” Yet it makes scales ring so clearly, and really makes me want to become a better lead player. I have a modes book somewhere in the basement, which I hardly ever looked at, because once you understand that a mode is just a change of context how do you keep it interesting? The moment I leaned over to fiddle with a pedal, the guitar started to feed back as advertised. You know what to do—divebomb that tremolo! “You should have seen your face,” said J.
Go see St. Peter’s, said Kant, go see the Great Pyramid; he didn’t know about General Sherman, and I wonder what he would have said about General Sherman in our age of ordered sets, where you can’t look at the tree without the superadded knowledge that it is, provably, the world’s largest. It looked to me like the center of the world. I could believe there were gods in the canopy and an underworld in the roots, never mind that sequoias don’t have taproots and this is why they fall over after a few thousand years. We even had a Ratatoskr scrambling up and down the striations of the trunk, red sandstone tipped onto its side. On a fallen branch went walking the largest raven I ever saw in my life; apparently they vary with the trees. ‟Huginn? Muninn? Fly on up to the hall, will you, and tell them I’m still busy down here.”
The paved path around the tree was busy with people not speaking English, nations of the world come to pay court to the world tree by pointing their smartphones at it. The tree defeated them. Trying to get it in frame they backed farther and farther away until they were out of its compass entirely, and surrendered. It took a bit of work to find the unpaved trails, but once I found them I discovered that my body, which I tend to think of as a decaying jelly, is still perfectly able to get me up a mountain, even at seven thousand feet. Most of my three days in the mountains involved no one but me and
• white-headed woodpeckers,
• red-breasted sapsuckers,
• western tanagers,
• Steller’s jays,
• brown creepers,
inter alia. All the verticality and solitude called up Chinese paintings, and before you ask, yes I did bring A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang in my pack; you take that book into the mountains so no one will laugh at you, as no one’s around to laugh at you hugging the trees. Graham’s preface is the best explanation I’ve seen of what one does in the course of ‟translating Chinese poetry,” and I recommend it to interested parties. A poem by Du Fu has no inflection and (compared to speech or prose) almost no particles, just parallel stacks of sense. Graham gives the sense character by character, alongside four different English versions doing as they can. What we really need for Tang poetry is something like the Quranic Arabic Corpus; it can’t be as hard a job with Arabic grammar out of the picture. A crib sheet, a few differing English versions—it would help one up the mountain.
At the top of the mountain is a fire lookout station. You can climb it and talk to the ranger with her binoculars and her radio. How’s the fire season look? Terrible, terrible, it’s been terrible the last three years. They say El Niño's brewing up this year in the Pacific, we just have to wait for it. Can you see Mount Whitney from here? No, it’s thirty-three miles that way as the crow flies. You can’t see it for the curve of the earth. Looking the other way you can barely see the coast range; the Central Valley is all haze. Up here the air is thin as a thought, a few cirrus clouds speed over your head, the ten thousand things are below and it turns out they’re all pines, you’ve gained all the altitude there is to gain, now what do you do with it?