A Phenomenology of Strange Days
I am glad I am not the only person to have noticed the contradiction. Among the literary philosophers, many believe that the Truth is long-winded, laboriously contradictory, and labyrinthine. The messianic philosophers say that the Truth in a distilled essence is pithy, direct and axiomatic. Depending on their approach, they wrote huge texts that appeared in very small print; or short revelations that could be reproduced on tablets in large letters. I believe that when I was younger, I steered towards the first proposition. Now that I have read volume after volume, I have more sympathy than with the second proposition. I think the primary difference is that my eyesight has worsened.
The mirror that I get dressed in front of sustains the illusion. It holds together the illusion of the visual world (for me, at least, and I am a non-scientific person) and sustains the apparition of my home, my individuality, my clothes and sets of colors. It sustains the apparition of my personal hygiene, the comb, the brush, the brow and receding hairline. No ghastly distortions. Then again. I have been told that everything reverses in a mirror. I nevertheless have been struck by the reversal in just this drastic case: when I see printed words sardonically reversed in a mirror. The illusion slips on a banana peel. They swim: words break down the sense and sensibility and the system eases toward a gobbly-gook dimension. I can’t believe this is not a metaphor for the tenuousness of the conceit behind language. Language is the least concrete phenomenon. It falters the moment it is put to the test. Words should be less ephemeral. They cannot mirror our own thoughts back at us.
The night moon vanishes into the morning clouds. The colors blur into the spectrum. The voices recede into the distance. The way words begin vanishing inside the white page. As the aging process worsens and weakens the mind, the senses, the hearing, the eyesight, those little words disappear into the past.
The Magician’s novitiate years were spent authenticating himself. Magic was real. Spells were real. Sorcery divined castles in the air – then built them on properties of moon and sunlight. The great tragedy in his life was acknowledging that commerce bested his accomplishments. He had seen barren deserts yield tropical fruit; he had seen silver alchemized to gold; he had seen money raise Real Estate castles from barren wastelands too – more consistently. Mammon in the short run was more reliable than magic. But for some reason or psychological tick he still omitted this lesson when he passed the book of spells into the hands of the sorcerer’s apprentice.
“The dream. Last night I had a strange dream.” You say, “Today is a strange day.” When will you begin to notice, and concede that normalcy – or routine – is subdivided by days and dreams? When was the last day you can remember that wasn’t interrupted by the unexpected? You swell for a moment with a feeling of certainty that you can answer this. There have been days in which nothing has been mistaken, or confounded. Tell me, though. Tell me about the last dream you can remember that wasn’t strange?
“You don’t know how to look. You don’t see.” The Picasso-of-the-Boondocks criticized his girlfriend habitually, usually while he stared at his paintings. But when she left him—believing he had kicked her out for good – and the bus swept by a wide-open field, she remembered what he had always said. “Night. It doesn’t fall. If you look, look carefully. It rises. Gently.” He was correct. Actually. Night. The first signs were faint, gauzy and wafer thin. Darkness. Darkness springs from a mustard seed. It breaks from a pea. Six o’clock, each evening. It thickens – you know how it goes. He said, "You know how it goes" when he cursed her, and then flicked a speck from his black paintbrush. He calmed down. Sorry. Sorry. You know how it goes. He pointed at her ruined blouse. The stained blouse. Her corrupted blouse probably still hung on the clothesline. Now she saw a hundred ruined blouses, hanging, the darkness rising toward the watermark.
Sometime in childhood, and actually at a fairly late age, by the standards of intelligent children – brilliantly, effortlessly, like catching butterflies without a hint of skill – you plucked them out of sounds, rhythms and air. Learning to catch them successfully, by phonetically pairing the sound “C-“ with the sound “-at” to make a cat. Then you learned that “P-” and “ -urr” could make your not-so-imaginary cat sing contentedly. And consistently. You pinned them down successfully, by butterfly wings. The knowledge behind them seemed less intellectual than intuitive. A scroll that unraveled secrets behind a pre-conscious schema. Comparable to learning secrets that led to happy faith in the stars. You still wonder about what happened later. The butterflies in the firmament became shop glitter. Shop glitter that filled nondescript boxes. They swarmed whenever the moldy boxes were opened. They became biting ants. They bulged monstrously beneath magnifying lenses: corrosive insectoid monstrosities. I sympathize. I have to say, however: when sufficient time has passed, they may become less threatening again. They may become mysteries again. They no longer overwhelm me. They blur illegibly for hours a day. The reading glasses no longer help much. Delicate spirits. Gentle will o wisps. Lovely night moths.
Pauley believed in nobody’s God. He sat at a table with three friends, all three heinous criminals. Their trespasses unforgiven. Pauley toasted the nonexistence of hell. Pauley poured the wine, they drank, they praised a summer day at an expensive French outdoor café. The gentle atheist faced the sun – he had no way of knowing – he was blinded the moment they took their toast. All three friends stuck out their tongues.
Somewhere, somewhere in Yeats’ autobiographical writings. I read his epiphanic account. The description was green and elfish – “elfish” being the right word to conjure its startlingly Irish magic. The way Yeats described everything evoked a primordial rush enveloped inside a bucolic mystery. Yeats couldn’t plainly name it. Or write that he had been ‘playing with himself” in the woods when he was taken by surprise by the intensity of his first ejaculation. I remember the experience: in another place and time – a cramped bedroom that my thirteen year old body had well-outgrown. The sounds and smells accompanying my epiphany had nothing to do with bird caws, tree sap, or honeybees. The home may have been scented with Tree and Forest air freshener. The scents otherwise were middle class (possibly lower middle class): the Kmart sheets, the greasy kitchen smells, the bathroom stink of living in a house that had too little privacy for a woman and three boys. I sank my head inside the pillow, and drank in the American ennui. I heard my brothers watching television in the hallway, but I was so lost in the body’s burgeoning mystery that I lay on my stomach and bucked so loudly that somebody could have guessed. I asked in silence, What happened? but my voice would have been less dismayed than enthralled by the discharge that had been wrested from me. The Irish bard himself later wrote
All changed, changed utterly/ A terrible beauty is born.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
is a poet, playwright, performance artist, essayist, journalist and syndicated columnist whose articles on poverty, race relations, civil rights, Southern history and African American history have appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, The Christian Science Monitor, The Atlantic, Dissent, The Washington Post, New Politics, Crisis (The NAACP magazine), Huffington Post, N+1, Talk Poverty, and The Guardian. His chapbook, "Life’s Prisoners," the recipient of the 2017 Turtle Island Quarterly poetry chapbook award, will be published in November.