On Compression

“At this point we should remember that the idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking because we know the weight of things so well.” —Italo Calvino, “Lightness.”

life is a skyway

Compression has its advantages.  It’s what you do to stop excess blood loss from a wound.  It’s how computer files fit onto a portable drive—whatever that is. “A force which tends to shorten or squeeze something,” it is compression that allows experience to be recognized as such—shrinking it inside a broader frame of perception: gross, compact, ours.  In this way, it confers value.

Yep: value.

We’ve been in Istanbul two and a half months.  The sky-sea pulse is white-washed.  Even the wind is bored.  The calls prayer keep calling, like telemarketers: Top 5 reasons why Allah is awesome.

To have too much time is the mistaken wish of mortals who love gods.  Gods who love mortals know better: have sex and leave.

However, one example to the contrary stands out from mythology (“with myths” says Calvino, “one should not be in a hurry.”); Tithonus was Dawn’s plaything, and she gifted him with immortality—even better than breakfast in bed!  A lover forever?  Shebang!

But, no: as he aged and aged and aged, he took to begging in Greek babblese for compression.  Eventually Eos stuck him in a room with a door.  But this didn’t quite do it, and so under duress of attenuation, his form was changed into a cicada, flimsy and serenading death in whispy insect whimpers.

So Stars Back-Talk

And so Eavan Boland hears the constellations begging in the wet night:

This is what language did to us. Here
is the wound, the silence, the wretchedness
of tides and hillsides and stars where

we languish in a grammar of sighs,
in the high-minded search for euphony,
in the midnight rhetoric of poesie.

We cannot sweat here. Our skin is icy.
We cannot breed here. Our wombs are empty.
Help us to escape youth and beauty.

Write us out of the poem. Make us human
in cadences of change and mortal pain
and words we can grow old and die in.

[reprinted, as usual, without permission]

To have too much time in one place is the very problem with immortality; we would be unaccustomed to it, the way a toddler cannot walk effectively in her father’s borrowed shoes.  Though they attract her by their impossible bigness, she swims in them, her feet dragging.

If granted beyond what is measurably ours, we also risk swimming without coordinates.    As I said to a friend: ennui is good with everything, like a glass of water.  We are still foreigners in the shoes of this city, which are big and mismatched and smell like Dawn prettying herself in the haze of pollution.

It seems, then, that we really need Time, despite the protests we make against its thievery, to exert its idiomatic pressure on the shape of things.  This pressure is also the very sweetness of our terminality.  First in time, and then hustled outside of time, we’ll become worm candy.

What Worms These Are, I Think I Know

A and I read together for weeks about the tube worms writhing at the bottom of the ocean floor and their micro-organic brethren, the Extremophiles, hardiest of life forms on whom we have developed equally hardy crushes.  These superheroes live not only where the ocean belches fire, but on the icy yarmulke of the earth: the Arctic. There, aware that success comes in numbers, they bond in order to melt just enough of the glacier in which they find themselves that they can use the water to live— as the blessing went at Wat Suan Mokkh, “so the process of life can go on.”  Now eat your fuckin’ nitrogen porridge in gratitude.

Part of the danger in having a crush on extremophiles is that they dare us to redefine life—so you can’t emerge unchanged from this romance.  Current science is tickled by this.  But Life also dares us to redefine life:  will this be enough for you, this cabin fever, this disinclination, this gift wrapped in trucker toilet paper?  Can you bear the unbearability of one day turning into the next in a city where you don’t belong, and must create your own circus out of shopping trips?

the path of least resistance

Istanbul has its problems: the houses sagging in the middle like the underarm fat of a very old woman, earthquakes chomping at the bit, the cavities of an old empire whose bloody history would belie the olive leaf as anything other than condiment.  Flaubert came here to think about his maha-worm, the syphallitic phallus for which he saw fit to blame the east rather than his own whore-mongering.  Have a pide stuffed with potatoes and witness the walnuts twist in their shells as the shopkeepers plunge scoopers into the large storefront bins—fragrance of fratricide and funiculars and Figaro’s.  You can have whatever you want: the price of kissing is your life.

Refrain from öp

Therefore not kissing, J and I walk in Topkapi gardens, a place startlingly green and free of litter.  The trees are dizzy tall, their branches too high above to discern whether or not spring has begun to ring her bells.  When we look up, as if the bird cries were addressed to us, we see nest after nest after nest; huge, stork-like winged mates.  This garden also hosts a worn-down statue of an old poet with sitar in hand, and parrots, which repeat everything he isn’t singing.

teach me everything you know--

And a tea garden: sine qua non.  From here, the wind pawing at your face, drinking out of stacked pots, you can see the bestial cargo ships on their Sisyphus Regime: Just Keep Going.  Asia sparkles from across the strait, where the sprawl of buildings blend together and, from this distance, yield an Impressionist’s rendering of urbanization.  The same caveat applies here as to a museum’s painting: look, but don’t touch.  Better from a distance– to sit with a flowering park at your back, sad pansies shoved too early in the hard dirt, and know the unstoppable city as landscape rather than having to wrestle with it as location.  May the wind always love your back…Behind us is a column that archaeologists cannot date:  eternity has stuck it there as a place-holder for nothing and a reminder of same.

stacked delight

A Mummy is Also Compressed

When they return from Egypt, the girls are flush with stories of the 65 mummified crocodiles in the temple, the fish with beaks and sorry eyes and cliques, the flashing colors of the coral community and the sepia tombs.

As connoisseur of grievances, F has already exiled Shakespeare and Dickens to the Siberia of Shiterature, and Pamuk is on their heels:  I hate him! She pronounces excitedly, upon reading the first sentence of “Religion.”  God shrugs, in her white sashes.  Already having rechristened the hypothalamus as “that small hippopotamus in the brain” and adjudicated the value of a poem based on the seismology of its emotive strength, F is fast conjuring her own idiom for a worthy world.  There’s not a lot in it, but what’s there must sing.

A chimes in: “Did anyone ask the crocodiles if they wanted to be mummies?  No, I don’t think so.”  But, my friend: eternity salvages what she can, will be content with a fossil, if she must, or even a desiccated reptile.  At the archaeology museum, the shrunken skeleton of a mummified king is arranged in a glass case.  It is thousands of years old, but the skull still looks perky, lifted at an oblique angle to stare vacantly down at the ghost of its own abdomen.  The tarsals loiter at the base of the display, beneath the sacral spine, which, true to its reputation, has not decayed.  It’s hard not to hold your breath as you look, the tableau of this figure suspended in an attempt at timelessness.  If I sneeze, it seems I could scatter these bones, which have endured long enough to witness the advent of the iPod.

Too Much Love is Still Too Much

Joseph Campbell, mega-mythologist, is amazed by the image of love popular amongst the local ancient bards:  “The Persian poets have asked ‘By what power is Satan sustained?’  And the answer that they have found is this: ‘By his memory of the sound of God’s voice when he said, ‘be gone’” (149).  Ouch.  But then again, being cast out allows for a certain necessary compression of emotion, a fertile reactivity for which there must be little room in heaven’s monotonous atemporality.  L insists (or has she borrowed this claim?) heaven would be a great bore, far worse than French food.  Satan had much to sulk about, but he got busy instead creating a fledgling colony for all love’s rejects.

It was Blake who diagnosed the predicament thus:  “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”  So Eternity’s endless arm, like Eos’ round Tithonus, has Time in a stranglehold.  We can sense the crook of her elbow against the limited buoying of our Adam’s Apple: the crushing pressure of what we can’t quite reciprocate.

I suspect that Eternity is not just in love with the productions of time but positively heart-sick over them.  She looks at Time as the teen looks at the poster of the newest pop idol.  And time-bound as we are, sensing the force of her wanting on the other side of all clocks, both broken and functional, we grow heart-sick in return.  For it is heart sickening to have been chosen for this role of beloved, of embodied being, without having been asked.

Here in Istanbul, we haven’t the compression factor any longer, what would allow us to perceive experience as an offering, albeit in bleached tones.  Instead, the place, its history easy to trip on, is just there, as the lens of an eye—something to peer through, craving the jagged horizon line and its pedagogy of endings.

Eternity, then, must pet our heads: soon enough, my little love, soon enough.



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