Metaphor and Symbol
The House of Counted Days: a Meditation for Bill Karlins
by Ron Thomas
- The Dutch air is cold against my back as I read on the little single mattress on the floor of the apartment in Amsterdam. It is 1999.
- Not finished with Rimbaud, apparently. Reading again about Somebody Else .the Master of Silence .The Red Sea a blank page upon which his future will be written .
- I am leaning against the opening under the door. A pillow, which my mother, on the other bed in the room, has thrown me, wards off the chilly blasts while the moon travels its October path, gathering size on its way towards the West Tower nearby where, somewhere within, Rembrandt is buried.
- Back in Thorndale, a hot blast of Dutch tea meets my face as I lean over the stove to stir a boiling pot of spinach and beans.
- Walking through Philadelphia, city shapes and building fronts unfold along my eyes and head, bodiless, they do not cling. Too numerous.
- Pleasures not sweet enough, nor sorrows a standard of meaning can attain. Here, invent; there, remember. Wandering in place, finding, losing and giving away.
- Winters two-part rondo, the chilly dark and the tree branch bearing beings, winters General, (the wind) barking orders. The suns warmth.
- The eyes I lift from the open book in my lap, meet the days final light washing the surface flat across the yards yellowing pines, and the red brick wall next to the door of the shed, watching me thinking on my couch through the patio doors ..my position is fixed, I do not escape the fears of youth, they return in season, emboldened, no longer hiding behind the mask of feigned and fearless embezzled bravado.
- The tree branch bears beings laughing through the commanding winter wind, barking orders, the suns warmth, and the chilly dark, the light on the red brick wall next to the shed .
- The strength of the wild ox defers to the Shadow of Him by whose Word, what was not, from nothing, came to be. The watching dawn lowers its countenance averting the Lord of Heaven, mighty and dreadful, passing by.An artistic work always achieves its effects through the interplay of particularities. As it unfolds it traps us in its own tangle of peripheral references by way of chains of associations which often the observer or listener constructs in a free association of his/her own .
The titles and authors of two books remained in my notes for five or six years until a month ago when I searched for, located and purchased (for the second time) used copies online of: Stream of Consciousness in the Modern Novel by Robert Humphrey and Stream of Consciousness by Melvin Friedman. The subject surfaced with a vengeance and I am once again immersed in it. From the beginning it seemed blatantly obvious that music was itself already a phenomenon richly connected with this literary type. There is material in my essay Fragments about this connection.
My interest in stream of consciousness literature began with a course given at the Manhattan School of Music. A Professor from NYU, whose name I no longer recall, walked us through William Faulkners The Sound and the Fury with a key that he had prepared with which to unravel the montage of the books multiple narrators. I spent most of the summer between my Freshman and Sophomore years at the Manhattan School of Music in a rocker on the porch of our house in Montclair NJ surrounded by commentaries, working my way methodically through Joyces Ulysees and not long after that I even managed to read through two thirds of Finnegans Wake.
The Counted Days Meditation is a Prose Poem. It is a group of dream-moments or the dreams of a fever-state, or even free-associations of wakefulness. It is a westernized piece of Haiku poetry which the bamboo image of the graphics suggests. The following brief analysis of the imagery will not too much diminish ,I hope, the impact of the calculated complexity of the design. But first, this quotation from p.239 of Harry Levins James Joyce:
.David Hayman in the Publications of the Modern Language Association (March 1958), devotes some 15,000 words to explicating a single sentence from Finnegans Wake, following its elaboration through seventeen drafts, yet scarcely reaching an integrated conception. Furthermore, the article argues, we ought not to look for a core of significance; instead, we should seek our reward in the interplay of particulars. I believe Mr. Hayman may be right to the extent that we must not expect to crack a code and find everything made luminously clear. We understand the verbal techniques and the underlying ideas fairly well; but each new sentence enmeshed us in its own tangle of peripheral references. Thus we can untangle sooner or later, if they involve a passage from Quinet or a case-history from Morton Prince or a figment of Hindu mythology or an Edwardian music-hall song. Yet nothing short of telepathy with the dead can reconstitute those chains of personal association which, as we realize more and more, Joyce arbitrarily interwove with his cultural fantasy. It is as if the monument were to remain half-excavated, its outlines roughly marked, its texture admired in fragments, some of its treasures assessed, while the secrets buried with its sardonic artificer went on provoking conjectures and speculations indefinitely.
The style and substance of the Meditation is, of course, an outgrowth of and a variation on the musical ideas and themes in The House of Counted Days. The Meditation evokes by poetic depictions (or at least so I believe) the sensibilities of the music in the Counted Days suite of pieces
Episodes 1 and 3.
The Dutch air is cold against my back as I read on the little single mattress on the floor of the apartment in Amsterdam. It is 1999. I am leaning against the opening under the door. A pillow, which my mother, on the other bed in the room, has thrown me, wards off the chilly blasts while the moon travels its October path, gathering size on its way towards the West Tower nearby where, somewhere within, Rembrandt is buried.
I traveled to Holland twice in 1999, first in the Spring with my wife Mary Ann, and again in the Fall with my mother Helen. Glenn offered to finance my ticket if I would accompany Mom to Amsterdam for a visit. Helens wrist was broken from a fall earlier that year rendering my assistance of even greater value.
Episodes 1 and 3 refer directly to that visit. In his apartment I sleep on the little single mattress while my mother sleeps in the same room on Glenn and Paulines bed which they have given up to her (they are on the pull out couch in the living room). It is late and I am sitting upright, and reading before retiring. I have a very bad cold. It is October and I am thinking (among other things) about Rembrandt who was moved by the greatness of others as I am. Pauline is a direct descendant of Rembrandt.
One of the reasons why Rembrandt was so financially stressed was that he spent extravagantly on (among other things and, yes, you guessed it) art works!!! I am reminded of Debussys pre-Peleas obscurity when as a poor Parisian he (at least) once spent his last bit of money on a Japanese print for his wall rather than eat. The West Tower is nearby and can be seen from the living room window and it is thought that Rembrandt is in fact buried in there somewhere.
Episodes 4, 5, 7, 8, 9
Back in Thorndale, a hot blast of Dutch tea meets my face as I lean over the stove to stir a boiling pot of spinach and beans.
Walking through Philadelphia, city shapes and building fronts unfold along my eyes and head, bodiless, they do not cling. Too numerous.
Winters two-part rondo, the chilly dark and the tree branch bearing beings, winters General, (the wind) barking orders. The suns warmth.
The eyes I lift from the open book in my lap, meet the days final light washing the surface flat across the yards yellowing pines, and the red brick wall next to the door of the shed, watching me thinking on my couch through the patio doors ..my position is fixed, I do not escape the fears of youth, they return in season, emboldened, no longer hiding behind the mask of feigned and fearless embezzled bravado.
The tree branch bears beings laughing through the commanding winter wind, barking orders, the suns warmth, and the chilly dark, the light on the red brick wall next to the shed .
Three locations figure in the poem. Amsterdam, Thorndale, where my home is, and Philadelphia. I am brewing Dutch tea and cooking spinache and beans .Amsterdam and Thorndale are joined (as my brother and I are joined) by the twin images of the Dutch tea and the spinache and beans. Later, I am sitting on my couch with a book on my lap looking out my back patio doors. (Between these two images: a memory of a previous trip to Philadelphia, and a sentence formed as I walked past buildings through the streets on that occasion.)
I hear birds as if in laughing-conversation with the sound of the wind which is personified as a General barking orders to his troops (a two-part rondo); the cool evening and the warm light of the sun, another two-part rondo; the red brick wall and the light upon it , another . and of course me-on-the-couch and the-scene-upon-which-I-gaze an overall two-part rondo .there are other pair-chains too Thoughts and speculations alternate with and are adjacent to, places and things
The strength of the wild ox defers to the Shadow of Him by whose Word, what was not, from nothing, came to be. The watching dawn lowers its countenance averting the Lord of Heaven, mighty and dreadful, passing by.
Old Testament imagery comes at the end , an Epiphany-of-the Word as a spiritual coda to the whole meditation. Biblical references pile up even from the New Testament. The world came to be from nothing by way of the Word. That Word became a Him (with a capital H) (a metaphor for Immortality) however the Shadow of Him clearly indicates a pre-Christian incarnation. He is mighty and dreadful and all creation bows in His presence .There is something of the mannerisms of Emily Dickinsons work here. This climactic image is suddenly surprising. Scrolling through the words and images, is it not ia breathtaking little film breaking forth upon the screen of minds eye ? The fragile reality of a man (obviously the writer) seated on his couch gazing at the fading light on the red wall of his brick shed just beyond his patio doors, listening to the sound of birds in the evening, with a book opened upon his lap is rendered all the more poignant by its sudden juxtaposition with the intensely charged biblical imagery ..mortality in juxtaposition with the eternal.
The House of Counted Days: a conclusion of miscellanies
With the exception of Code Red and Here, the titles come from American Frontier Lore.
Most of the musical titles came from Pat Jahns The Frontier World of Doc Holliday, a novel with footnotes whose primary intent seems to have been to denigrate the reputation of Wyatt Earp. The book is arguably inaccurate yet very beautifully written. The early onset of Doc Hollidays Tuberculosis was of course the defining factor in his life. Reacting to this death sentence he abruptly abandons his fledgling career as a Dentist for life on the frontier as a gambler and adventurer, waiting for death to come.
Page 49: .Doc Holliday had built his life on a volcano the house of counted days. A metaphor for mortality.
Ones and Eights:
a reference to the poker hand Wild Bill Hickock was holding when he was murdered (shot in the back) by Jack McCall in the Number 10 Saloon in Deadwood.
Page 75 Aces and eights with a queen kicker----the Deadmans hand which gambling superstition said would never let its holder leave the game alive. Another picture of mortality.
Page 95. .Knowing his reprieve from death to be but a whim, a fancy of fate, no matter how careful he was.
Tough Nut and Lucky Cuss:
Names of two thriving silver mines in the vicinity of Tombstone, Arizona. Blue Glass Country: a craze during the 1870s in Tombstone (and perhaps elsewhere on the frontier) for tinted blue glass (for eyeglasses) alleged to have healing and mood elevating properties. The title is also a word-play on (Kentucky) Blue Grass Country.
Page 74. Jahns quotes the Wyoming Weekly Leader from June 21st, 1877. .here,too [Deadwood City, Denver], was Calamity Jane Canary with her sweeping raven looks, gaiters instead of boots, beaded and fringed buckskins and a wide brimmed hat. [Jahns quotes from the Leader] She is still in early womanhood, and her rough and dissipated career has not altogether swept away the lines where beauty lingers.
For what is the meaning of a poem after all, but a pretext for fine poetry? If that meaning be involved in haze, may not the poetry be all the finer for it?
-- Logan Pearsall Smith On Reading Shakespeare
to dream, to meditate, to lose ourselves in thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls, to love the gay appearances of the world and know them as illusions---this temper of an ironic mind, of a happy, enjoying, and yet melancholy nature, expresses itself in a secret rhythm, a cadence, a delicate and dream-like music which is, for me, the loveliest poetry in the world.