Sunday, August 31, 2003


Why reading John Milton intimidated me is something I don't quite understand. It just seemed like so much WORK. But, wasn't reading The Faerie Queene equally daunting? Many of my favorite works and authors are seventeenth-century -- John Donne's poems, Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Katherine Phillips' poems, Ephelia's Female Poems (1683), and the poetry of the brilliant Mexican nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The English poets mentioned earlier are for the most part, cavalier and metaphysical writers.

John Milton seemed to me to be very militant and political -- perhaps that was part of the aversion I felt. I don't like "revolutionary" or "religious" poetry as a rule -- and especially not poetry that obsesses on the theme of crime and punishment (with an emphasis on the punishment).

The rage, the pain, the drama -- acck!! no thanks!!

In contrast, when I first discovered John Donne, who wrote earlier in the same century, I was fascinated by the intensity of the longing for unity -- the promise that striving for unity -- to long to enter into a state of unity would lead to perfection -- an almost out-of-body experience. It's transcendental and holds with it a kind of philosophy of enlightenment. Yes, that really speaks to me.

Being tormented and castigated for disobeying - for daring to question ... well, that never quite resonated with my own experience. As a teen-ager, I tended to be a people pleaser -- not a rebel without a cause, or an angry young grrrl (or angry young man). I also tended to fantasize about transformation, change, and "breaking through to the other side" through art, self-expression, or literature. I like the idea of human nature in all its radiance.

In revisiting Milton's Paradise Lost, I am finding (to my surprise), that many of the elements that so fascinated me in Donne and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz:

1. It is through paradox and the juxtaposition of opposites that we know a thing

2. Transcendental Longing is possible only in a hierarchical universe

3. Unity is a mental state -- it leads to illumination and profound insights into the nature of the human condition

4. The body is a vast dungeon of suffering and limitation -- it must be transcended

5. Abandonment and separation are primary existential conditions

6. Paradise Lost is the quintessential saga of the "angry young man"

7. John Donne appeals to individuals who are hyperaware of their essential helplessness with respect to passion, love, natural forces

Wednesday, August 13, 2003


Susan Smith Nash

The serpent is hungry tonight. The boards creak in the wooden casita I’m sleeping in tonight, the lamp suspended from a chain sways gently. The air is damp and cool, lightning flashes so far in the distance the thunder never arrives in sounds detectible by me, a woman exhausted by the sadness of a life of monotonous loss punctuated by Dionysian abandon. I look at my flesh. It is damp and chilly to the touch, and I wonder if the serpent’s scales are similarly cool.

The damp, cool night is dangerous. Incapable of generating my own heat, my metabolism slows in response to my environment. I cannot move, even when my mind tells me to run, run, run. Instead, cool tears clatter like ice down my cheeks. I miss you. I miss your warmth. You are the sun hiding behind the cloud of ash from Pacaya. You are heat and light and purity. You have been obscured for thirty years. This is why I shiver. I will breathe deeply of these ash-laden breezes, even though I know that they contain acicular crystals like asbestos, mixed with cremains. We call it “ash” because we know that to tell the world that Pacaya has turned itself into a giant crematorium, pushed to overcapacity by the last thirty years, will sound like a political statement, and thus will be ignored.

The wind rustles the eucalyptus near my window. Deep and dark the night is cooler than blood, thinner than memory. I am entranced by the slow, warm sway of the light over my bed. I will not move. I will pray, if the proper words come to my lips -- lips still swollen by solitude.

Sew my lips together. Sew my eyes shut. Little do I expect the swelling to obscure my self-imposed stigmata; my crown of thorns is reduced to the embodiment of futility. It was all just a dream anyway.

The serpent is hungry tonight. It moves. It twists. It burrows itself deep into the earth, following the fault zone, preferring strike-slip because the twisting motion seems somehow more in concert with what occurs on the surface.

Did you know scorched earth had a smell? Did you know screams had color? Did you know my blindness carried the scent of red bananas and the drink made of boiled rice and sugar?

Yesterday I bought green mango from a young woman outside the Catedral of La Antigua. “Con sal y chile rojo, por favor” I ask politely. When I put the sweet-sour-spicy fruit in my mouth, my eyes water, my lips swell, my tongue spontaneously shapes the sounds of centuries past. The bones of Bernal Diaz del Castillo crawl into my wrists, my ribs, my heart. I am eighteen again. I am reading The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico in a spare classroom in the middle of a hot, Grapes-of-Wrath-tinged prairie, 5,000 miles north of the desaparecido-tainted land I will visit mere weeks later. The bones rattle, snap, vaporize. Pacaya breathes, holds its breath, slowly exhales. The cremains this time are not of a conquistador named Diaz del Castillo. They are of small Mayans who have just sacrificed chickens and burned candles to placate the demons of the forest. History repeats. Genocide has happened at least three times here in this millennium. The serpent is hungry tonight.

The world’s most beautiful places are its most tragic.

Unable to move, I lie on my bed and watch the slow sway of the hanging lamp gain momentum. The bed rolls under my back in slow, erotic waves I am helpless to control. I am alone, and more aware than ever of my solitude. It is existential.

Yesterday, a civil engineer specializing in earthquakes and landslides told me that it is widely believed in the Guatemalan highlands that earthquakes are the result of the movement of a giant subterranean serpent that moves when its normal diet of flowers and honey has been cut off or replaced by material it does not like.

And what is that? I ask. A long pause before the answer. The only food the campesinos have been able to set out for the serpent has been not to its liking.

And what might that be? I ask.

Bone, blood.

The serpent is hungry tonight. It moves, it burrows, it hunts. The earth moves, Pacayo erupts and dusts us all with a coat of ash smelling vaguely of my grandmother’s perfume, Maja, and pungent mango.

Tomorrow I will go downtown with the engineer. We will go to the central market, where I will regatear but without enthusiasm because I want, in my heart of hearts, to overpay. I want to be overcharged, ripped off, made ridiculous. Don’t I think I deserve it? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But it doesn’t happen. Instead, I sip hot, sweet chocolate prepared from cubes of cocoa Mi Abuela and respond to the polite inquiries of two neatly dressed women from Chichicastenango, one of whom gently squeezes my forearm as she wishes me well. She leaves with her friend. My arm glows where she has touched me, my eyes fill with tears. Why must the serpent always be hungry? Can no one manage its, our needs – needs for delicate flower petals, honey, and a sky delicate and gray-blue around the corners, like my eyes, like my tears gently overlaying my own colorless irises.

The night thickens. My shoulders finally relax. I will not resist. The serpent is hungry tonight. To still its stomach will still these standing waves, that rolling, bending, contorting longing for sweetness and light. The longing is constant, albeit sticky and in the form of honey, or even the earth-black tar of molasses. I feign sweetness and light, as do all willing sacrifices.

Nevertheless and despite my best intentions, I am not accepted as the chivo expiatorio, at least not in the form I anticipated. The scent of carnations, tiny roses, and flowering jacaranda envelopes me. “No, not now,” is written in vapor in the air above my bed. Sweetness and light. Some day it will probably get to the point that it isn’t even an act any more.

The serpent is hungry tonight. Or, at least was. Now I see that it is I, citizen of the world, who must accept that it is I who is hungry.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Susan Smith Nash

“And then I was subjected to…” crumpled face, stifled sobs, long silence, then words choked out. “The Probe!!!” The audience gasped in response. It was the climactic moment they had been waiting for. Another daytime talk show. Another alien abduction testimonial. You would have thought those things would have died out a couple of years ago after psychiatrists started pointing out that many of the “recovered memories” from troubled individuals under hypnosis were not long-repressed memories at all. They were responses to suggestions made by the hypnotist.

I went to a therapist for a couple of years, but he never suggested hypnosis. He didn’t suggest much at all, as far as I could tell, and so I eventually left. He was later drummed out of psychiatry for having requested nude photographs from his female patients. I don’t remember that he ever asked me for such photographs, and I certainly never produced any for him. But, maybe I’m just not remembering it. Perhaps he really did have me under hypnotic suggestion.

Despite some ongoing skepticism on the part of non-believers, abduction / UFO sighting stories are more popular than ever. Peru leads the way, with hundreds of supposed UFO sightings every year. People in non-light-polluted countries report that UFOs, comets, and deviant stellar behavior are harbingers of doom, warnings to take heed, change one’s wicked ways before it’s too late.

Americans’ experiences with the aliens are very personal. They can even involve the possibility of encountering one’s soulmate. According to my favorite tabloid, at least two former First Ladies have had recurring love trysts with space aliens, variety Great Gray (the mild-mannered, harmless ones), who visit them from their spacecrafts.

Doesn’t this set up some spousal jealousy in the White House? After all, there are more than a few individuals who believe that the world leaders are, in actuality, reptilian aliens disguised as humans. As opposed to the fairly passive yet intellectually curious Great Grays, the Reptilians are aggressive. They deliberately provoke strife between nations. Their goal is total global nuclear holocaust, which would leave behind lots of flesh ready to eat, and nice, warm radioactive sands for incubating Reptilian Alien eggs.

I’m not sure if I believe any of that. I do wonder, though. There are persistent rumors that the super-secret all-male Bohemian Society is comprised of Reptilian Aliens, who inhabit the bodies we know as world leaders. The Bohemian Society, which meets each summer in Sonoma County, California in a grove of Sequoiahs along the Russian River, is said to kick off its two weeks of male bonding with a bonfire ceremony to the Great Owl, Moloch, in which members burn effigies and don red KKK-type outfits. These are our world leaders? Marvelous.

That probe business is what catches my eye. It’s the common thread that unites all the narratives. There are other ways aliens can invade and violate people. Why the probe? Why not the earwigs of Dune and Star Trek? Those little critters are scary. Dropped into the ear, they crawl into the ear canal, and promptly chew their way to the brain. I guess the problem with that is that you rarely live to tell the tale (!)

An alternative horror is the human botfly. I was considering a trip to Costa Rica until I remembered having read about the human Botfly in the Dangerous Insects book I bought for my son at the local natural history museum gift shop when he was 7 or 8. The botfly looks like a mosquito, except it’s a fly. Its favorite place to bite appears to be the male scrotum. The mother botfly lays her eggs in the scrotal area of an unsuspecting tourist, and then flies off happy with the knowledge that her eggs have been laid in the most jealously guarded region of all of human anatomy. There the little eggs thrive. Human blood nourishes the larvae, which incubates for several weeks, growing to the size of a small chicken egg. This, according to all reports, causes “discomfort” in the unwilling “host.” Finally, when it is time to give birth, the now inch-long worm-like creature, with a double-row of spines down its back, starts wriggling toward its birth canal, except there is no birth canal, just scrotum. According to all reports, this causes even more “discomfort.” Birth in such circumstances is always by caesarian, accompanied by shrieks of horror, nausea, and shouts of “I’m not touching THAT!” and “Quick! I heard these things can jump up to 6 feet!”

Thankfully, human botfly experiences are rare, especially in comparison to alien abductions.

In attempt to make light of a situation that alarmed me, I joked with my son that he and his pet beagle, Sammy, must have been abducted by aliens at precisely the same time. I was saying this because my son had just described having had his core body temperature measured by a metal rectal thermal probe. He was severely dehydrated and had fallen unconscious from heat stroke during a training exercise with the Marines on a lava plain in Hawaii. As luck would have it, at precisely the same moment, 4,000 miles away in sunny central Oklahoma, a metal cylinder was being inserted up Sammy’s rectum. No one thought Sammy was suffering from heat stroke. Instead, the veterinarian’s assistant was collecting a stool sample to analyze for parasites. Thankfully, Michael and Sammy are both fine now. Sammy was parasite-free, but decidedly ungrateful for the knowledge. He runs and hides when he sees me holding anything even vaguely resembling a metal cylinder. After his ordeal, I felt sorry for the chubby little dog, so I fed him a full package of Bacon Beggin Strips. Ironically, Michael suggested I mail him a care package with his favorite snack items.

“Don’t they have potato chips and cookies at the exchange on base?” I asked.

“It’s not the same,” he said. “I’ll be back from the field next Thursday. Do you think it can be there by then?”

I looked up to the TV where another weeping man was describing his alien abduction experience. After a commercial break, the show ended with the announcer describing the gifts the guests would receive. One was a generous box of gourmet chocolates, fruits, and coffees.

Well, there’s the pay-off. A hefty care package heals a lot of wounds, especially those inflicted in the name of scientific investigation or “health.” I wonder if I’ll be getting a box of chocolates for my birthday from my old therapist.