It was my first trip abroad in 32 years. For two months I wandered solo from Paris to the French countryside and attempted time-travel. In my computer was a half-completed novel called Looking Glass Girl.
I’ll start my story near the end, with a poem I wrote in the final days of my artist residency at Camac Centre d’Art in Marnay-sur-Seine, population 236.
The real story is that I struggled with my novel and its painful subject matter. I spent my residency days building a time machine out of cardboard and string, cataloging eight years of notes, and writing very little on the book.
But the whole month I was at Camac, I jotted down phrases and thoughts about my fellow residents–all of them visual artists, except for me. A poem came together over two days and I wrote it in a white-heat. I was still writing when an audience of supportive townsfolk arrived for our final show and I put in the final line two minutes before I stepped in front of them. My biggest regret was not having the time to translate it before they heard it, but after I chatted for a bit in my flawed-but-improved French, they followed the English gamely.
Here it is, a love letter to a group of artists–from Germany, Australia, Pakistan, Czech Republic, Mexico, Brazil, and South Korea–with whom I spent a month of my life.
The canvas is black on black on black, save the horizon.
Inside the smoke and shadow, your prayers hold your children.
Do you speak in tongues, you ask, and I say,
You paint in tongues.
The Ruach carries the sounds to the beginning of the universe,
And they become vowels in the hidden name of God.
On the eve of atoms’ birth, the Mystery swallows each syllable
and speaks each speck back from the void.
We fear that we are empty, a song sung by mimes, a canvas
shown to blind men.
But we speak a language written in the dark.
I came to write a twin story—
of sliding into a reflected world, where everything comes back to itself.
In that story, you run and run and stay in the same place;
you grow tall, then small;
a dormouse curls in a teapot.
Into a foreign land, I went to find a girl who ran here once,
because it was not home.
I wandered streets and boulevards, slipping in and out of time.
When I find you, you are a weaver.
The threads flit between your fingers like doves.
You gather warp and weft, the heft
The strings shapeshift into matter, into energy.
You show me the dry bells of wildflowers,
shaking seeds into your palm that first become labyrinthine petals,
then a tree of apples.
You pick one and feed the world.
I try to empty my mind of thoughts,
to hold them just below the surface,
but the image of drowning is too strong.
A mole noses out from under an oak leaf
once, twice, thrice,
each peek followed by frantic withdrawal.
Across the Seine the oaks hold mistletoe in their thin arms—
a precarious agreement.
I wake this morning to a branch that bangs against my windowpane.
An insistence of trees.
I am afraid I’ll never write again,
or that the words will never sing to me again.
There you are!
The top of your head steals into the picture,
Sorry about the bangs, you say,
Did they wake you?
I should have cut down all the oaks.
Your eyes sweep the room like wind across the Seine.
You are partial.
Partial to magpies,
We bump a stolen treasure chest up the spiral stairs.
You run out, then run back in for gloves or birds or brushes.
You are artist,
Magpie shadows filter through strands of your hair.
Can hide their shape.
Zigs can zag; faces can be acorns.
Shadows pass through mirrors,
double back upon themselves.
The face they create is La Joconde.
Words tell too much,
won’t shut up, but instead,
shut up like fire burst from the bones of trees.
One line begins the conflagration.
Each three children holds a rectangle of canvas.
You sit level with them. You meet their eyes.
Between you all you will put the sky together.
It is not easy to be free. You make your freedom—
etch it on glass in the face of those
who would steal it.
Sailors and fishers prepare for the journey.
They climb the rigging,
nothing but ropes between them and the sky.
The children make a sky of flying sails.
You are sailing,
you are flying,
you are running,
your face etched on the glass.
As the streets darken, I touch the ancient walls,
Ingrown with trails of ivy.
Bare roots clutch the stones. Soon, they will swallow the whole building.
I went into the church and sang for a thousand years,
no witness but my own hungry heart.
A thousand years sang back.
Of the things that are that have been
and that future years shall see,
evermore and evermore.
The universe is not so much vast as it is infinite—
folding in on itself,
then unfolding like the petals of a rose.
It is as vast as the rose is vast.
A woman reclines on the lines, wrapped
in a brocade of bird, stag, lion.
Her face is an empty hand.
From this dollhouse, Jack pulls back the curtain,
and stares out at the beanstalk.
Everything is temporal.
Jack’s tiny mother is swallowed by her wheelchair.
On the corrugated table, a vase of flowers,
and your head, looking slantwise at the ceiling.
What is the time
on Jack’s watch?
Here, a mistle thrush whirs its greeting.
The pigeons make comfortable noises around the chimney.
I move across the river, a particle, a wave.
I am everywhere at once.
As soon as someone looks I am here,
just here, behind the glass.
I may run out of words.
They may be in limited supply.
I may have reached my quota.
I have carried the world too much inside me,
liking its clicks and clamor.
It makes the planet feel small and brutish.
I think it puts me two places at once—here on the river,
there at the Washington Post.
But my indignation masquerades as compassion.
I hold too tight to the threads of familiar things.
A squadron of pigeons launches itself from the roof,
sails across the river.
If I have nothing new to say,
I must say old things with love.
Start with anything, you say.
A sketch. A hybrid.
Something dual that you can understand in tandem.
Consider what you thought you knew.
Gaze down and ask,
What will I pull from the depths?
When you play the piano, I drop from the eaves to listen.
I hover invisible in the air,
fall down the wind.
Out in the river, a creature of the mer emerges.
Leaves greet each other, a circlet around her head.
She is the water goddess,
the birth of all things.
She blooms like a lily in the moonlight.
I asked the physicist to explain the theory of everything.
He said connaissance, connaissance,
and something primal moved across the surface of the deep.
It was a nativity I didn’t comprehend.
I asked the artist, and he answered,
why must you grasp it?
The land is wide. It is full of strings, vines.
The weeping willow holds the swift with its echoing call,
the nightjar with its long thrum,
I asked the Mystery and it said,
it is like holding the hem of a garment—
weaving the strings and knots through your fingers.
The eyes of the angel are redacted by a black stripe.
His hands reach out.
We are left with the question
of what is in the angel’s eyes.
Books with missing words,
passages painted over,
What is removed
Its absence inflames us—
a cloze test with no certain answer.
Redactions become windows we can look through.
We may find new constellations.
We may find nothing but the dark.
I carry the sorrow of stars—
each extinguished before its light hits my eye.
Does this mean there is no longer an Orion?
No Pleiades nor Cassiopeia?
Or does it mean the stars remain,
apart from their first-kindled fire?
The surface of the Seine carries fallen leaves to Paris,
and then on to Le Havre.
They will become the fish,
The terrassier rests on the handle of his axe,
stares into the distance of a road he built for
someone who told him his future.
He dreams of other roads,
a house in the country.
When you think you are made of stone,
you stay in one place.
The dream has its own ideas.
It knocks your legs from under you.
A knock-knock joke,
Leaving you no leg to stand on.
You balance on the axis and find yourself
floating in air,
the fragments of your foundation scattered.
You must build your own road.
The road will become you,
will become your legs,
will carry you forward.
I begin to fill the page,
and the words are like drops of paint.
I perch in the triangulation of rafters,
My wings tight against me,
I don’t yet know what I am painting.
I ache for music,
a door removed from its hinges.
It used to be easy,
throwing the words down,
but I am on terra nova,
crow-walking on the ceiling.
You swim against the current,
a fish weaving through trees.
The love is in the details—
patches peeled away from a mussel shell
become the continents you travel.
Justice is your map, and you find your way in the dark—
The village at night, the lamps casting their small glow,
the electric hum of your own heart.
You say what you mean, even when you row against a flood.
Tell them what you know now.
Each brush stroke is an oar stroke.
In the dark, caged hearts orbit secretly,
satellites of twin earths.
It has been a year of barricades:
chairs, stones, wheelbarrows, saints.
When everything is new, the old catches up to you,
the well-worn hesitations,
the ordinary shame.
Don’t try to be brilliant.
Don’t try anything.
The sorrow is a process,
the tears that catch you unaware—
all of it counts.
Only when it rains do you open the umbrella of your soul.
Only then do you ask yourself
if you know too much.
The earth has a secret twin.
They meet at the confluence of universes,
each facing the other.
and then dissolve.
Sometimes the trees shiver up into the clouds.
The sap knows—
the veins of leaves fade to translucence as it drains away.
The roots speak amongst themselves,
underground dendrites reaching, touching.
The whorls of your own fingerprints
are the hidden letters in the name of God.
When I wake, I am full of the moment.
I carry it careful as an egg across the ramparts.
Each pebble under my feet is full of light.
When I travel in time, the past becomes the present becomes the future.
The places that are not home bring us to our other, hidden selves.
We are twin earths,
I feared not making myself understood in a language not my own,
so I came to understand.
The wind makes waves across the surface of the Seine,
and I begin to speak in tongues.
©2017 Katherine Grace Bond