The Mathematics of the Heart - Poetry by Leslie Nutting (Xorys)

The Sculptor The sculptor sees a garden in the stones, or not exactly a garden, in the rock he sees the image latent so that the landscape is for him a vast array of unfinished work. He takes a hammer, and chisels into the hill. Stones are like fruits, and with a gardener's eye he picks the perfect, ripe and full, sure in their veins and fallen without flaw. He rapes a form into them, completing their demise. After him their shape is human and they build no more mountains, speak like dancers, capable of lies.
The Painting The painting is the sum of its deletions, all that it is not. The things the painter thrusts out of his mind before he maps the canvas. It is the reduction of his world. The green and blue flower on the surface, under its sad geometry, the brief assertions of the brush. They lie about jungles, light, the costs of life. These colours are his war, his last incursion, the guerrillas of his force of compromise. They are destroying his perceptions, his memories of love. After their success he will be blank and white. The picture will be all that he allows for. Under its sunshine stretched the bought remainder, the gaudy pigments of his bloodless lust.
Pythagoras on Art Mimesis is a crock. Art doesn't imitate life. The angel carved from rock doesn't pretend to be any other kind of angel in the air. The flute, or the piece for the flute memorised by the boy, does not pretend to be the throat of the wind. And when the dancers dance about the fire in the drum-gouged night, it is not supposed that anyone mistakes the dancers for the fire. Hammer beats on metal. Word flies in the mind like gull's wing shaving the light off the sea. Note carves a musical recess in the hollow bone-cave of the skull. No one is mocking anything. And this sculpture is not a substitute for the hot sleep of your lover's thigh. Not an alternative to the necessary agony of being born. Not a shield to stop the soldiers' thinking of your name. The dance is the dance and that is that, any illumination is the dancer's own grammar sure-footed and sudden, in its way, as any horsy dreams the shambling beasts begot.
The Listeners He dreams of the perfect audience, those who hear his playing as some kind of god or golden noise, who cannot see the twitching of the strings, ignore his instrument, his breath. He is given school-children over-ruled and patrons, other artists at the best, sullen or beady in their seats. All judge him, find him wanting, or grudgingly applaud. Those who listen always ask how well he is himself, dissect his flight, his confidence in wings. They do not ride the bird of sound that flies out of his fingers. It cannot draw them as it draws his twists. Which is why he plays best by the lake, while his family, tolerant kill time, forgetting them, his teasing of the gut, lost like a green boy in the wild map of his first girl's limbs, a gull in the lathe of the blue fish-clawing waves.
Fiction We muddy the waters of history, put words into the mouths of the dead, for this is the only way we know ourselves, what we imagine of them, their landscape, their sentiments. Truth surrounds us with its consequences but is inaccessible to the fingers, too sensual for the mind. All that they felt is a lie we tell ourselves, the stubborn schema that we see in spring. Purple flowers we do not care for, late snow that clings to the ignorant earth like prose.
Music is Simple Music is simple and comes from simple things -- bits of wood, old shells, a hollowed gourd, reeds, wires -- the instrument seems permanent, as the player wields it, as though his fingers always danced upon it, as though melodies lay hidden in the spaces between things, the recalcitrance of water glassed by harmony. If this flute, this orchard, why not any object sing? His argument draws ladders out of skulls, chairs structures that we mutely acquiesce to. But he carries his stuff, brings his craft curving to the bone. He must piece and string to make this possible, learn his intervals. It is the will on the junk that brings the song to be. And the heart, too, is heavy and trivial that we carry in our throats, and we must work it, know what to take out to hold its tune else it is rummage that we find, and shrieks when we ply it like a drunk's fist searching impacts for a chord.
Deliverance No poem is ever finished -- this is the terrible thing about art, its ecology. The wood joins the hammer, but nothing ever stops growing, the stone turns to the sculptor and speaks to him of mountains, words that the swimmer tries to raise from pools. All artistry is raised in the space beyond the head, and the carpentry never settles to the lie of that plundered air, the step the hero takes after he leaves the cliff: waiting to fall -- this is the only grace. After come images and they lie in the hands, like earth, weather we harvest year after year, failing the salt deliverance of the heart.
A Later Fragment of Plotinus What has art ever changed? How do you measure the impact of the fisherman's net on the history of the sea -- especially when the net comes up again and again empty, full of nothing but the idea of fishes. The moon draws all the boats upon the tide into her grip, but they feel nothing, only the drift of water, the line of wind that they climb into the harbour. So, I sit under this mountain, waiting for history to finish with me, and I am not convinced of the power of words, of the painted grace of statues. Geometry is a neat but elusive metaphor. How do we know what we make with our lives when even our wives turn bitter at the aging of our quirks? No -- we are not teachers. The moon moves behind the mountain and we have changed it I am sure but not in what country or how, or what it begins to think as it draws the cloak around some far, silent shore.
The Bird in the Word The bird is in the word not of it -- still less anything so absurd as the word being an abstract or a symbol of the feather. The bird is in the word. It turns inside the tight space that the tongue involuntarily curls inside the brain -- no, that the idea of the tongue, or something like it, curls in the idea of something like space, or which we can best explain by calling it a space. The bird is in the word. It is real there. It detaches its small death from us, its muscles have a half-life whose beginning and end elude us. We have flitter and song in the non-space and try to say that language is a human thing, try to live there -- though we know that we can never alight on that invisible point.
Essay on Criticism The word speaks. Though it articulates in the clutter of vocables, its muscle is cerebral, it dances with the body of I-have-been and slips the pas-de-deux of will, the clothes of dream. The melody is siphoned through the air that beats with the gut's calculation. It turns the reptile key in the mind's door and fascinates the snake with its ascensions. Form is its trance. If it is chained to light it dies in rainbows, guttural with the politic of its undoing. It will not bleed. The word limps in the desert of lust. Sound is its bitterest master, and the mockery of type: the talking bird, the dancing ape. The overture of syntax and the thesis of the octave's parts meet in the mirror, in that other country. This much is clear. But reach and you drown in your own grasping hand.
Sappho A figure stands in a landscape that, though harsh and sunbaked, is brightened by astonished flowers clutching at crevices, and cooled by the white of architecture. She holds an instrument and gazes out to sea. This is Sappho. This is an illusion. Words, broken words. The shattered glass of history. All things convenient are lies. Look at the frescoes at Knossos, disembarking from your bus, deafened by crickets. Such timeless artistry. Fakes, Victorian fakes. The originals, charred beyond recognition, eked out with painted plaster -- a bull from a bull's ear, a Grace from a knee, a lock of hair -- are in Iraklion in a new museum. And Sappho is bits of this and that -- parchment used to sheath a mummy too cheap for unused goods, tattered fragments in a heap of unearthed rags, tags a grammarian quotes for the subjunctive. What might have been. Continuity is not. Or is a stagger in a battle, a shriek above the din. Those pure tones we catch and dream on, echoes of many in between, chips in an avalanche of wishes, statues between the wars. She stood, no doubt, upon that shore, conceived a song, wanted to save it. Then she turned and went in to the eclipsing darkness. And we forgot her.
Mathematics Mathematics can only be explained to those who do not wish to learn it by analogy, approximation: as, we say: to differentiate is to divide an infinitely small amount of one thing by an infinitely small amount of another. But that is not it, of course. The two quantities are both smaller than any number and yet are perfectly distinct. They do not exist. They are what we imagine would exist if it could. The symbols have it. The rest is merely explanation. You cannot learn by it. Or you can learn, perhaps, to understand a little what has been done by others -- but you cannot do. It is not a tool that will carry the mind out into the dark spaces like a climber's rope and pitons, the web of unknowns bringing us over the abyss back to the known. And, yes, we are talking about words too, and the way we use them, swinging out over the glaciers of desire and dream and the deep ledges of our aging, bringing us perhaps safe, perhaps higher off and further for we do not know. And we cannot explain. And the structure of that calculus is simpler, closing, living on its own. But this is us and never ends, the mathematics of the heart.
The White Goddess "All poets know that they are merely vessels for the Muse... We are the White Goddess' pencils: she moves our pens along the page." - Erica Jong The White Goddess does not exist. The Muse does not exist. -- Convenient fictions supposed to comprehend what we cannot -- not an insufficiency of mystery but an irreducible namelessness. One thing becomes a metaphor for another, a changing shape and the changing and the shape are ours, the process of surfaces by which we are more than we know. And because this and all the things that we become elude us ( the deceptiveness of the simple, the light on days like the surfaces of waves that only pretend to interpret the unfathomable sea of consequence ) we give them names, learn to address them as truculent mechanics, wilful, unspeaking strangers we placate. But this fear itself is born of fear of fear or something harder. For things are more vast than that, and this intention we defer to, woo is just a trick of light upon their surfaces -- our shadow, not a God. The White Goddess does not exist. The Muse does not exist. Only the stuttering world whose words we are.
A Haida Petroglyph What comes singing out of the ignorance of time is not a voice. This little stone is dumb though we persist in the translation of its history, insisting on the man who spoke it and that, since it uttered from his fingers, it must be a word. The light blinks on and off. We see him meaning it, and then again its knurled, unwilling syllables in our hand. But the lucidity of the substance tricks us, as if we could say his life or ours is so articulate. No -- both swell in the squalor and the weariness out from this intersection, and his no more than ours possessed the key to this stone act. He died by inches in the failure of his forest and did not understand it either. This is not what singing is. Singing is the moment of singing glimpsed at that point where we pass through it like a diving bird through the surface of the sea, but never lived in, a country, we, like Moses, look on, but can never reach. And yet we are song's members. It is us, the language that we learn, despite our selves, to chip into the incidental rock, that sings the spreading tapestry of chant upon the sleeping loom.
Watching the Dancer It is impossible to take in all that the dancer does, though she is only one who does it -- if you watch her hands, you cannot count the beating of her feet, the small side to side movement of her head, turn of the hip. Still less all the minute adjustments of the eyebrows, the fall of her veil, sway of the dress in the rhythm of the pace. And yet it is not, ultimately, this problem of addition that defeats us in the dance (and in all art, all efforts of our under- standing, attempts to make an order we can grasp out of the plethora of things): it is the problem of subtraction. To delete enough, and well -- all the irrelevant currents of the air, noises of time passing, awkward humanities, the pain in the gut, the tremble in the hand; and even the dance itself, its surfeit of details -- so that what remains bodies in gesture the absence of a whole. The forms we think we see never exist. The dance we remember witnessing never happened. It is the dancer's skill to leave us this delusion, fake elements into a shape, an imaginary dancer in the mind. So we depart remembering only a lie of beautiful simplicity. And all our achievements are like this -- history, geography, even our own short lives: a shadow of deletions learning an image of boundary and colour, replacing the truth. Poetry so, too, though perhaps it deceives us, lacking a flesh that slips and aches, born in the realm of language, where so much is already omitted. But this is still its art. To hide the impatience of the possible, avoid the countless things it might have said. So what is left is simple and full of absences. And we, turning our memories and our longings in our fingers, say yes, this is yes, this is it.
The Poet in the Darkroom Poetry does not happen. It is made. Perception, the coruscations of the real, do not account for what the mind wreaks with language. The camera is a mouth. It eats what comes in front of it. Emulates the algebra of meaning that we long to credit -- as though reality were a horse and if we could ride it, learn its tricks, would render us immortal: bits of silver, finite transformations of frame or tray a paradigm for gnosis. But poetry knows not. We do not change the process: are the process. There is no limit to the lies we form. And what is set in black and white on paper never happened: photographs of dead men, cities never built, desire, jungles of fingerprints: our grasping for the world we break.
Bertolt You thought you could teach, that you understood the process (-- ah process: old Greybeard-in-Highgate's great temptation! as though you could see it, curling like smoke in the air, as though you could smell the letters rising from history; the magnetism of words, gearwheels beneath the fingers forcing the future into place, more drunk and gaudy than a lover's thighs... You thought you had trapped the audience out in the dark, that you could turn the light on them, incise them with dialectic, piss them off, that you could twist them into tomorrow with their eyes awake, denouncing the obvious, joining you on the stage. But the stage betrayed you, the singer and the song; the curious glue that binds a tale to its telling, binds a man to his life, stronger than love or reason, longer than any lever. Peachum is pardoned. Juliet leaves Romeo to waltz with Mack the Knife.
The End You say that happy endings bore you -- you cannot take the prince and princess wed, the dragon bleeding on the rocks, the cowboy, duty paid, unscathed, kissing his horse off into the sunset. Well. Endings are a problem. All stories finish with a lie. Things happen. The rest is art. But when we're stuck on the edge of our seats we yearn for charmed conclusions. Narrative wields a world of games; we want to be convinced that we have won them. Only when we have had our way, do we turn upon the offer, blame the teller for giving in too soon. And the ending in disaster is another mirror, another stroke of the pen. One more sculptured capsule for us to deny. All endings are a vapour. Probably all happiness too. Enter your hands like a thought (this is the end) Are you happy?

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