Out West


It was so much the end of things
         I found myself in California free
of most ideas. Here I am,
without companions, at the end
of the recession chasing work
         like everyone else, where the fog
that nourishes the hanging moss
can’t slake the coastal range so pale beneath the ceaseless sun.

All frequencies of visible
         light ricochet through the cerulean
penumbra of the exosphere
and meet the eye identically.
Only the mind can know the blue
         of the sea and infer trajectories
of light from ideas of beauty.
The change from frame to frame is relative; what does not change

is the pursuit of what may be beyond
conception up through canyons grey with fog
then powder blue, a secret word,
         a dream remembered darkly now.
         The shore appears and disappears,
         the scent of fennel on the wind
climbing the mountain’s spine to a nuclear power plant
perched on a cliff above the Pacific where it all ends.

A neutron hits uranium
         and splits into krypton and barium
releasing three more neutrons
and all the binding energy
described by E = mc2.
         The neutrons split more U-235s,
releasing particles and heat
until each fission event branches into an avalanche

of energy which is transferred
         to water flowing past the core to drive
the turbine, and the turbine turns
a huge magnetic tube around
a coil of copper wires. The change
         in magnetic flux through conductive wire
induces current through the coils,
a surge of free electrons to conduct a flow of charge.

The speed at which electricity moves
is not the speed of drifting electrons,
but that of electromagnetic waves
         interacting with particles,
         imparting energy from one
         electron to another back
and forth like metal balls in Newton’s Cradle through the wire,
like the quick signal of your voice pulsing through waves of air.

Out in the open ocean ground
         swells grow as wind presses the surface of
the sea and fetches a sea state
of waves. Columns of plankton drift
offshore in coastal streams and when
         a wave passes through, krill orbit the crest
and trough without a net advance.
Deeper below, they only oscillate laterally.

As swells approach the shore, a reef
         or sandbar slows the wave down, steepening
the crest, which, freed from the constraint
of other water, breaks away,
exceeds itself in an inverse
         expression of bathymetry and falls
in a curtain back to the sea,
a breaking hyperbolic umbilic catastrophe.

To feel the pull, the sudden rise and curl,
what thunders over and under the swash
of froth and foam, to see the width of it
         fizz into mist above a sea
         marbled with spume and feel again
         the pull of gravity, the roar
thundering over, pressing a momentary silence
under that churn where nobody knows the way up or down.

A flock of piping plovers tracks
         the contours of the shoreline back and forth,
a vector field shifting in time,
and long-billed curlews deftly step
in that uprush to probe the swash
         for shrimp or pluck a sandcrab from the flats
like sushi on a geta tray.
Sea lions nose out of the foamy surf and pelicans

slope soar the lip along the crest
         of breakers while low crowds of cormorants
arrow out to sea stacks offshore
where humpbacks breach to feed on eel,
jacksmelt, and mackerel; colonies
         of gulls descend the wave-cut benches of
Obispo tuff and Monterey
formation in a frenzy for the carcases of fish,

oblivious to forces gathering
in rock along the fault three miles offshore
expressed as seafloor scarps or sudden slips
         releasing centuries of strain,
         shaking the earth, shaking the sea,
         shaking the very air we breathe.
This is the end of things, the end of finding something new,
all of the disappointment and failure consumed in blue.


It happened on a Friday night,
         early spring, sidewalks still sloppy with slush,
nowhere to go, nothing to do,
so went up to my girlfriend’s room
as her dad watched tv downstairs
         when she pulled out a Ouija board for fun
and asked, despite my skeptical
demur and nervousness, the spirits to divine our fate.

At first the answers came in waves
         of yes or no. She would end up out west
as a photographer. My fate
arrived in letters. B-E-R-K-E-L-E-Y spelled
a destiny where I would write
         a book O-N-G-O-D. How would it be received?
E-A-R-T-H-S-H-A-T-T-E-R-I-N-G. The spirit then
departed, leaving me to wonder what I would do next.

Earth shattering’s a phrase I might have used
when I was young and stupid but On God
was an odd title even for a kid
         like me with no exposure to
         Neoplatonic schools of thought
         or Aristotle where I might
have gleaned a tone, assuming the words came from the exchange
between her and me and not the daemon we were speaking with. *

Next day, I woke up late, depressed.
         Should I simply wait for my fate to guide
my actions or should I somehow
prepare myself? Why should I try?
I was a teenage atheist
         without a clue; what did I know about
theology? Should I go out
to Berkeley with the goal of writing something about God

or would it happen anyway
         despite intentions to do otherwise,
like Oedipus, who when he heard
the Delphic oracle predict
a fate more horrible than death
         left Corinth, not knowing his origin.
Poor son of Laius, seeing is
believing, but the truth is more blinding than two dress pins.

The more you understand the less you can
draw a conclusion. Horrifying things
occurred because of, not despite, his true
         intention to do what was right.
         Through feedback of belief and act
         a self-fulfilling prophecy
reveals two kinds of knowledge, knowledge of what has occurred
and knowledge of intention, which can’t always be observed.

I don’t know what happened that night
         but nothing came to pass. I left Detroit,
moved to Chicago, never wrote
a book On God, forgot about
the incident, and bounced from job
         to job without a clue. Until I came
to California twenty-sixy
ears afterwards I never thought about my fate again.

But something lingered from that night,
         a vanity that felt like a calling.
Despite the evidence against
the daemon of my teens I still
believed in my most private hour
         that I was meant for something, that somehow
my failures were a test, that things
would finally fall into place when I made my masterpiece.

To be at the beginning once again
and feel the bittersweetness of leaving,
to ride on the Coast Starlight by the sea,
         go fishing in a little skiff
         and contemplate the glassy vast,
         imagine life among sea stacks,
the mount of Morro Rock with its smoldering ash of birds
or turn away for the flintier vistas of Big Sur.

When I arrived in June I went
         straight to the ocean, walked along the pier
and marveled at the freshness of
its teeming blue vitality.
But I didn’t know what to do
         with mountains right against the shore like that
and fog filled every canyon, blocked
the sinuses along the coast like mucus from the flu.

I wandered after work for hours
         up mountains, through the towns and at the beach
to find the sun, which would appear
sometimes, but only as a ghost
through the unknowing June gloom
         to haunt the memory of brighter days.
And then I’d go back to my camp
among the western oaks and stare into the starless dark.

It’s dreary to be a stranger again
to linger in the aisles among the fruits
and vegetables, to study cookie tins
         or cans of soup, look for flip flops
         in the deserted dollar store,
         eat dinner in the parking lot,
and do it all discreetly so as to arouse the least
suspicion of a man in the middle of life alone.


The things our bodies do to stay
         alive and to reproduce don’t require
our understanding; things like sleep,
digestion, breathing, pumping blood,
constricting pupils in the light
         or amplifying vibrations to cells
of stereocilia which
transform waves into neural signals to become our words.

I don’t know how to extract strength
         from the beef I eat, but I don’t need to
in order to enjoy a beef
dipped in jus, topped with peppers hot
and sweet; the pressures of natural
         selection take care of the rest without
my thinking twice about how cells
produce the gastric juices to begin digestion now.

Almost everything we do we do
for reasons not our own. Even the beef
we favor is a choice we’re born into,
         the songs we sing, the words we say,
         the things we live with; changes come
         like accidental variation
and viral replication, differential survival
an all-consuming fire of cultural appropriation.

But what looks like an accident
         is usually someone acting with
a purpose, fueled by a belief
they’ve found a better way to make
a sandwich or a government
         through observation, reason, an appeal
to common facts or more abstract
ideas about history and the mind unfolding in time.

So what is the difference between
         a drunken walk and someone looking for
a drink, between a coin toss heads
and the deliberations of
a jury? Does it worry you
         that our intentions might not matter more
to outcomes other than to give
us the illusion we are masters of our destiny?

Nobody wants to die but it appears
inevitable. People go away
and no one ever hears from them again.
         Sometimes we see their bodies cold
         and stiff like mannequins, the face
         a thin mask of papier mache,
the hands folded mechanically over the sunken chest,
no rise and fall, no falderal, no trace of life at all.

The pain of losing someone is
         proportionate to age and personal
relationship, but memory is
less linear, especially when
thinking about the pain of death.
         The question of what it feels like to die—
were they afraid at the last hour?—
can cast you back to deaths that meant little when they occurred.

The body tells you everything
         about your own pain. Neurons transmit pain
signals along the axon by
the movement of potassium
and sodium ions in waves
         of depolarization. One by one
action potentials integrate
synaptic messages and propagate them to other cells

until the signals reach the dorsal root
ganglia of a spinal nerve and then
synapse on neurons in the thalamus
         which relays new information
         to the cerebral cortex where
         the neural impulses are mapped
onto a strange somatosensory homunculus
who speaks in frequencies we learn to interpret in words.

Words that come from the outside world,
         from other people who teach us to turn
our cries into a more refined
description of our pain, through trial
and error, verification
         and validation of how something feels,
or where it hurts and for how long
in an attempt to map the pain from their domain to ours,

which is neither to say there is
         a name for every kind of pain we feel
nor a feeling for every name
we know but rather that the names
of pain are arrows pointing towards
         recuperation or demise,
a cairn discovered in the wilderness,
a path where there'd been none, the absence of a sign of life.

The gap between my own experience
of pain and yours is difficult to gauge.
You tell me that you've got a bad headache.
         If I'm concerned enough, I'll use
         my worst headache as a measure.
         "That's terrible," I'll say, obliged
to say something, but if your headache is beyond the pale
we’ll both be speechless in our correlative solitudes.


After the bonfire of childhood
         belief, a spark remained, despite the ash
of doubt and pain, the de rigeur
rejection of authority,
the existential whiff of white
         suburban privilege and the subsequent
experiments in angst and dread,
the boredom of a lonely evening forced into crisis.

I listened to the arguments
         against religion and conformity,
rejected the mind-body split
but found materialism
inadequate in its account
         of consciousness; experience becomes
belief to keep a thesis up,
whereas belief can be a means to understanding more.

But that’s not it. I found myself asleep
in Egypt when a letter came to me
in the form of my teacher who told me
         a secret I could barely hear
         due to the giant I was with
         and all of his anxieties.
“To talk through… burning with incense… the story… muthos… myth.”
A mystery whispered through closed lips. Murmured word of fate.

What is this I, if such there be,
         which day to day continues to exist
amid change and uncertainty,
a control board directing sense
data or simulation for
         the dissipation of ideas, forms,
and energy, the steady creep
of memories, all to propagate the human race?

Or did a demiurge create
         our world for fun? A young Theresa Kim
three hundred years from now computes
a universe with Planck’s constant
as her time scale. Arithmetic
         exceeds imagination as the speed
of light is inconceivable.
Genetic algorithms iterate what becomes fate.

What difference would this make for our belief?
Even if consciousness emerges from
the opening of evolution’s fold
         the mysteries of being, form,
         and number still remain untold
         cutting across the universe
of simulation and imagination all the way
down to the real, wherever and whenever that is.

On my way home I stopped just east
         of Escalante, Utah on the side
of highway 12 to take a hike
down a dry wash and look for slot
canyons, arches, and tumbleweeds.
         I had food, water, maps, and the low sun
of mid-November as my guide.
By noon I’d overshot Phipps Arch and came into a floodplain

where I got lost among sagebrush
         and cottonwood, the twisted guts of all
the tributaries turning me
through sandstone canyons and across
the icy Escalante twice
         before I noticed I was going east.
I scrambled up a nameless wash
to look for higher ground and try to make up for lost time.

At two o’clock I could see highway 12
from Haymaker Bench. I would choose a slot
to get back to the road, then hit a cliff
         and climb back up to look again.
         By five I found myself alone
         and whispering, “Please get me home!
”The day was almost done. The temperature was plummeting
and I might have to shiver the whole night through on the Bench.

For the first time all day I caught
         a signal on my cell, dialed 911,
and someone pointed out the last
canyon before we got cut off.
I made it to the bottom of
         the gulch in total darkness, through the brush,
feeling my way along the walls
until I heard the sound of water rushing by the road.

Here I am in the dark between
         unknowing and knowing my way back home
between intention and outcome
a reaching after facts when facts
are nowhere to be found among
         the unobservable quivers of flesh
connecting bone. Ideas reach
into the deep but go no further than words allow.

Only this silence keeps a secret word
transferred from me to you and back again
uncovering a reason to believe
         a random walk in the desert
         will lead, between the flowing stream
         and going home, to destiny:
Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return
and everything you thought you understood you must unlearn.