Danielle Cadena Deulen
OUR EMOTIONS GET CARRIED AWAY BEYOND US
When Pythagoras conceived of the Music of the Spheres, he believed he understood the universe—how celestial bodies moved in musical ratios—the world sensible and clean. This is why he lived simply, in the hills with his students, the mathematikoi, without need for possessions, women, or meat. The universe could be explained in rational signs,
so they drew equations and played instruments—not to please the gods, but maintain their order in the universe. In the course of their practices, however, they found the proof of irrational numbers and concluded that the universe also contains things that are irrational. This idea so threatened the Pythagoreans that they kept its existence a secret.
When one of the students told an outsider about it, they drowned him in a lake. It's instinctive to be drawn toward water—thirst, baptism, a longing to be clean—so he would have thought nothing of following his friends, dust rising from the roads like a thin, glittering shroud. It was night but, because the day was hot, the water would have been as warm
as a body, like the summer waters of any dry landscape— eastern Oregon, even, with its bronzed hills, the air pungent with sage. I went there one summer with a friend I followed everywhere. She was a year older, lithe and electric, said she knew about men. We spent our days wandering whatever route led away from her family's cabin,
whatever cut through the knotweed and short, twisted pines, while I asked questions and she instructed, sometimes stopping in the shade of a boulder to practice kissing. It hurts like this, she said, touching my sunburned shoulders, thighs, It always hurts like this—until we grew weary, then wandered back. She also taught me how to measure the distance of lightning from earshot—
count the seconds between flash and thunder. Once, we were caught in a storm and ran home late, soaked, her mother and father already fighting by the time we arrived. Her mother burned the meat. He threw her by her shoulders to the floor, called her idiot, let his fist hang over her, white as a star. And by daylight, the women with their coolers by the river,
over their minted cigarettes and Solo cups full of gin, squinted toward their children wading in the water, talked about the latest news: a woman who, sick of loneliness, drowned her children for the man she loved. They shook their heads—a slow, uncertain no—and sipped until the faint glow of their smokes lit intermittently in the darkness, a code.
Years later when trying to leave a brutal lover, I would return to him crying and he would bite into my shoulder, leave a plum-colored bruise, and I'd think of those women—of how we deserved it. It hurts. It always hurts like this; my friend murmured to me in shade or in darkness. But each morning when we left the cabin, when the sun slanted toward us (too-bright arrows),
we were silent as we aimed for the old, familiar trail, silent as we wandered away from the path, each other, to walk figure-eights in the wild scrub brush, listen to the patterns of the wind. We like to say the song of the wind, but if there is a song it offers no meaning, no explanation, only a music we can't order, or else an order that's always undone by what we don't yet perceive.
So, no perfect music as the mathematikoi believed. Only the few notes Pythagoras must have hummed to himself as he walked back beneath the erratic stars, his sleeves and hem still wet from the lake. Only his voice wavering above a rhythm of footsteps as he wove between the dark arms of juniper, while the boy's eyes beneath the water, no longer seeing, remained open.
TO PHILOSOPHIZE IS TO LEARN HOW TO DIE
That the King intends to kill Scheharezade at dusk is subtext to their romance. The scythe that met the other wives, that awaits the end of her story, shines with expectation. It listens from its casing for the king's yawn, knows how he loves a rueful death. This is why child brides are best. And this is why Scheharezade's tales are full of murder. She knows how to keep
his interest, her head. She's young enough to believe she can save the kingdom with her stories. Persian nobility took brides as young as 8 years of age to ensure their virginity, but Scheharezade was educated, the vizier's daughter, kept from men but not from literature, science, history, art. She must have been older, more accomplished than the other thousand virgins the king had
bedded and beheaded—all merely girls. Nothing is heard of them except in the quavering voices of their parents, who begged the King to stop as they dragged their veiled daughters one by one to his bed. It's awful, yet I turn the page, read about yesterday's shooting: twenty children killed in a classroom. Each day I wake and the past remains barbarous, which is why I always wake
in mourning, which is why I can no longer take in the stories, can no longer listen. A screen flashes before me without sound or context, but I know what it means. It means nothing: an art of pure abstraction, like the works of Kandinsky and Pollock, whose work refused worldly resemblances. We once believed that if we knew ourselves we would perceive our faint, oil-painted glow,
but the more we looked the more we saw that everything was fractured: the odd angles of the body, the absurd faces, their uselessness, their longing to be whole. How else could anyone represent a world that could mechanize war after war like seasons, decorate and parade their murderers? The artist's eye was not a cavern into which the universe fell, it was only
a reflection. And if we can never be whole, then why not be broken utterly? Call it willful obliteration—that's how it must have felt to the girls the king held, all pulses beneath an explosive nerve, black powder in the belly of a grenade. So, the next millennium began in blackout—now our minds can't clear the static, can't find an explanation for the deaths of our children,
as if their deaths weren't common, as if philosophy might soothe our grief. There is always a king and always a storyteller whose life depends on telling. What Scheharezade knew was that death is the greatest drama, and though a King appoints himself, a village lets him lead. We hold our vigils, he holds his sword. We say he is senseless as we hand him the gun. In the margins
of daylight, Scheharezade closes her eyes, sleeps tangled in silk and the shade of a tamarind tree. When she awakes, still in danger, she writes what she's dreamed. Some afternoons, when the desert wind rouses her before sunset, she goes to a stream near the palace to watch the water muddy itself and thinks of the children whose stories are silence—all along the riverbank, the reeds.
Clearly, I've been enjoying Montaigne as of late—though, who hasn't? The wonderfully bizarre 16th century essayist is quite popular these days, and I guess I'm a slave to fashion, or, at least, a thief: I stole the titles from his titles. So, I built these essay-poems or lyric-essays (depending on your paradigmatic orientation) to be stylistically similar to Montaigne's work (mediations filled with associative leaps and unapologetic deviations that incorporate equal parts ancient knowledge and personal experience). Why? I've been working on a new poetry manuscript and needed to find a loose form that would allow me to get a little messy, rhetorically speaking. I was looking over my poetry bookcase for inspiration when my eye fell on Montaigne, whom I clearly mis-shelved. You know the rest.