“Yes,” she said. “But we all want to be loved.”
We were several hours into our journey, traveling through a mixture of teak forest and open savannah, mounted on the Maharajah’s royal elephant with its fabulously jeweled livery, and I must have dozed off for awhile, because Lowell was suddenly holding forth on poetry, which had not, so far as I was aware, been the subject of our previous conversation. “Poets are like Marxists, consuming themselves in splinter-groups and petty factions, a nest of snakes contesting the minutiae of tactics and rhetoric while the world carries on in blissful ignorance of their monumental struggles and long-awaited triumphs. Much like the princes and rajas when the British arrived in India,” he continued professorially, “worried only about seizing advantage from their rivals, until before long every one of them was under the thumb of a fat woman named Victoria back in London.” Lowell wiped his forehead and took a swig from an emerald-crusted flask I had first noticed at the Maharajah’s palace. “And now,” he continued, beginning to emit a strange, strangled wail, “I will summon our prey using the secret call of the Bengal tiger— weelawaugh, we-ee-eelawaugh, weelawaugh!”
“How is it you learned to hunt tigers, Cal,” I inquired, “in New England?”
“Same way I learned to harpoon a whale,” Lowell replied. “From Uncle Winslow, more or less. But wait!” He held up his hand for quiet, listening intently, and as he did I became aware of a clamorous hubbub coming along the trail behind us, and looking back observed a party of the Maharajah’s men making haste along it, greatly agitated, indeed, shouting and gesticulating in our direction. “The tiger will come this way,” Lowell said, seemingly unaware of our pursuers, motioning generally at the expanse of shoulder-high grass we had paused amidst. “Be ready.” My chances of shooting a tiger were nil, but luckily Lowell, who described himself as a crack shot, exhibited complete confidence in his abilities. “A natural sharpshooter,” he explained. “A child prodigy. Like something out of Fenimore Cooper.”
“Are those the trackers?” I asked, pointing to the excited throng now actually running towards us in their variously colored turbans and uniforms. “Because they’re in the wrong place.”
Taking notice, at last, of the approaching mob, Lowell appeared momentarily startled, then hitched his leg over the riding platform, clambered onto the elephant’s back and slid down its massive flank to the ground, where he began to disrobe. “We did have permission,” I began, a bit hesitant to bring up the unpleasantness back at the palace, “we did have permission to take the royal elephant, didn’t we, Cal?” “More or less,” he replied, rubbing mud across his neck and chest. He dropped his trousers and slapped clay-colored swaths of dirt across his pale calves and thighs. “At this time the hunt shall continue on foot. Precisely as Uncle Winslow would have wished!” Lowell saluted me crisply, then bowed formally from the waist. “Call me Ishmael,” he whispered, disappearing into the long grass just as the Maharajah’s men arrived in the clearing, swatting at my legs with their sticks, and pulled me from my perch on the back of that splendid beast, and the serious beatings began.
Yes, the darkness is vast and it surrounds us. Our lives compose slim chapters of clarity
bookended by the void.
Islanded within ourselves we slide across the surface of the infinite like icebergs adrift on
and even to scale our own consciousness we must hack a ladder of footholds into a wall of
shimmering blue ice
with the very words that fail us precisely when we come to speak of what underlies that scintillant
And, yes, humility is a profound and appropriate response in the face of the unknown, the
intuited, the envisioned but unseen.
We have all been moved by strange auroras in the night skies of our grief, felt ourselves lifted
upon geysers of spiritual yearning,
desires inchoate as embryonic galaxies, forces so powerful we cry out to understand them and so
to understand ourselves.
Because understanding flows from and back toward knowledge, from deep thought,
from the thirst for comprehension by which to order our lives toward some coherent mold, some
Knowledge gives shape to the streaming flux of existence like a magnet beneath a table of iron-
Knowledge is a beacon at the edge of the fog-bound ocean as well as the vessels we sail in, ark and
carrack and coracle
alike constructed in accordance with our needs and abilities and the limits to the human capacity
The mind resembles a lighthouse, then, a hearth for thought’s flame, as much as it does a temple
to magnetism or pure fire.
The mind is a complex, many-chambered organ, stone-hungry and ruminative, like the stomach
of an elk.
Like the heart it may atrophy, like the liver it regenerates, like the skin it serves both to shelter and
The mind resembles an ameoba shuddering with Brownian motion, vibrating its sensory
apparatus against a disinterested world,
but unlike that organism it must record its data in the brain’s repository of scrolls and inscribed
a process fraught with mystery, imprecision, difficulty and loss, because the means of transcription
is the flawed stylus of language.
Language is like the tool-kit of a gem-cutter: it offers a dazzlingly fine but finite array of chisels
and gimlets, augers and saws,
it can only enhance the diamond’s inherent flame, only edge and bevel what is held against its
Yet to spend one’s time decrying its limitations is both futile and petulant, while choosing to use it
to inscribe graffiti on the plexiglass panels of a phone booth, say, may be funny but remains
sophomoric, and ultimately meaningless.
And for a poet to forsake meaning within language is like a high tower aerialist in the midst of a
swan-dive towards that turquoise pool
deciding to crash like a kamikaze instead because the water appears murky, inadequate and
Yes, the parable of the high-diver is subject to alternative interpretations— renunciation of the
familiar may be a virtue
though alteriority is not in and of itself a moral triumph—and, yes, the metaphor of the gem-
cutter is imprecise,
the world is more granite than tiger’s eye opal, we must quarry cobbles to pave with and corner-
stones to build upon—
language is not a form of knowledge (the child stung by a bee needs no word to understand pain)
but an agent of its transmission,
a specialized, species-specific mode of communication, a socially-constructed operating system, a
And, yes, all archives are full of redundant volumes, so many slates over-written to erase out-
But knowledge, like language, is organically adaptive; it is not a field of eroded gravestones but a
sheaf of palimpsests,
not a destination but a voyage of Odyssean perils— consider the science of Aryan supremacy, or
how the conquering Mexica
commenced the Aztec hegemony by burning their codices and fabricating a history more
appropriate to their glory.
Nor are the fruits of knowledge innocent of risk, so many rueful Fausts and Oppenheimers
marinating in regret.
Knowledge is replete with shibboleths and false gods: let us acknowledge the solipsistic lure of
the egotistical oyster around the pearl of the idea, the self-perpetuating think tanks and robotics
labs of ideology.
Sometimes knowledge and ignorance seem like horses galloping cinematically across a sagebrush
dragging the stagecoach of humanity ever closer to the abyss— but it is naïve or nihilistic to
declare their contest a race between equals,
and we must acknowledge the moral and ethical consequences of which animal we choose to
place our bets upon.
And if our lives, to large degree, are a calculus of such decisions, then the mechanism of their
resolution must be the abacus of knowledge.
Are we merely accountants, then, button pushers, existential technocrats? No, for knowledge is
fluid, multiform, polyvalent—
taxonomists of butterflies and molecular chemists may live without cognizance of generative
knowledge incorporates self-limitation, it admits lacunae and accepts error even as it seeks to
extend its dominion.
Are we intellectual imperialists, therefore, who assay and conquer on its behalf? If we carry the
natives away in chains, yes,
if we set fire to their villages and privatize their resources, if hubris overwhelms empathy and
But self-criticism is itself an essential form of knowledge: the recognition of past mistakes and the
resolution to avoid their repetition.
Let us so resolve: if there must be an earthly polity let it be the kingdom of knowledge, the empire
of empirical inquiry,
founded upon the obdurate task of understanding, built by the labor of brows creased in earnest
And what of the untold mysteries beyond our ken, what of the blind enveloping void of the
universe, for the darkness is vast, the darkness surrounds us?
Let us abrogate its dire prerogative. Let us diminish the compass of its terrestrial sway. Let us turn
on the lights and say good night.
Volume 1, Issue 4 Back to top