In February the poplars are even slimmer
than in summer, frozen through. My family
spread across the earth, beneath the earth,
in different countries, poems, paintings.
Noon, I’m on Na Groblach Square.
I sometimes came to see my aunt
and uncle here(partly out of duty).
They’d stopped complaining about their fate,
the system, but their faces looked like
an empty second-hand bookshop.
Now someone else lives in that apartment,
strange people, the scent of a strange life.
A new hotel was built nearby,
bright rooms, breakfasts doubtless comme il faut,
juices, coffee, toast, glass, concrete,
amnesia-and suddenly, I don’t know why,
a moment of penetrating joy.
Adam Zagajewski en GRANTA 114, “Aliens”.
There’s a period between four and six in the evening when the day seems to hang, motionles and idle in the air. The work day is gone, and your mind needs the kind of rest that reading won’t provide; the evening news hasn’t yet come on TV, it is too early to start thinking about what to have for dinner. The sun has lowered, its rays are reclining, the light is long, inviting. This is the perfect time for a nap, and I’ve taken one almost every day of my adult life. Here are the rules I’ve discovered.
It’s important, if possible, not to nap in bed, since you can’t always stop yourself from falling into a too-deep sleep and waking an hour or two later. Long naps are a disaster; you never quite wake up from them, and you’ll never get back to sleep that night, either, so you’ll spend the rest of the evening in torpid dread. Stay out of bed: napping on the couch is much better, or even on the floor, or in the passenger seat of a car while someone else is driving. A blanket may be used, but not beed sheets; and you must wear more clothing than you do at night: if you sleep naked, some form of underwear is obligatory for napping; if you sleep topless, a shirt; and if you sleep in pyjamas, I suppose you have to nap with your shoes on. You may drool on the pillow, or on your sleeve if that’s where your head’s resting. For some reason, napping with the radio on is less satisfying then napping with the television on. If you own a dog, he should be in the same room as you: dogs are experts in the art of dozing, and man and beast nod off twice as well together as either does alone. You may freely snore in your own living room, but if you nap in public, be prepared to bolt awake with dazed and foolish expression, and find other people staring at you.
Why are long naps so much more disorienting than a full night’s sleep? Your senses are so slow to come and get you. They dawdle and arrive at different times. Your hearing is the first to come alive again: the sound of someone entering the room, the murmur of conversation outside the door, a police siren passing below. Then you see where you are, you’re on the couch, you’re in your living room, but your body is still asleep, you’re still breathing like a patient under gas, and there’s a very brief moment of panic-paralysed!- but no, this arm’s working, the other arm, you oull your knees up and groan softly, blink your eyes, smack your lips, sigh. Everything worldly is as you left it; only the clock has turned forward, and you have changed exactly that much.
Men tend to nap more often than women- or so it seems from the surveys I’ve conducted among my friends and acquaintances. If it’s true for the population as a whole, I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s a matter of metabolism, maybe of conditioning, maybe simply of opportunity. Whatever it is, I suspect it’s the same cause that makes men fall asleep inmediately after sex, while women lie awake; but I don’t know. Like most differences between men and women, it may be inherent, or it may be contingent, or it may not be real at all, so I’ll just mention it and move on.
Jim Lewis, “Notes from the Land of Nod”. GRANTA 88.
‘We live in a age when private life is being destroyed’, Milan Kundera said in 1985. ‘The police destroy it in communist countries, journalists threaten it in democratic countries, and little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it. Without secrecy, nothing is possible-not love, not friendship.’
Some of technology’s most furious political and sociological critics focus on the expansion of the work week and the virtual workplace-now everywhere and inescapable, fastened to your belt or pinned to your ear. A decade before they were fully wired, Americans passed the Japanese to become the most overworked workforce in the developed world. Now devices like the BlackBerry chain even managers and high-salaried professionals to a twenty-four-hour clock that figures to burn them out more rapidly than nineteenth-century wage slaves. Wired America doesn’t rest, and who benefits from that? Long before the computer was a twinkle in Thomas Watson‘s eye, John E. Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said something(circa 1925) that enemies of the wired workplace love to note and quote: ‘The emphasis should be put on work-more work and better work. Nothing breeds radicalism more than leisure.’
Of all the artists and thinkers who’ve rejected the cyber-revolution, perhaps the most emphatic was the late American poet, publisher, and photographer Jonathan Williams, who divided his distinctly original life between the North Carolina mountains and the Yorkshire Dales. ‘I have a feeling about the Internet,’ Williams wrote. ‘I think it’s the younger sister of the Gordon Medusa. If you look more than about twice you’re going to get turned into stone or something much worse, more unpleasant.’
For the last word, it seems appropriate to return to those solemn voices from the recent past, from the Maine silence where this meditation began. Marguerite Yourcenar offers her prophercy in the words of the Roman emperor Hadiran(AD 76-138): ‘I doubt if all the philosophy in the world can succeed in suppresing slavery; it will, at most, change the name, I can well imagine forms of servitude worse than our own, because more insidious, whether they transform men into stupid, complacent machines, who believe themselves free just when they are most subjugated, or whether to the exclusion of leisure and pleasures essential to man they develop a passion for work as violent as the passion for war among barbarous races. to such bondage for the human mind and imagination I prefer even our avowed slavery.’ (Memoirs of Hadrian, 1951)
And this is Scott Nearing, from his book Living the Good Life, published in 1970: ‘Machine tools are a novelty, recently introduced into the realm of human experience. There can be no question but the machines have more power than humans. Also there can be no question but that they have watered down or annihilated many of the most ancient, most fascinating and creative human skills, broken up established institutions, pushed masses of “hands” into factories and herded droves of anonymous footloose wanderers from urban slum to urban slum. Only the historian of the future will be able to assess the net effect of the machine age on human character and on man’s joy in being and his will to alive.
My mother said to me – ‘Don’t have sex with the gods.’
I said, ‘Why not? It’s an opportunity for a girl with nothing going for her.’
My mother said, ‘Look what happened to Daphne.’
I looked. Anybody who wanted to could see Daphne on the way home from school. She was by the side of the road, green and glossy. She had given Zeus the run-around, ridden in his car, gone to the movies with him, but when it came time for the kisses and the touching, her mother had always told her that good girls didn’t do that. Good girls couldn’t be god girls.
If you wanted to get married and settle down, if you wanted some respect, if you wanted to be true to your sex, sex was not what you did.
So Daphne, who was not doing sex, did the opposite and ran away.
There she goes, her feet in her sandals scuffing the path through the playground where the gods hang out looking for girls. Then she zigzagged into the woods, darker and deeper, her feet leaving prints like an invisible animal.
Zeus ran after her – he was a pursuer after all, and Daphne should have remembered that. He ran, knowing he could easily catch her, but he didn’t hurry because he wanted the chase, and he wanted her tired, a bit scared, in his arms. He wasn’t a bad god, but he was a god – i.e. total sex.
We all knew that about the gods – that they were total sex.
Daphne was running, thinking about what her mother would say, wondering what would happen if she got pregnant, worrying about school, worrying about money, and everybody knows you can’t have sex when you are lying there worrying about everything that isn’t sex.
Zeus was not worrying. His prick was so hard it was ahead of him like a dowsing rod. He’d dowse for her. He’d drill her like a well of water, and when she’d flowed she wouldn’t worry anymore. She’d spill. She’d be wet.
He wanted her to like him.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending.
He was close. She fell. He was on her. She pulled away. He grabbed her. He kissed her. She, in the time it takes to remember, in the time it takes to forget, kissed him. There was a second of surprise. Something happened. Anything might have happened because a world of gas and bubbles and heat was washing between their mouths. Then the known killed the unknown, and he was a god and she was a girl.
It follows that she turned into a tree.
Calling for help from the goddess Gaia, her white legs fused so tight no one would ever part them. Her speed slowed. Her arms stretched, her head turned in one shift of yearning. Her smooth skin, wet with sweat, was glossy with plant oil. She tried to speak but spat out a leaf. The lovely rustle of her as she moved moved in the breeze. Her green eyes were shiny as bay leaves. They were bay leaves. Laurel Nobilis. She had become a different kind of Daphne.
Zeus pushed himself into the tree of her. She smelled part tree part girl; aromatics and skin. Her leaves still had little hairs from her legs and arms, and where the stem split, where her sex had been, there was sap on his fingers. He licked his fingers. He kissed the leaves. He felt the tree around him, his big confident feet planted at the base of her. She leaned into him and whispered something. It might have been regret.
So on the way home school when everyone had gone and no-one was looking, I went up to Daphne, who’d been dug up and re-located by the school as a warning to the rest of us, and I said,
‘Daphne, why did you do it? I mean – why didn’t you do it?’
Daphne shuddered in the wind. ‘If I had gone with Zeus, nobody would have spoken to me again.’
I said, ‘But nobody speaks to you now – you are a bay bush.’
She shook her leaves sadly. ‘And I had my future to think about.’
Daphne leaned her greenness nearer to me. ‘He would have left me. He was only after one thing.’
I picked one of her leaves and chewed it.
That night I went for an under-age drink at The Swan. It’s run by a woman called Leda who bought it out of her compensation money when she was raped by Zeus. In the old days the gods could get away with it, but now you can call a lawyer on a no-win no-fee basis.
Leda has tattoos and lives with an ex-model called Helen Troy. A god rammed Helen’s mother, and Helen for all her beauty, has a lot of testosterone. She does most of the heavy work at The Swan, and the men who drink here respect her. She doesn’t respect them; all that fighting over a piece of tail. She says it was awful being a sex symbol; she would rather have sex – smell, sweat, the agony of intimacy.
She fixed me a cocktail – White Puma – and sat butt sideways on a stool.
‘I met Leda in Rehab’ she said, ‘We were both on drugs – what else is there to be on when you’ve been multiple-fucked by a swan, as in her case, and blamed for destroying a whole city, as in my case?’
‘It was the gods’ I said. ‘No-one blames you.’
‘It’s funny.’ She said, a short Scotch cupped in her long fingers, ‘how we live in no-fault culture that is also a blame culture. My experience is that the no-fault applies to the men, and the blame applies to the women. But you can’t say that post-feminism. And maybe I am just bitter.’
‘You’ve made a new life.’ I say, because I am the cliché-generation.
‘Leda wakes up every night flapping her arms like wings. The judgement was fair – Zeus admitted the swan-work, paid up, went on holiday till the talk died down, and Leda was left to live with it. When you start a new life the past comes with you because there is nowhere else for it to go. One day they’ll rent an island where you can send your past so that it doesn’t have to live with you. But until then…’
‘Maybe, yeah, you are just bitter,’ I say, because I have watched too much daytime TV. I don’t want to say these stupid things but there’s a space in my brain where the complex things should be. I just don’t know how to think.
Leda comes over to join us. She is a skinny white skinned girl, her white skin downy, her eyes black like malachite, and her white-blonde hair cut short and feathered. She looks like a swan. She slides her long arm round Helen Troy’s neck and twists her hand to feel her face. I realise she is blind. I never knew this.
‘Swan pecked her eyes out’ explains Helen Troy. ‘Judge awarded her $50k per eye.’
‘I can see it’ said Leda, ‘the swan was beautiful and gentle and strong and still. I was bathing in the river and as I ducked under the water I saw those strong webbed feet parting the current. I saw the green-weed-wet-white underbelly of the swan. I wasn’t afraid. Then as my head burst back into the sunshine, the water pouring off me like time, the rest of my life pouring down my shoulders in floods of time, and me standing still in that river of time, not understanding that all my past and all my future had dammed up into this moment and was now pouring out, through, past, over me, so that I would always be in the place and never there again, as all of this happened, and my life was caught in one water-drop, the swan covered me.
The swan mounted my back, and anyone who saw must have seen a woman with wings, the great white spread of him out-folded as he used his neck as a noose. His neck made a loop around my neck, his beak hard under my ear, and he lifted me like that out of the water in a beating of wings. The webs of his feet were one each side of me, on my thighs, slightly parting them for grip.
We rose vertical, then he dropped me on the bank, not letting go, and for a few moments we didn’t move at all. A swan’s heartbeat is fast. I felt the fast of his heart under my shoulder blades.
He entered me from behind – not as a swan as a man, and I enjoyed it. He was slow at first and he had to push and because I was on the ground I let him drive me into the cushiony grass. I was pushing as hard as him because I wanted sex.
And they never tell you that, the smug people who tell you they told you so… they never tell you how much you want sex.
And then I did something stupid. I turned over and I looked at him, as he changed like a trick of the light – swan/man/man/swan. I pulled him onto me but I looked at him, and in the looking was the agony of intimacy.
He reared up. Feathers fell from him. His long soft heavy neck hardened into a cosh. I tried to move. It was too late. No desire now, only fear and rage. Pain. The black beak plucked out each of my eyes and I screamed through my open sockets. He broke my pelvis with the force of his thrust. When they found me the ground was litter-deep in bloodstained feathers.
They blamed me. You looked at a god, they said, and the gods come in disguise.
I listened to Leda and Helen Troy. I wondered how anyone finds closeness when violence is so near to it. Maybe the gods come in disguise because they know that – that it is better to take what’s there, take what you can, than risk yourself for what will burn you or break you.
Daphne and Leda are the opposite extremes of want – she risked nothing, and became less than human. I mean, it’s great being a bay tree if that’s your lot in your life, but it can’t be fun for Daphne. Leda was unlucky – she wanted nothing, and then because she surprised herself into wanting more, she risked everything. She got hurt.
I don’t want to be either of them.
Helen Troy was too beautiful. The kind of woman men want so much that they destroy everything just trying to rid themselves of the way they feel. When you feel a lot it’s so scary you want to smash up. If you are a man, it is easier to smash something on the outside than it is to feel what’s happening inside. Women know it’s inside, and so that’s what they smash. They smash themselves.
Me, I don’t want to smash up, but I don’t want to be smashed either. Everyone I meet is really saying the same useless stuff. They say, love is everything, throw yourself off the cliff for him. They say, love doesn’t exist. Get the money and the house.
The lovers all die of betrayal and a broken heart. The non-lovers live longer and hate everyone.
Is that all there is?
I said to Helen Troy. ‘You should dig up Daphne and re-root her here.’
Helen said, ‘That’s a nice idea. She could go in a lead pot by the door then at least she’d have company. No-one wants to be alone.’
‘Shoulda thought of that before she turned herself into a tree’ said Leda, who believes she has suffered more than anyone.
But Helen had gone for a spade, and she told me I could get a ride home in her truck. I got in. I liked the old red leather seats, ripped in places like wounds that don’t mind being wounds.
The sun was setting in flakes and bars. The first stars were coming through the sad singing blues of the sky thick with late-homing birds. The stars looked like hope to me. They are two thousand years-away light and nothing in the universe travels faster than light. You would need a lot of patience to travel across time so fast and for so long bringing light.
If love is going to be done differently I will have to do it. I don’t mean as a messiah-thing, I mean as a me-thing. I want to look into your eyes and not get blown up. I want you to see me as I am and not destroy me. I don’t want to retreat into plant life, or have the same bad dream every night. I don’t want to watch a city burn because I was there.
‘You’re just a kid’ says Helen Troy, glancing at me as she tunes the radio. ‘A romantic kid.’
She wants to be kind and she slips her arm round me along the bench seat of the truck. I’d like her to touch me. I want sex. They don’t tell you that…I shift myself to get a better feel from the diesel throb of the unsprung truck. I like the feel of everything, just now, tonight. I feel hope like the stars.
I must have fallen asleep because when I opened my eyes I was lying on my back on the seat and outside I could hear a spade rhythmic digging in the ground. I lay still, listening, thinking. Now the stars were very bright through the glass.
I unzipped my jeans and crooked my knees, my hand moving easily to the rhythm of the spade. A shooting star could lodge in me now and in nine months I’ll have a baby I can throw back into the sky the way that happens to the kids of the gods. My shining son will be a reminder of what I did, but I won’t regret it. And I think that is the only clue; don’t regret it.
Love me let me love you come near me get inside me carry me let me carry you risk it risk everything the stars have been travelling this light all this time let you lie on your back legs open and see it really see it so that it touches you. Touch me.
The star-shot world of the gods.