MANUAL LABORS

 

 

Noah Eli Gordon


Eight Meditations on Enormity, Petrifaction, and Work

I.

As Prometheus would have it, a human redolence
retained in raw stone descends from heaven
only to rise again above the earth.
Don’t delude yourself lifting a tool upon lofty thinking akin to pollution.
Four noble truths. Four feet in a single state. Poor prize-less fourth place
and the upright mammal’s interest in purity pulverized
as a white painting of a white lake awash in late office light.
To undertake an economic pilgrimage. To tie feathers to your hair.
Swimming in moral instruction, Chinese peace and Hindu tranquility,
the first original American’s redemptive breath: oratorio on top of old smoky.
All outward signs disappear. All disappearances sign sing scorching O spaciousness!
O names of the dead inscribed on a wall!
How do I know sexual laxity from the perfect image of self-control?
How do I know an ember from an embryonic dark horse?
Unlikely candidate unlike a future model for town square
smashing a textile machine to deify archeological evidence.
And thusly the Luddite begins anew, as Prometheus would
have it, to retain a human redolence in raw stone
descending from heaven and rising again above the earth.

 

II.

Whatever deities have taken up residence in prayer aimed at labor’s aftermath won’t explain the establishment of a sedentary society, especially one already weighed down with Gospel accounts of stone turned to bread, splinters tumbling from the sky, and pieces of some heavenly throne scattered across our own backyards. I’m pretty sure mystery is simply a privileging of what’s not directly in front of one’s face. That that which between method and doctrine manifests itself in the decision to finally clean out the sink, restock the cupboard, and make those few remaining phone calls is proof of the tightened apogee of the possible proves there is no difference between one for whom work is freed from acrimonious entanglements and one for whom entanglement works to free acrimony from its surfacing in such daily banality. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing mysterious in that.

 

III.

But wasn’t there something left to learn from the old ways? Hadn’t we heard a literal train of thought approaching from the past? Its pervasive melancholic rumble, partly audible, registering as a vibratory feeling, a taking in of distant movement as one might take in a stray cat, living with it for years, until it too moves on. Isn’t ownership always questionable? I suppose the certainty of a train’s arrival would allow us a little departure, failing that, at least the story would, as they say, grow legs. Awkwardness is part of its appeal, part of what strikes one, for no apparent reason, or for a reason whose appearance is still unjustified, suddenly and completely to accept the first excuse given as the answer one was after all along.

 

IV.

It’s not resignation, rather a way to effectively seat one’s self in the lone remaining chair, nodding toward the left or right, so that for an instant the other passengers regret not having taken a clearly desirable spot. Perhaps I’m not much inclined to venture further than my own comfort can stretch, as though giving up the unknown, for larger, headier complications, were akin to cataloguing the minor advances each day allows, until even these are as easily forgotten as a list of chores accomplished months ago, yet discovered this afternoon, underneath whatever the surface of the desk deemed more important, or at least more pressing. A reclining detail relaxes in redundancy.

 

V.

That a train arrives at all is a small miracle of dependence, a smaller one of reliability. There is always weather to anchor us to one another. I mention something knowing you’ll agree, and so we’re indentured to the startling anecdotes that chisel the face we think we’ve put on from the lumpy air of individuality surrounding our sense of how the world looks from someone else’s perspective. By chance a drop of water lands precisely between coat collar and a bit of exposed neck, almost as a means to further punctuate this point, which, of course, is not random at all, but another of the mysterious jokes the universe seems to be silently playing, refusing to give itself away with even the slightest of chuckles. It’s held in, neither expanding nor dissipating, like a painting of a man puttering around his rooms, another of him picking up or putting down a few treasured objects—scissors, an onyx paperweight, the skull of a monkey with three teeth attached. Is he really turning them over in a way that shows him to be alone with the act? One might claim a kinship with the palette, burn the canvas, and hang the brush on a museum wall.

 

VI.

Observation is change. Change is violence. Violence is inevitable. There’s no other way to see it. Even a pet is unaware of her owner’s eventual return. Some music drifts from a window and you’re back to the first time you’d heard it. Don’t expect this to work for the intervening moments; they’re better left to the rubbish heap of accustomed and unobtrusive activity. Here, I think the station’s swell of newly quickening passengers means we’re primed for another exodus. Someone would do well to propose an analogy between these momentary surges and those of live electrical currents, not that it would reveal anything novel about the situation, which, in its drab, mundane state, is the operative candidate for a shock or two. It would, however, work as a kind of counter-example, laying siege to the universality of our more entrenched ideas. To paint the word lighthouse on a lighthouse is deserving of shipwreck.

 

VII.

Don’t you want the weight of the thought to have a literal heft, an equivalency you might wear as though it were a shawl, causally, yet calculatingly so. It’s not enough to cover the shoulders. This is easy, and ease has its way of undermining the best of plans. Better to scale the walls before thinking of anything approaching an embodiment of the underworld, let alone the nobility that gives it like a blind guard dog its distance. What mythology doesn’t have evidence of a gate somewhere at its center? I, for one, am open to reconsidering the usefulness of so flimsy a proposition. As is the case with all past action charged with the memory of now unalterable, alternative choice, any nostalgic longing for a tree over the table it’s become must take into account every last meal eaten upon it.

 

VIII.

History has a way of waking us up, not to some bright future, where the telephone rings at the precise moment you were beginning to feel the first pings of loneliness. No, one is woken in a haze, feeling the disorientation of a child mistaking a stranger’s dangling arm for that of his mother’s. This is the sort of moment out of which entire gardens are planned. Were it not for the invention of clocks and the boarding of factory windows, we would have left work at dusk, dawdled in idle conversation, and been back home in no time. It’s true, you can refute the historic role of a stone by simply kicking it.