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The Music of the Abyss

 Some years ago I attended a Boston Book Festival event, the refulgent Colum McCann, effervescent on his collection of short stories, 13 ways of seeing. At the open mic I asked him, “What does it feel like to write a two-page sentence?” He said, “Like music,” and elaborated a comparison to a composer feeling the notes, before he said, he had actually written a forty-page sentence in his book Dancer.

Oh, the hypnotic prose of his character Victor gyrating his hips as he walked—the physicality translated on the page—movement, the synthesis of transgressive theme and plot working out that sentence, drawing me as a reader from the street, through the club scene of Studio 54, Victor selling coke, charming, dazzling, life of the party—ever competitive with Rudy, the Dancer, trying in a bath scene—and dueling cock-sucking—a body whose dance would live on, but whose meaning would lay still, lonely, except for the compassion of a masseuse’s hands.

 This morning I took up the question of what writer influenced me most profoundly, and what I had read this year that mattered.

"...on the edge of light, his will conquered, he looked back, now, at his Eurydice. In that instant, all his effort was wasted, and his pact with the cruel tyrant was broken..."--Virgil, Georgics Book IV

"Whether they continue to explore and inhabit the anecological, anafoundational rupture of the slave trade..." --Fred Moten "Blackness and Nonperformance"

On or around 3 o'clock, April 20th I looked up from a tall wide thin page. The McGrath highway, between the U-Haul and the Superior Nut factory, was still. Milkweed grew in the lot below. Months before his assassination, November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy stood in the Rose Garden with members of the State Security apparatus when his daughter Caroline, schooled by Jacqueline in her father’s favorite poem, came out, begged his attention winsomely, and recited Alan Seeger's “I have a rendezvous with death.” Somewhere, underground, the music of the abyss was playing. James Douglass tells this story in JFK and the Unspeakable, the second most prophetic use of poetry I have ever heard.

The vision of the beloved community was not invented by Martin Luther King, Jr, but he spoke from the mountain top, all too aware his life could end before he reached the promised land. Beginning from the Riverside church, our march marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Beyond Vietnam speech, the fourth year of the Kings Bay Plowshares. We walked first to the childhood home of Sr. Megan Rice. Thanks to Carole Sargent’s Transform Now Plowshares (2022), we were posthumously learning more about her 35 years teaching in a progressive religious education program alongside the Nigerian ministry of Education, as friends she made stateside during her second life as a peace activist. The march next stops at Colombia University where the atom was observed to split, and then to where Tom Merton had his conversion at St. John the Divine, a pause at the Episcopal Cathedral recollecting that here slept overnighters in town attending the Nuclear Freeze March, June 12th 1982, and reuniting with aged participants, our walk five miles later concludes at the Isaiah Wall across from the United Nations.

In Being and Time, Heidegger concentrates on reality as a problem of ontology using, like a prop to set the stage, Wilhelm Dilthey’s “Reality is resistance, or, more exactly the character of resisting.” It is well considered that Heidegger's philosophy transcended his life; the man, who was charmed by the Nazi zeitgeist and then, would leave unfinished the five-part work of which Being and Time were envisioned the first and second parts. But it was the White Rose, a group of student resistance active in Nazi Germany as late as 1942 whose story issued as a children's book I recently read my kids, that name so resonant to my years a community member in the White Rose Catholic Worker.

I approached three swans one Friday on my ritual walk. I saw the air beat from the swan’s wings as it reared out of the mote behind the Quaker school near the Arlington Meadows. Then it settled and a merganser paddled near. Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, refers to initiation rituals sect of mountain-dwelling monks: “one stage involved dangling initiates over an abyss while they confessed their sins.”

A nine-day walk for No New Women’s Prisons had left MCI Framingham still open with Governor Baker still waving $50 million for a replacement. In June, Wampanoag cultural educator Linda Coombs looked up from a colonial author’s description of Indians and said there is “an abyss between concepts of industriousness.” In July friend William Goldsby would tell me he is still dancing, that he has the glimmer of sight again after a surgery, that for years it felt like he was a tumbleweed, and that one day he dove in the bushes as the KKK cleared the pool hall and chased passed. I had steadily looked up from “I ran from it and was still in it” by Fred Moten, not to trip on the broken sidewalk, when a faint rumble shook the patina handrail on the 28 overpass. I felt the chapbook quiver, felt rather than saw coming the Fitchburg Commuter line draw passage in the cityscape, just as I, walking into Boston for the protest, #ResistWarIndustry, felt ready to be done walking. Wondering if I, who was so inspired by Mandy Carter’s 600 mile walk with the women from Durham, NC to the Seneca Peace Encampment in Rome, NY, would ever bother walking into Boston again.

The newly constructed metro line was set to run test trains Friday that week—elsewhere, three runaway train incidents would come as no surprise—the Green Line Extension with Magoun station near my house offered to replace such a walk in the future. With the chrome security bollards still in shrink wrap and a leaning pedal and park sign to tie up, at this writing. In my hands, for company, I carried The Feel Trio, a collection of poems by Fred Moten that had arrived at the library, the request made weeks before, and there was a certain dehiscence—a favorite word of Moten’s—as in a pod of seeds, dehisced, the ejected cottony parachutes gobbing the footpath in the Arlington meadows.

Crossing them at sunrise, a fog stirred over the cattails. A wool hat hung on a branch at the split in a trail. I walked my 500th mile for nuclear disarmament in the fog of war. The seedpods had burst everywhere after the frost. a sight I witnessed with attention after the lesson from the Growing Center, thinking of my daughters, the seeds the volunteer had taped in a folded piece of paper, after flinging them near the roses, which were oddly in bloom after Halloween, how Petra stood disappointed.

Nicole Fleetwood, discussing her work during a belated book launch for Marking Time, gave such an homage to Fred, and he spoke with such warmth, the feathery devotion, wisps of Nicole’s care for her uncle, that now too, his presentations on poetics floated, as aura, and the kernel images remained of Nicole with her uncle posing in front of painted scenes in a prison visiting room, the climbing rose backdrop now tropical paradise.

“Being, then,” writes Bernard Lonergan in Insight, “is the objective of the pure desire to know.” I was philosophical about jail still, admiring “Pops,” my Black bunkmate, an elder who took signs of respect, and who every time he did a set of twenty-five knuckle push-ups, moved the balled-up tissue paper like chess pawns, quietly standing before first call, 5:30am. I was philosophical until the inmate affiliated with the Klan tried to invite me to a cozy chat upper tier and ignored Pops. “The result was an abyss that could not be crossed,” writes Jhumpa Lahiri in The Lowland.

Nicole Fleetwood’s curation further reminded me of the artist without commissary, an undocumented drawing school taking orders, trading drawings of roses before Valentine’s Day. She led me to Fred Moten’s project “Hesitant Sociology,” "whether they explore and continue to inhabit the anecological, anafoundational rupture of the slave trade," and Nahum Chandler’s X: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought: “And, if it is to become our own way, what we can say, or give as mark, or remark, a resounding, or re-sonance, drawn or withdrawn, from the gift of giving, of poïesis? Abyss? Or Passage? Wave or Sedimentation? What of indentation? Perhaps? And yet, there is more to come.”

Amid 93 glossy pages 20 x 26 cm. cover, interior, and typesetting designed by HR Hegnauer for Letter Machine Editions, still walking on the 28 overpass, I stopped in my tracks: reading, "I burn communities in shadow, underground, up on the/ plateau, then slide with the horny horns." "...o, for a muse of fire music!" Asclepias Incarnata grew in the lot. The Boston skyline shone with liquid. #CommunityNotConflict, we cried. The day before had marked the 250th day in prison for Jessica Reznicek and a No-DAPL solidarity program highlighted the criminalization of water protectors. She fought the horny snake who "came from the lowest depths of Erebus, startled by her song." And beneath the offices of State Street securities and Black Rock, to the financial enablers of nuclear weapons, war and climate destroyers "that a rough ploughman saw," we were a dehiscence, the pollinator seedpod gaping open, the abyss that looked back.

Friends took Emily and I to August Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" last week. Beforehand we were going to meet at Five Horses Tavern but Emily and I stepped into Wally's Cafe and wouldn't leave, even as a screeching flute prompted Em to ask, "Is there a woman I can't see up there?" The counterpoint to the play, set in a Pittsburgh boarding house in 1911, came from the white salesman, a the most cringe-worthy character. He declaims on his ancestor's ability to find people, an inbred ability back to 'the nigra catching days'. "Oh, no" said an audience member in front. Before the Fugitive Slave days they were slave bringers, from Africa. "No, no, no, no you didn't." On the T home, coincidentally, I saw a poster: the Boston Book Festival had come and gone.


Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War. New Haven: Yale University 
Press. 2018. 90-99, esp. 95-96.
Nahum Chandler, X--The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought. New York: Fordham  University, New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. 10.
James Douglass "Walking Stick TV: Jim Douglass and JFK and the Unspeakable" [34:30-37:40] (accessed 14 November 2022).
Nicole R. Fleetwood, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Incarceration. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020. 231-254, esp. 238-240 on prison portrait backdrops.
Russell Freedman, We Will Not Be Silent: The White Rose Student Resistant Movement That Defied Adolf Hitler. Boston: Clarion, 2016.
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson.
HarperSanFrancisco. 1962. 252.
Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row. 1978 [1958]. 348.
Colum McCann, Dancer. New York: Picador, 2003. 221-252.
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio. Tucson, AZ: Letter Machine Editions, 2014.
Fred Moten, "Blackness and Nonperformance" Museum of Modern Art. September 25, 2015 (accessed 13 November 2022).
Fred Moten, "Hesitant Sociology: Blackness in Poetry." Lecture given at University of Chicago. [29:02-08] May 3, 2016. (accessed 13 November 2022).
Carole Fungaroli Sargent, Transform Now Plowshares: Megan Rice, Gregory Boertje-Obed, and Michael Walli. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2022. 12.
August Wilson, Joe Turner's Come and Gone. A play in two acts. New York: New American Library. 1988.   
Bill Quigley [46:35-59] "USA v Jessica Reznicek: Fighting the Criminalization of Water Protectors" (accessed 13 November 2022).
Virgil's Georgics, Book IV. Translated by A.S. Kline 2001. (accessed 13 November 2022).
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2013.146.


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