By ADAM KOSAN.
WHEN I TURNED off the light there was sudden symmetry between the two violet-gray squares of windows in the darkness, one in the bathroom through an open door, and one in the back of the kitchen, showing a mirror vision of snow falling outside the apartment. I where I stood was their point of common reference, I was where two lines opened toward each window, and easily I saw a third line opposite me draw the base of a triangle between them. Turning off the light erased inside and outside, conveying the small apartment into the night that a moment earlier had been separate: all one now, the sunless world silent out there and the thick darkness in here, so that there was really no more “there” and “here” at all, the only forms of contrast were those two windows showing snow like thoughts of a dreaming mind: the windows, their intelligent regard, were suddenly eyes, I couldn’t think how else to account for their opening against the dark: the windows were eyes, their snow-and-streetlight-illumination turned me, I was where something had vanished, I was where stillness was, where someone where someone who could say I and recall a history had been succeeded by no orientation but an awareness of dark uniformity broken only by two eyes of windows: well-memoried eyes, remnants of life beyond life gone in future arrangements of this room under the ignorance of others who will live here, and never so sudden a change to confusion of room and sky in one expansive darkness as now, as under this dead-hand-weight of darkness: never could anything surround you so suddenly as this to know a breathless stillness in: because even now the room was returning, from the violet-gray windows a weak darkness-dissolving light was spreading, the snow was invisible in widening paleness, instead of sharp separation of outside and inside, or the dark wholeness erasing that separation, now a dull air of light held all objects in distinction: I turned away from the corner where the symmetry between two windows had been and opened the door to the bedroom and walked along its windows and could feel the brightness of the streetlights on my arms as I lay down remembering a line from the poet Samuel Menashe, which could be either the superscription to new life or life’s epitaph: “There is never an end to loss, or hope…”
In bed, it seemed impossible that within such a short span—probably less than a minute—the main room in our apartment could have so briefly, so fully, changed, and then just as suddenly and thoroughly could have renewed its accustomed form, as if the room were a sleeping body that had turned over, then back. What the room was, what it had been replaced by, and now what it had returned to, all under a minute, and whatever it will become in the future of a day, a year, twenty years, a hundred, not knowing that just as I don’t know what it had been before I came here, a simultaneity of times: it would be better to go mercifully in darkness like what had displaced the room, to lie in such substance and trust that it was the beginning and so should be the end, but this intrusive light that brings back a room and its objects, I doubt that uniform darkness can be the beginning and end, I doubt beginnings and endings entirely, I doubt final dissolution as others deny G-d: Menashe’s poem in full goes:
There is never an end to loss, or hope
I give up the ghost for which I grope
Over and over again saying Amen
To all that does or does not happen—
The eternal event is now, not when
No, I cannot say this Amen. I have had most need of blessing, and Amen stuck in my throat. But I’m no Macbeth, I’m no more guilty than another ordinary person, which is to say, guilty, in spite of any benevolence, of the sin of being born. Amen to all that does or does not happen: people are coffined up from one another in suffering and, despite deepest attachments, in exile, the single word of our long history, from ancestors standing up out of mud to today when a retiree walked in sun to his mailbox, exile: the brightness of streetlights against my skin as I lie on my back tells the longevity of a fallen world, it tells of insanity from generation to generation: yes, it would be better to go in the brief substance of darkness than to adjust and see through to the persistence of form and separation: never an end to loss, and never an end to hope, for G-d to have brought every creature before the first man to receive a name, there in our origins is the unspeakable intimidation, the outlandish taunt, Name them, and whatever you say, they shall be. That was the start of the burden of telling the world, of delivering it from phantasmagoric paradise into the primal condition of bodies. Adam’s challenge was to be in words apt to the fullness of G-d’s creation, and this began the pursuit of knowledge well before the eating of forbidden fruit: it established the primacy of differentiation in our world, it made Adam realize that he was alone, which led to Eve, which led to the apple, which led to exile, which led to Cain, which led to History, which led to Babel, which led us back—emphatically, circumscribingly—to History, where we have been ever since: the original human naming sounds long after Adam’s death, like Orpheus’s severed head proclaiming its faint song, and we are like the living and not-living on the banks of the Hebrus: we respond in always desperate, almost always futile, ways, as the Hebrus of time carries Adam’s voice through the wilderness of generations.
Home in the Evening
AS I WAS walking down the hall to our apartment, having just walked my wife to her overnight shift, outside our door I smelled newly-baked, almost-burnt garlic croutons. It was, I think, coming from across the hall, but it was out of another time and place: it was the smell of dinner almost ready during childhood. It was the smell of a warm house with the oven and stove on, the table set—or I setting it, just home from soccer—lights on, the days busy and my young body, like that of Proust’s novelist Bergotte, “avid for the coming meal.” But ah, Proust, I thought as the smell worked my senses and I seemed to be on an obscure way out of the hall, no, no, I thought, Proust I won’t be one of your easy adepts, not over the nostalgic smell of baked garlic croutons. And I spat in my mind, like a hostile little boy, at the encroaching cloud of the past. I said no, I shrugged away the precipitate mess of sensation, saying no, refusing the meaningful experience that was about to impose itself. No, I said, too much. Genuine resurrection would be quickly overcome by obligation, the obligation to feel something. No, ridiculous, here is life: I turned from what was about to be my obedient endurance of a past time’s revival, back to opening the door to our apartment. And then closing the door, I put good distance between my life and that smell in the hall, and everything it could carry up in my mind.
The mechanism of involuntary memory had been interrupted. The present had for a brief instant begun to dissolve, the old home and distant repeated scene had begun to rise around me very fast, but my mind was faster. Without meaning to, it recognized what had begun, and with this recognition the intensity of sensation weakened just enough for me to say, no, I won’t do it, I don’t feel like it, I won’t perform it, no. I’ll take my anonymous routine of quiet. I’ll live within the spell of blandness—retiringly, maybe, but at least not impersonating the subject of a great psychological-temporal drama.
No, and if I wore slippers and collected the day’s papers and held them falling in my arms and carried snuff, and if I wore a dusty widower’s or old bachelor’s robe, I would do the expected little shuffle into my dark apartment and sit in the corner, adding letters to time, nearly meditative, barely awake, exultant in sedation now wordless, vision narrow and dark, bones depleted, the world old and far yet new somewhere else in another’s existence, waiting quietly in a speechless chamber of nothing, like a withered insect that got caught long ago in the heart of a now-quiescent giant, long in drying out and in sleep but not crumbling to infinitely friable slivers of wings. The old lips cracking, eyelids no longer coming down, a secret aged fool sitting forgotten, sitting there a monument to life beyond the living, not taking the bait to act out “aliveness.”
I dismissed that offering from my past as you might swat at a mosquito—except in this case it took just one act of hostility and, quite out of character, the mosquito didn’t try again. It didn’t come back.
A YOUNG COUPLE without children determined one day that their upstairs neighbor, whose bedroom in her apartment was directly over the bedroom in theirs, would destroy the world through her snoring. It was a deep, remarkably everyday occurrence, evening and morning, a de profundis breathing all nose and ease and indifferent restfulness, and it kept this young couple awake, or it woke them sometimes, so motoringly aggressive overhead.
“Ahhhh!” the young woman would say, getting in bed. “Stop, just stop, please!”
The young man would laugh but feel in his heart a sudden disarrangement of his careful feeling, and something like derangement imminent—
They would both hurry themselves to sleep out of fear at the bad thoughts this overhead sound produced in them. And sleeping, they could wait out each night’s witchery.
The snoring began to follow them even into sleep. It became the atmosphere of their dreaming. They carried it in their pulses during the day. It got into their conversation, their peculiar words for each other, their words for others, at work, in the street, even texts. Thinking was no longer their own but carried on the momentum of that repugnant snoring, so deep as if at the bottom of the world, an element of ocean floor or tree root, or, much higher up, a filament of sun, a fracture of moon, ubiquity.
“We need to do something,” the young woman said, and the young man agreed. There would be no future with this demonic routine, it would inhale the world and exhale it as the dust of this lady’s breaking-down recumbent being.
If she continued, this same youthfully-elderly lady they saw often in the building’s foyer getting her mail and smiling at them, there would be no world for their future children. Children wouldn’t be possible, all their imagination of time-to-come would be meaningless.
And even if the snoring suddenly stopped, the way their neighbor jumped and slid around her apartment and vacuumed several times a day was enough to guarantee continued disturbance to the integrity of life below. She seemed engaged in a constant effort to reassure them of her ongoing existence by making as much noise as possible, responding to any outburst of activity between them with even greater activity above, an obscure creature galvanized by their secret pleading for calm.
They couldn’t move—rents wouldn’t allow it. They had to make do where they were and end this woman’s hold on them, though without ending this woman. They weren’t violent or wicked and they wouldn’t allow themselves, even for the convenience of an author trying to conclude their fate, to fall into crime and a disastrous end. If no violence, then their only way was endurance.
They began to wait, and waited, hoping for a natural end to this demon, so that they would live, that they would be released and free to regain their earlier lives of peace and dreaming, and would have children, and get better jobs, and move out of their building, that neighborhood, into the future that they had often seen before them, and they waited in tenderness together, fixed to scenes formed from their hope. They entered that whale’s belly sonorousness and slept out years within its opaque walls.
Out of Sleeplessness
I’VE HAD MANY nights without sleep, but most have been the obvious result of some excitement, either anxiety or hope. One sleepless night, however, I thought that I was calm. But I could not sleep. I lay awake in a spell of blankness that was foreign to me. Much in life recurs, but this had the baffling taint of unwelcome novelty. I had gone to bed tired. Outside my apartment nothing moved—the street, the city, all seemed to be asleep. And I was calm. What kept me awake, then? Hours dragged, the stillness deepened, and I remained alert without intending to be. When I heard the first morning birds, I turned to face the window, but the vanguard light was not yet visible. The sky remained dark. If I say something, I thought, if I begin to speak, it might be a way out of this. The words that will come, merely by being said in the dark, to the dark, without thought, with no one else to listen—they might reveal something.
But I couldn’t speak. That spell of blankness was with me too much. Desperation set in. And then the simultaneous desire to speak and the inability to do so made me aware of something: the presence of a full silence, not within me but in the room with me.
It wasn’t diffuse, it wasn’t hovering, it wasn’t atmospheric, but more like a definite invisible body, without being a body at all. It had no tangible shape yet was not inaccessible to the senses. And for some reason, in the depths of that disquieting blankness, I was suddenly encouraged. I seemed to accept the blankness, and to make myself stiller, if that was possible, and I thought, If I can make this speak, this full nothingness, this wordless solidity, this actual apart truth, if I can convey its silence into rhythms of words, if I can make it speak through human language as it speaks to me now here by its presence alone, it will deliver me from this torment…and maybe also from a greater predicament of life.
Because I realized then that something personal and unknown to me must have caused this sleepless “weight of hours.” I had a premonition of misliving—this night was a sign.
I thought: there must be unity between the blankness of this night and a blankness in my life, and they might be dispelled if I’m able to translate this full, sovereign, imperturbable silence that is here with me and distinct from me into something intelligible and protected.
I tried many words to speak that fullness of silence, its serene completion.
I searched for its impulse, to see if it could be found in language, and I failed repeatedly. It seemed profane. I was successful only in not being deceived by inapt words, by sometimes compelling, sometimes vivid, sometimes memorable, but always wrong, combinations. Though at moments I was tempted to give in and follow where a few surprising sequences might lead, I rejected them all, anxious not to be tricked.
And though I was unable to find even a single right syllable, I continued to believe that this silence already existed as potential in words and waited to be discovered in them, just as it had waited with inhuman patience in my room for however long before this night’s spell of blankness disclosed it.
My failures and my hope were perversely implicated in one another and nothing led to cessation: again and again I came up with deficient forms and that silence remained with me, inviolate, unmoving, apart—and still my mind chased it with longing and feckless vanishing words, until at last I drifted off.
The next day I half-doubted the existence of such a silence. It seemed to have been an illusion, the result of delirium from sleeplessness.
Or maybe I had been asleep the whole time, I wondered, and that silence was part of a dream?
With more thought and more time I dismissed these possibilities and decided that it had been real, and that I had indeed been awake and knew it at the time just as I knew that I was awake when recalling it the next day. And then I wondered if our fits of emptiness in living mirror permanent revelations of death, and I wondered if everything that now appears to us as blank is in reality, on the other side of life’s impassable veil, dense with a form of silence we can’t imagine?
And then it seemed to me, for the rest of the day and often since, that in the greatest periods of agony and boredom we might have inarticulate visions of ultimate things, and yet when we believe ourselves to be most alert and animated, most in sympathy with the world, we have visions that are luminous and articulate but are fantasies, and tell of nothing final.
The Skinning of the World
I LIVED TO run through the world in those days and all of life must have been a pure physical excitement. But even in that physical life, I think this was the first fall I can remember. Suddenly red was in the world. The brightest red, beautiful to me now in recollection, but to the boy I was then, what shock, seeing that brightness.
Across my knee, where gravel was now mixed with skin, white peels hung down like hair off my leg. Black stone was fixed in patterns through the blood. The red came out of the knee onto the surface and moved swiftly under and through the white hair-like hanging skin and gave menacing life to those stoneblack eyes. There was a disfigured face on my knee. I was a damaged thing. I stood there staring at the raw, wet, spilling bright blankness and cried, unspeakably afraid, never to have seen such a thing and then suddenly see it.
I looked up—who was there? He who is always there ahead of a son. I cried and begged for help. He looked down at me in silence with—disdain. I think I must have already known vaguely of damage but I don’t remember ever being injured before that. He looking in silence had no pity for my never having bled, nor for the fact that my legs, until then forms of great fellow-feeling with the world, had betrayed me when the ground raised itself against them. Suddenly in anger he said Toughen up—and this made me cry more, and louder.
It’s bizarre to think back and admit that this instance of what would become a recurring injury of my childhood—skinned knees—was so devastating that it seems to be my first fully-preserved memory. That, four-years-old, this was my first awareness of abandonment, that it took until then, four! Four years of peace is an eternity, a golden time. No, impossible. I simply can’t remember moments of abandonment from my earlier years, that’s all. But I know they must have been there from first breath, oceanic in my germinal mind. But then why does this memory return to me—was it really just my first awareness of blood? There was bright wet redness appearing faster than my breathing all over my knee and across my shin, the white skin curled through the redness like hair, my knee like a piece of deranged person, very ghostly. I looked toward him for reassurance, an “It’s okay,” maybe, or “You’re fine,” that would have done it, I’m convinced, but instead there was an angry voice, displeased with me for my wound, Toughen up!
I don’t know what was behind this response to the arrival of terror in my young life, but it distracted me from the blood. It turned my concern to this new stranger. I was frantic, seeking comfort only he could give, and he was now my distress, the spill of red and physical pain were obscured by this self-extermination of a father who until then had been only attentive and kind and always near. That previous kindness was deception! What emerged now was that this man was completely foreign to me. Nothing else had changed in the world, but he was revealed: a being scarred and bristling, and inside him I could picture a mind as gray and shadowy as the clouds that were over us that day. A voice behind all sky, from a tense mouth hidden beyond my tears, a voice impossibly close, Toughen up.
There was nowhere that didn’t repeat it. I turned to trees, I looked down, I felt quick kinship with the dirt and grass just a few steps from the sidewalk. But everywhere I turned, Toughen up was the rejoinder, the dry low command containing a violence that, if not redirected in those words, would otherwise have rushed out physically. Toughen up, the universal refusal of mercy in a grown man’s irritation. Toughen up, a poisoned, poisoning utterance, two words, three syllables.
I have never forgotten him for that. Whatever else he has been, he is always with me in that afternoon, the fixed, often veiled, sign in my sky toward which I direct everything I do, even when my thoughts and actions are aimed elsewhere, which is almost always. For years after, whenever we might joke around and he would taunt me with threats and affection after finding out about some mischief of mine, he would say while laughing, I made you, of course I know what you did, implying that, because he had made me, yes, he could unmake me easily—and how many times I wished he would!
His affection, his reprimands, in the long years after occurred at a slant to the thing itself, whatever thing it was. None of it was ever an exact confrontation, but always at a slant, the force of emotion was always guardedly reduced. Toughen up was the only complete utterance in all my life. It came to me through the cloud-like substance of childhood. Much of it didn’t reach me at all in the moment, but somehow got in and grew over time. I bore that psychic abscess through inquisitive single-digit years, through pugilistic adolescence, through the amorous rebellious invincibility of teenage years, through great ambitions of youth’s last chapter in my twenties, through the mellowing, reconsidering longer view of my thirties, the mildly-from-the-couch-starting-up-discontent of my forties, the creeping confusion of my fifties, the accumulating sense of waste enclosing ways forward and back in my sixties, the first pang of final panic no longer put off anymore once in my seventies, the shadow suffusion of the senses in my eighties, the near-total-night of thin grayness between two immense visions of blackness in my nineties, and once I jumped one-hundred I remembered that I didn’t in fact get that far, I don’t know how far I got, I never made it into old age even a little, or maybe I did and the whole time believed I was young, or I didn’t and the whole time believed I was old, though even now I am still probably young, I don’t know any which way about time, I know that the whole thing goes out without direction from that first reality when I knew definitely that I was young, Toughen up, when love was nothing, Toughen up, when the world was forced under filiation, Toughen up, a sentence emptied of blood-based voice and made all inhuman sound, Toughen up, a sky of words above an open knee, blood I hadn’t known I have, wet eyes, a tiny sobbing chest—and then—the two words gone, not ringing anymore, no longer in trees and dirt and the grass, seeming to hide then totally disappear in the unfolding of a picnic table cloth while my family sat down: grandparents, mother, sister, brother, cousins, uncles and aunts, all of them between us so that a barrier of faces was up, and hushed stream-like things were said, pacifying the air—even as his turned-away face was visible again, and disappeared, was visible, and disappeared, every few seconds.
And now, after so much time, after so much time when all of that is as distant from me as a dead ancestor heard about but never known, when it all could have happened to someone else, what is most living in memory is that red, a beautiful color. If I could be assured that this bright red shining under early pain and a two-word command would no longer return to me even in sleep, then I think I would know with certainty that I was at last on my way out of the world.
ADAM KOSAN’s writing has been published in Socrates on the Beach, RIC Journal, Chicago Review, and Prelude. He’s directed a live performance of Christopher Logue’s All Day Permanent Red and an opera, Productions of Time, for which he also wrote the libretto. His Fortnightly archive is here.