Monday, September 23, 2013


For as long as you can recall, words seem to chirp about you like cicadas, serenading the night.  Words form connections, sharing their chemistry, producing the exciting lure of hidden secrets.

You come from, were born into, a culture where there is an entire coded system called gematria, in which, well beyond mere numerology, words have values that combine to produce powerful effects and cause the user to experience the inner and outer worlds of self linked to the entire cosmos.

By the same kind of happy coincidences, serendipity, wherein you became an editor and a teacher, you got a passkey to an entire other culture, where, like the gematria found in Hebrew, there are the bija words of Sanskrit.  

Meditating, pondering, considering these words has the effect of stepping out into the sunlight from a darkened room.  You were given such bija words by a teacher who, according to tradition, was given them by another teacher, who in turn got them by the purest form of meditation.

When you listen to morning and evening ragas, the music of this culture, the bija words seem to be humming in the background, yet another way music evokes images which you then try to describe, using favored words, hoping for chemistry, interconnectedness.  In the culture of your birth heritage, the Hebrew word for life, Chai, is formed from two letters with the numerical value of eighteen.  Even those among your culture who think little of the gematria concept will, if you poke, tell you eighteen is a favorable number, a good number.

Your interest in codes led you to happy hours at libraries, leading you later on, during days where you spent hours in pool halls, to experience the coded squeeze of guilt, wishing you were in the library, instead.  At one time, your personal treasures included a Little Orphan Annie Secret Code Ring, a Captain Midnight Decoder, and a Lone Ranger Code Chart, which was more like a thin slice of Swiss cheese,, with random small rectangles, a device to be placed over a larger text so that the actual code message would become visible.

You learned to make invisible ink with lemon juice, and one day, in your favored branch library on Mullen Street, directly across the street from the hated Los Angeles High School, you happened on the so-called book code, where you learned to make an impossible-to-decipher code unless you knew which book and which page in that book were used as the key.

You were perhaps fifteen or sixteen when you discovered you needed no such devices.  Staring you in the face was a simile that became the equivalent of your journey from darkened room to sunlight.  As nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room of rocking chairs.

Soon after, you discovered the ways in which poetry opened up the equivalents of the number eighteen and long-tailed cats, and other scrumptious twists and turns of words from Samuel L. Clemens, leading you to what is still your favorite line, from John Keats' The Eve of St. Agnes, "The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass."

Language was probably the first cause of you being struck by lightning, rearranging your awareness, turning your normal wiring into another kind of circuitry in which you have become a lightning rod, calling down from the clouds, both real and metaphoric the jagged bolts of charged energy that leave you feeling singed, humbled, cloud-like.

Two weeks ago, you are reading through early draft material on Brian Fagan's latest book on the relationship between humans and animals.  As you fall into his accounts of the use of and training of horses in famous cavalry and military operations, he is leading you through some notable cavalry engagements, into the famed Charge of the Light Brigade, a disaster of an engagement between the Brits and Russians at the Battle of Balaclava.  

You grab his arm.  "You're forgetting The Destruction of Sennacherib," you insist.

He, an English man, twitches his mustache.  "God spare us from American English majors,"  he says.

"Nonsense,"  you tell him.  "Listen to the damned poem."  And you begin to recite.  "The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee."

"Wait,"  he says.  "You may be on to something."

The "something" is the coded part of the poem about a cavalry campaign from the Biblical past.  The "something" is the meter of the poem, meant to suggest the gait of a horse."

Fagan twitches his mustache.  "You must give me the citation.  Shelley, wasn't it?  Or one of those?"

"Byron,"  you say, getting your own back with a jibe.  "We Americans help you Brits to sort out your bloody poets."

"But why Byron and why this particular poem?"  Fagan asks.

"Because you remember things that stick.  Do we really have any control over what we remember and why? You're writing about horses and I'm remembering a poem I hadn't thought about for years.  Is there anything so mysterious about that?"

"We need more coffee,"  Fagan says.  At which point, we are confronted by a man who looms over our table, offering to buy the coffee.  He is a retired high school teacher.  "Do you realize,"  he says, "how rare it is to hear two grown men debating Byron?  People do not memorize Byron any more."

"Who killed John Keats?" You say.  "I, said the Quarterly, 'twas one of my feats.  English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.  Byron again.  Eighteen twelve."

"Actually," Fagan says, "eighteen oh nine."

"Oh, my gawd,"  the man says.

"Nothing,"  you tell him.  "Fagan knows Homer in the Greek."

Fagan begins to recite.

"Oh, my gawd."

Fagan has ratified your point and has subsequently agreed that the Byron poem does proper service to horses.

We snag details for reasons not always clear at the moment.  These details come bursting forth, genies out of bottles, released into our surroundings when they are triggered, and so the importance of the particular kinds of madness that come from being in love with the universe, with The Periodic Table of Elements, with poetry, with words, with love itself.  It is better to watch a sunset and indulge fantasy, reaffirming all those details we have stored away as reminders of the  beauty about us.  And if we happen to have been at the computer, writing love notes to some still inchoate chapter on a book you wish to write, thirst to write, there is comfort in knowing where to look for photos of the sunset you missed.

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