The Ruricolist is now available in print.

Sorrow’s Eye

He rose from the bed, the beloved was dead.
He sank down stairs to an empty street.
He leaned against a bowing post.
He hid beneath a drooping eave.
The door behind he left ajar
In hope that someone passing by
Would see it gape and call for help,
And climbing find her silent, still,
And finding, care, and maybe weep.
His head was full of masking noise,
He spoke aloud to hear himself:
“What now, what now, what’s left is lost,
The world has changed, the world is less,
What is this place, what’s left to see,
And who could live in such a husk?
The world is dead, its heart is stopped,
Its breath is choked, its eyes are dull,
And we who live are left as worms,
Worms in the world, we pierce and gnaw.
We feed in the dark, and worse than worms
We know just what and who we eat.
The world is dead, I will not live.
Not here, like this, not one of those
Who drink to wash their gory mouths,
Who watch to dream the world that was.
I beg whoever has the strength
To pluck me up and crush me now
To take me from this heedless world
Or else remake the world anew,
Reborn in sorrow, tears for blood.
I will not live to lose the pain
She left behind for me to keep.
If I go on in this dark place
In time I cannot but forget.
I won’t forget, so end me now,
Or make the world her monument.”

What heard him then, what had no name
Was more than man and less than god,
With power and pity, and listening.
It knew these words, it knew them well,
It lived their pith, it had its place
To check their strength to save the world.
So many griefs like this denied,
But not this time. It stayed its strength
To let this grief flow over, flow
And sink the world, and make it new.
O is that the sun that flickers so,
Are those the clouds, they’re made of glass,
They drop a rain of grit and shards.
What walls are these, they have no doors.
What streets are these, they go nowhere.
Was this a church that is her tomb,
She has so many tombs, and we
We need them all, where we may shed
Our burning tears on stone, and trap
Their heat in wicks, and keep them near
To keep us warm, who sit in pews
In silent ranks, with burned-out eyes,
And wait for sleep that never comes.

O You who bind the strength of grief
O leave us here, we know her now
 We love her too.

Dead Actors

Surely there are more dead actors on film than live ones. If this is not yet true, it will be. How strange this is is hard to feel. Watching dead actors feels no different than watching live ones; watching old movies is no more demanding than watching new ones – yet there is something there, something worthy of awe.

These dead are not resurrected, they do not return as ghosts, yet they are more with us than the worshiped ancestors. We do not have the duty of commemorating them, we need not summon or disturb them, yet they return to us, appearing generously, in kind brief undemanding visits. Though their business is finished, they come when called.

While they move they live. They borrow life without need and return it without jealousy. While they have it, it is life more than life: in the sustained dreaming attention of a theater full of people is more life than each audient human beings has in themselves. Remembrance has always given life to the dead we knew; but film lets it give life to those we never knew – to those who never were.

Beside the public miracle is a private necromancy. Film always invites importunities of feeling. Wherever it pleases, it seduces with the form of a relationship. Whatever you feel, whatever shows on your face, whatever you are moved to profess, however much attention you pay, the characters are never offended, they never fail to appear, they are always blithe and comfortable. They do not reject. No stare discomforts them, no smile troubles them, no words repel them, and by such slight expressions, compounded over time, the sentiments of a relationship grow without the reality.

This is strange enough where the living are concerned; with the dead it is unprecedented. Time has always been transparent to the mind, but here it yields to the body. Faust needed a devil’s help to to bring dead Helen lively to his bed; one need only a computer to visit the embraces of dead generations, to visit with slow deliberate melancholy lust what was made for quick distraction as whorehouse lead-ins and nameless theater matinees – to know in the most intimate way a human being who, most likely, has been forgotten in name, thought, word and deed.

But lust is not the limit. You may hear of a young man (it would be a young man) who comes to know an actress, dead before he was born, old before she was dead, so well and in her youth that, lover-like, in a crowd he could recognize her by the way she stands still. You may hear of a young woman (it would be a young woman) who takes such an impression of an actor, portraying the ideal manliness of a generation long since unmanned by old age, that she would decide her life by judging living men, raised to other ideals and purposes, as unworthy of her in their very strengths, worthy only in their failings. (You may hear of other combinations, but these are harder for me to understand.)

Dead actors become their characters. Live actors can always surprise us; dead actors can never prove us wrong. Live actors fear being typecast; but all actors, in the end, are typecast as themselves, however various those selves may have been. To posterity even versatility and unpredictability become roles. To speak of dead actors is to speak of their characters; to speak of the characters is to speak of their dead. The IMDB and TCM pollute this phenomenon, but do not overcome it. Movies, it is true, were more potently self-standing when context and commentary were out of reach; but to watch them, if done properly, is still to be alone with them and at their mercy.

Dead singers, dead writers, dead artists, have their living consequences; but though their works are of themselves, though their works contain and preserve them, their works are abstractions, translations, traces. Only for actors is the person the art; only for actors does the art absorb and convey, not just the skill of the person, not just what is unique and potent in them, but the whole of the person, what is best, what is worst, what is common, weak, awkward, shared.

My great-grandmother was a silent film actress, under the name Eva Pavey. (I implore any silent film buff who recognizes the name to write to me; all I know of her career is that she was one of the young women whom Marie Dressler encouraged.) Most silent film, I know, is lost; but I cannot help hoping that somewhere one of her movies still exists. If I could see it I would meet her younger, stronger, and happier than her daughter my grandmother or her grand-daughter my mother ever knew her – meet her, and for the first time, as she was before any of the decisions and compromises to which I owe my existence. Time travel is that easy.

Would that Keats had seen a movie! An urn was only the best object he could find for a thought whose true object had yet to be invented, where lovers reach and kiss, want and have, yet never fade and never doubt – a human motion made cool, distant, certain and serene as the cycles of the planets, here before us, here after us.

The Poisoned King

The kingdom was full of poisoners. The young king had executed a hundred poisoners to celebrate his coronation – feckless younger sons and elegant silk ladies, young herblore widows and filthy wild-eyed droppers into wells. But a hundred more soon took their places.

The king’s doctors were the best in the world. They had means and mastery, and being pledged to die when the king died, they had motive to keep him well. They kept busy stocking the palace with antidotes and performing autopsies on the king’s food tasters.

Yet when the king was poisoned at last, they were helpless. All their specifics and tonics, all their elixirs, panaceas, theriacs – all were worthless. In his bed the dying king sweated and burned and cried out.

The doctors had one hope left, for the king and for themselves. Their hope, a man, had been doctor to the king’s grandfather, had left to study with the master poisoners of the eastern mountains, and had returned to save the king’s grandfather when all other hopes were lost. The old king, grateful, had released the doctor from service. Ever since he had lived in the caves outside the palace, refusing to teach his secrets.

The doctors went to the king together to tell him of this last hope. The king, his voice choked to a bubble and a whistle, only nodded his yes. Strong men hoisted the king’s litter onto their shoulders and followed the doctors to the caves.

There they found the master doctor, at home in a cave where thick dry dead branches were planted in the floor, hung with bundles and bags full of dry or drying plants, a cave where holes in the wall had been hollowed out and filled bottle by bottle with all the colors the earth yields, powders from clay and stone and gem. There the master doctor dwelled; there the king was brought to meet him.

The master heard out all that the king’s doctors had to say. Then he knelt beside the king’s litter and whispered: “My lord, I have no art to heal or cure. What I learned from the master poisoners was only the art by which one incurable poison may drive out another. The reward your grandfather gave me was not for saving his life, but for substituting the death of a month for the death of an hour – for giving him time to pass the kingdom to your father in peace.”

“Do this for me,” the king whispered, “for I have no heir and must choose another.”

Then the master went deep into his cave, plucking dry flowers from dead trees and palming bright earths to mingle in a dry bowl hung from a cold tripod. “There is wood in the next cave,” he told the king’s doctors. “Build a fire outside. Do not speak.” When the fire was ready he placed the tripod and bowl over it, then filled the bowl with rainwater. He stirred the water until it was an even yellow, then built the fire until steam rose from the bowl. He sat still, watching, as the liquid inside thickened and darkened. At some secret sign he rushed to the bowl and dipped a coarse cloth into the liquid. Knife in hand he lay the cloth on the ground and scraped a golden paste from it. He carried the paste to the king on the side of his knife. With a finger he spread the poison of the golden paste over the king’s lips. “Take him back to the palace. Tomorrow he will wake as healthy as before. In one month, he will fall asleep and never wake.”

Awed into silence, the king’s doctors attended him back to the palace and left him in his bed. The whole court assembled for his levee; but when the king woke, he scorned ceremony and ordered scribes to attend him. His doctors he released from their pledge, and sent from his presence.

To his scribes he gave orders. Their orders were to scan all the rolls of honor and to command every man whom the king and the king’s father had recognized for merit to be brought to the court, there to be assayed for the qualities of kingship.

But the kingdom was full of poisoners, and merit draws their attention. Most of the men on the rolls were already dead; and though the command to attend the court reached the rest, not one survived the journey.

For the whole month of his reprieve the king searched every corner of his kingdom; but all the men whom the king found were either wretches or poisoners.

The king’s month ran out, but he did not sleep. For three night he stayed awake, refusing fatal sleep, working and hoping for some chance. None came; so the king, alone, visited the master doctor in his cave.

“I need more time,” the king declared. “If I die now war and poison will claim the kingdom.”

The master said: “I can preserve life to your body, but I cannot preserve you. Men will curse what you become.”

“Let them curse,” said the king.

So the king stood and watched while the master moved and worked. He finished with a green powder piled on his open palm. “Open your mouth,” he told the king. The master raised his palm between their faces and blew the powder down the king’s throat. The king gasped, doubled over, coughed. “You may rest now, my lord. You have another month.”

The king, never gentle, grew cruel. His judgments quick and final. He ordered his governors to seek and send men of quality, fit to be kings, or themselves be executed. Many were sent; but the poisoners along the way were many, and none came before the king alive.

After only a week the king returned to the master doctor’s cave. “You must poison me again.”

“You still have time,” the master said.

“You must poison me again.”

“It will make you mad.”

“I, too, am a doctor,” the king said, “and I have long failed to heal this kingdom. I see the cure now. You must poison me again. Do it or I will have you killed. The order is already written and delivered. If I do not live to countermand it, you will die.”

So the master gathered and labored, and returned with a blue liquid. “Lie down and close your eyes.” The doctor pinched up each of the king’s eyelids and dripped counted drops of blue liquid onto the white backs of the king’s eyes.

When the king returned he ordered his soldiers into the streets of the capital and the roads of the countryside to bring him all the firstborn sons of the kingdom. Among them one would be his heir. There was some resistance; but mostly the kingdom let its sons go in peace, each mother and father hoping for the name of mother and father to the king, and the life of the palace.

Once the sons of the kingdom were all gathered in the palace the king went to the master doctor and said: “Poison me again.”

“I will not,” the master said. “My life is not worth it.”

“Did I say I would have you killed? I meant that I would throw you down a dark little stone hole with no name but that of a mouth to feed.”

So the doctor made a silver pellet of poison and placed it under the king’s tongue.

When the king returned from the cave he ordered that all the firstborn should be moved from the palace to the dungeon, there to grow tough. And once they were imprisoned, he ordered that all who failed the tests of kingship should be killed.

When news of the king’s madness reached the countryside, the peasants took to arms. They slaughtered the king’s garrisons and seized all the roads. Soon word came to the palace that the rebels had chosen a leader and were marching on the capital.

The king returned to the cave. The master doctor, uninstructed, made a black bowl of poison for the king to eat. Past tasting, the king never slowed.

His courtiers begged the king to rest, but he refused. He took personal command of the army. He overruled his captains, ignored their strategies, ordered incessant fanciful maneuvers and divisions of forces, planned senseless and wasteful skirmishes. Half his captains thought he was mad; half his captains thought he was brilliant. Half were right. The king had three men for every man of the peasant army; but the peasants won and the king was killed. The peasants freed their sons, razed the palace, and sacked the capital for a month. No roof stood.

After that came civil war, long and cruel. So intent did men become on killing the old way, with edge and point, that in the space of a generation the poisoner’s art was lost.


Who gets from life what they expect? Who finds in what they expect from life enough to justify it?

Expectation is not the same as hope. They are easy to distinguish by the reactions they bring. What you expect can only be reported or relinquished to you. Only what you only hope for can be given to you, or done for you.

Clear hopes are harmless. True, most hopes are vague; but a hope may become very specific through long handling, yet still be fulfilled by something whose correspondence to that hope is obscure except to the one who hoped.

But expectations become more dangerous as they become more specific. Every part of complex expectation inflicts separate harm when disappointed. And the harm has no scale. Principles and trifles can harm alike – sometimes the trifles absurdly too much; sometimes the principles monstrously too little. The first distortion is familiar. It is easy to understand that the little annoying disappointments point to the great traumas. But the opposite distortion, when great disappointments multiply little ones, when in the wake of trauma life becomes not unbearably painful but unbearably annoying – this distortion, though just as common, goes nameless. The first is moving; the second is disgusting. But both are the same error.

Change and uncertainty always annoy, and mostly dismay me. To find that I have unknowingly repeated myself – thought the same thought, written the same sentence, done the same thing – reassures me. It seems to prove I am not decaying. But, of course, in that I fool myself. The law of entropy is Grow or Die.

For lower life, growth conforms to expectation because the complexity of the pattern expected – the shape of a flower, the anatomy of a flea – is less than the complexity of the apparatus that produces it. The DNA of flower or flea contains (in context) all that there is to each lifeform.

For higher life, for life that learns and feels, the complexity of the product, exponentiated by indices from epigenetics to iterated algorithms and strange loops – this complexity means that expectation can never be adequate, because the complexity of the product is greater than the complexity of its causes. When expectations hold for a human being it is never the instantiation of a subjective pattern, but the dampening of complexity by powerful objective contingencies. The probable effects of these contingencies may be ascertained; and if the contingencies are powerful enough, the probable effects may be expected.

Nothing a human being, as a human being, can do matters if that human being is swimming lost, alone, naked and unbuoyed in the open ocean. The expectation of drowning is a practical certainty. But even in everyday life the certainty of an expectation is not the result of your confidence in it, but of the objective stability of the conditions of your desire: even subjective resolutions are actually objective limitations.

Most lives should arrive at an age after which the rest goes as expected. But for most of us, to be able to expect the rest of life resembles drowning. So much energy is required merely to tread water in the world that you might as well swim forward a little. Even when the riptide gets you, even you cannot swim against it, you can still swim across it.

To say that life does not go as expected is to take the side of experience. To say that life should not go as expected would be to take the side of all the evils that abuse it. So I say no such thing. But faced with two equal goods, only one of which you expect, the better choice may be the unexpected one, for three reasons. First, since it is only hoped for (or unhoped-for) you will receive it more gladly, and love it better. Second, being outside your system of expectations, it rests them, relieves them while they readjust. And third: sometimes it is wise to choice unwisely just to remember that you can choose.


[The sonnet’s possibilities for creepiness are too often overlooked.]

My love, it’s true that we have never met
But what is that? I know your every look.
You want my love, and what you want you get.
That photo finish, I know what it took:
Your outfits, how you dress for every shot;
The poses that you plan and practice well;
The mirror where you think up every plot,
The bedroom you have sweetened for your cell
Where diode glow lights up your staring face
Absorbed in silent filters’ midnight work
Until the philtre, glazed with conscious grace
Assumes its place enwrapped in subtle quirk.
 My lily love my eyes are mirrors too
 Sway over me and see me seeing you.