Still Life with Scholar & Lake — David Capps

The lake was clear. And the sky above the lake. And the stars beyond the sky which had begun to twinkle at the arrival of dusk, as though they were posing a question, or perhaps opening a gift. Tomorrow, or night; no rush. A plate of hummus, half-eaten, lay on the kitchen table, a Formica slab whose own surface crudely imitated the galaxy, back home in the cabin. A plate of hummus with a fork sticking out of it, product of an unfinished bite, in the dark wasn’t it — couldn’t it be, the same as a smooth face, lips your fingers caressed beneath the covers in the dark. Warm and comfortable and like a proper piece of fired clay, collected into itself. There were (and had been) thoughts, yes. But none so serious as that. Those intrusive, flighty things sometimes making darkness shine like it felt as if the two hemispheres of your brain, jarring, warred together, until finally exhausted and at a stalemate they seeped out into that finer mist of sleep. Why wasn’t it still believed that only birds could fly? In any event, it wasn’t something to lord over, when you had happened to seize one of these intrusive thoughts; it wasn’t a schoolyard bully you could shake till half-dead. Probably by now it had drawn flies from outdoors (had you also left the window open?); big fat juicy horseflies. The faint smell of too much olive oil, sinewy chickpea, would do it. Or just a fly’s sense, its zest for exploration. Like the ones you saw once decorate a cow’s eye as it lay sleeping in the field, unperturbed in all of its glorious bovine placidity. From first light, they sensed it: seed goes to sparrow, each churlish lump the same, refuse goes to the fly, from the beginning. If only to be as simple as a fly, to know us by our evil, recognize our barber sign as the puddle outside the crack in the wall. To feed from dirt puddle, milk puddle, birth puddle, death puddle, broken crate maggot safe haven peeping sun strung out, mutable. So many could converge to a point or a sleeve, held up by their beating, guarding, could have existed as an ancient hair shirt composing up to a priest’s neck psalms of all derangement, could have existed, for flies attracted to such a light flesh would not have retained its form, nor the heavens remained naked, un-spurred from head to toe by smallest needles over the disintegration of place. To think: we will carry the last of the earth, in whom so much life proceeds as odorless juice against the wall, dust crumb in a field between pylons used to recycle their own wishes, for whom the windowless bank is a stairwell that leads into the sea, to be followed by flies whose quivering abdomens ache with the same unsightedness about the roughness and the skin-sound, animistic vein, and what alights the hand is but a gesture, likewise curious, or else a ripple of ash bark annunciating the conscious grove, the fly corridor, the black swarm, the Elysium or the pompadour, these notes the notes of the wandering dark pellucid, not being something from which you merely drift away, for it is human to be drawn by rhythm and simplicity behind the eyes, accounting for such fierce reserve. The light of being, a foundry in a nacreous spot of summer, unrepentant currents of heat, white swarms that invest in each unrepeatable persistence a prize of being, and the swatter who thinks he swats parcels into parcels of the living, until the fly is lost — one in a community of wind, plotted from one point into a plane, egg-lain log hollow, and cats’ paws, whose second nature is to be a sworn enemy cover what they cover, contain what they contain, whose light, jagged and jugular, should be imperceptible, should not exist: pinpoints of light. It is a fly’s contradiction to die in such minutiae, because of such minutiae. What lives, escapes. You tell yourself that what lives, escapes.

That was the exact ineffable difficulty: just when you had it (not when you thought you had it), it was gone. It was like the still-life portraits by Manet, or of his friends who he demanded be as still as an orange while it was the orange that had soaked in the sunrise and carried it in its skin throughout the day, and transformed it into the gown of full roses whose trail is evening’s depiction of sunset. Sometimes even hair, dirt, fingernail, would be stuck to the canvas after such a spiritual fornication. In the depths of your soul, which were like the depths of suffering, you could glimpse it: Sisyphus as the sun gone off with the sea, a union as deep and strong and fundamental as an electron orbiting the nucleus of an atom, as encompassing as every atom of your being. Except that it was no where. And you had only told yourself about it, and it was by no means certain that you could not misunderstand yourself. Maybe what the still life needed was a memento mori, and had you only looked more closely at the dead cow’s eye you would have seen flies dancing, leaping and bounding into the whites, their miniscule pocket of air, just as if they had been the ones to discover a new planet and name it and plant their flag on it, an eye-shaped planet whose uneven horizon extended just beyond the distended belly that once when ‘moo’. Then you do suppose it would be possible, just as it would be possible to live one life and have one voice and unified will, simply to leave this place, to hop in your car and drive to the nearest supermarket and but a new scrub brush and steel wool, then to drive back to the cabin without stopping by the side of the road to read verses from Matthew, to drive straight home as it is still earlyish in the night, then carefully to open the door without disturbing the momentary universe of flies, and to place the plate of hummus half eaten in the kitchen sink and run water over it until like an embankment during the flood after the levees break muddy chunks of hummus fall from the plate into  the stainless steel of the sink and then down the drain, all the way down.

But it wouldn’t be true to memory when you did in fact stop to read passages from Matthew and your congregation was the birds of the trees and cows of the field. Only when the cow started laughing, or lowing with what you felt could be an intentional humor, did you bring the sermon to a close. That was the time you almost caught your finger in the door, running back from some wild thing who overheard you. The thing about that door is that it has always needed to be replaced, one of the many things you didn’t get around to doing: rusted nails sticking out clownishly every which way, bent hinges anyone could jimmy, an old door somebody had papered over with two-by-fours; but the oak itself — the oak had character, the oak was like looking into the midnight blue during a stag hunt, antlers locked together in the twisting wood as the oak leaves fell to earth and the ground swelled with wonder as the dogs reared their heads, barking, flesh trembling with the scent of the hush of the woods. Pan was felt in the door. You had come so close to becoming a scholar, but were in fact nothing. It reminded you a bit of the writing desk you had as a child, the antique that folded out its curly maple to reveal a velvet writing surface and compartment for the inkwell. You the scholar might have used it on a night like this, by candlelight as its gentle flame withstands the night’s soul posturing and would seem even to thicken the night suffused by the smell of wax from the holy candle depicting the crucifixion, as the figure half-human and swollen with pain from his crown of thorns cast the sorts of shadows that speak of good and evil and how anyone can be anything and anyone capable of anything, as if that Christ who looked down upon you as you thought your childish thoughts of Him and crying cycled through your childish hopes would have understood you and the seeds of your attempt to destroy the world and in its place resurrect another, in its place an imaginary serenity where time moves backwards and the fallen oak and curly maple leaves reattach to their branches, leaping up to them with the excitement of love leaping into the arms of love — not a particular human form, but love itself, as the wind blowing back from the future to its source in the oceanic tide, and the displaced cobble returned to its step in the moss grown green again, a green water the color of failed love given back to its flush pail, the fog of your vale dissipated into air, a person reading what only he enjoys returned to the sanctity of habitation, blundered legend of a coin traced back without questions of cattle plagues, clashes of Christians and Jews, connotations of obverses, Anastasius’ endless resuscitations, the stone of your forest path dislodged finally as a kind of charge of felt humanity and cast far off to the slopes eroding backwards as glaciers recede from receding — return, as you may return the trees to symmetry in the lake unbroken by crows calling in unbroken night, the sweet voice returned to the tired singer, the frost to the air gently heated by the sun which when the sun rises it sets and the planets in their irregular ellipses spinning in ever widening paths which then overcome gravity’s gradual push towards togetherness and density at the center of which lies one vast illusion; and sentences and meanings, too, now being understood in reverse, seek a return to that original momentum which propelled them forward, that raw form of breath which is also at its core: emptiness. There, ink would have spilled in a blot of chaos more accurate than any meaning would have calmly picked itself up from its accident and collected itself back into the neat bottle, and the chemicals that had gone into it would in due course return to their plants and animals whence derived as well the nature of each thing in due course. At the very beginning of the universe there would not have been enough time for God to feel the keenness of his loneliness and exhale his underwhelming creations into space, if God was listening.

On other nights you the scholar might have simply snuffed the candle out even as you continued to write in the dark and hum in soft tones the only lullaby you know. It was now night and the stars that hung together by their immense unbroken chain seemed to jest the spirit’s imprisonment in the known universe. There was a little breeze stirring up trouble over the surface of the lake, no longer perfectly clear. Its surface was a mirror image of blind writing. It was the same breeze you met when it touched your face and understood when you said to yourself: I am I; herald of winter chill, Neptune and Nemesis, Narcissus and Odysseus tied to the mast, bane of flower and root, sapling killer, sleep depriver, the exquisite gymnast who snuck through the shutters, through the windows quietly at night to grace your cheeks, to raise the hairs on the back of your hand, to caress your lips with its frozen cluster never to rise into anything, not even enough to pull a tumbleweed or send ripples down the spines of wheatgrasses, this breeze in which you felt/left something of your own weakness or if that is too weak a word, doubt. Perhaps you were tired of everything feeling so so familiar: the trees, the bushes, the door, life. But hadn’t it been the conquest of familiarity that brought you to the cabin? The paradoxical differences of nature presenting itself as a god: its inexhaustibility, suggestive of omnipotence, and its inexhaustibility suggestive of everydayness. Is it possible when your voice combines with that of another, when you do not live so close to the edge of nothingness, blessed mean between nothingness and some ecstasy far surpassing happiness, that you sense a similarity between that and what could be if you lived in/with nature? They, then, thoughts (should) arise as hills, and if not, such that facing skyward they have a vantage on light’s source, then as dappled divots, because the bark of the plane tree, shaving off, reveals for the afternoon light a landing. It is easy to think such thoughts, when Mars is far away and the shadows beneath photovoltaic cells seem breathing, lost amid anthropic rock formations. Difficult, when you breathe in and out and conceive of species’ destructions. As if what you had done with your life were rolled up suddenly into a ball, a hill, a hedgehog—iron thick, of such immense mass that, taking it nowhere, like some idea of home, you should always know where and what it is — down the ever-widening path what exists in an unverifiable breeze identifying the borders of leaves, leaf-crinkle, rampart ellipse in which you write nature. Here you cultivate a kind of fear requiring familiarity — not a paradox since only one sense of ‘familiarity’ mcans comfort and belonging, excluding fear. Another familiarity means: refraining from perceiving yourself as a stranger in a place, as in a certain way ‘invasive’ to the place. As a stranger in the first sense, you want to rebuild the world in your own image, and thereby make it something lesser, much as a jet ski oversimplifies the lake, an RV oversimplifies a bed of open stars whose murmurations the eye doth catch. You think of yesterday, as there is nothing else to consider. You think of stepping out again with Matthew18:3-4 “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” What does it mean ‘become as little children’? To be like you were as a child. How? Run into the forest, miles deep into an unknown wild, pull off to the side of the highway from where there seems to extend lush green for some miles and take off at a steady pace, make sure to not tear your clothes in the process. Make sure to not catch your finger in the door. Don’t run in your imagination with your wheezing soul, that is something that you could do from within a block of concrete — let that child who has flown from you draw his gaze to the edge of the playground where the raspberries grow, and as you find yourself farther and farther from your abandoned car, with no telephone poles in sight, poison ivy about your ankles and a hole the size of a loaf of bread in your stomach, out of breath, try to get your bearings — trying as only a human can, as only the divine cannot. As you sit down on the half-damp tree stump, think back to the childish songs in your childish heart, or the childish weapons of the childish fight that led you into the woods…as you begin to drift off and for a moment feel five-years-old again, rest with your mother and the congregation on that comfy wooden bench. See yourself there. Hold her hand as you listen and don’t quite understand the distant thunder that rolls across the hills.


On the trail descending near sundown, bursts of purple and white asters on each side of the path, golden rod and golden leaves of birch strewn all around. When you reach the cold side of the mountain a man is stopped in the path, you think he is watching a bird but then he says to listen, and as his eyes widen you connect and for a moment there is the clarity of the flowing brook, the absence of sounds from the highway, and as his companion looks on, he says ‘—the sound, is good’. You agree and say it’s excellent, holding back the more general proposition that if all of nature is perfect, then the idea of perfection derives from the idea of nature in all its pristine naiveté — what would it have added to speak? Uncertainties are shaped differently in nature, since their main contrast is not certainty of what is believed to be known (or some such psychological state) but the sureness of foot and limb and breath — bodily certainty. Then if uncertainty takes on a bodily character, as opposed to mental irritation from doubts that have long traced their same pathways in the brain, it partly explains why your existential ‘problems’ seem to evaporate into the mountain mists. Those droplets that do fall, secreted by the fog, and are not carried and folded back up into it by the warming updraft, emerge only in the morning, in the dew upon first waking, only before one realizes that one is still in the mountains — those thoughts quickly dislodged by birdsong overhead. You want at times to understand the mountain in miniature — a boulder or pebble small enough to pocket, to encompass, to briefly or permanently forget about it; as if the mountain could be understood as a love is understood decades past its burgeoning — as the conjuring of a feeling which if conceived at all causes no permanent distress; often what you want of ‘understanding’ is for things simply to proceed seamlessly, without interruption (to what?). Like when you would send your father postcards of where you had traveled and in the tumbling waterfall depicted it would be enough, even without text, to convey the experience; except you realize this limitation of postcards, video, any conventional medium for recording experience, where the medium (the form) itself contributes nothing of significance to what it represents. Some of the trees here, even fallen, lie so long that the sight (that biased seat of understanding) cannot encompass them in the way that listening can, at least, encompass part of the roaring brook — that particular place where the water flows over stones and twigs and leaves strewn in its path, the way in listening to your own consciousness perceptions, and feelings, and particular memories and sensations are flowed over, perhaps leaving little traces behind in its downward momentum toward the hazy soil of sleep. You forget about the state of falling. Even to sleep is its first instance to lie in the earth, on a bed of fungus and humus, looking up at the sky’s sworn oculus beyond the treeline, enclosed by it. There, the light dims at the origin, the dual light of consciousness and its physical manifestation. Everything you forget about from within the comforting walls of your own scholarly house, your head resting on your pillow, thoughts drifting ever onwards towards the next day, and the next; and then that familiar sensation of a kind of futility in it, futility’s own joyless smile. You want then the walls to fall away, the windows to open and cold wind flood in, the doors to break from their hinges, the floor to disintegrate so that it reveals the hidden structure, so that it might become like nature, which hides nothing. You want yourself to become visible to yourself as before God if there is God, to sense yourself as immediately as two fingertips brought together. So it is that you begin your trek into the woods.

David Capps is a philosophy professor and poet who lives in New Haven, CT. He is the author of four chapbooks: Poems from the First Voyage (The Nasiona Press, 2019), A Non-Grecian Non-Urn (Yavanika Press, 2019), Colossi (Kelsay Books, 2020), and Wheatfield with a Reaper (Akinoga Press, forthcoming). His On the Great Duration of Life, a riff on Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, is now available from Schism Neuronics.