Sunday, September 06, 2009
Later, he goes to school and one day—I’m talking about my own case, not generalizing—the master announces a new subject: Algebra. Through the French windows of this elegant room, a part of which is set up with desks and a blackboard, the sun infiltrates, reflects off the shiny floor and illuminates the dancing dust-motes. Outside, pigeons coo, and an occasional cuckoo is hard far-off in the woods. What is behind this exciting word Algebra? He learns about x, the unknown. x represents a number, and we have to determine which one, out of an infinite set of possibilities. He solves the problem the same afternoon. The answer is x = 5. So that’s it, the unknown is known. But no! that was just an example. He still doesn’t know the true nature of x—to be perennially unknown. For every equation he solves, a harder one follows. That first day in class he understood little; would gladly have let Algebra itself remain unknown, as it was to him before that sunny afternoon, with its cuckoo’s call and those dancing motes trapped in a sunbeam. But he was forced to persevere with x, knowing it for odd moments before it plunged back to mystery; ever rising anew like Phoenix, smelted from the furnace of Knowing to solidify into a new form.
By this means, and many others, he learned abstractions. For every x he encountered in later life, someone proclaimed a corresponding answer—one that he often wished to challenge. Deep down he knew the true algebra: that x can never stay solved; and many values of x can be imagined without their being true. Perhaps an orphaned baby can grow up to imagine a mother who never popped up to say “Peep-bo!”
Years later, let’s say x years later, he applied algebra to the mystery of politics. Let x be the Right, and y the Left. What is x and what is y, when a, b, c, d ... are time, place, personalities, issues ... ? Why does he always cast his vote the same way, always finding something to support in x, something to deride and excoriate in y?
Then he realizes that the Right looks to an imaginary past, a golden age that never was; the Left looks to an imaginary future that never will be.
What if he wasn’t rooted in an English industrial valley with its Victorian workers’ cottages and derelict chair factories, its hills steeped in the history of Protestant martyrdoms? What if Fate impelled him elsewhere—say to the United States? Could he live in a similar fashion as now, getting everywhere by foot or occasional bus, and be everyone’s equal, fearless on the streets? Would he vote x or y? He sees both as poisoned wells.
He dreams of a mythical San Francisco, perhaps the Monterey of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row; or Ferlinghetti’s poem about North Beach from the Fifties. (He has never been to San Francisco, and is content that this is so, for the x of his imagined Frisco is never to be found.)
Away above a harborful
of caulkless houses
among the charley noble chimneypots
of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines
a woman pastes up sails
upon the wind
hanging out her morning sheets
with wooden pins
O lovely mammal
her nearly naked breasts
throw taut shadows
as she stretches up
to hang at last the last of her
so white washed sins
but it is wetly amorous
and winds itself about her
clinging to her skin
So caught with arms
she tosses back her head
in voiceless laughter
and in choiceless gesture then
shakes out gold hair
while in the reachless seascape spaces
between the blown white shrouds
stand out the bright steamers
to kingdom come
Speech by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1999
Meaning of “charley noble” which I thought till today was merely a spontaneous poetic flourish.
Posted by Vincent at 3:46 pm