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A Narrative In Verse




This summer
There was a story I heard
About an oyster who loved to sing.
We all sat around a campfire,
They called her Calliope.
She only knew one song, of course,
And she sang it tremendously:
The song was All I Want For Christmas Is You,
By the American Singer-Songwriter Mariah Carey,
Which the New Yorker has described as “one of the few worthy modern additions
to the holiday canon.”
But all the other oysters found this quite obscene,
Listening to Calliope sing, day in and day out.
They all began to say she had an awful voice,
The worst they’d ever heard.
They were mostly bothered, even slightly afraid,
Of this thing called music,
Which could pierce even their thick stone walls.
At their persistent apprehension,
She quit singing out loud all together,
And closed her mouth forever—
Only singing herself to sleep
Alone inside her small white house.

Until one summer day
Came riding through a heat wave,
A minor deity, looking to gin up a narrative.
He was a healthy young satyr named Brick,
Or Brock. Half goat and half man,
Dumb as an autumn dove, patient as a buried rock.
He wore a cheetah print chemise with all the buttons undone,
And walked decidedly North, towards water,
Where the naiads like to bathe.
When he reached the pebbled shore, and plunged into the lake,
He scooped up Calliope, and realized he hadn’t yet ate.
The satyr cracked the oyster in half over a stone,
So that the shell broke in two,
And peeled back the white like an egg.
But inside the shell was more than flesh,
There laid within the satyr’s hands
A pearl which could have been sister to the moon:
Twice the size of a ping pong ball,
And half the size of the largest breast Brick/Brock had ever touched.
The satyr was so enchanted by this giant pearl,
That he had a strange, queer impulse.
Instead of taking the pearl home—
Where it would shine but accumulate dust,
Being both seen and forgotten at once—
He took the pearl to the top of the mountain
And buried it under a large white boulder.
There, he made a monumental promise to the gods
That he would return to this place, eternally, each year.
He would come to see his miracle,
And remember.

Back in the icy depths of the reservoir,
The oysters heard of this news, the fate of their dear singing sister,
Whom they were so devastated to lose.
Why had she ever stopped singing?
The oysters asked each other
When they learned she had been slain by the hoov-ed beast—
The so-called faithful, so-called pious,
Who never mean to scare.
How typical of the talking kingdom,
To make promises like words are only made of air.
Here now, this glorious sludgy life that was the oyster clan—
Who built fortresses from the inside out,
Made of nothing but perfect spiraling calcareous math
—fallen from all grace.
Now only beads in a
Loose string of baubling words,
Mere tokens of an ever merer troth.
The arid mountains under which the pearl had thus been buried
Became known to the shelled as the land of Promise:
Avoid it at all cost.
Even these humble sea worms knew
Beyond its shore lay only the death of all but time itself:
Dry white minutes passing through an empty husk,
Some sandy nothing, lonely as a crater on the moon.


Many years later, and many miles away,
A young artist sits on a balcony and
Smokes a pack of dingdongs down to the rope.
Over the city a bushel of bruised peaches float
Across the soupy June night.
The young artist had spent his day downtown
Painting gallery walls white somewhere
That sells giant images of some woman’s face
Whom he has never met—
Faces of women who exist in other artist’s dreams.
“O, this expecting sky…”
The artist sings, blowing smoke at the new brick wall across the street.

Meanwhile the cicadas are loudly discussing the state of the Word:

Now faith is the assurance of things not seen,

The chorus all agrees.

Many heroes throughout time
have done many great works by faith alone,
by the most slender sight of a promise—
the mere image of a prologue,

The superfamily sings in unison.

But these same people also died by faith,
not having received the thing promised,
only having seen it and greeted it from afar—
acknowledging the impossible distance from here to perfection,
and naming it exile,

Mused the screaming bugs.

So if the talking kingdom could only see
that the majority of earth is underground,
would they still seek all those words,
or not?

The artist sat on the balcony
and tried to direct these questions to God.

But his transmissions lately have been coming out all crook’d.
Maybe art is only a soul trying in vain to repeat itself?
Had he read this in a book?
Surely art can only ever be a story—
I mean—at this point—
We are so desperately committed to believing
We can see the past.
The young artist sighs and sits back
In the plastic adirondack satay:
Working three days in a row is not his forté.


That night as he slept,
The artist had an unusual dream.
He sat on silver bleachers
Set up out on the shore
Near a large rough boulder,
At the edge of a small sea.
As he sat looking out over the night,
He saw his grandmother emerging from the water,
Slowly approaching the edge of the tide.
Snapping into himself like a light at this impossible vision,
The young artist turned to a dream woman,
From one of the gallery’s paintings,
Seated on the bleachers to his right.
He looked deep into her swimming violet eyes, nearly falling in,
And explained to her (as if she didn’t already know)
That this is all just a dream!
The woman asked the artist to make her a promise,
And the artist realized that he didn’t know how,
For he had heard many promises before,
But had never actually seen one,
And wasn’t sure exactly what form
or materiality
He might use to craft such work.
He turned away from the woman
And reached out across the tide
For his grandmother’s hand
And studied it in wonder—
Enamored not of the impossible spirit before him,
But of the dream itself.
And then it all went to black in his memory.

That morning he woke up frustrated
At his dream self for wasting so much time
Admiring the resolution of such a sweet illusion
Instead of entering its stream.
He went to speak with his mother,
Interpreter of dreams.
His mother told him that the tide was real
And the rough boulder was real,
And they could be found on a mountain,
In what is now the Sierra Nevada mountain range
In Northern California.
He must go,
And there he can see a promise the size of a pearl.
So the young artist packed a small bag
Full of expectations, and headed west.


Now you have to understand,
People in California go to Facebook Marketplace for lunch.
“Ask Me About My Golden Ratio,”
Says everyone in LA at the working brunch.
California is the Freedom Capital of the World,
Home of the Original Gold Nugget.
Tis written in the scriptures:
The promise land shall have a multi billion dollar state budget.
Ever had an abortion dream about the supreme court?
“We are dream attorneys with over 20 years of experience,”
Reads one billboard in San Diego.
“Smell This Rose,”
Reads a TV screen menu in San Jacinto.
“We’re fully accommodated for the night and only accepting cancellations,”
Reply the hosts through plastic windows.
It’s as if people in California know perfectly well,
Without ever having been explicitly told,
That in order to properly inhabit a shell,
We must be completely alone.

The young artist arrives on a hot afternoon
And the sky sings chaotic.
God clouds hold back God light,
And things move slow and soft like syrup—
Parrots and planes and locusts and half moons
Screaming through the giant blue door.
Unidentified flying objects cut across the fog at decibels of war.
Then the late June sun disappears behind a dour gray shroud,
And a dry cotton loneliness fills the young artist’s mouth
And waters his eyes
As the color falls out of the world like sleep.

The young artist is staying with a local named Dayenu,
Who will take him to the reservoir in the morning
Along with a caravan of others
Who make an annual pilgrimage
In honor of the legendary satyr,
Whose promise and pearl have been long forgotten
By most attendees.
There is not much religion in California,
But there are many festivals and feasts.
A Californian once told me in confidence at such a dinner party
That we were entirely covered in fingernails
During the time of Adam and Eve.
(His profile said he’s weirdly attracted to individuality and humour,
and that you may know him as the starter of a once-famous rumour
that the shells in Sicily, once ground down to powder,
will come to life again and reproduce, if sprinkled with salt water.)
He went on and on about how all promises are actually made of calcium.
Physical, invasive, like dust, or salt.
The broken ones don’t disappear,
They wash up on the shores and bleach everything.
They’re a menace to decent society,
Which continues to stoop lower! he said.
Next to our table, another couple argued over
Whether the original state of the universe was
Lively utter chaos or quiet peaceful death
As a little drone named Alien
Recorded all of this above our heads.

The artist had trouble falling asleep
The night before the caravan.
In the back of his shut eyes,
On the farthest shores of his mind,
Came into center-focus a small white house.
Each time that he was just about to grasp its form
And magnify its image across the deep glowing blank,
It dissolved, like common salt, and he was utterly awake.
Is it possible, he wondered,
That all culture is just a thing of the past?
Standing at the great seas of time,
Can you only think to look down at sand,
And collect shiny broken bits of home?


The caravan departs at dawn.
You catch a double REM cycle in the Walmart parking lot
On the way up to the reservoir.
“Ain’t no ting just a little ketamine,”
Says Dayenu to the welcome party,
Taking a short snort after the 8 hour drive.
You are surprised how such an arduous quest
Can add up to really nothing much
But some machine-aided movement across space and time,
And a couple troubled nights of half sleep in between.
Your so-called research so far comes to
But a handful of some half-remembered dreams.

And when you finally get there, to the mountains,
You experience something akin to shock.
There was not enough rainfall this year at the reservoir
And all the water has receded back into the rocks,
Revealing unappetizing amounts of promised land.
The Great Green Blue retreats back into its own dim lair,
The color of Shekhina herself
Filters out into thin air.
Everything is gleaming and white
And you can’t see a damn thing
Not a single horse in sight.
A thousand bony tree stumps speck the beach like mice.
And an ashy slice of a mountains
Pierce the perfect blue flesh of sea and sky,
As if by some painful accident.
You’re a long way from the Old World,
The artist thinks to himself,
A long way from the balcony and all your usual stuff,
And complex wine does not taste right in these small tin cups.

Throughout the day arrive more attendees:
Count three standard edition Jeep Wranglers, forest green,
Count two Ford F150s (America’s favorite truck by far).
All these vehicles crawling across the vaste calcium expanse like ants—
Only in California can you go the ends of the earth
And never have to leave your car.
“Next year is better, it always was,” says Dayenu with a wink,
Tossing you a spiked seltzer, lighting up an e-cigar.


Around a growing campfire
Attendees form a semi-spiral beneath the Easy-Up.
At the center stands a guy who holds a bag of synthetic dreams
That he keeps referring to as Industry Standard.
“Do yourself a favor and take a full dose,”
He says before pulling out a small scroll
From a dangling lanyard
Around his neck.
He tells everyone to put their left hand on their dreams
And their right on their chest
And then reads a prayer as quick as he can:

With your hand over your heart think of the glowing healing loving energy flowing out of your heart and under your hand and around the medicine and into your body and out to the person next to you amen.

People pop the stuff in their mouth
After this little prologue,
And slowly turn back into beasts.
Everyone heads North, down to the beach,
But the young artist goes South, up the mountain,
Looking for a certain peak.
He walks up towards the sky for miles,
With legs that seem to weigh a thousand pounds each.
As he gets nearer to the edge of the edge of the edge
He can feel the whole mountain breathe.


Night falls before he finally reaches the roof of the earth
And all he can think to do is start chucking rocks.
He can see no promise nor pearl nor burial plots
And all he can hear is the unquenchable laughter of God.
Before he leaves to head back to camp
He stands on a large boulder, and pees.
And as he turns around to face the full moon
He stops dead in his tracks at what he sees:
A strange opening between two trees each:
One alive, one dead, one mountain in between,
White paint scratched on the flanks spell the letters A-R-E.
And his own two feet at the heart of it all—
Not floating, not standing on a rock as he thought,
But firmly planted on the ground, seamlessly installed.

And you realize you are not seeing the image in front of you,
You are finally in the image,
And your whole life before this moment collapses into fate.
And then all of a sudden you can see the Gate
As if lit by 17 billions suns,
You can hear every sound there ever was.
And the whole path unfurls gloriously all at once,
Like a boiling fiddlehead.
An image of truth comes to focus in your mind
As if for the first time—

—and then it disappears in one moist twinkling snap
Like walking into a spiderweb, like a popping bubble of sap.
The whole picture drops like a coin into some impossible crack.
And the image you had been seeking for your whole life
Becomes the image you will seek for the rest of your life.
And the young artist wonders if he had ever really been alive before
This moment at all
Or ever will be again.
Or if all other images will become only sad second tries,
Not fully honest attempts to explain,
Only the professional musings of an eager soul
Trying to repeat itself in vain.


The young artist turns again to leave,
But hears music coming from an even higher peak.
He walks further up the mountain to find the rest of the attendees
Dancing on the highest dome:
Full EDM set up,
And LED lights,
Beneath all the stars in the universe.
The artist can see the vectors of desire bouncing around the non-room:
Multivalent channels of particle desire
Rising like tides under a full moon.
At least 40 people are dancing and
Projecting out into this mass
Their internalized images of others—
Derived from their childhood experiences—
Surrendering to the incurable tendency to recreate familiar relationships,
In ways that can obscure the complexity of the others’ identity in the group.
It’s called transference.
It’s called You are my stand in Boyfriend
And You are the stand in Father
You are the stand in Forbidden Fruit
And You are the stand in anti-vax blogger.
It all adds up, it always does—that’s the quantum thing about it.
There is a law of physics keeping all living promises unfulfilled:
Abandon your forever and call it real love,
Transfigure the whole thing from might be to definitely was.

Midnight strikes the sky and the stars wash the milky black
Into a sparkling slime,
And all of a sudden the music stops
And someone yells Happy Birthday!
The song Take Me Home, Country Roads comes on
And it starts to rain,
And everyone howls in sweet nostalgic pain,
And all 40 of us huddle together
Into a swarming swaying freezing drunken mass
On a mountain,
And sing the final chorus together as one,
Projecting West Virginia into the brilliant broken mirror above………….
And then the songs ends,
And the chanting ends,
And the rain ends,
And the spell gets sucked up
Into the dry mountain air
And the techno comes back on and
One of the attendees can be heard saying:
I wish they had some better music in the promise land.


The next morning you wake and see
Forty-odd poly-something plastic lounge chairs
Curling the bonfire in the shape of a vortex.
Dayenu tells you she wants to leave camp a day early.
The whole thing gives her anxiety,
And her therapist prescribed avoiding stress.
Driving home the artist wears dark sunglasses and cries,
Leaving all things holy behind,
More or less.


Back in New York City
The air is thick and orange.
The promise land replaced with smoke and fog,
You blink twice and find yourself
Smack dab in the image of a prologue again.
A psychic’s sandwich board is all chained up to a pile of bricks,
And the Indigo Hotel looms over Kellogg Diner
Like it was never there.
A blue-eyed Hare Krishna promises to watch your parked car
For a ten dollar donation from the heart.
He tells you he’s not a crook,
Like President Nixon incarnate—
Sentry landlords and monks alike
Posted at all major city gates,
Collecting promises owed
Back in New York City.

The sound of distant tuning radios keeps you awake—
Certainty running through your blood like lightning.
Everyone on the phone seems to be fighting
Someone far away.
And all your friends keep asking you,
How was California? Any inspiration—anything exciting?

“In the times of Eve and Adam
our bodies were covered in fingernails,
not quite like scales, but like a single giant curling talon…”

This is the only story the artist can string together with any confidence,
About all the images which came and passed
With no real meaning and/or consequence.
He is just happy to be home, alone again,
Where he can get some decent sleep
And make beautiful, distracting things.
Having made it out, thinks the artist,
Is so deeply burdened
By the knowledge that there are those who remain
That it’s almost not worth it.
An age with no heroes is still an age with plenty of perfect
Fools, and everyone still needs saving.
Here, in the future, you can better write the prologue,
Where a young artist can more clearly see
An excuse in the making.


O.K. Pedersen is a writer and filmmaker in Montreal.