‘what the bird means’
The Blackbird Variations, Chapter X
Then Variating A Blackbird’s Theme was finished. Or nearly—there being two blank pages left. And it was June, and Lilly was returning to New Hampshire—they sharing increasingly intense not-fights where he could only thrash in the thickness of what she wasn’t saying, saying: ‘Just stay if you’re worried about us.’ But she couldn’t, for her parents willed her home—her parents, who he felt like a dark sheep in the sight of, they driving out to pick her up, and she and Tommy oversleeping on the day she was supposed to move from her dorm, the young lovers arriving dressed in the powder blue scrubs he lifted from the O.R. a year prior—and what showed on her mother’s eyes was very evident, and not wholly directed at him.
He tried to make enough small talk to diffuse the situation—but Lilly’s room was a perfect disaster, and so he hoped his helpfulness somewhat made up for things. They did invite him to the suburbs that afternoon, where Lilly lead him to her grandmother’s basement, and he had that feeling come over him, the same he felt when shotgunning history last summer, the same that hit him when, two years ago, on a choir tour across the great plains of northern Canada he found himself in a church basement, flipping through old photographs, and all of time compacted on the narrowness of his present—all of history bearing down on that insignificant and all-important tightrope you call “now.”
In Lilly’s grandmother’s basement, this feeling returned, frightening him with its towering extent, and he felt his energies summoned to assume his role in history, to link tradition to possibility—but which traditions resonated? Which were needful and livid enough to survive his translations and attempts? He looked at his lover, short and blonde and possessed of incredible strength, but not ready to make her own decisions, to choose him and them over her parent’s choices. He thought of the children they would have, and wondered doubtfully if he possessed any of the constancy that a family requires. He wanted her to trust him—but what was there in him to trust?
When it was time he head back to the city, she clung to him with all the tenacity that was her nature and the seat of her strength, which tenacity in fact rooted him into the real, so that the tumults of his heart and centrifuge of his mind, these past few months, were as even and steady as they would ever be, insofar as this boyman remained the Thomas I have been relating to you and through time to.
She pulled back, and with such worry in her eyes said: “I know you’re going to cheat on me.”
And all his Vagarities of Ignominious Experience swelled wickedly in his periphery and began separating his insides in all the cardinal as well as carnal directions.
He was able to tell her ‘don’t say that,’ but in truth, she had the certainty of fate on her side, and he only had his immediacy, beholden as it was to beauty, inspiration, passion, and all those characteristics that one might off-handedly suppose make a poet justified in wasting everyone else’s air.
He kissed her and said: ‘You know me—you know who I am when I’m alone, apart from all the noise. The me that can last—he is yours.’ And she snuggled into his chest and told him she was sorry.
And then in quick succession everything was different. He had an interview at a *$’s down in the Gold Coast district, where the fanciest of pants are given blocks of boutiques, parlors, and plenty-starred restaurants to assemble and execute their bedecked promenades. He was hired for a 8am-4pm Tues-Sat shift, and before starting I was able to cloy his lymph nodes with a minor illness—just enough to make him drowsy for a day and a half, until his emptiness became again an openness, and he approached the last two pages of Variating a Blackbird’s Theme—composing there its coda:
The darkman from industr’ous thicket went
To give his little muse another visit.
To find that she weren’t crying on her lawn
But with a worried pout on her face drawn.
–What disturbs you so this time, my little one?
Have you reached at last the end of letter’s fun?
Or is it that the sugar in your veins
Has dipped too low for good cheer to maintain?
She shook her head and said quite quietly:
‘I have just learned that you are leaving me.’
–That can’t be true, for how can any absence
Be ‘tween us, when in fact I don’t exist?
‘Just because you’re not completely real,
Don’t mean that everything you make me feel
Is not true—you can’t just make light of
My sadness all the time, ‘cause then my love
Is made all small, and that’s not fair,’
Said she, with face hid in her hair.
The darkman, while not trying to make light
Of the situation, could not but try
To calm the qualms of she, the Little Girl:
–My Fine Device will tie the Many Worlds
Into a single, splendid Harmony
To overstand the boundless Melodies
‘I do not care about your Fine Machine—
I just don’t want you to be leaving me!’
–Listen, Little One, the darkman said,
I’m not sure how these thoughts got in your head.
But if you here insist that I’ll be gone,
And no more visit you upon your lawn,
Then I must say that next to you there stands
A House where you might find another man
Perhaps not quite as dark or fun as me
But of at least twice the reality,
For you to with your many colored wax
Be got from him a broader circumstance
Than all these fantasies that we two’ve made—
Her eyes then fell in anger on her shade:
‘You’ve no idea what lives inside my Home.
And there’s no excuse for leaving me alone.’
–I’m not leaving you, I’m trying to explain:
If anything it’s you that’s being changed
‘I don’t change—the world around me does!’
–And how is this, for other than because,
(He countered her, as simultaneously
His form became more real and took its leave:)
–That Change herself has found within your gaze
A means of waking up our Mother Space?
‘No more riddles!’ she cried—but he had gone—
Leaving Girl to sob upon her lawn.
The queerest aspect of “catharsis” is half the time it magnifies what it’s intended to exhaust. More or less half the time; the epilogue of his first book leaving a sour taste in his mouth, which he would have brooded over had it not been time to immerse himself in work—or, to keep the terminology consistent—a job.
Two days of training had him relearning mostly stuff he already knew from his time at *$’s in the fall, only, the company, emboldened by its recent success in the Chicago market, and posed to have two thousand stores throughout the US by year’s end, was now pushing this concept of “Coffee Culture,” which included everything from the furniture and retail wall, to the philosophy behind calling a large a grande, a small a tall, and “educating” the customer how to assemble their drink order in the proper sequence.
Tommy was annoyed at first by their treatment of “Culture”—if not a little perturbed by the borderline cultiness of it all—but then grew more tickled by the thought that the company’s CEO was himself possessed by the idea of the Total Work of Art—assembling farmers, designers, businessmen, musicians, and heaps of cheap labor to produce a lasting and pervasive institution throughout the country—and of course why stop at that when you can reach all around the world? This thought also allowed Tommy to forego the destitute feeling of being a cog in a machine, by offering him a chance to see what he could get his own personal hamster wheel to do, between the machine and where it met the street.
He therefore arrived on the floor in good spirits and overready for new experience, after six or so months of being holed up with his first attempt at literature, proper.