A: THE FIRST PERSON.
I WOKE UP DISLIKING MYSELF.
I was going to say, “hating” but that sounds grandiloquent, as if there was something massive, majestic, in the weight of who I have been.
No such luck.
Gravity was not holding me down in the bed.
Nor the thought of those perfect round twin globes of yours.
I have been watching the energy level drop lately, the bounce of electrons, so that it’s hard to roll out of the sheets and rise up. Science tells us that this may be a general phenomenon. It’s not just me. It means the critical mass has dissipated further, passed out of the universe, space, in a loss of gravity that is accelerating our expansion towards nothing, absolutely nothing—Einstein’s “Cosmological constant” which became his nightmare.
We aren’t made of much anyhow it seems. More of that later, but the statistics shows that everything we know about and identify as “matter,” every bit, is only a possible paltry five percent of the universe. And this together with all manner of whatever else makes up everything we know for sure of, or can postulate with any assurance might exist, according to the physicists, is rushing. It can’t get away from itself fast enough, every moment faster and faster through the vast space of the galaxies. Yes, the negligible five percent of the universe that Science in the year 2004 thought we were made up of (who knows what the future will bring?) together with the rest of all of space and time’s normal matter; protons, neutrons, electrons, our bodies, minds, thoughts; everything we can touch and feel—sand, rock, water, the swell of your belly (no matter how much I want to stop and stroke it) was expanding faster and faster like the skin of a repulsive balloon into emptiness from which there is no return.
This is our birthday card from Science, with a capital S
On a more intimate level, a former student writes that her new teacher is, a light unto the universe. This latest professor, predictably “a brilliant woman,” has taught my student finally to “feel, express herself,” explicated texts that “make everything obvious,” and promises to make my former charge’s life “worthwhile.”
After this last, my student adds—a barb to points just scored—a meager phrase in which she acknowledges my “brave effort” a year ago to help her.
Why did she do this?
I never touched her belly. Never even thought about it. Not seriously.
Negative gravity, repulsive gravity, in some intricate flip-flop Science tells us is going to do us in.
Science, which is supposed to make things clearer, has concentrated on Dark Matter in the past few years. Dark matter! O Massa! Words like these are sheer metaphor. They say everything.
Science, which is supposed to shine light into darkness, tell us what lies in there, or out there, be a lamp unto the universe, speaks “darkly.” The best it can do is spin me around with the table of elements in a Black Hole.
Just as a matter of political correctness couldn’t Science have spared us the Black Hole, packed all the Dark Matter into one “White Hole,” “Rainbow Hole”? Wouldn’t that brighten life on the “Event Horizon”—the thought of a wild burst sucking us into the Mother of All Holes?)
Didn’t the Elizabethans think of sex as a form of happy extinction?
I am ready, however, to pass quietly into the Dark Matter and be done with it deep in a Hole.
You had denied me even a gentle movement of my fingers over your belly.
You didn’t need to say anything, just shudder, and I felt it.
Negative gravity is responsible for the measurable disorder into which I am disintegrating as I speak.
Negative Gravity is a repulsive force.
This explains why you didn’t just let a tremor of repulsion brush “it “when I put my hand on your belly charmed by its youthful shape; but turned your haughty eye on me.
Why did I have three children, embark on a university career, write six novels, four of which are presently gathering dust on my shelves?
Was it all just a futile battle against Negative Gravity? There is a more terrible threat than just Negative Gravity looming over my bed. Einstein in a discouraged moment imagined it, dismissed it but too late. (He understood the consequences of letting it into the scheme of things).
Einstein remained an optimist. Getting along, in the eyes of the world a lonely old man—he took off his socks. Imitatio Einstein. I intend to go out on Third Avenue without socks. (In former days, Third, or the Bowery, was the haunt of old men without socks or shoes too for that matter. Were they reaching toward a further asceticism, a horde of sun burned gurus? Third below Fourteenth, under the old, lamented subway ell, avenue of intoxicated Einsteins!) What did Einstein on his legendary walks without socks think of his nightmare, the Cosmological Constant? Its bugaboo—negative gravity pushing things apart in the whole universe, between me and you?
Watching my children’s movie fables, Lord of the Rings, etc., a heap of rubber Boogie men and their dragon mounts, push out of the corners of the family toy chest, I sigh. Happy Days are Here Again. At four and a half the Atomic bomb went off unexpectedly and with it proof that my toy chest only held a negligible fraction of nightmare. Every ten years the shadow on the horizon looms larger, proof of the expanding universe. Atomic explosions, then Hydrogen, followed by Black Holes, and looming, the Cosmological Constant—acceleration towards chaos!
B: SECOND PERSON (HYPOTHETICAL)
Every person carries a locked box full of forbidden thoughts, acts, possibilities with them, you think hurrying to your appointment with the young woman. She has alternately teased you—brushing her long limbed body against yours so that the heat of her lithe excitement passed into your legs and lap sodden with the beer she poured continually from the cask brought at her request—then lightly pushing you away, finally responding stiffly when you took her hand to say goodbye.
At the end of the evening, the box feels empty though on the way over its secrets threatened to burst the lid.
Why is the box empty? Symmetry would seem to underlie the cosmos. As she withdrew her excitement in you, an electrical spark flickered fainter and fainter toward her. You noted the lines burnt under her eyes. The disorderly charm of her hair dissipated and left it simply unattractive, a bird’s nest. Her description of her present boyfriend who was not sure what he felt toward her seemed more and more to fit your own feelings for her and the decision she articulated to simply withdraw from this man, ill matched it seemed except for that initial rage of voluptuous desire, and spend the time instead in books was exactly what you recommended to yourself as you walked, weightlessly, from her front door.
Entropy suggests the arrow of time in some models of the universe. In the most accurate modes of this one so far, all things process toward greater disorder and appear to fall apart.
What had been in the box for that brief moment when it seemed to contain not just an irrepressible amount of energy, but the secret of time turned back, bending the powerful arch of its arc? At least in your eyes you saw from another angle, one in which you could recover youth.
Is each human body a cosmos in which the story of the universe after the Big Bang is enacted? In the world of chance or planned encounters does the body set the individual spinning from the tight order of conception and birth to the disorder of death?
O it was too abstract!
Touching her breasts you had wanted to feel them swell with the promise of excitement she could not contain, and wanting that same lightning thrust from you to her. She drifted off into sleep instead. You got up bewildered, leaving her peacefully passed out on her couch.
Why had you come there though, feeling as if you held in a locked box what you missed previously? Was it the words, sentences that seemed to vouch for what you had missed, touching her breasts’ perfect tips, the sudden charge of pleasure, blinding, transfixing them both?
“Beyond time lies cold space and what does that imply?”
She is mute.
C: THE SECOND PERSON INTRODUCES A THIRD PERSON
How can you tutor her into seducing you? Try to break the silence? “Words, yes words are what allow human beings to escape into another dimension, even if it is an illusion. Dante is taught that lesson in his The New Life, by the “women who have intelligence of love.”
“‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.’”
“Are you going to give a lecture?” she asks.
Why don’t you go to the bathroom now? you grumble in your thoughts, anticipating her question, your reply. “Take The New Life with you.”
It’s hopeless. The copy you brought last week lies bedraggled on the couch. She is immersed in Home Economics, “How to Catch a Husband.” Nevertheless, your fingers strum over the little silver cords.
“‘Women who have intelligence of love!’ Why does the Florentine address with these particular words those teases of the 13th century?”
You hope your barb is sinking into her creamy flesh. You declaim. “Tall, slim young women, still unmarried, they gather at a street crossing, then walk to and fro together.
“They have all been to the right school.”
Her nose twitches. She is still insecure about not attending an Ivy League institution. Good! It’s unfair, cruel, but for a moment you have her. “‘Laughing among themselves,’ Dante tells us, the women exchange secrets in the street. One of their schoolmates is now locked behind the bedroom doors of marriage, but she, Beatrice, obviously confides to these abettors of Love, instructors in the arts of mystical courtship. Dante has advertised his broken heart. Prepared himself with wan expression, suppressed groans as these daughters of the best families approach. Courteously, he pretends to encounter them by accident. Con cio sia cosa che per la vista mia molte persone avessero compreso lo secreto del mio cuore, certe donne.”
You read the Italian from the copy you gave her, retrieving it from the cushions. As she looks puzzled you are forced to speak plain English. “When that thing was so in my face that many people had understood the secret of my heart, certain women . . .”
“Do you talk about me?” you want to ask. “If so, to whom? To what do you admit? Can’t you see that I am making a fool of myself for you?
“Why do you stare at me?” she asks taking another swig from the can in her hand, looking up at the ceiling. She has seen nothing in your face or chooses not to. Dante’s “secret” doesn’t interest her.
Why am I here? You ask yourself, but mutter, “Fortune.”
“Fortune?” she echoes, a dutiful but bored chorus.
“Dante claims Fortune brought him by the knot of heartbreakers parading up a street where they sweep along, daily, gossiping.
“Fortune? Do you believe that?”
A pause. “Or his story about encountering Beatrice’s friends ‘in the street one day’ quite by chance?”
“I didn’t get to that part, yet,” she sighs.
You try to greet her where she sits across from you, reclining in a collapsing armchair, as if she was one these women, girls in grace but beyond their years (nineteen, twenty?) in sophistication. Dante’s appreciation is summed up in the words he speaks aloud to the young woman and you apply it to her, crying out, “Donne gentili.”
A wrinkle of boredom in her brow signals to translate. “One might ring a series of adjectives, Women who are gentili—‘noble, elegant, well bred, heartbreakingly lovely.’ One steps out of the circle to mock. ‘She called me by name. “Dante, Alighieri, to what end do you love this, your lady, since you are not able to endure her presence? Tell us, for certainly, one may agree that the end of such love is bizarre, novissimo.”’”
You taste the condescension in that phrase, “novissimo.” “I could translate, ‘strange, novel, singular, most unusual,’ but somehow I feel the throat of Dante’s speaker warbling the ess’s, her eyebrows raised, and so, ‘bizarre.’”
The young woman you address ignores your hint. Instead she echoes, “To what end?” It has an ominous ring.
You ignore her question and go on. “‘When she had spoken these words, not only she, but all those who were with her, began to observe me, waiting for my reply.’”
You take a deep breath, hoping in the silence the she opposite will express some interest, in your explication of La Vita Nuova (for a week now you have been praising it as a manual of secret love), or at least respond to the suggestion that through poetry she can engage in an elaborate dance with you.
“He sets the donne gentili a riddle. ‘Ladies, the end and aim of my love was but the greeting of that lady of whom I believe you are speaking; wherein alone I found that bliss which is the end of all my desires. And now that it has pleased her to deny me this, Love, my Master, of his great mercy has placed all my bliss there where it will not come to less.’”
By this time, you are convinced it will “come to less,” at least this evening, but continue as if you could achieve the force of irresistible, positive gravity with words.
“Dante has changed the subject. They have teased, ‘Why should you pay attention to a woman whose beauty so upsets you that you cannot bear to look at her?’ Dante complained that Beatrice will not longer look at him, but, no matter, he has found a source of ‘bliss’ that is just as good as her greeting.” You hope for a stir of curiosity.
“‘Then those ladies began to talk among themselves; and as I have sometimes seen rain mixed with the beautiful snow fall, so I seemed to hear their words come out mixed with sighs. And when they had spoken among themselves awhile, again, she addressed me.’”
You listen. You hear no sigh, just the sip of beer against her lip as she guzzles her sixth can. You wonders if she is letting you go on because she is dead drunk.
D: THE SECOND PERSON THINKS “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE!”
You go on with your Dante since she has abandoned you, to speak of the noble young woman. “‘She addressed me,’ which indicates that we are to fill in for ourselves the silence in the street, the sighs in the circle of women who no longer laugh, but feel for the young man who stands before him, sighing himself softly, so he hears it as a hush on the pavement. That image of death, the snow mingles in Dante’s head with the incessant cold rain as beautiful, comforting. The princess among the young women, who mocked his behavior as ‘bizarre,’ takes up the poet’s challenge. ‘This lady who had first addressed me, spoke these words, “We pray you tell us where this ‘bliss’ abides?’”
“Dante’s reply is arrogant. ‘In those words which praise my lady.’
“The young woman, who is the arbiter of the group, now trumps him. ‘If your speech is true, those words describing your condition, would have been fashioned with another intent.’”
The young woman gets up from the armchair. “I’m sorry, she says. I have to go to the bathroom.”
E: THE SECOND PERSON BEGINS TO TALK TO HIMSELF.
He thinks he has been rebuked and given a lesson in courtship. Either he is lying to them now, or his poetry has fallen short of his intention. He has been whining in his verse. These young women in the street, the friends of Beatrice have administered a shock to his pride both as a poet and a young man intent on love. In plain vernacular they sum up his problem, ‘This is no way to woo her or any one of us. What praise is this talk of earthquakes, this perpetual weeping? Our beauty should cause joy not misery? Stop whining!’”
“Should I stop?” you ask. She has come back from the bathroom in the interim and waves you on. The pause has taken four or five minutes, in which time you have decided with the poet to take another tack.
“Dante’s tongue is frozen for several days as he admits. He still wants to write poetry, but now he doesn’t know where to begin. When he does, his “words” are different and he addresses them in gratitude to, “Women who have intelligence of love, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.” “Refined and sensitive in love,” one translator proposes, but it is the lesson that Dante is referring to, and therefore the ironic echo of the pedantic, addressing the young women as students echoes in his compliment.”
I am counting on your intelligence too, you think, for something to come of this.
“It is a ‘love so sweet’ Dante sings about now, that it threatens as the musical rhyme comes tumbling, ‘to make lovers of you all.’ Don’t stop, dear words, my verse, he cries, with anyone vulgar, but ‘solo con donne o con omo cortese,’ ‘only with women and men of refinement,’ who can help. ‘Sensitive,’ the translator offers in English for the Italian of ‘cortese. linking it to his previous ‘refined and sensitive,’ ‘Stop and sing only to those who are themselves lovers.’”
“Love is with his lady, Dante is sure. She is already in love, not just with one, but many. Can she begrudge Dante Alighieri her marvelous greeting that transforms all who receive, who obtain just the glance of her eyes?
“How does Dante know this?” you ask out loud.
She is mute with alcohol but you supply the answer. “The circle of young women buzz in agreement. ‘Love and the heart that is gentil, gracious, /are but one thing,
“‘Beatrice, you are consumed. I feel it. You radiate love.
“‘You and love are the same thing!’ Dante cries aloud. And Beatrice’s friends go singing this.”
“Are you leaving?” she asks.
“Yes” and you mumble at the door, hoping for a reaction, Despite the fact that she let The New Life you gave her, get soaked in the rain while she trekked around the city with a boyfriend, she might have thumbed a few pages in it. “I can’t endure your presence.”
“What did you say?”
“Were you listening?”
F: THE FIRST PERSON DECIDES TO TAKE A HAND.
It is the cosmological constant that is at fault here. Gravity working against us: everything flies apart. I have to use the force pushing me out of existence to assert itself. Reverse engineering of a sort.
“Come into the shadow of this red rock, Jack and Jill. I will show you something… Entropy!
“Jill, let me rest my head on your tummy.”
“I am reserved for a great one of the land,” she whispered. It came out a bit more crudely when I asked, persistently, why I was no longer allowed proximity to what lay under her clothes, or even flashed out between her belt line and her blouse, as pure temptation. In fact she said nothing at the moment when I made the gesture in the direction of her belly button. It was earlier, discussing a fellow poet’s attempt to book a hotel room for the two of them in a city where he was giving a lecture, that she remarked, “Who does he think he is? If he were a great writer, I would consider it.” She laughed, tossing her head, seeing me nod in agreement with her admirable taste.
Later, not much later, maybe a minute or so, I understood her attitude toward my own talent, implicit in this regard.
I tried to scare her with the Cosmological Constant. “Gravity is coming to get you,” I warned. “You better watch out.”
Gently, very gently, I explained how her belly with the rest of the universe was expanding and that soon it would not be fun to spread my palm over it.
“No, no,” she cried, truly convinced, in awe of the approaching Constant. I congratulated myself. I prepared to snuggle up when she whipped out a cell phone and called a girlfriend. She was ready to curl up in a hidden dimension but not with me—“words, words, words,” floating free of gravity.
G: ABANDONING PERSONAE
“Words are things” is the insistent refrain of the testament of Moses.
It is those laughing words of hers that have filled the box and he has lived in them for a moment, building in their dimension a hidden abode, resting, from the speed of light bearing him off in his own trip toward entropy.
His own words had weight as well for a moment. Our narrator felt that, but also the danger of extending his fingers: trying to fix her in their web instead of what he had just recited—rhymes meant to vibrate in her now as if he had reached into chords running through her musculature where she responded in delight.
Why follow up those delicate tremors that passed between them in the air at a space of six, seven feet with the brutal thrust of knees, wrists, assuming he pinned her on the floor, couch—or pushed her back into her bedroom, with the emergence of a third party insisting on a corporal, probably unwelcome entry.
Still one wants words to do things. Wants words to translate into mass, and mass into energy. Dante, who pretended to take comfort in his lines of poetry tripping through the streets of Florence, sees words in their character of sounds, images, as only the first stage in his courtship. Academics rarely hear Dante’s wry humor, as he appears to bow his head and accept the rebuke of his beloved’s girlfriends, resign himself to being hopelessly removed from her body’s pleasures in the wake of her marriage.
Words pass though the windows, and come like a fever’s germs on the lips and tongue of those who repeat them, the magical rhymes which go on singing, singing in the ears of Dante’s Beatrice. She locks herself in her bedroom the better to hear them, as they inscribe themselves in memory as a code that turns the body to desire as the secret strings of the genetic code.
This is Dante’s string theory. It works if one is to believe the testimony of La Vita Nuova. Beatrice unites with him in perfect union, indivisible symmetry; if one can specify mystical love in contemporary syllogisms.
Is string theory nonsense as physicists try to understand it? No one knows for sure. The tropes of Science served Shakespeare, Dante, but the box of words, which my personal pronoun carried back and forth to her apartment in the East Village, is empty.
The spirit has fled the vowels. The consonants lie collapsed.
What did she write?
“I miss you.”
What did he read into that as it flew into the box?
“I have ten dimensions, only three exist in space and a fourth in time. Find me!
“Most of me is missing.”
The “dark matter” in the box begins to move as he thinks about it.
How about the “dark energy” that seventy percent of the universe that’s really missing?
No, better to stick closer to what one might be able to grasp, the twenty five percent he can guess at.
With words though, he is down to the five percent of real matter, since they generate sound waves, measurable amounts of energy expelled at her from his voice box. And the words held in memory? Don’t they flash in tiny electrical currents each time he thinks of them?
Don’t they summon up the smooth touch of her skin, as she lay back naked against him on the bed? He can feel his pleasure again at her high, small breasts and the curve of her buttocks against the mattress; the way the classic line of her face recalls a fragment of classical statuary; its nose roughened in the excavation after a millennium or two under the earth. He wants to enfold himself in her porous marble and take flight.
What energy had given the image the power to make him whirl, giddy, barely holding on to the box for a moment?
Like a speck of quantum matter, in being observed, it had changed direction, spin, position.
There, and now, it was gone.
—Mark Jay Mirsky
Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.
He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.
Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.