Kylan Rice

Encryption

“The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life—life passed through the fire of thought. But of the bad preacher, it could not be told from his sermon what age of the world he fell in; whether he had a father or a child; whether he was a freeholder or a pauper; whether he was a citizen or a countryman; or any other fact of his biography.”
R.W. Emerson, “Divinity School Address”

In the crypt of the Glasgow cathedral, Saint Mungo’s tomb is covered with a patchwork quilt. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it. Above me, in that memory, the cathedral’s time-darkened stones ripple then recombine as along the doubtful boundaries of a river-bank.

It is a quilt just as soon found thrown across a recliner in your grandparents’ home. I can’t tell if it’s there for reverence or for warmth; for concealment or care.

Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow, is known for catching a fish from the River Clyde, which contained in its stomach a wedding ring.

The ring belonged to Queen Languoreth of Strathclyde. She lost it while she slept, when it was stolen from off her hand and thrown, by her husband King Riderch, into the river. The King hoped to accuse his wife of bestowing the ring upon a secret lover as a token. In this manner, with no recourse to divorce, he might condemn the Queen by law to death, and so free himself to marry some other woman.

The Queen, who had no such secret lover, appealed to Mungo, who caught and slit a fish, and saved his patroness.

This and other of the Saint’s miracles are remembered in a verse that goes:

Here is the bird that never flew
Here is the tree that never grew
Here is the bell that never rang
Here is the fish that never swam

The poem reads like a riddle, or cipher. Yet it withholds nothing. Quite the opposite—it renders bird, tree, bell, fish to you. Here, take them.

But these are odd clues, all the same. Though bird, tree, bell, fish, each is remembered for what they did not do, but which, by nature, they should have otherwise: fly, grow, ring, swim. What kind of bell doesn’t ring? For certain a broken one. What kind of tree doesn’t grow? Must be a stunted one.

Stunted, broken, split open, preempted. Yet—miraculous.

So, in an eleventh-century cathedral, thousands of miles from home, I found not God but the opposite logic. Not redemption for beings essentially in error; rather: beings redeemed and redeeming by erring from their essence.

The line-of-flight a fishing-line.

But I should confess the reason I was overseas in the first place: a failure of my own. My whole life raised to build up the kingdom of God by preaching as a missionary for the Mormon church. To be a fisher of men. At first, age nineteen, I couldn’t. A year passed, I thought about it, then could, and got an assignment to serve in France. A few weeks into a period of cloistered training, when I couldn’t, again, when I—I confess openly, obscenely, the only way—started making slits in myself, I was sent back home. Then I was worried that maybe I was cursed. That, unless I willed it, I would never leave the country, as I was meant to, but for the purpose of preaching.

In Tribute to Freud, the poet H.D. asks herself: “Do I wish myself in the deepest unconscious or subconscious layers of my being to be the founder of a new religion?”

In the history of God and man, it is a question that would seem to culminate in the recession of religion into the depths of the protestant self, the self’s crypts, so that the self itself is cryptic.

H.D.’s question is a poet’s question. Another poet, Rainier Maria Rilke also submits to us the cryptic depth of the individual soul, and the labor that attends it: “…It is our task to imprint this provisional, perishable earth so deeply, so patiently and passionately in ourselves that its reality shall arise in us again ‘invisibly.’ We are the bees of the invisible.”

Rilke uses the language of plant husbandry, but also the language of resurrection to explain the this-worldly work of the poet:

Reality shall arise in us again.

First, though, it has to die in me. I have to encrypt it. Or, rather, I have to decrypt it—that is, slit its stomach, killing it, but for good reason.

Or, by Rilke’s logic, by encrypting, I decrypt.

Anyway, I am left to my own devices. A word that could mean heraldry.

But the bee is no the herald, going before. No, it’s the bee that brings the invisible flower forth. As in, the bee that brings it out.




Scotts Valley

Ivy, roses, songbirds. But what types I don’t know. Nor am I certain, for that matter, that I’m looking at roses or ivy in the screen-print of the shower-curtain in my grandmother’s guest bathroom. It might be safer to say leaves and flowers and songbirds—or even just birds. For song is an assumption, too. Sometimes it’s safer to surrender one kind of accuracy.

The curtain is also embossed: under the print, there are outlines of other types of foliage. I expect to find an echo of the same ivy and rose pattern, but instead the ghostly flora looks nothing like the rose, nor the ivy-leaf. The encrypted flowers are big, ruffly, tropical. The leaves are like oak. Or perhaps maple. There are no birds to speak of.

For as long as I can remember, my grandparents have lived among the oaks and madrones in Scotts Valley. Before it was incorporated, the area was home for several years to Sky Park Airfield. Today, the airstrip asphalt is barely traceable under the crab grass of the vacant lot north of the city’s actual park. The mural on the nearby public library shows a yellow Beechcraft dragging a banner that says “Remembering Sky Park Airport 1947 to 1983.” It is a few days after Christmas, which means school is still on holiday, kids are in the park and in the empty lot, which is made up of gravel, old asphalt, and mud turned up by tire-tread. A father and son troubleshoot a balsa wood airplane, powered by a rubber-band.

During its lifespan, short on space for take-off and landing, Sky Park struggled for grants and government support: the original runway wasn’t angled right. Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, crashed his private plane here in ’81. He suffered some facial scarring, as well as temporary short-term memory loss.

The idea is to go today to the lime kilns in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. The whole west rests on the back of the lime kiln, its gold boom-towns made from mortar made from baked-down stone. On the hike to the kilns, my grandmother wears a blue sweat-suit the same blue as the knitted baby shoes my father wore, a newborn, fifty-five years ago. She has handed the shoes down to my mother. The idea is to help return these things to life. Before she found them digging through deep storage, there was nobody to know or recall they existed, these mementos of the mothering she’d done.

The trail in is 1.2 miles long. My grandmother, who has forgotten the hard terrain, brings along the dog stroller to lean on. My dad and brother have to lift it, with terrier, over roots, runoff, stones.

The mind has a hard time adjusting. A dense canopy darkens the day and sharpens the green into pinpoints. The bathroom at night recedes on a grade.

Cowell, one of the lime barons of Santa Cruz County, competed with the city and the H.T. Holmes and the I.X.L. companies for acreage forested with enough redwood to fuel the demand for lime in San Francisco and Santa Cruz proper. It took three to four days and seventy cords of timber gorged from the surrounding forest to burn off the carbon and leave behind a thousand pounds of calcium oxide. Lime was used for mortar to build cities and later rebuild them when they crumbled and burned on top of fault-lines. What redwoods are left have been consecrated a state park and taken Cowell’s name.

Highway 9 bullwhips through the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, which means you can’t avoid it if you want to get to the beach or boardwalk from Felton. Everywhere there seems to be a park entrance or pull-off for easy access. My dad worked his college-aged summers clearing trail and building bridges over Fall and Bennet creeks for the Forest Service. On these my grandmother and grandfather now struggle for their footing. At first, they will hear nothing about turning back. Later, at night, from the guest room given me, I can hear the chuff of my grandfather’s hands on my grandmother’s feet and legs as she moans from pain, only now setting in.

Eventually, we start to separate. My brother and I go on ahead through the dense green foliage of the woods to scout the way, and see how much of the one and two tenths of a mile remain until the kilns. Soon after we peel off, my mom and dad and sister follow. My grandparents have decided to turn back after all, and make good time. For a while, the family is strung out in a line through the woods, the frets of a chord.

*

Shoulderless, the frontage road from Santa Cruz to Scotts Valley carves under Highway 17, hollows out an overpass. To get the concrete beams for this span of bridge to set, CDOT must have used wooden panels to keep it all in place, since the cement there is impressed with knots and grain from lengths of pine supports.

My grandfather’s father was a carpenter, too. In the dusk, I help my dad move a heavy table saw from the shop underneath his parents’ mobile home into the truckbed. On a workbench in the shop are stencils and wood rounds painted with Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs. The mighty oak’s mystery: strength, health in body and mind, long life. A scalloped border is the sea, smooth sailing it.

My grandfather’s father, also a Harold, took to sea fishing, especially salmon, and was in the Vancouver Sun once for landing a forty-pound chinook with his brother, Cyril. The columnist admits the actual weight of the fish was 39 3/4 pounds, but says that “if it had eaten a couple more herring before it inhaled Cyril’s it would have been a 40.”

The Sun clippings have floated to the floor from a binder that holds, in a transparent sleeve, the pocket-sized version of the Book of Psalms that belonged once to Harold Senior. A gift, it bears the inscription: “From Cyril Rice 552-21st st Brandon Man To his Brother Private H. Rice God Watch over you + Bring you safe back When you pray say our Father.” I use my new iPhone, a Christmas present, to photograph this blessing and exhortation.

After a married couple from Redlands shot and killed fourteen people in San Bernardino, the FBI appealed to Apple, Inc. to make software to give them backdoor access to the encrypted contents of one of the terrorists’ iPhones. Apple refused, and the FBI found a third-party work-around. A few months later, during a Reddit AMA, Steve Wozniak addressed the subject of Apple’s security policies, reflecting more broadly on his philosophy of privacy:

“…You know what, I have things in my head, some very special people in my life that I don't talk about, that mean so much to me from the past. Those little things that I keep in my head are my little secrets. It's a part of my important world, my whole essence of my being. I also believe in honesty. If you tell somebody, ‘I am not snooping on you,’ or, ‘I am giving you some level of privacy; I will not look in your drawers,’ then you should keep your word and be honest. And I always try to avoid being a snoop myself, and it's rare in time that we can look back and say, ‘How should humans be treated?’ Not, ‘How can the police run everything?’

“…So, I come from the side of personal liberties. But there are also other problems. Twice in my life I wrote things that could have been viruses. I threw away every bit of source code. I just got a chill inside. These are dangerous, dangerous things, and if some code gets written in an Apple product that lets people in, bad people are going to find their way to it, very likely.”

How slippery some lines of code. How indiscernibly a backdoor appears. How easy to open.

For Christmas, my grandfather gives me a Dover paperback with a selection of World War I poetry from my grandfather. I open it up to Owen’s poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which I once had memorized for a competition in high school, and read out some lines to the gathered family:

“But someone still was yelling out and stumbling / and floud’ring like a man in fire or lime.”

Calcium oxide, it turns out, is also good for breaking down dead matter, decomposing bodies in the bottoms of trenches.

When I ask him about his interest in World War I, he tells me his father served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, 181st Battalion, Brandon, Manitoba, and shows me a picture of Platoon 2. When I ask him if his father ever spoke about the war, he has a hard time remembering. This is more and more the case. He tells me instead about the Shaughnessy Military Hospital in Vancouver. He remembers using the elevator. He remembers seeing a soldier on a gurney. He remembers it was a good, long, rare conversation with his dad, who died in the night, aged seventy-seven, cancer of the throat.

This gift is meant as a kind of fine, difficult knot. An imperfect joinery. Poetry for me, his father for him.

My grandmother says she, too, loved my grandfather’s father, and tells a story: Once, when my own father was young, no older than six months, the whole family went out for a fishing trip. When my dad’s older sister wasn’t looking, Harold Senior put a fish on her hook and slipped it back in the shallows. The illusion was real enough to thrill a three-year-old, who looked to the end of her line, and pulled, and saw her wildest imaginings rewarded. A glistening rainbow the length of her arm.

Here is a fish that never swam. A miracle, materialized. As if out of thin air: a trick out of love.

*

The kilns comprise a ruined stone slot in a hillside. A manufactory, now cryptic. All told, little is left. There isn’t much to see. Maybe that’s for the best. For the danger is that I will—by accident, erring—see what wasn’t meant for me. Say what isn’t there. I’ll go too far and write by accident a backdoor where there should be none. For there is no house here. Nor grave either. And I am digging from the thin air no actual bodies.

Emerson knew the risks of synthesis. He knew that some parts of the world are better left imperfectly joined. Some connections left unmade, unmanufactured. He describes the dangers of the aging mind, which fuses into one what should be many:

“To the young mind, every thing is individual, stands by itself. By and by, it finds how to join two things, and see in them one nature; then three, then three thousand; and so, tyrannized over by its own unifying instinct, it goes on tying things together, diminishing anomalies, discovering roots running under ground, whereby contrary and remote things cohere, and flower out from one stem.”

What kind of flower, I wonder. Perhaps a rose, I think. But, to be honest, I couldn’t tell you. It’s safer that way. I mean, the memory, with its three thousand glistening scales, innocent of the hand that put it there. There, at the end of the line, where any thing could be.




E

But what good is an invisible flower?

The idealist would answer me: Your thinking is all wrong. The flower is not what’s invisible, but what underlies it. What makes it possible—it, and the world. But wait. I mean it when I say the world is possible, and possible only. What you see—the visible, true flower—is only a pregnancy, a heralding, an expression of potentials in a world that is potential, all: that is, one that never fully flowers, or does, but halfway: in the form of a flower. The kind that you see.

The idealist would tell me: And that flower you see—by seeing it, it’s seed in you. It’s not that that flower is actually in you. Instead, the flower becomes possible in you, in your mind, internalized in the form, the eidos, of an idea.

I mean, of a seed.

Remember Rilke: Reality shall arise in us again.

But it’s hard for me to actually believe that. Not when, in reality, there’s nothing underlying anything—just surfaces, overlays, grounds grinding across each other, subducting like plates, molten again, then hardening to rise, more buoyant than the rest. Then clay, then dirt. And then, one billion years later, a super bloom flares across the vales and intervales that the interstates intersect. But, take care—this massive flowering will last for only a handful of days, then wither in the heat, then unmanage into fire.

But the breast is no such soil—that’s just an analogy. I can’t take anything to heart. Or maybe, if I’m being truthful, what I mean is I don’t. I refuse to. For it’s a cruel month when the snow subsides, and reality rises, green and longing and rupturing through.

*

In case of a crisis, the United States government stores billions of seeds at the seed bank on the Colorado State University campus. Some seeds, the oldest ones—ancient strains of rice, say—are subdued by subzero temperatures in cryogenic chambers. Other more stable seeds are kept in cold storage, at warmer, yet still freezing, temperatures. These are ordered into searchable white packets and indexed on shelves, as in a library.

I tour the seed bank as part of a two-day seminar, attended by poets, animal scientists, risk managers, and also potters and installation artists from around the country. The seminar, a focus group on “Crisis and Creativity,” is led by my teacher, Dan, a poet. The participants are his friends and students.

The governing question for us is: to what extent does crisis inform creativity? Or perhaps, what does creativity look like in crisis?

During one session, the group is led in guided meditation by another poet. She instructs me and all of us to remember a childhood room. She tells me to think of that room, and all the objects in it. Now, leave it. As you leave, look to your right. Though you can’t see it, though there is no door, know that, in this, your oldest, dearest home, there is a secret room beside the room in which you spent your youth. It is a room you will never enter. It is a room hung within with pictures you will never see.

Now, leave it alone. Now, leave your home.

That room I didn’t know was there still grits like a spore in me.

Or, it is like an urn to me. The kind Keats held, and agonized over, and could not open up, nor ever see inside.

During another session, we meet in the pottery studio on campus, where Del, a professor of ceramics, provides the group with clay and some suggestions for touching it. We pass a warm spring afternoon in quiet labor, building up, then ruining, our small re-foldable structures.

I decide to make a tiny urn. I decide I will give it no base, so that it has two mouths, open from both ends. The open base will be able to hide a portable speaker, which will allow me to play sounds through it, turning the urn into a speaking thing. The sounds I decide to play through it are recordings I have made of robins in song. I have manipulated the recording so that, intermittently, a fragment of a lecture by the poet Anne Carson interrupts the robins in their chorus. In her sing-song shard, Carson recites a Greek nonsense word used in grieving:

otototoi popoi

On the surface of the urn, I inscribe in Greek what is inscribed on the forecourt at the Temple of Delphi:

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Know thyself.

All in all, the work is not well-wrought, nor fully thought. But it plants its seed in me: the next winter, I decide to take a pottery course, and I start throwing cups and bowls for real.

It’s a winter of heavy snow. But the winter kept us warm, me and Tallie. As beneath a quilt, pretending to make a house within a house of quilts while watching the children of our friends. And in that house, too, there is a hidden room. And in the rooms that winter makes we met, in the knee-deepest sense, and spoke of poetry, and pottery, for her brothers both were potters, and she herself so drawn to the vessel-form, the Eidos of it, as a seed is to the lip of a seedleap, sown. And as I worked on pots, we worked on poems both and for each other, and used them as tools or urns to say back to each other the things we might have said the night before.

When the deep snows were pushed aside at last, so was the quilt.

As if for no other reason than a changed wind: the first warm night of the year, at dinner together, we fell to talking about her ex-husband, who one night hurled a kitchen-knife at her head. The sheer dead lift it took to get from under him. Then, on her own at last, the clove cigarettes she took to smoking with the window open in the middle of winter, the midnights surging through in a dry cold wash, an underground river.

Now, it’s spring. Re-opening that window. Lilies appear on the table, and open, too, and she turns away from me, feeling, instead of me, a chill on her cheek.

*

Works by the Danish ceramicist Axel Salto have been described as organic, volcanic, demonic.

A demon is that which manifests from a realm of unfathomable concealment.

Salto’s vases develop across three distinct stages. These three types are his “fluted,” “budding,” and “sprouting” forms. His surfaces are in process, becoming. They undergo seed and pod-like deformations into inscrutable, unspeakable plants. They do not burst, but bulge.

Salto writes, “It is of greater importance for an artist to create in the spirit of nature, rather than to imitate its exterior.” To make a form that channels forming.

My pottery teacher tasks me to reproduce one of Salto’s most demonic vases, the “Core of Power.” My job is to channel a channeling. I fire it three times, glaze and reglaze. Foregrounds recede, the surface starts to speak, or shriek. When I finish, I call it “Grecian Urn,” after Keats.

The firing process all but obliterates my original surface, a relief molded to look like a trellis in a vineyard, but turned upside down, so that branches are roots that seem to feed upward into the volcanic, arched triple-fate of flutes.

On the surface of the vase, the vineyard becomes an inverted world, chthonic, a tunnel system for a liquid earth. In Dante’s Inferno, Dante and Virgil must climb down the hairy leg of Satan, who is buried to his waist at the lowest point of the universe. Once they reach and cross the threshold of that lowermost point, clinging to Lucifer’s infernal body, the world rights itself, and Dante finds himself hanging upside down in purgatory.

On cold nights after working, I would exit the studio, and breathe in, and taste the clay dust trapped in the rooms of my lungs. The urn, in me.

In his “Ode,” Keats reproduces the Portland vase. On its surface, it depicts that classic scene that’s stopped in time. All breathing human passions far above. Keats, panting to know: what does it hold. “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity…”.

The scene: a procession, coming to a sacrifice; a town, emptied of its folk, and a priest, leading a garlanded heifer by its horns. It is a panorama to which Keats alludes again in his second epic fragment, “The Fall of Hyperion, A Dream”—a poem that blends all his odes and more into a single body. The speaker of “The Fall,” a poet, enters a forest, as if restaging “Ode to Psyche,”

…where trees of every clime,
Palm, myrtle, oak, and sycamore, and beech,
With plantain, and spice-blossoms, made a screen—

There, instead of two soft-breathing gods, as in “Psyche,” the poet finds the abandoned remains of a feast, but still plenty of good things left to eat:

…And appetite
More yearning than on earth I ever felt
Growing within, I ate deliciously;
And, after not long, thirsted, for thereby
Stood a cool vessel of transparent juice,
Sipped by the wandering bee, the which I took,
And, pledging all the mortals of the world,
And all the dead whose names are in our lips,
Drank…

The bee-sipped liquor sends the poet into a deep sleep. When he wakes, or does he, the forest has disappeared, and in its place the poet gropes for bearings within the carved walls of a massive domed temple, strewn all around with tapestries and strange vessels, and robes and golden tongs and censers and chafing-dishes.

The poet approaches and climbs (with mortal difficulty) a set of stairs that ascends toward an altar, where a dwindling fire of leaves and spice-wood burns, tended by a single shrouded priestess who tells him he has been permitted to dream of this temple, to “usurp this height,” because he is one to whom “the miseries of the world / are misery.” Surely, the poet exclaims, there are others also stung by empathy, by all the worldly sorrows, and yet—yet this temple is empty but for me. To which the priestess responds:

‘They whom thou spak’st of are no visionaries,’
…‘They are no dreamers weak,
They seek no wonder but the human face;
No music but a happy-noted voice—
They come not here, they have no thought to come—
And thou art here, for thou art less than they—
What benefit canst thou do, or all thy tribe,
To the great world? Thou art a dreaming thing,
A fever of thyself. Think of the Earth;
What bliss even in hope is there for thee?

In his own dream, the dreamer is damned for dreaming, but is at least given access to this stone temple and its burning altar. Yet, it is an altar at which the sacrifice—a heifer with garland, perhaps—is already charred and done with. The poet cannot worship, though he wishes he could.

The priestess cries in answer to that wishful look:

‘The sacrifice is done, but not the less
Will I be kind to thee for thy goodwill.
My power, which to me is still a curse,
Shall be to thee a wonder; for the scenes
Still swooning vivid through my globed brain,
With an electral changing misery,
Thou shalt with those dull mortal eyes behold,
Free from all pain, if wonder pain thee not.’

Thus, in a dense forest in a deep dream inside a domed, doomed temple strewn with strange vessels, the poet descends to a deeper depth, actually entering through the priestess’s veiled and cryptic face, so pale “it had passed / The lily and the snow”—through her face as into a room and into her head to see things he can’t unsee, for nor can she. Fallen gods, realmless eyes. And the gods say: “Moan. Moan, moan, moan, moan.”

If the urn could speak, maybe that’s what it would say.

Or it might say what a stone temple says:

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

According to Plutarch, in addition to this ancient scrap of wisdom, there was also etched into the forecourt at Delphi a large letter E, the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet. Nobody knows what it means, least of all Plutarch, though he did try to decipher its significance:

The sun is the second planet, and E the second vowel.

Or, E means “if.” As in the prayer, “if only.”

Or, as in the logical syllogism: “If-then.”

Or, E, the second-person singular of the verb “to be,” is used to address the sun-god Apollo: “Thou art.”

To say, “If only sun was and you were, too.”

To say what the urn says, and by polysemy.

Kylan Rice has poetry and prose published in the Kenyon Review, West Branch, Denver Quarterly, Carolina Quarterly, and elsewhere.