CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. Outside it was summer, grounded in the metallic hum of insects, a sound deeper than silence.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. Outside it was summer, and of a fullness. Summer wasn’t to be found in any piece, there was no rock or blade of grass or rubber band abandoned on the lawn which contained part of summer. Nor was it to be found in the metallic hum of insects, a soft hum with teeth, somewhat like a saw. But not the sound of a saw, its image, but not even that, because softer. Deeper than silence, the ground of silence.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. He did not set the rhythm of summer nor even join with it, though his clicks too were grounded in the metallic hum of insects, a sound deeper than silence. Dr. Sperber clicked independently of summer, in ignorance of it, as far as I can tell, and in ignorance of the soft buzz underlying it, in my opinion. He would have clicked whether they were there or not, I believe.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. Outside it was summer, grounded in the metallic hum of insects, a sound deeper than silence. That soft buzz too was not a piece of summer, one cannot pull summer into pieces, neither sound nor light nor the movement of light and far less the position of the planet and aspect of its rotation can be called the constituents of summer, which exists apart from them though it contains them. Summer is our image of completion, in which each thing flows into the next and the branches are still limber with sap. Not an image—summer is completion, and supple. Just as winter is fragmentation, and brittle, and the world in snow offers a basic blank, an encroaching void (for why should the void be black? Black contains mysteries, while white resists them and all else, black is of a fullness, and there is nothing more beautiful than a summer night). And when pieces of the landscape protrude through the snow, like a broken branch, we see that the world is pieces and that the whiteness isolates rather than connects. The branch is a failed assertion, a word flung down on the page in desperation without any neighbors to give it resonance and perhaps of little resonance itself, though it speaks to me a word which resonates: alone. But it is not that word.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. Perhaps Dr. Sperber is a fragment of winter incongruously, impossibly, lodged here, in the corner. I think he might be, and offer as demonstration the way I can pull him to pieces, with a flourish: the being (Sperber), his mouth (its sound), its pattern (a rhythm). Perhaps Dr. Sperber is nothing in the corner, perhaps he is nothing but a mouth and its sounds, not even a coat on a stick with a mouth perched on top, but just a mouth, relentlessly clicking.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. It is presumptuous to assert what he is, to call him for example a fragment of winter, it is enough to note THAT he is, or that he is in the process of becoming, always on the verge. His empty mastications produce, in the coming together and moving apart of his gums, filaments of saliva: perhaps summer is the loom and these filaments are the thread, perhaps summer + Sperber = a whole greater even than the whole of summer. But I have my doubts.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. I have pulled him to pieces, as perhaps I should not have done, it may be presumptuous, but he persists as becoming, mouth, filament, sound. He is still clicking. So perhaps I never pulled him apart at all and have nothing to apologize for. Or perhaps I did (I think I did) but his mouth survives him. I wouldn’t even attempt to pull apart summer, that doesn’t do, just as it doesn’t do to inquire too closely of that sound which mysteriously underlies summer without being part of it, the metallic hum of insects, a sound deeper than silence. Because it is probably a kind of insect mating call, and it doesn’t do to consider insects too closely, because of their hideous beauty, because their beauty is the beauty of hell. They are shiny crisp alien surface and dank brown inside, the word chitinous describes both their appearance and their sound, and that is a word which frightens me. Perhaps it is the sound of insects rubbing up against themselves, a spiny leg against a shell, that would be bad. Or perhaps it is the sound of insects rubbing up against EACH OTHER, the sound of the RUTTING OF INSECTS, that would be WORSE, shell grinding on shell. Insect copulation is horrible to contemplate. But one need not contemplate it, because that is not how they reproduce—AS FAR AS WE KNOW. Because everything about them is secret.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. I have flung a word upon the page in an attempt to isolate it, to break it apart from living surroundings, to relegate it to winter. But then I think: what if it survives there, what if it ruts in winter and in rutting produces a new sound, and what if that sound unites the fragments of winter and creates from them a new and horrible whole, an empty whole with a dank brown inside. I don’t think this can happen, but the possibility frightens me. Because everything about them is secret.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. I wonder what he looks like inside?
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. Could it be that he is DANK BROWN inside, and that his surface is SHELL? If one stepped on his hand (if he has a hand) would there be no honest crack of breaking bone but only the indeterminate crackle of splitting shell, and an OOZE? I do not want to ask the question, but it must be asked: IS DR. SPERBER AN INSECT?
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. The thought cannot be borne. This is why it does not pay to inquire too closely of insects, or to attempt to pull summer to pieces. A mutilated summer is horrible, worse than the worst thing you can imagine. Despite this, summer is not dank brown inside, because summer does not reside in its pieces. Summer cannot be found in any of its parts, whether rock or blade of grass or rubber band abandoned on the lawn. Summer is neither surface nor essence, but that which contains surface and essence. Summer is completion and fullness, and there is nothing more beautiful than a summer night.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. Dr. Sperber is apart from summer, will be perpetually apart from summer. Observing his rhythmic clicking, I am both reassured (because it is not the clicking of an insect, though it IS perhaps the clicking of a machine—I note the regularity with which his gums separate and snap back, as if regulated with gears and a rubber band) and made uneasy on a new front (because close inspection of his mouth reveals to me that my conclusions on black were reached too hastily, that there is black AND black. Though both are equally black. But one is the black of fullness (a summer night) and one is the black of desolation (the mouth of Dr. Sperber)).
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. The blackness of his mouth punches a hole in summer, is an emptiness summer cannot contain, so it is just as well that he is kept away from summer, in the corner. Every extension and extinction of saliva between his gums is a failure of meaning, a meaning that cannot preserve itself against the blackness of his mouth. And yet the filaments continue to form and will (I suspect) always be forming (unless Dr. Sperber is a machine, in which case it is possible that the gears will jam or the rubber band will snap, having depleted its inner store of elasticity). And there is something reassuring about that which makes me think that meaning exists only in extension, that it is a stretching, and that as long as this occurs, the preservation of any particular meaning/strand of saliva is of no consequence whatsoever.
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. He is, in my judgment, a self-sufficient machine for generating meaning or saliva (both?). (This presumes that we locate the productive point of the Sperber-mechanism in the mouth, or, more precisely, between the gums. Since he appears to consist of little else, I judge this presumption to be warranted, while admitting that there may be facets of the Sperber-mechanism that have escaped my attention, and admitting also that Sperber may not be a machine.)
Dr. Sperber sat in the corner, rhythmically clicking his gums. I turn and turn this image until, tired of turning, I must stop and find my place in it. I do not reside in the summer, nor in the sound, nor in the silence (elements unaccounted for: the rock, the grass). I hope I do not reside with the insects. I cannot align myself with Sperber (his being), nor his gums, nor his spittle. I am in his mouth.
From the Book of Beginnings
THE CONDENSATIONHow well it suits all men, on the subject of chaos, to say that it is a kind of darkness! But in fact it comes from certain brusque and untoward minglings of matter as well as from the exhalations of general expression, not excluding those called, but miscalled, pleasantries, as well as those called, with greater justice, commonplaces, bearing on their backs and so hiding from sight stubby fingers of implication, which can be called neither clean nor fresh scented, which poke and prod and slowly roll the emissions of matter, tumbling into itself without cessation, and thereby rendering through flattened language a crust, and through off-color expression some declivity within the crust, which declivity we call Lake Michigan, its pasty waters murmuring perpetually a single word: Waukegan, which is the old Indian word for “chaos,” which is itself a Greek word for a bladder filled with gas, or hysterical pregnancy. We may briefly summarize the events leading in time to the founding of the city in this way: pregnant with chaos, Lake Michigan delivered itself of a Balloon, which nested pink upon its waters. This Balloon we call “Leonard,” whose mother Minnie Palmer was so full of watery substance (tears, spittle), being Lake Michigan in another form, that her eventual distension and release of the form “Leonard” was a matter long foretold in the myths and rites of the Rotarians, who, on moonless nights, would pierce the prairie calm with their cries and frenzied dancing, leaving in their wake a suppuration of air.
THE STORMAnd Minnie Palmer came and appeared over the matter of chaos, or Leonard, shaking brightly painted rattles to check the storm which blanketed neighboring Kenosha in thick gray light and hanging drizzle. So fiercely she rattled that the storm, abashed, abode in Kenosha like an Old Curtain, screening its gentle miseries from neighboring settlements, turning its fertile pastures to sludge and sediment, and laying dim nightmares deep in the brain-folds of its people, who ever after would be startled unreasonably by sudden sounds.
AT THAT TIMEAnd Minnie Palmer was known at the depot and also at the drugstore, earning Nickels as she could, in her way. These Nickels she saved together in a Sock, the sum dedicated to the rearing of her minor metropolis. And the sky of those days was the blue of milk, and glowing like milk from within.
THE TEMPTATION OF LEONARDSo Leonard prospered, growing yet pinker as he drifted from the center of Minnie Palmer to settle on her shores. But when the elastic of summer, which seemed to stretch forever, finally snapped and retracted into autumn and winter, a blankness crept upon the land, penetrating slowly in twin voids of snow and shadow. And from this blankness emerged the temptation of Leonard, in the form of a theater that had come into being out of the shadow. And this was known as the Genessee Theater, and despite his mother Minnie Palmer’s admonitions, to it was Leonard drawn, and from its stage he spoke, offering tidbits of wisdom couched in riddle and paradox.
HIS TEACHINGSAnd the Priests of the Rotary came to the Genessee Theater, saying, “Why are you here, Leonard, and making of your mother, Minnie Palmer, a student of the school of sadness and disappointment?” And the light was upon Leonard, and he answered them, saying, “A man recently drank a pint of yeast in mistake for buttermilk. He rose earlier than usual the next morning.” And the Priests could not help but admit the truth of this.
And the men of Kenosha came to the theater, saying, “Where is this Leonard, of whom we have heard tell, and what is it that he does to make people speak of him so?” And the light was upon Leonard, and he answered them, saying, “The distance from the head of a fox to its tail is a fur piece.” But the men of Kenosha did not understand, but simply sat and stared.
THE EVAPORATIONAnd as Leonard’s engagement was extended indefinitely, Minnie Palmer evaporated in sadness, growing ever more etheric until she could be glimpsed only in the late afternoon light on the sheaves and on the porches, a lingering regret in the sunshine on the shoulders of winter drivers, and a glow of endings on the clown-noses standing sentinel before drive-thru windows, until finally she grew lighter than light and was no more seen, becoming in time a species of radio drama, heard at first regularly on weekdays and then more intermittently on fading signals in the midst of other, similar programs designed to leaven the heavy afternoons of housewives with episodes of tragedy more minor, more persistent, and more mundane than their own.
1. The Package of Sorrow
And so her sadness found form, and form within form, for in this radio drama, known first as “One Mother’s Prayer,” her sadness took a central though disguised and silent role as a mysterious package that had arrived unexpectedly and sat, squat and mysterious, at the center of the kitchen table that formed the core and pivot of this evanescent world.
2. Her Tapping
And as the objects of this world were without form and substance when silent, being known only in sound, the aspect of Minnie Palmer known to listeners as Mother Curtis was forever sounding them to reassure herself of their continued presence, tapping at the counters and cupboards and tapping at the floor and faucets and tapping at the chairs surrounding the kitchen table and tapping even on the table itself, but never tapping the mysterious package that sat squat at its center, for it alone maintained its identity even in silence.
3. The Fluctuations
Under this steady though rapid tapping, the objects drifted into and out of existence, for the aspect of Minnie Palmer known to listeners as Mother Curtis could never be sure that their continued presence, from one round of tapping to the next, was anything more than coincidence, or perhaps indeed each round marked the appearance of a new object identical to its predecessor only on an auditory basis, which is to say in the sound it made when struck by the withered forefinger of Mother Curtis.
4. The Ignorant
And as Mother Curtis tapped, she muttered to herself of the mysterious package on the table, its provenance and import, the risks attendant on unwrapping it, sometimes ceasing to tap long enough to again inspect its wrapping, the handwriting on the label, and its stamps. And as days became weeks and weeks became months with no variance of this routine, the radio drama grew increasingly unpopular with its audience, who would utter hard words when its distinctive organ theme would begin to play of a late afternoon, saying “Oh please turn that off,” and who began referring to the aspect of Minnie Palmer known to listeners as Mother Curtis as “that crazy old bat,” little suspecting, in their ignorance, the mass and expanse of which flourished into a veritable port of delusion, that solely in this tapping did they themselves abide, and that solely through its provenance would their city rise to glory.
THE LEGACYFor these Tappings, as we now style them, in veneration, were far from being merely, or only, the mechanic expression of grief and dementia apprehended by those passengers setting forth with idiot abandon on pleasure cruises aboard the ships of folly and damnation. No, beside and beneath this we may reckon them as akin to the minute and precise operations of a delicate goldsmith’s hammer, taking infinite pains in the modeling of a creature never previously seen or imagined, one with the resilience of both the cat and the duck, as agile as the former, as unsinkable as the latter, but with both fur and feather rendered faithfully unto the last hair-tip and barbule. These qualities in conjunction with the tenacity of the goat, the soft utility of the sheep, the avidity of the dog, the pulling prowess of the mule, the good humor of the cow, and the civic sense of the citizen melded in the forge formed in the space between Mother Curtis’s finger and its current object of dubious attention, and from this forge emerged a most rare and graceful animal: the Future of Waukegan.
Brought to You by the Makers of Corn Starch
Ladies, we all know that feeling
that settles sometimes on a summer night
when the darkness takes on pressure and patience
and sets at times a heavy footstep
just outside your open window
requesting admittance, but refusing, when asked,
to offer a name.
Or those bleached noons in the patch of garden
when you slide the shovel into the earth
and turn the earth over,
in expectation of the revelation
of the miracle of potato
lying plump in the mound
like the soil made flesh.
What sorrow to discover instead
the fingerbone of some ancient
nestled in a web of shrunken tuber,
crooked and beckoning
and harder than tooth in the dry ground.
Remember the way it flattened
the day to a fold, and ringed through
the white hole in the blank sky?
How it emerged then from the full moon,
revealing noon as the deepest secret
of night? And left the two hanging,
conjoined, like mildewed drapery?
Ladies, I bring you good news.
That sound you hear, that plangent whistle
which seems to draw a fading line
dividing dark and silence, silence and dark,
is no line and no lie, nor yet an echo of days
more fulsome and resonant. It is promise.
It is an engine, liquorice-black and full of fire,
that leads a chain of shining cars, each packed,
oh to the brim! with brilliant white mountains
of corn starch. Just think of pies and puddings
rising beneath the pressure of your still hand.
Think of bright immensity!
Look around: The moon grows thick
and goes flying across the plain.
It has blazed a trail of sugar.
Follow it, ladies, like an ant undaunted
by empty expanse, to the foot of the hill
and commence your climb in corn starch.
In some crevice of these silver peaks
is patience bound, and rewarded.
B. Kite’s essays have appeared in the Believer, Cinema Scope, the Village Voice, and Trafic. He lives in Brooklyn.