more poems for march: the rest of campbell mcgrath’s “civilization notebook”

From Campell McGrath’s Seven Notebooks:



To critique historicism in all its varieties is to unlearn

to think of history as a developmental process

in which that which is possible becomes actual by

tending to a future that is singular. Or, to put it differently,

it is to learn to think of the present—the

“now” that we inhabit as we speak—as irreducibly



The futures that “are” are plural, do not lend themselves

to being represented by a totalizing principle,

and are not even always amenable to the objectifying

procedures of history writing. For my “I am as having

been” includes pasts that exist in ways that I cannot

see or figure out—or can do so sometimes only retrospectively.

Pasts are there in taste, in practices of

embodiment, in the cultural training the senses have

received over generations. They are there in practices

I sometimes do not even know I engage in. This

is how the archaic comes into the modern, not as a

remnant of another time but as something constitutive

of the present.


—dipesh chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe








The future does not exist.


It is a wish, a dream, a ring of droplets sparkling in a spider’s

web after the clouds have passed.


It is rain, running water, the river that floods the valley, urging

the lilies to bloom and scouring gold from the beds of gravel

and driving the deer to the high mountain meadows where

the hunt is made complex by sublimity and spring snow.


The past does not exist.


It is a myth, a dream, a ring of ancient stones on the plain;

it is chert, granite, flint; it strikes a spark and the forest



But the trees remember their claim upon the land.


They grow tall and we hew them for timbers to build a

home not far from the river, with the mountains in view,

planting lilies, sketching clouds, panning for gold, praying

for rain, running from fire, fearful of flood, dreaming

of deer, wishing on stones.


It is the house of this moment.


We live in it now.



the past


You must surrender your teeth to it,

sign your candied eyes away,

deliver yourself in rings and butterflies

like dough to the baker’s oven.


Years of light gone tungsten-silver,

fidelity to a tune no longer heard,

sacks of onions, a toy pony or zebra,

stepping-stones inlaid with marbles,

with blue and yellow tiles in the garden

and the garden whispering,


Come back to the earth, little stones!


And they do. It gives them up.

They are released

from a weakening bond poured ages ago

and shaped in plastic forms.


In the kitchen, and in the shower,

tiles are missing everywhere,

apples taken by October wind.


Red skin, sweet flesh, the nave of the core

like a chalice, like a hidden chapel

and its secret parishioners—the pips, the seeds.


Beneath their mahogany armor, oh

what mischief the seeds have planned.






Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in

play and nourished on play; music and dancing were

pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression

in words and forms derived from religious contests.

The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living

were built up on play-patterns. We have to conclude,

therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases,

played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching

itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and

never leaves it.

—johan huizinga, Homo Ludens





march 15


      In Flight, Seattle to Miami


Why pretend that we are blind to history, or it to us?

From 30,000 feet I can feel its metamorphic currents,

cars and trucks inching through workday traffic

along the boulevards and flyovers

of a mid-American city I do not recognize.

The river is green, carving its way among hills.

Low mountains in the distance, color of old grass cuttings.

Farms below with long aluminum-roofed outbuildings—

chicken houses or tobacco sheds—and now

a nest composed of mountains wrinkled as tobacco leaves,

green escarpment ancient and eroded, some Ozark

or Appalachian tier folding into winter-browned farmland,

rifts that read as emergent ribs of a long-buried leviathan

left to rot on the floor of an ancient sea,

wave after wave of ridgeline the roads align with

as the earth’s blueprint is accommodated and made real.

From here the continent flows outward in every direction,

a great scarred shield of rock no longer molten

but plastic, elemental, generative, telluric.


A larger river and a plume of steam from a power plant

at the bend below a dam which forms a licorice-black lake

like a jigsaw puzzle among jagged hillsides.

On the in-flight video soldiers are departing for war.


Sailors are tossing small children in the air

while a band plays classic rock aboard the USS George


a boy is wearing his father’s helmet,

a woman in desert camouflage beams at her smiling



Aggression: from the Latin aggredi, “to approach with


Ag —“out”—and gradi—“to step.”

From the Indo-European root: gredh, “to walk.”


To step out, to arise and go forth, to place one foot

in front of the other,

to walk into the world is to aggress upon it.






Civilization has to be defended against the individual,

and its regulations, institutions and commands

are directed to that task.

—sigmund freud, The Future of an Illusion





To say society is to speak of a history that is slow, mute

and complicated; a memory that obstinately repeats

known solutions, to avoid the difficulty and danger

of imagining something else.

—fernand braudel, Civilization and Capitalism





The life of civilization was for me like a dream from

which I tried to wake up in vain. Or—and this is also

true—my life was such a dream.

—czeslaw milosz, Unattainable Earth






march 18


      In Flight, Miami to Phoenix


Somewhere over the deep blasted desert.


Snowy mountains far off to the south, must be Mexico,

pinwheels of irrigators in the desolate lands,

a geometry of human desire and earthly intransigence.


Olduvai territory.

An Afghanistan of the soul.


Speaks of origins.


Speaks of deep time, warped striations, chthonic passage.

Speaks of ancient grasslands, the species evolving—

moments when it feels apprehensible.


Speaks of America.

Speaks of horses and thirst.


Speaks as one from whom a testimony

of absolute emptiness has been extracted

by the hoodless torturers of the sun.





Like toys from a box, shaken out,

bright cars and alphabet blocks

strewn across the floor of the desert.


Like cargo dumped from a plane by accident,

things left out in the sun too long,

grown up planless, and desolate, and ordinary.


Was it the same for the Egyptians,

for the anchorite

crying out in the wilderness,


O Lord, I have passed through the fire

of this life and survived?

Like a blade of grass in your wind, O Lord?


Like a blind man seeking to decipher

with his hands your words

inscribed on tablets of salt amid the downpour.


Amulet of chalk and circuitry,

a city burning

faintly green against the god-bone.





Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines

we have devised are possessed of a heart which is

slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times,

human civilization has been no more than a strange

luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of

which no one can say when it will begin to wane and

when it will fade away. For the time being, our cities

shine through the night, and the fires still spread.

—w. g. sebald, The Rings of Saturn







Even in that hour the knowledge

that our willful titanism cannot save us,

such prescient constructs no more

than ribbons time itself has braided

in our hair, courses of the river in flood

season after season rewritten

while bedrock glistens unperturbed.


Even chiseled, hawsered, sawn into blocks,

stacked, girdered, engineered, blessed,

it is no more than a division of spoils,

partitions of a hive which may yet

be thrown down from its perch

and burned in coils of scented smoke,

moonfall bitten blue and amoral

across the marmoreal sky

of a descent beyond reckoning,

baubles, buried treasure, canopic jars,

lost process by which we shall know

no home but eternity, no balm

but sweet water in the shade of date palms,

a ringing of earthenware bells,

small foundries forging ingots of tin,

oil lamps along the water where

boys on donkeys proffer cinnamon and figs

beside the granary of the Pharaoh.


Because it lives here, within us, has burned

its fingerprints into the fabric of stars

unspooled from the spinnerets of time

the spider, time the jackal, the ass,

time the healer, the embalmer, the annealer,

the annointer, the vain and destructive,

the intransigent, the incorporeal, the just,

the praiseworthy, the bereaving and bereft—


always the same, witness and vanishing,

ransacked, laid bare, scoured, thirsty,

incorruptible and transformed and always


the same.


We cannot touch it, halt it, name it.

It sails past, wind upon the Nile,

rowed by whom and bound for what shore?


Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s