As We Approach Babel

by Stanley Jenkins


And as we approach. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the wound and of the need for masks. The garden.


We're at the bottom of the hill now in the backyard. The garden.


A small plot. Radishes. Tomatos. Cucumbers.


Imagine now the father before the fall. Limbs like mountain roots, trunk rising to the heavens piercing the cloud's veil. On these shoulders rest the sky's beams, on these feet the ocean's bottom. Tower of Ivory. American Atlas. But do you remember learning that every ring in a tree's trunk represents a year? And do you remember realizing that you had to cut down the tree to count the rings? My father.

"Dad? Are you alright? What's wrong? Dad?"

He's clutching at his chest now. He's dropping his hoe. His face. Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. And a word tries to be born in his mouth. "D-d-d-d-d. D-d-d-d-d." I'm standing there. I'm feeling things. I'm trying to run to him. I'm appalled. Twitch. Twitch. Twitch. And a word. He's down. He's breathing hard. Eyes rolling wildly. The fall. And beyond, an awareness. Watching. Watching. Watching. Horse and rider into the sea.

My father had a minor stroke when he was forty-one years old. There was little permanent damage, a slight paralysis of the face and speech was difficult. Word disease. I guess I took it seriously. These things too. My sad America. A strange literalness. We were going to be the Shining City on the Hill. Every night my father sat on the porch, every light in the house lit, his back to the land, his hands empty. Rock. Rock. Rock. Out of the cradle endlessly rock-a.... soul in the bosom of Abraham/Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham/Rock-a my soul in the bosom of Abraham/O rock-a my soul.


Just like an old song.


I wanted more. And as we approach.


I wanted more and more and more. What good is a history and a home if it's a judgment? There was college, education and the promise of a thousand delights if I would only dare to demand that they be there. To dream and to want to be more than you are. That's the American birthright, isn't it? I created myself anew and became a stranger to Howell. I denied the sentence of origins and Babel. ("Haven't you ever wanted to just say fuck it all and go for it?") Desire.

"Getting a little too big for your britches, I would say," my father would say in his slurring slow-speech.

Those were hard times for us then. My father grew sullen and withdrawn; my mother, so curiously the absent woman in my memory—the missing womb—she sewed in her room and watched "Laverne and Shirley" on a portable set, her jaw clenching more firmly with each stitch. I read forbidden books and learned to build escape ladders from rubblewords. I was above it all. He is rising.

"Don't think you're too big for me to whip you young man, and I'll do it too if you don't watch that mouth of yours." Slur. Slur. Slur-slow-speech. And me all the time watching his mouth and flexing my tongue and growing deft of speech. I will not stumble and stutter and start and stop. Taunt taunt tease tease tease please Daddy please speak speak speak. Rock. Strange flowers grow in the silence. Your face is frozen. Old songs.


Lead me, Jesus, lead me/Why don't you lead me in the middle of the air/And if my wings should fail me/Won't you buy me another pair.


Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of Icarus flights and Daedalus dreams. And as we approach. But still on the bus. We shall return. Behind the firehouse and beyond the abandoned railroad tracks—even then the trains refused to run through Howell—St. Clare's.

I did not know then, because Catholics and Protestants did not share their mysteries, but it had been a seminary at one time, dedicated to St. Francis of Assisi's spiritual consort—Clare, the clear one. I did not know the inner algebra of the myriad orders or the charters or names of the religious of Howell. For me it was a sad and forgotten garden. Weeds grew in the porticos. Sad, somnambulant, stone statutes stood like pillars of salt—don't look back—surrounded by milkweed and dented beer cans. This was my first theater, my first stage, among the headless Madonnas and Risen Lords with broken lilies. Far, far from the Vatican—my own St. Damiano's.

And strange, strange hagiographies.


One day when Francis went out to meditate in the fields, he walked beside the church of San Damiano which was threatening to collapse because of extreme age. Inspired by the Spirit, he went inside to pray. Prostrate before an image of the Crucified, he was filled with no little consolation as he prayed. While his tear-filled eyes were gazing at the Lord's cross, he heard with his bodily ears a voice coming from the cross, telling him three times: 'Francis, go and repair my house which, as you see, is falling completely into ruin.' (St. Bonaventure, The Life of St. Francis)


Repair my house.


You see that was still before the fall. I would run down the hill full tilt, arms revolving, a giant turned into a windmill. I would dash into streets without looking. I would bark back at dogs. I would sing radio songs. I would run and run and run until I reached Clare—the clear one. And there. Wild plays and melodramas with me as the perpetual lead. Solemn ritual theater. And the sparrows were my audience.

I don't know if this is peculiar. I think that most children must act out the plays of their age. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers. War games. I did silly vaudeville routines that I half-invented, half-stole from the Charlie Chaplin shorts my mother rented from the Helen Plum Public Library on rainy Mondays in July. The tramp. God's little poor man. Poverello. Joculare. I did not know then that my silent-movie hero was the American reincarnation of Francis, dead saint and brother to me. This would have to wait for college in the Northern Ohio flatlands. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Now our America is littered with the remains of the religions of our ancestors. Scratch the surface and saints and prophets crop up. (Behold: Archetypal Mormons say lost tribes of Israel here—and Jesus too!) But I did not know that then. For me, it was a secluded stage, an arena in which to play. Clare—the clear one.

And so the beginning of the dream of imagination even before the fall—though I did not understand this at the time. To re-create, to re-present, to re-member: Repair the house. There is healing and reconstruction in our plays. To live your life as if it were a movie, as if it were silver-screened and larger than life. J. Calvin Biggs. Or so the promise goes.


But you are not finished. Tell. What shall I tell? Resume the tale of wings as of eagles and the revelation of recognition borne aloft. Another stage in a far, far city. The city. New York. The piece has ended. The lights have come down and I am supposed to leave the stage. I sit in my American slouch chair.

"Calvin." Stage whispers. "What the fuck are you doing?"

I am sitting.


This is the part I don't like to tell. Sluggish slur slow speech.


I am sitting.

In the darkness of a completed piece, in the anticipation of the next sketch.

Christie comes back now silently and she takes my hand. And she leads me gently. And I cannot talk because I have five holy holes in my body now and there are plants growing out of my flesh. And I can see soy beans and field corn. And I am leaking rich, rich loamy loamy soil soil. I am above it all. Strange flowers grow in the silence.


On stage in New York I had an anxiety attack. I'd heard of it happening to others. The heart. Pounding. The inability to move. Panic. Your face is frozen. I couldn't move. Struck. Stroke. Strike. And beyond. Watchingwatchingwatching. Behind stage in Christie's lawless arms I trembled. Return to land. Earth. Howell. Icarus, the land is calling. Bury my body in the bosom of Father Abraham.


J. Calvin Biggs. And as we approach. These things too. To tell the story and to redeem what is lost in memory. Imagination. It's the canopy and the silver screen over the vast expanses, gaps: perhaps, themselves, the result of the glaciers that gouged out the face of this land so long ago. But on the bus I was still waiting for the fullness of the vision to come round. Beatific. And Jefferson's dream. You should have seen me. The sin is not in wanting too much. (Is it?) It's just that you have to return to purify the eyes. But on the bus. I believe. I think I believe. And as we approach. My lips are unclean. A fiery coal, Lord. Me and Isaiah.

A word that cleans.


Northern Ohio flatlands. Cleveland. Elyria. The industrial north is like a vast graveyard for weight-lifting equipment. Back in Michigan in the seventies there were bumper stickers on foreign-made cars that said, "Last one out of Detroit, please turn out the lights". And in Cleveland the river burns. America pumped herself up in these regions and then left. Who killed Lake Erie?

But out here also are the Amish. Ohio. They still raise barns. Still ride horse and buggyed into town. Still scrape clods from their shoes at the back porch. Our America will never be a rural Eden again but the rubble from the original walls remains. Impossible, perhaps. Reactionary, perhaps. But still. Who will wake up the land? Strengthen what remains. Re-member.

Finney College is out here as well. Named after Charles Grandison Finney, the greatest of the nineteenth century revivalists. They say he nearly single-handedly set Western New York a-blaze—the Burned Over District. Scorched earth. Well, that is, him and the Holy Ghost. And his college in the undeveloped lands of the midwest. It was a utopian experiment of sorts. Utopia—from the Greek, ou topos meaning literally "no place." And I guess Finney, Ohio is about the closest to "no place" you can get anymore. But the mandate, the destiny, the will and the call to transform the world into a fiery blaze of Love and Justice; that still remains out there amidst the closed auto plants and steel mills. It's like a little piece of the Old Testament among a late-coming people. Those who have always already exodused. After Babel, the pilgrim's long hard climb to Pentecost. Tongues as of fire.


On the bus as we approach I had to change in Cleveland. All told it takes about eighteen hours from New York to Lansing. Greyhound doesn't stop in Howell anymore and you have to change again in Detroit. Travel. You can't get there from here. In the station, waiting to go, still occupied with the hidden face of Michigan and my father rockrockrock, I remembered Ohio.


Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the advent of black snakes and adult cancers in the dream. Remember. I remembered. Aia Caldwell. She was in my Intro. to Drama class, wore purple laces in her shoes and white cotton dresses. She was Desdemona to my Othello in the scene we prepared for class. And Iago. In our rivers. And in the white streams of our coupling.


I am standing.

"Calvin? What are you doing?"

I am standing.

Tappan square with the memorial arch, monument to American missionaries killed in the Boxer Rebellion. It's night now.

"Aren't you going to say anything?"

I can't talk. My face is frozen.

She is crying now.

"What are we going to do?"

My face is frozen.

And then the sudden vision of serpents winding writhing arms into the nether deep. My American plains. Like eels. Like black worms. Like grasping, clutching, yearning, wantwantwant desire arms and they are encircling the nethernether of my lovely Aia.

"I am so sorry."

Her eyes flashing now to meet mine.

"You fucker!" She's hitting, pummel, pound, my flush face—we are both ashamed. To know that there are consequences. "What are you sorry about?" Pummel my face. Hit me. And I will know your outrage, your feline Kali scream in the insensate Chaplin bones of my face. "What are you sorry about?"

"I don't know." I am not lifting my arms to defend my face. Her fury. She is sobbing deep in her breasts which will leak Mamamilk and stain her white cotton dresses before the serpent's squeeze. "I don't know." We both know.

"I am pregnant."


Afterwards. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the silence imposed and the fiery sword of shame blocking off all return. Mimes in America. My mute American Messiah. My new bus was ready to continue its journey. Resume. Redeem what is lost and remember what is broken. Home to Howell and learn what must be forgiven. And what must be forgotten. From my bus I see the soil rising. And Jefferson's vision. I see too much. Milkweed.


But you are not finished. Tell. What shall I tell? The old bodily nightmare. Resurrection in the garden. I am ten years old. My Mom and Dad. Good people. I am at the kitchen table. Why after all these years?



"You are so quiet."

It's Mom. She's good people. Fecund soil—ripe ripe—things grow good in our garden.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Why didn't you tell me before?"

"Oh Calvin." Sadly shaking her head. "We didn't want..."

"Want what?"

I am very nearly livid. Things grow good in that garden. Bad crop I guess. Could have been me.

And later that night, Mom and Dad in bed now. Sleeping maybe. And I am awake and at the window. Watching. Watching. Watching. Francis grow good. I am at the window. Watch. Could have been me. The garden. And the moon shows me the soy beans and the field corn from the fields. Francis lives with the worm. Things grow down there too, you know. Calvin, you are so quiet.


When I was ten years old my mother told me of my older brother, Francis. Original mime. Born dead. Stillborn. Buried thirteen years and yet things grow so good in our garden in Howell. I did not sleep for weeks. Soy beans and field corn. Return. I am leaking loamy loamy. Poppa, great-grandfather, you took away Mama's great-grandmotherly womb and I am. J. Calvin soil soil Biggs. Should have been me. Worms down there too, you know. Leaky loam loam. He will come back and take what is his. He is rising!


And when we changed again in Detroit I had a sandwich wrapped in cellophane from the machine because I was very hungry and it is hard work remembering and knowing and being healed and maybe I don't want to do this anymore because sometimes it's better notknowingnotcaringnotseeing. The face of. But as we approach and on the bus. Judgment and Howell.


J. Calvin Biggs. Memories and dreams. Like all the broken pieces and if you could only put them together again. Humptey Dumptey. I grew up in Howell, Michigan—roughly in the middle of the state. My father's face was hidden and paralyzed. I played in abandoned seminaries. Gardens everywhere in my Michigan with their promise of ripeness and return—but now only separation and exile. Speech lost to the mime. And what about my saintbrother Francis of Assisi-on-the-Howell? These things too. A place for everything. A home, if we only have the courage. And desire is the snake thread which holds it all together.

Haven't you ever wanted to just say fuck it all and go for it?


And again. On the bus there is the curious sensation that you have always been approaching this point and that all that has gone before has been the dramatic pretext, the plot, the excuse to do what must be done. Return. The Kingdom is at hand! Redemption. Recollection. Sing the old songs again. The only ones that matter. On the bus we tell the stories that have always been told. Babble on after Babylon. Rock. Rock. Rock. Endlessly, my sad America. End.

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