As We Approach Babel

by Stanley Jenkins


In New York I had come to the realization that a future without roots was like that magic herb of immortality that proud Gilgamesh found then and lost now and forever. Do you know that story? It has always been told. We tell it here and we tell it there. Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the man who knew everything, of Gilgamesh the Babylonian king. Brave warrior. Statesman. Two thirds divine, one mortal. Conqueror of all things but death. Remember. I remembered.


He is sitting.


It's the primordial waters. We're in the boat. Dusk now. He has descended and returned, his great beard dripping. His empty hand stretched out over the waters. Trembling. Trembling. Trembling.

"Gilgamesh? It is getting dark. We should go now."

Trembling. Trembling. Trembling.

And the ghost memory of the serpent rising out of the waters and the snatched magic.





As the sun sets, the shadows over the water grow long.


My sad Gilgamesh. To the very ends of the earth he travelled to find the magic plant that would replenish all that was lost. Eternal Youth. Immortality. Ponce de Leon looked for it here in our America. To never die. Be new again always. And so here in the very center of the world, in the middle of the ancient waters, the brave king descended. Plunge, plosh, plash. Sink. Sink. Sink. And there at the very bottom. The magic herb.

Heart pound. Lungs to burst. Air swollen in the head. He surfaces! Sputter, sputter, sputter. To always be born again. He has the magic. And now he is in the boat and now he is exulting, broad chest and arms like branches. Proud, proud, brave Gilgamesh.

But then, silent, contoured like the waves themselves. The black snake. The hand of Gilgamesh stretched across the waters. Furious now, magnificent—though so sad to say, so sad to say—the serpent snatches away the magic—now and forever—and returns with it to the abyss. Loss. Separation. Return to earth. Ripped from its roots the magic must die and so too dreams and visions and hopes and ecstatic verities until we are become mere-mimes, mere-ghosts, mimic, mimic, mimic. A void dance. End. But now. Begin. Speak. Tell. Remember. I remember. (Is the sin in wanting too much or in not having the courage of your desires?) I was going home. Find out what must be forgiven. And what must be forgotten. (I believe. Only sometimes I can't get the words right.) The snake. (Must we learn to love the snakes also?) Desire kills. Desire gives life.


Howell. I wanted more. But in New York I learned that you had to go back before you could go on. Return again. Howell. Raise the dead. My sad sad dead dead Enkidubrother sleeps in your cold ground. He will come again. He is rising! Return. Repeat until it must be true.

Just like an old song.


Michigan. The land has gone elsewhere. This is what I was thinking from my window seat at the back of the bus. I could no longer recall my father's face. Only the image of him rocking and rocking on the porch. His back to the land. His face to the house. Every light lit now and the doorway itself glowing. Soon he would get up, walk across the porch and cross the threshold. And on the other side. And as we approach....


Will the circle be unbroken?/By and by, Lord, by and by/There's a better home a-waitin'/In the sky, Lord, in the sky.


On the bus it struck me stroke strike for the first time that my father was really going to die. Not a TV death or a shrinking black circle closing on my beloved Chaplin walking into the sunset—fade to black. But the unmentionable. Ineffable. Privates. Down, down:


So high can't get over it/So low can't get under it/So wide can't get 'round it/O rock-a my soul.

It was like forgetting your own name and realizing that nothing changes. After Babel words don't touch anything. But then again, after Babel some words are just too beautiful to say. They must become flesh.


I was looking for the complete sentence. Good grammar. Christmas on Earth.


And as we approach. How ironic. The bus itself broke down. Route 96, between Detroit and Lansing. (Vernacular—not yet sacred tongue: Oh 'bout eighty miles as the crow flies. Hour and a half. Sumpthin like that. But she blew just this side of D-19. We didn't get no further than Howell.) How ironic. You see, Greyhound doesn't stop in Howell anymore, you have to go all the way to Lansing—E. Lansing actually—home of Michigan State and Malcom X used to walk these roads here about too don't forget. You have to go right past the exit and then doubleback, like a snaky switchback climbing some western mountain range, though in this case, more properly some Ararat or maybe Sinai. You can't get there from here.

The bus broke down. Sudden silence. The queer sensation of coming up from air after a deep deep plunge or maybe waking up. Stillness. After the long long motion and hum of forward movement it seems almost obscene. Stop. I could smell the highway weeds and the hot pavement. "Sorry folks. Looks like we got a little delay. We got another bus comin' out for us though." And me now standing up. Backpack hanging on one shoulder. And down the aisle toward the door. "Sit down son—I can't let anybody off." And me standing there looking out through the door, closed now. "Look, I'm sorry but you're going to have to sit down. It's the law." And me just looking. Not at the driver. But that autistic face, drawn close now so you can hear its inner hum. The land is taking a journey too. We're all going home. "Are you going to sit down or what?" I'm standing. Behind me I can hear him standing up. A hand on my shoulder. Then for no reason at all. Maybe he remembers something. His hand to the handle. The door opens and I step out onto the ground earth soil soil of my Michigan origins. The driver. I don't even look back. But he's watching me as I wade through the high high highway weeds of the embankment. The door closes.


Tell. What shall I tell? Tell of the ancient story. The only story possible after Babel. Security and passion. Garden and snakes. These parts are broken. Who will recombine them if only for a little while? And I saw an army of ghosts, of long lost saints, Kings or Queens in their own day, some of them the dead authors of books that still live. And they were building a huge telescope from the rubble which lays strewn across this sleeping land. Words as bricks. Kabbalistic associations as mortar—and the lense? Only partly a mirror. (Funny thing. Somehow when we're not looking the myths become personal.) I walked across the sleeping wolverine face of my Michigan. Home to Howell. More ancient ritual theater now to complete the pattern then anything else. Home. Our pilgrim-strides in this America. I think of the Sioux warriors and their Ghost Dance:


All Indians must dance, everywhere, keep on dancing. Pretty soon in next spring Great Spirit come. He bring back game of every kind. The game be thick everywhere. All dead Indians come back and live again. Old blind Indian see again and get young and have fine time. When Great Spirit comes this way, then all the Indians go to the mountains, high up away from whites. Whites can't hurt Indians then. (Wovoka, the Paiute Messiah)


Broken arrow-words become flesh and dancing dancing dancing. Until Great Spirit come and make these dry bones live. Redemption. It's an old story. The only story. After Babel every word bears the muddy divine fingerprint. Tell. Dance. Walk. With every movement we try to reconstruct our tower. I believe. Someday. Someday. Anyday now.


My sad America. Wounded Knee. All dead now. And what must be forgiven. And what must be forgotten.


And so as I approached Howell I had a choice. Consider for a moment the problem of pattern. If we know the fulfillment. If we know how the story ends. Is it best to continue or to make up "new" rebel stories with the hope that they might escape the totalitarian pattern? Again. Reformulate the problem. How do we escape origins? Tragedy? And in the attempt do we become rootless, non-non-non not there entities? In the sky, Lord, in the sky? You should have seen me on stage in New York—all mime and myth—yet ultimately ultimately ghost self condemned to haunt the same old stories over and over. And this return. Wasn't it an attempt to go only so far. To acquiesce to the pattern with hopes that at the final moment. The Rosetta Stone? The original Ur-language? The original face re-covered like Jubilee in Old Testament testament—revealed like that magic coin in the magician's hand? Tell and tell again until it must be true. Impossible possibility.


Tell now. What shall I tell? Tell of new patterns. Not Nietzsche's unfettered unloved cold cold careening world—open sea of possibilities like Kerouac on his jaunts across our country only to end up fat bloated bitter John Bircher drunk. Dead. Dead. Dead. (This must be the John Calvin in me. The fear of chaos. The unwillingness to live without patterns. 'Cause nihilism, cousin, nihilism. You can't undo what has been done.) (But then again. Maybe. To a/void. Only repeat. Endlessly?) I think of my father now, his back to the land. No. Just say yes. And him standing up and entering that house of light and then gone gone like Francis. Like Giglamesh. Like Orpheus' wife forever. Yes. And I will follow. And I will cross the threshold too. Though ineffable. Speechless. Nameless. And I will create re-create new patterns in embracing the old. I believe/I don't believe. Unio Mystica/Exile. Scattered across the face of the earth. Children of Adam. Progeny of Eve. Allialliallcomefree.

After Babel: Pentecost. I will turn again in the doorway and face the face of the land. Again. I shall return. Singing new hymns with tongues as of fire.


"Francis. I guess I didn't really expect to see you."

"Well, you know how it is."

"I see you've got your silent movie star costume on."

"When in Rome..."

"I've been meaning to ask you... I mean... Do you think he'll recognize me? I've changed a lot since I left."

"I know. I know. Tell me about it."


"Hard to say Cal."

We walk together a while in silence. Him duck-waddle jerky like the projectionist can't keep a steady hand.

"Want to know something funny? I was always afraid when I was little that you were going to come back and—well, I guess I thought you'd be really pissed....because I lived and you didn't."

"What's so funny about that?"

I couldn't think of anything to say. Then:

"I used to play in this old seminary, you know, and it was called St. Clare's and I guess that was supposed to be your "friend" or whatever you'd call it. I never cleaned it up. It was all ruined. I thought about it. I thought I should clear the weeds or something. But I never did. I just played there. I didn't even know about you then but..." I'm crying now suddenly. Hoping he'd tell me that my plays, my Chaplin dramas, my vaudeville routines were enough. "I should've tried to make it better."

Francis didn't say anything.

"I'm really scared. Daddy's dying."

Still no response.


He's gone.

Mumble, mumble me as I walk through golden meadow hair—on my way home—like a refrain in some song. Again and again and again. Crying renewal tears.


I entered Howell alone and saw the house on the hill alone and moved across the street alone and through the yard alone and climbed the hill alone.


"Calvin? I've got something for you."

Smell of soil and soy beans and field corn and grease paint.


Behind me. Though I do not look. Face. Original face. All my Americas.


A baby. Newborn. Playing with a snake. Laughing. Laughing. Laughing. And beautiful beautiful herbs and roots in snake's mouth. Laugh. Baby. Laugh. Laugh. Laugh. Desire kills/Desire gives life.



Without knocking I turn the knob. Go through the door and am swallowed in the house of lights. J. Calvin Biggs. Endlessly end. Home. Gone.



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