Orpheus and Jesus
...the highs and lows of a classic acid trip...

Francis Bacon

       Not a dream exactly. A pumpkin seed detonation that ploughed white hot from Mark's crotch to the crown of his head, raining tendrils of unclassified color back onto ground zero. Ploughed like the bellicose jaws of Moby Dick charging the Pequod. Harpooner. Charting and clocking, finding longitude, leveraging all the tricks. Comes to nothing. Rotting teeth and salt green invading the nostrils of hunters. Magnetic confusion of shrieking seabirds. A muddy whiteness and the grating snap of ribs shattered by a rising hammer of ivory. Predatory longboat splintered, severed arms and legs flying into the bloody salt petals of conquering sea.

       Back on the doomed mother ship of the West, Captain Ahab in dead ringer guise of LBJ thrashes, tangled in hemp ropes and metal warheads. He struggles to lift his shirt, reveals his appendectomy scar, beckons the suspicious crew to follow him into the gnashing maw of Asia.

       All the key players are present at the wreck: Tashtego, Indian warrior born a four-days ride from the smoldering pox-stained snow of Pontiac's camp; Dagoo the African, dressed in Black Panther beret and leather coat; Mr. Q., monster biker with lost mythologies tattooed across his hairless upper torso; Starbuck the Magic Quaker and CEO of plunder.

       Incandescent blink of time tracing a history of the denizens of the sea from the lightning stroke signature of God to the first tumbling one-cell to the hundred-pound Grandfather Salmon thrashing homeward across his dreams.

       Interlude: everything swallowed by insatiable space, bounced like a ball of black pearl against the handball court at the edge of the universe, freight-training its way back from the antipodes of matter, frozen at the glacial fount of sleep and by a beat of climbing sun returned to watery forms teeming with images and songs.

       And the star of the show: himself. Ishmael the Observer, mute underling scrubbing the deck on his hands and knees. Or, more heroically, pitching like raving Odysseus in the crow's nest of the world, sucking flayed breath bone-deep to cry a warning or invent a stanza of explanation. A final shot in the pretentious home movie: Mark McManus spotted a final time, clinging to the harpooner's coffin, twisting his head back and forth at ecstatic echoing inner voices, music never heard, myths never invented. Washed onto a beach littered with blue pearls and ball bearings, yellow fragments from the Book of Wisdom. He can only repeat stupidly, over and over, the familiar mantra:

I only am escaped
To tell thee. . . .

* * *

       The door to the house of love. Inside everything was different. Every being a god. Every molecule and cell more sacred than any uplifted wafer or stained glass window. Nothing was profane. Every scrawl of urban filth was a muted spirit yearning to grunt and crawl through the sacred passages of Lascaux, to emerge shining and whole with the first painters, the first priests.

       In the house of love the trivial details of your life collapse in the first molten beams of morning like the doomed revelers of some Old Testament Sodom. Yet leave an essence, a single cell of awareness trembling on the hotel room floor, a spindled maple leaf of being. The leaf rises, flits through the window, enters caravans of memory and time.

       A voice imprisoned in the fossils of water says to the leaf, "listen, this is what Jesus knew, what Mozart heard, what Van Gogh painted when the swirling furnace of the starry night threatened to engulf him."

       You, if such a thing as you exists, understand everything in that split second. Understand beyond words or forms. Know it in the return of your gambled breath, the blink of your eyelid, the tidal surge of your blood, the inexplicable engine of your heart. Simple as that. Insert "THE END" in Cinemascope. Squeeze your puny mouth into a smile.

       Meanwhile, a thousand tiny angels mingled with cartoon characters, heroes from mythology, military leaders, musicians and mathematicians swirl faster and faster in a whirlpool of archetypes. Become a single focused speck of light that EXPLODES suddenly in a roiling atomic blast inside your pineal gland that coats your neurons with a radioactive rainbow dust.

       Now you see the vision just past Jupiter that turned the face of Kubrick's spaceman into fractured water, drove him back through history until he was Tiresius, the 'old man with wrinkled female dugs' cursed with immortality, until he recapitulated the phylogeny of his species and became a jelly-beaming cosmic infant writhing inside his space suit.

       There you are again, relaxing in the acute shade of a Himalayan lake with Buddha and Jesus. They're both laughing at you.

       "What?" your insect voice pipes up.

       Tears of mirth stream down their radiant faces.

       "This asshole just doesn't get it," Jesus observes.

       "Nice enough fellow, but dumb as a clod of dirt," agrees Buddha.

       "It's easy enough to laugh at him," observes Orpheus, emerging abruptly from a shining pebble at the water's edge, "but better to explain. His question isnıt that far off the mark. Something about Auschwitz, wasn't it? The usual befuddlement about assembly line extermination. The galling midnight questions. How can all those piles of the coats and dolls of children, the wedding night hair of laughing village daughters, the eyeglasses of jewelers and violinists be collected like that. Collected in piles. Without giving Evil the status of a God, that is, or giving too much weight to pain and misery? Itıs not that bad as questions go. Why not give him a break?"

       "You may be right," replies Jesus, breaking off a chunk of breadrock with a wave of his hand and taking a bite, "I guess it does seem like a problem, from a certain point of view."

       "Maybe in the first two or three ages," mumbles Buddha. "I could show him the line of ants in the dust of the riverbank there, explain how each of them was a former Mudrah, a one-time ruler of the Lotus floating in the pool of Eternity."

       "Too technical," Jesus frowns, "I guess the only way to make it comprehensible is to do my Job Lite thing. You know, the old 'wast thou there when I hammered the foundations of the earth in fire, spit the first pearl seed into the wild sea, gave motion to the whale and breath to the dinosaur and so forth?' The whole routine, only not as mean-spirited as the original version. Do I make myself clear?"

       "Of course," observes Orpheus, "you are perfect, after all."

       "Oh hah hah. But seriously."

       "Absolutely. I always thought that God, pardon me for saying so, came off rather like a bully in that scenario. I mean what's poor Job going to say in reply? 'Well I won twenty shekels playing dice the other night and located a good restaurant?' You don't need to drop a mountain on a mouse, if you know what I mean."

       You always did have a way with words," says Jesus admiringly, "and you're right. It needs a gentle touch. You there, mortal," he calls out to the broad green leaf you are hiding behind. "Watch this."

       Jesus points to the water sparkling on the lake. One glint of moving light in particular becomes a window. Looking through it you find yourself in the middle of the grounds at Auschwitz. The action flows forward in a rapid stream of events, a train's whistle, a dog's bark and a blur of rags. Each human form mashed forward into the maw of the chambers, you realize, wears an outer husk resembling discolored straw. As Death closes in, flashing and obnoxious in his metallic shoes and purple cloak, an undeniable moment of pain and clawing panic and involuntary defecation takes place. But then the forms are bathed in light and washed in color. For all his proud show and tell, Death is left with a mere wagonload of husks, and bears a curious resemblance to a small lonely child on a winter afternoon as he walks away, grunting and straining from the weight.

       The forms of the previous moment's victims, meanwhile, become shining disks of light streaming from the sodden scene like migrating birds.

       The concentration camp personnel, meanwhile, grow old in a heartbeat, old and infirm and tattooed by an impossible rhetorical emptiness. A final image of the former Aryan Masters finds them beset with red boils and huddled in pain, straining with Lutherian intensity on the worn wood of latrine seats to produce something that will give them relief. Their vile bodies are surrounded by the same straw husks their victims escaped from long ago, when they soared from those cement floors littered with toenails and teeth, partially shrouded by a snailish fog of Zyclon B.

       "So you see," says Jesus, not unkindly but in a voice as charged and mellifluous as a Beethoven violin sonata, "nothing is ever what it seems. 'The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.' One of my best lines in the Bible. One of the few I actually said, come to think of it."

       "So just remember this," observes Buddha, "life is way too short no matter how many warts and blemishes you might observe on it."

       "And donıt forget," admonishes Jesus cheerfully, "you have to create the wart before you can see it. I know that doesnıt make sense, but it's a strict rule."

       "Life, in fact," concluded Orpheus, "is just about long enough to enjoy a few good songs before they carry you out. Would I steer you wrong? Hey, am I Orpheus or what?"

Michael Shorb has lived in California most of his life. His work reflects an abiding interest in myth, history, and the lyrical form, as well as a satirical focus on present day trends and events. His poems have appeared in over 150 magazines and anthologies, including The Nation, The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, Kansas Quarterly, Rain City Review, Shakespeare Newsletter, Commonweal, Religious Humanism, Shoofly, Beatitude, European Judaism, THE DOLPHIN'S ARC (anthology), BELL RINGING IN AN EMPTY SKY (anthology), TO BE A MAN (anthology) and NAMES IN A JAR: 100 AMERICAN POETS (anthology).

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