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  • Writer's pictureRyan Nowlin

The Cathedral

The Cathedral


In Central America’s leafy parenthesis

some sliver of light appears from that magnificent

jungle edifice, the famous submerged cathedral

These are the gauchos roaming the pampas

and those are the Gauleiters gliding through

a series of Zoom meetings like those Hollywood

squares we loved as kids with everyone

glugging down jeroboams of Pouilly-Fuissé.

Some early glimmers of fame; a few islands

of camaraderie. The tempo of August is quiet,

even monastic. To be able to communicate

by going through the correct channels,

the interesting coveys of city poets,

their speech acts and interrogatives,

bonds between kinsman or kinship, mutual exile--

momentarily acquiescing the limits of choice

in 03 I hit rock bottom then again,

there was no bottom--or as we say here, Fluffya.

I was sleepwalking through life until the act

of a blind magician stopped me in my tracks.

Spring birds in flight orient themselves and correct---

To drift by listening to a chorus of peepers

in a pond far below and rock lobsters scuttling

from head to tail in tandem conga lines.

The state of being lost is a kind of vertigo--

Not all who wander are lost. Think of the enlarged

posterior hippocampus of taxi drivers in NYC,

the 24/7 lure of accessibility tied to our gadgets

as in a spell. Self awareness of distance

and direction like the genetic imprint of an ant--

The irrepressible dialectic of history

( two steps forward and one step back)

The Wyoming frontier was once stitched

with Buffalo grass. To reach the nearest city

just follow the rail line, our permanent

zone of transit--a train, an ark-- a fleeting

vantage point, slow to pass, yet still

we rocked in their wake as boats on the sea.

A sovereign surveyor abruptly ends his term

looming above a mountain of contending

theories how our institutions came to be inculcated

in the dark waters of white supremacy.

The polis at the bottom of our existence,

the bottom of the sea masks all civility,

relieving idlers of all their convictions.

The scapegoat is dead in their lifetime

of some public darkness. He may be ugly,

but he’s not stupid. The moon now a tangent,

an opacity on someone else’s distant horizon.

One need not travel to Niagara Falls

to feel the impact of falling water.

This is how Robert Frost characterized

visiting the Emily Dickinson house in Amherst

as a form of literary tourism. After reading

Emily Dickinson, as a kind of bottomless project

in American Letters-- where to begin?

much of her work at variance with the verse

culture of her time---Couldn’t one say that

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, best conveys

her crucial vocational crisis and that here

she came close to touching the bottom

of her existence as a poet suggesting

an aesthetics of terror.


They say SCOTUS is the eye of the storm,

the branch of government least swayed

by partisan politics---Gorsuch, Kavanaugh,

Barett---yet the obscenity of President Trump

belies all our efforts to write or paint.

A push for a conservative seat after R.B.G.‘s

death as if Roe v. Wade could be overturned

through some hydraulic pressure.

( If Garland had been officially nominated we wouldn’t

even being having this discussion at present)

Already storm bands of rain and churning wind

tear loose from the roving eye of the hurricane.

Skirts of rain unhook tiles from rooftops.

Lincoln’s hand clasps a fasces-a leather

thong that tightly binds all thirteen rods--

one for each of the original colonies--

but there is a twist--

a bald eagle head sits atop the axe,

an American touch,

“E Pluribus Unum”,

or Out of Many, One.

That strangely productive power

of the imagination produces infinite ways

of seeing the world, yet at times

it’s as if we were living under the guise

of democracy----unintelligible object relations.

Friends will confirm that I’ve been going

on about Bernie Sanders forever without

realizing how long it would take to vote

Trump out of office or that so much

would happen before we did, not to say

that work wasn’t involved or fun wasn’t

had mocking the President on Late Night T.V.

We were told that “a rising tide lifts all boats”.

Does it? Seems like there are a few

outsized yachts & an armada of shopping carts--

the days beetle overhead with glacier-like slowness.

Roger Williams sought to make head or tails

of the language spoken by the Narganset,

a brief observation of the costumes, manners

and worship etc, a little key may open a box

wherein lies a bunch of keys. In the farmer’s

market cherry tomatoes are sold-out, but cobs of corn

are sold just before rotting. Half empty tour bus

passes by while I write the Great American

tour bus epic conjuring cities of farmers markets

with fresh bread and sassafras tea. At the metal

railing of the bridge I vent by throwing

the peanut shells on a passing tugboat, the memory

sticking like rough honey.

In duet:

hogsuck, Pigsuck

Swine Swine,


we understand not one another,


Is there a bridge?


Three times in my life I’ve heard

that rapid, tapping sound a river-otter

made as it snow shoes up a small stream

as I stood between a corpse and an open window--

a graph of a mind moving with coordinates x and y

resembling flyspecks on old siding or

an advancing storm cloud on a summer’s day.

In Raymond Carver’s story “Cathedral”

resolution is whispered surreptitiously

below audible language, insinuating itself

under window frames and doors.

Taking cabs to 2nd and Chestnut

to the Kyhber and then after hours

at the South Street diner with Dori

and Rick who could map his sexual

conquests per square mile using

the Taylor Series then applied

to various locations in the Philly

area during the early aughts--

Bump, The Last Drop, Bob and Barbara’s

Shampoo, Ulana’s and Dirty Franks---

but sometimes a strange night

like tonight at 7:10pm as the sun sets,

the humidity drops, temperature

stays the same warm breeze tiptoes

through the city of Philadelphia.

You have to find it, said Pound

before dying, the cathedral-like structure

of the highly educated girl; The baroque poet

withdrew from a world he thought to be met

with the agonies of death and decay, into the privacy

of his garden, his chamber, his prayer room,

his parish and his library; thus John Donne

about himself, his God and Andrew Marvell.

That beautiful Blake who is like four

feathers of a raven caught down in a chasm

of which we’re just later birds, but like

ah, he’s like a frozen four winged raven

shrieking for the light--not frozen, but

ahead of us like a box kite. We’re all

moving, moving, moving isn’t it nice?

The whole time in Rome, I’m quaking

with holy awe at the very mention

of Shelley,( who in the last section

of Adonais gave a trisyllabic trembling,

a shiver of slacks) and though

the caesuras---cracks in the slab---

are rare in Keat’s Hyperion they herald

the entrance of the Titan King Saturn.

And so Melville wrote:

Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right

do you drink from my flagon of life?

And when I put it to my lips--for they

are yours and not mine, I feel that

the Godhead is broken up like the bread

at supper, and that we are the pieces

True hermetic Marxist solitude meant

taking a job on a roofing crew in late summer

of ’98 atop a church. A wind hammer demolition

job of surf suite roofs and palms imported

from Florida queue up Lumina Avenue.

With a voice in the hand, two in the sand,

said Feel Good Phil, a voice of the proletariat

whose presence on the crew of roofers stapled

to present punctuality, the forever poised

shift between forced bondage and the stained

foot-prints left behind to mark their passage.

To speak of the man from Hope,

Arkansas or the man of hope is to

declare a record of history as Americans:

asphalt bubbles black ooze under

the crumbling bridges of California

and the overflowing sewage drains

of Houston and the rusted railroad

tracks of the NE corridor, streets

of the capital lined with parking spaces,

haystacks and a slow opening of sycamores

in Metuchen, NJ toward the end of knot-

weed season, a red mirage followed

by a blue wave--Opposite colors mingle

from yellow to purple like nebula where

the welt by the hot metal’s impact blooms.


When I was nine I was flipping through

the dictionary in the F’s and I saw a guy

in a white outfit with a sword and I thought

I could do that. A foible so formed part

of the blade. My Dad had his foibles too,

for example, he and I never saw eye to eye

on cleaning up my room the I’d have to buy back

all my toys for a nickel each and if I slept

late he’d pour cold water in my ears--once I got

a black eye from a guy in a cast--

I took a hit meant for another kid named Donald--

My brother, considered to be smart,

suffered amnesia after being thrown

from his bicycle--The fabric of his

reality unraveled. My Aunt Frieda

and Uncle Charlie fled a war-torn

Europe the way a fly escaped the swatter.

Mom visited the Mays in 1972--the one

family in my parents limited social circle

in Berkeley--a month before I was born.

Berkeley at that time was a loose

federation of buildings spread out

along a hillside. Much later in Philly

I celebrated my 29th at an Italian

restaurant on Broad Street or the Avenue

of the Arts (aka the avenue of the tarts)

The D.S.M-5 is the book of woe

as if the bloody circumstances of my life

had been shrink-wrapped until the words

were colorless oxymorons like “affordable

housing”, the evanescence of vapor,

hard water, beauty of drifting trash.

I light a spare cigarette against

the wind behind cupped hands.

How can you map yourself in the gaze

which does not judge but falls asleep

from time to time as my therapist

did during therapy--I walked down

Holzhausen Strasse where we used

to meet after school. Once during

a re-consultation Roger said,

“I hated that office.” Roger that.

Remember the eyelid of the gormless

kid feeding bones to a dog or winter’s

trace dripping from the eaves?

The evening window dreams with the sun

fading on a magpie brown carpet of leaves

unweaving at the slat fence as real torches

hem in the alley with bobbing rays.

Why such blankets and august mouths?

But did he drink his liquor warm

or sip it from the morning sail

and can you smell the wicker

sleeping cool under his bitter nail.

Look how young his eyes once were

collecting shards of wind

and drifting through rich days of lavender

or basking in some afterglow

of some vagabond utterance.


As verily as Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane

all the trees in Montreal are moved every winter

so as to aide snow removal. Cape Cod is a cathedral

of silence in the Eastern Corridor; and Muir

Woods is only a few miles outside San Francisco;

Victoria Falls are a raw, massive, pounding

curtain of water. It’s like we’re clearing

the channels to an invisible radio, many voices,

one dial. Rewound voicemail recordings squeak

like mice. The vacuum of empty days erased.

At least cheese left some evidence of its past,

even as it grew more inedible toward the end,

especially for the mice. What was that odor

early in the morning, something like sweat,

moonlight and mashed up moths? I turned 49

in September. My neighbor’s wife left me

the following message, Thanks to you the

neighborhood is now infested with the Chinese

Spotted Lantern Fly...Next door the shoulders

of a yellow house half-raised as if in apology.

As a child I conceived of the city as some-

thing behind a border, somewhere abroad.

Whenever someone in my family drove on the Auto-

banh to the city I would imagine crossing

the border to a place made famous by Rabelais

who in 1523 wrote, You shall have the rest

of the story at the next Frankfurt Book Fair.

At first glance the city was not without

its secrets. It was a tension in breadth

and height, nothing else. Everyone knew

that behind the bleakest facades extraordinary

things were happening. So I lingered in

certain rooms seeking the indefinable--

something from the earlier life lived in

these streets. In the evenings, walking

the streets or sitting at my desk in Sayreville, NJ

working by lamplight, I write and dream.

I will reappear within the city of my own making.

Culturally speaking, Sayreville, NJ

was light years away from the East Village

with its magnetic infrastructure---

word on the street was always a year

ahead of the cops with their euphemisms

like “planned shrinkage”, which meant

an up-tick in crime, walls of garbage,

broken porticoes, zaftig rats, bright

Christmas trees, blood splatter, smaller

rooms in more expensive neighborhoods.

Blotches of speed: tail & head lights

exiting and entering the Holland Tunnel;

a necklace of rubies and diamonds.

The East River had its many moods

sounding a panic surface of damp tarp.

Real and unreal separated as sleep departed.

Too bad you couldn’t find a way back

into that dream of New York City

where you shared a smoke with someone

and an inside joke about an un-upholstered

revolution at Corlear’s Hook, adjacent

to the shipyards, NYC’s premiere

brother, hence the word Hookers.

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