by Michael McClure

THE GIANT PANDA, huge mammal, furred in black and white, basks and lolls in the shadiness of the bamboo grove. T'he panda sometimes sits like a man, on his rump with legs outspread, on an earthy mound covered with moss. Perhaps he looks at his beloved and family. He is surrounded by his nutriment, by the tips of bamboo plants that reach many times his height from the surface of the earth towards the sun. Perhaps strange, thoughtless philosophies drift across the platens of his sensorium and create and recreate themselves in his limbs and organs. All of his being is an accumulation of his plasm and the activities of his body. He sprang from the matter of the earth as it was energied by the nearby star that he sees through the sparse places in the glade. The bamboos about the panda are air creatures. They draw nitrates, some material substance, and water from the earth through the pores of their searching motile root tips. But much of the substance of the bamboo is drawn from thin air, from the gasses of the atmosphere, which are changed by a chemical cycle and the sun's rays into solid substance. Gasses become the BODY of the panda via the bamboo. The bamboos are threads that reach from the planet toward the star that energies them.

AN INVISIBLE WATCHER is in a room with a man and woman who are arguing -t hey are a lover and beloved, a man and wife. They are quarreling about the payment on a car, or about the loss of a laundry ticket. The argument becomes too intensive for so minor an issue. It appears that the man and woman are enacting a rite. If the invisible observer closes his ears to the meanings of the words and listens only to the vocalization as sounds, a thought occurs to him:

He is listening to two mammals. It might be two snow leopards, two bison, two wolves. It is a mammal conversation. The man and woman are growling, hissing, whimpering, cooing, pleading, cajoling, and threatening. The specific rite and biomelodic patterning of meat conversation rises and falls in volume. It makes variations, it repeats itself, it begins again, it grows, diminishes. There is a hiss and counterhiss. There is a reply and new outburst. The game that the man and woman are enacting, and the ritual, is as old as their plasm. It is capable of extremes of nervous modulation because of their neuronic complexity but it is more than ancient-it is an Ur-rite.

If the man and woman are lucky, and if their intelligences are open, then one of them will HEAR that it is a rite-that they are growling and hissing. Then he, or she, will laugh at the comedy and the ridiculousness of the pretext. The other partner will laugh in response, intuiting the same perception. Most likely it is a sexual ritual. They are hungry for contact with each other. Their intellective and emotional processes have been frozen into simulations of indifference by pressures of the surroundings and events. If they are lucky enough, one of them will raise a hand to the other, and touch or stroke, recognizing the other as the universe, the counterpart of a star, a galaxy, a planet, a bacterium, a virus, a leopard. Then they have enacted and completed a tantra of Shiva and Shakti. They have become mammals and gods and goddesses.

A MAN IS SITTING CROSS-LEGGED in bright afternoon sunlight. He opens a book of reproductions of Egyptian art. Clear light gleams off the paper. The alto relievo statuary is uncanny. The lazy intellectual mind scans the opposite page and finds text describing the statuary in a foreign language. It says, apparently, that this is a Pharaoh and two goddesses. The man's attention returns to the reproduction - passing perception takes the shape of a fragmentary poem:

slides to the ribosome
(to the Constellation).
The beads move.
The Pharaoh, Chacal, & Hathor are glabrous
arm in arm. The weight
of the Man-God
is on one foot / or the other.
They create the gleam
of this dimension,
of this single process,
of perfection.
But who is who? and WHAT?

The words mime the balance of the figures as they stand - Goddess, Pharaoh, Goddess - side by side, touching one another. Their weight is immaculately balanced. The sculptor of the archaic figures had a knowledge difficult to regain, though easy to reperceive thousands of years later. The sculptor sensed that man-mammal is created from the inside outward. That man begins at the interior of his cells and from their perfect balance the body is created.

((Within the human body the RNA slides through the walls of the cell's nucleus, through infinitesimal tubes in the structure, and finds the pear-like ribosome bodies in the cytoplasm. The bodies MOVE across the long threadlike molecules of RNA and create the substances of the cell.))

The three figures show muscular development that is excellent, generalized, not excessive. The bodies rest naturally in mammal fashion. A wolf can be seen standing in relaxation, peering with interest, involved and yet disinvolved. The carved stone reproduces muscle tone that is healthy and without contradictory strains. The faces of the Pharaoh and goddesses are as interesting, or as uninteresting, as the faces of snow leopards. Their bodies are erect, with the pelvis slightly forward to balance the weight of the head. The Pharaoh stands with one foot a little forward-it is impossible to tell which foot bears his weight, or if both feet do. The goddesses stand in variations of this posture.

I STAND IN FRONT of the cyclone wire cage containing the female snow leopard. My friend has a tape recorder. We have been taping sounds of animals before the zoo opens. I step over the guardrail where the snow leopardess is watching us. She is indifferent to humans when they keep at a distance. Her task is to fight the physical psychosis of encagement and madness. Most of her waking is spent pacing the constricted outlines of her cage. But now it is early morning and she is resting. When I step over the guard rail she growls in anger without moving - except her head, which swivels to watch me.

No part of her can reach through the mesh of the cyclone wire. I put my face almost to the wire and nearly to her face. There are only a few inches between her mouth and my face. She is enraged, and her face, which seems divine in such proximity, twists into feline lines of rage. The anger and rage are clearer than the conflicting human expressions on the daily streets. She knows the uselessness of pawing or clawing at me.

She puts her face within an inch of the wire and SPEAKS to me. The growl begins instantly and almost without musical attack. It begins gutturally. It grows in volume and it expands till I can feel the interior of her body from whence the energy of the growl extends itself as it gains full volume of fury. It extends itself, vibrating and looping. Then, still with the full capacity of untapped energy, the growl drops in volume and changes in pitch to a hiss. The flecks of her saliva spatter my face. I feel not smirched but cleansed. Her eyes are fixed on me. The growl, without a freshly drawn breath, begins again. It is a language that I understand more clearly than any other. I hear rage, anger, anguish, warning, pain, even humor, fury all bound into one statement.

I am surrounded by the physicality of her speech. It is a real thing in the air. It absorbs me and I can hear and feel and see nothing else. Her face and features disappear, becoming one entity with her speech. The speech is the purest, most perfect music I have ever heard, and I know that I am touched by the divine, on my cheeks, and on my brow, and on the tympanums of my ears, and the vibrations on my chest, and on the inner organs of perception.

It is music-speech. It is like the music one hears when he places his head on the stomach of his beloved. The gurglings, the drips, the rumblings, the heart, and the pulsebeats in the interior of the body are perfect music. It is the meat speaking and moving - as the testicles move and twist and writhe within the sac making their own motility and pursuing their ends. I am overcome with the universality of the experience. I hope that the drops of leopard saliva will never dry on my face.

We play back the several minutes of this growl and it is more beautiful than any composition of Mozart. Three-quarters of the way into the tape is the clear piercing crow of a bantam rooster making his reply to the mise-en-scène about him-to the calls of his ladies, to the sparrows, to the sounds of traffic, to the growling of the leopardess, to the morning sun, to the needs of his own being to vocally establish his territory. The crow of the tiny rooster is smaller but no less perfect or monumental or meaningful than the statement of the leopardess-they make a gestalt. The tape is a work of art as we listen. But we have no desire to add it to the universe of media and plastic artifacts. We see, hear, feel through the veil. WE are translated.

TRAVELING ON A SMALL SHIP to the Farallon Islands near the San Francisco coast, I spoke with a virologist who had just returned from Australia. He was traveling to the Farallons to study the rabbits there. A lighthouse keeper's son had a pair of rabbits that escaped on the island. The rabbits and their progeny devastated the island of every leaf of plant life. The island was left bare rock, without any vestige of higher plant life. The virologist believed that the rabbits - still populous on the island - ate the desiccated corpses of gulls and seabirds. His idea was that only one type of rabbit had the capability of surviving under these conditions.

I wandered on the island-seeing a rabbit and traces of rabbits - but not a blade of grass or a bush. The island is rocky, craggy, like a miniature, eroding crest of the Alps. After climbing the tiny peak, I descended to the beach, which was scattered with boulderlike rocks. I found myself looking down onto a herd of sea lions, the closest no more than thirty feet away. They were drowsing and lolling in the sun. Seeing something comic in the scene, I raised my hand and began speaking as if I were delivering a sermon. The astonished sea lions dived into the ocean. The ones in the ocean swung about to see me. They began a chorus of YOWPS, and huge angered MEAT CRIES, dense in volume and range. I continued my performance and they carried on their yowping. Perhaps thirty or forty of the animals were yowling at one time. They were FURIOUS, ENRAGED, ASTONISHED. Like the leopardess, their voices were driven by hundreds of pounds of meat force and energy. I was frightened, worried that they might change about, clamber out, and pursue me. They remained in the water cursing me in a clear ancient language that left little doubt about meaning.

AND THEN I knew that not only were the monster shapes of meat enraged, they were PLEASED. THEY WERE SMILING AS WELL AS ENRAGED! They were overjoyed to be stimulated to anger by a novel-and clearly harmless-intruder. Undoubtedly they enjoyed my astonishment and fear as well as the physical pleasure of their rage. Perhaps they relished my physical reaction to their blitzkrieg of sound. They began to yowp not only at me but to each other.

My ears could not take it any longer and I began walking up the beach. I walked halfway around the island. Five members of the tribe followed in the waves. They watched, taunted, encouraged, scolded, and enjoyed me to the fullest. I have not been in finer company.

From Scratching the Beat Surface
Copyright © 1982 by Michael McClure.

Go to The Michael McClure Home Page

Go to Light and Dust Poets

Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry.