A few years ago I wrote a series of short lyrical mediations about objects that appeared in a collection called The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. I riffed on spoons, rakes, chairs and body parts, and I’ve never had so much fun. This time I thought I’d use the same form but begin with the abstract rather than the concrete and see where it might take me. What could be more abstract than god? And what are the thousand and one possibilities of imagining that divine being?
PROLOGUE: AND GOD SAID
Who is the god who utters you? Is it the lame god who drags his foot
down the road and the dust rises, fills your lungs and makes you blind?
Is it the god who runs her tongue over the morning, and you smell her breath
like horse-chewed fescue, except it’s not that smell. It’s the scent of yourself on your fingers
after you scratch your head, the whiff of hair and scalp and your clearest thinking.
Most days, it’s surely the god of the mind that utters you. The heart and gut are another affair.
You want to hear them, too, their syllables of blood and fecal matter, but that needs more of you than you can give right now
and any god can only say so much. Whichever one, her own name is what she utters when she utters you. His own name is what he
utters when he pushes you from his nothing-womb into the ruinous noun-thick world.
GOD OF ARITHMETIC
Children no longer know who this god is. For one thing, he uses chalk as if time does everything but erase. In abandoned country schools, he prints towers of numbers on the blackboards. There are no pupils to add them up and call out the answers though his pockets burn with stars to give away. His worshippers, in danger of dying out, recite the timetables like Hail Marys under their breath to prove their minds are still okay. No matter what they’ve lost—the word geranium, the birth dates of their children—they can do their sums. He wanted his only commandment to be included on the tablet Moses brought down from the mountain, but the others, bartering for space, thought it was only about arithmetic and left it out. It would have changed the world. It would have made us kinder. Thou shalt carry the one, he intones to the small desks in empty classrooms, carry the one.
GOD OF MATTER
Resists abstractions. You throw them at her, justice, equilibrium, shame, and she bats them back. Try comely, try ugly, they’re of no concern. She puts her stick into any matter, into anything that matters, and gives it a stir. Then she asks the most important question: Does it need more salt? When she sees worry on a page she rubs it out and writes in toe. She writes snout over soul; pine cone over ego; a thousand grains of sand over doubt. No wonder she’s the one you light a candle for in the tool shed, in the attic full of many things. After much beseeching and your generous donations to the poor, she lets you write hope, though to temper it, you must recite under your breath one of the following: a. the peeling skin of paint under the lid of the can; b. dust on the floor of the cabin; c. the thin line a shrew draws in the dust on the floor of the cabin with his needle nose.
GOD OF STONES
Don’t underestimate their wisdom, even the stones you’d call dull. In tower spirals, in the walls of llama sheds and stupas, on gravel pathways, they’ve been meditating a long time. Inside each, no matter how small, are two rivers, a herd of long-eared goats, an underworld, a clock. They’ve so slowed down their metabolism that you can’t hear them ticking. Really, all are philosopher’s stones. I think, I think, I think, they say with gravitas. Inside each, no matter what its mineral composition, are a dozen stars, a harp, a singing bird and finally the one who made them. The bird’s song is like nothing you’ve heard before so you don’t hear it when you hold a stone to your ear.
GOD OF DOGS
She thought she was going to be the God of Gods. It’s an old joke and she’s tired of it. Her unwinged flock, however, enchants her. Their exuberance is like a tired fountain suddenly exploding with noisy water and all the village children leap in with dirty feet. She’ll always be the youngest of the immortals—homo sapiens have it wrong: don’t multiply a pooch’s age by seven, divide your own. Somewhere, while you’re doing the math, a mountain dog is digging through a snowdrift to a cold, muffled cry, a water dog is holding a child’s head above the waves, a mutt is hanging onto the arm of a thug who tried to strike his master. Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter, “I hope you love dogs too. It’s economical. It saves going to heaven.” She actually said, “I hope you love birds too,” but it could have been dogs, if she’d been less timid, less housebound, don’t you agree?
These are the ones who show up at the party, grains of rapture bagged and tucked up their sleeves, heaven’s golden mead in flasks in their secret pockets. They’re everyone’s best nightmare. They sit in the front of the club, stuff the biggest notes in the G-strings of the strippers. At the gym they work out beside the bouncer, lift so much weight they bless him with ambition until he has to turn his body sideways to walk through doorways and down the aisles of buses. You see yourself in the otherworldly shine of their briefcases, in their clever suits of mirrors. You never catch the colour of their eyes. Though the clouds bust open, the false ones drive with the cloth tops down and don’t get wet. They walk on swimming pools, holding aloft a cocktail the colour of ichor. They watch over you with the patience of Styrofoam. What’s your want? they whisper. Only one word is necessary to call them close—need, need, need.
GOD OF SILENCE
You want there to be a separate god for owls, for the barred, the burrowing, the saw whet, the spotted, the great-horned, the barn owl whose gaze draws your gaze to his wide face and you see yourself, pale, uncanny. You want this god to keep the owls from harm so the night will be lavishly feathered. Their wings in flight will row through the waters of your sleep and you’ll sense the dip and rise of them, the sky riddled with eyes. You want this god to instruct them not to scoop a cat into the sky, or a family’s only chicken. You want the slow unrolling of the owls’ vowels to slip into your speaking. So much, so little they have to say. You want the owls’ silence to be this god’s silence, one that doesn’t mean there’s no one there, but a refined and honed attention, a keen listening high above you, and a steady looking down.