Eucalyptus is an experiment in quest narrative and noise poetics. In the 1980s I became influenced by the music of bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and have tried since to capture in writing their blending of melodic line and feedback. The conventions of the novel and quest narrative provide the “line,” the structure the reader/listener can attempt to grab hold of when faced with the complete degeneration promised by noise that otherwise breaks the narrative/melody into fragments and therefore brings an outdated mode of expression into the current world. The intended result in Eucalyptus is to allow the detritus of the everyday present to hover over and threaten to obliterate the telling image drawn from the past, for digression and narrative sequence to switch places and order of importance. Granting digression preeminence, of course, has a long history, finding its antecedents in authors such as Sterne and Machado de Assis. The excerpts published here, from the end of the first section, place the narrator and his cohorts on the periphery of the jungles that will engulf them in subsequent sections, probably forever.
In which, when the ice storms arrive, they seem grandiloquent, almost as if we are to congratulate ourselves on having lived long enough to witness them. Having escaped the falls from great height and the malicious designs of our uncles who got fired from their jobs at the foundry. And wished to amuse themselves in the meantime by shooting firecrackers off just outside our bedroom windows. And wouldn’t it be amusing if we grew up without retaining a single memory of these people? If we stowed their images away in something like a steamer trunk and tossed it into whatever served as the inner equivalent of a river? At the aquarium downtown, the coral has yet to be placed in its tank. But there are signs at the entrance to let us know what is coming. And why it is delayed. A perfect stranger gazes intently at the horseshoe crabs, tries to act as if his mind works in irregular patterns and so can’t possibly be predicted. We would need weeks just to find the symbols necessary in the books in the library. And even then, they wouldn’t entirely suffice.
You have it in you to accomplish what others deem incomprehensible. The sewing together of two fingers. The translating of one language into another without knowing, really, any words in either one. It’s a skill one picks up when one is in school to be something else. A beautician, say, or a herpetologist. When one is considering dropping out because everyone else has already finished. The hallways are deserted. They’re not even hallways in the strictest sense of the term. I show up in my stocking feet and have trouble keeping my balance because the light keeps getting in my eyes and when I try to trace it to its source, the sun pops up repeatedly as the most likely culprit. But I refuse to accept this precisely because it is a conclusion drawn from experience and common sense, two of about twelve things on the list of those things I no longer believe in. Or at least I no longer recognize as being important. The way tissue paper is important. The way loving one’s neighbors is said to be important, though when is the last time you even spoke to yours? Eulalie cures the blisters, makes them disappear, simply by touching each one for a moment with her right index finger. I suspect she does so at great detriment to her own health, taking somehow the substance — the poison and the chemical reactions that cause the blisters to rise, if not the outside stimulus that set those reactions going in the first place — into her own body where it is stored in the tissues until such time as there is no more room for it, so much having compounded on itself over the course of the days and the months and the years. And who knows what will happen then because it hasn’t happened yet? Or at least I have yet to witness any alteration that can be pinpointed and described quantitatively the way you can describe the overall increase in yield for the wheat crop each season, or what it means to stand near the ocean after a red tide has rolled in and there are fish carcasses strewn across the sand for miles in either direction.
In which the dolphins strand themselves in groups of five and six, as if they intend to discover something about the surface world through rudimentary mathematics. The same way we do. She considers joining the others in a rescue, running her hands over the skin of the beasts in what is supposed to be a soothing manner, but is really just a naked intrusion. A chance to commit a crime against another. It’s the sort of thing she thinks he would relish, but only if he could admit up front that what he was doing was both unnecessary and unpleasant. It is a transgression against the world itself. Then wouldn’t he be in his element, wouldn’t he be beaming like a parent at the spelling bee! She closes the drapes, pours some rye whiskey in a plastic cup, then thinks better of it. The light will turn her mind into a prism. The Deep Purple on the radio will begin to swim like eels. She wonders what it’s like on the other side of the continent, where the ocean isn’t expected to disgorge its contents at regular intervals. Where the airplanes lie rusting and useless in the jungle clearings like tin cans. She hears him banging into things in the bedroom, knocking over stacks of clothes, old milk cartons and the candle holders he bought her for Christmas, but looks at suspiciously now as if he thinks perhaps they were a gift from some other man. She can hear the ruckus growing louder outside, the desperation in the voices of the people who always carry desperation around with them in one way or another. Usually it’s hidden from view, packed away like a leather jacket with fringes on it. Something embarrassing. Something we burn old photographs to conceal.
Every time they say the name, someone else repeats it, but that someone seems to be drifting farther and farther away on the current. We swing the spotlight out in larger arcs, but the only things visible are the whitecaps and the spray and every now and then a shadow that seems too enormous to originate with anything living. I sneak below to draw on the oxygen mask that is a faint blue-green and fogs up with every exhalation, reminding me of those days when we would practice on the basketball court until our ribs ached and the birds kept crashing into the windows that were high up on the wall of the gym. Some of these windows tilted outward to let fresh air in and some of them were covered in a layer of grime that seemed as ancient as the language that preceded ours. Maybe we should be locking our valuables in nondescript boxes and then locking those boxes inside something with diamonds on it, but the directions give us no insight into how to follow them. They are not even listed in chronological order. Item number four seems to be missing altogether and fifteen follows closely on the heels of that which tells us to hang up the phone and dial again. All of which suggests we are going to be stuck here for more than a few days. Might as well get used to it, might as well get used to the oddly-shaped insects that seem drawn to the sounds of our voices, to the light above the table where we like to play cards. Guess that means you are going to disappoint us again, says the woman I’ve never seen before, the one with the lace panties hanging from her index finger, her other hand on her hip in what she obviously considers a dramatic pose, a haughty way of drawing your attention away from her face at the exact same time you ought to be concentrating on it. To determine the gist of what she’s saying with the assistance of what the experts call her non-verbal cues. Of course, they have been studying people like this much longer than I have. They have reams of information they have yet to feed into the computer, all of it stacked up in the metal storage bins that have stickers with the names of local bands on them. These names suggest menace; they remind you it’s not always easy to incorporate the whole of Celtic mythology into a single pithy phrase.
In which you are to imagine you have been granted one wish and you have a week and a half to prioritize your desires. Will your benefactor stick around that long? Will he even remember the contours of your face, that thing that more than anything else — more so even than your name — distinguishes you from all the others who have had tantalizing promises made to them? Whether by supernatural entities or simply those of their acquaintance who believe in supernatural entities. Several decades later, and the process starts all over again. You are sitting on the back balcony, gazing over the river that gives your place of residence that strange, soothing power over the otherwise unruly elements of your soul. And the telephone rings and there is someone on the other end who refuses to identify himself. Who refuses even to acknowledge that he is the one who initiated the call and so has some measure of obligation to inform you of its purpose. To admit, at the very least, he chose you not entirely at random.
Three minutes later the options seem limited. They seem to have been auctioned off one at a time, though there are no bidders. Everyone stands around looking at each other and then at the back of the room where there is a sound now like someone pulling on the starter cord of a lawnmower. The mechanism, whatever it is, does not catch, and so we are left to wonder if maybe the source is electronic in nature and malfunctioning, if we are being surrounded by creatures that look and act and talk like we do, but which have been selectively bred to disintegrate at precisely the same time we are making a connection. Or at least within the hour. Precision of that sort is not what our nemesis is known for. In fact, he isn’t known at all. There are no proclamations, no brochures or websites with his photograph on them and his list of accomplishments running down the page, bleeding onto the next one like a wounded lizard. No, it’s not even clear where the concept originated, though I suspect it has something to do with those years we spent on a sailboat, coming ashore only long enough to re-supply, to remind our hearts of what it is like to pump while we stand perfectly vertical and still. Someone voices his displeasure by making comparisons to the tennis court, the way it divides so nicely in two. And then twice more, though the purpose of these subsequent divisions is never entirely clear even to those who make their living playing the sport. They will tell you any number of things they themselves have heard second and third-hand and so we ought probably to just consider the question not worth asking, at least so long as we are in the company of those who value security and decorum above all other considerations. Who knows how long we’ll have to put up a brave front? Maybe later, when the wind has picked up and there are whitecaps on the water and the old women in their yellow bathing suits will have abandoned the shore, we can sneak down to the edge of the water and make a wish and throw a couple hundred pebbles in. And maybe then you’ll know why I no longer believe a word you say. Not since I found those messages scrawled across your bathroom mirror. Detailing where it is you’ve been and what you’ve been doing and with whom. All of it spelled out in lipstick. The same type, I believe, I bought you when you said you were out and you had no money. You had spent it all on envelopes and kerosene.
Charles Freeland lives in Dayton, Ohio, where he teaches at Sinclair Community College. A two-time recipient of the Individual Excellence Award in Poetry from the Ohio Arts Council, he is the author of the book-length poem Eros & (Fill in the Blank) (BlazeVOX), the collection Through the Funeral Mountains on a Burro (Otoliths), and several chapbooks and e-chapbooks including Deviled Ham and a Picture of Jesus (Finishing Line Press), Chilean Sea Bass is Really Just Patagonian Toothfish (Differentia Press), Eulalie & Squid (Chippens Press), Furiant, Not Polka (Moria), The Case of the Danish King Halfdene (Mudlark), and Where We Saw Them Last (Lily Press). His website is The Fossil Record.