Flowering Slugs

Unlike cinders inhabiting warm ashes, snails love damp earth. They go along glued to it. They carry it with them. They eat it. They excrete it. They go through it as it goes through them, the one simultaneously bathing and feeding the other, which covers ground at the same time it eats it. —Francis Ponge

With a running time of two hundred and four minutes, the avant-garde documentary Sudden Death features two-dozen octogenarians playing Bingo in expectation of one of their number suddenly crying out victory. The setting is the basement of the Saint Thomas cathedral one Saturday night. Spliced in, in a few and far-between moments, footage of snail-infested grow bags and more snails clinging to the undersides of lime-colored leaves. Boys setting salt mound traps in snails’ pathways. A snail stuck to a pail hanging from a beam over a brick-lined well. Snails living in and out of the woodpiles near log cabins aswarm with the kids of Camp Quiet Sierra.

Topiary features horticulturists shearing shrubs into animal shapes along Grand Avenue. Behind the reflective glass rising up in the background, tourists crane their necks to look skyward: Calder’s mobiles turn as imperceptibly as celestial bodies. Cut to a common house spider ballooning through a bright kitchen. Cut to a snail inching over tears in rancid linoleum. Cut to snails sliming the Plexiglas rooftop, tilted toward the sun, of a middle schooler’s science project simulating in miniature a public utility desalinating seawater. The mollusks the filmmaker Arkemy glorifies go slowly and half blind, their tentacles to act as feelers.

In Interstate, a film shot from a fixed spot not a far cry different from Formerly a Forest, men working off fines for crimes like drunk driving pick up trash along the highway heading north from here. In a picnic scene set in the shadow of a lone oak tree a hundred miles farther north, a snail crests a rim pouring itself into a Tupperware container.

Mopping architectural glass with telescopic poles and squeegees, the window washers of Ascension motor up and down the sides of buildings on such modest platforms as make a dull circus act. Or it’s the seed of a poem and not an act, when the snails in the public garden below propel themselves forward on a single, flat foot secreting mucus. “There’s no going backwards,” we hear someone say, “but there is time to go back.” This is the only discernible speech in the Arkemy catalogue. He loves his silence, does he not? He emphasizes incidental noises. Human voices run together.

He makes a name for himself filming perfect strangers. No one you see is ever identifiable. “Snails,” he reminds us, “are faceless,” and so his anonymous subjects stand outside polling sites and post offices. They form a line going half way around the block waiting for a blockbuster to open. They wait at the bus stop in their hats and long coats and various slacks and dresses. Briefcases rest at their feet. Bags hang from their shoulders. They hang their heads to look at their devices. They wait like spiders wait or like religious people in forgetful anticipation of the Second Coming. “All species,” says Arkemy, “have the act of waiting in common.”

In the same interview, he asks us what we see when we walk through a wet park. He says, “Get a whiff of it.” He says, “Scoop our share of soil.” He tells us in a way that frankly I find pretentious that, like the snail, we bury our mouths in the earth in a kind of perpetual feasting. As if to embarrass us, he adds, “And if you think we have nothing in common with our friends the snails, like them we each have our own little anus.”

At the Height of the Pandemic

I

A man called my wife a cunt today. It was at the height of the pandemic. She was jogging in the park when she pulled down her mask to take a breather. She wasn’t the only one to pull down her mask today, but she guesses she was oldest. Her gray hair, she guesses, made her a target. I said, Maybe he thought you were an asymptomatic carrier. She said, No, he can’t bear a woman breaking the rules. I told her that if I could I would have a word with this man, and she said of course you would. You want to punch him. Why can’t you listen to what happened, she said, without wanting to punch someone? I’m not punching anyone, I said. It was at the heart of the pandemic.

II

Father Finley talks about grace as openness to the possibility that you could suddenly fall in love with everyone in the world. I used to think about this on crowded buses. I think about it now with empty buses passing.

Of civilizations sOOn wiped clean

A Catholic high school teacher sits in his classroom afterhours talking remotely with his therapist about time-tested approaches to groundedness. No prayer tonight. No meditation. Speaking from a different time zone, she instructs him to get to his feet. “Walking around the room,” she smiles, “count every instance of the color blue. Discover your surroundings.” He confesses in the tone of a true confessor that he’s dog tired. What a cloying game anyway, with her litany of colors like a New Age theory of mood. But “Fine,” he says, and shares the blackness of the night through his window in a few choice words: “My head feels like it has a spike though it.” “How about circles?” she says. “Can you count the circles?” He eyes the clOck, the racing-arOundness Of it, and alsO a circular bell, fire engine red, with its hard hammer. “NO mOre,” he’s taking her tO their affectiOnate impasse, when he signs Off and she writes a nOte tO herself tO ask him next week abOut the feelings awarded him by abruptness. The circles are everywhere, thOugh. The HalO arOund the head Of ThOmas MertOn saying,

If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men—you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write only for yourself you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.

He lOves writing almOst as much as he lOves getting gOOd bOOks intO the hands Of teenagers. The O’s in the title POrtraits frOm NOrth American Indian Life Open like mOuths. SO dO the O’s acrOss hundreds of spines frOm Mr. Sanchez’s The GOd BOx tO Thich Nhat Hanh prOclaiming at Plum Villiage, ‘My dear anger, I knOw yOu are there. I am taking gOOd care Of yOu.” GOd knOws where the rOund-lensed eyeglasses gO that Once pressed the bridge Of the nOse Of the late artist Keith Haring. The splOtched face in his self-pOrtrait signifies his illness, as dO the upturned palms Of Ophelia, having drOwned in shallOw water signify an illness. Steph Curry’s ball handling is a real crOwd pleaser. Rachel CarsOn lOOking Out thrOugh birding binOculars reminds the chOirbOy in him mOre Of his grandmOther and less Of Silent Spring, and less Of the lOne O in the deuterOnOmic saying ‘Justice, Justice shall yOu pursue’ / ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdOf.’ SO many O’s scribbled acrOss dry-erase bOards like legends Of civilizations sOOn wiped clean by a member Of the janitOrial staff. Today’s lesson: the cOmbining Of twO simple sentences intO a single compOund One:

Coates admires the pacifist Dr. King. / Coates doubts the effectiveness of nonviolence.

What O’s want to shOw this mid career teacher spring fOrth nOt frOm reading about race in America, and fOr this he feels vulnerable. It’s the canOnical unit On antiquity: In an age of anger, when everybody looks at everybody like they’re exotic, part of what makes a Roman a Roman is her not living outside the empire. Who is exotic anyway? And who is willing to say right now, ‘I am aware of your concerns—you want to be respected’?