Saturday, August 10, 2019

The autodidact..................

I had never heard of John Bernard Flannagan,
American sculptor,
until I found him on page 961
of the single-volume encyclopedia I have been reading
at the rate of one page each day.

He was so poor, according to the entry
he could not afford the good, quarried marble
and instead had to carve animals
out of the fieldstones he gathered
until he committed suicide in 1942,
the year, I can’t help thinking, I turned one.

Of course, I know what flannel is,
but that French flannel is napped on only one side
is new to me and a reminder that
no matter what size the aquarium of one’s learning,
another colored pebble can always be dropped in.

Tonight a fog blows by the windows,
and a mist falls through the porch lights
as my index finger descends from flat-coated retriever
to flatfish, those sideways creatures—
turbot, plaice, flounder, sole—
all swimming through the dark with close-set eyes,
toothless, twisted mouths,
and a preference for warm, shallow water.

But this is nothing new to me.
No dots are connected in the vast grid 
of my autodidacticism.
No branch is pruned in the forest of my ignorance,
which is why I am stepping over the Flathead River
of Canada and Montana's Flathead Lake
and coming to rest on the Flathead Indians
who never actually practiced heat-flattening
I am disappointed to learn,
but got their name from neighboring tribes
who shaped the fronts of their own heads
to achieve a pointed appearance,
which is how I hope to look
when the entire contents of this book
press against the inside of my high forehead.

What a relief to emerge
from all this flatheadedness and land on
Flaubert, son of a surgeon, victim of a nervous
disorder, and pursuer of le mot juste.
Yet the entry for the supreme master of the realistic novel
is no taller than a filtered cigarette
and hardly half the size of the piscatory word-puff
then envelops the subject of flatfish.

Posterity is, indeed, a cruel and savagely attired mistress,
but my own slow, sentimental education
must continue with the revelation
that while there were three emperors and
a Catholic patriarch named Flavian,
there is only one Dan Flavin, another sculptor,
who works, the bottom of the narrow column tells me,
in the medium of fluorescent lights,
luminous tubes, strangely configured.

The hour is late as I mark my place
with a playing card and close the book in my lap.
A cool vapor flows over the windowsills.
Appalachia is behind me, Napoleon lies ahead,
and I will save for tomorrow the subject of flax
(the chief source of fiber and seed oil
from prehistoric times to the development of cotton).
It is time to float on the waters of the night.
Time to wrap my arms around this book
and press it to my chest, life preserver
in a sea of unremarkable men and women,
anonymous faces on the street,
a hundred thousand unalphabetized things
a million forgotten hours.

-Billy Collins,  "What I Learned Today"

No comments:

Post a Comment