Sunday, January 9, 2022

A Second Cento

Time ... Isn’t

I have lived to see strange days.  Which side are you on?
Have we reached the point where time becomes a loop?
Somebody must have said nobody.  When you’re laughing, nothing matters ...
but inspiration is hard to come by: time is a weird soup.
You see, time is an ocean, not a garden hose,
and when (or even if) it stops, no one really knows.

Now, some say time is a circus, always packing up and moving away,
or that there’s a time to every purpose, and that everything has a season.
But what if there’s no tomorrow? (there wasn’t one today ...)
Because time is a flat circle, the dreaming eyes of a demon.
Some say you can’t step into the same river twice, but those people are imposters:
time is not a river; time is a jungle, filled with monsters.

Time is a storm, liquid and simultaneous; time is a feathered thing, a jewel;
the whole design visible in every facet, yet all moments quickly run away.
Still, an unperceived dimness in thine eyes makes me believe in yesterday,
and that we are all lost—though it can be loved, the truth is cruel.
This is the school in which we learn; its sword will pierce our skins.
This is the fire in which we burn; it doesn’t hurt when it begins.

Perhaps I should say that I accept Time absolutely.
that here or henceforward it is all the same to me and my designs,
or perhaps I should observe, even more astutely,
that I reject linear time and all the other lies of the beforetimes.
Is it merely a period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments?
Or is the future is never truly set: our fate defined by countless choices?

You run to catch up with the sun, but it’s sinking; the time is out of joint.
We are thrown down here at random, between the stars and matter’s profusion.
The day is done, and the darkness falls from the wings of ... look, that’s the point:
Night’s whatever you want it to be.  Time is an illusion.
It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.
Dear beautiful eternal night: no sun outlasts its sunset, but it will rise again.

But time forks perpetually toward innumerable futures.  Time ripens all things.
There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space,
except that our consciousness moves along it, and you can hear the sound of her wings.
Time makes fools of us all.  Our only comfort is that greater shall come after us.
Day and the angel Life circle the worlds of air ...  Yes, life is fleeting,
but also eternal; it will always find a way to begin again.
Our sole purpose to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.

The Story of a Cento

I’m hardly the first person to notice that, since the pandemic hit, time has gotten ... strange.  In fact, so many people were making note of it that it became hard not to think it significant when you come across some piece of culture referencing the weirdness of time, even though many of them predate the pandemic itself.  I’ve no doubt that the fungibility of time during the pandemic was top of mind for Ashley Johnson when she made the brilliant observation that “time is a weird soup” in episode 1 of Exandria Unlimited, but then surely it was a coincidence that shortly afterward I decided to rewatch John Dies at the End (a movie that plays with time quite a bit), or that I finally got around to season 3 of Legion (which features a time travelling mutant), or that our family rewatch of Steven Universe just then hit the episode where Sour Cream (voiced by the brilliant Brian Posehn) makes his own observation on time ... surely just coincidences, but they started to feel like more, and I started to jot them down in a file, along with other observations about time—Worf’s, from STNG; Rust Cohle’s, from True Detectiveand I started to become intrigued at how they seemed to fit together, to form a narrative ...

The last time I did one of these, I talked about what a “cento” actually is.  Go read that again if you need a refresher; basically, centos are the found object art of poetry.  I took the pieces that matched up and put them together; took the pieces that didn’t match to anything and found things to match them to; I even filled in a line here or there to add ryhthm or rhyme.  But I kept it very loose: the meter is very irregular, and the rhyme scheme fluctuates from stanza to stanza.  (In the latter, I am quite inspired by J. Patrick Lewis, a much better poet than I; if you haven’t read The La-Di-Da Hare, I highly recommend it.  While it’s ostensibly a children’s book, the poetry is very sophisticated.)  In many cases, I used slant rhymes instead of perfect ones; sometimes this was necessary (because those were the quotes I had), but sometimes it was just fun.

I also did something quite different this time around (vs my last cento, I mean): I rearranged the quotes.  Not all of them, but I didn’t hesitate to twist things around to make them fit my form and flow.  For instance, the actual line from “The Raven” is:

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,

which I rearranged to “the dreaming eyes of a demon” (because that way I could use it to rhyme—sort of—with “season”).  And French historian André Malraux actually wrote:

The great mystery is not that we should have been thrown down here at random between the profusion of matter and that of the stars; it is that from our very prison we should draw, from our own selves, images powerful enough to deny our own nothingness.

which I condensed and rearranged to:

We are thrown down here at random, between the stars and matter’s profusion.

because I needed something to rhyme with “illusion.” In this case, I actually started with the word “profusion” and searched out quotes containing it.  Why?  Hard to say, really ... I knew I needed something to fit that rhyme, and I wanted a word that might be somewhat unexpected (not “conclusion” or “delusion” or “confusion”), and I thought that surely somebody had once said something about “profusion” that would fit this theme, and I found it.  I had no clue who André Malraux even was before I started; but now I do, and that’s a good thing.

My most ambitious rearrangements were in the third stanza, where the first line is actually 5 small pieces pieces of four different quotes, strung together to seem like they are all cut from the same cloth.  The bulk of those four quotes—the meaty bits, if you will—are then shuffled back in: the first half of line two matches the 3rd and 5th parts of line one; the second half of line two matches the 2nd part; the first halves of lines three and four match the 4th and 1st parts, respectively.  Then lines five and six are just two rhyming couplets (practically doggerel) spliced together.

I think my favorite rhymes in the whole piece are in the fourth stanza, where I rhyme Walt Whitman with B. Dave Walters, two sages separated by nearly a century, and yet their words contrast so beautifully.  (Note that this is a favorite phrase of B. Dave’s since the pandemic started; my link below is to but one example.)  I had to tack on a new ending to Whitman’s quote and write a whole additional line for this one, but I’m happy enough with it: I think it works well, in context.

About the only thing I’m not happy with here, other than maybe wishing I could tighten up some of the places where I just threw the meter completely out the window, is that I’m not sure I’ve got the order of the stanzas right.  I think each one is good on its own, and I think there’s a narrative that they form, but I’m not sure I’ve nailed the progression of that narrative.  Then again, given the nature of the subject matter, maybe telling the story slightly out of order is just par for the course.

Anyway, it’s not a first draft, but it may not yet quite be finished, so I once again ask that you be a bit gentle with it.  Still, if you have thoughts or comments, I’d love to hear them.


First Stanza: Second Stanza: Third Stanza: Fourth Stanza: Fifth Stanza: Sixth Stanza:

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