Circuitry: For Sarah


Out of nothing above
the infinite falling of snow.
I lie on a couch face up
watching it fall.
The thought of infinite dropping dots
fills my mind, silently dropping
as numberless as the crumbs of stars
scattered across the tablecloth of night,
or the hundred billion neurons
of the human brain.

There is all this talk now, news and talk
about the brain. Can we live 150 years?
Or forever, replicated? Can the gene
for our bigger brains be given to chimps?
Is the hippocampus fixable? Intelligence squarable?
Brainy babies on the cover of Newsweek and Time.
All this is based on the error of materialism.
It is not the brain alone, but the work we have done with it
for the past, oh, two and a half million days or so.
It’s been quite a project: Making weird sounds
with lips and throat and tongue,
not what they were made for by Nature.
But maybe God said to hell with Nature,
and began with the Word. Making these sounds
mean something meant everything, allowed us
to make wisecracks and love.
Then to further encode that code in marks,
swirls and nicks on stone, rag or vellum,
to write and read, this was a real work of engineering.
It has taken so much time and still takes time.
Everything else is just workshop junk, trial and error.


Weird, you say.
It’s weird how this tumor sits
in the insular cortex where words
like “weird” and “sad” and “steroids”
are formed, and the way the meaning
of those words, if words mean anything,
work to make you weirdly sad and then
you talk a blue streak until the moods build up
and swing into another seizure in the middle of the night.
Then you are weirdly at peace. Is it the steroids

That do this? you wonder.
Or the tumor, intruder in that inner sanctum
of self, the “I” that walks in your shoes and delights
in the boundary fronting nature and all its lovely creatures?

You picture the surgery you are facing as being
like the scooping out of a pumpkin,
one of those myriad memories welling up.
I offer you a different image: It’s like an oyster,
a glistening gray thing that will slide out
neat and whole.


Each night, the curtains rise,
the house goes dark, the mind grows red.
Dark figures on stage will improvise.
Noises in the wings. Nothing said.
Each night this other world
is an ocean of unknowing. We float on top,
asleep, then not. Thoughts come furled
and flow, then tie obsession’s knot.
This is nothing. But if the brain
is invaded, what dreams and memories
rise from the deep, litter the sand?
Crack time’s shell. See what spirit sees.

I could write a ballad of the man
Grover Cleveland Hall, G.C. junior.
His father’s editorials fought the Klan,
won a Pulitzer. The son rose, had a flair
for flippant prose, and roses in lapels:
heir of nonchalance, on history’s hinge.
The world’s attention in ’56 compelled
G.C. to lecture back. It makes one cringe
today to read his righteous briefs
against dumb datelines from Montgomery
while King held high the South’s old griefs
and feet refused to pay the fee.

Old G.C. junior was later hired
in Richmond, but never stopped his self-defense.
Like Wallace, he was Alabama, and so was fired.
Driving back home, he lost his way, his sense
of who he was. Police near Charlotte
threw him in jail.
And there my ballad would be squeezed,
in which he would moan his haunted tale.
For there in a dark cell
an undiagnosed brain tumor had seized
the gift he had squandered, his intelligence.
He languished until a fellow editor got the news
and set him free.


Light dancer, light as laughter,
no squanderer of gifts, you give us
so much hope we have to laugh.

Each night, a feather-brush of gloom
strokes me awake out of the dark.
Or it’s the cat, your patron saint,
sitting on my supine form
like the night mare in Fuseli’s painting.
Am I awake? Is that you, Sarah?
It’s 1:35 in the morning. Are you asleep
in Brooklyn? Did another night terror
arouse you, and send me this beep?

Your reports from the mind’s front line
fill my brain, and I wonder, lighting on some memory
of when you were little, easy to make laugh,
and colors fill the stage.
The sad fact of unrecoverable time
is buried in snow so deep,
the train of my coming to you
now rushes on
covered, a burrowing bright rush
thrusting drifts ahead of itself
in excited delirium.

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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