All At Once Is What Eternity Is: Musings on Kenneth Patchen


Because the world is a clock without numbers, none of this is going to be enough to mean what I mean. But I want to say something like: We need Kenneth Patchen.

No. Let me start again: We need Kenneth Patchen. Why we need him has something to with the fact that the world is strange. And I fear for what would happen if things were no longer strange. No, that’s not it, either—I fear for what would happen if we forgot how strange the world is and will always be. If we stopped exclaiming Oh! Suddenly I am in another geography—how could this be? Oh! There are these things I didn’t know about before—hills that go inwards then sideways, grass that is as big and thick as people and as consequential as shadow, skies that are grounds, plants that are as ugly and beautiful as torsos, ants that are adjectives, words that aren’t then are! And yet I’ve always lived here! And yet.

Does anyone think it’s easy
To be a creature in this world?
To ask for reasons
When all reasons serve only
To make the darkness darker,
And to break the heart?
—Not only of man,
But of all breathing things?
Perhaps, friends, it is time
To take a stand
Against all this senseless hurt.

Kenneth Patchen holds us at the grand blur, if we let him. If we let him, he will remind us about the awe that is our birthright. And the horror. Maybe this is what I’m trying to say. Maybe this is why we need him. Because of his mirror, his wonder, his torment. Not always beautiful, not always ugly, but always a wellspring of seeds.

Let me qualify my bias: I like the mess. No, it’s not even that I like it. I just trust it more than the tidiness. A lot of people don’t like the mess. But maybe this is why I think we need Patchen. We need him because he is a revolutionary. He reminds us to stay with the endless joy but also the endless suffering. He demands that we be witnesses. When it is not beautiful here, it is painful here, or boring here. It is impossible to only have joy. Patchen says: It’s okay, friends, we can go forwards and even be peaceful from a place that admits this thing about joy. And Patchen’s just as scared as we all are. Yet he still says: Stay. Stay with this. With me. Witness with me. He holds up the strange compass when most of us disavow it. The compass has burned our hands; at least, we think it will. We don’t know what to do. So stay, he offers. Look at the compass. It’s made of time, of death. It is made of inverted things and illegal notebooks that were thought to have been shredded. The compass is a tsunami or a wind’s wisp or both. It’s made of monotony and wonder. It’s made of awe and tender fear. Fearless true love is not just euphoric—it is also tender. It holds huge pain. It witnesses. Patchen holds these truths like a candle for all of us, invites us—sometimes implores us—to look. All at once is what eternity is. He says: Please just remember how strange, how rightfully ever-changing, how awful, how awe-filled is this thing, life. How it cannot be different than this. How our struggle against this basic truth causes so much unnecessary suffering. You can run away and fall or you can stay and learn to love and breathe. The former is what it means to unnecessarily obliterate one’s self. The latter is what it means to consciously choose to be alive.

Why shouldn’t you be afraid? Why shouldn’t you think it’s crazy to believe in a green deer? All your life you have been taught to believe in only what you can use—to set on the table, to put in the bank, to build a house with. What possible use would a green deer be to anyone? Who would believe in a man with a blazing bush in his cart? Then let me tell you that it is beliefs just such as these that are the only hope of the world. Let me tell you that until men are ready to believe in the green deer and the strange carter, we shall not lift our noses above the bloody mess we have made of our living.

Patchen is strange. Maybe he typifies strange. His writing, so often non-linear, full of offshoots, pseudo-narrative, capital letters, huge and small words, characters who elude us, creatures, wallops, wisps, things that make no sense. Even when his form is more straightforward, his content still projects a fundamental recognition of our bewildering human situation. Patchen laments and celebrates and gets fearlessly puzzled about this lack of sense. He is the ultimate realist in this way.

The question is not: do we believe in god? but rather: does God believe in us? And the answer is: only an unbeliever could have created our image of God; and only a false God could be satisfied with it.

He reminds us: if we stay, if we dare, then yes, it will be wonderful and it will be terrible and meaning will elude us and then we will find meaning, hold it, lose it, find it, hold it, and lose it. We will grow and die. There will be occasions to grieve, to sing, and to utter. There will be occasions to go forth, to question the self and then break the self, to enter rock and build anew from within rock. We will have to stop hiding from ourselves and each other. Patchen says: Stop. Sit, breathe, look, then, finally, when you are ready: Utter, say, write. He invites the consideration that even death, might ultimately, might probably, be trustworthy and benign. Perhaps if we stay with him at this blur for long enough, we can come to a new knowing. We can give life and love to each other from our new knowing. We can build and grow and go forth from this rubble and that rubble into healing and care. We can do this with the new language we find here at this border, this blur. We can re-write existence, find our own syntax and wear it like skin. We can re-write ourselves and each other. Create new architectures in which to exist and understand. Patchen says: We can truly do this with language. We can make new minds.

Tell God that we like
The rain, and snow, and flowers,
And trees, and all things gentle and clean
That have growth on the earth.
White winds.
Golden fields.
To hell with power and hate and war.

The blur does not speak back to us. We go there, silently. We look into the twine and the swirl. We hold hands if there are any. Patchen hands us paper, pens. He incites political, linguistic, and emotional revolt. He says: cry, laugh, and be astounded and be wrong but whatever you do, use these pens and paper. Trust the mess. Cry for it if need be, but trust it. And all of this, it’s all okay, he says. Write existence. Meet reality. There’s terror, there’s love. There’s a silent cliff. It has taken so long for us to get here. It is from here that we can begin to speak again. There is enough room for all of us. For all the love and fear and non-sense. With this new speech we know that, in spite of all that is ugly, the very fact of anything’s existence is astounding. Patchen knows this and we need him to remind us of it, we can go to him when we have forgotten to hold each other. He wants to reclaim and melt into the hugeness. And there’s nothing about this, really, that’s neutral. It is a clear prescription for a kind of peace that, most likely, we’ve never known. He says: War and domination are the opposite of room. War is non-space. He says Fuck war. Fuck war against ourselves and each other. He is angry. He is right. He says Fuck war against lovely life as lovely life so strangely is. He says Humans, leave life and death alone. Life and death know what they need to do without our interference. They take care of things on their own. Fuck war because its purpose is to make everything small, subjecting all that exists to annihilation. War is literally the antithesis of everything. It is the ultimate negation of the possibility of being.

I am standing here looking at you.
Why do you laugh at me?
Why are you afraid of me?

Or maybe it’s this: Maybe we need Patchen because we seem to need permission. We need permission to not need permission. We need someone to say: Your language does not need permission to be said, to be written. Your life does not need permission to exist. Your blur, your cliff, your bewilderment does not need permission. When we’ve forgotten this, when we don’t know why or who we are, we can go to him, and maybe he’ll whisper something like: You don’t need permission to be just as you are in this moment. Your strange language doesn’t need permission to be itself. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar who wants your power, who wants war, who wants your beautiful huge seed. Anyone who tries to shame or break your language is betraying you. Take up your own space! No need for more or for less! Don’t erase yourself! He might remind us softly: You don’t need a why; no one needs to ask if they can be who or why they are, or what they were, or will be, and when. He might melt into himself and moan: Why use the languages of war and domination to muffle ourselves and each other, when we can so easily use languages of growth to breathe, to be new and enormous? He might charge: Let’s! Please, let’s!

Carolyn Zaikowski's creative and critical work has previously appeared in PANK, NOO Journal, Nebula: A Journal of Multidisciplinary Scholarship, Get Fresh Magazine, Eleven Eleven Journal, West Wind Review, esque, and other publications. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and currently teaches English in Thailand. More from this author →