Cascading down the corridor I glimpse
in an abandoned summer classroom, where
custodians have stacked the wooden desks
and chairs, dense layer on inverted layer,
until the impetus for order waned
and, restless, all remaining chairs were piled
as gravity allowed, the legs as wild
as hedgehog quills, unsure which way to turn,
a gridless gridlock cast in space, a mesh,
haphazard thoroughfares, medieval streets,
impromptu shantytowns, in sculpted wood.
You know this scene (perhaps it lingers from
some micrographic album?): this tangle, hewn
from wood, could be a neural ganglion.
Not pine, but cells: dendritic processes
sequestered in the brain. –And here, remote
within the calcium vault that hides the mind,
an unattended memory waits. It waits
without anticipation, and without
contempt of disregard, for moments when
a spark of relevant perception comes
to summon forth an echo of the past.
Each synapse waits—each gap from chair to chair
a fragment that enchains a memory.
Now, memory would not function if randomness
prevailed. A patterned regularity,
recurrent order, must be prespupposed.
Yet every learned response occurs in strict
accord with principles of entropy:
heat dissipates, and thus disorder grows:
a paradox to stymie intellect.
This glance, this instant passing down the hall,
dissolves, the rhythm of successive steps
uninterrupted by the retinal pulse.
The heel sounds ricochet off concrete walls.
Inverted shadows haunt the polished floors.
Ah, what stories those concatenated chairs
would tell if one could fathom how to read
their ciphered history, or if one chanced
upon the cryptic stimulus that set
the structure all aglow!

Emerging, strolling through the oak-lined park
I pause beside the concrete pond, its dark
and pulsing fluid blurring trees that reach
towards earth. The surface breathes disquietude.
The belltower, edges shivering, plunges down
in blackness, stuttering in restless rows.
Each ghostly band, proceeding, slides ahead
and slides ahead and, rippled, slides ahead.
The building floats. It moves, each part. Each part
drifts ever forward, while nothing is displaced.
The wavefronts sweep through every fragment of
the image, never capturing the whole.
If one could only strike a chord of time,
and sound those disparate moments all at once!
Can time reflect, like light upon the sand,
and generate mirages of the past?
And suddenly I realize (by means
beyond the realm of reason) I'm wandering through
a memory: expansive scenes reduced
to digital percussive cells and linked
in coded circuits in a calcium vault,
a vast metabolizing library,
where neurotransmitters erupt in clefts
and ions catapult electric charge
down membraned tunnels. (It can't be me who blinks
or turns the eye.) I watch, as I am buoyed
upon the crests of waves of consciousness
that echo from the past. The episodes of
a lifetime assembled long ago (before
the-time-before) unfold for someone who
mistakes each fresh experience as new.
How else can this pleasant scene—cathedral trees
and mirror pond—feel utterly familiar?
I ride this single-threaded journey of
successive frames, not knowing what's ahead,
and equally unable to secure
what's passed behind. Yes: yes, I'm roaming through
a memory, completed and complete,
uncertain for the moment who I am—
or what comes next.

Now halting, seeking center, seated high
upon a boulder, knotted muscles not
responding to entreaties to respect
the forest calm. Each blaze along the trail's
received its note, each topographic clue
observed, so I can pinpoint on a map
just where I sit. So how can I feel lost?
I search, I search for solace, and draw a breath
as deep as muscles allow, release the breath
as slow as physiology permits.
Some cosmic question haunts the shadows of
awareness, unarticulated in
exhausted reverie. As if they know—
and know that words will fail—the woods respond.
The trees forsake their treeness and dissolve.
A constellation of untainted sense
perceptions floods the visual field: gold light
patch here, grey shadow there, a primitive
mosaic, green on green. No willful mind
can tame the colored data, assembling, say,
familiar scenes to pacify some deep
innate desire to navigate secure—
that is, controlled—domain. The layered leaves
on leaves askew, in darkness then in sun,
the leaves of varied margins and the trunks
in varied textures saturate a space
with neither center nor periphery.
No sky appears above, no sky beyond.
Foreground, background yield to shards of hue
that pulse. Across this plenitude of fragments
stretch scattered segments, elsewhere known as twigs
and branches and truncated limbs, like birds
embroidering a landscape with their flight,
or traces of bees or butterflies in search
of nectar, or pollen grains on fickle winds.
If this were nature's neural tapestry,
what myriad thoughts these random paths would guide,
from merest stimulus to learned response,
from sensate cause to remote effect: a map
of natural history, an archive of
the causal fabric of the land, this place.
Below, where water flows, faux voices spring:
cacophony of gurgles, gasps and gulps,
and sparkling glissandos, slurpeling
arpeggios, discordant chimes and gongs,
and urgent chatter in ten thousand tongues.
The chromatic choral dissonance resounds
with polyphonic wisdom. A wearied soul
now listens, mindfully, respectfully.
The chairs inverted in a classroom far
away begin to quake and clatter, as
a tower bell begins a rhythmic toll.
The woods, dissociated, yield their depths.
An engram of existence, immanent and
expired, of ancient pasts and futures yet
too far to recollect, reverberates
within this fragile moment.

© Douglas Allchin
2 March 2006

*engram: the physical trace of a memory, once imagined to be RNA or another macromolecule.