And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, November, 2011
As we crest the ridge, the city outskirts come into view, and the bus begins the long juddering descent down a winding road toward the capital. Scattered pine groves darken the snowy slopes like the shadows of clouds. The interior of the bus is permeated with the bad winter air of the city: a mix of burning trash, exhaust, coal fires, frost. The capital in winter generates its own element; it exudes an inconsolable smell that leaves the bitter taste of rime. I will carry it in my clothes back to Altai, where I live, a thousand kilometers to the west, and wear it in my coat for weeks. The passengers, wrapped in heavy clothing, watch through the windows in silence.
As we near the city, the red clouds and blue sky of late afternoon give way to smog. The bus trundles over cratered roads past machine shops, wooden houses, dirty white gers inside crumbling brick compounds. Figures bundled in dark coats hurry along the sagging walls, down the dirt lanes. Ice and trash slump against the lee sides of buildings. Coal lies in heaps in workshop compounds where hammered iron stacks chuff black smoke that drains into the gray sky, which becomes darker by touches as we drive deeper into the city. Haze conceals the tall buildings in the center of town and limits visibility to five blocks in any direction. The city, situated within a bowl of mountains, drowns in its own effluvium.
Beside the river, a brace of smokestacks towers two hundred meters above the factories. Only the stacks’ tops are seen above the settled smog, a disembodied battery of howitzers pointed heavenward, dribbling smoke. As the bus crosses a bridge, the immense cooling towers of the power plants come into view, smoldering like volcanoes beside the frozen Tuul River. The Tuul, sacred to Mongols, is desperately low these days; its waters have been diverted for mining operations, and trash studs the thin patches of ice. Hundreds of feet high on a pole, the red and blue flag of Mongolia hangs like a songbird from a limestick, a singular streak of color in the otherwise sterile afternoon.
There is no fixed point by which to orient because there is no sky, and the sun is only an intermittent stain of yellow light. As the bus moves, the perimeter of visibility moves with it, closing in behind us, gradually revealing more city ahead. The passengers lean at the frosted windows and keep watch.
That night, lying in a dorm bunk in a cramped and sour hostel, a cough and a fever prevent me from sleeping. My nerves are jangled by the weird energy of illness. The mind ranges. I feel giddy and a bit unmoored as I find my place in Wordsworth’s “Prelude” and read by flashlight.
This spiritual Love acts not nor can exist
Without Imagination, which, in truth,
Is but another name for absolute power
And clearest insight, amplitude of mind,
And Reason in her most exalted mood.
My thoughts are cast in delirious colors and I come to realize, suddenly and absurdly, that This life is free. Nothing is required in exchange for it. You do not have to ask. All of life’s beauty, in its entire spectrum of vibrancy and strangeness, is an anonymous gratuity. And yet, like the fool, I have said in my heart so many times, there is no god.
In the book, Wordsworth writes of the moon, his love for which he likens to his love for country, which is a damn silly notion. I sometimes mistrust Wordsworth when he writes as a Christian or a patriot. Not always, but sometimes. As when a good friend tells you something that you know is only half true, and you both look away for a moment, but you say nothing because you love them, and they have forgiven you for the same fault many times. I set the book aside and look out at the snow and the apartment buildings under a blank sky, 3 AM, and think of my family. My dad almost never spoke of god or religion. In his opinion, if you were a man who assumed as his role in life the right to dictate the thoughts and actions of other men; that is, if you were a man who claimed to know the truth and took it upon yourself to share your wisdom for the edification of those hapless fools around you; that is to say, if you were an evangelist or a politician (and it’s a fact that most men moonlight as priests and politicians): well, you were probably an asshole. His philosophy, theology, and religion could be summed up in one question: “Oh? And who the hell are you?” Being a quiet man, he did not say this in so many words. But a child learns to interpret things.
O, happy! Yielding to the law
Of these privations, richer in the main!
While thankless thousands are oppressed and clogged
By ease and leisure – by the very wealth
And pride of opportunity made poor;
While tens of thousands falter in their path,
And sink, through utter want of cheering light,
For you the hours of labor do not flag.
For you each evening hath its shining star,
And every Sabbath-day its golden Sun.
My parents owned a bar when I was a kid. Mornings before grade school, my dad woke my brother and me at 4 AM to go clean the place. At that hour the bar smelled of sour draft beer and cigarette smoke. On the wooden tables, tin ashtrays lay buried under heaps of butts, some with red lipstick on the ends like bloody fingerprints. We gathered the plastic cups and the paper plates, swept pretzel crumbs onto the wooden floor planks. It was my task to take the trash out behind the bar to a perforated metal can and burn it, stirring the Styrofoam-and-paper-plate fire with a wooden paling as I stood in the snow and blew into my fists. I enjoyed burning the trash. It occurs to me now that my dad and brother were probably content to let me have that particular job.
Mop the floors, fill the coolers, wipe the bar, restock the snack racks with thirty-cent sacks of Husman pretzels and corn chips. The place opened early. Saint James Elementary School was across the street, and I went to class smelling of burnt plastic. One morning as I swept beneath the stools, I found a wad of dollar bills. I smoothed them and counted thirteen, and put the bills in my pocket. For an hour I went through my chores, agonizing on the horns of a dilemma. Thirteen dollars to a nine-year-old boy in 1978 could buy a model kit of a German Panther tank and two or three half-pound Hershey chocolate bars. I knew the money belonged to someone else, and if I told my dad he would make a few calls and that money would be lost to me forever, along with the chocolate. I put it off, until I couldn’t justify the thing any more. I found my dad standing inside a narrow closet, arranging things on a shelf. I told him I’d found some money, and pulled out the cash. “Keep it,” he said. He didn’t even look at my hand.
Around me in the dark, bodies cough and wheeze and shift heavily in their bunks. Sleepless, racked with a wrenching cough, I am lucid, feverish, beyond reason. I open the book again. Bitter air whistles through the rattly sashes of the window at my head. Snow whirls in the yellow electric light, in the empty streets. The words ring in my ears.
So I fared,
Dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds,
Like culprits to the bar; calling the mind,
Suspiciously, to establish in plain day
Her titles and her honours…
Kevin Honold was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1969. His first book, Men as Trees Walking, won the 2010 Ohio State University/The Journal Prize in Poetry. He received an MFA from Purdue University and is currently a PhD candidate in English at the University of Cincinnati.