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, written by Jeremy. Read the commentary.

Retro post: September 12, 2004

(A Billy Collins poem. Rated PG)

Purity

My favourite time to write is in the late afternoon,
weekdays, particularly Wednesdays.
This is how I go about it:
I take a fresh pot of tea into my study and close the door.
Then I remove my clothes and leave them in a pile
as if I had melted to death and my legacy consisted of only
a white shirt, a pair of pants, and a pot of cold tea.

Then I remove my flesh and hang it over a chair.
I slide it off my bones like a silken garment.
I do this so that what I write will be pure,
completely rinsed of the carnal,
uncontaminated by the preoccupations of the body.

Finally I remove each of my organs and arrange them
on a small table near the window.
I do not want to hear their ancient rhythms
when I am trying to tap out my own drumbeat.

Now I sit down at the desk, ready to begin.
I am entirely pure: nothing but a skeleton at a typewriter.

I should mention that sometimes I leave my penis on.
I find it difficult to ignore the temptation.
Then I am a skeleton with a penis at a typewriter.

In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,
most of them exploiting the connection between sex and death.

I am concentration itself: I exist in a universe
where there is nothing but sex, death, and typewriting.

After a spell of this I remove my penis too.
Then I am all skull and bones typing into the afternoon.
Just the absolute essentials, no flounces.
Now I write only about death, most classical of themes
in language light as the air between my ribs.

Afterward, I reward myself by going for a drive at sunset.
I replace my organs and slip back into my flesh
and clothes. Then I back the car out of the garage
and speed through woods on winding country roads,
passing stone walls, farmhouses, and frozen ponds,
all perfectly arranged like words in a famous sonnet.

I’m thinking again about economics, experiments, and human action.

There are few examples that betray more clearly our inability to understand human action than the ways we build our cities. To understand human action a bit better, I read Jane Jacob’s classic, The Life and Death of Great American Cities.

Jane describes how the “science” of city planning was built on a few foundational assumptions. One of these assumptions was that it’s possible to sift and sort city functions into a few simple uses, and arrange these functions into relatively self contained units.

Jane goes on to explain how completely this science, built on the scientific method, fails to account for city dynamics.

The scientific method is a response to complexity. Too many compounding factors make for confusion. The natural human inclination is to seek patterns and order. But one of the problems with the scientific methods is it’s usually used by scientists. And, as Edward O. Wilson often says, we pay scientists to climb silos not span disciplines. So, by nature, most scientists are of necessity the sort of person that prefers isolation. But isolation breeds insularity.

Invariably we end up with a skull and bones description of a human problem. It’s no wonder we can’t solve our greatest problems, especially when their complexity is increasing exponentially.

So, what is needed? Well I keep thinking about Maslow’s new kind of human.

Maslow said that in a world of colossal complexity, we need a type of human that greets problems with a set of cross-walking skills instead of an encyclopaedia. That new human runs by intuition, insight, innovation – basically if it starts with “in” we need it.

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