Saturday, 25 September 2021

When the Bones of our Ancestors Speak to Us: A Fugitive Conversation with Bayo Akomolafe

Earlier this year I interviewed the postactivist philosopher Bayo Akomolafe for Dark Mountain: Issue 19, our spring collection of art and writing on death, loss and renewal.  I had just completed his innovative online course We Will Dance with Mountains which has just begun again this month. 

I am preparing to leave a house I have lived in for 18 years. A gathering of starlings loop and swerve overhead in the falling light, and in the distance you can hear the grind and thump of the sugar beet harvesters in the winter-flooded fields. For the last two  months, as we pack up, I have been focused on a task with four strangers from different places and ports of origin (Manchester, Holland, Nigeria, Germany, Jamaica and London): to consider the fate and future inscribed in the bones of an unknown slave woman, unearthed from a burial site in the Port of Rio de Janeiro in 1996. 

The archaeologists named her Bakhita (after the Sudanese slave turned Catholic saint) and all we know of her life is that she did not survive the Atlantic crossing to work in the sugar cane fields of Brazil alongside an estimated five million of her compatriots from West Africa. Our task is to rebuild the slave ship, set by the philosopher, writer and ‘recovering psychologist’, Bayo Akomolafe, as part of an online course he has been spearheading called We Will Dance With Mountains.

I wanted to speak with Bayo because this issue’s contemplation of death and dying also revolves around change; how, in times of fall, we allow a known world to collapse and reform from within. In no other modern thinker have I come across such a dynamic approach to undertaking that radical act of consciousness, embedded as it is in the startling imagery of the transatlantic slave trade.

Bayo works in intense metaphor, using metaphysical infrastructure to enable us to perceive how we are kept trapped by civilisation and how we might liberate ourselves from its invisible manacles. The building blocks of his lexicon include the slave ship (with three decks of colonisers, slaves, and Earth resources); the plantation, where we are set to work; and the fugitive who escapes the capture of both. Sanctuary is a gathering place where fugitives might flock and find other ways of being together.

Charlotte Du Cann: In the Bakhita Project, we have been meeting in the transformative space of sanctuary to consider the ancestral consequences of the colonial slave trade. Do you feel our legacies can ever be resolved?

Bayo Akomolafe: The legacies of the slave ship are yet-to-come. Modernity captures the slave ship in the same way it captures black bodies, white bodies, all kinds of bodies, and allots them prescribed ways of behaving and responding to crisis events, like the idea of racial injustice and climate chaos. It looks at the white body and says you are the enemy, and to black and brown bodies it says you are the victim here. Sanctuary is this emergent space which might be tethered to a post-modernist escape from modernity. 

The slave ship was an instrument of oppression and capture, an instrument of horror, but when I lean into my traditions, when I listen to the tale of the trickster Èṣù and the tricksters of other cultures, such as Pan or Loki, the boundaries of what is supposedly horrific and evil, it is also shape-shifting. It is moving, productive, generative, and escapes our modern gaze. Our elders are asking us to look at the slave ship, not as a thing that is gone and done with but as a thing that is energetically present, right now.

We are all in a slave ship: capitalism is a form of slave-shipping and we are captured here, ontologically incarcerated – master and slave. The very architecture of the slave ship is hinted at in the ways we perform hierarchy and order bodies on a scale of worthiness – with the other-than-human world being below black bodies.

So, you might say that the invitation to rebuild the slave ship is to revisit the conditions of our incarceration, to look around us, to look again, and to see that these boundaries are never still, always movable. So I don’t want to make the legacies of the slave ship  OK. I want to make it sensuous, inviting, I want the wall to be porous, olfactory, membranous, I want it to be exposed and open, experimental, diffracting one thing into another. This is how new things are born. 

I refuse to categorise artifacts of history as evil or good, because we do away with a lot of resources when we stabilise these things in those ways. When we name their colours too soon. So, to step into a space that is as troublesome as the slave ship is the trickster’s way, to play with trouble, and that might help us to transform.

CDC  This book’s theme is centered on death, dying and change. Is that collective space of sanctuary also where things can die and provide energy, or compost, for transformation?

BA  We think of death too strictly I think, as this absolute terminal point. I am interested in spaces in culture, for gatherings, where we touch the traces of our unbecoming and notice where we are falling apart. Where we reimagine death not as something down the line, but a paradigm, a thick now, an immanent field of loss and creativity that is entangled with what we rudely tease out as ‘life’. Modernity is about putting things together neatly, proliferating still images, being coherent, noble, independent. Consider what might be produced if, instead of thinking of death strictly as a firm line or an isolated event, we find ways to experiment with how we are already falling away, and how, for example, your identity is dying, how you are nomadic, diasporic, constantly moving, even when the habits of my perceiving you compel me to see you as a white woman. If we had  practices to notice the ways where our names, our bodies are changing and giving way to something else. How we are actually ghosts.1

I think dying well is about becoming with our traces and learning to touch the traces of our falling away. In a literal sense, I am leaving my cells here and there, I am less or more than I was a few minutes ago. Maybe a practice like this is the urgency of the hour. This is what I mean by fugitive exile, about leaving the plantation which reproduces images and instead helping us to see we are beyond static images. We are not as photographic as we think we are. We are abroad in ways that escape the ‘Man’, the head of the pyramid, of the capitalist structure. And that is the invitation of a constellation, of processional relational ontologies.

CDC  Your teaching of ways of being and becoming in many ways echoes one of the principles of Dark Mountain’s Uncivilisation: taking that Man out of the centre and letting life be in the centre. You have called it ‘a constellation of fugitive technologies that allows us to meet the world differently’. Could you name a few of those that most urgently need paying attention to?

BA  By fugitive technologies, I refer to sites of encounter where we might be met by the world in return, where we might learn to listen and cultivate humility in the face of a world that exceeds us, a world that never receded to the background of human ascension, even when we pretend that it did. And it is very difficult to talk out of context about what this constellation of practices might mean for different communities, which is why I have hesitated to frame making sanctuary as a universal, ahistorical process that I can plant anywhere I want.  

Someone told me that poetry doesn't appeal to this moment and that we need facts. And I countered by saying: poetry is the spirituality of fact. Facts vibrate at the speed of mystery and poets are attuned to that, that facts are not as stable as you think. When people hear about fugitive technologies, they say: well, here is a practice that if I do, I might be saved. Here is a product, let’s call it ‘racial healing system’, here is an app for emancipation, here is an idea, a concept that is already neatly packaged. The very presence of the word fugitive dismantles that. The fugitive is a figure that is constantly moving, so I am not talking about the arrival state, the Coca-Cola at the end of the factory line. I am talking about the methods of dis/inquiry; I call it dis/inquiry to remove ourselves from the centre of the inquiry. The inquiry is how to get lost. The question of the fugitive is how do I lose my way? How do I lose this plantation? How do we get as far away as possible? So, these technologies I speak of are not fixed products one can scale up; they are cartographies of lostness, rehearsals in losing one’s way in order to meet the world anew.

Making sanctuary is a gathering place, a village of these technologies. The Bakhita Project is premised on post-qualitative/post-anthropocentric research, decentring the anthropological figure as the central researcher and storyteller and learning to listen to the world. What might that do to us? The idea of becoming lost is to become otherwise by virtue of encounters with the more-than-human world. This is not research that is intended for us to be better, or to get back to business, to our shiny ivory towers.

I might ask, right now, for the purposes of our conversation: how is Charlotte learning to trace her ghostliness, the legacies made in her name? What are the recipes for your undoing? How are you noticing the extraordinary that is packed within the ordinary? How are you sharing these recipes of your undoing around you so that we form a politics of mutual undoing?

So, my sister, it has to do with dis/inquiry, the methodologies of exile.

CDC  You talk about a state of betweenness, finding the cracks, a state that is neither inclusive nor exclusive. Is this engaged with by oneself or with others or both?

BA   I am very wary of individual journeys of salvation or emancipation, of personal enlightenment workshops. I am not sure what the ‘individual’ is anyway anymore, when we find microbial communities living in our guts, and viruses living within bacteria. Post-humanist processes are always involved. Even if you deem it fit to focus on yourself as a separate entity, you would need physical resources to do that. Thought is not always as internal as cognitive scientists would have us believe. I feel it is environmental and ecological and that you are pulling on outside resources, even as you turn to your navel.

The basis of a fugitive politics-to-come always involves an irreducible collective of bodies, humans and more-than-humans, even when a single ‘individual’ is in focus. I am interested in framing a project that does not privilege humans as the starting point, how bodies are forced to think by the environment, by happenings in the world. So for me the instigator of thought isn’t human. A virus has forced India to rethink education. Because of the pandemic we are forced to go in a different direction. 

I think making sanctuary is gathering those who have been disarticulated by cracks in the environment to work with those cracks, rather than patching them up and returning to normal. Are things awkward for you? You don’t know how to proceed with work? You have existential questions with politics? If you feel that despair, you are not alone. Let’s gather here and instead of trying to run away and fix the problem, let’s move away from those solutionisms and stay with the trouble with our dis/inquiry. Let’s do research which might be ecologically framed and culturally framed as katabasis. Going under and finding ways to go deep into the ground and honour ancestors, to listen beyond ourselves. We can call it individual or collective work, or human and non-human. But I just feel nothing is as isolated as we think it is. Sanctuary is making space for the world to exist.

CDC  I feel civilisation has held us in a fixed grip for thousands of years, beyond even those centuries of the transatlantic slave trade, and when you consider this and the fact that slavery still exists widely in the world, you ask yourself the bigger question: why have human beings been slaves, or commanded them, for so long?

BA   I’m very shy about responding to why questions! The standard official explanation for what happened over 400 years to black bodies is that it was due to (human) evil or wickedness. I understand the legacies of such responses, but it does not feel generative for me. It’s a conversation-stopper and doesn’t do anything except label people, and might perpetuate the dynamics of the slave ship that feels so horrific to the imagination. 

But if we consider that things are assemblages, acting upon other assemblages, suddenly there’s somewhere to go that does not necessarily terminate prematurely at a moral judgment. When I touch the assemblage of the transatlantic slave trade that features heavily in my work, if you look at the ingredients that made it possible – the Catholic enterprise of rationality that emerged from the Enlightenment, its ideologies and philosophies; sugar cane and its metabolism within human white European bodies; the climate that drove people away from chilly Europe to the sunny Caribbean – and how assembling the pieces together and noticing how those ingredients interacted together became the conditions for slavery, it might free us and liberate us in ways that go beyond just answering why.

It helps to ask: if sugar was an active non-human agent in the proliferation of that economy, that arrangement of master and slave, then what kind of moves can we make today to make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we talk beyond just active legislation, or healing people of their evil. We talk about meeting sugar cane, the idea that we are framed in unmasterable fields and forces that go beyond the liberal humanist project. 

We need to create rituals of humility to know we are not masters of ourselves. Just framing it as something beyond us, without belittling accountability. Framing it as something that is more than human. That is what I am interested in as ‘postactivism’.

CDC  It could be said that Dark Mountain was founded as a postactivist project, in that the art and writing it hosts is created by sitting with the trouble rather than fighting it. How do you define postactivism and how do you see it as a force within culture?

BA  It’s a pervasive myth that we are independent thinkers, that I think my thoughts, Charlotte thinks her thoughts, and that there are as many thoughts as there are people on the planet and that we all have our separate thoughts, that we act from some volitional force or agency that comes from within. 

What escapes that analysis is that we are connected in very sticky ways. We actually think territorially, ecologically, we run, we hide, we look at people like us and we congregate together. And patterns and sticky formulas are at work that are occluded when we think of ourselves as individual activists. I bring that up because when we talk about activism today, it seems activism is colluding conspiratorially with the world it is trying to change. The way we tend to see it in the ‘developing world’, in the Global South, is that the very solutions passed down to us only deepen the problem we want to get rid of, so we tend to be stuck in a cycle of repeatability. The IMF comes down and says here is a structural readjustment programme, here is austerity, something to help your people, let’s buy laptops for African children, so they can learn. And the laptops come and introduce new problems of their own. 

I read somewhere that the ‘West’ exports psychological and pathological categories. As a clinical psychologist I have gone into villages in Nigeria and been told: you are the expert, tell me what’s wrong with me. What they were in fact saying was that since I was trained in Western psychology, I was superior to them, and their own indigenous experiments with being and becoming were discardable. The solution of my discipline and my expertise was supposed to cancel out the problem. It was just an allopathic response that compressed the problems and left the sickness intact. 

I think activism is as materially complicit in the problems we are trying to solve, and as entangled as anything else. Postactivism is not a superior, spiritual way of responding. It is not saying here is a stream of thinking and acting, a way of behaving that will guarantee you utopia or a place of arrival. Postactivism is a democratising of responsivity. It’s saying we have been stuck on a highway of responding but there are other ways that are not tethered to this highway, where we can investigate and which might lead to another kind of transformation. 

So postactivism is in alliance with a different theory of change. We have thought change is what humans do. We are burdened with the idea of change, and feel we need to change the world. Posthumanism comes into the picture and tells us humans are not central to the world, we have never been central to the world, we did not create the world. We are always immersed in a field of differential becomings, what Deleuze would call ‘transcendental materialism’. We are not stable things. We are diffracted, porous and transcorporeal. 

Postactivism is based on posthumanism. It is my way of saying that change is not human, it is not our work. We can only ally and build stronger coalitions for change with the world around us (and not just with humans). Postactivism is the opening to this. It is about cracks and faultlines and fissures. It is like a hungry teenager, who asks: what can we do with this crack? How might this help us to build a partnership with this alien over there, in order to ask complex and new questions about the world we are in? It is not about solutions, though solutions are welcome. It is about wonder, building new alliances for becoming different. Touching the material body of activism and allowing it to shudder.

CDC  You said at the beginning of your course you deliberately pivoted its enquiry not within the United States, but in Africa. What was the reasoning behind this?

BA  Empires colonise conversations about change. They capture conversations that might redeem it from what you call the holding station, and then take these conversations and put them in the family way. Soon the ways we speak about decolonisation and racial justice, which might otherwise ring true for other people and cultures and lead to new sites of shared power, become about how do we appeal to the powers that be, or use certain languages or phrases to signal I am woke, or woke enough.  Soon, the nuances and complexities of navigating a difficult world are reduced to a few codes, a few linguistic choices, which Empire selects, and which others must adhere to in order to be righteous. So it becomes very territorial. 

I am looking for conversations that are fugitive, that escape, that grant themselves permission to do what they want to do, and do not look towards the plantation, saying can you allow me to be seen? The fugitive does not want to be seen. And America is the most visible trope. 

As such, I did this decentring for me, and to let our brothers and sisters in America know that they are not central to the world. You are not carrying the burden of change, you don’t have to change us. The boundaries of America are not the boundaries of the world, you are just a small aspect of what is happening. That should be liberating. So I think I am being hospitable when I say it is not about you.

CDC  What often happens regarding any conversation about race, or slavery or emancipation, is that it centres on the United States and thus limits our imagination and allows people to say in Europe, for example, well it didn’t happen here, it happened in the colonies. As a result we don’t get to look at this properly. So having the pivot of inquiry in Africa allows other kinds of knowing and awareness to happen. Which wouldn’t have happened within a North American frame – it would have become stuck in what you call the ethical monoculture, a Christian duality of right and wrong.

BA  I don’t think the pivot is even in Africa. It’s off the coast of Africa, maybe somewhere off the Bight of Benin, in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s definitely in the waters, where things are rippling and diffracting. That’s the site of the course, where there is no land yet.

The kings in Africa also sold the slaves; we also sold our brothers and sisters into slavery. That is one part of the conversation we need to have – not that I am trying to create an equal culpability situation here. We are entangled in this as well.

CDC  I sometimes find writers shy away from metaphysics or the work of transformation while those who are focused on consciousness work resist putting it into a creative or physical form, holding their knowing in a kind of abstract cloud. I feel everything needs to be spoken out loud, or danced, or cooked, earthed in some kind of way to be effective, to let these approaches become entangled as you say. Do you ever feel hemmed into a role of spiritual teacher?

BA  I think people use me, as you use the future or food or a pen. The people that I sometimes work with use me as a magical Negro (laughs) because of the way I appear and because of my experiences as a black person. There is often a sense of ‘just listen to what Bayo says’ which could be patronising. I don’t want to be trapped there, into being a spiritual guru. I like to have a conversation, pose questions of my own. This is not a transmission from some ancestor, or angel, or alien, but a diffracted meeting of each other in the middle. 

We are all on this slave ship. You might be on the upper deck but we are all in this holding station that pegs our bodies in place. The gift of this paradigm of diffraction, or this idea that things lose their edges, this relational ontology, is that it allows us to meet each other. As I said earlier, activism can become very industrial. The way we think about transformation is very categorical. You are an artist, you do artist stuff; you are a dancer, you dance into oblivion; you write about this and that, and it becomes an industry in itself, and modernity is quite happy with that. It’s not scandalised about you doing your work.

CDC  Mostly, it doesn't take any notice of it, Bayo!

BA  It doesn’t care, so long as you stay in your place. What scandalises modernity is when things spill. And facilitating spillage is good work. Diffraction allows me to read  myth, through quantum dynamics, through performativity. When we see things through each other, that is when the new has a chance to emerge. So that is what we need to learn today, to become citizens of diffraction, to become fugitives.

CDC  One aspect of the sanctuary which really grabbed me is that the site of transformation is where the real power is, where the change can happen, rather than  dominating forces of civilisation which activism is always trying to defuse or stop or take over from. It explained to me why writers have always had a very bad deal, because they bring that to the fore, that change is always possible in any moment, the fact you can change, or that you are porous, or that something can come out of nothing, or that the immanent god you spoke of is always becoming, is always creating within us. Which is why writers are silenced and flung into gaol, because they are trying to stop that change from disrupting the fixed control of Empire.

BA  In this quest to be seen, to be noticed, which in the Deleuzio-Guattarian literature might be indexed as the politics of recognition, can be found  a different power that isn’t tethered to being seen. There is historical precedent for this. When the slaves were crammed into a tight space, they tried to escape. There are accounts of their efforts to take over the ship and wrest power away from the captain, but the ships themselves were designed to keep them at bay; certain structures would demarcate where the non-citizens were, and those who needed rehabilitation and those who were embodiments of purity. 

The slave ship worked against them. It’s almost as if their efforts to escape only enforced the trade, it made it stronger, because the slavers could get together and say, ‘why don’t we make the space smaller, dehumanise them further?’ To keep their property busy and sellable, they even invented practices like ‘dancing the slave’. The slavers did this both for entertainment and to keep these appropriated bodies economically viable.

The beautiful tradition of capoeira, the dance encoded with martial arts, which is famous in Brazil, could not have happened without the boot of the oppressor on the necks of the slave. The limbo dance is the slave trying to navigate the structure of the slave ship. And I can give many more examples of how oppression became the alchemy for transformation. How disarticulated bodies became portals for other ways of being: in dance, music, rituals, ways of interacting with the world, religions, spiritual systems. 

This is why the elders said Èṣù the trickster, travelled with them. The trickster works in places you do not expect generativity. You expect death and dismal silence, but there life springs. So to go back to our original conversation about death and dying, modernity has framed death and dying as eternal silence. But through the eyes of the glitch, the eyes of the trickster, death is an invitation, a lively vocation to recreate, reformulate and use our porous skins, our disarticulated bodies, to become different.

Bayo Akomolafe is one of the keynote speakers for the upcoming Borrowed Time summit on death, dying and change, hosted by on 31st October 2021

Dark Mountain: Issue 19 is available from the online shop here

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Relearning the Language of a Lost World

'Sentience' by Meryl McMaster (from Issue 16 - REFUGE)

This is an article I wrote for Noema magazine in the spring. It forms the basis of a new online course I am running with fellow Dark Mountaineers this September, to explore how we may reweave our place back into the fabric of a sentient Earth. Do join us!


Last May, as the first lockdown came, I found myself taking part in an online discussion about a theatre production called The Encounter by Simon McBurney and the Complicité company. Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu, the one-man performance follows the real-life track of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, who becomes lost in the Brazilian rainforest while searching for the Mayoruna people. The encounter plunges him into another world, in which he has to navigate with a different consciousness, as the tribe retreat deep into the forest to escape its destruction.

On the panel the indigenous filmmaker Takumã Kuikuro of having to adopt ‘two minds’, a double consciousness, to both maintain his own culture, and deal with the modern world that was encroaching on his people’s way of life.   

We need to do this the other way round, I responded. We need to develop a consciousness to re-entangle ourselves in the sentient Earth, as McIntyre was challenged to do in the forest. Because it feels the only way we can deal with the devastation our civilisation continues to wreak is to radically change how we perceive the natural world and our place within it.

But how do we go about this? Is it even possible? Can we like the Mayoruna find a ritual that enables us to start again?

In the 1990s, I went on a journey, like thousands of other seekers, in search of another language. I went to South America, whose culture was still threaded with hawks and flowers and wild rivers, unlike the urban, alienated tongue of my native Britain. It was there I realised I was not in another country to find a more Earth-based story to live by but to deconstruct one I had unknowingly inherited. And it wasn’t a journey that took me to a place of clarity and understanding I could carry home in a suitcase. It took me off track entirely.

I never went back to my fashionable city life. The travelling was the beginning of another kind of return altogether.

In his ground-breaking work, The Master and His Emissary’ the psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explores the very different kinds of perception orchestrated by the two hemispheres of the brain. The attention of the left focuses on detail, the right perceives the whole picture. The left hemisphere deals with the abstract and prefers mechanisms to living things, where the right hemisphere has a more flexible and immediate relationship with the physical world. To see the complexity of the Earth, to make complex, consensus decisions means you need to use the focus of the left hemisphere in tandem with the wide-ranging implications perceived by the right.

Without this working relationship, the untempered unconscious forces within ourselves and our societies run amok. We think we make rational fair decisions, even though it has been proved, particularly in the case of governance, that we are swayed by our unconscious feelings, embedded in and frequently manipulated by the dominating belief system.

McGilchrist argues that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with perilous consequences. So, to become entangled in the world, to regain kinship, our place on the planet, requires a deliberate engagement with the consciousness of the right hemisphere.

The map is not the territory

It is commonly assumed that our connection to the wild world, as Takumã and his people have kept theirs, has been lost and is not possible to regain. However, this is not true. It has just been forgotten and lies deep buried within us.

Every person is born with archaic intelligence embedded in their bones. Though our minds are distracted by numbers, algorithms, facts and data, still our physical beings, stepping into a rainforest, or a mountain path, recognise instinctively these patterns of fur and feather, stone and leaf. We see the moving shapes of clouds and rivers, but we just don’t remember how to communicate with each other about what we experience. 

I went to the deserts of the Americas to remember the ancestral language of belonging and obligation my own culture had tried to erase centuries ago. I investigated the lexicon of plants and the territories of dreams in practices that followed those travels. The encounters with the physical planet and investigation into its language was the key that opened the door.

The main challenge in learning the lexicon of the right hemisphere is ironically the words themselves. The word is god in our left-hemisphere dominated world: treaties, laws, religions of the book, are all constructed of words. If we say something, or write it down, we think it is as good as done in reality, even though our actions and feelings do not match what has been said. The left hemisphere loves to capture and control the world in linear and grandiose language, naming and categorising everything it sees and putting it to use. So even approaching the nonhuman world, by labelling it ‘nonhuman’, you put it into a category of things you can own, like placing a shamanic drum in the glass case of a museum, rather than playing it and travelling to the Otherworlds.

To re engage with the world as kin requires an entirely different approach. It is no good shouting English (or Latin) words at the nonhuman world if you want to hold a dialogue. You have to learn a whole set of skills that have nothing to do with your education. You have to use your whole body and slow down to the pace of your heart. Most of all you have to learn to stop talking in your head, and listen. Let that being in a dream, that flower, come to you and reveal its nature. Humbleness is required, not knowing is required, a shift of attention is required. You are no longer commandeering the world like Alexander, describing, analysing, and putting everything into a spreadsheet. Quite often, you are not going to like what you feel. 

Corporations now ransack the Amazon in search of cures for cancer and other diseases of the modern world, individuals travel seeking heal the traumas behind their addiction and depression, but the vegetalistas, those who work with plants, go to the forest to remain in harmony and communication with it. It is an ongoing relationship they maintain with ritual and story and song. If you ask them: where do you get your knowledge from? They will tell you the plants told them, the animals came, a spirit arrived in a dream.

So, from your own dreams you learn, slowly, that animals speak by their presence, the way they move within a landscape, in relationship. You learn you have affinity with some more than others - birds, whales, snakes - how you feel when you are with them. You learn that plants reveal their intelligence in elegantly framed storyboards and koans. Some are more ‘talkative’ than others. After the practice, you do what human beings have done for aeons in response to this conversation: you sing, dance, paint, find words. You forge a lexicon to remember and share with the world, a bridge that spans between the dimensions of the human, animal and plant kingdoms.

But you also go to meet something else.

Here Be Dragons

In 1969, an anthropology student called Michael Harner began to work with the Conibo tribe in the Peruvian Amazon. To understand us, he was told, you have to take the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca. In the book that was to remind the modern world of the pan-global practice of shamanism, he writes of his first encounter with the ‘vine of death’ where giant reptilian creatures spoke with him from the depths of the back of his brain. The creatures showed him the planet before there was any life and how they came to Earth from the sky to escape their enemy.

‘The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence. Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation - hundreds of millions of years of activity - took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe. I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man. They were the true masters of humanity and the entire planet, they told me. We humans were but the receptacles and servants of these creatures. For this reason they could speak to me from within myself.’ 

‘We are in charge’, they told him, at which Harner relates, everything that was human inside of him rebelled. Afterwards, he tells a wise elder about his experience: ‘They always say that,’ the shaman said.

In a time of colonial reckoning, where movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter challenge the exploitation of human bodies, the urge to re-indigenise ourselves and reconnect with the natural world becomes stronger.

In many ways, the geography we find ourselves in dictates what we have to deal with in order to find this re-entanglement. Each country brings its own challenges. In the New World, indigenous cultures still exist but a reconnection to the land by its settlers brings a heavy historical karma to bear. The Native American myths embedded in the land are not easily understood, and to engage with the mythos of their own motherlands means facing the conditions that forced their or their ancestors’ original emigration.

In Europe, the links to a land-connected indigenous culture are buried in deep time, their myths turned into children’s tales, or a fanciful spirituality. The wild places are severely compromised by industrialisation and feudal property laws. A kind of amnesia prevails.

Either way the gate that bars most modern industrialised people from access to the nonhuman realms, has to be broken open: whether by encounter, by plant medicine, or iatromantic practice. Our ordinary night dreams can be allies in this rediscovery, but only so long as we understand they are communications from the right hemisphere, part of the world’s dreaming, and not a psychological problem to be sorted by modern medicine.

When you embark on a journey of return, you realise that individual work is only relevant if it takes place within the collective realm. No matter how revolutionary or forward thinking a social movement can be, it will always be at the mercy of the unconscious forces of the collective within which it operates unless it develops a protocol for dealing with them. The dragons are always in the room. The modern group practice of ‘staying with the trouble’ gives the right hemisphere time and attention to voice what is left out of any left-hemisphere conversation, but only if the individuals taking part have undertaken their own inquiry. 

When you work with dreams, you realise no one cares about your righteous thoughts and opinions. Immersed in a kind of violent detective drama, you are always fugitive. To withstand and not be at the mercy of a dream’s force fields you need to learn fast that the ‘language’ these places speak is physical and energetic. What matters is not what you think but how you act: how you move out of stuck places, how you refuse to take an inferior position, how you stand up to the monsters advancing towards you. The act of opening your mouth and voicing out loud your feelings is what liberates you from their dominion.  

In the dualist narrative in which most of our lives are held, one side has always to be the victor and the other defeated. But in the world of consciousness, where nothing is black and white, the monster, the dragon, is also the seat of your energetic power and all of your creativity. A treasure they famously guard with fire and claw.

Trapped in a hostile story of civilisation, we are always conquering monsters when we need to be standing up to them and learning at the entrance of their caves. The ancient myths tell us about the travails of the Underworld, the fairy stories of initiations in the deep forest. All these tales bequeath ‘technologies’ for dealing with these challenging encounters on an individual basis, in order we return and hold that knowledge and experience within the wider world.

But this is not an easy task. The terror that most people feel when opening up to let the ‘nonhuman’ in - the wild world, the mythos, the microbial universes within their own bodies - is the terror constructed by the left hemisphere, so it can maintain control. The dragons rule absolutely in patriarchal monotheistic civilisations, where the human heart and creaturehood exist only to acquiesce to their command. Any step out of line is met with playground bullying and humiliation. You only have to see how the right-wing press and politicians howl with derision at any mention of ‘woke’ culture, so we do not look at the cruelty and extortions of empires, to know how any shift towards a recognition of interdependence is met, both within the self and outside it.

But this does not mean that people are not waking up to the historical injustices meted out to the ‘savages’ of civilisation. This does not mean that people are not defending the creatures or the forests. It does not mean that the more-than-human world is not an ally in any kind of move by human beings towards regeneration.

But at some point, you realise that when you say human beings are not central to life, it means you have to radically reconfigure your position within it beyond words. Not by taking the human out of the picture, but by becoming the kind of human being who is kin with nature, who can speak both the language of a falling Empire and the language of the wild, mythic world it is forever trying to keep in bondage. We have, like Harner over a half a century ago, to stand up to the authoritarian rulers inside us. Loosen our shackles and declare our emancipation.

Entering the sanctuary

At the end of 2020, as countries continued to be ravaged by a pandemic, 800 people tuned into a broadcast by the philosopher and teacher, Bayo Akomolafe. The online course held over three months was in order to ‘make sanctuary together.’ Sanctuary is defined in this context as a space people escape to from the ‘plantation’ of civilisation, where we can discover the ‘technologies of fugitivity.’ A place where we can meet the world differently and re-entangle our bodies and imaginations within a shifting biome.

Akomolafe uses the story of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as the Yoruba mythic  trickster Èṣù, to help us navigate this territory. In doing so, he brings us face to face with our own colonial past and takes us beyond the modern tale of confusion and fragmentation. In a sense, to find out why we are so lost is to understand that the time of fall is also the journey into a collective shadow, and that the myths of indigenous people – those of our own native lands and those of the countries once held under colonial rule - are the ships we need to cross what seems like an unnavigable ocean.

In The Encounter the protagonist crucially loses both his watch and his way. This vulnerability and loss of control over time and space allowed him to meet the forest tribe and witness their ritual return, the burning of their material possessions, everything they have known and loved, in order to start again.

Like Takumã’s people who have had to learn the ways of the modernist world in order to survive it, we too have to learn another language in order to negotiate our hollowed world and remake a place for ourselves within the living web of Earth. But this way means we have, like the tribe, to begin again and let go of what we have held on to. 

Becoming fugitive means losing the story of our place in the plantation, losing our form in a world of hierarchy where form is what counts. This we do not want to do, because we lose what we have worked hard for, we lose status and comfort. But we gain in another way: we gain our own agency and meaning for being here. We gain kinship with the beasts. We gain the ‘kingdom’ of the fairy stories and bring back treasure from the Underworld. And we advance towards the unknown, come what may, because somewhere deep inside us we know, that no amount of worldly prestige or riches can ever match the experience of knowing our true worth as a creature among our fellows on this all-communicating Earth.  

Tuesday, 20 April 2021


Barrow by Dan Porter (Dark Mountain: Issue 19

For the last six months I've been working as art editor and producer of the just-published Dark Mountain: Issue 19. I also contributed two pieces: an interview with philosopher and teacher Bayo Akomolafe and this extract from my new book After Ithaca, a collection of essays and memoir about mythos and cultural change that revolves around the four Underworld tasks of Psyche.

‘Only bitter fare here, my dear,’ said Mimi, handing us cups of creosote tea, as we climbed up the mud steps from the temescal. It was 11th November, la luna de los muertos, and we are in the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico. Francisco Ozuna, curandero, has built a temescal in the back of Mimi’s ranch, and today will lead a vigil through the night. We will make an invisible bridge between the dead and the living, he tells us, and bring ‘the powers of wisdom hidden in the dust’ to the surface.

Francisco had worked for several days on creating the small underground sweat lodge, shovelling red earth and constructing a roof and steps from mud and stones. That afternoon we had gone to the creek and gathered palos muertos, wind-dried stalks of hackberry, black walnut and agave, and curly mesquite wood from the desert for the fire. On the two flanking earth mounds were set huge bunches of marigolds Francisco found abandoned on the highway – the fire-coloured flowers offered on the Day of the Dead that grow abundantly in Mexico after the late monsoon rains. Then we drew a circle of ash and amaranth seeds around the temescal and the central fire. When evening came and the people gathered the ceremony began: the flat river stones were heated in the fire, then hauled out, brushed with juniper branches and carried into the chamber on a big spade. 

Inside, the small space is exciting. The desert night is cold but under the earth where we've taken the hot stones, naked under moon- and starlight, the heat embraces you. The tea is bitter in your mouth, the osha root is sweet. We are silent and then sing and howl and chant until our bones shake. Afterwards we throw buckets of cold rainwater over each other and dance round the fire. Francisco chants all night. Mark sings beside him.

Modern people don't observe the dead: we shunt them aside with awkward funerals, and this ancestral doorway of the year, once observed throughout the archaic world, has become a children's party game. But indigenous people (Francisco is part-Apache, part-Yaqui) know the dead are part of the Earth. Once mourned properly they can assist the living, rather than hinder them as forgotten shades.

In Mexico, across the border, there is a tradition of honouring the dead. People go to visit the cemeteries with candles and cakes and sing songs and write the dead messages at this time. But on the American side of the border things are very different. In the town there are very silent groups who come to collect the dead from the mortuary where the ravens gather and cackle on the roof. From our apartment opposite, we sometimes see coffins being delivered from the trucks. There doesn’t seem to be much singing and dancing going on. 

The marigolds’ name in Nauhatl is cempoalxochitl, and their vibrant colour represents the sun, which guides the dead on their way to the Underworld. The strong scent of the flowers attracts the spirits when they return to visit their families, helping them to find their way. Osha or bear root is traditionally used in Native American sweat lodges to purify the air as well the body. A bear medicine from the mountains, the root assists a shift into dreaming and connection with the ancestors.

I will remember this night, long after the story of why I was in this high desert fades. Rituals can burn into the memory like fire, open up a portal, so that your ears keep the sounds of a man digging the red soil with a shovel, the sensation in your feet as you climb down the oozy steps and change places with a tarantula, the feel of the fresh night air when you emerge. There had been hard invisible difficulties between us all leading up to the ceremony but when evening came what remains is Francisco laughing as I led everyone in a dance around the fire when things got a bit grim, how our car sloshed through vast rain  puddles as we brought breakfast for those who had made the night-time vigil, and that we buried the ashes of a friend of Mimi’s who had been sitting on her bookshelf for a very long time.

I don’t remember it as a bitter time.

Crow lineage

‘There is a crow who sits on my shoulder,’ said my lawyer father. ‘It is my conscience.’ And then he stared at his shoes in despair. 

When he died, the crow came to me. You have to tell me everything, I said. About conscience.

The crow sat in the corner of my room in the travelling years when I lived on the edge of small towns in Europe and America. Silently, he observed me write my notebooks. And sometimes I would ask him a question. And he would put his head on one side and peer into the mysterious darkness of the void and declare what great law of conscience he located there.

You have to deal with the files with your name on, he said, and leave the rest.

When we embarked on the dreaming practice in Australia, it was as if all those files had blown open and everything that had been buried from our dark houses and histories came to be redressed: animals faced me in the slaughterhouses, children with metal teeth attacked me, friends and lovers lurched out of the shadows, seeking reparation. It would have been good to sit around a table and come to an understanding, but we soon found dreaming doesn’t work like that. Words and good intentions mean nothing, moves are all that matter.

After our long dialogues, Mark and I would go out into the backcountry, or down by the sea and watch the dolphins leap in the waves. Here now in the desert, we sit on the roof and watch the sun come up over black mountains, walk the creeks and arroyos, go with Mimi into the canyons, into the wild scrub as the day’s heat fades. We are learning the names and the meaning of the flowers in these dry lands, the tough, the spiny and beautiful, the bitter leaves and sweet-tasting roots of ceremony that help us face the journey. 

The ritual of the temescal is there to burn out the dross you hold and cede it to the fire as fuel and then as ash to the ground. Ghosts can cling to you, the dead that have not been mourned. Some of these phantoms are yours and some are not. Some are parts of you and your lineage that need to die in order for the new to flourish. To mourn and bury the dead, so that they can feed the living and not haunt the Earth. 

Only the elements of this Earth can transform these invisible bonds; only if you are connected to this Earth can you undergo that process and walk that path. Most would rather do the ritual without the suffering and endurance that it demands. For a long time, I did not realise why we were so assailed by ghosts and dreams of the past; then I realised I was in the place the ancient world knew as the Underworld, and it was not the stories or rituals of native America that would help me navigate it, but a memory of that book with a pink and green cover: The Legends of Greece and Rome. I needed a different lexicon to see and map its mythic territory.

Door of Hades

You go into the Underworld because the god in you lives in the darkness. To fulfil what some call destiny, the deliberate journey you make on this Earth, you have to go where no one wants to go. Once it was understood that human beings were incomplete unless they took a transformative journey in this place. It was a pact you made with time, with the gods, with the Earth, with the ancestors. In Europe these soul journeys once had collective maps but these were burned, the names of the territories were erased, the entrances to the initiatory caves filled with stones. And yet the people still had the desire to go deep and abilities within them to do this work. We were still being born.

The way into the Underworld is the path we are most loath to take. Because it demands you go backwards, into the past, against the flow, widdershins, into faery, into the moon, into the Other, into denial, into terror, into the void. Into yourself. And not the self you know, the one you don’t, the one you don’t want to know and have always pushed away, tried to hide and not invite to the Upperworld party.  

As we sat with the dreaming practice, we were faced with the refuse heaps of our own lives, our families’ lives, our tribal lives, humanity’s lives, thousands of them, heaped like so many piles of ashes and broken cars, rooted by red-necked vultures and savage dogs, through corridors of forgotten files, managed by a clerk who has never seen the light of day and a concierge who bears you a grudge you do not understand. 

Transformation of consciousness is the hard work of the Underworld. What you transform is the dark stuff, what is known as the shadow: everything civilisations keep throwing outside the city gates, hoping time will help it decay and disappear. Except it never does. Its poison seeps into the sewers of every settlement, into the minds of the powerful, into the terrors of the night.

Releasing the shadow means going through this rubbish heap, through the files the crow brings to your attention – not all of them but those with your name on – remembering what happened, making sense of it all, seeing the pattern, crying the tears of the forgotten, holding the hand of the terrified, of the lonely, the lost, it means shouting at zombies, at ghosts, being raped by Hades, mourned by Demeter. It means feeling the nightmares that woke you as a child and to keep feeling them until you stop shaking, until the dawn comes, until you are no longer afraid. It means finding a way in and out of the Underworld, because no amount of evangelising or prayer or good intention will wipe our human shadow away. 

The shadow exists because no one has been a human being yet; not you, not me, not the man in the rainforest nor the priestess at Delphi. We have all been kind for a day. But living fully as human beings alive together with all our relations, the trees, the fish, the barbarians, the dead? 

We have not done that yet.  

Psyche and the map of stones

The love story of Psyche and Eros lies at the heart of The Golden Ass. And inside the metamorphic tale, like the final Russian doll inside its layers, you find the four initiatory tasks that Psyche is set by Eros’s mother, the goddess Venus. For her final challenge, Venus hands Psyche  a box and instructs  her to humbly ask Persephone Queen of the Dead for some beauty ointment, and to bring it back to her. Whatever you do, she is told, do not open the box. Psyche, as always, despairs, thinking that her own death is the only way to enter Hades. She climbs a hill intending to throw herself from the summit but a tower of stones speaks to her. He gives her specific instructions for entering and returning from the realm of the dead.

On your return you will be faced with three distractions, he tells her: an old man with a limp, another who clings to the boat, a woman who sits spinning by the shore. They all want your help. Keep silent and do not give it to them. And the tower then tells her where to find the entrance to Hades at the cape of Taenarum in Mani. 

The territory of the underworld is well mapped by the ancient world, its rivers and lakes and fields. Poets have famously described it and what they saw on their guided journeys. But the Underworld is not a fictional place you can play with in your mind, it is a geography that exists alongside the waking one and you have to approach it with steely caution and  a cartographic eye. You can fall into katabasis by accident, your mouth full of ashes instead of obols. Shades cling to your boat as you cross. You have already forgotten the stones’ instruction. Or you don’t know where to start. For aeons seekers have sought knowing in the place of unknowing, a place where you spend half your life in darkness, your dreams. So I began looking for the entrance to Hades in my dreams. It did not take me long.


When we returned to Britain from Australia, my dreams had shifted their focus, some of them sparked by visits I made as we were searching for places to live in Oxford: woods, public talks, old buildings. One night in a hotel room, I dreamed that Britain was covered in a greenish glow that was called the seal light. It was like a collective miasma that hung around the edges of the islands. Then a dark ancestral being who was in charge of the burial mounds of England told me about ‘proper burial’. Things need to be buried at the proper depth, he told me, to be returned to the earth. Proper burial requires returning everything to its natural place and not keeping anything or anyone stuck in some personal memory locker. This keeping of essences stuck in a place or time was creating ghosts. This included our own. The seal light was making the whole land sicken. 

Sometimes it felt, as we walked out in search of a home, as if the country itself, obsessed by its own history, was some kind of burial ground in need of a ritual return.

One winter’s night in Oxford I dreamed I was at a suburban railway station. The conductor is a black man who says, ‘I don’t care whether you come on this train horizontally or vertically, this train is only going to NIMROD.’  The train is like the ‘A’ train to Brooklyn. I see people returning from Nimrod. All the seats in the carriages are ripped up, very few people have come back. They are all tattered and bashed up, fragments of people. I realise the train had gone beyond Nimrod into someplace else.

I am trying to cross the border and get to Mexico but am waylaid on the platform by a host of gay men. One is carrying a woman’s dress. He winks at me and says, ‘I’ve been to Nimrod and been a woman’. I have lost my passport and am late for my connection. 

In the second part of the dream I am running with a band of  people, following a shallow watercourse that flows down a corridor. At the end of the corridor is a little room and the sea lying beyond a window. The room is full of sand and I can’t get to the sea. It is in a 1930s building with a slightly abandoned feeling.

I have this dream after going to a lecture given by a Native American from the Ojibwe nation from the eastern seaboard of the United States. It’s a strange meeting, held in the Quaker House in the middle of Oxford. Like many Native Americans the speaker has a look of supreme endurance on his face, as he surveys the timid English crowd in anoraks. One drop of pure water can clean a whole swimming pool of darkness, he declares, and holds up some plants – white sage and osha root which would assist us in overcoming the world of suffering. Someone asks in a small voice about reincarnation.

His stern face relaxes at the point and he laughs: ‘We call it recycling,’ he says. ‘We’re not going to be recycled, we’re going home.’ And then he throws his head back and sings a chant that shakes the foundations of the well-behaved church rooms.

‘What am I doing here?’ I say irritably to Mark in the practice. I feel I am wasting my time with these corridor and train people. I would rather be going to Mexico and meeting the ancestors. ‘You can only recycle paper so many times before it turns into fragments,’ I say. ‘Before it falls apart’.

And we stared at each other in horror.

Nimrod is the mythical emperor who built the Tower of Babel. His astrological tower was destroyed by the sky god Jehovah, along with his people’s ability to communicate with each other. Up until then everyone on Earth spoke the same language. All Nimrod’s people dispersed across the globe because they no longer spoke the same language and could no longer collaborate with one another. Everything fragmented. The Babylonian mystery tradition that begins with this mythical figure, half man, half dragon, underpins many of the dualist religions that concern themselves with punishment in an afterlife hell.

At first in these dreaming practice years, I thought I needed to save people who were stuck in the Underworld until I realised that my actions never saved anyone. I just became waylaid, trapped in the small locked rooms of abandoned houses. I was stuck in other people’s stories about their past, other people’s secrets, other people’s houses, other people’s hells, when I needed to move out of these places. I had many dreams of rescuing soldiers stuck in time, caught on the wire, visiting hospitals, going into prisons, all sorts of grim places in history. I met people who were stuck at eternally repeating dinner parties because of their shame. Dead mentors would come and tell me to instruct the living to let them go. Dead children would ask their mothers not to weep for them anymore. And sometimes I would tell the living these things. But no one listened.

In the Underworld years, I saw dead mothers who were trapped in photographs. I met men who wore dead men’s coats to borrow their power. I saw people hang on to their dead because they wanted the pity of others, because they could not stop raging, because they were full of guilt. 

But like everything else in the Underworld this was about learning discrimination. You cannot be a go-between at the behest of the dead if you want to go home. At some point you realise that no one, dead or alive, is helping you leave. You have to get out yourself. Where everyone goes after life is a mystery. But one thing was clear, where you did not want to be heading was Nimrod and the great recycling depot. 

Realm of ashes

Sleeping in my mother's old studio in London under the eaves in an attic room years before the practice, I dreamed about crossing the line of death. Mark and I covered our faces in ashes and tricked the border guards. As we crossed I fell into the ocean and the great crab mother embraced me in her giant claws, a huge embrace of love, and then she let me go. As I flew into the air I saw a line of people floating towards a spiralling tunnel of light and then elsewhere a blue square surrounded by gold high in the sky. I knew that was where I was going. So I went.

I found myself in a place where everyone understood each other without speaking. We worked together in small groups of four creating extraordinary things. It was a place of beauty and abundance; we lived in straw houses on a flowering hillside that reminded me of a valley we used to visit in Ecuador in our travelling days. The difference was that unlike my earthly life there was great joy and harmony between the other beings and myself. We were in complete telepathic communication with each other. Why did I leave? I left because I went to an interdimensional place like a silvery lake and met a Mexican seer on its pale sandy shore, who told me about time and about the place of time called Earth. I was so excited you could measure yourself in terms of time, I said: I want to go there. And so I did.

You come because of your great desire. You come because you are curious. You come because of the challenges, because of the experience and the exchanges and the beings you will meet here. You come for all sorts of reasons that only in your soul’s language you will understand. Some of these reasons are to be found in dreams. But you only find these clues if you don’t get stuck in the realms of suffering. The dimension of the Earth is not difficult because it is physical but because of a human limbo realm, the world of shades, that seals it in a greenish glow and makes it hard for us to leave. There are myriad stuck places, astral realms, underground stations, full of beings who have spent their lives conducting the big bands of the Underworld, impresarios of side-shows, the sweepers of the corridors. Hordes of people that are kept in limbo in these underworld cities that enmesh you in their intrigues. But if you want to get out of the wheel of karma, out of the zone of fragments, you have to be smart and not get waylaid.

If you start helping in the Underworld it means you are not doing your own proper burial. Proper burial means you have to bury your mother with honour, you have to atone for your father’s sins. You have to bury your former life at the proper depth, give up the illusions held by your righteous ego. You have to shed your snakeskins, and collect all the fragments of yourself jettisoned in the realms of time. And then when you have finished your tasks, you have to dance, be light, merry, be in life. You can never really talk to the dead in these places because the dead do not listen. They do not care for you. What I wanted to do was speak with the ancestors who know how to be whole, I didn’t want to live like a ghost, a fragment, a zombie with a seal light around me. I wanted to go home.

The kist

In the town we wait in the hot afternoons in our apartment, naked, watching the muslin curtain billow in and out in the desert wind. Everything grows quiet at these times. In these intense temperatures, you grow to love the water, climb long distances over rocks to find hidden waterfalls, swim in the mountain pools with little garter snakes, wake early at sunrise to visit the cool canyons full of morning glory and cardinal flowers. It is a state of expectancy you savour, never knowing what might demand your sudden attention, except that when it does, you recognise the moment.

In the desert hotel the Queen of the Night lived in a pot and grew long arms that spread over the painted floorboards of Carmen’s room. On the night of her blooming Greta, Mark and I met and lit small candles there, beneath her six great flower heads, and held three of them in our laps, inhaling the immense fragrance. We talked about flowers. Greta was a herbalist and sometimes stayed downstairs in Peter’s studio where we had met her one day as she was hacking up ocotillo roots. Mostly however we sat in silence. The windows of the hotel room were covered in wire, so no moths could come and visit the plant. But the Queen had other visitors: her fragrance wafted all the way down the dark corridor and entered into the kitchen where there was a party going on for a poetry reading that was happening in town. 

People came and went out of the room. Mark licked the nectar that dripped from a milkweed flower that hung above the Queen of the Night. Look, he said, it tastes just like honey. Come and try. Nobody did. Some people fled the room, some stood awkwardly and asked awkward questions: Why were we holding a vigil? Why does the plant only flower for one night? But when the poet came into the room, she took up position by the open window and, laughing, told us a story about the Mayan goddess who held a competition to see who had the most beautiful vagina in the universe (it was won by a human woman, helped by a hummingbird who gave her some feathers). ‘I’m going to paint the goddess in the underpass one day,’ she said. ‘This town needs her.’

For a whole evening we sat in the room with the flowers. The poet entered the room and visited the Queen of the Night. She was a lovely poet and the world needs her. It needs the goddess’s beautiful vagina. It needs the fragrance of an insignificant plant that puts everything into something beautiful, even though it only lasts one night. 

Under the stars of a beautiful night in America the poets came to the pomegranate town, the dreamers and the visionaries. Some of them still lived here: they were quieter than they used to be but they still lived here. They came for the dark blue dreaming stone that lives in the hills among the veins of gold and copper. They came for a different sound that sang out on the edge of the Roman Empire. 

The Mayan people sometimes call the United States the Land of the Dead but it’s not just the dead that live here. There is life everywhere if you look, and beauty and kindness. These small things do not count in the world that only counts money, but they count for everything in the Underworld. I know this because when I have been down on my luck, it is the small acts of beauty and kindness that have made everything worthwhile.

It is what stops the world being destroyed.

The poets store up the best of these things. It’s not just the words they are doing this with. It’s their lives, as they move through this world, through time, a transformative force they carry having been into the Underworld and back. It’s the spirit in which they do things, the way that the poet entered that room like a moth and pollinated the flower. It was the dance we all did holding the huge flowers in our laps. In the room this vibration glowed and filled us with an encounter that would last the whole of our lives.

At midnight we left the room. We found the kitchen deserted. There were bowls of chips and empty glasses and a desolate feeling that parties have when they are ended. The night wind blew through the screen door. We kissed each other goodbye and went out, going our separate ways. And when the sun rose the Queen of the Night closed her petals quietly in the desert hotel.