Beginning Was

I wrote this long mock-epic poem in 1979-80, after reading the sentences from Claude Levi-Strauss that serve as its epigraph. I started to imagine what it must have felt like to have language erupt in its totality that way inside an individual head and then followed that head through history in its chronically failed attempts to either tame language or get it to do something durable for the human spirit.

Here is a PDF of that series, which is also available in paperback form via my amazon author’s page.

Beginning Was



 And here’s the whole text:



Beginning Was




Copyright 1980-2017 by Paul Kameen

Acknowledgements: The South Carolina Review, Poet Lore, YASM





Language was born all at once. . . After a transformation  . . . a change has taken place, from a stage where nothing had meaning to a stage where everything had.

Claude Lévi-Strauss



I wrote these poems in 1979-80, over a period of about a year. I had been reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology and decided to go back to look again at Claude Lévi-Strauss (the pre-post-structuralist, or just plain structuralist, anthropologist.) When I read the sentence above, I was overtaken by a sensation

of what a cacophonous effect that would have had–I mean if language came all at once, just like that.

An empty, placid head, nothing much doing. Then, what? I had a vision that the whole of human history might well have been a series of failed attempts to come to terms with the profound trauma of this “transformation.” I’ve never had much confidence

in words. Odd, you might think, for someone who makes his living with them. But that is exactly what words do, make us odd, make us living. That’s why I wrote these poems.





Way back in the back of

his wackiest dream, words woke,

wafted up in him like smoke.

Meaning-mirages flickered, flared.

Hair to his feet, stutter in

his step, he muttered down

the mountain, re-nouned now.

An alien image shimmered at his feet:

he studied himself in a puddle of his fear.


Carefully surveying his semblance

for structure, he spotted a specter

lecturing a tree: “I am nothing

and I run this show. So there!”

The tree did not reply, just stared

vacantly past the horizon,

furrowing its brow, all the answers

it had carefully prepared

fleeing piecemeal in his wind.



Unaccustomed to the suddenness of

sundown, a rush of pitch, he breathed

deep to quell a quiver in his voice.

He pretended he was dumb.

But he was not. Moonrise.

Lightfall through the leaves.

Lithe shadows dancing

around trees. He cleared his throat,

composed himself: “I am nothing


and I run this show. So there!”

Chaos! He scratched his chin,

wondered at the that mess he was in,

climbed a tree to find out what went wrong.

Peering down from the topmost branch

he saw something ugly and inevitable

lying beneath him on the ground

beating up dust with dirty wings.

He waited for himself to descend.




There came weather fit for any king.

This is awfully sweet fruit to eat,

he thought, gnawing as he walked.

He torched a bush and nothing

was consumed. He caught a fish

and fed himself for weeks. Rain

came down like breadsticks at his feet.

He made a coat that sparkled in the sun.

He sharpened all his teeth.


He was the only player and made up

all the prayers. He brought

a boulder back and boxed it.

He was the apple of his eye.

Puffed up like wind, inscrutable

as night, he swelled, spelled,

yelled, mayhem in his wake.

This is heavenly he thought,

the way it ought to be.




Huntsman and herdsman

he hounded sounds around.

Blameless, he changed the rules,

rolled a bigger boulder back.

Then the weather changed.

Black clouds, stacked up sticks,

sparked a few hard ones in his ears.

In the echo of the last blast,

a whisper of a warning in the air:


“It’s snake eyes this time, pal. See.”

Those words like stones were spoke

and broke his teeth. Silver slivers

pierced his tongue. His coat

went up in smoke. In a squalor

of solitude, he dug in deep.

From the dark hole of his head peering,

he saw nothing but the tiny light

of a distant bush burning in his eye.




He hid out long, sucked whites of eggs

through straws, squeezed a boil

on his butt, offered up a flock

of explanations.  Nothing worked.

Water lapped his ankles as he paced.

He slaked his throat to pray

but the gall of it all caked

his tongue in salt. This was a world

for frogs, and he was not.


Caught in the crotch  of

a dilemma, stripped stark to his sole

self, he lapped and babbled.

The wind-flogged waves lapped

and babbled back, slapped

disappointments down.

One minute lightning stroked

from pillars of clouds. The next

fist-size hail pelted him senseless.




Bellicose winds rolled over him

like war, draping sheets of rain

over corpses of his dreams.

He tried to sleep but tossed like froth

on the swells of an ungovernable sea.

He swam until his arms and legs

were jello, bellied up and waited

for the end. He woke on bald rock,

a dead bird at his feet.


No one read his rights.

His wrongs were booked and printed

on two tablets in his hand.

He popped them in his mouth to stop

the hammers whamming in his head.

He built a cell and polished all the bars,

slammed the door and threw away the key.

He waited for a signal from the stars.

His heart beat like a kettle drum to be free.




Free at last from his checkered past

he gird his loins up like a man,

found a desert of his own.

This is sackcloth time he thought,

time to tame the beast. He squatted

in a hovel made of sticks, fasted

down to bone, sat still as any stone,

heard nothing but rusty music

of dying wind among dry reeds.


His tongue stuck to his palate

and was dumb. It was a long season

down among the snakes. They grinned

and writhed like women naked at his feet.

They told him dirty jokes.

They drank and smoked.

Temptation upon temptation came

and went. Tough as any nut to crack,

he just grinned back and bore it.




Then one day, honed hard,

he came out flailing, stomped

the snakes, pulled their teeth

and scattered them like seeds.

Up they sprouted, longer, fatter,

meaner, baring bigger fangs.

They coiled tight to strike.

He gird his loins up like a man,

turned his tail and ran.


This is hair shirt time he thought,

time to salve the soul.

He squatted in a hovel

made of stone, whipped himself

in shape, made nothing but rusty

music with his chains, to which

he chanted in a stupor till he slept.

He was dark and stunning in that dream.

He gave himself the creeps.




Caught in the gauze of violet dawn

he hung like haze between leaf and light.

The landscape was transmogrified,

violent and weird. He was beaked

and tweaked and spindled, poked

and pulled and poled. Rosy fingers

picked him up like dust, flicked

him back to dreams. Schizophrenic

clouds raced in and out, stage left:


a genial soliloquy, translucent

and profound; stage right: a chorus

of thunder inviolable as night.

An audience of one clapped

with one hand in his ear. He felt

a wine-dark breath breathing

down his neck, heard the clack

of hooved feet at his heels.

He headed for the hills.




He hid inside a cave and built

a fire to keep warm. All night

he watched shadows dancing

on the wall. Full of leading questions

to himself, he followed jerkily

where they led. Correspondence

baffled him at first, but he heard

the wheels that make it work

whirring quietly, high above him


in the sky: what is not is true.

He pulled out memories like a skein,

snipped them into pieces

at his feet. He flew like dew

between leaf and light and knew.

He heard the croak of frogs, the chirp

of birds announcing dawn. He wafted

down on the wings of dying flies

to the silence of ideas behind his eyes.


Wholly Smoke


This is enough to use for now he mused.

Exhausted from late nights, confused

he decided on vacation time: a cruise.

Wrong from the start. Wind hit hard,

piped up wicked music from the rocks,

licked and tickled him like tongues.

Bound and determined to stick it out,

he sailed the straight and narrow

till it split, faced both ways at once.


A conundrum fit for a king: should he

run the rocks and risk a pounding

headache? or skirt the drain he knew

would suck him down the chute?

Out of his depth on this one,

he weighed anchor. Then he weighed

his words. He had to have a cause–

that was final. Godly mountains

poked through gathered clouds.




A smoky voice stoked up, spoke.

Was it his own? He listened like a child.

It told how bold and heroic on his broad

shoulders he held up the whole shebang,

had fought hard against stiff odds

to make it speakable and neat,

his long labors straightening up

the stalls, a word for every thing,

everything penned in words.


He lolled for hours balanced on the mast,

memorized the rhythm of the waves.

He was efficient in his work,

thought it out and back and out again,

polished his material till it shone.

Ready at last he assumed a formal air,

lit his pipe and lectured like a pro.

The wind and waves shrank back.

The rocks dropped off to sleep. So did he.




Like all dreams this could never last.

He woke to a world rational as glass.

Predictable as clockwork he punched in,

settled to the task: He tracked down

planets in their paths, greased

a brand-new axle for the stars,

set right the flywheel of his mind,

picked his brains, numbered all his

bones. He made himself at home.


On his way to lunch he slipped on wet grass.

The attractive earth beckoned and he sat.

There ought to be a law, he muttered.

And there was. He inclined himself

to the plain truth and thought: I think

I am. He marveled at the leverage

this gave, geared down for the long

haul downhill, positive his differential

would keep him steady on the curves.




His lexicon was eloquent and trim,

a perfect execution of sentences

he pronounced. He catalogued a wilderness

of names, climbed a ladder halfway

to the moon, tamed a troop of angels

to stage a sideshow on a pin.

Weather was cool and sunny as a rose.

Lovely dreams of dreams slid by

his eye. Nothing left to know.


Then thick fogs rolled up the shore.

Things began to rust. The grease

so right for sunlight congealed at night.

There was friction in the works.

He felt the axle give. A time clock clanged.

He punched out with his fist. His flywheel

grew eccentric and he shook. Insomnia

set in. His nerves were shot. This

is a crying shame, he cried. And cried.




His dreams were shards of tinted glass.

He fitted piece to piece, puzzling up

a maze to trap sunset on the wall.

Too late. Coffin-lid dark slammed down,

spindles of starlight, spikes of moonlight,

midnight black and white. His memories

flew south to bask and tan. He stayed,

bleary-eyed by candle-light,

keeping the books: a plague of red.


He tried to find a balance,

spent knights, put dividends

in the mail, taxed logic

with deductions, took exemptions,

sheltered yearnings, subtracted something

from nothing, filled ledgers

with loopholes, a melody of numbers.

Easy street, he thought.

Then his memories drove back,




well-bronzed, revved-up, ripped.

His middle was distributed wide

across his seat. They wheeled,

dealed, peeled off wads of cash.

His assets were locked in stocks.

Losing interest fast, his currency

devalued, came the crash of pale

and feverish dawn. Unenlightened,

he nodded down in lamp black, broke.


Unable to break the bank,

He armed himself with lenses

and a trick. Finally in a fuzzy

negative, he found the fudge-factor:

not in what he saw, but how he looked.

To resist temptations to convert

ambiguity to fixity, avoid contradiction,

he posited tolerance as a first principle,

stopped copying, hobbled off to sleep.




Today was another defeat. He took it hard,

licked wounds, sat ringside to think.

Sick of playing weakling to the world,

nursing nasty bruises between bouts,

he vowed hard work, a rematch and revenge.

He rolled a boulder up and down a hill,

pounded rocks to pebbles with his fists,

skipped breakfast, lunch and rope

until his muscles bulged and brimmed.


Square jaw set like concrete, eyes

like fuming coals, he climbed into the ring

to have it out. His thighs were cinderblock

and brick; his back, coiled copper

wound to springs; his stomach, anvils

in his gut; his lungs, big bellows

huffing up a storm of brimstone

on his breath. He raised up arms

like smokestacks and they smoked.




He electrified the crowd, which roiled,

thundered, roared for something more.

He thrust an iron fist down the furnace

of his throat, forged a new vocabulary

of steel. It clanged: the fight was on,

exhilarating, blood-curdling, obscene,

a holocaust, a war to end all wars,

as ugly a match as ever was and worse.

It was even after eight. He dished it


out and took it on the chin. Air was thick

as cyanide by ten. He panted like a dog.

Sweat oozed out like benzene by thirteen.

Thirst burned like tumors in his throat.

The final bell. His atomic arms were heavy

and dead as lead. His stomach backfired.

The decision was split against him.

So was he. He limped back down the runway.

Only to find he had no place left to lie




In wonder had he begun. Now in astoundment

he stopped. Where to go from here?

Contemplation was fine for sleepless nights.

But this carbon-black dark tugged

eyelids shut. Pale and somnambulent,

perfectly dreamless, he set his probe

for objective facts and probed. He tuned

his headset, tracked them down—beep,

beep—beneath his feet. He flipped a switch


and shadowed them—blip, blip—across

a screen. Soon he found them everywhere,

a world pocked and scabrous with facts.

He honed a jargon sharp to lance them.

He cultured them in tubes.

Heuristics buzzed and swarmed

like fruit flies. Algorithms

multiplied like rats.  A downpour

of statistics, run-off at the mouth.




He was hypnotized by digital displays,

mystified by miracles of gear.

Nifty bag of tricks! All night he plotted

graph after graph predicting

graceful and delicate dawn. Done.

The sun squealed out garish, hot and loud.

His heartbeat revved, sputtered

to a stall. Haywire day raced down.

Dumbstruck he wondered:


had the mechanic or his method gone

stark mad? In abstraction had he begun.

In perplexity now he stopped.

Potholes pocked the blacktop.

Power failed. An elaborate cast

of shadows collapsed around his feet.

Nothing was revealed.

He sat in the shade of an apple tree.

He decided not to eat.




At a certain angle of incidence, daylight

amputated the tallest trees, pried up stumps

and scattered them like teeth. He stood

on a smooth stone, its message

worn off and distributed insensibly

in the sand. He watched his own

footprints sink into the same sand

and vanish. He conjured up a crowd

of others something like himself.


On their way out of his future and into

theirs, some swung briefcases,

others brandished knives. After a few

nights, a balance was established

at the intersection of one group

with the other. Like the buzz of a fly

past his ear at night he heard his words

passing through the passing thoughts

of generations, digested and excreted,




bland handfuls of damp sand,

leavings of leashed dogs

littering vacant lots with dotty notions.

He spit in the dirt and mixed it

with a stick. With an hour’s close

attention, he carved a glyph.

He let it harden in the sun. Someday,

he thought, a briefcase and a knife

will dicker over what it’s really worth.


The noise of his existence was ringing

in his ears. His sleep could never

last. On the fringe of his final dream

(a parade of insects through his brain,

fireworks and flags) a dim image

fluttered like frayed and faded braid:

a man, himself, typing out the words

that came and went without a sound,

a grim smile glued to his face like a twig.


For Good


Stopped at last in his tracks by the train

of his thoughts, his wits wafted

off somewhere like steam. He wanted

to station himself, stand straight

as a rail, feel wild wind whine

past while summer leaves held fast.

But they flew off, fell down further

and faster than sound, curled up

crisped, and rotted on the ground.


He took a long look at himself and shook.

He wanted out, went out on his knees

and wept. Trees kept themselves intact

through frost and the fall and he knelt there

on the leaf-fall through the long nights

and all and he knelt there through snowfall

and snowmelt until time came to crawl down

waist deep in leafmeal, chastened and afraid

of all he had come to know by posing




as himself. And then he too fell back

hard on his luck and it burned

black and blacker and blackest

fueling all his doubts. Forests came

and went, pressed up next to him,

and he lay down with them, waited

to be mined and trucked to breaker, cracked

and picked and sorted, packed and sold,

dark veins gone up in smoke to stem the cold.


His heritage was ashes on the floor,

clinkers left behind to clog the grate,

a landscape pocked and pitted, all a waste.

But one black thought escaped, lay down

in loveliness and slept. Somewhere

in the back of his wildest dream it poked up

through bald rock, self-hewn, perfect,

multifaceted, brilliant in the light,

a blue-white beacon beckoning his kind.