Alan Catlin: An Essay

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Aspects of Alice

“There are moments when, even to the sober eye of reason, the world of our sad humanity must assume the aspects of hell.”  -- Edgar Allan Poe


Mother reads books in the dark.  Magazines, as well.  Always starting at the back and reading forward.  Said, “This is what reading is like on the other side.”

“The other side of what?” I asked.

“The mirror. Look inside and you will see.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by the other side.  Whenever I looked inside, all I could see was my own face.  I wondered what she saw.  How she did what she did.

“One day you will know.  You’ll know, then, what seeing is really all about.”

When I did, what I did see and know, almost killed me.


Whenever there was a storm on the Islands, it was like something from a horror movie.  The closeness of it. The fierceness. The Immediacy.

Or, maybe, it was simply how similar the noise was to those stories she read after lights Artwork by Gene McCormickout.  The one that scared me the most was Treasure Island.  The pirates and the coves and the running up the staircase. And then there were no more stairs.  Only a drop down into the darkness. It was like that here and we could visit the places from her stories.
Once, we went to a cove, where a derelict pirate’s tower still stood. It was on a perfect beach, near the picture book blueness of the sea.  The stairs seemed to be made of concrete but, maybe, it was some other material, with sharp edges and shells embedded inside; dream objects in a real place.  The stairs were slippery, as they were covered by moss that made them almost impossible to climb without holding onto the railing that wasn’t there.  Still, my mother made the ascent effortlessly, while I struggled, literally falling behind. The look on her face, on the turret, blistering with sunlight, was like some malevolent spirit from the dead come back to haunt me.  My dreams were worse, at night, whenever I could fall asleep.


My mother was reading from a Dream Book, explaining all the images you see at night.  As she never slept, I wondered if she knew these dreams, or made them up, like the stories she read when there was no light to see.  I wondered if I was sleeping when I was awake and awake when I was sleeping. But she just laughed and said, “Of course, you are.” As if that explained something.

What made sense was how she explained that, “When you dreamed of falling, if you reach the bottom, you die. “Not long after, I became dizzy while climbing a tree, and fell on my head, waking, later, in a hospital surrounded by doctors with white masks and then someone put a cup over my mouth and I was asleep again.  But I didn’t dream. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

This is a real memory, not an Impression.                                            


Mother would not cut her hair after I was born. Five years later, we were living on this island in the Virgins and her black hair was down well past her waist.  She would sit before an oval mirror for hours looking at herself slowly combing the thin strands of that fine hair.  If I were some kind of artist, I would call that year: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother Combing.  It would hang on a black wall along with a series of paintings each a portrait of her in a different pose, staring at the nothingness that lay inside the blank mirror she refused to see herself in.  it would be like the inside of Goya’s House.  It would be like the end of everything I have ever known.


My mother could have been a scientist.  She knew everything there was to know about black holes. To her it was a rabbit hole you fell down and could never get out. To everyone else around her it was a Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.  Once you had been inside, everything was changed forever.


Mother said we must row out into the ocean in a glass bottom boat to see what lies beyond the bottom of things.  The glass floor was like a mirror to her only the sea was replaced by air and it was confusing to figure out which side you were on, and whether you should breath in what lay around you or not.

She said if you look closely enough, you could see Alice down there among the swarms of fish and, coral and the sunken ships that will rise again.  What I saw was a dual world of reflections, clouds on the surface of a face that could have been Alice’s. floating weightless with sea weed instead of hair. The clouds confused the fish, who swam away, as we floated above in the blue like apparitions of people escaped from a dream, and not knowing where to go once they were out.  When I look up, I see the sun threatening to burn my eyes, stain my pale white skin.  I see my mother dressed as a Red Queen, swinging her scepter and pronouncing fatal sentences.


Home from the Islands, she breaks storm door windows with her fists, celebrating the wrath of Gods who have escaped from their kingdoms by the sea to reside in her bones.  The blood she leaves behind on the wallpaper flowers, contains a message I do not understand, though she insists that I should. “It was in the Dream Book that I read you,” she said. But I cannot recall which one. All I can remember is, that I feel as if I am the end of a dream of falling.


Other nights she wakes me in the dark, asks me if I remember the stories she told me about the rabbit hole. About Alice, and the decks of cards she shuffles, that all have the Hanged Man on the face card, instead of the ones I try to remember. The ones we played War with and Slap Jack, a game she played as if our lives depended upon the outcome.  Thinking back about how hard she played, the cracks in the table, the torn cards, I think, maybe our lives did depend upon the outcome.


Nights she whispered to me, in the dark before she disappeared like a Cheshire Cat in some dream of a red chamber with electro-convulsive shock therapy in it. “Remember,” she said, “what the red queen said.”



My freshman English teacher, first day in, after I responded to an in-class introductory essay project with a poem, wanted to know why I wasn’t in English Honors.

“I don’t test well.” I might have added, “I’m a first class fuck up.”  People generally found that out about me soon enough, on their own, especially teachers.

“Okay. “ She said, “Don’t buy the books. Don’t do the assignments. Come to class and write one term paper on anything you want.”

“You wouldn’t want to narrow that down would you?”


What a bitch, I thought. Of course, I fell in love with her. If only because she gave me Alice.Alice in Wonderland. Alice Through the Looking Glass. My term paper.  The story of my life.


It was all about Existentialism in 1966: nada, nicht, nothing…
And some day, soon, Ed Sanders and the Fugs would be singing:
Monday nothing
Tuesday Nothing
Wednesday once more nothing…


It also about Bob Dylan. Dressing like Bob, walking like Bob, smoking cigarettes like Bob and trying to write. Desperately trying to write, but all I managed to do was grow my hair, walk with my hands shoved all the way down the front of my jeans pocket, cigarette Bogarted in between my lips.  It was all about being Like a Rolling Stone:

“You went to the finest schools all right
but you only managed to get juiced in it…”

It was also all about Viet Nam and any school was better than no school at all.
Later Dylan would say he never wrote a topical song in his life.  Who was he kidding? As we all sang “Blowin’ in the Wind”, at every peace march, fists in the air, thinking we were accomplishing something except being young, foolish and terminally fucked up…


“It never gets cold Upstate.” Mother said.

I thought she must know. She went to college Upstate. Graduated from Skidmore. “Sure it snows but only in the hills West of town.”

Where I was living was Ice Hell.  Weeks would go when it never hit zero and I was woefully unprepared. Woefully underdressed.

For Christmas 1966 I got double viral pneumonia.

I could have died believing her but that never stopped me listening. I was a slow learner
but a determined one.


Mother always said No to Doctors. “They kill you. That’s what they do. And then they expect you to pay them.” 

A statement that was almost funny, if I wasn’t losing twenty-one pounds in a little over a week, was running temperatures over 104, wasn’t so weak I could barely hold a fork. Finally, my girlfriend insisted I go.

The Doctor looked at my X-Rays, pointed to the big assed spots and said, “Double Viral Pneumonia.  What were you waiting for?”

I was so weak I couldn’t answer a simple question. 


I was hunting The Snark in my fevered drams.  Following it into the Abyss.  Such is the violence of nonsense poetry, I didn’t know which way to turn; all that darkness. All that violence.  Too much of nothing… It was a cosmic thing for me.  The End.  Por cambio otra mas nada…


And it was very much the 60’s.  Mushrooms and hookahs. Like a rolling joint and puff the magic dragon.  Everyone seeing stuff in mirrors that wasn’t there. 

In every black lit room, the layered smoke of many dreams, the psychedelic posters with eyes on them that followed you wherever you went, the flashing lights that heightened what you saw, the coming colors of lava lamps the more you stared inside the more you became like what you saw and

“One pill makes you larger
and one pill makes you small
and the ones that mother gives you
don’t do anything at all
go ask Alice…”

on all those weekend binges that started earlier every week and lasted longer the further along you went with all the magic, mind altering paths you traveled in the underworld where Alice was the Red Queen and everyone’s head was off…



Mother’s death must have been a complete shock to her. She was never quite sure which side of the mirror she resided on and now she’d never know for sure.  


I am living in a dream play by Strindberg. It contains ghost stories and domestic drama that defies most imaging but seems, somehow, oddly familiar. There is a child playing Chinese checkers in the dark beneath a full, blood moon.  An imaginary woman, who claims to be his mother, plays as well. She calls herself Tiny Alice but she is neither tiny nor named Alice, though she eats mushrooms, which make her blank eyes seem almost alive.  A few tokes on a magic hookah and her dreams meld with mine, and we float, weightless, into a garden made into a maze of cartoon figures larger than life itself.  The Alice woman holds a croquet mallet she uses to bushwhack a path through the maze, until she arrives at a place wheel a Red Queen is chopping heads off flowers with a double bladed axe.

“Come any closer, and you might be next.” The Red Queen says.

“I am already next.” Alice says and removes her head.


“I was never happy anywhere else.” Mother says. Meaning, The Islands, I recall as being a locked room mystery with dead bodies in it and no solution.

“You were happy there too.”

“I don’t remember.”

“Of course, you do. You were born remembering everything you ever knew and ever would know.”

There was no use arguing as she was always right about everything. It was the way of the world, remembering the room we lived in by the docks. The locked shutters, against the tropical storms in her mind. Remembering how the furniture floated when the rain blew the shutters off their hinges. How it all seemed surreal even when it wasn’t.  How I caught myself falling from the second floor window, towards the dock and the one armed man who stalked the children who played there threatening to tell them all the secrets that hid inside.  Remembering the mosquito netting around the cockeyed, canopy bed, and the cat’s eyes of the marbles from the games we never played, rolling about in the dark, chased by the spirits of all the ships that sank near the harbor. Seeing all those drowned sailors, who longed to come home, where their loved ones waited, long after they were gone.  I waited, as she waited, for her thoughts to become mine, and mine to become hers.        


Among her effects:
a collection of white rabbit dolls
decks of playing cards with no queens
a selection of books all with Alice in the title or as an author
a multitude of pocket mirrors
several illustrated editions of the collected works of Lewis Carroll 
in English and in several languages she didn’t speak or read
field guides to mushrooms

It must have been difficult trying to use her field guides in The City. Even in the underground she loved, where she could crawl onto the tracks and beyond, into the darkness.