In a dream I have all the time, I’m anxious, making mistakes, printing out documents in an office
building with modular walls all in taupe. Under a low ceiling and horrible lighting, I’m at work
before the Xerox machine, green laser shifting left to right, ceremony for the modern kind of death
in which wonder submits to Google, and love isn’t love but an app, an algorithm emptied of soul,
literary dreams buried beneath debt and deadlines. Marketing— the creation of spin—this world
drags at my center in the way a black hole pulls the spiraling galaxy toward the collapse of time.
The workday is frantic, reports piling up faster than I can read them, clock ticking, no time
to waste, no end in sight. And yet I stop dead. By instinct or oracle, I’m called to another office:
a priesthood, an ancient sect. Inside my bone marrow, I feel the echo of an underground world
magnetic with sound. I’m drawn to a burial chamber inside a pyramid where holy people work
using songs as reeds to weave a boat. It ferries the dead to a distant star, an Elysium for the soul.
The breathless body is undertaken, herb-dipped, wrapped in gauze, adorned for all of death.
I decipher torch-lit hieroglyphics carved into the sandstone walls, the liturgy for a death
ritual, sacred texts and spells incised by chisel, engraved maps to a distant form of time
in which all the hours are still, save within the stars, each one a sight-glass, site of a living soul,
space-traveled, unburdened of the illness and human grief performed in its mortal genetic office.
The sepulcher is fragrant, suffused with oils, unguents, the perfumed herbs of mortuary work.
Acolytes adorn the ceiling with lapis lazuli and gold leaf, singing the songs of the underworld.
Disrupting the dream, a holy terror: an alarm clock rings and I’m jolted back to the taupe world,
back to my day job, where, wholly unencumbered by spiritual dignity, I work myself to death.
And I do my best to decipher the current trends, to maximize profits for this corporate work-
place but how cleverly technology has changed, now claiming twice the effort in half the time.
Facebook and Twitter follow me home at night. In bed, I hear the ping of a text from the office
where, in perpetual delay of artistic realization, I write unadorned prose for the boardroom soul.
I wish I remembered how to mourn, how to sing with a rhythm buoyant enough to carry a soul
(known as Ba or Ka, a note just out of reach) but the lyric retreats from the too-bright world
when the alarm clock rings, demands I face the day, the traffic, the facts: I’m late for the office
again—it’s happened a million times. In order to forget, I begin each day in denial of death.
I make money as fast as I can, then spend it online along with my hopes and my leisure time,
while on the bus and in cafés, all heads are bowed before the illuminated screen, texting for work.
Meaning isn’t granted by a god or a guru. It’s what we make as we go along—in artwork
and archeology, in acts of love and war. Mathematics writes the metrics, suffering conveys the soul.
The body records the memories, sleeping so late, growing so old. Astronomers speculate that time
may be elastic, and instead of a singular Big Bang, the explosive event that created the world
was just one in an infinite series, and each repetition is a distinct universe, a birth and a death,
expansion and contraction, a lung breathing in and out the psalm of its ancient mourning office.
It’s a dream I have to be wildly alive in a time when a work of poetry is holy as money, in a
world that unfolds as an illuminated book of hours, one page for the office, one hundred for art,
for a lyric enacting a ritual so poetic it carries the soul through to its one, last, beautiful death.
Mary Peelen is a writer who lives in San Francisco and Paris. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in New American Writing, Poetry Review (UK), The Massachusetts Review, Bennington Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry collection, Quantum Heresies, won the 2019 Kithara Book Prize.