Essay Hybrid: “Gnome: Excerpts” by Robert Lunday



Gnome: Excerpts

Kouroi step forward and their smiles are votive candles.

How much is lived between the words? What we need to see hides in the blind spots. The more we close our eyes, the more our faces open. Contours ripple to a point of disappearance.

Whites of the eyes enhance gaze signals. Eyebrows exaggerate expression. A person forms an X between here and there: spirit crisscrossing over body, left dying right.


Expression‘s the flight of the face, seeking its lost transparency: a slow decay, particle by particle, the coin rounding toward its gleam.

A band shell, my face rising from the darkness. I’m in a park, in a city where I haven’t lived in years. It’s all somewhere inside my face: as I enter the green, the shadow and tree line, everything is screened on my forehead, cheeks, eyelids—all the face as if inverted, capturing, receiving. But the surface forms a knot, on closer look: face-lines stitching between is and ought.

The face a wish, wished backwards. Faces smiling themselves toward birth, every event a face on time. Death-, birth-faces fill the world; then deflations, decrescendos, the sun at noon, seeming not to move.


We give faces to each other to pay for spirit’s blankness. A third face surrounds us like an ocean. “To create a likeness meant for him to seek eternity in some given face, that part of eternity by which the face participated in the great life of eternal things. He made none which he did not lift a little from its place into the future; as we hold an object against the sky in order to see its form with greater clarity and simplicity.”1 Complete things, once they’re in the artist’s hands, become fragments, incomplete or abandoned works. Beauty demands a veil, as sand wants wind and wave.


A smile, fossil of unfallenness, caricatures heaven. Through its changes we create a veil of expectation. The theater of the body becomes the theatrum mundi. But there’s no surface, no boundary: only a projection of attitudes and expectancies. The stage disappears, the screen dissolves into its projections. At the psychological center of the world a moment of equilibrium coalesces between madness and sanity: a slightly shifting point of contact, all the comprehension we can muster, shared smile of recognition. Collectedness combines depth with surface, in perfect balance—no difference between inside, outside.

Description provides a physiognomy, the indeterminacy of context, the face of which creates (as if screened before us) a complexion, holographic, surrounding, seeming to include us, though it might be miles or centuries away. It will always seem incomplete; but to give any sense of the imaginary, the ideal, it must remain so. We mistake our desire for order for a symptom of the real, though it’s death—or such is its goal.

If brass goes to sleep and wakes up a trumpet, it is not to blame; if wood wakes a violin 2 the transformation’s merely a shine of surfaces.


The wind might fill
With faces as with leaves3

In prosopagnosia, a spectral blur studied like starlight: a character, a heart, assessed from data.

By my speaking, they will know me.

Shagreen, the rough skin, minute teeth around the jaw. Cousin to sharks, we’ve reduced its armor only to the teeth themselves: the chagrined grit, a smile with its ropes pulled taut. Teeth are an emotion, or the fossils of an ancient passion that the face, like coral, forms itself around: the brain’s first grip, manufacture of gist, bone of belief.


Expression harkens after shadow, what can be shown and not said. The emblem fits to language, shield-like, field work of the hulking presence of the warrior: meditation circled in time, expression in search of a face, silent parable.

Seven thousand and more expressions have been counted; perhaps as many as there are languages. Dialects of the tribe, articulations of the atlas. They fit the periphery, always there: echoes, palimpsests. In the face-world, we find not three hundred sixty degrees, but thousands. To live a good life is to attempt to travel them all, or at least find those that are yours.

Face as consciousness: sense, the temples, crown, grit of teeth, ears like gargoyles, wings of nose, flare of nostrils, keel of jaw, vase of the throat—a series of exchanges between inner and outer; tongue, to move language along on its conveyor belt.

“I can’t now remember another such smile, a smile tender and offering up its whole self.”4 A creature lives there, bird or butterfly, mink, mouse, homunculus—the poet entirely in her freedom, in the full menagerie of herself.

There’s no upside-down in a pure expression-world; no tribe of reversed expressions, where frowns are smiles. However, this universality wobbles: much dark matter, dark energy.


Smiles are the first holograms, the part larger than the whole; prolonging perception, tightening the air between two faces.

Smiles rise from the voice, gathering openness within the room-self, the body of air around us when we greet or accept. Expression undoes the form, a de-materializing. Every depth was once a surface, though it might have been eons ago. Every mask was once a daemon between who we were and who we might have been, had our gravity with one been stronger than with another.

Faces meeting on a train (not the meeting of those behind the faces; that might come, or not): though they seem to be on the same train, when the experience becomes memory, the train splits into two, each train traveling at the speed of regret in opposite directions.


The face came forward and we no longer looked forever at the gods, blossom-up, but at the lay of the land, the field’s fan-tail from ourselves. We looked at God through the things of the world and through the backward reflections of our masks.

The mouth is the beginning, the prow of animals;5 but the face of the animal is in many directions, unfocused.6 The whole body of the animal contributes to its face, and the mind of the creature is celled from nose to claw.

Adam named the beasts, but the beasts give us our many faces, our totems and stars, the buttons on our sleep, the plait of seeing that makes the field come alive. Animals shape the past: a candelabrum upside-down in fountain-reflection, a jewel-tree growing down from its single fruit. Something creases the shadows, furrows the sky, and you can be sure it’s a new and wild creature stepping back into its own world.

Darwin argued the continuity of expressive behaviors across species. That expressiveness composes a map of the larger family, and of the world of experiences that shaped us, long before we were we. In our expressions we extend ourselves from environment into time. Fear, alarm, joy, sadness, anger are the flow in that fused environment between creature and field. Herman Melville thought of the whale that its brow traded features with the wrinkled rock of Gibraltar, whereas Ahab trades expressions with a thunderclap.


God created the swan to bring that one movement to perfection:7 perfection, a state peripheral to sadness. We’re still on the ark, in a menagerie of gestures and moods, of smiles and brow-birds, of warm-blooded notions and basking, reptilian regrets. A mare shoulders us over to the fence, a crane ferries the eyes down to the bottom of the well. My daydreams are all ferrets and crows. St. Gregory preached that Man comprehends all creatures in himself; but we find our own zoo or wilderness along the edges of a mirror.

In Chardin’s “The Ray,” the underside of this creature bears resemblance to a face. I see an oscillation between the true underside of the fish and the outside of a grisly face—a face that, if detachable, would be a denial of all surface. Expression would leak out of it like air from a balloon. Think of a mask as the pretense of removable face, a face with a certain crust-existence, audacious fantasies.

In Heart of Darkness Marlow passes train cars and boilers discarded by the jungle wayside. Their lives expended make them animal, almost human. Then he observes the men in chains: machines of a sure and distant thought, lines on an otherwise vacant map. Further in, a dying man with a bit of worsted around his neck. The heaviest bond of all is a thread of fashion. Somewhere in Paris, Brussels, or London, a tailor is making chains. In the jungle, bones form themselves into train-tracks and factories.

Robert Lunday is the author of Gnome (Black Sun Lit, 2017) and Mad Flights (Ashland Poetry Press, 2002). A former Wallace Stegner fellow and recipient of the Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Nonfiction, his poetry and essays have appeared in Drunken Boat, Gulf Coast, The Boiler, [PANK], River Teeth, Agni, and elsewhere. He lives in central Texas and teaches at Houston Community College.


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1. Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin

2. Arthur Rimbaud

3. Wallace Stevens

4. P. N. Knyazhnin on Alexander Blok

5. Georges Bataille

6. Max Picard

7. Max Picard

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