Gnats

[for John Cage]

  In a shaft of sunlight, a few feet above the grass, a swarm of about 30 gnats is constantly in motion. Each gnat scribbles nervous, jagged loops in the air that never repeat their shape and are never the same as the lines of flight of the other gnats.

The group is never in synch, yet never completely out of it either---it's as if the swarm is following some mysterious polyrhythmic pulse only it can hear. Each loop is written so quickly in the air that it is hard to follow one at a time and impossible to see why they never collide with each other. The gnats seem to do their dancing each within its own constantly changing private space. Or maybe their loops all intersect but the weird pulse that pushes them makes it all perfectly timed so there are no collisions.

In the midst of all this dancing, any one of the gnats may suddenly choose to leave, zooming away out of the shaft of light and vanishing into the late summer air as if it has just remembered something. Other gnats may fly in to join the group just as suddenly. And now and then another, bigger insect will boom on by, usually swerving to avoid the swarm, but sometimes flying right through at high speed. When that happens, the gnat dancers are separated, as if by a wake, and alter their rhythms. But not too much time passes before the different groups of dancers suddenly merge like waterdrops on a window pane and invent yet another rhythm to mark their merging.

The sun goes behind a cloud. I can't see the gnats anymore, though they're not far away. I strain my eyes trying to focus in midair---it's impossible; my eyes insist on focusing on the bushes farther on. The sun comes back. The gnats are gone. Yet if the sunlight stays for more than a few seconds, they begin coming into its light again, flying slowly at first and then picking up the tempo.

I look down. My tea has become too cool to drink. One gnat swims in circles on its surface.

~1993
 



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