Dale Cottingham ~ Meditation in an Office Tower

Thrusting one creased pant leg in front of the other,
can­ter-leav­ing ankles, knees, thighs, my leather shoes
clack­ing slate as I amble toward and away,
in one motion. Steel, sheets of glass, ruddy-tinted,
the high-ceilinged ground-floor cre­at­ing a vault­ed space
where fil­tered light does not obstruct,
but adds a rev­er­ence that swarms my body
like a Cathedral. I. M. Pei wrote, Light
is the essen­tial ele­ment to archi­tec­tur­al design,
prob­a­bly more impor­tant than anything.
Technology and mate­ri­als are secondary.
By inten­tion, then, light lends a sense of time­less faith,
what the struc­ture oth­er­wise lacks.
Chiefly as I move, I become an object for the tower,
a kind of ele­ment con­jur­ing lit­tle images, memories,
harsh words spo­ken from a doorway,
my mind mak­ing an ideation in a web of its own creation,
although the tow­er in its silence offers no critique
of what I think or am, nor does the light that makes my face
reflect the time of day, mid-after­noon, keep­ing it lively
as it arrives and arrives, notice me.
The city over­seers said the need
for anoth­er tow­er out­weighed what they had then,
that a new con­struct would suf­fice to lift us further,
so up it went. Yet my soul won­ders how it can find its
bear­ings when all around I sense man­ner­isms among twos
and threes who seem to walk
with pur­pose toward me, then away,
mak­ing me ask: was I seen?
Did they notice me as I am, or has truth been divert­ed again?
Perhaps this talk and move­ment define the soul,
a rest­less­ness ener­giz­ing minds,
made more inter­est­ing by what they can’t see:
chem­i­cal reac­tions among the cells composing
heart, lungs, brain, con­nect­ed by nerves, veins,
also unseen, engen­der­ing hunger, thirst,
even desire, devolv­ing to sleep, and later,
death. These things con­found the soul,
that unsta­ble pres­ence, that flits from here
to here, that wants to speak
reveal­ing itself in ways that take liberties
with the sur­round­ing silence, giv­ing it a feel of freedom,
which seems out­weighed by the tower’s
high rise state­ment that engulfs each I,

makes me feel small. They say the tow­er is made for me,
but I do not understand.

The lift is anoth­er thing. Flooded with arti­fi­cial light,
it pro­longs the airi­ness as doors whis­per shut
to take me up. I feel grav­i­ty like a lover’s tug,
remind­ing me the earth wants me, and will have me,
which could be why we like the tower—
it removes us from these earth­ly thoughts
to a high­er plain, but at my floor, I see
real­i­ty remains: wear pat­terns on low pile carpet,
try­ing smiles, small recrim­i­na­tions doled out
in pro­por­tioned slices, and in my work space,
emails, phone mes­sages to occu­py my time,
files that will not untan­gle themselves.
I won­der if this is the form my life’s become,
a mess I stuff into my skin, a per­fect fit every time.
Form has a life of its own, and at times,
it may be the moti­vat­ing force in design. (I.M. Pei again)
Seen from this stand­point, the tow­er becomes
a con­struct for com­put­er, desk, chair,
my englobed life play­ing out behind a closed door,
because no one wants to know what oth­ers are doing.
And so, it’s lone­li­ness after all which the tower
allows, a form that serves a function.
I won­der if this is what I rode the bus an hour to school
along those dirt roads undu­lat­ing the plain
to sit in Quonset huts so long ago for.

As the sun sinks toward the horizon,
my atten­tion turns to my partner,
how tonight we’ll tell what hap­pened today,
open wine, maybe watch a movie,
just as we did last night, and the night before,
our love song enhanced by head dips, clips of speech,
the English lan­guage glint­ing, even enthralling.
Although my for­bear­ers might find it hard to understand
the words, I think they would instant­ly rec­og­nize feelings.
Funny, not much has changed no mat­ter what we tell ourselves
about how “post-mod­ern” we are.
We say we’ve entered a new era, but it some­how seems
like the old one. I still wake in a fog,
make break­fast, go to a job to pay electric
and water bills, have a lit­tle left over to vacate

the premis­es to the beach or mountains,
but do I? Don’t I take lap­top and cell,
sym­bols of cares I bear
just as I bear my nig­gling sub­con­scious that caus­es me
to call out from sleep,
the woman I lived with who walked away,
leav­ing me unable to under­stand the change.
What does not change is the land’s reluctance
to reveal secrets. I look out from “way up.”
I see streets the munic­i­pal­i­ty forms
that scur­ry off to hall­ways, untidy rooms
giv­ing a back­drop for maneu­vers we try out,
lit­tle episodes in trousers or sports bras
we’ll toss to the floor when the time comes—
and it will come because it’s what we want,
and after, we come back to our­selves and say,
It was good to be in that moment, for all we have are
moments, dear lit­tle pack­ets of situations
we smear into what we call time, future, past and present.
The past is per­fect and the future is uncertain,
it can be fun or a trag­ic or a lot of things,
but now is full of puz­zles and riffs to unravel
as we sough, make laments,
yet the tow­er is a stay against time, a scar
on the land in this inland city,
loomed over by the greater cities,
like London expe­ri­enc­ing a rebirth
or Dubai,
where the tallest sky­scraper is now, full of its own
or New York, a sim­u­lacra of all the oth­er cities envied, but
to be derid­ed some time in the future,
as a sign of self-inter­est, greed
for what gain is there in ris­ing to an upper floor
to look down on oth­ers and tell your­self I have arrived,
but the feel­ing is fleet­ing. You come down
sub­ject to trou­bled thoughts you can’t evade,
wash down a pill with the lat­est gin, to get to sleep.
This shows how poor the self is.
We use the tow­er to ele­vate us
and it does no good. But what of those
who actu­al­ly built it, the ones with sup­ple hands
on joy sticks lift­ing steel, sheets of glass,
know­ing just what shifts to make in gusty wind, misty rain,

and when the day was over, they head­ed to cars,
placed emp­ty lunch­box­es on the seats, drove home,
and whether a woman or a man waited,
or chil­dren or not, they still faced the night
with its promise of dark­ness and silence,
like prac­tice runs for eter­ni­ty, yet felt
good tired for hav­ing earned a day’s wage,
and so much more: the chance to be,
in oth­er words a usu­al way of life,
sea­son meld­ing to sea­son, as the days came down.

Is this all? I look at the dusky sky,
dark over­tak­ing light, anoth­er day closing
that I’d spent on the phone, in quibbles
I can vague­ly remem­ber, surf­ing the web
to piqué my mind, see­ing a woman at the gym
who start­ed in me a human reaction,
and after all, I think: I did all of this and still
made no dif­fer­ence. If only I had pressed down harder—
but that’s the prob­lem, isn’t it,
the more I lean in, the more stuck I become,
among the detri­tus of meet­ings, texts,
files, flip­pant words in corridors.
I wast­ed today, but tomor­row is anoth­er chance,
as long as my breath’s intact.
If only I had some direction,
some­thing to show me the way,
I’d stop, bend knees, pay homage, but I don’t.
Maybe this is what it means to be lost,
to wan­der a broad plain not knowing
the best use of my time,
leav­ing me with my mind
and this lan­guage in a still room.
But don’t I have to believe in me,
that per­son I show­er, tow­el off,
maybe put on a fresh tuxedo,
and parade around think­ing I’ve arrived.
Isn’t that what every­one is doing?
And so I, in fact, have some­thing to believe in,
me, the one with the right to move
or stay, the right to speak or be silent,

but don’t these only mat­ter in this world
of heat, rain, all kinds of wind,
my poor soul strug­gling to be ele­gant, intelligent.
Without an archi­tec­ture of our own
we have no soul of our own civ­i­liza­tion, (Frank Lloyd Wright)
and although I am among others,
dress to be seen by them,
even tuck in my shirt, make sure it’s clean,
I, in fact, am alone, mak­ing my own path
like a pio­neer, let­ting my feel­ings guide me,
leav­ing me unsure, try­ing to find a hold.
I wish I didn’t feel lost, but I do.

As I gath­er my things to head out the door,
I am again pre­sent­ed with choices:
will I pro­ceed in the old easy way, the giv­en one,
or will I find a new path to enliv­en my mind,
giv­ing it a medi­at­ing affect, lit­tle facets of thought
that hold my atten­tion, as I negotiate
hills, dark clefts in the landscape.
I car­ry these thoughts from the tower,
and into the nation try­ing to keep myself together,
yet drop all man­ner of things, keys,
looks, lines, even parts of myself
from surg­eries, where under anesthesia,
cells that grew wild­ly, want­ed to kill me,
not know­ing I was there, an omni­science with­in, and
beyond my con­glom­er­a­tion of cells.
Perhaps I should think of da Vinci,
Simplicity is the ulti­mate sophistication,
and in this light declare vic­to­ry, head held high,
giv­ing shel­ter to those in need,
or high fiv­ing as I tra­verse the boulevard.

And look­ing back at you, O tower,
you seem to me a stage, hard and silent,
where human sins, desires, hopes work them­selves out,
among tasks, involved con­ver­sa­tions, joy
and pain, not that you are to blame,
for you are a sym­bol of what we think of ourselves,
this cul­ture grown cor­pu­lent, proud,
which means that it is ready to be cut down,

by oth­ers who will not treat us kindly,
because, out of igno­rance or intention,
we did not treat them kindly
but engen­dered sim­mer­ing envy, anger
until they find a way, whether by
inva­sion of armies or products
that we say we can’t live without,
and spend what we don’t have
leav­ing us to suc­cumb, and suc­cumb we will,
like sub­mit­ting to the small press,
send­ing our lines carved in hope
think­ing this way I will be fulfilled,
but they end up in the recy­cling bin,
or delet­ed from elec­tron­ic databases.
There is no way to live for­ev­er, is there,
no way our voic­es will last and last,
no mat­ter how our breath seems so present.
As I reach the car to dri­ve away,
the sun sunk below the horizon,
regrets set­tling like silt in the riv­er bed,
the wind now almost nothing,
whis­pers come from the dusk.


Dale Cottingham is of mixed race, part Choctaw, part White. He is a Breadloafer, won the 2019 New Millennium Award for Poem of the year, was a final­ist in the 2021 Great Midwest Poetry Contest, and was nom­i­nat­ed for 2021 Best of Net. He lives in Edmond, Oklahoma.