“Meditation in an Office Tower” by Dale Cottingham

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

importance,

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 pique 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 and is a finalist in the 2021 Midwest Review Great American Poetry Contest. He lives in Edmond, Oklahoma.

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