Headlines for the death of a garden in fall. The subterranean voices of spiders. The tragic musical of the year’s last butterfly dance. Married toads who pretend to be pretty frogs, because frogs have the fancier love life. The size of the mosquito-breeding swamps behind the house. What would the bugs do without our blood. What would god do without our endless complaining. And the flowers: do they care if we’re looking? Of course they do. At the bottom of a slimy pond lives an immortal asthmatic fish, who knows all about the end of the world and when it’ll come. He won’t tell anyone though. He’s full of hope himself: in his dimly lit mind, angelic trout let a ladder down into the water. They care about him and make sure that he climbs the heavenly ladder to freedom and safety while behind him firestorms rage through the bright night. He’s never wondered how he’d breathe out of the water or how he’d climb the ladder without feet. Details of his miraculous liberation are of little concern to a being that is privy to the grand plan of creation and destruction. The fish stretches his fins with glee. He feels the approach of a season: another year of waiting is over. The last butterfly stops flapping. The spiders are having a late breakfast on yesterday’s bug fest. I make the necessary blood sacrifice to the giant mosquitos and I wonder where my ichor will flow today. The toad has given up his disguise—it’s easier to survive the winter as yourself.
AFTER THE BIG READING
I end up at the reception with Joel
…..where we pretend deep conversation
while tracking the visiting great man,
…..Robert Bly, trapped in the galley kitchen
by a circle of the overly after-shaved
…..whose manly Ho-Ho-Ho!s annoy us
because there is no room to squeeze in,
…..catch Bly’s soft, slightly lisped words
that must be telling fresh hero stories.
…..So Joel and I cling to each other like
needy prom nerds yet we feel superior
…..for not being kitchen suck-ups, and since
we’re next to the wine it’s not so bad.
…..Plus I’ve got questions for Joel who teaches
religion, questions about Arjuna
…..the Bahavagad Gita’s conflicted hero,
vedic gaps Joel is happy to fill in,
…..correct me actually, for this makes us
look like we really are having good talk
…..instead of just waiting for a chance
to wedge ourselves into the kitchen.
…..Joel says I have the story all wrong –
Arjuna was a mortal, not a god,
…..an exalted warrior who looked out
over the great Hindu battlefield,
…..saw friends on the other side and cried,
No! No! I won’t. I can’t go kill them!
…..Which was when his chariot-driver
revealed himself as purple Lord Krishna,
…..enforcer of duties, Krishna going,
Warriors must war! Same as cobblers make shoes!
…..what goes on for hundreds of pages,
the basis of India’s caste system laid out.
…..And by now I’m wanting to say something
anything to at least compete with his smarts,
…..“Mmm, kind of like that old Ricky Skaggs song,
Don’t get above your raising isn’t it?”
…..But Joel frowns, shakes his head, says, “Not really,”
just as another kitchen Ho-Ho-Ho!
…..washes through, makes us see how we’re Arjuna
right now – we’re schmoozers at a schmooze-fest
…..looking for moral high ground instead
of just elbowing in there, doing our duty,
…..the moment’s clarity propelling me
to confess my sad hopes for this party –
…..how I’d planned to engage Bly in deep talk,
such a soulful exchange he’d remember me,
…..perhaps supply a generous blurb
in that day-dreaming future of my book.
…..I was going to ask about his dust-up
with James Dickey in the ‘60s over
…..Dickey’s bad-boy poem, The Sheep Child,
its wink to bestiality, and then
…..I was going to say I liked that poem,
what Bly would think admirable, quaint even,
…..Southern loyalties and all that rot.
But Joel makes a face, says I’m wrong again –
…..their public spat was more over Vietnam,
Bly’s pacifist versus Dickey’s warrior,
…..two poets playing out the great anger
that had poisoned a confused country,
…..shots fired back and forth in quarterlies.
“Right . . . Dickey was Arjuna,” I say.
…..“He’d seen combat, that was his caste.
He had no choice but to be the warrior.”
…..But Joel says no, it went back further,
to the Scots-Irish temper, to Two Drovers,
…..Sir Walter Scott’s story, perhaps the world’s first –
a Scotsman knifing his friend in a roadhouse
…..over some stupid slight that could have passed.
“Like that Lucinda Williams’ song where
…..Townes Van Zandt keeps getting in fights
just because ‘somebody looks at him wrong.’”
…..Joel says, No, again. Her song was about
somebody else, and now I’m really getting
…..weary of being corrected all the time,
plus I’m getting a hammering white wine
…..headache, and I’m realizing I’ll never
make it into the kitchen but that’s really
…..not so bad since I have so many things
wrong or mixed up, so no action for me
…..tonight on the great schmoozing battlefield
which is the usual although I did shake
…..Jackie Wilson’s hand one night, but probably
only because my date had big tits.
…..So I find the host and thank him because
I do have manners, and on the way out
…..I see Joel has wormed into the kitchen.
He’s Ho-Ho-Hoing it up with the rest,
…..but it’s not such a bad sound to me now.
It’s just the noise people make when they laugh,
…..And I don’t need to hear more hero stories,
I’m my own. I’m on the way home,
…..planning my next move, that Miami
conference this winter – Denise Duhamel
…..will be there, she’ll introduce me around,
I won’t drink so much, it’ll be brilliant.
A beautiful woman with a small dog, small breasts, foreign accent, stops me in the Public Garden, and says: “Excuse me, do you know the bathroom?” And I wonder if the locative case in her native tongue is absorbed by the accusative case. And I wonder if the tongue is employed in a first kiss in a beach town of her native seashore, the waves lapping at our feet, as I look down in the general direction of her urinary tract and feet, and say: “Yes. I know the bathroom very well.” She smiles hopefully, gives me her great big brown expectant eyes, and says: “Yes?” And I feel a delicious pressure building in my chest, and in her chest, and in the air between us, a kind of referred pressure from her bladder or her colon, a kind of grammatical pressure from her tongue and my tongue which are meeting here in my favorite context: ‘bathroom talk’ my mother called it, banishing it from the house, and banishing us from the house when we couldn’t stop laughing at the thought, couldn’t stop crooning at the sound, and the sense, and the nonsense, and the signifiers, and the signified, as we went about our business, the business of the body, the business of being in a body in the world, a world that preferred to keep that business secret, except for the children and the dogs and a few banished grown-ups. “Yes, yes,” I say, and I hold out my hand to her, pointing with my other hand at the gold dome of the State House, where I’m headed myself, I tell her, because it’s the best-kept secret in the Commonwealth that the cleanest, most exquisite public toilets in the city flush and gleam there, flash and yearn there, there in that stately place, for patriots and foreigners alike. Though a dog, even a small dog, wouldn’t be allowed in.
Not unlike kissing a pig
through a veil
or a wolf in a wedding gown.
Not unlike hearing
the plaintive cries of London
turning clocks back:
“Get your gingerbread heads.”
“Get your sorrow.”
Not unlike the barefooted match-sellers,
the huskers of crockery-ware,
the street-sellers in the rain,
selling salop in the heavy rain,
selling curds and whey,
in the rain selling flowers;
the women of silk, the women of rabbits . . .
Not unlike a burning vision,
seeing the girl with the velveteen eyes,
the girl with the apes in her head.
Not unlike the astronomer
measuring Titan’s shadow,
now a fistful of dirt on his coffin-lid
When there were giants in the ground,
but they were not sleeping.
When there were gods deflowering youths,
and always the rain;
bringing to us life, bringing destruction,
a red crevasse,
a shortsword slicing a heel-tendon,
each fallen raindrop
an angel’s gasp or cherub’s sigh.
Unlike now, its clockwise trappings.
The now before now,
and the now after,
running late for the downtown train,
the gossip-mills fully swinging.
Where the blind feel
by striking out violently
and rockets glare red.
Where nausea rises
like a planet’s strangest satellite.
In forests of glass and light,
where things end at the fanatics’ whim,
the long days of the gods
an urban legend,
our minds undoing their guide-strings,
the soul a knot of rumours,
our hearts unbound
by the whirring fetters of perfection.
Some words are cams arranged along a center line in a pasta machine. Dough made from other words is fed into one side and the crank is turned. A sheet emerges on the other side that can be cut into ribbons or molded into tubes, hats or stars.
Or you could until another introduced in order to perform this narrative function removes the center line with the crank affixed to one end, takes off the cam words and piles them up on a counter, losing the fittings in the process.
The other says: There are too many guitar players. And the only thing there’s more of than guitar players is writers.
The other looks at you.
When after a lengthy debate the other is prevailed upon to reassemble the word machine, the row of cams is now held in place with pieces of chewed gum.
The other says: People like you should worry about the machinery that makes the words you make.
The words the machinery produces are soft and malleable. You can mold them into phases of the moon or flocks of birds or the heads of Kim Jong Il.
You can stuff them with chopped mushrooms or lobster or other implications.
Directions: Boil chicken stock in a large pot. Add the ravioli and let it boil in the stock for about 3-5 minutes, until cooked.
Only a few of the readers you invite to your dinner party show up. Fine, you say. It is more intimate this way.
You arrange the ravioli carefully on the large white spaces of the plates and connect them with thin lines of a delicate sauce.
The readers eat very quickly. While this is of course permissible, nonetheless you take offense.
You whisper to another, who has been placed near you for this purpose: I worked a long time to get those words cooked, positioned and sauced correctly. Look at them. They’re not thinking about what they’re doing. This is entirely a matter of habit.
The other shushes you and tells you not to be impolite.
But you can’t let it go. There is something not at all right about this even though they make noises from time to time that can be interpreted as indications of pleasure and approbation.
When The Snit arrives, it makes those sounds ambiguous.
The Snit says: They could mean anything.
The Snit says: Tell them to slow down. Use exclamation points.
Say: Slow down! Slow down!
This is accompanied by an a proliferation of imaginary scenes none of which ever quite comes into focus but which converge on wondering if readers are this inattentive in bed.
When the other elbows you, your thoughts scatter.
But you just won’t let it go.
Kim Jong Il
Hey! The ravioli says. HEY!
The reader stops. The reader looks down at the plate.
The ravioli says: What are you doing up there?
The reader sits very still.
The ravioli says: I’m Kim Jong Il.
The reader says: No you’re not. You’re a ravioli shaped like Kim Jong Il.
The ravioli says: No. I’m Kim Jong Il in the shape of a ravioli.
What’s the difference?
The reader pauses for a minute.
The reader says: Kim Jong Il doesn’t talk like that.
Then the reader eats the ravioli, but only after turning it over and rubbing its face in some sauce.
She fabricates life in a lamp-lit room,
cloaks herself in poetry, in the singing
of this poem. Ophelia considers company
but decides to go it alone.
It begins: The tube snakes slowly inside.
She watches a plane knife through clouds
beyond the clinic’s window. A plastic jar fills
with one perfect white sucking sound.
Another infant girl or boy unknown.
The nurse hovers, lowers her gown, says,
“All that could have been is undone.”
It is a good saying, she thinks, it is true.
In the evening as the sun fades to brown,
Ophelia invites her friends and her friends’ friends
to wash the color from her hands,
some with whiskey, some with wine.
She lingers beside the river, feet bare on rocks,
anxious to touch the water, to return. God
is not in heaven. He is in motion, a copper creature
bearing down, determined to find the name
without a sound. Ophelia dives, secret gripped
in a palm. Turned loose, it swims and flickers
in the dusky wash of half-light, then is gone.
What Iron Hath Wrought
THE ACCIDENTAL ARSONIST
Friday night, after the players fold their cards and eat the last chocolate-covered cashew, after Henry has left to drive the old ladies back to the nursing home, is Kay’s favorite time of the week. For twenty minutes she has the sanctuary to herself. The quiet soothes her. No television blaring, no Henry bothering her for this little thing or that, no voices or memories filling her head. For a few minutes, she feels a remnant of herself.
Her fingers trail through the brass chimes Reverend Martin plays to end the moment of silence. Meditation is the only part of the service she misses, and she wishes anyone other than Reverend Martin delivered that peace. But despite her best efforts, he is still the minister, and when she remembers this, a small stone lodges in her throat and a steel taste fills her mouth.
The chimes fade. Kay picks up an empty coffee mug carelessly left on the altar. A cricket, trapped somewhere inside, chirps its melancholic song. Odd, a cricket in December. In the kitchen, she empties the coffee urn and rinses it with warm water. She stores opened bags of pretzels and nuts in plastic tubs and slides them on the highest shelf, safe from mice and Reverend Martin’s pesky son who steals them when he comes to church. Brat! If she had children, she never would allow them to run wild through the building, taking what did not belong to them.
She finishes in the kitchen and turns off the sanctuary lights. In an instant everything turns into a slate of perfect black and she forgets where she is, who she is, forgets she is in church, and panic clutches at her chest, she is in the closet, the closet, and someone cries, ‘Mama, mama, please’, the doorknob does not turn, and she pounds and pounds until her fists ache, the mothball wool of coats drape over her, suffocating. Kay fumbles for the light switch and the room returns–altar, candles, chalice, organ, chairs stacked against the wall, speckled linoleum floor. She breathes again, the stone dislodges.
But Kay dislikes the gaudy fluorescence almost as much as the dark, and she deserves her peace, so she opens the drawer of the small table holding the chalice and withdraws the matches. She knows she should not do this, Henry yells at her when she lights cigarettes and candles. But this is her small secret ritual, her way of making good with the god she is no longer sure she believes in. Matches and candle in hand, she returns to the light switch. The room goes black again but this time Kay is not frightened, she remembers where she is. Her eyes adjust. She walks carefully across the sanctuary to the altar.
The match flares. The sulphur smell fills the air. Kay touches the flame to the thick white candle nestled in the pewter chalice. The candle sputters, almost flickers out, but then strengthens. The walls gleam gold. Her shadow wavers, a giant flung against the ceiling. She lights a thinner taper from the chalice candle.
For John, she says, my lovely son.
She grinds the end of the taper into the bowl of sand, and lights a second.
Bill, I miss you, my love. My one true love.
The second candle stands beside the first.
She considers lighting a candle for her mother. The wick takes, then falters.
For Henry, she says, and places the unlit candle in the sand.
The warmth from the candles fills her face, fills the sanctuary. For a moment, the world stills. Grace fills her, and forgiveness, even for Henry. Even for Reverend Martin. Her eyes close. Yes, even for Martin. Outside, a horn bleats. Kay rushes for her coat, her purse, her gloves, the Tupperware filled with leftover Chex mix, she is forgetting something, but the horn honks again, Henry hates waiting, and she does not want his ire tonight, not tonight, so she closes the church door and enters the dark.
I’ve been having this recurring
Ernest Hemingway is kissing
me in a supermarket or a shoe store, and people are stopped, grips loosened on their bags, eyes on us.
Then I realize we’re on TV
and millions of Americans
are sitting on loveseats
in or out of love, legs crossed, thinking about recessions, watching us kiss.
Ernest doesn’t mind
he’s been dead for years.
in a place without hips and hands
slick and nimble tongue caves, soft and wet.
But it’s too much for me to feel like a discovery channel special on people love
so I ask Ernest Hemingway to stop but he’s suddenly angry.
snarls “can’t you see I’m whispering words in your mouth? Words you’ll need! For gods sake.”
So I wonder what words
he’s giving me and when I’ll need them and also
What would happen if
no one whispered words
into anyone else’s mouth?
“they would die in our throats” Ernest says in response to my never-asked question.
“And then life would steal the letters.”
SURPRISE (ser-prahyz) -noun
Surprise is the most under-rated emotion. I’ll take it over whatever else is in your deck. Love. Bliss. Contentment. Security. They’ve got nothing on surprise. Because surprise is the only emotion you really cannot control. True, you really can’t control any emotion (Malcolm, refrain from comment), but most you can coerce. Buy yourself those shoes, watch the sentimental movie channel, pour a little wine after the girls have gone to bed, listen to those self-help tapes on the morning commute. You can nudge yourself in the direction you want to go. But there is no Prozac for surprise. And that makes it all the more special.
Especially if you have a husband who doesn’t believe surprise is actually an emotion. It is a quality attached to an emotion, Malcolm says. The snake in the garden ~ surprise attached to fear. Birthday party ~ surprise attached to joy. Lipstick gone through the wash ~ surprise attached to anger.
Is it any wonder, then, that I am never surprised? How can I be when he de-values it so? Love, to him, is best stated through the perfume he knows I like. In the meticulously planned weekend. In those exact words, “I love you,” stated at punctuated moments like prayerbook refrains. Out the door ~ I love you. Open a gift ~ I love you. Before hanging up ~ I love you. Right after the rush ~ I love you.
The magazines say to get what you want from a lover you must model behavior. I’ve cooked him 75 meals when he fully expected take-out. I’ve cleaned his office 3 times this year. I’ve bought him 4 books and 7 cd’s he didn’t know I knew he wanted. I learned to fix the drain he would have had to call the plumber for. He will do anything I ask, but I cannot remember the last time he surprised me, which is the one thing you cannot ask for. Doesn’t work. Like having someone tell you a joke, but if you have to feed them the punchline ~ it’s just not funny.
Love is not an emotion, I tell him. It is not something that happens. It is derived from effort. You make it. Surprise, on the other hand, is the epitome of effortlessness. The purest emotion, it just happens. Or it never happens.
WHAT THE HELL IS THE POINT IN LIGHTING ANOTHER BOTTLE ROCKET OFF THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE?
In forty years we will all be dead. Have you ever thought of that? When we were younger we would watch the water float beneath the bridge, but now the wood is covered with algae and our lungs are infested with precancerous mold. Fire Island is not what it used to be. The moon swallows a golden prairie and nobody notices. An arsonist makes love to the gas station smell.
Perhaps we have passed each other in airplanes or cars, headed in opposite directions above this interminable ocean. Once a year was an eternity, now it is nothing more than yearning for more sand in an overturned hourglass sabotaged by oysters. When we were kids we could never imagine being this damn old.
Our days were flames falling into the Hudson.
All convivial parties must come to an end; I grab the Eustrombus gigas and stab it into my middle finger. My blood curls, toes tremble in ecstasy, atavistic, alive, the smell of an afternoon in paradise. The grains in our time machine are wet and the memories are all that remain from the promises of youth. Soon Alzheimer’s shall shackle our minds to the furnace as we approach the sun.
Perhaps our daughters will make love in the back of a train on the way to a carnival and our great-grandchildren will fight over fruit and an elephant’s ransom on a peacock farm where poverty weeps in an open casket. Perhaps the call from the Eustrombus gigas will echo through the ripples of rusty needles and pine trees and sap dripping from the back of our legs in summer. If we introduce all the voices what will we discover? How deep is too deep to puncture the vein for syrup?