Sunday, August 30, 2009

Two Uncertainties (Rehearsal in Black)

Two Uncertainties

"There is eternity to blush in," Djuna Barnes

Around the attic bird, the century is silent:
gathers utter ghosts in scattered dust displays.
Afloat in that window, not even a star approaches like a dog.
Nothing is left to desire: rain in open cars,
gasolines fires. History is ending.

We are not, however, among those voices off.
We are the ones in prose whose form
is finally shapeless, except for these constraints.
With the labor of planets turning,
please bind us to a version of ourselves.

Easy to love the short poem, so undemanding of space, so ready to give up its ghost. This work was selected by Elise Paschen to appear on Chicago buses and trains, in a poetry poster program sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. A faculty member at my former institution of higher learning asked her Introduction to Literature class to write a paper about it. One cogent response was that the poet was in error; history is not ending. But something did come to an end, didn't it, with the administration of George W. Bush, and there's a very real sense, with the death of Edward Kennedy, that we'll never see our own likes again. Remember when people spoke out with certainty on issues that really mattered, got red / read in the face? When exactly did Obama remove the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq? Like, never? All that said, it's not a political poem; rather, it shares with political poetry the mode of the prayer.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

American Gestures: Cento

The poem "American Gestures" also appeared in Rehearsal in Black, 2001. It's a cento, one hundred lines of poetry, all of them taken from the work of another poet. Some are purposefully well-known, like the two lines from Gilbert and Sullivan, or "I know why the caged bird sings." When the Norton Anthology of Poetry ran out of inspiration for me, I turned to Volume I of Rothenberg and Joris' Poetry for the Millennium, which gave me lines like "toco tico tocati." My axiom: all stolen lines are original, especially in this form.

American Gestures

"Poetry is the memory of language."
-Jacques Roubaud

There is one story and one story only,
one luminary clock against the sky.
I remember it was in the bleak December.
I wandered in a forest thoughtlessly,
where love is a word, another kind of open,
and innocence is a weapon.
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
black at their centers. They have come along nicely
under the separated leaves of shade,
near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
and then to awake, like a wanderer white.
I wish that I had spoken only of it all
and put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
I know why the caged bird sings
back in the human mind again,
and thereupon my heart is driven wild
with noise of winds and many rivers.
When it comes, the landscape listens
and we are here as on a darkling plain
fantastic with mythic trophies:
a green thought in a green shade,
a Chippendale in a dominoes etude,
mute, insensate things.
They are all gone into the world of light.
All things within this fading world hath end.
Tell her that wastes her time and me
your mouth opens neat as a cat's. The window square
raises a remote confessing head
rich with entropy; nevertheless, separable, noticeable.
"It was too much," Mike says,
who enticed my father from my mother's bed.
Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze,
in the quite ordinary heat of the day,
a neurotic mixture of self-denial and fear.
Though it is not yet evening,
the trees are coming into leaf;
the eyes open to a cry of pulleys;
and yesterday's garbage ripens in the hall.
The high meridian of the day is past,
in a different form beyond any meaning.
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh.
Oh, for a bowl of fat Canary,
nature's true riches in sweet beauties showing,
where all's accustomed, ceremonious,
and I left my necktie god knows where.
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.
To wash the spot, to burn the snare
and the full moon, and the white evening star
is pure acceptance, sprouting alike
in broad zones and in narrow zones
like the distant Latin chanting of a train.
Because there is a literal shore, a letter that's blood-red,
draped with material turning white in the sun,
the wounds are terrible; the paint is old.
Then a house disappears and a man in his yard
counts the stars and those of plum-color.
This drizzle that falls now is American rain,
in which the woman I left was sleeping.
Behind closed windows blankening with steam,
the rooms and days we wandered through,
into that dark permanence of ancient forms.
A minute holds them, who have come to go--
the night watchman in a perfume factory,
the old man hammering in a doll shop
whose thoughts are summer lightning,
It is only in isolate flecks that something is given off.
When a kid puts on a wedding dress
in the darkness of a closet,
his beauty defies all kisses, seasons,
and moves with an uncertain violence
among the tentative haunters.
Children, if you dare to think,
in converse with sweet women long since dead,
know that the mind of man creates no ideas.
I think of you as I descend the stair
where the lower and higher have ending,
and I shall stand here like a shadow.
The imagination that we spurned and crave,
a mound of refuse of the sweeping of a street,
shows only when the daylight falls,
but in the flesh it is immortal.
With witness I speak this. But where I say
dark house, by which once more I stand,
I mean a lonely impulse of delight
between Muskogee and Tulsa
and the bamboo that speaks as if weeping:
toco tico tocati, toco tico tocati.
This is the valley's work, the white, the shining,
horseman of the wild party
at the Elk's Club Lounge.
I am slow, thinking in broken images,
but often I am allowed these messages,
like wrinkles on some mad forehead,
the thousand eyelids of the sleeping water.
Under the poinciana, of a noon or afternoon,
where the great pattern dozes,
trinket apotheosis and mollusk.
This is a dead scene forever now.
I am because my little dog knows me.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Rehearsal in Black

Rehearsal in Black, the book, was published by Salt Publications, Cambridge, in 2001. Several poems in were in traditional forms, like the title poem's terza rima. The cover art is a detail of Joe Brainard's Still Life, c. 1967. Goache on paper. Used by permission of the Estate of Joe Brainard.

Rehearsal in Black

The science of the irrational,
poetry knows what time is feeling
in the language we speak. Casual

as a crow above the pealing
tower, it circles our point of view
with applied indifference. The ceiling

is the limit only in the room;
love is torn between two sheets;
animals eat each other. Truth

is another order, beyond the heat
of sense. The memory of language
is a blind cold wall, a sweet

old man carrying a doll, pages
of silence framed by the chase.
What is love's name in an age

of skin? Everything you face
is just as it happened, minus all
the details. You write a line a day,

whether bad or good, then fall
into a stupor. A line of black cars
arrives at the horizon. In the fall,

you've noticed, the fattest stars
get even fatter. Maybe it's the air,
sodden with nostalgia. We are

what we are, a kind of rare
poison steeped in a kiss. Roots,
reeds, fish, the broken river--

everything is perfectly suited
for a local drowning. Here's a shot
of the water surface, with its mute

tensions and the struggle not
to fold. The world, dispersing,
turns. Here's the face of a god

no one remembers, in the church
of words. The American laugh,
said Jung, is urgent as a thirst.

It bowls you over with its raffish
humor and grabs you by the balls.
You can see the diver's glove, half-

filled with blood, in the halls
of that museum, where nothing
finally matters but stands as tall

as it can. Life is always touching
the edges of a net. Light enters water,
and that is called perspective. Such ends

are met when language and space, neither
quite sufficient, negotiate a realm.
It's cold inside, children have no fathers,

and mothers are desperate to tell
of love. It's a landfill country, strewn
with cast-off things, where stone bells

ring and drowned boats rise. The truth
is confused but strikes for the prize:
the stone floor of the sea, red tooth

of existence, and what the eyes deny.
You descend the stairs to hell, walk
its plazas and parks, and manage to find

a date for the evening. She talks
of her desires, but this is not desire;
it's the tender mercy of a leaf's awkward

falling. At what firm margin, the fires
in the mirror or in your eyes, is love
to be found? Does the sea aspire

to be just water? In the weave of
your intentions, the air plays the air.
Nothing is nothing. In a coven

of mechanics, in the scariest
Hollywood mansion, love is the prize
and a touch of the fever. Rare

as existence, it has seen the mind
change the most desolate landscapes
into quiet rooms. It always finds

the world in absence, doors taped
shut. This is like the movies, a black
room filled with murmurs. As the drapes

are pulled, you see from the back
life's enormous figures falling in
and out of focus, a final slackness

of being we later enjoy enduring.
The story is stained with its own
rehearsal. A handsome bed is burning.

Serious and alluring, a long dial tone
passes for conversation. No one's
there but you, talking into the phone

like a younger father to an older son.

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