Near adust. Caves. Closings. Relentlessly the body leaves the bed. Does things. A day is merry and eager for prosperity. It dings dings the bell in its own head. The ritual of masking the breasts in heavy fabric, of covering the legs and feet. A face from the mirror says, I am pretty, I am pretty. Skin of opening, meant for opening. A sex in training. Trimmed, fastidious. Damp reasoning. Yet, adherence. Mask the breasts. Mark the skin. You are not from here, are you? Part tissue. What does it feel like? It feels like everything else. It must be different from some other thing. No. This is what a woman’s body is. An effort in covering or not covering. A way toward exits.
Since when did keeping things to ourselves
help us to better remember them?
We need tutorials from predecessors.
To restore what’s missing makes a science
of equating like with like, or touching
small pebbles on a larger mental abacus.
We hitch a memory of order to ourselves:
From rotating bodies in space comes wind,
by which we’re buffeted, cooled, or graced;
The sun warms both the sunflower
and the angel with whom we might wrestle;
We get some lyrics from a higher power
and then we act on or for each other.
In calculated reunions of broken parts,
the latter must always feel the former,
inherit both the track and the turn.
A situation like an empty orchestra.
And when we try to sing above it, intuit,
and even in our singing are mistaken—
if pitch is something sought and never pure,
if latter sounds like something we can climb
as opposed to where we find ourselves
more recently in our relations, in time,
having been left or starting our leave-taking—
something happened—someone followed someone.
Someone had. Even held. Our formers.
We’re doppelgangers, saintly or undone;
pick a song and listen for your cue.
Here’s the void. Now sing some compensation.
It’s summer, 1956, in Maine, a camp resort
on Belgrade Lakes, and I am cleaning fish,
part of my job, along with luggage, firewood,
Sunday ice cream, waking everyone
by jogging around the island every morning
swinging a rattle I hold in front of me
to break the nightly spider threads.
Adlai Stevenson is being nominated,
but won’t, again, beat Eisenhower,
sad fact I’m half aware of, steeped as I am
in Russian novels, bathing in the tea-
brown lake, startling a deer and chasing it by canoe
as it swims from the island to the mainland.
I’m good at cleaning fish: lake trout,
those beautiful deep swimmers, brown trout,
I can fillet them and take them to the cook
and the grateful fisherman may send a piece
back from his table to mine, a salute.
I clean in a swarm of yellow jackets,
sure they won’t sting me, so they don’t,
though they can’t resist the fish, the slime,
the guts that drop into the bucket, they’re mad
for meat, fresh death, they swarm around
whenever I work at this outdoor sink
with somebody’s loving catch.
Later this summer we’ll find their nest
and burn it one night with a blowtorch
applied to the entrance, the paper hotel
glowing with fire and smoke like a lantern,
full of the death-bees, hornets, whatever they are,
that drop like little coals
and an oily smoke that rolls through the trees
into the night of the last American summer
next to this one, 36 years away, to show me
time is a pomegranate, many-chambered,
nothing like what I thought.
A kid said you could chew road tar
if you got it before it cooled,
black globule with a just-forming skin.
He said it was better than cigarettes.
He said he had a taste for it.
On the same road, a squirrel
was doing the Watusi to free itself
from its crushed hindquarters.
A man on a bicycle stomped on its head,
then wiped his shoe on the grass.
It was autumn, the adult word for fall.
In school we saw a film called Reproduction.
The little snake-father poked his head
into the slippery future,
and a girl with a burned tongue was conceived.
“Why looks my lord so deadly pale?
Why fades the crimson from his cheek?
What can my dearest husband ail?
Thy heartfelt cares, O Herman, speak!
“Why, at the silent hour of rest,
Dost thou in sleep so sadly mourn?
Has tho’ with heaviest grief oppress’d,
Griefs too distressful to be borne.
“Why heaves thy breast? — why throbs thy heart?
O speak! and if there be relief
Thy Gertrude solace shall impart,
If not, at least shall share thy grief.
“Wan is that cheek, which once the bloom
Of manly beauty sparkling shew’d;
Dim are those eyes, in pensive gloom,
That late with keenest lustre glow’d.
“Say why, too, at the midnight hour,
You sadly pant and tug for breath,
As if some supernat’ral pow’r
Were pulling you away to death?
“Restless, tho’ sleeping, still you groan,
And with convulsive horror start;
O Herman! to thy wife make known
That grief which preys upon thy heart.”
“O Gertrude! how shall I relate
Th’ uncommon anguish that I feel;
Strange as severe is this my fate, —
A fate I cannot long conceal.
“In spite of all my wonted strength,
Stern destiny has seal’d my doom;
The dreadful malady at length
Wil drag me to the silent tomb!”
“But say, my Herman, what’s the cause
Of this distress, and all thy care.
That, vulture-like, thy vitals gnaws,
And galls thy bosom with despair?
“Sure this can be no common grief,
Sure this can be no common pain?
Speak, if this world contain relief,
That soon thy Gertrude shall obtain.”
“O Gertrude, ’tis a horrid cause,
O Gertrude, ’tis unusual care,
That, vulture-like, my vitals gnaws,
And galls my bosom with despair.
“Young Sigismund, my once dear friend,
But lately he resign’d his breath;
With others I did him attend
Unto the silent house of death.
“For him I wept, for him I mourn’d,
Paid all to friendship that was due;
But sadly friendship is return’d,
Thy Herman he must follow too!
“Must follow to the gloomy grave,
In spite of human art or skill;
No pow’r on earth my life can save,
‘Tis fate’s unalterable will!
“Young Sigismund, my once dear friend,
But now my persecutor foul,
Doth his malevolence extend
E’en to the torture of my soul.
“By night, when, wrapt in soundest sleep,
All mortals share a soft repose,
My soul doth dreadful vigils keep,
More keen than which hell scarely knows.
“From the drear mansion of the tomb,
From the low regions of the dead,
The ghost of Sigismund doth roam,
And dreadful haunts me in my bed!
“There, vested in infernal guise,
(By means to me not understood,)
Close to my side the goblin lies,
And drinks away my vital blood!
“Sucks from my veins the streaming life,
And drains the fountain of my heart!
O Gertrude, Gertrude! dearest wife!
Unutterable is my smart.
“When surfeited, the goblin dire,
With banqueting by suckled gore,
Will to his sepulchre retire,
Till night invites him forth once more.
“Then will he dreadfully return,
And from my veins life’s juices drain;
Whilst, slumb’ring, I with anguish mourn,
And toss with agonizing pain!
“Already I’m exhausted, spent;
His carnival is nearly o’er,
My soul with agony is rent,
To-morrow I shall be no more!
“But, O my Gertrude! dearest wife!
The keenest pangs hath last remain’d—
When dead, I too shall seek thy life,
Thy blood by Herman shall be drain’d!
“But to avoid this horrid fate,
Soon as I’m dead and laid in earth,
Drive thro’ my corpse a jav’lin straight; —
This shall prevent my coming forth.
“O watch with me, this last sad night,
Watch in your chamber here alone,
But carefully conceal the light
Until you hear my parting groan.
“Then at what time the vesper-bell
Of yonder convent shall be toll’d,
That peal shall ring my passing knell,
And Herman’s body shall be cold!
“Then, and just then, thy lamp make bare,
The starting ray, the bursting light,
Shall from my side the goblin scare,
And shew him visible to sight!”
The live-long night poor Gertrude sate,
Watch’d by her sleeping, dying lord;
The live-long night she mourn’d his fate,
The object whom her soul ador’d.
Then at what time the vesper-bell
Of yonder convent sadly toll’d,
The, then was peal’d his passing knell,
The hapless Herman he was cold!
Just at that moment Gertrude drew
From ‘neath her cloak the hidden light;
When, dreadful! she beheld in view
The shade of Sigismund! — sad sight!
Indignant roll’d his ireful eyes,
That gleam’d with wild horrific stare;
And fix’d a moment with surprise,
Beheld aghast th’ enlight’ning glare.
His jaws cadaverous were besmear’d
With clott’d carnage o’er and o’er,
And all his horrid whole appear’d
Distent, and fill’d with human gore!
With hideous scowl the spectre fled;
She shriek’d aloud; — then swoon’d away!
The hapless Herman in his bed,
All pale, a lifeless body lay!
Next day in council ’twas decree,
(Urg’d at the instance of the state,)
That shudd’ring nature should be freed
From pests like these ere ’twas too late.
The choir then burst the fun’ral dome
Where Sigismund was lately laid,
And found him, tho’ within the tomb,
Still warm as life, and undecay’d.
With blood his visage was distain’d,
Ensanguin’d were his frightful eyes,
Each sign of former life remain’d,
Save that all motionless he lies.
The corpse of Herman they contrive
To the same sepulchre to take,
And thro’ both carcases they drive,
Deep in the earth, a sharpen’d stake!
By this was finish’d their career,
Thro’ this no longer they can roam;
From them their friends have nought to fear,
Both quiet keep the slumb’ring tomb.
Just after my wife’s miscarriage (her second
in four months), I was sitting in an empty
classroom exchanging notes with my friend,
a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed
glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was,
he surprised me by asking what I thought now
of God’s ways toward man. It was spring,
such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango
Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia
behind each blast of wind. Once more my poor wife
was in the local four-room hospital, recovering.
The sun was going down, the room’s pinewood panels
all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly,
I surprised not only myself but my colleague
by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant
on Vanni Fucci’s figs, shocking not only my friend
but in truth the gesture’s perpetrator too. I was 24,
and, in spite of having pored over the Confessions
& that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure
I’d seen enough of God’s erstwhile ways toward man.
That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky
shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking,
cedarscented cabin off Lake George, having lied
to the gentrified owner of the boys’ camp
that indeed I knew wilderness & lakes and could,
if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down
the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain
(I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents
at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying
not to disturb whosever headboard & waterglass
lie just beyond the paperthin partition at our feet.
In the great black Adirondack stillness, as we lay
there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out
through the broken roof into a sky that seemed
somehow to look back down on us, and in that place,
that holy place, she must have conceived again,
for nine months later in a New York hospital she
brought forth a son, a little buddha-bellied
rumplestiltskin runt of a man who burned
to face the sun, the fact of his being there
both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son,
this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst,
best, just last year, this same son, grown
to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow
everything he had to the same God I had had my own
erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?
At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.
Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.
There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter’s camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.
These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.
I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.
So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.