Unhappy Hour, by Richard Siken

Going to a party where I knew you’d be,
dudes bobbing for boyfriends, eyes shining
like candy apples. I want to be a lamppost,
or the history of plumbing. I am tired of being
mysterious. You are drinking rum next to
the laughing skullheads and I am unhappy
because I am dead and I miss you. Once
a year, day of the dead, you think you’d think
of me more often. These people shoulda
dressed up as their best selves to mix and
mingle in the courtyard garden. If everything
is green then why do I feel so blue? I would like
to be a plain-faced man, living with you quietly.
Leave the party but you can’t hear me you can
no longer hear me. The dead are boring.
Enlightenment is boring. We can read the minds
of dogs. We make the black cats scatter across
the grass. There is a better party where I am not
a ghost and you are not Aquaman. I am like
a pornstar, we are all of us pornstars aching
to get back into our terrycloth robes. Gives me
a headache, all this intellectual stimulation.
It’s cold out tonight. I am here by the back wall,
in the museum of the afterlife. I would like to
be a flickering cowboy. I like the live music—
we only get the recorded stuff here. I would like
to be alive again. I would like to say something
about grace.

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The Language of the Birds, by Richard Siken

1

A man saw a bird and found him beautiful. The bird had a song inside him, and feathers. Sometimes the man felt like the bird and sometimes the man felt like a stone—solid, inevitable—but mostly he felt like a bird, or that there was a bird inside him, or that something inside him was like a bird fluttering. This went on for a long time.

2

A man saw a bird and wanted to paint it. The problem, if there was one, was simply a problem with the question. Why paint a bird? Why do anything at all? Not how, because hows are easy—series or sequence, one foot after the other—but existentially why bother, what does it solve?

And just because you want to paint a bird, do actually paint a bird, it doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished anything. Who gets to measure the distance between experience and its representation? Who controls the lines of inquiry? We do. Anyone can.

Blackbird, he says. So be it, indexed and normative. But it isn’t a bird, it’s a man in a bird suit, blue shoulders instead of feathers, because he isn’t looking at a bird, real bird, as he paints, he is looking at his heart, which is impossible.

Unless his heart is a metaphor for his heart, as everything is a metaphor for itself, so that looking at the paint is like looking at a bird that isn’t there, with a song in its throat that you don’t want to hear but you paint anyway.

The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful. Sometimes, at night, in bed, before I fall asleep, I think about a poem I might write, someday, about my heart, says the heart.

3

They looked at the animals. They looked at the walls of the cave. This is earlier, these are different men. They painted in torchlight: red mostly, sometimes black—mammoth, lion, horse, bear—things on a wall, in profile or superimposed, dynamic and alert.

They weren’t animals but they looked like animals, enough like animals to make it confusing, meant something but the meaning was slippery: it wasn’t there but it remained, looked like the thing but wasn’t the thing—was a second thing, following a second set of rules—and it was too late: their power over it was no longer absolute.

What is alive and what isn’t and what should we do about it? Theories: about the nature of the thing. And of the soul. Because people die. The fear: that nothing survives. The greater fear: that something does.

The night sky is vast and wide.

They huddled closer, shoulder to shoulder, painted themselves in herds, all together and apart from the rest. They looked at the sky, and at the mud, and at their hands in the mud, and their dead friends in the mud. This went on for a long time.

4

To be a bird, or a flock of birds doing something together, one or many, starling or murmuration. To be a man on a hill, or all the men on all the hills, or half a man shivering in the flock of himself. These are some choices.

The night sky is vast and wide.

A man had two birds in his head—not in his throat, not in his chest—and the birds would sing all day never stopping. The man thought to himself, One of these birds is not my bird. The birds agreed.

Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors, by Richard Siken

To have a thought, there must be an object—
the field is empty, sloshed with gold, a hayfield thick
with sunshine. There must be an object so land
a man there, solid on his feet, on solid ground, in
a field fully flooded, enough light to see him clearly,

the light on his skin and bouncing off his skin.
He’s easy to desire since there’s not much to him,
vague and smeary in his ochers, in his umbers,
burning in the open field. Forget about his insides,
his plumbing and his furnaces, put a thing in his hand

and be done with it. No one wants to know what’s
in his head. It should be enough. To make something
beautiful should be enough. It isn’t. It should be.
The smear of his head—I paint it out, I paint it in
again. I ask it what it wants. I want to be a cornerstone,

says the head. Let’s kill something. Land a man in a
landscape and he’ll try to conquer it. Make him
handsome and you’re a fascist, make him ugly and
you’re saying nothing new. The conqueror suits up
and takes the field, his horse already painted in

beneath him. What do you do with a man like that?
While you are deciding, more men ride in. The hand
sings weapon. The mind says tool. The body swerves
in the service of the mind, which is evidence of
the mind but not actual proof. More conquerors.

They swarm the field and their painted flags unfurl.
Crown yourself with leaves and stake your claim
before something smears up the paint. I turned away
from darkness to see daylight, to see what would
happen. What happened? What does a man want?

Power. The men spread, the thought extends. I paint
them out, I paint them in again. A blur of forces.
Why take more than we need? Because we can.
Deep footprint, it leaves a hole. You’d break your
heart to make it bigger, so why not crack your skull

when the mind swells. A thought bigger than your
own head. Try it. Seriously. Cover more ground.
I thought of myself as a city and I licked my lips.
I thought of myself as a nation and I wrung my hands,
I put a thing in your hand. Will you defend yourself?

From me, I mean. Let’s kill something. The mind
moves forward, the paint layers up: glop glop and
shellac. I shovel the color into our faces, I shovel our
faces into our faces. They look like me. I move them
around. I prefer to blame others, it’s easier. King me.

Anyway, by Richard Siken

He was pointing at the moon but I was looking at his hand.
He was dead anyway, a ghost. I’m surprised
I saw his hand at all. The moon, of course, is always
there—day moon, but it’s still there; behind the clouds but
it’s still there. I like seeing things: a hand, the moon, ice
in a highball glass. The moon? It’s free, it doesn’t
cost you anything so go ahead and look. Sustained attention
to anything—a focus, a scrutiny—always yields results.
I’d live on the moon probably except I think I’d miss
the moonlight, landscaping craters with clay roses in earthshine
and a reasonable excuse to avoid visiting hours
at the mental hospital. In space, no one can hear you
lying to your mom: “Can’t make it, Mom. It’s
a really long schlep.” The coffee’s weak and the coffee cake’s
imaginary. You’re not missing anything. Inside: a day room
and a day pass. Outside: a gazebo under a jackfruit tree.
The other inside: a deeper understanding of the burden
and its domestic infrastructure. Make yourself white.
Make yourself snow but the black bears trample
your landscape like little black dots that show up on x-rays.
It is not enough to be a landscape. One must also become
the path through the landscape, which is creepy. Truly.
The sun melts the snow, the bears wander off, the leaves
tremble like all my sad friends. I can still see his hand.
Once, in a fable, the moon woke the dead. Buried
underground, its light was too much to bear. How did it
get there? Greed. The brothers who owned it had it
buried with them. Later, St. Peter hung it in a tree.
The dead went back to bed, allegedly. One wonders why
a story like this exists. Who wrote it and to what end?
An ingenious solution: trees. Cashew, avocado, fig,
olive. Put it in a tree. Hide it in plain sight and climb
higher. We are all of us secret agents, undercover in our
overcoats, the snow falling down. Little black dots.
Some dream of tall things—trees, ladders, a rope trick.
My dreams are filled with bricks, or things in the shape
of bricks. Rectangles in the hot sun. A cow, a car,
a carton of cigarettes. Even my imagination sleeps
when I sleep and why not rest? Why crash the party
on the astral plane? You’ll just be too tired to go
to the real party later. Have you ever eaten
Swedish meatballs at a dream party? They taste like
your blanket, because they are your blanket.
My imagination wants breakfast burritos. It refuses
to punch the clock until then. I could eat six but then
I’d need a nap. A breakfast that puts you back to sleep
is useless. Dear bears, we must not hibernate!
The bathroom tile is always wet and slippery and the door
from sleeping to waking always sticks and squeeks
but I have arrived, triumphant, with corporate coffee!
Tawnya has written our names on the paper cups
in her immaculate cursive. Her eyes are dead
and lusterless but her heart is in the right place, I guess.
Somewhere deep in her chest, I guess.
We take our hats off and get down
to business. “You got plans tonight, Dick?”
“Eight dollar spaghetti dinner and all you can sing
karaoke at the Best Western. Gonna school
Pace and Killian in the finer points of falsetto.”
Not even one hour later: smoke break
in the breezeway by the handicapped bathroom.
Why is it we believe we only have one soul?
Because it’s easier to set the table for one. And you can
sing your dinner tune to yourself while you eat over the sink.
The throat of the sink: silent. The throat of the argument:
more silverware, a tablecloth, gratitude, more souls.
A kid under a tablecloth isnists he’s a ghost. A table
underneath a tablecloth is, I guess, like the rest of us,
only pretending to be invisible. Or worse:
dressed for work and not in the mood for, you know,
how it all plays out, always the same ways, boring times infinity.
“When I grow up I’m going to be a truck,”
says the kid underneath the tablecloth, and that’s one way
to deflect the weight of the inevitable, to insist on possibility
in the face of grownups and the pumace of their compromises.
The trees die standing. My Spanish teacher told me this.
I had conjugated the verbs beforehand and taped them
to the bottom of my sneaker. Cheater, yes. Also uninvested
in the outcome. She could tell. Nothing to be done about it.
Verbs of being and verbs of action. We, neither
of us, were doing much anyway at the time and the room was
too hot. I think she meant unroot, which is a good thing to mean
but a difficult thing to hear when you’re living under someone
else’s roof. I climbed trees then, too. Then climbed back down.
How do I tell you how I got here without getting trapped
in the past? I suppose that’s a bigger question than I expected.
“Hey Dick, tell ‘em about that one time when we made out.
That was a good time.” Yes, it was. And yet
should we really spend our velocities on backwards motion?
Yes. Any motion, every motion. It’s spring, green, take off
your coat, pull down your cap, roll up your sleeves, we’re
hunting, we’re arrows, we’re stag in a meadow, in a frenzy.
“Like I said, Dick. That was a good time.”
Soul 1: Was it a good time?
Soul 2: I had fun. You seemed to like it.
Soul 3: He’s no Neil Armstrong.
Soul 2: Few are.
Neil Armstrong: Hush.
“He was such a colicky baby. Always fussing and crying.
As if he didn’t want to be here at all. Right, Dicky?”
No, mom. I don’t remember. And you’re not supposed to be
in this part of the poem. You come back later, near the end,
with the ghost and the hand and the moon, after dark, after
the gimlets. “Sweetie, you asked for prompts and it’s getting dark
on the East Coast. Tick tock. And don’t type drunk.”
Dear East Coast, I’m sorry it’s getting dark. It must be problematic,
living in the future, always a few steps ahead, knowing
things you shouldn’t say, since they haven’t happened
to the rest of us yet. And Poland? I don’t dare wonder
what you know about tomorrow. “Your grandma was from Poland.”
I know, mom. And grandpa was handsome and you
were the smart one and the pretty one. “Still am. Poor Barbara.
You know, Dicky, I’ve been out of the hospital for a while now.
Remember how you promised you wouldn’t write about me
while I was alive, Dicky? Remember? So if you’re
writing about me that must mean something, yes?”
You’re not sticking around for the end, then. “No, you’re
doing fine, Squish. And yes, I miss you, too.”
We cannot tarry here. We must march, we must bear the brunt.
Smoke break: in the alley by the oleanders, the pink ones.
Dear East Coast, it is getting dark here too now. Suddenly.
“It’s getting late, Little Moon. Sing them the song.”
It’s not that late, Mr. Kitten.
“You are my moon, Little Moon. And it’s late enough.
So climb down out of the tree.”
Is it safe? “Safe enough.” Are you dead as well?
Soul 1: Sing.
Soul 2: Sing.
Soul 3: Sing.
Stag In The Meadow: Sing.
The Black Bears: Sing.
Kid Under The Tablecloth: Sing.
I’ve been singing all day.
“Yes, you’ve been singing all day. And no, I’m not dead, not
everyone is dead, Little Moon. But the big moon needs the tree.”
There is a ghost at the end of the song.
“Yes, there is. And you see his hand, and then you see the moon.”
Am I the ghost at the end of the song?
“No, you are the way we bounce the light to see the ghost.”
He was looking at the moon by I was looking at his hand.
He was dead anyway, a ghost. I’m surprised I saw
his hand at all. Once, in a fable, the moon woke the dead.
One wonders why a story like this exists. Who wrote it
and to what end? Sure, everyone wants the same things—
to belong, and to not be left behind—but still, does it help?
Perhaps. Once, in a fable: a man in a tree. Once,
in a fable: the trace of his thinking, the sound of his singing.
I like seeing things: a hand, the moon, ice in a highball glass.
The light of the mind illuminating the mind itself.
Put it in a tree. Hide it in plain sight and climb higher.
We are all of us secret agents, undercover in our overcoats,
the snow falling down.

Lillian Gish Goes to Hell, by Richard Siken

But she has been there before, has a suite
in fact, where she can swan and collapse
on a series of fainting couches: velveteen,
plush, gem-colored. In 1913, during the
production of A Good Little Devil, Lillian
collapsed from anemia. She took delight in
suffering for art. Although not a religious
man, Sartre was fascinated by suffering
as well, said Hell is other people and meant it.
Some like to suffer and some try to eliminate
desire. Buddha, God bless him, had a great
idea: whatever is subject to change is subject to
suffering. But let’s face it, he was fat and sat
around in his underwear, while we delight
in changing our wardrobes. You, terrible
in your solitude. Me, ruined and desperate
in my cowboy shirt with the pearly buttons
and significant stitching. We can suffer with
the best of them, Lil, effortlessly working off
our karma as the drunken father breaks down
the wooden door, or we roam, dying, through
the streets of Montmartre. I am no stranger
to love and I am not waiting for you, because
I believe we will be reborn, because I believe
everything, and I believe that we will meet
again and suffer together again. The future
belongs to China and yet I want to learn
French. This, too, is another kind of suffering.
Once, at a truck stop, I ate an entire banana
cream pie and half a pound of bacon, which
is a kind of suffering for some, but I felt
fucking great. You know this, you must know
this. We are lovely and full of desire, we die
so many times and come back here, to cross
paths. I didn’t fall off the roof, I was pushed.
I want neither revenge nor relief. I crave no
rescue. What I want, Lillian, is to be gigantic
and perfectly lit, to be with you again, carnal
in our reincarnation. The future will find us
handsome taikonauts in a small ship spinning
out of control, flawed by love and plunging
realistically toward the heart of a hellish sun.
In the future we will suffer together in outer
space and eat crème brûlée out of a silver tube.
The novelty never wears off, Lil. It never does.