When first we met, we did not guess That Love would prove so hard a master; Of more than common friendliness When first we met we did not guess. Who could foretell the sore distress, This irretrievable disaster, When first we met?—We did not guess That Love would prove so hard a master.
The telephone never rings. Still
you pick it up, smile into the static,
the breath of those you’ve loved; long dead.
The leaf you pick from the fall
rises and dips away with every ridge.
Fingers stiff from time, you trace.
Staring off into a distance limned
by cataracts and other collected debris,
you have forgotten none of the long-ago joy
of an ice-cream truck and its summer song.
Between the paving stones;
between tea, a cup, and the sound
of you pouring;
between the time you woke that morning
and the time when the letter came,
a tired sorrow: like an old flagellant
able only to tease with a weak sting.
Riding the elevator all day,
floor after floor after floor,
each stop some small victory whittled
from the hard stone of death, you smile.
They used to write epics about moments like this.
I have wanted other things more than lovers …
I have desired peace, intimately to know
The secret curves of deep-bosomed contentment,
To learn by heart things beautiful and slow.
Cities at night, and cloudful skies, I’ve wanted;
And open cottage doors, old colors and smells a part;
All dim things, layers of river-mist on river—
To capture Beauty’s hands and lay them on my heart.
I have wanted clean rain to kiss my eyelids,
Sea-spray and silver foam to kiss my mouth.
I have wanted strong winds to flay me with passion;
And, to soothe me, tired winds from the south.
These things have I wanted more than lovers …
Jewels in my hands, and dew on morning grass—
Familiar things, while lovers have been strangers.
Friended thus, I have let nothing pass.
This couple couldn’t figure it out.
The man licked his wife’s genitals while she stared straight ahead.
The woman poked her husband’s testicles with her nose.
The man put his toe in the folds of the woman’s vulva.
The woman took the man’s penis under her armpit.
Neither one of them wanted to be the first to admit
something was off. So it went on—
the man put his finger in his wife’s navel.
The woman batted her eyelashes against the arch of her husband’s foot.
They pinched each other’s earlobes. They bit each other’s rear ends.
To perpetrate the lie, they ended each encounter with a deep sigh.
Then one day while the husband was hunting,
a man stopped by the igloo and said to the wife:
I hear you have been having trouble.
I can show you how to make love.
He took her to bed and left before the husband came home.
Then the wife showed her husband,
careful to make it seem like the idea sprang
from both. After all these years of rubbing one’s face against the other’s belly
or stroking a male elbow behind a female knee,
this couple had a lot of catching up to do. They couldn’t stop to eat or sleep
and grew so skinny they died. No one found them for a long time.
And by then, their two skeletons were fused into one.
Do not fall in love with a poet
they are no more honest than a stockbroker.
(Do you have a stockbroker? If you do,
your poet is with you because you have one.)
If you think that they are more sensitive because they care about language
pay attention to how they use language.
Are you included? Are you the “you”?
Or are you a suggestion?
Are you partially included as a suggestion?
Are you partially excluded because you are a concept
in some jewel-like nouns, almost throwaway,
yet a perfect resemblance?
How does narcissism
assist you, who is also the object of desire?
Do you become the tour-de-force?
Consider that poem’s vagueness doesn’t account for your complexity
and the epithets don’t suffice, you are not “one who is a horse-drawn carriage”
nor are you a “sparrow with hatchet.”
Perhaps they quote Mallarme when taking you to bed,
carefully confusing you with their charm and faux-chastity.
All this before voracious body-pressing.
The lovemaking is confusing until, you remember, they said something:
thus spake the dreamboat, your poet, alarmingly announces during climax:
I spend my fires with the slender rank of prelate
and then fierce withdrawal with a rush of perseverance to flee.
You are mistaken if language furthers your devotion.
You are a fallen person now.
They care more about “you” than for you (you, the real person you).
Line after line, a private, unmediated act done to you with confusing abandon,
flailing in its substance, however deceptive.
It will enhance your own directionlessness,
you will be harmed.
You cannot mediate it with caress.
Do you think because they understand what meaning looks like,
they have more meaning than others?
They are the protectors of feeling, mere protectors: earnest?
No. They are protectors of the flawed,
filling zones of bereftness.
The aftermath of pleasure. A contested zone for all.
What about the lawyer who loves the law?
Isn’t he just a poet with a larger book—
the way they protect and subject language
A kind of cognitive patternization.
Ultimately, both undertake the hijacking of language,
they won’t love you the way
you are; it’s in this inability to love—
unless you embody the poem—
you embody the law and its turn of phrase.
Unless you see the poet clearly: loving utterance,
an unadulterated utterance—seized and insular.
You must entice with otherness.
You must catch the poem as a muse does.
You must muse and muse and muse.
In thralldom to encounters that stand in for sexual ones,
we terrorize with sense-making,
it stands in for intimacy.
It stands in and suggests that all other kinds of feelings
and declarations yield to it.
It will move you if you ask for permission
to exist within its confines,
and you move the poet toward you and you hold the poet’s head,
wrapping your arms around it
strapped in your wordless hold, but soon words do come
and in the trailing off of speech, you will be permanently lost.
The last light of a July evening drained
into the streets below: My love and I had hard
things to say and hear, and we sat over
wine, faltering, picking our words carefully.
The afternoon before I had lain across
my bed and my cat leapt up to lie
alongside me, purring and slowly
growing dozy. By this ritual I could
clear some clutter from my baroque brain.
And into that brief vacancy the image
of a horse cantered, coming straight to me,
and I knew it brought hard talk and hurt
and fear. How did we do? A medium job,
which is well above average. But because
she had opened her heart to me as far
as she did, I saw her fierce privacy,
like a gnarled, luxuriant tree all hung
with disappointments, and I knew
that to love her I must love the tree
and the nothing it cares for me.
There are places where the eye can starve,
But not here. Here, for example, is
The Piazza Navona, & here is his narrow room
Overlooking the Steps & the crowds of sunbathing
Tourists. And here is the Protestant Cemetery
Where Keats & Joseph Severn join hands
Forever under a little shawl of grass
And where Keats’ name isn’t even on
His gravestone, because it is on Severn’s,
And Joseph Severn’s infant son is buried
Two modest, grassy steps behind them both.
But you’d have to know the story–how bedridden
Keats wanted the inscription to be
Simple, & unbearable: “Here lies one
Whose name is writ in water.” On a warm day,
I stood here with my two oldest friends.
I thought, then, that the three of us would be
Indissoluble at the end, & also that
We would all die, of course. And not die.
And maybe we should have joined hands at that
Moment. We didn’t. All we did was follow
A lame man in a rumpled suit who climbed
A slight incline of graves blurring into
The passing marble of other graves to visit
The vacant home of whatever is not left
Of Shelley & Trelawney. That walk uphill must
Be hard if you can’t walk. At the top, the man
Wheezed for breath; sweat beaded his face,
And his wife wore a look of concern so
Habitual it seemed more like the way
Our bodies, someday, will have to wear stone.
Later that night, the three of us strolled,
Our arms around each other, through the Via
Del Corso & toward the Piazza di Espagna
As each street grew quieter until
Finally we heard nothing at the end
Except the occasional scrape of our own steps,
And so we said good-bye. Among such friends,
Who never allowed anything, still alive,
To die, I’d almost forgotten that what
Most people leave behind them disappears.
Three days later, staying alone in a cheap
Hotel in Naples, I noticed a child’s smeared
Fingerprints on a bannister. It
Had been indifferently preserved beneath
A patina of varnish applied, I guessed, after
The last war. It seemed I could almost hear
His shout, years later, on that street. But this
Is speculation, & no doubt the simplest fact
Could shame me. Perhaps the child was from
Calabria, & went back to it with
A mother who failed to find work, & perhaps
The child died there, twenty years ago,
Of malaria. It was so common then—
The children crying to the doctors for quinine.
It was so common you did not expect an aria,
And not much on a gravestone, either—although
His name is on it, & weathered stone still wears
His name—not the way a girl might wear
The too large, faded blue workshirt of
A lover as she walks thoughtfully through
The Via Fratelli to buy bread, shrimp,
And wine for the evening meal with candles &
The laughter of her friends, & later the sweet
Enkindling of desire; but something else, something
Cut simply in stone by hand & meant to last
Because of the way a name, any name,
Is empty. And not empty. And almost enough.