David Slavitt: Dozens

A Poem


Copyright © 1981 by David R. Slavitt
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America

For permission to reprint contact the author at drslavitt@comcast.net

Designer: Joanna Hill
Typeface: Trump Medieval
Typesetter: G&S Typesetters, Inc.
Printer: Thomson-Shore, Inc.
Binder: John Dekker and Sons

Slavitt, David R 1935 -
Dozens: a poem.

1. Title.
PS3569.L3D6 811'.54 80-24330
ISBN 0-8071-0787-5
ISBN 0-8071-0788-3 pbk.

Only it requires a skill in the varying of the serenade that occasionally makes me feel like a Guatemalan when one particularly wants to feel like an Italian.

Wallace Stevens,
letter to Harriet Monroe


Admitting that I am lost, that my calculations 
have brought me round again to the same spot 
or a spot that looks the same, the light, the shadows 
the same, and the trees, scrub pines looking 
all alike, I must make a different 
plan, boldly silly. I'll do what 
the sheriff does, holding in front of his hound's 
snout some object, a garment, give it a sniff 
of the thing's tang, and let it go, let it 
quarter the ground, baying me back, obeying. 
Give it its head. If I have to get down on all 
fours and be my own hound, rough. Rough. 

2. There was a courtyard. There is still a courtyard. I've been back, have stood in the pouring rain, peering at faces, looking for mine or for one who knows me. Is that old Charlie under the vaste portique? Or old Wally under the huge portico in this remembered abode, the habitat of imagination? On these stones serious drunks have lurched and gray visitors staggered giddy with freedom. "Of what is this house composed if not of the sun. . . ?" Stevens asked. The shield on our gate showed three suns; dazzled, we thought they had to be rising.
3. Earlier, glare on snow and paths plowed crisscross, making the quadrangles envelopes. Faculty poodles romped in packs to suggest a settlement of decadent esquimaux. Not thinking caps, but boots are for intellection. A snowy page is still a trackless waste to play in or plow through. This city snow turns dirty land melts faster than clean). But it still can happen. Two or three nights a year the transformation occurs and the morning sun dazzles, the snow daggers my eyes with its glitter. Hoo. Haa. My breath ghosts like a child's.
4. We know what we need to know. The trick is need, in having the need, in fast-talking the banker for a letter of credit. "Yes, indeed, I credit letters, always try to show interest, don't want to be no-account . . ." "Owe," the man said, "a million and you've got yourself a partner." I'm lightly sketched and yearn to be overdrawn, but he sees through me, scarcely sees me at all. I have to raise my voice. He cares nothing for words, won't risk even a penny for my two cents' worth (Tu pense!) and asks about my deeds. For close, he throws me out by the seat of my pense.
5. Firbank had his palm; I have a dying monster with two-foot leaves, of which five are left, two of them still healthy. My flowering hawthorne's gone, the Rothschild azalea, the gaudy bromeliads, the wistaria, all gone, not dead but abandoned, and mourned the more, toys confiscated for bad behavior. My parents' unruly oak sighed my complaints through summer nights. Its black squirrels were my mavericks. You were too big for the plot, pal. They're still hacking you back, to save their windows, to keep you from mauling pieces of roof off the garage.
6. I learn to lower my views. The angle of vision close to the ground is rewarding--a dime, two pennies, just this week. Those loftier vistas lose particularity. All objects object to servitude to Il Grande del Prospettivo, a fascist older than Benito. They languish, give up their ghosts. In democratic sunlight I've seen glints from survivors, pieces of glass, flecks in the concrete, shining puddles, have glimpsed a world littered with diamonds, flash-plated silver. Knowing better is often knowing worse. Basta! Down with the tyrant! Death to I1 Grande!
7. To go west is to go where the sun dies, but east is where darkness comes from, is worse. My desk faces east. Light, in the morning, splashes the wall behind me. Now it's in front. Each passage feels like a wave, which makes this the bridge of a ship, breasting the light, making for port wherever the heart of darkness is. The pious pray facing in this direction. The impious sit, feeling uneasy. Instead of mincha or vespers, when dark comes, I walk the dog. I jingle the keys. He comes running, jumps, does a little dance that serves us both as prayer.
8. "Obviously," says Il Grande, and "inevitably," and on lofty occasions (but most of his occasions are lofty, "inexorably," and we bow to such suave assurance as we crave ourselves. The intellectual manner is easy to ape (the manners of apes, spontaneous, crude, but gentle, are more demanding). My point is that his point vanishes, his roads all narrow to nothing, lead past stunted trees to the tiny purlieus next to nowhere. Baboons know better who live only in near trees, big with phenomenal figs, coconuts, dates, persimmons, bananas.
9. The barman in the monkey jacket mixes exotic essences for our jaded palates, and at the buffet behind their appalling piles of food, the chefs in tall toques defy us with abundance to which only newcomers do justice. The rest here at the Hotel Magnifico pick and languish, gasp through afternoons of Fernet-Branca and dread of dinner's affront. Beyond the gates and those orderly garden vistas, pythons are said to be hanging in the trees like animated guts, ravening; their lively tongues flick-flick in the jacarandas.
10. The Aporia, Greek owned but with a German crew and Liberian flag, has broken up in the sorry straits where wrecks of old galleys shift with the tides. Mail has been lost, and cargo, pharmaceuticals, coriander, toys . . . Imagine the hearty, healthy sharks, eating our mushrooms à la grecque and reading our letters with their fishy eyes. Il conte is not amused, leaves the veranda. I wasn't talking to him but to and for myself (I tell myself). Until the sun reaches the yardarm what to do, but pass the time like a kidney stone?
11. The foliage begins, a green wall, but it yields like a trick, swallowing up girls, automobiles, tanks, brigades, roads, whole towns. Cheetahs lurk, and vipers; gaudy parrots iterate the "How about it honey?" they've picked up on their perches above our cabanas. The only attraction to jungle is the hotel's dwindling away, behind . . . another trick that wouldn't work for me. I'd lug the place along as big as life. Surprisingly, everything is. The droplet of venom, spider's, scorpion's, milky or clear, is.
12. Sister Selena, reader and advisor, may have the powers she claims, may have them often. Ignore the cards, the tea leaves. She does, doesn't use her crystal ball except as a prop, a sign, as a pharmacist keeps those beakers of green liquid up on a shelf. She apperceives her patrons as a bank officer would, takes them in by hunches and hints as a maître d'hôtel would. She tells them what they are: what they fear and what they desire follows. And what to expect? Look at her face, her hands, her shoes. Her guess is as good as anyone's.
13. What poet could set up shop in a storefront, hang bead curtains, install a few hideous lamps, and read and advise the troubled, the worried, the restless, telling them who they are? Some days you have it; others, you don't. She puts on a good show, offensive to the ministry of commerce but tolerated by its own board of tourismo. Shrewder than poets would be, she pays small bribes for Coronel Corrupcion's protection. She smokes too much, sleeps late, plays solitaire as most of us will, awaiting our occasions. Her two black cats sing heavenly mews.
14. If stanzas are rooms, then poems must be buildings, and volumes, streets, whole towns, impositions of minds upon topography. A harbor, a defensible hill may prompt, but the human eye, full of its own humors, orders the prospect and fails--one's best vision being blind. These dodecahedrons then are living rooms in a random dwelling. I sit in its dark, guessing what city would least disresemble mine, what square, what series of shops, what gable, slick in the streetlit rain, reverberate right to the footsteps I want to take, or want to have taken.
15. Snow again. The city staggers, its sidewalks slick, its roads glassy as a drunk's eyes. We slide through its delusions, look for a reasonable footing. Plowblades scrape, striking sparks of cartoon rage. Trucks spread salt, sand, and cinders, a formulary mixture of grit. (The gritty is truth, is fact; the slick is like our own insides, fantastic, treacherous, and disgusting.) Even the slums gleam clean for a while, but emergency crews are out scattering truths to bring them back to what they were, and have to be, and are.
16. Realty is reality; space is to buy and sell, rent, mortgage if you have to, fight for if you must. Sovereigns without it pretend. Citizens w less than 300 sq ft (2 rms) per capita are squeezed to drunkenness, madness, and dream states dangerous to the real état. Therefore we fear them and do not venture at night to their mean demesnes. Darkness is their ally, destroying space as any architect will tell you. E1 Jefe puts in those mercury vapor lamps, bright lights that kill trees and dreams but keep streets safe.
17. Plink, plink, plink. The trees on the plan are seeds for trees in the world in neat rows to show scale, to relieve the brutalizing of concrete, apologizing--as bas relief motifs of oak and acanthus and ivy leaves used to acknowledge nature out there somewhere, begging its gentle blessing or forgiveness. Nature and art now are fixed percentages of the cost, the public policy paying lip service to what no one believes. Each tree has its hole in the concrete where dogs go, hunched over, straining to imagine fertile fields.
18. So Carlos Williams begins, considering a dog sniffing, considering, a tree in Paterson. A dreadful city, as Whitman's Camden is a dreadful city. The worse it is, the better it is. To live in a foundered dream is instructive. The squalid moment, blind gus as a boarded window, turns the vision inward or backward to the dead builders' desires for grace and order. Communal efforts, cities are cathedrals of our time, never finished, monuments to the happenstance of what we are, or wanted, or what has become of us.
19. The eye glazes; familiarity washes unlovely alleys, sentimentalizes, as bad painters would, their random rubble. The brutest truth turns tame, as that theater wall where the stucco is falling away to show brick has become a favorite place--my dog likes it. I like it, too, and think of it as Italian, crumbling like the empty Vicenza villa Palladio built for the lizards to whom its fissures are the point of the wall. Il Grande's crest should show a lizard, couchant, rere regardant. Decay is only offensive to arrivistes and tourists.
20. A thaw, and the curbside walls of granite gray snow melt; there is a general pardon, unexpected, as for the king's daughter's marriage. The corner guard-towers shrivel to puddles the sun glints on. Pallid as felons, we blink in the glare of a moment we hadn't allowed ourselves even to think about, arrived at last. Like a boy, I'm outside in shirtsleeves, only to learn what boys have to learn, and men to remember: that snow's melt means mud, and if the white mess turns to black mess, mess remains constant. Half a block, and I pick my steps like a geezer.
21. The sky, on a clear night, lights up like a switchboard. In the country, they see even better, where professors trek in Land Rovers over rutted tracks to profit from wilderness. Here, the light pollution blots out tertiary stars--as indeed it should. Let them compete, like actresses, like tenors, for our dulled attention, shining in the city skies or not at all. We've plenty of lights, but the spaces between that made Pascal go giddy dare us like unfamiliar alleys where footfalls echo in menace and darkness comes alive as it did for us, to us, when we were children.
22. The city's bubble of light becomes, a party, a fête, a gin dansant de minuit à l'aube. "You gin?" "One gin," says Pushkin behind the bar. It was Nabokov's joke. From such distractions our skies glow. Our neighbor kept a few chickens; his rooster crowed all night, deceived by that glow that ought to have been the sun. By dawn, exhausted, his patience and hope wasted, he'd fallen silent. Dumb bird! Still, these tricks of the light mean something. Through Sister Selena's window, the red of the Don't Walk sign washes the faces of her importunates, telling her their answers.
23. The black relents--or seems to (knowing better doesn't destroy the illusion), and light in the east draws them to the beaches, revelers, tourists, even some of the locals, to walk the clean strip of sand the water has left swept smooth as what they long for. Come, amigo, rest here under the palm and watch. See? They all do the same thing, the same way, kneel or bow to take off their shoes, walk to feel the cool smoothness under their soles, and then they wade, wash their feet. Relenting is what they crave in what is left of a rite.
24. On the Kona coast, beyond the old royal enclosure, on a spit of land cut off by a high wall from where the fat kings trod, is the City of Refuge, bare black lava rocks, an occasional palm, a few tidal pools, and nothing, nothing . . . The sea's emptiness, the sky's vacuity, and the rocks' bareness meet on that narrow point where sinners came, cowards fled from battle, or the vanquished scurried for forgiveness, safety, and cleansing. I've stood there, trying its magic, but can't tell. Maybe I should have stayed longer to let the emptiness work. Nothing helps.
25. Behind the taboos was fear, the ground under their feet treacherous, volcanos peaking above sea level, and Pele, the goddess of craters, boiling in rage. Their own natures were cheerful, content with only seven consonants, the blocks of their nursery culture (and thirty-nine different words for lazy). Earth tantrums and sea storms are infantile, dramatic, but kid stuff: on the top of Kilauea steam rises and sulphur, a big bully menacing the playground. The Park Service has marked the line we are not to try to cross.
26. Or a drunk, maybe. Old George Lycurgus who managed Volcano House back at the start, in the '60s when it was two hard days on horseback from Punalu'u, used to look at her seethe, gaze out over the big caldera and figure she needed something to settle her down. When it got bad, he'd fling her a bottle of gin which Pele loved as much as the pigs and dogs the Hawaiians used to sacrifice. Why not? She wasn't offended, probably liked a belt as much as the next girl. So old George thought, who knew her as well as anyone, nut that he was.
27. The lava flow is whimsical, lines of force self-correcting, variable. The liquid possibilities harden to rock fact. But here and there, as in history, kapukas-- islands in the disaster left by the quirk of a diverging flow--survive untouched, cut off from the rest of the field, the rest of the world, five acres, or fifty, Lichtensteins. As if nothing had happened, the flora continues, inbreeds, turns weirdo. Such anciens régimes figure our longest chances, deepest fears: left to our own devices, somehow saved, what caricatures of ourselves could we become?
28. At ground level where all the dead birds fall to, and sea level where all the dead fish rise to, air, earth, and water meet at their borders to collect each other's garbage. Heights and depths, oscilloscope lines, exhaust themselves, collapse to an even flatness, the silence of that thin green swath of seaweed, the high tide line on the beach I'm lying on, letting my brain poach as I imagine balloons and bathyscaphes, mountaineers, spelunkers, and feel the fatigue of their strenuous efforts. I try to rouse myself to trek ten yards to the snack bar for iced tea.
29. To move is to seek an end, completion, fulfillment . . . Therefore, only imperfection moves, and only from what is at rest, content with itself can we learn what we need to know. It will not tell us, need not utter, utterly indifferent to otherness, its itness perfect, enough. The drunken sea staggers, trees flutter nervous fronds in the air the birds wheel on, but the black rock, smug at the end of the strand, is just there, not even glinting in sunlight or shining with wetness, dully itself, harder than any of us can imagine with our soft heads.
30. I1 Conte says, "Nearer is larger." It's true that Tibetans are tiny as mice, Australians, Brazilians, cute dwarfs. Our parents, children, wives loom larger than faces on Rushmore, blotting the face of the sun as we do for our dogs whose job it is to keep us from shrinking, balloons with slow leaks. The doc's first questions-- height and weight--are always the toughest. I gorge candy, potatoes, booze; my weight is still problematical, my heart's big burden, otherwise wispy. I cling to the leash to keep from floating away to cold, giddy Tibet.
31. The floors were lower then, and we climbed chairs as Alpinists, to tame them, turn triumphant, and wiggle our toes out over their ledges. Giants walked the earth then, by whose obscure magic food appeared, and toys, and we were their toys, i.e. repositories of imagination and love. But furniture shrinks, houses shrivel, Rushmores dwindle down. We find ourselves suddenly big, exposed to weather's ravages, and tromp the earth's uncertain crust. That floor, once nightmare distant, nightmare fast rises nightmare near.
32. The plants in Dr. Kronkheit's office thrive from all the talk. He takes comfort in this demonstration that therapy does some good. "This fear of falling began when? " Begonias attend, bask in my story. I take off the coat. My father wouldn't/couldn't fly. His healers were Smith and Dale. Kronkheit practiced in Cairo (a Cairo practor) but his maxims help, stupid as they are (all courage is). In my ear, in my father's voice, they resound: "You had it before? Now you have it again." "It hurts when you do this? So, don't do this."
33. Tough sayings, covering many cases, among them Delmore Schwartz v. Kramer, The City of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, God, et alia. He was a second cousin of my first wife's mother's cousin's husband. We a met once, and he complained--of course-- but seemed sane and badly used. I sent him to see my father, who said he couldn't win. They yelled. My father threw him out. An affront to art? Schwartz loved cats. They kept running away. From poetry? No, from disorder and ill-luck. The cat sits on the mat. My luck holds.
34. Cheaper than blackjack, as reliable as tea leaves, biorhythms, or yarrow stalks, I play solitaire, not to test my skill-- it needs none--but my state of grace, the world's responsiveness, the cards' will, dumb but as true as any trick of metonymy Selena knows. A momentary stay against confusion, Frost called a poem, but (eight on the red nine) this can work too. I cheat sometimes, but don't count those games. It's only a way to show the cards the way. They're slow to learn. The name of the game is patience.
35. Patterns, intellectual expectations blind us to the truth which is a jumble. Late at night, in a strange city, lost, trying to find one of the boulevards, you turn a corner, smell bread baking, and feel safe for the moment. The growing, milling, and baking of grain is civilized and comforts. But that isn't what you've stumbled on; it's mother's kitchen, or grandma's, faraway cues of old scenarios. You may get mugged, or not. But emboldened now, you can persist and may yet find the way back to your hotel.
36. Charts are only approximate. Out there, the sandbars shift, the meandering channels writhe like live things. You learn to stare at the water's changes of color, of surface, and guess where to go with the wind on one cheek and a sense, semiconscious, of the tide: you scan l the bay, hunch your course, getting the boat's feel of the day, the wind and the water, afraid always of screwing up. Waist-deep in water, j and ankle-deep in gull shit, hauling the boat back to the channel, I've considered my failings in attention. And humility. And tact.
37. We lie to our children, try to persuade them to build their characters up and lower their expectations, preach to them stern words we've heard ourselves, Sois sage et travaille bien. We hope they will, and want for them glittering prizes they'll earn while we watch. O, let the sun glint on the oars, and let my daughter's shell slide over the water like lightfor me, for the grace I had in me somewhere that she wears like a bright sunhat. In the lottery of the world's poor dream, she has my number. The unearned are the only triumphs that count.
38. Grit that seeps in under the window frames, blackens the sills, and, despite my attacks with Kleenex and an idea of order, accumulates, expresses the right relation of subject and object, underscoring the view, a cityscape of which it is a part, brings outside in. Any idea requires such grit, grist to grow on and correct to. Dust in the air swirled before the creation and crept in to body the prime mover's first notion, embarrassing the grandeur of intellection with small domestic matters: matter: this.
39. Not only darkling but dankling and damned bleakling (if i may be plain--obnubilated), this bare heath where the military, stupid-- it's never clever--skirmishes still . . . Hell! Stoicism is heartless; passion useless; madness beside the point: the starveling hordes, huddled along the border, die by the thousands. This is no hyperbolic figure but true, awkwardly true, giving to all our actions the gravity of indifference. Whatever we do is in the face of that, in spite of that. Even frivolity now must be in earnest.
40. The picador horses around. The matador does dumb tricks with his cape, veronicas, betties, archies . . . It's the exterminador I cheer for from my seat on the sombre side, with his can, his pump, and the sweet smell of a death I hope will be exquisite, lingering, and thorough. But they'll be back, the roaches. "They don't like crowds, and want to spread out. To the suburbs," my affable killer jokes and squirts the bathroom. Outside, sirens wail. Illness? a fire? Or Coronel Corrupcion's tireless, brutalizing, brutalized men, reestablishing order.
41. Sweating in their splendid gowns, they parade a loop around the green and through Phelps Gate to the Old Campus, one or two of my old teachers among them still, and now my son. Admissus est. And then we are stevedores, lugging crates to the station wagon. None of the snapshots catch this sweat, the freight of it, the way he goes north with his mother in the wagon and I go south, nor should they. Ceremony is staged, posed, an art. Trumpets and banners say all the important banal phrases for our mute hearts. Tantantara. Tzing-boom!
42. In the Café Royale, we imagine ourselves rich and powerful; downstairs, in Vagine's, the disco in the basement, we are gorgeous, sexy in the noise and glittering lights of the hot boîte; upstairs, in the green and gold lobby, we may be gracious and indolent. From the cues of these contrived obvious sets, we may escape into town to walk the seedy streets and browse their impromptu junk--a salon des refusés E1 Jefe has contrived to divert the exquisite or challenge the brave few who do not own or belong. Or care.
43. The ancient theories of vision with beams of sight arising from the eyes and bouncing back, like radar, in those old drawings are right: we inform the world with bulldozer whims, impose by our very observation a crude plan on subtle topologies, tidy, and diminish-- which is why in the gardens of Versailles or the mad boulevards of Paris or Washington one succumbs to the hypnotist's trick languor. In the railroad's slide-show, though, is a livelier jumble: in that scrapyard, for example, a pile of bathtubs, glinting, frisk like dolphins, freely themselves.
44. Months later, languishing, its five monstro leaves down to three, and two of those now with the fatal brown at their outer edges, the thing hangs on. Hangs on, with suckers from outside the thick center bulb I'd thought was dead, flooded out or dried out, or the cat killed, sending smaller shinier leaves the same monstro shape up to the light. The lessons of La Nature mean nothing. I decline its cheery stupid hints. Still, we water again-- no doubt to kill with care what survived our neglect.
45. Air shimmers and asphalt melts to goo on the first hot day of the year. Windshields and bumpers gleam like kitchen utensils where this exotic dish, vindaloo curry or Mongolian hot pot, seethes like the magma into which we must all fall and dissolve in a new geometry where points, lines, planes and solids cook down, onions in the soup du jour. The coronel observes life may be a fountain, or maybe not. Reality is easier. That's borscht. His rule on a hot day is hot soup. 46. The keen senses depend on waves in the air, snares for the eyes and ears. The hands, slower, grope to their certitudes, as the crude nose and tongue diddle with samples of actual stuff. The modest yield of their dark silent studies we trust as the honest stammer of a dullard. Hard/soft, sweet/bitter, hot/cold, or excess--pain--or moderation's pleasure are true enough and truly enough. Consider: what blind fish in a cave pool know, they know well. In the dark, I remember bedrooms, where the bed was and where was the door. 47. At tea on the verandah, we discuss the day's events. Tea is an event, and the little cakes are events. What did the paper say of the elections? Of the market? Or, more important, what is the menu tonight? The weather tomorrow? Underneath the table the poodle of Madame de Particule hopes for scraps, his upturned cynic's eyes following our conversation, dinner and the heat subjects of interest to him, too. What other subjects are there? From down the corniche a sports car's engine makes a mosquito buzz.
48. Late last night an alarm's mechanical keen woke us. An automobile? A shop? The shrill note extended itself for an hour, was sound, then a sensation, then an idea of itself. Someone called the police to inform them of trouble, and later someone else called to complain of the noise that had become the trouble, and then somebody stopped it and all of us felt the silence hatch glossy black from its egg of noise. Speech was impossible, motion, out of the question. With great strength, Madame, nevertheless, bit into a peach and brought us back to life. 49. That crazy people talk to themselves, narrate their errands, say, in elevators, where we are embarrassed and pretend not to hear, is not surprising: which of us hasn't, under pressure, suppressed or failed to suppress the mumbled phrases, templates of syntax with their illusion of reason and direction. Schoolboy assignments-- Latin, French, algebra, history, English-- bubble up in me still. And poets pretend to that necessity, try to deserve that same crazed attention, providing words to mutter on the way to the laundry, post office, grocery, bank.
50. Sick unto death with circles, revolutions and orbits, horizons, the round eyes' arbitrary limit to the whirling globe, I return, bringing my children back to these old quadrangles' rectitude where they may find respite from dizziness in stones laid upon stones. Outside, in our city's rubble, the few surviving palazzos, settled out of true, stagger the mind like strong drink. To remember the plans is heartbreaking. O, but gentles! Not to remember would be heartlessness. Marx brothers, we stand looking ridiculous, holding up the walls. 51. His policies didn't cover acts of God; the company therefore could reject all claims, countering with its own--that any event, good, bad, large or small, was God's, Whose eye was on the sparrow and their fine print. Premiums? They were acts of faith, he explains, propitiations, sacrifices. He fled, hounded from the States by unbelievers (that too was an act of God, as it was for E1 Jefe an act of principle, dollars and Swiss francs, to offer asylum: sanctuary much). He plays bridge well, but overbids.
52. "Whether clever or stupid, those beautiful young men and women, bound for the tennis courts, are surely ignorant, having suffered or lost nothing." The coronel's point? That only torture, whether from nature or human nature, elicits truth and turns evasive minds to face demanding questions. He calls his secret police midwives to truth, regrets the labor pains, shrugs, falls silent, stares at his shiny boots. The refuge of our frivolous verandah, precious, fragile as crystal, is permitted as doctors permit their terminal patients dope.
53. Charters, reprieves, commissions, pardons--El Jefe sits at his desk, it's said, in the afternoons and flies them as paper planes. Those few that make it beyond the rosewood case for the constitution he grants; he denies the rest. It's whimsical, but all systems are. Why should the eloquent and clever sell their skills to the powerful rich? The poor, the inarticulate need protection. So does the regime. Let handy children prosper as abogados. Let losers blame bad luck. Unless it's only a fiction E1 Jefe suffers, indulging our delicate hopes.
54. The articulation of matter, the reduction of all that singing jumble to a formula, and in that odd timbre, is the bassoonist's art. A philosopher's right instrument, the bassoon is witty, abstract, but still homey, honking its verities of boop bah beep. To understand the creator's principles, listen to that, the ground, the apparently simple equation on which the music rests as we long to do. To relax,'Einstein fiddled, but these are serious reeds on which, correctly, the infant Moses, floating in peril, snags.
55. A simple solution: we moved it from the hall to the bay window. With more light it revived, survives, putting out pointy shoots from which its jungle leaves unfurl, sea-lettuce green to grow darker, five now and two more I can see coming. All problems should yield to such straightforward cures--a change of light, a new place. All night long, trucks freighted with such hopes roar on our thruways, hopeless, wrong, as my poor dumbbell bulldog, years dead, who used to crouch, stalking electrical outlets she took to be mouseholes.
56. The direct route to the summer concerts leads through slums where, outside tenements, the tenants of their predicament (and ours) play cards on stoops and keep an eye on their gaudy nigger cars, those vehicles of bravado and antic passion. The powerful insolence of powerlessness passes us, reckless, left and right, drag-starting at the lights. We close our windows, lock our doors. There is nothing polite to say. Next time we'll go a more sensible way, to spare our senses, as gay and savage as any of theirs, the fearful roar of dual carbs and the smell of rubber.
57. It is a bad dogsbody that dogs me, will not jump through my hoops, snaps and turns savage--too predictably. Untrained, they'll do that, but even the best of them bite, forgetting years of pampering, petting. They smell fear (we are all afraid) and our impatience that would aim the swift kick. I don't blame it, but, wary, feed, walk, groom it, take compliments for it, and let it lie under my bed, until the whim of its abrupt distemper sends it into the air, fangs bared for the delicate pulse of my exposed throat.
58. A red sun, and the world's tongue cleaves to the roof of the sky. The air is sickening, sick. We are advised to avoid exertion. The city shines, queerly carnelian, amethyst, garnet in its malaise. My mouth, once decked with porcelain and silver of young manhood, now shows gold that mocks mere meat. The need is greater now than when the Pharaohs first perceived it, to find the right preserving essences. The hotel is a tomb today, but fine grit seeps in to cover the sills. With a frail finger I can sign them with my initials.
59. Their shirts proclaim their sneaker brands, saloons, universities, radio stations, cute or rude remarks--"Boogie" or "Amateur Gynecologist"--or Mozart's face, or a beer can, as if an identity were no more an achievement but a hope impossibly remote, as if no day began with fresh linen and prayers that its sweat stains be minimal, its blood stains be escaped until that blessed commonplace moment at night when I fling my soiled shirt into the hamper musty with other shirts and sheets I've survived.
60. Lust and greed, a lust for images and greed for the concrete, are fundamental: without these grubby traits, you'd think it would run clear as a brook, but, no, it dries up, dies. Disgust may serve for a time, their opposite, but less well. Poets are drummers of goods and tire at last. Therefore, the hotel, a refuge for the bored, is a cleansing haven: its frivolous conventional decor, its silent corridors and identical rooms soothe the glutted soul, as does the view of mangrove, bay, ocean, and empty sky.
61. Even the changes for better are bad, affronts to accurate recall. Why else should I care if there is a new seawall at the beach or a vacant lot in my mind's map is developed now and has a convenience store? My life is not a series of landmarks, and even if I've lived here, the town's profiteers have nothing to gain from that or my rare appearances to scrutinize what I hardly noticed then. A visit's no good: what the arrangement of stores, houses, trees, and vistas meant, they don't mean now. At the house the juniper's too high. I may not trim it.
62. Monsieur Hubert, chef de cuisine, artiste, is rumored to be a killer, to have fled France, to have been given asylum here for the tourists and for us. How else explain a man like that in a place like this? The truth is simply that he drinks. And Robert, the maître d'hotel is the murderer. But that delicious frisson the patrons feel in the dining room for the chef, invisible in back, would be de trop if the truth were known and seen. Truth? In cooking? It's a faddist taste, like vegetarianism. Refined palates require more delicate fare.
63. The chairs, the tables, even the brass floor lamps out on the verandah are bolted down-- to discourage the thefts poverty prompts? No, for our sakes, who have lost our mansions, groves, and estates in one revolution or another. My daughter's visit, for instance: three days out of the summer's hundred. Not enough. And the doctor's report to my father was not good. Neither is my fault, but I blame myself. I should have loved them more, shown it more. From a chair, bolted down in the same place reliably, day after day, I take much comfort.
64. That the random pattern of rocks assumes, from this view, the configuration of a plausible head, that of an alligator or a crocodile, in profile, says nothing at all of the rocks, the bay, the ocean, but of perspective, fancy, and one's need in the absence of any truth whatever--the rocks are stubbornly rocks--to try to invent something that may hold through the wicked lick of the night's tongues and its savage baying till dawn reveal a snout, hump, brow, and a neck's declivity to tell me I'm still in the same place, awash in the foam of churned vision, but still afloat.
65. The tourists' improbable appetite for owls, cats, raffia, macramé, copper, and seashells strung into bracelets and necklaces is a craving, poignantly silly but still all they can muster, to hang onto something; they cram their luggage full of times and places, knickknacks and snapshots that will keep in some corner longer than the richer subtler treasures--how the wind from the sea slants the trees one way, or how a cloud of fog spills over the ridge of the coastal mountains . . . Memory fails, eye dulls, and the soul dulls: knowing their limitations, they shop for their lives.
66. Down toward Prunedale, before you cut west to Monterey, there's a valley of onions, miles of the smell of onions, too strong to be pleasant but not awful. Odd. And you ask yourself, what's it like to live there? Do they still smell it at all? Our noses are nearly useless except for tasting, for keeping our glasses on, and to cover that awful hole in the skull. Smells fade as the nostrils' primitive twitch exhausts . . . But an ocean of onions! They visit San José or San Francisco, reeking of them, I'd guess, and not knowing: Sirs, the human condition.
67. That she is lithe and agile as I am not, with claws between the pads of her silent paws, and is a killer matters--all desperado gangs include such graceful diminutive types, soft spoken, with a preference for the knife or the garotte . . . They are pets too, flatter the boss, whose power includes their powers, just by hanging around. Thus, the cat on my lap, athletic, whimsically savage, pleases, supplies me with those jungle knacks I barely remember how to desire--but seeing her pounce, my hackles rise, and the beast in me hisses, "Yes!"
68. Here in the lobby, the chandeliers' lavish, if democratically random, glints enrich sofa, escritoire, the mahogany table with its relatively recent magazines, and, of course, the guests, their pecking order suspended. It's bedrooms that sort us out again. At night, in the wee hours, insomnia or a cough keeping us awake, the floor, the square feet, and the windows tell us our worth, from the grande luxe ocean views to the meanest airshaft gloom, until the eyes close to a mercy of darkness as evenhanded as the lobby's light.
69. The electrical system is quirky. Power always depends upon technology which has its limitations, as all thought does--no one believes in it any more, except the splinter left, idealists, students (three different labels for the same handful?). Elevators, lights, refrigerators fail, and there's a buffet of what would spoil, sumptuous, candle lit, delighting our reactionary tastes. It's not the end of the world but, say, the fun of the end of the world. And then the lights come on, radios blare, and we reset our clocks.
70. Under a watery sky, on a high bluff, a cow grazes. Beyond, to the left, is a farmhouse with a kitchen garden behind it--cabbage, tomatoes. The land falls away; a rail fence keeps the cow, the house, the field itself from falling into the sea. But what I see is what I am: my eyes, on their stalks of nerves, blossom with images I expect, blink at what I cannot comprehend. Hubert sees the same cow, salt, cabbage, tomatoes, but knows more than I do, glimpses purpose, possibility, destiny's kettle--soup.
71. To let us suppose we know more than we know, to arouse our expectations, play on them, and with a small surprise fulfill them, paying a compliment to our shrewdness, shrewd musicians, like novelists and playwrights, stack their decks to deal us winning hands. Their last notes fade, and we are in love with ourselves, giddy with wisdom, or what it would feel like to be wise. We aren't better or different, cannot manage our lives, with any particular grace, or even, next morning, watching a pigeon swoop through the grit of the real sky, predict the spot where it's likely to land.
72. In even the best hotels, the carpets stop, and behind the swinging leather-covered doors, the floors are tile or cement, and the illusions, quite reversed, as if the establishment were a factory or a warehouse, those bare bulbs shining on the no-nonsense tile walls of pantries, kitchens, work rooms, and corridors in the perfect clarity of hospitals, prisons, and morgues. Every so often, I like to visit, pretend some errand, and smell the disinfectant soap they use on the floorsfor the vertigo of seeing into the future, looking down.
73. A swirl of autumn leaves, and the dog goes crazy, darts, snaps, pounces, catches, caught in the faint twitch of an old instinct, as we thrill to see, in the gallery's back room, a shrunken head. Authentic? Mais, bien sûr! The price is cruel enough, and someone will buy, who delights to imagine himself in the rain forest, blowgun at his lips, eyes peeled, ears sharp, his breath shallow . . . or hates it, fears its ugly blandishments: simplicity, directness. One needs some poise to look from this wizened face to that of the sleek dealer. Merci, non.
74. To dance outside of my house, yes, to dance that aktive Vergeszlichkeit . . . that is to be free, as a pot is free, an old pot, blackened with its years of feasts, but empty for a child to use as a pail, wear as a helmet, or bang as a drum, that it, too, can play, its old stews long ago eaten or dumped. I must be that gay child, that pot ringing in my pudgy hands and meaning nothing more or less than I mean it to mean, for soon enough, I shall be recalled to the measure of rooms, their purposes and decorum.
75. The crossed out word calls out; I hold the paper up to the light to catch its eloquent muffled meaning, to reconstruct, as a curator might, what is lost, stillborn or murdered. A clean page lies, implies an impossible Eden, nothing, not even a single leaf, dead on the greensward. It cannot be. Great beasts have thrashed in the tarpits; their names are crossed out words. Armies have perished in blinding snows. What these survivors say is never the whole story. What did you mean, or ought you have meant? On flimsy onion skin, the letters writhe in the light and our discomfort.
76. In the hills, they say, is a tribe so primitive, they use metal washers for coins. The boys every so often talk of an expedition to rob them blind: a few bagsful of washers, and one could buy the whole damned village. At night, when the bar is quiet, they think about it. Yes, and decide to go--next week, tomorrow morning. But what's up there to steal? What have they got worth the trip and the hauling back down? "Poverty as a defense," the professor proposes, but nobody laughs. It's an intellectual trick. The intellectual trick. Ours.
77. Roses here in the tropics riot, bloom themselves to death in an orgy of growth, put out like mad, exhausting themselves, huge tired flowers with almost no scent, then nothing. The management flies in fresh replacements, and at night workmen dig out the old, stick in the new. Down the hill, in the rows of brothels, the same horticultural rules hold, with new faces appearing to put on the old rouge, until the bush wilts. Fans turn overhead like lazy prayer wheels, as we crane our necks and try to imagine cold.
78. It rains every afternoon at four o'clock, a pelting rain, the water drops like metal, bouncing like rivets, like bullets, off the blacktop. Palm fronds wave the arms of surrendering troops, but there's no relenting. Rivulets on the pane converge in the tracks of brigades in rough terrain. Or, worse, it is the weeping of a child beyond the recollection of his cause; his wracking sobs are stones he gasps around. I cannot remember, but I must have cried that violently once. How else can I watch now, knowing the exhausted calm it will come to?
79. That E1 Jefe is dead is likely. As good as dead is sure. Shot, poisoned, or stabbed in the formal Roman fashion? Or simply shut away in some asylum? The papers report only the pleasure of the regime, which is now the brokers, doing a deal that does not much concern us, for what can we hope for better or worse? Here is no Sarajevo. No aspirations seethe to turn the lush landscape into a bloodbath of consequence. No better than the dead, a new Jefe will stare from ubiquitous posters to fill the same blank spaces on peeling walls.
80. Small arms fire at night. The lure of disorder brings campesinos down from the hills to loot, grab what they can, and glean, and soldiers to shoot. Or perhaps the soldiers, themselves, are looting and fire only at fictive malefactors who hover directly overhead where they aim. The charade is well rehearsed and safe enough: a few, no more than at a soccer match, may die, but our roads are bad and our traffic fatalities, rare. Here at the hotel, where the mistresses of several Excellencies are ensconced, we have their gauzy peignoirs for our armour.
81. Our delicate stomachs and unreliable guts know better. The chef therefore connives with the présentation--with flaming sauces, ice sculptures, simulacra in marzipan-- to woo the children in us who will wolf whatever is set before us. Mes enfants, let us pretend we are hungry. Have a forkful! The waiters are like zookeepers who pamper their specimens of endangered, expensive species, shoveling into their cages tidbits to tempt the incurious strange beasts we gawk at, totems of our blocks and coloring books, our oldest friends.
82. The curfew has lasted a week: we become accustomed to life in a children's city where only the naughty are roaming the dark streets, playing the savage games we all recall. The ground rumbles when a heavy tank grinds by. (There are only three or four and the soldiers have to take their turns playing at tank; the toys are always the same and never enough. ) We're either being punished for some forgotten mischief, or we are sick, recovering, our fevers broken. Our dreams rage outside. In the national palace, grown-ups converse in those low tones one can never quite hear.
83. The dignity of politics? The coronel produces a very expensive fountain pen from somewhere in his tunic, holds it up, and asks what it can do. "A doctor, a judge, or a general can kill with it, but a dentist is a figure of fun because he seldom risks his patients' lives. In times of peace and plenty, politics also is trivial, but now . . ." He unscrews the cap, stares at the broad gold nib, and with a lethal flourish signs his bar chit. "The crocodile, most of the time, is sleeping, but when he wakes, there is sudden beautiful silence."
84. From nowhere, abruptly filling a leaden sky, a flock of birds wheels through the air, turns, rises, passes a tree, and disappears over a hill off to the left. What? What does it mean? To a mosquito, fear; to a cat, the thrill that freezes its lithe body to a still ravening shadow; to some men, an itch of the trigger finger. Uninvolved, I can consider their grace, their irrelevant beauty (up close, a single bird is ugly and probably mite-ridden). Like that tree, I think I have had a brainstorm and am wrong.
85. Chambermaids, bellmen, busboys disappear, possibly jailed or killed, or just afraid of being jailed or killed. We have buffets; there's no room service; no one turns down our beds. I miss those little mint wafers in green foil they used to leave on the pillow. Last night there was thunder-- we hoped it was thunder, but it could have been a bombardment. The bar stayed open late. Someone played the piano, and the rest of us sang, mostly college songs from Princeton, Yale, or Notre Dame. Why not? We had forgotten, or never learned in the first place, the hymns we were nearly frightened enough to need.
86. The times are peculiar: if they are not peculiar, then they are peculiar. Such paradoxes are soothing, expressing as they do our shrill unease. The abundant empty moment is tolerable enough. The sun strews the wet grass with its worthless diamonds, and birds sing in the trees, their rich ungenerous gift decking the morning, but newsprint blackens our hands with yesterday and tomorrow, five minutes ago and five minutes from now, their pains, their risks. At breakfast, on the patio, flatware gleams like the bayonets down by the main gate.
87. The laundries have ceased to function. Our clothes, our lives are rumpled now, still mostly clean (we can wash underwear in our sinks) but never ironed. Our delicate conceits wilt in the heat. We all look awful, except for the coronel, immaculate in authoritative khaki, and the monsignor in a soutane nuns have pressed. The Junta already has the radio station and the newspapers . . . But laundries? Well-turned-out boys in school were often the bright ones. The army must have new uniformsby St. Laurent or Hardy Amiesto stabilize the regime.
88. Those pastel rectangles were living rooms once, and their theoretical spaces windblown birds fly through were discrete, closed. The building was torn down or it fell, and the painted places catch the afternoon sun as they never before could. Like seashells we pick up on the beach at the high-tide line, they are smooth, burnished by flesh they once held, and gaudy. What maniacs could have chosen such lurid greens, livid yellows to live in and with? Only trivial ghosts could haunt those airy flats; serious spirits hang back a while to wait for the paint to weather.
89. A new Jefe--a figurehead of course, for the portrait for stamps, notes, classroom walls and official bureaus. The weakest of the lot, but if he is shrewd and patient, he'll grow stronger as the others knock each other off, grabbing money and power in varying proportions, for all the time, those two eyes, lithographed a hundred thousandfold, will watch what they seem to watch, approving, condemning, and hypnotize the pretense real, and finally even themselves to forget the cautionary vivid picture of the old Jefe, lying in all that blood.
90. Sacks of old mail are getting delivered, and all of us in the hotel are recalled like Lazarus to life by our old checks, old bills, and old news: reports from our children's schools, word of the deaths of friends we never knew were ill, announcements of sales already held, cruises missed, and concerts long silent . . . The large question recedes-- whether we shall survive the week, the month-- and we are reduced to our smaller familiar concerns. It's what they wanted. Someone shrewd decided we might safely distract ourselves with our lives.
91. These gifts have never been adequate to meet the demands I make on them, infer from them . . . But even that increase of talent, of mastery for which I have groused and prayed, would keep the same imbalance, the yearning for more, the same or more. The carpenter, tinsmith, potter are not so beset but in their materials happy. I envy them their smells and noises, but most of all their showers that wash away good sweat. Then they get drunk and fall asleep. Fancies, drunken rages, and dreams are my stock in trade, nothing, nothing to airy thinness beat. It won't wash.
92. The representations of gods--longevity, prosperity, and posterity--emerge, strutting their stuff for their real counterparts. The merely human audience overhears. All Chinese opera starts with these questions dancing round in everyone's mind, dancing across the stage like Larry, Moe, and Shemp, loonies who may keep the good times rolling right along or poke you right in your eye. The action proceeds. I try, as all of us must, not to be too much concerned for my father's, my bank account's, or my children's sakes--those gods.
93. There is no twilight here, but darkness whelms suddenly from the east and the light flees, leaving a bloodied rear guard holding the field a few dramatic minutes. Then black. Peepers take over and crickets; the whole palmetto scrub and the jungle beyond it warbles the license of night to feed and breed. Inside the hotel, napery, crystal, and flatware gleam. A rose dots each table. The jewelry, the gowns . . . But having put on our brief show, we run to rip those clothes off, burrow into the dark, and make, if we're lucky, those very night noises.
94. You search your pockets, wallet, begin to panic, go through pockets again, feeling a fool, and realize you've lost . . . How much? Forty dollars? for which the bargaining starts. Having paid a price, you appeal to your primitive sense of equity, foxhole religion, figure you must have averted worse disasters, that the evil, fickle gods will move on now to some more amusing victim, or you count your blessings for which this is a small price to pay. And feel a worse fool until forgetfulness, that profligate sport, settles in easy indifference your account.
95. Senor Martinez-Martinez, the big banana of the Inca Finca, celebrates the birthday of Carmen Miranda every year: he gives a small dinner (for sixty), shows one of her films, and makes his usual speech--to urge that her day be made a national holiday--concluding, "Vulgar as she was, so we are vulgar." And he drinks to her energy, her extravagance of hats mounded with fruit, those wonderful shoes, those flashing eyes! He is, otherwise, sane, takes nothing stronger than sherry, and in the evenings, by the candlelight he prefers, reads Latin poets.
96. In sewer trenches, grass is growing, for thieves are thicker than blood or even sewage, and smarter and dumber than we can imagine, who have lost all ardor, outrage, everything but the trick of being amused. The director of public works seeded the excavations with artifacts so archaeologists had to inspect each spadeful of pre-Columbian dirt. But he used such cheap fakes that the scholars are jailed, he's fled, and the trenches still gape, while we wait for a new man, smart enough to sign checks and contracts, but simple enough to have that energy of belief we lack.
97. A brilliant tinkle--Haydn or maybe Mozart-- floats down from the recessed ceiling speakers of the doctor's waiting room. His magazines dog-ear and, like his plants that turn brown, die, but that apparently fragile but adamantine andante will outlive us all, our pains, their cures. Our grasp of that cadence that will not fade loosens at last as, growing deaf, we imagine silence. But no, men die, and that heartless music without missing a beat will swirl through the air, a gnat swarm glanced in twilight. One learns like natives not even to try to whisk it away.
98. The cows must be milked, of course, and the crops brought in, and the medicine must be got through somehow by sledge, outrigger, burro, by God . . . But the show? Why must it go on? The troupers' golden and only rule is silly enough to provoke serious questions. Do they compensate by their high moral tone for the frivolous lives they know they lead: (They cannot all be so stupid!) No, go back to drama as rite when gods on the temple steps commanded performance: then it makes sense. Now hospital aides rent TVs to patients, a day at a time.
99. Our childhood maps are accurate--a room, a house, a yard with every shrub and tree, even every branch distinct, remembered. The town blurs a little to certain routes: to school, for instance, counting the number of paces on each block, or downtown to the movies, the library, or my father's office. The rest? It's triple-A and where the sun went down, a guess I call a sense of direction. The road is dark; its curves are dangerous, confusing. The old maps are right. Go too far and you risk falling off the edge of the world.
100. A round number, a venerability: if they were years, the television cameras would grind as I gummed out a few words, useless hints to the world eager to live as long, longer, and show my telegram from the White House. Nah! But turn them into pennies with real heft now, which is to say exchangeable for a child's first hoarded dollar. It feels good. Great. I'm rich (would be, if I could remember my first dollar). "Blesséd art Thou, O Lord, who hast sustained me unto this day . . ." I remember that.
101. Useless? Yes. But harmful? Certainly less than the churches with their bullshit, less than the banks with theirs, the ministries and courts with their piles of it high and deep, and less than the false hospital hopes of those bright clanking machines that extrude pain exquisitely. Here, the offerings are limited but sane: creature comforts at a price. With luck, which is to say with money and health, the world is yours to rent until that morning comes when they throw you out and keep your luggage (but still they wear white gloves and they call you "Sir"}.
102. They claim to be on Fulbrights, claim to be studying sociology and the theories of Enfantin--who advocated clothing that buttoned up the back, thereby reminding its wearers of their mutual interdependence. They have handed out hundreds of such garments in the city's poorer neighborhoods, near the docks, with illustrated leaflets of instruction. Actually, they're here on Guggenheims to study the aesthetics of practical jokes. Each side, you see, would laugh at the other except for their good manners--which are also a joke.
103. As huge jets at touchdown whine regret for the impertinence of flight and their violation of natural order, trying to take it all back in a loud apology and undo by unsaying what has just been done, so that our ears hurt from the vain negation, so do our rales and rattles apologize for the impudence of life, the organization of proteins, tissues, organs, systems, into this fragile elaboration which can't last and doesn't. Common sense in the end takes over and they're towed away, silent and contrite.
104. Watches once were pets; with tiny keys, or later with a crown-and-stem arrangement, we fed them energy to chew to pieces of time in a snug pocket. Later, self-winding, they turned to parasites gobbling our gestures, a frugal wheel hoarding all human movement for its own to spend at a jeweled leisure. Observe! Like hair, like the fingernails, it keeps on going after the heart it mimics has failed, and the brain it spoke to has tuned out. In the end, the watch on the night stand tells us nothing in the stillness of its hands of the stilled hand it used to pucker.
105. The hotel has been sold. The bribes were hefty and the price was amazing. The reason, nevertheless, was anticommunism. The actual comfort of some of the people ought not exceed the dreams, the aspirations, the very imaginations of most of the people. The international chain will run the place down to acceptable levels-- for decorum's sake, as in the States, where beggars all have dogs and pretend to be blind so we may give for dog food and yet may not be seen, uncomfortably too comfortable. Extremes, hating each other, are drawn together like lovers.
106. An endangered species like the whooping crane or the bald eagle, they are shy and ungainly, labor with their terrific wingspreads, and fly to obscure promptings within their diminished haunts: a handful of hotels, the yachts and flats of a few friends. Their chateaux and estates are all gone. Accountants fight to the death and afterwards with taxmen, while they hover in economic updrafts of pleistocene biospheres like this. Not wicked, not profound, they sail a tame sky like condors. From here they go, perhaps, to the Costa Smeralda.
107. Look at old Gomez run. He rings his bell for garbage to be set out, and a block behind the truck whines and gobbles, while burlier younger garbagemen hustle on Gomez's heels. If he drops, one of them will get his easier job, which anyone would prefer. Gomez, himself, used to run with the truck, banging the cans, hurling the big bags, and hoping the man with the bell would drop dead. And he dropped dead. They all moved up, and Gomez got the bell and the hatred, too. But he can save his breath, needing no worse curse than the bell he rings.
108. The airline posters and travel bureau brochures, crude as vaudeville hookers, offer Paris, London, Rome . . . a tower, a bridge, an arena, glyphs which the places themselves aspire to or dwindle to, as only paradise properly should. Where is that curve of beach with the palm in the middle distance to stand for all islands, and whose is that curve of golden thigh? A moron would remember more precisely, but (check my gaudy sportshirts through) I can't. Poster flat, I shall lie on that beach and think of myself here imagining being there.
109. The rocks and wrecks are terrified too and skitter through all that black and wet with the very panic we'd feel ourselves to huddle together under the nursery jangle of buoy bells or bask in the beam's reach. No, I tell a lie. It's the other way around: the egg comes second. At sea, a blunder's at least as bad as a crime. Each new wreck turns hazard beneath the smirk-smooth reasonable-looking water. Figure an unclaimed warning, some spot marked always and only for you: do you dive or not? You may kiss my torpedo, Gridley; Hardy's fired.
110. The hotel recedes, becomes a bracelet charm, a souvenir of itself I can squint into focus. Solid or only plate? But time will tell, for Fabergé was right about crucial scenes of a life being trinket-tiny. The blur of tears that keeps me from picking out my room he froze to crystal, lapis, malachite, appropriately enough. In all the ore of any operation, value glints at the rock-hard heart of which he liked to carve some posed banal moment I can imagine flashing before my eyes just as I drown.
111. The stripes on the barber pole appear to arise from the fixed base to writhe up toward the globe as the marquee lights only seem to hurry inward toward the theater lobby to show what we should do. We're able to see through our eyes' lies if we want, but the child in us prefers not to, conspires with the crude neon arrows pretending to be one moving arrow staggering from Zeno's taut bow across the Hogan's Heroes sign. Eat! Our blinks ease it along, as if we were all jailers, on watch but also on the take.
112. If, as the French supposed, the English fogs gave rise to a passion for action, morose thoughts, and ardent broodings, while their own limpid lucid air produced a bent for abstraction, hypotaxis, analysis, and wit, what follows from these lights? The fluorescent's blue-white wash, its shimmer and faint buzz gives war games, cybernetics, subatomic nuclear physics, pallor, and mal aux nerfs. The incandescent light we have seen, shining in the eyes of rabbits--frozen by it, unable to choose which darkness to leap to, hit.
113. That which is strange, the bulbous chimney pots, the blue tiles set in the walls, the full skirts of the peasant women in green or red or garish purple fades pastel, shrinks familiar, dusts as the lazy eye wanders, wavers from the effort of focusing and the mind wraps itself in a cheap quilt of ideas. Only now, departing, we see what we should have seen, all along, in the febrile clarity of a reddish dusk and remember the gold of sunrise and the diamond glint of promises no noon could fulfill.
114. The corniest gesture finds its necessary moment as the crude truth blooms to a gaudy flower no child with her colored tissues would dare construct. The baritone cries out; the tenor's a fool; the basso's a knave; and they all group around the doomed dumb soprano to bellow our actual pain, to sing what we would say if only we could, if the channels of feeling were not silted up. You must understand it's a desperate gamble only love or honor could drive us to consider. "Capisco? Andiamo. Coraggio!" I mutter over and over.
115. Herman baby, life is short. "Hermanos, bebe," is somewhat cavalierly rendered, but the rest is close enough, in the light of which the cavaliers have as much right to be heard as anyone else. "Que la vida est breve?" You bet! And lose in the long run, no run being long enough. The motto winds its way around the lip of the wine jug. Herman sometimes has nightmares of waking up stone cold sober that scare him silly-- in a dry county in Arkansas, where no one even knows the words: "Brother, drink."
116. "The roots in good order, the trunk, the branches, leaves and fruit will be in good order." Thus from the Master Kung, if we can trust The Great Learning, but even without a source seductive, for which of us would not if he could "regulate his household, cultivate his person, rectify his mind, make his intention sincere, extend his understanding . . ." But that makes any flaw a fundamental fault, the weight of which must crack trees' lumber, or mind's mettle. All under heaven hangs on a thread of perfection? Snip!
117. "Give me a place to stand," Archimedes said, "and I can move the world." A smart-assed notion, for what he wanted was someplace out of the world, someplace else, just to admit which would be to move the world a lot, a fourth dimension, heaven . . . To hell with it! Give me a place to lie down, and I can ignore the world, not to say dream a better one, easy. The huge lever he imagined could never have moved the planet a millimeter closer to perfect, but that hypothetical platform, that other place invites our heavy feet, calling us still.
118. Rapacity, as when the garage hikes rates another seven dollars a month, will bring the city down to its last defense: robbed, I must turn thief to get back my fair share. What choice is there? Park on the street where vandals can reduce an automobile to fine white powder? Pushed beyond their talents, men turn vicious, rob and kill, or kill themselves, or mope, unable to decide. The pressure molds us, breaks us . . . We must get away. The sirens beckon us to white sand beaches and blue water from their blue and white cop cars.
119. The feel of the smooth skillet handle, the dull well-seasoned cast-iron black, a velvet that turns satiny with oil, and then that plainsong of frying onions: heaven's hosts are unlikely to like those great twee harps, but some such modest familiar instrument? Yes, massed skillets, and the purr of eggs in the oil, or the tessatura of beef browning. Listen: if the wind is right and the traffic pauses, if the weather is right, balmy enough for windows to open like hearts in springtime, you can hear hymns of praise from skillets everywhere.
120. A black man with a joss stick in a clip on his curbside stand hawks his ideas of hats-- not my idea, of course, or your idea, but his, of what they might like, assuming as he does a they, who, wraithlike, arise as if from the sickening sweet smoke of the burning incense stick. Every day, he lolls and they appear to purchase berets, caps, pastel morels, or cèpes, outrés chapeaux in such taste as to make a case for starving. But he thrives, they thrive, and the sandalwood cloy for some minutes clings to our decent clothes.
121. Offshore on the sandspit, vulnerable to the wind's whim and water's random tantrums, men who do not mind or cannot imagine getting wiped out build summer houses, substantial uninsurable structures, poised on the dune's quavering lip, July's and August's toys disaster will sweep away. Down near the inlet, fishermen gleaning lumber from the wreckage will put up impromptu shacks. It will again begin as memory fades and nerve grows vivid: even in the securest parts of Nebraska nobody lives forever, right? Plunge!
122. Even a dumb horse knows that what whips do to the air, they can do to flesh. The trick is less in the snap of the wrist than in the mind, the horse's mind, in which that selfsame ring glitters in harsher light and the same ringmaster wears his rehearsal sweatshirt and blue jeans, wielding a knout that reaches out to renew the old connections of its nerve with his nerve. Thus, by association, imagination horses around and tames us all, for who is enviably stupid (not to say brave) enough not to snap to chivalric attention?
123. What does the record record? The composer's idea, the performers' and the engineer's. The coughs of an actual audience, that airy batter in which the notes sizzle a little is gone as the broken hairs on three of the four bows and the sweat on four faces from heat and fear (even the best of them fear) are all gone. But the adventitious appears, the fortuitous hides itself inside the glossy sleeve in dust, scratches, departures from the pressed virgin sound that the diamond gnaws down to irrecusable haecceity.
124. The space beyond the horizon is much the same as this space. But farther enough away? It ought to be different, day for our night, summer for winter, whatever the fanciful mapmakers doodle in, imagining weird birds, animals, plants, tribes, capriciously other, to fear or yearn for. What could stout Balboa & Co. find, rare enough to be worth that long haul but completions and connections? Below the equator, around the world from here, my Doppelganger, or opposite (Oppelganger) is happy and clever when I am stupidly sad.
125. Frayed, scuffed, worn . . . What helped you once dream yourself new as the shoes you stepped into or the shirt you unpinned, unbuttoned, and put on still stiff with its sizing, disintegrates to the commonplace, descends faster than you do to affront you at the end, when you throw it away, or ahead and hate it for its clear glimpse of your own career. And who will fill your shoes? You know damned well they'll be given away to the Sally-Ann to pass out to some bum passing out on muscatel. The heels you treed every night his stagger will tromp down.
126. The Brownian swarms, of gnats, say, in the sunlight, reduce us to esquimaux for whom the only numbers are one and two and then many or Greeks for whom ten thousand was countlessness. The eye leaps to fly with the gnats, dive and dart as one of them, chooses, loses, chooses again, and closes, anxious. Flights of birds, schools of speckled fish in their element pattern a life you have lost but remember, uneasy, facing into that sunlight, the screen of the lid streaming crimson myriads, darters and swarmers as thick as leaves, as profligate as stars . . . You sit down to catch your balance, having seen that anything you can count is never enough.
127. It is late, the music loud, the ice gone, the air thick, but the dancing goes on and on. From a corner, I watch the provocative blouses open, the provocative satin jeans tight, the oldest person in the room. It had to happen sooner or later, could have happened before without my having noticed. Still, I should know more than they do, having lived longer. But it's less, I know less. I watch them writhe in fun or cuddle together like puppies, sure that the chair holding me cannot yawn for them, nor the polished floor open to swallow them whole.
128. That fussy façade is shrunk to postcard size on the verso of a casual greeting: perspective's storms buffet the old hotel, that huge toy of a place. I remember a night flower blooming the right moment and right place to shift the entire scene, garden and wall to hulking backdrop, when a chambermaid --or whore, or probably both--before or after her tryst was singing a song. Not to me. I merely overheard how good it was. She made the whole place hers till she fell silent to let brute wealth and size reassert themselves.
129. Friendship endures; love consumes itself. It's obvious, trite. But who is not surprised at the hatred our old loves bear us (or we them) or struck by the similitude--that the taste in the mouth is that of literal bitter ashes? So with places. the generals' "scorched earth" refers to those special places we can't return to. Let it be that way for them, too. A beach, a cityscape, a grove of trees were the holy places we should have been content to die in, had we been lucky enough. But we turned our backs, and our guardian angels, weeping, bar the way.
130. The action painters agreed--there is no background; no place in the canvas is more important than any other place; the tyrannical middle, lording it over the corners for generations, was only a pretender. In the remotest province a couple of loonies plot together and the capital trembles. In Key West, the conchs reverse the order and try to imagine Hartford, New Haven, and New York. And fail. The trick is to see not with the mind's eye (vulgar), nor the eye alone (stupid), but with great courage with the eyes' mind, true blobs of the truth.
131. As if the familiar feeling of the pen in the cradle of the hand could help, as if its ribbon of black on the paper could bind up wounds or ravel a day that has come unstrung, distracted, I take it up and put myself in its care. It fails me and I fail. But maybe a phrase I strike will sound solid. Even the shoddiest walls have to have uprights somewhere. Tapping, listening, tapping again, and listening, I'll find them, solid enough to bear weight, take a two-penny nail, or even a spike about the size of this pen.
132. It's all a fabrication. I confess, my coronel, to having borne false witness: the hotel, the city . . . Even the brown poodle, asleep under the bed, is reinvented every few months at seventeen bucks a clip, and in turn he imagines himself in a cave lair, deluding, deluded. Let's say the plant is real, turning and reaching toward the one true sun. In these gray cities' subtler latitudes, the sun doesn't always show itself. What then? Pale, perhaps sick, we invent a sun, agree on one, face toward it all, and bask. 133. They tell me the world is wobbling on its axis and that the red shift means the universe is flying apart. I know. What else is new? The infinite spaces between the stars that scared Pascal are even bigger now, the silences even more silent. Giddy, I can't catch enough of a breath to bid farewell to my flown friends or, left alone, mourn my lost illusions. Which of those sons of bitches with whom I have drawn corks and broken bread will show up at my funeral? Red dots speeding away: I wobble, watching them go.
134. In the Rue Borgne, the law winks where the fences make wonderful neighbors and pawnshop windows offer cameras, guitars, watches, rings, and handcuffs to punctual, dandy, musical shutterbugs with a taste for bondage. At local bloodbanks and bars, the fluids ebb and flow in a way of life like any other, until monsieur le ministre opens the other eye to turn the raffish poets, painters, models, musicians, and actors into the riffraff they can seem, sensations' darlings, offensive to you, the discerning public, who do not have their nerves and lack their nerve.
135. Childhood always looks better than it is, seems to our inauthentic adult selves authentic and spontaneous. It wasn't. Some of the bullshit took us in; a lot we saw but couldn't call--the word was forbidden. Years passed and the rage subsided. Forgiveness? Hell, no. A defect of recollection and character: unable to face the truth, we invent a happier time--then now, and now then. It takes a grown-up's courage to admit we were lucky to get delicate moments too fine for our minds' coarse mesh to hold.
136. As curs in the street bear witness, a few brusque thrusts suffice; more than that is art and beside the point, or what the stevedore conceives to be the point, getting his load into the dark hold. Perhaps perverse, preferring distraction or needing illusion, we scorn brute being to look to quality-- in the way a tendril of damp hair will sign the linen's blank page. It never lasts; that figure of impermanence proclaims what good manners keep us from saying aloud, but out in the plain air, the dogs bark it.
137. The blowsy cabbage roses, the delicate fleurs de lys, the iteration of trellis border and scene can bemuse children or those under stress (Raskolnikov considered in some detail the condition of his wallpaper). The wall behind it is solid enough, stolid; its thin skin is what we agree on, what protects us from barbarous plaster, brick, and hewn stone, and the weather beyond and thieves. Whatever it seems, it is, except for the seams that time will pick at to tatter our fictions of civility-- an unpleasantness we can always paper over.
138. The gardener planned a surfeit of green to ripen a yearning in us for that frisson of pink and set his flowering tree in its small thicket to hide, shy, coy, to be surprised as it signs the beginning of May. Though green and brown try to reclaim the space, still that pinked nerve throbs the rest of the year. As a big tongue, doting, puzzled, flicks again and again at the gap in its expectations, so I return to rub my sockets clear with clumsy fists and see what my certain pang says must be there in that contrived glimpse through greenery's cleavage.
139. The man overboard who swam for fourteen hours to crawl at last onto some Trinidad beach demonstrates indomitable spirit, a lot of luck, or maybe the virtue of dumbness, the inability even to imagine not going on, taking the foreign fatal breath of water and going down. The beach in sight became--or should have become--boring, obvious, certainly not worth fourteen hours of pain and terror . . . The end glimmers in sight, a wavering line I think I see, a joke, a disappointment. Five more to go.
140. The repetitive nature of nature--that this year's leaves are like last year's--leaves the poor dullards hope they may sooner or later learn it, get it. (Got it? Good!) And all of us are dullards. The lessons continue, as on a given day in France where the cinquième is everywhere identical, in theory the exact same words spoken in unison to produce a nation. So we study the lesson- plans of these patient trees, their vivid new leaves what we should have expected. I close my eyes only a moment, and all goes blurry green.
141. I cannot remember the wood I cleared, the sequence of what bloomed first and what next, surprising the way you surprise a baby with what he expects. Peek-a-boo! The young are blind and the rich are able to decorate up to their eyes. I fall between, as better men have fallen into the interior. The doctor in Rutherford fell, the lawyer in Hartford fell down through the pavement, up through the ceiling, odd . . . But sight is odd that shimmers familiar cities attractive, exotic. To be at home at home, you need the lion tamer's whip and pistol.
142. These pigeons survive where tough crows can't, dance through traffic, beg, steal, crafty as gulls or crude jays. The trick is seeing the sense in pediment and cornice, merging with soot, and being able to eat garbage, Twinkies, kernels in horseshit. Most of us are awkward seabirds that take a mile of ungainly running to get ourselves airborne, and land hard. Okay in the Keys or the Caribbean, but not here. You got to learn street smarts. Pay attention, birdbrain: know how to dart down for sustenance, up for safety, and fast.
143. The hewn stone is cool to my leaning forehead, a prop, comfort, fortress, monument all at once, and a caution--the stone wall against which the apothegmatic head bangs itself to a bloody pulp. But heads perceived the rectangular solid, imagined the wall, and gave the stone its shape and position here. On an ordinary evening in New Haven with my son and daughter, I am the ghostly presence haunting them as my father haunts me. I would fold them all in arms of stone and speak in the stone's laconic tongue of reliable love;
144. they don't believe it, as I didn't and don't, but we can pretend, letting what faulty love we bear one another pass for that best we deserve to give and get. Those moments of courtesy like dainty insects in amber could survive as the data of history. Let grubby truth be carted away--with New Haven, a grubby place except in the mind. Drive on, and don't look back to hobble imagination. Let our havens always be new and the broken down world heal as the poets have taught us to think it may. It may if we say so often enough and loud enough.
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