Under Ideal Conditions
by Al Zolynas

originally published by Laterthanever Press, 1994, San Diego CA
Copyright Al Zolynas

for permission to reprint, contact Al Zolynas
2380 Viewridge Pl, Escondido CA 92026 or
E-mail: azolynas@alliant.edu
The San Diego Book Award for Best Poetry, 1994.

Other Books by Al Zolynas:



say in the flattest part of North Dakota
on a starless moonless night
no breath of wind

a man could light a candle
then walk away
every now and then
he could turn and see
the candle burning

seventeen miles later
provided conditions remained ideal
he could still see the flame

somewhere between the seventeenth and eighteenth mile
he would lose the light

if he were walking backwards
he would know the exact moment
when he lost the flame

he could step forward and find it again
back and forth
dark to light light to dark

what's the place where the light disappears?
where the light reappears?
don't tell me about photons
and eyeballs
reflection and refraction
don't tell me about one hundred and eighty-six thousand
miles per second and the theory of relativity

all I know is that place
where the light appears and disappears
that's the place where we live


In the traditional ballroom dances,
maintaining a frame
of right firmness is paramount.
The man will be unable to lead

and the woman unable to follow
unless a firm frame of the upper body
(including arms) is maintained.
If the woman's frame is too loose

the man will feel he is driving
a car with a steering wheel fashioned out of cooked pasta;
if too firm, he will feel he is in a contest
of strength and will, and he may try to overpower

the woman, thus ruining the dance.
The woman, on her part, despite the progress
of our uncertain age, must surrender to the man's lead
by remaining firm and following him as always

just before he leads.


The man steps
straight forward
on his heel just as in walking.
He steps into the body of the woman
as into a doorway
as she steps straight back.

For the man, this is not
as easy as it sounds.
He, in his consideration
of the woman, may tend
to step obliquely
or, worse yet, slide
his foot forward along the floor
into the woman
stubbing her toes
thus causing the very effect
he wishes to avoid.

We cannot overstress
the importance of stepping straight forward
on the heel
just as in walking:
that first step into
the space made by the woman's body


                      --for my students

Afternoon.  Across the garden, in Green Hall,
someone begins playing the old piano--
a spontaneous piece, amateurish and alive,
full of a simple, joyful melody.
The music floats among us in the classroom.

I stand in front of my students
telling them about sentence fragments.
I ask them to find the ten fragments
in the twenty-one-sentence paragraph on page forty-five.
They've come from all parts
of the world--Iran, Micronesia, Africa,
Japan, China, even Los Angeles--and they're still
eager to please me.  It's less than half
way through the quarter.

They bend over their books and begin.
Hamid's lips move as he follows
the tortuous labyrinth of English syntax.
Yoshie sits erect, perfect in her pale make-up,
legs crossed, quick pulse minutely
jerking her right foot.  Tony,
from an island in the South Pacific, sprawls
limp and relaxed in his desk.

The melody floats around and through us
in the room, broken here and there, fragmented,
re-started.  It feels Mideastern, but
it could be jazz, or the blues--it could be
anything from anywhere.
I sit down on my desk to wait,
and it hits me from nowhere--a sudden,
sweet, almost painful love for my students.

"Nevermind," I want to cry out.
"It doesn't matter about fragments.
Finding them or not.  Everything's
a fragment and everything's not a fragment.
Listen to the music, how fragmented,
how whole, how we can't separate the music
from the sun falling on its knees on all the greenness,
from this moment, how this moment
contains all the fragments of yesterday
and everything we'll ever know of tomorrow!"

Instead, I keep a coward's silence.
The music stops abruptly;
they finish their work,
and we go through the right answers,
which is to say
we separate the fragments from the whole.


I would sit in the dimness
of my father's wooden toolshed
waiting for the mice
to come out and feed
on the wheat we kept
in a hundred-pound sack for the chickens.

I kept silence, refusing
even to swallow, hoping the thud
of my heart wouldn't betray me.
The only way to the sack
was over my still body.

Outside, it was Australia,
Christmas, summer holidays--
the heat unbearable to all but reptiles
and schoolboys, and the mice
who lived their small, secret lives.

When the first mouse
nosed up the unfamiliar landscape
of my body, motes of dust
floating in the beams of light
that streamed in from the cracks in the wall
exploded minutely.

After hours of sitting
through the long summer, motionless,
alert, though my limbs were asleep,
the mice accepted me.
I simply became the way to their food.
Once, as many as a dozen were on me,
each carrying a single, precious grain.

Now, years later, I find myself still
sitting in the dim light,
legs locked in meditation, monkey-mind
swinging between imagined past and imagined future,
waiting for that most obvious of hiddens,
the ungraspable present.


Under the lamp's glow everything seems
edged with a benign fuzz or moss,
as if something had grown on all objects:
a green pen sprouting pale green fur;
a row of soft books tilted to one side;
manila folders, their velvety skin
like a girl's back;
from the familiar photos on the wall, a memory
of friendly eyes gazing across the short space at me;
a blue book of poems
with a title I can't see clearly.
With words, even at this distance,
I'm like an illiterate, I can't read most of them.
Everything I see
looks like it wants to be touched.


in a loud ringing voice,
a voice completely untouched by personality,
a voice straight
from the heart of the universe,
a coyote lets out two cries
through the pre-dawn mist.

The neighborhood dogs
respond with woofs, growls and howls,
the familiar voices
of disgruntled pets,
almost human
in their overlay of bravado,
their undertone of fear.


After the war,
my father's hobby
was photography.
New fathers often become
photographers, it seems.
But he took pictures of many things
besides me,
as if he suddenly felt it all
slipping away
and wanted to hold it forever.
In one of the many shoe boxes
full of photographs
in my father's house,
one photo sticks in my mind,
a snapshot
of a black hat
in mid-air,
the kind of hat fashionable in the forties,
a fedora--something
Bogie would wear.
Someone has thrown it
into the air--
my father himself or
someone else
in an exuberant moment
at a rally or gathering.
It's still there,
hanging in the sky
as ordinary and impossible
as a painting by Magrite,
and it's impossible how it wrenches my heart, somehow.
At odd moments in my life,
that hat appears to me
for no discernible reason.


The idea of it is distasteful at best.  Awkward box of wind, diminutive,
misplaced piano on one side, raised Braille buttons on the other.  The
bellows, like some parody of breathing, like some medical apparatus from a
Victorian sick-ward.  A grotesque poem in three dimensions, a rococo
thing-a-me-bob.  I once strapped an accordion on my chest and right away I
had to lean back on my heels, my chin in the air, my back arched like a
bullfighter or flamenco dancer.  I became an unheard of contradiction:  a
gypsy in graduate school.  Ah, but for all that, we find evidence of the
soul in the most unlikely places.  Once in a Czech restaurant in Long
Beach, an ancient accordionist came to our table and played the old
favorites:  "Lady of Spain," " The Saber Dance," "Dark Eyes," and through
all the clichÈs his spirit sang clearly.  It seemed like the accordion
floated in air, and he swayed weightlessly behind it, eyes closed, back in
Prague or some lost village of his childhood.  For a moment we all
floated--the whole restaurant:  the patrons, the knives and forks, the
wine, the sacrificed fish on plates.  Everything was pure and eternal,
fragiley suspended like a stained-glass window in the one remaining wall of
a bombed out church.


Every morning we pair off randomly
for thirty minutes of eye gazing,
sit in front of a partner,
knees touching, choose one eye
and sustain eye contact for the duration,
no attempt to dominate, no fierce staring,
just gaze, blinking naturally, easily,
just seeing what comes up,
what simply happens.

No big deal, right?
After all, you're only looking into the eye
of another human being.
Wrong!  Everything comes up,
especially fear--
fear of being judged, fear of being discovered
for the worthless turd you think you really are,
to say nothing of the deeper fears,
like disappearing or dying
or losing yourself in the abysmal pupil
of the dreaded "Other."

Sometimes someone starts laughing
and it spreads like contagion,
the whole zendo--fifteen pairs of locked eyebrows--
thirty people sputtering, giggling, guffawing,
no stopping the nervous energy
until it plays itself out through rising and falling swells.

Eros and the desire to merge also, and
sometimes the restfulness and peace of some kind
of contact with another, the calm
of seeing compassion and acceptance in that other eye.

Sometimes the hallucinations,
the face changing form right in front of you,
black hair turning gray,
beards sprouting, eyes changing color,
flickering electric auras,
men's faces becoming women's,
women's men's.
Once, I swear, looking calmly back at me
I saw my own face.


Stopped in early morning traffic,
about to leave the City of Jewels,
amidst the stirring market life, I see
by the side of the road in the dirt
a naked man lying on his back--
sadhu or beggar, or both--one knee up, one arm
flung over his eyes, slowly waking,
careless of the shoppers and workers moving past him.
He is wearing nothing, has
neither blanket nor pillow.
He is naked in the street--and asleep!--
and pointing into the new day
with a partial erection, counter-balanced
by heavy testicles, totally
unprotected in a world of moving objects.
Is this madness, ultimate trust?
There it is, my other life, that life
without pockets, without appointments,
without aerobics,
that life that says simply, "I am what I am,
and what I am is all of it."
Still, sitting inside my clothes inside the bus
I reassure myself:
In a little while, he'll have to get up
and start looking for food,
or, at the very least, if he's fasting, water.
Yes, he'll definitely
have to start looking for water.


I feed Marcello a can of Liver and Chicken.
He bolts it down too fast, as usual.
Two minutes later he throws up
on the back patio.
The first fly shows up within seconds,
ecstatic over life's bounty.
Within minutes, the word's out
somehow, the brothers and sisters
coming in fast.

The sun creeps along the cement floor.
Pretty soon, half the cat puke is in light,
the other in shadow, like sunrise
on a volcanic island.
At least thirty flies have gathered by now,
walking around and eating
what they're walking around on.

I move in closer.
Such organization and grace--
no fuss, no fighting.  There's obviously always
enough for everyone in the fly world.
And plenty of time to get off a quickie
with your neighbor.

I'm now on my hands and knees,
my face within inches
of the calm feeding of at least fifty flies
(give or take arrivals and departures).
None seem to notice me,
the sun glinting off their emerald thoraxes
and through their purple wings.


Three men in three baseball caps
are laboring in the back yard,
re-doing the landscape:  one scrapes off

the weedy topsoil with heavy mattock, swinging
it slowly like an elephant swinging its trunk;  another
plants new roses along the fence, tamping

them in with his bare palms into the new
loamy soil they've brought in large plastic bags;
the third works on the sprinkler system, laying

in the long white plastic piping so like
sun-bleached bones exposed in shallow graves.
I look on from behind glass, a man too busy, too

unwilling to do this kind of work, instead
reading students' essays at the dining-room table.
On the TV screen, CNN "updates"

"THE WAR IN THE GULF" with maps, disembodied voice-overs,
epauletted field correspondents, neat anchor persons,
grainy-gray videos shot from F-15s of pin-point

missile hits, vague buildings, bridges instantly, sound-
lessly disintegrating--no blood, no guts,
no horror, a clean war. . . .  Outside, the landscape

is slowly being rearranged:  what was a yard of weeds is now
a yard of dry dirt and small rocks.  To honor this
and the work of the three men, I get up, make tea

and take the pot, three cups, milk sugar, spoons
outside on a tray, and invite them to drink.
Van, the leader, the English speaking one, thanks me,

and we exchange comments on how the work is going:
"It looks good," I say.
"Yes, not too hot today.  Easy to work," he says. . . .

Back inside, I labor through a few more essays, scribbling
comments and letter grades at the end, my heart
not in it.  Outside, the three Vietnamese work.

I want to go out and say, "Look, I think the tea
was really meant to tell you
that I opposed the war, even marched against it. . . ."

For the first time I notice it:  a small olive-drab metal
ammunition box, stenciled clearly on the side:
 "200 Cartridges

7. 62 mm--M13,"
sitting there on my back patio
as ordinary and real as the red and silver

can of Coca Cola, the cut branches, a pile of leaves,
the mechanical leaf-blower,
three empty ceramic tea cups on a wooden tray.


I must solve a complex mathematical problem,
an immense algebraic equation
full of fractions, parentheses,
the square roots of square roots, to say nothing
of an ancient, cryptic hieroglyphics.

The equation spreads across the board
written by a teacher with miserable handwriting.
Her chalk keeps breaking and falling
to the floor where she tramples it underfoot
and grinds it into a fine powder.

I sit and stare at my test paper.
I copy down a few fractions.
For a moment I'm on the edge of finding
a way out of the labyrinthine equation, but
I've forgotten the manipulations,
forgotten how to add and subtract,
how to factor out, how to cancel out
one thing with another.

I look at the teacher and cry,
"How do you divide the square root
of seven with the ankh-fish-bird?!
What is twelve times alpha-omega minus
the four cardinal points of the compass?!"

She casts an impatient, sad glance in my direction
and continues the equation off the blackboard,
onto the wall, out the window,
drops the chalk--now a feather--
gestures and signs, using a system
current twenty-five thousand years ago
among shamans on the North American continent,
and at last I understand:

all systems begin and end in silence, nothing
needs solving, nothing is a problem....
her face composed as a Madonna's,
mysterious as a flight of birds.


Perhaps because my near vision is so good,
I could take up painting miniatures
and see how much of the world
I could capture on the smallest canvas.
Begin, say, by managing a midwestern cornfield with its farmhouse, barn and
onto a postage stamp.
Eventually get the scene from the north rim of the Grand Canyon down
onto a polished grain of rice, or maybe
render Notre Dame Cathedral
with particular attention paid to the famous stained glass windows
onto the secondary wing of a baby gnat.

And thus could I trick my eyes
into seeing great distances again, those distant stars I remember from
childhood days,
galaxies really, untold light years away.
They could show up again as pulsing points of light,
charming details
in my vastly important life.



I support your walls
with their stained,
translucent windows,
your filigreed ceilings
with their busy chandeliers.
I'm the bottom of the box
you built
for yourself to live in.


It all happens on me--
birth, love, death,
sleeping and waking.

Your passionate dreams,
full of violence and hope,
are nothing to me.
Through all the changes
I remain the same.


I'm made to be put upon,
to be sat at.
Round or square,
my numbers are millions.
I stand solidly
on my many legs.
Where you find me,
you find the ungainly two-leggeds,
moving, always on the verge
of losing their balance,
of falling down


I receive only to give away.
My life is simple
and full of surrender:
I'm picked up, put down.
In the end, I'm always made clean
or broken.


I mock the hand
that feeds with me,
that made me in its own image.
Handle and tines,
wrist and fingers.
I'm metal and will live
almost forever.


What, after all, is cutting?
One thing moving through another.
What about pain, you say?
What's pain?


I'm a bed of wind,
a pendulum of quiet ecstasy,
an ocean wave of bliss.

Lie in me,
forget your troubles,
remember who you are.


You use me to call
and warn each other,
to remind yourselves
of beginnings and endings.
But it's just another
of your wonderful games
wrought out of metal.
If you ever heard me once--
truly heard me--
the universe would be yours again.


I live in two realms:
by daylight, the catatonia of stiff wax.
Under the sun
I can only sleep.
At night, in dark emergencies,
I go into an ecstasy
of broadcasting my small light,
everywhere blessing the shoulders
of furniture.
I burn!  I melt!
The more I'm awake,
the more I disappear.


Clearly, I'm what's real.
Don't be fooled
by those twin ephemera,
substance and light.


What hope do I have
with so many hands
to hold on with?
At night, when the leaves blow,
I feel a fluttering inside.
I want to let go into the wind.


You could learn much
from how I sit
on my lily pad,
and ready for everything.


eating the earth
passing it through
passing through


I'm what happens
after what happens.
And what's that, you say?
What's that you say?

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