What Ghosts There Were
A Monologue in Verse

“What Ghosts There Were” was first produced by The Bridge Theatre Company, February 3-20, 2000, at the Boston Center for the Arts. The cast, directed by Maggie Dietz, included Suzanne Carlin as The Nude and Derry Woodhouse as The Artist.


The Nude, a young actress of twenty-six, lies in an artist’s Boston studio. Around her, the typical trappings: pillows, scarlet fabric, more swatches piled off to the side. She sips red wine from a glass—slowly, in choreographed fashion—perfunctorily refilled as she gets low. Beside her, on a table, a bowl of pomegranates and a pack of cigarettes. Two large Styrofoam Greek columns lie over to one side, over which drape her clothes. Clutter of canvasses throughout. Low music—jazz—floats from the stereo, forming a backdrop for her words which, nonetheless, the artist never hears. She has been told, “Lie still. Don’t talk.” Her reverie is inner monologue.

Time: Night. The present. She thinks:

*


The train in the subway was a kind of birth.
Or death.  A canal at any rate,
far down at the black end a shade of light.

I stood up by the driver, the car was quiet,
bags at my side, staring through the dark
blinking into stations as we passed.

I thought of worms, moles, groundhogs, ants
grazing around us in the burrowed rock,
and once my stop came to a still I stepped

down to the platform and I saw a rat—
a huge black rat with tiny human hands,
pink, its wet fur slimed and spiked

with sewage maybe, sitting on a bench
as if it waited for me.
The terminal was empty.  One green light

sputtered as the train wheels groaned and went.
I dropped my bags and, turning to the bench,
the rat was gone, but in its place (and I

never will forget the mark this made),
a girl sat, something smoldering on her lap,
and when she looked at me, her face was mine.


That was, for me, the beginning of the end.
Not that I’d not had visions.  Long before
voices in the elm where no birds were,
cornflower angels in a fume of sun,
across the lawn the ghost of gasoline  
where white sheets tucked and bellied on the line,
I saw the spider dancing on the wire
that separated bliss from bliss.
But that was Kansas.  You expect that in a place
the tornadoes whip up so fast, so fast
one minute you’re just sitting on the yard,
familiar patch of grass and tall sweet tea,
the next you’re in a ditch ten miles away.
This was different.  For one thing, it was two
thousand miles, in a city where I knew
no one.  And I was standing underground
and looking at a girl who has my face?

I’m not saying it’s the strangest thing.
I’m not saying stranger things can’t hap—
In fact I saw it as a fitting in,
a kind of consummation, in the dark.
Two halves, a little interval between
(or big:  two thousand miles and twenty years)
before the houselights flicker and the draw
reconvenes,  
thick in its drowse of wine and nicotine,
the veins surged up with coffee, and the thrust
proceeds:  sub specie aeternitatis,
Act Two:  The Meaning of It All.  (Act One:   
Preliminaries, setting up of action,  
determined quirks of character and place,
time to praise what tragi-comic flaws  
there be—all set?  the circus wired to blow,
the cannon propped, leveled at the stars,
the nerves erect, straddling the ball’s
homage to the guts’ evacuation—
purge!—
where as yet the brooch just glitters in the eyes,
the revenger’s cheeks are ruddy, but with rouge,
and Ophelia in a florist nine-to-five
happily arranges poesies.)  So la mi.
Prepare the beheadings!  
Prepare the beheadings!  Lop.  This wine.   
It gets me.  Makes me want to dance.
(O surely some evil will befall someone!)
Would you like that, darling?  Tell me.  Shall I dance?
Or, no, might Madame’s movement interrupt
the Maestro’s progress?  Or is it regress?  these
exquisite pains with which you undertake
to get the both of us:  vis-à-vis
the image of me bedded in your head
warring with the one beneath your brush.
I can be still.  (“Lie still,” he said.  “Don’t talk.”)
I can lie still and quiet as a moth.
I am not tempted by the claret flame.
Still as a churchmouse.  Docile as a frog
splayed on your dissection board, its veins
impassioned with the artificial dye,
pinned, a Prince of Pieces, crucified,
in dread anticipation of your kiss.  
I can be that.  Quieter than a fish
at the bottom of the moonless pond you cast in.
Still as the frost that claws the windowpane.
As . . .

Sometimes when I’m on the stage I think
the audience exists for me alone.
They give me being, as I give them breadth
of character, a role to fall into.
A part to die for.  Maybe that’s the thing
that keeps them coming back.  They glimpse in me
the manifest illusion or facade
of some divine fecundity of purpose:
that from these clumsy bodies, sacks of curd,
fodder for frauds and psychotherapists,
an impulse might arise, Athena-like,  
step out along the catwalk of a night,
and move among us, speaking in blank verse.

That was a way of saying it.  A bit abstruse.
(Fecundity?  Haven’t heard that one in a while.)
Back to prosaic earth.  Ho hum.  Ho hum.
(Farewell, you spheres! and heaven’s fields, adieu.
Your music cannot cheat so well as it is famed to do.)
Where was I?  On the stage.
Mostly I think of it along the lines  
of sex.  It all comes slobbering back to that,
does it not, my darling? like a beaten dog?
Sex:  the way there’s something going on,
something intimate and highly-strung, yet
solitary, too, terminally at one
with transience.  Not saying it’s not fun,
sublimely fun, metaphysical roulette,
nightly little tryst between the hook
and those cold fishes sweating in the dark,
leering at you, searching out your curves
from every angle.  But you’re in it, too.
You come here every night, do what you do,
the old routine, you take the same way home
regardless of the fact at every turn,
in every alley you can feel their eyes
fixing on you, casting out their nets.
And the weird thing is, you love it.  You’re the fly
that thrives on its ability to rest
still in the cobweb in the corner of the pane,
up to the instant when it feels the line
tighten, just so slightly, and it bursts  
free of the just-forestalled catastrophe,
screwing its head in frenzy on the glass
with a lunatic’s abandon—wa la whee!
Although not every time.  It comes to pass
(Act Two), the prompter drowsing, unaware,
the celestial timekeeps working to a T,
it thinks the web was ruffled by night air
and nestles down into the spider’s care.  

Maybe that’s not the best analogy.
I could do better if I had my head
free of the buzz of this infernal jazz.
God’s balls, my boy, the things that I could tell!
Sprung from the well-head of a pure idea,
nurtured with earth, partaken of the bowels,
a basket braided with the Bible’s belt,  
Moses-Minerva, may I so propine,  
Sir, this sip in honor of your health,
this blood-red seed where swims the sunken host
of Pharaoh’s devils gnashing up my sleeve
(or not), adrift in the throat’s captivity:
the dreggish fumes you take if you take me.

Words, words, words, words.  Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum.
Nonce sense.  To pass the stones of time . . .
Where are you now, da Vinci?  Psst.  Leo.
Be wary as you sail into my smile.
O Christopher Columbus, test your map
against that which you least expect to find:
my nothing-nuggets, patches at the heart,
the morsels on this continental plate
whose very taste would be the chill of you.
The blankness of the canvas bleeding through
may be the closest that you come.  To me,   
immensity requires an open mind.
What think you, Galileo?  What are those spheres
whose music is the opposite of sound?
These frequent vacancies so tightly crammed
inside my skull you’d think I was the crowned
empress of emptiness (as I am).
What think you, Sigmund?  Am I nuts enough to crack?
Or am I (ah, my Guildenstern) your flute?
The open stops, you know, admit the tune
as much as those foreclosed.  What stops in me  
lie bared beneath the taxi of your hand,
unmanned, unsunken, still to overcome;
your camel hair that waves toward this mirage
with ever-pressing thirst to stake its claim;
your palette that would pluck the very heart
out of my mystery?

The mystery was there, and moved among us
in the first place, although we knew it not.
The mystery was staring at my face
that shuddered on itself and disappeared
like a fume of—.  Except that it was dark.
The terminal was empty.  One green light.
And whatever it was was smoldering on her lap—
No.  I knew exactly what that was.
And as she went up in a plume of smoke
made from my mouth before my very eyes,
that bundle went up also, to find its birth
beneath the playbill of a different night,
under the molehill of a different earth,
when winter would with characterless grace
bequeath my just deserts.


My father was an artist.  Sculpted things.
(That’s the idea, a little conversation.)
Maybe you’ve heard of—no, you wouldn’t have.
A boondock primitive, all arts and crafts.
What was it they called him in Time-Life?
The ‘Junkyard God.’  Our ‘Rodin of the Sticks.’
‘Earthshaking—in a mild, midwestern way.’
People used to flock from miles around,
miles off the highway (there used to be a sign),
to stand in our front yard, take photographs.
The Minister of Cultural Affairs
(whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa—
the Min-i-ster of Cul-tur-al Af-fairs . . .  
Holy baloney! a perfect blank verse line!              Bells sound, the lights in the room
I knew she had it in her.  The auld girl.                  flash on and off, a game show . . .
Somebody grab a pencil, write that down!
‘The Minister of Cultural Affairs’—
Sure it’s not immortal but screw that,
maybe I’ll get a grant!)                                         Bells, lights fade.
Where was I?  dum de-dum de-dum . . .  Ah,			
the bigwigs in Topeka making plans
to get him in the capital.  I mean
his masterwork.  The fruit of twenty years.
Twenty years, and close to seven stories tall,
back of the house, sprung against the fields,
Olympic mess of scrap and burnt-out steel,
chicken wire, water heaters, broken down
tractors, bedsprings, gutters, he didn’t care,
engines, axles, radiators, pumps,  
two twisted harrows jutting at the sky
like arthritic hands at prayer, the spike
of a tapping drill to represent
the steeple, four old shot-up sides of steel
pulled from the bus that rusted in a ditch
after the wreck that killed some local kids
not long before, became the folding doors
that opened on the haywire, busted-up,
light-crazed and jumble-tumble maze he called  
Cathedral.   
And people, they would come from miles around
to stand there, in it, ogle at the what-
in-heaven’s-name-don’t-rightly-know-but-Mister,
it’s a marvel.  So it was.  Beautiful.

Fruit of the years before his child was born—
inheritance?  a birthright, can it be?—
and finished it and went up in a fume
out on the highway, underneath the sign,
ten miles to kansas artist!  turn right here!
while white sheets tucked and bellied on the line
sitting in the yard of my six-years’
familiar patch of grass and tall sweet tea
thinking tornado when my mother called . . .
But it’s still there.  And bunched with what remains
of the yard and picket fence and bone-white house
caught in the throat of whatsoever child
that was.   
I can remember how I used to be
infatuated with his hands.
I remember how they smelled, like gasoline,
and they were very large, and thick, and brown,
with pink flecks at the knuckles where he’d knocked
the flesh away.  Oh, they were lovely hands.
All bruised and chipped and knotted with his work.
Hard work.  Not like the dainty stuff you do.
Wrenching, stripping, welding, hammering,
beating the metal to submission like
a god might do with us—
                                          make it obey,
to break and bend us to the beautiful.
I can remember how I used to sit  
on his lap at the table when we used to sing,
and out behind the house I used to hear,
at night, him out there pounding, pounding,
while I watched the spiders dance across the sill
and white heat lightning splashed against the fields
like patches of God’s canvas bleeding through.
‘He’s got the whole world in his hands,
He’s got the whole wide world in his . . .’
But it’s still there.  I’m going back someday.   
I am.  I’m going back, and I can see it,
see myself again inside the maze,
that ruin-haunted, Time-undaunted, crazed
cornfield Cathedral of my dad.  (And oh,
you therapists, if that won’t be sublime
transference, I don’t know what in hell is.)

Where was I?  Boston.  Underground.
Lured by the distant artificial lights.   
The train wheels shuddered once and disappeared,
and there it was.  The writing on the wall:
theatre district.  Scale of what I knew.
I took my bags that night and walked around
the Garden.  The reflecting pool was drained.
Ice in the willows made them lean like grand
dames that cast their pearls to the lights,
and the dark was full of whispers like applause.
But this is exposition.  How express
that feeling, not that I was on the verge,  
but that I’d actually broken through
to the new form, that it had broken through
on me, in me—that I couldn’t be the same;
that all my life had been a preparation,
a close and careful study of a glass
drawn with well water, water I’d divined
and tasted on my tongue the tinge of iron,
the pure and simple clarity of fire
the core distilled—how can I express
that fleck of cold, that filament of fire
caught from the old earth’s veins, a cold
so absolute and clear my throat inflamed,  
flamed in my very being as it swept
over the smothered heart and racing lungs
and washed across my belly where the seeds
lay waiting, hushed, aflame with open lips
like a nest of birds.   
like a nest of birds.  I remember once
I found a nest of meadow larks.
Far in the fields, tucked among the green
folded ears of corn.  The sun was loitering  
down in the next field by the whitewashed barn.
Seven of them.  Babies.  On the ground beside,
the mutilated body of the mother.
Killed by—by what?—whatever kills, the whim
of some boy’s gun as she came arcing past
homeward, almost home.  It must have been  
a while.  The eyes.  Her body just a sack
of meal the ants grazed in.  And from her young,
as I leaned over, from their mouths arose
so thick a silence it was palpable.
Not even any strength to make a sound,
just splayed there, craning, pure with fear,
their jaws like razors, diamonds of flame
so frail that just to touch would be to quench,
so fierce that to touch would be to burn
the edges of your soul from everything
that kept you safe and separate, at home—
so pure a hunger, and so absolute  
a lack,  
that to lift, to taste, to even tilt that glass
would flush you through at once and make you whole.
And the silence in the fields was so immense
around their open mouths I didn’t hear
my mother calling, hours after, when
she found me there, their mother on my lap,
a wisp of smoke, a sack, the seven babes  
like votives, candles drawn in homage round
a circle of my cornfield makeshift shrine.  
Their hunger was a portion I divined
from a single glass of water from a well.
And since deep-drawn, the seeds it watered burned
and swelled as if engendered by their own.
But that was Kansas.  All that I could tell
of depth and distance, of immensity,
when you came down to it, was water from a well.
What would I tell now I could taste the sea?

The sea was farther off.  But I could smell
its tincture in the mist that swept across
the Garden air and pecked against my lips.
There were the Swan Boats, ready to set sail
across the bubble of a hoodwinked eye,
chained like children.  In the spring I’d see  
them glide, I’d watch them from the willow leaves
ferry bright tourists with their plastic shades
beneath the droppings of the pidgeoned eaves,
baying like beagles at the reverend dead
enshrined in recent stone.  I paid my coin
and crossed myself, one spring.  I lost my own
glasses peering down into that green
obliterating murk.  I ducked
my hand and found the sunlight out of reach.   
The face faded.  What was I looking for?   

I know one thing.  The city swallows you.
Loads you in its throat, into its veins,
clamps you to its tracks and drives you down,
a B-line smack to the gangrened heart.
(Red Line to Braintree, Blue an opened vein
to Wonderland—what matter?  All the same.)
It’s cold as hell in there but you don’t freeze.
You don’t.  You only sit and think and wait
in an empty theater, on a banished throne
midwinter, in the darkness of a day,
while ripples crown and film about your head
in celluloid, the lives you might have led,
peeling like an onion to a core
that never comes.  You peel.  You peel.  You peel.
You peel to emptiness, and that is death.   
So much is certain, is it not?  So much
seems my soul, my being caught between
what passes for truth, and what just passes.
And what, whatever else may be, may spring—
the manifest illusion of divine
purpose?  Where is purpose in this?  Say.
What purpose in these syllables I lay,
Procrustes, on the rack of this blank verse?
Lop.  Th’alternative?  Well.  The mind goes blank,
the field remains untilled, the enemy
advances.   
Silence and stillness are the enemy,
your enemy, my dear.  For what you said,
in that defining moment when I dropped
my clothes (you loading up the stereo,
as if that could protect us), the glow
of lamplight on my skin adjusted so,
in that defining moment when you said,
‘Lie still.  Don’t talk.’ and in that, opted
not for the monstrous music of the spheres,
not for the twisted orchard of my heart,
not for the labyrinth of deep and dazz-
ling darkness that the poet says is God,
but for a shell, a surface (through your pride? through fear?),
what you gained was jazz, but lost a world, my dear.

I don’t even like jazz.  Never have.  Not me.
But it will be there.  In the portrait, it will make
its notes felt in the squiggling of a curve,
in the smoke that winds up like a clarinet
if I should smoke.  (Should I smoke?)  It will infect
even the polished purity of fruit—                                 She reaches into the bowl.
Plastic!  Leonardo, I’m appalled.
And look, the paint is even chipping off.
Okay, okay, I’ll put it back!  Jees.  
Not like it’s life or death.  Or is it?  Say,
how big is this?  Should I expect someday
to be found hanging in the MFA?
(Maybe even plastered to the T,
a token to your immortality?)
Maybe on a Wednesday (the old routine)
strolling through the vacant lunchtime air
among schoolchildren, ravens in my hair,
the nibble of gentry at lubricious tarts,
Monet on the mouse-pads in the Museum Shop,
ching-ching, the bell, ascend the sandstone stair,
down the long corridor to find me there
framed on the far wall of my favorite room
gaping the gulf, lounging on the brink
of all I will remember from this night?
And what will I remember?  How the wine
flared like a will o’wisp inside my head?
How the fake fruit tempted, how we might have said
anything to keep the rats at bay,
nibbling at the onion of this silence?

Oslo was like that.  Oslo.  Oh,
just a guy I lived with for a while.
Ha.
More like a pact between the dying and the dead.
Though at first it seemed the opposite of that:
A dying to be alive.  At any rate.
Sometimes at night I’d watch him as he lay
smoldering in his rosy opiate dream
of cellphones, celluloid and private jets—
the TV on, but mute, the images
dancing on the walls like hieroglyphs
in our subterranean domestic gloom—
and think that if I took a knife and pressed
its point into his sole and opened him
from toe to tip, peeled hard and pressed inside,
I just might find the thing that made him tick,
beyond the heart, that like a blood-gorged tick
dropped from a limb, brushed from a blade
of grass, climbed leisurely to nurse and suck
upon your softest places—beyond that,
and far beyond his need, his junkie’s need
to have me under him at any cost,
and not just that, I’m telling you screwed down,
pinned, like a June bug, iridescent wings
spreading for a flight that never comes,
or if it does, to come in fits and bursts
(his mostly), mine a bursting just to twist
free of the spike he’d drilled into my heart
that kept me there, even as the first,
even as the first was being lost—and then
to hold that over me as if it was my fault,
my choice, indicative of something in  
my self that would choose death in any case?   
If I could press
past that, I thought that maybe I might find
the chip, the fleck of mica in the soul,
embedded in the shards that made him whole,
a tiny thing, a cameo . . .  
And still the whole time thinking that, I knew
this process would go on forever, peel
on peel, an endless stripping back until
nothing remained to tell me who I was,
why I was here, what part in hell I played,
nothing but silent, unrepentive air.
And that was terrifying.   
                                       So I stayed
beneath him, night by night, until I made
a thing between us.  And I kept it.  And one day
in the dead of winter, she was born.   
I named her May.

The jazz has wound up, the bottle by now is empty. The artist moves to the stereo, fetches another CD (more jazz), opens another bottle of wine. She sits up, stretches. Takes a cigarette from the table, lights it. Sings, like a lullaby, to a broken tune:

                 A slumber did my spirit seal.
                 I had no human fears.
                 She seemed a thing that could not—feel?
                 the weight of earthly years.

                 No motion has she now.  No force.
                 She neither hears nor sees.
                 Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
                 with rocks and stones and trees.

Full of surprises, ain’t she?  The auld girl.  My mother taught me that.

Recites:

                 O joy that in our embers
                 is something that still lives,
                 that nature yet remembers
                 what was so fugit—

                 O joy that in our embers  
                 is something that—dost live?   
                 that nature yet remembers
                 what was so fugitive.

Dost?  Doth.  Dost to doth.  Ha.  Embers.  Ash:

A plume of smoke as she exhales.

I don’t even smoke.

New jazz starts up. She puts the cigarette out, takes her former position. The artist comes forward, adjusts the lights (a flicker), refills her glass, returns to his easel.

Back to the drawing board, hey?  Curtain, and . . .  
Scene.
Where are we now?  Don’t tell me, let me guess.
(It’s not so easy when there’s two of you.)
Deltoids?  Clavicle.  Croak if I get close.
Lower.  Help me now.  I see it.  Almost . . .
Oi!  For feck’s sake, Ma, ’e’s on me tits!   
Ehem.  That’s boosoms to you, young lady.
O see, see how aloof the Maestro stands,
just at the distance discipline demands
(neither too close for the libidinous hooks
to catch, nor so withdrawn to be a clam),
my peerless knight of mediocrity!
Heart’s conquistador, thwarted though you be:
Columbus in his crow’s nest, Moses damned
to view, cloven beneath him, Canaan’s lands,
New Worlds of curds and lamplit honey.  How  
like a martyr to the limits of his art—
famously resigned—how like a saint he drops  
the eye in deference to the suffering lot
of mere humanity.  What a load of stink.
Tell me, darling, really what you think.   
Am I worth the crossing?  (Obviously not.)
Or am I a jewel, hung aloft the night,
dangling from the lobe of Afric’s ear,
the unrecovered country which you passed
once in a dream, and then only as near
as the gods of All That Must Not Be allow—
for I know (believe me), how your life depends
upon the thing forever out of reach,
apple or plum, cluster on the vine,
star-cluster, or the brightest star that beat
once at your own breast in its milky way,
I know,
I know it in my motherbones.  (My May.)


Where was I?  So.  You getting any of this?
I’ll bet you are.  I can read it in your squint.
Old Pokerface, stoking me for old flames,
ghost embers, angels’ dust of what remains.
It’ll take more than jazz.  The cards are stacked,
and I’ve got hands no one is going to touch.
Flush of diamonds like a nest of glowing seeds.
Ace of hearts, the queen of sunken spades.
Card-house cathedrals and immensities.
Myths, darling.  Shall I tell?  One goes like this.

Marlborough Street.  I’m walking toward the Garden.
Magnolia petals float like boats on air,
swan-blossoms, milkwhite votives setting out  
over the darkness of the waxen green,
that undertow of shadow.  It must be spring.
Then it’s not.  And they’re not.  I’m not.  Nothing is.
The grid that holds that fierce fantastic play
of sun on stone, geometry of glass,
sky-mirroring tower and the Trinity-,
alters, minutely, shifts—as if the mask
you all this time had credited as flesh  
and blood, as lover, mother, soulmate, friend,
slipped at your touch (my god) but still the eyes  
hold, though offset now, half-right, and dark
withdraws the incandescence, flutter out.
What is the howl of all Hell to that flood
that sweeps across you then?  Salt, acerbic,
bile in the wound your own incisors shred,
your own benumbed and famished flesh consumes,
betrayed by life, conscripted by the dead
to sit in abject silence on a throne
at the bottom of a moonless pond you cast in—
No.  Not pond.  Not well.  Nothing but the sea,
while ripples film about your head, the swirl
of tides beyond you; far above, the dome
of sunlight beacons where your sometime-home
lies still in state,
interred in metal husks and brittle springs,
the peapod of a house, the quiltpatch yard,
from the col a still voice calling . . .  
And the silence of that floor was so immense
the sirens couldn’t touch it, and the depth-
charges paralleveled at my heart
couldn’t sound it.
couldn't sound it.  Not till they had pumped
me clean, and seven days I lay in State,
turning and turning on my clammy bed,
strapped like Andromeda as Medusa’s head
(my savior) turned their therapists to stone,
did they get the word they wanted.  I was free.
But what they couldn’t touch, and didn’t get:
the seeds.

I’m not saying that’s the strangest thing.
I’m not saying anything at all.
I am the buzzing at the windowpane,
the frost that claws, the ticker tape that binds
your line of vision to its floundering hook
trolling and tearing in the murk of me.
Be careful, Sherlock.  Elementary:
There are things in here you might not want to see.
Consider our capacity for loss.
Consider that each absence leaves a space
fitted to what filled it, husk or shell,
footprint, tidemark, crater, well,
lacuna of the locust on the tree,
the snakeskin stocking like an evening glove;
consider that these voids are everywhere,
given our propensity to move,
that everything that takes shape takes away,
matter from matter, mirrored, as it moves;
consider, too, my dear, that this is true
for all that insubstantial stuff we call  
The Inner Life, imaginative play,  
the little Lyric BlackBox tucked away
inside an alley of the skull, your Globe,
whose repertory troupe will run the rounds
as long as you sustain them, for you are
both audience and actors, manager and crew,
props, costumes, lights, and literary rep.,
the sometime-in-house critic with a lip
for all outmoded, artificial trash,
tinseled pretension, dialogue that smacks
too much of poetry, of the unReal
(but, oh, with such a soft spot for O’Neill)—
for it’s no secret that ideas have form,
as every man will tell you from his bowels
the instant that he hears the marriage vows,
and the figure of a thought exerts upon
a nation, till it equals obsolete
or till some other figure beats it down,
stamps it in the monolithic mud
for eons maybe—tum, ti-tum, ti-tum
goes Time in all its vengeance . . .
Consider this:  that matter, consciousness
meet at the crest of this momentary wave,
swell on their own consumption, have their say
and sweep into obliterating night;
that all life is the blind, usurping spite
of twindling inbreds dying to be born,
bearing each others’ heads as up they sway
and crash without a sound upon the deep
that is as deep and silent as the mind
of God, our dark protector and our stay,
reflecting pool and Universal Dad
splayed on the highway as the fume of sun
wriggles like a maggot on the lawn
some six-year’s Sunday child sips tea in;
consider, too, what passes for the shade
of life, a leech strapped to an invalid,
itself grows gorged and falls back on the dark
before, behind, within us, all around;
that vacancy’s our nature, and the void
our first inheritance (both throne and cell);
that from the moment of our birth, expelled  
from ripeness that clung to us like a glove
we trail, cresting on a wave of blood,
howling to heaven for the fields we fled,
oh is it any wonder that we wail,
already mostly dead?

You get that, Leonardo, and you’ve made
a start.  Your fifteen-minute’s burst of fame
veining the shaft you drop down endlessly,
tied to a line of scent, a dim perfume
vaguely at one with the odor of the womb
you half-remember, and will pine for always.
It’s cold as hell in here but you won’t freeze.
You have my surety on that.  Proceed,
first through the horns of ivory, my smile,
my dark tongue lapping like a river boat
edged to the shore; look, it takes your weight
beguilingly.  (And did I see your coin?)
Godspeed . . .
Downstream dark angels flit about you now,
attend your thick descent, like baby bats,
their faces remembered out of childhood books,
all that Pandora loosed, the withered Sphinx,
faces far back as preschool you had thought
undone forever, twirl there—your first kiss
stolen over figures in the clay,
companions swimming in the sandbox frame
or housed in the schoolbus unaware
of the grim twister ripping at their heels—
lift from a ditch light-years away
to linger, twirl to one, disperse
across forgotten lawns like Sibyl’s leaves.   
By now you are a chambered nautilus
of thought; harpies and sirens hold no sway.
Fast from the shore the river slips
downwinding, willows bending in their strings
brushing the current where reflected, there,
beneath you—what?—a film of memory,
a fleck, a flicker, kernels and gives place,  
dissolves.  And darkness ravishes the stream.

If you remember when you light upon
that deepest cove that opens on the orchard,
ask for me there.  It’s where I keep my court,
seven crowns about my head, the blood-red
orbs from my branching memories, the seeds
full fruited in the orchard of my heart.
And if you feel the chill that passes all
belief, be calm, my dear; as evening falls,
my lord routinely takes the garden air;  
it’s he you sense beside you, circling there,
it’s he, the black moth guttering your flame,
dark ravisher, the frost that claws your pain.
It’s he that taught me everything I know
and then some.  O vagrant little soul,
I am, I’m almost sorry for your loss,
as much as I, the most of it, can be.
But how impossible to remain (can you not see?)
impartial in these matters that concern us.
Snatching and patching, as if you could contain
in a stroke, a brush, a canvas, in a frame—
no matter.  (Did you even ask my name?)

I’ll give you something.  A little verse I tell
myself at bedtime, which is wedtime, cold
as the frost of fifteen, twenty wild Decembers,
when in disgrace with fortune’s seedy eyes,
when the stage ghosts haunt me and I long to take  
the artificial light into my veins,  
to stand there and be brilliant for a while,
the way I used to stand inside the maze
of light at morning when the six-years’ sun
prismed through the steel and broken glass,
and the fields stretched out forever, and the voice
I made was mine and full and free
and endless as it leapt up from the nest
like larks ascending—
                                    their mouths like little flames,
candelabrum mirrored in a glass,
chalice of well-water that you brought
to the altar as the days pushed past
from May to August in the summer of his going,
summer replacing spring, and autumn then,
a tall, refinèd taper with its flame
of husk, a wisp, a shell of what had been
stamped from creation (how?) the very self
that made the bed of earth I walked on.
And how I’d take that water from the glass,
and the dry nest kept and tucked into the side
pocket of the altar he’d created
from the seats of the bus in which the children died,
and sprinkle it with water from the well,
and sing my darkness to the long-quenched flames,
my six-years’ sorrow to those little beings
that lay beyond me, all earth’s now, and sing  
for all poor creatures born to light their day
under the bower of unbroken stars, the sway
of night behind the golden dome of noon,
my song a steeple, spiring like a stem,
sunflower rising from my native state
all the mute morning, folding like a hymn
at heaven’s gate.

          Hell:

Hell is a place where everything you’ve lost
beds down with all you’d ever hoped to gain.
The offspring is a dumb, detestable,
poor stunted creature called What Might Have Been.
And it’s your destiny to nurse that thing
through all Oblivion.
And everything you’ve left—the bone-white house,
the yard beneath the sun’s prismatic ray,
gurgle of well-water in a glass,
your mother’s voice alighting from above
as you lay drowsing with the breezes at your head,
candescent angels in a field of—May . . .
Hell is a place where everything you love
lies out of reach.  That’s what I should have said.

Silence.

Tick-tock.  Tick-tock.  Tick-tock, tick, tick, oh, words
what words, what sounds, what syllables for this
what measurement, what stanza, line, what verse,
when in the very act the mind goes blank—
which act?  Which act of what?  Where was I?  (tick)
The heart a timebomb ticking out its loss
mured in the muds of winter?  (tick)  Stand still,
stand still, you ever-moving spheres!  Oh how  
to force, to apply the rigors of what craft—
Intention.  Think.  Think.  You have your head.
What’s your intention?  Ha.  To let it be
(or not).  Whether ’tis nobler for the mind
to suffer to be happy for a time? (tick tick)
To leap to the streets with artificial joy,
or a pure joy passing understanding, but
happy?  Perhaps?  O haply I think on thee
(or not).  Tick-tock, tock, tock . . .  Earth, gape!
How long have I been here?  O Lord my God,
how long, how very long have I been here.
‘When I survey— ‘When I in awesome wonder,
consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . .’
God, the infernal racket of this jazz!
But oh, somebody (father?) tell me please,
mother of mine, how long have I been here?

Silence.

Spring.  In the spring, it must have been.  (What year?)
Magnolia blossoms floated out like swans
on air, like votives, candling the air.
Processionals . . .  What I was driven to.
I with my midnight walking.  Overhead,
the gaslamps huddled in their little fumes.
Marlborough Street.  So quaint.  All quiet
but for the baying of a dog, far down
at the Garden end.  tock tock, tock tock
my footsteps as I slipped from pool to pool  
under the lamps spread out like stepping stones,  
stations, spotlights tripping down the dark
infinite proscenium of God,
our heroine
in her one-night-only, searing monologue,
‘Now You See Me / Now You Don’t.’  tock tock, tock tock
Flash:  I am a star, I am a queen,
I am the greatest actress in this town!
Zip:  tock tock, tock tock . . .  The old routine.
And on and on.  It must have been awhile.   
My veins were rearing but I had my head.   
(Oslo, the rat, had left some in the bed
under the mattress where she lay, still sleeping.
I lit the candles and the silver spoon,
and hey nonny nonny, went out to jump the moon . . .)
Near four, it must have been, I started home.
Fairfield to Exeter, Dartmouth, down
the long line angling at the Trinity,
Hancock behind it like a grid of night,
starless, a dark too daunting for a star;
tock tock, southward, crossing now Columbus
(O my conquistador, where were you then?),
my breast a white moth leaping into flame,
my phoenix heart, the dust inside my veins
opening to a desert where I see,
still I see it, spread before me like
Wonderland:  Jerusalem, wriggling like a fume
on the horizon where the streetlamps bleed to sky,
eternal City, transparencies of stone,
prismatic towers, steeples, and the one
sound, within it, pounding, pounding,  
hot on the anvil, hammering the heart,
working its darkness to a golden bird,
my father pounds the grace notes as I come
closer, lured on the siren of her call,
my mother standing on the white-framed porch,
inside the white-framed picket fence
framed in the fields and over all, a sky
no longer winter, sere,
but touched, refined with early autumn’s tone,
husks of late summer refolding into June
like hands at prayer, suckle on the vine,
land of milk and honey, and I’m there,
I’m really there.  My God.  I’ve made it.  Home.
And the street erupts, geysering the sky
like fireworks, sparklers whirling on the line,
like roman candles that we’d hold and burst
across the yard at fireflies on the Fourth,
red, orange, blue stars above me, then a blast
like an A-bomb shakes me from my state—
O God.  This is my street, and it is burning.
O God.  This is my street, and it is burning.


What is the howl of all Hell to that cry
I let, my darling, as I leapt into the flame
to pluck you out, still sleeping?  It was I
burst through the brownstone calling out your name,
I who through arms and axes, helmets, took
to the burning walls and corridors and blaze
of the stairwell, down the tunnel clogged with smoke,
not stopping till I lighted on your face,
nested, like an angel in its shrine,
seven flames about you, dancing in my brain,
not stopping till they held me at the door—
i was the one who saved her!  she is mine!
And they took you.  And they hid you (o somewhere here . . .)
And I never saw my darling’s face again.

The jazz has wound up. Silence. She lightly sings:

                 A slumber did my spirit seal.
                 I had no human fears.
                 She seemed a thing that could not feel
                 The touch of earthly years.

                 No motion has she now.  No force—

The artist’s finger rises to his mouth, in concentration. She stops. He resumes. She takes a cigarette, lights it, resumes:

                 She neither hears nor sees.
                 Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
                 With rocks and stones and trees.

Poor soul.  I could almost pity you.
Stuck on that patch of shade between my legs.
When millions of such shadows in me tend.
No matter.

Strike up another number.  For Jesus’ sake,
give us a lively one.  Come on.  Come on.
The universe shall live by jazz alone.

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