I have never worked harder on any poem or gotten to nowhere with it more expeditiously. The germ came in early 1996. I wrote a page and a half and stopped. What do I do now? I took it to a workshop at a college in Arkansas. It was for me a troubling problem I could not solve. I showed it to several people there to instruct, and the last was C. D. Wright who read it over and said "This is a poem." I was shocked. Everyone else said "fragment." C. D. gave me a reading list: William Bronk, David Antin, and Eliot Weinberger. I wasn’t sure why until 2002. Then she made the whole thing fall into place by writing about a poet she’d not mentioned: Frank Stanford, whose long (God, is it ever) poem The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You she’d originally published long ago. Stanford’s poem is hard going: it’s 360 pages, one sentence, no breaks. It makes Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene sound like Sarah Silverman telling her version of The Aristocrats. Some of it is totally confusing, other parts (e.g., the Crucifixion story told in Arkansas black dialect) are hilarious. But I could discern a connection between me and Sanford’s even crazier and more gifted style: discursiveness, reflexiveness, seeming irrelevancies that added up to an unforgettable legend.
“UN BACIO. UN ALTRO BACIO. ANCORA UN BACIO.”
1. De Doctrina Christiana
A friend admonishes: you sexualize everything.
Yes. Everything except sex itself.
Incest-mad Ferdinand, the Duchess of Malfi’s brother,
hunts the badger by moonlight,
his dreamed deed of darkness does haunt me still,
makes me wish I’d stayed a virgin—
for the first cunt is the baptismal font of misery
and physical love stomps on trailing ganglia indiscriminately,
you cannot tell yourself from your victim.
Catholics with reason sanctify the Holy Cherry: once popped,
the Masque of Love reveals Rappaccini’s garden,
soft colors where the flowers waft poison.
2. I Walk Through the Garden of Love
Eros is Agape’s rape-made bastard son by Cerberus.
He is depicted in Orthodox Church-suppressed Greek friezes
as Ronald McDonald sporting a titanic boner worthy of Lysistrata.
Configurations of Erotic joy turn vicious, dark.
Ronald is the clown of a child’s circus nightmare
the clown who will eat him if he falls asleep.
Machinating in the House of Dr. Moreau,
this clown of secret desire—the lover acting the beast
in a black leather mask atop spiked fetish boots—
his love becomes the reductio ad verum.
Yet these are only words:
for now that Age has begun its work within me,
I am supposed to Know Something I can pass along,
especially after what I have done—
young girls call me “Sir” and I want so much to say
“Don’t call me that when I am picturing you undressed.”
All my knowledge is fraudulent for I still burn!
I have become at last what I once despised but welcome now,
a vision of the Dirty Old Man
(Deo Gratias I have lived long enough despite myself to get here).
I share the middle-aged man’s common dream
a world engorged with erectile blood,
semen gushed maculate, without latex,
skin to skin squirming, slippery as heat,
the (joyous) dangerous game played for keeps
even when you think it is not,
this game of emotions raked like knives over unprepared skin,
forever giving the lie to notions that sex can ever be Safe.
Love and be destroyed. Write your despair,
your passion that tears into you with spikes.
Get holy cards made of your patron saints
Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Polenta.
Imagine “Lord Randall” or “Donag Og” born from joy alone,
from coupling without the agony that is all that remains.
Remove the “and” between Love and Death.
Witness a woman you loved die never knowing, mercifully,
that you, married to her daughter, were cavorting
with another woman, two faded figures on a crumbling frieze.
Alles ist Liebes-Tod.
3. A Night At The Opera
Passion, even when spent (a waste of shame) remains,
elemental, irreducible, reformable to solidity
from the gaseous mess of decomposition, memory’s vault.
Even when it has passed into faux time it is no less real.
It is simply memory’s abîme de foutre, the black hole
where ghosts have weight. It is mockery
through parallels and refractions, and it will not go away.
It is constructed time, endlessly repeatable, insidious lies like truth.
It is tuned to what we need to call Art.
In that world of faux passion, a theater curtain
rises on a storm on the island of Cyprus. The air
reeks not of ozone but of sizing and greasepaint.
A 19th century orchestra hails up the curtain
with a chord that once jarred even Verdi’s most devoted groupies,
who could not believe that by Otello the old man
had so much blood left in him.
Accept you are in three centuries at once: 21/19/16.
It is all one, in this way changeless.
Singers throughout the evening simulate by acts
of voice and body the consequences of passion:
exultation, jealousy, fury,
terror, despair, madness,
and finally the pointless—except to reach faux closure—
moment of clarity, of the face seen at last in the mirror
bringing only death.
Faux no. Faux giammai!
Real life, operatic and cheesy, is multi-leveled.
In the moment remembered, it still drips from the mouth,
rib juice and whiskey saliva.
Illicit heat evokes the monster born full-grown
in a strip mall chain restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina.
The date is precise, an unholy cross in time:
Friday, 17 June 1994.
Between sessions of passion a couple, each married to others,
never the sum of their interlocking body parts,
eat and drink at a table near the bar,
clutch to themselves their teenaged lust.
The woman is naked beneath her skirt
and the man knows it because he tossed her silk underpants
on the motel room floor with his teeth,
and she’s left them back there because this weekend is
their private Medieval Faire and that is her token pledge
of My Faire Laide’s return to the motel.
Their kisses are not yet an art but a cannibal’s banquet,
consuming the other through teeth, tongue, and slobber.
There is a crowd at the bar, waves of laughter swell then mute.
Over the bar the TV trumpets like Verdi’s brass:
for OJ is in flight to the ground bass of jokes from the good ol’ boys–
That nigger could run the sideline faster’n he kin drahv that fuckin’ Bronco!
seeing lack of speed but not the driver’s powerlessness,
one hand on a pistol the other on the wheel
neither of which matters, this is a game, a ritual.
This spectacle is stylized, a Medieval screen-capture of Fortune’s Wheel,
where OJ is frozen at the mercy of the spokes to which he’s bound
and the couple observe, smile cluelessly, turn back to themselves:
for participants and observers are often one in the same.
There are elements, perceptions that suck images into a black hole,
fix them in what Cartier-Bresson called a Decisive Moment,
wholly meaningless save what we impose by creating a frame
around what we perceive.
Take away one part, shift it,
remove a person from the cast,
the structure will never again
be what we thought.
4. House Rules
If we get lucky we can pretend to transform meaninglessness
into something we call Art, deal it out of a metaphoric deck,
set it in the pantheon above the random horrors of life itself.
We can try, like James Joyce, to make ourselves The House
and perhaps but not always we can set ourselves up to win.
The pack of lies.
What is on the matchbooks of our smoky youth?— a picture
of Irving Wallace, a hot babe, and this provocative question:
“Do you have what it takes to become a famous author?”
Think of our most noted examples: Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, how Hawthorne might have written the details of their trysts if he’d been Irving Wallace and was out to make a fuckbuck, called it perhaps The Minister and the Mad Housewife, because The Scarlet Letter wouldn’t have been enough of a tease. But why tease, let’s keep the lovers in the deck, get them back into the bed they’d be in—were in—anyway, turn this to a game (art or adultery) where the bones are showing as though they’re fractured and protruding.
Remember the woman’s underwear? It is still in the cheap motel,
only a sense of Irony reorders Chaos and
it’s true it’s really true what we’ve always heard, amor vincit omnia, and
that beyond time and space there is a continuum that breaks the frame
especially if you can have your characters act like they’re freewheeling or
control them out of real life,
because maybe OJ’s the famous one with the high-end shyster but the
lovers are also out of real life and therefore grist, I’ve tied
weighted sashcords around their necks, stuffed them in a bag and
dropped them into the river along with OJ, the hungry ghosts of Nicole
and Ron, Ot(h)ello and Desdemona, Leontes and Hermione, a real-life
betrayed wife and husband, and a few feral cats, so what comes out is
pretty disgusting, a spiritual blood-sausage conceived in the name of Aht.
Deal, then, OJ King of Knives, he too is a transportable emblem
of love gone mad, a ghost among many sewn into the bag,
he can park the Bronco by the Hertz rental cars in the motel lot,
enter the lovers’ room with an operatic flail, find them
in flagrante consummatio, her legs and their voices raised
in a Hallelujah Chorus of intermingled fluids, hack and slash his way
through the juridical world of double jeopardy to the core
of a universe of offense, teach Shakespeare to high school students
(every Othello his own Iago), take lessons from Verdi’s singing Moor,
bewail at the top of his vocal range the death of Love, a living emblem,
oxymoronic, exposed each day on the front page of supermarket tabloids
“Nicole Haunts OJ’s Dreams!”
“Desdemona seen walking Cypriot battlements!”
The bag is infinitely expandable, the ghosts fill up weighted æther
—not our weight, no, mine—think of it as the chain Jacob Marley
forged in life and drags behind him afterwards,
so stop the artsy-craftsy bullshit, cleanse life of toxic metaphors,
there is no OJ no cats no Nicole and no Ron,
OUR LIVES ARE THE TABLOIDS WE TELL ON OURSELVES,
not tragedies imposed from without,
nobody chronicles them, turns them into plays or operas.
Placido Domingo does not portray OJ though he probably
hit a few golfballs with him they are not even brittle
simply like being inside a lava lamp hot oil colors electricity
twisting them like some Rolling Stones song
She comes in colors she’s like a rainbow
and did and oh God she was
You’re amazing he says to her that night back in the motel room but
it is not simply admiration in the words there is something aghast in him,
she is like the mirror in the bathroom into which he peered
to shut out the sound of her voice while she spoke to her husband
on the telephone, why? she asks laughing kissing him, your husband
he says I mean you were talking to him I had to call my wife from a pay phone
when I was sure she’d be out
she has that enigmatic laugh and he wants her again
passion overrides even knowledge in that moment
but not the faux moment time rebuilt and owned
she knows his mother-in-law is dying in a hospital
in upstate New York but there is no thought to keep him from this
she tightens around him you don’t care she taunts
this is what you care about, this! yes he says.
My galleon is not chargéd with forgetfulness
it is pitched by the constant storm at sea
not Otello anymore, harmony torn and drowned,
the ground bass synthesized through Alban Berg,
hopeless, trying to remain upright oblivious to caring,
the swirl of air like whirlpools.
The Renaissance cosmologists lied even if not by design
in their divisions, air and water are not separate you
can be sucked into the air sucked in by it, walk into your own
bloodstream and drown there, Berg’s Wozzeck drowning
in guilt and water transubstantiated to blood,
drown in your delusions quickly as a water whirlpool drags you down.
At her bedside a few days later in the hospital room
where the woman you obliterated nevertheless has awaited you,
now she lays before you speechless, and dying in the twilight
stares into your eyes, you speak idiot reassurance:
See You Tomorrow.
And her eyes see into your soul where you read
Only If You Are Prepared To Follow Me Tonight!
you are both in pain but she is ready
you are not.
There is no cheap Grace, no simple expiation,
only having to live with what you have done
and with the wish to repeat your violation
even as you are present in the place where death
has grabbed you and forced you down to smell its breath her breath
the slow and patient movement, it has cruised its Freeway waiting for you,
it has come for you in the presence of inertness,
this woman you loved, this mother loved more than the wife she bore for you.
Ora per sempre addio, sante memorie!
What is holy here? nothing, graven images from memory,
a sky lit like Breughel’s Triumph of Death,
a sky lost, a song replays, stuck as it was the week before
in the car to the Asheville airport, Luther Ingram singing
“If Lovin’ You Is Wrong I Don’t Wanna Be Right.”
This is ending badly more like “Just One of Those Things”
mixed through Berlioz’ Witches’ Sabbath, every second before
her departing plane becomes a rack-drawn agony of not daring
to look at the other, if we’d thought of it of the end of it
no of course not: inarticulacy is born of soiled passion
in the departure lounge, in the anti-Pentecost
only tongues of fire, only the whirlwind, but no voices
We know how the 19th century tragedy is supposed to end
The tenor smothers the soprano
discovers his fatal error
sings again his farewell to glory and to ego,
knifes the ego-cancered self,
crawls animalistic for his final kiss
but the music shapes the human end
of this beast on all fours
the package is neatly tied
not tired or averting our eyes
we can look at pain
our ears can hear it,
we achieve catharsis
but not as we reach orgasm
in a Holiday Inn noisily scandalously,
and ours is not heroic desperation,
all are taken:
we, OJ whacking golf balls at midnight,
we pretending life is restored
through pain that leaves ganglia
trailing on the ground like a 727’s fuel cables
and us smoking near the fuel lines,
sparks are dormant
this tragedy is not neat,
OJ performs his literary duties
according to the old book,
he is a sad domestic profile
from a police blotter
another song of clichés
you always hurt the one you love
and the waiter with the forgotten eyeglasses
look in the mirror one morning and study the face
of this almost-resurrected soul-suicide,
self-ghoul who has lived to tell thee,
a subject of hope outside this purview,
as chords slide downward with the velvet curtain.
Bow before yourself in the mirror,
but the bow is surly, snotty, graceless:
You here still, you prick?
how wonderful for us all….
and there is no one to applaud
except the cat who sits on the bathtub and stares.