To wake on my fortieth birthday
buried in this pile of gifts
and not question how they
or I got here
but proceed with the inventory,
all tatters and extra coda,
and salvage for you what I can
from whatever is fake and forgettable:
Something old, something new, something
borrowed, stolen, scavenged,
a lot simply looted
from the pleasures and shambles of the day.
Tobacco, wine, sacks of cash,
a menagerie, a matador's doormat
and a little bull,
The Sultan of Passion's Manual,
Sonata for Brutality and Vegetable,
snapshots, a winged thing,
what looks like a self-portrait
of Ponce de Leon's younger brother, Pounce.
Pick or choose,
keep or toss.
Welcome to a firesale at the local Cornucopia.
Please excuse the whiff of chaos.
Forty years old
and I still can't see myself
on either the dark edge of heaven or hell.
Though in either place
I can guess which would flourish,
I have a better idea
of what thrives here.
Item: And so, instead of a bribe
for my gravekeeper,
I leave a Trillium,
a lovely plant
that smells like rotten meat,
or any other flowering contradiction
whose colors attract bees
but whose stench draws flies;
whose pollination depends
on an insult as well as beauty.
And I guess you can get to Limbo
the same way you got here:
And I like to think
you can still get to heaven
with the right disguise.
But in either place
I'd be disappointed
if monotony were more than a buzz.
I hope to hear
a frequent hum of satisfaction,
the little wings of an immensity,
a thought in god's mind.
But I'll settle for a bumble bee.
According to the known laws
of propriety and aerodynamics
it shouldn't get off the ground
but does, half wonder and
—by sheer force of will—half ridiculous.
Bees, after all, got me started on this,
their loose formality.
I had seen a lump of gold in the road,
and looking closer realized
it was a pile of them, bees
who like ferocious translators
had taken on the shape
of what they were devouring: a dead frog.
And I thought, François Villon,
Form Giver! Merci beaucoup!
Item: Ah, dear Formalists,
how you persevere.
You whose sleek instinct
for the unanswerable
has been thwarted, whose wish to fly
has left you often unable to crawl,
whose high romance slithers in lines
like a fuse of clarity,
like a slow trickle over chrome,
only to quietly go down the drain,
please accept my gratitude in the form of
The Snake's Fable:
How an anaconda becomes
trapped by what it seeks.
How it squirms through a fence
and swallows the egret left as bait.
How it then fails to escape
through the narrow fenceposts.
How its length becomes more distorted
—the shape of the bird, the form
within the form, as if it caught
its own soul
and choked on it.
You can have your snake and egret too.
Item: Now for you, my several friends,
in honor of your trust,
your warmth, your jokes:
Champagne...in a dirty glass.
Though not just any glass:
the finest old Venetian,
so light and clear you would think
the Air herself
had placed her hand in yours
and a cool secret on your lips.
How light touches its delicate rim,
curves into serenity with a smirk,
the glint that was in the eye
of its maker, the Venetian
who tried to get glass this thin
believing that it would shatter
if ever a drop of poison
were added to the wine.
It was a doge eat doge world alright.
And not just any champagne.
A magnum, a Methuselah
of The Blushful Hippocrene.
In the Cellars of the Pearly Dark
a rack reserved for each of you.
You can sip it like a wolf,
you can lap it like a dog,
guzzle it like a Vandal,
swig it like a saint.
You can take the bottles
(Why do they, like hearts,
always seem heavier when empty?)
and toss them through the skylight.
Hell's bells ...
Or any goon's chance
to scatter the angels
who from their withering heights
through the glare of everything
to see you embrace
under your bedsheet,
your sail of unconcern,
as it luffs above you
and every broken thing you own.
Item: Or keep the bottle,
for this Famous Ship in a Bottle Kit,
of the Sultan of Passion's Flagship.
Built to reign over a great lake
that almost dried up
before she was launched
as everyone expected,
did just that—the majestic ship
plowed through the crud-laden waters
and ever-encroaching shoreline
like an agitated duck
that keeps a last puddle clear
on a freezing pond;
constantly on the move,
in ever-tighter circles,
all futility and quacking isolation,
while the squalid wordlings
in her crew
sang "Gimme Dat Ole Time Derision"
and the last of the lake
evaporated under the hull,
leaving their ship
as high and dry as a cathedral.
Item: Junior Visigoth, puerile drudge,
instead of standing forlorn
on a sultry pier
on a Sunday morn
fishing for rats,
take the job you were born for:
Calvary to the rescue!
Managing the Souvenir Concession
at St. Pats.
that tintinabular cash register,
you'll never lose sight
of your mascot.
High on a scavenger's vantage point,
the tallest tree on that hill,
the dead one without a branch,
perched like a black flame
on a candle,
—less than nothing for miles around,
there he'll be, your ragged crow.
Item: And the few hawks
always ready to zero in
on any vital thing,
they belong to you, dear Cynic.
You get to stand further out
in the future,
so whenever another horde appears
grunting before the wide open gates
of this new century,
you're the one who gets to tell them
they're too early.
The one to tell them
they are not the first to stare
into the cold beauty of indifference
without a god to defend them.
They'll look over your shoulder.
They'll want to see the womenfolk.
They'll ask if thoughts
will now enter their minds
like nudes in a fog.
They'll want to kiss an aerodrome.
But you will get to tell them
that no matter where they turn
—city, lake, plain,
the view will stop them
dumb in their tracks,
will spread right through them
as it does you,
so clear and strange
like a disappointing vision
—spread flat and low
across the lake
with such ease
the urge to say anything
lies scattered out there
with the shadows of a breeze.
Their horses lick the frost
off the ground,
their banners droop,
they're finally lost.
They'll look into your face
and into a distance beyond winter,
further than any hunger
has ever led them.
And overhead, in the only bough
whose leaves have yet to fall
—leaves stiff, leaning in the last direction
the wind blew them,
your flag still flies.
Clockwise, the hawks slip away.
Item: And you, occasional poet,
I award you a ton of sympathy,
a place to dump it,
and this variation on a theme:
It's not the heat, it's the cupidity.
It's not the squalid kitchen,
the boiled chicken, the burnt sneaker,
the steam in a white sink.
It's not the four million tons
of cosmic dust
that gravity gathers
and drops on earth each day,
it's your own squandered magic,
the weight of your own quiet voice.
It's the peculiar sense of nothing
when the middle of nowhere shifts again.
It's the quiet, disappointing extreme,
another long-deserted drive-in movie
at high noon, titles
still dangling from the marquee
in busted poems, speaker wire
ripped from rusted pipe,
dry weeds in the gravel.
It's the endless intermission,
the stalled ocean,
the blank screen's faded lunar curve
tilted high over the asphalt's faded waves.
Item: And out of this,
there's no quick way for you,
but in the occasional detail, a general direction;
in the scuffed moss, an idle clue,
softness rooted in granite;
in the cool, quiet wood, a place
to think or hope; in birch leaves
and splayed branches
layered with shadows of leaves,
a kind of listening;
in mud and leafmold, a deer track;
in the brush, a sapling
corkscrewed by a vine;
in jumbled stone, pieces
of an eventual flow;
in a cracked rock, a lucky streak;
in an old bone, an unexpected lightness;
in cloudbanks of lush green hills
fading into clouds, a world on the rise;
in a blackened, overgrown foundation,
a matter of fact;
in a chimney, a new nest;
in fern and laurel, a hard twist
and a gentleness;
in the hemlock, in its lowest limb,
an easy reach or heavy wing's descent;
in its gently splintered shade,
a dark end in a kind and crystal eye;
in the well, in its clogged shaft,
a little song of loss (maybe yours, maybe not);
in the spiderweb that spans it,
in the red spider
that makes it tremble,
a cunning gentleness, a quick heart,
maybe yours, maybe not.
Item: To my wife, Ann,
I leave this littered house
and all it contains:
the comfort, the disarray, the panic,
the splendid lamps
that shine through the oaks,
the windows high and wide,
and the constellation
that we've traced
in winter's long view of the stars.
Each place we've known, each point
a knot in The Great Net,
cast from childhood to Asia, across
the longitude and lassitude of our time;
this notion, that there is
no end to what we are,
that tangled, snagged, and drawn,
the routes of our coming and going
converge here, gathered in the lights
spread over these black hills
and clustered in the city's heights,
for us to haul it in,
full of whatever we've done,
wherever we've been.
Item: To my son, Alexander,
I bequeath with love and admiration
the Arc de Triomphe.
And here's why:
the golden attitude you displayed
in the first moments of your life,
the magnificent arc you made
when the doctor
held you aloft in the cold air
and you twisted and turned,
in the delivery room
as you pissed all over us.
Item: To my daughter, Helen,
I leave a prime Elysian plot,
you rode into
late one afternoon
and let your horse wade at will,
stir up wildflower
in the purpling blue,
so that the silver seed
hovered far around you,
made you smile
amid innumerable smiles
and raised in a casual swarm
years of waves and glinting wings.
Whatever favor, whatever truth
there was of Elysium
filled your eyes
and you laughed at the mystery of things
like one of god's spies
when the sun
coaxed your soul into sight
then drew your name
in the air. Loved-of-light.
Or perhaps you saw it all
in a less mawkish way:
the grinning spirits,
the exaltation of shoppers
as they enter The Celestial Mall.
Item: Dead-eye Dick,
the jubilant realist, where did he go?
And the bouncers
at the Tempus Fugit Funeral Parlour,
who gave them the heave-ho?
Polly and Esther,
the scrawny Rip-snorter
and Capability Jones?
The Fearless Fucker, the Blizzard Dancer,
when the bottles slipped
out of their frozen gloves,
where did they go?
Where does the hasty music lead?
The happy rat-tracks in the snow?
What happened to Elmer
and Daffy, Big Bertha and Limp Louie?
Bashful, Happy and Grumpy?
Comatose, Ecstatic and Berserk?
What are all these blanks
in the summer street?
Whatever happened to that guy
who used to catch bullets in his teeth?
To them, to anyone
humbled, stricken by the beauty
the world gives and takes,
here's the long and short of it:
In any of the blooming zeroes
one cloud sprinkles offshore,
in any crater on the moon,
lay down this life.
Item: Now, last readers,
I offer dypsomanic immunity
to any place you wish,
where all you need do
is relax, stroll, hold hands
like absurdity and squalor,
and admire the indolent harbors
and unfinished memorials
to The Spirit of Laziness.
Where bridges and hours
span a mile or two more
than they did before,
suspended above the monstrous clamor,
the furious view
of another life below.
Where you don't have to spend
nights in a damp park
listening to swans fart in their sleep.
No more mornings that leave you
dizzy and stranded
on a pile of junk and generosity
through zoos in rainlight,
the steamy cages,
the great apes whimpering in the mist,
the washed-out posters
announcing yet another concert
by Smug Paul and The Hedonists.
Now, for you, the tidal music
of evening resumes,
with its dockside antics and lunar revelry,
the private balcony
from which you can watch divers
as their flashlights
scan the harbor floor
for the pianos you've tossed to them.
Here's the chance
to catch up on sleep you lost long ago.
Find a loose hour or two
in a pile of roseleaves
steeped in sunlight and spilled wine,
in the kindlier motions
of silence and vagrant time,
that may wake you on the move,
like the only birds in an early breeze,
like fish in a strong current,
like dirty spirits in starlight
—wake on the silver heels
of gods who vanish into their own jokes.
Item: Until then, forget all this clutter
but take this pearl.
It is the hard light, the soul
of the laziest thing that ever lived.
I didn't get around to--
I couldn't decide what to wrap it in,
which unfinished poem
or squandered conceit.
It would be easier
just to rip a page out of a book.
One that I remember describes
how in World War II
the writer Malaparte
while crossing the Lake Lagoda convoy route
during the siege of Leningrad
looked down through the ice at one point
and saw innumerable human faces,
beautiful glass masks,
staring up at him.
Their lips thin and worn,
their hair long, their eyes large and clear
like delicate icons—the images of those
killed while attempting to cross
the only supply line to a ruined city.
Their bodies, submerged all winter,
had been swept away by the first spring currents,
but the expression their faces
had left etched in the ice,
he said it was serene
and that their eyes seemed to follow his
as he walked across the lake.
Or instead of that page,
I could use those stanzas by Arnaut Daniel
that Pound translated:
"Though all things freeze here,
I can naught feel the cold,
For new love sees, here
My heart's new leaf unfold;
So am I rolled
And lapped against the breeze here:
Love, who doth mold
My force, force guarantees here.
Aye, life's a high thing,
Where joy's his maintenance,
Who cries 'tis a wry thing
Hath danced never my dance.
I can advance
No blame against fate's tithing
For lot and chance
Have left the best thing my thing."
Or, instead of wrapping the pearl,
why don't I just roll it over to you,
ahead of the morning.
Let your eyes grow accustomed to it
as they did to the depths of the night,
and find how between your fingertips
it is a toy of thought.
Seed of obstinance, prize
of mood, sand and tide,
it is not the ball of light
that others wish the world to be
but what little sense
it can yield in a year and a day.
It is my own gift of darkness,
less than I mean, all I can say.