with apologies to Faulkner
1. OLD MAN
The old man goes to the boiler room to pick up the time card.
The kid has followed the rules to a T.
The old man feels lucky to have found a good worker.
Even though the kid is reading his way through the Great Books
of his world, the old man has no way to know
the kid prefers not the Western but the Middle World.
And then the fires went out when the storms started,
one per day and always in the afternoon after the sun moved
to let thunder, lightning, then rain
pour through a cloud or two.
Life in the boiler room? It was obsolete by the time the kid
was born. Now technology smooths the wrinkles in your skin.
The old man did not survive the winter without slipping on ice
and falling into a coma.
Hospitals south of here still were warmed by heat
from coal shoveled into the furnace in the boiler room.
The north was always up to date.
It’s not the Middle World but the North where the kid
was educated to seek the sources of the South, his birthplace.
Not the glorious but the bitter South. Where his father was taught
to get jobs by hating. The kid has had the job shoveling coal
so long he’s in charge now, the old man’s foreman
and at such a young age. The hospital is his main charge,
but also the theatre, where the girls need to be warm
when they shed their clothes. And here heat rises to fill
all the rooms, surgery included. Time passes as it did
between his boiler room beginnings and his first meeting
with the old man, who was by then even older,
had more power, money, women, and what else does a man need?
One day the kid was reading the memoirs of Beauregaard Solsby,
hero of the raid on Washington that never quite got off the ground,
lover of belles of the balls and beautiful paramours,
when the old man, this one, made a surprise appearance.
You think the kid’s going to get fired on the spot, don’t you?
You’ve never heard of Beauregaard Solsby, have you?
or his planned raid on the capitol that was not even begun.
Is that why you did not know, being so far north of south?
Women with no brothers here dress to the hilt and still do
the old man in private, where he can take his time.
If I am the kid, and I am, older now but I remember a war
between men and women nobody won
but the storm.
The floods took care of the theaters. And the hospitals.
When the water reached the roof I took my leave of the States.
I had no place to go but Paris. I had been reading the Adventures
of Val Engorged when I heard the thunder, saw the lightning rack
sky’s walls until they echoed. That was when the storms began
to run the world. I had thought men did.
Those who worked
were like women, the books said, and what I saw reflected
all I read and heard. Paris was new, always. You could travel
the world the rest of your days and never find freedom like here.
The rooms were small but their walls very wide.
Let me tell you,
if I’m not the kid anymore, the old man is older.
I’m never going to be him in any other way
but age. Where I go now the rowdy streets are not only dry
but full and I love this life. I can put in a day’s work
anywhere I go, and in the rowdy street we fall in love and go
into rooms where the world reaches from ceiling to floor, wall to wall.
If the time card is growing obsolete, maybe I will soon be punching in
what’s there. It’s all there at quitting time, though it all may be
in my head, who knows but the old man and he’s not to be found
where hours fly by with Baudelaire on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees,
Flaubert at home in his mother’s house by a river beyond Paris,
and both far from where Rimbaud is running guns, or is it poems?
What I had heard was not true, what I wanted to read was hard to find.
Not like days of yore when you didn’t need to worry,
before Freud went out of fashion and Marx was closely read.
Not that I bothered with either, I was too busy writing my own tales
of southern chivalry inherited from pen of The Amazing Don
who even in prison remained free as an eagle in the mind’s sky
as long as he wrote
and kept the furnace full of coal,
shovel after shovel and with half the day already over
settled down to saddle his horse and swear fealty to a duchess
who stayed poor while he rode off to tame the wilderness
of America as he had civilized Spain, driving heathens
to their doom and attacking an entire town
on his magnificent steed, the mighty brought low by power
always conceived between chapters, before the door opens
and he gets up to shut it tight against the wind.
And that’s the year the kid learns of Paris and Madrid
by being there in his mind, inside the books
like the coal he shoveled flamed up in the boiler room’s furnace.
When the old man wants to have a talk, he calls ahead
and never stays long. He always brings the latest news
of the theatre, the hospital, and where they need heat
each place will change owners again, and this old man will be
succeeded in turn by an old man who also was once young
and now has power, money, women, any and every thing
a free man could possibly want. He doesn’t need to ask.
In the line of succession one old man is like another,
but an old man is an old man and always wants to have his way
takes his time after the day gets under way.
His library moves with his chair. He’s in a new book each day.
2. THE WILD PALMS
Where are we now? you ask. Stick with me,
I’ll set you down safely
among the wild palms where between grief
and nothing I’ll take grief . . .
We’re on the Gulf Coast, of course.
We are still reading Faulkner back into ourselves.
If I knew Russian, though, I could keep my spirits up.
Maybe it’s good to know why a revolution fails
but I mean to go back before it happened,
to the Paris Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
inhabit to do the translations I trust
of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Tolstoy . . .
who saw coming far off the day of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin,
Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Putin . . .
or so I say. It was like Shakespeare
putting all the voices into play
and Homer each time he recited remembering more precisely
how it was.
I’m not trying to repeat the past,
I don’t want to make the same mistakes.
I did believe my past might have been different
if my father had not been taught to hate,
if my mother had better books to read . . .
I was glad to be gone once I awakened
from adolescence, its many confusions
somehow solved simply because I could see
the past and how I would have stopped
growing, like Gunter Grass’s Oskar . . .
You age too quickly in a country like his,
you find more ways to die than stay alive,
and because Grass didn’t come clean
he fought with Germany he should return his Nobel Prize
just as Pope Benedict should resign the papacy
because he served with Hitler’s Youth Corps . . .
and meanwhile my sister lives out all that I was spared.
My sister believes I am her problem: I never write
and when she does I turn a blind eye.
She knows I hate phones, at least she loves me that much . . .
Faulkner should have been harder on the despots.
He could have valorized dark skin
and denigrated his own. More truth was left to be told.
Trouble is, you can’t be someone you’re not.
I threw down the shovel and took a book up
–or did I take it down? too many storms lately
to remember, too much water, a surfeit
of tears from the sky welling up from under
the skin, the ecstasy at such a low ebb now
no one gets to do anything but survive,
if that, and men keep doing to women
what they learned too long ago to recall,
but who needs to? it’s in their DNA . . .
All you need do is talk, learn to give love,
trust your tongue has a mind and your skin is kind.
When I take over the boiler-room business,
I’ll hire only those who really want to work
above everything else they could be doing
if they were me. . . . I will look for those
who could never be me.
If they read books, they need not apply.
Don’t you realize you can’t live in this world
without giving in, becoming what the child
in you could never foresee?
And forget memory, that’s what William Blake
advised, though no one really knows
what he meant by the imagination.
So, enough. The stars are shining , afternoon
will soon be gone and we can see all the stars
for ourselves. When clouds go, the moon is visible,
and tomorrow, sunshine. Let the streets dry,
wet sprigs of grass are delicate enough
to lave bare feet, to lie down with your love
and make what you have between you
into someone else, a third who always walks
beside you . . . or will once we make it out
of this wasteland into the promised land
where no one has to shovel coal into fire,
where we will have all day to become who we are.
(7–29 October 2010)