THE 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 is proud to have been so lucky to find a good worker.
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 a day
and always in the afternoon after the sun moved over
to let them pour through a cloud or two.
Why worry about life in the boiler room? It was obsolete
when you were born. Now as long as life remains
technology will smooth the wrinkles in your skin.
The old man did not survive the winter. He slipped on ice and fell
into a coma. Hospitals south of here still were warmed
by heat from the coal shoveled into the boiler.
The north was always up to date.
And it wasn’t the Middle World the kid was educated in
but the North when he sought the sources of the South.
The South that was his birthplace. Not the glorious but the bitter
South. Where his father was taught to hate
to get a job. The kid was in charge now, and at such a young age.
The hospital was his main charge, but also the theater,
where the girls needed to be warm when they shed their clothes.
Here heat rose through all the rooms, surgery included.
Then he met the old man. Again. This time he was even older,
he had more power, money, women, and what else did a man need?
One day the kid was reading the memoirs of Beauregard Solsby,
hero of the raid on Washington that never quite got off the ground,
lover of belles of the ball 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 Beauregard Solsby
or his planned raid on the capitol even if it was never begun,
have you? Did you know we are south of where you are?
Women not in brothers* here dress to the hilt and still do
the old man in private, where he can take his time.
You see, I’m that kid. I may be older now but I remember the war
between men and women that nobody won. The storm won.
The floods took care of the theaters. The hospitals too.
I took my leave of the States when the water reached the roof.
I had no place to go save 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. A guy could
travel around the world the rest of his life and never find
freedom like here. The rooms were small but their walls wide.
Let me tell you, I’m not the kid anymore. The old man
is the old man. I’m never going to be him except in age.
The rowdy streets are where I go. They are dry and full again
and I love the life I live where I can put in a hard day’s work
and fall in love afterwards all over again and in a room
where the world reaches from ceiling to floor, wall to wall.
If the time card is obsolete, maybe I am too. I punch in
what’s there. It’s still 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 while the hours fly by and I read
of Baudelaire on the Champs-Elysees, Flaubert at home
in his mother’s house, Rimbaud running guns or is it poems?
What I had heard was not true. What I read was hard to find.
But those were the days when you didn’t need to hide.
Before Freud went out of fashion. When Marx was still read.
Not that I bothered with either, I was reading what I wrote,
tales of southern chivalry inherited from The Amazing Donwho even in prison remained free as an eagle in the mind’s sky
as long as he wrote
and kept the boiler full of coal,
shovelful after shovelful and with half the day already gone
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 charging 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 learned about Paris and Madrid
by going there in his mind, by being inside the books
like the coal he shoveled took flame inside the boiler.
When the old man wanted to have a talk, he called ahead.
The old man didn’t stay long. He always brought the news
about the theater, the hospital, and where they needed 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 bed. He’s in a new book each day.
A REVISION OF "THE OLD MAN"
That’s fine, I’ll set you straight then,
I replied. I wish I knew how to read Russian,
I could keep my spirits up. It’s always good
to know what it’s like after a revolution fails
to be certain why.
I’ve had to go back before it happened
just so I could trust the translations.
Before Lenin and Trotsky and Stalin
and Gorbachev, back when Dostoevsky
and Tolstoy could see it coming,
or so I say. It was like Shakespeare
putting all the voices into play
and Homer telling how it was so he could remember
even better the next time.
Anyway I wasn’t trying to repeat the past
or make the same mistakes. I did believe the 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
to 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 . . .
Talk about Grass and immediately all you hear
is how he should give back his Nobel Prize
because he didn’t come clean with the Nazi stuff.
You grow up in a country like he did
there are more ways to die than to stay alive.
My sister is living out everything I was glad
to be spared. I am, of course, her problem,
so much so I never write and when she does
I turn a blind eye. She knows I hate phones,
at least she loves me that much . . .
I guess the trouble all began with Faulkner.
He could have been harder on the despots.
He could have valorized dark skin
and denigrated his own.
Trouble is, you can’t be someone you’re not.
Why I fucked up the original draft
of "The Old Man" . . .
It was the word *brothers in the fifth line
of the sixth stanza that rang the alarm.
I threw down the shovel and took a book up
–or was 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 remember,
but they don’t need to now, it’s in their DNA,
don’t you know? I know how to reply,
how to give love. What else do I need
but a tongue with a mind and skin to be kind?
I guess I wanted the old man dead
so I did him in.
You would think so, the way I act,
taking over the boiler-room business,
hiring only those who really want to work
above everything they could be doing
if they were me . . . I look for those
who could never be me.
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
that he meant by recalling the imagination.
So, enough. The stars are shining , afternoon
will soon be gone and we can see them
for ourselves, or is it themselves?
The moon will be visible if we’re fortunate
to have fewer clouds succeed the sunshine
than lately. 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 October 2010)