A despair set in upon waking, the rest of a day
devoted to the climb. The climb is still steep,
shale in some places slides under one foot,
sometimes both. Good thing you were born
under the sign of a mountain goat . . .
How lovely to have lived, feet upon the earth.
My seed time. If asked what did I do in the war:
"I sat on top of the mountain and like Pierre
on the hill, more a knoll, it was that low,
I watched and listened and wrote down
what I saw and filled a scroll with drawings"
and returned the favor: What did you do today?
and thought I saw the earth open and the shit-
poison smeared punji stakes splitting a body
where it had no reason to be. Or the big ball
swinging down into a face spiked forevermore
. . . they too died from the many-th way to kill
boys sent by their fathers to defend a nation
that could not last. Who would envy Andre
for lying wounded on his back on a bridge
looking up at a sky saying this was what it was
to be alive, to not be dead, to see what was there
and the first wound was the best, he learned,
why he died in a bed alone later with the war
still going on, getting worse for our boys, women
dying the same as girls, the young, the old men
walking the fields when the chopper went over
and Tolstoy would never have understood
a damned thing about why a country invades
another country that wants to be left alone,
unless it was France, Napoleon, the old general
in his Russian tent, planning the attack next day
as though there were ways to be sure to win.
This is not Tolstoy sitting here. It’s a cipher
called a human being. He is about to go back
to the streets. His head makes sense, not his body.
Was that me? I could say only I was what I saw,
alive to stay, my surrogate brothers asking how
it was in Korea. I could not speak for a moment.
That was how I had aged at thirty-three. Vietnam
had murdered souls, I had no way of knowing why
except by observing the men who were my friends
and leaned against the bar and stood up by the bar
and worked the bars and met weekly to talk over
what needed to be done. I said to Patrick Johansen,
I wasn’t old enough, besides I was glad I was young,
forgetting I still was, and Paul Stevens liked to grunt
when Terry O’Hara walked over to say he was ready
to take Lance for a beer if I wanted, you gentlemen
come along if you so desire, everybody by the book
in this room, and being in LRRP had given Lance
views of jungles I would never have, not after Mexico.
No one in New England knew why I wrote all night
and tore it to shreds the same way I ripped my mind
apart to make it cohere with the way my world went
out the door, across the sycamore, around Mill River
to the stairs I called The Grand Piano and climbed
listening to the etudes, the way music found a color
no sky ever resembled, and next the walk to town
where I could fight for my country my own way.
Somebody said, Floyce, sit down, let me buy a beer
to get you started. I told him stories of New Orleans,
Mexico City, Cuetzalan, the San Francisco Bay,
but never talked about her, Irene Castenada, I loved
in my hometown. In Seattle my heart broke down.
She left town for somewhere she could have children.
I keep writing about her the closer I come to death.
Natasha of my soul. But not then. She was my own
forever. No fate could take her away from me. Oh I
often wondered–even now–why I loved her and she
loved me and stayed home. Come to Seattle to live
with me. She said, Soon. Always. Where is she now?
In the bar on the edge of town O’Hara’s one eye
caught the girl who stayed each night he asked her.
Her name was Mary. She was black and lean. Terry
said very little to her when she came to be with him.
I learned not to tell myself how I would love Irene,
present tense, till the day I died, too old to go on.
The war. The women. The booze. The absences . . .
Stevens looked around for money on the floor.
Johansen was a bouncer in the Quicksilver Bar.
Lance looked down at the table when he talked.
He never liked to talk, he said, it might bore me,
and smiled. O’Hara in the Drake took up position
against crazy Chuck with his stash of anything
you wanted, John Malloy out to double up, fine
if he got his cut and Chuck swung his shillelagh.
And one night they kicked Paul’s head bloody,
scars that wouldn’t heal for years, though he did,
he died. And O’Hara behind my back took Malloy
outside, returned alone, picked up Mary and took
me home. Mary was like Irene: full of fun and love
and young–but Mary like me, no children please.
I could have lived the rest of one life, with family.
No need to speak espanol when Senorita Castenada
asks everything in anglais that you need to know . . .
Mary loved life too much to give O’Hara everything.
That was why Terry’s Paula came around to stay
and give this ex-marine captain with one eye gone
R & R, cook for him and share with him love’s food.
Paula lived in Boston, they were engaged. Last time
we saw them both, the Mark Hopkins, San Francisco,
she said to him, Floyce stopped drinking, can’t you?
Cathleen was with me, she also having had her last.
Years together so to speak; marriage an afterthought.
She brought in the mail where the Sandias loomed
up close and the Manzanos to the east. A postcard
from Paris. O’Hara: Drinking here. You come see
the sights. I thought, quite naturally, of Hemingway.
Fitzgerald putting his manhood on the line nightly.
Stein’s salon filling up fast, Alice keeping the door
opening and closing. Joyce never anywhere here
because he preferred to say home, write and fuck
his wife who loved to have him between her legs:
all the life they would ever need after the Dublin
meeting. Now they were all gone and a long time
too, longer than any of us would care to survive,
O’Hara would say, not after what we went through.
He never took out his glass eyes, he was trained
by his Irish mother to be like his father, a gentleman.
Sure, we got around. Yes, I knew why I loved it so
and if I had not been so drunk in that East River
bar, I would never have offered Angela my lap
and O’Hara would never have been there to stop
the gawkers from swooping. I lifted her sweater,
unhooked her bra, kissed her nipples taut, loved
as though that was why she moved to Manhattan
to work as a cancer nurse, to go to P. J. Clarke’s,
then the Japanese restaurant whose name I knew
but never after that long spell I loved to lift her up
and sit her next to me in the cab, all the way home
kissing and caressing and she saying, I am very small
but I kissed her where I was too big, she too narrow,
Angela. She sometimes begged off. How I could love
Angela! She let me stay in her walk-up. Cathleen
was dancing disco in Springfield and I was happy
being naked when Angela was home and I was back
here from writing the war all afternoon, Manhattan
being so accommodating to an aspiring young writer
until the day she told me she was going home. London.
She’d be back, her long black hair down past shoulders
tiny and brittle and breasts so full I never knew why
I never went back. I was living again in Amherst.
If you could call it living, I would say self-consciously.
(2 January 2011)
copyright 2011 by Floyce Alexander