When we had money, we stopped there,
remember? You didn’t need
another scarf, but hesitated
over the strangely Forties-modern earrings.
We meant to come back
for one of those ceramic-shaded lamps
with the mildly surreal fish,
and gazed for ten minutes
at the delicate cupboard in three woods –
asking, How would it fit
among the heavy, comfortable things
we accumulated after thinking
our living room would be aluminum and leather?
Nice now, in a way, to go in
to browse, and really only for that – i.e.,
that can be easily named – as I did
today. It’s like
a museum when there’s no question of possession;
and for a moment I entered
that slack-jawed, very American state
where everything rich
is admirable. The decorative salesgirls
were like (I could see it, now) museum guards
or curatorial staff.
Yet I alone was there to ignore
or smile at, and one could almost worry,
the market down for months.
Buildings like mine that year would be
the monoliths of a lesser culture.
A stack of thirty hallways
vanishing in muddy distance;
a thousand strangers huddled alongside
in cooking smells and languages,
few black or very white, wondering
if I was a narc or dealer, shutting their doors.
And the distinctive rot
of mom-and-pops selling generic brands;
the razorwire perspectives;
jogging on line behind seniors trembling
with cold or Parkinson’s …
are there still, somewhere, liberals
who say “vitality” when other liberals
say “blight” and care deeply?
I had my job. That livid room.
That view of the whole rusty world,
airports. That scuffed stove, mouldy
wiring, sad tiles and toilet.
A pilot light.
In the Magritte painting, a man sits reading
at a table and is gone the next three frames.
One night, new people were above my ceiling,
or one new person, or a changed
attitude. Fully alert
at the first sound, I recognized it.
The pause before the next.
Contained talking and laughter,
not the main point.
Soft, further muffled by plaster.
Then movement, positioning,
and a slow thunder
of moans, lightning cries, also
muted. Her cries:
not birdlike-Asian, once
experienced, long remembered; or
some fierce backwoods holler; but authentic.
His bark, almost of terror.
And again and,
ambiguously, towards morning … Had there been,
ever, a long morbid mumble
of bills, or cruel clear words,
the ordinary scrapings, I would have banged
Instead it became my duty,
my watch, to fight for sleep and fight,
more than usual that year,
With only that strange beacon.
Never seeing them
knowingly in the green, scarred elevators.
Straining nightly towards
the near distance
as if bending over a large empty plate.
The ones they might have been – what
did they see? Beneath the fatigue they caused,
another I could still shake off.
Eventually I moved to Pittsburgh
and found a girlfriend and a better job.
Plato describes a slavemaster
one escapes by growing old.
It isn’t that, exactly; nor can one flee.
How I Left Berkeley
My most revealing stories can’t
be told as traditional narratives because
they’re tenuous and disgusting,
and I was disgusting, and the characters
were never actually in one
room together except
the dim neoclassical space
of my imagination, where few are individuated –
Janet, who, during her brilliant at-homes, which
I audited, on Virgil and Narrative, sometimes,
unseasonably, sweated (you saw it on
her upper lip and above
the neckline of her, what else,
Guatemalan blouse), so that one
wondered if it was menopause
(which seemed early), or the speed
she got from Gerald (who supplied
the entire English faculty and
fucked both them and their
offspring of both genders), or Gerald
himself, supposedly handsome
in his black Italian threads, lounging
on a couch in her study, interrupting, quoting, in
his smug nasal mumble, Dante, of whom
he later published another useless
translation (it and G’s deadly poetry
with blurbs from everyone), while she,
the rage I once confided
about women in Berkeley who, straight
themselves, took their style and
values from lesbians and constantly
rejected me, into a poem
in which a female harpsichordist played,
continually, imperviously in
a mountain of glass or ice, seeing
which, the figure based on me tried
to break it, pounding impotently, crying –
a poem that, when she showed me it,
occasioned a hatred rather like joy –
far different from the scrupulous, cold
will to definition I showed
at what might be called my farewell party, telling
A that if he ever took power,
I’d leave, because I didn’t want to be
an “engineer of human souls,” but adding he’d
never have power, because he couldn’t
organize a sleepy kindergarten
without faction-fights, and B that
I was sick of helping him hold
the chip on his shoulder, accepting rhetorical
blame for his addictions and irrationalism
to keep his doubtful friendship, and C that
"I'd like to forget about
my penis a while and concentrate
on you,” which she had publicly urged men
to think, they wouldn’t, especially while she
divided her time between gays and rough trade, and
D that her rice-and-dead-vegetable
food was as vile as the pious drone
with which she forbade her son war-toys.
And then walked out into the void.
The Founding of Marsport
It won’t be easy. You’ll have to be,
and pretend to be, one of them.
(And none of them is merely one of them,
which makes the role especially annoying.)
You’ll have to learn math.
I never could. You’ll have to be
a scientist, not merely abstractly revere them,
as I do to irritate Goddess-creeps
and cultural relativists. –
I used to date a scientist.
Her first degree was in English; we could talk.
I angered her at a party of her colleagues
by talking more to the host’s ten-year-old son
than to them.
(We discussed the X-Man Universe,
Batman, the other great avengers.)
I told her it wasn’t only math
or their evident strain in relating without it;
what I can’t stand is the smile.
“What smile?” she asked, exasperated.
The smile that says there’s an impersonal structure
in which whatever they’re investigating
inheres. It’s playful, this structure, and hides,
and I’m supposed to admire, not them, but it.
And it (implicitly – all this is implicit)
in turn suggests other admirable, impersonal
causes. It’s worse than God.
“But structure itself is beautiful,” she said,
and I remarked on our host’s
décor, in which the louche ephemeral chaos
of a dorm room coexisted
with colors and things that were there
because someone had said they were tasteful. –
You’ll have to learn those values and that smile.
Also, you’ll have to sit in a centrifuge
and do thousands and thousands of push-ups
and play ball with the others in the program,
as well as with its officials
and visionary entrepreneurs.
(Which isn’t the only similarity
between jocks and executives.
They have, in my experience, a great inner glow
or voice, which deflects their attention
from things that are neither brief, inane,
You’ll have to live in a suit
for days? weeks? underwater
to simulate weightlessness, then train for real in orbit –
the thought of which disturbs my inner ear
and makes me want to hide in a small room.
When all your tests are done,
you’ll have to endure seven Gs
for many minutes, radiation
from the Van Allen Belt and solar storms,
increasingly delayed and staticky comms,
micropunctures, glitches, and the smell
of those incredibly brave philistines, your
Team – until you risk forgetting
that it’s I, not they, you love.
I thought that, once the dome was up,
I’d have you kill them while they slept.
You would then be alone.
That solitude, and your death
(whenever you liked), would repeat
in improved form my own
many years earlier.
Then I thought, What’s the point? they’ll keep coming.
And however monitored and conformist
they are, a solitary walk
(in sight of base) on those sands
should be permitted.
The same might hold for poetry. During training
you’ll have to conceal your taste for it
(they’d think you queer), but after landfall
some quirks, like beards, may appear.
I even may come to be seen
as a kind of patron
or shepherd of the mission. They’ll ask you to read,
and won’t understand that I –
not some object in a cavern
beneath Delta Pavonis
or a mummified microbe near an icecap –
am the true alien.
So let them live, and live yourself,
and scratch my closing lines
on a rock that will not be razed
when terraforming and the suburbs come.
Yet I’m unsure whether I want you
to look upon that desert and smile for me,
or this poem’s breath
to thicken that dry air, moisten the land.
Elegy: Sappho the Cat
May 1987 – August 2002
Arriving in Heaven, our dear cat
Sappho is proportionately as far
from our first lamented, Homer,
as in the back yard, where I buried them.
But to give her time to adjust,
the distance stretches, and
she cautiously (an indoor life) begins
to explore. The grass is short,
nowhere too high to see over.
Narrow and pure streams
feed into small, cold pools.
A kind of mouse with an entrancing smell,
high moisture and protein content but no brain
or nervous system skitters here and there,
and is sometimes hard to catch.
Elsewhere, a milklike sap
collects at the base of a tree whose nuts are treats.
By fits and starts, her huge and browless eyes
wide, corkscrew tail
(rid of its tumor now)
not seriously dragging, Sappho zigzags,
and as she walks she enters
the realm of understanding. So that
arriving at Homer, bouncing
to see him again, and
submitting for an hour to his tongue,
she is glad then to lie
beside his dark bulk
“He did the same thing
with you as with me – ” says Homer,
“handed you to them. And left.” –
“He couldn’t bear it,” says Sappho,
neither accusing nor excusing. –
“He feels guilty,” says Homer.
(It’s hard to know what he means by this, or thinks.) –
“I was crying there, with those tubes,
for days; when he came and stroked me
I didn’t cry, but then he went away,”
says Sappho. Homer is silent,
and she: “He’ll learn in time
what it is to die alone,”
her tone neither pitying nor vengeful.
They look out at that landscape
which comes in part from a Remedios Varo painting.
There’s a whirligig, trees and caves,
and trout-full streams. We began as fishers,
Then, far across the sky,
they watch the contrail of a jetliner,
its passengers suddenly sure
they’ll arrive where they’re going.
Private religions are the best; they kill
the spirit that needs killing, that
drips poison on creative thought
imprisoned miles below the world.
Where doubt is faith, no one gets hurt
for unbelief. Your congregation
is other people waiting for a bus,
each heretic and hierophant and martyr.
One who believes she was saved will be saved
from the Boss and Impostor,
the stumbling mumbling man
remember pleasure and his name,
through the efficacious fires of
regret, the antiprayer.
That stupid youth will emerge into reason and order
invisibly, in the twinkling of an eye;
the body (we have stopped at the hospital)
from its cruelties; and the past
from the requirement of forgiveness
(but I have promised this so often
I must rely on death to bear it out).
Light and warmth will return, or, if you wish,
the clarity of winter. War will cease;
and one who fought for you in every cell,
in the accretion disk of each black hole,
and in the very arteries of unkindness,
will knock on your door one evening
in the disintegrating rags
of preordained defeat, and grin, and say
you never had to take it seriously.