Friday, February 25, 2005

Department of Full Disclosure

Reading Dan about his experiences trying to write a poem responsive to culture—specifically popular culture—in his workshops sent me back in time fifteen years (!) to my first undergraduate poetry workshop, where I got mostly disapproval from the professor for writing a sestina about the Coen brothers film Miller's Crossing. It wasn't a particularly good poem, but what really set off the prof's alarm bells was that it was about a movie. Anyway, I went digging through my old files to see if I could find the poem, and instead came across an interesting piece of juvenalia—a short attempt at an epic poem (if that's not a contradiction in terms) that I wrote my senior year in college. It's not a great poem, but it's not as bad as I'd expect, either. It doesn't engage pop culture as directly as the Miller's Crossing poem, but it does try to interfuse with the sense of something ending that a lot of us were feeling in 1991. Though my sense of history wasn't too acute then. It seems incredible that the events of those years, namely the fall of the Soviet Union, didn't affect me more directly. But on another level, my antennae were out. Though I think I wrote the whole thing to impress my girlfriend of the time. (Hi, Chris!) Anyway, here it is:
The Millenium Romance

For ten centuries we fought for a glimpse of stocking.
He wore doublet and hose and pretended to like scotch—
She was a fencer from the lowlands of New Jersey.
Muscles jumped in her thighs like flames over newspaper.

The old ways are monuments—the old days
Of men fighting for women. Now he stands amazed,
En passant, blood dripping from his hand.
They are like gypsy fish that drown on dry land.

She salutes him. Armed to the teeth, rouged,
She is the warrior of the hour. She touches him
On the throat with her nails, draws him down,
Breathes, Be a man.

The new glass buildings cast no shadows.
Weightless as Manhattan, spirits glide,
Whispering in the ear of every man,
Your day will come. The fear of men, everywhere.

Our bones, transparent, tough as glass.
Vibrant, neon-marrowed, animated.
In the face of disaster we bend with the wind.
We breathe water, wear sunblock. We are immortal.

At Lincoln Center the slow dancers of autumn
Step high over the hot coals of history,
Forgetting everything but old songs, calling
For someone to watch over them.

These days, the survivors of the sixties
Bundle guilt like kindling in their arms.
Their children fan the flames—they get jobs
If they can, marry. Otherwise, bleak apartments.

A man bearing a skull is the symbol of theater.
Our man carried his in a lunchbox.
Each of us drinks from the skulls of ancestors,
Swallowing hues of language, crushing the empties.

Sticks and stones can break my bones
But newspapers swell and rot in the gut.
Our hearts beat time to the doomsday clock
Our leaders have shut in a vault. We work alone.

A cop walks in the footprints of Los Angeles, saying
Nothing to see here. Graffiti runs like mascara.
Bullet holes like acne scars on proud, blind buildings.
He taught her to dance on the Hollywood Freeway.

Children are obsolete. It's in all the papers.
There's a plan to send the unborn to Antarctica—
They'd be happier there. The unspoiled world
Counts the days to millennium. Tag, cry some children, you're it.

She was taught to fear penetration but did not.
A woman knows every secret of blood.
Giver her a mask, rubber gloves, and she will carve an empire.
The flesh of men is eager.

God is a Jew. God is African. God
Has no face. God is a sunup. God
eats your pain. God lost his glasses. God
Is in our way. There is no God but God. God.

You can see the Great Wall from space.
Venus winks out like a naked eye.
They dance beneath the stars on a winter night.
Her breath turns to snow in her lover's beard.

They do not speak. Whirling like planets, he cradles
The small of her back, her lumbar soul.
She finds herself in his eyes and is afraid.
Blood and bone. Blood and bone.

He frowns like Abraham, she laughs like Sarah.
Almost unwilling, she pulls up near his ear.
I'll love you forever. It rises up from her womb,
Out her throat, past her lips and into him. I'll love you forever.

The city falters around them. Men with two first names
Listen for their mothers. Women with powerful arms
Cling tightly to their fathers. The animals are loose
In the cathedral. The crypt fills with walking bones.

Dance, America. Dance for your lost sons.
Dance for your virgin daughters. Jitterbug,
Foxtrot, waltz and waltz. Dance for the end
Of the war. Of the wedding. Of the millennium.

Where did the time go? It's still here.
Golf balls pause in flight. Neither on nor off is the light.
Geometry rattles its chain under the St. Louis arch.
Cigarettes and coffee are the flying buttresses of the soul.

They are kissing at last, tasting water and earth,
Swaying in the ruins of the World Trade Center.
Bach and Mozart, Mozart and Bach. Beautiful,
he whispers, and she reaches for her revolver.

City of immigrants, city of need.
A woman goes from hospital to hospital, crying Where?
The dead work the cracks like the beggars work corners,
Rattling the coins of their lives in a cup. Still here.

Easy words pulse in the swan of his throat.
Sing me a new song, she says. He croons,
You are my sunshine—your pain is mine—your children
Are my children
. She says, I've heard it.

I'd give up poetry for one wink from love.
Love's theocrat sings "Stand By Your Man",
Encores with "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Every messiah and prophet sings "Stand By Me".

Who needs love in St. Petersburg? In Montana?
Who needs anything but for winter to end.
Your kisses are mortal as mistletoe.
For how many years will you miss me? How many minutes?

Every ending hits the brick wall of joy.
We leave to our lovers what words remain.
They choose weapons and icons—they face off
Over the reservoir. Their eyes—time's rifle—unblinking.

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