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At the Temple of the Mind



Albert P. Ryder, At the Temple of the Mind, 1885


At the Temple of the Mind

Green Animals, a topiary where I walk, is across the river

from an Isle of Desolation: no willows, no Temple of Apollo,

just hot fog and burning pages from a poem by Edgar Poe,

a broken epithet, and lone, cracked tombs in the shadow

of three graces who’ve come to say my art is too temporal,

too fleeting or imprecise for the anguish, toil, of everyday life.

The cold is a color that transports me out of a dream of ants,

back to the world of cuckoo clocks, smudged ledgers, where

the only task of language is to talk.  A grotto fountain leaks

into grass, a fragmentary image that can never be forgotten,

just as words, hidden in my pictures, will be etched in stone.

Look! Overhead a star’s on fire as it roams the Milky Way,

as a parade of beasts from Eden meanders down the valley,

a pair of auks another bright taboo against the end of time.

 

Lord Ullin’s Daughter

Blue sky over Scottish islands, where a chill has spread

to every bracken fern and vale – to every fleeting thought

the ferryman ignites as he poles the king from moor

to moor, hoping to find the daughter who’s eloped

with a beautiful madman from the far-off coast of Ulva,

where goats top outcrops of rock from which to peer

into the bottom of the sea. He stares into a sirocco

as whitecaps glaze and batter their dory. She, as if guided

by a star or god, makes sure not to look back at Hades,

as she sees it, for Lord Ullin, who nurtured her

through childhood’s woes, must now be a thing

of the past. The open ocean is her suitor now,

the young sailor with a beard and dreadlocked hair

is part of the rime of the sea and the heaving land

beyond, which is what she’s after. A tide running

out is her heart’s companion. So no matter how

hard they pull their oars, they cannot overtake her,

a child of the hand of snow, who’s passed to a world

where the dead will sleep with open eyes, where

youth is peering into the pock-mocked face of the sun.


Pegasus Departing

The day starts with Ceylon tea, some hard-tack biscuits

and last night’s Saturday Review. Roosevelt is President:

Booker T. Washington has visited the White House,

71 Van Goghs are shown in Paris, Annie Taylor barrels

over Niagara Falls, the Boxer Rebellion, ,*

the raids against the Manchu railroads, against feng shui,

put down, and Marconi’s read a transatlantic message

at Signal Hill, Newfoundland, dots of the Morse code

‘S’ blending into static of ocean waves. World darkens

with the new millennium, just as my room goes grey,

probably just clouds obscuring an early December sun.

But the horse descends, born of the blood of Medusa,

plagued by gadflies and a tribe of Amazons, as if from

the holiest of cities in Hindustan where a jinn would go.

I can no longer hear Manhattan outside my window:

in the foreground of the picture plane, I have the bard

dismount to a pedestal of ice, sit in a thoughtful pose,

not unlike Rodin’s, focusing on a word like immensity.

As the horse spreads its wings, alights, I poise the poet

climbing up the icy cavern walls where he’s entombed

until a muse of Dance allows what men are left to walk

up gravel paths to reach the heights of Mount Olympus.

 

* Pinyin‘Righteous and Harmonious Society Uprising’

 

The Flying Dutchman

The Flying Dutchman speeds on towards the Bellingshausen Sea,

where squalls spin clockwise in circumpolar currents, hoping to catch

Moroccan pirates unaware and decimate their ships, forever teased

by clouds and snow storms laced with ice. He rounds the Cape

in battered waves above Leviathans whose dormancy is sleep.

Cerulean, then suddenly dung-brown, the skies unleash a fury

known only to mermaids and cast-off sea dogs. After dreaming

of the Flying Dutchman, the next day I find lost love, prosperity

or peace, but never without cutting a finger on a rigger’s knife,

breaking a tooth, or a leaving a kiss unfinished, a mote of dust

reappearing in my eye and at my bedside chamber pot, while

the distraught buccaneer forever tramps ice packs of the Earth.

 

Moonlight

My state of angst is reflected in a turquoise glow of sunbeams

in Dalmatia, as I stand down Arctic gulls on a pebbled shore

and mutter an osanna to the husk of my inner self.

The blow of upper atmosphere moves all masticating things

into a state of lividness or shock. The gloaming peers

at me– I don’t know what I need– I platch and scrobble

zinc and iron pigments into glaze, a roiling mass of weeds

that’s not quite water, air, or fire, but I scratch like a child

with needles in black wax to reveal colors and calm beneath.

No visitors means that I am free to populate a countryside,

no memories lurking but just the impudence of rock doves

on a windowsill, as I feed a solitary impulse in my ratty hole,

where only the forlorn show up to share my noodle soup.

Even in this city tenement, it’s the wailing of the Maritimes

which is the breath I seek to stay alive, awake, and at work.

 

Christ Appearing to Mary

A Levant wind lingers in the cypresses, You do not want to touch me,

the prophet sighs as he grinds his heels in quarry sod. He’s

healed the sick and raised three epileptics from a bench.

Fishermen walk the shoals at Galilee, a herd of swine

runs straight into the sea. At first light, Mary scratches

at a rock-face door, her feet are torn and chafed

from walking fields to find this man who stands

in flowering arbutus, saying You do not want to touch me.

His arm is in an arc that bends toward the kneeling girl,

her palms free to receive snakebite or stigmata. He offers

no parable on withering figs, none on deep sea sturgeon.

A servant’s ear’s made whole, a blind girl sees the clouds

that carry the spark traveling from his hand into hers,

so that she knows he’s risen. Earthworms in the garden

quiver when he intones the words, You do not want to touch me.

 

Cophetua

Pancake ice on Johnnycake Hill. I'm tired from hours of sledding

and, at ten years old, seek simple pleasures like a wad of red

tobacco leaf, ribbon candy, a battered mouth harp, watching

fur seals in the harbor, a Brahma bull in stubble cornfields,

a flower pot falling off Bierstadt's windowsill to cobblestones

below where dried stalks of purple foxglove rot into the curb.

I dream the factory girl that I will wed and die for. She smells

of sassafras, her eyes are lumps of coal. She already paints

her lips too lavender for the rooftops of New Bedford, here

in town where Frederick Douglass clacked a cane along

Mechanics Lane. I'm in perpetual motion: the sound of an O

from a balloon veers from seacoast towards continental shelf.

Beyond Crow Island, two falcons plummet through green

and laughing air, and at the State Pier men count skeins

of cod that suffocate now that Gulf Stream currents aren't

running through their gills. But I can feel their fish breath.

As night comes, we watch an errant star as it spits from the sky

past fiery try-works of the whaleboats, down to an undulant sea.

 

With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow

Hard-glancing sheets of rain cut across our sloop

on a coastal reach off shores of Penobscot, Maine.

Two hooded figures wrestle with the sheet, as the

rudder jack-knifes rudderless, as winter whitecaps

gather over a flood of haddock shimmering below

the waves in a frenzy of arctic light. Somewhere out

in the mist a white orb burns, more of a cantaloupe

of fire than the tired oppressor of Icarus. Each man

feels the brazen pelt of ice as his life is hauled into

nets of bottom feeders running before the breeze.

Two ancient mariners on frozen limbs, we men bow

to the elements, just as the painter of the scene must

cater to the caulks and oils that he has to work with.

 

Dead Bird

What better tribute than to love this sparrow’s breastbone, just now

emptied of its heartbeat? The smell of oleander trees permeates

the room. The memento mori on my windowsill is witness

to one dance of death that I’ve avoided, while all around me

soldiers fall. Better than daguerreotype or bouquet of zinnias,

I consider the lifeless form as a gift to the temple of the mind.

So come cities full of gold and ale and tar. For it is death–

an embracing of its contours– that sets us apart from animals.

Milkweed pods, skate eggs, my little brother’s hazel eyes, level

with a table top, these are the elements of fixity and change.

A lynx stares out at me from under a chaise lounge, beyond

the limits of what I can see. The dead bird’s eye is open, its

feathers glisten like icicles in snow, its tail still poised to fly

beyond the reaches of La Paz, to return to its place of birth,

near the bulge of earth at Chimborazo, far-off in tropics

where the river of a yellow anaconda is waking to the dawn.

 

The Golden Hour

An 1890s theater of surgery– knives, scalpels, hip-bone saws

and vials of mercury– a child of six is bleeding on the table. 

The path it took from a caboose to here is what interests

the mind of this onlooker, who’s heard it has something to do

with the Golden Hour. No, not dusk, not pastured sheep, not

red sea at dawn on the Indian Ocean– but just two and twenty

minutes when the pulse of a child’s life is felt in a throat

that’s choked with sobbing. Teeming swallows at an abbey’s

church spire on a distant hill. A fox in strawberries. River

islands hovering above the water line at the violent passage

of Earth’s shadow into exile. This is the moment when

the painter must breathe in, pick up a brush to lay down

a bluish wash. It’s while the child lies in a portico at Halifax

that he’s drawn to express himself, a surface taking hold,

now nothing can stop him, not ebbing of the boy’s blood,

the gaze of threshold guardians, or any cauterizing of the paint.

 

The Tempest

Ryder put his exiles on an island near Eleuthera, but I see them

on Altaira IV, in the Alpha Aquilae, forsaken planet of two moons

from a sci-fi film released the year I was born. Chartreuse skies,

Bolivian-gold grasses, and reptile footprints in the sand.

From inside the wizard’s study stumble monsters of the id,

back-lit stand-ins for Caliban (chained to a bolt-struck stump)

and Ariel (dancing with accordion or fife), devouring a ship’s cook,

a couple of quantum mechanics, a host of orbital sanders,

as ancient Krell music spills from a 24th century cesspool.

9200 nuclear reactors with arcs of energy to blast our Kalahari.

Alta swims without any clothes, in an Eden-like oasis where

there are no men her age but lots of bulging, bluish grapefruit,

a forest of tamed Siberians, and a thousand cow-eyes blazing.

She takes kissing lessons from a member of the crew she likes.

Atop the island’s highest outcrop in a storm, the scene is set

for bashfulness and hope, where Morbius can sleep at last, knowing

his daughter’s found a seat on a spaceship headed back to Earth.

 

Landscape

When I close my eyes at night I see your alphabet of storms,

a vast, new planetary funnel cloud, the ur-bird Archaeopteryx,

a caravel of shells, philosophies of fire borne out by plagues

of frogs, by dreams of owls, an astronomy of starfish,

an architecture of the sky. I wake to buzzards in scrub oak

woods at Gooseberry Point, midwinter, when the light is kin

to venom of the demon Sticky Hair and old crypt rubbings

litter the dunes where bones of my childhood dogs lie still.

I make a living counting stones, walking backwater creeks,

hunting for pennies, pruning tulip beds, and gathering up

cast-off bridal veils. Arjuna blows a conch at battle dawn

on one of seven islands of Bombay, or in trembling winds

that blow from Patagonia. In this landscape are the stories

yet to paint: Faust and Gilgamesh and Johnny Appleseed,

the remnants of a sedentary life, childhood haunts where

mermen sat beneath baobabs to read, or Enoch scribbled

dirty pictures on a linen tablecloth and learned to translate

Hedda Gabler’s whispers into shrieks of rutting skunks,

as I plot transcendent panoramas of the West. I’m standing

where Father Mapple bends to a ship’s pulpit with promised

words of the Ascension, damning all deep-sea fishermen.

Tombs of sailors surround me, and a hurdy-gurdy drones.

I need to get back to New York, to my shut-in garret where

the sky’s the size of a postage stamp, where I’m surrounded

by black and coal and creosote so as to put it in a landscape.

 

The Sheepfold

The man and border collie walk a lush perimeter of sand,

circling the sheep in smaller and smaller rings at dusk

until they pour through gates to a peat moss thatch.

Each head and lamb is a citizen of God, each one

chews grass like there’s no tomorrow. They follow

the hogget as he makes for the innermost point

of the spiral, dog biting at his hocks to keep him down.

It’s dark now, the dovecote’s closed and night birds

are keeling in the wind. A flock of golondrinas

interrupts my train of thought– will it be the setting

of the sun or smell of sheep that I dream about tonight?

Stratus clouds level out above the lengthening shadows

at the sheepfold, where an invisible hand is blessing sedge.

 

Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens

Elms bend madly sidelong in a gale of water rising, their limbs

like hands and feet of fortune’s soldiers, grasping and flailing in

the dust-storm desert light. Underneath, limbs of three bathers

are extensions of the clouds that char the river. A lone coyote

on a mound sighs and paws a shallow indentation in the dirt.

The sky is all diagonals, river grass flattened out by lunar winds.

Orange berries fall from primrose thorn, careening in the air–

what I feel as I stare at ghoulish, unreal hues the artist daubs

from tints and fixative and brush. Siegfried tramps the shore

and hopes to get a peek at figures wading in tiny whitecaps,

palm oil glistening on their naked arms. He can’t approach

without breaking the silence of the deafening trees. He stares

at half-human, half-willow twig things that push hip-deep

and gyrate in a current moving swiftly towards the North Sea.

The painting takes more time to coalesce than writing this, but

not by much. If you listen to your breath, reading each phrase as

slowly as a cat walks mooring lines, you’ll recognize each form

as it undoes itself, a woody trunk turned to a girl that you can touch.

 

The Canal

    for Tom Otterness

Midway from Elbow Street to the promenade at Rockaway, the painter

and his mule slow down to stop and drink but not from the canal,

for it’s full of butcher bones and blood, India ink, copper cleats,

remnants of the largest sea of languages known to man. Rusted

bell pulls, kerosene lamps, pickle barrel staves, an oily anemometer,

even arrowheads and clotted sealing wax. He looks up at clouds

in a widening landscape, the coordinates to what in humans once

was lust, but now is dour, grey shade. A saltwater tide bulges up

the rills of the canal, all green residue, where gristmills, tanneries,

stone yards and soap works have stained the water iridescent gold,

its bed of succulent oysters long since bled to black. A yard dog

barks. A glossy ibis glides over Buttermilk Channel, where Ryder

sets up an easel to mark how a reddening sky imbues the surface

of the channel. It’s the center of his world, the knot of all feeling,

a place where busy hammering in an iron forge cannot be overcome.

 

Desdemona

The Ides of March – light snow dusts Union Square, where Nero’s

Cryptoporticus is the mind’s cavernous passage from here

to Rome, to Noto, Sicily, to the lagoon children of the Adriatic

where I find my Desdemona, one scant moon of Uranus,

on pine islands of the Grand Canal, among Canaletto’s

salted hills where the hungry fled Attila’s tramontana.

In 1650 even royalty heaved their eggshells, lemon peels

and aglio e olio out Venetian doors to guttered streets

where a giant metal pig runs free. Inside a bedroom chamber,

Desdemona paints her nails and gloats. In bridal gowns,

she sulks and waits out old Brabantio. Her cheek is flush

and burning, her story not yet mine. Detritus, diaries, dust,

a history of doubt floats up the tidal flats. Behind an arras,

Othello smokes and blinks. Iago’s busy thinking how to out-fiend

Machiavelli. A Chinese firecracker pops and I snap out of it,

rolling an imaginary cigarette, my mind in ruins, checking

the mail to see if any cash is coming in so I can eat, drink,

buy more red tints to finish the little portrait of Desdemona.


Homeward Bound

He finds himself lost in the Land of the Lotus Eaters,

where a hag is telling him to paint his way back home,

past locks, dams, towers, the marshlands of Laurentum,

cadmium skies, his heart beating in a broken cage of bones

he calls his living wage. His chest heaves for you, a perfect

idol of Penelope, spinning fury on a loom of gold, while

he is far from his return, not in New York, not anywhere

at all on any charted map. Home is where the burning bush

will smoke unceasingly, where souls of the dead just rest,

pasturing on hollow reeds, at uncomplicated weddings.

He sails a ship alone across an icebound sea that one day

carries Peary and Hilary to the outer poles of loneliness.

For the ocean is his book of knowledge, a wading pool

of angels from which painters draw their inspiration. 

He sets off into the wind again, this time for a land where

men use lance and windmill blades instead of plying oars.

 

The Forest of Arden

Glow worms light up a radish patch where I've set up easels. Cicadas hum,

and in the teak I can feel the cherries start to blossom into midnight pink.

The great deciduous woods are sprouting leaf, while dense undergrowth

blooms before the broadleaf world grows in to shadow it. Two kids

from the College of Unreason are sitting by a pond and feeding tiger carp.

Bears run free, but when they’re caught and taught to dance the children

who are still alive will squeal with glee. A chalk river trickles north, the

waste-crown land is suitable for llamas, illness is a crime, and crime itself

is punishable by banishment. Potatoes rule fallow fields with cunning,

poetry is turned to poor hypothesis. Toy-sized cats and humans crowd

the exit doors of the Unborn World, clawing, clamoring to come here.

With cherries in full bloom, I wait for the moon to rise, listening to

a pitch of a yell, time stood still, and working on my etymology of joy.

 

* Written after e-mailing the text of Erewhon to my daughter

 

Jonah

Winds off Tarshish have torn a fishing rig to splinters,

able-bodied seamen tossed like seaweed in the wrack.

A surf’s froth careens along the coast and merges

with the gathering wrath of thunderheads above

an unseen horizon dividing blackened sea from sky.

In the gutter trough of a rogue wave, the old man

raises his arms as if to admit an army into Nineveh.

The great fish– more monster than pale cetacean–

bears down on him from depths of the unknown.

The heart of the sea is throbbing frozen cold, as we

don’t yet know if the grinning fish will swallow Jonah,

or if the world as we know it will slip into comic haze.

Above the chaos of the waves, a luminous figure, more

like father or son of the transgressor– holds a globe

and makes with his right hand the sign of the beholden.

  

The Loreley

     for Robin Russell

Friends and I are sitting in a beer garden named the Loreley–

there are no chestnut trees, but we drink Kölsch, veterans

of turnpike wars on Rivington, remembering when Hinkley

shot John Lennon and Andy Warhol airbrushed mammoth

Chairman Maos, collapsed and died, saying: I don't believe

 in death because you're not around to know it happened.

But he didn't have a daughter or a son. What's happened

is that twenty years have passed and everything we ever

did is right in front of us: the Red Bar, LIRR train wrecks,

Jersey truck stops, teaching Japanese to enunciate their r’s,

listening to the Velvet Underground, copping sports stats

for Corriere della Sera, ticking from tenement to tenement

to check thermometers, we nurse our wounds, try to keep

from telling too many lies. On the wall a murky portrait

of a two-ton rock labors in the gloom. Think of how lives

might have differed, our children friends through years

of back-lot bonfires, poetry slams, a great ladybug release..

The kids loved Tompkins Park, led around a homeless dog

in Lenin's overcoat, squashing bumblebees, ordering gelati

for everyone in sight. Our kids were sirens, now nineteen

and on to other things, looking for jobs or re-births of a star.

And we with our bent-up knees are men who want to boat

to the Rhine’s Mouse Tower, succumb to the lures of Loreley.


The Race Track (Death on a Pale White Horse)

Deserted by work pals at the chip-ice plant, you walk a sodden path

through hemlocks towards the race track. All bets are off–

you’ve lost a thousand dollars to bad calls on thoroughbreds

with names like Wraith, Eclipse, and Albatross. You’ve left off

sketch books, your scribbled hack-cough cumuli, and travel

without pen or paper, but with a wistfulness and a whistle

on your lips. Nearby, a child cries out in a dream of selkies.

Dessicated sycamores stand or fall in a loud, Appalachian bog.

When you reach the white-rail outpost to the track, the sky

is clotted up with yellow bile, it’s almost three in the morning

and the only fellow traveler is a bone-white horse, carrying

a wisp with a scythe who circles endlessly, a hissing green snake

winding sideways as he slithers toward a torn patch in the grass.


© 2007