At the Temple of the Mind
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.
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, 义和团起义,*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.