Monday, August 24, 2009

Having lost my way

Earlier this spring, as you recall, I began working on a series of poems called the "Pushkin Project." Composing these pieces consumed most of May, until the 24th of May, specifically, the day my grandmother suddenly died.

A lot has happened since the day of her death. The most important event in my life being my move from Connecticut back to New York City. Not very much has occurred for me, poetically speaking, however, especially where the Pushkin project is concerned. This is starting to change.

The 'Project' now has a title: "Takaaki." I am working on it again. I am going to try to slow down the rate of composition from the painful pace of one sonnet per day to, perhaps, one sonnet every two days. Or three. My main concern this time is quality, having shown myself (like The Ford Motor Company) that I could, if need be, summon quantity, in a pinch.

Here is the entire poem as it now stands. In manuscript, it runs to about 20 pages, allowing 2 stanzas per page. There are still a few things in it I am unsatisfied with; a few things in the future, I expect, will change. I have no idea what. And I am very curious to find out. So, let's get going.

(My goal is to present the entire tale to Takaaki for his birthday this year, on September 25th. It's a surprise, of course, so don't tell him.)


A Romance


Today, as I was clipping my toenails,
I had a small epiphany. I thought,
Since I have started fabricating tales,
Once I am finished with my toes, I ought
To tell a story totally in verse,
Like Alexander Pushkin. What’s the worst
Thing which could happen to me, if I do?
I waste a month, while trying to pursue
A dream. Not a great sacrifice to make.
But digging deeper, under my big toe,
To get a stubborn piece of sock, I go
Puncturing an artery by mistake:
Administering a pedicure is not
The time to be developing your plot.

Although a gallon of fresh blood will prove
Absolutely vital later on—
Since blood is second only to true love
As an essential element of fiction—
Beyond the story of Philoctetes,
Penned by Pulitzer winner Sophocles,
Western literature is rather weak
When it comes to treating injured feet.
There is Achilles, yes, and Oedipus
Translates from ancient Greek as ‘swollen foot’—
But is my toe the basis for a book,
Except for, maybe, my podiatrist,
Dr. Silverman? It’s tough to say.
The man hates poetry. He says it’s gay.

I mention my podiatrist because—
As you have no doubt noticed here so far—
Underneath the sterile square of gauze
Stuck here to stanch my bleeding toe—there are—
I hesitate to call them ‘flaws’—it lacks
Finesse and strays too far from facts
For me. I’ve altered Pushkin’s sonnet scheme
In ways less fatal than they first might seem:
I add a fifth beat to his four foot line.
Some will regard the act as criminal,
Some revel in the extra syllable
Like puppies playing out in the sunshine.
Pentameter is difficult to ditch
If your first love in life was Shakespeare, which

It was for me. There’s not much I can do.
If Pushkin’s relatives should get wind
Of my two-timing ways, I doubt they’ll sue.
They’ll probably ask an unemployed cousin
To slit my throat when I’m alone in bed.
I guess I could get used to being dead—
As long as you can promise what I wrote
Continues living in your heart, I’ll cope
With fame and martyrdom quite well. But
If anybody offers me some cash
To shut up, I’ll consider it, as
I’m often short. And having your throat cut
By former agents of the KGB
Does sound a wee bit painful, actually.

And I hate pain. So, I propose a truce
Between my critics and their allies in
The Russian mob. I’ll borrow—not abuse—
Some bubbles from the bar—that horizon
Bequeathed to me—to poets everywhere
Who’ve gulped at galaxies we might compare
In liquid brilliance to a sparkling word
Of Alexander Pushkin. (It’s absurd
To carry comparisons much further than
A single word: our metaphors break down
To fizzy giggles—particles of sound
That do not look like galaxies, or stand
For much of anything, beyond noise.
It’s hard to pour the stars into your voice.)

Part I

“Paint me a pair of bold anfractuous rocks
Set somewhere in the Cyclades—a spot
Totally removed from Time. No clocks.”
I’d settle for a day in August, hot
Enough to melt an Erlenmeyer flask;
We could emerge from a cool underpass
To catch a guitar weeping, an old song,
A crowd of children shrieking, a Great Lawn,
Surrounded by people with someplace to be
Hurrying to different destinations.
“Who comes to Central Park on their vacations?”
I would implore the poor, demented bee
Circling a can of garbage going sour.
Surely, God would not begrudge an hour

Of timelessness unto Humanity—
His representatives on Earth. He must
Have made us and forgotten us. Maybe.
How else would you explain the missing bus,
The leaky awning, and the pouring rain,
This longing to be elsewhere? Hence, the plane
Landing on a distant isle in Greece—
Ahead of schedule—the Cyclades—
Bathed in Hellenic blue. And far below—
Almost invisible on the white beach—
There is a tempting red umbrella which
I am convinced belongs to me; although,
It could be a reflection from the ad
For Travelers Insurance, which is bad-

Ly flirting with me from across the street.
A fault in one of its florescent lights—
Flutter. Flicker. Blackout. And repeat:
Ad infinitum. How I hate these nights!
These tiny, tantalizing sights. To
Say I hate New York would not be true.
We have a strange relationship, I’d say,
We need each other, sort of, in the way
A sad, sadistic cop requires a good
(But rather stupid) buddy on the force
To buy Budweisers for him, post-divorce,
And hear how he has wrecked his life. Ours would
Make a fine, redemptive movie script,
Down to the last, cheesy tortilla chip.

For now, a cone of pink chrysanthemums—
To match the dozen frosted donuts I
Picked up from Dunkin’ for dessert—some
Blocks back, before Zeus unzipped the sky—
Will join our little shopping list. “How
Much are these flowers,” I ask the fellow
Sweeping up the petals, thorns and leaves
He has been pruning. “Not the roses—these,”
I point sharply at the mums again.
The chalkboard with the prices on it had
Suffered, like my patience, from the mad
Downpour. Slowly a young Mexican
Lifts five green fingers in front of his face—
His exhausted face. What a place

To hide such beauty. “Yes, I’ll take those, thanks,”
I mutter softly, with embarrassment,
Pulling out a wet ten, with two yanks,
Sending a quarter rolling down the pavement,
To the gutter. Pirouetting on the drain,
It spins to rest, shining in the rain
Atop a flattened cup—a blue pancake—
Supporting crooked letters which I make
Out to read, ‘Happy To Serve You.’
Exactly who is happy to be serving
Whom lies beyond my powers of observing
Because of how the cup is crushed. In lieu
Of other parties with a claim to it,
I give green fingers a five-dollar tip

And go retrieve my quarter from the cup,
Before somebody else does. In this town,
Some moments are too precious to give up.
A lucky coin can turn your life around
Like that: Fortune rota volvitur,
Rolling toward the sewer, your last quarter,
While on “The Wheel of Fortune” someone spins
Above a pyramid of oranges. Who wins?
Who cares? I have my quarter and I’m glad.
The best ten dollars that was ever spent
By any man beneath the Firmament.
Do I exaggerate? Perhaps a tad.
But just a tad. That magic emerald hand
Has turned “The Wheel” into a salsa band

By changing channels. How I love TV!
Just think of all the money that we could
Save on drugs and psychotherapy
If human hearts came with remotes! A mood
Is altered just by tapping on your nose,
And fine-tuned further, peeling off damp clothes,
And fiddling a little with a nipple.
A politician still might come and cripple
Sex, occasionally, and football
Pre-empt a dreary real-life drama
With dancing linebackers, or a bomber
Blowing up an airplane force us all
To interview a few shocked families:
But we could always turn off our TVs—

Like that. Returning richer from the gutter,
I collect my donuts and cut flowers.
It seems the thunderstorm’s begun to stutter—
Which I attribute to my quarter’s powers,
Patting the faint circle on my thigh
Embossed by my good luck. I decide
There is no point in waiting. I am wet.
I can’t get any wetter now. I bet
The guy who drives my bus is named Godot…
Assuming this, and better weather later,
We say goodbye to Jorge’s cramped bodega.
I need to meet Takaaki for a show—
War of the Worlds—at quarter after eight.
Taka-chan will shoot me if I’m late.

Takaaki entered my life as a leopard
Belt being unbuckled at the Y.
Until that Tuesday, we exchanged no word
Apart from the prim, perfunctory, “Hi,”
One naturally nods when in the shower—
Never letting eyes fall any lower
Than chin, if necessary, collarbone,
Carefully leaving ‘well enough’ alone—
Lest a long, luxurious lather blur
That fragile line of bubbles separating
Really clean from curious—creating
Questions about conditioners, and whether
Grapefruit is a proper, manly scent—
Even in a Thought Experiment.

I was hooked by how that feline belt
Crept through the four tight loops above his rear;
It filled me with four-letter words, which spelt,
“Don’t ruin your Moon trip.” Though sincere—
Poetic even—this injunction—it
Does not, I think, seem quite appropriate.
We’re not inside a NASA locker room—
Pristine and clean and white. We’re in a tomb
Below the ground on 47th Street,
Surrounded by abandoned towels so stiff
And stained with History they’ve entered myth.
I sprinkle fungal powder on my feet
Discretely. As my fairy dust descended,
I wondered if his buckle was befriended

By anything besides his fingertips.
I could, of course, conceive of other suitors:
Shaggy carpets, pant hangers with clips
Coated in red rubber, folding doors
With tiny metal doorknobs cast from stainless
Steel. But it was none of my business
Where, after leaving his seductive waist,
His buckle might intend to hang, how chaste
His companions: if they drink, or stink
Of jockstraps, Jockeys, sweaty socks, or hold
Silk stockings with more reverence, or cold
Hands in handcuffs, or dead cats. (I think
What one discovers on a closet hook
Can tell you more than any tell-all book.)

*Zip* that leopard softly disappears
Around the tan line of Takaaki’s hips.
I know a guy who spent a thousand years
On hips, neglecting to Chapstick his lips:
His tongue disintegrated into dust
Before he could express his love. Or lust.
I trust the stupid use he made of Time
Will not be copied in your life. Or mine.
Now with three stanzas written on a waist,
A belt, belt loops, belt buckle, and no ass,
You might suppose your humble Author has
Lost you, Takaaki, and his mind. In case
That’s what you think, permit me now to state,
While you’ve been thinking, we’ve been on a date.

Part II

Around a core of elevators set
Twelve tall windows in a concrete sheet
As crumbly as the Parthenon; let
Your panorama start in Brooklyn, greet
The Empire State behind a candle (where
I sit swiveling in a leather chair),
While your eye continues traveling
Along gray glass, skyscrapers unraveling,
Until the pointy tip of the Chrysler Buil-
-ding gently lifts Lexington Avenue,
Piercing a silver nitrate mist. Now you
Must have this scintillating picture fill
The space before your eyes: that is New York.
Here, I transfix a carrot with a fork.

“Introibo ad altare,” I will say,
While blowing on my steaming vegetable,
Adding, “Totemo oishikatta ne,”
Hoping that I finally am able
To tell Takaaki I enjoy his curry
Without entangling my tongue in worry.
“It’s okay,” he shrugs, quietly deferring
My compliments—as usual preferring
A tilted head, a seated bow, the leaner
Show of manners honored in Japan,
Which can seem strange to an American
Inclined to linger too much over dinner,
Allowing food to cool and candles run.
Before I’d started, Takaaki was done—

Done, just like those little Japanese
Cartoons I used to watch in Buffalo.
Star Blazers was my favorite one of these.
Five days a week, at 3:30, or so,
On rusty orange carpet I would sit
Watching an Imperial Navy ship,
Resurrected and retooled for space,
Leave planet Earth to save the human race.
At 6:00pm, plate balanced on my knee,
I’d see Toyota windshields being battered
By men from Chevrolet, lives shattered
By something known as, “The Economy.”
One guy would wear this map t-shirt: above
Japan it read, “Two bombs were not enough.”

Now, the two malignant mushrooms which
Sprouted from the belly of that guy
Returned as two shitakes in my dish
Of curried chicken and vegetables. Why
Was that? From a Doraemon candy tin
Takaaki took a cigarette. A thin
Wisp of smoke and hiss rose from his plate,
Typical for your twenty-seventh date.
“What do you want to do,” I inquired,
“Go bowling? I’ll do anything you like:
Get drunk? Get naked?” [Silence.] “Steal a bike?”
“I swam forty laps tonight. I’m wired.”
He exhaled, emitting a little laugh,
“Shall we play Scrabble then and then have bath?”

“Have bath sounds good. But Scrabble, I will pass:
You always win, you creep. You clearly cheat,”
I said, “It’s obvious. You won the last
Nine times. And you’re not going to defeat
Me for time number ten tonight.” I put
My foot down firmly. There. Takaaki’s butt
He extinguished in the drop of sauce
Which recently had claimed his match. “You lost
Because you play without strategy:
There is no need for me to cheat,” he sighed,
As if I were an insect on his thigh
Too insignificant to crush. “You see,
You always want to find interesting word—
Not the word that wins.” My mouth conferred

A moment with a chunk of chicken dyed
Cadmium by cumin in the curry—
Before I swallowed. “I have always tried
To think of Scrabble with you as purely
Educational. It is my wish
To help you in enlarging your English
Vocabulary. And defeating you—
Too easily—as surely I must do—
Would only be embarrassing. I know
How sensitive to that Nihon-jin are:
Destruction on a Scrabble board would mar
Our beautiful relationship.” “Honto?
It sounds like Maru-chan’s afraid to play.”
“Maru-chan will kick your ass today.”

(Maru-chan, or Maru-maru, is
The new diminutive by which I’m known
In Japanese. I really don’t exist
In English anymore—except at home.
‘Maru’ works best as a marine suffix—
A no-win scenario from Altair Six—
The bane of all Starfleet cadets, but one—
Who counts the Kobayashi Maru among
His greatest triumphs. But Kirk’s victory
Pales before my own: I am the first
To work the Kobayashi into verse—
In a surprising twist of History.
The other meaning of ‘maru’ I found
Insulting: ‘maru’ also may mean ‘round.’)

Takaaki taps a second cigarette
On Dora-chan’s bountiful blue tin;
I go on eating, watching the sun set
Like some enormous, obvious omen.
A hush descends across the dinner table,
Until a tulip petal that’s incapable
Of hanging on lands on my placemat
With a soft thud. Five minutes pass like that—
So slowly that they feel more like twenty.
I trace foul faces in my curry sauce
While he establishes just who is boss.
Takaaki asks, “More?” “No, I’ve had plenty,
Thanks.” I roll the tulip petal from
The mat between forefinger and thumb

Contemplatively as Takaaki takes
Dishes to the kitchen. In florescent glass—
Bisected cleanly by the Empire State—
I watch Takaaki work—efficient as
A robot—feeding things to Tupperware
Containers, fridge, and freezer—aware
I should be helping to put things away.
I am lazy—what else can I say?
When I see him stationed at the sink
I swallow the pale dregs of my iced-tea,
Then saunter to the bathroom for a pee,
Leaving the door open while I tink-
Le, asking, “Hey, would you like me to help?
Or do you plan to do it all yourself?”

Before we get to Scrabble we must first
Prepare the space for battle. Clean dishes
Rest in a rack, while bubbles rise and burst
Around Takaaki as he calmly swishes
Cutlery though the hot suds. Each plate
I plan to dry I first inspect. I scrape
A shred of brown organic matter loose
From the light, lilac pattern. I peruse
Both back and front, then add it to the stack
Of china in the cabinet above—
Easing my stiletto in with love.
This underhanded method of attack
Earns my palm a pair of scalding forks
Falling from the sky with deadly force.

“Sweet Jesus! What’s got into you?”
I thunder to a non-existent jury,
“You stab me with steel forks out of the blue—
I promise to play Scrabble and—” And fury,
Rage crystallizing in Takaaki’s eye,
“I know when you’re mocking me.” I try
Not to reply—permit my mask to slip—
Given how I’ve destabilized his lip:
It quivers like red jello, in a mold,
Before the gelatin’s had time to set
Sufficiently. Our eyeballs briefly met
While calculating how long we could hold
Some dark profanity from bursting out.
He placed his boiled hands beneath the spout

Allowing the cold water now to run,
So his temper has a chance to cool.
He has a peculiar sense of fun.
Letters at sunset. If this is a duel,
I’ll tease my way into his wooden tiles—
Turn phrases, like these tiny lighted dials,
Listening for that peculiar ping
That tells me what’s inside my sonar ring
Is not a whale or school of silver fish
Darting down into the icy depths—
It is his anger, slowly sliding west,
Enveloped in the velvet dark. I wish
He hadn’t tried to lecture me before
About my Scrabble game. I abhor

Violence, like any veteran
Who knows what horrors in the heart may lurk.
But I’m American, and human, and,
Against a submarine, depth-charges work
Well—like words—if you deploy them right.
But using double-meanings in a fight
Is strictly limited by the extent
Of your vocabulary. The intelligent
Combatant will grade every syllable
Poetically, according to its power—
Testing terrors, safely, in the shower,
Walking, waking, working—if you’re able—
When stepping from his skivvies to make love.
I draw the line at that. Enough’s enough.

No comments: