Monday, September 7, 2009

The Damage

Most of the morning this Labor Day I have spent laboring over revisions to Part II of my poem, "Takaaki." I also had coffee at Expresso 77. And I took a shower. And put some laundry away. And looked at some dejected dishes in the sink. If my life were any more exciting it would probably have to be televised. Fortunately, for us, it is not.

Now, while I am not 100% certain that this section is done, I believe those things which remain to be revised are more technical, perhaps ethical problems, than matters involving the story. I don't think I will be inserting any more stanzas. But I can't be sure. Little moths of doubt may find their way into my mind and start nibbling holes in my certainty. I once tried sticking mothballs in my ears to ward them off, but everybody told me I smelled like a crazy old lady from one of Yeats's poems, so I discontinued the practice.

Still, I am going to go out a limb and call this section complete for now. And I am going to go swimming in the city.


For those fanatics interested in reading further, I have included today's work below. It commences with the final stanza of Part I, and then proceeds into Part II.

PLEASE NOTE: While I do not endorse any of the actions taken by the persons depicted, I have tried throughout the poem to render each historical decision and possible motivation in context. No animals were harmed in this production (except for the chicken). And I have always tried to treat the actors involved as humanely as possible. Not always successfully.

For those lamentable lapses, I sincerely apologize.

[N.B. The phrase, "Totemo oishikatta ne," may be translated, "That was really good, wasn't it?"]

Now, here we go!

*Zip* that leopard softly disappears
Around the tan-line of Takaaki’s hips.
My eyes could spend the next ten thousand years
Just bouncing on his hips. But then my lips,
Neglected and forlorn, might turn to dust
Before I could express my love. Or lust.
I must not allow a sleazy rhyme

To swallow his humanity. It's time
To treat the true Takaaki—the sweet face
I’ll sit across from in a steaming bath
Below Mt. Fuji—how he politely laughs,
How his eyes disappear, when I place
My feet in the hot water and I ask,
“Do you prefer my poems, or pale ass?”

Part II

Becoming human takes a bit of time.
Nobody knows exactly how we do it.
We classify the clock as the enzyme—
The universal catalyst. Through it
We cease to be that seemingly divine
Lump of life we call “a child.” That is fine.
We can cope with grown-ups pretty well.
What gives geneticists heartburn from Hell,
However, are the differing results
We get: when something evil, after school,
Shows up with smoky goggles at the pool
We cease to be responsible adults.
“Perhaps he’ll drown,” we hope. Hope seldom helps.
Evil makes History like Michael Phelps.

The cruel careers of our worst instincts are
Olympic in brutality, but short—
If measured by the life of stone, or star.
Were we less human, we might not resort
To Good or Evil. They’d be words—like stones
And stars. The sea would not be free of bones,
But bones would be more beautiful, like sand,
Twinkling between alien toes, stand-
Ing on Coney Island, watching the Cyclone—
The roller coaster—going up and down.
The salty waves would still drift in, surround
Small feet. Bad children would be taken home.
The sea would sparkle—conscience cold and clear.
Only you and I would disappear.

Some distance back time in this scene is set,
Upon a different island—half concrete
Half steel, accessed by elevators. Let
The windows start in Brooklyn, stretch to meet
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 let this scintillating picture fill
The space before your eyes: that is New York.
Here, I transfix a carrot with a fork.

“I’ll never tire of this view,” I 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—

Except for these two mushrooms which
Were pushed off to one side, not even tried—
Two shitakes, which he didn’t wish
To eat. Or share. They looked okay. I’d
Eat them. From a Doraemon candy tin
Takaaki took a cigarette. A thin
Wisp of smoke and hiss rose from his plate,
To celebrate our ninety-seventh date.
“What do you want to do, tonight,” I fired,
“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 dry laugh,
“Shall we play Scrabble then and then have bath?”

The carrot on my fork released a drop
Of curry—with a thick and oily splash.
The precise second my utensil stopped
I discerned, across the table, a flash—
Something which I hadn’t seen before—
Metallic—worth investigating?—or
Maybe not: a passenger aircraft
Hovering above New Jersey, as it passed
Behind Takaaki’s silhouette, gliding in
To Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark—
Nothing I need necessarily report.
A Zero: nothing nasty hiding in
Those pink puffs of lead behind his head—
Those distant thunderclouds, I should have said.

“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 then 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 turmeric—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.”
“Well, if you want to play with words, okay.”

(Maru-chan, or “Little 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 damaged freighter out of Altair Six—
The bane of all Starfleet cadets, but one—
Who counts impossible rescues among
His greatest triumphs. Though Kirk’s victory
Pales before my own: I am the first
To work the Kobayashi into verse—
In a surprising twist of History.
Present me a no-win scenario,
I read the rules. Then change the game. Let’s go:

The Kobayashi Maru is a test
Of character. You’re not supposed to win.
It’s chess. There is no vessel in distress,
Hull breached, an icy vaccum pouring in;
The ship’s a simulation, and you lose
Whatever course of action you should choose.
The Kobayashi test presumes that death
Is built into your programming—like breath-
Ing—it is part of human DNA.
Live long and prosper? No, cadet, goodbye.
Don’t bother asking for a reason why:
Here logic has the final, fatal say.
I wonder if that Vulcan—over there—
Knows love is logic’s great nightmare.)

Takaaki tapped a second cigarette
On Dora-chan’s bountiful blue tin;
I went on eating, watching the sun set
Like some enormous, obvious omen.
A famished hush descended on the table,
Until a tulip petal quite incapable
Of hanging on landed on my placemat
Softly. Five whole minutes passed like that—
So painfully they felt more like twenty.
I drew bananas in my curry sauce
While Taka-chan established who was boss.
Then he offered, “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 machine—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, shouting over my Niagara, “You
Forgot to flush.” I lied. I sometimes do.

Before we get to Scrabble we must first
Prepare our 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 gray 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—
Enraging him with all my heart, my love.
This underhanded method of attack
Earns my palm a pair of scalding forks
Falling from the sky with deadly force.

“God damn it! What is wrong with you?”
I thundered 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 glances briefly met
While calculating how long we could hold
Some fresh insanity from breaking out.
He placed his boiled hands beneath the spout

Allowing a cascade of cold to run,
So his corpuscles had a chance to cool.
But were they? Something horrid had begun
With Scrabble at sunset. A kind of duel:
A test of tempers turning letters—tiles—
Into finely calibrated dials.
I listened for that hard, peculiar ping
Of steel, submerged within my sonar ring:
The sound of flesh, not schools of frightened fish,
Darting down into the icy depths.
I sensed his anger, out there, sliding West,
Enveloped in the velvet dark. I wish
He hadn’t tried to lecture me before
About my Scrabble game. Now, I abhor

Violence, like any veteran
Who knows what horrors in his 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 regulated largely by extent
Of your technology. Intelligent
Tacticians will grade every syllable
Carefully, according to its power,
Testing new artillery in the shower,
Walking, waking, working—if capable—
Gathering the forces to make love.
Love is where things get a little rough.

Love is not a game like Scrabble, is it?
It’s more like dominoes. With rubble. War
May be our best analogy. I pick it
Because war has no ceiling, here, no floor:
I make love without limits. Not the sky,
The stars, the earth, the sea. I’ll tell you why:
The language I command is so advanced
It now permits me to transform romance
Into a weapon. Look how I revoke
Each kiss, caress, all pretense of pity:
Watch me turn your face into a city,
Then blow your eyes to atoms—balls of smoke.
I can fly from love to Nagasaki
In less than sixty seconds. Takaaki

Slowly shut the water off. He dried
His swollen fingertips on a fresh towel
With “Thankgiving” printed on one side,
A turkey, goose—some kind of cooked, brown fowl—
Emblazoned on the other. He withdrew
Another cigarette. (There were just two,
I noticed, left inside Doraemon.)
“Are we still playing games or are we done?”
I asked. I left when he told me to go—
Which is not to say that I objected:
I understood. I should have expected
This. Nagasaki went too far. To show
How bad I felt, I called him to surrender,
Unconditionally, the 7th of December.

No comments: