Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Talking of Michelangelo...

For the last nearly three weeks I have been battering my brains against a block of oblivion--trying to see who would give in first: me or the block. I am still here. So is oblivion. But both of us look a little different.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, the title of today's posting hails from T.S. Eliot's famous 1917 poem, "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," one of my favorite poems of all time, whose many lines linger in my memory. Here are the opening lines of Prufrock with its curious refrain:

LET us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

About a week ago, those last two lines, the ladies' chorus, if you will, began resounding in my mind as I was staring at "Takaaki."

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

For those of you who have been follwing the creation of this poem from its inception, in May (2009), I hope that what you have seen along the way is not just the painful tattoo of a poem on these pages, but the development of my relationship to a living person, in a sense, with a graceful form, foibles, peccadilloes, and other features, in a word, my friend: Takaaki.

One thing that I have had to ask myself more than once over these long months was: what are you doing? My answers were always vague: writing a poem. Pleasing myself. Passing the time. I don't know. The last, of course, being the most perceptive and honest answer. This is where I pick up the thread of our story today.


Where I became stuck, when last we met, was a point in the story where, after a bit of horseplay between Takaaki and me, and the ensuing waves in the bath, an innocent candle was knocked into the water and suddenly extinguished. Here, Takaaki rose up out of the water, like Gojira, re-lit it, and placed it on a shelf above the bath, where it might burn in peace.

As I am situated in the tub, I am looking up at Takaaki's fanny. Contra Freud, a butt is never just a butt, however, at least not in the imagination of this poet. It may be a cigarette end. It may be a conjunction. It may be the subject of some erotic fascination. It may be a trinity--the union of all three.

It all depends on who that butt belongs to, how we look at it, and how it is spelled [but]. It may represent something else--something far more fantastic entirely.

This is the question we are going to examine in the next few days.


Today's additions occur at the end.

Part IV

The crude compartment I created when
I focused on the concrete, glass and steel
Elements of Takaaki’s place, I meant
Merely as a skeleton. I feel
I ought to add some flesh: tatami mats,
Seat cushions, delicate shoji—that’s
A kind of screen (with paper windows) which
Separates our rooms; we’ll open rich
Closets, where futons are found folded, while
Not needed for a nap, or other use.
Before you enter, though, remove your shoes.
It is customary. On the tile,
Out front, a pair of Muji slippers rest,
Quietly, for comfort of the guest.

The kitchen lies left of his bolted door.
It’s small, but serviceable, black and bright;
It’s the best room in the apartment for
Stage managing a brief, pre-emptive strike,
Or eating egg salad at night—since egg
And bread crumbs are more visible. Pegged
To a corkboard above the phone two keys
Jingle if you pin a note. These
Keys may unlock a mailbox, a padlock,
A fair or frightening future. All I know
Is that I have an aunt Pandora, so
I don’t touch them. Taka-chan will talk
And turn them round, when he is on the phone.
But he’s entitled to. It is his home.

I do not pry or criticize. I lack
Those scholarly instincts. Where I may,
I study coffee tables. Here’s a snack:
A bowl of crackers on a bamboo tray
Beside The Prisoner of Azkaban.
Does Azkaban share crackers with nude man
Gyrating on the cover of HX
Or dangle them in front of him for sex?
It’s not clear. Maybe Agatha Christie—
This book—a Japanese translation of
The Body in the Library—would prove
Helpful in solving this—our mystery.
If only I could read it. But I can’t.
These characters are hard to understand.

Takaaki must provide the weirdest clues:
A leather sofa, color of burnt butter,
A TV tuned to Will & Grace, not news,
Chilly cha, a coaster, and another
Agatha Christie, A Pocket full of Rye.
These are the blackbirds baked into the pye
We set before the reader—who is king.
Don’t let these details fly away, but sing,
Caw, croak, somehow illuminate
The mystery of love in ways which men
With tight abdominals, tight asses, ten
Inches don’t: let that sideways figure eight
I kiss, his double vaccination mark,
Slowly begin glowing in the dark.

A lot of information, I suppose,
To keep track of in the imagination—
Especially when the list of variables grows
Exponentially in the equation:
We know that A means Ass and B means Butt—
But Double Vaccination Marks mean what?
Do you see a crossed-eyed physician
Or a nation exercising caution?
I see a boy unbuttoning his shirt
At school, as I once did, as a long line
Of kids advanced, some crying, and some grind-
Ing teeth, one estimating how much hurt
He could endure, before his eyes or knees
Collapsed. All suspects—possibilities.

Takaaki closed his contact case. *Snap*
His irises were human once again
Instead of vaguely Aryan. Adapt-
Ing to the fact the Martian invasion
Would be postponed, I suggested we
Play Scrabble. He agreed. He beat me.
The gap between our scores I can’t recall—
Except that I was slaughtered. That is all.
My masterstroke, the word SYZYGIA—
Conjunction of three bodies in a plane—
Did not impress him much. I should explain:
He nodded, “Huh.” The word he won with: THE.
I hoisted myself higher, in the bath,
With half a mind to go and check his math.

I let it go, happy where I was:
Pine paneled room, his holy of holies,
Floating in a cloud of bath salts—suds—
Slight variation in the Japanese
Uncontaminated evening soak.
Steam drifted off the water, scented smoke:
Inhaling orange blossoms and hot wood,
I felt divine. And it felt very good
To be a god—for that one moment. Time
Itself slowed to a complete standstill.
Not a single bubble burst until
Takaaki’s body settled in with mine,
His feet supported by my upper thighs.
Heaven is an easy sacrifice

To make in comparison with love.
“Chutto samui ne?” his lengthy ‘ne’
Seeking confirmation above
All. “I guess everyone is cold today,”
I said, rotating the hot water tap.
His right foot trickled down into my lap
To thank me. “Knock it off, you maniac,
That tickles.” “Turn then. I will scrub your back.”
Takaaki pulled his knees toward his chest,
So I could circumnavigate the tub.
Skin lubricated with white Dove, I sub-
Mitted to his hands. It seemed the wisest
Course of action, though there was—there is—
Iron determination clutched in his fist.

My revenge came following a rinse.
I gripped Takaaki by his shoulder as
I scrubbed. Although I left no fingerprints
Or black and blue marks on his skin, each pass,
Each soapy circle that the loofah turned,
His tan grew darker—redder—like it burned.
“I hope you’ll tell me if I’m hurting you,”
I urged. He merely muttered, “Continue,”
To his patella, where his cheek reposed
Until the buttons of his vertebrae
Began to disappear. Which is to say,
He thought that I was finished. Once I closed
The final circle, I drew a thin line—
A parallel—down the channel his spine

Presented when he sat erect again.
He shivered, like a town, under assault:
Each muscle, from his coccyx to his brain,
Twitched. It tingled. Instantly, I felt
A thrill of strange, phthistic pleasure—
An elbow in my ribs I treasure
More than the Milky Way. “Dame dayo!
I hate when you do that.” “Yes, I know.
That’s why I like to do it,” I confessed—
I coughed—my lungs absorbing half the jolt
Of his swift, thoracic thunderbolt.
The area around suffered the rest:
The rug, the candle bobbing in the tub,
Flame out, its faint hiss worth the pain—the rub.

Man has no more faithless friend than fire,
I thought, as he retreated through the ripples
Leaving me, on my side, to admire
The swirling loofah, chocolate nipples,
Suds rolling from his thorax, joining clouds
Of other bubbles in the bath. Doused
Light retrieved, he stood. He pinched the wick
On a dry cotton washcloth. One flick,
One moment later, he ignited it—
The wick—with a free lighter from a brand
Of cigarettes we stopped to buy in Grand
Central once: American Spirit—
Whose roasted Indian, Chief Silhouette,
Adorns a yellow background, calumet

In his hand, smoking passively, for peace.
His shadow decorates a shield, a sun,
A red one—rising, setting—as you please—
The symbolism of it weighs a ton.
I wash my hands of symbols. In the end,
We assign values to our words, defend
The ones that mean the most to us. For me
The one word is Takaaki—actually—
The individual, not the poem:
The hand which animates those sliding doors
Made of paper. All my metaphors
Amount to nothing, really, minus him:
Just words, oscillations in the air
Which might belong to anyone, anywhere.

Tail waving triumphantly, our flame
Burned brighter, elevated to a shelf
Above the tub: a tiger cub, a tame-
Er creature than Takaaki or myself.
“Do all descendants of the samurai
Have fannies of such fearful symmetry
As yours?” I asked. He twisted and a face
Erupted so demonic in the place
Of his beloved features, it would take
More malice than I can muster—Milton’s art—
Half of the true horror to impart.
But shadows make it easy to mistake
An innocent expression, like a grin,
For something sinister—inhuman.

“Perfidious angel! O, cruel perspect-
Tive—mixing black and white! You create
Chiaroscuro—shadows. I reject
Falsehood, illusion! Depth is death—the great
Deceiver! Hurry, run, erase these fanc-
Y flourishes—these eyes, these candles—dance-
Ing as they dance in life: Lucifer haunts
The third dimension—leads to Renaissance—
The axis of Perdition! Painters boil
In turpentine, and writers stew in ink,
Who rise above themselves—who dare to think
Along the perpendicular. Why soil
Your soul cavorting with the letter Z?
What good is that coordinate to thee?”

Had I a chisel in my grasp to grip,
I’d show you, Satan. But inside my ear
There’s soap. “Takaaki, hand me a Q-tip,
While up.” He does have a fantastic rear.
While other—inspirations—come and go,
That’s eternal. Michelangelo
Chipped thus, at marble, knowing in his block
A boy resided, not a piece of rock.
The slab of dictionary I work with
May not be stone, it’s certainly not flesh,
The B-O-Y a word, three letters. Less
Promising materials do not exist
To build a world around. But I don’t mind.
We poets have to work with what we find.

Takaaki passed me a generic swab
Before subsiding back into the soup.
Once this ‘X-tip’ had done its dirty job
Clearing my ear of Dove (no other goop),
I flicked it, like a football, at the sink.
It hit the vanity. A tiny ‘tink’
Then bounced from mirror into toilet bowl.
‘Plink.’ My first impulse, to scream, “Field goal!”
I did resist. But, Heaven, it was hard!
Takaaki looked at me, and I the ceiling.
I singled out a pine knot, feeling,
Hoping, wishing—on that wooden star—
Frivolity would not dissolve to fight.
“I gave it a good shot.” “It was all right,”

He said…


Anonymous said...

Very useful topic

Shropshirelad said...

Thanks, Anon!

I wish I could figure out how to untangle some of these aesthetic questions better. I have been stuck writing and re-writing this section of the poem for 3 weeks.

I am not quite there yet.

Ad asstra per aspera, I guess...

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Eshuneutics said...

Best wishes, Eric, to you. Hope 2010 begins, develops, and finishes well...poetically and in life.

Anonymous said...

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