Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A New World

After 9 months, it is finished. A nice gestation period for a poem. Or a child.

It was not an easy birth, as you know. This morning I put the final touches on the first draft of my poem, Takaaki: A Romance. Now, this by no means means the work is finished. There is still much to do: lines to be adjusted metrically, rhymes to be improved, images to be smoothed out or added (to bad or bald sounding lines) but the lineaments of the story have been established.

Here is the entire poem as it stands today: 66 sonnets, approximately 30 pages as an MS-Word document.

I hope you like it.


A Romance

Some say love’s a little boy…
—W.H. Auden


Perched on the toilet, clipping my toenails,
I suffered an epiphany. I thought,
There’s nothing less poetic than poor sales.
Once I am finished with my toes, I ought
To write a Harlequin romance, in verse,
Like Pushkin’s book, Onegin. What’s the worst
Thing which could happen to me, if I do?
I clog my printer 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 should 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 thinks 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—all style—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 ever get wind
Of my two-timing ways, I doubt they’ll sue.
They’ll probably hire 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 silence, 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 white 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 sunny August, hot
Enough to melt an Erlenmeyer flask;
We could emerge from a cool underpass,
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 demand of the 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—look—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 vicious, 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 gruffly, with embarrassment,
Pulling out a wet ten, with two yanks,
Sending a quarter rolling down pavement
To 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 to the sewer your last quarter,
While on “The Wheel of Fortune” someone spins
Above an orange pyramid. 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!
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 minute with a nipple.
A politician still might come and cripple
Sex, now and then, and Monday night football
Pre-empt some dreary real-life drama
With dancing linebackers, maybe 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 splutter—
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 that 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
Print 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,
So stained with History, they’ve entered myth.
I sprinkled 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
These new companions: if they drink, or stink
Of crusty jockstraps, Calvin Klein, or hold
Silk stockings with more reverence, or cold
Hands in handcuffs, or dead cats. (I think
What one discovers on a closet hook
More eloquent than any tell-all book.)

*Zip* that leopard slyly disappears
Around the tan-line of Takaaki’s hips.
My eyes could spend the next ten thousand years
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
Before too long—his smile, his polite laugh,
How his eyes crinkle closed, 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.” 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 can compete with 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:
Inside a vast apartment—glass, concrete
And 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 nicer
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 today. 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 necessary to 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 blob 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 nickname by which I’m known
In Japanese. I really don’t exist
In English anymore—except at home.
Maru works best for me as a suffix
To Kobayashi—a fictitious ship—
The bane of all Starfleet cadets, but one:
The Kobayashi Maru ranks among
His greatest triumphs. Though Kirk’s victory
Pales before my own: I am the first
To turn the Kobayashi into verse—
In one of those strange twists of History.
Present me a no-win scenario,
I get the rules. Then change the game. Let’s go:

‘The Kobayashi Maru is a test
Of character. There is no way to win.
We simulate a vessel in distress,
Hull breached, an icy vacuum pouring in.
During rescue operations, a surprise
Klingon assault destroys you—Enterprise.
The purpose of this mission is to face
Fear—certain death. Logic indicates
We should get started: this is Judgment Day.
You will be graded by computer. I
Have programmed the computer myself. Try
To die with dignity. Dismissed.’ Okay,
Takaaki, you be Spock. You are aware
Computers can be—hmm—re-programmed?) There

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 fell to my straw placemat
Softly. Ten long 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?” “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.
Well, I am lazy—what else can I say?
When I see him stationed at the sink
I swallow the thin dregs of my iced-tea,
Then saunter to the bathroom for a pee,
Leaving the door open while I tink-
Le, adding with some disgust, “Ew—
You didn’t flush.” I lied. I sometimes do.

Before we get to Scrabble we must first
Prepare our space for battle. Wet 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 profanity 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—
Now into finely calibrated dials.
I listened for that stiff, 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. I abhor

Violence, like any veteran
Who knows what horrors in his soul 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 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. Watch as 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

Frowned. He turned the faucet off. He dried
His swollen fingertips on a dishtowel
With “It’s Thanksgiving” 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 left when he invited me to go—
Which is not to say that I objected:
I understood. I even expected
This. Nagasaki went too far. To show
How bad I felt, I called him—to surrender—
Unconditionally—the 7th of December.

Part III

Since Earth and Mars are constantly at war,
Running really made no sense to me.
I buzzed Takaaki gently—ready for
Another argument—contingency
Chrysanthemums and Dunkin’ Donuts
As my auxiliaries. Although he was
Bound to be annoyed that I was late,
I hoped the Martians might consent to wait
Two hours more: obliterate New York,
Again, at ten-fifteen, since eight-fifteen—
Our time—had passed. Martians can be keen
On sticking to their schedules. They work
Very hard planning their invasions,
Sleepless, indefatigable. With patience,

I pressed his buzzer harder, wondering
What on Earth was taking him so long
To answer his door, my mind wandering
Back toward the movies: what is wrong?
I heard sinister music swell somewhere;
A whiff of singed meat hanging in the air
Counseled discretion. Not quite panicking,
I leaned louder on his button, ringing
Until my fingertip glowed bony white.
Frustrated by my absence, had he gone
Off to face the Martians all alone—
Half-crazy—seeking a heat-ray to light
His final cigarette? No. As it hap-
Pend, I awoke Takaaki from a nap.

He blinked at me and my chrysanthemums
As if presented a bouquet of frogs
Retrieved from one of those great pickle drums
For sale in scientific catalogs:
‘Every specimen in our collection
Formaldehyde free now for your protection,’
The ads will grin with grisly emphasis.
Takaaki offered me a ghostly kiss
Which missed my lips entirely. “Mars sends
These flowers—and regrets they look so sick.
They did seem brighter in that black plastic
Pail back at the bodega. Cut the stems
And water them, they should perk up,” I said.
“Chrysanthemums are given to—to dead—

By people in— ” With terrifying ease
His yawn devoured ‘Japan.’ I understood.
“Maybe these Martians are not Japanese.
From me. A few pink frosted donuts should
Be regarded as more auspicious.”
He made a fuss about how delicious
These tasted when I brought a couple home
One day. His favorites. Twelve Styrofoam
Holes, of no variety, or beauty,
Glistened in his bright blue contacts. “Same?”
He blinked again, “Who buys all of same
Donuts? Who does that?” “It’s my duty
To disappoint you every way I can,
Takaaki. I am an American,

You must remember,” I remarked, removing
Saturated sneakers, lead pea-coat,
Wet socks, wet pants, wet everything, including
A pair of foggy glasses. How remote
The possibilities of peace between us
Seemed—until a visitor from Venus
Shyly shivering in my underwear
Pointed to towels appearing from nowhere:
They had materialized on the tansu
Directly opposite to his front door,
While I was peeling off my t-shirt or
Jeans. (Those transporters can surprise you.)
Then, from another room, a fantastic
Robe folded in a wicker laundry basket

Arrived. “Please put this on. I will wash clothes
Tonight.” For once, I did what I was told.
Resistance is futile, I suppose,
Confronted by goose pimples and warm gold
Kimonos. So, I pulled down my briefs
Shedding any lingering beliefs
In Christian modesty in his front hall.
I rolled a lot into that ruby ball
Of underwear—my maraschino cherry.
I used it to adorn the soggy pile
Of garments which I had abandoned while
He was off-stage being busy. Very.
He held up that kimono, like a cross,
His face invisible, his body lost

Behind the fabric. When I stepped inside,
I felt less like anybody’s Savior
Than movie star—Peter O’Toole. I tried
Not to be Lawrence of Arabia
In Japanese regalia, bow-
Ing low, all humility, to show
How I was different from the general
Western male—lean, more liberal,
More educated—sympathetic. It’s
A bit disorienting to step in-
Side strange clothing, like another’s skin,
And find you are identical. “It fits.
It’s silk.” “It’s yours,” he smiled, “Polyester.
I got it on eBay for cold weather.”

Silk, polyester, the material
Love likes to spin is funny—always fine.
I would have worn a bowl of cereal,
As long as it was warm, I didn’t mind.
The gesture was pure gold—witty, dry,
Typical Takaaki. Not the lie:
The only lie in our relationship
I’m certain that he told outright—a tip
I learned from a Korean cleaner when
I took Takaaki’s gift into his shop
To see if there was any way a drop
Of blood might be removed. How many yen
My kimono cost, he couldn’t guess,
But silk is precious, so he’d do his best.

I embraced myself in ignorance
Exploring the recesses of those sleeves.
Takaaki eyed my cherry underpants
With skepticism, before tossing these
Into the laundry basket, rousing me—
My hands—to protest—an apology.
“I’m sorry—here—I should be doing that,”
I groveled, grabbing a gray knit hat
Out of his grasp. “Go eat a donut or
Chrysanthemum. I can handle this.
I will clean up this mess. I insist.”
I hung my heavy pea-coat on his door-
Knob, noting, later, ‘You turn lead to gold
With fusion not with fission. Heat, not cold.’
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 the rooms; we’ll open rich
Closets where futons wait, well-folded, while
Not needed for a nap, or other use.
Before you enter, though, remove your shoes.
Removal’s 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 door lock,
A fair or frightening future. (You can go
Ask. I’ve got an aunt Pandora, so
I’d rather not.) 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, 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,
Gradually start glowing in the dark.

Infinity is tough to represent—
With confidence—in the imagination.
You have to draw a diagram or rent
Space inside a calculus equation.
‘We see that A means ASS and B means BUTT—
But double vaccination marks mean what?’
That depends: some see an old physician,
Some see nations 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 are possibilities.

Takaaki closed his contact case. *Snap*
His irises were human once again
Instead of vaguely Aryan. Adapt-
Ing quickly to the future—the Martian
Invasion postponed—he suggested we
Play Scrabble. I 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

For me to make in comparison with love.
“Chutto samui ne?” his lengthy ‘ne’
Sought confirmation from my hands above
All. “It seems 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 wash your back.”
Takaaki pulled his knees toward his chest,
So I could circumnavigate the tub.
He lubricated me with Dove. I sub-
Mitted to a scrubbing. But I guess
He felt I needed polishing—and bad:
He dropped the Dove act for a Brillo Pad.

My revenge came following a rinse.
I gripped Takaaki by his shoulder as
I worked. Although I left no fingerprints
Or black and blue marks on his skin, each pass,
Each soapy circle that the loofah turned,
His back 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
Sank back into his back. 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 glee, pure reflexive pleasure—
An elbow in my ribs I may treasure
More than the Milky Way. “Dame dayo!
I hate it when you tickle.” “Yes, I know.
That’s why I like to do it,” I confessed—
I coughed—my lungs absorbing half the jolt
Of that swift, thoracic thunderbolt.
The bath was thrown in chaos. What a mess:
The rug, the candle bobbing in the tub,
Flame out, love drowning, glug, glug, glug...

‘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 down his legs, 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, just oscillations in the air
Which might belong to anyone, anywhere.

Tail waving more 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?” His torso 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.
I sank six inches deeper in the lake
Of fire seeking shelter from his grin,
Pulling a sheet of suds up to my chin.

Around the corner of Takaaki’s hip
I saw a serpent peep, then disappear.
I said, “Takaaki hand me a Q-tip,
Would you?” He does have a fantastic rear.
Dicks are fickle things—they come, they go—
The ass eternal. Michelangelo
Chipped thus, at marble, sensing 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.

Part V

We laid this world’s foundations at the Moon-
Struck Diner, on 30th and 3rd.
We sculpted it from two cheeseburgers. Soon
We had a home to occupy. Absurd
As it may sound to some, fat calories
Concern me less than barren Gingko trees
Whispering to breezes, “Blow a chocolate
Wrapper in their path.” Dessert! (The thought
Of dieting has never crossed my mind,
Or his, thank God!) I mentioned a Kit-Kat
Might aid in our digestion. We stopped at
The same bodega with the runny sign
Where I will purchase those chrysanthemums
Takaaki hates so much. Next time. Green thumbs,

Jorge, was there, pruning thorns from roses,
Scraping pain away with a pocket-knife.
I suspect that knife never closes.
My knife wouldn’t, if I led his life.
Takaaki interrupted, “—have two cents?”
A box of cigarettes, matches—events—
Lay next to a Kit-Kat on the counter.
While reconstructing my first encounter
With Jorge, Takaaki had been getting on
With our lives, on behalf of both of us.
This is why it’s easy to entrust
My future with him. Dilating on
Small details, discolored fingers, leaves
No space for more important things—time bleeds

Away into eternity. Before
You realize what is happening, you will
Wake up an angry corpse one morning, sore
You missed so much. It is impossible
To do otherwise, I understand.
I placed two pennies in Takaaki’s hand.
Brushing his palm with my fingertip,
I felt a radiance I won’t let slip
Away into oblivion no matter how
Much life it costs me to remember it.
The date was the fourth of November. It
Read nine-eleven in the store. Now,
We pass a bus-stop where a black Marine
Stares from a poster, serious, not mean.

“My dad was a Marine in Tokyo
Back in the sixties. Oh, he loved Japan.
It was so cheap! He had a tuxedo
Made there. He wore it to his wedding and
Never again—never again that I know.
Dad went everywhere—except Hokkaido.
He used to fool the cigarette machines
On base with ten yen pieces, since it seems
They weigh the same as quarters. All the men
Who smoked did that. They kept a few rolls
Of ten yen pieces to buy Marlboros
Buried in their bunks, or Lord knows where, when
Preparing for inspection. But he quit
When he found Jesus.” Ever so polite,

Takaaki let me talk about my dad
And his adventures with mute amusement
Until we reached his corner and we had
Said, “Hi,” to a guy from his apartment
Preceded by a curious dachshund:
He sniffed and lifted over an abandoned
Schwinn curled around a parking meter. “My
Dad was in Air Force.” Another, “Hi,”
Came from the grizzled doorman greeting us
Along with an explosion of hot air
Which sent newspaper flying from his chair—
A copy of the Post I think it was.
“I thought that we disbanded your Air Force.
You mean Self-Defense Force, of course.”

He turned the key in his mailbox, “No—
No mail. Te kanji. Nobody loves me—
See,” he laughed, his eyes half-closing, “oh
Well.” We walked across the lobby, “He
Was in Air Force.” We looked up, “in World War
Second.” We watched the numbers of the floor
Descending in silence until I said,
“He must have been quite young.” He looked ahead,
Supplying a non-sequitur. “He was
Supposed to be pilot in September.” “What
Year was that?” Takaaki didn’t say. “But
He didn’t have to go be pilot because
You dropped the bomb.” The elevator shot
Toward the Heavens then. “If you had not

I would not exist.” Floor twenty-one:
Our faces slid apart—the fragile frame
The dim interior provided—gone.
Our faces were replaced by light—which came
As something of a shock: a dazzling whiteness,
A light of such intensity, such brightness
It almost seemed designed to make you cry—
Like love. Takaaki dangled keys, but I
Held nothing so substantial—air. I saw
A disappointed boy in a flight suit
Dragging the tip of a sword behind him; cute,
A shadow of a beard along his jaw
Might signify his youth—say seventeen.
What would he do now? What did it mean

This rush of feeling through my heart I had—
The news that Hiroshima, Nagasaki
Had spared a kamikaze—this same lad—
Who would become the father of Takaaki?
Perhaps it is unorthodox to build
A small boy from plutonium. But still
I have held a pair of hands which prove
You can accomplish anything with love:
Build a bomb, create a family, you
Name it. The rain will fall, the sun will shine,
Indifferent to our monuments. Let mine
Be this: the door Takaaki led me through
To slippers, Joy and Sadness; and to bed,
Where, loving the living, we mourn the dead.


Eshuneutics said...

Writing a narrative poem of this length takes perseverance! There are some poignant moments. It is interesting to compare this with others that have worked the Pushkin vein: Andrew Waterman's deeply observant "Out for the Elements" and D'Aguiar's "Blood Lines" which crosses Pushkin with Byron.

Shropshirelad said...

Thanks for spending some time with it. It really was a labor (labour?) of love in the truest sense.

Takaaki lives in Japan and we don't see each other very much. So, I decided to reconstruct the most memorable moments from our time together in New York in my mind.

The scene where I scrub his back was suggested by the pattern American B-29s (B-san, in Japanese slang of the time) employed in fire bombing cities late in the war. There is a very interesting graphic of this at the Edo Museum in Tokyo.

All of the dialogue in the poem is real, in so far as my memory allowed me to reconstruct it. The moment when Takaaki told me about his Dad I shall never forget. My knees to turned to water.

I read D'Aguiar's book several years ago and thought it was very skillful. Waterman's book I am not familiar with, but I will check it out. Thanks!