Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Preface to A Life

‘Fair seed time had my soul. Then I grew up.’
—William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book I

Part I.

I have a dirty secret to disclose
Before we start here. Can I be candid?
This isn’t the profession that I chose.
I’m no poet. I don’t understand it.
Like any child, I dreamed of writing prose:
My box of cereal, The Daily Planet,
Proust—they spoke to me. And poetry—
It seems a rotten way to treat a tree.

Your poet only has three subjects: love,
Despair and death. Maybe the odd flower.
My numbers here are estimates. And rough.
I have just drawn zero for an hour
Which seemed like an Eternity—enough
Time to admit the limits of my power:
The Muses call me, but I cannot sing.
Sure, I can give you Shakespeare, gargling,

That’s simple: he is in this huge bathroom,
A Dixie cup in hand, an inch of Scope
Bubbling in his throat. Scope, I presume,
Not Listerine, which kills bacteria, Hope,
You, and me, and everything—ka-boom!
William was hygienic—not a dope.
I once was his—let’s just call me a guest—
Since I was underage and such a pest.

My own facilities are less extensive:
I’ve got the standard toilet, white, a small
Bathtub, a sink. Talcum powder gives
My place a pale, late Roman air. Each fall
That fragile autumn light, for which I live,
Will form a golden window on the wall
Right above those faucets—there. I’m sorry
Faucets don’t figure larger in my story,

But try to let your mind fill in these gaps.
Use whatever odds and ends you wish:
Your own experiences, marbles, maps,
A plum stone glistening in a glass dish,
Your favorite pair of underwear—those chaps—
Leftovers from the rodeo in Bliss.
A big bermuda onion. I don’t know.
Something should suggest itself. Let go.

Daydreaming is a thing I like to do
When I have these imaginary needs.
Most authors have a strategy or two.
John Milton summoned scrolls, papyrus reeds,
Imported at great expense from the past. It’s true,
Lord Byron also dabbled in some deeds
Of great Antiquity—at least on paper.
My own involvement in that curious caper

Consisted of a week in Italy,
Spent cruising, boozing, having the want ads
Read to me over oranges and coffee.
“Now, here’s one,” Byron said, “Do you drive cabs?
Have abs? Do you crave immortality?
I’m looking for an epic hero, lads:
If you are muscular, can swim, or fly,
Reply by photograph—and don’t be shy!”

His Lordship cut the ad out with a smile
I do not have the skills to recreate.
I had been out of work for a long while,
And since great beauty seems to be my Fate,
I did not add his clipping to the pile
Of orange peels I placed beside my plate.
I glanced down at my boxers on the floor.
I always knew I’d be a hero, or

A star, somebody special. Back in school
I did some modeling for extra money.
The teacher had me stand on a barstool
And said, “Pretend you are Apollo.” He—
I have to say I felt like quite a fool:
Apollo’s nowhere near as hot as me.
But they were paying people cash—ten dollars
An hour. I pretended. Students, scholars,

Each sat stiffly at his flimsy easel
While teacher twinkled, orbiting the class.
Boys glared at me, like I embodied Evil,
As if I were one huge, malignant mass
Of muscle. All except this one guy—Steve—I’ll
Call him. His mouth just opened wider as
I began, quite slowly, to undress…
Excuse this small diversion. I digress.

Part II.

I have a feeling gaping mouths are not
The most propitious places to begin
A work of Art—but I am in a spot—
A god—Apollo. Can’t I be forgiven?
You work with the materials you’ve got.
And when you have a bunch of gifts from Heaven—
Nice teeth like these, luxurious, long hair
That bounces beautifully—you want to share.

Although I’d never send a guy to Hell
For praising his own features in this way,
Not everyone up here’s so wonderful—
So I’d be careful with that resume.
Among my peers on Mount Olympus—well—
The sad divinities who now hold sway—
A somewhat jealous spirit still prevails.
Venus will extract your fingernails

If you annoy her. All I do is rhyme—
Brain a lazy reader with my lyre.
I used to pass out plagues for a good time.
I lent my son the Chariot of Fire,
He incinerated Persia. I’m
Sorry for that. Kids. Our laws require
Celestial beings to be licensed now,
For all light vehicles—from crane to cow.

Modes of transport differ. Even here,
In Heaven, we find harmony elusive.
Although each god has been assigned a sphere
Of influence, gods can be reclusive—
Some would prefer we didn’t interfere
In Man’s affairs. Some turn red, abusive,
Chanting, “Blah, blah, blah—not anymore—
Just look what happened with the Trojan War!”

Let Homer dwell upon that dismal plain
Where Troy once stood—that heap of stones and ash—
Her towers toppled, all those horses slain:
Life goes on. We’ll follow Aeneas
From Ilium, to Carthage, on again—
To Italy—Virgil’s Aenied. That was fast:
Aeneas left the cinders of his home
And one of his descendants founded Rome.

His wife near death, dad hoisted on his back,
His son, Ascanius, clutching his right hand,
‘Mid smoke and flames—and that spine splintering crack—
I watched Aeneas assembling a band
Of refugees—still reeling from attack—
Astonished, terrified, and angry—and
I was amazed: away these people stole,
With only life—Existence—as a goal.

Now, there’s a man I could work wonders with.
When the moment for departures came,
I joined the Trojan forces. I exist
Now thanks to them: Apollo. Same name, same
Athletic youth I always was—no myth:
Some gods are good at the survival game.
Since Rome was destined to devour Greece,
I felt that Heaven ought to get a piece.

I chose Olympus, naturally, and we
Crowned Jove with victory. And Zeus, poor dear,
Our late, lamented chief has been—you’ll see.
It can be odd to be a god. One year
You’re Lord of Lightning—next you’re History—
A bunny nobody would ever fear,
Banging a drum for better batteries.
As you can tell, I am not one of these.

I am the god of Prophecy. That’s why
I tend to show up on the winning side—
Even when the contest is a tie.
You can’t prevent the turning of the tide—
Although you are at liberty to try.
The last time that I saw the Moon defied,
I heard my sister sigh, and with a shrug,
She crushed this kid’s sandcastle like a bug.

Diana’s rather moody, for a rock,
A maiden prone to madness. Take the rage
She showed Actaeon—that bewildered buck
Who stumbled on a sliver of her image
Floating in a pond: it always struck
Me as severe—given his young age.
She sent a pack of hounds to chat with him:
They ripped the lad apart—limb from limb.

The birds still speak of him, so do the trees,
“O, Actaeon! Transformed from man to deer,
And then—a frightened fragrance on the breeze.”
You may have sympathy—but let’s be clear:
My sister does exactly what she please—
She’s not—what is the phrase—not in your sphere.
We all have boundaries that we must obey.
Perhaps one day we won’t. It’s hard to say.

But when we don’t, I’ll tell you. At Delphi,
Cumae—wherever strange events occur—
I’ll dress up as a lady, for a fee,
And murmur things to kings about your Future—
Things inconsequential, friends, to me—
Since Mars, remember, is our god of War.
I’m Archery, Arts, Medicine, the Sun.
I am in charge of germs. And hydrogen.

Making music is my main concern;
The Fate of you, your pets, your family,
The gases Pompeiians give off when they burn,
Their density, volume, toxicity,
How many embers children can inurn,
Are governed by a different Agency.
A different Deity—I should say,
Since we are all Olympians today.

Except for him. I do not count that child—
Cupid—mixing milk in with his wine.
“Pray, Bacchus, see his empty skull is filled
With burgundy—with visions so divine
He thinks he’s God Almighty.” Love has killed
More than one mortal trying to combine
The forces which set God and Man apart.
Our differences aren’t subtle. People fart.

We do not. And we look better in
A leopard, dancing, tearing off your head,
Your legs, an arm, whatever is virgin,
Or available. Somewhere I have read
Men taste more like pork than roast chicken.
Not that it really matters. I’m in bed
Most evenings well before ten o’clock—
Long before the clubs begin to rock.

I am an early riser. Homicide
I find a bit disgusting. There’s no rush,
No thrill in killing. It is hard to hide
From Jove—The Thunderer. I still will blush
When I remember how I almost died
One morning. Suddenly, no warning—Whoosh!
I happened to be hunting for my sister:
How narrowly that arrow missed her!

T’was then, I think, I entered Medicine.
“First, do no harm,” I say, with emphasis.
You can thank me for aspirin, Ambien,
Peroxide, dentures, and Q-Tips. And this:
This box of Trojans—in gold foil—just in
Case anyone should try to force a kiss.
Humanity will do that. Sometimes,
Men are deaf to Reason. Even rhymes.

You are exceptional. Don’t get me wrong—
I love humanity. I love the lark.
I add a pinch of brilliance to his song
Each dawn—when half the planet’s in the dark—
When Vulcan’s snoring in his forge among
Computer guts and cannons—it’s a perk.
We’ll share a Milky Way on Sunday nights,
Admiring you, and all your satellites.

I had Vulcan make the crystal ball
I gave Cassandra—Cassie. Pretty girl.
She hated my prophetic gift. She’d call
It cursed—called me despicable. She’d hurl
That innocent glass globe against a wall:
The silly thing thought she could change the world
By shattering it! Imagine her despair
When it bounced back and hit her. How unfair!

Part III.

I wonder if I’m cruel enough to be
Convincing as Apollo? I don’t know.
I was born in Buffalo, you see,
The Town of Tonawanda—land of snow—
A rusty suburb of Reality.
We manufactured autos, long ago.
Nothing much goes on here anymore.
Luckily, our taverns close at four.

Here, Mendelssohn wed Edwin to Kathleen
Around the time of my conception in
A battered Skylark. Dad was a Marine,
Lance Corporal. Loyal, like most Marlboro Men,
They say he shot a cigarette machine
On Okinawa, from frustration, when
A pack of twenty Camels tumbled out.
Yet, I never saw him smoke. Or shout.

Mom insisted that he switch to snuff
When I arrived. They slowly separated, and
I only knew my father long enough
To miss him really—hold his massive hand.
The debts he left made life extremely tough.
Some kids need discipline, you understand.
Mom did her best. She did not spare the rod—
Her special spatula—the Wrath of God.

That spatula and I, we still survive.
We pass strange things along in my family.
Ghost stories, mostly. Like who dropped the knife
(This bayonet—my father’s legacy)
Down the laundry chute. It’s my belief—
And here my mother and I disagree—
The thing was cruddy. And so down it slid.
It needed washing. That’s what mothers did.

I brushed my teeth and I was sent to bed
Early that night. That sort of shocked me, too.
I’m sure that in my Future you saw red—
A bloody end, involving scarlet dew-
Drops, total melodrama. No. Mom said,
“Do you know how I got this big boo-boo?”
I nodded very meekly—in this style—
And pointed sadly at my brother, Kyle.

“Man hands on misery to man,” of course,
Nothing could be easier than THAT.
Happiness is harder, and a source
Of great perplexity to poets—at
Least those creeps who scatter metaphors,
Like tears, across each page, without éclat,
Éclairs, or anything more pleasant. I
Sincerely hope I am not such a guy.

My mother heaved the huge, eye-rolling sigh
She usually saved for The Three Stooges.
Despite my innocence, and cuteness, I
Was tucked in tightly. Kyle burped brown juices
On his bib, not quite comprehending why.
To this day, that wicked child refuses
To admit anything—though he can talk.
And walk. He’s even lost his taste for chalk.

Well, before I fix him, it is clear
We need to straighten out this dialogue.
Now, what were we discussing? Proust? Shakespeare—
He once permitted me to walk his dog
When I came over. It was pretty weird:
My mind filled up with music, then a fog,
This mist precipitated in my eyes—
I thought it was just raining. Big surprise:

I was back in the old neighborhood;
And Heaven only knows how I got there.
We moved a lot. But I was pretty good
At climbing out of trouble. My highchair
Proved to be a problem though. I could
Not master gravity. Perhaps the air
Malfunctioned. Or my wings. At least I tried.
I cracked my cranium, and cried, and cried.

God, curiosity must be the bane
Of my existence. Take this incident:
A bawling baby with a bit of brain
Exposed. Was this a portent, or the dent
Death left inside my consciousness? For pain
I got kisses, not the monument
I wanted, carved in marble: TRAGEDY.
I need to work more on my savagery.

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