Authors: J.D. McClatchy
There, beyond the village,
Stands a hurdy-gurdy man.
His fingers numb with cold,
He plays as best he can.
Barefoot on the ice,
To and fro he sways.
The little plate beside him
Is empty day after day.
No one stops to listen,
Or even notice him.
The dogs start to snarl
When the old man begins.
And he lets it all go by,
Lets it go as it will.
He grinds the wooden handle,
His hand is never still.
O wondrous old man,
Will you take me along?
Will your hurdy-gurdy
Ever play my song?
A finger is cut from a rubber glove
And cinched as a tourniquet around my toe.
The gouging ingrown nail is to be removed.
The shots supposed to have pricked and burned
The nerves diabetes has numbed never notice.
The toe, as I watch, slowly turns a bluish
Gray, the color of flesh on a slab, the size
Of a fetus floating on the toilet’s Styx,
But lumpen, the blunt hull of a tug slowly
Nosing the huge, clumsy vessel into port.
Moon, its arms around itself,
Still sits stalled beneath
Points being made about love
And death in the sky above.
The moral is spread
On some month-old snow out back—
A design we like
To think night can make of day,
The summons again delayed.
You who read this too will die.
None loved his life as much as I,
Yet trees burst brightly into bloom
Without me, here in my darkened room.
The books sit silently on the shelf,
Their spines broken but unresentful.
He sits there too, thinking to himself
Of nothing—at last an uneventful
Evening, an hour to sulk or drift,
No joy to worry, no burden to lift,
As if on board some two-star ocean
Liner, able to roam at will
While confined to its slow motion
Through the middle of nowhere until
The dinner bell when the stateroom saves
Him from what he both avoids and craves.
Company. Others. The idle crowd
Beyond his bolted metal door—
So insatiable, so empty and loud.
Then, for a moment, the corridor
Seems like a page in some
Where people live the lives they deserve.
A young man arrives in the glittering city.
The heroine writes her famous letter.
Emma stares at the vial with pity.
Pierre or Pip promises to do better.
Men and women find in each other
Why he must kill rather than love her.
In other words, it resembles the world
In the books above him, where so much
Sadness is fingered and then unfurled.
The wrong address, the inadvertent touch,
The revolution, the unanswered call,
The poisoned bouquet, the back-alley brawl.
He changes his mind. He will accept
The captain’s invitation to dine.
His secret, after all, can be kept
Like those on the shelf: chance and design,
Until opened, closed but in reach,
Like words before they become speech.
In this photograph
He is knee-deep in water,
His cracked Transformer,
His knapsack, his cup, his cat.
Why did they survive?
How is it we leave so much
Behind for others to touch?
Ministers, tell me,
Why did you think that power
Would stay where it was?
Aging cores collapse
Under waves of a future
No one can live in.
The reactors stand there still.
What is left to warm or kill?
The news crawl’s moved on
To other smaller, larger,
Get on with your life,
A shy inner voice insists
On the crowded screen.
Our lives lengthen into death,
As if into one last breath.
He watched for too long.
He could not run fast enough.
He was lifted up
With all the others
Into reruns of the day
No one’s come back from.
When I took that photograph
He was seven and a half.
March 11, 2012
If trees fall in a wood and no one hears them,
Do they exist except as a page of lines
That words of rapture or grief are written on?
They are lines too while alive, pointing away
From the primer of damped air and leafmold
That underlie, or would if certain of them
Were not melon or maize, solferino or smoke,
Colors into which a sunset will collapse
On a high branch of broken promises.
Or they nail the late summer’s shingles of noon
Back onto the horizon’s overlap, reflecting
An emptiness visible on leaves that come and go.
How does a life flash before one’s eyes
At the end? How is there time for so much time?
You pick up the book and hold it, knowing
Long since the failed romance, the strained
Marriage, the messenger, the mistake,
Knowing it all at once, as if looking through
A lighted dormer on the dark crest of a barn.
You know who is inside, and who has always been
At the other edge of the wood. She is waiting
For no one in particular. It could be you.
If you can discover which tree she has become,
You will know whether it has all been true.
for Wolf Kahn
On it, the figure of something dead
Inside a man who’s penetrated
Another man articulated
Against a square that could be read
As a proper balance or a purple bruise.
They go about it silently,
Neither rapt, neither free
To do as he might elsewhere choose.
The one, his head wrenched to the side,
His scrotum like a cortex but hairy,
His penis eerily catenary,
Seems to know the other has lied.
To like a no-questions-asked
Approach to love’s brutal task
And the overmastered scream it ends in.
Around it, tiny continents
Of rust on the lids of oil paint,
Brushes in coffee tins, the faint
Smell of urine and arguments.
Propped up are the photographs
Of martyrs and their rigmarole,
The open car and grassy knoll,
A wartime starlet’s shimmery calf,
And clippings from some local paper,
The story of a boy who’d seen
His father shove a rifle between
His silent mother’s legs and rape her.
He sat on a folding stool and stared
At what he’d done. The edges of flesh
Where the colors unpredictably thresh—
There is the soul’s final repair.
The topiaried ficus shrub,
Snipped into monumentality,
Can neither slump its shoulders nor shrug
When its pyramid complains, “Why me?”
In the crotch of a palm stump
Find their tax haven.
The supermarket’s valet parker,
Who lives with a storied widow rent-free,
Sites his orange cone to earmark her
Slip of shade for the silver Bentley—
The color her hair would be were it not
For the bi-stylist who’d asked her to fox-trot.
For the dog wedding,
I brought matching jeweled leashes,
Modelled on my own.
From the scarab bracelet of boutiques on Worth
Dangle offices, discrete but palatial,
For jowls that look like an afterbirth
Before the peel and stem-cell facial.
The opera prompter makes a kissing sound—
Backstage bunkum now signaling dismay—
To force the off-key tenor to turn around
And follow her hand toward the requisite A.
At the singer’s subsequent biopsy,
The stolid doctor’s puckered lips
Mimic the site the slickened tube
Enters and leaves with a faint smack,
While overhead the Blue Danube
Stutters on a damaged track.
The surgeon sat at his desk in a niche
On the far side of the OR,
Ready to power up the robot
I lay facing, its arms still shrouded
In plastic as if just delivered
From the dry cleaners. My mask
Was snapped on, the drip unclamped.
That was the last I saw of this iron man
Whom a computer’s knobs directed
To motivate the forceps breaching
The tissue walls so elfin scissors
Could do what it once took three hags
To manage—hold, measure, and cut
The thread that would tie off the lemon-
Large defect planning in time
To bring the whole contraption down.
So what did they cut out of me?
My past? The source of the little death
Clenched at the climax of one
Of the few unambiguous pleasures
And now, slowly or suddenly, riddled
With a cancer only mildly threatening
But still urgently reminding me of how,
The older one gets, the past matters
Less and less. What’s wanted now,
I realize, is not my old life
Back again, but anyone’s life—
Yours, say, so long as it lasts.
If only a course of radiation
Next could scorch the still remaining
Traces of what is killing me—
Oh, what did they cut out of me?
A future? I had imagined it as a shaded
Chaise near the pool, but will find myself
Shuffling in diapers, chapped and snappish,
Down its corridor, meanly overconfident,
Bored at having joined the ranks
Of beribboned Survivors who never stop
Nattering on about their close calls.
When I check out, the receptionist
Reviews the charges and happens on
The overlooked pathologist’s
Report, and running her finger down
The rows of obscure acronyms
And variable percentages
To the bottom line, she looks up
Past my credit card, clucking
With good news:
the borders are clear
It is as if a mist has lifted
And he stands there on the other side,
The other iron man, not impatient
But, yes, more obvious than before,
Knowing that sooner or later I must,
Though the terms and timing are unknown,
Step forward at last to meet him, alone.
No more now will you flutter by
To bother the ladies night and day,
You preening, lovesick butterfly!
Let those beauties enjoy their rest.
No more now the ruffles and frills,
That feathered hat, all flash and flare,
That wavy hair, that dashing air,
Those cheeks so pink and caressed.
Off to the wars, my young friend!
Long mustaches and socks to mend,
Musket to shoulder, saber in place,
Back like a ramrod, sneer on your face,
A helmet to wear, my fine legionnaire,
Honor to squander, not a cent to spare.
No fancy balls and minuets,
Now it’s all marching and bayonets.
Mountains, marshes, one by one,
Chilled by snow, scorched by sun.
How shrill the bugle call,
How loud the cannonball,
Blunderbuss and caterwaul,
All muddy, bitter, and gory.
On to victory, Cherubino!
Here’s to military glory!
Where are they now, the vanished days,
The moments of pleasure’s afterglow?
Where are the vows, the murmured praise
Spoken by that liar so long ago?
Why, if sweetness turns to regret,
If every hope becomes a grief,
Why is it still I cannot forget
The love that vies with disbelief?
If only my waiting, my long endurance,
The patience that true love imparts,
Could bring the slightest reassurance
Of changing his ungrateful heart!
Who scorns his own life is lord of yours.
The morning sunlight on the window ledge
Was the signal he should start to kill himself.
Weeks before, it had been carefully planned.
The pills were lined up on the tray beside his bed
In tiny piles so he could swallow ten at a time,
White oblongs ridged across the middle
Like a trench between Help and Helplessness.
It had been so long now and, a doctor himself,
He knew what more he would have to endure
Before the body had worn itself out.
The suppurating pustules were multiplying
In his anus that drooled or spewed out gouts
Of acid-hot blood, the trail of which
He saw from the john he could never reach in time.