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Authors: J.D. McClatchy

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BOOK: Plundered Hearts
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3. The Hurdy-Gurdy Man

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.


The February

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,

Half-smiling, half-scared.

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,

Distant disasters.

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.

The other
lied, pretending

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?”

Raucous parakeets

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—

Metastasizing nostalgia.

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.

1. Non più andrai

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!

2. Dove sono

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.

BOOK: Plundered Hearts
12.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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