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Poetry


[clock] 19-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 1987
THE GARDENER

After the first astronauts reached heaven
the only god discovered in residence
retired to a little brick cottage
in the vicinity of Venus. He was not
unduly surprised. He had seen it coming
since Luther. Besides, what with the imminence
of nuclear war, his job was nearly over.
As soon as the fantastic had become
a commonplace, bus tours were organized
and once or twice a day the old fellow
would be trotted out from his reading of Dante
and asked to do a few tricks—lightning bolts,
water spouting from a rock, blood from a turnip.
A few of the remaining cherubim
would fly in figure eights and afterwards
sell apples from the famous orchard.
In the evening, the retired god would sometimes
receive a visit from his old friend the Devil.
They would smoke their pipes before the fire.
The Devil would stroke his whiskers and cover
his paws with his long furry tail. The mistake,
he was fond of saying, was to make them in
your image instead of mine. Perhaps, said
the ex-deity. He hated arguing. The mistake,
he had often thought, was to experiment
with animal life in the first place when
his particular talent was as a gardener.
How pleasant Eden had been in those early days
with its neat rows of cabbages and beets,
flowering quince, a hundred varieties of rose.
But of course he had needed insects and then
he made the birds, the red ones which he loved;
later came his experiments with smaller mammals—
squirrels and moles, a rabbit or two. When
the temptation had struck him to make something
really big, he had first conceived of it
as a kind of scarecrow to stand in the middle
of the garden and frighten off predators. What
voice had he listened to that convinced him
to give the creature his own face? No voice
but his own. It had amused him to make
a kind of living mirror, a little homunculus
that could learn a few of his lesser tricks.
And he had imagined sitting in the evening
with his friend the Devil watching the small
human creatures frolic in the grass. They would
be like children, good natured and always singing.
When had he realized his mistake? Perhaps
when he smiled down at the first and it
didn’t smile back; when he reached down to help
it to its feet and it shrugged his hand aside.
Standing up, it hadn’t walked on the paths marked
with white stones but on the flowers themselves.
It’s lonely, God had said. So he made it a mate,
then watched them feed on each other’s bodies,
bicker and fight and trample through his garden,
dissatisfied with everything and wanting to escape.
Naturally, he hadn’t objected. Kicked out,
kicked out, who had spread such lies? Shaking
and banging the bars of the great gate, they had
begged him for the chance to make it on their own.

Stephen Dobyns

SHORT RIDES

What is the division between good intention
and best behavior? Or rather, let’s say it’s
a fence, a ditch, some sort of barrier since
many times we stand on one side looking over
at the creature we should be but aren’t. And this,
it seems, is where we are often most human,
lost in the country between Want To and Can’t.

A man is hitchhiking. The devil picks him up.
Where to? says the devil, who is in disguise
and looks like an old lady in a blue straw hat
who just happens to be driving a Ferrari.
My father is sick, I must see him, says
the man who’s never been in a Ferrari before.
This one is red and very fast. The man has to
hang onto his baseball cap. The world flies by.
Apparently by accident, they zoom past
the father’s house. The man doesn’t speak.
After a few more blocks, the devil makes
a U-turn and drives him back. That was
a real treat, says the man. Inside, he finds
that two weeks have gone by. His father
is dead and buried. Everyone is disappointed.
Even the police have been out looking. What
can I say, says the man, I guess I let you down.
The phone rings. It’s his wife who tells him,
Come home right away. The man hitchhikes home.
The devil picks him up in his bright red Ferrari.
By now the man is suspicious but yet when they
whiz by his house he doesn’t make a peep.
He leans back and feels the sun on his brow.
When the devil gets him home two more weeks
have disappeared. His wife has moved out lock,
stock and barrel; the house is empty except
for the telephone, which begins to ring. Now
it’s his mother who’s sick. I’ll be right over,
says the man. The Ferrari is waiting at the curb.
The man doesn’t hesitate. He leaps inside.
He leans back. Once more the wind is in his hair.
He wallows in soft leather as in a warm bath.
But this time he knows the score, knows the driver
isn’t a little old lady, knows they will zoom
past his mother’s house, that he won’t protest.
He knows his mother will die, that he’ll miss
the funeral. He searches his soul for just
a whisper of guilt but if it’s there, it’s been
drowned out by the purr of the big motor.
Am I really so weak? the man asks himself.
And he peers across that metaphorical ditch
to the sort of person he would like to be,
but he can’t make the jump, bridge the gap.
Why can’t I fight off temptation? he asks.
He sees his future is as clear as a map
with all the bad times circled in red.
He knows that as crisis is piled on crisis
he will find the Ferrari waiting at the curb
and that no matter how hard he tries to resist
he will succumb at last to the wish to feel
the wind riffle his hair, the touch of leather,
to be lulled by the gentle vibration of the motor
as life slips by in a succession of short rides.

Stephen Dobyns

THE GENERAL AND THE TANGO SINGER

Some people put their trust in art, others
believe in murder. Each can be in error.
Take the example of the general and the tango
singer who go to a restaurant for dinner.
They are both big men and they are starving
so they order a five course meal beginning
with clams casino. Then they settle down to discuss
the nature of beauty. For the tango singer,
beauty means submission to the rule of objects.
For the general, it means force—the beauty
of a mailed fist. Suddenly the owner
bursts through the door shouting, Fire, Fire.
The stockroom is in flames. He must get help.
Look no farther, says the general, I can put
the fire out. And if he can’t, says the tango
singer, then I can—bring us the turtle soup.
The two friends eat the soup and talk about truth.
For the general, truth is the ability
to whip your ideas forward to victory.
For the singer, it means knowing when to give in.
The owner appears again, the whole back
of the restaurant is burning. Forget it,
says the tango singer, we’ll fix it in a minute—
bring us the salmon souffle. And more wine,
says the general, we need more wine. They eat
and drink and talk about art. For the singer,
art consists of synthesis and compromise.
For the general, it’s a total assault
on the senses—something like a punch in the nose.
The owner again comes running. He is crying.
The fire has reached the kitchen. There’ll be
no more food tonight. With the air of men
for whom duty is a harsh mistress, the general
and tango singer prepare to put out the blaze.
Such a nuisance, says the general. Such a bore,
says the singer. The fire appears at the door.
Talk about starving, roars the fire, I am really
ravenous. The general tells everyone
to stand back. Then he takes out his pistol
and shoots six bullets into the flames.
Yum, yum, says the fire, I love hot lead.
Now it is my turn, says the tango singer.
He begins to sing one of his very own songs—
When my baby ran off with Big Leo,
I cut off her feet and threw them in the trash.
The music splashes over the fire which
gobbles up each note before sweeping forward
through the restaurant, devouring tables,
chairs, the white tablecloths, devouring
even the plates. Everyone rushes out
to the street. The restaurant is destroyed.
You said you could save it, cries the owner.
The general and tango singer shrug their shoulders.
That was not a real fire, they say, a real
fire would have begged for mercy. We cannot
be held responsible for frauds. The general
and the tango singer stroll off down the street.
Did you see how it hesitated when I shot it?
Did you see how it paused when I sang?
Both are very pleased. They talk about the confused
state of the world. When will it ever get better?
These problems won’t be solved in our lifetime,
says the general, yet how fortunate for those future
generations to have their road made clear. Yes,
says the tango singer, that lucky time will come
like a gentle caress. I beg to differ, says
the general, it will come like a bust in the jaw.
Behind them the fire listens to their talk
as it picks over the restaurant as if over
a plate of bones. It knows how the future will come,
no one knows better. And if its mouth were not
too full to speak, it would gladly tell. How sweet
will be that future time when night will burn
as bright as day, when each cold corner receives
the precious gift of warmth and even the smallest
fire toddles off to dreamland on a full stomach.

Stephen Dobyns

AT FIRST HAND

I commanded a battery, woke up and went
to sleep in soft thudding; something floated past
me sometimes, an arm, a leg, I never even looked
around. We were bivouacked in some small town
when things collapsed. “Men,” I said, “from now on
there’ll be order here!” I was arrested later: the
trial was a sensation. “Son of a lawyer. . .!”
somebody in the audience remarked. War,
revolution, the years of peace, emigration—your
average day in times of earthquake. Once, for
instance, my wrists were chained to my ankles,
and suddenly my back was itchy. I remember:
right under the shoulderblade. At first I only felt
an itch, then it grew so unbearable I thought I’d go
nuts. Then I married; I wedded a big, bony
woman. We lived in the same village, we raised
chickens; I remember we loved each other. Then
sickness took my son off; after him the wife died.
My hands got the shakes, I felt homesick. My
sister took a look at me and said, “Jesus!” “Well,” I
said, “thirty-five years is a long time.” We just
stared at one another, two rheumatic, old wrecks.
Sometimes I think about having been able to
witness this era’s revolution at first hand. For
instance, I remember how terribly my back itched.
Itch isn’t the word for it. I could only think about
one thing and one thing alone: scratch! I never
throw stale bread away. Under my bed, on the
shelf, the table, my whole room’s full of old bread
wrapped in paper.

Ottó Orbán

translated from the Hungarian by Jascha Kessler with Maria Körösy

THE GOLDEN FLEECE

His chest a ribbed ship, his forehead
prominent: the omens look good for Jason. And in
his candid gaze an odd flame often glows. It later
turned out, as so frequently before, that the Delphic
oracle was tenanted by an expert. He went for a
tailor—wool appealed to him. He made it to
apprentice; the master’s ticket floated off on wine.
Who could count all the glasses he’d drunk, how
many telephone booths he fouled, how often he slept
it off on a public bench, how many times he’d fallen
off the trolley car, or sworn he’d quit! The war
started in the nick of time—it got him detoxed free
of charge. Small silver medal, big silver medal: a
soldier can flourish even in the gloom of a car barn.
When Buda fell, he was arrested on Margaret’s
Island, gun in hand. First to the Urals, then to the
Crimea. The oracle was on the button: in the camp,
uniforms lauded his professional fingers, and extra
portions of porridge came his way. A steam-driven
Argo carried him home in ‘47; for two or three
months he subsisted on mush—anything more
substantial, and he puked. Then he was a tailor
again, this time for the Municipal Streetcar Lines. He
didn’t have to drink much: two glasses took care of
him. “Stomach in, chest out!” he’d bellow at me. And
a haze of blood sat over the sea-flame of his eyes.
Death pulled a rotten trick on him, first scything his
hair down to a kiddy-cut, then squeezing his heart
with tongs. He died in the Tétényi Street Hospital:
from head to toe a man, a blameless Hungarian. The
pawn shop wouldn’t buy the Golden Fleece; and his
name, Mihály Bokor, was blown away on the wind.

Ottó Orbán

translated from the Hungarian by Jascha Kessler with Maria Körösy

INTELLECTUALS

A little garden sandwiched between
thinly-sliced houses in Hampstead. Heavy rain
skates on silvery leaves, windshield wipers
whispering in quick strokes. I ring:—”We’ve been
waiting for you.” Carved pipebowl, four armchairs,
hi-fi. A face materializes behind the smoke;
misery smokes behind the words. Sombre
childhood. Suicide per se. Budapest basement,
Sylvia Plath: the dreary living room’s lit by the
fire. “Coffee?” Thank you. Soft fugues of chitchat
on their lips. “We might walk the dog, if you don’t
mind.” Water’s gushing from the trees, gouging a
channel thick as your arm into the gravel; the
monster-pup gambols coalblackly. “At least he
gets a kick out of it.” And they do too, watching
him, these sensitive jokers, with a “Yes, for sure!”
prompt on the glib tips of their tongues,
rapprochement their cult, and understanding their
god. It seems they like each other; India, New
York: shoes soaked, exchanging recollections: they
are (so they both think) the yeast in the
world-loaf. . .while below that rocket-propelled sky,
and under their grizzled hair this wet eggshell
glints yellow—the braincase that can be cracked
on every stone.

Ottó Orbán

translated from the Hungarian by Jascha Kessler with Maria Körösy

FIDDLE TIME

Off the fiddle of a man who rented a garage from my father
came the first music
I remember hearing. His name is lost and his face,
but I remember the sparrows nesting
in his rafters, and the boxes of shatter-proof auto glass,
the rolls of vinyl and cloth, the heavy Singer
for stitching seat covers.

              And how seldom he did
any upholstery business or worried about that business
as he leaned over his plywood bench
in sunlight edging through gaps where sheets of red tin
hung loose or rusted away from the roof,
sanding for hours the swell of a close-grained face,
the taper of a neck, an f-hole.

And I remember clearly those Sunday afternoons, his bow
sparking rosin off the fiddle strings,
the strained face of the guitar player, a beat behind,
a beat ahead, though I can’t recall one tune they played,
not a snatch of a melody.

              The truth is
he wasn’t that fine a fiddler. But he cared
for the fiddle, and in the memory’s raw first music
I still catch a measure of that care,
a jig-saw blade, a gruff file humming,
or the sandpaper rasping in the tips of his fingers
as he shuffles time,
not quite lost, over the curve of a finely honed bridge.

David Bottoms

CHRISTMAS STARS

Who had seen snow only twice in her life,
and that so long ago she remembered it
as sugar, flour, salt,

sat in her kitchen all morning
and watched through the clear window pane
a sky turning gray
over a bristled ridge of pine.

He was late today,
which meant the woods behind the mill
would be one pine less thick,

which meant the Singer
would need to be rolled into the bedroom,
the rocker drawn to the other side
of the fireplace,

which meant the balls of cloth and glass
could come out of their boxes
in the closet,

mistletoe and pine boughs could be hung,
candles lined in rows of three
on the window sills.

*

And as the sky over the ridge thickened
like night, she thought
of stars,

cinnamon stars sprinkled over icy borders
of cake, stars of red and gold tinsel
hanging from the mantel,

the heavy brass star shining like gold
behind the white candle,
the evening star rising behind those clouds
like a white eye
and burning, unseen, all night.

*

Then who had seen snow only twice in her life,
who thought she loved every kind
of star,

saw climbing the road beside her house
the dull yellow star on the door
of a Ford

and felt down her nerves
the ice of her whole head frosting white,
a shiver against terrible weather.

David Bottoms

THE ICE PASTURE

Something cried in the field and I took the binoculars
into the yard, the zeroing wind,
saw in what starlight the glasses gathered
the gray barn, the empty pasture haunted
with trees, nothing.
And then in patches the deep prints
tracking the hill, the snow trail floating
over the broken fence
where the horse walked fifty yards onto the pond
to fall neck-deep through the ice.

What was he trying to become out there,
thrashing to get a hoof up
like an odd beast cracking his shell?

I ran to the basement for an ax
and out the basement door, outrunning my breath
to the edge of the bank,

where he calmed to watch me tap with the handle,
creep three-legged onto the pond,

as though he wanted me to witness the beauty
of his change—only a quiver of the head
as he waited,
half a white statue in a fountain of ice.

Sleet, like static, crackled the pond
as I eased him back from the blade of the ax.
Then behind me a noise like the snapping of bones
and my feet stood on nothing as I grabbed
for his mane, sank chest-deep
into the shock of the cold,
both of us sinking, hooves
pounding legs, kicking me under.

How long did I hang there, numb,
bodiless, before the body of the horse rose under me
and what we were lunged hard, broke
to the air, to the wind turning us scaly
with water?

The sleet blistered the pond, the ice groaned.
Then the first kick. And the hacking, the neighing,
till the roar we made broke up the dark
in the throats of dogs, the cattle bedded
in the field, broke by inches the black shell
of water, till the night
cracked like an egg shattered in the storm
of two beasts becoming one,
or one beast being born.

David Bottoms

GOVERNORS AND PRIESTS

When the story came to light about our governor,
How he’d lined his pockets selling pardons to prisoners,
He kept on selling them, unashamed. Fifty-two
On one night in his last week in office. A record.

Knowing the law of averages allowed us to avoid the shame
Priests felt when the popes sold indulgences.
If ten per cent of Caesar’s servants are corruptible,
Ten per cent of the Caesars can’t resist for long.

The good news is his being discovered and forced out.
A woman hired to skew the books blew the whistle instead,
Proof that the system sometimes works after all
And can cure itself, like the church, given enough time.

The only lasting harm of the bribery
Was to make it harder for the prisoners
Who deserve their freedom to convince their boards,
Though any true priest, given enough time,
Could distinguish the remorseful sinners
From those with something broken that can’t be fixed.

You can’t blame the new governor in these days
Of a priest shortage for being extra cautious.
Sad to pass by the shuttered windows of the seminary
And think of blinkered parole boards,
Their weary ignorance, their worry
At not getting enough respect, deciding to keep back
The silent, unbowing candidate for five more years.

And can you blame a priest for not wanting the job?
Who would ask to work so far from the sun?
The men he’d admire would be just the ones
Maimed most by the dark they lived in.
And imagine having the old governor in your flock.
Imagine listening every day to his one regret:
Trusting that bitch who spilled the beans.

Time to reread the story of St. Francis.
His belief that even the birds had souls
Was heresy to the church.
They made him a saint anyway. Why?
Unless they needed him as an antidote
To priests who assumed nobody was out there,
Nobody in the troubled silence, listening.

Carl Dennis

THE BOOSTER

A braggart in company, yes, but what choice does he have,
She wonders, if he wants to feel like a city
With marble public buildings, domes, and spires,
And suspects he’s only a scatter of cabins
In a wilderness in the west?
How can he keep up his confidence
Unless he puffs himself the way infant Pittsburgh did
Or the one street called Cleveland, Milwaukee, or St. Paul?

She imagines at some forsaken no-place
A barge banging a log wharf
As a printing press is unloaded in crates
And hauled to a tent in a scrubby field.
The first newspaper is run off
And not for the few locals but for the world,
A booster advertisement for a setting guaranteed
To make Eden itself look like a boneyard,
With factories, schools, and hospitals
Soon to be built if not already begun.

All lies, it’s true, but lies that one day might apply
If enough people believe them and ride to look
And are too proud, arriving, to admit their shock.
Exciting when half the people in town tonight
Steamed in this morning on the packet boat
And ran to the paper to list their services,
Tooth-puller, harness-maker, sell of de luxe dry goods.

She’s willing to grant that his voice rings hollow,
That it echoes like a shout in a grand hotel
Built in a swamp on Pigeon River
To attract the railroad,
Two hundred rooms and each one empty.
Still she sees in his distant gaze
The endless street grid of the upstart city
And its rainbow crowds
While others look out darkly on the stumps and mud.

Carl Dennis

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