FROM THE AUTHOR'S PREFACE:
I was seventy-five years old. I felt emptied out and stuffed full: nothing more to say, everything left to say. Had I finished as a writer? Had I barely begun? I happened upon a video: Brendan Constantine and his young students playing "The Opposites Game." Constantine tells his class to find the "opposite" of each word of this line by Emily Dickinson: "My life had stood a loaded gun." Word by word he writes on the blackboard what the students shout out: "Your | death | will | sit | many | empty—"
When they get to gun, the kids are stumped. What's the answer? There is no opposite, or there are too many. Their good teacher lets them stew, lets them argue, lets them form clubs in favor of this word or that, then accepts all. I remember two: flower and poem.
"My life had stood a loaded gun" becomes (for me) "Your death will sit through many empty poems."
How could I not give it a try? I turned to Rainer Maria Rilke's New Poems, so evocative, roomy, and generous. From Rilke's "Spanish Dancer" with her whirl of fire I conjured "Dry Ice." His "Black Cat" became my "Fog Mountain."
My plan was a simple chapbook of Rilke-reflecting poems, but a writer's plans tend to mutate. The poems, once written, wanted to wander past their own boundaries. Each acquired a short prose companion. I am humbled by this generosity, this way one piece of writing opens out into another, this deep creativity which is, as the metaphysically inclined among these poems might say, like time and space, and like existence itself.
SAMPLE POEMS + PROSE:
CRUMPLED MIDNIGHT SUBWAY RIDER, SLEEPING
Cursed is the word that slips from her cracked
lips—an incongruity, for the lines
of her lived-in face would seem to sculpt
twinkling humor, and her frail white hand,
asleep, lifts and blesses. She will not
agree to be a metaphor. The dense queer
syllable--Cursed!—almost leaden (as though
meant to sink in foul dark waters)
repeats, reverses the blessing, disturbs the scholar's
reverie. He opens his book, attempting escape,
but the woman will be seen. Her ancient face
springs open. She smiles. Another
subway ride comes back to him. Childhood,
daylight, and a friendly monkey reaches,
touches, blesses, shrieking all the while.
I MET THE OLD WOMAN ONE OTHER TIME
In the poem I am a man, though today, typing, I am a woman. In the poem I am in my forties though I am entering my late seventies. I cannot explain the shift in age and gender. The monkey I met when I was young evoked an altered state of mind and heart, that might be it. Also, before I wrote the poem I was pondering Yves Tanguy's Reply to Red. Surrealism. I could not get rid of Tanguy.
My crumpled old woman is not surreal, she is Chicago El real, though the poem pretends subway, which probably means New York. Also she is
poverty real, as well as monkey real. She has lost her right mind and gotten a better one, which is how she can bless and curse simultaneously while pretending to sleep, and how she acquired dream language with grit. I have always loved this old woman, before, during, and after meeting her.
When I met her again after the subway ride, she was a little cleaner. I asked if she'd been to the Y for a shower. She hopped up and down and twirled in a circle and told me yes indeed she had. I closed my eyes and composed a poem for her right there and then. She said we'd meet in heaven or hell and it didn't make much difference because both were more actual than our present existential moment. I gave her a dollar and asked if she had read Sartre and she said that of course she had, and also Spinoza, who hadn't, and pocketed my dollar and kissed my hand and limped on, no longer a hopper, no longer a twirler. You will think I am reporting a dream but I am only reporting from the streets of Chicago, a town I once lived in, check the record.
THE ARTIST DREAMS HIS CHILDHOOD BACK
—after Vincent Van Gogh's Three White Cottages in Saintes-Maries
Nothing settles under Vincent, no ground he knows.
His own familiar, a strange and awkward element of his
intensity, a beast ungainly made, turns and runs from him.
The vast unseen is seen, a blinding. He becomes
someone he cannot recognize, collapses under
dense insistence—eternal, near, specific, known—as if
a battered seawall weakened and gave way before the
very nature of the sea it held. Afterward, solidified,
returning to himself, he sees a final shadowed form
climb out. It stumbles at his feet, secretive and
makeshift—a thing he cannot capture. Gone are
his few answers to every question asked. Unsung,
the thing had cried. Unsung. A simpler state of soul
arrives with morning. He walks the village street and,
humming to himself, finds a few thatched cottages to paint.
WITNESS: A TRUE CONFESSION
Wrapped in my role as psychotherapist, I sat with naked minds. Not every hour, of course, no mind runs naked around the office every session. Some never do. However, I've had the privilege.
I was naked, too, sitting there with them. Naked under the blanket, that is. Wrapped in soft baby blue—or warm brown, my eyes are brown—my own little psyche didn't even have a diaper on. Bare skin of the soul, sometimes squirming. Eyes wide. Astonished.
So I've been with Vincent. Or might have been. That's all I'll say for now.
No, wait. One more thing—
Vincent loved this bit from St. Paul’s second Epistle to the Corinthians: "sorrowful yet always rejoicing."
HER FINAL DAYS
As the solitary corpse in the deep cave decays--
It was almost like that.
She shed her yearnings, fleshly burdens,
and the last essence of her lay, alert, like a calm beast.
That plain woman,
the one who settled,
who humbly honored all,
the worthy ones,
and those unworthy.
Embraced them all.
but strict and contained as my heart’s beating for her,
who drew light to me while lying like bedrock under my fated life.
After the very old mother dies, the daughter, old herself, waits.
As the mother waited, emptied, for her final days to finish themselves, so the daughter now waits, not yet emptied.
The room is dark, it is night, there is solitude.
The daughter enters the cave.
The great mystery of death, in the form of the body of the mother, enters the daughter.
What was and what will be entwine. Vine around vine. Body gripping body. The very cells mix.
Enter and be entered.
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