As calmly as a hand will shake
another after shooting a gun,
a Skylark bends around a pole.
A speculator, you can’t remember
why you speed toward Dallas, strangling
a cell phone with your free hand.
My God, the way we arrange our time
you’d think we were born to die,
that time was endless, at least enough
to visit a museum. I’m sure
the driver never realized the pole
would be the last thing he’d rush into.
And like a thrush rushing itself
in the windshield in the dead
of summer, you’re still inventing
the final seconds, the act that shakes
the stage like a dying man’s hand
pocketward for the old
timepiece, as if this time
were retrievable, at least
compatible with all its pieces:
a wallet, some summer snapshots
byzantine in posture, stubs
for Mavericks, Stars. And in a sense,
we’re all stars in our own museums.
To lessen death by dying? This
is why we love spectacles.
The better to see ourselves.
And like the thrush waiting to rush
the glass, we’re here: in the pocket
of time before the bomb or shot
that forces the hands to beat themselves
senseless, as if pockets swallowed
our hands instead of arming them.
Still I trust enough, would give it away
to anyone who asks. To a cellist,
say, whose own hand is proof the mind
still loves its animals flitting about
under a floodlight’s stare. And among ours,
which but the most fearful wouldn’t rise
up before the encore to beat its twin?
Such faithlessness, itself a backhanded
hope, or hope’s photo-negative.
For a hand houses the most opposable
of views, its flare for pleasing fingering
into the darkest glove, air duct, rat hole.
You’ve seen this. How a hand skates around
the orbitals in de la Tour’s nocturnes:
it could fuse a skull’s soft spot, the least human
of human. And that finger of flame peering
over the frontal ridge? Some days our hands
are scarcely more than such beacons, waving
to others like them, handy in a crowd.
We deserve at least one. Improperly
supervised, though, it’s true: a bad hand
can crack a book spine or, worse, kill
a good night’s sleep falling asleep under
the body rooted at its end. That’s when
the deal comes strangest to us, an arrival
from the least of our tremblings through a shower
of nerves. Awaking, we’ve even felt the gates
open, the blood returning to its canals
through the palm’s basin open and cradling
the last thing it knew by heft and contour.
And for all its grabbing, who wants one stiff,
or limp as a fish? Almost blind, one reaches
for another, as if they were parents fresh
and clumsy enough to hand down all we want.
Dear coffee grounds, ground pepper, memorial crumbs
floor-fallen and pinned there. Dear last night’s
doors to heavier sleep through which each eye
feared its twin should wander. Dear wandering
dust in the eye liver-shaped like the shy Brancusi
bust stumbled onto on the internet last night:
forgive this foolish English cottage-style dotage
alive with flies and doorway formicology.
Little fears come in tracks of black ants, brittle
to the touch, skating on the surface of the open eye.
Every eye loves just one lash. And that lash will fall
gravely and unseen like a drachma next to the pound.
Dear dull Drachma: if you died as well, hexed
the very eye you meant to cover well sunken,
would you garner such graven respectability?
Shrill imitator of the crow, in the photo I have, you lie,
still, as in death. Or you are teaching the dead to rest.
The popes, I mean in their own way, made a holy water stoup of Rome. We Italians, I mean in our own way, have made it into an ashtray.
Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal
Call it the end of an empire, consumed,
turned by English into a verb: to be
always in the image of the ancient
pilgrimage. You approach the walls, the basin
leading into Ostia still burning
with the memory of Visigoths,
can almost imagine the old roam through
the capital. So unbearable,
the heat from the Coliseum, its scalloped runis,
Circus Maximus, Hadrian’s Mausoleum,
and how they all approximate the ashtrays.
You don’t even need to be a smoker
to want to find a use for all that ash.
Make it sacred, as Etruscans did.
(Not having cigarettes, they used their dead.)
Or export it to America
in wicker bottles, cardboard funeraries,
memento mori. You’d be Nero-famous.
Like Al Gore smashing federal ashtrays
on TV. Millions listened to him
preach about the government waste inherent
in the glass. Hammer in his hand,
It’s not ashtrays I’m against, he said,
the swelling crowds cheering for the blow.
Consider the virtues of the ashtray:
depository of the bleakest moments,
way station for what cannot be
inhaled, digested, given back to Caesar.
For that time after the snuffing out
and the emptying of its bowl, the ashtray
is a continuation of the ascetic
mind. Hell, it could be anywhere.
Who hasn’t seen to women crowd around
a cupped palm with a flame inside,
cigarettes reaching out like white tongues.
Or the lone man in the park on Sunday
drifting through the sands of tall ashtrays
for the one half-smoked, his face slowly
pulled into his mouth. There must be days
even he’s convinced he’s really living
on cigarettes and coffee, which brings us back
to Rome. I’ve sat in bars and watched the slow
wave of smoke as the door opens again.
I’ve watched them by the hundreds, cigarettes
resting on their beveled edges, all
the ashtrays in Rome: the seashells put to task,
the bronze, the silver, glass a history
of western civilization inside each bar.
Though it wasn’t always so glamorous.
The day Rome turned to the cult of the living,
ashtrays filled at twice the speeds, spiled
onto the counters, shoes, the lapdogs
tied to sinking monuments. The Baths
of Caracalla went dry. Everywhere
the ash kept falling, cigarettes poised
in the manner of Byzantine art:
stiff, long, and usually symbolic.
Come morning ashtrays waited like open mouths.
They teetered on the bar, though the cost
was factored in. Some shattered. Others outlived
their users. What is the misfortune of breaking
ashtrays? Because when it was over,
and the crew swept up, they kept the fragments
for their mantles. To think: our very own vice
president smashing ashtrays. And we
rested well that night, replaying that
ecstatic moment when the hammer fell,
and everyone gasped. And it rained, or we
imagined it rained, crystals, incessantly.
And we awoke in cities made of glass.
Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers. Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely.
García Márquez, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings”
In the pewless church of San Juan Chamula,
a neo-Catholic Tzotzil Indian
wrings a chicken’s neck. Through piñoned air,
stars from tourist flashbulbs die, reflecting
in each reddened eye, in the mirrors
statuary cling to inside their plate-
glass boxes. A mother fills a shot
glass with fire. Others offer up their moon-
shine swelling in goat bladders, the slender
throats of Coke bottles, as if gods too thirsted
for the real thing. The slightest angle
of a satellite dish sends me to Florida,
where the sleepless claim the stars talk
too much. They stumble to their own
worn Virgin Mary whose eyes, they swear,
bleed. Florida: rising with its dead
even as it sinks into the glade.
Or there, a continent away, the heavenly gait
of Bigfoot in the famous Super 8,
voiced over by a cryptozoologist
who all but laughs at the zipper-lined torso.
Bigfoot trails out of California
into my living room, a miracle
in the muddled middle ground of the event
horizon, in the swell between each seismic wave
when time carries itself like Bigfoot: heavy,
awkward, a touch too real to be real.
And the miracle cleaners make everything
disappear into far too-floral scents.
Miracle-starved, out of sleep or the lack of it,
I keep watching, not to see Bigfoot
but to be Bigfoot, to traipse through screens,
and the countless peering eyes, the brilliant
nebulae bleeding. Yeti, pray
you come again, you Sasquatch. Video
our world for your religions. Memorize
all these pleasure bulbs, these satellites,
our eyes, our stars. Look: how we turn
each other on tonight, one at a time.
from Consolation Miracle ©2004 Chad Davidson, reprinted by permission of the author
Five New Poems
While everyone slept through the silent movies of their coming
weekends, I did an impression of myself with no legs
and acted out the entire Agamemnon backward.
I must have loved Clytaemnestra as much as Aeschylus did,
because she looked just like the blond girl in first class
stumbling back to the restroom in thin, given slippers,
the gauze of bad sleep and liquor in less-than-ideal sized bottles.
The chorus was easy since they always say the same thing,
which is really the same thing as saying nothing, and everyone
around me was saying that in their own way, and isn’t that what
a chorus is really about? And, yes, there were the personal monitors
peering out from the backs of seats like the masks Indian boys
who enter jungles wear on the backs of their heads
because tigers like attacking, unwatched, from behind.
And since I was merely an impression, fallen, falling, the beginning
came quickly, like the peanuts, which I saved, and the thoughts
of each person, even the pilot’s, coalescing in the fuselage
like empty cartoon bubbles. Me? I was what the tiger,
through the gauze of hunger, sees walking always backwards
away from the jungle, back out to boats that glide backward
along the Ganges, back to Gandhi and his long walk back
to bondage: what 18th-century Scottish history professor
Alexander Tyler declared to be the origin of democracy.
And though I’d like to imagine some edenic world
of edible butterflies where pain is optional,
a place where tigers wear proudly the colorful masks
their cubs made out of paper plates and maccheroni,
simply the existence of Aeschylus and the blond girl,
who now appears much improved after yogurt, leads me
to believe otherwise. For now, the lights ding back on,
the plastic curtains rise, a hostess collects our customs
declarations for our reentry as if she were a theater manager
groping for the programs we thought we might keep.
I have nothing to declarefirmly situating me
in the chorus, enabler of Clytaemnestraand think
of searching out the blond girl, seeing if she can see the future,
the deaths of Iphigeneia or Agamemnon. But the orange juice is gone,
and we have already begun our long descent, and in the back of the head
of the hostess who just passed bymaybe in the earliest form of sunlight
known, or in the regal whirl of her night hairI swear I saw myself.
In a kitchen
I am the absence
When I cook eggs
I part the eggs
on the side of the pan
and fill the pan
We all have our reasons
for cooking eggs.
I cook eggs to watch them part
on the side of the pan,
brown around the edges.
They have their reasons.
I have my seasoning.
The season has come slowly
to the North. To the south the sun
festers in its white bowl,
an eye myopic or, better, blind.
Friends from Boston have arrived.
Already cookbooks flutter in the hands
like dumb birds.
Sitting by the easy fire
for which none of us has chopped a single log,
we are the absence of fire,
an abscess in the raw jaw-bone of the house.
Two will catch my cold.
Another will lose in Trivial Pursuit
and return home, homeward,
inwardly, toward a Rome of his imaginings
where saffron salts the streets
and mares gallop out of their nimbuses.
For now we create crème brûlée.
We are rich with metaphor.
The house contracts slightly.
Cream and milk simmer.
We break the eggs into a bowl
after separating yolk from white
and whisk with sugarsuch tinny, whisking sounds
you’d think a new mosquito hatch had prematurely bloomed,
or a snowblower had caught a sheet of sleet or slush
and rushed itself ahead into a bank outside somewhere.
And in the kitchen
we are the absence
Yes, of course the house contracts.
The kitchen contracts.
The crème brûlée sets up,
which is a form of contraction.
We have been eating a lot of eggs,
one friend says to me.
I have not.
I say because six out of the last dozen eggs I bought were double-yolked
I am now fearful of eggs.
Because no one keeps a two-yolk egg whole.
Because a two-yolk egg blurs the edges of unity:
one perfect shell for one perfect egg for which there must be one and only one yolk.
Because the yolk inside its white is not the egg but the shadow of the egg in saffron.
Because the practice of feeding chickens turmeric to color the yolk is something I have only read about.
Because the turmeric I bought for blending homemade curry made me sneeze, and when I sneeze I think of death and my mother, her stories of watching her mother ring a chicken’s neck, and chop the head clean off, the headless body running its course, the bodiless head coursing, the semi-bloodless ethics of Midwest respectable poverty, back in the day, as if this day, today, is not a day, but the double-yolk in a thousand thousand dozen eggs, and my one recurring nightmare as a child was a warehouse full of nondescript white packages I was forced to count and count, and counting would not ever end, and the lady who sold me the turmeric weighed it and said, I’ve never seen somebody buy this much, and she looked like my grandmother in the hands, I don’t know how to count this much, she said, and Boston may as well have been Baghdad or, further back, Ur, and I may as well be Abraham or, further back, Ibrahim, because I cannot begin to tell my Boston friends what I know, what I’ve seen on this wholly holy pilgrimage I’ve stumbled into like the frying pan of God.
I contract the kitchen.
Heat from tiny fires is pleasant, hardly
visible, hard and tinny on my skinny legs.
The eggs, my minions, are no longer whole.
There is a hole in the refrigerator
where the crème brûlée once was.
For now we are sprinkling sugar
on the top of eight ramekins,
denizens of the crème brûlée we ourselves desired
and of which we are the opposite
or the absence.
We search for butane for the torch
and unkitchen it.
Torch and kitchen part.
These friends of mine from Boston,
even now his beard is growing out:
to give me more time, he says,
as if time were an extension of the body.
My acupuncture classes are near complete, she says,
having scared me with the fact
some needles travel their own pilgrimages,
the body holier full of tiny holes.
These friends of mine love the torch:
the feel, the thickness of a chicken neck,
the heft and quiet of a respect for fire.
Here, I say,
This is excess sugar.
It is like desert sand.
God of Abraham,
it will turn to glass.
Behind the hateful hedge, the whine:O weedwhacker: whack, howl to the dead
wine of my thirsting, winter pine.
The whacker whacks your head
against the ground or side of a shed
ox-blood red, takes he your tongue
a spry, one-legged thingagainst the bottom rung
of any tired ladder-work of briar.
You, the illiterate deaf. I, the town crier
come with word from the front in front
of the hedge. Weedwhacker, my ubi sunt,
where went the salad days where we went
tongueless into green garages, spent
nights among the oval lakes of oil. Rainbow,
my target, my arrow in a shameless bow:
maroon me on the moon of your Craftsman-red head.
and yeasted rye, shorn necks of bluegrass.
Ask no relief but give them shelter. Amass them,
throaty harvester. They are your eyes.
Do you see? We belong on two separate isles,
this hateful hedge wedged between.
Bottlenecking is no message then, the sheen
of two-stroke this wan, wolf gang’s prayer:
that you easily tear apart what was never there.
Now you can say you have known Confederate soldiers. There is one haunting your house, for instance. The owner of the pool hall on the square looks as if he were onesallow cheeks, stiff, beleaguered manner, the photo negative of hospitality. Even the purple haired kid in your class has a certain Robert-E.-Lee-ness in his acned face. And perhaps the green grocer is one, you think, though you wouldn’t know for sure since you’ve never lived close enough to a city to enjoy one, a fact that makes you suspect green grocers of separatist tendencies.
And while you’re at it, what about that broccoli? Turns out, the sinister svelte of the carrot might owe something to a regimen of heat and sorrow so complete you imagine rows and rows of them stacked in mass graves like those in any common grocery store, which brings you once again to the green grocer and makes you nearly certain each is indeed a confederate soldier assimilated. And while you’re at it, that woman fondling the avocado looks wily, and the avocado itself (grown in California, mind you)that false pear, camouflaging its horrible secret, the seed tumescent, a wrongful past growing large in its abeyanceand what of the fluorescent lighting like a southern sun beating down on God’s green earth, which again makes you doubt the sincerity of all green grocers. By this time, you’re absolutely certain you must plot each green grocer’s execution, something explicit, gratuitous, something to serve as an example. You’ll teach them, you swear, waving a carrot in the face of the pallid salad boy.
You know that empty is the seamless sky
we call night, the moon’s O a negative
drowned in daguerrotype argentine.
It is the negativity of a whale
breathing at the odd blue of two
leagues. It is much the same, I tell you
through the tongues of a dying fire, as the silver
jaw that rests on the salt ballast
like a sickle. There, the very air
preludes bravery or slavery
depending on the hands that raise it up
above the head in which a mouth opens
like a thermal vent to breathe its clear
caution into the steam of the living world.
You know that cold is the remainder
of last night near the river when
you awoke to glass streams, cardamom
tea, a campstove burning the last of the white
gas, a camel lapping water, or dreaming so.
The sidestrong mandibles collapse, it seems,
to feel the water and its journey through
such hollows. You are breathing, I say.
The river’s patina snickers, and we stare
at ourselves, brilliant in our fracture,
so taut the hawk tears down
the seams of its cumulus, or so it seems.
The air is oxygen-poor, astringent, strident.
It is beautiful to the restful mouth.
Open, and the universe spins backward
pre-Copernican. Close the mouth
and the world closes with you: the red storm
inside the eye, inside the dust that keeps
the inside of the planet cool, inside
the trees looming above their roots like
America, outside of which the oceans
ripple with whales, outside of which the deserts
birth the hollow of the camel, inside
of which burns the memory of the last
swallow, the last time water fell inside
inside of which burns memory, the throat
a tunneling back, the mouth a negative
of the world I have taught you to swallow.
©2005 Chad Davidson
Chad Davidson is an assistant professor of English at the State University of West Georgia. His poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, DoubleTake, Epoch, The Paris Review, Pequod, Poet Lore, and numerous other publications. Southern Illinois Press published his first book, Consolation Miracle in 2003.