More Like Horace
Under a green and wilted sky,
the heat softens and obscures me.
Too slack to eulogize my cousin,
who died of leukemia after
a lifetime of sporting a beard
and shedding disgruntled spouses,
I lean against the faraway look
of late summer hills and allow
something turgid to define me,
something boneless and afraid.
I should write something thoughtful
about the dead who add dignity
to the gestures that get us through
days of gilt-edged disillusion
when tempers flare in sleazy bars
and children cry in sweat of sleep.
I should write the way Horace would,
praising friends and recalling stories
vital enough to guide us from one
wrought moment to another
without inflicting excessive pain.
The heat puddles inside me
with a squelching sound like boots
in mud. I have to survive
until the evenings cool in a crackle
of dying flowers, and frost rims
the birdbath birds no longer use.
Then I can feel more like Horace
roosting in his Sabine farm,
the ashen ground swelling with pride
and the whispers of blanched old stone
elegizing all who need it.
Boylston and Berkeley
The red-enameled fire escape
at Boylston and Berkeley recalls me
to the life I lived in my twenties,
walking daily under this structure
without wondering who painted it
such a startling, officious color.
The building features oriels
peering over the passing crowd,
illuminating rooms haunted
by generations of businessfolks
ripening slowly to poverty.
I’d like to enter and sneak upstairs
and prowl the corridors in hopes
of meeting someone as past-tense
as I feel on this dull afternoon
with traffic gnarling in outrage
and pedestrians wilting lockstep
in the lavish late-summer glare.
I’d like to speak to the ghost
of someone who saw me passing
half a century ago, my face
enshrouded by lack of detail.
The fire escape reaches to the roof.
Only a three-story building,
but even from that modest height
I must, at this moment, look small
enough for someone to pocket
and carry, all helpless, away.
Not Art but Apery
Because you hate photography,
which is “not art but apery,”
you’ve buried my camera in dunes
behind your house on the Cape.
You claim that only the mind
can process imagery precisely
in the four dimensions required.
Only the human brain can render
in spiritual geometry rich
enough to please the connoisseur
who flourishes in each of us.
Sea wind sculpts the dunes in shapes
too subtle to parse at a glance.
The sea itself rumples in colors
I can’t say are blue, green, or gray
and can’t affix in memory.
You with your accented speech,
your distant tinge of Russia,
insist I sketch on good rag paper
my post-impression of a lifetime
spent admiring surf and haze.
The pencil droops in my hand.
The damp air curls the paper.
You dare me to test the eye
against the curls and slope of dunes.
I fail so badly that I draw
someone’s naked torso, surely
not yours, slumping in a tub
of brackish yellow water: more
a crime scene than an artwork.
But maybe when you taunt me
with rants against technology
this is exactly what you mean.
Van Gogh, The Sower
Sunrise in van Gogh’s Sower
radiates a thousand yellow strokes
to inflame the vegetable passions
that underlie our favorite cultures.
The sower himself looks careless
as he strides through marbled pastels
while crows pluck seed behind him.
As the gardener in the family
you object to feeding the crows
when human need predominates.
You’d rather they picked at roadkill
and robbed the nests of songbirds
instead of consuming the crop
of wheat that will feed a post-
impressionist family for a year.
You note that van Gogh liked crows
because the simple black V
of flight is so easy to paint
and adds such sinister accents.
But when I’ve tried to copy them
the black lines smear without catching
the aggressive gesture of flight
so casually rendered by genius.
Don’t expect me to lop an ear
just to become a real artist.
I’ve already deformed myself
trying to settle your darker moods.
You should learn from van Gogh
how to overstate the light-source
and center yourself in pictures
awash with passionate colors
almost too rich to digest.
The clatter of scooping debris
from the cats’ litter box stifles
our usual evening small talk..
You take pride and find pleasure
in keeping cat facilities clean.
But the metal scoop banging
on the galvanized bucket invokes
star-shaped memories of my father
tossing gasoline on a brush fire,
digging out the cesspool, spading
the garden for a lettuce crop.
A photo of me stroking
a rabbit doomed for Sunday dinner
catches the monochrome of years
so distant they feel like war wounds.
How can you assuage this collage
of murky, overworked imagery
with your routine household chores?
I grit myself all over and clench
a blank I can fill with rhetoric
tinted with unearthly shadows.
Maybe the next time I wallow
through the dross of Eliot’s poems
I’ll understand how baggy his life
felt on his lean awkward frame.
His dislike of women and Jews
perverted moments of candor,
so he withdrew into the place
that rabbit went when killed
to fuel our working-class lives.
Something Christian about the light
in the folds between the landscapes
of his late work. Something nasty
clings to the spines of his books:
hardcovers lacking dust jackets
in the used book shop downtown,
where after cleaning the house
and bagging the soiled litter
we retreat for coffee and muffins.
Another day of bluster. Clouds
obscure the smile I’d offer
if capable of smiling broadly
the way you smile for people
you hardly know. Rain smothers
that lost dimension. As I crawl
into that space I’ve reserved
for myself, I avoid mistaking
the contoured smell of weather for
a drama that distorts my view.