Autumn Thunder, Distant Gods
::: :::
Writings of Desire & Eros
by Brett Rutherford

Part One

Introduction


IMAGINARY PLAYMATE

It was my secret place
away from bath-time and spanking,
Grandfather’s grizzled hugs,
the cries of the baby brother,
away from heat and brambles,
blackberry barb and poison ivy,
a cool-air haven
where the acrid fumes
of coke oven smoke
never intruded:
the “spring-house,”
a covered well, actually,
a cobwebbed shed
of cool-sweated pump and pipe.
Here I could sit
behind its plank door,
imagine another door,
flat on the concrete,
might open downward
to a treasure cave,
a city of runaways,
a subterranean launchpad
for moon rockets.

One day a man was there,
crouching inside
beneath a straw hat,
a shoulder pack,
more frightened of me,
it seemed, than I of him.

I sat beside him
on the cold stone lip
of the gurgling well.
His whispered words
were barely louder
than the distant coal trucks,
the chirring cicadas.
His name was Eric,
a young man, yet
bigger than my father.
He asked about my mother,
my teacher, my friends
I would see again
in second grade in the fall.
“Too bad your mother is married,”
he said. “She’s pretty.
I watched her from the road.”

Two weeks he hid there,
sleeping all morning.
I brought him cookies.
He taught me games.
Once, I touched
the soft blond beard
that glazed his cheekbones.
I could tell him anything.

Soap opera organ
rose to a frenzy
as some one yelled
“Kidnapped!
Our son has been kidnapped!”
What’s kidnap? I ask my mother.
She, ironing, from the other room:
That’s when they steal a child
and then ask for money.

I thought it might be fun
to be kidnapped.
I might even get to keep
some of the money.
Just watch out for strange cars,
my mother warned.

One day I mentioned Eric
at the dinner table.
“That’s all he talks about,”
my mother explained.
“That’s his friend,
his imaginary playmate.”
My father grew angry.
They shouted
as I read comics in the attic.

One day, my father took me
to a roadside tavern.
He sat in the back
with his band leader,
played an illegal
slot machine.
A strange man came in,
saw me alone,
gave me a nickel
to buy potato chips.

As my father returned
I asked my new friend,
“Can I have another nickel?”
My father exploded,
shouted at the stranger,
“No one buys my kid potato chips!”

Strangers seemed kinder to me
than parents.
I imagined kidnapped children,
sweets and sodas everywhere,
fresh bread from the oven,
mountains of comic books,

a long wait for the ransom,
maybe never.

At home, the spring-house was locked.
I stayed indoors all summer.
Sometimes at night
I thought I saw someone
cross from the poplars,
to the spring-house, then back again.
I sleepwalked many nights,
awaking against the locked
front door. On other nights
I dreamt a new door
at the back of the closet.
I opened it, to another door,
and yet another, until sleep
vacuumed me to darkness.

I never mentioned Eric again.

Years later I heard
of the men who slept
in the nearby foothills,
setting up camp
in the abandoned ovens —
draft dodgers avoiding
the Korean War call-up.

Years after that I suddenly
remembered him again —
his soft tenor voice in the shadow,
the friend to whom I said,

“Would you kidnap me someday?
I’ll never tell ... I promise.”

THE WHITE TIGER

I dreamt — it was no dream! —
for there, on the floor, the melted snow,
the window-lattice broken, night coals
from the brazier scattered everywhere.
I dreamt he was there beside me:

the great white cat, tiger of Siberia,
lord of Manchurian wastelands. He,
my servant comes trembling to tell me,
has taken up residence
at the far end of the north pavilion.

Ah! let him stay! Bring me my sword?
No! my pen and scroll! I must wash
my thoughts with a draught of tea.
Renew the fire. Refill the yi xing
pot with pale white tea leaves.

“He is Death,” my servant tells me.
I shake my head and answer:
“He is Autumn, the world’s Fall,
my autumn, the end of my youth.
Where he treads, frost follows,
his breath the snow that fells the wheat
and makes the maples scream
red murder. Long have I known
he would be our guest one day.”

“Repair the window,” old Chen admonishes.
“We shall light torches to keep him off.”
I see two feline eyes
grow larger in the passageway.
“It is too late. A guest once past the threshold
must be offered food and lodging.
The tiger may come and go as he pleases.”

I point to where the great beast enters.
My servant issues a piercing cry.
Ignoring us, the monster, white
in the whiter moonlight, lies down
on the warm tiles of the coal hearth.
“You see, old Chen, how he reclines.
I do not think he means to harm me.”
Chen bows and backs to the doorway,
and as he closes the double door, calls back,
“Tomorrow brings terror to the countryside.
The tiger will kill the fallow deer,
and, should you venture forth by daylight,
he, pretending not to know you,
will turn on you as well. An old poet
is sweet fruit after a venison banquet.”

’Twixt Venus and Jupiter, one moon
hangs crescent; ’twixt sleep and dawn
the great beast cradles me, and I, him;
sword, fang, and claw forgotten, defying
our double death; a frozen interval,
two hearts abeat, and four lungs breathing.
I dream of being a great beast, rampant;
the tiger dreams of the calligraphy brush,
the tail-flick ink flow that places songs
on paper, words in the ears
of unborn readers and listeners.
I taste the blood in his mouth, the flex
of great legs that can overleap all prey;
he tastes pale tea and delicate sauces,
the savor of rare wine in a heated bowl.

As dawn breaks through,
the Heaven-tree, the willow boughs,
the distant pines sigh, shiver, shrug:
they will fight for a green day,
bird-harboring, leaf-tipped
to the lambent sunbeams.
Somewhere, out there, the tiger
drags Fall behind him as he hunts
life down with a panther frenzy.
Great clouds of birds assemble and flee
before him; cave, den, and warren
pull in their denizens for the long sleep
of winter. He leaves a trail
of antlered skeletons, doe-widows,
trees clawed clean of summer.

My place is here with lamp and teapot.
I wrote a poem. I rolled and sealed
the rice-paper scroll, wiped clean
the brush and closed the ink-jar.
This is not just any autumn’s beast.
There is some cause for which
he spared me, and was not my Autumn
or the death-breath of my winter.
No, he is the Tiger of Entropy:
he drags tornados, kill-winds
and glaciers behind him.
He would blink out
the world’s great cities if he could;
he would strike down the moon
as his ball-of-string plaything,
leave earth an orphan
in a sunless cosmos.
If I let him.

Tomorrow, while he sleeps,
wherever he sleeps —
and I see the place,
in the shade of the pines
beyond the placid river —
I shall send Chen for my finest mount,
my armor and my banner men.
I shall ride forth,
my flag the three-no poem of summer
defiance: No to death,
No to surrender, No to the idea
that all things must have their autumn.

I have sixty-one years
as I leave the pavilion.
I have fifty-one years as I cross
the great wheat fields.
I have forty-one years
as I track the red-maple forest.
I have thirty-one years
as I ford the river,
horse-neck and saddle
just barely above the water.
I have twenty-one years
as Chen passes to me
the great halberd
of my ancestors.

Now, I shall kill the White Tiger.

SEE YOU

Ah, here’s your friend Brett !
     I look up at a familiar voice, two shadows
     upon me at outdoor café table
     two hands reach out
          long time no see    we all sing out.
They stand behind petunias’ rail
     no move to join me     they have already lunched
     and are on their way to a concert
I regard my friend     as elegantly thin
     as ever     designer shades,
     an understated jade pendant
     concealing his delicate throat.
I remember our last visit,
     the spotlit red carpet
     in his cave-dark onyx bedroom,
     the many abandoned canvases
     of models who wouldn’t be still
          or wouldn’t return.
I ask, How is your painting going?
     the kind of query that,
          in my circle,
     weighs in a thousand times more
     than  How’s your mother?  or
     Is the boyfriend still living there?
Ah, he says, I can’t paint any more.
     I have . . .  a handicap.
     His beautiful hands flutter
     in a remembered arc of brushstroke.
We talk of other things, and then,
     as they are leaving,
     I gave him my number.
See you, I called to their retreat,
     half-said, half-asked.
See you, he mumbled, hollowly.

I finished my meal, went on
     with my life. The years,
gods! decades I’ve slept between
those words and the thunderbolt
that stuns and befools me:
the way his friend, as they departed,
reached down and took his elbow
and steered him.  He was blind.

CHILD SEX CRIMINAL

At six
I find the place,
the tender glans
whose finger-rub
in gentle circles
makes me tremble,
till sparklers go off
from brain-stem
to end of spine.
It was, and remained
     my secret,
an under-blanket ritual.

So much to mind
about the body’s plumbing:
dry underwear,
     toilet concealment,
as though the outcome
of last night’s dinner
was a national secret.

Nervous Aunt Thelma
     chides us:
How can you have a bathroom
next to the kitchen?
The sound of flushing
     sickens me.

First grade
     you raised your hand
     and asked to go
     to the cave-cool bathroom

Second-grade boys
     march to the bathroom
expected to pee
     on the teacher’s schedule.

I confide to the principal
     at the next urinal:
I don’t have to go —
I’m just pretending
.

On the homeward bus,
half-dozen boys
hunch over, wince
from the agony
of holding it in
just five more minutes.
I cannot hold it,
walk stained
     and dripping
to shouts and spanking.

My penis rebels
against conformity,
an unzipped peeper
as Miss McReady
explains substractions.

I touch the spot.
It springs to attention.
Suzie, who gave me
the chicken pox, stares
from the cross-aisle seat
and giggles. Five
minus three is two.

A nature book
from a restricted shelf —
NOT TO BE REMOVED
FROM CLASSROOM —
tells all about spiders.
I take it home one night
to our bookless house,
to show my mother,
devour it by moonlight
long after the lights-out,
then slide it back
to its shelf-place
at the start of school-day.

But someone saw,
and ran to tell Miss McReady.
Now books the other children
may borrow,
I am not allowed to borrow.
“We don’t loan books
to thieves,”
my teacher tells me.

We learn to read music.
After I was out with measles
I return to find them singing
with flats and sharps. I have
no idea what they are doing.
Miss McReady will not explain.
I am trapped forever
in the C-Major scale.

My next report card
alerts my parents:
DISOBEYS SCHOOL
REGULATIONS.

My mother assumes
it’s over the book
brought home by stealth
and just as quietly
restored.

Suzie and Miss McReady
whisper and glare at me.
I read what I want
and when I want to,
break rules
I find ridiculous.
I have already decided
there is no god.
I will never sing in a church choir.
I will not pee on demand.
I am marked for life:

thief,
ruler-breaker,
child sex criminal.

THE LOFT ON FOURTEENTH STREET

Doors painted bright,
the tapestries stitched brilliantly,
the singing hall, the dance pavilion —
all ashes now, their incense gone,
their light engulfed in night,
their echoes muffled, silent.

Bring the lute, I will sing.
— Pao Chao, c. 465 A.D.

1

Am I the only one who sees it? Up there. That third floor loft,
all dark, the one whose windows gape wide through every season,
the one whose ghost-white curtains, now grayed by soot and tattered
by wind-flap, flutter like flags of abandonment, a place
like a village deserted before a certain onslaught,
bereft even of spiderwebs or sunning cats or plants.
Rain, snow or sun — it seems not to matter at all up ther
e.
One wonders why owls or bats or pigeons haven’t gone in
to penetrate the darkened space inside, for that at least
would tell me something, while dark panes tipped in to darker space
gives only one answer: — a nullity, that no one lives here.
Is that a light? One glow — I can see it as I pass by
slowly on Fourteenth Street — a distant yellow bulb somewhere
way back, relentlessly dim and dull, night and day burning.
No matter how long I linger, I’ve never seen shadow
nor any illumined thing beam back or obscure its glow.
If only some hand, with a wrist and an arm below it
would show itself, reach out to pull the window shut at last.
But it goes on and on, like some tortured modernist art
(blank canvas, untouched piano keys, actors not acting)
the flutter-flash of curtain at wind’s beck, the solitary
beam of a single bulb on a tall and shadeless pole lamp.

Am I the only one who knows him? That man. It is his loft.
We met in Central Park — yes, in the shrubbery! — we met
that day he first arrived in America. I was the first
to touch and welcome him, new-found from far-off China.
He spent his first American night on the floor with me.
The bohemian mattress lay next to the printing press.
Cartons were piled everywhere — I was leaving New York that week.
I helped him read the street signs, pronounce the words he needed
to navigate the days until his funds caught up with him.
We made love until dawn; he slept against me as light shafts
broke day into the concrete canyons and made palaces
of derelict old cast-iron dry-good stores, the dust-mite sun
that every day wakens some special urgent magic.
I envied him the adventure just beginning — my need
was to flee for some months as my printing business folded.
I gave him the key to my soon-to-to-abandoned loft —
Stay here, I said, until the landlord comes to take possession.
You’ll have a few days at least. If I could take you with me…
His raven hair intoxicated me, his eyes caught me
with a sense of unpredictable intelligence.

When I came back, our friendship blossomed. He was my gateway
to the best of a world that is all but hidden to most.
What feasts we savored in Chinatown! Chen Ma Po Do Fu!
Sea slugs in casserole! Beijing Duck! Dragon and Phoenix!
The pi-pa, the er-hu, the bright world of Chinese music,
mad whirl of the Monkey King, the death and return to life
of the Butterfly Lovers; the long dark conspiracies
of eunuchs and emperors, flute girls and fierce concubines,
of Empress Wu, and Ci Xi, the last dread Dowager,
seen on the dim movie screens of Chinatown theaters,
even the awful kitsch of The Red Detachment of Women.
One day I played, to his astonishment, “The East Is Red,”
mock-improvised on my harpsichord. His Middle Kingdom
he gifted me, as I brought him to Beethoven, Mahler,
Handel and harpsichords. Happy, our times together!
(But we were never one, despite my always wishing it.)
Manhattan’s day-long man-show and its nocturnal orgies
drew him into the world of “always-chasing, never-caught.”

Over the years our paths converged, and parted, and met again.
My Hudson crossing wedged between us — what a foolish thing.
When I moved to my cliff-top dwelling, just minutes away,
his phone calls stopped; he never visited. That Tunnel rose
like an angry dragon between us. I had ceased to be;
a faraway ZIP code denizen, a toll-call outlaw.
Orbiting the same sun, we became like shadow planets
exactly opposite, each to the other invisible.
I heard that his mother had visited, furious with him
for his myriad boyfriends. “I want you married!” she shrieked.
“You pick one. Stay with someone. I don’t care if it’s a man!”


I drifted to Providence, plague-fleeing, driven by Muse
to a new locale in Poe and Lovecraft’s haunted footsteps.
Alone, I had continued along my Chinese journey.
Weekends I drifted through Chinatowns — tea houses, the cry
and clamor of the opera house enthralling me again —
White Snake, The Golden Brick, The Peony Pavilion! —
museums and galleries and auction houses teaching me
the glory of Chinese painting, the breathless awe I felt
regarding a single porcelain bowl emblazoned with
five peaches in full blush bloom over which, in perfect arcs,
five bats fluttered — perfect long life in perfect happiness.
The Monkey King, the lord of Chaos, now graced my mantle.
Kuan-Ti, the lordly general with his golden halberd
guarded my doorway; my wall aflame as Yuan pagodas
perched in impossible perspectives on dream-shrouded hills,
and one great Taoist dragon emerged from a yellow scroll.
This, my house, compounded of so many things he showed me.
I found myself back in New York at last, to live and work.
I thought of him often. The gulf of not speaking became
an ocean. There would be no story to this, if this were all.

2

Those I have known and loved my lifetime through —
How many can I count? One hand’s fingers suffice!

— Po Chü-I, circa 820 AD

Even though I am now an “older man,” I’m never drawn
to older men. But here, a cultured gentleman, Chinese
and kindly, a devotee of the arts and the opera,
invited me for dinner and mischief (in one of those
vast beds no doubt constructed for the Forbidden City.)
Some instinct told me, Go with this. Some things are meant to be.

As I had only just resumed my old Manhattan haunts,
I thought much about old friends, the lightning jabs I’d suffered
while reading so many obits and epitaphs, too soon,
too young, too many, my whole vast web of acquaintances
shattered; thought, too, of the disconnects that the years impose
on early friendships. Each one of them seemed more precious now
as I began to make, and receive, what I came to call
“the annual endangered species phone call.” Always
I thought, there’s one I’ll see again, that fickle, spoiled, bad,
obsessive and art-loving, music-besotted fellow.
We were not done with each other, and I had come ten times
more into his world since we had spoken last. Where was he?

He was there in the phone book, yet no one answered, ever.
His neatly-typed name was glued above the lobby mailbox.
Each time I passed there now, I entered and rang the doorbell.
Always that window was open, always that one dim light
in the far darkness, the curtains like a warlord’s banner.
Where was his face, that glance of recognition and greeting?

The dinner was past, the rosewood bed explored in the dark
in various positions. My host and I sat talking,
and he asked me how I came to know so much of China,
its culture and literature, its ways and its secrets.
And so I spoke of my friend, of our seeing Liang Shan Po
and Chiu Ying-Tai
, the gender-bending Butterfly Lovers,
of our long but often interrupted friendship, of how
I had been trying in vain to reach him for months. “Perhaps
his mother has died and he’s gone off to Taipei. Perhaps
he’s made the often-dreamt-of journey to the mainland —”
“What is his name?” my host asked, interrupting me. I spoke
his names — the English one he’d taken, and the Chinese one.
His face fell, “I knew him. He came here often. His friends, too.
Mad for music. Big stereo. He painted — or tried to.”
He paused, lifted his cup of pale oolong. “Six months ago —
about six months ago, he died of AIDS.” The breath was ripped
from my being. My heart sank; I felt I’d hurtle downward
to the earth’s core if someone didn’t catch me. “I’m sorry —”
he started, and then our eyes met and we realized it —
that we had met so he could tell me this — of all the men,
of all the myriad Chinese men in Gotham, of all
the myriad lonely American men he could have invited home.
The message had passed between us like a death-white cloud —
a thunder-blasted peach tree and a sky devoid of bats.

Later that night — how could I not? — I walked on Fourteenth Street.
The curtains still billowed, the panther eye-beam yellow light
still glowed. His name was still there — the rent still paid from afar
by his mother? His things still up there uncollected? the paints,
those sketched-and-then-abandoned canvases piled up in a heap —
a great, dusty horde of art books and classical music —
or — nothing? a vast, dead space of which that shorn drapery
was but the fringe, a Mongolian waste of unslaked hunger,
a never-relenting sandstorm — and far, far off, a tomb
lined with the terra-cotta likenesses of his lovers?
(Which one was his death? To which of them was he Death?) No more!


3

Oh, that I could make the world-globe shrink,
so that suddenly I’d find you back at my side.

— Wang Chien (830 A.D.)

Art is the great denier when the artist is silent.
I waited all these years to write this, as though my silence
would cancel his passing, and the maelstrom that took him, too.
Perversely, I’d open a phone book and find his name there.
Why? I’d pass those windows, open, the curtains billowing.
Why? A whole year passed. One day the panes were pulled shut tightly.
There! A new name, neatly writ and pasted on the mailbox.
You see! He is dead! It is as final as a tombstone,
as final as the phone book, which no longer lists him now.
And more — it is as though he never existed. To me
alone was bountied that first night’s touching, mine the laughter
of all the days we shared (that never a fraction of all
I was willing to give!). But still I had no tears for him.

Art is the great denier when the artist is silent.
Can world and time erase their errors? Another year passed.
I found myself on that block again. Windows were open!
Perhaps if I rang the doorbell, the new tenant would share
some shred of knowledge about the eccentric prior tenant —

I froze as I stood before the mailbox. The tenant’s name,
that new, hand-lettered name had come unglued, it was
gone, fallen off, ripped off, or it had gone pentimento
(just as old paintings reveal the older art beneath them),
his name asserting itself, just as his absence ruled here.
I turned and fled, and I did not look up at those windows.

Imagine a life so lightly laid upon the hard world
that all that remains of him is his name, a mere undercoat,
a line on a page in a discarded past year’s phone book,
a scratched-out entry in a hundred men’s pleasure journals.
Three breaths, his real name on the wind (his name unspoken
except in my heart, and in the dream of autumn thunder) —
not in a tomb with white flags fluttering — not burning joss
at his ancestral shrine — but here, in this poem, remembered.


DAN’S T-SHIRT

I’ve never wanted to be
an inanimate object
until now —

that T-shirt,
and the way it fits you,
one moment draped
like a chaste tunic
on an Attic statue,
the next revealing
each subtle curve
of shoulder, neck,
sinew and nipple —

how it possesses you
all the way down
from neck to pelvis,
how it knows your breathing,
your heartbeat,
the salt of your sweat.

I would be
that T-shirt.
Wear me for days
until I’m close
as a second skin.
Maybe you'll wear it
when you're with
your boyfriend
.
Stains are good.

Then, when I stink,
I’ll suffer the laundry,
the little hell
of the tumble dryer,

if I can take my place
in your dresser,
waiting my turn
as you slide into me,
head first, arm, arm,
the long slide down
your slender torso, ah!

And since I’ve shrunk
just ever so much,
being your T-shirt
just gets better and better.

 


THE PRICE

A thousand pearls I’d give
for the line of your neck and shoulders;
a Ming tomb’s plunder
for the two-way sweep
of your raven hair;
a mountain of jade I’ll yield
for the arc line
between your wrist and fingertips;
a bronze bell orchestra
with thirty attentive players
I’d trade for the symphony
of my name sung
in your soft tenor;
a thousand Bodhisattvas
for the two all-seeing orbs
beneath your lashes
(your third eye, mine already!);
all my Swiss bank accounts
for the curve of your back
pressed against me;
and for your thighs,
o take the world! take it!


EL PRECIO

¿Cuantas de perlas daría? Mil,
por la línea de su cuello a su hombro;
el pillaje de un sepulcro de Ming
por el doble movimiento
de sus cabellos de cuervo;
entregaría una montaña de jade
por el arco entre su muñeca
y sus dedillos;
una orquesta de campanas de bronce
con treinta músicos atentos
cambiaría por la sinfonía
de mi nombre cantado
para su voz tenor y dulce.
¿Cuantas de Bodhisatvas daría? Mil,
por los dos orbes que ven todo
debajo de sus pestañas
(¡su ojo tercero, ya lo poseo!);
todo de mis cuentas de banco suizo
por la curva de su espalda
apretándome;
y por sus musíos
¡o, tome la tierra! ¡Lo tome!


A NIGHT IN EDDIE’S APARTMENT

The front door tells you everything:
it is not square, but cut
to the angle of the attic roof.
The outside doorknob, once pulled,
stays in your hand —
its partner, somewhere inside,
rolls down the long hallway.

Eddie gives me the quick tour
with its Paterson caveats:
drink only filtered water;
check the expired dates
on anything in the refrigerator.
Enjoy the TV and stereo —
here’s a complete set
of “Girls Gone Wild.”

And in the loo,
if you do Number Two,
chase every flush
with a bucket of water.
Things just don’t stay down.
There is no telephone,
but next to the bed
he leaves me a potato peeler
in case of intruders.
“Just gouge an eye out,”
he advises me.

I am alone all night,
but this place is haunted
by Eddie’s absence.
He does not sleep here much
since Galen came along.

I snoop the bookshelves and CD racks.
From his cassette era I spy
a dusty gospel section
Praise Band and Jesus Power.
This stuff gathers dust now,
while the DVDs called
Latina Lovers and
Big Natural Tits 9
show signs of frequent viewing.
Way to go, Eddie
(but where are those
Ricky Martin videos?)

I take a long bath,
grow drowsy, think I hear
voices in the bedroom.
No one is there:
only a comforting pile
of stuffed animals —
raccoons and pandas,
a pink elephant,
their mouths stitched shut.
The radio is silent.

Then an unholy clatter
begins in a dresser drawer.
Buzzing and bumping
and a kind of slobby fumbling.
I open the drawer —

the Pleasure Her Now
battery vibrator
has somehow joined up
with the Dr. Johnson
oral stimulator,
its latex and tubing
now totally merged
in yin-yang completion.
The latex lips
of the oral stimulator smile
and it says,
“We don’t need him anymore.
Tell Eddie he can go to hell!
Now leave us alone!”
I snap the drawer shut.

I sleep fitfully. I still
hear voices muttering, moaning.
I awake in moonlight
slice-diced through venetian blinds.
I am not alone now:
a perfect circle of animals
has formed on the bed around me.

“It’s him,” the panda says.
“How can you tell?”
the pink elephant snarls.
“You only have buttons for eyes.”
“It’s not him,”
the raccoon sniffles.
“He always puts us
under the covers at night.”

“I don’t care!”
the white rabbit
remonstrates.
It leaps on my chest,
and its carrot-breath
contralto pleads,
“Amor de mi vida!
Take me, Papi!”

I hurl the rabbit away,
run for the bathroom,
turn on the light.
Down in the toilet bowl,
something is moving.
A brown head peeps out
from the undercurve of pipe.

I think I see
a single baleful eye.
A shrill voice addresses me:
“Just tell Eddie
there’s no use running away.
Tell him he can’t
get rid of us that easily.
Tell him we’re all
down here waiting.”

I do two buckets of water,
two flushes
before I go back
to face the animals.

That’s when the pink elephant,
the white rabbit’s lover,
came at me
with the potato peeler.

I sat till dawn
in Dunkin’ Donuts.


TWENTY YEARS AFTER

To my open window from another open window
comes a night cry — a young man’s cry as he gives himself up
to another man’s urging, and they have both surrendered
to something greater, deeper, darker than they comprehend —
and I remember that cry so long ago as my own cry.

One August night in Manhattan’s density I found him,
sometime between midnight and two in an abandoned place —
some warehouse or loft I can no longer place or name,
except it was near the river and many men lingered
there, and he was alone, the center of no one’s favor,
auburn-haired, tall, bespectacled and out of place — as I
was, searching for love in the worst locales, as well all were,
questing for pearls in a pea-soup murk of mere touching.
We alone we not drunk or drugged or desperate, we two
locked eyes and locked minds and stood against a wall entangled
one in the other’s arms, and I said simply, “I want you.”
He seemed astonished, uncertain, as I dragged him homeward,
to my loft where between the harpsichord and the press,
I simply and absolutely surrendered beneath him.

For some years we joined and parted, and in those years,
the joining was always unquestioned and automatic.
Despite all this I never knew him — he was a poet
too, and conspired to hide from me all signs of his writing.
In my godless universe he kept his Catholic soul
safe from my sight. His English name had a secret as well,
concealing a famous Polish surname no one would fault.
He became a Quaker, finally, and his silences
became another layer of disguise and removal.

And then the plague years came and claimed him and took him away
to Florida, whose warm clime, he told me, added four years
to his doomed span. I saw him on his visits to Manhattan —
he looked the same to me, unlike the walking skeletons
that drifted through the Village. I helped him publish a book,
a thin anthology of verse by reticent Quakers.
We met at Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlor on 4th Street — at least
that’s the last place I remember seeing him — until the call
from his brother: “I’m sorry to be the one to tell you
that Steven died last week in the hospice in Florida.”
“Oh dear,” I said, and mumbled something. The line went dead.
The brother didn’t leave an address or number; perhaps
he didn’t need or want to know why he was calling me,
why I was on the list of oh, so many names to call.

Strange how death numbs us. I have written much of longing
and almost nothing of having. I wrote no word of him
in all these twenty years, but in my sleep last night I dreamt
of another priapic August night, in Central Park,
how long past midnight, we two sought out a boulder-top,
and naked beneath the stars and a crescent moon, made love,
how we knew that many eyes were probably watching us —
lurkers and lovers and lunatics unloosed in the night —

and how a stately, tall black man stood over us suddenly,
and said, “I wonder if you young fellows need company.
My name is Hiram.” He reached down. “Here’s thirteen inches.”
We laughed, told him how pleased we were to make his acquaintance,
but we were quite content with things as they were progressing.
“A rain check, then,” the gentleman said, smiling, and vanished
to the discrete dark of the ever-watching shrubbery.

And so last night it all came back to me in a mind-flash —
his body against me, the soft blond hairs on his forearm
bleached white in starlight, the metamorphic rock
cool and hard beneath us, the eyes that watched, the scimitar
of moon above the museum ramparts, the long stillness
as we breathed in unison and wondered where our clothes were —
and as I thought of all this I cried out in the night,
a wild wail of grief and loss — gone to where, these twenty years?

Beyond what walls is love entombed in protestant silence?
How long, grief’s pilgrimage, before the bitter coming-home?
Until the heart, on the soul’s island, entire of itself,
tells the whole truth and holds back nothing, till solitude
rings out its requiescat and the secret of all touching
is finally revealed, this world of loving filaments
entwined with a common joy — a wild wail of grief and loss
escaping from me on this cold twelfth night of November.


SUMMER STORM

I am standing in the rain.
The summer cloudburst
clots the sky, soaks me
as I stand in the unmowed grass
behind the summer cottage.
The clapboards, streaked and shining,
reflect the corrugated bolts
of jabbing lightning. I stay
until the rainlash wears me down.
I have left your easy sleep,
your clutching arms,
in the attic that quakes
with thunder and wind,
air like lost bats against the panes.
I lay down rain-wet beside you.
The candle is guttering,
exchanges flashes
with the expiring tempest.
In me, a furnace burns
within a heart of brass.
In reason's engine
there is no rain now.
I watch you turn and toss.
I try to feel nothing.
To think that you love me is hubris anyway.
All of your nights are sudden storms.


TWO, GOING ON THREE

We moved a lot.
Each neighbor hill and hollow
distinctly named:

Gibson Terrace
post-war bungalows
stuck together,

laundry hanging
on wooden accordions
shirts and pants billowing
in the tiny yard

I could walk now
so I did —
wind spun me around
it rained
the houses looked alike

a kind girl brought me home
to a spanking

* * *

I won't eat eggs
hate the yolks
that look like eyes

my mother seats me
outside in sunlight
says eat those eggs
eat them for daddy

the sun behind her
a yellow orb,
spoon poised
to feed me

my birthday comes
and Christmas —
I make a row
of tiny trucks and cars
from the tinseled tree
back into the kitchen

where bacon sizzles
and the eggs,
scrambled,
no longer terrify

* * *

Everson
behind a roller rink
whose music and clatter
keep everyone awake

all night the lights
burn through the slats
of the venetian blinds
I sit in my crib
and see the spiders spinning.
They make their webs,
catch tiny moths and flies,
make little white mummies.

one night they find me.
I cringe in a corner
as hairy legs cross
the lighted stripes on my sheet
I scream for mommy
she comes in
doesn't see them
doesn't believe me
tucks me in tight

back they come
from beneath the crib —
others drop down
on silk parachutes —

I am still and silent
as they move about,
weblines crossing
in the light above me.
Then I see one
at the edge of my vision
one left       another right

They sensed me
sensing them
so they have come for me
A tiny voice says
No one will come
No one will hear you
We can do anything

by morning my face
is covered with spider kisses,
I am potato head swollen
rushed to a doctor
for witch hazel ointments

My mother learns
a lesson in dusting

* * *

I dream of flying
free in the air
all the way up into clouds.
Night after night
I learn to levitate
right off my bed
up to the ceiling
then out of the house
and over hill and valley.

I tell my mother
how easy it is to fly.
she points to the zenith
and shows me an airplane.
then she draws a picture,
shows me wings
and spinning propellers.
if you put your hand out,
she tells me,
the propellers would chop them off,
then cut the rest of you up,
just like a meat slicer.

now in my dreams
I fly over cloud tops,
but always an airplane chases me
closer closer
look back at my feet
razor propellers are closing in
I see the pilot's
cap and goggles
I fall I
wake up screaming.

Now when daytime airplanes come
I run to the house
cover my ears against
the meat grinder engines

* * *

after my bath
the afternoon paper
fills me with questions.
how do those symbols
turn into words you speak?
what is that thing
in the picture?
that's a tank, my mother says.
it's like a car,
but rolls on those rubber treads,
see — they go round and round
just like this rubber band

what's underneath? I ask.
if a tank ran over you
what would happen?

it would pull you inside,
she told me. Yes,
when a tank gets you,
it pulls you in and chops you up
.

She wants to get a vacuum cleaner.
I think I want to live with grandma.


THE OUTCAST

The boy is not like
the others.
Their bikes ascend the hill,
storm down like whirlwinds.
He always walks, their wheels
a dervish dance
whose physics baffle him.
He passes the practice field,
hopes no one will notice him
as he carries his books
on the way to the library
(they don’t wear glasses,
don’t read anything
between June and August).
He has no idea
what their cries mean,
why it matters
that a ball goes
this way
that way.

When they let him come,
he runs with some older boys,
over a fence he can barely scale,
watching for dogs that bite,
to the forbidden
apple tree.
They climb to reach
the great red ones.

From high above
they taunt him,
dare him to join them
at the sky-scream treetop.
He stands below.
Climbing a tree
is one of many things
he's not allowed to do.

They talk about baseball
and BB guns,
the cars they’ll drive
when they’re old enough,
the names of girls
whose breasts have swollen.

He reaches up
for the lower branch
takes unripe apples,
unmarred by bird or worm.

Walking alone,
he sees a daytime moon,
wonders how Earth
might look from its craters.
He goes home to his comics,
to the attic room
where aliens and monsters
plan universal mayhem.

Don’t eat those apples,
his mother warns him.
They’ll give you a stomach ache.

I like them, he says.
Green apples taste better.


LIGHT YEARS

Love someone, cold star,
that I may someday hear of it.
Love anyone, blink out
if you must to black hole suicide
to prove the depth of your feeling.

Go nova! Fill up the galaxy
with the news of your passion.
Make our sun blush
to see the blaze of your triumph.

Be not like me, a sullen star,
a white dwarf, dwindling,
a tremulant pulsar,
bypassed by all
in this expanding
universe.


RENUNCIATION

I rose at dawn, looked down upon
the length of you asleep there,
moon-like, your naked back curved down
to slightest waist, the white of you
more luminous than silk, and softer.

I lay back down beside you then,
cupping the curve of you against
my sleepless breathing. Your stillness,
a pearl’s perfection in the shell —
did it ignore, or take me in?
Was my entwined embrace your wish,
or a thing you merely endured
below the threshold of wakefulness?

It was too real — not real enough! —
this summer night — this thing you said
you always wanted, yet withheld,
a consummation I wished too,
yet kept at bay like a tiger.

Now one night’s storm has sated us.
It was the grape — not you — that spoke.
By the time you said you loved me
it did not matter who I was —
only that I was there, and willing.

***

Riding the southward bus, I watched
the gray New England towns go by.
I gazed as things became themselves,
emerging from mist and darkness:
these are not trees, but power poles,
clouds are not blankets or curtains,
but mere conflations of vapor.

I leaned my cheek against the chill
of glass. I could be no one now,
a cipher in a rattling morning bus,
going from nowhere to nowhere,
eating my lunch without thinking,
ignoring my fellow passengers,
hollow as a serial murderer.
My hands that touched you
now want to hide from me.

The day draws on, and still
these brickwork towns are all alike.
Which one did you live in, anyway?
What color were those eyes of yours?
What bridges, streams and rotting mills
were yours, what sunsets and diving crows,
what steeples penetrating your view?
Is every spinster shutter yours,
are yours the hands
drawing those shades to darkness?
Are these drear trees the same
sad troop that lined your garden?

The rancor of my leaving you
pursued me thus like an ash cloud.
Tall buildings loom, New York
a tombstone row of granite, glass.
It must be five o’clock — by now
you’ve read the yellow sheets
I propped upon your table top.
(Did you have that drink first,
I wonder, or after? With whom
tonight will you forget me?)
I close my eyes. It rains
inside my face.


THE WATCHER

The love that does not touch, that makes
no penetration,
requires no mirror back to verify
that what is real is real.

This love excels all lovers.
The unmailed letter superior
to the letter returned unread,
the passion that leaves the eye
as a gift to beauty.

Love thus, in secret, and love again.
Enlarge the heart
(O it has many chambers!)
If the loved one be as ablivious
as a fieldstone,
so be it! Moss clings, sun warms,
water wears down — there are many ways
to make love to granite.
You say the love you give
is not returned to you?
Leave to the bankers
the keeping of balances,
the squeezing out
of interest.

Love is returned, somehow,
in the ease of future loving,
the cavalcade of youth
pressing on by
as you watch from the café window,

marveling there is so much in you
beaming back at them,
so many qualities and curves,
neck napes and striding legs,
sungold, raven black & pumpkin hair,
and the gemstone eyes
of onyx, turquoise, emerald and hazel —

what would they be
if you were not there to love them?
what coalmine darkness
would they walk in,
if we did not spark them
with our admiration.

Be not jealous of touching.
Does not the air,
thick with the ghosts
of the world’s love cries
press down upon you?
Do not the star lamps
warm you? Does not the tide
crash out your name
upon the lonely cliffs?

Without desire, the universe
would cool to neutrons;
the whirligig of being
would slow to a stop.
So storm out! radiate
your unsought affections,
the passing poet, taking nothing,
giving all.


WATER SPRITE

Who made you,
this full moon night of lilacs,
like spring itself aburst,
made you leap from the bulrushes
of park lagoon
bare shoulders wet
from the limpid waters
your long hair sungold
bleached white
in lunary light--

who made your visage
the sculpted dream
of surrender
your eyes the blue
of hyacinth
of lapus lazuli

who made you run naked
to greet me
then leap into forest
of chameleon trees

made your fleeing soundless
as your bare feet
sought stealth of moss

as I followed--

made shards of you dissolve
in dapple of moonlight
in fall of blossom
uncurling fern and
peeping mushroom--

who made your soft
voice beckon me
leading me deeper in woods
in circle
coming confounded to a rock
at the other edge of the pool--

made you whisper
as ripples subsided
from a sinking point:

I am yours: mad angel
of your destiny.

You will follow me forever.
I will always elude you--
escape to the other surface
of water
of mirrors
run through your hands
like mercury.

I am yours .

Who made you? Who makes me
follow you?
I walk home slowly, inhale
the languor of cherry,
the braggart bloom of magnolia,
the luxury of lilacs--

who could resist this moon,
this dionysian spring?

It draws us,
real and unreal
mortal and mythical
quickens the water to form you,
draws your spirit
to my substance
my solitude
to your incompleteness.

Shall I return to find you?
Or shall you seek me out
coalescing from rainstorm
pressing through windowscreen
cooling my heat
with your smooth pale skin
the patient ardor of ocean
the murmur of brooks in my ear
the taste of dew from your lips
arms strong as river currents
the lilac scent of your impossible hair
the clear blue window
of your eyes above me


TRIPTYCH

i
Eros,
you are a child no more:
you have grown ripe for mouths to taste,
tongued tender neck to shoulder line,
breast taut and sloping down where firm
yet yielding to a poet’s fingers
what dragons beneath the belly
in longing flesh awakening!
I set my eyes upon you now
in your statue-perfect moment—
ah, winged-foot kouros, do not move!

Beneath your sandaled tread the earth
indents and hardens, hungry clay.
You swim the sea, delight the waves
foam-white with arm- and legstrokes bold;
when you turn back, the ebbing tide
tugs out and downward, desperate
like a disappointed lover.
Sea beasts thrust up green tentacles,
amazed at your beauty, craving
the hoarded air in your ribcage.

Your vanished body, diving, mocks me.
You cannot drown! The gods have much
to utter through your vocal chords!
A lifeguard zephyr transports you
above, beyond the crashing surf.
Eyes closed, you ride on mist and cloud,
immobile as marble, your hair
a boreal banner of gold
across the blind, astonished sky.

You do not see the eyes that watch you,,
do not acknowledge worshippers;
your youth an uncrossable chasm.
I hesitate to speak, my hand
in greeting grasps you too lightly.

You flee the seven-hilled city.
I watch from a bench on the summit
as you hurtle down Angell Street.
Long I linger, long I watch for you
as you turn down the twisted lanes.
But you are always departing—
your future is too much my past.

You are too beautiful to touch,
almost too beautiful to live
in our tawdry and tarnished world,
unbearable Phoebus, a searing star!

2
Philia,
more rare than lust, more lasting,
desiring all and yet beyond desire;
the unseen walker-beside of dreamers,
first ear to my poems fresh from the pen.
You are the comforter of solitudes,
the perfect thou in silent communion.
For you the bread is baked, the teapot full,
the door unlocked, the sleeping place secure.
If you came for a day, or forever,
it is the same to me—what’s mine is yours.

I swear I shall not pass a day with you
unless it be filled with astonishing things.
At night, the room you sleep in breathes with me,
the darkness between us webbed with moonlight,
cicadas heralding my dreamless sleep.

Scarce half a dozen times I’ve met you now,
soul mate and artist and fellow outsider.
How many leagues we two together walked,
how many ancient stones deciphered! Worlds
turned within us as we riddled science;
with thought alone we toppled cathedrals,
lived in all ages and nations at once,
counted as friends the poets and sages.
(These the mingled streams, the parting rivers,
the memories that are always with me,
friendship true in a world without honor,
with brothers who choose us, and whom we choose.)

3
Agape,
rarest and last of all the affections,
you come at the end as solace to the spirit,
friend of all who cannot trade in beauty’s coinage,
the vestal hope of love outliving the body.

It matters not if him you love returns your gaze.
It matters not if he chose his death by drowning,
or if his brain burned mad, or he wasted away,
or if he squandered his genius to mate and die—

it matters not to love’s eidolon, in whose eye
all types of love are stippled in a deep gravure.
You are the bird-sleep stillness preceding the dawn,
the astonished hush that follows the thunderclap:
you are lord of all benevolent silences.

At the unvisited cell of hag and hermit
your threads drop down like gilded spider webs,
a boon and blessing from the ever-burning stars.
For those who dare translate your enigmatic verse,
tribe, shade and totem, time and sorrow, slip away
as all who strive become ensoul’d in one great heart.

This is the love the gods and philosophers knew—
divine yet having nothing to do with heaven—
human, yet far beyond the lusts of animals—
at alchemy’s heart, the Midas wand of autumn
turning temporal green into immortal gold.

4
Always my loves are three-faced,
triptych in unity.
Approached, they hesitate
to give their names.

One name is not enough.
Lust was too quickly slaked
to hold them long, the vows
of hollow fellowship too soon betrayed.
No one suspected the aspirant god
in their bones, defying weight,
yearning toward the zenith.

And you, my momentary captive,
caught in my weave of words,
am I to be your lover,
brother,
fellow spirit?

Is my yearning for hair and bones?
For hearth and soul mate?
For winged companion to Olympus?
I do not know,
cannot define
my troubled and troubling affections.

And as for you,
Adonis, Atys, Adonai,
who knows what you mean
by being beautiful?


THE LABYRINTH

Faerie Camp Destiny, New Hampshire, July 2005

There is only one way out
of this poem. You must walk
where I walk — the path
that a thousand have trod
before you. There is only
one way out of this poem.
All who have come this way
I have loved one way
or another. There is only
one way out of this poem.
Are you here because of beauty?
Or is it merely late night’s
urgency? There is only
one way out of this poem.
There is a calm place,
after much losing of way,
the restful center where needs
and appearances cancel
each other in perfect stasis.
There is only one way out
of this poem. Others will follow.
I will mistake them for you
as I have mistaken you
for the form of the thing I want.
It takes as long to leave
as to enter; the center
provides no clue to escaping.
Two wings of one bird:
anticipation, memory.
There is only one way out
of this poem. Because I touch you,
you cannot retrace your steps.
You are not whom, or what
you were when you entered. There
is only one way out of this
poem. Here every lie is a monster,
every deceit a deceiver,
and truth is plucked from stones,
and the earth sings. There is
only one way out of this poem. Arms
down, extend your palms, feel it.
The power of earth-force Dionysian,
strong enough to lift you. There is
only one way out of this poem. Fly!


SON OF DRACULA

I was the pale boy with spindly arms
    the undernourished bookworm
    dressed in baggy hand-me-downs
    (plaid shirts my father wouldn’t wear,
    cut down and sewn by my mother),
old shoes in tatters, squinting all day
for need of glasses that no one would buy.

At twelve, at last, they told me
    I could cross the line
to the adult part of the library
those dusty classic shelves
which no one ever seemed to touch.
I raced down the aisles,
    to G for Goethe and Faust
        reached up for Frankenstein
   at Shelley, Mary
            (not pausing at Percy Bysshe!)
        then trembled at lower S
            to find my most desired,
            most dreamt-of--
    Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This was the door to years of dreams,
    and waking dreams of dreams.
I lay there nights,
the air from an open window chilling me,
waiting for the bat,
the creeping mist,
             the leaping wolf
the caped, lean stranger.

Lulled by the lap of curtains, the false
sharp scuttle of scraping leaves,
I knew the night as the dead must know it,
waiting in caskets, dressed
in clothes that no one living could afford to wear.

The river town of blackened steeples,
    vile taverns and shingled miseries
had no appeal to Dracula. Why would he come
when we could offer no castle,
no Carfax Abbey, no teeming streets
from which to pluck a victim?

My life--it seemed so unimportant then--
lay waiting for its sudden terminus,
its sleep and summoning to an Undead
sundown. How grand it would have been
to rise as the adopted son of Dracula!

I saw it all:
how no one would come to my grave
to see my casket covered with loam.
My mother and her loutish husband
would drink the day away at the Moose Club;
my brother would sell my books
to buy new baseball cards;
my teachers’ minds slate clean
forgetting me as they forgot all
who passed beneath and out their teaching.
No one would hear the summoning
    as my new father called me:
Nosferatu! Arise! Arise! Nosferatu!
And I would rise,
    slide out of soil
        like a snake from its hollow.
He would touch my torn throat.
The wound would vanish.
He would teach me the art of flight,
the rules of the hunt
    the secret of survival.

I would not linger
    in this town for long.
One friend, perhaps,
    I’d make into a pale companion,
another my slave, to serve my daytime needs
(guarding my coffin,
    disposing of blood-drained bodies)--
as for the rest
of this forsaken hive of humankind,
I wouldn’t deign to drink its blood
    the dregs of Europe

We would move on
    to the cities.
The pale aristocrat and his thin son
attending the Opera, the Symphony,
mingling at Charity Balls,
Robin to his Batman,
    cape shadowing cape,
    fang for fang his equal soon
        at choosing whose life
            deserved abbreviation.
A fine house we’d have
    a private crypt below
        the best marbles
         the finest silk, mahogany, brass
         for the coffin fittings
Our Undead mansion above
    filled to the brim with books and music...

I waited, I waited--
He never arrived.

That year I had a night-long nosebleed,
as though my Undead half had bitten me,
drinking from within. I woke in white
of hospital bed, my veins refreshed
with the hot blood of strangers.

Tombstones gleamed across the hill,
lit up all night in hellish red
from the never-sleeping iron furnaces.
Leaves danced before the wardroom windows,
blew out and up to a vampire moon.
I watched it turn from copper to crimson,
        its bloating fall to treeline,
        its deliberate feeding
     on corpuscles of oak and maple,
        one baleful eye unblinking.

A nurse brought in a tiny radio
One hour a night of symphony
was all the beauty this city could endure--
I held it close to my ear, heard Berlioz’
Fantastic Symphony: the gallows march,
the artist’s Undead resurrection
amid the Witches’ Sabbath--
my resurrection. I asked for paper.
The pen leaped forth and suddenly I knew
that I had been transformed.
I was a being of Night, I was Undead
since all around me were Unalive.
I saw what they could not see,
walked realms of night and solitude
where law and rule and custom crumbled.
I was a poet.
I would feed on Beauty for blood,
I would make wings of words,
     I would shun the Cross of complacency.
A cape would trail behind me always.