a sketch & a poem

Sanctuary for Sinners

You must confess, there’s not much here.
Just a couple of chestnut trees,
a few potted flowers, a vine-covered statue
of Cupid,
and the light of dusk
making everything glow.

You stand in the glow, the light slithering
up your shins, another one pouring
into your heart.

Only the second light is real.
And in the warmth of its rays
there lay the refrains of some hidden
orchestra, the delicate murmuring
of plums,
of cold summer rain,
of the beggar’s cup filling with pearls
of water
and poured out into in the dirt.

There’s not much here,
you must confess.
Only presence, only emptiness.
Only light and wind to make you invisible.

This is where
Narcissus tears out his eyes
and discovers a strange and profound
inward-looking one.

This is the delirium of falling away.

___________________________________

(The sketch above is of the late Captain Kirk, a former mechanic of mine, as Pan)…

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A Desperate Character

A Desperate Character

I had become a baby sitter of illiterate,
inveterate drunkards, of crackheads, of men with strong backs
and low foreheads
and weak minds. I had become the smell of exhaust
fumes and cheap tobacco smoke.
A broken-down lawnmower, a severed head gasket,
oil drums, cracked piston rings, flyshit in the carburetor
of a 2-cycle leaf blower
had become me.
I was a burglar alarm at 3 a.m., the jarring sound
of a telephone on Friday afternoon,
the collective sigh
of the people in my small town, their jeremiads,
their habits and obtuse convictions,
their sad obituaries.

Sixty hours a week for sixteen years, I had become
institutionalized. I had created a Frankenstein.
I would think about the grand discourse
of the universe and all its galaxies. I would dream
about red dwarfs,
about gamma ray bursts, the asteroid belt,
the oceans of the earth,
monochrome rainbows, volcanoes, rain forests,
The Great Barrier Reef,
Prague, London, Venice.

Did it all exist
for me to sit incarcerated
in some anonymous little shop
in some anonymous little town playing the anonymous
little merchant,
a role I knew in my heart I’d been wrongly cast for?

Well, I thought. If this is my destiny,
I reject it. I reject my life. I will give my life back.
I will jump
off the Seven Mile Bridge, I will gargle rat poison.
Whatever it takes I will do it,
but I will not stay here. I will not live a disingenuous
life with a dying heart
because I am afraid,
because it is safe to be afraid,
because being flyshit in the carburetor of a 2-cycle
leaf blower somehow suits me.

No, I thought, I’m going to be a red
dwarf, that’s what I’ll be.
And with that, I washed my hands of everything,
got on a plane
bound for Berlin
and became one.

The Street Musician

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I’ve seen them so many times, I no longer see the birds or the trees, the lampposts, the cobblestones, the flowers or the parked cars. I walk along in a daze. I walk among the people and look at their faces, but do not see them either. It’s as if I’m half-blind, or half-sleepwalking, my feet carrying me along, my mind only half-understanding the force impelling me. I enter a street market and the sidewalk narrows and the crowd thickens. There are people here selling fruit, vegetables, kabobs, fish, jewelry, textiles and odds and ends and they are laughing, and they a singing and shouting to draw people to their stands. But their noise goes through me and the jostle of the crowd stifles me, sucking me in and we drift along amid oranges and pomegranates, conch shells, oriental rugs, sunlight beating through the tents, the hoarse snatches of a violin gliding on the breeze. When I get to the edge of the market, I see that it’s a humpbacked old Balkan woman playing. She is wearing a purple headscarf, her dress is a patchwork of blues and oranges and limegreens, and at her feet there is a leather violin case, open with loose change scattered on the floor of it. Her eye floats toward me as I approach, she gives a tender smile, and keeps playing, the music whirling in circles around her, grazing the birds and the trees, the cobblestones, the parked cars, giving life to the flowers and the people. I dig in my pocket. I have no change. I have nothing. I shrug. She gives me a forgiving smile and her eye floats in another direction, her impassioned bow continues working, the music following me as I cross the street, walk two blocks, take a right, walk another two blocks, cross another street, unlock a door, go through a courtyard and return to my flat, and return to my desk. I can still hear her music as I write this.

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Journey to the End of the Night

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Journey to the End of the Night

With a bottle of Belgian beer, I sit among pigeon
feathers and broken black branches and a choir
of darkening leaves, the murky Landwerkanal
gliding past my feet, the choppy ripples reflecting
aureoles of green and amber patches and the flat
white of a solitary swan floating silently through
the mists.

I watch it pass, watch the clouds eat
a maple tree and the Ferris wheel and the purple
geese and I watch the remaining fragments
of the sun as night comes and places a shadow
upon me. I am not supposed to be here.
I am standing on the wrong continent. I am following
the wrong orchestra. I have strayed from the people.
I am not supposed to be here.

And yet here I am,
half-drunk, my mind ecstatic, my heart torn apart
by golden
salamanders by the glittering
pallet knife of some mad expressionist
painter. In a word, by love.
I sit listening
to carnival music carried over the waters.

Walpurgisnacht

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It’s Walpurgisnacht here in Germany,
the night the witches take Brocken, night of bassoons
in the concert halls, and sirens
and heat lightning flashing in the clouds.
You watch from your garden
which sits amid a canyon of dim and oddly-shaped
pre-war buildings. You watch while listening
to the people in the buildings murmuring, banging pots,
playing old jazz songs. Every five minutes or so, the clouds blossom
with fire, glowing and throbbing, revealing their shapes.

And now it’s dark. Only the lights
in the buildings gleam,
the reddish-gold glow of the rooms spilling over
the balconies and onto the walls.

A shadow moves behind a thin, luminescent curtain.
Another one appears. You watch them tango and whirl
as loneliness, that hissing serpent
with red eyes, enters the garden, slithering
through a bed of flowers and up the tree, coiling
around a limb just over you.

But now the light of the room goes out,
now the shadows disappear, and fat luminous insects
take the air, swarming the pollen
and the pollen exploding from its pods,
glittering as a wave of hot sulphurous breath
hits your shoulder. You turn around, the serpent is gone.
Your loneliness abates and soon becomes
love for the wind, for the leaves, for orange peels
and elevators, a love of solitude, love for the inviolable
flower someone planted in your chest,
for the miracle of being alive and on the earth on this night,
Cherubim blowing their horns from upon
fire-lit clouds.

Strange Instruments

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Strange Instruments

Holed up in this dim
ground floor unit, curtains open
to the cool green shade of the garden,
swivel chair like an old man groaning under you,
a bright white screen gaping at you,
the cursor blinking.

You sit hunched in the glow of it, feel the knot
in your back, your legs cramp.
You stretch them
under your desk. You have been here all day,
gone into it, lost in yourself, departed from humanity,
fighting against light and shadow.

Isn’t there something else
you could’ve gambled your life on?

You think about all the dead souls
you’ve drifted from, the lovers, the money,
the impossible distances,
the years piled on top of each other,
the hours spent bent-backed
in the maddening orchards
of literature,

your dreams bound up in the harvest,
your heart like a tiger
roaming the earth, oblivious
to the wind,
the rain, the seasons, the moon.

Only knowing the strange
instruments
in its head,
only listening to them.

Inspiration

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Inspiration

I live in the back building in a ground floor flat that faces
a little German garden. The only people with access
to the garden are me, the Turkish family that lives next door,
and the widowed hausmeisterin
who lives next to them and keeps it green.

This morning, the garden is empty except for the little birds
fluttering around it. I stand on the stoop
in shorts and bare feet and no shirt
and watch them, listening to them chirp
as I smoke a thin
bent joint. Beyond the garden,
there is a sunlit
parking lot, a little tin-roofed garage,
and newly blossoming trees, hemmed in on all sides by
the surrounding buildings. I stand here
in my bare feet feeling
a dizzy rush in my blood and my blood trying to keep my brain
from becoming a fusty
beehive
of troubles.

Now is not the time, I tell myself. Now is the time
to go completely out of myself.
Now is the time
to become nothing
so that the nymphs and sprits of the trees
(who only see nothing,
who only work with you after you’ve reduced yourself
to nothing), will fill me with something

like cloudbursts and pale fire,
with fragrant burning twilight,
and violins,
with the lewd plump sea
and something especially
like the sweet ecstasy glowing in the hearts
of the little birds
as they flutter among the fenceposts.

Jakob Böhme

JAKOB BÖHME

Long, stringy black hair in a middle part.
Wizard’s beard. An old, lavender cape taking on light
and wind
as he floats along amid
golden
clouds and the clattering of dusky evening
cathedral bells.

To the local scourge he’s just a shoemaker.

They don’t care about his view from the sky,
the Gates of the Paradisiacal
Garden
of Roses,
or the sacred portals of his electromagnetic
mind
wherein resides the Cumaean Sibyl in her virgin apparel
smoking Benson
& Hedges
while surrounded by shoals
of cloud-eating purple
fish,
high voltage wires, stargazer lilies and wild orange trees.

They don’t want to know
about that.

What concerns them are the practical
things: bread, candle-stubs,
a clear and definitive
statement: he makes shoes.

Everything else about him is fuss.

The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

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The Small-Potatoes Confidence Artist

Greg used to come into my shop to sell tools
he’d just stolen from Home Depot.
“You in need of a monkey wrench?”
he’d ask, and dredge one from the sweatpants
he was wearing under his trousers,
the packaging still on it.
“No thanks.” I’d say.
“Is there anything you do need?”
“I don’t know,” I’d say.
“Does your supplier
carry diamond
blades for angle grinders?”
He’d scratch his head and brainstorm for a moment.
Confucius
couldn’t have looked deeper in thought.
“I’m pretty sure they do,” he’d say.
“I’ll have to check.
I’ll get back to you.”

He’d then exit the store and
I wouldn’t see him again
until he’d come back with something else,
something other
than what I needed,
and the cycle would repeat itself.

Then one day
Greg disappeared.
I don’t know what happened to him.
I figured he was either dead, in rehab or in jail,
and eventually
I forgot about him,
for the most part anyway.
I would sometimes
laugh thinking about how
he’d come into the shop,
his trousers stuffed
with tools
and me pretending everything was on the up and up.

It was like seeing a resurrected
god.

About a month ago,
when I was sitting in the shop, I glanced at the
surveillance
camera aimed toward NE 3rd St.
and saw in grainy black and white
a man
that looked exactly like Greg
pushing rapidly an empty
wheelchair
along the west side of the building.

At first, I thought it was just someone who bore
his resemblance.
But two nights later, as I was driving through
the parking lot of a shopping mall a few miles
from my shop,
I saw the same man sitting in the wheelchair
he had so rapidly been pushing,
a tin cup in his hand,
a down-in-the-mouth expression.

An old lady approached him. “Good evening,
ma’am,” he said. She dug in her purse,
something flashed
in the sunlight. “Thank you, thank you,” he said,
and complimented her
on her dress.
He peered into his cup.
“Yes,
yes, yes,” he went on.
“A lovely
dress
indeed.”

The Proverbial Bad Penny

An eternally down-on-your-luck Polish-Italian New Jersey native, Bob Milktrout worked for me in the 90s as a part-time mechanic but never really had his heart into the job. He mostly just stood around smoking Marlboro lights and drinking Pepsi, lapsing into emotionally-charged stories about his high school football days, or other stories where he always seemed to come out the victim. He used to tell me he didn’t want to turn wrenches for a living. He was trying to establish himself as a remodeler of homes, but to do so he often had to borrow my tools. I let him use them for free because he worked for me, but then he quit, more or less, and still expected to get them for free, even though his having them would often cost me money because of the miles he’d put on them, or the fact that I wouldn’t be able to rent them to someone else because he was using them. Finally, after listening to several of his hard luck stories, lies and tales of persecution, we agreed that I’d rent my stuff to him for half price, but that never worked out. He racked up a tremendous bill, and it just kept growing, so I cut him off. Things got ugly after that, especially when it became apparent that he had no intention to pay me anything. I started having my alcoholic mechanic – his replacement – badger him drunkenly on the phone about the money, which infuriated him. After one call, my mechanic told me that Milktrout was so hot you could fry an egg on his skull.

He vanished for a long time after that, leaving the money unpaid and no trace of his whereabouts.

Then one day, a while back, he turned up again, like the proverbial bad penny.

It had probably been ten years since I’d last seen him and those years had not been kind to him. He used to be quite handsome. Now, his hair, though still without any gray in it, had become thin and sprouted from his head in long, disparate spikes, his eyes and cheeks had sunken into an emaciated skull and his complexion had gone bad – he looked like the after picture of Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian politician who was poisoned by government agents at a dinner in 2004.

The reason he had turned up wasn’t to pay his old bill, but to pick up a bucket of driveway sealer his friend had ordered. After that, he started coming in regularly to pick up his friend’s sealer and would occasionally buy something for himself. The old bill and the old calls from my now-deceased drunken mechanic were never mentioned. Instead, he would stand around telling victim stories of an entirely new genre. In these, he wasn’t a victim of other people’s doing, but of nature herself. He had had two cancer scares in the last three years, he said. Also, he suffered from acid reflux, heartburn, migraines, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, low testosterone and erectile disfunction. And yet according to recent tests, his doctor told him he was the healthiest fifty-three-year-old he’d ever seen. This led me to believe there was some lying or severe hypochondria going on. It also led me to believe that the persecutors of his past were as imaginary as his physiological ones were now.

Milktrout came in the shop the other day to rent 100 feet of pressure washer hose.

I told him we didn’t normally rent hose, the reason being that it was a small, relatively inexpensive item that people would either not return, or not return for ages and expect to pay nothing for because they’d forgotten about it in their garage or some such. It was just easier not renting them, we preferred to sell them, but Milktrout somehow persuaded me to do him the favor, promising he’d bring it back on time. He didn’t of course. It was two weeks before we saw him again. He came in with the hose rolled up neatly and slung over his shoulder, but no money of course. His excuse? There were several, all of the same genre. He had been gravely ill; his girlfriend couldn’t return it for him because she had leukemia; his dad was in a Colorado hospital for something or other; and Jim, the fellow he would pick up driveway sealer for, couldn’t return it for him because he had just had an operation to remove a large hunk of flesh from the top of his skull. Skin cancer.

“You know Jim and his pale Irish skin,” said Milktrout, and made a circle with his hands to show the size of what had been taken. “They had to drill into his skull with a bit yeabig,” he said, spreading his hands about a foot apart. I envisioned a large, 4” diameter core drilling bit going into the top of the Irishman’s head. It seemed a bit much, but according to Milktrout’s way of thinking, the more extreme the story, the more valid his excuse for returning the hose late and not paying for it.

He promised to give us something when he got paid from his customer, but we knew what his promises added up to. In 20 years, nothing had changed.

You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, she’ll come back.” ~ Horace

He set the hoses neatly on the floor and tiptoed out of the shop, knowing that we were the victims of this deal, but telling himself that he was more of one – his victimhood was on a grand and universal scale, deeper and wider and more complex than ours could ever be – and for that we owed him. It was our birthright.