“What Ghosts There Were” was first produced by The Bridge Theatre Company, February 3-20, 2000, at the Boston Center for the Arts. The cast, directed by Maggie Dietz, included Suzanne Carlin as The Nude and Derry Woodhouse as The Artist.
The Nude, a young actress of twenty-six, lies in an artist’s Boston studio. Around her, the typical trappings: pillows, scarlet fabric, more swatches piled off to the side. She sips red wine from a glass—slowly, in choreographed fashion—perfunctorily refilled as she gets low. Beside her, on a table, a bowl of pomegranates and a pack of cigarettes. Two large Styrofoam Greek columns lie over to one side, over which drape her clothes. Clutter of canvasses throughout. Low music—jazz—floats from the stereo, forming a backdrop for her words which, nonetheless, the artist never hears. She has been told, “Lie still. Don’t talk.” Her reverie is inner monologue.
Time: Night. The present. She thinks:
The train in the subway was a kind of birth. Or death. A canal at any rate, far down at the black end a shade of light. I stood up by the driver, the car was quiet, bags at my side, staring through the dark blinking into stations as we passed. I thought of worms, moles, groundhogs, ants grazing around us in the burrowed rock, and once my stop came to a still I stepped down to the platform and I saw a rat— a huge black rat with tiny human hands, pink, its wet fur slimed and spiked with sewage maybe, sitting on a bench as if it waited for me. The terminal was empty. One green light sputtered as the train wheels groaned and went. I dropped my bags and, turning to the bench, the rat was gone, but in its place (and I never will forget the mark this made), a girl sat, something smoldering on her lap, and when she looked at me, her face was mine. That was, for me, the beginning of the end. Not that I’d not had visions. Long before voices in the elm where no birds were, cornflower angels in a fume of sun, across the lawn the ghost of gasoline where white sheets tucked and bellied on the line, I saw the spider dancing on the wire that separated bliss from bliss. But that was Kansas. You expect that in a place the tornadoes whip up so fast, so fast one minute you’re just sitting on the yard, familiar patch of grass and tall sweet tea, the next you’re in a ditch ten miles away. This was different. For one thing, it was two thousand miles, in a city where I knew no one. And I was standing underground and looking at a girl who has my face? I’m not saying it’s the strangest thing. I’m not saying stranger things can’t hap— In fact I saw it as a fitting in, a kind of consummation, in the dark. Two halves, a little interval between (or big: two thousand miles and twenty years) before the houselights flicker and the draw reconvenes, thick in its drowse of wine and nicotine, the veins surged up with coffee, and the thrust proceeds: sub specie aeternitatis, Act Two: The Meaning of It All. (Act One: Preliminaries, setting up of action, determined quirks of character and place, time to praise what tragi-comic flaws there be—all set? the circus wired to blow, the cannon propped, leveled at the stars, the nerves erect, straddling the ball’s homage to the guts’ evacuation— purge!— where as yet the brooch just glitters in the eyes, the revenger’s cheeks are ruddy, but with rouge, and Ophelia in a florist nine-to-five happily arranges poesies.) So la mi. Prepare the beheadings! Bells sound, the lights in the room I knew she had it in her. The auld girl. flash on and off, a game show . . . Somebody grab a pencil, write that down! ‘The Minister of Cultural Affairs’— Sure it’s not immortal but screw that, maybe I’ll get a grant!) Bells, lights fade. Where was I? dum de-dum de-dum . . . Ah, the bigwigs in Topeka making plans to get him in the capital. I mean his masterwork. The fruit of twenty years. Twenty years, and close to seven stories tall, back of the house, sprung against the fields, Olympic mess of scrap and burnt-out steel, chicken wire, water heaters, broken down tractors, bedsprings, gutters, he didn’t care, engines, axles, radiators, pumps, two twisted harrows jutting at the sky like arthritic hands at prayer, the spike of a tapping drill to represent the steeple, four old shot-up sides of steel pulled from the bus that rusted in a ditch after the wreck that killed some local kids not long before, became the folding doors that opened on the haywire, busted-up, light-crazed and jumble-tumble maze he called Cathedral. And people, they would come from miles around to stand there, in it, ogle at the what- in-heaven’s-name-don’t-rightly-know-but-Mister, it’s a marvel. So it was. Beautiful. Fruit of the years before his child was born— inheritance? a birthright, can it be?— and finished it and went up in a fume out on the highway, underneath the sign, ten miles to kansas artist! turn right here! while white sheets tucked and bellied on the line sitting in the yard of my six-years’ familiar patch of grass and tall sweet tea thinking tornado when my mother called . . . But it’s still there. And bunched with what remains of the yard and picket fence and bone-white house caught in the throat of whatsoever child that was. I can remember how I used to be infatuated with his hands. I remember how they smelled, like gasoline, and they were very large, and thick, and brown, with pink flecks at the knuckles where he’d knocked the flesh away. Oh, they were lovely hands. All bruised and chipped and knotted with his work. Hard work. Not like the dainty stuff you do. Wrenching, stripping, welding, hammering, beating the metal to submission like a god might do with us— make it obey, to break and bend us to the beautiful. I can remember how I used to sit on his lap at the table when we used to sing, and out behind the house I used to hear, at night, him out there pounding, pounding, while I watched the spiders dance across the sill and white heat lightning splashed against the fields like patches of God’s canvas bleeding through. ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands, He’s got the whole wide world in his . . .’ But it’s still there. I’m going back someday. I am. I’m going back, and I can see it, see myself again inside the maze, that ruin-haunted, Time-undaunted, crazed cornfield Cathedral of my dad. (And oh, you therapists, if that won’t be sublime transference, I don’t know what in hell is.) Where was I? Boston. Underground. Lured by the distant artificial lights. The train wheels shuddered once and disappeared, and there it was. The writing on the wall: theatre district. Scale of what I knew. I took my bags that night and walked around the Garden. The reflecting pool was drained. Ice in the willows made them lean like grand dames that cast their pearls to the lights, and the dark was full of whispers like applause. But this is exposition. How express that feeling, not that I was on the verge, but that I’d actually broken through to the new form, that it had broken through on me, in me—that I couldn’t be the same; that all my life had been a preparation, a close and careful study of a glass drawn with well water, water I’d divined and tasted on my tongue the tinge of iron, the pure and simple clarity of fire the core distilled—how can I express that fleck of cold, that filament of fire caught from the old earth’s veins, a cold so absolute and clear my throat inflamed, flamed in my very being as it swept over the smothered heart and racing lungs and washed across my belly where the seeds lay waiting, hushed, aflame with open lips like a nest of birds. I remember once I found a nest of meadow larks. Far in the fields, tucked among the green folded ears of corn. The sun was loitering down in the next field by the whitewashed barn. Seven of them. Babies. On the ground beside, the mutilated body of the mother. Killed by—by what?—whatever kills, the whim of some boy’s gun as she came arcing past homeward, almost home. It must have been a while. The eyes. Her body just a sack of meal the ants grazed in. And from her young, as I leaned over, from their mouths arose so thick a silence it was palpable. Not even any strength to make a sound, just splayed there, craning, pure with fear, their jaws like razors, diamonds of flame so frail that just to touch would be to quench, so fierce that to touch would be to burn the edges of your soul from everything that kept you safe and separate, at home— so pure a hunger, and so absolute a lack, that to lift, to taste, to even tilt that glass would flush you through at once and make you whole. And the silence in the fields was so immense around their open mouths I didn’t hear my mother calling, hours after, when she found me there, their mother on my lap, a wisp of smoke, a sack, the seven babes like votives, candles drawn in homage round a circle of my cornfield makeshift shrine. Their hunger was a portion I divined from a single glass of water from a well. And since deep-drawn, the seeds it watered burned and swelled as if engendered by their own. But that was Kansas. All that I could tell of depth and distance, of immensity, when you came down to it, was water from a well. What would I tell now I could taste the sea? The sea was farther off. But I could smell its tincture in the mist that swept across the Garden air and pecked against my lips. There were the Swan Boats, ready to set sail across the bubble of a hoodwinked eye, chained like children. In the spring I’d see them glide, I’d watch them from the willow leaves ferry bright tourists with their plastic shades beneath the droppings of the pidgeoned eaves, baying like beagles at the reverend dead enshrined in recent stone. I paid my coin and crossed myself, one spring. I lost my own glasses peering down into that green obliterating murk. I ducked my hand and found the sunlight out of reach. The face faded. What was I looking for? I know one thing. The city swallows you. Loads you in its throat, into its veins, clamps you to its tracks and drives you down, a B-line smack to the gangrened heart. (Red Line to Braintree, Blue an opened vein to Wonderland—what matter? All the same.) It’s cold as hell in there but you don’t freeze. You don’t. You only sit and think and wait in an empty theater, on a banished throne midwinter, in the darkness of a day, while ripples crown and film about your head in celluloid, the lives you might have led, peeling like an onion to a core that never comes. You peel. You peel. You peel. You peel to emptiness, and that is death. So much is certain, is it not? So much seems my soul, my being caught between what passes for truth, and what just passes. And what, whatever else may be, may spring— the manifest illusion of divine purpose? Where is purpose in this? Say. What purpose in these syllables I lay, Procrustes, on the rack of this blank verse? Lop. Th’alternative? Well. The mind goes blank, the field remains untilled, the enemy advances. Silence and stillness are the enemy, your enemy, my dear. For what you said, in that defining moment when I dropped my clothes (you loading up the stereo, as if that could protect us), the glow of lamplight on my skin adjusted so, in that defining moment when you said, ‘Lie still. Don’t talk.’ and in that, opted not for the monstrous music of the spheres, not for the twisted orchard of my heart, not for the labyrinth of deep and dazz- ling darkness that the poet says is God, but for a shell, a surface (through your pride? through fear?), what you gained was jazz, but lost a world, my dear. I don’t even like jazz. Never have. Not me. But it will be there. In the portrait, it will make its notes felt in the squiggling of a curve, in the smoke that winds up like a clarinet if I should smoke. (Should I smoke?) It will infect even the polished purity of fruit— She reaches into the bowl. Plastic! Leonardo, I’m appalled. And look, the paint is even chipping off. Okay, okay, I’ll put it back! Jees. Not like it’s life or death. Or is it? Say, how big is this? Should I expect someday to be found hanging in the MFA? (Maybe even plastered to the T, a token to your immortality?) Maybe on a Wednesday (the old routine) strolling through the vacant lunchtime air among schoolchildren, ravens in my hair, the nibble of gentry at lubricious tarts, Monet on the mouse-pads in the Museum Shop, ching-ching, the bell, ascend the sandstone stair, down the long corridor to find me there framed on the far wall of my favorite room gaping the gulf, lounging on the brink of all I will remember from this night? And what will I remember? How the wine flared like a will o’wisp inside my head? How the fake fruit tempted, how we might have said anything to keep the rats at bay, nibbling at the onion of this silence? Oslo was like that. Oslo. Oh, just a guy I lived with for a while. Ha. More like a pact between the dying and the dead. Though at first it seemed the opposite of that: A dying to be alive. At any rate. Sometimes at night I’d watch him as he lay smoldering in his rosy opiate dream of cellphones, celluloid and private jets— the TV on, but mute, the images dancing on the walls like hieroglyphs in our subterranean domestic gloom— and think that if I took a knife and pressed its point into his sole and opened him from toe to tip, peeled hard and pressed inside, I just might find the thing that made him tick, beyond the heart, that like a blood-gorged tick dropped from a limb, brushed from a blade of grass, climbed leisurely to nurse and suck upon your softest places—beyond that, and far beyond his need, his junkie’s need to have me under him at any cost, and not just that, I’m telling you screwed down, pinned, like a June bug, iridescent wings spreading for a flight that never comes, or if it does, to come in fits and bursts (his mostly), mine a bursting just to twist free of the spike he’d drilled into my heart that kept me there, even as the first, even as the first was being lost—and then to hold that over me as if it was my fault, my choice, indicative of something in my self that would choose death in any case? If I could press past that, I thought that maybe I might find the chip, the fleck of mica in the soul, embedded in the shards that made him whole, a tiny thing, a cameo . . . And still the whole time thinking that, I knew this process would go on forever, peel on peel, an endless stripping back until nothing remained to tell me who I was, why I was here, what part in hell I played, nothing but silent, unrepentive air. And that was terrifying. So I stayed beneath him, night by night, until I made a thing between us. And I kept it. And one day in the dead of winter, she was born. I named her May.Lop. This wine. It gets me. Makes me want to dance. (O surely some evil will befall someone!) Would you like that, darling? Tell me. Shall I dance? Or, no, might Madame’s movement interrupt the Maestro’s progress? Or is it regress? these exquisite pains with which you undertake to get the both of us: vis-à-vis the image of me bedded in your head warring with the one beneath your brush. I can be still. (“Lie still,” he said. “Don’t talk.”) I can lie still and quiet as a moth. I am not tempted by the claret flame. Still as a churchmouse. Docile as a frog splayed on your dissection board, its veins impassioned with the artificial dye, pinned, a Prince of Pieces, crucified, in dread anticipation of your kiss. I can be that. Quieter than a fish at the bottom of the moonless pond you cast in. Still as the frost that claws the windowpane. As . . . Sometimes when I’m on the stage I think the audience exists for me alone. They give me being, as I give them breadth of character, a role to fall into. A part to die for. Maybe that’s the thing that keeps them coming back. They glimpse in me the manifest illusion or facade of some divine fecundity of purpose: that from these clumsy bodies, sacks of curd, fodder for frauds and psychotherapists, an impulse might arise, Athena-like, step out along the catwalk of a night, and move among us, speaking in blank verse. That was a way of saying it. A bit abstruse. (Fecundity? Haven’t heard that one in a while.) Back to prosaic earth. Ho hum. Ho hum. (Farewell, you spheres! and heaven’s fields, adieu. Your music cannot cheat so well as it is famed to do.) Where was I? On the stage. Mostly I think of it along the lines of sex. It all comes slobbering back to that, does it not, my darling? like a beaten dog? Sex: the way there’s something going on, something intimate and highly-strung, yet solitary, too, terminally at one with transience. Not saying it’s not fun, sublimely fun, metaphysical roulette, nightly little tryst between the hook and those cold fishes sweating in the dark, leering at you, searching out your curves from every angle. But you’re in it, too. You come here every night, do what you do, the old routine, you take the same way home regardless of the fact at every turn, in every alley you can feel their eyes fixing on you, casting out their nets. And the weird thing is, you love it. You’re the fly that thrives on its ability to rest still in the cobweb in the corner of the pane, up to the instant when it feels the line tighten, just so slightly, and it bursts free of the just-forestalled catastrophe, screwing its head in frenzy on the glass with a lunatic’s abandon—wa la whee! Although not every time. It comes to pass (Act Two), the prompter drowsing, unaware, the celestial timekeeps working to a T, it thinks the web was ruffled by night air and nestles down into the spider’s care. Maybe that’s not the best analogy. I could do better if I had my head free of the buzz of this infernal jazz. God’s balls, my boy, the things that I could tell! Sprung from the well-head of a pure idea, nurtured with earth, partaken of the bowels, a basket braided with the Bible’s belt, Moses-Minerva, may I so propine, Sir, this sip in honor of your health, this blood-red seed where swims the sunken host of Pharaoh’s devils gnashing up my sleeve (or not), adrift in the throat’s captivity: the dreggish fumes you take if you take me. Words, words, words, words. Ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum. Nonce sense. To pass the stones of time . . . Where are you now, da Vinci? Psst. Leo. Be wary as you sail into my smile. O Christopher Columbus, test your map against that which you least expect to find: my nothing-nuggets, patches at the heart, the morsels on this continental plate whose very taste would be the chill of you. The blankness of the canvas bleeding through may be the closest that you come. To me, immensity requires an open mind. What think you, Galileo? What are those spheres whose music is the opposite of sound? These frequent vacancies so tightly crammed inside my skull you’d think I was the crowned empress of emptiness (as I am). What think you, Sigmund? Am I nuts enough to crack? Or am I (ah, my Guildenstern) your flute? The open stops, you know, admit the tune as much as those foreclosed. What stops in me lie bared beneath the taxi of your hand, unmanned, unsunken, still to overcome; your camel hair that waves toward this mirage with ever-pressing thirst to stake its claim; your palette that would pluck the very heart out of my mystery? The mystery was there, and moved among us in the first place, although we knew it not. The mystery was staring at my face that shuddered on itself and disappeared like a fume of—. Except that it was dark. The terminal was empty. One green light. And whatever it was was smoldering on her lap— No. I knew exactly what that was. And as she went up in a plume of smoke made from my mouth before my very eyes, that bundle went up also, to find its birth beneath the playbill of a different night, under the molehill of a different earth, when winter would with characterless grace bequeath my just deserts. My father was an artist. Sculpted things. (That’s the idea, a little conversation.) Maybe you’ve heard of—no, you wouldn’t have. A boondock primitive, all arts and crafts. What was it they called him in Time-Life? The ‘Junkyard God.’ Our ‘Rodin of the Sticks.’ ‘Earthshaking—in a mild, midwestern way.’ People used to flock from miles around, miles off the highway (there used to be a sign), to stand in our front yard, take photographs. The Minister of Cultural Affairs (whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa— the Min-i-ster of Cul-tur-al Af-fairs . . . Holy baloney! a perfect blank verse line!
The jazz has wound up, the bottle by now is empty. The artist moves to the stereo, fetches another CD (more jazz), opens another bottle of wine. She sits up, stretches. Takes a cigarette from the table, lights it. Sings, like a lullaby, to a broken tune:
A slumber did my spirit seal. I had no human fears. She seemed a thing that could not—feel? the weight of earthly years. No motion has she now. No force. She neither hears nor sees. Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course with rocks and stones and trees. Full of surprises, ain’t she? The auld girl. My mother taught me that.
O joy that in our embers is something that still lives, that nature yet remembers what was so fugit— O joy that in our embers is something that—dost live? that nature yet remembers what was so fugitive. Dost? Doth. Dost to doth. Ha. Embers. Ash:
A plume of smoke as she exhales.
I don’t even smoke.
New jazz starts up. She puts the cigarette out, takes her former position. The artist comes forward, adjusts the lights (a flicker), refills her glass, returns to his easel.
Back to the drawing board, hey? Curtain, and . . . Scene. Where are we now? Don’t tell me, let me guess. (It’s not so easy when there’s two of you.) Deltoids? Clavicle. Croak if I get close. Lower. Help me now. I see it. Almost . . . Oi! For feck’s sake, Ma, ’e’s on me tits! Ehem. That’s boosoms to you, young lady. O see, see how aloof the Maestro stands, just at the distance discipline demands (neither too close for the libidinous hooks to catch, nor so withdrawn to be a clam), my peerless knight of mediocrity! Heart’s conquistador, thwarted though you be: Columbus in his crow’s nest, Moses damned to view, cloven beneath him, Canaan’s lands, New Worlds of curds and lamplit honey. How like a martyr to the limits of his art— famously resigned—how like a saint he drops the eye in deference to the suffering lot of mere humanity. What a load of stink. Tell me, darling, really what you think. Am I worth the crossing? (Obviously not.) Or am I a jewel, hung aloft the night, dangling from the lobe of Afric’s ear, the unrecovered country which you passed once in a dream, and then only as near as the gods of All That Must Not Be allow— for I know (believe me), how your life depends upon the thing forever out of reach, apple or plum, cluster on the vine, star-cluster, or the brightest star that beat once at your own breast in its milky way, I know, I know it in my motherbones. (My May.) Where was I? So. You getting any of this? I’ll bet you are. I can read it in your squint. Old Pokerface, stoking me for old flames, ghost embers, angels’ dust of what remains. It’ll take more than jazz. The cards are stacked, and I’ve got hands no one is going to touch. Flush of diamonds like a nest of glowing seeds. Ace of hearts, the queen of sunken spades. Card-house cathedrals and immensities. Myths, darling. Shall I tell? One goes like this. Marlborough Street. I’m walking toward the Garden. Magnolia petals float like boats on air, swan-blossoms, milkwhite votives setting out over the darkness of the waxen green, that undertow of shadow. It must be spring. Then it’s not. And they’re not. I’m not. Nothing is. The grid that holds that fierce fantastic play of sun on stone, geometry of glass, sky-mirroring tower and the Trinity-, alters, minutely, shifts—as if the mask you all this time had credited as flesh and blood, as lover, mother, soulmate, friend, slipped at your touch (my god) but still the eyes hold, though offset now, half-right, and dark withdraws the incandescence, flutter out. What is the howl of all Hell to that flood that sweeps across you then? Salt, acerbic, bile in the wound your own incisors shred, your own benumbed and famished flesh consumes, betrayed by life, conscripted by the dead to sit in abject silence on a throne at the bottom of a moonless pond you cast in— No. Not pond. Not well. Nothing but the sea, while ripples film about your head, the swirl of tides beyond you; far above, the dome of sunlight beacons where your sometime-home lies still in state, interred in metal husks and brittle springs, the peapod of a house, the quiltpatch yard, from the col a still voice calling . . . And the silence of that floor was so immense the sirens couldn’t touch it, and the depth- charges paralleveled at my heart couldn’t sound it.Not till they had pumped me clean, and seven days I lay in State, turning and turning on my clammy bed, strapped like Andromeda as Medusa’s head (my savior) turned their therapists to stone, did they get the word they wanted. I was free. But what they couldn’t touch, and didn’t get: the seeds. I’m not saying that’s the strangest thing. I’m not saying anything at all. I am the buzzing at the windowpane, the frost that claws, the ticker tape that binds your line of vision to its floundering hook trolling and tearing in the murk of me. Be careful, Sherlock. Elementary: There are things in here you might not want to see. Consider our capacity for loss. Consider that each absence leaves a space fitted to what filled it, husk or shell, footprint, tidemark, crater, well, lacuna of the locust on the tree, the snakeskin stocking like an evening glove; consider that these voids are everywhere, given our propensity to move, that everything that takes shape takes away, matter from matter, mirrored, as it moves; consider, too, my dear, that this is true for all that insubstantial stuff we call The Inner Life, imaginative play, the little Lyric BlackBox tucked away inside an alley of the skull, your Globe, whose repertory troupe will run the rounds as long as you sustain them, for you are both audience and actors, manager and crew, props, costumes, lights, and literary rep., the sometime-in-house critic with a lip for all outmoded, artificial trash, tinseled pretension, dialogue that smacks too much of poetry, of the unReal (but, oh, with such a soft spot for O’Neill)— for it’s no secret that ideas have form, as every man will tell you from his bowels the instant that he hears the marriage vows, and the figure of a thought exerts upon a nation, till it equals obsolete or till some other figure beats it down, stamps it in the monolithic mud for eons maybe—tum, ti-tum, ti-tum goes Time in all its vengeance . . . Consider this: that matter, consciousness meet at the crest of this momentary wave, swell on their own consumption, have their say and sweep into obliterating night; that all life is the blind, usurping spite of twindling inbreds dying to be born, bearing each others’ heads as up they sway and crash without a sound upon the deep that is as deep and silent as the mind of God, our dark protector and our stay, reflecting pool and Universal Dad splayed on the highway as the fume of sun wriggles like a maggot on the lawn some six-year’s Sunday child sips tea in; consider, too, what passes for the shade of life, a leech strapped to an invalid, itself grows gorged and falls back on the dark before, behind, within us, all around; that vacancy’s our nature, and the void our first inheritance (both throne and cell); that from the moment of our birth, expelled from ripeness that clung to us like a glove we trail, cresting on a wave of blood, howling to heaven for the fields we fled, oh is it any wonder that we wail, already mostly dead? You get that, Leonardo, and you’ve made a start. Your fifteen-minute’s burst of fame veining the shaft you drop down endlessly, tied to a line of scent, a dim perfume vaguely at one with the odor of the womb you half-remember, and will pine for always. It’s cold as hell in here but you won’t freeze. You have my surety on that. Proceed, first through the horns of ivory, my smile, my dark tongue lapping like a river boat edged to the shore; look, it takes your weight beguilingly. (And did I see your coin?) Godspeed . . . Downstream dark angels flit about you now, attend your thick descent, like baby bats, their faces remembered out of childhood books, all that Pandora loosed, the withered Sphinx, faces far back as preschool you had thought undone forever, twirl there—your first kiss stolen over figures in the clay, companions swimming in the sandbox frame or housed in the schoolbus unaware of the grim twister ripping at their heels— lift from a ditch light-years away to linger, twirl to one, disperse across forgotten lawns like Sibyl’s leaves. By now you are a chambered nautilus of thought; harpies and sirens hold no sway. Fast from the shore the river slips downwinding, willows bending in their strings brushing the current where reflected, there, beneath you—what?—a film of memory, a fleck, a flicker, kernels and gives place, dissolves. And darkness ravishes the stream. If you remember when you light upon that deepest cove that opens on the orchard, ask for me there. It’s where I keep my court, seven crowns about my head, the blood-red orbs from my branching memories, the seeds full fruited in the orchard of my heart. And if you feel the chill that passes all belief, be calm, my dear; as evening falls, my lord routinely takes the garden air; it’s he you sense beside you, circling there, it’s he, the black moth guttering your flame, dark ravisher, the frost that claws your pain. It’s he that taught me everything I know and then some. O vagrant little soul, I am, I’m almost sorry for your loss, as much as I, the most of it, can be. But how impossible to remain (can you not see?) impartial in these matters that concern us. Snatching and patching, as if you could contain in a stroke, a brush, a canvas, in a frame— no matter. (Did you even ask my name?) I’ll give you something. A little verse I tell myself at bedtime, which is wedtime, cold as the frost of fifteen, twenty wild Decembers, when in disgrace with fortune’s seedy eyes, when the stage ghosts haunt me and I long to take the artificial light into my veins, to stand there and be brilliant for a while, the way I used to stand inside the maze of light at morning when the six-years’ sun prismed through the steel and broken glass, and the fields stretched out forever, and the voice I made was mine and full and free and endless as it leapt up from the nest like larks ascending— their mouths like little flames, candelabrum mirrored in a glass, chalice of well-water that you brought to the altar as the days pushed past from May to August in the summer of his going, summer replacing spring, and autumn then, a tall, refinèd taper with its flame of husk, a wisp, a shell of what had been stamped from creation (how?) the very self that made the bed of earth I walked on. And how I’d take that water from the glass, and the dry nest kept and tucked into the side pocket of the altar he’d created from the seats of the bus in which the children died, and sprinkle it with water from the well, and sing my darkness to the long-quenched flames, my six-years’ sorrow to those little beings that lay beyond me, all earth’s now, and sing for all poor creatures born to light their day under the bower of unbroken stars, the sway of night behind the golden dome of noon, my song a steeple, spiring like a stem, sunflower rising from my native state all the mute morning, folding like a hymn at heaven’s gate. Hell: Hell is a place where everything you’ve lost beds down with all you’d ever hoped to gain. The offspring is a dumb, detestable, poor stunted creature called What Might Have Been. And it’s your destiny to nurse that thing through all Oblivion. And everything you’ve left—the bone-white house, the yard beneath the sun’s prismatic ray, gurgle of well-water in a glass, your mother’s voice alighting from above as you lay drowsing with the breezes at your head, candescent angels in a field of—May . . . Hell is a place where everything you love lies out of reach. That’s what I should have said.
Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock, tick, tick, oh, words what words, what sounds, what syllables for this what measurement, what stanza, line, what verse, when in the very act the mind goes blank— which act? Which act of what? Where was I? (tick) The heart a timebomb ticking out its loss mured in the muds of winter? (tick) Stand still, stand still, you ever-moving spheres! Oh how to force, to apply the rigors of what craft— Intention. Think. Think. You have your head. What’s your intention? Ha. To let it be (or not). Whether ’tis nobler for the mind to suffer to be happy for a time? (tick tick) To leap to the streets with artificial joy, or a pure joy passing understanding, but happy? Perhaps? O haply I think on thee (or not). Tick-tock, tock, tock . . . Earth, gape! How long have I been here? O Lord my God, how long, how very long have I been here. ‘When I survey— ‘When I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . .’ God, the infernal racket of this jazz! But oh, somebody (father?) tell me please, mother of mine, how long have I been here?
Spring. In the spring, it must have been. (What year?) Magnolia blossoms floated out like swans on air, like votives, candling the air. Processionals . . . What I was driven to. I with my midnight walking. Overhead, the gaslamps huddled in their little fumes. Marlborough Street. So quaint. All quiet but for the baying of a dog, far down at the Garden end. tock tock, tock tock my footsteps as I slipped from pool to pool under the lamps spread out like stepping stones, stations, spotlights tripping down the dark infinite proscenium of God, our heroine in her one-night-only, searing monologue, ‘Now You See Me / Now You Don’t.’ tock tock, tock tock Flash: I am a star, I am a queen, I am the greatest actress in this town! Zip: tock tock, tock tock . . . The old routine. And on and on. It must have been awhile. My veins were rearing but I had my head. (Oslo, the rat, had left some in the bed under the mattress where she lay, still sleeping. I lit the candles and the silver spoon, and hey nonny nonny, went out to jump the moon . . .) Near four, it must have been, I started home. Fairfield to Exeter, Dartmouth, down the long line angling at the Trinity, Hancock behind it like a grid of night, starless, a dark too daunting for a star; tock tock, southward, crossing now Columbus (O my conquistador, where were you then?), my breast a white moth leaping into flame, my phoenix heart, the dust inside my veins opening to a desert where I see, still I see it, spread before me like Wonderland: Jerusalem, wriggling like a fume on the horizon where the streetlamps bleed to sky, eternal City, transparencies of stone, prismatic towers, steeples, and the one sound, within it, pounding, pounding, hot on the anvil, hammering the heart, working its darkness to a golden bird, my father pounds the grace notes as I come closer, lured on the siren of her call, my mother standing on the white-framed porch, inside the white-framed picket fence framed in the fields and over all, a sky no longer winter, sere, but touched, refined with early autumn’s tone, husks of late summer refolding into June like hands at prayer, suckle on the vine, land of milk and honey, and I’m there, I’m really there. My God. I’ve made it. Home. And the street erupts, geysering the sky like fireworks, sparklers whirling on the line, like roman candles that we’d hold and burst across the yard at fireflies on the Fourth, red, orange, blue stars above me, then a blast like an A-bomb shakes me from my state— O God. This is my street, and it is burning. O God. This is my street, and it is burning. What is the howl of all Hell to that cry I let, my darling, as I leapt into the flame to pluck you out, still sleeping? It was I burst through the brownstone calling out your name, I who through arms and axes, helmets, took to the burning walls and corridors and blaze of the stairwell, down the tunnel clogged with smoke, not stopping till I lighted on your face, nested, like an angel in its shrine, seven flames about you, dancing in my brain, not stopping till they held me at the door— i was the one who saved her! she is mine! And they took you. And they hid you (o somewhere here . . .) And I never saw my darling’s face again.
The jazz has wound up. Silence. She lightly sings:
A slumber did my spirit seal. I had no human fears. She seemed a thing that could not feel The touch of earthly years. No motion has she now. No force—
The artist’s finger rises to his mouth, in concentration. She stops. He resumes. She takes a cigarette, lights it, resumes:
She neither hears nor sees. Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course With rocks and stones and trees. Poor soul. I could almost pity you. Stuck on that patch of shade between my legs. When millions of such shadows in me tend. No matter. Strike up another number. For Jesus’ sake, give us a lively one. Come on. Come on. The universe shall live by jazz alone.