Written by the vanquished

I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the seventh poem in the first section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details. Zweig’s poems will be removed after one week to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

Anyone who has been following this project should be especially interested in today’s effort, which I think showcases my first serious failure of imagination so far. I am not sure whether this is due to the length of Zweig’s poem making sustained focus difficult, or some other factor, but I am struck by the contrast between his lines, which seem so urgent and necessary, and mine, which strike me as dilettantish and ultimately disposable. I’m not fishing for compliments here, and you’re welcome to find things to like in my poem (or to dislike in Zweig’s). I simply want to remind myself that there is no such thing as a failed experiment, as long as one is clear about the design and honest about the results.

The Natural History of Death
by Paul Zweig

      I
I decided at birth to go on living,
Not even my parents convinced me I was wrong. . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 8-26-05]

* * * *

Life History of a Stunt Double

      …Those who were in no hurry to live. – P. Z.

1.
I used to have such a horror of turning back.
The about-face offered two
equally frightening alternatives:
that everything would be the same,
or that it wouldn’t.

Thus muttering, I fix my gaze
a few inches in front of my feet.
While the real actor is off somewhere
rehearsing his lines or stroking his little double,
I strap myself to that perpetual
motion machine they call the horizon.

Even in the womb, I refused to turn.
When my mother tried to evict me, I mooned the world
& the doctors had to pull me out by my ankles.
I started to wail & didn’t stop
for twelve years – or so they tell me.
It sounds like the kind of melodrama
I’ve since come to hate.

But the bad actor in my skinny frame
loved the feel of warm saltwater
coursing down my cheeks, the way it dissolved
the hard outlines of things,
& in the belly, that twist of heat.

2.
The first nonfiction book I read on my own
swarmed with monsters – the kind
that stalked around in scientific skeletons
dragging heavy Latin names through the swamps.
The book had a green cloth cover
& taught a stark, almost Biblical lesson:
that the dinosaurs went extinct because they were slow,
they lived too slowly.
Our quick-thinking ancestors the rats ate all their eggs.

The book’s barbs pointed
in one direction: we can’t go back.
But that summer, my brother & I made a periscope
by mounting mirrors in a cardboard tube,
& we stuck it through a hole in the side
of a huge, empty carton. We crayoned in
all the necessary knobs
& sat in that box for 200 million years,
going back & back
while my brother described everything he saw.
My job was to believe it.

Lush jungles on the other side of history
hid reeking punji traps on legs.
A twig snaps & skyscrapers with teeth
roar into motion.
Where? My god! Where?
My vision seems permanently blurred –
not that I would’ve noticed on my own.
My brother administers a homemade eye exam.
In the next frame, I’m sitting
in an optometrist’s waiting room
squinting at pictures in a magazine
about the fall of Saigon.

Later comes the idea that one big collision
could’ve finished them off – I don’t know.
At the close of the Mesozoic, all over the earth,
flowers open their sexual faces
& for the first time the sun itself has shadows.
I want to believe all that unthinking growth
could be eclipsed by filigree: petals,
feathers. The delicate leather
of a bat’s wing.
A sea of grass.

3.
In the meantime, I have settled
into my body like a stone
at the bottom of a pond.
Sometimes there’s wind, but the leaves
don’t talk. I lie on my back with
my toes chastely touching
& fold linked fingers over my gut.

In the Middle Ages, before
the Black Death teased the skeleton out
of its cage of flesh, & before
that grinning scythe grew wide enough
to split the laugh from its belly,
the mean time was thought to be reached
at the age of thirty-three.
Anyone who could afford it paid for a portrait then
so that when they died, whoever carved their tomb
could capture for the ages
their closest approach to
that fragile equilibrium the Church called Christ.

Churches were true sanctuaries then, beyond
the reach of the state. One knelt
irredeemably on the flagstones, which were also a roof
for the temporarily vacated bodies of one’s predecessors.
But here in the middle of the woods,
in the dead center of my life,
I’m napping. The action is elsewhere.

4.
Growing up on an isolated farm, no TV
meant that I never learned from Mr. Rogers
how to get along.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Is this what you really think, or merely
what you think you should think?
Are you digging a root cellar here,
or a hole for a privy?

I also skipped Kindergarten, reputed source
of everything one really needs to know.
So instead I consider the lilies of the field,
which having escaped their former confines
in the now-abandoned dooryard garden,
extend their dominion up & down the slope.
Each summer their rhizomes double
& double again, strangling the sunlight
in a few more square yards of meadow.
Velvet petals that close after a single day,
pliant leaves that weep mucilage when bruised:
they are part of a clone that might live –
who knows? – forever.
Its loving hope is to make the world
One.

5.
I went wild with obedience, I believed
everything & nothing until belief itself seemed
the most heretical of self-indulgences.
I stopped talking to ghosts, including my own.
Maybe that’s what happened.

Once rid of the madness called youth,
I begin to relish the return journey
as much as the beginning, because
things seen from one side only
seduce the eye. There’s no contest any more
between depth & surface. Let the bones
stay housed, the seed incipient in the bloom.
To hell with life.

I want whatever comes
in its own time, translucent
or wholly opaque, here
& gone.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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