Armistice Day, 2018
A cold mean light still lingers from the Great War, which ended a hundred years ago today. Our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and even several great-great-grandfathers died in the sloping forests and manured fields, machine guns gossiping so loudly everyone overheard. I’m glad I never faced a bank of artillery rasping against the tensions of the sky. I’m glad I didn’t spot a sniper pinging from a church steeple where only angels should roost. That part of France no longer sleeps well, no longer trusts the good harvests the wrought soil brings. Does anyone recover the bits and pieces of themselves after such barrages? Another war came and went, dusting off the medals and nailing certain pictures to certain walls. Only then to shoot without looking, as all wars do. Not even the most obtuse angles have healed.
Ten years ago, I drove from Paris to Brussels with the wind at my back. The map unfolded on the seat beside me looked crude as a cave painting. I heard the rumors left by the unaccountable dead. I parked on the roadside and knelt by little streams brown with dung and noted that the minnows had evolved to look like bullets. Huge barns stood aloof and long-suffering. Red-roofed farmhouses frowned. The roil of landscape spoke in tongues that weren’t French, English, German, but rowdier dialects intended to make young men laugh. They had stopped laughing a hundred years ago, but the echoes lingered, louder than the ringing in one’s ears when one read the thickest history books, those that never excuse us for telling the truth.
A dim winter day in Krakow. I’m wandering around with a famous French poet, a dedicated Surrealist. The Italian Cloth Hall and Marian Cathedral hold their ground against the Hard Rock Café, which spills customers chortling into the square. The history museum offers nothing but facts case-hardened by too many vicious wars. Under big yellow umbrellas vendors offer bits of clothing, food on paper plates, coffee, books in a dozen languages. I want to slip into the church and absorb the gilt and glamor of the deepest Catholicism left in the world. But I’m afraid of it, afraid of Poland with its brisk intellectuals sparring with anti-Semites in canvas jackets. The language, which I spoke as a child, fails me in consonants I can’t imagine on the page. Night is rising from the green belt around the center of the city. Night sparked with lamplight ripe enough to slice like a pastry. The famous French poet steers me away from the church, which he considers a bastion of sin. “We’ll sit over coffee and defy the cold.” But it isn’t cold. The season has been as mild as a first date. The city doesn’t acknowledge me but has embraced the French poet, his reading at the university a mob scene. I didn’t understand a word, but here in the square with the night coming down in brassy flakes I understand everything, the upright old buildings looming like my ancestors, one foot on the cobbled pavement, the other dragging across a barren winter field.
The Beard of D. H. Lawrence
The beard of D. H. Lawrence fits me poorly. It doesn’t drape like a Dior gown or conceal like an African mask. The hooks that hook over my ears are fishhooks, the barbs the tiniest of insults. The fuzz of the beard itches like a woolen nightmare. Lawrence found his work erotic, tainted by original sin. He liked original sin, or at least wrote as if he did. I picture him at dusk in a seedy mining town in the midlands. The purple streak in the sky flatters his mood. He trudges up a cinder road toward a row of bleak stone houses. No thatch, only warped shingles, some flapping in the north wind. He believes in himself the way a tortoise does, slow and vigilant. I want to live in the landscape of Sons and Lovers. I want to mate slowly like the elephant and bear a book of terrible omens. Not a novel of sleek men and women having sex in ruined factories. Not a novel in which an elegant lady lifts her skirts. No, a book of gnarled and mossy dramas, slogging through mud and shallow water to reach places where strange animals breed, groaning and howling with pleasure. The beard doesn’t fit, but maybe it will later, when I’ve written that dreary book and doomed its readership to dreams of hot summer marsh.
Miss Dickinson in Person
In her palest, most flammable dress, Miss Dickinson appears every night as the moon parts the clouds to expose itself. She wants me to savor words like satin and noon, she wants me to off-rhyme my name with Sandusky, she wants to encircle or enhalo me in sparkles of religious doubt. I tell her over and over that her stress-points aren’t mine, that her severe hairdo compromises her intellect, that Whitman is not disgraceful, not at all. I try to explain that her gravestone doesn’t become her, that Harvard University now claims her soul. She smiles her oval smile to stifle me.
The moon is a hole in the sky through which Miss Dickinson descends. She avoids soiling her dress, and always looks as clean and neat as her late-life handwriting suggests. Sometimes she tries to persuade me to drive to Amherst and nuzzle her little flower garden. What do you mean by nuzzle? I ask. Write about it with flower-colored pencils, she explains. She should not enter a man’s bedroom at night. I’ve warned her that this habit may cause the neighbors to talk. She doesn’t care. She only wants someone like me—male and only crudely literate—to suffer the same shades of gray and brown she suffered. She expects me to embrace the same silence she has to love, honor, and obey.
Out-of-Work Sex Workers
A thunderstorm belly-flops into my back yard and heaves there like a landed trout. I could deflate it with my garden fork, but I’m afraid of getting a shock. Let it toss and turn. I’m busy being besieged by out-of-work sex workers who ply the wilds of Facebook, hoping to entrap unwary males whose tongues have stuck in their throats. These women always look so tender in their profile photos, then lead you by your inner organs to page after page of nudes that suggest the plastic-coated menus of sleazy restaurants. I have to deflate that thunderstorm somehow. For its own sake, if not mine. The cats press their little faces to the window. If I let them out they’d claw it to smoky tatters, but that would be cruel. Maybe I should call the weather service. Maybe I should email one of these sleek women and ask her to lavish a caress or two and render this gout of cloud silly as a pumpkin. What do I mean by that? I mean all jack-o-lantern smiley, with nothing inside.