The Eternal City

by Kathleen Graber

Paperback, 78 pages, Princeton Univ Pr, List Price: $16.95 | purchase

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The Eternal City
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Kathleen Graber

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Excerpt: The Eternal City

The Eternal City

Poems


Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-14610-2

Contents

Tolle! Lege!..............................................1The Magic Kingdom.........................................5Dead Man..................................................7Florum Principi...........................................10The Drunkenness of Noah...................................14Fitzcarraldo..............................................16The Third Day.............................................18The Heresies..............................................20Un Chien Andalou..........................................22The Synthetic A Priori....................................25The Eternal City..........................................31Book One..................................................32Book Two..................................................33Book Three................................................34Book Four.................................................35Book Five.................................................36Book Six..................................................37Book Seven................................................38Book Eight................................................39Book Nine.................................................40Book Ten..................................................41Book Eleven...............................................42Book Twelve...............................................43Another Poem about Trains.................................47What I Meant to Say.......................................51Some Great Desire.........................................52Three Poems for Walter Benjamin...........................54Loggia....................................................54The Telephone.............................................57The Cabinet...............................................59No Lightsome Thing........................................62Angels Unawares...........................................64Letter from Cornwall: To Stephen Dunn.....................68Letter from Gozo: To Gerald Stern.........................71The Festival at Nikko.....................................74Acknowledgments...........................................75Notes.....................................................77

Chapter One

The Magic Kingdom

And as in the daily casualties of life every man is, as it were, threatened with numberless deaths, so long as it remains un certain which of them is his fate, I would ask whether it is not better to suffer one and die, than to live in fear of all? -St. Augustine, City of God

This morning, I found on a slip of paper tucked into a book a list of questions I'd written down years ago to ask the doctor. What if it has spread? Is it possible I'm crazy? I've just returned from Florida, from visiting my mother's last sister, who is eighty & doing fine. At the airport, my flight grounded by a storm, I bought a magazine, which fell open to a photograph of three roseate spoonbills tossing down their elegant shadows on a chartreuse field of fertilizer production waste.

Two little girls emptied their Ziplocs of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish onto the carpet & picked them up, one by one, with great delicacy, before popping them into their mouths. Their mother, outside smoking, kept an eye on them through the glass. After my cousin died, my father died & then my brother. Next, my father's older brother & his wife. And, finally, after my mother died, I expected to die myself. And because this happened very quickly & because these were, really, almost all the people I knew, I spent each day smashing dishes with one of my uncle's hammers & gluing them back together in new ways. It was strange work, & dangerous, even though I tried to protect myself-wearing a quilted bathrobe & goggles & leather work gloves & opening all the windows, even in snow, against the vapors of the industrial adhesives. Most days now I get up late & brew coffee, & the smell rises from the old enamel pot I've had to balance under the dark drip ever since the carafe that came with the machine shattered in the dishwasher last month.

One morning I found a lump in my breast, & my vision narrowed to a small dot, & I began to sweat. My legs & arms felt weak, & my heart thrashed behind its bars. We were not written to be safe. In the old tales, the woodcutter's daughter's path takes her, each time, through the dark forest. There are new words for all of this: a shot of panic becomes the rustle of glucocorticoid signaling the sympathetic nervous system into a response regulated by the sensitivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. And as I go along, these freshly minted charms clatter together in the tender doeskin of the throat as though the larynx were nothing if not a sack of amulets tied with a cord & worn around the neck. But I tell you I sat on the bathroom floor for hours, trembling. And I can tell you this because the lump was just a lump, & some days now I don't even dread the end although I know it will arrive. The garage is filled with buckets of broken china. The girls chased each other & waved their arms casting spells, the trim of their matching gingham dresses the electric pink of the birds' wings. They turned each other into princesses & super-girls & then, they pretended to change back. Oh, no. You forgot to say forever! they took turns repeating with dramatic dismay, melting into puddles of themselves, their sandals & sunburned knees vanishing beneath their hems.

Dead Man

Some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to endless night. -William Blake, "Auguries of Innocence"

We spend our lives trying to grasp the premise. William Blake is not, for instance, William Blake, but rather a 19th century accountant from Cleveland on the lam for murder & the theft of a horse. In the closing scene,

he is going to die, & so is Nobody, his half-Blackfoot, half-Blood guide. Sure, this is a Western, a morality tale about a destiny made manifest through the voice of a gun & a hero whose mythic flight from innocence destroys him. But we all come to the end of the line soon enough. The obvious just seems wiser when Nobody says it. Time, it turns out, is the most common noun in the English language, as if by constant invocation,

we could keep it at bay. Yesterday, I sat in another state on a large rubber ball in my brother's basement bouncing my newborn nephew in my arms. His mother, on the phone with a friend, asks what we should fear more,

the hobo spider or the poison that kills it. I want to whisper into his ear something that feels like knowledge: Once upon a time, there was nothing

& one day, there will be nothing again. This is the faraway place

to which his tiny weight calls me. If he could understand the words, I think, he would know what I mean, having only just sprung himself from that fine sea. Sometimes we coo to soothe him: Don't cry, Little Bird. I know, I know.

But only the roar of the vacuum finally calms him, for nothing sounds as much like the lost world of the womb as the motors of our machines. The root of travel means torture, having passed from Medieval Latin

into Old French. As the action opens, Johnny Depp, shot in black & white, is already rocking into night on a train. And soon, he will begin his dying. This is not to say that the inky band fanning across the morning blue

of a kestrel's tail feathers has no meaning, or the first fingers of rust coming into bloom on the green enameled chassis of a Corona typewriter left in the rain. Direct observation, the naturalist Niko Tinbergen assures us,

is the only real thing. Perhaps this is what I should tell him. Or that this moment, too, is a part of some migration. Every snow bunting composes its own song, & a careful watcher can tell one kittiwake from its neighbor by the little dots

on the tips of its wings. The most used verb is also the most humble-merely to be. Nobody can teach to William Blake the auguries of William Blake. We are, instead, our own vatic visions, bumbling prophets. Our sense of ourselves as invented as film. Later, in an ocean-going canoe lined with cedar boughs, he will drift out into cold breakers, two bullets in his chest. But, here, in his small hat & wire glasses, he still seems sweetly comic. He holds up a letter; someone's promised him a job. His fancy plaid suit makes him look like a clown.

Florum Principi

Without names, our knowledge of things would perish. -Linnaeus

Prince of Flowers, who set out to give an order to the multitudes, my collection is so different from your own, which you filled with the carefully pressed

lectotypes of bear's ear & foxglove & carpeted with the pink Borealis which blooms so briefly midsummer beneath the Lapland pines.

Mine holds two tarred boxes & boatless oars & the broken sonar equipment, which came with the house & goes on sleeping on a shelf in the garage,

despite the revving of a neighbor's Jet Ski-on a hitch in his driveway, spewing exhaust one moment & stalling the next-

& the honk of a car alarm that sounds all afternoon without reason.

Who can say how the world made strange by our understanding of it would seem to you, who went to ground before Darwin asked

whether a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps, or Charles Willson Peale exhumed the hull of a mastodon

in a thunderstorm in Newburgh, New York, to prove beyond question that a mighty species might cease to be. Among specimens of butterflies

you christened agamemnon & mnemosyne & the skin & bones of the John Dory Zeus faber, a fish whose flank is said to bear the stain

of St. Peter's thumb, what could have seemed more improbable than change?

The turf roof of your cottage in Hammarby still puts forth houseleek & the narrow-leaved hawk's beard. And the shoots sprung from the seeds

of the empress's honey-sweet Corydalis nobilis still threaten to overtake the yard. Here, however, the Surfside Diner is now an information center

& the Three Coins Motel & the Ebb Tide have been razed to make way for vinyl-clad condominiums no one has the money to build.

Their sandy lots, still littered with a few bricks, accumulate beer cans & the twisted frames of aluminum beach chairs. Dandelion & cocklebur.

Aster & thistle. And if I'm feeling blue, it's because I've been looking all morning at the old photos I've promised to send to my brother,

who has a new son & can, therefore, stare into the untended past & not be bent. My senior year of high school, I drank too much

& rode my bicycle around until dawn, then sat at the counter of the beach grill eating bacon & eggs for free because the waitress was my best friend,

who ended up strung out & disappeared after falling in with a junkie named Joe who worked in the kitchen. When my grades slipped,

no one phoned my house or suggested Guidance get involved. My troubles were less than most. I can't account for what the people

in the pictures might have been thinking, why they didn't demand their daughter be home at night in bed. In this one, my mother is smiling.

She's had her hair done; she's wearing those big gold hoop earrings I've got in the drawer. Because you knew two words were enough

to separate chickweed from mallow, I want to talk to you about the soul & the question of when we become irrefutably ourselves, a question

theologians have debated for centuries, going so far as to ask at what point miscarried fetuses must necessarily be human & ought, so being, to be

blessed. Were I not Alexander, the great Macedonian conqueror proclaimed at Corinth, then I would be Diogenes. I cannot tell you exactly why

this story charms. At eight weeks, a careful observer can see all the parts: the tiny specks of the eyes, ten discrete toes, but the chromosomes-

which not even the pre-Socratic Democritus, who hypothesized the existence of the uncuttable atom, could have imagined-

are there from the start. Yesterday I read about a genetic disorder: the afflicted are driven to hurt themselves & those they love. It is,

by all evidence, extremely rare-a single, inexplicable glitch in three billion bits of code. Case studies include men who thrust their hands into their mouths

& bite off their own fingers. Some bite off their lips. They beg to be restrained.

There will always be those who insist everything is getting better, even when we can't discern it. But this must really have been what you felt

in your grove of plums or in spring under the Siberian crab apple, whose blossoming limbs appeared from a distance to be burdened

with snow. Today is the first day of autumn though it's only August. It's the first day though-the air & the light pregnant with something

like despair or the sudden stillness along the coast when the tourists have gone. We don't want to be lonely, but we are. Disappointment?

More like the promise of a disappointment we're disappointed hasn't come. Melancholia, Hippocrates might have suggested, & it's a beautiful

appellation- a constitution under siege, he thought, to too much black bile. Three o'clock. A yellow wind whispers its one note over & over

into the willow's ten thousand salt-blistered ears. Just now, only this- something so small not even you have given it a name.

The Drunkenness of Noah after Jean-Louis Chrétien

Most afternoons Margaret Boone's father threw his crumpled Pabst cans into their cold fireplace, took off all of his clothes, & passed out in the living room's recliner. And when my mother became too ill to bathe herself, she sat on a plastic stool in the tub as I worked my way around her with a sponge. No one is shocked: nearly none of it is too painful or too foul. Routine, even, after a time, for all the kids in the neighborhood, to simply spread her father's fallen shirt across his lap. And how common to dream, like Tristan Bernard, that our parents are still with us: to dream them being so cruel that we wake almost happy to find them gone. How very fortunate, he writes.

In Bellini's oil painting of Noah, drunk & sleeping, the good sons-having already tucked the edge of their rosy cloth from hip to hip-continue to avert their eyes while Ham mocks from above his luminous father's frail exposure. And so the story goes that for his shameless gaze Ham was cursed & the sons of Ham became the slaves of slaves to the children of their father's brothers.

When I was twelve, I returned from school to find my mother had been taken to the hospital. I wondered why no one had come to get me out of class. Soon, though, it was clear: it wasn't the kind of hospital people die in; it was, instead, the kind of place someone very tired goes to rest. Just now, I stopped everything, going to the closet & putting on this worn red wool undershirt, even though it is summer & when I opened the door & pushed the hangers to one side I had actually been looking for something else. Perhaps this is as close as we ever come to stumbling into understanding if understanding is the familiar weight of a heavy sleeve against the arm inside it & madness is its opposite, a soul caught out in the open not wearing anything at all. My father brought me only once to visit her there & no one spoke of it later, whatever it was that had passed. The truth is I often laugh when I don't know what else to do. The room was blue & very small & she seemed small & blue inside it. Sometimes we find a way to say what cannot be said.

And sometimes we never speak that for which we could only too easily find the sounds. Noah lived 350 years beyond the flood & became a man of the earth, intoxicated in old age on the vines he'd raised. Even in our silence, we are told, we carry the Word. This morning in the shower, I looked down & saw my mother's bare body asleep in mine. Noah's nakedness fills the canvas, making it impossible not to look. As though simply to recall the tale is a sin whose penance is to live knowing you have somehow made it happen again. The memory flickers, almost without detail, shorter than a dream, & threatens to go out-illuminated not by an orange flame but by a brutal whiteness. The snowy blast from a television screen. Or a fluorescent light with a faulty ballast which hums & winks all night in an empty hall.

Fitzcarraldo

The camera rests again on Klaus Kinski's face: changeable sky, a tangled jungle we cannot crack. Franz Joseph Gall-the phrenologist whose undertaking

has become as absurd to us now as the dream of carrying a steamboat over a red mountain of clay-knew, at least, that the brain is the opera house

of the mind. He called Individuality the memory of things & sat it so low on the brow, the first frontal convolution, that the singular self seems to conduct us

from the bridge of the nose. It is both possible & impossible to alter the world with a gramophone. Fitzcarraldo on the roof of the wheelhouse answers back

the drums with the imperfectly captured voice of Caruso. And again today, my dog races to the porch responding, her canine profession of faith,

answering back in kind to the Über-dog: the town's noontime alarm. Language was the first faculty to be located; a head injury to the Island of Reil

might leave a patient speechless. And Carl Wernicke gave the name anomia to the disease of having lost all of one's nouns: with no sound for aria

or apple, all desires contract to the categorical, to merely wanting something to eat. Rainy matins. Prayer, I say, for woofing & for fetch. I stride out,

despite the drizzle, toss the ball to the far end of the yard, but the dog won't play. She shakes her head, flapping her ears, waits by the door to be let back in.

Yet from across the harbor, the hammers of day laborers framing new houses continue to pound. Perhaps there were words once for every hunger:

a list for the dark, unique lonelinesses inside each throat, each dome of folded hands. The memory of melody must become for the deaf composer the music itself.

And isn't one phrase just as good as the next? We get the idea: a child points to a cow & says Ellie, the name of the black & white terrier who lives

next door. As though we could trade rubato for whole note; rubber plant for Hevea brasiliensis. Colonist for pilgrim. Rubber plant for weeping tree.

The Third Day

And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day. -Genesis 1:11-13

This morning I locked myself out again, realizing just as the door of the complex's communal laundry clicked shut behind me that my keys were still atop the triple loader. I'd been thinking about the senator I'd seen last night on television & the language-terroristic, Islamo-fascist enemies of freedom-he'd used to describe those whose ideologies conflict so starkly with his own. And Augustine's question: is evil a thing in itself, or merely, as he came to argue in the end, the absence of good. Later, when I finally find a neighbor-glad she's home, glad she is willing to lend me her keys so I can retrieve mine-we stand a few minutes chatting. She's from Minnesota & dislikes the winters here. Her eyes rest on a plastic toboggan & the bicycle beside it, training wheels rusting in three inches of mud. It's February & we've had rain all week. The temperature is already above fifty & although the limb-whips of the willow are bare, its trunk is splotched & spongy with pale green moss. I can see that the kids who like to roughhouse after school have shattered someone's terra cotta planters & a small holly-its roots dressed now in only their own black ball of dirt, its carnelian beads aglitter-has been tossed out onto the walk.

(Continues...)