"The Escape Artist" by David Lehman
A dark green room: the experiment fails,
And the leaves change color before their time.
He felt, though he had not committed a crime,
Like a gangster disguised in a top hat and tails,
Entering the lady's East Village apartment
To seduce her. If he should arrive out of breath,
It's because he knows he has a date with death,
Though that's not what the church fathers meant.
She called him a romantic fool, but she didn't mean
To make him feel bad. She just wanted to love him
In the attic, where the lights had grown dim.
Yet the darkness was green, however drab the scene,
Where danger took him by the hand, and the heroine
In his arms was someone he had met before,
In a novel about a murderer and a whore,
And didn't expect to meet again
In the seedy familiar hotel room with the bullets flying
All around them. They were busy dying,
But the imaginary spies of childhood were still spying
On them, the sinful and tormented ones,
Hungry for ordinary corrupt human love, and bound
To turn up wherever a lively crisis could be found:
A lost breed, the sort of chap who knew all about guns,
Having used them for Russian roulette, and won.
"The Formula" by David Lehman
"Some people would pay a lot of money for that information."
It wasn't said with menace, but that was the effect.
In her purse she had the tiniest camera
anyone in the control room had ever seen.
Like many widows her age she had transferred
her suspicion from the Germans to the Russians.
Berlin remained the center of the struggle,
which it had been since 1945 and maybe even earlier.
Of little use to her now was the pistol she kept in her underwear drawer.
Love had left her life except in its abstract and spiritual forms,
yet in her loins desire waxed and waned with the moon.
She had a matter-of-fact attitude toward sex.
It had been months since her last confession.
The formula was encrypted in a postcard of the Stephansdom
she had given her niece to mail to London
from the postbox at Friedmanngasse 52
three weeks and four cities ago, but
the man in the black trench coat couldn't know that.
"I shall have to ask you to come with me,"
he said, and she tried to place the accent.
Latvia? The Ukraine? They were arguing about something
inside, but the voices subsided when they led her into the room.
"Relax. If I wanted you dead, you'd have been — "
He left the sentence unfinished. "Oh yes," he said,
"I've had my eyes on you. Your perfume is nice,
very nice, but you may not get to wear it
where you're going." At his signal the others left the room.
"Unless — " There was a bottle of whiskey
and two shot glasses. Outside the fog rolled in
and dour men in motor caps rowed their small craft
in the canal to the base of the dungeon
while two black cars idled down the road.
"In the Queen's Chambers" by Henri Michaux (translated by David Lehman)
When Plume arrived at the palace, credentials in hand, the Queen said to him:
"Well, then. The King is extremely busy at the moment. You may see him later. We'll go together to see him, if you'd like. Around five o'clock. That's settled then. His Majesty likes Danish people, His Majesty will be glad to receive you, perhaps while waiting you'll take a stroll with me.
"As the palace is so very large, I am always afraid of losing my way and finding myself in the kitchen, which, you understand, would be quite ridiculous for a Queen. Shall we go this way? This is one passage I'm familiar with. Here is my bedroom."
And they enter the bedroom.
"As we have two good hours ahead of us, you might perhaps read a little to me, though I don't think you'll find much of interest on my shelves. Perhaps you play cards? But I can tell you now I would lose right away. Anyway, don't your feet need a rest? Standing up is so tiring, isn't it? And sitting down isn't much of an improvement. Perhaps one can stretch out here on the sofa."
But she gets up again a moment later.
"Unbearable heat reigns in this room. If you would kindly help me undress, it would give me great pleasure. Afterwards we can have a proper talk. I would like very much to know more about Denmark. This dress slips off so easily I wonder how I managed to keep it on all day. It slips off without my even noticing. When I raise my arms, watch, even a child could do it. Of course, I wouldn't let him. I'm fond of children, but there's always such a babble in the palace, and then they do get on one's nerves."
So Plume undresses her.
"But listen, you can't stay like that. To remain fully dressed in the bedroom is exceedingly gauche, and I can't see you like that, it's as if you were about to run out and leave me all alone in this enormous palace."
And Plume gets undressed. He gets into bed wearing nothing but his shirt.
"It's still only 3:15," she says. "Do you really know so much about Denmark that you could regale me about it for the next hour and three quarters? I won't be so demanding—I understand how difficult a task it would be. Why don't I give you a bit more time to think. And look, while we're waiting, since you're already here I'll show you something I find most intriguing. I would be curious to know what a Dane will think of this.
"I have, you see, here under my right breast, three little marks. Well, actually, two little ones and a big one. See? The big one looks almost . . . it's really quite odd, isn't it, while on the left breast, nothing! All white!
"Okay, talk to me, but examine it carefully first, go slow . . ."
And Plume makes his examination. He touches, he probes with uncertain fingers, he searches for truths that will make him tremble, his fingers going round and round in their curved trajectory.
And Plume is lost in thought.
"You're wondering," the Queen says a few moments later, "(and I see now that you're an old hand at this sort of thing), you want to know if I have others. No," she says, and turns beet red.
"Now tell me about Denmark, but first lie here beside me so I can give you my full attention."
Plume approaches; he lies down beside her and now he can't conceal a thing.
And as a result:
"Listen," she says, "I thought you'd have more respect for the Queen, but, well, since you're here, I wouldn't let that stand in the way of our pursuit of warm relations between my country and yours."
And the Queen draws him to her.
"Caress my legs," she says, "or I'm likely to get distracted, and I won't remember why I lay down in the first place . . ."
It was at this moment that the King walked in!
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Terrible adventures, in whatever way begun and with whatever consequences, painful adventures, adventures arranged by an implacable foe.
Excerpted from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman. Copyright 2013 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.