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Wonder Cabinet

by David Barber

Paperback, 99 pages, Northwestern Univ Pr, List Price: $14.95 |

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Excerpt: Wonder Cabinet

WONDER CABINET


NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2006 David Barber
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-5173-4

Contents

Acknowledgments........................................xiIPilgrim's Progress.....................................7Calenture..............................................9Chimerical.............................................10A Colonial Epitaph Annotated...........................12Eulogy for an Anchorite................................14Shades of Alexandria...................................16Inquest................................................18Thumbnail Sketch of the Tulipmania.....................20Masters of the Florilegium.............................22From a Burbank Catalogue...............................23Aphrodite's Mousetrap..................................26Ballade of the Golden Arm..............................29Falcon Channel.........................................31Source.................................................33Sympathy for the Mapinguari............................37Ode to William Wells...................................39IINew World SutrasHoudini Sutra..........................................43Wallenda Sutra.........................................45Great Stone Face Sutra.................................47Ignatz Sutra...........................................49Satchmo Sutra..........................................51Bambino Sutra..........................................53Double Elephant Folio Sutra............................56Zoopraxiscope Sutra....................................59IIILullaby in Steerage....................................65Tar Pit................................................66Funicular..............................................68Matchbook Hymn.........................................71To the Trespasser......................................72Pathetic Fallacy.......................................74Procrustean............................................76Cautionary Tale........................................79Relic..................................................81Horse Chestnuts........................................83Nettles of the Field...................................85Three Songs in the Mask of Pan.........................87Red Figure.............................................89Psalm for a Sugarhouse.................................91Rogue Moss.............................................92Nail Broth.............................................94Notes and Sources......................................95

Chapter One

PILGRIM'S PROGRESS

The fin is the finest thing of its kind. The wing's a wonder the world over. The tongue is a form of eternal flame. The stone's a story that never grows old. O fin, it's certain you want for nothing. Yo wing, you're everything we've ever dreamed. You said it, tongue: of arms and men you sing. Here's looking at you, stone: a star is born. Who doesn't burn for a soul on the wing? Where is the man that can fine-tune the fin? When shall we learn to read the mind of the stone? What in the world holds its own like the tongue? Stone says fin's the one that schooled the wing. Story goes one singer could charm the stones. Rock, paper, scissors: worlds without end. One slip of the tongue makes the whole world kin. All together now: the many in the one. Brush fire of fins shirring the fathoms, Cairns of lost tongues, the chorus in the wings Riffing on the omens of the heavens. Soul knows it can't live on breath alone. When the tongue wags the dog, the fur's gonna fly. The stone is a kind of recording angel. The wing's got the beat. The fin makes waves. Wing it, mother tongue: the world's your whetstone. We're wired for sound. We're unfinished business. Let's hear it for the phoenix, all fired up. Sirens, rock us to sleep with the fishes. Let's hear it for descent with variations. Let him without fin go back to the grindstone. The bat is the manta ray's soul brother. The dolphin's glossolalia speaks volumes. Hosannas for sea changes, the wish made flesh. As the silkworm turns, as the chrysalis Is my witness, leviathan's no fluke. Blood from a stone is a thing to behold. Blow me down with a feather, fishers of men; Rock of ages, take me under your wing. Muse, make it new: leave no tongue untuned. Rock my world, winged gods: begin again.

CALENTURE

Then as the possessed with Calentura thou shalt offer to leape. Thomas Nashe

When the briny slop turned woody and sweet, You'd be clapped in irons belowdecks. And there were other classic signs: Sheaves in the combers, floating pastures, Parish meadows hard to starboard. Heatstroke, heartsick-it didn't matter. The peril was real. Yonder were green fields. The murmuring glade, the beckoning hollow, Hovered there in the glassy swell. If you weren't restrained, you'd leap headlong. When the fever broke, you saw things plain. Oh, rub your poor skull like a scoured shell, Pray you're one tar who's cured for good. Yet there you were still: thin reed, short fuse, And glare on a wave, breaking into leaf.

CHIMERICAL

Cook's men couldn't conjure A moniker for the creature. Whilst the Endeavour lay aground There in the longitude Of upside down (spring No spring, but more like fall), They bandied and brainstormed, Thunderstruck. The shrunken forelimbs Stumped all hands-tucked up On the chest as if saying grace Or a misfit manacled In the brig. But what a clip! Hopscotched upright, fleet As a deer (great clouds in the bush, Catapulting off, spooked), Long tail scrolled Like a lord's greyhound, Though in carriage akin To a titan hare. Bagged one, Skinned it (secret pocket, Like a turncoat's), pondered long The daunting haunch, but the sum Of the parts still tied them In knots. O abounding conundrum, Where's your Adam? By what rough magic Does a rubric stick? Hop to it, mates- Every lingua franca takes A leap of faith. Here's one for the books, A real kicker: The woolly Calibans Who roamed those hinterlands Bamboozled the ship's naturalists But good, the cognomen Now known the world round Signifying I don't know In the local singsong. A kind of rune, then, A koan that rules (Can a ruse Ring true? Why rue the day?), Be it tongue in cheek Or a rumor with legs, A con all along Or the old switcheroo: Cantankerous, inscrutable, A congeries in any lexicon, Uncanny through and through, A cantilevered ruminant, A kangaroo.

A COLONIAL EPITAPH ANNOTATED

HERE LIES AS SILENT CLAY MISS ARABELLA YOUNG WHO ON THE 21ST OF MAY 1771 BEGAN TO HOLD HER TONGUE. Here rests as circumspect dust A maid who spoke her mind Without the ghost of a blush Or a nod to her prim kind. Here silt her tart remarks And her spirited retorts, Her mordant takes on politics And the sermon's finer points. Here chafes in stony hush An erstwhile spitfire. Finally they could rest in peace, The fools she wouldn't suffer! Here in her boneyard bower Look sharp for the shards of a quip. The lady was no flower. She'd cut you to the quick. Here beneath this slate You can sense her mute dismay, Who was the soul of wit And reveled in repartee. Here lies as silent clay Miss Arabella Young. Be that as it may, Here's to the sting in her tongue.

EULOGY FOR AN ANCHORITE

Brother Adam, devout bee breeder, Today the paper ran your obit. A brisk write-up, yet how it brims With the lambent amber of your bliss. Your abiding faith in the honeybee Imbued your days with abounding grace. "Brother Adam, Benedictine monk, Transformed beekeeping, at 98 ..." I adore that squib. I laud your slant On beatitude and humble soulcraft. I love the fact your name was gold In apiaries around the globe. Brother Adam, from Buckfast Abbey In Britain's toe, you would abscond (Often on foot or astride a donkey) To Araby and the Holy Land, There to bushwhack for robust strains To husband in your cloistered hives. At ninety, admirable Brother Adam, You bobbed to the top of Kilimanjaro Strapped to the back of a kindred spirit In pursuit of the burly Monticola. Brother Adam, that took some aplomb. It buoys me simply to think of it.

O Brother Adam, if I may be so bold, You must have harbored no higher rapture Than when a swarm's harmonious hubbub Swelled into a thrumming rumble. The heather bloomed, the nectar flowed: What choir ever soared any sweeter? You're the stuff of fable, Brother Adam. Your little sisters, how they labor! We sybarites owe you a lasting debt. To spurn the temptations of the flesh Only to leave the world more toothsome- Now, there's a parable to savor. Brother Adam, redoubtable beekeeper, You belong on the glazed pane of a chapel Bedecked in your habit and your veil Hard by the other miracle workers. There hovers about you a burnished aura Befitting a harbinger of ambrosia. Brother Adam, Brother Adam, When it comes to combs, you split the atom. Every kingdom has its keys. They've baptized your hybrids "superbees." The heartbreaking millennium runs down, But, Brother Adam, your renown's a balm. Brother Adam, I'm no believer. When I'm not bedeviled, I'm beleaguered. But consider your bees, in clover season- Didn't they seem possessed by demons? Let me grapple, let me fumble. I may yet become your true disciple.

SHADES OF ALEXANDRIA

Cosmologists, epic poets, holy men in exile- They all found their way to the illustrious library. All lovers of knowledge were welcome to a niche In that bristling hush, no matter how shaggy or ragged. There were the usual cynics and the inevitable stoics. Some were sages without honor, scrawling out summas In their mongrel dialects and inscrutable cuneiforms, Working those little golf pencils right down to the nub. There were the astronomers, who stayed up every night Observing the movements of the firmament: You could tell by their bloodshot stares and rumpled garb How resolutely they pursued their lucubrations. Some looked as if they'd studied under Aristotle- Ancient souls, tottering about like crusty Nile tortoises, Griping over the plague of errors infesting the card catalogues. You'd hear them mutter darkly as they tussled with the drawers. Sophists, peripatetics, soothsayers, tragedians- None were turned away, you didn't question This one's erudition or that one's chosen discipline. The collections were open to scribes of every persuasion. From the ends of the earth the seekers would come Just to incline their heads over our long tables. And if they slumped forward altogether on occasion, Who could possibly object-the dream of reason Is like unto the fathomless siftings of the sands, Everlasting study is a weariness of the flesh. You could tell by their soiled bundles and open sores How profoundly they suffered for their great life's work. One would think that there in the vaulted reading room You could count on a modicum of classical decorum, But you know how scholars are, jealous of their turf, Forever denouncing their rivals as barbarians. And to tell the truth, few of them were distinguished- Whatever acumen they once may have possessed They'd squandered on pedantry of dubious import. Most seemed to be glossing corruptions in the texts. And if you were a page-that's what we were known as then, Back when the world was young-you picked up after them, You reshelved the strewn compendiums and lexicons, You inspected the rune-scored stalls at closing time To make sure there were no thinkers lost in contemplation. Satirists, orators, votaries of Ptolemy and Diogenes- You'd shepherd them out the swinging double doors Into the misty or sticky evening, the bay's salt bite, The streets with their attar of dumpster and flask. One day was like another in that seat of learning. Creeping hours, turning leaves, cracked spines, and paper cuts- Here you spoke in whispers, and history held its breath.

INQUEST

Edward Andrews, put to the crank For pinching four pounds of English beef, Couldn't keep up the wicked pace. He wrecked the thing, as a matter of fact. The prison committee reviewed his case. What had gone wrong with the machine? Edward Andrews, a lad of fifteen, Had somehow managed to botch the works. Birmingham Gaol believed in reform. The iron drum was filled with sand. The crank turned an axle, mounted with scoops, And the dial clicked off an accurate count. Ten thousand revolutions a day- Grinding away, yet milling nothing. Ten thousand revolutions a day? How had they come by that round number? There was a science to the sentence. Hard labor, the lever of correction, Demanded standard units of measure. According to their calculations, The reprobate's required exertions Worked out to a quarter of the force An English draft horse was known to muster Over an equivalent span of hours. Bridle, did he, our Edward Andrews? Hard to figure. On three occasions He went at the crank, and thrice he failed To dispatch his per diem. On the third go-round, the dial jammed. So there was nothing for it then But to make young Andrews rue his ways By binding up his feeble arms. Routine practice: the "punishment jacket," All of leather, pinched tight at the neck. Hours at a stretch, a parching throat Awaited the miscreant who spit the bit. Naturally questions had to be asked Once Edward Andrews was laid to rest. (He'd hanged himself by his hammock strap.) Open and shut: not even a right brute, Much less a boy, all skin and bones, Could summon up the staying power To churn the dune inside the drum On prison rations, bread and water. There is no turning back the clock. The desperate are always with us. Here's Edward Andrews, still at the crank. Watch him go: a ghost in the flesh.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH OF THE TULIPMANIA

At the peak of a fever like none other, A good burgher whose thrift was his repute Might part with two hogsheads of vintage port, Twelve stout ewes and eight fat swine, A silver chalice and a suit of clothes, And brick after wheel after brick of cheese For a single bulb and fancy himself shrewd. The logs disclose another who swapped a mill, And one a brewery, for their fabled specimens. Clouds of golden pollen. The pages crackle. All Holland's in thrall-the tulips have souls. Cultivated by sultans, "turbans" from the Persians, Imported for the delectation of the courts And the jaded palates of the capitals: Laced with oil and vinegar in London And in Dresden powdered with sugar. But the Dutchman's taste ran to tulpenwoede- Florid euphoria, epidemic ardor. In the smoky taverns of Haarlem and Utrecht, Flame-tongued goblets fed a blaze of speculation. A fever like none other. The pages smolder. The souls of tulips are mulched with Holland's gold. Before the bottom fell out, before the bubble burst, There were fortunes to be made from the mutations That engendered hybrids by the hundredfold. Pleats and ruffles, scarlet wicks and creamy swatches, The ruby-veined undercup of the Semper Augustus, From tightfisted roots the treasured clusters breaking open- Behold the veritable bounty of beauty! In vain the preachers thundered from their pulpits. When obsession's in bloom, it beggars all reason. The tulips had souls-all Holland said so. A spiked dust flares above the gilded pages.

MASTERS OF THE FLORILEGIUM

You copied out passages as the spirit moved you. You took down verses to cultivate rapture. Lessons of the fathers, lives of the saints, Hallowed utterances-these were your cuttings, Your verdant devotions and fertile verities. Lectionis igne-"fervent reading." Candle-tremble and cramped longhand. Leaves of scripture, tendrils of parable. You bound your gleanings into vellum booklets. You wet a fingertip and found your place. Little anthologies, anonymous garlands. Florilegium-"from flower to flower." And from your cells, a steady murmuring: Tongues working, text and script Like nectar on your moving lips. It was understood you could intermingle Spontaneous lines, original images. For there on the page-sacra pagina- Transcription begets inspiration. What you parse becomes a part of you. "He who is possessed by the sweetness of prayer," Wrote John the Grammarian, "already participates In heavenly life." And Peter the Venerable, Upon a brother's passing, heard to cry: "Without resting, His mouth ruminated the sacred words."

(Continues...)