A Hedge of Rubber Trees

Amy Clampitt
The West Village by then was changing; before long
the rundown brownstones at its farthest edge
would have slipped into trendier hands. She lived,
impervious to trends, behind a potted hedge of
rubber trees, with three cats, a canary--refuse 
from whose cage kept sifting down and then 
germinating, a yearning seedling choir, around
the saucers on the windowsill--and an inexorable
cohort of roaches she was too nearsighted to deal
with, though she knew they were there, and would
speak of them, ruefully, as of an affliction that
     might once, long ago, have been prevented.

Unclassifiable castoffs, misfits, marginal cases:
when you're one yourself, or close to it, there's
a reassurance in proving you haven't quite gone
under by taking up with somebody odder than you are.
Or trying to. "They're my friends," she'd say of
her cats--Mollie, Mitzi and Caroline, their names were,
and she was forever taking one or another in a cab
to the vet--as though she had no others. The roommate
who'd become a nun, the one who was Jewish, the couple
she'd met on a foliage tour, one fall, were all people
she no longer saw. She worked for a law firm, said all
     the judges were alcoholic, had never voted.

But would sometimes have me to dinner--breaded veal,
white wine, strawberry Bavarian--and sometimes, from 
what she didn't know she was saying, I'd snatch a shred
or two of her threadbare history. Baltic cold. Being 
sent home in a troika when her feet went numb. In
summer, carriage rides. A swarm of gypsy children 
driven off with whips. An octogenarian father, bishop
of a dying schismatic sect. A very young mother
who didn't want her. A half-brother she met just once.
Cousins in Wisconsin, one of whom phoned her from a candy 
store, out of the blue, while she was living in Chicago.
     What had brought her there, or when, remained unclear.

As did much else. We'd met in church. I noticed first
a big, soaring soprano with a wobble in it, then 
the thickly wreathed and braided crimp in the mouse-
gold coiffure. Old? Young? She was of no age.
Through rimless lenses she looked out of a child's,
or a doll's, globular blue. Wore Keds the year round,
tended otherwise to overdress. Owned a mandolin. Once
I got her to take it down from the mantel and plink out,
through a warm fuddle of sauterne, a lot of giddy Italian 
airs from a songbook whose pages had started to crumble.
The canary fluffed and quivered, and the cats, amazed,
     came out from under the couch and stared.

What could the offspring of the schismatic age and a 
reluctant child bride expect from life? Not much.
Less and less. A dream she'd had kept coming back,
years after. She'd taken a job in Washington with 
some right-wing lobby, and lived in one of those
bow-windowed mansions that turn into roominghouses,
and her room there had a full-length mirror: oval,
with a molding, is the way I picture it. In her dream
something woke her, she got up to look, and there 
in the glass she'd had was covered over--she gave it
     a wondering emphasis--with gray veils.

The West Village was changing. I was changing. The last
time I asked her to dinner, she didn't show. Hours--
or was it days?--later, she phoned to explain: she hadn't
been able to find my block; a patrolman had steered her home.
I spent my evenings canvassing for Gene McCarthy. Passing,
I'd see her shades drawn, no light behind the rubber trees.
She wasn't out, she didn't own a TV. She was in there,
getting gently blotto. What came next, I wasn't brave
enough to know. Only one day, passing, I saw
new shades, quick-chic matchstick bamboo, going up where 
the waterstained old ones had been, and where the seedlings--
     O gray veils, gray veils--had risen and gone down.

More by Amy Clampitt

On the Disadvantages of Central Heating

cold nights on the farm, a sock-shod
stove-warmed flatiron slid under
the covers, mornings a damascene-
sealed bizarrerie of fernwork
        decades ago now

waking in northwest London, tea
brought up steaming, a Peak Frean
biscuit alongside to be nibbled
as blue gas leaps up singing
        decades ago now

damp sheets in Dorset, fog-hung
habitat of bronchitis, of long
hot soaks in the bathtub, of nothing
quite drying out till next summer:
        delicious to think of

hassocks pulled in close, toasting-
forks held to coal-glow, strong-minded
small boys and big eager sheepdogs
muscling in on bookish profundities
        now quite forgotten

the farmhouse long sold, old friends
dead or lost track of, what's salvaged
is this vivid diminuendo, unfogged
by mere affect, the perishing residue
        of pure sensation

Easter Morning

a stone at dawn
cold water in the basin
these walls' rough plaster
imageless
after the hammering
of so much insistence
on the need for naming
after the travesties
that passed as faces,
grace: the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless

Salvage

     
Daily the cortege of crumpled 
defunct cars 
goes by by the lasagna-
layered flatbed 
truckload: hardtop 

reverting to tar smudge,
wax shine antiqued to crusted 
winepress smear, 
windshield battered to
intact ice-tint, a rarity

fresh from the Pleistocene. 
I like it; privately 
I find esthetic 
satisfaction in these 
ceremonial removals

from the category of
received ideas
to regions where pigeons' 
svelte smoke-velvet
limousines, taxiing 

in whirligigs, reclaim 
a parking lot,
and the bag-laden
hermit woman, disencumbered 
of a greater incubus,

the crush of unexamined
attitudes, stoutly
follows her routine,
mining the mountainsides
of our daily refuse

for artifacts: subversive
re-establishing
with each arcane
trash-basket dig
the pleasures of the ruined.