Those who can’t find anything to live for,
always invent something to die for.
Then they want the rest of us to
die for it, too.
The image, as in a Hexagram:
The hermit locks his door against the blizzard.
He keeps the cabin warm.
All winter long he sorts out all he has.
What was well started shall be finished.
What was not, should be thrown away.
In spring he emerges with one garment
and a single book.
The cabin is very clean.
Except for that, you’d never guess
anyone lived there.
Those who can’t find anything to live for,
always invent something to die for.
Then they want the rest of us to
die for it, too.
It happens, at times,
That the route becomes beautiful
The incline gentle and the landscape rich
And on the heavy air the smell of growing things
We think the secret hidden in the land
Or month or year
Or traced upon the chart by which we go,
But do not tinker so with subtleties
You brush the secret with your hand,
As the arm swings, striding.
Gone, you’ll know how much more real her absence is
With sound of her that’s missing now in every sound
With walk of her that’s missing now in every passer-by
Who speaks incessantly
Speaks of how the buds unfold
Of how these days the twigs are fat
Of how all things begin to bloom
How every god-damned thing begins to bloom.
Whenever I make a new poem,
the old ones sound like gibberish.
How can they ever make sense in a book?
Let them say:
“He seems to have lived in the mountains.
He traveled now and then.
When he appeared in cities,
he was almost always drunk.
“Most of his poems are lost.
Many of those we have were found in
letters to his friends.
“He had a very large number of friends.”
“The light range was so narrow if you exposed film
for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would
be rendered invisible except for the whites of his
eyes and teeth. It was only when Kodak’s two biggest
clients—the confectionary and furniture industries—
complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture
were losing out that it came up with a solution.”
—Broomberg and Chanarin
“When a contradiction is impossible to resolve
except by a lie, then we know it is really a door.”
I keep referring to the cold, as if that were the point.
Fact. Not point.
Forty-below was a good day. “In short, fine weather,” you wrote once, before cutting out blocks of ice and fashioning another igloo for the whole crew each night.
But it isn’t the point, that it was cold, is it?
How many days before arriving did you sit on the deck in that chair, staring out to sea, wearing a coarse blue shirt, the lost, well-mannered rhetoric of your day spiraling beneath a blue hat—concertina (at your ankle) outside the placid frame?
Thank you, whoever you are, for standing behind the camera and thinking “Matthew Henson” and “photograph” at the same time.
The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue. Endless blueness. White is blue. An ocean wave freezes in place. Blue. Whole glaciers, large as Ohio, floating masses of static water. All of them pale frosted azuls. It makes me wonder—yet again—was there ever such a thing as whiteness? I am beginning to grow suspicious. An open window.
I am blue.
I am a frozen blue ocean.
I am a wave struck cold in midair.
The wave is nude beneath her blue dress.
Her skin is blue.
To arrive in a place.
And this place in which you have arrived finally: a place you have always dreamt of arriving. Perhaps you have tried—for eighteen years—to get there, dreaming of landscapes, people, food. Always repulsed by your effort, unable to attain the trophy.
And then finally somehow you arrive one day and are immediately stunned because you realize more than anything, it isn’t the landscape, food, the people. That thing which most astonishes you is the light, the way the air appears, how the sunlight hovers just before your eyes.
And you—then—wanting nothing more than to spend the day indoors watching the room. The vast ocean always nothing more than an open window. So you stay inside and choose to watch the same wall turn fifty reds, then later: slow, countless variations of blue. Blues you have never seen. There is a black beam overhead on the ceiling. Without it, the ability to see such light would disappear. The light is toying with you, and you like it. All of this because the darkness is now always overhead. That. That is what arriving means.
I want to say the same thing in a variety of different ways. Or I want to say many different things, but merely one way.
Perhaps there is only one word after all. Beneath all languages, beneath all other words: only one. Perhaps whenever we speak we are repeating it. All day long, the same single word over and over again.
Choose something dark. Choose a dark line to hang above you. If you want to see what light can do, always choose the dark.
Out on the ice, the light can blind you. The annals laced with men who set out without the protection of darkness. All finished blind.
Blackbirds, black bowhead whales, the raven, the night sky, the body inside, blue ink, pencil lead, chocolate, marzipan. Like us.
All water is color. But what does that have to do with you and me, Matthew?
Maybe life is just this: walking with each other from one dark room to another. And looking.
Sometimes the paintings come to life. Sometimes you just love the word pewter. Sometimes the ocean waves at you. Sometimes there are goldfish in a jar. A bowl of oranges. Sometimes a woman steps down out of a frame and walks toward you. Sometimes she discards the white scarf, which covers her, and reveals her real body. Sometimes she leaves, moments later, covered in a striped jacket and leather hat.
Our lady of the dressing table.
Our lady of the rainy day.
Our lady of palm leaves, periwinkle, calla lilies.
Our lady of acanthus.
A garden redone three times.
Sometimes someone you love just falls through. Gone. The blue massive ridges of pressure shift, float away, move. Sometimes the ice breaks open. That’s it. Sledge, dogs and all.
I fell through once. I’d grown cold, so I stood up and walked to get my coat. I was told it was hanging on the far wall of a very dark room. Because it was dark, I could see, really see—for the first time—how a particular gold thread sparkled on the collar. I reached out my hand. But before the wall, there was a large hole where stairs were being built, which I could not see. I walked into air and landed on my head. Underground.
Everything then turned a vivid black.
I wonder, Matthew, when you were out on the ice for years, trying very hard not to fall through, I wonder whether—like me—you ever thought of the same woman over and over again, whether you ever imagined her draped in a loose-fitting emerald robe, seated in a pink velvet chair, engulfed by a black so bright it was luminous?
Sometimes I lie here in bed before the fire, unable to move—this cane, this hideous cane, this glorious cane, cutting cane—and imagine that one particular curl falling forward toward her forehead. I imagine the same curl at this angle, then that. A recurring dream. When my bed becomes a vast field of frozen ice the color of indigo, and I cannot move, I begin to see her face. Each strand of her hair becomes a radiant small flame, twisting and burning so quietly. Then I look at your picture, you out on the ice, and I wonder if you ever feel like that, Matthew?
Like a woman, faceless and flung over
a desk, at rest or in tears, exquisite
quickly drawn ruffles about your shoulder,
halos of wide banana leaves
hovering just above your head?
Were there images you could not fling
from your mind? Events that clung
to you, coated you, repeating
themselves in a series: movements
or instruments in a symphony?
Objects that would not let you go:
an avocado tree; a certain street
at night where someone exceptionally kind
once took your arm as the two of you walked
along a wet sidewalk; trying
to remember the light on that certain gait:
your mother twirling a parasol, also walking
through a grove of olive trees?
Did you begin to find comfort
in the serial, the inexplicable and constant
reappearance of things, people, sensations,
every moment symphonically realized
and reentered. The way the days begin
to rhyme. Every moment
walking into the room again.
Sledge after sledge.
I fell through, into a hole in the floor. I landed far below, on my head. Sometimes I still forget my name. Sometimes I forget yours. Sometimes I forget how to spell the. Regularly I am unable to remember Adam Clayton Powell. Or how to conjugate exist. Sometimes I lie in bed and cannot feel my legs. It’s like something quietly gnawed them off while I was in the kitchen making tea. From the knees down: this odd sensation, not nothing, but something, just not legs. If ice were not cold perhaps. Or the memory of a leg. I cannot feel my legs, but I can feel their memory.
In conversation, my face goes numb. It starts at my mouth and spreads out. When I am quiet it recedes. Why is numbness ascribed the color blue? It’s not. It’s red.
By the end of the day, my left hand has disappeared from the end of my arm. I ignore it. Hold my pen. Smile at you. What year is it, darling? I once lived where? With whom? Where is she now? What was her name?
I remember nurses. Their faces. Someone very, very kind—a woman—began to tape a pen inside my hand. I remember being suspended in a harness. Being lowered down into a warm blue pool. All the other patients there were very old. Here is how we all learned to walk properly again. Underwater. Blue.
Once I fell through—into the dark.
Braces and casts.
Being told not to write.
Being told not to read.
Forgetting someone I once promised I would never forget.
Remembering her finally, one year, then forgetting her again, the next day.
Remembering not remembering I’d forgotten.
Forgetting them completely.
When I look at photographs of Matisse, unable to walk, drawing on the wall from the bed, his charcoal tied to the end of a very long pole, I stop breathing.
Him, I think. Yes. I could marry him.
I could slip into his bed.
We could talk about real things.
I could be his dark line hovering above.
We could watch the light turning the room every color.
with the milkweeds splitting at the seams emancipating their seeds
that were once packed in their pods like the wings and hollow bones
of a damp bird held too tightly in a green hand. And the giant jade
moths stuck to the screen door as if glued there. And the gold fields
and stone silos and the fugitive cows known for escaping their borders.
I have lived in a painting called Paradise, and even the bad parts
were beautiful. There are fields of needles arranged into flowers,
their sharp ends meeting at the center, and from a distance the fields
full of needle flowers look blue from their silver reflecting the sky,
or white lilies if the day is overcast, and there in the distance is a meadow
filled with the fluttering skirts of opium poppies. On the hillside
is Moon Cemetery, where the tombstones are hobnailed or prismed
like cut-glass bowls, and some are shaped so precisely like the trunks of trees
that birds build their nests in the crooks of their granite limbs, and some
of the graves are shaped like child-sized tables with stone tablecloths
and tea cups, yes, I have lived in a painting called Paradise.
The hollyhocks loom like grandfathers with red pocket watches,
and off in the distance the water is ink and the ships are white paper
with scribblings of poems and musical notations on their sides.
There are rabbits: mink-colored ones and rabbits that are mystics
humped like haystacks, and at Moon Cemetery it’s an everyday event
to see the dead rise from their graves, as glittering as they were in life,
to once more pick up the plow or the pen or the axe or the spoon
or the brush or the bowl, for it is a cemetery named after a moon
and moons never stay put. There are bees in the air flying off
to build honeycombs with pollen heavy on their back legs,
and in the air, birds of every ilk, the gray kind that feed from the ground,
and the ones that scream to announce themselves, and the ravens
who feed on the rabbits until their black feathers are edged
in gold, and in the air also are little gods and devils trying out their wings,
some flying, some failing and making a little cream-colored blip
in the sea, yes, all of my life I have lived in a painting called Paradise
with its frame of black varnish and gold leaf, and I am told some girls
slide their fingers over the frame and feel the air outside of it,
and some even climb over the edge and plummet into whatever
is beyond it. Some say it is hell, and some say just another, bolder
paradise, and some say a dark wilderness, and some say just an unswept
museum or library floor, and some say a long-lost love waits there
wearing bloody riding clothes, returned from war, and some say
freedom, which is a word that tastes strange, like a green plum.
World harbors much I'd like to fit inside that the parameters preclude me from. I'm the desire to have had a say. I'm the desire to be left alone amid brochures for Europe's best hotels behind a locked door on Utopia Parkway, where Brother, crippled, rides his chariot, where Mother's all dressed up and going nowhere. Together, sotto voce, we count hours, fuss over newsprint, water down the wine. When I was shorter, we were all divine. When I was shorter, I was infinite and felt less fear of being understood. I am the fear of being understood. I am the modest Joe who hems and haws at blond cashiers ensconced in ticket booths. Lacking the words to offer her the flowers I'd spent a fortnight locating the words to offer her, I threw the flowers at her. As penance, I entrenched you, Doll, in wood. Through your shaved bark and twigs, you stared at me. Being a woman was out of the question. Being a question caused women to wonder. How unrestrained you must feel, Wind and Water. You are the obligation, Box, to harbor each disarray and ghost. I am the author, the authored by. I am a plaything of. Who makes who Spectacle. Who gives whom Order. My father was a man who lived and died. He would commute from Nyack to New York. The woolen business had its ups and downs. How unrestrained you've become, Cage and Coffin. There is an order to each spectacle. You are the obligation, Wind, to sunder this relic of. Am reliquary for the off-white light of January morning. Have seen you, Fairies, in your apricot and chestnut negligees invade the mirror, tiptoe on marbles, vanish from the scene. Am reliquary for what World has seen. I'm the ballet of wingspan, the cracked mirror. Canary's coffin. Sunshine breaking through.