Photographs of the Interiors of Dictators' Houses

Albert Goldbarth - 1948-
It's as if every demon from hell with aspirations

toward interior design flew overhead and indiscriminately

spouted gouts of molten gold, that cooled down

into swan-shape spigots, doorknobs, pen-and-inkwell sets.

A chandelier the size of a planetarium dome

is gold, and the commodes. The handrails

heading to the wine cellar and the shelving for the DVDs

and the base for the five stuffed tigers posed in a fighting phalanx:

gold, as is the samovar and the overripe harp

and the framework for the crocodile-hide ottoman and settee.

The full-size cinema theater accommodating an audience

of hundreds for the screening of home (or possibly

high-end fuck flick) videos: starred in gold

from vaulted ceiling to clawfoot legs on the seating.

Of course the scepter is gold, but the horns

on the mounted stag heads: do they need to be gilded?

Yes. And the olive fork and the French maid's row of dainty buttons

and the smokestack on the miniature train

that delivers golden trays of dessert from the kitchen

to a dining hall about the size of a zip code,

and the snooker table's sheathing, and the hat rack,

and those hooziewhatsit things in which you slip your feet

on the water skis, and the secret lever

that opens the door to the secret emergency bunker.

Smug and snarky as we are, in our sophisticated

and subtler, non-tyrannical tastes, it's still

unsettling to realize these photographs are also full

of the childrens' pictures set on a desk,

the wife's diploma proudly on a wall, the common

plastic container of aspirin, and the bassinette

with the scroll of linen shade at the ready

in case the sun is too powerful: reminders of how

a graduated continuum connects these überoperatically

fat interior lives to our own. We all desire

"more" and "better," Melville adds that final "e"

to the family name, and Faulkner adds the "u," in quest

of a signified gentility. My friend Damien

(fake name) won A Certain Literary Award, and

at the stellar after-ceremony party, in the swank hotel's

swank atrium, he found a leggy literary groupie

noshing caviar under a swankily lush mimosa,

and in under an hour his own swank room could boast

the golden statuette, the evening's loveliest woman, and

the silver serving platter of five-star caviar,

and if you think this story's moral lesson is

that satiation is ever attained, you don't understand

the protoknowledge we're born with, coded into our cells:

soon soon soon enough we die. Even before we've seen

the breast, we're crying to the world that we want;

and the world doles out its milkiness in doses. We

want, we want, we want, and if we don't then

that's what we want; abstemiousness is only

hunger translated into another language. Yes

there's pain and heartsore rue and suffering, but

there's no such thing as "anti-pleasure": it's pleasure

that the anchorite takes in his bleak cave

and Thoreau in his bean rows and cabin. For Thoreau,

the Zen is: wanting less is wanting more.

Of less. At 3 a.m. Marlene (fake name) and Damien

drunkenly sauntered into and out of the atrium,

then back to his room: he wanted the mimosa too,

and there it stood until checkout at noon, a treenapped testimony

to the notion that we will if we can, as evidenced in even

my normally modest, self-effacing friend. If we can,

the archeological record tells us, we'll continue wanting

opulently even in the afterlife: the grave goods

of pharaohs are just as gold as the headrests

and quivers and necklace pendants they used every day

on this side of the divide, the food containers

of Chinese emperors are ready for heavenly meals

that the carved obsidian dragons on the great jade lids

will faithfully guard forever. My own

innate definition of "gratification" is right there

in its modifier "immediate," and once or twice

I've hurt somebody in filling my maw. I've walked

—the normally modest, self-effacing me—below a sky

of stars I lusted after as surely as any despot

contemplating his treasury. The slice of American cheese

on the drive-thru-window burger is also gold,

bathetically gold,

and I go where my hunger dictates.

More by Albert Goldbarth

27,000 Miles

These two asleep . . . so indrawn and compact,
like lavish origami animals returned

to slips of paper once again; and then
the paper once again become a string

of pith, a secret that the plant hums to itself . . . . 
You see? — so often we envy the grandiose, the way

those small toy things of Leonardo’s want to be
the great, air-conquering and miles-eating

living wings
they’re modeled on.  And the bird flight is

amazing: simultaneously strength, 
escape, caprice: the Arctic tern completes

its trip of nearly 27,000 miles every year;
a swan will frighten bears away

by angry aerial display of flapping wingspan.
But it isn’t all flight; they also

fold; and at night on the water or in the eaves
they package their bodies

into their bodies, smaller, and deeply
smaller yet: migrating a similar distance

in the opposite direction.


Eight hours by bus, and night
was on them. He could see himself now
in the window, see his head there with the country
running through it like a long thought made of steel and wheat.
Darkness outside; darkness in the bus—as if the sea
were dark and the belly of the whale were dark to match it.
He was twenty: of course his eyes returned, repeatedly,
to the knee of the woman two rows up: positioned so
occasional headlights struck it into life.
But more reliable was the book; he was discovering himself
to be among the tribe that reads. Now his, the only
overhead turned on. Now nothing else existed:
only him, and the book, and the light thrown over his shoulders
as luxuriously as a cashmere shawl.


We could say that Rembrandt was a greater painter than Kandinsky. We could not say that Rembrandt was three and a half times better than Kandinsky. . . . We could say, "I have more pain than I had yesterday." When we tried to say, "I have nine dols of pain," we found we were talking nonsense.

		   - Leshan and Morgenau

This is the pain you could fit in a tea ball.
This is the pain you could pack in a pipe
 – a plug of pungent shag-cut pain,
a pain to roll between the thumb and the forefinger.
Here: this pain you could pour down the city sewers,
where it would harden, and swell, and crack
those tubes like the flex of a city-wide snake,
and still you would wake and
there would be more for the pouring.
Some pain believes its only true measure is litigation.
For other pain, the glint of the lamp
in a single called-forth tear is enough.
Some pain requires just one mouth, at an ear.
Another pain requires the Transatlantic Cable.
No ruled lines exist by which to gauge its growth
(my pain at three years old. . . at five. . . ) and yet
if we follow the chronolinear path of Rembrandt's face
self-imaged over forty years - a human cell
in the nurturing murk of his signature thick-laid paint – 
we see the look-by-look development,
through early swank and rollick, of a kind of pain
so comfortable it's worn, at the last,
like a favorite robe, that's frayed by now, and intimate
with the frailties of its body, and has
an easy fit that the showiest cloak of office
never could. In 1658, the gaze is equally
into himself, and out to the world-at-large
 – they've reached a balance of apportioned
disappointment – and the meltflesh under the eyes
is the sallow of chicken skin, recorded
with a faithfulness, with really a painterly
tenderness, that lifts this understanding of pain
into something so accommodating, "love" is the word
that seems to apply to these mournfully basso
bloodpan reds and tankard-bottom browns. Today
in the library stacks, the open face of a woman
above this opened book of Rembrandt reproductions
might be something like the moon he looked to,
thinking it shared in his sadness. What's
her pain? her ohm, her acreage, her baker's dozen,
of actual on-your-knees-in-the-abattoir misery?
I don't know. I'm not writing this
pretending that I know. What I can say is that
the chill disc of the stethoscope is known to announce
an increment of pain not inappropriate
to being blurted forth along the city wall
by a corps of regalia' d trumpeters.
Who's to say what a "unit" of pain is?
On a marshy slope beyond the final outpost,
Rembrandt stares at the moon, and stares at the moon,
until the background drumming-in of the ocean
and the other assorted sounds of the Amsterdam night,
and then the Amsterdam dawn, are one
with his forlornness, and the mood fades
into a next day, and a woman here
in Kansas turns to face the sky: she's late
for her appointment. She's due
for another daily injection of nine c.c.'s of undiluted dol.