Six Poems, by Frederick Pollack.
They aren't famous figures, except to us
(I mean the people here) because they show up.
They’re part of a cadre that includes famous,
televised figures. I don’t say the word “cadre”
because some people here might not know it,
and a sure way not to be accepted
is to know a word others don’t.
They never use such terms,
the speakers. They use grand
simple words, and pronounce them
as if their breath were a vase,
each word a flower, and their joy
in arranging them nonpareil
(another word I know). And the people here,
even those who drool unwiped and snore,
causing querulousness or hilarity,
or stare uncomprehending, recognize
the bouquet. That the power of the mind
is the greatest power in the universe,
that it is the universe. That we decide
whether or not to look on the bright side
and make it the only one.
They regale us with stories of fortunes grown from nothing,
of blind or differently-abled self-overcomers.
When it’s raining out or someone dies,
their metaphors stress the sun;
when our a/c, as so often, fails, cool breezes …
They wheel me in (I mean the attendants here)
with my various tanks and tubes,
to listen. I could choose not to attend,
to be uncooperative, negative,
and so I guess I’ve chosen to attend.
Could deliver my own uninspiring talk
about how little it matters,
but that would take a voice above a croak.
Instead I throw myself into the spirit
of the thing. Would affirm anything, sign anything,
if I could raise my hand.
Keep On Keeping On
The three blue-and-white Marine helicopters
high over the Potomac,
at the level of my window.
One can’t be sure He’s aboard,
if any of them are, or which they are in,
and of course the birds are fast and armored.
And loud, with that special loudness
of explosions, a tank on one’s street,
or guns more serious or at least numerous
than those of the gangs and random snipers.
One goes to movies to get close to that noise,
to be briefly possessed by it,
and to purge pity and fear.
Among the passengers
in the choppers, presumably, the search
continues for acceptance by the father,
continually overwritten by imitation
of the loveless mother;
the triumph of will over an essential
absence of will; the delight
in loyalty, the beauty
of service for their own sake;
the comfort of a cruel joke
agreed in advance to be harmless;
and a resulting freedom from psychologizing, even
from motive. So that doors are opened, phones answered;
and, wherever they land on this gray day,
a fire will be lit … I wonder
what in my small experience
compares. The boss
of a real-estate investment firm
I typed for in the Seventies showed me a prayer
composed by and distributed among
Wall Street honchos. “Lord, have we done enough
this year? Could we have done more?”
I pointed out that “doing” was undefined,
that there was no value-term.
And his look
said my remark
was inscrutable, idiosyncratic.
When the bridge collapsed, the engineer
tracked down and phoned
a guy he had roomed with in college.
The call at first resembled
the Ninth Step in AA, where one makes amends,
but was more comprehensive and convulsive.
I made fun of you, the engineer said.
Your impracticality, your idealism.
But I’ve lived to see cracks in the dams, the beaches gone,
clogged rusting rails, E coli
and mercury in the faucets, billions
of gallons of untreated sewage, brownsites
under houses, sinkholes in roads, and people
freezing or baked in blackouts.
I told them the cables were fraying,
that the bed wouldn’t hold SUVs.
They didn’t want to hear. There was no money.
The Feds laughed. It was my job. I’m fifty.
I buried the memo. I realized
there is no rationality
or rather that everyone’s rational, each
in his own short-term way.
Then after it happened I thought of you
and I called to say I’m sorry.
The ex-roommate tried to be upbeat.
He employed the male convention
common when someone calls after thirty years
of talking as if you’d spoken yesterday.
He knew he could say nothing useful.
Was touched that someone like the engineer
would regard a humanities type,
still, as a keeper of values.
He imagined a new artistic movement,
a return to the Constructivism of the ‘20s.
Scientistic, elitist, slightly scolding,
it would have the quixotism
that guarantees the life and death of a style.
With poems about Wiring or Solar Panels;
a detailed, impersonal
novel called The Distribution of Stress.
The night before I had improvised
a bedtime story, a fairy tale.
The first part was OK, predictable:
the giant’s gross comfort
as he hollowed out mountains
to sleep on, picked his teeth with pines.
Then I had him become aware that the tiny creatures
he encountered somehow had feelings,
and that it mattered. The two smallest –
neat in a sailor suit and neater
in a pinafore, and completely unafraid –
enlightened him. He couldn’t believe
that beings so little could exist at all,
or that, if he leaned close and listened closer
and was very still, he could hear them.
But what should he do then?
Take mincing, anxious steps wherever he went?
Not move, and atrophy or starve?
Become a kind of power plant,
I couldn’t think it through.
“What’s a pinafore?” the girl asked.
Overstimulated, she and her brother
discussed what the giant could do,
and yelled and giggled, interrupting each other.
The next day we all walked
on the trail behind the house.
Their parents were still amused.
“Where did you get the ‘sailor suit’?” asked Joan.
“Some sort of archetype took over,”
I said. “What should he have worn?
Night-goggles? Junior camo gear?
I failed miserably, didn’t I.” –
“No, you were just hung up
on trying to find some ending or a moral.
With kids you sort of have to think with the heart.”
I saw the gentle, guarded look
reserved for those unused to kids,
and agreed that in my work the term
and concept “heart” are generally avoided.
The sun played peek-a-boo.
In our parkas we looked, inevitably, like grenades.
At one point, several dogs appeared,
unleashed and big, apparently masterless.
They tasted us and panted
but decided we were part
of the overall pack. Then their people
caught up, notably colorless
and unapologetic. A recent storm
had added some new trees, still bare and straight,
to those long downed and lying across the creek,
covered with moss and turning into earth.
The kids walked on ahead,
still talking about the giant … probably not.
I asked how close they were
to the targeted ads, increasingly
more expensive electronics,
reality shows, anorexia, trainer bras,
rap. I knew I could rely
on some attempt at literacy; but otherwise
whether they could be “protected,”
how much they should be and how much it mattered.
The girl kept her distance
throughout my stay, but I felt
at times that she was thinking
intensely about what, if anything,
I represented. The boy sat near me often.
We talked about outer space and the possibility
of aliens; and once or twice,
to Joan’s distress, about weapons –
lasers and tactical nukes and neutron bombs.
Once he did homework while I was reading;
I couldn’t help. He was reputed to be a writer
but showed me nothing,
and once we walked together to the store.
When I left, his thin arms wrapped
at length and unexpectedly around me
clutched at my heart.
She is the goddess of a certain kind
of night without a moon or passing cars,
even the planes rerouted
to gentle landings at distant airports.
Darkness. And then her presence in the room,
across the room, the light
from somewhere adequate to hint
at thigh and breast, at the incomparable.
It is as if the latent, vast
machinery of night terrors, of childhood
itself had been retooled
to produce its opposite, the good.
She speaks – it’s a rule
of these appearances. To some
in the treble, bemused by the body,
of Marilyn Monroe,
to those with higher tastes with a low
breathlessness – as if
the tightness in both your bellies
forced these few words.
But she must speak, though a goddess, and you
must assure her
that she can only get pregnant
if she wants to;
that there is no such thing,
for her, as disease;
that you will go back in time
to erase all its instances
and those of rape, frigidity,
impotence, violence – all ugliness.
For the gods are not interested
only in youthful bodies,
the crassest words, the promises
one makes when moved to promise anything.
All The Things You Are
A historian is getting me wrong.
It isn’t a biography; she’s using me
as a representative case.
Which is wrong. I can’t say why, exactly,
I think it’s a she. I’m trying
to see through her assumptions
to her century, centuries hence,
but it’s like reading surface conditions
from the bottom of a well. There seem
to be any number of genders
they can put on and take off
at will; the best I can say
is that she doesn’t condescend to us.
There’s something about food
I actually don’t want to understand,
and references to freedom I wish I could.
She seems to believe that Christian gangs
stop me every few blocks to ask
some shibboleth-question and, when I can’t answer,
beat me. – Off by a decade or two,
I hope. She has me stagger into a Starbucks
where people are coming to blows over
Serrano’s Piss Christ. A kid with a Mohawk
(she capitalizes) drops dead. My talk,
during a two-hour holding pattern
over National (she’s right; we never
called it “Reagan”), with someone who could not
understand the importance of, what was it? facts?
science? culture? never
happened as such, except in a poem.
And there are all those allusions
to an obscure plague or singer
and yet another blithering post-post-structuralist.
What’s heartening is that she seems,
after all the horrors to come, to value accuracy.
Finally I’m not sure how
the historian sees me, or what I represent.
I try – it’s hard to describe – to signal her,
to make her change her mind, but it’s difficult.
The interzone is like a well, or rather
a mineshaft, and I’m lost in it;
only my words go on ahead.
However, I’m not alone
down here. Some poor old scholar
from the circle of Diogenes of Syria
(the last pagans – see The Uses of the Past
by Muller), a minor Spinozist
the Inquisition got, a troubadour
too egregiously Catharist, are scraping
at different levels. We tap to each other, trying
to organize an escape route.
Like the Underground Railroad,
or the ones that got a few Jews out
(or, for that matter, SS-men). Break for the surface.
It’s hard to plan, hard even to imagine,
unless that’s what death is.
Frederick Pollack is the author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure and Happiness, both published by Story Line Press. Other of his poems and essays have appeared in Hudson Review, Southern Review, Fulcrum, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Die Gazette (Munich), Representations and elsewhere. Poems have most recently appeared in the print journals Iota (UK), Orbis (UK), Naked Punch (UK), Magma (UK), and The Hat, and are forthcoming in Bateau. Online, poems have appeared in Big Bridge, Snorkel, Hamilton Stone Review, Diagram, BlazeVox, The New Hampshire Review, Denver Syntax, Barnwood, elimae, Wheelhouse, Mudlark, Shadow Train and elsewhere.
Pollack is an adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University, Washington, DC. This is his first appearance in Offcourse.
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