How absolute the knave is! he must speak by the card
or equivocation will undo us.
Why? the child asks, why is the sky so high? A pause,
and then he finds his feet: because it starts where the ground
stops. Which makes us flightless birds. To compensate we
make like insects and fish the air with enterprising wires.
But of course we have already stocked the lake. Are you in
the cord? the child asks, hearing him through the phone—
as though in already on the game: what
you find is what you make.
So it’s poet as child yet again, then? Why not poetry as R &
D? Why not, except the lab technician’s now the hexamet-
ric bard, blind primary pipetting out recombinants,
answering our urge to make it new, make it mine. So trust
the tale and not the godly toddler? What you get is never
only what you see; the humours of the eye make sure of
that, the tongue’s turns.
Even his own language defeats him daily, and he enjoys it.
Handles his tongue like a foreigner. Feels it thrum inside
another’s body, sees it shoot froglike out at the world’s
palpable intangibility and subtly gum the works. Unsure
how to square himself with its buried root, he works the
blade to try and wipe his lipslate clean, and still he finds
himself forced to winter over, blunt utterance stuck
flat to a conceptual fence. And suppose he were to learn his
tongue (a tongue not one but many), how would he know?
Right now the sun is low, the ship sailing into a narrow
pass, where the eagles and the seabirds talk amongst
themselves, unmindful of the marksman or his glass-eyed
shots—he thinks he needs a dead reckoning. The curling
tidelines catch more than any verse, hold you fast by force.
The robin not robin but plain unvaried thrush rises to the
cedarcrown and sings the sun down—or so we say to hold
our moving ground. The cedar too stands miscognito in the
blue, fossil fuel within a flayered tongue, old groats oiling
the way, dead ahead. ‘TENNNshun the wing commander
shouts, wrong as always; a good eye’s not got by agitating
the kidney tops. Ah fuck it! words spat out a million times
a day, force of habit. Says it all.
Or nothing. What kind of math is this, when empty sets
are full? A sparrow falls and God is thought to care. That
gets the human creature off the hook. But why hang the
albatross of oversight around His neck whose Word
requires recurring fades to black? What gives? the common
tongue might ask the scriptured, though it knows already:
everything. God’s will is always away; all falls before it.
Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes
erroneously. This from one of the apocrypha, the prophet
as vaudeville poet. And a toe by any other name?—one of
the bronchial tubes through which we breathe the earth; a
clitoral homologue rubbing us right whenever we move
(hence the wearing of shoes in civilized cultures); a stylus
shared by all legged creatures, though each steps in with its
own brand of choreography.
(The odd thing about his body is, he can’t find where it
ends, and not just in lovemaking. The sky weighs on him,
another lover, weathering his changes, never dwindling
down and out; the earth too is touchingly constant. The
older he gets, the more he’s pulled mooningly out of
shape, flooding suddenly into this or that, another, then
ebbing back into his solvent self, rip tide of purgeless
yearning, tongued, untongued at every turn.)
Vainly he fashions a dustjacket portrait for a book he has
yet to write: the man with his tools (stylus and prayer
beads in medieval icons, recently the smoke-plumed ciga-
rette). But he is struck allegorically dumb. His tools?
Trying to imagine he sees his endflapped likeness swell,
absorb the book until a reader cracks him open and slips
off into the fretwork, tongue-tied.
Why does one metaphor carry you away, another lose you
in the soundless narrow? Information highway: a turn he’s
missed a zillion times already. Spring informs the maple
tree outside, bursting through wherever wintered blocked
the way. But aren’t the branches just a backroad, no place
to cruise, don’t you have to wait till fall to download
(except with flowering trees: they double your return)?
The swordfern unsheathes its digital blades.
A boom of light falls through the leaves, mothering him.
You see the sky like that sometimes, leaf-lipped; his body
bruises where the kisses fail to rest. Stickiness falls from
the breathing leaves, glazing him, the wind a grazing glove
covering nothing, the vacancy so palpable it hurts and is
desired. Slowly the grassblades cleave the sleeping meat
from his bones, stones slip in like squatters. Next door
the mower clears its muffled throat.
Another kind of crossing: the standing manzanita mates
with kinnikinnick wherever they meet, and their offspring
goes between. The rose that is his love is neither rose nor
love, but fertile mule meant for bearing them together.
Should it puzzle him that the bridge between manzanita
and bearberry lacks a local name?
The pleasure of drystone joinery. Laying rock on rock, just
so, the quirks of the stone just placed, if it fits, shaping
space for a next. Sometimes he even knows where he’s
going: a small wall for ferns to spill over, a settlement for
stonecrop—and yet the hard joy of getting there.
Courtship and coupling at once, true to their own rhythm,
the weather, serendipity, stone’s grain. No question why
Demosthenes pebbled his tongue.
He watches a crow in the hawthorn. Not preening, as he
supposed, but working a twig free; the twig disappears,
beak-borne, and the crow returns. The crow is not a hired
hand, but still will do for reflection. There’s a moral there,
in the twigs carried to the crowkids who learn that bundled
they resist the easy breakage a single suffers. Damn: wrong
moral. Where’s the right one now? Ah, here it is, a bit
ramifications: starlings are partly the Bard’s fruit. Faced
with that he lets crow-watching go and turns to TV: too
slow. Raises an aerial then and settles in beneath it. Birds
mistake him for a statue and he soon grows sagely white-
haired; the neighbours think the trellis needs honeysuckling.
So far, so good—the reception, that is. The ozone thins,
the holes fill with the fattening flux of telecommunications,
and he crumbles slowly, content
to be a nurse log, no longer flighty but at least a punky
centre of biosemiosis. Heaven on earth. The trouble with
TV is, he finds it hard to shave before the flickering set.
More exciting, granted, than the bathroom mirror, where
his image fails to show, but unsettling to know yourself so
often. He takes to scraping with the sound off, radio on,
until the gap between its utterances and the flapping lips
grows too close to his own breaches.
Needs a reality check, someone says. Get real. Use your
common sense. Birds like that fall from the sky; peck at
the grain in his ear; make it seem like shopping on easy street.
But when he tries to get real it’s out of stock. Common
sense is held by acronyms and analphabetics: Ltds, CEOs,
SOBs. One-off shares have shrunk, no longer tender. So
much for recycling.
Officially the coins were stamped with a dead tongue:
homo sapiens, though on the black humour market there
was a towering ivory trade in woollen nickels signed
philosopher and everywhere else the Jetstream flotsam
marked talking head; but he’d always banked on the return
of the clipped argot, long gone for a technical term: wise
guy. All right, all right! a penny for the guy! So often fired,
and still he aspires to being solvent for a change.
Climbing from the bath, the child catches sight of its knee:
who builded me? Can’t say, he might’ve answered, launching
a raft of words on inherited articulation: we’re always
moved before we know it, bagpipes blown in broken time
and bonesong sung in beaten blood, tongued and unstrung
pinocchios of a past we never learn to forget, seedy outcasts
hung up on bodies that open, abandon us to need,
dreams: reality forever reeled over in camera. The hard
part is changing the daylight filters—if you can find them
in the neurotropical forest. Wetsuit and aqualungs get
stripped from us at birth, the breathtaking drop in medias
res when we cry quits with the cord, and by the time we
lose our sealegs we’re being borne by metaphor wherever
we’d go. Oh what shall we do with the drunken sailor?
Lock’m in words beyond the captious waters? Free’m on a
ridge with memory’s daughters? Run’m out of town on
He was just a young man with a pen
who wanted to sing things again
but when he sang for his supper
from Old Mother Hubbard
she said: enough of the leavings of men!
Bah bah blackbird hum the diesel caterpillars while they
scrape their fill. Forward marsh. To mark it, to mar it, then
Rome again, Rome again, piggety dig. Does nature abhor
the vacuum that cleans it dry? The first washing machine
he knew had a labour-saver—a mangle. Was this an alter-
native press? He’d ink the high rollers, but his returns were
always interest-free: cleanbreasted spreadsheets. Never did
get a handle on it.
Gobstopper: a name he’d squirreled away from his moth-
er’s other tongue. Jawbreaker here. Either way, though,
dandy for the mouths of babes, fill against claims that rise
from gaps, gobs, jawbones whose infant eyeteeth are as
knives. Nuisance grounds—that’s an old name too: sani-
tary landfill, where the glaucous-winged gulls wheel and
feed. His owlish eyes get cloudy—did someone say
glaukópis Athene?—his head’s a little leaky. Humour him.
He thought he’d arrived the day he raised his trademarked
hood ornament: a plumb bust of Priapus. Now he too
could hustle hermeneutically between the gods and ordi-
nary plods as mercurial arbiters charged with tele-heli-
development jumpstarted dead metaphors by satellite.
Global accords: a fine mesh, that. But nothing to get hung
up on, no? Ships’ shrouds were once crossroped, a highway
out if the float went down: rutlins the sailors said, though
the word was written ratlines.
And flying hap’ly up ’em’s got its jargon too: skylarking.
Aboveboard or down and out of the
crowsnest to give the old guywires a run for the money, uncaucused crowkids
unhidden In the light of thought, Singing hymns unbidden
Till the world is wrought. Safe home! the Irish say; home
safe, the Yanks. A scattered tongue in double-crossing,
trolling the tidal pool; x marks the wanting spot, just per-
haps the gap to see. Well sailor?