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Three Poems

Edgar Poe Tries to Get His Act Together

    for Sam Bemiss

Mr. Poe sits in Mrs. Shelton's parlor, freshly
purchased hat on freshly creased knees,
the place smelling somehow, he's decided,
like a chemist's cupel. The sullen weight
of the room's horsehair and mahogany
gathers in his eyes.

          would his hands and feet be cold
                       in the heart of a Richmond summer?

He almost told the girl a sassafras full of seraphim
detained him till the hour was nearly gone.
(He planned to smile, then, charmingly.)
The old flame he hopes will warm him
wouldn't have heard of the crazed crudities
of William Blake—but she knows Poe's
never seen angels, though he's always
given dead women every chance to shine.

How dark can a parlor be? he's thinking,
knowing this gloom is all the rage,
yearning with shame for the bright lamps
of the Temperance meeting, crust
of bread, gouge of greasy cheese, anything
to ease the hot pinch in the pit of his stomach.
Maybe she'll tell the girl to bring some tea.

                  cluster thick as flies at the edge
                                 of a blinding plain of salt.

That nagging out in the street: boys
arguing about their dogs and the fishing
in the James. Not one of them may live to Advent.
But they've got youth's good odds written
all over them in wholesome dirt, no doubt,
and Poe, as clean in person as he's been
in a fortnight, feels eternity pooling
in his shiny boots black as the ink he's been
unable to scrape from beneath those longish nails.
He curls his fingers under the Panama's brim,
into the O he thinks of vaguely, not without
humor, as a mouth that wants to swallow
his brain.

              He looks to the shadowy archway
where she'll appear soon. She's not herself
anymore, the cool paleness he lost forever,
not sweet Annie, not one of those airy creatures
he's always had in mind, spirits floating
in his mother's fragrance of orrisroot, is, in fact,
a thickening widow, one who sees, he believes,
in that desperate look he's had to face
in the hotel's cloudy mirrors the beguiling pain
she found in his younger eyes. He'll settle,
he's convinced himself, for a firm, flush soul,
shrewd, yes, but kind.

                         Shadow men
         and their cumbered mules
               drag words
                     he'll never make out
         taller and taller across the whiteness
                                        toward a bloated sun.

The Rewiring

    for Ann Tretiak & Emily Kennedy

Clattering zing of the tram, motorino flash
and growl, exhaust and garlic gusts, sweat tang,
urine and bread on the breeze and the sweet grief
of tarnished saxophone, accordion's tattered wheez,
         ing noonquake of Gianicolo cannon and
bells, all the push and babbleshriek, all the duets
of greeting, markethaggle, flawless sybaritic clusters
of grapes, pomodori, all the catstretched Ciaos and
the perfect stiletto posture clicking the heaving cobbles
that leave you wobbling
                                    past a gallows of salami,
a fishschool of bananas, over the walled-in, restless,
resentful river, imperial jags and jumbles through
ringing rills of sunlight spraybounced into fountain,
showered, veiled over marble muscle, so much
texture, so much color, so much ...
                                                    Rome fancies
your every Puritanical, carnal inch, rewires you,
viruses you, rushes you with visionary blazes, cascades
of memory, incandescent logic—everything you've ever
read, beheld, conceived, foreseen comes at you from
the battered flutes of a fallen column, the haughty toss
of a handsome head, the cunning, theatrical stoop
of a beggar, flaking paint, abundant verdant
balcony ...
                 And here's the soaring, vain intimidation
of the Circus side of the Palatine, the shaped green
absence at its feet hauling eyesight out of your head
like harpoon rope, like fireworks. How can you see
for all this seeing? Already you need the nap that's
five weeks in the future ...
                                        STOP. Light crumbles
against the faceless faces of the Tiber Island herms:
Here: Touch their chalky cheeks: Touch them:
Catullus may have: And Clodia, Cicero, Ovid,
Cleopatra, Anna Magnani ...
                                          But Roma shoulders you on,
pulls and jostles you, courses through the cords and
channels of your sagging, aching body with all the be-
wildering intensities of childhood and sex, searing
awareness of eternity's turbulence, irrevocable change,
heartless, yes, heartless continual renewal ...

Little Gidding

    in memory of George Ocran Squires

Anger was my itinerary, lugubrious, stumping
the last first, the first following—that Gloucestershire
manor I'd trespass in the persistent, dripping dark,
five, six miles beyond the ballista of a Roman road.
(Stay with me. This is the last time I'll gouge
this Uniball fixation into groundwood.)
Two weeks before burrowing along those
sunken tracks beyond Yeovil ... empty garden,
vacant village, alone, alone in St. Michael's,
staring alone at the Eliot plaque. What was that
pretentious thing I scrawled in the guest book?
I think I praised the Possum for his paganish
cremation, forgave his haughtiness, his Christianity,
his goddamn three-piece suit. O, insufferable, I
was, and suffering, from Crawley to Harrogate,
Dartmoor to Guestling Thorn, miles and miles
of mugging misery.
                               I lugged the strongbox
of my grief out of Gatwick in the February murk.
Eons before Google, I could sure as hell read the gospel
of a map, Little G divined between the Great
and the Steeple, those two marked where the third
was hidden. The M1 to Alconbury, then down
the rough road looking for a sign ...
I had a clutch of pitiful jokes: Burnt Nothing,
East Croaker, A Little Giddy. Twisting loony was I,
crashing the rental at a roundabout in Yorkshire,
where I went to pester with my sensitive insensitivity
more of the literary dead. Stranded in my birth month,
darkest time of the year, cut off from my poems,
ice flaming in my chest, carrying my best friend's
ashes in ziplock bags, how well that deader man
guided me past the pig sty to the dull façade. (Did I
go inside? Nothing in my head, nothing.) I put
what a mortician told me was my mentor
in the little bog beyond the sloping churchyard.
Dead water, a tiny Dismal Swamp. Gray-white
powder, bone gravel ...
It had happened nearly a year before, the week
of his—can you believe it—retirement party. "He's
dead," I said to the upstairs neighbor, his mouth
open as if to sing, a big black comma to his ear, that
flinchy fellow who told the receiver with a
communal precision I admired even then, not
"He's dead" or ''I'm told he's dead," but "We think
he's dead." The body groaned when I pulled its
shoulder, cheek adhering to a puddle of syrup,
emptied of his poetry. (He'd like my thinking that.)
What was that putrid sweetness? Such a small man
in the late morning sunlight, the window a glare
that was blindness.
                               Not even my dead mother
has stepped outside my dreams, but George came
once, only once, my life's only ghost. I looked up
from a book I've forgotten completely and there
he was, two strides away in the middle of the den,
frowning, his lazy eye accusing.
                                                 I had nothing
to be ashamed of, a phone call forgotten, a slight
slipping. I knew as I took him in he wasn't there,
grafted from guilt, woven of wonder. I have never
feared my own mind ...
The shrink smiled: "Why do you want to believe that?"
"What exactly is it you shrink?" I spat.

He was lonely and he died. How can the heart
of England be the end of the Earth? Such silence,

in the brown fields, in my scoured head.
A lifetime later, I drive my wife there, but

everything's different, I'm different, I'm not dead.
Hedgerows flourish and the narrow ways are smooth.

We have tea with a clucking lady who knows
some people we know in Richmond. Fancy that.
And biscuits. So. I saw Farrar's stone table, for all
the world like a pagan altar before its tiny temple.
And the bog and the bone chips and the talc floating
like a spirit. Then, I was off toward the late sun,
the early falling sun, dragging a huge cape of
despair behind me, grinding my grief like teeth
all night, off with another packet of ashes to cross
a line the legions slashed on Eliot's darkness.
Always lurching off after coffee, improvising,
doubling back, up to the Brontes' bone yard,
down to Tintagel, nothing but a sea-thrashed rock
for tourists to snap. When I wasn't a leaking corpse
I was a knot of thorny fire ...

Therapy, irony, homage, mockery, masochism,
the light gone by four o'clock, the beds lumpy, strangers
I might have befriended shot concern—even fear—out of
their eyes. I reeked of sorrow and self-righteousness,
don't remember laughing once in all those days.
Numb driving goggled by gloom. Then, pub grub
in a circle of seclusion, an hour by a fire, whiskey
and bitters and a buzzing bed. Oh, Eliot's if, if, if, if, if
and that idiot Keats said the poetry of earth is never
dead. Why was I there? What did I do? I verified
Modernism's mimesis. I did not kneel, except
to pour out death, which refused the earth,
stippled dark water, floated away on a breath
I could not feel. I had no ritual but my presence,
my sodden life pushing through nettles and husks,
bare branches to the verge of a fen. I've still got
three pounds of graveled power in a closet
somewhere. Half to England, half still here.
I wrote it all down in another century's language.
Now, I write it again. My friend is dead. I make it new.

Ron Smith

Its Ghostly Workshop
Louisiana State University Press

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