The Burning Rock
The river mingles its stubborn lament with the sea.
I tend to acquire insights about what I’m writing as I write.
A nation becomes itself as its history unfolds, displaying more and more squares of its map of meaning.
Poetry and prose wash up against each other. As do history and imagination.
Sea and continent work together even while at odds to shape the world’s totality.
The pilgrim’s foot defines the path to God, and begins by leaving home.
Just so, poetry walks its path through prose.
Our general sense of things comes to us somehow in the great grab-bag of prose accounts and facts:
The dirty litter of newspapers, the broken ballyhoo of blogs, cocksure conversations at the bar sitting elbow to bended elbow with uncrowned laureates.
But our sense of what these things mean to us comes from selection and arrangement of the mosaic facts.
Inspiration and insight arrive together to complete the picture jumbled in the puzzle box.
It is when we kneel alone with our ignorance that the church’s spire rises to its height.
And that’s the poetry of it.
Irreducible and unique, yet blatantly commonplace as love:
The unpainted masterpiece brimming in the palette’s rainbow….
As fire lies unstruck in the flint, so poetry lies asleep in prose.
And when that fire is awakened, the rock burns.
a windy March day, 2020
On the broken mountaintop a moment’s, ahh, sun has granted softness.
The family unpacks on broadcloth a questionable picnic.
Aren’t they funny with their red noses and long scarves, bearing the inhospitable airs?
I turn my back, a weary Walcott, and pull off hat and gloves to push snow from a black and newly baptized trilobite.
Here’s the old green seafloor carbonized and pushed into the skyline like a torch!
Several trilobites, all strangely legged, gleam in the sweat of the peak; odd fauna surround them, unseen in eons, flat as chalkboard diagrams.
Here’s a family of fossils that needs looking into, and no mistake.
I look over the long shady shale slope of Burgess Pass, and I see a wave of rock cutting the scene in two: it’s slow canted arch a humpback breaching.
Calm the golden eye that kindles the recalcitrant sun.
Sam stands on a strong passage of branch at the Chesapeake Bay bird preserve, his claw a hanging gauntlet….
A million years and more he roved the northern continent.
A million years before totempole arose, before Indian hand had carved hooked beak and wide eye, or handed his feathers around as rare honors, sewn in band and cap.
On my donated dollar, his arrows, shield and olives give flat testament to his potency.
His scream is like an emergency brake failing downhill, wheel within wheel.
A child pushes a button to play a brief documentary.
The kiosk startles into tinny life: can a strapped camera capture what this eagle stares and sees?
To Sam, the scaled hide of a fish is so different from the lake wave breaking….
“I break these eyelet glitters to eat and conquer!
The fish flies dancing in my cage of talons, rippling mightily!
I start to rip the red seam of life upon the hooded rock!
When I myself am ripped into the sky, from the root of nest and mate removed, the wind will remember the soft crown of my feathers.”
Flint, Jasper, Chalcedony, Chert
Along my brown thigh the new stone lingam lances.
Flakes, torn tears of rock, drop steadily beside my feet, a gilt litter.
Knock knock, knock knock.
Pecking with the hard beak of the precussor, my Clovis point begins to show its bow, the arrow of a Valentine heart.
In skinned skiffs they made their way here, tracing the frost rim of the ice age Pacific, paddles bladed as my tapped jasper leaf. Single file as beads on a shell necklace, perhaps….
Limitless strokes dividing the cold water, as this spearhead will divide lives.
Sunset floods the valley town, showing the bold desert mesa’s flossy erosion.
We read at night about the boy scout who found the first pile of knives beside a Mammoth graveyard—here in New Mexico, not far from our school camp—almost a century ago.
I see his eyes glinting, the careful lantern flame held close to the cliff face.
I feel his breath in my ear, the knock of his teeth as he smiles.
The Mississippian Birdman
Etowah copper, flash and response in a drowsy sun.
I wear my hammered plate and tug on my falcon beak.
I wear winged divinity at my brow, penny-bright and priceless; a little birdman, parrot-man, falcon.
Earrings blazon and drip from my lobes, live fires swinging snakelike.
My feathers, stitched and laced, are the birdman’s busy wings grown fourfold shiny as the locust’s.
Proud my clipped step, clawing the owned earth.
Heaven makes me, heaven takes me.
Here I parade for the mausoleum’s jubilee, bucking and crying with a wet mace in one hand and a fresh death’s-head in the other.
Here the fathers are buried with all their cries.
I cry out: fathers!
Cry out with me, shaking rattle and clapstick.
Do you feel the god beginning to awaken?
Step behind me, if you are mine, mound-builders, maize-masters!
Carry your master to the house of his fathers, cocooned in noon robes.
Go down, dead king, if you would return with the spring corn. Down, down.
Let nine bones mellow and flesh tallow.
Let rain overrun each sightless socket.
Regal spirit, follow me! Follow me and twice-born be!
Hear the mound breathe; beat your coppery wings, dead king, beat the cymbals crashing, feather on feather.
Feel the moulting clouds, all coppery now, low, and heavy with new birth.
Jump up into those clouds:
You are god with me now.
Celestial choir! enthron’d in realms of light,
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write.
The four corners of this portrait show stars and elbows and a trackless blank above.
An etching of an etching, it poses the captain restless and pointing: sheer stars to steer a ship by, the fate wheel of a brass nocturlabe in his fist.
The etching’s small fine lines throw a Hercules fur over his left shoulder, engrave finger-thick erosion runnels in cheek and forehead.
His full beard and hair, famously blonde, turned fright-wig white at thirty, pleading before queen after queen for cash.
His eyes, confused by distance and desire, couldn’t quite make out a new continent at first—reaching after rubies through a grid of lattitudes.
All his life he reared before the sail like a seahorse, a salt tang in his nostrils.
His scheme was to outflank the Ottomans, snip the Silk Road with scissoring ships, and rake rich spices home for Spain.
On Hispaniola, Columbus found the people credulous and easily led to God; the Taino he deemed fit for slavery, and whipped them for their benefit.
When dicey centuries rolled to ’76, Phyllis Wheatley in her parlor saw the radiant real:
“Gen’l Washington, I write today to say, I’ve met our foundling nation’s goddess; her name’s Columbia!“
Hard years and hard luck broke Chris’ sailor’s body down. And King Ferdinand stiffed him in the end.
His unsettled tomb toured the Caribbean, cradling uneasily to rest in Havana until the Spanish-American War, which sent him back to Seville at last.
St. Anthony Painted on Buffalo Hide
Last night buffalo steak and boiled beans in blood gravy.
The Mojave braves, lean as cacti, barter sheafs of buffalo rawhide balanced on their heads, fat satchels of pemmican.
“These we found easily,” they tell brother Oñate. “They knelt to our arrows as if to river water.”
They gathered round the holy writ like naughty boys, pointing and laughing at “chicken scratches” we tell them are words of God.
I unpack scraped, cured rawhide (how it shone blank beside the candelabra!) ready for pigment and picture to praise the Lord.
All night I kneel before the ornate retablo altar, knead soul and heart in meditative prayer.
The mission tower stands silent as a spent candle.
There are no candles now but the hollow moon through the door….
How shall I bring these hard desert men to Christ?
My eyes pause at the open bible’s vellum pages, veneration on veneration, until leaning shadows resemble St. Anthony reading beside me, words on his tongue and words in the air.
Is it himself or myself who is saying:
Pure from the book sprang Jesus like a bird.
At dawn I arrange my workspace, shuffle the ready hides, bring brush and bone point to bear.
Soon enough, St. Anthony and baby match my vision, stained and dried.
Umbrella clouds above his tonsured head repeat the saint’s naked arch of skull.
The uncrying baby is a scumble of pale highlights, a rayed halo of clay yellows targeting his little beauties.
It was desert for Jesus as it is desert for us, surrounding and simplifying.
And pictured there, too, on the flayed skin, is the book, the center of all.
The book I shall teach them to read.
Pocahontas’ Portrait in the
Baziliogia, a Booke of Kings
Princess Pocahontas stands transformed and poised in this good brown book of monarchs.
Her capitol dome hat of stiff black felt seems tall as a cathedral cross.
Her only feathers are a three-plume ostrich fan bound in a brass handle, held ready like a scourge.
Her husband, Mr. Rolfe, has baptized and married her and brought her to London’s court in a coat of shiny finery.
The book shows her level gaze and long nose, staring away the centuries; her page, cresting a smooth hill of pages, has been turned open by a gloved docent’s hand. It presents her as the British empire’s wife, an attractive travel ad for voyagers and investors.
Golden tobacco promised gold in earnest, if wild colonial natives took to God.
Did she roll big cigars and smoke among her pals back home in old Virginny?
Is this lordly woman the same who laid her bare head, ear to ear, to save a battered Captain Smith?
The kidnapped princess who married her captor and stopped a war?
Compassion and curiosity have carried her effortless across the Atlantic’s intervening sea.
When King James kisses her hand, she curtsies like a queen and carries on.
From the Mother Rock
Plymouth Rock lies cemented that had been split.
It’s traveling half had neighbored a Liberty Pole when the Boston massacre occurred.
Here a buckled shoe lightly alighted and leapt onward to fallow cornrow fields, where man and maid bent steadily as sandpipers to pocket the providential grain, singing perhaps “He chastens and He hastens” as the burlap fattened.
Like a moonrock, it seems less impressive than pressed upon.
Bland and dated, Corinthian shadows cross its bulk, while busy visitors stare down a moment and are gone.
None now linger, as none then lingered.
When Thomas Faunce at 94 pointed out the place his father had pointed out, did he think:
It’s the aftermath of having been that makes a remnant regal.
Dozens of bits of this great grey brain sit in municipal veneration, deeding ideas of freedom to mayor and citizen.
Should we pulverize the mother rock and spritz from sea to sea her sacred dust to seed our children’s children’s thirst for liberty?
One cold Monday ago—on the anniversary of the Mayflower Compact—a weird smear of red graffiti disfigured the stone in a maelstrom of blood.
Today, the humming powerwasher’s work is nearly done, its beige high-pressure hose laid down and leaking lavishly….
Plymouth Rock lies renewed to a sea-bright sheen, as if ten dozen tongues had taken some dim midnight communion here.
I smell the restless sea, hear the Boston schoolboys’ quick cavalcade of feet arrive, and think:
Perhaps the old rock’s provocations are potent yet.
At first glance, I would have thought these a section of wrought iron garden edging, ornamental protection for potatoes and yams.
Heavily and brutally made, and now discarded as too primitive.
Reaching out to read the card beneath the case, I see that they are “slave shackles, circa 1650.”
Were they found in a plantation swamp, locked around an escaped skeleton’s wrists?
Bending down to read the fine print, the context of fact and history, the DNA of deeds, I see that these are leg shackles of the Middle Passage.
Suddenly, I’m lying down in a wooden boat, rocked and dark.
My ankle, raw as if incessantly pecked, is locked, not to my other ankle, but to the dead leg of a stranger.
His agony has come and gone, although we sang him what choral palliative we could.
When our midday deck hour comes to eat and breathe salt air, I must carry him up, his cold arm across my shoulders.
After the scandalous whack of a hammer, I see him thrown over the rail into the sea.
In a moment, he is lost to the waters’ churn, a lash of whites; I turn my back and begin to chew….
Stepping away from the dusty museam display, my mouth retains a taste of starchy roots.
Americae Nova Tabula
(Blaeu’s 1648 map)
All this had been blankness.
The parchment had been, so carefully, scraped and left empty.
Every sign of animal and first use had been negatively removed with the hypnotic movement of hands holding edged tools.
Onto this structured blank, halo-like inks outline the known continents.
Green, red, a kind of soft gold.
Into these halos, like a loss of innocence, sink the wrinkled parachutes of nations, roiled black at their edges as if burnt.
America, says one, with the Great Lakes drawn and named.
They are no bigger than a string of beads, a string of lights laid toward the still blank interior.
America, says another, with Brasilia sticking out its cauliflower ear.
The oceans are Mar del Zur and del Nort, gridded with curving squares.
Fanciful ships, dark as curls of wet wood, fly flags of many nations, carousing head-to-head with sea monsters.
Minutely calligraphied names of places fringe the coasts like hairs on a balding head:
Jamestown, Bolivia, several Rios, Chesapeake.
And strange places, too, unknown today. Norem Bega and El Dorado are two.
There are no whales in these scrolled and denoted oceans, although they must have been met with, their pulsars of plumes greeting the intrepid sails.
The hunt was not yet on for them: forehead and fluke, the secret node of ambergris lumped in the sperm whale’s brain like Aladdin’s lamp.
Around the outer edges of the map are many windows.
Each one contains a married pair of tribesmen in their native garb.
The king and queen of Florida are here, and are so designated.
Two nude Peruvians, with their small child between, gaze outward in quiet ease.
Although, none of the trio are smiling.
There’s much to-do with uniforms:
Dressing for dinner, and dancing while the band waltzes.
Gives the men a little tidy dignity when setting them before the cannon-mouth, clothes-pins set before a hurricane.
Dark blue and buff, Washington’s uniform wears a long double row of coinlike yellow-copper buttons down the front; more coins circle each heavy cuff, dual rings of fire.
It has a spilt tail, squared and nothing like the devil.
If a lizard stood in this coat, with a tri-cornered hat, it could cross the Delaware in easeful dignity, rowed over unquestioningly by a boatful of happy continentals.
But make no mistake, it was no easy day to stand in this uniform:
Face-first toward the fire of vigilant enemies, your deep blue back crowded by resentful subordinates.
The wool collar is a tall rise-and-fall design, elegant as a waving hand.
A white smoke-explosion of ruff crowds the throat.
All-in-all, I feel afraid of the fearsome hours this coat has seen.
Watching an elegant Major Andre hung, dropping the sword.
A Crab-Tree Walking Stick
A revolution in the air swirls a discarded broadside.
The war is over; the air whips itself delicately, without tirades.
A heavy man passing by is tapping the ground with a lightning rod, searching for stray voltage.
No, it is a walking stick, and the man is Dr. Benjamin Franklin, the American. He seems trussed in his suit like a turkey, gabbling and bouyant.
He holds his walking stick up to the streetlight, and twirls it slowly, amusingly. What is it? His eye makes its examination: no crown tips the cane.
Instead, it is topped with a miniature gilded version of Franklin’s fur cap. The famous raccoon cap, all the way from New Jersey!
I can see how it was:
He has departed an intimate party with the dowager Duchess of Deux-Points, and she has given him this fine cane.
Three of them laughing after the war, kissing Parisian champagne.
And she says, holding the cane out in her white arms:
“For the lightning-rod maker, black lightning to walk by.”
A Row of Conestoga Wagons
The Conestoga wagon is sea blue with red wheels, and is a convertible.
It followed the Iroquois trail from Philly to Augusta, roaring where moccasins had crept.
Chaps with Irish brougues and clattering German accents rolled through the Shenandoah to Carolina beaches.
Wild pine trees and new emptiness welcomed them.
A child would have to be lifted up, hoisted, into the dark belly of the wagon, like the sacks of coal or pig iron that would make the return journey to mill and forge, hunching forgotten among roped bundles.
Families that moved on the southern route disembarked to run callused thumbs along the shadowy veins in tobacco leaves.
Or they’d start a plot of cotton, puffs of follicled mist encased in husks that cut.
The wagons look, with their tilting brims, like a row of old maids nodding off, crosstitch hoops sliding to the porch floor.
The huge rear wheel I stand beside arcs above my head, almost higher than my arm can reach.
It is the fierce aftertrace of a red sparkler lit and whipped at midnight….
The hub, deep with grease, puts out an impossible circle of crimson fingers.
Each finger is arthritic, stiff, yet eager to grip the earth.
The highway we took here filled the same wheels’ gouges with asphalt.
Eli Whitney, Lost at Court
Eli is lost at court among a forest of marble pillars.
And lost among great, shelving foam-blades—
Papers filed in suit and counter-suit, an endless watery clash of claims and adjudications.
Eli arrives with his patent, pristine in his briefcase.
His face is still an egg of hope; this judge, this time.
Under his sweaty arm is clamped a working model of his fabulous cotton gin.
It is squarish, made of stained brown wood, with a metal works of many rows of little teeth:
Baby vampire teeth, or the interior cob-end of corn kernels dried hard and pulled out.
There’s a neat mail-slot crowning two rows of the toothed wheels where raw, seedy cotton is fed in.
The idiot-proof turn of a crank draws in the mottled mass and threshes it.
As it disappears, you see the last hairs of a mad professor as he is being stream-rolled….
And out falls the cotton, pure as a cloud!
The little old man, all heavenly now, is ready for the spinning jenny.
Industrial and full of torque, the jenny will twist, tug, insist.
The surprisingly tough hairs get pulled into harp strings.
John Deere’s Steel Plow
John Deere walks the magnificent, empty, saffron fields.
He wants to see the earth thinking, furrows of thought teasing a faithful forehead into that hill there, frown lines of contemplation there along either side of the dry path, the compressed lips of the roadway.
Seeing the mud earth turned in the Midwest is like peering beneath a turtle’s shell.
Wooden, and even iron, plows break in this soil: hapless Vikings before an Irish tower.
John screws a steel sawblade to his plow’s moldboard, or remembers how a steel needle ruckles the soft leather, or had a dream of surfing these fields on steel feet.
He tries his luck, calling hup-hup to the cold horse.
The spoon-curved edge sails through the pie-crust—
A wave, thousands of years old, and heavy with the weight of unadulterated evening curls up from the plowblade….
To a giant it would be like black walnut shavings from a whittle knife.
Scroll upon scroll of earth flows, and John Deere walks behind.
He brings the scrolls of night up into the sunlight, kneels gently beside the good wound.
He thumbs plump crop seeds into night’s open book before moving on.
He whispers an encouragement, rises, whacks dirt from his knees.
With mahogany leaves hinged by brass, Jefferson’s portable desk opens green surfaces in butterfly fashion.
To one side, a drawer for inks and instruments.
Blotches remain in the pockets, indissoluble.
The top wing, lifted, drops peglike feet into cleanly chiseled grooves.
It is here, under the lifted wing, that the airstream catches, and words take flight.
Here the pinched quill returns to plumage, and Rodin’s thinking man leans transmogrified into history.
The desk is small, meant to sit on the lap—like a grandchild, or, more ardently, a lover.
Jefferson chuckled to imagine that his desk could one day be carried through the streets, a sainted relic of the Declaration of Independence, ‘selling America to Americans.’
The green unfolded felt gives a sense of reassurance, of open fields and playtime.
Anything could happen on this strip of earth!
“When in the course of human events….”
Santa Anna, Santa Ana
The Santa Ana winds wear a blue coat with red piping, the sleeves flying!
The headless collar is red as a red coal blown by a bellows.
The red piping defines the coat the way electric coils define a stove.
The coat’s skirt is unusually full, as if it is dancing; a runner’s legs could turn full circles underneath it. It hides General Anna’s prosthetic leg comfortably when he sits astride his horse.
Hot winds hit the neighborhood and toss trash cans recklessly, cymbals in a whirlwind.
The general’s cool eye begins its fierce descent to the Alamo from hundreds of miles away.
Texans are refusing to pay taxes to Mexico City. They obey no one, as this wind obeys nothing.
Leatherbacked, they hunch in the soon-to-be ruins of Alamo Mission.
Davy Crockett’s raccoon-tail is blown straight back, the whites of his eyes dry pebbles.
He thinks about Santa Anna’s prosthetic leg, how one night Texans will steal it and ride away.
General Anna’s coat has gold leaves clutching his throat with their delicate fernprint of authority.
Car doors attack exiting commuters when Santa Ana blows his horn, the whole street whistling.
All the valley vegetation dries stiff, as if surprised and pressed flat in family bibles.
In this wind, no bird does more than hang on tight. The bushes rock all night.
This wind blew Thoreau into a Massachusetts jail cell.
Across his lap, flapping pages of Civil Disobedience.
Sunstones, Moonstones, and Starstones
This sunstone, two tons large and dislodged from a pillar-top of the tornadoed Morman temple at Nauvoo, smiles past martyrdom and mayhem.
The big stone has condensed and fallen from the old dreams of Joe Smith.
It stands abandoned in the grass like a table to play cards upon, square and accessible, the festive picnic having moved elsewhere.
Its cheeks glow roughly golden, stone rays from its head a frightwig of light.
The brow is broad, blank and fresh as a pie crust.
Open eyes the size of plums address the earthbound sinner, encouraging ascension.
A chiselled weave of waves accepts the sun-face up to its cheeks.
Behind this blithe face, a white temple rose unmolested, Joe pointing the cornerstone home.
Marriages looked out from the apex, hands and hearts crossed in the sealing room.
Baptisms occurred at the basement font upheld by a dozen carved oxen, kneeling and mild.
Touching the long block gives the walker’s palm a warm place to rest:
The view rolls off a green bluff and out across the endless Mississippi….
Many weeks walking brought the Mormons here from Ohio, following Joseph, listening carefully for new inspiration while getting run out of town, wrapping their bibles in their night clothes; walking barefoot through many fields, moonlight under their feet, the stars climbing away as if from the tipping wing of a plane—
My fingertips notice two little angel hands above the plump sun.
The tiny fists hold out a pair of lilylike trumpets, simple as noodles, announcing salvation.
Dead Reckoning with Lewis and Clark
On the all-purpose compass all points point northwest.
Like all explorers, the compass is drawn to a place it has never seen, the hill over the horizon:
El Dorado, Shang Ri La.
The needlelike compasspoint holds forth like a bird dog’s nose, its tail end quivering sympathetically.
The flat riverboat’s crowded with instruments, science-eyes peeled and packed like eggs in a carton.
Hydrometers and brass scales, plotters, planispheres and a theodolite.
But always at my waist, my compass.
However turned, the compass always seems to know where its going.
Its silver furnishings gather the sky and clouds, pool them in small corners.
The improvisational zigzag of our going on is oddly matched by its precisely demarcated face:
Quadrant and degree of our ignorance.
No where’s the wrong way, really, so long as we denote the newness.
The river is leaping up as if to eat us, white teeth hidden in white foam.
All the emptiness on the map is filling up with living things!
We leave chief Twisted Hair smoking his pipe on the riverbank and prepare to portage our boat over the continental divide.
A clear night under stars; the camp is quietly tired.
Our catalog is full of unknown fowl, leaves of undiscovered greenery, the austere looks of landmark rocks and their latitudes.
I unfold my legs before the tent and look carefully into my notebook while falling asleep to the night river’s placid sounds:
Start afresh with whoever you are today. Stay astray.
John Bull and the Golden Spike
“All aboard the John Bull, from South Amboy to Camden, all aboard!”
John Bull, that’s a nickname for England, where the train was designed and bolted.
And where it bolted from, of course, to settle at our museum, dustless and admired.
This wood-clad steam engine of 1831 is made of pounded black iron.
Note the clang bell atop and front candle lantern, still a-glimmer, like you seen in Westerns.
Look around folks. Look at this place, strange as a spaceship!
Used to come here by myself, like being in church, the great arches, and all these wrecks of time, small and little before some great thing, like when the shark hunters first see Jaws rise from the waters.
I was a shy wildflower when I was a kid, now I talk all day long for a living.
Always loved old John Bull here, such an odd one, the back end like a cooking pot, and all these rivets warting the surface, but inside its pure fire.
Grandpa let me know that one of my forebears assembled this beast, like Dr. Frankenstein with a wrench as long as your arm, crawling all over him inside and out.
That’s when I determined to work right here in the museum, whatever it took.
I brushed up on my elecution:
Must’ve watched The Music Man about a million times, singing as I walked to school—that scene on the train:
Why they say, when the man dances, the piper pays him, yess sir, yesss sir.
Anyways, the first tracks were split and laid right here in NJ, creosote piano keys strewn over marsh and meadow.
Some lamely askew, some torqued almost too tight for passage….
Had to have front-end guide wheels riveted on just to keep the engine earthbound, flanged and pierced together by a fixed axle to rotate in unison.
A sound like a coffee-grinder preceding the tuck-ah-tuck-ah-dah of fisting pistions—
Sometimes I think how such extra wheels might grip me to my track.
Now lean back, no, way back:
You see the black stack, a crown-cut open top, crimped like Jughead’s hat?
Loads of white smoke boils out, like a barn on fire, when John Bull’s stoked and rolling.
Startled birds sprang away for miles hearing such clank and caterwaul.
Stray dogs ran like barefoot boys to catch the eager wheels, their wild eyes spinning.
—It was all the filthy lucre that Mr. Stevens made that induced the others.
Money, money, money had them squint and scramble, spreading lines of track like crowsfeet.
Minnesota wheat traveling East; timber, ore, cattle, you name it.
By God, what haulage! Cash for the hogshead, cask and demijohn.
Cash for the crackers, and the pickles, and the flypaper.
No canal mule could match such burning speed.
Eventually, the war between the states (that’s what the South called the Civil War) induced Congress to scheme the Trans-Pacific rail into existence, a belt of rail steel from shining to shining….
A bribe to keep California in the Union, that some nowadays want pushed out.
Might just earthquake off along the San Andreas fault anywise for all such dithering.
But how that Golden Spike must’ve shone in Utah sunshine!
At Promontory Summit (a reduplicative name don’t you think?) all those mute coolies standing by—pardon me, that’s what they called them then.
A million silent men hearing trussed-up industrialists give ten-cent stem-winders. In oratory-English, no less. Ha!
But when the suits were done talking, in went the glittering spike, blow by blow, like a golden tooth in a million-mile smile.
Must’ve let out one helluva golden bell-tone, too, while being beaten down.
Hitherto unknown, y’know?
Colt’s Repeating Pistol
The exhibition piece shows a tranquil tableaux:
A father and his sons target shooting; he corrects their aim with badger-patience. “Squeeze, don’t pull,” he says.
They like to watch the apples explode.
“Not today, Satan!” they shout.
The hexagonal barrel’s rifled, twirled like a candy cane inside.
Handle’s just chunked wood, even on this velvet-held piece so liberally engraved.
The hammer, fully pulled, stows back into the handle like a secret.
The pistol is a form of fist.
It carries the energy of the fist forward in space, and eliminates the fist’s target.
Anger is foreshortened to triumph; defense translated to salvation.
The human body is not able to process such disjunction.
It staggers; it bails; it destroys memory and attention in an attempt to rediscover balance.
I look back at the display, the long pistol vivid in its velvets.
Overhead, clouds scud. The hill’s an etched line.
Only the bullets are all the same, the same repeating fist.
Same blunt nose, same horrible velocity.
The genius of Samuel Colt was in the manufacture, the elimination of piece-work.
He used swappable interchangeable parts; eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.
Now everything’s like that, a million hands turn one wheel.
I like to think that interchangeable parts do not reduce us to interchangeable people.
That an indignant rebelliousness grips us, wakes us with its bleak scream.
We had this game Operation when I was a kid, using tweezers to pick the clown-patient apart.
Sometimes you’d lose a shinbone, a funny bone.
A wishbone was useful, snapped short.
Once we used a dead fly for the heart.
In the Middle of Everything
(the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill)
It could be from the moon, this strange, flippant flake. A flake no bigger than a dead wasp’s wing, a gold front tooth. Some broken golden feather of the moon has fallen all the way to the tailrace at Sutter’s Mill.
Like the miracle of the dividing loaves, this gold flake called forth unshakeable belief in 1849.
Fluttered luckily from the great wings of the summer moon, harvest moon, the August moon, it lay in the muddy runoff, a shard of reflected light come back to us, warm and human.
Once weighed and assayed, it became a human flashlight shining the way for millions to come to California.
Chinese, Australian, free blacks, and gluts of proffered Europeans from Back East all followed the yellow dot of light to Monterey, west of all the hills, pinnacles and divides of the Rockies, the striped pajama valley of the Grand Canyon….
California, the great fruit-laden Eden, the blue echo of Mexico resounding in papaya, mango, avocado.
Like falling out of bed into paradise is how old folks described it, and meant it too.
Someplace where it’s always noon and summer, and never a rush.
With a pan and steady stream, any hands could sift free such flittery spillages of lost moonbeams!
The famous flake itself looks like a cornflake, a stray bran flake tossed from the box and painted; edges raggedy, little points and descents, flattish, neither round nor not round.
Found like God in the middle of everything, and seemingly by accident.
A quick-eyed magpie picks it up, leaves it glittering in its nest, a mirror for blank eggs; fallen from the nest and into the grass, a kitten pins it playfully; lionlike she leaps and waits, mistaking its shimmery littleness for a bug.
Once, not too long ago, behind this abandoned mill house on the dusty hill, something new flew up out of the earth, leaving behind it a golden feather floating rapidly down a dark stream.
Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon
Passenger pigeons once showed the beautiful unity of the new world, inking warm noon skies with masses and masses of darkness.
North to south and back in infinite loop, an endless migration.
The hardcore bolus of moving birds, quick as gazelles in their flying, was shadow involving shadow, shade beneath shade, an evening ocean’s variation held above one’s head by a wilderness of wings….
Pigeons do not coo like doves, nor cluck like chickens.
They descend to chew milky grubs or the laden ears of wheat, pressed to earth in golden circles by the limitless weight of landing and lifting.
All landscapes are a vista of living things, but such aliveness often slides by unnoticed. When the passenger pigeon flock loomed overhead, its aliveness was undeniable, thunderous, dark.
A hassling gale shuddering through many unslung sails—
And from all those millions, billions, a single female left caged in the 1914 Cincinnati zoo.
And when she died, she was resurrected: stuffed and groomed.
Her red eye stares out like a target, scanning skies emptied of her kin.
Martha’s spotted, lovely brown-grey cape flows from a rounded head and dead-round eye.
Hers are the softy dots of the common ground pigeon, a leopard splash of blots loosely flung.
Her beak seems no more than two whittled chopsticks, no longer snapping and clipping.
Martha flies commercial now, accompanied by a museum butler, a stasis of loneliness touring the states on her petrified perch.
In aisle eight, I look down at my backlit Kindle and continue Fenimore Cooper’s “Pioneers.”
Shadowy bodies cover Lake Erie like a lid, the sun itself reduced to a yellow marble beneath innumerable wings.
“Away! away! Bess; I long to pepper them.”
(I.M. Singer’s sewing machine)
The stitches are so close together!
They lie together like sleeping eyelids; quiet mouths of oysters shut against a grainy tide.
The sewing machines rattle all together in the vast warehouse, the window-light diffuse
How many hands had grown crabbed and scarred sealing the cut halves of garments together, each half no more than a paper doll, hiding our nakedness?
And now this machine spits stitch-stick-stitch so perfectly, so effortlessly!
The bobbin thread and head thread twine their DNA, arrow and hook guiding them.
Rescued from the Triangle factory fire, hundreds of similar machines were left piled in Greene Street like dinosaur skulls, bull skulls, as an ambrosia of smoke went heavenward.
Looking around the factory, one waits to hear the hiss and cease of steam brakes.
But there’s no train here, nothing so rapid or strange; no open door orange with fire, no cloistered steam urging motion.
Just these ladies, hunched like suburban cyclists, pumping the foot peddles, looking attentive and tranquil, palming shaped waves of cloth, wave after wave through a narrow place where the silver chicken foot hangs immobile, calling forth a charybdis of stitches, one by one helping the line of sleeping eyelids to appear….
The whole room thrums like a kind of choral dormitory, Jesus’ mansion of many rooms.
Albert Beirstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada
First it was a dream. A misty mountain peak like a downsweep of eagle’s wings.
Not like those Chinese mountains painted wave over wave, humped and hollowed limestone hallows.
These are mountains made to endure revered, fracturing the air.
And not all in one day did we make it here, dragging easel and inks and paint-prep packed in Philadelphia.
A dusty ride west longer than death, through white alkali deserts, a hardpan crucible of heats.
And then, all at once, opening beyond the horses’ heads: a level lake, diamond-alive.
Back East the viewers lean away from the stage curtain as the golden cord is pulled, an umbilical to the wilderness West.
They see at a gasp what I’d ridden hard to observe, labored long to swat into spectacle.
What’s the sweptback business of these pines, says one, darkling in the margins?
How attentively stall the buck and doe at the water’s open edge!
Just seeing the big cliff, I can hear the waterfall, a limitless water-pump let run all evening….
And suddenly, I feel their shoulders beside mine in the cool air of the lake.
Gilded vests, Norfolk jackets and pagoda sleeves, mix amid the extravagant grass everywhere green as a pool table.
Quiet does and bucks, they watch cliffs sink to the water, reflect as deep as they climb high.
And those skies over all—over plains and grass and trees and even the sharp wig-white mountains—how they curl and preside, like a Momma’s love perhaps.
The sky opens, ever-present, where pinked clouds part their fogbound camera shutter, widening in pupil-like reveal.
That sky, not as blue as rumored, but mottled a subtle blue-white, an abeyance of dark more than a presence of light, drawing the eye into a theater-like lens of attention.
A milky amalgam lumped on a paint blade, and then drawn clean, quick against the palette—
King Kamehameha III’s Feather Cape
Pencil-grey smoke slides from a trail of green cloaks thrown over the ocean, each a blot or close curl of a comma. Each one an island.
Over the many islands, tossed discarded into immense waters, many birds are flying, ocean bound, or hunkered to landmasses, island-hopping.
King of these islands, Kamehameha III, walked forth in a robe of bird feathers, full of flightless equanimity, each feather shining tied to the under-net of his cape.
Many birds donating to become an ornament that had been flighty, alive.
Feather on feather as if grown from the egg, this cape extends its pattern into open space.
The pattern is a series of swept curves, a litter of grass leaves, corn husks: red, black, yellowish-white as teeth, blown onto the big semi-circle smile of the cape, itself a sort of grounded wing.
Catch an ‘i’iwi by the toe,
pluck two feathers and let him go.
Weave each ‘o’o feather tight,
and your ‘ahu’ula cape shines bright.
Made sacred by intent and labor, this exquisite cape drapes easily over the shoulders, enlivening the wearer with visions of flight.
The birds now are silent, some of them extinct, beings beyond bodies, sans skeletons, unless the cape moves. And then you are the skeleton, and wings are everywhere, rustling winds….
So many birds netted! Same nets used to fish, same hands to pluck and release.
The constellations changed over their heads as they flew away, as new men came ashore, pointing high and renaming the stars in this world where mountains burned.
The whole chain of islands is a whipcord of fire, fire seething in the leveled cups of volcanoes.
Kamehameha, his arms folded, beneath the closed loop of the rope clasp, became a cone in this cape, a great auk puffed and resting.
His eyes look out, birdlike, horizon-zoned, aware of infinities and his small place within them, his royal glance touching each island in turn, feathers fallen in ocean amber:
Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Lanai, Niihau, Kahoolawe, Molokai, Hawaii.
“What Hath God Wrought?”
Alive is too strong a word.
But, the telegraph’s arched brass back is suddenly not dead.
The telegraph clacks like a thrush cracking a snail; a staticy squall of clacks, soon over.
The boy in a visor takes down many letters rapidly, and they resolve themselves into words.
The slant of sunlight, a bent fin of high yellow, is the same as it was.
The device screwed to the table returns to its intent inertness, a bee asleep in its honeycomb.
The quiet grows rich, the beak of the telegraph is still, the bee’s sting invisible.
Oysters the world over still lave hidden pearls with iridescent layers.
But soon, too soon, the whole world will fit on the head of this pin.
He also made a phonograph: reedy, ghost-grey whispers in our ears, hovering weirdly near.
The principle’s the same, eardrum and requiem. All shaped air.
The box telephone has a heavy U magnet that abuts the membrane screwed at compass-points to the wood frame.
Wires trail out the back like discarded puppet strings, two lashed strands of copper.
It doesn’t seem like much, and you can hear the interior magnet ticking when you talk.
You talk into a short black cup like a blind confessional, or Greek prayer-hole going down to the dead.
The cup fills up with your words.
Lips pour words out like a dolphin-face fountain, and the telegraph line drinks them up.
Electric speech, Bell called it.
Alexander was also fond of saying how we often look “so long and so regretfully upon the closed door.”
There’s an ear for every secret, is another saying.
Young Bell’s mother grew deaf as he grew.
Her ears are everywhere.
It’s their nostrils up close you notice right away: steaming in cool morning, misty and noisy.
Large animals put such a volume of air through their lungs!
In and out go the bellows, keeping the fiery fits of life lit up.
In much-changing light, excited hooves and horns ring against the metal fence.
The buffalo leap nimbly in their pen.
The dancers’ hooves gouge beaten ground into a sort of mud fingerpainting.
Each split hoof stamps a pair of angel wings until the ground is crowded with wings.
If they were deer, it would be nothing special, a dance in the grass.
But the buffalo, with their great shaggy heads bearded as wise men, and satan-horned, gambol toward the high aluminium fence intent as apparitions, hairy ghosts stamping and huffing in the oncoming light.
Seeing them in a row of six, gamely nimble, limber, effortless, they seem more like a chorusline wearing beards and Russian hats than anything else I could name.
Together they dance, huge faces hanging close together, clipped hooves polished as tap shoes.
Their glassy brown eyes as they dance seem rare and wild, drunk as maenads chasing the scent of a sinner’s blood:
Strange glad eyes, large and moist as espresso cups overrunning with luminous oil—
It’s not a look of sympathy any more than a cat’s or snake’s is.
It’s alien, and you are alone when you gaze into the face of this beast.
They stare into years before mankind arrived, before the riotous rush to the cliff.
They stand, uneasy at dawn, locked up, looking back on eons of easy grazing….
Sitting Bull’s Ledger Book
On rainy days, Sitting Bull drew in his sketch book.
It was an unused ledger book for facts and figures, additions and debits and getting to zero.
But Sitting Bull drew in it.
It had green covers, green as an accountant’s eyeshade.
Retired to the cavalry outpost at Fort Randall, Sitting Bull kept crayons and pencils with his green ledger book.
Mostly he drew old battles he’d been in, personal victories over other indians, other tribes made quiescent under his feathered spear.
Here’s Sitting Bull riding his red pony that’s been painted to resemble a crow, the eternal victor of every battlefield, with a yellow beak drawn along the horse’s muzzle, and wild claws at every hoof.
His spear is simplified to a single line with a bulb of blade touching the enemy’s shoulder as if he were being knighted.
Sitting Bull has an ornate eagle headdress on, the feathers pulling back a long ways past his shoulders tight as violin strings.
His hands and feet are black buffalo hooves, for the buffalo spirit is in his sweat-work, their thunder in his coming down upon Assiniboine, whose arrow is not yet cocked and who leans backward into white space as if clumsily akilter.
Both of their faces are placeholders, eyed blanks.
They are neither ecstatic nor decimated.
In some of these, Sitting Bull has drawn himself wearing a long sash that’s tied to the dirt, staked to stay in place until the battle’s won.
The rain outside continually descends, dropping zeroes and ones.
Remember the Maine! Or, Clean Bright Work
Bugles carry on over the spillway hill, bent by winds.
Navy buglers practicing: Attention, Bear A Hand, Admiral’s Barge, Belay.
But that night in Havana, all those nights ago, no Abandon Ship was blown.
Only the rending sound of metal, unimaginable.
After a century or so, they dredged up this green bugle, bulged as a squash, corrosion-pocked.
When the mind goes to sea, it follows a bugle’s call, the quick sound lancing far from shore.
Was this the bugle Teddy Roosevelt followed up San Juan Hill?
Wet notes risen from water that called those men to battle?
This bugle, once lost at sea, has been dredged back to us, one of Neptune’s wormy seashells, full of storms and covered with spaghetti curls of rust.
Beaten down by the hooves of the ocean, chewed flat by the sea’s jaw….
If living lungs and a pair of tomato cheeks moved breath through this bugle today, what old note would sound?
Would sighs of the dead be audible, sodden voices drowned?
Could such a mangled bugle blare, it might repeat: Captain’s Gig, or Carry On.
Getting there from Hatteras, the milky sailors were young and talkative, busy, buffing every blazon of brass when the bugle called: Clean Bright Work.
But those sailors died in their dreams, sleeping, when the ammunition magazine erupted beneath them, ripping the ship.
The place where they laid down a final time, bellies content with navy beans and canned pork, is under the level bay now, the intact flag rescued the next day from a still-risen mast.
A room of men swinging in womblike ambience, abeyance, hammocked and trussed, the Cuban waters sushing, pushing….
New Year’s Eve on Christie Street
(Edison’s electric light bulb)
The nippled bulb sits in its rippled socket. A circuit is complete, a pattern set.
From then until today, only variation and experiment; a truce has been called with novelty.
Carbonized bamboo, later tungsten, heats up its isolated void, throwing incandescent glories.
Meanwhile, in 1879 New Jersey, night has fallen over a long snake of street, heavily lipped—a jar of utter darkness lidded and inverted.
Each electric bulb, vacuum sucked and sealed, is held poised in a moonlike globe, lined up jars of not-dark, fireworks pulled to the ground, lashed by wires and tamed, awaiting only the itch of an electric match.
All afternoon and twilight the trains caterpillared from Atlantic City, tilted full of walking questionmarks…and then the switch flips.
And faces, hovering above shawl or overcoat in one cloak of ink, disembarked by hurried trainloads into the anonymous dark, look up all at once, each face individual and astonished.
Hundreds of Adams and Eves holding hands in a new world.
New Year’s Eve on Christie Street is a solid block of light, an illuminated cube.
And with the New Year lights, morning birds began to sing at midnight.
From here on in, nights go by alike as daytime.
From here on in, midnight glares and gleams, eager with gleanings.
Artificial light electric on the night page.
Statue of Liberty. Interior, Daytime
Inside the spaceship, a million rivets are visible.
People wearing green foam liberty tiaras from the souvenir shop shoulder past, hurrying to the heights, but I am enamored of this interior view.
The iron framework is everywhere, an inescapable skeleton evident as a spiderweb as you make your way to the central pole that gleams like a rocket on its dawn launchpad.
Here it is: an incredible stair, bending its helix upward to a skyline-defying tiara.
Here am I: treading the ascending DNA stairs with ringing steps.
I walk the kite’s tail, hear the harbour winds against her skirts.
Madam’s copper skirt is wind-bitten, bringing salt scents to her interior, tatting the rivets as the silver stairway sways.
Far above, the lined brains of hair make a dome over us, greeny tilled fields full of sweet roots.
Among the roots, many visitors.
The green dress hangs like leaves from the central iron tree, Eiffels’ strutted steps.
Imagine the resounding ringing as they clobbered her together!
The work complex as a cathedral, ladders and wrenches the length of your arm.
Many workers hunched like swinging cuckoo figurines among the gonging carillion tones.
At each juncture of copper and iron, the ingress of seawind generates electric sparks, only stopped by doped asbestos; each cloth wrapped and placed as if against a fevered brow.
Outside, the face hangs heavy: pharonic, platonic.
I look out from the brow of her corona, a band of portholes beneath the wicked spikes, darting rays of electric thought….
An electric lightbulb in her upraised hand was the first plan, a lighthouse Edison-bright and limitless.
I think that she should be on the head side of the penny.
The Story of the Room
Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on―without design or sketch―it grew as I painted. And toward the end I reached such a point of perfection―putting in every touch with such freedom―that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked. And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know,
I forgot everything in my joy in it.
~~James McNeill Whistler
Brought stick by stick to America, there’s more to Whistler’s Peacock Room than I could tattle in the time I have. Just look:
Dash-dot-dash of light—two golden peacocks on a field of blue—improbable combatants—
One low, his gorgeous tail downswept, calligraphy beak attacking the other’s vulnerable feet, gilded lightning-strikes trined to ground.
The other, dancing fantastically on higher ground, the great peacock tail fully open, lordly, unsustainable as a cloudscape.
Their battle, it appears, is eternal.
Two equally compelling patterns of gold on a blue field racing to dynamic equilibrium….
Every inch of their viciousness made vigorous by the effete penlike strikes of the artist’s brush:
The artist is the third peacock, invisible and effervescent.
We stand in a room of his design, and witness a battle of his conceiving, deceitful and delightful as water-dazzle.
All around us rises a frame of bamboo shelves, sleeves of glitter unrolling on every side, and on every shelf a blue and white plumped pot.
And the notable pots have scenes and designs of their own:
Little towns besotted with sideways trees, or souls pushing themselves down some Chinese Styx.
And then, dead center among the sky-dots the pots imply, there stands, lounges, appears, the Princess from the Land of Porcelain, in her hand a fallen flower—
Dark hair upswept, her eyes are open and waiting.
Her bodice is snug above a red belt, a sash, the only other primary color in the room.
Her off-shoulder robe, more than floor-length, is being shrugged on or slid down, a waterfall itself of gold.
If one finds a spur of museum rail on which to lean, the princess seems to be watching the eternal contest of the cocks—
Is she lost amid the blues, or distracted by the molten lambency of their golden tones, perfect feathers the artist has let rip beneath the endless arch of all those dead eyes in the paired, raised and vanquished tails surrounding watching….
Wheels and ruts have been rolling on for a long time.
The road curves and hugs the hill’s hardness, a lasso lain against a bull’s dewlap neck.
The Model T roadster turns through parting hemlock and is gone, part of history’s landscape.
If a turtle had wheels, it might look so.
Wrenched together on a player piano’s rolling assembly line, each finished and buffed Model T was driven straight to the sales lot, its pistons tocketing musically.
And there they waited quietly, platoons of turtles sunning themselves.
When we drive, what’s hidden in the trunk rides with us: a beach chair from last summer, a gallon of anti-freeze, books we had meant to read, lives we had meant to live or leave behind.
When it rains, we feel safe, cozied by the upholstery, by the rain’s bumbling drumming.
Shaped vaguely, also, like a homberg bonnet, bourgeois, middlebrow and pedestrian (except for the wheels, which resemble circular insect spectacles underneath the homberg), every family could leave their factories for a drive in the country.
Every Sunday families rolled like circus seals into a car and rolled down the windows and rolled away.
There’s a lot of them still out there, the old Model T Fords.
Their dusty interiors are rotted out, or immaculately kept up with new foam rather than horsehair—the hair of its enemies subdued and stuffed into the seats.
The black ones remind me, too, of mother bears.
But ferociously fast, rolling up out of the river to kill you for the last salmon.
Helen Keller’s Pocketwatch
Time touches my face with spiderwebs.
I run through the clock’s circle, and dance with its hands.
I am the fly that plays in the strings of time.
In my pocket, I carry its small wheel.
The arrow, ornate tattoo, goes round the cardinal stubs of the dial, handles of the captan’s helm.
I go over its swayback swirls with my thumb, its shy guiding steadiness pointing.
I feel the secondhand heart of the clock, the whisper of ticks at each fingertip.
My pocket holds this little god, and I hold hands with god:
The color of 7 a.m. is coolness, the wide window awake to birds.
The mood of noon is cutlery clanking, the tickling feel of glassware.
The breath of 3 p.m. is heated, hot heaviness of naptime in my ear.
When nighttime comes ladling its 8 p.m., and 11 p.m. grows pillows for dreams—
I swim where invisible things are real, my arms feathering into wings.
We’re all at ease in the everything breeze, afloat in adoring waters.
I go up slant shores on hands and knees, and curl at the foot of a wrinkly tree.
I go down softly among spiderwebs, my heartbeat the only ticking.
Bakelite beside the Delaware
The river snaked and zazzled through scrimshaw trees on our drive up to “New Hippie.”
Its suave glimmer rides beside us, slithering hither and thither.
Our eyes glide slyly away from each other, hidden and lit with an obscure hope we refuse to name.
Walking through the decorous town, we breathe air like us:
Invisible and crisp, autumn colorful, autumn wonderful.
Tired after a while of watching one particularly bright offshoot of water grow dim-dark as it disappeared beneath a local mill wheel, we turn into the thrift store “Love Saves the Day” at the end of the street.
Old clothes, old games, old things. And bakelite. Many items made of bakelite.
They stamped out infinite numbers of eagle’s wings, as needed, or poker chips, kitchenware, jewelry, pipe stems, children’s toys, firearms, or chess sets:
This one from the 1930s has men of mottled green and smoky orange arrayed on its checkerboard.
I pick up a green art deco knight wearing a slick racer’s helmet.
Rubbed closely, he gives off a soft smell of formaldehyde, some constituent hint of bakelite.
On the counter top sits a small black-and-white photo of the first Bakelite machine, the boiler of primordial soups, birth-Valhalla of all these things….
It looks like the ugliest ornament on the Christmas tree, Darth Vader’s Easter egg.
Leo Baekeland, the “Dutch Vulcan,” hobbled about his lab chained to this forge to make beautiful, useful things for his demanding mistress.
Or so I imagine, running my fingers through a twirl of earrings.
Thumb-big bolts sit allied to the egg’s waistline, a ring of iron welts or welded warts, brothers to those on either side of Frankenstein’s neck.
There’s an iron wheel at the top of the egg that steers its fetid chemistry, full of phenol and formaldehyde, willful as the wheel that drove Nemo’s Nautilus to its leagues-deep doom.
It’s an object of fairy tales, this black ovoid with its pressure gauge, its steel door that shuts the buck-toothed children in.
Out of this soft-boiled dinosaur egg fallen from its Eden nest, out of this pot the witch used on Hansel and Gretel, out of the hellish guts flowed a noble black poo: endlessly malleable bakelite, the stuff of dreams!
For instance: bracelets, all colors, clacking like pelican bills when Carmen Miranda danced.
Necklaces and gewgaws, and every kind of black power knob or electric socket.
Electric plugs and telephones were made of this stuff for years, utility hiding its inherent glamour.
Rainbow bakelite awoke in us moderns the royal lust for bright things, bright things.
We became indians willing to sell Manhattan for $24 worth of sea shells, every woman a Cleopatra, every man a Darius.
A bakelite radio, brilliant as a marble bathtub, plays seductive jazz from the far side of a flapper mannequin, carefree in her beads.
The antique mannequin has bakelite bracelets riding up one arm until the arm is a ringed snake vomiting forth a white hand-mouth.
“Oh, I want those, all of them!” And her eyes are delighted.
NOT FAR AFTER THAT
Some force, animal-born, is slippery, edgy,
Impatient, greedy… for new heavens
Slapping the side of the The Spirit of St. Louis, notice how it looks a bit like a sharpened pencil with wings and a tail attached.
Lindbergh wrote his name in the skies with this plane, with bold loops and cursive surprises.
When an arm emerges from a cloud and taps your shoulder, you go—
He periscope-peeped over the tonnage bulk of mounted engine as if flying a submarine, turning the craft sidewise to orient on homefields and runways.
Stepping along the diving board wings of WWI surplus biplanes at 23, “Lucky Lindy” never looked down. He was a wing-walker, a showman, a parachutist detached as a breeze. True story.
By 25, he’d become pure spirit given horsepower and wings, carrying this heavy thing into heaven….
Out in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, the bolted floorboards reverberate continuously as if, somewhere nearby, people are dancing. A family shindig, a square dance or barn party.
The Spirit of St. Louis owns the afternoon, its swift pointer’s nose pushing forward among doilies of clouds.
And all along underneath, the ocean is rolling. It isn’t hurrying to get to Paris to be part of a champagne celebration, blind in the flash of cameras. The sea is already everywhere, grey in the twilight, its surface a heaving pattern of ever-changing hills. Beneath those hills many eyes watch a loud light cross overhead in the dry sky, a wayward star moving East.
Soon enough, night rises from the darkening swells. Soon enough, it is so late it is early. His thoughts go out ahead of the plane into the nebulous moistness above the chill Atlantic, feeling fragile and weightless as milkweed seeds….
When the black ice comes on with a ripping creep, he dips The Spirit deep until dead wheels taste a serrated hightop of waves, and skeins of ice chunk off into salt water.
Around midnight, the touchdown. An end to dark heights and sleeplessness, the soundless roar of the engine still eerily omnipresent.
Parisians tore fuselage and pilot to ticker-tape with bacchanalian abandon in a French farmer’s field.
Paraded and feted, “Lucky Lindy” walked the wings of his nation, defying earth’s fallen curve—
He flew up there, fearless, a babe in a bassinet, a hundred miles an hour with the windows open.
Her Mink Coat
So, she became a kind of angel of my redemption through her art…. Marian Anderson, on that particular day, opened the doors of my prison, and I walked out a free man.
Her mink coat runs up and hangs from her shoulders, a friend leaning close.
Exiled from Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. to stand by her side, a silent friend.
And seventy-five thousand others around the reflecting pool, seeing themselves there.
When Marian sings, her voice is a flight of arrows over the long crowd.
She stands on the highest step, the mic sparkling like a jeweled hairpin.
Her hands shape the notes, brown doves helping new doves to fly.
What was the song? Oh, it was opera. Ecstatic, untrifling.
Every story was in the melodious, broken story of her singing.
And other songs, too, “Tis of Thee,” and “Gospel Train:”
Here comes that gospel train. Get on board,
Get on board, there’s room for many a more—
Over her shoulders sat the giant white shadow of Lincoln, seated and solemn where all others stood milling, his beard of milky bees from some still-promised land.
And the piano right behind her, beautiful inkblot, running its palindrome of sounds, mixing the differing keys in large harmony.
A Fireside Chat
In the White House, the instrument, a broadcast mic, sits like a trophy, banded above by a label of commercial ownership, CBS, NBC, perched at an angle on a solid brass stand heavy enough to break a toe.
The dingus itself is unimpressive—an improbable hockey puck with a lion’s tail trailing to the floor. But this is the miracle device, the microphone that will send one voice to twenty million ears, and more.
Radio gathered us together back then, brought us within the circle of invisible voices heralding prayer or pastime.
We move an empty chair over by the fire, and a friend sits in it, ready for his little visit.
He tells us his concerns and plans, and we listen as if they were our own concerns and plans.
His voice carries us into matters we had thought extraneous to us, but which, as we listen, as we curl into the story, slowly become our own.
It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.
He emits a jokey moral, slightly acerbic point, and we decide to take it the right way, as it was meant, his voice is so silken-solemn and relaxed:
“The man who strikes first admits that his own ideas have given out.”
Eventually, he gets around to history, to the endless perspective of time, and where we might stand in such a landscape, and from where we sit, listening, we seem a part of his vista.
…the way of thought of a nation whose origins go back to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock.
At some point, his storytelling transforms into a passionate plea. He may need our help, and we listen with a new cautiousness, and with renewed concern, to his advocating and insisting voice as he eventually gets to the evil incident that’s really bugging him.
On this tenth day of June, nineteen hundred and forty, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.
We’ll have to stand with him, or abandon our friendship. There’s no middle ground this time, however endless and friendly he seemed at our first invitation—when the chair was cold and we let his voice begin without expectation….
I call for effort, courage, sacrifice, devotion. Granting the love of freedom, all of these are possible.
A quiet manifests after he finishes, and we rise from our seats, glancing around uncertainly.
We look outside where the variable firelight bleeds through a tall window.
There’s a wing of wind going by, disturbing our home, and we notice our own figures stretching before us, the silent fire at our backs.
Our bodies wavering on the ground in inconstant light remind us of the strange shapes a flag makes when shadowed on the lawn.
So much of singing is praising, and preparation for praise.
God made some notes look like little birds on a wire with a single wing.
I wasn’t prepared to cry so much at the sound of voices together.
When the choir of my childhood put on their blue robes and looked up, it was like hearing the rims of fifty wet glasses rung with fifty fingers.
Our singing teacher had a John Denver blond bowl-cut and loved how we could manage “This Land Is Your Land” on the first go.
Now, I look down at the delicate paper, brown as a moth wing.
The letters are cursive, strong as an oar in the water.
Woody Guthrie had licked and affixed ringsavers around each punched hole in the ruled paper.
The fog was lifting, a voice came chanting
A museum is a place for dead things still living, I guess.
It is a kind of book you can walk around in, poking your nose at the out-of-print exhibits.
Next to the paper is the shellac master record, a thin 78 with a hand-written label.
Its grooves shine blackly in the low light.
At the push of a steel display button you can hear his voice through the grate, flat and nasally.
Some of the old words are just wrong, crossed wires that zapped the bird wingless.
How could I hear him now if there were no private property, private effort?
Who would’ve run the recording studio, pressed the records?
I listen to the redwoods’ rustle, the gulf stream hustling past. I walk that endless skyway.
Children are lifting their faces everywhere, still living I guess.