St Thomas Aquinas
I left parts of myself everywhere
The way absent-minded people leave
Gloves and umbrellas
Whose colors are sad from dispensing so much bad luck.
I was on a park bench asleep.
It was like the Art of Ancient Egypt.
I didn’t wish to bestir myself.
I made my long shadow take the evening train.
“We give death to a child when we give it a doll,”
Said the woman who had read Djuna Barnes.
We whispered all night. She had traveled to darkest Africa.
She had many stories to tell about the jungle.
I was already in New York looking for work.
It was raining as in the days of Noah.
I stood in many doorways of that great city.
Once I asked a man in a tuxedo for a cigarette.
He gave me a frightened look and stepped out into the rain.
Since “man naturally desires happiness”
According to St. Thomas Aquinas,
Who gave irrefutable proof of God’s existence and purpose,
I loaded trucks in the Garment Center.
A black man and I stole a woman’s red dress.
It was of silk; it shimmered.
Upon a gloomy night with all our loving ardors on fire,
We carried it down the long empty avenue,
Each holding one sleeve.
The heat was intolerable causing many terrifying human faces
To come out of hiding.
In the Public Library Reading Room
There was a single ceiling fan barely turning.
I had the travels of Herman Melville to serve me as a pillow.
I was on a ghost ship with its sails fully raised.
I could see no land anywhere.
The sea and its monsters could not cool me.
I followed a saintly looking nurse into a doctor’s office.
We edged past people with eyes and ears bandaged.
“I am a medieval philosopher in exile,”
I explained to my landlady that night.
And, truly, I no longer looked like myself.
I wore glasses with a nasty spider crack over one eye.
I stayed in the movies all day long.
A woman on the screen walked through a bombed city
Again and again. She wore army boots.
Her legs were long and bare. It was cold wherever she was.
She had her back turned to me, but I was in love with her.
I expected to find wartime Europe at the exit.
It wasn’t even snowing! Everyone I met
Wore a part of my destiny like a carnival mask.
“I’m Bartleby the Scrivener,” I told the Italian waiter.
“Me, too” he replied.
And I could see nothing but overflowing ashtrays
The human-faced flies were busy examining.
The mail truck goes down the coast
Carrying a single letter
At the end of a long pier
The bored seagull lifts a leg now and then
And forgets to put it down
There is a menace in the air
Of tragedies in the making
Last night you thought you heard television
In the house next door
You were sure it was some new
Horror they were reporting
So you went out to find out
Barefoot, wearing just shorts
It was only the sea sounding weary
After so many lifetimes
Of pretending to be rushing off somewhere
And never getting anywhere
This morning, it felt like Sunday
The heavens did their part
By casting no shadow along the boardwalk
Or the row of vacant cottages
Among them a small church
With a dozen gray tombstones huddled close
As if they, too, had the shivers
Take a message, crow, as the day breaks.
And find the one I hold dear,
Tell her the trees are almost bare
And the nights here are dark and cold.
Learn if she lights the stove already,
Goes to bed naked or fully dressed,
Sips hot tea in the morning, watching
Neighbors’ children wait for a school bus.
Tell her nothing fills me with more sorrow,
Than the memory of seeing her
Covering her face with her hands
When she thought she was alone.
Help me, bird, flapping from tree to tree
And calling in a voice full of distress,
To some fond companion of yours
You’d like to see flying by your side.
Another dreary day in time’s invisible
Penitentiary, making license plates
With lots of zeros, walking lockstep counter-
clockwise in the exercise yard or watching
The lights dim when some poor fellow,
Who could as well be me, gets fried.
Here on death row, I read a lot of books.
First it was law, as you’d expect.
Then came history, ancient and modern.
Finally philosophy—all that being-and-nothingness stuff.
The more I read, the less I understand.
Still, other inmates call me professor.
Did I mention that we had no guards?
It’s a closed book who locks
And unlocks the cell doors for us.
Even the executions we carry out
By ourselves, attaching the wires,
Playing warden, playing chaplain
All because a little voice in our head
Whispers something about our last appeal
Being denied by God himself.
The others hear nothing, of course,
But that, typically, you may as well face it,
Is how time runs things around here.
Signs of the Times
For a mind full of disquiet
A trembling roadside weed is Cassandra,
And so is the right
Of a boarded up public library,
The rows of books beyond its windows
Unopened for years,
The sickly old dog on its steps,
And a man slumped next to him,
His mouth working mutely
Like an actor unable to recall his lines
At the end of some tragic farce.
That Elusive Something
Was it in the smell of freshly baked bread
That came out to meet me in the street?
The face of a girl carrying a white dress
From the cleaners with her eyes half closed?
The sight of a building blackened by fire
Where once I went to look for work?
The toothless old man passing out leaflets
For a clothing store going out of business?
Or was it the woman pushing a baby carriage
About to turn the corner? I ran after,
As if the little one lying in it was known to me,
And found myself alone on a busy street
I didn’t recognize, feeling like someone
Out for the first time after a long illness,
Who sees the world with his heart,
Then hurries home to forget how it felt.
These rags the spirit borrows
To clothe itself
Against the chill of mortality.
O barbed wire of crossed-out words,
Crown of thorns,
Camp meeting of dead wall reveries,
Spilled worry beads,
Fortune-teller’s coffee dregs,
My footholds in the abyss.