The Constant Critic
I saw an idea coming
from a long way off
ambling along the boulevard
and the glittering canal
not borne by elegant
postillions with smart
equipage but a limping
thing, stumbling, barely
alive. It is nautical
twilight, and the sun
is just below the true
horizon, and on the Bay
of Q where sail the lacquered
boats with pepper-colored
sails the light is flickering.
But no. The mind is the
flickering thing. I can tell
you that you are blossoming
into something beautiful.
Once they see your acts
will live on in memory
they will destroy you
even if you live beneath
a bridge–they will find
the bridge and burn it
with you there. They will be
revered then, like creatures
with garlanded antlers
in some ideal afterworld.
Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot
you were here beside me,
a constant critic, and you
are holding your own
as civilization crumbles
around you, glowing
in the flame of absolute
mastery. The beetle
tanagers are ultimately
flightless and profoundly
mercenary, girls. And you
can flow into the gel
of their prevailing,
but only round-aboutly,
girls. Here is a lone eye
in the cubit stone
for venerating Makepeace
Thackeray, and garlands
of white violets. What
do they mean when they say
that they were carried
through centuries of meditation
as through the frozen, months-old
snow, as if through and against
an exile? In summer it was
green pillars of fresh grass
between the silos, the sky’s
tropes concerning multiplicity,
the hills adorned with gentians
of finality. And as alabaster
silences that look fragile
deafen gradually, there was
the sheer, rock-breaking force
of your refusal. There was
the sheer, rock-breaking force
of the waterfall, glittering
with justice through the spray.
When we moved from the wilderness
of our feelings, past the granite
quarries of our feelings, to the far
rotting bridges of our feelings,
and thence to the suburbs
of our feelings, there too
the dark sycamores on avenues
(and of course the lights between them)
shined quizzically where they
had been committed to memory.
Now the memory is in
its clerical guise, and where
the skeletal houses shine
inside it, the snow is lackluster
and though cold, leaves much
to be desired, much like desire
itself. The river doves
are flying from the river
which is coming through
the town. The river is frozen
under the bridges. The houses
stand along the town. In the
town and along its borders,
the wind is blowing, and
blowing against the rockface
of the quarries.
Have you read the poem
about the phoenix?
It’s in the Exeter Book
beside the panther and the whale.
It’s a bird with metallic thread
and seed pearls interwoven
through its plumage.
So what about it? What about
how it builds a fire
from spice branches
and periodically destroys
itself? What do you know
But there was another book
that we were reading
in the tenement
in the tenebrous shadows
of the stairways. Was it the one
where they beat the sonneteers
with branches wrapped in bright
blue foil until they screamed
for mercy in pentameter?
This was called The Life
of the Mind, and in its Sea of Clouds,
its Sea of Cold, its Sea
of Rains, its Bay of Dew,
its Lake of Dreams, its Ocean
of Storms, we lived
a parallel life where the rain
fell green and glowing
and straight and true.
The lion there is striped
with rain, awash with light
in the peculiar rushes.
The violet glass swans
And the mythical panther,
beside the waterfall.
sopping wet with bridge water
and tame canals flowing into the sky
red in the dawn of Avalon kingdom.
The houses like antique locomotives
stand along the golden tracks serenely.
You, stranger, coming out of one of them,
in your Edwardian topcoat and hat,
you, macronaut and listener
to the centennial music
of crowded midnight tea rooms
upstairs above the common Chinese restaurants
where lobsters crawl off our plates
and disappear into the ficus
growing green and pointed by the water.
Let’s drive out to the star-lit slopes
and drive-in theaters that border the suburbs
and along the miles of ribbon road
laid down across the rolling hills
with their steeples and their haystacks,
their nomadic sleepers and their war children
waiting patiently abed in weed-strewn hospitals
for the whistle of the passing freight train
until the dark woods of childhood
rise into view with the tanager
and the cedar waxwing, the bottle-nosed
dolphins of the sky–
there is a time for play, and a time
for work, for grass labyrinths and shoe horns,
breakfast, rain. The blue-gray clouds
and purple clouds are passing overhead;
you have been smoking in bed again,
and thinking about the Lake District,
the windmills covering the hills,
peaked houses with open porches,
brick fronts glowing in the sunlight,
the monochromatic idea
of happiness, so easily shifting
like the mechanism in a timepiece.
It’s five-nineteen according to the timepiece
and the sun is setting, yes,
setting already, for it is, after all, October.
And look: along the bottom of the hillsides
the geodesic domes are all in shadow.
But pulling aside the berry vines
you can see the house that we grew up in,
overgrown, an old white coffee pot
bulging in the midst of wild hedges.
Men With Mustaches
Men with mustaches are running toward
the tower, old-fashioned men in fire-proof
coats, with grappling hooks and axes,
masked and hooded, their heads
like nightingales in metal helmets.
Aren’t they like fathers
of a certain generation, stoic
and unspeaking in the thunder and rain,
resigned to be wet and uninterpreted,
wandering through gold-colored
smoke into the night?
These are such that daughters never told
their secrets to. They are not the clever
men who will live, bolts of brightly-colored
cloth unspooling. They are post-deluvian
giants, they are animists, they spark life
there on the ramparts of the city dark
and tenebrous, their dark or blonde or bronze
mustaches combed out into flaming points.
We were reading the decorative tiles
on our visit to the House of Life,
its seemingly sequential rooms, stairways
leading past an alabaster curio,
toward the upper stories where the mothers
who outlive their children were residing.
And the faces of the children
are those of grown men on the cameos
on the rocks around the water-features
in the garden far below, rainbow-tinged,
inlaid in the stone with mother-of-pearl.
These women have no need to tell their stories:
they know that someday you will know them too.
GEOFFREY NUTTER is originally from California. He has lived in New York City for many years. His books of poems include A Summer Evening, Water’s Leaves & Other Poems, Christopher Sunset and most recently The Rose of January, published by Wave Books in June 2013. He has taught at The New School, The University of Iowa, New York University, and Columbia.