We asked the captain what course
of action he proposed to take toward
a beast so large, terrifying, and
unpredictable. He hesitated to
answer, then said judiciously:
“I think I shall praise it.”
Let’s say that it’s all about definition. How are we to do it? To define ourselves, I mean.
We could define ourselves by what we own. We could define ourselves by what we’ve lost. We could define ourselves by what we remember.
Or we could define ourselves by what we praise.
I could tell you that when X sang I heard Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, she is dead, a Bach cantata, the way a soprano’s voice cracks into sublimity and leaves us there to absorb, stricken, the shock-wave and then carry on as if life and this were normal.
Górecki, Henryk Mikoɫaj (1933–). Polish composer. The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is constructed along the golden section. In the first movement, the soprano’s entrance—the transition from the lento to the sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile—occurs at precisely this moment, or
through the piece.
We watched The New World last night, part of our obsession with Terrence Malick and grass and fire and the silent montages that imply, just imply. Afterwards X asks N. and me what we thought, and N. answers. X asks me again, directly. And I say, I don’t know, there was the Mozart piano concerto, isn’t that enough?
—Let me get this straight. ποιέω. We make what we praise?
—Or we praise what we make.
—Which is it?
—We make what makes what we praise.
Years later, long after this had become their custom,
they would remember this morning. They had woken
to the muezzins, far more jarring here than in the bustle
of Jerusalem, and in their disorientation the body’s
quiet familiarity was novelty enough. When you’re young
you think nights are the covers under which love must
be made. Maybe so, at first, when transgression and secrecy
are their own arousals and you are ruled still by uncertainty’s
urgency and the fear that you will need to fabricate the mystery.
But there comes a time when you realize you have wasted years
waking up on the wrong side of intimacy. For it is among
the bells of Sunday morning in Bethlehem that the body
is clean and holy and your nakedness refuses to hide what is good.
When you wake to the brush of lips against your own, your desire
like the sun’s soft light upon your drowsy skin, sweet warmth itself,
you have already begun the day in prayer.
—I don’t know, habibi. I never call you that anymore.
The light. How little I understand even now,
after a year, now that I can buy cucumbers
and count to ten, like the two-year-old
who is practically, suddenly, my nephew. The
violence in Hebron and in the Old City and on
the buses. I glide through the checkpoints because
I am American and people ask me if I love
America. You are free. But then there was
the shame I felt beneath my fury beneath
my dress the time I bought toothpaste and
condoms and left the bag under the table
and when I came back the waiter handed it
to me over the counter, wordlessly but his eyes
spat You whore.
—It’s because she’s paying attention. It’s because she, like you, is obsessed with getting it right; but she, unlike you, gets it right not apart from or about but in, inside of, every moment like its own reckoning, across breaths, through shouts and gasps, between the murmurs of speech or love or death. Whereas you, paralyzed, sit and watch in terror that it might escape you, that you might get it wrong after all. So it does. So you do.
They say that hearing is the first
of the senses to come & the
last to leave. From birth to death, you
this may be true.
But once you stood, pajama’d, in a mid-
night bathroom and watched your
eyes watch your eyes in the mirrored light
of that sun-hot bulb and heard
For that moment—you will never know how
long you stood there—you heard
felt nothing.) & that was enough.
—All of a piece. If she writes differently it is because she thinks differently. Lives differently.
Here is how you rope a calf. Try his neck. More likely aim to throw the dally, the loop, in front of his hind legs. When it catches the dally slips up above the knee and tightens: so tighten the slack until the calf’s effectively without that leg. Wait for two bouncers to come around the horse’s off side, one down the rope to the leg, the other to the tail, and shove the calf off his feet onto the ground. Probably you’ve got him on his wrong side. Flip him. Wait for your fellow bouncers to kneel astride his neck before you release the dally on the caught leg and loop it back around both: tighten the slack again ‘til they’re forty-five degrees beyond perpendicular to his backbone. This is the most dangerous moment. It’s two knees holding him down at the neck; his hind legs are free; he will try to kick straight up into the face of you who hold the dally. That done, take out your pocket-knife, cut a notch out of the ear that’s to the sky, a swallow’s tail now frank with blood. Reach for the two injection guns, their needles the size of the blunt ends of chopsticks. The flap of skin just behind the neck: there: one and then the other. Now wait for the other guy to reach past the contorted hind legs with the knife fetishistically reserved for this purpose alone: sever the scrotum from the body: pull out the impossibly long stringy almost-liquid testicles: cut them off at the base if necessary: drop them into the blue plastic bucket already half full. Spray the disinfectant into his silence. Pull the swinging T from the propane-fired branding-pot—“Hot iron!”—and press it upside-down perpendicular to the backbone. Rock it top to bottom and side to side, each just once, to blister the skin beneath the burning hair. It’s pink now and perfectly rectilinear and even as it will distort with the growth of skin and muscle it will scar into permanence. The smoke rises in the shape of the mark and you will smell like this for the rest of the day.
—I envied him for it, you see, and then I had nothing. Neither what he had nor what I had.
On the Metro after beers and mezcal
at Miralto overlooking all of D. F.
Robin leans in with a warning. Once,
on this line, Pantitlán towards
Tacubaya, a man boards the train
high probably on paint-thinner
carrying a bag of broken glass into
which he mashes his scarred fist and
forearm while the whole car watches
or doesn’t. The girl sitting across
from him, five or six, asks What is he
doing and her mother answers Thinking
things that are not to be thought.
Three years after you at a contra dance
in northwestern Connecticut I let
my partner lead me and my hand
at the small of her back remembers
that place that speaks that asks
what I have forgotten.
At some point we become so
sharply who we are we begin
to cut into
Yesterday afternoon a man walked up to me on the street, introduced himself as Czar, asked to see the book in my hands, began reading poems aloud to test their meter, and announced that they were all deficient, that we would need to get together and teach them how it was done, beginning with Bach and Mozart. I protested:
—I don’t think these poems are trying to be metrical in the way you want them to be.
—You’re too generous!
—There are worse vices at twenty-one.
—You’re much too generous. I want you saying things so harsh you have to slit your throat.
This is the summer I had when I was twelve, except
that when I was twelve I had no such summer.
At Yom Kippur you told me
you would not go to temple.
“I have nothing to atone for.”
I didn’t know where to begin.
No matter how many times I came
back to that valley floor I felt
its gravity as not a weight on the flesh
or a shadow across the mind but
an ache at the heart. As the
horizon sank below the mountains
the sun above could not
console me. All its light
revealed I knew to be
the world—every crag and rift
the edge or depth of the nightmare
in which bright day is eclipsed
by fear of itself and I forget—
for how am I to see the light?