Three Poemsby Leonard Schwartz
D was cross-eyed. As the words flowed endlessly from his mouth it appeared that he might be talking to the walls. I decided that he was talking to me, although it took seven years to come to that decision, as everything that we call knowledge is based in memory, sensation and perception settling into sentences.
When I first met B, I thought to myself “this guy is fun, enjoy him while he lasts, he won’t live long”: all that apparently unprotected sex, the Times Square gigolos, the crack he said he was smoking, and so on. Twenty years later B is not only alive but just last week, he gave me a foot massage.
It was a memorable locking of the eyes, one that overcame all the restrictions of our exchange, a longing satisfied by sight, and an embrace; but the circumstance dictated that she then had to continue walking on. I wasn’t wistful, I took renewed pleasure in the memory of the feline narrowing of her eyes on another occasion, and that lioness-like kiss.
C took me into his confidence, he gave me something undefinable, his words on the page were a pride of lioness’ hunting down the body’s refusals, but, alas, they devoured the body too; his spoken words, spoken to me, to me alone, were filled with an exaggerated woe that intimated, always, an expectation of the ecstatic.
Nowadays I borrow some of K’s lines, like the one that goes “I contradict myself because I speak”, and I think about the way K speaks, with such inner consistency.
R was an old man when I came to know him, older than C, older than K, filled with language and sorrow - but of the many languages he spoke none could speak his sorrow. His mournful gaze seemed to say this to me, his useless apprentice.
R lent me his Paris apartment filled with paintings of variable worth. Later he grew angry with me, I would say Lear-like, from the distance of a rented residence in Spain, or so I was told by G, who I knew disliked me. Yet it was true that R’s next letter was not friendly.
I find it amazing that I was so young when all this happened. R and I shared a delirium, though I disappointed him by not even holding hands, I should say he confirmed for me my own delirium, and I am grateful. (I know far fewer languages, still have hopes to learn to speak.)
R never gained the domestic bliss of D, the myth of the hearth, the intensely intimate domestic life. Am I capable of cherishing the minutia of the conjugal relation, of finding in that minutia the minutes of lived experience, the actual in the actual, a mode of domestic celebration?
B is far more frantic than R or myself, spends everything he has, emotionally and financially, in love’s pursuit.
V has a similar thorn in the flesh, though she likes to pretend it isn’t there, that she will pluck it out at some future date, or that one particular lover will remove it for her as from a lioness’ paw.
C laughed at all human folly, and at the same time set me up with a beautiful young Italian editor. We sat in his small 6th arrondissement flat, C and his friend, me and the Italian editor. She wasn’t interested.
Years later she turned up again as B’s editor in France. He didn’t like her – I’ll call her S – and mocked her in the most sarcastic terms.
C laughed at all human folly and took me for walks in the Luxembourg Gardens, and the memory of those walks still stirs me.
I don’t think K really thought I would amount to much, and it is true at that age that I was obnoxious, and withdrawn, and didn’t learn to be with people at all till much, much later. So maybe K was right.
I would like to edit R’s uncollected and perhaps will ask a publisher I know if she might be willing to take on the project.
D counseled fullness over purity, and wrote to me that the word “purity” would flame once you saw the word “fire” in it.
From: The Sleep Talkers
The father’s ghost returns to haunt the son. It is one of the most familiar tropes in Western literature.
Why? Well, why not? Don’t we want the father’s ghost to visit the son, the parent in spite of having passed away still present to his grown child?
Perhaps in this case that isn’t such a good thing. Since the voice of the father urges the son to cherish the hatred he has bequeathed him. Yes, hatred is the son’s patrimony. You see, the father felt unloved and unhappy during his life: he was incapable of either love or happiness himself. Now he asks his son to love him, to demonstrate this love through his actions. The father by definition could not love his son but now he asks his son to love him, which is unreasonable; and he asks his son to do what he urges him to do out of love, which is also unreasonable. But the father also urges the son to be strong, and these are words the son wants to hear. The son wants to be strong, his body jerks with the anticipation of his own increase in power, he is like a teenager flexing to demonstrate the power of his form, his own burgeoning capacity to destroy. The father wants the son to destroy his enemies posthumously, which is why he urges his son to be strong. The son wants to be strong but does he really want to destroy all his father’s enemies? His life to this point has been expressive of resentment, but not of vendetta. His plans for the future do seem to coincide with that of his father: they wreak of blood. Good news! The father reveals the relative weakening of he (and his son’s) enemies and forecasts his (and his son’s) enemies coming defeat, if only the son will listen to the father’s urgings.
It should be mentioned at this point that the son may be asleep during the entire conversation with his father. This may be one of the oldest tropes in Western literature. How is the son able to hear in his sleep? Shouldn’t we rather say that the son’s sleep is troubled by the ghost of his father? Or perhaps we should wonder if in fact the son is sleeping at all. Perhaps he is only pretending to sleep in the hope that if he remains in that posture the ghost of the father will finally give up and go away. Perhaps he is awake and afraid that if he opens his eyes he will be frightened by what he sees. It is also true that the son speaks in his sleep – if he really is asleep – as if responding to his father’s words, or is pretending to speak in his sleep, if he really is awake.
Either way the son speaks of his own unhappiness. The son mentions his mother. The son wonders aloud about his own chances in life.
Are you asleep, my son, are you asleep, my son, repeatedly asks the ghost of the father. See, the father isn’t sure either if his son is awake or asleep. The son seems to be responding to the ghost of the father, but not to the degree that the ghost of the father can be certain that the son is listening or even awake. The son speaks as if in retort to the father’s exhortations, but the ghost of the father remains uncertain. The son seems to be saying that he will do as his father asks. Or rather the son seems to be saying that he will do what the father wants, but only for himself, not for love of the father.
Yes, he will do it – destroy their enemies - but only for himself.
That ambition, however – to destroy their enemies - would probably be enough to satisfy the ghost of the father, oriented as he is towards destruction and not any pleasure in the son’s love or obedience.
When she awakens she knows herself to be different than she was before.
In the very first movements after waking this is clear to her.
In the stretching of her limbs it should be clear to any of us who knew her before that now she is other.
And then she is overwhelmed by her joy in waking and she forgets awhile that she is different. She exults, and she is who she was and she is who she is. The curve of the earth hugs her, the light moves her, moves from her and through her. Lineage flames in her eyes: she is alive and that is her lineage, she is enthusiastic and noble and that is her lineage. And of her own accord she is wise.
She has awakened from a long sleep. It must have been years. She exults in the waking. And yet she has not yet fully awakened and that is part of her wisdom. She is aglow with her dream life to such a degree that we may say she is still in that dream, still of that dream. Her face is so rich with the gold of her slowly moving slumber that we may say she still slumbers – if slumber means degree zero of unconsciousness, rising blush of unconsciousness active in the world, the depths of one’s breathing. Indeed, her lungs are strong. You see, she sings. She sings her greeting to earth, to sun, to seed and egg; she sings her gratitude to earth, to sun, to seed and egg. She is very much alive, so very much awake, so very much every breath she draws from the depths of the deepest sleep known to the species.
At which point she wonders what awakened her, or who.
Later, this what, or who – it is a “who” – will become a source of recognition and of anxiety, of dread, of mortal attraction, pinning her to her new identity. Very soon she will know herself to be different than she was before. Very soon she will feel the pressure to become what she already is - a mortally attractive and attracted being. She will not wish to depart from who she was; she will not desire to split with her sleep. It will take a terrific effort on her part to realize that she does wish to leave that sleep behind, to will herself to believe that life is with the others and not with the images that populate her thought, the self-image that fashions her song, the divinity that bathes her and her body.
That will all come, soon enough. For now, she wakes singing! For now she is both awake and asleep. Both asleep and awake. From whence she sings both of clarity and the inchoate.
Baudelaire writes that in China they tell time by looking into the eyes of cats.
An absurd and beautiful sentence, an otherness saturated in something other than the clock, like her waking.
If one looks into her eyes just after waking, one sees the spark of light, spark of stone, spark of seed and egg: the hieroglyphs of some time transcendental in its moorings.
Top of the Morning To You
Getting out of bed in the morning
almost inevitably brings one closer to the sun.
The night in us isn’t unlikeable
but it gets a facelift and big plans.
The rising body of the next fiction whose task it is
to offer us nothing less than our new lives...
Light marks the “I” as one of the boys
and the fact is, it’s up to the imagination, boys
To proceed gently, careful not to tear any fibers
since everything here is part of our field of perception.
And wouldn’t it be better to stop pretending
I’m not part of You
The You I know to be the greater force?
Only by your noticings do I rise beyond desire
Though I’m likely to complain You don’t notice me enough.
To be part of something that dwarfs my part in it
A voice, broken by gasps
for breath, that presents the other soundings.
I’m already in the sun,
me and a blue fawn I can’t call me.
Leonard Schwartz's new collection of poems At Element is forthcoming from Talisman House. His last book was A Message Back and other Furors, from Chax Press.