Monday, May 6, 2013

#80: Four Poems by George David Clark




~This poem was previously published in Smartish Pace (2011).

The Plush

                        “In the shadows a bad guy upholsters his weapon.”
                        -typo in a student’s fiction

He cocks the parlor lamp to throw a blade
of light across the contours of the problem:
the gutted wing chair that his young wife paid
for with a five. To cover it will rob him
of the evening, but if she comes home to fine
décor, she’ll be in debt another favor.
Their meal last night, the veal filet and wine,
has canceled out the flowers that he gave her
and his note: you do too much. So, to do more,
to best her, hold her hostage in the name
of sacrifice, he sinks a knife into the chore
and staple-guns a crewelwork to the frame.
When he hears her car, he stands and aims
the chair, that padded weapon, at the door.

 *** 
 
~This poem previously appeared in The Journal  (2011).
Nightstick


in a babble of vowels     we hail it

that shiniest Midas of bruises

heavier than bone     and heftier
like an arm     with a fist on the end of it
that fist holding     firmly     a large polished stone

it is the length perhaps     of a flower girl’s arm
but smoother than child-skin     and tossing off bruises

fossilized umbra     whale-prick weaponized

the devil’s toothpick loosing wale-meat
in a saturnine maw    

an arm with nothing     to tenderly finger

and yet     as bruises     whose beginnings
and ends lie plain      always to us
but in whose medial purples and jaundiced blues

are motley ciphers figured

one starts     almost     to understand a nightstick    
how it has something important

to say     finally     to an elbow

how having heard it     the elbow is a long time
in forgetting     meanwhile fairly glows                                             


oh dealer-out of diminutive halos     all over
our ignorant bodies     every contusion

martyrs us     for something                                                               

we nearly know what it is now     begin at last
to pronounce it     watching the evening
wound the magnolias

watching the pine boughs blue                                                                      

baton of black grace and white knuckles     torch
whose sheen we shudder at

conductor of terrible arias

whatever instructs us      in the argot
of bruises     shatters our porcelain consonants

teaches our tongues a new glory
    
till we pray past the arms that strike us
toward the first      and final harms

*** 

~This poem previously appeared in River Styx (2012).

Variations on Her Bed in Shadows

1.
How a pair of ivory pens
inside a velvet case
are black, or how the flash     
of carving knives is cancelled
when they’re drawered,
this woman’s legs go dark
between the sheets.

2.
Night’s fractures make her bed
a jigsaw puzzle
in a thousand pieces. Nearly all
describe the folds of her duvet.
In those remaining
find an ankle and an earlobe.
Then fit the scene together
with your eyes closed.

3.
From the doorknob
her jaguar pajamas,
like an empty pelt, hang.
She the hunter intrepid,
she the animal slain.

4.
Forget the long white fangs
drawn back in a cottonmouth;
for a stay of lethal fleetness,
see her legs relaxed
between the sheets.
  
5.
Streetlight and Venetian blinds,
a study of lines: the way these slats
proceed by level rungs
over the nightstand, the way they dip
and swerve across her hips.

6.
Guerillas of the gray
horizon, rebels
against breakfast,
your guidon, badge,
and battle flag
depict a woman’s legs
between white sheets.

7.
After the shadow party,
when sleep and her entourage
of umbras disperse,
these are the remnants
of their discharged gala:
this dark thrown over
the footboard
like a fur-lined coat,
this dark that slips
like coins into a settee,
this little clutch
of darkness tucked
beneath a woman’s arm.

8.
What do we divine
by these two deviants,
her long pale legs
in their veils
of linen? The bed’s
a clock gone haywire
or a compass
locked on heaven.

***
~This poem previously appeared in Copper Nickel (2012).


Whatever Burn this Be

he had first a little cold so began to cough
then could not stop coughing could not
even at night willing the throat relaxed
while his wife sought rest beside him stop

as though there were a magician and this act
called for him to draw a chain of brightly-
colored handkerchiefs from out a tender
gullet the itch of it the steady need in waves

to cough and somehow the handkerchiefs
continuing long after any ordinary feint
had ended at the clinics coughing yet
while doctors snaked their special cameras

through his nose and raw esophagus
that high-tech scrutiny for polyps finding none
no profit from the chest exams
ditto prescription salves inhalers steroids weeks

and months of treatments with referrals each
to new physicians likewise confident
and ineffectual until what had seemed some
misdirection of contagion then resembled

more a sorcery a kind of violent miracle
of coughing in which he’d been sharply
charmed by no corporeal enchanter
under escalating cost and wrack of spasm

he commenced then dubiously begging
that god he didn’t half-believe existed
would touch with healing hand this throat
where the whole world’s droughts were local

extinguish now whatever unslaked burn this be
he rasped those pleas aloud would sleep
and dream of coughing wake to coughing
and in hours closed to anything but thought

and coughing he imagined himself magistrate
among the scalded throats of Mexico
the boys expectorating fire for tourists
till the inevitable night that flash they spit

they swallow and he dwelt on the Indian
necktie practice whereby throats were opened
the tongue jerked down and throbbing forth
to dry in special ornament of suffering

would think romantically of a torturer’s garrote
the metal coolness on an Adam’s apple
even as the victim choked and more cruel still
he dreamed himself hauled out on stage

by this magician-sadist his body locked
from the neck down in a rough wood box
while whetted coughs like saw blades slit
and split him heaven meanwhile

to his slow sere prayers was silent
just as he foreknew it would be
and further-yet despairing he entertained
the staid analysis of certain liquid suicides

in the ruthless prime of summer meditated
on the image of a man relaxing poolside
with a sweating glass of antifreeze the lubricious
drip of motor oil into the grinding cog-works

 of his chassis saw those tonics more like spells
or counter-curses by which he might pit
god vs. gasoline and all the best
combustion human thaumaturgy has devised

he spit goddamn and now he meant it
oh could not stop this ceaseless Santa Ana
within his precious windpipe chambered
and so he coughed and cursed

gave in to coughing lavished
in that millisecond fraction of relief inside
each cough like thimble-shots of liquid
in a cactus coughed though surely each balm

broke on deeper coughing no longer spoke
but croaked or hissed poor throat scoured
throat blistered flayed excoriated throat
and still in addition to prescription-everything

tried homemade syrups tried honey tried
lemon-rose-holy-spring-and-salt water
a couple times counter-intuitive bouts
of lesser whiskies tried tequila with chilled

V-8 chasers so to sandblast the throat
and start again from nothing always bags
of mentholated lozenges always ice-cold
carbonated anything and still the constant

curdle of his larynx such that finally knee-wise
bent again for supplication half-swearing
half-whispering like carnal secrets his appeals
for simple peace to no one present
  
mindlessly whimpering there for draught
of anything to ease this long red rash
of raucous coughing he began suspecting
as his thoughts turned odd he might at last

be hearing a reply that if supernal coughs
like his existed so must a god much stranger
than he’d guessed that maybe
angled properly the noise he made

this ultimate ugliness could strike the ears
of paradise in a way no prayer could hope to
that to soothe a genius cough like this
he might have to start thinking like a throat

an instrument of coughing he might have
to become a smarter kind of cough
productive of something curiously beautiful
ordained a consecrated cougher who

by saint-like coughing harder with more pure
pain behind it might cough up the cure
for something cough precious stones or cough
a beam of whole white light cough out

the worst parts of himself until he was
another man entirely revival fire
and brimstone coughing gospel coughing
on a stage to wild amens coughing to end

wars and famines and coughing too to call
the necessary rain lakes of it cataracts
and pearly Carribeans of deluge coursing
blessedly the cool blue throat of an evening sky

could a new cough clean him could he
be sanctified by long apocalyptic
coughing would hurt men come to him
asking meekly that he please cough for them

cough please over them so god might
through him hear their own hidden
and inarticulate hackings voiced the way
they felt them that the lord might disburse

his mercy please sir cough they’d softly say
and moved he would in thick bellowing fits
of messianic coughing cough for them
cough kindly over them throw back his head

and let go coughs like a magician’s
plump white doves an endless stream in flight
toward heaven that cracked and ragged
blessing from his crimson throat forever

***

THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
"The Plush" 
As an English teacher and an editor I spend more time than I would like with writing that’s been hastily composed and poorly revised. When the language trips over itself in an essay, story, or poem, the most common results are gibberish and illogic, but every once in a while a phrase goes so delightfully wrong that I have to file it away.
I’ve actually started keeping in a little notebook of malapropisms. There was the essay that listed the parts of a men’s choir: bass, tenor, countertenor, and beartone. Or the truism one writer repeated in her poem: never lick a gift horse in the mouth. My favorite though was a student’s short story in which a boy is maliciously poisoned in the opening scene. The doctors sit down with his parents and explain that the child will die horribly within twenty-four hours unless someone on the police force can track down the necessary anecdote. And so, for the next twenty pages Detective Jones searches the seedy underbelly of New York. A child’s life hangs in the balance.
The epigraph to this poem also showed up in a student’s fiction. At first it was simply a good laugh: an upholstered weapon (instead of an un-holstered one). But the more I thought about it the more the slip struck me as profound.
You see when my wife and I were first married we got into the habit of trying to outdo one another with sacrifice. If she cooked dinner, I washed her car. If I washed her car, she would surprise me by renting that movie I love (and she hates). And so on until at times there was almost something angry in our blessings. It’s silly, but even now, we sometimes catch ourselves fighting over who gets to wash the dishes.

“Whatever Burn this Be”

            Though not to the degree of my character in “Whatever Burn this Be,” for three years I suffered from a chronic cough the doctors (and there were many) could not explain. There were, in the words of the poem, “prescription salves inhalers steroids weeks /and months of treatments with referrals each / to new physicians likewise confident / and ineffectual.” On more than one occasion ENTs snaked cameras on the ends of long tubes through my nose and down my esophagus. I tried a hundred cures, none successful.
            At its worse the cough could make it difficult to talk or even walk, but those extreme attacks were rare. Mostly it was just an ugly inconvenience in the background of my life and eventually I gave up on the doctors. The cost was more than I could handle on a grad student’s stipend/insurance, and I had begun to suspect it must be, at least in part, psychosomatic. Then, as mysteriously as the cough appeared, one day it vanished.
            My wife noticed its absence before I did and simply pointed out that I hadn’t coughed in a while. It’s never come back, though now, whenever I start to catch a cold and my throat goes scratchy, I worry the thing’s returning.
            In the end the coughing poem took longer to get out of my system than the ailment itself. I number my drafts and “Whatever Burn this Be” went through 127 significant revisions (over the course of about five years) before it finally seemed finished. Or at least finished enough for me to send the poem out.
            Part of the problem was certainly the poem’s form. I wanted to find a way to capture both breathing and coughing in the poem’s rhythms, hence the regular stanza breaks and the absence of punctuation. If the form works as I intend it, there are periodic hiccups where one stream of syntax blends less than seamlessly with the next, so that even as the lines themselves cohere sonically, the poem never settles into a comfortable cadence. Of course every draft upset the poem’s balance in one direction or the other. What I wanted was to keep the poem just off kilter enough that it neither collapsed nor began to sing.
            The other central challenge was to try to find a little meaning in what for me was agonizing, in large part, because I couldn’t understand it. To work towards what Richard Hugo would call the poem’s discovered subject (as opposed to its trigger, my cough), I needed to ramp up the suffering. That allowed me to send my character looking for a supernatural explanation and a solution that would extend the cough’s imaginative potency rather than simply dissolving it.

***

ABOUT GEORGE DAVID CLARK

Last year’s O’Connor Fellow in poetry at Colgate University, George David Clark is currently a Lilly Postdoctorate Fellow at Valparaiso University where he teaches in the honors college. His most recent poems can be found in new issues of The Believer, FIELD, The Greensboro Review, Narrative Magazine, New South, Pleiades, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere in 2013. He is the editor of 32 Poems (www.32poems.com).



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