~This poem previously appeared in from American Literary Review (2012).
Midnight at the School of Cosmetology
and the mannequins, vacant
as Caesars in their hall of mirrors,
enthrall a night watchman.
His fingers trace their root holes’
perfect rows. This Styrofoam,
bald as the gibbous moon, outlives
the follicles of a thousand women
thinking. Last week the imported hair
shone fulgent as polygraph ink
and delicate as relics.
He still recalls its boxed arrival—
bangs, pigtails, wigs—whirlpools
of third world beauty
cut to train beauticians of tomorrow.
And though he doesn’t fetishize
its climate or cuisine—pelmeni
in mayonnaise, rain sieved
from a tin roof’s runoff—he’s breathed
that hair before the students
kerosened it scentless.
There is a world pressed between
a harvest and its dreaming.
There is a hallway he taps his night-
stick back through, luminous
as the one he entered. All night
hairdos never to travel back overseas
dissolve in the field behind
the building. When his shift ends
he walks home and clicks the TV on.
He turns to stone till morning.
~This poem previously appeared in Artful Dodge (2012).
In the Shadow of a Scrivener’s Quill
Over the O, the ah, the fable’s lazy start, its Once
Upon a Time; over the gild-work and into the text block, past
the stitched signatures and spine; over the names
remaindered from distant shores which you swept
up and re-lined; over the we, the she, the I; over
the cattlecarts clacking on cobblestones,
dead prayers, lost plays, gun-free melees,
and the other sounds those foreign consonants retain—
over the footnotes, toward the fore edge, through
the marginalia that’s raining down the vellum’s white,
inviting frame; over the gaps which absent words
plant into the lines; over the cloth
that holds your place; over the ink that’s dried;
over the flesh and under the hide of enough
animals it’s said whole herds passed
through your hands; over the grooves
your newest word still shines inside, past the pages
bound face to face, revised; over the stories,
all the oldest ones, which—like light we skim
from distant stars—renders our hurtling less lonely;
over the eons, inside the authors, onto an easel
and into your inkwell, the shadow of your scrivener’s quill
is dancing, dark foot dipped into a darker pool, it lifts
a load of sweet, unfiltered evening—
then lands, black dash to reattach the past,
and coax us up the learning curve we climb
by generations. O monk or scribe
who curled his back inside candlelight, I’ve often
questioned your motives: did penitence push
you to push books into the dark beyond—
stepping stones you leapt toward St. Peter’s ledger—
or was scribe work just an exercise in exercising options?
Take that candle for life’s defining metaphor
and the tomes you shelve begin
to resemble heaven. Perhaps you were seduced
enough to change them, as when chaperones
left alone too long imagine misbehaving?
Or did anonymity only remind you
of the pleasures it offered in compensation: to live
for months inside Homer’s head, bundled
up in one-word increments; to touch the word
of God, put it down in red, before returning
to a relay team that runs for centuries
untended? One day our world will call you up
again, place into your hands our scraps
of self, and ask you to arrange the parts
that make us sharp, redeeming. For now may you
swim inside our memory, rippling unnoticed.
THE STORY BEHIND THE POEMS
Years ago, when my hairdresser told me that her cosmetology school imported their wigs from Eastern Europe—they’d clean them, cut them, and style them for exams—I began looking for a proxy who could enter that scene. I’d just been to Russia for the first time with my wife, and found myself, like the night watchman, rendered speechless. I mean this both literally and figuratively. My wife is an American interpreter and translator. Russia felt like a vast and beautiful hall of mirrors. It was natural that my wife did most of the talking. “Midnight at the School of Cosmetology” is a poem then about masculine silence. It’s also about the proximity between a fetish and the sublime. “In the Shadow of a Scrivener’s Quill” follows a similarly isolated male figure, though it is more of a praise poem. The eponymous scribe is just one of many who kept Western culture from the worms. The poem owes much to David Wojahn’s “Homage to Blind Willie Johnson.”
ABOUT DEREK MONG
Derek Mong is the author of Other Romes (Saturnalia Books, 2011); the poetry editor at Mantis: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, & Translation; and a blogger at KROnline. Last fall he completed a PhD in American Literature at Stanford University. A former Axton Poetry Fellow at the University of Louisville and Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, he is the recipient of the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize from the Missouri Review and two Hopwood Awards. His poetry, translations, and criticism have appeared in Poetry Daily, Poetry Northwest, The Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, Pleiades, The Cincinnati Review, and Asymptote. He lives in Portland, OR with his wife and son: www.derekmong.com.