The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®

 

Alexander Long

On Time

 

I.

Walking among gravestones at that hour
When the sun hasn’t fully risen and the sky seems

So sure of itself in its capacity to change,

I finally heard it:

The 20th Century distilled

Into the thrice-whined coo of a mourning dove,

So unlike the blue jay’s grainy guttural
Triptych—begawk-beware-be gone!—,

Which, for years, was all I allowed myself to hear,

So unlike the cicadas’ whir, too, stoking the embers of a Hell
Called childhood full of scenes I dreamed

Up and carved into my desk, and later
Sister Amadeus and Father Trautner stood,

At once, behind and above me

To ensure I’d perish as my blemished recitations
Of penance flew from my throat

With all the sincerity of a cease fire.

And for what? For carving, in a font no less gaudy and stoic
Than that hacked into gravestones,

Two important words into lacquered maple:

                     T
        W         H         O
                     E

I’d placed the words atop a gravestone,
And beneath it, my last name, and beneath that
                                                                  some dates.

The whorls in the wood reminded me more of Jupiter
Or water spinning down a sink once the plug is pulled.

“The boy’s drawn his own death, has he? Let’s see him
Draw himself in Hell, then…,” they said.

And so, I did, and peopled it with figures who looked more like pigs
Donned in clerical robes smoking cigars and shooting holes

Through clouds and doves and beer bottles and terra cotta flower pots,
Cartoon bubbles floating above their heads, reciting lines

From other sacred texts I’d memorized:

Strange as it seems, his musical dreams/ Ain’t quite
                                                              so bad…,


And Sickness will surely take the mind/ Where minds can’t
                                                                        usually go…,


And I don’t need to fight/ To prove I’m right/
I don’t need to be forgiven….



II.

Dickinson’s right:

Sometimes the soul’s caught dozing
In a doorway. Other times, it needs bandaging,

Sometimes moment to moment,

And the peeling off of dressing and the application of dressing
Feels like placing the face of noon in the palm of a hand

Then rubbing the eyes raw with light
Until the eyes turn
                              into light again.

And sometimes the air grows so hot and thick
It makes it hard to beg,

And the shape of the soul across the street waving at me,

Nimbly flicking its wrist, whose whiff of stale piss
Drifts over the scant traffic

On West 56th Street at noon in August,

Is … me?

And what I thought was a street in Hell’s Kitchen
Is one of Hell’s promenades,

A place beyond any reason for warmth,
Not one worth unearthing, anyway,

Now that Time’s been pressed

Into a song as unerring
As a dove’s gulp of light,

Three times over, and over,
                                            and over again?

Aren’t glimpses like these no more enlightening

Than the gauzy after-glow of a photograph’s
Charred margins, the upper left corner

Eating the heat, orange to red to black to…?

And the faces in the photograph,

Taking their sweet time
Disappearing…?


III.

Before the dark, an upswirl of heat from the center
Of my guts, then sweat, then chill, and then

All I recall is light,

The glare careening off the freshly waxed floor
Of a hospital hallway and a room’s doorway lined

With yellow police tape cordoning off the one next to mine,

The door appearing as though it had forgotten its role
In all of this,
                    opening itself

Without appearing to move, the bed unmade,
The body monitored there
                                         gone, a shrill ringing

From the gadgetry.

Dickinson’s right:

The distance that the dead have gone/ Does not at first appear—
Their coming back seems possible…


But, when I shuffled with my IV to the nurse’s desk
And tried to ask where exactly I might be
                                                                 and what

Exactly might be up with all the sirens and the fire drills,

All I could get out was a long shimmering line
Of saliva that dangled and swung from my bottom lip,

And the nurse behind the desk whose nametag read May
Looked at me and laughed and said,
                                                        “Come on, now,

Mr. Long, let’s get you back to bed….”

Later, May’s face appeared floating above mine,
Faint smudges of coal under her eyes.

She was amazed, she said, that I could walk,
                                                                    it was a wonder
I was awake at all.

It was the piercing overtones and grating undertones
Of an out of tune B flat that drove a hole

Into my morphine-coma and brought me to my feet, my questions
Lucid, calm, and direct until I tried to say them aloud:

What happened next door last night,
That beeping like a nail on fire slowly

Tapped into my ear…. What happened? The police tape,
And where did they take….


And when May began to explain to me how
There were no sirens nor drills,
                                                nor any yellow tape,

Nor body no longer in the room next to mine,
Not ever,
               my bed began to tilt

Slightly to the left and then the right as though
I were trapped in a kayak flung down an angry river,

And I could feel my stomach erupting into my chest,
Then throat, and May held back
                                                  my hair with one hand,

A bucket before my face with her other, and my entire insides
Heaved themselves up in a little tangle

Of bile and spit and phlegm.

Withdrawal, May may have said, just withdrawal, Mr. Long…breathe…

Just as much as she may have said

And then, that we have followed them,
We more than half suspect/, So intimate have we become….


What I remember most is the trail of scorch
Along my throat the bile left,

A wincing kind of pain I felt whenever I would try
To swallow the sucked-on ice chips,

A deep pierce in my side
Whenever I would take a deep breath.


IV.

One of the final adjustments Heydrich and Eichmann brainstormed
Was the painting of a massive round clock

Hung on the front wall of the shack of a station called Belzec.

Apart from a barnyard hue splashed upon the shack,
A red closer to mud than blood,

The first thing transports would see would be this clock
Stuck at two minutes after six.

The thinking was that whenever transports arrived
No longer mattered because they had no access to verifiable

Time apart from sky and bird song,

And upon seeing the clock, a strange sensation would flit
Behind their eyes and fill their lungs with air,

And some would translate these pulsations
Into a rekindled sense of hope, or
                                                     if not that,

Then self-worth, or if not that,
                                                 then clarity:

To know that after a day or two days or three days
Of enduring the boxcars’ endless dactylic clatter

Until one’s thoughts were no longer thoughts but crystals
Of breath forming along the nostrils’ rims and the mouths’ corners

That resembled the crusty fringes of an archangel’s wings
More than anything else, and to acknowledge them as such

Would be enough to convince anyone who’d witnessed it

That they weren’t mad but only thirsty, and freezing, and having visions
Of archangels streaming from their mouths and noses,

And therefore human, on this earth with Time nudging them along,

And to see the clock in that moment that read two minutes after six
Became the first moment in a new life—

Two minutes after six—

Would be enough to get them to rise

And fall into lines guards shouting in Ukrainian
Shoved and whipped them into,

Would be enough to make them stop and jog and fall
Into another line,
                            all the while staring at the clock,

Its hands appearing no longer to be hands but two locks
Of dark hair smoothed out with pomade

And placed upon a chipped porcelain saucer.

And there was never enough grain the guards could drink
That could numb them into their repetitive tasks.

Enough and not enough, enough and not enough,
                                                                              the second syllable there,

A little press of air to get the iamb of enough out
Is the same press of air lifting ashes through chimneys.

Enough and not enough, enough and not enough.
                                                                              Look up, look down,

Enough and not enough, and breathe,
                                                            just breathe….


V.

The music playing wasn’t “Amazing Journey,” nor “Baba O’Riley,”
But “My Generation,”
                                   the live version recorded at the University of Leeds,

And her name, she said, was Serenity,
And she said she was grateful she didn’t have to change

Her name once she became a dancer.

And as Townshend glided a pick across the strings of his Gibson SG,
Serenity tapped some powder into the underside
                                                                            of her pinkie nail,

Held it to my nose, gently stroked my jaw, and said

Breathe, just breathe,

Then straddled me, and disappeared, and returned,

And as I came for the first time
In the presence of another human being, my wonder

Was abducted by shame, for Serenity,
                                                           while on the job,
Wanted more,
                       and wanting Serenity to come

Again for the first time while rejoicing
In her bloodstream’s refrains rekindled and transfigured

By cocaine again for the first time,

I began to shake,

And as I tried to tap some powder into neatly arranged lines,
I spilled her stash, which didn’t spill,
                                                          exactly,
                                                                      but floated.

It seemed to simply hang there,
In the air,
                a circling, shrieking solo,

Feedback on delay, innocence.

Get out is all I can recall, now,
                                              Serenity shouting at me.

Get out and I got enough time, I got enough time to, I got enough time until….


VI.

The smudges of coal under May’s eyes are also what I remember most,
Bruises no jury could tie a perp to.

And I remember taking a smoothed cube of ice from my mouth
And placing it into my hand,

Then trying to press it under one of May’s eyes
As she changed my IV.

It happened so quickly,
We both were struck by the immediacy,
                                                              I guess,

The brazenness, I guess.
                                      Mr. Long, I almost recall May saying,

Mr. Long, are you sweet on me? she said,
                                            and laughed,

And said Thank you, Mr. Long. We’ll get you
Out of here before too long, Mr. Long….



VII.

How not to be sweet on Time?

How to say that, and then sign one’s name to It
And not feel the syllables topple

Soundlessly in a space no less clear
Than a hospital’s cafeteria tray:

Jello, cherry, what you ordered in a hurry….

And the slide of Serenity’s lips, for instance,
Is Heaven, and no less real
                                          is the image

Of her stash upended by gravity, then saved by air,
                                                                               all that
Lost cash and blood rush just hovering there.

Dickinson’s right,
                            but only to a point:

The soul cannot select Its own society.

All It can do is wait,
                                which takes Time,

Or what It calls flight.

 

 

Alexander Long

Ars Poetica #58

 

In the latter stages of her dementia,
My mother, in a moment of clarity
In the home calmly recounted a “trip”,
As she called it, within her mind: Christmas,
We’re gathered at the table, wine is passed,
Turkey is tender and carved, bowls of mashed yams
And stuffing, candles, sweaters, smiles, warmth…and
It’s so gloriously serene and “right,”
She said, “it was disgusting.” She shared this
With me before the last regimen
Of meds took her even further away.
“At this dinner,” she said “the laughter grew
And our voices raised the joy only families
Are able to raise, never duplicate
Elsewhere….” Then, she stopped, grabbed my hand, held it
For fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes.
Maybe an hour, I don’t remember.
All I can feel now is her hand in mine.
Think of that. How long have you held the hand
Of the person you love and hate the most,
The irreplaceable one? If you
Claim it to have lasted more than twenty
Minutes, no one will believe you. I don’t
Expect you to believe me. But, listen
To my mother’s story. Take her pain
And make it your own, like an undertaker
Beautifies a body. Now, join my mother
And me in the home. Watch her hold my hand.
Listen to her tell me she was fighting
That Christmas with a violence no one could
Comprehend. Listen to her say she knew
She’d eventually lose, to what, she never
Said. Listen: “not a doubt about that one.”
Listen: “I need to feel that warmth I made
That Christmas before my mind removes me
From it.” Watch her take her hand from mine.
Or has her hand been taken from her?
Which is the right voice? Her hands fold
In a fierce gesture of prayer, then loosen.
She’s turning to me, calling my name.
She’s opening a poem for me again.

 

 

 

ALEXANDER LONG's third book of poems, Still Life, won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize in 2011. Since, he's published two chapbooks--both prose about Larry Levis--with Q Avenue Press: Lunch With Larry and The Widening Spell. Work has appeared in or shall soon in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Blackbird, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, J Journal, Miramar, New Letters, Southern Review, and Third Coast. He's an associate professor of English at John Jay College, and is at work on a biography of Larry Levis.

 

 

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