Scene From My Childhood
The Great Drought in Berkeley
May Day, 1961: The Court Jester Speaks Philoctetes, At The Start Of His Ninth Year By Fallen Leaf Lake, above timberline That wall you build
Villanelle: There is no end and no beginning For the Girl Who Years from Now Will Ask Me
Give me a text, cousin and rabbi, Summer Song
Some are inevitable from the start, My lover lost her marriage ring. You have the advantage of fire:
[Song] dreamy world
each time/ I forget,
If You Wanted A Second Chance,
Among the 10,000 Things to Say:
& if I never said/ how beautiful
you are special to me/ in ordinary ways Family has been a blessing,/ an engagement o lord/ give me two
[song] The Nightcat
[song] Take My Love
[song] Song for Vince
[song] Sissyphoo, Sissyphoo
Angel of chaos, bait
Our works encode the night, these chains Invocation for a Wedding, for a Wedding Feast
Scene From My Childhood
I don't remember much from grammar school: the time I slashed my wrist, the stagnant pool below the hill with stickleback and trout to tempt our truant hearts, the high-pitched shout of triumph when Red Rover reached the wall in safety. Years have passed since then, and all I did and saw has faded save a few
dim memories. But one man that I knew
I think of still in Spring, when swallows soar and build their nests. He was a janitor.
His name was Herman Shunk. We called him 'skunk,' and whispered to each other that he stunk of sweat and gin. We jeered him to his face, and those of us who dared his wrath
would lace his boots together as he slept beside the furnace, ring the fire-alarm, and hide.
Perhaps we did him wrong to treat him so -- the man was old and bent, and seemed our foe more than he really was. But he would curse our pranks and kick our playful dogs, and nurse resentment on a fifth of gin. In time
we came to hate him: without cause, he'd lime the baseball diamond all askew and wait for our young jibes. We traded hate for hate.
If this were all, I'd say the fault was ours: the man bore many years of bitter scars from children like ourselves, who spilled his paint and scattered glass beneath his car. A saint, perhaps, might hold no store of piled-up hurt, but Shunk was just a man, and barked a curt reply when some child dared to say hello. If he was ever kind, we did not know.
But there was better reason for our hate than his dull cursing and his drunken gait. The man was more than bitter: he was cruel. He showed it most in Spring. Our stucco school had tiles upon the roof, which overhung old yellowed walls where withered ivy clung and formed great eaves. Each Spring the swallows came to nest in them, and we would play a game to find who'd guess the date when we'd first see a mud-stained swallow building hopefully and calling for a mate. We wagered gum and comic-books, and watched for them to come.
By April all their nests were well begun, and two weeks later almost all were done. They looked like dusty wineskins set to dry and filled the eaves with brown. The cloudy sky was patterned by the swallows' curving flight in search of mud and straw. At times they'd fight in nest or air -- it made no difference which -- and one would take possession of a niche and let the loser seek another nest.
By early May, a clear sky would attest to weary swallows brooding speckled eggs.
Then Shunk would come around on drunken legs and peer into the twittering eaves as though he had not seen the swallows sweeping low across the puddled fields for weeks before. He'd shake his head and shuffle to the door where fire-hoses lay in coils. And suddenly our fights and games would stop, and we would watch with frightened, fascinated eyes as nests and fledglings tumbled down and cries of angered swallows filled our ears. Bright stars of egg would spot the mud; the eaves bore scars where nests had clung. Old Shunk would aim his stream till all the nests were down. He did not seem to see the baby birds his feet would crush, nor hear the angry cries that broke our hush.
Each Spring it was the same: one day in May old Shunk would hose the swallows' nests away. The boys would call him names, the girls would cry and nurse the hungry fledglings till they'd die.
This happened years ago, and Shunk is dead. The school is gone, and his slow drunken tread no longer haunts my dreams. It's hard to write on something that far back and do it right. But I remember what I noticed then:
the swallows always came to nest again.
16 Nov 1958
The Great Drought in Berkeley
Listen: I'll tell you
what is happening here:
there has been no rain for
nine months, and now December,
and still no rain. Summer
is in the air, a summer without rivers. The air is so dry it has started
to burn: there are exhausted sunsets at night, you can't see the stars
for the smoke.
In three weeks there will be chaos, there will be raping in the streets. Police will strip necking couples
and search them for opium. Black birds of pages will fly up from the libraries, shop windows will shatter and melt, and cars will crush olivettis
and mangle hydrants and oranges
and indian bedspreads
in a great dry welter.
In three weeks children will come at night with whisky bottles to the swimming pools, eggs will fracture like watches
and spinning gears will fill the air, the holy fonts will be desecrated, and surveyors and salesmen will burn witches before the weather bureau. In three weeks!
There will be terror in the city. Do not laugh, I am serious: we are like plants, like the earth: we must have rain or we litter the dust with brittle leaves, we must have rain or we are covered with cracks
like an old vase.
Already the bindings of the books are dry and brittle,
already men wander all night
beneath the bridges,
already we paint clouds on the ceilings of our caves.
It is December, and still
no rain. Already my eyes are glazed, and beneath my tight skin I see the great cracks appear.
December 5, 1959
May Day, 1961: The Court Jester Speaks
Without Apology To A Strange Woman
That's not my face, that careful mask: my face is in a farther room,
turned to the wall and dull with dust.
The crooked smile -- half grief, half grin -- the whiteface with the bright red hearts too bright and perfect on the cheeks mark mirror hours with no-one near and audit of my audience.
I do not cry: tears smear the paint, nor may I drink or kiss: the same. What? Do I take it off at night? I once did; now I have no time: I sleep alone, and on my back.
It's not a dull life, after all: the King and Court are quick to please, their tastes and trysts make ready mock. I play the flute, turn somersaults, attack their postures and their poems, and argue politics to lords
who titter when they hear the truth dogmatic as their own flat views. The ladies love me, and their squires trust me with tales and midnight notes, thinking I long to lie with them but dare not for my post and mask. They make mistake: I know their paint is thick as mine, if not so bright;
and they too leave it on at night.
Applause, and pearls of no great price, are my rewards from fools for fun who dedicate themselves to games not seen for play: their Art, their Faith, their Plotting or their Tomes on Thought. I act these all within each day: none know when I burlesque or not, but laugh, and fail to mark their face. They think me quick and natural, all but a few: they do not know the cutting tongue, the antic grace are mine through work. I use these well to entertain or goad, or both: I've talent for this act, this Art.
My father raised me to a trade,
a sculptor, craftsman like himself. No taste for toil, I came to Court, abandoned my apprenticeship.
I say I've no regrets. It's true, yet when they hunt I sometimes sketch from memory, or whittle birds
and unicorns, lives small and free and quickly made and hid away
or slipped to children or to friends.
Oh yes, I've friends: don't look so sad. I trust a few in minor posts,
but not too far: it is not safe. With one or two I share my thoughts about the Court, and drop my smirk. These call me by my proper name; no others know or care to hear. No, not through malice, nor contempt: they think in titles, not in names; theirs are forgot or never known.
The Court's my study and my school. I've learned the working of the land:
the private intrigues, public lies. I've seen the King and Church provoke their holy wars, then wisely split the spoils to keep the people pure. The starving poach the King's preserves;
then swing from scaffolds at the fair while castle boards and bedsteads groan and I make merry in the hall,
shouting whitefaced: "Cut him down! That dangling man deserves his life, for naked he's the same as you!" They see my cheek-hearts bleed with sweat and cheer me on to clown some more.
What's that you ask? -- They join my shout, and cut him down? Don't be naive: they shout with me inside the hall, but no-one frees him. Nor do I: my post's too insecure to risk, and touching hemp might smear my paint. I finish shouting, take my bows, and sing a song to calm their nerves; then slip away to be alone
and try to carve the hangman's face in pine or oak. He wears a mask, yet still I seem to know his face ... The wood is hard and tight with knots; such nights my fire burns high till dawn.
Forget my face: you ask too much, I say it's safely locked away. I have a posture, not a trade: the jester's chair is mine by choice and part and parcel of the Court: I don't expect the Court to change, and need this mask to hold my post. Perhaps some day I'll learn a trade …
right now I do not need my face.
Don't question me beneath your veil: the key's not lost, it's just mislaid. I do recall my proper mouth:
sometimes it speaks to me in dreams, a trifle white and blurred by time, perhaps, but known to me as mine. Self-portraits? -- no, I've finished none: my hand remembers and betrays
me when I fix my mask for Court.
Yet once, you know, I walked at night -- a hanging night, without a moon --
and fancied that the wind flew by
and touched my cheeks, still wet with sweat; then traced my face, not seeing the paint, and took my image past the walls
and to a hilltop near my home:
watched it awhile, then set it free. What was it like? -- oh, hard to say; but I knew that hill from my younger years and had sketched there one Spring afternoon early in May, and not alone:
with a girl who sang while I shaped the sky. I forget her name -- never knew, nor asked -- but I have her picture in that farther room, done as well as my poor talent could from memory: a lovely face, clear, and no mask …
I'd show you if I had the key.
But then, that was a hanging night, and shouting makes my head feel light.
Next morning I forgot myself,
and went to wash my face, sleep-blind: I'd cleaned my mouth before I stopped. The smile was gone, the skin still white. But white from strangeness to the sun, no other reason seemed to fit.
To fix my mask again took hours.
You think I speak in jest? Perhaps; one never knows to trust the fool, and all my words come through this mask. I do not blame your hesitance.
1 May 61
partly for J.M.
Marginalia (later? ~66-68?): "The self that's hidden in me,/ inaccessible, slips out and
does/ the killing bidding of the State."
At The Start Of His Ninth Year
Water is sweet still,
water, and the morning mist
that shrouds the crags of Lemnos,
and the seabirds' cry.
Solitude makes men's hearts heavy, their tongues heavy,
heavy as this foot I drag
that prisons me in solitude.
A man alone cannot speak,
not even to shout aloud his pain, not even to cry back at the wheeling birds.
At first light
Helios-Sun-Rider parted mist
to wake me from pain-drugged sleep, and the gulls spun like homecoming sails, white in the distance.
There will be no sails
to bear me home to Oetaen land,
no sailcloth softened
with weather and sea-spanning time to bind this foot, make decent
to gods and men
its eye- and nose-revolting filth: only rags, wrack of the sea, refuse of ships long lost, spurned and torn on the sharp-shingled beach and fouled by birds.
Zeus, Zeus kind to suppliants,
and you nameless hero of the bronze shield who knew my heart-earth,
the banks and willows of my Spercheius, hear me. At first light,
propped rusty-jointed on the twigs and leaves that soften my cavemouth floor,
I broke silence, made woman-weak
by the cool touch of mist
on my black foot and sunseared face. Not to cry to gods,
no, nor do I now: who spurs
a god's displeasure, though innocent, has no respite from pain
that clouds his eyes, nor hopes for such unless delirious,
for the old tales lie.
Not such my speech,
when mist and sleep-leaving undid my guard, tight as my strung bow awake,