The Waste Land

By John Beer John Beer

‘Aber die Thronen, wo? Die Tempel, und wo die Gefäße,
Wo mit Nektar gefüllt, Göttern zu Lust der Gesang?  

‘Someone’s got it in for me’  

for Jack Spicer
the fabber craftsman

I. THE FUNERAL MARCH (CHICAGO AND ORLEANS)

Once more in the city I cannot name,
the boat city, the city of light,
the city that endures its fall,
the city of pleasures and vicissitudes,
the skier’s city, Fun City, the city under the sky,
city of crime and vegetables, Pornograph City,
the city governed by the Lost and Found Department,
cabinet city, city of the bends, the opium city,
Swing City, Archetype City, city of dust,
city that eludes the seven ages, muskrat city,
the island city of daughters and wives,
Sin City, city of sincerity, the cavernous city,
the city of conventions, hatmaker city,
Alphabet City, city of the last and first,
the city called Marrakesh (I know it is not Marrkesh),
industrial city, the city of airplane booze,
center city, the city without shoulders, the city that forgot,
the trampoline city, Abacus City, the city of tears,
the real city (or the city of the desert),
the unreal city (or the city of good will),
the city of rust, of showers, of late blooming aster,
Hygiene City, the city of logistics—
once more in the city called Halloween
(I know it is not Halloween), I gathered
the five true ingredients of gunpowder
and arranged to meet my younger brother Stetson
next noon at the Heartland Cafe.

Why do you walk with your face turned from me?
All you do is complain and complain.
What is this thing called love? It is nothing
reliable, not like this silk cravat
on which tiny turtles hover
suspended against an amber background.
The knot needs to be loosened. Night has come.
I walk in the garden amid the late-blooming roses
and guard my glass from the moon.
This morning the police came for me.
They brought a letter covered with signs
I could not decipher. They demanded
I register my address properly,
because they are sorely tested by the time’s demands
and cannot function as my delivery service.
I met their angry gazes with a sigh, and I proclaimed:
“April is the coolest month, which brings
happy policeman the pleasant dreams of spring.”
They still refused to answer my questions.
I know my life is in terrible danger.
What is this thing called love?


                         II. DON’T LOOK BACK
 
A degree or two to the right
of an imagined meridian
marking time’s monotonous ecliptic
tracing and retracing the animal steps
that bring the man down narrow hallways,
a painting hangs, depicting
an almond tree in blossom, unfurling
white petals against a deepening green,
brown brushstrokes scarring the field,
and in the center of the decentered vista,
a fleck of canvas erupts through the paint,
as when air thrusts itself to fill a vacuum,
or after galactic gyrations the light
of a now-cold star reveals itself to us
and breaks the settled pattern of the sky.
For if the tree implies a quiet place
where pendulums might rest,
the heart decline to beat, a place
of time disclosing the lattice of time,
each node identical, complete within itself,
its infinite simplicity sufficient
to lure the mind out of its droning dream
of traffic, footstools, marzipan, and clouds
back to itself, if the tree must be a sign
of the viewer’s hunger to escape from signs
and thereby lose the world, the tiny scar
unmakes the fiction that sustains the tree,
the way a cashier’s knowing jibe
at the record you had waited weeks to buy,
recommended to you by a woman you barely know
who mentioned it in passing, then returned
to her diatribe against the host who failed
to invite her boyfriend or her companion’s boyfriend—
you had only half been listening until she said,
“It sounds like nothing else, not like the wind
or ocean, not even like the early Pixies,
though it has that effect on you, something like
getting a letter addressed to someone else
that ends up addressed to you, in that
reading it with a proper sense of shame
throws your devotion to formalities
completely out the window. I think they’re from New York,”
and meant to ask her how the band was spelled,
but the moment had passed, your cigarettes were out,
and the birdless night grew colder. You returned
to people you felt more familiar with,
the oddly Teutonic name in the back of your mind,
and only later came across it in the discount bin
of the Princeton Record Exchange, whose clerks
everyone knows are assholes, so the sneer
on the Tom Verlaine guy’s lips was no surprise,
though it gripped you with a sense as far from panic
as it resembled exile. No song can bear
the weight we need to place upon it;
nothing returns as we ask it to return.
 
O O that T.S. Eliot
he’s such a shrinking violet
and if you think I sigh a lot
try life with T.S. Eliot
 
Sam’s problem was he would always compare himself
to other people. I told him, Sam, you don’t need to be
a hero. But now I can see I was wrong. I wanted him
to be heroic, but not in that guerilla theater way.
I told him, Sam, it’s time to take off the puppet head.
You could give him a little credit, though, for standing up
against corporate hegemony. He always buys his coffee
from locally owned establishments, and he shoplifts
all those books of poetry from Barnes and Noble.
Oh, everyone deserves a little credit. All the angry
little men in angry little rooms can write
their diagnoses, xerox their zines, and dream
that someday they’ll become the next Debord.
In the meantime, how am I supposed to live?
None of us is getting any younger. Power clutches
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.
everyone with a velvet embrace. But isn’t
a life deformed by constant struggle a life
as much defined by power’s rule as one
in which you carve space out for yourself?
I want to find my happiness on my own terms.
That’s what we all want—isn’t it? At least,
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.
thank God, we live in a day and age
where people aren’t afraid to talk about orgasms.
Speaking of which, you’ve got to go see
the Orphée that just opened at Performers’ Collective.
Al the actors have been in car crashes,
and they’ve added an orgy—it’s a little derivative,
but what isn’t, these days? OK, got to run,
ciao, I’ll see you later, love to all.
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.

 
 
 
THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS.
WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.
 
 
 
 
       III. BALLAD OF THE POLICE DEPARTMENT
 
“Loving a music man ain’t always
what it’s supposed to be,” she thought
as the fang pierced her heel and she sank.
This is the song of love and the law,
of what is enduring and what disappears.
 
Dissolving, her eye met its twin in the water
(or was it a glass in the guise of a stream?)
In the cafe, the boys drank to Orpheus.
Encircled by drafts on the tables and floor,
he waved a half-wave and lit a Gitane.
 
Sirens we were used to, but so early?
Through a window specked by last night’s rain,
I saw Wojohowicz give him the news,
then returned to my book: The Invention of Chance.
This is the song of atomic decay.
 
Contemporary fascination
with corporal preservation
recapitulates the ancient
ceremonies of atonement,
or so, at least, it seems to me,
as I lecture empty rooms
on F.H. Bradley and the moon.
Not the moon you lovers see,
the moon as it appears to me
and me alone, my eyes refined
by distillation in the mind.
My moon rains light through long night hours
awake within the prison tower
of internal experience,
the tower holding thief and prince,
stockbroker and the child of fame,
identically, but not the same.
One hears the scraping of the key.
One wishes one were one, not me.
 
Through darkness he descended to the platform.
One quarter struck another. Buskers
danced in supplication of the shadows,
mirroring the disgraced King of Pop.
White noise announced the train. Orpheus wept.
 
After North and Clybourn comes Division,
and after Division, the final law, whose lord
sits anxiously beside his stolen bride.
I will not pretend I know the song he sang
before the dreadful pair. You know the stories
 
as well as I: that from the gramophone
a swell of scratch and hurl and gem-like glint,
of vouchsafed soul and breakbeats reconciled,
shattered the shale resolve of Death himself:
edict turned to grace. But I can still
 
remind you of the lesson coming up,
paused as we are at the axis of our hope.
Necessity may, for a moment, yield to love,
but love explodes each moment in its drive
to the next, and the next, and the next, like footsteps—
 
With a sudden cry Sgt. Wojo averred:
“The song of policemen has yet to be heard!
You can call it ignoble, or even absurd,
But my comrades have hung on each sibilant word,
And we’ve waited and waited as locations blurred
From subway to Hades: we’ve yet to be heard!”
Amid shouts of sha-hoobla, tik-tak, and tra-lay,
The song of policemen now carried the day.
Brass buttons new polished, bright jackets fresh pressed,
And riot protectors protecting their chests,
From buses and wagons policemen erupted,
From storefronts and stations, and uninterrupted
They sang as they rounded up each interloper:
Each anti-war chanter, each car window soaper.
They sang like a city-sized 8-track recorder,
And phalanxed, Miranda’ed, preserved the disorder
That the bravest policeman felt clutch at his heart
From the untamed community begging his art.
“Hey-hey-o,” they sang, and such pleasant palaver,
And then morning came. They were walking cadavers.
They might tell funny stories, or wrestle, or shout,
But something—divine spark? the soul?—had gone out.
And all of the people and all of the streets
And all of the sweet shops where young lovers meet
Invisibly withered, and no one could say
Where deadness had come from, how long it might stay.
But now Wojohowicz regrets his decision
To insert himself. There will be no revision.
So he takes off his hat and he gives up his gun
And that’s how the song of the policemen is done.
 
Where were you then?
             I was at North and Clybourn.
 
No one was with you?
            I was alone.
 
And Death’s dispensation?
            It came with conditions.
 
Conditions you flouted?
            I slipped. The underworld does not forgive.
 
 
When all aloud the wind is blowing,
   And coughing drowns the poet’s song,
And terminals brood softly glowing,
   And Marian wears a blue sarong,
 
When synthecrabs squirm in the beaker,
Then nightly hums the opaque speaker
            Tu-who;
Tu-whit, tu-who—a subtle note,
While Joan stirs on in a distant plot.
 
Arm. The words of Mercury are oddly muted after the studies
   of Jessie Weston. You, that way: we, this way.
 
 
 
                    IV. GAZA STRIP
    
            A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. And this I know.
Forgot the way of gulls. He rose and fell.
His teeth as white as snow.
 
A current under sea. O you
Walk her every day into the deep sea swell.
She passed the stages of her age and youth.
Orpheus wept. A big big love.
 
O you who turn the wheel,
Consider how his bones were picked,
A fortnight dead. And this I know.
Gentile or Phoenician, dark Don Juan,
A big big love. A big big love. As tall as you.
 
 

                    V. DEATH TO POETRY
 
Orpheus awoke in the poem of disguises, the poem once called “The Waste Land.” Friends, listen up. He gathered the remnants of the life he had dreamed. He renounced the burden of the name he bore. He began to walk.

Orpheus walked down Milwaukee Avenue toward the Flatiron Building. He passed bodegas, taquerias, vintage stores. He met a hustler with a gas can. He walked past the anarchist kids. And he walked, and he walked, and he walked past the cabdrivers trading insults in Urdu, and he walked past convenience stores, and he walked past Latin Kings, and he walked past waitresses getting off night shifts, and he walked past jazz stars that nobody recognized, he walked past the students, the teachers, the cops. And the sky was the color of eggplant and tire fires, the sky was the field that resisted exhaustion. And he walked, and he walked past the puddles and gutters. And no one walked with him. And SUVs burned, and the asphalt ran liquid and Orpheus saw the dissolving sky and he knew that the name of the poem he had entered could not be “The Waste Land” or even “White Phosphorus,” or “The Song of Policemen.” In his pocket he fingered a tiny slip of paper. He opened and read it. It said, “This is the death of the poet.” And yes. And yes. This is the death of the poet.
 
Shhhh. I am allergic to melodrama.
 
 
Shhhh. The serpent encircles the world.
 
 
Shhhh. There is plausible explanation.
 
But watch it! the daughters of Ismara,
Their heaving chests wrapped up in beastly fleece,
From their hilltop perch, catch sight of Orpheus
Smithing his voice to match plucked strings.
Cunctaque tela forent cantu mollita, sed ingens
Clamor et infracto Berecyntia tibia cornu
Typanaque et plausus et Bacchei ululatus
Obstrepuere sono citharae, tum denique saxa
Non exauditi rubuerunt sanguine vatis.
And the stones grew red with the blood of the poet.
These footnotes have I shored against my ruins.
These footnotes
                                       shhhh
                                                    we set foot
in a world ash-sick, a bad dream world
no longer the mirror, no longer the poem
 
the birdless night grew colder
 
And once the poem ended, commentary began. I said, I, the author, said, “Orpheus is a mask in a poem infected with masks.” I said, “The importance of footnotes cannot be overestimated.” I said, “The essential problem of the poem is the essential problem of our time, of all time: how to love one another.” And I was not, readers, Orpheus, and I did not descend into the depths, and I have only these words to defend me, and the shadows, the shadows howl for my blood
 
 
Once more in the city he refused to name
a phenomenon that I have often noticed
Once more in the city that endures its fall
Well then Ile fix you. Mackie’s back in town
Once more in the city called Barnes and Noble
an elaborate deception, like a bird
Once more in the city that everyone forgot
and swerved to catch the sun on its wing
cf. McGinty, Possum Among the Hoopoes
a broken face, a city of dust and telescopy
abandoned the ruse that had once been the poem
and listened as the buildings lightly sang:
 
            Oh we’ll meet again
            When all the rained out faces
            And all the bomb-scarred places
            Kiss me kiss me kiss me
            Under the telegraphic moon
            And I won’t get up, I won’t
            Get up, I’ll never, never, never

John Beer, "The Waste Land" from The Waste Land and Other Poems. Copyright © 2010 by John Beer.  Reprinted by permission of Canarium Books.

Source: The Waste Land and Other Poems (Canarium Books, 2010)

 John  Beer

Biography

John Beer is the author of the poetry collection The Waste Land and Other Poems (2010), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, and the chapbook Lucinda (2013). Associative and imaginative, Beer’s work has been praised for its “passionate and watchful” moods, in the words of Norma Farber judge Bin Ramke. Ramke called The Waste Land and Other Poems “full of the most amazing engagements.”
 
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