Mythologies

I.
 
The question is not how like the animals we are
But how we got that way. We laugh, for what is a suicide note
 
But the epitaph of an emotion? Few of us die out in the open;
And when you say thesis, I say antithesis,
 
But we don’t stop there: we take our opposing ideas,
Plant them on opposing cliffs and then build a footbridge
 
Between them, seemingly flimsy yet sturdy enough in fact
To support a battalion. Hidden behind trees, we watch
 
The soldiers march across it, single file, too scared
To look down. We cheer them all, all except the boy
 
In the fairy tale who knew no fear. Him we pity.
He laughs open-eyed, ready to die as we were not.
 
He is one of us, all right, but better, stronger, stranger.
He asks for more fear than anyone can bear.
 
 
II.
 
The guilty had three choices: awkward chords of candor,
Canned laughter, or the wild hyacinth’s sutra, before
 
Silence returned triumphant, and the journey resumed
In darkness, though the sky above was classically blue.
 
Everyone kept his opinion to himself
As harmony dictated, and effigies of Tristan and Isolde
 
Accompanied their stubborn footsteps across the wild
Terrain. Yet the longing for a loud catharsis
 
At night renewed their pain. “If only we could climb
Out of these clouds and heartfelt headaches,
 
Like ravished children in the glory of a snowball fight
After school, and never again have to descend,
 
Who would not abandon these erotic shipwrecks
And fall asleep like tigers in the destined heights?”
 
 
III.
 
At a festival of conceptual art in Cairo,
I saw a tank buried entirely in snow.
 
I knew then that silence is the source
Of all music, all laughter, all thought, and so
 
I stuffed pebbles in my mouth and stood by the sea
And roared my defiance of the waves. It was here,
 
Years before, that our plane and its shadow
Converged: I ran from the fire, carrying the flames
 
In my arms. I ran and ran, feeling like a man
Fighting a newspaper on a windy beach, but it wasn’t
 
A beach at all: the sand beneath me was snow,
Is snow, and the spears in the desert sky look like stars.
 
In the pyramid’s triangular shadow, I was the man
Who heard the crimson explosion, and ran. And ran.
 
 
IV.
 
Keats in one of his letters says, “My Imagination
Is a Monastery and I am its Monk.” I wonder.
 
If a man’s imagination is his monastery,
This place looks a lot like an empty railway station,
 
King’s Cross in London or the Gare St. Lazare in Paris,
A place whose smoke and fog Monet dissolved
 
Into a chorus of colors. There we stood, my love and I,
Having made our vows under the suspended clock,
 
Hero and bride. But as we walked away, side by side,
Down the station’s sunless nave, amid the excitement
 
Of the crowd, and foreign languages spoken loud,
We knew our exile had already begun, could hear
 
The conductor’s shrill whistle, could see the light
At the end of the tunnel, where the battlefields begin.
 
 
V.
 
Paradise was hardly what Psyche
With her bleeding blackberries and nervous orgasms
 
Could have foretold, enjoyed,
And renounced for the sake of some querulous abstraction
 
Designed to keep us unhappy but alive.
Call it civilization. Call our disobedience instinctive.
 
Or say we obeyed an angry muse, who ordered us to dance.
“Or else?” I asked. She sighed before answering.
 
“Or else a dismal armchair will be your lot
With chamber music your sole narcotic—music that will make
 
You face your former self, and grieve over incidents
Scarcely recalled, and eat without pleasure, and drink
 
Without thirst, and dread what shall never come to pass.”
In the revelation of our nakedness, we danced.
 
 
VI.
 
“A ball that is caught is fuller, by the weight
Of its return, than the same ball thrown.” Our empty hands say so.
 
We feel free. In the other room the true believers remain,
The ones who insist that evil is real, the only real thing.
 
Cannibals and missionaries they are, accomplices in sin,
Greedy for punishment, to inflict or endure it.
 
We are glad to leave them behind, glad not to have to hear
Their chants and wails. Down the elevator we go
 
And out into the canyon created by skyscraper shadows.
Yet even we, dedicated as we are to good living,
 
Sometimes walk around with a lost look on our faces,
As if the blessing for a piece of fruit or cup of wine
 
Had suddenly come to mind, though cup and plate are empty;
Had come to mind and faded almost instantly away.
 
 
VII.
 
Admit it: you used to walk around thinking there had
To be a reason for things, for everything. That way
 
Paranoia lies. Not a science of syllables, the solitude
Total, but the prophet’s lit lantern was what you wanted—
 
And what you got was “neon in daylight,” a pleasure
Recommended by Frank O’Hara. Those pleasures meant a lot to you,
 
You even thought you lived for them, until the first death
(A nervous uncle broke the news when you landed at Kennedy)
 
And the first marriage (you stayed up all night and read
Beyond the Pleasure Principle, a fair description
 
Of your lovemaking). It seems that new myths are needed
And consumed all the time by folks like you. Each erases the last,
 
Producing tomorrow’s tabula rasa, after a night of dreams
In which the tigers of wrath become the tigers of repose.
 
 
VIII.
 
 
Go back to the beginning, to the first fist fight.
They played for high stakes those days. The penalty for losing
 
Was death or slavery, take your pick. To spare a life
Was the mark of the master; the mark of his slave
 
Was fear. Noble savage, nothing. Forget about paradise.
My vote goes to Hobbes’s “life of man, solitary, poor,
 
Nasty, brutish, and short.” An amazing sentence:
The syllable that ends it also lends it its poignancy,
 
Since we go on wanting what we can scarcely bear.
Go back, go back, back to when god became a swan
 
With beautiful wounded wings, and raped the astonished maiden.
Back to the dream that stays real when you wake up,
 
Accustomed to your hunger and clinging to it,
Like a panther accustomed to his cage. Go back.
 
 
IX.
                       
A slap in the face, and the face burns with shame.
Anger comes later, comes stranger, looking for someone to blame.
 
End of message. Can’t see the stars;
Can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before
 
By somebody slamming the door; can only repeat
The syntax that brought the crowd to its feet
 
In the silence that appeased the nightingale.
End of tale. But its moral was simple:
 
I lost the hearing in one of my ears
And listened with the other to a deaf man’s
 
Symphony. He built a heaven out of his fears
That there wasn’t one. End of nightmare.
 
—The imperfect past, going by too fast,
Begged us to collect it. It couldn’t last.
 
 
 
X.
 
The doctor put his cards on the table.
“Take your pick,” he said. He was able
 
To offer me fear of extinction or fear of pain,
Though freedom from neither. “You mustn’t complain.”
 
In the vertiginous air, the monks wore masks
To keep their germs to themselves and their
 
Identities a secret. A hero to his own valet,
The Sultan choreographed his murderous ballet
 
Until Scheherazade, entering the circus tent
With John the Baptist’s head on a silver tray,
 
Told her tale and made the crowd repent.
The curtain dropped and the crowd went on its way,
 
But no one could say what the nightmare meant,
Or why it was sent to us, or by whom it was sent.
 
 
XI.
 
You can’t have it, so you want it, or
You couldn’t have it, so you no longer want it, or
 
You’re stuck with it, forever. It was designed with you in mind,
Like the locked door that swung open majestically when you
 
Spoke the magic words or just answered in the affirmative when
Your name was called. “Here I am, ready to meet you,
 
Ready to make any sacrifice,” you said,
Still in bed, wrestling with an evil angel
 
In your sleep. You were seventeen years old then
And woke up with a limp. Desire is like that:
 
The girl knows what you want and cries when
She gives it to you because it was yours because
 
She whispered your name in your sleeping ear
And said: “Here I am.” And was gone a minute later.
 
 
XII.
 
I met her in one of those sleazebag bars—
I think it was called The Bottom Line—in Buffalo,
 
Self-proclaimed “city of no illusions,” where
Silent men in shirtsleeves sit on bar stools and watch
 
Girls with tattoos on their buttocks strip
Down to g-strings and panties. They dance to the thump
 
Of moronic music, grind and hump under hot strobe lights,
And then, when the act is over, circulate among the scumbags,
 
Gyrating in front of each in turn, making each feel special,
And each, aroused by the mingled smell of musk and sweat,
 
Folds a dollar and sticks it into her crotch for a tip.
She was different. When I left the bar that night I knew
 
She would follow, and she did, and I never looked back, never
Glanced at the rear-view mirror. All other women turned into her.
 
 
XIII.
 
Her name was Mary but was Miriam before that and soon
She will change it to Alice. What she offered was a shadow
 
The shape of Europe on the map above the bed of my youth.
Her shawl is all that remains of Europe in the downstairs closet.
 
It was forbidden to lift up her skirt and look, look.
Yet boys and girls danced across the bridal morning like a bridge
 
As the wings of the fog like white sails lingered
Across the bay. I flew, like a caterpillar with wings, into a new day.
 
That was the day we buried Europe. We built a dome in air
And in the icy silence of the tomb. To hang like a spider
 
On a subway strap seemed a suitable fate for some, but we
Lit a candle and watched it cast the shadow of a mountain
 
In a valley. It was the awful shadow of some unseen power,
A heaven in a wild flower. Europe, bloody Europe was gone.
 
 
XIV.
 
In the dream of your choice, you wake up
In the Garden of Eden, alone except for a whore with a heart,
 
Wearing a nurse’s uniform. The serpent says:
Listen carefully. This is for your own good.
 
At the tone it will be eight o’clock.
Nine out of ten physicians recommend
 
That you surround yourself with the kind of sorrows
That can be instantly relieved by frivolous kisses,
 
With vegetables as lush as fruits
Ripening in your hands. When the hospital gates are opened,
 
Don’t hesitate, run! And when you arrive at last in the land
Of the free, take your place in line with all of the others
 
As though nothing had happened between then and now
To make you doubt the conviction that you’re blessed.
 
 
XV.
 
If you were a painter, you’d paint the wind
Green. It would shake the boughs of the honey locust trees.
 
It would chase the leaves across the continent.
It would scatter their crumbs in a twist of swirling snow.
 
It would be colorless and green at the same time,
The wind that aligns the pond and the cloud,
 
The wind that is everywhere, in constant motion,
As buoyant as Ariel and as scornful of gross Caliban,
 
The wind that holds up the fly ball, drives it back
Into fair territory, causes it to drift within reach
 
Of the right-fielder, who waves off the second baseman,
Until a last gust lifts the ball over both their heads
 
And it lands safely for the double that ends the game
In extra innings, costing our team the pennant.
 
 
XVI.
 
After the flood, refreshed, was the first time
You realized that the road to truth was the road
 
Of flagrant fiction. You surrounded yourself
With symbols (a mountain, a window, an ark,
 
A rainbow) and mythic creatures (the dove that returned
And the raven that didn’t). You understood the dream
 
Of the old woman who interpreted the sailor’s dream.
Then came the other birds, the clouds that come
 
When the rain is done, and the wind that signals
The discovery of dry land, a new continent,
 
As the report of a gun sounds the start of the race,
As the bottle broken beneath the bridegroom’s foot
 
Begins the marriage, as church bells start the funeral
Parade and all the townspeople march in the procession.
 
 
XVII.
 
No longer is there freedom in confusion,
Nor forgiveness in confession,
 
Nor charm in the old illusion
Of moonlight, the tower, the howling dog, the escaping lovers,
 
Escaping into midnight in the Western hemisphere,
When the possibilities of expansion still seemed limitless
 
And the soul could choose among stars without number
In the vast velvet night without end.
 
—In the midst of other woe than ours, I went to the window
And cured the solitude of the listeners outside
 
Who shivered in the rain, waiting for the police to come
And ambulance sirens to sound. Drunk I was when
 
I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and said,
“Dad, Dad, is that you?” In the terror of the night.
 
 
XVIII.
 
“Wherever you follow,” he said, “I will lead.”
Where summer met fall, she picked up a brittle orange leaf.
 
He wanted to lie on the grass, to lean and loaf
At his ease, but the crisis intervened: news of her unpaid loan
 
Prompted him to put his sandals on his head, as in the Zen koan.
Slowly he walked away. Silence followed, then the sound of a moan
 
In the room next door. So orange it seemed a painted moon
Shone against the indigo sky. And quickly her mood
 
Went from unreasonable euphoria to realistic dejection, as the wood
In the fireplace turned to ash without first yielding a flame. The wool
 
Of their sweaters had begun to unravel. “If the fool
Persists in his folly,“ someone said, “he will have food
 
Enough to eat, loaves and fishes galore. Worship the good,
Which is beautiful though untrue. Turn your back on gold.”
 
 
XIX.
 
If we were painters we’d favor vibrant stripes,
Primary colors, flat surfaces, a lot of white
 
Remaining on the canvas. If we were composers
We’d take the music of exotic jungles with us
 
When we visit the vast vacant tundra. “If I were
Rich enough,” vowed the philanthropist, “I’d move
 
To a magnolia mansion and spend my days
Translating modern literature into ancient Greek.”
 
Great plans, distant vistas, a rearguard action
To sabotage the present—and here we’ve all assembled,
 
At the antiseptic airport, with haunted looks on our faces.
Occasional eye contact between man with tan and woman in white.
 
“You look like your voice,” she says, breaking the silence.
The rest of us know where we’re going, but we don’t know when.
 
 
XX.
 
They’ve cornered the market on moral outrage. Yes, they have.
The more noise they make about it, the more nervous we get.
 
They’re always telling us just how shallow we are.
The only convictions we have, they say, are on our driver’s licenses.
 
The charge is not entirely fair to us, though it has its grain of truth.
We tend to luxuriate in our indecisiveness. Not they. No one can say
 
They lack conviction and passion and certitude. We have our doubts,
Which make us less glamorous and give us
 
The haunted look we wear. But something in defense
Of our bemused spectatorship must be said: at least it spares us
 
The postures of those hypocrite lechers, brothers and others
Who sublimate their sexuality into opulent rhetoric and chide us
 
For not doing the same. They have our best interests at heart.
They may even be happier than we are. We have our doubts.
 
 
XXI.
 
Today’s graffiti is in the sky: “More than meets the eye.”
Growing up I could tell the months by their smell.
 
First come the fruitstand smells of spring in the city,
Then the backyard trees get back their green, and we know
 
It’s the real thing. Poetry is this puzzle of missing parts
Is best represented by clouds in the early evening sky,
 
Because they constantly change shape, are utterly indifferent
To us, and seem both remote and near at hand
 
At once. The creation of the world is a ballet
With the dancers and music missing: what you see
 
Is a miniature stage-set in a museum display case,
And then suddenly you are walking in it, along the Boulevard Raspail,
 
Until the Eiffel Tower comes into view. Watch it organize
The bridges of the Seine into a coherent surprise.
 
 
XXII.
 
Love accompanies the stranger to his streetlamp
Encircled by signing insects. The song he hears
 
Meant doom or wax in the mariners’ ears.
And now, as the smell of fresh cut grass gives way to the smell
 
Of brown leaves burning, I want to tell
You what I heard that night, and how the day
 
Erased it: I woke to the rattle of a passing car
Which, accelerating up the rapidly rising ramp,
 
Seemed delighted with its capacity for making noise. From far away
I could hear it coming. And just as we know that fame isn’t all
 
It’s cracked up to be, that it can be downright
Nasty in fact, and yet we want it anyway,
 
So I, too, knew I belonged in one of those cars, tall
Behind the steering wheel, racing to meet the changing light.
 
 
XXIII.
 
Winter came last. Waves of snow from who knows which wind
Turned the meadow beside the frozen waterfall
 
Into an ocean. The boy in the fairy tale who knew no fear
Soon learned. On the shore of the wide world he could hear
 
The violins of anger, spelling danger. Poetry in this era of disbelief
Meant staring at a leaf until it turned into a star.
 
It was easier in the past. All you had to do was sleep outside
And let nature take over. There were more stars in the sky
 
Than we had room for in our philosophy. And when we woke,
Berries grew beside the burbling brook and bled in our soft hands.
 
The question was not how like the gods we were
But whether we could recognize them in our sleep
 
And remember what we had seen, remember them clearly,
When the radio alarm welcomes us into its next musical day.
 
 
XXIV.
 
I live in a boat in front of the door
Depicting the gods as they might have been forgotten
 
By Lazarus during the tortures of interrogation.
What I see are tombs and yellow stains on the snow.
 
Instead of quotations, I will refer to my heart,
Instead of an altar, I will guard the munitions
 
And drink wine with the sour taste of cork
And eat sour strawberries in the city of New York.
 
You who’ve been looking for a lost address,
And mothers who seem to be fighting back their tears,
 
What made you think you could resist the roar
Of the years as they echo in a cavernous subway station?
 
Can you see the boat in front of the door?
What was it you forgot during the interrogation?
 
 
XXV.
 
Ovid had it wrong. The plight of the frightened maiden
Gliding noiselessly into the woods, like a deer whose eyes
 
Had been mesmerized by headlights on a cold November night,
Was implausible without the contrivance of arrows: love’s dart
 
Claimed Apollo while the dart of fear pierced Daphne’s heart,
And so she ran, deeper and deeper into the woods, losing ground
 
All the while to Apollo (for love moved faster than fear),
Until the gods, granting her wish, turned the nymph
 
Into a laurel, which Apollo hopelessly embraced. Poetic justice?
Yes, except it didn’t happen that way. Their foot race ended
 
In a forest clearing, where Daphne, exhausted but unashamed,
Made Apollo watch her undress. He entered her
 
At her request, as if his will were an extension of her own.
The trees, inclining their branches, nodded in consent. Love won.
 
 
XXVI.
 
The boy, who was more eager than his father
To live on a raft, sleep in the woods, and study the stars,
 
Became his father, but not before he hid in a cave, slept in it
Overnight, and was saved by a spider from sure destruction.
 
The king’s soldiers, hot on his trail, saw the web stretch unbroken
In the mouth of the cave, and assumed that no one was there.
 
What is the correct interpretation of the spider’s web?
To the soldiers it meant desolation; to the spider, conquest;
 
To the grandfather telling the tale, providence. The boy
Sees the dew cling to the web at dawn. The natural camouflage
 
Of rabbits and snakes isn’t lost on him. He notices
The triangle formed by three birds in the bare-branched sycamore.
 
He can hear the hum of a bee admiring a tulip’s genitalia.
And at night, he knows, all the colors are present in the white of the stars.
 
 
XXVII.
 
That was the year I first read Hölderlin.
The evening fell more slowly and the first day of spring
 
Arrived more suddenly and stayed lovelier longer.
Boys pursued muses and girls impersonated them.
 
With the instinct of insects, He and She on the meadow
Mate. What they dreamed stays real when they wake up
 
In the evening of the first day of spring.
Did they fall out of paradise or were they pushed?
 
It’s unclear, but we next see them enter the gathering dusk,
Hand in hand, and the camera pulls back and the voiceover says,
 
“Good fortune is even harder to bear
Than the bad fortune that came first. Remember this
 
About the gods: their own immortality suffices them.
The source of all rivers is a riddle even I cannot solve.”
 
 
XXVIII.
 
How little I have changed since then, or how much
Of the change is in the eyes of the beholder
 
Of a book I lived rather than wrote, whose author
Seems like a stranger to me today. I remember,
 
For example, wanting to write an apocalyptic parody
Of Milton, in Milton’s high style, titled “Eden in Flames.”
 
Adam and Eve celebrated their carnality, and when they woke,
The branches of the fruit trees curved gracefully down
 
And served them nectar. I couldn’t bring myself to describe
Their banishment, and so the project failed. Yet what I heard
 
When I slept sounded a lot like the chorus of joy
In Beethoven’s Ninth, and what I saw when I woke up,
 
If only for the length of a dream, was a deer,
Eyes mesmerized by headlights, motionless in the middle of the road.
 
 
XXIX.
 
You could be the only passenger on the bus
Who notices that the driver is blind. I, by contrast,
 
Have eyes only for lovely you. Give me your hand.
I will kiss it. You are cordially invited to my studio,
 
Which resembles a psychiatrist’s office. Once there, I put on my glasses,
Read passages out loud from Plato, Hobbes, Marx, and Freud,
 
And ask you for your opinion of each. Together we analyze
Solitude. There is a meeting of the minds,
 
And sex follows. It’s the first day of spring and we want
To walk along the river and roll on the grass and take off
 
Our clothes while leaving the windows wide open. In fact,
We can’t wait to get off this bus, which seems to be going
 
Nowhere fast, as Spring puts her tongue in my ear
And names the forbidden parts of her body.
 
 
XXX.
 
No one could say what the nightmare meant
In the operating theater or the circus tent.
 
And none of this will help us pay the rent:
Many are called and sleep through the ringing,
 
But we know it’s spring, though we’ve thrown our watches away.
Our dreams, stretching across the chasm of day.
 
Don’t deter us from waking, jumping into our clothes,
Dancing down the avenue, and swinging through
 
The revolving doors of the future, where we used to live,
The day before yesterday, when we weren’t dying.
 
—The question is whether the raven will return
After his end-of-the-world adventures, after the storm
 
When one by one the masks slip off, and the bride embraces
The guilty son: true to the test, remembered and confessed.


David Lehman, "Mythologies" from Operation Memory, published by Princeton University Press.  Copyright © 1990 by David Lehman.  Reprinted by permission of Writers' Representatives, Inc..
Source: Operation Memory (Princeton University Press, 1990)
More Poems by David Lehman