Nothing Much

April 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have a nasty cold and with my few moments of caffeinated semi-health, what do I do but read the paper and get caught in a confusion of ideas about Bloomberg’s proposed pedestrian plaza at Union Square. There are those who think the Mayor wants the whole city to be a pedestrian plaza, and I like that idea except for when I’m exceptionally tired or wearing heels and need a cab. Also I appreciate food and other goods being trucked into the city, and books, vitamins and bulk/discount cat treats delivered to my apartment building.

But what I want is more gardens and a warm ocean. What I want is Florida and France within walking distance. I want someone to clean my apartment in exchange for necklaces and for my countless writing ideas to come out fully fleshed and ready to turn a profit. Not even Bloomberg could give me these things.

I had to write about Bloomberg recently; one of my money-making jobs. I didn’t mind, except when my clean prose got muddied by the phrase “growing our economy” inserted at the last minute. Charles didn’t understand my distress. “Don’t you want the economy to grow?” “That’s not the point! I’ll have to call Mom! Only she will understand!”

But I’m too tired to call anyone right now. I think I have the energy but talking to Charles made my brain curdle. The month of May is full of social and work demands and all I want to do is walk in the sunshine for hours and hours, to be 25 again, financially privileged, worrying only about little things like love and terror…

This poem is so apt, it’s scary. WordPress won’t let me format it properly so click the link if you want the stanza breaks. Keep reading if you’re too lazy to do that.

An Urban Convalescence

Out for a walk, after a week in bed,

I find them tearing up part of my block

And, chilled through, dazed and lonely, join the dozen

In meek attitudes, watching a huge crane

Fumble luxuriously in the filth of years.

Her jaws dribble rubble. An old man

Laughs and curses in her brain,

Bringing to mind the close of The White Goddess.

As usual in New York, everything is torn down

Before you have had time to care for it.

Head bowed, at the shrine of noise, let me try to recall

What building stood here. Was there a building at all?

I have lived on this same street for a decade.

Wait. Yes. Vaguely a presence rises

Some five floors high, of shabby stone

—Or am I confusing it with another one

In another part of town, or of the world?—

And over its lintel into focus vaguely

Misted with blood (my eyes are shut)

A single garland sways, stone fruit, stone leaves,

Which years of grit had etched until it thrust

Roots down, even into the poor soil of my seeing.

When did the garland become part of me?

I ask myself, amused almost,

Then shiver once from head to toe,

Transfixed by a particular cheap engraving of garlands

Bought for a few francs long ago,

All calligraphic tendril and cross-hatched rondure,

Ten years ago, and crumpled up to stanch

Boughs dripping, whose white gestures filled a cab,

And thought of neither then nor since.

Also, to clasp them, the small, red-nailed hand

Of no one I can place. Wait. No. Her name, her features

Lie toppled underneath that year’s fashions.

The words she must have spoken, setting her face

To fluttering like a veil, I cannot hear now,

Let alone understand.

So that I am already on the stair,

As it were, of where I lived,

When the whole structure shudders at my tread

And soundlessly collapses, filling

The air with motes of stone.

Onto the still erect building next door

Are pressed levels and hues—

Pocked rose, streaked greens, brown whites.

Who drained the pousse-café?

Wires and pipes, snapped off at the roots, quiver.

Well, that is what life does. I stare

A moment longer, so. And presently

The massive volume of the world

Closes again.

Upon that book I swear

To abide by what it teaches:

Gospels of ugliness and waste,

Of towering voids, of soiled gusts,

Of a shrieking to be faced

Full into, eyes astream with cold—

With cold?

All right then. With self-knowledge.

Indoors at last, the pages of Time are apt

To open, and the illustrated mayor of New York,

Given a glimpse of how and where I work,

To note yet one more house that can be scrapped.

Unwillingly I picture

My walls weathering in the general view.

It is not even as though the new

Buildings did very much for architecture.

Suppose they did. The sickness of our time requires

That these as well be blasted in their prime.

You would think the simple fact of having lasted

Threatened our cities like mysterious fires.

There are certain phrases which to use in a poem

Is like rubbing silver with quicksilver. Bright

But facile, the glamour deadens overnight.

For instance, how “the sickness of our time”

Enhances, then debases, what I feel.

At my desk I swallow in a glass of water

No longer cordial, scarcely wet, a pill

They had told me not to take until much later.

With the result that back into my imagination

The city glides, like cities seen from the air,

Mere smoke and sparkle to the passenger

Having in mind another destination

Which now is not that honey-slow descent

Of the Champs-Élysées, her hand in his,

But the dull need to make some kind of house

Out of the life lived, out of the love spent.

–James Merrill


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