The Man Who Was Allergic To Himself

Two tiny black pyramids.

Like black sugar, but with a faintly glowing core.

Supposedly I’ll be able to taste the light.

But I’m thinking too much.

Steeling myself when I should be trying to relax.

Breathe out. In.

Without letting myself worry, I put the pyramids in my mouth.

They taste like electricity.

I’m leaning over my desk, typing one-handedly.

The keys I’m pecking look like runes embedded in jello.

Already my head is hovering above my body, engines purring; time has the consistency of clear jam, and it is no simple task to keep reality integrated.

Slopping over with stars, the kitchen sink reflects the moon.

I risk the mirror.

Every face I’ll ever have flickers superimposed, the layers of selves shifting so that I wobble between young and old, with my hair spasming and flickering through different colors.

Hours coat my cheeks, minutes glop from my chin, seconds itch at my neckline…

Did I take too much?

No: don’t think that.

Cradling my left forearm in its fleecy cast, I climb up to my loftbed and hump awkwardly beneath the covers. Only my head protrudes from the warm cotton sea.

What did I come up here trying not to think about?

The ceiling’s hung with a zebra-waved cloth that ripples and pulses jellyfishily, the inky black stripes scurrying over smoky white stripes, mesmerizing me with undulations like liquid math.

I’m forgetting something important.

What was I supposed to remember?

The ceiling is distant as a great-great-grandfather. Immensity envelops my tiny form and yet I am gigantic, stretched like a rubber band over thirty years, with my feet in a different era than my head.

And something somewhere is rotten.

It’s hard to explain.

Sometimes randomly the rot recedes and my head floats free, spinning featherwise through sunnier realms.

But mostly my body is a sack of gibbering red goblins laughing fire, with the broken wrist a raw chicken wing folded against my chest, its stiffly limp fingers like thawing frozen shit.

Well.

Looks like I’ve fallen into my own trap, again.

No matter which way I turn my thoughts, they darken, wither, and mutate into dreadful crackling forests of mocking laughter too bitter to bear, and all while I’m being sucked to taffy in a neverending spiral into myself.

Me: the white zero of ego: swirling drain all the world empties into.

Whole cities pour through me, and the sun’s stuck in my throat.

Just to stand up I’d have to reverse the entire flow of the universe.

I crawl over and open the window.

The lampstroked night, shaking inkdrops from its shiny black pelt, leans in close to inspect me, exhaling frost that trickles blue and soothing into my lungs.

It’s vast out.

A queenly evergreen wrings her hard hair over the wiry hedge-bones. Beyond her, a stately-eyed brick schoolhouse with white brows of ornamented plasterwork sweats in his own spotlights.

Out there everything is breathing, powering up.

In here it’s all grimy spiders and greasy pans, my mind stabbing itself from all directions, and decaying thoughts hanging above me, drying on strings.

It’s obvious I have to go out.

But… is that really a good idea?

Then I’m hunched in two jackets on a streetcorner just a few meters under the sleeping sky, and there is no going back. This is too important…

Bars surround me.

Within their glass bellies, flesh gargoyles yell and cough and guffaw, gnaw bones or suck on burning roots, breathing in slow watery pink music—squashed hiphop, spiraling funk, itchy jazz.

Past the bars rises a square church tower like a middle finger flipping off the ghostly sky, which has only one enormous cloud-crowd riven with crevices, crazy jigsaw seams offering slim glimpses of a night so black it looks heavy.

Whenever someone draws near, I floor my gaze to conceal my gemstone pupils and corkscrew grin—

And all the flaming, unfurling magnificence of the night fizzles, dumped out.

I just have this feeling that if I am not exceedingly careful and in control, if I don’t plot every second, if I let my guard down and unlock my fists, even for a breath, something terrible and irrevocable will occur.

But what?

I sit cross-legged above the canal.

Dangling lanterns ring luminal bells, singing in a language of light.

Upon the black water hangs my graven image, the familiar pale round face melting into itself, staying in one place and yet forever eroding and losing its contours, an enduring frame of reference in a dissolving world.

Or is that the moon?

Yup—just the moon, the pounding and cascading moon, a cataracted eye fizzling and popping against the rippling cheek of the sky, doubled in the water, quadrupled in windows.

I stand up, and my upside-down self streaks off to lead his own adventures.

Further downstream the bridge makes a running jump over the canal and freezes in mid-air, over that goddamned moon bouncing like a puppy’s tongue.

The moon is a cursed coin I trade for coffee, to a sharky clerk who grins too wide.

I look up and away, into myself.

My eyes rearrange themselves again.

Level after level of streets stack themselves teetering, plazas and alleys spiraling around impossibly, with partiers staggering up zigzag stairs at ninety-degree angles to each other. Gargantuan bridges fork off in all directions. A train car with motionless silhouettes floats above an empty parking lot, all thoughts inside frozen into a solid block.

On a concrete ledge I gather a handful of dust whiskery and hostile with micronized glass. From my hand crumble cities, flinging out streetlamps and traffic signs as they sparkle down into the water.

Along the river, the buildings look like fortresses dedicated to various ideologies: there’s a jumble of beer-umbrellaed verandas, a clean crystal helmet for sterile business thoughts, and a dated ultramodern experiment resembling a tumorous potato with blinking eyes.

One building in particular stands out, a collaged chaos of styles that doesn’t quite hang together, all its variously shaped windows loudly lit, and its front doors wide open despite the evil cold and late hour.

Its sign says only THE MUSEUM.

I climb the museum’s stairs, turning to gaze out.

Further down the river, elephantine trees trumpet and stampede.

A rusty Ferris wheel turns, creaking, under the wind’s transparent hand.

Seen from afar, the city districts are englassed by smooth golden sodium domes that resemble the foreheads and cheeks of the skull of no animal.

All over the globe, city-filled skulls direct their questioning gazes into the roomy, sunlit interstellar spaces.

The stars are opening their mouths to answer.

Yeah… I think it’s time to go inside.

There’s no one around, which makes sense once I see what’s hung on the milky walls: oil paintings, in modest wooden frames, of people from my life and landscapes I’ve traveled through—

A sort of greatest hits of my memories.

From afar the details stand out with dazzling clarity, realer than life.

But as I draw near, the images splinter into spiraling thickets that refuse to resolve into any single form, their realism dissolving into noise.

Next is an artifact room with all my lifetime’s major possessions.

Then come interconnected exhibits modeled on my apartments—true-to-life rooms complete with old shirts, pages of my handwriting, and windows on high-quality print-outs of the proper view.

In bluish aquarium light, I wander through galleries of enormous phosphorescent wax dolls with human eyes. One room has all my lovers, another a broad cross-section of ancestors, and a third me at different ages, posed in often embarrassing attitudes.

And here are lucite cages with animals that look and move exactly like my dead pets, and who hop around excitedly and try to speak to me.

I can’t reach them.

Past the cages, a glass elevator with only three buttons: up, down, and possibly a mayday button, bright red and engraved with the screaming face of somebody having a baaaaad trip.

I press the down button.

The elevator descends into a colossal red-lit space with no visible walls.

Below, giant ghosts hustle through each other—everybody from my life, and me a hundred times over.

Except everything’s twisted.

Here I’m always a repulsive sniveling fool.

My family can’t stand me, and my friends mock me behind my back.

Even my pets just scratch and bite and growl.

It’s all so convincing that instantly I can’t imagine anything else.

All my favorite memories—airy, tight gems full of clouds and thumbprints, so alluring they mesmerized—were conceited delusions.

But isn’t it better to perceive the reality?

The truth is an ugly angel.

The elevator plunges through the floor into a hangar-sized replica of my bedroom, with massive versions of the ceiling-spanning zebra-cloth, the deer skull, and all my books.

On the bed, a gargantuan duplicate of me reclines shirtless, soft from sloth and pale as ham; I’m holding up the cast-imprisoned arm and squinting stone-faced at the paralyzed thumb and forefinger, trying to force them to meet.

With the other hand I scratch at my beard, where scaly red paramecium crawl and breed:

Psoriasis:

The command, inscribed in my DNA, to repair skin that isn’t broken.

Broke-winged, scarlet and peeling, I am slowly boiling in my own inflammation.

The disease coats my insides: it forms scales over my eyes.

My body, inside and out, is the color of hell.

The room below is a colossal replica of an operating theater, with an ensemble of medical personnel clustered around me supine on a table, my eyes open but sedatively deadened, and the silenced arm stretched out and subject to the magic-markerings of a masked man with round spectacles of frosted glass.

Up in the elevator, every muscle I have puckers, and the broken wrist twitches with horrible half-life, like a mind shuddering up out of oblivion.

But something ain’t right.

Why are the surgeons and nurses wearing full-face masks of white latex?

Only their eyes are exposed, with white pupils and black irises that grow and shrink dramatically in reaction to the red radiance pouring off my face.

While a nurse manipulates a round black vacuum to suck away the excess red light, the round-spectacled surgeon dawdles with his prolonged fingers over a tray of nightmarish tools till he reaches a rusty boxcutter.

He strokes its blade lovingly.

Then he snatches it up and starts hacking at my arm with rough jerks and impatient grunts, as if it were a parcel from his home planet.

My arm flowers open meatily and sticks out a tongue of bone.

The bone he deftly tugs out and replaces with a hard-plastic tube.

The tube noses up into my armpit, its wet nostril snuffling deep into my chest.

Into the tube’s other end, the surgeon tweezes finger-sized, sterile-looking white insects.

Just as the elevator sinks into the floor, I see my eviscerated arm flap down limply from the table, and its innards look like urban infrastructure, with layers of earth and concrete, cables and pipes.

The room below contains a shot of the accident, the bike slipping sideways, my terrified face frozen over the pavement, the left arm flung out ahead of my body at a steep angle to the concrete.

I don’t look for long.

The exhibits continue backward through my life. Some rooms have entire streets from Berlin, others only have massive close-up of my face reacting, the elevator sliding down my own cliff-size cheek.

In the time before the accident I wasn’t happy either.

In one room my own enormous skull, cross-sectioned, shows the brain as an eye glancing around frantically. In another my replica astrally projects himself over his own shoulder to rant advice and hiss insults.

Again and again I smack myself in the face and curse.

I write and erase, write and erase.

The paper rips.

Then we reach my twenties, and the omniprescent figure of my wife.

Sometimes she is three times my size, clutching her head and babbling as I hold her and calmly talk. More often she’s tiny, and my imperious replicas treat her with cold contempt.

She’s swollen to fill the entire room and I’m fighting for air in a corner.

Or she’s curled up on the bed, I have a face like a meat grinder and I’m chewing up her hands.

Side by side without body heat, we look in different directions, our faces like tins someone tried and failed to open.

But as we pass backward through cities, apartments, jobs, we begin to thaw, to draw together. Our sleeping forms migrate toward each other. We sketch on the same piece of paper. The sun flies up like a tossed orange while we lie embracing in sleep. Here I am singing one of our favorite songs to her in my ungodly, merciless voice. Holding hands we talk while cities rise and fall on all sides. Letters flap through the air between us.

I hold her face. I whisper to her. I brush her hair back tenderly behind her ears.

Finally there are dozens of rooms dedicated to the first two weeks of our real relationship, her just out of the hospital, barely making it over the border, half-dead on my doorstep on the mountain.

Our hundred-hour conversation in each other’s arms.

For the first time in all the scenes, the essential redness fades from my skin, the muscles unclench, and here, at the beginning, it really does look as if I might escape my own inflamed unhappiness, down into a hidden internal corridor, into the describable light of an entirely new way of being.

She’s standing by her suitcases, dressed in all black, and so young.

Then she’s gone, and I’m folded back into my own private flames, scratching obsessively, washing dishes in fry restaurants and at night filling notebooks with hilariously bad bullshit, in public thumping my rubber chest and rambling loudly, bullying my friends with books I hadn’t actually read.

Scenes of university and school take over. My enormous form slumps at a schooldesk over a hidden book, taking up most of the room, so that only the elbows and arms of other students half-emerge from the distant walls.

Quickly shrinking back through the years, squirming under varying bowl cuts and hair colors, I don’t essentially change, always refusing to listen and responding with the insolence of supreme contempt.

Nothing that bad ever happens, yet I’m always miserable.

All the way back in kindergarten, I hide with head in hands for two days straight, crying, refusing to talk or interact, having re-invented non-violent resistance in the hopes of getting out of being educated.

I’d raged when I found out about school.

Why force me out of my privacy to spend time around kids who would only make fun of me, learning shit I didn’t care about?

I’d show them. I’d never give in.

I’d always hold myself apart.

Those feelings never left.

I clutched them tightly.

School was a prison.

Work prison after prison.

Marriage prison.

And then would come the final prison.

The blank and endless one.

Four years old, I watch my mother double-check all the windows, having moved to the boondocks because of her obsessive fear of child abduction, only to find herself single, broke, with three young children, amid yokels who regarded her accent with suspicion.

Then my father appears.

It’s an outdoor scene with fake sunlight.

My mother is crying on the steps.

His pick-up is filled with boxes.

Dad’s crouching and talking to me.

He manages to sound both sweet and enraged.

He’s telling me I’m man of the house now.

That I have to be tough, and never let anyone get the better of me.

I’m red-nosed and crying. I don’t understand what’s happening.

Dad’s telling me it’s okay to cry in front of him—

But that if I’m ever weak in front of others, they’d make fun of me, and I’d be everyone’s dog.

I wish I could be around, he says, to teach you how to fight.

After that the scenes grow indistinct.

The people deform into bobbleheads with caricatured expressions, then blotches of color blaring nonsense.

The elevator finally halts in reddish darkness.

Far below, half-obscured, is a sort of hilly, bulbous landscape.

Rocking gently, the landscape slowly drifts up through dark currents, gradually resolving into an enormous fetus with eyeballs like white orbs wrapped in cloth, its umbilical cord noosed around its neck…

The elevator doors don’t open. Pressing the down button does nothing, and the scream-embossed button makes me uneasy.

There’s no way to go but back up.

The return trip is much quicker.

The elevator rockets up through thirty years, through the hellish hangar of spectral anti-people, the ground level, and past, bursting into a vast, airy room, prodigiously sunlit, with sweeping cloud formations under a stone roof.

Here all the people from my life have been transfigured into mystical, prismatic versions, like my life cast in 3D stained-glass windows.

But I only get a brief, aching glance before the elevator passes through the ceiling and divides into thousands of elevators, then millions, then billions, with my mind splitting along with it into a billion minds as the branching elevators pass through all the possible lives I could lead, weaving a massive braid of realities like the myriad-stranded DNA of a higher-dimensional self.

One by one the separate elevators with their separate selves hurtle into black, until the only one left follows my last self alive in a timeline where I contract a terminal illness and volunteer for experiments that transfer my consciousness into a computer.

This self survives thousands of years and ends up venturing into deep space, outfitted as a sort of sentient spaceship, and heading toward an alien beacon repeating an incomprehensible message.

For millions of years I journey through dusty emptiness.

Only a few galaxies from the beacon, I’m ambushed by a swirling metal being that emerges from the sun.

The elevator door opens on the museum roof.

All the galaxy, a half-stirred sauce of diamonds, spirals around me.

The moon is huge, as big as an eye peering in a jar at an ant.

To either side Mars and Venus are red and green apples of discord, so bright their brightness is a noise.

Far below glint the dwarfy lights of the city, like fire in mud.

But the roof isn’t empty.

There’s a strange one-story construction that looks cut out from a larger building, with its wires and pipes neatly sliced.

It has a single tall window.

I soft-shoe over and peer in.

Inside is my kitchen.

There’s a double of me slouched with crossed arms at my desk, sullenly staring at an empty page.

But he’s not quite me.

In fact, he’s not even human.

He’s a glass-skulled lizardman with an itchy purple brain.

Suddenly he shifts and meets my gaze.

He has bitter red evil eyes.

He snarls.

I’m already backing away in horror.

I sprint into the elevator and jam the down button. Nothing happens.

Holding my breath, weirdly nervous, I hit the screaming red mayday button.

Nothing happens.

Behind me a disembodied door blasts open.

My lizard double appears, brandishing the only sharp knife I own—a toothy breadknife.

He hisses what sounds like a question.

I put up both hands in surrender and start apologizing, stepping out toward him.

The elevator door snicks closed behind me.

Fuck.

He screams something garbled and begins advancing on me.

With every step he takes, I take one back.

Why am I like this?

Why do I always do this to myself?

Behind me, a 100,000-foot drop to earth.

In front of me, my reptile self jabbering and flourishing a breadknife, bent on murdering me.

But I’ve never seen anyone so feverish, so angry and confused.

He looks like he’s about to cry. Even the knife tip is trembling.

So I take a deep breath. I relax my face, my throat, my shoulders.

I open my eyes wide and show him my palms.

“It’s okay,” I say gently, and take a step forward.

He shrieks and waves the knife, but doesn’t move.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I whisper.

Already more human, he stares bewildered at me. The knife tip drifts down.

“You don’t have to be afraid.”

I watch my face twist off his body, shake loose from its roots, and billow skyward on a cauliflower of steam.

My face falls up, fluttering ribbons, a jellyfish flying to nirvana.

You

okay let’s see
you’re in debt
your significant other left you for a profile pic
you feel most alive when you’re on drugs

I know you

you failed the test
you want and don’t want the truth
you can’t handle and need the truth

some days you text more than you talk

your father didn’t mother you much

and now you are getting very sleepy
since you worked all day all week
didn’t even have time for chores
how do others cope with so much working?

every year you think more about climate change

you know about disasters, diseases, and serial killers
but not miracles or cures

you wonder whether you’ll grow old
you wonder whether it might be better not to
you would swear the walls are closer every day
you believe it’s best not to think too much about death

you think about death all the time

you wonder whether you maybe said the wrong thing
yeah buddy you did say the wrong thing
you said it a hundred times

you miss him so much
you tell yourself there are others like him, but better

you don’t find any

you know what you should have done
you don’t know what you’re going to do
you doubt too much, you believe too much

you want this part to end

you look at beloved faces and imagine them old
for the last decade you’ve been sidling around a hole
you think ever less about that one brief era when it all flowed
when love was easy
and you were about to become another and better person
but never did
you have this hunch though, that one day
one day…
sometimes this is all that keeps you going

you know there must be a better way

or this will all end badly

you throw open the curtains
it’s night

Rise and Fall of the One-Man Empire

I unsolved a few mysteries
(a good night’s work)
then strutted the morning streets
with a candle in my head,
half-believing that everyone was
watching me pass,
admiring my
lofty
burning
transcendental

eyes.

That lordly stride!
Those mystical lips!

The sky rolled its eye up over the avenue,

the city shuffled its deck of people,

and I blessed a park bench
with my presence,
slid my gaze around
and waited for a miracle,
a disaster,
anything.

Honey sunlight drizzled in waves.

A sunken woman drinking beer solo
stole looks at me.

Some decayed rockers argued about chemicals in vodka.

Planes left trails of white droppings.

A tragic teenage couple embraced.

And the sunken woman began to sob
so loud it echoed across the park
and she swung into her bottles
and they came clattering smashing down
and the pigeons launched and wheeled,
but her crying was louder and harder,
and the sobs slammed into bricks,
shattered laughter,
broke bank windows,
boomed over river boats,
bounced over factories and parliaments,
splashed hissing into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

It took me a while to find my body again
but there it was, slumped on a bench:
balding,
box glasses,
a squint,

not much more.

I smoked weed
and wandered around in music,
a sleepless weirdo
timing my steps to eerie beats,
side-eying the sadder women,
the black-lidded and serious women.
They looked at me
and saw only the city.

Followed

[4:33 A.M.] O: ok im comin thru

I put on my headphones and went out to our tenth-floor balcony. Just a few blocks away was Toronto’s towering downtown—a deluxe crystal growth all the colors of credit cards—but the street below me was rough shit, an acned wasteland strewn with used needles, haunted by 3-D shadows and dumpster lurkers that scattered before the headlights of police patrols. There was even a dark humanish shape lying on the grass beside our driveway.

But no O. Why was she taking so long?

It was strange: when she got home, chances were we’d continue our grievous fight from before she left, she’d cry silently and I’d claw my skull, then we’d sleep back to back and avoid each other in the morning… but as I scanned the street, all I thought about was holding her and kissing her sweet head and rejoicing just because she was alive.

I texted her. It went unread.

Suddenly my music seemed stifling. I was reaching up to my headphones when someone grabbed my arm and wrenched me to one side. My heart leapt into my brain and exploded, this is it, I’m dead, and I swung around to face my executioner.

It was O. Still hauling on my arm.

“Come on! Come on!”

I resisted. Even tried to pull her down.

“Jesus FUCKIN Christ O, what’s wrong with you??”

“Come on! There’s no time!”

Then I saw she’d left our entrance door wide open, and I relented and hurried out with her.

About ten doors down, blocking the entire hallway, was one of the largest men I’d ever seen. His body looked inflated, bulging up against his hoodie and baggy jeans, while his head was tiny, a dark boil riding the massive ripple of his chest. His massive arms hung limply at his sides.

He was just far enough that I couldn’t make out his face.

O raised my hand high like I’d just K.O.ed someone.

“This is my HUSBAND, OKAY???”

I looked at her in disbelief. This dude could have crumpled me with one hand.

He didn’t answer. Not a twitch. Just the arms hanging like butchered pigs, and the bottomless stare out of a face I couldn’t see.

I hustled O inside, bolted the door and put my eye to the viewer: nothing… nothing… nothing.

O was in the kitchen drinking tapwater, long-legged in a ruffled short skirt, two big eyes visible over the cup. It had been a while since she’d looked like a priceless treasure to me. I took the glass out of her hands and embraced her tightly.

“He was in the elevator. On the ground floor. Just standing inside with the door closed.”

I drew back.

“And you got on anyway?!”

“I was so tired… I just got on and pressed our floor number. He didn’t press anything.”

“Oh my god.”

“He was looking at me the whole way up. Not saying anything, not smiling, just staring, staring… So I said, ‘Look, I have a husband, and he’s expecting me RIGHT NOW, okay?’ …No response. His face didn’t change. We reached our floor, he got off after me, I ran to you.”

“And what’d you think I was gonna do? He’s like three times my size!”

“I…”

“When you left the door open, you gave him his chance. If he’d come in… What were you thinking?”

She crossed her arms and looked at the floor.

“Never mind, I’m glad you’re okay,” I said, though I could feel our closeness already dissipating. I’d blown it again. I was unsheathing our ten-inch meat knife. “I’m going to check whether he’s there.”

In the viewer’s fish-eye I saw only the neighbor’s door and bare walls. I stealthily unbolted our door and eased it open.

He was in front of me, lying on his side on the carpet, supporting his shrunken head with one craggy hand and gazing up at me, his mouth gaping and his tongue lolling out sideways. He looked like he’d been violently lobomotized.

I waggled the knife at him and tried to say something menacing. No words came; I squeaked, then slammed the door.

He knocked.

“We’re c-c-calling the police!”

The doorknob wriggled.

“WE’RE CALLING THE POLICE!”

And he finally spoke.

It was like hearing a well speak, a toneless bass wind groaning up a long stone throat.

“Ooooookaaaaay,” he said.

When the cops arrived he was crosslegged by the elevators. Without getting up he began ponderously arguing with them. One came over smiling and asked to speak to us in our apartment.

“I arrested this guy last week. Broke into the home of a Chinese woman. Not a young one, we’re talking maybe… sixty. He found her in bed, but just… stood there. Looking at her. Watching her call us. Didn’t do or say squat. Then we come… and he goes along peacefully, no problemo. In the car, I ask him what he was doing there. What he wanted. He said… God told him to rape Asian women.”

O and I exchanged looks. She shifted over to lean against me.

The cop took details, shook my hand, patted O’s shoulder, and left. Clutching the butcher knife, I roved the apartment, checking the street, the viewer, the lock.

“I feel bad for him,” O said.

I chuckled and kept pacing until she asked me to stop and be with her. I found a safe place by our bedside to stash the knife, then we wrapped ourselves around each other and lay there quivering, with nothing to say. It was starting to get light.

Death’s Daughter

I pilgrimaged to see her titanic head
floating against a skyline of shampoo bottles,
then swam up through black hair
and climbed into her ear.

A poetess,
a flaming thing who lived in soundwaves,
she wore cigarettes—
and oh! I thought,
how entropy became her!

Then her brain broke.
She mumbled to animals, saw faces in furniture,
and turned fearful toward the summoning light.
In her fever she forgave the rooftops,
and I, Sir Savior Worldhero,
drove deep into her madness.
I pled her down from sense precipices
and battled badge-eyed police with uniforms as skin.

It was October, and the cold wind cleaned my face.

“This is the afterlife,” she whispered,
“or the beforelife, with Stef Serpent from Eden.”

I stilled her skull
in the shadow
of the church
on the hill.

And she pulled me out of myself.

I had had other plans.
I wanted to become world dictator of words.
Trapped in the smallest of all rooms with myself,
I had been eking out a thousand-word novel,
and I had fed my mind to the clockwork of syntax,
and crucified myself on semi-colon and em-dash,
building the ruins of an idea I could live inside.

Now a new idea took me.
I had to rescue her,
I would take her over all borders,
personal and national,
up immigration mountain,
to my hermitage…
and she would give me a heart,
I guess.

II

I married my favourite audience,
a Victorian ghost with charcoaled eyes,
all black skirts and sad classical music,

and put her to bed for a year.

I had been working part time,
now I sliced my life into shift strips,
groveled in garbage jars
and waded hipdeep in greasepits.

And hiked home to tidy her head.
And ate her paranoia for supper.

Grappling in sheets,
long-shadowed in red rainstreets,
we talked the ten thousand miles of the trail to her childhood,
probed her cranial catacombs and dusted under her brainstem,
and found there three hundred of her father’s vodka flasks,
and a Bible with a thick black cover, and no words.

Then, sleepless, full of her, sore and penless,
I biked black windways under cinder skies to factory cities,
to erect sixty smokestacks in a clock circle,
every minute dribbling smoke from drabbest inferno;
I patrolled the fortresses of my enemies and masters,
jingling magic keys to the Land of Boredom,
where the hours crawled on thirty-six hundred legs
past binders and sticky notes, duplicated space,
and bosses’ nests. All my meanings rotting inside,

I went to bed to erase myself.
I limped in circles in a sphere of light.

Years died.

III

It seemed she’d outsmarted madness,
then one twilight she disrobed to greet the Lord—
as a favor to me, she did not look into His ravening face.
But I harangued her: so it began.
I jumped on her brain. I deflected her hungry touch.
I instructed her in all she shouldn’t be,
yet stopped permitting her into my alternative reality.

At work I obeyed a conveyor that carried autoparts,
that never slowed though an aged comrade cramped,
coughed up his heart, and waned into the roar…

At home I shouted from the privy,
gnawing cold day-old rat,
sobbing that I was born in Eden
and that she took it from me.

Night after night,
I vomited a piece of my mind.
She spoke of love and I spoke of time,
and it snowed thirty seasons straight
on the spattered stageboards
of our kitchenettes.
Finally she grounded her knees,
warped her fist through the window,
and declared herself the most sane agent of angels,
servant of the Plan and loud speaker of the Word.

This happens:
people turn 30,
regard the flaming ruins of their twenties,
and this one, manic and lost, retreats to her parents’ god.
and that one, tired and angry,
asks himself why he ever needed to save her.

Was it ever even possible?

I began to have my doubts.

And when she told me that she prayed for my poor lost soul,
that she feared for me if I didn’t repent before judgment,

I left.

Dust Keys (2010)

she hung right over there, boneless and clear,
a sky-thing strung up on cloud gallows of hair,
in that gristly winter,
in those last shots before the old unending black,
where the white jungle scribbled on the high blue night,
and the trumpet swayed between hothouse shrieks of paradise,
and the infinity of the pen fell to the oblivion of the page,
crumpled words floating ill-shaped in the sunlight.
I broke until I could understand what I was breaking
and I took,
and am taking,
and now, on this melting rim of morning,
light comes in like an endless fist,
and snow speaks and flames bang and
only a soiled path leads back through the sucking splash,
past the hustle of rash bells, past the smashed clocks
of our baroque history chiming like built birds rising

into the memory of our first night:
we sat by the graveyard gates.
(And there a clarity if just these lines would obey)
In that particular darkness, then
with the headlights moving so low below,
our awkwardness was a bright scratch on death’s strongbox.
O’s rebel jaw, her long brown arms
and claws, her piñata skull scattering wet candy;
that chopped hair forced back behind one ear. That feral stare.
Planning to be sad she had packed only black, soon unsuitable—
at times. Taller than I but in the way she defied
my loom was implied
as realities were passed through and left behind,
death murmuring from the radio sky:
death, in her bouts of déjà vu like bubbles of terror boiling,
bobbing up from the unknown, unaccounted-for past;
death, in skin janglings that summoned up old crimes
and their twilight-filled bootprints on her brain;
death, in how she spoke with such love of mania,
tugged out a chain of questions in final despair,
laughed dust. She came trusting me
like a knowing toe trusts cold ocean, O …

Oh whatever – it was my fault.
I said to her, come, rest with me awhile
I’ll take care of you I’ll garden your head;
but when it wasn’t easy,
and since she couldn’t wait until I wasn’t busy,
I whinged and stormed and finally made her leave.
Now I sit here, in my precious privacy,
weaving my spit-lace of words,
knowing she’s worse off than before me,
crazier and lonelier, re-shattered and cast out.

O?

O

O,
where are you? sleeper,
where do those fingers walk?
On the roofs of Soho retoned rainbow?
On the glowing-howl cell walls of psychic jail, part two?
On the minor keys of a cold polyphonal brightness,
The keys of motion, mood and ocean,
The keys of air?
Are you—
Are your songs speaking to you, dear? They never cease,
I know, and these questions make no sense
and I have no right to ask them
but it’s this silence,
that’s all;
this silence in here,
and those sirens outside,
and this February rain,
and a looping vision of your slain bliss:
you out dancing, all ruffles and eyelets,
your cheeks gleaming with mutating green,
your sweet hot breath briefly in my ear,
your whispers lost in the throbbing air,
in the woofing booms you spun away into,
the blade peak of you
floating back across
the gulfs of light,
of hard and heavy days,
the gulfs of night.

Listen, I—

No, forget it.

Minus One

On the morning after first snow, my mother and I drove for two hours into hilly German countryside to visit a family who have a summer house next to our property in Newfoundland, and whose vacation the year prior was ruined beforehand by the near-sudden death of the mother, Matilde, from lung cancer.

My mother took it hard. She considered flying over the Atlantic to attend the funeral, but couldn’t afford it. She settled for lighting a virtual candle.

The closer we got, the deeper the snow. We followed serpentine roads along the flanks of mountains, curving over valleys full of whitened beech and outposts where hunters waited for boar. Ponies and goats grazed on forty-degree slopes. Every twenty minutes we would pass through a wedding-cake town with antique village houses in tidily ascending ranks.

The family’s house was a three-story triangle with an intricate system of patios spiraling around it from base to peak, framing windows that faced those of distant houses on the other side of a valley whose misty floor had been squared off and quantized into farmland.

At the door we were greeted by Matilde’s husband and eldest son, both underweight, unshaven, and bespectacled. They smiled with pale warmth.

After we exchanged hugs and exclamations they took us on a tour of their house, which had been the town hall and school until the second World War and still had many ornately carved wardrobes and cabinets, gold-inlayed fortresses of black wood that made the sticklike modern chairs and tables and the plasma TV look temporary and unserious.

The second floor was cozier, mostly given over to bookshelves stocked with quantum physics and literary fiction. It had belonged to the couple. Matilde’s husband, Lars, switched rooms after she died. The door to their conjugal room was shut, but the opposite door was open on his new room, which had only a mattress on a wooden floor beneath a clean rectangle of painfully blue sky.

Lars led us to the bathrooms: one room with a hexagonal jacuzzi tub under a matching skylight and the other with a toilet that sported various nozzles and a remote control that he pressed for us with an air of self-mockery.

I interrupted my mother’s cheery patter to ask him who owned all the books.

“She did.”

Bent over the remote control, which was now tinnily issuing Beethoven, Lars had answered my question without looking up.

At sixty-seven, he still looked like a student — the quantum physics books at least were his — but bleakly detached and unimpressed. Sometimes when others were speaking he would snort curtly, as if what they were saying was maddening, but then he would say something colorless.

The third floor belonged to his middle-aged son, Horst, an underfed wraith who looked much like his father but more sickly, with purple lips that twitched and pulsed while he hovered at the edges of our group, piping up only to correct his father. Horst had returned home after completing his PhD in Engineering and never left again or, to our knowledge, had a girlfriend. His triangular space under the roof’s peak was cluttered with gadgets, hand-assembled model planes, and empty beer cans from all over the world, and had as centerpiece a knee-high statuette of a generously-chested Nordic maiden riding a harnessed lizard.

I asked him about his life, but every question was met by a monoxide-poisoned smile and answers that seemed almost deliberately banal, as if I’d done something naïve and he was slyly mocking me. I asked him how he passed his time; Horst answered, “Living.”
Over his computer table was a line of photos of his mother. The leftmost picture had her as a beribboned sepia baby; in the middle one she was young and stylishly trench-coated in a crowd of protesters, her fist raised, yelling; the rightmost photo showed her in crowish late-middle-age sitting on their patio, wearing sunglasses that disclosed her eyelashes and smoking, her cigarette hand obscuring a wry smile. On the table beside her was a whiskey tumbler atop a paperback with a curling cover that bore her name.

She had weakened quickly. After a Friday afternoon nap she found she couldn’t walk anymore, was hospitalized, intubated and catheterized, sedated, and gone by Sunday.

After the tour, we squeezed into their car and drove to a graveyard on a steep mountainside. It had snowed all afternoon, and upon turning onto the final side-road we plowed into a snow-bank. Our wheels spun in place.

I got out and watched, standing next to Horst. His hands were stuffed into his hoodie’s pockets, his purple lips and weak eyelids quivering with cold. Lars backed carefully down the hill, easing onto the main road, revved his engine, and then rocketed up through the drift, spraying snow, and around the corner, crunching to a stop in front of an old belfry.

On the hill, a sloped grid of tombstones was interrupted only by the wooden cross on Matilde’s grave. The cross will be taken down once the earth has settled, my mother said, and burst into tears, turning away orange with embarrassment. I hugged her for a long time while Lars and Horst stood over the grave looking down, their faces like old leather wallets.

Before we left, my mom kneeled and affixed two round pins — one with the Newfoundland flag, the other with a pink heart on white — to a crocheted poem that leaned between a brass angel blowing a clarion and a stuffed puppy that had frozen solid, its plush mouth ajar in puppy ecstasy.

The Freshness of the First and Foremost of the Finest of the Lines

All philosophies condense to a line, with time,
and all songs dwindle to a single sooty melody,

and even if you sawed the locks off your senses,

even if you turned these letters
until light came through,
so that what’s behind them
could demand to be rescued,

even if you left behind the sentence,
tossed the whole scaffolding aside,
and let each moment become its own manifesto,

you would still fall back

to foil scraps and pigeon shit,
upturned take-out and puked noodles,
smashed flasks’ stained glass,
and sweatered smokers kicking
at the torn grey tissues

of dawn clouds.