Underwater Lengths in a Single Breath
There is no death in the sun. I know it will look far otherwise
to whoever watches from shore, to whoever stands
at the blue Aegean, pointing up at a mythical bird soaring too close
to the light, or those milling in markets who catch what must seem
to be a stone falling, or rather, a stone pitching a moment
as the last of my feathers fly away from me like tiny birds themselves,
each discovering individual flight, and the wax spills out,
hardens to lace as it falls back toward the ocean. I know
it will look like an image of failure. How could it not
with Daedalus leagues below me screaming himself hoarse,
jerking his earth-heavy body like a moth in an attempt to stabilize
his flight, shouting up that the sun will kill me? But there is no death
in the sun. At that height my lungs will fill with purer air
and I will meet the brightness like a lover. I will open my wings
and my eyes, which will, in a manner, burn with his face.
What else can it look like from a distance but failure,
how can anyone expect to understand from solid earth?
What falls away, what burns, is mere husk thrown off,
and I will emerge lighter, able to continue rising into his arms
without the trappings of wax and feathers, without the shouting
of Daedalus or the blue Aegean, where men
who don’t understand will look skyward, shield their eyes
and see, or think they see, something impossible
in the clear sky—a domain they have surrendered to mythology,
birds, clouds and the beautiful, unreachable, life-giving sun—
light meeting light.
Choose your element. The thin tissues of the lungs
can drink it in, soak it up like shredded rag.
Choose your medium: be a drowning artist.
Drown in tempera, drown in porcelain, drown in the roles
or instruments that you play. Do not begin slowly;
that is not the way with drowning. Thought will
freeze you into inaction. Close your eyes, open
your mouth, unconstrict the tube of your throat.
Breathe it in. Drown as a means of coping with life,
or not coping. Drown in time: let days overwhelm you.
Find no compromise between maddening, ruinous action
and inactivity on which you bob and float lifeless.
Breathe it in. Drown in desire. Find those objects
which promise only sustained wanting, and swim
into the sea of them; grab the element hand over hand
barely managing to stay afloat, and still nothing,
beautiful nothing, remains with you. Breathe it in.
Drown in what you have lost. This is easiest.
Let the loss crest around your face, taste its saltiness;
travel down to feel the silt bottom with your palm.
It is a Marianna Trench; you have been dead for hours
yet you are still drowning, still travelling down
in darkness toward those creatures who have evolved
without help from the sun. Breathe it in.
Take the image with you into death. Discover heaven
a clear liquid that saturates your lungs with air,
in which the desire for immersion may be
sustainably met. Breathe it in; cough it up.
You can drown in sex and love, but those
are child’s games. They only distract you
from those elements which flow beneath them
like denser water. You can also drown in yourself.
(This has the advantage of not requiring other people.)
Amniotic fluid is another ocean: landlocked, dark, domed
by living skin as far away as the night sky. Suspended
in so much liquid what is there to do but drown?
What does a baby know, when the aperture cracks
and a splash far off—its hearing still sonar like the ears
of a whale—indicates that the bath water is draining,
the ocean is draining: an invasion of light and air.
What does a baby’s body know of how to react?
There is knowledge implicit in the flesh. I was there,
in the interface of air and water, and cast my lot
securely with the depth and the darkness, opened
my mouth to drink in what remained of the draining
fluid. The impetus to drowning kept the baby
in the hospital four months, a body too small
to live outside a body, lungs drying, warping
like cardboard, hands permanently wrinkled and aged
by the element, and everything too sensitive, too new,
imperfect, crying out for darkness and warmth, salt
and ambergris, even the new skin somehow unready.
This is more than temptation; this has the contours
of a life. Drown in the heat of a summer evening;
drown in the tears of sweat pooling down your neck
onto your shoulders as you think of desires that will
never be met. Cast lots only once and early
and spend an entire life sifting through the outcome;
breathe it in. A baby trapped under glass watches
a figure hover against a background of artificial light—
she is too dry, too bright to be its mother—
baby who has made a choice sudden and early
and wonders how it is possible that a sea
can spit you out, like Jonah in the inner ocean
of whale blood, spit out onto hard gravel.
Baby who will live many lifetimes, each ended
by drowning, each renewed by impact with the shore.
Death, love, loneliness, fear or time. Don’t
be fooled by the element; the element doesn’t matter.
Baby who will remember nothing of the plastic
and the glass, of the tubes, who will grow from half
amphibian to full man, who will retain only
a thirst for immersion, a temptation to drowning,
nothing of the incident, but the impulse.
A Middle Class Consideration of Lust
Olden days? I picture in cream and black
like a ‘20’s movie, two men with round glasses
in summery bow-tied suits, sitting
across from each other in a train compartment
steaming through Great Plains states,
each with his nose in a small book:
Shelley, Byron, Dr. Ansell’s Headache Cures—
who knows? Furtive, peering out like mice,
shielded by directions and dosages of quick
silver—eye contact happens: slicked hair
becomes tousled, and perhaps the scene
fades on one hand running around a shoulder,
flipping off the other man’s jacket—
but real life doesn’t fade: sure as sugar both
trousers come down.
It’s different now, of course. At a gas station
in Memphis, my brother filled his van tank by hand
pump. His hippie hair and unwashed face, fumes,
the wet heat of the south, there must have been
romance somewhere. A man walked by him
from off the street, right by—within four feet
passed before him, close enough to smell
my brother’s hair, oily enough to punch through
the petrol. At the perigee of the two bodies,
the soft word “blow job” filled the vacuum between
them. I have to admire the guy’s courage,
but somehow the train seems nicer,
(would, even if it involved my brother—).
And then there are extremes: horrified first-
year college student, I read that the library
bathrooms would be shut down because of—
which, bored through the metal stall walls
by pure determination (I guess) served
for romantic access—like rodent-size gates
to heaven. The front-page story
included a picture beneath the caption—
“Alexander Bathrooms Closed”—of one such wall,
writing too grainy to read, holes clearly visible.
Someone must have kept it, taped it in a diary
to remember, blushing—coy and fond, and why
not? It really is just a question of degree;
my last encounter was no less
sleazy. Sure, we’d exchanged rings, but I
didn’t want him anymore, couldn’t
remember if I ever had; fully conscious of this,
I kissed the back of his neck and undid
his trousers with my right hand (fumbling my own
with the left). We were forty minutes
rhythmic as a washing machine, scant, oily,
and nearly without kisses. In the bathroom after,
he said, “I feel used.”
I leaned down and kissed his face,
insides coiled like an over-wound watch,
not wanting to prolong contact.
I said, “I love you, sweetheart,” barely
brushing his shoulder, “and I wish you wouldn’t
feel that way.” About an hour later he
kissed me goodbye, and we haven’t spoken since.