No Turn On Red

Richard Jackson

It's enough to make the moon turn its face
the way these poets take a kind of bubble bath
in other people's pain. I mean, sure, the dumpsters
of our lives are filling with more mistakes
than we could ever measure. Whenever we reach into
the pockets of hope we pull out the lint of despair.
I mean, all I have to do is lift the eyelids
of the stars to see how distant you could become.
But that doesn't mean my idea of form is a kind of
twelve step approach to vision. I mean, I don't want
to contribute to the body count which, in our major journals,
averages 13.7 deaths/poem, counting major catastrophes and wars.
I'm not going to blame those bodies floating down some
river in Rwanda or Bosnia on Love's failures. But really,
it's not the deaths in those poems, it's the way Death arrives in a tux
and driving a Lamberghini then says a few rhymed words
over his martini. It's a question of taste, really,
which means, a question for truth. I mean, if someone
says some beastly person enters her room the way Hitler
entered Poland I'd say she's shut her eyes like a Kurdish
tent collapsing under a gas attack, it makes about
much sense. Truth is too often a last line of defense,
like the way every hospital in America keeps a bag of
maggots on ice to eat away infection when the usual
antibiotics fail. The maggots do a better job
but aren't as elegant. Truth is just bad taste, then?
Not really. Listen to this: "Legless Boy Somersaults
Two Miles To Save Dad', reads the headline from Italy
in Weekly World News, a story that includes pictures
of the heroic but bloody torso of the boy. "Twisted
like a pretzel," the story goes on. Bad taste or
world class gymnastics? Which reminds me. One afternoon
I was sitting in a bar watching the olympics -- the singles
of synchronized swimming -- how can that be true?
If that's so, why not full contact javelin? Uneven
table tennis? The 1500 meter dive? Even the relay dive?
Someone's going to say I digress? Look, this is a satire
which means, if you look up the original Latin, "mixed dish,"--
you have to take a bite of everything. True, some would
argue it's the word we get Satyr from, but I don't like
to think of myself as some cloven hoofed, horny
little creature sniffing around trees. Well, it's taste, remember.
Besides my satire is set while waiting at Love's traffic
light, which makes it unique. So, I was saying you have
to follow truth's little detours -- no, no, it was taste,
the heroic kid twisted like a pretzel. Pretzels are
metaphysical. Did you know a medieval Italian monk
invented them in the year 610 in the shape of crossed,
praying arms to reward his parish children.
I like children," said W.C. Fields -- "if they're properly
cooked." Taste, and its fellow inmate, truth -- how do we
measure anything anymore? Everyone wants me to stick
to a few simple points, or maybe no point at all,
like the tepid broth those new formalists ladle into their
demi tasse. How can we write about anything -- truth,
love, hope, taste, when someone says the moment, the basis
of all lyric poetry, of all measure and meter, is just
the equivalent of 10 billion atomic vibrations of the cesium
atom when its been excited by microwaves. Twilight chills
in the puddles left by evening's rain. The tiny spider
curled on the bulb begins to cast a huge shadow. No wonder
time is against us. In 1953, Dirty Harry, a "nuclear device,"
as the phrase goes, blossomed in Nevada's desert leaving
more than twice the fallout anyone predicted.
After thirty years no one admits the measurements.
Truth becomes a matter of "duck and cover." Even Love
refuses to come out of its shelter. In Sarajevo,
Dedran Smailovic plays Albinoniís Adagio outside
the bakery for 22 days where mortars killed 22,
and the papers are counting the days till the sniper
aims. You can already see the poets lined up
on poetry's dragstrip revving up their 22 line elegies
in time for the New Yorker deadline, so to speak.
Vision means, I guess, how far down the road of your
career you can see. And numbers not what Pope meant
by rhythm, but $5 per line. Pythagoras (b. 570 BC)
thought the world was made entirely of numbers. Truth,
he said, is the formula, and we are just the variables.
But this is from a guy who thought Homer's soul was
reborn in his. Later, that he had the soul of a peacock.
Who could trust him? How do we measure anything?
Each time they clean the standard kilogram bar in Sevres,
France, it loses a few atoms making everything else appear
a little heavier. That's why everything is suddenly
more somber. Love is sitting alone in a rented room
with its hangman's rope waiting for an answer
that's not going to come. All right, so I exaggerate, and
in bad taste. Let's say Love has put away its balance,
tape measure and nails and is poking around in its tin
lunch pail. So how can I measure how much I love you?
Except the way the willow measures the universe.
Except the way your hair is tangled among the stars.
The way the turtle's shell reflects the night's sky.
I'm not counting on anything anymore. Even the foot --
originally defined as the shoe length of whatever king
held your life, which made the poets scramble around
to define their own poetic feet. And truth is all this?
That's why it's good to have all these details as
a kind of yardstick to rap across the fingers
of bad taste. "I always keep a supply of stimulants
handy, " said Fields, "in case I see a snake;
which I also keep handy." In the end, you still need
something to measure, and maybe that's the problem
that makes living without love or truth so much pain.
I'd have to be crazy. Truth leaves its fingerprints
on everything we do. It's nearly 10 PM. Crazy.
here comes another poet embroidering his tragic
childhood with a few loosely lined mirrors.
I'm afraid for what comes next. The birds' warning
song runs up and down the spine of the storm. Who says
any love makes sense? The only thing left is
this little satire and its faceless clock for a soul.
You can't measure anything you want. The basis of all
cleverness is paranoia. 61% of readers never finish
the poem they start. 31% of Americans are afraid to speak
while making love. 57% of Americans have dreamt
of dying in a plane crash. One out of four
Americans is crazy. Look around at your three
best friends. If they're okay, you're in trouble.

Copyright ©1996 Richard Jackson. All rights reserved.

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