| I ALMOST KNEW THIS|
by Frederick Pollack I Almost Knew This 1Love is a pleasant, working seaside town.
Strangely, its major industries
are neither tourism nor fishing;
it lives on gentrification
per se. There’s a small dock.
Most of the residents came
from elsewhere, but are devoted to the place
and view themselves as natives.
The sea in this allegory
is grief. You have a boat,
but eventually you sell it;
it wouldn’t get you far should the waves rise.2You know that Renaissance etching –
a favorite once of hippies and New Age types,
still employed as an ad
for some transcendence or other: a guy
in scholar’s robes and skullcap kneeling
at the edge of the flowery, forested world,
sticking his head
and upper torso through a crystal sphere
and gazing with awe, arms outspread,
at wider spheres, all sun and stars and light?
A good way to get your ass kicked.3I really don’t care, do u?
– MelaniaAbsurd and servile to imagine
that any member of the 1%
(before he pressed the button dropping you
from your chair into a disintegrator beam)
would describe, coldly, logically,
happily, his and their
ultimate plans. Dr. Evil works for them,
and for him too the point is focus,
lack of emotional investment, the short term.
The BWA-HA-HA-HAA of cartoons
implies the moral consciousness
it mocks, which is a petit-bourgeois handicap.
(The peasantry, as always, senses this
and pennilessly emulates its betters.)
Likelier that a master
will scurry between his bar
and pills, clutching his phone, shrieking batlike
at a lawyer. Think also
of that disintegrating suet
major donor on a wheelchair-scooter
accompanied by arm-candy …
Tall, stately, lacking somewhat
the requisite cheekbones;
her thoughts beneath the careful tan
as close as we will get to the superman.4A Roger Ballen photo, looking back
in part to his photojournalism:
decayed white inbred dorps
of South Africa, angry hulking microcephalics …
But this guy,
sitting on the edge of a bed,
is chalking on a wall, a foot away,
faces. His own, long, pale, and flat, turns
jut-jawed towards you;
the whites of his eyes show.
The faces are small, quite simplified,
demonic, crew-cut. He may be
prevented by his medium
and stylistic assumptions from saying
whatever he would about himself and men
in general. Or perhaps
he is saying everything he wants to say.5And in another Ballen shot
(or is this a composite?)
the Witnesses, his charcoal cutouts,
line the implied walls;
they are so used to wanting to be elsewhere
they avidly take in whatever happens.
Animals and parts of animals,
some alive, some toys, help
cords and tangled wire define the space
(Nature is holes and will go down holes).
While on the sheets below,
cluttered with other witnesses,
mice and a lizard
crawl, and from the tangles hands emerge,
seeking Yolandi Visser
of the band Die Antwoord,
who welcomes them perhaps but her hands are full.
(She has the sort of beauty that ages well
because it’s so close to the skull.)6Others had horses, abuse from their own
and other bodies, the self-righteous smell
of cows, grandparents, parents mourned
and hated from the womb, a “you” who said nothing
or went on and on, bourgeois plants
whose names I never learned, the joy
of signifiers liberated
from signifieds, compassionate tourism;
I had only my suspicions.
By now I’ve forgotten what most of them were,
which is their nature and why they remain
important. I forgot, above, to mention
religious poets, to whom I have something to say.
If God exists, he can do one thing
for me: when I (who never
served, and won’t)
ask him to let his servant depart in peace.
Near the Ocean1Legendary good-time girls,
not sisters (each has one, good,
scolding, not in contact) but might have been,
shared eye-drops, and make-up
for veins in cheek and nose; see themselves
both as outriders and moral center
of dusty rental complex, an iterated
shack, near the World-Famous Pollo
Piquante, students, druggies,
student/druggies, a teacher, Pier-workers whom
they don’t date, holding out
for sugar, meanwhile entertaining (themselves with)
the-gangs young Latins, scared, good weed
and pills; white wine from morning on,
annoyed by a couple staying in illegal
bnb downstairs, whose door they adorn
that afternoon with tp, markers, then some
eggs lying around in the fridge, that’ll show ‘em.2The sliding-glass door always open, no fear
of bugs (sometimes flies). On the walkway
between the low fence and the beach, tourists look,
maybe wave, raise phones, must envy
the liquor whose shelves take up most of the facing
wall; see also (as sun heads towards China) a
jersey, a flag, a medal, some funny-
obscene and/or hopeful incitements
on posters. And friends, always friends, deployed
on a vintage though frayed and taped beanbag indoors, or
the balcony. But there’s no question who’s
the center, the shoulders still wide
as a tank, the belly still vaguely muscled over
the trunks (the friends also always about
to run towards the sea): the loudest, chin
drawn down, neck swelling and red when
he laughs and laughs again, I was I AM NOT
responsible for everything
I saw, so now I see nothing.
Ataraxia 1The masters of the world are Pyrrhonists
of a sort. It’s indifferent to them
whether they appear
before crowds (on the rare occasions
they must) in T-shirt or their native suit.
Someday with equal grace
they will readopt togas or thick perfumes.
They play golf and read nothing,
to obviate infection.Undermasters are not above
curiosity and self-display. When the new
retail and restaurant complex
at the Wharf opens (near their boats),
they stroll and eat and buy. Perhaps
one enters the doomed but
briefly brave bookstore. You might
enjoy decoding Language poetry,
bro, but don’t mess with me.2At the end I’ll be too busy
begging for morphine
to think anything, so this passage
is a sort of self-bequest. I’ve always
despised Kierkegaard (almost as much
as his God), but rather admire
how at the end he balanced
outstanding debts and assets.
When the drugs kick in I’ll try to solve,
one last time, in theory, my two
conundra: how to make fifty,
a hundred, at most a few thousand years
the metaphysical horizon; and my own version
of unde malum: Why is pain more convincing?
(They say it isn’t but they lie.)
But really at best I’ll think dreamily
of love and people and regrets
until breathing gets hard. If I’m lucky,
Medicare won’t end or my secondary
coverage run out before I do.
3Mannerist neck, true blond,
stacked. If you were smart,
you realized she was out of your league.
Few or no signals, but also
not the flat affect
of a lesbian in that town and era warning
you off. Something else.
If you were even smarter, you stayed and talked.
“When I was thirteen,” she said, “and miserable,
a voice came to me in my bed;
just a few words, clichéd, forgiving,
heartening. I couldn’t tell
who had spoken. It didn’t matter;
it could have been myself, but not the I
who heard. And who decided to go on,
and rely on my mind. I went into physics
and flourished, despite the obstacles.”
She described her work, engagingly, without vanity.
Impressed, I muttered, “Art can serve as well.”4The smell and lamentations –
distancing word! – of the refugees
(not “immigrants,” they won’t be let in)
at the end of the lawn is less obtrusive
than the sound of crickets,
exhausted by their night’s exertions.
There is a layer of time
between those dirty hungry people
and me. It may be just a membrane
or thicker than my future, but it muffles the cries
of their kids. I feel bad.
I walk to the end of the lawn and tell them,
“You must hate me.”
(They all speak English, still.) “We don’t hate you,”
they say. “We’re only abstractly aware of you.
Don’t feel bad.” Their voices are further
muted by the ministrations
of cops of some sort who shoot
and stack them, light a hecatomb on the spot.
(Intolerable in this heat, their armor
focuses their efforts.) “But really,
I want to help,” I say –
to the refugees, not the cops.
At least some Diet Coke, like I give my gardener.
Nor Melt Away 1If I had lived a few more years
(and why shouldn’t I have? Good genes,
hale satisfied centenarian),
I might have asked the following:
What is time but style?
In my youth, I wore the black uniform.
Some girls found it sexy, some scary,
which gave us a good way of judging girls.
(Men in black, it’s well known, are serious.)
At his trial, Fat Hermann
said that in fifty years
there would be small statues of him
in every German home – very small, perhaps,
but there. He was decades off,
and might he have been visualizing bobbleheads?
Still … Then Grass, the novelist,
briefly a comrade, had someone
sing at the end (no doubt trying
to surrender to the Americans),
The trend is toward the bourgeois-smug.
For me it was. Without regret,
I abandoned stern nihilism
for the jaunty relativism
of commerce. Holidayed on nude beaches,
accepted my decadent children
and perverse grandchildren, even developed
some taste, as you can tell. But youth returns.2Griffin, archaeologist of the Anthropocene,
masked in the heat against hantavirus,
armed, exploring trailers and lean-tos
far from towns
in southeastern California and western Nevada,
found among the drifts and piles
a bundle of letters. The rubber-band
broke on touch. Neat penciled cursive,
school paper. Examinations
of feeling, immediate, honest, untainted
by literature, detailed
concern for mostly implied unspecified
problems, heartfelt considerate
advice, and hope (not, interestingly, faith)
continually urged … Nearby,
amidst receipts, bills,
tissues and droppings lay some polaroids
that had perhaps belonged. Green T-shirt,
blue dress, great hanging breasts and armflesh;
one of the faces puffy
from drink but neither visibly bruised.
Looking at them one imagined love
as high above the desert as any vulture.3If pain alone is real to us,
with violence as its faithful
sidekick and attorney, the old saw
“Life is a dream” has meaning.
Pain is the fuel of the dream,
whose work like that of poetry
is apotropaic: to deflect pain.
That inexplicable crowd
one day on Olympic or was it Pico
(new discount place?) was obviously dreaming.
Driving, whether on surface streets
or freeways, is a tense dream.
The position of any observer
is dreamlike. Shostakovich at the end
borrowed the xylophone from Saint-Saens’s
“Skeleton Dance” for his own bones,
Rossini for an echo of his snide
youth. He believed the KGB
wouldn’t get him now, something else would;
surveillance had been handed off.
“Good people on both sides”
at Nazi demonstrations
dream each other: as pain;
as opportunities for violence.
The important thing is not to use
the word “we” imprecisely,
certainly not for humanity at large.
“We” in the present case is Santa Monica.
When I was sick I went to a hospital.
I brought my notebook and three books
from the NYRB Classics series,
read, sweated, tried to read.
They found me a bed. I lay reading,
waiting for the specialist. And then I woke up.4An early-morning light-angle
where a ceiling meets a wall
resembles engineered effects
in shots of more expensive houses.
She has to go to the doctor.
He’ll take her, and wait, though it’s unnecessary
(next week she’ll return the favor).
Then they’ll shop, at an overpriced chain
that has outlived its reputation,
but its fruits remain good and they want fruit.
Returning, he’ll do laundry
and attack the kitchen floor
with a Swiffer. (Even to mention
the maid who comes bi-weekly could
suggest discomfort that they have a maid
and ruin the delicate effect.)
Then while she cooks he’ll take his evening pills
and feed the cat, who is already
leaping onto and off
the ledge beneath the ledge that holds her treats,
not sure that after a lifetime he’ll remember.
(It may be sentimental to use the cat.)
With dinner, news, as much as bearable,
silenced when Trump appears
(“That man doesn’t speak in our house,”
she decreed and he approves),
unless the latest crime has been exceptional.
Later he asks what she’s thinking.
She’s thinking about the problems of a friend;
he, recalling an old article
decrying the tendency of mainstream poems
to end with bursts of vague philosophy. About the Author:Author of two book-length narrative poems, The Adventure (Story Line Press, 1986) and Happiness (Story Line Press, 1998), and two collections, A Poverty of Words (Prolific Press, 2015) and Landscape with Mutant (Smokestack Books, 2018). In print, Pollack’s work has appeared in Hudson Review, Southern Review, Salmagundi, Poetry Salzburg Review, Manhattan Review, Skidrow Penthouse, Main Street Rag, Miramar, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), Poetry Quarterly Review, Magma (UK), Neon (UK), Orbis (UK), and elsewhere. Online, his poems have appeared in Adelaide Review, Big Bridge, Diagram, BlazeVox, Mudlark, Occupoetry, Faircloth Review, Triggerfish, and elsewhere. Adjunct professor of creative writing at George Washington University.