Awoke with a view of the bedroom curtains gently respiring. Puff in, puff out. This is our first week of hot weather here in Chicago: everybody’s windows are open. It’s plain we’re to receive no spring this year, skipping straight to summer, but the bricks of the building must still be retaining some cold from before. The ceiling fan on its lowest setting was fine. Neither I nor Nadya came to consciousness in a sweat. Not like yesterday.
I spent the morning—and more than the morning—fussing over my new poem, which has almost literally no meaning, is only a mouth toy. Plenty of satisfaction there, problems were being solved, but there came a point when it was time to get out of the house. Envelopes to mail, the new coffee place to check out. Just before leaving, I read a new long piece by Robyn Schiff, a poet I look up to. I read it twice through.
You’ll be lonely if you say no in a crowded theater. Try to go along with it. Just go along with it. Entertainment means yes in the dark.
Coming up my street, everything damp. All colors: the closer to the ground, the darker. Today was my first sight of honeylocust leaves, those beautiful fern-like clusters. On this street, anyhow, the honeylocust leaves are always tardiest. I watch them with special interest, for they are my favorite. These are old trees here. Their bark is black with green lichen or moss or whatever that is. On a day like this, the green shows up very nicely.
I love you. Do you love me? It will be hard for you. Everything Goes.
I heard a male robin. I tried my little trick of staring in the general direction of the sound (in this case, the top of a silver maple), hoping that, the next time the bird let loose, my eyes would automatically lock on his exact position. This does not always work, and today it didn’t. When it does work, it’s something wonderful: my eyes fix on an anonymous branch, I hold tight, and then sure enough: my bird shifts an inch and there’s his wing (or whatever) among the green zigzags and paisleys.
. . . what was it Macbeth said about the last syllable of recorded time? That a severed flatworm who grows back its head keeps all its old memories, even the ones that seem to signify nothing.
Mailbox. Envelope for gas company, envelope for marriage counsellor. Displeased to waste a Lydia Mendoza stamp on the gas company, but there it is, I don’t buy utilitarian stamps anymore. I recently discovered, to my delight, that the post office has reissued the “Inverted Jenny” stamps from 1918. It’s a two-dollar stamp now, which is just right for my purposes: I mail many books. I’m suddenly reminded: I have heard nothing from Paige as to whether she received Djuna Barnes’s The Ladies Alamanack. I must text her, scoldingly.
Blood instructions, as Macbeth put it, which, being taught, return.
Diversey Avenue, Logan Square. One foot is firmly in ’70s Brooklyn: sidewalks like you’d expect in an industrial corridor, wounded metal fences, square-bodied citizens five feet tall, storefront windows loaded with dusty adding machines. Then there’s the upscale stuff creeping in. Boutique-like restaurants with only five things on the menu (the cheapest, a soup for nine dollars), and then the Intelligentsia coffeejoint—about which more hereafter. But first: Uncharted Books.
God, I love when the wall breaks. No one has to get hurt means someone is going to get killed. Come, let’s go in together.
They have moved two doors down the block on Milwaukee Avenue. The man-boy keeping the till is flirting it up with two females in their twenties. Everything he says—and everything they say—is arch. I’ll not repeat samples of their wit. Yet, he really is being a help. He is on the phone to another bookstore, asking if they have the Epic of Gilgamesh, and can they put it on hold for Breakfast. (Not for “Breakfast”—but that is what it sounded like.) I have found a little something to buy, too: Talking All Morning, Robert Bly’s book of interviews. The copy is not marked with a price. I discreetly wait ’til the girls are gone, and inquire. I get a smile, almost a wink: “How ’bout $5.50.” I conclude the guy is a universal flirt.
I remember wanting to board the black conveyer belt in the stockroom at the Medimart my father managed and ride it back to its origin. I did not think the loop began a few feet away, behind the strip mall, where the makeup girl […] leaned against the wall flirting with the truckers of PepsiCo.
Intelligentsia. Here we have a choice example of a place designed for the eye and not at all for the behind. Two tables the size of clipboards, a few brightly colored plastic cubes to sit on, a gigantic “bay” area like for a sushi bar, with fixed barstools that are ridiculously distant from the counter—every single thing in here is crazyclose to the floor. Right down the middle of the room: a gigantic black metal rack suspended in air—it’s the length of a stretch limo, and loaded with beautiful glassware. Must be tea-making stuff, but it looks like equipment from a high-school chemistry lab. One thing you gotta love: The temperature in here is delicious. I just put in an order for another latte.
That hot house raises its ghastly Sputniks up slowly as its crystals dim. Dramatic. But not how it’s done in space. There is one great lowering. A blast as silent as the silence before and after it. Even fire cannot find its voice in space. All it says to me is prepare for more silence. I’m not special. It says that to all the girls.
I have to read tonight. I’ve never been to the place before—it’s a bar a couple blocks below Montrose on Lincoln. I fear the worst. Readings in Chicago bars are mainly a mess. One side of the joint is reserved for the reading, and the other (there’s no wall) is reserved for the jukebox, the battery of TVs in every corner of the ceiling, and the crowd of people who have no more use for a poetry reading than I have for a monster truck show. It isn’t always bad—but usually. Tonight, I am going to read Edward Lear’s “The Scroobious Pip,” for it is Lear’s birthday. He is 202. But what if it’s noisy. What time is it anyway. 4:30. If I’m to eat with Nadya, I must head back soon. And here’s a text from Brendan, asking if I have an extra copy of George Gascoigne lying about underfoot.
Later, when Nick and I switched places, as legend has it Shakespeare did with a boy who grew fevered playing Lady Macbeth, the beach ball rolled over a dead squirrel, and I had no recourse but to kick it in the road where my son could not touch it. The ball or the squirrel? Only syntax remembers; it’s out of my hands now.
Place is filling up. Across from me, a woman with an expressive face and a haircut I want to call “The lollipop.” My server looks like Edward Norton, standing here in mustard cords, skinny tie, haircut like something out of Mad Men. And everyone’s a flirt today: he tops off my complimentary seltzer with a bunch of twinkles and dimples and bowing-butler gentility. I haven’t paid for any of this coffee yet. I gotta get outta here, put in some more time with my mouth toy poem before it’s time to hit the Mazda. I’m not quite ready to leave yet.
I don’t remember where Mary was or who blew up the ball but whoever of us it was will never get that breath back.
Note: All quotations are from Robyn Schiff’s “The Houselights,” which appeared online, May 2014, in the PEN Poetry Series. Full text available here: http://www.pen.org/poetry/houselights
Photo By: sarah-ji